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, September 4, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: RAIDERS OF THE MAGIC IVORY (1988)

You gotta love the Italians! Much like the aforementioned Cannon outfit, they were quickly churning out carbon copies of any film that hit it big. In fact, they’d been doing reproduction productions longer than Golan and Globus, starting with peplum films in the 1950s and spaghetti westerns in the 1960s. And they were smarter in that they didn’t waste millions doing it. By the time the late 80s arrived, the Italian film industry was in downturn but companies were still kicking out knock offs.

One such outfit was Fulvia Film. Founded by Fabrizio De Angelis (aka Larry Ludman), Fulvia is probably best known for providing funds for Lucio Fulci’s horror films in the early 80s. But De Angelis wanted that pasta money so he provided the film world with a wide variety of imitation movies including post-apocalyptic flicks, shark flicks, Vietnam flicks, and karate kid flicks. Given his propensity for imitation, it is surprising that he entered the Indiana Jones sweepstakes so late in the game with RAIDERS OF THE MAGIC IVORY (1988).

IVORY opens with mercenary Mark (Christopher Ahrens) busting his buddy Capt. “Sugar” Rogers (James Mitchum) out of a Far East prison. Relaxing in their kimonos (*shudders*), our leads soon find themselves hired by Lee Chang, an old Lo Pan-looking mofo who wants them to procure a magic ivory tablet that is inscribed with his family names. “It is of no value for you occidentals,” Chang says before telling them it is located in a jungle area that roughly translates into “hell from which no one returns.” Sounds promising! Convinced by hundreds of thousands of reasons, the treasure hunting team soon heads into the jungle with native guide Tao. The mission gets off to a bad start when they encounter rebels and Tao turns on them and our heroes are strung up and tortured. D’oh! But Tao pulls a double cross and kills the rebels. Crafty one, this Pao.

Anyway, they find the temple, which is guarded by guys in strange monkey masks who seem to be impervious to bullets and grenades. They sneak in and – as cinematic law dictates – find everyone in mid-ritualistic sacrifice of an attractive young lady. The leader is a guy who – I kid you not – looks like he is wearing a European Father Christmas mask (see pic). Our soldiers of fortune quickly snag the ivory tablet and save sacrifice fodder My Lai (Clarissa Mendez). The cult leader throws up some mystical hocus-pocus to try and stop them, but lovable Sugar sees right through it (“It’s just some kind of bullshit, man!”) and they bolt to the rendezvous point. Arriving at the waiting helicopter, they are double crossed by Tao, who splits with the treasure. Yes, this makes him a double-double crosser! Naturally, a guy named Sugar does not take double crossing lightly and our trio trek back to Chang’s place. Seems Chang’s ulterior motive was to rule the world (sucker) and the tablet will allow him to be immortal. Our trio attack the compound guarded by ninjas and My Lai is shot in the chaos. As she lies dying, she informs Sugar that only he can stop Chang because he is the “sacred keeper of the celestial peace.” Yup, apparently God left that little detail on the shoulders of a forty years plus alcoholic named Sugar!

Running a scant 84 minutes (including 3 minute end credits), RAIDERS OF THE MAGIC IVORY is a pretty weak effort on all levels. Director Tonino Ricci (under his Anthony Richmond pseudonym) is definitely second string when it comes to Italian exploitation directors. If you can’t get Fulci, D’Amato, Castellari, Margheriti or even Mattei, I’m sure you can get Ricci. He delivers so-so exploitation films that never match the delirious heights set by his contemporaries. I believe his name translates properly into Fred Olen Ray. Not a lot happens here and you end up digging for your own entertainment. For example, the ninjas seem to brandish automatic weapons at one point but later only have swords when it comes to the final fight. Surprisingly, the best part of the film is when they lay on the Indiana Jones shtick thickest and I wish they had done more of it. Yes, I’m admitting I wish this rip off ripped more off. Even the title is a riff since the original Italian title is PREDATORS OF THE MAGIC STONE. The temple bit is the best portion of the film, thanks mostly to the set design by Mother Nature. Yes, the highlight of this film for me is some real life caverns.

Actually, I take that back. I think Mitchum is pretty damn enjoyable, but in a train wreck kind of way. He proved to be the highlight in the wild HOLLYWOOD COP (1987) and steals what show there is to be stolen here. You’ll laugh when he says “call me Sugar” to the villain when they first meet. And take note of all the times he is seen onscreen with a drink in his hands. I’m willing to wager that ain’t prop alcohol. In fact, he sounds/looks wasted a lot of the time. But this makes his line delivery funnier and he always seems to be mouthing off. I’m sure 90% of his dialogue is off the cuff. Physically Mitchum looks pretty rough. His face is so bloated, haggard and puffy here that he looks more like a member of the Keach family than the carrier of the Mitchum family name. I’m sure his brother Chris was very disappointed to see his brother’s cinematic output in the 80s and lack of Lanky White Kung Fu on display. He does get to throw out some boxing hooks in the final showdown though before he makes the lead baddie disappear in a puff of smoke. How? Because he is the keeper of the celestial peace! Co-lead Ahrens is pretty much a stiff here, but I can forgive him because he went on to be the villain in Bruno Mattei's SHOCKING DARK after this. Also, take a gander at the art for this flick and tell me how that is supposed to be either of these guys.

If you have any interest in seeing this, IVORY can be easily found in the Video Asia MERCS set. It is pretty amazing as this bootleg outfit took a Japanese VHS release complete with glitches and forced Japanese subs and just put it onto disc. For James Mitchum completists only!


Friday, September 3, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: CLEVELAND SMITH - BOUNTY HUNTER (1982)

With great silliness comes very little responsibility. Particularly if you are in your 20s and are Sam Raimi, Josh Becker, Scott Spiegel and Bruce Campbell.

Armed with a super 8 movie camera Raimi and company made a fistful of legendary short films including the infamous short film WITHIN THE WOODS (1978) that became the basis for what I still believe is his best film, THE EVIL DEAD (1981). Many of these films have not been seen due to Raimi's legion of legal buzzards who used to swoop down and attack anyone who even breathed a word about them. Sam Raimi himself claimed during his few public appearances back in the old days that he did not want them to be seen. Period. This was presumably due to rampant copyright worries (that should have been easily shrugged off as "parody") and a surprising amount of good old fashioned Midwestern xenophobia.

In 1982, Scott Spiegel and Josh Becker wrote and directed what has to be the first RAIDER'S OF THE LOST ARK parody this side of MAD Magazine. Starring suitably attired Bruce Campbell as Cleveland Smith, the film sets the tone by having Smith strike a match and peer around in darkness only to burn his fingers. Cleveland navigates some skeletons to grab a pair of rubber pants and is promptly chased by a giant rolling boulder... that squishes him to it and he rotates with the boulder in glorious miniature. He is also chased by African native headhunters (as imagined by white suburban kids from Michigan) who throw spears at him. This sets off a series of stumbles and fumbles the likes of which Bruce Campbell is known for and has sort of parlayed into a career of sorts.

Leaping from brontosaur cranium, escaping Nazis and quicksand, smashing into trees and dropping into cannibal cauldrons are all in a days work for Cleveland Smith. Being a well rounded adventurer, in order to save himself from the soup tureen and fellow adventurer Sally (Cheryl Guttridge) from the cannibal chief's bed, Cleveland whips out a Groucho Marx ventriloquist doll and scares the head hunters off with a plethora of bad Henny Youngman-style jokes.  Just when you think it couldn't possibly get any sillier, the cannibal chief, "Big Daddy" (is that Sam Raimi in blackface?!), rolls up in a Caddy and says "Weeell, whats do we got heeere?" Ummm... some more politically correct viewers might wonder the same thing. While even the early '80s were more enlightened than this, it's still goofy enough to be not terribly offensive, unless you or a loved one are actually an African cannibal headhunter, in which case I would suggest not watching the film.

Of course no Indiana Jones mockery would be complete without a scene where Cleveland faces off against a sword-wielding foe. "Taste leather, sword man!" says Cleaveland as he whips out his whip, lashes himself around the ankle and allows Campbell to do his patented one-man flip routine. The cannibal, busy swinging his sword around, falls into a dozen pieces. The film finishes up it's cartoon-influenced tomfoolery with Smith avoiding an obvious trap only to plummet over a cliff, at which point Sally says "I guess he really fell for me".

Loaded with bad jokes, questionable humor, a multitude of pratfalls, goofs and one-liners, this may not be the greatest thing to be born out of RAIDER'S mindblowing sucess, but it moves so fast and is over so quick, it's a pretty damned entertaining diversion for those born with a deficit of attention span.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: FIREWALKER (1986)

If there was a hot commodity at the box office, you just know the Cannon boys were close behind. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus seemingly made a career out of riding the coattails of popular culture in the 1980s. CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) is big? We givvva ewe HERCULES (1983)! Breakdancing has the entire nation body lockin’? We givvva ewe BREAKIN’ (1984)! So it is no surprise they saddled up for some Indiana Jones action. Their first foray was the 3-D adventure TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS (1983; see review here), which featured Tony Anthony doing his best RAIDERS riff. Next up the clever Cannon collaborators went pre-Indiana Jones by doing up another adaptation of KING SOLOMON’S MINES (1985; review forthcoming), which featured Richard Chamberlain as H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain. Neither one set the box office on fire, but that didn’t stop the Go-Glo duo from financing FIRESTARTER, er, FIREWALKER, an Indiana Jones-esque vehicle for their contracted star Chuck Norris.

FIREWALKER opens with treasure hunters Max Donigan (Chuck Norris) and Leo Porter (Louis Gossett, Jr.) being chased by some Arabs in dune buggies in the desert. Captured and left for dead, the duo escape thanks to one of the funniest product placements ever. Back in a seedy bar in the U.S., Max and Leo are conscripted by Patricia Goodwin (FLASH GORDON’s Melody Anderson), who has a map that she knows leads to ancient Indian treasure. And we are off! Our trio hit up Tall Eagle (Will Sampson) for some cliché Indian history on the legend of Firewalker before heading to Central America to find the treasure. How do they know where it is? Patricia sticks a ceremonial knife in a map while drunk. I’m not kidding! So they head down to the land of Mesoamerica, but don’t know they are being followed by El Coyote (Sonny Landham), a one-eyed baddie who wants to sacrifice Patricia so he can get the power of Firewalker.

No joke, there are THREE people credited on this film for coming up with that story which could fit on a napkin. I wonder if they watch it today with friends and lay claim to the bits they contributed. I hope not because most of this is really, really bad. Things happen with no rhyme or reason. For example, let’s look at the opening. We have no idea why these guys are being chased and who this mysterious General is who threatens them. Is it too hard to add a bit of him taking a treasure they found or an expository line of dialogue? It would help since they have him pop back up in the last shot for a possible sequel. All we get is “he’s bad, they’re good, now shut up and watch!” Another example is El Coyote (watch his eye patch change sides) who has mystical powers that can transform a snake into a woman to seduce Max. But he only uses the powers once successfully. He tries later when he is ten feet from our heroes in the bushes but stops. I got one for you, El Coyote. How about you kill them in their sleep and kidnap the girl with the map then?

Like the earlier reviewed JAKE SPEED (1986), this is also filled with terrible comedy. How bad? One gag has Norris and co. dressing up as priests to sneak onto a train and – wouldn’t you know it – someone needs their services! So there is a bit where they argue who is going to give last rites to a man who has been shot. Nothing says comedy than someone doing goofy Latin over a dying man with his bawling wife nearby! I will give credit though to whoever came up with an odd bit of dialogue when they arrive at Tall Eagle’s place. The leads – with whiskey in tow, naturally – catch him watching an episode of I LOVE LUCY with Lucy giving Desi hell. “If she were mine, I’d cut off her nose,” says our supposedly benevolent Indian mystic. When the biggest laugh you get from me is a throwaway weird line, you know your comedy is not working.

Bad comedy is one thing but it gets even worse with poor delivery. Norris had been a steady box office draw for Cannon thanks to action flicks like MISSING IN ACTION (1984), INVASION U.S.A. (1985) and THE DELTA FORCE (1986). This, however, was the first time he attempted full blown comedy and let’s just say that the stiff Norris is not up to the challenge. You’ll notice right off the bat that his character is meant to be “charming” (hell, they even have him declare it later in some dialogue) but it is like watching your Uncle try to do Shakespeare. “Stoic head kicking badass who occasionally makes a pithy one-liner” is a far more suitable career path for the personality deprived Norris. Some folks argue that Norris is basically poking fun at his tough guy person, but that is total crap. This is a concerted effort to make him into a witty action hero a la Harrison Ford and it fails miserably. Matching his awfulness blow-for-blow is Louis Gossett, Jr., just a few years removed from having won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN (1982). He is really awful here to the point of irritating. I’d feel sorry for him, but this is a guy who chose JAWS 3-D (1983) as his next picture after OFFICER (quick side note: Michael Caine did a similar feat a few years later, unable to accept his Academy Award for HANNAH AND HER SISTERS because he was busy filming JAWS: THE REVENGE).

Matching the terrible acting is the shabby direction by J. Lee Thompson. Thompson was a veteran, having directed plenty of epics including THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1963), so it is odd to see him deliver such a flat and disjointed film that has all the visual flair of a TV movie. Make sure to take note of one of the terrible score too. And for an action-adventure film, there is actually very little action onscreen. You get Chuck throwing a kick here and there, but a majority of the screen time is filled with, well, nothing. It is funny because Norris’ character spends a lot of time telling stories of past adventures and you wonder why those elements aren’t here. Where are the cannibal jungle tribes? The killer crocodiles? The car chases? If you are going to rip off Lucas and Spielberg’s flicks, at least copy the best parts. For example, when they reach the temple of gold at the end, they just walk right in! If there is anything the adventures of Dr. Jones have taught us, it is that cinematic explorers should expect a) booby traps and b) their worst fear waiting for them. Instead, we just get Max and Patricia waltzing in like they own the place. The filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to add any suspense to the proceedings, as it they are saying to the audience, “You got a freaking temple and gold, what more do you want?” And they are definitely trying to rip off RAIDERS. How do I know? They cast freaking John Rhys-Davies, Sallah from RAIDERS, and he gets a prominent (and pointless) role midway through the film.

Not surprising, FIREWALKER came and went in less than a month in the fall of 1986. What is surprising is that Norris didn’t stop comedy cold turkey and actually went on to top the awfulness on display here by making TOP DOG (1995), his entry in the time honored “cop and dog” subgenre. Take that Louis Gossett, Jr.!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: JAKE SPEED (1986)

The post-RAIDER’S feeding frenzy really hit its apex after the release of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM. At the time this was considered an epic fail of major proportions following the superior in every way, RAIDER'S OF THE LOST ARK, but now we look back on TEMPLE with misty-eyed nostalgia. It’s amazing what a truly horrendous modern sequel will do for your perspective. TEMPLE OF DOOM was released in May of 1984 and recouped its $28 million budget in its first weekend with more than a little change left over. By October of the same year it had pulled in over six times that number making it a certified blockbuster, quality be damned! Interestingly a high-profile Indiana Jones knock-off actually beat TEMPLE OF DOOM to theaters one month. ROMANCING THE STONE was released in April of ’84 with a high-profile cast and crew and a much lighter, freewheeling tone courtesy of writer Diane Thomas who died in a car accident shortly after seeing her first screenplay produced. Budgeted at $10 million it only recouped half of that on opening weekend, but became a sleeper hit and went on to make over 7 times its budget by October. This means that technically, in spite of pulling in $100 million fewer dollars than TEMPLE OF DOOM, ROMANCING THE STONE was every bit as successful.

Since ROMANCING THE STONE was a certified hit (and yes, there is a remake slated for next year), you can see what looms on the horizon… Yes, it’s Six Degrees of Indiana Jones! In May of 1986, New World pictures released what they were sure would be their big cash-in on the post Indy craze. While I can’t seem to find any info on the budget, it certainly wasn’t huge, but it was probably more than the paltry $1 million dollars it pulled in on its opening weekend. To be fair, 1986 was a banner year for Hollywood films with so many instant classics battling it out that there was no way JAKE SPEED wouldn’t get trampled underfoot. With TOP GUN, COBRA and POLTERGEIST II already in theaters and films like BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, ALIENS and, errm, MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE looming on the horizon, JAKE SPEED needed to bring it, not sing it. It didn’t.

The premise is essentially some bon à rien French people (are there any other kind?) have kidnapped a cute, blond college girl for a white slave ring. The government is talking and stalling and generally being ineffectual (is someone still bitter about the Carter administration?). The girl’s sister, Margaret Winston (Karen Kopins), is distraught and her grandfather (who you know is kooky because he wanders around in his bathrobe while the rest of the family is dressed up and having a rather elaborate dinner) suggests that she call on Jake Speed to solve her problems. Margaret discovers that ol’ grandad’s Jake Speed is an action novel hero (remember those “book” things?). Margaret is so overwrought that she decides to pass on a cocktail party where everyone is dressed up as their favorite animal… except her and her friend. After receiving a cryptic note via the bottom of her friend’s shoe, and seeing a plethora of advertisements with the word “speed” in them, Margaret hikes up her shorts and heads to a seedy dock bar to meet book author Desmond Floyd (Dennis Christopher) and his legendary subject, Jake Speed (Wayne Crawford). After much pushing and pulling the duo convince Margaret to go with them on an adventure and rescue her sister.

The movie is flawed at its very core. Director and star, Andrew Lane and Wayne Crawford, respectively, wrote a screenplay that lifts the “writing a novel” element from ROMANCING THE STONE and tries to turn it into THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), but can't seem to figure out how to make it work. Most of the film takes place in small sets that are supposedly in Africa and hints are dropped here and there that Jake Speed might actually be a fictional character and that Desmond may actually be writing the adventure that they are living as they live it. These hints are few and far between and as much as I enjoy some solid ambiguity, these hints are so vague and intermittent that there is not even enough data to formulate a hypothesis on why certain things are happening. I firmly believe that JAKE SPEED set the groundwork for the much more successfully handled LAST ACTION HERO (1993), which actually treads some of the same ground but lets the audience in on the joke. In LAST ACTION HERO, Danny knows that the house is going to blow up, both cops are dead and Jack will be unscratched. He knows this because he’s seen the movie he’s living in and the audience knows this too. In JAKE SPEED, Desmond knows that an armored vehicle drop should take place at a certain spot, but we don’t know why or how he knows that. Is it because he wrote it, or is it because their services extend beyond themselves and Desmond actually is simply writing a book about their adventure? Who knows? I'm not sure if even Lane and Crawford did.

The flaws in the script, such as the weak sexual tension, shrill banter and “city girl in the wild” theme that apes ROMANCING THE STONE, are really only second to the flaws in the casting. Wayne Crawford’s weak-kneed portrait of an action hero manages to generate a staggering deficit of charisma. There isn’t a moment where you think that this guy could chew bubble gum, much less kick ass and his delivery of the dialogue is so limp that throws Kopins’ over-the-top histrionics into sharp relief. To paraphrase the only brilliant quote to ever grace the lips of one Roger Ebert, “an action film is only as good as its villain.” Here our villain is plopped into the thinly plotted story during the last half hour of the movie, he doesn’t even make a cameo or is even referred to until two-thirds of the movie is over! Back in the day when it was a novelty to miscast John Hurt, here he makes up for the complete lack of character substance by doing the hambone, grinning, cackling villain routine, who randomly shoots people instigating “comic” scenes where his fussy gay brother obsesses not over the freshly shot corpse, but the blood that has been soaked into his priceless Persian rug. This scene has been played out so much better so many times before, even in 1988. And that brings up the other major issue; that Mr. Speed is fighting…

...bad comedy. The humor is so forced and badly delivered that there are points where you will either wonder why there isn’t a laugh track or wonder if that was really supposed to be a joke. The parts where you know it is supposed to be a joke is like the bit where the lead characters go into an African village bar and there is a short, obese woman doing a slow, pathetic imitation of Jennifer Beals’ famous scene from FLASHDANCE (1983). It's one of those moments that are probably better suited to a low-brow Asian comedy, but I'm sure there were lots chuckles in theaters at the time. Then there are scenes like the one where Jake tries to sell Margaret to the white slavers in order to follow them back and rescue both girls. The scene goes back and forth with Jake trying to sell her to two sleazy customers (one of whom is the mighty Ken Gampu) and Margaret, horrified, squeals, shrieks, slaps and finally resorts to exclaiming that no one would want her because she has “VD”! When one of the buyers asks “what kind?” she starts listing various venereal diseases and then finally says “all of them!” To which the reply is, “that’s perfect, so do I!” Wah-wah-waaaaaah! Man, lemme tell ya, it is a looooooong walk to that sorry-ass punchline.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there really isn’t much in the way of action to break up the lamefest. There quick snippets here and there. An exploding car, an exploding wall, but not really much in the way of action sequences. We are expected to sit though so many tedious character scenes, that the few minutes of action at very end of the film is way too little, too late. Even then, when we finally get our dramatic escape sequence, it's a pretty weak chase scene and it's pretty much like what you would expect from a syndicated TV show of the time. Though, I admit, no flowerpots were harmed.

While this movie has gotten a little bit of a following on video, it's still a pretty piss poor excuse for a third-rate Indy wannabe. Proceed at your own peril.

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.