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!

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).

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: 30,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (2007)

Six features deep into our Abyss-mal Cinema coverage and we really haven’t yet encountered anything cinematically soul crushing.  Sure, I (re)endured THE EVIL BELOW (1989) and Tom suffered through SECTOR 7 (2011), but I don’t think either of them made us question our decision to do this.  It takes a special breed of film to do that. Fittingly, the films that drive us insane come from a place called The Asylum. To quote Carlito Brigante, “Here comes the pain!”

When we kicked off this series, the one film I mentioned that seemed to set this underwater genre afloat was Disney’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954).  Their adaption of Jules Verne’s fantasy tale has become the blueprint for most films in this genre and is still a classic today.  At the time of its release, it was the second most popular film at the US box office with total revenues exceeding $28 million dollars.  Keep in mind this was when the average ticket price was 45 cents. In 2014’s dollars, this total would be just shy of $500 million dollars.  So, in Hollywood terms, a total flop!  I kid, I kid. Surprisingly, a large scale remake has never been attempted by Hollywood (French director Christophe Gans toiled on the unmade, big budget NEMO for years).  As a result, this has allowed the stragglers to jump onboard.  With the last live action versions being two made-for-television movies appearing in 1997, The Asylum felt it was safe enough to sink their claws into it by throwing an extra 10,000 leagues onto the title.  Sadly, this is the only genius thing they did with their version.

Opening with some gorgeous underwater stock footage, 30,000 LEAGUES gets right down to business as the submarine USS Scotia is cruising the deep ocean when they suddenly catch something huge on their radar. They are attacked by mechanical squid and sent twirling to the bottom of the ocean floor.  Naturally, the rescue is a job for only one man.  James Cameron!  Uh, I mean, Lorenzo Lamas!  Lamas is Lt. Michael Arronax (hey, someone read the book even if they spelled the name wrong), who runs the Aquanaut 3 dive vessel with his crew, Sustin (Kim Little) and Ramirez (Emilio Roso). They are contacted by the captain of the USS Abraham Lincoln and told to dock with them to prepare for a rescue mission to save the stranded 160 seamen.  Arronax is instrumental because he has developed something called the Oxygenator, a device that turns “water molecules into breathable air.”  Trouble arrives when Arronax is told his commanding officer will be Lt. Commander Lucille Conciel (Natalie Stone).  Why is this bad news? Because she is his ex-wife.  Oh, the drama!  By the way, the character of Conciel (spelled Conseil in the book) was originally the assistant character played by Peter Lorre in the 1954 version.  Let that sink in for a second.

After getting their squabbles out of the way, the team – including fifth member and Conciel’s right hand man Blackwell (Damien Puckler) – head down to the incapacitated sub, but start losing their air pressure.  Naturally, it is all Conciel’s fault as she ordered them not to attach certain things she deemed unnecessary. Hell, she felt SCUBA gear at 15,000 feet below wasn’t needed to bring along.  Yes, really. Anyway, much like your humble reviewer, these folks end up passing out due to lack of oxygen to the brain. When Arronax wakes up, he is stunned to find himself onboard a huge underwater vessel.  Cue CGI pull back through the window shot.  After the crew is reunited, they are introduced to Captain Nemo (Sean Lawlor).  You can tell he is a captain because he has Navy insignias all over his sweater.  Oddly, he feels only worth enough to give himself 2 stars, making himself a Rear Admiral.  Wait, why would he even be wearing those?  Nemo explains that they are all his guests on the Nautilus, his billion dollar submarine that houses tens of thousands.  This is conveyed by using the same hallway set over and over.  Ever the kind host, he invites them to dinner (we don’t get the famous dinner scene) and has repaired the Aquanaut 3 to send them on their way to rescue the people.  Or so they think.  Turns out Nemo is a bit bent on the world topside and figures he can nuke it with the missiles he has stolen off the sub.  A ruthless white billionaire who wants the world molded to his liking?  What is this fantasy that would never happen in the real world?  Why is he so driven?  Well, seems he has just discovered Atlantis and wants the Oxygenator to revive the submerged city.  “Down here you can live for 200 years,” he crows.  Oddly, no one questions that.  Of course, our boy Lorenzo ain’t gonna stand for this and decides he and his crew will sink Nemo’s plans.

Wow.  No, I’m sorry, wooooooooooooow. Words really can’t do justice to how bad this film is.  Even by the very low standards of The Asylum, this is some rough stuff.  With the end credits rolling at the 80 minute mark, this flick feels like it goes on for days.  Now I know those motorcycle tanks and tanning beds aren't going to fuel themselves, but, goddamn, this is some rough stuff from the Renegade Snake Eater.  How bad is this flick?  So bad that I suspect our buddy Jon Stone (aka Lorenzo Lamas’ biggest fan) would give it a pass.  On the technical side, you’d have to say this is the also the lowest Lamas has gone in his career.  Shot on very flat digital video, the film comes across cheap on nearly every level from the sound recording to the same cheap spaceship set hallway used over and over and over.  It says something when their lackluster CGI is one of the better aspects of the film.  Nothing sums this cheapness up better than director Gabriel Bologna in the behind-the-scenes video talking about how they got to shoot in a water tank and it cuts to a shot of the crew literally filming something in a pool in someone’s backyard.

Now I do not begrudge filmmakers working with limited resources.  But at least try, damn it! Their brainwashing machine is a pair of goggles with a blinking light strip attached. Then there is the continuity that shows this is total D.I.C. (Do I Care?) filmmaking. No joke, during a scene where Lamas and his crew escape to their mini-sub, one of Nemo’s men shoots a traitor. They clearly show the bullets being fired into the guy and he falls down.  In the very next shot, Lamas runs into the bridge of the Aquanaut and his arm is not only bleeding but has a bandage around it.  Yes, they were too cheap to actually show him get shot and treat his wound.  Instead, they cover it with Sustin asking, “What happened to your arm?” That is what kids do when they shoot home movies and the next day their friend shows up with a different outfit on.  My personal favorite is when Lamas dives outside of sub to rescue his wife and emerges minutes later completely dry.  Then there is a bit where Sustain is snagged by a robot squid in the ocean through an open hatch.  Um, wouldn’t the ship flood? Of course, deep down the folks at The Asylum could care less as this is cynical moviemaking at its best/worst.  If they make a shitty movie, great!  Then they can say, “Haha, laugh at our shitty movie.”  Their sole purpose for a title like this is to trick some unsuspecting parent at the Walmart $5 DVD bin.  Well, those folks and idiots who openly choose to review it for their blog. You got me, The Asylum, well played.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: DEEP GOLD (2011)

Filipino movies of the ‘70s and ‘80s are a special breed of cool. The Philippines have always been a cross cultural nation and just like their food, their movies are a combination of a variety of different influences. Much like I felt the jones to see what modern Turkish genre cinema was doing with DRAGON TRAP (2010), I decided to dig deep for some modern Filipino gold. Or pyrite, as the case may be.

If you thought THE EVIL BELOW (1989) was late in the game for a knock-off Peter Benchley’s THE DEEP (1977), this is so late that I suspect that they were thinking they could simply get away with heisting the plot. A pair of sisters, Amy and Jess (Bebe Pham and Jaymee Ong), are on vacation with their boyfriends on their late father’s yacht on the island of Cebu. After bouncing a check to the waterfront hotelkeeper, Mr. Chang (who is Chinese, therefore very loud and cash obsessed), locks up the yacht until he gets paid. Even worse, Amy’s boyfriend Tony (Jack Prinya) is suddenly called by the air force to fly a top secret mission. A massive cache of gold bars were found in the jungles of a Filipino island and the military is going to send it back to Manila where it belongs.

Naturally, while the air tower controllers are stuffing their faces with Jollybee hamburgers (hmmm… how did this movie get financed?), things take a nasty turn in the air over San Vincente. After one of the pilots leaves the cockpit, someone in a pilot uniform (we don’t know who) gives the co-pilot an injection of something (what it is, we aren’t told). Was it Tony or was it someone dressed as Tony? Or someone completely different? This question might possibly be answered later in the film. The plane crashes into the water and sinks like a... uhh, a plane that is filled with gold bars. The plot thickens to the viscosity of, well, sea water.

Things look so different from the air

The military decides that this top secret mission’s utter failure should be kept top secret, so their first order of business is to go out to the hotel and accuse Amy of being in on a plot to steal all the gold due to her financial issues. See, in spite of owning a yacht so large it could hold Shia LaBeouf’s head, the sisters are strapped for cash. I guess the air force doesn’t pay much in the Philippines. Fortunately, a totally random white dude named Frank who apparently is friends with the sisters shows up at a bar to give them enough money to persuade Mr. Chang to give them their boat back so that they can go look for Tony. As we all know, the military can’t possibly find a crashed airplane, that is a job for an untrained civilian! To get some inside info Amy hits up John (random white guy #2) who can’t tell her anything because it’s top secret. He does prove useful by chasing down a black van who kidnap Amy and gives her some sage advice before dying from a bullet wound: “there is going to be more trouble”. Uhhh, yeah, thanks John. You’ve been a great help.

Also we have a DJ that works out of a lighthouse named Lulu (Laury Prudent) not Stevie Wayne, who saw the plane go down in San Vincinte and knows that the whole thing is some sort of military cover-up. While she can’t help with any details or even depth charts (because she ain’t no “lie-berry”), she can whip up a fully functional ocean sonar rig complete with instrument panel out of spare parts she has lying around the lighthouse! Ummm, if she's so electronically adept, what in christ's name is she doing as a DJ in a lighthouse? After Amy finds that the depth charts seem to be a little screwy, the older male librarian tells her a secret because he thinks she’s hot: The maps are wrong. Yep, in dubya dubya eye eye, the maps were falsified to keep the Japanese from discovering that one of their ships sank in the area. Uhhh, what? For no apparent reason the maps were never corrected. It could happen! Who knew that depth charts could be as complicated as deciphering the staff of Ra?

After meeting up with a pair of globe-hopping journalists Benny (writer-producer-director Michael Gleissner) and Claire (Amelia Jackson-Gray), they pitch a yarn about how this would make a fantastic story for their magazine. The girls see absolutely nothing suspicious about this and don't even ask for some sort of identification. We are looking for a massive stash of gold, who would want invite themselves on to the boat with less than savory intentions? Yep, you can see this plot point coming like a whale carcass at twenty paces. As if that weren’t enough, there is also a German boat tailing them. They must be up to no good! I mean they are German, right? The Germans while appearing to be partying (by themselves) are actually spying on them. Why? Hell if I know and hell if I'm going to find out.

At this point the movie finally kicks into gear with some reasonably well staged action scenes – one in which Amy (dressed like an extra from 1984s ANGEL) is trying to dodge a group of bad guys (who we know are bad because they dress in black and have stylish facial hair) in the library. As she tries to escape them on a second story balcony, they are trying to shove book cases over on top of her while she dodges out of the way in the nick of time. It may not sound like much, it sure ain't the domino sequence from POLICE STORY 2 (1988), but one takes what one can get in this kind of outing.

Feeling the need to provide some sort of back story explaining how these skinflint babes are in possession of a rather large boat, we get a flashback establishing that the ship was left to the sisters by their father who was an oceanographer. After coming up from a dive, one of the eight year old sisters accidentally kicks Dad’s camera into the sea. Dad naturally flips out and dives in after it even though he has no air left in his aqualung and is never to be seen again. Can you feel Gleissner tugging at your heart strings? No? That's not surprising because it is the most laughable tragedy since the Santa-stuck-in-the-chimney story in GREMLINS (1984). The problem with this, of course, is that if I were a cynical man, I’d say they killed pops to take his boat.

If you want to see if you can find a copy of this movie and watch it spoiler free, skip the next paragraph.

It’s not long before they discover that Benny and Claire are up to no good with Claire cutting Amy’s hose and attempting to lock her in the sunken plane with the gold and a bomb. I guess the bloom is off the vine. At the same time top side, Jess has discovered via her onboard fax machine (what yacht doesn’t have one?) that Benny is not in fact a journalist at all. What is he? Well, we never find that out, but he is a bad man with a gun… and a lighter that seems to have a mind of its own. After dousing the girls with gasoline he finds his Zippo doesn’t work so he must run around the boat trying to find matches (no, really). After spotting his henchman lighting a cigarette with a disposable Bic lighter, Benny is back in business, except that when he goes to set the girls on fire he’s back to using his Zippo, which now miraculously works. This is explained by the fact that in the credits there is no listing for “Continuity”. And who were the lurking Germans anyway? We never find out because they are killed as soon as Amy tries to take refuge on their boat in a scene where they discover the gold is actually fake! Wait, so where did the real gold go? Apparently Gleissner is shit out of answers, so I guess we’ll just have to wait for the sequel. Seriously we are never told what actually happened. I'm guessing that one of the bad guy's henchmen injected the pilots making the plane crash, but then why didn't he just sail out to where the plane crashed instead of trying to pretend to be a journalist so he could ride with these girls who are trying to find it? Was the henchman also killed in the crash? You'd think he would have some sort of escape plan. Maybe the Military took the gold and set up the plane as a decoy? If so, why send soldiers all over the country harassing people about it? WTF Mike?

How you know this was shot in the Philippines

It doesn't take a marine scientist to see this movie as utterly and completely idiotic. It is cheaply made, doesn’t follow any sort of recognizable logic and the acting is slightly sub-porn parody. On the other hand, it is somehow remarkably entertaining in spite of, or because of, this blundering attempt at an aquatic thriller. I guess you’d have to watch it in the right frame of mind, but it reminds me a lot of films made in the ‘70s and ‘80s in as that it takes itself seriously. These folks are genuinely trying to make a seaborne action-thriller. There is no winking and mugging at the camera, nobody thinks that they are too cool to be in this stupid movie and there is enough random details and subplots to keep the film moving at a quick sprint. Ineptitude is best served straight, no chaser and Gleissner does his best to create a web of intrigue but manages to get himself completely tangled in it to the point where he must come up with incredibly absurd machinations to keep his plot moving. Gleissner is a 12 year veteran TV producer in the Phillipines and it’s pretty obvious this is his attempt to break into feature filmmaking. Mostly known for producing series’ involving fashion, here he has Pham gussied up in the most inappropriately provocative attire and has the sisters looped by what sound like the kind of teen girls that go into Starbucks in their pajamas. Maybe not the greatest 90 minutes of my life, but it still managed to keep me mildly entertained.

[Edit: George White is the sharpest pencil in the drawer it seems as he correctly pointed out that this is more of a rip-off of INTO THE BLUE (2005), which itself was a very late in the game rip-off of THE DEEP (1977). I like to pretend that Jessica Alba and Paul Walker do not actually make movies and completely forgot that the film existed. Thanks go out to George for reminding me that they do and it does.]

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Abyss-mal Cinema: CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS (1994)

True story: I once got a disc from Tom that had no title on it, just the words “worst film ever made?” written on top.  The film in question turned out to be THE MUMMY THEME PARK (2000), an Italian disaster-piece from director Al Passeri.  And it lived up to that hype.  Another true story: When we were divvying up the titles for this Abyss-mal Cinema category, Tom freely allowed me to have CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS (1994).  That film’s director? Al Passeri.  (Raises fist in air) Tooooooom!

We’re including this water-bound entry because – shockingly – it is the closest the Italians came to doing a rip off of America’s banner year of H20 hokum in 1989.  If you know anything about the Italian film industry, this is incredibly surprising.  There wasn’t a subgenre they didn’t love to exploit, from westerns to post-apocalyptic to slaying sharks.  Perhaps they were like, “Eh, water issa too mucha work.  I likea rock quarries.” Sadly, one of the reasons is because the Italian film industry was dying around this time and exploitation that required a bit more effort like underwater bases and aliens took a bit more money and work.  So while Spain gave us THE RIFT (1989), the closest the Italians came to an underwater flick was Bruno Mattei’s SHOCKING DARK (1989), which had a setting of a submerged Venice but was mostly an ALIENS (1986) remake filmed in factory boiler rooms.  It is truly a shame as I would have loved to have seen what Xerox cinema masters like Mattei or Claudio Fragasso would have done with a riff on THE ABYSS (1989) or LEVIATHAN (1989).  As it stands, the closest we can get is CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS, which might not be from one of the replication masters but is definitely a kindred cinematic spirit.

The film opens on a beach in Miami, Florida (onscreen: Miami, Fla) as five friends head out for a day in the ocean in their rubber raft. They are a loveable and carefree bunch, evidenced by their playful antics of getting Mike (Clay Rogers) caught in a fishing net and leaving their gas can onshore.  D’oh!  The kids include Mike’s girl Margaret (Sharon Twomey), macho braggart Bobby (Michael Bon), and sisters Dorothy (Laura Di Palma) and Julie (Ann Wolf).  Running out of gas at night, they get stuck out in the middle of the sea during a raging storm.  If things couldn’t get any worse, they also bump into a chewed up dead guy floating in the ocean.  Lucky for them they see a ship off in the distance and paddle towards it.  The ship reads Oceanographic Research Institute on the hull, but no one responds to their calls for help.  They board only to find no crew seems to be on board and they find a creepy looking laboratory filled with weird aquatic specimens.  Proving he can read, Mike says, “It’s an Oceanographic Research ship.”

The boys head up to the ship’s bridge and find the radio not working and no one at the helm (symbolic of this film!).  Eh, not a big deal as the kids soon find out this scientific vessel has a sweet ass disco area (!?!) with a fully stocked bar and kitchen. What they don’t see is a mysterious creature (shown via fish-eye lens POV) that is scurrying around and sounding like a cat with severe allergies.  The boat also has some fancy quarters for sleeping that look like they were designed by Larry Flynt and a high-tech bathroom that includes a shower that has a creepy female video command that encourages one to fondle oneself while showering.  Bobby the Genius decides that this boat must have really been a front for drug dealers (after all, he found white powder in the lab so it must be drugs) and feels that the legally sound finders keepers rule of law will let him turn this into one bitchin’ party boat.

However, the dream of sweet sailing on someone else’s dime is quickly squashed. After the kids eat a dinner of fish, they hear a noise down below.  Mike and Bobby check it out and find a catatonic survivor hiding along with some journals and more of that white powder. The old guy turns out to be a professor on this scientific expedition and he impresses the ladies by going into a drooling seizure and then hiding under the staircase.  Mike appears to be the only inquisitive one in the bunch and decides to investigate in the lab, where a frozen fish comes to life, flies around the room and bites Margaret on the neck.  Surprisingly, she is the only one freaked out by this and wants to get the hell off this ship.  Bad news – their rubber dingy is flooded and the boat’s lifeboat has a hole in it thanks to an axe.  So this means they just have to stay on this ship and deal with whatever comes their way.  Badder news – Mike starts reading about the discoveries of this scientific team and it seems they found a deep sea fish that swims into a rage when sexually aroused (“This is some weird shit,” Mike exclaims) and the fish have mutated due to some toxic plankton.  Baddest news – the kids have some of this fish in their bellies from dinner and Bobby is a total horndog!

We here at Video Junkie have always considered Al Festa’s FATAL FRAMES (1996) to be the death knell of the Italian horror industry.  I’d formally like to nominate CREATURES FROM THE ABYSS for that honor as it really has that Italian exploitation B-movie spirit – something Festa’s insanely bad film was lacking – going for it. FRAMES was just depressing while CREATURES is depressing but with slime.  That makes it all better.  Having dreaded watching it due to the aforementioned THE MUMMY THEME PARK, I was pleasantly surprised by this film.  Was it good? Hell no!  But it did have that wacky Italian flair that I like from their low budget films from back in the day like Fragasso’s TROLL 2 (1990) or Joe D’Amato’s THE CRAWLERS (1993).  You know, where the depiction of Americans is just a tad off and events unfold in the most nonsensical manner.  Where a person will find a white powder in a lab and their first instinct is to lick it.  Where two fish come alive and scream while in a frying pan and the people react with the “hmmm, that was odd” reaction.  If you can tune into that goofy wavelength, it is all good (in a bad way).

The English dubbers seem to be having a bit of a laugh at the film’s expense as well, throwing in random non sequiturs here and there.  The biggest example is when Mike confronts the professor about his work and we get this exchange.

Mike: “Professor, how long have you been fucking fish?”
Professor: “They were old enough, they were old enough!”

Truthfully, that actually brings the film down as I much prefer the unfiltered weirdness that emerges from straight dubbing. Not a lot happens in the first hour or so of the flick, but once things start rolling the film is surprisingly over-the-top.  First off, this is one of the few Italian films where they used some stop motion FX.  Second, the monster stuff is actually pretty gross (a woman giving birth to fish eggs) and the mutant fish are pretty well realized.  So plan your post-viewing meal at Red Lobster accordingly.  Believe it or not, Media Blasters actually got this flick into stores like Best Buy back in 2001.  It is truly a testament to how strong the DVD industry was back then that something of such low quality could share shelf space with the latest Harry Potter blockbuster.  It was a strange time.