Monday, May 26, 2014

DVD Reviews: Bookending Jim Wynorski: Gila!; The Lost Empire

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2014
Images from the Internet
Jim Wynorski is in good company. Although he arrived on the scene later in the game, starting in 1983, he deserves to be included with the likes of Roger Corman, Dave Friedman, and Hershell Gordon Lewis as purveyors of low budget and often transgressive cinema that is designed for fun and profit on a micro-budget. Wynorski has used many different directorial names (e.g., Sam Pepperman, Harold Blueberry) to cover 150 films within various genres, including horror, fantasy, exploitation and sexploitation. What I am reviewing here are re-releases of his films by Polyscope Media Group from the very beginning to the near recent.

The Lost Empire
Produced, written and directed by Jim Wynorski  
Polyscope Media Group Inc.                  
83 minutes, 1983 / 2013
The 1980s was to video indie micro-budget horror films what the 1950s were to, well, cinema house micro-budget horror films. In the case of the former, it was a new market desperate for new product to put on shelves, and the two most popular genres for quickie flicks were porn and horror. Fed on the big screen by the likes of the magic trio of Freddy, Jason and Michael, the nascent direct-to-video (D2V) hunger produced many a marvellously wondrous WTF fantasy world. This film is just one example of it.
I remember seeing this film on VHS back in the mid-1980s and thinking it was a piece of shit. Part of the problem with D2V is that back then it was rare to find letterboxing, which companies thought people would not like. It’s not surprising, really, since nearly all televisions had square screens and if a film presented was letterboxed, the image became really tiny. And if you had less than a 19”-er, it was unwatchable; don’t let me get started on foreign films and trying to read subtitles. They used a method called pan-and-scan, which meant you only saw as much as a third of the screen at a time. If two people were talking in one shot, it would flip back and forth between them, and action scenes became as muddled as, well, the new Transformer series (aka, “what the fuck just happened? All I saw was movement!”).
As televisions became larger and the quality of VHS gave way to more defined DVD (etc.), The Lost Empire became a lost film. It hadn’t made its way into the new technology, leaving it in the lost empire of grainy and pan-and-scan dimension. Thirty years later, Polyscope has given Wynorski’s early work a hand up, and have re-released the film in full-screen, cleaned-up, theater-ready glory. But is this film worth it?
Seeing it now again, after all these years, yeah, it was. Sure it’s not a great film, but it sure as hell is a fun one. I see lots of first releases by directors, and there are certainly problems due to small budget, writing, and acting that tend to be consistent that even remain right this very minute.
In the case of this film, it’s partially a feeling of “this may be my only shot, so I better cram as much as I can into it at once” (Wynorski confirms this on the commentary track). While it’s fun to play spot the reference¸ this can also lead to clichés. However, sometimes – as in this case – there are so many, it surprises you because you can never predict which homage he will use. The biggest and most obvious are Enter the Dragon, Dirty Harry, and James Bond, specifically Dr. No.
The premise is tough cop Angel Wolfe (Melanie Vincz) – as in savior / lone wolf – has a brother who was a cop, killed during a hysterically funny and bloody pre-credits robbery. She swears revenge when she learns that it was engineered by a sinister group that has an island where they are training beautiful women to fight, lured in by a large-prize contest. Leaving behind her porn-star looking boyfriend, federal agent Rick Stanton (Paul Coufos, a future Wynorski repeater), she sets on a path to investigate and seek retribution. Along the way she picks up two more associates to help in her plan. First there is Whitestar (Raven DeLaCroix, a star in Russ Meyer’s Up! and at the time Wynorski’s girlfriend; she also rightfully earned a producer’s credit here, a Native American who Angel once saved. DeLaCroix, who designed her own cleavage-bearing costumes, is mostly Native with some Métis thrown in). Despite her ample bosom, it was her blue eyes I actually found most beguiling. Go figure. Last there is the gum-poppin’, prison-sprung Heather McClure (the ill-fated Angela Aames, who would die of a heart condition not long after this), who had been placed there by Angel.
The premise behind the plot is the search for an ancient jewel that has mystical powers, and when combined with its twin already held by the island’s “mastermind,” supposedly brings enough power to control the world. Everyone is looking and killing for it, but it has a mind of its own. So the three women, who often crack wise, set off to the island kingdom to seek out and kick some cult butt, even before knowing about the gem, which ultimately makes itself known.
That’s about as much as I’m willing to give away, storywise. Let me say right off, that even though it was Wynorski’s first release (he has at least one previous that has never been publicly released), it actually looks quite good. Sure, some of the sets and matte painted backgrounds look a bit like the first season of Star Trek, but by using the Roger Corman playbook (and the Corman studio lot, among other locations), he manages to make the most out of what he has. The SFX look really cheezy, but unless you were at Lucas level, this is how most of it appeared for indie films at that technological juncture. The laser machine at the end, however, just made me laugh and laugh.
Despite his lack of directorial credits, there is actually a pretty impressive cast of secondary characters that is worth noting. For example, the villain (not giving away anything because it’s in the credits) is the Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm, chewing scenery his entire time on screen, acting more with his eyes than anything else (squint…wide…squint…wide). Also from the Phantasm franchise (there is a new Phantasm scheduled to be released in 2015 with the original cast!) is Bill Thornbury, who played the older brother, and here plays Angel’s younger brother. Next up is softcore icon Angelique Pettyjohn, known mostly for an episode of Star Trek as a fellow “thrall” with Shatner, here is practically unrecognizable (to me) as a prison gladiator who wears a black leather dominatrix costume that she peels piece by piece.
As a police captain in a short cameo near the start is redheaded Kenneth Tobey, known mostly as the lead in the original version of The Thing From Another World (1951). Then for an even briefer moment there is Tom(my) Rettig, who was the original owner of Lassie in the first series of the television show (1954-57).
One other notable actor is Blackie Dammett, the one person who could out-scenery-chew Angus. I couldn’t remember where I had seen him before, and after looking it up, it was from National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982). Considering the way he overacts, it’s not surprising that (a) his last role was in 1990, and (b) he will be better known through history as the real-life drug dealing dad of the lead singer of the overrated Red Hot Chili Peppers. Man, is he a bad actor.
Wynorski had made some weird choices here. For example, no matter what the occasion, everyone is going to be showing lots of cleavage. In fact, when Angel goes to visit her brother in the hospital, she wears a shiny gold one-piece that is skin tight and cut down to nearly the navel. Even on the island, everyone’s hair is perfectly quaffed, and Angel’s changes from straight to poufy to having ringlets. Apparently, even on an isolated island used for women gladiators, girls will be girls.
Of course, in the story, there are so many holes, not even counting the lead henchman (stunt man and real-life bully, according to Wynorski’s commentary, Robert Tessier) and his ever-changing eyebrows. For example, the shuriken (Japanese throwing stars) are way too thick to stick into anything, the three female leads are constantly snarking at the island’s – er – management, as if the guards cannot hear them, and they manage to sneak out of the facility a few times, despite there being cameras everywhere, and more importantly sneak back, even after there is reports of “intruders.” There is one character that has a broken leg (portrayed well by Linda Shayne) in scene, and is walking around the next day.
Although it was “acceptable” at the time, in hindsight, there is a lot of less-than-subtle racism floating around here. For example, a Chinese character cameo is Charles Chang (yes, dressed identically to Charlie Chan), played by occidental character actor Art Hern, with all the stereotypical broken Engrish. For DeLaCroix’s character, she is constantly using clichés (and remember, she’s also one of the producers) such as, “Yes, kimosabe.” She bares her overly large cleavage while wearing a Native headdress. As for sexist, well, duh, that’s the genre, and that’s an enjoyable given.
While most of the electronic music is terrible, sounding like many of the television cop show themes of the period (electric keyboard going “ooo-wahhhhh ooo-wahhhhh”), it is hard to criticize it because it was the style for the time. What is notable, however, is that some of the humor – and there is a lot here – actually works. Groaners for sure, but bound to bring either a happy “Oy!” or genuine smile.
The disk has only two extras, a truly interesting commentary track by Wynorski that confirms many thoughts I had while watching the film, and a silly “stills” track that is merely screen grabs from the film itself, rather than during shooting. However, it was nice to see one shot of Shayne’s fate that Wynorski discusses but is really hard to see while watching the movie.
Looking back, this film is actually important in a way, in the larger scheme of things. It is a time capsule of a particular style that propelled the home-grown market in a time when even low-budget films had to be shot on film (in this case, Cinemascope!), and be opened to a greedy market that was in a sometimes painful growth spurt. Though I did not like it when it was first released, I can now appreciate it for what it was, and especially for what it was trying to be in the cultural arena.

Directed by Jim Wynorski      
Polyscope Media Group Inc.                  
91 minutes, 2012 / 2014
Gila! Is actually a made for television (Sci-Fi Channel) remake of the 1959 low-budget monster film, The Giant Gila Monster. It was part of the popular subgenre of supersized creatures, such as Them!, The Giant Behemoth, The Killer Shrews (made by the same group that did …Gila Monster), Gorgo, Konga, and even Gojira.
In an very similar storyline, also taking place in 1959, a bunch of 30-year-old teenage hotroding friends discover there is a dinosaur sized poisonous (though this aspect is never used in the plot) Gila Monster roaming around their Texas-based, Indiana shot town. The head of this motley crew is hero Chase (played with gusto by Brian Gross, currently starring as Kirk on the Star Trek: New Voyages series) and his best gal is girl-next-door-with-a-smart-mouth Lisa (Madeline Voges). If this were a western, Chase (what else would you call someone who races hotrods?) would definitely be wearing a white hat, though he’s so goody-goody, it would probably be white bread. He makes Steve McQueen in The Blob (1958) look like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953).
Chase’s nemeses (i.e., the “black hat”) would be the stereotypical JD type “Waco” Bob (Jesse Janzen), who is a short-tempered, woman-abusing thug that spent three years in “juvie.” His squeeze is the hot Carla (Christina DeRosa, who looks like a rounder version of Alyssa Milano), who of course has the hots for Chase. While she is also cartoonish, Christina actually manages to make her into a fuller (no pun intended) character, which is actually a large compliment. Like most of the roles, hers is written quite two-dimensional, though she successfully gives her some nuances. She is also the one who supplies any form of sex appeal, with or without the cleavage and self-butt slaps.
The other two main characters are the local Sherriff (veteran actor Terence Knox, who was a regular on St. Elsewhere, among others; you’ll probably recognize his face, especially if you’re over 30). He’s sort of a substitute dad to Chase, who has a mother and baby sister suffering from the after-effects of polio, but no father.
As with previous films, Wynorski has managed to dig up some aging teen actors who look well beyond their years, and yet for some reason makes me happy (that they are there, that is). First up is the mayor’s wife, played by Julie McCullough, who infamously was future religious fanatic-tea party spokesperson-asshole Kirk Cameron’s steady in the Growing Pains television series. The wife is kind of a harpy, but her character sort of disappears after one scene. I was waiting for her to be swallowed whole, as that’s how they set up the tone. But more important (to me, anyway) is Kelli Maroney, who was in one of the only soapers I watched, Ryan’s Hope, and in such classics (seriously) as Night of the Comet (1984) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). She’s the deputy who doesn’t fare as well as McCullough (hey, it’s in the trailer). The coup d’état though is getting Don Sullivan in a minor role. Who that, you ask? He was Chase in the original …Gila Monster.
The monster is, in this case, caused by toxic waste hidden in a cave. The townsfolk have to find the scaly critter and get rid of it before it can lay eggs, which makes me thing about Lena Dunham’s comment about having, “like, a thousand follow-up questions, such as…” how do they know it’s female (i.e., does a male Gila monster have a dangling participle?), and doesn’t there need to be another that size for it to mate with, which means there would be at least two? There are lots of issues I have, but I believe this has more to do with the four (yes, four) writers more than director-for-hire Wynorski.
With an estimated budget of nearly a million buckerinos, I can think of so many micro-budget directors who would have been able to create much better effects for half that amount. I’m guessing most of the money went towards the CGI monster itself, but the CGI blood, CGI explosions, CGI feedings, CGI car crashes all look more 2002 than 2012. Perhaps1992. I will have to say, though, that there is a couple of really good face meltings toward the beginning of the film, which appear more appliance than graphic.
One of the highlights of the film is the soundtrack, which includes a number of rock and roll classics by the likes of Bill Haley and the Comets, the Everly Brothers, Dion and the Belmonts, and even the true king of rock and roll, Chuck Berry. There are a couple of decent original songs and a mediocre cover of “Fever” (using the pre-Peggy Lee-added text).
The best of the extras are the trailers for both this film and the original. The rest of them are kind of meh. There is a slide show, a text description about the original film, a text narrative of Drive-In culture, and the original recording of Don Sullivan’s “Mushroom Song” (with lyrics) from the first film. I like the way Wynorski does commentaries, but there is none here, again I am assuming because he didn’t write or produce.
So, do I recommend this? Yeah, without a doubt. Sure it lags in parts, but it is a fun escapist nonsense that has a relatively decent sense of humor when it wants, the acting is purposefully juuuust over the top, and the monster is, well, huge. Now if he can only bring back Traci Lords, like he did with Not of This Earth (1988). Oh, wait, that’s right, he is, in a new feature called Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre, due later this year.
 The Lost Empire trailer here:


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