Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Halloween Havoc: DARA'S HOME (2009) aka MACABRE

"Jakarta... shit... still in Jakarta..."
I think that was my mouth that mumbled those words. There wasn't anyone else around that I could see. I had to have been me. The air conditioner whirring, chopping the air, drying the beads of sweat that were boiling on my forehead without cooling the fever in my brain. I don't have a mirror, but if I did, it would be smashed. I knew I shouldn't have taken that Indonesian Yuzna. Two doses of tedium cut with cliche and mono-dimensions. It was some heavy shit. Put the monkey on you. A monkey that howls and bites your ears as if to annoy the very depths of your being, leaving marks that will never allow you forget. I never should have done it, but regret is like a two-bit hooker on a back-alley that I can't afford, neither by way of my wallet nor my psyche. I did it and it's done. I watched the first full-length Mo Brother's film and I can't undo that.

You may remember me babbling about TAKUT (2008) an Indonesian psuedo-anthology that contained an excellent short titled DARA by a couple of guys, Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, who call themselves The Mo Brothers. I find filmmakers who give themselves nicknames to be more annoying than a hipster on crack, but the short was stylish, tight, and perfectly played out by the cast. A year or so later, no doubt due to the success of the short, The Mo Brothers decided that their follow up would be a... wait for it... feature film based on the short. Not a sequel, not a remake, but a sort of weird melange of the original actors and vague themes from the short inserted into what appears to be a Michael Bay screenplay. "The horror... the horror." Indeed.

A group of friends are on a roadtrip to Jakarta, from some place that is presumably not near Jakarta, and after an altercation in a restaurant, nearly run over a girl standing out in the rain. Hooboy, you know this will not en...zzzzzzzz *snork* whu-huh? Oh yeah, sorry. Yes, the girl, Maya (Imelda Therinne) is a little weird, but since Eko (Dendy Subangil) thinks she's kinda hot, the group grudgingly decides to give her a ride home. Of course home is a little out of the way and as it turns out, is a ways off the highway. Stop me if you've heard this one before. A group of tweens walk into a house... the house is decorated in animal skeleti and Maya introduces her mother, the unblinking, perpetually smiling Dara (Shareefa Daanish). Dara insists that they all stay for dinner. She has a special meal that she wants to prepare for them, in celebration of the safe return of her daughter, who was like two miles away and not even in danger of getting wet since she had an umbrella.

After much akward dialogue, the group agrees to stay for dinner. Adjie (Ario Bayu) and his pregnant fiancee Astrid (Sigi Wimala) decide to relax in a room, Maya and Eko also head upstairs while the rest eat dinner, only to find out that their wine has been drugged and that they are now tied up in the basement. It's no spoiler to say that one by one the kids are killed off until the remainder can get free and fight back. Besides, a life-threatening wound and the loss of several quarts of blood doesn't stop anyone from getting back in the fight.

Firstly you'll notice that instead of the silky, stylish Argento-esque visuals of the short, we now have the faux-cinéma vérité hand-held, grainy "Texas Chainsaw Cam" mixed with Raimi-esque POV shots. Second you will notice that the whole anti-TAMPOPO food-seduction horror of the short is but a distant memory. The only lingering close-ups we get now are of screaming, crying faces and blood-gushing wounds. Not that the latter is bad for a horror movie, but after a while, it gets rather monotonous when there's nothing else to engage with.

Seasoned video veterans will no doubt identify with the experience of forgetting about seeing a movie in the past and slowly realizing that you have seen the movie before while watching it. That pretty much sums up the feeling you'll have with DARA'S HOME on your first go round. In a lot of cases, we have seen it before... only in different movies. The Mo Brother's reference to Argento is here, instead of the lush camerawork (something that I have no problem with others paying homage to), it is represented by the metal stiletto in Dara's hair that looks very similar to the iconic metal peacock feather used by Jessica Harper in SUSPIRIA (1977) and is, in fact, used to stab someone in the neck. Taking the "if we did it once and it was good, doing it two dozen times, will make it great" line of thought, Dara's little head-cock bit, stolen blatantly from Michael Meyers in HALLOWEEN (1978), and trademarked side-long look was kind of cool once, but for some reason they decided to have her do it in EVERY. SINGLE. DAMN. SCENE. The set design seems to be inspired by the TEXAS CHAINSAW remakes, people are tortured while tied to chairs, Dara's fat son slowly licks the face of his female captive, a chainsaw fight, and the list goes on.

Suddenly, near the end of the movie there is some strangely pointless references to Dara being much older than she appears (we find this out because a policeman stumbles across a film projector, already set up, containing an old home movie of Dara training her kids to kill a man tied to a chair). We also find out (*SPOILERS*) that she has been capturing and killing wayward travelers for over 100 years, selling their meat and cellphones (!), to wealthy people who wish to stay young. Apparently babies are best for this as she gives Astrid a tonic at the beginning of the film to induce premature labor, allowing for a charming scene in which Astrid's water breaks all over the floor. None of this adds anything to the film in the final act, except to make you wish that some of the non-plot about the family being older than they look had been handed out earlier in the film. At least it would give the impression that there was more going on than a by-the-numbers torture porn flick that still thinks they are doing something novel by covering a set in fake blood.

Within the past few years The Mo Brothers have contributed to V/H/S/2 (2013) and THE ABCS OF DEATH (2012) and have been hyping their perpetually "coming soon" new project KILLERS (supposedly 2013), which will be their second feature. The only real plot details that are out there are basically it's two guys who nothing alike (one a serial killer, the other a journalist) coming together and entering on a violent "journey of self-discovery". Hopefully by then, I'll have my orders and can go up river.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Halloween Havoc: ZOMBIE: THE RESURRECTION (1998)

Welcome to our fourth annual Halloween Havoc blowout.  Believe it or not, this is the longest running theme on our blog, thanks mostly to it looseness in rules.  Throughout the entire month of October we’ll set our sights on the spooky and the splatter with an emphasis on obscurity.  What the world doesn’t need is another review of HALLOWEEN (1978) or FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980); what it does need are reviews of films so incomprehensible that they make you question all of your life choices. So I’m kicking the entries off in style with something I boldly proclaim will easily be the worst thing reviewed this month.  That is, unless, Tom decides he suddenly needs to watch an Eli Roth movie.

At one point in the early 1990s, Germany seemed like it was going to be the future of horror.  Jörg Buttgereit was wowing fans with NEKROMANTIK; Andreas Schnaas was earning a reputation for his shot-on-video VIOLENT SHIT series; and Olaf Ittenbach was showing off his FX wares in stuff like BLACK PAST and THE BURNING MOON. Unfortunately, this revolution encouraged every German with access to a video camera and a gallon of fake blood to throw their Tyrolean into the ring.  The end results were something like ZOMBIE: THE RESURRECTION, a shot-on-video movie so bad that I completely blocked it from my memory.  That bad news?  Since I couldn’t remember it, I decided to watch it again. Damn you, Herr Alzheimer!

The “film” opens with text over a destroyed city talking about how war broke out in 2015.  A big ass bomb called “Final Destroy” was used and it somehow resurrected the dead. Nice job not living up to your name, Mr. Bomb.  We open with a guy in a green biohazard suit telling a couple to run for their lives in the woods (yes, the green trees are a flourishin’ despite nuclear war).  The biohazard guy is then bitten by a black zombie that looks like Grace Jones on a bender.  The undead eater chomps on him for a few minutes in a scene that goes on and on and on before he shoots the damn thing. We then cut to a group of folks (led by writer/producer/co-director Holger Breiner) also in bio-suits who are running around a dilapidated house looking for survivors.  They find two women and rescue them.  Naturally, someone has to get bit and a few guys go down in the ensuing chaos.  This means more scenes of screaming and blood spurting that goes on and on and on.

More onscreen text informs us that the year is now 2017 and some survivors have made it to safety in the woods.  We then meet Jill (Tanja Reiter), who is swimming nude in the lake.  I guess she was one of the rescued ladies (connecting dots isn’t the filmmakers strong suit) and we see a zombie in white boxer shorts creeping up to her.  Oh, by the way, this is when the title of the film finally comes up.  Yes, the film’s title appears at roughly the 18 and a half minute mark…in a film that runs 55 minutes.  Anyway, she apparently survives (we never see what happens to that zombie approaching her) as she is shacked up in a bunker with Steve (Oliver van Balen), Joe and Anne.  Steve, looking like a bloated Rutger Hauer, decides to head out to a nearby Air Force radio tower to see if he can contact other survivors.  We then get a scene where some random dude is attacked by five zombies and killed.  Yeah, we’ll be getting lots of RDs (random dudes) and random zombies in this one. Back at the bunker, Joe and Anne have sex. Back in the woods, two more RDs get attacked by zombies.  Back at the bunker, Joe gets a survivalist-style shower while Jill complains of their soup which contains snakes and rats. Back in the woods, Steve reaches the communications tower, but we never know what happens as we don’t see him go into it.  Back at the bunker, zombies attack and Joe is killed. Jill and Anne run off and then Anne gets killed.  Some more RDs get killed as well.  Jill gets cornered by some zombies, but is saved by Steve in the nick of zeit.  They walk off hand-in-hand but get confronted by a…wait for it…random zombie. We freeze on their shocked faces. The end!


Knowing that I own this video will give you a peek into just how bad my video habit was at one time.  Yes, there was a point in my life when I saw a listing for a SOV German zombie film that runs less than an hour with no subtitles and I immediately thought, “Gee, I should really check this out.” To add insult to injury, I purchased this from Video Search of Miami back in the day when I paid to be a member to have the “privilege” to order a VHS dupe for $25.  Now to add salt and lemon juice to that injury, the bootleg even had the VCR timer left on (see pics).  Ah, quality.  ZOMBIE: THE RESURRECTION is a torturous affair.  Officially ending at the 50 minute mark (with 5 minutes of credits to pad it to still non-feature length), it seemed like it went on for days even when using the film enhancement button (fast forward) during the laborious zombie attacks.  Co-directors Breiner and Torsten Lakomy have no idea on how to even stage a clever zombie attack.  If you should watch this (please don’t, I beg you) notice in the end attacks how the two women will run into the frame, only to be surprised by zombies popping up in front of them.  Now, I’m no Hitchcock, but wouldn’t screen logic dictate the women would see those zombies on the ground in front of them?  On a technical level, it is a nightmare with terrible camerawork and hissing audio.  Even if my German is rustier than the metal bookshelves in Hitler’s bunker, I still had trouble understanding what characters were saying due to the horrible audio on here.  Truth be told, I’m sure you and your friends have made films very similar to this where you run around the woods and have people attacked.  The only difference is you had to the good sense not to release your weekend exploits commercially.  Believe it or not, this actually got released on DVD in the last few years in an edition limited to 666 copies.  It is now out-of-print.  Consider yourself lucky.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Happy Birthday Reggie Bannister!

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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Defective Detectives: FRENCH QUARTER UNDERCOVER (1986)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cyber Monday: LEGION OF THE NIGHT (1995)

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

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

James Hetfield, Mob Enforcer:

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

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

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

Conditions under which I was forced to watch this again:

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

Sunday, September 15, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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