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!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #96 - #98: The Many Journeys of C. Courtney Joyner

Joyner directing TRANCERS III (1992)
Having covered C. Courtney Joyner’s unmade works from the 1980s and 1990s in parts one and two, we now jump forward to the present to focus on some of his more recent projects.  The new millennium found the always active Joyner not slowing down.  In addition to scripts for television, Joyner got to write for some comics and contributed chapters to film books on Lon Chaney, Jr., John Ford and John Wayne.  In 2009 he also saw the culmination of years of work with the release of THE WESTERNERS, a collection of interviews with some of the western genre's best filmmakers.  Of course, he still had plenty of film ventures in the development stage at this time and in our final piece we’re going to examine three of them.

#96 - BLACK GLOVES (2005) 

Promotional art for BLACK GLOVES
This serial killer script, also know as PAPA, shows Joyner returning to his horror roots.  He describes it as a “woman in jeopardy” thriller and it focuses on Kathryn, a young law student who discovers a shocking secret while trying to find her real father.  She locates him but discovers he is a serial killer, who is soon captured by the F.B.I. after trying to kill her.  The bad news?  His long standing desire to kill was fostered by his desire to kill his own relatives and in locating him she has reenergized his drive while giving him the ultimate target.  And you thought your girl had daddy issues?

Sounds like a pretty easy sell, right?  Well not in Hollywood where execs want a script’s synopsis in five words or less, preferably with a similar movie mentioned (legend has it a top exec once described a project they were fond of as “like DIE HARD but set in a skyscraper”). Fighting such odds is tough, but Joyner prevailed.  “BLACK GLOVES was sold to [producers] Pen Densham and John Watson a few years ago,” Joyner reveals. “They tried to get that going at MGM and didn’t.”

The end result of dealing with studios
So what is the hold up?  Would you believe something as simple as a title?  When I hear a title like BLACK GLOVES, I immediately think of the 1960s/70s Italian giallo subgenre that featured black gloved killers prowling around with a razor while spying on unsuspecting heroines. “Thank you very much!  That is exactly what I wanted people to think of,” Joyner exclaims with joy.  “And then, of course, O.J. Simpson happened.  So now everybody thinks it’s a reference to that and I go, ‘No, no, no!  It’s not O.J. Simpson, it is DEEP RED.’  Say DEEP RED to a development executive and see the reaction you get.”

Indeed, chances are you say “giallo” to a studio exec and they start thinking of Bill Cosby and pudding pops.  Mmmmm, pudding pops. Solving the title problem was a snap compared to the office politics: “MGM was in the process of a changing of the guard, and was sold, which is always death to a script in development, and that’s what happened with us. John and Pen are great producers, and they devoted a lot of time to the project, but everyone gets run over when studios reorganize.” Thankfully, the rights have fully reverted back to Joyner and he feels it is something that might be worth dusting off at some point.

#97 - COP WAR (2005-present)

Around the same time period, Joyner developed a script with old friend Sheldon Lettich, a screenwriter-director best known for his RAMBO III (1988) screenplay and various collaborations with Jean-Claude Van Damme.  The inspiration for this contemporary action flick came from an unusual source: the 1928 Herbert Asbury non-fiction book dealing with early 20th century gangs in America’s biggest city.  “I had gotten a hold of a copy – years before the Martin Scorsese movie – of the [Asbury] book THE GANGS OF NEW YORK,” Joyner discloses.  “My father had a first edition of it sitting in our house forever and I read it.  I was so interested in the fact that these police departments at the turn of the century in New York City basically had this shooting war going on.  Most of it was ethnic – the Irish versus the Italians. Reading a lot about what was going on in L.A. – whether it was the Rodney King or even going back to the Manson investigation – there was never a lot of cooperation between the LAPD and the Sheriff’s department.  I thought, ‘What if things got so bad that an actual shooting war broke out between those two facets?’”

Together the two screenwriters came up with a story of warring cop factions that, when not arresting folks, wage war over the city streets in Pittsburgh. “Sheldon had the idea that, since I’m from Pittsburgh, to set it in an urban setting and we went for Pittsburgh,” Joyner says of the plot.  “A rookie policeman discovers his senior partner is involved with corruption that involves his entire precinct. When he tries to report it, he finds himself at war with his fellow officers.”

With Lettich’s Van Damme connection, it was only a matter of time before the “Muscles from Brussels” took interest in the project.  “Jean-Claude Van Damme was interested in it for a while because, of course, he and Sheldon have a very good history,” he reveals. “Sheldon was always going to direct it. It’s come awfully close a few times.”  One of those times was a close call as the script almost undeservedly ending up as the basis for the direct-to-video S.W.A.T. II for Sony (the world was eventually blessed with the unrelated S.W.A.T. sequel S.W.A.T.: FIREFIGHT in 2011).  In 2005 a prominent director of THE WIRE also got involved, but the film was still not made.

What COP WAR almost became:

As it stands now, the script is still open for development and hopefully Lettich can get it on the front burner again. Crazy cop stories like the recent Christopher Dorner case in Los Angeles show the subject matter will always be relevant. “It’s always been an active project,” Joyner explains of the script, “and every once and a while Sheldon will call me and say, ‘Oh guess what?  Somebody wants to do something with COP WAR again!’”    


Early 20th Century railroad camp
It is only fitting that we end our coverage with this script as it is one of Joyner’s personal favorites, alongside DOUBLE ACTION MAN (aka WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN) that John (ROLLING THUNDER) Flynn tried to get made.

Like the aforementioned COP WAR, BOXCAR BOYS also found its origin through a bit of historical research after Joyner had moved away from Hollywood for a period and was living in North Carolina.  “Here is the thing I discovered – in certain states, particularly in the South, the railroad companies themselves actually owned the land and the property around where the land where tracks existed,” he details.  “That is why they could have the rail hops as a private police force and nobody could do anything because, essentially, they were enforcing law on private property.  You would see the pictures of the tent cities around the railroad yard during the Depression.”

Early 20th Century unsanctioned boxing match
With this setting in place, Joyner began fashioning a scenario in the best tradition of hard hitting Depression era classics like EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973) and HARD TIMES (1975).  “I set this in one of the tent cities and the rail hops are having boxing matches there with these guys they are essentially holding prisoner,” Joyner reveals of his script. “They capture this one kid who is sneaking on a boxcar and he’s deaf, but he’s a good fighter.  And he becomes kind of famous. So the hoi polloi of the surrounding cities come in and it becomes a bigger and bigger thing. The height reaches where they have one match that brings in everybody turns into a race riot.”

With his script completed, Joyner got the labor of love to his agent and the “Jack Dempsey meets Jack London” style scenario drew immediate interest from several parties.  “It got me a lot of notice,” Joyner says.  “A producer got a hold of it and at different times we had Christopher Walken attached, we had Burt Reynolds attached, we had Harvey Keitel attached.  All kinds of people.”  One of the more fascinating interested talents was a man legendary for using his fists in real life and having been a participant in one of moviedom’s greatest fist fights in THEY LIVE (1988).  “Roddy Piper really, really wanted to do it,” he reveals.  “He would be playing the bad guy, which I thought would have been great.  He gave me some great feedback.”

Fargo directs Chuck Norris on FORCED VENGEANCE (1982)
Originally Joyner wrote the film with the intention of also making it his third directorial feature.  However, like DOUBLE ACTION MAN, he realized a more experienced director might be in order.  “Again, this really required someone a hell of a lot better than me as I’d only directed two movies now,” he says of the decision to let other directors look at it.  “This was a period piece and kind of a big thing. About two or three years ago, I gave the script to James (THE ENFORCER) Fargo as we had the same agent.  Jim really liked and his background with Clint Eastwood was a perfect fit.  We tried to get something going at Hallmark and we couldn’t.  I know Jim would still very much like to do it. I love that piece and it really attracted some good people.  But, as often happens, we get the folks but couldn’t get the money.  I have high hopes for that as I feel it is a real quality piece of work.”

As it stands, Joyner’s BOXCAR BOYS is still something he cherishes to this day and hopes to see made into a feature film.  “You almost have a whole different feeling about that kind of work and your commitment to that work than I do with the [writing] assignments” he acknowledges regarding personal projects versus writing assigned works.  “That doesn’t mean I blew anything off, but your emotional investment is a little different.  There’s a little bit of difference between that and sitting in the bathtub and going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got a great idea for a movie’ and nursing it along yourself.”  


Preproduction art for THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN NEMO
While we’ve reached the end of our series on Mr. Joyner’s unmade screenplays, don’t think the man has any notions of slowing down.  With a new year comes a myriad of new projects.  On the publishing front, Joyner just saw HELL COMES TO HOLLYWOOD, a 2012 horror anthology featuring his “One Night in the Valley” short story, nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, and 2013 promises the publication of SHOTGUN, an original novel series from Kensington / Pinnacle Books, and the highly anticipated WARNER BROS. FANTASTIC, a look at the studios’ genre output from McFarland press.  On the movie side, Joyner has scripted the enticing sounding THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN NEMO, which is scheduled to go into production this year.  And, of course, he’ll probably get a call from Sheldon Lettich about more interest in COP WAR.   As for his other unproduced works, Joyner is level headed and knows it is the nature of the game.  “Every writer who's done any work in Hollywood goes through these exact same experiences,” he concludes. “My adventures aren't unusual or special at all. Unfortunately, more projects are not made than made, and it really is a case of beating the odds when something goes before the cameras. So I just keep pounding away, and hope someone takes notice.”

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Prison Prescription: DESTROYER (1988)

As is sometimes the case in Copywood, one good idea becomes a basis for an entire wave of films. Literally in the case of the waterlogged films of the late '80s. The likes of DEEP STAR SIX (1989), LEVIATHAN (1989), LORDS OF THE DEEP (1989) and THE RIFT (1990) all were brought to life due to the fact that a little movie called THE ABYSS (1989) was being made by some no-name director. This was much in the same way that for a very brief span of time, prison-based horror films became all the rage. You know what they say, the candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long and in the case of prison pictures, all it took was Wes Craven's SHOCKER (1989), a soulless, desperate attempt to recreate the success of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), to fry that high-concept all to hell.

Released literally one month after PRISON (1988), this is probably more like what Irwin Yablans had in mind when he came up with the story for PRISON, though to their credit, writer-producers Peter Garrity and Rex Hauck realize that, again, having a fellow prisoner terrify fellow prisoners isn't going to work.
It's not just the filmmaking that's hard...

Convicted of the rape and murder of 23 men, women and children, serial killer Ivan Moser (Lyle Alzado) is sent to the chair. It's never said which prison this was supposed to be, but it seems pretty obvious that it's Texas since Warden Karsh (Pat Mahoney) wears a white Stetson and is more interested in frying the sonofabitch than finding out where the remains of the 24th victim are that Moser just confessed to. After Moser gets rendered extra crispy, the prison power fails and a riot ensues. Well, at least that's what we're told. It's pretty obvious that the riot was one of many corners cut. The riot, the largest in history, resulted in the deaths of 13 guards and 37 inmates forcing the prison to close.

Now, a year and a half later, a low-budget film crew (obviously inspired by Roger Corman's productions), take over the abandoned prison to shoot a trashy women's prison epic titled "BIG HOUSE DOLLS". The screenwriter, David (Clayton Rohner), decides that he should use this opportunity to do some simultaneous research on the history of the prison, which the residents, including the local British cabdriver, are strangely superstitious about. In between clashes between the director (Anthony Perkins, playing it straight down the line) and his scenery-chewing leading lady (Lannie Garrett), there is some attempt at light romantic chemistry between David and his girlfriend Malone (Deborah Foreman) who is the stuntwoman on the picture. I'm pretty sure the only stunt Foreman ever pulled off was in the bathroom trying to get on her Flock of Hairdo. Also we have to get in the antics of other members of the crew, such as those of Rewire (Jim Turner), the special effects guy that's half geek, half stoner. These scenes take up way too much of the movie, but once we do find out that Moser is "half alive" and living that half-life in the prison, things pick up speed.

Just because you are low budget,
doesn't mean you can't compose cool shots

While at first it might seem like a stroke of preposterous casting, Alzado makes the movie. Alzado's eyes bulge as much as his steroid-bloated muscles to the point where it seemed like he was in danger of having a stroke at any moment. The producers didn't go out of the way to do any complex make-up, outside of some appliances marking the spots where he was electrocuted (the main one, amusingly being the bald spot on his head), but they really don't need to. Alzado is The Hulk in pinkface with a completely psychotic laugh that actually at times is downright testicle-shrinking. I mean, the guy is 300 pounds of pure 'roid rage mixed with sheer lunacy. In my humble opinion, one of the most disturbing moments in a mainstream '80s slasher film can be found right here. The scene in which Moser straps Malone in the electric chair and rubs his face on her thighs while calling her "mommy" is only topped by the queasy moment where he slowly cuts and eats her hair. Also, I don't think I've ever seen a movie of this era where the slasher villain masturbates while peeping on the girls he's about to kill. The movie may not have a lot of gore even in it's uncut form, but it does have its moments.

Even though I firmly believe that horror films, or maybe just films in general, should not fully explore all of the ideas that they raise, this film throws out a lot of intriguing details that are left hanging. Perhaps they were more fleshed out in the original script (seeing three writers credited with a script is usually a sign that the concept was drawn and quartered by too many cooks), but here they take a back seat to some of the more mundane aspects, such as David and Malone's relationship. I particularly like the gameshow obsession that is in the beginning of the film. Moser is introduced feverishly watching a show that is clearly supposed to be Wheel of Fortune minutes before his execution. We cut to the TV screen and see the puzzle with the clue being "sentence". As in "death sentence". While he is being led to the electric chair you can hear the gameshow announcer (the one and only Gary Owens) in the background talking up the high points of a prized La-Z-Boy recliner, complete with musical cue as Moser sits in the chair. Later in the film, we find out from one of the townies that one of Moser's victims was the Vanna White-esque co-host. It's a cool idea but it never really goes anywhere past that point. The idea was borrowed from a few different places, most likely RUNNING MAN (1987) and it's quickie cash-in cousin DEATHROW GAMESHOW (1987), but actually is really well implemented here, except that it gets forgotten about in the ensuing milieu.

It's also worth mentioning that the US R-rated release, like so many horror films of the day, is missing some of the gore due to Jack Valenti's posse of cinematic luddites. A leaked tape included the original cut, but unfortunately it's been decades since I've seen it and can't seem to find a copy of it anywhere these days. As I recall main censored scene was the one in which Officer Callahan (Bernie Welch) is impaled on the end of a jackhammer (where did that come from?). In the R-rated release version the tip of the jackhammer pokes through the wall behind Callahan and drips blood. In the uncut version, the jackhammer breaks through the wall and blood gushes out. Sounds pretty tame today, but back then that was enough to give one of the genteel MPAA biddies an attack of the vapors.

Is it the greatest slasher flick of the 1980s? Maybe not, but it is pretty damn fun, has some cool ideas, it's very well shot and quite frankly, Lyle Alzado is completely off the charts as Ivan Moser. Plus, it beats the orange jumper off of the following year's high-profile, semi-ripoff SHOCKER (1989). That alone should be enough for someone (say, *ahem* Shout Factory) to give this a nice widescreen, uncut release.

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: