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!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Unamerican Gothic: MY BROTHER'S GLASSES (1972)

Whether you know it or not, if you have watched low-rent movies in the '80s, you have probably seen at least a handful of South African movies. For a while they were cranking out INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) and ROMANCING THE STONE (1984) inspired adventures that challenged the patience of even the most die-hard video junkies. JEWEL OF THE GODS (1988) is a perfect example, though it sports a bigger budget than most. Martial arts fans will no doubt think of James Ryan's KILL OR BE KILLED (1976) and KILL AND KILL AGAIN (1981) which made a huge impression on me as a pre-teen.

In spite of the few fun outings I've stumbled across, I've never come away feeling like there is a great wealth of unexplored cinema coming out of what was at one time the most contentious place on earth. That is about to change. Well... maybe a bit. Oh, and I should mention: Even though I will make this as spoiler-free as possible, if you plan on watching the film, don't read this or any other review. You can thank me later.

Opening with a torrential rainstorm beating down on a funeral party, a blind man, Aadrian van der Byl (Cobus Rossouw) has shut himself up inside his castle, drinking heavily. Bitter about his father's death, he is soon beset upon by his brother Paul who has been missing for 20 years after blinding Aadrian during an argument as kids. Aadrian still furious at his brother who has only showed up to cash in on the large inheritance, in a fit of drunken rage kills him and hides his body in a wooden bench chest in the parlor room. Just when he had gotten his manservant, Freddie (Pieter Fourie), to help him dispose of the body, his wife shows up. Then his aunt Emily (Elsa Fouché), who he has never heard from in 10 years shows up sniffing around for money along with her creepy mentally challenged son Errol (Dawie Malan). As if that weren't enough, a detective, Sergeant Grobbelaar (Louw Verwey), shows up while investigating the whereabouts of Paul. The will cannot be read until Paul is present.

While I've seen this referred to as a giallo, it really isn't. It's much more in the vein of the subgenre inspired by James Whale's classic OLD DARK HOUSE (1932). Feeling much like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces of Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, veteran South African director Dirk de Villers, mounts one of the most atmospheric modern gothic thrillers in recent memory. Using oblique angles, rack focus shots and unusual editing, the look of the movie is every bit the match for the twisty script and nicely tuned performances.

There are also some interesting visual nods to Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. I may be reading this in, but the protagonist having wrap-around dark glasses seems like a subtle nod to Vincent Price's distinctive look in THE TOMB OF LIGEIA (1964). Also the castle shots are reminiscent of the foreboding castle shots used in nearly every one of Corman's Poe films. To be fair, those shots, along with may others, were probably inspired by James Whale's shots in FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).

Either way, this sort of reference was the last thing I expected out of a South African film that, to my knowledge, never got distribution outside of its native country. It is possible that the lack of bloodletting, nudity or monsters failed to impress distributors who were looking for sensational fodder for drive-ins and second-run cinemas, but I think if it had, it would be considered an under-appreciated classic, instead of an unknown classic. In many ways it bears resemblance to the low-budget Spanish thrillers with lots of moody moments and the running theme of mental imbalance.

While this may not be the easiest movie to get a hold of it is well worth the effort. If I owned a DVD company, I would put this out in a remastered special edition before I promptly go bankrupt.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Newsploitation: Easy to Kill at the Box Office

Hard to believe that HARD TO KILL (1990) is only celebrating its 25th anniversary today as it seems like it came out ages ago.  This is probably because its leading man, Steven Seagal, seems to have crammed three careers worth of flicks and gossip into his two and a half decade movie career.  Then again, we’d soon learn that excess in all things was his favorite pastime.

HARD TO KILL was Seagal’s second film with Warner Bros. studios.  As the story goes, Seagal was teaching Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz in the Japanese martial art aikido and soon this led to a screen test for the studio.  He surely must have wowed them with his moves because Seagal’s acting certainly isn’t the best.  Anyway, the resulting film to be Seagal’s debut was ABOVE THE LAW (1988), which grossed roughly $18 million in the U.S. when it came out in April 1988. Not bad for a debut.  His second feature started filming in April 1989 under the title SEVEN YEAR STORM (a reference to his character Mason Storm [ha!] being in a coma).  The studio changed the title in October 1989 after it had excellent test screenings and they returned to the three word variant of his debut.  SEVEN YEAR STORM became the much more accessible HARD TO KILL.

The arrival of Seagal couldn’t have happened at a better moment as action fans were starving a bit for new blood. Schwarzenegger (42 at the time of HARD’s release) had left action films behind briefly for comedy and that resulted in his biggest hit of his career at the time with TWINS (1988). Stallone (43 at the time of HARD’s release) had become redundant, doing seemingly endless ROCKY and RAMBO sequels.  By contrast, the 37-year-old Seagal seemed like a spring chicken at the time.  Also, his aikido style of fighting seemed newer to action fans and much more brutal/flashier.   Audiences had obviously been receptive to Seagal on home video and cable as HARD TO KILL opened in first place with $9.2 million its opening weekend of February 9, 1990.  In total it ended up grossing over $47 million in the U.S. alone. This would be the first of many successive Seagal films to open in the top spot (MARKED FOR DEATH later this same year in October 1990; OUT FOR JUSTICE in April 1991; UNDER SIEGE in October 1992; and ON DEADLY GROUND in February 1994).

Unfortunately for Seagal, that last film signaled the beginning of the end of his mainstream career.  He tried to get all Tom Laughlin (BILLY JACK) on us by producing/ghost writing/directing/starring in a movie with an environmental message.  No, really, it literally had an environmental message as Seagal ended the film with his character giving a lecture to characters (and audiences) about the environment complete with real shots of natural disasters and oil-drenched animals.  Rumor has it that Warner’s execs wanted this scene cut and Seagal refused.  That and going famously over budget on this and his next film, the sequel UNDER SIEGE 2 (1995), signed his death warrant.  By 1998 his films started going straight-to-video and, despite the occasional theatrical release, he mostly stayed there.  When the time the new millennium rolled around, he completely gave up and starred in anything thrown his way (a record 31 films in 14 years).  However, he was king for a while as he ruled the action market from 1988 to 1994 – it was a total seven year storm.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Giallo Pudding: MOZART IS A MURDERER (1999)

In the pantheon of celebrated Italian genre filmmakers is one Sergio Martino. Never given a laurel and hearty handshake for his contribution to the crime, giallo and other genres that he so deserved until recently. His contributions to nearly every genre known to man has brought about a 40 year career packed full of Italian genre favorites. Even so, he is still not recognized as say Lucio Fulci or Dario Argento would be. From his bonafide classics, such as ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN (1979) and 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983), to his more esoteric outings like A MAN CALLED BLADE (1977) and ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK (1972), he consistently made distinctive, stylish and well-crafted cinema across the board. So what has he done for us lately?

In the past 20 years, like so many Italian genre directors Martino has moved (or been moved by circumstance) into the realm of the small screen. A few series, but mostly TV movies. MOZART is his last theatrical feature to date, and while it would never play theaters here in the States, it is a solid little procedural that proves that Martino hasn't lost his touch.

A group of 20-something music academy students perform their second recital and strike an off chord. This leads to a heated exchange between the students and their tyrannical professor Baraldi (Alberto Di Stasio) who threatens to throw them out right before finals. On the way home one of the female students, Chiara, is attacked and viciously stabbed to death by a black-clad killer who carves a strange symbol on her stomach. Martino deftly uses this opener to set the stage for a police procedural throwback to the giallo era of the '70s. Is Baraldi hiding a secret? Is Danile (Daniela Scarlatti) a psychopath who is barely holding it together? Could it be Chiara's drug-pushing ex-boyfriend Gianni (Emanuele Cerman) out for revenge? Perhaps it is Chiara's childhood friend, Arturo (Manuel Oliverio), whose love was spurned in adulthood. Maybe it was the headmistress of the school who wears a necklace with the same symbol that was carved on Chiara's stomach. Not to mention a whole host of other possibilities.

Martino sets up the first half of the film with one murder and sets his detective, Commissioner Maccari (Enzo De Caro), on the trail of the killer, sorting through clues and digging into the victim's past, all while being haunted by the death of his murdered wife. Once knee deep in the surprisingly convoluted plot (and I mean that in a good way), the killer starts picking off suspects one by one, leaving bloody clues behind. Clearly meant to be a throwback to the proper giallos of the past, in addition to a complicated plot, Martino, who also scripted, throws in an absolutely ridiculously far-fetched resolution which, if you are a fan of the genre, is mandatory. Those uninitiated to the trappings of the giallo may find this to be so absurd as to be laughable and it is, but when I sit down to watch a giallo, I expect a few things and one of them is a preposterous, left-field explanation of why the killer is a killer. While there is no way to predict the ending, Martino does leave plenty clues as to the killer's identity carefully placed among the wide swath of red herrings.

I suppose you could nit-pick MOZART for having too many ideas for it's own good. There are many interesting moments that seem to be quickly forgotten as the plot moves forward. Near the beginning of the movie there is a sequence that shows an experimental music therapy treatment for down's syndrome patients. It's an interesting idea that leads you to believe that maybe the killer was being treated there. I mean, their idea of music is a doctor plunking around on a giant xylophone. That would drive anyone mad. On the other hand, you have so much going on that even if Martino is throwing around balls of tinfoil, it still makes for an engaging movie. Those who have sat through some lesser giallos will attest that some of them could use more ideas, even if they aren't fleshed out.

While the movie is shot on video, it actually looks really close to being cheap filmstock. The only thing that gives it away is the live sound and the massive amount of lighting required to make video look clean, which unfortunately destroys the atmosphere of night photography. In spite of this, Martino gives the movie a very professional look, using quite a bit of nice camerawork via dolly, oblique angles and POV shots. OPERA (1987) it is not, but for what it is, this is a solidly entertaining giallo that may not reach the heights of delirium of Martino's TORSO (1973), but kept my interest from beginning to end.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Newsploitation: In the Mouth of Box Office Sadness

Normally I wouldn’t be posting about a box office anniversary for a film that is only twenty years old.  One, it would lead to stuff like me writing up the 20th anniversary of the American release of the third HIGHLANDER film (I restrained myself on the hallowed anniversary last month).  Two, it makes me feel really old.  Tom and I were just discussing how when we were kids, twenty years in the past seemed like ancient history. Now looking back and going, “Damn, that was only twenty years ago” certainly singes our synapses.  Of course, we’ll make an exception and we have to today as February 3, 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.

It goes without saying that Carpenter kicked ass (after running out of bubble gum) in the 1980s.  It is a veritable classic upon classic with the seven films he released in that decade. Apparently he also had a decent flick in the ‘70s called HALLOWEEN (1978) or something; heard it isn’t as boss as the Rob Zombie one.  All kidding aside, Carpenter was killing them, starting the decade strong with THE FOG (1980) and finishing even stronger with THEY LIVE (1988).  So it kinda sucked when he didn’t have a film release for four years.  Sure, he worked on plenty (SHADOW COMPANY, PIN CUSHION, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake) but it wasn’t until March 1991 that he started filming MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN (1992) with Chevy Chase.  Carpenter had his biggest budget to date, but the film failed to attract audiences when it came out on February 28, 1992 (full disclosure: I like the film; that sound you hear is Tom screaming, “What!?”).  

Despite MEMOIRS poor performance at the box office in February, the year of 1992 was a busy one for Carpenter.  In January, he and his producer/wife Sandy King signed a deal with Universal for one film (the resulting film would be his remake of VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED [1995], which ended up coming out just two months after MOUTH).  In March, Variety reported that Carpenter was helping retool his script MELTDOWN, which was going to be an action vehicle for Dolph Lundgren and directed by Yves Simoneau (Variety, March 3, 1992: "MELTDOWN from Braunstein and Hamady Prods. Featuring Lundgren as a terrorist-busting strongman, MELTDOWN was written by John Carpenter, who is currently working on a rewrite with Robert Roy Pool").  In August there was renewed interest in Columbia’s sci-fi flick PIN CUSHION, which Carpenter was attached to direct with talk of Sharon Stone in the lead (replacing Cher!).  And in November 1992, Showtime announced Carpenter would be co-directing, producing, and hosting the anthology BODY BAGS.  Finally, as if all that weren’t enough work, news arrived in early December 1992 that Carpenter had signed on to direct New Line’s on/off project, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.

Although released halfway through the 1990s, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS was actually a project New Line Cinema had since the late 1980s.  The script was written by New Line’s then Vice President of Creative Development, Michael De Luca.  Among the first directors he sent the script to in 1988 was John Carpenter. The first public mention of the film came in February 1989 at the American Film Market where New Line advertised it on their slate of upcoming releases (see art to the left).  The script was again mentioned by the company in Variety in June 1989, where the script was oddly attributed to one Desmond Cates (I assume a pseudonym) and they promised a February 1990 release.  The director attached at this time was Tony Randel, who had just helmed HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II (1988).  Mary Lambert, the director of PET SEMETARY (1989), was also attached at one point.  Unfortunately, New Line didn’t know the horror at the box office was about to bottom out and the company soon put the brakes on horror for a while, even going so far as to put cash cow Freddy on ice for two years.

The first official mention of Carpenter on the project came in Variety on December 7, 1992.  Naturally, the title changed from IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS to John Carpenter’s IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS.  The director spent January 1993 filming his stuff for BODY BAGS and then spent several months preparing for MOUTH’s late summer shoot.  Although De Luca retains sole credit as a writer on the film, Carpenter did rewrite the script with Evgenia Citkowitz (an as yet unpublished author and Mrs. Julian Sands) as evidenced by a copyright filed on August 13, 1993. Carpenter assembled one of most diverse casts while reuniting with Sam Neill from MEMOIRS; a bit of a casting coup as Neill had just headlined JURASSIC PARK (1993) that summer.  Supporting roles included Julie Carmen, Jurgen Prochnow, Charlton Heston, David Warner, John Glover, Bernie Casey, and Peter Jason.  Filming took place in Canada from August to October 1993 on a budget of roughly $7 million.

MOUTH was originally slated to be released by New Line on September 9, 1994.  However, something happened and it got bumped to February 3, 1995. Not a good sign as the first quarter is usually considered a dumping ground for films that the studio had little faith in.  That would be weird in this case as the film was written by a New Line exec at the time.  Anyway, the film opened almost five months later and didn’t fare very well. It debuted in 5th place with $3,441,807 and was behind the week’s other two new wide releases, BOYS ON THE SIDE and THE JERKY BOYS.  Goddang, that’s a lot of boys. The film stuck around in U.S. theaters for about a month, earning a domestic total of $8,924,549.  This would be the lowest grossing film of Carpenter’s career since HALLOWEEN (1978) made him a name director (a dubious distinction later seized by GHOSTS OF MARS [2001]).

Not surprisingly, the film wasn’t initially looked upon that favorable with Fangoria calling it “disappointing.”  It wasn’t until about a decade later that folks started to appreciate and re-evaluate it.  Perhaps a critical rethinking occurred at this time after fans had experienced some truly bad Carpenter flicks.  Or maybe it took fans a while to accept the more cerebral elements.  Either way, people began to notice the strong thematic connection MOUTH had with films like PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  As it stands now, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS is considered the last truly great John Carpenter flick and I wouldn’t disagree with that. When I fired up my laserdisc (damn, I really am old) for a revisit recently, I found myself enjoying it even more.  It is Carpenter's 40s detective film and is easily the best H.P. Lovecraft film not based on any Lovecraft story. Like fine wine, some of Carpenter’s films need a chance to age (let’s not forget that THE THING [1982], now considered a masterpiece, didn’t get a warm reception either).  

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Superham Cinema: THE AVENGING FEMALE WARRIOR 2 (1991)

In the modern day when it seems like every low-rent genre movie has to be smirky, winky and sarcastic, it's great to go back to those films of 20 years ago which earnestly wanted to entertain without the swagger of mock bravado. Ah, who am I kidding? We've never left that era, and when we look for solid, old fashioned entertainment you know a trip south of the border is just what the doctor ordered. Hey, don't judge, it's for medicinal purposes.

Presumably picking up where the 1988 original left off, we find the girly, but tough-as-nails vigilante Ana Rosa (low-budget action staple Rosa Gloria Chagoyán), aka The Avenging Female Warrior, with big hair, full make up, miniskirt and mid-drift top, working in her garage refitting her rice-burning street rocket with forward-firing machine guns! All of this without chipping a nail. I say "presumably" because after years of hunting, I still can't find a copy of the original, so I'm a little vague on the character interactions, but whatever. We got a hot chica on a suped-up motorcycle who fights crime in disguise, what more could you want? Don't ask, I'll tell you.

During a bloody robbery of a Mexican Bank of America branch, Detective Lince (Rolando Fernández) finds himself stymied by police incompetence when the robbers start executing hostages while waiting for the cops to bring them a helicopter. Fortunately for him, and the rest of the hostages, Rosa is listening to the radio while her dwarf manservant, Refund, does the dishes. Realizing this is a job for La Guerrera Vengadora! Clad in skintight white leather and matching helmet, Rosa smashes her bike through the bank's windows mowing down perps with her forward-firing machine guns, then proceeds to do doughnuts in the bank lobby, finishing off the last of the bad guys with her fully automatic sidearm! This is literally the first five minutes of the movie!

While Detective Lince feels that Vengadora deserves a medal, the police chief wants her arrested and brings in a senator and president of the Justice Commission to back him up. They suspect that Lince knows who she is and tell him that he has to bring her in, or it's his badge. Meanwhile the leader of the crime organization who was defeated by La Vengadora in the first film, Carlos, is now confined to a wheelchair and has discovered who our not-so-dark knight is and demands that his henchmen (and women) find her and make her suffer. At which point one of the henchmen consoles him by caressing his face with the back of his hand.

Violent vigilante by day, Rosa is also a high school teacher by, uhh, also day (why do I have a Van Halen song in my head now) who not only teaches in skin-tight outfits, but has a heart of gold. This is evidenced by the scene in which she takes pity on one of her students who has been beaten and kicked out of the house after her boyfriend gets her pregnant and bails out on her. Talk about adding injury to insult. Rosa decides to let her stay in her house, but that gesture seems like a particularly bad idea since the mob is out to kill her. Sure enough, after leaving the house to meet Lince, a grinning maniac with a switchblade slices her up thinking she was Vengadora. Of course, once in the house, he has a seat and smokes a cigarette waiting for her to get out of the bath. I mean, he's not rude after all. The ensuing pathos is equally violent as the girl bleeds to death in Rosa's arms causing much wailing and gnashing of teeth. Fortunately, like all murderers, Mr. Switchblade dropped a matchbook at the scene of the crime embossed with the name the club run by Carlos' mob. You know, if you are going to take up homicide, as a hobby or a profession, you should really quit smoking.

I know what you are thinking, this will lead to an all out war in the nightclub! Wrong! It leads to an all out dance off at the nightclub. Seriously. Rosa decides to infiltrate the nightclub posing as a chica caliente in a white fur coat, black bustier and what looks like Christmas tinsel and after ordering a "silk stocking" (cream, coconut milk, grenadine and tequila) hits the floor dancing by herself in what appears to be a commercial for Leggs pantyhose, or Vidal Sasson shampoo, I can't tell which.

After discovering their gaffe, the mob decides to use a remote controlled Ferrari 328 to kidnap the Senator's daughter and frame La Vengadora for it. Hell, you can't blame her for it. You could probably kidnap me with a remote controlled Ferrari 328. In any event, Ana's performance at the club allows her to get invited to Carlos' mansion as a party girl and uses this as a opportunity for her to sneak around and get some evidence of the kidnapping. Carlos, of course, keeps this evidence in a filing cabinet with a dossier on the girl, complete with pre-printed forms and a head shot. Another bit of advice, if you are thinking of a criminal career path to get away from bureaucracy, you might want to reconsider.

This all leads up to motorcycle chases, explosions, a labyrinth of Aztek ruins, helicopters, automatic weapons fire and a variety of vehicular destruction. Plus, Ana cribs a page from Linda Blair in SAVAGE STREETS (1984) and pours herself into a skin-tight black leather outfit complete with black crossbow and exploding tipped bolts. This proves that their heart is in the right place. Presumably skewered on a hunting arrow.

Directed by prolific Mexican B-movie director, Raúl Fernández hijo (son of Raúl Fernández, director of the original film), this bare-bones blend of Batman, Bronson and Bond is so much fun that it's a bit of a shame that his films are so hard to come by. Borrowing heavily from the Hong Kong "girls with guns" films that became popular in the late '80s, Fernández hijo can't match the production values of the slick HK hits, but that doesn't stop him from trying and in the end, it doesn't really matter. The rather workman like technical aspect somehow adds to its charm and let's face it, you have to give the guy points for having his pyrotechnic filled finale in an Aztec ruin, instead of yet another rock quarry.

Fernández hijo, and his father, made quite a few films with Rosa Gloria Chagoyán, an Argentine born actress who gained minor stardom after appearing in LOLA THE TRUCK TRIVER (1983), a low-budget action film that was hugely successful, spawning a pair of sequels. The only real flaw, aside from the fact that there are several "sexy" scenes but no actual nudity, is the comedy. It's not what you would call sophisticated. While some of it works (particularly the scene with the rather affectionate henchman), some of it is painfully low-brow and dated.

Seriously, who in 1991 was still making films with midget slapstick? In one sequence Ana and Refund are trying to escape from the mob compound after rescuing the Senator's daughter, Refund falls down an airduct that lands him face down in a giant pile of dough in the kitchen. The French-speaking chef is so surprised that he throws what is apparently presumed to be the national dish of France (spaghetti bolognese) up in the air and all over his hat. The cooks grab brooms and chase the flour-covered dwarf around the kitchen smashing glassware and knocking people over. On the plus side, that is the worst of it. Well, aside from the AIDS joke that illustrates their late '80s HK influence.

In spite of the flaws, or maybe even because of them, this film doesn't feel like a HK knock-off, like so many US films of the period did, but maintains its own sense of identity and makes me sad that there was never a part three.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Newsploitation: The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of Box Office

Today’s box office birthday is an odd one because this film didn’t become a box office hit and only became a cult classic to a small subset of people. But if we ignored those films, we’d only be writing about stuff like TITANIC (1997) and where would the fun be in that?  So today’s date, January 25, 2015, marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. release of THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK (1984).  Now say that title three times fast.

The fact that a film based on a famous BDSM comic even became a movie is kind of amazing, but then you realize the French were involved.  The concept was born from the mind of one John Willie (real name: John Coutts), a British artist and photographer known for his fetish work in the 1940s/50s.  Yes, your parents were freaks too!  Of course, S&M stuff was kept on the downlow and while Willie was living in Canada he started up a magazine called Bizarre.  It was a self-published work that allowed Willie to exorcise some sexual demons as the issues were filled with drawings and photos of bondage.  In issue no. 3 he debuted the character of Sweet Gwendoline, a damsel in distress in the tradition of Hollywood serials.  The only difference is when Gwendoline found herself tied up there was lots and lots of rope involved.  Willie only published 23 issues of the magazine before he passed away in 1962. Sweet Gwendoline, however, would live on.

In 1974, a collection of Willie’s work was republished as The Adventures of Sweet Gwendoline.  It became a worldwide success, selling in the U.S., Germany, Italy, and – you guessed it – France.  It had that certain joie de vivre that they enjoyed, so it should be no surprised in June 1980 that Films de L’Alma (Alma Films) announced in Variety they had bought the rights to the series and planned a feature film (“a team of six screenwriters is currently working on adaptation” said the piece).  In January 1982 it was announced that director Gerard Zingg would be writing and directing the adaptation.  He has previously helmed AT NIGHT ALL CATS ARE CRAZY (1977) starring Gerard Depardieu and written NEXT YEAR IF ALL GOES WELL (1981) starring Isabelle Adjani.  Not sure a guy known for comedy-dramas was the best fit for this project and someone behind-the-scenes must have agreed as six months later a new writer-director was attached.  In June 1982, it was announced Just Jaeckin – France’s premiere softcore erotic director – was taking over as writer-director.

Jaeckin has burst onto the scene when his debut film, EMANUELLE (1974), became a worldwide box office smash.  Not only did it launch his career, but it brought Sylvia Kristel to sexual icon status.  Jaeckin followed up his first film with a succession of sexually tinged flicks like THE STORY OF O (1975), MADAME CLAUDE (1977), and THE LAST ROMANTIC LOVER (1978).  His film right before signing on to GWENDOLINE (as the French version was titled) was LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER (1981), an adaptation produced by Cannon that reunited him with Kristel.  Alma (now co-producing with ParaFrance Films) ran ads for the film which featured nothing but some S&M drawings by Willie and Jaeckin’s name.

Original Varitey ad (click to enlarge):

Interest was minimal.  Haha, just kidding, interest went through the roof and in July 1983 the company bragged in Variety that they had raised the film's entire budget of 35,000,000 franc ($4,500,000) in presales. Looking to play to an international market, the filmmaker opted to cast two Americans in the lead roles.  For the male lead, they recruited former male model Brent Huff.  For the titular role of Gwendoline, they cast another relative unknown in Tawny Kitaen.  Filming took place the summer of 1983 and the film debuted in France in February 1984.  It would hit most of the rest of the world throughout the year.

In the United States, the film was picked up for distribution by the Samuel Goldwyn Company.  Started by the son of Samuel Goldwyn in the late 70s, the company had an unusual track record, bouncing from distributing art house and foreign films to horror and cult oddities.  This was going to be their first big theatrical nationwide release.  Well, the first release to crack 500 screenings.  The company ended up cutting the film down from 105 minutes to 87 minutes and, hoping to piggyback on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1982), designed a poster emphasizing the action.  They also gave GWENDOLINE the incredibly awkward title of THE PERILS OF GWENDOLINE IN THE LAND OF THE YIK-YAK (1984).  Despite being ushered out on a healthy number of screens, PERILS  fared poorly, coming in 9th place with a weekend total of $1,337,274, well behind the other new releases THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN (1985) and TOMBOY (1985).  To show how little respect the film gets, Box Office Mojo only reports that weekend haul, as if the film disappeared on the Monday after its release.  However, a search through Variety shows it reported a tally of $2,189,663 in February 1985.  That same month Vestron announced they had picked up the film and were quickly sending it to video in April.  That is really where PERILS found its audience with young males looking for adventure and getting a movie packed with a whole different kind of adventure.  You can read the thoughts of one of those transformed boys in Tom’s review.

Amusingly, things came full circle in the early ‘90s as EMANUELLE sequels producer Alain Siritzky tried to get a TV series launched from Willie’s work.  Much to the dismay of young lads everywhere, it didn’t get off the ground.

Pre-sales ad for proposed series:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Newsploitation: Small Seismic Shifts at the Box Office

Another day, another anniversary.  Today’s box office birthday is special one in that it is one of my favorite horror/sci-fi movies of the 1990s, a great example of how to pay homage without being condescending.  It is also an illustration of the power of audiences in the post-theatrical world (meaning video and cable) back in the 1990s. Yes, there is a whole lotta shakin’ going on today as the giant worm masterpiece TREMORS turns 25-years-old.  When TREMORS came out in January 1990, it was a modest success at the box office.  Its gross was nothing that would blow studio execs away, but enough to keep the Universal brass on Spago’s reservation list for another few minutes.  It is in the film’s video afterlife that it really caught on with audiences and, thanks to the efforts of its core creative crew, has become a veritable one-movie industry.

TREMORS was scripted by the writing team of Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson in the mid-80s and came from a ominous thought Wilson once had while working out in the desert and wondering what would happen if something was lurking under the sand.  I first started noticing this screenwriting duo’s names back in the mid-80s on fun sci-fi comedies like SHORT CIRCUIT (1986) and BATTERIES NOT INCLUDED (1987).  So when I read in Fangoria they were going to be working on a sci-fi/horror film, it was promising news.  The script made its way around town and eventually fell into producer Gale Anne Hurd’s hands and she raised the money to have it made under her No Frills Film Production banner.  Lined up for the director’s chair was Ron Underwood, who had previous to this done after school specials.  Friends with Underwood since meeting at USC in the 1970s, Maddock and Wilson has co-written several shorts/educational films for the director, who would be making his theatrical feature film directing debut.  Telling the tale of a small desert town fighting off killer sandworms, the film began principal photography in April 1989 in California.  In Variety on August 3, 1989 it was announced that Universal Studios had picked up the worldwide distribution rights with an early 1990 release date planned.

TREMORS came out on January 19, 1990 in the U.S. and was the only wide new release that weekend.  It got fairly good reviews (even critical saint/blowhard Roger Ebert sanctimoniously lowered himself enough to say he “liked it enough to recommend it, just barely.”). The film opened in 5th place with a haul of $3,731,520.  Now here is where things get interesting.  The following weekend, the film only dropped 18% in its take.  Now if you know anything about horror and sci-fi films that is pretty amazing.  Usually genre films typically tend to drop 50% or more their second weekend.  So TREMORS managed to keep folks coming back.  For me personally, I saw it in a military theater in Germany twice on back-to-back days a few months later.  Yes, I enjoyed the damn movie so much that I went back to see it the night of its second screening.  In total, the film ended up grossing $16,667,084 at the U.S. box office.  According to the IMDb, worldwide it made $48.5 million.  Not bad for a “tiny” film with a budget of around $11 million, but still behind Universal’s other horror films that year – William Friedkin’s THE GUARDIAN, Sam Raimi’s DARKMAN, and CHILD’S PLAY 2.

Following the film’s theatrical release is where the film really took off though.  It became a great success of video and cable, with the offbeat characters and comedy capturing audiences. Underwood went on to have even greater success the next year with CITY SLICKERS (1991), which ended up being the highest grossing comedy of that year.  The Maddock/Wilson/Underwood trio sooner partnered with producer (and their former agent) Nancy Roberts to form Stampede Entertainment and in March 1992 received a first look deal with Universal studios.  The first project born from this was the fantasy comedy HEART AND SOULS (1993), which fared so-so when released in theaters in August 1993.  However, just like TREMORS, the film had an afterlife on video.

The idea of returning to Perfection always stuck with the group and in the mid-90s they convinced Universal to fund a sequel at a fraction of the cost of the first film. The team reunited on TREMORS II: AFTERSHOCKS (1996) with Maddock and Wilson again co-writing and Wilson in the director’s chair. The follow up went straight-to-video and was successful enough to bring the team back together for a third film.  TREMORS 3: BACK TO PERFECTION (2001) arrived a few years later with the same writing team and this time Maddock making his directorial debut.  The little killer worm film that could was now a franchise and in July 2002 the Sci-Fi Channel announced they were picking up TREMORS: THE SERIES (2003).  The series ran for 13 episodes and also led to TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS (2004), which saw Wilson back in the director’s chair.  Whew!  Like a voracious sandworm, Universal couldn’t get enough. Not a bad legacy for a film that only did okay at the box office twenty five years ago and a pretty happy ending for those involved.  Of course, we also have to have the Hollywood ending as last year Universal started production on TREMORS 5 in South Africa.  Amazingly, they let Maddock and Wilson walk on the project when they wouldn’t allow the series creators creative control.  Ah, Hollywood, never change.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

No Dinero Pistolero: BLACK NOON (1971)

In the mid-to-late 60's the Italians re-invented the American western, eliminating the chest-thumping bravado and faux patriotism and turning the genre into a place where dirty, violent men schemed and killed for gold and retribution.

You could argue that THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962) marked a turning point in the traditional western, but, as everyone knows A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) is the true milestone. While other films, many of which were great in their own right, followed in a similar mold, in the early '70s the mass popularization of psychedelia seeped into the mainstream and the western became even further removed from the wholesome days of Tom Mix and Gene Autry. While DJANGO KILL! (1967) pushed the envelope of a nightmare world in a western setting, EL TOPO (1970), after being championed by John Lennon, set a precedent in mainstream culture, allowing westerns to break away from lingering stereotypes and use the western setting for a multitude of ideas. This extended to the small screen where TV movies had to rely on writing rather than a budget. The CBS Movie of the Week, BLACK NOON, is a perfect example of this.

The movie opens at night with a church engulfed in flames and a woman (Yvette Mimieux) watching in a nightgown, holding a cat.

Reverend Keyes (Roy Thinnes) and his wife Lorna (Lynn Loring) have found themselves stranded in the desert of the old west with a broken wheel and a dead horse. Both are on the edge of death, when a some kindly folks, Mayor Caleb Hobbs (Ray Milland), his daughter Deliverance (Yvette Mimieux) and their hired hand Joseph (Hank Worden), stop their buckboard to help them out.

After getting the reverend up on his feet, Lorna is still bed ridden. Hobbs tells Keyes that their last minister died tragically shortly after the town church burned to the ground and asks if he would stay on to preach for the people. While Keyes is supposed to be travelling to another community to help out, he is persuaded to stay long enough to give a sermon in the new church that the town is building for him. Caleb talks about the town's misfortunes, including a gold mine that has played out and a black-clad gunslinger named Moon (Henry Silva) who rides into town for his share of the gold from the local mine. The town has no sheriff, so the gunslinger runs roughshod over the populace virtually holding the town hostage.

Meanwhile Keyes is suffering from horrible nightmares about being chased by a man covered in burns and falling into the arms of Deliverance, who is mute and is secretly sculpting a candle that looks exactly like Lorna. Lorna too is plagued by nightmares, but seems unable to recover enough to get out of bed. On the one night that she does, she is horrified to see a group of children wearing animal masks, holding candles in the cemetery and while chanting something unintelligible.

As the strange forebodings begin to pile up, the reverend starts to realize that the town isn't what he thought it was and they need to get the hell out of Dodge.

While Thinnes may not be a riveting leading man, and Milland may not have much to work with, it is a great cast that also includes Gloria Grahame and Leif Garrett. I should point out that I have left out quite a bit of the plot, because if you do see it, you should do it cold. I don't want to over-sell the movie, but veteran TV director Bernard L. Kowalski (fresh off of the brilliant 1970 anti-western MACHO CALLAHAN) manages to make the "Twilight Zone-ish" screenplay work with what is clearly a budget comprised of spare change scraped out of couches in the CBS offices.

Today's jaded audiences might find this a bit too slow, as evidenced by the spoilerific IMDb reviews, but the goal here is to set up a brooding atmosphere of impending horror on a minimal budget.

Much like INN OF THE DAMNED (1975), the western setting is almost incidental and it only becomes apparent as to the reason for the setting at the end of the film. The dream/nightmare sequences are particularly well done, as is the rampant symbolism, such as a snake that slithers under the reverend's broken wagon in the beginning of the film. These are great little touches that are sadly lost in modern mainstream cinema. Still unreleased on VHS or DVD, it's a shame that the only way to see this is through bootleg copies of old TV broadcasts.