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!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Halloween Havoc: VISITING HOURS (1982)

The '80s were an interesting time to live in. Ultra-modern society was starting to show cracks, dividing the rich, coke-snorting mega-corporations from distressed lower classes who were the guinea pigs in Reagan's idea of pushing all of the financial gains on to the wealthy so they could occasionally urinate it down the unwashed masses' backs, causing tuppence to occasionally "trickle down" (still a popular idea to this day). When forced with financial hardships the common masses tend to seek catharsis through art. In other words, movies get violent. The violence in films also is a reflection of real life trauma. Snipers in clocktowers, The Zodiac Killer, presidential assassinations, even precedent setting court cases can all contribute to trends in film. Which brings us to this nasty little gem. It may not really know what it's trying to say about all this sociopolitical stuff, but dammit, it's trying to say something!

Deborah Ballin (Lee Grant) is a news pundit who engages in wildly emotional attacks on a legal team involved in a highly publicized homicide of an allegedly abusive husband, by his wife. Her opinionated oral frothing actually predates modern "journalism" and in conjunction with some sort of unfocused feminism (I'm not sure what exactly the point is that is attempting to be made) catches the attention of a man, Colt Hawker (Michael Ironside), who is clearly feeling the stress of the modern age. You know he has issues as he is constantly squeezing a black stress-ball and breathing heavy. He wastes no time in finding Ballin's home address (a mansion in NY - the news biz must be paying good money in those days) and attacking her from a closet, shirtless, sweaty and covered in make-up and jewelry! I believe in technical medical parlance that would be referred to as "coo-coo for cocopuffs".

Hawker has covered his studio apartment walls with letters that he has sent out to all sorts of authority figures, hating on everyone from blacks, Hispanics, women, and the old classic favorite, the Jews. As we find out later on in the film, this is a result of a '50s upbringing with a drunken father who used to wrestle with him on the grass and pour alcohol on his face. Oh, and when dad tried to rape mom, she threw hot oil on his face. What do you mean "that's it?" Isn't that all that's required to turn someone into a cross-dressing, woman-hating psychopath? Of course, since it was the '50s, maybe they should have just shown him reading a comic book.

The only partially successful attack puts Ballin in the hospital which leads to Hawker's repeated attempts to infiltrate the hospital (not very difficult in those days) and finish the job, while a nurse, Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl), with more bedside manner than Mother Theresa, keeps a wary eye out. Hawker doesn't take too kindly to Sheila's interference and proves that his psychosis can't keep him from multi-tasking. Meanwhile producer and love interest, Gary Baylor (William Shater), keeps his hair neat, eats ice cream and looks sympathetic. Of course this was a busy year for Shatner, starring in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KAHN, and appearing in AIRPLANE II, an episode of "Police Squad" and this fine film. I guess we can't expect the man to do much more than he does here, so busy was he that he actually put his recording career on hold!

Even though 1982 was right at the tipping point of The Great '80s Slasher Cycle with many pivotal films coming out (including FRIDAY THE 13TH 3-D), VISITING HOURS isn't hitting the cliches as hard as many of the films that would follow. One of the nurses working with Sheila is a chunky little thing who keeps a diary rating her sexual experiences with the doctors in the hospital. Not only that, but she's very cavalier about their bedroom foibles, which can only mean one thing! Death by the blade! Yep, we all know that slutty chicks have to die, but this film actually doesn't even show her having sex with anybody first! What the hell kinda slasher film is this? Damn Canadians, can't get anything right. Or maybe it's just that hint of pretension that the film has, trying to convince the audience that this is a "serious" film and will not be pandering to the drive-in crowd (you know who you are). In the scene where Lisa (a young Lenore Zann) has a rather unpleasant one-nighter with Hawker, I am pretty sure the scene discussion ended with someone saying "No, we should leave her panties on. This is a classy picture!" Actually, screenwriter Brian Taggert (who previously wrote the under-exposed 1977 TV movie THE SPELL) does himself a disservice with bits like these. The "slutty nurse" episode is actually shoehorned into a much more disturbing scene in which Hawker infiltrates Ballin's room, cutting her oxygen supply, only to discover a terrified elderly woman in the bed. Instead of doing anything over-the-top, he simply sits down on the bed and stares at her and takes pictures of her while her heart slowly gives out in terror. The scene is excellently played out by both actors and is far nastier than any simple stabbing could ever be. I suspect that Canadian producer extraordinaire Pierre David, who notoriously clashed with David Cronenberg on the direction SCANNERS (1981), might be responsible for some of the more "commercial" moments in the film.

In an attempt to capitalize on the success of HALLOWEEN II (1981), David brings us this attempt at a classy slasher movie. In other words, a nasty horror movie with an aging A-List actor headlining to give the film an air of respectability (such as the 1976 classic, THE OMEN with Gregory Peck). It also helps that VISITING HOURS sported a jaw-dropping budget of US$6.8 million compared to FRIDAY THE 13TH 3-D (1982) at a very respectable US$4 million. Does $4 million seem low? Consider HALLOWEEN II at US$2.5 million and FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II (1981) at a mere US$1.25 million. To bring it into perspective, JAWS (1975), the film that invented the Summer blockbuster, was bankrolled at US$8 million. To say that VISITING HOURS was well endowed is putting it mildly. While it's a good-looking film with nice camera work and cinematography, and I assume Lee Grant didn't exactly wave her fee, for the life of me, I can't see that kind of money on the screen. On the other hand, for a hospital based horror film, they certainly make great use of the location. Where X-RAY (1982) looked like it had the use of two floors on a single wing, VISITING HOURS goes everywhere except the cafeteria (am I the only one who thinks that is a missed opportunity?).

You'd think the pairing of William Shatner and Michael Ironside would be pure cinematic gold, but sadly Shatner is completely wasted as Grant's emotional tampon. Ironside and Shatner don't even have a scene together. The closest they get is when the cops are finally clued-in to Hawker's residence, they see no reason why not to let Baylor tromp all over the crime scene! They even decide to let him handle the evidence. I guess they don't get too many serial killers up there, eh. Maybe it's all for the best as the time-space continuum may not be able to withstand the force of those two cinematic powerhouses on the screen at the same time. The acting is actually in fine form all around including Ironside, who had come off of the previous year's SCANNERS, who is a mass of bulging veins, lathered with sweat. The one exception is Lee Grant who plays it so self-righteous and hysterical that at times you can find yourself rooting for Hawker. Not to mention the fact that she won't scream at the appropriate cues during the finale, but does this overly melodramatic deep-throated moaning and bellows "nooooooooooooooooo" while running down the hospital halls. Yeah, I get that they needed an older star to give it a sense of class, but this is where Barbi Benton would have rocked the joint.

Speaking of doing disservices to it's pretensions... VISITING HOURS has to be one of my favorite movie ad campaigns period. The poster with the hospital lights forming a skull is bordering on genius (and was recently ripped off for the 2012 found footage anthology V/H/S), but it's the trailer that blows away the competition. For the most part horror movie trailers are as cheap as the movies themselves. You really don't need to do all that much, other than show some people screaming and a couple shots of the killer. Add a bassy voice over intoning doom, throw up a clever, animated title card and you're done! For some reason the marketing department (I'm assuming this was at Fox) went completely nuts and created a process shot in which a hospital has lights that turn off one by one to form the shape of a skull. I'm really amazed that someone gave them the green light to spend that kind of money on a trailer. It definitely wouldn't happen today. Oddly though, as great as the trailer is, it makes the film look like a "fun" bubblegum slasher flick, instead of the high-brow horror that it wants to be, and half the time, is. As conflicted as it occasionally seems and as unfocused as the feminist view-point is, it's a really sharp thriller with slasher overtones that is probably the best of a rather scant subgenre.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The "Never Got Made" Files #86 - #87: The 2 Cadavers of David Schmoeller

If one is looking for accolades as a film director, the horror genre is probably a place to avoid as most mainstream film reviewers tend to look down their noses at it.  Sure, we get the occasional praise for genre mainstays like Dario Argento and George Romero, or breakouts like Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi.  But some genre directors can be left criminally underrated, despite delivering some solid shockers.  One such director is David Schmoeller.  Raised in Texas, Schmoeller grew up wanting to be a writer (thanks partially to some encouragement from a fellow boarding school student named Tommy Lee Jones) and fell into film by pure chance.

Schmoeller debuted in film by continuing the fine 1970s tradition of Texans shocking the pants off folks via independent horror with TOURIST TRAP (1979), a feature length expansion of his thesis film THE SPIDER WILL KILL YOU (1976).  Blending shocks with a surrealistic edge, the film was an assured debut and very effective (so much so that Hollywood ripped it off uncredited in the HOUSE OF WAX [2005] remake).  If he didn’t win any awards for his debut, Schmoeller should have been given a medal for his third feature, CRAWLSPACE (1986), as he survived a trial by hellfire in lead actor Klaus Kinski.  Despite such behind-the-scenes insanity, the director managed to turn in an striking horror-thriller and later gave us the great short PLEASE KILL MR. KINSKI (1999) about his experience.  And perhaps his biggest achievement was directing and writing (under a pseudonym) the first PUPPET MASTER (1989).  The film’s miniature menaces (including one fashioned after Kinski) he created have become iconic and the series continues to line the pockets of producer Charles Band, who just made PUPPET MASTER X.

With a career spanning over three decades, there is no doubt that Schmoeller has worked on a number of projects for both film and television.  Naturally, there were some unmade ones along the way and he was kind enough to talk with me about two of them via email.


Sporting a title befitting a 1950s film noir, THE 12 CADAVERS OF JOE MARINER was originally a novel published by Donald Weismann, a painter, art historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.  The inspiration came to Weismann in 1968 while teaching an art class where he received a rather ho-hum reaction to some shocking performance art he was covering.  What, he wondered at the time, would shock people today?  The idea he settled upon was an art exhibition displaying an actual human corpse. (Amusingly, this idea came into fruition in the 1990s with Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS, which displayed preserved, skinned human corpses.)  Putting pen to paper, Weismann wrote his novel and published it in 1977.  The story follows Joe Mariner on his journey – both literally and figuratively – as he sets out from New Orleans to New York City in a rented U-Haul truck.  His cargo is 12 human corpses, which he plans to display at a major NYC art museum in the hopes of shocking viewers into seeing what he calls “the holy.”  Along the way the everyman Mariner has strange encounters at every stop – from a hauntingly beautiful woman who follows him in a biplane to a man who also collects and displays corpses to a black guy lynching a white Volkswagen Beetle.

As you can probably guess from those few examples, JOE MARINER is a positively surreal novel.  It features some scenes so bizarre that avant garde auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky might sit back and say, “What the hell is this?”  Perhaps that is what drew Schmoeller to the project as he once spent a semester in Mexico City in 1968 studying theater under Jodorowsky.  The real reason is far simpler though.  “Dr. Weismann was a very influential professor of mine in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1970s,” he explains.  “He was a painter and filmmaker and writer. I saw all his movies and read all his books. I was his student and friend when he was writing THE 12 CADAVERS OF JOE MARINER – and when the book was published, I optioned it for a short period for a dollar.”

Schmoeller directs Chuck Conners
on the set of TOURIST TRAP (1979)
Indeed, a tiny blurb in Variety in April 1980 announced Schmoeller had purchased the film rights to the book.  As a director, Schmoeller had recently experienced his first theatrical success with the aforementioned horror film TOURIST TRAP.  Choosing such an unusual work for his sophomore feature would probably have sent his career in a completely different direction, but Schmoeller felt a certain connection with the material outside of his personal relationship with Weismann.  “I just loved the idea of this artist taking a truck full of cadavers to NYC with the idea of displaying them as art,” he reveals. “And I had ridden in a school bus full of hippies from Austin to Washington D.C. to protest the Vietnam War.  Driving through the South in a bus full of hippies in the early 70s? What a trip – so, I liked the road movie aspect of JOE MARINER.”

Ultimately, Schmoeller could not garner interest in the project and he never wrote a full script (unbeknownst to him at the time, Cary White, a fellow University of Texas at Austin alum, had written an unsolicited screenplay).  “I don’t think I was a particularly effective producer so, I just didn’t get very far with the project,” he discloses. “And I was probably busy writing and directing other movies and other scripts. I stayed friends with Dr. Weismann until his death at [the age of] 92. I probably disappointed him that I didn’t do more with his book.”

In the end, Schmoeller wound up writing and directing the much more commercial THE SEDUCTION (1982), which turned out to be one of Avco Embassy’s top grossing films the year it was released.   Surprisingly, the saga of adapting JOE MARINER to film didn’t end with Schmoeller’s participation.  Weismann actually went about turning his novel into a screenplay with an old actor friend of his.  Some guy named Lee Marvin.  No joke, Weismann and Marvin pounded out a 147 page script with the intention of the gruff actor, who was a fan of the book, as the lead Joe Mariner.  Unfortunately, despite Marvin trying to convince director John Boorman to helm the project, it didn’t get made before Marvin’s passing in 1987.  For anyone interested in how it might have played out, Weismann republished the novel in 2002 and also included the complete screenplay he co-authored with Marvin.

#87 - HUNTRESS (1986/87)

HUNTRESS was an all around different kind of project for Schmoeller. Six years after the JOE MARINER experience, he found himself working for Empire International, a low budget studio headed by Charles Band. Having survived the CRAWLSPACE war zone, Schmoeller set about making his second feature for Empire and the system there proved to be more commercial and less artistic.  When asked what inspired him to write the script, the director was very honest and straightforward. “Money,” he states.  “I was given a title and a poster and asked to write a screenplay by Charlie Band. That was how we made movies at Empire International in the 1980s.”

As a film producer, Band continued the tried-and-true methods of 1950s B-movie producers who operated with an “idea/poster first, script later” method.  Schmoeller outlined the process by which Band determined which productions his company was going to film.  It started with title contests among employees with a bonus reward of $500 if the title was eventually used.  “He would then send the best 100 [titles] out to poster artists,” Schmoeller explains.  “Two or three times a year, Austin Furst from Vestron would fly in from the East Coast. Charlie would line these posters around his office – 30, 40, 50 posters maybe. Austin would come in, go around the room pointing: ‘I take this one and that one and THAT one.’ He would buy the films based on the title and artwork in blocks of 10-15 at a time. Then Charlie would bring us writers-directors into his office and say: ‘I want you to do this one and that one.’ We would go off and write a screenplay based on the title and artwork. They didn’t all get made, but most of them did. It was a lot of fun. Those were the days. HUNTRESS was just one of those films.”

Unlike JOE MARINER, Schmoeller wrote a full script for HUNTRESS as work-for-hire.  As you can guess from the poster, the plot revolved around a female werewolf.  The specifics, as explained by Schmoeller, involved a bounty hunter named Taylor West coming to a mining town to track a man named Henry Truffles, who thinks he is a wolf and has allegedly been killing people.  Once in the town, West runs afoul of Fraser, the local bully also hoping to collect the $100,000 reward money, and also falls for Diana, a sheltered young woman with the lycanthrope secret.  Naturally, it all builds towards a climax where all of these elements come together.

Despite having written a full script, Schmoeller was juggling multiple projects at the time and ended up shooting CATACOMBS in late 1987 instead.  So what kept the HUNTRESS project from being made?  That answer is simple really.  “The bank took over Empire and closed it down,” Schmoeller reveals of the studio’s collapse.

Empire HUNTRESS promo flyer
(courtesy of David Schmoeller)

Indeed, Band’s company found itself with dire financial problems and, unable to repay their loans, was seized by the French bank Crédit Lyonnais.  Several film productions (PULSE POUNDERS, ROBOT JOX, TRANSFORMATIONS) remained unfinished at the time.  Schmoeller’s CATACOMBS had the unfortunate distinction of being the last completed film for Empire and the director even found himself without a copy after the lone print he personally delivered at the Cannes film festival disappeared into a world of financial red tape (the film was eventually released in the U.S. as CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE by Epic Pictures via Columbia TriStar Home Video in 1993).  Never to be one to abandon a good title, Band eventually produced HUNTRESS: SPIRIT OF THE NIGHT (1995) for his next company Full Moon.  The story also involves a werewolf woman in a small town, but the similarities end there as this new incarnation is a Romanian shot cheapo filled with softcore sex.

In the end, HUNTRESS ended up being one of probably dozens of scripts that got written and then shelved at Empire.  When asked if he would return to the material today, Schmoeller does have a certain affinity for the project.  “I always liked that script,” he says, “despite the goofy way it came into being, written from a title and really goofy artwork.  But I’ve been busy writing-directing-producing my own movies from scripts that I own.”  Now teaching film at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Schmoeller has remained active in the last few years.  He produced the comedy THOR AT THE BUS STOP (2009) and recently completed his return to feature directing with LITTLE MONSTERS (2012).  You can read about both on his official website here.

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.