Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Monday, 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.”

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cinemasochism: BLACK MANGUE (2008)

Also known as MUD ZOMBIES, this is probably the first, and so far only, Brazilian river zombie movie in the history of cinema. Impressive sounding, right? Made on an extra low budget, using what appears to be home video equipment, and shot on location in picturesque Mangue on the mudbanks, this really could have been a contender.

The river-dwelling inhabitants of Mangue are having a hard time finding the usual fish and crab to sell to the sleazy middleman who collects all the catches and sells them to restaurants in the city. Even worse some folks are starting to take sick with a mysterious illness and there is some talk of a haunted mangrove.

Louis (Walderrama Dos Santos) is a skinny, mopey guy who pines after the local beauty Rachel (Kika de Oliveira) who doesn't seem to realize he exists. After some fishermen discover dead bodies are coming to life and attacking, the world is turned upside down (or rather turns into a STAR TREK set with massive shaky-cam action) and Louis and Rachel find themselves alone against the armies... uhhh, couples... of the undead. So now what? Slog through the mud to find more dead people, that's what! Ok, so technically the premise is that they are going to slog through the mud to find their relatives to see if they are ok. They aren't.

Along the way, we get what would normally be a subplot, but here takes up so much of the film's running time, that it is pretty much the main plot. Rachel is accidentally bitten by a zombie and slips into a catatonic state. In spite of the fact that most of the locals infected with zombitis fall on the ground only to pop back up seconds later, Rachel must not have been bitten that hard because she has plenty of time for Louis to come up with a plan. If I'm honest, planning doesn't seem to be Louis' strong point. Neither is talking, walking or shooting zombies. Louis must really hate the audience as much as he loves Rachel because he decides that the best thing to do is to find Benedita, the local old woman who may be some sort of witch-kinda-personage, but appears to be a guy in drag under a bunch of latex.

After finding Benedita (André Lobo, a guy in drag under a bunch of latex), she talks so slowly and at such length that sometimes you will forget what the point of the dialogue is. Sometimes you just won't know regardless of the speed of delivery. Her sage wisdom is: "we are in a place that is already dead, it is not possible to remain alive here" (oh of course!) but, she continues, the gall bladder of the local baiacu fish might save her! Let me guess. More mud-slogging? Damn skippy! Of course it takes about 10 long minutes for this information to be delivered and then Louis must go wandering around the river looking for the fish while avoiding zombies. This is every bit as fun as it sounds. Once the fish is grabbed and zombies are avoided, it's another 10 minutes with Benedita slooooooowly rambling on about nothing that is intelligible. I know 10 minutes may not seem like a long time in the greater scheme of things, but it's like being in line at the post office and having woman at the front seriously discussing which kind of stamps she might like to buy with the clerk and then going off on a tangent claiming that Obama has hidden a terrorist message in the one with the impressionist Christmas tree. Time expands exponentially by the measure of the pointless stupidity you are subjected to.

Finally, Louis and Rachel leave Benedita and head to the hills thinking they will escape. Thank f'n christ! We can finally get on with things and maybe get some action. But no! We cut back to Benedita who is now sitting alone and rambling very slowly to herself for another 10 freakin' minutes! Not only does no old person sound like that, but I can think of no other reason than shameless padding for having so much of Benedita rambling. Matter of fact the movie runs a full 104 minutes with almost no budget, some cartoonish gore effects that would have probably looked cool if they had been shot with a high-def, non-shaky cam set-up. Unfortunately due to the lighting and the poor-quality SOV production, as well as the crap camera-work, it's really difficult to see any details whatsoever rendering this as much fun as having your sibling flick the back of your ear during a family road-trip through Nebraska.

This CG version of the old "see through head" chestnut would be cool if it wasn't CG.

Writer-director Rodrigo Aragão desperately wants to make a Brazilian BRAINDEAD (1992) and lifts a few things from Jackson's film, and plenty from EVIL DEAD, to try to achieve that goal. One of the running gags is that every time Louis and Rachel try to get a little romantic, zombies bust up their love-in. It's a gag that is barely amusing the first time and wears thin fast. In addition there is a serious pacing issue. Aside from Benedita's maddeningly long, pointless rambling, there are scenes such as one where Louis and Rachel are trapped in a cabin as a zombie swarm surrounds the cabin and attempts to break in. Apparently these zombies are a bit sluggish due to their meat-only diet, as it takes them so long to slowly break into the balsa wood cabin that Louis and Rachel have plenty of time to sit down, relax and have a few discussions. So ludicrous is this that I expected them to put the kettle on at any moment. In the realm of the food biz there's a phrase that denotes a necessity of quick action, it's called a "sense of urgency". Rodrigo Aragão would never cut it in a restaurant and I'm hard pressed to believe these two slow pokes would ever make it through the first six minutes of a zombie apocalypse. There is an extreme amount of dead wood in this movie and it could have easily been edited down to a much more tolerable 75 minutes. As if all that wasn't bad enough we have an acting level that is on par with a Tempe Video release and what paltry amount of production cash they had, they wasted on stupid things like CGI steam coming out of stove pots! I was really hoping this would be a neglected masterpiece, but it just isn't. Interminable scenes of terribly acted dialogue that go on long past the point of madness, obscured effects due to shoddy equipment and inept camera-work and a leaden attempt at comedy kill this sucker like a headshot in a shopping mall.

Hmmm... something looks familiar here...

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Sci-Fried Theater: JOHN DIES AT THE END (2012)

I realize that this is probably not what you are going to want to hear. You want me to squeal with delight and shout "duuuuuuude! this movie is fucking siiiiick duuuuuuuude fuuuuuuuuck duuuuuude fuuuuuuuuck!" If that is what you want you want to hear, just so you know... I'm sorry for everything that's about to happen.

Actually, I liked the movie. Didn't love it, but I enjoyed it well enough. I really, really wanted to love it, if that counts for anything.

A couple of too-cool-for-school college drop-outs (from what I understand), Dave (Chase Williamson) and John (Rob Mayes), sort of run some kind of paranormal investigation service that we are told pretty much nothing about, but consists of them cracking one-liners at apparitions that they are blithely unimpressed by. One night, at a party (at which John's neo-punk band play a song called "Cannibal Holocaust"), a Jamaican guy named Robert Marley (Tai Bennett), hooks up John with some potent shit called "soy sauce" that allows the user heightened perception. Heightened to the point where you can see events happening through time and space, parallel universes and even other people's dreams... and it's not from around here. "I'll try to explain this without cursing," says Dave. "but the black shit from Planet X that came out from that motherfucker looked like it had grown hair. Did I mention that the stuff was moving? Twitching?"

Told in flashback by Dave at a Chinese restaurant to a reporter (Paul Giamatti desperately trying to steal scenes from Williamson), the film is a series of vignettes through various points in time over the span of what seems to be a couple of days. Starting with a phone call from John who has apparently lost his shit completely, trashed his apartment and is running around in his boxers, Dave finds himself in a police station being interrogated over the deaths of several of the party-goers from the previous night including Marley, who is found disemboweled with all of his flesh torn off. After John is pronounced dead at the station (yes, the title lies), John calls Dave up on his cell phone to help him escape the police station so that he can grab more sauce from the crime scene, so that they can continue to communicate and together (sort of) find out what happened. Of course there is a larger conspiracy at work here and I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that the sauce is a self-aware tool to repel an alien invasion from another parallel dimension. Eh... sort of.

I'm pretty sure this movie is one of those sort of films that is really only made for people who have already read the book, basically hitting the highlights without going through the rigors of actually having to set up characters and plot or really tell much of a story. I felt like I was watching a four hour epic that some suit in a studio office cut down to 90 minutes after having a fight with the director about theater bookings and how many a 240 minute movie screenings could be had on opening weekend. To say that it's episodic and thinly plotted is putting it mildly. Even Tony Jaa can feel like friggin' Tolstoy after watching this. That is not to say that it isn't well written at all. There is a lot of word-play going on, occasionally feeling a bit like someone read Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut and wanted to do something younger and hipper that would get people, who wouldn't normally be bothered, to pick up and read while waiting for their cell phone to be delivered after accidentally dropping the old one in the toilet. Often it's very clever, but sometimes it feels a bit forced, such as when John (via broken cell phone) instructs Dave to buy a bratwurst from a street vendor. He does and it's a fat, red sausage on a hot dog bun with a piece of lettuce on it. First off, that's not a brat, second who serves a brat with a piece of lettuce (in Illinois no less!)? The answer to that is a punchline; John tells Dave to look inside the bun and he will find a $100 bill. Dave looks and says it's only a piece of lettuce. That's the joke (a swerve on an old time-travel cliche), but it is really straining to get to that punchline and when you get there, it's a lot of effort for little reward.

Coscarelli's movie feels like a group of English majors had a spitballing session fueled by jello-shot sidecars laced with drops of untested lysergic acid diethylamide, watched NAKED LUNCH, GHOSTBUSTERS, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE and BILL AND TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY, and then decided to wrap all four in a crispy won-ton wrapper with plenty of cell phones and penis gags for dipping. Yes, my friends, if you are a fan of phallus based humor, this is your movie. Just like THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1996) was a gift of flatulent love to fans of the mighty fart joke, JOHN DIES AT THE END will be loved by penis punsters everywhere. This means that fans of the book can rest assured that the penis door handle has not been, uuhhh... manipulated, in any way. Watching JOHN DIES made me feel the exact same way as I did when I was 20 and decided to read a Goosebumps book to see what people were ranting about back in the day. This movie is aimed at a demographic that I am no longer part of. I don't have a bong on my coffee table, which is what I think this movie would be best viewed over in the wee hours of the morning. Mainly, though, the relentless smirking and mugging from the leads wears really thin, really fast. After all, that should be the audience's job.

While the leads are disappointing, Giamatti ferociously chews the scenery in his typically over-the-top fashion, which actually works well at the end when you find out what fate has in store for his character. Clancy Brown's underdeveloped televangelist-style paranormal TV personality Marconi truly does steal every scene he's in (which is sadly very few), and Angus Scrimm makes a meal of the appetizer plate he is given as a priest who gives some unexpected advice over the phone, with some great dialogue contemplating the nature of insanity and the inability to self-diagnose. These latter two, and maybe Giamatti if I'm feeling generous, boldly underscore the weakness of the rest of the cast. That said, Glynn Turman who has made a career out of playing cops, doctors, lawyers and elected officials does a really fine job playing a police detective that doesn't know what the fuck is going on, but will damn sure make it stop, even if it means shooting innocent people and setting mobile homes on fire.

Where the film falters in plot and construction, it definitely makes up for in visuals. David Wong's book (which I haven't read), clearly is interested in throwing as much wacky imagery at the reader as possible (always in a comic book way) and Don Coscarelli is more than up to the task. Better still, he uses a deft hand to inject his own signature visuals without reducing the film to tiresome overkill. His use of lighting, color saturation, lens distortions, color temperature and the like are all carefully handled, painting the screen with atmosphere, and setting an interesting tone for the scenes. There are several scenes that very subtly create the queasy sensation of things being... not quite right, which could have been handled in a flat, ineffective way in other hands. Also effective are both the practical and CGI effects, the former used liberally and the latter sparingly, which is exactly what we like to see. From toothy alien slugs and torn-up corpses, to exploding heads and flying mustaches, there is nothing really to nitpick here. Well, except for the climactic scene at the end with the dog and the bomb. What the hell happened there? Did the production run out of money all of a sudden?

Smirky teens and tweens will love love the bits of the film they see between text messages, and will no doubt bond with our bed-head buddies. Others may feel a bit like they've ridden an E-ticket ride that is a lot of fun, but is quickly forgotten. Your mileage may vary.

(no bloggers where harmed in the writing of this review)

Sunday, January 20, 2013


The world is filled with dangerous jobs – firefighter, oil rig worker, coal miner, bomb disposal officer.  But perhaps the world’s most treacherous job is independent film watcher. I’m not talking “independent” cinema like a Miramax flick where they proudly pat themselves on the back for somehow managing to make their film with “only” $5 million dollars.  I’m talking about watching films that were made for less than the cost of a Buick where the filmmakers had to beg, borrow and steal in order to get their film done.  9 times out of 10 you are going to suffer through some poor aping of a superior source (see Tom’s hazard duty with the makers of THANKSKILLING 3 trying to do their best South Park impersonation). Most times you will end up depressed as hell, wondering just what you are doing with your life.

However, there are those rare times you see something that is truly bizarre and original that it reinvigorates your desire for “outsider” cinema.  THE GRUESOME DEATH OF TOMMY PISTOL is one of those films.  Essentially a splatter-comedy anthology, this film is actually a surprising take on the struggles of one trying to stay afloat in even the lowest part of Hollywood’s underbelly.  Even more surprising, it is a sharp commentary on the desire for fame and the absurd lengths one will go to achieve it. And, in the biggest shocker, it is a film that actually has heart.  Oh, and blood, lots of blood to match that heart on display.

As Forrest Gump always said, "Life is like a 7-11 hotdog..."
The film opens with Tommy Pistol (writer-director Aramis Sartorio) running late for an audition.  When he arrives and pleads for a chance, the producer (Mia Tyler) bitches him out. To add insult to injury, the next scene has Tommy fired from his job at a bookstore after he insults the owner’s mom.  Arriving home with the bad news, Tommy is given a lecture from his wife (Karen Sartorio).  She laughs about his “dreams of being an actor” and splits with their son.  12 months later Tommy is still in a depressed funk and decides to quell his misery – as we all do – by microwaving a hotdog and masturbating with a penis pump.  With perhaps too much blood going to the wrong head, Tommy slips into a hallucinatory dream state and the audience goes right along with him.

The first segment shows a wide-eyed Tommy arriving in Los Angeles via train to live his dream of becoming an actor.  He tells the train conductor his plans and – in a fitting metaphor for the city – the guy spits on him.  Tommy checks into a fleapit motel with a horny Arab owner and jumps onto the bed, only to get up with a dozen syringes sticking out of his back. Coming off the unwanted high, Tommy gets a call to be on set that day.  He arrives at a warehouse and meets the Snuff Boss (Caleb Emerson, last seen harassing people on a bus in Damon Packard’s FOXFUR).  Yup, naïve ol’ Tommy’s first gig is to be in a snuff film.  Luckily, he is not “the star” but only the executioner.  Wide-eyed Tommy couldn’t tell the difference though as he marvels at the “set” and “props” for this lavish production.  He dives into his role with vigor as he kills his first victim (Mia Tyler again) with a cheese grater. This kid is a natural and the crew is all impressed (“Tommy, you’re a fucking artist,” screams the boss).  However, things get messy when one of the captive girls (Kimberly Kane) escapes and starts offing her captors.  Star-struck Tommy won’t have someone cutting in on his action, so he straps her down and uses her bloodstream to make a bloody Slip ‘n Slide.

She's having Gov. Schwarzenegger flashbacks
After a brief sojourn back to sleeping Tommy, we dive right into the second segment as Tommy moves up the Hollywood ranks as he sneaks onto the set of a big budget Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.  He poses as a Production Assistant for Ahhh-nold so that he can deliver the man his one-of-a-kind protein pies.  Tommy has ulterior motives though as he has drugged the pie.  Why?  Because he wants to skin him alive and wear his flesh.  “I just want to be you,” he says.  Think about that for a second.  That is some pretty damn awesome symbolism.  His plans, however, immediately go astray when he emerges from Arnold’s tent in his new flesh-suit and a P.A. yells, “Hey, that guy killed Arnold Schwarzenegger and he’s wearing his skin!”  Tommy then finds himself in a fight for his life as he must battle an army of rampaging P.A.s in typical Schwarzenegger film fashion and confronts an Asian girl P.A. who suddenly realizes she has amazing martial arts prowess after talking with her spiritual animal (a talking dog).  Seriously!

The third and final segment has a fat Tommy living at the top of his game as he is directing a bottom-of-the-barrel porno flick.  The greasy-haired helmer has to deal with his leading lady Daisy (Daisy Sparks) getting bitten on the ass by some spider and having a staph infection.  As the day wears on, she gets sicker and sicker after bursting the boil on her ass cheek.  As if directing a porno wasn’t hard enough, Tommy finds his leading lady missing so he conscripts a chubby P.A. (John Karyus, also last seen harassing people on a bus in Damon Packard’s FOXFUR) for the sex scene.  This doesn’t seem to bother male talent Grungy (“Anything with a pulse!” he exclaims).  But soon everyone on the set outside of Tommy becomes walking pus zombies and they squirt their sores all over the director.  Back in the real world, Tommy’s hot dog in the microwave explodes at the same time as his penis. This is bad news as he stumbles out of his house and tries to drive to the hospital, but doesn’t appear to make it.

The more you know about director Aramis Sartorio, the more THE GRUESOME DEATH OF TOMMY PISTOL makes sense.  The name Tommy Pistol is his porn pseudonym (nom de penis?) in real life, so it is fair to say he’s been exposed to some sleazy characters in his life. The film originally started out as the short called “Attack of the Staph Spider” (the final segment) and he was encouraged by friends to expand it into a feature length film.  As he started writing the screenplay, Sartorio conceived a story that follows his character from innocent dreamer to jaded cynic.  The old adage is “write what you know” and Sartorio seems to have taken the bitter disappointment of Hollywood familiar to so many folks and turned it into an absurd parody of climbing the Hollywood ladder.  I mean, you have a guy who literally will kill to be famous; who will wear someone’s skin in order to be famous.  It is actually serious stuff amidst the puke and pratfalls.

Despite being filled with gore and guffaws, the film works best in the quieter moments. The opening confrontation with his wife definitely hits home.  However, there is one scene in this that absolutely knocked me on my ass.  In the moments before his first kill in the opening segment, Tommy climbs a ladder and directly addresses the audience.  This Brechtian breaking of the fourth wall is a stunner and is legitimately one of the most heartfelt monologues I’ve seen in the past year.  It instantly reminded me of the bit Van Damme did in JCVD (2008) where he talks about the ups and downs of his career (much to my surprise, Sartorio mentions this bit specifically on the audio commentary as his inspiration).  When you go into a film with a poster featuring a guy holding a bloody cheese grater, you usually know what you are going to get.  I was not expecting a commentary on the struggles of trying to make it in Hollywood, let alone a scene that almost brought me to tears.  Maybe I was just really drunk?  Oh, damn, I don’t drink.

My only complaint with GRUESOME DEATH is one I can’t really hold against the filmmakers since they were working on such a small budget.  It is shot on video and that aesthetic really betrays the film sometimes. I completely understand why it was done that way, but had this been shot on film, it would have really opened up the film to bigger audiences. Also, the ick factor is so off the charts that it limits its exposure.  It would make Roger Ebert wish he had his jaw back so he could puke.  Not that he’d ever watch anything like this.  I say that because the film really does have a message to it and it deserves to be heard. Thankfully, I’m one of those hazardous duty types and don’t have an aversion to movies that let the emotions flow as freely as the bodily fluids.  THE GRUESOME DEATH OF TOMMY PISTOL is one of those rewards for years of having bombs blow up in my face – a film that stands on its own and is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.