Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #99: THE FLESH TWISTERS (1979)

“The golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.”
- Frank (Keith David) in THEY LIVE

We’ve covered a lot of obscure, unmade films in our “never got made” series, but for entry #99 we’re going to unveil the champ.  This is a project so obscure that it left even the most knowledgeable horror historians scratching their heads; its digital footprint was smaller than Stephen King’s “subjects I should write about” list; and press mentions amounted to less than a bottle of ink.  In my best Carl Denham voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you THE FLESH TWISTERS!”

This evocatively titled horror indie boldly announced itself to the world in the May 9, 1979 issue of Variety.  Sharing a full page ad alongside SLITHIS and HERE COME THE DELTS (CAMPUS CORPSE/THE HAZING being sold as a comedy), THE FLESH TWISTERS tried to entice readers with an indecipherable photo and the promise of “one of the most terrifying stories of the century.”  The talent listed behind it included one Gary Fox as the director and one Rick Swan as the writer.  Fox and Swan?  To quote William Kerwin in BLOOD FEAST, this was going to be “one of those long hard ones.”

The original Variety ad:

Neither name registered on the IMDb and good luck weeding those names out via Google.  Thankfully, amateur detective and crime fighter Bill Picard was on the case and soon established these weren’t just playful animal sobriquets.  Gary Fox and Rick Swan were real and he had found them.  After convincing them I wasn’t the world’s most inventive collections agent, Fox and Swan agreed to talk about the unmaking of their film, the story of how two ambitious young men decided to bend over backwards to try and make THE FLESH TWISTERS.

Believe it or not, the film’s genesis began in higher education.  Gary Fox and Rick Swan were both pre-med students at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa when they first met and became close friends.  While at school, both men were involved in the theater department; Swan penned an opera called THE COSMIC GOOSE that Fox had a role in and Fox later directed Swan’s play THE EGG AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW.

Drake University 1974-75 theater schedule:

Following their mutual graduations in 1975, Fox and Swan moved to Los Angeles to try to get into the film and music business.  Their sojourn to the City of Angels was brief and soon both men were back living in Iowa, where Fox had enrolled into the MFA film program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

“While I was there, Rick and I were planning on trying to cash in on what was left of the drive-in market, which was still going at that time,” Fox reveals in a telephone conversation. “Also, tax codes were such that it was a tremendous tax shelter for an investor.  Those laws have all since gone, but you could basically invest in independent film and write it off. I mean, if you had extra bucks and were a rich guy and you could throw some money around, you could be in the movie business and the Federal government didn’t really hit you that hard at all.  In fact, it was a great write off.  The financial climate was right.  Rick wanted to do something, I wanted to do something.”

Scaring audiences is timeless
Despite being neophytes in the film making business, both Fox and Swan had the acute business sense to know that when working with a small budget on a first time feature that it was best to take the exploitation route.  “If you’re talking about independent productions, you know you’re not going to have a lot of money,” Fox explains.  “So what is the best way to get bang for your buck?  Scaring people is probably easier to do with less money than other kinds of productions.”  Or, as Swan more succinctly put it in our email conversations, “Since obvious incompetents were making acceptable drive-in stuff, I figured I could do it too.”

And so the idea to make a horror film was born.  Swan was the more astute of the two when it came to the horror and sci-fi fields, having grown up with a love for the genre and worked at a drive-in.  He soon came up with the superb name THE FLESH TWISTERS, a title that could easily hold its own on a double bill with THE CORPSE GRINDERS or SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED.

Typical creepy Midwestern town
Swan set about writing the screenplay and tapped into an unusual source of inspiration – his musical career.  “I dropped out of medical school at the University of Iowa to join a rock band,” he discloses.  “I spent five years at it, during which time we made three records and toured extensively.” And it was this time as the lead singer and songwriter for the band Luxury that gave him his motivation for the tale of a mad scientist in a rural town.  “If you've traveled around the more obscure areas of the Midwest, you've probably noticed all the dinky, isolated, creepy towns tucked away in the middle of nowhere. The repulsive inhabitants of these crappy villages spend their miserable days shuffling between the miserable rat-infested bars and the miserable rat-infested granary.  In the screenplay, a musician winds up in one of these dumps, where he is accosted by the zombie-like locals.”

Some flesh to be twisted!
With a finished screenplay that made sure to touch on all the exploitation necessaries (screaming babes, creeping monsters, nasty Nazis), the two men were soon about to set their plan of making a feature into motion.  Fox was almost jumping out of his skin in film school and a film advisor professor suggested he make the feature.  “He was more of the ‘I think you should go off and do that movie’ [type],” Fox recalls.  “He said, ‘Do it while you’re young and stupid. Before you realize how unbelievably hard it is to make a movie.’  Especially in 1977 and 1978.  So I did.”

“So Rick finished the screenplay, he is a tremendous talent and a great writer.  We broke it down and did a production budget.  I came to Chicago.  There is nothing, nothing in Des Moines, Iowa – maybe there is now – but at the time there were no kind of [film] facilities whatsoever.  Not even a laboratory to develop rushes, not one place to rent equipment from.  That had to be done from Chicago.  So I made a bunch of trips, pretty much put together a crew – an editor, a director of photography, all that kind of stuff.  Then we made a preview, a three or four minute trailer.”

Using equipment from the University of Iowa, the FLESH TWISTERS guys crafted a four minute trailer (which is where all of the images in this article come from).  The teaser opens with shots of a deserted Midwestern town as an ominous voiceover warns that in this town there “hangs the shadow of an unimaginable terror” and that “the dead don’t die.”  To showcase such terror we get a girl taking a bath and the requisite necking teens being stalked (“Ed, please check it out.”).  We are then introduced to the madman behind it all, who lives in a creepy old house on the hill (perhaps the most effective shot of the trailer as the camera slowly dollies past a decaying house that looks like the kind of real estate Leatherface would invest in).  We get several shots of him preparing to twist the cranial flesh of the nubile young victims brought to him by his zombie charges.  The teaser wraps up with Gary Fox doing his best William Castle impersonation as he talks to the camera and implores the viewers to “join me in alerting the nation to the existence of this nightmare before it’s too late.”  Too bad he doesn’t see the scythe-wielding madman just over his shoulder.    

An early attempt to convince investors
Naturally, the promo was made to entice investors and it does a great job through its concise editing and just the perfect amount of showmanship.  With the promo done, the filmmakers set out to make their outfit look as professional as possible in terms of their planning.  “If memory serves, it was pretty much all done, or close to it,” Swan recalls of the pre-production. “We had input and support from lawyers, accountants, and financial professionals, all of whom donated their services for free.  I can’t believe it either. We ultimately made a thick book of all this technical and legal stuff to impress potential investors.”

“We started a limited partnership,” Fox reveals. “We were the general partners and investors were the limited partners.  We were selling units at $7,500 a unit.”  They then began showing the promo reel to anyone and everyone who seemed like they could be a potential backer.  “They would meet us and they would hear our pitch.  Then they would say, ‘Yes, I’ll give you a check’ or ‘No, I won’t give you a check.’  The worst part about three years of raising money is not yes and no but maybe.  Maybe is the worst answer you can get.  If you can’t do it, I understand.  I can cross your name off the list and go on.  They never say no.  They always say, ‘Let me think about it’ or ‘let me get back to you’ or ‘I’m not sure yet.’  It is like living in limbo in hell.”

Dick Davis, right, promotes THE HAZING
Along the way the filmmakers met a wide assortment of interesting characters, including one gentleman who offered Fox a substantial amount in exchange for – how shall we say – his non-film related services.  Fox turned him down.  Producer’s casting couch attempt aside, perhaps the wildest character the two aspiring filmmakers met was producer Dick Davis.  Dick Davis was one Richard L. Davis; the R.L. Davis eventually listed on the Variety ad.  Davis was an entrepreneur in the simplest sense, a smut peddler in the stricter one.  He spent the better part of the late 60s/early 70s being a thorn in the side of city councils everywhere as he tried to get XXX material into his theaters and drive-ins. “We hooked up with a guy named Dick Davis, who at the time was much older than us,” Fox explains.  “We were just in our mid-20s.  Dick was a full grown man and he was a pornographer.  He owned a couple of porno theaters in Des Moines.  He was a sleazy guy, but he was interested in getting into the legitimate movie business.”

Davis did bring a certain level of film experience as he had recently been the partial money man behind SLITHIS and THE HAZING (the two films featured on the ad).  While he did bring certain connections (more on that in a bit), what he didn’t bring was any real filmmaking sensibility.  Swan amusingly recalls Davis trying to shoehorn some of his own ideas into their script.  “Yes. Dick Davis – a zillionaire drive-in owner and producer of SLITHIS and main booster and mentor of this project – read the script and had several suggestions,” Swan remembers.  “Any way you could work a rubber-suited monster in the story, so we could call it SON OF SLITHIS?  No, sorry.  Any way you could work in the military?  A “prologue” was written set in a Pentagon office where guys in uniforms discussed the suspicious activities brewing in hidden Midwestern towns. Yes, it was a totally pointless and stupid addition, but what the heck.  Any way we can make this a TV movie? Huh?”

A brief history of Dick Davis (click to enlarge):

1972 - "I promise not to show X-rated films."

1974 - "Yay, I can show X-rated films!"

However, it was Davis who came up the idea to run a big Variety ad (and a tiny blurb in Box Office magazine, the film’s only other trade mention).  “Dick Davis said, ‘Well, we’re going to make a big splash out of this.  Let’s take an ad out in Variety.’  So Rick and I worked up the little artwork on it and – as you saw – we ran an ad in Variety, which was hilarious.  It is still hilarious to me that it was done and even more hilarious that somebody like yourself found it many years later and followed up on it.”  For fans curious about the minutia of the announcement, Fox confirms that no book was ever written or intended to be written for the film and that the lone photographic image is a still of actress Robin Scott in the bathtub.

Box Office mention:

Gary Fox unaware of the dangers
around him both on & off the screen
“Dick was a nice guy to want to work with us,” Fox says, “but I look back on it and I’m going, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’”  Indeed, both men were out of their element in a sense.  During this period, Fox worked as a school bus driver while Swan worked at a suicide prevention hotline (!) and toured with Luxury.  Nowhere was their innocence more on display than when James Galinsky, an accountant friend of Davis who was working on helping secure film funding, was busted in a major drug operation where eight pounds of cocaine were seized in his home. “We were having these pitch meetings and presentations in his house,” Fox recalls incredibly.  “We were running in a fast lane and we didn’t know what the hell was happening.”  
Despite having the Iowa version of Tony Montana in their corner, Fox and Swan were never able to raise the $150,000 they had budgeted the film for.  “Long story short, we talked to everybody and we got together essentially about $100,000 dollars,” Fox reveals.  “Then we hit a wall and could not find the rest of the financing.”  Despite being 2/3 of the way there, Fox did something unheard of in the movie business.  “After much soul searching and looking around, we did what turned out to be maybe the stupidest thing we ever did – we gave the money back.”

“Why it was the stupidest thing we’ve ever did is I’ve since found that if you have a hundred thousand dollars, start shooting.  Once you’re in the middle of production, it is much easier to get the guy to pull out his checkbook and give you $5,000 or $10,000 more for finishing than it is if you haven’t started at all and you’re just some kids with a pipedream. We should have just taken the money and begun.  But my father was an old school guy and he said, ‘It’s going to cost $150,000.  You don’t have it.  You can not go forward in good faith.  You can not risk these peoples’ money.  You need to give the money back.’”  Swan again succinctly sums the budget situation up: “Money. We had some, but not enough.”

died an ignoble, early death
“It kills me to this day,” Fox reveals of the decision to return the money.  “I’m absolutely convinced if we have started shooting that we would have found the rest of the money. That’s the end of the story.  I’ve got no great scars to talk to you about.  I’ve got no great Hollywood thing.  Hollywood didn’t even know this existed.  It’s just a couple of young guys trying to make a movie in the Midwest, not knowing what they’re doing at all.”  Indeed, had the film gone forward perhaps we would be telling an entirely different tale?  After all, just a few years later some young guys in Michigan raised about $150,000 through dentists and lawyers and ended up doing pretty well for themselves with THE EVIL DEAD. Perhaps in some alternate universe a multi-million dollar remake of THE FLESH TWISTERS opened at no. 1 at the box office the first weekend in April 2013 and drove the kids wild.

Alas, movie making is not the quintessential element in our universe and both men went on different paths.  Although Fox and Swan eventually went their separate ways, both men remained in the Midwest and raised families.  Fox continued his education and is now a film professor at Columbia College Chicago and at DePaul University.  Logically, he teaches courses on cinema, but keeps his students unaware of his filmmaking past.  Swan became a freelance writer and penned a series of popular Dungeons & Dragons manuals.  His band Luxury experienced a bit of a resurgence due to re-releases with the song “Green Hearts” even being featured in the film SUMMERHOOD (2008).  He still retains his love for genre movies and currently has a library of 5,000 strong.  Had THE FLESH TWISTERS been made, I have no doubt that with its brain drilling antics and perfect horror font for the title that it would have slid perfectly into the collection.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Monstrous Mayhem: SPIDERS (2000) vs. SPIDERS (2013)

With the remake craze going full blast (and, sadly, most horror fans lovin’ it), it seems like it was only a matter of time before Nu Image would start cannibalizing themselves.  So no one was really shocked when they announced they giving the world an unwanted redux of SPIDERS, one of their earliest “insects gone amuck” flicks.  Sadly, if you compare the two features it perfectly showcases the company’s decade plus between films.

It is kind of ironic that it was the trailer for the new SPIDERS that finally convinced me I needed to check out the old SPIDERS.  Like fine wine, I had to allow SPIDERS from the year 2000 to age properly before checking it out. Well, I finally popped the cork on it last month. Man, was the year 2000 really 13 years ago?  Anyway, I missed out on the original release due to leaving the video store to go back to college and having some innate sense in my head telling me Nu Image’s flicks were going to be rough.  I knew my brain did something right.

SPIDERS opens aboard a space station where some top secret experiments are being done on spiders.  Naturally, someone gets bitten and everything goes to hell at zero gravity.  Back on Earth, college newspaper reporter Maci (Lana Parrilla) convinces a couple of friends to go check out a secret military bases because she believes some UFO activity is going on there (she’s seen one too many X-FILES programs).  When they arrive, they see the space shuttle Solaris crash in the desert.  This is strange because her editor tells her media reports said the craft burnt up on re-entry.  Can a girl looking for the big scoop be any luckier?  Maci and her two male companions sneak into the underground military base and soon find out the U.S. Government was up to some nefarious activities as they were messing with spider DNA in order to create the ultimate soldier.  This results in Mother, a huge spider that just happens to get loose in the facility while the kids are down there.

To be honest, I almost gave up on this one during the first 20 minutes as it was pretty rough going.  Just your typical boring stuff with the insufferable type of character banter that has worked its way into movies post-Tarantino (must everyone mention movies in dialogue nowadays?).  But I'm glad I stuck with it. Director Gary Jones had previously directed MOSQUITO (1995), an entertaining monster mash that most certainly got him this gig.  Even better, he has a background in special effects and when the spider attacks start happening, this is pretty fun stuff. The film does feel more like a mid-90s movie with the emphasis on practical FX over computer stuff (I'd say 90% is actual on-set FX).  There is some CGI stuff at the end. While it is obvious, Jones still does a nice job of combining the computer images with stuff that was shot live (like the spider flipping over a car).  Sadly, Nu Image went the complete opposite direction as the decade progressed.  Just a year after this L.A. lensed flick, they were firmly ensconced in Eastern Europe making cheapo horror action done on the cheap in Bulgaria with cheap looking CGI effects.  Case in point: SPIDERS II: BREEDING GROUND (2001).  The FX proportion has switched from the 90% practical/10% CGI of SPIDERS to 10% practical/90% CGI. Also, it doesn't help that there is barely any spider action for the first hour of the film. Avoid the sequel unless you are a dummy like me.

The parallel between SPIDERS of old and SPIDERS of new is pretty interesting for me.  The new film was made by a director who made something I hold dear.  New SPIDERS director Tibor Takacs made the insanely great THE GATE (1987), one of my favorite 1980s flicks.  In addition, he also made the solid I, MADMAN (1989) a few years later.  So, once again, I’m drawn in by a love of an earlier film.  What I seemingly always forget is the rest of Takacs’ filmography.

SPIDERS opens aboard a space station where some top secret experiments are being done on spiders.  Déjà vu.   Oh wait, it is totally different because this one was owned by the Russians and everyone inside is dead.  Anyway, the facility is torn apart by meteor fragments in a frenzy of low budget CGI chaos.  A piece survives re-entry and crashes down into New York City.  Cue NYC stock footage and dust off that NYC Bulgarian backlot.  Enter Jason Cole (Patrick Muldoon, doing one very bad NYC accent), New York transit authority dude who loves to keep them subways running.  He’s pissed because one of his workers investigating dies and the health department rep Rachel Cole (Christa Campbell) won’t let him reopen the tunnel.  Wait a sec…Cole…Cole…oh, damn, not only is she his occupational nemesis, but “Rach” is his soon-to-be-ex-wife.  To make matters worse, there are now these growing mutant spiders running around the subway tunnels. You see, the Soviets were doing some experiments on spiders to create a super web like material that would be impervious to everything.  And to throw a swerve in there, this stuff was created using DNA found in some alien spaceship frozen in the mountains decades ago.  Anyway, the U.S. is now using Dr. Darnoff (Pete Lee-Wilson) to get the technology and quarantines the entire block…where Jason’s 12-year-old daughter that he neglects just happens to be stranded.  Daddy’s coming to get ya!  Yup, it is SPIDERS with a side of TAKEN.

Anyone guilty of a bad NYC accent,
please raise you hands!
It’s hard not to be cynical watching the revamped SPIDERS.  After all, does the world really need another big spider movie? Apparently Nu Image feels they do.  But even if you enter it with an open mind, I have no doubt you’ll be the most pessimistic person in the world by the time it ends.  Once again working from a story by Boaz Davidson (“Hey, let’s make a movie about a big spider!”), Takacs and his co-screenwriter Joseph Farrugia appear to have sat down and written a list of everything popular at the time of their screenplay crafting.  TAKEN is big? Let’s work that in.  THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE remake made some money? Let’s incorporate that.  The BOURNE films are popular?  Good, let’s work in a little “cat and mouse” espionage for no reason.  Sadly, the onscreen proceedings are as coldly crafted as the screenplay.  Takacs goes all CGI for his tiny creatures and the sense of wonder is nil.  Jones’ earlier film has some great moments where you wonder how they pulled it off.  Here you just sit back and go, “Yeah, they used a computer.”  Even worse, the new SPIDERS was shot in 3D to cash in on a craze that no one is crazy about.  So you have a bunch of shots of stuff flying at you for no reason since you are most likely watching it in 2D on a television and not suffering in a theater.  As it stands, the new SPIDERS is the perfect encapsulation of where Nu Image/Millennium Entertainment stands now.  It is just a bigger budget version of their Bulgarian adventures from 2001-2010 where they think literally throwing things at the audience will create a better film.  Wake me when they remake SHARK ATTACK 3.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Fangs for Nothing: DARIO ARGENTO'S DRACULA (2012)

Like hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of other people around the globe, the discovery of Dario Argento was a life-changing moment in my misspent youth. My tender young brain reeled at the over-indulgence of richly painted visuals and often stream-of-consciousness narratives that obsessed over hidden clues, smashing glass, ax murders, kitchen knives, straight razors, vicious dogs, childhood trauma, whispered phone calls, impalements, black gloves, decapitations, maggots and flies (in ones or hoards). In addition, Argento's camera moved as if it was gliding on Chinese silk, prowling around buildings and through scenes in continuous shots that required meticulous staging and often specially built camera rigging. A few of his films were shot with very specific types of rare filmstock with elaborate lighting set-ups to take advantage of it. What more could you possibly ask for from a horror filmmaker?

Somewhere in his early career, around 1973, Argento put together a very impressive sounding adaptation of Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" that never got off the ground. This was right when Argento's career was hitting its stride and the possibilities of Argento adapting classic horror literature in that era are simply mind-blowing. So when Argento's adaptation of Bram Stoker's "Dracula" was announced, why wasn't it greeted with more fanfare? Perhaps it is because it was announced in 2010 after, if I'm generous, nearly a decade of bitter disappointment. Over two and a half decades of bitter disappointment, if I'm not.

I suppose now would be a good time to let you know that I cannot write about this movie without throwing out spoilers left and right. If you really want to see the movie spoiler free, I wish you the best of luck and will give you time to leave the room. Are they gone now? Good, because every step on this staircase is a doozie.

Argento may have claimed a lot of things before going into production, but a faithful adaptation wasn't one of them, and I wouldn't expect him to do a straight up adaptation. Unfortunately it's the way in which he veers off the rails is not exactly what you'd hope for. Set solely in a rural, I guess, Romanian village (with German signs and names), a girl Tania (FHM cover-girl Miriam Giovanelli) goes out in the dead of Walpurgis Night to meet up with Milos (Christian Burruano) in what is possibly the most brightly lit stable in the pre-industrial world. After a quick roll in the hay, they split-up to go home. When Milos refuses to walk her home, she throws her crucifix pendant at him in a fit of pique. If I had a nickel for every time that's happened to me... Of course this does not bode well, as it is Walpurgus Night and you know what that means. The owls are out! Yes, I giant owl flies down out of the sky and CG morphs like it's a 1992 Stephen King adaptation into... Hugh Hefner! Oh wait, there are fangs, so that must be Dracula (Thomas Kretschmann).

Enter the second babe in the woods, Johnathan Harker (Unax Ugalde in a spectacularly inept performance). Harker has been commissioned to be the librarian at some hick lord's castle in a village where his wife Mina (Marta Gastini) grew up with the local piano teacher Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento vying for Ugalde's mantle as the worst actor since H.G. Lewis discovered the camera). In an effort to faithfully adapt Bram Stoker's novel, Mina is to arrive on a later train.

No Dracula film would be complete without the classic sequence in which Harker finds himself the sole diner at the castle. After inquiring whether or not Dracula would dine with him, Drac slowly turns and gravely drawls "I do not eat... in the evening." Listen? Can you hear that? That is the sound of Bela Lugosi doing 9000 rpms in his grave.

Possibly due to budget constraints, Dracula is reduced to a solitary bride, Tania (Dracula refers to her as his "niece"), who attempts to seduce Harker. Unfortunately she's not very light on her feet and knocks over a picture of Mina. Harker suffers a cut on his hand in the process and Tania starts sucking his blood out in an attempt to prevent an "infection". Yes, a simple peasant girl is apparently well read on cutting edge medical theories of the day. Of course this leads to a subsequent scene that retreads the same ground, except Drac busts in, kicking Tania out and decides to take sloppy Harper seconds, chomping down on Harker's neck while Harper moans with delight seems to appear as if he is experiencing *ahem* primal pleasures. In addition to the acting, the general appearance of the film is easily outshone by even the weakest of modern porn parodies (well, except for Hustler's THIS AIN'T series). With some minor editing and a handful of hard-core insert shots, we could have something that almost rivals Mario Salieri's epic 1994 porn knock-off of Coppola's DRACULA (1992). Although it's never been dubbed or subtitled and I only know about five words of Italian, I know the acting was better in Salieri's DRACULA than Argento's cringer. How do I know? Well, Ron Jeremy plays a throat-slashing coach driver in it and he is a friggin' master thespian compared to Unax Ugalde.

I keep seeing random people on-line struggling to try to find something positive to say about it by saying that Argento endeavors to make it a faithful adaptation. This begs the question, "what f'n book did you read?" Granted it has been some 25 years since I've read the Stoker novel, but I do remember a guy named Johnathan Harker being the central character... and a surviving one at that. Also I seem to be unable to recollect the ax murder scene, or the scene in which Mina washes Lucy's buck-nekkid body discovering the bite marks on the back of her knee (Lucy's rules: "no hickeys"), or the scene in which Lucy's father, Mr. Kisslinger is killed by Dracula who has invaded their house in the subtle guise of a giant mantis. Let me repeat that for the reading impaired: a giant praying mantis kills Lucy's dad. Is this an adaptation of Bram Stoker or a "Rolling Stone" correspondent with a head full of ether?

As it turns out Drac and the villagers had a deal. They give him selected morsels, plucked from their kindergarten, and he, errr, leaves them alone. Well, except for the stragglers who have sex with random guys in overlit woodland areas, I guess.

The villagers decide Drac has gone too far and they need to call in some dude named Van Helsing (Ruger Hauer), who used to be a doctor at an insane asylum that was infiltrated by the Count. Unfortunately for them, Drac had infiltrated their meeting in the subtle guise of a group of house flies! This guy is like Martin Landau in "Mission: Impossible"! Well, except for the drinking blood, slashing throats and using his mental powers to force the local constabulary to shoot himself through the mouth (complete with sad CG effects that echo THE STENDHAL SYNDROME). This self-plagerizing scene is actually one of the few bits to showcase some of the proudly advertised stereoscopic 3D. While many shots have some decent depth, very few of them are actually interesting. A scene early on where the camera placed at the bottom of a grave shoots a conversation two characters who are peering down in to the grave is a fantastic 3D shot, but is arguably the only interesting shot in the movie.

Much like Argento, Ruger Hauer was at one point an icon of genre movie cool whose career hit an apex and found the downward slope to be a bit sharper than anticipated after a certain point which makes his casting a little bit unexciting. On the other hand, his late entrance at the 72 minute mark adds an instant aura of professionalism that is much like having Kenneth Branagh suddenly show up at the end of ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007). It is a bit late in the game to be trying to class up the joint, but it's the thought that counts. All the more's the pity that Hauer isn't really given much to do other then get some breathy close-ups where he tries to lend some gravitas to an incredibly silly movie. Even worse, the character of Dr. Van Helsing (a merging of Dr. Seward and Van Helsing) is completely ineffectual, on several occasions turning up mere moments too late to prevent the death of a character. As for Dracula, Kretschmann is completely miscast and can't seem to breath an drop of life into the well-worn character. While he is intended (or just happened to be) the most dynamic character in the film, Kretschmann opts for more of a fashion-plate approach. There are moments where it feels like he's not so much acting as modelling his Fall Transylvanian designer wardrobe.

As much as DRACULA is a completely absurd bastardization of the source material (highlighted by Claudio Simonetti's wildly inappropriate and campy '50s haunted house musical cues), it's not totally unwatchable. I have to admit that I wasn't able to make it past the first 25 minutes of THE CARD PLAYER (2004), but this wasn't too hard to digest, if only because you know there's going to be something even more ludicrous right around the corner. There are some bits and pieces that are actually good ideas trapped in a very sloppy film. When Harker first arrives at the village, he is pestered by a house (castle?) fly. At the time it seems more than a little odd, but later in the film you discover Dracula transforms into a swarm of flies. It's one of Argento's pet obsessions and it is interesting, even if, as I said, poorly executed. Also Argento's version of Renfield (Giovanni Franzoni), is the village taxidermist, who does not eat bugs and was liberated from the village jail cell instead of a sanitarium. Has a wonderfully deranged appearance, complete with facial scars created from mere hours of wearing a restraining face mask. Unfortunately, in spite of what Argento said in pre-production interviews, there is no impressive camerawork aside from maybe a handful of oblique angles and the '90s era CG is used with an obvious and heavy hand. Matter of fact, you could easily remove Argento's name from the film and no one would ever know this was anything more than just another low-rent DTV vampire flick.

So basically, if you can separate yourself from the Argento of old, enjoy movies with sub-porno production values, acting that rivals cable access television and thorough butchery of classic literature, then DARIO ARGENTO'S DRACULA is not a complete waste of time... but close.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Cyber Monday: The CYBORG COP series (1993-1995)

If you’ve found your way to our blog, then chances are pretty high you’ve already seen a Nu Image movie.  They first jumped to fame with their animals-gone-amok films (SPIDERS series, OCTOPUS series, CROCODILE series, SHARK ATTACK series) starting in the 2000s that conned unsuspecting DVD renters into enduring poorly rendered CGI creatures attacking poorly paid actors in Bulgaria.  Amazingly, this success allowed them to start backing bigger films and soon you could see their logo theatrically on Stallone films (THE EXPENDABLES films) and other big budget stuff (the recent OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN).  To quote the old Virginia Slims ad, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”  Indeed, the company founded in 1992 initially shot and distributed cheap direct-to-video action flicks in South Africa and was built on the backs of guys named Bradley and Zagarino playing robotic warriors.  Yes, they are the “House the Cyborg Cop Built.”


No doubt inspired by the huge international success of ROBOCOP (1987) and TERMINATOR 2 (1991), CYBORG COP was the perfect project for the fledgling company to kick off with. The film focuses on Jack Ryan (David Bradley), a DEA agent alongside his brother Philip (Todd Jensen).  Yes, his name really is Jack Ryan.  In the opening minutes, Jack and Philip show up at a hostage situation (not sure why this is a DEA gig) where a psychotic guy is screaming about wanting his mommy. Oedipal issues obviously irritate Jack and he shoots the baddie dead and saves the female hostage.  Bad news as it turns out this guy was the son of some publishing magnate and a pesky newswoman just happened to show up to capture Jack’s face on camera.  Damn it!  This incident results in him being banned from the organization (why?) and wallowing in self pity.

A few years later, Jack is hanging out with Philip, who mentions he is heading down to the Caribbean for a top secret mission.  He tells Jack not to worry and that he will be back in time to finalize the paperwork on adopting the orphan Frankie (Steven Leader).  OH CRAP! Philip is a dead man.  Indeed, his team’s siege on the top secret fortress of international baddie Kessel (John Rhys-Davies) ends in complete disaster as nearly everyone is blown up and Philip is captured.  This is especially bad news for him as Kessel just happens to be experimenting in creating cybernetic soldiers that he hopes to sell to the highest bidding countries (preferably of nefarious nature).  So Philip soon become a cyborg DEA agent, er, cyborg soldier.  Of course, the bad guys didn’t expect that Philip sent a package to Jack telling him he thinks things are going to go bad (no idea when he sent this as the film shows him jumping right into his mission).  So big brother is on a plane to find his kid brother faster than Schwarzenegger pouncing on the help.  Once arriving, Jack finds the local authorities to be corrupt and the only person he can trust is a, ugh, newswoman named Cathy (Alonna Shaw).

Initially announced in Variety as CYBORG NINJA (see ad below), CYBORG COP is the film that kicked off Nu Image’s, er, image as a direct-to-video action staple.  Catering to the world’s cinematic cybernetic cravings, the production is never going to be mistaken for one of the big boys (although I’m sure many a clueless father came home with it as a rental over the years and was scolded by his son with “dad, I said I wanted ROBOCOP!”).  The producers obviously had a Cannon state of mind going when they founded their company and it shows right down to casting David Bradley, perhaps the last Cannon star thanks to AMERICAN NINJA 3-5.  Bradley is adept at martial arts and all of his action scenes are well done.  It also shows in the hiring of Cannon staple Sam Firstenberg to direct the picture. He follows the Cannon model of “bigger is better” in terms of the explosions.  The film’s finale features the entire compound being blown to bits.  Another highlight is probably Rhys-Davies as the villain.  He is obviously having the time of his life hamming it up. $50 to the first person who can figure out just what the hell kind of accent he is trying though. South Africa plays the fictional Caribbean island well enough, although it does result in some laughable “eh, mon” bits.  Also, there are some great bits like a hotel clerk telling Bradley to stay away from a rough bar because he is a white dude and when they cut to the place, it is filled with white folks and a happy reggae band playing.

"You will never see a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."

Of course, my personal favorite bit was Kessel’s top secret underground lab having “exit” signs.  Yes, I’m a low grade villain bent on world domination, but I don’t skimp on building standards.

Thankfully, the producers didn’t skimp when it comes to the cyborg bits.  Now don’t go in expecting James Cameron level stuff, but you do get the gradual destruction of an evil cyborg (Rufus Swart) and the required cyborg arm.  I did laugh when they outfitted Philip with his new arm and opted to leave on the armpit hair.


Bradley and Firstenberg are back!  The first CYBORG COP must have fooled a lot of renters as this sequel hit shelves just over a year after the first film.

Part 2 wastes no time getting to the action as bad guy Jesse Starkraven (Morgan Hunter) and his goons lay the smack down on some rival drug dealers (who, naturally, make the workers do their duties in the nude).  Sounds like a job for the DEA and soon Jack Ryan is on the scene. Wait, how did he get rehired? Anyway, Jack and new partner Mike get prepped to take on this bald headed baddie.  Wait a sec…new partner…friend of Jack…and he’s black?  This dude is a dead man!  What they don’t know is Starkraven is welcoming this clash because the DEA killed his brother.  Sure enough, Jack gets his man but not before Starkraven kills Mike (told ya!) and swears his revenge.  No biggie for Jack as he gets to head home to his adopted son Frankie.  HOLY CRAP! Frankie is back.  Yes!  See kid, losing your first adoptive father ain’t so bad after all as now you have David Bradley as your dad.

Anyway, Starkraven is now the State’s problem, but things get weird when he is transferred by the ATG (Anti-Terrorist Group) in the middle of the night to a top secret facility that performs under the guise of hurricane research.  What is going on this lab?  Well, they just happen to be creating cyborgs out of inmates and soon Starkraven is rechristened Spartacus by the custody sounding Dr. Owns (Douglas Bristow). As in “I owns you cyborgs!”  Obviously, Spartacus is an advocate for robotic rights and decides to break his group of oppressed brothers out of their cybernetic confines.  What an ingrate, like we all wouldn’t kill for a weapons-replaceable hand.  And he couldn’t have picked a worse time as he decides to lead his rebellion when a bunch of VIPs are visiting to see the program’s progress. Nothing sells your backers like watching a cyborg rip off someone’s arm. Naturally, this is a job for Jack Ryan and he is soon tracking this metal militia, while butting heads with the corrupt sheriff and ATG bureaucrat Liz McDowell (Jill Pierce, so bad that her acting must be seen to be believed).  And he better hurry because Spartacus not only wants his revenge, but he is prepared to unleash it in the form of a nuclear bomb that will decimate all of Des Moines, Iowa.  Wait…this is set in Iowa!?!

"We gonna walk down to Electric Avenue..."
Like the TERMINATOR films, this opted for a “bigger is better” approach for the follow up. And I’m not lying when I say CYBORG COP II is better in every regard than the first film. Not that the first film was terrible or anything, but it seems like Firstenberg got a chance to reflect on what he did right and what fans responded to from the initial entry.  And apparently what fans responded to was action, action, action!  So we get double the amount of scenes of Bradley kicking people in the face.  In fact, Bradley is given a bit more of a smartass persona in this entry, to the point I’m shocked they didn’t have him do a DIE HARD 2 “how can the same thing happen to the same guy twice” line.  And we also get double the amount of explosions.   The film’s ending (in an abandoned factory, naturally) proves to be a virtual explosion orgy as everyone gets blow’d up real good (look for the same footage of one dummy being blown up getting used twice).  However, it is a showdown at a gas station during the middle of the movie that is the film’s highlight.  Not only do we get tons of huge explosions, but we get guys flying through glass windows and Bradley getting his John Woo on with two guns a blazin’.  If you see only one CYBORG COP film, make sure this is the one.


Fans of the Bradley/Firstenberg team will no doubt be disappointed to learn that neither one returned for the third (and final) entry in this series. Perhaps Bradley didn’t want to be typecast a guy who repeatedly kicks cyborg ass, so instead he went on to make films where he kicked human ass. Anyway, the third film tenuously tries to connect to the other films as the acting reigns are turned over to Frank Zagarino, who was helping Nu Image’s coffers as a cyborg in the PROJECT: SHADOWCHASER series they distributed, and Bryan Genesse, who also co-starred in PROJECT: SHADOWCHASER II.

CYBORG COP III or NRA wet dream?
Zagarino and Genesse star as Saint and Max, a couple of U.S. Marshalls who open the film by chasing a hillbilly pot farmer in an airplane. Their boss is soon offering them $5,000 each to find a female news reporter named Evelyn Reed (Jennifer Miller).  Wait, I don’t think U.S. Marshalls even do this kind of work.  Anyway, the guy who wants her is Sheen (Ian Roberts), owner of a top secret company in Iowa that is – you guessed it – dealing in human cyborgs. Seems Evelyn got a tip from conscience driven scientist who didn’t agree with their experiment of turning physical education students into emotionless robots.  Our intrepid reporter not only got some undercover footage of a cybrog in action (even killing her cameraman), but she also stole the main computer chip that allows the whole program to go forth.  Why?  Because, like I said, she’s intrepid.  So our heroes are on the case and battling a bunch of Sheen’s guys along the way.  Wait, isn’t Sheen the one paying to have her found? Why is he sending his own guys to kill the guys he hired?  Maybe he is a real cheapskate. Anyway, as you can tell, the resulting scenario ends with lots of stuff going boom.

Fans hoping for more of CYBORG COP II’s over the top metallic mayhem will probably be disappointed in this entry. Naturally, the first thing is fans will be missing David Bradley. I cried not knowing what happened to Jack Ryan and his adopted son Frankie.  It is equally strange that Zagarino, a man known for playing cyborgs in his sleep, is the hero this time around.   He and Genesse (woah @ his Southern accent) make a good team though. Director Yossi Wein cut his teeth on the first CYBORG COP flicks as the director of photography, so he definitely knows how to shoot an action scene.  And, believe it or not, this entry might have the biggest explosions (see pic) of any of the trilogy. So this film has plenty of explosions but they really skimp on the cybrog aspects. In fact, outside of some robot-o-vision screens, the only proof you get of a cyborg is the main guy having a tiny sliver of metal exposed on his face.  Not cool.  It was also about halfway through the film that I realized I was being lied to – there are no cyborg cops on display!  I guess the title CYBORG KINESIOLOGY STUDENT just didn’t have that ring to it.  It is this kind of schizophrenic nature that resulted in the film coming out on US video in 1996 under the generic title TERMINAL IMPACT rather than CYBORG COP III (to further confuse matters, a double feature DVD of this and CYBORG COP II calls it part III, yet the cover refers to them as CYBORG SOLIDER and TERMINAL IMPACT).