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!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cinemasochism: NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE (1986)

I love talking shop with fellow cult film fans from around the world.  It is always an adventure when you start talking about some prestigious film and end up talking about the merits of Godfrey Ho or Tomas Tang.  My path to NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE was like that…minus the prestigious part.  Online pal Sir Patryk McGahern, the Indiana Jones of finding unreleased movie relics, sent me a trailer for some disaster called THE LEGEND OF SIMON CONJURER (2006).  The preview for this thriller starring Jon Voight looked like some trailer parody off of Saturday Night Live, but it was apparently a real film that was made by brothers Stuart and Steve Paul.  By the end of our conversation, he was telling me I had to see NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE, the Pauls third feature film effort.  And he warned me not to read anything about the plot.  Consider me intrigued.

Thanks to Video Junkie head honcho Tom, I soon found myself with a copy.  About 20 minutes in, I had to stop and email Tom to make him aware of this film’s greatness.  Not only had he seen it before (several times!) but he said he was waiting to revisit it, knowing full well that I was soon going to be send him a WTF email. Damn, am I that predictable or is this film really that whack?  I’d say a bit of both.  Obviously I wouldn’t advise you to read this review if you haven’t seen the film and rush right out to find a copy. However, if you’re feeling adventurous, keep reading.

The film opens in the middle of a California desert with a bunch of “only in Hollywood” motorcycle thugs cheering on their leader Velvet Von Ragner, who greets his minions by calling them “my little turdballs.”  This is one freaky looking dude as he is a cross dresser and, to my mind at the moment of viewing, looks a lot like Gene Simmons in drag. Then it hits me…OH…MY…GOD!  Close ups reveal it is really Gene Simmons in drag.  Okay, you have my attention.  Ragner lays out his plans to get billions from California by re-routing toxic waste into the city’s water supply.  There is only one problem – someone has stolen the diskette he needs to put his plan into action (apparently a back up copy was beyond their thinking) and he figures out who the thief was after killing a female spy.  “Bring me Stargrove,” he screams.  This leads to an intro music montage that only the ‘80s could deliver as Lance Stargrove (John Stamos) shows some sick gymnastic moves over the opening credits set to the theme song sporting the following lyrics:

Stargrove! Flying like he’s never flown.
Stargrove! Running to a danger zone.
Stargrove! Are you gonna stand alone?
Stargrove! Stargrove!

Oddly, the filmmakers want to endear Lance Stargrove to us by showing him cheating on a test with help from his nerdy roommate Cliff (Peter Kwong).  I guess since he is young, handsome, and athletic it is okay.  After Cliff shows off some homemade weapons in his dorm room (uhhhhh), Stargrove laments about how his father, Drew Stargrove (one-and-done James Bond George Lazenby), probably won’t be making it to parents’ day on the campus and will miss his gymnastics meet.  And why won’t he be there to show his paternal support? Seems he is too busy saving the world from Ragner and, wouldn’t you know it, his three-man squad is scheduled to raid his headquarters inside of a dam right at the time of the gymnastic competition.  Duty calls.

Stargrove, the elder, is accompanied by Carruthers and a disposable third guy. Hey, that Carruthers looks just like Gene Simmons in a really bad red wig and beard…ooops, more on that later. Naturally, Carruthers turns on Stargrove and disposable guy and, even more naturally, disposable guy ends up being disposed of.  Stargrove is shot and captured and Ragner demands to know where the disk is.  Stargrove responds by blowing up some of his men, before getting blown away himself by Ragner.  If you listen real carefully on the soundtrack here, you can hear Lazenby cashing his check for his 5 minutes of screen time.  Cut to the standard funeral bit complete with a mysterious woman (Vanity) graveside.  On the way home, Stargrove, the junior, is informed that his father has left him a farm out in the mountains.

Heading out to check out his new digs, Stargrove sees the mysterious woman tending to a horse on his farm.  Before he can collect his rent, she is attacked by a couple of Ragner’s goons.  To show how tough she is, she tells one guy to “eat shit” and then forces his head into a pile of horseshit.  Ah, I love a woman who takes things too literally.  Good thing she didn’t yell “fuck you” to him.  After she disposes of these guys, she introduces herself as Deeja Deering, an associate of Stargrove’s father.  She doesn’t want this frail kid getting wrapped up in this espionage business that involves the organization Stargrove’s father worked for and her new contact…Carruthers.  *insert dramatic music cue here*  James Bond, Jr. follows Deeja to a club in downtown L.A. called Incinerator, where they let the patrons ride their motorcycles up to bar to get a beer and can of oil.  Yes, really.  You know it is a rough place as the song “Fire up the Night” blasting on the soundtrack features the lyric: “We…don’t…give…a HUFF ABOUT YOU!”  Oh man, they don’t give huffs?  Buncha stone cold killers up in here.  Anyway, within minutes of his arrival, Lance gets treated to a performance by the venue’s resident artist – the one and only, Velvet Von Ragner!  In what truly had to have been Gene Simmons’ lowest point (before doing a reality show) he croons, “It takes a man like me to be a woman like me” while decked out in a glitzy headdress and outfit that even Cher would say is too gawdy.

“You will never find a more wreteched hive of scum and villainy...hey, damn it, who let the Valley Girl in?”  

After some baddies try to kill Lance by blowing up his motorcycle at the club, he realizes he is up to his neck in this sequined-cloak and dagger business with Ranger and opts to use his certain set of skills (pommel horse, still rings, horizontal bar!) to save the day.

If you’ve made it this far, first let me congratulate you.  Second, let me say one more time, Gene Simmons in drag! Yes, if NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE has any place in film history, it is for the mind bending visual of the Kiss demon dolled up to the max and giving a performance dialed up to 11.  Let’s be honest: Simmons is not a good looking dude, so he makes an even uglier dudette.  Sporting a huge wig, Simmons as Ragner comes off looking like Vanessa del Rio after a hard day at work.  When Simmons cackles and bugs out his eyes, he comes off looking like Karen Black after a regular day at work.

Simmons made quite an impression in his first non-Kiss acting performance as the villain in RUNAWAY (1984) as he and his tiny robots chased down Tom Selleck. Unfortunately, he blew all of that credit (and more) with his second villainous outing.  It is the kind of performance so bad that today it would kill a career or at least send one into hiding for a few years.  Back then it hardly effected Simmons because either no one saw it or they just summed it up to “oh, that wacky Gene!”  Regardless, he bounced back nicely with his third main villain role in the Rutger Hauer action flick WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE (1987).

The use of a hermaphrodite bad guy/girl gives one a peek into the insanity of this production.  With such an over-the-top heavy, you’d think that this film would be self aware and have its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.  Yet it appears director Gil Bettman is going 100% serious in the handling of the material and makes wrong choice after wrong choice. I guess it starts with getting George Lazenby, the James Bond that a) either no one remembers or b) no one likes.  I’m sure when this was written they were hoping for Sean Connery. But, to paraphrase Ted Knight in CADDYSHACK (1980), “You’ll get Lazenby and like it!” Then we have the casting of singer, Prince pet and Playboy centerfold Vanity. She is easy on the eyes, hard on the ears as her acting is really, really rough. The same could be said for lead Stamos as he seems to have all the charisma of a cup of Greek yogurt.  Then again, he was a hunk for the ladies to ogle.  Their chemistry is nil, which makes a building seduction scene between Lance and Deeja doubly hilarious.  While standing around antsy like he has to pee, Lance strokes a Perrier bottle and voraciously chomps into an apple as she splashes water all over herself with a hose dangling inches from her mouth.  The gang is so ridiculous that even Hong Kong or Italian film crews would look at them and go, “No, not very realistic, too silly.” Nowhere is the OMG intent-versus-realization divide bigger than in the finale where Lance gets the better of Ragner by telling him how beautiful he thinks he/she is.  Cinema has always been entranced by the James Bond, Jr. kind of storyline, where the kid helps out his spy pop (a great example would be the previous year’s TARGET with Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon).  Unfortunately, this ain’t it. Regardless, highly recommended for its schlock value.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Cyber Monday: LADY BATTLE COP (1990)

Early RoboCop prototype (left)
Space Sheriff Gavan (right)
As we all know, 1987's ROBOCOP was a major success in the US as well as around the world. In spite of being a scathing satire of American corporations, no matter where you lived or where you worked, there was something in the movie for you. If not the skewering of modern (anti)social behavior in the corporate business world, there was the over-the-top action, gruesome effects and the slick design of RoboCop himself.

Rob Bottin was tasked with creating the design of RoboCop, which originally was intended to be a pretty obvious reworking of Judge Dredd. Interestingly, as tokusatsu fans could have told you, the second RoboCop design was inspired by the title character of Toei's 1978 Japanese TV series "Space Sheriff Gavan". Because of this connection, it's rather amusing to see things come full circle with this Toei DTV ROBOCOP knock-off LADY BATTLE COP.

Set in the not too distant future, or as the film tells us "sometime... somewhere...", Neo Tokyo has fallen into a rubble and burn-barrel littered chaos of drunks, prostitutes and syndicate killers. According to the Neo Tokyo news, the latest virus to spread from the United States is a new arm of the Cartel, an organized crime outfit that has arms across the globe, but you know is American because they have one black guy working for them.

Opening in a bar full of punks dancing to bad metal, two groups of tailored suit clad Yakuza are about to draw down on each other when a group of camo-clad militants with automatic weapons burst in and blow the living crap out of everyone. Even the liquor bottles aren't safe! The head of the Cartel's cap-busting subdivision is known as Phantom (Masashi Ishibashi recognizable from a dozen Sonny Chiba films and a couple of "Kamen Rider" series) lets one member of each gang live however, so that they can send a message back to their bosses: "From now on, this town will be under the control of the Cartel! Senseless fights won't be allowed anymore!" Damn straight! Senseless fighting is bad, senseless killing is just fine. It's an important distinction, I guess.

Neo Tokyo cop, Saijo (Kisuke Yamashita), has a plan to crack the Cartel case and before executing his plan decides to do a television interview where he announces his dedication to squashing the syndicate. Brother you better be DirtyfuckingHarry if you are going to be identifying yourself on national TV as a threat to the mob. Saijo is friends with another cop, Naoya, who is trying to crack the case from a different angle, but with the same subtlety. Paving the way for a new wave of crime control, Naoya is the leading cop/scientist on a project that will bring robotics to the police force (take that Captain Coldyron!). The project is so hush-hush that even the audience can't be allowed to know any of the details, except that the project is in the last stages of completion and all they need is someone to donate their body in order to finish the project.

The Cartel knows damn well what is going down (though how they know is apparently also top secret), and sends Phantom and his thugs down to the lab to kill everyone and blow up the building. Unfortunately, or fortunately as we see later, Naoya and his champion tennis player fiancee, Karu (Azusa Nakamura), descide to stop by the office on their way home from a boating trip (complete with an Alan Hale captain's hat). Of course they are caught up in the shootings and are both gravely wounded. They manage to escape from Phantom and a telekinetic roid-rage dude, named Amadeus (I don't make this stuff up) who pops up out of nowhere. Scrambling back to Naoya's lab, Karu begs him to use her as his donor for the project before she dies. Surprisingly this only takes a matter of minutes and is completed before the bombs go off and completely obliterate the facility and Naoya as well.

Six months later Saijo still hasn't learned how to conduct an investigation, opting this time to try to browbeat some information about the Cartel out of a random bartender at the same club from the beginning of the film. Such a blundering tool is he that even when an ex-cop offers to help him with some information that he uncovered before being fired from the police force, Saijo refuses to even listen to the guy accusing him of being a drunk. If he read any pulp detective novels he'd know that the best information is obtained by interrogating raving alcoholics. Leave every stone unturned, that's his motto!

While walking home from the club through a dirt street filled with homeless, drunks and a staggering number of hookers who are clearly pleased to see a man in a suit and tie, Phantom and his men corner him among some conveniently placed boxes and barrels and just before they kill him RoboChick comes to his aid! Presumably she was in the neighborhood to show the prostitutes how to attract Japanese men - cybernetics are hawt! Unfortunately for them, Phantom brought along Amadeus to compose a symphony of death (note this line is not actually used in the movie, but should have been)! Amadeus' main power, aside from appearing to have an aneurysm every time he sees our fetching fembot, is hurling I-beams via telekinesis. Apparently all of the drunks have dropped them while reaching for the bottle, so there are always plenty to be found.

We know the Lady Battle Cop is a woman, not because she wears red lipstick, has an earring and high heels, but because her armor is shaped to give the suggestion of breasts and a curvaceous oishi. This begs the question, were they actually looking for a female donor? I mean, I realize that these are Japanese scientists and this is probably the only way they would be able to get their hands on a woman's body, but it seems odd all the same. Particularly given the Japanese view of women at the time which is spelled out in the endlessly repeating theme song that features the lyric "women are made for tennis." The only other option is that Naoya was able to reshape the armor into a semblance of femininity and perform the procedure before the bomb goes off. No wonder the Japanese damn near took over America in the '80s. Frankly, I'd rather them than China. I mean, it's a pretty easy choice between Ultraman and Super Inframan, who would you rather see save the world from giant rubber monsters? Sorry Danny Lee, go back to playing cops.

After Phantom fails his assignment yet again, the Cartel decides he can have a shoulder mounted laser cannon, but if he takes it, he will no longer get any assistance from Amadeus. Why? Presumably since they are a large bureaucracy, they have some sort of check-out policy where you cannot have two superweapons out at the same time. You don't even want to know what their late return penalty is.

Now it's time for all out war between Phantom and Battle Cop in several abandoned factories and warehouses. Of course in spite of the refusal to allow both the laser and Amadeus to be used by Phantom at the same time, you know he has to show up again for a final battle.

Briefly legitimately released to Western audiences in the latter days of VHS, the film was given fanmade subtitles and made the rounds in the trading circles of the '90s. The movie is definitely a mixed bag. On the one hand, the action is satisfyingly bloody, the futuristic setting is entertaining, and there are some interesting twists on the formula. On the other hand, the movie has some serious pacing issues. Director Akihisa Okamoto seems to have made his career as a second unit and assistant director in the '70s and it shows here. The movie lacks the scope that it could have had by using matte paintings, miniatures or even simply skylines to show the expanse of the futuristic city. It feels like Okamoto is trying to make up for this larger world-view by giving us lots of scenes of people walking, hanging out, or just having Lady Battle Cop riding around the countryside on her motorcycle. Granted, no metal hero outing is complete without a motorcycle, but don't expect any cycle stunts or even a wheelie here.

While we do get some cool character actors (the late Toshiaki Nishizawa of "Gavan" fame shows up as Soijo's chief), the character of Amadeus should have been fleshed out a bit more. I hate to say it in this day and age when in Hollywood films even the neighbor's dog has to have a back story, but while we get some great shots of Amadeus and we are told that he was a government experiment that the Cartel corrupted, we never get any scenes of him doing anything other than randomly popping up and attacking Battle Cop. Some scenes of Amadeus wreaking havoc and Lady Robo taking out some random criminals to set the stage for the big battle on the Cartel would have gone a long way. Even worse the film ends with a bit of a cliffhanger setting the stage for a sequel that never happened, and honestly I would have loved to see some sequels from different directors. The concept of a RoboCop taking on psychic cyborgs has inconceivable potential.

Even with its flaws, the film has enough low-budget entertainment value to warrant a visit, and if you dig tokusatsu stuff, you'll definitely want to give it a spin when in a forgiving state of mind.

Friday, July 18, 2014

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 PelĂ© 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).