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, November 25, 2012


Hard to believe, but in a few days (November 30) it will have been 3 years since Spanish horror film icon Paul Naschy (aka Jacinto Molina) passed away. One of the great things about Naschy’s work is it is plentiful (100 acting credits to his name) and so diverse.  Sure, he is best known for his Waldemar Daninsky werewolf series, but the man has touched nearly every genre. This is what makes Naschy great, especially if you are in one of those “I can’t decide what to watch” fits.  That is where I found myself the other night, shuffling disc after disc into my DVD player with nothing placating that movie-viewing itch I was having.  Then I grabbed this and all was well in the world.

THE VENGEANCE OF THE MUMMY opens in ancient Egypt with Amenhotep (Paul Naschy), Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, ruling as a dictator over his people (nerd voice: they never say which Amenhotep as this period actually had 4 pharaohs with that name). To establish his cruelty, they show him and his bride, Amarna (Rina Ottolina), delighting in the torturing of three young women.  This has to be stopped and Am-Sha, High Priest of Amen-Ra, gets a servant to poison their wine.  With Amenhotep paralyzed, he is mummified and told his spirit will never be allowed to cross over into the afterlife and instead will lurk for eternity in the shadows.  Damn, Am-Sha ain’t playing around.

Fast forward a few centuries where his tomb gets discovered by Professor Nathan Stern (Jack Taylor) and Abigail (Maria Silva).  They take their findings back to the British Museum of Natural History where they share their findings with Sir Douglas Carter (Eduardo Calvo) and his daughter Helen (Ottolina again). (A firm date is never established but the style of dress suggests early 20th century.)  Of course, if you have an actress playing a double role, you know she is going to be the object of someone’s affection/attention later in the film.  This happens when an Egyptian man named Assad Bey (Naschy again) and his accomplice Zanufer (Helga Line) show up at the museum to check out this magnificent mummy.  Naturally, Bey is the descendent of Amenhotep and steals the body in order to bring him back to life. The rather elaborate process involves needing the blood of 3 female virgins (no wonder they didn’t set it in modern times). The mummy (Naschy once again under the make up) is resurrected and gets a twitch in his crotch bandages when he sees Helen, realizing he can use this dead ringer as a vessel for the soul of his old flame.  So now we'll need 7 more virgins to get her soul switched.  Stern begins to suspect something is not right and takes his fears to a police chief, who can’t be bothered (seriously, this guy is the least effective British officer ever and that says a lot).  So it is up to Stern and Abigail to stop these mummy worshippers.

THE VENGEANCE OF THE MUMMY certainly ain’t your daddy’s mummy.  Like he did with his werewolf films, Naschy has infused the script with his own style while paying tribute to the films that came before that he admired.  The film uses quite a bit from the Universal MUMMY series (especially the ritual involving leaves from a plant), but also grabs a bit of the style from Hammer’s THE MUMMY (1959) as well (the bandaged bad boy in this resembles the Lee incarnation the most).  Surely Naschy’s spin is nastier though and this might be the first gory mummy movie in the history of cinema (I wouldn’t count the Egyptian influenced BLOOD FEAST [1963] as a mummy movie).  Also, it might be the first film I've seen where the mummy seduces and kisses his leading lady.

Director Carlos Aured – who did four films with Naschy – offers up bloody stabbings and throat slashing.  There is even a guard who gets his head crushed.  Best of all, there is a sequence where the mummy smashes the heads of the virgins and the gore effect is something that could easily work today, nearly 40 years later.  Check it out:

This is also a handsomely mounted production by Aured.  Filmed widescreen, the movie has some really great locations. The house that Assad Bey does his rituals in is quite an ornate place and has enough age on it that it is downright spooky at times.  The filmmakers even managed to fit in some actual location shooting in London.  Sure, a lot of it is just establishing shots (like the earlier Naschy film 7 MURDERS FOR SCOTLAND YARD), but they do manage to get in one scene with Taylor and Silva conversing on the Thames with London Bridge in the background (don’t ask me why, but they decided to start this shot with a modern day cargo boat pushing by).  Seriously, you couldn't wait for it to pass?

Unfortunately, you have to take the good with the bad.  This Naschy feature is surprisingly light in terms of nudity as the only exposes breasts we see belong to Mr. Molina.  “Refund,” I hear you scream. Seriously, that is an egregious sin, especially when you have hotties like Helga Line involved.  I also have to question any film where Jack Taylor beats Paul Naschy in a fist fight.  A mummy returning from the dead?  I can totally believe that.  Taylor cold cocking Naschy with a 1-2 combo?  C’mon, Carlos, I can only suspend my disbelief by so much.  Finally, the really nice version of this out on DVD omits a scene (where the mummy interrupts a honeymooning couple and bashes the husband’s head against the wall before stealing his bride) that can be found on the Unicorn VHS tape (titled THE MUMMY'S REVENGE).  Of course, the presentation of the DVD will definitely make you feel better as viewers get a lot more picture information.  Here’s an example:

Friday, November 16, 2012

Cinemasochism: BABY GHOST (1995)

It is mid-November so that means it is almost time for Thanksgiving.  So it is only appropriate that I watched this big turkey.  And guess what? I’m not thankful for it.  Yes, it is that time for me to squeeze in another cinemasochistic journey from director Donald Jackson and his crew of regulars including Joe Estevez and the inimitable Conrad Brooks.  Coming out the same year as his children’s endurance test LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT, BABY GHOST is another shot-on-video stab at the kids’ video market.  And trust me you’ll definitely feel a stabbing pain in your brain after watching this one.

BABY GHOST opens with a theme song that will let you know exactly what kind of trouble you’re in for (sample lyrics: “Baby Ghost, I’m a Baby Ghost, Buh-Buh-Buh-Baby Ghost” and “I’m gonna scare yooooou.”).  We open in a high rise as child photographer Winslow Copperpot (Joe Estevez) is trying to get an unruly kid to stop blowing bubble gum bubbles during their session.  Sensing a long night, the boy’s mother sends his two younger sisters out to get some candy from a vending machine.  When the youngest runs afoul of a weirdo security guard (James D. Whitworth), she hides in a storeroom and discovers a tiny cigar box wrapped in chains.  She undoes the lock on it and unleashes the Baby Ghost. Well, I guess she does as all we really see is the box shaking on a metal drum.

Back in the photo studio, the mother is fed up with Copperpot and she and her family split, but not before her son leaves behind his handheld video game (believe it or not, this is integral to the plot later). Copperpot is stressed out and decides to relax by doing his favorite hobby – calling a psychic hotline!  He calls to speak to Madame Zora (Erin O’Bryan) and she reads his Tarot cards. Naturally, the reading is bad and she says “strange and unexplainable events are about to happen.”  Yeah, like wondering how can my career sink this low?  Zora is kind of freaked out by the reading and she decides to do her own and gets the exact same sequence.  Uh oh, time to punch out for both of them.  What Copperpot and Zora don’t know is – spoiler – they both work in the same building and soon find themselves unable to exit the place.

Meanwhile, outside the building two bungling brothers, Vinnie (Mark Williams, who also scripted this mess) and Rocko (Andy Hubbell), wait patiently in their car because they plan to break into the building and rob the place.  Back inside we have Copperpot unable to leave because the elevator is stopping on every floor.  He tries to get the maintenance man Elliot (Conrad Brooks) to fix it, but when asked to look at the elevator he stands there and gazes at the thing. When asked what he is doing, he responds, “You told me to look at the elevator!”  *rimshot*  That’ll let you know the level of sophistication we’re dealing with here.  Elliot teams up with the security guard while Copperpot somehow gets trapped in his own studio.  This gives us his first encounter with the Baby Ghost, which comes in, grabs a pair of scissors and starts cutting up his work. Man, Baby Ghost is kind of a dick.

Copperpot eventually is able to open his door long enough for Zora to come into his studio and then they get trapped inside again.  They go through the “you sound familiar to me” routine before they discover who they are.  Zora reveals her real name is Mildred Crabapple, which Winslow Copperpot finds to be a hilarious and ridiculous name.  Yeah. They decide they must combat this Baby Ghost and Zora consults her book on supernatural phenomenon.  This brings us to the film’s dialogue highlight when they are discussing what to do.

Winslow Copperpot: “Who you gonna call?”
Madame Zora: “Ghostbusters?”

Yes, nothing says cultural relevance than referencing the biggest comedy hit from 11 years previous.  Let me speed this up: they discover the box and find out that inside was the soul of a child that died in Arkham, Massachusetts in 1635. Whoa! An H.P. Lovecraft reference.  They figure they need to get it back into the box so they leave a trail of donuts on the floor. This almost works but gets foiled by Elliot and the security guard, both of whom believe this thing is a space alien.  They then try plan B which involves putting the video game in front of the box.  Even Zora finds it ridiculous that a 300-year-old Baby Ghost would be drawn to something that it has no idea what it is, but Winslow convinces her by saying, “Trust me, I have five nephews.”  Anyway, it works.  FIN!

Well, BABY GHOST did live up to the promise in the theme song as it did scare me.  I’m still reeling from the fact that I sat through this 86 minute flick in one sitting. Well, I did pause about halfway through to send my friend Dave – the unkind soul who sent this to me – a text that read “Watching BABY GHOST. I’m gonna kill you.”  To be honest, this wasn’t as painful as I was expecting.  Like any hardcore junkie, perhaps I am developing a level of resistance to the hard stuff?  Maybe Conrad Brooks is too soft for me and you’ll soon find me smoking Dave “The Rock” Nelson flicks?  Okay, let’s not get crazy here. This is still rough stuff that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  To be honest, this might be feature the best acting I’ve seen in any of Jackson’s SOV works I’ve seen.  The burglar brothers actually have a goofy rapport and some of their bits are genuinely amusing.  Had this exact script been shot on film with a Moonbeam budget, it might have been passable.  I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the schnoz on the security guard, which might be the film's biggest asset.  Seriously, check this bad boy out:

Alas, we’re still talking about Donald Jackson in the 1990s here so you know the end product is going to be cruder than the Gulf of Mexico after a BP oil spill. “Fans” of LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT will immediately recognize the creature from that one as the titular spirit here.  At least Jackson was resourceful.  A majority of the ghost footage is the little creep overlaid on static shots.  A few times they actually use the dummy live on location (by dummy I mean the Baby Ghost dummy, not Joe Estevez).  The one thing that I’m always curious about is if these films get brought up during the Sheen/Estevez family meetings.

Martin Sheen: “I’ve got THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT coming out this year. What have you been up to, Joe?”
Joe Estevez: “I’ve got LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT and BABY GHOST coming out.”
Charlie Sheen: “Has anyone seen my Coke?”

This was actually Joe’s fifth feature with Jackson and he would come back for six more after this one.  I guess he was the Robert de Niro to Jackson’s Martin Scorsese.

Anyway, BABY GHOST is only for the bad movie junkie who feels the need to test their limits. Just like LITTLE LOST SEA SERPENT, this promised a sequel in the end credits.  I, for one, am happy that BABY GHOST 2 got aborted.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Listomania: Thomas' Unearthed Remains of Shocktober 2012

THE ASPHYX (1973):  Phew! What an odd film. A wealthy scientist, Sir Hugo Cunningham (Robert Stephens), working in his country mansion discovers that he can photograph a spirit world creature, dubbed "the asphyx", who is responsible for taking the soul at the moment of death. He does this with an invention that he made that creates "moving pictures" and box that focuses a beam of light via water dropped on blue crystals. One of those inventions is significantly more believable that the other one, isn't it? Pssssh! "Moving pictures", whatever! After filming the accidental death of his son and his fiance, he becomes obsessed with the idea that he, and the rest of his kin, can become immortal if he is able to trap the asphyx via his light beam and lock it away in yet another box. He does love his boxes, this guy. Of course things do not go entirely according to plan.
I remember not liking this at all back in the mid-'80s, even with that big garish video box. Presented uncut and widescreen, it's a much better experience, but it's still such a hit and miss affair and a lot of it is miss. Stephens is poorly cast as a brilliant scientist, coming off more like a lisping, effete nobleman who would be more at home writing whimsical poetry in a "Jeeves and Wooster" episode, than devising deadly contraptions with which to capture death itself. Much of it could be a drawing-room stage play and while this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it still feels very stiff and the twists really don't get very interesting until the last 15-20 minutes of the movie. Even so, when it does work, it's got some interesting ideas. Watching the film, I couldn't get over how this actually got financed, though it makes sense when you think about how successful Hammer, Amicus and Tigon were at the time. Definitely worth a spin when in a very undemanding mood.

MACABRE (1958): A big thanks go out to Mr. Kitley for sending this my way, one of William Castle's chillers that has eluded me over the years. The wait was worth it, it's an absolute gem right up until the last 5 minutes. A small town doctor (William Prince) is held in deep contempt by the entire town who believes that his careless drinking caused the deaths of two women, one of whom happened to be his wife. One day he returns home to find his young daughter missing, and a phone call stating that she is "in a coffin among the dead". Unlike much of Castle's ovre, MACABRE is surprisingly well played and constructed with lots of little interesting bits of plot dropped into place at regular intervals and some excellent camera set-ups that lend an almost Hitchcockian flair to the movie. Granted the reason the screenplay is so deft (for a Castle picture) is probably because it was adapted from Theo Durrant's novel "The Marble Forest", but Castle also had the keen sense to cast Jim Bakus as the rather nasty, embittered local cop, who slightly underplays the role letting others chew the scenery to shreds. Unfortunately the ending shoots itself in the foot and it casts a bit of a pall over the proceedings, especially after such a surefooted set-up. Even so, there's plenty of stylish fun to be had here.

MIMIC 3: SENTINEL (2003): What a boring, pretentious, clichéd, tedious sequel, did I mention boring? There’s one idea, cribbed straight out of REAR WINDOW and then they just slowly unwind that one idea for 54 minutes. A teenage shut in spends his time taking photographs out of his window that overlooks the other apartments and a small courtyard area. One day a person disappears and then another and he thinks he may have seen something odd. People come in and out of the room with various thoughts on whether he really did see anything or not. Long shots of the characters faces in silence: padding or pretentious? Every 15 minutes or so we get a sliver of plot advancement that really doesn't take the audience anywhere in the end. I know what you're thinking. You are thinking, "well, if they have some cool monster effects and some grippy tension-filled horror, it could be cool". Yeah, it would, but there really isn't much to see here, neither in the grippy horror department or the monster department. There is a monster attack at the very end of the movie, but it seems like they couldn’t afford effects, as everything concerning the monsters is done in total darkness. All you will see is a claw, or if you’re lucky a silhouette. But you have to wait an hour for that. They made a 77 minute movie and by the time you make it to the end, you will feel like hours have passed. Fans of Alexis Dziena will appreciate director JT Petty's obsession with getting as many shots as possible, peering down her shirt at her barely-legal cleavage. Non-fans may feel otherwise as she is supposed to be about 15 years old in the movie and after a while it starts feeling a little creepy, as if suddenly the director might invite her to sit on his lap. Oh and it has Amanda Plummer, with an obvious face lift, as the mother, acting strangely for no reason related to the plot. This may positively or negatively affect your enjoyment of the movie depending on your disposition.

AMERICAN NIGHTMARE (1983): Cool, little giallo-esque slasher-thriller that pre-dates the stripper/slasher thrillers of the late '80s. A plastic-gloved killer is stalking prostitutes who have been videotaping clients in action at the behest of their pimp Fixer (Michael Copeman). Meanwhile the brother (Lawrence Day) of the first victim is trying to locate her whereabouts, rifling through parts of Toronto so seedy, they look like New York, complete with run-down strip-joints, flop-houses and porno theaters. Canucksploitation veterans Lenore Zann and Michael Ironside (who had both just come off of the classic VISITING HOURS) play a stripper and a cop, respectively. Both play ineffective characters (an interesting change of pace for Ironside), but are great in their roles. All in all, a nice slice of Canadian sleaze in which nobody bothers with an American accent (but nobody says "eh" either, come to think of it) which begs the question, why isn't it called "CANADIAN NIGHTMARE"? I guess that wouldn't have made a cool sounding Misfits song.

HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD (2005): If ever the phrase "a waste of good suffering" had a place, it would be here. This movie is the quintessential self-referencing, over hair-do'ed, hipster horror crap. A bunch of Hellraiser fans are invited to a party ala NIGHT OF THE DEMONS by the Hellraiser on-line game (that looks incredibly lame even for 2005), only to be killed off one by one in incredibly boring ways with Pinhead, not actively involved, but rather taunting them in the background while they meet their SAW-like fates. How irritating is it? Well when da kidz wit da hairz enter the party, a girl whips her top open, flashing the guys and one guy says "gratuitous tit shot!" Not bad enough? How about Lance Henricksen as the host of the party who is killing off the kids while saying the most monotonous tripe like when he suddenly appears next to a screaming coed who is trying to run away from him: "like a bad horror movie, isn't it?" No, Lance, it's like a complete waste of time. Lance proves here, once and for all that he's not picking up the gauntlet that John Carradine threw down, he's just pickin' up a paycheck just like Doug Bradley and everyone else on the Barker gravy train. In addition, the movie has a strange gimmick in which the participants of the party are supposed to put on plain, white, paper-mache masks with a number on the forehead  Each mask has a cell-phone that can call the other masks for some anonymous hook-ups. After spending an hour trying to figure out why the hell this angle is thrown in (I mean, shouldn't they at least be Cenobite masks?), you find out that it is completely unnecessary except to help prop up the big twist at the end, which will probably make you throw something at your TV. Hell they even rip off the classic buried-alive sequence from Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD! That ain't right. Just ain't right.

CASSANDRA (1987): Strangely, and woefully underrated Australian giallo from the equally underrated Colin Eggleston, who can't seem to get a lick of cred past making the original LONG WEEKEND (1978). A girl (Tessa Humphries) entering her 20s has feverish dreams of a a woman killing herself with a shotgun while a little boy goads her on, croaking "do it" and a subsequent blazing conflagration. Her subsequent investigation into the past makes her parents more than a little uneasy, as does the sudden violent murder of Dad's pregnant mistress. A black-clad killer is stalking the family and the dirty secrets are about to come to light. Well paced, with a laconic, dream-like feel, and stylishly directed with great camerawork, the film shares some themes with many Stephen King books, but unlike Mr. King, handles them with seductive subtlety. Never is there any mention of psychic powers or incest, but it's all alluded to here and there, without throwing them in your face. The music, by Trevor Lucas (who also produced) and Ian Mason, does a great job of winding up the suspense, even if you have figured out who the killer is before the characters do. Tim Burns of MAD MAX (1979) fame has a small part as a creepy photographer's assistant. Like a lot of older Aussie films, there's a great movie here if you want to see one.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cinemasochism: PUPPET MASTER X: AXIS RISING (2012)

As we mentioned in our David Schmoeller interview, the PUPPET MASTER series has been a godsend for producer Charles Band and his pocketbook. The original film directed by Schmoeller was one of the first four Full Moon productions in the late 1980s and it has been not-so-smooth sailing over the ensuing two decades.  In my personal opinion, the original trilogy mark the highpoint of the series as they were fun, had some great stop motion FX by David Allen and were filled with gore and T&A.  Sadly, it has been a case of diminishing returns with each successive sequel.  Jeff Burr tried his hardest with PUPPET MASTERS 4 & 5 and those were the last to feature Allen’s magic.  It got so bad after those two that we eventually got a glorified “clip show” with the PUPPET MASTER: THE LEGACY (2003), the eighth entry in the series.

PUPPET MASTER X: AXIS RISING is a part of Band’s attempt to right some wrongs in the series.  Labeled the tenth in the series, it is actually the eleventh film to feature the characters (Band doesn’t count the unrelated PUPPET MASTER VS. DEMONIC TOYS [2004], which was produced outside of Full Moon) and returns to the World War II origins of the original story. Unfortunately, Band and company just don’t appear to have the funds nowadays to properly pull something like this off.

"What do you mean Tunneler is stuck in a well?"
The film picks up right where the previous PUPPET MASTER: AXIS OF EVIL (2010) ended with poor puppet Tunneler stolen by the Japanese secret agent Ozu (Terumi Shimazu, replacing Ada Chao).  She goes to meet up with her German contact, but instead is greeted by Commandant Heinrich Moebius (Scott King), who oddly skulks around L.A. in full Nazi garb.  He promptly kills her after Tunneler burrows into the forehead of one of his men (via some crappy CGI) and takes this odd living puppet back to his lab.  Meanwhile, Danny Coogan (Kip Canyon, replacing Levi Fiehler) is recovering from the previous evening’s heroics of saving the munitions factory with his girlfriend Beth (Jean Louise O’Sullivan, replacing Jenna Gallaher).  You’ll notice a lot of replacing going on here, right? He informs his battered puppet buddies that Ninja, the previous entry’s new doll, didn’t survive the events (awwww) and then Blade shows up to tell him the whereabouts of Tunneler.  They get in gear to save him, but are interrupted when they are abducted by some mysterious men.

Back at the secret Nazi lab, Dr. Freuhoffer (Oto Brezina) is toying away at creating something called the Resurrection Device for Moebius.  He is easily distracted though because he is wondering about his kidnapped family, building little toys in his spare time, and trying to avoid staring into the ample Aryan cleavage of Uschi (Stephanie Sanditz).  Moebius returns and gives the doc his new monster marionette and demands to see the Resurrection Device at work.  They kill an Asian guy (with some of the worst CGI blood on record; see pic) and then bring him back to life.  You see, it is Moebius’ “dweam” to create living dead soldiers for Der Führer.  So apparently the crazy Commandant just watched PUPPET MASTER III.  Naturally, it doesn’t work and their test subject melts within seconds of his resurrection (again, more bad CGI).  Hey, on the bright side, they can bring a dude back to life for 30 seconds.  Freuhoffer must obviously verk out zees kinks.

Meanwhile, Danny and Beth find out their kidnappers were the U.S. Army and they wanted to tell them they would be honored by Gen. Porter (Paul Thomas Arnold) for their heroic deeds.  When did the Army become so secretive with their orders?  They couldn’t have just knocked on the door and told them? Anyway, they are assigned a guard in Sgt. Stone (Brad Potts), who doesn’t take kindly to watching a couple of kids when he could be out KOing krauts.  They head back home and Stone gets filled in on the puppet power.  Of course, he decides the best course of action is to head down to Chinatown and give the Third Reich a thrashing.  What they don’t know is Freuhoffer has been tinkering with Tunneler and extracted his glowing green life juice and injected into his own deadly puppets – Weremacht (a werewolf), Blitzkrieg (a tank), Kamikaze (a wayyyyy racist looking Japanese suicide bomber) and Bombshell (the remnants of the recently deceased Uschi that shoots bullets out of her breasts).  This all builds to a climax where we finally get some puppet-on-puppet action.

"Wat do you mean zee budget iz mizzing?"
Despite the series being around for 23 years, this is actually the first entry to be directed by Charles Band.  I’m pretty sure he did that as a cost cutting measure as this film appears to be starving for a budget.  Yes, it looks even cheaper than Dave DeCoteau’s previous China-lensed entry.  No joke - some of the sets in this one are two flats set up to make a corner and that’s it.  The big party set to honor our leads is literally a room that has 5 people in it.  I’m actually shocked that they sprung to have the fifth guy – a retro photographer – even there. This cheapness sort of encapsulates the entire project.  New PM screenwriter Shane Bitterling comes up with some good ideas and, combined with the previous entry, there is the germ of a good PUPPET MASTER film there.  Something that kind of plays like PUPPET MASTER meets CAPTAIN AMERICA.  Unfortunately, you’re not going to achieve the desired results when you are working with a budget less than it cost to build one of the cable controlled puppets from the original three entries (according to FX guy Tom Devlin in the behind-the-scenes video).  It is a shame as some of the acting is pretty darn good (relative to low budget puppet horror films set during WWII, mind you) with King and Potts delivering their roles with the appropriate relish.

Of course, the biggest place that Band lets his PUPPET MASTER minions down is in the exploitation department.  As I mentioned earlier, the first trilogy is beloved for its ability to get down and dirty with these elements. Many a viewer has longed for Band to convert the Charlie Spradling scenes from PUPPET MASTER II (1991) into 3-D, if you know what I’m saying. Band can’t be bothered here.  No greater irony can be found than in the scene where bosomy Uschi lays in lingerie and says to Moebius, “How can you ignore this?”  Et tu, Band?  The same can be said for the gore and FX.  Abysmal CGI aside, we don’t even get a good re-animated body meltdown that a scene like that would require or even a bloody puppet attack.  It is simple – fans want to see puppets tearing people up and we don’t get that.

Yes, this puppet exists.  So sorrrrrrrrry.
And then there are the puppets.  At this point we’re dealing solely with puppets being pushed by rods and it is just sad.  Probably the most complex thing you’ll see them do is raise their hand.  Band made a big deal of unveiling the new puppets and even I’ll admit the designs were intriguing.  But I forgot that 90% of their action was going to involved them just standing there.  The battles in this remind me of the home videos you see where kids have Barbie figures stand there and smack each other.  It doesn’t help that the first puppet action scene doesn’t come until an hour into the film.  The company also made a big deal about the return of fan favorite Six-Shooter and they botch that too (what are “sentences I’d be embarrassed for my mom to see that I wrote, Alex”).  If you’re going to make a big deal about his return, make sure he is integral to the final action.  Here he just kind of shows up, shoots and that is it.  Good lord, how I long for the good ol’ days.

And that is pretty much where the line needs to be drawn. Band had a good thing going when Paramount was funding the films.  The first trilogy will always be there for me and I can just pretend, like any sane STAR WARS fan, that they stopped after the first three.  It has been 20 years (!) since there was a good one of these and it is high time that I sever the master’s strings that he controlled me with for so long.  I’ll miss you Leech Woman, I'll miss you Pinhead, I’ll miss you Blade.  But most of all, I’ll miss my sanity.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Halloween Havoc: WATCHERS 3 & 4 (1994/1998)

WATCHERS III (1994): Here we are with the second WATCHERS sequel and after the half-assed Part II, this entry may be seriously strapped for cash, but I have to say, it is a hell of a lot more fun. Again, it's not a sequel, but (in another modern euphemism) a "re-imagining" of the source material. This time out it seems like first time screenwriter Michael Palmer (whose only other writing credit is the following year's missed opportunity CARNOSAUR 2) was given very few directives and had fun writing it. Just like CARNOSAUR 2 pillaged ALIENS for inspiration, WATCHERS III is a mash-up of DIRTY HALF-DOZEN and PREDATOR, but unlike CAROSAUR 2, it actually manages to be fun.

A secret ops chopper dumps a couple of "medical aid" crates over a section of war-torn South America and subsequently gets shot down by the enemy (who are never identified). The crates bust open and, yes, a golden retriever and a (new!) psychotic and deranged monster leap out into the jungle, clearly pleased to find that they don't have to escape from a burning lab this time. While the dog finds a native boy to pointlessly pair up with (contractual obligation?), the monster (created by BASKET CASE's Gabe Bartalos) decides to slaughter everyone in the area, including our own secret ops guys. Seeing as how this situation would be a paperwork nightmare, the top brass decides that the best way to quickly and quietly take care of this clandestine kerfuffle is to release a half-a-dozen ex-military badasses from Levenworth, including chess-playing, ball-buster Ferguson (Wings Hauser) who will lead the mission. How the military obtains their release and offers them pardons on the down low is never even hinted at, but it doesn't matter, they are angry, disenfranchised soldiers with high-power firearms and there's a monster that needs killing. Oo-rah!

Of course once our misfit brigade (or in this case, squad) is on the ground, they suddenly realize that they are not fighting an army, but something far worse... their commander back at the base! While the first two films tried to keep their  on-screen bloodshed to a minimum to avoid alienating the mainstream crowd, director Jeremy Stanford, (whose third and final DTV feature was 2006s TRANTASIA, a film about transgendered Vegas showgirls - no, I did not just make that up), and writer Palmer have no delusions about who the target audience is for this outing and give us plenty of gasoline explosions, tough-guy dialogue, machine-gunning of vegetation and gory monster mayhem. In true exploitation fashion, they decide to crank up a few of the finer points. PREDATOR gave us the scene where the soldiers find bodies in trees stripped of skin, whereas WATCHERS III gives us a scene where they find bodies in trees torn to pieces with entrails slopping over branches. That works for me! Not to mention the fact that they are smart enough to include one of my favorite "trappings" of the sub-genre: the deadly jungle trap. Generally these involve lots of wooden spikes attached to a log, a boulder, or a lattice, springing out of nowhere to impale a disposable cast member. A jungle movie without a jungle trap is no movie at all in my book.

There are some nice riffs on the established obligatory scenes set in place by the first films (and presumably the novel which I haven't read in 20 years). One of the main staples of the series is a scene in which our hero discovers Einstein's powers of intelligent thought and desperately tries to convince others of this fact. Here it is pretty damn amusing given the fact that in this case it is Wings Hauser in the middle of the Peruvian jungle ranting manically to a bunch of convicts about a golden retriever that can write in English with a stick. For some reason, they ain't buyin' it. Also, while the monster is supposed to be a kindred spirit of Frankenstein's monster; a sympathetic creature created against its will, confused and struggling with its own identity (so, a teenager), Stanford and Palmer are content with down-playing the schmaltz and heady intents and even toss out the beast's obsession with poking out eyes. It's just a flesh-ripping, tooth-gnashing terror that likes killing folks and hell, isn't that what it's all about anyway?

WATCHERS REBORN (1998):  During the life cycle of a given series, there's always a point at which the producers say "oh, the hell with it" and hand the reigns over to an effects guy who desperately wants to direct. For Fox's THE FLY series, it was early on when they handed THE FLY II (1989) to the talented Chris Walas who promptly killed it. Both the franchise and his career. On the flip side of the coin the HELLRAISER series reached that point with the fourth entry, Kevin Yagher's HELLRAISER IV: BLOODLINE (1996), which is notorious for the fact that the film was taken out of his hands and massively reedited and reshot before it was released. So is the case with WATCHERS REBORN. The "hell with it" mentality, I mean. Not the reshooting bit.

Holy shit! The lab is on fire... again! Damn, you'd think they'd implement better safety features. Once again, the prized experiments flee the disaster, but this time our angry, psychotic monster-thing decides to tear the place up a bit first, then move on to the local zoo, where he vents his frustration on some animals - hey, hey, not like that. He just kills them, presumably because he's mad about being neither man nor beast. Since the zoo killings are not able to be kept quiet (like the exploding research facility), local homicide detectives, Murphy (a subdued Mark Hamill) and Brody (a hilariously mis-cast Gary Collins), find themselves puzzling over the violent deaths of the animals and a security guard (who has his eye removed in graphic detail). The coroner (Lou Rawls) is no help as he does not feel it is his job to establish the cause of death.

Also at the crime scene is the project lead, Grace (Lisa Wilcox), masquerading as the zoo doctor, and of course Einstein, who later goes home with Brody and tries to warn him of the danger of a giant, hairy, pissed off, genetically modified killing machine that is about to rip his guts out, by tearing the word "danger" out of a magazine. Thanks buddy, that's a great help. I thought this dog was supposed to be smart? He could have just pulled up a review of WATCHERS III on the internet. Of course that could lead to confusion as well, as Brody might think that Wings Hauser was after him.

While Murphy agonizes over the death of his partner, Special Agent Lem Johnson (vein-poping Stephen Macht, this time around) is running a covert cover-up op that basically consists of kicking Hamill's ass, killing witnesses in broad daylight and leaving the messes for the local authorities to clean up. After a near miss with the monster, Johnson has one of the best lines in the movie when he chews out his staff, yelling "don't tell me we're going on a duck hunt, when the woods are full of bears!" Kind of a batshit crazy thing to say, but you have to admit, it's a fair point.

Nursing both wounds, Murphy takes the dog back home with a bucket of fried chicken and gravy and here we have the best "revelation" scene in the series. In an attempt to communicate with Murphy, Einstein dips his paw in the gravy and spells out his name on a newspaper. I am not positive, but I'm reasonably certain, this is the only time in history that the name "Einstein" has been written out using a roux-based sauce.

This revelation leads to the teaming of the project lead, Grace, who comes clean on the experiment, while Murphy opens up and talks about how he watched his wife and daughter die in a fire and was powerless to save them. Grace then admits to certain flaws in the design of her creature and the possibility that some brain-surgery to remove lesions may have had some unpleasant side effects. Uh huh, "design flaws". At one point Murphy and Grace get into it on this and have the following exchange:
Murphy: "I don't need a lecture on compassion from a woman that's been genetically engineering the ultimate killing machine!"
Grace: "And in wartime, would you rather have the outsider fighting in hand-to-hand combat, or your own son?"
Oooooh snaps! Shit got real, yo! Yep, screenwriter Sean Dash (who also penned the 1995 Sam Jones, Matthais Huges, Eric Lee epic ENTER THE SHOOTFIGHTER), decides that not only is he going to write the most plot-intensive entry in the series, but he's going to throw in some emotional complexity including a scene in which the creature clearly only wants to be loved and basically says so. This will either tug at your heart-strings or if you are cynical bastards like us, it'll make you laugh your ass off.

Directed by one of my favorite FX guys in the business, John Carl Buechler (who personally gave me a burning look of pure hatred when I mispronounced his name at a Fango show back in '91), in my opinion this is easily the best in the series. It is a nice looking production with plenty of locations, better than average acting and plenty of throw-away gore gags. There is a lot of genuine fun to be had (Hamill shockingly refuses to ham it up), but there are also moments of hilarious quirkiness. For example, after being run off the road by the beast who is fended off by slapping his hand, Grace decides she will only confide in Murphy if he will blow up her truck and lie to the cops about the reason she was attacked. Sure, sounds like a deal! Another great bit is when a psychotically cheerful, dog-loving liquor store owner (Kane Hodder) is completely unimpressed by a mess of black-suited guys with heavy firepower jumping out of their blacked out Lincolns that are blocking his parking lot. Even better is the fact that after jumping out of the cars with their hardware one of Lem's rather aged agents balks about shooting witnesses. Lem reprimands him, "they're both privy to the fact that a government experiment has backfired and is killing civilians. That kind of information is not fit for public consumption." Uhhh, Lem? You just yelled that in the middle of a public area. For some inexplicable reason, there is a small sub-plot about a couple who are running a bar, being pushed around by the mob. For another inexplicable reason, the Outsider decides to save them. Plus, it's kind of funny seeing Luke Skywalker finally get some action from someone who isn't his sister.

In spite of the fact that this is yet another rehash - err, I mean a re-adaptation of the source material - the film uses clips from the previous three entries during the opening credits. Why this is, I have no idea. Maybe it's for those who haven't watched the entire series over consecutive nights so that they can have their memory refreshed and fully appreciate how much fun this one is.

Oh, and just in case you ever meet the man, a word of advice. It's pronounced "BEEK-ler".