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!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Deadly Farce: THE BIG SWEAT (1991)

You may think it odd that someone so familiar with picking through the refuse of a cinematic trash heap would have the sense enough to walk on the other side of the street whenever Ulli Lommel strolls by. Well at least, you'd think it odd if you haven't seen anything he's done other than BOOGEYMAN, I guess. So it was by sheer brute force that Will managed to strap me into a CLOCKWORK ORANGE chair and torture me into watching THE BIG SWEAT. The interrogation went something like this:
WW: "Hey, I'm getting an Ulli Lommel movie with chase scenes by H.B. Haliki, want a copy?"
TS: "Shit yeah! Gimme!"
I'm pretty sure this turn of events was planned ahead of time (Lommel is crafty like that) and inspired the tag line "How much can one man take?"

Shot on film, in spite of looking like video, with production values ranging from "deeply impoverished" to "clinical starvation", SWEAT opens with a car chase with a yellow 1972 Mustang Fastback. Pretty sweet for an Ulli Lommel movie right? Hold that thought.

Following several minutes of video burned credits on a black background, we find Marco (Steven Molone) freshly released from the Tehachapi state maximum security prison and walking down a dirt road. Apparently it is a long way back to his mother's house (he's a good Italian boy), and we have to see every single step of it. Nearly 8 minutes of the first 15 are of Marco walking in what appears to be different outfits even though they are supposed to be taking place within a single afternoon! Finally he makes a phone call to his previous partner in crime Eddie (Kevin McBride) who takes him to see his mom who lives on a ranch. As if this wasn't exciting enough, we get his probably 10 years older mom deliver a peppy speech about his astrology chart. Yes, Lommel (who also scripted) managed to find something even less entertaining than a string of lengthy walking sequences.

In spite of his mother's admonitions, the freshly sprung Marco quickly finds that Eddie has a plan to stick it to the... I mean, Eddie has a plan to rob a bank and frame-up the stetson-wearing crime boss Joe Rinks (Peter Sherayko) who let Marco take the fall for a previous job, leaving him to do six hard in the slams. Meanwhile unorthodox FBI agent Troudou (Robert Z'Dar) is champing at the bit to take down Rinks and figured the best place to start is by asking Marco to testify against him. Described by his Fed boss as "a man who will play with your mind, instead of that John Wayne routine," Troudou tracks Marco to a bar (an abandoned strip-club with unopened liquor bottles placed in front of the camera) where he tries to use what he perceives to be snappy patter to charm Marco into giving up Rinks. When Marco stubbornly refuses Troudou rolls his eyes and says "Marco, Marco, Marco, this is worse than begging for pussy!" Yep, that's how he gets into your head, man, by implying that he's trying to fuck you. ...or it's just some random dialogue that Lommel made up on the spot. I don't know.

As it turns out Marco and Eddie's can't-fail plan is to, with the help of a bank teller, bust in to the bank in broad daylight, through the front doors, with no masks, in their own clothes, demanding the money and walking right back out the front door. Yes, at least several seconds of planning went into this heist. I know what you are thinking: "How is this supposed to set up Rinks to take the fall?" Not a clue. Honestly, I'm pretty sure Lommel had no idea either and probably forgot about that twist when he was making shit up the day of shooting.

After jumping in their unseen getaway car we get some of that amazing H.B. Haliki chase footage that a Variety magazine writer indicated was the best part of the movie. Check out this review, from someone who works for the movie industry's biggest trade paper, that actually implies that this is a real movie.

Click to enlarge.

Of course I loved the chase sequence too, but I liked it much more back when it was in a film called GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974). Literally the next 30-40 minutes of THE BIG SWEAT is footage taken from the final chase scene in Haliki's original classic. As if editing 1991 shots of drivers sweating and jerking the wheels of their cars into 1974 filmstock footage of the classic chase sequence wasn't bad enough, Lommel actually proves that he just doesn't care by editing a shot of young black-haired Marco behind the wheel, and cutting to an exterior shot with Haliki sticking his curly-blond, sunglass' wearing head out of the car window! Even Bruno Mattei wouldn't have been that sloppy. Think about that one.

I should also point out that while all of this is going on, it's Troudou's partner Barsky (David Rushing) who is doing the all of the chasing while Troudou is messing with Marco's mind, doing what he would least expect: Sitting in his sports car in the middle of a parking lot. No, really. When Barsky desperately tries to get some back up from his boss, all he gets is a new hole in his ass. His boss screams to get off his back, and that he doesn't want to hear about some petty $2 million bank robbery when he is in the middle of a $2 billion drug bust, which appears to have been perpetrated by three guys in a house that is under construction. This minor misjudgment allows Marco, Eddy and their girlfriends (one of whom is the bank teller) to make for Mexico.

A full year of living south of the boarder later, Eddie's girlfriend becomes furious with him for (I'm not making this up) not coming out of the bathroom while he is in the middle of bombing the porcelain bowl. So mad is she in fact, that she splits back to the US of A and promptly rats him and Marco out to the Feds. Honestly that is about the least far-fetched thing in this film. Of course the feds swarm their mansion (aka the weight room at a desert ranch hotel) and arrest them all while engaged in a game of ping-pong. Seriously, like you wouldn't be doing the same thing if you had $2 million in Mexico. Well, except for Eddie, who is still parked on the john when the Feds bust him! Damn dude. Did you give it a name?

Of course we have to have a little epilogue where Troudou shows up and tries again to get Marco to testify against Rinks and promises to let Marco, Eddie and the girls off the hook if he just will turn states evidence against Rinks. Apparently, nobody has to go through channels to make a deal. Everyone laughs and we cut to a dramatic burning black and white photo of Rinks, except... are we supposed to see the matches at the bottom of the screen?

This ramshackle mess of a movie is so bad that while I was taking notes my pen died. It had just had enough and couldn't take any more. First there are the plot holes that are so big that they aren't even plot holes, so much as holes that have some plot attached to them. Then we have Z'Dar delivering some of the most ludicrous lines imaginable with the zeal of a Ren Fair nerd quoting Monty Python. At one point another character tells him "you are like a cartoon", which means Lommel was aiming for comedy and simply missed the toilet entirely.

Aside from the alleged script (if you choose to believe that there was one) the movie is pretty stunning simply for its total lack of budget or technical expertise. There are absolutely no action sequences other than the purloined Haliki footage, the sets are non-existent with conversations happening literally on the side of the highway, in sheds and in parking lots, the mic is not baffled so you can hear wind hitting the pickup, the white balance is frequently off leading to a completely inconsistent look for different scenes, and yet somehow Lommel ended up laughing all the way to the bank. The man is a genius.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Newsploitation: Ernest Goes to the Box Office

Ever since I started these whole Box Office Birthday posts (much to Tom’s chagrin) I been hitting films that had an indelible impact on the worldwide movie going public.  Quite a few are things I loved as a kid but eventually grew out of (like the ELM STREET and FRIDAY THE 13th series).  Today’s B.O.B., however, is something I will always hold a torch for and will defend with the highest of non-snarky banter, knowhutimean. Twenty-five years ago today saw the release of ERNEST GOES TO JAIL (1990), the crowning achievement of this ostensibly made-for-kids series.

Jim Varney was a genius.  If you do not agree with this statement, please turn around and show yourself out our cyber-door.  A classically trained actor from Kentucky, Varney did theater and even toiled around Hollywood for some sitcom work in the late ‘70s.  It wasn’t until 1980 – when he was back in the South – that his career path was set. Hooking up with director John Cherry III, Varney shot a commercial featuring a character he had come up named Ernest, a sort of quintessential nagging redneck know-it-all.  The regional commercial was well received and soon Varney and Cherry were shootings dozens of commercials featuring the character Ernest P. Worrell, who was always talking to his unseen friend Vern.  Rumor has it Ernest caught the attention of Disney brass at a car racing event where iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse and Goofy got outshined by everyman Ernest when he showed up.

Whatever the true story, the trio of Varney, Cherry, and Worrell – along with writer Coke Sams – soon found themselves making movies for Disney/Buena Vista.  The first release ERNEST GOES TO CAMP (1987) arrived in the summer of 1987 and proved to be a modest hit (earning over $23 million in the U.S. off a $3 million dollar budget).  It was profitable enough that ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS (1988) arrived a year and a half later in November 1988 with nearly double the budget.  It again made a decent amount of money ($28 million in the U.S., making it the highest grossing of the theatrical Ernest films) so a third film was obviously a no-brainer. Working from a script by Charlie Cohen (with uncredited rewriting by Coke Sams), the Ernest filmmakers decided to create their wildest entry yet and send loveable Ernest into the big house.  They also fashioned a scenario that allowed Varney to show his range with the age old doppelganger plotline.

Production started in September 1989 in Nashville, Tennessee.  Cherry and Varney had worked so much together that by this point Ernest was a well oiled machine.  While Cherry had shown some visual flair in the previous two films, JAIL took it to a whole different level. Essentially, the director took the battered-but-impervious Ernest to its logical extreme and made him a live action cartoon.  Look no further than this small snippet from the “Ernest gets magnetic” scene to see an example of this:

The visual style and editing there is so off the charts, ending up looking like an Ernest movie directed by Sam Raimi.  Cherry also indulged himself in the lighting and costume department, creating a surreal looking jail with guards having exaggerated shoulder pads.  Of course, this is only enhanced by the Varney’s comedic skills and JAIL offers him the best showcase throughout the series as he plays Ernest, the villain Mr. Nash, and even dusts off his Auntie Nelda character (take that, Tyler Perry!).  He is supported by nice turns by Gailard Sartain (as the insane bank security guard), Bill Byrge (as his silent partner, Bobby), Randall “Tex” Cobb (as a high top sporting convict), and even Charles Napier (as the evil warden).

ERNEST GOES TO JAIL opened on just over 1900 screens the weekend of April 6, 1990.  While it only came in third place, it was the highest grossing new release that week – outshining the horror-thriller THE FIRST POWER, the comedy I LOVE YOU TO DEATH, and John Waters’ CRY-BABY.  It made $6,143,372, which was just a hair under what CAMP made its opening weekend.  Eventually it made just over $25 million in the U.S. during its two month run, making it the second highest gross Ernest film behind CHRISTMAS.  It also marked the end of Ernest being in the $20+ million club as the fourth film ERNEST SCARED STUPID (1991) would earn just $14 million and be the last Buena Vista release for the character.  Ernest would live on in five more sequels before the character was quietly put to rest when Varney discovered he had lung cancer (he passed away in February 2000 at the age of 50).  As it stands, ERNEST GOES TO JAIL is an achievement and the jewel of the series for me.  So much so that I can look past the fact that it was connected to our living Ernest P. Worrell embodiment, George W. Bush.  No, seriously.  

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Newsploitation: Robert Z'Dar RIP (1950-2015)

It is probably bad form to do a write up on a death on April 1st, but most folks already know that Robert Z’Dar passed away this week at the age of 64. News broke yesterday that the veteran character actor passed away on March 30 in Florida due to cardiac arrest. Perhaps fittingly, Z’Dar had been in the Sunshine State to do a film convention before being admitted to the hospital. Even more fittingly, according to a friend, he still made a few hours for fans despite being in very poor health and was talking about his upcoming shoot for SAMURAI COP 2 on his deathbed.

Z’Dar was one of those guys you never forgot, yet I can’t recall what the first film I ever saw him in was.  Looking at his extensive filmography, I’d wager it was CHERRY 2000 (1987).  Of course, the film that cemented him for me (and a lot of folks) was the first MANIAC COP (1988) movie. After that it seemed like Z’Dar was popping up everywhere.  I can still remember seeing TANGO & CASH (1989) theatrically and getting excited when I saw him as a prisoner.  Yeah, I get excited easily.

For a guy who started his movie career late in life (he didn’t start until well into his 30s), Z’Dar made up for lost time.  In the end he ended up doing over 100 films in his thirty years in the business.  Some were fantastic, some were good, some were bad, and some were made by Scott Shaw and Donald Jackson.  Being Video Junkies, a lot of those films passed before our eyes.  While every film may not have been good, I don’t think I can say I ever saw a terrible Z’Dar performance.  He gave his all in any role and was truly one of a kind.  Here are the reviews of films featuring Z'Dar we've done:

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Newsploitation:, Roy the Paramedic turns 30!

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 16, 2015

Newsploitation: Lambada The Forbidden Box Office

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 7, 2015

World of Witchcraft: DEVIL RIDER (1991)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Newsploitation: Happy Birthday to Our Favorite Zuni Warrior!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 1974 – A BREAK IN THE ICE films.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A look at TRILOGY OF TERROR's competition:

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

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

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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

World of Witchcraft: HANSEL AND GRETEL (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 16, 2015

Newsploitation: A Breed Apart at the Box Office

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

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

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

Original announcement circa October 1988
(click to enlarge)

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

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

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

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