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, August 4, 2013

Aus Deutschland mit Scheisse: KARL THE BUTCHER VS. AXE: VIOLENT SHIT 4.0 (2010)

In the 1970s Hollywood studios realized there were a whole host of independent film production companies that were making huge profits from releasing movies that compensated for their low budgets by providing a popular theme or specific content that patrons wanted to see. It took them a few years of importing (and heavily editing) these "exploitation" films from other parts of the world, before they decided they could do that themselves! Thus the great indy studios were run out of business and almost driven to extinction.

In the 1980s censorship of mainstream exploitation cinema was so biased and heavy handed that genre films would frequently be completely bloodless affairs with jumpy edits and a loss of continuity where even the most mild of on-screen violence was removed. Just like any forbidden fruit, the more the public was denied, the more demand there was for the hard stuff. This caused a wide ripple of effects, one being the advent of the "unrated" video release, another being a booming grey market for bootlegs of foreign films (back in 1990 if you didn't have a crappy dupe of John Woo's THE KILLER, you were living under a rock). The most important effect came with the coincidental drop in price of the home video camera which allowed burgeoning "filmmakers" to be wild west outlaws and make incredibly gory movies that could not be censored due to the fact that, technically, censorship is unconstitutional under American law. If you didn't care whether your movie played theaters and you just wanted to release it directly to video, you could display any sort of gruesome mayhem that your twisted brain could think up, or your your refinanced mortgage could afford. Suddenly the floodgates opened and "gornography" was born. Movies like BLOOD CULT (1985), CANNIBAL CAMPOUT (1988), and 555 (1988) were making serious bucks in spite of having less talent and lower production values than a sixth-grade staging of "Saint George and the Dragon". Hell, 555 was so low-rent it didn't even have a distributor! It was marketed in the back pages of cult movie magazines luring in unsuspecting losers (like me) with its claims of "blood, gore, sex, nudity and other things we can't mention." After seeing it I realized that the things they couldn't mention were the complete lack of talent and production values.

In Germany where censorship was perfectly legal, they decided to take things, as the Germans would be inclined to do, to the extreme. The most infamous, most widely publicized and first movie of the German SOV gore movement would be Andreas Schnaas and Steve Aquilina's VIOLENT SHIT (1989). Surprisingly out-living Jorg Buttgereitt's much more technically competent and infinitely more disturbing NEKROMANTIK (1987), VIOLENT SHIT is little more than a few friends making the most laughably amateurish Jason Voorhees knock-off (named Karl Shitter) in the middle of the woods with about 1200 gal - sorry, litres of cherry Kool-Aid. It made its Stateside debut in 1990 at a Fangoria show in Los Angeles where it was screened for a room full of people who expressed their utter contempt for the movie and then promptly ran into the dealer room trying to find copies for sale. Quipped one viewer "well, at least it lives up to its title." Indeed. So successful was VIOLENT SHIT that it spawned a sequel in 1991 titled VIOLENT SHIT II: MOTHER HOLD MY HAND. Opinions vary on this entry, sure it's slightly technically more accomplished than the first, but instead of just a masked killer on a rampage, Schnaas throws in martial arts, ninjas, firearms and more comedy that is just as high-brow as you'd expect (that is to say, not at all). On the other hand the gore is even more extreme with scenes that were downright shocking and controversial among devout genre buffs, such as a scene where a girl has her jeans ripped off and her vagina stapled shut. If Freud were alive to speculate on the psychology behind that bit of sleaze, I'm sure his head would have exploded like a watermelon under Gallagher's hammer.

One of the more introspective
moments in the original VIOLENT SHIT
VIOLENT SHIT III: INFANTRY OF DOOM was released in 1999 after eight years of random press statements claiming it to be a work in progress that will take the series to an entirely new level, combining hard-core gore with hard-core porn. As it turned out VIOLENT SHIT III did little more than show that Schnaas and Aquilina were less interested in being hard-core and slightly more interested in developing one of those... what do you call it? Uhhh... plot! Yes, that's it, one of those "plot" things. An allegedly remote island compound is home to a cult of Karl worshipers who run into ninjas while hunting down a group of shipwrecked twenty-somethings. While the production values and effects had gone up considerably, this is still a SOV movie in which metal props are made by wrapping tin-foil around a cardboard cut-out. Oh and the promised "hard-core porn"? Not even close. That was a gauntlet that the prolific protege Andreas Bethmann decided to pick up, but that is another article entirely. VIOLENT SHIT III actually managed to get a rather wide Stateside release on video dubbed in English under the title ZOMBIE DOOM, proving that Schnaas and Aquilina were not only headed in the right direction financially, but bringing the amatuer German gore "film" to a whole new level.

In 2004, a day that will live in infamy, the highly political chairman of the MPAA, Jack Valenti, retired at the age of 82 years old. After decades of industry manipulation, favoritism and absurdly outdated views of controlling what the American people should have the right to see, genre movie fans found that change was in the wind. At first it seemed as if no-one really knew what to do or even if change had actually come. Then, in 2008, Stallone decided he would bring the most gore-soaked film to American screens that had ever been shown with an R-rating. RAMBO may not have been the theatrical blockbuster that the distributors were hoping for, but it was no less a milestone in American cinema and since then we have been able to witness on-screen carnage that would have been completely unthinkable previously. Even the British Board of Film Censors, who at one point were responsible for imprisoning videostore owners and film viewers for possessing a video box with the word "chainsaw" written on it, had taken a strong dose of reality and relaxed their psychotically stringent standards to allow classic films like THE BEYOND (1980) to be released in their uncut form.
After finding limited success with his attempts at making bigger movies that sacrificed crass for a modicum of class, Schnaas announced that he would retire from filmmaking. Apparently he was talked back into it by notorious SOV hack Timo Rose, whose imagination is only limited by his birth. For reasons unknown, Schnaas decided to split from long-time collaborateur (and wearer of very small shorts) Steve Aquilina, and teamed up with Rose for the virtually unwatchable UNRATED: THE MOVIE (2009).

So now that we have all of this artistic freedom to dismantle the human body in whatever demented way we see fit, what can Andreas Schnaas and Timo Rose offer us with the much delayed, highly-anticipated VIOLENT SHIT 4? Oh, where to start? VIOLENT SHIT III was a substantial step forward, resulting in world-wide distribution and a much broader fanbase. A year before its release, a teaser trailer hit the web offering a tantalizing taste of VIOLENT SHIT 4.0. Why "4.0"? Because it is set in the future! Decimals are the future. In the teaser we get what appears to be a worthy successor to part 3, it's fast-paced, exciting, gory, and... is that a tank? Holy shit, indeed! Sadly the movie itself doesn't even come close to fulfilling those expectations.

Inexplicably starting out with an attempt to spoof the opening credits of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (1978), we find Karl (Schnaas, again) in Hell, which is essentially a black void with superimposed fire. Satan, who has an affinity for black t-shirts, decides that Karl should be released from his ethereal prison and sent back to Earth in the year 2023 to kill another metal mask clad serial killer named Axe (Rose). Axe, so named because he carries a giant cartoon axe, has apparently pissed off Satan by, I guess, killing people in a German forest. Why this would upset Beelzebub and why, if he has the power to incarcerate him, the Lord of Darkness would want Karl to not run around killing people on Earth are questions that if you are asking means you need another beer. To show his heart is in the right place, Satan has a naked girl give Karl his mask back. In thanks for this noble gesture, Karl rips the girl's head off in what will quickly become the most tiresome gore-gag you will ever see.

Using a few badly photoshopped images to represent a post-holocaust Earth, Karl once again finds himself in a familiar stretch of woods which has been divided up into gangs. Each gang has a theme of course, and every single gang member is given a name via on-screen titles, even if that character's only part in the film is to show up and have his name displayed. The gangs all hang out in their respective headquarters which consist of a 10x10 room draped with vinyl banners with the gang name printed on it, or in the case of the Amazonian gang, bed sheets. Led by Queen Scara (aging porn/softcore vet Eileen Daly who really shouldn't be taking her clothes off anymore), there only seem to be three other members of her gang, one of which is promptly killed off while guarding a path, completely naked, by Karl when she won't let him walk past her. I was starting to think this was an homage to MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, but Monty Python's bit was much bloodier.

Queen Scara, who only speaks in long, drawn out hisses (sounding much like the old Adolphus from the 1988 ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN), is mainly obsessed with drinking male ejaculate ("only the female sperm is gooooood") obtained from rival gang members via a plastic "machine" that has "sperminator" scrawled on it in black sharpie. Assisting her in this is Mathra and Shema, played by Marysia Kay and Eleanor James, both ultra-low-rent trash regulars well known less for their acting skills and more for willing to work topless. Both of whom, incidentally, were in Ivan Zuccon's 2008 Lovecraft adaptation COLOUR FROM THE DARK, in which they (or at least Kay) provided substantially better performances.

That is one crazy gang alright.
After being introduced to all of the gangs (played mostly by small German bands) and Axe's sister, Vendetta (Timo's real-life girlfriend Magdalena Kalley), who is introduced with a flashy, whooshy freeze-frame title job, Axe and Vendetta kind of just hang out around the forest. Vendetta asks Axe about their parents, Axe says he doesn't know anything... Anyone still with me? C'mon, snap out of it. We're almost there. Eventually Karl and Axe meet in a woodland clearing and square off. So, now the scheisse is going to hit the l├╝fter, right? Hey, not so fast there buckaroo! Hold your horses, we still have more gang meetings to get through or this sucker isn't going to hit a feature-length running time! Occasionally we have a few gang members getting killed via impalement or yet another decapitation, but mostly, like you'd expect from a Timo Rose outing, it's just a lot of horrible performances from talking heads. Sure there are lots of attempts at humor (one gang member is called "Ninja Foo"), and there's a bit of unintentional humor such as when Karl's path is yet again obstructed:
Karl: "Go out of my way!"
Gang Member: "You're Karl the Butcher, right? I thought you were in Hell."
Wait. How does some random dude who hangs out in the post-apocalypse woodland area know who exactly is in hell?

Finally everything boils down to a donnybrook in a quarry lined with shipping containers and Karl taking a potion that causes him to look like he is in one of those inflatable sumo wrestler outfits. This is easily the best part of the movie, since it is Karl and Axe (who have teamed up after discovering they both have the same birthmarks) killing off all of the remaining gangs, except the chicks who have decided the best plan of action is to wait it out. Once again Timo Rose's complete and total lack of imagination is raised into sharp relief as the only way Karl and Axe can be bothered to kill anyone is with a slash, a stab or a decapitation. Matter of fact there are so many close-ups of decapitated stumps that the whole thing starts feeling like a bad GWAR video. Not to completely flog the point, but what is the reason you'd even be bothered to watch a VIOLENT SHIT movie in the first place? Yes, it's the whole smorgasbord of crazy gore effects. Part III actually offered up some surprisingly professional and creative demises, including smashed heads, ripped out spines, and disembowelments galore. It's like TITUS ANDRONICUS without all the deep thought. Instead we simply get a lot of very sloppy filmmaking, even by German SOV standards.

Scenes simply feel episodic and jumbled together, easily interchangable, as if they were shot over series of weekends without a script... actually, that's probably true, but some of it is so pointless that you can't help but wonder why even bother in the first place. For example, a character is introduced as "Sgt Riedel the Last German Soldier on Earth" early on in the movie. He has a few scenes where he's walking around spliced into the movie, but has nothing to do with anything! No interaction with other characters, just this dude, running across a field, or crossing a road. Right at the end, as sort of a non-sequitur epilogue, a badly CG'd stealth bomber flies low and the camera gets gobbed with a blob of CG blood (implying that the Sgt was hit by the plane). I can only think that this footage was shot, forgotten about, discovered and then thrown in simply as a way to pad out the running time. Essentially this is a 30 minute movie padded out to about 75 very long minutes.

In the end you have to wonder; is VIOLENT SHIT even relevant in today's marketplace? Could that be the problem here? If you can see highly skilled effects technicians doing all sorts of messy violence on screen in a TV show, why bother with sitting through horribly acted, back yard videos shot by a couple of Germans over a couple years worth of weekends? To be honest, I think there is still a market for it. Granted it's a smaller one. One that caters to those who retch at the thought of sparkly vampires and feel that Brad Pitt has no place in the land of the dead. There was something gleefully unpretentious about those movies and while I feel that the enthusiasm can be recaptured, the demand for bland makes it financially un-viable. That and the fact that Timo Rose takes the heart out of this half-hearted mess.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Strung Out on Slashers: BOARDINGHOUSE (1982)

They say you never forget your first love and I think the same thing can apply to your first shot-on-video horror film.  Much like your first love, it is a completely foreign experience that will most likely leave you a changed person after all is said and done.  I can remember the first shot-on-video film I saw like it was yesterday. And, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, you know what a lousy day yesterday was.  I lost my SOV virginity to CANNIBAL CAMPOUT (1988).  Having just gotten my drivers license, I was free to inspect video aisles on my own and found the cover with a guy chewing chunks of flesh from a girl’s throat staring at me.  Now this I gotta see, said my foolish brain.  I was never the same afterward.  And while this magnum non-opus may have been my earliest exposure, it wasn’t the first shot-on-video horror flick. That honor belongs to BOARDINGHOUSE (1982).

Renting horror flicks in the 1980s, you honestly couldn’t escape seeing a trailer for BOARDINGHOUSE on every horror title released by Paragon on VHS.  I’m pretty sure there is a small army of folks worldwide who (involuntarily) have the narration memorized and the “peeee-owwwwwwww” sound and psychedelic glove shot burned into their brains.  Prolific promotion aside, BOARDINGHOUSE deserves historical attention for being the first mainstream horror release to realize that video was the way of the future.  Not only that, but the producers even transferred a shot-on-Betacam movie to 35mm and got this bad boy in theaters.  Sure, it had been done before (like the 1976 Redd Foxx comedy NORMAN…IS THAT YOU?) but this was the first horror film to do so. The fact that it got into theaters and made money (Variety reported a haul of $390,000 in just two weeks!) is even more amazing (although the filmmakers say they never got a dime).  Variety also famously said of the film “tape-to-film horror pic hits a new low” but, like it or not, it still was groundbreaking.  It broke the barrier that led to a new era in exploitation filmmaker, for better or worse, and accurately predicted the current era of digital filmmaker.  Yes, Steven Soderbergh owes BOARDINGHOUSE some rent.

BOARDINGHOUSE advertised alongside a re-titled RITUALS 
(Farmington, New Mexico - October 1983)

The film revolves around, duh, a boardinghouse.  In 1972, Mr. and Mrs. Hoffman, two scientists experimenting with telekinesis and the occult, died horribly in the house and their child, the sole survivor, is sent to a mental institution.  Ten years later, Jim Royce (director John Wintergate under the pseudonym Hawk Adley [which is revealed on the commentary to be a mistake as it was supposed to read Hank Adley]) inherits the house and decides to turn it into a boardinghouse.  In a move that would make THREE’S COMPANY’s Jack Tripper proud, he decides to only rent to young women.  With a bevy of beauties moving in, it seems like pure early ‘80s heaven (or the set up for a porno).  Well, except for the weird gardener (also played by Wintergate) who is always creeping around.  Oh, and the bad news that the now-adult Hoffman child has escaped from the loony bin and this gives the psychic killer plenty of victims.  Jim, however, has a secret of his own as he too possesses telekinetic powers.  Jim starts to get close to all the girls, but mostly Victoria (Kalassu, Wintergate’s real life wife), who starts to take an interest in his Eastern philosophy-influenced lifestyle.  But he has to figure out if one of his boarders is a killer looking to pay the rent in blood money.

Now before you think I’m crazy (or crazier), let me say that I don’t consider BOARDINGHOUSE to be a horror classic.  However, there is something oddly alluring about the film for me.  It has a definitely WTF quality to it, no doubt. And while the filmmakers contend today that they were making a spoof of horror flicks, I’m not really buying that real estate.  It is cheap and cheesy, but I enjoy it.  Much like the adult films of the era, the video format provides a better tool in capturing the early ‘80s aesthetic.  Truth be told, BOARDINGHOUSE is like a time capsule that captures the early ‘80s in California better than anything I can think of.  You’ll marvel at the clothes, pools, and furniture.  And even little things like a blow dryer will get you feeling nostalgic.

Since it is the first shot-on-video horror film, BOARDINGHOUSE has been afforded a certain status in horror film history. Believe it or not, it has been the recipient of two special edition DVD releases in the last five years.  Yes, BOARDINGHOUSE gets two special editions before STAR WARS fans get releases of the unaltered trilogy on Blu-ray. There is something so wrong, yet so right about that.  The first release was in 2008 from Code Red.  Five years later, the new upstart Slasher // Video has given the film a loving special edition in their 30th Anniversary release.

Two of BOARDINGHOUSE's gruesome bits:

The biggest attraction here is a never-before-seen director’s cut of the film. Released theatrically and on video via Paragon with a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes, this extended version runs 2 hours and 37 minutes.  Let me repeat that – 2 HOURS AND 37 MINUTES! Yes, nearly a full extra hour of BOARDINGHOUSE.  Now, if you had told me that this film would have seen two special edition releases in 5 years, I would have called you crazy.  If you told me that there was a director’s cut with nearly an hour of extra footage, I would have driven you to the asylum myself.  Now if you had told me this extra footage not only makes the movie more cohesive and expands up the personal philosophies of the Wintergates, I would have gladly joined you in that padded cell. Yet, here it is, a longer version of BOARDINGHOUSE for the entire world to see.  It is pretty obvious the distributor wanted to get straight to the horror, cutting out anything they deemed superfluous to the spurting blood and T&A.  For example, the infamous ice pick scene occurs around the 21 minute mark in the earlier version, but takes place at the 50 minute mark in the director’s cut.  Believe it or not, there is tons of extra footage explaining the personal dynamics a lot better.  And you even get the original, extended ending that explains who bought the house and teases a follow up (the Wintergates say they already have the script for a sequel BOARDINGHOUSE 2: ILLUMINATI VORTEX [wha!?!] done).  On the downside, we get lots more of Wintergate in his briefs.

To make it up to you for that last framegrab, I offer you this:

As with the Code Red release, John and Kalassu provide an audio commentary for the film, but this time they are talking over the longer version.  Of all the extras on the disc, this is perhaps the most frustrating.  Disc producer Jesus Teran joins as a moderator and, unfortunately, seems to get very little out of them.  Many times they are completely silent, watching the action unfold on screen.  Teran brings up their musical careers quite a bit, but fails to give the listener a clear timeline of their history as musicians.  Same goes for the film itself.  At one point Wintergate mentions it cost $35,000 to blow up the film to 35mm for theatrical screenings and says, “That cost more than the movie.”  Rather than ask how much the movie cost to make (a detail still left unknown despite a nearly 3 hours commentary and 30 minutes of interviews in the extras), he just lets the comment escape. And it isn’t until 90 minutes in that we find out this director’s cut (which features some crazy video wipes/editing) was something Wintergate created in 1999.  I’ll let it slide this time as he is relatively new to the DVD game, but I can’t think of what a shame it was to learn so little about the film on the audio commentary.  Yes, I’m the weirdo who wants to know every little detail about the making of BOARDINGHOUSE.

Please don’t think that I dislike this special edition though. That is only a minor quibble on what is truly a labor of love from this new cult label.  The special features are filled with probably more BOARDINGHOUSE minutia than any fan could ever want.  In addition to the two separate Q&A sessions (one recent and one from 2008), the disc offers 24 minutes of BOARDINGHOUSE trailers and audio (including the original narration recording sessions) and an extensive video sleeve library.  A healthy section is also devoted to the musical careers of Wintergate and Kalassu in the bands Lightstorm, 33 1/3, and Teeth.  You get three music videos, several songs and even some footage of them performing live in Europe.  A hidden Easter egg on the disc also has Jesus recording them as they react to footage of themselves in the earlier TERROR ON TOUR (1980).  All in all, this is a great special edition that I’d highly recommend for horror trash lovers.  It's not for everyone, but those who dig this kind of stuff will definitely enjoy spending a night in the BOARDINGHOUSE.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Gweilo Dojo: BLOOD HANDS (1990)

If you were going to pick the top two filmmakers in Filipino exploitation, you would naturally come up with Eddie Romero and Cirio H. Santiago. If you were going to pick three, you would have to add the venerable Teddy Page. Definitely not as prolific, nor as influential on the industry as a whole, but when it comes to completely insane, break-neck action flicks, Page delivers fun by the truckload. Better still, he does it with a cast of beloved b-movie stars such as Richard Harrison, Bruce Baron, Mike Monty, Jim Gaines, Nick Nicholson or in this case... stuntman and actor Sean P. Donahue!

Four amigos are getting hammered on cans of Budwater in a living room. We quickly learn that they are all kickboxers and one of them has just won a championship medal, which is the cause for the celebration, such as it is (these guys could take pointers from Amir Shervan on how to party). The guys head out for a beer run and strangely enough, things go wrong pretty fast. Sure it's all fun and games, slapping women on their asses, chugging beers straight off the display and shoving people around, but things turn serious when the manger, looking like Jim Carrey with a comb-over, confronts them in this dialogue exchange:
Manager: "I suggest you leave now before I show you something you wont find so damn humorous."
Walter: "Gonna show your little willy?"
Manager: "I got a black belt here that says I can knock all four ya on your asses!" (manager indicates this by drawing attention to his black dress belt that is holding up his slacks!)
Of course this leads to a supermarket brawl in which kung fu Carrey smacks his head on a counter dropping to the floor, dead. One of the guys realizes something is wrong and shouts "he ain't moving man!" to which the response is "oh my god, kick him!" Unfortunately an extra boot to the ribs doesn't bring the manager back to life.

Meanwhile a couple is getting things ready for their son Steve's (Donahue) birthday. In a totally unpredictable series of events, the four amigos have a (vehicular) break down right by their house and decide to pay them a visit. Naturally things get ugly right away as the champion kickboxer James (the ever reliable Ned Hourani) used to date the mom who is described as a "hot dish" (she is not). As soon as Video Wasteland's Ken Kish, err, I mean, Steve's dad Edward (Nick Nicholson) arrives home, it's on! A massive brawl through the house ends up with Kish and the Dish both dead. Jeeze, these guys aren't having a good day. All they wanted was more beer and then people have to go and die on them through no fault of theirs! Yep, James is the voice of reason in this motley brew. He keeps things under control by telling the boys "alright, so we're not having a good time" and that nobody can pin the afternoon's accidental deaths on them because there were no witnesses. Unfortunately for them, Edward managed to grab the kickboxing medal before he is fatally thrown through a glass door. Or rather, his stunt "double" is. And this is all in the first 25 minutes of the film!

If there's one thing Page is known for it's minimal budgets, if there's two things, it's minimal budgets and wall-to-wall action. While nothing compares to the literally non-stop string of action scenes that is the Max Thayer vehicle DEADRINGER (1985), this sucker hauls ass through so much delirious kick-boxing mayhem that it makes BLOODSPORT (1988) seem like ON GOLDEN POND (1981).

Steve, seemingly living at his girlfriend's father's gym, refuses to hand over the medal to the cops, and with good reason. Upon discovering that it was gone, the guys run back over to the house, discover a homicide detective there and... wait for it... accidentally kill him! Hey, these guys don't go looking for trouble, but - oh wait, yes they do. In his attempt to find out who the owner of the medal is, he adopts a clever disguise as a kickboxing journalist (who has no idea who the leading kickboxing champs are). In spite of his sleuthing, opportunity seems to simply fall in his lap. For instance, when walking to the gym from the gym (yeah, I don't get it either), a group of tweens playing what appears to be dodgeball suddenly decide to pick a fight with him. Wouldn't you know it, one of the kids, Bruce, is the son of George (Jim Moss), one of our kickboxing killers!

David Byrne called

Loaded with enthusiastic fights from top to bottom, we also get a variety of locations as well, it may not sound like much, but locations such as an active rail line, a ship-yard, and a two-on-one fight in a subway car, do a lot to make the film feel as if it has more production values than it really does. Plus, we get some really amazing sequences that really make no sense and add substantially to the entertainment value. In one scene the boys go to the gym in the dead of night to try to recover the medal. When they get there, they find the owner reading a book (to cover for this oddness, later in the film his daughter has a line about how her dad was an insomniac), James tells George to kill the old man, George picks up a steel pole and starts jabbing him in the stomach! Surely there has got to be an easier way to kill a man if you are a kickboxer.

In what seems like an attempt to add even more emotional depth to the frantic proceedings, Page has several completely non-sequitur sequences of heavy drama, but don't worry, it's some of the most amusing heavy drama you are likely to see. In one scene Bruce goes to see his father George at his mechanics shop and tearfully tells him "Dad, I don't want to be a kickboxer, I just want to be me! I want to be Bruce!" to which Dad replies "You are Bruce!" I'm not sure what relevance this has to the film at all, since this is the last we see of Bruce. No turning face to help out Steve in his quest for vengeance, nope, he just disappears from the film. Also, there is the touching sequence where Steve must recover from a savage beating in some stables, while his girlfriend helps him get his ass-whuppin' mojo back.

Sean P. Donahue, son of Patrick G. Donahue (the man responsible for the 1982 all-time classic KILL SQUAD), properly started his stunt-slash-acting career with two movies in 1990. One was Paul Kyriazi's post-nuke kickboxing opus OMEGA COP starring Ron Marchini, the other is BLOOD HANDS. One year, two classics! Damn, I'm going to have to break out a Venn diagram here in a minute. The degrees of separation are starting to make me dizzy. Never lacking enthusiasm and bringing fast, physical acting to his roles, Donahue is the perfect leading man for Page and that is why Will picked this movie as one of his top movies viewed of 2012 and I should have.

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 
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.