Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

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

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Friday, December 11, 2015

December to Dismember: A CHRISTMAS HORROR STORY (2015)

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear? Not one, but two great Christmas horror movies in just this one year!

You know how every year you sit around the yule log, trying to avoid going into epileptic seizures from the Christmas lights and wishing that Santa would bring you a Canadian tax shelter horror movie like back in the '80s? What? Am I the only one? Regardless, those wishes have come true this year. Not only do we get a big budget Charles Band movie with KRAMPUS (2015), but now we have a slickly produced, and much more subversive, anthology from the jolly old elves with the Canadian government.

Three interwoven tales comprise this anthology with the wrap-around "host" of Christmas-lovin' DJ Dangerous Dan (played to perfection by William Shatner in a surprisingly nice hairpiece). Dangerous Dan is hosting a string of Christmas carols while rambling about how great the Season is while spiking his egg nog with some Christmas spirits. He is also dealing with a bitter and angry weatherman Stormin' Norman (George Buza), who is going down to the local mall to cover some local color, but isn't terribly happy about it.

On Christmas eve, we three teens (who are not very wise), decide to investigate the brutal, ritualistic murder that took place at a boarding school one year ago to the day. After watching a secret police video that shows an officer Peters (Adrian Holmes) doing a walk-through of the crime scene, complete with a crucified male corpse, a hanging female and a cryptic bible passage written in blood on the wall. Since the video was taken Peters has been on leave and the trio decide that they need to sneak in and make an investigative video talking about the still unsolved crime. As it turns out, the school was once a catholic nunnery that took in girls who got pregnant out of wedlock. One notorious case was of a girl who died a horrible death after attempting an abortion. After stumbling across what appears to be Joe Spinell's idea of a nativity scene, comprised of crudely made-up mannequins, the group find themselves locked in and slowly starting to go mad. Or is it a malevolent spirit of Christmas trying to manipulate them?

Meanwhile, that same night, officer Peters, his wife Kim (Oluniké Adeliyi) and son Will (Orion John) decide to go out to the woodside and poach a Christmas tree (hey, you can poach animals, why not trees?). Presumably this is due to the fact that Dad has been out of work for a year after hearing voices at last year's crime scene.

While the folks cut down a tree, 8 year old Will hides in a hollow tree trunk and when he comes out, he seems... different. The first clue is that Will is really grumpy. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Christmas dinner consists of spaghetti and meatballs. Seriously, who does that? Oh yeah, the cop who has been out of work because he lost some of his marbles at a crime scene. Fair enough. As the evening goes on things get worse. Will stabs dad in the hand with a fork and checks out mom while she showers (ok, all at once - eeeeeewwww!). Out of nowhere Kim gets a call from a strange old man who tells her that her son is not her son and that things are about to get worse if she doesn't bring the boy back to the grove. Thinking the guy is a fruit cake (yeah, yeah, boo!), it takes some seriously bloody shit for her to start believing that the old codger might be right.

Also meanwhile on that same night, a family of entitled, upper-middle class assholes lead by dad Taylor (Jeff Clarke), head out in a snowstorm to make a four hour trek to visit his estranged aunt Edna (Corinne Conley is excellent old age make-up), who nobody likes. She of course reciprocates this sentiment and is not thrilled to see them show up on her doorstep. Once inside, 12 year old brat Duncan (Percy Hynes-White) intentionally smashes a figurine of Krampus, which causes them to get kicked out of the house where they discover what happens to bad families on Christmas.

Running throughout these intertwined tales is a tale about Santa (George Buza) who is having a problem with the elves. Seems there is an infection spreading throughout the north pole turning happy little elves into demonic imps who refuse to eat cookies and instead want to nosh on flesh. And who can blame them? Santa is remarkably well marbled. Santa has had just about enough of this crap and, with staff in hand, finds himself engaged in a bloody battle to not only rid the workshop of the possessed workers, but save his own skin too. This culminates with a kischy, but not too over the top battle with Krampus himself. So yes, the cover does not lie, in case you were wondering. This also leads to a great twist ending, but I'm trying to keep this as spoiler free as possible. The camerawork and sets for this story in particular are very stylish and surprising for a DTV movie, and even more surprising is that this entry was directed by by Steven Hoban, who has been known for producing, not directing, genre films such as the well-received sci-fi / horror drama SPLICE (2009).

With three different directors (Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan), five writers and stories that overlap characters, things are kept far more interesting than they would have been if they were all padded out to separate films. Matter of fact I'm really surprised that they weren't made into separate films because considering the DTV stuff that's been coming out these days, seemingly even the thinnest of premises can be stretched out to feature length. Because the stories are intertwined, that means that, aside from driving Shane Bitterling crazy, you get all of the endings to all of the stories in the last 20 minutes or so of the film. This mechanic is particularly satisfying as if one of the stories has a weak ending. If you don't like one, there are still three others and one of them, again no spoilers, is pretty damn awesome.

CHRISTMAS HORROR is surprisingly good for a direct to video genre release, particularly when lesser films (how many PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies have their been?) get full, nationwide releases here in the US. Fortunately CHRISTMAS HORROR received publicity that money can't buy. Walmart, in an effort to appeal to their trailer-trash base, would only carry the movie if it were called "A HOLIDAY HORROR STORY". That's right, fearful of the folks who would be furious about a movie that defiles the baby Jesus' fictional birthday, they ironically perpetuated the alleged War on Christmas by replacing the offending word in the title, substituting another word that would give Fox anchors aneurysms. Of course the people who buy horror videos don't give a crap about any of that political rhetoric and mercilessly derided Walmart's fumbling attempt at censorship. The big upside of this is that maybe the extra sales will spur on more quality indy films from Canada Film Capitol. And more drunk Shatner. Definitely more drunk Shatner.

While one story feels like an episode of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, it makes up for its few faults with solid, straight-faced performances from all concerned, plus stand-out performances by George Buza and William Shanter, who is genuinely funny as Dangerous Dan, whose only real danger is embarassing himself on live radio. Stay tuned when the credits roll, as we get some extra footage of Dan attempting to respond to listener calls into the station.

Perhaps my expectations were extra low due to KRAMPUS THE CHRISTMAS DEVIL (2013), but the nice production values, solid acting and lots of practical effects (and Shatner) won me over. Maybe I wasn't so naughty this year after all.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

December to Dismember: KRAMPUS (2015)

Joy to the world, the Krampus has come! Well, sort of.

Back in 2007, Michael Dougherty's Halloween anthology movie TRICK 'R TREAT quietly slipped in under the radar and became something of a cult favorite - and I am using the term "cult" as it was intended, not as a substitution for the word "exploitation". Dougherty's enthusiasm for the genre was tempered with solid performances and a clever script mechanic that has a set of the anthology stories and a wrap-around that are interwoven, instead of being isolated into separate sections and at separate times. Things happen that seem like non-sequiturs, and later you find out how they tie into the story. It was gory, darkly humorous, well acted and unpretentious. It feels like the movie that Anthony Hickox's WAXWORK (1988) should have been.

Aside from a couple of mediocre graphic novel tie-ins with both TRICK 'R TREAT and KRAMPUS, many reports of the off again, on again sequel TRICK 'R TREAT 2, Dogherty has done a whole lot of nothing for the past 7 years (does a FEARnet short count?), but finally returns with a Krampus movie! Well, sort of.

Playing out like a mash-up of GREMLINS (1984), INVADERS FROM MARS (1986), CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989) and a big budget version of DEMONIC TOYS (1992), the story is this time told in a linear fashion (much to Shane Bitterling's relief). An upper-middle class level-headed, loving family (I was going to say "normal", but realized that was a contradiction) in which 12 year old Max (Emjay Anthony) still believes in Santa. With only a couple more days until Christmas, he hurriedly scribbles off a letter to Santa, but doesn't get a chance to mail it before his trailer-trash relatives descend on his house bringing with them a whole mess of passive and overt aggression.

At dinner one of Uncle Howard's (David Koechner) daughters taunts Max by stealing and reading his letter to Santa causing a fight to break out at the dinner table. So upset by this and the rest of the family bullshit, Max rips up his letter and throws it out into the night. No sooner than the wind whips away the bits of paper, than a blizzard hits town killing the electricity, gas and phone service. After his sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) fails to return after attempting to go see her boyfriend down the block, the miss-matched family members begin to realize that something is seriously wrong. Something that alcohol can't fix.

While Max's unbelievably sweet German omi (Krista Stadler) seems preoccupied, perhaps even a little obsessed with tending the fire, we find out that she has been harboring a dark Christmas secret for these many years. When she was a child, Christmas became so awful that she gave up hope of being happy and threw her Santa doll on to the fire wishing that her parents would disappear. That night a blizzard hit the town and a massive, horned devil wearing chains and bells came and took her parents away. Shortly after divulging the details of her secret, evil elves and toys descend on the house picking people off one by one.

As much as KRAMPUS is not the follow-up to TRICK 'R TREAT that people were hoping for from Dougherty, it is a solidly played and slickly executed little film. Koechner plays his patented bombastic asshole and even the kids nail their parts. The thing that really hurts the film for someone who enjoyed TRICK 'R TREAT is that it is feels like a Spielburg production that went missing in the '80s. On the one hand this is a good thing because the film is played completely straight and the bits of humor that are in the film come from the characters and situations and not the filmmakers winking and pointing out that they are making a stupid movie and don't take it seriously. It also doesn't flop to the opposite end of the spectrum and play out with exaggerated emotions and over-long sequences dwelling on people crying in anguish (what I like to call "crying porn"). It also is not over-produced. The CGI is used appropriately with only one obviously computer generated sequence. These things, without question, put this movie heads above the usual horror fodder that hits multiplex screens these days.

Unfortunately, after enjoyably setting the stage, the film fumbles the horror element. The PG-13 rating is probably the softest PG-13 film in recent years. If this had been released with a PG rating in the early to mid '80s, it would have been a relatively soft PG. If you are expecting the dark, bloody antics of TRICK 'R TREAT you will not be with KRAMPUS. The horror elements are not scary to an adult, but to an 8 year-old audience, it's probably right on target, which is fine because this is definitely aiming for "dark family movie" territory much like GREMLINS did.

Annoyingly the title character is barely even in the movie. You get quick glimpses of him through-out the film, but it is his minions that do all of the dirty work. While the minions (and the big K himself) are mostly practical effects, they tend to look like Japanese noh masks with no articulation at all. They are cool to look at, but by the end of the movie, they start looking like people in costumes. On the other hand, at least we don't have scenes of Kramps roaring into the camera with CGI spittle flying everywhere.

While personally I prefer THE REF to A CHRISTMAS STORY when it comes to subversive Christmas movies, KRAMPUS is a great little film if you are out to see a big budget PUPPET MASTER (1989), but it could have been edgier.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

December to Dismember: KRAMPUS THE CHRISTMAS DEVIL (2013)

Since we all know that Christmas is actually a pagan holiday and not Christian at all... Wait, let me rephrase that. Since we all, who are not members of the Republican party, know that Christmas is actually a pagan holiday and not Christian, it only makes sense that there is more to the myth than just a jolly old bearded fat guy. Matter of fact he was never really a fat guy until he came to the New World and, from what I understand, ordered his first combo meal.

The origins of the holiday had no patron saint at all. It was a Roman festival called Saturnalia, that allowed all manner of harm to people or inanimate objects to run free without penalty of law. Frequently this entailed heavy drinking, eating, sexual indulgence (consensual or otherwise), and culminated in ritual human sacrifice in the belief that this would purge the evils from the rest of the year. Even worse, people were encouraged to sing naked in the streets (presumably after the heavy drinking). When Christianity began it's campaign of opiating the masses, the festival underwent a name change to Christmas and decided to arbitrarily attribute Jesus' birthday to it, but was unsuccessful in changing the behavior of the celebrants. In the 1600s Christmas was actually outlawed by the Puritans, as they knew damn well Christmas had nothing to do with Christ. Be sure to remember that the next time you hear some assnugget bitch about Starbucks cups.

Several hundred years after the Christian revision of the holiday, a Turkish Saint was thrown into the mix, in another attempt to change the nature of the holiday. Be good all year and Saint Nicholas will bring you some fruit. Hmmm, get hammered, eat too much and screw everything that moves for two weeks, or get a fruit-basket on one day. Tough call. Because lawmaker Sir Issac Newton decreed that any action requires an equal and opposite reaction, we know that Christ must have an anti-Christ. Or as Butthead said, "you need stuff that sucks to have stuff that's cool". So we have St. Nicholas who gives edible prezzies to the good little kids, but in parts of the German-speaking world (where else?) the anti-Santa is Krampus. Originating in the 1600s, Krampus is a horned demon with cloven hooves and long tongue who whips naughty children with birch branches and throws them into a basket worn on his back to take them to hell, or in some cases to be drowned. I bet there were some really well behaved kids in Vienna. No wonder Freud got his start there. While Krampus was popular through as late as the 1950s, his popularity fell away during our modern times... until now.

A whole host of Krampus movies have descended upon our allegedly enlightened civilization this year, but the first modern attempt at a feature-length Krampus movie, aside from the appearance in the excellent RARE EXPORTS (2010), was released two years earlier.

Fair Warning: I know this is going to sound like entertaining cheese, but I assure you it is not. Really not. Because of this, I am spoiling the shit out of it.

Opening in 1983 a little boy is slowly dragged off to a hole in the ice where a figure in a Santa hoodie dumps the kid in the icy water and promptly wanders off, not noticing that the kid simply hops out of the water and goes home.

Flash forward to present day, where the little boy is now police detective Jeremy Duffin (A.J. Leslie), aka "Duff" (as in the beer?), who is all keyed up about a rash of child disappearances.

Working on his own time in a special missing persons room that all good cops have, Duff has discovered that the disappearances are not just local, but have been happening all over the world every 10 years. Of course his captain (Richard Goteri) is more concerned about another kid that has reported missing this morning. So urgent is this that Duff jumps on it, by putting together his team of AMERICAN CHOPPER rejects that night at a bar, so that they can go out in the morning to look for the kid. Remember this is urgent so we want to get started while the trail is fresh... a full day later! Basically Duff's planning consists of telling the guys to only have two beers, then going home and hitting a bottle of whiskey while looking at his missing chidren's posters. Oh and because he is supposed to be a rich guy who is only a cop because he loves the job, he drinks the good stuff - Gentleman Jack. Yeah, I too thought that was the shit too, back when I was a teenager.

With planning like that how can this search fail? A team of three guys, no dragnet, no dogs, no back up. Oh, and they are all dressed in black, but to help them camoflauge themselves against the bright, white field of snow, they wear big snow-camo shirts under their flack jackets. Oh jeeze, where did they go? It's like they are invisible. Uhhh, yeah. So while trudging through a small patch of snow suddenly they see a dude in a robe with long hair who simply turns around and walks away as soon as the boys start shooting. He then shows up out of nowhere, promptly kills one by stepping on his face and takes the other two to his lair. Yes, Krampus has a lair. It's not a bad lair, as lairs go, I mean he's got plenty of books to pass the time and what appears to be an exotic dancer (Angelina Leigh) chained up for when he gets tired of reading.

Krampus talks like a Speak & Spell fronting for a '90s death metal band and realizes that Duff is the little kid that got away from him 20 years ago. Before he gets a chance to kill him, Santa (Paul Ferm) arrives. Or at least I think it's Santa. It must be some sort of pre-christian Santa as I have never seen one in modern times that has a goatee and raccoon eyes from wearing sunglasses. Santa decides that there is more important matters to attend to, because Duff's daughter is actually a serial killer who has been the cause of the missing children. WHAT?! Yep, after a long lecture to a little boy in a wooden cage, Santa says "if you ever do anything like this agian, HE is going to terminate your life!" and lets them go.

So this is when the Krampus action is going to kick into gear, right? Kramps is obviously going to settle his vendetta with Duff and capture the killer kid, right? Right? Right? Nope! Now Duff heads over to his favorite bar, where he gets his ass kicked by a bunch of cops who are mad at him for getting the other two guys killed because he had a hunch back at the office (ah, POLICE SQUAD, how I miss you). Though, I guess they never realized that the fact that the two cops were killed proves that his hunch was correct and maybe they should have gone with him. While this is going on, an ex-con child-rapist, Brian Hatt (Bill Oberst Jr.), has seen one too many home invasion movies and with his white-trash friends, one of whom is so much of a badass, he hasn't had time to finish the tribal tattoo on his arm, holds Duff's wife Rebecca (Erica Soto) hostage while he noisily eats cookies and drinks milk in her face. Forget waterboarding, this shit is torture! One of his buddies goes upstairs to rape the teenage daughter. This must be the first time he's done it because he decides the best way to go about it is to, I am not making this up, lie down on the floor in front of her!

Of course Duff arrives to save the day asking his wife "did they hurt you" to which she responds "no" simply because she hasn't seen the finished cut of the movie. Kramps arrives late to the party, strangles Hatt with his hands, strangles Rebecca with his chains, grabs the daughter and roll credits. No seriously that's it. Oh except we still need to pad out the running time some more, so let's do a blooper reel in the end credits. Note that I didn't say "with" the end credits, because we need to pad out even the padding! Interspersed with the slowly appearing credits are some outtakes that I'm sure were hilarious if you were one of the guys in the movie, but otherwise are random bits of unamusing nonsense. The highlight being when Leslie stumbles during a take and then turns it into a breakdancing routine. Uhhh, yeah.

This movie is essentially a weekend, back yard, shot on video affair that puffs itself up to be like a real movie with great poster art and lots of pretentious titles, like putting "A Jason Hull Film" in the opening credits. In addition to production values that are outclassed by the Zapruder film or any modern wedding video, writer/director Jason Hull can barely even figure out how to stretch the meager content to a feature running time. Did I mention relentless padding? The drawn-out opening sequence is interspersed with credits managing to rack up an impressive eight minutes of your life. Hull lets some scenes go on way past the cut-away point by encouraging his actors to repeat simple lines, presumably in order to lengthen the scene. Nearly every scene has someone saying something like "Understand? Do you understand? Understand? Understand?" or "Get him! Get the fucker! I want you get him! Get him!" It's like having your teeth cleaned at the dentist - at first it is tolerable, but after a while you just want a mouth to shut.

In addition Hull eschews cut-aways in favor of the amateur favorite fade-outs and fade-ins. Some of these fades are so long that I expect a commercial hawking Burl Ives albums to start up at any minute. The cynic in me wonders if the long periods of black between scenes is simply another way to pad the movie, but after sitting through the umpteenth out of focus sequence, I realize that it's just sloppy incompetence. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but if you are shooting on video you have no excuse for leaving in out of focus shots, or in one case, an entire scene!

Of course having this effort professionally distributed and purchased by the unsuspecting masses (Amazon is actually sold out at the moment) means that we've all been very naughty and Krampus is giving us something horrible next year. A sequel. We must have been really naughty to deserve such punishment.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

December to Dismember: ICED (1988)

Any ‘80s slasher film aficionado is eventually going to hit rock bottom. Once you’ve seen all the FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN sequels, PROM NIGHT (1980), HELL NIGHT (1981), MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981) and the like you will end up with the random ones you somehow never caught. Sometimes it can be great (ALONE IN THE DARK [1982]), sometimes it can be downright bizarre (HOME SWEET HOME [1981]) and sometimes is can be the soul sapping sights of films like SCREAM (1981), SATAN’S BLADE (1984) or NAIL GUN MASSACRE (1985). Films so bad that the only slashing you want to see is your own wrists to end the tragedy. Skating just barely into the latter category is ICED (1988), the only 80s slasher set in the ultra-fascinating world of ski bums. Yay?

The film opens with a bunch of friends on New Year’s Eve egging on Cory (Doug Stevenson) to challenge Jeff (Dan Smith) to a skiing competition. After all, Jeff claims to have ridden the Alps and such hallowed claims must be taken with all seriousness in this shred or be shredded world. Also, both men have their eyes on Trina (Debra DeLiso), a ski bunny of the highest order. Cory wins (after Jeff tried to trip him up, of course) and Jeff consoles himself in the bar complaining to an unseen friend that the crew “question my integrity as a skier.” The horror! Maybe they should question your sanity because Jeff bursts into Jeff and Trina’s room in an alcohol-fueled rage when he hears grunts and groans. Turns out they were just playfully arm wrestling (really!). This sends Jeff over the edge literally as he suits up and skis the hills to his death.

Four years later all of the principal players are invited to spend a free weekend at the new ski resort Snow Peak. Making the journey along with the now married Cory and Trina are couples John (John C. Cook) and Diane (Elizabeth Gorcey), Eddie (Michael Picardi) and Janette (Lisa Loring) and single dude Carl (Ron Cologie). We know Carl is trouble because he is 1) single 2) has a tiny ponytail and 3) he is named Carl. Yup turns out he is the dirtbag coke head of the group. Everyone else is upstanding, as shown by this dialogue that establishes John as a caring pediatrician.

Diane: “He has a three year old with a severe case of diarrhea.” 
John: “It gets to me. It really does. Skiing is my medicine.” 

The invites to the snowy getaway came from Alex Bourne (John Alan Joseph, who also wrote the script). He is running the business with his dad and would totally love to get the feedback from these bros and gals. Okay, stop right there! Freeze! Hands in the air, Mr. Joseph. Are you really giving viewers a scenario where everyone being stalked was shown onscreen in the opening and you are only adding one new character? Gee, I wonder who that mystery person Jeff was talking to earlier was. SPOILER: Yep, ol’ Alex was “bourne” (haha) to get revenge for his pal that died on the slopes four years ago. Goddamn, Joseph, you weren’t even trying. Then again he wrote a dinner scene where one person describes b-movies as “flicks where the only time you watch the screen is if there is someone naked or someone getting killed or both.” I’m watching a dinner scene, goddammit! Anyway, the folks slowly get offed (and I mean slooooowly) before we get the final girl stumbling around (she gets points for doing most of the final chase in the snow in her underwear).

Filmed in the wilds of snowy Utah, ICED should have been a better damn movie. After all, the winter wonderland has proven to be a fantastic setting for other killers in GHOSTKEEPER (1981) and SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT (1984). But, as mentioned above, Joseph’s script is severely lacking. They mystery is nonexistent and chances are you will guess the killer wayyyyy before any of the dolts in here. Instead you get lots of meandering dialogue about people wondering what other people are doing. On the plus side this film does feature the first death by icicle I can think of, several years before DIE HARD 2 (1990) and CLIFFHANGER (1993). In fact, I’d wager that the whole genesis of this film probably came from a weekend of skiing that Joseph and director Jeff Kwitny had where they saw a big icicle and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if in a movie someone was killed by that?” Other than that the film’s only real point of interest is some of the nudity. DeLiso goes all in during the prologue’s surprisingly risque makeout session and Loring - who was the original Wednesday Addams on THE ADDAMS FAMILY in the 1960s - provides a nude death scene later in the film where her nude frozen body is found dead in the hottub. Here is a framegrab of it to save you 86 minutes. You owe me $5.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Satanic Panic: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

Sorry for the lack of reviews on my end as of late, but I’ve just not been feeling motivated to writing up anything. It seems it has to be something really special to get me to put fingertips-to-keyboard (like my last review for FURIOUS [1984]). Well, I finally stumbled upon something to wipe that gloom away in EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990), the insane second film from low budget auteur Steve Barkett.

Barkett might not be a household name in the real world, but in cult film circles he is known for his over-the-top self financed star vehicle THE AFTERMATH (1982). A post-apocalypse flick of the highest order, it starred Barkett as an astronaut who returns to earth after a nuclear holocaust and then wages war with a gang led by Sid Haig. What is not to love there? I can’t remember exactly when I first saw THE AFTERMATH, but I definitely remember it was in the context of Tom telling me, “Dude, you have to see this!” It is first and foremost an ode Oklahoma native Barkett made to himself, but it is also a entertaining-as-hell flick filled with tons of action and special effects. Is it a masterpiece? No. But it is damn sure entertaining. For years we’ve always wanted to see his sophomore effort, but it was really hard to find and possibly never released. So imagine my surprise when I found out that VCI Entertainment released EMPIRE OF THE DARK on DVD-R this past spring.

The story opens with police officer Richard Flynn (Barkett) getting a call from his old flame, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), where she tells him she needs to talk about her latest beau. Turns out she has the age old “I accidentally left you for a Satan worshipper” relationship regrets. Flynn heads to the warehouse where she is being held and is attacked by some monsters in hooded robes (shades of PHANTASM [1979]) before discovering an opening to hell. Inside there Angela and her baby are being lined up for sacrifice by her new man, Brian, and the cult leader, Arkham (Richard Harrison). And when I say lined up, I really mean it as Arkham lifts the knife high and sloooooowly lowers it, only to lift it up again to repeat it in the world’s slowest sacrifice. I guess he is a proponent of the “measure twice, cut once” carpentry rule. Anyway, Flynn gets there with only one bullet left in his gun so he has to decide who to save. He shoots Brian in order to save the baby and Angela gets stabbed so Flynn beats Arkham to death. In her dying breath, Angela asks Flynn to save her baby and he does as the confines of hell collapse around him.

Fast forward twenty years and things have changed quite a bit. Flynn is no longer on the police force (he now works as a bounty hunter), he trains sword fighting for some reason, and, more importantly, he has grown a mustache. Naturally, this makes him irresistible to the ladies as Barkett has himself the object of two ladies’ affections (reporter Stacey Brent and a sword trainer) in back-to-back scenes. Meanwhile, Flynn’s old partner, Eddie Green (Jay Richardson), gets a visit from a young guy named Terry Nash (Christopher Barkett). Terry wants to find Flynn because of some strange things afront. There have been two attempts on his life and Terry recently took a photograph of Arkham and Brian alive and well. Green agrees to introduce them and they find Flynn at a local grocery store (literally the line is “Oh, look, there’s his car.”). Good timing as Flynn just tracked a criminal wanted by the FBI into this store, so Green and Nash get to see Flynn’s full badass-ness on display. Imagine the grocery store shootout from Stallone’s COBRA (1986) done by your local theatre troupe.

Meanwhile, our fearless reporter Stacey Brent (Patricia Schiotis) has been tracking down this cult for...jeez, I don’t really know why. Oh yeah, there has been a series of murders every full moon that the press has dubbed the “Demon Slasher.” We get to see one attack on necking couple, which offers this amazing dialogue exchange.

Girl (hears sound): “What was that?”
Guy: “It’s just my shorts expanding.” 

Stacy visits old man Guy Zupan (DAY OF THE DEAD’s Joe Pilato, made up to look old by frosting his hair white) - whose daughter was killed by the cult - and psychic Madame Oleska (Dawn Wildsmith, the former Mrs. Fred Olen Ray). The group is apparently called The Perennials (not to be confused with Millennials) and they are immortal “soldiers of Satan” that have a direct bloodline to ol’ Beelzebub.  Flynn meanwhile (we’ve got a lot of “meanwhile”s in this flick) thinks all this “Arkham is back from the dead” business is hogwash. Because that is, you know, crazy. You’d think a dude who went to hell and back might be a little more open minded. Of course, he does finally go all in when he finds out that Terry is the baby he saved twenty years ago (apparently after getting out of hell he dropped it off at a convent was all like, “Hey, your problem now.”). Not only that, but he learns that Terry is also his son. This results in a hilarious scene where a nun says, “Doesn’t he look familiar” and it slowly dawns on Flynn. I mean slowly. With the realization that hell is about to be opened, Flynn, Nash, and Green do what must be done - they get some sword training in so they can head back into hell and stop this cult before they take over the world.

Like THE AFTERMATH, this flick is one big Steve Barkett vanity piece. Again he assumes the roles of actor-writer-producer-editor-director. And again he also casts his son Chris (having grown up quite a bit from THE AFTERMATH) in the piece. It is hilarious how much they look alike and I about died when they had separate scenes where they answered the phone in bed looking like this:

And, of course, you know when Barkett is looking for someone to play a handsome stud that all the women fall for, he is going to cast his favorite actor - Steve Barkett (sporting a toupee that oddly recreates his thinning hairline from eight years previous). But, damn it, I’m glad he cast himself in this role as it makes it all the more entertaining. I can’t tell you the number of times he did a wide-eyed stare (see various pics). And he is up for the challenge - running through the wilds of Hat Creek, California kicking demons in the face. The last half hour is non-stop action in hell as Barkett punches, shoots and slices every little demon minion he can get his hands on. Sure, Barkett isn’t going to win any acting awards for sure or be mistaken for Clint Eastwood, but goddamn it, he is entertaining as hell.

Speaking of awards, it might shock you the number of folks who worked on this (and THE AFTERMATH) that had some very incredible credits. Musician John W. Morgan delivers another score like THE AFTERMATH that sounds like it belongs in a 1930s serial; he went on to work on stuff like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005). The orchestra was conducted by William T. Stromberg, son of William R. Stromberg (THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER [1977]), who has also had a long career. Effects legend Jim Danforth - twice nominated for his work on 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964) and WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970) - does some sword fighting in here. Bret Mixon, twin brother of FX artist Bart Mixon, does some of the cool rotoscoping animation. And, finally, the film is photographed by the aforementioned William R. Stromberg and and his other son, Robert Stromberg. They use a lot of miniatures, matte painting, some stop motion and forced perspective shots to create hell and the demon. Robert Stromberg went on to win multiple Emmys (for STAR TREK, JOHN ADAMS, and BOARDWALK EMPIRE) and Oscars (for AVATAR [2009] and ALICE IN WONDERLAND [2010]) for his visual effects work. I’m not sure why but the fact that one guy worked on EMPIRE OF THE DARK and AVATAR fills me with so much joy. It is fitting that this was finished around 1990 as this film is kind of the last gasp of this kind of DIY independent effects filmmaking (that sort of started with EQUINOX [1970]) and if you dig this kind of stuff, you’ll enjoy the hell out of it. A blast from start to finish, EMPIRE OF THE DARK is already on my list of best films I’ve seen this year. Of course, it isn’t as good as TERROR SQUAD (1988). Nothing is as good as TERROR SQUAD.