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!

Thursday, October 4, 2012


German director Carl Schenkel may never be accused of being a great underrated director, but he did direct a handful of episodes of the then-cutting edge HBO show "The Hitchhiker" and the somewhat silly, but entertaining Christopher Lambert, Tom Skerritt thriller KNIGHT MOVES (1992). So, bearing that in mind, you'd think that a quick shift into a hospital horror outing would be a smooth gear change. Here we are post slasher cycle, DR. GIGGLES (1992) made its ill-advised, unfashionably-late entry in the slasher-comedy subgenre, so where should we take a concept about a killer surgeon? Into straight-faced waters, I should think. Never mind that the ad copy guys will try to sell it as another franchise killer, mangling the name of one of the icons in the process (who, exactly is "Freddie"?).

Taking it's cues directly from the first hospital-based slasher of the '80s, HALLOWEEN II (1981), Schenkel opens with a '50s pop tune "Lollypop" by The Chordettes and introduces the audience to the psychological trauma that causes the ensuing rampage. On a dark and stormy night in the '50s, young Julian Matar, with lollypop in hand, witnesses a doctor stab his brother in the throat with a scalpel. Even though the scene plays out in front of our eyes, it's hard to tell whether this is an accident or on purpose. Never mind, it's really not important anyway, what is important is that it did happen, the song is on the radio and the same said confectionery is in hand.

If Malcolm McDowell is involved
things are bound to get a little messy
Flash forward 40 years and in an unnamed modern metropolitan hospital, Dr. Stein (Malcom McDowell) is involved in unorthodox diabetes transplant research on baboons. This practice causes the rather fetching Dr. Theresa McCann (Isabel Glasser) more than a little bit of consternation, particularly after one of the experiments turns into a bloody mess during a presentation (isn't that always the way with these things?). McCann ramps up the friction even more by complaining to the boss Dr. Ed Mittlesbay (Charles Dance) about the lack of committee approval, and so on. Geeze, what got up her skirt? I have a feeling we'll find out. Oh, and I have to stop for just one moment and wonder who was the friggin' moron who decided it would be a good idea for Charles Dance to sport a wheedling, nasal and occasionally regional American accent? Mr. Dance, if you are reading this, and that was in fact your decision, my apologies, it was a wonderful performance.

After recommending that a patient of Dr. Stein's is put on dialysis due to emergency renal failure, what appears to be Mark Blankfield from JEKYLL AND HYDE TOGETHER AGAIN (1981), sneaks in and gives the patient some sort of injection causing her veins to burst. The killer leaves a lollypop right next to the machine. Oddly, McCann is not surprised by finding the lollypop and hides it in her pocket.

As the bodies start popping up, McCann ropes her most promising and jackasstic student doctor, Dr. Hendricks (James Remar), into investigating the murders. In short order they discover that the killer is a once promising surgeon who was fired three years prior for unauthorized experiments. The damnest thing is that after being fired, he plummeted out a window ending up paralyzed in a Colorado hospital (how he ended up in Colorado when it's made clear that the current hospital is in a different time zone is unclear). While being arrested for the murders, Dr. Matar (who now sports shoulder-length hair, so you know he's bad) flies into a berserker frenzy and escapes, only to be hit by a speeding ambulance. He is then taken to a prison hospital that apparently is running short of lightbulbs and must escape again while McCann and Hendricks do a little skinny dipping in the hospital pool. Of course, he returns  hiding in the hospital picking off patients and doctors, one by one! Meh, well, sort of... There's plenty of filler to go around.

Adding a bit of a Stuart Gordon twist, Dr. Matar's research (as illustrated in his thesis titled "Exquisite Tenderness" which the hospital conveniently has on hand in the records room), concerns accelerating the regrowth and repair of damaged tissue. What this boils down to is that with the help of a giant hypodermic needle, Dr. Matar is able to extract pituitary fluid with which he can mix into a colorful syringe of super-healing liquid which allows him to be shot "six tiiiiiimes!" and survive. The thread to HALLOWEEN II is pretty tenuous, I grant you; mainly consisting of the hospital, lots of needle killings, a '50s pop song, and a killer that doesn't die if you shoot him. On the other hand, Schenkel is definitely trying to avoid making any connections to the two slasher franchises mentioned in the poster (with the exception of a scene in which a couple have sex in a hospital room that is filled with so many candles that I'm amazed it didn't cook them like a couple of turkeys).

The gift shop must have been well-stocked!

There are few things to like about this movie. First off, there are almost no one-liners, only a couple at the very end, and they are nothing compared to a "Freddie" sequel. Clearly nobody wanted to make DR. GIGGLES II and I have to applaud that, if nothing else. It also has a fast pace, a great cast (I'm sure someone out there was dying to see Mother Love in an obligatory "excitable black woman" role) and there's plenty of amusingly silly stuff such as the fact that you can cut the power supply for an entire hospital by smashing an x-ray light table.

One of my favorites scenes is, no, not the skinny dipping scene (complete with underwater camera), but the date scene in which our budding lovers, McCann and Hendricks, go on a sushi date at a restaurant called "Beluga's" which has a manatee aquarium taking up an entire wall. I can see the location scout giving himself a high-five when he found this place. Where EXQUISITE TENDERNESS really drops the ball is with it's raison d'etre: A whacked out nutball killin' folks in a hospital. Like HALLOWEEN II, screenplay re-writer Patrick Cirillo (who wrote the script based on one by Bernard Sloane, which I'm willing to bet was much better), seems to think that this is a high-brow horror film, so we will run through a few slasher conventions but hold off on the graphic violence. This was a trend in the '90s, partially due to the success of Scorsese's hugely overrated CAPE FEAR (1991) remake. Perhaps it was inevitable as the low-brow horror-comedies had run their course. Then again, Jack Valenti and his posse made it pointless to even try to introduce horror effects unless you were a friend of the Academy. Either way, the scares and shocks just aren't there, and what's a horror film without scares and shocks? ERNEST SCARED STUPID?

Excuse me, I think you dropped something...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Halloween Havoc: X-RAY (HOSPITAL MASSACRE) (1982)

There are many things that filmmakers clearly have no concept of in reality. Computers are one. How many times have you seen a computer or video game represented in a completely laughable way? I mean, even as a Bond-obsessed teenager, I didn't for one second either buy the fact that the game Bond plays in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983) actually could exist or that a 53 year old man would actually play it. I'm pretty sure the only movie to accurately represent technology was THE WRESTLER (2008) which featured a scene where Randy "The Ram" is playing a very authentic looking Nintendo game in which he appears. As an aside, it was totally believable that a 56 year old man would play it. Or rather, that particular 56 year old man. It seems that one of the other things Hollywood is clueless about is hospitals. Apparently the only hospital that filmmakers have ever been to are named after Gerald Ford's wife.

For no-one is this so obvious than industry veteran Boaz Davidson. Either Davidson has never set foot in a hospital when he set out to make this completely ludicrous slasher flick, or he was giving the world insight into how hospitals are run in his native Palestine. This film also teaches us about the important life lesson of never dissing a valentine, in case you missed that point in the previous year's MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981). Generally speaking this seems to be a very bad thing and leads to having hearts stabbed in addition to being broken.

The film's obligatory prologue has sad (but creepy) 8-year-old Harold, peeking in the living room window, witnessing a little girl, Susan, and her brother trash his valentine and laugh over it. When Susan goes into the other room to get some cake (in a pointlessly menacing fashion) Harold, off camera, impales the brother's head on a coat rack, leaving poor Susan screaming bloody murder. Harold might have slightly misjudged his reaction to this impertinence but on the other hand, the kid was a bit of a prick.

Years later, bearing no mental scars and growing from a lanky blonde into a pint-sized brunette, Susan (Playboy non-playmate favorite Barbi Benton) has divorced her worthless husband, Tom (Jimmy Stathis). We know he's worthless because she calls him an "asshole" who can't do anything right, while the poor sap is being perfectly reasonable. Dammit, Davidson is ruining my private fantasy of Barbi Benton being low-maintenance. Anyway, Susan has hooked up with a nebbish who patiently waits in the car while Susan runs into the hospital to pick up some test results... undeterred by his comment about this being the very same hospital where some guy "ran amok"! Amok, I say! Oh damn, is it Valentine's Day too? Man, I hope he brought a book.

Susan does a lot of wandering around the hospital to try and find her doctor, getting stuck in elevators (manipulated by the killer), running into three guys in gas masks (gasp!) who are fumigating the 9th floor and generally padding out the running time. Susan suddenly finds herself in the elevator with a corpse! No, wait, it's just a drunk patient who is eating a burger saturated with ketchup. After escaping this harrowing ordeal, she continues to wander, meanwhile a heavy breather in scrubs and a surgical mask knifes a doctor. More wandering. The creepy janitor finds the dead doc only to make an incredibly bizarre squealing after going face first in a sink filled with acid. Apparently we are seeing this from Susan's point of view as there isn't a single non-creepster dude in this entire hospital. Susan's fiancee waits...

Eventually Susan finds an intern, Harry (Charles Lucia), who seems like a genuinely nice guy. Because he is such a nice guy, he completely violates ethics standards, steals her file, and hunts down one Dr. Saxon (John Warner Williams) in an attempt to investigate her x-rays. Apparently there is something terribly wrong (the killer had previously switched her x-rays and chart), but nobody wants to say what it might be. Instead they decide that action should be taken immediately and the first course of action is Susan being commanded to strip down to her silk panties, so that Dr. Saxon can take her blood pressure. Hey, I'm not a doctor, you may get a much better reading when the patient's nipples are exposed. Could be perfectly scientific.

The second course of action is to get her into a hospital bed (seriously, this doc Saxon is a pro! Who wouldn't want to tell Barbi Benton to get undressed and get in bed?). Fortunately for Susan, she is not alone, unfortunately she gets to share a room with some of the creepiest old folks this side of THE SENTINEL (1977), who discuss the infections in her blood and generally scowl. For some reason, one of them appears to be a man in drag. This is definitely the most realistic part of the movie, as far as I can tell.

After, understandably deciding to bail from the septuagenarian strangeness, the nasty nurses and the severed head Susan runs around bumping into the most obvious red herrings short of actually dressing the cast members in crimson fish costumes.

See! The unrelenting terror of the traction room!!

Meanwhile, the killer, who seems to be suffocating in his surgical mask, is stabbing nurses with a kitchen knife (uhhh, where'd he get that?), carting around bodies in laundry baskets and generally making himself right at home. He even has enough time to hand deliver a severed head in a neat, red hat-box (maybe he raided the gift shop before going on his killing spree?), causing a running, screaming outburst out of Susan who suddenly seems to find herself in Knott's Scary Farm, with hilarious surprises behind every door. At one point the killer attacks someone with a bed sheet. It's not one of the greatest kills in slasher movie history, but it's oddness is memorable, and the victim's horrified reaction is freakin' priceless. This, of course leads to Susan to be physically dragged back to her room by the angry nurses, strapped to a gurney and while she screams in protest, the doc casually throws a line over his shoulder to the nurses saying "if there's any more of this, I'll have to operate!" Wait, what?! Who did he study medicine under? Donald O'Brian?

We of course get the obligatory straight up stalking sequences and the big reveal of the killer, which would be laughably obvious except for the fact that the killer while wearing the surgical mask is played by a smaller guy with completely different features! The combination of the ridiculous red herrings, the utterly bizarre behavior of the medical staff, the wildly exaggerated performance of the killer who acts like he's scaring kids in a Fresno corn maze, and one naked Barbi Benton make this sort of a bizarre fever dream that is a Goblin score short of a full blown hallucination. To be fair to Davidson, the script was written by Marc Behm. His wildly erratic screenwriting credits (everything from The Beatles' HELP (1965) to Just Jaeckin's LADY CHATTERLY'S LOVER (1981), seem really interesting until you realize that for all of these films, he was the co-writer. X-RAY is in fact his second of two solo efforts (the first being the then-controversial 1965 Oliver Reed beatnik nasty THE PARTY'S OVER). Viewed as a nightmare (explaining the numerous amusing breaks from reality), it's a pretty fun slasher flick that only stumbles in the actual slashing department. It's hard to tell whether Davidson is trying to avoid Jack Valenti's wrath, or whether he is actually taking the project very seriously and is thinking that he's making a "thinking man's horror movie" (the best thing about political correctness, is it put that old chestnut out of commission). Either way, it's patently absurd fun in the right frame of mind.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Cinemasocism: HELL SQUAD (1986)

“Hell Squad, Hell Squad, We’re the best!" - Hell Squad cadence 

Uh, maybe not.  Over the last few weeks we’ve covered the unmade screenplays of Don Glut (here are parts one, two, and three).  Despite having worked heavily in comics and television animation for over a decade, Glut still didn’t have a theatrical screenwriting credit by the early 1980s.  This all looked like it was going to change when he got the job to write HELL SQUAD, a T&A action flick.  Yet despite that film actually being made, Glut would still not receive that elusive first big screen credit and HELL SQUAD turned out to be an object lesson in the seedy world of low budget filmmaking in Hollywood.

HELL SQUAD opens with scientists examining the fallout area of a bomb test in the desert.  It seems the United States has developed the Ultra Neutron Bomb (“The UN Bomb as the President calls it,” says Ambassador Mark, who is never given a last name), a device so strong that it will wipe out anything made of flesh in its radius but leave buildings standing untouched.  The logic behind this, according to the Ambassador, is that it will wipe out the warring savages, but leave the cities standing for future generations. Um, that doesn’t make much sense and his son, Jack (Glen Hartford), threatens to expose this horror upon humanity to the press when he gets back to the U.S. Unfortunately for Jack, he is kidnapped just moments later by terrorists who demand the bomb for his safe return. With the U.S. President refusing to intervene, the Ambassador turns to his friend Jim (Walter Cox), whose plan is to train Las Vegas showgirls to be expert commandos so they can go in undercover and rescue the son.  Read that last part again and really let it sink in.  Should we hire freelance commandos?  Nope, let’s get a group whose main training is doing high kicks in heels.  Makes sense, right?  This guy makes military intelligence an oxymoron.

Jim flies to Vegas in order to recruit old friend Jan (Bainbridge Scott) as the leader of the mission.  In order to test her skills, he sends two guys to hit on her at the bar and she beats the crap out of him. You passed the test.  Jim tells the girls he has an important job for them at $500 a week and $25,000 upon return.  In 80s money wouldn’t that pay be the equivalent of a grocery store chain district manager? Anyway, they have to pass the training and sixteen girls in short shorts show up at a desert obstacle course (consisting of a drain pipe to crawl through, 8 tires, a 3-foot pond, and 6-foot wall to jump over) to vie for this mysterious gig.  “We have less than 10 days to transform you from Las Vegas showgirls to expert commando fighters,” says the drill sergeant. The team is eventually whittled down to Jan and 8 ferocious female fighters and they are informed of their mission to save the Ambassador’s son.  They are told he is being held in an area near the Syrian border.  Arriving as a dance troupe in the Middle East, they relax in a big hot tub before getting a mysterious phone call with their instructions.  They raid a castle, but the kidnapped son is nowhere to be found.  After this scenario repeats itself a few times, Jan begins to suspect there is a spy in their midst who is using the Hell Squad to get rid of enemies.  Will she be able to uncover this mole?  And will poor Jack ever be saved?

HELL SQUAD opens with a shot of a big bomb going off in the desert.  Now as much as I hate to resort to symbolism, that is the perfect image to inaugurate audiences watching this movie.  And when you learn about the behind-the-scenes turmoil, you’ll fully understand and be amazed this film even got finished. Glut got the assignment through a filmmaking friend.  “Mark Borde said a friend of his named Ken Hartford needed someone to write a script,” he remembers.  “All they knew is it was about Las Vegas showgirls who get hired to go into Beirut and rescue the son of an ambassador.  Guns, tanks and a lot of sexy girls – warrior women wearing hot pants and berets.  It sounded like my kind of movie so I said, ‘Okay, sure.’  What I didn’t know at that time was that [producer-director] Ken Hartford was a notorious crook.  That is why he was no longer using his real name of Kenneth Herts.  He owed money to just about everybody.”

"Herts...Hartford...I'm so confused!"
Hartford/Herts was another entry in Hollywood’s long history of cinematic grifters.  He initially was a film distributor, having put out films like the original CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) via his Herts-Lion International Corp. (yes, SOULS director Herk Harvey never saw a cent).  He liked to crow that he was an Oscar winner because a short he distributed – the animated SUROGOT (1961) from Yugoslavia – won Best Animated Short.  He later produced films such as MONSTER (1980), a horror film so bad that its only saving grace is the “acting” of James Mitchum (think about that for a sec). Herts adopted his Hartford sobriquet after that film and I’m sure the film’s poor quality is the least of his reasons.

Glut met with Hartford about the project – which was initially called COMMANDO GIRLS – and contracts were quickly drawn up.  Hartford took out huge ads in Variety to tout the production’s beginning in 1983, giving Glut a small indicator of the turmoil to ensue.  “My name was on the ad, misspelled with two Ts,” he amusingly recalls.

Glut receives an extra "T":

Despite that ominous black and white omen, Glut got to work on the script. The only provision is he had to include a scene of the girls attacking a castle as Hartford had already shot footage of them doing so (interestingly, this is the same castle where Ted V. Mikels used to live and shoot).  Hartford actually started shooting the movie before Glut had finished the script and this didn’t sit well with the writer.  Even more dubious, Glut’s initial, agreed upon first payment had not been made.  “I had almost written the whole thing, but I had only given him the first two-thirds of it,” he explains of the behind-the-scenes happenings.  “I went down to see them shooting the thing.  Then it dawned on me that I wasn’t getting paid and he was taking advantage of me.  I said I’m not going to give you the rest of the script until you pay me. And he got all bent out of shape over that.”

Ultimately, the matter ended up in court as Glut decided to sue. Hartford tried to suggest Glut had no involvement with the project’s screenplay; going so far as to take out trade ads stating the he, Hartford, was the lone writer (yes, after crediting Glut in the earlier ad). Unfortunately, the producer-director seemed to have forgotten one key piece of evidence. “What he had forgotten though during our big story conference is that he tape recorded it and he gave me the cassettes to use for reference,” Glut explains.  “The tape began, ‘Testing one, two, three…hello, this is Ken Hartford and these are the notes that we’re discussing based on the script HELL SQUAD that is being written by Don Glut for my motion picture.’ So we went into court and the first thing we did is went into the judge’s chambers and my lawyer popped the tape in the cassette player and that was it.  I won the judgment, but never saw a cent because Ken Hartford had all of his assets protected.  I was never able to get any money out of it.”

Hmmmm, something is missing here:

Whether Hartford was just plain dumb or cynical enough to know the system, we’ll never know.  But Glut wasn’t the only one screwed out of payment on the feature.  Even the film’s leading lady, Bainbridge Scott, ended up in the red on the HELL SQUAD production. “Apparently she didn’t get paid either,” Glut discloses.  “She was doing a play a few years later and I talked to her backstage and she had not the best memories of Hartford.”  

"Hello? When am I getting paid?"

So what did Hartford do with a film that he only had two-thirds of a script for and no ending?  He just wrote it himself, naturally.  The film’s last third was written by this anti-auteur and involves the girls being kidnapped by a Shiek with a tiger before they begin their final rescue attempt of Jack, who is held in a European looking castle surrounded by a lake in the middle of the desert.  Yes, a lake in the middle of the Middle Eastern desert!  Hartford even opts for a Scooby Doo ending where the spy is unmasked by tearing off their fake face.  You see, it was the Ambassador’s secretary the whole time and she was actually a he.  This leads the dumbstruck diplomat to exclaim, “I’m shocked!  It just goes to show you can work with a person and never really get to know them.” It is a stark contrast to Glut’s script.  While he freely admits the screenplay is no work of art, Glut at least gave it a breezy, tongue-in-cheek approach, which is probably best for a film about Las Vegas showgirls turned commandos.  For example, how can you not love a hot tub scene that is predicated on a girl saying she read about a water shortage in that country so they should all take a bath at the same time?

"Try shooting from the hip."
In the end, HELL SQUAD proved to be a learning lesson for Glut – that problems don’t end even when a project is funded and filming.  Thankfully it didn’t dissuade him from still trying and he has avoided the seedier types like Hartford.  “He had no talent and was just kind of a weasel little guy,” Glut recalls of the man who denied him his first screen credit. “I should have seen the handwriting on the wall.  But like so many people, when you’re young and desperate for a credit like that, you’re kind of in denial and you don’t see people ripping you off like that. You want to believe that you’re not and you want to believe you’re going to get paid.  And getting paid is almost second as important as getting that screen credit.”

Post-script: Interestingly, Hartford’s son Glen, who essayed the role of the kidnapped son in HELL SQUAD, followed in his father’s fraudulent filmmaking footsteps, but with much more dire consequences.  You can read all about it at this link.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Deadly Farce: THE SAVIOUR (1980)

I usually don't review Hong Kong movies because of the fallout from the Asian Invasion of the late '90s when every goddamn fanboy on the street was an expert, every goddamn movie had to have a two-fisted shoot-out and what was once cool became serious overkill. And, to be completely honest, there are others that are much more knowledgeable and passionate on the subject out there in the Bloglands. I still watch a few here and there. Mostly revisits of classics, but occasionally a Jimmy Wang Yu film that I haven't seen before. On occasion there are a few films that have been staring me in the face for years. This is one.

Long before Ronny Yu embarrassed himself with boxing kangaroos and dueling teen killers, he made a name for himself with comic horror and fantasy films. I've never been a big fan, but for some reason his early films have been tugging at me. His second film, THE SAVIOUR is not at all what you might expect after glancing over his resume.

Hong Kong is in the grip of terror as a serial killer has sliced up two prostitutes and has just taken his third. CID Inspector Tom (Bai Ying, of the 3D classic DYNASTY) is a chain-smoking, take-no-prisoners-take-no-shit cop who has had a string of dead partners to his credit. Of course one of them is not dead, says his new partner, nicknamed "19" as he is officer No. 1919 (Kent Chang). To which Tom replies, "he is paralyzed. You can visit him if you have the time." Oh I got a baaaaad feeling about this. As does Tom's gweilo boss who yells at him while constantly blowing his nose (I'm guessing this is some sort of in-joke about white people). Apparently the boss is miffed that of the two robbers that Tom was supposed to apprehend, a grand total of two of them are now dead. As a reward, he and his new partner are now in charge of the prostitute murders. I guess that's one perp nobody will mind if the cops blow away.

Yeah, I think you got him

Tom and 19 stalk the criminal underbelly trying to get clues on who is doing the killings, their styles clashing. 19 is of the old-school, yelling, threatening and beating everyone into telling him what he wants to hear. Tom is of the new-school. Shoot first, as questions later. Why aren't they making any progress? Meanwhile the killer, twisted by the memory of his mother's razorblade suicide, keeps finding new bodies to drop under their noses. Appently Ronny was just as impressed with the casting of one of the victims as much as I was, as he has her take her top off, not once, not twice, but four times in under a minute. Makes me want to forgive him for that whole FREDDY VS. JASON (2003) mess. Well, almost.

While the rich and influential father of the killer tries to do everything to sabotage the investigation, such as sending a hitman after Tom, Tom manages to talk a casino girl who's best friend was a victim into serving as bait for the killer. Befriending him to try and catch him red handed, as it were. Granted the plot itself is nothing really new and even feels a bit like it was ripped straight out of the Martin Beck novel "Roseanna" (published in 1965), but the whole sleazy grindhouse atmosphere really push the movie beyond the plot.

I love how Yu sets up the film with quick cuts of Tom getting up to go to work, grabbing his gear, and hopping in his Datsun (that looks like some sort of HK version of the 280ZX). It sets up the realism of his character going to work, but does it with a '70s style. That's pretty much the entire movie. It says "hey, this is hard, cold and real" but does it while blasting the audience in the face with stylized exploitation. Also, in between blowing away perps, Inspector Tom is given a softer edge by being a foster father to the "fat" kid in the local orphanage. However instead of taking the kid to the movies, or whatever passes for an amusement park in Hong Kong (a casino?), he takes the kid to the beach, tells him if someone punches him to punch back and about his life as a cop. Damn, that kid's going to need some rich folks to adopt him, I can see those psychiatry bills stacking up fast. The next time Tom sees the kid he has two black eyes. Can you hear the muted horns?

I have to hand it to him, Yu really goes for some dark and bloody grindhouse style exploitation here, which really doesn't seem like it would be in his wheelhouse, and he does it well. There really isn't much in the way of humor and what social and political commentary it makes is buried under gobs of crime violence, taking it's cue from post-DIRTY HARRY American cop films, yet pre-dating the Psycho vs. Stripper cycle of the '80s. Great sleazy stuff that's well worth breaking your HK celibacy for.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Cheesy Riders: 1000 MILES TO THE SOUTH (1978)

In the '70s there were a few uniquely American film trends. You had plenty of car movies, but the sub-genre of the car movie that really screamed America is the road movie. Films like VANISHING POINT (1971), TWO LANE BLACK TOP (1971), DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY (1974), and BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974) epitomize the vastness of this country and the subsequent love affair with the vehicles that can traverse it. Because of the massive miles that America contains, there are few other countries that embrace the road movie, the exception being our brethren from a different methren, Australia. Their love affair with cars, roads and uncharted territory is on par with ours. So how the hell did the Mexicans get involved?

Opening with a shot of a hearse driving up U.S. Route 54 near Ft. Bliss, Texas, you know director and co-writer Rodolfo de Anda has his heart in the right place. Even more so when we get to a nearby State Penn where Dany Montero (Hugo Stiglitz) is getting the shit kicked out of him by a bald giant in a bloody boxing tournament that is so brutal that hearses are parked out side of the packed infirmity waiting to take the corpses of the biggest losers. Why not an ambulance to take them to the local morgue? Hush up you! We're not going to have much of a movie if you keep asking questions like that. Montero appearing to be unconscious is taken to the infirmary where the over-worked doctors examine him noting that both of his retinas are partially detached and he is lucky that he's not blind... yet. As soon as the docs move on to another case, Montero switches himself with a corpse and gets a free ride out of the slams on his way back to Mexico.

Unfortunately for Montero all the cops know exactly where he is headed since the hearse was for a Mexican stiff. Fortunately for Montero, he is also Mexican, so he (presumably) has his pops keep an eye on the traffic so he can ram the first hearse he sees off the road. After salvaging his son from the wreck, dad offers him a beater with a massive V8 and a pistol. Montero turns down the pistol and hits the road without looking back. At the same time the Mexican police are trying to figure out why an inmate would make such a risky escape when he only has three months left on his lease. As it turns out, Montero, an ace counterfeiter, has had his son kidnapped by a ruthless crime boss who wants him to make up a batch of bogus bills, if he ever wants to see his son again. He does.

Nothing says "the '70s" like a squad car through a camper... not even a cop in a plaid sport coat.

Looking no worse for wear after being beaten half to death, aside from a bandaged brow, Montero tearings up the Mexican highway in his beefed-up beater. Montero runs into cops, hookers, grifters, and more cops, all while wrecking cars and hitting bars. Following clues left for him in the classified ads of the newspapers, the police and Montero make their way down to the crime lord's mansion. You know he's a badass because he's got a hot white chick who sunbathes naked and helps run his bidness. In between his odd little encounters on and off the road, Montero has a moment where he loses his vision and has a waking dream about riding horseback on the beach with (what we presume to be) his son. It's such an odd moment that isn't referenced ever again, it adds to the "we're going on a ride, don't ask questions" philosophy that  De Anda embraces. If it were a big Hollywood film with grand pretensions, I'd call foul on this approach, where as here, it's more like hitting the worm at the bottom of the bottle. You just go with it.

If you were disappointied Montero turned down the gun, don't be. The ending sports a massive shoot out between the baddies and the police. As it should be. I'm not sure how many Mexican road movies there are, but now that I know they exist, I need to find out. Obviously inspired by the American films from the early '70s, de Anda captures the look of '70s Mexico and the gritty, sweaty feel of being a hard-bitten son of a bitch on the lam from the law and knowingly driving into an open grave. Maybe not as morose and nihilistic as VANISHING POINT (1971) or BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974), but still plenty of dirt and sweat to fill the bill.

De Anda acted in over 150 movies, but only directed just over a dozen. His directorial efforts are mostly genre related with robots, wrestlers, vampires, cowboys, and cyborg sex machines (EL MACHO BIONICO, 1981) and all of them are rare, many never released on video even in Mexico. 1000 MILES TO THE SOUTH actually has been released on video, but the source is a really rough 16mm print that just screams to be presented widescreen. Even with all of the lemmings proclaiming their devotion to Mr. Stiglitz, we sure haven't seen any DVD companies rushing to get some transfers made. It's a shame too, since clearly there is more to Mexican filmmaking than El Santo and NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969), not that there's anything wrong with that.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Defective Detectives: THE ROLY POLY MAN (1994)

"Ok, so call me a bastard, but this wasn't a case for kids. It wasn't a case for anyone. No-one with half a brain would take it on. It was my kind of case."
- Dirk Trent, P.I.

I'm a sucker for Australian movies. I'm also a sucker for movies about hard-boiled private investigators. Better still if they wear a cheap suit and a snap-brim fedora. Dirk Trent (the late, great Paul Chubb) is just such a man. When not drinking mescal and smoking cigarettes at his favorite dive (that keeps a giant snifter filled with his leftover worms marked "Dirk's Big Trip"), he's videotaping cheating husbands and insurance grifters. While taping a cheating husband, Dirk and his punchy assistant Mickey (veteran character actor Les Foxcroft) discover something strange on the video tape. Their client's husband, found with his secretary at a sleazy hotel, appears to have murdered her with a hatchet in a spastic rage while dressed as an Indian chief. As it turns out, the secretary is very much alive and it appears her boss is the one who is dead. Of course the local homicide detective (Peter Braunstein) knows Dirk all too well and is righteously pissed off to find out that the tape not only contains no obvious murder, but no screwing either.

While digging for clues on this case, a punk kid freaks out, smashing his head against a wall until it explodes in a chunky mess. Even worse, Woozy Bear, the main character on everybody's favorite children's show dies on camera in the very same way. Suddenly Dirk's world is turned upside-down with someone pulling out all the stops to make sure that Dirk doesn't get to the bottom of the killings.

The bizarre plot-line is nothing more than a cork-board for all manner of clever jokes. Clever in a very laid-back Australian sort of way. Dirk narrates constantly in hard-boiled prose that even when being rather juvenile is delivered with gritty seriousness. For instance when the Dirk, Mickey and the local coroner and attempted love, Sandra (Susan Lyons), are going to break into the coroner's office to attempt to retrieve the head of Woozy Bear for private analysis, Dirk narrates:
"I didn't have the heart to tell Sandra that I didn't have a clue what I was doing. That I was winging it. There's stuff a girl doesn't need to know. Stuff like how you get a boner just thinking about her sister."

Even better is Dirk's thought process on the death of Woozy Bear, while Mickey mourns his passing and the thrash band plays a melancholy tune: "Death. Yeah, it comes to us all. Funny though, when it's stuck inside a six-foot-four bear costume with a bowler hat on it's head and a shit-for-brains, half-coked, acid-casualty smile plastered all over it's fat, furry face, it just takes time to hit you, that's all."

Throwaway gags abound, such a great bit where Dirk narrates that what he needs is a quiet drink. Cut to Dirk in his favorite bar with a thrash metal band (Exploding White Mice) playing in the back ground so loud that Dirk's inner dialogue requires subtitles. The bartender muses that perhaps he should do karaoke nights. Director Bill Young also wrote one of the songs ("Head to the Head") played by the band. In another funny throwaway, while raiding the coroner's office Dirk sees the creepy assistant grab a bottle of champagne and haul off a stiff in a wedding dress and thinks "there was something about Axel, I couldn't quite put my finger on it".

Over the decades there have been plenty of spoofs of the flatfoot genre, some less effective than others. One of the reasons I think this film played out so well was that it didn't have a lot of self-referential gags. Nobody mentions the Maltese Falcon, nobody says "play it again Sam", the bar isn't named "Bogart's", and like a lot of the best spoofs (AIRPLANE!), you don't even really need to be familiar with the source material at all to find it funny. The characters are all played pitch-perfect and veteran character actor Bill Young directs with such a steady hand, that you'd never know it was his one and only feature film. Too bad, I would have loved to have seen a sequel.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The "Never Got Made" Files #83 - #85: A glut of Donald Glut, part 3

We pick up in the third part of our examination of unproduced Don Glut with another disparate trio of projects.  These run the gamut from television pilots to comic book adaptations.  And, naturally, there are some dinosaurs in there. Make sure to check out part one and part two for the full experience!

#83 - CAPTAIN JUSTICE (late 1960s)

This project is the oldest of all the ones we discussed.  As mentioned in part 1 of our coverage, Glut found himself in hot water during his time at USC for his love of comic books and superheroes.  So it is ironic that one of the earliest professional pieces he had looked at was a superhero script and that a fellow USC alum is the person who helped him shop it around.  “When I was going to USC film school, one of my classmates was Chris Lewis,” he explains.  “Chris was the son of Loretta Young, the actress, and Tom Lewis, who was the owner and creator of Family Theater.  Chris and I were good friends and we worked on student films together.  He suggested that I write a script and he could sell it because he was in touch with a lot of television people at the time.”

Glut’s predilection for comic books made the subject matter a natural choice, but a TV phenomenon also helped play a role in his choice.  “BATMAN was real big on TV at the time and superheroes were real big,” he reveals.  “So I wrote a script called CAPTAIN JUSTICE and it was a comedy.  It was really a take off on the old Republic ROCKET MEN serials than anything else.  It was very funny. Chris took it and thought it was great.  He said we came – he would always show me his fingers together like he was showing me an itsy bitsy inch – ‘that close’ to selling it.  It almost became a pilot for a television series, but it just never happened.”

#84 - DAGAR THE INVINCIBLE (mid-1970s)

Dagar (pronounced “day-gar”) the Invincible was one of several characters that Glut created for Western Publishing’s Gold Key line. Featured in a sword and sorcery series officially titled (deep breath) TALES OF SWORD AND SORCERY FEATURING DAGAR THE INVINCIBLE, Dagar found himself existing in a world of magical beasts and muscled barbarians over a four year, 19-issue run.  With sword-and-sandal movies having been a hot commodity worldwide, it seemed only natural to pursue this series as a film project.  “I was writing the comic book at the time,” Gluts remembers.  “The plan was that I would write it and my friend, the late Bob Greenberg, would direct it and Jim Danforth would do the special effects.”

For any Dagar fans curious about the unmade film’s plot, they need not go far as Glut was hoping to adapt the first four issues of the comic which told the character’s origin and initial quest for revenge.  While a script was never written, Glut did do a synopsis based on that opening comic quadrilogy.  “The whole quest was against the villain who was responsible for wiping out his whole family and his entire village,” Glut explains.  “It was this villain called Scorpio.  Dagar sets out after he becomes an adult.  He has a mentor like the guy in the KUNG FU (1972) television series.  He’s trained in the use of the sword and all of these weapons, so by the time he is an adult he is the best warrior around. He sets off and becomes a mercenary warrior, really on a quest to find Scorpio and kill him.  Through the four issues, he gets little clues at the end of each adventure.  He finds out the guy he killed might have worked for Scorpio, so he is back on the quest again.  By that last issue, he has the one-on-one confrontation with Scorpio.”

Danforth eventually dropped out of the project as he was hoping to begin his own writing-directing career.  But not before he did this preproduction painting, which echoes the cover of issue #3 of the comic series and still hangs in Glut’s house.

Jim Danforth art:

Dagar #3

Glut even did a little dream casting while thinking about the project and felt he knew the perfect actor to portray his invincible warrior.  “I was talking to the actor Mike Henry, who had recently been playing Tarzan,” he recalls of his mental acting assignments.  “I used to run into him every now and then. I told him, ‘Hey, Mike, we’re doing DAGAR’ and I gave him a whole set of the comic books that had come out until that time.”

Following Danforth’s departure, Glut pressed on with the project and met with Western execs about purchasing the film rights to Dagar and other Gold Key characters.  “I finally did meet with the people from the New York office from Western Publishing,” Glut remembers.  “I wanted to get the rights to do a script and try to sell it for DAGAR THE INVINCIBLE, THE OCCULT FILES OF DR. SPEKTOR and TRAGG AND THE SKY GODS.  Those three comics I had created and was writing at the time.  And also TUROK, SON OF STONE, which I had no involvement in creatively.  We met and they were all gung ho; they were all ‘what a great idea, movies based on all these characters.’”

Regardless of interest on both ends, Glut was never able to secure the rights and the project ended before it really began.  Interestingly, if fans want to see what Dagar might have looked like, they need look no further than one of the genre’s all-time classics in CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982).  “[CONAN director] John Milius was a good friend of mine,” Glut explains.  “I don’t think he read my comics, it was a total coincidence.  But the two stories are very, very similar.”


The final project we’re going to take a look at is one of the more interesting as it involves Don Glut’s passion for dinosaurs, but wasn’t a project he initially conceived.  “This was a project that was the idea of Tom Scherman,” Glut explains of this long-titled assignment.  “Scherman was a model builder.  He worked on FLESH GORDON (1974) and some major studio films too.  He was a genius at building models.  You could give him a bag that had ten paperclips, a tube of superglue, five poker chips, a hunk of plastic, and a propeller and say, ‘You have an hour, make this into a scale model of the Nautilus submarine’ and he would do it.”

“He wanted to do a take off on the movie UNKNOWN ISLAND (1948) and he thought I would be perfect to write the script.  We teamed up with Dave Stipes, who had a special effects house right near where both Tom and I live.  The three of us were going to produce this.  AIRPLANE (1980) was very popular at the time so I said, ‘Why don’t we do this like AIRPLANE?’”

Glut got to work on the script and fashioned a spoof of the age-old story of a group of explorers that inadvertently end up on an island inhabited by prehistoric beasts. Once again, plans were put into motion for the screenplay to become a picture. Adding to the effects talent behind the camera, Glut lined up good friend Roger Dicken to do the special effects.  And comic book artist Frank Brunner did some preproduction paintings and storyboards to help pitch the film.  The production had even gone so far as to cast certain actors.  “The guy playing ‘Jungle’ Sam, who was basically the Barton MacLane type character from UNKNOWN ISLAND, was Talmadge Scott.  He was one of the underwater zombies from SHOCK WAVES (1977) and did some movies with Fred Olen Ray,” Glut divulges of the preliminary casting.  “Joleen Lutz, who went on to become a regular on NIGHT COURT with Richard Moll, was playing the spoiled heiress who goes along on the trip.  Professor Richardson was going to be played by Ted Richards.  We had a jungle girl sexy type character whose name was Cave Girl, she was going to be played by a roommate I had at the time named Linda Golla.  And, of course, Bob Burns would have been this big giant gorilla with a horn coming out of the top of its head like the one in the first FLASH GORDON serial.”

JOURNEY... script page & storyboards
(click to enlarge)

Like TEENAGE MONSTER RUMBLE mentioned in our last entry, Glut couldn’t resist an in-joke gag that would be recognizable to genre fans the world over.  “I really wanted to use the famous lizard vs. alligator fight from ONE MILLION B.C. (1940) because everybody’s used it,” he reveals of his intention.  “So it would have been in black and white and there was one scene where the Professor is trying to make an excuse for the black and white scene behind them and says, ‘Oh, it is volcanic ash in our eyes.’  He tries shooting one of the dinosaurs and shoots a hole in the rear-projection screen.  Those were the kind of jokes we had.”


JOURNEY... art

Even with producer Robert Swanson again attached, the project was unable to find backing. “That would have cost a little bit more to do,” Glut says of the project.  It is something that was continually updated and pursued for a period of time though.  “The last draft was written right around when JURASSIC PARK (1993) came out as I had some JURASSIC PARK references in it,” Glut reveals.  Sadly, project originator Scherman passed away in 1995 due to lymphoma at the age of 54 and progress lulled after that.  However, with cinematic dinosaurs always in vogue and a fourth JURASSIC PARK threatening to rear its head in 2014, perhaps the project will receive a new lease on life.  In the right hands, it could be pretty darn funny I imagine.


Hard to believe it has already been two weeks since we began our journey into the unproduced world of Don Glut.  Believe it or not, there are far more projects that he has written/developed than the ten we highlighted. Crazy titles such as MAN-LIZARD, STONE AGE AVENGER, DINOSAUR GIRL (with MAD’s Sergio Aragones), BLOOD JUSTICE, and SWEET NIGHTMARES (the last two being projects he still hopes to make).  “The ones I talked about were ones that actually had a good chance of getting made,” Glut concludes.  “Everybody has scripts stacked up in their filing cabinets, but these scripts had other people involved and interested in them.”