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 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.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Revenge of 3-D: SILENT MADNESS (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 2, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sci-Fried Theater: THE HUMANOID (1979)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe's TV Terrors Video

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