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!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Halloween Havoc: HOWLING IV (1988) and HOWLING V (1989)

14-year-old me on HOWLING IV: “Okay, Philippe Mora is gone, that is a good sign. And Fangoria did a profile on FX guy Steve Johnson and the werewolf stills looked pretty awesome. And what’s this? They signed John Hough to direct? Damn, he’s done some good films including THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE. The series could be getting back into shape here.”

36-year-old me: “You freakin’ dumbass.”

With all the accuracy of a full moon on the lunar calendar, the HOWLING series reared its head just a year later with a fourth entry. Despite the artistic damage done by HOWLING III, the film proved to a home video success and ensured at least one more sequel. The producers were howling all the way to the bank. Things definitely changed for the furry films though as, outside of panning reviews, Fangoria didn’t cover the films at all and theatrical prospects in the US disappeared. Yup, HOWLING IV was the first to go direct-to-video and the series has remained there ever since.

Best selling author Marie Adams (Romy Windsor) has a nervous breakdown after she starts seeing things like blood running from her eyes, ghost nuns, and werewolf heads leaping out of a grill flame. Her doctor suggests she take a break and Marie’s husband Richard (Michael T. Weiss) books a secluded cabin in the woods for some much needed R&R. The couple decides to visit the nearby town on Drago, where they meet an odd assortment of townies including seductive shop keeper Eleanor (Lamya Derval). Unfortunately, this little getaway has done little to calm Marie’s mind as she still sees visions of this mysterious nun and hears an odd howling every night. The stress drives her husband away, resulting in him having an affair with Eleanor. Meanwhile, Marie has befriended avid fan Janice Hatch (Susanne Severeid), who might know more about Drago’s town secret history and this mysterious nun than she is letting on.

Bearing the subtitle THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE, HOWLING IV is certainly an odd little film. Believe it or not, it is more of a straight adaptation of Gary Brandner’s original novel, which goes to show you how much Dante, Sayles and company spruced up the source material. To be honest, the only thing I could recall from my initial viewing of this film 23 years ago was a scene where a guy melted. And there is a reason that was my only dim recollection because it is probably the only interesting thing that happens in this snoozefest. It isn’t until an hour into this 90 minute flick that we get a glimpse of a werewolf (for about 2 seconds) and the aforementioned meltdown doesn’t happen until the 80 minute mark. And while Johnson’s team did supply a cool looking final beast, the audience barely gets a glimpse of it during the finale as Hough shows hidden by fire in rapid cuts. Feast your eyes as these are about a good a shots as you get in the movie:

To be fair, HOWLING IV was a bit of a troubled production. Filming started with co-screenwriter Clive Turner in the director’s chair. Filming was halted for a while before Harry Allan Towers swooped in to resurrect the production. You know you’ve got problems when Towers is saving your ass. Anyway, John Hough came in on extremely short notice and resumed filming in South Africa, which the production does a great job of disguising as rural California. Still, that can’t make up for the film’s complete lack of action for nearly 90% of its running time. The script is also a mess with bits like Richard, responding to Marie mentioning the howling, saying, “You’re probably just hearing the animal in me.” Ooof. There is also a ridiculous late act revelation where a character figures out the nun’s warning of “we’re all in fear” really means “werewolves in here.” Ooof again. A complete lack of blood during the werewolf attacks also hurts. On the bright side, you could probably start a drinking game where everyone chugs any time a character says the word howling. I’m glad I don’t drink.

“HOWLING V? Isn’t that the one where a lot of people run
around in a castle and nothing happens?” – Joe Dante

Dante, director of the original THE HOWLING, was pretty spot on when he gave that quote to Gorezone in 1991. Vitalized by video receipts, the HOWLING producers felt no reason to slow down their goldmine. This resulted in the shortest gap between sequels with HOWLING IV debuting on video November 1, 1988 and HOWLING V: THE REBIRTH hitting shelves just over six months later on May 9, 1989. This quick turnaround brought about some severe cost cutting as the filmmakers headed to Hungary to shoot their latest monster movie.

HOWLING V opens in 1489 in a castle strewn with dead folks in Budapest. Seems everyone is committing suicide to end a family curse, but – wouldn’t ya know it – a baby is heard crying just as the last couple are offing themselves. “We died in vain,” screams the husband, unaware of the films THE REBIRTH subtitle. Cut to 500 years later in a modern day Budapest hotel where a group of nine strangers are gathering. Seems they have all been invited to a castle opening by Count Istvan (Philip Davis). Now who or what this castle opening is for is never explained, but, c’mon, how can anyone resist a castle opening. The group of nine little Indians, er, random strangers include: Prof. Dawson (Nigel Triffitt), who is interested that the castle has no recorded history; pop star Gail Cameron (Stephanie Faulkner), who is recovering from a breakdown; photographer David Gillispie (Ben Cole); struggling American actress Mary Lou (Elizabeth Shé, no doubt typecast); successful European actress Anna (Mary Stavin); Aussie Ray Price (co-writer and producer Clive Turner, always with a drink in hand); tennis pro (!) Jonathan Lane (Mark Sivertsen); Richard Hamilton (William Shockley, hoping someone runs a John Glover look-a-like contest), resident rich Yuppie asshole; and Dr. Catherine Peake (Victoria Catlin), resident bitch who is also seeing cheating Richard. Got all that? Good because you will be quizzed later. Anyway, it is weird because, as the characters soon find out, they were all orphans and all bear the same triangular birthmark. Oh, and one of them is a werewolf.

In case you haven’t been keeping track, this is one globe hopping horror series as HOWLING V marks the fifth country the series has been produced in. I don’t want to falsely accuse anyone, but it seems odd no sovereign nations want the company back.

HOWLING II: Czechoslovakia & USA
HOWLING III: Australia
HOWLING IV: South Africa
HOWLING V: Hungary

Is there some kind of U.N. resolution against these films? It wouldn’t shock me. Heading to Eastern Europe can only mean one thing, the producers were looking to go ultra-cheap and indeed this is the most threadbare of the HOWLING sequels up to this point.

Like HOWLING IV, this was also a troubled production. Original director Michael Fischa (DEATH SPA) was fired three days into production and first AD Neal Sundström was promoted to the job with six hours notice. To be fair, this is a pretty good looking film that benefits greatly from the scenery in its host country. Also, the castle and underground tunnel sets are well done and there is some decent cinematography and lighting. Regardless of behind-the-scenes turmoil, you can’t deliver much with this Agatha Christie-lite script. The mystery is no surprise because one character is left alone to rest in a bed for a majority of the action. Gee, I wonder who the werewolf is. More puzzling is how this character manages to keep their clothes intact, despite turning into a werewolf every ten minutes or so. There is a very weak attempt to connect this to the rest of the series with an “it all started here” bit, but it is never fully capitalized on. The filmmakers’ stinginess also carried over to the werewolf effects as the same costume from part IV is used here. You actually get a better look at it on the cover than you do in the actual film. In a testament to how little the producers cared, this entry marks the first HOWLING film to feature no onscreen werewolf transformation. Hey, they’re setting records, baby.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Halloween Havoc: THE THING (2011)

Full disclosure right off the bat – John Carpenter is my favorite director of all-time.  His run from 1974 – 1988 is unparalleled in my eyes by any genre filmmaker and it was a true shame when he died in that bus accident the day before he started filming MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it).  Anyway, that decade plus of dominance gave us his remake of THE THING (1982), which is now considered a modern classic.  The film is the perfect combination of action, horror, sci-fi and machismo.  It is also proof positive that a remake can be as good (hell, even better) than the original.

With Carpenter’s filmography from that time period getting remake raped (ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, HALLOWEEN, and THE FOG actually getting made; talk of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, PRINCE OF DARKNESS and THEY LIVE remakes still alive), it seemed like only a matter of time before his sci-fi classic would be dusted off by some braid dead bean counter to be exploited.  Initially, plans were announced for Frank Darabont to produce a 4-hour miniseries sequel in 2005 titled RETURN OF THE THING. Scripted by David Leslie Johnson, the direct sequel’s screenplay got good reviews, but never materialized.  In early 2009, Universal Studios announced that the producers of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake would be handling a new version of THE THING.  Oh, crap. But in a strange twist, they opted to do a prequel to Carpenter’s film rather than remake it. Okay, they just bought some much needed respect from me.

Set in the same winter of 1982, THE THING prequel opens with three Norwegians in a snow mobile tracking a strange signal under the ice, which gives way and offers them a glimpse at just what was sending out that signal. Cut to paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in her lab examining a frozen fossil. She is recruited by Norwegian scientist Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) and his assistant (and her possible old flame) Adam Goodman (Eric Christian Olsen) to head to Antarctica to help extract something from the ice. All she is told is that they have discovered a large structure and a specimen.  Flown to the isolated Norwegian base by American Sam Carter (Joel Edgerton) and his two co-pilots, Kate and the scientific team are quickly whisked away to the discovery site where Edvard Wolner (Trond Espen Seim) shows them what all the fuss is about – a huge spaceship and its sole inhabitant encased in ice.  The crew carves the solidified space invader out and, once back at the station, Halversen orders a tissue sample to be taken.  Bad news as it causes the thing to thaw out and you can guess what happens next.

“If I was an imitation, a perfect imitation, 
how would you know it was really me?” 
– Childs (Keith David) in THE THING (1982)

A lot of confusion has surfaced about this film in recent months.  The filmmakers were adamant that they were paying homage to Carpenter’s film (to remake it would “be like painting eyebrows on the Mona Lisa” said producer Eric Newman) with their prequel, but the trailers revealed more than just some casual compliments to Carpenter’s work.  Hell, there were identical shots in there.  So what is this thing?  Is it a prequel?  Is it a remake? A premake?  And, most important, is it a good thing or a bad thing?  It actually ends up being a little bit of both.  Afraid to truly make waves, the producers tried to have their cake and remake it too.  The first half hour or so this THE THING is entirely original stuff (if I was grumpy, I could complain about the base looking exactly the same). However, once the alien escapes and begins attacking folks, we see some eerily familiar ground.  We have nearly the exact same autopsy scene, a cell assimilation explanation, a “testing who is human” scene, a Blair is locked in the shed bit, an outdoor body bonfire (which looks nearly identical), and an ill victim suddenly surprising his caregivers. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer got extremely lazy here. Helping him in the Xerox-process is debuting helmer Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., who goes so far as to mimic Carpenter’s shots (watch the crane up during the autopsy scene).  How fitting is it that Carpenter’s film about creating perfect imitations finds itself confronted by one in the guise of a prequel.  Sadly, that isn’t the only source material being copied as the film’s last 15 minutes strives to give us some heroic Ripley scenes from the first two ALIEN films as Kate runs around inside the big alien spaceship.

“Producer Newman said that the balance 
is about 80/20 practical to CGI”
-AICN set report on THE THING

To quote classic Carpenter CHRISTINE villain Buddy Repperton, “You fuckin’ liar!” Whether they were just paying lip service to the fan base of Carpenter’s movie or Newman just got his numbers mixed up, the effects are my biggest gripe with the new THE THING (update: see video below). For starters, the majority of them are done with computer imaging and they look terrible.  It is just a busy bile burst of CGI that fills the screen.  It is really sad that real latex effects in a film nearly 30 years old outshine what is supposed to be cutting edge technology.  Second and perhaps more importantly is that the alien creations all seem to mirror the work of the 1982 film’s creator and designer, Rob Bottin.  The filmmakers had absolutely free reign here in terms of their design, but nearly every transformation recalls something from Carpenter’s earlier film. Most embarrassing is the end monster that recalls the Blair-monster almost tendril by tendril.  Even the thing in its alien form is derivative as it reminded me of the Arachnids from STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997).

Another annoying aspect to this film is the female lead character.  Now there was a lot of stink about putting a female in this setting and, honestly, that didn’t bother me.  Carpenter’s film will always have its all-male cast and you can’t change that. What is troublesome about Kate is that screenwriter Heisserer has written her as the doubting know-it-all.  I lost count of the number of times she said, “Do you really think that is a good idea?”  She knows from the get-go that things are off and it is pretty frustrating.  One of the best things about Carpenter’s THE THING is the exchange where Kurt Russell’s MacReady says, “How the hell should I know” when asked what the alien wants.  The Kate character is so overstated that she not only knows what the thing wants, but probably knows who it is going to vote for when it reaches America (the thing is totally a Reagan supporter).

“Now I'm gonna show you what I already know.” 
– MacReady (Kurt Russell) in THE THING (1982)

One of my biggest fears when it was announced that Universal was going to do a prequel to THE THING was that they would screw it up.  In a sense, they didn’t; mostly because they followed the path of the Carpenter film so closely. While I think it is a shame that this film couldn’t have been more original, I am still thankful that I got a prequel rather than a full blown remake with someone like Jason Statham pretending to be Kurt Russell. There were some nice nods to Carpenter’s film and the ending was a great way to tie the two films together. But what does it say about your film when the most thrilling moment for me is that ending? Despite all my bitching in the previous paragraphs, I will still have to admit that seeing the story before the story was thrilling for a die-hard THE THING fan like me.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off as I’d rather not spend the rest of this evening TIED TO THIS FUCKING COMPUTER CHAIR!

UPDATE (in Robert Stack voice): Tom pointed me to this video showcasing the practical FX that the production initially used before the execs decided it was best to cover them in bad CGI.  A classic case of Hollywooditis and whatcouldbeen.


Thursday, October 13, 2011


The Japanese are a fascinating people. They have an island all to themselves and it seems like the centuries of isolation has given the country a case of cabin fever unlike anywhere else. A country obsessed with social and sexual taboos is the same one that gives the public vending machines that dispense erm... “fragrant” women’s undergarments. To Western eyes their culture while in many ways refined, delicate and elegant, can be incomprehensibly bizarre. This oddness spills over into their cinema and for every Akira Kurosawa, there is a Kiyoshi Kurosawa lurking in the background causing western audiences to stumble away from their sofas, glassy-eyed with incomprehension. This is what makes Japanese cinema great.

Back in the days before digital video when there were independent filmmakers Westerners turned out some fine off-beat movies that defied conventions and made a crapload of profits in the process. In Japan even the majors took those risks. While Toho stuck to the path of the easily accessible mainstream film, their top competitor Toei took risks. Toei happily wallowed in exploitation cinema didn’t seem to fret too much if their movie was so weird it defied description. WOLFGUY ENRAGED is a perfect example of this.

Hard-bitten reporter Inugami (Sonny Chiba) witnesses a crazed man running through the neon-lit streets screaming something about a curse and a tiger, and is suddenly torn to shreds by invisible claws. Taking the dead man’s story about the curse totally seriously (how could you not?), and finding that the coroner ruled the death a case of “Death by Spectral Slashing” (well, yeah, of course), Inugami sets out to investigate. As he discovers, Miki, the singer for the band The Mugs, was raped, given syphilis, addicted to heroin and has some sort of power that allows her to attack people with her mind and tear them apart with an invisible tiger. The rape was performed by a gang (look quick for Tomisaburo Wakayama as one of the main offenders) who were paid to do it by the band's management company because Miki was getting an attitude problem (yeah I'm sure having her gang-raped and infected with a venereal disease will help with that). As it turns out, the insidious orders may go higher than the streets and into the halls of public office.

Not content, like any other filmmaker, to let the story lie there, Inugami is also a descendant of a village of lycanthropes who were massacred by an angry mob. His form of lycanthropy (seemingly necessitated by the lack of budget) makes the movie all the more strange; on a full moon Inugami becomes unkillable and boasts superhuman strength, but doesn't change appearance at all. A sinister group, who I'm guessing is Yakuza (it's never made clear or something was lost in the translation), wants to use both Miki as a brainwashed assassin and Inugami to help them create more lycan killers via his blood and organs. Of course the filmmakers don’t sit down and tell you this, no, no. This information is doled out a piece here and a piece there, some in flashback, letting the viewer piece it together as the movie jumps from one scene to another, inexplicably switching locations, introducing new characters out of nowhere, launching into bloody fights and throwing additional wrinkles into a story that already has more than a litter of shar-peis in a bingo hall. Of course, ss far as I'm concerned, that's one of the things that makes this movie so much fun.

Never released on video, even in Japan, the only way to see this movie is from a recording of a rare, uncut Japanese TV broadcast. Information on this film is about as scarce as the movie itself. Based on the manga of the same name, this appears to be the author’s attempt to do justice to his own work. In ’73 Toho released an adaptation titled WOLFGUY – WOLFEN CREST, that while plenty violent, doesn’t follow the plotlines of graphic novels and aims for a teen audience. Here with ENRAGED, the film is clearly cobbled together from bits and pieces of the original work, but makes it seem as if it was made on the fly without a script. For example, early in the film Inugami tangles with a gang who murder his friend, a fellow reporter. After being shot in the arm and running for his life, a leather-clad motorcycle girl picks him up, takes him home, strips naked and seduces him, all while he’s bleeding out on her bed. The girl eventually shows up later in the movie, but writer Hirai Kazumasa has no problem letting you scratch your head for an hour wondering what the hell that was all about. In another scene Inugami is fighting an assassin who whips a white mouse out of his back pocket to distract Inugami, allowing him to get the upper hand. If you are a fan of the manga, I’m sure you could probably tell me which volume and page number this is from, but if you have never seen them before, this is the last thing you expect to see in the middle of a brutal tight-quarters rope-fight! And speaking of brawls there are lots of ‘em. It is certainly not lost on Toei that Sonny Chiba made them an assload of cash and catapulted himself to international stardom with the previous year’s THE STREETFIGHTER trilogy and THE EXECUTIONER films. For an investigative journalist Inugami is one lethal ass-kickin’ machine!

Yes! You're killin' me with this awful crop-job!

It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it.
While this movie may not make much sense to those who, like me, have never read the manga, it’s still totally captivating for some reason. Part of it is that it moves so fast and throws so much at you in a mere 86 minutes, that it’s almost like an assault on the senses. Before you are through scratching your head about why Miki is singing a lounge ballad in a strip-club in front of some very angry patrons, you’ll be thrust right into another bloody slashing or back-ally fight. In addition to that you have some great film-noir settings and cinematography (that is somewhat neutered by the cropped TV broadcast), a cool, funky ‘70s score and Sonny Chiba being a bullet-proof bad-ass! What more do you really need?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Halloween Havoc: HOWLING II (1985) and HOWLING III (1987)

It’s hard to believe that Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING (1981) turned 30 years old this year.  Adapted from Gary Brandner’s 1977 werewolf novel, the film set a new standard for the werewolf creature feature thanks to both John Sayles and Terence Winkless’ smart script and Rob Bottin’s jaw dropping werewolf special effects.  For my money, it is still the werewolf movie standard and better than John Landis’ AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON of the same year due to the virtue of actually having a plot (yes, LONDON basically has no plot).  THE HOWLING proved to be a success at the box office, taking in over $17 million (on a $1 million budget) and being Embassy’s third highest grosser that year (behind good company TIME BANDITS and ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK).  A successful horror film in the 1980s can only mean one thing – sequel! Unfortunately, the only returning production member for the sequels was Steven A. Lane, who must have been the guy who originally bought the Brandner book rights as he curses the credits of each successive sequel with an executive producer credit.  And let's just say they were definitely aiming for the quantity over quality standard when it came to the seven subsequent sequels (!) that have cursed audiences ever since.

Before we dive into HOWLING II, let me tell you a little true story.  My father used to be a VHS maniac (so that’s where it came from) and would fill our home with whatever he saw on sale.  Ultimately oblivious to the taste of me and my sister, he would grab anything that looked like a horror movie as long as it was $19.95 or cheaper.  This resulted in some truly odd viewing (HOBGOBLINS!) but we always were appreciative of his efforts.  Well, except for one time. The only film we’ve ever told our father to return unopened was HOWLING II.  I specifically remember scolding my dad like Tom Atkins did to his son in the opening of CREEPSHOW (1982): “The next time, buddy boy, I see you with a worthless piece of shit like this again, young man, you won't sit down for a week.”  Okay, I wasn’t that hard on him, but I should have been because HOWLING II is just awful.  It was an instrumental learning experience from my childhood: it taught me that all horror films featured in Fangoria ain’t going to be good, that horror legends just might not have integrity, and that there is truth in the saying “there’s a sucker born every minute.”  Sadly, this sucker kept going.

HOWLING II opens with a shot that immediately said “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” to my 11-year-old brain.  We open on a shot of space with a superimposed Christopher Lee babbling some nonsense about abominations on Earth.  Uh, what?  The film proper starts with the funeral of the original film’s heroine Karen White (Dee Wallace Stone wisely chose not to return) in Los Angeles.  In attendance are her brother Ben (Reb Brown), co-worker Jenny Templeton (Annie McEnroe) and mysterious Stefan Crosscoe (Christopher Lee).  Hey, at least it is a direct sequel I’m thinking.  Crosscoe breaks funeral etiquette by offering Ben his card and telling Jenny that Karen is a werewolf.  Despite such lunacy, Ben and Jenny visit him at his home and he elaborates on the werewolf legend while showing Ben a videotape of his sister turning into a werewolf during a television news broadcast (in a laughable recreation of the original film’s ending).  Karen will be coming back and Stefan plans to end her misery by stabbing her with a titanium spike. Ben thinks he is nuts, but he and Jenny show up that night to try and stop him.  As expected, Karen comes back and the group is attacked by werewolves. They survive and Ben and Jenny pledge to help Stefan eradicate these shaggy shapeshifters.  Apparently they are off to a bad start as they forgot to kill Karen and put her out of her misery.  Nice.  Anyway, the trio head to Transylvania in order to find the location of werewolf queen Stirba (Sybil Danning), who fornicates with her followers while using the life source of virgins to stay young.

To say HOWLING II…YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF (full title) is a disappointment would be a huge understatement.  It is as if director Philippe Mora watched the original THE HOWLING and said, “I’m going to do everything exactly opposite of this flick.” To give you an idea of how confused this production is one need only look at the screenplay.  Author Gary Brandner actually wrote a direct sequel to his HOWLING novel in 1979, but this sequel completely ignores all of that.  No big deal, right?  Films always deviate from the source material.  The problem is Brandner was a co-writer (alongside Robert Sarno) on this film’s screenplay! How wrong headed is a production when they get an author to abandon his own source material? And there is some howling-ly bad dialogue to boot.  Who can forget this classic exchange?

Jenny: “You see that dwarf staring at us?”
Ben: “Yeah.”
Jenny: “Should we follow him?”
Ben: “Why not?”

Now lines like that are funny by themselves, but now imagine muscle head Reb Brown saying them.  Bad dialogue can be forgiven though if we get some good werewolf transformation effects though.  Nah, Mora can’t be bothered there either as a majority of the effects consists of superimposing growing hair over tensed fingers and cutting to shot of a really bad werewolf mask randomly (see pic).

Revisiting this flick after 25 years did offer some positive things though. Viewing it through 36-year-old eyes that have been exposed to tons of bad movies, the first HOWLING sequel is hilarious due to all the unintentional comedy.  I can completely understand my disappointment as a kid viewing this and the film totally deserved that scorn, but now it is a riot.  From Reb Brown’s acting style to Mora’s decision to put Lee in a punk club to the production trying to pass off eastern Europe for parts of L.A. to female lead McEnroe being a dead ringer for Eric Stoltz, the film is comical from nearly start to finish.  You'll get so much joy from the absurd display that your eyeballs might pop out of your head.  I should also point out that HOWLING II is significant in that it was the first time I saw Danning in a film and a lifelong lust was born.  Mora definitely knew she was the film’s highlight as he repeats the shot of her ripping off her top EIGHTEEN TIMES (!) over the film’s closing credits.  It’s like he is saying to the paying audience, “Sorry about the film, how ‘bout some titties to make up for it?”  I’ll save you an hour and half and just give you this Danning nude shot.  For more of Danning nude, check out her Playboy spread here.

Sybil Danning topless:

And me after seeing that Danning pic:

Mora sensed the public backlash to his inferior sequel and promised to do right this time with the next sequel, HOWLING III: THE MARSUPIALS. Speaking to Variety about the third HOWLING entry, Mora said in August 1986, “I want to set the record straight with HOWLING III.  It will be a better film, commercially and artistically.” Returning to his adopted homeland of Australia (I’d like to think he was banned from the U.S. due to HOWLING II), Mora set about setting the record straight alright – straight into the dumpster.  Having the luxury of unintentional laughs didn’t extend to my revisit of Mora’s second sequel as the third film is pure misery from start to finish.  Amazingly, Mora manages to no only top the lackluster werewolf effects of HOWLING II (an incredible feat, believe me), but he also manages to make a bad Australian film (I can see Tom’s blood pressuring rising).  That takes a special kind of talent.

HOWLING III bears no relation to the previous two films outside of it being about werewolves.  Prof. Harry Beckmeyer (Barry Otto) travels from the U.S. back to his homeland of Australia because of a report of a werewolf in Russia (huh?).  Meanwhile (you’ll be seeing that word a lot), werewolf Jerboa (Imogen Annesley) runs away from her incestuous father Thylo (Max Fairchild) to the big city of Sydney.  She immediately catches the eye of film casting agent Donny Marten (Lee Biolos) and is cast in the lead of the horror film SHAPE SHIFTER PART 8. She and Donny have known each other for a full day so, naturally, they fall in love and he never asks why she has hair extending up to her bellybutton and a marsupial pouch (!). Young love is fleeting though as strobe lights at a wrap party almost make Jerboa wolf out and, after being hit by a car, she ends up in a hospital under Government watch. Meanwhile, three of her sisters have traveled to the big city dressed as nuns to bring her home. Oh, and a Russian ballerina named Olga, who is also a werewolf, has defected to Australia.  You still with me?

Kidnapped by her sisters, Jerboa is dragged back home with Government types in pursuit.  Also following them is Donny, who has found out that she is carrying his baby.  Jerboa gives birth to a “cute” little werewolf before the Feds arrive and take everyone back to study.  Jerboa escapes into the outback, finds Donny and they are soon on the run from some hunters who are hell-bent on catching them (why they are even after them is never explained).  Meanwhile, back in the lab, Beckmeyer quizzes Thylo and Olga about their lycanthropic nature.  When an order is given to destroy the werewolves, Beckmeyer takes sympathy on them and breaks them out (yeah, you are suddenly supposed to feel sorry for rapist psycho Thylo).  This on-the-lam trio returns to the outback, where they are quickly reunited with Jerboa and Donny. Hunting our werewolf family now is a team of Government mercenaries (which consists of two guys).  Thylo suddenly turns bad again and leaves the group to kill the guys following them (he turns into some kind of huge wild boar looking thing).  This allows Beckmeyer and Olga to fall in love and – in the span of 5 minutes – we see 15 years pass as they have children.  Jerboa and Donny also leave with their were-son and move to Hollywood to become a famous actress-director couple.  The whole thing ends with Jerboa winning an award for best actress and turning into a werewolf during her acceptance speech.

Me during HOWLING III re-visit
Kuuuuuuuuuuuuuh-rice-stahhh!  If you thought HOWLING II was bad, you won’t be able to handle HOWLING III.  Returning director Philippe Mora promised something better and actually managed to deliver something 50 times worse.  Picking up the screenwriting credit all by himself, Mora actually tries to inject humor into this scenario and fails miserably.  And maybe it is just me, but having a director who has just made a terrible horror sequel try to get all cutesy in his next film by including a subplot about inept filmmakers making a horror sequel just rubs me the wrong way.  New cinematic rule: you’re not allowed to make fun of low-budget horror filmmakers while being seemingly incapable of making a good low-budget horror film.  Even worse is the sheer brainpower one needs to keep up with Mora’s convoluted script.  We’re here, now we’re there, now we’re back here again.  I figure the producer meetings went something like, “Does it have werewolves in it?  Good.  Here’s your money.”

And, my God, the werewolves on display in this one are a sight to behold. I’m starting to wonder if Rob Bottin stole Mora’s girlfriend or something as the director seems intent on completely ruining the special effects legacy of THE HOWLING.  Don’t let that colorful cover fool you as you’ll get nothing like that in this film.  Instead, the werewolves end up looking like some sort of warped combination of a Tex Avery wolf drawn by 8-year-old using their teeth. Seriously, look at those pics and tell me a FX factory missing its supply of silly putty and fake hair.  To add insult to injury, Mora makes this one completely bloodless during werewolf attacks.  Believe it or not, this sucker actually played in theaters and one would think it would have been the silver bullet to the heart of this franchise. Yet, despite earning a paltry $500,000 at the box office, the film went on to be a huge success on home video. According to Variety in 1988, the film sold 84,000 tapes in the U.S. and 10,000 in Japan, enjoying “vid sales of about $4,000,000.” Even I will admit that I was suckered as my 13-year-old brain went into a tizzy when I saw this video on the shelf for the first time. Hell, I even asked the video store clerk to hold the tape before I could return with my parents 5 hours later to rent it.  Did I learn my lesson? Helllll no!  I’m a horror fan and we never learn our lesson.  “The next one will be better,” I convinced myself with the shadow of P.T. Barnum over my shoulder.  Parts IV and V up next!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Halloween Havoc: MY SOUL IS SLASHED (1991)

Once upon a time there was a movie about a giant lizard that trampled buildings and was shot down by the military. That movie was such a huge, global success that it spawned a film from a rival company about a giant turtle that was… erm… a friend to kids everywhere. That movie was such a success that decades later, after the big lizard made a grand return, so did the turtle.

Arguably Shusuke Kaneko’s GAMERA trilogy (1995-1999) are the pinnacle of kaiju cinema. Kaneko seamlessly integrated a variety of special effects techniques and brought the camera down to a human eye level to deliver some of the most impressive rubber monster battle sequences ever filmed. They also managed to be family friendly without being cloyingly cute or dripping with saccharine. An uncommon attribute among Japanese kiddie monster flicks (*cough* MOTHRA *cough*). So what the hell did Kaneko do before he raised the bar on the kaiju? Well, there was an exceptionally err, “cool”, entry in the Lovecraft inspired anthology NECRONOMICON (1993) and if you were one of those people who lived in an urban cave constructed entirely out of VHS tapes, you would have seen a movie called MY SOUL IS SLASHED floating around the grey market. Inconceivably this was pre-internet days, involving paper, stamps, and waiting for sometimes weeks for a movie if not months, if not never (*cough* Donald Farmer *cough*). Excuse me, I seem to have an itch in my throat. Bearing an amazingly cool title, but no subtitles, I passed on it back in the day, but after NECRONOMICON and the GAMERAs came and went I finally decided to see if Kaneko’s early effort showed the potential that he realized in his next few efforts. It’s taken me over a decade to get around to it, but I’ve finally gone there courtesy of a typically crap-quality Floridian bootleg that I digitally enhanced to make it barely watchable.

The film opens with an incredibly cool credit sequence featuring scenes from the original Dracula story done with puppets in a hyper-gothic style, which surely made Tim Burton green with envy. The camera pulls in and out of the scenes and rotates around the sets giving the scenes an extra dimension. This is so effective that it makes me wish the entire movie was done using this technique and with perhaps a different script as well. Not that the script is terrible, but the atmospheric visuals and gothic score really set the tone for a movie that this certainly is not.

During a modern-day revolution in Romania, a blood sample of a well known historic figure is lost in the scuffle. The sample ends up in Japan in the hands of Izoku, a hospital phlebotomist whose life-long obsession with Dracula (and her family inheritance) has lead her to this moment. While analyzing the blood sample, and realizing that it is indeed Dracula’s, she is suddenly called back to her duties and has to hide the sample in the plasma cooler.

Meanwhile typical cute and silly Japanese school-girl Saeko (Hikari Ishida), amusingly pronounced “psycho”, is turning 17, but her father is too busy with his work for a medical company to notice. Ishikawa (Ken Ogata) is in upper management and the project lead on a new pharmaceutical product that has taken years of his life to produce and is now suddenly being accused of being tainted. The scandal is all over the news and Ishikawa is certain that it is a result of sabotage from within the company. He is right, of course, and worse still is that the corporate connivers are not content with causing the corruption of his career. So they decide to run him over with a car. Not exactly as smart or subtle as their scheme to bring down the powers that be, so that they can take the reigns, but seemingly effective. Or is it?

Ishikawa is rushed to the hospital where, yes, of course, he is accidentally given a transfusion with Dracula’s blood. Next thing you know Ishikawa is dead, his company has been taken over and his family is in mourning. Not quite what I was expecting, but hey, I’ll go with it. At the funeral Izoku makes the most awkward introduction ever by asking Saeko if she is a virgin and informing her that her blood can bring pops back from the grave. She neglects to mention in what shape he might return, but that oversight is no doubt due to the fact that she was being dragged off the premises by angry pallbearers. Saeko eventually gives it a shot and dad eventually does return, though not in rented formalwear, but completely in the buff leading to, again, the most awkward of reunions.

Ishikawa is desperate to resist his new nature and Izoku is desperate to be a bride of Dracula, trying to romance Ishikawa while teaching him how to use his new powers. One of her lessons has him jumping off the slide at a playground while wearing a red and black cape. Being a Japanese movie, Ishikawa is still obsessed with his work and finding out who sabotaged his new drug, which has now been re-branded and has made the company a financial success.

The movie isn’t bad, but it’s pretty disappointing after seeing Kaneko’s greater works and particularly those fantastic opening credits. It’s a pretty lightweight, almost sit-com style, movie in which some of the jokes are amusing, but they don’t really build as the movie progresses. One of the more amusing bits is when Ishikawa returns to work after a year of being dead, oblivious to the past and the reactions of his former co-workers. These gags are sprinkled throughout the script making the film sort of a comedy, sort of a romance, sort of a vampire movie and sort of entertaining. To me the most interesting moment in the movie was when they introduced Ishikawa’s wife’s new love interest; the chef at her restaurant who is the slowest moving chef you will ever see in your life. He barely can crank out four plates and even then there's it's just a protein on a sauced plate! No sockle, no garnish! It’s a good thing they only have one table booked. Maybe if the customers are lucky they’ll get to eat something before the restaurant closes. Ermmm... anyway...

MY SOUL IS SLASHED (the title being derived from the Mylène Farmer pop song that is played during the end credits) is pretty amiable entertainment only made better by seeing some of Kaneko’s recent efforts. Although I have somehow managed to miss his recent film THE POLEDANCING BOYS (don’t ask, I don’t know), I did catch the first of his manga-based DEATH NOTE films and I would definitely recommend MY SOUL over that as it may not be the best of his oeuvre, it certainly isn’t the worst.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Halloween Havoc: THE MILPITAS MONSTER (1976)

Damn, are we already a week into October without any horror reviews?  Who let this happen?  I blame management. We unleashed Halloween Havoc last year during the month of October and focused on slashers.  This year we’ve got a creature subtheme where we will be highlighting the claws, fangs and tendrils of horror cinema’s well-known and obscure monsters.  Kicking it off is…

THE MILPITAS MONSTER!  Truth be told, Tom should be handling this movie as the city of Milpitas, CA is right in his backyard of San Jose.  Located within Silicon Valley, it is a town that offers – according to their official website – “life @ your pace.”  And apparently this place was really cool in the 1970s as the whole town got involved in the making of a monster movie that started as a high school project.  How awesome is that?  And while the end result might leave a bit more to be desired, it is a cool back story and probably the film’s main claim to fame. After all, how many high school productions can you name that got limited theatrical releases?

The plot of this one is beyond simple – thanks to an overwhelming amount of garbage from the town, a monster grows out of the muck to attack the city (it may or may not have started its life as a fly; it is never really clear).  The monster has a craving for more trash and heads into Milpitas at night to chew up garbage cans.  If there is one thing you don’t want to do, it is mess with the garbage cans of Milpitas residents (Milpidie? Milpedia? Millipedes?).  “I had to buy two new garbage cans at $8 bucks a piece,” bemoans one angry suburb dad.  The only clues left behind are some huge footprints.  Soon the town folk are down town protesting at City Hall (one sign reads: “What happened to our garbage cans?”) and the Mayor decides to go to the State government for help.

Meanwhile, we are treated to the exploits of some of the locals.  “Crazy” George is the town drunk (played for laughs because addiction is funny), who is the only one who keeps seeing the monster. Does anyone believe him? Hell no, he is “Crazy” George the town drunk and, as Mel Gibson has shown us, drunks in California ain’t trustworthy.  We also witness the life of some teens, including the painfully awkward courtship between Priscilla and Jeff (aka Penguin).  The highlight of this blooming romance is them going to a carnival where Jeff complains endlessly about being nauseous and Priscilla wins an ashtray at a kid’s game (yes, an ashtray). When Jeff says he isn’t having a good time, she says he is a total drag and ditches him.  Also a thorn in Jeff’s side is local high school rebel Keith, who tools around town in his fancy 1950s station wagon with his cronies while smoking cigarettes.  Damn, someone get that man Priscilla’s ashtray. Anyway, this all builds to a high school dance where, in KING KONG-esque fashion, Priscilla is kidnapped by the monster and rivals Jeff and Keith are forced to work together (alongside every Milpitas emergency personal) to save the girl.

Created over a period of three years from 1973-1976, THE MILPITAS MONSTER is definitely one of a kind as it is the only high school production that I can think of that got an actual theatrical release.  And, to be honest, it is the film’s “making of” history that makes it so intriguing and endearing. Director Robert Burrill was the photography teacher at the (now defunct) Samuel Ayer High School and gave his kids an assignment to make a 10-minute movie.  What happened next was the whole town got behind the project and suddenly they were in the motion picture business.  Town shops opened their doors to allow filming, parents and kids made costumes, police and firemen offered their services, and even the Mayor tried his hand at acting by portraying the Mayor (he is so-so in the part, ha!).  It is an amateur effort no doubt, but an obvious labor of love for the community that translates to the screen.  The film itself is okay as it focuses too little on the monster and too much on other random stuff.  I can’t really criticize the acting as high school level as it really is. The VHS I have runs 79-minutes and that is painful at points.  According to Burrill, the original cut was 120-minutes (this longer cut was recently screened and will screen again this month in Milpitas) and I can’t imagine how more drawn out it is.  Obviously, the monster bits are my favorite and they really pulled off some great stuff for the tiny $11,000 budget. The monster is cool and there are some pretty impressive miniatures.  One effects crew member, Ben Burtt, went on to work with some dude named George Lucas as a sound guy and editor.  He has since won 4 Academy Awards, but is no doubt probably brooding due to lack of recognition for his work on THE MILPITAS MONSTER.

It is pretty wild to think of a community coming together to support a film project, but I guess anything was possible in 1970s California.  You’re not going to get anything that will be replacing GODZILLA any time soon, but the MILPITAS MONSTER is a fun little film and probably a total trip for local residents (that means you, Tom!).

Alexander Beck sales sheet featuring