Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Superham Cinema: SAMURAI (1979)

As incredible as it may seem to the young 'uns today, the late '70s had it's own comic book media blitz. Our generation had not only some badass Underoos, and TV series' such as "The Incredible Hulk" (1978), "Wonder Woman" (1974) and "Spider-Man" (courtesy of the 1971 kids show "The Electric Company"), but we also got some made for TV movies, such as the doomed-from-the-start CBS adaptation, DR. STRANGE (1978). Setting aside Peter Hooten's leaden performance, I can't even imagine how the pitch meetings went for that, and how they could even think about pulling off the cosmic acid trip that is "Doctor Strange". The mind boggles.

To reiterate what I've said in the past, TV movies are an interesting breed. They tend to be completely budget starved and as a result they are often forced to be creative in the screenwriting department. Also, name actors who are past their prime tend to show up regularly and sometimes they are willing to take more risks in the story. Stuff that might not have much of a fighting chance in cinemas could do good business on TV, particularly due to the fact that home video was not only far too expensive for the average person and the major studios at the time were so against the idea that it became a massive legal battle with the intent of preventing the public from even owning a VCR, much less licensing their movies out to a video format. So if you wanted to watch a movie at home, you couldn't make it a Blockbuster night.

If you roll all of that up into a big fat sushi roll of death, you have SAMURAI, an ABC TV movie that dares to challenge my assertion that you cannot make a bad movie in San Francisco.

In the Marina near Fisherman's Wharf, some no-goodniks are attempting to... well, it's not clear what they are attempting to do, but it's definitely no good! Fortunately for the cougars of the Marina district, an unmasked avenger shows up out of nowhere clad in a black karate gi and a red headband! He's going to attack them with the power of the mystical martial arts, or make sashimi out of them with the katana at his side, right? Nope. He's going to grab a fire hose and, this is true, spray them all into a fishing net and then drop them in the ocean. Marina bros can sleep easy tonight, Samurai-Man is on the job! Actually he isn't called "Samurai-Man", he actually has no super name, though his identity is somehow secret in spite of the fact that he doesn't wear a mask.

During the daylight hours our chinpira hosing hero is none other than county prosecutor Lee Toshido Cantrell (Joe Penny). Cantrell was born in Japan and is the son of a Japanese-American businessman and a proper Japanese mother, yet for some reason looks rather like an Italian. Anybody know what the milk man looked like?

Since he grew up in Japan and is of Asian descent he of course knows karate, kenpo and bushido. As his father tells him, bushido is the code of "a warrior who pledges undying loyalty to the defense of those unable to defend themselves." Uhhh, first off, by most accounts, bushido's main attributes are loyalty, honor, frugality and marital arts, and second, that is a really odd motto for a county prosecutor. His old man is clearly the life of the party and he goes around in his kimono intoning pearls of ancient Japanese wisdom like "every land has only two laws... right and wrong." Yeah, thanks for the talk pops, gotta go fight crime now.

After the cops stumble across a bunch of roughnecks who appear to be breaking into a warehouse, they find them sitting in a truck drinking whiskey saying that the reason that they are there is because it was a good place to party. Oh, and the explosives in the truck are from a construction job. Cantrell, being the sharpest wakizashi in the belt, catches a whiff of a rat and it isn't too long before he discovers that the evil Horizon corporation wants to gentrify an unnamed area of SF by running people out of their businesses and homes and creating a glittering new shopping center.

The president of Horizon is one Amory Bryson (Charles Cioffi), an ice-cold exec who prefers to work in the shadows. Literally, as Bryson works at night with massive office lit by a solitary desklamp. To aid him in his nefarious doings is his right hand man, Harold Tigner (Geoffrey Lewis), who feels that the best way to run the indigent crumbsuckers out of town is to hire a group of disenfranchised ex-military commandos to make the most clumsy attacks possible. Instead of simply throwing a molotov or two in an old Jewish man's warehouse, they actually break in a second time, run detcord all around the inside of the building, completely oblivious to the street-smart 9 year old kid who is witnessing it.

Yes, this movie features two of '70s TVs most favorite characters, who are presumably the target demographic of cranky old Jewish men and precocious kids in hospital beds. Of course we also have the '70s staple of cops that refuse to believe a far-fetched story that is actually true, high-tech corporate security systems (oooh, a palm-reader!), and a low-speed chase between a Mercury and a Lincoln through the city streets. While the revs are kept pretty low, it is still pretty entertaining seeing those giant, multi-ton boats wallow around corners and crash over the hills. After taking a particularly hard slam into the crest of a hill you can clearly see all of the fluids hemorrhaging out of the car like pasta draining on spaghetti night.

Somehow Cantrell manages to win a case against Horizon to get the plans for the shopping center temporarily blocked. We never see how he achieves this Miracle on McAllister Street, but he does. This makes Bryson so mad, that he decides it is time to break out his super-secret weapon that he has been developing in the basement of his office building, a machine that will send out sonic waves that will cause an earthquake within a seven or eight block radius. Sell it to the military, oh no, no, no. Bryson has bigger plans! He's going to use it to clear a path for a mall. Uhhhh, yeah. Dare to dream my friend, dare to dream.

Made one year before NBCs ratings-smashing miniseries adaptation of James Clavell's epic East-meets-West novel "Shogun", SAMURAI didn't have the wave of popularity that SHOGUN created for samurai pop-culture in the west. It might have been able to create its own wave but, as you may have noticed from my plot synopsis, for a movie about a lawyer moonlighting as a crime-stopping martial-arts hero, there is very little of either. As much as legal dramas were popular in the '70s, veteran TV writer Jerry Ludwig, chooses not to have any scenes of Cantrell rocking the courtroom aside from a brief scene in the beginning where he meets a friend from law school in what is clearly meant to be the set-up for a recurring character. As if that wasn't bad enough, Ludwig also keeps the vigilante/superhero action to a minimum with a few quick bursts of action sprinkled through the last half of the film.

The double edged sword here is that Ludwig tries to pack as much pop-culture themes into one script, which is cool, but it doesn't leave enough time for many of them to be interesting. We get some brief cliched scenes of martial arts training and meditation and the very end of a legal case, but mostly we get a lot of Cantrell talking to kids, flirting with the daughter of the warehouse owner, talking to the cops who don't want to hear his hair-brained theories and so on. Even worse veteran TV director Lee H. Katzin shoots these scenes utterly flat and Joe Penny is so utterly miscast that even James Garner would have been more convincing Japanese vigilante. Ok, maybe not, but it sure as hell would have been more fun. That is not to say that SAMURAI is without entertainment value. Even though Lewis is sadly wasted as a corporate yes-man, there are enough absurdities, such as Cioffi's stunning hairpiece and embarrassing attempts at white-fu (yes, I just said "Charles Cioffi" and "martial arts" in the same sentence) to keep the undiscriminating reasonably entertained.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Newsploitation: A Science Fiction Triple Feature for the Ages

One of the fun things about looking at the box office results of old is finding out that some of your own personal favorites went head-to-head.  Nowhere is this better shown than in the cinematic weekend beginning on December 14, 1984.  Of the four major studio releases opening on that day thirty years ago, three of them turned out to be sci-fi films.  Even more amazing, all three grew into sci-fi classics of one way or another and they still see talk and screenings today.  The triple threat was David Lynch’s DUNE, Michael Crichton’s RUNAWAY, and John Carpenter’s STARMAN.  Yeah, ‘twas a good weekend to be a sci-fi geek.

Popular lore has always pegged Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel as a huge box office flop; however that is not the case.  Of the three films that weekend, DUNE opening in the highest position and came in second place with $6,025,091.  A project in development for over a decade (we totally suggest you watch the amazing documentary JODOROWSKY’S DUNE [2013], which covers director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s attempt to make the film in the 1970s), DUNE grossed $30,925,690 in the United States so it is probably safe to say it doubled that in foreign markets. That should have covered producers Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis’ investment of $40 million. Unfortunately, the film ended up being a victim of the dreaded comparison to some other space opera series called STAR WARS.  Fact is if your sci-fi epic wasn’t making the $200+ million that the Lucasfilm trilogy was raking in throughout U.S. theaters, you were considered a bomb.  As it stands, DUNE did alright and, despite its director wanting his name taken off it, its reputation and following has only grown over the last thirty years.

The weakest performer of the three films that weekend was RUNAWAY.  Writer-director Crichton’s fifth theatrical feature, this one featured hot TV star Tom Selleck as a future cop who has to take on the malicious robots of villain Gene Simmons.  TriStar got this one into 720 theaters (half of what the box office champ BEVERLY HILLS COP [1984] was still showing in) and it ended up coming in seventh place with a haul of $1,198,279.  This one stuck around the least at just over four weeks and ended up with a final tally of $6,770,587. It was another stark reminder for Selleck that his transition from the small screen to the big one wasn’t going to go smoothly and it was a far cry from the box office of LASSITER (1984), which had earned $17 million when released in February of the same year. Ultimately, RUNAWAY would find its audience on home video and cable.  It has grown to be a cult favorite and it all holds up extremely well in viewings three decades removed.  Well, except for Gene Simmons’ hair.

The middle child of our triplets ended up being Columbia’s STARMAN, which tells the story of an alien answering NASA’s Voyager invitation and heading to explore Earth (and specifically America) in a few days journey.  With Jeff Bridges as the alien and Nancy Allen as his guide, STARMAN proved to be a departure for director John Carpenter, who was getting pigeonholed as only a horror director. The film opened in sixth place with a total of $2,872,022.  Of the three features, this one had the longest legs and good word of mouth kept it playing until February 1985 where it settled with a domestic gross of $28,744,356.  Surprisingly, this would end up being Carpenter’s highest grossing film of the 1980s.  Even more surprising, Jeff Bridges saw his amazing lead performance nominated for an Academy Award, a true rarity for science fiction film. While he lost to F. Murray Abraham from AMADEUS (1984), it proved to be the first of three nominations for Best Actor (he’d previously been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW [1971] and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT [1974]).  He would eventually win the prize for CRAZY HEART (2009).

It is kind of wild to find out those three films I loved as a kid all came out on the same day. Of the three, I only got to see STARMAN in the theater so it is my favorite.  But it is cool to know that three such distinct voices all got there wildly different sci-fi films into theaters, a feat that surely wouldn’t happened today.  December 14, 1984 – a day that will live in science fiction film infamy.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sci-Fried Theater: FUTURE KICK (1991)

It’s hard to believe that this will be our first full length review of a Don “The Dragon” Wilson flick. Outside of Tom’s capsule write up of RING OF FIRE II (1993) and my box office piece on the first BLOODFIST (1989), our tales of “The Dragon” have been limited.  Just because we’ve been busy, not because we don’t love the man and his direct-to-video filmography.  Not only was his work entertaining and prolific, but it is a testament to a completely different time when lower tier stars could be built outside of the studio system. Go ahead – give me the biggest star born exclusively from a Redbox?  Exactly.

FUTURE KICK was Wilson’s third feature for his benefactor Roger Corman and his Concorde studios.  The first two were the BLOODFIST films and it looks like Corman decided to spice things up a bit with his new leading man. Perhaps hoping to follow the Schwarzenegger pattern, this third film cast Wilson as a cyborg in a sci-fi flick. By the time the filmmakers went into production in September 1990, they also had some healthy dashes of BLADE RUNNER (1982) and TOTAL RECALL (1990) mixed with some rather unhealthy sampling of NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (1983).  The end result is one of the most unique films of Wilson’s “kick you in the face” oeuvre.

The year is 2025 (according to the back of the DVD case, not the film as a date is never mentioned) and, of course, Earth has gone to hell thanks to endless war. The 1%-ers bolted for the moon and established a place for the wealthy to forget humanity’s troubles and live in opulence.  Wait, isn’t that the same plot as ELYSIUM (2013)?  A corporation simple referred to as The Corporation has taken over on Earth and they developed a series of bio-mechanical soldiers called Cyberons.  When those machines went rogue, they were hunted down to be destroyed and now only two – Walker (Don “The Dragon” Wilson) and Andrews (Jeff Langton) – remain.  Oh, sorry, Andrews just got killed in the opening chase, so only Walker remains.

Back on the lunar surface, wealthy computer programmer Howard Morgan (Jeff Pomerantz) lives here with his wife Nancy (Meg Foster) while his V.R.S. (Virtual Reality Systems) sell like hotcakes back on Earth. He’s putting the final touches on his latest program and is scheduled to fly back to Earth to meet with his publisher.  Now why his publisher is living in that hellhole or they can’t do it via video chat is never explained.  He tells Nancy not to use it because it still has some bugs (like a bit where someone rips out your heart), but she just can’t resist and dials up some “Dreamweaver” program.  Glad to know the ‘70s are still big in 2025.  Once back on Terra soil, Howard meets up with his publisher (who wows him by showing only the fourth known copy of “David Copperfield” in the world) and tells him he has some juicy secrets about the corporation New Body, which, according to commercials, will replace organs for those who can afford it.  He tells his friend he is going to get a disc of top secret info and says, “I know this doesn’t make sense, but New Body isn’t science fiction, it’s science fact.”  You know what, I’m going to agree with ol’ Howard here – this doesn’t make sense.  Why is a VR programmer investigating a parts-for-profit corporation that runs New Los Angeles?  (Believe it or not, there is a wonky sort of answer for this in the film’s end.)  In addition to corporate espionage, Howard shows he isn’t exactly the doting husband as he hooks up with lady friend Elana (Hayden Conner) to paint the town rosa as they visit some sleazy clubs.  In one of them he sees Walker capture a fugitive and figures he is the right man for the job.  What job we never know.  He gives him half a $50,000 bill and tells him to meet him at his hotel the next day for the other half and his assignment.

Of course, the night isn’t over as Howard has to get in his fix of what every wealthy person wants – bloodsport!  After getting the disc, he and Elana go to check out Laserblade, a virtual reality death-sport where two people are locked into chairs and zap a deadly laser toward each other. To lose is to die, so you don’t see too many quarters lined up designating next play on this machine.  After getting his fill, Howard runs into Hynes (Eb Lottimer) and his henchman Bang (Chris Penn…yes, that Chris Penn).  They’ve been sent by New Body to get that disc back at any cost and that means ripping Howard’s heart out with a big hand-blade.  You see, Hynes doesn’t only work for New Body, but he supplies them with fresh inventory. When Nancy gets word on the moon of her husband’s death, she must jet back to Earth and try to solve his murder.  Naturally, this will lead her on a path where she must team up with last-of-his-kind Walker to get the job done.

Ah, FUTURE KICK, where to begin?  I saw this back in the day but didn’t remember a damn thing about it. Honestly, all of the Wilson flicks I’ve seen blurred into one long movie in my head.  It was Tom who prompted me to do give this one a revisit and I’m glad I did.  It’s a fun film and incredibly ambitious for a Wilson flick.  You’ll wonder just how the hell Meg Foster (Tom: “Acting her little heart out.”) and Chris Penn ended up in this.  Yes, Chris Penn.  It makes a little more sense when you realize Wilson was training Penn at the time and they were best friends.  But it is still insane to see.  Writer-director Damian Klaus does a decent job creating the future dystopia and delivers what might be the goriest non-slasher Corman produced (he trumps CHOPPING MALL by offering us two exploding heads).  (A quick aside: I’m not sure if Klaus is a pseudonym or not.  All information listed in Variety had him as the writer-director from the get go, but this is his lone credit.  To be one-and-done is quite odd, especially in Corman’s world.)

MAJOR SPOILER IN THIS NEXT PARAGRAPH! The director may have also pulled off the impossible as this film is one of the few where an “it’s all a dream” ending works for me.  Yes, the film ends with Nancy waking up from a VR session.  So pretty much everything that happens from the time she inserts the disc into the machine is not real and that actually ends up working in the film’s favor.  You’ll marvel how Nancy walks into bar and she finds the only person on Earth who witnessed her husband’s murder.  Normally you’d assign that to lazy scripting, but then when you realize everything happening to her is just part of the virtual reality program, it becomes clever.  So all the top secret mumbo jumbo is just stuff to advance a VR plot and it makes sense.  It also helps with the film’s choppy nature.

The film is filled with footage from other Corman’s productions.  Most of the stuff involving the Corporate police is from CRIME ZONE (1989) and we also gets segments from Corman’s space epics like GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) and nearly every stripping scene from STRIPPED TO KILL II (1989).  As always, you have to admire Corman’s ways (he was totally into recycling before it was a Hollywood fad!), but you kind of almost wish he had given a bit more to this production.  Running only 72 minutes, FUTURE KICK could have been an all out classic if it had the budget (and explosions) of something like Albert Pyun’s NEMESIS (1992). Hell, give it the budget spent on Schwarzenegger’s cigars on TOTAL RECALL (1990).  If I had to guess, I’d say Corman felt the extra cash plunked down for stuff in FUTURE KICK wasn’t worth the effort (I can hear him say, “Do we need to waste money on spray paint for graffiti?”). After this one he relegated Wilson back to a series of films (including a billion BLOODFIST sequels) that were contemporary-set and the biggest production value was Wilson’s spin kicks.  Too bad as I would have love to have seen Wilson in some more sci-fi sets up…remembers SCI-FIGHTER (2004)…oh, nevermind.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Monstrous Mayhem: FRANKENSTEIN (2004)

Man, poor Dean Koontz.  Not in a monetary sense, as the dude is worth over $140 million dollars.  I’m talking in terms of having his written work adapted to the screen.  It has been a rough going for Mr. Koontz when it comes to Hollywood.  How bad?  Stephen King would look at the films made from Koontz’s books and go, “Maybe I didn’t have it so bad.”  The bad-to-good ratio is seemingly 10-to-1 (Tom previously covered the WATCHERS disaster here) and in recent years he’s wizened up and exerted more creative control over the adaptations/projects he is involved in.

Even then, there isn’t a 100% guaranteed things will go well.  In January 2004, the USA Network announced that they had partnered with Koontz to create a new series based on the legend of Frankenstein.  Developed with Kevin Anderson, Koontz’s vision of a new Frankenstein series proved to be a sequel to Mary Shelley’s classic under the premise that both Victor Frankenstein and the Monster had lived over 200 hundred plus years to modern times thanks to the doc’s scientific tinkering and the magic of lighting, respectively.  While the Monster – now taking the name Deucalion, after the son of Prometheus – has stayed in quiet isolation educating himself Dr. Frankenstein has been enjoying the advances in technology and creating a group called the New Race, replacing people with clones for an eventual war.  It is kind of like Frankenstein meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  When Deucalion finds out his maker is still alive in New Orleans, he heads there to settle the score.

Somewhere along the way, however, the wheels came off.  By the time filming started, Koontz had left the project over the age old creative differences.  Could it have been when director Marcus Nispel decided Victor’s state-of-the-art labs should look like grungy, SEVEN (1995) rip offs?  Or when they cast Parker Posey, Adam Goldberg, and Vincent Perez as characters that are supposed to be tough?  Or solely the fact they cast Michael Madsen – who at this point only played Michael Madsen – as a pivotal character?  Any of those are perfectly acceptable reasons to send Koontz running for the exit doors.  However, he did leave with one stipulation though – he would be allowed to publish his original vision.  So what you end up having are two different mediums sharing the same characters but remarkably different results.

The story in both the first book and the film revolves around New Orleans detectives Carson O’Connor (Parker Posey) and Michael Sloane (Adam Goldberg; the character is named Michael Maddison in the books) hunting a serial killer dubbed The Surgeon by the press because of their interest in stealing only certain body parts from their victims.  As if tracking a killer isn’t hard enough, they are constantly bumping heads with fellow detective Jonathan Harker (Michael Madsen).  Damn, a Dracula reference in Frankenstein!  Simultaneous to their investigation, Deucalion (Vincent Perez) arrives in the city from a land far way (Tibet in the books) after an old carnival friend died and bequeathed him his rundown movie theater.  The monster has also come to the city because he has discovered renowned scientist and philanthropist Victor Helios (Thomas Kretschmann) is actually his maker, Victor Frankenstein.  With O’Connor and Deucalion both investigating, it only becomes a matter of time before they team up to take on the world’s most famous monster maker.

Sorry if that synopsis is a bit brief, but there really isn’t much to this movie as it plays like the Koontz novel on fast forward.  All of the major plots points are there, but missing is the important filler. Obviously, something happened in the ten months from when this project was first announced to when it premiered. The USA Network was obviously big on it at one time, announcing it in January 2004 and declaring it would be a “weekly series” with Koontz being commissioned to write the pilot and four scripts after that.  Things looked up at the end of that month as Martin Scorsese signed on as Executive Producer.  In an odd career move, director Marcus Nispel signed on to helm the TV movie. However, come April/May when the film was going into production, USA Network was referring to it as a miniseries.  By the time it finally debuted on October 10, 2004, it was just a stand alone movie with no mention of follow ups.  (To add insult to injury, Hallmark had announced another FRANENSTEIN miniseries in February 2004 and got it to air five days before the USA Network version.)  Running a scant 88 minutes, this movie almost feels like everyone got a memo halfway through production saying, “We’re shutting it down.”  One need look for no further evidence than the film’s ending where O’Connor and Deucalion agree to take on Victor together and it cuts right to credits.  Yes, they couldn’t even bother to craft a proper dénouement and the film features no confrontation between Dr. Frankenstein and the main characters.  It just ends.

Of course, it is entirely possible the producers just saw the footage and threw their hands up before pulling the plug. Fresh off the success of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003) remake, director Nispel stumbles with nearly every decision from the film’s style to the casting.  The film has that drab, sepia-tone look of every other horror film back then.  If there was an answer on that was, “A duo who should never be cast as cops” the question would be, “Who are Parker Posey and Adam Goldberg?” Posey, the indie darling of the ‘90s, is so demonstrably awful in this role that 90% of her performance is her having the same scowl on her face.  Goldberg, sporting a hair cut so bad that it looks like he is wearing a terrible wig, seems to think chewing gum loudly is the height of his character’s personality.  Of course, the worst offense is the Monster.  Described in the books as a 6’6” behemoth with a half a deformed face covered in ritualistic tattoos, the role calls for someone with presence and the ability to act in the subtlest of ways.  Instead they cast 6 foot nothing Swede Vincent Perez and only put a tiny scar appliance on his face.  The only person who comes off well is Kretschmann, who seems to understand the arrogance of the doctor who is playing God.  Unfortunately, his scenes are limited.

And the award for 
“Worst Frankenstein Monster Design of All-Time” 
goes to...

It is a shame too as Koontz’s book series have proven to be a fun continuation of the Shelley legend.  And while you’d think they would be nothing more than a pulpy horror/sci-fi hybrid, there is actually a lot going on in these books with the creations of Victor going haywire in their quest for what is missing (a soul) from their created-in-a-lab existence.  This version completely misses all off that, opting instead for just cheap thrills (and not even delivering in that department).  Amusingly, the book series grew to five volumes and proved popular enough that another company, 1019 Entertainment, optioned them in 2012.  They announced plans to turn them into a…wait for it…TV series.  Like I said earlier, poor Dean Koontz.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Heinous for the Holidays: HOME SWEET HOME (1981)

As we all know, in the '80s, slasher movies were exploiting every possible angle to make their movie about a deranged, homicidal madman stand out from the pack. Since everybody loves holidays, let's make a holiday themed slasher movie. And, hey, fitness videos are all the rage, so let's get the BODY BY JAKE guy to play a psychotic, giggling loony on PCP. Genius!

When a schmoe in a Grand Marquis station wagon offers a burly dude a beer out of his car, the musclehead flips out and strangles the driver to death! Why would you kill a guy for that? He must be M.A.D.D.! (hey, quit throwing those eggs) In fact Jay Jones (Jake Steinfeld) is a homicidal maniac who has just escaped from an asylum where he had been locked away for the brutal murders of his parents. After jacking the stylin' ride, he shoots up some PCP under his tongue, runs down what appears to be Ruth Buzzi, and heads out to... well, a camper trailer in the California foothills to wash the blood off of the car that he will never touch again. Why? Who knows? Probably for the same reason he has "Home Sweet Home" tattooed on the back of his hand. He be crazy an' shit!

Meanwhile a couple of preppies, Scott (David Mielke) and Jennifer (Colette Trygg), are headed out to a hacienda-style ranch house to celebrate Thanksgiving with the people he rents his mother-in-law-style apartment from. This is what happens when you wear sweaters tied around your neck. Not only is this awkward enough, but he fills in his girl-friend on the people who they are going to be with. These folks apparently have a lot of nuts growing in the family tree. Says Scott, "I can promise you an interesting evening at least." Oh, thaaaank you. And why does this guy have no friends?

The family that they are visiting is comprised of Bradley (Don Edmonds, yes the Don Edmonds) who has serious anger management issues that he takes out on his stepson Mistake (Peter De Paula), who runs around in black on white face-paint, playing an electric guitar, doing magic tricks and generally annoying the hell out of everyone. Honestly though, any kid named "Mistake" with an abusive, alcoholic step-parent is going to be seeking negative attention. I blame the parents. Even worse, his mother Linda (Sallee Young) chases him around with a baseball bat after he interrupts his parents attempt at a bit of bedroom Thanksgetting.

Then we have Wayne (Charles Hoyes) and his "Latina" girlfriend Maria (Lisa Rodríguez), who because she is "Latina", cheerfully sings Mexican ballads off-key while badly playing an acoustic guitar. Clearly she is meant to be the most annoying idiot in the bunch. She isn't. While fumbling with simple Spanish phrases and squealing at the drop of a serape, Jennifer looks over at Scott with a smirk and says "She's so Latin, I can't believe it!" Same here Jennifer, I don't believe it either. All of this occurs while Wayne is freaking the out because the power went out and he won't be able to watch "The Game." What game this is, is not made clear. Perhaps championship pai-gow.

Also along for the straight-jacket festivities is Linda's far-too-hot-to-be-spending-any-holiday-with-these-assholes friend Gail (Leia Naron) and Mistake's little sister Angel (a very young Vinessa Shaw). Wait, wasn't there a psycho killer on the loose? Why yes there is, he is the cause of the power failure. What he has been doing this whole time is as obtuse as pretty much everything else in the movie. At this point screenwriter Thomas Bush decides that the group should be split up, presumably to be picked off one by one. Or to just allow him the opportunity to write more annoying scenes of the jackasses being idiots on their own, I'm not sure which. Brad stumbles across an abandoned station wagon and decides to siphon the gas for his generator and while he's at it, steal the battery because the one in his Jeep keeps dying while the car is running. This of course makes Jay jump out from behind a tree and squash Bradley with the hood of the car.

This brings up an important point. If you came to this party to see some fun slasher action, you are barking up the wrong video.  Jay is presumably off wandering around in a drug-fueled delirium until the end of the movie. He lurches into view every now and again to blurt out his (overdubbed) stuttering hyena laugh, but really doesn't do a whole hell of a lot. It's mostly a bunch of irritating idiots arguing and being pissed off about petty things. One character gets cranky in the kitchen because he can't find the peas while looking at the spice rack. Honestly, I want them all to die horribly, but they just don't. Deaths include, as I mentioned, Bradley getting a car hood slammed on him (the horror!), Gail's death by falling-down-on-a-small-rock, and the old dry ice / epileptic seizure electrocution gag. Most of the deaths are off-screen as well. One scene has our laughing boy stalking a character before swinging a broken bottle at the camera. That is literally all you see of this character's presumably gristly demise except for a reveal of the corpse later in the film (the only real prosthetic effect in the film). This is like watching hotel-room porn, all you have it the badly acted stuff without any of the bits everyone came to see in the first place.

Oddly, they do give Jay two lines of dialogue. While holding a knife to a girl's throat he says, in a laid-back surfer voice, "women are no good, they only cause you problems, man." A fair point on the latter half of the argument, but I think he may be overreacting a bit. It's moments like this that make HOME marginally enjoyable, as it has virtually nothing going on in the realm of horror. Well, unless you count family gatherings as "horror" or are scared by a full minute of people sitting by a fireplace before hearing a creaking sound, discovering it is nothing and going to sit back down again.

Made by the one-and-done Nettie Peña as part of a, this is the best part, Loyola Marymount internship project, this was made two years after Jake Steinfeld started his business as Trainer to the Stars and a year before his CNN "Fitness Break by Jake" TV debut. Apparently rubbing elbows with the entertainment industry gave him the acting bug and this movie actually followed appearances in AMERICATHON (1979) and CHEECH AND CHONG'S NEXT MOVIE (1980), the latter of which was a big Summer movie from Paramount. It's not really surprising that this didn't lead to bigger parts, simply because Steinfeld is a teeeeeerible actor. He genuinely makes me pine for the delicate subtlety of Lyle Alzado in DESTROYER (1988).

If you watch college basketball, you will know that Loyola Marymount is a mega-buck Christian college who actually refer to their home games as "Home Sweet Home" games. The irony there is probably my favorite thing about this drawn-out Thanksgiving turkey. My other favorite thing is that it's not a sequel to THANKSKILLING 3 (2012).

Friday, November 21, 2014

Cheesy Rider: PUSHING UP DAISIES (1973)

If there were two movies that marked the end of the '60s and heralded in the new decade of cinema, they would be EASY RIDER (1969) and THE WILD BUNCH (1969). You could also argue 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and you would be right, but putting that aside, you have two films that demonstrated a profound change in society on many levels. Both have a sense of perseverance in the face of adversity and deep alienation from their environments with a marked cynicism and fatalism not previously known to mainstream cinema. The much reviled Vietnam War was already 14 years old, and the much loved President Kennedy had been killed, as had Martin Luther King, a man that promoted ridiculous things like non-violence and racial harmony. There were good reasons to be cynical, and we hadn't even gotten to the Watergate incident that would forever ruin confidence in our elected officials.

Because of the deep chord these films struck with audiences, they were wildly successful at the box office. EASY RIDER was made for $400,000 ($2.5 million today) and it made $60 million in global returns (or $388 million today). By comparison, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) was made for $170 million and grossed $768 million world wide. For every dollar spent, EASY RIDER returned approximately $155.00, where as GUARDIANS returned only approximately $4.50 per dollar spent. Somebody get Kevin Feige in off of that ledge.

As always, any film that makes a wad of cash that would make a pimp jealous is going to breed knock-offs faster than a Harley Ultra-Glide rolls down the highway. Err, come to think of it, that is not very fast. Of course, you could make the argument that EASY RIDER was merely one film in a long progression of motorcycle movies dating back to THE WILD ONE (1955) and it actually punctuated the end of the biker genre much like THE WILD BUNCH did with Westerns. Either way, it influenced many filmmakers down the line including a then unknown (and frankly now not very well known) Ivan Nagy.

Partnering with veteran TV and indy movie actor Ross Hagen (who co-wrote and produced), neophyte director Nagy decided that the movie he wanted to do to launch his career would be a completely odd blend of both RIDER and BUNCH, with some awkward comedy thrown in for good measure.

A quartet of ex-cons, Maddux (Ross Hagen), Wilbur (Hoke Howell), Kelly (Kelly Thordsen), and A.J. (Eric Lidberg), decide that holding up a dirtwater town bank didn't get the returns that that they were hoping for. After stealing a car from a huckster salesman, Maddox and Wilbur decide to rob a gas station run by a good ol' boy grease-monkey (played by Christopher George, if you can believe it), while Kelly and A.J. rob the cafe across the street. Unfortunately for the the latter, the cafe is a hangout for the state police and half of our quartet end up on the chain gang busting rocks with sadistic guards who are itching for a chance to kill. And this is all before the opening credits!

Speaking of the opening credits, they have got to be the most bizarre and annoying credits I have ever witnessed. Clearly made by people who were experiencing the fruitful bounty that Timothy Leary endorsed, they show in slow motion and freeze frames a guard intimidating and stabbing a black prisoner who is pleading for his life. This is done with no music, but instead uses heavy reverb causing the screaming dialogue to slowly echo across your speakers. This goes on for an agonizing full 2 minutes! If that doesn't seem like a long time. Take a stopwatch to the closest angry infant you can find and start the countdown. Cash money says you will never make it to 120 seconds.

Maddux and Wilbur decide they are going to bust out their buddies which comes none too soon as the sadistic guard forces the prisoners to bury the dead man and jump up and down on his grave chanting "it's garbage we're stomping on" while Jimi Hendrix's distorted rendition of "Amazing Grace" blares across the soundtrack. It's actually weirder than it sounds. Following a full-blown western-style shoot-out, the four are back on the road trying to figure out a plan (for something) and arguing about whether the prison served butter or margarine. I think this is the alleged "comedy". Hard to tell.

Maddux is the leader of the mini mob because he went to high school, is an ex-green beret and has a tendency to wax metaphoric, saying things like "it's not how long you live, but how." Dude, that's deep. He figures the best plan of action is to rob another bank, this time dressed as nuns (perhaps inspired by 1972s FUZZ) and hightail it to Mexico. The robbery scene is pretty perfunctory (though they do make sure to include an injun stereotype and a butt gag). Much of the film shows a marked lack of motivation. Some scenes are clipped so short that they cut off lines of dialogue while others go on so long that you can presumably have time to load up another bong hit and get into the groove of the flickering images. Actually that's not a metaphor, there are some very odd stylistic choices during a few scenes of the movie where we get multiple freeze frames and heavily edited dissolves that seem completely out of joint (no pun intended) with the rest of the film.

The final third of the film is the boys riding across the desert on motorcycles to get to a cantina in Mexico where they plan to whoop it up and bet on prostitutes in an armwrestling match. Really. There is a lot of riding going on here. Much like horror films that have relentless rock climbing, here we have riding. At one point Kelly asks Maddux why they were riding bikes across the desert. Maddux tells him "it's like the old west." To which Kelly says "you can keep the old west, I never liked it anyway." For some reason I'm pretty sure most of the dialogue was improvised.

This movie is slower than a southern drawl on a hot day, but for some reason it manages to lure you in with it's drug-addled, somewhat charming ineptitude. The music, all of which I'm sure are stolen tracks, is an utterly bizarre hodge-podge of styles. During the orgy scene (yes, Kelly Thordsen is involved in an orgy), in addition to the disorienting hand-held camera and rapidly edited close-ups, we get a shrill, cheery ukulele number on the soundtrack! I can only think that the music was a temp track that never got a finished score. Matter of fact, the whole film looks like it could have been a work-print that was rushed out the door.

Unreleased on video in the US, it was released theatrically by the brand new distribution arm of the original Cannon Group (before the arrival of Golan and Globus in '79) with an obviously replaced title card. The original title was FIVE MINUTES OF FREEDOM and I am not really sure if that title is better or worse, neither gives any idea as to what kind of film it is. As far as I know, the only video release it has gotten was in the early days of video in Holland (where else?). The subtitles add a bit of minor entertainment. For instance when Wilbur falls off of his motorcycle (a clearly unscripted goof) he says "damn bike" and the subtitle reads "satans dike". I guess some of us are easily amused.

Ivan Nagy followed this up with another crime comedy titled BAD CHARLESTON CHARLIE (1973), a roaring '20s period piece reteaming Hagen and Thordsen and the odd 1975 thriller DEADLY HERO before moving into TV land. He is known to horror fans for his 1993 slasher film SKINNER starring Ted Raimi, but really he is mostly remembered for being Heidi Fleiss' boyfriend.

As it stands, this redneck hippy movie may not be the best way to spend 90 minutes of your life, but there's something about it that will keep you watching if you are in a forgiving state of mind.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Halloween Havoc: THE EVIL CLERGYMAN (1988)

Back in the mid-80s, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found Charles Band bowing at the grave of H.P. Lovecraft.  The two adaptations he co-produced – RE-ANIMATOR (1985) and FROM BEYOND (1986) – made him some nice change at the box office ($2 million and $1 million, respectively, with neither getting a higher run than 190 theaters). Not only that, the two Stuart Gordon helmed films were deemed instant classics, lending Band’s Empire Pictures the credibility it certainly needed at the time.

Band was no doubt aware of this when he mounted an ambitious little project entitled PULSE POUNDERS in 1987.  The concept behind this anthology was to provide half hour mini-sequels to a couple of popular Empire productions – THE DUNGEONMASTER (1984) and TRANCERS (1985) – and fill the third slot with another Lovecraft adaptation.  With Gordon tied up filming ROBOT JOX (1989), Band took directorial control but planned a full RE-ANIMATOR reunion as he brought back Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, and David Gale for an adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story “The Evil Clergyman.”  Also back was screenwriter Dennis Paoli, who put the kink in the earlier adaptations and continued that path here.

Selecting “The Evil Clergyman” to adapt is an odd choice because it is only a four-page story.  In fact, it isn’t really a story but a portion of a letter Lovecraft sent to a friend describing a dream he had and it was published posthumously in 1939. Damn, this means when Stephen King dies we’ll get adaptations of his emails and Entertainment Weekly articles.  The plot involves a man spending a night in a room and seeing the past as a former priest burns some mysterious religious texts and then commits suicide by hanging.  After witnessing this ordeal, the protagonist looks into a mirror and realizes he is now the priest and his body has been overtaken.

This adaptation opens with a woman named Said Brady (Barbara Crampton) arriving at a castle to visit the room of her former lover.  The landlady isn’t too welcoming, but lets her into the room. But not before accusing Said of having an “unhealthy obsession with sex and death” and saying she was once more beautiful than her.  Damn, Gramma, put away them claws.  Anyway, our female lead gets into the room and is quickly visited by the spirit of Jonathan (Jeffrey Combs), a former priest who greets her with a ghostly goosing.  She tells him that she has come to “make peace with your memory” and apparently that can only be done by getting it on. Jonathan proves he was quite the lothario by getting her into bed and stating, “Your body is my religion.”  Man, I am totally going to use that line.

Unbeknownst to Miss Brady, crawling around on the floor is a rat-man creature (David Gale).  Post-close encounter of the coital kind, she wakes up in bed with Jonathan missing and this tiny beast licking her.  Uh, gross.  She is then greeted by a ghost of a clergyman (David Warner), who informs her of the perverse and deadly past of her lover.  In fact, he was one of his victims and shows this off by exposing the bashed in left side of his face.  He tells her that the rat-man is Jonathan’s animal familiar and that “he only wants your soul.”  Ladies, you thought your old boyfriend destroying your credit rating was bad?  Brady then has her second encounter with Jonathan and he proves how well hung he is…and not in the way you think, pervs!  He admits he committed suicide and then does the act again, hanging himself in center of the room from a ceiling beam.  He’s still alive though and asks her to kiss him.  When she says she can’t reach him, he slyly says, “Kiss me like you used to.”  Damn, brother be smooth.  This gives us an implied hanging blowjob that you know Lovecraft always wanted in his work.  The clergyman reappears to stop her, but she bashes his head in and then proceeds to hang herself.  Her death complete, Jonathan begs his familiar to have her body and it is granted.  The short ends with Miss Brady walking out of the room with Jonathan’s soul now nestled safely inside.  Damn, he is totally a freak.

This rendition of “The Evil Clergyman” is unique in that it is both a faithful adaptation and a complete reworking of the source material.  Paoli tells the simple story, but also includes some random Lovecraft elements from other stories. While never said, the rat-man is clearly supposed to be the rat-man Brown Jenkin from “The Dreams in the Witch House.” And the idea of soul transference also appeared more prevalently in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (not surprisingly, Gordon and Paoli had worked on an adaptation of that story which made the body switch from male/male to male/female).  Also, he ups the kinky factor significantly. As Tom pointed out to me, Band knew how his bread was buttered and the hanging blowjob scene here is an obvious nod to the infamous head scene in RE-ANIMATOR that drew that film so much attention.  And this is a full on RE-ANIMATOR reunion as we have most of the lead players back with even DP Mac Ahlberg behind the camera.

All of the performances are fine, although you might think of someone else other than Jeffrey Combs when it comes to a stud who can bed Barbara Crampton. You have to give Combs (and David Warner) credit though as they have that same ability as Peter Cushing to make any wacko dialogue/scenario sound believable.  This helps when Combs has to kiss the man-rat, surely not the highlight of his career.  The end also has Crampton doing a kind of Combs impersonation that is really good (she has his cadence down).  I don’t know why, but it amuses me that they flew Gale all the way to Italy to be made up like a rat and only gives him lines like, “Bitch! Whore!” Hey, as long as the check cleared, right? Ah, crap, at this point the check probably didn’t clear.  Yes, the whole PULSE POUNDERS project was one of the last efforts by the financially struggling Empire.  Filming started in April 1987, shut down, but then resumed in October 1987.  As it was, the film never got a full post-production treatment and the segments only came to light in 2012 when Full Moon found a copy of VHS and offered it up to fans.  While not the best Lovecraft short, I’d definitely recommend it to curious fans or those who simply want to check out the RE-ANIMATOR players in their prime one more time.