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!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Clonin' The Barbarian: Cinematic Copies of the Cimmerian

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, 
and to hear the lamentation of their women.

- CONAN THE BARBARIAN dialogue or Video Junkie mantra?

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. We are actually diving into another one of our patented Video Junkie theme week extravaganzas (and by “week” we mean a minimum of 14 days).  We’ve officially done blind guys (Blind Vengeance), a horror author (H.P. Lovecraft), eye-popping cinema (Revenge of 3-D) and a nearly soul crushing, face melting Spielbergian journey (Dr. Jones I presume?).  We think we’ve fully recovered enough from that last outing to once again dip our toes back into the cinematic wading pool of rip-offs.  And, like Indiana Jones, we’ve settled on another early 1980s cinema icon that is known worldwide – Conan the Barbarian!

Conan, the dark-haired warrior who worships the God Crom, was the creation of writer Robert E. Howard in the 1930s.  The first published work featuring Conan was “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which appeared in an issue of Weird Tales in December 1932.  The short story focuses on Conan the Cimmerian – master of war – being ill at ease with the political duties of being King of Aquilonia (he strangled the previous chair holder) and some assassins attempt to dethrone him.  The character proved to be popular with Howard serializing sixteen more adventures over the next four years before his untimely suicide in 1936 at the age of 30. Howard left behind four completed stories (published posthumously, bringing the tally to twenty-one) and four uncompleted drafts.

Of course, we should focus on how this character journey from the pages of a pulp magazine to the big screen. Howard’s works were collected in the 1950s and published in seven hardback volumes by Gnome Press.  The first five volumes had Howard’s stories (including the debuts of previously unpublished ones) while the last two featured new and/or rewritten Conan stories by other writers.  No doubt these volumes fell into the hands of future filmmakers and spurred their imaginations. Now if I had to lay my money down on what was truly the impetus of Conan getting to the silver screen, it would be the paperback issuing of Howard’s work beginning in 1966 by Lancer Books (and later Ace when Lancer went out of business) and lasting over a decade.  Not only did these put Conan’s adventures in chronological order (with, again, other writers providing new stories), but the releases featured cover art by Frank Frazetta that would become synonymous with the invincible barbarian.

In addition to the Howard stories receiving mass publication, the Conan character got more exposure via the world of comic books.  They are like books on steroids! Marvel Comics unveiled the Conan the Barbarian series in October 1970 and then parlayed that success into The Savage Sword of Conan, a more adult-oriented magazine, in August 1974.  No doubt this popularity amongst the kids (and the rise of popular sword and sorcery role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons) convinced Hollywood producer Edward Pressman that this was a viable commodity and he bought the rights to the Conan the Barbarian character and stories in the mid-1970s.

Pressman officially began work on the Conan film project in 1976 as he recruited Conan comic writer Roy Thomas and Ed Summer to write a screenplay adapting some of Howard’s stories into a big screen adventure. The duo was unsuccessful so the duties fell to Oliver Stone.  Stone’s work retained a lot of the Howard universe, but was deemed far too expensive to make.  Soon newly-attached director John Milius was on to collaborate and the duo did not get along.  Gee, a gun nut with a military fetish (Milius) not getting along with a guy who actually fought in a war (Stone)?  Shocker!  Anyway, Milius did a massive rewrite on the film, which was now a project for some scrawny geek who won Mr. Universe named Arnold Schwarzenegger. The rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN arrived in theaters in May 1982 and made just under $40 million dollars in the United States.  Not bad for an R-rated flick with an unknown in the lead.  The film has easily stood the test of time and is now considered an absolute classic.  It also effectively launched not only Schwarzenegger’s career (sorry California!), but the sword and sorcery genre, the modern day equivalent of the Steve Reeves HERCULES flicks where brawny men had no problem taking their broad swords to a variety of men and beasts.  And you know if something is popular with the public that the imitations are going to come fast and furious.  Like the earlier sword and sandal or spaghetti western genres, it appealed to greedy producers because it was cheap and easy to replicate.  All you really needed were some swords, a natural location (forest or rock quarry, preferably) and a big muscle-bound guy in a loin cloth.  CONAN THE BARBARIAN rip-offs began appearing in the very same year and ran the gauntlet from great to WTFville.  So join us as we attempt to swim in the carbon copy cinema of everyone’s favorite Cimmerian.  Hopefully we don’t drown in “lakes of blood.”

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cinemasochism: SHE (1983)

“This isn’t about sense.” – She (Sandahl Bergman)

You can say that again, sister!  We’ve previously covered the various film adaptations of H. Rider Haggard’s seminal adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines.  But the man also provided another work for cinematic fodder in She: A History of Adventure, the story of explorers who locate a lost kingdom that worships female goddess She in the deepest of African jungles.  The story initially debuted in serialized fashion and has been adapted for film no less than eight times, with the 1965 Hammer production starring Ursula Andress and Peter Cushing as the most well known.  Of course, if I had my way, you all would be worshipping at the altar of 1983’s SHE, a mind-melting “adaptation” of the source novel. In short, SHE rocks!

SHE takes place in a post-apocalyptic world (we assume) twenty-three years “after the cancellation.”  Wanderers Tom (David Goss, later of HOLLYWOOD COP infamy), Dick (Harrison Muller, Jr.) and Hari (Elena Wiedermann) – yes, those are really their names – arrive at what looks like a Renaissance Fair flea market where folks sell such in demand items as Corn Flakes and Mountain Dew.  The awe at such amazing products doesn’t last long as the vicious Norks, led by Hector (Gordon Mitchell), pillage the village and kidnap Hari in the process.  Rule #1 in post-cancellation world – don’t trust guys in football pads that have a Nazi swastika painted on them. And be wary of Gordon Mitchell with highlights.

Tom, looking to save his wounded friend Dick, steals a horse from fair maiden She (Bergman) by knocking her off it and rides into the local town looking for help.  Of course, they don’t realize they just rolled into She’s kingdom and both men are quickly drugged by a lady and made into slaves.  She the Goddess seems to enjoy torturing men and makes Tom walk blindfolded through a series of spikes. She leaves him for dead, but doesn’t know they are somehow linked together through some mystical story that some old lady in a cave tells She after she kills some warriors who pop out of boxes. Anyway, Tom is saved by an old hermit with lots of dogs (isn’t that always the case), who tells him the only She knows the way to the Nork headquarters.  Looks like we’re gonna have a good ol’ royal kidnapping.  I wonder if they will hate each other, but then learn to work together.

So Tom returns to the city of She, frees his friend Dick from a pigsty, and the duo then abducts She.  Damn it, Mircosoft Word, I want She capitalized.  Stop bugging me.  The trio immediately encounters trouble as they are captured by some chainsaw wielding mutant lepers who put them in a big trash compactor. Shandra (Quin Kessler), She’s right hand woman, saves them at the last minute and Tom and Dick are slaves again.  But She feels a tinge of sympathy for their plight and lets them go.  Then, inexplicably, She and Shandra decide to join them on their quest to save Hari. Why?  Because She said so!  So their journey begins with increasingly odder encounters with every step that include werewolf cannibal yuppies, psychic cult leader Godan, a big oaf in a pink tutu, a self cloning robot named Xenon, and, finally, the Norks who like to spray paint their compound with threatening (and grammatically incorrect) graffiti about themselves.

Is the director trying to tell me something?
If you want a good laugh, head on over to Wikipedia and read the synopsis of Haggard’s source novel to compare it to the previous three paragraphs.  Uh, lets see, we have She, a regenerative fountain (a hot tub in the film) and, damn, that’s it!  I haven’t read the novel, but I assume there is no Frankenstein monster that’s head explodes when you pull a bolt from its neck.  This “adaptation” is so loose with the source material that Stephen King watched it and said, “Damn, Haggard got royally screwed.”

But what director Avi Nesher lacks in faithfulness, he more than makes up for with WTFness.  This is a film of such utter bizarreness that you have to wonder how this isn’t a cult classic getting ROCKY HORROR-esque screenings every weekend.  The opening flea market scene lets you know right away that something is totally “off” with this flick.  I mean, a guy attacks our heroes with an umbrella!  Look, I know nuclear radiation is bad, but will it really make you dress like a kabuki performer on acid?  There is just so much strange stuff going on here, like Nesher caught a screening of FLASH GORDON and thought, “I can out-weird them with 1/20th the budget!”  The entire quest is bizarre and I love that Hari doesn’t even seem to be happy when her brother finally rescues her.  My personal viewing highlight has to be Xenon, the ever duplicating bridge guardian who does all those impersonations. He is so annoying that I found myself wishing for the subtlety of some like Robin Williams.

Of course, there is a simple reason why such a bastardized (bitchized?) version of SHE exists.  Well, two reasons actually. See if you can spot them in the chart below:

Yup, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and THE ROAD WARRIOR were tearing up the box office in May 1982.  Hell, anything with a sword near it was making cash (see Albert Pyun’s THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER posting a strong $14 million in 5 weeks, a feat he has never topped).  I can clearly see Nesher’s pitch to the money men now – “What if we take a CONAN-style flick and set it in a post-apocalyptic world?”  Hell, the producers even went out of their way to sell SHE as a CONAN rip-off (see the above poster).  But it gets even better as Nesher says, “And we’ll even hire the chick from CONAN!” Yes, Sandahl Bergman was wooing many a pre-teen boys’ heart with her turn as Valeria in the Schwarzenegger classic and they made sure to exploit that fact by casting her.  And, of course, by giving her skimpy clothes, a nude scene and getting whipped.  How many young S&M freaks did this flick mold?  You can’t get much better than that…

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The "Never Got Made" File #54: TWO IN THE STARS

Since we have inadvertently found ourselves in a sci-fi spaghetti nightmare, it seems only fitting that the next NGM entry focus on an unrealized Italian STAR WARS rip-off.  In October 1979, Filmitalia ran an impressive ad in Variety for TWO IN THE STARS:

With a declaration of a start of "spectacular special effects filming," the impressive ad featured a kid standing next to a badass looking robot on desolate planet (that was without a doubt going to be real with a rock quarry in Italy).  Even more impressive are the cast and crew attached to the project.  Now this is where we get your inner EuroCult geek to tear up as the leads listed were Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson, who had just been in THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978).  In addition, there is Jackie Basehart (also from INGLORIOUS), Sven Valsecchi (who most likely was going to play the kid), Antonella Interlenghi, and super slumming Arthur Kennedy (who had just gotten his sci-fi freak on in THE HUMANOID).

The director listed is Anthony Ascot, the pseudonym for Giuliano Carnimeo.  He did a bunch of spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, but the only film of his I've seen is the amusing THE DIAMOND PEDDLERS (1976) starring Paul Smith.  Also notable in the announced credits is a score by ace composer Stelvio Cipriani, who had previously scored two of Carnimeo's westerns starring George Hilton.

Eight months later, Filmitalia ran a bigger, two-page ad that offered even more visual information to run sci-fi ravaged brains wild.  Interestingly, this promo piece declares the "completion of spectacular special effects filming."  Williamson and Svenson are no longer attached and the empty "with an important international cast" offers nothing (don't forget who the Italians considered "important").  The artwork does promise a white guy and black guy teaming up in space though, meaning someone in Italy heard about Billy Dee Williams being cast in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

And here is something really exciting - two FX shots that ran in Starlog that were sent in by the effects man. These shots in the September 1980 issue might be the only publicly released images from the film's special effects shooting. And I'm convinced that is Raimund Harmstorf's beard in that second shot. :-)

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).