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!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Obscure Oddities: THE SUCKERS (1972)

One of the best things on the internet(s) is Temple of Schlock’s The Endangered List.  Over the last four and a half years, Schlock’s Chris Poggiali has painstakingly researched films that have fallen through the cracks over time and offered readers reports on 131 films as scarce as the African wild ass (thank you, Wikipedia!).  Thankfully, these films have a dedicated group of cinematic archaeologists on the hunt for them and – with nary a Belloq in sight – titles are being unearthed and saved every now and then.  2013 has been an especially good year with several titles being discovered and released to DVD.  One such title is THE SUCKERS, a T&A filled action thriller out on a double feature disc with THE LOVE GARDEN (1971) from upstart label Vinegar Syndrome.

The film opens with advertising man George Stone (Norman Fields) driving up some mountain roads along with his photographer wife Cindy (Barbara Mills) and two models, Barbara (Sandy Dempsey) and Joanne (Laurie Rose).  As George explains, they are heading to the isolated estate of Steve Vandemeer (Steve Vincent), a wealthy hunter that George used to photograph on his big game hunts in Africa years ago. After being confronted by two of Vandemeer’s armed security guards, the group makes it to his home for their secret assignment.  Also there for the affair is Jeff Baxter (Richard Smedley), another big game hunter and ex-Green Beret who is also in the dark about the group’s intended prey.  Vandemeer is mysteriously tight lipped, only saying, “The old days are finished. Only the appetite remains.”  Uh oh.  If there is one thing movies have taught me, it is not to trust wealthy white guys with appetites.

After some dinner and drinks, everyone settles down for the night before their big hunt the next day.  Naturally, that means we get extended couplings as George/Cindy, Jeff/Barbara, and Barbara/Joanne all get it on in sex scenes that seem to go on for days.  The next day finally arrives and Vandemeer escorts everyone out to the woods and then calmly explains to everyone what the audience has figured out long ago – his guests are going to be the hunted!  Yep, ol’ Vandemeer craves the world’s most dangerous game (he even says those words) and informs them that he and his two henchmen will spend the next day tracking and hunting them.  And you thought your job sucked!  Naturally, Jeff doesn’t take kindly to the idea and whips out his pistol, only to be informed the firing pins have been removed.  With little choice other than to run, the folks split up and dash into the woods with the hopes of escaping from this unhinged huntsman.

Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” has provided plenty of cinematic inspiration since its publication in 1924, starting with the official adaptation THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932).  I’m sure there has probably been at least one “wealthy person hunts humans” film every year since.  However, I doubt many have gone the sexploitation route that director Stu Segall (DRIVE IN MASSACRE) did with this film.  THE SUCKERS broke new ground by introducing nekkid folks into the mix.  (Eddie Romero and Jess Franco would up the ante over the next few years by having the hunted being nude; in fact, co-star Laurie Rose was also in Romero's THE WOMAN HUNT.)  The title THE SUCKERS is definitely a double entendre as it not only refers to the poor saps caught up in this rich man’s deranged fantasy, but also the main action during the onscreen make out sessions. Seriously, I haven’t seen this much nipple sucking since that breast feeding flash mob at McDonalds.  Now don’t get your hopes up as most of these sex scenes have all the erotic power of George “Buck” Flower giving you a lap dance.  Yes, it is one of those flicks where the participants are as unappealing as the 70s wall paper.  To make matters worse, the sex scenes seem to go on for days we don’t actually get to the hunting plot until the 51 minute mark of an 80 minute movie.  There is also a rather disturbing rape scene around the 1 hour mark (not that I’ve ever found a rape scene in any film non-disturbing).

"I'm afraid his comb over won't make it."
Please don’t misinterpret those criticisms as a pan though.  The film is definitely entertaining for most of its duration.  Segall’s style of directing is very “lock and talk” but there are some great bits of unintentional comedy.  There are a few flubbed lines/scenes and I loved that flashback to George and Cindy getting the job and previously clean shaven George sporting a mustache.  Segall covers his tracks by having Cindy tell him it tickles her and he better shave it off before their job.  Also, I love how George dismisses Cindy telling him one of the guards was ogling her by saying, “These guys are up here in the wilderness. What do you expect?” Even the abrupt end credits are just a re-showing of the opening credits.  These low budget bits are what give THE SUCKERS a lot of its charm.  

Long considered lost, the movie was given a 2K scan by Vinegar Syndrome from a found 35mm print.  Obviously aware of the market and narrow fan base, they didn’t clean up the print like they did for their unreleased Hershell Gordon Lewis films or MASSAGE PARLOR MURDERS (1972).  There are some heavy scratches at points and the audio gets really rough during one portion about 15 minutes in. However, it didn’t really bother me.  In fact, I think it might have enhanced the viewing experience for me as it would have been strange to watch a sleazy 1970s T&A takeoff on “The Most Dangerous Game” in crystal clear quality.  Outside of the co-feature THE LOVE GARDEN, there aren't any extras on this disc.  I would have totally dug an audio commentary talking about the film's history and how this print was found, but beggars can't be choosers.  I’m just thankful that it was saved and transferred to a digital media so that future generations can also be disturbed by George’s comb over and his sex scene.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Shark Attack Summer: SHARK NIGHT 3D (2011)

It's amazing to think that after all of the virtual reams of digital paper that we have pounded out over the past few years on this blog, there are still scads of our favorite subgenres that we haven't even bothered talking about. It's time to mark one of those off the list.

Likely, you are like us and have seen an absurd number of horror movies. There comes a point in every Video Junkie's life where horror films cease to be really scary, and we look back fondly on the days that they were. Remember the first time you saw PHANTASM? Yeah, then you know what I mean. The exception to this sad phenomena of jadedness, at least for me, is the aquatic horror film. When I was a kid, about four or five, I almost drowned. If some random, reasonably athletic, guy hadn't been walking by as I was desperately trying to grow gills, this blog would be titled "Feast Your Eyes" and be written entirely by my colleague from the Williamsburg Colony. I hope, where ever that random, reasonably athletic man is, he appreciates this simple fact.

I'm pretty sure this experience gave me a justifiable fear of water, compounded by the, what I believe to be, completely rational fear of things that live in it. The point being, aquatic horror movies still have the power to ruin my sofa cushions. Things in the water look freaky and even the most hack filmmaker can stick a shark in the camera lens and make an audience recoil in their seats. Even rubber, toothy aquatic lifeforms can dig at that primal instinct to cut and run. For some reason that no psychologist can really adequately explain, this means fun! So where did this movie go so terribly wrong?

Directed by veteran stuntman and former Disney child actor, David R. Ellis, the movie takes it's first misstep with the opening credits. Grainy, monochrome red and black stock footage of sharks in 2D with 3D titles. It's got to get better than this, right? Eh, no. The opening hook has a couple of over-aged kids frolicking in the water with the requisite goofing off (and underwater 3D shot of bikini-clad bootay), leading to one of them being mauled by a shark off screen. Sort of like the opening of JAWS (1975), except without the nudity, the score, the cinematography, the atmosphere, the acting or the tension. Other than that, just like it.

Cut to random institute of allegedly higher learning where we meet our presumed shark-fodder: An African-American jock, Malik (Sinqua Walls) who got a B+ on some exam, so to celebrate he's taking his uber-nerd buddy Nick (Dustin Milligan), uber-douche hipster guy (Joel David Moore, who else?), and a couple of girls with barely any backstory (one is a "bad" girl because she is getting a back tat while on her cell phone), to Sara's house for a weekend rager. Unfortunately Sara (Sara Paxton) is from the Louisiana bayou and her house is in the middle of BFE swampland (well, actually the upscale Cross Lake in Shreveport, but who's gonna know?). You know what that means. Shit gonna go down! Oh, sorry, it's a PG-13 movie, so uhhhh.. Stuff gonna go down!

One long, undercranked pop-music filled road montage later, the group meets up with a couple of local hicks while buying likker at a bait shop. Since they are edgee-cayted city folk, this can only go in one direction. Down. One of the hicks, Dennis (Chris Carmack), has a nasty scar on his face from a boating accident and apparently has some history with Sara. Obviously this will not figure into the plot in any way after this moment. Nope, not at all. The other yokel is Red (Joshua Leonard), who has his teeth filed to a point like a... well, shark. In addion to his fetching looks, he is quite the charmer and calls Malek "boy". Yeah, nothing suspicious there, cue next undercranked pop-music montage!

After a boat race with the local Sheriff (who listens to RATT, pounds beers and acts the fool), our ethnically diverse ensemble goes out for a bit of water-skiing. Just like JAWS 2, except for the... oh, never mind. Anyway, while Malik's stunt double busts some moves on the water, a full half an hour into the movie... something attacks him. Next thing you know, Malik is missing an arm and the kids realize they are trapped in the middle of the bayou with no phone (Sara's po' cajun folk have no phone... just a multi-million dollar house and a $50K speedboat), no cellphone reception and no boat because the shark rammed the engine until it burst into flames causing it to veer off course and run into the gas pump on the dock. This is not before the unseen shark manages to chomp down (off camera) on Malik's latina girlfriend (Alyssa Diaz). That's right, in 2012 we are still dispatching the ethnic characters first. Actually, that doesn't even hold a candle to the scene in which the filmmakers without a hint of irony have our one-armed black man swearing vengeance while shaking a spear. This is 2012, isn't it? Damn, I can't imagine why they didn't work a Popeye's product placement in there as well.

If you want to watch the movie spoiler free, skip this paragraph... Ok, ready? As it turns out, the hicks that the kids met while they were buying Red Bull and vodka (peeps still be drinkin' that?), are bad men (big spoiler there) who have infested the waters with sharks (major spoiler coming) outfitted with cameras so that they can make snuff films which they watch on their laptops and cell phones! I'm going to pause for a minute to let that sink in. Really, I'm not making this up. See, they are actually big shark fans and since Shark Week on the Discovery channel is so popular, they reckon there has to be a market for people that want something "edgier" (yes, they actually use that word).

If nothing else, first time feature writers, Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg know their cliches and aren't afraid to hit them with a 20lb sledge. They are very careful to only borrow the lame parts of established classics. For instance we have just the lame ethnically diverse cast, seemingly from a FRIDAY THE 13th movie, but none of the creative elements, atmosphere, gore or nudity. They add a dog to the mix early on so that when the villains are mean to it, we know they are bad, bad men. Never mind that they are throwing people into shark infested waters, that poor dog! They hit the cliches, but they can't even exploit the three simple ideas presented by the film's title. There are barely any sharks, it takes place almost entirely during the day and it's mostly in 2D! Talk about half-assing your concept.

In addition to the ludicrous plot (that is completely non-existent until the last 20 minutes of the film), what little shark action there is, tends to be of the stick-the-camera-in-the-face-of-a-real-shark-in-a-tank or badly animated Sy-Fy style sharks flying out of the water to grab people off jetskis. If that wasn't bad enough, the 3D is almost nowhere to be found, which is odd since it was shot in stereoscopic 3D, not converted in post. Ellis' previous film (ballyhooed on the poster, no less) was THE FINAL DESTINATION (2009) which set the standard for jaw-droppingly creative 3D horror effects. Of course in what is becoming typical cheap-assedness here in the US, the movie was released blu-ray in 2D only (Japan, UK, Spain, etc all have 3D releases). In the end, the movie just doesn't seem to give a crap, right down to multiple inconsistencies, including a scene in which a jerry can of gas is knocked over in a little bare-wood boathouse. A lighter hits it, the flames go up and engulf a character. That character falls in the water and we can clearly see, in an extended shot of the interior of the boathouse, that there isn't a single flame to be found! I guess the wood was too humid to burn, or the fire simply crawled up off the floor onto the character. I'm sure, that's it.

The first half hour desperately wants to be PIRANHA 3D with a PG-13 rating. This means we get the crassest dialogue that money can buy, but yet could still be printed in a family newspaper, plus several scenes of hot chicks getting topless with their backs to the camera or underwater with the camera firmly above water. This actually gets pretty funny watching the filmmakers dancing on the head of a pin. They are desperately trying to be wild, but only able to be mild. Matter of fact, it feels more restrained than a Sy-Fy outing, in as that there is nothing more offensive than bare man-ass. This is shown as one of the girls is seen taking a life-model art class. Equal time with some of the chicas? Nope, can't have that. Didn't JAWS (1975) have nudity in a PG rated film? Oh yeah, that was Spielberg. Sorry, I forgot how the rating system works. Of course my frivolous complaints about neutered "edgy" content aside, this movie still has absolutely nothing going for it, and honestly I wasn't being too demanding.

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!