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!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

December to Dismember: THE BLACKOUT (2009)

One of my favorite films is ALIEN (1979). Not exactly a shocker, it's been somewhat popular over the years, from what I understand. One of the many things I like about it is the fact that created a template for the modern monster movie, by being a reworking of the "old dark house" films. Better still that template meant cheap, exploitation knock-offs. Suddenly, black, toothy creatures with no love for peanut butter candies were tearing up humankind from astronauts to hillbillies. Actually more like astronauts or hillbillies. Until now...

Christmas in Los Angeles can be hell. A massive heatwave of over 100º causes rolling brownouts and constant tremors shake the city threatening to cause hair to fall out of place. Regardless of this, the residents of the Ravenwood apartment complex in downtown LA are throwing a Christmas party and have invited the neighbors. Note this is a Christmas party, not a birthday party and nobody says "my hair stinks" (mainly because they are in LA and nobody has bad hair). Invited to the party are the uber-douchey married couple, Daniel and Elizabeth (Barbara Streifel Sanders and Joseph Dunn) who are barely tolerating an allegedly homeless, alcoholic loser brother-in-law Dylan (Ian Malcolm), who actually looks quite fit and healthy and is stylishly dressed and coiffed. I guess it is LA, so even barflies have to look good. So how do the filmmakers express that he's a deadbeat? He farts while sleeping on the sofa in the afternoon. Brilliant, right? If Sergei Eisenstein had been able to use sound, I have no doubt that someone would have farted during the Odessa Steps sequence. Naturally, they decide also to have him show heroic qualities once the proverbial shit goes down.

Next up is the uber-douchey trendy couple. He wears a small-brim fedora and she wears one of those low-cut, quasi-maternity blouses that were all the rage back in the pre-twenty teens. Oh and it doesn't stop there. We have another couple in their early 30s who are constantly fighting and on the verge of a divorce, we have a George Zimmerman wannabe who shows up at the party with his presumably adopted brother (Ace Gibson) that nobody likes and two loaded glocks. Guess which one is perceived as worse? Right. It's LA, guns are fine, it's the socially awkward black man that is the pariah of the party.

Tonight we're going to party like it's 2009
Why nobody likes this guy is ever explained, also unexplained is why people keep saying they know who this roid-rage gun-nut is. Who is he? Who knows? Certainly not the audience. If this hadn't been made three years prior to the Zimmerman case, I'd say they were making a statement of some kind, but no. Screenwriter Jim Beck (who went on to script a few episodes of a new "Pink Panther" cartoon series the following year) is aiming for simultaneously higher and lower brow stuff. Oh yeah, and there's the Super, who is from London, his electrician, another maintenance guy, a nerd who has his apartment set up with "high-tech" ham radio set-up... am I forgetting any of these utterly forgettable characters?

The audience reacts to the dialogue scenes
With all of these characters, I'm sure screenwriter Jim Beck was thinking that he was breaking into Robert Altman territory, when in fact he is simply creating an abattoir of subplots that never go anywhere and are simply more vehicles for his pre-SAT level dialogue. Honestly, it takes a lot to get me to bitch about dialogue in a monster movie. Oh wait, did I not tell you? Yes, this is supposed to be a monster movie. It will be, but it sure does take a while to get there. Meanwhile we have to wade through exchanges that are painful to listen to. For example, when we are being introduced to the trendy couple whose names I can't even be bothered to remember: 
Guy: "Tell me again why we have to go to this thing?"
Girl: " I told you."
Guy: "Oh yeah, right, so everybody can check out your rack and you get promoted."
Girl: "[explains how the job is really important to her]...besides you love checking out this rack."
Guy: "I told you, you don't have to work, I can support you."
Girl: "And then I'd have to blow you, like every day. What would that make me?"
Guy: "Full?"
It doesn't get any better than this folks! Of the film's 78 minutes, this sort of thing comprises nearly an hour of it.

The action finally kicks in when the married couple send their son, by himself during brownouts and earthquakes, down to retrieve a Christmas present that's been locked in a trunk that is just sitting in the middle of the empty basement of the highrise. Of course if you've seen THE ALIEN'S DEADLY SPAWN (1983) or any other monster movies with a basement, you know what happens next. Apparently in addition to everything else the rumblings are causing fissures to open up in the earth and one has cracked a hole in the basement floor allowing a big nasty, toothy creature that looks incredibly familiar, to invade the complex. It takes a while for the parents to start wondering what the hell happened to their kid, dad manages to misplace the daughter as well and heads back to the apartment as the creature attacks the party. Presumably attracted by sounds of merriment, or possibly just annoyed by all of the cliches. Cliches such as the survivors of the attack running over to the married couple's apartment and having a confrontation ala NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968). The final half of the movie consists of the survivors running up and down stairs (and ultimately a CG elevator shaft) with the creature picking off stragglers one by one while they alternately panic and discuss theories as to what these things are (turns out there is more than one).

In spite of the community theater acting and the 8th grade script, the movie is surprisingly watchable. It feels like it should be headlining an After Dark film fest. It's that... uhhh... good. Perhaps it's due to the fact that everything feels like it was copped straight out of the '80s. The opening title sequence (which amusingly powers down briefly), showing a view of earth from space with lights winking out in a wave is effective in setting the stage for what is to come and is reminiscent of the opening of John Carpenter's THE THING (1982). The highrise setting was huge in the '80s with DEMONS 2 (1986), POLTERGEIST III (1988), and GREMLINS 2 (1990) to name a few. The alien is cool enough, but an obvious Giger rip-off and the even the idea of having this horror happen on Christmas is an '80s convention. The most disappointing part is that the Christmas setting is barely even utilized. You'd think, if it's Christmas there would be, I don't know, Christmas decorations everywhere? Sure, we get a random Christmas trees at the alleged Christmas party, but that's it! You'd think that someone would maybe bleed out under the mistletoe or maybe be feasted on in the middle of a nativity scene, but sadly there is none of that '80s juxtaposing the (alleged) joyous holiday with the horror at hand.

The cinematography for a digital feature is more than adequate, although the dreaded shakey-cam rears it's head, and the creature and gore effects are surprisingly good. Though, honestly, if you can't nail down a good camera man and effects team in freakin' Los Angeles, you shouldn't give up your day job. The big let-down here is that some of the gore is practical and some is CG. Clearly they couldn't afford to hire Weta Digital, so we end up with some really lamentable gags. Some of the CG looks even worse than they normally would because the director (Robert David Sanders, also of "Pink Panther and Friends" fame) has a cheap, crappy CG effect directly following a nicely executed practical effect. The bad CG ending is actually rather bleak, which is pretty cool, but I feel like I've seen it a million times before. This feeling of deja vu permeates the movie with children in peril, drunks redeeming themselves,  and couples professing eternal love before being killed, not to mention the fact that the title BLACKOUT has been used by at least 30 feature films and scores of shorts over the past century of filmmaking. Plus there's that Scorpions album. I guess that is to be expected since it was made in the shadow of Hollywood by folks who mostly work in children's television. As much of a mixed bag as it is, it's surprising that this has never shown up in the US. Like I said before, it would be perfect fodder for After Dark and would be right at home in NetFlix's new streaming line-up.

Friday, December 6, 2013

December to Dismember: SAINT (2010)

Damn, it’s nearly a week into December and we haven’t rolled out any Christmas-themed reviews. Please accept our sincerest apologies. Truthfully, it is getting harder and harder to find stuff to review around this time of year as the Christmas horror output is pretty nil and we don’t want to be a blog boring you with yet another review of BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980), or SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984).  We try to strive for something a bit different and today’s flick definitely fits that bill.

True story: I spent most of the 1980s living in Germany thanks to my dad’s occupation.  We living in Berlin for 5 years and Munich for 3 years; both times we lived, as they said, “in the economy,” which meant our house was off base and among the Germans.  It was cool, but I’ll never forget when our German neighbors across the street told me about Saint Nikolaus.  See, I grew up on tales of jolly old Santa Claus, whose biggest offense against bad kids was leaving them a lump of coal.  St. Nikolaus was another deal.  As told to me by the German kids, you left one shoe out by your bedroom door on December 6th and St. Nikolaus would fill it with goodies if you had been a good boy or girl. But if you had been bad, he wouldn’t leave you coal.  He would burst into your room and throw you into a sack and kidnap you!  Yeah, ‘twas a stressful night.  At the time I didn’t know about the dark Pagan origins of our beloved Santa and never knew that St. Nick could be one brutal mofo.  This tradition continues to this day in Europe and provides the basis for Dick Maas’ 2010 killer Saint Nick flick, SAINT.

The film opens in December 1492 with Saint Niklas (Huub Stapel) and his men riding into a snowy village and taking money and children while leaving a demand for more.  The incensed villagers head to the Saint’s boat at night and burn him and his crew alive. Cut to December 1968 and a small family is enjoying the Sinterklaas activities with carols and television watching.  Young Goert is sent to check on the unruly pigs in the barn and spots a man on a horse on the roof.  He returns to house to find his family – from dad to his younger siblings – gorily slashed to bits. Damn, this is a pretty badass way to open a Christmas horror film.  Dick Maas is baas! We then cut to modern day Netherlands and a group of supposed college kids…ah, goddamn it.

This pack of annoying youngsters is first seen exchanging gifts in their classroom as pranks (apparently it is perfectly okay and normal to give girls dildos as the teacher mentions they broke the previous year’s record). Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber) is unceremoniously dumped by his girlfriend Sophie (Escha Tanihatu), who doesn’t know he was sorta, kinda seeing her BFF Lisa (Caro Lenssen).  Damn, can we start the killing already?  On the way home, Sophie tells Laurie Strode…er, Lisa the legend behind St. Niklas attacking kids on a full moon.  Now why a Dutch girl in late teens/early twenties has never heard this story is beyond me.  Meanwhile, running around town is Christmas obsessed Dr. Loomis…er, grown up Christmas obsessed Goert (Bert Luppes).  He is now a cop and keeps wondering why his superiors aren’t acting on his inch-thick “St. Niklas is evil and going to kill us all this year” dossier.  To show you how serious this dude is, his first scene has him shooting a Xmas present left on his desk.  He’s serious.

Of course, Goert is put on administrative leave after that incident and it is bad news because his prediction is dead on.  It is another full moon tonight and that doesn’t bode well for our teens. The first to go are actually a couple of policemen who magically see the Saint’s burnt boat materialize in the harbor. Okay, Maas is letting us know he’s seen THE FOG (1979) as well. Naturally, the Saint and his “Black Peter” helpers first make their way to Sophie’s house and kill her while she is on the phone with Lisa. He then takes his murderous crew out to find Frank and his two pals, who are dressed as Saint Nick and his Black Peter helpers.  Frank is the only one that lives and drives smack into the police, who immediately suspect him of Sophie’s murder.  Meanwhile, the police chief starts getting reports of a creepy Saint figure riding on rooftops and sends his top man to go find Goert.  With Frank in custody, two cops see Saint Nick riding on the rooftops (in some really poorly done CGI work) and he literally falls into their laps when they shoot his horse, it falls through the ceiling into a gay couple’s home, collapses the floor, falls out the window, and smashes onto the squad car.  Again, Frank is the only one who survives and is almost killed by Saint Nick before being saved by Goert with a flamethrower. You see, this evil killer hates fire (understandable).  Naturally, Goert and Frank team up to blow up the Saint’s ship and end this evil once and for all.

Running a scant 85 minutes, SAINT (original title: SINT, US re-titling: SAINT NICK) is ten minutes of awesome followed by seventy-five minutes of tedium.  Director Dick Maas is probably best known to American viewers for his two 80s horror films: THE LIFT (1983) – which he remade in English as DOWN (2001) – and the excellent AMSTERDAMNED (1988). Both films showcased a guy with a real talent for composing great shots and a nice hand at handling action.  SAINT definitely benefits from the former, but falls flat on nearly every level after that.  The biggest mistake is obviously the scripting, which feels that that it can just throw the evil Saint into any scenario – such as the teen slasher framework here – and that is fine. Maas had a great opportunity to put the scary back in Saint Niklas but seems to botch the opportunity (interestingly, the film’s poster actually caused a fuss when it was first released).

What it really needed to do was concentrate on the cop character as he brings the most drama to the situation. Another mistake is the casting of Stapel, a veteran of every Maas production. When I first heard that the scenario would involve a cop chasing a zombiefied Saint Nick, I got jolly visions of Stapel speeding down the canals of Amsterdam, guns a blazing.  Instead, he is the villain, hidden under a ton of make up and not given a single line. Ouch.  As a result, we are stuck with annoying teens on screen for a majority of the running time and I think even the Dutch would be quickly fed up with these punks.  Even odder is the set up – Maas was obviously looking at John Carpenter’s work and you expect Lisa to be the “final girl” of the film.  Yet, oddly, she just disappears halfway through the film and only reappears toward the end.  I’d like to say it was Maas trying to get creative with the genre clichés, but it isn’t.  To be fair, SAINT does have a few things going for it (the unique way he uses his staff to decapitate someone is awesome), but it is too much naughty and not enough nice.  Naturally, this means I have to throw Maas into a sack and beat him with a stick.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Obscure Oddities: To HELLFIRE and Back!

“If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it”
                                    – Dashiell Hammett

The film HELLFIRE entered my life like my old girlfriends – namely, it caught me unaware, slapped me in the face and screamed, “Pay attention to me!”  This happened via a full page advertisement (see left) that appeared in an American Film Market issue of Variety in February 1986.  I first spied the ad in 2008 and was instantly intrigued by the subtle combination of sci-fi and exploitation.  Oh, and the naked girl.  A quick cross reference of the actors listed brought up the info that it had been re-titled PRIMAL SCREAM and put out by Magnum Home Video in 1987.  Thanks to the power of eBay, I soon had a copy.

My initial viewing of it left me mystified.  While the plot was a tad confusing (“I hope I never have to sit on a bench in a court to weed out who is who and what was going on,” director William J. Murray amusingly confessed), there was much to admire about the film.  Although low budget, it was ambitious in nearly every department despite being made outside of Hollywood.  The screenplay was filled with twists and turns as sharp as the dialogue as futuristic private eye Corby McHale (Kenneth McGregor) tries to figure out what is going on with a new killer fuel codenamed Hellfire.  Matching the ambitious nature of the script, the director provided plenty of visual style in assembling his grimy future.  So it shocked me to find out that Murray had made just one lone feature and, like a victim of Hellfire, seemingly vaporized.

A halfhearted investigation to find Murray began but Google always lead me either to a Christian minister or everyone’s favorite Ghostbuster.  The trail picked up earlier this year (5 years later!) when internet sleuth Bill Picard noticed a new credit on Murray’s IMDb page.  Yes, my own version of Corby McHale had cracked the case for me.  After some emails through acquaintances, I did indeed reach the William J. Murray I was looking for this past summer.  Not only was he more than willing to talk about the film, he was also still in touch with Keith Reamer, the film’s editor and major player in the making of the movie.  And almost serendipitously, he informed me that my timing was near perfect as this fall marked the 30th anniversary of the beginning of filming of HELLFIRE.  So this, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of how one ambitious young man and a group of friends learned to make and release a feature film, their cinematic trial by (hell)fire.

William Murray was born in Northfield, New Jersey in the late 1950s.  Like any healthy kid growing up in the 1960s, Murray developed a sci-fi and horror film addiction.  His pusher went by a name familiar to thousands of kids: Forrest J. Ackerman. Yes, it was the old “Famous Monsters of Filmland” that got his creative juices flowing and it was Murray’s cousin Michael who provided the initial dose. “He subscribed to it before I subscribed to it,” Murray reveals. “He lived in Philly and I lived down near Atlantic City.  We’d visit each other in the summers and he had some early issues.  We saw that kids were getting their parents’ 8mm cameras and making movies.”

Murray was soon joining the ranks of his fellow Famous Monsters filmmaking brethren, focusing his eye on a Keystone 8mm camera with a triple lens configuration that a local photographer had for sale for $35. “I can remember saving money like crazy when I was 12 or 13 and then that was it, we were off,” he recalls.  “We did a thing called MONSTER RAMPAGE, which was a ten minute Godzilla movie. Then we did a sci-fi thing called T-MINUS 24 HOURS, which had a revolving cast.”  As he grew older, the film projects grew in size and scope, including an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND which featured future THE SIMPSONS producer David Mirkin as the lead vampire.

By the time college rolled around, Murray had found his passion and looked to a future in filmmaking. Initial plans to attend school in New York were dashed due to an illness in the family and he instead enrolled in Bucks County Community College located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  The school suited Murray fine as it had a healthy film program and he eventually met two men –Richard Heierling and Thom Parkin – with whom he would begin a collaborative relationship.  Like John Carpenter and Don Dohler before him, Murray didn’t just aim high he literally reached for the stars with his debut, by choosing to do an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic sci-fi novel RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA.  “This was crazily enough the year STAR WARS (1977) came out,” he says. “So science fiction was everything in the fucking world at that point.”

“We were doing it in such a rinky dink way,” Murray explains of his first major film project. “We partnered and bought two Bolex cameras – an electric one for synch [sound] and wind up one to do single frame for special effects.  I would say we achieved maybe two thirds of it. We wrote a script and built the sets and the models.  I still have all the black and white stuff. It was shot in reversal.  We didn’t know what we were doing, but some of it looked really great.  And we put enough together to actually convince someone to say, ‘Wow, you really know what you are doing. Where can we take this further?’  And that was the idea.”

Also in the late ‘70s, Murray entered in the exhibition end of movies. He started working at the Tilton Theatres that he used to frequent as a kid and through an unfortunate circumstance (the manager died of heart attack while on vacation) ended up becoming the manager.  A few years later, Murray and some friends leased an empty theater and opened Stage Door Cinema, an art house theater that specialized in foreign and cult films. Unbeknownst to Murray at the time, the avenue of theatrical exhibition would be fortuitous to the genesis of HELLFIRE.

Around the same time, Murray met a fellow film enthusiast by the name of Keith Reamer, who would also be instrumental to the film’s production and eventually be HELLFIRE’s editor.  “He was just getting out of the University of Bridgeport at that time,” he explains.  “We found a lot of things in common.  We kept hanging out.  I showed him my stuff, he showed me his stuff.”

Eventually the two men decided to give feature filmmaking a try. Their initial projects were more exploitative in nature – Reamer wrote a film called BODY COUNT and Murray penned a teen horror film titled BOARDWALK BLOOD.  “That was something we kind of whipped together really quickly,” Murray explains.  “It is something that would never get done now because it opened with basically a theater massacre in one of the boardwalk theaters in Ocean City. We thought we’ll have a guy and he’ll shoot up the place and it’ll be cool.”

Reamer, who had a decidedly bigger interest in horror/exploitation cinema than Murray, was helpful in getting a meeting with New York’s first family of fringe filmmaking – the Mishkins. The duo headed into the city to meet with William Mishkin.  “He was exactly what you would expect an incredibly marginal, drive-in film producing guy to be like,” Murray reveals of Mishkin, who reigned supreme in a cluttered two room office.  “We were encouraged and let down.  He said ‘I’ve got to see what you can do. I need to see something finished and if you can get through all the hurdles that would be something.’ We were just not going to take no for an answer.”

The rejection led Murray and Reamer to drop the horror film idea and instead concentrate on a sci-fi detective project that Murray had been concurrently developing with friends.  This story turned out to be HELLFIRE.  With a budget of less than $400, Murray shot a 5 minute teaser in 16mm that would be used to interest potential investors in 1981.  Actor Steve Emhe was enlisted to essay the lead detective Corby McHale.  “We just did some action scenes and added some narration,” Murray reveals about the short.

Incredibly, a financing opportunity soon fell into Murray’s lap, or I should say lobby, in 1982.  “I actually had a guy who was putting video games into the lobby of the theater,” Murray explains. “We got to talking one day and I said, ‘Well, I’m originally a filmmaker’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’d love to see your work.’  He was putting in video games, not the top notch ones, but he was making some money.   He was from Philadelphia and he would come down and service them and we would get to talking.  He eventually asked, ‘What have you done?’”

The video game entrepreneur in question turned out to be Howard Foulkrod, the man who would eventually finance HELLFIRE.  Murray showed Foulkrod the HELLFIRE short along with bits of RAMA, which was enough to convince the Pennsylvania native to back these first-time filmmakers.  Things fell into place quickly after that.  “I got a hold of Keith and said, ‘We need a crew.  We need this and that.  We’re going to get funded,’” Murray says. “And then we just started whipping it together in the fall of 1982 and early 1983.  Keith pulled in a couple of people from the University of Bridgeport.  I even got my cousin, the one who got me interested in filmmaking, involved.”  

In terms of the crew, a wide variety of young local talent was recruited. Robert Zeier worked as a set designer for a theater company in West Point, New Jersey and was hired to do the film’s art direction. His wife, Francesca Chay, supplied the costumes (“We had to tame [her designs] down at every notion,” Murray says).  Dennis Peters was recruited to be the director of photography and Dan Karlok and Stan Mendoza as gaffers; Karlok eventually would take over the DP position.  And David Swift was given the Assistant Director title.

Assembling the script was a collaborative effort between Murray, Di Pietro, and Dan Smeddy, although Murray is only given credit on the final film.  “Yeah, oh boy, lucky me,” he jokes.  While BLADE RUNNER (1982) is often listed as an influence in reviews online, the concept actually predated the Ridley Scott film.  The group, however, did actually draw inspiration from another fictional detective – Harry Orwell.  “I was a huge HARRY O fan as was Dave Di Petrio,” Murray reveals of the cranky television detective played by David Janssen.  “The show had just gone off the air.”

With filming slated for the fall of 1983, Murray and his associates set about casting their film. “We put an ad in Backstage and rented a studio for two hours in New York City to see who will work for next to nothing,” he discloses.  “That’s where Ken came from.  That’s where Joe White, who is Nicky Fingers, came from. That’s where Jon Maurice, who played the police chief and was the nicest guy in the world, came from.”  When it came to the big haired femme fatale, only Murray’s own native New Jersey could provide such talent. “[Julie Miller], the woman who is the crazy blonde, came from there.  She was a revue star over in Atlantic City and she wanted anything to be in a movie. She did it for free.”

Perhaps the biggest name in the film is also the most surprising.  AD Swift managed to track down ‘50s and ‘60s character actor Mickey Shaughnessy.  Having starred opposite Elvis in JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957) and John Wayne in NORTH TO ALASKA (1960), Shaughnessy came out of retirement to play local bookie Charlie Waxman.  It would prove to be his final film role as he passed away shortly after filming.  

Free was the optimum word as the film began production for five weeks in the fall of 1983.  Any and all resources were exploited, such as grabbing some aerial shots when it became known that a projectionist who worked for Murray had a pilot’s license or using Foulkrod’s house for a location. According to Reamer, the crew would meet every morning at Murray’s mother’s house for day old pastries and slept four-to-a-room at his own parent’s house. Locations such as the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey were secured for no fee.  A majority of the crew worked on pay deferments, but everyone gave their all according to Murray.  “We said if we’re going to do this, we’re going to really try and do it,” he says.  “We’re going to throw everything in.  Every department needs to chuck it all in and see what happens.  It wasn’t a great A-level thing or great indie film or anything like that.  It was a genre piece and doing what we think we can do with it with effects and our surrounding resources.”

Continuity shot to maintain big hair:

The ability to get stuff on the cheap also allowed the filmmakers to add some futuristic production value with the inclusion of the tiny LiteStar cars featured in the film.  “Those guys were actually trying to produce them,” Murray reveals of the prototype futuristic cars showcased in his film.  “We had two of them.  They’re real. They had motorcycle engines and would ride on the road.”

The LiteStar car:

The initial shoot proved to be particularly challenging for the neophyte filmmakers.  In addition to organizing problems, it was physically grueling as the crew had to lug the heavy 35mm equipment from location to location.  Murray’s biggest problem, however, was in front of his behemoth of a camera.  Lead Kenneth McGregor proved to be a pain in the debuting helmer’s side, even going so far as to almost create a mutiny among the cast.  “He knew his position. He knew he was the star,” Murray reveals.  “So he was able to exert a certain amount of influence.  He’d do whatever he wanted to do and he’s constantly leaning on people like ‘hey, can you lend me twenty bucks.’  Of course, he was stuck in Atlantic City for weeks.  You take New Yorkers out of their natural element and you put them in a place as boring as 1980s Atlantic City and they’ll go out of their fucking minds.”

The cast & crew on location:

Now, both men are sympathetic to the lead actor’s plight.  “Thinking back, I can only think how clueless we were,” Reamer explains, “to expect these people to give up their lives, work in South Jersey for 5 weeks and get not a dime for a cup of coffee! Ken was completely right to hold us hostage, we got the message and we did the right thing. It took an ass like Ken to make a stand for the rest of the very nice, more submissive cast.”

An amusing anecdote, however, from the time of film did provide Murray with a bit of karmic justice for McGregor’s insubordination.  “We scheduled to do a daytime alley shot with Corby running with a gun drawn,” he explains.  “Before long somebody sees this white guy with a gun standing around and calls the cops.  They got Ken.  They grabbed him, threw him in the car.  Then they come and ask who is in charge.  I said ‘I guess I am’ and they threw me in the car.  I get in the car with Ken and he just fumed the whole time.  They took us to see the police commissioner and it is his last day on the job.  He’s drinking in his office and saying, ‘I love it when movies come to town.’  We lost a whole half a day, but managed to keep Ken out of jail.  The whole time I’m thinking, ‘Do not get into character here.  Don’t be going all method on these guys.’”

Director Murray on the set:

With filming completed just before Christmas 1983, Murray and company then spent 1984 getting the film into shape. They did 10 days of pick up shots and completed the FX and miniature work with long time friend David DiPietro from the early 8mm days with Murray’s cousin, while Reamer toiled away tirelessly on cutting his first feature.  Post-production was a long and arduous process that saw Foulkrod’s initial investment of $75,000 double.  Reamer credits the first-time producer as one of the main reasons the film got finished.  “He had a lot of money tied up, and he had no experience, but he brought a certain discipline to the project that helped us along,” he reveals.  “I am not completely sure the film would have ever been finished - at least finished by the year 1985 - without a Howard on board.”

Keith Reamer editing (or eating) HELLFIRE:

Instrumental to the post-production process was the guidance of long-time exploitation veteran Jerald Intrator.  Well into his 60s by the time he worked on HELLFIRE, Intrator had a long history in the low budget field.  He directed the Bettie Page burlesque classic STRIPORAMA (1953) and the Meg Myles sexploitation vehicle SATAN IN HIGH HEELS (1962).  He also famously imported (and added new footage to) titles such as THE CURIOUS DR. HUMPP (1969) and NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969). This would prove to be his final picture and the logo of his company Unistar graces the opening of the film.

By 1985, the film was done and they decided to shop it around.  They opted to put the film in the hands of Walter Manley Productions.  “We thought about this early on that we need to get an agent,” Murray explains of the decision process. “We all got a secondary education on how things get done.  They wanted to take the project on and it was a perfect fit for them.  It was a little better than some of their stuff and probably a little bit worse than some of their stuff.”

It was through Manley’s company that the film was sold worldwide with deals in the UK, Germany, Netherlands and Australia.  Although the film did end up going directly to video in the United States via the aforementioned Magnum, it was initially picked up with hopes of theatrical distribution by Florin Creative.  “The US distribution rights were picked up by Steve Florin, who ran a chain of theaters in New York state,” Reamer discloses. “Florin was brought to the project by indie-producer Jerald Intrator.”  It was Florin who was responsible ultimately for the title change from HELLFIRE to the less-descriptive, but equally grabbing PRIMAL SCREAM. At the end of the day, the producer got his money back and everyone got paid.  Anyone who’s read our pieces on independent filmmakers here on Video Junkie knows this is a very rare thing.

Believe it or not, the filmmakers didn’t have any sort of premiere for the cast and crew, though producer Foulkrod did go to Cannes to oversee its selling.  Murray got his chance to see it theatrically when he flew to the West Coast to catch a screening at the AFM.  With childhood buddy / ‘Simpsons’ Producer David Mirkin in tow, he was able to catch it on the big screen.

AFM screening:

Once the film got to market, Murray was exhausted and returned to his theatre job.  While he does still own a 35mm print of the film, he has long since lost track of who now owns the rights.  Bijouflix DVD announced the film in 2009 (for which underground auteur Damon Packard cut a trailer), but it never came to fruition. “At this point I’m totally unaware of who owns the rights to it,” he says candidly.  “It is the son that walked out the door that doesn’t come back.  You’re just glad he’s gone. That was a long time ago and that thing has kind of slipped away.”

Damon Packard trailer for PRIMAL SCREAM:

Variety review, May 14, 1986
(click to enlarge)

Murray didn’t lose the filmmaking bug though.  In 1991, he mounted his sophomore feature titled MILE ZERO. Despite having a sci-fi sounding title, this film was a complete 180 from his debut, a character drama inspired by the works of Hal Hartley that saw him reunite with DP Karlok.  “That was a tiny little character driven film,” he explains, “about a young woman who works at greenhouse in a small seaside town and is a cartoonist by want and desire.  She runs into a guy who is cute and turns out he is deaf.  That is about 85% finished.” While the film remains unfinished, the ever resourceful Murray is thinking of using the footage in one of the music videos he directs.  For the last five years, Murray has established himself as a freelance director /editor / videographer in New York City.

In the end, HELLFIRE emerged not only as a film, but as a great example of the low budget, outsider cinema where a group of creative people pool together. It also proved to be a valuable launching pad many of the people who worked on the film.  “It was a very big start for everybody,” Murray says.  “Other people were slowly getting into the industry. Everybody in that picture has worked in the industry almost exclusively.”  

DP Dennis Peters would go on to lens many other features and recently completed his own directorial debut, the thriller I’M NOT ADAM (2014); Stan Mendoza worked as a location manager for dozen of Hollywood movies in New York City; Dan Karlok continued gaffer and camera work and also moved into the director’s chair, directing episodes of LAW & ORDER and receiving a Grammy nomination for the documentary ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: THE MAKING OF “RIDE WITH BOB.”; David Swift continued to work as an electrician in the film industry; and Reamer would have a flourishing and diverse editing career climbing from PLUTONIUM BABY (1987) to the Sundance titles as I SHOT ANDY WARHOL (1996) and AMREEKA (2009).  “My experience with HELLFIRE was invaluable, and unforgettable,” Reamer adds. “In many ways, it made the rest of my career possible and I will always cherish its existence.”

HELLFIRE 30th Anniversary Reunion (left to right): 
David Swift, Stan Mendoza, Keith Reamer, Dan Karlok, William Murray

When asked about his feelings on HELLFIRE some 30 years after it began, Murray is levelheaded about the final product. “I guess there are a couple of moments where I still feel pretty good about certain things,” he says.  “It was really grasping for something that was just so far out of reach.  What you can do with so little and try to get so much out of it. It was a bunch of kids in their 20s.  And they didn’t strike gold like some people did, but our heart was in it.  I still have warmth about the whole thing.”

Many thanks to William Murray and Keith Reamer for their assistance in bringing this piece together.  To see Mr. Murray’s music video work, click here; to learn more about Mr. Reamer’s continued work as an editor, click here.  Also, thanks to EB Hughes and the tenacious Bill Picard for their help in locating the key player in this story. And, of course, Tom for saying, "You need to watch it again!"

 Alternate PRIMAL SCREAM poster:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Gweilo Dojo: TWIN DRAGON ENCOUNTER (1986)

How did I miss this one back in the day? This crazy Canuck kickboxing classic is so absurdly entertaining for so little money that even David Prior would have to doff his cap.

A couple of real life, blow-dried, porn-'stached, black belt, kickboxing sensei twins (Michael and Martin McNamara) play a couple of blow-dried, porn-'stached, black belt, kickboxing sensei twins name Mike and Mark who decide to leave the "Tw n Dragons" (sic) dojo and head out to their private island (!) with their girlfriends for a vacation. Of course they can't even get to the island without running into trouble. After leaving work, the brothers decide to meet each other at the beach after dark to solidify their plans. One of them (honestly, I am not sure which one) randomly parks his van in the dark in order to read a newspaper. Suddenly he hears screams coming from a nearby park and runs over to find some "scum" harassing a girl and her dog. We know they are scum because the twin dragon keeps trying to get their attention by yelling "Hey scum! Hey scum!" and out of nowhere the other twin shows up to help kick butt. The best part though is the main scum who seems to be attacking the girl, not so he can rape or kill her, but so he can hold her down and caress her face! Damn, that the problem with Canadians, they can't even properly assault innocent females. They can, however, assault innocent dogs, as our scum dude quickly snatches up the girl's dog when confronted by the twins! Not the dog! Oh he's a bad man.

As if this wasn't enough to set up the main plot, the guys with their girls in tow stop at a greasy spoon. Of course the boys have to prove their machismo by flirting with the waitress who playfully prods them by accusing them of being wild with the girls. To which one twin, oozing with sex appeal, quips "Girls? We don't see any girls. Just a couple of guys in drag!" In addition to being smoother than a glass of Kessler and a Barry White record, these guys just broke the fourth wall. How? Well, we know damn sure that this is a work of fiction because any real woman would give those losers a swift kick in the prairie oysters after a comment like that! Since this shockingly doesn't cause any trouble whatsoever, the truckers at the next table decide it's on them to stir up some action hurling viscous insults like "you better drink your milk and cookies boy, so you grow up big and strong" and "I drive a Mac truck, maybe I'll drive you!"

With priceless lines like those, I don't even care about the fights. This is fortunate because while the brothers may be legit badasses, they cannot choreograph a fight scene to save their lives. To compensate for this all of the fight footage, barring a few moments near the beginning and end, is in comical slow-motion. Still, once the truckers are laid out, we get one of the twins making their exit with the line "Confucius say: When fighting truckers, nail the suckers." Was Confucius drunk when he said that?

These guys would rather be sawing logs...
While unloading their stuff, a group of fatigue-clad hosers in a boat with the words "People's Private Army" crudely painted on the side, decide to hassle the girls and call the brothers kids! Why does everyone do that? After another slo-mo fight scene, the cigar-chewing, peroxide mohawked leader Jake (B. Bob - who?) declares war on the brothers! Well, at a later date anyway. Word has it that every year Jake leads a group of weekend commandos out to the area to hassle the locals and any time someone stands up to him, they disappear! Sounds like a job for the Twin Drago- uhhh, no, they really don't care. It takes gripping canoe confrontation and the reprehensible theft of their promotional poster ("our poster's gone!") which Jake takes back to his camp and kicks a hole in (after a failed attempt), to get their dander up. Even worse after repeated threats by Jake the guys decide that they should go off and do man stuff, leaving the girls behind, not once, not twice, but three times ("there's the water, go swim")! When Jake kidnaps the girls, the knuckleheads decide that the girls must be playing a joke on them. Says one of the twins "I bet right now they're in the bushes laughing and giggling waiting for us to do something stupid." Uhhh, that won't take long.

It is really amazing that these guys have any friends at all, and quite frankly, they probably wouldn't even care. Twins are weird. Their idea of funny consists of beating up some friends of their friend Frank who is teaching them how to poach game on the island. After beating the hunters into unconsciousness, they steal one of each of their shoes.  If that wasn't hilarious enough, after leaving their girlfriends alone at night after death threats have been levied against them, they decide to sneak up and scare the shit out of them while they toast marshmallows, shivering by a campfire. Maybe they are guys in drag. Clearly the brothers don't want to get laid here. In order to make it up to the girls, they bust out the big surprise that they had been promising for the entire trip. In addition to being what seems to be the initiators of the rather brief "kickboxing twins" fad of the late '80s and early '90s, apparently they inspired the creation of "Duck Dynasty" too, as the big surprise turns out to be a small blind built in a tree. These guys must have off shore bank accounts and dicks the size of telephone phone poles to keep these ladies from dumping them faster than Taco Bell goes through a college student.

Eventually the twins get geared up for war. Fortunately they packed their camo karate gis with matching bandannas and set out to take down Jake and his possee, in slow motion.

Canada is known for its hilarious comic talent such as Dan Akroyd, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Rob Ford... but the McNamara brothers take themselves deadly serious, even when they are trying (I say "trying") to be funny. Of course this is a good thing as this is one of the funniest movies I've seen in a long time. Not only is it peppered with amazing dialogue, but it also sports a spectacular opening sequence and theme song by a man that puts the "butt" in "buttrock" that plays out like a mashup of NINE DEATHS OF THE NINJA (1985) meets MIAMI CONNECTION (1987). With lyrics like "after every night comes another day, after every day comes another night" the track insists that you have to "Fight! Fight for the right to fight!" If this doesn't turn you into a giggling mess on your sofa, you are reading the wrong blog.

To their credit, the brothers have been hugely influential on the sport of kickboxing and quite possibly inspired the classic 1987 video game Double Dragon. The brothers unsuccessful sued Jackie Chan over his completely unrelated 1992 film TWIN DRAGONS, while completely ignoring the only vaguely more similar 1991 Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle DOUBLE IMPACT. TWIN DRAGON ENCOUNTER was successful enough to pave the way for a sequel, DRAGON HUNT (1990), in which Jake returns to ruin yet another vacation, and a quasi-documentary about oppressive martial arts regulations that the twins (I swear I'm not making this up) have refused to release as a protest to the obstructive laws that the film is protesting! Yeah, tell me that isn't genius.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Backwoods Bastards: INBRED (2011)

If you were on the scene back in the early '90s you would have no doubt seen, or at least heard of, Alex Chandon. After creating quite a buzz with his admittedly derivative, but no less entertaining splatter shorts BAD KARMA (1991) and DRILLBIT (1992) Chandon got his shot at a DTV feature film and for some reason went for an intentionally over-campy, quasi-meta spoof of '70s sci-fi/fantasy soft-core films with PERVIRELLA (1997). This led to his career having a sudden case of extreme death... until 2001 when Chandon managed to get the widely hated (again) CRADLE OF FEAR released direct to DVD. Honestly, I couldn't be bothered with CRADLE, but for some reason seeing his name pop up another 10 years later with INBRED I had to look. I only have myself to blame.

A couple of social workers (James Doherty and Jo Hartley) take some juvenile delinquents out to the country to an abandoned cottage where they will be doing team exercises as part of their rehab. Of course as soon as the bus is in motion, the cliches start rolling in fast and furious. The house is a complete wreck, the locals are all weirdo hicks, the beer tastes like piss, the town has a dark secret and things are about to get very nasty. The locals, as it turns out are a bunch of inbred nutters that capture wayward travelers and put them in a raggedy vaudeville show run by the abusive town patriarch Jim (Seamus O'Neill) in blackface. Sure they like to eat human flesh (though this is never shown), but they like a good evening's entertainment too. Not a bad premise by any means.

Chandon spends almost an hour setting the stage, so to speak, for a hybrid of 2000 MANIACS (1964) meets HOSTEL (2005). In addition to trying to mimic the intentional comedy of MANIACS, he tries to stretch the suspense for what he we are assuming to be a particularly vile torture show, only to completely back off at the last minute. This may be because in his heart Chandon wants this to be a dark comedy, but it ends up feeling like he's pulling his punches. For instance one of the boys is dressed up as a girl and nailed down spread-eagle on the floor while Jim's son dresses up like a scarecrow with a large carrot protruding from his pelvis. It seems as if something unbelievably nasty is about to do happen, then after shoving a CG asparagus slowly up his victim's nose (don't ask, I don't know either), a couple of maidens lead a horse in. At this point I start thinking that this is going to be some sort of brutal Joe D'Amato homage. After lingering over the screaming and wailing victim, the horse steps on the side of the kids head and it's over. I'm not saying that I particularly wanted to see the kid get raped by a hillbilly or a horse, I'm just saying that Chandon likes to get the audience all worked up by implying that some extreme nastiness is en route and then decides to play it safe.

That is not to say INBRED isn't gory, it definitely is. Plenty of CG and latex is slung about with wild abandon, but in this day and age, (as much as I hate to say it) it takes more than a CG exploding head to make a movie interesting, and quite frankly, unless you are doing CG and latex like ADAM CHAPLIN (2010), just stick with the latex please. Some of the gags are pretty impressive, but we've seen Chandon deliver bucketloads of practical effects in the past. I wish the lure of the CG siren wasn't so too difficult to resist. Even so, it's the lack of originality and the weak attempts at comedy that cause INBRED to falter.

While the film, for the most part, looks great and is technically proficient, O'Neill and low-rent regular Hartley seem to be delivering performances that belong in a much worthier film. There are many little moments where the film seems to break away, seeming turning into something interesting, only to quickly drop right back into moments that feel like we've seen them many times before in many other films. For instance, when it comes to the introduction of the village, Chandon does a pretty good job of making them creepy in a humorous way, but feels the need to "pay homage" to the classic pub scene from AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).

Even worse, Chandon starts out on the right foot. The opening sequence is an 1800s period piece with a woodcutter who turns his axe on his employer. I was actually caught off guard by this, and while it is rather cheap looking, I thought it was a really refreshing concept. Seriously, nobody does low-rent period flicks anymore, unless they are doing some over-wrought '70s camp vehicle. I was enjoying it, until they pull out and show that it is just some old video nasty that the boys on the bus are laughing at while watching on their smartphone. The joke is on me, I guess. This is probably Chandon's best feature to date, so I figure at this rate by 2035 we will probably get a pretty good movie out of him. Or maybe he'll finish that period slasher flick. I was kind of enjoying that.