Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Cyber Monday: R.O.T.O.R. (1988)

Video Junkie's Interesting Fact of the Month: up until a mere ten years ago, "nostalgia" was classified as a mental disorder. Back in the '50s it was referred to as "The Immigrant's Syndrome" and led to bouts of melancholy and experimental brain surgery. Now, in our enlightened era, nostalgia is considered a positive thing (Fox News notwithstanding).

The metaphor is deep.
What's better than an action movie with a renegade cop? An action movie with a renegade cop that is a cyborg! Clearly this must have been the intent of Cullen Blaine, career director-producer of children's TV programming. To help him with this task is career storyboard artist Budd Lewis, who also has made a living in children's television programming. Oh, this will not end well, will it?

To prove they are serious hard sci-fi filmmakers, we have an opening text scrawl with foreboding music:
"Today's Headlines: Murder, Rape, Robbery, Arson. Tomorrow's Solution: R.O.T.O.R."
What the filmmakers failed to predict back in the simpler era of 1988 is that these topics don't even make the front page of what passes for a newspaper these days. Oh, and they also let you know that R.O.T.O.R. stands for "Robotic Officer Tactical Operation Research". Damn, someone must have stayed up all night thinking of that.

Eh-bone-y. and. Eye-vor-y... EXTERMINATE!

Captain Dr. Coldyron (Richard Gesswein) when not tending to his horse on his strangely empty Texas ranch, is a brilliant scientist and police captain heading up a robotics research facility for the Austin Police Department. Not just any robotics research, no sir. They already have a robot security guard with a sullen disposition who should have been called M.E.H. (Mechanized Enforcement Halfwit) but instead is named "Willard". Not content with this malcontent, the R.O.T.O.R. project is an attempt to create an android officer that no one will be able to tell from the real thing! Unless, of course, he goes nutzoid and starts killing people, but how likely is that to happen? R.O.T.O.R. is an endoskeletal robot covered in flesh that strangely resembles the Adam Savage, with the well-reasoned prime directive "Judge and Execute". Apparently, he is the law!

Hmm... how are we going to pay for this movie?
I had completely forgotten how budget-starved this movie is. It's got huge ambitions and some of the most florid dialogue ever committed to celluloid, but doesn't have two pennies to rub together. Coldyron has a deactivation key that he can use on R.O.T.O.R., which if you look close is simply a gold-plated cigarette lighter. At one point R.O.T.O.R. stops to heal himself via battery jumper cables after being shot. You'd think time for some cheap animated electricity, but nope, Blaine simply has R.O.T.O.R. hold the leads and scream while the film is processed in negative. To make up for this lack of production value, Blaine tries to pen some of the most ridiculous dialogue (with some of the flattest delivery) in recent memory. If nothing else, the stunning dialogue is worth the price of admission alone.

For example, Captain Dr. Coldyron also fancies himself a fledgling Walt Whitman (the guy who invented the Sampler Assortment) with lines such as "a buttery morning sunlight painted a golden glow through the ranch house windows." If he puts on a John Denver album, I'm hopping in my time-travel machine to smack him in his damn head... err... but I digress. Much like the filmmakers digress for 15 minutes before firing up the movie proper with relentless padding showing Coldyron getting out of bed. Getting coffee. Sharing coffee with horse. Blowing up stumps (or in reality, simply setting fire to a dead tree) and finally getting around to going into work clearly hours after everyone else. I guess if you are a scientist and a high-ranking cop, you can get away with just breezing into work long after the other schlubs have had their coffee breaks.

After a plethora of shockingly unsupportive board meetings ("who are we to create such things? Heroes and villains?!"), angry phone calls (during which a can of Coke is carefully opened and poured into a wine glass), and some comic relief from a jive-talking Native American scientist pushing the boundaries of sexual harassment in the workplace ("Lookit these cheekbones, either I'm an Indian or a sissy!"), we finally get to the action... well, sort of. Coldyron quits because of the pressure from his irate division commander who wants the long term project (Coldyron estimates some 40 to 50 more years) to be ready in 60 days. Naturally the Indian guy screws up by casually tossing his walkman headphones on the wrong piece of equipment and R.O.T.O.R. escapes to execute his directives of, uhhhh, execution!

If the premise of a endoskelatal cyborg sounds vaguely familiar, the rest should be too. Essentially the R.O.T.O.R. unit is (whose logo is a Harley sticker with "R.O.T.O.R." covering "Harley Davidson") chasing down a woman with relentless determination. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. It absolutely will not stop, ever, until she is... oh, hell, you know. Sure there's a lot, and I do mean a lot, of window dressing, but what it boils down to is the time honored tradition of knocking-off that Jim Cameron duchebag. Don't feel bad. Cameron has been accused of knocking-off others, including himself.

Basically R.O.T.O.R.'s first collar is a speeding rap in which he pulls over an couple who are way past the Jerry Springer stage of their relationship. The woman, Sonya (Margaret Trigg) is so mad, it prompts her fiancee to yell "Look at ya! You look like you got both eyes coming out of the same hole!" So offended by the nonsensical nature of this line, R.O.T.O.R. blows him away and tears off after the escaping Sarah - err, I mean Sonya, who managed to get away after discovering his achilles heel: a car horn. Yep, simply press the horn and R.O.T.O.R. will do his new favorite dance, The Chewbacca. Just to prove that the similarities are intentional (car horns aside), after R.O.T.O.R. escapes, the security bot quips "I got the feeling this is how TERMINATOR got started". Hmmm... yeah, if only Blaine had half the cash that TERMINATOR's four production companies put up... or even a quarter.

Upon discovering that the project has gone renegade, Coldyron gives his clinical, scientific assessment of the situation: "It's like a chainsaw set on 'frappe'". Or like a hedgetrimmer on liquefy! Or a weed whacker on puree! Damn, I gotta get me one of those. Along the path of destruction... well, maybe more of a path of minor vandalism and assault, R.O.T.O.R. faces off with drunk rednecks, burger flippin' rednecks, rednecks with shotguns, cowardly rednecks and a few pieces of balsawood furniture. Coldyron, not to be out done, blows away several robbers at a mini-mart while making sure that the driver escapes unscathed. Nice job there Captain Dr. Wouldn't want to actually arrest any perps. Oh, wait, it is Texas, isn't it? Carry on.

Don't fuck with the fry cook! Yeah, well maybe this one.
Since catching R.O.T.O.R. is obviously a two-man job, Coldyron calls in fellow scientist Dr. Steele (Jayne Smith), a female bodybuilder who apparently helped create R.O.T.O.R. in between steroid injections and applications of Just for Men: Touch of Grey. Surprisingly the filmmaker's stick to the subject at hand and don't try to force what would have been a very uncomfortable romantic angle between the two. Also, for some reason, the two leads are dubbed by completely different actors. Judging by the lack of notable film careers for either (Smith's only other credit is a bit part in the disappointing FLESH GORDON MEETS THE COSMIC CHEERLEADERS), perhaps neither were available to do any AR work. This makes the whole outing seem even more unwieldy than it otherwise would have. Not that that's entirely a bad thing, as it makes the non-stop non-sequitur moments to be even more bizarre, such as when Coldyron suddenly believes himself to be a GP, saying to his lab assistant "the man hasn't had a bowel movement in over a week. I told him to lay off that home cookin'!" For those who do not speak fluent southwest ranch-hand gibberish, allow me to translate that last sentance. What he said was "dude, get your ass down to Taco Bell - it'll clean you out faster than a quart of draino!"

Oh, if only...
Back in the late '80s and '90s I'd watch anything that would rip-off THE TERMINATOR (1984) or ROBOCOP (1987) and when R.O.T.O.R. landed on video store shelves the insanely cool reworking of the MAD MAX (1979) poster into a ROBOCOP rip-off design had me moon-eyed and drooling. I remember the movie not really living up to my rather high expectations, but I still enjoyed it. Every time I see that poster, it makes me think of my old neighborhood video stores, one of which smelled slightly like a gym locker as it had previously been a jazzercise place. I used to bring up R.O.T.O.R. in conversation and defend it against the slings and arrows of outrageous nerddom. This leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the cigarette-smoking, three-martini lunch doctors of the 1950s were right. I'd have to be crazy to be nostalgic about R.O.T.O.R..

I guess not everything is big in Texas

Friday, July 12, 2013


We’re a pretty loyal bunch here at Video Junkie. If you made a movie we liked, chances are we’re going to be checking out your other stuff. Hell, if you made a movie that we didn’t like but still had one cool scene in it, we’re probably still checking out you next flick.  Yes, we’re loyalists (or fanboys, if you want to be cruel) and that usually means we end up on the wrong end of an abusive cinematic relationship.  A filmmaker letting you down comes with the territory, but it really hurts the most when the filmmaker is one who should know better.  Ladies and gentlemen, may I now add director Gary Jones to the list of directors now suffering from Argentoitis (aka John Carpenter Syndrome).  

A native of Michigan, Gary Jones got started in filmmaking on the FX end by providing stuff for the Sam Raimi crew on THOU SHALT NOT KILL…EXCEPT (1985) and EVIL DEAD II (1987).  He was also the FX supervisor on MOONTRAP (1989), a little sci-fi flick that we dig the hell out of.  Jones really came into his own though when he made his directorial debut with MOSQUITO (1995).  Five years later he delivered the equally entertaining SPIDERS (2000).  With both films, we felt he showed a considerable knack for getting the most out of the B-movie scenarios.  In addition, Jones showed he knew how to sling the blood-n-latex with the best of them.  A little enthusiasm in your filmmaking will get you a long way in these parts.  Well, all that came crashing down like the Goliath when toppled by David with the release of AXE GIANT: THE WRATH OF PAUL BUNYAN.

I only became aware of AXE GIANT just last month when I saw that it was scheduled to be released in select theaters.  I’m sure those first-rate theaters were pissed as it did an abysmal $775 over its first three days at two locations. With an average ticket price of just under $8 in the US, that means almost 100 people went to see this film in the theater.  If you are out there, I want to hear from you.  If you aren’t locked up in an insane asylum, that is. Anyway, after watching the trailer, I joked about how I was shocked that such a terrible looking production wasn’t airing on the SyFy Channel.  It was then that my friend Bill pointed out that it was debuting June 13, five days before its DVD release.  You can’t make that stuff up.  Surprisingly, the cinemasochist in me would let this pass me by.  But what is that?  On the official poster I see something…a small credit…directed by…Gary Jones!?!  Oh man, maybe there is hope for this one yet.  Yes, I willingly held out hope even though the only notable cast members were Dan Haggerty and Joe Estevez.  I’m as naïve as the guy who thinks his boss at WalMart was listening when he laid out his concerns about employee pay.

AXE GIANT kicks things into high gear with a prologue set in snow covered Minnesota in 1894 (check out the guy sporting glasses with nose pads on them; totally authentic to the period!). The workers at a logging camp supervised by Foreman Bill (Haggerty) are getting ready to chow down on a rather hefty looking carcass roasting on the spit.  When Bill returns from going to the bathroom (“You got another log jam to take care of boss?”), he finds the entire camp slain in bloody pieces.  The culprit was local slow kid Gunnar Wolfgang Bunyan (Chris Hahn), who soon slices Bill in half on a huge saw.  Before you get too excited, this is all done with some terrible looking CGI.  Flash forward to the present day as Sgt. Hoke (Thomas Downey) and psychologist Samantha Kawalzinkowski (Kristina Kopf; Gee Whiz trivia: Kopf means “head” in German) are taking a group of five first time law breakers into the woods for a weekend of survival and psychology.  If these minor criminals pass, the State will kindly take their offenses off their records.  And what a motley crew we have here: Jesse (Jesse Kove), drug dealer; Trish (Jill Evyn), assaulting a police officer; Marty (Cliff Williams), stealing $12 million online; Rosa (Victoria Ramos), refusing to testify; and CB (Amber Connor), the innocent Sheriff’s daughter who got a drunk driving charge. Oh jeez, this is gonna be rough.

The Sergeant and his S.T.u.M.P.s (Stupid Teenagers under My Protection) soon head to the mountains for a long weekend of roughing it. Around the campfire that evening, the group bemoans their current conditions and it seems everyone is a good kid at heart.  For example, sure CB had a little bit to drink, but the person who caused her accident was totally drunk and had previous DUIs.  “It’s the system that’s messed up” they whine.  It’s then that the kids meet Meeks (Joe Estevez), the local crazy.  He rambles something about “we all got things we want to hide” before splitting.  You sure he wasn’t talking about Charlie Sheen?  Anyway, the next day the kids are out for their first hike. Jesse and Marty discover this big ox skull and Jesse decides to keep one of the horns as a souvenir. Bad move as this enrages the 20-foot, axe-toting giant roaming the woods.  Trish is the first to go as she is split in half vertically by the beast.  Sgt. Hoke fares no better as he is split in half horizontally.  Again, don’t get too excited.

The survivors make it to the cabin to hold up for safety. An attempt to hotwire their van goes nowhere as the giant drags the vehicle off. That night they get a visit from Meeks, who goes into the mother of all expositions.  He tells them that when they took the horn, they disturbed the final resting place of Babe the Blue Ox.  What?  Like from the folklore story?  Yep, it appears they are suffering the wrath of Paul Bunyan.  In a flashback, Meeks reveals that the loggers back in the late 1890s had killed Babe for food and that is why the camp was slain. Bunyan was rounded up by the locals and sealed in a cave, but he escaped after he started to grow and grow and grow.  Seems he was some kind of mutant, growing to two times the size of a normal man and living three times as long. Ah, I knew those Germans who immigrated to Minnesota were a special type.  And that is how the legend of Paul Bunyan was born (I guess the folklore storytellers thought Gunnar Bunyan didn’t have that ring to it).  Jesse figures he can end all this by giving Bunyan his horn back and throws it into the woods.  Bad move again as Bunyan sends it sailing back and it bursts through Jesse’s chest.  Somehow this doesn’t kill him instantly and he is dragged back to Bunyan’s cave screaming and fighting.  Meanwhile, CB’s dad Sheriff Tanner (Tim Lovelace) is driving up to the cabin to check on his daughter.  Gee, I wonder who will save the day.

So this all sounds like pretty good material for a B-movie right?  Well, it isn’t.  As Tom so accurately said to me in an email, “It's like TICKS, except without the fun, the latex and the fun.”  Yup, whatever fun this scenario might have provided (and the potential for entertainment is definitely there) is pretty much squashed due to a combination of bad acting and terrible scripting.  First off, the acting is awful on nearly all fronts.  As much as I hate to single out a specific person, take a look at the Sgt. Hoke character.  This is a role ripe for comedy, the perfect vessel for someone to do a wicked R. Lee Ermey/FULL METAL JACKET (1987) impersonation.  Instead, we get a flat variation that never comes off as the hard ass he is written to be.  Even if he had gone all out, the screenplay by Jones, Jeffrey Miller and Jason Ancona never gives anyone a real chance to develop real characters.  As slight scenario like this can still work (as with the aforementioned example of TICKS), but the filmmakers don’t seem particularly invested in anything they wrote.  A perfect example is when Meeks mentions to CB that she is the spitting image of his great Aunt, who Bunyan had a crush on. You’d think this would work into a great KING KONG-esque ending, but doesn’t (unless you count Bunyan stopping to moan her name after he is gunned down and falls off a bridge).

The real kick to the gut though are the film’s horrible special effects.  A terrible movie can at least redeem itself with some well done special effects.  Sadly, Jones opts to fill his film with some of the worst computer special effects I’ve seen in a long, long time.  This is doubly painful as FX are supposed to be his specialty.  Check out the scene where Rosa’s body is flung into a tree.  It is so ill conceived and executed that I thought I was watching something from a high school AV class.  Yes, it is that bad.

Girl falling or attacking ghost?
(note his eyes not even on her)

I’ll give the team credit for the miniature cabin they built.  And I’ll also give Robert Kurtzman and his FX team recognition for the design of Bunyan himself as the giant monster is pretty cool looking at times (I’m still wondering why he was modest enough to stitch himself a pair of pants though), but when composited in with the other stuff it mostly looks terrible.  Likewise for the green screen stuff done on shots as ordinary as a guy ringing a triangle to signal for dinner.  You couldn’t capture that stuff when you did your location shooting?  The worst, however, is using CGI for 90% of the gore.  Just look at these offending shots.

That is the cardinal sin when it comes to gore.  It may play well for the SyFy “haha, this sucks” crowd, but I take my giant-monster-with-axe movies seriously.  The end credits promise (threaten?) that “Bunyan will return” in the future. If he does, I won’t be there as I’ll be too busy mourning as I add Gary Jones to the long list of “coulda been a contender” casualties.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #100: PHANTOM OF THE MALL (1980s)

It is hard to believe that we’re hitting the 100th entry in our “never got made” film series.  With such a historic milestone, it seems only fitting that I deliver something unique from the world of unmade films, so how about an examination of a movie that never got made but did get made.  I blew your mind, didn’t I?

A few months ago, we took a look at the late ‘80s cult film PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC’S REVENGE (1989).  My two-plus-decades removed revisit found it still to be an enjoyable B-movie that benefits from a fun premise, a fantastic location and good performances (including an early turn by Pauly Shore that garnered him his first of many Oscar nominations).  In my examination, I laid the success of the screenplay at the feet of Robert King, thanks mostly to my familiarity with his exploitation work for Roger Corman.

Much to my surprise, a comment was left on the review by Scott Schneid, one of the film’s writers, which offered quite a different opinion.  He asserted that the original script, co-written with his former writing partner Tony Michelman, was a completely different and superior beast that suffered through Hollywood’s age old developmental process.  Even better, Schneid offered me a look at their original screenplay to judge with my own eyes.  With filmmakers constantly ignoring requests for interviews, it was energizing to have a story fall into my lap, so the challenge was accepted.  Soon I had the PDF of the original script of PHANTOM OF THE MALL in my hands and, I’ll be damned, he was right.

The film that kicked Schneid's
creative juices into high gear
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Scott Schneid grew up never expecting to go into show business, despite having an aunt – Tiny Sinclair – who was a popular stage performer that worked with the likes of Bela Lugosi (she passed away in 1954, two years before Schneid was born).  After high school, Schneid headed to Harvard University on a scholarship and, when not nursing injuries, played linebacker for the football team.  Following his graduation with a degree in American History, Schneid co-produced a series of jazz concerts. This endeavor got him interested in the business end of the entertainment industry and he soon found himself on the West Coast and part of the William Morris Agency trainee program.

While at the agency, Schneid was contact point for Harvard students curious about the film industry.  He was contacted by student Paul Caimi, who had written a rough screenplay called HE SEES YOU WHEN YOU’RE SLEEPING. Schneid immediately sensed the potential in a Christmas-themed horror script and optioned the work.  This idea was nurtured by Schneid and his co-executive producer Dennis Whitehead into what eventually became the controversial SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984).  The success of that film got Schneid’s creative juices flowing and he began thinking of other ideas to subvert time-honored happy images (and hopefully not piss off Mickey Rooney again in the process).  What kind of horror film could possibly appeal to the teens of the day, he wondered. And it suddenly came to him – a film set in a shopping mall.  “It seemed like a perfect setting for that demographic at the time,” Schneid explains of the idea’s origins.  “PHANTOM OF THE MALL – it just kind of came into my head and was the perfect environment.  Again, like SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, taking something and turning it upside down.  Taking that mall environment – something which is bright and cheery – and somehow figuring a way to make it dark, sinister and evil.”

1980s mall in all its colorful glory 
(look closely to spot Tom in there):

Another one of my false assumptions (of many, apparently) in my PHANTOM write up was that the film was made to cash in on the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA craze on Broadway.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  Schneid originally began work on his idea in early 1984 – two years before Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical hit London’s West End and four years before Broadway – with a different writing partner, Fred Ulrich.  Together they wrote a treatment called THE MALL.  When their partnership dissolved, Schneid brought over the 30-page treatment to his new writing venture with Tony Michelman, who he met at William Morris.  “We took the treatment that Fred and I wrote, with Fred’s permission, and we wrote a spec screenplay called PHANTOM OF THE MALL,” Schneid explains.  “That’s why Fred Ulrich and I have a shared story credit, but Fred doesn’t have a screenplay credit.”

Charles Fries
The Schneid/Michelman duo – which spent over a decade together writing seven screenplays and nine teleplays – soon had their inaugural screenplay done and the magic of Hollywood took over.   In the spring of 1985, Schneid turned the script over to his friend and fellow screenwriter Tony Kayden.  Kayden had just scripted the Anthony Michael Hall action vehicle OUT OF BOUNDS (1986), which was produced by Charles Fries (pronounced “freeze”) and sold to Columbia for theatrical distribution. “You know, I love this,” Kayden told Schneid.  “I think Fries Entertainment would really like this as a low budget feature to develop and I’d like to direct it.”

The low budget film industry was booming during this period and any producer dealing with horror/exploitation material could find himself awash with fast cash in order to supply product for video store shelves.  Fries, known primarily as a prolific television producer, felt dabbling into medium budget theatrical features was worth it and the company soon began prepping PHANTOM OF THE MALL on a $4 million dollar budget.  “We were hired by Fries to do a rewrite with Kayden overseeing it,” Schneid explains of the project’s early growth.

The preproduction process saw the filmmakers really investing in the special effects heavy screenplay.  “We had really big special effects,” Schneid says.  “Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., who went on to do the ALIEN movies, wanted to do the effects for PHANTOM OF THE MALL.  They did drawings [which are showcased throughout this article – WW]. Then there was a company called Introvision.  This was before CGI in the mid-80s, an innovative in-camera [effect] with [special effects] plates.  They gave this big presentation to Chuck Fries and said, ‘We’ll make this four million dollar movie look like a ten million dollar movie’ and Chuck Fries says, ‘Ten million dollars?  What does it have to look like ten million dollars for?’  That was the mentality we were dealing with.”

An aerial establishing shot of the mall to feature miniatures 
and live action; nothing like this was in the final film:

Indeed, it appears the executives heard “special effects heavy” and only saw dollars flying away. An executive named Maurice Singer, who previously worked for HBO, came onto the project and decided the first order of business was to slash the budget by a significant amount. “They wanted to make it for two million.  They bounced Tony Kayden off the movie and never gave us a chance to do the next draft to try and figure a way to make it cheaper.  Singer just decided to get rid of all of us and bring in Robert King [to do the rewrite].”

Fries article promising state-of-the-art special effects in films, 
after cutting them all from PHANTOM OF THE MALL:

Evocative storyboards for ambitious nightmare sequence:

To say the Schneid/Michelman and the Robert King draft are different is an understatement.  They are as opposite as – please excuse the far reaching reference – the normal and burnt side of the Phantom’s face.  The Schneid/Michelman draft from 1986 is the version that Schneid supplied me and it is the same movie only in the most general of terms – a greedy corporation kills a young boy in an effort to gain the land to build their mall and, a year later, he haunts the place while yearning for his love.  That and they both have a beginning, middle and end.  The DNA of the film is definitely there in the Schneid/Michelman draft.  However, the elements built upon its skeletal structure are almost 100% different.

One need only read the first three pages to immediately notice the difference.  The original script opens with a moody scene of empty houses being bulldozed and the mall being built in a montage.  The introduction of the female lead Amy Christopher (later switched to Melody Austin in the King draft) a year later working at the mall has a surreal dream sequence where she sees her friend Susie (saved the wrath of a name change in the final script) literally burst into flames and melt into their Snacks Unlimited workplace.  Amy awakens to find herself a scarred person, both literally and figuratively, thanks to her ordeal involving the fire that killed her boyfriend Carl Grant (later changed to Erik Matthews).  Throughout the script she is haunted by nightmares.  Below is an example of one of them.

Schneid/Michelman scripted nightmare
(click to enlarge)

Special FX drawing for charred transformation:

The Schneid/Michelman script had
thankfully no Pauly Shore buttcrack
Undeniably, almost all of the characters are changed and in some cases completely removed.  The Amy character loses a caring mother and younger brother (in fact, any sympathetic adult is removed); the mall is proliferated with young punks: the drug dealing Ajax & Harley, the stereo stealing parking attendant Devon, and the street smart King mallrat Buzz (“Buzz wasn’t working in a fucking yogurt shop,” Schneid says); the two mall security guards include crazed Vietnam vet Mike Acardi (only that last name survives to the character essayed by Ken Foree) and sleazy cholo Mando Lopez (the arsonist doesn’t work at the mall); and Amy and Susie are part of a large knit group of friends that includes Carl’s best friend and potential love interest, Peter Lincoln, who works in the mall pet store.  The major conspiracy that forms the main plot is also bigger as it involves Wilton Company VP Harvey Posner, Police Chief Daryl North, Midland Mayor Bob Conner and Karen Wilton (the last two are morphed into the character played by Morgan Fairchild).

Expansive is the first word that comes to mind when reading the earlier draft.  The script is filled with many more well drawn characters and some incredible set pieces.  For example, there is a great dream sequence where Amy remembers the fatal blaze and Carl rips off his grandmother's head and fire spews out of her eyes.

There is also a great scene where the Phantom attacks a chauffer in a parking garage and scrawls “close mall or die” on the limo’s hood as a warning.

The Schneid/Michelman screenplay also better utilizes one of the feature’s best characters, the mall itself.  The writers spent a significant amount of time doing research by visiting actual malls and getting access to the dark recesses generally closed off to the public.  While some of their ideas remain (the trash compactor room, for example), several effective scenes (like one where dogs in a pet store sense the Phantom in the air ducts) are completely omitted.  Schneid actually drew inspiration from a rather unusual source – Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979).  “The Phantom uses the shafts to get around the mall,” he explains.  “The mall is akin to the Nostromo [spaceship] in ALIEN. I saw the mall – the giant edifice of the mall – as almost like a giant spaceship.  If you look at a lot of the malls built in the 80s and 90s, they almost look like big giant spaceships.”

About all the romance you
get in the produced version
Unfortunately, Schneid felt that the revised script hurt the film where it mattered most, namely, the romantic plot. “The thing about PHANTOM OF THE OPERA is it’s a love story,” he explains of their screenplay’s antecedent.  “The heart of PHANTOM OF THE MALL was a love story.”  Indeed, the produced version of PHANTOM OF THE MALL treats the love story as almost an afterthought, with Amy/Melody displaying no real love for Carl/Erik.  Instead of having the heroine redeem her love, she is reduced to a supporting role as Peter, a news photographer in the King version, uncovers most of the mystery.  Even worse, she is ultimately repulsed by the Phantom and his aggressive behavior in his underground lair during the film’s final act.  Little effort is established to connect the lovers’ profound sense of loss.

“That’s THE movie,” Schneid emphasizes passionately. “That’s what the movie is all about – Amy still loves Carl to the end, but Carl realizes he can’t be with her anymore. Peter respects her emotions for Carl.  It’s not like he is some really aggressive kid who thinks, ‘Now that my best friend is dead I’m going to move in on this woman.’  At the end the Phantom realizes that he’s got to let Amy go.  And if he’s going to let her go, who is he going to let her go to?  His best friend.”

Indeed, the script’s finale not only features a better emotional payoff of the Phantom saving Amy and his best friend, it also features a more visceral one with Amy ultimately confronting the purveyor of her misery.  “You’ve got Wilton versus Amy in the mall atrium,” Schneid recalls.  “The evil woman that killed the love of her life and caused Amy all of this physical and emotional suffering.  She goes one-on-one with her at the end while the mall is burning around them.”

The Phantom puts an end to the Amy vs. Wilton showdown:

stunt from the original draft
While Schneid/Michelman still retain co-writing credit (the entire scenario is definitely theirs), not a single word of their dialogue was used in the final film.  “I did get a copy of the [revised] script prior to the shooting of the film,” Schneid reveals, “and my heart sank.  I was so bummed out by it.  I said, ‘This is awful.’  Of course I’m prejudiced as PHANTOM OF THE MALL was our baby.  They ripped our baby away and gave it plastic surgery before it ever had a chance to see the light of day.”

Schneid, however, holds no ill will toward King as he figures he was just doing his job. He even liked a thing or too that King added to their scenario. “You know what scene I liked,” he states.  “I kind of liked that he had the video monitors set up, listening to that cool song and watching Amy.  I thought at the time that was a cool thing.  VCRs were happening and security people had video monitors around the mall and stuff.  So he stole some VCRs and somehow tied in electrically to the video monitoring system of the mall in his little lair.”

Fries offers PHANTOM at the American Film Market
(note Eric Matthews, the Phantom character, mistakenly listed as an actor):

Flyer with an alternate title,
which Schneid found ridiculous
Schneid did go see the film theatrically when it premiered in California – “Hardly anybody was there,” he notes, adding that Fries had “very little money to market the film” – and obviously maintains a passion for the project.  However, when asked if he felt a remake could better convey his script, his answer is surprising.  Schneid feels PHANTOM OF THE MALL was really a product of its time period and would need major updating for the teen audiences of today.  Despite the experience, he has maintained an enthusiasm for screenwriting and is currently developing several projects, including the horror-thriller THE WALLS to serve as the directorial debut for SAW villain Tobin Bell.

Ultimately, the work on PHANTOM OF THE MALL turned out to be a baffling and painful experience for Schneid.  Looking back, he is realistic about the film though.  “I’m not saying it was genius,” he shares, “but I think it was a better screenplay and potentially a much better and slightly more sophisticated movie.”  Having read the original screenplay, I can say that I wholeheartedly agree.  PHANTOM OF THE MALL in its original screenplay form was definitely epic in scope and would have provided enough thrills for audiences to support the planned sequels that Fries signed lead Derek Rydall to.  And while I still have love for the finished product, there is no doubt that this PHANTOM is the better beast.

Alternate poster with Schneid's preferred tagline:

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sci-Fried Theater: THE SPIRITS OF JUPITER (1983)

I think I can speak for Will when I say that we here at VJ have a soft spot for the "Crazy Townie" sub-genre. It's sort of a post-apocalyptic scenario, but it's more localized. The-world's-gone-mad shrunk down to a single town, usually a "sleepy, little town" with erm, "simple" folk. This archetype can be found in films like John "Bud" Cardos' MUTANT (aka NIGHT SHADOWS, 1985), Nico Mastorakis' NIGHTMARE AT NOON (1988) and of course George Romero's THE CRAZIES (1973).

Sure, you can have films with towns full of zombies, psychos or marsupial werewolves, but it's not quite the same. There's something about docile, simple folk, the common clay of the new west, suddenly snapping and turning homicidal that is scarier than a zombie, which at first glance you know is bad news. Plus, unless you are watching a Claudio Fragasso flick, zombies don't pack heat.

The film begins with an utterly bewildering monologue about Jupiter being in the house of Aries and how "the great one hidden, long in shadows, will cool his sword in bloooooood!" Oh good, I was wondering what the hell this movie was all about. Thanks for clearing that up. Wait, what?! No time to ponder the deep insignificance of that speech that sounds like it should be prefacing an epic cut from an '80s German metal band, we have comic hijinx to attend to! And muddled political statements! And prophecies, and, uhhh... other stuff!

Big Jim Drill (executive producer Rex Cutter), the owner of a local mine located near the mile high Cañon City, Colorado and a name most likely to be associated with a failed career in porn, seems to have an ongoing issue with the local police chief, Julius Switcher (James Aerni) who wants to shut down his mine due to the unproven fact that Jim has been using illegal aliens for labor. Jim feels like he's being unjustly persecuted, and he may have a point since his entire camp is made up of crackers so white that they would scare the shit out of the Holy Ghost. One can't help but wonder which border they are alleged to have sneaked over. The Swedish one?

Not helping things in the least, back in town, two of Big Jim's miners have gone half a bubble off plumb at Janey's Chile Wagon Restaurant, killing a diner and taking the waitress (Big Jim's sweetheart) hostage. While the police chief forms an elaborate plan of intricate tactics which basically involve running straight in and shooting anything that moves, Big Jim feels that he should go in and "talk" to them, avoiding any further loss of life. Clearly Big Jim is simply a sniveling, namby-pamby liberal under that sun-baked, red-neck exterior. The miners seem to feel that they are acting a bit crazy and that's good enough for Chief Switcher, who with the help of the entire police force, blow both of the miners full of bloody holes. One, unarmed and begging for mercy is shot repeatedly and finished off with a shotgun blast. When the local reporter accuses the Chief of murder, he casually brushes it off saying "eh, he was crazy." Oh, how I miss uncomplicated Colorado reasoning. Well, I guess we've established who the villain is.

This is, of course, the tip of the unbalanced iceberg. Jim quickly finds out that every man jack of his subterranean subordinates have come up a nugget short of a full load. How do we know they are crazy? They all walked off the job and packed into the bar and are whooping it up like a Friday night... and it's only Tuesday! It doesn't take long for the miners to come to the conclusion that Jim is just a major buzzkill and take after him with shovels. Well, Big Jim commenced to fighting, I wouldn't tell ya no lie. Not only does Big Jim pull his pistol, but he impales one with a fork-lift and splatters another with his airplane's propeller, prompting his manager to shout "you'll have to replace that man, Mr. Drill!" See? I told you there was comedy.

As it turns out this has become sort of a world-wide phenomena. According to radio reports the planets are shifting alignment causing an increase in gravity in much the same way that a full moon affects the tides and increases the paperwork of the local constabulary. Scientists say that those at high-altitude and animals will be affected the most. This is all confirmed by the local hobo Nestor, an effeminate little person in a top hat who is obsessed with coffee and insists on being called Nostradamus. Uhhhh... right. I don't think it's just the townies who've gone off their meds. Nest - sorry, Nostradamus is Jim's son's best friend and presumably because of this, he gives Jim a gold plate to keep under his hat. Things will become clearer... oh wait, that's a total lie. They won't.

Meanwhile the town has gone completely off the rails causing grown men to argue with trees, a boy to ride his bicycle upside down and Chief Swinger to occupy his time by taking off one of his boots and playing Russian roulette with his little piggies! The police force has started rounding up people crazy or not and marching them into the desert for execution, and manage to grab Big Jim's son and daughter. Big mistake. Jim then is attacked by his dog, fends off motorcycle raiders, escapes homicidal police and finds an underground bunker in which people are de-nutsified, all in the attempt to get his family back. Of course there is a positive message here. As the bow-tied, bunker-entrenched scientists explain, all war has stopped because "people are too crazy!"

Directed by Russell Kern (not to be confused with Richard Kern), who I have been unable to dig up any info on, except for an IMDb listing indicating that he made two other films, SPITTIN' IMAGE (1982) and POOLS OF ANGER (1992), this movie is all over the map. There are points in the film where it feels like a '70s family adventure film, at other points it's a comedy, then it's a bloody action movie, plus it's a science fiction film, there's some horror thrown in the mix and plenty of really awkward scenes involving an alleged brother and sister. All of this is set to the most awful pastiche of stock music this side of a Doris Wishman flick.

Sappy strings and comic noodling blare over the most inappropriate scenes possible. While it is somewhat amusing, it is unquestionably the biggest downside to the movie. Sure the movie is completely ludicrous and can't even follow it's own trail of logic crumbs, but it is a lot of fun and would be even more so with a cheap score from say Richard Band or even Chuck Cirino. It seems crazy for such an ambitious low-budget film to sport a helicopter vs. crop-duster chase scene, miss such an important element as music. To be fair Kern's ambition has its corners cut in predictable ways. For instance it is painfully apparent, even to a child from Detroit, that there is no motorcycle or policeman in the frame before, during or after an explosion that was supposed to have been a the result of an attack on a motorcycle cop. They also pull the time-honored flying-the-plane-behind-the-mountain-before-it-explodes trick. Sins that are easily forgiven, I say.

The frequently obscene overacting may be a bit hard to take at times, but all in all this movie packs in so much bull-in-a-china-shop insanity that it's hard not to like.

Our very own internet bounty hunter, Will Wilson, managed to track down co-producer Steve Flanigan who was gracious enough to chat with us about the film's distribution issues.

Flanigan and Kern made a hugely ambitious sci-fi/action/horror epic, shot on Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm, for "less than the cost of a national commercial, at the time." Remember this movie has a helicopter, an airplane, several motorcycles, explosions, make up effects, choreographed fights and many shoot-outs. At this point the film was completely edited and finished with the exception of the audio tracks which needed some AR work and most importantly a musical score instead of the temp tracks.

The film was given three screenings in Hollywood to attract US distributors, with the intent "to trim the film and sweeten SFX, music and dialogue... with the cash from the initial overseas small market release." This is where things get interesting. The overseas distributor paid the producer's lawyer, who also held the 35mm negative, the $200,000 fee (which he claims was in fact $300k) and took a 1" master to New York where he proceeded to illegally screen it, forcing Flanigan to fly out to NYC and physically retrieve it. As if that wasn't bad enough, their lawyer suddenly dies and takes the money with him!

Following that, the pair had a successful screening at a Denver Sci-Fi convention and was picked up by Reel Movies for distribution here in the US, re-titling the film PLANET GONE MAD. It's amazing that in a time as recent as the late '80s, vendors would be skittish about certain types of genre films, but according to Flanigan "our lawyer told us it was banned in two territories, [as distributors were] afraid it would initiate riots."

Flanigan also mentioned that there is another version of the film that is not in distribution. "We recut the movie to really spoof the sci-fi genre... tighter better popcorn entertainment".

In my opinion, spoofing isn't necessary, this movie is a lot of fun on its own terms and works on the same level as films such as Steve Barkett's THE AFTERMATH (1982). If you are a fan of the genre, you should hunt down a copy for some great old-school late-night movie fun.

[07/26/23 Update] THE SPIRITS OF JUPITER has now been remastered and released digitally in its 80 minute version on Amazon. Unfortunately it is a butchered, horribly adulterated version with horrible editing, music and new digital effects that look like they were created in MS Paint. I hate to recommend gray market releases over a presumably legit one, but this should be avoided at all costs. 

Thanks to R.D. Francis for the heads up and you can read a great little interview with director Robert Kern on the B&S About Movies website