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, August 8, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: DEAD MOUNTAINEER'S HOTEL (1979)

The Russian’s have a rich history of cerebral literature. Literature that has influenced some of the greatest writers in modern history and provoked the thoughts of Nobel Prize winners and artists. I've never read any of them. I’ve never read Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Chekhov and I’ve also never read anything by 20th Century science fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Because of this I will not be forced to bitch, piss and moan about how this is missing, that got changed and how film doesn't translate the rich narrative prose. So maybe it's all for the better. Wait! No, see, I deliberately haven't read the books so that I can enjoy the movies. Yeah, that's it!

Based on the 1970 novel of the same title (also published under the title “Inspector Glebsky's Puzzle”) and scripted by the Strugatsky brothers themselves, DEAD MOUNTAINEER’S HOTEL is not so much the story as the telling. But the story is a pretty engaging one.

Set in the not too distant future, police Inspector Glebsky is summoned to a remote alpine hotel after an anonymous call to the precinct reports a death at the lodge. When he arrives, the rather cryptic proprietor Snewahr tells him there has been no such disturbance. The inspector doesn’t seem to be terribly bothered by this as it affords him a chance to spend the night and sample the Edelweiss (this seems to be referring to a wine in the film). The hotel itself is designed with primary colored fluorescent lights, mirrors, and a whole lot of darkness. The first thing visitors are greeted with upon arriving is an illustration of the somber face of the dead mountaineer whom the hotel was named after, complete with a red neon halo above his head. The whole film has a strange future-noir atmosphere that echoes both BLADE RUNNER and SUSPIRIA in many ways.

Being a police inspector, even though nothing is apparently wrong, Glebsky wanders the hotel and under the guise of amiable chat, interviews the strange guests. There is the ill-tempered Hinckus, who wears a huge fur coat and says that he is here because of tuberculosis; the sketchy physicist Simonet, who because of the amount of snow on the mountains, literally is climbing the walls; the travelling salesman Mr. Moses (of whom Snewahr cryptically says “I don’t know where he’s travelling to. The road ends here; the only way is back.”) and Mrs. Moses, who’s eyes are too wide and smile too tight; also Olaf and Brun, two young lovers who are just a little bit too smug and Olaf is just a bit too good at billiards.

After a formal dinner which includes candelabra and passing a soup tureen, the guests head to the disco to bust some futuristic moves on the dance floor. Glebsky sips wine while contemplating their behavior. Later he finds someone has slipped a note into his pocket declaring Hinckus to be a contract killer for the mob and that he will kill someone that evening. Realizing that Hinckus was not at dinner, Glebsky runs to the roof and sees Hinckus’ coat, but instead of containing Hinckus, it contains a snow man. The clues are mounting up, but there has been no crime.

In his search for Hinckus, Glebsky discovers Olaf dead, contorted into an unnatural position and reaching for his briefcase. Now is when Agatha Christy clearly missed the announcement and decided to take the brown acid. To give away any more of the plot would be an injustice and if you are going to watch this film, you really shouldn't read anything about it first. Yes, it's a little late now, but make this the last thing you read. Seriously.

Interestingly this film shares themes that are common with Phillip K. Dick’s work; strange people with strange names and a lone man grappling with his perception of reality and what it means to be human. The Strugatsky brothers clearly were either inspired by his work or were thinking along the same lines. The film itself draws some fascinating parallels with BLADE RUNNER (1982), both plot wise and in aesthetics. The languid pace, moody visuals and the retro-future trappings, accompanied by Sven Grünberg’s eerie electronic score, that sounds just a bit too much like Vangelis, is complimented by a stonefaced inspector who’s caliginous narration is actually rather reminiscent of the tacked on narration from the original theatrical version of BLADE RUNNER. You could stretch it even further by inviting comparison of Hinckus' look to that of Roy Batty. This comparison brings the influence back full circle and provides another level on which to enjoy this film.

There are those that have read the book, and they complain that the film leaves out entire characters and chunks of plot. As much as I hate to unavoidable comparison of books to movies, truth be told, it’s pretty easy to see how a novel would have contained much more information, particularly since the characters have a penchant for weird, enigmatic conversation. For instance, in one scene Snewahr talks to the inspector about an African ritual that brings a person back from the dead, and that this “zombie” could, in fact, be a third state of being for human life. I suspect that this probably went on much longer in the book and was tied into other scenes. There are lots of moments like this, the brief case being another example. In the film, our McGuffin is a briefcase that, much like the trunk of the Chevy Malibu in REPO MAN (1984), the audience never really sees what is inside. Either way, there is plenty of weird, moody atmosphere and strange moments in the film, keeping it completely captivating for its admittedly scant running time of 80 minutes. Scenes such as the one where the inspector goes back to his room and watches a TV, which is showing nothing but a man plummeting out of a building, repeatedly from several different angles, add to the surreality of the already strange proceedings. The only place I can fault the filmmakers is director Grigori Kromanov’s clumsy use of the zoom lens, occasionally used to ruin incredible camera set-ups, such as a shot of the setting sun cutting through a tree on a spectacular alpine vista. Jess Franco would have been proud.

At the very least, DEAD MOUNTAINEER’S HOTEL is a very interesting sidebar for Philip K. Dick fans, at the most it is a fascinating and richly atmospheric, genre-blending work, something of a flawed masterpiece, that may even get me to read some Russian literature after all.

On an interesting side note, a Russian software developer spent the better part of a decade working on a point-and-click PC game based on the novel. Originally slated for release in 2004, it was pushed back year by year until 2009. In spite of some great looking previews and great press, the game has never been released outside of Russia and Germany, as far as I have been able to determine. Part of that problem stems from the English version of the game being sold to Lighthouse Interactive for distribution in North America and Europe. Lighthouse was purchased in 2008 by the Canadian company Silverbirch who went into bankrupcy in 2009 and shut down completely. While a few assets were sold off, "The Dead Mountaineer Hotel" is still MIA in spite of being developed simultaneously in multiple languages, including English. Despite of the protagonist being transformed into a youthful hipster, the game looks quite detailed, though lacking the neon-gothic atmosphere of the movie, and boasted five different endings based on player choices made during the game.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cheap Plug Dept.: The Manly Men of Mobius Interview

Figured we would get the cheap plug in for a recent interview that I was fortunate enough to be asked to be in.  Some of you out there might know the Mobius film board, where I frequently post shorter reviews and get hassled only a weekly basis for a) never having seen THE GODFATHER or b) never having finished reviewing the box-set of the first season of the 1980s TWILIGHT ZONE revival.  Regardless of such harsh treatment, I've grown to love my captors in a online Stockholm Syndrome scenario and frequently find myself emailing Mobius regulars John Charles, Marty McKee and Mark Tinta.  Our communications run the gamut from the latest inane direct-to-video releases to reveling in the supreme art of movie nerd caste system.  Mr. Charles, true to his Canadian roots, proved to be far more enterprising than us Americans and decided to use these informal e-mail jam sessions as a path to create a virtual round table discussion.  So here is a link to his "The Men from Mobius" interview, where we get down on all sorts of movie-related topics ranging from our earliest film memories right down to the epic battle of Sidaris vs. Wynorski.  Enjoy!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Satanic Panic: THE DEMON LOVER (1977)

Tell me if this sounds familiar.  A group of working class types from Michigan combine their resources to make a low budget horror film about a summoned demonic presence that slowly kills off a group of young friends.  Am I talking about THE EVIL DEAD (1981)?  Hell no!  I’m talking about Jerry Younkins and Donald Jackson’s film debut THE DEMON LOVER.  Sam Raimi and friends often said they studied the stuff playing at drive-ins on how to make and how not to make a horror film and I have to wonder if they caught this low budget affair when it premiered in Detroit.  I’m sure if they did that lots of “okay, we can totally make a movie” were heard that screening.

The plot of THE DEMON LOVER is pretty standard stuff. A coven led by Laval Blessing (co-director/producer Younkins, under the delightful pseudonym Christmas Robbins) sits around in his pseudo castle partying.  You know these guys are hardcore partying types as the Frank Zappa look-a-like of the group wears a top hat.  As anyone who has seen the band Sorcery in the classic STUNT ROCK (1980) knows, a top hat shows you mean business when it comes to serious partying. Anyway, things turn sour when young convert Pamela refuses to get nude for Laval and Damian (Val Mayerik, comic illustrator and co-creator of Howard the Duck) tells everyone this groovy scene is now totally bogus.  Well now they done pissed Laval off and, with help of a random naked chick, he summons up a demon to do his bidding.  At least I think that is what the demon is going to do because when it is onscreen the echo effect on its voice is so bad that you can’t understand what it is saying.

The kids start getting killed off (oddly, the murder of Pamela is the first thing shown in the movie, even though she shows up in the very next coven scene).  On the case is Det. Tom Frazetta (Tom Hutton) who quickly learns about this ragtag cult. Frazetta’s methods are unique as displayed by his visit to Elaine at the donut shop where she works.  He asks her about the cult and she just blows him off. His response isn’t to drag her downtown for more questions, but to shoot her with a rubber band and say, “The devil made me do it.” Freaked out by the visit from the cop, Elaine and her friend decide to ride down to Ann Arbor, but Laval possesses them both on their way down there and kills them.  Frazetta is at a loss with three unexplained deaths on his hands, so he goes with his wife to a party of mystic types to hopefully get some info from Prof. Peckinpah (Gunnar Hansen, in a thankless 2-minute role).  Peckinpah offers wisdom like “my fear is that for every group like ours that meets to study the positive side of the occult, who knows how many others meet in secret to practice the evil side of psychic phenomenon.” Amazingly, Damian calls Frazetta at this spiritual house party (apparently the station house knew exactly where he would be) and tells him to check out Laval Blessing.

At roughly the 45-minute mark, Frazetta visits Laval and the film goes into legendary status with one small line of dialog.  Blessing is outside throwing knives when Frazetta comes up to question him.  I kid you not, Laval says, “If there’s no hassle, let’s go inside the castle.” After that, we get this amazing Mamet-esque exchange that pre-dates the quick delivery and shaky cam of every CSI-wannabe today.

Pushing that black belt to the max!
After that we get two of the most amazing scenes featuring Laval back-to-back.  First, we see him at a karate school throwing down.  Wait a second…this pudgy guy with Robert Plant circa 1973 poufy hair is into black magic, nude rituals and martial arts?  He is the id of every 14 year old boy!  After we see him get his ass kicked in class (odd), Laval is shown in a bar where he proceeds to get into a huge fight and kick some ass (odder). Okay, I’m rambling at this point so I’ll wrap this up by saying Laval uses is demon to kill the three remaining girls of the group.  Hmmm, why is he always killing the girls?  Four of the male members head to his castle and Laval kills them too.  Damian and Frazetta show up to save the day and the demon attacks them with some sai weapons (wtf?) before disappearing in a fog.  No doubt the demon was scared when it saw Frazetta’s plaid pants.  The end.

Running just over 75 minutes, THE DEMON LOVER is pretty much what you would expect from first-time, low budget filmmakers.  The plot is barely existent and the acting is bad. If the film does have anything going for it, there are a couple of cool attack scenes. Also, there is some nice photography in some spots. Perhaps the best thing about the film is its unintentional comedy factor.  From the aforementioned garbled demon voice to the goofy possession scenes, THE DEMON LOVER reminds me of the films I shot as a teen, but with adults in the lead roles and decent special effects.  I’m still trying to figure out that title.  There is no demon love scene, so is Laval a lover of demons?   The alternate title of THE DEVIL MASTER is better and much more apt.

Surprisingly, quite a few of the folks behind the camera went on to do more stuff.  Jackson moved to California and had a prolific career in low, low budget cinema, much to my chagrin. When it comes to Jackson’s subsequent filmography, this might be his second best film behind HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN (1987).  I mean, at least it is short and shot on film.  It isn’t the pure torture of something like LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT (1995).  The most famous graduates are Dennis and Robert Skotak.  Both guys eventually worked for Roger Corman’s New World in the effects department and eventually won Academy Awards for their FX efforts with buddy James Cameron on ALIENS (1986) and TERMINATOR 2 (1991).  Perhaps the most notorious reason THE DEMON LOVER is known is because of the chaotic behind-the-scenes documentary DEMON LOVER DIARY (1980) shot by the girlfriend of cinematographer Jeff Kreines.  We’ll be reviewing that one next time because, eh, the demon lover made us do it.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Strung Out on Slashers: NIGHTMARE (1981)

I can still remember the feeling I had after I first rented Romano Scavolini’s NIGHTMARE on VHS.  It was the same feeling I have after renting Juan Piquer Simon’s PIECES.  I felt dirty.  How are you supposed to feel after watching a film that opens with a guy waking up from a nightmare, only to pull back his sheets and see the end of his bed covered in viscera and a severed head that opens its eyes?  I probably made sure no one was watching as I slid it in the return drop box at the video store.  I had seen umpteenth horror and gore films, but NIGHTMARE seemed to pass them all due to its griminess.  It sits right next to Ulli Lommel’s THE BOOGEYMAN (1980) in shamelessly and explicitly connecting sex and violence.        

That comparison is apt since NIGHTMARE, like Lommel’s film, is essentially John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).  The tagline could read “the night he came home to Florida!”  The only difference is we never got to see Michael Myers go to a Times Square strip joint or roll around on a hotel bed while crying in his underwear.  This is HALLOWEEN with the sleaze factor pushed up to ten.  Mental patient George Tatum (Baird Stafford) keeps having a series of nightmares involving a kid in a bowtie.  Scary, I know.  A team of psychiatrists try an experimental drug on him which seems to work and George is soon released back into the general public in New York City.

George hits up the aforementioned nude revue and seeing bare female flesh sends him over the edge in a fit of convulsions. The next thing we know, he driving down the East Coast to Florida. His purpose is to stalk young single mother Susan Temper (Sharon Smith) and her three children.  George shows more interest in her nine-year-old son C.J. (C.J. Cooke) and begins a threatening series of obscene phone calls. Meanwhile, back in New York, his psychiatrists are flipping out since their lab rat hasn’t reported for his counseling sessions.  The hunt is on as they try to track George’s movements through their big computer.  But will they get to the Temper family in time and why on Earth did George choose to stalk this specific family several states away (you’ll figure it out, which makes you smarter than his doctors)?

NIGHTMARE is one of those films that you never forget.  Or so I thought. Revisiting this after nearly 20 years, I remembered the first 15 minutes set in New York and the insane finale vividly. However, I completely forgot the rest of the movie in the middle.  And it is probably for good reason as that whole section is completely forgettable outside of a few kills here and there.  If you are a fan of single moms yelling at their kids, then this hour middle section is totally for you.  I am a fan of the Florida location shooting though as this carries that same kind of rancid beach town feel as classics like THE SLAYER (1982) and THE MUTILATOR (1985). On the plus side, Scavolini takes what Carpenter did and pushes it all a step further.  The finale has kids in peril from a masked maniac, but the crazy Italian makes sure to have young C.J. being the one to take care of business as he fires six shots into the killer and then blows him away with a shotgun for good measure. Scavolini also tries hard to make some points about how sex and violence are interconnected. He delves into the psychology of what happens when a little kid witnesses both of these things, but his point is pretty muffled by the over-the-top sex and violence.  The only real lesson I really learned from this is if you are going to hire a lady to tie you up and slap you around, make sure you lock the door to the bedroom before doing the deed.

One of the more interesting things from my revisit was seeing how my amazingly refined sense of humor had grown.  As a teenager, I didn’t pick up on the unintentional comedic value in this film. For example, there is a bit where the cops drag C.J. and his mom to a crime scene in the middle of the night to identify his dead friend.  Not only that, the cops decide it is best to interrogate the kid right there in front of the dead kid’s body.  I love that the mom gets these harassing phone calls and never puts together that it might be her crazy ex-husband.  And Scavolini has the wildest belief in how phones work. In his mind, you can call the downstairs phone from the upstairs phone in the same house.  My favorite is how dumb George’s doctors are.  They can trace his movements via their computer and have it guestimate where he will go, but can’t put together why he is heading to this town.  Never got any records about a kid with the same name from the same town murdering two folks there?  And it never came up that he was married with three kids and they live in that town too? Was there no Google search on their super computer?  There is a great bit where Paul, his main doc, argues there is no way George can be in Florida and all the similar names are just coincidences.  When told of the police report of the young George murder from 25 years ago, he says, “Oh my God.” He isn’t shocked because of the realization that they are right and George is in Florida. He’s shocked because at that moment he realized what a shitty psychiatrist he is, never having asked something like, “Is there anything in your past that may have triggered these nightmares?”  Dr. Freud he ain't.  Hell, Dr. Loomis he ain’t!

Finally hitting DVD via Code Red after a 5-year or so delay, NIGHTMARE gets a nice 30th anniversary special edition.  They offer you three transfers of the film.  The one I watched looks great for the most part, but has some scratches around the reel change.  That doesn’t bother me at all as it almost seems fitting for a movie this sleazy.  But I’m sure it will rile up some folks online.  What is a bone of contention that they should have is the 95 minute interview with Scavolini that is presented in Italian with no subtitles!  Seriously.  Other bonus features include an audio commentary with make up artist Cleve Hall and Baird Stafford, a “Making of a Nightmare” interview with Stafford, Hall and 21st Century head Tom Ward, an interview with FX guy Edward French and trailers. The “making of” is great as Hall covers the FX work he did and the Tom Savini controversy. And Stafford offers some revealing personal information that will make you see the film in a whole new light.  Definitely recommended.      

Sleazoid Express review, 11/81:

Box Office review from 1982:

Gore Gazette review (click to enlarge):

Fangoria covers the Savini FX controversy:

Chicago Shivers review 
(courtesy of the great Temple of Schlock):

Friday, July 22, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #66: Cannon's CAPTAIN AMERICA (1984-87)

With Steve Rogers throwing his mighty shield at audiences this weekend in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, we figured it would be time to examine the unmade cinematic adventures of one of America’s most iconic comic book heroes. Born in the minds of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940, Captain America made his comic book debut in March 1941.  And this wasn’t any normal superhero unveiling as the premiere issue had him punching Adolf Hitler in the face.  While historians like to cite things like a withering armed forces and undermining subordinates for Der Führer’s downfall, I bet it was seeing the image of getting socked by a guy in red, white and blue tights that really did him in.  Rumor has it Hitler was found clutching a weathered copy of Captain America #1 in his bunker after his suicide.  Or maybe not.

Now here is some useful knowledge in case you ever find yourself cornered on the street and asked, “Which Marvel character was the first adapted into film?”  It was Captain America. Perhaps still feeling his patriotic usefulness, Republic Pictures brought the character to life on the big screen with a 15-part serial in 1944. Sure, they changed a lot of it around (he was now a District Attorney named Grant Gardner), but the character was there in all of his glory. Well, kind of as star Dick Purcell was kind of chubby (he actually passed away shortly after finishing filming this serial).  But audiences did get to see a live-action version of their hero complete with the star on the chest and winged mask emblemized with the trademark A.  Not surprising, World War II ended a year and a half after this came out.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

After a re-release of the serials in 1953, development of live-action Captain America adaptations ceased, frozen like America’s superhero in a block of ice.  With Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN (1978) proving that audiences for superheroes did exist, Captain America was thawed and made into a live-action superhero again.  Unfortunately, it was for two abysmal TV movies for CBS with Reb Brown cast as the daring Cap.  The less said about these films the better as they seemed to get everything wrong, wrong, wrong.  They even gave him a goofy motorcycle helmet.  Seriously, check this guy out and tell me you totally couldn’t see him in a disco circa 1979.  Even the folks on Broadway spent several years developing an unrealized Captain America musical through most of the 1980s...really! You can read all about that failed project at this link if you want (as Broadway ain't my specialty).  Just for kicks though, here is an ad that the Broadway producers ran in the trades looking for kid dancers to be in their Captain America show. And, uh, wow...I'm speechless. If made, this could have been the 1980s SPIDER-MAN: TURN OFF THE DARK.

Surprisingly, these two misfires didn’t tarnish the comic hero’s legacy forever and the 1980s brought renewed interest in the character.  Big spender producers Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus, co-owners of The Cannon Group, decided to get into the superhero business in a big way.  In 1984 they secured the movie rights for both Spider-Man and Captain America from Marvel Comics for the sweet sum of $225,000 for a 5-year deal.  This was back before Hollywood went gaga over every comic book character.  All of that changed the after the summer of 1989 with the release of BATMAN and cinema hasn’t been the same since. Anyway, Cannon – notorious for their 20-page spreads in Variety film market issues – wasted no time in announcing their live-action CAPTAIN AMERICA film project.  Here is their first full-page ad for it from an issue dated October 24, 1984.  The only information gleaned from the ad is that the screenplay was going to be by James R. Silke.  He had previously delivered a trio of action scripts for Cannon in REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983), SAHARA (1983) and NINJA III (1984). Damn, I bet he had Captain America fighting ninjas.  Sign me up!

Seven months later in May 1985, the Go-Go boys debuted this eye-catching color ad in a Variety Cannes spread.  It is the exact same design as before, but with some addition production info.  Marvel big wigs James Galton and Joseph Calamari are now credited as executive producers and the ad inexplicable says it is “based on Stan Lee’s Marvel comic strip character.”  Those words got Marvel into a wee bit of legal trouble and let’s just say you don’t see that credit in their ads ever again.

In the same issue’s profile on Cannon, there is a small little blurb about their two-picture deal with Marvel Comics.

Further production developments occurred in the fall of 1985 as Cannon unveiled a huge two-page ad announcing that British helmer Michael Winner would be directing the project. Winner had done several films for Cannon, most notably the first two DEATH WISH sequels. In the same October 16 issue, Cannon declared that filming would begin in January 1986.

January 1986 came and went with no film start as behind the scenes turmoil took over. Director Winner opted to drop the Silke script and wrote his own version with British TV writer Stan Hey.  Marvel exec Galton was not pleased as a December 1985 letter to Golan reveals (the full letter can be seen here).  He calls Winner and Hey’s screenplay “bloody awful,” “convoluted” and “totally implausible.”  I guess he didn’t like it?  He also suggests going “back to the drawing board again to get a more credible script.”

In February 1986, Cannon ran the following bland ad for the upcoming film with some major changes.  First, it now declares it is “based on the Captain America comic book character” (wink, wink).  And now we have a new trio of screenwriters attached: Michael Winner, crime novelist Lawrence Block and – surprise, surprise – Stan Lee!  They literally did go back to the drawing board as Lee had made his debut in the comic field as the text filler in issue #3 of Captain America in May 1941.  He also oversaw the CA line in the late 60s and early 70s for a 41 issue run (which is why a lot of people conflate him with having created the character).    

Amazingly, this production never got going after Cannon actually missed a payment to Marvel Comics in 1986 and briefly lost the movie option rights.  Finances (or the lack thereof) would play a major role in this film non-filming.  Winner eventually left the project, but did stick around Cannon to make APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH (1988).

Word on the live-action CAPTAIN AMERICA was silent for most of 1986, but the project reared its patriotic head again in May 1987.  Cannon once again trotted out that same Captain America image to announce the film would be moving forward with some brand new players. Proclaiming to be “based on the characters created by Stan Lee” (clever how they got around that), this version promised a script by Stephen Tolkin and direction from John Stockwell.  Tolkin had earned his Cannon cred by doing an un-credited rewrite on their live-action MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987). Stockwell, at the time, was mostly an actor and is probably best known to audiences as the best friend in CHRISTINE (1983).  He had just transition to directing with the Cannon high school action flick UNDER COVER (1987).

A June 1987 start date was promised and, once again, principal photography never materialized.  As mentioned earlier, the company’s finances were in incredibly bad shape. Movie folks loved the pageantry of Golan and Globus and the Go-Go boys had no problem living up to their reputation as they spent millions upon millions upon their productions.  The problem was none of their movies were making money and – according to this article in the same May 6, 1987 Variety issue – Cannon was in debt up to the jaw-dropping amount of $600,000,000.  Yeah, you read that right, SIX HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS!

Golan eventually left Cannon in 1989, with the French company Pathé with Italian financier Ginacarlo Parretti at the helm taking control of the fading studio.  As part of a severance package, Golan was given control of 21st Century Film Corporation, another film entity Parretti had purchased before bankruptcy.  And one of the projects Golan carried over to his new company was the long-in-development CAPTAIN AMERICA.

Another carryover from the Cannon era was hardworking director Albert Pyun.  Pyun had delivered 5 feature films for Cannon and also helped out on their troubled JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1989).  Towards the end of Cannon’s life, he was also seemingly their go-to director on everything of note including their long-gestating SPIDER-MAN, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 2, SPITFIRE: DELTA FORCE II and SUPERMAN V.  We were lucky enough to chat briefly with Pyun via email and he gave us the lowdown on how the live-action CAPTAIN AMERICA finally got off the ground at 21st Century.

VJ: Around what time did you come onto the CAPTAIN AMERICA project?

Pyun: When Menahem Golan was leaving Cannon to start 21st Century, I asked him to take CAPTAIN AMERICAN with him. I grew up a big fan of the comic book and I wanted to convey the character that I grew up loving.  That was 1989.

VJ: Did you get to read James Silke's screenplay for the proposed Michael Winner version?

Pyun: No I did not read it. I loved the screenplay I shot, written by Stephen Tolkin.

VJ: Who else tested or was considered for the lead role?   

Pyun: Howie Long was tested. He did not fit the pre-experiment Steve Rogers. I had wanted two actors (pre-and-post experiment), but Marvel said, “No.”

VJ: 21st Century reportedly cut the budget on you while in production. What changes did you have to make?

Pyun: 21st Century lost their financing.  I had to scale back the action and scramble for finishing funds. I made the most of it by going more deeply into Steve Roger's character.

VJ: Did you screen it at all for Marvel folks?

Pyun: I screened it for 21st Century and Columbia Tri-Star. Don't recall if Marvel was there.

VJ: What was their reaction?

Pyun: Crushing disappointment because they had wanted their expectations to be met even though they didn't bring the money.

Sadly, once again financial matters clipped Captain America’s little wings.  CAPTAIN AMERICA was finished by 1990 with Golan’s 21st Century pimping the hell out of it in Variety (also note the banner for their unmade SPIDER-MAN film; you can read all about that film's convoluted history in "Never Got Made" file #19).

A proposed August 1990 theatrical release date came and went. Eventually the film went straight-to-video via Columbia Tristar Home Video in the United States, a poor fate not befitting America’s superhero.  The Cap also suffered further indignity as Pyun’s film was taken out of his hands and edited down in the meantime.  Thankfully, fans of Pyun’s film can now get a chance to see his version of the film as he has recently released his own director’s cut of the film on DVD and Bluray.

VJ: What can you tell us about the DVD release of your director's cut?

Pyun: I'm happy, after all these years, to be able to share my cut with fans. It has 13 minutes of scenes that were not in the released version. The story makes more sense now and Cap's struggle with what it means to be a hero and an American is more clearly understood. My cut is screening at the Austin, Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, Sunday July 18 at 10pm, Frightnight/Fandom Fest, Louisville, KY, July 22 at 5:30 pm, and Fantasia Film Fest in Montreal on August 6 at 11am. I will be at all the screenings for Q&A. Email for more info about the director’s cut.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Redneck Rampage: TRACKDOWN (1976)

We have a great love here at VJ for all things Mitchum.  Robert Mitchum?  Nah, I’m talking Chris Mitchum, youngest son of Hollywood legend Robert.  Chris earned his cred by going abroad in the 70s and 80s to star in some of the wackiest and enjoyable action flicks you can find.  Chris, however, wasn’t the only Mitchum son to head into acting.  Eldest son James Mitchum also got the acting bug from a young age, making his debut as a kid in 1949.  He later landing a plum role in pop’s THUNDER ROAD (1958), where he was hilariously cast as his father’s younger brother. Wonky onscreen genealogy aside, it works because James is the spitting image of his pops.

No doubt this worked as both a blessing and a curse when it came to casting directors, but James worked steadily throughout the 1960s in both big and low budget films.  Things cooled considerable for James in the early 1970s, with him taking a long hiatus from the screen after appearing in Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE (1971). Hmmm, I wonder if there is any connection between that film’s legendary chaotic production in Peru and Mitchum being absent for nearly 4 years?  Regardless, James returned to the big screen in 1975 with the lead role in MOONRUNNERS, a hicksploitation classic that served as the basis for the TV series THE DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979).  This got into theaters via United Artists and someone there must have been impressed with the returns as Mitchum was quickly booked for TRACKDOWN, which premiered almost a year to the day after his successful return.

The film opens with Jim Calhoun (Mitchum), a Montana cattle rancher, heading out to take care of his stock, but not before admonishing his sister Betsy (Karen Lamm) to mind their mother.  The film wastes no time as within five minutes Betsy splits from home and arrives in Los Angeles via a Greyhound bus.  Naturally, this naïve newbie is ripe for the picking and is quickly robbed by a group of cholos.  Penniless, she is befriended by Chucho (Erik Estrada), not knowing that he was in on her mugging.  He didn’t do it because he was a mean guy; he did it because he was in debt to this gang. Soon he is taking Betsy out on the town and – eyes fluttering – falling for this chick, mang.  Of course, all good one-day romances come to an end as the gang breaks up his lothario routine when they rape, drug and kidnap Betsy.  Poor little Chucho.

Meanwhile, big brother Jim has made the four-state journey in his big ol’ pick up truck to come find his sister. He knows she is in L.A. because she apparently called him (this is never shown onscreen), but finds disaffection at every turn when he tries to get help from the authorities. That is until he meets runaway teen counselor Lynn Strong (Cathy Lee Crosby), who offers to help the gruff cowboy look for his sister and take him up on his dinner offer.  She totally did it for the free dinner.  In the meantime, Betsy has been sold by the gang (for only $500) to big time crime boss Johnny Dee (Vince Cannon) after his main madame Barbara (Anne Archer) takes a liking to her.  Barbara cleans Betsy up and soon begins grooming her for a life of prostitution by spoiling her with the finer things in life. “Hey, why not get paid for what you give away for free” is her pitch and it seems to work as Betsy loves that money.  Damn, I knew I should have moved to the big city.  After beating their feet on Hollywood Boulevard, Jim and Lynn uncover the Chucho connection and pay him a visit. Feeling bad for letting this mamacita out of his life, Chucho agrees to help the duo find Betsy, which sets up for an all-out war with Johnny’s mob.  Somehow I think this country boy is gonna teach these here city folk a lesson.

TRACKDOWN is an interesting hybrid, cashing in on the good ol’ boy chic of Mitchum’s previous film MOONRUNNERS while echoing the urban crime plight of the earlier DEATH WISH (1974). Surprisingly, this fish, er, bull out of water works.  The film is a bit clumsy during its set up (we never see any of Betsy’s family in Montana outside of Jim, for example), but picks up substantially when it gets into the city. Director Richard T. Heffron handles all of the action well and the country-boy-versus-city never actually seems forced (even when Mitchum is beating up three black drag queens trying to hustle him or being hit on by a gay cowboy).  The best thing about the film is that it actually – gasp – takes chances!  Some spoilers in the next paragraph...

The biggest example is that Betsy is actually killed by a sadistic john.  Had this film been made today (hell, even if it was made in the mid-80s), that would have been a huge no-no. We can’t kill the poor, innocent girl.  We must have the tearjerker ending where she is reunited with her brother and they live happily ever after.  It is refreshing to see a film do something like that, also because it works in the context of the plot.  Jim is totally willing to muscle his way around and bust some heads, but he doesn’t actually kill anyone until he finds out about his sister’s death.  After that, his aggression (including an awesome finale on a desert highway) is totally justified and the audience totally has his back.

The many expressions of
James Mitchum
The last half is where the film really delivers as Mitchum is required to do more action rather than speaking.  And let’s just say that is a good thing because words don’t seem to be Mitchum’s specialty.  Despite being a dead ringer for his pops, James never really had that “it” factor that his father had.  That shouldn’t be held against him, but I must admit that James seems to have all the personality of a dead frog. We have enjoyed Mitchum in obvious trash like HOLLYWOOD COP (1987) and RAIDERS OF THE MAGIC IVORY (1988), but this was made by a big studio at the time when he was supposed to be serious action lead.  Mitchum is so one-note that he actually makes Jason Statham look like he has range. I can’t tell if he is drunk, doped up or just naturally a mellow guy, but I don’t think his facial expression changes once in this flick (see pic).  Angry? Sad? Happy? Horny? Pissed off? They all get that same, nonplussed expression.  If anything, I’d hate to play poker with James Mitchum.  Now, if you have the right frame of mind that can work in this film’s favor as he is supposed to be a stoic Malboro Man, cattle rancher type.  And, of course, he is more believable as that than Erik Estrada is as a streetwise chicano hood. Regardless of the unemotional lead performance, TRACKDOWN is definitely worthy of tracking down.

Box Office review, 3/29/76 (spoilers):