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, July 12, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: THE RIFT (aka ENDLESS DESCENT; 1990)

In the 1980s the Italians held the world cup for gore drench low-budget horror films that explored the popular themes of the supernatural or the mad slasher. Lucio Fulci was the Pelé of his time, but he was part of a great team. The Spanish had pride in their team, but weren't as aggressive as Italy. In a bold burst of nationalism,  Juan Piquer Simon, better known as J.P. Simon, attacked the net with a film called THE NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND SCREAMS (1982), better known to the rest of the world as PIECES (1982). Backed by a brilliant American ad campaign sporting the one of the best straightforward ad lines of all time, "You don't have to go to Texas... for a Chainsaw Massacre", PIECES reworked the Italian giallo into a masterstroke of graphic chainsaw gore and wonderful absurdities. Six years later he followed up PIECES with SLUGS (1988). Based on the Shaun Hutson novel of the same name, it may have actually upped the gross-out factor with gallons of blood, half-eaten faces, exploding heads and one of the most disturbing nude scenes in a mainstream horror film of the era (remember, this is back in a time where this kind of movie was actually shown in theaters). It, like PIECES, became an instant classic among a certain group. While most horror fans considered these movies to be beneath contempt, after the turn of the century, suddenly a new crowd of fans discovered them and they have become somewhat accepted.

The big question was, how could you follow up PIECES and SLUGS? A seemingly insurmountable task that came in an unexpected form, the sub-aquatic horror film. Released exactly one year after LEVIATHAN (1989) and in the same month as THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990), Simon fused the two movies into one: THE RIFT. Interestingly, the sub-aquatic horror films of the late '80s transmogrified into the submarine thrillers of the early '90s, and RED OCTOBER was big news long before it hit theaters. In the same way that The Asylum beats the blockbusters to the punch with their quick and dirty filmmaking, so did the Italians and Simon was cut from that cloth, though it was made into a different jersey (yes, I'm still torturing the hell out of that footie metaphor). Though I should point out that the similarity with The Asylum ends there. Even the dullest moment in THE RIFT (of which I honestly can't think of any) are 40,000 fathoms better than anything The Asylum has dumped on to the public at any point in its history.

I guess those reports of Scalia's coke habit are true.

Sporting a fine B-level cast, the film starts out with Wick Hayes (Jack Scalia), a submarine designer with a rocky past, who is sleeping off a voyage to the bottom of a bottle in a hotel room. Yes, this is not your average engineer, no pocket protector here. He works hard, drinks hard and uhhh, blow dries his hair hard. After being rustled out of bed by a couple of coporate security officers, he gets his ass handed to him by the president of the unnamed corporation he used to work for. You see he was designing a sub for civilian use (what sort of civilian use that would be is not clear, perhaps as part of the Princess Cruise line), when suddenly the military blew in and wanted to make nuclear modifications. Wick, who we must assume is one of those diesel enthusiasts, got his panties in a twist and marched off of the project and lost his marriage in the process. Now the sub, Sirius I, has gone missing and the finger is being pointed at him. It's all his fault because of his crappy design. Yeah, you know how it is in the corporate world. You always gotta have someone you can throw under the sub.

Wick's mission whether he decides to accept it or not, is to head out with a surly UN team on the Sirius II, to go look for Sirius I. The team on board, headed up by spit-polished, extra-starched Captain Phillips (R. Lee Ermey), has also gotten word that everything that has gone wrong is because of Wick. Firstly, if his dunderheadedness got them into this mess, how exactly is it going to get them out? Second, why would the company tell the crew this? The answer is, because the older you get, the more you realize the adult world is just like a grown-up version of kindergarten. Fortunately someone programmed a routine into the ship's computer that brings up a graphical display clearly delineating the changes that the military made to his original plans. Not that anybody cares. Matter of fact, the Captain figures the best course of action is to squash Wick by banning him from the bridge and chewing him out in his quarters. The rest of the crew eavesdrops on this because the control panel on the bridge has a button you can press to patch in the audio from the captain's cabin. Since I didn't see it in red on the monitor, I'm guessing that was in Wick's original design. Even worse than having the crew pitted against him and the captain busting his chops, his ex-wife just so happens to be the ship's science officer. Geeze, could this get any worse? I bet it can!

While travelling down into the rift after the Sirius I's black box signal, they discover some strange plantlife that should not exist at these depths - but yet it isn't too deep to send out a diver with a wet-suit and an aqualung. In an attempt to get a sample one of the crew members finds a corpse and is suddenly attacked by something with tentacles and is ripped into a bloody shreds. Of course our crew are no dummies and they realize something is wrong when his horrible screams echo through the deck, until someone says "Captain, there's something wrong here." There's nothing I love more than seeing a well-trained technician work his craft. Soon the crew discovers what exactly it was that killed the diver as a giant tentacled blob with a single eye attacks the sub. While more jaded viewers may find the miniature sub being attacked by a rubbery creature too hokey to bear, for me it felt like a throw-back to '60s sci-fi, except in the '60s we never had R. Lee Ermy giving folks the hairy eye-ball and lashings of splattery gore. To reinforce that modernization of '60s silliness Wick gives one of the best technobabble speeches this side of STAR TREK. In order to escape the clutches of the creature Wick shouts that they should "reverse [the] polarity of the ship's radar cloaking device! This should allow the outside electrical field to shock it!" Can you explain how that couldn't work? See? They got ya there.

Naturally this plan works, but not before the thing drags the sub down to a ledge, conveniently near a cave in which the signal is coming from. In addition to the signal, they know they are on the right track as the crew of the Sirius I were obviously too busy with their training to catch any Woodsey Owl PSA spots, as their calling card is a whole mess of trash left lying around the cave. At this point the film switches from amusing sub drama to full-fledged Bruno Mattei-ish madness with the crew performing a search and be-destroyed mission in the catacombs of this cave. The air is allegedly toxic, so fortunately for them, they have white CONTAMINATION (1980) suits with re-breathers. Not only a fashion statement, but exploding heads, ripped off limbs and ruptured torsos always look better in white.

Seriously... wtf?

One of the most bizarre creatures that attacks the crew in the final half of the movie is a bunch of phallic-shaped beasts, that come out of holes in the cave walls, whose heads look like two brains and a vagina. I'm guessing the special effects man, Basilio Cortijo, spent a little too much time alone with his latex in an unventilated room. Of course the crew discover that the whole thing is a completely absurd government cover-up of a DNA mutation machine, but not before being violently attacked by a dis-embodied hand, a dinosaur and a giant Lovecraftian tentacled thing. Plus we get the added bonus of having the seaweed sample grow, take over parts of the ship and mutate crew members ala LEVIATHAN. While I've mellowed a bit on my dislike of digital effects, I would much rather see something in camera. THE RIFT delivers these old-school, budget strapped effects by the boatload. Everything from miniatures, forced perspective, water tank, animatronics, pyrotechnics and good ol' fashioned exploding squibs are on display here. Not just on display, but wallowed in. Much like PIECES and SLUGS, Simon isn't content to play the "we'll save the effects for the last 10 minutes" game. Plus, if you enjoy things like monitors showing completely unrealistic graphic displays that are clearly meant to make things easier for the audience to understand we've got plenty.

Sharp-eyed readers (yes, all three of you) will notice that we have actually done a write up of this film already, under the title ENDLESS DESCENT. EpixHD has given the world a gift in the remastered, widescreen transfer of this aquatic epic that restores it to it's original gory glory that makes it almost a new experience. Yeah, so that might be a bit hyperbolic, but this film echoes the oldies in ways that you just won't see anymore and updates it with plenty of late '80s style splatter. This is probably my favorite of the subgenre (oh I slay me).

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: DARK DESCENT (2002)

“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
                                      – Michael Corleone

It was all supposed to go so smoothly.  Just one U.F.O. (Unified Film Organization) review with DEEP SHOCK (2003) and then I’d be out of their range.  Fate, however, had different plans. When I posted my review last week, fellow film fanatic Torsten Dewi – curator at the German site Wortvogel and co-writer of the best book on Charles Band – suddenly made me aware of more UFO films involving deep sea diving. Titles like ESCAPE UNDER PRESSURE (2000), DARK DESCENT (2002), and the shark themed duo of SHARK HUNTER (2001) and DARK WATERS (2001).  I didn’t know these films existed and didn’t need to know.  Then, as if some part of a conspiracy, Marty McKee – the man behind Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot – sweeps in and says, “DARK DESCENT is OUTLAND underwater.  And it’s terrrrrrible.”  Damn it…sold!

I chose this one since it had Dean Cain in it.  Oh, and because I’m a huge fan of OUTLAND (1981).  Cain’s rise to stardom is pretty unique in that he was an athlete who became an actor but could actually act. Signed to the Buffalo Bills after graduating from Princeton, Cain never got to play a second in the NFL due to a knee injury, so he turned his eyes toward acting (he had actually been in some films as a kid, including the drama THE STONE BOY [1984] directed by his stepdad Christopher Cain).  He toiled around for few years in small parts on TV before hitting it big by securing the lead role in LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.  Uh, he played Clark, not Lois. The show ran for four seasons (1993-97) and was pretty popular (according to Wikipedia, the third season averaged 15 million viewers per episode). It was so popular that rumors popped up that Cain and his co-star Teri Hatcher would also appear in a new theatrical Superman feature.  But taking a popular character and equally popular show and transferring it to the big screen just makes too much damn sense in Hollywood. So what did Warner Bros. do instead?  They paid Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage an obscene amount of money to not make a Superman film (the ill-fated SUPERMAN LIVES). Now that is some Hollywood logic right there.  Sadly, Cain’s career never recovered.  While he did get into theaters with the odd crime-comedy BEST MEN (1997), he soon found himself starring in tons of terrible direct-to-video features.  His career, you could say, took a DARK DESCENT.

The film opens with a plunge to the bottom of the ocean to a huge underwater mining installation.  Now what they mine is up to the viewer since we are never told; you’re on your own a lot with this film.  Whatever it is must be important as this huge facility houses a railway station, bars (imagine that episode of BAR RESCUE!), and whore houses to keep the Eastern European workers satisfied. Also keeping them in check is its own police force with Will Murdack (Dean Cain) as one of the top shotgun toting marshals.  Yes, shotgun toting…underwater facility. (“Hey, it worked on Jupiter’s moon,” screams writer-director Daniel Knauf.)  Along with his partner Niles (Scott Wiper), Murdack tangles with baddie Vlad (Julian Vergov) and his prostitute beating clan in the opening minutes.  One brother gets killed and Vlad swears his revenge, blah, blah, blah.  All in a day’s work for an underwater law enforcement office, who, as his boss says, keeps folks “free from fear, free from violence.”  Will Murdack also just happens to be retiring.  Did you say retiring? Uh oh.

Will and Miles also begin investigating a series of suicides among the crew men. Again, we’re given no timeframe here; we just cut to a scene of a guy telling them how a crew member fell into a hypnotic daze while out in the water (one of only two scenes that actually have people out in the ocean). Nine suicides have happened in the last month and the only common factor among these men is they were taking the drug Xyloban.  Damn, anyone remember Kamen Rider Xyloban? Will’s investigation takes him to Dr. Petrov (Valentin Ganev) the resident psychologist who you know is crazy because he obsesses over his matryoshka dolls.  Will had also been seeing him because of claustrophobia issues, the death of his wife and child, and dealing with his submerged sex partner Bin (Biliana Petrinska), who is now seeing Miles.

The "beautiful" life-altering
hallucinations seen by the crew...really!
As if all of this drama couldn’t get any worse, Will gets notice from his topside contact Marty (William Zabka) that Vlad and his cronies have been released from prison.  A guy named Marty delivering bad news?  Sounds familiar.  Seems some mysterious company paid Vlad’s $400,000 bail and he is heading back to the station for revenge.  Apparently arresting these men when they arrive is too much of a hassle for Will’s superior, so he just gets our lead on the first shuttle out of there.  But when Will sees a dangerous situation – a dazed worker has bored through the station walls with his jackhammer; apparently the walls are only an inch thick – he heads back to help out.  Also, he gets to do a little more investigating on what is going here with all of these suicides.  SPOILER: The Transglobal company has been giving men four times the legit dosage in order to increase productivity.  Wait, a corporation acting recklessly to increase profits? What is this silly fiction? END SPOILER  Anyway, we’re an hour in and not much has happened.  Finally, Vlad and his men arrive with their big guns. To show just how mean these men are, one of them grabs a magazine from someone and puts his cigar out on it.  Have you ever seen such cruelty?   Okay, can we finally see some action?

McKee was right in that this film is basically OUTLAND underwater, which really means that it is HIGH NOON (1952) underwater.  Writer-director Knauf – using the pseudonym Wilfred Schmidt (you know something is wrong when a guy takes a fake name to sound more German) – probably wasn’t even aware of that fact.  I’m willing to be he wasn’t aware of much.  DARK DESCENT will just leave viewers dangling regarding such silly concepts as coherent storytelling or an easy-to-follow timeline. For example, Knauf makes zero distinction in the transition from Vlad’s arrest to his subsequent escape and return.  Was it too hard to have a title card that said “six months later” or something?  Then again, this is a filmmaker who set his film underwater and only had two minutes of people actually underwater.  Even worse it is all CGI water.  I think the closest Cain came to getting wet on this film was his shower before heading to the set.

The sad part is that there are the makings of an enjoyable feature there.  After all, that is how the devious Marty hooked me – “OUTLAND underwater!”  The film actually does a few things right.  I think Cain exhibits a certain amount of charm and his final solution to dealing with Vlad by creating a nuclear meltdown is a ballsy and outlandish choice.  Ha, OUTLAND-ish!  Also, there are a couple of cool death scenes involving the closing iris doors that function in case of flooding.  Unfortunately, we’re still saddled with a budget that probably wouldn’t have covered the Nic Cage hairpieces in that failed Superman flick.  The majority of the action takes place on the same U-shaped hallway that looks like it was a set for a space station.  Knauf tries to get more value out of it by having different colored levels, but when your production value comes from switching light bulbs on the set, you know times are tight.  It is too bad because I really wanted to see OUTLAND underwater and after DARK DESCENT, I still do.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: THE RIG (2010)

I awoke to the sound of screaming. I was aware of being in a sauna. It had to be a sauna because I was covered in a hot sweat that covered every inch of my body. The sauna was softer than I expected and I discovered the source of the agonizing screams. They were mine. The sauna was blue. It was a living room sofa and before me the source of my internal scars. A DVD of THE RIG. How did I get to this close to reserving a room at Dr. Cracker's Wingnut Hotel? I'll tell you my wretched story as a warning to all who are foolish enough to follow in my path.

Since I talked about the Korean not-quite-as-submerged-as-we'd-like movie SECTOR 7 (2011), I figured what the hell, let's dive into a surprisingly similar American film. Unfortunately it was the shallow end.

Opening up with the only sub-aquatic shot in the entire film, we see a drillbit hit the seabed via a remote camera with two voices discussing the logistics. Once the drillbit hits, a strange purple venting comes out of the seabed (which one of the voices describes as "purple venting"), then a set of teeth come down on the remote camera. Once again we learn the lesson that even sea creatures take their rights to privacy very seriously.

Quite literally, this is the only aquatic footage in the movie

Coincidentally a massive storm pops up out of nowhere surprising the landlubbers who are overseeing the oil rigs, mainly the frequently very concerned Ken Fleming (Art LaFleur trying his damnest to lend some semblance of authenticity to the proceedings). Ken orders the evacuation of all non-essential personnel from the oil platforms. This leads to pimply younger brother Colin (Dan Benson) and older brother Freddy (Stacey Hinnen) having an emotional confrontation. Colin, busy packing an unseen bag that is framed in a way that makes it look like he's been caught doing some oil drilling of his own and stuffing the drill bit back in his trousers. He is mad that Freddy is razzing him for being "non-essential" and he's had enough of living in Freddy shadow - so there! This really serves no purpose other than to a) pad out the film, b) provide cut-aways once Colin is off the rig and c) add what would become relentless amounts of overblown soap-opera style melodrama. Even worse, it's shot on digital with no film-look process, so it really does feel like an extended episode of "As the Ocean Churns".

One of the roughnecks, Dobbs (Scott Martin) allows another to go out and fix something without accompanying him. Next thing we now the guy has disappeared and the hardass rig foreman Jim Fleming (William Forsythe playing Art LaFluer's brother!) interrupts the roughneck's dinner to go look for him. Naturally we have a cook named Virgil who gets no respect from the crew. The man tries to serve them up composed plates of salmon with a coconut, coriander, chili sauce, asparagus and potatoes and not only has to listen to complaints about not having burgers, but when the ALIENS (1986) Vasquez wannabe, Rodriguez (Carmen Perez), is asked what's for dinner she replies with disgust "some kind of fish - I think!" Seriously, fuck the monster, the cook should be taking out these assholes with a cleaver. Or maybe she was just reacting to the insert shot of the plate in which poached salmon is clearly being served with blueberries, strawberries and yellow bell peppers! For the love of christ on a popsicle stick, why would you do that?

This is easily the most disturbing thing in the movie

In the midst of all this drama (Freddy makes a call to Colin where they both apologize and make up), we have scenes of the crew playing fart pranks on each other and getting way too technical with their readings of equipment that appears to be actual naval equipment of some sort. It seems that the cast doesn't know what it is either, as Cary Fleming (Serah D'Laine, from "General Hospital") punches a few buttons and says "The equipment's working correctly, but it's bringing back this... I don't know." Thank you for helping to advance the plot with that highly technical information.

Suddenly something attacks a random crew member and... we are back to interpersonal drama. Freddy and Rodriguez are working out on punching bags before working out in the shower, Jim gets into a heavy speech about how he doesn't want his daughter Cary to be seeing Dobbs, while Cary gives the "I'm not a little girl anymore" speech, and ex-special forces Faulkner (Robert Zachar) gives Dobbs a somber anecdote about being in a conflict where every man knew the risks and Dobbs says "it doesn't make it any easier." To which Faulkner replies "it never does". Holy jumped up christ, MAKE. IT. STOP. Thirty minutes into the movie and my sanity is starting to crack.

Suddenly (again) something stabs Jim and hauls him out of his office, leaving behind a whole mess of blood and a black claw. Of course Cary discovers this and instantly has a flashback to the scene we just saw of her having an argument with dad! This flashback is intercut in a slow strobe with the camera panning over the bloody room. This is so jarring and clumsy even Jon McBride would cringe. Now the remaining crew must go down the same hallway, from different angles, to see if there are any survivors on the three sets that they have. I mean, going from room to room would be far too time consuming. Just check the three main rooms and pronounce the crew members to be dead or missing and presumed dead. This search quickly turns into a bad video game as the only way writer Scott Martin can figure out how to create momentum is by having the survivors need to run around getting something else from another room. They get the gun from Jim's cabin, but it has a gunlock! We need to get the key from his office! Now we need to get back to the com room! Oh no, now we need medical supplies from the infirmiry! And so on. I kept waiting for them to find green, red and yellow healing plants under stairways.

As a break from this monotony, or just an excuse to get away from these emotional cripples, Faulkner announces "I hunt alone" and decides that he is going to grab the speargun (that apparently nobody had thought about getting before), wrap it in a rag and soak it in something he finds in a mason jar. He also discovers that the creatures blood is flammable after cracking open the claw and pouring out the purple goo inside. Wait, how did he know to crack open the claw and then how did he know that the purple goo inside was flammable?! Because he is ex-special forces, that's why! Or maybe because he saw an advance screening of SECTOR 7. Regardless, his master plan is to take his flaming spear out into the hurricane and shoot the monster, which no one has seen, causing it to explode. I guess there is a reason that he is ex-special forces.

When the survivors leave the door to the com room wide open (maybe that fart was still hanging in the air), the monster strikes! Dobb empties the gun into the creature and when it gets back up, he tells the remaining survivors that "we gotta kill it". No shit? Did you figure that out all by yourself or did you have to mail in some box tops to get that clue? Of course I'll take idiotic diologue like that over the artificial touchy-feely moments that permeate the entire film.

Just when everyone you expected to die has and there is only one survivor (I'll let you guess the complexion and gender) standing out on a sunny deck, you'd think the credits would roll. You'd hope and pray that the credits will roll. Sucker! Nope, we are going to keep going! Back at the base Ken can't seem to bring up the rig on the squawk box. By gum Ken and Colin are going to head out to the rig to find out what happened to their brothers! Of course this is after an argument that goes something like "You stay put!" "No way, I'm bringing back my brother!" and such like. Once on the rig they sloooooowly go room by room and look at the aftermath of the creatures attacks with grave concern accompanied by slow strings and piano music. I should point out that the entire movie is accompanied by weeping violins and melancholy piano music. The drama is so slow going and so heavy that it is only slightly less enjoyable than being crushed in a rusty car compactor.

This final epilogue in which (spoiler) Ken shoots the creature with the still flaming speargun causing it to explode even though he would have had no idea to do that or what the hell the creature was (/spoiler), includes no less than nine freaking minutes of walking around that same goddamn hall and those same goddamn sets, until slowly walking back to the helipad. The one thing the movie does have going for it, is that they did get access to an offshore platform and a helicopter. Other than that, bupkus. Certainly nothing worthy of a horror movie. We only get one murky shot of the monster, who looks like a cross between a Sleestak and the creature from THE BLACKOUT (2009), all of the attacks except one are done in extreme close-up, so you can't even see what's happening, and absolutely no tension is built up except in a scene where Vincent jumps out from behind a locker as Freddy is sloooooowly looking around the changing room.

Essentially what we have is an exploitation film that desperately wants to be a daytime soap-opera and is completely uninterested in doing a genre picture. It seems pretty clear that all involved are making the movie strictly as a way to break into the industry and make some money off of dimwitted schleps who think that a monster movie with William Forsythe and Art LaFluer has to be entertaining. Yeah, they got me.

What's interesting is that the movie has an incredible amount of similarity to the following year's Korean film SECTOR 7. I can't help but wonder if this was rushed into production after reading a press synopsis announcing SECTOR 7, as it seems difficult to believe that these two movies would have such similar concepts, right down to the monster's combustible blood. That's pretty much the only interesting thing I can find in this film. The actors are all TV bit-players except for Forsythe and LaFluer who must have simultaneously found alimony letters in their mailboxes. Philip Glass could have written a more exciting score and even The Asylum could have turned out a less pretentious script.

I think I am pretty forgiving when it comes to ALIEN (1979) rip-offs, but this is more trying to rip of ALIENS, even going so far as to name the company "Weyland" complete with modified logo! Oh I'm sorry, that's a tip of the hat, a wink to the audience right? I might be able to accept that with reservations if they managed at least a few moments of suspense, shock or action. They don't. This is 90 minutes of nails on a chalkboard that doesn't even have the decency to give us a few by the numbers monster attacks or even a monster POV filter.

Now I find myself feverishly writing apology notes to everyone who I have lambasted in the past for making sloppy, disinterested films, I had no idea what a bad movie really was. I'm sorry The Asylum... I'm sorry Andreas Schnaas... I'm sorry Andy Milligan... I'm sorry... oh shit, this could take awhile.

I guess that example would be "rip off"

Monday, June 30, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: DEEP SHOCK (2003)

Sorry for the delay in my communication.  Did you miss me? Probably not.  I had to take a break after 30,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (2007) as it was the kind of film that makes one question all of one’s sad life choices.  The Asylum will do that to you.  Little did I know that the lackluster film would actually help me in a way as it made me appreciate DEEP SHOCK (2003) and its parent company Unified Film Organization (UFO) just a little bit more.

Founded in 1995, UFO followed in the prescient footsteps of Sir Charles Band (officially knighted by King Video Junkie) and set up shop in Eastern Europe to make a series of cheap direct-to-video action/sci-fi/horror flicks.  Co-founders Phillip Roth and former actor Ken Olandt (the student stripper from SUMMER SCHOOL [1987]) were sort of The Asylum before The Asylum, supplying the SyFy Channel (then the Sci-Fi Channel) with disposable dreck filled with big monsters and wonky CGI at the turn of the century to plug viewing hours.  One day, however, the channel decided to cheat on them with the trashy Asylum and there was no turning back. “What’s that, baby? I’d love to see your SNAKES ON A TRAIN,” the station cooed.  I’m sure Roth and Olandt still wake up from nightmares and are prone to drunk dialing the SyFy execs and mumbling, “Please take me back.”  Truth is, UFO set the SyFy movie blueprint and soon found their kingdom usurped.  A shame because, while not great by any measure, a film like DEEP SHOCK beats the hell out of an Asylum production every day of the week.

The film begins as all films should – with a shout out to Jimmy Carter.  Yes, we’re onboard the submarine USS Jimmy Carter deep in the Arctic Ocean.  Sadly, no peanuts available.  The crew is near the Polaris rift and soon has a huge unknown presence popping up on their sonar.  The sub’s computer “Mother” (gee, I wonder where they got that from) can’t identify the thing or the strange audio signal it is sending before they get zapped by a huge electromagnetic pulse. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Dr. Anne Fletcher (Simmone Mackinnon) is giving a speech about her research into global warming.  Her rival, Chomsky (Mark Sheppard), mocks her during her speech because we all know the U.N. is all about high school debate team dramatics.  Amazingly, he somehow is able to force a vote on her tenure, getting her fired and his plan for shooting nuclear missiles into the rift approved.  Okay, hold on a sec.  I can believe a flick about huge underwater monsters.  But a governing body like the United Nations summarily approving a motion and setting it into action within minutes? Getouttahere!

Chomsky’s plan is quickly set into motion and the orders are sent to the Hubris Research Station under the North Pole. Damn, I wonder if that name will come back to haunt them? Commander Michael Harris (Robert Zachar) is excited as hell as this allows him to use his fancy futuristic chair that scoots in and out of a firing station.  Trouble arises when John Hurst (Todd Kimsey) decides he won’t follow orders because…wait for it…Fletcher is his girlfriend.  He calls her while she is jogging in Washington D.C. (my god, this amazing phone reception) and she says the order has indeed been sent down to nuke the rift.  As if a long distance relationship weren’t bad enough, she then hears Hurst being shot by guards over the phone. Yes, they stormed a loading station filled with nuclear torpedoes with shotguns.  Ain’t nobody gonna stop Harris from using that fancy chair, damn it!  The torpedoes get fired and, wouldn’t you know it, those pesky unknown blips show up again.  The crew soon finds out they are being besieged by dozens of huge eels, who proceed to zap the station and electrocute all 27 crew members.  How is that chair working out for you now, Harris?

Naturally, after such a big screw up, Chomsky remains in charge and is told to assemble a team to head to the Hubris and find out what happened.  He chooses Navy man Capt. Andrew Raines (David Keith) to head the mission and Dr. Fletcher to accompany them.  Hey, guess what?  Raines and Fletcher used to be married.  Goddamn you, James Cameron and your clichés!  Also along for the ride are an ex-Navy Seal Protas (Armando Valdes) and computer geek Arciero (Sean Whalen).  Yes, because when you head to rescue a disabled underwater station, you should only send five people.  After a crash landing on the North Pole that leaves the two pilots dead, they make their way to the opening hatch to the station and begin to assess the situation.  Everyone on the ship has been fried (allowing for one gooey make up effect) and the power is out.  This problem is quickly solved when Arciero flicks on eight breaker switches.  No, I am not kidding.  Hell, why not show him fix a broken fuse with a penny while we’re at it.

The true battle between Raines and Chomsky:

With the station up and running again, Chomsky wants to get right back into the groove and continue the mission. Fletcher is not so certain, especially after the station is attacked by the electric eels and she communicates with one in the dive room by touching it.  Yes, this doc is so smart that her first impulse when seeing a giant electric eel is to feel it (“I touched one and it hit me with some kind of electrical current,” the genius says). Anyway, she starts working on a way to decipher these transmissions the eels are sending while Chomsky sends Protas out in a mini-sub to establish a new communications antenna.  The eels see this as an act of aggression and zap the poor dude. Chomsky uses this as further proof that the place needs to be nuked and gets the U.N. to unanimously vote on having subs from the Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States fire twenty 1-megaton nuclear missiles at the rift. Because like fuck discovery, research, and communicating with intelligent species, right?  It only gets worse when Fletcher cracks their language code and – as James Cameron dictates – the eels are aliens who are pissed that puny humans are ruining the Earth.

If you’ve seen THE ABYSS (1989), you’ve seen DEEP SHOCK as this follows Cameron’s film almost point by point. Actually, this feels like THE ABYSS on fast forward as this one clocks in at just 92 minutes.  Oddly, director Phillip J. Roth took the pseudonym Paul Joshua Rubin on this one.  I’m not sure why, unless he didn’t want folks to think he directed every other UFO movie (he did).  As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t going to set your cinematic world ablaze, but after watching something like 30,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA where they use the same set over and over, it was nice to see something that has three sets (!!!) and several locations.  Okay, we won’t mention how their version of the U.N. committee room looks like the lobby of a hotel.  The cast is also game.  I’ve always been a fan of David Keith, from his acting to his directing on films like THE CURSE (1987) to his full head of hair.  While I’m sure he probably isn’t thrilled on how things went with this career, you can’t accuse him of half-assing it.  He is essentially playing the same role he plays in UFO’s two EPOCH films, but you never get the feeling he is bored.  Well, except for that framegrab above. I guess it is that Southern accent.

One thing that is pretty disappointing is the CGI eels. (No grown man should be writing a sentence like that.)  Check out the cover at the beginning of the review and look at that badass monster.  Pretty cool, right?  Well, sadly, that isn’t what we get on display here.  According to the IMDb, an American company was supposed to do the computer effects but then it got handed over to a Bulgarian outfit.  Google must have been down at the office the day they designed their eels because these look nothing like eels and instead come off looking like a combination of Chinese dragons mixed with Jimmy Walker.  Yes, I demand realism when it comes to my intelligent underwater space alien eels. Also, this film totally tops DEEPSTAR SIX (1989) when it comes to showcasing onscreen computer graphics.  I was going to do framegrabs, but then realized I’d end up with 500 of them and a severe case of framegrab carpal tunnel syndrome.  So I’ll just offer up one of my favorites.  Yes, the United Nations is all about computer voting when it comes to nuking the world.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: DEEP BLUE SEA (1999)

After watching THE LEGEND OF HERCULES (2014), yet another wretched mess of a movie from Renny Harlin, it is hard to imagine that the man actually made entertaining movies at one time. I’m not trying to make the case that he had the meteoric fall to earth like Orson Welles going from CITIZEN KANE to doing frozen pea commercials, mainly because Findus frozen peas ads have more depth and integrity than Harlan’s recent outings.

Harlin started his American career with the superb, yet underrated horror film PRISON(1988) and over the next eleven years would stay true to his Finnish roots and crank out silly, broad appeal, but highly entertaining action-oriented films. Hell, even to this day, I will gladly take CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995) over PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (2003). No matter how stunningly bad Geena Davis and her implants are, they still rate higher than yet another one of Johnny Depp’s mincing, fey eccentrics.

The film opens with the sense that this is essentially a FRIDAY THE 13th sequel in the water (which is really not a bad idea until you remember that they made part 8). A couple of young, pretty couples are having a beer drinking make-out session on a catamaran, when they are suddenly attacked by a shark that punches through their hull, but doesn’t seem too interested in munching on the fleshy morsels that are now flailing around in the water. This is to give ex-con smuggler turned shark handler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) plenty of time to arrive out of nowhere and shoot the predator with tranquilizer-filled harpoons and save the day… err, night. Damn, he's good at his job! How else would he have been able to track a shark in one night to coastline where over-privileged tweens would be hanging out? He's that good!

The shark happens to be a test shark that escaped from the pens of an ex-Navy sub-aquatic laboratory where research scientists, headed up by Alzheimer’s disease research expert Dr. Susan McCallister (Saffron Burrows, who in the same year, appeared in the cringe-inducing WING COMMANDER). Yes, you heard that right, the brains in world’s oldest link to the age of dinosaurs can hold the cure for modern human minds. Apparently the frontal portion of the brain (we are never given much in the way of technobabble explanations) contains a protein that when added to human brain tissue will cause the synapses to begin firing again. At this point you might wonder why the scientists didn’t use dolphins, who are much more compatible with humans and can’t rip you to shreds because that is literally all they do. Screenwriter Duncan Kennedy has that one covered. Sharks are so old that they are the only animals that have that protein. So there!

Oh yeah, I remember having this for the Intellevision

The wrench that gets thrown in the gears is one Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson), a wealthy suit and tie guy, a survivor of a tragic climbing incident, who works for the corporate machine that is funding the project. Because the project is only close to getting results, the company wants the operation shut down unless the team can show proof of concept in the next 48 hours. Don’t they know that never works? Haven’t they seen R.O.T.O.R. (1988)?

Of course these folks gotta eat, so they have a chef named Preacher (L.L. Cool J) on board. I repeat “a” chef. Can’t you give a brother a prep cook fer cryin’ out loud? All the man has is his is a freakin’ parrot, which he has creatively named "bird". A parrot... underwater. Of course he’s called a chef, but no cook worthy of the title “chef” would mix blueberries into muffin batter with a wire whisk! Even amateurs use a spatula to fold them in but if you are legit, you pour in half the batter, throw in your whole blueberries, pour in the second half and then take a knife and swirl the batter in the muffin pan so that you a yellow muffin with whole blueberries in it. Uhhh… is anyone still reading this? Even though he makes this egregious error, I’ve totally got his back when the crew throw a birthday bash for McCallister with a full bar, and guess who is expected to serve the drinks? Yeah, the cook isn’t invited to par-tay at the party, but rather to work at the party. Patronizing bastards. Even worse, in a deleted scene Michael Rapaport's character, drunk on a single glass of wine, insults the man's cake without after refusing to even try it! I don't know whether that was supposed to be funny or not, but I can't wait for this guy to end up as fish food.

Pretty soon we discover that the sharks have become hyper intelligent due to the fact that their brain mass has been increased so they produce more of the McGuffin serum. Now they can recognize weapons, swim backwards, take out video cameras and roar. Kennedy claims that the genesis of the script came from seeing the body of a shark attack victim wash up on the beach. We know this is total hogwash because clearly the genesis of the script was from personally witnessing JAWS 3-D (1983). There are so many similarities, it’s a bit shocking, but on the other hand, this really is the movie that JAWS 3-D should have been.

Franklin wants to see all this crazy sciencey stuff work, so they set up a mako shark in the lab’s bay to show that the proteins actually cause neurons to fire in inert brain tissue. Things are going swimmingly until an allegedly intelligent scientist, Jim Whitlock (Stellan Skarsgård), lights a cigarette causing the shark to come out from under the anesthesia and bite his arm off. Must be a California shark. Next thing you know it will be chaining itself to a tree in Berkeley.

This is actually a good thing for two reasons. For one it provides the tipping point of an admittedly ridiculous, but absolutely riveting sequence in which a raging storm, a rescue chopper and an angry shark causes massive explosions and a shatter underwater bay window via the still living Jim, who is strapped into his airlift gurney. Most importantly though, it means that there will be no scenes of Skarsgård showing off the ol’ Swedish sausage. Nobody can accuse this movie of being terribly original, or even a smart one, but it definitely has a lot going for it and many of those things are what they don’t do. No annoying characters (ok, except for Michael Rapaport), no overly heavy dramatics, no naked guys named Stellan and a pace that moves faster than a greased pacu at a nude beach.

Once the water starts flooding the station, our aquatic Jason Voorhees manages to bust through a solid steel airlock door to get into the galley, but once in the galley cannot seem to muster the strength to smash through the glass on a convection oven. A convection oven that was apparently fitted with a waterproof electrical system in the case of just such an event. It’s also interesting to note that the beast is described as being a 45 foot, 8000 pound shark. The shark in JAWS (1975) was estimated at 25 feet and 6000 pounds. So even given the fact that this would be a selachimorphaic Jared Fogle, it would be impossible for something that big to navigate the half submerged rooms and hallways. That isn’t my biggest issue, no sir. My main gripe is that all credibility is lost when the cook, Preach, grabs a bottle of Reese cooking wine and starts chugging. Every cook knows damn well that the bottle says “Cooking Wine”, it doesn’t say “Drinking Wine” and there is a very good reason for that. Never, ever drink the cooking wine. Even if you are about to be attacked by a 8000 pound shark. Matter of fact, no one should really ever cook with it either. Fortunately he redeems himself by leaving what he thinks may be his last message to the world, which is never to use milk in an omelet. Damn straight, my brotha, you know it.

Interestingly the script received one major rewrite during the casting phase. Originally Samuel L. Jackson was sought for the role of the cook, Preach. This being the height of Jackson’s career and having been cast in STAR WARS EPISODE I around the same time, his agent balked at the frivolous second string part. Because of this, screenwriters Donna and Wayne Powers retooled the script, writing in the role of Franklin specifically for Jackson. One of the best subversive scenes in recent genre films almost wasn’t. The film also went before test screenings and met with audience disapproval of the tired cliché (major spoiler) of having the black man die and the white girl live. Originally Preach was torn up by the shark and McCallister was the person to shoot the explosive harpoon. If you watch the finished scene you can see several continuity errors that attest to the recutting of the sequence. As much as I hate the very idea of test screenings, sometimes the audience is right. Having McCallister end up as chum makes the ending much more interesting. (end of spoilers)

If nothing else, just watching what the cast went through in the making of the movie is impressive. These guys must have been miserable. Not only is it scary enough when some actors had to train with real, wild and unpredictable sharks, but cast members are perpetually drenched in rain, pummeled by walls of water and thrown around in the water by mechanical sharks. As Jackson said "when I read [the script], it didn't read as wet as I've been. It read a lot drier." I can't imagine that it was much fun to shoot. One night sipping Leflaive Montrachet, the next being slammed down a flight of concrete stairs by several hundred gallons of water. You could argue that the CG is a little dated, it still blends well with the real sharks and the mechanical sharks. Mechanical sharks that were programmed and were capable of swimming and biting like real sharks.

Another glamorous day on a Hollywood movie set

One thing that helped make DEEP BLUE SEA have such a positive impact on the few people that went to see it was that 1999 was a rough year for horror movies in general. This is the same year that saw films such as THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, Jan de Bont's remake of THE HAUNTING, Stephen Sommer’s reworking of THE MUMMY hitting theaters, while Mitch Marcus' remake of THE HAUNTING OF HELL HOUSE, CARRIE 2, WARLOCK III and CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666 all landed with a thud onto home video.

Unfortunately, in spite of being one of the few bright spots of the year and generally well received by movie goers and critics, the $78 million US/Aussie co-production floundered at the box office pulling in a underweight $19 million on its opening weekend. While it was a hit on home video, it still marked the last solid film in Harlan's career, and the second to last time that Hollywood would trust him with a fat budget. His follow-up feature film was the $72 million Sly Stallone clunker DRIVEN (2001) that would pull in a paltry $12 million and ran Harlan’s big studio career directly into a brick wall. Damn shame too as I would have liked to have seen a big budget sequel to PRISON (1988).