Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Happy Birthday Reggie Bannister!

Just a quick shout out to the baddest ice-cream man to ever walk in a parallel dimension! Reggie Bannister was, is and always will be one of our favorite actors, and one of the nicest guys (I think I can speak for Will here) we've ever met. Swing by his Facebook page and wish him a balls-out birthday! (as Will would say "ah, boo yourself!").

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Defective Detectives: FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER (1986)

A few weeks back, Tom reviewed a film called JACK TILLMAN: THE SURVIVALIST (1987) that featured Steve Railsback as the titular character. Tillman wasn’t a “shoot first, ask questions later” type of guy; he was more of a “shoot first, ask no questions” bloke.  If Tillman were real, I could totally see him back in the mid-80s stockpiling up on VHS tapes at his local video store. After wearing out copies of RED DAWN (1984) and INVASION U.S.A. (1985), Tillman would be forced to venture into the lesser known titles and there he would find FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER (1986). While at first reluctant to touch anything with the word “French” in the title, the cover art of men firing guns at each other would draw him in.  Sitting down in his bunker for some rations by candlelight, he’d pop the tape in and be pleasantly surprised to find this tale of a couple of tough guy New Orleans cops who make Dirty Harry look clean.

FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER opens with a text scrawl talking about how since 1967 terrorists have been dead set on destroying free societies.  Since 1980, their main goal has been to target America.  We then get case files on three Cuban terrorists – Alfredo Senta, Guilliermo Cartena, and Raul Sanchez.  Not only do they have fear inducing foreign names, but they have also been trained by the Russians and are all heading for Louisiana.  I can hear Tillman mutter “Russkie pukes” under his Spam-flavored breath.  We then meet our two heroes: Detectives Andre Des Moines (Michael Parks) and R.J. Wilkerson (Bill Holliday, who also wrote this).  The back of the VHS box actually gives us more info on these two than the actual film, stating they are boyhood friends and partners for 20 years.  It is this type of close camaraderie that results in them killing 3 bad guys (in two unrelated incidents) in their first 5 minutes they are onscreen.  “A couple of standup guys,” Tillman would say.

Naturally, such recklessness on the job gets them in hot water with the higher ups.  But who cares after they are contacted by the F.B.I. in order to help sniff out the three terrorists. Yes, a Government organization with tens of thousands of people is no match for the hard-fisted skills of Des Moines and Wilkerson.  During a briefing, they are told that not only was Sanchez trained in chemical warfare, but he also rapes young boys.  Jeez, could they paint him any more the villain?  It turns out that the plan of the terrorists is to poison the water supply and they aim to do it at the World’s Fair, which is being held in town.  Also on the case is Kevin Fisher (Dov Fahrer), a local newspaper reporter who can’t get his editor to believe him about this story. “Buncha red tape bureaucrat bastards,” Tillman would mutter.

"Don't you worry, Jellyroll. 
We'll find the guy who stole your chin."

Our two cops are on the case and this involves them walking around a lot and talking to a hotdog vendor named Jellyroll (Michael Tedesco).  Detective work is actually immaterial to their investigation as the villains just fall into their laps. They spot Senta walking down the street and shoot him in broad daylight (in front of a group of school kids, no less). Later they get even luckier as they just happen to be in a restaurant that Cartena comes in and shoots up.  What are the chances? They chase him and it makes way for a car chase where Jellyroll is the only innocent bystander.  Again, what are the chances?  Jelly Roll does live up to his name though by proving to be round and full of sticky red stuff. Anyway, two down, one to go. Catching Sanchez actually involves detective work though as they track down a trick that he roughed up a few nights previous.  They find the guy, beat him up and then dump garbage on him.  Nice.  They hit Sanchez’s hotel room and – gosh darn it – he’s already headed to the World’s Fair.  We know this because they find a pamphlet for the cable car system there. Our two heroes rush down there, commandeer a helicopter and rush to save the world.  “I can’t handle this suspense, I hope they succeed,” says sweaty palmed Tillman on the edge of his seat.

“Five stars! Two thumbs up!” Tillman would scream about this film with the same joy as if he just got a new M-16. Yes, FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER would make any paranoid gun lover quiver with delight. Des Moines and Wilkerson are two tough bastards from the Dirty Harry mold alright, always busy punching the answers out of their suspects.  These dudes are so hardcore that they don’t even have time for “make my day” style quips.  It is a relationship so close that it lends credibility to the homosexual overtones that some film scholars have applied to the buddy cop subgenre.  Hell, it is even overt during one scene where they question a guy who runs a gay bar (naturally, played in prissy fashion). The owner keeps calling Des Moines “blue eyes” and when they leave he says if he ever switches teams sexually to give him a call.  I kid you not, Wilkerson replies, “If he decides to switch, I’m first!”  What!?!  I’m not sure Holliday knew what he was writing when he penned that line.

It’s not hard to tell that FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER had some trouble in post-production.  The film centers on events that took place in 1984, yet it didn’t see release until 1986. And the Fisher reporter character (among others) is brought in to talk documentary-style to the camera to explain just what is going on (the actor has a totally different look during those scenes).  One reason might be the death of Holliday. According to Variety, the film finished shooting under director Joe Catalanotto, who previously directed Holliday in TERROR IN THE SWAMP (1985), in late October 1984. Two weeks later, Holliday was dead from a heart attack on November 13, 1984. Damn, you know a movie is bad when you die after making it.  Did he see some of the dailies? Seriously, I shouldn’t joke because Holliday seemed committed to the project.  But you have to wonder if all of his exertion (lots of running) led to his early demise.  Anyway, by the time it hit video shelves, the film had a new co-director listed in one Patrick Poole.

The film also had other problems.  It created a stir when a supporting player was wounded in the face by a shotgun blast using blanks.  Again, according to Variety, this incident along with the unrelated death of actor Jon-Erik Hexum on the show COVER-UP (1984) led to serious overhaul in safety management regarding prop guns (apparently it didn’t work given what happened to Brandon Lee nearly a decade later). Additionally, some police officers who moonlighted on this film (while on duty!) were charged with payroll fraud.  Wow, can you imagine that conversation in jail? Murderer: “What are you in for?” Cop: “Working on FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER.” Murderer: “Guards, keep this dude away from me! I can't be associating with such scum in here.”

As it stands, FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER is only recommended if you want to see some archival footage of the World’s Fair in New Orleans and a cheap car chase through the French Quarter.  Or if you just want to see law breaking cops beat and shoot people for 80 minutes.  “Sign me up,” Tillman says.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


A rare peek into the VJ crib
You know that saying, "there's no fan like a new fan?" Oh yeah, probably not, I just made it up. You know how those new horror fans are, don't ya? Every new horror movie is just awesome and they consider themselves "horror movie experts" because they've seen almost all of the FRIDAY THE 13th films and have a home-made Freddy Kruger glove.

I've seen David Janssen in a few things here and there over the years, but I never really took much notice until recently when Will got me to track down a copy of THE GOLDEN GATE MURDERS, a film that proper Janssen fans probably have on a shelf behind a box of stale crackers, underneath that jar of unlabeled homemade red-pepper jam that was given to them as a gift from a relative that they still haven't found a use for. For me it was a revelation. Not only was Janssen looking old enough to be as crusty and cranky as he acted, but it reinforces my time honored idiom: You can't make a bad movie in San Francisco. It's just not possible. Don't argue! Can't be done! (prior to 1990)

Anyway, here are a couple of the Janssen films I've enjoyed during my new-found fanship (that's a word!). ...and yes, that is Will (a Janssen fan since he was old enough to pee standing) facepalming in the corner. Don't mind him, he'll get over it.

THE GOLDEN GATE MURDERS (1979): One short year before his untimely death, CBS pulled in the hard working and hard living TV favorite David Janssen to play a crusty San Francisco Detective in this TV movie movie that defies all odds. A group of priests and nuns (including Kenneth Tigar of PHATASM II fame) arrive in SF only to find that Father John Thomas (*snicker*) has a keen fascination with the Golden Gate Bridge. As they are driving into the city, he insists on stopping on the surprisingly traffic and wind-free bridge so he can walk across. For some unseen reason Father Thomas plummets to his death over the side. The coroner rules it a suicide, but Sister Benecia (Susannah York) is convinced that it wasn't. The cops sort of look into it, but decide to close the case. Our perky penguin ain't havin' it and pesters the SFPD so much that they decide to give her their loose-cannon trouble-maker Detective Silver (Janssen) so that she will give up and go back to her nunnery. They figure if anyone can alienate her, he can! As you can easily predict, their partnership is a grudging one of stumbling over clues and knee-jerk leaps of non-logic (the guy who is in an asylum must be the killer... because he's crazy! No thanks to his overtly agressive doctor). After a bit their relationship warms to the point where Silver shows his affection for Benecia and introduces her to the city by sharing massive platters of bagels and lox and teaching her how to make a sandwich out of them. Bagels. In San Francisco!

First off SF is infamous for having slim to none by way of proper Jewish delis (David's has been down on Geary since the dawn of time and is not just an atrocious excuse for a Jewish deli, but for any sort of eating establishment), secondly SF is quite famous for it's oysters and what are oysters famous for? Yes, exactly! How this escaped the writer's feeble grasp I'll never know. I'm guessing CBS' head offices in NY hired a local writer who had clearly never been to SF. As it turned out very little of the cast did either, as much of the movie is interiors or hilariously cramped sets dressed up to look like 10' sections of the bridge. That said, they do shoot the leads on location at a couple of landmarks including Coit Tower and the Japanese Tea Garden.

David Janssen turns on the romance!
The movie has so many wonderfully odd little bits, from scenes that are funny (though somewhat sad) such as a bit with Janssen discussing possible causes of the priests death while appearing to be completely hammered, to the coroner's steadfast refusal to see the most obvious clues and connections to similar deaths. Other great moments include some references to Detective Silver's cat "Dirty Harry", and the a romantic encounter in the commissary section of an airliner that involves handcuffs and a nun's habit!
Directed by Walter Grauman, also responsible for "Crowhaven Farm" (1970) and scores of episodes of "The Streets of San Francisco" and "Barnaby Jones", and written by first time TV writer David Kinghorn, the movie meanders all over the place, but mostly building the relationship between Detective Silver and Sister Benecia only occasionally remembering that there is a possible murder to perhaps solve. Even so, as Will said, this is a movie that is "a lot better than it has any right to be."

MACHO CALLAHAN (1970): I'll be honest I do enjoy the occasional "clean" western starring, the even less imitable as the years go on, John Wayne, but what I really love are Westerns that de-glamorize the genre. In the early '60s westerns were still pretty clean affairs with good guys and the bad guys, a woman to fight over and righteousness to prevail. By the early '70s assassination, war and corruption had permanently altered the idealism of the public and nowhere was that reflected more than in the western.

Opening with what is quite possibly one of the most gritty, nasty visions of prison hell ever to be portrayed in a western, Janssen here plays Diego "Macho" Callahan, a gunslingin' criminal who was incarcerated, not for killin' or stealin', but for refusing to join the confederate army. After a violent escape, Callahan finds himself in his home town with his partner Juan (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) setting up a plan to hunt down the yellow-shod sleazebag who turned him in (Lee J. Cobb). While in the process of doing that, he cruelly guns down a newly wed soldier (David Carradine) who lost an arm in the war, over a bottle of champagne. While the law considered it a fair fight, the soldier's widow (Jean Seberg) does not and places a massive bounty on Callahan's head. Add in the fact that the army wants to nail his ass for breaking out of prison, and suddenly everyone wants Callahan's hide.

This may seem like a simple enough premise for a western, but it is surprisingly complex. Every time I though I had the movie figured out and I knew where it was going, I found myself clinging on by my fingertips as the movie takes a sharp left turn at 40 miles an hour (hey, that's fast! A horse can only manage about 15 mph). In addition to all of the switchbacks in the plot, the movie features a fantastic cast, including James Booth as a deadly dandy, Bo Hopkins as smitten kid who is itchin' to get dead, plus Richard Anderson, Diane Ladd and Matt Clark in bit parts. Of whom, absolutely none are at all likable. Callahan's world is populated entirely by selfish, cruel and dangerous people covered in filth and blood. John Ford this ain't. In spite of the fact that the character's are unlikable, I never hated them and they never annoyed me. They aren't unlikable in an irritating, over-played way, like so many generic horror films these days. Also unlike modern films, you can actually see these bastards thinking about how to be bastards. The scene where Callahan confronts Duffy (Lee J. Cobb) in the middle of a crowd during a horse-shoe championship is verging on brilliant. They both talk around the subject but you can see Callahan's gears grinding and Duffy slowly realizing that he is caught like a rat in a trap. The subtleness of scenes like these and little interesting character touches are an excellent counterpoint to the nastiness of the film over all.

Many have criticized the rather abrupt change in tone in the final act, and whether that was studio intervention to make him someone the audience could root for in the end or maybe the screenwriter's intent to finally soften Callahan to allow him to have grown as a human by the conclusion, I'm not sure. It is pretty jolting and arguably the film's only real misstep. Also jolting is how Seberg's volatile character seems to mirror (though presumably exaggerated) her real life issues with men, or at least her claims of violent clashes with her lovers and husbands. The scene where she tries to kill Callahan with a poker leading to a brutal and bloody fight in a small cabin is so intense even by today's standards, it must have been utterly shocking back in 1970.

If you are looking for chest-thumping heroics and simple icons of justice and might, you are in the wrong territory amigo. However, if you dig the subversive, cynical and complex westerns of the revisionist era with a great American cast, this is your ticket to ride shotgun.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cyber Monday: LEGION OF THE NIGHT (1995)

When I say “Michigan” and “low budget horror,” the first thing that probably comes to your mind is Sam Raimi. For better or worse, Raimi’s THE EVIL DEAD (1981) proved to be an inspiration for fledgling filmmakers everywhere with its inventive camerawork and over-the-top gore.  One such filmmaker probably inspired by Raimi’s horror opus was Matt Jaissle.  If you were around the horror scene in the early ‘90s, you couldn’t escape ads in magazines for Jaissle’s Michigan lensed debut feature BACK FROM HELL (1993) or his sophomore effort LEGION OF THE NIGHT (1995). Unfortunately, his work falls closer to the films of Tim Kincaid (ROBOT HOLOCAUST [1986], MUTANT HUNT [1987]) than the aforementioned Raimi.  This is doubly disappointing because LEGION OF THE NIGHT actually has several things going for it but fails to use them to its advantage.

The film opens with a group of badass looking killers dressed all in black leaving a house filled with dead bodies.  The ninja-looking dudes hop into a van driven by Russell (Ron Asheton), who drives them back to a warehouse-turned-laboratory.  Once there we meet Dr. Bloom (Bill Hinzman, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s cemetery ghoul and FLESHEATER [1988] hero) and the two men discuss the progress of their experiments and how they want to get out from under the grip of Mafioso Francis Vansemie (Jeff Rector, hungry again for more scenery after STREET SOLDIERS [1991]).  Damn, speak of the devil, Francis shows up and states that he also wants to sever their connection.  Of course, being a mob guy, this means having his goons shoot up anything and everything in the lab.

James Hetfield, Mob Enforcer:

Later arriving on the scene is Taylor Bloom (Tim Lovelace, later lucky enough to be in AXE GIANT [2013]), a recently discharged military man who has shown up here in Detroit to look for his missing scientist father. He breaks into the lab and soon stumbles upon Russell, who not only survived the shooting but apparently insists on always wearing the same clothes.  The doc’s former assistant gives Taylor the lowdown on what really happened to his dad.  No, he’s not missing, he’s dead.  And the reason is because ol’ pop had developed a group of cyborgs that he called C.Z.A.s (Cybernetic Zombie Assassins, duh).  Wow, dad sure had a way with acronyms.  “I thought he was working on some kind of synthetic cheese spread,” says Taylor.  Nope, the only thing cheesy in this situation is this set up.  It appears when dad’s grant ran out he turned to the local mob run by Francis for some completion funds.  However, when the mob got wind of his experiments, they decided to use the mad scientist’s creations to get rid of the local competition.  Jeez, imagine the havoc that would have been wreaked if he had made synthetic cheese.  Or would that be havoc that would have reeked?

Taylor's "I no want picnic" mad face
Naturally, Taylor decides the best course of action is to report this all to the police and let the proper authorities handle it. Yeah right!  He teams up with Russell and, before you can scream “It’s alive!” the duo are resurrecting the C.Z.A. group for revenge.  Complications arise when Heather (Heather Fine, refusing to live up to her last name), Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, shows up and wants to have picnics and stuff (really!).  Doesn’t she know that a man bent on revenge has no time for such things?  Taylor and Russell’s hard work soon pays off as they have C.Z.A. group online and kicking ass. They take on Francis and his men during a cocaine deal (done in an abandoned building, naturally) and everyone is soon filled with holes.  Poor Francis even gets blow to bits by a ninja star grenade.  So revenge has been achieved and the movie is over right?  Nope, we’re only at the 40 minute mark. As expected, the C.Z.A.s pull a Sarah Palin and go rogue.  Even worse, a pair of other mad scientists running around Detroit (don’t they have anything better to do in that city?) have scooped up Francis’ remains and decide to resurrect him.  Damn it, more problems for Taylor.  If only dad had stayed in the synthetic cheese field.

If you are a fan of low budget cinema, LEGION OF THE NIGHT is something you should really only see once.  So what does that say about me that I watched it twice?  Honestly, the film has quite a few things going for it.  Shot on 16mm Arriflex cameras, the film has a slick look.  At this time, they could have totally opted for video and didn’t so I applaud them for that.  Also, the filmmakers spare no expense setting up gun shots and bloody squibs.  The look of the C.Z.A. group is suitable creepy, a military sniper meets ninja style that is very cool.  Unfortunately, the good is blown away by the bad and the ugly.  First off, the script by Jaissle is terrible.  It is basically UNIVERSAL SOLIDER (1992) with a dash of PULP FICTION (1994), John Woo, and the love affair from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). The scene where Taylor and Heather reunite is so awful.  They do their standard moaning about who left who a la RAIDERS and then he goes, “Bitch!” and she replies, “Bastard!”  Then they walk up to each other, embrace and then kiss passionately.  Ouch.

Conditions under which I was forced to watch this again:

Being derivative is one thing, but you can at least still be competent. The screenplay comes off as something that was written in one pass and never fully developed.  For example, Jaissle can’t be bothered to have Russell give any expository dialogue about how he and Dr. Bloom got the bodies they use for their C.Z.A. creations.  Even little stuff falls to the wayside like the fact we never learn Heather’s name until 10 minutes after her introduction.  You can’t have Taylor say her name when he first sees her?  Most annoyingly, the film comes off like someone who wrote something trying to be or sound cool.  And, as we all know, the ends up coming off as authentic as an 18-year-old kid today wearing a Circle Jerks shirt and moaning about missing the good ol’ days of punk. Complicating matters is some really stiff acting. It says something about your film when Bill F’N Hinzman is the best actor of the lot.  And Jaissle makes some downright odd directorial choices, like having Francis return as part cyborg and giving him a voice that sounds like he inhaled helium before every take.  The most offensive choice is putting a picture of a car flipping through an explosion on the back of the VHS box when nothing like that happens in the film. How dare you!  It is truly a shame as, like I said, the film really did have some great stuff going for it but just ends up being a case of potential unreached.  It is neither good nor bad, but I wouldn’t wish LEGION OF THE NIGHT on my worst enemy.  I save ROBOT NINJA (1989) for that.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Spy Who Flubbed Me: AGENT ON ICE (1986)

Bondsploitation is one of the things we haven’t really had a chance to delve deeply into on the blog outside of the occasional review here and there.  It is something we’ve considered doing one of our theme weeks (meaning a month, really) on, but we just can’t handle the pressure of doing it right now as the thought scares the living daylights out of us.  After all, this is a huge subgenre as since James Bond’s cinematic debut in DR. NO (1962) anybody who had a tux, a camera and an actor with a British accent felt they could cash in. Hundreds of Bond variations have come from literally every corner of the globe and most have left audiences shaken and not stirred (ah, boo yourself). Logistics aside, I also don’t think the world is quite ready for Tom’s master thesis on the spy world styling of Lindsay Shonteff.  Until it is, we’ll keep doing one off reviews for your eyes only and our latest entry is this oddball ‘80s espionage flick.

AGENT ON ICE lives up to its title almost immediately as it opens in Hungary (translation: upstate New York) as man named Jacobi (Peter Wing) is skidded off the road (with a 2x4 win nails in it covered in snow) and killed by a man with an axe in the snow covered hills.  Seems our opening victim is a former undercover CIA agent and his killer is Frank Matera (Louis Pastore, who also co-produced and co-wrote).  Naturally, this sends the agency into a tizzy since mafia man Matera was supposed to have been killed by a team consisting of Jacobi, Salzman (Jaroslav Stremien), Melby (Richard Maynard) and station chief John Pope (Tom Ormeny).  Bossman Kirkpatrick (Clifford David) and his underling Cory (Thomas Kopache) are disturbed by the event, but obviously not disturbed enough to notify and warn Pope, who is now a drunk and working as an insurance adjuster with a pending divorce.  Damn, talk about civilian life transition shock.  One minute you’re fighting for your country, the next you are thumping guys who are trying to file phony claims.

Anyway, Matera returns to the United States (dressed as a priest) and, with the help of his brother Joey (Matt Craven), decides to enact revenge on the spooks who tried to snuff him out.  But not before going to visit mama, who looks like Roseanne Barr.  Yes, all good Italian boys listen to their mama (and get creepy oil backrubs from her).  Frank leaves the business of killing Pope to his kid brother, who proves time and again not to be cutout for this line of work.  First, he misses Pope by a mile while trying to run him down with a car. Later, he shoots up Pope’s office, but forgets to check if it is really a body under that blanket on the couch.  Nope!  Pope is on to you and, after chasing down the car (he slips and falls on his ass in what I’m sure was a goof), he sinks his teeth into finding out just who is trying to get him.  As he tells Salzman, “I’ve got no present and I’ve got no future, so it must be someone from my past.” And you wonder why his wife left his cheery ass.  Anyway, Joey actually succeeds in kidnapping and killing Melby (the kidnapping happens in broad daylight right in front of his house).  Pope teams up with Salzman, who now spends his time running a mortuary, and gets little help from Kirkpatrick and Cory.  This is hardly a surprise as both these G-Men are in the heroin business with Matera, but they don’t like him showing back up in America and ruffling their business feathers.  So why don’t they just have Pope eliminate Matera?  Who knows?  All I know is Pope is one hell of an honest insurance investigator (he chokes a guy offering him a cut of a fake claim), so he probably won’t like his former CIA bosses being dirty.

Although my plot summary makes AGENT ON ICE sound rather mundane, it does have some oddball entertainment value. Director Clark Worswick and producer/writer/star Louis Pastore were responsible for the cult mafia flick FAMILY HONOR (1973) and felt enough of their collaboration to re-team a decade plus later.  Worswick has a pretty interesting history, having been a teenager who moved to Afghanistan in the 1950s and began a prolific photography career by snapping the heretofore unseen sights of the Middle East.  Unfortunately, his eye for the exotic doesn’t extend to this film.  Truthfully, there are some good shots here (the capturing of NYC in the winter is great) but everything is so humdrum at times.  It doesn’t help the film that our action hero John Pope is a normal looking guy who looks like George Stover’s handsome brother and the angriest we see him is when confronting a guy trying to commit insurance fraud. Seriously, Pope doesn’t even get angry when he is shot multiple times.  The staging is also so bizarre at times.  For example, there is a bit where Melby’s wife calls the CIA to find out where her missing husband is.  The minute she gets off the phone, she turns on the TV to see a live news report about NYC’s rivers and – shock of shocks – the reporter stumbles upon Melby’s dead body.  L…O…L!  Later Pope shows up at the wife’s house and, expert spy that he is draws a gun on her kid when the boy makes the mistake of wandering in the room and dropping a toy.  This is done for dramatic effect, but comes off so silly especially with the synth score by Ian Carpenter blasting on the soundtrack.

The biggest pleasure (if you can call it that) I took away from the film is some really strange dialogue.  I’m always a sucker for a film that aims high and ends up completely off the map in the screenplay department.  Characters in this say some of the oddest things.  For example, Pope has an Irish secretary who berates his slovenly ways and then delivers the classic line, “I took good care of my husband and he never complained. He just died.”  Isn’t that the ultimate complaint?  WTF?  Later there is a scene where Pope is outside a little NYC grocery store and the following exchange takes place.

Pope: “You got any gloves”
Owner: “No, we’re out of gloves. You want condoms? How big are you? Me? I’m two inches…from the ground. I’ll give you a good deal on a gross. What’s that for a stud like you, a month’s worth? C’mon.”
Pope: “I gave it up for Lent.”
Owner: “Hey, listen, you hear the one about the penguins and the nuns?”

WTF x 20!  My all-time personal favorite though was Salzman talking to an underling about doing the make up on a corpse and how to treat the family when they come for the viewing. “If I see you paint a flower, I’ll feed your balls to my parakeet,” he threatens.  As our good buddy Jack Burton would say, “I don’t even know what the hell that means.”

Obviously this movie isn’t going to replace the Bond films and is never going to be better than even the worst Bond film. Well, it is better than THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (1999). But if you are looking for some oddball espionage with some vintage ‘80s NYC location shooting, you can’t go wrong with AGENT ON ICE.  Of course, you can’t go right either.

Believe it or not, this got into theaters in May 1986:

Friday, September 13, 2013

Medical Deviates: FRANKENSTEIN'S ARMY (2013)

Remember that very cool looking Dutch demo reel titled WORST CASE SCENARIO that got everyone excited back in 2008? Directed by Richard Raaphorst and presented by Brian Yuzna, it stemmed from a film that was to be a film about Germany invading the Netherlands with a zombie army. It began shooing in 2004 and after a variety of financial stumbling blocks and a few re-cut trailers, finally was buried in a shallow grave. After reworking the premise and securing funding, Raaphorst finished the much publicized FRANKENSTEIN'S ARMY. Perhaps not as polar as the difference from the amazing demo reel to the shockingly misfired IRON SKY (2012), but definitely a contender for second place.

Set during WWII, a Russian squad behind enemy lines is sent on a mission to locate the source of a distress call that seems to be originating from another Russian squad that have been pinned down by the Germans. Upon reaching an abandoned factory (*groan*), they find that they are in some sort of experimental facility where someone has been Herbert Westing bizarre proto-cyborgs in an effort to create a super-soldiers. That someone is clearly a long way off. As it turns out, it's a top secret mission that must be filmed by the one guy who knows of their true goal: they have been sent to extract Viktor Frankenstein (Karel Roden) the grandson of... Viktor Frankenstein, so he can make his life-size PUPPET MASTER dudes for Mother Russia!

Told through the use of the gratingly irritating "found footage" gimmick, director Richard Raaphorst compounds that error by ensuring that only two shots in the movie would have any sort of stability. If you are a shakey-cam enthusiast, you will positively love this movie. If not, I suggest a strong dose of Dramamine before watching. In addition to the shakey-cam, Raaphost loves to shove things in the camera lens as if this was one of Count Floyd's 3D "House" movies. When it's not the annoyingly gleeful sadist Vasilli (Andrei Zayats) leering into the camera, it's fists, floors, severed body parts and lots of mechanical appendages coming from the videogame inspired creatures, that pop up out of nowhere like a local Halloween haunted house. This is primarily the bulk of the film, silly looking monsters that pop up, wave their arms in the camera which is running around in narrow corridors like a fan-made "Castle Wolfenstein" adaptation while the cast screams and runs off like a bunch of school girls. In order to provide exposition and, presumably, increase the body-count, the squad runs into a farmer who they torture to find the location of the doctor and a family of survivors from the local village that was raided to provide the Doctor with his parts. Mostly what these extra characters are there for is to provide some emotional conflict and to make some sort of half-assed metaphor that the Russians are no better than the Germans.

Honestly, it felt like it had reached the very end of its whisper-thin premise by the 50 minute mark. Then I realized we haven't even discovered Doc Stein yet! It annoying rips off CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and RE-ANIMATOR and then does nothing remotely interesting or even gory with the pilfered goods. Add a soundtrack that is nothing but screaming and machine noise and after it ended, I actually felt that same sense of relief that you get when the dentist stops drilling.

The movie is lit like midnight road construction (then made to look grey and hazy by the "filmlook" technique) so there's no atmosphere and the goofy monsters do not hold up well under the bright lights. Hell, they aren't even made with any sort of function in mind and they move so slowly that you can easily out run them. I can't imagine any military wanting these for any reason whatsoever. One of the creatures is a guy with an airplane propeller for a head. Since this has clearly no tactical advantage in the field, you think "well, this will be a good excuse to have him run into someone, making a huge chunky mess!" Nope. We get nothing of the sort. The cast just runs around him screaming until they figure out that if you turn off the electricity, you turn off the monsters. This seems like a bit of a design flaw. To fight a war with these things, you are going to need a shitload of extension cords and all it would take is one bomb on your generators and your army of ubersoldats would drop like a sack of messerschmidts. You'd think with all of these elaborate creature designs (that were hyped to the nth degree before the release), you'd have some really creative gore as the monsters kill off the cast. Matter of fact, not only is this not the case, but most of what little bloodletting there is happens off camera and occasionally the camera whips around to see the results.

The real pisser is that there is a solid metric ton of potential here. If it had been shot on film and had ditched the whole "found footage" crap, and the stupid CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST "homage"... and made the monsters scary... and delivered the gory goods... and skipped the stupid comedy and... oh, never mind, you get the idea.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tales from the Snark Side: TAKUT (2008)

Prolific producer/director Brian Yuzna is as erratic as they come. The stuff he produces tend to be reasonably slick and can occasionally be on a creative plateau far above his competition. The stuff he directs, well, that tends to be slickly produced, but painful to watch. There are exceptions to the rule of course, which makes his movies a total crapshoot, sometimes literally. This risk/reward factor is why I always have to give him the benefit of the doubt. If his name pops up on something good, it can pretty damn exciting.

Taking a break from his poorly received Spanish-produced Fear Factory films, Yuzna headed out to his native neighbor, Indonesia, to make two movies for local consumption. The second one, AMPHIBIOUS (2009), was co-written by S.P. Somtow, shot in 3D (which immediately makes it more watchable than the mega-buck fake 3D crap) and in spite of its tiny budget and risible premise (a giant scorpion is attacking a fishing platform run by child-slave labor), turned out to be better than your average Asylum or SyFy outing. Though it did get a run on the SyFy network where viewers seemed to be upset that it was a low-budget movie with a not-true-to-life monster. Uhhhh... yeah. And this is different from the rest of the SyFy line-up, how?

Ah, the old "scary cellphone light" trick.
TAKUT was the first of Yuzna's Indonesian efforts and it's an anthology of sorts with a title that is the Indonesian word for "frightened facial expression". Released on the international circuit with the title TAKUT: FACES OF FEAR, the title now translates to FEAR FACE: FACES OF FEAR. Less of an anthology and more of a collection of Indonesian short films spackled together with some of the worst CG graphic animation this side of a '90s porn site, the films run about 15 minutes long and varies widely in production vales and themes. The one thing five of the six films have in common is disappointment. Is there an Indonesian word for the expression my face made when they pull the old "scared in the dark with a cellphone" ploy?

The first tale is SHOW UNIT, an SOV in black and white with color accents (for no reason whatsoever) and tells a tale of a guy who accidentally stabs his stepdaughter. Instead of calling an ambulance, he decides to stab her father who comes looking for her. When a neighbor tries to blackmail him, this jackass tries to make it look like a kidnapping attempt, but the wife finds the girl's body in the house. The end. Yeah, spoilers, sorry. Why is is called SHOW UNIT? Because the last scene is of the neighbor's wife (who is a real estate agent) trying to sell the house. Uhhh... yeah. Irritating and amateurish, SHOW UNIT gets this collection out on the wrong side of the bed.

There are six stories, two of which (INCARNATION OF NAYA and PEEPER) are about Indonesian superstitions that spend 14 minutes setting everything up and one minute delivering the conclusion, which is completely obvious in spite of my knowing nothing about the rituals/superstitions involved. For instance in one a girl makes a big deal out of not believing in demonic possession. I'll give you one guess as to what happens. Though it should be pointed out that demonic possession here just makes you dance slowly while everyone watches you. Nicely shot though. THE LIST is about a crazy ex-girlfriend who has a local shaman cast curses on a hapless schmuck who just wants to watch BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR in the comfort of his own home. This one feels like Yuzna, even though he had nothing to do with it, paying homage to the old Hong Kong curse films like CENTIPEDE HORROR (1984). Whisper thin plot and lots of creepy-crawlies. It actually could have made for a fun full-length film, instead it feels like you walked into the room just as the final scenes are playing out.

Of course we have to have an obligatory zombie entry. Sorry, "infected", I meant. THE RESCUE feels like a proof-of-concept demo reel, as it basically sets up the scenario, has two quick zombie vs. military action scenes that we've seen a million times before and then it ends with a gotcha that is far more cliched than interesting. An Indonesian reviewer claimed that TAKUT was fun as it was big budget compared to other Indonesian-produced horror films. I can see that if you are Indonesian, it might be fun, since it was made for the Indonesian market. If you are not Indonesian, the only thing you will take away from this is the final entry.

Normally I cringe at directors with cheesy DJ nicknames, but here "The Mo Brothers" (Kimo Stamboel and Timothy Tjahjanto) pull off one of the best short films I've seen in ages, titled DARA. A beautiful chef, Dara (Shareefa Daanish), feeds unwitting male suitors at her restaurant and invites them back to her home where they find out exactly what makes her food so good. No spoilers for this one, though you find out her secret right away, the filmmakers do a superb job in the telling. From cinematography to sets, these guys know exactly what they want from every scene. Daanish completely steals this film with a wonderfully creepy china-doll performance that puts similar efforts to shame. So good is she, in fact, that the Mo Brother's first feature film is the 2009 remake of sorts titled RUMAH DARA (DARA'S HOME aka MACABRE on the international market). This 26 minute short has been playing festivals, so if you have a chance to see it, don't even worry about the other shorts in TAKUT. This is a must see and showcasing it is probably the entire reason TAKUT was put together in the first place.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Black in Action: WILLIE DYNAMITE (1974)

I stumbled across this recently and was stunned and amazed that I had never seen it before. I'm not a huge fan of the "Mack" subgenere of black exploitation cinema, but with Richard D. Zanuck producing and an amazing cast, I can't understand how I missed it. The cast? Try this on for size: Roscoe Orman (of "Sesame Street" fame), Thalmus Rasulala (of pretty much everything), Diana Sands (of A RAISIN IN THE SUN and a whole mess of TV), George Murdock (pretending to be Vic Morrow), Albert Hall (of APOCALYPSE NOW and countless others), Robert DoQui (what hasn't he been in?), Jophery C. Brown (stuntman/actor in everything from SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT to SWORD AND THE SORCERER and this year's OBLIVION), and (sort of) Alan Weeks (from TRUCK TURNER). Damn!

Now that I've seen it... I understand. Starting off pretty much like a way over-played, virtual parody of THE MACK (1973), the film tells the story of superfly pimp Willie D whose threads are so over the top (one outfit is red, trimmed with white fur making him look like a Harlem Santa Claus) that all the other pimps have to viciously chew the scenery to even get noticed.

Willie's the number two pimp in NY and he aims to be number one, but before he can even make the attempt, he shoots himself in the proverbial foot by dissin' the guy who is number one, Bell (Roger Robinson, who lays on the ham and cheese heavier than the Denny's breakfast menu). Says Bell "When the heat comes down, you gotta collectivize or... run." Now, the peevish Bell is bringing down the heat on little ol' Willie. To make matters worse, an ex-hooker turned social worker (Sands) who is the Assistant DA's (Rasulala) girlfriend, has him in her crosshairs too. Next thing you know, his hos are getting busted, his car is getting impounded, he's getting his fine threads messed up by the man. What's a pimp gonna do? So you figure at this point, he's gonna get a plan and stick it to the man, right? Uhhhh, no. Nope, he's going to get shafted more and get his ass beat more and finally... wait for it... yes, he's going to realize the error of his ways and turn over a new leaf. No I'm not kidding. Totally serious.

Lots, and I do mean lots, of TV-esque dramatic scenes go into making him go straight. Some scenes are almost like a soap opera, which makes sense since most folks involved worked in daytime "stories". Don't think a bunch of shoot-outs and car chases did it, nope, this sheep in wolf's clothing is as earnest and tame as an ABC After School Special, with the exception of a dramatic scene in which one of the girls gets her throat cut by a competitor. Matter of fact, the bulk of it sports the kind of cornball drama that can usually only be found on the small screen. For instance when Willie is brought up on his first charge, his estranged mother just happens to be in the courtroom. So distraught by is she by her son's possession charge, as well as the (inadmissible) police claims of other crimes, she suffers a heart attack right there on the spot. Even worse is the saccharine final scene where a smiling, de-pimped Willie catches a child's football and throws a return pass to the cheers of the crowd. Again, not even kidding. Since virtually everybody involved, aside from Zanuck, worked in or was going to work in TV land, it's really no surprise that this feels like a TV movie. Don't expect nudity or any sort of gratuitous anything other than Willie's wardrobe, that's not what this movie is all about. As long as you don't buy into Universal's marketing, it's kinda cool to see the cast go through their paces (Albert Hall should have had his own cop flick after the blistering Poitier-esque performance here), but if you want some COFFEY, this ain't the pick-me-up you are looking for.

Anybody else remember this cast, or am I the oldest man alive?