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!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Listomania: Will's November to Kinda Remember 2012

I’m actually returning to the land of Listomania because Tom was unable to post his first because he fainted when he heard I was doing a list.  November 2012 was an average month of movie viewing for me, I guess.  In total I saw 24 flicks.  That breaks down to 20 DVDs, 2 theater visits, 1 VHS viewing (UNDERGROUND TERROR) and 1 pay-per-view order (UNIVERSAL SOLIDER: DAY OF RECKONING).  I’ve been trying to watch stuff I’ve never seen before so this past month only 2 titles were revisits.  Here are a few of the newer ones that made an impression (good or bad) on me.

19 RED ROSES (1974) – This Danish thriller was a total Video Roulette grab, so it was nice that it turned out to be engaging.  Detective Archer (Poul Reichhardt) and his team begin to investigate a series of seemingly random killings (girl thrown off a roof, man shot in the woods, man shot in his store). As they dig deeper, they find out that all of the victims have something in common and soon William Brehmer (Henning Jensen), a mild mannered architect, is the main suspect.  This has been referred to as a Giallo from Denmark, but I think it has more in common with the police procedurals coming out of Hollywood at the time like THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN (1973; itself based on Swedish Martin Beck novel by Sjöwall and Wahlöö).  The first hour is probably the best the film has to offer as the viewer gets to try and unravel the mystery alongside the detectives.  After that, it is a bit more mundane as they set up a trap to nab the killer.  Reichhardt, mostly known for his comedic roles, is great as the lead detective and he has some funny bits with his team. The film ends with a nice touch by director Esben Carlsen that allows both the detective and his suspect to be sympathetic.  A sequel titled TERROR (1977) came out a few years later with the main cast returning, but it doesn’t look like it has been issued with subtitles anywhere.

THE DEAD ARE ALIVE (1972) – This one came from our buddy Jon Stone.  Don’t get your hopes up of seeing the beast featured on the U.S. poster to the right anywhere in this film.  This is definitely a giallo mystery and not a zombie flick. Archaeologist Jason Porter (Alex Cord) has located an Etruscan tomb, but that is the least of his worries at this point in his life.  He is also wrapped up in a love triangle with Myra (Samantha Eggar) and her composer husband Nikos (John Marley).  Wow, that is one ugly triangle!  You know your love life is in trouble when John Marley is your romantic rival.  Anyway, things go from bad to worse when someone (or something) starts offing folks from their circle and setting up Porter as the main suspect.  If you’ve seen enough giallos, you’ll probably figure this one out pretty early on.  But the film still benefits from a great cast and some really cool locations in Italy.  The highlights are a car chase through the narrow city streets and a stylized flashback that explains the killer’s motive.

LOOPHOLE (1981) – Thief Mike Daniels (Albert Finney) plans to break into the biggest bank in England for one last haul.  His team sets up a false office in order to interview architects with the idea they can coax the suitable candidate into mapping out their underground digging job.  Down-on-his-luck American Stephen Booker (Martin Sheen) seems to be the ideal candidate for the job, but he scoffs at the idea of being a criminal. That is until he finds out his wife (Susannah York) reallllly wants to start up her interior decorating business. OH NOES!  So he descends (literally) into a life of crime in order to finance her dream.  The “loophole” of the title refers to the fact they will break into the vault through the ground and set off a motion detector, but when the cops arrive they will see no one inside the bank and think it is glitch.  I’m a sucker for bank heist pictures for some reason and this one definitely falls into that category.  Unfortunately, while it has a great cast and is well made, it really takes no risks. There is some tension in the final third as rain starts to flood the sewer system and the men must rush to get out, but even that is handled rather mundanely.  Sheen also sticks out like a sore thumb and it is easy to believe the role was written for a British fellow (his wife is a Brit after all) and then changed to an American to increase potential markets. Still, it is worth a look at least once if you loves you some men digging in confined spaces.

SILVER BEARS (1978) – Okay, now maybe I’ll be more forgiving to LOOPHOLE.  A Las Vegas mob boss (Martin Balsam) comes up with an ingenious way to launder money – buy a bank! He sends pal Doc Fletcher (Michael Caine) to Switzerland to buy a bank with the help of local contact Prince Gianfranco di Siracusa (Louis Jordan). Along for the ride is the kingpin's wayward son Albert (Jay Leno). Prince Siracusa has a deed for a bank (really a rundown apartment over a pizza parlor) and then things get complicated when his “cousins” (Stéphane Audran and David Warner) want Fletcher to buy in on their Iranian silver mine. Also figuring into this are a banking exec (Tom Smothers) and his ditzy wife (Cybill Shepherd). Ouch! Caine has been upfront about his taking roles for their locations (paid vacation!) and I can't think of any other reason he would have taken this. It is billed as a comedy-thriller, yet manages to never be funny or thrilling. You would think with such a cast that some sort of sparks would fly, but this nearly 2 hour flick is a bore. It doesn't help that the main plot twist doesn't kick in until 90 minutes in (even though you've guess it when it is introduced) and the tricks to swindle some buyers turns into an anti-THE STING. Lots of moments of people talking...and talking...and talking. It says something when the comic highlight is Caine accidentally dropping a breakfast egg in his lap. I lay it all firmly at the feet of director Ivan Passer, who thinks having such a capable cast can immediately pass for a top notch film. Definitely not the case. I'm sure Caine's wife thanks him though.    

UNDERGROUND TERROR (1989) – Continuing on my love of movies set beneath the city as evidenced above, we have this low budget NYC action flick.  John Willis (Doc Dougherty) is a renegade cop who doesn’t play by the rules (original!). This is established in the opening ten minutes when he blows away the drug dealers who had killed his partner (shockingly, this occurs pre-movie).  He soon finds himself dealing with a new kind of scum when a series of unusual murders start occurring on the subway platforms.  They are being pulled off by Boris Pinscher (Lennie Loftin), a renegade mental patient who also doesn’t play by the rules.  This is established in the opening ten minutes when he threatens to kill his roommate before being released. Boris leads a ragtag group of folks who live in the subway system and like to kill folks every now and then.  Despite his the police chief (who is black, of course) putting him on suspension, Willis teams with reporter Kim Knowles (B.J. Geordan) to put a stop to these human rats. This is definitely no C.H.U.D., but if you get a hankering for some NYC lensed locations than UNDERGROUND TERROR will fill you up.  The acting is pretty rough and the plot is dopey (no joke, the killers learn of the reporter after she leaves her camera with her name on it in their lair), but it wasn't an excruciating 90 minutes at all.  I'm just happy to know someone actually named a villain Boris Pinscher.

JACK THE RIPPER (1976) - As fact based an examination of the 19th century’s most notorious serial killer that you will ever see…or maybe not. Jess Franco gives ol’ Spring Heeled Jack the Franco treatment, which involves playing fast-and-furious with the facts. Dr. Orloff (Klaus Kinski) spends his days helping the needy and his nights offing the seedy, thanks mostly to a psychosexual relationship he had with his mother (no wonder Kinski was attracted to this).  He also has the hots for ballerina Cynthia (Josephine Chaplin, no doubt making her dad proud), who just happens to be the love of Inspector Selby (Andreas Mannkopff), the chief inspector on the Jack the Ripper case.  This was made during a period of time where Franco was actually given some money to work with so the production actually has some good photography and nice period costumes.  If you’re hoping for a thorough examination of the case, you might want to turn elsewhere though (we’d suggest the 80s TV movie starring Michael Caine).  This film is just an excuse to show lots of flesh and blood in a 1880s setting.  Among the highlights of this film’s wacky Jack history – a fisherman pulled a victim’s hand from the river; the ballerina went undercover on her own volition to catch Jack to take the heat off her boyfriend inspector; and Jack the Ripper was arrested without incident.  History Channel this ain’t.  Of course, it is all made worthwhile when a police artist does this sketch of Kinski from various witness testimonies.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


What do you think of when you think of the film UNIVERSAL SOLDIER? Plastic soldier outfits. Jean Claude Van Damme's moussed hair. Dolph Lundgren's awesome nutballery. Confusingly numbered sequels... After the 1992 original, in 1998 Showtime and The Movie Channel decided to produce UNIVERSAL SOLDIER II: BROTHERS IN ARMS and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER III: UNFINISHED BUSINESS intending them to be pilots for a series that never got off the ground. In 1999 a proper sequel was produced in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN. By proper I mean featuring at least one returning cast member (Van Damme as Luc Deveraux). The lackluster production pretty much killed the franchise and ironically featured the tag line "Prepare to become obsolete".

A full decade later, John Hyams (son of the hit and miss Peter Hyams) decided to tackle the material with both returning stars, Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. Throw in UFC's Andrei "The Pitbull" Arlovski and you have a masterpiece, right? Uhhhh, no. Using one of the most irritating, budget-saving action movie cliches, "science fiction" is envisioned by having a bunch of guys fight in an abandoned refinery. Imagine my surprise to discover that Hyams was attempting another sequel, not only with Van Damme, Lundgren, and Arlovski returning, but with the addition of our golden-boy of modern action flicks, Scott Adkins! Holy crap, prepare to mark out! So if you're like me, you'd probably think that Hyams is going to waste all of that talent on another cheap, forgettable sequel... and you would be wrong. Dead wrong. [edit: Since this review was written, I've gone back and revisited UNIVERSAL SOLDER: REGENERATION (2009), and realize I let a few annoying details ruin an otherwise solid solid film. It still isn't anywhere near the insanity of this film, but it's definitely an enjoyable outing with some great stunt work].

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING is like UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, in the same way GWAR is like Winger or a Pagani Zonda is like a Toyota Prius. There are some similarities, but they are really not the same at all.

Starting off with a fantastic sequence in which, through the eyes of average schmoe John (Scott Adkins), we see him check his home for the monsters that his daughter is afraid of at night. After checking every room in the house, he opens the kitchen door and there they are. Three men in black who beat John senseless with a tire iron and then one takes off his balaclava to reveal that he is Luc Deveraux (Van Damme). He then executes John's wife and child with extreme prejudice. It's a scene that would normally feel cliched and old hat, but here Hyams makes it very engaging and interesting by making it a first person view, complete with slightly blurred tunnel vision from being woken up in the middle of the night, somewhat reminiscent of some of the first person scenes in ROBOCOP (1987).

Waking up in an oddly large, modern hospital room after being in a coma for almost a year, John is visited by a Fed who is interested in having John track down the man who killed John's family. Of course, John is pretty damn interested in this guy too, and after leaving the hospital sets out on a path of revenge. Only one problem: he can't remember a damn thing about his past other than the murders of his family. This means he must stumble around in the dark (sometimes literally) in order to find clues, though it isn't too hard since the clues invariably find him, usually by way of Deveraux's newest recruit, Magnus the plumber (Arlovski). At the same time we discover that Deveraux is a cult leader of a group of mindless super-soldiers who rally around a new religious symbol and the preaching of the amazingly still-alive Andrew Scott (Lundgren channeling his Street Preacher role from 1995s JOHNNY MNEMONIC). Deveraux has apparently developed some sort of mind-control serum that counters the military's programming in their UniSol experiments and claims he is freeing their minds. Instead he is simply turning the control over to himself, so that he can use a group of bloodthirsty killing machines to do his bidding and retaliate against the government who created them.

That is essentially the spoiler-free version of the plot, but for the most part this movie is not about plot. In spite of the the fact that it is the most plot intensive films of the series, there is no hand-holding and spoon-feeding of a story going on here. You grab hold and hang on. This movie throws so much crazy shit at you at once that you will get whiplash from watching it. What Hyams has created is an sweat-stained, hallucinogen-soaked, enigmatic fever-dream that is not so much a blustery Sy-Fy Channel wannabe, but a brooding, nasty, bloody horror-thriller with brutal action setpieces. Dark shadows are bathed in glowing neon lights that flicker and strobe, splashing unreal colors around detailed ruined sets filled with broken objects and damaged humans. Often literally. To say this movie is visually arresting and jaw-droppingly off kilter is putting it mildly.

An audience member after seeing the film

While screenwriter Doug Magnuson borrows bits and pieces from SILENT RAGE (1982) and BLADE RUNNER (1982), it's APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) that DAY OF RECKONING owes a serious debt to. Instead of painted natives worshiping a bald and insane Marlon Brando, it's painted soldiers worshiping a bald and insane Jean-Claude Van Damme and it's John's trip (both literally and figuratively) up the river to find and kill the madman, that this film is all about. And what a trip it is. Hyams and Magnuson actually manage to build their own little world, in much the same way APOCALYPSE NOW created theirs. It's like the real world, but it's not. It operates on it's own logic, or illogic, as the case may be, and there is no anchor to reality. No scenes that bring a sense of normalcy, to ground the audience and to contrast what Salvador Dali called "the super-reality" of the bizarre world that John (who has no last name) encounters. There are a few scenes of exposition, but Magnuson isn't about to hand everything to you on a platter. You have to pay attention to action on screen in a way that resembles "slice-of-life" filmmaking. The only difference is, slice-of-life is usually reserved for charming character pieces from France in the '50s, not a straight-faced, disorienting orgy of destruction that made the man with too many first names, John Charles, comment that he was not sure whether he was watching a UNIVERSAL SOLDIER sequel or a SAW sequel.

If you are looking for EXPENDABLES 3, you are barking up the wrong tree. There are no jovial quips, self-referencing in-jokes or Hollywood gasoline explosion set-pieces with our heroes diving out of the way in the nick of time. There are great, gristly action scenes, one after another, particularly involving Arlovski (ummm... didn't Arlovski die in the last one. Come to think of it. Didn't Lundgren take a header into a combine in the first one?). In one scene he attacks John in a hardware store after a really impressive truck-vs-SUV chase and collision (in which the actors look like they legitimately took a beating). This fight, in which they attack each other with baseball bats wielded like martial arts weapons, is probably the highlight of the film for fight fans, as is the blood-drenched close-quarters fight between Adkins and Lundgren. As cool as those fights are, this movie spends much of its time throwing out utterly bizarre scenes, that hint about something, ultimately meaning nothing, but sure make for a wild ride. Wild like how, you ask? How about Adkins killing his own doppelganger with a shotgun in a rundown shack painted floor to ceiling with abstract images of a hooker, before having a drill press pushed through his skull, driving him on a berserk, blood-soaked rampage? And that, my friends, doesn't even put a dent in the awe-inspiring bizzaro-land that is DAY OF RECKONING, a film that has suddenly turned John Hyams into the most exciting action director around. Isaac Florentine, you have been one-upped. Dolph says "bring it."

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.