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!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Severe Case of Remakeitis: PIRANHA 3D (2010)

Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeezus!! "Suck" is just not a strong enough word. This movie is hooooooorible! Man, how do you screw up prehistoric piranhas attacking people in 3D? No, seriously, the only way this should suck is if you are Leonard Maltin and Tipper Gore on a movie date. Nekkid chicks and flesh-eatin' fish? Sign me up! Yeah, I know, I am a remake hater, but I am also a 3D horror movie lover. forget the whole "remake" thing, it's just a crap movie made cynically by untalented people. FINAL DIMENSION 3D was a crap formulaic movie with tons of CG effects yet it was so much fun. The 3D was flawlessly executed and the action started immediately and never let up, even the credit sequence was jaw-droppingly cool in 3D. That's all I asked from this movie, nothing more, and it failed miserably.

Every character is totally annoying and the acting sucks on all fronts. The basic plot concerns a meek teenage boy (Steven R. McQueen, yes, he's related) who is supposed to be babysitting his two precocious-as-fuck kiddie siblings, who have a huge amount of ridiculously complex "comic" dialog that no children would ever utter, and gets hired by a Girls Gone Wild clone producer to take them to the lake's "hotspots". This is after a seismic quake has opened a rift in the bottom of the lake allowing prehistoric piranha to escape. Whatever. I find the Wild Wild Girls angle to be pretty annoying as it's been done already and it was never very clever to begin with. I was over it back when HATCHET (2006) came out, it's numbingly dull plot and characters paving the way for this.

Christopher Lloyd's bit part as an aquarium store owner that knows way too much about prehistoric fish (including being in possession of an actual fossil of the exact species of carnivorous fish that has just been re-discovered), proves that aging gracefully is certainly not something he is prepared to do. Same with Richard Dreyfuss... I knew I was in trouble when the opening sequence has him drinking Amity Island Beer and singing along to the radio playing "I had a little drink about an hour ago". They spend so much time playing the song and featuring close ups of the bottle (including a looooong sequence as it falls to the bottom of the lake), I almost yelled in the theater "Ok! Ok! I GET IT already! Stop hitting me!" Ving Rhames has a thankless bit part as a deputy sheriff who attacks the piranha with an outboard motor. The sequence was (like everything else) SO badly done that it just magnified what a stupid idea it was to begin with.

I hate to admit this, but the thing that got old really fast was the endless footage of chicks in bikinis. I know, you are thinking I've thrown a freakin' rod, but damn! After the first freaking HOUR of what was quite literally an 75 minute episode of MTVs BEACH PARTY (with about 13 minutes of alleged "horror" movie), I was so over it. There were points where I was beginning to wonder why the movie was titled PIRANHA and not DJ CHOCOLATE THUNDER'S SPRING BREAK (yeah, there is a DJ "character" named Chocolate Thunder, I couldn't make that shit up). And if that wasn't bad enough, who the hell made Jerry O'Connell the star of the freakin' movie, and WHY!? When it wasn't the longest Bud Light commercial ever, it was non-stop Jerry O'Connell over-acting to the point where I was praying for him to get killed quickly. No such luck, his inane scenes go on and on and when he finally DOES get killed it's the lamest sequence ever. In what is supposed to be a "funny" sequence, he whines "they got my penis... they got my penis!" Then they show his severed penis floating through the water and a piranha wolfing it down whole, then swimming back on screen to belching it up into the faces of the audience. Damn, I didn't realize this was a Lloyd Kauffman production.

I didn't have a problem with the non-stop gore at the end of the film (is it too much to ask to have it spread out a bit?), but I did have a problem with how ineptly it was staged. No style, no atmosphere, just flat, floodlit shots that felt like the director, Alexandre Aja (responsible for 2003s ridiculously over-rated HAUTE TENSION), was just shrugging his shoulders and saying "ok, there's your gore *yawn*". The SyFy Channel horror movies show more panache than this heap. Most of the gore effects were so flat and uninterestingly delivered that they didn't have any shock value and looked like the rubbery stuff that you used to see advertised in the pages of Fangoria magazine back in the '80s. On the other hand, I did think the CGI piranhas actually looked pretty cool, but if you don't do anything cool with them...

The final nail in coffin is the non-event of the 3D effects. They sucked ass. Most of the time they didn't work. There were weird digital halos and flickering around people and objects, and there were some layering issues where some things that are supposed to be in the back ground appear in the foreground and vice-versa. Nothing comes out of the screen, there is just a little bit of depth in some scenes. This is simply inexcusable. If FINAL DIMENSION 3D can crack it out of the park with no plot and stupid characters, there is no reason, other than a complete lack of talent, intelligence and ambition, for this movie to blow it so badly.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Jaa had me at hello: ONG BAK 3 (2010)

Tony Jaa burst onto the scene in 2003 and quickly became the heir apparent to aging action guys like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. He put the adrenaline back in action and reminded audiences of the inherent beauty in well choreographed fisticuffs that didn’t rely on wires, editing or fancy Hollywood effects. His starring features ONG BAK (2003) and TOM YUM GOONG (2005) – despite some flimsy “you stole something that belongs to me” plotting – put Thailand on the international cinematic map. Perhaps sensing director Prachya Pinkaew’s storytelling limitations, Jaa moved into the director’s chair for the oddly titled prequel ONG BAK 2 in 2006. The production became somewhat troubled as the neophyte director ran over time and budget, with the studio releasing the story unfinished in December 2008. It was a success and the wrap up ONG BAK 3 quickly went into production.

The film picks up right after part 2’s cliffhanger ending with Tien (Tony Jaa) in the clutches of evil Lord Rajasena (Sarunyu Wongkrachang). After putting up a fight, Tien is tortured, has his bones broken and is sentenced to death. Seconds before his head is to be lopped off, Tien is rescued by a man declaring he must take him. Uh, what? Couldn’t evil Rajasena said no? Or had him killed regardless and go, “Ooops!” Anyway, he bafflingly releases Tien, who is taken to the nearby village to heal but isn’t there long before some of Rajasena’s ninjas show up to kill him. They are quickly dispatched of and a local Buddhist monk says they can revive Tien by performing an old ritual involving making a statue out of melted down gold from the villagers. It works but Tien finds his body crippled when he recovers and must learn to fight all over again. Meanwhile, Rajasena has nightmares about being cursed after poisoning the king to take his crown. He is constantly visited and taunted by the Crow (Dan Chupong), so he decides the best course of action is to kill him. Bad move as Rajasena ends up a foot shorter thanks to a decapitation. The Crow assumes the throne and enslaves the villagers, including love interest Pim (Primorata Dejudom). Apparently all this misery other folks suffer is necessary for Tien to live his destiny as a savior and he heads to the Imperial fortress to whoop some ass.

Released roughly a year and a half after ONG BAK 2, the third film is a letdown. If you’ve followed the film’s production history, ONG BAK 3 isn’t really even supposed to exist, but came into being after producers opted to get the troubled production ONG BAK 2 out to theaters basically unfinished (hence the cliffhanger). For this entry, Jaa co-directed alongside his mentor, stuntman-director-choreographer extraordinaire Panna Rittikrai. Unfortunately, the one thing they didn’t spend time on was the script. The plot is flimsy and harkens back to the basher kung fu flicks where a guy would get beat up, spend an hour training and then unleash the beast on the baddies. ONG BAK 2 was no great shakes when it came to plot, but it at least had some mystery regarding the assassination. Here it is straightforward good guy/bad guy and lots of ponderous dialogue about fate. And don’t get me started on the Crow character. As essayed by Dan Chupong, it is a fantastic character but we have no idea who he is or why he keeps the old king’s corpse in his cave home. Is he the physical embodiment of the curse? Is he a ghost? And why does he spew black CGI mist?

Another problem is that stuff from the first film just seems like an afterthought here. Remember the badass SHOGUN ASSASSIN looking guy in the straw mask at the end of part 2 who only observed the action? They must be building toward a huge confrontation with him and Jaa, right? Nope. He shows again during the siege of the village and is dispatched of in roughly 40 seconds. Granted it is a nice demise, but so much for that daydream of an epic fight. And the long standing love between Tien and Pim doesn't really factor in here at all outside of her teaching him to dance and give him a kiss. They don't even embrace in the end when he frees her. One thing they do expand on is the comedic styling of Petchtai Wongkamlao. For some reason they felt his character cameo from part 2 needed to be expanded upon and give him more screen time here as the village bum. It is pretty obvious the filmmakers were flying by the seat of their pants here and felt they could get away with flimsy plotting due to the action.

And all of this would be forgiven if the action were mind blowing like part 2. Unfortunately, it’s not. It is sad to report that Jaa spends an hour of the film’s 94 minute running time doing nothing! The film opens with him unleashing his fists of fury on some guards and then we don’t see him do anything until the end climax. Audiences want to see Jaa fight and do amazing moves. So to deemphasize that makes this ends up being like porn without the sex! Even I will admit there was some downtime in the two earlier ONG BAK films, but they made up for it every 15 minutes or so with Jaa doing something amazing. In fact, the finest action scene in the whole picture doesn’t even belong to Jaa! It is when Rajasena and his men attack the Crow’s residence and he unleashes the kind of whoop ass Panna has known to bring with guys taking painful falls and hits.

The end confrontation between Jaa and Chupong is also pretty disappointing, given how both guys are great fighters. Tien basically spends the entire time whooping the Crow’s ass. It is the complete antithesis of ONG BAK 2’s ending where he would be beat down and still continue to fight. In fact, I think their brief fight at the end of part 2 on top of the elephant is better than anything they do here. This is Tien fighting the supposed toughest guy in the land, so why does he dispose of him easily in 4 minutes? It should have been an epic encounter but instead ends up feeling rushing, encapsulating this sequel perfectly.

If this sounds a bit too negative, please don’t think that. ONG BAK 3 is a decent film, just a disappointment compared to Jaa’s previous work. You won’t get anything as epic as the style melding fights in ONG BAK 2 or the classic tracking shot in TOM YUM GOONG (aka THE PROTECTOR). The action, however, continues the brutal tone established in the previous entry. One need only look at the bit where Jaa steps on a guards face and then continues to pummel him until his armor shatters. It is violent and bloody action for sure. Unfortunately the film is by the numbers and an attempt from Sahamongkol Films to get a bit more mileage out of their star. In fact, someone could edit parts 2 & 3 together and have a pretty kickass action flick. Here’s hoping Jaa’s recent sojourn into monkhood gives him time to heal, clear his mind and think of better ways to kick ass.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ginty Gone Wild: WHITE FIRE (1984)

I can’t believe we are four months into the blogosphere and we haven’t mentioned Robert Ginty! Looking more like a slightly baby-faced, blow-dried swinger than a ruthless killer of human scum, Ginty spent six years working in television on shows such as THE BLACK SHEEP SQUADRON and THE PAPER CHASE before landing the titular role in James Glickenhaus’ ultra-violent mash-up of DEATH WISH (1974) and ROLLING THUNDER (1977), THE EXTERMINATOR (1980). Even though THE EXTERMINATOR was not only hugely successful, but completely iconic, Ginty went back to TV for a few years. Ginty returned to the big screen in 1983 in GOLD RAIDERS and WARRIOR OF THE LOST WORLD, but really didn’t hit his stride until the following year when notorious soft-core hack Jean-Marie Pallardy had the novel idea of cashing in on Ginty’s success in THE EXTERMINATOR! Seriously? It took the director of EMMANUELLE GOES TO CANNES (1980) to figure that out?

Financed by Turkish backers and shot in Turkey with a cast of extras that look as if they were peeled off of Burt Reynold’s stable of stunt doubles, WHITE FIRE is arguably the apex of his post-EXTERMINATOR work and embodies everything you could possibly want from an ‘80s drive-in flick including a throw-away role, in a seemingly non-sequitur subplot, for top billed Fred Williamson who doesn’t even appear in the film until 56 minutes into the action!

Opening with a surreal pre-credit sequence loaded with slow-mo and set to a wannabe Pink Floyd score courtesy of the Jon Lord of Deep Purple and Whitesnake fame, a group of soldiers are pursuing a family through a forest on their way to meet an American on the beach. The movie lays all of its cards on the table straight off when on the way Dad (played by the director, believe it or not) gets torched by a soldier wielding a flamethrower in one of the most jaw-droppingly irresponsible stunts I’ve ever seen on film. As the father is stepping out of a jeep, the soldier fires a very real flamethrower at his legs at which point the vehicle he is standing next to explodes in a ball of flame that engulfs the father (Pallardy), who is next seen running out of the fire frantically patting the flames off of his face, smoke billowing from his singed hair. That’s right, none of this wussy “firesuit” crap here, no sir! We are going to have our extra, nay director, completely engulfed in a fire without even a dab of burn gel! Man, I don't know whether it's balls the size of Nebraska or just blatant stupidity, but you have to be impressed. After mom is gunned down by a soldier the American contact comes along, snaps a soldier’s neck and tells the brother and sister to suck it up. Cue opening credits and title song.

Yes, not only does this movie sport irresponsible stuntwork, but it has what is possibly the best title track ever for a trashy drive-in flick, from the pop-rock band Limelight. Rivaled only by Easy Action’s title tune for BLOOD TRACKS (1985), Limelight busts out some serious lyrical philosophizing like “no road is long enough, so we ride it for free” and “how do you sleep at night, when you were willing to put up a fight?” As Limelight croons about thunderballs rolling down halls, we follow Ingrid as she goes to work in a high-tech Turkish diamond mine which is guarded by stormtrooper rejects from Bruno Mettei’s THE HUMANOID (1979). Not only does this diamond mine have sweet diamond-detecting body scanners, but they also have a torture room in the foyer complete with observation window! Once inside, she meets up with the foreman (Gordon Mitchell, who is sleazy even when he’s playing it straight).

As it turns out, the siblings Bo (Robert Ginty) and Ingrid (Belinda Mayne) are all grown up now and have set up an elaborate inside job to steal diamonds from the mine with the help of the foreman. To achieve this objective Bo has filched a strategy from the Jellystone Park Ranger's playbook and hidden a firearm inside a pic-a-nic basket. How could this go wrong? While heading to the drop site, the pair are ambushed by a ruthless Italian crimeboss Sophia (Mirella Banti) and her mustachioed goons. Bo blurts out “let me handle this!” to Ingrid and is promptly smacked to the ground. Sofia wants in on the action and decides to hold Ingrid captive on her yacht while Bo gets more diamonds. As you can figure, this ain’t flyin’ with this pair and they make their escape by having to fight off a whole mess of dockworkers who are armed with staves, meathooks and blowdried coiffures. In the ensuing melee Bo finds a chainsaw (on a dock?!) and proceeds to literally tear up the competition in graphic detail. Sis makes herself useful by hefting up a whaling harpoon and impaling a some schmo with it. It's enough to bring a tear to the eye of any proud brother. After this wholesale slaughter, Bo and Ingrid jump on a boat with a topless blond sunning herself on the foredeck, bribe the owner to get the fuck out of dodge... and this is not even 20 minutes into the film! The credits could start rolling right here and you’d have the greatest drive-in flick ever, but wait there’s more!

As it turns out the evil vamp Sophia has a person on the inside too and it's the same guy! Ahhh, the old “inside inside job” ploy! The foreman is in league with Sophia hoping to play both ends against the middle, in a race between the two sides to steal the recently discovered, legendary White Fire diamond. A 1000 carat diamond which is so highly radioactive that it will burn the living crap out of anyone who touches it. Aside from the fact that you would think this would actually deter people from stealing it, since it is too big to make into, say a ring, and would burn off your finger if you tried to wear it anyway, everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to get the damn thing. This is where the movie goes from wobbling off-kilter to snapping the drive-shaft and plunging headlong off the embankment.

Back at home Sis goes skinny-dipping in the pool while her foster parents and Bo are making dinner. Exiting the pool she goes for a lengthy out-door nude shower just in case we didn’t get enough time to marvel at her tanned and toned full-frontal nekkidness. Feeling a little frisky, Bo comes down to the pool and whips off Ingrid’s towel and says “suddenly you don’t look like anyone’s kid sister anymore,” while Ingrid giggles and tries to cover up. While one part of my brain is screaming “dude! That’s your sister man!” another part of my brain is thinking “damn, you could bounce a quarter off of that ass!” After getting her towel back, Ingrid decides she needs to go for another swim and dives back in the pool. Ummm… didn’t you just have a quick swim? More naked Ingrid? Fiiiiiiine, I guess I’ll just have to put up with it, geeze. Mid-swim the badguys show up and things head south quickly (and Ingrid loses her towel... again). I can’t, in reasonable conscience, spoil the rest of the completely insane plot, but I’ll throw out a few highlights:

- Bo’s affection for his sister goes from creepy to downright disturbing.
- Plastic surgeons can be female, but are lesbians operating in colorful togas.
- Blond girls in Turkish bars have an irresistible attraction to drunken losers who start fights and can’t finish them.
- The Hammer detests physical violence.
- Cops get their murder leads out of books on mythological gemstones.
- If you are in a hurry to steal the world's largest diamond, make sure you have the correct color-coded uniforms so your men will be easy targets for the good guys.
- The Japanese own everything.
- If you are going to work on a band-saw, don’t know anything the bad guys might want to find out.
- You are only as badass as your mustache.
- Radioactive diamonds are highly combustible.

If there is some exploitation element that goes un-touched on, I can’t think of what it is. There’s even a completely gratuitous cut-away involving sweaty, greased-up, half-naked men grappling to Indian flute music… if you are into that sort of thing. The dialog is snappy and just odd enough in a “written in a foreign language and translated into English” kind of way, not to mention plenty of bloody action and the bizarre plot that presents us scene after scene of amazingly amusing, trashy or just plain entertaining stuff.

The US budget DVD release is uncut and a fairly decent transfer for the price, but this is really a film that should get a nice widescreen transfer with maybe a few extras, like the French disc (which unfortunately only has a French dub track). Sadly Ginty passed away last year and it’s a shame that the opportunity to have him at least interviewed about this film was missed. I can’t even imagine the stories there must be about making this film. When Fred Williamson declares “[let’s] hit the cathouse first” I wouldn’t be surprised if that was a marriage of convenience.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fight from the Philippines: HUNTER'S CROSSING (1983)

I can’t believe we are four months into the blogosphere and we haven’t mentioned Richard Harrison. Everyone has a favorite actor and you’ll often hear folks saying, “I’ll watch anything Al Pacino (or Robert DeNiro or Russell Crowe) is in.” Poppycock! Those guys play it safe in their little Hollywood wonderland with multi-million dollar budgets and ever flowing buffets. Give me a real actor, someone who truly suffers for their art. I’m talking about nomadic cinema warriors, who feared no borders when it came to collecting a paycheck. Guys like John Saxon, Chris Mitchum and Richard Harrison. Harrison has braved poor shooting conditions in Italy, Turkey, China, the Caribbean, and the Philippines just to name a few in order to add to his resume of over 100 films. Call me when Pacino, DeNiro or Crowe do that without the luxury of first class. Yeah, I’ll watch anything with Richard Harrison…and that might just be my undoing. See, because of Harrison's "pay me now" nature, his filmography is truly the good, the bad and the ugly.

HUNTER’S CROSSING opens with a group of tourists being captured by some pirates led by a white guy named Jameel. Among the group is rich dude Burns, Sr. and his daughter Lois. The pirates contact Burns, Jr. (Richard Harrison) and demand $5 million dollars for their release. Anyway, Burns, Jr. is apparently either cheap or vindictive as he hires Harris (Phillip Gamboa) to assemble a mercenary team to rescue the captives. The team includes Al Hunter (Bruce Baron), Tom (Jim Gaines) and Mac (Don Gordon Bell). I’m particularly impressed with how he recruits Mac, who is drunk and getting his ass kicked in a bar at the time. Just the kind of guy you want on your team, right? Anyway, the group trains for a bit (with some guy yelling at them) before their mission. Oh, I forgot, pre-mission we get the most random subplots thrown in that scream “we need more running time!” Mac promises his son he will buy a boat and take him fishing when he gets back (it ain’t happening kid); Al gets wrapped up with a gang that he used to be a getaway driver for, killing them with his rocket launcher car; and Tom kills his wife when he finds her in bed with a scrawny white dude (understandable). An odd but welcome detour before we get the main mission where lots of guys get blow’d up.

If you were hoping for some trademark Harrison craziness, this isn’t the film for you. While he and CROSSING director Teddy Page made FIREBACK (1983) around the same time, this is strictly talking head stuff. ‘Tis the price we pay for being Harrisonites. He is essentially deskbound for his 10 minutes of screen time. Perhaps he was getting thrown a bone for the rigors of FIREBACK and BLOOD DEBTS (1984)? You do have to marvel at the fact that the perpetually old Harrison plays someone’s son though. Awesome. This is essentially Gamboa and Baron’s show. This is the first time I’ve seen Gamboa and he is pretty good, looking like a young Tony Ferrer. Baron is a staple in these flicks and is good as always. And by good I mean entertainingly over-the-top. Watch for the bit where he shoots a guy five times and then kicks him for good measure. He had previously been in Tsui Hark’s DON’T PLAY WITH FIRE (1980) and co-starred with Bruce Li in the highly entertaining DRAGON FORCE (1982). I have to marvel at his outfit in the film’s final siege. It consists of boots, khaki shorts, a gun on each hip, and a skimpy top. Hey, wait a sec…that is Lara Croft’s outfit!

Sadly, HUNTER’S CROSSING isn’t going to set your world on fire. In the pantheon of crazy Filipino cinema, it is a level below some of the other Silver Star/Teddy Page classics. The end breakout is pretty standard for the genre with the requisite shootouts and mandatory exploding huts. One thing that made me laugh is the end relying on the group being picked up by a boat at a rendezvous point (naturally, it is late). Why is this funny? Because Harris and Al drove there in their A-Team gimmicked bike and car! Hell, they even get in them during the final chase but then get out of them to run to the pier. Why not, you know, drive that car back to where you brought it from? There is another really funny bit involving Gamboa running out of bullets and offing two guys coming towards him with machine guns by using knives. Yes, these pirates are truly not a bright lot if they can’t figure out to open fire on a guy five feet in front of them as he throws down his gun and pulls out some blades. I will give the filmmaker’s credit for some funny drama (like Harris revealing Lois is his former wife and Burns, Sr. hates him; might make that rescue kind of awkward) and having the gall to off three out of the four team members. It is an okay time killer, but not the best. If, however, you want prime Filipino Harrison, definitely check out FIREBACK (which co-stars Baron as a lovesick villain named Duffy) and BLOOD DEBTS. Both films have him in the lead and brandishing big guns that make people explode. Take that Al Pacino!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: MORTUARY (2005)

The new century did not start off well for Mr. Hooper in terms of horror as he delivered the by-the-numbers SciFi Channel level CROCODILE (2000). He returned to TV for the well done TAKEN before shocking nearly everyone with the TOOLBOX MURDERS (2004). While not the “masterpiece” and “return to form” the hip horror web sites claimed it to be (had they seen his work from 1974-86?), TOOLBOX was Hooper’s strongest horror work in decades and proved the man could still deliver an above average fright-fest. Unfortunately, all that cred that Hooper gained was quickly squandered when he re-teamed with TOOLBOX producers and screenwriters for MORTUARY.

Single mother Leslie Doyle (Denise Crosby) moves with her kids, Jonathan (Dan Byrd) and Jaime (Stephanie Patton), into a mold infested house/mortuary so she can live out her dream of being a mortician (thanks mom). The house, naturally, has a past as Jonathan learns the tale of local boogeyman Bobby Fowler from romantic interest Liz (Alexandra Adi). Legend has it that deformed mute Fowler was tortured by his parents before he killed them and he still lurks the grounds of the cemetery that sits right outside Jonathan’s house. Me thinks something bad is going to happen!

MORTUARY is a mess. Had this been made by some fledgling filmmaker, I could understand. But this is Tobe Hooper and, after proving himself again with TOOLBOX, he shouldn’t be resorting to flicks that end on a scare and immediately cut to credits with a lousy Nine Inch Nails rip off song blasting. I expect that from the young sad sack directors, but not my beloved Tobe. It doesn’t help that the screenplay by TOOLBOX scripters Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch is an unfocused mess. Okay, I’m going to lay out the film’s big villain to you so stop reading if you don’t want to know. The cause of all this craziness is – wait for it – killer fungus! It creeps, it crawls, it climbs up the walls…THE FUNGUS! Oh, sorry, that was The Blob’s theme. Apparently Bobby lives in a cave below the mausoleum (which is locked by a door with a Lovecraft inscribing that is never explained) and has been feeding this mold monster that lives in a well. Now Anderson and Gierasch can’t be bothered to explain where this thing came from (my guess? Lovecraft books!). And how do you kill the infected? By throwing salt on them, of course! “Just like a snail,” says the film’s token gay kid. C’mon, ya bastards. I know you looked up “how to get rid of mold” on Google. Even sadder are their set ups like when the sheriff shows up as Jonathan and friends smoke pot and mom comically botches her first embalming. Who will answer the door? Or how about the scene where mom decides to show off her first customer (i.e. corpse; played by Gierasch) to the kids and Liz screams, “That’s Mr. Barston! He’s my piano teacher. *friend takes her away* But I had a lesson tomorrow.” And there is some bitter irony in dialog like one infected teen whose only line is to scream, “Shut up, punk!”

The acting is pretty weak as well. I’ll give Byrd praise as he is a solid lead and, to the screenwriters’ credit, they didn’t fall back on the cliché “angry at my parent” routine. But the rest of the cast is in pretty sad shape. You can almost see Denise Crosby thinking, “Why did I leave STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION?” And get a load of Greg Travis as Eliot Cook, the smarmy local businessman who shows the family the house. He laughs and cackles from start to finish of each scene. I’m all for eccentric characters in films, but I’m scratching my head as to why Tobe didn’t stop the scene and say, “What the hell are you doing?” Extra notice should go to Alexandra Adi as the brunette teen love interest. She is terrrrrrible and has the raspy voice of someone in their thirties. Oh, shit, she WAS in her early thirties when she filmed this. That has to be some kind of record in terms of horror teen portrayals. Well, good one on Byrd for getting some of that action!

The worst thing about MORTUARY is that, like most his work the last 20 years, it is very solid on a technical level, but tries to echo previous successes. Hooper seems to be doing an all-out “greatest hits” retrospective here. You have a little girl offering licorice to the dead (POLTERGEIST); a creepy family dinner (TCM 1 & 2); a deformed monster with a cleft lip (THE FUNHOUSE); a small town populated with eccentric characters (SALEM’S LOT); and a climactic chase in underground tunnels strewn with skeletons (TCM 2). Damn, why couldn’t he have copied some LIFEFORCE and gotten someone to pull a Mathilda May? In fact, it is criminal that busty Courtney Peldon (see pic below) only barely shows off her assets while dissolving and covered in CGI smoke. The funniest thing is that he basically remade this as THE DAMNED THING, his entry for the second season of Showtime’s MASTERS OF HORROR series, replacing black fungus that drives one mad with black oil that drives one mad. It is sad because Hooper’s TOOLBOX MURDERS redux gave us a tiny tease of his abilities, showing the man still had it in him. And then he turns around and kicks us in the nuts again, as if to say, “You do remember I made SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION, right?”

Monday, August 16, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe speaks!

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

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: THE MANGLER (1995)

Dear Diary,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 14, 2010

No Reservations: FLESHBURN (1984)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 12, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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