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, July 17, 2011

Comedy Cataclysm: UP YOUR LADDER (1979)

Wakka, wakka, wakka
Pull out the stops
Zakka, zakka, zakka
Don't call the cops
We'll be wiggling up your ladder
We'll be jiggling your gallbladder
         -UP YOUR LADDER theme song

A bad shipment of drugs must have made its way into Hollywood in the late 70s.  Sure, 1979 had some great comedies like LOVE AT FIRST BITE, MEATBALLS and THE JERK.  But I can’t figure our how the painfully unfunny flicks we’ve been viewing from that year like SWAP MEET and RACQUET got made other than someone out of their mind on some mind-altering substance that made them think they were hilarious.  Or maybe they just read the script for UP YOUR LADDER and thought, “Hell, if they can do it, so can I?”  How bad is this movie?  I’m seriously considering calling up RACQUET to see if she will take me back.  I mean, I know I said some bad things about her, but, c’mon baby, I didn’t know how bad it was out there in the real world.

The premise of UP YOUR LADDER is a series of comedy skits with the linking device being the apartment building.  But this isn’t just any apartment building, it talks!  Yes, the Villa Elaine apartments come alive in the form of Cindy Morgan (CADDYSHACK) as she is superimposed over parts of the building and gives us the lowdown on the tenants. The film lets audiences know right off the bat how lowbrow the humor is with the opening bit involving a randy bachelor.  He has a girl in his apartment and is ready to pounce before she says she slept with someone the night before but can’t remember if they told her they VD or TB.  He calls a doctor to ask how he can tell if she has VD or TB and the doc says, “Have her run around the room for a while.  If she coughs, fuck her!”  *long sigh while slapping forehead* Yes, that is the joke the filmmakers thought would get the audiences rolling in the aisles.  The probably were, from the pain. No joke, to really bring it home, they add a slide whistle on the soundtrack at the punchline.  What is this a vaudeville comedy routine?

Actually, that might not be far off.  The makers of this mess (Josh Hayes [co-director], Eddie Ryder [co-director & co-writer], and Chris Warfield [producer & co-writer]) were all born in the 1920s/30s.  So their comedy styling is about as hip as your granddads. Seriously, their writing sessions probably included flipping through a worn 1950s copy of “Dirty Jokes Your Folks Never Told You” while they laughed hysterically.  Their idea of funny is a bit where an Asian guy and a black guy decide to paint their white friend black the night before his first day at a new job after he asks them to make sure he wakes up in time.  He rushes into work unaware of his condition and we get an exchange like this.

Manager: Who are you?
Guy: I’m the new guy you hired.
Manager: You must be mistaken.  I don’t hire blacks.
Guy: I’m not black.
Manager: Take a look in the mirror.
Guy (looks in mirror): Oh no, they woke up the wrong guy.

Several “jokes” are drawn out over the course of the film and range from the lame to the totally bizarre.  You have a kid who says he wants to run away from home, so his dad helps him pack.  Then he is shown throughout the film walking the same stretch of block over and over again.  The punchline is the kid is sitting crying and a cop asks him what is wrong. He says, “I ran away from home…but I’m not allowed to cross the street.”  Bah-dah-dah!  Another stretched out bit has the maintenance man Virgil (Michael Pataki, hiding under the pseudonym Caleb Goodman) who finds he can’t get an erection unless he sees a woman dancing (huh?).  He frolics on the roof naked with a girl who tells that he is Richard Burton’s brother, gets badly sunburn so he can’t make love, and then wanders into a salsa dancer’s apartment where she puts his penis on a platter and then stomps on it.  WHAT?

I’m sure you wouldn’t be surprised if I told you some of the filmmakers behind this had long careers in Hollywood’s underbelly.  Co-director John Hayes directed z-grade horror flicks like DREAM NO EVIL (1970) and GARDEN OF THE DEAD (1974) before dabbling in porn in the 1980s.  Producer, actor and co-writer Chris Warfield was all over the map, going from being in a few LASSIE episodes in the 1960s to directing porn as Billy Thornberg.  His greatest achievement might be producing DIXIE RAY, HOLLYWOOD STAR (1983), a respected adult title that managed to get Cameron Mitchell in it (in a non-sex role, thank goodness!). You’ll also spot some familiar faces in this (if you dare watch it) including Michael Chan, Chuck McCann, Ray Halpern (the killer from BARE KNUCKLES), ILSA producer Don Edmonds and even Ilsa herself Dyanne Thorne getting topless in one segment under the pseudonym Penny Walters.  Think about that for a minute – the star of notoriously nasty Naziploitation flicks felt that she better use a different name on this.  The film’s lone highlight is a thirty second bit starring the great George “Buck” Flower, who was also the associate producer.  Here it is in all its glory.  Consider your gallbladder jiggled.  You owe me $50.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Gweilo Dojo: KARATE WARRIOR 2 (1988)

Fabrizio De Angelis brings the whole KARATE WARRIOR (1987) crew back to do his KARATE KID rip off right this time.  Well, maybe not, as Ken Watanabe, Janet Agren and Jared Marten figured they had better things to do (Marten actually got a semi-decent gig on the WAR OF THE WORLDS television series; no doubt due to his fine work as the dad in KARATE WARRIOR).  But we do get Kim Rossi Stuart returning as constantly put upon karate schmuck Anthony Scott.  Having defeated the damn good Quino in the Philippines in the first film, Anthony has now returned to the US and gets ready to attend college in Florida.  His grandparents host a surprise birthday party for him and give him a car. Naturally, he immediately goes for a spin it in and runs afoul of some jerks in a car airbrushed with a tiger on it.  He passes them on a double line (a no-no) and they send him off the road into the swamp.  Well, if he hadn’t cross the double lines, none of this would happen.

Anthony is picked up in by Luke (David Haynes), a lonely/creepy rich kid who demands Anthony “become my friend” before he lets him in the car. Seriously, it is a really awkward exchange.  Check it out.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhh-kayyyyyyy.   So Luke drives Anthony into town and Luke fills him in on the local scene including a “gang of delinquent karate fanatics” called the Tigers.  Wait a second - do they tool around town in a car with an airbrushed tiger on it?  And hold on one more second, didn’t we just pass a car just like that?  STOP THE CAR! Anthony isn’t going to let this car drama pass and he goes to confront gang leader Dick (Christopher Alan).  What he doesn’t know is this gang means business.  I mean, they hang out all day in a Ben & Jerry’s! Anthony beats down a couple of Dick’s men and then boldly tells him that he wants…wait for it…a check to get his car towed out of the water.  Yes, a check!  Gee, I certainly hope he also asks Dick for two forms of ID.

Anyway, Anthony enrolls in school and, wouldn’t you know it, Dick and his crew also go to school there.  But it gets better as this dialog exchange between Dick and an underling shows.

Underling: Hey Dick!
Dick: So, what’s the dirt?
Underling: Well, it turns out his father went here about 20 years ago.
Dick: So what?
Underling: He was in your father’s class.
Dick: Who cares?
Underling: Well, looks like he’s the one who had him expelled.
Dick: Okay, the bastard’s dead.  Where is he?
Underling: Somewhere on campus.
Dick: Okay, let’s go!

Haha, yes, this shit’s personal now. Dick and his crew punch Anthony a few times before being scared off by a janitor.  Oh, it is real personal now. Anthony says he won’t break the promise he made Master Kimura (Leon Elalout, replacing Watanabe) to only use his karate skills in sanctioned combat (guess he forgot about kicking those guys in the ice cream shop), so he tells Luke to challenge Dick to a sanctioned karate match in the school’s auditorium.  Not only that, they go to the local radio station and soon everyone in town is dying to see this go down.  Dick readily accepts, but has a trick up his sleeve in that they will force the hard-up auditorium manager (“he always needs money because his daughter’s sick”) to pat Anthony down with a sponge soaked in chloroform between rounds.  Meanwhile, Anthony has been putting the moves on Patty (Amy Lynn Baxter), Dick’s main squeeze (maybe I should rephrase that).

Anyway, the big fight (held on the stage of a theater) goes down at the 50 minute mark so I am fully expecting Anthony to lose and train hard to get his big redemption in the next 40 minutes.  But what the hell is this?  They do the chloroform trick but Anthony still wins by knocking Dick out.  What? Seems De Angelis is messing with kung fu convention and he fooled me.  So Anthony is victorious and we all live happily ever after, right?  Well, no.  Dick now has a super plan – pay Mark “The Killing Machine” Sanders (Ted Prior) $5,000 to beat up Anthony…in a sanctioned match, of course.  It is personal again you see as Mark founded the Tigers 10 years ago and he can’t stand to see his boys humiliated. Ha, yeah right, he is doing it for the money and didn’t even know the gang was still around.  So Anthony writes a letter to Master Kimura, who flies to Florida for some training time.  It’s on!

Larry Ludman…1980s…you know what I’m talking about.  This was a period right before the bottom fell out of the Italian film industry, especially the exploitation market.  Ludman aka director Fabrizio De Angelis was making the most of this dwindling era in the late 80s.  He had just finished up his THUNDER WARRIOR series and was nursing the KARATE WARRIOR series to all of its 6 film glory. The switch from the Philippines to Florida is definitely welcome as it helps as setting it in the US gives it the KARATE KID feel.  Of course, that and karate kicking kids is about as close as you will get. Anthony Scott is such an oddball that you don’t have any sympathy for him like Daniel LaRusso.  And don’t get me started on Kimura. He is definitely no Mr. Miyagi as most of his knowledge consists of lines like “you must win” and “do it now.”  He doesn’t even show Anthony any moves.  His training consists of him saying spouting some fortune cookie philosophy and saying “trust the words” before karate chopping Anthony in the neck.  Thanks boss.  Kimura even shows himself to be unethical as he reveals after the final bout that he bet $2,500 on Anthony at 20-to-1 odds.  So what does he do?  He buys the kid a BMW.  Well, this should end well.

The first KARATE WARRIOR has one of my favorite lines of dialog of all-time in it ("Quino? He's damn good. Damn good. Damn, he's good."), so I'm glad to report this carries on the tradition.  When Luke tries to tell Anthony not to confront the gang, he says, "You don't know Dick. He's...Dick!"  The film's biggest highlight, however, is that awkward way the Italians love to portray America.  Their America is the one where radio DJs not only hype a karate match on the air, they show up to do the play-by-play coverage. De Angelis apparently watched ANTHROPOPHAGUS 2 and believes every American is obsessed with football as every male on campus is sporting a football jersey.  Even better is when Kimura arrives in the US and Anthony drives him home.  They drive past a street where half a dozen hookers show their wares while hollering at every passing car.  “So, this is America,” says Kimura.  The best, however, is De Angelis’ depiction of a US street gang, which is second only to Hong Kong films in terms of accuracy.  I’m pretty sure any “gang” that drove around with a tiger airbrushed on their hood would be laughed off the streets, even in the 80s. During the final fight, De Angelis even has the gang supporters in the crowd with hand painted signs and a huge tiger poster.  Best of all, there is even a guy in a tiger costume. Ah, those wacky Italians, how I love them!

Monday, July 11, 2011

El Terror de Mexico: BIRDS OF PREY (1987)

Our recent journey into Mexploitation cinema certainly hasn’t been by design, but he is another great offering for you.  Chances are if you’ve made it to our darkened corner of the internet(s) that you’ve heard of a film director named Alfred Hitchcock.  People go on and on about how he was the greatest director of all time with films like VERTIGO (1958), PSYCHO (1960), and THE BIRDS (1963).  Well, if he was so great, how come he couldn’t shoehorn some rampant gore and gratuitous nudity from a double for the female lead into his birds-gone-amuck epic?  Because that is what Mexican exploitation director René Cardona Jr. did in BIRDS OF PREY (aka BEAKS: THE MOVIE), his delightful stab at copying the master’s fowl fright flick.

Cardona kicks things off properly with some globe hopping to show a worldwide epidemic of bird attacks. No joke, we jump around from Peru to Mexico to Spain to Puerto Rico.  The film finally settles down and focuses on three separate storylines.  The largest one centers on TV reporter Vanessa Cartwright (Michelle Johnson) and her cameraman Peter (Christopher Atkins). She is apparently pissed that her director sends her to cover a story on a guy being attacked by his chickens, but slowly begins to connect the dots that these attacks aren’t just random.  This sends her all over the globe (quite a budget this TV station she works for has) as she starts interviewing scientists and attack survivors before ending up in a town besieged by birds.

The second storyline focuses on a husband, wife and their two kids on vacation in Puerto Rico.  Poor dad has more problems than just a nagging wife after their car gets stuck on the beach and the family has to run for their lives from crazed birds.  The third storyline focuses on old hunter Arthur Neilson (Aldo Sambrell).  He recently got his eyeball plucked out by a bird and now has to deal with more bird attacks the same day his granddaughter – gasp – is having her big birthday party outside on his estate.  Everyone fights these pissed off winged warriors in their own way, but will mankind survive?

Okay, before we go any further, I should probably tell the Hitchcock nerds that I was only kidding and I don’t think BIRDS OF PREY will be replacing THE BIRDS in film history any time soon.  If Hitchcock’s film is the gold standard, than PREY is that knockoff fake gold that people use to make cheap grills for their teeth.  But that doesn’t stop this from being entertaining as hell.  Cardona lets you know from the first five minutes what kind of film this is going to be – exploitation to the max.  I mean, Hitchcock only dreamed of opening a film with a hang glider getting their eyeball plucked out while sailing through the sky.  And Cardona certainly knows how to pile on the gore.  Here is Neilson getting his eyeball stolen:

If you didn’t know the director and country of origin, you would think that is straight out of a 1980s Italian horror flick with the banging score, gushing gore and seductive slow-mo shots.

Also keeping in line with the Italians was the ability to snag down-on-their-luck actors.  The surprise here is that we have young Hollywood actors showing up rather than boozed out has-beens. Michelle Johnson made her debut co-starring with Michael Caine in BLAME IT ON RIO in 1984 and somehow managed to end up in this just a few years later?  She must have been kicking her agent.  To add insult to injury, Cardona inserts some fully nude body double shots of her getting out of the tub (they are all shot from the neck down).  I don’t doubt Johnson saw this and was mortified when those bits came up. Even worse is poor Christopher Atkins, who is about as far from his hunk status in THE BLUE LAGOON as you can get. Seriously, that was one of the top ten films at the box office in 1980 and now he is swatting off pigeons being thrown at him?  He even has to recite dialog like “those birds certainly know what they’re doing.”  If Johnson kicked her agent, Atkins probably beat the holy hell out of his.  His career never recovered and he was doomed to star in flicks that would regularly end up on the SyFy Channel.

Cardona and his Mexican team also seem pretty adept at creating that nonsensical plotting that some of the Italian filmmakers indulged in.  The cause of the bird attacks is never quite clear (apparently they are pissed at man for its poor treatment of the environment).  Equally fuzzy is why the attacks stop.  No joke, the film ends with an announcement coming over the TV basically saying, “Well, looks like it is over.”  What?  They even end with a shot of a polluted lake and something else being pissed.  You can’t tell if it is bugs or fish so there is an end crawl that quotes the “Prophecy of Joel” about the plague of locusts from the bible!  Sadly, Cardona never made LOCUSTS OF PREY.  I also love that when the people try to escape the city via train that they get held up by some…wait for it…sheep on tracks!  We certainly can't plow through some innocent sheep with our speeding train while we race for our lives.  Oh wait, maybe the sheep are in on it too.  Cardona, you genius!  Too bad he never made SHEEP OF PREY.

Cardona mostly uses pigeons here, making me think this animal wrangler consisted of a guy with a loaf of bread. He certainly knew how to make the most of his birds though and gives them an eerie quality.  This is thanks mostly to tons of slow motion.  Seriously, they must have extended the run time by 15 minutes with all the slow-mo on display here.  He also has a knack for the Kuleshov Effect, filming some poor birds glancing at the camera and somehow making it look sinister.  I actually started to feel sorry for these poor birds as you know the ASPCA wasn’t on set for this one.  Lots of pigeons were violently thrown during this film’s production.  Some unlucky birds even appear to be tied to their victims.  All of these ingredients add up for one enjoyable flick.  BIRDS OF PREY definitely ain’t no turkey (ah, boo yourself)!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The XXX-Factor: More Classic Adult Ads

Once again, sorry for the downtime between blog posts.  We'd like to say it is due to being busy with family and friends over the holiday, but we ain't got no family and friends.  To make up for it, here are some more classic adult ads to tide you over until the next amazing movie review.

$50 says Arnold Schwarzengger is such a megalomaniac that he has probably seen this 80s porn ripoff of his most famous character.  And I'm not talking about the soft version either:

And if Schwarzenegger wasn't safe, you know Stallone wasn't far behind:

And if Schwarzenegger and Stallone weren't safe from porn parody, you know Jane Fonda was next.  Uh, what?  I don't remember no harp in ON GOLDEN POND.

Friday, June 24, 2011

El Terror de Mexico: I, THE EXECUTIONER (1987)

One of the sadder aspects of being a Video Junkie is the tease - the prospect of seeing something so alluring and awesome looking, only to have it snatched away from you quickly. Nowhere is this more apparent in the world of 1980s Mexican exploitation cinema.  Unlike their contemporaries in Hong Kong, Italy or the Philippines, the Mexican b-movie masters committed the ultimate cinematic cockblock by rarely dubbing or subtitling their films for the English market.  For every DON’T PANIC (1988) that got an English dub, there were probably ten just as cool flicks that weren’t, shall we say, gringo friendly.  I can remember going to visit Tom out in San Jose back in the mid-90s and marveling at all the cool looking Mexican action flicks on the shelves (almost all of which featured at least one guy nicknamed “Gordy” or “Flaco”).  But then I would have to come crashing back down to reality when I realized ¡No Habla Español! Sure, you could find a dubbed flick here and there, but they were few and far between. Thankfully, the advent of DVD allowed for more companies to offer English subtitles if they were inclined. Even better, some fans of Mexploitation cinema have take the time to painstakingly add subtitles to some of the better films to expose them to a wider array of fans.  Sure, I could learn Spanish, but that’s too much work, damn it!  

One of the actors I’ve enjoyed finding out about during my south of the border sojourns is Valentín Trujillo. Born Rafael Valentín Trujillo Gazcón in 1951, he came into a show business family as his grandfather was a film producer and his uncle Robert was a director. Trujillo made his screen debut at 2 months old (typecast as a baby!) and kicked his career into high gear at the tender age of 7 to star in over 140 features.  As a teen he even got into the Columbia Pictures release RAGE (1966) alongside Glenn Ford and Stella Stevens.  His character was named José. Typecast again, damn it!  In the 1970s Trujillo became a leading man and an action star in his native Mexico. Perhaps it was his exposure to the American filmmaking system, but Trujillo strove to make his action films stand apart as his characters were more complex than the average good guy/bad guy dynamic and the films tackled many social issues Mexico faced during these times.  As a result, he became very popular and one of the country’s top box office draws.  The first film I saw of his was OCCUPATIONAL KILLER (1985; aka Polícia de narcóticos) and it kicked ass.  Trujillo starred as a no-nonsense cop on the trail of a vigilante blowing away drug dealers with a shotgun (and the problem is?). The film has such an emphasis on bloody violence that it reminds me of the 70s Italian crime films. Hell, the idea of killing a kid and stuffing his corpse with bundles of cocaine is straight out of the Henry Silva sleaze-fest CRY OF A PROSTITUTE (1974).  Anyway, I was hooked and started trying to find as much of his stuff I could, which led me to I, THE EXECUTIONER (1987).

The film opens with a bunch of government types in a smoky boardroom watching a slideshow about wanted Nazi criminal Elpidio Arenas (sure sounds German to me).  Not wanting to deal with bothersome crap like international laws and country sovereignty, the group decides this is a job for special agent The Executioner aka Valente Carrera aka Valente Thompson (Trujillo), a former Mexican cop who now resides on a houseboat in San Diego, CA.  This leads to an incredible 20-minute pre-title sequence where a camouflaged Carrera parachutes into Arenas’ compound, takes out a dozen or so henchmen (including chopping one guy’s head off in a ceiling fan), and captures his target. Carrera then literally gift wraps the criminal as he drops his capture off in a box at the house of reporter Sammy (Florencia Ferret).  He gives her all of the scoops as there is a budding relationship there, even though Valente adamantly sticks by his story that he only sells insurance.  Interestingly, our lovebirds’ first onscreen encounter involves Sammy sneaking up on him and the always-on-his-toes Executioner defensively turning around and slapping her.

The Executioner isn’t a bad guy though as touching scenes with his younger sister Lupida show his softer side.  Of course Valente’s job is to take down the bad guys and he gets his next assignment from his boss (fellow action superstar Mario Almedia in his trademark cowboy hat). The Executioner heads down to Acapulco, Mexico to bring in Tony Martinez, who is running a child prostitution and drug ring.  He does this with ease and once again drops his prize at Sammy’s pad. When Martinez is being taken into court, his crew plans to spring him.  Valente tries to stop this and is shot twice during the escape.  The Executioner’s boss feels this is the perfect time to “kill” off his man and has the newspapers run headlines that Valente Thompson has been killed while he spends a month recuperating in a secret location.

This plan doesn’t fool big crime boss Johnny Carmenta (Mexican director René Cardona) one bit and he sends his goons after Valente’s sister.  The plan is to drug her up in the hopes that it will get the in-hiding Executioner to emerge.  It works perfectly as Valente quickly makes his way to the hospital where she is being watched following an overdose. Of course, Carmenta’s crew didn’t count on the Executioner taking things so personally.  As the old saying goes, you mess with Lupita, you get the horns. Valente blows away the three hitmen waiting for him outside the hospital (oddly enough, no cops want to talk to him after this) and then begins to wage his one man war against Carmenta’s crime syndicate.  And you know that can mean only one thing – time to bust out the camouflage wifebeater top again and get down to business.

Never trust bad guys who drive Snoopy buggys
If you are looking for some good old fashion 80s head-busting action, you can’t go wrong with this flick.  Like Eastwood and Stallone, Trujillo took over the directorial duties on his films and this was his third time behind the camera.  Trujillo – who looks a bit like Michael Shannon – does quite a bit of his own stunt work and he definitely knows what audiences want (action!) given the film’s over-the-top opening.  In fact, he almost does the entire film a disservice as this opening sequence is more action-packed than anything else in the film. It is almost like a film in reverse, with the huge finale coming first.  Regardless, there are still some good bits later in the film.  There is a cool motorcycle chase through the streets of San Diego and the finale on Carmenta’s ranch is suitably bloody and grim.  To show he had his finger on the pulse of audiences, Trujillo even throws in a back alley kung fu fight (where he is obviously doubled).  Thematically it is pretty simple stuff, but, as mentioned before, Trujillo does work in some social commentary about the scourge that is the mob. Given the title and plotline, I’m sure this is unofficially trying to cash in on Don Pendleton’s popular “The Executioner” man-versus-mafia book.  I, THE EXECUTIONER marks only my fourth Trujillo film (after OCCUPATIONAL KILLER, CITY RATS and HUMAN HUNT) and it is by far the best of the bunch.  It is a shame more of his work isn’t available English friendly as I’d love to see more.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What's Up Doc?: DEATH RIDERS (1976)

I recently talked with a friend about trends that seemed like they could only have happened in the 1970s.  Culturally, the “Me decade” gave us such unique things as disco and punk rock; the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis wars; totally 70s TV shows like THE BRADY BUNCH and THE ELECTRIC COMPANY; and Elliot Gould’s career as a big screen leading man.  If these things didn’t emerge during those tens years, they would have never happened at all.  Another popular 70s culture trend (in the West, at least) was the rise of the daredevil stunt show.  Although around for decades before this, epic stunt performances took on a distinctly 70s hold and awareness thanks mostly to the mainstream popularity of Evel Knievel.

DEATH RIDERS follows the Death Riders Motorcycle Thrill Show as they traverse the United States over the course of 1974.  Based out of Danville, Illinois (only crazy folks live in the Land of Lincoln), this destruction demonstration was the brainchild of Floyd Reed, Sr.  No doubt he sat a home one day and thought, “Demolition derbies don’t do it for me. I know what we need: fire!”  Seizing on the 1960s mondo documentary trend, the film opens with a onscreen graphic stating it is dedicated to the stunt performers who died over the years doing the various stunts you are about to see.  If that isn’t salacious enough, they then list each performer, the stunt that caused their death, and the date of their demise (some dating back to the 1940s).  Ouch.  DEATH RIDERS lets you know right up front, this is as real as it gets and you are going to see the real life of a caravan of thrill seekers.

We get our first knowledge of the Death Riders thanks to a monotone voice over by young performer/narrator Larry Mann. He lays out the group’s philosophy right away as they “aren’t like the stuntmen you see on the TV or in movies. We all do our own stunts with no tricky gimmicks, no rehearsals, and no special safety precautions.  That’s the way we like it.”  This plays over a clip of stuntman Danny Reed doing a car flip that freezes in mid-frame as the title DEATH RIDERS thrusts toward the audience while the Death Riders theme song by rockabilly singer Dorsey Burnette blasts (“Death Rider. I didn’t need to learn how”).  Damn, this is gonna be good.   We then get a sequence of a car on fire jumping up a ramp and smashing into another car.  Yeah, this is gonna be awesome.

Larry informs the audience that the Death Riders show is different because “most of the guys are only 17 or 18 years old.”  Ah, reckless child endangerment, another great 1970s staple.  Of course, he says, the best part is staying alive so you can meet all the single chicks afterward.  As Danny Reed puts it, “a single guy has it made.”  The young ladies are just a distant memory soon as the group heads out to their next location in their bright yellow vans with the Death Riders logo painted on the side.  We get to see them set up the ramps and pyrotechnics for the show at a fair while Reed, Sr. hires on young rookie Bob Spears.  “You just joined the show? I feel sorry for you,” says lanky Russ Smith aka Squeeks the Clown.  Squeeks is there to provide comedic relief and keep the audience occupied during ramp set ups.  He even gets in on the stunts, like lying on the hood of a car while it bursts through a wall of fire.  Poor Squeeks.  

We then get to see the downside of being a stunt rider as Spears sees his ego take a hit when he crashes during a bike jump through a wall of, naturally, fire.  Then we see Jim “The Maine Maniac” Moreau throw out his back on a double jump (two guys on one bike).  No doubt this stunt failed because they didn’t jump through anything on fire.  His pain vividly plays out on screen while he narrates what went wrong.  The show must go on though and the next scene has the crew picking Jim up at the hospital, with Larry saying “all the doctor did was tape Jim’s back and tell him to stay away from motorcycles.”  Ah, the 1970s indeed.  $50 says that doctor was smoking a cigarette while he dispensed his advice.  The group then visits as nudist colony where the People Jump gets the added thrill of being the Naked People Jump as the song “Sunny Side Up” plays. As if that weren’t scary enough, the doc juxtaposes that with a visit with Claire Reed, Floyd, Sr.’s mom.  She is quite approving, saying of the show, “I don’t think much of it.” Well, Floyd, Sr. shows her by having Danny a dangerous stunt that he flips end-over-end which causes her to pass out.  I guess that wasn’t enough so then he does the Mr. TNT bit where he gets in a box and is blown up.  How you like me now, grandma?

The film then shows the lighter side of death defying, namely picking on announcer Henry.  The crew gets into a shaving cream fight with him and later makes him a hamburger made of dog food.  It is then that I realized what DEATH RIDERS is – it is the grandfather of JACKASS minus all the butthole and penis stuff.  This is reinforced in some staged bits where the boys are “challenged” by locals to do wild stuff like ride a motocross track in one town and ride some bulls in another. Hell, one of the guys even swallows a goldfish at an amusement park, but doesn’t have the courtesy of Steve-O to barf it back up.  Yes, the Death Riders are the true originators of the insane stunt guys but they didn’t sell their soul to the Hollywood devil at the drop of the hat for fame and money or to star in lame comedies like Johnny Knoxville.  No, the Death Riders sold their souls to God, namely Earl Owensby.  After this documentary was filmed, the crew filmed some scenes in 1975 for Owensby’s stunt driving classic DEATH DRIVER (1976).    

If you are a fan of watching stuff get blow’d up and smashed, then DEATH RIDERS is essential viewing.  Of course, you can always expect me to pimp a production where apparently I was the assistant director. News to me, but I’m sure I enjoyed hanging out with the Death Riders crew. And don’t just go in thinking this is some cheapjack documentary either.  Director James Wilson was an experienced cinematographer with over 150 credits dating back all the way to the 1920s!  His co-cinematographer is none other than Hungarian DP Vilmos Zsigmond. Zsigmond would go on to win the Academy Award for cinematography just a few years after this for his work on Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977).  Both men know how to perfectly capture the stunts with incredible slow motion and camera placement (I’m pretty sure one stunt ended up with a camera getting smashed).  Combined with some top notch editing and moody score, the film offers some grand stunt moments that reach an ethereal level; these bits are more befitting a documentary contemplation the meaning of life, not adrenaline freaks putting on a daredevil stunt show.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Comedy Cataclysm: THE EXTERMINATORS (1989)


It’s the second largest country in South America, famed for its grass-fed beef, fine wines and European influence. Centuries old architecture frames its panoramic ranchero vistas, unique cuisine and modern fashion. Latin style melded with European sophistication. So it is only proper that this comedy starts out with one of the lead characters being kicked in the balls.

Yes, all of that wistful Travel Channel rhetoric is great, but if you want to see the Argentina of the people, you need look no further than THE EXTERMINATORS. Fondly remembered and spawning no less than three sequels, this is what Argentine cinema is all about; cheap entertainment that distracts the masses from the dictator du jour, the abject poverty and everything else that you never see on the tourist guides.

Really if there’s anything that is good in the world, it’s cheap movies that were never intended for export.

The famous mercenary duo The Exterminator and The Destructor are taking a pleasure cruise to Buenos Ares to meet The Colonel, receive medals of honor and get briefed on their new assignment. Deep in the Argentine jungle, a martial arts madman named The Dragon (world champion karate expert Néstor Varzé doing his best Matthais Hues impersonation) is running a ninja terrorist camp complete with what appear to be Robert Palmer girls dressed up in skimpy ninja outfits. Also on board the ship are two numbskull swabbies who do menial labor (badly) while ogling the swarms of bikini-clad models who are, for some reason, also on the cruise. Three smokin’ hot reporter “chicas” try to stick to their story while ogling the musclebound mercs, while two Asian agents of evil plot to do away with the duo so that they will not destroy their ninja camp.

After poisoning their orange juice and dumping their bodies overboard, the Asian agents feel confident that they have eliminated the threat to their camp. Unfortunately for them, the swabbies, Emilio (Emilio Disi) and Guillermo (Guillermo Francella), find The Exterminator and The Destructor’s outfits while cleaning their cabin and decide to try them on. In spite of the fact that The Exterminator and The Destructor are easily twice the size of Emilio and Guillermo, the uniforms fit perfectly and you can guess what happens next. Without a blink of an eye, the two buffoons are assumed to be the war heroes who have massacred entire battalions (presumably in the ‘82 Falkland’s conflict) single, or rather, double handedly. The only snag, aside from them not knowing how to fight, is that the journalistas know that the pair are imposters and they want the real story. As if that wasn’t enough plot, we also have a subplot shoehorned in about a martial arts tournament that they are supposed to be in once they have completed the raid on the ninja camp!

This whole tournament subplot could have actually been turned into another movie entirely, but is instead wedged in awkwardly before and after the main plot with the ninja camp. The purpose though, is obvious, to spoof KARATE KID rip-offs like NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER (and it’s completely unrelated, but vastly entertaining sequel). This allows the two hugely popular comic actors a forum for extreme silliness during a training demo at the dojo of their military liaison, Hector (world champion kickboxing expert Hector Echavarria). In one bit Hector wants to demonstrate the art of dodging arrows (because, as we all know, ninjas don’t use guns), when it comes time for Emillio to stand in front of the crossbow, trembling and squealing, he somehow manages to actually catch the arrow. So ecstatic is he that while jumping for joy, he throws the arrow to the floor. Suddenly his eyes go wide and he starts screaming in pain, only to lift his foot to the camera showing the arrow embedded in it. Is the hilarity ensuing? Yep, that’s what you get. It’s either that or groinshots, take your pick. Most of the humor in the film is shrill gags about the guys either shrieking in pain, shrieking in fear or shrieking in excitement over mucho chicas calientes. On the other hand, you have a ninja camp, girls in skimpy outfits, stuff blowing up and two world-class marital artists! Works for me!

Following the traditional Ninja Terrorist Camp bylaws, Dragon spends most of his time arranging pit-fights, killing off his top men. I never said the bylaws allowed for effective team management, I just said they were traditional. It also gives us an excuse to have Varzé and  Echavarria square off not once, but twice, here at the camp and again as another byproduct of the whole martial arts tournament subplot. In spite of the occasional undercranking, the martial arts choreography is surprisingly good for a movie this low budget and both of these guys are top-drawer fighters. Echavarria should be instantly recognizable to MMA fans as this film was a launching pad for his career in TV and movies.

Reflecting the country’s brutal economic issues, this movie is cheap and is completely unhindered by the ravages of subtlety. Frequently feeling like a Godfrey Ho movie, complete with stolen footage spliced in to the action, director Carlos Galettini gets the most out of his obviously miniscule budget by featuring Hefner-esque levels of gorgeous women in tiny outfits in every scene he can manage to squeeze them in to. In the reporter’s offices, it seems as if the entire newspaper is staffed by dozens of fashion-plate models whose job description seems to be “walk from room to room” and “look hot”. When raiding the ninja camp, the journalist girls smuggle themselves aboard and once in the jungle decide that their city clothing just won’t do and decide to fashion themselves some super-skimpy mercenary outfits out of the guy’s spare clothing and a machete. This is actually funnier than any of the pratfalls and bug-eyed screaming. A little easier on the eyes too.

In spite of the fact that I don’t have the nostalgia trip for this movie that many Argentinians seem to have, and the comedy is straight out of the ‘60s (seriously, who did the old guy-in-full-body-cast-in-pain comedy gags in the late ‘80s?), it’s still a fun little flick. As one Argentinian fan said, you’ll laugh, not because the jokes are funny, but because they are actually there. The ending bit where both of our “heroes” are undercranked, hobbling in casts, running down a hallway, supposedly being chased by the real Exterminator and Destructor (even though they are never seen in the sequence), while screaming like banshees illustrates that point perfectly. So why am I so looking forward to checking out THE EXTERMINATORS 2: REVENGE OF THE DRAGON?