Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Newsploitation: AMERICAN NINJA (1985) turns 30!

August 1985 was one hell of a month for movie fans. Released in those 31 days thirty years ago were tons of titles still fondly remembered today including FRIGHT NIGHT, WEIRD SCIENCE, PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, REAL GENIUS, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE YEAR OF THE DRAGON, and TEEN WOLF. Naturally the boys at Cannon had to squeeze something in there and they offered up another film in their “ninja” sub-genre. What is surprising about this film is that despite featuring no big actors it still managed to be a modest box office hit for the company. Not only that, but it gave the company two new stars.

The first mention of this continuation of the NINJA series came at the American Film Market in 1984 when Golan and Globus promised a NINJA IV alongside other sequels PREPPIES II and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II. NINJA 3: THE DOMINATION (1983) had come out the previous September and done only so-so, but the GoGo Boys were determined to keep wringing the last drop out of that shinobi shozoku. A few months later at Cannes, the company debuted the AMERICAN NINJA title. A this point it was a wildly different film. Director Sam Firstenberg was back, but the lead was Cannon’s Golden Bearded Boy, Chuck Norris. The tagline promised “Assassination! Random Murder! Terrorism! Only One Power Can Stop It…” and the screenplay was credited to James Silke. Come the October MIFED film convention and the film had changed significantly again - the script was now written by Norris and James Bruner and Joseph Zito was credited as director. Given those particulars, it is easy to see this Norris project morphed from AMERICAN NINJA to INVASION U.S.A., his 1985 vehicle.

Never ones to let a good title escape them, Cannon regrouped in the new year and announced in January 1985 that AMERICAN NINJA was scheduled to come out in September 1985. Firstenberg was back on the project and a script was now attributed to Paul De Mielche and the story was credited to Gideon Amir and Avi Kleinberger. At the 1985 AFM the producers announced that filming would take place in the Philippines beginning in April 1985. The two-page ad offered a traditional ninja leaping through the air with the tagline: “He was trained in Japan to kill a thousand ways. Now he’s home and will face his deadliest challenge.” By the time of the Cannes festival the following May, Cannon had found their American Ninja and - as part of their “The Year of Cannon” ad campaign - announced the new star, Michael Dudikoff, in a gorgeous color poster of what would become the iconic AMERICAN NINJA pic of Dudikoff bringing down his sword on a ninja.

The California-born Dudikoff had been acting since the late ‘70s in smaller roles and he had just started to breakout to bigger roles, such as being one of Tom Hanks’ buddies in BACHELOR PARTY (1984) and the co-lead in Cannon’s wild Albert Pyun post-apocalyptic-comedy-action-musical RADIOACTIVE DREAMS (1985). According to the recent Cannon documentary ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, Dudikoff was selected by Menahem Golan due to his slight resemblance to James Dean. It was a true star-making turn for the young actor and one that firmly established him in Cannon’s ranks. Rewatching the film recently, you can really tell that the thirty-year-old Dudikoff gave his all for the role, as he is doing tons of leaping, diving and fighting.

Also launched as an action star in this film was the fantastic Steve James. Like his co-star, James had been around in film since the late ‘70s, perhaps best known for his role as Robert Ginty’s pal in THE EXTERMINATOR (1980). By far the biggest revelation on my recent revisit is just how much damn charisma James has. It leaps off the screen in his role as Armstrong’s nemesis-turned-ally Curtis Jackson. His natural presence is also the perfect balance to the quiet cool Firstenberg has Dudikoff going for. The duo has a great onscreen rapport, so it is no surprise they did a trio of films together. Also notable is the presence of Tadashi Yamashita. NINJA series staple Sho Kosugi’s contract with Cannon had ended and he went on to do his own thing so the co-star of THE OCTAGON (1980) was brought in to play the “Black Star Ninja.”

Cannon ended up getting AMERICAN NINJA into theaters just a few days earlier than their September 1985 release date (imagine the insanity of shooting a film in April and having it in theaters just a few months later). The film debuted nationwide on August 30, 1985 and was the highest grossing new release that weekend with a haul of $3,234,837 for a fourth place finish. It is worth noting that Cannon only got this into 672 theaters, the lowest theater count in the top five (for reference, the no. 1 and 2 films, BACK TO THE FUTURE and TEEN WOLF, had over 1,500 and 1,400 screens, respectively; damn, Michael J. Fox was kicking ass at the box office). AMERICAN NINJA ended its haul with $10,499,694, which was more than NINJA 3 had made the previous year. The series proved popular enough on home video and cable that four sequels were produced over the next six years.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Gweilo Dojo: FURIOUS (1984)

It seems every other genre flick nowadays wants to be a prefab cult classic. But 99.9% of the time the folks aiming for cult status by making an intentionally bad movie miss the mark. In most cases, cult film status is like fine wine and has to ferment over time. Seeing as how it has been thirty plus years since FURIOUS came out, I think it is safe to anoint this one with cult movie status label. Not only that, but I will declare that FURIOUS is the weirdest martial arts film I’ve ever seen. If you know the genre well enough, you know that is a bold statement.

The film opens with some spectacular (for the low budget) aerial shots of a young Asian woman being chased up a mountain by a trio of goons dressed like extras from JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972). She has a magical tusk that is leading her to some treasure but before she can get to it she is killed and the tusk stolen. Meanwhile, her brother Simon (Simon Rhee) is totally depressed in his little hut as he lights candles next to a photograph of her. A photograph? This isn’t a period piece? Nope, just an early indicator the filmmakers are working on a different level. Simon lives in a village apparently populated only by little kids (“My dream!” says Jared from Subway) and they want want him out of his funk. To do this they invite him out to beat a punching bag and he pounds the hell out of it until it falls off the chain. This depresses Simon even more. By the way, all of these events have unfolded without a single piece of dialogue.

Mongo like tusk:

Anyway, Simon gets a knock at his door and it is one of the mountain goons, who hands him a card written in Chinese. Hell if the audience knows what it says. It leads Simon to a high tech building to meet his mentor, Master Chan (Phillip Rhee). We finally get the first, word of dialogue over 12 minutes in when Chan watches some fighters and says, “Alright.” Turns out Chan knows how to avenge the death of Simon’s sister. It involves a symbol on a series of medallions. Immediately upon leaving the building, Simon meets three old trustworthy friends. I say they are trustworthy because they are white and one dude recognizes the symbol from a local Chinese restaurant. They go there, but the location is closed. However, a group of delivery men carrying chickens show up and a brawl ensues. Only Simon makes it out alive and he heads into the woods to fight the mountain goon.

Okay, so far, so standard for a kung fu movie. Well, hold onto your hats because now it is about to get weird. Simon returns to the restaurant, which is open this time. It is your typical Chinese restaurant in that there is a topless guy vigorously showcasing his weapons skills in the main dining room for two old ladies eating drum sticks. Also, there is a guy in a mask performing magic tricks for a young kid. Simon is brought a big dish and under the lid are the severed heads of two of his friends. But then they zap into roasted chickens. This means war! Simon goes nuts and a full on brawl erupts with Simon throwing bowls of rice at people. Master Chan shows up to help him and they kick ass. It is at this point that I begin to perk up (and wonder if someone slipped something in my drink). After such a taxing battle, Simon and Chan walk on the beach and Chan tells Simon to go home. He doesn’t just tell him, he repeats it over and over, like Simon is a dog or something. “Go home...go home...go home...GO HOME!”

Gives new meaning to the term head cheese:

Simon decides now is the best time to meditate and he goes to a random Buddha statue by a stream in the woods. The thing starts talking to him (!) and offers such advice as “beware of Chan...Chan is eeeeeeevil” and “traveling in the spiritual void can be dangerous.” Honestly, who doesn’t remember having that talk with their parents about the dangers of the spiritual void? So Simon sneaks back to Chan’s headquarters to snoop around. Before he sneaks past the two Devo-looking guards, he sees guys walk out one-by-one carrying a single chicken under their arms. Inside he spies Chan talking to his right-hand man about how Simon is a threat. Oh, he also sees him zap underperforming underlings into chickens. What!? Simon gets spotted and an army of Chan’s men (including a new wave band that is randomly practicing) chase him into - where else? - the woods for a big fight on a wooden bridge. Simon prevails and figures the best way to stop Chan is to recruit all of the young kids from his village. Yes, the man’s first and only plan is to endanger the lives of a dozen children. I like the way you think, Simon. Once back inside, Simon takes on the right-hand man, who shoots fireballs that turn into chickens (!!!) at Simon. Then his nemesis suddenly turns into...wait for it...a pig. WHAT!? Simon kicks the pig in the face and the little ham spills his guts about Chan’s evil plan (done by it appears smearing peanut butter in the pig’s mouth to make it look like he is talking). Simon comforts the dying pig and then confronts Master Chan. It seems Chan’s plan was to have Simon “consecrate each medallion with the aura of death” so he could go to the forbidden Mongolian caves and release the key to the universe. Blah, blah, blah, like everyone hasn’t done that. The two men then fly (!!!?) to the mountain and battle it out.

"Hmmm, I think these directors might be crazy."

FURIOUS came from the (shared?) brain of filmmakers Tim Everitt and Tom Sartori. It was the first writing and directing effort for both men (they are co-credited in each role) and you have to admire the just plain crazy attitude they have. It is never apparent if this is supposed to be serious or an inside joke and when your film has people turning into pigs and chickens, that is quite a master feat. I mean, at one point a brawl breaks out outside of a restaurant and a chef runs out to join in. But not just any chef, but one sporting a foot high chef’s hat. They also have created almost a dream-like world that exists between ancient and modern times. Perhaps they just said screw it and didn’t want to keep it a period piece halfway through, but I can appreciate the randomness. The film was also the first starring roles for the Simon and Phillip Rhee. The Korean-American brothers had studied martial arts since they were kids, with both becoming black belts in Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do. Both men had been background players in the “A Fistful of Yen” segment in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977) and they would go on to co-star/co-create the BEST OF THE BEST series. In between they did this gem. Older brother Simon also did the fight choreography on FURIOUS and he does a rheemarkable job (all complaints about that line should be sent to Tom). I’m not being facetious here - there are some decent fights in this (especially the end showdown with the brothers). It is kind of cool to see their cinematic progression. As it stands, FURIOUS is one of the strangest films I’ve seen all year and that is recommendation enough.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Two-Fisted TV: NIGHTMAN (1997)

Such is the power of Glenn A. Larson, TV producer extraordinaire, who returned from defeat after CHAMELEONS (1989) flopped, with this syndicated, loose adaptation of the Malibu Comics' "The Night Man". Malibu was a small outfit out of Calabasas, California who attempted to create their own little universe of superheroes, including "Men in Black" and "The Night Man," which performed well enough to be picked up by Marvel until it went out of business in '97.  Stan Lee and company liked The Night Man and his stable of strange super-villains so much that they even crossed him over into Marvel's universes, where he was frequently at odds with The X-Men.

"The Night Man" was created and written by Steve Englehart (of "Doctor Strange" fame) and featured a hero who was... wait for it... a jazz saxophonist in San Francisco! Yeah, take that Daredevil, with your cushy job as a mere lawyer in Hell's Kitchen! Our hero, Johnny Domino, was on a cable-car that was hit by a lightning bolt, that turned out to be a moon-ray with some other folks, all of whom develop super powers. These survivors were called "Ultras" (leading to Malibu's "Ultraverse") and while other folks got all mutated, The Night Man's only power was his ability to hear the thoughts of evil doers. He used his martial arts skills, fashioned his own high-tech costume and fought off werewolves, serial killers and a guy held together with metal braces. He also runs a pirate radio station in which he would broadcast his night's work to the city. Got all that? Good, now forget it.

Larson, must have figured that the moderately successful Englehart character was a great vehicle for his own ideas, many of which he carried over from CHAMELEONS. In the two-part NIGHT MAN pilot we meet a '97 Plymouth Prowler driving sax-blower Johnny Domino (Matt McColm) who is invited to play for a VIP tour of SF on a cable car. This attempt at San Francisco-ism is ruined by the fact that it was shot in British Columbia and San Diego, and features a cable car that looks nothing like the iconic cable cars of SF - not even one of the faux cable car tour buses! But I digress. After the cable car is struck by lightning, and Domino can suddenly see visions of evil (instead of hearing evil thoughts as in the comic). His first vision is that a bomb has been placed on the "cable" car in an attempt to kill the Secretary of Defense (James Karen). Domino grabs the bomb and flings it out of the alleged cable car into an old Victorian causing it to explode in a massive CG fireball. Lauded as a hero for saving the Secretary's life, no mention is made of the destruction of a landmark building or whether anyone was home at the time.

Fortunately for Johnny, while he is recovering in the hospital, his doctor calls for a leading psychic researcher (Patrick MacNee) to come in and give Domino some grandfatherly words of encouragement.

As it turns out Mr. Secretary is in SF to try to plug up a leak in which some rogue government agents have stolen some super top-secret military prototypes and are attempting to have a super-secret evil duo sell them to the highest bidder. Interestingly all of the anti-American world powers are represented here, but the Chinese get to do most of the egregious mustache twirling. I seriously doubt that would fly today what with China being our number one foreign sales market for entertainment products. Chinese ambassador, Mr. Chang (Ric Young), is so evil that he not only attempts to kill the other bidders, but decides that the best way to deal with Johnny Domino is to plant a robotic tarantula in his apartment! Double tap to the back of the head? That is so Italian.

After saving Mr. Secretary, Domino becomes a target for the evil doers and hooks up with one of the good government agents (Derwin Jordan) who is trying to recover the hardware. That's got to be embarrassing when after all of your intensive para-military training, you need a San Francisco saxophonist to bail your ass out. In case you haven't guessed, the hardware is a super-soldier suit. Rigged up with a nightvision lens that also functions as a laser-beam, the set also includes a jet-pack belt, a hologram projector, a bulletproof suit, and a cape that makes the wearer invisible (Larson finally gets to use that concept in a successful series), the set is completed with a neutron rifle that will vaporize people leaving only a pile of clothes behind. Naturally only the look of the outfit and the nightvision are the only things that were actually part of the comic, but hey, it's a TV show and viewers want, nay, demand lasers! Of course the bad government agents are still going to bring them all down, even if they have to appropriate a gunship to intimidate them on the highway!

Speaking of things that aren't part of the comic. Veteran actor Earl Holliman plays Domino's father Frank Dominus, an ex-detective who was run off the force due to underhanded politics, which is quite the spin on "The Night Man" comic, in which Johnny's father Frank Dominguez, is a security guard at the ruins of the old San Francisco Playland amusement park (which, in reality, was torn down by a property developer in 1972). This gives Larson a team of characters with which to solve various capers. A young, blonde lead, a black techie, and an old flatfoot. Oh and our government techie hooks up with a radio station DJ who rigs her set up for Night Man's illegal radio reports.

While Matt McColm isn't much of a dynamic personality and the CG effects are occasionally painful, the series is pretty entertaining. It certainly doesn't feel like something made in '97 (references to the Millenium not withstanding), and could have easily been right at home on a network in '87. It was successful enough to last for two seasons and sported guest stars such as Patrick Macnee, Simon MacCorkindale, David Hasselhoff, Bif Naked, Taylor Dayne, Little Richard, and err, Donald Trump (as himself, of course).

Larson must have been satisfied that his invisible cape gimmick finally got put to good use, as he hasn't dabbled in the superhero genre since. That said, a reboot of MANIMAL is alleged to be in the works along with several other of Larson's projects, including the iconic MAGNUM PI. The less said about that, the better.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Cops and Rasslers: TAG TEAM (1991)

Being a (former) wrestling fan sucks. It seems like every other month you will hear about someone dying too young or a legend dying too soon. We got hit with this in the worst way in June and July as the squared circle bid farewell to Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper, respectively. I first got into wrestling in the summer of 1985. Seeing as we had just moved to the Mid-Atlantic area, it was only natural that I gravitate toward the N.W.A. (National Wrestling Alliance), the North Carolina-based promotion run by Jim Crockett.  While a big N.W.A. fan, my favorite wrestler was still Hulk Hogan so I watched WWF programming when I had the chance (we didn't have cable). And if there was any one fighter who could get under my skin, it was Piper. My blood used to boil when Piper would mock or attack someone on his Piper's Pit segment. Remember, this is when I still thought wrestling was real and the fact that Piper could tear my 10-year-old soul into pieces just with his words was a testament to how great an actor he really was. I lost the wrestling bug when we moved back overseas in 1987, but re-caught it in 1998. By then N.W.A. had become W.C.W. under Ted Turner and I still had a loyalty to this brand. I don't know, maybe because they had actual wrestling versus Vince McMahon's ego show. Anyway, one face I was happy to see back in the ring was Piper's.

It is a generally supported truth that athletes make terrible actors. Seriously, watch 10 out of 10 performances by sports folks and 9.5 of them will be terrible (the .5 awarded solely because Brian Bosworth was in STONE COLD [1991]). The major exception was pro-wrestlers. Maybe because their sport required so much acting and interaction with fans that the transition was smoother. Now don't get me wrong, there are still some horrible pro-wrestling actors (Triple H, for example) but, hell, The Rock is one of the biggest box office draws for a reason (even if I don't like that reason). Now we won't be seeing a wrestler win an Academy Award any time soon, but I'd wager the terror that Abdullah the Butcher (see pic above) struck in me when I was a kid was ten times better than anything Anthony Hopkins did in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991).

Anyway, the point is a lot of wrestlers made the great transition to acting and did well. Two who saw success at the same time in the '80s were Piper and Jesse "The Body" Ventura. With both charismatic guys working in this new field, you knew it was only a matter of time before Hollywood threw them together. That happened in the early '90s with the TV pilot TAG TEAM (1991). Wrestling was going through a bit of a cool down phase at this time, but you can almost see some TV exec patting himself on the back as he exclaims, "Wrestling is popular, cop shows are popular. Why not make a cop show with wrestlers?" The ensuing project was independently produced, with co-production duties coming via Touchstone (yes, Disney) Television.

The story focuses on tag team partners Billy "The Body" Youngblood (Ventura) and "Tricky" Rick McDonald, who are introduced preparing for the biggest fight of their careers and they feel like they can beat the Samurai Brothers (played by the WWF tag team The Orient Express). Yes, the show was going with the idea that pro-wrestling matches were legit. Leona Lewis (Shannon Tweed, sporting one of the ugliest outfits I've ever seen), the wife of the boss man Marty, has other plans and tells the duo that if they win that under no uncertain terms they will be "barred for life." Threats ain't got nothing on pride and, after being beaten down via underhanded tactics, our duo rallies back and wins the match. (Side note: this footage was apparently shot at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on March 25, 1990.)  Now barred for life, Billy and Rick find themselves looking for jobs (oddly, they live together in a studio apartment decorated with pictures of themselves). After failing at piano movers and human attack dummies for a female defense group (!), they figure they've struck out and head to buy some groceries. And wouldn't you know it, the store is being held up by four robbers and our grapplers use their ring moves to stop them. When the cops arrive, one officer says these guys would make great cops and *ding* a light goes off. Now I'm not judging the intelligence of these characters, but apparently they didn't think very hard (just like the writers) when trying to come up with job ideas.

Before you can yell Steve Guttenberg, Billy and Rick are enrolled in the police academy in a special group singled out for going straight to undercover work. I'm not sure that is how the police system works, but it allows both men to retain their long hair. Chewing at their heels is Lt. Carol Steckler (Robin Curtis) and comedy relief rival Ray Tyler (Phill Lewis). Meanwhile, professional dog walker Rita Valentine (Jennifer Runyon) witnesses two corrupt detectives kill some narcs in an underground parking garage. She identifies the cops in a line up and is assigned around the clock police protection in the form of Hatch (Mike Genovese) and Harrigan (Raymond O'Connor). When Billy and Rick graduate, they find out that Steckler is now Captain Steckler and running the station they are assigned to. Again, I'm not sure that is how the police system works. Anyway, the first assignment of our two pro-wrestling heroes is to assist in the protection of Rita. This is bad news as the two corrupt cops have found her location and decided to off her before she can testify. Do you think these two rookies will save the day?

Originally scheduled for 13 episodes, TAG TEAM (written onscreen as TAGTEAM) might not be the most original idea, but it is a testament to the charisma of both Piper and Ventura. They have a great rapport with each other and both have their moments, both humorous and dramatic. Piper has always been an incredibly underrated actor and you just need to look at the scene where he is fretting about passing an upcoming police test to see how good he can be. The scenario is ripe for over-the-top histrionics and you could imagine how bad this would have been if someone like Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage ("You're under arrest...oh yeaaaaah!") were in either of the main roles. Both guys appear to be doing their own stunts and that is pretty impressive when you see them doing bumps on hard ground. The fight scenes incorporate their wrestling moves well (the supermarket showdown is a highlight), although it is a bit cheesy when emphasis is put on Piper "tagging in" in the final fight. Unfortunately this dynamic pairing was not to be. TAG TEAM got dumped with a one off showing in January 1991. To add insult to injury, it aired right around the time the Gulf War started so it got even less attention than normal. A shame as I totally would have watched the further adventures of Billy and Rick.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Superham Cinema: CHAMELEONS (1989)

Television has always had a love/hate relationship with comic books. They want to make money off of the tie-in with a product that has a built-in audience, but after the campy antics of the 1966 "Batman" show, they just never really liked the idea of having superhero stuff in their superhero shows. "The Incredible Hulk" (1978) was a mesmerizing show to kids of the '70s, but looking back on it now, it's mostly Bruce Banner trying to cope with life and running from town to town trying to escape his alternate persona. The Hulk makes an appearance once per episode to get Banner out of a jam - such as the threat of some swingers trying to take advantage of a drunken Mariette Hartley (who is quite literally asking for it) in "The Bride of the Incredible Hulk" (1978), but it's not really about Hulk. The failed 1978 pilot for a "Doctor Strange" series went so far as to pretty much dump everything from the comic books except for the fact that Strange is a doctor (though not a surgeon) and occasionally dresses up in an outfit so cheap that he would be laughed out of Comicon.

The 1980s were a rough time for comics as a whole, but TV execs thought that maybe they could bring back the superhero successes of the '70s. It didn't hurt that they could get the rights to these characters for less than a cup of coffee at Spago's. But what if you didn't have to pay a thin dime and come up with your own superheroes? Glen A. Larson, the creator of seemingly everything cool on television in the '70s and '80s, did just that. Putting aside the debatable superhero status of "The Six-Million Dollar Man", Larson started with the short lived "Manimal" in 1983. The premise of the show was of a crimefighter (Simon McCorkindale) who transforms into a variety of wild animals. It wasn't the greatest show ever, but it did get points for originality and the fact that it was a complete pain to shoot as it involved real animals. Larson moved on to another short-lived series with the TRON (1982) inspired "Automan" (1983). Here Desi Arnaz Jr. teams up with a computer created Automan (Chuck Wagner) to bust crime in their high-tech Lamborghini Countach. Larson had a much bigger success with the iconic "Knight Rider" (1982-1986) series which made it mandatory that a tricked-out supercar had to make some sort of appearance in his shows.

Filching an idea from the instant classic comic "The Watchmen" (1986), the pilot kicks off with the death of the hero. Jason Carr (Stewart Granger), the wealthy, eccentric owner of The Los Angeles Post, is secretly a nocturnal crimefighter by the name of The Paraclete of Justice. When presumably not taking naps and medication, Carr rides around town in a motorcycle sidecar with his sidekick Ryan, aka Captain Chamelon (Marcus Gilbert). His arch nemesis is a super-secret organization of evil, known as The Inner Circle, who have enlisted the help of a Hollywood madam to slip him a toxic injection after being captured by corrupt police officers.

As it turns out his two granddaughters, Jessica (Mary Bergman), a deputy DA and Shelly (Crystal Bernard), a southern belle who likes to check herself into a sanitarium and pretend to be a doctor, have been left his entire fortune including a super-secret journal that contains his nocturnal exploits and the names of the members of The Inner Circle. The cops are, of course, on the take and are attempting to get the journal by fair means or mostly foul. Also interested in getting the journal is Ryan who is quit possibly the most undynamic of superheroes in the history of the medium. When Shelly catches him trying to be invisible while getting into Carr's safe he finds he must give her an explanation. He asks her how Carr died (presumably he doesn't get cable in his batcave), which leads to this exchange:
Shelly: "He died of a heart attack."
Ryan: "No. He died in bed with some sleazy hooker!"
Shelly: "He died in bed with some sleazy hooker?!"
Ryan: "That's what the authorities think, but I don't believe it because he was with me!"
Shelly: "My grandfather was in bed with you? That's even more disgusting!"

I'm guessing you may have noticed that this is in fact a comedy superhero show, much like "The Greatest American Hero" (1983), except with fewer smashed windows. Adding to Shelly's cheerful misery is the sleazy managing editor of the paper Philip (Richard Burgi), who is desperately trying to take over the empire, even if that means cheating on his conniving girlfriend. Quickly Shelly discovers that grandfather had a superhero cave with a prototype computerized car named... wait for it... Car-meleon (named so because one of its functions is to change its color at the press of a button). At this point she decides that something must be done about the evil organization, but only if she is in charge. Erm, hijinx ensue.

Crystal Bernard may be best remembered, at least by me, for SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II (1987), is surprisingly likable as a slightly ditzy, rich girl and she delivers her snappy dialogue with great timing and could have easily carried the show. On the other hand, we have Marcus Gilbert who is so completely leaden that he frequently looks as if he stumbled on to the set off the street and is trying to figure out what this "acting" thing is off the cuff. Occasionally it seems as if he could be replaced with a cardboard cut-out and no one would be the wiser. At least until he attempted to speak a line - of which he fortunately has few.

As you may know, or have already guessed, this pilot never cleared the runway. First off, as goofy as it is, I think it really works to a certain extent. It has a post-"Watchmen", pre-"Powers" sort of intentional cartoonishness about it that substitutes the complex drama with freewheeling comedy. That is not to say that we don't get a big explosion filled chase sequence at the end, no, no. Glenn knows his target audience and he knows damn well that they want big boom. Perhaps the superhero action was to be saved for the series as it clearly is setting it up. The final scene has the main characters making a pact to fight evil, implying that they will form some sort of super team. With a solid supporting cast (including John Standing, George Murdock, Tiny Lister, Terry Kiser, Roger Davis and more), in spite of the flaws (Gilbert), I think this would have mad a great series if it had come out the early '80s, before comics discovered their adult audience. In '89, comic books had been picking up steam with serious, mature content for several years. A caped comedy was definitely out of fashion.

Aside from Gilbert's egregious affront to bad TV actors everywhere, the pilot is a lot of fun. You could criticize the Car-meleon as being a K.I.T.T. knock-off that looks far too much like a modified '89 Ford Taurus station wagon, but it's presented more as a satire than Larson carbon copying his biggest hit. In one scene where all of our heroes are packed into Car-meleon and are being assaulted by machine gun fire, they attempt to activate the defense systems which can only be accessed by answering a detailed questionnaire about the details of the situation. This is funny in and of itself, but it also does a nice job sending up the cliche that Larson popularized. In this day and age of oppressively melodramatic comic book films that insist on playing out with more pathos than a Greek tragedy, some goofy superhero satire is a nice way to wipe away the tears after discovering that Batman has gone off his Prozac... again.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Listomania: Thomas' Summer Blizzard of Odd 2015

THE STRANGE SON OF THE SHERIFF (1982): For those of us who live for weird westerns, this Mexican oddity may not be one of the most outlandish, but it certainly lives up to its title.

Set in (as the title card tells us) "West 1890", cold-hearted, iron-fisted Sheriff Jackson (Eric del Castillo) must deliver his own son during an eclipse because the local doctor died of the plague and the doc in the closest town (Mario Almada) has the entire population dying on him. To the sheriff's horror, his son is born deformed. The sheriff keeps his son chained up in a room for seven years until the doctor that refused to help deliver the child comes into town. As it turns out the child is conjoined twins who the sheriff has named "Fred-Eric" (or Frederick). Blaming the doctor for his misfortune, he orders him at gunpoint to separate the twins in spite of the dangers of losing one. Eric dies during the operation and Fred is brought up on his own. The only catch is that Fred is convinced that Eric is still with them and responsible for some odd events, even taking the vengeful father of a hanged son to his grave. A grave on which the sheriff refused to place a cross. This discovery lands the sheriff in court where he is tried for the murder of his son. And this is only the halfway point! Eric's ghost torments people and generally causes a ruckus, occasionally possessing Fred.

Director Fernando DurĂ¡n Rojas, a veteran of over 100 Mexican films, is clearly hampered by a low budget that mainly went into a few bits of cel animation and a set that shakes like an earthquake hit it during some of the supernatural sequences. For the most part he delivers workman-like direction, but occasionally throws in a good, atmospheric shot. Regardless of the technical aspect, if you are looking for strange, this it definitely is. The story is surprisingly unpredictable veering at one point into a courtroom drama before centering its focus back on the supernatural. One of the interesting things about it is Rojas' harsh portrayal of the sheriff hanging a 19 year-old boy in the beginning of the film. The crowd watching the event are clearly shocked and saddened by the event, which is an unusual stance to take in a Western. Usually the concept of a sheriff is rather polarized. The law is right, unless the sheriff is evil in which case justice must be meted out. Here the sheriff is not so much evil, but rather unyielding and selfish, which he realizes before he dies. La Vengadora herself, Rosa Gloria Chagoyan, shows up for a small but important role as the headmistress of an orphanage. Not a classic by any means, but it is an interesting horror/western oddity.

NEZULLA THE RAT MONSTER (2002): What? You've never heard of this one? Me neither, and there is a reason for that. Direct to video Japanese efforts can be hit or miss. A whole lot of miss if the modern goofy/gore shot on video outings aren't your thing. This semi-throwback to the "trapped in a building with a monster" subgenre of the '80s sure seems like a great idea, but writer-director Kanta Tagawa's one and done effort is everything that is wrong with Japanese DTV in 90 minutes.

A group of "American" soldiers, who look oddly Japanese and speak English phonetically, meet up with a Japanese scientist at an abandoned American research lab (in Japan) that is believed to be ground zero for a virus that makes people look like they have plastic novelty vomit stuck to their faces. While the soldiers throw temper-tantrums and generally behave like bratty two-year-olds, they suddenly come to discover that one of their ranks, a catty Japanese woman (who is supposedly American, never speaks English and likes to laugh at her own evilness) is on her own mission. She being the only one who knows about the mutant rat. Apparently the rest of the soldiers have been briefed that they are hunting down regular lab animals. This begs the question, why did they feel it was necessary to bring crates of heavy ordinance?

Apparently the virus that was created in the lab mutated one of the lab rats into an eight foot tall, bipedal reject from a '70s kaiju film, complete with head that waggles side-to-side while it waddles after helpless victims. This actually sounds better than it really is. The bulk of the movie, in addition to the arguing soldiers and a lone noble Japanese warrior who is proudly hunting the monster with a sword, staring death in the face, concerns an angst-ridden doctor who is being forced to intern the afflicted populace and is unable to treat the victims due to military quarantine rules and is secretly in love with his nurse who is secretly in love with him. Oh, the fucking pathos.

I can't fault the movie for putting all of its budget into the monster, but the abandoned building location wears thin fast when you have minimal monster scenes and all of the attacks happen either off screen or just have an actor stand with the monster behind them appearing to give the character a shoulder massage. Apparently they couldn't afford to rent expensive prop weapons either because in an early scene we discover that the crazy traitor has filled their heavy ordinance boxes with wooden logs! Again, why even have them in the first place? This squarely falls under the heading "missed opportunity" and it kind of feels like this label wouldn't bother those involved.

RED EAGLE (2010): Just like America has Batman, Thailand has a vigilante superhero in Red Eagle. Spanning decades of novels, TV and movies, this is the modern updating of the mythos from Wisit Sasanatieng, director of the pop-art western TEARS OF THE BLACK TIGER (2000).

While a politician has turned into a nuke loving dictator after running as an anti-nuke liberal, a vigilante known as The Red Eagle has been brutally annihilating members of the underworld. None of this comfy, cozy tying the crims up for the cops. Nope, Red Eagle has no problem shooting and chopping up over a dozen thugs during a drug deal gone awry. Leaving his calling card at every bloodbath, the cops (a mismatched thai and sikh) are conflicted about whether he should be given a medal or arrested. When Red turns his sights on sorting out two-faced politicians who are involved in unconscionable deeds such as child prostitution and nuclear energy, the pressure is on to nail him. Meanwhile the largest underworld syndicate in the world, the Matulee, who wear demonic masks to hide their identities and have developed a serum that injects flesh-eating nanobots into the victims bloodstream, decide that they have had enough of The Red Eagle and get their own masked assassin The Black Devil.

The film definitely takes a hit for quite a bit of painfully bad CG effects and a script that throws so much at the wall that only those who know the original novels, TV shows and movies will get all of the seemingly random bits of imagery, dialogue and character moments, that just seem poorly fleshed out to the rest of us. On the other hand, there is none of this winky, intentionally campy crap that we have to put up with in so many modern genre movies. It's dark, bloody, fast paced and completely comicbook loony. There is so much straight-faced absurdity taken directly from comic book tradition, that it seems a little cartoony at first. Once you settle into the groove you can enjoy the amusing comic book cliches such as a plucky female reporter is the love interest and the only one who knows Red Eagle's identity, and a sequence where someone took the time to freeze a time-bomb in a block of ice prior to a showdown in an ice-house! That's what comic book villains do, it's not like they have real jobs. Oddly the film ends with a "to be continued" which five years later, it sadly still hasn't been.