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, March 22, 2015

Newsploitation:, Roy the Paramedic turns 30!

Today’s box office birthday is a big one as it involves not only one of horror-doms biggest franchises, but also one of the most controversial entries in series. Indeed, today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of FRIDAY THE 13th PART V.  Less than a year after THE FINAL CHAPTER promised the end of Jason in April 1984, fans got A NEW BEGINNING with Jason coming back from the dead…or did he?  Yes, the fifth entry is the infamous one with the faux Jason.

Trying to explain the bitterness around this sequel to kids who weren’t around at the time it came out is akin to a Vietnam vet giving that thousand yard stare and quipping, “You just weren’t there.”  And you can’t create a contemporary equivalent by saying something like, “Imagine a SAW sequel that didn’t have Jigsaw in it” because you’d hear in reply, “Oh, you mean like in SAW XXI: SAW IS THE LAW?”  To quote ‘80s musical poet Oran “Juice” Jones, a FRIDAY sequel without Jason Voorhees is like “cornflakes without the milk!”  Looking at it now with “adult” eyes, it is hard to see past the blatant cynicism of the filmmakers.  Not only was it the quickest turnaround for a sequel, but it was after promising fans the series was over.  Adding insult to injury, the twist ending literally could be in a Scooby Doo episode, pushing the limits of “fans will watch anything with this name” almost to the breaking point.  Banks must have been filled with guffaws from Frank Mancuso, Jr. and Paramount execs.

The filmmakers obviously knew their cash-grab would be called out – especially so soon after delivering a “final chapter” – so they made sure to keep everything about the production a secret.  Fangoria wasn’t notified until the last possible moment and the production company put out no notices of a new FRIDAY THE 13th sequel in Variety or The Hollywood Reporter.  To show you just how damn cynical these filmmakers were, they held auditions for the film under the title REPETITION. Today they like to claim it is a reference to David Bowie’s song “Repetition” off his 1979 Lodger album, but you can’t fool me.  Calling it REPETITION is like calling it SAME OLD SHIT while winking at Mancuso, Jr. as he counts stacks of cash.  (To be fair, they filmed part VI as ALADDIN SANE, also a Bowie album.)  The production was so damn secretive that the only mention of the film in Variety was a listing of actor Richard Young scoring a role in REPETITION by Terror Inc. Productions on October 26, 1984. Filming under new series director Danny Steinmann obviously took place in the fall of 1984 and early 1985 before the obligatory multiple visits to the ratings board in February 1985.  Legend has it the filmmakers went back-and-forth nine times before securing the R-rating.  Much to the chagrin of FRIDAY fans, the uncut footage has never surfaced.

The film opened in first place the weekend of March 22, 1985 with a haul of $8,032,883 – beating out other new arrivals PORKY’S REVENGE, THE LAST DRAGON, and BABY: SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND.  Not the heights of parts III and IV, but a decent opening with an end haul of $21,930,418 in the United States.  It was Paramount’s highest grossing horror film that year and the third highest grossing horror film in total (behind A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2 and FRIGHT NIGHT).  Now remember this is almost pure profit as the film only cost around $2 million and probably had a small P&A budget.  As mentioned earlier, it would become easily the most divisive entry of the series.  I’ve grown to appreciate it more as I’ve grown older and you have to admire Steinmann’s no nonsense body count (it held the series highest tally of 21 kills until JASON GOES TO HELL).  It should also get credit for introducing the grown up Tommy Jarvis plotline, a pivotal story/character that would be mastered by Thom Mathews in the superior JASON LIVES the following year.  So if you’re feeling so inclined, throw on your Jason hockey mask and give ol’ Roy the killer paramedic 92 minutes of your time today.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Newsploitation: Lambada The Forbidden Box Office

Sorry for the lack of updates, but I’ve been working on a top secret project (“You call that work,” I can hear Tom say).  I promised the boss man I would get a review up soon and not rely on my lazy “box office birthday” posts that I’ve somehow grown to enjoy doing.  Anyway, I thumb my nose at authority so here is another B.O.B. and it is celebrating one of the oddest dueling releases in movie history.

One of our favorite documentaries that we got to see last year was ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS (2014).  Naturally, it was filled with wild and untold stories from folks sucked into the crazy orbit of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  While some of them are jaw-dropping and others larger than life, I think the one that made me laugh the most was what happened when the Go-Go boys split up in the late ‘80s. Not only was it acrimonious, but the cousins soon became competition for each other and decided they were going to both make a film about Lambada, a dance crazy that wasn’t exactly sweeping the United States

The Lambada dance apparently originated in Brazil, but didn’t become known worldwide until the release of the song “Lambada” by the French group Kaoma in 1989.  Believe it or not, there is a convoluted history to the song as this version was a mix of several Carnivale songs from the 1980s.  Lawsuits got filed, but the song still performed worldwide and became a huge hit, hitting number one in places like Germany, Italy, and France.  Of course, it had little impact in the good ol’ US of A where it stalled at no. 46 on the Billboard Top 100.  We were much too sophisticated during that time period, preferring to let Milli Vanilli’s “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” and Prince’s “Batdance” top the charts.  That didn’t stop the entertainment industry from pushing it on these shores.  Because my mind remembers useless things, I can still recall the Academy Awards where some lady introduced a Lambada performance and said something like, “This dance will be to the 1990s what breakdancing was to the 1980s.”  My young self was not impressed.

Either way, the Cannon guys were going to jump on that hype train with the assumption that if something was big worldwide, it would be a big movie hit worldwide. After all, they’d witnessed success with the BREAKIN’ films.  It appears Cannon hit first as it was declared in Variety on December 6, 1989: “LAMBADA THE MOVIE will begin production Dec. 15, marking the first film produced by Cannon Pictures since the new management of the company took over this past summer.” Globus was still with Cannon, while Golan had left and gone to run 21st Century.  No less than a week later it was announced that a rival project was coming from Golan in the form of LAMBADA! THE FORBIDDEN DANCE.  According to production logs, the first one indeed went into production on December 15, 1989 while the second effort went into production on January 16, 1990.

Regardless of being a month behind, Golan was aiming to beat his former company to the market.  So it ends with no greater irony that both films ended up coming out on the same day – March 16, 1990.  One of the great stories in ELECTRIC BOOGALOO is how they even had dueling premieres in Hollywood.  It was all for naught though as Americans weren’t about to embrace “the forbidden dance.”  LAMBADA THE MOVIE just came out as LAMBADA via Warner Bros. and opened in eighth place with just over $2 million in box office receipts from 1,117 theaters.  LAMBADA! THE FORBIDDEN DANCE came out as THE FORBIDDEN DANCE via Columbia and didn’t even crack the top ten, earning just $720,864 in 637 theaters. I like to imagine there were lots of family fights that weekend on which one to see.  Anyway, a perfectly madcap ending for such a bizarre ‘80s success story as Cannon.  Perhaps the biggest loser in all of this was Robert Schnitzer of the Stallone reworking of REBEL/A MAN CALLED RAINBOW fame.  He has announced a spoof titled LAMBADAMY: THE OPERATION in 1990 via Walter Manley Productions and it never got made.  Damn, I totally would have watched that.  

Saturday, March 7, 2015

World of Witchcraft: DEVIL RIDER (1991)

As far as horror subgenres go, quite possibly the most erratic and often obscure would be the horror-western. It sounds like such a good idea on paper; Ruthless outlaw back from the dead to take revenge for his execution, terrorizing his killers or their descendants. How could that not be anything but brilliant?

Charles Band's GHOST TOWN (1988) was probably the highest profile attempt, if for no other reason than Fangoria's extensive coverage and New World's extensive distribution. While the sub-genre seems to have flourished in Mexico during the 1960s, it never really did catch on in the rest of the world. Not even here in the US, the birthplace of the western. Even so, it didn't keep a few brave souls from trying.

Opening in the old west, a homesteader is attempting to settle his patch of land and build a home by shoving a stick into the ground. Gotta start somewhere I guess. A bearded, wild eyed rider (Tag Groat) in a duster rides up and apparently has a beef about who owns the land. When the homesteader asks him where he comes from, the rider snarls "I'm from, where you're going!" Uhhhh, the hardware store? Saskatchewan? Back to sleep? This question is never answered as the rider clumsily draws what appears to be a 12" .45 Long Colt before the homesteader knocks it out of his hand with a shovel (which probably wouldn't have happened if he had a sensible quick draw firearm). It doesn't matter as the rider uses his cavalry saber to skewer the homesteader to his beloved land. He then proceeds to kill some prospectors and a few other random people before the sheriff and his posse catch him chillin' by a campfire, probably tuckered out from all that killin'. The posse lynches him from a tree, but he doesn't die until they fill him full of lead, at which point one of the deputies says "damn he was a weird fella." Of course, he was just playin' possum till they left after which he proceeds to be, as modern poet Brian Johnson once said, slippin' loose from the noose.
A century later a worker, Ben (Bruce Carson), is loading up his Datsun pick-up with straw bales. Probably infuriated that the ranch hand use something other than an F150, the rider intimidates the man with his long colt, while shouting random things like "you want to cut off my head? Hahahaha!" So threatened by this Ben cringes and squirms on the ground, squealing in a way that sounds something like a cross between Ned Beatty and a tea kettle. Well, what do you expect from a rancher with a Datsun? Machismo?

A group of couples are headed out to that very same dude ranch (presumably a ranch populated with retired surfers) for a little vacation. Things start out a little off, as the ranch is basically a ramshackle house with some horses and a guest house in which Ben, now catatonic from his experience, lives with his wife. For some reason the owner of the ranch won't tell them how much their vacation is going to cost, but ranch hand crazy Zeb (Wayne Douglass) know's that it's got a death cur - I mean he knows that "they're going to be real sorry!"

As it turns out, one of the guys, Tom (Rick Groat, who also co-produced and coordinated the stunts), is related to the original homesteader from the beginning of the film which means he has a special interest in the legend of the Rider. Zeb finally spills the beans to the rest of the group by telling a story of how terrifying the rider was when he ran into him as a kid. "He sat on his horse - he just stood there!" says Zeb. Yessir, that's enough to drive any man plum loco, I reckon.

Yep, the rider (who is never given a name) is back. Back in... err, beige, and he's not too pleased with having even more idiots on his land. Not that you'd know he was displeased since he spends most of the time smiling and laughing. Of course it has been a long standing medical fact that laughter and smiles are the easiest way to strike terror into the hearts of mere mortals.

The second half of the film is essentially a reworking of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, except without the gore, the stark cinematography, the sense of impending doom and generally everything that made it scary. After a few of the couples are gunned down, the rest barricade themselves in the ranch house while the rider demands from horseback that they come outside. Why he didn't go into the house and get them is never explained. Since he can't be killed by anything but decapitation with his own cavalry sword, I have to assume that he couldn't get in because his horse wouldn't fit through the door.

While the film falls flat on the whole "slashing" part of a slasher movie (the effects are limited to some quick shots of victims with blood splashed on them and a plethora of dry squibs), and it blows the T and A quotient by having not one, but two shower scenes in which only the quickest of glimpses of nudity, the film is pretty damned entertaining due to the incredibly amusing dialogue. In one scene "Type A" assnugget Buddy (David Campbell) yells at the shellshocked Ben, who is recounting his horrifying experience with his wife, saying "I hate to break up this skintillating conversation!" No hipster irony here. The guy actually says "skin-tillating". Then there is a scene, while another couple are embracing in their room, the woman looks into her man's eyes and says "do long rides make you horny?" How is a man supposed to answer that? If you say "yes" you are some sort of creepy weirdo, and if you say "no" she will think that you aren't interested in her. Damn woman questions.

Feeling like a shot-on-video production, even though it was shot on 35mm, DEVIL RIDER was produced by Merlin Miller and starred Tag Groat, giving it the distinction of having the most entertaining credited names in a movie, ever. Director Victor Alexander got his start in the camera and electrical department on Tobe Hooper's EATEN ALIVE (1977) and was editor of David A. Prior's KILLZONE (1985), but apparently only directed three films. His other two, SURVIVAL (1985) and TIGER CAGE (2012), barely have entries in the IMDb. The odd thing about this is that in spite of the distributor, Magnum Entertainment, being a small label, they put out some choice genre offerings (including the first ever uncut version of SUSPIRIA in the US), theatrically and on video since the mid 1960s. While their titles were strictly cult movies, they did well enough to have a handful of tapes in pretty much every video store in the US. In the early '90s, they started a short-lived M2 label for even smaller, direct to video productions. The titles on the M2 label are the hardest to come by, which is maybe why DEVIL RIDER is incredibly obscure. Or maybe it's just because it is only entertaining in an extremely forgiving state of mind.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Newsploitation: Happy Birthday to Our Favorite Zuni Warrior!

We’ve got one heck of a birthday today, but it is not of the box office variety because today’s celebrant didn’t grace the silver screen in the United States.  Instead, our subject debuted on the ol’ boob tube. (Oh, crap, is Google going to bust us now for using the word “boob” on here?) Amazingly, this low budget movie of the week soon burst into the national consciousness and scarred the minds of a full generation of kids (mine included) unlike anything seen on TV before.  Yes, today marks the 40th anniversary of the first airing of TRILOGY OF TERROR.

TRILOGY was the brainchild of TV writer-producer-director Dan Curtis, who saw success right out of the gate when his horror-theme soap opera DARK SHADOWS debuted on ABC in 1966.  That show had an amazing five year run (1966-1971) and produced two theatrical films – HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (1970) and NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS (1971).  Knowing horror product was viable on the small screen Curtis started pumping out more horror-themed productions between 1972 and 1974 via his Dan Curtis Productions.  This gave us two Kolchak movies (THE NIGHT STALKER [1973] and THE NIGHT STRANGLER [1973]), BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (1974), and SCREAM OF THE WOLF (1974).  These productions are particularly important as they marked the first collaborations between Curtis and screenwriter-author Richard Matheson.

Seemingly a workaholic, Curtis moved into 1974 with the busiest schedule of productions in his career.  Rather that bore you with a long paragraph, it might be easier to break down his activity that year month-by-month:

January 1974 – Curtis is in Sacramento, California filming the television pilot MELVIN PURVIS G-MAN (co-written by John Milius and William F. Nolan); Curtis signs on to produce two entries in ABC’s THE WIDE WORLD OF MYSTERY.

February 1974 – Dan Curtis Productions announced two new features for TV: the crime-thriller A BREAK IN THE ICE and the horror series THE NIGHT KILLERS; Curtis also files an antitrust lawsuit against ABC and Worldvision regarding DARK SHADOWS.

March 1974 – Curtis proposes a half-hour “gothic horror” (according to Variety) series called DEAD OF NIGHT for ABC daytime television.  Lawsuit one month, TV pitch the next!

April 9, 1974 – MELVIN PURVIS G-MAN debuts on ABC.

May 1974 – A BREAK IN THE ICE announces Lee J. Cobb in the lead role; KOLCHAK TV series gets greenlighted but without Curtis’ involvement.

June 1974 – A BREAK IN THE ICE films.

November 6, 1974 – A BREAK IN THE ICE debuts on ABC with the new title THE GREAT ICE RIP-OFF.

November 21, 1974 – Curtis begins prepping a new film from a script by THE NIGHT KILLERS writers, Richard Matheson and William F. Nolan.  The title? TRILOGY OF TERROR.

December 3, 1974 – Variety announces that Karen Black has signed on to play several roles in the newly anointed TRILOGY OF TERROR.

December 1974/January 1975 – TRILOGY OF TERROR films at 20th Century Fox studios.

March 4, 1975 – TRILOGY OF TERROR debuts as ABC’s Tuesday Movie of the Week in an 8:30-10 pm timeslot.  Curtis has little chance to celebrate as he is already off filming a PURVIS sequel, THE KANAS CITY MASSACRE (1975).

To say that TRILOGY made an impact would be an understatement.  More specifically, it was the third and final segment (“Amelia”) that left such an indelible impression on the nation. Yes, the one with the Zuni warrior fetish doll chasing a terrified Karen Black all over her apartment.  Adapted from Matheson’s own short story “Prey,” this segment made such an impression on viewing audiences that most folks only remember that section from the film. Speaking to Fangoria in 1996, co-writer William F. Nolan stated that people were often hard-pressed to even recall the films other two segments.  While gathering ratings info from 1975 is virtually impossible, it is probably a safe bet that the movie did well and was the talk around the cooler water coolers the next day.

A look at TRILOGY OF TERROR's competition:

To showcase the anthology’s popularity, when ABC decided to try to beef up their poor Wednesday night ratings with “Movie of the Week” showcases, Variety reported that they kicked off the effort on September 10, 1975 with a re-airing of TRILOGY OF TERROR. Spend a few minutes on Google and you’ll find plenty of “I remember when that debuted…” and “the most terrifying thing of my childhood” posts.  I was just four months old in March 1975, so I wasn’t around watching to have my synapses singed at that time.  I eventually caught TRILOGY on VHS in the early 1980s and I’ll be damned if it didn’t scare the hell out of me. The razor-sharp teeth on that doll (in conjunction with the snapping dolls from BARBARELLA [1968]) definitely had me steering clear of my sister’s collection with great fear.

TV Guide article on TRILOGY OF TERROR 
(click to enlarge):

Curtis had created the ultimate killer doll template which would be followed for decades to come.  The film – more succinctly, that damn doll – had such staying power that Curtis felt the need to return to it two decades later.  He initially announced a theatrical remake, TRILOGY OF TERROR: THE MOVIE, in Variety in October 1992.  While that version never got off the ground, he eventually did get TRILOGY OF TERROR II (1996) going a few years later.  Appropriately, it was again a TV movie. Reuniting with Matheson and Nolan, Curtis brought forth a new anthology for modern audiences.  Naturally, the Zuni fetish doll returned to terrorize new multi-lead Lysette Anthony.  With a perfect sense of timing, the new TRILOGY debuted on the USA Network on October 30, 1996 to terrorize an entirely new generation (who, no doubt, probably can’t name the other two segments in this version either).  So happy fortieth birthday to the Zuni fetish doll, who doesn’t look a day over thirty!

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.