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!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #93 - #95: The Many Journeys of C. Courtney Joyner

In part one of our C. Courtney Joyner profile, we covered a trio of unmade films from the 1980s, a decade where Joyner was a fairly busy man.  Well as the 1990s rolled around, he found himself even busier.  Having survived the collapse of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, Joyner soon found himself the most consistent screenwriter at Band’s new company Full Moon Entertainment.  He even wrote and directed a couple of features while there (TRANCERS III [1992] and THE LURKING FEAR [1994]).  While the scripts were high on creativity, the films were low in budget and suffered as a result.  Not to worry though as Joyner soon found himself graduating from B-movies to becoming part of the A-team as his screenplays in the new decade took a more adult tone and attracted some major players.

#93 - DOUBLE ACTION MAN (WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN) (late 80s/early 90s)

Erotic mystery-thrillers were all the rage in the late 1980s to early 1990s thanks to films such as FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) and BASIC INSTINCT (1992), so it isn’t a stretch to think the similarly tinged DOUBLE ACTION MAN sprung from there.  The ironic thing is that despite being one of Joyner’s personal favorites of his unproduced scripts, it initially didn’t start with him and was written before the T&A thrillers were doing big business. “DOUBLE ACTION MAN was a script I wrote for an independent producer,” he reveals of the script initially written in 1986.  “They had a script that was not good and they hired me and it was basically a case of ‘guys, you just have to throw away what you have.’”

Replace "daughter" with "wife"
Joyner’s basic instincts (ah, boo yourself) proved correct as he put together a tight screenplay that explored how one man reacts to the crushing duality of his spouse. “The plot was that a Joe Blow, average American guy has his businessman’s job and his wife is selling real estate,” he explains of the script’s design.  “And his wife is murdered.  He finds out that in fact she was not selling real estate, but she was a high priced escort and that she was also doing pornographic movies for the money.  It was really our version of [Paul Schrader’s] HARDCORE (1979), where he has to go and explore this whole other side of her life that he didn’t know existed in this underbelly.”

Initially Joyner was looking to make this his third directorial effort, a sharp 180 from his first two genre features.  However, as the script’s reputation grew, he realized it might be something bigger than what he could handle. “We were going to try and do it for kind of a low budget or mid-range budget,” he says.  “That would be cool to try and set me up as a director because I had my eye on that, but the project was too big.  We required someone who knew what the hell they were doing, not me.”

John Flynn directs James Woods
on BEST SELLER (1987)
The project soon found itself in the very capable hands of John Flynn, director of such hard-hitting thrillers as THE OUTFIT (1973) and ROLLING THUNDER (1977).  With Flynn’s involvement came attention from a number of well-known Hollywood male leads.  Expressing interest in the project were James Woods, who had previously worked with Flynn on BEST SELLER (1987), John Travolta and even David Bowie.  The script also saw a title change to WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN, a title which was later bought for the Andy Garcia-Meg Ryan 1994 alcoholism movie.

Unfortunately, the project was never able to get off the ground. When asked during our conversation which of the screenplays he wished had been made, Joyner cited this one.  “I liked that script, I was proud of that script,” he reveals.  “I loved working with John [Flynn].  I really thought that was a good piece.  That was disappointing that it didn’t happen.  To be able to have meetings with James Woods and all that, I got very excited about all that.” Alas, all hope is not lost though as Joyner currently owns this script 100% so perhaps we’ll see it one day in the future.

#94 - OUT OF STEP (early 1990s)

Paul Maslansky
Another popular subgenre during the 90s was the “______ from hell” that saw everyday relationships turning to chaos for (usually white) couples.  We got the roommate from hell (PACIFIC HEIGHTS [1990]), the babysitter from hell (THE HAND THE ROCKS THE CRADLE [1992]), the roommate from hell again (SINGLE WHITE FEMALE [1992]) and even the secretary from hell (THE TEMP [1993]).  Life is hard out there for suburban white folks, cinema told us.  So what could be even more terrifying than all of those “from hell” entries? How about step children?  As if divorce weren’t bad enough.

Producer Paul Maslansky was trying to get steer away from his POLICE ACADEMY work and return to the type of thrillers that he began his career with as he was producing THE RUSSIA HOUSE (1990) at the time.  It was Joyner’s work on DOUBLE ACTION MAN that brought him to Maslansky’s attention.  “Paul had a fellow working for him at the time whose name was Phil Goldfine,” he says. “Phil was always very supportive of me and I believe WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN was the script that he read.  He liked it a lot and Paul liked it.”

Joyner was brought in and given the idea for this thriller by Paul’s wife at the time, Sally Maslansky. “She had an idea for a thriller about stepchildren terrorizing their new mother,” he explains.  “I thought that was an interesting take on the thriller, kind of turning things around so instead of the evil stepmother it is exactly the reverse.  And, of course, the father doesn’t want to hear anything bad about his own kids and all of that stuff.  It was interesting.”

Producer Richard Donnar
If Joyner’s DOUBLE ACTION MAN attracted big male names, then this Warner Bros.-owned script did the exact opposite as the tale of a stepmom battling evil step kids drew the attention of several big female stars at the time.  Kathleen Turner and Michelle Pfeiffer, who has just worked with the Maslanskys on THE RUSSIA HOUSE, were mentioned as possible leads.

Even after the Maslanskys exited the picture, the script drew even more attention.  “I remember a year or two after it didn’t happen with the Maslanskys that Richard Donner and [his wife] Lauren Schuler got involved,” Joyner discloses.  “And so did Sally Field.  [Her production company] Soapdish stepped in and they got interested in it.  Whether they just read it and said, ‘we might be able to do something with this’ or whatever, then they either decided they didn’t want to move forward or hire another write or what have you.  That was just a straight writing assignment.  We did it, everybody seemed pleased but it didn’t go further than that.”
#95 - MINDFIRE (early/mid 1990s)

We don't have much on MINDFIRE,
so here is a mind on fire!
The world is constantly bemoaning the lack of originality coming out of Hollywood.  Well, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying on Joyner’s part.  The last unmade script we’ll discuss this time is MINDFIRE, a spec script that Joyner wrote and plays out a like cop thriller with a little extrasensory perception on the side.

“MINDFIRE was about a young girl who was psychically connected to a maniac,” he reveals.  “What he does is he can understand the connection and make her have delusions.  So she feeds the police false information without knowing it. That was the idea.  I thought if you had someone else is psychically aware, can’t they be manipulated.  It is like if someone is eavesdropping on your phone, can’t you feed them misinformation?  This would be the same thing, but only with psychics.  It’s in there on the shelf, maybe I ought to dust that one off.”

Despite having one of those hooks that movie execs love to hear (“It’s LETHAL WEAPON with E.S.P.” you could say), the script never got made.  “Nothing every happened with MINDFIRE,” Joyner reveals of the early 90s action-fantasy script. “My manager at the time, Cathryn Jaymes, was very good at getting my stuff out and that went to Joel Silver and Larry Gordon.  Nobody ever jumped at it, but it got me some meetings about potential writing assignments.”

Stay tuned for our third and final part where we discuss some of Joyner's more recent efforts.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sci-Fried Theater: DOCTOR MORDRID (1992)

From an outsider’s perspective watching Charles Band movies over the decades can be a pretty maddening thing. I imagine Band’s career as a pinball machine with Charlie as the ball. Slamming from one project to the next, sometimes hitting the jackpot, sometimes draining straight down the middle, and more often than not simply spinning wildly out of control bouncing from one bumper to the next. One minute you could be knocked out by PUPPET MASTER III (1991) and the next find yourself face down in a pile of DEMONIC TOYS (1992). Amid all of the insane stories of misappropriated funds resulting in budgets being cut in half, productions halted and lawsuits pending, Band managed to surround himself with some very talented people. Because of this talent and Band’s difficulty managing finances, Band’s output is a bit like certain types of wine. Some years are much better than others, and many, once thought simplistic and fruit forward (cheese forward, maybe), are better sampled after being put up for a decade or two. DOCTOR MORDRID is in no danger of overshadowing any of the proper classics of the Empire era, but I will stick my neck out and claim it to be the best of his releases in 1992, a vintage that produced bottles that do not mature well, no matter how long they are put up.

When I was a kid in the '70s, there was no comic book cooler than "Doctor Strange". Never mind that I had no clue that writer Steve Englehart was running around seedy mid-'70s New York, loaded to the gills on LSD coming up with the story-lines while brain-cells popped like Orville Reddenbacher's on a Blockbuster night. While I may have missed the seemingly obvious allure of the psychedelic cosmos and consciousness expanding story-lines, no other comic book delivered surreal alien landscapes, demons summoned from alternate dimensions or a hero that was as cultured, suave and sophisticated as Stephen Strange. Brought to life in 1963 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Dr. Strange started out as a successful, vain and shallow neurosurgeon who loses the ability to perform surgery after a car-accident that crushes his hands. After searching the world for a way to repair his hands and his illustrious career, Strange finds himself deep in the Himalayas in the temple of the Ancient One. He proves himself worthy by saving the Ancient One from a traitorous disciple and is taught the ways of sorcery and the mystic arts.

It has been a long-running belief that back in the early days of Empire Pictures, Band somehow managed to score the rights to Marvel’s psychedelic sorcerer series “Doctor Strange”. What makes this idea plausible is that this is during a period when Marvel was on the ropes. Comic books were considered outdated kiddie fare and super heroes were definitely not what the cool kids were into. Spider-Man had zero street cred, even though Marvel beat DC to the punch by offering more mature story-lines to an older audience, with stories such as The Death of Jean DeWolff in '86. Dark days indeed. Needless to say you could license a Marvel property for pocket change. Assuming this was true, like many contracts, Band’s option had a clause in which the rights would revert back to the owner if the film didn’t start principle photography by a certain date. Apparently Band wasn’t able to get his proverbial stuff together to get the cameras rolling in time to make use of the property and faster than you can say “Munnopor's mystic moon” Doctor Strange vanished from Empire’s drawing boards. Or so the story goes.

This sounds just as plausible as Roger Corman securing the rights to do a sequel to the 1979 bomb STAR TREK and pulling a Weinstein, just sitting on the property until the option expired. You’re telling me that Charles Band ponies up a wad of cash in advance for a high-profile property and he let it lapse without even advertising it for over-seas distribution? No sir, I'm not buying it. Don’t get me wrong. If the gloves hit the floor in Detroit bar, I’d back Charlie’s play, no question, but let’s be honest here. Charlie is one cheap bastard and even in the halcyon days of Empire, the only adaptations he made were of H.P. Lovecraft stories, and I’m reasonably certain that it was only because they were in public domain and didn’t cost him one thin dime. Nope, I'm not buying it, but I am pretty sure I know how the rumor got started, back in the early 1990s...

In 1986 comic book legend Jack Kirby had said goodbye to Marvel for the second time and was working intermittently for DC. The details are sketchy at best (oh like you could do better), but Kirby agreed to draw up some concept art for a film called DOCTOR MORTALIS, that was clearly inspired by Steve Ditko's "Doctor Strange". This was to be a part of a two-picture deal with Kirby, the other half being a film about a paralyzed protagonist who controls a giant robot of doom, titled MINDMASTER. Rumor has it that Kirby intended to be producer and maintain creative control. Somehow, this deal went sour. I think that it’s a safe bet to assume two things. That Band wasn't about to let anyone else have that much power within his Empire and that there was going to be a financial obligation on Band’s part, leaving Kirby to walk after coming up empty handed. Of course, never one to let an opportunity slip, almost a decade later, Band decided to push forward with the projects on his own... And when I say “forward” what I mean to say is “sideways”. MINDMASTER transmogrified into 1993’s MANDROID and as for DOCTOR MORTALIS… Making a rip-off of a high-profile license and then ripping off the rip-off after the deal dissolves? That sounds more like the Charlie we all know and love. Think that's a little harsh? Not at all. Check out this Jack Kirby comic and an unlicensed Full Moon film which bears the exact same title and came out in 1996, only two short years after Kirby's death:

Jack Kirby's "Head of the Family" (1973) and Charles Band's HEAD OF THE FAMILY (1996)

Jack Kirby's "Mindmaster" (1986) and Charles Band's MANDROID (1993)

The only relics that remain of this two-picture deal was a brochure for the pair of films used for promotion as well as advertisements and announcements in Variety. The really interesting thing about the brochure is that it contains a three paragraph synopsis of what, presumably, the finished film might be about. It is unknown whether this was written by Jack as part of his pitch or whether this was written by the Empire Pictures marketing department, simply to have something to help sell the concept to investors and distributors.

Jack Kirby's original pen and ink
showing Dr. Mortalis and his
sidekick Egghead surrounded
by the forces of evil
In the early ‘90s Band decided that the time was right to made DOCTOR MORTALIS! Didn’t we just say that the deal went sour? Never mind, that’s not important right now. Oh, wait, he still needed a script. Never mind, that’s not important right now either. Let’s sign a cast on to the project first. After getting Jeffrey Combs to agree in to appear in the lead role, Band changed the name again, this time to DOCTOR MORDRID and had a new poster commissioned with the full title to be DOCTOR MORDRID: MASTER OF THE UNKNOWN. This title has caused some head-scratching over the years, but I've always felt it was was appropriate. The "Doctor Strange" comics have always been filled with phrases that make no sense whatsoever, but sound really cool. In an on-line interview Band had this to say about the title: "I did it almost as a joke...Well, if you really think that through it's: well, what is he the master of? It's almost crazier than the METALSTORM one." Besides, that’s not important right now! Now that he had a cast and an “original” poster, he could sell the film! Oh, wait, what about that script?

After getting his cast and his poster art squared away, Band contacted C. Courtney Joyner, fresh off of scripting PUPPET MASTER III, to write the STRANGE-turned-MORTALIS-now-MORDRID. As it turns out, DOCTOR MORDRID is a film that Joyner calls his personal favorite. Because of Joyner's previous work with Band on Empire Pictures trend-setting prison-horror opus PRISON (1988) and the success of PUPPET MASTER III, Band chose Joyner to write the script. "Plus," adds Joyner, "Charlie and I had had lots of comic book conversations, so I think MORDRID just naturally fell to me, which I am very glad that it did."

Joyner (the one with glasses) and Friends
Mr. Joyner graciously filled us in on the fascinating production history of DOCTOR MORDRID:

"MORDRID has kind of an odd history; when I was asked to write it, I knew that Jack Kirby was involved, and this was the biggest thrill for me that you can imagine. I was, and probably still am, one of King Kirby’s greatest fans. It didn’t matter if it was Timely, or Marvel, of The Third World series – Jack was it. I think I read Stan Lee’s announcement about Jack leaving Marvel about thirty times before it sunk in (I was eleven, I think). Shattering stuff!  But then, came the DC period, and that first issue of THE NEW GODS, and it was like the sun rising again.

Stan Lee's
announcement in
Fantastic Four #102
September 1970
It might have been decades later, but the chance to write this little Jack Kirby flick was absolutely huge to me. Unfortunately, very shortly after the first discussions that I had with Charlie, I found out that Jack was no longer involved.   Charlie was, and is, a huge comic fan and had one of the best collections of comic books ever assembled at that time. He also had blown-up covers of Jack Kirby/Joe Simon monster comics from those early Marvel days lining the walls of his office – so I felt his heart was definitely in the right place for a project like this.

Big disappointment that Jack was no longer involved, but I was still super-hot to write a movie like this. I never did see a treatment, but there were all of these fantastic Kirby concept sketches, and materials that Charlie Band had used as promotional flyers, etc. for the film at places like the American Film Market. Great, great stuff.  I still have one of the promotional pieces hanging on my wall – Dr. Mortalis in his cape, conjuring, with the those great Kirby gremlins lurking in the background.  Of course, I recognized the association with DR. STRANGE right away, but to me, it was a full-on Kirby project and that’s what I cared about," said Joyner.

Full Moon was notorious for quick productions and tight schedules. Jeffrey Combs stated in a 1994 interview with the short-lived Imagi-Movies Magazine that he wished there would have been a sequel to DOCTOR MORDRID as his biggest regret was that he had no time to prepare for the role. He continues, "I just wish that I had been a little bit more involved in the creation of the character. Although I had been talking with Charlie (Band) for quite a while, I never got to look at a script, basically until we were about ready to go. I wish that I had, because I would have liked to have had the character be little bit more active. He could have used a little more humor. I found myself just standing around reacting to what everybody else was doing, as opposed to instigating things myself." This prompted me to wonder just how fast MORDRID was put into production.

Again, Joyner was a treasure-trove of information: "Most of the first drafts for the Full Moon stuff were written in three weeks or so. MORDRID was a little longer, just because I wanted to make sure and get the effects stuff down, and for a Full Moon movie at that time, it had a broader canvas. Plus, I knew I’d be writing for Jeff Combs, who’s a great friend, and I  wanted to get the Mordrid/secret identity dynamic down. I thought Jeff was great, as was the rest of the cast.  Again, this is all within the context of a small film, not a studio super-production, so I am definitely not claiming we were always successful in what we were aiming for, but the effort was there."

Albert Band (1924-2002)
Industry legend Albert Band shared directorial duties with his son, Charles, for the first time. Joyner fondly remembered the experience: "I worked more closely with Albert Band on this project than anything else we did together. He had a lot of input on the script, and he loved the Christmas tag for the ending. I can’t recall what I had originally written, but it bothered him, and he called and we came up with that over the phone.  I typed it up and it was FAXED over, and he shot it.  I loved Albert, plain and simple. He was my mentor and a great, wonderful friend, and to be able to write this film, which he was proud of, was very important to me.

I respected Albert greatly, not just for his horror films like I BURY THE LIVING, but also because he wrote the screenplay for Huston’s RED BADGE OF COURAGE, and had produced and written some great Euro-westerns, like THE HELLBENDERS and A MINUTE TO PRAY, A SECOND TO DIE.  Any Friday afternoon, if Albert was around, we’d be in his office, discussing those films and he’d tell me stories of working with Robert Ryan and Joseph Cotton. It was fantastic, and I think one of the keys to our relationship was how much I truly valued who he was as a filmmaker.  Albert Band was never just Charlie’s very nice Dad to me, he was someone with great history and experience."

When Joyner said that the assignment was in his wheelhouse, he wasn't kidding. This is clearly a project that he took to heart:  "I wanted to reflect the spirit of the comic books. In keeping with that, there were some story structure elements that seemed constant from book-to-book in the Marvel Universe. One, that the Kirby/Lee stories often started with a series of wild events, before the hero is involved (or summoned).  Whatever Galactis (or whoever) is doing, is actually happening before the Fantastic Four step in, as opposed to the heroes discovering a plan, etc. and trying to stop it.  Those events were usually in New York City, with people running in panic as something blows up or slime erupts out of the sewers, etc.  Kirby loved this one guy who would run to the edge of the comic panel, with his hand out-stretched.  When I was in grade school, I tried to draw that guy about a thousand times – (just to show how wacky I was – if you remember the old Marvel credit blocks with the nicknames – Jack 'King,' Smilin’ Stan, Big John Buscema, etc. I used to draw my own comics as 'Cavortin’ Courtney'!  Wow.) 

The other prime element I wanted to use was the time clock to some kind of an apocalyptic event – I recall the great visuals of the giant sword of Aasgard, that if it ever came completely out of its sheath, that was the end of the universe. Loved that stuff, so tried to inject those elements within our budget, etc. 

When I came up with the museum skeletons fighting – that was a touch of Harryhausen, and we had the great David Allen to do the animation. Charlie was fine with that scene – I thought it would cost too much – but he told me to go right ahead, and he made sure that we did it. I remember I had made a major gaff by including a pterodactyl among the animals, until David politely reminded me that the skin for the wings would be long gone, so it couldn’t fly. Goodbye pterodactyl!  One of the Kirby elements that David and his crew caught, I think beautifully, was the shot of the asteroid that’s now the prison. It really looks like a Kirby drawing inked by Vince Colletta for an issue of THOR – at least to me!  These little grace notes, really still excite me about the movie, and so I guess that’s why I return to them, because I really still wanted to capture some of the Kirby Spirit in what we were doing."

Richard Band scoring MORDRID
Joyner reflects on the the first time he saw MORDRID: "It was in a screening room at the office, and it was me, Albert and Stuart Gordon alone in the room, and from that great opening shot of New York City, and the slick look, plus one of Richard Band’s lushest scores – it felt like a different kind of Full Moon movie.  Stuart really liked it movie, and I think it was because it did feel different from say CRASH AND BURN or SEED PEOPLE. It was kind of fanciful (if I can say that), and Charlie and Albert’s co-direction was pretty seamless  I thought. They were both on the same page, with the tone, etc.

Richard Band (second from left)
scoring METALSTORM at Warner Studios
For me, MORDRID served another function: since Charlie was co-directing, he was very generous in keeping me on set to get to know the crew, etc. as I would be working with the same people when I directed TRANCERS, which was the next movie up, and which Albert produced.  Also, Adolfo Bartolli did, I think, a beautiful job shooting MORDRID, and I would work with him on both the films I directed. A great cameraman."

So with Joyner's help the mystery is solved and as an homage to Jack Kirby and Marvel Comics, rather than a blue-band Doctor Strange adaptation, DOCTOR MORDRID has aged considerably better than other Full Moon product of the period.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Prison Prescription: PRISON (1988)

It is hard to believe that PRISON (1988) is 25 years old.  It seems like just yesterday I was flipping through a newspaper in a tiny library when I came across the stunning skull artwork for its U.S. theatrical release. Sure, I’d read about the film in Fangoria, but had not seen the poster yet (remember kids, this was before the internet).  It was so stunning that I immediately demanded a dime from my mom to make a xerox copy of it. For some reason I had an obsession with prison films from an early age (thank you ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ!) and the idea of a horror set prison ghost movie was incredible.  Our cruel mistress Hollywood was also in love with prison horror at the time as a glut of low budget horror films set in prison (SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK, DESTROYER, THE CHAIR, DEATH HOUSE) came out during this period. PRISON, however, was the first and the best of the bunch thanks to its succinct script and creative direction.

The film centers on hard-as-nails prison warden Ethan Sharpe (Lane Smith, fresh off the prison pic WEEDS) trying to reopen a Wyoming penitentiary.  Sharpe has a history with this place as he was a guard here in 1964 and present during the institution’s final execution of a con by the name of Charles Forsythe.  The old school Sharpe thinks prisoners should be seen/not heard and soon receives confrontation on several fronts.  First from Katherine Walker (Chelsea Field), a prison board member bent on reform and prisoner’s rights, and later from Burke (Viggo Mortensen), a young con who bears a striking resemblance to Forsythe.  But those troubles are manageable compared to the supernatural presence that has been unleashed after the sealed off electric chair chambers are unearthed.  Yes, Forsythe is still around and not too happy that he may have been sent to the hot seat for a crime he didn’t commit.

Revisiting PRISON after so many years (I probably last saw it 15 or so years ago), it is amazing to see what a solid film it really is on all levels from the acting to the special effects. One of the best things about prison is the screenplay by C. Courtney Joyner.  Producer Irwin Yablans originally wanted to simply recreate his slasher success HALLOWEEN (1978) inside a prison (the initial script was originally called HORROR IN THE BIG HOUSE).  It was Joyner who suggested a ghost story and that set up works perfectly within the confines of a penitentiary.  Another impressive thing about the screenplay is how it is not only a great horror film, but it is a perfect prison film as well.  It hits every cliché we’ve come to know and love from this subgenre, but each with its only unique horror twist.  So we get a prison escape bit, but with a guy dealing with pipes rather than tough “screws”; we get the dreaded “in the hole” sequence, but with fiery results.  Best of all, it makes the audience more sympathetic towards the prisoners.  Yes, we’re actually rooting for the criminals and murderers (and ghost), which is what every prison film worth its salt should do.  COOL HAND LUKE’s Strother Martin would definitely be upset by the script’s ability to communicate.

The new Shout Factory Bluray/DVD combo pack collector’s edition is sure to please any of the film’s fans.  Released on a full frame VHS by New World back in the 1980s, this latest release offers a gorgeous new transfer presented widescreen (1.78:1).  Harlin has always been noted for his visual style, but I actually think PRISON might be his best looking film.  This is mostly due to the crumbling real-life prison that was used for the location, which is captured incredibly by director of photography (and Empire mainstay) Mac Ahlberg.  I also say this because the film was low budget ($1.3 million) so Harlin hadn’t yet fallen in love the over-the-top effects that filled his films after this.  He and his crew were forced to be more resourceful with their limited funds and that results in some more creative and visually impressive ghostly activity (the glowing fire door or barb wire attack being great examples).

The extras were a big incentive for me in picking up this release.  The biggest one for me was “Hard Time: The Making of PRISON,” a 38 minute documentary about the making of the film. Tons of people are interviewed about the film with the majority of the behind-the-scenes info coming from director Harlin, producer Yablans, and screenwriter Joyner.  There are some fascinating revelations (like Thom Matthews being considered for the lead and baddie Rhino being a real con).  Also offering insight into the film’s production are genre staples Charles Band, Richard Band, John Buechler, and Kane Hodder. Another exciting extra is a feature length commentary by Harlin.  It is surprisingly candid at points (he admits to being scared to death while making the film, his first American feature) and Harlin seems genuinely appreciative of the experience (going so far as to say his work on this helped solidify his belief in prison realism on his work for the ill-fated ALIEN 3).  He does seem to disappear for minutes at a time in the commentary’s last half, but it is still a great track.  Rounds out the extras are some trailers and a still gallery.  I would have preferred more (a commentary with Joyner would have been amazing), but to think this film has been given such attention nearly three decades later is a blessing in itself; many thanks to Shout Factory for granting the film clemency for a new generation of horror fans.

Rare pic from Lane Smith's heavy metal career:

Monday, February 18, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #90 - #92: The Many Journeys of C. Courtney Joyner

With Shout Factory releasing PRISON on Bluray this week, we figured it was time to unleash our mega-interview with that film's writer, C. Courtney Joyner, about some of his unmade projects over the years. Enjoy!

We’re a pretty easy going bunch here at Video Junkie, but we do have some rules.  And rule number 187 is that you must love C. Courtney Joyner.  If you don’t, you are gone, simple as that.  And if you don’t know who Joyner is then you best learn quick, partner!

C. Courtney Joyner is first and foremost a screenwriter responsible for some of the most memorable B-movies of the late 80s and early 90s.  He made his debut as a co-writer on THE OFFSPRING (1987; aka FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM), Jeff Burr’s horror anthology that proved to be one of the best omnibuses of the decade.  The success of this feature was quickly followed by PRISON (1988), the pinnacle of Hollywood’s glut of horror prison pictures at the time.  The hard hitting action/horror hybrid led to the sci-fi sequel CLASS OF 1999 (1990).  Returning to Mark Lester’s land of futuristic education dystopia, this sequel offered some of the hardest hitting cyborgs this side of Arnold Schwarzenegger and holds up to this day in terms of slam-bang action.

The success of PRISON also lead to a working relationship with producer Charles Band, who was forming his new company, Full Moon Entertainment, from the ashes of Empire in the late 1980s. Joyner scripted two of the best features from Full Moon’s golden era (PUPPET MASTER III: TOULON’S REVENGE [1991] and DOCTOR MORDRID [1992]) before stepping into the director’s chair for the mini-mogul Band.  And while he might be self deprecating about the quality of his two directorial features (TRANCERS III [1992] and THE LURKING FEAR [1994], which he both wrote as well), each feature holds up well and proves he did his best with limited resources.  Seriously, tell me any other Full Moon film that has a series of steadicam shots like TRANCERS III.  He has worked steadily since with over 25 features to his name.  In addition, he has authored several film books and contributed fiction to several anthologies.

Professional work aside, there is an even bigger reason to like Joyner – he is a film fan just like you and me.  His knowledge on cinema is both diverse and seemingly endless.  It is also enthusiastic and genuine (perfect example: a recent Facebook posting by Joyner of a rejection letter from Don Siegel circa 1977).  When I called him to talk about some unmade film projects, we spent nearly a third of the time talking about everything ranging from SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937) to Charles Bronson features.  In fact, if you’ve ever wondered why old Chuck is so pissed in the strip club scenes of MURPHY’S LAW (1986), it is because a certain Mr. Joyner was the man ogling Bronson’s love interest Jan (Angel Tompkins).

Joyner somehow survived Bronson's wrath:

Thankfully I was able to look past Joyner’s salacious past.  Assuring me he was fully flowing with some vitamin B12 and ginkgo, Mr. Joyner graciously allowed me to pick his brain on nearly a dozen unrealized projects from his past.


With such an expansive career over three decades, you just know Joyner would have other unmade scripts that I couldn’t unearth anything about.  And we started off right away as he told me about this unheard of early project that happened while Joyner was still in college at U.S.C. (amazingly, he wasn’t in the film department).  Joyner’s aforementioned love of genre cinema found him investigating one of the 1930s/40s most iconic and memorable bad guys – Rondo Hatton. The duality of the large actor, who suffered from the pituitary disorder acromegaly, proved to be an inspiration for the fledgling screenwriter. “When I was in college, a friend of mine started discussing Rondo Hatton’s life with me,” Joyner explains.  “And he didn’t really know who Rondo Hatton was, but he had read a really interesting article about his involvement with Sawtelle battle hospital here in Los Angeles.  He in fact was a counselor for soldiers who were coming back with facial combat injuries.  This was such a direct contrast because back then he is shooting THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK and these horror movies at Universal.  Anyway, I got very interested in this.”

Joyner started doing his research on Hollywood’s “brute man.”  Film historian David Del Valle got him in touch with Gale Sondergaard, who shared the screen with Hatton in THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946), and Martin Kosleck, who co-starred with Hatton in HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946).  Both actors were able to give the investigative screenwriter some first hand information on working with Hollywood’s leading bad guy.  Looking to gather further insight, Joyner called Universal Studios in the hope of meeting up with someone from the make-up department who might have worked with the legendary Jack Pierce.  It was here that Joyner made the shocking discovery that Universal was – as oft is the case in Hollywood – simultaneously developing a project on Hatton.  “Nick Marcelino, who was the head of the Universal make up department then, said, ‘Oh, are you working on this project with Virgil Vogel,’” Joyner reveals. “And I’m like, ‘What?’ He says, ‘Yeah, we’re doing the Rondo Hatton story here as a television movie.’  I was devastated.”

Director Virgil Vogel on the
set of THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956)
However, the disappointment was short-lived.  At Marcelino’s insistence, Joyner contacted the veteran director Vogel about the project.  “I’m like, ‘My God, you directed THE MOLE PEOPLE,’ he explains with enthusiasm.  “He couldn’t have been nicer and I had one thing he really wanted to see which was [a copy of] Rondo Hatton’s death certificate.  So he invited me to lunch at Universal.  I went there – I was still in college at this point – and Virgil was working on this project with a writer named Robert Heverly.”

Joyner soon found himself co-scripting the project now titled HOLLYWOOD’S STRANGEST LOVE STORY with the television veteran Heverly.  Unfortunately, the interesting project never got past the writing stage.  “It was going to be for NBC and I was paid,” Joyner says, “but the network decided not to go ahead with it. So that started my collaboration with Virgil.”

#91 - NIGHTCRAWLERS (early 1980s)

Director Jeff Burr
While his first screen credit may have eluded him, Joyner didn’t have time to be disappointed.  His relationship with Vogel soon found him a busy man.  “I was working a lot with Virgil Vogel at Universal at that time,” he relates of his time at the studio in the early 1980s.  “I was very lucky and Virgil and I got to be very good friends.  So by the time I got out of college, Virgil and I were working together on some spec MAGNUM P.I. stuff and I was doing rewrites on AIRWOLF and all kinds of things because of him.”

Also at that time Joyner began collaborating with the man who would eventually end up getting him his first onscreen credit – fellow U.S.C. student Jeff Burr.  “Jeff Burr wanted to do a feature and so I wrote NIGHTCRAWLERS as a feature for him to direct,” he discloses of the beginnings of their working relationship.  “Jeff had done a film [in college] that I actually did the make up on called DIVIDED WE FALL that he co-directed and co-wrote with Kevin Meyer. NIGHTCRAWLERS was going to be the first shot that we tried to get a feature going with Jeff as director.”

While plot specifics are a bit hazy, Joyner does remember the general idea behind the picture and it shows his excellent understanding of exploitation elements.  “It had vampires on motorcycles that lived in the sewers of Los Angeles and they come out at night and drink the blood of street gangs,” he says.  Wait, people that suck the life out of you in L.A.?  No way!  The group did try to get the feature going by taking it to one of Burr’s old bosses.  “We took it to Jim Wynorski [at New World] because Jeff had worked for Jim back when we were all in college.”

Ultimately, the project never happened, but this spec script did pan out professionally for Joyner in many ways.  As mentioned before, he went on to co-script Burr’s feature debut.  But NIGHTCRAWLERS also helped secure Joyner his first-post THE OFFSPRING gig.  “That was the screenplay that Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis read at Voyager Pictures and that’s how I got hired to write PRISON,” he reveals.

#92 - SUBTERRANEANS (1987/1988)

The Joyner-scripted PRISON is notable for a number of things.  It marked Renny Harlin’s U.S. film debut, effectively opening his avenue for a residence on ELM STREET and subsequent big studio success.  It also was the first lead role for relatively unknown Viggo Mortensen, who would soon find himself a leading man and eventually co-star in the biggest trilogy of all-time.  Perhaps less notable is that PRISON was the last film from Empire Pictures to be granted a theatrical release (via New World).  A modest success during its limited run of less than 50 theaters, PRISON showed Empire’s Charles Band that Joyner had a firm handle on successful shockers and the screenwriter was brought into the fold. Unfortunately, the Empire was about to fall.

SUBTERRANEANS was a pre-existing picture that Joyner was assigned.  Band has previously taken out an ad in Variety for the film in 1987 that featured tiny sinister simian-esque monsters carrying away a buxom beauty.  “Charlie would call you in the office and sometimes he would show you a poster, sometime he would show you a model,” Joyner explains of the producer’s movie making methods. “There were all kinds of different ways he would get projects initiated.”  The inspiration for this feature came from a far more practical purpose: Band’s recently purchased studio in Italy had a set in it he wanted to use. “The set was like an oil rig that was built for another project, not an Empire picture.  It was a standing set that was over there in Italy, maybe from Dino De Laurentiis or somebody.  So the whole thing was written around that standing set.”

Project announcement in Variety 
(alongside the ill-fated PULSE POUNDERS):

Roger Corman would be proud, no doubt.  As Joyner got to work on the screenplay, he fashioned a story that would have stood tall in the 1950s monster-mania era. “It involved giant worms,” he reveals, “kind of a REPTILICUS deal where they’re drilling and then they drill into this nest of worms.  They don’t know that is what it is so they go down into the caves to try and hunt them.”  To put the exploitation project more succinctly, he says, “The men get eaten and the women get raped.”  Sold!

Film announcement with projected
principal photography and delivery dates
As PRISON was unspooling on screens the summer of 1988, Joyner was working with director Danny Steinmann on preparing this killer worm magnum opus.  A veteran with three solid exploitation pictures (THE UNSEEN [1980], SAVAGE STREETS [1984] and FRIDAY THE 13th PART V [1985]) under his belt, Steinmann proved to be Joyner’s fondest memory of the unmade film.  “He was a pistol,” Joyner recalls. “I loved working with him. He was something.  He was a real New York guy.  His main thing that I remember is that he directed all of the narrative sequences with George C. Scott and everybody for the National Geographic specials.”  The relationship also allowed Joyner to unleash his inner film geek. “He had also done a very famous X-rated movie around the time of DEEP THROAT called HIGH RISE.  That was around the time of MISTY BEETHOVEN and stuff.  So I quizzed the hell out of Danny about the New York exploitation film scene, and he loved to tell tales.  He was a real character.”    

Film announcement with a little white lie
SUBTERRANEANS went through the normal scripting process with table readings, notes from the producer and the like.  Casting was never started by the director, but Joyner does recall that noted director of photography Sergio Salvatti had signed on to shoot the picture. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to many in the company, Empire was going through its death throes.  Despite the claim “principal photography has begun” in Variety, the film never went before cameras and by the fall of 1988, Empire was seized by Credit Lyonnais for its failure to make payments on a loan.  Joyner survived the ordeal unscathed as he went on to script CLASS OF 1999, resulting in his biggest box office hit.  And Band, never to let a good title die, morphed SUBTERRANEANS into the SUBSPECIES franchise for Full Moon, complete with a similar poster.  Steinmann, however, never recovered.  After this and toiling on the unmade LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT PART II in the late 1980s, Steinmann’s film work came to an abrupt halt after he was involved in a motorcycle accident.  He retired to Delaware due to his health, but still remained positive about his films, appearing in documentaries and offering several audio commentaries.  Sadly, he passed away in December 2012 at the age of 70.

Also interesting is the SUBTERRANEANS artwork lived on as it was used (most likely unauthorized) for an English VHS release of the Filipino fantasy film SALAMAMGKERO (1986).  Thanks to Torsten Dewi at Wortvogel for the scan:

Make sure to check out part two where we dive into some of Joyner's unmade works from the 1990s.