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!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sci-Fried Theater: TRANSFORMATIONS (1988)

Charles Band seemed to have the right idea in the 1980s with his Empire Pictures.  He was cranking out low budget genre films by the dozen and even started dabbling in higher budgets (like Stuart Gordon’s ambitious ROBOT JOX) toward the end of the decade. He even bought a huge studio in Rome to serve all of the 40 productions he boldly announced in 1986/87. Seems he had all the right moves.  Well, except for one thing.  He forgot to pay his bills.

The financial cracks started forming in 1988 and, by October 1988, the Empire hadn’t stuck back but been struck down and Band had already moved on to Bandcompany (soon to become Full Moon).  Caught in bankruptcy limbo were 5 Empire productions that were in various states of post-production.  Titles included the aforementioned JOX (eventually released by Triumph theatrically and Columbia on video), David Schmoeller’s CATACOMBS (released as CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE by Columbia/Epic in 1993), SPELLCASTER with Adam Ant (released in 1992 by Columbia), the Band directed anthology PULSE POUNDERS (still unreleased) and the sci-fi slimer TRANSFORMATIONS.

I can still remember finding this one on a Starmaker VHS in a K-Mart sometime in 1991. Naturally, the cover (see pic above) was designed solely to get a 15-year-old like me into a Pavlov state.  I mean, a fly-bat-mantis-demon-man with a snake coming out of his exposed ribcage?  *drools*  Well, we’ll get this right out of the way and state that TRANSFORMATIONS features nothing as cool as the cover art. Lesson learned, I think.

The film centers on intergalactic smuggler Wolfgang “Call me Wolf” Shadduk (Rex Smith), who manages to have a dream of being raped by a succubus in the film’s first six minutes. It must have been one helluva lay as it knocks his ass out and his ship crash lands on a prison mining colony.  He is nursed back to health by friendly doctor Miranda (Lisa Langlois) and told not to socialize with the free-to-roam prisoners.  Do you think he listens?  No, and soon he is picking up chicks at the prison planet’s dive bar.  This is bad news because the succubus infected him with some kind of virus.  You know that a STD strain is deadly when you can get it in your dreams. Soon everyone is getting blisters and Father Christopher (Patrick Macnee) feels it is the second coming of the plague.

Man, what does it say about a film when the only thing I can remember from my first viewing of it 20 years ago were the sharp angles in Father Christopher’s space church and that the final “monster vs. girl” fight takes place in a place with some cargo nets?  Yes, TRANSFORMATIONS is completely forgettable, low budget stuff.  It shows the Band had his head on straight in that they reuse some of the sets from ROBOT JOX, a practice every studio should do. Unfortunately, the rest of the film is completely budget starved.  You’ll laugh when you see the same hallway used over and over during a chase scene.  And there is a score that is completely out of place.  It was probably added later and sounds like stock music from a 1950s b-gangster flick.  Also, I love that they decided to use Italians as the prisoner extras.  Of course, they would have to shooting in Italy, but they seemed to have grabbed the most stereotypical looking Italian guys on the block. Italian horror fans will probably notice the director of photography was Sergio Salvati (THE BEYOND), but his resources appear to have been extremely limited.

Finally, I love that a film called TRANSFORMATIONS only has one semi-full onscreen transformation.  Even worse, the final monster, which you barely get to see, looks exactly like that fried chicken head that made the news a few years ago (see pic).  First you cheat me on fly-bat-mantis-demon-man with the snake chest and now this? Shame on you, Mr. Band.  One thing I do find interesting about the film is the prison planet setting as that echoes the later ALIEN 3 (1992). This shot in 1987 and David Twohy – who introduced the prison planet idea initially into the ALIEN franchise – delivered his first draft for that sequel in 1989.  So somebody was checking this bad boy out. Because no one would ever, ever say, “What about a movie where a planet is used as a prison?”  Sadly, ALIEN 3 lacked the naked dream monster angle.  And a snake coming out a ribcage (chest-bursters don’t count).  Damn it, I’m still pissed.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Buns and Ammo: HARD TICKET TO HAWAII (1987)

Andy Sidaris’ MALIBU EXPRESS (1985) did enough business that he was able to mount this semi-sequel a few years later.  While EXPRESS laid the foundation, HARD TICKET TO HAWAII is generally considered the blueprint in Sidaris cinematic history with its location switch to the Aloha state for more obscene amounts of skin, sun and insanity.

HARD TICKET introduces series regulars Dona (Dona Speir) and Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton). Somehow we are supposed to believe these former Playboy Playmates (March 1984 for Speir and July 1985 for Carlton) are D.E.A. agents working undercover as pilots in Molokai.  Well, Taryn is a witness against the mob turned agent (because that is how the government work, right?). They soon find themselves up to their breasts in trouble thanks to some evil pot dealers.  See, they used to be peaceful local types, but evil Seth (Rodrigo Obreg√≥n) has taken over the organization and he takes no prisoners.  Oh wait, he actually does take a prisoner in Edy (Cynthia Brimhall, Playboy Playmate October 1985).  So the girls team up with buff warriors Jade (Harold Diamond) and Rowdy Abilene (Ronn Moss), cousin of MALIBU’s Cody Abilene.  Oh, and did I forget to mention there is a huge, cancer-ridden snake loose on the island?

HARD TICKET TO HAWAII is often considered Sidaris’ masterpiece and I can see why.  In addition to the T&A element, the film features some incredibly entertaining over-the-top moments.  The film has reached legendary status online with the “frisbee of death” scene but, believe it or not, that is not the film’s wildest moment.  I think that distinction should be handed to the “skater death” where Jade and Rowdy take out a middle-aged skater dude with a rocket launcher.  Did I forget to mention the skater is inexplicably carrying a blow up doll and the Rowdy blows that up with the bazooka as well? You know things are crazy when random scenes like that make you think a 12-foot cancer snake on steroids is completely normal.  I also love that the crazy climax with Seth coming back over and over like a horror movie slasher made me completely forgot about the toxic snake until it burst from the toilet in all its glory.

While Sybil Danning is definitely missed (she never made another Sidaris movie *sobs*), the new cast makes up for it as, once again, it looks like a nude Playmate convention.  In addition to the ladies mentioned above, we also get Patty Duffek (Playmate May 1984).  It is like Sidaris set up an orphanage for wayward Playboy Playmates. For the ADD crowd (or if you don't have 95 minutes to spare), a kind soul edited the best parts (sans nudity) of the movie into this 10 minute video. Warning: toxic snakes and incredibly catchy theme song!  For the ultra ADD crowd without 10 minutes to spare, I’ve done another handy visual guide to the film below.

HARD TICKET TO HAWAII in 10 minutes:

How every film should open:

Smokin' some of that weed before you went clothes shopping?

Dona (Dona Speir) & Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton), D.E.A. agents of your dreams:

"Let's unload and hit the jacuzzi. I do my best thinking there." (actual line)

Tae Kwon D'oh!

"So I saw this movie called .357 Magnum..."

 "Man, he must be smoking some heavy doobies." (actual line)

A plastic woman in a Sidaris flick, no way!

"Baby look pretty now, mommy?"


I've totally been to

You can tell he is evil by his phone:

OMG! Look at that beautiful wood paneling!

Your frisbee playin' days are over, son:

Is this guy Seth Voorhees?

Seth meets snake:

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #64 & #65: Reaping the non-Harvest

Chances are if you saw a Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan film at some point in your life, you’ll recognize the film company logo to the left.  Opening many a film with the famous “bong, bong, bong, bong, do-dah-dah-dah,” the Golden Harvest logo is known the world over.  The company was formed in 1970 by Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, two former employees of the famous Shaw Brothers studios who decided to try to succeed on their own.  And succeed they did as the duo managed to woo top box office draw Jimmy Wang Yu – among many other popular actors and directors – away from Shaw Bros.

Golden Harvest also scored a major coup by winning the bidding war with the Shaws to sign a relative unknown named Bruce Lee to a film contract.  Within just a few years, the company was the top film production house in Hong Kong and usurped their competition.  This was helped, no doubt, by the popular ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), which was made with help from US company Warner Bros.   Co-production was the name of the game and Golden Harvest had no qualms letting their big names get international exposure.  Wang Yu films like THE MAN FROM HONG KONG (1975) and A QUEEN’S RANSOM (1976) saw them working with Aussies and Brits, respectively.  They got even more clout by signing Robert Mitchum to THE AMSTERDAM KILL (1977), which reunited the company with ENTER director Robert Clouse.

In 1978, Golden Harvest had another successful international production with the Vietnam war flick THE BOYS IN COMPANY C (1978), which was directed by Sidney J. Furie and released by Columbia Pictures.  Looking to go to the co-production well one more time, Golden Harvest arranged for a series of films again with Warner Bros. Pictures and announced several pictures.  While many of them got made (THE CANNONBALL RUN, Jackie Chan’s THE BIG BRAWL, DEADLY EYES aka THE RATS), one big bandied about title did not – THE SHIPKILLER.  Based on a book by Justin Scott, THE SHIPKILLER revolved around a guy who begins an Ahab-esque quest to see vengeance on a huge oil tanker and its crew after it unwittingly crushes his smaller boat and kills his wife.

The first notices of the project came in these tiny blurbs in Box Office in August 1978 mentioning producer Chow had picked up the rights to the novel:

A few months later, in December 1978, it was announced that Sidney J. Furie had signed on to direct the project:

This impressive ad ran in Variety in May 1979 with the bold comparison to JAWS (1975).  Hey, no one would get it if they said, “It is like a seafaring DUEL (1971).”

Five months later, this ad appeared in Variety in October 1979.  We can only assume most of 1979 was spent on developing the script as the screenwriter went from Clarke Reynolds to Jonathan Hales.  A small GH profile mentioned a $20 million dollar budget.

Fast forward to May 1980 and the film has still not gone into production.  It is mentioned again in a write up for Harvest’s 1981 line up and is now looking about $4 million lighter in the budget department.

Alas, the film never got off the ground, er, set sail.  Furie would leave the project and go on to make THE ENTITY (1982), much to the delight of ghost sex fans everywhere.  It is a shame as it sounds like it could have been a cool project as 70s nautical films tended to rule and it would have been an awesome vehicle for someone like George C. Scott.

At the same time Golden Harvest announced THE SHIPKILLER, they also announced the production of HIGH ROAD TO CHINA.  “Wait a sec,” I can hear you saying, “that did get made fool!”  Yes, it did but after a prolonged pre-production process that saw some major players attached to the film.  Here are two items from Box Office in October 1978 announcing the project with ENTER THE DRAGON producer Paul Heller behind the project with a May 1979 start date.

Come May 1979, the producers are promising a July 1979 start date with a huge name attached to direct.  Yes, that is the one and only John Huston listed as director.  No doubt it was his fine acting work in TENTACLES (1977) and THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE (1978) that really convinced Golden Harvest he was the man for the job and not his storied directing career.

Despite the targeted summer 1979 filming date, they never got started.  In October 1979, the following ad ran for the film.  Huston was no longer attached with Brian Hutton (KELLY’S HEROES) taking his place.  But an even bigger name (in front of the camera) now took up the ad space: Mr. James Bond himself Roger Moore!  Pretty big casting as Moore was at the height of his popularity as Britain’s top secret service agent.

Sadly, we never got to see either incarnation of the project.  Golden Harvest developed it for a few more years before it finally went before cameras in 1982 with Tom Selleck in the lead role.  And, despite having a convoluted production history, the film turned out to be a pretty entertaining adventure.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

No Deniro Pistolero: GET MEAN (1976)

Someday I would like to meet Tony Anthony. Some people want to meet their matinee idols so that they can bask in their presence and maybe get some recognition of their hard work of keeping a seat firmly attached to the floor over the many hours and years of watching their films. I want to meet Tony Anthony so I can ask him one question.

Anthony’s film career is a relatively short and rather odd one comprised of a fistful of spaghetti westerns and a smattering of others. His main claim to fame would be The Stranger series. The first film being A DOLLAR BETWEEN THE TEETH (1967), a pretty straightforward, but entertaining, low-budget rip-off of A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS (1964), the second being A MAN, A HORSE, A GUN (1967) and the third being THE SILENT STRANGER (1968) in which Anthony’s unnamed character goes to Japan. This was a genre precedent as RED SUN wouldn't see the light of day until three years later. The film was not well received by MGM who decided to edit it and tack on a voice-over explaining the action early in the film and then shelved the film until 1975. In the end it barely got released to US theaters and went largely unreleased in many foreign territories. I am guessing Anthony had a bit of a fascination with Japanese cinema (as did most Italians at the time) which led to this ground-breaking crossover pic and then subsequently the superb Zatoichi reworking BLINDMAN (1971). Where it all goes pear-shaped is this quasi fourth installment (aka THE STRANGER GETS MEAN), which ends up in a surreal universe that is so completely bizarre that it really has nothing to do with the three Stranger films at all and almost makes EL TOPO (1971) seem rather rational.

The basic plot outline is thus: The Stranger finds himself in a dilapidated desert town that is under attack by Viking raiders. A gypsy fortuneteller and her son offer him ten thousand dollars to escort a Spanish princess (Diana Lorys) back to Spain where she can summon an army to assist in putting an end to the attacks. After The Stranger demands fifty thousand for the task, they are off. Once they travel from Wisconsin (!?) to Spain, they find that the Vikings and the Moors are at war and the Vikings now control Spain (though, the leaders seem to be more Moorish than Nordic) and are searching for the lost treasure of Rodrigo, which as the legend goes, only the princess can find. Naturally this causes some friction between The Stranger and the usurpers , the permanently enraged Diego (Raf Baldassarre), his gay advisor Alphonso (David Dreyer) and the hunch-backed puppet-master Sombra (Lloyd Battista) who has an obsession with Shakespeare’s Richard III. Oh, and yes, you read that right. Vikings in Wisconsin. Hey, maybe they migrated over from Minnesota.

Directed by Ferdinando Baldi (under the appropriately named “Strange Films Inc. Productions”) with some of the same stars as BLINDMAN, from the opening frame you know this is not going to be your average western. Opening with a close-up of a silver sphere sitting among the tumble-weeds on a desert plain (I think I have that album), we are re-introduced to The Stranger as he is literally dragged screaming into a windy, empty dirt town, where his horse promptly keels over and dies, while the town is being ripped apart by desert winds. If that isn’t one of the best character intros ever, I don’t know what is. No lazy, loping into town at noon ala Trinity or slogging through the rain and mud ala Django, nope, this one is not having any of it.

On arriving in Spain, The Stranger and the Princess find themselves trapped between the Viking/Barbarian army and the Moors who proceed to wage an epic battle with hundreds of extras that looks as if it’s lifted straight out of a ‘60s peplum! Once the Moors are routed by the barbarian forces, which include an amazingly cool horizontal gattling-cannon device, The Stranger finds himself strung up by his feet and shot with a cannon mortar while the barbarians take off with the princess. He is, of course, no worse for wear after this and is now pissed off and looking to settle the score. In BLINDMAN he wanted his 50 women. Here he wants his 50 thousand. Sure, it’s pretty simplistic, but I’m fine with that, which is a good thing because that’s all we are really going to get as far as plot is concerned.

One of the most bizarre moments has The Stranger searching for Rodrigo’s treasure in a cavern inhabited by a screaming bearded hermit with a knife. While trying to escape from the hermit, The Stranger is blown up in a black cloud that turns his skin completely black. He finds out that he is completely black by looking down his pants and shouting in horror “I’m black!!”

If there is some symbolism here...
I have no idea what it is.
But wait! It’s not over yet - he then scrambles out of a hole into a small valley that is occupied by a black bull that chases him around until he finally falls into another hole, back into the caverns and is able to steal what he believes to be Rodrigo’s treasure (a figurine of a horse and a scorpion necklace). Narrowly avoiding the hermit’s knife, The Stranger kicks him off of a ledge and escapes right into the clutches of Sombra and Diego who do not even bat an eyelash at The Stranger’s completely black visage. The only thing here that has any bearing whatsoever to the rest of the film is the necklace, called The Scorpion’s Sting, which is used by The Stranger to terrify the villains who believe it to be cursed. At one point he encases it in wax and shoves it down Alphonso’s throat, sending him back to the castle where Sombra has him force-fed on the wheel until he, errm, releases it.

Like many of Anthony’s films, there is a weird mean-streak running through it that is off-set by the amiable, if not downright gullible in this film, quality of his character. Here Anthony plays his character as not the stoic serape-clad loner of the Stranger series proper, but a southern-accented rube dressed in patched up rags. On the other side of the fence, his usual themes of the villains being cruel beyond measure are intact with Sombra forcing a gypsy girl into a duel with fencing swords, only to stab her in the back when she tries to flee. Battista, who co-wrote the script with Baldi, clearly is relishing his obviously self-scripted role by chewing the scenery while being vain, cruel and all the while quoting lines from the Bard’s play, including during his death scene. If nothing else, they were having a damn good time making this movie, that’s for sure. The whole Shakespeare angle is actually great fun and works well in the context of an exploitation film. As much as high-brow scholars pontificate about Shakespeare’s works being great art (which, granted, they were), they seem to skip over the fact that Shakespeare wrote entertainment for the masses. Exploitation plays as it were. Sure there are lots of beautifully crafted soliloquies, rife with subtext and word-play, but the man also worked in groin humor and graphic violence. People meet all sorts of nasty ends, get kicked in the balls and have illicit sex at the drop of a quill. It’s good stuff.

After being roasted like a pig on a spit, The Stranger has had about enough out of the barbarian trio and loads himself up with enough weapons and explosives to make Schwarzenegger shake his head at the excess and says “when things are even up, a man really should fight fair, but oh, when they just keep puttin’ it too ya buddy, and they’re stompin’ on your ass… there’s only one way to fight… get mean!” Yep, for my money, no matter how bizarre the premise, how ludicrous the situations, you just can't go wrong with Tony Anthony and Ferdninando Baldi blowing stuff up.

In the end GET MEAN may not reach the crafted genius that is BLINDMAN, or achieve the dreamlike atmosphere of COMIN’ AT YA!, but it lives in its own little world of surreal weirdness that makes it a must for those who enjoy Tony Anthony’s stuff or just want to see something that is so completely off-kilter that it is no surprise that it hasn’t been released on video in the US and has barely seen the light of day anywhere else. “But wait!” I hear you say, “what’s the deal with the silver sphere?!” That is exactly the question I would ask Mr. Anthony.

Be sure to check out executive producer Ron Schneider's impressive shrine to the film, loaded with interviews, reviews and tons of great info and anecdotes regarding the production.