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, April 17, 2012

Cine M.I.A. #3: SON OF DRACULA (1974)

I'll pretty much watch anything with Richard Starkey in it. Not because I'm one of those disturbingly obsessive Beatles fans (believe me, I'm not), but for two reasons: Out of The Beatles, he was the only one who was as unpretentious as you can get with every finger encrusted with giant jewelry and he apparently took enough acid to give himself enough of a unique perspective that in a band who wrote some admittedly strange, drug-induced songs, his was the one that caused scratches on record players around the world. I'm sure he, being the celebrity that he was, he was probably buried in scripts and it’s fascinating to wonder what he was offered that he actually turned down. Some of his choices are quite fascinating: A homeless man, adopted by Peter Sellers to aid him playing elaborate practical jokes on a jaded, materialistic society in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN (1969); the sadistic, immature, obsessive younger brother of the villain in Tony Anthony's masterpiece BLINDMAN (1971); a white bearded Merlin the Magician... Err, wait… what? Yes, that's right, this is the film in which Starr plays an ethically unstable Merlin the Magician, complete with white hair and beard and a costume that looks like it was made for him by his mom for Halloween when he was 8 years old. And he says things like "you are all my children, Baron Von Frankenstein". And he's helping out Dracula. Well, dracula's son, actually... who is also a musician. Wait, hang on, I'll start again…

In the 1800's in Transylvania, Dracula is put to the stake. Or rather the stake is put to him, much to the delight of a dwarf, who turns out to be Baron Frankenstein's assistant (Skip Martin). When trusted ally Merlin (Ringo Starr) arrives to survey the damage, he finds that one of Dracula's brides is pregnant and will give birth to the son of Dracula in 100 years time. No rush on getting those booties knitted, I guess. Cut to modern day (well, the '70s) and a hearse is carrying a coffin across the Chunnel. After stopping to fill up on gas, the inhabitant of the coffin decides to fill up on something redder and puts the bite on the gas pump girl and her boyfriend. All that travelling sure works up the appetite.

As it turns out Dracula's son Count Downe (the ironically reclusive Harry Nilsson) is due to be crowned King of the Underworld in a ceremony in London that will make him the ruler of all of the monsters. What sort of bureaucracy that entails, we are not told. What we are told is that in the 72 hours prior to his crowning, he is extremely vulnerable. To what exactly, we are not told either. While waiting for the ceremony, we get a lot of scenes that seem to be just random events to help pad the film to feature length. For instance, Count Downe foils a completely random attack by a werewolf on a widow by stabbing him in the sholder with his cane sword. Ok, so Dracula's son carries a silver cane sword so he can settle disputes over prey. Sure, I'll go with that. In another scene he looks into a record shop window that is sporting a full Harry Nilsson display (yes, we got it already), and then heads to a local bar where he has a drink (yes, Dracula's son drinks alcohol), and jumps up on stage to jam with the band. If you are one of those Nilsson fans who sought out this film because of him, no doubt this will be mesmerizing as he barely did any live performances and the musicians he plays with at a couple points in the film include Peter Frampton, John Bonham, Keith Moon, Leon Russell, Bobby Keys, Jim Price and Klaus Voormann. Of course, that is probably all you will take away from this experience. For those who come at it from the angle of the monsters and the cast, the musical interludes (including a lengthy piano ballad before bed) will be a constant irritation. One film, multiple ways to be annoyed!

Note to self:
Never shoot billiards with a sorcerer.
While Merlin, who is into astrology and shoots a mean game of billiards, studies the stars for the exact moment when the Count should be crowned, Dracula Jr. is having a moment of crisis. He doesn't want to be king of the underworld. He wants to be human and to love like humans do. No, really. That is the main plot here, the son of Dracula just wants love. Displaying an uncanny sense of unintentional irony, the Count declares “it’s rather dull.” Indeed, Harry, indeed. To affect his descision, the Count decides to work with Baron Frankenstein (Freddie Jones chewing the scenery with abandon), who has a plan to help him become human, but stay immortal. Sounds great, right? Merlin is hip to Frank's jive, and knows that Dr. Frankenstein just wants to kill the Count and steal the crown for himself! To provide an alternative, Merlin brings in a wheelchair-bound Professor Van Helsing (Dennis Price), who looks like he should be hawking his secret chicken recipe with 11 herbs and spices. Van Helsing will use his degree in psychology (yeah, you heard me, he is a psychologist), an advanced radiation machine and some dippy hippy advice such as "the power of human love must be given to you," to help the Count become human. Honestly, I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.

If only this ad had something to do with the movie.

If there is anything more amusing than a cinematic train-wreck, it's a cinematic train-wreck that happens to be a vanity project as well. Actually, I may be misusing the word "amusing". Maybe I meant "grueling". Directed by industry veteran Freddie Francis, I can only imagine that he was dipping into Nilsson's private stash because this film feels in places like it's one step up from a David "The Rock" Nelson production. The camerawork is pedestrian at best, scenes go on for way too long, the musical cues sound like a tune-up session, and Nilsson acts more like a morose, love-sick zombie than a legendary vampire, delivering his dialogue as if dosed to the gills on thorazine. Come to think of it, knowing the reputation of Nilsson and friends, he was probably dosed to the gills on a lot of things. Actually, you'd have to be to make this movie! To make matters worse, the script is a mess, without any actual jokes to make it a comedy, it relies on the constant droning of hippie rhetoric about love being all that you need, which wears thin really fast. The end of the film with Nilsson and his love Amber (Professor Van Helsing’s assistant, Suzanna Leigh) on a farm with the sun setting in the background reeks of those cheesy TV commercials for CD collections with titles like “Love Forever” that can be had for five easy payment installments of $9.99 a month and always featured someone's, if not Harry's, cover of Badfinger's "Without You". If it weren't for the cloyingly saccharine thrust of the last hour of the movie, this would be a masterpiece of fromage. Erm, when I say "masterpiece", what I mean to say is that, it would be much more fun to sit through. Well, maybe "fun" is overstating it a bit. It would just be easier to sit through.


Written by Jennifer Jayne, whose only other writing credit is the lackluster Amicus anthology TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973), with the intent to make it a David Bowie vehicle, it is amazing that this film got made, let alone attracted Nilsson and Starr. But then again, that’s why I like Starr’s filmography. He doesn’t seem to care whether it’s a great movie or one that is doomed from the start. If it’s completely off the wall, of if merely the character he gets to play is eccentric as hell, he’ll sign up. It's not like he needs the paycheck!

Completed in ’72, co-producer Starr found that he couldn’t get anyone to pick up the film for distribution. Reportedly after cracking a window to clear out the pot smoke, he realized that the comedy they had made wasn't very funny. Starr had contacted Graham Chapman to re-write and re-dub the dialogue in an effort to add jokes, but said in an interview that "it makes even less sense now". This version has never been shown to the public. After a year and a half, he finally got a US distributor, Cinemation Industries (who released all manner of exploitation classics from Earl Owensby to Jimmy Wang Yu), to pick it up for a brief run in the States, with a world premier in Atlanta. According to those who remember, the run lasted about a week. According to harrynilsson.com, Ringo said this of the US release: "In America, the movie only played towns that had one cinema, because if it had two no matter what was on down the road, they'd all go down there!"

To this day, the film has never been released on video anywhere, on any format. Some speculate that it is because of Apple films (who had held up the US video releases of the John Lennon championed Alexandro Jodorowski films EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN), some think that it might be the music rights and still others believe it is just because it's crap. Nilsson himself never really let go of it and before he passed was reportedly bringing VHS copies of the film to screen at Beatlefest. Apparently the version he screened was missing the ending and he offered to explain to the audience what had happened at the end of the movie. Now if that isn’t tragic, I don’t know what is.

A sequel? Thank you sir, may I have another?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cine M.I.A.#2: SAVAGE HARVEST (1981)



As our “missing in U.S. home video action” category continues to grow, chances are you’ll see more independent flicks featured than studio fare.  It’s just a matter of economics as the studios had greater resources to get their films out there, especially when the home video market took off.  After all, it was in the best interests of the various major studios to get as much of their product on the shelves as possible.  This is particularly true when it came to the more popular genre fare like action, horror and sci-fi films.  So it is really strange to find an action-horror film from a major studio in the 1980s still unreleased on home video here.  Yet that is the case with 20th Century Fox’s 1981 theatrical release SAVAGE HARVEST.


Born in the “nature gone amuck” wake left by the blockbuster JAWS (1975), SAVAGE HARVEST tells the story of an American family – Derek, his wife Maggie and her kids from an earlier marriage – living in Kenya, Africa during a five-year drought that is driving the animals mad.  Soon the poor family is being terrorized by a pride of vicious lions (who only kill the help, of course) that surrounds and traps them in their house.  Casey, a safari guide and Maggie’s ex-husband, must use his smarts to save his family and this involves turning their cherished Mercedes Benz into a moving cage that can escort them safely away from this NIGHT OF THE LIVING LIONS scenario.  Ah, white folk problems circa the early 80s.  Here's a clip to give you a taste:


SAVAGE HARVEST was a relatively medium-sized film with a budget quoted as being $5.2 million.  Filming took place in the summer of 1980, mostly in Brazil and two weeks in Kenya, where the locals were apparently angered that all of the animals were imported from The Gentle Jungle based in Colton, California.  Director Robert L. Collins was a TV veteran and this was only his second theatrical feature. (Curiously, his theatrical feature previous to this one was WALK PROUD [1979], a Latino gang flick headlined by Robby Benson (!).  The film is also M.I.A. on home video and we’ll get to it one day.)  The script was by Collins and Robert Blees, another TV vet; based on a story by Ken Noyle and Ralph Helfer, a renowned animal trainer in Hollywood going back to the 1950s and owner of the aforementioned Gentle Jungle.  The film benefitted from the casting of the hot-off-of-ALIEN Tom Skerritt as the hero guide and the bizarre casting of Michelle Philips from The Mamas and The Papas as his wife (according to reports, Melinda Dillon was originally cast in the role). Of course, the real stars were the lions trained to menace our leads:


The film aimed for box office bucks with a “this could happen to you” tagline that cried “based on a true incident” on the posters.  While locating a story about a white American family that escapes some wild beasts by fortifying their Mercedes Benz proved rather hard, an educated stab in the dark is that the story may come from the infamous (and reportedly faked) “tourist eaten by lions while his family watches” footage originally found in the Italian Mondo documentary ULTIME GRIDA DALLA SAVANA (aka SAVAGE MAN, SAVAGE BEAST; 1975).

Two films about man-eaters! 

Alas, the film did poorly when it debuted in New York and Los Angeles in late May 1981.  Variety reported that it opened on 6 screens in L.A. and did an abysmal $4,000 take at those theaters its first weekend.  Reviews were just as middling as well, with one review praising the work by the lions more than the leads.  Variety offering this gem: “Skerritt has the good sense to mumble most of his banal lines.”  (According to this IMDb post, Skerritt was at the Lincoln Center for a screening of ALIEN in 2010 and when someone brought up the film in the Q&A session afterward, he initially didn’t remember it and then said, “Oh…God.”)

Pittsburgh Press, June 6, 1980:


Box Office review, July 1980:

The film was quickly off screens and hit heavy rotation on HBO the following year.  What it never hit was domestic home video, which is surprising given the number of crazed animal films that did get released.  One possible theory for its non-release is the soundtrack.  One scene has Skerritt trying to calm his kids down and they sing two songs by The Beatles.  Perhaps music rights issues are holding it up a release here?  It has appeared on VHS in places like the UK and Japan and in 2010 it had a rare airing on MGMHD.  Yet to this day it is still M.I.A. on U.S. home video.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Listomania!: Thomas' March 2012 Viewings

Oh hell, we're almost halfway into April and I never posted my March list. Nor did we post a funny April Fools review. Nor did we mention that this is our second anniversary. Yep, two years and we haven't even scratched the surface of our little world of thread-bare cinematic gems. What we are amazed by is what we haven't written about. Our favorite aquatic horror movies are a no show, we barely touched on ninja flicks, not a single Earl Owensby review, Indonesian action epics? Zero. Tomas Tang? Nada. Ron Marchini? Nope. Jim Brown? Zilch. Brian Trenchard-Smith? Nothing. Chris Mitchum? Barely. Damn, we got our work cut out for us!

STARHOPS (1978): Fun, ultra-lightweight would-be teen sex comedy. I say "would be" as it was directed by Barbara Peeters, who was famously removed from the director’s chair on HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1982) due to the fact that she didn’t want any nudity and violence in the film. There's a reason Roger got paid the big bucks! Jerry (Dick Miller), the owner of Jerry’s Drive-In, loses his marbles after mismanaging his business finances and being crowded out of the market by modern mechanized fast food chains (not much has changed in 30 years). Of course his car hops, Danielle (Dorothy Buhrman) and Cupcake (Sterling Frazier), decide to buy the place after using their feminine wiles on a bank officer. Unfortunately for them, an oil baron wants their patch of land for a full-automated gas station of the future (“I got 300 employees I want off my payroll!”) and resorts to all manner of dirty tricks to bring them down, including a disastrous health inspection. There are some funny jabs at big business, bureaucracy, and the food biz, too bad Peeters keeps it so squeaky clean. Some nudity (particularly from the one-and-done Frazier) would have made this an absolute classic. As it is, it's still a lot of fun. Oh, and just to be clear... STARHOPS is not Stephanie Rothman's fault. If it was, there would have been boobs in front of the camera.


INTO THE BADLANDS (1989): Sam Pillsbury blew us away with atmospheric, creepy coming-of-age chiller THE SCARECROW (1982) last month, so I figured I had to give his star-studded western anthology a shot. Phew! Man, can’t really fault Pillsbury, as what is essentially a great idea on paper is gunned down by script that is as flat and parched as a Nevada desert. Three short western themed tales of the unnatural are at the center of this OUTER LIMITS-ish anthology with a wrap-around starring Bruce Dern as an eccentric bounty killer who may just be death incarnate. While the direction and cinematography are on point, the short stories are so flatly adapted by TV writers, that even the accomplished cast cannot seem to breathe any life into them. Dylan McDermott and Helen Hunt are actually excruciatingly painful to watch as a doomed outlaw on the run and a prostitute with a heart of gold and a fatal disease (respectively). Andy Robinson is given absolutely nothing interesting to do as the law man chasing McDermott, and that my friends is a cinematic felony.

THE SEXY SECRETS OF THE KISSOGRAM GIRLS (1986): If you are male, live in England, and were a teenager during the ‘80s, you no doubt know of Peter Kay’s infamous work. Regarded as the poor man’s Russ Meyer (if only due to the bust-lines of his stars), Kay cashed in on the DTV market at a time where you could get anything into a videostore, particularly if it might make the establishment wince, without actually getting yourself thrown in jail. Shot on home video equipment for little more than the cost of hiring busty nude models (such as the beloved Pauline Hickey), the movie is virtually plotless. The tiny bit of story that we get is that a kissogram agency is recruiting new talent and is willing to give them extensive training at a posh mansion where they will learn the art of stripping… and jogging topless… and soaping up another girls breasts while in a clawfoot tub. All of the necessary skills that will make your resume bust out – I mean, stand out. Stand out.
The scenes with the girls doing topless exercises, such as running up stairs (which they are clearly not accustomed to doing), trying on clothes, “dancing” (badly) are fun, but go on so long and presented so, ummmm, flatly, that not only does the 88 minute running time feel like 880 minutes, but numbness sets in to the point where I feel like watching MARY POPPINS just to refresh my palette. It’s like eating five pounds of bacon in one sitting. After a while all that rich, fatty succulence will start to have the opposite effect and leave you yearning for a strip-mall salad bar. This actually makes the few scenes of extremely wooden dialogue actually much more entertaining than they would have been otherwise. This is Kay’s first “feature” and would prove so successful that he would go on to make at least eight other movies along similar lines (such as the tongue-twistingly titled THE SEXY SECRETS OF THE SEX THERAPISTS), some of which actually included plot elements from what I understand.



DEATH SCREAMS (198): God damn that was an endurance test. After the murder in the pre-credit sequence, there is absolutely nothing horror related for the next 79 minutes, except for one scene where a girl is sitting in the parking lot of the local carnival and she suddenly catches an arrow in her shoulder. Instead of, I dunno going to a doctor, she runs into the now deserted carnival and hops on the carousel and sits on a horse, when a plastic bag appears over her head and she suffocates to death. The rest of it is just the “kids” (one of whom is my age!) goofing off. The goofing off at the carnival comprises over 30 minutes of the film! And that completely inappropriate, almost James Bond-ish, score blares over the soundtrack constantly during the final 4 minutes, just to make sure you don’t enjoy any of it. There’s a couple of funny bits, but it’s tag line should have been “No Killer… All Filler”. It’s literally 80 minutes of the Sheldon bits from FRIDAY THE 13th Part 3 and then four minutes of badly played out slasher film at the very end. At the 45 minute mark I was thinking “are we at least going to get a shower scene?” Then, they gave me a shower scene… with the male lead. Fuckers. I can see why the producer made a comedy (SNOWBALLS - seriously, do not Google Image that title) for his next flick. Clearly they weren’t interested in making a horror movie.

AVENGING FORCE (1986): Sam Firstenburg is about as erratic a director as I can think of. After rocking the world with a pair of iconic Sho Kosugi ninja sequels (and an infamous break dancing sequel), he delivered the Michael Dudikoff dud AMERICAN NINJA (1985). It was everything it shouldn’t have been. Bad acting, very little action, not much in the way of ninjas and relentless padding. As if to apologize for that, Firstenburg did an about face with his next movie and gave us a whacked out, flamboyant and much more political reworking of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), written by James Booth, who had just come off of his trash masterpiece PRAY FOR DEATH (1985). A group of wealthy right-wing uber-patriots (lead by the incomparable John P. Ryan) spend their free time dressing up in weird costumes and setting up man-hunting games in the backwoods of Louisiana. They carefully pick their targets, ensuring that they have skilled military history to provide a challenge. The justification for this? To ensure that they will be ready for the revolution that will take down the liberals who are ruining the country by allowing foreigners on American soil (so, American Indian’s are cool, then, right?). After setting up an elaborately idiotic assassination of a black man, Larry Richards (Steve James), who they are shocked to see running for governor, the group focuses on hunting down Richards’ friend Capt Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff), who turns the tables and becomes the hunter. Sound familiar? Yeah, that would be because almost the exact same movie was made (minus the political overtones) as HARD TARGET seven years later! Funny, I don’t remember Chuck Pfarrer ever mentioning this in any interviews. Either way, it’s probably the best thing Dudikoff has done, for whatever that’s worth.

John P. Ryan's nuts!


TIFFANY JONES (1973): Peter Walker finally managed to bore me to tears, or at least unconsciousness. I’ve always thought that even in a rough patch, Pete Walker could still manage to muster up some entertainment value (is that Kitley I hear yelling about DIE SCREAMING MARIANNE?). This is a really rough patch for ol’ Pete. Based on a comic strip about a Tiffany Jones, a model who is recruited to do some James Bond espionage, frequently running afoul of nefarious villains who tend to get her into some apropos bondage and remove her blouse, I’m sure this movie appeals to Brits who grew up with it. If you don’t have nostalgic recollections, this film wears thin really fast, mainly due to the lack of the whole 007 spoofery angle. Most of the film is Tiffany Jones (Anouska Hempel) living her breezy life, being photographed, teasing the boys, being photographed some more, talking to her roommate, flirting with guys, watching TV, answering the phone, etc, etc. After a while, I honestly got bored with seeing her topless. That just ain’t right.

THE PERFECT WEAPON (1991): Hey, Jeff Speakman, what ever happened to you? You had everything Steven Segal had except that frog-in-the-throat dialogue delivery and a severe drinking problem. Oh wait… sorry, I didn’t realize that you were playing bit parts in DTV flicks starring Lou Diamond Phillips. Damn, my bad.
Speakman’s second leading role (the first being the obscure 1988 drama/thriller SIDE ROADS) is actually just as much fun as it was back in the day, but for completely different reasons. In ’91 it seemed like a pretty slick, if stock, action flick with lots of usual trappings and Speakman’s low-power, multi-strike skills bringing some of the same freshness that Segal brought to the party in 1988 with ABOVE THE LAW. Nowdays though, a whole different set of elements jump out at you. The grim seriousness of Speakman doing his kata in his apartment while Snap!’s “The Power” blasts on the soundtrack is nothing short of hilarious. Equally amusing is Speakman’s attempt to portray deep concern while dressed in a fluffy, blue bathrobe. But really, like Speakman’s masterwork, THE EXPERT (1995), it’s all about the supporting cast. You have Mako as a family friend who is harassed and finally killed by Korean mobsters (played by Japanese and Chinese actors) who want his tiny storefront to run drugs out of (because it has lots of storage space!). Professor Toru Tanaka is contract killer who likes to headbutt his victims to death and leave flowers on their corpses. James Hong as a double-talking mob boss. Pre-MORTAL KOMBAT Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa shows up as a gang thug. Also, Mickey Hargitay and Jane Mansfield’s offspring Mariska Hargitay of "Law & Order" fame, appears as the love interest, although the US version cuts most of her scenes. Sure, to those jaded by Hong Kong cinema, the fights could be a little longer and have fewer edits, but for American action fodder, it’s still damned entertaining.

Ok, give me deep concern! Deep concern... Deep... Ok, in your own time...

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Giallo Pudding: DARK BAR (1988)

Just when I think that if it's Italian, from the '80s, if I haven't seen it, I've at least heard of it, I stumble across something that I never knew existed. Most Italian genre films from the '80s were made for export and because of that they were shot either in English or mostly in English, then looped in post. This means, that unlike say, Russian genre product that is shot in Russian and distributed in Russia for Russian audiences, kiss my ass yankee, the Italian stuff got around. Even if it never saw the light of day in US theaters or on US video, most likely some country has a copy, and you would have at least heard of it via old school scribblers like Chris Poggiali, Steve Puchalski or hell, even Fangoria. So if you've heard of it, you're cool. I was freakin' clueless.

Starting with an incredibly cryptic plot, an apparently desperate Elizabeth (Barbara Cupisti) has some debts that are owed, a book to hide and some frantic phone calls to make. Her estranged sister Anna (Marina Suma) gets a phone call about a meeting at the Dark Bar at midnight, as does her seemingly partially estranged boyfriend Marco (Richard Hatch). While Anna blows it off, in order to blow her trombone at another club, Marco makes the appointment only to discover that Elizabeth is nowhere to be found. At the same time a man inconspicuously dressed in a black fedora and trench coat walks into the ladies room and shoots Elizabeth dead. Anna eventually finds out that her sister was murdered and hooks up with Marco in order to figure out who killed her. It doesn't take them very long as the killer has friends and they are hunting the hunters.


DARK BAR is the one and only feature film directed by Stelio Fiorenza, who cut his teeth as assistant director on a few obscure sleaze flicks (the most notable being Mario Gariazzo's '79 sex giallo PLAY MOTEL). For a first time writer-director, I really like where Fiorenza is going, but the road he travels is filled with pot-holes. Granted some of his issues can be chalked up to budgetary issues, but at the same time he seems like he has ADD and is off on tangents at the drop of a fedora.

Fiorenza creates an atmosphere that feels like it should be an off kilter, underground film with some amazingly cool shots, hand-held cameras and interesting locations and costumes. During the beginning of the film when Elizabeth is spending the last few hours of her life, there are some great details; a telephone shaped like a stilletto-heeled shoe, a black dress covered in eyes, the black dress on a white bathroom stall with red blood. Oblique, stylish angles combined with an almost cinema verite style makes the movie feel like it should be pushing the envelope with something. When Anna first meets up with Marco, she arrives at his presumed work, a small, remote and deserted screening room where he is setting up a projector. When Marco asks Anna to go down to the auditorium to check the sound, he finds out that the intercom has been cut and realizes that something is about to go wrong. It does, but Fiorenza doesn't really play the suspense out like he could have, nor does he go for a string of bloody murders as you'd expect. Then we are left with the dialogue that runs like this:
Marco: "What was your sister like?"
Anna: "I don't even know what I'm like!"

Fiorenza also feels like he is lifting a page from Alex Cox's REPO MAN (1984) with an almost surreal punk/new wave motif for the Dark Bar itself, which is really interesting, but completely undeveloped. Fiorenza decides he's also going to try to throw in a film noir angle as well. The villains are clad in black trench coats and fedoras and are working with a blind woman who is obsessed with listening to sea shells and is taken care of by a tarot-reading girl. This is yet another weird, but cool idea that he really doesn't completely follow through on. Once you discover what exactly is going on (there is no spoon-feeding of the plot here), it's rather banal. Worse still, Fiorenza doesn't or can't consistently create the lighting to reinforce that feeling of noir. Film noir requires the use of light to create deep shadows that lend immeasurable texture to the visuals, here we get an occasional scene, but mostly flood fills that chase away every shadow and kill the atmosphere almost completely. The juxtaposition between the punk, giallo and noir is really interesting, but it ends up being a collection of really interesting ideas rather than a great film. For instance, at the Dark Bar, there is a long sequence where a bartender slowly and deliberately uses a pair of ice tongs to place an eyeball in a very dirty martini. The drink is delivered, the recipient holds it while in conversation... and that is it. We move along and the sequence is completely forgotten about. Maybe it's Fiorenza tipping his hat to The Misfits, but who knows?

The saddest thing of all is that Fiorenza never got the opportunity to make another film. As far as I know, the only thing he has done is a short film in 1998 titled A STRANGE ENCOUNTER. With DARK BAR, it feels like he has a sack of great ingredients, but isn't quite a skilled enough as a cook to bring them together into a perfect dish. But just like cooks, filmmakers get better with practice (yeah, ok, Jess Franco did exactly the opposite) and I would have really liked to see him evolve. As it is, it's still worth checking out for the die-hard Italo-philes like... well, us.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cine M.I.A.#1: THE BOY WHO CRIED BITCH (1991)


Way back in the ancient times before the popularity of the internet(s), we actually had a Video Junkie magazine.  Now remember kids, this was all the way back in 1996/97 when information could be conveyed in 140 characters or more.  Crazy stuff, eh?  The magazine proved to be so popular that we had to stop it after only two issues.  Why?  Well, because you can’t improve upon perfection.  Seriously, we had a good run but the combination of enthusiasm and knowledge didn’t mix well with the lack of funds.  It is a shame because – if I may be so bold – I think we really started finding out rhythm in issue #2.  Nestled among plenty of reviews, overviews and our first (and only) interview was a nice piece titled Video M.I.A. Written by Fangoria’s own Mike Gingold, it profiled films currently missing in action on the home video format (back then dominated by something called VHS).  Mike featured 7 titles in his piece and nearly all of them actually got released from motion picture purgatory in the ensuing 15 years since that article first appeared.  Here’s an update on most of the titles featured.

  • THE BOOGENS (1982) – shortly after the article, this early 80s monster mash saw release on VHS from Republic Pictures in July 1998.  Sadly, THE BOOGENS proved to be a worst case scenario – a long desired release that really wasn’t very good and definitely not worthy of its reputation.  Many a Fangorian – who had dreamed up far better scenarios in the 16 year wait – was disappointed. Still not on DVD though.
  • THE CANDY SNATCHERS (1973) – this cool little crime caper really lucked out in a big way in that it got the Holy Blessing of Saint Quentin Tarantino, who brought it up in interviews.  This meant every film geek suddenly had to see it and, naturally, it got a DVD release from Subversive Cinema in 2005.  It was a nice Collector’s Edition with tons of extras.  It is currently out-of-print, but it is out there.
  • HITCHER IN THE DARK (1989) – Umberto Lenzi’s take on the popular THE HITCHER (1986) ended up finally hitting legit DVD via Shriek Show in 2003.  No word on whether lead Josie Bissett was happy or sad about this as her MELROSE PLACE fame was definitely in decline by this point.  The company re-released it in 2005 as part of a High School Horrors triple film set, alongside HELL HIGH (1989) and THE MAJORETTES (1987).
  • THE JOHNSONS (1992) – Rudolph van den Berg’s atmospheric horror film broke free from Video Search of Miami’s bootleg prison and was officially released on DVD by Anchor Bay in May 1999.
  • THE LAUGHING DEAD (1989) – this gore-laden flick from writer-director S.P. Somtow (aka Somtow Sucharitkul) got some high profile coverage in Gorezone, but even that couldn’t facilitate an immediate video release. Popular on the bootleg circuit for years, the film eventually hit legit VHS and DVD in the UK.
  • WITHOUT WARNING (1980) – Greydon Clark’s sci-fried alien flick has still not hit legit US VHS or DVD.  However, a gorgeous print of the film debuted on MGMHD in the summer of 2010.  And for once, excited fans unable to see it weren’t disappointed; we reviewed it here.
Of course, that still leaves us with one flick – THE BOY WHO CRIED BITCH (1991).  The tale of psychotic 12-year-old kid (played by Harley Cross) who makes his mom’s life a living hell, this has still not been released on home video.  This despite the fact that several of its actors (Jason Biggs, Adrien Brody, Jesse Bradford, Moira Kelly, Chris McKenna) went on to big careers and that director Juan Jose Campanella won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2009).  The film's writer/producer, Catherine May Levin, even made the semi-sequel THE BOY WHO CRIED BITCH: THE ADOLESCENT YEARS (2007), which has been released while the original still has not.  So what better way to kick off our new series focusing on films that actually got made (as opposed to “never got made”), but never got released on home video than with this entry still missing in action?  Here is what Mike had to say about it back then:



Friday, March 30, 2012

Oh Canada: THE PHOENIX TEAM (1980)

Choosing what we review here at Video Junkie is a very complicated process. Sometimes we review something because it is awesome and sometimes we review something because it is so bad that is awesome.  Either way, we’re trying to get the word out on what we deem required viewing.  Other times we just decide to feature something because it has the dreaded film seal of notoriety – no reviews on the IMDb!  In this day and age of superfast “I want it now” information, how can there still be stuff that was readily available on VHS with no reviews? That is why I’m taking a look at THE PHOENIX TEAM (1980), a Canadian spy flick that puts the zzzzzz in espionage.    

THE PHOENIX TEAM opens with a Government official being killed during a pheasant hunt in Essex, England, with the assassin mentioning something to his victim about Section D.  Cut to Ontario, Canada and David Brook (Don Francks), former Canadian Intelligence field operative turned desk jockey, is on his way to work when he sees his boss Mr. Mason kidnapped off the street by his own people. Wait a sec, Canada has a counterintelligence division?  Anyway, curious Brook inquires with his mysterious superior The General (Mavor Moore), who converses only via video screen, and is told Mason was a double agent for the Soviets. For some reason this doesn’t sit right with Brook and he begins to investigate.  Aiding him in his quest is old flame Valerie Koester (Elizabeth Shepherd), a MI6 agent who has flown over from London on her own to investigate Section D.  She also drops a bomb on Brook by saying, “Mason killed my father.”  Duhn-duhn-duhhhhhhhhnnnnnn!  So our not-too-super spooks decide the best course of action is to kidnap Mason back (he is being held in a public hospital!) and figure out what in the hell Section D really is.  

If that synopsis sounds rather episodic, it makes sense as the Trans World Entertainment VHS release of THE PHOENIX TEAM is actually just a two-part episode from what was a Canadian TV series (the opening credits even read “Old Time’s Sake Part One”) for the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation).  Entering with hopes of finding the Canadian THE AVENGERS or MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, I instead got a show that was as slow as Canadian maple syrup.  I think I figured out what the “D” in Section D stands for – dull! Seriously, nothing exciting happens during this telefilm’s 90 minute running time.  The opening shotgun blast is the only gunfire in the film and a chase a few minutes later encompasses the action content.  It is a shame as the scenario is ripe for some nerve wringing.  For example, the idea of posing as doctors to sneak a patient past security and out of the hospital is a time honored suspense creator. Instead writer/creator John C.W. Saxton – who wrote ILSA, SHE WOLF OF THE SS (1975) before this and would later write CLASS OF 1984 (1982) and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1982) – has the thrilling idea of Brook and Koester hiding in a room with their patient and talking.  Hell, Koester even takes a nap.  How does a guy with those exploitation credits fail to exploit the spy genre properly?  To add insult to injury, the script also has so much bureaucratic babble (“I want to file an M-15 request” or “I have access to a gray card”) that it almost sounds like a spoof at times.  I did get a chuckle out of a line when the true nature of Section D is revealed (SPOILER: it is a hit team) and the villain says, “Who would suspect it out of Canada?”

It is a shame the proceedings are so boring as THE PHOENIX TEAM has a lot going for it. Director John Trent gets the most out of some wintery locations in Ontario and he has a capable cast.  Most notable is Francks in the lead.  With his Peter Graves sound-a-like voice, Francks was immediately recognizable to me, but I couldn’t figure out from where. Then it hit me – he was the sheriff in the superior Canadian slasher MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981).  He is very good in the lead and actually won an ACTRA (Association of Canadian Television and Radio Artists) award for his work on this show.   The series was short-lived, lasting only 9 episodes, with the majority of them airing in the fall of 1980 before it disappeared into the foggy memories of our friends up north.  Thankfully, it has now been reviewed and we offer these press clippings (courtesy of the generous John Charles) about the show should any curious Canadian come to the internet looking for info to resurrect their memories of THE PHOENIX TEAM spy series long gone.  And that makes us officially the internet’s biggest THE PHOENIX TEAM resource!  You're welcome, world!

Articles and reviews for 
THE PHOENIX TEAM (click to enlarge):





Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Films of Mats Helge: ANIMAL PROTECTOR (1988)

From the box:

“A group of na├»ve but well meaning animal lovers and conversafionists (sic) mount their own campaign to free the helpless creatures they considerneed (sic) rescuing. All hell breaks loose as these girls find themselves in a situation way beyond their capabilities. Bravely, with the help of Santino and Lomax, they battle against the almost insurmountable evil forces of Withlock’s (sic) private army. The girls find themselves trapped in the middle of small scale war leading to tragic consequences.”

Any film synopsis that has multiple spelling errors on the back of the case automatically gets points from me. So, have you ever wonder what it would look like if PETA were ever to make an action flick? Its plot might resemble the one of Animal Protector. But, thankfully, PETA didn’t have a hand in this film and it came from the master of over the top Swedish action cinema, Mats Helge.

P.E.T.A. - Pretty Euros Treasure Animals
This was only my third exposure to Swedish action madman Helge’s work (the first two being the even more insane THE NINJA MISSION [1984] and the singing slasher BLOOD TRACKS [1985]), but it is safe to say that he has a style that is all his own. First and foremost, Helge loves his explosions. He doesn’t just love them – he reallllly loves them. His films seem to be the predecessor of the PM Entertainment action films where bigger definitely means better. No joke, if the IMDb is to be believed, he is apparently half-deaf due to the big ass explosions from his movies.  ANIMAL PROTECTOR is no exception, although Helge saves the Mat-atude for this film’s last half. Secondly, Helge likes to have a plot that is a bit left of ludicrous. I mean, the aforementioned BLOOD TRACKS had snowbound cannibals taking on a hair metal band. Here, the animal activist group “Animal Protectors” decides to free some animals on a top secret island the same night C.I.A. agents Santino (Hellquist) and Lomax plan on taking the corrupt Whitlock (Carradine) out. What a stroke of luck! And who can be tougher than some ladies dressed in tapered jeans with big teased blonde hair? Once they get on the island they bust out some camouflage shorts.  Way to blend in there, sisters!

The cast is predominantly Swedish with the exception of top billed star David Carradine, who is enjoyable as Whitlock. He is surprisingly pretty physical for the role, throwing down in quite a few fights.  He also adds a clever little wink after he says something evil. Looking at his filmography, it appears Carradine did a three-film stint with Helge in the late '80s.  I guess ol’ Dave heard there was a ton of snow in the mountains of Sweden and took his chances.  I’m sure he was disappointed.  The film’s real star is owner of one of the best names I have seen in years, A.R. Hellquist.  He is a dead ringer for Kurt Russell in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986). Check out this photo if you don’t believe me:

"Jack Burton."
"Who?"
"Me!"
It was fun to envision this as a pseudo-sequel where Jack Burton gets wrapped up with some wacky animal lover chicks (actually, I want Carpenter to make that film now!). Hellquist is pretty agile and a good fighter, but has all the range of a VCR remote. Helge does him no favors by putting him ridiculous situations. For example, when Santino decides it is time to get down to business, he rips off his shirt to reveal a camouflage tank top and yells, “Whitlock, now it is time for you to dieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!” What makes this even funnier is that Santino is completely alone when he does this and Whitlock is nowhere in sight.  And that, my friends, is why we love the cinema of Mats Helge.