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, October 23, 2016

Halloween Havoc: OUT OF THE BODY (1988)

So great was the impact of THE EXORCIST (1973) on global consciousness that it has been an inspiration to a huge number of films over the decades since it was released. Whether these post-EXORCIST film are blunt-force "rip-offs" (such as 1974s SEYTAN) or just something that wouldn't have played out the way it did without THE EXORCIST's existence, there are plenty of interesting outings that followed in its wake.

Our cousins from Down Under have never been much for straight up horror movies, aside from the past decade in which they have turned out a lot of American style gore flicks. They may sell well, but it is a true waste of Aussie talent. They have, however, always had an excellent handle on suspense and thrillers with horror undertones. Films such as the gripping LADY STAY DEAD (1981) and the strange 1987 film CASSANDRA, are thrillers working on jangling your nerves, but also adopting American slasher themes and sometimes Italian giallo motifs as well.

The EXORCIST influence was felt strongly in 1978 with Richard Franklin's PATRICK (1978). The first theatrical project written by the late, masterful ex-pat screenwriter Everett De Roche. De Roche who went on to write Aussie classics such as THE LONG WEEKEND (1978) and ROAD GAMES (1981), created a thriller with horror overtones about a comatose young man in a private hospital who seems to be able to channel his inner rage into the confines of the hospital, executing those who irritate him. The elements of a bed ridden individual with supernatural power used for evil, are not ripped off from THE EXORCIST, but are definitely influenced by it. PATRICK saw global popularity due to the universal appeal of the subject matter. It doesn't matter if you are Catholic, Muslim, Agnostic or Atheist, the subject of a seemingly vulnerable individual channeling evil power crosses any social, political or religious boundaries. Just like how even Jewish people can enjoy DRACULA. Sure, the villainous bloodsucker can't be warded off with a Star of David, but it doesn't really matter, it's intrinsically about the triumph of good over evil.

In 1989 Brian Trenchard-Smith released one of his few horror movies, OUT OF THE BODY, that felt the ripple of the EXORCISTs mighty splash. Essentially it is a thriller, but it is as much of a horror film as you are going to get out of pre-'90s Aussie cinema.

Late at night a successful businesswoman is suddenly snatched into the air, has her eyes ripped out and is hung up on a fire escape after trying to get in her car. When a policeman and his K9 companion investigate the blaring car alarm, his dog suddenly drops dead of a heart attack. Apparently this is yet another grisly murder in a string of inexplicable killings. At the same time, a college professor and struggling musician, David Gaze (Mark Hembrow) finds that his vivid and twisted nightmares are actually visions of the murders being committed. So disturbed is he by this, he tries to contact people who he thinks are going to be victims who naturally write him off as missing a few shrimp on his barbie.

Of course the police find his claims not only crazy, but seemingly an incitement of the his own guilt. Fortunately for him he has the world's most understanding girlfriend, Neva St. Clair (Tessa Humphries, daughter of Barry McKenzie creator, Barry Humphries), who reckons that astral projection is a complete reasonable explanation and is not in the least bit creeped out by the fact that the man she's sleeping with knows more about the murders than the police do. Clearly I need to move to Australia. I can't find a girl that will put up with my taste in movies, much less a possible involvement in a murder investigation.

While David is having his presumed mental break, noted feminist author, and implied angry lesbian, Stephanie Parker (Sally Hudson), is interviewing a series of successful female business women for her next book. Her favorite topic is how much men suck at, well, everything, but her bedroom eyes aren't being taken seriously by her interviewees who either are completely blind or just don't care. One by one, each of these women are successively attacked by a malevolent force that tears out their eyes. Could she be the killer? Magic eight ball says: No spoilers dammit!

Written by playwright and TV series writer Kenneth G. Ross, who wrote the original play that the 1980 film BREAKER MORANT was based on, this was his one and only feature film production. How's that for a resume? The script is enigmatic, even by Australian standards, but Trenchard-Smith's camera set-ups and lighting are stylishly executed making even a few simple conversation scenes interesting. Synth composer Peter Westheimer's minimalist score adds a lot to the giallo-esque flavor.

To be fair not all of the EXORCIST influences are well conceived. We have shots of the obligatory demon fetishes, a possession scene at the end of the film, but there are also a couple of scenes of furniture flying around on wires that feels like we've taken a way-back ride to a William Castle film. Not that it's a bad thing in a Castle movie, it just undercuts the horror in an otherwise solid modern film (yes, I just called the '80s "modern").

While the gore isn't as explicit as some might expect from the man who brought us TURKEY SHOOT (1982) and NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 (1994), there are enough nasty moments to park it firmly on the horror shelf. At times Trenchard-Smith evokes an almost Italian approach, with moody lighting and the stylish attack sequences which are shown from the killer's point of view. The fact that it has adult characters (David is divorced from his first wife who happens to be his boss) is also a plus. If it were made today, it would be teenagers in a school, not adults running a school. It is far more effective to see people in positions of responsibility become suspects of a string of brutal crimes rather than some zit-popping slacker. And no, I've never yelled at anyone to get off my lawn. The fact that I don't have one makes no difference.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Halloween Havoc: MOLD! (2013) / THE MILDEW FROM THE PLANET XONADER (2015)

Because of our long-standing tradition of talking about low-rent amateur efforts, we have talked up Italian production company Necrostorm quite a bit. Following the release of the mind-liquefying post-nuke splatter epic ADAM CHAPLIN (2010), co-written, directed and produced by brothers Emanuele and Giulio De Santi, Emanuele ended up going his own way. This left Giulio, to began producing his own string of low-budget gorefests in the vein of the '80s German no-budget gore-met Andreas Schnaas. Like Schnaas, Giulio's solo efforts, such as TAETER CITY (2012) and HOTEL INFERNO (2013) have hit or miss aspects to them, but unlike Schnaas, manage some solid concepts and a plethora of innovative hybrid CGI/practical make-up effects. So innovative that other production companies have begun to borrow some of Necrostorm's ideas. See HARDCORE HENRY (2016) if you have any doubts.

After some success with their in house films, Necrostorm has decided to purchase other amateur efforts, re-editing and re-scoring them and most importantly adding additional effects. Unfortunately we were not able to get any information from Necrostorm about this other than their marketing hype. I'm guessing this is the old-school way to re-issue a movie that has run it's financial course, using a minimal investment and an entirely new promotional campaign. Al Adamson would be proud. MILDEW started life as an Arizona based, shot on digital movie in 2009, titled MOLD! After a lengthy production and a lengthier post, it was eventually released under that title in 2013. So far the only feature directed by Neil Meschino, MOLD! is a fun film with a couple of good make-up gags. According to Meschino, Necrostorm contacted him "out of the blue" at a point where the sales for MOLD! were starting to drop off. Meschino sold them the film and that was the last he heard of it.

Set for absolutely no apparent reason in 1984, a secret research facility has been working on a ecological warfare project for the US Army. The project is essentially a green mold that is an airborne agent that infects people on contact and causes them to melt into splattery goo ala STREET TRASH (1987), or turn into deranged zombies. What could possibly go wrong?

The corporate "head" Edison Carter (David Pringle in a direct reference to MAX HEADROOM) has organised a meeting between the project lead Dr. Kane (Rick Haymes), his scientists Roger (Lawrence George), Julia (Ardis Campbell), an Army colonel (Edward X. Young), who is known only as "Colonel"and Congressman Blankenship (James Murphy). Also included is Dave (Chris Gentile), a pompous jackass who believes that because electromagnetic waves are emitted by all creatures, his superior intellect should allow him to use his mind to move objects... like pencils. That's right,  he is the laziest pencil-pusher ever.

The meeting which seems to take place in what appears to be a maintenance room with nothing but a white buffet table sporting some Ritz crackers and what appears to be a bottle of Martinelli's, gets off to a rough start as apparently there is some debate about the hazards of a live demonstration. As it turns out the coked-up Congressman's hazmat suit had a hole in it and during a trip to the men's room discovers that a green fungus has begun to grow on his, err, congressional caucus. Don't you hate it when that happens?

Within minutes the congressman is overrun with green fuzz and a contamination lockdown goes into effect. The scientists must then try to figure out how to make sure they stay uninfected, trapped in the meeting room with the congressman's rapidly decaying body and figure out a means of escape. Of course the Colonel is mainly interested in yelling and finger-pointing, as you would expect. Meanwhile an assault team in protective gear are running around the complex gunning down anyone trying to escape the facility. As it turns out, Edison Carter (who shows up as a disembodied head on monitors) has decided that the best way to make sure this mold is as effective as he wants it to be is to use everyone in the facility as guinea pigs. Fuzzy, homicidal guinea pigs.

The film is more fun that you'd think at first glance. It is definitely a shot-on-weekends with a digital camera kind of thing and it takes place in a couple of rooms and a hallway, but for some reason it manages to surpass these drawbacks and deliver an entertaining 89 minutes. The cast is not going to win any awards, but are all competent actors, playing the scenes with straight conviction. The movie takes its premise seriously enough and avoids the lazy, winky, "we are making a stupid movie" pitfall that is pretty much de rigueur for a modern DTV genre movie.

While the movie is fun and surprisingly well shot, it's pretty light on the make-up effects, which is probably why Necrostorm picked it up. That, and I'm guessing it was cheap. The mid-movie set-piece, which should have been a big effects moment where one of the scientists' stomach swells up and explodes, takes place out of sight of the camera in MOLD! This is where Necrostorm wisely steps in. For that particular sequence De Santi used his mad digital/practical effects skills to show the scientists' torso blowing open in graphically gory detail. This sequence constructed almost entirely out of whole cloth, is practically seamless. You'd never know it wasn't part of the original film. Additionally some of the contaminated people now sprout hair out of their faces and run amok looking like a reject from a Samhain cover band. Why does it have different effects on different people? Like many things in Necrostorm's movies, your guess is as good as mine.

An early scene in MOLD! has a lab worker is freaked out by a mouse and droping a canister of the mold causing his to become contaminated. The scene is moved to the midpoint of MILDEW, and has quite a bit of new footage inserted showing the mice to mutate into flesh-rending mutants. When the mice go rabid and start tearing the lab tech up, his skull actually explodes out of his head, pushed out by one of the burrowing rodents. Some of this extra footage leads to some moments of bizarre incoherency, such as a bit near the end when one of the scientists is attacked by a zombie soldier, has his neck twisted and falls on his back. The zombie drags him (conveniently) back to the meeting room where he bangs on the door and Dave says "I think he severed my spinal cord". This is improbable at best, but in the MILDEW version, the source of his injury comes from one of the hair-faced mutants literally ripping his entire spine out of his back! Must have had something to do with the psychic powers.

Necrostorm also added an opening sequence and subplot that explains that the green fungus is something that was recovered from an alien space pod that crashed onto Earth. Additionally there is a black suited operative who seems to be working for a competing company to steal the mold with the help of his foul-mouthed wristband. Unfortunately this subplot (mostly shot in a single room isolated from the rest of them movie), is Necrostorm's biggest misstep. It confuses the otherwise simple plot and tries to inject a bit of juvenile humor to a mostly straightfaced production.

There is also some extensive re-editing, with some scenes altered to change the context. The shot of the congressman's senior member growing green funk is deleted, changing the scene to imply that it is the congressman's cocaine that is tainted (no pun intended). There is also an additional bit at the end of the film where some digital effects are used to show that Dave really did have pencil-wielding psychic powers after all. Something MOLD! showed to be a prank that he affected with a canister of compressed air.

Additionally, Nekrostorm darkened the image and toned down the color. While I'm really tired of seeing tinted or color-leeched movies, it is pretty inoffensive here. One of the best things that De Santi has added, that boosts his version, is adding in some new music by their in-house composer Razzaw. The original score is fine, but this added music echoes '80s synth, such as PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987) and THEY LIVE (1988). It is really quite good and substantially adds to the fun. I'd accuse Necrostorm of ripping off Carpenter, except for the fact that they do give him a credit at the end of the film. Nice to see that done in this era of ruthlessly uncredited "homages".

So in the end MILDEW is an interesting and fun version of MOLD! that makes a few missteps, but mostly adds to the charm of Meschino's original. It will be interesting to see what else Necrostorm acquires, but until then we will be waiting for HOTEL INFERNO II, which De Santi is claiming will rival professional studio films. It's a bold claim that will be hard to live up to, but regardless Necrostorm is rapidly growing into a solid player in the world of DTV horror films.

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.