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!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: Raiders of the Box Office Gold

“Again we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away.” -Belloq to Indiana Jones…or exploitation producers to LucasFilm?
Welcome to Video Junkie's fourth theme week (guaranteed to go at least two weeks)! We’ve done the blind, the Lovecraft and the 3-D, so now it is time for something a bit more mainstream. Chances are that if you’ve found our little detox corner of the internet, you’ve already seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and don’t need me to tell you it is a classic. Born from a mutual love of serial adventures in books and film, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s RAIDERS is undoubtedly the finest work from both men. It perfectly balances action, horror, humor, and thrills. It also lacks the goofier elements of the two sequels. Yeah, you read that right, Lucas only made TWO sequels to RAIDERS and I’m sticking too that! And like JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977), the film’s enormous success brought forth the imitators.

Theatrical distribution was a completely different beast back in the late 70s/early 80s and films generally didn’t live or die within a few weekends. Blockbusters were truly that in that they stayed around for months and RAIDERS was no exception. Released in mid-June 1981, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK had an incredible impact on the box office and kept pulling in millions each weekend until March of 1982! To put that in perspective, AVATAR had pretty much ended its North American run in theaters after 3 months. Even better, after ending its initial run, RAIDERS returned to theaters in July 1982 for another two month run that added an additional $13 million to the Lucas’ pockets.

Of course, RAIDERS was quite unlike Lucas’ earlier STAR WARS in that he didn’t seek to exploit it in any way, shape or form. Haha, yeah right! Dude whipped out toys, comics, novelizations, and games faster than Dr. Jones brandishing his pistol in a Cairo back alley. What kid wouldn’t want their own German Mechanic action figure that they could throw into a fan? Or play what is generally considered the crappiest Atari video game of all-time? Actually, I take that back – the infamous E.T. game still holds that distinction as I am still stuck in that pit in the forest (you know what I’m talking about, readers 30 years or older)!

But Herr Lucas wasn’t the only one doing the exploiting. When a flick draws in those kinds of numbers, you can be guaranteed anyone and everyone in show business began their own archeological digs for anything that could possibly cash in on an effort to keep up with the (Dr.) Jones. Film producers jumped on the bandwagon with glee, hoping to steal away the box office as swiftly as Belloq can take a golden idol from Indy’s hands. So join us on our globe trotting adventure as we go from the Far East to the Wild West, from the silver screen to the boob tube to uncover the raiders of the box office gold!


Naturally, television was one of the first venues to exploit the world’s Indiana Jones fever. So it is ironic that the two concepts greenlit after the success of RAIDERS actually predated the movie, in some case by decades. I’m sure if you listened closely in the summer of 1981 the Hollywood hills were alive with the sounds of producers yelling, “Get me an adventure story set in the 1930s!” Naturally, Hollywood obliged and gave us two short-lived television series in the Indiana Jones mold.


BRING ‘EM BACK ALIVE debuted on the CBS network on September 24, 1982 and showcased the adventures of Frank Buck (Bruce Boxleitner), mustached “big game trapper and collector of wild animals” living outside Singapore in the 1930s. He runs his business out of a hotel and is eventually persuaded by the US Government to perform a series of missions that only he seems to be the guy for. So off he goes on his weekly adventures that usually involve love interest/sexy blonde bombshell/Government worker Gloria Marlowe (Cindy Morgan of CADDYSHACK), friendly rival H.H. (Ron O’Neal; yes, Superfly!) and agents of the sinister G.B. Von Turgo (John Zee).

Frank Buck was actually a real guy who found his initial fame as a big game hunter and exotic animal collector and quickly parlayed that recognition into greater success with the book Bring ‘Em Back Alive in 1930. A smash success, Hollywood came calling and Buck starred mondo-esque BRING ‘EM BACK ALIVE (1932). This film’s success led to a series of docu-drama films with Buck as himself (including a bit in Abbott and Costello’s AFRICA SCREAMS) and the serial JUNGLE MENACE (1937), where he played Frank Hardy. I have no doubt his exploits inspired Lucas at some point when creating the Jones character, so it is ironic that the success of RAIDERS gave Buck’s legacy a new lease on life. One need only look at the show’s opening credits to see (and hear) they were getting their RAIDERS vibe on.

The Frank Buck resurgence, however, was short lived as the show only lasted 17 episodes and ended after one season. In the end, it wasn’t a wild animal or evil spy that took out Buck. It was the even more sinister triumvirate of Fonzie, Laverne and Shirley that killed our intrepid hero out (yes, they programmed it against the most popular shows at the time).


Of course, it would be difficult to find a person who even remembers that show. The other RAIDERS television knock off made much more of an impression on the minds of young viewing audiences. Say the title TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY to anyone who was a kid in the early 1980s and you will most likely elicit a response along the lines of, “Oh yeah! I remember that show.” The show actually debuted the same month as BRING ‘EM BACK ALIVE. In fact, it debuted 2 days (!) before ALIVE on September 22, 1982 on ABC in the battle to steal Indiana Jones’ thunder. And who says Hollywood is out of original ideas?

TALES centers on Jake Cutter (Stephen Collins), a freelance former fighter pilot and part-time gambler who run his flight business out of a hotel run by “Luckie” Louie (Ron Moody) in the Pacific in 1938 (hmmm, sounds familiar). Along with his mechanic Corky (Jeff MacKay) and one-eyed dog Jack, Cutter finds himself wrapped up in a game of international espionage when he accommodates bubbly headed singer Sarah Stickney White (Caitlin O’Heaney). Hitler has sent Nazi agents Monocle (Jonathan Hillerman) and Willie (John Calvin) to the area to find the location of the fabled Gold Monkey, a 100-ft statue made of impervious gold. Willie, who poses as the local priest, has teamed with Princess Kogi (Marta DuBois) to double the effort to find this precious metal that they want to make into indestructible bombs for Der Führer. What they don’t know is that Sarah is actually a U.S. spy and that unaware Jake will do whatever it takes to save the dame.

Produced by MAGNUM P.I. creator Don Bellisario, TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY is actually a project he had developed for years. But like ALIVE, it took the success of RAIDERS for Hollywood to see that it was a viable (i.e. $$$) idea. Make no bones about it though; they were definitely hoping to snag that Indy audience. One need only look at the opening scene where two Nazis (played by Norbert Weisser and a young William Forsythe) get their brains bashed in by some crazy monkeys. So, yeah, we had Nazis in search of a precious artifact, but its different because they added Japs too! TALES did manage to set itself apart though, thanks to some unique characters, witty scripts and great performances by the cast (Ron Moody was replaced by Roddy McDowall after the pilot). Particularly engaging is Collins, who could have taken the easy way out and done Harrison Ford-lite but opts to make the Jake Cutter character more freewheeling. There is also a lighter tone (the Nazis only die, they don’t melt and explode) with some deft humor including a running gag of eye patch wearing Jack the dog being pissed that Jake lost his glass eye gambling.

TALES featured solid production values all around, including some amazing sets and gorgeous location photography in Hawaii. Bellisario’s Hawaii-set MAGNUM P.I. was big at the time and RAIDERS was still in audiences’ minds, so this must have been a HUGE hit, right? Nope. The show suffered the same fate as ALIVE and was “one and done” after a season of 21 episodes (including the 2-parter pilot). Of course, programming it opposite ratings powerhouse DALLAS wasn’t the wisest move. If only Jake Cutter had shot J.R.! The series, however, made an indelible impression on young audiences, enough to create faded memories and warrant a DVD release of the entire season in June 2010.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

An Acute Case of Sequelitis: THE MANGLER REBORN (2005)

Some jackass talking THE MANGLER on this very blog a few weeks ago:

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.

Same jackass now:

Fuck me!

Of course, if it didn’t come through in my amazing writing, I was being facetious about the THE MANGLER REBORN sounding interesting. But this Video Junkie disease I have is strong and the next thing you know, I am clicking the “add” button on Netflix and the third entry in the MANGLER saga is at my door like some unwanted missionary. They come in, make themselves at home and then proceed to feed me the biggest pile of unbelievable crap for 80 minutes.

Since the events of the first film, the monstrous laundry press has been disassembled and auctioned off. Our lucky winner was Hadley (Weston Blakesley, a dead ringer for Paul Bartel), a handyman who irritated his wife by spending their savings on this “antique.” He rebuilds it in a room of their house (yes, the huge machine now fits into an 8x8 room) and – before you can say, “Feed me Seymour!” – he is feeding it human victims. One such victim is Jamie (Aimee Brooks), who is apparently having the worst day of her life as she was just fired, dumped and thumped on the head with a rubber mallet. To complicate matters, a father-and-son heist unit (Reggie Bannister and Scott Speiser, respectively) have staked out the house. Before you can say SAW (2004), everyone is trapped in this reinforced house with our killer and his infernal machine.

Before I begin my cynical dissection, I’ll give directors Matthew Cunningham and Erik Gardner (yes, it took two guys to make this turd) credit for trying to establish some ties between their film and the original. They could have gone the easier “Weinstein” route and just thrown whatever together and slapped the name on it faster than Clive Barker cashes royalty checks. Soak it up boys, because that is all you will get from me.

Now, I’m not as dumb as I look (trust me on this one). I don’t go into something like THE MANGLER REBORN and expect great things. But I do at least demand competent things (fussy, I know) and the two dudes who made this can’t even deliver capable filmmaking. Let me give you a couple of examples. Example #1: in the pre-title sequence, Hadley’s wife walks into his new mangler room and is killed for her busybody ways. When he kills her, the door she came in is clearly open in the back. So what happens next? This dynamic directing duo cut to a shot of the camera pulling away from THE CLOSED DOOR! Even worse, this is a recycled shot from earlier in the film’s first four minutes. Chilling…cue the SEVEN rip off credits. Example #2: my God, this one is classic. So the filmmakers decide to overlay their credits on some newspaper stories telling of the machine’s violent history. Yay, continuity! I can respect that. Until you see that they merely printed out the newspaper banner headlines on WHITE paper and GLUED them onto old YELLOW newspapers so it doesn’t even match! You’ve got to be kidding me!?! Don't believe me? Well, check this beauty out:

How insulting! You couldn’t be bothered to run that through the Xerox machine one time to make it look like a whole, real newspaper? It is as if they just didn’t give a damn. Example #3: the introduction of our thief characters. Our bungling burglar team is sitting in a black car in the very white suburbs. Following some Tarantino-lite banter (when will this trend end?), it is revealed our intrepid duo is sitting 15 freakin' feet from the house they plan to rob. Even worse, Bannister then changes into his faux UPS get up right there…in broad daylight! A blind neighborhood watch member could see these guys as they stand out worse than Anna Nicole Smith at a Mensa gathering. You two bonehead directors couldn’t find the time to shoot this in a separate location and then have them say, “Let’s go to work” and drive there or something?

No doubt if the filmmakers got a chance to defend themselves they would say they did the best they could with their (reportedly) $200,000 budget. Hell that is what the reviews from buddy-buddy horror news sites defend this shoddy film with as they call it “the best of THE MANGLER series.” Jesus, are you kidding me? To quote the inimitable Reggie Bannister from this flick, “You better wipe your mouth before you talk any more shit to me.” Look, Tobe Hooper’s flick is no masterpiece. It isn’t even good. But to say this shot-on-video hacksterpiece is somehow better than a film that actually features solid production design, good cinematography and decent gore is mindboggling. These filmmakers' definition of horror is squirting actors in the face with blood over and over and over. This one just reeks of what is so wrong with the genre. As horror fans we have to remember that guys like Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Peter Jackson (god rest their souls) did a helluva lot more with a helluva lot less. Of course, those guys had the extra component called talent. THE MANGLER REBORN is so bottom of the barrel that I’m seriously considering renting the in-name-only sequel THE MANGLER 2 just to get the bad taste out of my mouth. Yes, I'm being facetious. *Netflix* "Ding dong!" goes the doorbell.

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?”