Monsterous Mayhem: SPACE MONSTER GAMERA (1980)

Giant turtle insanity from Daiei!

Ginty Gone Wild: WHITE FIRE (1984)

Robert Ginty + Chainsaw = Magic!

Gore Galore: TAETER CITY (2012)

Semi follow-up to the insane gorefest ADAM CHAPLIN (2010).

Carpocalypse Now: STRYKER (1983)

Cirio H. Santiago's first wasteland warrior epic!

Gotterdammerung Epics: SOLOMON KANE (2009)

Overlooked adaptaion of Robert E. Howard's puritain avenger!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Halloween Havoc: MUSEUM OF HORROR (1964)

Have you ever sat down and looked at a pile of videos and thought "I'm in the mood for something that smashes House of Hammer, Mario Bava and Edgar Wallace into a HOUSE OF WAX (1953) sandwich"? You have? Well brother, do I have a movie for you!

The sad thing about Mexican cinema is that it rarely travels to this side of the border. Most of the stuff that makes it past the guards are impoverished, mono-linguistic, and willing to do things that Americans don't. Rough and tumble types, usually with cowboy hats, guns and a blue collar work ethic. Tortured metaphors aside, the majority of Mexican cinema in the US are Spanish language shot-on-video action movies. Back in the '80s and early '90s you could find a whole lot more, but again, only in Spanish and you had to go to a (gasp) Mexican video store. Of course, if extreme right takes the White House, I will undoubtedly be arrested for owning a VHS tape of NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969), one of the few films that was imported back in the '70s, slapped with a crappy dub job and released in a big box on VHS years later. Most of the films given that treatment were like so many horror imports, dubbed, edited and released for kiddie consumption. Remember those days when kids were allowed to watch movies in the theater that didn't have a Disney princess in them?

Because most of the Mexican cinema imported into the states was camp fare such as the ever popular WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY (1964), the true gems of Mexican horror cinema were unjustly overlooked. Several years back we had a burst of Mexican horror being released on DVD with subtitles bringing us classics such as GRAVE ROBBERS (1990) and the stunningly atmospheric CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN (1963), but they were sadly a flash in the pan.

CRYING WOMAN director Rafael Baledon, like many, if not all Mexican directors, made movies in a wide variety of genres, but his horror films are the real stand-outs in his career. A year after CRYING WOMAN, he followed up his success with the excellent HOUSE OF WAX inspired MUSEUM OF HORROR.

Set in the fog-shrouded coble-stone streets of Victorian-era Mexico, a man with a severely disfigured face, dressed in a black cape and broad-brimmed hat kidnaps a woman and takes her to his subterranean laboratory hidden in the local cemetery. Once through a secret passage way, he injects her with a sedative, pulls over a giant pot and completely drenches her in boiling goo. This not only kills her, but ruins her immaculate '60s hairdo. See? I told you it was like Hammer.

As it turns out, this is the third girl to "disappear" off of the streets and of course the police are baffled. The presumed crimes are all taking place in a specific section of town which has a boarding house populated by likely suspects. There is Professor Abramov (the venerable Carlos Lopez Moctezuma), who enjoys taxidermy and does not enjoy women; then we have Dr. Raul (Julio Aleman), who is conducting experiments on fresh cadavers when he is not working at the hospital; and then there is Louis (Joaquin Cordero), an ex-actor who was forced to give up the lime-light and open a museum to showcase his passion of creating historical female figures in wax.

We also have Ms. Marta (Patricia Conde), the pretty daughter of the owner of the house (the also venerable Emma Roldán), who is the object of Dr. Raul's affection. In spite of the fact that Raul insists that they were meant for each other because they knew each other since childhood, Marta starts falling for the tortured soul Louis. Ain't that always the way? Girls have to go after the guy who is going down fast and taking everyone with him. Of course, Raul is so clenched with jealous anger, that you can hardly blame her for keeping her distance. It isn't long before the hot wax maniac (a movie that I would love to see made, by the way) has got his one good eye on Marta.

In addition to all of the above, we get two songs sung by one of the maniacs future victims in what is apparently the only nightclub in town. I have come to that conclusion because everybody who is in the film goes to that nightclub every night. Still, it is a small price to pay for such a atmosphere drenched gothic production.

As it is, it is only on the Latin-American On Screen Cine Involidable label, which has a nice collection of classic Mexican horror films, but have no subtitles and look like old VHS bootleg prints taken from heavily worn film reels. It's more the pity as not only does Baledon lay on the darkness and fog with a shovel, but he takes the time to set up some truly beautiful shots using back-lighting, oblique angles and split focus.

If there is a underdog in the world of horror films, it is unquestionably Mexico. Even Thailand gets more press, and their horror movies pretty much suck. If this were an Italian horror film, it would be cleaned up and released on DVD and blu-ray with audio commentary by some pretentious, egocentric asshole. Until that day arrives, if ever, these releases will have to do, and if you are like me and grew up with monster movies on late night television, there's almost something nostalgic about watching them in cruddy quality. Oh hell, now I'm starting to sound like a hipster.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Haloween Havoc: SHRIEK OF TERROR (1991)

The illustrious Rene Cardona (born Rene Cardona Andre) is arguably the godfather of Mexican genre cinema, in more ways than one. A member of the 1924 Cuban Olympic Fencing Team, Cardona broke off his medical studies in his homeland of Cuba due to the political and economic turmoil and like so many others, Cardona transplanted himself in the US. While continuing his studies in New York in his early 20s, Cardona's dashing good looks got him cast in the first film production of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1928), which was remade in 1953 by Howard Hawks, but sadly did not include Cardona.

After moving from New York to Hollywood, Cardona quickly began writing, directing, producing and acting in films, including the first Spanish language film shot in Hollywood, HAVANA SHADOWS (1929). He was in fact the first person to make a film in multiple language formats; silent, English and Spanish, with the same cast, and was the youngest film executive at the time. Following this minor triumph in Hollywood, Cardona moved to Mexico to become almost an instant success, ushering in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and fathering the equally prolific Rene Cardona Jr. Cardona Sr's efforts include comedy, drama, science fiction, wrestling, horror, adventure, westerns and pretty much any other genre you can think of. His films inspired his son, Cardona Jr., to continue in his footsteps making some of the best genre films to come out of Mexico during the '70s and '80s. Cardona Jr. in turn fathered Rene Cardona III who also continued in his father and grandfather's footsteps, and has made a slew of entertaining genre films, including this one; SHRIEK OF TERROR (1991).

Posing as an outing for his family, Class A jackass Roberto (Hugo Stiglitz) drives out to an old Aztec temple to meet his brother Carlos and his buddy Eladio (Rojo Grau). After sending his wife Laura (Edna Bolkan) and 5 year old daughter Gabby off to have a picnic in the woods, Roberto and the boys don their fedoras for some good, old fashioned tomb raiding. After walking in and busting up one wall, they find nothing but trinkets and bones. Roberto, furious, stomps off after grabbing a piece of bone. Thinking that the bones might be worth something, Carlos and Eladio grab some too, only to find themselves under a barrage of fire from the local yokels who don't care too much for them grave robbin' city folk. Of course this doesn't stop a few of them from stealing a few, possibly magic, bones for themselves. As soon as they grab the bones, something awakes and roars.

After high-tailing it out of the temple, the leader of the posse reports this news to the local shaman, Colibri (Roberto Ballesteros), who realizes that bad things are about to go down and only he can stop them.

As it turns out the creature from the temple is a pan-dimensional spirit creature called a Chaneque who is (I think) brought to this world by the remains of a possessed monk. The script is a little muddled on what exactly it is as it is a creature well-steeped in Mexican folklore dating back to the Aztec era. Stealing the bones from the monk's skeleton has marked the intruders and the Chaneque wants them back and maybe a few children's trinkets along the way (apparently it likes "pretty things").

Colibri consults another shaman, who informs him that the Chaneque is looking to possess one of the offenders, most likely a child, who will be cursed for all generations and that the monk's skeleton must be reassembled and burned. After this urgent warning of impending doom, the shaman then tells Colibri that he is on his own. Thanks buddy. Yeah, I'll just go track down the deadly, evil, immortal, soul-stealing monster by myself, that's fine.

The Chaneque, slashing his way through the cast to complete his bone collection, tracks Gabby down by following her to school where her teacher is very concerned about the pictures of monsters that she has been drawing. As to put a fine point on the horror that awaits her, while playing at school the Chaneque causes her volleyball to catch on fire and melt. If I had a nickel for every time I got send to the principal's office for that.

Naturally the Chaneque finally catches up with Gabby and possesses her turning the film upside down into a sort of bizarre riff on POLTERGEIST (1982) and POLTERGEIST II (1986), where Gabby's parents can hear her voice in the house and Colibri (who can communicate telepathically with the child) must pull a Zelda Rubenstein and get their daughter back.

I have to say that even that description barely conveys the schizophrenic nature of this movie. Cardona III and co-writer Honorato Magaloni (the token latino actor in dozens of Hollywood films), are bursting with ideas, and while they often seem to be running in different directions, it is at no point predictable. In once scene near the end (spoiler alert), the Chaneque uses the painting of a unicorn to blow a hole in the wall of Gabby's bedroom creating a portal to a jungle dimension in which Roberto is attacked by blazing rubber balls. The moment is almost an acid-trip in 20 seconds.

The film also features some interesting monster POV shots that appear to be cribbed from EVIL DEAD (1981) and a few other stylistic moments that almost clash with the slightly pedestrian shooting technique of the rest of the film. Also interesting is the fact that Roberto is a complete dick to his family, at one point he flies into a rage when he discovers that someone set some Mexican troops in with the French troops in his diorama of the French intervention of 1862. Granted that subject is a bit prickly for Mexicanos as this battle is the exact reason that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated, though I don't think they had dollar Corona beer specials at the time.

In addition to a couple rather surprising Hollywood-taboo busting moments, this outing is loco enough to make you forgive the low budget and the fact that we only really see the Chaneque in extreme close-up or in silhouette.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Halloween Havoc: FOREST OF DEATH (1993)

Ah Mexico. Land of cowboy hats, pistoleros, masked wrestlers and crazed slashers. Wait, what? Slashers? Yes indeed, while Mexican horror cinema has a long and glorious past, the FRIDAY THE 13TH bug never got as deeply infused into their pop-culture as it did in say Canada or Germany. So it's twice as much fun to see someone with a few pesos head out to a remote area to do a latino EL VIERNES 13!

Deep in a secluded forest some illegal tree poachers have found themselves in the sights of a Ranger Emilo (the prolific Jorge Reynoso) nicknamed Jaguar. He takes his forest very seriously, as we see later when he talks to his plants and calls the trees "my babies".

A group of twenty-somethings on a trip to a remote cabin in those very same woods has a breakdown at an abandoned rest stop. While the girls moan that they want quesadillas con papas (good luck with that), the guys run into Jaguar who is handing over what is left of the poachers to the police. All of them are in bad shape, but the leader has had his leg shot off which causes Ceasar (Andrés Bonfiglio of GRAVE ROBBERS fame) to freak out and run to his girlfriend Sylvia (Alejandra Espejo). Si, muy macho.

As it turns out the "cabin" is more of a "ranchito", complete with a grim-faced caretaker named Jacinto (the super-prolific Alfredo Gutiérrez) who speaks in a monotone and imparts cryptic warnings of imminent danger at in opportune times. Sort of a Loco Rafael, if you will. Of course, there is a dark past associated with the place, which quickly comes to light after the group settles in. Sylvia grew up in this house and her mother had drowned in the lake, but her body was never found. Sylvia's abusive father left Sylvia on her own after that and was never seen again, though he has sent her money over the years.

Our Ranger, Jaguar, was Sylvia's first love when she was like 10, we know this because Sylvia finds a tree in which she carved a heart with their initials in it. Oh and because the 35 year old ranger sits in his tiny cabin and stares at a picture of her... when she was like 10. No, no, that's not creepy at all.

After a rough night in which Caesar has nightmares of an axe-weilding maniac breaking into the house, Adolpho (Andrés García Jr. who appeared in a few notable horror flicks before going on to 1992s LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE) decides to put on snorkel gear and goof off in the lake. As we all know, snorkel gear is like a red flag to a deranged slasher. When nobody can find him, they naturally are upset that something may have happened to him in the very same lake that Sylvia's mother drowned in. It's got a maldicion de muerte! Jaguar shows up on the scene after the kids try to light up the fireplace with the flue closed (apparently that bundle of kindling produced enough smoke to be seen across the entire forest). Jaguar calmly smooths over the situation by telling the kids "if he drowned, he drowned."

Now, unable to find Adolpho, the weather turns dark and violent and one by one people start turning up dead, but who is the killer? Cue ominous music.

As much as there are slews of low-rent, generic films floating around in a sea of slasher clones, it is fun to see the tropes trotted out en espanol, even the axe-wielding killer wears a yellow rainslicker. The acting isn't abysmal, but it's definitely not great, but it's shot on film and while it feels a bit like a slasher film that the MPAA got ahold of in the '80s (only one death is on screen), it still hits that soft spot in my head for these kinds of films. Or, to put it another way, it may not be anywhere near the level of THE PROWLER (1981) or MY BLOODY VALENTINE (1981), it still kicks the crap out of FINAL EXAM (1981) and GRADUATION DAY (1981).

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Strano Italia: HOTEL INFERNO (2013)

Experimental films by their very nature are exercises in ideas with little benefit of cashflow. Studio films are made by people who have a lot of cashflow, but very little in the way of original ideas. Art is inspired by art, but sometimes in the modern film industry the term "inspired" is used very loosely.

Necrostorm is a small digital movie production unit, based in Italy, who has made a small following based on their experimental movies over the past five years. Headed up by Giulio De Santi, their first outing was the mindblowingly insane horror/gore/surreal epic ADAM CHAPLIN (2010). CHAPLIN was made by Giulio's brother Emanuele De Santi, and when I say "made" I mean, directed, produced, written, starred, and pretty much everything else. This production brilliantly fused practical and CGI effects in a way that not only made sense logically, but looked incredible on the screen. Made for clearly very little money, it was the next stage in evolution of the shot-on-video horror movies that started back in the early '80s and evolved into back-yard shot-on-video gore flicks such as the infamous German VIOLENT SHIT (1987) series from Andreas Schnaas. While Schnass has struggled for the past 20 years to figure out how to keep up with the times, the De Santi brothers have picked up the ball and taken it places that would make Schnaas weep with envy.

While Necrostorm's second outing TAETER CITY (2012) found Emanuele De Santi absent, it firmly cemented the company's focus of pushing new ground in the near-dead SOV splatter video arena. Following TAETER CITY, is HOTEL INFERNO. This also lacks Emanuele's involvement and like TAETER CITY, it suffers from it, but it still sets precedence.

Shot entirely from a first person perspective, the movie is a video game hommage about a contract killer, Frank Zimosa (Rayner Bourton)  who is hired by an unseen (but frequently heard) client to go to a lavish resort hotel and kill a man and a woman who are accused of being notorious serial killers. The client is offering a ridiculous sum of money for this assignment, but has some stipulations that Zimosa must follow. The first is that he must wear a pair of computer glasses (clearly inspired by the disastrous Google Glass) that will not only give him HUD information but also will allow the client to record all of his movements and provide proof of the second stipulation. The second catch is that Zimosa must use only the weapons provided in his hotel room to carry out his contract.

Once arriving at the hotel Zimosa discovers that the weapons are what appear to be an ancient stone mallet and a knife and he is instructed to use them to smash open their heads and gut them, removing the contents of each. Zimosa thinks this a bit odd, but hey he's being paid a mess of money, so why not a messy kill? Zimosa quickly smashes the woman's head open and discovers that in addition to all of the blood and brains is a green liquid. He starts to freak out and runs into the bathroom to discover the male target alive in a bathtub of blood and quickly decomposing. When Zimosa starts screaming questions, the man gives him rambling barely coherent answers saying that they are just like him and he doesn't know what is going on. At this point Zimosa says "fuck you" to his client (this will happen quite a bit over the course of the movie) and tries to escape the hotel. Naturally his prolonged attempt to escape (the bulk of the movie) is hampered by the fact that the hotel is loaded with his client's strangely degenerating minions.

HOTEL INFERNO is very much a mixed bag. The use of the first person gimmick is not only original, but at times extremely effective. You could compare it to a "found footage" type of film but with the found footage movies, you know that everyone in the footage met their ultimate end, thus effectively killing any suspense. Will they live? Well, no. We already know that. Here it is much easier to suspend disbelief and a few sequences in the beginning of the movie are down-right sphincter-clenching. Also there are a few moments of inspired genius where Zimosa must improvise to overcome an attacker. The best bit comes when he rips the wires out of a light fixture, tapes the loose ends to a pair of pliers and jams them in the head of his attacker causing half of his face to literally explode off of his skull. It's a shame that there aren't more moments like that because it is one of the many bits that make the movie fun.

There is also a story that slowly unfolds which is pretty great, but unfortunately De Santi chooses to do the final exposition in two scenes in which the audience is expected to watch a guy light a bunch of candles while the plot is explained by the disembodied voice of the client. It almost feels like he couldn't figure out how to explain it during the action and just settled for two big lumps of non-action in the final act when the insanity level should be at its peak. Oddly, some of the effects seem rushed and not up to the usual reasonably high standard that has been set by previous outings. One scene in particular has Zimosa taking a chainsaw away from a subterranean gangbanger and sawing his face off. Here De Santi uses simple CG to erase the chainsaw blade, add blood and then quickly cut away. Normally we would expect De Santi to show off his mad digital skills by combining footage of the actor and a prosthetic head being sawn in half and then use CG to blend the two together to make a virtually seamless effect. Matter of fact, there are many parts of the movie that feel a little rushed, which is odd since Necrostorm is their own distributor, so they certainly don't have any deadlines to meet.

Of course this is what makes it an experimental film. Or more accurately the new film HARDCORE (2015) really defines HOTEL INFERNO as an experimental film as it is a blatant rip-off, taking the entire concept and throwing a bunch of money at it, in addition to lifting from films such as ROBOCOP (1987) and possibly even CRANK (2006). While HARDCORE (or at least its trailer) is being triumphed as the first of its kind, it's not and if for no other reason, this makes HOTEL INFERNO something of a milestone in experimental film-making and should be lauded for that.

Following Necrostorm's newly released splatter-crime epic INFIDUS (2015), Giulio De Santi has started production on a sequel titled HOTEL INFERNO: CATHEDRAL OF PAIN. Like TAETER CITY, HOTEL INFERNO has plenty of good ideas that get somewhat lost in the chaos, and it should be really interesting to see if De Santi can take those good ideas and refine them into a superior sequel.


After some discussion, Will did a little research and found that HARDCORE director Ilya Naishuller's video for Biting Elbow's song Bad Motherfucker actually preceded the release of HOTEL INFERNO. Bad Motherfucker was released in January of 2013 while HOTEL INFERNO was released in December of 2013. This raises the question of whether Giulio De Santi may have borrowed the first person gimmick from Naishuller, but the fact remains that HOTEL is the first feature to use it. Also, there are a few moments in HOTEL that appear to have directly influenced HARDCORE, at least judging by the trailer. We may never know whether two people had the same idea at the same time, it has happened before, but regardless HOTEL wins the "first FPS movie" badge and De Santi again has raised the bar for back-yard Euro-splatter.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Deadly Farce: TERROR SQUAD (1988)

International terrorism with a conservative dash of middle East flavor was a popular subject for action movies throughout the '80s, but none really approached the subject matter with the gravitas it deserved until Joe Zito's INVASION U.S.A. (1985). In the same year, the harrowing plight of the school detention hall was essayed in THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985). Due to the weighty issues that these two films discussed, they became very successful and success breeds only one thing.

Peter Maris, writer-director of the infamous thriller DELIRIUM (1979) clearly walked away from 1985 thinking that INVASION U.S.A. and THE BREAKFAST CLUB were the greatest movies ever, but how to capitalize on that? Taking advantage of Indiana's generous tax credits, Maris decided to do a mashup long before that sort of thing was co-opted by hipsters.

A group of obnoxious and diverse teens are assigned detention after school along with their hopelessly frustrated and ineffectual teacher Mr. Nero (Budge Threlkeld). While trying to secretly watch female aerobics on his handheld TV, nerdy Norman (Dennis Moynahan) gets his broadcast interrupted by a news report that terrorists have taken Indiana's nuclear power plant. I'm not sure why this is such a big deal as the plant was never finished and officially mothballed in 1984, but whatever, there are terrorists are attacking it!

In addition to Norman, his classmates include a jock, a preppie girl, a punk girl and Johnny (Bill Calvert) a leather-jacketed guitar player who has jam sessions with the old black janitor Gus (Baggie Hardiman). In spite of showing electric guitars (that aren't plugged in), their jams sound like a Casiotone keyboard on guitar synth mode. After presumably fleeing from howling dogs, Johnny tells Gus "you were heaven out there." I'm not sure what that means, but I do know that it's kind of creepy.

You'd think that the Libian terrorists would sneak in under the cover of darkness, plant a few bombs and bail, but our rag-tag group of homegrown militants will have none of that. Instead they simply use a rocket launcher to clear the heavily guarded gate, and in broad day-light, send one schmuck in a van to drive a bomb into the reactor building. They even get into an argument about who gets to go in. I guess after sitting around in a cave with a bunch of hairy, sweaty men, that old saw about the seventy-two virgins starts to sound totally plausible. For some reason they are surprised when their plan is an epic failure, as the van is shot to pieces and blown up before getting to the employee parking lot.

The surviving terrorists realize that they might be meeting their seven virgins faster than they had planned, high tail it out in their suped-up getaway car... a, uhh. '78 Ford LTD. Who funded this attack? Their grandmothers? With the cops in hot pursuit, they race to downtown Kokomo to spread terror by firing automatic weapons and LAW rockets at anything that moves. Including, horror of horrors, the local bastion of capitalist pigdogs, the local comicbook shop. Meanwhile Chief Rawlings (Chuck Connors) is forced to set aside a burger, much to his chagrin, in order to chase the terrorists.

This allows for what is essentially a 30 minute car-chase that boasts some great stunt work (including a car flying out of the top-floor window of a factory) and even a helicopter with men shooting M16s at the perps. That must have been one hell of a tax incentive! In addition to shooting and blowing up most of downtown Kokomo, the heartless terrorists run down an old man with a cane and a bag of groceries while crossing the street. While he lies bleeding in the street, Chief Rawlings whips around the corner, running over the old man while only registering slight annoyance. At least he can handle the pressures of the job.

The two surviving terrorists stumble across Hoosier High and somehow manage to find the only classroom that is occupied. Yep, our ham-filled Breakfast Club are now hostages to Yassir (Kavi Raz) and Gamal (veteran writer-producer Joseph Nasser who played yet another terrorist in 1987s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE). Fortunately for the terrorists, Chief Rawlings is on the scene with Deputy Brown (Ken Foree). When the SWAT commander asks Rawlings what the situation is with the men in the building, Chief Rawlings casually replies "ran over some old man down there". Err, actually chief that is the one thing they didn't do. The SWAT commander insists that the best plan of action is to send in his men, but Rawlings holds him back because he isn't even sure if the terrorists are in the school! "We need to find out what we're dealing with first". Good thing you dragged the entire Indiana police force out to a location where you aren't even sure anyone, terrorist or otherwise, is located.

Of course with Rawlings on the job that can mean only one thing. The kids are going to have to take the situation into their own hands.

Fresno resident Peter Maris is not keen on the details, for instance the cops in pursuit are completely stymied by a truck that has spilled hay bales on the side of the road. Obviously the truck was supposed to be in the middle of the road, but you'd have to reset and shoot the sequence again to get it right and apparently the tax incentive is good, but it's not quite that good. Also, it doesn't take much perception to notice that in the big school bus stunt sequence at the end, the rear-engined long bus suddenly turns into a front-engined short bus! On the other hand, Maris puts his sweat equity into plenty of great action sequences. I'd love to see the budget that he had to set aside just for gasoline explosions.

I can't seem to find any information on the screenwriter,Chuck Rose, but his script is based on a story ("let's rip off INVASION USA and THE BREAKFAST CLUB!") by comic book and genre movie writer Mark Verheiden. The whole thing is absolutely ridiculous, but in the best possible way. When we are introduced to Cheif Rawlings, he is having a burger delivered to his car. When the fast food employee says "thank you" he cheerfully replies "you're welcome!" It is completely unclear why Rawlings is portrayed as a complete idiot, but perhaps the intent was to make him a Midwest yokel. If that is the case, Chuck Connors (in his usual Brooklyn-logo attire referencing his days as a Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman) is completely the wrong casting choice, but from an entertainment standpoint, he is the perfect casting choice. Another Chuck involved in the film is Chuck Cirino who provides another excellent score that raises the film well above its station. I just hope Cirino was not the man responsible for the "guitar" sounds in the beginning of the film.

While this certainly won't get top marks from a site like Rotten Tomatoes, I'm amazed that this doesn't have more of a cult following. Sure, it's no SAMURAI COP (1989), but it beats the hell out of the pre-fab "cult" direct-to-video fodder that is all too common these days.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Newsploitation: AMERICAN NINJA (1985) turns 30!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Gweilo Dojo: FURIOUS (1984)

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

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

Mongo like tusk:

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

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

Gives new meaning to the term head cheese:

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

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

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

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