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!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe goes Sci-Fi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 24, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah Pierre, limited only by your imagination and budget.

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

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

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Obscure Oddities: Giulio Questi's ARCANA (1972)

One of the great joys of being a Video Junkie ® is the fine art of the discovery. We wade through so much junk (see this entire site) that it pays off when you see something really good. But the best is when you see something so out there that it knocks your socks off. You know a movie so bizarre that when you finish it you wonder what the hell you just saw. The kind of flick when you describe it to your friends they think you lying and instead relaying something out of a fever dream. Such is the case with Giulio Questi’s ARCANA.

If you’re reading this blog then Italian director Questi should be a familiar name. My only exposure to him was within the last few years when I watched the positively surreal DEATH LAID AN EGG (1968). I think it is safe to say it is the only film to feature a love triangle against the backdrop of prostitute murders and the high tech chicken farming industry. Well, I should say only legal film to feature such things. Obviously the film is one of a kind. I hear his western DJANGO, KILL! (1967) does for the spaghetti western genre what EGG did for the giallo subgenre. So, naturally, when I saw a grey market dealer offering up his rare ARCANA, I decided to take a look.

Now this is one tough puppy to summarize, but I’ll give it a shot. ARCANA tells the story of widow psychic Rose Tarantino (Lucia Bose), who runs her business in a slummy apartment building in Milan. Mrs. Tarantino is a bit of a charlatan while her son (Maurizio Degli Esposti) is the real deal, born with the power to see into the lives of their clients. Naturally, she exploits this to groups of folks who come into be “healed” by his touch. The son – whose name I don’t ever believe is mentioned – is one odd kid though as he likes to make faces in the mirror, cross dress and dabble in the real black arts. When client Marisa (Tina Aumont) becomes pregnant, she goes to Mrs. Tarantino for a talisman. Now the mother is content on creating a fake charm, but the son insists on making a real one. When he presents it to Marisa, she collapses and falls into convulsions. The son then wanders around the city, placing his homemade trinkets everywhere and visiting the underground subway rail where his construction worker father was killed by a train. The film culminates with Marisa coming to Mrs. Tarantino to get an abortion, which turns into a big get together for her clients. The end result is the son having a dwarf whisper into his ear as he unleashes chaos all over the city with the military gunning down folks.

I can practically hear you saying WTF? The funny thing is the paragraph above is just an attempt to put everything into some kind of digestible plot. Honestly, Questi doesn't seem that concerned with the plot and more interested in staging some really weird stuff. There are so many bizarre on goings here that the film almost becomes hypnotic. The “normal” strange stuff includes the incestuous nature of the mother/son relationship (she bathes him and they sleep in bed together). The “slightly out there” stuff includes the son threatening the mom in bed with a knife to tell him about a real talisman and this causes plates to fly around the kitchen.

Now the “Alejandro Jodorowsky would approve” stuff includes things like the children in the hallway that quack and bow to an egg (see pic to the right) and later bite an old man to death; the dwarf who brings a bridal dress to the abortion and whispers in the son’s ear; an legless man collecting disability and then saying to the son, “I’m not really disabled. It’s a trick” before some cops come and grab him; and the son building a shrine in his bedroom with string and photos he’s stolen from clients. The absolute show stopper though is the montage after the son makes the talisman that features a man playing a violin as Questi crosscuts between the images of some men hoisting a donkey onto the roof of a church (WTF?) and Mrs. Tarantino dancing zombie-like in her kitchen with ten other folks before she pukes up some frogs. Mrs. Bose – later seen as Elisabeth Bathory in THE LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE (19733) – is quite a trooper as she coaxes and ejects several live frogs from her mouth (see pics below). Let’s see Angelina Jolie do that for her art! An epic WTF moment that should be seen by cult film devotees worldwide.

So as you can see, ARCANA doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense but that is truly the film’s appeal. You won’t be figuring this one out like INCEPTION unless you have Questi sitting right next to you filling you in on what it is all supposed to mean. Rumor is that the film’s original running time is 111 minutes and that some prints remove 25 minutes from the film. The print I saw runs 104 minutes and, gambler that I am, I’m willing to bet that extra 7 minutes ain’t going to make things any easier.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The "Never Got Made" File #24 - #30: The Cannon Group collection

If I had a dime for every project that Cannon announced that didn't get made, I'd be a very rich man. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were definitely enthusiastic about making movies and nowhere was this more evident than their "throw it at the wall and see what sells" approach to announcing projects. Below is just a small sampling of projects they promoted in Variety but never actually got made or morphed into something far different. For a larger sampling, check out this list of unrealized Cannon fodder.


Okay, I'm cheating a little bit here because Albert Pyun did eventually make this for Cannon and it was released in 1990. But this was announced in the mid-80s with Michael Winner attached to direct with a screenplay by James R. Silke (REVENGE OF THE NINJA; NINJA III). One can only imagine.

File #25 - #27: Chuck Norris flicks

"We got Chuck under contract? Let's attach him to every action picture we make!" Yeah, Norris' heyday was for the Go-Go boys so it shouldn't surprise anyone that his name was attached to quite a few projects. AMERICAN NINJA was eventually made by Sam Firstenberg with Michael Dudikoff. NIGHT HUNTER, which was to be the return of INVASION U.S.A.'s Matt Hunter, was made by Sam Firstenberg with Michael Dudikoff as AVENGING FORCE. And the amazingly titled TOUGH KICK never got made. I guess Firstenberg and Dudikoff had better things to do?

File #28 - #30: Albert Pyun exploitation

Following THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982), director Albert Pyun provided Cannon with a handful of professional looking low budget sci-fi tinged features. Professional looking and low budget? Let's sign that workhorse up! Toward the end of his tenure, Pyun was attached to seemingly EVERY Cannon project including their long gestating SPIDER-MAN adaptation. MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE PART 2 and SUPERMAN V never got made. And DELTA FORCE II ended up getting made with Chuck Norris pulling a Dudikoff on Michael Dudikoff and replacing his replacement. Oh, my head!

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!