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, April 29, 2013

Cyber Monday: The PROJECT SHADOWCHASER series (1992-1996)

A few weeks back we looked at how the CYBORG COP series proved to be a moneymaker for the direct-to-video company Nu Image, filling their coffers with enough dough to keep the company running.  Running tandem to that series was another cyborg-driven series with the PROJECT SHADOWCHASER films. Produced alongside director John Eyres’ company EGM Films International, the PROJECT SHADOWCHASER series seemed to pop up on video shelves every other year with another box featuring the blonde crew cut sporting Frank Zagarino staring at me.  I’m not sure why I never rented these back in the day, but, like the CYBORG COP films, I’m glad I waited nearly 20 years as they are just the kind of stuff I dig now.  And I got to see them all back-to-back this year, which really allows you to appreciate the “what the hell” directions in which the filmmakers took the series.  Yes, my directive is to cover the PROJECT SHADOWCHASER series.


A creeping sense of déjà vu will immediately overcome you in the opening minutes of this flick as a terrorist group overtakes a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles in some unknown future date. Yes, it is totally like SKYSCRAPER (1996) starring Anna Nicole Smith!  I kid, I kid.  It is DIE HARD (1988) but with a twist as Romulus (Frank Zagarino), the gang’s leader, is actually a government funded cyborg created by Kinderman (Joss Ackland).  Take that, Alan Rickman!  Their main target is Sarah (Meg Foster), who just happens to be the daughter of the President of the United States of America, and they want $50 million dollars for her safe release. The F.B.I. is on the case and investigator Trevanian (Paul Koslo) decides the best course of action is to get the building’s architect out of suspended animation prison.  Yes, because reading blueprints is tough business. Unfortunately, the stoner computer guy at the prison defrosts the wrong guy and they get Desilva (Martin Kove), a former football player who was frozen for accidentally killing a man in a bar fight.  Not wanting to pass up an early cryo-parole, Desilva doesn’t let the Feds know his true self until he is in the thick of it as he is the lone survivor of the military team sent in to save the girl.  Always the rule breaker, he disobeys orders to stand down and attempts a Hail Mary to save the girl with hopes of getting a pardon for his efforts.  Because being frozen sucks.

Director John Eyres really upped his game with this, his third feature. Previous to becoming a full time shadowchaser, Eyres directed the horror-thriller GOODNIGHT, GOD BLESS (1987) and the mafia flick SLOW BURN (1989).  So coming out of left field with the TERMINATOR meets DIE HARD mix was definitely something unexpected from him.  To be fair, this has an emphasis more on the latter than the former when it comes to imitation.  In fact, folks expecting some metallic exoskeleton will be very disappointed in the amount of robotic action on display.  Basically, there is none.  Sure, we are told that Romulus is a cyborg but we never see any evidence of that outside of some sparks flying off him when he is shot and his inability to die.  The whole set up is pretty by-the-numbers (Joss Acklund turns out to be the bad guy…shocker!), but there is a sense of fun throughout the proceedings. Kove is good in his lead role as the wise cracking NFLer and Foster appropriately plays the damsel in distress.  VHS cover boy Zagarino is obviously the star though although I’m not sure what it says about one’s acting when you are repeatedly cast as an emotionless robot. Regardless, it is a fun 90 minutes with an emphasis on action and explosions.


Well, the first PROJECT SHADOWCHASER must have done some direct-to-video business as director John Eyres – after helming the sci-fi flick MONOLITH (1993) for Shapiro Glickenhaus – soon found himself staring through the viewfinder at Frank Zagarino’s bleach blonde crew cut again.  Thankfully, Eyres adhered to the “sequels should be bigger and better” policy and delivered the best entry in the series.  You know he means business as the colon is now missing.  Why does that sound weird?

We jump right into the action as the opening credits show an unseen guy smoking a cigar in a limo talks about “the Cobra technology” being housed at the Raikon nuclear facility.  Can you guess where our cyborg terrorist buddy is heading?  That’s right, a shipment of crates arrives at the base and soon Frank Zagarino (who isn’t even given a name this go around; I’ll just call him Shadowchaser) is back in business on Christmas Day no less.  A perfect day to strike since all the scientists will be at home with their families, right?  Wrong! This is a dedicated bunch as everyone is collecting that handsome Government holiday pay while working and having a Christmas party at Nakatomi Towers…uh, I mean Raikon. Seems head boss Laurie (Beth Toussaint) was working hard to make sure Cobra is on schedule.  Hell, even Frank the janitor (Bryan Genesse) is working overtime.  Fried circuits are soon the least of his problems as Laurie fires him for some stupid detail like drinking on the job and insubordination (“Nice ass”).  Worst…Christmas…ever.  And it is about to get even worse as Frank soon has to contended with being the hero by saving Laurie and her son Ricky from the terrorists and our boy Shadowchaser.  And the terrorists, meanwhile, are trying to steal Cobra, which Laurie describes as “a weapon so powerful it would make all conventional nuclear devices obsolete.”  The nuclear device hipsters are totally going to be into those things now.

If you were hoping for some continuity between the first film and the follow up, all that is dashed pretty early on.  Its never explained how Romulus survived being blown to pieces at the end of part one and is back online in this film.  Director Eyres is letting the audience fill in the blanks, as if he is saying, “Hey, it’s Shadowchaser! Someone had to have other cyborgs lying around.”  And to be honest, the lack of continuity would only have bothered me if this were a poorly made film.  But Eyres ain’t joking around with his follow up. He’s not only going back to the same old DIE HARD rip off routine, but he is kicking it up a few notches.  If you do end up seeing this film, make sure to get the DVD (on a double feature with part 3) because it presents the uncut version of the film.  Like most early 90s action filmmakers, Eyres was getting his John Woo on big time and fills the plethora of shootouts with some bloody squibs. Even a guy dressed at Santa gets blasted!  Oh, and he seems to have a newfound HUGE explosion fetish. Matching Eyres upping of his game is Zagarino as the renegade robot.  This time around this dude is totally unhinged.  Seriously, for an emotionless robot, he seems to be having a mental breakdown as he goes from serious to cackling in a heart byte (ah, boo yourself).  Sadly, once again we get no actual robot stuff from our film about a robot. Genesse gets the everyman John McClane duties this go around and he is just as good, if not better, as Martin Kove in the first film.  You have to love his delivery of some of his quips, like when Laurie tells the authorities outside she is trapped in the building with the janitor and he grumbles, “Head of maintenance.”  If you ever find yourself accosted on the street by someone who randomly asks you “what is the best PROJECT SHADOWCHASER film” just tell them this one.


I know what you’re thinking – “How on Earth did I missed PROJECT SHADOWCHASER parts 3 through 2999?”  Well, don’t worry.  It is just that the producers got a little creative with the title in this third entry in the series.  The money must have been flowing after the second one, but weren’t not sure if it was from video sales or some money laundering. Either way, the third PROJECT SHADOWCHASER debuted just over a year after the last one.

The film opens with the passengers on the spaceship Siberia being attacked by some off screen menace.  They run around the ship (factory interiors, yay!) while some unseen thing zaps them with lasers.  25 years later, the communications ship Comstat 5 is heading towards Mars with its small crew.  They quickly find out they are on a collision course with the derelict Siberia, which they barely dodge.  Good news, right?  Well, not really as the Siberia, which is showing no signs of human life onboard, mysteriously turns around and gives it another shot.  This time it rams the space station pretty good, even impaling a female Comstat 5 with an antenna point.  As cinematic outer space laws dictate, if you find an abandoned ship, you must go onboard and see what is on that ship.  They actually have a reason as the Siberia is pushing the two conjoined ships towards Mars’ atmosphere and they want to shut the engines off before they become toast.  The Comstat 5 crew finds the frozen captain of the Siberia (who just happens to be the father of one of their female members) and then the Professor of the group fills them in on the history of the Siberia.  Apparently they found some precious metal ore on Juno 5 that was, naturally, going to solve the world’s fuel problems and make whoever found it wealthy.  Of course, this gets the token Crazy White Guy dreaming and scheming of being rich.  However, the worst of their problems is that lurking in the shadows is that thing that killed the crew members in the first place years ago. Yes, it’s my boy Shadowchaser!

Hey, remember a few paragraphs ago where I said this isn’t the kind of series where the viewer shouldn’t get highly invested in continuity?  Well, this entry proves that beyond any doubt as returning director Eyres decided to boldly go where many have gone before. Throwing your characters into space is usually something reserved for when a series has hit the skids (see the HELLRAISER, FRIDAY THE 13th, and LEPRECHAUN series), but the SHADOWCHASER folks didn’t give a damn. Not only were they going to send their loyal viewers a few centuries into the future, but they (again) weren’t going to explain a damn thing to you.  Once again, they figure the regular dosage of a blonde crew cut sporting robot was enough to satiate folks.  I seriously wonder if there was some die hard PROJECT SHADOWCHASER fan out there going, “Oh damn, I can’t wait to see where they send Shadowchaser the Cyborg next!”  Unfortunately, that person, who may or may not exist, was probably gravely disappointed as series regular Frank Zagarino is barely in this film for the first hour. Yes, the face on the VHS cover used to lure people in doesn’t even appear in a majority of the film.

Instead, we basically get another tired reworking of ALIENS (1986) with a little bit of THE THING (1982) thrown in.  I’d want to say they just grabbed some random sci-fi script and shoehorned the Shadowchaser cyborg into it, but screenwriter Nick Davis also wrote PROJECT SHADOWCHASER II.  Then again, can you demand too much from a script where a guy in a wheelchair is named Wheels?  Maybe director Eyres just fancied making a flick set in space? Or maybe they were trying to cash in on the big budget STARSHIP TROOPERS, which Hollywood was predicting would be the biggest film that year (it wasn’t).  Either way, this third film ends up being a very confused entry in the series.  It is a shame too as, up to this point this is probably the slickest made film of the bunch. Once again, a solid cast of B-movie vets (including Sam Bottoms and Christopher Atkins) is brought in to play victims to Zagarino’s cybernetic surfer dude.  This entry also is the only one to feature someone else from the series as Ricco Ross, who has a small supporting role in part one, plays one of the crew members here.  And we get a cute dog too!

If this sequel does anything right, it is that during the last half hour of mayhem we finally get to see what the inside of the cyborg looks like.  Yes, three films in and we are privy to what makes Shadowchaser tick.  Now don’t go getting all excited and expecting some grand TERMINATOR like exoskeleton.  We just get a messy facial appliance, but at least Eyres finally let us know he actually is a robot.  For a while there I was just starting to think he was just an insane bodybuilder whose skin was resistant to bullets.  So put your Shadowchaser conspiracy theories aside – he’s real and he’s a robot.  Now how he got into space a thousand years later is anyone’s guess.  “Details, details,” cries Eyres.


Hey, are you still reading?  I’m sorry.  Anyway, remember a few paragraphs back when I reminded you that a few paragraphs back that this series isn’t one for continuity?  Well, hold onto your hats.  PROJECT SHADOWCHASER IV was actually announced with that title in a full page ad in Variety on March 1, 1995, months before the third part debuted. Yup, EGM Films International and Nu Image were confident fans would keep coming back for more Zagarino that they could just keep pumping these films out like a factory.  It would take an act of the Movie Gods to make them stop.  So, yeah, about that…

The film opens in Africa 2960 years ago. Yes, 2960 years ago because screenwriter B.J. Nelson loves his specifics.  Anyway, the prologue has some dancing African tribe welcoming a UFO that appears to be a 80s rock concert light show.  Out of the spaceship step some aliens and – wait for it – a bunch of Frank Zagarinos!  They give the shaman leader of the tribe half of some amulet and when he connects it with his half, it allows the aliens to make an elixir for their people.  Yes, always store your life saving elixir on another planet.  They then split but their craft is struck by lightning and explodes, leaving some Zagarinos on Earth in some glass cases. Cut to the present day where Michael Cavanaugh (Todd Jensen) and his wife Corinne (Jennifer MacDonald), two archaeologists, are working on a dig in Africa.  They bicker endlessly, thanks mostly to the fact that they are running out of money and their son Joey is comatose in the hospital.  Is this PROJECT SHADOWCHASER the soap opera version?  Anyway, they discover half of this amulet and this thrills their boss Professor Morton (Brian O’Shaughnessy), who asks to have it scanned and sent over via email.  Somehow this process awakens alien Sirius (Zagarino) buried deep in the ground and he becomes an alien-man on a mission.  Yes, he is awakened by an email sent via dial up. AOHell!  This is bad news for the Cavanaughs as he starts stalking them and shouting, “I want Orion’s Key!”  Even worse, Morton turns out to not be a nice guy and has some goons after them as well because this key allows the owner to create some kind of “fountain of youth” elixir.  Will they survive and what will happen to poor Joey?

Oh jeez, where do I start?  PROJECT SHADOWCHASER IV offers a lot of firsts for this series.  It is the first one not directed by John Eyres.  Instead, the reigns are handed over to South African Mark Roper, who was the first assistant director on the second one.  It is also the first in the series to actually embrace the South African shooting locations, instead of trying to be Anytown USA or space. Most importantly, it is the first to feature Frank Zagarino as the hero.  Yup, ol’ Shadowchaser is the good guy this time around.  Well, it is revealed about an hour in after he stalks around looking all angry.  But are we even sure this is the same Shadowchaser? He is of alien origin, but when he now sports yellow eyes and any time he moves his head you get machine-like sounds.  I’m so confused…just like the filmmakers, no doubt.

It is safe to say something funny happened to the screenplay on the journey from script to screen.  Outside of Zagarino looking exactly the same, this really isn’t a PROJECT SHADOWCHASER movie in the classic sense.  I like to think writer B.J. Nelson, who graced the world with SCANNERS II and SCANNERS III, was walking into the Nu Image office with the world’s most amazing PROJECT SHADOWCHASER IV script in his hands when he bumped into an intern carrying a dozen generic scripts and they somehow all got mixed together.  I would really have loved to have been a fly on the wall to see how they got to this point.  I mean did someone sit up and say, “But the fans want, no, demand more marital drama!” Did Zagarino lay down the law and say he would only return if they made him the hero?  Or did Nu Image just say screw it and go nuts? The film’s schizophrenic nature is summed up perfectly by the fact it came out under various titles, none of them being PROJECT SHADOWCHASER IV.  In the US, it hit video shelves as ALIEN CHASER (with a guy trying to look like Zagarino, but not Zagarino on the box) and overseas you could find it as ORION’S KEY or THE GATES OF TIME.  

It is a shame they went so off the rails here because in some ways this is one of the best SHADOWCHASER films.  It is really well made and the locations in South Africa are fantastic.  I just am sad it doesn’t fall into the wonky lineage of the earlier films.  Or wait, maybe it does? Maybe Sirius is the original prototype for the Shadowchaser project.  Maybe his frozen body is discovered by the US government in the tomb he lays down in the end of this and then they begin the project.  Then they clone him so they can mass produce them, which would explain his reappearance in parts two and three.  Oh no, did I just do up some PROJECT SHADOWCHASER fan fiction?  I think its time for me to hang it up.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Monstrous Mayhem: PHANTOM OF THE MALL: ERIC'S REVENGE (1989)

Stephen: “What the hell is it?”
Roger: “Looks like a shopping center, one of those big indoor malls.”

This bit of expositional dialogue from DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) always cracks me up.  Not only was it clearly added in post-production, but it seems to have been inserted for non-American audiences because shopping malls are as American as apple pie and trying to evade income taxes.  And thanks to George Romero’s trendsetting zombie flick, shopping malls turned into fertile ground for horror films.  The 80s gave us greater mall madness with classics such as NIGHT OF THE COMET (1984) and CHOPPING MALL (1986).  Hell, even the arcade segment in NIGHTMARES (1983) gets my shopper senses tingling.

I don’t know what it is, but give me something scary set in a mall and I’m there.  Maybe it is a combination of the familiar and the unknown. You’ve been in all the sprawling shops, but you are forbidden to access the behind-the-scenes.  That, combined with the unlimited access to everything, sets my consumer consciousness on fire.  So it is hardly a surprise that something titled PHANTOM OF THE MALL got my attention pretty easily when I was a kid.  Cashing in on the late 80s Phantom craze (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical that debuted in England in 1986 and tore up Broadway in 1988), this film is made for those teens plunking down hard cash at the mall theater for the latest FRIDAY THE 13th and is, like, totally awesome.

The town of Midwood, California is moving up in the world as developer Harv Posner and Mayor Karen Wilton (Morgan Fairchild) have just opened up the Midwood Mall.  “No more wondering where are your kids on Saturday night,” says the sleazy Posner.  Yes, this babysitting construction of commerce is going to solve all the town’s problems.  Not only are the kids going to have a place to go, but they are going to have plenty of places to work like the bar/restaurant Sleuth’s and the yogurt place The Chill Factor.  This place is fancy.  How fancy?  They have a dude in a tux that plays the piano for shoppers and – in an amusing nod to DAWN OF THE DEAD – Ken Foree (Peter from DAWN) works security.  So it’s no surprise that Melody Austin (Kari Whitman) and her friend Suzie (Kimber Sissons) are drawn to the place and both get jobs there.  Unfortunately, all is not well in this suburbia paradise.  Lurking in the shadows is Eric Matthews (Derek Rydall), a troubled teen who was thought to have died in a house fire that took place a year ago right where the mall now stands.  Deftly slinking around the crawlspaces and practicing kickboxing in his lair, Eric is out for revenge.

Eric knows the sleazy real estate developer Posner was responsible for his fiery “death.”  And he’s going to show him by crashing the big investor’s party on July 4th and killing anyone associated with the mall.  The only one free from Eric’s revenge is Melody, his ex-girlfriend who was there the night of the fire that he lovingly stalks via the mall’s high-tech security system.  He’s slowly been trying to woo her back by leaving orchids in her locker, getting her a fancy dress she wanted but couldn’t afford (women love shoplifters!) and playing their song in the jukebox at her job.  Only problem is Eric is half the man he used to be as the right side of his face is now badly burned.  Also, Melody seems to be falling for Peter Baldwin (Rob Estes), a local reporter who is slowly uncovering what happened that fateful night a year ago.  So much for Melody keeping the home fires, uh, burning for Eric.  Then again, would you want to live in an underground den with a guy who looks like an alien from MAC AND ME (1988)?   Love never dies, but it certainly can upgrade.

Ah, be still my mall loving heart, I think I’m in heaven.  As you might have guessed, this movie left me in a giddy state when I rented it as a 15-year-old and a revisit some 20 years later finds a similar reaction.  PHANTOM OF THE MALL is essential viewing for anyone who considers themselves a serious student of the shopping center scares.  Not that it is scary, but you will fall in love with the 1980s milieu that seems to bleed off the screen.  Mostly filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria (the same place that housed CHOPPING MALL), PHANTOM fills me with nostalgia when I see places like B. Dalton Booksellers or Sam Goody’s or Victoria’s Secret.  Ah, to see the 80s women sliding into that 80s lingerie…oh, sorry, was I typing out loud?  You also have to admire the film’s what-da-hell take on certain things.  For example, according to this film you get cobras in a pet shop (I assume that is where Eric stole his slithery pets) and a store called The Roughhouse sells flamethrowers.  “Hey, honey, you take the kids to Toys R Us while I got to Roughhouse to get us that flamethrower we talked about.”  Not only that, but the flamethrowers are on the display shelf fully operational.  Then again, this was the Reagan era and what do you expect from a town that elects Morgan Fairchild as their Mayor?

Director Richard Friedman was just in the infancy of his career, but had already delivered two passable horror flicks (DOOM ASYLUM and SCARED STIFF, both 1987) before helming this.  He does a credible job making it all seem like a scenario that could really happen (although I do laugh at the idea of a classical pianist being a prowling rapist) and gives enough gory thrills.  Believe it or not, it took three writers to pen the film’s screenplay.  I’m going to lay all the credit for the good stuff at the feet of co-writer Robert King as he cut his teeth working for Roger Corman and wrote the Video Junkie fave THE NEST (1988).  There are also several well done stunts including some high falls from the top of the mall. But the real showstopper is a stuntman who gets totally plowed down during a car chase.  Dude earned his money.

Naturally, there are laughable plot points galore.  You do have to wonder how Eric is so good at catching seemingly every minute of Melody’s life on camera though. He good.  I also laughed at the idea that Eric is down in his dwelling pumping iron like a madman and when they show him working out, he is hitting the 10 pounds weights.  Damn, he real good.  Derek Rydall was something of a horror leading man staple at the time (he was in NIGHT VISITOR [1988] before this and POPCORN [1991] after) and he is good in the role.  Of course, special mention should go to the master thespian that plays the comic sidekick Buzz – Pauly Shore!  Yes, before becoming my babysitter on TOTALLY PAULY on MTV, Shore was busting his butt in stuff like this.  Just a few years later he would own the world.  Special mention should be made for the band The Vandals and their song “Is There a Phantom in the Mall?” that plays over the end credits.  With lyrics like “Is he the Phantom of the Mall/Or just a retard in a broken hockey mask” you can’t help but love that song.  So when it comes to the "burned teen turned Phantom in a mall" category, you can't beat this flick.        

Although most places list this as direct-to-video, we can show that it at least played theatrically in Salina, Kansas (!) in October 1989:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cyber Monday: CYBORG 2: GLASS SHADOW (1993)

For some reason cheap sequels hold a fascination for us here at VJ. Sure a lot of them can be quickie cash-ins that have no problem simply going through the motions and picking up a paycheck for rehashing ideas with all the enthusiasm of high-school history lesson. If you've been reading our stuff over the years, you've probably read me lavish praise on Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE (1980) more than once for being a sequel with it's own mind. These days that rhetoric isn't new (remember back when most people hated ZOMBIE?), but basically, the producers wanted a sequel to DAWN OF THE DEAD (1979). They never told Fulci that they wanted it in another shopping mall, per se, so Fulci made the sequel a throwback to the atmospheric chiller WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) and then cranked the undead carnage to 11... or 12. As far as I'm concerned this is the perfect example of not only sequel-making, but exploitation filmmaking in general. The audience wants zombies, so we give them zombies, but we're going to do it in a way that is creative and original. Roger Corman became a millionaire several times over with this philosophy.

Created in the malestrom of Cannon's death throes, Albert Pyun was commissioned by Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan to make a movie using the the sets built for the (sadly) aborted sequel to MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1987) starring Dolph Lundgren. Ironically Pyun cast Jean Claude Van Damme to star in his now iconic dystopian, post-holocaust fusing of hard sci-fi and kickboxing action. Ironic since Lungren and Van Damme would, only a few years later, go on to star together in the hugely successful sci-fi / action epic UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992). Albert Pyun's CYBORG (1989) was not only a smashing success during its limited theatrical run, but went on to staggering popularity on video and cable. Of course this sort of cash-wallowing does not go unnoticed in Hollywood and a sequel finally ensued.

After Cannon was drawn and quartered, MGM ended up with the rights to CYBORG, but somehow Trimark managed to end up with the rights to a sequel. How this happened seems to be a factoid lost to time, but suffice it to say, they were going to make the most of it. CYBORG was reportedly made for a paltry $500,000, which I don't think would even cover Van Damme's coke debts on the set of STREET FIGHTER (1994). CYBORG 2: GLASS SHADOW (1993) on the other hand was reportedly budgeted at ten times that amount, making it a substantial production for an era of DTV action.

*Sigh* ...another day at the office.
Set in the dystopian future of 2074, two mega-corporations, one American, one Japanese, vie for supremacy in the cyborg tech industry. The American corporation, Pinwheel, has perfected their new android series that cannot be distinguished from a real human. They have been created to have memories, emotions and are fully functional right down to enjoying a good screaming "O" while the boardroom watches on closed circuit video. And they blow up real good. Yes the Pinwheel corp decides to run a demo of their latest research by showing live video of two "cyborgs" having loud sex before exploding in a splattery mess. You know these guys are on to something good, because every meeting I've ever been to, the most exciting thing is usually the free bagels and coffee. Pinwheel has decided that the way to attain superiority in the tech race is, not to spend years developing and researching android technology, but instead a substance called "glass shadow". A liquid that is injected into an android, who has been trained for optimum combat self-sufficiency and has the latest, cutting edge emotional software, and will pretend to be an ambassador from Pinwheel in order to explode during a meeting with the Japanese, killing all of their senior officers. These guys must have the patience of a saint! Well, a saint that has no problem murdering competitors.

Koteas contemplates his career.
That android is one Casella "Cash" Reese (Angelina Jolie) who has no idea what glass shadow is or that she is going to be used as a human, err, cyborg time bomb. What she does know is that her karate instructor, Colson "Colt" Ricks (Elias Koteas) is a bit of a hottie (yes, Elias Koteas) and apparently all Colt thinks about back in his cybercubicle is Cash's hotness (at least that part is understandable). Are you annoyed yet? You will be, you will be...

In this future the workers live in the corporate towers and the corporation makes their own laws. One of those laws is "don't squeeze the Charmin". Try to get jiggy with the product and the sentence is death! The (*groan*) starcrossed lovers quickly find themselves in 120 degree H20. A pontificating, disembodied mouth (Jack Palance) on a video signal that jumps around to different CRT monitors (the future!), takes a shine to the pair and guides them with cryptic utterances out of the grasp of Pinwheels shock troops. Once outside of the megacorp (which seems to be nothing but corridors in an abandoned refinery), they find the world is in a perpetual night (what - no rain?), complete with buildings that look like modern Compton. This seems particularly odd since in the opening flyby, we get a cool miniature cityscape that proves that someone in the art department is a fan of Ron Cobb. Too bad none of the actual physical locations match this vision.

Directed by veteran second unit / first assistant director Michael Schroeder, the man sure knows how to make a film look good and you have to give him credit for not doing a mindless rehash of Pyun's certified classic, but I'm not sure he actually wants to make a cyborg film at all. The bulk of the film is Cash and Colt being relentlessly pursued through a BLADE RUNNER / MAX HEADROOM / JUDGE DREDD vision of the future by a hitman (Billy Drago) dressed up like a '40s era gangster, complete with waistcoat and cravat. Not that this is a bad thing at all, I really don't mind the patchwork of sci-fi influences in low-budget films, however it seems that Schroeder is really interested in the tragic romance between Man and Machine and spends so much time with long gazes into eyes, long winded emotional dialogues and sappy, sentimental sequences with tender piano and violin music that the film not only drags to a grinding halt, but really starts to chafe. Even worse, the straight dialogue scenes are simply cringe-inducing. For example this exchange between Sheperd's allegedly Chinese assassin and Koteas' marble-mouthed wannabe Robert Deniro:
Chen: "So tell me what's worse... Cyborg envy, or human envy?"
Colt: "Penis envy?" (big goofy grin) "Huh?"

No amount of Jolie nekkedness can atone for this. Yes, I said "Jolie nekkedness". This should be no surprise to anyone, unfortunately it's not like she's running around starkers doing kickboxing and stuntwork like Maria Ford in ANGEL OF DESTRUCTION (1994). This is just some tasteful romantic stuff that unless you have a major cyberchubby for Jolie, it isn't anything to get excited about.

Schoeder to his credit has an eye for great widescreen shots and throws in cool little details here and there, even sporting an obligatory (for the era) underground fighting tournament of death. Even so, in the end it still feels like he just wants to do the whole BLADE RUNNER romance angle and if he had his way, the film wouldn't have any action in it at all. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that once again, we have the beautiful and badass Karen Sheperd's mad skills being completely wasted. In the one scene we get of her putting the boots to Koteas, it's a jumbled mess of close-ups and jumpcuts. Wouldn't want to mess up Koteas' purdy mug, I guess. The most damning thing is Jolie and Koteas have zero charisma and their dishwater dull performances are what really takes this would be epic off-line.

In spite of its major flaws, CYBORG 2 was quite successful on video and cable, and after another five years or so became very popular due to the fact that this "Anjelina Jolie" person was apparently well known for other things in which she was not at all naked. So popular (or at least, so well rented) was CYBORG 2, that Schroeder would return to direct yet another sequel! Apparently their boardroom meeting must have consisted of showing the exploding sex bit, or they all fell asleep in the beginning and were too embarrassed to admit it and Trimark decided hand over the sequel rights to a producer team who knew how to "Cash" in!

CYBORG 3... Next!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #99: THE FLESH TWISTERS (1979)

“The golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.”
- Frank (Keith David) in THEY LIVE

We’ve covered a lot of obscure, unmade films in our “never got made” series, but for entry #99 we’re going to unveil the champ.  This is a project so obscure that it left even the most knowledgeable horror historians scratching their heads; its digital footprint was smaller than Stephen King’s “subjects I should write about” list; and press mentions amounted to less than a bottle of ink.  In my best Carl Denham voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you THE FLESH TWISTERS!”

This evocatively titled horror indie boldly announced itself to the world in the May 9, 1979 issue of Variety.  Sharing a full page ad alongside SLITHIS and HERE COME THE DELTS (CAMPUS CORPSE/THE HAZING being sold as a comedy), THE FLESH TWISTERS tried to entice readers with an indecipherable photo and the promise of “one of the most terrifying stories of the century.”  The talent listed behind it included one Gary Fox as the director and one Rick Swan as the writer.  Fox and Swan?  To quote William Kerwin in BLOOD FEAST, this was going to be “one of those long hard ones.”

The original Variety ad:

Neither name registered on the IMDb and good luck weeding those names out via Google.  Thankfully, amateur detective and crime fighter Bill Picard was on the case and soon established these weren’t just playful animal sobriquets.  Gary Fox and Rick Swan were real and he had found them.  After convincing them I wasn’t the world’s most inventive collections agent, Fox and Swan agreed to talk about the unmaking of their film, the story of how two ambitious young men decided to bend over backwards to try and make THE FLESH TWISTERS.

Believe it or not, the film’s genesis began in higher education.  Gary Fox and Rick Swan were both pre-med students at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa when they first met and became close friends.  While at school, both men were involved in the theater department; Swan penned an opera called THE COSMIC GOOSE that Fox had a role in and Fox later directed Swan’s play THE EGG AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW.

Drake University 1974-75 theater schedule:

Following their mutual graduations in 1975, Fox and Swan moved to Los Angeles to try to get into the film and music business.  Their sojourn to the City of Angels was brief and soon both men were back living in Iowa, where Fox had enrolled into the MFA film program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

“While I was there, Rick and I were planning on trying to cash in on what was left of the drive-in market, which was still going at that time,” Fox reveals in a telephone conversation. “Also, tax codes were such that it was a tremendous tax shelter for an investor.  Those laws have all since gone, but you could basically invest in independent film and write it off. I mean, if you had extra bucks and were a rich guy and you could throw some money around, you could be in the movie business and the Federal government didn’t really hit you that hard at all.  In fact, it was a great write off.  The financial climate was right.  Rick wanted to do something, I wanted to do something.”

Scaring audiences is timeless
Despite being neophytes in the film making business, both Fox and Swan had the acute business sense to know that when working with a small budget on a first time feature that it was best to take the exploitation route.  “If you’re talking about independent productions, you know you’re not going to have a lot of money,” Fox explains.  “So what is the best way to get bang for your buck?  Scaring people is probably easier to do with less money than other kinds of productions.”  Or, as Swan more succinctly put it in our email conversations, “Since obvious incompetents were making acceptable drive-in stuff, I figured I could do it too.”

And so the idea to make a horror film was born.  Swan was the more astute of the two when it came to the horror and sci-fi fields, having grown up with a love for the genre and worked at a drive-in.  He soon came up with the superb name THE FLESH TWISTERS, a title that could easily hold its own on a double bill with THE CORPSE GRINDERS or SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED.

Typical creepy Midwestern town
Swan set about writing the screenplay and tapped into an unusual source of inspiration – his musical career.  “I dropped out of medical school at the University of Iowa to join a rock band,” he discloses.  “I spent five years at it, during which time we made three records and toured extensively.” And it was this time as the lead singer and songwriter for the band Luxury that gave him his motivation for the tale of a mad scientist in a rural town.  “If you've traveled around the more obscure areas of the Midwest, you've probably noticed all the dinky, isolated, creepy towns tucked away in the middle of nowhere. The repulsive inhabitants of these crappy villages spend their miserable days shuffling between the miserable rat-infested bars and the miserable rat-infested granary.  In the screenplay, a musician winds up in one of these dumps, where he is accosted by the zombie-like locals.”

Some flesh to be twisted!
With a finished screenplay that made sure to touch on all the exploitation necessaries (screaming babes, creeping monsters, nasty Nazis), the two men were soon about to set their plan of making a feature into motion.  Fox was almost jumping out of his skin in film school and a film advisor professor suggested he make the feature.  “He was more of the ‘I think you should go off and do that movie’ [type],” Fox recalls.  “He said, ‘Do it while you’re young and stupid. Before you realize how unbelievably hard it is to make a movie.’  Especially in 1977 and 1978.  So I did.”

“So Rick finished the screenplay, he is a tremendous talent and a great writer.  We broke it down and did a production budget.  I came to Chicago.  There is nothing, nothing in Des Moines, Iowa – maybe there is now – but at the time there were no kind of [film] facilities whatsoever.  Not even a laboratory to develop rushes, not one place to rent equipment from.  That had to be done from Chicago.  So I made a bunch of trips, pretty much put together a crew – an editor, a director of photography, all that kind of stuff.  Then we made a preview, a three or four minute trailer.”

Using equipment from the University of Iowa, the FLESH TWISTERS guys crafted a four minute trailer (which is where all of the images in this article come from).  The teaser opens with shots of a deserted Midwestern town as an ominous voiceover warns that in this town there “hangs the shadow of an unimaginable terror” and that “the dead don’t die.”  To showcase such terror we get a girl taking a bath and the requisite necking teens being stalked (“Ed, please check it out.”).  We are then introduced to the madman behind it all, who lives in a creepy old house on the hill (perhaps the most effective shot of the trailer as the camera slowly dollies past a decaying house that looks like the kind of real estate Leatherface would invest in).  We get several shots of him preparing to twist the cranial flesh of the nubile young victims brought to him by his zombie charges.  The teaser wraps up with Gary Fox doing his best William Castle impersonation as he talks to the camera and implores the viewers to “join me in alerting the nation to the existence of this nightmare before it’s too late.”  Too bad he doesn’t see the scythe-wielding madman just over his shoulder.    

An early attempt to convince investors
Naturally, the promo was made to entice investors and it does a great job through its concise editing and just the perfect amount of showmanship.  With the promo done, the filmmakers set out to make their outfit look as professional as possible in terms of their planning.  “If memory serves, it was pretty much all done, or close to it,” Swan recalls of the pre-production. “We had input and support from lawyers, accountants, and financial professionals, all of whom donated their services for free.  I can’t believe it either. We ultimately made a thick book of all this technical and legal stuff to impress potential investors.”

“We started a limited partnership,” Fox reveals. “We were the general partners and investors were the limited partners.  We were selling units at $7,500 a unit.”  They then began showing the promo reel to anyone and everyone who seemed like they could be a potential backer.  “They would meet us and they would hear our pitch.  Then they would say, ‘Yes, I’ll give you a check’ or ‘No, I won’t give you a check.’  The worst part about three years of raising money is not yes and no but maybe.  Maybe is the worst answer you can get.  If you can’t do it, I understand.  I can cross your name off the list and go on.  They never say no.  They always say, ‘Let me think about it’ or ‘let me get back to you’ or ‘I’m not sure yet.’  It is like living in limbo in hell.”

Dick Davis, right, promotes THE HAZING
Along the way the filmmakers met a wide assortment of interesting characters, including one gentleman who offered Fox a substantial amount in exchange for – how shall we say – his non-film related services.  Fox turned him down.  Producer’s casting couch attempt aside, perhaps the wildest character the two aspiring filmmakers met was producer Dick Davis.  Dick Davis was one Richard L. Davis; the R.L. Davis eventually listed on the Variety ad.  Davis was an entrepreneur in the simplest sense, a smut peddler in the stricter one.  He spent the better part of the late 60s/early 70s being a thorn in the side of city councils everywhere as he tried to get XXX material into his theaters and drive-ins. “We hooked up with a guy named Dick Davis, who at the time was much older than us,” Fox explains.  “We were just in our mid-20s.  Dick was a full grown man and he was a pornographer.  He owned a couple of porno theaters in Des Moines.  He was a sleazy guy, but he was interested in getting into the legitimate movie business.”

Davis did bring a certain level of film experience as he had recently been the partial money man behind SLITHIS and THE HAZING (the two films featured on the ad).  While he did bring certain connections (more on that in a bit), what he didn’t bring was any real filmmaking sensibility.  Swan amusingly recalls Davis trying to shoehorn some of his own ideas into their script.  “Yes. Dick Davis – a zillionaire drive-in owner and producer of SLITHIS and main booster and mentor of this project – read the script and had several suggestions,” Swan remembers.  “Any way you could work a rubber-suited monster in the story, so we could call it SON OF SLITHIS?  No, sorry.  Any way you could work in the military?  A “prologue” was written set in a Pentagon office where guys in uniforms discussed the suspicious activities brewing in hidden Midwestern towns. Yes, it was a totally pointless and stupid addition, but what the heck.  Any way we can make this a TV movie? Huh?”

A brief history of Dick Davis (click to enlarge):

1972 - "I promise not to show X-rated films."

1974 - "Yay, I can show X-rated films!"

However, it was Davis who came up the idea to run a big Variety ad (and a tiny blurb in Box Office magazine, the film’s only other trade mention).  “Dick Davis said, ‘Well, we’re going to make a big splash out of this.  Let’s take an ad out in Variety.’  So Rick and I worked up the little artwork on it and – as you saw – we ran an ad in Variety, which was hilarious.  It is still hilarious to me that it was done and even more hilarious that somebody like yourself found it many years later and followed up on it.”  For fans curious about the minutia of the announcement, Fox confirms that no book was ever written or intended to be written for the film and that the lone photographic image is a still of actress Robin Scott in the bathtub.

Box Office mention:

Gary Fox unaware of the dangers
around him both on & off the screen
“Dick was a nice guy to want to work with us,” Fox says, “but I look back on it and I’m going, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’”  Indeed, both men were out of their element in a sense.  During this period, Fox worked as a school bus driver while Swan worked at a suicide prevention hotline (!) and toured with Luxury.  Nowhere was their innocence more on display than when James Galinsky, an accountant friend of Davis who was working on helping secure film funding, was busted in a major drug operation where eight pounds of cocaine were seized in his home. “We were having these pitch meetings and presentations in his house,” Fox recalls incredibly.  “We were running in a fast lane and we didn’t know what the hell was happening.”  
Despite having the Iowa version of Tony Montana in their corner, Fox and Swan were never able to raise the $150,000 they had budgeted the film for.  “Long story short, we talked to everybody and we got together essentially about $100,000 dollars,” Fox reveals.  “Then we hit a wall and could not find the rest of the financing.”  Despite being 2/3 of the way there, Fox did something unheard of in the movie business.  “After much soul searching and looking around, we did what turned out to be maybe the stupidest thing we ever did – we gave the money back.”

“Why it was the stupidest thing we’ve ever did is I’ve since found that if you have a hundred thousand dollars, start shooting.  Once you’re in the middle of production, it is much easier to get the guy to pull out his checkbook and give you $5,000 or $10,000 more for finishing than it is if you haven’t started at all and you’re just some kids with a pipedream. We should have just taken the money and begun.  But my father was an old school guy and he said, ‘It’s going to cost $150,000.  You don’t have it.  You can not go forward in good faith.  You can not risk these peoples’ money.  You need to give the money back.’”  Swan again succinctly sums the budget situation up: “Money. We had some, but not enough.”

died an ignoble, early death
“It kills me to this day,” Fox reveals of the decision to return the money.  “I’m absolutely convinced if we have started shooting that we would have found the rest of the money. That’s the end of the story.  I’ve got no great scars to talk to you about.  I’ve got no great Hollywood thing.  Hollywood didn’t even know this existed.  It’s just a couple of young guys trying to make a movie in the Midwest, not knowing what they’re doing at all.”  Indeed, had the film gone forward perhaps we would be telling an entirely different tale?  After all, just a few years later some young guys in Michigan raised about $150,000 through dentists and lawyers and ended up doing pretty well for themselves with THE EVIL DEAD. Perhaps in some alternate universe a multi-million dollar remake of THE FLESH TWISTERS opened at no. 1 at the box office the first weekend in April 2013 and drove the kids wild.

Alas, movie making is not the quintessential element in our universe and both men went on different paths.  Although Fox and Swan eventually went their separate ways, both men remained in the Midwest and raised families.  Fox continued his education and is now a film professor at Columbia College Chicago and at DePaul University.  Logically, he teaches courses on cinema, but keeps his students unaware of his filmmaking past.  Swan became a freelance writer and penned a series of popular Dungeons & Dragons manuals.  His band Luxury experienced a bit of a resurgence due to re-releases with the song “Green Hearts” even being featured in the film SUMMERHOOD (2008).  He still retains his love for genre movies and currently has a library of 5,000 strong.  Had THE FLESH TWISTERS been made, I have no doubt that with its brain drilling antics and perfect horror font for the title that it would have slid perfectly into the collection.