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!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Z is for Zombie: BRAIN DEAD (2007)

Director Kevin Tenney burst onto the horror scene in the mid-80s with the very enjoyable WITCHBOARD (1986).  It was one of those “little” films that Fangoria pimped and turned in a modest box office (just over $7 million) back when these kinds of films could still play in theaters.  Tenney quickly followed it up with the horror features NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988), THE CELLAR (1989; where he was hired to replace the original director) and WITCHTRAP (1989).  They were all enjoyable, competently made and definitely serviceable little horror films.  However, the film that I hold as Tenney’s masterpiece is PEACEMAKER (1990). Doing the popular good alien/bad alien routine, this sci-fi actioner starring Robert Forster won me over with some incredible shootouts and stunt work that still impress to this day.  Do yourself a favor and check it out if you haven't already.

Sadly, Tenney’s prolific output (5 films in 4 years) dwindled in the 1990s with some routine stuff, including scripting WITCHBOARD sequels (one of which he directed) and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 3.  Even worse, the new millennium saw NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, his most popular title, scooped up for an awful remake while Tenney went years between projects. Thankfully, that all changed when he got the sci-fi horror zombie flick BRAIN DEAD off the ground.  You know you’ve got guts (or brains) to name your zombie flick that title in the wake of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece. The synopsis from the DVD:

Two escaped convicts, two lost hikers, a televangelist and his young assistant stumble into a deserted fishing lodge miles from civilization. The convicts capture the other until they discover the missing fisherman have been decapitated or turned into brain-eating zombies by a parasitic alien goo. Brain Dead is an independent, extreme, gory, cult zombie horror-comedy from the director of Witchboard and Night Of The Demons featuring state-of-the-art effects, gratuitous nudity, and laugh-out-loud humor.

Yeah, you can’t get more basic than that.  This is straight up EVIL DEAD (1982) territory and BRAIN DEAD is not going to win any prizes for screenplay innovation.  What it will win is my heart when you open a film with a guy getting a tiny meteor lodged into his brain, turns into a zombie and rips his fishing companion’s head in half like this:

Tenney’s zombiethon feels like the film he should have made right after PEACEMAKER.  Yet somehow he made this totally late 80s/early 90s feel movie in the late 2000s.  Tenney is clearly having fun here and that translates to the action on screen.  Pretty much everything you could want from a horror exploitation film is here.  You have gooey alien zombies and ultra-gory deaths (with 90% of the work being done with practical effects by Gabe Bartalos).  You have random nudity. And you even have some humor, most of which is delivered by lead Joshua Benton, whose delivery reminds me of SUMMER SCHOOL’s Dean “Chainsaw” Cameron. There is also a catfight and a surprisingly great acting turn by director Jim Wynorski as the Sheriff.  There is even one shocking bit (which I won’t spoil here) that would have surely gotten the film an X-rating.  It is refreshing to see an older filmmaker (Tenney was in his 50s while making this) be willing to push the envelope.  BRAIN DEAD isn’t going to change your life, but it will leave you entertained for 90 minutes with its focus on the three Bs (blood, boobs and beasts).  What more could you ask for?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #53: IT ATE CLEVELAND

We've previously covered producer Gene Quintano's work with Tony Anthony (COMIN' AT YA! and TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS).  After the screen-popping success of those 3-D features, Quintano felt he could step into the director's chair and, working again with Cannon, prepped the Godzilla spoof IT ATE CLEVELAND (aka GODZILLA VS. CLEVELAND). The first news I ever heard of this project came in a Fangoria from 1985 with this tiny blurb in a "Monster Invasion" news item discussing upcoming horror comedies:

The script was written by Dana Olsen, a struggling writer/actor who has previous penned IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD (1982) and the Greydon Clark slasher spoof WACKO (1983).  Okay, you had us at WACKO!  According to the excellent Japan's favorite mon-star, the "unauthorized biography" on Godzilla, the plot went something like this:
In the story, a dinosaur like beast (which is not called Godzilla, or any other name, in the script) is spawned in the depths of Lake Erie by toxic pollution.  It rises from the murk and rampages through (you guessed it) Cleveland, wrecking comedic havoc as it takes a crap on the highway, falls in love with a female reporter, battles the military and ultimately retreats back to its cesspool of a home.  Along the way, there were numerous sight gags, like obvious wires manipulating the tanks and planes, and an overhead shot of the monster revealing the bare ass of a stuntman hanging out the open back of the rubber dinosaur suit.
Oh damn, maybe I should take back my enthusiasm?  The same year Cannon ran the following full color ad in Variety announcing the project:

Damn, a huge dinosaur in sneakers wearing boxing gloves?  Yeah, I'm definitely lowering my enthusiasm to a "hey, it was the 80s so maybe something cool would have happened" level.

While at Cannon, producer Menahem Golan felt it would benefit the project if they retitled it GODZILLA VS. CLEVELAND. Amazingly, Toho Studios, pappy of the Big G, had a problem with this and lawyers laid a Godzilla-size smackdown. Interestingly, Cannon still was pimping the project in 1987 with this ad promising at 1988 start date.  Also note that Quintano and Jerry Lazarus now had co-writing credits.  It never got made (nerd trivia: MY AFRICAN ADVENTURE came out as GOING BANANAS).  Quintano recovered by writing POLICE ACADEMY 3 & 4.  He eventually made his directorial debut with the Christopher Lambert heist flick WHY ME? and then "blessed" the world with the lame LETHAL WEAPON action spoof NATIONAL LAMPOON'S LOADED WEAPON 1.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Vehicular Violence: CAR NAPPING (1980)

In 1974 a little, low-budget movie written, directed and starring one of Hollywood’s top stuntmen blew the hair back on audiences around the globe. An all-time favorite here at VJ, H.B. Haliki’s GONE IN 60 SECONDS can be accused of a lot of things, but boring it is not. Wrecking 93 cars and sporting a final chase scene that lasts and incredible 40 minutes, complete with twists to keep it interesting, GONE set the stage for a new genre of filmmaking. Everyone from Ron Howard to John Landis were profoundly inspired, as were countless other filmmakers of varying octanes.

One of the countless knock-offs is this West German film, originally titled ORDERED, STOLEN, DELIVERED (aka ESCAPADE); a very precise title, as is befitting the Germans. Starting out with shots of the prototype Mercedes CW-111 driving around a track and inexplicably cutting to a shot of our protagonist Robert Mehring (Bernd Stephan) driving around in a tastefully Polaroid striped Porche Turbo Targa 911 outfitted with a high-tech stereo system that stores cassette tapes in the dash. Oooooooh!

Loosely based on a true story, Mehring is a car designer who returns to his offices after a vacation only to find that his business has been liquidated by his unscrupulous business partner. After a testy, but unbelievably civil exchange between Mehring and his former business partner Benninger (Adrian Hoven, casually lounging with some topless girls on a yacht), Mehring finds his rather conspicuous Porche has been stolen. After miraculously finding the fence and the car thieves, he sells them the car to fund his as yet unplanned revenge scheme.
I’m sure this sequence of events made much more sense on paper. But wait, it gets better. Now, out of gratitude for not getting turned in, the main car thief Mario (Luigi Tortora) decides to recruit Mehring into their little GTA ring figuring Mehring can be the front man. Hey, Mehring just got royally screwed and has nothing but his CW-111 to his name, so what the hell? The score? 40 Porche’s in… well, this is Europe, so there is no real deadline, just whenever. In order to achieve this Mehring decides to pose as an obscure German Baron, Baron von Dahlberg so that he can scout out the nicest cars in Europe.

As it happens Benninger has a Porche dealership in France and the chase is, well, not on really. First the group decides in order to hone their skills and put their new partnership to the test they will boost 25 Rolls’ from a political reception in Germany and this leads us to our first major disappointment, one that will plague us for the rest of the movie. 25 Rolls Royce’s are stolen successfully, but we never even see it! No big suspenseful scene where a small army of car thieves try to silently and inconspicuously steal a freakin’ fleet of high-end luxury cars, no nail biting escape, nothing but a cut to a scene in which the protagonists congratulate each other. I don’t know about stealing cars, but that right there is just plain criminal.

The filmmakers decide at this point that we’ve just had too much excitement and what we now need is a romantic subplot to carry the movie though. Mehring meets  Claudia, a big business heiress and a lawyer who is currently trying to defend, wait for it… yes, a car thief. In a touching moment, Claudia’s Monteverdi is towed out in front of a restaurant and Mehring, prenteding to be the Baron, pretends to call the police, when in fact he’s calling Mario to tell him to return the car. Awwwwww… not a dry eye in the house.
Finally we get around to boosting the Porche’s and finally a little bit of car stealing suspense, this brief bit is cut away to a shot of a few of the Porche’s driving past the Arc de Triumph while two motorcycle cops… no, no, don't even think that. They just talk to eachother:
Cop 1: “Must be a rally or something.”
Cop 2: “Yeah, they never tell you anything around here.”

And that is really about it! Sure there is more romance between Mehring and Claudia. Sure there is a complication when Mehring is discovered. Sure there is a plot twist at the end that lets him get away (via a nice cameo by Adolpho Celi), but ummm… who cares? Yeah, it’s not the worst production, but it’s a little like making a slasher movie in which nobody gets killed or a movie starring a famous martial arts guy and then not having him get in any fights (*cough* Gary Daniels *cough*). I’m not suggesting that the producers trash the one-of-a-kind CW-111, but isn’t that why Citroens were invented? To be crash fodder for European action movies? I’m pretty sure that is the case.

As much as I love cars that I could never possibly afford to buy unless I went without food and shelter for over a decade, I’m not an expert by any means. When I started the movie, I kept thinking to myself, “dammit, I wish Jeremy Clarkson was here to give me some data on these cars!” Then I realized that after halfway through the movie I’m really glad he wasn’t because I would have had to listen to him piss, bitch and moan about the useless bloody German filmmakers and would have been held responsible for making him sit through a massive cocktease of a film that favors comparably to a pre ’78 Ford Pinto. Seems like a nice idea; a West German rip-off GONE IN 60 SECONDS, but it really didn’t take much to make it all go horribly wrong. Except here, they go wrong without a single explosion, airborne vehicle or even a dented fender. It just ain't right.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Deadly Farce: SAMURAI COP (1989)

Iranian director Amir Shervan wined and dined us with his gloriously insane and inept HOLLYWOOD COP (1987).  Little did we know that this disaster-piece was only the appetizer for the full course meal of craziness that would be his follow-up, SAMURAI COP.

The Media Blasters/Guilty Pleasures synopsis:

“The Katana gang is out of control in Los Angeles.  They’re involved in everything from gambling to extortion to drugs.  They’ve bullied their way to the top of the underworld through their unmatched brutality.  The police are stymied in their efforts to take the Japanese mob down.  The Yakuza’s code of silence is unbreakable and the police can’t bring any charges against them.  So they’ve brought in an expert.  Joe Marshal, nickname “The Samurai,” is an expert in Japanese culture and martial arts and if it takes a blood drenched street brawl to bring the mobster’s to their knees, then Samurai Joe is ready to RUMBLE!”

SAMURAI COP is the kind of cinema I live for.  An action picture so wrong headed and mixed up that it is hard to believe anyone kept a straight face while making (or screening) it.  The kind of movie that if you describe it to people, they think you are lying.  The kind of movie that has you getting and sending e-mails that say, "OH. MY. GOD!  You havvvvvve to see this flick."  It is a movie so bad that B-movie queen Melissa Moore leaves it OFF her resume to leave room for more respectable titles such as HARD TO DIE, EVIL SPAWN and THE INVISIBLE MANIAC. Heck, she even thought VAMPIRE COP was worthy enough to put on there.

Lead Matt Hannon, apparently a onetime bodyguard for Stallone, gives an incredibly one-dimensional performance, mostly relying on his hair to convey his emotions. The problem is apparently Hannon cut his hair halfway through shooting and is forced to wear the funniest dime store woman’s wig ever during huge chunks of the film.  The sheer fact that he fails to ever show a single emotion (outside of his hair) is a monumental achievement in itself.  The fact that no on set even bothered to mention this to him is even better.  I guess the producers felt his tanned and chiseled body (along with the aforementioned hair) would do all the talking.  But you know you have a problem when the male star’s swimsuit is skimpier than his female co-stars.

Of course, his co-stars help him along by maintaining the same level of stiffness. Only Matt Frazer shows some form of life, hamming it up incredibly as Samurai’s partner Frank Washington. You can tell that director Shervan walked out of LETHAL WEAPON II that summer with visions of SAMURAI COP dancing in his head.  Although the back and forth banter displayed here between partners consists of jokes about Frank’s butt (when Samurai isn’t making sexual innuendo jokes that is).  Robert Z’Dar, sporting a beard and referred to as a Japanese hitman (!), is relatively subdued when compared to his work in the same year’s TANGO & CASH (has anyone tagged both ends of the filmmaking spectrum like that in one year?).  The previously mentioned Moore and single named co-star Cameron (adult film performer Alexis Firestone) provide the requisite nudity.  Interesting to see Cameron adopt a more porn sounding name for her mainstream debut.  Not to be outdone, Shervan also allows B-movie vets Z’Dar and Okamura to show some skin, something I’m sure their fans have NEVER demanded.

Of course, the ineptness behind the camera is what really gives this flick its charm and nowhere is it summed up better than in this action scene.  From the stilted dialog ("Shoot! Shoot him! Shoot!") to the undercranked shots of the cars "speeding" through the streets, it is all pure magic.  Of course, exploding bushes also help:

Now that action scene is funny enough.  But check out how they follow it up.  One would assume the funniest bit is when Washington asks if the suspect can answer any questions and the nurse says, "No way, his lips are burned."  But Shervan follows that business up with one of the downright funniest and awkward flirting scenes captured in the history of cinema (with bonus points going to the cut aways to Washington's reactions):

My reaction at being unable
to find Shervan's third film
SAMURAI COP hit DVD courtesy of Media Blaster’s Guilty Pleasures line and is hosted by B-movie advocate Joe Bob Briggs. The film is presented full screen and looks in fair shape. To be perfectly honest, if it looked any better I might not have enjoyed it as much. Extras include a jaw dropping photo gallery and trailers for several other Guilty Pleasure titles. This marks the fourth DVD to feature commentary by Joe Bob Briggs and it is a great listen. He not only gives some great info on the various actors, but places the film in its proper context of late 80s “go it alone” low budget action filmmaking. You can tell Briggs really enjoys the film’s idiosyncrasies and he points out some great bits (like Cameron, whose job apparently is to say, “The boss is coming.”) In fact, the only thing funnier than his commentary is the movie itself so you have yourself a winner either way.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Deadly Farce: HOLLYWOOD COP (1987)

As someone who has worked in the video retail business for some years there are certain questions that pop up from time to time that are really freakin' annoying. My favorite is probably "is this movie any good?". Seriously, how am I supposed to answer that? Could you ask something a little more subjective? Unless it's a repeat offender (meaning they have been a customer many times before), there's no way for me to answer that question. Some folks think Jennifer Ansiton makes "good" movies. If this is the case, as The Duke once said, "I can do nothin' for you, son." So, is HOLLYWOOD COP good? Hell man, I don't know if it's "good", but I can tell you, this movie is freakin' great!

I'm a sucker for bad movies with bad actors portraying bad people. I've seen a lot of 'em and have some cherished favorites, but nobody really captures the essence of what bad movies are all about like writer-producer-director Amir Shervan. I haven't been able to track down much info on Shervan, but it appears that he is prolific in Iranian cinema and as far as I know has only made three English language films, HOLLYWOOD COP being the first, SAMURAI COP (1989) being the second and the tantalizingly titled KILLING AMERICAN STYLE (1990) being the last. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem as if KILLING, which stars Jim Brown and Robert Z'Dar, was ever released on video.

In an ode to truth in advertising the box copy does not lie. "Raping, robbing, kidnapping, killing... the action never stops!" the box screams. Damned if it ain't the truth! HOLLYWOOD COP starts out with a massacre on a farm in which a group of balaclava-clad mobsters kill everyone except blond mom Rebecca (Julie Schoenhofer) and her equally blond kid. After snatching the kid, they are thoughtful enough to leave a note explaining that they want their $6 million that the kids' father stole  from them and promptly skipped town with. The LAPD detectives are seemingly baffled by a case with more clues than complications so our blond mom decides to seek help from renegade cop John Turquoise (David Goss) who is recommended to her via a street vendor.

Turquoise, or as everyone calls him "Turkie," is such a loose cannon that he is causing his chief (a scene stealing Cameron Mitchell) heartburn and err... incontinence (dude, TMI, man, TMI!). After instigating a bloodbath during a brutal rape and robbery in which he kills all of the suspects, Mitchell, looking as if he is about to have a stroke, strips him of his badge. In spite of this, the local hotdog vendor with her heightened perception of human nature recommends him to our distraught mom in this profound exchange:

Rebecca: "Who is he?"
Hotdog Vendor: "He's Turk!"
Rebecca: "Who's that?"
Hotdog Vendor: "He's a cop!"
Rebecca: "He is?"
Hotdog Vendor: "He's a good cop!"
Rebecca: "Really?"
Hotdog Vendor: "Yeah!"

Good enough! That's all Rebecca needs to hear to take off with Turk to find the dead-beat dad, the $6 million and the precocious kid... with token black partner named Jaguar (Lincoln Kilpatrick, who clearly knows he is slumming) in tow.

In a scene of keen insight, we are given Shervan's idea of what a typical American schmuck would do with $6 million in stolen mob cash. When the dad is found he is sitting in a small suburban back-yard, dressed for a tennis match and sipping cheap liquor while a bunch of not-very attractive women dance about in bikinis to bad '80s dance tunes. Damn, if that's Shervan's dream come true, life must be real fucking tough in Iran!

Why Kilpatrick signed on to the production
Shervan packs this 101 minute epic with all manner of exploitation value including rape, decapitation, bloody shootings, nudity, boat chases, car chases, more shootings, more nudity, Pepsi product placement and lots of hilarious dialogue from some choice Z-grade actors including VJ fave Jim Mitchum and Aldo Ray. As if that weren't enough there is numerous attempts at martial arts fights in which Turkie and Jaguar lay out badass asian dudes bustin' out some mean kata with good ol' American haymakers and bent-leg kicks. Shervan understands that no proper American action film is complete without stunt work. There is one seriously painful stunt, which probably sounded easy on paper, in which some poor slob is supposed to get shot and fall out of a car window. After being "shot", he throws himself out of the car, but does so as the car is turning and doesn't get enough clearance resulting in a really painful looking fall that is exacerbated by the car's tire catching him in the back. Ouch!

Is this a "good" movie? Come on now, any movie in which the lead shows his bedside manner when the rape victim's husband is holding a machete to the rapists throat by saying: "Look mister I know this guy just fucked your wife, but he's our prisoner now, so how about backing off, ok?" has got to be called "good"!  HOLLYWOOD COP may not reach the dizzying heights of unintentional hilarity that Shervan reached with his follow-up SAMURAI COP. But it's close.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #48 - #52: Charles Band Unmade Empire Madness

B-movie producer Charles Band is a favorite around these parts.  Well, his early stuff from the 80s (PARASITE; METALSTORM) to his Empire years to the early Full Moon stuff.  Once he started going cheap on us and his productions, things fell apart quickly for both him and audiences.  Regardless, Band was a producer who knew his exploitation and target audience well.  Like his predecessor Roger Corman, Band would often get backing for a film based on nothing more than a catchy title with some equally eye-catching artwork.  Here are just a few of a plethora of titles Band had in the planning stages through his 80s company Empire Pictures.

#48 - CASSEX

One can only imagine what this might have been about!  Note that the credited writer is one Gregory Widen, who would hit it big a few years later with something called HIGHLANDER (1986).


This project started at Empire but never got made before they went bankrupt.  Band brought the concept over to Full Moon and promised a feature about the head-switching hero there.  Eventually facets of this concept entered into PUPPET MASTER IV & V.


Producer Irwin Yablans re-established himself as a genre force after HALLOWEEN (1978) with the Renny Harlin helmed PRISON (1988), which Band executive produced.  Apparently the duo planned on working on this feature and a two-page ad with a detailed plot synopsis hit Variety in the late 80s.  Fans of brownstone horror were no doubt disappointed.


This is an interesting project coming from Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo.  This writing duo had already supplied Band with TRANCERS (1985) and ZONE TROOPERS (1985), two of the more creative sci-fi efforts from Empire. JOURNEYS was also billed as Bilson's directorial feature after ZONE TROOPERS.  Unfortunately, the movie never got off the ground.


If you hadn't already noticed (how could you not?), Charles Band has some sort of weird obsession with little monsters.  I guess it started when GHOULIES (1985) brought him some big cash.  After that he went large on small horror.  Oddly enough, the lay out of this poster mirrors the first SUBSPECIES design from his Full Moon company a few years later (see below).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Halloween Havoc: HAUNTEDWEEN (1991)

One of the great things about being a Video Junkie is meeting folks who share your addiction.  Just when you think you have seen it all, someone will pop out of an alleyway and offer you a new fix.  Thanks to VJ fave Jon Stone, that is exactly how I entered the world of HAUNTEDWEEN (1991).  I’d never even heard of the dang flick until last fall where Mr. Stone told us about it being part of his Halloween viewings.  Naturally, anything that is can be described as “obscure slasher” is a must and I wasn’t disappointed.  And, yeah, I’m reviewing a Halloween themed flick in February.  Deal with it.

HAUNTEDWEEN opens in 1970 on Halloween night with teen Eddie Burber collecting entrance fees at a haunted house in his home.  Not wanting to miss out on all the fun, little Eddie sneaks into the house and scares a young girl, who accidentally gets impaled on a stick.  Eddie does the sensible thing and runs for help.  Ha, just kidding.  He grabs a nearby machete and chops her head off (???) before running out into the field.  His mom finds him and her plan is to split from the scene with Eddie before the authorities arrive.  Well, at least I know where he got his problem solving skills.



Cut to 20 years later and the brothers at Sigma Phi are in a bind.  They need to pay their national dues and opt to hold a party to raise funds.  It barely works, but fate deals them a nasty hand.  Seems Mrs. Burber died recently and Eddie (now BIG Eddie) decided the best course of action is to throw her body in the van and head for the ol’ homestead. The frat guys decide the Burber house is the best place to hold a haunted house to raise more cash and a little hell (no joke, Eddie was kind enough to show up and give them the key).  So they do a '80s house repair music montage before the haunted house is ready to roll.  Eddie has done his own work too, creating a “kill room” (he paints that term on the wall) where he will off frat brothers to the amusement/bloodlust of unsuspecting patrons who think it is all fake.  Why so angry, Eddie?

Kid killer kills girl on Halloween night and returns to his hometown 20 years later to start the killing anew?  Damn, that sounds so familiar.  Oh, I know!  John Carpenter totally ripped HAUNTEDWEEN off.  He saw it on video in the '90s and jumped in his time machine that all Hollywood people have to go back to the late '70s and try to make us think he did it first.  But I’m on to you, Mr. Carpenter.  Besides, Michael Myers is no Eddie Burber. Eddie can lift a guy up with one hand and impale him with a knife.  Oh, ripped that move off too, eh, Mr. Carpenter?

Seriously, HAUNTEDWEEN is one of the plethora of low rent slashers that flooded the market after HALLOWEEN (1978).  This one just came a decade or so late.  One-and-done director Doug Robertson appropriately follows the Carpenter model, but tends to bog things down with his own additions like a lame love triangle and a keg party completely lacking in fun.  The murders are plentiful in the film’s last 20 minutes and you have to love that Eddie had the good sense to adorn his “kill room” with posters and standees from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4, GRAVEYARD SHIFT II, PUMPKINHEAD and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2.  What sets this one apart is the location filming in Kentucky (John Carpenter’s home state). One need not look any further than the college cut up Hanks (Brad Hanks) to get a taste of that lovely Ken-tuhhh-keee accent. Just hearing him talk made my throat dry (“I got him.  I cooked him like one of mama’s home cooked biscuits. Son of a bitch!”).  I also love the end where Eddie’s van gets blown up in a HUGE fireball (by a shotgun blast to the backdoor) and then the final shot is of it revving up again and driving off in flames.  The end credits promised HAUNTEDWEEN II, but we never got it.  I imagine a sequel 20 years later with Hanks, older yet wiser and raspier, warning off a group of new college punks about the evil Eddie.  Of course, no one will listen and he once again has to save the day.  I will not rest until I see more Hanks!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Cinemasochism: AMERICAN CHINATOWN (1996)

I’ll give you a little peek into the behind-the-scenes machinations here at Video Junkie. Just how do we select the cinemasochistic classics we review? Sometimes it is a grand plan intricately thought out months in advance, like our theme week(s). Other times it is pure fate. For example, Tom decides to review MANCHURIAN AVENGER and I send him a quick e-mail expressing my admiration and condolences for jumping on that cinematic hand grenade.  A quick exchange occurs as follows:

Will: “I totally expect you to review Bobby Kim’s entire filmography.”
Thomas: “Whoa! Check out AMERICAN CHINATOWN, which he did with the director of NINJA TURF!”
Will: “I have that DVD sitting right here.”
Thomas: “Oh man! You should totally write that one up!”
Will: “Dammit!”

So it is like the fabled VJ Video Roulette with Tom playing the part of the Vietnamese guy yelling, “Mao! Mao!” as I push the DVD closer to my player.

AMERICAN CHINATOWN opens – I’m not kidding – with three cholos trying to rape Lily (Liat Goodson) in the back of their car by a well-lit graffiti wall (“The bitch liked it. She should be paying us!”).  No set up, we jump right into the scene.  Heroic Yong (Henry Lee) walks up out of nowhere, stops it and humiliates the gang by stripping them down to their underwear.  He tells Lily that she shouldn’t hang out in this area and he takes her to L.A.’s Chinatown to spend the money he secured off the would-be rapists. They hit up a burger stand run by Jim (Bobby Kim), Yong’s father figure and reformed gangster. Yes, you read that right.  They went to Chinatown and ordered burgers and a Pepsi.  Lily fancies Yong but he is a loner…a rebel…with a secret. Ah, such drama.

Yeah, seems Yong is some sort of 125-lb Korean enforcer for the local mob.  This is established in the next scene where he walks into the gang headquarters of Wong and beats everyone up.  After taking care of enemies, Yong screams, “Don’t fuck with Eric!”  Wait, who the hell is Eric?  We find out after the fight that Eric (Robert Z’Dar) is the head of a bunch of criminals and Yong’s boss.  Yes, a white dude runs the biggest gang in Chinatown.  Oh, did I forget to mention that Eric is also Lily’s older brother? Damn, Mr. Shakespeare, you sure can write up some scenarios.  So, as you can guess, overprotective Eric doesn’t take kindly to Yong liking his sister and kicks him out of the gang and stabs him.  But true love knows no bounds and Lily tracks down Yong, now working on a boat, and declares her love for him. They decide to move to Korea, but the very same night they plan on leaving they find out that Eric is in trouble with Wong’s men once again.  What’s a Yong to do?

So, yeah, this movie is called AMERICAN CHINATOWN and is about Koreans.  I guess AMERICAN KOREATOWN just didn’t have that ring to it?  They do cut away to shots of Chinatown every few minutes though.  Maybe they were betting on the viewing public utilizing the “they all look alike” theory and not giving a damn?  This movie almost seems like a collection of random scenes thrown together.  For example, after Yong takes Lily to the burger stand, the movie randomly cuts back to the area of the opening rape and two gangs are going at it.  We have no idea who these guys throwing down are and the end declaration of “you stay out of here or I’ll kill your mother, your sister and your dog” still leaves you with no answers.  Even funnier is the relationship between Eric and Lily. At one point she says to him, “How’s the search going for my real mother?”  Later Eric tells her that he found someone with the same name as her mother and Lily is so excited.  Then it is completely dropped and never mentioned again! Then again, this is the kind of movie where a villain attacks the hero with a knife, the hero spins the villain around and holds the villain’s hand with the knife to the villain’s throat and the guy continues to hold onto the knife as if he has no choice.  Open…your…hand…dumbass!

Of course, all of this would be forgivable had the film delivered good fights.  I mean, hell, director Richard Park made me accept 40-year-old Jun Chong was a high school student in NINJA TURF because he delivered in the fight department.  Not the case here. Just like there are no Chinese in this Chinatown, there are no good fights on display.  Lead Henry Lee seems to have sufficient moves but Park can’t be bothered to stage anything too complex.  You have to laugh when he does stuff like jump onto a wobbly table and tries to hold his balance. In fact, the film’s best performer is an eye-patch wearing villain at the end who looks like Al Leong’s ugly brother.  He does some great flips and stuff.  I guess I am easily entertained. Matching the poor choreography is some wretched acting.  Lee, looking like a 80s HK boy band reject, is awful and Goodson, who has a strange British accent, matches him move for move in terms of bad acting.

And I have to touch on the whole darn reason I watched this thing – Bobby Kim. Seemingly aged 50 years in the decade between this and 1985’s MANCHURIAN AVENGER, Kim is given little to do except limp around and spout off half his dialog in Korean (with no subtitles!). He does get to throw one of his trademark high kicks during the final battle but it is too little, too late.  If the film has any positive quality, it is in granite chinned Robert Z’Dar.  It is refreshing to see him not cast as the bad guy (although he is a criminal).  And I have to smile when he is the only genius to show up to a karate brawl with a shotgun.  Now when I am saying that Z’Dar is a film’s lone bright spot, you know something is definitely wrong.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Gweilo Dojo: THE MANCHURIAN AVENGER (1982)

If there’s one thing I like it’s a good western. Preferably a revisionist western with a twisting plot, oodles of visual style and gritty retribution. Films like DJANGO KILL (1967) and THE PRICE OF DEATH (1971), two completely different styles of films, use the western setting as a launching pad for stories and characters that are so far removed from the pre-‘60s cowboys and Indians archetype that they are not so much westerns, per se, as period pieces.

If there’s another thing I like it’s a Western-made martial arts film. Preferably with real champion martial artists and a completely ludicrous plot about world domination. Films like KILL THE GOLDEN GOOSE (1979) and FORCE: FIVE (1981) ape their Hong Kong counterparts but with totally anglo sensibilities, making them a breed unto themselves.

So what could be better than creating a Frankenfilm hybrid of the two genres? Sort of a Reese’s peanutbutter cup of exploitation films. You got a western in my kung fu! You got kung fu in my western! Two great tastes that taste great together, right? Sadly, aside from classics of the subgenre like THE FIGHTING FIST OF SHANGHAI JOE (1972), the kung fu western tends to be a good excuse to bungle both genres and THE MANCHURIAN AVENGER takes this unhappy trend to an all new low.
The basic premise of the film is that Joe (Bobby Kim, looking like he could start a career as Charles Bronson's stunt double) is returning to his home town in dirt-water Colorado after fleeing as a child. As we learn in flash-back, his father was murdered by an unseen man and his gang who were after gold. Upon returning, Joe finds that his brother and sister are now, some 25 years later, are being beaten and harassed by a local black-clad thug, Sam and his gang who are… yes, you guessed it, looking for gold.

On the coach-ride back home the stage is beset by Mexican banditos, or rather some community theater actors in Poncho Villa mustaches sporting what is unequivocally the worst freakin’ Mexican accents since master Mexicano thespian Speedy Gonzales graced the screen. Honestly, these guys are about as legit la raza as Jeff Dunham's Jose, the jalapeƱo on a stick. Naturally Joe kicks their asses while they stand there and stare at him. Right as they are ready to kidnap him anyway (because he must know where gold can be found), Joe whips out a throwing star and decapitates a rattlesnake that was within several feet of biting Diego, the leader of the bandits. Of course now Diego owes Joe his life and an uneasy bond is formed. “You, you are some kind of devil who look like a man. A man that fight like a lion!” exclaims Diego. Matter of fact his long-winded admiration of Joe’s fighting ability is repeated so often that there will come a point where you will be ready to hurl a throwing star at your TV screen the next time Diego shouts “he fight like a lion!” Seriously, how the hell would a Mexican bandit in the 1800s know anything about lions and their fighting abilities?

Upon arriving in town Joe discovers that his uncle has been killed by Sam’s men because (wait for it), they thought he had some gold stashed somewhere. Now Joe must avenge his family against Sam and his men by means of kicking them in the head while they practice the ancient white-guy martial art style of Standing-Still-and-Waiting-to-get-Hit. Turns out Sam and his men are merely lackeys for the local crimelord Master Cheng. Cheng, when not flaying the skin off of innocents with a straight razor, amuses children with magic tricks before bedtime. Since Joe is such a threat to a man who’s mystic martial arts can levitate objects and control the very elements (trust me, this sounds much more exciting than it really is), Cheng must send for reinforcements. His ace in the hole? A group of five badasses called The Four Winds, who dress in rags and live in a cave. Why are these five guys called The Four Winds? Beats the shit outta me. When Cheng’s lacky gazes upon the one with the neat neatly combed haircut, he stammers “Kamikaze, I am honored to meet you!” before comically fainting. You bet your ass son! That’s Bill Mothafucking “Superfoot” Wallace standing in front of you! ...pretending to have at least a shred of integrity.

This all leads to a showdown between Joe and Diego against Cheng’s men and The Four Winds. There are two climactic duels, the first being between Joe and Kamikaze which you’d think would be amazing. I mean, hell, this is what we have been waiting 80 minutes for right? Director Ed Warnick (of whom, inconceivably, this film is his only credit), takes what should be an easy score and fumbles it with extreme prejudice. Instead of tireless choreography allowing for exciting fight sequences, Warnick takes the easy way out and shoots all of the action from behind the attacker and the attackee, so that the performers can miss by a country mile and supposedly no one will be the wiser. In the end Kamikaze disappears in a cloud of smoke and Joe discovers that Cheng was the man who killed his father. But seriously, by this point you won’t give a flying crap, in the same way you won’t care that you never find out if anyone had any frickin' gold to begin with!

Yeah, MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE this is not, but it has the potential to be entertaining. While some kung fu westerns tend to faceplant by making the proceedings slapstick comedy, for the most part MANCHURIAN AVENGER plays it straight... I think. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. The acting is so amateurish, in a surprisingly unamusing way, that at times it seems like Warnick is trying to elicit laughs from the intentionally broken English of the Mexican and Chinese characters. At other times he is clearly trying to get laughs from Cheng's yellow-bellied (oh stop groaning!) lackey whose whiny cowardice is supposed to provide comic relief, but does nothing more than add to this film's extensive list of sins.

The movie is super low-budget with a bare minimum of sets and non-existant production values, and in spite of the R-rating has nothing except the shot of a removed hand to warrant this. Don't expect this Manchurian Joe to be gouging out eyes and ripping out hearts like Shanghai Joe. No sir. Just some reasonably impressive kicks that obviously don't come anywhere near connecting. Also, the day for night shots are so badly done that at times it is impossible to see anything at all. There's also no real visual style with scenes being a collection of close-ups that appear to be edited with a shotgun. All this would be forgivable if the film wasn’t so deadly slow paced. Warnick lingers on long shots of people slowly walking, sitting and lying still,  punctuated by dialogue flatter than Paris Hilton’s brainscan. In addition, for no other conceivable reason than to pad out the films running time, Warnick has a bit where Joe wanders out into the brush and has a five minute long flashback to scenes that we just saw! This excruciatingly monotonous concoction could still be elevated by some great action, but Warnick clearly doesn’t have the money or the patience for heavily choreographed action sequences delivering fight scenes that look as if they were improvised on the spot. It’s one thing to waste a perfectly good premise; it’s another thing to waste the awesomeness of Bill Wallace. That’s just criminal, amigo.