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!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's TV Terrors pt. 2

After the small screen misfires reviewed in part 1, it seemed that the only place Tobe Hooper could go in the film world was up. Wrong! Following a few un-filmed announced projects, Hooper closed out the decade by making the theatrical feature SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION (see review), which got an unceremonious release in 50 theaters in February 1990 and bombed hard. Hooper was already onto his next project, the feature length TV movie I’M DANGEROUS TONIGHT, which debuted in August 1990 on the USA Network. Perhaps because of the burst of SPONTANEOUS, Hooper continued to remain active with several TV projects over the next few years.

One great refuge for filmmakers working in television was HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT series. Debuting in 1989, the horror anthology dipped into the William Gaines EC Comics archives for stories of murder, mutilation and revenge. It succeeded thanks to enthusiasm from influential producers (Richard Donnar, Walter Hill, Robert Zemeckis, and Joel Silver to name a few), big stars looking to join in the fun, and a network not skimping on the budgets. Hooper stepped behind the camera during the show’s third season and delivered the voodoo-tinged tale “Dead Wait” in July 1991.

The story opens with carrot topped thief Red Buckley (James Remar) killing his partner on a war-torn tropical island. He is there to steal a black pearl from Duval (John Rhys-Davies), an embattled and sickly political head who keeps the desired treasure on his plantation. Conning his way into a job, Red is taken in and quickly starts up a relationship with Duval’s lady Katherine (Vanity) and the duo decide to work together to do the theft. Red is warned by Peligre (Whoopi Goldberg), the resident voodoo priestess, that Katherine is bad news. Red, naturally, doesn’t believe in this mumbo jumbo and dismisses Peligre’s warnings and her fascination with his red hair, which symbolizes life in her religion. If you read EC's horror comics, you know this won't end well.

Adapted from an issue of Vault of Horror, “Dead Wait” is a decent half hour with the prototypical EC storyline offering an immoral criminal who receives their twist comeuppance. Hooper obviously has budget to work with here and gets the best use out of him minimal settings. On the plus side, you get two cool gory bits. One is when Remar has to dig into some worm infested guts to retrieve the pearl and the other is pretty gruesome a decapitation. Another plus is you get nudity provided by former Prince protégé Vanity. On the downside, you have to watch her act. She actually isn’t that bad but you can see acting isn’t really her strong suit. The worst acting honors go to Whoopi Goldberg – fresh off her GHOST Oscar win - who can’t seem to figure out if she is going to do a Jamaican-style accent or not. Seriously, if you watch this, notice how quickly she slips back and forth between her regular voice and accent.

Hooper was back with another small screen project just a few months later with a 1-hour ghost special produced in part by TALES producers Al Katz and Gilbert Adler. HAUNTED LIVES: TRUE GHOST STORIES (later re-titled REAL GHOSTS II) premiered on CBS in early October 1991 and plays like an all-ghost version of UNSOLVED MYSTERIES. It is a slick production with Leonard Nimoy offering narration, but you have to stand back and marvel at the level which Hooper had dropped. Just a few years previous he was handling films with budgets up to $25 million and now he was reduced to doing one off TV efforts. Even worse, one segment actually shows the man imitating his most well-known work.

The show focuses on three real life semi-famous ghost stories with re-enactments and then interviews with the real folks who experienced them. “Ghosts R Us” details the haunting of a Toys R Us store in Sunnyvale, California in 1982. This history here is that store was built on some old farm land where a servant accidentally killed himself after the landowner’s daughter rejected him. So, naturally, he has decided to make life hell for Toys R Us employees. This entails whispering their names, running ghost fingers through their hair, playing with toys, and turning water faucets on and off. The store employees look up the history at the local library and then contact psychic Sylvia Browne (playing herself), who holds a séance there to contact this dead spirit. In the end, she claims the spirit has left…but has he???

“The Legend of Kate Morgan” tells of a lawyer who spends the night at the rumored to be haunted Hotel Del Coronado (known to movie fans as the setting for THE STUNT MAN) in San Diego, California. He stays in the room where Kate Morgan, a 19th century con woman, died under mysterious circumstances. Folks ruled it a suicide but, wouldn’t you know it, our intrepid lawyer digs deeper and finds out she was murdered. Of course, her ghostly formation in his TV set had nothing to do with this. In the story’s final twist, it is revealed that Morgan had a child before she died. She gave the baby away and it was raised by a Reverend who just happened to be this lawyer’s great-great grandfather. Creeeeeepy! And in case you question his credibility, the show tells us he is believable because, after all, he is a lawyer.

“School Spirit” relays the story of the Metz Elementary School in Texas and how a group of construction workers experience various phenomenon there while trying to tear it down in 1990. Of course, a psychic comes into play and she tells him the ghost children don’t want their home destroyed. Eventually a priest comes in to bless the place but that doesn’t help as one worker is killed. The school is eventually torn down, but the construction owner mentions he took a tree from there to plant in his daughter’s yard and now she reports hearing children playing when there are none.

As mentioned before, this is a pretty polished production. The most notable thing about the show is that Hooper feels the need to mimic his earlier POLTERGEIST in the first segment. There is a scene where two employees open a storeroom door, only to see a bunch of toys flying around on their own. Later, an employee notices some skateboards and roller skates stacked up oddly in an aisle, shades of the chair stacking in the Spielberg production. Hooper also receives credit alongside editor Jonathan Moser for developing the visual effects. I’m sure it looked state-of-the-art at the time but definitely looks dated today. One interesting thing is comparing a real photo from the Toys R Us séance versus how it is depicted on TV. The “real” ghost photo is far creepier (see pic to the right).

Hooper’s next television excursion is perhaps his most solid work in the medium since SALEM’S LOT. Hoping to develop a TALES-style show, Showtime courted Hooper contemporary John Carpenter with the end result being the movie BODY BAGS. The show also featured Carpenter – looking eerily similar to the Crypt Keeper – as the cadaver host who ushers out a series of tales from the crypt, er, morgue. Getting a bone from Carpenter, Hooper got the final segment “Eye” to bring to life.

This story centers on baseball player Brent Matthews (Mark Hamill), who loses his right eye to a piece of glass after he wrecks his car. Sensing his career is over, Matthews falls into depression before Dr. Bregman (Roger Corman) introduces him to Dr. Lang (John Agar). Dr. Lang is developing an experimental eye transplantation surgery and just happens to have a fresh eyeball on ice if Brent is willing to accept it. Brent talks it over with his wife Cathy (Twiggy) and is soon sporting a hazel eye right next to his blue one. Of course, it appears Brent didn’t see BODY PARTS because, as we all know, donor organs always come with a history. Before you can scream Orlac, Matthews finds himself having headaches, hallucinations and unexpected horniness (noooo!). Naturally, he finds out his right socket is now houses the orb of a recently executed mass murderer.

Looking at all of Hooper’s small screen work from this six year period, “Eye” might be his most focused (ah, boo yourself) work. It is definitely the best episode in this omnibus. Hooper seems to have regained his footing in terms of his style, offering some low, fish-eyed camera shots and some shocking edits. There is one shot where the camera drifts back from Matthews on the operating table that is pure Hooper. Given that it is only a half hour, the events unfold rather quickly but Hooper relays them nicely and gets a truly good performance out of Hamill. You also get to see 50s horror lead Agar in a choice role, Corman as his associate and even Charles Napier gets one scene as a gruff baseball coach. To cap it off, Hooper even gets in on the acting fun in the final segment as a coroner who gets to cut up Carpenter. Of course, with Tobe in this era you always have to expect a downside and that comes in the form of sharing the screen with talentless fattie boytoy Tom Arnold. You can’t win ‘em all, I guess. But I’ll take Hooper’s “Eye” over his NIGHT TERRORS, which I may or may not be foolish enough to revisit for review.

Next time: Tobe goes sci-fi!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's TV Terrors pt. 1

Here’s a peek behind the curtain: when I put up my review of Tobe Hooper’s misfire SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, VJ founder Tom emailed me and said, “You are either very brave, or very, very foolish.” I couldn’t decide at the time which I was, but now that I have opted to examine Hooper’s 80s and 90s television work, I’m definitely going with the latter. Hooper’s work on the small screen actually preceded his theatrical efforts as he did documentaries – including one on folk artists Peter, Paul & Mary – for PBS in the late 1960s. After his second theatrical feature EATEN ALIVE, Hooper floundered a bit in developmental hell before producer Richard Kobritz selected him to helm the 1979 SALEM’S LOT miniseries. The project, as Hooper told Cinefantastique, “saved me from obscurity” and proved to be one of the most accomplished horror efforts for TV ever. The miniseries re-established Hooper and led to some major film work.

Following a period of 8 years that saw lots of professional highs and lows, Hooper returned to the small screen in 1987 during the second season of AMAZING STORIES. The anthology show was heavily hyped before its debut as creator Steven Spielberg bringing his “magic” to the small screen. By the time Hooper’s episode debuted, however, the public has tuned out as they figured out early on that the stories were anything but remarkable. In fact, NBC was just playing out their (record setting at the time) pre-order of 44 episodes and Hooper’s “Miss Stardust” was the FINAL episode of the substandard show. It seems only fitting that this would close out the series as it encapsulates everything that was wrong with the show as it isn’t amazing in the slightest.

PR man Joe Willoughby (Dick Shawn) wanders into a bar on a stormy night with quite the tale to tell. Tired of failed campaigns, he tells the bartender how a few weeks ago he was contacted by a group of men hoping to run a beauty pageant under the “Miss Stardust” moniker. Things go swimmingly on the night of the show until an alien (Weird Al Yankovic) shows up out of nowhere, demanding that some intergalactic representatives be allowed to participate. Dubbed The Cabbage Man because of his vegetable looking head, he kidnaps Joe’s secretary (Laraine Newman, fresh off Hooper’s on INVADERS FROM MARS) to ensure things go as he wants them. In the end, the contest features “ladies” from Mars, Venus and Jupiter and Joe finds a quick loophole to make The Cabbage Man lose his demands that his entrants win.

I can practically hear your laughter from here. Based on a Richard Matheson short story, this is one of those entries that make you sit back and wonder why they even bothered. The “telling a story to the bartender” routine is clichéd but offers a bit of intrigue. That is until you see Weird Al pop up. Decked out in a glittering green suit and one horrific looking prosthetic effect, his look is off putting enough. But just wait until he speaks. It is the kind of shrill voice that would make kids turn from the screen and yell, “This guy is annoying!” Even worse is the running gag of him having a lisp and stumbling on the word hideous (“this is hid-e-ufffffsssss”) over and over. It is about as painful a performance you can expect. To compound this horrible alien, Hooper resorts to including some Looney Tunes style sound effects. Was this ghost directed by Joe Dante? And, as was endemic in the series, they felt they could just throw money on the screen to fool viewers they are watching good stuff. The production values are all top notch and there are three elaborate aliens that look awful but you know cost a bundle. On the plus side, Hooper did load the cast for this half hour episode with some genre vets including Jim Siedow (the cook from TCM), James Karen, Anthony James and Angel Thompkins. Maybe he knew it was a “take the money and run” kind of deal so he hooked friends up?

The production values would be sorely missed in Hooper’s next TV fantasy endeavor. In 1988, New Line Cinema was sitting on a mountain of money thanks to Wes Craven’s A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series. Seeking to exploit their cash cow in every available avenue (Freddy pajamas!?!), New Line decided to bring their child-killer-cum-cult-hero Freddy Kruger to the boob tube in the anthology series FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES. Hired to helm the pilot “No More Mr. Nice Guy” was horror vet Hooper. This elicited positive response among fans because a) Hooper hadn’t crash and burned yet and b) this is the guy who made THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE! If anyone could put the scary back in Freddy, it would be Hooper. The news that it would be a prequel dealing with Freddy’s death by a vigilante mob was even more tantalizing. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Showing they had as much contempt for the filmmakers as the audience, the brain trust at New Line decided to do the series on the cheap and to continue on the self effacing, wise cracking Freddy. “Welcome to primetime, bitch” indeed!

The pilot gets off on shaky footing right off the bat with a newscaster addressing viewers before he disappears in a fuzz of static, complete with him going, “What the…?” He re-materializes on the steps of the Springwood courthouse, wonders where the hell he is and then launches into standard reporting about the trial of Fred Krueger. Inside the courtroom, Krueger (Robert Englund, of course) is covered in chains inside what looks like sensory deprivation tank while the prosecutor shows slides of his victims. Not so fast, says his slimy 80s coiffed defense lawyer, who introduces a motion to have the charges dismissed. Seems Lt. Tim Blocker (Ian Patrick Williams) forgot to read this child killer his Miranda Rights and ol’ Fred is freed by the judge on this technicality. And when I say freed, I mean freed. Freddy – unsubtly wearing his iconic fedora and red-and-green sweater – is literally un-cuffed and shown the door. No exit process or anything. An angry group of white folks rush outside to confront him but he is gone. “Where did he go?” wonders one man. “After more children!” shrieks a woman. But they vow to bring true justice to that kid killer.

Freddy returns to his boiler room (complete with creepy dolls), while Lt. Blocker tries to maintain order among angry parents. The fact that Krueger was in the process of molesting Blocker’s twin daughters when he caught him takes a backseat to upholding the law. Well, until Blocker confronts the lynch mob in Freddy’s boiler room. At first the cop tries to make them see the error of their ways, but when Freddy makes one quip too many about Blocker’s daughters, it is on! Grabbing a can of gasoline, he pours it over Herr Krueger and sets him on fire. Freddy is pretty nonchalant the whole time, screaming, “I’ll be back! I’m free! Free!” Everyone involved swears to keep what they did a secret, but Blocker’s dirty deed might be uncovered when the F.B.I. says they are coming to town to investigate Krueger’s disappearance. Even worse, our hero police officer begins having nightmares about a certain burnt maniac sporting a razor glove.

Scripted by New Line exec Michael De Luca, David Ehrman (who had previously done DENNIS THE MENACE cartoons) and Rhet (976-EVIL) Topham, this pilot episode is a total mess. First off, it takes some real geniuses to muck up the back story that series creator Craven had pretty much laid out for them. They get a plot point wrong as the original ELM STREET says it was an improperly signed search warrant that freed the Springwood Slasher. Nitpicking, I know. Second, you’re telling me you’re doing a history on Freddy’s death AND including a cop character but that character isn’t Donald Thompson (John Saxon)? I mean, c’mon, seriously? I’m not saying hire Saxon – who was probably out of their budget range – but at least offer some narrative consistency. Of course, what do you expect from a trio of writers who don’t even have the brains to mention Elm Street ONCE in their teleplay? The insipid script is also hampered by having to deal with televisions Standards & Practices so the bloodshed is minimal. They also desperately try to pack in some T&A in the film’s final moment and there is a hilarious implied blowjob that causes Blocker to hallucinate.

The terrible teleplay is serviced by equally uninspired direction by Hooper. I understand he was working on tight budget, but Hooper only offers the tiniest of glimpses of what made his earlier film work special. The incineration of Krueger is probably the highlight, worthy of something to be featured in the film. Hooper does try to concoct some Freddy Vision, an example of how the serial killer might see the world. Unfortunately, Freddy sees the world through some horrible 80s video effects that would be more at home in a Cinderella rock video. The final scene has Blocker tied to a dentist’s chair as Freddy performs some surgery with his special dental equipped glove. Given how Hooper drove audiences insane with Marilyn Burns tied to a chair in CHAINSAW, this dull scene serves as a comparison for how tame Hooper had become. It is almost as if you could see his mortgage payment due date on the screen. Just awful and might actually be the moment that one examining Hooper’s career could label “ground zero” for his downfall. Believe it or not, things would actually get cheaper after this!

The scariest thing about this episode? It might be one of the best of the entire FREDDY'S NIGHTMARES series. No joke, beginning with the very next episode they set the bar so low with some of the worst plots imaginable that made this look like a classic. Very hard to do. Next installment: Tobe tackles some ghosts on the cheap and gives us a tale from the crypt.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Revenge of 3-D: A*P*E (1976)

In 1976 Paramount and Dino de Laurentiis decided the time was right for a massive rebirth of RKO’s gargantuan sacred cow, King Kong. The film had an all-star cast of Bert I. Gordon proportions, including Charles Grodin who you’d think would be your first casting choice for a giant ape movie. Don’t get me wrong, Grodin is the man and SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES (1980) is one of my favorite comedies of the era, but ummmm… King Kong? Really? Also, at the time it seemed like the height of technical wizardry with the massive ape actually destroying the pavement when he fell from the, now eerily ill-fated, world trade center. It also grabbed the imaginations of audiences, though not so much their wallets. The film weighed in at a massive $24 million, but only brought in $7 million on its opening weekend. So much for being “the most exciting original motion picture event of all time” as the tag-line proclaimed. Like I said, it grabbed the imaginations of the public and made giant apes a hot commodity. So, I hear you say, where do we go from here? Italy! Ummm, no. Japan! Well, that was in 1962, so again, no. I know, I know, this is a tough one. Get the kimchi ready, we are East bound and down, takin' a trip to Korea!

Thrown together by South Korean filmmakers to cash in on the popularity of the concept (if not the film) and inexplicably shot in 3D, this film actually managed to beat KING KONG (1976) in to theaters by a couple of months. It’s a smart move as anticipation was high and billfolds were ripe for the plucking. Originally titled THE NEW KING KONG, RKO slapped a lawsuit on the producers for (at the time) a suitably colossal $1.5 million. You’d have to multiply the budget of this film an awful lot to get it anywhere near that number, so the American distributors opted for the title A*P*E which, believe it or not, is a parody of M*A*S*H, which was, as you know, also in Korea. Get it? Phew!

During the opening credits there is a thank-you to the US military, leading to the question, how in the hell did they get the co-operation of the US military?! Are the guys in green so freakin’ bored that you can just call up Col. Henry Blake and say, “hey, we’re shooting a movie about a giant ape, can we borrow some tanks, men, jeeps and maybe an officer or two?” Maybe they ran it past Radar O'Reilly first.

Imagine Bill Rebane went to Korea and made a movie about a giant ape… Got the picture? No? Then I guess I’ll have to fill in the details.

The film opens with the captain of a freighter having a conversation with a mate about the “big guy” they have below decks who was apparently caught in Harlem (umm… since when are the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center anywhere near Harlem? If they are referring to his fall off the Empire State Building he would have had to have fallen 6 miles horizontally!). No sooner than you can say “are these actors delivering their lines under hypnosis?” than a *ahem* giant ape fist (or a the cheapest paper-mache ape fist imaginable), rips through the deck of a cheap miniature ship and so begins the rampage through Seoul. Err… well, sort of. First he needs to get in a brawl with a dead shark. Yes, I said “dead shark”. In an attempt to errm, “ape” the famous Kong vs. Alisaur scene in the original film, a dude in the cheapest ape suit imaginable “brawls” with a painfully obviously inert opponent in what is possibly one of the most jaw-droppingly bizarre scenes that I can think of. The shark just flops around as the “ape” really badly pretends to wrestle it (or maybe wash it, it’s hard to tell), finally tearing its jaws open to defeat it. From there it’s an attack on a military base where the ape throws tin cans painted up to look like fuel drums. But wait! There’s more!

The meat of the plot, such as it is, concerns a famous American actress Marilyn Baker (Joanna Kerns) who comes to Korea to make a film that seems to be entirely about her being sexually assaulted in historic Korean locations while comic music plays on the soundtrack (don’t ask me, I don’t know). Her amorous boy-friend Tom Rose (Rod Arrants) is a reporter who decides to take a job in Korea so he can annoy the crap out of her. You can see where this is heading right? Yeah, the famous actress is snatched up by the ape who seems somewhat less pre-occupied by her than is her stalker boyfriend. That doesn't mean Mr. Ape doesn’t hunt her down like a bloodhound on the Scottish moors! Would you believe a short-haired terrier in a suburban tract home? Our nameless ape lazily smacks around buildings, poking his nose in windows, disrupting family dinners, pool games and a hooker with her greasy, chubby American john. Why do I get the feeling Asians in the ’70s thought all Americans were fat, horny and shellacked with brylcreem? C’mon, we don't use brylcreem! Erm... anymore.

For whatever reason, the filmmakers decided that this movie demanded 3D effects and at no point would you ever want to see them more than in a scene in which a group of kids go to the most pathetic, deserted amusement park ever (titled “Familyland” in Disney script) and play on the see-saw. Hell yeah brother, you heard me right! 3D see-saw action! My life is complete. Actually I have to hand it to them with one 3D scene. Cut to a pastoral scene in which a group of martial artists are practicing with all manner of weapons and suddenly a “giant ape” attacks! Or rather is in a completely different place being shot by a second unit crew. Hell, what am I saying? These guys couldn’t afford a second unit crew! Still it’s pretty damn funny seeing them try to edit the martial artists fighting back against the ape, particularly in the miracle of 3D! The first half of the movie is pretty much a pastiche of scenes like these that are pretty damned amusing. In one scene a US military grunt is driving his Jeep along a road and WHAM! a wooden beam that is apparently growing out of a Korean Square Branch Tree that was planted in the middle of the road, slams right through his window (and of course into the audience). The soldier then stops, jumps out of the vehicle and looks around in complete bewilderment at the destroyed US base that he was just driving through completely intact! Unfortunately the second half descends into some slightly tedious destruction of cheap miniatures and some really painful intentional camp added by the US producers. After a farmer finds a giant footprint, some heated phone calls are made to the local US military outpost where the captain says “this is Korea not Scotland, the Loch Ness Monster couldn’t make it over the Berlin Wall!” Phew!

On the other hand, there is plenty of stuff to be entertained by:
- There is plenty of dialogue about how great certain famous Korean landmarks are, but never actually go to them or even show them.
- We discover that in Asia, it is Americans that can’t drive.
- “Scientific phenomenon? Bullshit!”
- The extras show far more enthusiasm than the ape.
- Korean kids are so poor they can laugh for hours at a marionette having what appears to be an epileptic sezure.
- Toy tanks can make giant apes vomit blood.
- You can destroy Korean tanks by throwing rocks at them.

I may not know this for a fact, but I’m pretty sure this is Kim Jong-Il’s favorite movie. I mean, what movie would a megalomaniacal, 5’ tall, platform-shoe wearing “supreme leader” in North Korea find the most arresting? Why a movie about a giant that destroys Seoul of course (I was going to make a joke about giant monkey’s and spankage, but as you know we’re too sophisticated for that)!

In the end this film is appropriately malnourished with some of the sloppiest editing I have ever witnessed with the ends of dialogue sequences being shorn of their final words. Even so, the rather uninspired final half and the American inserts that desperately try to salvage the film by trying to make out that it’s intentionally bad, kind of make it miss the mark. I’d love to see the original version, but that’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION (1990)

Tobe Hooper’s career is certainly a wild ride. Starting with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, he carved out a period of distinction (1974-1986) where he made 8 films. Some were excellent, some were very solid, and none of them were bad. Yes, I even dig his INVADERS FROM MARS remake. All of them had an assured sense of style, deft direction and enough wild stuff to make them memorable, which is why his theatrical decline beginning with this film hurts so much. SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is a great film…a great film if you want your friends angry at you. Just ask my buddy Jon Kitley. He still has friends who hold it against him for dragging them to see this in theaters.

The film opens in 1955 as Brian and Peggy Bell (Brian Bremer and Stacy Edwards) are preparing to be the human experiments in Project Samson. They are going to be inside a fallout shelter to test both its effectiveness and an anti-radiation drug they are injecting. The test goes off without a hitch and they soon discover they will be three as Peggy is pregnant. Nine months later, their son David is born, but the joy doesn’t last long as both parents burst into flames in the maternity ward. They both died from S.H.C. (Spontaneous Human Combustion) says Dr. Vandenmeer (played by HOUSE OF WAX helmer Andre De Toth). But the military brass don’t care as all they want to do is figure our how to replicate what happened.

Cut to present day and David Bell is now Sam (Brad Dourif), a college professor who is always running a fever. Sam has no recollection of his parents, their history or the pyrokinetic powers which lay dormant inside of him. He is about to find out though because today is his birthday and Sam is going to start – as Buster Poindexter said – feeling hot, hot, hot. Everyone seems to be annoying him and people that do tend to burst it to flames. Thankfully he just happens to tune into a radio show discussing the effects of spontaneous combustion and, since everyone else in the city apparently listens to this as well, gets in touch with a woman (Melinda Dillon) who can offer him information about his past. What he doesn’t know is that everyone around him from his ex-wife to his surrogate “father” to his new girlfriend Lisa (Cynthia Bain) is aware of Sam’s history and they’ve been monitoring him for this very moment.

Sounds like a pretty decent premise for a film, right? Well, stop that optimism right there kiddo! In order to achieve any modicum of success with that plot, you need the budget to pull it off and Hooper definitely doesn’t have it here (roughly $5 million). To put it in perspective, Universal’s FIRESTARTER had a budget of $15 million some six years earlier. SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is one of those flicks where the stills look great. My hopefulness for the film was built on by some killer pics in Fangoria. Hell, look at the fiery frame grabs in this blog. Looks pretty damn cool, right? Well, check them out in motion and you won’t be as impressed. Hooper seems content to do 75% of the fire effects with poorly done composites. Bad move. And it isn’t just the effects that are poorly done. Check out some of the embarrassing sets too. Everything is so cheaply made and, for some odd reason, uncomfortably crammed. Behold the café (which boasts of “classical dining”) which is four tables jam-packed into what looks like the landing area of a stairwell. Did the company just stand around in the hotel lobby and say, “That looks like a good place to shoot!”

The film’s other major problem is the screenplay. This is Hooper’s second screenplay credit (he also co-wrote TCM, but I credit the success there more to Kim Henkel) and it shows a disturbing lack of focus. Co-written with Howard Goldberg, the script is a completely muddled mess. First off, they make the criminal sin of having two fire deaths occur off screen. Now these are both important moments that show us Sam has this power. Instead, we hear both of them from characters relaying the information. It is like someone tore the pages out at a budget meeting. Second, there is some really terrible dialog. A perfect example is when Dr. Vandenmeer arrives to examine the burnt bodies of the parents. He walks in and says, “The body burns from the inside with fury and the sound, the sound is like angels screaming” and “fire from heaven is settling here today.” Does this guy have a PhD in Histrionics? And why is he so happy to carve out someone's skull?

Worst of all is Hooper seems completely at a loss at how to stage any of this stuff. I had to laugh when Sam leaves a house and, as he pulls away in his car, the camera lowers down to reveal the bad guy (who Sam already knew) sitting in a car literally 5 feet opposite from where he was parked. Sam didn’t happen to notice the guy who tried to kill him earlier? WTF? Also witness Sam’s emotional transformations. His out-of-nowhere declaration of his love to Lisa as they drive to the hospital as fire erupts from his arm is hilarious. Later, he goes from nice guy to angry guy voicing how he will use his gift to seek revenge in about two seconds after listening to a radio preacher (voiced by George “Buck” Flower). Now Dourif is a pretty good actor, but even he can’t make some of this slop sound good. And who the hell keeps George "Buck" Flower off screen?

And don’t get me started on the film’s ending, which is so poorly staged that it makes absolutely no sense. Hooper spends an inordinate amount of time talking about this nuclear power plant going online at midnight. First off, Hooper seems to have no idea how to subtly play this as the first modern day scene on campus has everyone wearing anti-nuke armbands and posters on every other wall. Second, in the end Sam is confronting the man behind the experiments at midnight and they both burst into flames. Do we just assume he combined with the nuclear plant? I ask because it is never actually shown. We then hear how there was a disturbance in the area (over the radio, naturally) as electrical bolts from the plant stream down the power lines to Lisa’s apartment. She is then attacked by the bad guys before a now burnt Sam literally walks into the scene, kills everyone, and tells Lisa he can take her power (she's a flamer too) before he disappears into a burst of blue light. WTF? The film then cuts quickly to the credits with whispers of “Thank you…goodnight!” and Hooper’s “I’m outta here” in your head.

So, yeah, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION still sucks. I’m glad I wasted the time 20 years later to find that out. And for a film that marks the beginning of the end of Hooper’s career, it couldn’t be more aptly named. Believe it or not, things actually got worse for Hooper after this, more on that in other blogs. Hooper reached such lows in the ensuing years, in fact, that when he made a semi-decent movie (THE TOOLBOX MURDERS remake), that folks were declaring it a return to his heyday form. No, it wasn’t. It just didn’t stink as bad.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Hell in the Jungle: HEATED VENGEANCE (1985)

In the middle of a firefight during the Vietnam war our hero Joe (Richard Hatch) is hit with enemy bullets while trying to save a chubby kid who didn’t want to run to the bunker like Joe told him too (see what happens when you don’t mind your elders?). Joe is loaded into a chopper while his “foreign national” girlfriend is left on the ground. Flash forward some 10 years later and cue up '70s crooning on the soundtrack while Joe lands in Thailand once again. This time it’s not war, but love that brings him to Asia (can you hear the crooning?). Joe is going to try and find his long lost love, and in the process run headlong into elements of his past that he wasn’t looking for.

Naturally, Joe starts looking by hitting the local red-light district for a refreshing beverage. After bellying up to the bar, Joe meets Charlie (Dennis Patrick), a toilet salesman in an Alec Guinness suit knockin' back the imported stuff (Olympia in a can), with a Pinay in each arm (yes, Filipinas in Thailand). Charlie is a straight-up silver fox as evidenced by the introductory exchange he has with Joe:
Charlie: “Listen, I bet you’ve seen our trademark right on the side of those cisterns!”
Joe: “No, no I haven’t.”
Charlie: (leering at one his bar-girls) “She has! She’s sat on ‘em!” (grabs girl’s ass) “Haven’t ya honey?!”
Obviously after this introduction Joe has no choice but to open up to Charlie, telling his story about the war, saying “it was the best year of my life, and I got wounded and it was all over.” Ummmm… except, I’m assuming, for the machine gun fire, mortar fire, the killing, the dead kids and the getting shot and all that stuff. I always heard that most people didn’t like it too much, but what the hell do I know? When it ended I was just a Godzilla-obsessed kid with a Bruce Lee hairdo. Anyway, Joe goes on to tell Charlie that he has discovered that his former girlfriend, Michelle, is a widowed doctor with a son named Joseph who was born nine months after he was wounded! What do you call “cyber-stalking” before the invention of the internets?

Meanwhile in the same Thai village, a drug deal is going down. The leader of the drug dealers is one Larry Bingo (played with amusingly deranged fervor by Ron Max), an ex-US soldier who stayed on after the war and as it turns out is using the old army base in Laos to manufacture an unnamed white powdered substance. His posse is a collection of wingnuts, including Mills Watson, Bruce Baron and Michael J. Pollard (as “Snake”!), who are also war vets who decided to run drugs in Thailand rather than go back to the states. Of course it is a small world because literally minutes before getting shot, Joe was sending Bingo off to be court-martialed for beating and raping a 14 year-old girl. As a testament to Joe’s professionalism, he is remarkably detached and almost at times seems a little too unconcerned with the rape and more concerned with the girls bruises. Bingo is hauled off to a waiting chopper kicking and screaming, only to conveniently escape during the ensuing firefight.

Bingo just happens to spot Joe in yet another bar with Charlie (Joe doesn’t seem to be looking all that hard for his lost sweetie) and after a bit of intimidation, and the killing of a cop, decides to kidnap him. Bingo takes him back to the old camp where he, completely amused by the irony of his own making, tosses Joe in the brig, but not before one of his machine gun toting men in what appears to be an unscripted moment, looks under Hatch’s shirt and gropes his well defined pecs. Hey man, don't ask don't tell, right? Out of all the men in his gang, Bingo decides that the perfect guy to guard Joe would be Snake! Man, you’d have to be on drugs to put Mickey J. in charge of anything! Oh wait… yeah, they are. Totally ridiculous, but highly entertaining, Pollard is given a lot of room to do what Pollard does best: act like he's in a completely different movie. While films like Michael A. Simpson’s tedious train-wreck FAST FOOD (1989) made sure that Pollard was kept on a short leash so as not to undermine the *ahem* integrity of the alleged comedy, here Pollard is allowed to run free turning even the simplest of scenes into complete howlers. Says Snake to an imprisoned Joe: “...Bingo, he’s different. He’s got feelin’s. The only problem is, he’s a little crazy, ya know what I mean? Other than that, he’s number one!” The next time I get involved in organized crime, thats the guy I want as my lawyer!

After escaping from the brig, Joe leads the drug-dealers on a merry chase through the hills and jungles of Laos like John Rambo's mild-mannered cousin, setting up traps and ambushes on the rather easily confused druggies. In one scene Bingo gathers his posse together in the middle of nowhere and starts yelling, knowing somehow Joe would hear him. Bingo introduces his machine gun-toting “friend”, who he says is a cannibal and is looking forward to eating him! Awesome, right? Strangely after this set up for what would presumably be an amazing showdown between ex-GI Joe and a bloodthirsty cannibal, this character is never seen or heard from again! What the hell Murphy? You're playin' with my emotions! During his FIRST BLOOD-esque survival, Joe has flashbacks to making hot monkey love with Michelle, who coincidentally is being contacted by Charlie who fills her in on the story so far and admits that he feels the lavatories in the hospital are due for an upgrade. While Joe plays cat and mouse with the drug nuts, Charlie and Michelle set out on a mission to track down Joe with or without the help of the local constabulary.

While this is nowhere near as outlandish and loaded to the gills with exploitation like Murphy’s previous RAW FORCE (1982), it’s still got plenty of entertainment to offer the discriminating viewer of cinema du fromage. After Joe is flushed out of a cave and takes a header over a steep cliff, the druggies look, but no body is found. Back at the camp Bingo totally flips out while Snake tries to be the calming influence in the scene:
Snake: “He’s dead Lar.”
Bingo: (screaming) “Then why can’t we find him?!”
Snake: (shrugs) “Maybe a tiger ate him.”
Some other great bits include a quick scene in which Charlie and Michelle are having dinner in a rather posh, white linen restaurant and Charlie, deep in contemplation, says “I told myself… I’d never come here again.” Damn man, send the food back then! Also, for some reason Murphy fails to use the traditional opportune moments for gratuitous nudity. You’d think with all the bar scenes, he could get a bevy of nudie cuties in there at least, but sadly no. So desperate is he to shoe-horn some in by the end, he decides to have a few “thai” girls walk topless in front of the camera during an establishing shot of the village that Michelle and Charlie have taken the wounded Joe. While Joe wakes up in bed in a scene that cribbed straight out of the end of THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), Charlie is making friends with the local hotties. Oh, that wacky toilet salesman!

In addition to the brilliant performance by Mickey J. (and his stunt double during the film's rather dangerous-looking fiery finale), Ron Max is somewhat spectacular, chewing the scenery with total abandon. Following a scene where Joe wrecks Bingo’s camp, after falling face first in the white powder ala Pacino in SCARFACE (1983), Max’s performance of incoherent rage is so on-point that it actually really is incoherent and could benefit from the use of subtitles.

All in all, perhaps not the follow up to RAW FORCE that I would have liked it to be, but when taken on its own merits, it’s tons of fun for fans of cheapo action flicks and a must for fans of Michael J. Pollard.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

On the Celluloid Chopping Block: Fangoria's MINDWARP (1990)

Having championed horror cinema since 1979, it seemed inevitable that Fangoria magazine would get into the business of making horror movies. And that happened a decade into their run with the creation of Fangoria Films, an offshoot that would produce one low budget horror film a year to be distributed by RCA/Columbia. Also seemingly inevitable was that whatever Fangoria Films produced would clash with the Motion Picture Association of America (M.P.A.A.), a Draconian film ratings board run by Jack Valenti that repeatedly took the scissors to low budget horror films. Hell, if you made a slightly gory horror film in the 1980s, chances were high that it got cut. And seeing as how Fangoria repeatedly took the M.P.A.A. to task in their pages, it was a forgone conclusion that whatever blood they spilled would end up on the chopping block. Such is the case with MINDWARP, the first of three films produced by Fangoria in the early 1990s.

Opening with the cliché nuclear cloud to represent World War III, MINDWARP takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that is split between Dreamers and Crawlers. Dreamers are the rich elite who spend all day in a dream-like state while hooked into virtual reality machines provided by InfiniSynth. Want to live out your dream of being a lauded star of the stage? InfiniSynth can help. Crawlers, on the other hand, are mutated humans who live underground and eat humans. Dreamer Judy (Marta Alicia) rebels from her somnambulist state and is exiled by The Controller (Angus Scrimm) into the wasteland for her trouble. Attacked by Crawlers, Judy is saved by human survivor Stover (Bruce Campbell), who takes her in before they are both captured and taken to the underground. There they are at the mercy of human ruler The Seer (Scrimm again, maintaining comb over chic post-apoc), who believes he alone knows what is best for his mutant masses (hmm, shades of Valenti?). Naturally, this means putting Stover into manual labor while Judy is primed to be a breeding vessel for The Seer to produce a pure race.

Shot in the spring of 1990, MINDWARP is a decent little entry into the sci-fi horror apocalypse subgenre. Co-writers Michael Ferris and John D. Brancato's script tackles virtual reality before it was a fad and actually seems like a blueprint for THE MATRIX in some ways (neck portals anyone?). Unfortunately, the film has a really lousy ending where – I kid you not – the lead actress says, “There’s no place like home.” Surprisingly, both writers went on to do big budget stuff including the last two TERMINATOR sequels. Director Steve Barnett was a graduate of Roger Corman’s Concorde so he gets the most out of his roughly million dollar budget. He gives the film some energy, nice photography and weird sets. The exterior wasteland location showcases his style the best.

You can tell the filmmakers wanted to snag Fangorians right off the bat with the casting of two fan favorites, Bruce Campbell and Angus Scrimm. Campbell, of course, from the EVIL DEAD series and Scrimm as the famous Tall Man from the PHANTASM films (a character he also played in a Fango TV ad). In addition, they courted the Fango faithful by hiring K.N.B. EFX Group. If Fangoria was the Rolling Stone of horror movies, than effects gurus Robert Kurtzman, Greg Nicotero, and Howard Berger were the hot rock stars at the time, same hair and everything. Anyway, like nearly every project they touched at the time, K.N.B. saw most of their gore hit the cutting room floor. The reason for a movie like this to be made is mostly for folks to marvel at the technical innovation of bloodletting. Sadly, the ratings board felt otherwise and imposed trims. A cheap-o horror film missing its gore is, as noted 80s philosopher Oran Juice Jones said, “Like corn flakes without the milk!”

Thankfully, an uncut version of the film did surface on DVD in Germany of all places with the amusing title BRAINSLASHER. First off, you have to love the German artwork (see pic). Yes, the film does contain mutants, a person with tubes on their head and a severed arm. But leave it to the Germans to combine all of that into one image that isn't in the film. Second, it contains all the gore excised from the R-rated US RCA/Columbia VHS release. Both films play exactly the same until around the 50 minute mark. After that, each and every scene containing blood is trimmed. Here is a run down:

*Stover kills a mutant guard to escape

This is the first bit of cutting. Stover discovers a Cuisinart blade in the rubble and attacks the guard hounding him. He slices his throat, the shot of blood spraying being a few frames longer. When the guard hits the ground, we get a second spurt of blood coming out of his throat that lasts roughly 1 second (see pic below; if you are man enough to handle it, that is).

*Stover fights off another mutant guard

Here we have Stover involved in one of those classic bits where both fighters are reaching for a weapon. The mutant gets a machete first and swings as Stover ducks. The blade then tears open the belly of another mutant hanging from the ceiling and his guts spill out. We are treated to a second shot of the spilling entrails and the next shot of them landing on the face of an out cold mutant lasts roughly 2 second longer. Stover then grabs a hook and juts it into the head of the last mutant, resulting in blood spraying from the head’s right side and two extra gurgles of gore that barely add up to second. See the video below for comparison.

*The first display of the Human Grinder

Truly an example of how only a few seconds truncation can alter a scene. The Seer sacrifices a young girl named Claude (Wendy Sandow) to this machine that chews up the victims and processes their blood as sacrament for the mutants. Since he wears a mask made of human eyeballs, it is safe to assume this guy has an orbital fetish and to prove it he plucks out Claude’s right eyeball with his claw hand attachment. In the R-rated version, we just get two shots of Claude’s dry mouth screaming. The unrated version has one shot of her mouth spitting out blood and the second mouth shot replaced with a shot of the eyeball being pulled out of her head. Claude is then fed to the machine with both shots of her body being chewed up trimmed to avoid the SHOGUN ASSASSIN-esque geyser of blood spraying from the entrance. See the video below for more cross comparison.

*The Seer kills Cornelia

The Seer decides to kill underground nurse Cornelia after she lets Judy escape. He picks her up and puts her onto a meat hook dangling from a track in the ceiling. He then pushes her through the room where she ends up impaled on two spikes in the wall. The unrated version offers roughly 2 more seconds of blood spurting from her abdomen before a mutant comes in and gives a quizzical look.

*The Seer meets the Human Grinder

As all good horror movies know, the villain should meat, er, meet their comeuppance at the hands of their infernal killing machine. So, of course, The Seer must end up in his flesh fraying furnishing. As with Claude’s aforementioned Grinder death, the R-rated cut trims down the jet of blood that sprays out of the machine.

So there you have it. Surprisingly, all of the bits involving the leeches that infest Stover’s body are identical, including a gory bit where he pukes blood all over Judy in the film’s climax. In total, the amount of gore cut out is less than 25 seconds. But for some reason those precious pictures of plasma were deemed not safe for US consumption. Honestly, I’m glad the M.P.A.A. was there for us on this one. Who knows how many kids would have gone all Charles Whitman had they been allowed to see that extra blood spurt lasting 1 second? Seriously, you’d almost think this ratings board had a personal vendetta against the folks who constantly challenged them in print. The amount of gore on display is freakin’ innocuous compared to the stuff folks get away with today. I mean, freakin’ R-rated RAMBO (2008) had more in the last 20 minutes than probably all of the notoriously edited 80s horror flicks combined. The only things more pathetic than this being cut down is that some loser took the time to compare the two versions and edit a comparison video. Enjoy!