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!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #67: BLOODY PULP (1982)

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
– L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between (1953)

1982 might not seem that long ago.  But in Hollywood-years, 1982 might as well be a billion light years ago.  Back then, the film business hadn’t yet succumbed to the kind of distribution hegemony we see today, where something with a $10 million dollar budget is considered low-budget and major studios have an “independent film” label.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the horror genre.  The slasher era was just beginning, and the horror genre had yet to fall into the abyss littered with sequels, remakes and remakes of sequels where it resides today. John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) had become the most successful independent movie of all-time and a quick glance at any random Variety “Top 50 Box Office” listings shows independent productions such as SCARED TO DEATH (1981) and DEMON RAGE (1982) trying to following suit.  Ambitious and independent filmmakers, simply put, actually stood a chance when it came to getting a production both off the ground and into theaters.

Perhaps the biggest boost these self-reliant filmmakers got came from the early issues of Fangoria.  Entering into its fourth year in 1982, the growing horror film magazine certainly wasn’t above promoting the little guy, as evidenced by issues where they threw Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE (1979) or William Lustig’s MANIAC (1980) on the cover. Co-editors “Uncle” Bob Martin and David Everitt recognized not only the diversity within the genre, but championed the belief that the finest filmmakers started at ground level and outside of the studio system. This is mostly evident in the feature story about “The Grisly Independents” that adorned the cover of issue #17.  Penned by Martin, the article profiled three independent horror films in various states of production – monster madness THE DEADLY SPAWN, sorority slasher PRANKS (aka THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) and horror anthology BLOODY PULP.

The original article (click to enlarge):

No doubt I read this piece back as a 7-year-old kid and, like a lot of readers, promptly forgot about it.  After all, of the three films profiled, BLOODY PULP seemed the furthest from completion (interestingly, both THE DEADLY SPAWN and THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD have seen DVD releases from Synapse Films in the ensuing years). The film didn’t register again on my brainwaves until earlier this year when poster Dave Jay asked about the film on the AV Maniacs message board.  Oh yeah, I remember that movie; the one with the black zombie that reminded me of SUGAR HILL (1974).  Being somewhat obsessed with films that never got made, I dug out my weathered issue of the magazine and read the one-page write up on the film.

As Mr. Jay mentioned in his post, there is absolutely zero information online about this film. Type it into Google and the only mention you will get is the aforementioned thread. Literally the only ink spilled on the film appears to be this nearly 30-year-old article.  That, my misguided brain said, is not acceptable.  Thankfully, the four filmmakers mentioned in the piece (Thomas Doran, Frank Farel, Brendan Faulkner and Paul Levine) had rather unique names and – with the help of Bill Picard, the Internet’s Greatest Detective – I was able to get in touch with BLOODY PULP co-creator Thomas Doran.  After probably saying to himself, “Who the hell is this weirdo asking about an unfinished film from 1982,” Doran responded to my initial email.  Genial and beyond helpful, Doran was not only willing to discuss the project, but he was also in touch with fellow co-creator Frank Farel.  Farel turned out to be as equally accommodating and both men agreed to share the story behind the story; the journey toward and the non-making of BLOODY PULP.

Like most filmmakers, Doran and Farel started their obsessions at a young age and horror figured in prominently into their youthful endeavors.

Video Junkie: Were you horror fans (movies, EC comics, etc.) growing up?

Thomas Doran: Yes, horror fan going back to the 50's. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL for example, with Emergo, was great, 13 GHOSTS, BRIDES OF DRACULA, and all of those days in the theater. We literally lived in the theaters in those days. Not just horror of course, but there was always something good to see. Devoured Famous Monsters and Screen Thrills, et all.

Frank Farel: We were all what I can only call fanatical horror fans -- myself, seriously, from the age of 11 or 12 when I got a hold of the Boris Karloff memorial issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Movies and TV (Universal, Hammer & AIP classics, The Outer Limits, etc.), fiction (Lovecraft, Poe, Bradbury, Bloch, so many others), comics (EC & Warren) -- I eagerly absorbed it all. That's continued to this day.

VJ: What sort of background did you have in film-making leading up to BLOODY PULP?

TD: Been making films since I was 11. The typical kid takes on horror, superhero films. The usual thing every kid gets into when they start to make films so young. All 8mm (pre super 8); and then moved into 16mm when I was 16 and tried to make an Errol Flynn/Republic serial hybrid feature! What was I thinking? Never finished, but lots of film I still have - and frankly a couple of remarkable stunts - even for 16 and 17 year olds. Did some other things in high school, but drifted more into art and music in the 70's. Brendan brought me back into film in the 70's.

FF: I got my first super 8 camera as a Christmas gift when I was twelve. Instantly went out and made a vampire film. I was fortunate enough to attend a high school that offered a "Cinematography" class, which I took for two years, making two award-winning comedy shorts. I met Brendan Faulkner, then Tom Doran, through a summer school film class I at the State University at Purchase, New York.

It was during this time in the SUNY system under the tutelage of Roy Frumkes (DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD; STREET TRASH) that Farel and Faulkner learned an important lesson about the film business.  And, inadvertently, they received confirmation that their filmmaking was commercially acceptable as segments of a film they directed ended up opening the Italian import ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, which distributor Aquarius Releasing ushered into theaters in 1981 under the more well-known moniker DOCTOR BUTCHER, M.D. (1980).

VJ: Can you tell me how your footage made it into the U.S. release of DOCTOR. BUTCHER, M.D.?

FF: Brendan and I had directed uncompleted stories for another unfinished horror anthology, TALES THAT WILL TEAR YOUR HEART OUT. Footage from both our sequences in TALES eventually showed up, much to our surprise, in the title sequences for the Italian zombie horror DOCTOR. BUTCHER, M.D.

TD: I was [partially] responsible for Aquarius getting a hold of the footage from Frumkes. I went to them to try and get funding for a project Frank and I were pitching. TALES came up in the conversation - they were mainly interested because of Wes Craven having directed an episode. There was talk of them finishing the film, and I put them in touch with Roy - with the proviso that I get to direct an episode. He laughed - it never happened, but they obviously got a hold of some of the footage and used it - strangely, neither Frank nor Brendan, who directed the used footage, received screen credit.

FF: To supplement what Tom already said -- yes, Roy Frumkes sold the TALES footage to Aquarius Releasing honcho Terry Levine without the knowledge of Brendan Faulkner, myself or anyone else (including investors) connected to the production. Aquarius changed the title ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST to DOCTOR BUTCHER, M.D. because the original title was too similar to CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, which had then recently been in theaters. This was some time after Terry had mulled over financing the completion of TALES -- and Roy informed me he didn't want to do business with Levine because he didn't trust him. I assume this changed when a cash offer for a couple of minutes of footage was made.

Frumkes, to our disbelief, gave himself sole screen credit - though all footage used was created entirely by Brendan and myself. We found out retroactively and, needless to say, were not pleased - though I must say it was kinda cool having my "big screen debut" with footage I'd directed at the age of 19. I remember seeing it in one of the 42nd Street grindhouses.

Knowing that their work was up to snuff for the discerning crowds on America’s most infamous movie-going street, the filmmakers set about on starting their own feature.  As part of a filmmaking collective, the four men decided to attempt an anthology.  Long a favorite format of horror fans due to classics ranging from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) to Amicus’ TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972), the anthology would provide the best route for all four filmmakers to showcase their talents.  Interestingly, independent horror mainstay George A. Romero was filming an anthology, CREEPSHOW (1982), at the same time as our fledgling filmmakers, proving they had their finger on the pulse of the genre.

VJ: How did the BLOODY PULP idea come about?

FF: The earliest framework for this anthology concept went under the title FREAK SHOW, with an introduction and bridging sequences at a carnival sideshow. With the change to BLOODY PULP I wrote a surrounding story involving a trio of criminals fleeing a robbery, finding refuge in a decrepit book store filled with crumbling old pulp magazines where the oddball owner provides intros to the various stories.

VJ: What was the budget on this feature?

TD: I have no memory of that to be honest. The one episode filmed was around $5,000 up till the point it ended - though that would have gone up of course just for that episode. It wasn't really budgeted - at some level, when films are so cheap, you film with whatever scraps of coin you come up with. If you thought about it too hard, nothing would have gotten done, ever.

Voodoo priestess & her zombie
FF: I don't think there ever was a real budget on paper. We were shooting the first episode "Double Cross" with financing supplied by its original director [Paul Levine], who also owned some camera equipment. Costs were usually pretty contained.

VJ: In the Fangoria profile piece, it is mentioned that “Double Cross” was put on hold. Did this segment ever get finished?

TD: Never finished.

FF: "Double Cross" was halted when we parted ways with its original director, but our intentions were to continue with the project. Several sequences having already been shot, it was briefly decided that I would complete this episode. I even did a rewrite of the script with that in mind.

VJ: Where were the finished portions filmed?

TD: We filmed at a state park in upstate New York (for the scenes involving a Caribbean island of all things); where we transported, by rented truck, the "ruins" of an ancient stone temple that I designed and built - in order to film in the middle of a very long night. A very dark night too. We also filmed at an airport in Connecticut. We filmed with a 1947 seaplane in Montrose or Buchanan, New York for scenes, again, of one of the characters escape, with a corpse, from the temple scene. Filmed at a funeral home in Port Chester, New York.

Farel filming at the funeral home
FF: As mentioned by Tom, we did some scenes at a large funeral home in Port Chester, New York where a mortician (and film-making enthusiast) friend of ours allowed us to film. He and his family also lived there. Perfect location for what we were doing. Lovely interiors and access to the embalming chambers.

VJ: If you can recall, what were the titles of the two other segments?

TD: I can't remember either. Brendan or Frank might possibly know.

FF: I don't remember the titles either. Brendan's, I believe, involved a secret society composed of ghouls.

Faulkner zombie art for
his unfilmed segment
VJ: Did either of these segments or the wrap-around get started filming?

TD: No, all written, some story-boarded; production design, etc., but no filming.

FF: As Tom said, nothing but portions of "Double Cross" made it before the cameras

VJ: Any interesting anecdotes about the film (casting, filming or reactions from folks who saw some of it)?

TD: The ruins of the ancient "stone" temple caught on fire in the middle of the night - but that was probably the only really exciting thing that happened of any interest. On one other occasion, one of the actors, determined NOT to run into the whirling rear blade of the sea plane (a smart idea), instead ran into the wing, knocking him senseless. But we have that on film at least.

FF: The burning of the ancient temple is also my own major memory of the production. An all night shoot at Bear Mountain State Park, miles off the main road in the middle of nowhere with deafening gas generators for power. I don't even recall us getting permission to shoot. As dawn rolled around the "stone pillars" (spray-painted aluminum foil over flimsy frames. Surprisingly good illusion!) caught fire and burned to the ground before the night's filming was completed.

BLOODY PULP "Double Cross" storyboards

VJ: What kept BLOODY PULP from being finished?

TD: The answer, most simply put, was the usual - money, and some on-set kookiness that often bedevils films. On micro-budget films, that can be deadly as there's little fallback room. We were shooting on film, so, costs were not so low - even on the cheap, if you know what I mean.

Ultimately, the “temporary hold” that the filmmakers put on the project turned into a permanent one.  As mentioned in the article, Doran, Farel and Faulkner went to work as film doctors on another New York film named BLOODSHED (ultimately re-titled and released by Troma as IGOR AND THE LUNATICS).  The trio would re-team one more time for producer Michael Lee on TWISTED SOULS, which eventually came out as SPOOKIES.

VJ: Did the work on BLOODY PULP lead to the job for TWISTED SOULS/SPOOKIES?

TD: No, not at all. Initially Brendan and I went to work on a film called BLOODSHED (IGOR AND THE LUNATICS once Troma got a hold of it); we were consultants at first, then did some writing, lighting, and directing of the film - we also ended up acting in it. It consumed a lot of time - but was fun. Met a lot of great folks. It's a really nice memory. This happened concurrently with BLOODY PULP.

What we did after that was make a very elaborate show-reel for a feature we wanted to do called HELLSPAWN. It was very ambitious - lots of effects work, floor effects and optical; set pieces; demon monster suits, even sword fights for God's sake; special make-up effects, and more; all to attract potential backers. That footage was seen by the backer who in the end got us all involved in TWISTED SOULS - but that was in no way related to HELLSPAWN conceptually - which was a much better script to be sure. We didn't have a lot of control over the story elements of TWISTED SOULS - story concepts and set pieces were essentially dictated to us by the financial backer - and we tried to turn that into something interesting, but it ended up as something not very original at all. We tried, tied hands and all, but we would have made a far nicer film if we had been allowed to do HELLSPAWN.

FF: As Tom more or less relates, what really kept us from completing BLOODY PULP was that other projects came along. Most filmmakers are generally writing and pushing several projects at once and are usually ready, out of necessity, to jump ship for the most promising opportunity. And yes, HELLSPAWN would have been a much better movie than SPOOKIES.

For anyone wondering exactly how BLOODY PULP might have looked, they can turn their attention to SPOOKIES. As mentioned in the article, Doran’s proposed segment (“Deadlier Than the Male”) dealt with a woman who was literally a man-eater.  Unable to resist such a delicious concept, Doran carried over portions of his PULP story into the monster heavy TWISTED SOULS.

VJ: Did the man-eater story work its way into TWISTED SOULS/SPOOKIES (the spider woman)?

TD: The Spider Woman in TWISTED SOULS was a direct offshoot from BLOODY PULP. The design was initially the same as well, but got changed during TWISTED SOULS - and frankly, not necessarily for the better. But a lot of people seem to like it.

Spider minion artwork
by Simon Deitch:

Spider minion artwork
by Thomas Doran:

In the end, BLOODY PULP was a movie not to be.  Post-shutdown, the Doran-Farel-Faulkner trio remained active in film with the aforementioned BLOODSHED (aka IGOR AND THE LUNATICS) and TWISTED SOULS (aka SPOOKIES). Doran has remained busy using his considerable artistic talents to do storyboards and design props.  He has also worked steadily in industrial videos and recently completed the rock band documentary MOTHER OF MERCY, IS THIS THE END OF DOUBLESPEAK? (2011).  He is also actively developing a new horror film based on the Sawney Bean story and more info on that can be found here.  Farel would go on to be the Associate Producer on the cult classic STREET TRASH (1987) and currently is a writer-producer-director at Soundview Broadcasting.  And a few years after TWISTED SOULS, Faulkner would also direct the feature THE KILLER DEAD (aka NON-VEGETARIAN ZOMBIES FROM OUTER SPACE), which is currently unreleased.  Despite continued careers in the entertainment industry, the BLOODY PULP still sits in Doran and Farel’s minds.

VJ: Ever have any thoughts of tackling the material again?  Or releasing what you did film?

TD: I actually, in a moment of madness, suggested to Frank and Brendan that we should do an anthology film and use the same title - it's a decent title actually for that type of film - but not necessarily to use any of the original concepts. Certainly not any of the original 1981 footage (after all neither Frank, Brendan or myself directed any of “Double Cross”) - but we didn't give it any really serious consideration.

FF: As Tom says, no thoughts of trying to do anything with the old material, though the title really does deserve a movie.

*Special note: All of the still images from the BLOODY PULP shoot were shot by Thomas Sciacca.  Also, several years after this post, The Dissolve did a detailed breakdown on the making of SPOOKIES, which is definitely recommended and can be read at this link.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Vehicular Violence: DEATH CAR ON THE FREEWAY (1979)

We’re pretty big fans of stuntman/director Hal Needham here at Video Junkie. After all, how can you not love a man who was one of the founding fathers of the good ol’ boys, car crash cinema that dominated the 1970s and early 1980s? Needham had the fifth biggest film at the box office in 1977 with his directing debut SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977) starring Burt Reynolds.  He repeated that success (to a lesser degree in terms of total haul) the following year when he re-teamed with Reynolds for the stuntman saga HOOPER (1978).  Both films are totally without airs as they strive to maintain their one goal – entertaining the audience – with laughs, thrills and jaw-dropping car stunts.  And we’re talking the kind of vehicular stunts that involve – gasp! – real automobiles.

So it is strange after three theatrical features (Needham had THE VILLAIN coming out in July 1979 while he was filming this) that Needam would take the exit to the small screen to direct a CBS Tuesday Night Movie.  For his fourth feature, Needham jumped behind (and in front of) the camera for the juicily titled DEATH CAR ON THE FREEWAY.  I’d love to hear the story behind how this film got greenlit.  $50 says industry veteran Needham owed someone a favor and said, “Sure, I’ll do it.”  Also, the entertainment industry seemed a bit more forgiving in this era and let directors bounce more easily between the two mediums.  Regardless of the film’s origins, Needham crafts an entertaining film that managed to haul in quite a few famous faces.

DEATH CAR focuses on neophyte news reporter Jan Claussen (CHARLIE’S ANGEL replacement Shelly Hack).  Jan is estranged from her jovial husband (and rival news anchor) Ray (George Hamilton) because she wants to “make it in this business on her own” and soon has the perfect story crash into her lap. While covering a seemingly random incident of road rage, Jan picks up on a few details (blue van with tinted windows) that remind her of a similar incident from a few months previous. She goes back to interview the earlier survivor, tennis pro Lynn Bernheimer (Dinah Shore), who confirms Jan’s suspicion that these attacks might not be random and that the driver is targeting attractive young women to harass with his big piece o’ metal (symbolism much?).

When the freeway maniac strikes again, Jan interviews the badly burnt victim and she mentions the van was blasting some bizarre bluegrass music (how she heard that while going 90mph and getting smashed from all sides is beyond me). Jan quickly dubs this aggressive driver The Freeway Fiddler (bwhahaha!) and soon begins popular news reports on the mystery motoring maniac.  She shoots a series of defensive driving courses (taught by Needham himself) and safety tips, but soon finds out that the TV industry is as deadly as the roadways when a rival station out-scoops her.  She also has to deal with a rather clueless police lieutenant (Peter Graves), who is intent on blaming the women victims due to their bad driving (ah, the Equal Rights Amendment would be proud).  All of the extra publicity has pissed The Fiddler off, mostly because he has to keep painting his van new colors.  And you know what that means – his tachometer now has Jan herself in its sights.  Hope she likes bluegrass.

So as you can see, DEATH CAR ON THE FREEWAY is basically THE CHINA SYNDROME (a big hit in early ’79) meets DUEL (1971).  In fact, Needham copies Spielberg’s film in that the villain’s face is never shown onscreen and we only see quick shots of his hands or feet.  We know he must be crazy as he always wipes his steering wheel with a tissue before starting his attacks.  One of the more amusing aspects of this telefilm is how horrible Jan is as an investigator. Seriously, she doesn’t discover a single piece of evidence on her own and it is always other people giving her the info.  The best example of this is when how she finds out the true identity of the Freeway Fiddler.  Is it through poring over DMV records or past accident reports?  Nope, she gets a call from a rough car club called the Street Phantoms (whose members include Jack Collins and Sid Haig) who tell her about this creepy dude who used to hang out with them.  Hell, one of them even gives her a muscle car magazine with the Fiddler’s address on it!  Good work, Columbo.

Hack – having survived creepy megalomaniac Joseph Brooks in IF EVER I SEE YOU AGAIN (1978) the year before – is an interesting choice for the lead and she totally has that 70s look. For some reason when she smiles she reminds me of Jack Nicholson as The Joker.  As you can see in the plot write up, Needham was able to corral quite a bit of star power for this little TV movie.  In addition to Hamilton, Shore and Graves, you also get Frank Gorshin as a TV producer; Barbara Rush as a news anchor; Harriet Nelson as a blind landlady; Tara Buckman as the burnt victim; Morgan Brittany as another victim; and a random Abe Vigoda for one scene as hospital patient who flirts with his nurse.  Of course the star I’m most concerned with is the stunt work and it really shines here. The Fiddler attack sequences are really well shot and edited. Stunt coordinator Craig Baxley does a great job of choreographing the attacks with as many as 20 stunt drivers creating a busy freeway look.  To maximize impact, Needham even has the poor actresses sit in the (towed) cars while the van smashes into the side of them.  Here is a sampling of the Fiddler at work:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Blimey Guv'ner: VILLAIN (1971)

Maybe it was something in the water, but the early 1970s was a pretty badass time for crime flicks.  And it seemed like every country was doing their part. America went two-for-two with the classics DIRTY HARRY and THE FRENCH CONNECTION (both 1971); France had director Jean-Pierre Melville winding down his career with THE RED CIRCLE (1970) and UN FLIC (1972); Italy saw the poliziotteschi sub-genre revving up with titles like Fernando Di Leo’s MILIAN CALIBER 9 and MANHUNT (both 1972) and Enzo G. Castellari’s HIGH CRIME (1973); and the United Kingdom gave us A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and GET CARTER (both 1971).  Given such considerable company it is no surprise a film like VILLAIN (1971) would take a step back to hide in the shadows.  But maybe that is how this gritty British crime flick wanted it to be?  

The story centers on Vic Dakin (Richard Burton), a sadistic East End gangster who opens the film by beating and slashing a young man before hanging him off of his balcony.  So, yeah, he’s a bit of a villain.  But Dakin isn’t all bad as he dotes on his elderly mother that he lives with.  Wait a sec…he still lives at home? Loser! Anyway, Dakin decides to set up a heist of a payroll from a factory after he gets some second-hand info from a disgruntled worker. Already an established crime boss, Dakin wants to take a hands on approach as he and another crew team up to execute this robbery.
The robbery is a bit botched, but the hooligans get away with the money.  The plan immediately goes to hell though as Edgar (Joss Ackland), a member of the second crew, is picked up.  This is bad news as he was in charge of hiding the money.  Edgar is held under protective custody in a hospital due to his stomach condition and Dakin comes up with the idea of busting him out of there in order to find where the money is being held.  And keeping a watchful eye on Dakin this entire time is Inspector Bob Matthews (Nigel Davenport), who is investigating the original stabbing of the young man.

I know it will sound like a cliché, but they just don’t make movies like VILLAIN anymore. Perhaps the film’s biggest taboo is that lead thug Vic Dakin is a bit – how do they say – lavender.  Yes, the character is gay. Inspired by the real life Ronnie Kray (of the notorious 1960s gangster Kray twins), Dakin not only has a male lover named Wolfe (a young Ian McShane), but he is also physically abusive to him.  That is a big no-no nowadays, pretty much ensuring that this stays off of studio’s “70s crime films to remake with Jason Statham” list.  The script, however, doesn’t exploit this angle at all.  Dakin is a tough gay guy and that is just a part of his character.  There is no way this trait would be handled with any restraint in today’s movie making.  If made today, we would never get a (surprisingly touching) scene like when Dakin finds his mum has passed away and there would invariably be at least one person cracking wise about his sexual proclivities (who will, of course, be beaten up badly).  The closest we get to that here is when Insp. Matthews confronts Dakin about the young man’s stabbing and says, “I don't know what you're hoping to achieve, except perhaps an orgasm.”  And even that tends to emphasize Dakin’s sadistic side, rather than his homosexuality.

The script is one of the film’s strongest assets. Coming from a James Barlow novel, the screenplay was originally adapted by actor Al Lettieri (MR. MAJEYSTK) and eventually written by Brit TV vets Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. This duo has crafted some great, witty exchanges that never seem to draw attention like what passes for gangster dialogue today in a post-Tarantino gangster film world.  Meaning, they aren’t spouting pop culture references with a curse word every other line.  For example, take the following exchange between Dakin and his adversary Matthews that follows the aforementioned “orgasm” line.
Dakin: Don't be a burke all your life. Take a day off, Sergeant.
Matthews: Inspector.
Dakin: Oh it's come through, has it? That's nice. Bit more on your widow's pension.

That last line is such a perfect little bit conveying not only a sly humor, but also a veiled threat.  One of my favorite exchanges is when two thugs waiting for the robbery notice how large the money protectors are.  It goes as follows.

Henry: Big tough lads.
Frank: From the local rugby club.
Henry: Yeah, well they'll be short on Saturday.

One of the biggest knocks on the film is Burton’s overacting and poor attempt at a Cockney accent. Honestly, save one scene, I don’t think Burton is over-the-top at all and displays a cool calm with his icy blue eyes.  As for a Cockney accent, that is out of my territory.  The rest of the cast is excellent with Davenport providing the perfect counterpart as the never frazzled inspector.  McShane, looking like a lost Oasis band member, is good in his role and the film proves my theory that Joss Acklund was never actually young.  Director Michael Tuchner does a good job of capturing seedy London with some great Panavision photography.  He would deliver the awesome FEAR IS THE KEY (1973) right after this one.  If you dig some 1970s crime films, make sure to get yourself a VILLAIN.

Box Office review, June 1971:

Monday, August 8, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Cheap Plug Dept.: The Manly Men of Mobius Interview

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

Monday, August 1, 2011

Satanic Panic: THE DEMON LOVER (1977)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Strung Out on Slashers: NIGHTMARE (1981)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleazoid Express review, 11/81:

Box Office review from 1982:

Gore Gazette review (click to enlarge):

Fangoria covers the Savini FX controversy:

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