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!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

World of Witchcraft: HANSEL AND GRETEL (1990)

In the late '80s and early '90s legendary Italian horror director Lucio Fulci made several smaller films, many for TV. None of them top his earlier efforts, but most are fun on their own terms and have something to offer other than the usual run-of-the-mill cliches. In addition to the films he wrote and directed, he "presented" three films, Mario Bianchi's MURDER SECRET (1988), Leandro Lucchetti's BLOODY PSYCHO (1989) and this, veteran screenwriter Giovanni Simonelli's only directorial credit. Shot for television (though I have not been able to confirm this) in Italian, HANSEL AND GRETEL is one of the more obscure of Fulci's horror credits.

Set in modern day, two children named Hansel and Gretel are kidnapped by a gang of thugs who throw the kids into a black Mercedes and after endless driving shots take them to a farm house where the car has somehow turned into a silver BMW along the way! Once inside we discover that the farm house is a front for a kidnapping ring in which children are unwilling organ donors for a surgeon who lost his practice due to one too many martini lunches and has set up an operating room in the basement. Once the kids have given up their squishy bits, their bodies are buried in the farm yard. Yep, that's right, the kids are killed, gutted and dumped in a shallow grave right in the beginning of the film. Simonelli's got some balls, I'll give him that.

So what would Hansel and Gretel do if they hadn't managed to stuff the witch into the oven? Why they would have to come back from the dead of course! Accompanied by the sound of children singing, their ghostly forms pop up out of nowhere to either scare one of the criminals into killing themselves or psychically controlling random implements of death. The first guy meets his gristly fate via some sort of farm machinery (can you tell I'm city folk?), while others are immolated, shot, boiled and chopped up under a paddle wheel. Never mind that people at the house are claiming to hear children singing eerily before each of the deaths, the cops chalk it up to a gangland killing and presumably wander off to find a good espresso.

While working on a separate case of corruption, police detective Silvia (Elisabete Pimenta Boaretto), discovers that the two cases are linked. When the main suspect in the corruption case, Solange (Brigitte Christensen), ends up dead in her swimming pool while she was in the middle of dictating. Possessing a keen detective instinct, Sylvia's partner listens to the recording which not only includes the woman's screams, but also the incidental music on the soundtrack of the film itself! And you thought alleged security camera footage that simply is footage taken from the film, complete with multiple edits and angles, was the height of cinematic laziness. Hell, Simonelli could have recorded the screams on the very same tape recorder in the movie and played it back in the scene.

Of course Sylvia has decided that the best way catch the singing killer is to actually move in to the criminals' spare bedroom! Seriously. In one scene they have her yawning and coming down stairs for a morning cup of coffee. No wonder there is so much crime in Italy. This eventually leads to Sylvia's discovery of the organ harvesting ring and the ghosts of the titular children. Her boss (Maurice Poli), of course, thinks this is just plain pazzo and pats her on the shoulder and tells her she's a good cop.

The dialogue also has some inspired moments. When Sylvia is grilling Solange's husband saying that Solange was involved in a kidnapping ring, the husband snaps and yells "you are talking about a dead person!" Cops can be so rude when investigating a homicide. In another scene when the ghosts of Hansel and Gretel appear before her for no apparent reason, she tells them "You are the children they killed! They shouldn't have done that, they were very naughty." Yes, all the kidnapping child murderers should get a good spanking and be sent to their rooms without supper.

Clearly strapped for cash (the generic looking credits have no music or audio at all), Simonelli tries to inject some style on the directing front, but it ultimately undermines the great potential. The idea of a modern day Hansel and Gretel story combined with an illegal organ harvesting ring and revenge from beyond the grave is pretty damn cool. Unfortunately, aside from the low-rent production values, there is the acting. I have seen a lot of bad acting in my day, but I think this one rules them all. The cast is generally terrible, but Boaretto's attempt at being a cop is so wooden that she makes John Kerry look like Bobcat Goldthwait. Clearly cast for her exotic looks, along with a dialogue exchange in the beginning where we find out that her father was an Italian cop and her mother a Brazilian woman, Boaretto sleepwalks through every single frame that she is in. Even though I cannot find a single reference to Boaretto other than in connection with this film, it is thuddingly obvious that this is her first and only attempt at acting. At times it is glaringly apparent that she is making a conscious effort to hit her marks (probably due to off-camera direction). Other times it appears as if she is phonetically reading her lines off of cue cards.

In spite of the multitude of flaws, the movie is not without entertainment. You have to watch it on its own terms, in a forgiving state of mind, but the script has a lot of great ideas and it takes its subject matter seriously, instead of making it intentionally campy and jokey. That counts for quite a lot in my book.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Newsploitation: A Breed Apart at the Box Office

Today’s box office birthday is a big one as Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED (1990) celebrates its 25th anniversary today.  The horror author’s second feature film, NIGHTBREED was an ambitious dark fantasy that the writer-director promised would reestablish scary movie monsters in big studios. Poor Clive, he never stood a chance.  The blueprint for studio interference/test screening madness, Barker’s sophomore effort didn’t fare well upon its initial release and became legendary more for what it wasn’t rather than what it was.  But, in what seems to a recurring theme in these box office pieces, it is a film that lived beyond its studio shelf life.

As a filmmaker, Clive Barker seemed to come out of nowhere.  Struggling with the cinematic adaptations of his stories/scripts (TRANSMUTATIONS [1985] and RAWHEAD REX [1986], both from screenplays by Barker), he decided to take more control and direct the third feature film based on his writing. Adapting his own novella “The Hellbound Heart,” Barker would soon unleash HELLRAISER (1987) on audiences worldwide.  New World released the film in September 1987 and it racked up $14.5 million in the U.S. box office alone; not bad for a non-franchise horror entry.

With momentum on his side, Barker went full blast in 1988.  He handed off duties on the inevitable HELLRAISER sequel to director Tony Randel, while Barker remained on solely as a producer.  Come the fall of 1988, Barker had his next feature film lined up. On October 1, 1988, Poseidon Press in the United States released the Barker collection Cabal.  Inside were some short stories from Barker’s final Books of Blood omnibus and the new titular tale of Cabal, the story of a young man who finds a cadre of monsters living in a “city” called Midian.  Later that same month at the MIFED film market, Morgan Creek announced Barker would be adapting this novella into a feature film as part of package of movies they would be financing (including the Blake Edwards comedy SKIN DEEP and THE EXORCIST 1990 [soon changed to THE EXORCIST III]) with several of them being distributed by 20th Century Fox.  They had also signed Barker to a three picture deal (the other two never to come to fruition). Interesting tidbit: The film was originally announced with the title THE NIGHTBREED.

Original announcement circa October 1988
(click to enlarge)

Even better news was the company was giving Barker a budget of $10 million to bring his monster mash to life.  Genre fans got an even bigger jolt when it was announced in December 1988 that Barker had signed celebrated horror director David Cronenberg to play the villainous psychiatrist Dr. Decker.  Pre-production lasted for several months before filming began in London at Pinewood Studios – home of James Bond and, more recently, Tim Burton’s BATMAN (1989) – on March 6, 1989.  Filming lasted until June 1989, with the final two weeks of Barker’s epic stymied due to what Barker told Fangoria was an accident he had. The film was originally scheduled to come out in October 1989, but plans were altered when a series of reshoots both in England and the U.S. took place. According to what Barker told Fangoria at the time, test screenings had left audiences baffled as to Decker’s motivations and some new scenes with Cronenberg were shot.

Behind the scenes, things were a bit more chaotic.  Barker’s second feature lived up to his ambitions and clocked in at nearly three hours, much to the dismay of studio execs. Major re-editing was done with industry vet Mark Goldblatt being brought in to bring the film down to a 102 minute running time.  (For much more detail on this, see the bonus materials on the recent release of NIGHTBREED: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT.)  To add insult to injury, the film entered into what can only be described as a revolving door process of submission to the M.P.A.A. (Motion Picture Association of America).  The ratings board demanded cut after cut (for material that was, as always, generally innocuous and safe for cable TV nowadays).   Finally, on January 22, 1990, it was announced in Variety that the film had secured an R-rating, just in time for its February 1990 nationwide bow.

Unfortunately, 20th Century Fox seemed to have little faith in the project and had downright no clue how to market it.  Seriously, look at the generic poster below that some marketing genius came up.  Not only is it the vaguest thing imaginable, it also is almost a complete rip off of Fox’s earlier release BAD DREAMS (1988).  Look familiar?

With so many things working against the film, it is probably no surprise that NIGHTBREED failed to attract an audience the weekend of February 16, 1990 when it opened on just under 1,500 screens.  The film opened in 6th place with a paltry $3,708,918 (behind the other new releases REVENGE [1990] and MADHOUSE [1990], which opened in 3rd and 4th place, respectively).  In total, the film stuck around for a couple of weeks and made in total $8,862,354 domestically.  Barker’s ambitious plans for a NIGHTBREED trilogy pretty much ended there and, as a film director, he would only have one more film with LORD OF ILLUSIONS (1995). While surely not the ending he hoped for his sophomore cinema effort, there is a silver lining in all of this as persistent fan interest convinced the studio in the new millennium that letting Barker assemble a director’s cut would be worth their time and money.  Eventually in October 2014 – twenty-six years after the project was first announced – a director’s cut was released on Bluray/DVD via Shout Factory.

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: