Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Writer-director Paul Golding on giving PULSE (1988) life

“I heard a man on TV one time say that paranoia is just another word for heightened awareness.” – Old Man (Charles Tyner)

Hollywood is rife with horror stories regarding the struggles of first time filmmakers.  We’ve heard of neophytes being skipped over, frozen out, and physically removed from their pet projects.  But would you believe me if I told you the account of a first time filmmaker who managed to direct his own script free of struggle, impress his bosses and the studio still managed to screw it up?  Such is case with PULSE (1988), a science fiction thriller written and directed by Paul Golding.

Growing up, I was familiar with PULSE due to the eye catching VHS cover.  Oddly, I never saw it as a kid and only caught up with the film this year. Telling the story of a young boy (Joey Lawrence) who must fight a seemingly evil electrical current in his father’s California home, PULSE took me by surprise and shocked me.  It was an incredible well made science fiction film that was as scary as it was intelligent.  Not only that, but it worked as an impressive allegory of man succumbing to technology, a sentiment that is even more relevant today.  Emerging in a decade fondly remembered for its sci-fi masterpieces, this was no easy feat.  Surprisingly, there was very little info on both the film and Golding online.  Hoping to correct this, I contacted Mr. Golding and expressed interest in the history of PULSE.  Thankfully, the genial Golding was more than happy to discuss his lone feature film.

In order to trace the pathway to PULSE, we have to go all the way across the country.  A native of Troy, New York, Golding grew up with a love for science fiction and the desire to become a theoretical physicist.  He would express his creativity as a kid by recording reel-to-reel comedy tapes with friends and this eventually led to an interest in filmmaking.  “One of my friends suggested we get a camera and film this weird stuff that we were laying out on audio,” he explains.  “So I got my mother to get me an 8mm camera.  I started shooting stuff and it was weird stuff.  I’ve always loved movies, but to me movies were always Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart.  What I was doing was like ‘The Waste Land’ by T.S. Eliot on 8mm set to a piece of music.”

It was a confluence of three disparate things that eventually sent Golding on his path to being a filmmaker – the launch of Sputnik, the experimental film QUEEN OF SHEBA MEETS THE ATOM MAN (1963), and an article on film schools in the New York Herald Tribune.  The Russians’ space success made him realize that the United States only wanted hands on workers rather than theoretical ones in the Space Race.  With that out of the way, he was again drawn to film.  “I went down to Cooper Union and they screened Ron Rice’s QUEEN OF SHEBA MEETS THE ATOM MAN,” Golding reveals.  “And I realized, ‘Holy crap, I’m an underground filmmaker’ and knowing I had some place in the universe was really quite helpful.  And then I read an article in the Herald Tribune that said there were schools that actually taught filmmaking.  They said there were only two schools, there were actually three.  They only mentioned in the article USC and UCLA.  If they had mentioned NYU, I would have gone there and my life would have been completely different.”

Golding eventually ended up at USC’s historic cinema department and he soon found himself among some soon-to-be-historic classmates including John Milius, Basil Poledouris, Walter Murch, and a gentleman by the name of George Lucas. Golding was fascinated by Lucas’ early short LOOK AT LIFE (1965), which incorporated a technique using still photographs by animation teacher Herb Kosower.  Golding made his own attempt at this technique with the short WIPEOUT. Golding and Lucas soon found themselves in the same film aesthetics class instructed by Woody Omens, who had the students work in groups of two. “So George and I paired up,” he says. “Since I was in charge of the stockroom, I was able to get us the Arriflex because we only had one.  We went down to Figueroa and the first thing we saw were these reflections on these highly polished chrome parts of this Volkswagen.  So we shot 100 feet of film on that; we took turns finding shots and then taking them.  And when we showed it the next week, everybody went crazy.  So Woody said why don’t I give you another 100 feet of film and you can make a movie.  So we went back to Figueroa.  The Volkswagen wasn’t there, but another car was.  I edited it to a piece of music from a Miles Davis album that Herbie Hancock was a piano soloist on.”  The resulting experimental film was the three minute short HERBIE (1966) and it highlighted Golding’s mastery of editing. This talent proved beneficial after school when he worked as an editor on Haskell Wexler’s MEDIUM COOL (1969).

After briefly relocating to San Francisco, Golding returned to Los Angeles to get into the film industry.  He met Zalman King in the early 1970s and the duo struck up a creative partnership when King asked Golding to rewrite his screenplay, BAKERSFIELD BLUES.  The resulting script was titled POWER and revolved around carnival worker running a machine that was literally the thing of nightmares.  “The Dream Machine was this visual thing,” he explains, “a way of terrifying people, making them believe something was happening.”  The script was optioned by RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization) in 1975.  Although it attracted several high profile directors including Michael Apted and Bob Rafelson, the project never got made.  In fact, the highly prolific Golding/King collaboration saw several screenplays developed – SWAGGER at 20th Century Fox and GODSHEAD at Mutual Pictures – but none ever found their way before the cameras.

Instead, Golding found his first feature writing credit come via the small screen, although it wasn’t intended that way. Along with co-writer David Irving, he wrote a screenplay about a young boy who encounters a little Bigfoot while lost in the woods. Appropriately, it was called LITTLEFOOT.  After several producers told them it would be a perfect film for Disney, the two writers took it to the Home of the Mouse. The enthusiasm for the project went quickly up the chain of command until Ron Miller – president of Walt Disney Productions in addition to being Disney’s son-in-law – offered a truly bizarre alteration.  “He said, ‘It’s a sweet little story and would make a great film, but the Disney organization is not going to subscribe to the Bigfoot myth,’” Golding relays. “In one of the best turnarounds I’ve ever pulled off in an actual meeting, I said, ‘What if it wasn’t Bigfoot, but the last Indian of a tribe?’”

It was a move that could surely earn Golding the Indian sobriquet of “Quick on his Feet” as it worked.  The revised project was soon given the green light and shot under the title of THE SECRET OF LOST VALLEY under the directorial eye of actor Vic Morrow.  It debuted in two parts on WALT DISNEY’S WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY in April and May 1980.  While Golding was not satisfied with the final product, he did earn a Writer’s Guild award for the script as the Guild judged nominated screenplays based solely on the writing and not the film itself.  The experience would also steel him for dealing with executives who might want to change his PULSE script.

It was during this productive period in the ‘70s that Golding also started writing what would eventually become PULSE.  Copyrighted under various names including CURRENTS, HOUSE, and TRACT, the story’s genesis began with an innocuous comment by one of Golding’s friends. “I was living in a house in Eagle Rock, which is next to Glendale, California,” Golding explains, “basically a tract house.  After I had just gotten divorced, I got a number of friends in from USC to come share the house with me so I wouldn’t be lonely.  One of them was Caleb Deschanel, who is one of the best cinematographers ever.  I remember one morning at breakfast he came in and said, ‘You know, it’s so weird.  Last night I was just listening to the little sounds the house makes – the furnace turning on and off and the flexing of the pipes – it was like the house was alive and it was taking care of me.’ He wasn’t used to central heating. That idea kind of stuck with me for a while and I started thinking about the dark side of the house taking care of you and it kind of grew out of that.”

Helping expand that seed of an idea was the story another friend told Golding about a computer he built for the telephone company that eventually reprogrammed itself to avoid the very problem it was built to detect.  Those ideas combined with Golding’s desire to tell a tale about our increasing dependence on technology resulted in the story of a married couple trapped in a house by an evil current.  “The film did evolve,” he says of his script.  “It wasn’t until the later stages that I solved the ultimate problem in the film.  The ultimate problem in any ‘haunted house’ film is why they just don’t get out.  To hell with the mortgage, you’re going to die if you stay.  The solution to that was making the main character a kid because he simply just couldn’t get out.  That solved my problem and the last couple of drafts were with the boy as the main character in it.”

One of the screenplay’s best (and most admirable) elements is that Golding refuses to explain just what exactly the evil electricity is.  It just appears in the grid after a lightning bolt hits a power station.  We don’t know if the current is of alien origin, man-made or even a ghost in electrical form.  Naturally, such ambiguity is frowned upon by movie executives. When asked if he was told to change his script to explain it more, Golding replies, “Endlessly. They always wanted to know more. Take a film like POLTERGEIST (1982), which I really enjoyed up until the end.  It is very well made and a very good story.  I hated that there was this burial ground explanation. Whenever you see the monster, it is always a letdown.”

The ominous lightning bolt in the opening of PULSE:

Regardless of the ambiguity, the script drew immediate interest.  “I really don’t know what the actual number is,” he states, “but I’ve been telling people that I sold it nine times.  Maybe it was eight or it was ten.  I sold options on it basically.  I sold a first look on it before I wrote it to some people.”  Golding even once sold the script outright as a TV movie, a move that thankfully never panned out.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, Golding reasserted the idea of getting PULSE off the ground.  A kink emerged early on when POLTERGEIST opened and several people deemed PULSE as too similar.  Golding had also worked with friends Andrew Davis and David Gilbert on writing the hip-hop film BEAT STREET (1984).  It was seeing Davis, who was the film’s original director, fired that steeled his trepidation of directing his own script.  “I sat with him at the bar that night after he had been fired and I saw the pain,” he discloses. “I thought to myself afterward, ‘Well, that is about as bad as it gets and he’s alive.’ So I thought I can’t do any less and that kind of stiffened me.”

Golding had support from his friend and manager William McEuen, who eventually set PULSE up under his Aspen Film Society company with Columbia lined up as distributor.  Columbia was in a period of transition in 1986/87 as parent company Coca-Cola (yes, they were owned by the soda manufacturer) sold off Embassy Pictures, Embassy Home Entertainment and The Walter Reade Organization. British film producer David Puttnam and David Picker were installed as Columbia’s CEO/Chairman and President, respectively.  Known for producing less Hollywood and more dramatic fare, the Two Davids added PULSE to their schedule with a budget of $6 million dollars.  In addition to being given a healthy budget, Golding was also allowed to pick his own producer and selected Patricia Stallone for the job.

Golding set out to cast the film and a number of familiar faces including Tommy Lee Jones auditioned for the role of the father, Bill.  Golding relays an amusing anecdote with regards to one casting session.  “Our casting agents had done ST. ELSEWHERE,” he explains, “so we got a number of people through them for various parts.  And one of them was David Morse.  It was amazing.  He did a scene and after he left we all looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow, he’s it. That’s fantastic.’  He killed it.  There was a power in that room that came from him and that was just awesome.  And then we looked at the tape and [the great performance] wasn’t there.  It was the strangest thing I’d ever encountered.”

Thankfully, casting the film’s main character was much easier.  In a town known for terrible tykes, Golding was fortunate to land 11-year-old Joey Lawrence as his lead. Already a showbiz veteran with 77 episodes of GIMME A BREAK under his belt, Lawrence came in and immediately wowed the filmmakers.  “Joey was pretty much automatic,” Golding reveals. “His parents walked in with him and it was, ‘Okay, he can do it.’  He’s got the experience, the look and he is the right age.  I don’t think we interviewed maybe one other person before we decided he’s it.”

The acquisition of Lawrence also proved to be a bit of a package deal as his younger brother Matthew also snagged the role of friendly neighbor Stevie.  “When Joey’s parents came in, they said, ‘We also have Matty here.’  Matty couldn’t read [but] had memorized that whole long speech that he does on the curbside with Joey and he just knocked it out of the ballpark.”

Filming began in May 1987 in California with a bulk of the exteriors taking place in a four house cul-de-sac.  The great W.C. Fields once opined that a filmmaker should never work with animals or children, but Golding had very few problems with Lawrence. “The biggest problem I had with Joey was the TV thing,” he says. “TV acting and movie acting are very different.  TV acting is a small screen and you’ve got to put a lot into it to come across; in movies it is a very big screen and you need to be a lot more subtle.  There was the scene where Joey has his experience with Charles Tyner and he is totally upset.  When we did the first look at that scene, Joey was television.  He was waving his arms.  I said, ‘Okay, look, you’ve got to tone it down.  You’ve got to keep the same intensity but you can’t do the thing with your hands, okay?’  So he did it again and they kept sneaking out.  So I said, “Okay, sit on your hands literally.”  Instead of doing the wide shot first, we did his close up first and he literally had to sit on his hands.  If they started to move out from underneath his legs, I’d say cut and we’d do it again.”

Editing ran concurrent to shooting and, despite his background as an editor, Golding put full trust in his cutter, Gib Jaffe.  Fans of the film will be interested to know that the original cut ran 2 hours and several scenes found their way onto the cutting room floor. “There is a scene,” he divulges, “that was alluded to where Joey says, ‘Yeah, [Ellen] took me riding.’ That was a scene up in the hills with these big electric transmission lines and she tells the story of when she was a little girl and they put these power lines in and then these tract houses happened after that and she somehow thought that there were signals that caused that to happen. It adds to his thought process.  It just wasn’t a good enough scene and we decided the film moved better without it. That was the most important [cut].  We also had some scenes that we shot in Colorado of him with his mother before he comes.  We just see suitcases in the hallway and him playing with other kids. At that point early in the film we just felt it was going on too long.”

When film wrapped, Golding had come in one day early on principal photography and one million dollars under budget. While most would consider this a feat to be lauded, Golding found out that in Hollywood it wasn’t considered desirable.  “I was informed by someone who knew these things that that was not good,” he says.  “I thought it was great!  We made the film and I got everything I wanted and it is a million dollars less.  But they said when the studio sees you’ve come in a million dollars under budget they’re going to feel cheated.  They know that that script ought to cost six million dollars and if you only spent five, you must have cheated them somehow.  So we found ways to spend the other million dollars. I understood what they were saying, it made insane sense.”

Various PULSE video boxes (click to enlarge):

Golding eventually used this money to secure what is perhaps one of the film’s best technical features, Macro photography.  While they did discuss the effects with his pal Lucas’ ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) studio, Golding eventually went with a more unconventional choice.  “The people from Oxford Scientific Films came to us when we were looking for people to do it and they had a wonderful reel of material.  They had designed this rig over in England that could do extraordinary close up, macro photography.  They definitely wanted to bring their equipment over to Hollywood and get it done here, but that was at the point in time when we really needed to add money to the budget, so I said, ‘No, we’ll all come over there.’  It was all done at their studio at Oxfordshire.

“They are all extreme, extreme close ups.  We didn’t build any models to photograph.  We used real microcircuit and regular circuits.  The only trickery we did is in the scene inside the television set where the electronic pathways are reconfiguring themselves.  That was photographed and then played backwards.”

Several examples of the Macro-photography, 
creating an almost alien-like landscape:

With the film completed in the fall of 1987, Golding screened the final product for friends and Columbia executives.  The reaction proved far beyond anything Golding could have anticipated.  “David Picker, the President of Columbia the time, was sitting a couple of seats over,” he reveals.  “At the end of the film David came up to me and said, ‘Feel my hands.’ It was the weirdest thing anyone had ever said to me. He said, ‘Feel my hands, my palms are sweating.’ He said, ‘I love this film, this is a great film.  We’re going to do this and that.  We’re going to do a 70 mm blowup.  We’ll release it separately in New York and L.A. to get word of mouth [going] and this will be our big film this summer.’”

Unfortunately, this excitement was short lived.  In late September 1987, Putnam and Picker were removed from their posts at Columbia.  Former Paramount executive Dawn Steel was announced as the incoming President on October 28, 1987 and this essentially gave PULSE a flat line.  Rather than judge a film solely by its own merit, Steel adopted the Hollywood mindset of “I can’t support what my predecessor produced” and dumped an entire slate of releases between January and March 1988.  Of all the pictures (including Spike Lee’s SCHOOL DAZE, Richard Benjamin’s LITTLE NIKITA, and Terry Gilliam’s THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, which would sit on the shelf an additional year), PULSE received the roughest treatment as it was given a limited two market opening in Oklahoma and Texas on March 4, 1988.  Golding had gone from the perfect situation – directing his own script with zero studio interference and support from the highest executives – to a frustrating nightmare of studio politics. “Until the dream got popped by Dawn Steel, it was a dream scenario,” he laments.

Columbia's early 1988 release schedule 
(notice the number of February & March dates):

The unceremonious dumping of PULSE obviously bothered the filmmakers.  So much so that a lead article in Variety on March 8, 1988 appeared under the title “PULSE Makers Charge Columbia Is Dumping Film.”  It was doubly disappointing as the film received excellent reviews from The Houston Post and Variety.  Golding, however, had little time to mourn as he was soon onto his next project, co-writing and directing a film adaptation of BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS.  “At that point, I had been on a new journey of discovery with Kurt Vonnegut,” he details of his time post-PULSE release.  “He had been my hero forever, so the idea of working on a Vonnegut novel as a film was very cool and it kind of put behind me what had just happened.”

The project was set up at Handmade Films and the company even went so far as to announce a specific shooting start date (June 19, 1989) in Variety.  “They had a budget of $7 million dollars and I had gone over it with their production person,” he reveals, “I had gone through to do the board and overall budget.  We agreed that as long as the above the line [talent] didn’t get out of hand that the film could be made from the script that Peter Bergman and I have written.”  Golding’s ideal scenario would have seen Robin Williams as Dwayne Hoover and Gene Hackman as Kilgore Trout.  Unfortunately, the film never made it before the cameras.  While declining to offer specifics, Golding does mention it was an honor to work with one of his heroes and says Vonnegut was pleased with their script, which made several huge alterations to the source novel, changes that the author admired (more on that can be read on Golding’s website here).    

Golding continued to write with the screenplay EUDAEMONIC PIE (“a bunch of brilliant young scientists who go off to take on Las Vegas with a computer in the sole of their shoes” he says of the plot).  Soon, however, he found himself like a character in PULSE and at the mercy of modern technology.  “My wife and I ended up taking the advice of her son,” he explains of his post-Hollywood work, “and opening a store because she had a business background.”

Together they opened an internet store right as it was taking off and ended up literally catching a “wave” at the right place at the right time. “We sold a little of this and a little of that,” he says. “Then we put a product called the Leatherman Wave on there.  Leatherman didn’t have very good distribution, but it had an enormous reputation; when we put that online, we literally started receiving orders faster than we could print them.  We got a faster printer.”

Golding relocated to New York in the new millennium and he and his wife restored a farm house they bought together.  Although it would appear his filmmaking years are behind him, Golding had a surprising answer when asked if he ever thought of doing a sequel or remake to PULSE. “I wrote a screenplay right after PULSE,” he reveals, “a film that I never sold. [It’s] a detective story that, in a sense, is almost a sequel. Right now we’re all trying to get together and figure out how to get it made. Originally it was called AAMES, but right now it is recently re-titled MACROCHIP.  It is certainly not the same characters.  It has the same kind of thematic content of this thing that’s bigger [than the characters] and in this case is almost, but not quite, explained.”  He is currently developing it with local filmmaker Jon Cring and it will allow Golding to work with his son Nick, who is also a film editor.

Twenty six years after PULSE’s inauspicious release, it is a testament to the film and Golding’s filmmaking skills that people are still talking about the film.  Golding has even screened it twice in Schenectady to appreciative audiences.  “It is nice that other people have seen it.  It is nice that people say good things about it to me,” he says.

As for his own thoughts on the film, Golding is modest in his assessment.  “I thought it was pretty good,” he says.  “I’d give it a B+.”

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Listomania: Will's April Showers of Cinematic Sadness

I once got accused of having a movie muse with the attention span as fast as a hummingbird’s wings fluttering.  I didn’t disagree.  For some reason in April 2014 I found myself craving some late ‘80s/early ‘90s thrillers.  Somehow I ended up watching two made by Europeans that were both set in the deserts of America.

DELUSION (1991) – When his computer company is swallowed up by a big corporation, yuppie George O’Brien (Jim Metzler) cracks a plan to embezzle a couple of hundred thousand and head to New Mexico to start up a new business.  Alone in his Volvo in the desert with cash in the trunk, he comes upon trouble when a car speeds by him and wrecks.  He stops to help the occupants – Chevy (Kyle Secor) and Patti (Jennifer Rubin) – and soon is driving them to the next town.  As you can expect, he’s soon being held hostage by this dimwitted Bonnie and Clyde.  Belgian director Carl Colpaert made his U.S. feature debut on this, apparently one of those films lucky enough to get one of the $1 million dollar budgets Columbia was throwing to young indie filmmakers in the wake of SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989).  The “held against your will in your car” storyline is fertile ground for tension (like Mario Bava’s RABID DOGS [1974] or Robert Harmon’s THE HITCHER [1986]), but that doesn’t really seem to be Colpaert’s intent here.  In fact, I’m not so sure what his intent was outside of capturing some incredible desert scenery.  Oh, and Jennifer Ruben topless.  The film is quirky though and has some good performances.  Although it should be noted Secor adopts one of the worst voices I’ve heard an actor attempt, resulting him sound like that dense “which way did he go, which way did he go, George” cartoon character. Adding insult to injury, the lead character is named George.

EYE OF THE STORM (1991) – Ten years after their parents were murdered by robbers, Ray (Craig Sheffer) and Steven (Bradley Gregg), who was blinded in the attack, run a roadside motel on a lonely stretch of desert road.  Trouble arrives in the form of Marvin Gladstone (Dennis Hopper) and his young wife Sandra (Lara Flynn Boyle), checking into the motel after Marvin drunkenly drove his car off the road.  This is actually bad news for the bickering couple heading to Las Vegas to renew their vows as one of the two brothers has a bit of a personality problem of the Norman Bates variety.  Russian born director Yuri Zeltser, one of several screenwriters on BAD DREAMS (1988), made his directing debut on this thriller, which also came out via Columbia (alongside New Line Cinema).  The desert diner location is amazing and the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous (make sure to check out the widescreen version, see pic below).  Unfortunately, Zeltser tips his hand way too early as to who the killer is so the suspense during the last half hour is pretty minimal.  Worth seeing once though, just for shots of Boyle in her bikini and the stellar performance put on by Gregg.

Of course, my desire for desert set flicks would eventually leave me high and dry as I encountered…

LEGION (2010) – Our buddy John Charles said it best: “You want an example of a movie that starts well and then drops off a cliff? LEGION is Exhibit A.”  I remember seeing the ads for this before it hit theaters in January 2010.  The previews started off cool, but then melted down into a CGI mess.  Amazingly, they captured the film perfectly.  A group of strangers end up together at a desert roadside diner, not knowing the world is ending back in the big cities.  A mysterious stranger (Paul Bettany) shows up armed to the teeth and gives them the lowdown – he’s a renegade angel from heaven who didn’t want to follow through with God’s plan to give up on humanity.  Soon the place is besieged with possessed humans who are looking to get the pregnant waitress (Adrianne Palicki), who, of course, carries the future of civilization in her womb.  Man, this flick is running smoothly for the first 45 minutes or so that I thought it might be some undiscovered gem, but then it falls apart quickly. The first half felt almost like an extreme action version of Gregory Widen’s awesome THE PROPHECY (1995), so it is a shame that debuting director Scott Stewart lets it all collapse into a CGI mess.  Of course, Stewart’s background is in visual FX so maybe that is where he felt most comfortable.  It is too bad because the premise is good and had the script been given a few more passes to properly develop the characters, it could have been something.  Oddly, despite the film flopping in theaters, the premise will be continued this summer on the SyFy sequel series called DOMINION, with Stewart again in the director’s chair for the pilot.

DEATH FLASH (1986) – Flash!  Ahhhhhhh, he’ll save every one of us…oh, sorry, wrong flick.  After getting my brain scrambled by the WTF action flick REVOLT (1986), I hoped for more of the same with DEATH FLASH. This is a Tony Zarindast flick that I still have no idea what that title means after watching it.  Cop Johnny Duncan (A.J. Nay) lives with his singer girlfriend and his younger sister.  He is one of those protective older brothers you only see in the movies who asks, “Are you really going to wear that?” when his sister is wearing a slinky outfit.  His life gets turned upside down one night when he confronts his girlfriend’s stalker and ends up accidentally shooting him.  He’s arrested but soon has to escape when he finds out his sister is being seduced by the world of cocaine.  Hey, overprotective brothers have to overprotect.  I’ve seen a couple of Zarindast flicks, but can barely remember them.  Hell, I can barely remember this while typing up this write up.  All I know is that I’m still hoping for that badass movie shown in that VHS cover.  There are a couple of amusing bits like a bar shootout ten minutes into the flick where no one can hit anything or when Johnny hijacks a helicopter and asks the pilot where his sister is being taken (“I don’t know, I’m just a pilot” he says before blurting out the exact place the villains are going with his sister).  Not enough to recommend it though.  Naturally, it sent me into the bad movie love/hate relationship as I started looking for more Zarindast flicks.  I had to order more of his films afterward and have the amazingly titled HARDCASE AND FIST (1989) – starring Ted Prior and Carter Wong - lined up for a near future viewing.  I’m sure I’ll be back next month talking about how it didn’t deliver the goods.

GROTESQUE (1988) – I recently did one of those “how many of these 1980s horror flicks have you seen” polls and ended up with a respectable 85 out of 100.  Of course, my pessimistic mind could only say, “There are 15 you haven’t seen? You loser!”  For anyone interested, here were the unseen fifteen.


Thankfully, I was eligible for Tom’s S.A.P. (Slasher Advantage Program) and he soon hooked me up with copies of SILENT MADNESS, FINAL EXAM, DEATH SCREAMS, and GROTESQUE.  11 more to go, ma!  GROTESQUE tells the story of friends Lisa (Linda Blair) and Kathy (Donna Wilkes) heading up into the California mountains to spend a weekend with Linda’s mom and dad at their cabin.  Oh, dad also happens to be a movie special effects guy, so expect lots of wacky “fooled you” gags from the man.  Soon a group of “only in the movies” punks show up and head to the house to rob the family.  Why?  Because the dad works in the movies and everybody who works in the movies is filthy, stinkin’ rich. Unfortunately, the punks don’t know about Patrick, the family’s grotesque child hiding in the house.

Woe be unto him who feels some strange urge to be a horror movie list completist.  Maybe there is a reason I never saw GROTESQUE before?  Truthfully, if this film didn’t have the same actors running through it you would think this was two separate films edited together.  The first half of the movie focuses on Blair’s character and her plight with the punks.  At roughly the 50 minute mark, she all but disappears as her uncle (Tab Hunter) shows up and plots his revenge on the punks.  To say the film ends up feeling disjointed would be an understatement.  Director Joe Tornatore had made THE ZEBRA FORCE (1976) and CODE NAME: ZEBRA (1987) prior to this, so it wasn’t like he was an exploitation neophyte.  Some choices are just downright bad, like the lack of gore or nudity. And then there is the casting of Brad Wilson as the lead punk Scratch.  There is over-the-top and then there is this dude.  Seriously, they must have had a medic onset at all times to both monitor his blood pressure and insert his eyeballs back into their sockets after they pop out for the umpteenth time.  Even worse, Tornatore had B-movie baddie veteran Robert Z’Dar at his disposal and only cast him as sidekick villain who gets one line.  (I’m sure Z’Dar took it on the chin when he found out he wasn’t the lead bad guy.)  On the plus side, we do get to see Z’Dar with a mohawk.  Of course, all of this is just minor stuff compared to the totally insane ending Tornatore comes up with.  I won’t ruin it here, but it is comes so far out of left field that M. Night Shyamalan would go, “Dude, what the hell was that?”  

Monday, May 5, 2014

Sci-Fried Theater: THE MAN WHO WAS CHASED BY A UFO (1976)

The Spanish are not exactly known for their sci-fi cinema. Just like the Swedes don’t really know how to do horror and Americans can’t do ambiguity. Allegedly one of the first Spanish science fiction films ever, this one may have also been the last (although I did absolutely no research into that presumption). It is so completely threadbare, clumsy and confused that it has been reported that on opening night Ed Wood heckled it from the back row.

Opening with newsreel footage of UFO pics from around the world, we are told that UFOs are responsible for electrical blackouts dating back to, well, the invention of electricity. Not that this has any bearing on anything that is about to happen. Narrated in the first person, novelist Alberto(Richard Kolin) is stressing about the deadline for the completion of a book for his publisher. Little does he know that humanoid aliens are landing on earth ready to unleash mutants who are looking for one man, him! Why? Not a clue, but I’m sure the reason is very important as it must have cost a fortune. I’m sure the balsa-wood and crash-helmets are just a clever fa├žade to avoid notice. The aliens also have their own language and greet each other by saying… wait for it… “klaatu barada nikto!” I feel like I've heard that somewhere before.

In desperate need of uhhh “inspiration”, Alberto goes to visit his “friend” to release his “writer’s block.” Actually, he’s too dense to pick up on the fact that the sexy bottle-blonde Carol (Spanish sexploition star Lynn Endersson) is trying to get some action. She gives him a sultry look and says that she could give him something to write about, while stroking her stocking-clad thigh. To which Alberto replies “it would be out of my genre and style, my subjects are western and detective novels.” Hoo-boy, this guy is the life of the party. As soon as it appears that Carol is going to make her point in a somewhat more obvious fashion, we dissolve to a lizard and then cut to Alberto walking down a dirt road and picking up a lizard tail! Don't look at me, I have no answers.

Next thing we know, the mutants, who we are told are “dressed up as humans” (ie wearing suits with painted stockings over their heads), are stealing Alberto’s car and run it over a cliff. Of course we don’t actually see it go over the cliff, because that would cost too much. Instead we get a POV shot of someone moving the camera around while at the bottom of a cliff. After fending off the mutants with a brick, Alberto hightails it to the cops. Of course when I say “hightails”, I mean he stops at the Carol’s house to warn her (she is busy with another man), hitches a ride with a nervous driver who he dupes into letting him drive so that he can speed along the twisty mountain roads and jump a cliff “Dukes of Hazzard” style! Presumably this is simply a ploy to pad the film to feature length, but you never know, writer-director Juan Carlos Olaria may have decided that the film needed a car stunt, in spite of the fact that he had no money to do it with and had to resort to miniatures. I swear on the lives of my unconceived children, I promise you, I am not making this up.

Worst carjacking attempt ever.

Of course the police are all too happy to investigate his claim of alien life-forms jacking his car, but unfortunately for Alberto, them aliens are smarter than the average bear and have attached the car to their saucer, flown it out into space and the dropped it into orbit around the Earth! And you thought your local impound yard was a bitch. Since there is no carpus delicti (yeah, like you could do better), the cops aren’t buying into his story about flying saucers and mutants, because if there was a car, the whole thing would totally make sense.

Finally, after Alberto has a nightmare in which he is buried in the sand on a beach while a German shepherd wanders around before biting his neck and then waking up to the aliens talking to him through his TV, the detective on the case starts believing Alberto’s story. When Alberto goes to visit his best friend’s wife to say goodbye, he turns down her advances after she greets him in an open robe. What the hell is this guy saving it for? The anal probe?

The aliens have had enough of this surreptitious crap and zap a hole in a cops head with a laser that shoots from their hands. With the cop out of the way they bust into Alberto’s new safe house only to have their bits hacked off with a sickle that Alberto keeps by the bed for just such occasions. Or maybe he keeps it there to fend off all the hot chicks who are trying to put the moves on him. Either way, it’s not made clear. The mutants bleed yellow blood (which we know is true, because we’ve all seen 1979's PHANTASM) and can reattach their severed parts, though maybe not in the smartest way since one of them attaches a head to his shoulder. I guess now we know why there are no mutant rocket scientists.

Ray Milland and Rosie Greer in a role that will surprise you!

Ultimately a UFO does in fact chase Alberto. It flies behind him down a dirt road and goes on for about one seventh of the films total running time, but feels like an eternity. It's not so amazing that a UFO is chasing him, what is amazing is that this chain smoking novelist can run for 10 minutes without running out of breath. Once abducted, the aliens explain why they wanted Alberto in the first place, and not a minute too soon as we are a full hour into the film! The aliens are from another parallel dimension that mirrors earth in every way (except for the advanced space travel, the higher understanding of the universe and the ability to create robot mutants of course) and if either of them were to enter the other’s space, they would all die. Oh well, why didn’t you say so? Wait, WHAT?! Don’t worry, we get an elaboration on that explanation. You see these mutants are trying to wrap their collective heads around the concept of antimatter and have gotten the notion that they can totally figure all of this out if they kidnap a depressed novelist who couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse with a bag of coke and a fistful of Benjamins. Hey, I said it was an explanation, I didn't say it was a good one.

Aliens love TV too

The upshot of the movie seems to be an environmental message, particularly at the end when the aliens go on a lengthy rant about how the Earth is over populated and is suffering from climate change and everyone is doomed. Wait, does this mean Al Gore is from a parallel dimension? That would explain so much! Either way, this is one bumpy ride. At no point does Olaria manage to follow a cohesive thought for more than five minutes at a time and even though it looks like it was shot in a weekend, it feels like it was shot over a few years with Olaria forgetting what he had shot previously. Clearly Olaria doesn’t have two pesetas to rub together and his staging will leave you yearning for the lavish production values of an Alfonso Breccia epic.

Amazingly Olaria became somewhat famous, at least in Spain, for this his first of only two feature films. It has something of a cult following, which is actually understandable as the movie does have a certain charm and it's definitely not pandering to the mainstream. Purportedly the film was dubbed into English for a broader release. I haven’t been able to find anything proving that it played in the US, but if it did, it was a small distributor who ran it briefly in drive-ins and grindhouses to a presumably chemically pacified audience. His second film shot in 1982 was titled THE RED JOURNAL and has never been released, allegedly due to Olaria’s reluctance to have people see it. No, really. That is the reason.

As of last year, believe it or not, Olaria is attempting to get a sequel financed. Titled SON OF THE MAN WHO WAS CHASED BY A UFO, this is particularly odd since Alberto seemed just as afraid of sex as he was afraid of a bunch of alien mutants who look like rejects from a Lucha Libre academy. The plot details are (unsurprisingly) non-existent, but there is a crowd-funding campaign to produce a documentary on the making of this still unfinanced sequel. Did your head just explode? Mine did.

Billy Meier's BFF, Juan Carlos Olaria

Friday, May 2, 2014

Listomania: Thomas' Showers of Gold for April 2014

My desk is buried under notes made on literally dozens of movies that never got reviewed, either due to real life interruptions, priority changes or just a shiny ball of tinfoil flying past my periphery. Here are a few. Hopefully this will be interesting to the people who don't just read our blog for the porn parody reviews, because there aren't any. Just parodies made by pornographers.

TRAPPED (1982): Revisiting BLUE MONKEY (1987) has led me to revisiting much of William Fruet's work, and seeing a few of his films for the first time. How I never managed to stumble across this, his quasi-DELIVERANCE with the great Henry Silva as a southern hillbilly (!) with a killin' streak a mile wide, I'll never know.

After having a heated debate over the potential positives of murder in a college classroom a group of twenty-somethings head out to the hills to do some camping. Unfortunately for them they picked the wrong hills and witness a rural village leader Henry Chatwill (Henry Silva) killing a man that they had tarred and feathered for sleeping with his wife. Of course Henry ain't going to let a group of big city kids get this information to the local law man, who happens to be his stepbrother. As it turns out ol' Henry has been taking the unwritten law into his own hands on a regular basis as anyone who gets near the settlement ends up permanently disappearing.

While TRAPPED doesn't engage in any major twists in the plot, it is so well done with such pitch-perfect performances that it becomes a major player in the hillbilly horror genre. Silva was always an actor who gave 110% and here is no different. Nobody can hiss and spit profanities quite like he does and if you want "unhinged", Silva delivers it in spades. As utterly miscast as he is, Silva tears up the scenery in a way that is only rivaled by his sweaty, psychotic performance in SHARKY'S MACHINE (1981). If this genre is in your wheelhouse, this is essential viewing.

HAMMERHEAD (1987): Even on a bad day Enzo G. Castellari makes great exploitation cinema. My least favorite of his films, 1971's COLD EYES OF FEAR, is not a bad movie, it's just not my kind of movie. This Miami and Jamaica shot action flick may be the cheapest film he's ever made, pre-turn of the century, but since it's Castellari, it still manages to be well executed fun in the right frame of mind.

Daniel Greene (of HANDS OF STEEL fame) is Hammer, a tough, loose-cannon Miami cop who just lost his buddy to a none-to-subtle hitman (Frank Zagarino). What do you mean, "that's all"? What more do you need? Time to crank up Guns and Roses (I'm guessing you could liscense a G&R song pretty damn cheap in '87)! Says Hammer "I'm comin' after you muthafuckaaa!" At which point he does. This leads to a car chase (with some painful wrecks), a motorcycle chase, and an awesome slo-mo shootout on a Miami subway platform accompanied by fuzzy guitars on the soundtrack. Honestly the movie could end here and I'd be happy, but there's more! Naturally all this muthafucka activity causes his chief (with Miami-esque borscht-belt shtick) to blow his stack and sends Hammer on vacation to Jamaica! Damn, maybe that's why there are so many police shootings in the US. Need a tropical vacation to get away from it all? Smoke some dude in the subway and you're set! Once in Jamaica (looking suspiciously like Florida), Hammer discovers that trouble has followed him.

For no adequately explained reason, all of Hammer's Nam buddies are in Jamaica running a motorcycle club called The Storm Riders (yes, in Jamaica). Shortly after rekindling their bromance, the bikers start getting killed off one by one. Naturally this means he has to... wait for it... go after those "muthafuckaaaas!" Oh, and Nancy Lee, of Paul Kyriazi's WEAPONS OF DEATH (1981) and NINJA BUSTERS (1984) also pops up, amusingly miscredited as "Nandy Lee".

Castellari does an amazing job of covering up the fact that this movie was made with a budget so low even the producers of EXTRA LARGE would wince. I remember when I was working corporate catering, I asked my boss what the budget for a particular event was going to be and was told "start at zero, then work your way backwards." I get the feeling Castellari was given the same numbers to work with. Even so, he works in plenty of high-speed chases on land, water and by foot and bullets fly at the drop of a biker. It moves so fast and throws in enough hilarious dialogue, inventive set-pieces and great camerawork that you never really notice how much money the production doesn't have.

PARKER (1985): Not to be confused with the recent Jason Statham/J Lo vehicle, this grim arthouse crime-thriller stars Bryan Brown as an Australian toy salesman who lives in England, frequently visiting Germany on business and pleasure. After a visit to the opera, he is suddenly kidnapped and held for 11 days in a small concrete room by balaclava-clad captors. Oddly, he is released unharmed in the middle of the woods and the police are having a hard time buying his story. Apparently in Germany, when someone gets kidnapped, they have the scars to prove it. Parker (Brown) becomes obsessed with finding his kidnappers and learning why he was kidnapped and who paid his ransom. To elaborate on the movies details would spoil it.

Veteran British TV director Jim Goddard would follow this up with the wildly different, and far more notorious Sean Penn and Madonna fiasco SHANGHAI SURPRISE (1986), which pretty much sent his career right back to the small screen. It's pretty amazing since PARKER hardly seems like a mainstream movie. It's told in a non-linear fashion which makes it far more interesting to follow than if it was told straight-forward with Parker simply being kidnapped and then gunning for justice. Not that I wouldn't watch that movie either, but this film is actually well crafted in all respects and embraces minimalism, particularly in its approach to the score. Scenes are allowed to play out without music blaring constantly on the soundtrack. Aside from the modern plot details, the film has an interesting sense of being disjointed in time as well. The film opens with cowboys riding through the forest and making camp complete with harmonica, mouth harp and a coffee pot over the fire. At other times it is almost a gothic chiller with deep shadows, flickering lamps and a foreboding sense of claustrophobia and sweaty paranoia. Maybe not a perfect film, but it is certainly interesting and memorable. Far more so than the video box implies, and well deserving of a cleaned-up, widescreen release.

ARMSTRONG (1998): What can you say about a movie that stars Frank Zagarino, Richard Lynch, Charles Napier, Joe "Chicken Legs" Lara, was written and directed by a post-Cannon Menahem Golan and has the clumsy tag-line "The Cold War Has Just Heated Up"? If you are anything like me and feel that grammatical errors in association with film marketing is an indication of quality, you will no doubt say to yourself and anyone within earshot, "I have to see that!"

Ex-Seal Armstrong (Zagarino), a freelance securities consultant in Russia, is visited by his old commander Bob (Napier) who has come to Russia with his daughter, err, I mean wife (Kimberly Kates) to get Armstrong to do (wait for it) one last job for his country. Apparently there are some very angry men who are selling nukes on Russian soil and the Prez wants Armstrong to take 'em out. No covert-ops team sent in with pin-point surgical skill, just a rogue mercenary who no longer answers to the American brass. I'm sure that'll be fine, congress probably refused to back the real plan and this is just all he could come up with on short notice.

Joe Lara, working on his membrum inferius complex.
As soon as the villains learn of this plot, they are on top of it, attacking Armstron in his tiny apartment, by lobbing grenades while using an end-table for cover. They also try the old "room-service" ploy with the villain's right hand (Lara) growling at the room-service waiter "not one word or you serve your food in hell!" The waiter wisely keeps mum, as I'm sure hell serves nothing but gas station sandwiches and nobody tips.

Minor amusements aside, the showstopper is Kates exiting the shower buck starkers and only having enough time to throw on a flimsy, see-through blouse and skirt before being chased through the streets of Bulgar- err, I mean Russia, over roof tops, cars and everything else in her path! Seriously if the Oscars weren't such a back-slappin', glorified high-school clique, this woman would have had an award... well, at least her stunt double would. Much like the tagline implies, there are a lot of left-overs being microwaved here and while I can't say it was a thrill-a-minute lost Cannon epic (more like a lost mid-range PM actioner), it isn't the worst way I've spent 90 minutes.

NEW YORK'S FINEST (1990): Chuck Vincent is one of the most erratic filmmakers I can think of off the top of my head. While half of his repertoire I will gladly *ahem* take other's at their word for, I've seen a few of his straight adult films and comedies and it can be a real case of Vincent Roulette. Some are interesting, some funny, others can be nerve-shredding endurance tests. Much like a side-street shell game, you pays your money and you takes your chances, except with Chuck, you have much better odds of coming up a winner.

Here Vincent takes a premise that would be considered marketable in the late '70s and works it at the beginning of the '90s! And I thought I was stuck in time. After helping the cops bust a drug lord who celebrates his birthday in a tub full of coke surrounded by topless prostitutes holding candles, three loud "Nue Yawk" hookers (Jennifer Delora, Ruth Collins, and Heidi Paine) decide that earning money on their backs ain't all what it's cracked up to be. The solution to their dilemma of poor career choices? They need to find some rich husbands! I guess everybody has to have their own goals in life.

Problem is these dames are about as classy as, well, three loud New York hookers. In order to turn into high-society ladies they steal a wad of cash from their female pimp (who is inconceivably louder and more New Yorky than they are) and enlist the help of drag performer Dougie (Scott Baker) who is apparently an expert on the subject. Dougie doubles as both their uncle and aunt, not to mention their etiquette obsessed drill sergeant. Lots (and I do mean lots) of situational goofballery ensues with gags that will take you right back to the days when you wasted your afternoons watching "Three's Company" reruns. Fortunately, aside from two torturously unfunny drag musical numbers that make nails on a chalkboard seem like Giuseppe Verdi, it is fast, breezy and frequently funny. Even the groaners are worthy of a chuckle, such as when a restaurant matre'd asks the girls about a reservation, the blonde says "you have indians here?" It also helps that Chuck, being Chuck, features tops flying off faster than hats at a grad ceremony. Works for me, anyway.

A candid photo from Will's last birthday party.