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, May 16, 2011

Comedy Cataclysm: SWAP MEET (1979)

If you are an American of a certain age and have a similar taste in movies as we do, you probably have waxed more than a little nostalgic for the American institution of the drive-in. Fond memories of your misspent youth probably include such questionable moments as smuggling a case of beer into a double feature and eating something that was made entirely out of foam latex and salt and painted to look like a slice of pizza. Yes, drinking beer in your car watching cheap-ass movies made by talentless hucksters. Brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it? But that was at night! What happened when the sun was up? That was the swap meet.

For those who either aren’t old enough to remember or maybe grew up in some far off land, like say, Vermont, I'm pretty sure this is what happened: one day someone was sitting around thinking about how they had all this property used for viewing movies at night that was being completely unproductive during the day. Co-incidentally, another American phenomenon would occur. All these people would bring all of their crap out of their homes, dump it in their front yard and try to sell it to passers-by, and nobody except the owner would get a piece of that action! Why not combine the two? Rent space to people who would bring all their crap, be it cheap Chinese made junk purchased in bulk for re-sale, the remnants of a deceased relative’s closet or shit blatantly stolen out of other people’s homes and cars. Oh, and if you lived in Southern California, there was usually a couple of Mexicans drilling holes in iced coconuts so you could suck out the coconut water with a straw. The swap meets were hot, dirty, and filled with people who you would never want to actively socialize with. Good times.

Just like the late ‘80s scraped the bottom of the slasher barrel desperately trying to find new themes for some psycho to kill people over (for some reason 1988’s tedious OPEN HOUSE springs to mind with its “plot” about real estate agents being stalked and killed due to housing prices), the late ‘70s and early ‘80s some some serious digging at the bottom of the teen comedy mine. This is one such item.

Clearly trying to do for the swap meet what CAR WASH did for the, erm, car wash, right down to the allegedly “catchy” title song that includes lyrics like this:

“At the swap meet, yeah, we got that special buy! At the swap meet, guaranteed to satisfy! At the swap meet, come on along we gonna make you high!”

No, seriously, I did not just make that up. In spite of that last line and the fact that this was released a year after UP IN SMOKE (1979), there is no drug humor to be found at all. Some bad, and I mean baaaaad, drunk humor, but there ain’t a nickel bag to be found at this swap meet!

These girls believe in peace, not war;
these bombs will never be dropped.
In this, ahem, “dis-jointed” comedy, we have the “stories” of several characters clumsily interwoven and brought together at the meet. I’m sure it sounded positively Robert Altman on paper. High-school top jock Doug (Jon Gries in a thankless role) and his two-clown posse Buddha (Loren Lester) and Billy (Dan Spector), who have borrowed dad’s cherry T-bird and are trying to sell potted ficus trees and a used iron while trying to pick up the hippy girls. The hippy girls, Nancy (Ruth Cox) and Susan (Deborah Richter), are trying to make money to fix their van by selling turtles to obnoxious little boys who want to name them after sports stars that they hate and flush them down the toilet. Oh, and they are also trying to avoid the advances of Ferrari-driving uber-douche Roy (Jed Cooper) who pays a couple of white trash junk peddlers (previously seen harassing the hippy girls) to mess up the T-bird. But wait, there’s more! We also have a sub-plot in which the assistant manager Ziggy (Danny Goldman doing an uncanny Bud Court impression) hustles the crowd and has an odd relationship with Annie (Penthouse Pet Cheryl Rixon), an apparently homeless girl who he lets stay in his boss’ office during the day and, ummmm, “work” the crowd at night while she tries to find someone who will marry her. Yes, this rather grim scenario is actually played for laughs.

DeVito and Gries contemplate the script
In addition, writer Steve Kantz (who was partially responsible for the cult 1977 favorite RUBY) feels he should throw in as many supporting characters as possible and this will somehow magically raise the comedy quotient without having to rely on what some people call “jokes”. There is a fortune teller who predicts that the kid on the skateboard will hurt himself. He of course does, and this becomes a running gag. Rhea Perlman, as the mother of the previously mentioned youth in need of anger management therapy, is frequently used as a cut-away as she steals things and stuffs them down her dress. This actually works up to a punch line after what seems like years of build-up in which she is spotted by the manager who runs down to the meet, throws her into a chain-link fence and whips her around only to get a big close up of a shocked black woman! Phew! Are your sides splitting yet?

Plus, you know if Perlman is around, Danny DeVito can’t be far behind. We also know he’s coming because the German video release has his name video burned into the credits. Here he shows up as an adenoidal auto mechanic named Max who’s main scene is laying some bullshit on Doug about how he will fix his car like new including drying the hand-matched paint with his own soft breath. Clearly DeVito is trying to rise above the material, but there is only so much even a Michelin-star chef can do when handed a can of dog food. And, quite frankly, DeVito is no Michelin-star chef.

The alleged comedy is often completely AWOL as the filmmakers shoot tons of character moments that are simply ill-conceived to begin with. When they suddenly remember that this is a comedy, they scramble around and throw in scenes such as one where Ziggy goes to visit Annie while she does her laundry in the women’s restroom. As they talk a woman comes in, so Ziggy must jump in one of the stalls with a basket of Annie’s laundry and… a mop. As more women come in, Ziggy scrambles from one stall to another, undercranked with wacky music, trying to avoid being caught. In the end he finally stumbles out of a stall in women’s underwear and with the mop over his head. Are you feelin’ it now?

But wait, there's more! In yet another grueling sketch the guys decide that since Annie is making money having sex with guys in cars, sex might sell (if only the producers of this movie had figured that out). The plan? Set up a sign that says “everything you ever wanted in sex $10” then when they get guys in the van they tell them to walk out smiling or people will think that they can’t get it up. Yep, that’s the gag and brother, lemme tell ya, it is a long walk off of that short freakin' pier.

Buddha is, as you may have guessed, supposed to be a fat, jolly character, but it looks like they settled for brillo-haired, spare-tire laden Lester who is so annoying that you will swear that he changed his name to Larry Zerner and went on to play Shelly in FRIDAY THE 13th PART 3 (1983). In fact he didn’t. He actually went on to play the much more tolerable Charlie Boy in EVILSPEAK (1981). As if his attempt to pick up chicks with his Bogart impersonation wasn't torture enough, there is a scene where the guys steal Roy’s Ferrari while obnoxiously drunk and decide to drive it around while the cover is still on and with Buddha parked on the roof to navigate. “Wow,” you are thinking, “this could provide some opportunities for some crazy car stunts!” Ummm… no. They drive into a clearing in the middle of a field and drive in circles, undercranked like a Benny Hill sketch, complete with a Spike Jones, slide-whistle soundtrack and overdubbed cries of “wheeeeeeeee!” that sounds like the pig in that wearisome Geico commercial. The bit goes on so long and is so fucking irritating that I can’t imagine it not bringing instant sobriety to the patrons who stumbled into its original theatrical screenings.

This movie hits all the checkpoints but blows them completely: We have the obligatory hot girls (that never get topless), car chases and crashes (that are off camera), pop culture setting (that is never exploited), alchohol abuse (that is not at all funny), a disco scene (that is totally underplayed) and so on. C'mon, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you have multi-title men's magazine model on the payroll, she should be showing off her assets at the drop of a roach clip. Instead Playboy, Penthouse and Oui veteran Rixon has only two brief moments for which to display her god-given talents. For some reason it almost feels like they were after a PG rating (the old school kind, not the new one), though why that would be is a complete mystery.

Aside from the rush of mainlining pure nostalgia offered up by the location (this was shot at the Rodium in Torrance, California), this film is disappointing not only for all of the above reasons, but also because of the potential of its basic, whisper-thin, premise. If this had fallen into the hands of say… the legendary Chuck Vincent, it would have taken all of those cheese-grater “jokes”, needlessly complex script elements and a cast that have all gone on to solid careers, thrown in a scandalous amount of nudity and turned out something that was admittedly terrible, but at the same time totally entertaining. Yeah, too bad that didn’t happen.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #61 - #63: Carolco's Cinematic Craziness

Chances are if you saw an action picture in the mid-80s to the mid-90s that you recognize the familiar Carolco Pictures logo to the left.  Founded in 1976 by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, Carolco – for years I thought it was Carloco, which sounds much better to me for a wild action company – became one of Hollywood’s biggest independent production companies thanks to their affiliation with action superstars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and affinity for throwing around the big bucks recklessly.  By the time they reached their 20th anniversary, the studio was all but dead thanks to its “live fast, die hard, er, young” attitude.  Carolco was totally the James Dean of the production company set.

Like most production companies, Carolco has a long history of undeveloped film projects. Their unrealized movies, however, were like their RAMBO or TERMINATOR franchises in that they became huge spectacles and the stuff of legend.  Even the casual moviegoer has probably heard mutterings about the unmade 1990s epic THE CRUSADES, a medieval tale re-teaming TOTAL RECALL’s Schwarzenegger with director Paul Verhoeven.  It is the film the Austrian famously said about, “We can’t possibly make this for less than $100 million.” I’m sure he would say $200 or $300 million nowadays.  Hey, I’ve got a way you can shave $20 million off that budget – don’t cast Ah-nold!  Anyway, this was typical of the company and today we’ll look at three ventures that encapsulate the madness of their non-moviemaking.  


The 1980s is often described as a decade of excess (at least for America it was) and a perfect example is in the late 80s Hollywood spec script sale tales.  Basically, a writer would come up with a hot idea and then studios spent obscene amounts of money in a bidding war (i.e. pissing contest).  The best part is I’d say 95% of the screenplays they went goo-goo over never got made; Hollywood in a nutshell right there.  One such script was David Chappe’s GALE FORCE, which sold for a record $500,000 to Carolco in 1989.

The project fell into the hands of young director Renny Harlin, who himself was a hot commodity after the success of DIE HARD 2 (1990).  According to an LA Times article, Harlin would earn a cool $3 million just to sign to direct this film. The tale of a sheriff in a coastal town who has to battle thieves and save his girl during a category 5 hurricane (“It’s like DIE HARD in a hurricane,” I can hear the execs succinctly saying), the big budget film was tailored as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone.  The company slated a March 1991 start date for the film in Louisiana for a presumably summer 1992 opening:

Note how a script written by one guy suddenly has four (FOUR!) credited screenwriters.  Carolco also mentioned the film among their product in 1990 and 1991 Variety issues (bonus NGM items: note the unmade Stallone sci-fi actioner ISOBAR from Roland Emmerich and the John Hughes comedy BARTHOLOMEW VS. NEFF for Stallone and John Candy).

Despite having a firm start date, the film never got before cameras and dissolved.  So what happened?  According to an October 1991 article in Entertainment Weekly, the film fell apart due to endless rewrites:
Chappe was taken off the movie, and a succession of new writers came in, including top-paid screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (who sold the thriller Basic Instinct to Carolco for $3 million in 1990). He scrapped the Chappe story in favor of one of his own. ''The whole thing didn't work for me,'' says Eszterhas. ''I said I'd do an original screenplay with a hurricane in it — the only similarity. (Mine) was a film noir mood piece.'' 
Director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), who signed on to make Gale Force for $3 million, says he loved the Eszterhas script. But the writer's arty love triangle wasn't the movie Carolco wanted to sell to foreign distributors. After a few months, Eszterhas accepted a $500,000 fee and dropped out, and Carolco hired two more teams of writers, each contributing a new perspective on the story. 
But Harlin, more finicky, rejected the next wave of drafts. Finally, earlier this year a writer turned in one based almost directly on the original script — the idea had come full circle. By this time, the company had already invested an estimated $1.75 million on scripts alone.
Yeah, you got that right, the company spent millions rewriting a script they “loved” and paid a record amount for, only to come to the realization after several rewrites that the original script was the best version.  Even funnier?  Carolco claimed they pulled the plug on the $40 million dollar film because it wasn’t cost effective and instead went forward with the Stallone-Harlin team up CLIFFHANGER (1993), which cost $65 million!  Funniest of all?  The rock climbing epic contains basically the same plot as GALE FORCE, just different locations.  If you ever get an itch to see what GALE FORCE might have been like, rent the similar HARD RAIN (1998) which has basically the same premise.  At least someone in Hollywood was paying attention.  Harlin’s CLIFFHANGER turned out to be a sizable hit for Carolco and they gave him carte blanche for his next film.  That movie turned out to be CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995), the film that effectively bankrupted Carolco.


Regardless of the behind-the-scenes chaos, at least something was born out of GALE FORCE.  The same can’t be said for MANHATTAN GHOST STORY, which unfolds like the stereotypical Hollywood “dream-cum-nightmare” scenario.  As the MGS legend has it, the film’s genesis begins when producer Robert Lawrence indiscriminately picks up T.M. Wright’s horror novel at an airport kiosk, reads it on the plane, loves it and immediately decides to option the film rights.  Ha, like I believe that.  A producer who reads?  Yeah right!

Anyway, to prove they mean (big) business, Carolco sets the film up and, in the fall of 1990, agrees to pay Ronald Bass (fresh off his RAIN MAN Oscar win) the record writer assignment sum of $2 million dollars to write the screenplay.  No doubt they had visions of GHOST (1990), the year’s top box office draw, dancing in their heads.

Yeah, you got that right again, the company paid the screenwriter big bucks to adapt a book.  Hey *raises hand* I’ll do that for ¼ of the price.  My credentials, you ask?  I know how to read and type.

Carolco actively developed the supernatural project for years.  Sharon Stone, hot after Carolco’s BASIC INSTINCT (1991), was eventually signed to star and Carolco ran this ad in 1993 for the film with Mark Rydell (ON GOLDEN POND) attached to direct.

That is the closest the film has ever come to being before the cameras.  Just a few months later, this tiny blurb ran in October 1993 announcing Rydell was leaving the project:

The project stayed active in the screenwriting phase until Carolco's death in 1996. Eventually, the movie option was sold to Disney following Carolco’s bankruptcy where it was (once again) actively rewritten and developed as a project for Julia Roberts and director Wayne Wang.  Amusingly, it still has not been made.

#63 SADE

Now, before you think I am being overly cynical, let me say that I can understand the mindset behind the aforementioned spending sprees.  Action and horror pictures sell and, to quote ROBOCOP’s Emil, “It takes money to make money.”  This next example, however, is a perfect illustration of Hollywood’s tunnel vision and “inside the bubble” thinking.  In 1993, Carolco shelled out $1 million for the rights to Maurice Lever’s Sade: A Biography.  Yes, they wanted to do a biopic on 18th century aristocratic kink freak Donatien Alphonse François, Maquis de Sade.  Attached to direct was Paul Verhoeven, a man seemingly incapable of filming a movie for under $50 million.  Even worse, they were courting Jack Nicholson or Gerard Depardieu to star *grabs trash can and pukes*.

Now I would probably see a film like this.  Would Joe and Martha Moviegoer?  Hell no.  Not much happened on the production front, although Verhoeven did tell Movieline that he was hoping to cast his perennial female lead Sharon Stone as de Sade’s mother.  Yes, a woman in her late 30s as mother to potential stars 10 to 20 years her senior. Genius.  The film didn’t get made as Verhoeven moved onto the other film mention in the brief article above, SHOWGIRLS (1995) aka the world’s most expensive T&A film that helped bankrupt Carolco alongside a swashbuckling Geena Davis.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fangs for Nothing: FRIGHT NIGHT PART II (1988)

True story that will make you cry - I never got to see FRIGHT NIGHT PART II in the theater. Living overseas at the time, the Armed Forces entertainment system depended mostly on big releases.  If it got into 1,000 theaters in the U.S., chances are it would hit the military base theaters within a few months time.  Oh, and for some reason we got every Cannon Films movie.  Yay Charles Bronson!  So with this vampire sequel slipping into only 150 theaters in May of 1989, chances were slim that I would get to see it unfold on the big screen.  I eventually got to see it on VHS and enjoyed the hell out of it.  It is a great sequel that hits the similar riffs of the first film, yet slightly alters them.  But, even back then as semi-formed Video Junkie, I knew the transition to home video had cropped off a lot of the action.

In 2003, Artisan pulled a big screw you on the fans by finally releasing the popular film on the FULLSCREEN format.  Yay.  It looked like a widescreen release would never see the light of day as the execs would probably say lack of interest in their shoddy fullscreen release means no one wants to see it widescreen so they can't re-release it. Thankfully, some Video God intervened and the film was shown in its proper aspect ratio on the short-lived channel Monsters HD.  Why is this so important?  Well, director Tommy Lee Wallace was an longtime friend of John Carpenter.  And, like his buddy, he loves to use the widescreen framing to full effect.  Homeboys know how to compose the hell out of a 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio.  And here are just a few comparison shots (fullscreen vs. widescreen) to show you what the hell I am so giddy about when, after 23 years of waiting, I finally got to check out the full FRIGHT NIGHT PART II.















Pretty wild, ain't it?  Some weren't as unfortunate as me and did get to see this on the big screen *cough, Tom, cough* but at least I can get some semblance of what it was like.  I'm telling you, once I get that time machine working, I am totally going back to check this thing out in the theater.  Save the world from Hitler?  Stop Ted Bundy?  Kill the ancestors of the Kardashians?  All of those can wait.  I gots to see me some FRIGHT NIGHT PART II on the big screen.  

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Mondo Millard: SATAN'S BLACK WEDDING (1974)

As board certified bad movie enthusiasts, it is our job to journey into the netherworlds of cinema in order to unearth the worst films of all-time.  One of the more consistent purveyors of cinematic punishment has been director Nick Millard (aka Nick Philips), a man whose films are so cheap that H.G. Lewis has been known to watch them and scream, “Jesus, this guy knows how to cut corners!”

Millard got his start in the early 1960s, delivering b&w skin flicks with evocative titles like NYMPHO (1965) and THE SLUT (1965).  I wonder if anyone ever got those two confused.  Like most folks, my first exposure to Millard came via his later CRAZY FAT ETHEL (aka CRIMINALLY INSANE; 1975).  Sporting one of horrordom’s best titles and smallest budgets, it is a cult classic in every sense. But it appears Millard’s first foray into the horror genre came with SATAN’S BLACK WEDDING, which can only be described as ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) with plastic-fanged vampires on a budget of $10.78.

Mark Gray (Greg Braddock) returns to his childhood hometown following the suicide of his sister Nina (Lisa Milano).  According to his Aunt, Mark’s younger sis was writing a book titled “High Satanic Rites” and her research led her to an old abandoned church, where her frequent visits started a dark change in her.  What no one in the family knows is that Nina has fallen under the spell of Father Daken (Ray Myles), a 200-year-old priest who happens to worship Satan. And, screw it, he is a vampire too.  Daken has been courting the now vampire Nina so that she can help him perform a ritual to resurrect the ol’ Prince of Darkness.

Man, I wish my plot summary could be longer but that is really all there is to this flick.  Released on a double bill with the aforementioned INSANE, Millard’s dip into scarier waters offers no pretenses of being a classy horror film.  Hell, it doesn’t even offer a legit running time (62 minutes!).  I know if I found out I had 3 months to live tomorrow that I would spend it watching Millard films as he can make an hour seem like years.  This is why we love his films.  They are so cheap, wrong headed and inept, that they become lovable works of trash art (now you can accuse me of getting all “Jess Franco scholar” on you).  I’m not kidding - the vampire fangs used here are literally those plastic fangs you would buy as a kid.  That is nothing compared to the glimpse of Satan we get in the film’s final minute.  Millard is content to shoot the eye of some animal (probably a poster he found on a wall) that looks surprisingly like the US GODZILLA (1998) remake poster. Seriously, take a look at the Eye of Satan:

Technically, the film is a total mess.  The piano score sounds like it playing on the wrong speed and prepare to cover your ears anytime someone says a word beginning with an S as the audio makes sure to scratch that all up (“Ssssatan sssseeks ssssoulssss”).  The technical deficiencies are nothing compared to the plot’s lapses in logic.   There is a scene where Mark arrives at his sister’s place after the police have taken her body away and he goes to use the phone. Midway through his call, he notices a pool of blood and her severed finger on the counter.  The cops show up again with the chief detective admonishing a guy and telling him to do a better job looking around the crime scene next time.  I’m not kidding!  Later, the detective delivers what is easily now one of my favorite lines of dialog ever. Mark and his love interest get scared by a painting of Nina as a vampire that shows up mysteriously in their house.  They show it to the cop and he says, “I’ve never seen anything like that. There’s no point in calling in the lab boys because they haven’t either.” Seriously, say it out loud.  Two lines of dialog that perfectly encapsulate what we love about Nick Millard films.

Another fun thing is trying to guess when this flick was actually made.  The IMDb incorrectly lists a 1980 release year on it, but Millard says on the Shock-o-Rama special edition DVD (worth every penny, buy it!) that they made the film in 1974. Dude is definitely playing hard to find.  Millard pops up on our radar every now and then with crazy pseudonyms for some truly wonky action pictures (.357 MAGNUM; GUNBLAST; THE TERRORISTS) that have release dates harder to locate than Osama bin Laden (too soon?).  Just another reason why we love Nick and his unique brand of moviemaking – it is like a cinematic treasure hunt.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Theatrical Trip: DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT (2010)

I honestly had no intention of seeing DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT in the theater as the trailers did little to sell the flick to me.  And, after all, we are Video Junkie and not Theater Junkie.  That is probably another blog of some loser who spends all his time in the theater watching movies.  But when I read that it opened on 875 screens and came in #18 place at the box office this past weekend (grossing $754,779 with a sickly $863 per screen average), I knew I had to see it. After all, you want to have the kind of unbelievable “I…was…there” horror stories to tell the Grand Video Junkies one day.  So I bravely made my way to 1:30pm showing – with an older lady being the only other person in the theater – as a recorder of theatrical release history.  Hey, who just whispered “loser” under their breath?  I heard that!

The film opens with Elizabeth (Anita Briem) finding her antique importer father dead from a werewolf attack.  She requests the services of private investigator Dylan Dog (Brandon Routh) and his assistant Marcus (Sam Huntington).  Seems Dylan is an expert in the paranormal world but – you guessed it – gave that world up a long time ago after the death of the love of his life.  Gee, I wonder if something will happen to get him to take the case.  Indeed it does as Marcus is killed by a 7-foot tall zombie on steroids and this gets Dylan back into the game.  As he explains to Elizabeth, Dylan is the one guy selected by the undead to be the human gateway between their world and the world of the living.  If you have a problem, he is the one who takes care of it.

And, of course, there is a big problem. Seems the vampire and werewolf factions are feuding over an ancient silver dagger known as the Heart of Belial. Whoever possesses this will be able to resurrect a demon that will wipe out all of the undead at their all-powerful bidding. So we are basically looking at undead class warfare (or the plot of BLADE [1998]). Since he was bitten by a zombie, Dylan’s partner-in-crime solving Marcus is resurrected, but doesn’t fancy the zombie lifestyle.  Their investigation leads them to a bunch of creature characters from Dylan’s past including vampire Vargas (Taye Diggs), who is grateful to Dylan for taking out his competition back in the day, to werewolf kingpin Gabriel (Peter Stormare) and his son Wolfgang (former Olympian and pro-wrestler Kurt Angle).  So Dylan has to bust out his old bag (literally) of supernatural tricks to solve this mystery.

There isn’t really a whole lot to say about this film – it isn’t great, it isn’t terrible, it is just sort of there.  Director Kevin Munroe (TMNT) makes his live action debut here and everything is serviceable. Well, except for making the vampires emo goth TWILIGHT wannabes with bad haircuts.  Can we put a stake through the heart of this trend already?  There are some cool monsters with actual prosthetic effects and the film is never boring.  Unfortunately, Munroe is let down by a really terrible script by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer (soon to bless us with the CONAN remake).  Man, this stinker is bad as they hit every film noir cliché in the books.  I’m sure their defense to that criticism is “we meant it to be like that” but that is unacceptable (and unbelievable in my book) when you have lines like, “I never knew what love was until I lost it.”  I seriously wish I had a pen and paper handy to write down all the formula lines these poor actors had to utter.  I’m glad I didn’t though as I might have full-blown arthritis by the end of this film’s running time.  For every little cool thing they did (vampires selling their blood as a drug; silver knuckles for fighting werewolves), they matched it with bad things (zombie support groups; the obligatory vampire dance club).  Even worse, from the grievances I’ve read online by Dylan Dog comic fans, the screenwriters have apparently taken out all of the source material’s more eccentric elements to make it blander. Don’t you remember Pa Kent telling Superman that being different is a good thing?

And speaking of the Man of Steel (worst…segue…ever), you have Brandon Routh, the now unemployed Superman, in the lead role here and he looks the part. The filmmakers cleverly capitalize on his fame by reteaming him with Huntington (aka Jimmy Olsen) from SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006).  The duo definitely has good chemistry, but that is ruined by the horrible script (“they were out of Caucasian arms in your size”).  The rest of the cast is blah.  You know you are in trouble when Kurt F’N Angle gives one of the film’s better performances. Briem, who can’t keep a sweater on her shoulder to save her life, is sort of just there as the female love interest.  Believe it or not, Routh and Huntington have a better romantic chemistry. Taye Diggs is doing what he always does – suave Taye Diggs but with fangs this time.  And finally there is Peter Stormare. Whooboy, he must have really taken his role as a werewolf seriously as he chews on more scenery than should be allowed.  Seriously, this makes his performance in Romero’s BRUISER (2000) look subtle.

As it stands, DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT is the embodiment of average, straight down the middle of the road horror filmmaking. It won’t insult your grey matter like PIRANHA 3-D (2010), but it ain’t going to replace the other Tiziano Sclavi adaptation DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE (aka CEMETERY MAN; 1994) any time soon. Oddly enough, the opening credits of this appear to have several visual nods to Michele Soavi’s classic.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery they say, but it won’t get on the same level, Mr. Munroe.  Dylan’s business cards succinctly read “No pulse? No problem.” Ha, you guys are making it too easy for me as this film definitely suffers from no pulse, but that is a huge problem.  If you are hankering for some neo-noir monstrous mayhem, I would suggest the vastly superior CAST A DEADLY SPELL (1991) instead.  That’ll be $20.

Just for kicks, an ad for the Dylan Dog Horror Fest in Milan from the early 90s:

Monday, May 2, 2011

Vehicular Violence: THUNDER RUN (1986)

Watching Cannon movies is so much more than just sitting and watching a movie. If you are like us and you are completely incapable of turning off your brain when watching a movie, you will find yourself wondering what exactly the meetings were like. Not on a project here and there, but on, like, everything. Their bizarre logic would make a Harvard professor break down into an incoherent, blubbering mess. It’s not pretty, I assure you. But it is pretty damned entertaining.

Case in point: THUNDER RUN. While this is not actually a Golan and Globus production, it’s easy to see why they would want to distribute it. It fits perfectly into their mise en scène.

The film starts out in high-gear with a nocturnal ambush of some terrorists by the US military. After they proceed to shoot the living crap out of the lot and blow up their Datsun, the head of the operation angrily demands that they hold their fire. Hey, at least they saved us the long hearings over inhumane and illegal treatment of detainees. Apparently this subtle raid is part of an on-going CIA operation to flush out terrorists hiding in the US. You see, sleeper cell terrorists have been hijacking US plutonium shipments and CIA needs a plan, a plan so crazy it just might… be really crazy. The CIA (who for no adequately explained reason is operating on domestic soil) decides that what they need to do to snag these terrorists is set up a plutonium shipment with real plutonium and a civilian driver to make a cross country delivery, attracting the bad guys like moths to a bug-zapper. Since the terrorists would catch on if they used military transport and personnel, they are going to have to go covert and all they need is “the best driver in the world”. Nerves of steel! Reflexes of lightning! A senior discount at Denny’s! Yes, according to top CIA brass, 67 year old Charlie Morrison (Forrest Tucker) is the man for the job.

These days the casting would be completely different, to say the least. A twenty-something TV actor would be cast and we would never get amazing septuagenarian flirty banter and a date night at a square-dance complete with a jug-band playing Cotton-Eye Joe and another song who’s chorus is “Bullshit!”. Seriously. Not to worry though, the youth contingent is represented by Morrison’s grandson Chris (John Shepherd). Chris is into illegal street racing for no other reason to provide us with what is unquestionably the most gratuitous chase scene in the history of cinema. A black-clad motorcyclist flips off a squad car and the chase is on. But wait! This is merely a diversion to distract the cops from a drag race for a cool grand! Yes, that was a gratuitous chase-scene that provided an excuse for a gratuitous chase scene! Sheer genius.

Can you hear it? Wah, wah, waaaaaaah!
Seems Charlie Morrison is the owner of a mine and is in the process of unsuccessfully trying to sell it when CIA man and ex-Nam buddy George Adams (John Ireland) swings by with his offer-you-can’t-refuse: go on an almost certain death run hauling live plutonium to attract the deadliest villains in the country who will try to kill you every step of the way. Shit, who could say no to that? To sweeten the deal Adams throws in a quarter of a million dollars. Morrison needs time to mull over that proposition, but comes to a quick decision after the potential buyers manage to piss off the staff by pinching one of the girls causing her boyfriend to flip out and use a loader to run over their car and demolish the office, which falls over and reveals a cowboy sitting on a toilet with a newspaper! Man, that time tested gag is every bit as much of a chestnut as Tucker himself.

How to Spot a Terrorist Lesson #1:
Terrorists are mean to the waitstaff.
In order to get this plan in gear, a special truck is going to be needed, as is a montage of everyone pitching in and adding on all the lethal doo-hickey’s. Oh yeah, we got a big-rig of doom! Or, rather, a Kenworth with a V8 from Freemont with the logo “Thunder” painted on the side. Eh, it’ll do. Since the rig really isn’t much to look at (BATTLETRUCK, it’s not) the filmmakers try to play the audience with the old, “it’s got lots of cool stuff you can’t see” angle. For instance, it’s the ‘80s so computer technology is factored in. Of course, since it’s the ‘80s, computer failure is factored in. You see, Chris’ street racing buddy Paul (Wallace Langham) is a waifish computer nerd with an impossibly hot girlfriend that he has almost no interest in (yeah, I don’t know), who sets up a program that communicates directly with an army base security system via some sort of wireless device that the filmmakers can’t be bothered to explain. Hey, it just works, ok? Except that after all the build-up, we find that it doesn’t work and the last half of the film uses the error messages and the frustrated Paul as cut-aways from the action. To be fair, it’s used as a tension builder as the computer is supposed to be disabling the truck-destroying traps that guard the base. Why the army can’t just turn them off when the truck arrives I have no idea. But they can’t. Like so many things in life it takes a teenager to accomplish this task.

Speaking of action, once we get this truck into gear and on the highway, the terrorists do not disappoint. Sporting attacks ranging from a girl riding shotgun on a motorcycle whipping out a double-barrelled shotgun (that must have special terrorist modifications as it fires three shots without reloading), to VW Bugs with mounted missile racks! At first you may scoff at the idea of terrorists driving Volkswagons, but if you think about it, the Beetle was the car of the Third Reich. The VW plant was taken over by Hitler’s regime and the Beetle was created by Hitler’s designers as the super efficient car of the super arian race. So the fact that terrorists are driving them makes perfect sense! Right? Plus, any film that gets a semi airborne is gold in my book, but any film that launches a semi over a train, even if it's just a flatbed rail car is aweeeesome!

THUNDER RUN is the brainchild of veteran special effects / pyrotechnics guy Cliff Wenger who worked on everything from WHITE LIGHTNING (1973) to THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975) and MEGAFORCE (1982) to FLETCH LIVES (1989). Usually it takes a stuntman to cobble together such a sprained-brained but totally entertaining bit of cheese, but here Wenger, who wrote and produced, pulls off a gloriously cartoon action pic that gleefully wallows in its clichés. In one amusingly politically incorrect moment, in an effort to cut off the big rig, one of the terrorists instructs the token black terrorist to drive his car in front of the big rig. The black terrorist thinks this is a fine idea and is promptly immolated in a twisted mess of steel and flame. This is, of course, played for laughs. Phew! Yep, Cliff was pandering directly to his core red-neck audience with this one, but that’s actually what makes it fun. If Hollywood was doing it today, it would probably star Nicholas Cage (who never turns down a part), it would be loaded with CG effects and would play directly to the urban highschool crowd. Phhhhuutt! Who needs that?

On a sobering note, the film is dedicated to Cliff Wenger Jr., Cliff Sr’s son and protégé, who worked simultaneously on this film and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985). During a pyrotechnic stunt that went wrong on the Mexico set of RAMBO, Wenger Jr. was killed. It certainly would have been interesting to see what his career would have brought, if he had gotten behind the camera as his old man did. Instead we’ll just unspool this one again and wonder why the hell no-one has released it on DVD. Widescreen. With extras. Seriously.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Cinemasochism: CRYSTAL FORCE II: DARK ANGEL (1994)

The original CRYSTAL FORCE must have made a profit of over $700 bucks on video so prolific producer Jerry Feifer (aka Mr. WITCHCRAFT) got this sequel rolling through his Vista Street Entertainment.  He is like Roger Corman on chemo.  And how do you make the positively anemic first film look amazing?  Why you shoot the sequel on video!  After having viewed this follow-up, I suddenly look back on CRYSTAL FORCE with fond memories. Oh, that beautiful film look.  Those semi-professional actors. Damn you, CRYSTAL FORCE II, damn you!

Sad sack bartender Jake (Chris Zawalki) pines for waitress Allison (Betsy Gardner), who is abused by her boyfriend (“Joe may be a son of a bitch, but he’s my son of a bitch”).  He loves her so much that he says he would give his soul for her.  Uh oh. Enter Virgil Starkweather (Paul Brewster).  Yes, Starkweather, this is about as subtle as part 1’s Mr. Beazel.  Anyway, this messenger for Satan drifts into the Royal Oak Bar and proceeds to befriend our lonely spirits slinger.  Virgil uses mind control on a patron via the tiny crystal (yay semi-continuity!) around his neck to start a bar fight which he clumsily breaks up (let’s just say he ain’t no Jackie Chan).  This so impresses owner Big Slim (who is fat, LOL!) that he immediately hires Virgil as a bouncer and gives him the keys to his brother’s place to stay at. Damn, he good.

Of course, Virgil be bad too.  After all, he does have a goatee.  And, for some odd reason, this minion from hell has fangs and we see him bite into a rat and a dude in an alley.  Ol’ Virg here starts working overtime on his Satanic Make-a-Wish foundation for Jake.  He gets him to drink a potion made of his blood and suddenly Jake is full of confidence, even having the amazing courage to tell Allison his favorite movie is THE GODFATHER.  That totally gets her into the sack. You go, boy!  Naturally, this comes with a price and Virgil wants Jake to sign away his soul. The deal is 25 years of Charlie Sheen-esque “winning” on Earth in exchange for your soul burning in eternity.  Hmmm, something seems a bit uneven there.  When Jake refuses, Virgil takes him to hell’s waiting room (the same bar with red lighting) where they play a game of cards for his soul.  THE SEVENTH SEAL this ain’t.

Goddamn, son, this is some rough stuff.  I mean, the WITCHCRAFT series didn’t start doing shot-on-video until WITCHCRAFT IX (1997). To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen (too highbrow?), “I served with WITCHCRAFT IX, I knew WITCHCRAFT IX, WITCHCRAFT IX was a friend of mine.  CRYSTAL FORCE II, you’re no WITCHCRAFT IX.”  I know it is a cliché line, but I really have seen pornos with better production values.  And porn filmmakers often have the sense not to let a dog walk into the frame to ruin a "sexy" scene.  You’ll notice a majority of the screen shots involve the nekkid ladies on display and that is probably because that might be the only thing this “film” has going for it. And even there you are a bit starved as this is like GIRLS GONE WILD minus the production values. How cheap is this film?  I’m not kidding there are two instances where someone where someone is supposed to hear a voice in their head and the filmmakers have someone whispering behind the camera!

Even worse is the connection between the two films.  Since Virgil is only seen rubbing his crystal every now and then, the plot point about it being a satanic instrument is completely reliant on one having seen the first film.  Of course, I knew that because I (foolishly) watched it the day before.  I really shouldn’t be too demanding though.  After all, this is the kind of movie that has Virgil describing average, useless non-Alpha males as guys who “watch a lot of sports but give money to public television.”  To quote our good buddy Jack Burton, “I don’t even know what the hell that means!” The acting is about what you’d expect.  Zawalki is actually decent in the lead, but Brewster’s voice started to annoy me, sounding like an Ambien hopped up home shopping host while looking like Kevin Dillon’s evil twin (goatee!).

Director James MacKinnon is a vet of the WITCHCRAFT series, having served as the make-up department head on parts IV-VII (“throw some blood on her breasts!”).  He also plays the “beast from hell” (meaning: werewolf costume day rental) that shows up for about 30 seconds to try and attack the comatose Jake in the hospital (see pic). Believe it or not, he might give the film’s most spirited performance.  He has since gone on to work on big budget Hollywood fare like THOR (2011) as a make up guy and I couldn’t be happier for him.  Whatever keeps him away from the video camera is good in my book.