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 27, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: WAR OF THE ROBOTS (1978)

Watching Alfonso Brescia movies is like being one of those women you always see on COPS. Sure her old man beats her like a rug, can’t hold down a job and spends all of his time hammered out of his tiny Neanderthal mind, but as the cops are hauling his shirtless, unbathed mass off in handcuffs, she’s there screaming and crying about how it’s not his fault, he’s a good man and you don’t know him like I do. Uh huh. Yep, Alfonso keeps me coming back for more punishment time and time again. I keep trying to quit him, oh I promise I do, but then I find myself paying good money for a second copy of WAR OF THE ROBOTS, a film that is without a doubt one of the worst in his toothgrinding repertoire. Hmmmm... check that. Second worst. Have you seen TURN... I KILL YOU (1967)? That one left a mark.

I keep telling myself that, like a most Italian filmmakers of the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was so prolific that the law of averages dictates that there’s going to be some hairy moments making it through his career and that even Fulci and Argento (oh, particularly Argento) have their resumes pockmarked with dire swill. If I keep trying I’ll hit on his unsung masterpieces! That's the plan, anyway. The sad part is that I think I hit that one masterpiece, ATOR THE IRON WARRIOR (1987), about a dozen films ago and I didn’t even realize it at the time.

WAR OF THE ROBOTS is Brescia’s second “modern” sci-fi effort and it’s easy to see how he actually grew as a filmmaker going forward. No, listen, STAR ODYSSEY(1979) is actually his pinnacle as a science fiction filmmaker. Someone actually had enough confidence in him to give him a budget large enough to actually build robots that look like, well sorta like, robots for that movie!

The film feels as if it was shot without a script for anything but a few key scenes and was improvised on the go, taking unexpected turns at every moment with previously unseen crises leaping out of nowhere as if Brescia kept discovering that he needed another plot device to get the movie to its feature length running time. The basic plot line is kicked into gear when a space outpost is attacked by a couple of guys in gold lame jumpsuits and Prince Valiant wigs (who as we will find out an hour into the movie, are in fact, robots). Apparently Brescia was so impressed with the effectiveness of this look that he used them for every damn sci-fi flick he did. They are like Luigi Cozzi's contamination suit guys. Except nowhere near as cool or, unfortunately, as violently combustible.

Looks like someone just saw the movie
After Captain Boyd (Antonio Sabato ) cryptically remarks that his girlfriend Lois (Malisa Longo) is spending a lot of time with the scientist and that she “could be in love with him… that crazy mind!” the glitter rock rejects kidnap Boyd’s woman (and the sci-guy) for seemingly no reason whatsoever. The captain hops in his space-car, fire up its gas powered V8 engine and tears off across whatever planet they are on to get into his fully manned spaceship and pursue the kidnappers. Of course that sounds more exciting than it really is because there is no real action here and we never even see the Captains hot-rod because they couldn’t afford anything more than a plexiglass dome that is supposed to be the top of the car! Man, I'm not one of them elitist jackasses that pisses on the impoverished filmmaker, but Al, buddy, work within you means fer chrissakes. Have the guy run through a "sci-fi" hallway or just cut to the freakin' ship!

"Doh! You sunk my battleship!"
Once in space the crew, pimped out in primary colored jumpsuits and what look like WWII flight helmets made of felt, chat amiably about romance and other insufferable topics. To break up the monotony, Brescia attpemts to rip-off the famous space walking scene from 2001 (1968), twice, except he has no money, so it’s just a guy suspended on a wire pretending to swim through space while the soundtrack features annoying electronica. To muster a little more “cool” into the first scene, Brescia has a close-up of the Captain upside-down pulling a circuit chip from a motherboard that is presumably on the side of the ship. Ohhhhh, computers! Sci-fi! Wait, the delicate computer circuitry are on the hull of the ship? Nobody thought this might be a design flaw? If you managed to stay awake for the interminable running time of that gag, you get treated to some “aliens” who must be blasted out of the sky (why? Because they are aliens! Duh!) using the same damn space ship shots Brescia uses in every one of his damn sci-fi flicks. Since the ship was damaged in the completely pointless battle, they are forced to land on, as the ships computer states, “a planet of no scientific interest”. Greeeeeeeat, this should be fun.

After forming an away… err, an “expeditionary force”, the crew discovers there are a race of oppressed blind people who live in fear of the golden guys from Anthor who come to their planet to steal their body parts to use to make their robots. "Damn, this is going to get badass", I hear you thinking. No. No, it’s not. In a moment of brilliance Boyd recruits their leader (who for some reason isn’t afflicted by the bug-eyed blindness of his people) to help them find the planet Anthor. How a dude who lives in caves and leads a race of blind men is going to find a freakin’ alien planet is beyond me, but whatever, he does. Once there and have walked around for an interminable amount of time, they are  captured by the Empress of Anthor who happens to be… the Captain’s squeeze Lois who is working in cahoots with the (evil) scientist and running an empire of uhhhh, what would have been cyborgs if they had invented the word yet. Of course, she makes a deal with the scientist that she will give herself to him, if he lets them go, because she’s still in love with the captain… awwwww… kill me now.

From here out it is one climactic battle after another, which may sound great, but oh man, it’s some rough stuff. The best scene in the entire film is one in which the Captain and crew battle a mess of “robots” by basically standing still and firing their laser weapons at a door way in which the gold dudes run out of before promptly falling over dead. No laser beams, no smoking holes in chests, none of that stuff. You don’t need it. Not even sound effects in a few shots. Just a few flash pots on the floor nowhere near the area that the shot was fired. Brescia actually found this footage to be so riveting that he would go on to re-use it over and over for subsequent interstellar cinematic atrocities.

To add a bit more flavor to the long sequence, the Gary Glitters are suddenly armed with glowing swords that are clearly intended to be light sabers, but again, Brecia can’t afford any complex special effects so he merely uses a camera cut when they turn on and are simply steel blades painted with reflective paint. Still, this is easily the most exciting moment of the movie, with mannequins gussied up with robot guts being dismembered with abandon. This trumps even the final dogfight which is done with borrowed stock footage and insert shots of the pilots heads in plastic bubbles that are supposed to be cockpits of their fighters! There’s so many things in the film that simply pop up out of nowhere that make no sense. When the crew are escaping they get a frantic call from earth that they need the codes (which are stored on a computer chip card thing) to shut down a reactor that is about to meltdown and destroy earth and the scientist is the only one who has them! Whaaaaa?? The funniest thing about this brief subplot and its totally ridiculous, but far too complicated to explain, conclusion is that it served as the basis for a retitle on a video release!

Yanti Somer with a skin-tight outfit and
bearing cocktails? Someone check his pulse.
All of this may sound great on paper, but trust me your loins will need to be well girded to sally forth into this. This is a long walk down somnia street and by the time you hit the final credits, you will be ready to hit the bottle. Speaking of long walks, that is one thing Brescia loves to feature. I can see him thinking “it’s action – they are moving their legs in a purposeful manner, AND it pads out my film! Awesome!” Yeah, I think that’s exactly how he said it. Add to that some of the most incredibly dull and uninteresting dialog of all time… no, you heard me. ALL TIME. Long scenes in which the smokin’ Yanti Somer is completely wasted as the girl who pines for the heart of the captain and is ridiculed by her shipmates including one guy who just. will. not. give. up. And really, that cool throwback score that's kinda like a poor man's Oliver Onions that you were kinda diggin' on in the opening credits? Yeah, you'll be ready to find a rifle and a clock tower if you hear another lick of it long before the movie is over. Honestly, you have got to be hard core to sit through this snoozer without being bludgeoned into submission.

Come to think of it, I’ve sat through it twice. Damn, I’m a fucking badass!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: THE BEAST IN SPACE (1980)

To quote the 80s band New Edition: “Peer pressure, you don’t have to follow their lead” (don’t ask how I know that).  Since my amazing review of STAR ODYSSEY (1979), I’ve had two friends tell me/taunt me that I should see Alfonso Brescia’s follow-up THE BEAST IN SPACE (1980).  Oh, damn it all to hell, I have a copy sitting right here.  Thanks Tom and Mark!

Captain of the Space Fleet Larry Madison (Vassili Karis) discovers a smuggler named Juan (Venantino Venantini) is in possession of the element Anatalium after they get into a bar fight over sexy Sondra (Sirpa Lane).  After Larry and Sondra get it on, she wakes him after having a recurring nightmare where she is being chased in the woods.  Damn chicks.  The Space Fleet determines this rare commodity came from the planet Lorigon. Naturally, Larry (haha, Larry) is picked to lead a mission into this area of unexplored deep space and, of course, Sondra is one of his staff in a crew comprised of 4 guys and 3 girls in the goofiest outfits imaginable.  Damn, 4 guys and 3 girls? Isn’t that a Joe D’Amato series?  Anyway, by my calculations, someone is going to lose out on this set-up in the sex department.

Almost at Lorigon, the MK31 ship is attacked by enterprising Juan and his men before the crew safely lands on the desolate planet.  Larry leads a group of 2 guys and the 3 girls on an exploratory mission and they quickly encounter a Big Azz Robot.  They run back into their ship but then decide they must brave their new environment, which looks suspiciously like the Italian countryside. Along the way they find themselves in a forest – exactly like the setting of Sondra’s nightmare – and encounter two horses copulating.  For some odd reason this causes everyone to stop (“Look at that!”) and the women all to get horny and touch themselves. The film then continues with no one mentioning the incident afterwards.  Uh, too much vino that day, Mr. Bradley?

The group eventually makes their way to the castle of Onaph, the sole human living on this planet.  He explains that the Anatalium decreases aging and that the planet and its precious resource are controlled by a super computer named Zocor that is protected by Golden Men (oh no, not those guys again!).  Anyway, he invites everyone, including shady Juan, to a big feast that turns into a running time hogging 25-minute orgy that ends with Onaph revealing himself to be half-man, half-hoofed animal that promptly rapes Sondra just like in her dream.  Everyone gets in on the sex action except poor Juan, but he saves his former foes by slipping them some pills to block Onaph’s hypnotic hold. The crew steals the Anatalium and battles the Golden Men before destroying Zocor.  Oh, and Sondra is raped by the Big Azz Robot for some reason.  WTF?

Brescia appears to have totally gone of his rocker this time. Instead of sampling STAR WARS (1977), this is an out-of-this-world sci-fi coupling of Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE (1979) and Walerian Borowczyk’s interspecies sex epic THE BEAST (aka LA BETE; 1975). Hey, you can’t blame him for not being creative.  All the stuff with Onaph and his “castle” is straight up Dr. Hans Reinhardt.  Hell, the guy playing Onaph even looks like an Italian Maximilian Schell. And Brescia isn’t subtle about ripping off THE BEAST either as female lead Lane was the object of desire in Borowczyk’s flick.  The sleaze factor has been significantly upped from his previous sci-fi outings as this film features tons of nudity in it. I’ll take that any day over the “comedic” styling of ODYSSEY’s robots of doom Tiki and Tili. At the same time, Brescia makes the nudity flat out boring.  That is quite a feat.

Regardless of upping the exploitation factor, Brescia still manages to deliver an incompetently made film.  Hey, you really didn’t think the guy was going to become a master in the year between this and STAR ODYSSEY did you? Tons of the same sets are used and I chuckled when the damn gold painted dudes in Lady Gaga wigs popped up again.  Brescia even reuses some of the same miniature effects shots in this film.  The fight scenes are still just as clumsy and there is quite possibly cinema’s worst thrown punch with a reaction caught on film (special thanks to Mr. Tinta for telling me to keep an eye out for it; see below).  Severin DVD should be commended for making this film look as well as they did.  They actually released two versions – an unrated one and a XXX one that has penetration inserts.  For the first time in my life, I’m glad I DIDN’T see the XXX version as the penetration into my brain was painful enough.  This frame grab about sums it up:

Nope, not even close!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: STAR ODYSSEY (aka METALLICA; 1979)

You don’t need me to tell you that STAR WARS (1977) changed the movie industry forever.  And you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know the Italians would be cranking out carbon copies of that film quickly in the hopes of confusing audiences and reaping some of Lucas’ blockbuster success.  Titles like STAR CRASH (1978) and THE HUMANOID (1979) hit theaters quickly in the hopes of catching some of that newfound sci-fi fever.

One of the first Italians, however, to start digging at that Lucas mine was Alfonso Brescia.  Under his delightfully dull pseudonym Al Bradley (isn’t he on 60 MINUTES?), Brescia churned out the first Italian STAR WARS rip-off in BATTLE OF THE STARS (1977).  Original title, eh?  He returned with two more sci-fi titles over the subsequent years.  WAR OF THE ROBOTS (1978) was the second one and featured Antonio Sabato, Sr. in the lead role.  The loose trilogy of sci-fried madness wrapped up with STAR ODYSSEY (1979), an absolute mess that will have you begging for a SyFy Channel movie after all is said and done. Yeah, it’s that bad.

STAR ODYSSEY opens in the distant future (we know this because doors slide open with a “whoosh” and everyone wears TREK-like jumpsuits) as evil Lord Kess zooms toward his latest purchase, the planet Earth.  Kess, whose gold face looks like it has been pressed on a waffle iron, plans to enslave the population of 10 billion earthlings and sell them off to the highest bidder. Hey, he didn’t blow his 100 million credits on Earth for nothing.  What he didn’t count on was these pesky humans not being keen to the idea.  Earth’s laser cannons are primitive against Kess’ endurium (?) fused force field, but we have a trick up our sleeve in psychic Professor Mauri.    

This about sums STAR ODYSSEY up
Mauri is visited by military official Lt. Oliver “Hollywood” Carrera (yes, Hollywood) to convince him to fight for humanity.  Mauri seems to know how to create some anti-edurium and this requires getting the old team back together.  He sends his niece Irene (Yanti Somer) out to recruit gambler/pilot/part-time psychic/old flame Han Solo, er, Dirk Laramie (Gianni Garko) to help bust two chemists, Shawn and Bridget, out of suspended animation prison.  In addition, Irene recruits boxer/gymnast Norman and his two robots Tiki and Tili. So they all head to a villa in the woods (really) to work on this stuff. Kess, who snaps onto Mauri’s psychic wavelength, sends his army of robots to kill but they fail to execute the team.  And since the team has just finally stabilized the anti-endurium, you know what this means – wars in the stars!  Or, more accurately, lots of footage of some cheap models zooming around getting zapped.  You've probably made more impressive space battles as a kid.

The feeling is mutual
Good lord!  What did I do to deserve this?  STAR ODYSSEY is quite possibly one of the most mind numbing sci-fi flicks I’ve ever seen. If Brescia is the mad chef behind all this, it is as if he rummaged through the kitchen grabbing anything that said “science fiction” on it and threw it into his big melting pot (“Thisa science fiction? Into-ah de pot!”).  This flick manages to lift not only from STAR WARS but other popular sci-fi mainstays like BARBARELLA (1968), BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (1978), FLASH GORDON comics and serials, the STAR TREK series and BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25th CENTURY (1979). Sure, they were probably shooting around the same time as BUCK, but I know they were riffing on everyone’s favorite robot Twiki.  Unfortunately, the final concoction offers none of the tasty morsels from the aforementioned films and ends up like a spongy looking steak you get slapped in front of you at Denny’s.  It kinda looks like the real thing but the mere sight of it frightens your innate “somethin’ ain’t right” sensibilities.  Just imagine what it does to your guts.

Brescia pretty much fails on every level here.  His androids are guys painted gold in blonde wigs that make them end up looking like an albino Emo Philips. His two robots, Tiki and Tili, look like they were crafted out of left over vent pipes.  And annoying can’t begin to describe this duo (you can tell the female one by the fact that she has eyelashes) as they argue about love, cheating with calculators and why they want to commit suicide.  Let’s just say that Tiki and Tili are no Twiki. Bee-dee-bee-dee-bee-dee.  Brescia’s aliens look even worse, like two drunken Italian guys were given $50 and told to head to the local costume shop. Seriously, check these aliens out. I’m sure Rick Baker started sweating when he saw the competition the Italians were bringing in the make-up field.  Seriously, who gave this the thumbs up on the set?

Even funnier are the miniature effects on display for the spaceships.  Now I know a horrid fullscreen transfer of a widescreen flick can bring forward more flaws in miniature work (we’ve all seen GODZILLA films on TV as a kid), but this stuff is wretched.  How bad is it? Famed UFO hoaxer Billy Meier took one look at it and said, “You expect me to believe this shit?”  Check it out:

To make matters even worse, about 30 minutes into the print I watched some reels are apparently shown out of order.  You get Dirk’s set up to the gambling hall scene where he uses his psychic powers to allow a hottie to win.  Even worse, it appears the film’s opening where Kess buys Earth at an auction is planted here.  What…the…hell? So the film opens with him heading towards Earth as he comments on his latest purchase and then we are show the purchase a half hour later?  If that doesn’t make you scratch your head, imagine the ending where the evil villain who wanted to enslave Earth’s population gets away during the finale while being chased by Shawn and Bridget.  The film’s last scene has him selling Earth for a huge profit that Shawn and Bridget want 50% of. Justice, yay?

On a related note, I’ve had an odd relationship with this film. Back in the mid-90s, I spotted it at a video store in San Jose, CA on the Mogul Video label under the title METALLICA. What? LOL! How could this movie not rule? Unfortunately, if memory serves me correctly, the clerk couldn’t find the video behind the counter and I was left METALLICA deprived. It wasn’t until recently that the bug to see this got to me again and I found it on Amazon for close to $50. Damn it! Well, a quick Google search showed it was available in tons of cheap releases under the name STAR ODYSSEY, so I scooped one up and finally (fatally?) got my fix. Even paying $3 for it hurt my sensibilities. So let that be a word of warning for all you junkies out there that might suddenly start craving some METALLICA. Stay away. I’m talking “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” away.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: ALIEN INTRUDER (1993)

A friend of mine once accused me of never watching movies, only re-watching movies. This is of course ridiculous. I’m constantly finding films that I’ve never seen before. Like this one!

Back in the late ‘80s direct to video features became a real, viable avenue for low-budget indy filmmakers. Horror hit it big in that venue, but there was a niche to be filled in the action department, and Rick Pepin Joseph Merhi, and George Shamieh decided that they were the ones to fill it. California based PM Entertainment, in the tradition of Roger Corman and Earl Owensby, owned their own studio lot did all of their casting in-house and unlike anyone else, specialized in low buget, fast-paced action films that sported jaw-dropping physical stunts, car chases and gasoline explosions, most of which rivaled what the majors were bringing to the multiplexes via green screen. Because of this, we here at VJ have waxed poetic about their cheapo productions for years… well, maybe not today.

After stumbling across the trailer for ALIEN INTRUDER on another PM flick, I was gobsmacked. How could I have missed this one? A space-based action/alien flick with Billy Dee Williams in the lead? Copies of the long OOP DVD were being offered for upwards of $90! So I threw down for a $5 VHS tape. The anticipation mounts, the tape arrives, a burn is made (gotta watch it upscaled, right?), and a beer is cracked. Let the awesomeness commence! Oh fuck me. Which is worse? The fact that you have totally forgotten that you’ve seen a film that you were excited to see for the first time or the fact that said film totally sucks?

In a spaceship that is spinning (literally) out of control, a group of space dudes armed with laser-rifles, shotguns and flamethrowers are killing each other over a woman in the bowels of the ship… or rather a dimly lit warehouse. Seriously? You couldn’t even pony up for the el cheapo cliché of an abandoned refinery? Once the last man standing (Jeff Conway, throwing down f-bombs faster than laser beams) realizes that he has just been a pawn in the scheme of some computer-generated tart in a red pleather miniskirt (Tracy Scoggins), he bites down on the end of his gun and sets up our rather flimsy plot.

Cut to the prison ship Alcatraz where Commander Skyler (Billy Dee Williams silently stating that Colt .45 does not in fact do the job every time) is recruiting his own rather clean half-dozen to go on a dangerous mission into deep space to find out what happened to the crew members of the ship of nutballs. Clearly they would be risking their lives on such a dangerous mission. Their incentive? Freedom! When that goes over like a fart in church, Skyler pulls out the big guns: free porn. No, really. He offers them free virtual-reality porn adventures on the weekends, they all cheer and our team is formed! Where’s a Steven J. Cannell theme when you need one?

This movie is filled with moments that make you go “Huh”? First off, “Skyler,” really? That’s the name of the frickin’ paperboy in Beverly Hills, not Mr. NIGHTHAWKS (yeah, you thought I was going to go Lando, didn’t you?). Plus, one of his cons is actually attempting to escape the prison ship while he is conducting his interviews. The prisoner has dug out the back of his cell wall (yes, the prison ship uses poured concrete cell walls) and has tunneled out of the prison, scales a stone wall, navigates the barbed wire at the top and… Yeah, I know, I know, it’s a space ship! Sure they could have stone walls in a space ship and I’m sure once you get over them, you’ll probably find a lifepod. C’mon, work with me here. Hey, look, I don’t know why they have barbed wire on top of the 20 foot wall when inside the prison they have freakin’ flesh-searing lasers instead of bars. Maybe it’s in the process of being renovated and they just haven’t gotten to the walls yet. Anyway, once caught outside of the walls, Skyler decides this time is good enough as any to interview his potential candidate who was sentenced to life imprisonment for blowing up a pizza joint. Or maybe he is trying to solicit his *ahem* “temporary companionship” with some of the worst pick-up lines ever. I'm not entirely sure.
Skyler: “You like to blow things.”
Con: “Not as much as I like to fuck!
Skyler: “I bet you like to do that a lot.”
Con: “Heh, heh, well what do you want? I got a dick with a will of iron!”

The only thing I can figure at this point is that this was originally written to be a straight up porn flick that somehow managed to fall in the hands of the PM guys who figured they could turn into an sort of R-rated snoozer. That really doesn’t bear fruit as the writer, Nick Stone, wrote a couple of scripts for them, including the family oriented MAGIC KID 2 (1994). Hell if I know what the thought process was here. Once on the ship, though, we realize that these virtual porn simulations have nothing to do with porn at all, even though the prisoners once outside of them, act like they do! One fantasy plays out as a western, one is a CASABLANCA-style noir, another is a ‘50s JD biker flick and the last one is a beach romance. In each one of these fantasies, our virtual reality vixen pops in and screws up the fantasy by annoying or sometimes killing people… in rather unexciting ways. These lackluster fantasies are intercut with daily routine of a long voyage starship (ie prisoners standing around bullshitting each other) while Billy Dee sits in a small room playing hunt n' peck with a keyboard while looking suitably concerned. This is pretty much the way the rest of the movie plays out with bits of completely ludicrous dialogue spackled in the holes:
Craig: “Did you have fun in the ‘50s?”
DJ: “Have ever ridden a Harley?”
Craig: “No, but I just rode the shit out of a bathtub!”

In the end the cons run around trying to kill each other over the bewitching VR vixen and finally the sole survivor manages to set the ship to self destruct and hop into a lifepod at the very last second. Oh, I’m sorry, was that a spoiler? It's not much of one and seriously, you won’t care. After all the build-up for this being a sci-fi action flick in the opening scene, there is almost none. After all the build-up for this being a sci-fi T&A flick, there is almost none. Yes, even the seductively named Ms. Scroggins, who, quite frankly, is less attractive than the other VR girls, doesn’t even peel out of her skin-tight outfits, except in one scene that is in complete darkness.

The worst thing about this movie is not that it was a PM film that didn’t deliver, hell, they made so many in such a short amount of time, that the law of averages dictates epic fails along the way. No the worst thing is that they actually set up a pretty damn cool idea with Billy Dee Williams in the lead, moments of absolute sprained brained dialogue and then just let it fizzle out without much excitement. If you had our VR predator actually killing people off in creative, gruesome ways, some of PM's legendary action setpieces and maybe a lot less padding, you'd have a damn fine waste of time. As it is, it's just good for a few amusing YouTube clips (which YouTube has seen fit to delete - sorry).

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.