Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Review: Pretty Fine Things

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Pretty Fine Things
Written, cinematography, directed and edited by Ryan Scott Weber
Weber Pictures Co. / Wild Eye Releasing / MVD Visual
100 minutes, 2016 / 2017

While sometimes made-up places can have decent names, or even just something like Smallville, but for me, I’m a fan of maps. I especially love when not only are real places used – especially rural ones – but also have great names like Bernardsville, New Jersey. Yep, that’s where this Podunk takes place. It’s only about 45 miles west of Hoboken, somewhere between Routes 78 and 80. I’ve passed the sign for Bernardsville many times on my way to either Pennsylvania or back to Brooklyn, though have never stopped off there. It’s also where this slasher release was shot.

Lynn Lowry
Outside this relatively small burg is where some of the fictional Banner family resides. Papa Banner (Ralph Cobert) is going blind and senile, missing his past-on wife (the always amazing Lynn Lowry, in essentially an extended cameo), who we see in flashbacks and dreams. They have three sons, and right off the bat we already know that the one who lives with dad, Walter (Brooklyn’s own Joe Parascand), is a bit off; I don’t think I’m giving much away as less than five minutes in he’s involved with dispatching Heather (the very cute Krista Robelle) after she has a fight with her boyfriend, Jay (Jesse Stier, whose face hair volume seems to changes from scene to scene).

Joe Parascand
After the prologue, we meet three late-20s-looking college students from Worchester, MA: the blonde virgin Hayden (Emelia Brawn) who gets constantly teased by her friends, Wendy the redhead (Lauren Renahan), and Ashley the Latina brunette (also cute Camila Perez). They rent a house from Walter to have a Halloween party. The many guests – aka, the body count – arrive, as do Walter’s two equally serial killing and mother-obsessed brothers, Thomas (Patrick Devaney) and James (Adam Ginsberg), who are they to create the body count. Their aim is to delete sinners from the world, and have women to “substitute” for mommy dearest to dear old senile and near blind dad.

Added to the mix are two police detectives investigating the recent string of missing women, Jake (director Weber) and his partner/love-interest Jennifer (Kristin Accardi), and their Captain (Christopher J. Murphy), who for some reason looks more Texan than Jerseyite, right down to the Stetson…and yet has a map of Italy on his wall (I’m sure it belongs to whosever space they were using).

Ryan Scott Weber
This is just the basic set up. As you can see, there are a lot of elements going on at the same time in this very ambitious screenplay. The story jumps around each of the three groups – the Banner family, the women/party, and the police – in quick order, circling around until they all collide together. While all of this is going on, we get to know a little back-story, which is welcomed and tends to be missing from most films, so thanks for that!

Being the modern world, most of these kinds of films that involve the slaughter of many (some men, mostly women), you know there has to be a twist, and is partially indicated early on when one of the women comments on the weirdness of Walter, and the response from another is, “We are a little creepy, ourselves.” While this is more than just a subtle reference to a line from The Craft, it is potentially a good thing. But also like contemporary horror cinema, especially indie releases, the action takes quite a while to start. There is some minor bloodletting to whet the appetite, but the real action kicks in after the expository about an hour in, when the Halloween party begins.

Camila Perez
Which brings us to the gore: we don’t see much in the first hour, even with some killings, but when the party starts is when it really kicks off. Michael Anthony Scardillo does a bang-up job with it, nearly all appliance SFX, when we see it. What I mean is that a lot of the violence to bodies is done through clothing, such as stabbings, but every once in a while, we get to see some viscera and bloodletting, and it looks really good. As for nudity? Well, we get to see a lot of cleavage and bras, but no naughty bits, even with a shower scene (still in underwear). Well, the cast is attractive, so I’ll move on after the following comment: there are a lot of tattoos on nearly everybody, including at least one full chest-plate. “Ouchies!”

The weak sides of the film are as follows: there really needs to be some editing done to bring this puppy down to at most 90 minutes. There are definitely superfluous moments that could be done away with without losing any of the story (I’ll get to the actual “Deleted Scenes” extra in a mo). Most of the acting is quite decent, such as by Parascand who steals nearly every scene he is in (his close-mouth smile is just the right level of eerie), and Perez is a close second, though there are some characters that are pretty wooden and only there for the body count (in the party scene, so it’s actually a positive, right?). Lastly, the writing is a bit shaky in sporadic parts, though I will say there is a nice and subtle humor that shows up throughout here and there, especially with the coppers, to balance it all out.

Lauren Renahan and  Emieia Brawn
On the positive, I was mucho grande impressed that there were at least three unexpected twists in the last 20 minutes, which I’m not going to hint at in any way. There is also an interesting use of color tinting throughout, which isn’t as subtle as it could have been, but still works. The camerawork is also quite good, using unusual angles and through objects in a way that doesn’t come across as all artsy, but still stands out.

The extras include a 10:05 blooper reel that was okay, but did not really bring anything major to the cast to indicate friendship or amusement to the viewer (well, this one anyway). The three female leads are friends in real life, but you don’t really get that here. But blooper reels tend to be overrated, in my opinion. Next is a 27:28 “Behind the Scenes” collection that is narrated by Jay Kay, host of “The Horror Happens Radio Show.” Rather than just watching shots being set up (which I find boring), Kay wisely interviews the seven key players, and some of the production crew. It’s a bit long, but most of it is interesting. The cheesy music behind it gets to be a bit much, but I think I’m nit-picking there.

This is followed by a 9:44 “Deleted Scenes” which also includes some extended ones, and an interesting alternative ending. In all, I feel like they made the right choice to put these here, rather than leave them in the film. Still, it was good to see these after watching the film. Of course, being a Wild Eye Releasing – err – release, there are a half-dozen trailers for other indies, mostly with a theme that I won’t say as it sheds a light on a spoiler alert. I really like Wild Eye’s stuff.

The main extra, which comes first but I saved for last (in both review and participating in) is the full-length commentary. Thankfully, it’s only Weber and Parascand so there is hardly any talking over or bravado, just stories about filming, both about the ideas behind it and anecdotes about the shoot, and it’s an easy listen that doesn’t get boring.

This is essentially a story about playing with the perception of who is “good” and who is “bad.” You can tell this is an mico-budgeter, but Weber does a great job in showing what can be done with very little, and make it look big.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Review: Caesar and Otto’s Summer Camp Massacre

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Caesar and Otto’s Summer Camp Massacre
Written and directed by Dave Campfield
Fourth Horizon Cinema
75 minutes, 2009

Okay, this is a bit ass backwards: I’ve seen the films that followed this one, such as Caesar and Otto’s Deadly Xmas (2012) and Caesar and Otto’s Paranormal Halloween (2015), but never the original Caesar and Otto (2007), nor this one. Well, one down and one to go.

I’ve been a fan of the CandO films for a while now, and they’ve gone through some metamorphosis / growth over time thanks in part to additional experience in writing and direction by Campfield, plus the actors becoming more comfortable with their roles.

Foreground Ari K. Garg, Dave Campterfield, Paul Chomicki
The focus is on the two Denovio half-brothers: the insanely controlling, uptight and sexually ambiguous Caesar (Campfield), and the older and slovenly Otto (Paul Chomicki), who is the polar opposite of Caesar in every way. They don’t usually get along very well, but they rely on each other in ways that go below the surface. Added to this formula is their horn-dog grifter father, Fred (Scott Aguilar), who is self-assured and suave in ways his sons both detest and admire. In all the films, Fred keeps popping up in the strangest places at just the right (or wrong) times.

I am hardly the first person to say this, but this series is often compared to the Stooges, but I have my own theory: they have the slapstick of the Stooges, the anger of Abbott and Costello, and a wit like the Marx Brothers… okay, there is only one Bros. Marx, but there is a sharpness here amid a certain sort of purposeful witlessness that elevates this to beyond slapstick… and believe me, there’s plenty of that, as well. If the viewer takes it on the surface, it’s a fun escape piece of cinema nonsense that’s good with beer and pizza. But if one is a genre fan and pays attention, there is a level beyond the obvious, full of references to other films – the later CandO ones, even more so; it’s a bit tad more subtle here – and the humor is nearly constant, which goes well with, well, beer and pizza… and a game of spot-the-allusion. Take a drink every time you connect to one, and you’ll be blitzed by the end.

Felissa Rose
On the run after a road rage incident (Caesar is a rage-aholic with boundary issues – but then again, what rage-aholic doesn’t? Am I right?), CandO hide out by becoming counselors at a sleepaway camp where nefarious things are afoot. It’s run by Jerry Griffen (CandO regular Ken MacFarlane, who always plays someone evil named Jerry and has a last name that starts with a “G”). Among the counselors is the moody and hyper-sensitive Dick (Deron Miller) and the mysterious Carrie (Regina ula italiana Felissa Rose, also a producer of this and other CandO films; she’s will be forever known for a role she did as a youth that includes one of the oddest and longest still frames in horror cinema, which is the basis for this film; oops, reference, so take a sip of that beer!).

So much of the cast here, in its nascent troupe form, is a group that would be recurring in many of those CandOs to come. For example, there’s Avi K. Garg as a fellow counselor who has a running gag through all the releases, self-titled (and rightfully so) Scream-Queen Queen Brinke Stevens who is a shady character that has latched onto Otto, and Joe Estevez (brother of Martin Sheen) as an kinda nusty authority figure who is a fictional version of himself. Also worth noting in hindsight is another counsellor, Trai Byers; he would go on to become a regular on the remake of “90210” (2012), and more recently “Empire” (2015-present).

Everyone in the camp has their own agenda, including murder, thievery and cowardice, all of whom often make their hands present, even if the viewer doesn’t always know whose those are… yet.

Scott Aguilar
As for the murderer, well, I figured out for sure who the killer is at 43 minutes in, but not the why until the reveal. And speaking of time, there is a great visual gag at 35:50 that made me laugh pretty hard, and re-played it a couple of times more before moving on. The head count is not extremely high, but it’s plentiful. Despite the budget and cheesy flavor of the whole she-bang, Richard G. Calderon’s make-up SFX is quite worthy of notice.

The acting is done a bit campy, especially Campfield’s ham-fisted Caesar character who is – ta da – a bad actor. In later films Campfield will tone down the pretentious line reading (again, purposeful). Chomicki’s Otto is like a big child, hopeful and innocent in a kind of girl-hungry way, fumbling into relationships; Chomicki plays him with glee. As for their roguish father, Aguilar just looks like he’s having so much fun. In fact, most of the cast seems to be enjoying themselves, and that transfers to the viewer nicely.

This film is a lead-in to two horror shorts, the 9:39 minute Caesar and Otto in the House of Dracula (2009; HERE)  and the 16:51 Caesar and Otto Meet Dracula’s Lawyer (2010; HERE), which features yet another famous actor’s sibling, Ed Dennehy (bro of Brian), who plays Steve Dracula (brother of… you know who). They’re completely shot on green screen and make an interesting experiment. Plus, look for the cameo of Pigzilla!
If you’re in the mood for something deep, well, you’ve sorta come to the wrong place. I mean, there is a certain well of depth if you’re looking for it, but most people are going to see this merely as a fun way to spend an afternoon. Both ways are viable and I respect both approaches to looking at it; that being said, there is more to be gained by going beyond the surface, in my opinion.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review: The Unwilling

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

The Unwilling
Directed by Jonathan Heap
Vision Films / Northern Prod / Rough Diamond Prod /
Bertone Visuals Prod / Corrales Digital /
84 minutes, 2016 / 2018

When I see a film that has played many festivals and numerous and very different posters, I get a mixture of excited and cynically suspicious. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed. The director, Jonathan Heap, was nominated for an Oscar in 1991 for a short called 12:01 PM. Since the millennium, most of his work has been shorts and a television series. I willingly enter the bargain of watching this with hope, however, considering the cast and the look of the stills from it, but I’m jumping ahead.

The premise is simple: an ugly and evil box gives you want you want, and then takes over your body and either kills others or gets the body killed through its actions. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this being a demon, though it’s never really quite specific on its origins, and even complains when someone tries to name it.

We learn the box has been doing this for quite a while as we meet an extended family, based on the children of the previous “owner,” veteran badass Lance Henricksen, who in an extended cameo still manages to outshine most. After the box had come into his life when the now adults were mere kids, he had changed and became a cruel tormentor to his children, leading the main and locus character, David (co-writer with the director, David Lipper) to become housebound due to severe OCD (think of Monk with agoraphobia and without the humor).
Lance Henricksen
Also joining him at his home after the death of his dear old evil dad, to hear the reading of the will, are his similarly abused and hyper-vain sister Michelle (Dina Meyer, who gets to show off some impressive yoga moves), her brutish ex-husband Rich (Robert Rusler) and his current fiancée Cheryl (the lovely Bree Williamson, who I remember from the underrated television show, “Haven”), and cousins Kelly (Austin Highsmith), who is a lawyer and enabler to her junkie brother, Darren (Jake Thomas).

Not a huge cast, but just enough for a decent body count. But I’m jumping ahead of myself again here. The box itself looks pretty cool, sort of like coal with a Cthulhu-similar raised octopus design on it. There’s no denying that it’s bound to remind one of the Book from Evil Dead. Fact of the matter is that there is a lot here that is reminiscent of other films, which in itself I don’t really find to be a bad thing most of the time. It’s like a game of “Oh, I know that one! Take a drink!”

Dina Meyer
The film has moments of slow pacing here and there, but mostly it’s a building story. That being said, it can definitely use some editing and excising, such as how many times do we need to see the water coming from Meyer’s shower head straight on? It’s almost like you’re stuck a bit in David’s need to (rinse and) repeat. Luckily, this doesn’t happen often enough to give up on the story, which mostly works pretty well, in part thanks to its seasoned cast (meant as experience, not age).

Many of the characters are either not likeable or a bit two-dimensional, though David’s seems to be the most thought through (well, the actor playing him did co-write it, remember); however, he is also the center of the story, so that makes sense. We don’t get to learn too much about the others; well, more than occupations and allegiances. There’s very little backstory other than bad dad.

My big question, though, is the title. To me, it sounds kind of contradictory. Okay, here is what I mean by that: the whole premise is based on all the characters volunteering to do something with the box that I won’t give away, and then the box giving each what they want in order to…well, you know (i.e., see the film for yourself). They make choices about what they want, and follow through with the devil’s deal (or demon’s; still not sure). That sounds more like willing than unwilling. Is there something I missed? It’s a similar theme to the Leprechaun franchise where he grants wishes that brings along demise in it, or even as far back as Goethe’s Faust. The working title of the film was The Gathering, and while The Unwilling definitely sounds more chilling, the other seems more accurate. Yeah, I know this is a bit nit-picky; do with it what you will.

Bree Williamson
The SFX in the film are occasionally practical appliances (the blood consistency and color is really good, by the way), but there is also a lot of digital hoo-haa, such as swirling smoke, mirror tricks (reminiscent of Carpenter’s 1987 Prince of Darkness) and a visual “ripple” that leads a character to the box to get what he needs/wants. Other than one cheesy effect outside the house, they all look decent, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s optical.

The press release for the film quite proudly states (and rightfully so), that the crew includes the aforementioned Oscar-nominated director, “Oscar-… and Emmy-winning Cinematographer David Stump,” and multiple award-winning writer Philip Morton (second director and co-producer on this film). With all this heavy power, it’s not surprising that the film looks as good as it does. There is no one thing that is a standout to make me say “Wow,” but it’s definitely a good film, though somewhat washed out of color (I’m sure purposefully). Do I think it’s deserving of such praise? Well, it’s been shown at two dozen festivals around the world, so you there is something there worth noting.

Austin Highsmith
Other than editing, my only real note and quibble is that I think it didn’t go far enough. Except for a nice surprise at the end with an equally enjoyable practical effect (well, it looks like it is an appliance, so I’m assuming…), there is hardly any blood (even with the one person stabbed in a strategic place), the sensuality is minimal other than an affected nurse (Levy Tran, who is on the poster and most of her appearance in the film is in the trailer) and a seduction that changes tone, there is no nudity even with the obligatory shower scene (perhaps the Director’s Cut in a decade or two?), and a low level of actual scares. The pace and angst definitely increases over the course of the film, but it tends to get more shrill than thrill.

Jake Thomas
And yet… I still had a bit of fun watching it. Yeah, I’m critical, but I hope I am not harsh. Even with a seasoned director, actors and crew, there’s the next level and I mean these comments as “notes” and “critique” more than just “opinion” (i.e., where the problem are, rather than “good/bad”).

For example, the acting level is fine, with a bit over- and underacting on occasion. As I said, the cast are seasoned pros and have quite a catalog behind just about all of them, from both film and television, and it shows. The strongest weakness (an oxymoron!) in the writing comes, I believe, from this being the first screenplay for Lipper, and director Heap hasn’t had a writing credit since the early 1990s. But I hope they both continue to stretch their writing wings because there is promise here, and I think by a couple of more films they can be a force. I look forward to that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: Housesitters

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Images from the Internet

Directed by Jason Coffman
Tomorrow Romance
62 minutes, 2018

Man-oh-man-ohhhh-man! Though this is showing my hand way too early, what a fun ride. At just over an hour, this horror comedy that is partially shot on iPhone is short at just over an hour, but I happily watched it twice in a row.

In the story, some friends put a video out on the ‘Net that they are looking for a job as a housesitter (I know people who actually do this). Of course the house that comes their way is nice, has a platinum card for ordering food (and a lot of it)… and, oh yeah a Little Bastard of a demon’s familiar created by the horror puppet master himself, Dustin Wayde Mills.

Peter Ash, Jamie Jirak, Annie Watkins
At the core of the story are two friends, Angie (Annie Watkins) and Izzy (Jamie Jirak), who riff off each other so well that the actors playing them get a writing credit, and rightfully so. While the situation is supernatural and their reactions are hardly what would happen in the real world, the pace and tone of their comments feels like these guys actually are friends (I have no idea what their relationship is beyond the camera, of course).

This is a first feature (relatively speaking, length-wise) film for Jason Coffman, and I certainly hope it’s not the last, especially if he keeps Jirak and Watkins in tow; the three of them certainly make a strong team. There’s lots of pot, mixed drinks, and porn (the latter is not shown, just discussed while viewed off camera… yes, by the women).

There’s a lot to unpack, including demon possession, a small body count, the undead, a house with boundaries, time travel, and a whole bunch of smart-assitude that had me laughing. Joining the women are Izzy’s kinda lame boyfriend, Zach (Peter Ash), even though he is the most clear-headed of the group as far as the situation goes, Angie’s crush Mark (Ben Schlotfelt), and Zach’s annoying pal Dan (Jay J. Bidwell, who’s had one of the more extensive credits of a mostly newbie cast).

The film is presented in two parts of “Invocation of the Demon God,” as “Episode 7” and “Episode 8.” I have no idea what that means, but I know I want to see more. It’s separated by an animated short that…well, you have to see it. That being said, I know the whole mandatory September 11, 1991 prologue is necessary to the story, but it didn’t really do much for me. Oh, if I may digress for a sec, but it seems to me the actor (Mariah Michael) is not a smoker, considering how she never drags, just draws and blows; in some ways, that sets the viewer up to the goofy level. Anyway, that may be, however, because of the high level of the rest of the film’s – err – story, thin as it is (and rightfully so).

Don’t get me wrong, this is silly-ass shit, and perhaps the reason there is so much cannabis inhalation is because they’re feigning to a stoner audience, but it didn’t have to be, in my opinion; it stands up on its own weirdness and attitude. The acting is a layer of goofy with a natural relationship between the women, and a bit of skewed feminism thrown in at a subtle level.

What makes me sad about this film, and I’m being serious about this, is that I wanted more. The ending is a bit up in the air and left me with some questions, but what I wanted was the story not to end because I was enjoying it so much.

Little Bastard
However, what I especially enjoyed about the story is that it takes you in a direction you are probably not expecting, and yet it’s comfortable with the world in which it takes place. For a horror film that is not based on body count, gore, or even a realistic-appearing killing creature (but Little Bastard does look cool), and yet also is steeped in silly dialogue and actions even for stoners, it feels somehow right in this context, and doesn’t overreach. An hour is the right length for this – even though I wanted more – without padding it out to fill the time with, say, people walking around with flashlights for minutes on end, or seeing spooks in the mirror (man, I’m tired of that cliché)¸or people in masks and sharp implements. It’s a bit of a different approach to an old theme, which is something one may not expect from a micro-budget broad comedy with horror elements. I’m grateful.

For those interested, the world premiere is at the Windy City Horrorama on April 28, 2018. As it was filmed in Chicago, it makes sense that the screening is at the Davis Theater.

This film is so much more fun than the 1992 Steve Martin-Goldie Hawn one with a similar-yet-singular name, and a fraction of the budget... but how did I miss the emu?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Review: The Monster and the Ape

ext and live photos © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Film images from the Internet

The Monster and the Ape
Directed by Howard Bretherton
Cheezy Flicks / MVD Visual
450 minutes, 1945 / 2010

Serials came and went along with the cinema stage shows, and eventually double features. But in 1946, when these 15 installments were released to an post-war audience, still reeling from the scare of spies and the technology of an emergent atomic age, it was expected, along with the newsreels. The timing of these serials in it's cultural context is worth noting.

Howard Bretherton had a long history of directing B-films, mostly westerns, but he definitely moves into the industrial spy / sci-fi / horror genre without missing a mark, since they end up being pretty much the same: central villain, his henchmen bad guys in black suits, the hero from out of town dressed in a lighter color (gray, rather than white), the pretty heroine, and her victim father. Add in the dizzy driver to replace the dizzy wagon train cook, a robot and gorilla (in place of the cows and horses. perhaps?), and there ya go. Bretherton would also direct a couple of episodes of The Adventures of Superman in 1958.

The plot is nonsensical, but so what, this isn’t supposed to be rocket science (pun intended), but rather a way to keep the audience coming back to the theater for a 30-minute episode over 15 weeks. The production cost is kept to a minimum, and it kept the cash rolling in. Those times as is now, it is not the average film that brings in an audience, but the schlock. People would rather see Friday the 13th Part XLI than just about anything with Judi Dench. Adam Sandler outsells Robert Dinero. People just like mindless entertainment. Fortunately, depending on the genre, I’m one of them (gabba gabba we accept you, one of us!).

The monster, in this story, is a robot (uncredited), and the ape is, well, a guy in a gorilla suit. Let me stop here a sec and comment on them. The robot (called a “rob’t” by one of the henchmen, and a “rabbit” by the good guy’s driver / servant / etc. – to the extent of commenting he wanted it to get back into its “hutch”). The ‘bot doesn’t move much through the series, though he is often carried by the bad guys. Six feet of metal, and they carry it like it’s the hollow shell that it actually is. When it moves, it makes exaggerated movements, making knee-high steps, and moving its arms up and down. And, of course, there is a buzzing, electrical sound whenever it is in motion. My guess it was really hard to move in the thing, and whoever was inside (when it wasn't being carried) did the best he could. Speaking of which, the ape, Thor, is played by an uncredited Ray “Crash” Corrigan (the box for this release wrongly identifies him as the robot), who did a spectacular job at both being a gorilla and stealing the scenes, grabbing at hats while people are talking, and generally being a nuisance to the actors, but a joy to the audience. My commendations. Corrigan would play apes in many other films, such as Nabonga, The Monster Maker, The White Gorilla, and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. He also made a bunch of westerns and classic D-grade films like The Zombies of Mora Tau and as the title creature in It! The Terror from Beyond Space (from which the plot of Alien was – er – inspired).

I also want to touch on the fight scenes, in which there are usually two per half hour episode. Most of the time, it’s our hero, Ken Morgan (Robert Lowery) against two or more of the thugs, with fedoras rarely leaving the heads while the punches fly, and certainly no bruising or other side effects from the action (except for a slight limp after a run-in with Thor). There seems to be a set series of types of fight moves: for example, there is the leap as one fighter jumps at the opponent, the wait as the puncher hesitates and gives a second for the punchee to either get up, or retrieve his hat, or brace himself for the next punch, and there is the play-through punch where the hand comes way back to the point of a question of balance, and then it is thrown. Then there are the moments when the punches actually miss (unintentionally), yet the person air-punched falls. These are my favorite ones, and I actually played a couple of them back in slo-mo. At one point, a villain hits our hero on the head with a gun, and then fights with him. Why would he not have shot him, other than needing him to be around for more episodes?

Logic and consistency is not something that is prevalent in serials, generally, which makes them all the more amusing to watch. They exist in their own world of physics. For example, in one episode a machine is discovered to find a metal called metalogen that is found in meteorites that have fallen (which is needed to make the robot run), but in another, all there is in the world is located at one spot under a car garage in the town where the story takes place, but then there is more, but then there isn’t… And if that’s all there is, how did they get the metalogen man (robot) to work in the first place, and why would a scientist somewhere else invent a machine to find the stuff is it’s only in one spot, and…well, you get the idea.

The basic premise is that four scientists invent the robot, but only one wants the claim, so he kills off two of them right away, and the third one he keeps around because that's the one who has the robot in his possession; apparently the only way to get it is through him. The ape is controlled (somewhat) by one of the henchmen, who is also a zookeeper, and is often brought to the villain’s home via a tunnel connected to Thor’s cage at the zoo.

The thugs kidnap just about everyone in the cast, at one point or another, and yet all of them either escape or are released by one of the other cast members just in time. Rarely, though, are the cops involved onscreen; usually, the main characters go to investigate by themselves (flashlight always at the ready), finding themselves in a pickle (or at least a fist-fight) of some sort. The one time a police inspector actually is around the bad guy’s house is near the end of one episode and is never seen again, nor is his disappearance explained.

The main theme of any serial is the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. [Note: One spoiler alert in this paragraph.] It is so funny to see the end of the chapter, where it is clear that someone is injured or killed, e.g., a rock falls on one… well, a dummy dressed as him, at the end of one episode, but when you see the next chapter, he dives out of the way before the rock hits him.

There is a lot of use of then-new technology in this storyline, such as television signals and robotics, but it is not fully explored as a sociological phenomenon as much as “look at all the cool high-tech stuff we know about.” It would be like someone using Twitter a couple of years ago in a movie, but now would be looked on as everyday.

As I stated, the hero is played by Robert Lowery, who visits the Bainbridge Laboratory where the robot was created – as an investigator from a company who wants to mass market the creature to save us all from toil. He is straight-laced as they come, a handsome figure yet hardly romantic (never makes a move on the only female in the cast). He’s hardboiled, though, enough to make a grab for his hat before leaving a building about to explode; very noir detective-like in his demeanor. Lowery would have a long career, as would most of the cast, moving on to golden age television appearances from an episode of Superman to the likes of Playhouse 90. He was also a regular in the 1966 western series, Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats.

Ralph Morgan plays Professor Arnold, the lead scientist of the group who invent the robot. He is often found to be misled, though not confused, and makes many mistakes (thinking the hero is with the villains, giving up the robot to the wrong people, etc.). Morgan embodies him as intense, and yet he remains likeable despite all his mishandlings. With a career of character acting that dates back to the silent era, Morgan also had his share of roles in exploitation films, such as Night Monster, Hitler’s Madman, Weird Woman, The Monster Maker, and Black Market Babies.

His daughter-secretary, and seemly not love interest for Ken, is Babs, played with a soft Lauren Bacall feel by Carole Mathews. She is often whiney (“I’m so worried about my father!”), easily fooled, and most of the time very jovial (“Oh, that’s wonderful!”). She is definitely a post-war poster woman, wearing suits and working in the lab with her father, as well as assisting him. But she sees more physical action from Thor than Ken. Mathews would also go on to character acting on early television, though her last credit is dated 1978.

As the villain, Professor Ernst, George Macready had the most luck in television, even appearing regularly on the soap opera, Payton Place. His face is definitely recognizable to me for appearances on the likes of Get Smart, Night Gallery, and both County Yorga films, but in this serial, his evil Ernst comes across more as a Dr. Evil than a Blofeld. At one point one of his henchmen says, “This is your fault” after a scheme backfires, and he actually agrees!

However, the one person in the cast who achieved the most fame is the driver / servant, played in total “yah-suh” mode by Willie Best, the man who made the line “Feets don’t fail me now” famous (though he doesn’t say it here). He plays timid through the whole series, which makes watching a bit of a winching fest for the viewer. There is even a racial epitaph stated by his character about himself. From what I understand, Willie was a nice man, a total professional, and was aware of what he was portraying, publicly acknowledging that he did what he had to do to keep getting work (Paul Robeson had the same dilemma, though he was able to rise above it that’s to that voice). A drug conviction led to the end of Willie’s career, further heaped upon as a symbol of “Uncle Tom” during the ‘60s social revolution, which is a shame. To me, his character is actually the most human and likeable of the bunch, with the rest being a bit stiff in their character. Willie’s characterization of Flash gets to roll with the punches, and has the last word. I’m willing to bet much of his dialog is ad libbed, such as often referring to the robot as a “rabbit.” He is a wonderful comic relief.

Serials were from a specific period of time, and the whole pastiche of them had a quality of their own. They were quick and dirty, from writing to acting to filming (some scenes here are shot one camera for relatively long shots).

There are a many of ways to make it through the two discs of all 7-1/2 hours of film and the different extras (trailers, intermission clips) that are on both, including as a marathon, or watching one episode per night. Despite the occasional cringe-worthiness of the series, it is enjoyable, so grab some friends, a few bowls of popcorn, perhaps even some libation (coffee for me, please), and spool away.

This review was originally published in

Friday, March 30, 2018

Review: Surge of Power: Revenge of the Sequel

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Surge of Power: Revenge of the Sequel
Directed by Antonio Lexerot
Lexerot Enterprises / Surge of Power Enterprises LLC /
Indie Rights Movies / Salty Horror Productions
90 minutes, 2016 / 2018

Surge of Power (Surge for short) may not be the first gay comic-style superhero, but he is quite possibly “cinema’s first gay superhero” (emphasis mine), as the publicity for the live-action film proudly states. The original was the 2004 release, Surge of Power: The Stuff of Heroes, but there is a 17-episode television show, “Surge of Power: Big City Chronicles” either out (no pun intended) or in process, which is also a talk/interview show; shades of 1993-2008’s “Space Ghost: Coast to Coast!”

Getting back to Surge and crew, I have to be candid and say that I have seen neither the original film, nor the television show, so I’m going at this as a stand-alone. Also I am approaching SoP as an Ally straight white male. There, now that the formalities are out of the way…

Most superhero films these days are not just multi-million-dollar extravaganzas, they are big; much bigger than they need to be to be interesting, actually, in my opinion. Be it Marvel (X-Men, Black Panther, etc.) or DC (Wonder Woman, Batman vs. Superman, to name just a couple), they go on for hours and have multiple plot-lines; Panther, for example, had at least three stories in it that would have made that many decent films, rather than three-in-one abbreviated tales, as is the trend. The digital SFX are so huge, that the stories lose the humanity in them through the chase for the WOW factor. This is why I don’t see many of them anymore, though I still consider myself a comic geek.

Vincent J. Roth
In this much smaller-scale indie film that thinks big, Gavin Lucas (co-writer, Vincent J. Roth) is the alias of Surge, who can focus energy, living in Big City, California. His adventures in the first film, to get us newbies up to speed, is expositioned (yes I know that’s not really a word) in abbreviated – and animated – form during the opening credits. Basically, through a Flash-like accident, super powers show up in Gavin and his co-worker (and ex-lover) Hector Harris, who becomes the Magneto-like Metal Master (John Venturini, another of the film’s co-writers). Also like Magneto, MM is Jewish (indicated at first by seeing him sitting alone at a bar, spinning a dreidel). The first part of the film feels like it’s his story, more than about Surge.

Stripped of his powers (in the first film) and recently out of prison, MM is turned away by his parents (played by Linda Blair and Gil “Buck Rogers” Girard), who are more disturbed about him being gay than a master criminal. The Jew is me balked at these seemingly non-Orthodox (but religious) Jews reacting that way; religious-niks, I can somewhat understand, though I am repulsed by homophobia by any religious group, though especially my own. Spurned and angry, MM is looking for a way to get back in the Evil game, and a Magical being named Augur (Eric Roberts) has an evil plan – and agenda – to help MM out in that direction. After the first 20 minutes or so, the focus is back on our Christian hero, Surge.

I won’t go into the story too much, I promise. The action does take us from California to Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam in search of a mysterious crystal called Celinedionium (if you don’t get it, say it out loud), drag queens, and a possible new love for Surge-io. In case you haven’t gotten this yet, it’s all very campy and silly, and abundantly enjoyable fun.
Gil Gerard and Linda Blair
The humor is broad (oxymoron pun intended this time), with a near-constant stream of jokes and ohhh-yeah references. Some of it is a bit subtle, such as many in the cast reading the book Zen and the Art of Super Vehicle Maintenance, or the knowing looks some characters give the audience directly by looking at the camera.

There is a lot of blatant and subtle (there’s that word again) references by characters of the Marvel, DC, Transformer, Roddenberry and LucasFilms universes. Part of how they get away with this is whenever there is a newscast, the scroll underneath the conversations that usually contains other news stories is actually an announcement that recognizes the copyrights of Disney, LucasFilms, etc. If you’re a comic nerd, there are multiple bells and whistles that will make you smile.

John Venturini and Eric Roberts
The acting is quite decent (though Roberts does his best John Lithgow sit-com level purposeful over-acting), and the tone is way more chill than most superhero films of these days. Rather than angst-filled heroes who are fighting their own demons as well as foes, other than MM and his parents, the deepest worry is whether Surge will find a romantic interlude. Other than cameos (which I will discuss shortly) there is a high level of gay characters that the odd straight one seems out of place, which is smile-worthy. I don’t seem to recall any lesbians though… perhaps in the next film? What can I say; I’m an Ally to all.

Nichelle Nichols
What really makes this film sparkle is the sheer multitude of cameos, which are Legion. The obvious ones are Blair, Girard, etc., but the others come and go really fast. In full James Balsamo mode, the crew went to conventions and got some great names that way, but there are just too many to mention all, such as the last appearances of television’s Jimmy Olson and Lois Lane, namely Jack Larson (d. 2015) and Noel Neill (d. 2016) from “Adventures of Superman” (1952-58). Some are listed in the trailer below, but there are so many others, like (and this is such a partial, factional list) various Power Rangers, Walter Koenig, Michael Gray of TV’s “Shazam!” (1974-76), Cathy Garver (a voice in many television Marvel superhero cartoons, and was also Cissy in “Family Affair” [1966-71] for my generation), and… Jeez, 

Mariann Gavelo
I could just go into IMDB and spend hours looking everyone up, it’s quite stunning. Often, there is some hint of the association, such as Rebecca Holden standing with the original K.I.T.T. It’s enjoyable to view just for this alone, but the story is equally watchable.

Unlike most of the superhero films being released these days, this one doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the better for it. And, as a straight white male, there is something for me, too, in the form of the relatively ironically named Mariann Gayelo. And then there’s also Dawn Wells. ‘Nuff said.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping a third film will come soon, and it won’t take more than 10 years.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Review: Black Eagle

Text © Richard Gary / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Black Eagle
Directed by Eric Carson
Imperial Entertainment / Moonstone Entertainment / MVD Rewind Collection
104 minutes / 1988/2018

When this film was released in 1988, Jean-Claude Van Damme was not the star of it, even if he presumed he was; he was just 28 and not yet well known. The headliner was Japanese martial arts action film star Shô Kosugi, who had been a big draw for a decade, helping create the then-popular Ninja genre.

Let me say upfront that there are two different versions of this film, both available on the disc, which are the 93-minute theatrical cut, and the “Extended” 104-minute version. I went for the latter (sorry, but I’m not watching both right now to compare the 11 minute difference… perhaps some other time).

Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sho Kosugi
The plot is pretty bare-boned, but that was quite common in the action genre in the mass market days of the late 1980s. The basic plot thread is that a US classified plane called an F-111 Aardvark (a real, medium-range interdictor and tactical strike aircraft) has gone down into the Mediterranean near the Republic of Malta, and both the Americans and Russians are trying to find it first. On the US (i.e., “good guys”) there’s Ken Tani (Kosugi), and for the Rooskies, there’s Andrei (Van Damme, or JCVD, as he’s oft called in his publicity).

There’s a lot of saywhat moments (now known as WTF, but I’ll keep with the period) in stuff that’s glossed over in the film. For example, in researching Tani, the Russians are able to find him on their computers while at sea, long before Wi-Fi. This is Jules Verne type precognition. The server they use is quite antique even then (it has reel-to-reel memory). But, as Tani tells his young sons, in relating the family’s Black Eagle legend “You have to make it make sense to yourself.” I’m okay with that.

One consistency is that the two leads are kinda hard to understand (especially Kosugi when he shouts), between the Japanese and the Russian-cum-Belgian accents. The best accent is by the head of the Soviet team, Vladimir Kilmenko, who is actually Russian (Vladimir Skomarowsky). Then again, JCVD doesn’t even speak until 20 minutes in, and then it’s just sparingly, I am grateful to say.

The whole point of this type of film is (duh) the action, so oft times the plot revolves around the daring-dos, rather than the other way around. For example, there is the obligatory car chase around the narrow streets of the blazing white and grey Malta. As the cars go speeding by, people on the street don’t even turn around (unless they’re doing an action into the camera in close-up). That leads me to some questions, such as: was most of the action sped up with folly-added car screeches added later, is it that no one there gives a damn, or is this kind of thing so common that it isn’t worth noting? People are walking down the street with shopping bags talking as cars supposedly go barrelling by. It’s quite amusing.

JCVD, Vladimir Skomarowsky, Dorota Puzio
There are lots “action star” activities, such as hang gliding, wall scaling, running after (and away from) people, zip lines, and many fisticuffs. Most skirmishes are quick, but that’s because the real meat of the matter is Kosugi vs. JCVD. An interesting note is that this is late in the career of Kosugi, but early enough in JCVD’s that it doesn’t necessarily mean JCVD is going to win (hey, he’s playing a Russian, do the math). It’s similar to when uber-religious right-wingnut Chuck Norris went against Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon (aka Return of the Dragon, 1972). However, it’s worth noting how it happens in a way that saves Belgian face.

As I said, the whole point is the final confrontation, but there are actually three meetings between Kosugi and JCVD, each one more intense, though all manage to throw in the “split” that would become JCVD’s trademark (much as Steven Seagal’s breaking arms). Both actors are good at it, there is no doubt about that, but they definitely have a different style, which kind of works for the action, i.e., Kosugi is loose (Asian style) and JCVD is stiff (like today’s Western MMA athletes). I do find it also culturally interesting that at the time Kosugi was the bigger star, but being Asian, even though he is the lead actor, his picture is smaller on the cover than JCVD.

As far as acting goes? Well JCVD comes across as stoically intense (most of his dialog consists of him saying different variations of “Go get them/him!”), neither are really great actors (though excel in stunts). The best actor of the bunch by far is Bruce French, a spy who became a Catholic priest, and who is the de facto sidekick to Kosugi. Being of the clergy, he doesn’t get “the girl,” but both of the leads do just that. For Tani, it’s blonde and big haired American spy Patricia Parker (Doran Clark); for Andrei, it’s the surprisingly sympathetic Natasha (Dorota Puzio).

Doran Clark
Keeping in mind the time period that this was released, it is interesting to see that there is quite a bit of gender politics on various levels. The most obvious is the high testosterone level that was present in nearly all these film. The two female leads (and I only counted three recurring speaking roles in the whole film) are kind of subservient to the males. Parker is basically a high-level CIA agent who mostly babysits and shows off her limbs and hair, and Natasha is totally ignored by Andrei (though he shows affection near the end, beyond the sex). At one point, some ugly dude body shames the very attractive Parker with “Too skinny.”

It’s also worth noting that the two youngsters playing Kosugi’s sons are, well, Kosugi’s real kids, Kane and Shane Kosugi (yes, their real names rhyme). The just-teen Kane gets to show off some nice moves himself (note that he is now a dashing martial arts actor in his own right).

The image of the film is quite clear, something the VHS copies I’m sure lack. This helps make the travelogue-ness of the beautiful Malta scenery stand out quite nice. The music tends to be a mild variation of synth-based, but not as gawd-awful as so much of the 1980’s… nearly everything.

This package has both a version in Blu-ray and DVD, which have the same extras. Beyond the chapter and sound variations, there are a series of short documentaries from 2017. First is the 21:23 “Shô Kosugi: Martial Arts Legend.” It’s a talking head monolog by Shô talking about how he grew up, got involved in martial arts, and became an actor. Nearly half of it is an interview with his now-adult younger son, Shane, who describes his own career and growing up with a famous dad. Did I mention that there is a very strong self-promotion bit for Shô’s book on Eastern Philosophy which borders on infomercial?

After that is a 35:43-minute “The Making of Black Eagle,” which is filmed 30 years after the fact. It opens up with the director, Eric Karson, which is mostly interviews with a whole group of people (one-by-one) including Eric, Shô, Shane, the screenwriter Michael Gonzales, and the two female leads, Patricia and Dorota. It’s interesting, discussing the likes of the relationships with all the actors (including the “pissing contest” between Shô and JCVD) and working with Shô’s accent. It’s keeps the viewers’ attention, though it’s a bit long. One person missing is JCVD. However, he is the focus of the next 19:20-minute “Takes of Jean-Clause Van Damme.” He is known for being both charming and (allegedly) a bit of a dick to other actors and especially women (he’s bi-polar), so I was curious to see this one. It’s also mostly interviews, but of course, JCVD isn’t in it. You get to hear all different aspects of his personality, and how the character of Andrei was essentially created for him, even though it’s so early in his career.

Bruce Friench
As for the 27:21 “The Script and the Screenwriters,” mostly dealing with Gonzales and some of Karson, and well, to be honest, I’ve burned out on how many documentaries I’m willing to watch on this film, considering there are no ghosts, no monsters, no chainsaws, no masked murderers, and absolutely no separated body parts. I quickly scanned through it. The last extra is the 11:16 “Deleted Scenes.” Most of these are already incorporated into the longer version of the film, so it’s nice to know what was added. Oh, I almost forgot that it comes with a film poster folded into the clamshell.

Will the good guys win? Will the bad guys get the transponder back to Odessa? Okay, what do you think? Point is, as I said, it’s the action that more important than the story proper. In that way, this film is a success beyond the acting and writing. And it kept a smile on my face throughout.