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, October 18, 2014

Newsploitation: Mutant Baby Turns 40!

If you were to believe the horror media, only one horror masterpiece is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month – THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974).  However, another film also came out this month forty years ago and experienced a much more painful birth before its eventual classic status – Larry Cohen’s iconic IT’S ALIVE first hit theaters forty years ago today on October 18, 1974.  Unlike Tobe Hooper’s unnerving film which found instant success, Cohen’s mutant baby epic had a rather difficult delivery that saw the filmmaker claw and scratch as much as his lead killer kid for years in an effort to give his first horror effort as a director a right to live.

According to Cohen on the film’s DVD commentary, IT’S ALIVE was born from wondering what a tantrum-throwing baby could do with power combined with the idea of parents being terrified of their children in the wake of the ‘60s counterculture.  With the go ahead from Warner Bros. on his script, the director maintained an insane pace while shooting the film in September/October 1973. Cohen would shoot Monday through Friday on this film and then use Saturday and Sunday to finish shooting HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973), the sequel to his hit BLACK CAESAR (1973) starring Fred Williamson.  Unfortunately, by the time Cohen finished his horror film, he found the regime that had greenlit it at Warner Bros. had been replaced. Rather than judge the film on its own merit, the new execs took the all-too-common Hollywood approach of disregarding any property their predecessor had backed. This resulted in IT’S ALIVE getting a one theater play date with a rather unimaginative ad campaign sporting the “Whatever it is…It’s Alive” tagline.

The company opened the film at the Woods Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, where it did very respectable business.  This actually happened earlier in 1974, before the “official” October 1974 release date.  Figures reported in Variety were very good (“IT’S ALIVE is bowing to a good $22,000” – May 1, 1974; “IT’S ALIVE is an okay $21,000 in a fourth Woods whirl” – May 22, 1974).  The fact that it was grossing just one thousand dollars less than its debut four weeks earlier at just one theater is pretty impressive.  But not impressive enough for the Warner execs, who penciled it in for a limited rather than national roll out in the fall on October 18, 1974.  Interestingly, a full-page ad was placed in Variety’s December 4, 1974 issue touting the film’s regional successes at the box office (figures shown include $175,370 in Los Angeles and $219,480 in Chicago), but the powers that be still refused to get 100% behind the picture.  IT’S ALIVE played well into 1975 – it was still charting in October of that year with co-feature BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) – but never achieved the kind of mainstream success Cohen felt the film was capable of.

AIRPORT 1975 fells IT'S ALIVE in Box Office magazine
(October 28, 1974)

Ever the workaholic, Cohen put the film behind him briefly as he subsequently wrote and directed GOD TOLD ME TO (1976) and THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER (1977).  Cohen’s distance from the film, however, was short lived and when he found out that another regime change had taken place at Warner Bros. in 1976, he implored the new guys charge to review the film.  Like the aggrieved father in IT’S ALIVE played by John P. Ryan, Cohen fought for his baby to have the life it truly deserved.  After enthusiastic screenings (with one exec calling it the “scariest motion picture he’d ever seen”), Warner Bros. Executive VP and General Sales Manager Terry Semel decided to reissue the flick in the spring of 1977 with hundreds of prints and a national roll out, despite this cinematic toddler being over two years old.  Cohen’s baby also got prettied up with a brand new ad campaign that understood and conveyed the picture better.  With the tagline “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby…It’s Alive” and a memorable TV spot with the iconic baby carriage/claw imagery, the film soon became the stuff of horror legend and thrilled audiences anew when it unreeled in March 1977.  Imagine that today – a film nearly two and a half years old getting re-released and raking in the cash. The studio had no qualms about the success this time around as they began filling trade papers with ads touting the film’s box office success.  Semel went so far as to credit the film as one of the contributing factors in Warner’s great first quarter in 1977.

IT’S ALIVE tops respectable company in Variety 
(May 11, 1977)

Warner Bros. pimps IT'S ALIVE hard:

Cohen’s confidence in the picture was finally reaffirmed and he soon found himself a wealthy man due to the project.   He also soon found the studio that wanted to abort his baby begging him for a sequel, which he delivered the following year in IT LIVES AGAIN (1978).  He finished off the trilogy almost a decade later with IT’S ALIVE 3: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987) and co-wrote the eventual remake IT’S ALIVE (2008).  So let’s all wish happy birthday to the Davis baby.  Now let’s celebrate and have some cake…oh, junior!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Halloween Havoc: MAXIM XUL (1991)

Kids, you might want to sit down for this one.  Before being allowed to subsist on convention earnings from bloated autograph sales, former A-list movie stars actually had to earn their keep back in the day.  Past their prime actors and actresses had to keep the lights on and this resulted in some truly odd screen appearances.  It explains how people like Karen Black, David Carradine, and even Margaux Hemingway end up in Fred Olen Ray movies in the ‘80s.  Hell, it explains Aldo Ray’s entire career post-1968.  They didn’t have the luxury of $50 autographs, so they worked and took everything that came their way.  These pre-convention blues explains how Adam West, TV’s popular Batman, wound up finding himself in this low budget demonic possession oddity from Baltimore, Maryland.

The film opens in a blue collar bar where blue collar folks do what they always do in their down time – drink beer and arm wrestle!  The unofficial champ challenges a guy wearing a yellow hardhat and promptly loses.  After winning, the hardhat guy heads home, only to be followed down an alley by a stranger and beaten to death with a wrench. Now either people in Maryland take their arm wrestling mucho serious, or there is some kind of killer haunting the night.  My money is on the former.  Enter our hero, Detective Joe Kavanagh (Jefferson Leinberger).  We learn right away that some of his peers don’t think too highly of him as one guy says he sucks as a detective and mentions he only got the job because of his cop daddy. While exploring the crime scene surroundings, Joe runs into Professor Marduk (Adam West) who cryptically says this kind of stuff interests him.

Joe goes to visit his potential squeeze in reporter Amanda Treet (Mary Schaeffer), but she is preoccupied by these killings dubbed “The Ripper Murders.”  Wow, real original there, newspaper staff.  We then inexplicably cut to a courtroom scene where sleazy defense attorney Phyllis Robishon (Billie Shaeffer) is grilling an old lady witness on the stand.  Jeez, this casting agent sure liked folks named Schaeffer/Shaeffer.  Anyway, Robishon proves her unpleasantness by making an old lady cry and then run out of the courtroom.  They run things differently in Maryland I guess.  Apparently, this was one of Joe’s cases and he is pissed at Robishon.  But not pissed enough to turn down her offer of dinner.  Post-meal they head back to Robishon’s place and she lays it all out on the line for him when she says, “You’re not for sale and I want what I can’t have.”  He shows her by leaving her standing cold in her negligee, which causes her to crush her wine glass in her hand.  Wait, wasn’t this movie about demons and killings?

Meanwhile, Amanda and her wannabe reporter photographer Gene (Tony Vogelli) keep investigating the murders. They stumble upon a guy named Earl Wilson (Hal Strieb), a former killer who just happened to be released from an insane asylum the day the murders started and, if you caught it, was the killer in the opening.  When they stake out his place, they see him carrying a bunch of packages inside.  Naturally, they break in and discover he has stored a bunch of body parts in a trunk.  Unfortunately for them, he comes back mid-search and attacks them with a power grinder.  Luckily for them, Joe and his partner Frank (Charles E. Rickard, who also co-wrote) pulled up Wilson’s name on the computer after Wilson beat up Joe at the bar from the opening.  They arrive just in time to put some more lead in his diet. This leads us to another Adam West cameo where he says, “It’s not over” and implores the detective to come visit him for info.  Jeez, this guy is playing hard to get.  You know, Prof, you could just tell him what you know right there.

Anyway, it turns out the cryptic college professor is right.  Doctors at the hospital marvel that Wilson is still alive because “four of the six shots you hit him with were fatal wounds.”  A loose end, Wilson doesn’t have very long to live though as someone wearing high heels enters his room and rips the throat out of the comatose killer.  Gee, this movie only has two female characters so I wonder who the killer is.  News of Wilson’s death reaches Joe and we get the following great exchange:

Joe: “I thought it was over.”
Amanda: “He said it wasn’t.”
Joe: “Who?”

Who?  You forgot the professor who said it wasn’t over just a few hours ago?  You know what, Joe, I’m starting to agree with your colleagues that say you might be a crappy detective. So Joe finally goes to see Prof. Marduk and gets a speech about Maxim Xul (Ultimate Evil), the world’s worst demon, by a fireplace.  So this is why Marduk didn’t want to tell Joe his story in public?  He wanted atmosphere and mood?

Apologies if my review is a bit too plot heavy, but there really isn’t much to say about MAXIM XUL.  I’m not sure why, but the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was a time rife with “that woman be possessed” flicks like THE KISS (1988), THE GUARDIAN (1990), SATAN’S PRINCESS (1990), and PRETTY WOMAN (1990). Okay, maybe not that last one.  Debuting director Arthur Egeli seems to have also been influenced quite a bit by the previous year’s THE EXORCIST III (1990), which partially shot in neighboring Washington D.C. before this.  In fact, the films are remarkably similar as you have a detective chasing/facing a supernatural evil killer mutilating bodies.  Where the two films differ is when it comes to solid plotting, good acting, and all that stuff. Lead Jefferson Leinberger is about as dull as they come and isn’t done any favors by the screenplay by Egeli and co-star Rickard.  Seriously, this might be one of the dumbest cop characters ever on screen.  Imagine this, an investigator who doesn’t investigate!  Hell, he doesn’t even like to ask questions outside of “do you have plans for dinner?”  Also, the mystery as to who the main villain is doesn’t pan out as, like I mentioned before, the film only has two female characters.  Yes, if you didn’t gather it earlier, Maxim Xul is the female attorney.  Even worse, none of the cops seem to recognize all of the ripper victims are trial witnesses.  Worst of all, Egeli doesn’t deliver when we finally see the villain in demon form.  Looking like a refurbished Syngenor mask, Maxim Xul only gets a few seconds of screen time before getting its head lopped off.  It is a shame too as the film does have some things going for it.  Enlisting West is a smart move in terms of getting attention (look at that “Adam West is totally in this” cover above), even if he is only in it a total of 10 minutes.  Egeli gets some good, atmospheric shots and lighting in the film with the help of DP Thomas Lappin.  It is no surprise that Lappin went on to a big career as a camera operator on big budget films like THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 and NON-STOP (he also worked on the Maryland lensed HONOR AND GLORY [1993] around the time of XUL).  That said MAXIM XUL failed to live up to its maximal potential.  Oh yeah, you were waiting for one of those.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Newsploitation: The Mangling of Michael Myers

It makes sense that October would see a lot of box office birthdays since this is a month most targeted for releasing our kind of film. Unfortunately, the first one for this month is kind of a downer because it is a film that is not even close to being a classic.  In fact, it is downright awful.  Hey, they can’t all be good ones, right? Celebrating its 25th anniversary today is HALLOWEEN 5: THE REVENGE OF MICHAEL MYERS, which saw release on October 13, 1989.  The second John Carpenter-less sequel, this continuation of Michael Myers’ triumphant return ended up being the worst of the series…at that point anyway since we had no idea how low things could go.

While some think HALLOWEEN 5 was just a quick cash grab after the success of HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS, the film was actually announced by producer Moustapha Akkad in April 1988 when the fourth entry began filming.  Of course, the fifth entry going into production was predicated on the success of the fourth film, which hit theaters on October 21, 1988.  With HALLOWEEN stalwarts John Carpenter and Debra Hill out of the equation, Akkad struck gold regardless as audiences were still craving Michael Myers slashing seven years after his last onscreen appearance.  HALLOWEEN 4 opened in first place and, thanks to smart timing (a HALLOWEEN film around Halloween, imagine that, Weinsteins!), maintained that spot for two weekends in a row.  Amusingly, it was unseated in its third week by THEY LIVE (1988), a film by Myers daddy John Carpenter.  Eventually, HALLOWEEN 4 brought in just under $18 million dollars in the U.S. box office.  Not ELM STREET numbers, but enough to prove The Shape still had some swing in his slash.

So, naturally, Akkad splurged on the next entry and gave it more funds, right?  Ha, yeah right!  According to some sources, Akkad cut the $5 million dollar budget that HALLOWEEN 4 got down to $3 million dollars for HALLOWEEN 5.  Usually aren’t sequels supposed to increase the production budget?  You could practically hear Akkad saying, “Zee people love-ah Michael! Why spend-ah more money on zee film?  All-ah you need is mask and knife.”  I’m not sure why I made the Syrian producer sound Italian but go with it.  Akkad actually passed off the main producer duties to Ramsey Thomas, who may or may not be the director of the utterly bizarre Akkad production APPOINTMENT WITH FEAR (1985).  If you’ve seen that flick, you’ll understand why this film turned out so bad.

While the principal players on screen remained the same, the switch from parts four to five saw a complete overhaul in nearly every department behind the camera.  The fourth entry’s screenwriters were jettisoned in favor of 28-year-old Shem Bitterman.  Akkad also parted ways with director Dwight H. Little – who I consider the real reason HALLOWEEN 4 is a success – and instead put the Swiss-born helmer Dominique Othenin-Girard in control.  He was signed on the strength of his Lilith-centered horror film NIGHT ANGEL (1990), which was finished before HALLOWEEN 5 but released afterward.  And by “strength” I mean he could make a slick looking film for cheap. According to an Othenin-Girard interview in Gorezone, his first order of business was to substantially rewrite Bitterman’s script.  I’m sure that made the screenwriter live up to his last name.  With a production locked in to return to Salt Lake City, Utah for filming in May 1989, it is no surprise to hear that the six week production started with an unfinished screenplay (Othenin-Girard rewrote constantly with co-writer Michael Jacobs while filming).  It definitely shows in the final product as the film is unfocused and even perplexing at times.  The film takes so many missteps and ends with a total head-scratching cliffhanger (The Man in the Black Boots) that you have to agree with Donald Pleasance when he told Fangoria that the young director seemed to have no idea he was making the fifth entry in a long running series.  It tarnished the series so much that when John Carpenter suggested sending Myers into space, fans thought, “Hmmm, that isn’t half bad.”  Perhaps Othenin-Girard and Akkad’s biggest faux pas was they decided to have KNB effects rework the iconic Michael Myers mask, taking it from William Shatner to something that resembles Lin Shaye.

Not surprisingly, when the film opened in October 1989, fans weren’t pleased.  For some odd reason, it had been a tough year for every horror icon as both Freddy and Jason saw their annual entries sink at the box office.  Gee, could it have anything to do with them being rushed productions?  Anyway, poor Michael saw the worst of it.  The film debuted in second place at the box office, behind fellow newcomer LOOK WHO’S TALKING (1989).  Yes, audiences preferred to see a film about talking babies starring John Travolta and Kirstie Alley.  The film made just over $5 million dollars that weekend and was gone from theaters with a haul of $11 million in a few weeks.  The most ironic thing?  By the time the weekend preceding Halloween (October 27-29) arrived, no one was going to see a film called HALLOWEEN.  To date it remains the lowest grossing film of the series.  It was so bad that it put the entire series on ice for six years before Akkad got it into the hands of the Weinstein brothers via their Dimension arm.  They brought us the equally inane HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995), a film legendary for its behind-the-scenes turmoil.  As true signs of their genius, they released it in September 1995.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Halloween Havoc: LAST RITES (1980)

Through out the '70s and early '80s, before Cannon Films were producing their own films, they were responsible for releasing some of the most well-remembered drive-in fodder around. In 1980 alone they distributed minor classics such as THE GODSEND, DR. HEKYL AND MR. HYPE, NEW YEARS EVIL, SCHIZOID, THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, HOT T-SHIRTS and LAST RITES, Dominic Paris' skin-flint foot-in-the-door to the shabby lower-echelon of the film industry.

In a small town a teenage drag racing accident leaves the driver dead and the passenger, though still alive, is proclaimed dead on the scene and quickly rushed to the A. Lucard Funeral Home. Once laid out on the slab Lucard (Gerald Fielding), his assistant and the local doctor (Victor Jorge) take turns biting her neck before ramming a stake through her heart. As you may have guessed the pillars of the town's community are vampires who have orchestrated a clandestine conspiracy to fake the deaths of people who are ill or unconscious in order to feed, but not breed.

When Marie Fonda's (Patricia Lee Hammond) mother Mrs. Bradley (Mimi Weddell) takes ill Dr. Cummins (Jorge) gives her a major sedative on the sly and pronounces her dead. To take some of the weight off of Marie and her husband Ted's (Michael Lally) shoulders, the good doc recommends that they leave all the arrangements to Lucard. After taking the body away and giving everyone a bite, the Fondas suddenly decide they want to have the funeral at home. Doh! Am I the only one who finds irony in the fact that they want to keep a dead body in the living room?

Common sense would dictate that they stake her and fix her up with mortician's wax before returning her to the house, but instead after a heated debate, Lucard lets Ted take the body back and then decides the best thing to do is to have his assistant break into the house and stake her at home! Jeeze, so much for age being an indication of wisdom. When the assistant breaks in, he is mistaken for a burglar by Ted who throws him out of the window on to a picket fence that is strong enough to bear the force of a full grown man, punch through his rib-cage and come out the other side with out a splinter out of place. Even worse, grams has started walking and now they have to find her before someone discovers her and somehow pieces together their plot. I think one of my favorite lines in the film comes when after his mother-in-law's corpse has has been presumed stolen and Ted accidentally kills a man he suspected of being a home invader, he blithely says to his wife "we better get some rest." What?! Who can go right back to sleep after all that? Jeezus, most people would need to knock back a handful of Ambien with a bottle of Nyquil to get horizontal after that. 

I pity the fool who rented the movie based on the American video promotional art which inserted "DRACULA'S" above "LAST RITES". There is not much vampire "action" (not sure those two words go together) to be found here. Feeling much like a back-yard, micro-budgeted reworking of THIRST (1979), the plot moves slowly, the acting is rank amateur and it looks like it was shot on 16mm, even though it was shot on 35. Most of the film is Ted arguing with Lucard (who amusingly wears a black coat with the collar turned up to look like the classic Dracula cape), and Lucard frantically trying to get other people to do his dirty work. Even worse, old lady Bradley never puts sinks her fangs into anyone, though at one point she does consider it. No doubt there were more than a few fang fans who threw the tape out the window of a moving vehicle.

All that said, it is enjoyable if you are a sucker for no-budget regional films from that era. I really liked the idea of a septuagenarian vampire roaming the woodside and some of the shots of her doing so are pretty atmospheric. It's a damn shame that writer-producer-director Dominic Paris didn't exploit this a little bit more with some additional scenes of her actually doing something other than wandering around. Also, the last half hour gives us some enjoyable low budget action including a scene where two vampires face-off by what seems to be clearing their throats at each other. The problem with this is that it was a first time out for all concerned and the production is so skint it couldn't raise a fuss. The ending sequence really needed some more money thrown at it, but even so there is a an interesting kink in the plot at the 60 minute mark that sets the well conceived finale in motion.

Amazingly Mimi Weddell, in spite of not having a single line, managed to kick start her minor career with this movie. Nobody else did, except Paris who managed to make a handful of other (regrettable) genre films in the '80s before taking up writing family animated movies in Belgium. No really, his last film was TURTLE TALE 2: SAMMY'S ESCAPE FROM PARADISE (2012). I haven't seen the animated films, but I'll still go out on a limb and say that this is the best of his oeuvre and is entertaining in a forgiving state of mind.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Halloween Havoc: DRACULA'S WIDOW (1988)

If you need proof that nepotism exists in Hollywood (far-fetched, I know), look no further than the Coppola family. Like the root system of a towering oak, expanding out in a radial pattern invading every crevice of the earth and destroying city infrastructure along the way. Francis may be that towering oak, but it's his brother August Coppola who is responsible for taking full advantage of his brother's status and infiltrating the industry with as many of his offspring as possible. He is the reason we have Nicholas Cage. Proof of August's evil, if ever there was. Cage has two less successful (though similarly talented) brothers, Marc, whose career has been as a radio DJ and essentially photo bombing movies, and Christopher, who has managed to have a career as a director. Christopher's career has been all over the map with credits ranging from Full Moon's kid-friendly CLOCKMAKER (1998), an attempt to revive Hopalong Cassidy with GUNFIGHTER (1999) and this, his first film, a wild stab at a modern Dracula comedy, without the joke writing. No, really. It's a supposed to be a comedy, trust me.

Opening with bizarrely strobing footage of classic Hollywood neon signs, old fashioned homicide detective Hap Lannon (Josef Sommer) reflects in a voice over about the strange case of The Hollywood House of Wax and its "oddball owner".

After receiving an extra crate not listed on the manifest in a shipment of antiques from Romania, sculptor and poncy Dracula fan Raymond Evrett (Lenny von Dohlen), quickly finds himself with the mutilated corpse of a robber and the real life bride of Dracula, Vanessa (Sylvia Kristel). This is of course, after she heads out to a bar named The Blue Angel (presumably a reference to the 1930 Marlene Dietrich film) and picks up a greaseball who is clearly beer-goggling the pinched waist, shoulder pads and two-dollar black poodle wig. How does she pick him up, you ask? By standing standing completely still with an unblinking stare. Oh yeah, hotchie mama! This electrifying encounter leads to an attempted tryst with both of them, in their neatly pressed suits, rolling around on the grass in a park. Apparently a hotel room was just too much effort for these kids. Unfortunately, like so many single men, he finds out that she has an entirely different idea about exchanging bodily fluids.

Ray is also the life of the party as even though he has a totally hot girlfriend, his idea of a good time is an evening alone in his bedroom with a snifter of brandy, designer jammies and NOSFERATU (1922) on 16mm. See? I told you he was poncy. By way of introduction, Vanessa bursts into his room grabs the picture of his girlfriend Jenny Harker (Rachel Jones), smashes in on the floor and screams "you are mine now, understand!" I guess vampires really are scary! I gotta call bullshit here though. So in the world of the undead, the ladies get a smooth-talking, sophisticated neck-biter who talks like he's out of a Harlequin novel, and for the guys? Yeah, we get the psychotic ex-girlfriend that we never wanted to see again, who now adds the literal drinking of blood to go with the figurative crushing of your soul. Thanks for that.

For no adequately explained reason Vanessa's plan is to use Raymond as not only a handy, portable beverage, but as a pawn to help her get back to Romania so she can be with her husband Count Dracula. Great, now she's a controlling nutcase and married. Ray is forced to break the news that her hubby is kaput, which she denies and sticks to her plan to have him take her back to the old country.

We aren't really sure how Raymond is supposed to be getting Vanessa back to Romania, since all she does is want to run around L.A. killing people while dragging Ray around by the neck. After forcing him to make out with her in the middle of an intersection, they stumble across a building next to a sleazy strip-club that is the lair of satanists. How do we know it is being used by satanists? Because it has a big pentagram spray painted next to the door, duh! I mean how else would you find a satanic cult? In spite of having a naked girl tied down to a rack, it is hard to tell whether these guys are supposed to be real satanists or not. Regardless she kills them all with ol' Ray leaving his fingerprints everywhere so that now the cops suspect he is a serial killer. This assertation is perfectly reasonable since Hap and his partner ain't much for this new-fangled police-work. After finding the corpse of the first victim in the park, they discover a matchbook with the name of the bar on it. Do they carefully pick it up with tweezers or the old reliable #2 pencil and send it to the forensics department for analysis? Nah, just grab it with your hands and then go harass the schmoe behind the bar. Old school detective work baby!

Instead of having Jenny Harker be a law student or something clever, Coppola simply makes her a pretty face (and boobs) that says the usual stuff like "Raymond, you look awful. You are cold as ice!" Unfortunately Raymond is having trouble getting Jenny to understand that he is going through some issues that the surrogate mom approach won't cure. At one point he resorts to drinking the blood of a winged rodent (a pigeon) and even worse, he is forced to wear turtlenecks.

Just to make sure that you know it's a comedy, we also get the grandson of Dr. Van Helsing who runs an antique shop (creatively named "Helsing's Antiques") and he damn well knows that the killings are vampire related! To protect himself from the evil, he hugs a giant crucifix, though what he should have done is fixed his floorboards, because that is what ultimately proves his undoing. Comedy gold, I tells ya.

Kristel, in what I can only be an attempt to shed her sex bomb image, actually walks around impersonating Max Shrek's stiff, claw-handed mannerisms while wearing a pinched-waist grey power-suit. Where she got this suit is never explained. Since she is alleged to have been in a coffin since before the Count's demise at the hands of Van Helsing, she must have obtained in L.A. This would seem ripe for a BEASTMASTER II (1991) style scene where Vanessa could try on clothes at a department store proudly enjoying her reflection in... oh wait, I guess there's a reason they didn't shoot that bit. Either way, in spite of what the characters say, it is not even remotely hot. I can't imagine what Coppola was thinking here. When I see her, I don't think "oooh, a girl worth dying for", I think "oooh, this bitch will kill me".

Despite of the fact that the movie is intended to be a horror comedy and utterly fails on both fronts, I kinda dig it. I remember seeing it back in the day, it was in every video store on Earth, which is either a statement about the demand for video store fodder, or the power of the Coppola name. At the time I didn't care for it much. Watching it now, in this day and age of deadly serious digital overkill, I find it reasonably entertaining. A damn sight more fun than Uncle Frank's utterly absurd BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (1991), which was equally unfunny and unscary, but tedious and overwrought to boot.

The movie has a couple things going for it; Josef Sommer, a player in countless '80s genre films, TV movies and cop flicks like DIRTY HARRY (1971) and MAN ON A SWING (1974), has the easy old-school detective thing down cold and makes up for the shortcomings of the other actors, particularly since Lenny von Dohlen's uhhh, style, takes a little getting used to. Also in its favor, it moves at a quick clip, sports a cameo by George Stover and better still, sports lots of splattery make-up effects and creature work. Sure, it ain't the best of the '80s, but hell, it's probably the best thing to come out of one of Francis Ford's nephews and it is better than a Conrad Brooks video. I'm a simple man, I don't ask for much.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Halloween Havoc: GYPSY VAMPIRE'S REVENGE (2008)

Sometimes I wake up screaming in a cold sweat during the middle of the night.  It isn’t due to some horrible nightmare in my brain; it is from something far worse.  Sitting among my video collection is a DVD spindle that will chill any cinefile to the bone.  It is a collection of films starring Conrad Brooks that my friend Dave “kindly” sent me.  The discs sit there and stare at me.  They are Audrey to my Seymour as they cry out and say, “Watch me, Wilson! Watch me!”  It is a task that I valiantly try to complete, but it also requires resolve so I space them out to one or two a year.  In fact, I reviewed one just last year…uh oh, it is that time again.

Cult film fans know Brooks as the last living link to the wacky world of celebrated z-grade auteur Ed Wood.  The young Maryland local had small roles in several of Wood’s most famous films and has since parlayed this fact into a career of starring in dozens of shot-on-video schlock-fests.  Not only did Brooks get back in front of the camera, but he also started directing his own low budget efforts back in his native Maryland.  This resulted in two series – the JAN-GEL and the GYPSY VAMPIRE films.  We already hit one JAN-GEL flick with HILLBILLY MONSTER (2003), so now it seems time to sink out teeth into (ah, boo yourself) a GYPSY VAMPIRE flick.  Alright, someone pass the aspirin.

GYPSY VAMPIRE’S REVENGE is actually the second film in the series, but I’m brave (or stupid) enough to figure I can get the basics of the back story.  We open with what is quite possibly the worst establishing shot in cinematic history.

Is this supposed to be a real “castle” because the damn thing looks like some footage from a Sega CD game?  Anyway, gypsy vampire acolyte Lucy takes her minions to the cemetery to resurrect the bones of Count Lugo (whose skeleton amazingly has a ring in the top of its skull to hang it).  Okay, I think I have it – Count Lugo was killed at the end of GYPSY VAMPIRE (2005).  Back at the castle, they place dem bones into a coffin and it resurrects into the flesh-and-blood Count Lugo (Bruce “Porkchop” Lindsay of the Redskins’ Hogettes fame).  Alright, the gypsy vampire is back in business.  Cut to a heavy metal song as the opening credits unroll over footage of a cemetery taken from a car.  I don’t know why, but the mental image of Conrad rocking out to this song makes me laugh.  Here is a visual representation of how that looks in my brain.

The vamp is back alive and living in his castle with his minions, but things are about to get really complicated for him. Two local entrepreneurs, Marvin and Joe, have bought the castle and plan to turn it into a vampire museum to pay tribute to the local legend that happened three years ago.  Not only that, but they have hired renowned New York stage actor Terrance Logan Bridwell to come and perform in a play about Lugo.  For some reason all of this action happens in a local restaurant.  Thankfully, this allows for the film’s best line as Bridwell pompously declares his accomplishments (“I was in Hamlet!”) and the hostess says, “This is just a diner, but we are serving ham tonight.”  Yes, that is the film’s best line.  Also hired for this play to provide accuracy is Dr. Cabasa, the same dude who was responsible for bringing Lugo down by having him suck on a babe with garlic-laced blood.

Meanwhile, hopeless drunk Cap (Brooks) has been trying to get into a local poker game, but drowns his sorrows when denied.  With the game over, the winner Queenie gets escorted back to her cabin by a guy named Johnny Walker (haha, get it?).  When they get to her place, they have a torrid sex scene…where director Brooks opts to just have a black screen and you hear slaps, moans, and groans. Following this unseen sex scene, Queenie is kidnapped by one of Lugo’s minions in a gas mask because Lucy has sent him out to get new blood for the sickly count.  This disappearance leads to an investigation by Sheriff Will (I can support this name choice) and his interrogation of Dr. Cabasa ends with him driving the good doc to the castle.  The troupe – which has been joined by a director who sports a beret – is preparing for their first rehearsal.  Wise to the game, Count Lugo kills off the actor hired to play him and replaces him; everyone in the cast sees no difference as they attribute it to a great make up job by the thespian.  Naturally, this is all a plan for Lugo to exact his revenge on Dr. Cabasa and – I think – resurrect his long dead love or something.

(Uncovering my eyes) Did I make it?  Did I survive? (Looks around to see stacks of videos) Whew!  Yes, GYPSY VAMPIRE’S REVENGE is as soul-crushingly terrible as you would expect, but for some reason I didn’t feel like I was suffering in hell like I usually do.  Maybe it is because I knew what I was getting into…or because I watched it in ten minute increments during football while cleaning and reading. Or maybe that was a result of it having a running time shorter than an episode of 60 MINUTES.  Clocking it at just 49 minutes, this Conrad Brooks joint isn’t really around long enough to truly damage my psyche. Not that it wasn’t bruised or battered with the anti-thespians and the grim shot-on-video veneer.  I will freely admit that my favorite part was a shot where the microphone is clearly in the shot.  This goof wasn’t as shocking, however, as realizing they used actual microphones on this.  Also, Count Lugo’s eye patch keeps switching which eye it is placed on.  I can’t tell if that is ineptness or intentional goofiness with a one-eyed wink.  I’ll just assume the former, while I’m sure the filmmakers claim the latter.

Of course the film is cheap, but this might set a new level for low budget.  Believe it or not, this actually makes the aforementioned HILLBILLY MONSTER seem like a big budget masterpiece as that one had tons of locations and a cast of dozens.  This one seems to have three locations (a restaurant, a cheapo haunted house, and someone’s living room) and a cast of six.  Brooks can’t be bothered to work in anything exploitive that would appeal to audiences.  Well, unless you count a guy in a Tor Johnson mask.  The most amazing thing is this is a vampire flick with no blood and no fangs.  Think about that for a second – a vampire film missing the key ingredients of the genre. That is like an action film with no action (“That’s called BACK IN BUSINESS with Brian Bosworth,” says Tom) or a porn film without sex!  Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is the lack of screen time for Brooks himself.  He only has one scene and it is about four minutes.  This actually made me sad because I actually enjoy his lively demeanor.  He is kind of like that crazy uncle you’ve always had.  You know something is wrong when I’m asking for more Conrad Brooks in a picture. Brooks, a man who loves to be in anything-and-everything, opted to take himself out of his own flick.  Now think about that for a damn second.  Thankfully, I’ve crossed my annual Conrad Brooks flick off my list and can now go back to my semi-sanity.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Halloween Havoc: A RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT (1987)

You can accuse veteran genre filmmaker Larry Cohen of a lot of things, but following the herd ain't one of them. Cohen was unique even in the liberated '70s when you could sell your parent's Buick, get together some co-workers and make a movie that would actually get a theatrical run. Cohen's first film BONE (1972) pretty much set the tone for his career by subtly satirizing the hostage-drama archetype that would later become an entire genre of yuppie terror / home invasion films. Even though his next two films, BLACK CAESAR (1973) and HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973), catapulted the career of Superbowl I winning defensive back Fred "The Hammer" Williamson and stylized the black action genre following SUPERFLY (1972), they would probably the closest things he made that could be called mainstream.

Flash forward 15 years into Cohen's career after making deeply emotional films about killer mutant babies, an Aztec serpent god and err, J. Edgar Hoover, it would seem like an odd choice for Warner Brothers to hand him a late-in-the-game direct-to-video sequel of a highly successful 1979 CBS mini-series based on the Stephen King novel. Directed by the terminally under-appreciated Tobe Hooper with (at the time) big names such as David Soul, James Mason, Elisha Cook Jr., Geoffrey Lewis and Fred Willard. Yes, I'm sure there was Willard demographic that overlapped into the Stephen King demographic. CBS has a Venn diagram for that somewhere, I know it.

After signing on with Warner, Cohen made his second sequel to IT'S ALIVE (1974) and RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT, two of the films that even Cohen's fans generally feel a little less excited about. Back in the day when this hit video, as an example of said fan, I didn't think much of it. Eight years after what is quite possibly the best miniseries in the history of American television, we now have a low-budget sequel that actually rehashes the original poster art, simply replacing a silhouette of a country mansion with a small town landscape. Was the Warner Brother's art department on strike that day?

A two fisted, lady-killer anthropologist, Joe (Michael Moriarty... let that one sink in), gets a call from his ex-wife (Ronee Blakley) who wants to dump their delinquent kid in his lap. Now saddled with foul-mouthed pre-teen Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed), Joe decides to go live in a house that he inherited from his aunt in Salem's Lot. Quickly Joe discovers that the town is nothing but a nest of wealthy vampires who have human "drones" that do all of the labor and look after the town in the daylight hours. The drones manage the farms that provide animal blood and the appearance of normality so that the vampires can live the life of the idle rich.

The problem is that the town's vampire patriarch, Judge Axel (Andrew Duggan), has taken Jeremy mentally hostage through the allure of a cute vampire girl his age (pre-surgical Tara Reid) and uses this as leverage against Joe, who he needs to write the history of vampires. Sounds good, except for the fact that Axel doesn't plan on releasing the book in maybe 200 years from now. There better be a hell of an advance on that, because Joe isn't going to see a penny of those royalties. If you can get past the shameless cash-in mentality, you have something that is not in any way a sequel to, or based on, the Stephen King story, but a political vampires-as-one-percenters allegory with a lot of cool, little touches.

The most interesting thing that eluded me back in '87 was that political subtext, which seems so obvious now. The vampires are wealthy elitists who prey on the lower classes. Of the two scenes in which we see the vampires kill outsiders, the victims are a group of "punk" kids and two homeless men; the natural enemies of arch conservatives in the wild. In a later scene they attempt to seduce an old man, Van Meer (Sam Fuller), with empty promises, telling him what they think he wants to hear to get him to join their ranks. I'm pretty sure if you looking the dictionary, that is the definition of "Fox News," Van Meer as it turns out is a nazi hunter and believes that Judge Axel is a nazi in hiding, not realizing that he is something just as bad, if not worse.

The scene with the homeless men is actually more creepy and sleazy than funny, which I'm pretty sure it was intended to be. The homeless man are sitting around taking swigs off the ol' hooch bottle when some pre-pubescent kids show up enticing the men into thinking they could take advantage of them, thereby justifying their deaths. I'm guessing that Cohen must have felt the need to follow mainstream fashion and make the victims complicit in, or at least deserving of, their gruesome fates. This somewhat undermines his theme, but makes for an interesting film as there really isn't a single likable character to be found.

Like most anthropologists, Joe is an irresponsible, cocky womanizer. His ex-wife is a complete bitch in furs who just wants to unload the baggage from their bad marriage, their son, who is so badly damaged by the neglect and hostility of his parents that he acts like an angry brat through most of the film until the grandfatherly figure, Van Meer, literally beats some sense into him. Someone was working out their inner demons here. Interestingly the villains have better family bonding than our protagonists, but they also prey on anyone who is not part of the family, enslaving them to tend their farms. Their farms serve as not so much a breeding ground for livestock, but a source of blood for their evil thirst. They may be soulless bloodsuckers who are abusing their power, but they aren't uncivilized.

I now realize that if  the film were made today, Judge Axel would probably be named "Judge Fox News", throwing out blatant, ham-handed political grandstanding, bludgeoning the audience with its message. This may be a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, if you wipe away the blood, but it keeps its beliefs in the back ground for the most part. In the final scene (spoilers ahead) this theme is cemented when Judge Axel is staked through the heart with an American flag on a wooden pole. As he dies, he is shown briefly stroking the bloody flag. The scene seems to be making a statement about America's heritage being soaked in blood and the jingoist right wing irony of being killed by something that faux patriots pretend to believe in, but merely use as a status symbol and a way to excuse bad behavior.

For all of its faults (such as Moriarty's mesmerizing hairpiece), RETURN is surprisingly good in retrospect, and if you are still inclined to criticize the movie, go watch the Rob Lowe remake. I dare ya. Double dog dare ya.