Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Saturday, 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.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Newsploitation: In the Mouth of Box Office Sadness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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