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!

Friday, September 7, 2012

The "Never Got Made" Files #76 - #79: A glut of Donald Glut, part 1

Chances are pretty high that if you’ve found your way to our little corner of the internet that you already know who Don Glut is.  If you don’t, it is certainly through no lack of effort on his end as it would be easier listing what he hasn’t done in the entertainment industry over what he has done. As a first generation Monster Kid, Glut was famous before getting out of his teens thanks to his amateur films (41 in all) that graced the pages of Forrest J. Ackerman’s FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND.  Glut soon parlayed his love for film into an education as he studied at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television alongside such notables as George Lucas, John Milius, and Basil Poledouris (who even directed GLUT [1967], a student short starring Glut as “himself”).  While at USC, Glut drew the ire of certain staff for his love of – gasp – fantasy and comic books (if they could see the movie industry now) to the point he was threatened with expulsion.  Soured by that experience, he swiftly flew into his other love and was a member of the Michael Nesmith-produced, late 60s rock band The Penny Arkade.   At the same time, some of his earlier films were gaining a cult following on the underground movie circuit.

Those are signs of a pretty prolific man, right?  Well, we haven’t even started. In the subsequent decades, Glut has maintained a steady career in writing.  He has written extensively for comic books, including creating the characters Dagar the Invincible and Dr. Spektor for Western Publishing’s Gold Key imprint; he has written for live-action television (SHAZAM and LAND OF THE LOST); he has written for over 30 animation programs, notably G.I. JOE, SPIDER-MAN, and TRANSFORMERS; he even ventured into the toy biz, co-creating the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe line; he has authored several children and adult fiction novels, including the best selling novelization of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) and a 12-part Frankenstein series; he has also authored even more non-fiction books, including a respected series on dinosaurs (yet another love) and, most recently, the horror host examination SHOCK THEATRE CHICAGO STYLE; and, since 1996, he has written and directed 6 feature films and several documentaries with his company Frontline Films.  Whew!  Of course, we’ll always love him here for dinosaur consultant credit on CARNOSAUR (1993).

For someone that incredibly productive, you just know that they have more projects sitting on the shelf.  I initially contacted Mr. Glut (“Call me Don”) to talk about two unproduced films I had dug up information on.  Incredibly, between two phone sessions that lasted over a total of 3 hours, we ended up talking about nearly a dozen unrealized film projects.  Don was incredibly generous with his time, allowing me to tax his memory on some stuff that happened 40 years ago.  “With everything else they tax these days, one more won’t matter,” he said before we dove into the unproduced film history of Don Glut (with so many projects, we’ve opted to spread this series out over the month in three parts).

#76 - CASTLE OF GORE (early 1970s)

The first project I was hoping to unearth information about leapt forward from the pages of Fangoria.  Crawling comfortably into its fourth year, the magazine did a feature in 1982 in issue #17 on Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose 1960s gore features were gaining a new audience thanks to Wizard Home Video’s VHS releases.  A few issues later, Glut wrote in to inform editor “Uncle” Bob Martin about a project he had written for Lewis in the early 1970s. (Interestingly, the very next letter after Don’s was one from H.G. Lewis thanking Martin for the coverage.)

Okay, an anthology film called CASTLE OF GORE to be directed by The Godfather of Gore with segments centering on a werewolf, Jack the Ripper and voodoo?  This I have to know more about.

While past interviews have shown me that time has a way of fogging the sharpest of memories, this was definitely not the case here as Don exactly recalled the project from 40 years ago. The film’s birth showed Lewis’ penchant for pragmatism as it was born from the simple step of having a great location – a castle in the suburbs of Chicago (while Glut can’t remember the location, we’re pretty sure it was Givins’ Irish Castle, the only standing castle in the area). Don was friends with Ray Craig, then production manager on Lewis’ THE GORE GORE GIRLS (1972), and Craig spoke with Glut about possibly writing a script.  “Ray contacted me and said, ‘Herschell’s got this castle and he needs a script,’” Glut recalls.  “I went to Chicago for one of my visits because my family is from there and Ray set up a lunch with Herschell.  So I went down and we ate in a downtown restaurant.  When you see Herschell Lewis in person, he’s nothing like you might expect.  He looks like an executive out of MAD MEN.  He wore a suit and tie and his office was very much a business office.  And in the back he had all of these editing machines and posters and everything.  So we had lunch and I mentioned something about I’m really looking forward to be working on a horror picture and he said, ‘I don’t make horror movies.’  I said, ‘You don’t?’ And he said, ‘I make gore pictures.’  So the title became logical – there’s a castle, the film’s going to have a lot of gore in it, so it’s CASTLE OF GORE.  That’s how it all came to be.”

Armed with the set up, Glut returned to California and began pounding out pages on his manual typewriter.  The premise was that a Crypt Keeper-esque host named Morgan would tell the audience three horror tales with the common link being that all the stories took place in or around the castle during different time periods.  Glut stories were written with an eye toward dark comedy and parody, as evidenced by the segment titles.  “Each one of the separate titles was a take off on a current popular movie,” he explains.  “The Jack the Ripper was called S*L*A*S*H with asterisks between each letter like M*A*S*H (1970).  The voodoo story was called LOVE GORY with the tagline ‘love means never having to say you’re dead.’ And the last one was THEY SHOOT WEREWOLVES, DON’T THEY?”

CASTLE OF GORE script opening
(click to enlarge)

Like most monster fans from that era, Glut was definitely a fan of the pre-code horror comics of the 1950s.  As such, his stories reflected the surprise twist endings that the medium was famous for.  “The Jack the Ripper story the big surprise was that Jack the Ripper was actually a woman and the punch line was ‘I’m really Jacqueline the Ripper,’” he remembers.  “All I remember about the voodoo story was about a married couple who cheated on the other and one of them came back.  He came back from the dead and she tried chopping him up with an ax.  The story ended with the body parts crawling along the floor looking for the spouse.  And the werewolf movie was set in a period in some earlier century.  The werewolf was also a land baron and he was taking advantage all of the villagers and farmers.  And then he would kill them to add frosting to the cake.  At the end, he didn’t realize this whole populace was made up of ghouls.  The last scene when they were all at the table and there’s this werewolf with an apple in its mouth on the table.”

Luck, however, was not on Glut’s side with this project.  Following THE GORE GORE GIRLS, Lewis transitioned out of the film business and spent the next 30 years concentrating on his work in the advertising field.  “He seemed to like the script and he liked me,” Glut recalls of Lewis, “but he just never made the movie.  And I was going to say, I never got any money for it either.”  It was definitely a learning experience for the young screenwriter and it proved he could write a complete script.  Also, it provided great practice in the EC-ish style as Glut would soon be penning stories for the Warren Publishing horror triple terror of CREEPY, EERIE and VAMPIRELLA.

#77 & # 78 - RIPPED TO SHREDS / SUPERHEROES! (late 1970s)

The second film I was hoping to learn more about was an early slasher evocatively titled RIPPED TO SHREDS. Covered in an inch-tall blurb in Fangoria #15, the film project is something Glut was lined up to direct.  Hardly a memorable project for him, the back story on how he met producers Seymour and Mark Borde is more interesting.  “They were basically a releasing company but now they wanted to make their own movies,” Glut reveals.  “They were distributing a short film called FOOT FETISH, which was a stop-motion short film.  It was between two shoes and one falls in love with the other.  It was directed, written and produced by Randal Kleiser, who went on to direct GREASE (1978) and THE BLUE LAGOON (1980).  Randall was my roommate at the dormitory at USC (he also edited the aforementioned GLUT).  He was already moving onto bigger and better things at the time, so when he found out Seymour and his son Mark were looking for a director for RIPPED TO SHREDS, he had me call Mark.  So I went down there and met with them and they wanted me to direct it.”

Mark & Seymour Borde
Seymour Borde & Associates had been a film distributor for over 15 years and they were deciding to get in the film production business with their first production being SUMMER CAMP (1979) a T&A loaded comedy from director Chuck Vincent.  The script for the horror flick was written by one Paul Ross, who had previously written the late 70s supernatural-mentary JOURNEY INTO THE BEYOND (1977).  Glut couldn’t remember many details on the plot, but does recall the script’s cover featured letters dripping blood.  “I didn’t have any input on the writing,” he remembers.  “RIPPED TO SHREDS was a standard slasher movie.  I don’t remember what the plot was.  I think there was a lot of teenagers getting killed or something like that.  It ended actually with the girl being the hero, which was kind of a nice twist.”

The discussion of SHREDS is what really opened up the uncovering of other projects.  Glut’s time spent with the Bordes reveal another project they were hoping to attach him to.  The film in question was SUPERHEROES!  Described in Variety in late 1978 as “a spoof of a host of costumed comic characters,” this was another script by Paul Ross.  “It was a JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA/AVENGERS type of thing,” Glut explains of the second script. “SUPERHEROES! was a comedy and each one of them had some kind of problems.  I don’t remember it having a lot of action.  I remember it had a lot of scenes where the superheroes kind of sat around, told jokes and played off each other’s weaknesses.”

Box Office on SUPERHEROES!
(click to enlarge)

While the Bordes seemed intent on pressing forward with the FX heavy pictures, neither one came to fruition.  While the specifics may never be known as to why each one didn’t get made, Glut theorizes it was the more complex nature of the productions that kept producer Mark Borde from going forward.  “If he would have done the SUPERHEROES! movie, he would have had to do all of the special effects for the super powers.  And RIPPED TO SHREDS would have a lot of gore effects,” he explains.  “When he [later] did HOLLYWOOD HOT TUBS (1984), he called me up and said, ‘Guess what we did? We blew up a car today.’ I said, ‘A real car?’ and he said, ‘No, just a shell.  There was no engine in it.’ But he was real proud of that for the fact he went the extra nine yards to blow up a car.  That was a big deal for Mark.  If that was a big deal, maybe it was the idea that the special effects were too involved and too costly down the road.” Indeed, the Bordes did retreat from fantasy to nature’s best special effect as they produced more T&A films in the 80s such as LUNCH WAGON (1981).  “Fred Olen Ray said, ‘Breasts are the cheapest of all special effects,’” Glut sums it up.    


This unmade project is by far one of the more fascinating from Glut’s history because it went a good ways into preproduction.  Tsuburaya Productions introduced the Ultraman character to Japanese audiences in 1966 and it proved to be an immediate sensation.  Over a decade later, sci-fi and superheroes were huge thanks to the worldwide success of STAR WARS (1977) and SUPERMAN (1978).  Tsuburaya had successfully re-launched Ultraman with THE ULTRAMAN, an animated series that debuted in 1979, and ULTRAMAN 80, a live-action series that premiered in April 1980.  The following month in May 1980, the company announced in Variety its intention to fund a $10,000,000 ULTRAMAN movie for Western audiences. The film, titled ULTRAMAN: THE JUPITER EFFECT, was to be written by Jeff Segal and to be filmed across the U.S. “including New York City, Washington, the Houston Space Center, San Francisco and the Grand Canyon” (article at bottom of the page).

This version didn’t get very far and soon Glut found himself in the cosmic world of Ultraman. Perched high atop the bestseller list for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK novelization, Glut was recommended by a friend in Japan and quickly hired to pen the script.  “Tsuburaya Productions wanted to get into a bigger market,” he recalls, “so they wanted to make an American ULTRAMAN feature length movie that would play in theaters with a big budget and a completely American cast.  No references to Japan anywhere in it. They hired me and I wrote the first draft of the script, which they paid me very well for.”

 Illustration © 2012 by Alex Wald;
Ultraman © 1966, 2012 by Tsuburaya Prod. Co., Ltd.
Glut was given free reign on the screenplay and decided to work in familiar territory as he included dinosaurs as the villains.  And not just any old dinosaurs either.  “I based the script on the idea that at the end of Cretaceous period when the asteroid hit some dinosaurs managed to take refuge underground,” he explains of the script’s plot.  “There was one group of dinosaurs that escaped below the surface and over the years, while we were evolving on the surface, they were too into humanoid types of forms.  They had wings, scaly skin, claws, and fangs.  Every once and a while they would get out and be seen by somebody.  That’s what gave rise to the legend of devils and demons.”

“The movie opened with a church being demolished to put up a parking lot.  There is one part of the church that’s been taboo and nobody goes near it.  They break the wall down and they find chained to the wall the skeleton of this humanoid creature with bat-like wings, thinking they found the devil.  These creatures resent having to live underground and over the years they found eggs of the prehistoric creatures living at that time.  They’ve been preserving them and mutating them over the years.  So they basically then are going to take over the Earth using these three monsters.  One was a land-based creature, one was a water-based, and one was an aerial creature.  So you basically had Godzilla, Rodan and Manda – creatures like that.  Each one of them had some kind of kaiju-like power whether it was electro-vision or fiery breath.”

More dinosaur baddies:

Illustration © 2012 by Alex Wald;
Ultraman © 1966, 2012 by Tsuburaya Prod. Co., Ltd.  
Illustration © 2012 by Alex Wald;
Ultraman © 1966, 2012 by Tsuburaya Prod. Co., Ltd.  

Illustration © 2012 by Alex Wald;
Ultraman © 1966, 2012 by Tsuburaya Prod. Co., Ltd.  
As this triple threat tore up the globe, it appeared that an even bigger force than the regular old Ultraman was required to take care of business.  “With Earth’s major cities being destroyed by these three monsters, the Ultra-people in the M23 galaxy realize that they now need an ultra-Ultraman,” Glut details.  “So they call all the Ultraman characters that had been in all the old TV shows together and they transfer all of their powers into one character.  So he is like the mightiest of all, he can do everything all of them can do.  And he comes to Earth for lots of major battles and things.”

Script meetings were had and Glut even tried recruiting his old friend Roger Dicken, creator of the chestburster in ALIEN (1979), to do the FX. Comic book artist and kaiju fan Alex Wald also contributed some impressive preproduction designs for Ultraman and his various foes. While a clear vision existed for Glut, the same can’t be said for the Tsuburaya side as Glut amusingly recalls a meeting with Noboru Tsuburaya and his entourage.  “I went through my whole plot.  My whole plot was based on organic things,” he reveals.  “It was actual animals that had mutated based on dinosaurs that had actually lived. Sure, they had powers, but there was nothing supernatural.  And one of them said, ‘Can’t you throw in a giant robot from space?’ And I quickly explained to them why a giant robot from space would have nothing to do with the story.  All they could see is that it would be kind of cool having a giant robot knocking a building down.  So that is one of the things I had to fight for, to keep it my vision and not just a big hodgepodge of things.”

Illustration © 2012 by Alex Wald;
Ultraman © 1966, 2012 by Tsuburaya Prod. Co., Ltd.  
A language barrier also provided some funny moments for Glut. Naofumi Okamoto, the film’s line producer who went on to be good friends with Glut, was one of the few English speakers within the production staff.  Yet some of the American slang in Glut’s script caused confusion for him.  “I had one of the characters make a comment relating to jealousy,” Glut explains, “and he said something like, ‘Well, the green-eyed monster rears its ugly head again.’  So I got a call again late at night – ‘What’s this green-eyed monster?  We have the one the flies, we have the one on the water, and we have the one on land.  But none of them have green eyes.  Is there a fourth monster?’”

Despite enthusiasm on both ends of the Pacific, the American ULTRAMAN film never went into production.  While some might view this as another depressing setback, Glut was thrilled to have worked on the project.  “It was one of the most fun writing experiences in my life,” he discloses.  “If you can imagine actually sitting there and getting paid to conceive and write scenes where a giant superhero is fighting a giant monster in a major city.  It was really like a dream come true.”

Make sure to check out part 2 where we discuss teenage monsters rumbling, horror actors-turned-killers, and nude pirate babes!

Variety article on U.S. ULTRAMAN
(click to enlarge)

Many thanks to Mr. Glut for the interview.  And thanks also to Phantasmagoria Photography for the picture of Givins Irish Castle and Alex Wald for the ULTRAMAN art.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Listomania: Thomas' August 2012 Barn-Burners

I seem to have watched an amazing amount of movies this month (47), but managed to only get one up on the blog. This Listo is me trying to make up for all that. This month's obsession went from being blown away by how awesome Shusuke Kaneko's GAMERA trilogy still is to my rediscovery of ULTRAMAN and KAMEN RIDER.

RONAL THE BARBARIAN (2010): He rules!! Thanks to Dr. AC's BIFFFtastic Adventure, I've rustled up some movies that I would have otherwise over looked, and this is one of my favorites. This Dutch-produced computer animated send-up of decades of Dungeons & Dragons inspired media is pretty damn silly, but it sure is a lot of fun. An ancient barbarian legend tells of the mighty warrior Crane (pronounced "Khran") who took down a mighty demon who had enslaved the world. In the aftermath of the fray, he realized he was mortally wounded and bled for seven days before dying. Those who were in the area drank his blood and became mighty warriors with massive bulges in all the right places. These people became the mighty barbarian tribe, commited to questing, drinking, more questing, fighting, questing again and lavishing their muscles with oil. After the village is razed to the ground by an army of dark forces, the last remaining barbarian, the weak and spindly Ronal, must go on a quest ("rule number one: It's not a quest!") to find a sword to save his clan. To do this he forms a party with a Shield Maiden, who has kicked every guys ass she has ever met, an Elf, who is relentlessly pretentious and of unknown "orientation" and a stoner Bard dude.
A bizarre mix of genre in-jokes, fetish humor, and straight up-comedy, this flick is actually more entertaining than most of the stuff Pixar has been putting out lately. Imagine Pixar spoofing Warcraft with a PG-13 rating, and you kind of get the gist. It should be noted that there is a big difference between the (badly) dubbed English language version, that envisions barbarians with Southern hick accents and mistranslates jokes. The subtitled version has excellent voice acting, even if it is in Dutch. The producers had previously made a similar, but in my mind, much less successful flick back in 2008 titled JOURNEY TO SATURN, which was a 90-minute string of scat jokes (one of which involves a blob of urine in zero-g floating into someone's mouth). While this one has maybe a bit too much of an obsession with men wearing thongs, it's still a helluva lot of fun, particularly if you watch any of that kind of fantasy geek stuff. Which, of course, we do not. We are much too cool for that sort of thing.

VENDETTA (1995): Excellent adaptation of Jan Guillou's 6th Hamilton novel in which Hamilton (Stefan Sauk) is sent to Polermo to act as an unarmed liason between the son of a dead Mafia boss, Don Tommasso (Ennio Fantastichini), who has re-located to Sicily after getting too much heat on his drug smuggling operations in New York. He has arranged a shady deal with a Swedish weapons manufacturer who get cold feet on the deal, so he takes them hostage, and Hamilton is sent in, unarmed, to simply negotiate. Of course things take a nasty turn when his partner is gunned down, by Tommasso's hot headed brother in a bloody mess in retribution for a perceived insult. While Hamilton plots his revenge, the Carabinieri step in and convince him to settle the score by finding out the details of the mafioso's drug shipment. Pretty well trodden ground in the plot department, I grant you, but the "movie" version of this Swedish mini-series, runs just over two hours (half of the running time of the original series) and never feels dry or routine. Sauk (Wennerström in the DRAGON TATTOO series), plays Hamilton here and while he may not be the most handsome or dashing secret agent, I think that is one of the things that makes him really engaging in the part. He's balding, lanky and not terribly fashionable; he looks like a college math professor. Definitely not the badass that he actually is. Surprisingly bloody for a TV movie, one of the most amusing things about it, is that because it's a Swedish production, the sizable Italian cast acts Swedish! They are all reserved, unemotional, calm and collected. Nobody yells and waves their arms around, no heated “conversations” about seemingly minor things. It must have been killing the Italian actors to behave that way.

IRON SKY (2012): Remember when IRON SKY was a short promo reel that looked absolutely amazing? Welcome to the reality of the filmmaking industry. The finished Finish film starts out great and the production design is phenomenally cool, but while that promo film is still used in the first act, it looks like they switched writers for the movie proper. Unbeknownst to the world, the Third Reich, led by Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier) were the first to successfully land on the moon. Not only did they land, but they set up a massive installation on the dark side, breeding and brainwashing future Aryan soldiers for a forthcoming invasion of Earth. The first act is well written and totally sucks you in with incredibly cool visuals (I love all of the steam-powered Nazi machinery), even if the jokes fall a little flat. After that, it’s a slow slide down hill. The bulk of the film is actually set in a United States that has someone who is clearly meant to be Sarah Palin as president (Stephanie Paul). The Nazis decide that since they cannot fully power-up their invasion force (they need to steal cell phones from Earth), they will send out the ambitious Klaus Adler (Götz Otto, is there anything he's not in?) and the presumed brainwashed and white-washed captured US astronaut James Washington (Christopher Kirby). Yes, the Nazi's actually turn a black man white and yes, comedy ensues.
The bulk of the plot concerns Madam President and her obnoxious aide (Peta Sergeant) trying to spin everything for political gain. By the time it was over it seemed like they forgot they were making a comedy about Nazi’s invading from the moon, and just kept hammering on, bludgeoning the audience with really heavy handed, over-the-top “satire” of American politics and attitudes. Some of it is amusing, but it’s all stuff that we Americans have made a lot of pointed jokes about four years ago, which is a bit strange since IRON SKY started life in 2010. Even if the toothy political commentary hadn't gotten stale over those two years, the jokes are not well written, lacking timing and set-up and delivery. Peta Sergeant is probably what took me from being somewhat disappointed to never wanting to see the film again. Her character takes over the last third of the movie and she comes from the school of louder is funnier. She’s so over the top, screaming f-bombs and rolling her eyes, that she makes The Three Stooges seem like icons of subtle nuance. The IMDb lists two guys who wrote the original story, then there’s a third credit for a screenwriter. I’m guessing it’s the screenwriter who decided to change it from a comic homage to old sci-fi/horror flicks and turn it into his own personal anti-American soapbox. The whole set-up in the first act is fantastic and the production design is nothing short of incredible. Then there's that script. It’s a real shame too, if they had skipped the forced comedy (which is surprisingly absent from the trailers), this would have been the film of the decade.

THE LIQUIDATOR (2011): I pity the poor sucker who picked up this flick simply because the poster art is top-billed Vinny Jones brandishing, make that firing, a pump-action shotgun. Oh wait, that was me. I don't know why I got suckered, I'm not even a fan. I guess I figured it would be some fast-paced action silliness and hell I've never seen a movie made in Kazakhstan! Of course, after this I'm pretty sure I don't want to see another. Yes, I said Kazakhstan. You can stop quoting Borat now. Instead of quirky regional filmmaking, we are treated to an agonizingly cliched, paper-thin thriller about a professional bodyguard named Arsen (Aitzhanov Berik) whose brother is accidentally killed by the mob. Since Arsen is a master of hand-to-hand combat and firearms, he decides to start taking down the perps one by one, all under the watchfull gaze of a hand-held digital video camera. Vinnie Jones shows up 40 minutes into the film as a contract killer called "The Mute," which means he can't deliver his usual lines which consist of a string of f-bombs shouted at the top of his lungs. I was thinking it was because the production was too cheap (does Kazakhstan even have a SAG?), but maybe it was just because they've seen his other films. Either way, he's in the movie for less than five minutes and the other 89 are simply featherweight rehashes of a million other Hollywood thrillers with a teeny, little twist at the end that doesn't amount to anything whatsoever. The ending does set us up for a sequel though. I wonder who will grace the poster for that one?

THE EMPTY BEACH (1985): Every now and again someone tries their hand at making a Dashiell Hammet or Ramond Chandler adaptation without the adaptation part. In otherwords instead of remaking THE MALTESE FALCON or THE BIG SLEEP (again), the filmmakers simply borrow Hammet and Chandler's themes and the style of their characters and drop them down into modern day Los Angeles, San Francisco or... Bondi Beach? Yep, the world-famous Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia is the setting for this gritty noir outing based on the novel by Peter Corris, starring Bryan Brown as hard-bitten gumshoe Cliff Hardy. After being hired by a widow (Anna Maria Monticelli) to investigate some evidence that her wealthy husband may have faked his apparent suicide, Hardy discovers that the husband was something of a small crime lord whose competitors are also members of the wealthy elite. Things start to get ugly when Hardy discovers that there are some missing audio tapes that nobody wants to talk about, but some are willing to kill for. Brown turns in a fine performance as a terse, steely-eyed, PI who always seems to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This movie has many great things going for it outside of the traditionally obtuse plot (not that there is anything wrong with that).
While the atmosphere is thick with gritty old-school noir, TV director Chris Thomson gives it a thin verneer of mild '80s trappings, such as neon titles, retro autos and a moody synth-sax score. While it may seem that these two styles might clash, they somehow mesh into something more than the sum of their parts. Plus the writers manage to emulate the dry sense of humor found in Hammet and Chandler's works; when Hardy meets up with his high-brow client he asks "who recommended me?" to which he gets the reply, "the phone book," to which he replies "oh". As if that weren't enough, the cast is a virtual directory of Aussie film and TV veterans including the ubiquitous Ray Barrett as a sleazy crime boss whose mistress is an illiterate teenage junkie. Still unreleased in the US and never released on DVD, even in Australia, this is something of an overlooked gem that really should be getting a nice widescreen treatment.

AS TIME GOES BY (1988): Utterly odd final film from non-conformist, low-budget Aussie filmmaker Barry Peaks with a lousy title, only made worse by some European releases which were titled THE AUSTRALIEN. A bean-pole surf bum, Mike (Nique Needles), is dumped in the middle of the outback by his two annoying female friends. According to a note he received as a child, Mike has an appointment to meet someone at a bar named Joe Bogart's some 50 miles outside of the tiny town of Dingo. Dingo, populated by some seriously odd people including a whiskey-swilling bone collector, a dry-goods proprietor who is obsessed with the eradication of dust, an insane land baron (Ray Barrett) who is determined to replace sheep with cattle after converting the outback to green land via the ozone layer, and is obsessed with aliens too. Actually a lot of people are after alien lifeforms when a meteor crashes near Dingo including a wing-nut alien chaser who manages to drive the shopkeeper off the deep end by pointing out that his magnified photograph of dust, is actually a louse. Also in the mix is the hard-bitten local cop (Bruno Lawrence) who is trying to find out who is killing all of the local sheep, while avoiding the bullets of two inbred brothers. There is so much going on in this movie it is almost impossible to synopsize (I love how the one phone booth in town is seen in the background with the same man screaming about how his "S.T.O.W.V. - stove!" is broken). It's got moments of fantastic spaghetti western-influenced atmosphere mixed with a dash of REPO MAN surreality, but it's really not like anything else you've ever seen. The only time the film falters is during some of the comedy elements which in one aspect go a little over the top, clashing with some really well-crafted outback atmosphere, otherwise it's a really enjoyable example of oddball Aussie filmmaking that would never get a green light in the US.

DARK HOUSE (2009): To say I know next to nothing about daily life in Poland is an understatement. I haven't seen very many Polish films either, so I figure, I should probably fix that, right? This highly praised movie was probably not a good starting point. Shot on video, the movie intercuts between two timelines each with a completely different tone. The first is a serious drama set in 1978 in which petty criminal Edward Srodon (Arkadiusz Jakubik), who loses his job after his wife suddenly drops dead, and decides to move to a state work farm. While travelling, he stumbles across a farmhouse and ingratiates himself with a father and daughter. There is a lot of alcohol consumed, a lot of loose talk, a lot of petty nastiness (the father beats the daughter in a drunken rage) and finally things take a bloody turn. The other plot line is an angry clown-act in modern day where an entire squad of police officers, a prosecutor and a couple of civilians are trying to piece together that same 1978 crime, but spend more time being overtly moronic, drunken, abusive, petty, violent and childish. There's some effort of biting criticism of Eastern Bloc politics, and it appears that director Wojciech Smarzowski was trying for a dark satire of the polish police force, but ends up with an amaturish, mean-spirited version of POLICE ACADEMY instead of the Polish FARGO that it is trying to be.
Occasionally the film drifts into self-indulgence, particularly with a scene of a character sitting on a bed, staring at the camera, motionless for several minutes, then cutting to a black and white close-up of his face, staring and motionless, for several more minutes. This comes from it's schizophrenic script in which it's desperately trying to be this intense drama and a hateful, but allegedly comic re-working of the Keystone Kops with the police being drunk, getting into fistfights, delivering babies, vomiting, talking trash, losing evidence, falling in the snow, beating the witness and so on. In one of the many fragments of character development, the pregnant officer (who slugs down vodka with the rest) is beaten by her husband who suspects that his commanding officer is responsible for the pregnancy, ultimately causing a premature delivery right in the crime scene. All in good fun! Apparently I am one of the few that felt like I was robbed of 90 minutes of my life as the IMDb can prove with its solitary negative review: "9 out of 50 people found the following review useful: I'd stay away from this movie unless you like watching drunken people on screen acting like tards". Why didn't I just say that in the first place? Interestingly the trailer tries to play the film off as a gritty police/crime thriller and doesn't even hint at the attempted comedy.

SEXMISSION (1988): Now we're talking! Highly entertaining Polish sci-fi / comedy / T&A flick about a scientist and an average schlub who sign-up to be cryogenically frozen for a period of three years as part of an experiment by a nobel-prize winning uber-scientist. Unfortunately for them, they are defrosted over 50 years later after the earth has been devestated by war and men have become extinct. The women who revive them have formed a society without men and regard them to be the embodiment of evil, re-writing history to suit their own view of the world, and creating new (female) citizens via test-tubes. The women now have to decide what to do with these two freaks, meanwhile the guys find that escape is the only option, though it is a little more than frustrating to be surrounded by thousands of virgin women who all hate them. Man, did I make it sound bleak! It's actually great fun with humor ranging from dry wit to slapstick, plus we get cool sci-fi miniatures and sets... oh and did I mention boobs? Yep, since they are all girls in the complex they have communal bathing pools, sporting events that culminate with the exchanging of the jersey's and ventillation breakdowns that require... yes, more shirts to come off! If it didn't have themes of communist oppression and Teutonic invasions, it would be an '80s teen T&A flick ala Cinemax. If it didn't have all the T&A and comedy, it would be a '60s science fiction epic. As it sits, it's fun, funny and presents a razor-sharp criticism of life under communist rule. Like all great science fiction, the social commentary is there if you want it, and invisible if you don't. Either way you want to take it, it's a great movie.

LAKE OF THE DEAD (1958): Another film I had to track down after reading about it thanks to Fred at Ninja Dixon. The Nord's have never been much for horror films, but this little gem is quite the exception. Stop me if you've heard this one... A group of friends heads up to a remote cabin in the woods to look for a friend of theirs who hasn't been heard of in several days. Once there, they realize that it is a cabin with a gruesome legend about a one-legged ghost who possesses those who enter his home and then sends them down to the water where they drown themselves. This is in 1958! Could this be the original "cabin in the woods" film? I'm not sure about that, but it's the earliest one I am aware of. Filmed in stark black and white, with wide, scope lenses, director Kåre Bergstrøm makes the most of his meager budget (there are literally only four shooting locations) deviling some genuinely creepy atmosphere in spite of the almost stage-play approach. In addition to the plot elements of supernatural possession in a cabin in the woods, we also get some POV camera work travelling through the foliage. It's all awfully reminiscent of... well, you know. The interesting thing about it is that since the Scandinavians love their detective mysteries, the script tries to satisfy that quotient too by one of the characters being a police detective and another a wannabe "Sherlock Holmes". A fine entry in a tiny genre. Well worth tracking down.

NEW KIDS TURBO (2010): Man, what is it with Dutch comedy? The Dutch are seem to be in a war with the Japanese over who can make the loudest, shrillest and most abrasive comedy films. If a line is funny, it's twice as funny if it's shouted as loud as possible with a mouthfull of food. Based on the Dutch Comedy Central show about a group of white euro-trash kids (mullets, little mustaches, and tracksuits) who lose their jobs, blame it on the economic crisis and ultimately go to war with the state. If it's funny to hit someone with a truck, it'll be even funnier the 10th time around. Pissing, fighting, drinking, killing, stealing and blatantly ripping off WAYNE'S WORLD can be funny, but this is so extremely forced that it's hard to find anything to laugh at. This seems to be popular with the teen crowd, so maybe I'm not exactly the target demographic, but at the same time, I do remember going to highschool with one of these guys. There's always one.

SHIN KAMEN RIDER (1992): This is the one that pisses off the purists and for that reason, seems to be totally under appreciated. It's a damn shame too, because this is one wild ride, mashing together genres with great results. Apparently the author of the comic, Shôtarô Ishinomori's, original concept was that Shocker's creations were actually mutants. Hybridized humans who have been genetically merged with an animal or insect DNA. Apparently someone along the way managed to change this concept into the more user-friendly (or kid-friendly) concept of cyborgs. This movie is a return to that original concept and brings it home with all the flair of a 1980s drive-in monster movie. Imagine if David Cronenberg and Rob Bottin were Japanese and made a Kamen Rider film in the '80s and you'll kind of get the idea. A rash of bloody murders are plaguing the city while at the same time a scientist is conducting experiments introducing insect cells into human DNA. As it turns out that human DNA happens to be his son Shin (Kohisa Ishikawa), his last and only living human experiment. Even worse, the experiments, seemingly being done by an independent bio company turns out to be for an evil organization (presumably Shocker, but only referred to as The Organization). While one of the scientists performs dangerous experiments on himself in his bizarre EVILSPEAK-inspired lab a group of super-commando types are attempting to take down the organization and put a stop to their experiments. Maybe a little slow to get rolling, this outing sports some seriously eye-popping latex effects including full-blown latex sculpted animatronic mutants, graphic gore and a Kamen Rider transformation scene that tips it's hat directly at AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. If you've only seen the recent stuff that's been shot on video with cheap POWER RANGERS-looking outfits and highschool kids with tricked-out cell phones, this one will be a real... ummmm... Shocker!

Sub-Zero Wins... Fatality!

ULTRAMAN COSMOS - THE FIRST ENCOUNTER (2001): Sweet jeezus on a friggin' stick, what did I get myself into? I was a big Ultraman fan when I was a kid. I watched that show probably more than any other and recently I rediscovered the old series. It was like a crack-filled dreamsicle. Sweet, addictive nostalgia. So I figure, hey, I should check out what has happened with the guy since I was a kid. Well, aparently I wasn't the only one who loved that show. No less than 36 spin-off shows and 21 movies comprise the Ultraman library, give or take. I figured I got some catching up to do! Unfortunately, where the original series boasted some really quirky and interesting episodes that went well above the call of duty, this is a total modern kiddie flick. Adults are bumbling (and therefore "funny"), the music is sappy as hell and there’s no Ultraman until the end, so instead we get the science team using robotic arms with boxing gloves extending from their ships to beat up the monster (not even kidding), represented on their HUD as an old school Nintendo game and – and... in the next battle they have all of the children sing the monster to sleep. I. CAN’T. MAKE. THIS. UP.
The main monster is Baltan, my favorite monster from my childhood, that’s a plus, but he doesn’t do half of his cool powers and after browsing the internet I find out he’s everybody's childhood favorite. Ok, I can live with that but in the end after a mostly cheap CGI fight with Ultraman…. Ready for this? This is where I run naked into the street screaming obscenities and brandishing a firearm. Well, in my case, a squirtgun, which is probably even more frightening. Ok, ready? He starts crying and kills himself. No, really – all he wanted was to live in peace with the children of Earth. I am totally fucking serious. Thank you to whoever decided to hire Toshihiro Iijima, who hadn't directed a film since the infantile, poop-obsessed DAIGARO VS. GOLIATH (1971), for killing my Ultrabuzz.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Gweilo Dojo: FORCE: FIVE (1981)

If you are a martial arts fan, you probably heard the news that Joe Lewis passed away yesterday at the age of 68 due to a brain tumor.  Lewis was one of the martial arts trailblazers in U.S. during the 1960s and 70s.  He trained with everyone (including Bruce Lee) and fought some of the top guys in competition including Bob Wall and Chuck Norris.  Naturally, Hollywood, hungry for anyone who could throw a kick, called and Lewis had a rather inauspicious cinema debut with the action flick JAGUAR LIVES! (1979). Surrounded by an all-star cast (Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Barbara Bach, Capucine, John Huston, Woody Strode), Lewis got to show the stuff that made him a legend in the martial arts world onscreen.  Unfortunately, this James Bond-with-kicks flick didn’t really take with audiences, despite Lewis being a better actor than the wooden Chuck Norris at the time.  Hollywood decided to give him another shot and for his sophomore feature, he found himself in the capable hands of director Robert Clouse in the powerfully alliterative FORCE: FIVE.  

Not wasting any time cashing in on the Jim Jones tragedy, FORCE: FIVE centers on a religious guru named Reverend Rhee (Bong Soo Han), whose island compound has proven a retreat for affluent children everywhere. We’re told in no uncertain cinematic terms he is evil because he makes everyone shout “Love! Love! Love!”  Well, that and the fact that he has his henchmen torture a failed assassin by shoving acupuncture needles into his nerves.  Seems someone named Stark (Michael Prince) wants to get rid of Rhee real bad.  Back in the good ol’ U.S.A., Stark hires special agent Jim Martin (Lewis) to finish the job.  Seems a girl named Cindy (Amanda Wyss), a Senator’s wayward daughter, is living on the compound and daddy wants her back.  Also, they suspect Rhee’s religious principles – which are oddly centered on a bull – might include the rare 11th Commandment of “Thou shalt support terrorists with illegal guns and cocaine profits.”

Martin agrees to the job, but says he needs five top folks to accompany him to the island to get the job done.  Hey, including him, wouldn’t that make them Force: Six?  Anyway, we then get the requisite character intros.  Billy (Benny “The Jet” Urquidez) is shown selling ponchos (!) to tourists before he gets the call; Lockjaw (Sonny Barnes) is on the run from a motorcycle gang that he eventually beats up; Ezekiel (Richard Norton) wins a game of pool and then roughs up the losers when they object to paying up; and Laurie (Pam Huntington) roughs up Martin when he shows up blindfolded and dressed in a tux.  Hey, that is only four people.  Martin informs the team they are also getting Willard (Ron Hayden).  Oh no, not Willard!  That crazy sumbitch?  Yup, and the team gets their first mini-mission by heading down to break him out of a prison in Ecuador.  Things go smoothly as the team rescues him (naturally, he lives in luxury in jail) and they prepare to head to the island.  The ruse is they are assistants and helicopter pilots for Senator Forrester (Peter MacLean), who is coming down to check out the religious compound.

Once on the island, the team gets to work uncovering what is really going on.  You know something is up as Rhee is overly welcoming, despite his muscle bound henchman Carl (Bob Schott) giving the pilots faking a helicopter repair grief every ten seconds.  The Senator proves to be easily swayed as he is blown away by a performance of Rhee’s disciples singing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” while confetti chokes the air. Seriously, I’ve never seen confetti so thick.  Obviously this is where Jim Jones screwed up as pageantry gets ‘em every time.  Anyway, also on the island is John (Dennis Mancini), an undercover New York Times reporter, who soon finds out why Rhee is so into bulls.  Seems he has one in an underground maze and it mauls John to death.  Now ain’t that some bullshit? Meanwhile, Martin is sneaking around and discovers the cache of drugs and guns, while Laurie tries to convince Cindy that things aren’t what they seem and she shouldn’t sign her trust fund over to Rhee.  After all, should you really trust any organization that allows Tom Villard to be a part of it?  It is all setting up for a finale where martial artists Martin and Rhee must kick, er, face off.

It seems Lewis really got no favors for his second flick as director Robert Clouse is intent on ripping off his biggest hit, ENTER THE DRAGON (1973).  The set ups for both films are nearly identical with the island fortress.  The only difference is these people practice love rather than karate (although they do oddly have a great command of hand-to-hand combat when it comes down to it).  The production did at least try to surround Lewis with some capable co-stars. Urquidez and Norton are both accomplished martial artists in their own right and both men get moments to shine.  Norton’s highlight, however, is when he throws a circular saw blade into a man (something later ripped off in Schwarzenegger’s COMMANDO) and then quips in his thick Australian accent, “Thank God for Black and Deck-aaaaaaaaahhhhhh.”  To save the curious viewer 95 minutes, here I present to you the film's three biggest highlights:

The other problem with this film is it very flat, almost seeming like a TV movie that somehow got unleashed in theaters. It definitely lacks the big budget style of ENTER or Clouse’s previous Jackie Chan vehicle THE BIG BRAWL (1980) or even GOLDEN NEEDLES (1974).  The script also does the film no favors with the out-of-left-field end confrontation between Martin and Rhee.  Obviously trying to ape ENTER’s famous mirror scene, they have the men search for each other in the smoke filled maze.  Oh, did I forget to mention that Rhee has the ability to disappear at will?  This head scratching ability (it is never mentioned at all) kind of shows you where the film is it.  Basically, they don't give a damn.  It is one of those films where the characters take off at the end and the image freezes on the airborne helicopter as the credits roll, as if to say, “C’mon, let’s get out of here and head to the bar.” If anything, FORCE: FIVE’s legacy will be having provided the makers of ZOMBI 3 (1988) some artwork “inspiration.”  Seriously, compare this poster with the one above.

Sadly, this marked the end of Lewis’ leading man career.  Despite having good looks and decent acting chops, he didn’t do another film until the HK cheapie DEATH CAGE (1988) with Robin Shou.  He also had a small supporting role in the loopy-as-hell kung fu serial killer flick BLOODMOON (1997) starring Gary Daniels.  Both films get the Video Junkie Seal of Approval.