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!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #89: THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER (1981) part 2

Last week we looked at the history of the unmade early 1980s flick THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER.  One of the more amazing things in my research was that Donna Fagone, producer-writer Marc Fagone’s widow, had saved everything about the project.  From original promotional art to location scouting notes and photos, she had thoroughly cataloged the film’s tumultuous preproduction process.  Blended among all this information was a decade’s old correspondence between Marc Fagone and one of today’s premiere FX artists who was just starting out in the business, Bart Mixon.

Bart Mixon works on FRIGHT NIGHT PART II (1988)
If, like me, you grew up on an (un)healthy diet of Fangoria and horror flicks, Bart Mixon is a household name.  Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Mixon got his start in the special effects industry on independent films like THE CURSE OF THE SCREAMING DEAD (1982) and Fred Olen Ray’s SCALPS (1983).  He quickly worked his way up the FX ladder in Hollywood and created cinematic nightmares on a number of popular sequels (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 & 4, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2).  You might recall him best from a photo in Fango that showed him touching up his Regine vampire monster in the underrated FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2 (1988).  And perhaps his greatest claim to fame during this era was giving millions of people nightmares worldwide by bringing Stephen King’s terrifying Pennywise clown to life for the IT (1990) miniseries. The new millennium saw his stock rise even further as Mixon’s make-up talent was displayed on huge big budget features, including the HELLBOY, MEN IN BLACK and STAR TREK series.  His realistic work also earned him two Emmy nominations in 2010 for his labor on GREY’S ANATOMY and NIP/TUCK.    

Despite such a demanding career, Mixon has never lost his passion for genre cinema and the fantastic. Just check out his Facebook page and you’ll see him posting about films and comics with regularity.  In addition, he even maintains a museum in South Houston where you can check out his special effects work from over the years.  Matching his enthusiasm is a congeniality that I got to experience when I contacted him in December 2012 to see if he could recall this project.  He was amazed to see his nearly 30-year-old work reappear out of the blue and was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to let me pick his brain about working on something that never got made.

In the early 80s, Mixon was trying to establish himself as a special effects artist for the silver screen.  This meant scouring for any production that could use his services (this is how he initially hooked up with Fred Olen Ray).  Just as the preproduction ad for THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER caught my eye in the 2000s, it drew in Mixon as well.  “I must have heard about MINING CAMP from an ad in either The Hollywood Reporter or Variety, as I would look through their production slate for upcoming projects that sounded like they would need FX work,” he reveals via email.  Mixon sent Fagone a package about his work, including a profile in “Between the Lynes” magazine.  (Interesting, among Fagone’s files was also a brief correspondence with New York-based special effects artist Ed French.)

While exact details on their initial contact are fuzzy for Mixon, it does appear that Fagone responded positively to the make up man’s query.  Soon Mixon found himself with a copy of the script and he did an amazingly exhaustive breakdown of what the film would require in terms of special effects (see bottom of this article).  He also offered a number of detailed sketches of what the film’s mutated alligator monster might look like. “In general, I seem to recall thinking it could be a cool project and a nice portfolio project, sort of like Rob Bottin's work in HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP,” he explains.  Here’s a glimpse of his artwork that he submitted for the film's mutant monster:

Had the film moved forward, he expected to have used a relatively small crew, including his twin brother Bret.  Alas, the collaboration between Fagone and Mixon proved to be short lived.  “No actual FX construction was started,” Mixon reveals.  “I know I did the breakdowns and sketches, but I don't think anything beyond that.”

Creature head sketch by Mixon
As outlined in our earlier piece on THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER, producer Marc Fagone was constantly dealing with the stop-start game of independent film financing.  This frustrating predicament didn’t seem to deter Mixon though. Although he gave a lot of his time to the MINING project on spec, he wasn’t worried because he was making sure to stay busy in starting what would soon be a legendary career. “I can not really say when I realized it was not going to happen,” he says. “I was contacting everyone I could at that time about possible work, and was doing similar breakdowns and designs for what ever I could, so if one was not active I would turn my attentions to another.”

Ultimately, THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER was not to be.  On his end, Mixon feels a bit of disappointment for the struggling Fagone.  “He seemed to have his act together, and I was happy that he was doing something in the horror/monster genre,” he says.  Indeed, in an era flooded with slasher films, an honest-to-goodness monster picture would not have only been a nice change of pace for audiences, but a great training ground for the burgeoning FX artist.  “I do feel it's a shame that this show was never made,” Mixon discloses. “Again, I recall it being a fun monster script and I am sure it would have proved to be an interesting challenge for me at the time.”

breakdown by Mixon circa 1983 (click to enlarge):

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Black in Action: THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN (1975)

In the world of low-rent directors there are many who make you suffer for their art.

I'm not talking about guys who at one time made great films and then spiraled down into the dark abyss of cheap, joyless vampires and video effects, like Albert Pyun, Dario Argento or Alex Cox (though to his credit Cox has yet to make a vampire movie). I'm talking guys who have made insufferable films virtually without let or hindrance for the entirety of their careers, and yet we keep giving them chances. Lamberto Bava comes to mind for some reason, but on these shores it's Matt Cimber.

For over 25 years, I have self-administered controlled doses of Cimber's work in the hopes that some day I would become inoculated and I would experience something that lives up to it's concept, if not the poster art. I mean, that's not much to ask. YELLOW HAIR AND THE TEMPLE OF GOLD (1984) only had to provide a sexy female variant on the Indiana Jones formula and it would be, well, gold! No such luck. Cimber ain't havin' none of that. In that regard, he's like a blackout drunk stumbling in the dark trying to find a toilet after waking up in someone else's bed. In many movies, as an audience member sometimes you want to shout at the actors that Valentine's day isn't a good day to go to the hospital or that this part of God's Country is not the best place to spend the night, but with Cimber's films, the audience is inclined to yell at the director, pointing out the direction in which he should take the film. Just like the kids who go into the basement, things don't end well. Except...

Finally, after years of dull, listless, films that skimp on the exploitation components that would make you forgive the awful acting, flat dialogue and complete lack of production values, I finally watched THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN. I've been putting it off for decades and it's time had come. It was like a post-Christmas miracle. Cimber actually made a movie that was goo - err, well... fun!

Right off the bat, Cimber lets you know he means bidness by listing in the opening credits that he used "actual hookers and blades of the Sunset Strip." Oh, man, even Cimber can't screw that up... err, I think.

The Baron (John Daniels, of BARE KNUCKLES infamy) is the sharpest blade in the drawer, cruising Sunset Strip in his right-hand-drive, macked-out Rolls Royce, lookin' after his girls and staying one step ahead of the clumsy sting operations by the local vice. Yeeeaaaaah baby. Hard-hittin' pimp on the weeknights and a honest, loving family man on the weekends. Can you di - wait, huh? Yep, Baron rules the streets as a pimp with a heart of gold. This soft metal vascular organ is thrown front and center when Baron starts an avalanche of hell after getting a fresh Indian (or rather very obviously Asian) girl out of the hot hands of rival pimp Dusty (all of whose lines were improvised). Unfortunately for Baron, Dusty is on the payroll of mobster Vincent Di Nunzio (Mikel Angel) who ain't too happy about the deal, no matter how fairly won. Di Nunzio sends some goons after Baron, who sits in his Rolls and casually shoots their van full of holes until it blows up via the pop-out machine-guns above the headlights of his bad-ass ride! Holy crap! Did Matt Cimber just do that? Yes he did. Not only that but Baron also gets in a fight with some appropriately greasy goons and after this quick exchange:
Goon: "Nobody's workin' for you any more! Motherfucker!"
Baron: "The only mother I ever fucked, was yours."
Baron sends one of them flying through a window, in what appears to be a third story apartment building. We haven't even hit the 20 minute mark yet! This has got to be a record for Cimber.

Di Nunzio takes this like any Sicilian worth his salame and decides to utilize one of Baron's weekend absences threaten Baron's bitches. Threatening always works best when mutilation is involved and Di Nunzio has one carved up like thanksgiving turkey. Says sleazeball while grabbing an exposed breast "yeah, I'd like to cut this off and have it for breakfast!" Whoa! Dude, Milwaukee is that-a-way. Here in California we have the decency to torture and kill our victims, yet leave them uneaten, regardless of what says. So, yes, Baron is a pimp who gets weekends off and then wonders why business isn't so good and mutherfuckas be movin' in. Maybe he ain't the crunchiest chip in the bag after all. Of course when Baron returns from his mini-vacation in suburbia to discover that one of his hoochies has been given a mastectomy, it's on like neck bone sucka!

As if Baron's one-man slaughterhouse routine weren't good enough to hold down the film, Cimber shovels on the sub-plots like he's trying to bury a body after catching his wife with the pool boy.

First off, we have his ratty burglar friend who manages to score $150K in bonds that Baron gets a banker to launder for him by having one of his girls piss on him. This leads to his book-keeper (I guess it makes sense, someone has to do the accounting) stealing the cash to take to her greedy, trashy family, who Baron has to fight off with a broom. What do you mean "broom"? He's a pimp with a heart of gold, remember? He isn't going to use any weapon on the ladies harder than a floor sweeper, not even his dick! Yep, he's such a softie that the only woman he bangs a gong with is his wife. Aaawwwwww...

Better still we have a sub-plot with wildly over-acting racist vice cops, played by George 'Buck' Flower and Richard Kennedy, who are hell bent on nailing Baron by any means possible. This includes trying to dupe him with a rookie cop in drag who gets his nuts crushed for his efforts, or trying to set him up on charges when Baron sets the "Indian" girl free to go "to a reservation" and "find an Indian or Mexican" to go live out her days with (slightly racist and patronizing, but a softie all the same). Another tatic, at least I'm going to assume it was a tactic, is their rape of the "Indian" girl who stupidly decides to come back to LA. For some reason Kennedy finds to be the funniest thing ever. Or maybe he's just laughing at Flower with his pants down.

The horrors of the 'burbs
Unlike most of Cimber's oeuvre, this sleazy sucker moves along at a good clip, delivers on the expected exploitation values and features a lead that can actually hold down the role. Cars blow up, people get thrown out of windows, others are stabbed in the throat and one has his hand shoved into a garbage disposal. Plus some of the characters are hugely entertaining, including rival pimp Dusty, who probably couldn't speak without rhyming if you held a gun to his head ("check me, I got more moves than Ali!") and after scratching in a game of nine-ball, cusses out the ball calling it a "honkey, white, motherfucker shit!". It's a good thing this wasn't the first Matt Cimber movie I saw, because my disappointment with his other films would have been bitterly cruel as well as gruelingly painful. With Cimber's other films finding their way on to DVD (a two-disc set of HUNDRA - wtf?!), hopefully someone can snatch this up for a nice widescreen restoration. It can't be too hard, Cimber is actually shooting a new movie in Portugal as we speak.

Audiences react to the news that Cimber is shooting a new film.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Listomania: Thomas' January Jetsam of 2013

Good lord I watched a lot of movies in January. I'm sure Mr. Christensen still has me beat, but my count of 55 feature films is a pretty respectable number, I think. Depending on your definition of "respectable". Here are some of the titles that are notable, that didn't, or have yet to, make it into full reviews.

DREDD (2012): This has gotten a huge amount of post-theatrical praise and it’s definitely one of the best action movies to get a wide theatrical release. Set in a hyper-contemporary re-envisioning of MegaCity 1, crime lord MaMa (here re-envisioned by Lena Headey in a slightly dumpy, petite version) has the hot new street drug slo-mo which causes time to move at a fraction of its normal rate for the user. After making an example of a couple of double-crossers, by skinning them and throwing them off of the top of her apartment bloc, 200 stories up, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) and rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) take the call. Once in side, the Judges find themselves trapped in the bloc with a bounty on their heads. Yep, that’s it for plot, it’s action on top of action with Urban and screenwriter Alex Garland doing a great job of staying true to the characters (which Stallone found impossible). Dredd and Anderson are so well represented here that it is a real shame that the rest of DREDD’s trappings have absolutely nothing to do with the source material. It's interesting that the filmmakers comment on how rich and deep the source material is and then use hardly any of it. It looks like a slightly more futuristic modern city – which it is, as Johannesburg is MegaCity 1 with very few changes.
The costumes (of everyone except the judges), vehicles, buildings, cars, etc; none are from the source material and MaMa is in the comics (dealing Umty Candy) and she’s a older, fatter and angrier. There are so many details they could have put in, but weren't  The set dressers were the only ones who got it as they threw in little authentic details in the graffiti. I can see how they would think that the bizarreness of the comic might not come off right to a modern audience who hasn't read the comics and maybe there’s some truth to that, but at the same time it sure would be nice to see an adaptation that stayed true to the source material for once. Stallone’s version had fantastic production design, but completely destroyed the characters with a insipid and moronic script. Here, the characters are great, but the production design is for a completely different film. In spite of my nerdy gripes (which, granted, make up the bulk of this review), it is a lot of fun and those of us who skipped it in theaters can hold ourselves responsible for its untimely demise and lack of sequel. Since it’ll probably be another 20 years before anyone can convince backers to try another adaptation, maybe we’ll at least get some sort of incredible animated film like BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (2012). Maybe.

SPIDER-MAN (1978): Much has been said about the Toei SPIDER-MAN TV series over the years and I have always meant to get around to seeing it, but haven't until now. Remember the whole Peter Parker / Daily Bugle / Doc Oc stuff? Forget all that. They Japanese ain't havin' it! A spaceship called The Marveller crashes into Earth awakening a 400 year old warrior from the planet Spider. The spaceship, carrying Professor Monster (who apparently is a cyborg), is the spearhead of an invasion by the Iron Cross Army. Using his telepathic powers the warrior summons a motorcycle racer named Takuya (Shinji Tôdô) to find him in a cave, where he can snap a spider bracelet on the hapless tween, altering his DNA and turning him into "Spidah-man"! Not only can he spin a web any size and catch thieves just like flies, but he can also command the Marveller to transform into a giant robot (named "Leopardon" - really), drive the GP7 (a flying, jet powered car) and wield a deadly sword. That's right, Spider-man uses a sword. While at first it seems completely freakin' wacko, it's actually really familiar stuff to anyone who has seen any Kamen Rider episodes. Ultraman too, come to think of it. It's a pretty blatant rip-off of Kamen Rider, with Takuya racing around on his custom cycle, then using a device to transform into Spider-man so he can then fight a group of clones (none of them say "Eeeeeee" though) and ultimately fight a cybermonster straight out of any one of the Shocker labs. The GP7 flying out of the Marveller is pretty much the Science Patrol's shuttle on the VTOL from ULTRA-MAN.
Spider-Man realizes that he's...
Once you get over the initial culture shock of seeing Spider-man reinterpreted as an alien with a sword, it is actually a fairly unimpressive Kamen Rider wannabe with Tôdô providing some of the most ghastly over-acting you've ever seen, even by Japanese TV standards. When he receives a slight nick on the left side of his neck from a badguy's blade, he writhes around on the ground screaming like he's lost a freakin' limb and then proceeds to limp and gasp like a dying man for the next 10 minutes favoring the right side of his body! Plus you get some dialogue that is definitely "amazing", such as when a badguy asks Spidey "who are you?", Spider-man throws a pose and says "I'm the messenger from hell - Spider-man!" Prove to me that Japan is not on a completely different planet.

SOMETHING CREEPING IN THE DARK (1971): Mario Colucci's haunted house movie in which nothing creeps and it's never dark. It should have been called PEOPLE ARGUE IN THE LIGHT.
A group of mismatched people head to a remote mansion after discovering that a bridge is washed out on a dark and stormy night. Two cops with a "homicidal maniac" named Spike (Farley Granger in a 50's greaser outfit), a rich married couple who spit venom at each other faster than you can say WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, a chain smoking doctor, his mousy assistant, and a professor who's mind is open to possibilities of the occult kind. At the mansion they meet a couple who are caretakers for the estate of a woman who was widely believed to be involved in the dark arts. Hey, I'm a sucker for "old dark house" kind of movies and it doesn't take much to make me happy, but this movie doesn't offer much, but what it offers ain't a ghost story. It offers a lot of aggressive drawing-room beatnik discussions about social conformity and a couple of murders, one being Spike killing a cop while trying to escape the other two being involved with a spirit possessing one of the cast and making them look bored and mute. I'd act the same way if you put me in this snoozefest. The dialogue scenes are the bulk of the movie and boy are they something! Spike, who we discover is an accomplished, soulful pianist has this to say at the wealthy socialite after she asks him how it feels to kill someone:
"Do ya think you could really understand? Tied to a thousand prejudices  a thousand fears, a thousand superstitions? No, you live a life of vanity and compromise. You couldn't be able to understand what it means to free yourself of all the hypocritical and stupidity of this decadent world!"
Well, ask a stupid question...

BLOOD BEAT (1983): Holy freakin' jumped-up jeezus!  Sorry, but words fail me. I saw this back in the day and remember thinking it was pretty crappy, but somewhere over all these long beers - I mean, long years, my brain decided that it was GHOST WARRIOR (1985) or maybe SWORD OF HEAVEN (1985). If you've seen them, you know that those two can get mixed up pretty easily, but how the hell did BLOOD BEAT get in there? Maybe it was just wishful thinking.
A cracker-ass family gets together for Christmas at a house in the Wisconsin woods to do some huntin', some drinkin' and some paintin'. Painting? Oh yes. Mom, Cathy (Helen Benton), is a bit on the different side. She likes to paint and make her would be husband Gary (Terry Brown) miserable. He wants to get married, she's lukewarm on the subject. She loves him until he tries to reciprocate, then she pushes him away. Ugh, it's like my social life back in highschool, why am I watching this? Oh yeah, there's supposed to be a killer on the loose, according to the box. Mom doesn't like her son Ted's (James Fitzgibbons) new girlfriend Sarah (Claudia Peyton) and gets really wound up screaming at him about how she's not trustworthy. While painting Mom starts getting strange visions of Sarah, while a sleeping Sarah has some serious orgasms while having visions of a samurai warrior stalking the woods. Of course, to get there it takes a good 80 minutes of some other family's unpleasant Christmas, complete with abuse, crying, shouting matches and lingering resentment. Fun, right?
An audience member at the half-way point
Loaded with long, dry tracking shots of the forest ground, the floor of the house, a fence and so on, for no other purpose than to pad out the running time. Same with the never-ending shots of people shouting other people's names: "Sarah? Sarah! Sarah! Sarah? Sarah!" Shut up! *ahem* Yeah, if that doesn't drive you off the deep end there's the soundtrack. Virtually every single scene has a completely different library soundtrack and they are all awful. At one point we have cheesy electronica, cut to another scene and we've got ear-shredding violin, cut again and we have a harmonica, again and we have gregorian chanting, and so on. I'm pretty sure the dialogue is ad-libbed and the script was made up while they shot the movie. Sometimes the scenes seems to have been something made up after collecting all of the pieces that spilled on the editing room floor. There is no way for me to adequately describe how completely brain-bruising this movie is. It has very little bloodshed, but there is some amusing nudity. If you can make it to the end, there's a hilarious confrontation between the kids (who suddenly have supernatural powers) and the possessed suit of armor which actually possesses a voice that sounds a bit like a whiny Dalek when expressing it's disdain at being defeated. I guess there's a reason that writer-director Fabrice A. Zaphiratos has never made another movie. You've been warned.

LIVID - THE BLOOD OF THE BALLERINAS (2011): Incredibly slow-moving and pretentious French horror yarn that really just wants to be a Hollywood film. A young nurse trainee, Lucie (Chloé Coulloud), is taken to a creepy old mansion that is surrounded by local superstition. Inside, her trainer reveals that the owner of the house, a wealthy former ballet instructor, is in a coma and has a key around her neck that might be for the rumored hidden treasure. Of course this is simply bait in a trap, and sure enough after telling her loser boyfriend about it, three of them break into the mansion to find the treasure, or, as you could easily guess, gruesome deaths. While there are one or two cool little touches that will no doubt give 13 year old goths screaming hard-ons, this trip is strictly by-the-numbers until the last 20 minutes. It literally takes 50 minutes of the 88 minute running time from the introduction of the main character to the kids walking through the house. Much of the whole breaking into the house-thing is done in real time, so there are painfully long sequences of people walking, opening doors, looking around, walking some more and saying things like "hey, over here! Oh it's nothing". Hell, I can get that on any episode of "Ghost Hunters"! Once you get to the big revelation of who the woman is and why there are missing children in the village, it turns into a goth fantasy film with moths being used to change the souls in bodies and some other odd stuff that seems like a complete departure from the film we have been sitting through for the past 70 minutes. Add to that the fact that none of the scant few ideas the script has are fleshed out at all, instead opting for long scenes of mundane action, and you have something that's paper-thin and rather dull for almost the entirety of its running time, only then to turn good ideas into stupid ones.

Well, at least they aren't any CGI ghosts.

DEMON OF THE ISLAND (1983): Subtle (for the most part) and strange French horror film that uses some of Stephen King's favorite themes, but in a strange, French sort of way. A chain-smoking mainland doctor, Gabrielle Martin (Anny Duperey), moves to a remote island to take over the role as village doctor from Dr. Marshall (Jean-Claude Brialy), who is neither liked, nor trusted by the locals. As a string of bizarre appliance accidents sweep the island, it becomes obvious that Dr. Marshall has no plans of leaving and is working on some very strange medical research involving endocranial disease. Writer-director Francis Leroi, whose other credits almost entirely consist of soft and hardcore erotica, takes a while setting the stage and once he does things get very interesting and bloody. Being French, he has no problem leaving things very ambiguous. He drops hints, but never bluntly tells the audience motivations and explanations. I actually liked it that way, to be honest. The way Leroi builds up to the bits of graphic nastiness is very well done, with the tension being cranked and mis-directional cues perfectly executed. Will it make everyone happy? No, but I really enjoyed it and maybe that's because of all of the completely lifeless swill I've been sucking down this month.

QUEEN BOXER (1973): First time director Yue Fung-chi’s fun, period kung fu flick, was at one point reportedly in violent in the realm of Sonny Chiba's STREETFIGHTER (1974) before it was heavily censored. After a local crime lord kills a would-be hero, his family comes to town looking for him. Just to show 'em who's boss, the boss has them all slaughtered in the street! That'll learn 'em. All, except for his sister, Su Chen (Chia Ling aka Judy Lee) who sure seems pretty and unassuming. A local tea merchant and martial arts badass (Yeung Kwan) has been waging a one-man war against the crime boss after his not-so-badass brother was murdered and it isn't long before the two team up to take the bastard down. She may not be Angela Mao, but Ling's graceful martial arts moves come from formal ballet training and it makes watching her fight scenes pretty riveting stuff. Definitely more than they might otherwise be, considering almost all of the graphic violence is missing from even the longest of available versions. Rumor has it that an uncut, widescreen German DVD was in the offing, but that was months ago and either it was another one of those super-limited pressings that came and went over night, or it's another vapordisc. If anybody has any info on this, I'd love to hear it.

BLACK DOG (1998): Arguably the last of the real, honest-to-fucking-god metal-crunching vehicular mayhem flicks ever made. Ok, maybe someone will come along and make another one, but I doubt it. Using real cars and trucks is like, hard work and stuff! It's so much easier to sit at a computer in an air-conditioned office... eating Funyuns and playing with your 'puter. Jack Crews (Patrick Swayze) is an ex-con looking to make a fresh start in the world of trucking. Like so many of us, he picks a soulless ratfuck bastard to work for and suddenly finds himself trucking illegal weapons through interstate lines with a small army of goons shootin' lead up his tailpipe. That's pretty much the long and the short of the plot. Sure there are some sub-plotty things about how they got his wife and kid, the Feds trying to bust 'em, a traitor in the midst, a fox in with the chickens, and so forth. Plus our good ol' boy gets double-crossed by one Mr. Meat Loaf in what may be his best film role ever (not saying much I guess) and certainly the best work he's done since attempting to sing some song while completely shitfaced at some sort of political thing. Speaking of singing, Randy Travis is also along for the ride as a two-bit loser that wants to sing country, but has no talent. But screw all that. No, no, what we care about here is the stunts, oh the beautiful stunts! Not content to just wreck cars on what is essentially an extended chase scene taken straight out of the mid '70s, writers William Mickelberry and Dan Vining (who have sadly done nothing since) make this a badass trucker movie straight out of the mid '70s as well. Ok, so it's a truck chase movie, but these trucks, smash, crash, explode and get air! Constantly! I am a sucker for a good car stunt, but great stunts with huge 20,000 pound metal, glass and rubber beasts, like semis, flying through the air is nothing short of spectacular. Creating an entire movie around such events? Genius, pure, unadulterated genius.

COP OR HOOD (1978): Considered to be one of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s best films, it certainly is slickly produced, if nothing else. A charmingly roguish criminal Antonio Cerutti (Belmondo) finds out that his prostitute sister was gunned down while having a hotel liaison with a police commissioner, he vows to get to the bottom of it. Except he isn't Cerutti, he’s actually Stanislas Borovitz, head of internal affairs, and he’s going to nail the killers and the dirty cops his way! How? By being incredibly charming, witty and sticking his 6" Colt Python in everybody's face. Yeah, I know, it looks like it's a 12" barrel when he's holding it, but that's just because he's French. Oh and at the same time romancing a wealthy author and dealing with his neglected 14 year-old daughter who, realistically, has every right to be resentful of this self-absorbed jackass.
Clearly Belmondo had reached the “Jack Nicholson phase” of his career and could just show up and completely “jamon” his way through a movie without a backwards glance.
Many of his scenes involve broad physical gestures such as snapping his collar with a flourish, doing pirouettes on the heels of his boots and whipping open his coat to show off his gun, always with a big goofy grin. On the plus side, the movie does have a few really great set pieces, such as when Belmondo jacks a driver’s license test car in an attempt to evade his pursuers. I can imagine Jackie Chan watching this in the theater and getting inspiration for some of the car gags in the LUCKY STARS movies. There are even a couple of explosions, nice cinematography (if a bit over-lit) and some split-screen work, too. Even so, it's only mildly enjoyable and kind of feels like if you've seen one Belmondo flick, you've seen them all. I guess it really seems to rest on how much you enjoy Belmondo’s obvious enthusiasm for himself and don’t mind the all-too-brief action sequences being few and far between.

BUBBA HO-TEP (2003): After being slightly underwhelmed by Don Coscarelli’s latest film, JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012), a friend of the VJ family said that my expectations were probably set a bit too high. It didn’t really occur to me in the moment, but he was right. They were set pretty high. Why was that? Well, yeah, there’s the whole PHANTASM thing, (which, trust me, will be rambled about at another time), but PHANTASM IV (1998) was err, disappointing. But there’s also BUBBA HO-TEP. Based on a Joe R. Lansdale short story, Coscarelli creates what is probably the best film of his career about an aging Elvis Presley (Bruce Campbell) and a black JFK (Ossie Davis) in an East Texas rest home that is being stalked by a cursed mummy that sucks the souls of those about to die. I mean, does that even sound all that great? I’m not even a big Bruce Campbell fan, but he can go to his deathbed proud of his work in this film. It’s clearly a labor of love and it not only has a multi-layered story, but it also has multi-layered performances, multi-layered visuals and a multi-layered score that works beautifully with a film that effectively mixes comedy, drama and horror. BUBBA HO-TEP is also richly detailed, holding up to repeated viewings, so much so, that I actually enjoyed it even more coming back to it almost a decade later. I think that is why my expectations were so high. Coscarelli set the bar out of arms reach.
I guess I have to mention the cringe-inducing proposed prequel, BUBBA NOSFERATU: CURSE OF THE SHE-VAMPIRES. Written by Stephen Romano and Coscarelli, the plot is supposed to be about Elvis shooting a movie in Louisiana only to find himself battling a coven of female vampires. Campbell refused the role several years back (the guy is obviously smarter than I give him credit for) and the project was thought dead. Post JOHN DIES AT THE END, however, we have had Paul Giamatti resurrecting the project in interviews, saying that is it's on the front burner and he has been cast as the Colonel Parker character (presumably if it ever gets made). Just let it go Don, let it go.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #89: THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER (1981) part 1

“Time is at once the most valuable, and the most perishable of all our possessions.” - John Randolph
The passage of time possesses a certain cruel duality.  A perfect example is our latest unmade film examination, THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER.  Time was certainly a friend to the full page ad in Variety from 1981 that I spied in 2010.  Nearly 30 years after the fact, the drawn image of a monster's hand silencing a human face was doing exactly what it was intended to do – draw interest.  However, it didn’t come from a potential producer, but a fan curious as to why this film never got made.  With the help and nudging of Bill Picard (the internet’s greatest detective), an effort was made to contact the folks involved in this unmade movie.

And here is where it is exhibited that time can also certainly be the enemy.  In August 2011, Bill emailed me with the unfortunate news that he discovered Marc Fagone, the film’s writer and producer, had passed away in 2003 from cancer.  Hoping there was a story still to be told, I sent Donna Fagone, Marc’s widow, a letter expressing my condolences and inquiring if she knew anything about the three-decades-old project.  Much to my surprise, Mrs. Fagone replied via email and gave me a great deal of information about this mysterious project.  You see, not only was it her husband’s pet project for several years, but it was also the very thing that brought the two of them together.

Marc Douglas Fagone was born in 1949 in Boston, Massachusetts.  Like any healthy child growing up in the 1950s, he was a movie watcher and enjoyed horror thanks to his mother.  “Marc and his mother both loved horror films and watched them together while he was growing up,” Donna Fagone says. As an adult, his occupation was that of a construction contractor and carpenter.  Fagone displayed his creative side as a member of several bands (The Breakaways, Kaliope).  It was in the late 1970s that Fagone began toying with the idea of filmmaking.  His first copyrighted script was SPY IN THE KEY OF C from 1978/79.  “It was a suspense/mystery/whodunit set in Las Vegas and the main character was a Las Vegas male singer.  He wrote two songs for it as well,” Mrs. Fagone reveals of this earlier unmade film project.

Perhaps sensing the world might not be ready for a Las Vegas-Philip Marlowe mix (it might still not be), the now Pennsylvania-based Mr. Fagone opted to go the more conventional route with a horror picture as his introductory effort.  After all, a fellow Pennsylvanian (George Romero) had struck gold just over a decade earlier with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), a film that eschewed the Hollywood system to great success.  So THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER was born.

As far as the plot was concerned, Fagone drew his inspiration from one of the most newsworthy events to happen in the United States in the 1970s that occurred within his then-current home state – the Three Mile Island disaster.  “I do know the main plot was that after Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor accident in Pennsylvania,” Donna discloses, “some nuclear waste seeped into a coal mine and came into contact with a small animal (maybe lizard like) and became a mutant creature that began attacking the coal miners.  Enter the female news reporter and the man that helps her solve the mystery.”

(click on all documents to enlarge):

Press release for the film:

Xerox copies of
location Polaroids
One thing is for sure, Fagone certainly had his finger on the pulse of the horror genre, which was again booming post-HALLOWEEN (1978).  Despite the resurgence, no one had yet set a horror film in the blue collar profession of coal mining when Fagone had written his script, which was copyrighted in July 1980.  This would change as the next several years would see a deluge of coal mine set horror films (MY BLOODY VALENTINE [1981], THE BOOGENS [1981], THE STRANGENESS [1985]).  “Marc had created the plot, written a story, created a script from the story and lined up all the details,” she reveals of the script.  “He told me he visited a coal mine in Pennsylvania as further inspiration and for accuracy.”

With a script and budget in place, Fagone set about trying to obtain financing for his project.  With his own money, he paid for the art for the aforementioned Variety full page advertisement.  Although never formally finalized, there had been talks with Hungarian immigrant Andrew Szitanyi to direct the picture.  And, in another move showing Fagone’s innate understanding of the exploitation aspect of filmmaking, he had considered a popular Playboy model as the film’s protagonist.  “The actress under consideration for the lead female role was Barbie Benton,” Donna reveals.  However, Benton never officially committed to the project.  Fagone did receive a letter of commitment from actress Jacqui Evans, who was previously seen as one of the science-made models in LOOKER (1981).

Letter of interest from Jacqui Evans' agent:

Fagone's level of detail and attention extended to all facets of the project, including mapping out the area of their chosen location for the mine.

Mine shooting location map:

One element of planning that was given a lot of attention was the design of the mutant monster.  Fagone’s files show several pages of early drafts by an unknown artist (possibly Fagone himself) from 1981.

Early FX sketches:

A few years later, Fagone started talking with Houston-based special effects artist Bart Mixon, who supplied a detailed breakdown and his own sketches for the monster (you can read more on Mixon’s involvement in part 2).

Bart Mixon's FX sketches:

Cover page of Fagone's
detailed 9-page budget
Anyone familiar with our “never got made” columns will feel prescient when it comes to the major stumbling block for lack of production.  Yes, our old friend “lack of money” pops up once again.  Fagone had several “almost successes” according to his wife when it came to achieving his goal of getting the film financed.  As is the case with most independent filmmakers, Fagone met a number of unusual characters during his attempts to get his film funded including an investor who wanted to go all in on the project, but hated horror movies.

“Marc was trying to raise a million dollars to produce the film. He had a budget completed,” Donna explains of her husband’s attempts to secure capital.  “I know that he put thousands of his own money into the project but did not have resources to invest heavily so the risk would fall on the investor.  I was told that it was easier to do this back then because failures and losses could be written off. (VJ – via popular tax shelter laws) But I think the fact that Marc didn't have funds to ‘risk’ himself caused some of the close deals to fail.  There were a couple investors that said ‘you put up half and I'll put up the other half’ but Marc didn't have that kind of money.”

Wishy-washy producers are a dime-a-dozen in this industry, but no one can top the billionaire oil baron somehow related to the Saudi royal family that Fagone interested in the project.  “One interesting attempt and unique opportunity had been with the wealthy Sheik that was upsetting some people in the U.S. by going around and donating money and financing many things in the early 80s,” Fagone’s wife discloses.  “His name was Mohammed al-Fassi.   He was looking for positive press in the U.S.” (Al-Fassi had made national news in 1978 when he drew the ire of Beverly Hills residents by buying a multi-million dollar mansion, painting it pea green and filling the grounds with realistic, sexually explicit nude statues.  The house mysteriously caught fire in 1980, resulting in the affluent neighbors pouring into the street and – no joke – chanting “burn, burn, burn” as flames engulfed the eyesore. Al-Fassi passed away in 2002.)

Fagone letter to Al-Fassi:

“[Al-Fassi’s] right hand man told Marc that if Marc could get some positive press about how kind the Sheik was, that they would consider investing.  Marc did get his home newspaper in Massachusetts to write up a story and al-Fassi set up a meeting with Marc at resort in Florida.  Marc traveled to Florida to meet but when Marc arrived, was told the Sheik and his staff had suddenly left Florida and returned to their homeland (i.e.; chased out).  We never knew if this [funding offing] was true or if the entire thing had been a scam for publicity for the Sheik all the time.”

Article Fagone got published 
on Al-Fassi's behalf:

As if the financing game weren’t frustrating enough, Fagone soon found himself discouraged when a similar film hit the market before him.  “I recall Marc being upset that a later horror movie, ALLIGATOR (1980), had been produced,” Donna reveals, “and he felt that the ‘mutant creature’ was similar to his and was a bit unhappy about that.”  Indeed, it appears to have a cruel case of synchronicity.  Fagone received a copyright on his MINING script on July 25, 1980. ALLIGATOR hit theaters just a few weeks earlier on July 2, 1980. With fandom not nearly as advanced as today’s news-a-minute world, it is highly unlikely that Fagone was aware of the low budget ALLIGATOR’s production.  A more likely hypothesis is that both productions were cashing in on the decades-old “baby alligator flushed down the toilet” urban legend, which had resurged in popularity in New York City in the late 1970s.

Fagone's 1980 copyright form:

Original painted artwork
Ultimately, despite Fagone’s best efforts, the project never got off the ground. However, as mentioned earlier, THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER served Marc Fagone in a different way. “It is the reason we met,” Donna explains of the unmade project.  “In 1982 I was divorced with 2 children and both were represented by a modeling agency.  The modeling agency put me in touch with Marc after they received notice he was looking for two ‘unknown’ children for a part in his planned movie. The rest is history.”

Indeed, Marc and Donna eventually married and had a daughter of their own.  So while we might mourn the loss of another “mutant monster on the loose” movie, it appears THE MINING CAMP ENCOUNTER existed for a better reason altogether as the couple brought together by the project spent the next 20 years together.  “We miss Marc very much and talk about him every day in our family,” Donna Fagone says of her late husband.  “He was a tireless worker, very resilient and always had an idea or project in the works.”