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!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Halloween Havoc: NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 (1994)

In the annuls of late '80s low-budget horror flicks, Kevin Tenney's NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988) holds a special place in the rotten hearts of horror fans. Why? Well, it had Linnea Quigley at the height of her popularity, it had a lot of controversy over the X-rating originally imposed on it by Jack Valenti's housewife posse, it had rather striking scenes of a demonically possessed girl in a black wedding dress, it had Linnea Quigley... did I mention that already?
The thing of it is, I've always felt that it was missing something. I liked it well enough back in the day, but over the years, as much as I like certain things about it (yes, the lipstick in the boob thing is pretty seamless), I grow less and less fond of it. The much balyhooed gore? Ummm, not so much. Not only is there very little blood, even in the uncut print, the special effects in general are very minimal, limited to mostly the latex mask work of the possessed kids, and X-rated? Horror films took a beating from the MPAA in 1988, but I can see stuff that is much more graphic in the R-rated version of HELLRAISER II, not to mention any episode of THE WALKING DEAD these days. Don't get me wrong, I really like most of Tenney's body of work (PINOCCIO'S REVENGE not withstanding), but I'm saying that NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 is the film that NIGHT OF THE DEMONS should have been. Lipstick-in-the-nipple scene notwithstanding, of course.

Starting out with a quick vignette in which a pair of Jehova types stop by Hull House, only to find out that perhaps the occupant really does not want to be saved and says so with a small machete. Not too far from the old Hull House is a Catholic boarding school for wayward teens, and well all know what that means. Wayward teens who look a little long in the tooth for college, but take their clothes off at the drop of a paycheck. The school is ruled with an iron fist by Sister Gloria (Jennifer Rhodes), a yard-stick fencing nun who's obsession with discipline clashes with Father Bob 's (Rod McCary) ideals of general tolerance, except when it comes to the subject of demonology. Why demonology? That would be because unlike his fellow roommates who are focused on the frequently undressed hotties across they way (am I the only one who is uncomfortable with two men, standing way too close, in their underwear, getting excited over spying on the girls next door?), ubernerd Perry (Robert Jayne), finds his solo excitement in studying books about demonology. Hey, what do you expect from someone locked up in a Catholic school?

On the girl's side, one of the (few) non-busty roommates is Mellissa (Merle Kennedy, of Albert Pyun's immortal 1992 classic NEMESIS), known as "Mouse" to her none-too-sympathetic roomies. Why should they be sympathetic? Well, she seems to have taken her hair-styling tips from Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998) and if that wasn't crushing enough, oh yeah, she is the sister of the legendary Angela Franklin, the demon of Hull House (cue eerie music)! Her frequent nightmares (one of which includes having her chin ripped off - what would Freud say about that?) wake up the other girls, and worse, she thinks that an appropriate Halloween costume is a big red clown outfit sans make-up, rubber nose and chainsaw. Yep, that girl just ain't right.

After the girl with the biggest boobs and an attitude to match, Shirley (Zoe Trilling), steals Perry's book, Perry flips out on roommate "They call me Kingsnake" Kurt (Ladd York). Rushing to Kurt's defense, another roommate, Johnny (Johnny Moran, who occasionally bears a disturbing resemblance to David Spade) jumps to Kurt's defense saying "What would he want with a book? Kurt can barely read a clock!" Zing! Yeah, ok, so it's not going to give David Mammet a run for his money, well, unless he keeps writing scripts like HANNIBAL (2001). Damn straight, I'll take NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 over that gussied up turd any day of the week.

Father Bob has obviously been watching too many old Mickey Rooney movies and decides that instead of letting Sister Gloria arrange the annual pagan ritual of the "Halloween Dance", the kids will learn a sense of purpose and do it themselves... and there will be no more talk of Hull House! Of course, it wouldn't be much of a movie if nobody actually went to Hull House, so after our overexcited "teens" find themselves grounded, Shirley decides that they need to throw their own party! Even better it will be a surprise location (a surprise to everyone but the audience), using the old "roadsign switch" trick. Better still, they've managed to talk Mouse into going along for the ride. Speaking of ride, is that a 1959 Cadillac Fleetwood outfitted with circular saw blades like Blackie Lawless' crotch? Damn, I want that car. It's nice. Way too nice for Shirley's loud-mouth rocker boyfriend, Rick (Rick Peters), who actually reminds me way too much of the friends I used to hang out with in high-school, but I digress.

Once everyone has piled out in Hull House, folks start pairing of for some private adventures (more nudity!), leaving Rick, Shirley and their sign switching friend Zevon in the parlour room. Zevon, (Darin Heames of PCU fame) seems to be cast on his ability to read lines of dialogue like "yee - ouuuww - weeee woooo!", and seems to be the throwback character. It's like they decided, "hey, it's a NIGHT OF THE DEMONS sequel! We need a character who will be annoying as hell!" Anyway, the trio decide to have a sacrifice and summon a demon. Seems pretty reasonable, since they are in Hull House and all. Since Mouse scared away their sacrificial black cat while flippin' and trippin' over the fact that she's actually in Hull House, I guess it's going to have to be a human virgin sacrifice, and she's promptly tied to a gurney while Shirley reads incantations from Perry's book and waves around a knife.

Little do they know that Perry has decided to do a little demon summoning of his own back at the church and manages to get Angela (Amelia Kinkade, returning) to pop out of a mirror. As it turns out Rick and Shirley's Halloween prank may have been just a gag with a fake knife, but Angela is now delighted to be on the loose and wants to dance (again). The best way to do it? Smuggle herself away in a tube of lipstick that will get taken back to the school dance, then turn into a fleshy snake-thing, wriggle out of the tube and crawl up the nearest available crotch! Easy! Fortunately for Angela there is a klepto female around to make that happen.

As you can tell, writer Joe Augustyn (who also wrote the first film), clearly felt the need to ramp things up for the sequel. There are two different venues for Angela to wreak havoc in, innumerably more victims, significantly more gore, more bare boobs than a Chuck Vincent film (well, almost), and what's this? Goddamn, there's a hell of a lot of plot going on here! Granted it ain't exactly Mario Puzo, but there is a staggering amount of character interaction compared to the first one. Surprisingly, it actually makes the movie move at a much faster pace, keeping it fun and never dull. The one thing that has been toned down is the characters. Sure they are still mostly obnoxious and deserving of their messy fates, but they are nowhere near as irritating as the characters in the first film (or even worse, the characters from the wince-inducing 2009 remake). We also get a big, wet finale with lots of splattery demises and even a monster at the end. Yes, a monster. Any sequel that goes the extra distance of doing a big animatronic and latex monster at the end instead of a bunch of smoke or a red/yellow color blob, gets my vote every time. It can even be a sadly implemented monster (such as CHILDREN OF THE CORN III), but, as my grandfather would say, it's better than a kick in the pants.

Australian director Brian Trenchard-Smith (who in the interest of full disclosure, I have been a big fan of since I discovered ESCAPE 2000 on a videostore shelf in 1985), attacks this project like an early '80s Jim Wynorski. The first half of the film is boobs and wisecracks and the second half is full-blown campy horror. I remember at the time being turned off by the ass-kicking nun (blatantly ripped off by Mike Mendez for the disappointing 2000 Adrienne Barbeau horror-comedy THE CONVENT), the holy water supersoaker and the general wiseassery in the last half hour of the movie, but I watch it now, and it's a damn good time. Where else are you going to see a demonically possessed Zoe Trilling attack a man with her breasts (and I mean that in a bad way)? I gotta admit, I got a laugh out of seeing Angela take over the Church dance by throwing on Morbid Angel - best of all, unlike modern films, that is a throwaway joke. If it were done today, there would have to be a close up of the CD case and a cutaway to a crucifix just to make absolutely sure you get it. Trenchard-Smith even works up some nice EVIL DEAD-ish POV shots, running through the halls and slamming doors with Angela making noise on the soundtrack. Interestingly, someone after the fact (presumably the distributor or producer), seems to have felt that having those POV shots wasn't enough, and we needed more shots of Angela roaming the corridors. Instead of doing costly re-shoots, they simply cut and paste shots from the first film, with notable differences in color temperature and grain.

So there, I've said it, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 is actually better than the first one. NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 3, you ask? Well, that's a different story all together.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Halloween Havoc: TICKS (1993)

I'm not sure what the process is for deciding which movies have sequels and which don't. Oh, sure, it's got something to do with returns and receipts and rentals and all that, but some times I think it's got more to do with a podiatrist in Akron who has discovered his kids flipping out over a rental tape and thinks that maybe investing in a sequel to MANNEQUIN (1987) would be a lot more fun than simply investing in an IRA. Hell, you might even get to hang out with Kim Cattrall too! Shhhhhh! Nobody tell him that it's Kristy Swanson who signed on after Kim bailed out.

In typical cheap '80s/'90s horror movie fashion, a group of ethnically diverse delinquent "teens" are packed on a bus for the Inner-City Wilderness Project. The Project is a social welfare organization headed up by counselors Holly (Rosalind Allen) and Charles (Peter Scolari), who decide that the best plan of action is to show up to a filthy, dilapidated cabin in the woods without an agenda, or really any sort of plan other than to get some sexy time between the sheets while the kids, like, do stuff. DIE!! Oh, wait, sorry, this isn't slasher movie, everybody relax. The kids include, Tyler (Seth Green, already a TV veteran at this point) is suffering from an anxiety disorder caused by the abandonment of his father; Panic (Alfonso Ribeiro) is the cliched angry black kid who explains his nickname saying "they call me Panic, cause I never do!" Oh, wait, I get it. It's like calling a fat guy "Skinny" or Tommy Lister "Tiny". There's the token loudmouth Latino, a mute Asian girl, a prissy rich girl (Ami Dolenz who went on to WITCHBOARD 2, PUMPKIN HEAD II and the fourth sequel in the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT series), etc. But who cares about a few cheap cliches anyway? The movie isn't called INTELLECTUAL YOUTHS TAKE A WOODLAND HOLIDAY, it's called TICKS, dammit!

Looks like Mike Rowe has seen better days
Little do they know that they are in the territory of cashcroppers; violent ganja farmers who not only will kill off the local sheriff but will allow Clint Howard (as Jarvis) to run their horticultural ops. These ops include using a new chemical compound to increase the growth and potency of the cannabaceae. Unfortunately for, well, everyone in the movie, the machine that delivers this compound to the plants is malfunctioning and drips the potent brew all over some tick larvae. Once at the cabin the kids start finding out that ill-prepared camping trips suck. Not only are there giant, gooey larva pods everywhere, but a sleazy local, named Sir (Barry Lynch), who is totally untrustworthy, not because he won't say his name, but because he hangs out with an inbred hick, Jerry (Michael Medeiros), and wears a cravat. Can't trust a man in a cravat.

It isn't too long before the infestation begins, starting with Jarvis (whose immediate reaction to having giant ticks burrow into his flesh is to grab a revolver and start shooting) and Panic's dog, Brutus. After a giant tick pops out of Brutus and runs around the vet's operating room, we are on like Donkey Kong! Giant mutant ticks pop out and scuttle after kids like Clive Barker on a bender. Interestingly, while we are told that normal ticks are immune to squashing, these mutant ticks squash just fine with blood, goo and guts squirting out at the drop of a shoe. Better still, when they come in contact with fire, they explode like giant, bloody popcorn kernals. The other thing we learned is that tick venom causes wild hallucinations which leads to a few interesting moments that could easily be expanded upon in a sequel. The finale is the predictable, but no less entertaining NIGHT OF THE LIVING TICKS scenario where everyone, including Sir and Jerry are holed up in the cabin. There's a nice plot device in which the sharecroppers accidentally start a forest fire, while attacking an infested kid, which drives all of the ticks toward the cabin. No spoilers, but the show stopper (that has a kindred element in both SYNGENOR and the greatest cockroach movie ever, 1988s THE NEST) is nothing short of a wet, chunky and spectacular mess of monster madness.

Made during an era where even cheap horror movies (this one ran about $2 million, so not totally cheap) can play out with plenty of gooey effects and cheap cliches without being obnoxious and self-aware. This is really what makes the film fun. It teeters on the brink of being routine, but punches it up with volumes of latex effects, a fast pace and the short, but totally inspired performance of Clint Howard, who utters his famous line "I'm in-feeeeeested!" Tony Randel, famously associated working as director on what is unquestionably the best HELLRAISER sequel, HELLRAISER: HELLBOUND (1988) and very debatably the best AMITYVILLE HORROR sequel, AMITYVILLE: IT'S ABOUT TIME (1992), here does more than a serviceable job directing the action. Matter of fact, it's got some really nice camerawork from tick POV shots to interesting framing choices that take this out of the standard woodland dead teen flick. In one scene he actually conveys a sense that something is out there by shooting a simple transition shot of the van driving down the road from behind a tire, so that the tire's empty center frames the van. A simple panning shot of a van driving down a road has been a throwaway since the genre was invented. It's kind of admirable to see that extra bit of effort being made on what is essentially a giant insect movie. Too bad he really didn't do much in the years that followed, maybe it had something to do with the painfully missed opportunity that was the live action adaptation of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR (1995).

No, not gonna do the traditional Fango "splitting headache" crack

In addition to Randel, TICKS has a surprising amount of recognizable names attached to the project. Screenwriter Brent V. Friedman wrote one of our favorite sequels, SYNGENOR (1988), parts of the anthology film H.P. LOVECRAFT'S NECRONOMICON and, err, MORTAL KOMBAT: ANNIHILATION (1997). The producers are no less than veterans Gary Schmoeller (brother of David) and Brian Yuzna (the man who put the final nail in Herbert West's coffin). Ok, I see your eyes start glassing-over, just one more. The effects are from Doug Beswick who started out with the infamous FLESH GORDON (1973) and went on to a gobsmacking number of instantly recognizable films including THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), TERMINATOR (1984), ALIENS (1986), EVIL DEAD II (1987) A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3 (1987) and even CABIN BOY (1994).

While I can't find the numbers, I think it's safe to say that TICKS became a very successful low-budget film. It has a surprising amount of popularity here in the US and overseas, where it's been released multiple times under multiple titles, including INFESTED and, errm, the slightly less catchy, C2. I can't seem to find any legal issues regarding a sequel, and I can't help but wonder, in an age where anything that made a buck got a one, why didn't we get TICKS 2: JARVIS' REVENGE? If that ever happens (and it should), I'll be first in line.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


I should probably nail my colors to the mast right now and come out and say it. I really don't care much for the first CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984) film. Didn't like it in '84 and it's twice as uninteresting now. I think the meat-slicer scene was the thing that got me back in the day, but it sure could have been realized more effectively. The thing that really surprises me about the film and its success, is how popular it was even though it was taking some very broad swings at organized religion, specifically Christianity. Watching it in today's political climate where numerous spin-offs of Catholic and Protestant religious groups have their own bastardized version of the bible and millions of dollars invested in lobbyists and political action, it's difficult to see this film even coming close to being the box office hit that it was in '84.

Made for a mere $800,000 with a then little-known Linda Hamilton, CHILDREN OF THE CORN harvested over $14.5 million in the US alone during it's three month theatrical run. These days it would be nothing more than a crappy SyFy movie of the week. Oh wait, it was. Yes, in 2009, if you recall it was re-adapted (with Stephen King's usual "they fucked up my story so I'm going to set it right" press releases) and completely reviled. But I'm not even going to get into that here. Cheap-ass sequels, that's what I'm all about, and CHILDREN OF THE CORN has got them in spades ("spades" I say! Jeeze, tough crowd). Inspired as I was from Fred's revisiting of the masterpiece (of sorts) CHILDREN OF THE CORN III: URBAN HARVEST (1995), I had to revisit this entry, which to be honest, I don't remember liking too much. I must have been off my feed, because this is nothing short of a neglected classic. A big thanks to Mr. Dixon for getting me to watch it again.

This poster does not lie
Sequels usually come in two flavors: a blatant rehash of the original film or something totally ridiculous that proves that nobody really cared what the film contained  as long as it hit the bullet points and had the correct title. This is definitely the latter, and  my preferred method of sequel delivery. So what do we need to keep the investors happy? Corn crazy cracker kids with dangerous farming implements, check! Popcorn-studded, bastardized bibles, check! A firm desire to do-in the elders, check! Oh, and some sort of crucifixion via corn stalks. Gotta have that. Also, if you really want to market that film to the fanbase and get those wallets open, you need some gristly effects. If you want some seriously whacked out gristly effects, you get Screaming Mad George (who we've never seen actually scream, but does giggle a lot). For a while there SMG was the muthalovin' man when it came to badass sequel insanity. Get him to do the effects and you are sure to get a big spread in Fangoria Magazine, and as all of us who grew up reading Fango know, those big-ass spreads never lie.

Directed by James Hickox (the other son of director Douglas Hickox), who really didn't do anything noteworthy afterwards, and written by Dode B. Levenson and Matt Greenberg (of PROPHECY II and the new PET SEMATARY adaption), this sequel decides that the series was already getting tired of the fresh air and needed to be transplanted to Chi-town. Brilliant. After "he who walks among the rows" aids in their escaping from a drunk and abusive father, Eli (Daniel Cerny) and Joshua (Ron Melendez), two members of the original corn cult are being adopted by a well-off couple in an undisclosed part of Chicago.

Ok, so that explains his psychic abilities...
He had pig's blood dumped on him at the prom.
Right out of the gate young Eli starts stirring the proverbial poop, psychically making crystal figurines break (while the older Josh takes the blame), causing cockroach-infestation hallucinations and growing a cornfield in an abandoned lot behind the house. Well yeah, otherwise it would be "he who walks among the condos" and that wouldn't be scary, would it? Eli also gets into it with the head priest in their Catholic school and manages to get all of the kids to follow his own abandon building sermons (including a young Charlize Theron). Meanwhile, Josh is merely trying to adapt to his multicultural surroundings including trying to get some from his black girlfriend. Edgy stuff! Bitter about his brother's new friends, Eli runs amok using his powers to fuck with everybody in sight. Even the school's admin can't escape Eli's maniacal hyperactivity. Eli uses his pyrokinesis (I guess) to set her head on fire while laughing like he's the only one who didn't drink the kool-aid. At this point, Josh is starting to realize that his adopted brother might be up to no good. What sort of no good? Well, all the kids are listening to Eli's sermons after class, and now the basket ball courts are deserted! C'mon now, you can't let the little bastard get away with that!

Hickox and co. definitely embrace this sequel with some serious gusto. In the film's opening scene we see the corn itself actually attacking the drunken father, crucifying him, sewing his eyes and mouth shut and ripping his arms out of their sockets. Hell yeah man, none of this red and yellow video blob thing or swirling winds. In addition to that we get some of Screaming Mad George's trademarked lunacy with a woman's head splitting open to disgorge a swarm of roaches; Johnny Legend's vine-impaled head lurking in the soil waiting to bite the local bully; and a truly spectacular moment where a character's head is ripped from his torso and pushed up into the air so that his spinal column serves as a corn stalk. Plus lots of sickle based bloodsplashery (it's a word) and impalement. Best of all "he who walks" is now more like "he who shambles"! The creature that has been heretofore been  represented by some really bad colored blob (or even as an invisible wind) is now a giant amorphous blobtacular Lovecraftian monster covered in eyes, teeth and tentacles! This last bit is only made better by the fact that it sports, quite literally, the most unconvincing miniature shots eeeeever. Yes, I am including CLEVELAND SMITH: BOUNTY HUNTER (1982) in that. Seriously, who screened those dailies and said "yeah, that's good, let's go with that"? Who am I kidding? They probably said "sweet, that didn't cost us as much as we thought!"

One of my favorite parts, though, is when the boys sit down with the new folks for dinner. A nice home-cooked meal in Chicago? This is going to be grea - pizza? Ok, yeah, pizza, Chicago, I get it, but what the hell is with that pizza? It's got a dense, inch-thick crust and it's cut into wedges? WtF? That's not delivery, that's DiGiorno! Ok, Eli, I'm with you. Those idiots need to be sacrificed pronto.

Monday, October 8, 2012


You seriously didn’t think I was going to let Tom have all the fun covering Medical Deviants, did you?  I had to act quickly or else he would have covered the whole subgenre in about a week.  Of course, I played it safe and chose one of the most obscure entries in the “quack who’s cracked” category with DOCTOR STRAIN THE BODY SNATCHER.  This film is so obscure that the good doc’s name was never once uttered in Fangoria and I think the only publicity it received was a full-page mention in Slaughterhouse magazine (if you remember that, you old!).

STRAIN opens with a police psychologist, Dr. Moore (Kenneth Knaff), interviewing a delirious young man named Jesse (Carmine Puccio).  You know the police doc is serious about mental health because he has a make-up store dollar goatee on. Jesse has no idea why he is being held, but there is a litany of charges against him. Surprisingly, the one offense not listed is his acting.  Anyway, Jesse soon understands why he is here and wants to clear his name.  Flashback mode activate! It all revolves around the time he graduated from college with a degree in Biochemistry.  After school, he got a letter from his uncle (David Winkler) to come assist him in his work.  What is this mysterious uncle’s name?  Doctor Strain!

Joe Piscopo is looking rough! 
Jesse arrives at his uncle’s isolated estate (we think it is isolated as we’re never shown a wide shot of the house) and meets his uncle.  Oddly, he isn’t put off by the fact that Doctor Strain’s face is covered in sores and his skin is falling off.  Maybe this is normal in some families?  Over tea, the good doc explains he’s been working on brain cell regeneration and this has led him down a path where he can regenerate human organs as well.  He takes Jesse down to his basement lab and shows him his pride and joy, a serial killer he regenerated from death.  You see, Doctor Strain likes to raid the local criminal cemetery for his subjects.  His purpose is twofold – he wants to stop the degeneration happening to his own body and he wants to find a way to put souls into his walking dead. To do this, he is combining modern science with “God’s science,” namely alchemy.

Rather than put a strain (bah-dah-dah-dah!) on their relationship, Jesse accepts the offer and he and Doctor Strain jump right into their work.  What our naïve young assistant doesn’t know is that Strain is planning to use some of his black magic in order to transfer his soul out of his rotting body and into Jesse’s youthful body.  And you thought your uncle was weird! After some lab work and raising the dead montages, Strain manages to subdue Jesse and begin the body switching experiment.  But alchemy is a precise non-science and he accidentally sends his soul into one of his undead experiments.  Rather than stick around, Jesse bolts as Strain, in his new body, battles another undead subject and the house explodes (off screen, naturally).  All of this is what ended up landing Jesse in the jailhouse and guess who is showing up all bandaged up?  Doctor Strain!  He kills the cops and chases Jesse out into the streets.  THE END!

Framing 101
I’m not trying to be intentionally abrupt in my summary there. DOCTOR STRAIN does literally end mid-chase with absolutely no resolution (unless you consider “he’s still out there being chased” to be a proper ending).  And this end comes at the 52 minutes and 30 seconds mark before padded credits painfully try to get this to the 1 hour running time mark (spoiler: they fail!).  Believe it or not, it took TWO directors to make this wannabe RE-ANIMATOR (1985) flick and both of them – Michael Cornejo and LaMonte Fritts (if those are your real names) – seem to have no idea on how to make a film.  In my deranged fantasy, these two guys met after becoming Fangoria penpals and said, “Let’s make a movie.”  I do give them credit as they did shoot on film (16mm it appears).  But shooting on film and knowing how to shoot on film are two different ideas to them as they frame some shots so poorly that Nick Millard would look at their work and cry out, “Amateurs!”  It is the kind of film where blood randomly appears and disappears on Strain’s bandages at the end.  Where the lead has a leg in a cast as he skirts away from danger when the house is ready to explode, but has no cast in the police scenes.

Always best to do your alchemy
rituals during the daytime
Even worse is the sound recording, which sounds like they filmed everything next to a running bulldozer or industrial washing machine.  Not only are loud sounds muting the dialogue, you also get bits where unwanted everyday life enters into the soundtrack.  During a daylight ritual in the “graveyard,” you can hear children playing in the background. Other times you hear dogs barking in the distance and, in my favorite bit, what appears to be a few seconds of an off screen argument caught on the recording.  Classic stuff I tell ya.  If you can’t properly capture sound, then you know sound mixing is going to be even worse.  The film’s score – which sounds like a repetitive Nintendo game score – blasts on the soundtrack at headache inducing levels.

Now I have nothing but love for regional productions, but please try to make it at least look like a real movie.  To the film’s credit, they do have some cool looking zombie make-up effects, but they are again victim to Cornejo and Fritts’ full blown war declaration on mis-en-scene.  No bones about it DOCTOR STRAIN THE BODY SNATCHER is a complete and total mess. My dear doctor, welcome to my top 10 worst horror films of all-time list.  I'm sure you'll be very comfortable.

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.