Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: The Golden Age of KING SOLOMON'S MINES

As much as some misguided people like to think that Indy’s father was a Scottish guy who looks remarkably like a British secret agent, a Russian submarine captain and err... a Spanish peacock, he was not.

The real paternal relation has to go to H. Rider Haggard. Haggard, born in 1856, was an English novelist and poet whose real life experiences in Africa while in his 20s led to a series of novels on his return to England.

Inspired by his own experiences in colonial Africa and the real life adventurers/explorers Frederick Selous and Frederick Russell Burnham, Haggard’s brother bet him that he couldn’t write an adventure yarn that would surpass the success of Robert Louis Stevenson's “Treasure Island” (1883), which was the contemporary, literary equivalent of STAR WARS (1977). Haggard wrote the novel “King Solomon’s Mines” intermittently over the next four to sixteen weeks, detailing the adventures of the best big game hunter and explorer in Africa, Allan Quatermain. After being rejected numerous times over a six month period, Haggard’s book finally saw the light of day in 1885 and was released with the humble ad-line "The Most Amazing Book Ever Written". Take that Bible! It was instantly successful, so much so that the publisher was unable to keep up with the demand. The bet was won and Haggard’s book was so influential as to pave the way for an entirely new literary (and subsequently film) genre referred to as “Lost World”, until recent years. Now we just call them “Indy rip-offs”. Cue muted horns.

Haggard’s novel was not only groundbreaking for its approach to the adventure genre, but had the unique perspective of being somewhat sympathetic to the indigenous peoples that he was writing about. His hero, Quatermain, refused to use derogatory slang toward the natives and claimed to prefer some of them to the company of white men. Pretty daring stuff for its day and going forward as well, since none of the film adaptations retained this character trait. Another element that was considered daring and that was excised from every film adaptation was the romantic angle between a rather self-sufficient native girl, Foulata, and one of the main white men that Quatermain is guiding, Captain Good. Even so, the romance is not exactly championed and Haggard kills off her character near the end as a way of solving this perceived moral quandary.

ALLAN QUATERMAIN (1919) was the first film adaptation of Haggard’s novel. Produced by a South African company, the only evidence that remains of the film is a few stills in the South African film archive as well as a few publicity print advertisements. Haggard himself attended a private screening of the film on Halloween (or All Hallow’s Eve) and wasn’t overly thrilled, writing in his diary “it is not at all bad, but it might be a great deal better.” If I had to guess, I would assume that his pushing of the racial envelope was probably dumped wholesale, though it appears from one of the ads, that the Foulata character might actually be in the film.

In 1937, on the 50th anniversary of the first publishing of Haggard’s novel, a second adaption saw the light of a projector bulb. Titled KING SOLOMON’S MINES, Quatermain (Cedric Hardwicke) is portrayed here as a fearless “white hunter”, except he is rather more portly than one would expect but he is graced with a fine set of whiskers, which we all know is the mark of a great adventurer. This version deviates from the novel in several ways, one of which, ironically, is to embrace the popular prejudice of the era; hatin’ on the Irish. Quatermain, while traveling through a small African town before setting out on a safari for Cmdr. John Good (Roland Young) and Sir Henry Curtis (John Loder), runs across an Irish father, Patsy (Arthur Sinclair), and daughter Kathy (Anna Lee), who are down on their luck as diamond miners and are looking for a ride to the next town. After much cajoling Quatermain grudgingly accepts them as travelling companions. When the daughter admits that her claims of having a dying grandmother was a lie, Quatermain replies “I know it was. I’ve met the Irish before.” What?! May your obituary be written in weasel's piss, ye bastrad! (yes, that was my best Irish brogue)

As they continue on their journey they come across a broken down wagon containing a dying Italian explorer ranting about the fabled King Solomon’s Mines. The Italian has a native named Umbopa (Paul Robeson) with him, who as it turns out is not his servant, but a man looking to go near the fabled mines for his own reasons. After Patsy finds the Italian’s map to the mines he decides to run off and find his pot o’ diamonds while Quatermain dismisses it as a fool’s errand. Umbopa and Kathy take off to follow Patsy on foot and after Good gets rather moon-eyed about Kathy and Curtis exclaims several wat ho’s for adventure old chap, Quatermain grudgingly (again) decides to make a day of it… or rather several weeks of it!

Surviving the desert and jungle of darkest Africa with amusing uppercrust English optimism provided by Curtis, the group finally catches up with Kathy and Umbopa and set off to find Patsy. One morning the party is discovered by a tribe of natives who witness Curtis removing his monocle and are so impressed with this that they, naturally assume, he is some sort of white god. Yes, H. Rider Haggard is the man to blame for this well used and embarrassing cliché, though in the novel he had Curtis fiddling with his false teeth. Close enough. After the usual worshiping of the white god we discover that the tribe is under the control of a witch doctor and Umbopa is the rightful heir to the throne. Of course Quatermain must right wrongs and run into the mines to save the ill-fated Patsy, while surviving the treachery of the witchdoctor.

In spite of the fact that it deviates from Haggard’s novel in a rather odd way, this is a surprisingly well aged adaptation. To be sure, some of the mechanics are considered very clichéd, and the several cheery “negro” song numbers (obviously tailored to Robeson's famous singing skills) are really embarrassingly dated, particularly since Robeson himself was one of the first civil rights activists. Even so, the pacing is swift, which is not something the other adaptations are known for, and the acting solid. Hardwicke’s interpretation of Quatermain is rather stoic and begrudging, but the always entertaining John Loder does a nice job bringing some comic relief to the proceedings with his dry satire of the English elite. Interestingly Umbopa is portrayed as an independent masculine figure with maturity and intelligence, unlike the two adaptations that followed. Granted you aren’t going to get multi-million dollar thrills out of this picture and some of the tribal segments go on way too long, but it’s still pretty damned entertaining over all.

In 1945 Columbia Pictures freely adapted Haggard’s novel into a 15 chapter serial titled JUNGLE RAIDERS. When I say “freely adapted,” I mean blatantly ripped off as the plot, characters and settings are all in place but have been tweaked just enough to omit crediting Haggard as the source. Written by the legendary George H. Plympton, this may be a bastard child and a bit backwards to boot, but it sure is a lot of fun.

A woman, Anne Reed (Janet Shaw), is searching for her missing father, Dr. Reed (Budd Buster), who travelled into some uncharted territory in search of a diamond mine. While searching for him she runs into Bob and Joe (Eddie Quillan and Kane Richmond), who have just left the military and were to hook up with Dr. Reed and set out in search of a rare plant that could be used to create a wonder drug more powerful than penicillin (pronounced “penn-IH-sul-un”). Unfortunately for the good doctor, he is being held captive by some ner-do-well’s at a local trading post who know that the plant resides near a hostile tribe of natives who guard the way to cache of treasure. For the most part the serial follows the adventures of Anne, Bob and Joe as they follow Dr. Reed’s presumed path.

Interestingly while the trappings are all African safari, the location is supposedly an island in the pacific and the natives here are idol-worshipping heathens, dressed in a weird pastiche of Arabian, Polynesian and American Indian inspired garb, talking like the Indians in westerns of the era! This last bit leads to some seriously wince-inducing (but damn funny) scenes where in the “hidden village of the lost Arzaks” some translation services are required when the doctor needs to tell the chief’s son that they need to head back to the car to get his doctor kit so that he can try to give the chief an antidote for his poison. The doctor’s assistant does so by saying “send men back to cars, get box, medicine man will help your father.” To which the witchdoctor and his cronies reply “naw, naw, naw” while shaking their heads. Phew! Good thing he is on hand to translate into the native dialect!

The serial uses King Solomon’s Mines as a springboard for all sorts of outlandish pulp silliness, campy cliché and cheap action without being too worried about making it a “serious film spectacle” as the studios would have wanted to do with the same concept in a typical movie format. As a result the episodes move at breakneck speed and are a real hoot in spite of all the obvious budgetary, errr… shortcomings.

Speaking of “serious spectacle;” 1950 saw the next adaptation, KING SOLOMON’S MINES, come to light as a grand epic in full color from MGM. At the time MGM was producing A movies with lots of serious drama or light comedy. With visions of Oscars dancing in their heads, they viewed King Solomon’s Mines as less of a ripping yarn of machismo, bravado and derring-do, but more of a sweeping epic drama with romance and intrigue set against the lush backdrop of the wilds of Africa.

Here screenwriter Helen Deutsch, inspired by the bickering, sexual tension of the screwball comedies of the ‘40s shifts around Haggard’s plot catalyst of Sir Henry Curtis’ search for his brother to boost the romance angle and add a strong (white) woman to the cast of characters. Here Sir Henry Curtis becomes the husband of Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr), a strong-willed woman who is determined to find her missing husband, who went searching for the legendary titular mines in the wilds of Africa. After having heard of the great Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger), she seeks him out and has her brother John Good (Richard Carlson)  implore him to take her on an expedition to find her clearly not-so-better half. Quatermain’s outbursts of “a woman?! On a safari?! No thank you!” fall on his deaf ears as Good manages to talk Quatermain into doing the job and leaving his pet howler monkey at home. Can you see what’s coming? Yep, this here is the trend-setting character device that would influence generations of adventure films to come, from the famous (and far more charismatic) pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) straight through to ROMANCING THE STONE (1984) and erm… JAKE SPEED (1986).

After setting out on their adventure, we are treated to quite a bit of travelogue footage that feels like it was nicked out of the archives of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, except we don’t get to see Jim high-tailing it away from a pissed off rhino with a dart in its ass. Also we get some rather unsettling footage of real safari kills that are pretty unpalatable these days. In between that we have lots of sexual tension between the two leads who, while being fine actors in other films, don’t seem to really muster the sparks of later efforts in the same vein. Granger certainly has the hair and a tan that came from the same bottle that Chuck Heston borrowed for A TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), he is not exactly rugged and the scenes where he’s supposed to look tough and brave while shirtless are pretty much snicker-inducing.

The real weak point of the film is the bizarre, totally xenophobic reworking of Umbopa’s character (here played by Siriaque). Gone is the strapping, whip-smart, exiled king, instead we have his character re-imagined as a painfully skinny, emaciated, seven-foot tall, spear wielding freak with his fro shaved into a crazy cross-breeding of a Mohawk and a pompadour. When the party stumble across him, they treat him with aversion and distrust, but decide to let him tag along because, hey, what could he do to the superior white man?

After a long trek through the desert, they finally come to the village guarding the mines and meet up with the witchdoctor usurper. Everyone in the village is skinny, tall and has the same weird-ass haircut, so you know Umbopa is in the right place. In order to get into the mines Umbopa must prove that he is the rightful heir to the throne by showing his scars and challenging the usurper to a duel. This duel is something to behold. Two of the frailest, tallest weaklings ever to do battle, badly faking it with an undercranked camera. It’s almost painful to watch. I say “almost” because the only thing more painful than that fight scene is the big, long, choreographed musical tribal dance number that follows!

Of course Quatermain and company get into the mines only to find Henry’s skeleton with a sword in its back and jewels in its hands, clearing the way for Quatermain to properly romance Elizabeth. While this entry resonated with audiences at the time and is fondly remembered by many, I feel this is a pretty weak adaptation. In addition to feeling that Granger is badly miscast, there is way too much time spent on stock footage of safari hunts and to make matters worse the film was shot 1.37:1, which doesn’t provide any stunning vistas, though MGM didn’t start shooting in scope until 1953. Even for the time there is little action, lots of talk and it seems far more interested in portraying the natives in a condescending light than even the 1937 version. Quatermain’s preference of some natives to white men is changed to a preference of some animals to men, mainly from the looks of it, his pet monkey.

Clearly Spielberg and Lucas were keen on this film in particular. Both are obsessed with their own ‘50s nostalgia and this film was a big one at the time, nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and winning two, one for editing and one for cinematography. Granger not only sports the necessary hero-shellacked hair, but a snap-brim fedora that looks mighty stylish and is clearly the inspiration for Indiana Jones. So now that we know what inspired them, the circle is about to be complete with Allan Quatermain borrowing a page or two from Indy's well used book...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: THE ARK OF THE SUN GOD (1983)

You knew this one was next, right? It must be safe to assume that HUNTERS OF THE GOLDEN COBRA was a success as nearly everyone from that film (Warbeck, Steiner, Collins, Margheriti) reteamed to make this modern day Indiana Jones-style adventure the following year. While not a sequel, it might as well be as leads Warbeck and Steiner are basically essaying the same roles. And, hear me out here, I seriously think Lucas and Spielberg ended up ripping this one off (more on that in a bit)!

Cat burglar Rick Spear (Warbeck) arrives in Turkey with his lovely lady Carol (Susie Sudlow). But this vacation is a combination of business and pleasure as Spear is there to steal an artifact from a Prince Abdullah (Aytekin Akkaya). Procuring his tools of the trade from Turkish contact Mohammed (Ricardo Palacios), Spear penetrates the building and safe with ease. What he doesn’t know is this was all just a test by wheelchair bound Lord Dean (Steiner) to see if Rick was the man for the job to retrieve the sacred scepter of Gilgamesh, which – go figure – is desired by a bunch of cultists. And what no one in the rooms knows is Abdullah is listening in on the conversation.

In order to find the hidden temple, Spear must convince Beetle (Collins), who went there with a professor long ago, to join him. This isn’t too hard as Beetle is an alcoholic and loves the sauce. And really, who better to lead you an unknown location in the middle of a Turkish desert than a drunk you find sitting on the waterfront? So Rick, Mohammed and Beetle take off, but don’t count on Abdullah having spies all over the desert. And, thankfully, Abdullah’s men have brought their Trans Ams to the desert so we get in some car chases. When Lord Dean hears Rick & co. are being stalked, he reveals he isn’t paralyzed (“How else did you think I could convince Rick to take the job?”) and sets off to assist with Carol and manservant Rupert (Anthony Berner). Yup, the only thing more pathetic than the initial archeological team is the back up! Will Spear be able to crack the ancient intricate lock system on the temple’s big ass golden door and retrieve the treasure before Abdullah’s men get to him? I think so.

Trading in the Philippines for Turkey, director Antonio Margheriti proves a location switch is no problem as this is just as entertaining as the previous HUNTERS. I’m glad to see they finally gave Warbeck a cool sounding name (Rick Spear vs. Bob Jackson), even if it sounds like a gay porn star sobriquet. One thing that cracked me up is Rick’s test mission is actually harder for him than the actual temple. There he had to whiz down zip lines and disable security systems. He just waltzes into the temple. Ah, I take that back, they do encounter one (ONE!) lousy guard who has some poisonous snakes in a pit and one (ONE!) poor tarantula. Margheriti does slip up once though with the use of easily detectable car miniatures for some of the chases. It is funny because a couple of years ago I was watching Bruno Mattei’s COP GAME (a knock off of the Willem Dafoe vehicle OFF LIMITS) and that damn train yard miniature car chase popped up again! So at least the Italians got double the worth out of that worthless bit. 

The reunited cast is good. Warbeck seems to be aiming for a more suave James Bond approach this go-round, even going so far as to mention a Bond actor (“Why didn’t you tell me this job called for Roger Moore?”). He tends to overuse the phrase “pussycat” though and even has his own specialty drink (Bacardi with milk and crushed ice!?!). There is also what I believe is a cinematic first where he commandeers a car with the “I need your car” line and then punches the innocent owner (carrying lemons no less). Freshly shaved Steiner, sadly, tones down the Brit shtick and Collins – looking like latter day Orson Welles mixed with Peter Lorre and Lucio Fulci – gets more of a chance to shine as the lovable drunk Beetle (pay attention to how his alcoholism leads to a major discovery). Spanish actor Palacios is the best of the new faces, giving us a rousing Sallah impersonation and even gets his disco dancing freak on. I was actually hoping for a more over-the-top villain, but Turkish actor Akkaya – previously in the mind blowing 3 DEV ADAM as a bootleg Captain America – is fine in the role.

Now, let’s look at my earth shattering plagiarism accusations. I mentioned in my HUNTERS review that there seemed to be an eerie similarity between that film’s lava temple and the one featured in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984). Well, certain things REALLY set off my rip-off radar in this one and, for once, it seems the big budget flick has cribbed from the imitation. When I first saw this one on VHS 15 years ago, I noticed there are quite a few similarities between it and INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989). Despite being modern day, ARK features a boat chase with Turkish guys (obviously the CRUSADE one is better). ARK also has a bit where the leads escape a fire via sewer tunnels under the city and encounters dozens of rats (CRUSADE used hundreds). ARK’s temple entrance is carved into the side of a mountain, just like the one in CRUSADE. And, finally, the film ends the exact same way with the temple collapsing and the ground cracking right between the villain’s legs! This is wild because ARK came out in 1983. Do I believe that Lucas and Spielberg saw this film? Absolutely! Someone in their entourage was quick enough to spot GREAT WHITE (1981; aka THE LAST JAWS) and have it litigated onto the shelf so I have no doubt someone watched ARK (hell, that title probably set off their lawyers) and reported back. Crazy to think that a RAIDERS imitation could end up influencing the big boys they were copying.

One final note about the film that irks me is I keep seeing reviews pop up that criticize the film for being cheap/poorly shot/low budget crap. I actually disagree with this. Despite the embarrassing miniatures, Margheriti was no hack and turns in a fine looking production with some nice design, great locations and fine camerawork. The problem is most people are seeing this though some shoddy fullscreen transfers (and probably comparing it to a movie with a $50 million dollar budget). The Italian DVD shows that the film has great colors and nice photography (check out the comparison below). No excuse for those pathetic miniatures though.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Pardon the Interruption! The Zombie Rabbit Award

Stop the presses! I know this break in our uh-may-zing Indiana Jones knockoff coverage will result in riots in the interwebs, but this is for good reason. The fine folks at Cinema Arcana and Schlockmania! have been kind enough to mention us with regard to the Zombie Rabbit Award. Thanks guys! We're glad to see someone is actually reading the blog and not just checking out the nekked chicks.

It also just dawned on us that this is a "pay it forward" award where you you list your top blogs. Of course, we don't read blogs but only look at them for the nekked chicks. Ha, just kidding, we are blind like Leo Fong. Seriously, here is our list in alphabetical order. The blogs below rock and everyone should check them out (and check out the two linked above as well):

*BAMBOO GODS AND BIONIC BOYS - Andrew Leavold is hardcore when it comes to Filipino cinema. How so? The man has a Weng Weng tattoo! Check out this amazing resource/database of crazy cinema from the Philippines. And check out his sister blog THE SEARCH FOR WENG WENG, which is all about his documentary that has morphed into the upcoming MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED.

*FASCINATION: THE JEAN ROLLIN EXPERIENCE - Pretty much the be all, end all for Rollin enthusiasts. Jeremy Richey runs a fine looking blog there (i.e. nekked chicks!) and is doing a thorough examination of Rollin's storied career film by film.

*HORROR 101 WITH DR. AC - Horror (duh!) reviews abound on this blog by HORROR 101 editor extraordinaire Dr. AC. Definitely check out his Fool's Views Haiku, where he breaks down the latest viewings in 5, 7, 5.

*KITLEY'S KRYPT - Technically not a blog, but a horror fan site on steroids! Mr. Kitley will feed your brain with horror info, reviews and convention reviews (check out his amazing piece on a 1988 Fango show). Then he will give you a good thump on the head with his weekly Mystery Photo. He calls it tough love. :-(

*TEMPLE OF SCHLOCK - A true inspiration! If you want the best ad scans, newspaper archives and obscure film info, this is the blog to hit. Chris Poggiali and Paul DeCirce's blog is filled with amazing stuff. Of special note is "The Endangered List," which profiles films that have fallen through the cracks of time (a feature that inspired our own "Never Got Made" Files).

*UNFILMABLE - Craig Mullins' one stop shop for all things Lovecraft cinema, which will forever be in our hearts for giving us our first internet shout out! Serious Cthulhu minded folk should make this a constant stop for all your news and updates on Lovecraft adaptations, big and small.

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: HUNTERS OF THE GOLDEN COBRA (1982)

As we mentioned in the RAIDERS OF THE MAGIC IVORY review, the Italians were quick to jump on the Indiana Jones bandwagon. To the best of my knowledge, HUNTERS OF THE GOLDEN COBRA was the first RAIDERS rip off to play in theaters, debuting in its native Italy in August 1982. Directed by proficient Antonio Margheriti (under his reliable Anthony Dawson pseudonym), HUNTERS is one of the best Indy clones to arrive, overflowing with action, humor and thrills from beginning to end.

HUNTERS drops the audience right into the action with a 20 minute prologue in the Philippines during 1944.  American Bob Jackson (David Warbeck) and Brit Capt. David Franks (John Steiner) sneak into a Japanese base to stop double agent Yamoto from absconding with a valuable property. With Yamoto escaping in a bomber, our heroes follow suit in a stolen Japanese fighter plane. When Yamoto’s plane goes down (he shot the pilots midflight – d’oh!), Jackson parachutes down to the wreckage. Once there, he spots Yamoto and the valuable they are after, a golden cobra statue. The glimpse is short, however, as Yamoto is killed by natives shooting poison darts. Jackson is hit by a dart and stumbles down to the river. Passing in and out of consciousness, Jackson sees the natives and their (naturally) gorgeous white queen (Antonella Interlenghi, billed as Almanta Suska), who takes the poison dart out of him before he floats down river.

Cut to a year later. Capt. Franks locates the (naturally) sauced Jackson taking in some cock fights. After a few “thanks for stranding me, pal” fisticuffs (watch for Steiner’s hilarious attempts to throw punches), Franks brings Jackson to a group of politicians who give him the history of the lost ark, er, golden cobra. Their mission – should they choose to accept it – is to locate this “sacred symbol of the Ay-moks” before a dangerous snake worshipping cult gets a hold of it. How dangerous is this cult? They have penetrated the service industry in the Philippines (as exampled by a machete wielding water boy)! Jackson accepts but wants (naturally) double the fee. Along the way, our exploring duo reluctantly pick up Julie (Interlenghi again), the twin of jungle queen April, and her uncle Greenwater (Alan Collins aka Luciano Pigozzi) as they head back into the jungle to find this valuable treasure and (naturally) encounter danger at every turn.

If you are looking to get your Indiana Jones facsimile freak on, this might be the best place to start. This film really moves with barely a lull in the action. Margheriti is the consummate craftsman and knows he won’t be able to match the big budget thrills of Lucas and Spielberg. But he works amazingly well with what he has and tries to set his imitation apart. Instead of getting shot-for-shot replications, we get similar scenes done up Italian exploitation style. For example, wouldn’t it have been better if the guy shot with poison darts in RAIDERS had one sticking out of his detached eyeball? Or when Indy is receiving the lecture about the ark, wouldn’t it have been better if it ended with a machete swinging cult member attacking him before he is shot 10 times? Just the sort of stuff the Italians do to spice things up a bit. The only place Margheriti slipped up is in not recognizing that – per Italian exploitation film law – the white jungle queen is supposed to be topless. One thing I find really interesting is the similarity between the lava surrounded temple in this and the one in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984). Hmmmmm.

The New Zealand-born Warbeck is great in the lead role. Having previously traipsed through the jungle for Margheriti in THE LAST HUNTER (1980), Warbeck is an affable and natural lead who combines the best of Jones with a little bit of James Bond flavor too. You can’t help but laugh at his delivery, like when Steiner saves him from a snake pit in a hilarious hat and he quips, “Where did you get that hat?” Steiner really plays up the stuffy Brit role and is a hoot. You could have a drinking game for every time he said “jolly” or “old chap”, but viewers would die of alcohol poisoning by the 45 minute mark. I also love how he just walks into Warbeck’s room during a fight and shoots everyone dead. How does he know Warbeck didn’t start a fight with some busboys over lousy tipping? Warbeck and Steiner just have a great on screen rapport, which is probably why Margheriti re-teamed them a year later in the similar Jones-infused adventure THE ARK OF THE SUN GOD (1983).

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: The "Never Got Made" File #31

As we mentioned in our TV show coverage, the success of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK gave long developing projects a new lease on life. Here we look at one unrealized project that was announced before RAIDERS hit theaters that, despite a shift to a more Jones-ian style advertising, couldn’t get made.

TERRY AND THE PIRATES was a popular comic strip created by Milton Caniff in the 1930s. The daily strip followed the Far East exploits of one Terry Lee, who is initially seeking gold and encounters a myriad of villains over the comic’s astounding 39 year run (1934-73). Over this period, the popular panel was adapted into a radio serial (1937-48), a 15 chapter Columbia film serial (1940), and short-lived television series (1953). Naturally a feature film version seemed a viable feature and the following ad appeared from AVCO-Embassy in a 1980 Variety (look familiar?) that even takes a dig at box office hit SUPERMAN (1979):

The company seemed very high on the project with various press releases in Variety touting a budget vacillating between $8 to $11 million dollars. The always present “international cast to be announced soon” invariably showed up, but the only names ever officially associated with the project in print were D.O.A. (1950) scripters Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene (as producers). Both men had not done anything since their late 60s D.O.A. revamp COLOR ME DEAD (1969). What is interesting here is the ads run circa 1981/82 when RAIDERS was getting big that took a more Indiana Jones-esque style:

Sadly, the project never materialized as AVCO-Embassy got sucked into the corporate film world and became Embassy Pictures Corporation. Given the popularity of pirates today thanks to the PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN series, I’m surprised no one has opted to make this nowadays. Then again, it is probably a) caught up in some legal mess and b) harder to find anyone who knows what TERRY AND THE PIRATES is.

Box Office magazine article (Sept. 18, 1978):

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.