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!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On the Celluloid Chopping Block: RUBY (1977)

Curtis Harrington’s RUBY is one of those films I was infinitely familiar with before I ever saw it.  After all, it is nearly impossible to go digging into old Box Office and Variety issues without encountering that singular image of a screaming blood soaked girl, who I always incorrectly assumed was the Ruby of the title.  That image and title coupled with the casting of Piper Laurie always made me think RUBY was a quickly done CARRIE (1976) knock off.  That couldn’t be further from the truth and – thanks mostly to a badass sale at VCI Entertainment – I was finally able to see RUBY this past week.

The film opens in 1935 with gangster Nicky Rocco (Sal Vecchio) going on a moonlit date with the titular Ruby Claire (Piper Laurie).  Nicky is apparently quite the romantic as he has taken her out to a swamp. But before the duo can cuddle in the arousing aroma of swamp gasses, some of Nicky’s associates show up and fill him full of lead.  The pregnant Ruby collapses as her beau sinks to the bottom of the swamp.  16 years later, Ruby is still living on the land with her and Rocco’s young daughter Leslie (Janit Baldwin, the young girl gracing the powerful poster images). Quite the entrepreneur, Ruby has built a drive-in theater on the land where their casino used to be and hired Nicky’s killers to run the place.  Around the anniversary of her lover’s death and Leslie’s birthday, the mute daughter starts to act strange.  Even worse, the conspirators involved in Nicky’s death start turning up dead.  Vince (Stuart Whitman), one of the gunmen, begins to suspect something supernatural is involved and invites Dr. Paul Keller (Roger Davis), a doc he met while incarcerated who dabbles in parapsychology, to the location.  The doc quickly surmises that not only has gangster Nicky Rocco come back for his revenge, but that he is using his own daughter as his instrument to enact it.

One of the great things about VCI’s special edition release of RUBY is the nearly 1-hour conversation that director Curtis Harrington has with film historian David Del Valle.  The cheerful discussion covers his entire career, but one of the more fascinating revelations was that this disc represented the most complete version of the film and that most viewers were only familiar with an altered version via TV broadcasts and VHS releases.  As revealed by Harrington, the producer removed several violent scenes and added unauthorized new footage to help pad out the running time for the television airings. When it came time for the VHS release, the TV print was the one erroneously offered.  What’s that?  A VHS version with additional footage?  I’m all over that.  After a bit of online searching, I realized I already owned the offending copy of RUBY on VHS (a scenario I’m sure all video junkies, professional or not, reading this can relate to) but hadn’t watched it yet.  With the theatrical release fresh in my mind, I dove into this one and was amazed by the differences.

For clarity’s sake (and what is left of my sanity), I’m only going to write about what was added to theatrical version and not meticulously focus on what was removed.  Suffice to say nearly every blood/body close up ends on the cutting room floor and the biggest excision is the finale involving the man in the wheelchair and the revelation of what Ruby has in her jar.  Both versions open with the 1935 prologue and unfold in the same manner until roughly the 21 minute mark.  It is here that the TV version offers up the first amount of new footage.  It is a nearly 3 minute scene set inside police headquarters.  Sheriff Rich (John Crawford, who is not credited for his work) opens the conversation by saying he is trying to “figure out where my wife goes every night.”  This new subplot actually stems from a scene earlier in the Harrington version where a couple making out at the drive in and the woman reveals her husband is the sheriff.

It is here that Deputy Len reveals that there has been some trouble at the drive-in.  He says a local boy said he saw a man hanging in the projection booth (the film’s first murder).  When the deputy went to investigate, he was met by Vince, who covers up the death by saying it was just people letting the horror flicks get to them.  The deputy then reveals both he and the sheriff have a previous history with the mob folks by saying, “You know, the way we had things going with folks down at the drive-in.”  The deputy then also reveals he thinks he spotted the sheriff’s wife there, causing the sheriff to say, “Looks like I’m going to have to do a little checking up at home and at the drive-in.”  Ah, infidelities, a true staple of TV fodder.

Around the 27 and a half minute mark is where the TV version inserts four new scenes back-to-back.  In total, this chunk runs just under 7 minutes and comprises the largest amount of new footage.  First up is a two minute scene of the sheriff in bed with his wife Mae Belle (Mary Margaret Robinson).  He questions her about her whereabouts on her nights away and she says she has been going out to church socials.  Ha!

He then tells her about the trouble up at the drive-in, which leads her to ask, “You don’t suppose those killings are starting up again, do you?”  Man, does anyone in this town not know this secret?

This scene is followed by a 90 second bit with Barney (Len Lesser) doing some work on the speakers at the drive-in while the younger Kenny bitches about his lack of increased pay. Aggressively grabbing the audience by the collar rather than gently leading it by the hand, the poor kid starts asking about the old roadhouse and then says, “I got a feeling all you guys got something to hide.”  When he asks about the swamp, Barney warns him to stay away from the swamp.  Real subtle there, Mystery Ghost Director.

The kid then asks what happened to Jess the projectionist and Barney says he got a call from his brother and had to leave.  He then pulls the kid face-to-face and sternly says, “Just forget it kid.  Mind your own business and you’ll live a lot longer.”  As if minimum wage weren’t insulting enough!  

The next new scene defines time padding.  For some odd reason, the makers of the new footage brought back the character of Lila June (Crystin Sinclaire), the bitchy teen who shows up at the drive-in each night with a different date. She is shown at home on the telephone and coos about the expensive gifts she gets while holding the necklace from her “really nice” friend (you know, the guy who tried to rape her a few scenes ago!).

Lila June’s mother comes in and then tells her to get off the phone.  She then asks her daughter where she goes every night and Lila says she goes out to homework study groups and sometimes to babysit.  Damn, this town loves its groups. Anyway, mama ain’t buying any of that and blows her story full of holes by asking, “Who do you babysit for?”  Lila then protests and says, “Mama, why are you asking me all these things.  I’m a good girl.”  Her mom then finds the necklace and asks, “What’s this?”  Obviously this is an utterly pointless new scene.

The fourth scene of this new section marathon involves the sheriff heading to the drive-in to ask some tough questions. The sheriff asks about the hanging report from last night.  He then asks when Vince is and Barney says he is out looking for Leslie, who he describes as a “strange girl.”  Sheriff Rich then tells Barney of their old relationship, “I want you to forget how it used to be.”

The confrontation ends with the following exchange.

Sheriff: “I’m warning you.  You tell Vince 
for me. It’s a new ball game.”

Barney: “Sheriff, no need to get steamed up.  We was 
always able to take care of you. It’s no different now.”

The next half hour or so of the TV version follows its theatrical blueprint as Leslie starts showing her odd behavior and guys get killed.  Around the 64 minute mark, three more new scenes involving Dr. Keller (Roger Davis, returning for this role) appear.  The first is a 3 minute scene of him going to the town bar looking for George Whitehouse, editor of the local newspaper.  He finds Mr. Whitehouse playing a mean game of pool by himself (ha!) and explains who he is.

Keller asks about the background of Leslie.  Whitehouse says, “Nothing to tell, she’s retarded that’s all.” Ha! Keller says, “I believe something happened to her 16 years ago at birth, something horrible and tragic.  Perhaps even before she was born.”

Keller then asks questions about what happened at the old roadhouse casino and how it relates to Leslie.  Mr. Whitehouse fills him in on the details of what went down back in the day, but gets all grumpy (as small town newspaper editors are prone to do) when Keller asks if there were any killings.  Jeez, can’t a guy play pool by himself in peace? Keller then says he walked around the swamps when he first got here and gets all moody (as small time parapsychologists are prone to do) when saying he felt death there. Anyway, the editor lets him know their conversation is over via the classic “I’m focusing back on my game” body language snub.  Burn!

The very next scene has the sheriff inside his greenhouse watering some plants.  His deputy brings in the doc because he “heard he was asking questions downtown.”  Again, Dr. Keller shows he is nobody’s friend as he asks about the events from 1935 and the sheriff says, “That was an unfortunate case.”  The doc begins to outlay his evidence so far and gets the sheriff all flustered when he asks where Nicky Rocco is buried.  The sheriff says, “A doctor should be interested in pills and medicine.”  Keller then whips out his “you wouldn’t be hiding something” line, but the tension is broken when the sheriff’s wife enters.

After Keller leaves, the deputy returns as the sheriff talks with his wife.  “He knows everything damn thing,” the sheriff cries.  The deputy asks if he should “take care” of him and the sheriff objects, causing the deputy to say he will just scare him.  The wife then tells her sheriff husband that “you better do something old man or some young man will take your place.” Ouch!  Rub it in, why don’t ya?

The next scene is the final bit of new footage as we get a minute long scene involving the deputy attempting to scare off Dr. Keller.  Having received a car ride, Keller gets out and begins walking back to the drive-in when a series of gun shots ring out.  He ducks behind a tree as a few more shots are fired.

It is then revealed that Deputy Len was the one doing the firing.  Apparently his plan was the worst because not only did it not scare Dr. Keller off, but it resulted in the film unfolding to its end credits without the benefit of any new footage. You know you suck when you’re written out of footage especially to be written in.

The only new inclusion after this is the very last shot in the film’s credits:

Ah, our old friend Alan Smithee!  At least they got creative with the spelling.  While it has never been confirmed, the internet tells us the writer/director of this new footage is rumored to be Stephanie Rothman (she has denied this). Whoever it was, I guess we can commend them for actually bringing back some of the film’s original cast members, but I don’t think the footage could have been more mundane.  I mean, you work in this whole “the sheriff and deputy were in on it too” deal, but don’t have the common courtesy (or sense) to give us an extra kill or two off of that?  I’d say “why bother?” but I know the intent was solely to pad the film’s running time for TV airings.  Even worse, we get continuity errors like the drive-in in the new scenes looking nothing like the ones in the original scenes.

Harrington’s RUBY is by no means a perfect film, but the original version has some really great acting, interesting set pieces, and some genuinely spooky moments.  Do yourself a favor and check out the DVD if you’ve only ever seen the VHS version.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Listomania: Thomas' November to Forget 2012

Funny thing November turned out to be. Not exactly the banner month for either Will or myself, with a lot of iffy titles taken in. So much so, that I actually cheated a bit and grabbed a few titles from previous months that were worth mentioning here.

CELLBLOCK SISTERS - BANISHED BEHIND BARS (1995): It should be a simple formula: PM Entertainment + WIP genre = Jiggling, Exploding Awesomeness, right? Eh, well, no. A pair of girls sold by their hick father before accidentally killing their mother grow up in two completely different ways. Twenty some odd years later, April (Annie Wood) is running a criminal biker gang that not only pulls off the most obvious, boneheaded heists in the history of criminals who never get caught, but show their lack of class by having a band at their party that only knows one song and it's riff is a blatant rip-off of ZZ Top's "Tush" (no, it's not a cover). The other, May (Gail Harris) is visiting America from England, where as we know, everyone is prim, proper and polite. Once reunited, April kills pops and May takes the rap. Harris is supposed to be a vestigial babe in the woods of the slams, but it's really hard to pull off that shtick with bleached hair and big, fake stripper boobs. Not that we get to see them that much. For a women's prison movie writer-director Henri Charr seems more interested in cliched prison power-plays with canned, generic dialogue, and badly delivered at that. That might be passable if he had written in a whole mess of sleazy scenes involving nudity, shanking and lesbian antics. I mean, seriously, what is a trashy WIP flick without a lesbian sex scene or two (or twelve)? We have a brawl in the yard, but no tops get ripped off? What the hell are you thinking Henri? Hell, he even manages to botch the staple scene of the genre where the new inmates are forced to strip out of their civilian clothes in exchange for prison gear. He sets up the scene and then cuts away to a debriefing (so to speak) where most of the girls are shyly covering their naughty bits. Apparently, in spite of completely missing the point of the genre, the movie was popular enough (no doubt due to the trailer) for PM to employ him yet again for the "tasteful" (as one IMDb user called it) WIP flick, CAGED HEARTS (1997). And we wonder why PM went out of business.

FORTRESS (1985): Surprisingly bloody Aussie TV movie adapted to the screen by Everett De Roche who wrote a slew of great movies including LONG WEEKEND (1978), ROAD GAMES (1981), and RAZORBACK (1984), just to name a few. Rachel Ward plays a small-town school teacher who is suddenly taken hostage along with her school children by three armed men wearing cartoon animal masks led by one in a Santa mask. After escaping from the cave they were being held in, it's a game of cat and mouse between hostages and kidnappers that goes on across the outback over a couple of days and culminates with our mousy school marm training the kids to defend a cave in the high ground with jungle traps and spears. A nicely twisted ending seals the deal. If this had been broadcast on American TV, there would have been a Congressional inquiry and Tipper Gore would have snapped. Director Arch Nicholson makes the wise decision to keep the bad men masked at all times, making them seem even less human than they are and in doing so ramps up the menace. Granted this is not a totally new concept, but it's well played out with some great little moments and the added attraction of having Ward swimming around in her bra and panties. Oh and that Santa mask is about the creepiest damn thing I've ever seen.

V2 - DEAD ANGEL (2007): Sometimes less really is more. This sequel to the embarrassingly clumsy (though apparently very popular), over-stylized, 2004 PULP FICTION / USUAL SUSPECTS knock-off VARES - PRIVATE EYE (which Vares barely even appeared in) is so much better for what it's not. Gone is the obnoxious references to the movies that it is trying to emulate, gone is the goofy, over-the-top characters, gone is the laboriously forced f-bomb hipster-talk. Well, gone for the most part. Here Vares (Juha Veijonen in his final turn in the role) is actually hired to solve a murder that his former schoolmate, a toupee-wearing, alcoholic used-car salesman (Hannu-Pekka Björkman), has been acquitted of. After his "reputation" was raked through the mud, the bank will not allow him a loan to fix up his auto dealership. Along the way Vares discovers that he is in the middle of a tangled mess in which a group of high-ranking professionals are trying to cover up a crime and will kill to get the evidence. The kitschy characters are scaled way back, but they are still there, and the plot generally takes a backseat to their shenanigans, a neurotic, brillcreamed ex-con, a hulking 6'7" hitman who looks like Lemmy Kilmister in a duster and an Aussie bush hat (Jussi Lampi), and so on. The comedy is still there, but toned down and but it still gives the whole thing an air of not being taken seriously. In fact Vares never solves the main murder, and the audience is clued in at the end when they show you what nasty fate befell the girl. Played for laughs, of course. Far and away better than the first film, but still nothing remotely earthshaking. I'm guessing this movie holds a little closer to Reijo Mäki's novels, but it still couldn't garner enough enthusiasm for a third sequel. Vares was resurrected in 2011 in a series of six films with Antti Reini taking over the role.

Vares is on the case! Though, you'd never know,
as this is about 90% of what Vares does in the first two films.

SEASON OF THE WITCH (2011): I'm really amazed at all the negativity heaped on this film. First off, I really can't stand Nicholas Cage, secondly I'm not a big fan of Ron Pearlman either, but I actually enjoyed this film. Ok, stop throwing those eggs and hear me out! Set in a vague, fictionalized era of the Crusades, two killers for the cross, Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Pearlman), desert and subsequently find themselves escorting a witch to a far-off abbey in exchange for the dismissal of their desertion charges. Is she a witch, or is she an abused girl on her way to be tortured and murdered by the church? If you've seen the trailers, you already know the answer to that (thank you Lionsgate), but either way it makes for a pretty entertaining adventure. Much ado has been made of Cage's performance, which is certainly not deep or complex in any way, but this is easily the least offensive performance he's given since FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. There has also been a lot of reviewers up in arms about its perceived lack of historical accuracy. I find this baffling as the film contains undead, witchcraft and holy verses that dispel evil. So, you are saying, it is the inconsistencies with the time period that keep this from being a factual drama? The movie is about as historically accurate as LADYHAWK, and there’s a few bits of questionable CGI, but I thought for what it was, it was entertaining, though not without a fistful of caveats.
Interestingly the film had some ire from the execs who demanded reshoots to bring the movie in line with what they believed the general public wanted to see (and of course they were wrong). I can see a studio suit flipping out, shouting "Where's the CGI monsters and why isn't Ron Pearlman saying funny stuff like in HELLBOY!?" Maybe some day we will get a director's cut, but in the mean time, be sure to check out the original ending that is included on the DVD and Blu-Ray releases which has a significantly different and vastly superior final 10 minutes. This is a perfect example of how Hollywood studios think that they can make more money by pandering to the lowest common denominator and in the process losing their audience. Even worse, this leads the studios to believe that it wasn't their meddling, but the subject matter that offended audiences.

THE LAST RUN (1971): When I was a teenager discovering the cool tough-as-nails movies of Eastwood and Bronson, I always thought George C. Scott was one of those Academy actors that made pretentious critics happy. In spite of enjoying him in films such as THE HUSTLER (1961) and DOCTOR STRANGELOVE (1964) It wasn't until I saw THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972) and HARDCORE (1979) that I really started to get the picture. Then Will sent me RAGE (1972) and that was it. George C. Scott is cool. So now I'm always looking out for some of his lesser known, or distributed films and this is one. Scott plays a retired underworld driver living in Portugal who's child has died and his wife has left for parts unknown. His sad life consists of realizing that he isn't any good at fishing and finds comfort in the company of an aging prostitute. After deciding to take a job driving a con (Tony Musante) and his girl (Trish Van Devere) through Spain and France, he discovers that the men who hired him to help spring the young shooter are the people who also want them dead. There are some vague political allusions that don't really do anything for the plot which feels dated even for '71. Credibility is stretched to the breaking point as Scott is cast as an aging, but still allegedly sexy, criminal and Musante is simply loud and obnoxious. There's potential for some interesting character bits here, but notoriously flat writer Alan Sharp's script just isn't up to it and Musante plays the role without a lick of subtlety. The highlight of the film is a decent chase sequence between Scott's suped-up '57 BMW 503 and a hitman's '69 Jaguar XJ6 through the hills of Spain. It's not a bad movie, but my expectations were pretty high.

CATACOMBS (1988): Nice little horror yarn from David Schmoeller that actually predates the extremely similar Michele Soavi film THE CHURCH (1989). Starting out with a sequence that echoes THE BEYOND (1981), a long-haired, albino Antichrist is entombed alive in the catacombs under a monastery  A few hundred years later, the monks are investigating the catacombs and manage to release the evil within. After sitting on the shelf for five years, the film was unceremoniously dumped on video as CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE, of which, none of those words has any bearing on what happens in the film. It got a mixed reception with people unfairly comparing it to other CURSE sequels (all of which had nothing to do with THE CURSE). It's not particularly bloody, nor is it particularly scary, but it is rather compelling viewing anyway. The most famous scene is probably the one with Jesus removing himself from the perch that he'd been nailed to, and it is pretty damn effective. I would have loved to see some of the main characters fleshed out a bit more and maybe some more creative demises (there's a lot of chest clutching and falling over in this abbey), but it's still good fun.

KAMEN RIDER - THE FIRST (2005): Cutting edge scientist (Masaya Kikawada) studying water crystals (I don't know either), finds himself kidnapped by a secret evil organization known as Shocker. Shocker rules the world in the shadows via it's army of human-animal hybrid cyborgs. Our humble scientist, now turned into a grasshopper cyborg, rebels against Shocker in order to save a reporter who he has always had a crush on. Multiple subplots ensue including a particularly heavy-handed and sappy one about a teenage boy and girl who are in a hospital due to terminal illnesses. The twist here will be pretty obvious to anyone with half a brain and it seems like it is time that could have been better spent driving forward some sort of plot. The film meanders around, frequently wallowing in soap-opera sentimentality, which has become obnoxiously trendy over recent years (I never thought I'd say this, but damn you Peter Jackson!). On the plus side, the cyborg suits are frickin' uh-maaaazing. There's even a few flashy close-ups on several of the characters where you can see all of the hand-stitching and painstaking detail in the costumes. The action, though heavily edited, is pretty good too with signature moves and evil cyborgs exploding in massive balls of flame after receiving electric kicks and such. The CG is minimal, unlike the previous year's ULTRAMAN: THE NEXT, which is also a good thing. If only that script could focus on a plot. Directed by Takao Nagaishi, who has worked on no less than five different Kamen Rider TV shows, and cut his teeth with the notorious RAPEMAN DTV movies, there are a lot of things to like about this reboot... then there's the script. Written by Toshiki Inoue, a long time veteran TV and anime writer, the script really would like to be a soapy drama about teens and friends and cheap sentiment instead of a crazy, tilt-a-whirl superhero outing with mutant cyborgs. Even so, it's still a damn sight better than a lot of the modern Japanese tokusatsu stuff that I've seen lately.

THE WOLVES OF ARGA (2011) aka GAME OF WEREWOLVES. This Spanish horror-comedy has gotten an amazing amount of positive fan press lately and while I hate to seem like I'm pissing in everyone's Wheaties, this movie is one big misfire for me. A nebbish, somewhat unsuccessful writer, Tomas (Gorka Otxoa), goes back to his rural village after decades of city living only to discover that there is a lycanthropic curse that the hicks have been living under for the past 100 years and only his flesh will stop it. Sounds decent enough, but this is a comedy first and foremost. Tomas quickly meets up with his childhood friend Calisto (Carlos Areces), who is the fat comic sidekick (if it was an '80s American film, he would have been an urban black guy). This sets the stage for a very SHAUN OF THE DEAD derived jokefest about masturbation, sheep-screwing (you could make a drinking game out of those two subjects), a gear-jamming grandma and lots of cute doggie hijinks courtesy of Tomas' pet. There is some werewolf stuff, mostly at the end, and it's not bad (no CGI thank you), but it's certainly not remotely effective as horror. There are no scares, no shocks, some questionable use of wire-work to make the lycanthropes leap on and off of buildings and fly across rooms and it's very light on the red stuff. Add to that the fact that the werewolves tend to stand around and wait to be shot or set on fire when they could easily slaughter the cast if they didn't seem to have their feet nailed to the floor. As far as I'm concerned there is no "horror" in this horror-comedy and I found the jokes to be under-reaching at best. I'm surprised that there were no gags about werewolf farts or people slipping in werewolf poop. They must be saving those for the sequel.

HANNIE CAULDER (1971): After years and years of procrastination I finally got around to watching this British attempt to cash in on the Spaghetti western, from Tigon, of all studios. Don't expect British wit, nor should you expect the twisty plots and style of a Spaghetti. This star studded western is essentially an American film, written and directed by the one and only Burt Kennedy, well known for bringing touches of humor to the many westerns to his credit. Here is no different. It's a cheerfully light-hearted western-comedy about a woman (Raquel Welch) who is repeatedly raped by a gang of outlaws (Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin), whose husband is murdered, their house burned down and their horses scattered. After a lot of convincing, a bounty hunter (Robert Culp) decides to teach her how to be a badass so that she can have her revenge. Christopher Lee has an amusing bit part as the tallest wedo in Mexico. A solidly entertaining American-style (read: simple) western, marred only by the fact that Kennedy is aiming for laughs out of Caulder's rape and the destruction of her life. Black comedy is one thing, this actually has wacky music when the outlaws are drunk, giggling and stumbling to their horses after killing, raping and burning. With a lesser cast and director this could have been an underground trainwreck (as opposed to this above-ground trainwreck), so I guess what I'm trying to say is, the cast is what makes this movie worth watching.

Let the hilarity begin!

RAGE OF HONOR (1987): Fresh off of the notoriously censored ninja flick PRAY FOR DEATH (1985), director Gordon Hessler and star Sho Kosugi re-team in an attempt to reinvent the ninja as a modern-day James Bond. Heading straight into what was then topical action waters, Kosugi stars as government agent Shiro Tanaka, who has been hot on the trail of sadistic South American drug lord (are there any other kind?), Havlock (Lewis Van Bergen). After Tanaka's partner stupidly walks into an ambush and is taunted, tortured and terminated, Tanaka defies his orders to sit on his shurikens and tosses in his badge, determined to make the bad guys pray for de- oh, sorry, wrong movie. Well, he's going to see justice is done anyway and he's going to do it in a spiffy black outfit with lots of ninja weapons! Chasing down Havlock is not as easy as he thought, Havlock and his men are armed to the teeth and have no problem blowing up half of Singapore and Buenos Ares. I see your tanto and raise you a LAW rocket! Hessler wisely throws out all but the most basic of ninja pretensions and makes a slam-bang action flick that hits the ground running with a shoot-out, some light martial arts and a high-octane speedboat chase all before the opening credits. Sure, the plot is the epitome of '80s cliche, but where else would you get to see both Sho Kosugi and Gerry Gibson struggle with their American accents in the same scene? Cinematic gold, I tell ya.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Heinous for the Holidays: THANKSKILLING 3 (2012)

I know what you're thinking. You are wondering what the hell I'm doing watching the sequel to a half-assed SOV-shot low-renter made by a bunch of kids who couldn't be bothered to really put the effort into 98% of the movie. That's what you're thinking. Matter of fact, I was thinking that too. It seemed like only a week ago that I was blissfully dreaming about ridiculous amounts of salty, fatty, sugary foodstuffs that would send my doctor to perform an epic facepalm. Little did I know that writer-director-producer and voice of the foul fowl, Jordan Downey, had just released a sequel to coincide with the holiday. Yep, I got my fingers on the pulse.

In case you need a recap, THANKSKILLING (2009), was one of those cheap "look at how stupid our movie is" kind of shot on video flicks where general laziness is supposed to be excused by the intent of making a bad movie. The story is about a group of kids heading off to turkey day when their car breaks down and they run into a homicidal turkey who is the physical embodiment of a Native American deity  Lots of potential, most of it wasted. Three years and one Kickstarter campaign later and we have a sequel, penned not just by Downey, but two other people as well. A sequel that has actually skipped it's first sequel (which was set in space), you say? A sequel with a post-apocalyptic robot that crashes Thanksgiving dinner, you say? A sequel with mostly puppet characters who die horribly, you say? Ok, I'm in! Besides, how can you go wrong with these promo posters?

THANKSKILLING 3 starts out with one of the best low-expectation-smashing intros since the jaw-dropping UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: DAY OF RECKONING (2012). Designed to look like a lost low-budget film from the early '80s, THANKSKILLING 2 starts out with Wanda Lust (looking even more haggard and depressed) in a boob-exposing space suit only to be zapped in half by Turkie in his fighter ship along with his (literally) pie-faced wingman named Pie-lette (Pilot, Pie-lette... get it?). We then roughly segue into a psychedelic post-apocalyptic vision of men in gas masks with flamethrowers burning piles of THANKSKILLING 2 DVDs in the middle of the desert. This is intercut with a scene with a Henson-style puppet and a voice over talking about how the movie has a hero who lost her mind, cuing a Henson-style puppet brain to wander off. This whole sequence is actually one of the best bits in the movie and for five jaw-dropping minutes actually got me to seriously believe that this was going to be an amazing reinvention, fixing all of the issues with the first movie and beyond. Not a chance in hell.

You had me at "flamethrower"

Turkie's 512th birthday at home (a sequence played out like a sit-com ala NATURAL BORN KILLERS) is brought to a screeching halt when a news report comes on the tube about how studio executives have deemed THANKSKILLING 2 the worst movie ever made and have decided not only to shelve the film, but burn all remaining copies. Ok, a homicidal, flightless bird that is the incarnation of an ancient Indian spirt I can buy. Studio executives refusing to release a film based on it's lack of artistic merit? That is straining the limits of my ability to suspend disbelief. Turkie's wife tells him "your movie is worse than that toilet paper commercial that shows people actually wiping their asses." This news drives Turkie into a killing rage causing him to cleave his wife's head in half and grab his pea-brained son (represented by an inarticulate clump of feathers with cheap toy eyes held up on a visible rod) and head out to track down the last remaining copy of THANKSKILLING 2. Ok, so now Turkie is going to go on a killing spree, chainsawing anyone who gets in his way to exact his revenge on the studio execs, right? I mean, who doesn't love some skewering satire of Hollywood? Yeah, that's what you'd think anyway, and you would be wrong. Totally and completely wrong.

Our Henson-esque "hero" (who does nothing heroic whatsoever and is barely a central character) Yomi (voiced by Downey) is obsessed with an animated TV show about a gay cat Meowmir, but that has nothing to do with anything. Yomi wakes up in a dumpster while looking for her mind and discusses the situation with a trash puppet, but that has nothing to do with anything. Exiting the trash she meets Uncle Donnie of Uncle Donnie's Pluckmaster 3000 fame. The Pluckmaster 3000 is the hot ticket this holiday season, a household appliance that takes a live turkey and turns it into a perfect dinner in minutes... but that has nothing to do with anything. Uncle Donnie invites Yomi over to his home for Thanksgiving where he assures her that she can find her mind.

Uncle Donnie and his brother Jefferson both wear colonial wigs and dream of creating an amusement park named "Thanksgivingland" that will feature rides such as the "gravy train" and "mashed potato mountain". But that has no - oh never mind. Uncle Donnie and Jefferson (who aspires to be the security guard with a long pike at Thanksgivingland) live with their mother, a rapping, sex-crazed invalid in a wheelchair (another puppet) who has a music video for her sick beat "Wrinkles or Sprinkles". Ok, ready? All together now: "but that has nothing to do with anything." At this point a mutant-robot thing named Muff and his lover, Rhonda, a gay, eunuch worm with a mustache, crash the party. Have you had enough of all this wannabe "South Park" stuff yet? This entire massive second act of the movie goes on for so long that you might just forget that you are even watching a movie that is alleged to be about a killer turkey looking for his sequel. Long, drawn-out sketches that include such hilarious things as Jefferson trying to turn off a light switch with his "long pike" (a broomstick with a butter knife taped to the end) and Uncle Donnie's tale of how he lost his wife and child to wolves while trying to find parts for his original Pluckmaster machine turn a few good ideas into a massive trainwreck of epic proportions. At one point someone says "sounds like the longest and most boring story". Oh the irony. Jordan Downey, you said it, not me.

Eventually Turkie does turn up again killing Jefferson (off camera) and quipping "looks like he quit life - cold turkey!" Oh my sides, please stop! No really, please stop. After still more rambling dialogue, Turkie accidentally ends up in the Pluckmaster 1, the original prototype for the Pluckmaster 3000, and loses his penis in the process. Since he has no penis, he quickly assembles an attachment for his chainsaw (which has "chain carver" etched on the blade echoing the wittier "Excalibur" from 1990's TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III) and connects it to his stump, turning to the camera and saying "gravy". Yes, in late 2012 we have a poorly executed EVIL DEAD II spoof scene. Even worse, that is actually one of the better moments that we've had in the last hour of watching this mess. I am not even joking.

Turkey and son (who has been embedded into the last DVD of THANKSKILLING 2 - don't ask) flee to Turkey Hell (located inside the oven), a swirling blue portal is opened up in Muff's anus, a rubber cockroach on a wire-hanger that delivers dialogue like "I'm just roachin' around", and some other stuff happen, but... wait for it... that has nothing to do with anything. Downey and his new recruits, Mike Will Downey and Kevin Stewart, have a few great ideas, but not only can they not create a tangible film out of them, but they are happy to toss them aside in favor of strings of random non-sequitur "comic" sketches, such as a bit where Turkie takes a ride on an animated seagull "taxi" who ridicules Turkie about not being able to fly until Turkie decides to bail and get back to looking for his movie. Then there are a couple of moments where it seems like the cinematographer, Kevin Stewart, who can't write a script to save his life, comes up with some amazingly cool, psychedelic visuals that could have been the basis for a movie that rose above it's sub-high-school level writing and quite frankly could have been pretty damn awesome. Could have... I remember going to a new Greek fast food place a few years back and noticed the owner sitting at a table playing with his laptop. After he showed me all the precooked food in a steamtable (like falafels, which you never want to see in a steamtable), I asked if everything was made there. He said no, because "cooking is too much work".  This feels like the same thing. Making a movie is just too much work for these guys, and what do you get without a work ethic? Well you don't get my money a second time. Wait, this is the second time. Ok, well, you won't get my money a third time! Ha! Yeah, that'll show 'em.

Honestly. Would you give these guys money?

Produced after scraping together over $100K via a Kickstarter campaign, investors were promised "Blood, Puppets, & Explosions" and "the script is PACKED with laughs!!!" Uhhhh, yeah, there was one explosion, there is a little blood and I guess the technical definition of puppet is met as they are technically not required to be articulated. They can, in fact, be figures on rods being bounced up and down by someone's hand, much like an 8 year old kid playing with toys. Interestingly they kept pushing a "secret plot" gimmick on Kickstarter, but after watching the film, I'm pretty sure that they had no idea what the plot was going to be, even while writing the script. If this is what people are going to get from Kickstarter, I see a grim future for indy movies on the horizon. Not only did the video camera make it easier to make movies that are just thrown together in someone's back yard, but Kickstarter is now making it easier to get the money to make an outing that is as scatter shot as a melon under Gallagher's hammer, but can have a badass trailer.

A tedious chore to sit through, THANKSKILLING 3 actually throws away all of it's great ideas and a couple great scenes in favor of a pale imitation of Comedy Central sketch show programming, making the original film, which fumbled every pass, seem like a very coherent and well-made outing. Don't be fooled by the well-cut trailer that uses mostly footage from the opening credit sequence and the  admittedly excellent score. Too bad THANKSKILLING skipped it's own sequel, from what we see of it, it may have been a lot more fun than this.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Listomania: Will's November to Kinda Remember 2012

I’m actually returning to the land of Listomania because Tom was unable to post his first because he fainted when he heard I was doing a list.  November 2012 was an average month of movie viewing for me, I guess.  In total I saw 24 flicks.  That breaks down to 20 DVDs, 2 theater visits, 1 VHS viewing (UNDERGROUND TERROR) and 1 pay-per-view order (UNIVERSAL SOLIDER: DAY OF RECKONING).  I’ve been trying to watch stuff I’ve never seen before so this past month only 2 titles were revisits.  Here are a few of the newer ones that made an impression (good or bad) on me.

19 RED ROSES (1974) – This Danish thriller was a total Video Roulette grab, so it was nice that it turned out to be engaging.  Detective Archer (Poul Reichhardt) and his team begin to investigate a series of seemingly random killings (girl thrown off a roof, man shot in the woods, man shot in his store). As they dig deeper, they find out that all of the victims have something in common and soon William Brehmer (Henning Jensen), a mild mannered architect, is the main suspect.  This has been referred to as a Giallo from Denmark, but I think it has more in common with the police procedurals coming out of Hollywood at the time like THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN (1973; itself based on Swedish Martin Beck novel by Sjöwall and Wahlöö).  The first hour is probably the best the film has to offer as the viewer gets to try and unravel the mystery alongside the detectives.  After that, it is a bit more mundane as they set up a trap to nab the killer.  Reichhardt, mostly known for his comedic roles, is great as the lead detective and he has some funny bits with his team. The film ends with a nice touch by director Esben Carlsen that allows both the detective and his suspect to be sympathetic.  A sequel titled TERROR (1977) came out a few years later with the main cast returning, but it doesn’t look like it has been issued with subtitles anywhere.

THE DEAD ARE ALIVE (1972) – This one came from our buddy Jon Stone.  Don’t get your hopes up of seeing the beast featured on the U.S. poster to the right anywhere in this film.  This is definitely a giallo mystery and not a zombie flick. Archaeologist Jason Porter (Alex Cord) has located an Etruscan tomb, but that is the least of his worries at this point in his life.  He is also wrapped up in a love triangle with Myra (Samantha Eggar) and her composer husband Nikos (John Marley).  Wow, that is one ugly triangle!  You know your love life is in trouble when John Marley is your romantic rival.  Anyway, things go from bad to worse when someone (or something) starts offing folks from their circle and setting up Porter as the main suspect.  If you’ve seen enough giallos, you’ll probably figure this one out pretty early on.  But the film still benefits from a great cast and some really cool locations in Italy.  The highlights are a car chase through the narrow city streets and a stylized flashback that explains the killer’s motive.

LOOPHOLE (1981) – Thief Mike Daniels (Albert Finney) plans to break into the biggest bank in England for one last haul.  His team sets up a false office in order to interview architects with the idea they can coax the suitable candidate into mapping out their underground digging job.  Down-on-his-luck American Stephen Booker (Martin Sheen) seems to be the ideal candidate for the job, but he scoffs at the idea of being a criminal. That is until he finds out his wife (Susannah York) reallllly wants to start up her interior decorating business. OH NOES!  So he descends (literally) into a life of crime in order to finance her dream.  The “loophole” of the title refers to the fact they will break into the vault through the ground and set off a motion detector, but when the cops arrive they will see no one inside the bank and think it is glitch.  I’m a sucker for bank heist pictures for some reason and this one definitely falls into that category.  Unfortunately, while it has a great cast and is well made, it really takes no risks. There is some tension in the final third as rain starts to flood the sewer system and the men must rush to get out, but even that is handled rather mundanely.  Sheen also sticks out like a sore thumb and it is easy to believe the role was written for a British fellow (his wife is a Brit after all) and then changed to an American to increase potential markets. Still, it is worth a look at least once if you loves you some men digging in confined spaces.

SILVER BEARS (1978) – Okay, now maybe I’ll be more forgiving to LOOPHOLE.  A Las Vegas mob boss (Martin Balsam) comes up with an ingenious way to launder money – buy a bank! He sends pal Doc Fletcher (Michael Caine) to Switzerland to buy a bank with the help of local contact Prince Gianfranco di Siracusa (Louis Jordan). Along for the ride is the kingpin's wayward son Albert (Jay Leno). Prince Siracusa has a deed for a bank (really a rundown apartment over a pizza parlor) and then things get complicated when his “cousins” (Stéphane Audran and David Warner) want Fletcher to buy in on their Iranian silver mine. Also figuring into this are a banking exec (Tom Smothers) and his ditzy wife (Cybill Shepherd). Ouch! Caine has been upfront about his taking roles for their locations (paid vacation!) and I can't think of any other reason he would have taken this. It is billed as a comedy-thriller, yet manages to never be funny or thrilling. You would think with such a cast that some sort of sparks would fly, but this nearly 2 hour flick is a bore. It doesn't help that the main plot twist doesn't kick in until 90 minutes in (even though you've guess it when it is introduced) and the tricks to swindle some buyers turns into an anti-THE STING. Lots of moments of people talking...and talking...and talking. It says something when the comic highlight is Caine accidentally dropping a breakfast egg in his lap. I lay it all firmly at the feet of director Ivan Passer, who thinks having such a capable cast can immediately pass for a top notch film. Definitely not the case. I'm sure Caine's wife thanks him though.    

UNDERGROUND TERROR (1989) – Continuing on my love of movies set beneath the city as evidenced above, we have this low budget NYC action flick.  John Willis (Doc Dougherty) is a renegade cop who doesn’t play by the rules (original!). This is established in the opening ten minutes when he blows away the drug dealers who had killed his partner (shockingly, this occurs pre-movie).  He soon finds himself dealing with a new kind of scum when a series of unusual murders start occurring on the subway platforms.  They are being pulled off by Boris Pinscher (Lennie Loftin), a renegade mental patient who also doesn’t play by the rules.  This is established in the opening ten minutes when he threatens to kill his roommate before being released. Boris leads a ragtag group of folks who live in the subway system and like to kill folks every now and then.  Despite his the police chief (who is black, of course) putting him on suspension, Willis teams with reporter Kim Knowles (B.J. Geordan) to put a stop to these human rats. This is definitely no C.H.U.D., but if you get a hankering for some NYC lensed locations than UNDERGROUND TERROR will fill you up.  The acting is pretty rough and the plot is dopey (no joke, the killers learn of the reporter after she leaves her camera with her name on it in their lair), but it wasn't an excruciating 90 minutes at all.  I'm just happy to know someone actually named a villain Boris Pinscher.

JACK THE RIPPER (1976) - As fact based an examination of the 19th century’s most notorious serial killer that you will ever see…or maybe not. Jess Franco gives ol’ Spring Heeled Jack the Franco treatment, which involves playing fast-and-furious with the facts. Dr. Orloff (Klaus Kinski) spends his days helping the needy and his nights offing the seedy, thanks mostly to a psychosexual relationship he had with his mother (no wonder Kinski was attracted to this).  He also has the hots for ballerina Cynthia (Josephine Chaplin, no doubt making her dad proud), who just happens to be the love of Inspector Selby (Andreas Mannkopff), the chief inspector on the Jack the Ripper case.  This was made during a period of time where Franco was actually given some money to work with so the production actually has some good photography and nice period costumes.  If you’re hoping for a thorough examination of the case, you might want to turn elsewhere though (we’d suggest the 80s TV movie starring Michael Caine).  This film is just an excuse to show lots of flesh and blood in a 1880s setting.  Among the highlights of this film’s wacky Jack history – a fisherman pulled a victim’s hand from the river; the ballerina went undercover on her own volition to catch Jack to take the heat off her boyfriend inspector; and Jack the Ripper was arrested without incident.  History Channel this ain’t.  Of course, it is all made worthwhile when a police artist does this sketch of Kinski from various witness testimonies.