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!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Halloween Havoc: SEYTAN (1974)

Over the last several decades the foreign knock-offs of Hollywood films have been almost an industry unto itself. In the late '70s and '80s we got a deluge of films that were inspired by Hollywood hits, but many were only that: "inspired by". Lucio Fulci's celebrated gorefest ZOMBI 2 (aka ZOMBIE, 1979) was intended by the producers to be a loose sequel to George Romero's undead classic DAWN OF THE DEAD (aka ZOMBI, 1978). Of course, as we all know, the only thing the producers really cared about was being able to advertise it as a sequel and left Fulci to do whatever the hell he wanted. It was great for the producers who cashed in on the title, it was great for Fulci who got to make a throwback to old school zombie movies (albeit with a staggering amount of gore for the time) and it was great for us, the anti-social deviants, who got to see something gruesomely spectacular that set trends in cinema that continue to this day. The trend of rip-offs have become even bigger in scope with major Hollywood studios using a film's built-in name recognition to sell a new film. Of course, now we euphemistically call them "reboots".

THE EXORCIST (1973) was one of the biggest, earliest Hollywood hits that inspired imitations around the globe. In spite of the fact that William Freidkin and William Peter Blatty's vision was not intended as a horror film, it was so intense that not only did it make a lasting impression on viewers, it became widely circulated in the press that the movie could literally cause mental illness in normally stable individuals. Several psychiatrists wrote papers on, not only the presumed effect of seeing the movie, but published actual case notes regarding the treatment of individuals who have been driven to varying degrees of madness by the film. One such paper established that the media coverage on television alone was enough to cause a 24 year-old father to be unable to sleep, develop a suspicion of strangers, experience sympathetic neck stiffness (from Regan's head-turn) and experienced undue stress that his 5 year-old daughter might actually be possessed. Having seen some pretty disturbing behavior out of children in public places these days, I wouldn't completely rule out that out. This was, or rather still is, referred to as "Cinematic Neurosis," which what I intend to name my first child. More discussion of this phenomenon can be found in this vintage 20 minute made-for-television documentary.

It is this sort of quasi-quackery along with claims that it was based on the documented 1949 case of Robbie Mannheim ("Roland Doe"), that illustrates just what kind of cultural impression the movie had in 1973. The monument of the impact was partially due to the fact that a mere five years earlier in 1968, the extremely conservative Hays Code was dismantled in favor of a similar version of the current rating system that we have today. The ratings system gave a lot more leeway in terms of sex, violence and "adult themes". While there were plenty of horror movies in the '60s, a majority of them were either aimed at children, or were micro-budget affairs that were carried around the country in the back of the filmmaker's car. THE EXORCIST was a big budgeted film (for the time), weighing in at $65 million in today's dollars. This was a sharp contrast to a majority of horror films that were being made for thousands of dollars. The film was a deadly serious speculation on the dark side of religion in a time where people were starting to move away from the church. With beautiful cinematography, a hauntingly memorable score, an excellent cast and Dick Smith's groundbreaking effects, it became the highest grossing film of all time, and still one of the highest horror films, until it was dethroned by JAWS two short years later. It is also the first horror film nominated for an Oscar (10 nods in all), with Blatty taking one home. Barring ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968), it was arguably the advent of the big studio exploitation pictures that have evolved to completely dominate American theatrical releases. It was an event that will never again be repeated in cinema. Naturally, since it was such a big pie, everyone wanted a slice. Preferably with extra cheese.

For some reason the Italians saw this film as a springboard to sexually sleazy films frequently featured a demon possessing a nubile girl who would develop a bad attitude and an extreme aversion to clothing, such as Franco Lo Cascio and Angelo Pannacciò's CRIES AND SHADOWS (aka EXORCIST III, 1975). Italy also used concepts from THE EXORCIST and ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) as a springboard to utterly strange, almost surreal films like Ovidio G. Assonitis' BEYOND THE DOOR (1974). Spain was in the game with the fan favorite, Amando de Ossorio's THE POSSESSED (aka DEMON WITCH CHILD, 1975). There are many other interesting ripple effects through global cinema as well, but then there is Turkey.

I'm sure by now we are all familiar with Turkish cinema of the '70s and '80s. Heavily influenced by Hollywood, but unlike the Italians who are obsessed with artistic expression even when making no-budget knock-offs, the Turks are pretty blatant in their liberties. Almost like Hollywood does now, the Turks would shoot a literal remake of the film in question, except with a minuscule budget that often relied on stealing special effects footage and musical scores from other films.

Sometimes these remakes offer up an engaging alternate version, such as the DEATH WISH (1974) remake EXECUTIONER (aka CELLAT, 1975), which still features an architect with some serious family drama, but allows it to play out in a way that doesn't feel like a shot-for-shot remake. On the other end of the spectrum we have SEYTAN. Turkey's quick and dirty EXORCIST clone that makes absolutely no bones about remaking the original almost scene for scene.

An old priest (Agah Hün) in a padre cordobes hat finds what appears to be a high-school talent show project in the middle of an archaeological dig in the desert, though unlike THE EXORCIST, the archaeological dig is basically a couple of guys digging in sand.

In short order we meet Ayten (Meral Taygun), a single mother who lives in an upscale two story house with a conveniently long staircase leading up to it. While she plays a lot of tennis, like all white Americans do, her pre-teen daughter Gul (Canan Perver), who apparently spends most of her time in bed, has been playing with a new game that allows her to communicate with the spirit world. The game is basically a Ouija board that looks handmade, but not in artisanal way. Kevin Tenney would spin in his grave. Well, he would if he were dead, anyway. Of course when mom wants to play the game, nothing happens, which Gul cheerfully explains is because "Captain Lersen" (who?) wouldn't like it.

Hearing weird noises in the attic that sound vaguely like frozen plumbing but are suggested by the cook to be mice, Ayten investigates and conveniently finds a book titled (deep breath) "Seytan: Soul Abduction and Exorcism Ceremony Under the Light of the Modern Opinions about Mental Illness." The book is written by the Father Karras substitute, Tugrul Bilge (Cihan Ünal), a med school drop-out who is writing faith-based supernatural non-fiction about stuff that he doesn't have any belief in. Pity the fool who gets cornered by that guy at a party. Oh and his mother is losing it and is locked in a mental asylum. Not to miss out on any clinical moment Gul is taken to a doctor who says he wants to perform cranial surgery in order to "clean the wound on her brain." Unfortunately for the doctor, the x-rays show nothing wrong. For some reason I feel like I've seen this before.

Sort of like a cover band butchering all the classics, SEYTAN is happy to simply rehash many memorable scenes from the original, some of them verbatim. There is a potential boyfriend, Ekrem (Ekrem Gökkaya), who ends up pretending to be the baby carriage in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925), just as the character Burke Dennings did in the original. We have a scene where Regan - err, I mean Gul walks down the stairs during a party and pees green gunk all over her feet. There is a scene where Gul's top is up and we see "help me" written (in Turkish) on her stomach in what appears to be street make-up. Of course there is the head-turning sequence, but since there is no Turkish Dick Smith, it is done simply by having the actress moving her head inside a false body. There is also a police inspector, originally played by Lee J. Cobb, who is convinced that Ekrem's death was not a freak accident, but of course he doesn't have a shred of proof, nor does he really have much to do with the movie other than show up once or twice, smoke some cigarettes, ask a few questions and exit stage left. If you felt like it, you could criticize THE EXORCIST of reducing the part down to an almost inconsequential figure, from the character in Blatty's novel. Even so, it's clearly a part included in SEYTAN in order to ape the original. Even the scene where Ellen Burstyn's character is hysterically trying to get through to her ex-husband in Rome on the phone is recreated, though it could have easily been tossed out or replaced with something else.

SEYTAN is almost a proto Jan Debont exercise, shuffling around a few story elements, but largely keeping the movie a condensed version of the original made on a budget so minuscule that it would cause Al Adamson to throw his hands up in despair. Even the theme is a re-edit of Mike Oldfield's iconic work, though this should surprise absolutely no one. Directed by Metin Erksan, who made films in Turkey in a six decade long career since the mid '50s, apparently felt that artistic expression doesn't put the kebab on the table. This is particularly ironic as Erksan, who passed away in 2012, was also, and I'm not making this up, a formally educated art historian. Yep, the guy who pounded out this ultra-cheap and blatant ripoff not only knew his art, but was once an award-winning director who specialized in character dramas that detailed the hardships of life in Turkey. That must have been one expensive swimming pool.

As mentioned, there are a few places where writer Yilmaz Tumturk, who has apparently only written five films, stumbles off the path into his own special place of virtual parody. One of the best bits where Tumturk attempts to recreate the original, is a scene where a pretentious hypnotist tries to put Gul under in order to find out why she's acting like Donald Trump on a cocaine and mescal bender. After fussing around with a crystal on a chain, he contacts Captain Lersen and is rewarded with a sharp punch in the "tubular bells". Not content with the original's gruesome crucifix scene, here Gul is in bed not with a crucifix - I'm guessing a largely Muslim audience is not going to be able to relate to that - but a letter opener with a demonic face! Violently masturbating with a cross may be incredibly subversive, but the letter opener is a pretty nasty image. In a similar note, when the old man in the hat shows up to exorcise the demon, instead of holy water, he shakes some "zamzam water" on her! The horror. Actually it's just Islam's version of holy water taken from the Zamzam Well in Mecca. Thanks for ruining my fun with facts Google.

Amusingly the IMDb states that SEYTAN is a "version" of William Girdler's EXORCIST knock-off ABBY (1974). Both released in the same year, Girdler's black cast film filches plenty of moments from Friedkin's classic, but manages to make plenty of deviations as well. For one, the main character is an adult female marriage counselor instead of a privileged white child allowing for crazy scenes in places like a disco. Honestly when you think "demonic possession", who doesn't think "disco"? Girdler's film, like many other films that capitalized on the unmitigated success of THE EXORCIST, doesn't feel the need to follow the original step by step and is all the better for it. If SEYTAN had gone to crazy town a bit more often and relied less on coloring between the lines, it could have been a cult classic in the truest sense of the phrase. I feel kind of bad comparing a multi-million dollar, iconic Hollywood film to a poverty-stricken foreign remake, but as it stands, it is a pretty weak facsimile of the original with a few fun moments.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Strung Out on Slashers: FATAL EXPOSURE (1989)

You know how there are video boxes that you've seen countless times in Ye Olde Days of VHS but never rented? This is one of mine. The reason for this, I realize now, is that the box art make it appear to be one of those thrillers that is heavy on the romance and light on everything else. As it turns out, this is only partially true. Not to be confused with the 1991 Mare Winningham made-for-TV thriller, this is a prime cut of shot-on-video splatter that easily trumps over-exposed entries such as CANNIBAL CAMPOUT (1988). Yeah, I know that bar is pretty low.

A presumably studly, young photographer (Blake Bahner looking like Lou Ferrigno's less Hulky brother) who has just inherited a big, southern-plantation style mansion off in the middle of nowhere near a town in the middle of nowhere, called Prairieville. After a couple of simple minded church folk go to welcome him to the town, we find out that his name is Jack T. Rippington and (in case you couldn't guess) his great grandfather was Jack the Ripper. Continuing in the family business, Jack arranges for people to come to his house so he can photograph them while killing them in the most brutal ways he can imagine.

His first victim is a couple who have apparently never seen an 80's slasher flick because they are having sex in their car parked in the woods, which as we all know is a bad idea. After Marybeth (Julie Austin), tells her amorous boyfriend Jay (Dan Schmale) to check out a suspicious sound (another bad idea), Jay just blows it off saying "it's probably just Kevin." So, wait. You told your friend that you were going to be getting some action, and then told him where and what time?! Before we get the chance to find out why the hell Jay would want Kevin to come a-knockin' when the car is a-rockin', a killer with an ice pick makes quick work of Jay and chases a topless Marybeth through the woods before finally catching her and... asks her three questions? Yep, our ice pick has an inquiring mind and wants to know:
"Are you obsessed with dying?"
"What do you think when you hear the word 'blood'?"
"Have you ever considered murdering someone?"
"Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about... your mother."
Ok, he doesn't actually ask that last one, but what the hell is with this guy? I was waiting for him to roll in a couch and bust out some Rorschach ink-blots. After getting all the wrong answers, Jack shoves the ice pick down in her mouth causing her to choke up about a quart of blood before dying. Yep, the first scene of the movie has a topless girl getting a phallic instrument of death right inside her throat. Damn! These guys are clearly committed. Or should be. One or the other.

As it turns out, Jack asks only the girls these questions because he is looking for the "right" girl. Someone who shares his interests and can provide him with the one thing he wants most, a son, Jack Jr (shouldn't that be Jack V?). Awwww, he just wants a family! It's almost touching aside from the fact that Jack also likes to drink the blood of his victims to maintain his virility. Interestingly, these moments of insight into Jack's character are bizarrely delivered straight to the audience, beating DEADPOOL (2016) to the bloody fourth wall punch by 27 years. In the middle of say, strolling about with a body in a wheelbarrow, Jack will turn to the camera and cheerfully discuss his motives with the audience. This not only an odd choice because we are left to speculate who might be holding the camera, but it's mainly odd because it only happens a few times in the middle of the movie and is quickly forgotten again by the final act.

When I said "brutal" previously, I was not just throwing out a hyperbolic adjective, nosir. Unlike so many other American SOV slashers of the era, this movie does not screw around. After the success of FACES OF DEATH, Good apparently knew what teens and tweens of the late '80s are looking for in a cheap SOV, DTV horror outing and delivers in spades. The husband of a bible-thumping couple who come around to welcome Jack to the town, is put in stocks and has the shutter exposure of the camera taped to his hand so that when Jack lops his head off with a cane knife, his death spasm causes him to take is own picture at the his bloody stump squirting blood. The wife, who suddenly starts waving the freak flag, jumping into a black teddy for her shoot, is tied to a chair and has hydrochloric acid injected in her neck causing the flesh to bubble and dissolve in a bloody mess. The take-away message here is; don't let strangers tie you to a chair while wearing a teddy. I should point out that all of this happens before the 10 minute mark! I tell you, this movie delivers the grue with none of the old cut-out knives or simple splashes of Kayro. Nope, it's pure latex loveliness right until the end, with a climax that is one of the most ambitious gore set-pieces I have ever seen in an American '80s SOV movie (notice I excluded the Germans. They're just crazy). I emphasise the American '80s SOV movie, because if you are a fan of THE WALKING DEAD, this will do nothing for you. At the time however, for what it is, it's pretty damn graphic.

After yet another hot young thang, Erica (Ena Henderson, of the very odd 1991 SOV thriller MOLLY AND THE GHOST), throws herself at Jack, he finally gets the right answers and finds true love, the only thing is, even though she answered all the questions right, this ain't no PSYCHOS IN LOVE (1987), Erica still doesn't realize that he is a serial killer in spite of the fact that his job is to take photos of simulated death for a magazine that nobody has ever heard of and has a secret room that she is not allowed to go into. She even sees his gory photos and just assumes it is a make up effect even though she has never seen him work with make up, nor does she ever see his "models" again! I guess in a town so small it can't even be seen on camera, one can't be too choosy about one's partners.

The outstanding make-up effects were provided by Scott Coulter and Dan Frye, who managed to make some virtually seamless prosthetics under the bright lights of a video shoot. Coulter started his lengthy career as a make-up assistant on 1987's STREET TRASH, which should be enough to pique your interest on its own. Coulter racked up over 30 credits in make-up effects, including the junk-food favorite DEMON WIND (1990) and the instant classic TALES FROM THE CRYPT PRESENTS: DEMON KNIGHT (1995), after which he switched over into visual effects with over 130 credits and counting. Dan Frye worked for Coulter on several films and himself went on to do make up effects in an amazing array of great movies from Frank Henenlotter's BRAIN DAMAGE (1988) to METAMORPHOSIS: THE ALIEN FACTOR (1990), to LAST ACTION HERO (1993) and GAME OF THRONES (2015). My guess is that Coulter was using this movie as a demo reel of sorts, to showcase his studios talent, as the effects showcased here are excellently executed for what is clearly a very low-budget movie.

Shot almost entirely inside of a large house, of which we only see maybe four rooms, the exteriors are so minimal as to comprise of about two exterior shots of the house and a few scenes in the "cemetery", which is merely a remote patch of trees and grass next to a forest that they have dressed with a couple of headstones and a pile of bricks that Jack refers to as a "crypt". Uhhh, I guess the family fortune all went into that big ass house. Perhaps the models that come over to his deadly shoots bring him groceries as well, because Jack never leaves the damn house, except to take his bodies to said cemetery where he throws them in said crypt because he figures "nobody's going to look for a corpse in a cemetery." Presumably like nobody looks for shellfish in an ocean, or this movie in a video store.

This is cinematographer Peter B. Good's second and final feature film as director following the grueling exercise in tedium, the sci-fi wilderness epic, THE FORCE ON THUNDER MOUNTAIN (1978). Aimed squarely at the family demographic and adopting the style of one of Disney's family films of the '70s, this film consists almost entirely of a man and his boy (and Benji clone dog), hiking around a mountain marveling over stock footage of animals, until the boy meets an old, bearded hermit who lives in the hills and teaches him (wait for it) the ways of The Force, a power that controls all things, living and inanimate! I know, it doesn't sound familiar at all, right? This wilderness film, while almost impossible to sit through, makes sense as he actually was a director of photography for the TV shows ANIMAL WORLD (1969-1972) and DISNEY'S WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR (1972-1977). Better still he went on to shoot the drive-in classic JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975) and the not-so-classic FACES OF DEATH III (1985) and FACES OF DEATH IV (1990). Now if that isn't an eclectic career, I don't know what is.

Good's floodlit video cinematography often makes the movie look like a daytime soap opera, which is ironic as Bahner, a veteran of two Chuck Vincent films, SENSATIONS (1987) and THRILLED TO DEATH (1988), also starred in DAYS OF OUR LIVES and GENERAL HOSPITAL around the same time. During the two lengthy sex scenes, shots are often composed to look like Harlequin romance novel covers. This begs the question, who are they trying to appeal to here? Did they really expect romance novel and soap fans to watch a movie that is verging on being an American reiteration of the infamous Japanese "snuff" videos in the mid-'80s GUINEA PIG series? Or for that matter do they expect splatter movie fans to sit through a soap opera punctuated by hot topless girls and graphic gore? Erm, well I guess  the answer to that last question is "yes". Yes we will, and we'll like it.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Newsploitation: EAT MY DUST (1976) creates dust!

The movie history headlines this past week or so have been filled up with bad news. Specifically, the classic comedy THE BAD NEWS BEARS (1976) celebrating its fortieth anniversary. Amazingly, the same day that hit theaters (April 7, 1976) another film also came out in limited release that would create its own lasting impact on Hollywood. Yes, today also marks the anniversary of the release of the car chase classic EAT MY DUST (1976).

Roger Corman’s New World Pictures was behind EAT MY DUST and it isn’t very difficult to figure out why this one got made. The previous year Corman’s company had seen its biggest theatrical success with the release of Paul Bartel’s DEATH RACE 2000 (1975), which expertly combined sci-fi, social commentary and dark humor. My own personal theory is Corman sat down and thought, “Damn, I loved making money but I had to spend more on that film than usual due to the futuristic cars and costumes. How can I make that cheaper?” Easy: Just do a car chase flick set in modern times. We would be remiss if we didn’t also mention that H.B. Halicki’s GONE IN 60 SECONDS (1974) was also leaving the competition in the dust at the box office at the time, so a contemporary flick around gearheads was a no brainer. The writing and directing chores fell to old Corman stalwart Charles B. Griffith and he made sure to feature enough vehicular mayhem to satiate audiences.

Perhaps Corman and Griffith’s biggest coup was in casting Ron Howard as lead Hoover Niebold. An actor practically since birth, Howard had already been in the hot rod classic AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) and had just started in the television sitcom HAPPY DAYS; despite being in his early 20s, Howard was having a hard time transitioning to adult roles in the eyes of many Hollywood folks (he was routinely referred to as “Ronnie Howard” in the trade papers). In fact, his most recent leading role prior to this film was playing Huckleberry Finn in the TV movie HUCKLEBERRY FINN that debuted on ABC on March 25, 1975. That year was good for Howard as the incredibly successful HAPPY DAYS got renewed and he got married in June 1975. The 21-year-old, however, would get the opportunity of a lifetime with the lead in EAT MY DUST later in the year (more on that in a bit). 

At one point simply titled THE CAR (according to a piece in Variety New World found out via testing this “wasn’t an effective title”), DUST ended up doing a quick shoot (as per Corman’s blueprint) and roared into theaters in April 1976. Described by Variety as a “money-making car chase comedy for [the] youth market” in their review, DUST started bringing in the cash as soon as the flags dropped. In May 1976 the company announced that DUST had become their all-time biggest domestic grosser “exceeding the $2,500,000 generated last summer on DEATH RACE 2000.” In June Corman ushered out 500 prints of the film to theaters and in July offered a double feature package with DEATH RACE 2000, the film it usurped. Around the same time, Corman quickly announced a follow up initially titled FOLLOW THE SPEEDER. And here is where Howard took a gamble that would pay off for him in a big way. He convinced Corman that he would star in the picture if Howard could also direct it. Known for giving neophytes their first break (and probably loving a cost-saving actor-writer-director combo), Corman agreed and Howard found himself in the director’s seat in March 1977 on what was now called GRAND THEFT AUTO. Again with a whiplash turnaround, AUTO made it to theaters in June 1977 and repeated the success of DUST. The rest, as they say, is history. Howard continued on HAPPY DAYS, but now had a theatrical hit as a director under his belt. After directing some TV movies, he effortlessly made the switch to full-time director in the 1980s and grew to be one of the biggest (and most diverse) directors of that generation. And mostly because he decided to let someone eat his dust.

Monday, March 21, 2016


In today's era of over-produced, mega-budgeted, clinically scrutinized genre fare, the low-rent movies of the early '80s that filled a global demand for action flicks take on even more charm than they had back in the day. Even better if they were made in Italy and/or Spain. In that case you could look forward to the occasional fallen star, plenty of action (and/or make-up effects) and a variety of extras who clumsily deliver their lines with a thick accent, in broken English. While the majority of mainstream movie goers would look upon this with disdain and confusion, there are those of us who feel it is cinematic comfort food. Such is TARGET EAGLE. It's like an unskilled home cook decided to make a dream burger and piled on so much stuff that it becomes an ugly, sloppy mess that is still pushing those comfort-food buttons.

Written and directed by veteran Spanish writer-director José Antonio de la Loma (the man responsible for writing Fulci's amazingly bizarre 1982 epic CONQUEST), the film desperately wants to be sort of a Jesús Bond, starring Jorge Rivero, Max Von Sydow, Maud Adams, Chuck Connors and George Peppard! What could possibly go wrong? (Warning: More exclamation points to come)

The movie opens with a man being forced at gunpoint to signal a jumper on an airplane with a flashlight. The jumper may have superhuman vision to spot a flashlight signal at 5000 feet, but he certainly doesn't have much sense as he plummets to his death like a sophisticated conversation at a GOP debate. Apparently, what is presumably a Spanish secret service department (we are never told what it actually is) headed up by one Colonel O'Donnel, aka The Ogre (Max Von Sydow), had used the jumper, or rather faller, as a mole into an organization of heroin smugglers. It seems that their heroin sting was a bust due to an internal leak which means that the smugglers are going to do a much bigger run next time. For some odd reason the Israelis, who seem to be unconcerned about drug smuggling in general, are keen on this one op. Since their top agent, Paco, is dead, what to do now? Call in another agent? Hell no! Blackmail some ex-foreign legion merc who is wanted for war crimes in Africa. This man has a name. His name is... David (Rivero). Ok, so not exactly a slick spy name, but it sure beats the hell out of "Paco". Of course for some inexplicable reason we don't actually find out what his name is until the 50 minute mark!

Of course the fact that David is trying to get around Spain on the sly after escaping an African jail means that the service that is so secret the audience can't even know what it is, must chase David around the streets when he tries to escape in his pursuers before allowing himself to be taken in. For some reason The Ogre says that his agency doesn't pay for operatives to go on missions (no wonder they are Spain's best kept secret), but they will expunge his record if he goes undercover and infiltrates the Mafia. To convince him further that this is a good idea, they hold him in a cell without food and water until he finally gives in. Come to think of it, I'm pretty sure I worked for these guys. Extra work for no pay and a deprivation of human necessities? Yep, that was my last employer, for sure.

An agent referred to only as "Captain" (José María Blanco) works for The Ogre with Paco's fiancee Carmen (Maud Adams), who will be David's handler.

Also interested in the case is Sam (Connors), an agent of some sort (we are never told what exactly), who works for an undisclosed agency, when he is not providing Spanish translation services for hockey players (no, really!). When Sam meets up with the Captain, Cap asks him "so, how come heroin has become a problem?" to which Sam replies "hmmmm... it's not just a question of heroin." Huh? The only thing more complicated than the nameless agencies and characters is the plot which moves with the smooth precision of an interstate pile-up.

In order to infiltrate the Mafia, his first step is to get accepted into a skydiving school. After being rudely turned down by the instructor he decides the best way to get in is to do some smooth talking and maybe grease a palm, right? Uhh, no. David decides that the best thing to do is to hire a bi-plane and do some stunt-flying in restricted airspace and then dive out of said plane, joining the students in mid-air! Not once but twice! Maybe The Ogre should consider paying people for life-threatening espionage assignments. He'd probably get a better class of applicants.

After managing to royally piss off one of the students, Laura (Susana Dosamantes), David somehow manages to seduce her in a piano bar, only to find out in the morning that she ripped him off for no apparent reason, which particularly odd as we find out later that she is one of Carmen's contacts! Why? I don't know! Perhaps it is just an excuse to film a scene of Rivero walking around his hotel room in his tidy-whiteys. This subplot (I use the term loosely) leads to a chase when David later spots Laura in a car at while driving through the city. The chase leads through a cracker fu dojo, where we get a big, badly choreographed fight scene that ends up with David flying out of a second story window. Sure it makes absolutely no sense, but on the other hand, it isn't boring.

David manages to attract the attention of a mob guy who has been lurking around the diving school and they make a deal to have him jump with a big bag of heroin while at a go kart track. Meanwhile Carmen goes to investigate some "shop" (clearly a warehouse) in which she is attacked by someone who runs back to the Egyptian ambassador's yacht.

The mondo bizarro plot thickens when The Ogre receives anonymous papers detailing the mission. He knows it's not from the Israelis or Americans, so it must be... from the Mafia! Now the movie gets even more wacko. We get completely random sequences, such as a group of black-clad motorcycle guys chasing David who is in a powered trike hang glider as a prop plane threatens to shoot him down, a croquet game with mob honcho Peppard, a ski chase, a snowfight, blatant sexual harassment of a coworker, a Libyan plot with no Libyans to be seen, Captain berating his drug sniffing dog on a yacht by saying "what do you think this is, a pleasure cruise?" and so much more. One of my favorite moments has The Ogre discovering that the Egyptian ambassador is making a deal with the Libyans to provide them with materials to make a nuclear weapon and devises a cunning plan, "We keep quiet and wait". Yeah, no hurry. It's just a threat to the entire world civilization, that's all.

The word "muddled" is a nice way of describing the plot which is pretty simple in theory, but is made insanely complicated by non-sequitur scenes of action and dialogue, a complete lack any sort of character information. Not to mention that it feels as if it were assembled after the B-roll got ruined by the lab and editor spilled all the cuttings on the floor and patched it up as best he could without a script to guide him. Erm... I'm assuming there was a script because there are three credited writers, one of which is credited with "additional dialogue". You'd think that at least one of these writers would notice that the movie completely forgets to uncover the leak in The Ogre's agency by the end of the film! I like movies that keep you guessing, but this is ridiculous! In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I found this to be totally enjoyable. I mean, it's not short on random action sequences, the car chase sports some solid stunt driving, it's not short of stars who appear to be even more confused than the audience, and it's got a great disco-y theme song by none other than the legendary Pino Donaggio!

Interestingly de la Loma is more of a prolific screenwriter than a director had an extensive career in cranking out low-budget Euro westerns and crime films in the '60s and '70s, even dabbling a bit in the spy and juvenile delinquent genres. While his career was winding down in the '80s, he managed to get a few international successes with name casts, including the Sybil Danning Adventure release of KILLING MACHINE (1984) which stars Lee Van Cleef, Margaux Hemingway, Willie Aames and Richard Jaeckel, not to mention Jorge Rivero, Frank Braña and Hugo Stiglitz! Likewise the wannabe Cannon film COUNTERFORCE (1988) was also something of a success due to the casting of Robert Forster, Isaac Hayes, Louis Jourdan, George Kennedy, Andrew Stevens, and, of course, Jorge Rivero and Hugo Stiglitz.

Honestly, PLAYING WITH DEATH is a hot mess, but if you are the right kind of person, it sure is tasty.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Newsploitation: Bringing F/X to Life!

We’re going to be doing a bit of a cheat today as I’m highlighting a film series that has two anniversaries a few years apart. Cheating, however, is totally okay when you are talking about the F/X film series as the lead character, Roland “Rollie” Tyler, is a Hollywood effects whiz known for a clever sleight of hand (and more). Yes, the highly entertaining F/X (1986) and F/X 2 (1991) are celebrating their 30th and 25th anniversaries, respectively.

F/X is a fascinating movie for many reasons. First, the script was written by two relative unknowns; Gregory Fleeman was a struggling actor making his writing debut and Robert T. Megginson was a industry vet as an editor and had also made the odd music industry parody PELVIS (1977). According to the New York Times, they originally wrote the screenplay as a possible TV movie, but the premise was attractive enough that it ended up at Orion Pictures. Another fascinating aspect is the storyline focusing on a Hollywood effects man who must use his wits to escape the mob and government after being hired to fake a death. Finally, it is the first U.S. theatrical vehicle for Australian actor Bryan Brown. Brown was already well know in his native country for films such as MONEY MOVERS (1978) and BREAKER MORANT (1980) and had caught the eye of U.S. viewers in a supporting role in THE THORNBIRDS (1983) mini-series. Playing opposite Brown’s Tyler character is Brian Dennehy as NYC cop Leo McCarthy. Both men would have a great onscreen chemistry.

F/X was directed by Robert Mandel, but he was actually not the first person signed on to make the film. In August 1984, it was announced in Variety that Roger Spottiswoode would start shooting the film in October of that year. The Canadian-born helmer had recently done UNDER FIRE (1983) for Orion. However, by March 1985, Spottiswoode was no longer listed as director and relative newcomer Mandel had taken over the directing. While the IMDb will list F/X as Mandel’s first theatrical feature, he had actually already shot the Michael Keaton vehicle TOUCH AND GO (1986) in the summer of 1984 but it didn’t get released until after F/X in August 1986. Orion got F/X to U.S. theaters on February 7, 1986. The film did debut in 5th place with a haul of $3,240,695. The interesting thing is the film only dropped a fraction (7%) in its second weekend and stuck around for a couple of months to earn a total U.S. take of $20,603,715. While it was certainly no blockbuster, the film did rather well for something headlined by a relatively unknown lead. Orion folks would later say that the film tested through the roof, but they had a very hard time coming up with how to market the picture (the U.S. theatrical poster is a bland B&W shot of half of Brown’s face) and that the title F/X was confusing to many people (they tried to correct this by adding a subtle “Murder by Illusion” in other territories).


While not setting the box office on fire, F/X did well enough and, despite its odd title, found a larger audience on home video. While Orion would have huge hits with DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991), when they greenlit the sequel F/X 2 they were in the midst of some major bombs. The behind the scenes players on the further adventures of Rollie and Leo were interesting to genre fans. Australian Richard Franklin, who had done the impressive ROAD GAMES (1981) and PSYCHO II (1983), was hired as director (oddly, while reading an old Fangoria about F/X, the very next article in the issue was about Franklin’s LINK [1986]). The screenplay was written by Bill Condon, who genre fans would know for STRANGE BEHAVIOR (1981) and STRANGE INVADERS (1983); it should be noted that the copyright database also lists one Lee Reynolds (ALLAN QUATERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD [1986]) as a co-writer, but Condon is only credited on the final film. F/X 2 proved that audiences did indeed get its title when it hit theaters on May 10, 1991 (yes, now you see my cheat as this anniversary is a few months away). Not sure the marketing folks got it together though as the U.S. poster is again an abomination (hey, at least they had two faces and a gun this time). Regardless, the film opened in 1st place this time around with a take of $5,455,058 on its way to a total of $21,082,165 at the U.S. box office.

The concept proved popular enough that five years later (what’s with the five years between F/X projects?) the syndicated F/X: THE SERIES came along in 1996. The series ran for two seasons and had Aussie Cameron Daddo as Rollie and Kevin Dobson as Leo (the character was replaced with a female co-lead in the second season). So, yes, the F/X concept had finally come full circle - originally written as a possible TV pilot, it became a successful movie series that eventually became a TV show. Hollywood is weird.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Newsploitation: Poppin' up that POPCORN (1991)

It is weird to me to be writing up a 25th anniversary of a film that feels like it just came out a few years back. When I was a kid, Fangoria did a 20th anniversary celebration of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and twenty years to my young mind seems like ages ago. Now I hear a film like POPCORN is 25 years old and it freaks me out. Yes, kids, getting old is weird. Anyway, February 1, 2016 marks the two-and-a-half decades anniversary of the U.S. theatrical release of POPCORN.

That the film got a nationwide theatrical release at all is pretty amazing given the behind-the-scenes chaos of the film’s production. POPCORN certainly had fans salivating when news broke of its impending production as it was a reunion of filmmakers Bob Clark and Alan Ormsby. The duo met in school in Florida and created a unique partnership in the early ‘70s with a trio of horror flicks - CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (1972), DERANGED (1974) and DEATHDREAM (1974). Creating three films now considered horror classics in a few years? Not too bad. Their careers went in different directions after these films; Clark went on to bigger success with BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), MURDER BY DECREE (1979), PORKY’S (1981), and A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983), while Ormsby had an incredibly eclectic screenwriting career including MY BODYGUARD (1980) and the CAT PEOPLE (1982) remake. They did reunite in a non-horror capacity with PORKY’S II: THE NEXT DAY (1983) which had Clark as director and Ormsby as co-writer (yes, Clark released a PORKY’S sequel and A CHRISTMAS STORY in the same calendar year, incredible!).

According to what Clark told Fangoria at the time of POPCORN’s release, the horror reunion came about when DEAD THINGS co-producer Gary Goch came to him with a screenplay for what would eventually become POPCORN. He liked the idea and passed it along to Ormsby to rewrite and thought it would make a nice directing vehicle for his friend (Ormsby had previously directed the lost-but-recently-discovered MURDER ON THE EMERALD SEAS [1974] and co-directed DERANGED). The eventual “phantom of the movie theater” scenario shaped up nicely and the filming began in Kingston, Jamaica in October 1989. Unfortunately, Ormsby’s version was much darker than what the financiers were expecting and Orsmby ended up leaving the production after a few weeks of filming (apparently the only remaining footage in the film of his are the retro films within the film). Another casualty was lead actress April O’Neill (HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS [1989]), who was replaced by budding scream queen Jill Schoelen (THE STEPFATHER [1987]). Clark mentioned to Fangoria that they approached three veteran horror directors who passed on the project and that he even shot a few days before PORKY’S actor Mark Herrier stepped in as director. Despite all this work to salvage the film, Clark also eventually had his name removed from the final film while Ormbsy is credited for his screenplay as “Tod Hackett.”

Rare Variety production listing with 
Orsmby credited as both co-director and writer:

Originally aiming for a fall 1990 theatrical release, POPCORN was eventually put out a few months later in February 1991 by new indie distributor Studio Three Film Corporation. The company surprisingly got the film into over 1,000 theaters and the good news was it ended up being the highest debuting new release that weekend. The bad news is it still only came in 8th place at the box office with a haul of $2,563,365. Hey, at least it did better that Buena Vista’s RUN (1991) with Patrick Dempsey. POPCORN quickly disappeared from theaters with a small haul of just $4,205,00. Studio Three had only one other theatrical release before folding, the drama-romance RICH GIRL (1991) in May 1991 starring Jill Schoelen. Damn, did her dad own this company? Anyway, POPCORN eventually found its audience on video and developed a true cult following. It holds a special place in my heart as it was the second R-rated feature I drove myself to alone to see in the theater (for my eventual biography you will write, the first one was WARLOCK [1991]). The film’s cult has only grown over the years; so much so that a special edition DVD/Bluray of the film is coming from Synapse Films sometime in the near future.