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!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Listomania!: Thomas' January 2012 Viewings

Oh crap, it's over a week into the new month and I'm already slackin'! I'll follow Will's less-is-more lead and give you four meatier reviews. Didn't we start out with ten? Next month we should be down to two.

THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940): An ambitious investigative journalist, Mike Ward (John McGuire), helps send a down-on-his-luck drifter (Elisha Cook Jr) to the chair for the murder of a diner owner. Never mind that there isn't a shred of evidence and never mind that Ward is furthering his career by writing up the story in unobjective prose. Gradually Ward starts suspecting that he sent an innocent man to the chair and a stranger with a white scarf (Peter Lorre) is the actual killer. Often cited as the first film-noir, this low-rent B title was shot on the quick by RKO, due to the fact that they had Lorre on contract for another two days (stories like that just warm the cockles of my cynical heart). Clearly writer Frank Partos (who was nominated for an Oscar for the 1951 thriller HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL) was aiming for a scathing condemnation of shoddy, unethical journalism and an unreliable justice system. Some of it works, some of it doesn't and most of its faults are due to the quickie production. Writer-turned-director Boris Ingster goes hog-wild with surrealist and expressionist influences during the impressive nightmare sequence, but McGuire's over-the-top scenery-chewing in every single scene really lets this one down. Worth seeing for noir and Lorre fans, but there is a reason this has been hard to get a hold of for so many decades.

TERMINATOR WOMAN (1993): Picture it. Videostore. 1990s. Jean-Claude Van Damme as far as the eye can see. Oh hey, there's a mess of Billy Blanks movies and Cynthia Rothrock for days... Yep, it's all about kickboxing flicks. Be it cyborgs (thank you Albert), secret tournaments, or a cop whose deadly weapons are not just his hands, but his feet too, you get some sort of martial arts that, right or wrong, was usually packaged as kickboxing. Karen Sheperd (not to be confused with Congresswoman Karen Shepherd) has always had a place in our martial arts shrine due to her amazing karate skills that were put to good use in great movies such as the Yuen Biao, Cynthia Rothrock classic ABOVE THE LAW (1986). Why she never broke out like Rothrock is a mystery. Amazing fighting skills plus knock-out looks? That should have translated to a series of ever-worsening DTV action flicks. Baffling, right? I think maybe this movie solves the mystery.

Two cops with a love/hate history that dates back to Jay (Jerry Trimble) having his pride handed to him by Julie (Karen Shepard) in a karate match (don't all great relationships start that way?) are grudgingly teamed up on an assignment to escort a drug-ring witness back to South Africa to pin-point a cache of gold.

Qissi's idea of showcasing Karen's killer kicks
En route, our two karate kops are attacked by the drug lord Alex (Michel Qissi). Alex manages to easily kidnap Julie (what does that say about Jay?), while trying to grab the witness and the gold for himself. Michel Qissi got his start in the filmworld by being Van Damme's training buddy from the old country. After working on Van Damme's movies, he finally has a chance to direct and co-star in his very own rock-bottom actioner. Too bad he doesn't have a freakin' clue how to direct a fight scene, because we didn't show up for the dialogue. Well, yeah, actually we kinda did do that, but hilarious dialogue is worthless without a good, four-limbed butt-whuppin'. It isn't so much that there are not enough action scenes, it's that they are really short, two punch affairs that are heavily edited to imply the fight instead of showing it to you. Instead of the intense choreography and wide shots of an old Jackie Chan or Corey Yuen, we get the choppy patchwork of a Jason Statham movie. No shakey-cam, though. Points in Qissi's favor there. Trimble gets a chance to shine, well, glimmer, maybe, but Karen Sheperd is sadly wasted here, though her under-cover uniform includes a black-spangly busier that is nothing short of arresting... Yeah, yeah, stop groaning.

HUMONGOUS (1982): Seems like this off-shoot of the backwoods/deformed killer subgenre struck a chord in a lot of people, not just me, as it has developed a bit of a following over the past few years. Opening with a surprisingly brutal sequence (particularly in its uncut form) in which a party on a remote island is disrupted when a drunken rape turns into a bloodbath when the victims dogs attack the rapist and literally tear him to shreds. Flash forward 40 years and a group of teens (of course!) are taking a boating trip that would take them past the site of the rape, the legendary Dog Island. After rescuing a man lost at sea (who delivers the obligatory warning), they run aground in the shallow reefs and are forced to investigate the creepy island and learn its dark secret. Back in the day this movie scared the livin' crap out of me, and it seems I was not alone on this one. Unlike so many of the similar films that would follow, it didn't have ethnically diverse teens who are all fun-lovin' kids desperately trying to connect with it's audience in a way that only people who are completely out of touch try to be. These kids have some serious issues and there is no token black guy to provide embarrassing comic relief. Director Paul Lynch (who had some success with a little film called PROM NIGHT in 1980) actually makes the most of his meager budget to provide a creepy atmosphere of isolation with minimal music and foley work. The characters mention that the island is too quiet, and it is. No chirping birds or sounds of life. Saves money and adds atmosphere! The ending sequences that take place in almost total darkness are very effective with snatches of light showing you just what you need to see to allow the creature to seem more horrifying than it no doubt would fully lit as today's test audiences would demand. It may not be quite as terrifying as it was back in the day, but there's a lot to like about this creepy little bastard.

DANGEROUS COPS (1987): The Japanese get a cut of the cheeseball '80s cop-comedy with this slick and incomprehensibly Japanese outing that even with subtitles, I can't figure out if it's a subversive satire or to be taken at face value as a "straight" action-comedy.
There are those that like to see homoerotic metaphors around every corner (someone once made the claim that the tag-line for John Carpenter's THE THING was homoerotic). I guess in some ways the buddy/cop movies of the '80s are easy targets for that sort of this sort of thought and it was up to the Japanese to take it one step further.

The first feature film based on an incredibly popular TV show, we have two, sharp-dressing, loose-cannon cops, Taka-yama (Hiroshi Tachi) and Oshita (Ky├┤hei Shibata), who have no luck with the ladies or the bad guys or their hot-tempered chief. After tearing up the city on a wild car chase, they find themselves investigating the murder of a scientist at a cancer-research lab. Apparently someone has stolen their research and now our cops must track down the villain. But they sure aren't going to make it easy on themselves.

Nobody does blackface like the Asians
I wonder who helped finance the film?
It doesn't take very long to get a lead and after another chase, the duo is confronted with a hostage situation and end up returning to the police station handcuffed together. This is where thing get weird. Instead of walking into the station, they tango into the station, complete with a rose in teeth and... a big dip complete with a big kiss. Ummmm... what the fuck am I watching? After this debacle they are quickly bounced around on various demeaning assignments, such as "masher" detail in which they must hang out in public restrooms, and yes before you ask, this includes a scene with a shocked and outraged matronly woman. Yep, that man-in-a-woman's-bathroom gag translates into any language. One bit involves them being on "hobo" detail, in which Oshita dresses up as a rastafari "hobo" and carries around a boombox. Nothing is funnier than being homeless! All the while they continue to try and chase down leads on the big case. Yeah, yeah, I hear you saying "what about all that homo stuff you were talking about?" Ok fine, when Taka is all depressed because the villain isn't falling for their plan, Oshita puts on a little one-man, song and dance number on a stage just for him. No, really. During a tense moment Taka is seen stroking the bowed head of the young rookie officer. Plus there is tons of other bits here and there that are just things that straight men would not do. Errr... not that there's anything wrong with that!

To be fair there are some fun moments in the film and some of the throwaway jokes are actually pretty funny. There's moments such as when Oshita, in his bright, black and yellow patterned shirt goes to a high-class bar in which the dress-code requires a tie. He is given a loaner, which is a red tie, and the pregnant pause and look on his face before pointing out that the tie would clash with his shirt is well played. So is the bit where Oshita goes to buy groceries for the safehouse where they are holding an accessory to the crime and ensures that he picks out the perfect white wine for dinner. Funny, but, hmmmmm... See what I mean?

The movie moves at a breakneck pace trying to cram in an entire season's worth of gags, action and pointless sub-plots in addition to laying on the '80s kistch with a trowel. While some stuff doesn't translate at all (a Japanese character printed on a fan is changed to a presumably bad word with a single piece of tape), director Yasuharu Hasebe throws enough stuff at the wall to ensure that something sticks and does it with oodles of hyper-stylized '80s sensibility.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Listomania!: William's Jumping January 2012 Viewings

Urgent telegram from VJ Headquarters reads: “Oh crap! –stop- It’s the 1st. –stop-.”  Damn, how did February sneak up on us like this?  Well, it did and somehow January flew away. Probably the plethora of movies I watched helped it in doing that as I took in 32 movies during the 31 days in the first month of the year.  That broke down to 25 DVD viewings, 4 streaming movies, 3 VHS movies and 0 theatrical screenings (a first).  One of my New Year’s Movie Resolutions has been to watch more stuff I haven’t seen before instead of revisits.  It is a conscious attempt to whittle down that ever growing collection of films on the dreaded “to be watched” list (hard with Tom shipping me tons of glorious DVD-Rs).  I guess I’m off to a good start as 27 of the 32 screenings were features I had never seen before. Below are a five of the new titles that stuck with me the most, for better or worse.

SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937) - Detectives Kelly (Hugh Herbert) and Dempsey (Allen Jenkins) inadvertently find themselves on the trail of criminal The Octopus when they rescue Vesta Vernoff (Marcia Ralston) in the middle of a rain storm. The trio end up at a lighthouse and are soon joined by 5 other folks drawn to this location. One of them The Octopus, who is hoping to get the formula to some sort of death ray. Oh, and there is also a real octopus that is snatching folks at random. I got the Warner Bros. Mystery set recently on my friend Marty's recommendation with the explicit instructions to watch this feature first because it is really out there and that is no lie. Running just under an hour, this is essentially a slapstick comedy to showcase Herbert's comedic talents, but there is so much oddball stuff going on here. You have a Captain Hook, who has a hook hand (naturally) and a fear of clocks; two loony cops who shoot at everything; an underdeveloped romance; inadvertent drug addiction; deep sea diving; and even an octopus that switches off lights with its tentacles. Believe it or not, it all makes sense in the end. One of the best things was a character transformation done via old school in-camera trickery that comes off incredibly well.  You can check it out here (obviously don’t click if you don’t want film spoilers):

ANGEL OF DESTRUCTION (1994) - Singer/stripper Delilah (Jessica Mark) is stalked by a creepy ex-mercenary (Jimmy Broome), who likes to leave severed fingers in her dressing room. Justifiably spooked, she hires private eye Brit Alwood (Charlie Spradling) for protection but that ends rather quickly when the psycho shows up in Brit's office minutes after the hiring and kills her. So it is up to Jo Alwood (Maria Ford), Brit's stepsister, to take on the job and stop this killer. Not only that, but she has to deal with sleazy mafia type and former adversary Sonny Luso (Bob McFarland), Delilah's funder who is upset she is too racy and wants her to be more "like Peggy Lee" (what!?!). 

I can't believe how long this B-movie masterpiece has eluded me. I don't want to oversell it, but this is about as perfect an exploitation film as you can get with director Charles Philip Moore (DEMON WIND) cramming in everything he could. Essentially a riff on 1992's popular THE BODYGUARD (and a remake of Moore's earlier BLACKBELT [1992], a BODYGUARD rip-off with Don "The Dragon" Wilson that went into production when news of Costner's vehicle hit and beat it to release by 6 months), the film ups the violence and nudity to insane levels. If a fight isn't happening on screen, most likely one of Delilah's nudity filled shows is. Moore reaches the pinnacle during a nighttime assassination attempt where Ford thwarts the goons with her kickboxing skills while clad only in a g-string. You read that right – naked kickboxing!  It is the type of thing you would expect from a HK production (ESCAPE FROM BROTHEL did it in 1992), but not readily seen in US stuff. The bloody shootouts (done in not-so-glorious slo-mo) also echo the HK style at the time. The production tried to get the Philippines to stand in for Hawaii but it doesn't work.

VICE RAID (1960) - Syndicate crime boss Malone (Brad Dexter) wants to get do-gooder vice cop Whitey Brandon (Richard Coogan) out of his hair so he sets up a rather intricate plot of framing him. Malone gets "model" Carol Hudson (Mamie Van Doren) to come into town and falsely claim that Brandon tried to extort her during a bust. Thankfully, the department is prone to believing the testimony of floozies over their most decorated cop and Brandon is fired. So he sets out to get his revenge and receives an unlikely ally in Carol after her teenage sister is raped by one of Malone's hoods. This was actually my first Van Doren film and I rather enjoyed it. She is definitely a looker and you can bet the soundtrack fills with swooning jazz when she enters the picture. She is also pretty decent as an actress. Also of note is Juli Reding, who has one scene early on as a "model" who is more than proud to show her magazine work to Brandon ("Close it up or you might catch cold.") Coogan, looking a bit like Robert Stack, is good in the lead, if a little stiff. Director Edward L. Cahn definitely won't be accused of doing anything inventive during the proceedings, although there is a nice dummy fall during the final shootout. It is currently streaming on Netflix.

THE POSSESSION OF NURSE SHERRI (1978) – Hard to believe we’ve been blogging for almost 2 years on bad movies and this is our first Al Adamson mention.  Al gives us his take of THE EXORCIST. A cult leader has a heart attack in the desert while performing a ritual to raise a follower from the dead and subsequently dies on the operating table at a local hospital. No big deal, he'll just turn into a glowing green blob and possess Nurse Sherri (Jill Jacobson) to get revenge on the doctors who he feels killed him. This is bad news for Sherri's lovelife as her boyfriend Peter (Geoffrey Land) was one of the docs. Peter notices the changes in Sherri and it seems only a blinded former NFL player with knowledge of voodoo (!) who is a patient can offer the way for two nurses (Marilyn Joi and Mary Kay Pass) to help release Sheri from this transcendental terror. If you are familiar with Adamson's work, you'll know what to expect here as this has lots of static shots that go on too long and flat acting. There is also one of the funniest and most random car chases when a drunken follower confronts Peter – who is oddly not intrigued by this man's story, despite knowing his girl is now possessed – in a parking garage. They then burst out onto the city streets and end up in the desert within minutes.  The poor follower survives having the roof of his car ripped off and leaps out just before it drives off a cliff and explodes (the film’s highlight).  The Shock-o-rama DVD offers an alternate version of the film title simply NURSE SHERRI and it is actually really interesting. It removes all of the drunken follower bits (including the car chase) from the POSSESSION version and replaces them with nude scenes.

BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS (1970) – It is even harder to believe that this is our first Andy Milligan mention on the blog.  Maybe we are still somewhat sane?  Here awful auteur Andy attempts to do the story of Sweeney Todd...with a budget of $50.  Ooof!  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (John Miranda) lets you know his business right away as he cuts a man's throat in the first three minutes (he pulls a towel over the victim's face and the guy reacts as if he is being pulled back, despite his attacker letting go at one point). Sweeney pockets the valuables and the rest goes into the meat pies of Mrs. Lovett (Jane Hilary). Things get complicated when good girl shop worker Johanna (Annabella Wood) wonders where her boyfriend disappeared to.

Good God!  Only Andy Milligan could drag down the exploitation material found in the Todd story. You know what the other adaptations of that Penny Dreadful were missing? How about looooong scenes of people talking and talking and talking. To be fair, there is about a minute of pretty good stuff in here, mostly coming from some meat cleaver attacks. Milligan recreates the 19th century about as well as I can waltz and I'm pretty sure one scene has a shot of a modern era heater in the back and light switches. Miranda's Sweeney looks like a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Bowzer from Sha Na Na, but he is, surprisingly, a decent actor. The rest of the cast is there, local theater English accents and all (believe it or not, he actually shot in England). Look for "fortnight" to be said twice within the first ten minutes.  This was only my second Milligan feature (I lost my Milligan virginity to the similar THE GHASTLY ONES) and I’m not sure if I want to go back for more.  

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Legacy of Lovecraft: THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS (2011)

Over the past decade H.P. Lovecraft has had a resurgence of popularity not seen since the ‘80s. To many of us, he never went out of style, but with the reduced cost in digital production, it has suddenly become a popular subject for low-budget filmmaking. It also should be pointed out that no studio is going to want to produce a film in which things cannot be named and there is stuff that is not meant to be known. Hollywood films are all about names and explanations. Everything has to have a backstory. If you have aliens, Hollywood studios demand to know where they come from, why they hate humans and what they had for breakfast. Another thing Hollywood hates is atmosphere. Every scene needs to be lit up like a K-Mart in September. No shadows, but plenty of flood fills because we need to see the thread-count on Freddy Krueger’s latest woolen knit sweater, or the TV-weened kids in the test screenings will complain.

Most of the love for H.P. has come in the form of short films of varying quality. Some, such as Brian Moore’s excellent COOL AIR (1998), are stripped-to-the-bone adaptations that overcome their extreme budgetary limitations with deft handling of the material. Some miss the other-worldly portal entirely and some, or rather one, nails it so perfectly that it leaves you in awe. Not just the adaptation of the story, but the framework and the details make THE CALL OF CTHULHU (2005) one of the best, if not the best H.P. Lovecraft short film to date. So now what? Well the founders of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society and creators of CALL, Sean Branney and Andrew Leman, decided to spend the next six years letting the accolades roll in, watching Gilligan re-runs and only rolling off the sofa to hoist another poor-man’s champagne out of the fridge, right? Heeeeeeell no! In that long six years Branney and Leman spent three years (yes, three years) just hammering out a script for their first feature-length film, THE WHISPERER IN DARKNESS! Yeah, sure, Hollywood is full of stories about development hell where the studio bigwigs are sold on some high-concept motion picture event and then spend the next decade paying 20 other schlubs to re-write it. Of course after going through the script-grinder for years, when the execs finally fire-up the ol’ green light, you end of up with a nails-on-a-chalkboard endurance test like INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008). Here, Branney and Leman actually made the script a finely tuned instrument that resonates Lovecraft like Dr. Pretorious’ infernal machine.

During the very real Vermont floods of 1927, farmers begin reporting sightings of strange winged, crab-like creatures. The controversy in the newspapers sparks debate among the academics and the student body of the prestigious Arkham University in nearby Massachusetts. One of such person is Professor Albert Wilmath (Matt Foyer and period toupee), a folklorist who maintains, what he believes to be, a firm grasp on reality. After being involved in a literal debate with real life writer Charles Fort (Andrew Lehman under some very impressive make-up), Wilmath is contacted by the son of a Vermont farmer Henry Akeley (Barry Lynch), who has been trying to convince Wilmath to come out to Vermont to see his farm and possibly the creatures that surround it on a nightly basis. After some photographic evidence and continued chiding from Fort, Wilmath sucks it up and heads out to the wilds of Vermont to meet with Akeley and disprove him for the charlatan that he, of course, is. Things go horribly wrong. Yes, that’s it. That's all I’m going to reveal about the plot. There’s a lot more, but I really don’t want to spoil any of it. Let’s just say that the Mi-Go are featured prominently, but have been re-envisioned with a surprising twist that may not be totally Lovecraftian, but certainly is fitting for the period and pretty damn nifty.

I’ve often said that when bringing Lovecraft to the screen, some elaboration is probably a good idea. Obviously this depends on the direction you go. You can take Lovecraft to the streets of modern Los Angeles, add a handful of staggeringly bad acting and even worse CG effects and end up with something utterly laughable like THE CHILL (2007), or you can tweak the story, add subplots and flesh it out into something that stays true to Lovecraft to a point, but makes for a great cinematic experience, such as THE COLOUR FROM THE DARK (2008), or… you can have your fungi and eat it too. Branney and Leman have managed to add subplots and an entire third act to the story that not only add depth and structure to the story, but actually retain the spirit of Lovecraft, with some caveats. Lovecraft would have never written the biplane scene, nor the “emotional attachment” bit with the little girl, Hannah Masterson (Autumn Wendel), but paths they end up taking ring true in spite of that. Any of these minor inconsistencies are easily overlooked, however, due to the sure-footed production and high level of craftsmanship.

The brilliant concept behind CALL was to make the film in the style of the era it was written in. So here, they have decided to continue that philosophy and make this in the style of what they claim to be an early ‘30s film. I don’t know about early ‘30s, specifically, it feels more like a mash-up of ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, but that’s just being pedantic. It is easily the most successful period-style genre film since YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) and DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID (1982), and those were both comedies. The level of painstaking detail in virtually every scene is nothing short of amazing. Even more amazing is the filmmakers accounts of even more grueling tedious work that is completely transparent when viewing the film. A simple sequence in which Wilmath simply waits to meet Akeley's son who has come to meet him on a period-correct train was in fact an ordeal to film, simply because the train ran on its own schedule and Branney and Leman didn’t want to use CGI or work around the sequence. They could have the easy way out and shot a close-up of Wilmath sitting at the station and used sound effects or voice over to convey that there is a train. That's what The Asylum would have done. Actually they would have shot the train leaving the station and left in all the tourists in modern attire. Actually, they pretty much did do that. But not our HPLS guys! It would be too easy, and it would look cheap in the final film. To paraphrase the late Mr. Kennedy, they don’t do it because it’s easy, they do it because it’s hard. I love these guys!

That said there is CGI this time around, but it is due to the lack of budget to do everything in camera. Branney and Leman originally wanted to do the creature effects in stop-motion miniature, which would have been incredible, but it became obvious that it was going to be far too labor intensive and thus far too costly and decided to go with CG. But not just CG. CG that looks like stop-motion! How cool is that? In spite of the CG here and there, a large amount of effects are physical, including real smoke! Yeah, I know it seems like a simple thing. Bring in a smoke machine, get a couple of guys to wave some fans and you’re in business, right? For some reason, low-budget and digital shot films in particular, simply refuse to do this. Need some atmospheric fog or smoke? Call up the guy with Video Toaster! It never fails to do exactly the opposite of the intention. It looks cheap and tacky and detracts from the scene. Here we have real smoke and a single light-source – in the same shot! Man, I almost cried. Seriously, that’s all it really takes to thrill me. If ISHTAR had been shot in black and white with a smoke machine and a single light source it would be my favorite movie of all time. And maybe with some split focus shots and oblique angles and… ok, well, you get my point.

Speaking of things that just aren't done anymore; the brilliant opening scene, inspired by THE LADY VANISHES (1938), in which the camera pans down from the credits, past a matte-painting and into an intensely detailed miniature, is really the kind of thing we just don’t see in cinema at all these days, much less in a low-budgeted independent feature. The sweeping score by Troy Sterling Nies also adds an element of richness and class that would have otherwise been absent, making the whole film feel like a genuine studio release from the past. Additionally, special effects maestros Dave Snyder (make-up effects) and Fred Manchento (miniatures/models) turn in some seriously stunning work that rival anything put out by a major studio. Manchento’s massive Round Mountain miniature set with aproximately 1000-2000 hand-made trees and an internally lit, forced perspective cave tunnel is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The same can be said for Snyder’s re-creation of Lynch’s face and hands. I seriously doubt the majors would have even considered taking the time to make such detailed prosthetic works and would have gone straight to the CG department.

Before I start getting pelted with rotten vegetables for gushing like a fanboy, let me see if I can find something to grumble about. In CALL OF CTHULHU, Branney and Leman made the movie look like an old film. They processed the image to give it a slightly over-exposed white glow that that are indicative of films from the silent era. Also the image had scratches and imperfections that really brought that feeling home. Out of the dozens upon dozens of fantastic details that are present in WHISPERER, that is the one that is obvious by its omission. Everything else is so dead on, that the crisp, clean image and audio pull you away from suspending the belief that this is a lost horror-noir classic. Also, you could kibbitz that some of the acting is a bit stagey. Expressions are bigger than they need to be and a little over dramatic at times. However, these are stage actors who are acting like they are in a period film and films of the '30s did tend to have a stage-like quality due to the actors and the fact that cameras were literally immobile during scenes with sound due to the heavy baffling of the cameras. Oh, and while Matt Foyer does a fine job as Wilmath, but I kept waiting to give me some quirky cooking tips. Honestly, he really could kidnap Alton Brown and take over his life.

It’s amazing and a real shame that a film of this quality has to go out self-published, but then again, I suspect that there is no studio on earth that would let this movie be what it is. So many concessions would have to be made that it would be a completely different film in the end. That is what makes this film more than the sum of its parts. WHISPERER is without question one of the best indy productions to come along since… well, since THE CALL OF CTHULHU and in all seriousness, I can't think of a single digital movie that is more ambitious or as genuinely entertaining. What will HPLS' next project be? There have been some mutterings about the oft-attempted story The Shadow Over Innsmouth, but nothing has been announced as of yet. One thing is for certain, the digital feature bar has been raised. I would love to see more people rise to this challenge and make digital features that do the hard work and show a… ahem… love for the craft. Oh, “boo” yourself.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The "Never Got Made" Files #71: Tales about TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE

Believe it or not, hiding behind the badly Photoshopped DVD cover to the left is one of the most anticipated sword and sorcery follow ups of all-time. Finally seeing release this week in the United States via Lionsgate DVD, TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE is the long-awaited follow up to THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982), director Albert Pyun’s first and most successful theatrical release.  Waiting 30 years between films is bad enough for fans, but the end result was equally disappointing (read our full original review here).  What isn’t known are the years of on-and-off starts/stops and behind-the-scenes developments the filmmakers dealt with.  Thankfully, director Pyun has been kind enough (especially after our review) to give us the back story on the continuation and share some tales about the making of TALES.

THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER was one of the great, entertaining films from the “class of 1982,” an era where horror, sci-fi, and fantasy films were at a creative peak.  Having been turned down by most major and minor studios in Hollywood over a period of years, Pyun and his co-writers Tom Karnowski and John Stuckmeyer finally caught a break when they took their script and storyboards to producer Brandon Chase the day before EXCALIBUR (1981) opened.  Chase, fresh off the box office success of ALLIGATOR (1980), saw potential in the project and the film was into production within eight weeks of their initial meeting.

Chase knew he was taking a risk on a first time filmmaker, but it paid off handsomely when SWORD opened just over a year later.  Riding the wave of fantasy popularity spawned by Dungeons & Dragons, SWORD was released theatrically by the independent distributor Group 1 on April 23, 1982 on 223 screens.  Despite being on a fraction of screens occupied by most top ten films at the time (for comparison, the raunchy comedy classic PORKY’S was on 1,474 screens), SWORD debuted in fifth place with a hefty per screen average of $7,720 (over two thousand dollars higher than the next closest average).  The film was an unbridled success and it jumped to the no. 2 position when it expanded to 660 screens the next weekend.  In total, the film spent four months in top 20 at the box office, ending with a final domestic box office take of $39,103,425.  Adjusted for inflation (1982’s ticket price average of $2.94 vs. 2012’s average of $7.94), the film grossed over $106 million in today’s box office dollars.  Not bad for a film with a neophyte director and a budget in the range of $3-4 million.

Two-page Variety ad circa May 1982
touting SWORD's box office success (click to enlarge):

Naturally, like any film that turns such an enormous profit, the producers were more than happy to announce plans for a sequel.  Hell, they didn’t even need to as the filmmakers took care of that for them.  In the tradition of 007 films ending their credits with “James Bond will return in…” text teases, SWORD promised more with an onscreen end credit that read: “Watch for Talon’s Next Adventure TALES OF THE ANCIENT EMPIRE coming soon.”

end credits tease:

Sales agent Walter Manley wasted little time on the project and announced in a May 1982 Variety issue that his company would begin taking presales at Cannes.  He claimed a script was finished and the production ready to roll.  Manley peppered his words with bold talk of shooting in Germany with a budget of $12,000,000 for a Christmas 1983 release.

Additionally, an announcement of the sequel project was also placed in Box Office magazine in May 1982.

While the distributor was high on pimping the project, producer Chase had a bit more standoffish approach.  Speaking to Fangoria around the same time, he took a decidedly more cautious stance, waiting to see how the market would handle the upcoming glut of sword and sorcery pictures.

In the end, Chase was right as public interest fell under the weight of beefy guys with names like ATOR and DEATHSTALKER.  It’s always the Italians, right?  Chase’s prescient thoughts were all the more confirmed when CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984) lived up to its moniker by killing the once hard-hitting genre with bad comedy and a PG rating. A year later you couldn’t pay people to step into a theater to see RED SONJA (1985), co-starring the genre’s poster boy Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Well, except for Video Junkie head Tom, he was front and center.

On Albert Pyun’s end, things never really took off on the sequel in the early 80s.  “I don't think there was a serious attempt to make sequel,” Pyun reveals. Regardless, the director did work on an early rough draft of the sequel script around that time.  “I had written a sequel called THE SERPENT’S ORB,” he says.  “It dealt with the kingdom they were riding off to save at the end of SWORD. But it was much larger in scale with dragon creatures unleashed by a sorceress as the main villains. Much of the movie was set in caves.”

In all fairness, Pyun also soon found himself to be a very busy man as he embarked upon the kind of directing career that would send shivers down Terrence Malick’s spine.  Following SWORD’s debut, Pyun worked seemingly non-stop over a period of nearly two decades (1983-2001) as he directed an astonishing 35 feature films (with 5 films alone released in 1996!).  Pyun found himself all over the map both literally and figuratively as the shooting locations were as disparate as the film’s quality.  This globetrotting period found Pyun working for companies from Cannon to Empire to Miramax. When asked if he ever thought of bringing the SWORD sequel property to these studios, he had a surprising answer.  “No, I was really done with fantasy as I just came off two other difficult fantasy shoots – RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1985) and VICIOUS LIPS (1986),” he explains. “I wanted to make contemporary set movies. I was exhausted building entire worlds from scratch.”

Interestingly, an attempt to resurrect the production came via Walter Manley in the mid-1990s. Manley had spent most of the 1980s running Manley Productions, Inc. (MPI) before finding himself in legal trouble in 1993 for failure to pay $300,000 to the producers of HARD ROCK NIGHTMARE (you can read more about this fascinating story in this Variety article).  Come 1995 he had christened a new company, Palisades Communications, and offering the SWORD sequel among his preproduction projects at Cannes that year (listed as “Brandon Chase’s THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER PART II).  Also take note of his offering of Meir Zarchi’s unmade I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE sequel (complete with an amusing spelling error) and MPI’s perpetually announced MANIAC II (6 years after MANIAC Joe Spinell had passed away).

On Pyun’s end, he never really thought about the sequel again until the 21st century had appeared.  “I did try to get a loose sequel going with Elie Samaha and Franchise Pictures in 2002,” he states. “The script was written for Dolph Lundrgren and called CITY OF BLOOD.  It was really the genesis of TALES as it introduced vampires into the mix.”

The only memorable thing about
REDLINE (2007)
It wasn’t until 2007 that Pyun started taking the idea of a follow up seriously. According to his blog, he studied what the genre had offered in the ensuing 25 years and felt his return could be done.  In August 2007 he announced to Ain’t It Cool News (AICN) that a follow up would begin production in Tunisia in October.  Initially, Pyun was hoping to adapt a sci-fi script called SWEATING BULLETS by his LEFT FOR DEAD screenwriter Chad Leslie. “Chad's script was very clever and set in the distant future.  A sort of BLADE RUNNER / BRAZIL type world,” he explains.  “The premise was how people who had money but were dying or diseased or crippled could buy another body and have their own thoughts and soul put into the new body. It was a mystery thriller set with that concept. It translated easily into a historical sword and sorcery epic.”

Pyun briefly worked with producer Mario Kassar on trying to get TALES made via Chicago Pictures.  The script got positive reaction and they had several meetings.  Unfortunately, that outfit died a quick death thanks to REDLINE (2007), a forgetable street racing disaster probably best known now for lead Eddie Griffin accidentally wrecking a $1.5 million dollar Ferrari Enzo during a charity race practice run to promote the film.

Feeling that Leslie’s script might be too expensive to produce, Pyun had his producer Cynthia Curnan work out his ideas in late 2007.  The title saw a slight modification as it went from TALES OF THE ANCIENT EMPIRE to TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE.  Satisfied with the resulting script, Pyun quickly ramped up production in the first half of 2008.  Plans initially included head back down to Argentina (where Pyun had shot LEFT FOR DEAD) and preproduction began.  Slowly over the next few months Pyun saw his production changing (24 shooting days whittled down to 11 days).  When other production expenses began balloon their budget of $450,000, Pyun and company decided to pull the plug on the May 2008 filming start date down in Argentina.

So preproduction began all over again with the producers now aimed for a fall 2008 start date. Various actors (Christopher Lambert, Yancy Butler, Leah Cairns) were announced via AICN in July 2008 as being part of the cast, but they never made it into the film.  Adding to the confusion, the IMDb listed Val Kilmer as a cast member although he was never in the film.  Ultimately, it was money and budget issues that kept these folks from coming on board.  “Leah was in Canada and we couldn't afford to bring her to LA,” Pyuns discloses. “With Christopher and Yancy we couldn't agree on a fee. Again, we were so strapped budget-wise and the fact that the funding for the budget never fully materialized hurt those areas.”  The money woes even hurt the return of SWORD star Lee Horsley as Talon. “We couldn't afford him for more than a day so we had to create [his role] so it could be done in a day,” Pyun states.

Cameras finally started rolling in December 2008 with a cast that included Kevin Sorbo, Whitney Albe, Melissa Ordway, Victoria Maurette, Ralf Moeller, and Matthew Willig. Treating the time between films as real-time, TALES tells the story of Princess Tanis (Ordway) convincing her half-siblings – Aedan (Kevin Sorbo), Malia (Sarah Ann Schultz), and Rajan (Janelle Giumarra) – to combat vampire sorceress Xia (Albe) before she can take over the kingdom of Abelar.  So much for the further adventures of Talon, eh?  Pyun edited the film throughout 2009 and into 2010.  Early efforts to release the film on April 23, 2010 (28 years to the day of the original’s release) via Pyun’s direct-to-DVD distribution fell through, as did a planned Comic Con screening.  The first public screening finally came in July 2010 at the Fright Night Film Festival.  In the fall of 2010, the film was released in Thailand on DVD.  This was an licensed release, but not Pyun’s final cut.  “It was attempt by the original producer to raise cash,” Pyun says bluntly.

Pyun promised fans this wasn’t his final version and, indeed, in 2011 he began shooting new footage.  In January 2011, Cazzy Golomb shots scene as a narrator in an effort to streamline the film’s confusing plotline.  Later, in May 2011, Pyun gathered a collection of actors for his past production in order to expand the film’s running time.  Further shooting took place in the deserts of Nevada in August 2011.  “In the year in between we added Michael Pare', Victoria Maurette, Sasha Mitchell, Norbert Weisser and Jessica Delgado,” he reveals of a four day shoot.  “Actually it was really part of the RED MOON shoot and we just assigned the footage for use on TALES to promote RED MOON.”

So what in the world is RED MOON?  It is actually the sequel to TALES teased in that film's cliffhanger.  “The RED MOON script is great and we are going to complete it this spring. I think it will make up for TALES creatively,” says Pyun, quite aware of the fan backlash on TALES.  “Yes, but I expect a backlash on all my films. So I'm armored and prepared for the lynch mob,” says the prolific director.  “I am resigned that my style of filmmaking is not likely to appeal to a large audience.”

Believe it or not, the TALES journey doesn’t end there.  The large audience mentioned above will still not be seeing Pyun’s final cut as apparently Lionsgate has modified the film even more for their DVD release.  Exactly what has been changed is a mystery even to the film’s director as even Pyun has not seen their version.  “Very disappointing” is the quick and simple way he can describe it.  “It’s very upsetting to me that they would make the changes and with me not involved. Just to gain 4 minutes of screen time. It really hurts the film which isn't strong enough to withstand that change,” says Pyun with some frankness about his final product. TALES OF AN ANCIENT EMPIRE is out now on DVD.

Friday, January 20, 2012


One of the great things about Netflix streaming is they have a bunch of TV movies on there.  Particularly interesting are TV movies from the 1970s like this little crime caper.  A serious vehicle for funnyman Freddie Prinze, star of NBC’s popular CHICO AND THE MAN, this originally aired for the network on Wednesday, September 22, 1976 as the "NBC Movie of the Week."  Sadly, just a few months later Prinze would be dead.

Electronics whiz and ex-con Alvin “Muff” Kovak (Prinze) plans a heist on the Chicago Transit Authority.  Muff, really?  Fired from the CTA for making bootleg signal boxes, Kovak figures he has enough insider knowledge that he can steal lots of money from the subway collection centers on pickup day.  Muff assembles a team of four beauties to help him pull this off.  There is Helen (Linda Scruggs), Lil (Christine Bedford), Jessie (a pre-GROWING PAIN Joanna Kerns) and Kitty (Brook Mills), Muff’s love interest. Because, honestly, when you are planning something so complex, you definitely want four ladies who look like they should be dancing in the disco helping you out.  They get around their good looks because one of them is a make up expert and designs some intricate make ups to disguise them and make them look like old men.  The end result is definitely creepy, coming off as a cross between horror movie monsters and that creepy short guy with the high pitch voice that everyone has met at some point in their lifetime.  Yeah, you know the one.  Here are some examples:

Hot chick in disguise or Teller?

Hot chick in disguise or Senator Joe Lieberman?

Prinze in disguise or Eddie Muprhy 

Hot chick in disguise or horror movie granny?

Joanna Kerns in disguise or Kramer?

Anyway, Muff is one smart cookie and he bugs the office of Lt. Fogherty (Allen Garfield) in order to hear the daily numerical passwords of the pick up drivers.  His plan is to intercept them by a few minutes and have one of his ladies in disguise present the code number to get the bag first.  This should nab them $500,000 in three different locations for a cool million and a half dollars.  Wait a second – I thought this was the million dollar rip-off, not the million and a half dollar rip-off?  Anyway, all seems to be going according to plan until Luback (James Sloyan), an old underworld associate of Muff’s, shows up and demands 50% of the action.  This is bad news because not only will Muff not be getting the full amount of money, but it means he has a rat in his bevy of beauties who tipped Luback off to their crime.  Can Muff pull off the perfect heist, while outsmarting his enemies and uncovering the mole?  I’ll bet you he can, in 73 minutes no less!

Drawing inspiration from THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974), this TV movie originally began its life as a screenplay by actors William Devane and John Pleshette (no doubt with themselves in the lead roles).  It was eventually adapted into a TV movie teleplay by Andrew Peter Martin, who had previously given audiences the TV horror classic BAD RONALD (1974).  The entire scenario can easily be seen as a big heist film, but it looks like NBC wanted to go the glorious eye candy route where a guy leads some foxy females instead.   Interestingly, just two hours after this premiered at 8pm, a little show called CHARLIE’S ANGELS premiered on ABC at 10pm.  *cue eerie music*

One of the things that really benefit this TV production is the location shooting in Chicago. New York usually gets the most play when it comes to 1970s urban films, so it is nice to see the Windy City get its due.  There are lots of downtown shots, office layouts and, obviously, tons of railway/yard locations.  If it was shot today, they would do it all location work via greenscreen and the offices would have TV screens every two feet. Most interesting to me are the garish subway station entrances that are painted with such an ugly color, looking like the kind of orange you get when you mix your mustard and ketchup (mutchup?) together.

Of course, the most interesting thing about this film is it is Prinze’s lone feature.  A stand up comedian since his teens, Prinze burst into stardom after being featured on Jack Paar’s show and THE TONIGHT SHOW in 1973.  Just under a year later he was the lead on the aforementioned CHICO sitcom. Sadly, the quick ascent to stardom affected Prinze adversely and he quickly fell into the drug lifestyle.  Despite the birth of his son (future star Freddie Prinze, Jr.) in early 1976, Prinze continued to struggle with depression and drug abuse.  It is shocking to believe, but he was only 22-years-old when he appeared in this film.  Just four months after this aired, Prinze took his own life by committing suicide. It is a real shame as this film showed he was more than capable at carrying a film and that he didn’t need to rely solely on his natural comedic abilities.  Had he lived, Prinze could have, at best, easily essayed supporting roles in the action flicks coming out at the time.  At worst, he would have done fine in one of the AIRPORT movies.  Hollywood is a land of sad stories of unreached potential and Prinze’s story might be one of the worst.

Article around the time of 
airing (click to enlarge):