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, April 11, 2013

Monstrous Mayhem: SPIDERS (2000) vs. SPIDERS (2013)

With the remake craze going full blast (and, sadly, most horror fans lovin’ it), it seems like it was only a matter of time before Nu Image would start cannibalizing themselves.  So no one was really shocked when they announced they giving the world an unwanted redux of SPIDERS, one of their earliest “insects gone amuck” flicks.  Sadly, if you compare the two features it perfectly showcases the company’s decade plus between films.

It is kind of ironic that it was the trailer for the new SPIDERS that finally convinced me I needed to check out the old SPIDERS.  Like fine wine, I had to allow SPIDERS from the year 2000 to age properly before checking it out. Well, I finally popped the cork on it last month. Man, was the year 2000 really 13 years ago?  Anyway, I missed out on the original release due to leaving the video store to go back to college and having some innate sense in my head telling me Nu Image’s flicks were going to be rough.  I knew my brain did something right.

SPIDERS opens aboard a space station where some top secret experiments are being done on spiders.  Naturally, someone gets bitten and everything goes to hell at zero gravity.  Back on Earth, college newspaper reporter Maci (Lana Parrilla) convinces a couple of friends to go check out a secret military bases because she believes some UFO activity is going on there (she’s seen one too many X-FILES programs).  When they arrive, they see the space shuttle Solaris crash in the desert.  This is strange because her editor tells her media reports said the craft burnt up on re-entry.  Can a girl looking for the big scoop be any luckier?  Maci and her two male companions sneak into the underground military base and soon find out the U.S. Government was up to some nefarious activities as they were messing with spider DNA in order to create the ultimate soldier.  This results in Mother, a huge spider that just happens to get loose in the facility while the kids are down there.

To be honest, I almost gave up on this one during the first 20 minutes as it was pretty rough going.  Just your typical boring stuff with the insufferable type of character banter that has worked its way into movies post-Tarantino (must everyone mention movies in dialogue nowadays?).  But I'm glad I stuck with it. Director Gary Jones had previously directed MOSQUITO (1995), an entertaining monster mash that most certainly got him this gig.  Even better, he has a background in special effects and when the spider attacks start happening, this is pretty fun stuff. The film does feel more like a mid-90s movie with the emphasis on practical FX over computer stuff (I'd say 90% is actual on-set FX).  There is some CGI stuff at the end. While it is obvious, Jones still does a nice job of combining the computer images with stuff that was shot live (like the spider flipping over a car).  Sadly, Nu Image went the complete opposite direction as the decade progressed.  Just a year after this L.A. lensed flick, they were firmly ensconced in Eastern Europe making cheapo horror action done on the cheap in Bulgaria with cheap looking CGI effects.  Case in point: SPIDERS II: BREEDING GROUND (2001).  The FX proportion has switched from the 90% practical/10% CGI of SPIDERS to 10% practical/90% CGI. Also, it doesn't help that there is barely any spider action for the first hour of the film. Avoid the sequel unless you are a dummy like me.

The parallel between SPIDERS of old and SPIDERS of new is pretty interesting for me.  The new film was made by a director who made something I hold dear.  New SPIDERS director Tibor Takacs made the insanely great THE GATE (1987), one of my favorite 1980s flicks.  In addition, he also made the solid I, MADMAN (1989) a few years later.  So, once again, I’m drawn in by a love of an earlier film.  What I seemingly always forget is the rest of Takacs’ filmography.

SPIDERS opens aboard a space station where some top secret experiments are being done on spiders.  Déjà vu.   Oh wait, it is totally different because this one was owned by the Russians and everyone inside is dead.  Anyway, the facility is torn apart by meteor fragments in a frenzy of low budget CGI chaos.  A piece survives re-entry and crashes down into New York City.  Cue NYC stock footage and dust off that NYC Bulgarian backlot.  Enter Jason Cole (Patrick Muldoon, doing one very bad NYC accent), New York transit authority dude who loves to keep them subways running.  He’s pissed because one of his workers investigating dies and the health department rep Rachel Cole (Christa Campbell) won’t let him reopen the tunnel.  Wait a sec…Cole…Cole…oh, damn, not only is she his occupational nemesis, but “Rach” is his soon-to-be-ex-wife.  To make matters worse, there are now these growing mutant spiders running around the subway tunnels. You see, the Soviets were doing some experiments on spiders to create a super web like material that would be impervious to everything.  And to throw a swerve in there, this stuff was created using DNA found in some alien spaceship frozen in the mountains decades ago.  Anyway, the U.S. is now using Dr. Darnoff (Pete Lee-Wilson) to get the technology and quarantines the entire block…where Jason’s 12-year-old daughter that he neglects just happens to be stranded.  Daddy’s coming to get ya!  Yup, it is SPIDERS with a side of TAKEN.

Anyone guilty of a bad NYC accent,
please raise you hands!
It’s hard not to be cynical watching the revamped SPIDERS.  After all, does the world really need another big spider movie? Apparently Nu Image feels they do.  But even if you enter it with an open mind, I have no doubt you’ll be the most pessimistic person in the world by the time it ends.  Once again working from a story by Boaz Davidson (“Hey, let’s make a movie about a big spider!”), Takacs and his co-screenwriter Joseph Farrugia appear to have sat down and written a list of everything popular at the time of their screenplay crafting.  TAKEN is big? Let’s work that in.  THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE remake made some money? Let’s incorporate that.  The BOURNE films are popular?  Good, let’s work in a little “cat and mouse” espionage for no reason.  Sadly, the onscreen proceedings are as coldly crafted as the screenplay.  Takacs goes all CGI for his tiny creatures and the sense of wonder is nil.  Jones’ earlier film has some great moments where you wonder how they pulled it off.  Here you just sit back and go, “Yeah, they used a computer.”  Even worse, the new SPIDERS was shot in 3D to cash in on a craze that no one is crazy about.  So you have a bunch of shots of stuff flying at you for no reason since you are most likely watching it in 2D on a television and not suffering in a theater.  As it stands, the new SPIDERS is the perfect encapsulation of where Nu Image/Millennium Entertainment stands now.  It is just a bigger budget version of their Bulgarian adventures from 2001-2010 where they think literally throwing things at the audience will create a better film.  Wake me when they remake SHARK ATTACK 3.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Fangs for Nothing: DARIO ARGENTO'S DRACULA (2012)

Like hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of other people around the globe, the discovery of Dario Argento was a life-changing moment in my misspent youth. My tender young brain reeled at the over-indulgence of richly painted visuals and often stream-of-consciousness narratives that obsessed over hidden clues, smashing glass, ax murders, kitchen knives, straight razors, vicious dogs, childhood trauma, whispered phone calls, impalements, black gloves, decapitations, maggots and flies (in ones or hoards). In addition, Argento's camera moved as if it was gliding on Chinese silk, prowling around buildings and through scenes in continuous shots that required meticulous staging and often specially built camera rigging. A few of his films were shot with very specific types of rare filmstock with elaborate lighting set-ups to take advantage of it. What more could you possibly ask for from a horror filmmaker?

Somewhere in his early career, around 1973, Argento put together a very impressive sounding adaptation of Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" that never got off the ground. This was right when Argento's career was hitting its stride and the possibilities of Argento adapting classic horror literature in that era are simply mind-blowing. So when Argento's adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was announced, why wasn't it greeted with more fanfare? Perhaps it is because it was announced in 2010 after, if I'm generous, nearly a decade of bitter disappointment. Over two and a half decades of bitter disappointment, if I'm not.

I suppose now would be a good time to let you know that I cannot write about this movie without throwing out spoilers left and right. If you really want to see the movie spoiler free, I wish you the best of luck and will give you time to leave the room. Are they gone now? Good, because every step on this staircase is a doozie.

Argento may have claimed a lot of things before going into production, but a faithful adaptation wasn't one of them, and I wouldn't expect him to do a straight up adaptation. Unfortunately it's the way in which he veers off the rails is not exactly what you'd hope for. Set solely in a rural, I guess, Romanian village (with German signs and names), a girl Tania (FHM cover-girl Miriam Giovanelli) goes out in the dead of Walpurgis Night to meet up with Milos (Christian Burruano) in what is possibly the most brightly lit stable in the pre-industrial world. After a quick roll in the hay, they split-up to go home. When Milos refuses to walk her home, she throws her crucifix pendant at him in a fit of pique. If I had a nickel for every time that's happened to me... Of course this does not bode well, as it is Walpurgus Night and you know what that means. The owls are out! Yes, I giant owl flies down out of the sky and CG morphs like it's a 1992 Stephen King adaptation into... Hugh Hefner! Oh wait, there are fangs, so that must be Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann).

Enter the second babe in the woods, Johnathan Harker (Unax Ugalde in a spectacularly inept performance). Harker has been commissioned to be the librarian at some hick lord's castle in a village where his wife Mina (Marta Gastini) grew up with the local piano teacher Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento vying for Ugalde's mantle as the worst actor since H.G. Lewis discovered the camera). In an effort to faithfully adapt Bram Stoker's novel, Mina is to arrive on a later train.

No Dracula film would be complete without the classic sequence in which Harker finds himself the sole diner at the castle. After inquiring whether or not Dracula would dine with him, Drac slowly turns and gravely drawls "I do not eat... in the evening." Listen? Can you hear that? That is the sound of Bela Lugosi doing 9000 rpms in his grave.

Possibly due to budget constraints, Dracula is reduced to a solitary bride, Tania (Dracula refers to her as his "niece"), who attempts to seduce Harker. Unfortunately she's not very light on her feet and knocks over a picture of Mina. Harker suffers a cut on his hand in the process and Tania starts sucking his blood out in an attempt to prevent an "infection". Yes, a simple peasant girl is apparently well read on cutting edge medical theories of the day. Of course this leads to a subsequent scene that retreads the same ground, except Drac busts in, kicking Tania out and decides to take sloppy Harper seconds, chomping down on Harker's neck while Harper moans with delight seems to appear as if he is experiencing *ahem* primal pleasures. In addition to the acting, the general appearance of the film is easily outshone by even the weakest of modern porn parodies (well, except for Hustler's THIS AIN'T series). With some minor editing and a handful of hard-core insert shots, we could have something that almost rivals Mario Salieri's epic 1994 porn knock-off of Coppola's DRACULA (1992). Although it's never been dubbed or subtitled and I only know about five words of Italian, I know the acting was better in Salieri's DRACULA than Argento's cringer. How do I know? Well, Ron Jeremy plays a throat-slashing coach driver in it and he is a friggin' master thespian compared to Unax Ugalde.

I keep seeing random people on-line struggling to try to find something positive to say about it by saying that Argento endeavors to make it a faithful adaptation. This begs the question, "what f'n book did you read?" Granted it has been some 25 years since I've read the Stoker novel, but I do remember a guy named Johnathan Harker being the central character... and a surviving one at that. Also I seem to be unable to recollect the ax murder scene, or the scene in which Mina washes Lucy's buck-nekkid body discovering the bite marks on the back of her knee (Lucy's rules: "no hickeys"), or the scene in which Lucy's father, Mr. Kisslinger is killed by Dracula who has invaded their house in the subtle guise of a giant mantis. Let me repeat that for the reading impaired: a giant praying mantis kills Lucy's dad. Is this an adaptation of Bram Stoker or a "Rolling Stone" correspondent with a head full of ether?

As it turns out Drac and the villagers had a deal. They give him selected morsels, plucked from their kindergarten, and he, errr, leaves them alone. Well, except for the stragglers who have sex with random guys in overlit woodland areas, I guess.

The villagers decide Drac has gone too far and they need to call in some dude named Van Helsing (Ruger Hauer), who used to be a doctor at an insane asylum that was infiltrated by the Count. Unfortunately for them, Drac had infiltrated their meeting in the subtle guise of a group of house flies! This guy is like Martin Landau in "Mission: Impossible"! Well, except for the drinking blood, slashing throats and using his mental powers to force the local constabulary to shoot himself through the mouth (complete with sad CG effects that echo THE STENDHAL SYNDROME). This self-plagerizing scene is actually one of the few bits to showcase some of the proudly advertised stereoscopic 3D. While many shots have some decent depth, very few of them are actually interesting. A scene early on where the camera placed at the bottom of a grave shoots a conversation two characters who are peering down in to the grave is a fantastic 3D shot, but is arguably the only interesting shot in the movie.

Much like Argento, Ruger Hauer was at one point an icon of genre movie cool whose career hit an apex and found the downward slope to be a bit sharper than anticipated after a certain point which makes his casting a little bit unexciting. On the other hand, his late entrance at the 72 minute mark adds an instant aura of professionalism that is much like having Kenneth Branagh suddenly show up at the end of ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007). It is a bit late in the game to be trying to class up the joint, but it's the thought that counts. All the more's the pity that Hauer isn't really given much to do other then get some breathy close-ups where he tries to lend some gravitas to an incredibly silly movie. Even worse, the character of Dr. Van Helsing (a merging of Dr. Seward and Van Helsing) is completely ineffectual, on several occasions turning up mere moments too late to prevent the death of a character. As for Dracula, Kretschmann is completely miscast and can't seem to breath an drop of life into the well-worn character. While he is intended (or just happened to be) the most dynamic character in the film, Kretschmann opts for more of a fashion-plate approach. There are moments where it feels like he's not so much acting as modelling his Fall Transylvanian designer wardrobe.

As much as DRACULA is a completely absurd bastardization of the source material (highlighted by Claudio Simonetti's wildly inappropriate and campy '50s haunted house musical cues), it's not totally unwatchable. I have to admit that I wasn't able to make it past the first 25 minutes of THE CARD PLAYER (2004), but this wasn't too hard to digest, if only because you know there's going to be something even more ludicrous right around the corner. There are some bits and pieces that are actually good ideas trapped in a very sloppy film. When Harker first arrives at the village, he is pestered by a house (castle?) fly. At the time it seems more than a little odd, but later in the film you discover Dracula transforms into a swarm of flies. It's one of Argento's pet obsessions and it is interesting, even if, as I said, poorly executed. Also Argento's version of Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni), is the village taxidermist, who does not eat bugs and was liberated from the village jail cell instead of a sanitarium. Has a wonderfully deranged appearance, complete with facial scars created from mere hours of wearing a restraining face mask. Unfortunately, in spite of what Argento said in pre-production interviews, there is no impressive camerawork aside from maybe a handful of oblique angles and the '90s era CG is used with an obvious and heavy hand. Matter of fact, you could easily remove Argento's name from the film and no one would ever know this was anything more than just another low-rent DTV vampire flick.

So basically, if you can separate yourself from the Argento of old, enjoy movies with sub-porno production values, acting that rivals cable access television and thorough butchery of classic literature, then DARIO ARGENTO'S DRACULA is not a complete waste of time... but close.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Cyber Monday: The CYBORG COP series (1993-1995)

If you’ve found your way to our blog, then chances are pretty high you’ve already seen a Nu Image movie.  They first jumped to fame with their animals-gone-amok films (SPIDERS series, OCTOPUS series, CROCODILE series, SHARK ATTACK series) starting in the 2000s that conned unsuspecting DVD renters into enduring poorly rendered CGI creatures attacking poorly paid actors in Bulgaria.  Amazingly, this success allowed them to start backing bigger films and soon you could see their logo theatrically on Stallone films (THE EXPENDABLES films) and other big budget stuff (the recent OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN).  To quote the old Virginia Slims ad, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  Indeed, the company founded in 1992 initially shot and distributed cheap direct-to-video action flicks in South Africa and was built on the backs of guys named Bradley and Zagarino playing robotic warriors.  Yes, they are the “House the Cyborg Cop Built.”


No doubt inspired by the huge international success of ROBOCOP (1987) and TERMINATOR 2 (1991), CYBORG COP was the perfect project for the fledgling company to kick off with. The film focuses on Jack Ryan (David Bradley), a DEA agent alongside his brother Philip (Todd Jensen).  Yes, his name really is Jack Ryan.  In the opening minutes, Jack and Philip show up at a hostage situation (not sure why this is a DEA gig) where a psychotic guy is screaming about wanting his mommy. Oedipal issues obviously irritate Jack and he shoots the baddie dead and saves the female hostage.  Bad news as it turns out this guy was the son of some publishing magnate and a pesky newswoman just happened to show up to capture Jack’s face on camera.  Damn it!  This incident results in him being banned from the organization (why?) and wallowing in self pity.

A few years later, Jack is hanging out with Philip, who mentions he is heading down to the Caribbean for a top secret mission.  He tells Jack not to worry and that he will be back in time to finalize the paperwork on adopting the orphan Frankie (Steven Leader).  OH CRAP! Philip is a dead man.  Indeed, his team’s siege on the top secret fortress of international baddie Kessel (John Rhys-Davies) ends in complete disaster as nearly everyone is blown up and Philip is captured.  This is especially bad news for him as Kessel just happens to be experimenting in creating cybernetic soldiers that he hopes to sell to the highest bidding countries (preferably of nefarious nature).  So Philip soon become a cyborg DEA agent, er, cyborg soldier.  Of course, the bad guys didn’t expect that Philip sent a package to Jack telling him he thinks things are going to go bad (no idea when he sent this as the film shows him jumping right into his mission).  So big brother is on a plane to find his kid brother faster than Schwarzenegger pouncing on the help.  Once arriving, Jack finds the local authorities to be corrupt and the only person he can trust is a, ugh, newswoman named Cathy (Alonna Shaw).

Initially announced in Variety as CYBORG NINJA (see ad below), CYBORG COP is the film that kicked off Nu Image’s, er, image as a direct-to-video action staple.  Catering to the world’s cinematic cybernetic cravings, the production is never going to be mistaken for one of the big boys (although I’m sure many a clueless father came home with it as a rental over the years and was scolded by his son with “dad, I said I wanted ROBOCOP!”).  The producers obviously had a Cannon state of mind going when they founded their company and it shows right down to casting David Bradley, perhaps the last Cannon star thanks to AMERICAN NINJA 3-5.  Bradley is adept at martial arts and all of his action scenes are well done.  It also shows in the hiring of Cannon staple Sam Firstenberg to direct the picture. He follows the Cannon model of “bigger is better” in terms of the explosions.  The film’s finale features the entire compound being blown to bits.  Another highlight is probably Rhys-Davies as the villain.  He is obviously having the time of his life hamming it up. $50 to the first person who can figure out just what the hell kind of accent he is trying though. South Africa plays the fictional Caribbean island well enough, although it does result in some laughable “eh, mon” bits.  Also, there are some great bits like a hotel clerk telling Bradley to stay away from a rough bar because he is a white dude and when they cut to the place, it is filled with white folks and a happy reggae band playing.

"You will never see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

Of course, my personal favorite bit was Kessel’s top secret underground lab having “exit” signs.  Yes, I’m a low grade villain bent on world domination, but I don’t skimp on building standards.

Thankfully, the producers didn’t skimp when it comes to the cyborg bits.  Now don’t go in expecting James Cameron level stuff, but you do get the gradual destruction of an evil cyborg (Rufus Swart) and the required cyborg arm.  I did laugh when they outfitted Philip with his new arm and opted to leave on the armpit hair.


Bradley and Firstenberg are back!  The first CYBORG COP must have fooled a lot of renters as this sequel hit shelves just over a year after the first film.

Part 2 wastes no time getting to the action as bad guy Jesse Starkraven (Morgan Hunter) and his goons lay the smack down on some rival drug dealers (who, naturally, make the workers do their duties in the nude).  Sounds like a job for the DEA and soon Jack Ryan is on the scene. Wait, how did he get rehired? Anyway, Jack and new partner Mike get prepped to take on this bald headed baddie.  Wait a sec…new partner…friend of Jack…and he’s black?  This dude is a dead man!  What they don’t know is Starkraven is welcoming this clash because the DEA killed his brother.  Sure enough, Jack gets his man but not before Starkraven kills Mike (told ya!) and swears his revenge.  No biggie for Jack as he gets to head home to his adopted son Frankie.  HOLY CRAP! Frankie is back.  Yes!  See kid, losing your first adoptive father ain’t so bad after all as now you have David Bradley as your dad.

Anyway, Starkraven is now the State’s problem, but things get weird when he is transferred by the ATG (Anti-Terrorist Group) in the middle of the night to a top secret facility that performs under the guise of hurricane research.  What is going on this lab?  Well, they just happen to be creating cyborgs out of inmates and soon Starkraven is rechristened Spartacus by the custody sounding Dr. Owns (Douglas Bristow). As in “I owns you cyborgs!”  Obviously, Spartacus is an advocate for robotic rights and decides to break his group of oppressed brothers out of their cybernetic confines.  What an ingrate, like we all wouldn’t kill for a weapons-replaceable hand.  And he couldn’t have picked a worse time as he decides to lead his rebellion when a bunch of VIPs are visiting to see the program’s progress. Nothing sells your backers like watching a cyborg rip off someone’s arm. Naturally, this is a job for Jack Ryan and he is soon tracking this metal militia, while butting heads with the corrupt sheriff and ATG bureaucrat Liz McDowell (Jill Pierce, so bad that her acting must be seen to be believed).  And he better hurry because Spartacus not only wants his revenge, but he is prepared to unleash it in the form of a nuclear bomb that will decimate all of Des Moines, Iowa.  Wait…this is set in Iowa!?!

"We gonna walk down to Electric Avenue..."
Like the TERMINATOR films, this opted for a “bigger is better” approach for the follow up. And I’m not lying when I say CYBORG COP II is better in every regard than the first film. Not that the first film was terrible or anything, but it seems like Firstenberg got a chance to reflect on what he did right and what fans responded to from the initial entry.  And apparently what fans responded to was action, action, action!  So we get double the amount of scenes of Bradley kicking people in the face.  In fact, Bradley is given a bit more of a smartass persona in this entry, to the point I’m shocked they didn’t have him do a DIE HARD 2 “how can the same thing happen to the same guy twice” line.  And we also get double the amount of explosions.   The film’s ending (in an abandoned factory, naturally) proves to be a virtual explosion orgy as everyone gets blow’d up real good (look for the same footage of one dummy being blown up getting used twice).  However, it is a showdown at a gas station during the middle of the movie that is the film’s highlight.  Not only do we get tons of huge explosions, but we get guys flying through glass windows and Bradley getting his John Woo on with two guns a blazin’.  If you see only one CYBORG COP film, make sure this is the one.


Fans of the Bradley/Firstenberg team will no doubt be disappointed to learn that neither one returned for the third (and final) entry in this series. Perhaps Bradley didn’t want to be typecast a guy who repeatedly kicks cyborg ass, so instead he went on to make films where he kicked human ass. Anyway, the third film tenuously tries to connect to the other films as the acting reigns are turned over to Frank Zagarino, who was helping Nu Image’s coffers as a cyborg in the PROJECT: SHADOWCHASER series they distributed, and Bryan Genesse, who also co-starred in PROJECT: SHADOWCHASER II.

CYBORG COP III or NRA wet dream?
Zagarino and Genesse star as Saint and Max, a couple of U.S. Marshalls who open the film by chasing a hillbilly pot farmer in an airplane. Their boss is soon offering them $5,000 each to find a female news reporter named Evelyn Reed (Jennifer Miller).  Wait, I don’t think U.S. Marshalls even do this kind of work.  Anyway, the guy who wants her is Sheen (Ian Roberts), owner of a top secret company in Iowa that is – you guessed it – dealing in human cyborgs. Seems Evelyn got a tip from conscience driven scientist who didn’t agree with their experiment of turning physical education students into emotionless robots.  Our intrepid reporter not only got some undercover footage of a cybrog in action (even killing her cameraman), but she also stole the main computer chip that allows the whole program to go forth.  Why?  Because, like I said, she’s intrepid.  So our heroes are on the case and battling a bunch of Sheen’s guys along the way.  Wait, isn’t Sheen the one paying to have her found? Why is he sending his own guys to kill the guys he hired?  Maybe he is a real cheapskate. Anyway, as you can tell, the resulting scenario ends with lots of stuff going boom.

Fans hoping for more of CYBORG COP II’s over the top metallic mayhem will probably be disappointed in this entry. Naturally, the first thing is fans will be missing David Bradley. I cried not knowing what happened to Jack Ryan and his adopted son Frankie.  It is equally strange that Zagarino, a man known for playing cyborgs in his sleep, is the hero this time around.   He and Genesse (woah @ his Southern accent) make a good team though. Director Yossi Wein cut his teeth on the first CYBORG COP flicks as the director of photography, so he definitely knows how to shoot an action scene.  And, believe it or not, this entry might have the biggest explosions (see pic) of any of the trilogy. So this film has plenty of explosions but they really skimp on the cybrog aspects. In fact, outside of some robot-o-vision screens, the only proof you get of a cyborg is the main guy having a tiny sliver of metal exposed on his face.  Not cool.  It was also about halfway through the film that I realized I was being lied to – there are no cyborg cops on display!  I guess the title CYBORG KINESIOLOGY STUDENT just didn’t have that ring to it.  It is this kind of schizophrenic nature that resulted in the film coming out on US video in 1996 under the generic title TERMINAL IMPACT rather than CYBORG COP III (to further confuse matters, a double feature DVD of this and CYBORG COP II calls it part III, yet the cover refers to them as CYBORG SOLIDER and TERMINAL IMPACT).

Friday, March 29, 2013

Obscure Oddities: BAD BRAINS (2006)

When Italian genre filmmaking bottomed out, it happened quickly.  How fast was it?  Faster than Eli Roth stealing an idea from a 1980s horror flick and then patting himself on the back for it.  Really, it was that fast.  One day we’re looking forward to Lucio Fulci’s return to form with the Dario Argento produced THE WAX MASK; the next day Fulci is buried six feet under and Dario begins an epic career plummet that starts with THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998). Completely shell shocked, we hoped and prayed for a savior for this once stately horror subgenre. A glimmer of hope arrived in the new millennium with director Ivan Zuccon.

I can’t even recall how I first heard of Zuccon, but I do know it centered on his two early H.P. Lovecraft adaptations (THE DARKNESS BEYOND [2000] and UNKNOWN BEYOND [2001]).  It was his third feature – another series of Lovecraft adaptations called THE SHUNNED HOUSE (2003) – that filed him under a guy to take notice of.  Zuccon filled his films with plenty of style, despite being low budget affairs.  And therein laid the problem – despite having oodles of atmosphere and superior technique, Zuccon shot all of his projects on video (Betacam), which is a major turnoff for most horror fans.  They mostly equate video with being “cheap and bad” unless it is done in a found footage/PARANORMAL ACTIVITY style (which, in my opinion, makes most of those films unwatchable).  Despite improving with every film and attempting challenging material (see Tom’s rave of COLOUR FROM THE DARK), the man couldn’t get noticed at a Fangoria convention unless he dressed up like Rob Zombie.

Regardless of international attention (or lack thereof), Zuccon kept plugging away at his craft with his busiest period being from 2006-2008 where he released 3 films.  To be honest, I wasn’t very excited when I saw the first trailer for BAD BRAINS (2006), his fourth feature film.  It was definitely a deviation from his earlier literary adaptations and I thought he was bending to the “torture porn” market created in the wake of Roth’s HOSTEL (2005).  What I didn’t know is that lurking behind the lurid exterior was a film that actually had some thoughts flowing through its crazed cerebellum.

The film centers on Davide (Zuccon regular Emanuele Cerman) and Alice (Valeria Sannino), two serial killers who live in an isolated warehouse.  Actually, they might take offense to the term “serial killer” as they see themselves more as “researchers” who are looking for something inside each of the individuals they kill.  What that is I can’t tell you or it would ruin the surprise.  Their lives are pretty standard as they kill, have sex, drink, and play with Alice’s human doll that she keeps locked up in a room.  Such banality is interrupted when a mysterious stranger, Mirco (Matteo Tosi), arrives at their hidden location.  The stranger admits he has studied the duo’s criminal exploits, but has no idea how to explain the supernatural connection between himself and Davide.  You see, when Davide kills someone, Mirco experiences a form of stigmata as blood will miraculously appears on his hands.  Even worse, if Mirco is injured, the wounds will soon appear on Davide as well, leaving our serial killers’ hands tied as they obviously can’t kill this guy.  So they decide to keep they stranger tied up for the time being and try to figure out just what his connection to them is and how it might relate to their brutal past.

An expansion of the Zuccon short film DEGENERAZIONE (1998), BAD BRAINS actually took me by surprise.  As with all of Zuccon’s films, he uses the video format well and doesn’t use that “inferior” format as an excuse to not be creative. There are well done dolly and tracking shots and (as always) some heavy dollops of atmosphere thanks to some well done lighting.  Zuccon also gives us his first dabbling in CGI as we get some computer generated insects (including a well rendered moth) throughout the film.  The acting is also very strong and all three leads do well in their respective roles.

As I mentioned before, I went into this with low expectations as I thought I was getting nothing more than a torture and shock show.  And while there are some brutal moments on display, they are balanced by a script that actually keeps you guessing with its multiple twists.  Imagine that – something that doesn’t just want to delight in Euro-trash chainsawing off fingers and plucking out eyeballs and instead wants to make audiences think, right down to the title.  The mystery behind Mirco left me wondering for nearly the entire running time and while I did figure out his role before the reveal, there were a few other swerves that I didn’t see coming at all.  It is truly a shame the audience for this is so limited (due to both being shot-on-video and being in Italian with subtitles) as one could see the mind games having a THE SIXTH SENSE effect on viewers. Or, as Tom more succinctly put it in our email conversation about the film: “If that had been made on a multi-million dollar budget by Eli Roth or Rob Zombie, fans and critics would be losing their f’ing minds.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Listomania: Thomas' The F Month 2012

Damn, it's almost April and I haven't posted pint-sized ramblings about some of the amazing stuff I took in. While I've been revisiting a lot of old favorites in HD (I was never really sold on old movies in squeaky clean digital formats until I revisited BLADE RUNNER on blu-ray), here's a minor sampling of random flicks:

PRISON (1988): Honestly, I'm shocked at how well this movie has aged. The new transfer from Shout Factory really throws that into sharp relief with the lush cinematography being beautifully represented in a new widescreen presentation. Will throws the switch here. This impressive production was made right before the collapse of Empire pictures, making their demise even more bitter. There's a huge amount of talent on a very small budget and it really comes together dead on target without a wasted minute. On the casting side, we have Lane Smith as the prison warden, who not only has a subtle character arc that would be completely flattened in a modern genre film, but he chews the grim, neo-gothic scenery to just the right degree. Even when wide-eyed, sweaty and drooling, he never crosses the line into camp. Of course there's this guy named Viggo who I don't think went anywhere after this, Hal Landon Jr, who once again is a guy with a badge who has his keys stolen ("Deputy Van Halen?"), "Tiny" Lister who actually shows a surprising range of emotions, and Irwin Yablans' son who had the opportunity of playing the "special friend" of "Rhino" (the very real convict Stephen E. Little who was shackled in full restraints when the camera wasn't running). A real sleeper classic that never really got its due until now.

MEAN GUNS (1997): Albert Pyun has always had an erratic career. Even in the early days he transitioned from one of my all-time favorite films, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982), right into the completely off-the wall post-apocalyptic, neo-noir accented, action-comedy with song and dance routines, RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1983). Even so, there is a point where Pyun's output turned into some seriously rough riding. As fellow Junkie Will has mentioned in the past, MEAN GUNS is that tipping point. The last of the entertaining Pyun films. I'm not saying this holds up to NEMESIS (1993), CYBORG (1989) or even BRAINSMASHER... A LOVE STORY (1993), but it is fun. Which is a hell of a lot more than can be said about LEFT FOR DEAD (2007), a movie that I have tried and tried to sit all the way through several times over the years. The premise of MEAN GUNS is simple, but the, *ahem*, execution is what makes it. Mafia middle-management badass Vincent Moon (Ice-T) is given the seemingly laborious assignment of smokin' roughly 100 criminal scumbags who screwed up in the eyes of the mob. After sending them all invitations, they all show up in a soon to be opened penitentiary (ironic, no?) where instead of simply gassing the place and heading home for a cocktail, Moon offers them an ultimatum. Instead of simply being shot on the spot, they can kill each other with weapons provided and the last three standing will be allowed to walk free. Oh, and there is a cash prize of $10 million stashed in a suitcase somewhere in the prison.
That's really about it. Alliances are formed, dissolved (violently) and we get bits and pieces of some of the infractions that brought the criminals to this point, plus a little bit of character development with a woman (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who took some incriminating photos, but is by no means a killer. Christopher Lambert has the most interesting part as a guy who is sort of a renegade nutball and, in spite of being a calculated charmer, is not well liked and is known for making a bloody hash of things. Set to mambo music that Moon has piped in as a soundtrack to the best PPV ever (he sits in a control room watching the action via video cameras), MEAN GUNS isn't exactly deep, but it's fast-moving and fun to watch. It should be pointed out that the fun factor is largely diminished if you watch the cropped, poor-quality transfer that Lionsgate has has blessed us with here in the States on DVD and VOD. Pyun shot the film with a wide FOV lens that distorts at the edges. It gives the film an interesting look in widescreen, but in the cropped version it feels like you are watching the film with a fishbowl on your head. European DVD releases, such as the Italian and German editions, feature not only a much more detail picture, but the full-scope ratio that the movie desperately needs preserved, as evidenced in this shot comparison.

GLEAMING THE CUBE (1989): I really hated this movie back in the day. Christian Slater as a skater? In his f'n dreams! This utterly ridiculous 1930s "yellow-terror" murder mystery thrown on to a skateboard and given a day-go 1980s whitewash, comes complete with  Tony Hawk and the Bones Brigade in bit parts, and damned if it isn't 110% better in retrospect. While working for an allegedly Vietnamese grocery store, Brian Kelly's (Christian Slater) half-brother Vinh (Art Chudabala) is murdered by (allegedly) Vietnamese mobsters after finding some irregularities in a shipping invoice. If you've ever worked in retail, I'm sure you can relate. Set-up to appear as a suicide, the cops don't even question the fact that some kid decided to hang himself in the shower of a random motel that he never checked into. Now it's up to Brian to... hit the half-pipe! Oh yeah, and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Screenwriter Michael Tolkin's messages are writ pretty large in this movie. One being the "Asian menace" theme, the other is that being a member of a fringe group that does not conform to mainstream acceptance is not only bad, but will make you unpopular, unlayable and your parents will hate you. Ok, so that last part might be true. At one point in the movie Brian realizes that he needs to essentially dress preppy with a sweater, khakis and loafers in order to gain acceptance, from what appears to be the entire planet, and get the drop on the bad guys.
Hijole de la chingada! Check out the price of gas in LA!
Aside from (or because of) the wonky messages and laughable stereotyping, the most amusing bits in the movie are the unintentionally hilarious skate scenes in which Slater is doubled by the considerably skinnier Hawk and the considerably more talented Rodney Mullen. Actually seeing Mullen in a bad Slater wig during a segment in which an angry Brian is supposedly skating off his pain at the loss of his brother by doing Mullen's patented, whimsical flatland tricks is nothing short of hilarious. The skate-aesthetic production design is actually really ambitious with each skater having a completely different, highly detailed bedroom set. Clearly the design team were having a ball. The movie has gotten quite popular over recent years due to the intense '80s kistch factor and fun action set pieces, but there's more than that to get a kick out of. There is a whole host of priceless dialogue, my favorite line being when the coroner is checking out Vinh's body and says "shit, kids didn't kill themselves when I went to highschool, what the hell is going on around here?" Plus you have Slater starting a car by sticking a skateboard truck-key in the ignition lock (!), a cameo by Buddy Joe Hooker in a red Corvette, and Tony Hawk in a Pizza Hut delivery driver uniform (why was this never an unlockable outfit in the Pro Skater games?). Sure, it's not going to change your religion, but it is much more fun than it deserves to be.

BUSTING (1974): Peter Hyams has had a wildly erratic career as a director, but you can't accuse him of following the herd, not even when he has formula stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme in front of the camera. Here, in his first feature film, Hyams directs Elliot Gould, known for making weird films, and Robert Blake, known for being weird. Even though this follows a trend of early '70s disillusioned cop movies (1972s THE NEW CENTURIONS arguably being the poster child for this sub-genre), it definitely marches to the beat of its own drum. Gould and Blake play Keneely and Farrel, a pair of shabby, cynical vice detectives who have good intentions, but seem to make a hash out of a simple bust of a high-class hooker. The minor foul-up is less important than the fact that she has friends in high places who don't want to see her busted, nor her crime boss Rizzo (Allen Garfield) who seems to have bought off the entire Los Angeles police force. Every time they try to follow up on Rizzo, they get knocked down by the chief who is being told to put Keneely and Farrel on a short leash. In addition to the off beat performances (Blake seems like he was shot-up with thorazine before every scene), there are bizarre "comic" sequences of the duo being put on menial tasks such as hanging out in a men's public toilet waiting to be propositioned or better still, being ferociously attacked by a mob of cross-dressers in a gay bar that is envisioned with red lighting and hand-held camera work. The punchline to the latter scene is Keneely leaning up against a car while Farrel examines a bite on his leg, rhetorically composing a letter to his parents "Dear Mom and Dad, how are you doing? I am swell. Fag ate my leg. Your son, Michael." Trust me, I'm not taking that out of context. Hyams ropes in a few cool bit players as well, with Antonio Fargas playing a catty queer (again), Sid Haig as one of Rizzo's henchmen and even Michael Lerner shows up briefly. Imagine THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972) on pills and dope with don't-give-a-shit attitude and you kind of get the picture.

HOT STUFF (1979): In his massive career spanning over 50 years of television and film, Dom DeLouise only directed one feature film and this is it. Personally, I think if you are going to direct only one feature film in your half-century career it should be written by Donald Westlake with a title song by Jerry Reed. I think that's fair.
A group of frustrated undercover cops (DeLouise, Jerry Reed, Suzanne Pleshette and "The Electric Company's" own Luis Avalos) get tired of trying to bust the  perps the hard way. You know, with warrants, miranda rights and random ball shots. Also plaguing their careers is the wrath of their hot-tempered chief (Ossie Davis) who wants them to go by the book, goddammit! Seems that whole angle isn't working, so they get the idea to set up a pawn shop where they can pretend to be fences allowing them to videotape the scofflaws in the act of selling their stolen goods. Once the team has spent all of the department's money on buying up stolen goods, they'll just round everyone up and arrest them. What could go wrong?
Ok, I'm not going to try and sell you some line about this being a piece of subversive cinema in mainstream clothing, but it does have a nice grimy backdrop.
Westlake (with the help of ham-handed script-doctor Michael Kane) dial in a nice combination of freewheeling action and what basically amounts to stand-up comedy cameos. Additionally, in spite of Burt Reynolds' conspicuous absence (apparently too busy with the 1979 romantic comedy STARTING OVER), we still get Trans Am action sequences, though it does amazingly transform into a beat-up Camero right before it is blown up by the mob. When I was a kid I was fascinated by Stockton, California's seedy bars, pool halls and pawnshops (which puts me in good company as FAT CITY was famously shot there in '72). Maybe that's why this movie made such an impression. Watching this through a kid's eyes in a Stockton theater made it seem like this could be happening right down the street. Though I really couldn't fathom what was so damn funny about those skinny cigarettes.

TOTAL RECALL (2012): Well, since you asked, my opinion of Colin Farrell hasn’t changed in the slightest. I’d say he was miscast, but that implies that there is a role that he would be good in. As for this film, it’s amazing how much stuff they rip off from movies that they are not remaking. They did a great job of re-creating Mega City 1 and Los Angeles 2019. You see, the basic premise is that there are only two inhabitable areas left on earth. Both are highly compact city states, like I dunno… a “mega” city. On one side of the Earth we have the affluent, totalitarian UK (blatantly stolen from "Judge Dredd" comic books) and on the other side of the Earth is the poor downtrodden Down Under (blatantly stolen from BLADE RUNNER). There is a massive shuttle transport that runs through the center of the earth in between the two, mainly to ferry poor menial laborers from the oddly dystopian outback into the unsurprisingly Germanic Pommyland to assemble military robots. As a political ploy the prime minister of the UK (*spoilers!*) sets up a rebel movement in Oz, so that he will have an excuse to invade with the robots the their own population has assembled. It's not really a remake of the Schwarzenegger film (which bizarrely is now being vaunted as a "classic" of the genre), though it does throw in a few reworkings of "classic" bits from that film that are about as welcome as a homeless guy at a Republican convention. Just in case you were wondering, the tri-boobed prostitute was not in the original Philip K. Dick story. On the plus side, those bits are the only parts of the film that fall into camp.
He say you... eh, you know.
Who is the Law?
The really interesting thing about this movie, is not so much the movie, as the studio's interference with it. Columbia contractually bound director Len Wiseman to created a short, “dumb” edit for theatrical distribution. In spite of studios dumbing down movies for decades, this is a pretty amazing example. The director’s cut, which can be found on a limited blu-ray, has a staggering total of 92 changes. Ninety two! In my guestimation some 80 of those changes are story/character/dialogue related, not only adding depth and complexity to the film, but also significantly altering the story and characters. Many parts of the film the studio felt would be simply too confusing for the average movie goer. I mean, obviously you wouldn't want to challenge the viewer to actually think during a movie! Particularly not a Philip K. Dick adaptation. Too bad there weren’t a few more changes removing all the annoying CGI lensflair. I love the irony that a majority of the criticisms aimed at the film were from an audience and critics who hated it's simple-minded approach that neither offered an interesting plot and characters nor a straight-up remake of the original adaptation. No doubt Columbia has blamed the hatred on a hater market that is not interested in science fiction.
Personally, I didn’t hate it. It fumbles a lot of stuff (like casting Farrell and Jessica Beil), but it’s definitely not a remake. There are three or four scenes that deliberately echo the Arnold movie and I don’t know why they even bothered. Maybe that was something else that Columbia demanded. They changed some stuff back to the way it is in the original PKD story, but then changed other stuff to make it a high concept Hollywood film. Interestingly while in the theatrical film Farrell receives video-recorded messages from his own post Rekal self, in the director's cut we have Ethan Hawke leaving those messages. I think this is the one time in my life that I've been delighted to see Ethan Hawke in a movie.
This version of TOTAL RECALL really doesn’t hold much to the source material, borrowing liberally from other films, but it’s definitely closer than the Paul Verhoeven film. That's got to count for something.