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!

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cine M.I.A. #7: NINJA BUSTERS (1984)

Director Paul Kyriazi may not be a household name for the average American, but here at Video Junkie we have a special place reserved for the man on the distinguished “Video Aisle of Awesome.”  Kyriazi may only have a handful of action films to his credit, but they are all entertaining endeavors that deliver on their promise of non-stop martial arts action.  Even better, Kyriazi is admirable for having worked outside of the Hollywood system, working hard to make his pictures with the most limited of resources and funds.  One such picture is the M.I.A. 1980s action flick NINJA BUSTERS.

Born and raised in California, Kyriazi knew from an early age that he wanted to be a film director.  Infused by equal parts James Bond and martial arts, he began making movies as a teen and eventually parlayed that into an education at San Francisco State University, graduation with a BA in Film.  While in the Air Force, Kyriazi began working on his debut feature, the Japanese influenced DRAWN SWORDS (aka THE TOURNAMENT).  Not wanting to let lack of funds define his production, he shot the
film in widescreen 35 mm.  While the film was never released commercially to the general public, Kyriazi did get the pleasure of seeing his debut feature on the big screen on a double feature with THE POSEIDEN ADVENTURE (1972) in Lompoc, California while stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base (“They put a announcement card before the movie saying 'Directed by Vandenberg Air Force Sergeant Paul Kyriazi’, so people would know why the low budget black and white movie was being shown,” he recalls).

After his time of service, Kyriazi returns to San Francisco with the film bug in full effect. Realizing the limitations and financial burden of his debut feature, he opts to make a follow up that will appeal specifically to the demands of the market, which is being flooded with kung fu mania due to the emergence (and subsequent death) of Bruce Lee.  While at a karate tournament, Kyriazi meets martial artist Ron Marchini who gets him to help on editing his Philippines-lensed acting debut MURDER IN THE ORIENT (1974). The duo formed a friendship and soon Kyriazi is behind the camera on the film that would define his career, DEATH MACHINES (1976). The story of three mentally-programmed assassins, the film lives up to Kyriazi’s promise to himself to make something that unleashes fists of fury upon the audience.  It is picked up by Crown International domestically and released worldwide.

Following the success of DEATH MACHINES, Kyriazi spent a period of time developing a vigilante-type picture in the DEATH WISH (1974) mold titled DEATH WARRANT.  (Damn, that is a whole lot of “death” in that sentence.)  When that didn’t pan out, he put all of his energy on raising the funds for his next feature. With the help of a venture capitalist, he eventually raised $180,000 for what would eventually become THE WEAPONS OF DEATH (1982).  Sensing this picture might be his last Kyriazi filled the film with martial artist friends – including Eric Lee (who had been in DEATH MACHINES) and Sid Campbell – and went to town in creating a non-stop action flick. “'WEAPONS OF DEATH broke a house record in one New York theater,” Kyriazi reveals, “and was a hit as the 15 prints circulated America.  But then it went to Chicago into the worst snow storm in the history of Chicago and the small distributor lost all his money.  It still came to San Francisco and then sold to video.”


WEAPONS OF DEATH screening notice
(keep in mind the Latino connection)


It was while working on WEAPONS that Kyriazi began thinking of his third theatrical feature.  Having done two serious action pictures, Kyriazi and stars Lee and Campbell opted to do something completely outside the box – a kung fu comedy (keep in mind, this was even before Jackie Chan started infusing comedy into his work).  The end result was NINJA BUSTERS.

The film tells the story of Chic (Sid Campbell) and Bernie (Eric Lee), two goofballs oblivious to the dangers around them at their warehouse jobs at Dragon Import.  Seems their boss Santos is dealing in illicit merchandise and (as the opening narration supplied by Kerwin Mathews tells us) has hired a group of ninjas to protect his “business” interests. Meanwhile, our two heroes have joined a karate school (run by Gerald Okamura) in the hopes of meeting chicks.  When they get wrapped up in the nefarious business, they have to finally screw their heads on straight and bust some ninjas.

Video Junkie: What was the original inspiration for the film?

Paul Kyriazi: The original script came from karate teacher Sid Campbell, who played Chic in the movie. It was about two easy-going, fun loving guys that enter a karate studio to pick up girls. It seemed funny at the time because he meant for himself and Kung Fu expert Eric Lee to co-star in it. Both of them were very famous amongst American karate people. Eric had won many tournaments with his kung fu routines called Kata. He won so many trophies that he was called “The Little King of Kata.” And he was on the cover of many issues of Kung Fu magazine and others.



PK cont: Sid Campbell was named “Teacher of the Year” by Kung Fu magazine and had a karate school in Oakland, California. [The school] was very picturesque with two training rooms and a courtyard with a hot tub as you can see in the movie. That helped to make the movie easier to produce. It was like a movie studio with standing sets ready to go.

VJ: When was the script written?

PK: The first draft of the script was written in 1979, but the structure of it was too loose and didn't have enough action scenes to it. So I worked with Sid to add more action and comedy. Then I had a screenplay writer William Martell take our notes, add his ideas and type it up. William added so much that he should have received screen credit, but I regret to say that I didn't ask Sid if it was okay for William to get screen credit. (VJ: He is credited on the IMDb.) He got an additional dialogue credit, and worked as continuity as well. As it was his first feature film and credit, he was happy with it, but it would have been a better boast to his career if he had the co-witting credit. He's gone on to write 20 movies in Hollywood and we've remained special friends.

VJ: After two hard hitting action flicks, why did you decide to go for comedy?

PK: Sid Campbell had the comedy script, the karate school location, the extras, and money contacts and it seemed like an easy movie to get done fast, so I went with it. Also, the movie ROCKY III (1982) had just come out – which I loved – so I was excited about doing two training montage sequences in it. During the fight between Eric Lee and the other student, I had Eric's girlfriend yell out "Bernie" in fear, but at the test screening the audience yelled back 'Rocky', so I deleted it.

I enjoyed the comedy of it the movie while making it. Then after lots of time in production due to slow investor input, the jokes didn't seem so funny by the time we got to editing. But when we had the San Francisco premiere I was surprised that the audience was laughing so hard at every joke. It just seemed that they love the two guys, the way they were dressed, their way of talking and striking out when they were trying to pick up girls. That endeared them to the audience, so they got the laughs. We got the same big laughs at the Los Angeles premiere as well. That was a pleasant surprise.

VJ: It appears that the film was made before GHOSTBUSTERS, was the title changed to NINJA BUSTERS by you?

PK: Sid's original title was BUSHWACKERS, but since it wasn't a cowboy movie, it sounded like an adult movie.  So I changed it to SHADOW FIGHT because in one Japanese movie, ninjas were referred to as “shadows.” We actually had a title sequence with that title at first, but I thought it wasn't strong enough so I changed it. There was a samurai movie that loosely translated to DOJO-BUSTERS and of course there is the expression “gangbusters” or “he came on like gangbusters,” so it came to mind to use NINJA BUSTERS.

VJ: How did you get backing for the film?

PK: Because of the excitement of getting a distributor for my third feature film WEAPONS OF DEATH (1982) and it playing in a San Francisco theater, some of Sid Campbell's karate students had money to invest. It was done under a limited partnership where, at that time, you could have up to 30 investors. We all worked for cheap or free, so we could spend the money to film in Panavsion. The budget was planned at about $100,000, but because of being rained out and other delays ended up being $130,000. It sounds low, but it came in slow and we had to stop and start a couple of times, with months between filming. But we got it done.

VJ: Where was the film shot?

PK: It was filmed mostly in Oakland, California around and in Sid Campbell's karate studio. The junkyard ninja fight was filmed in San Jose, the Latin nightclub was filmed in an abandoned Chinese restaurant in Oakland. The woman's fitness center fight was filmed in another karate school in San Francisco owned by the Latin karate teacher in the movie name Carlos Navarro. It was Carlos who helped a lot to get the movie competed. His real life son, Frankie, plays the friend of Chic and Bernie.

VJ: What happened with the distribution? I know you mention it was released in Mexico. Did it come out anywhere else?

PK: I didn't want to lose control of the movie to a film distributor because on small independent movies they have a deal that is 50/50 split with the producer responsible for the distribution expenses. So from the profits the distributor takes 50% of the movie and then charges the producer with bills equaling the other 50% and takes that too, with the producer receiving nothing. So we were looking for an outright sale or sales to countries one by one. At one point Carlos Navarro said he would like to sell it one country at a time and, as he was a large investor of it, we all agreed. Carlos did a great job as producer and we were all friends so he took care of that when I started spending a lot of time in Japan doing movie translations and voice work. Carlos got it sold to Mexican TV and I think some theatrical because of the large number of Mexican-American leads in the movie. That was a lucky break, so Carlos could recoup most of the production costs.

VJ: Any reaction from U.S. Distributors that you screened it for?

PK: A couple of the distributors said, this is what we need for double bills, which were still going on at that time, but starting to be phased out.  We didn't take their 50/50 offers.

VJ: Ultimately, what kept it from being released in the U.S.?

PK: Independent movie distribution was starting to be phased out by 1982 and since we had no stars except for the well know karate actors, it was difficult to sell outright.

Alexander Beck offering the film in May 1986:


Howard Goldfarb offering the film in May 1988 
(Goldfarb got in legal trouble for stealing $550,000 from a deal involving 
REVENGE OF THE RADIOACTIVE REPORTER in 1988 and was sentenced
to prison for 6 and a half years in 1993; you can't make this up!):


VJ: Have you considered releasing it nowadays?

PK: Once the main investors got their money back, I moved onto other productions such as ONE WAY OUT (1986) and OMEGA COP (1990), so I lost track of Carlos and what he was doing with the movie. I'm still work with Eric Lee and Gerald Okamura in my full cast audio-novel productions and stayed in touch with Sid Campbell, who made a new career with his samurai artwork. (VJ: Campbell passed away in August 2008.)

VJ: Why a Cuban nightclub? Were all the locations/stores you shot in supportive?

PK: We had a Cuban nightclub because Carlos had contacts with a Latin band and had access to many Mexican-American friends and karate students to be dancers in it. So with that kind of production value we wrote it into the script.

All the locations and stores were very supportive. No problems at all with them since Sid Campbell was well connected in and around his neighborhood as well as Carlos Navarro in his neighborhood.

VJ: Were the bouncer Mateo’s lines scripted? He seemed like he may have been partaking of the mojitos.

PK: Mateo used a relaxed type of acting that was soft spoken. I had to push him to speak up many times. It was his first movie and I think he was, as they say “afraid to be bad,” which is actors talk for not wanted to be too loud or active incase he wasn't good. However, half way up he gain confidence and spoke up. It's just that with filming out of order his performance goes back and forth from loud to soft.

VJ: How was working with Gerald Okamura?

PK: This was my second movie with Gerald and he is always prepared with his script in a binder and marked with tabs. Many times I borrowed his binder to see what scenes were coming up. He is also very confident with what he does as you saw in that hot tub scene where he pours water on himself to prepare for battle. He's done lots of Hollywood work so he's totally confident in everything he does.

VJ: Any funny anecdotes from the shoot?

PK: I always remember the scene where the karate instructor Carlos Navarro is balling out Sid and Eric for being screw-ups in the karate school. He yells at them, is frustrated and then walks off. When I said cut, the cameraman fell off the dolly, rolled on the floor with laughter and couldn't get up for a few minutes. See it close-up in the camera really got to him. He had to hold his breath and control himself to get the shot before letting loose with that laugh.

Eric Lee's love interest was the very pretty yet sensitive Loni Lee. She was also in WEAPONS OF DEATH billed as Nancy Lee. She played the kidnapped girl and was chased and grabbed by every bad guy in the story. She had no problem with that. But for NINJA BUSTERS she had to kiss Eric in a love scene and during the kiss have water dumped on her by Gerald Okamura to break them up as there is no kissing in a karate school. She was more nervous about the kiss than the water and keep breaking up at her line, “I hope they don't call you 'fast Bernie' for everything,” meaning not fast at love-making. I think she did it also to delay the kiss and the water. Finally after five takes she made it though, the kiss, the water was dumped on them both, they turned to look in the director of Gerald holding the bucket with a sheepish, guilty expression, I called cut and she fell rolled on the wet floor with hysterical laughter for 30 seconds. And then the whole crew and I joined in the laughter. More of a relief the kissing was over than the humor of it. It was a great time making the film because of those fun incidents.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Cyber Monday: THE VINDICATOR (1986)

With Tom giving the review roto-rooter to R.O.T.O.R. last week, it seems only fitting that I tackle THE VINDICATOR this week.  I would always confuse the two and it isn’t hard when you realize they are both about guys who get turned into robots and blow stuff up.  Alas, THE VINDICATOR was there first.  No doubt inspired by the success of THE TERMINATOR, this Canadian tax shelter production went before the cameras in the fall of 1984 under the title FRANKENSTEIN ’88: THE VINDICATOR.  Cool, it is set in the future! That title is a bit more descriptive of this story of a man-turned-machine.

The film opens at ARC (Aerospace Research Corporation) where they are doing tests on a bunch of monkeys.  Seems they’ve developed a new body sensor that will throw the wearer into murderous rage if attacked and the thing works so well that one doc says, “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”  Really.  Somehow this all figures into a spacesuit to be used on Mars. Anyway, project boss Alex Whyte (Richard Cox) gets his bad guy cred right away as he drives one chimp so crazy with a prod that it dies in its cage.  We then meet noble ARC scientist Carl Lehman (David McIlwraith) at home with his wife Lauren (Teri Austin).  He’s bemoaning the cuts to his current project, but doesn’t seem to care as his wife is expecting their first child.  Oh, damn.  Nice guy with a pregnant wife?  This dude is going to be dead before the 15 minute mark, no doubt.

Scientist #1: "We can rebuild him."
Scientist #2: "When does the popcorn start popping?"
Sure enough, after Dr. Lehman confronts Whyte about the budget cuts, he starts his shift inside a huge lab.  When a reactor begins to overload, he finds the place mysteriously devoid of any workers and goes to solve the situation himself.  Bad move as this appears to be a set up as a mysterious man locks him in the chamber and the whole thing blows up in his face, searing the skin off his bones at the 12 minute mark.  Damn, earlier than I predicted! Anyway, not to worry as nefarious Whyte and his team of scientists have saved the body in a milky, life-giving liquid and decide they now have the perfect human subject to try out their cybernetic experiments on.  Who knew the path to landing a man on Mars was so cutthroat?  On the plus side, he gets a fancy new gold space suit to wear.  The top secret experiment’s name is Project: Frankenstein!  Hey, at least Whyte has a sense of humor and respect for the classics.

Things go pretty smoothly at first as they get the remains of the former Dr. Lehman outfitted in his space suit.  Shit gets real though when they try to put a remote control device into his stomach.  He promptly freaks the hell out and quickly escapes from the lab inside a garbage truck.  Discarded at the dump, Dr. Lehman is incinerated with the trash. The flames burn off his tacky gold suit and reveal a badass half-man/half-cyborg…The Vindicator!  The audience gets a glimpse of his powers right away as he smashes three bikers who attack him (apparently bikers randomly select people to beat up by going, “Hey, man, look at that dude over there!”).  Sensing this is going to be a tough one, Whyte brings in an expert bounty hunter who is imaginatively named Hunter (Pam Grier).  She assembles her team to take out this robotic nuisance.  The Vindicator has other plans though as he visits his wife to let her know he is alive.  Naturally, she becomes a pawn in the game of trying to capture him and this all culminates back at the lab where Whyte has been creating more robots from his associates that have been picked off by The Vindicator.

Pam Grier figures a way off this picture:


Director Jean-Claude Lord had previously cashing in on the slasher genre with the deranged VISTING HOURS (1982), so it is no surprise that he jumped on the cyborg bandwagon when Arnold Schwarzenegger’s metal endoskeleton was making waves.  Unfortunately, he directs with all the flair of a TV movie. And then there are odd directorial choices like when a friend walks in on Lauren being attacked and quasi-raped, only to quip a “get a room” style comment before realizing her friend is being attacked (not to mention the fact this took place while Lauren is still mourning her husband’s death).  To the film’s credit, there are some insane fire gags and one or two cool stunts.  The scene where The Vindicator crushes a car into a wall while a bad guy is still inside it is probably the action highlight.  But I can only dream at how better that scenario would have unfolded under a director looking to sling some blood.

Screenwriters David Preston and Edith Rey – who were previously two of six writers credited for SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983), backed by the same producers as this – keep things fairly simple.  A guy gets killed, gets reborn, and gets revenge.  The film will never be mistaken for THE TERMINATOR, but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from trying. In fact, Stan Winston was brought in to design the title robot and it is pretty darn cool looking. Anyway, can you guess what film Winston worked on right before this one?  Yup, THE TERMINATOR!  So you can’t accused Lord of not having his heart, er, wallet in the right place.  I do wonder if ROBOCOP writers Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier saw this though and thought they could improve upon the concept.  It’s really hard to pinpoint as there is no evidence 20th Century Fox, who released Lord’s VISITING HOURS, put this in theaters (their logo does open the film).  By all accounts, it looks like it hit video in early 1986 and by that time Miner and Neumeier were well into their ROBOCOP work.  But, as Tom pointed out to me, you can’t help but feel a tinge of influence like the scene where The Vindicator bursts from behind a guy and throws him out the window.


If they didn’t see this film, well then they missed lots of big fire gags and explosions.  If they saw it, then it is good for them as they took a great concept and made it amazing, building another film that would deliver on the promise a poster as badass as this French one for THE VINDICATOR.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Shark Attack Summer: DEEP BLOOD (1990)

We all pick our poisons. Some folks can sit through the most bone-dry, thread-bare, no-fun Jess Franco flick with a stiff, uuuhhhh... upper lip. I can't. There comes a point after numerous films in a director's repertoire where you gotta fish or cut bait. In the case of Jess Franco, I decided that there was beer back at the house. Joe D'Amato on the other hand... for better or for worse, I am in it for the long haul. At the very least, on the rainiest of days, D'Amato will turn in a picture that has something entertaining going for it. I have seen most of his non-porn outings and many of his quality adult films (yeah, I said it), such as ROMEO AND JULIET (1996), which I consider to be something of a masterpiece of the genre, particularly in the original, two-hour long, uncut version.

Whether it's the epic of atmosphere and gore that is ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) or the rather sad, yet amusing FRANKENSTEIN 2000 (1991), there's always something that makes D'Amato's films worth watching. Then there is DEEP BLOOD. Brother, if you thought ATOR 2: THE INVINCIBLE ORION (1984) was a chore to sit through, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Opening with a bizarre sequence that seems almost appropriate for a rip-off of John Carpenter's THE FOG (1980), four fresh-faced boys are roasting weenies on the beach when they are approached by a guy who is less of an Indian than Tracy Walter in REPO MAN (1984). Wearing a multicolored headband and a striped blanket like all good Indians, he tells launches into a massive speech:
"This is a time of magic, written in the sky. You boys have been called to this place to fulfill a destiny. That sky is a haven for all our great warriors. According to our ancient custom, those warriors, at one time, took a blood oath to become one spirit and the warrior who did not live up to that oath would wander with the wind forever, searing for his brother. He who rides alone, dies alone." Well thank you Chief Killingbuzz.

Uhhh... kids? Time to leave the beach, now.

Instead of, like real children, throwing rocks at this loony old coot, the boys suddenly decide that it would be a great idea if they take their knives, slash their arms and become blood brothers! As if that weren't odd enough, the "Indian" gives the kids a wooden quiver, covered in a few illegible carvings that are a key to finding an evil sea creature that had once attacked his village.Oh boy! Kids being kids, they decide this is amazingly cool and bury the thing, along with their knives, under a few inches of sand on the beach. Why? So it will be there when they need it later in the movie, of course!

About ten years later a woman falls off of her inflatable chase-lounge into a cloud of red water while her rather unperturbed child and dog look on. The sheriff is not impressed and sends his deputy out to get the kid an ice-cream. Meanwhile the boys are back in town. All four have grown up to be preppies complete with polos, topsiders and emo dispositions. You know, good, clean-cut Europ - err, I mean American boys. American, that's it. We know this is America because everyone drives trucks or cheap sports cars with NY plates, the Sheriff is fat, sweaty and yells a lot, but means well and the marina is complete with a paddleboat flying the stars and bars! Oh if only a shark would attack them. Then we'd have a movie.

Shaaaaaaark!!! Err... I guess.

You'd think this is where the action would kick in, but you would be wrong. Now that the boys are home from college and military training, they need to be harassed by the Nick Cassavettes wannabe Jason, who you know is a badass because he drives around town really fast in a black '87 Mustang with two Gold's Gym rejects and a couple of girls who scream "kick his ass!" when the confrontation is clearly over. Of course this is the most excitement this movie has to offer for the first 23 minutes of the film, as the boys need to reconnect with their parents and girlfriends in some of the most gruelingly sappy, piano and strings laden drama you will ever lay eyes on. Seriously, was D'Amato trying to go toe to toe with Spielberg? This makes E.T. (1982) seem like frickin' BLADE RUNNER (1982). For instance, when Ben returns home from college (with his golf bag) he finds that his dad isn't doing well, at least that's what his mother's murine-soaked eyes say. Ben just wants to go fishing with his dad. Dad doesn't do any fishing any more. Not after... after the... accident. What accident? Who knows? That's not important! What's important is that Mom, barely able to hold back the tears, tells dad "Benny needs you" to which Dad slowly caves in and says "Maybe, I could try." Oh jeezus, make it stop! In a show of unmitigated sadism, it does not.

After more ABC After School Special level of saccharine all around, we finally get a little aquatic action. Miki (Frank Baroni), who comes from some sort of broken home, but thankfully never gets a backstory, and John (John K. Brune), who's backstory is basically his truck (American!) decide that some sort of fishing is in order. Although I am no angler myself, I am hard-pressed to understand what sort of fishing they are doing that requires you to snorkel around the area you are going to cast your line into. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say they were fishing for plot conveniences. Faster than you can say "sorry charlie" we get stock shark footage! Yes! Finally some... shark... action? Well, yeah, John thrashes around in the water while someone off-screen throws a red Rit dye tablet into the water while Miki simply stands on the dock looking like a someone should pull the hook out of his mouth. The shark? Oh, it's not "a" shark, it is an assortment of sharks from different bits of stock footage allegedly purchased from National Geographic. Maybe D'Amato was channeling his inner Bruno Mattei. Oh wait, Mattei never bothered paying for the footage he swiped. One of the best moments to come out of this bit is later in the film when Miki and pals are mourning John's passing in the local cemetery. After walking back from a grave Miki warbles "it's not fair... John doesn't even have a grave!" Huh? So assuming there are no parts left to bury, what were you doing in the cemetery? His equally bummed friend replies, "lots of people don't have graves." Whoa! He's right! I don't even have one!

Of course there is the usual searching party looking for the shark while the mayor flips out and answers a lot of phone calls. There's a guy in a Hawaiian shirt and a ballcap who I think is supposed to be the local aquatic life expert (he's American, he doesn't have to wear a lab-coat) who is examining a slide under a microscope and tells the sheriff, "this piece puzzles me. Seems to be unpredictable. A bad personality." What?! How did you get that from a swab sample? We also get a sequence in which the locals catch a rather small decomposing shark that is definitely not the shark we're looking for. While a crowd gathers around to watch the stock footage, Murray the Indian suddenly appears and tells Miki "don't believe everything you see!" Finally, some words of wisdom. I'm watching this movie and I don't freaking believe it!

Another horrifying attack!
Additional cliches clumsily included for your non-enjoyment is a scene with the local waitress flees her in-car fling with a married man to go take a swim in the ocean fully clothed (thanks for that, Joe). Of course this leads to a lot of flopping about in four feet of water while a handful of stock footage is thrown into the surf. I should point out, this isn't some sort of stock footage of sharks with big chunks of meat in their mouths, trailing blood through the sea or anything remotely exciting. This is stock footage of different sharks in tanks or from old documentary footage simply swimming or gnashing their pearly whites for some unknown reason. Probably because Marlin Perkins was poking them with a stick before sending Jim in the water.

Finally Miki invokes the blood oath and the remaining friends unbury the wooden quiver and their boyhood knives that have stayed, unmolested under a few inches of sand for over a decade. Must be some powerful Indian mojo at work here! Of course, like every goddamn scene in this goddamn film, it's played with goddamn weepy piano and strings for every goddamn ounce of sap that can be squeezed from the goddamn scene. They see John's knife and it makes them sad, so they carefully re-bury it. *sniffle, sniffle* Joe, for the love of christ, what the hell are you doing? So sappy is this movie that our hero Miki and our adversary Jason, don't sort shit out the old fashioned way (a bar brawl or pistols at twenty paces), but simply gaze into each other's eyes and shake hands. Ghaaaa! And that ain't the end of it, not by a long shot. Once they do manage to actually hunt down the shark, you can expect a lot of hugging, but very little hunting. This sequence does have the best line of the movie, though. The apparently Jewish Coast Guard flies over their boat and admonishes them via bullhorn for being out shark-hunting: "We know what you are doing. Get back to the harbor immediately. ...you should be ashamed of yourself."

The last 20 minutes of the film contains some of the best padding that the movie has to offer. I say "best" because the previous hour contained so much touchy-feely emo-drama that it might even induce gagging in Celine Dion fans. Because of this, the relentlessly dreary padding that includes a few members of the cast scuba-diving in an attempt to find the shark. Yes, that's right. In addition to trawling with industrial-sized barrels of chum, they feel that the best thing to do is to get some eyes in the water! Personally, I'd get some polarized glasses, but hey, how many sharks have I killed? This loooooong sequence leads up to the one and only special effect in the movie and it clearly did not go as planned. Instead of exploding, the miniature shark merely jettisons its head like some sort of James Bond escape shuttle. Reshoot? Hell no! We need to shoot more hugging! On the IMDb someone added a bit of trivia stating that a mechanical shark head was made for this movie. If there was, it must have fallen off the back of a trailer before the movie ever started shooting, because there is no such thing to be found in the film. I am guessing that the contributor is getting DEEP BLOOD confused with the vastly superior Enzo G. Castellari masterwork THE LAST JAWS (1981). How you could confuse these two films is beyond me. That's like getting Shelly Duvall confused with Scarlett Johansson. Well, they are both women in the same line of work, could happen to anyone.

Word has it that the film's original director Raffaele Donato flaked early on and producer D'Amato took hold of the reigns. While it was a Filmirage production, this gruelingly saccharine, virtually exploitation and production value free film is screaming Italian TV movie. Joe D'Amato going out of his way to avoid nudity and gore? Perish the thought! Also, the film has been released on video and even DVD in the far-flung reaches of the former empire, but never widescreen. Not even one of those fuzzy boarder open matte jobs. Perhaps it was just simply shot for the video market, but even so it seems a little odd. Regardless, this turkey is so hard to sit through that I started thinking maybe I should watch more Franco films. Maybe, just maybe, there might be something to this whole cult of non-eventful filmmaking. Maybe I should dust off DEVIL HUNTER (1980) and give it yet another try... Naaaaaaaaahhhhh!

Monday, July 15, 2013

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess not everything is big in Texas

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cinemasochism: AXE GIANT: THE WRATH OF PAUL BUNYAN (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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





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