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.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: Slaughter Drive

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

Slaughter Drive
Written and directed by Ben Dietels
BPO Films / Armand Productions / Sub Rosa Cinema
101 minutes / 2017

Before I start, I seriously want to make one thing clear: this is a fun film that has issues, but I’m sure if you watched it, and especially if you are experienced in micro-budget horror, there’s a good chance you’ll come away with a smile. Please keep that in mind.

Within the film framework, Doug, Robbie and Gene (director Ben Dietels, Blake O’Donnell and Ryan Litner, respectively) are best friends. And as many best friends do, they tend to take each other for granted in insulting ways. I know I’ve done that with my besties. In the real world, these three actual friends got together and created a movie.

Ben, Ryan and Blake
There is no doubt where their hearts lie, right from the opening credits, which are in 1980s’ day-glo style and cheesy synth-based soundtrack; you know, where the music is couple of minor keys played over and over in fast sequence to express tension.

If you’ve ever seen films by Steve Rudzinski (and you should), the faces will seem very familiar, especially Rudzinski’s, who plays a television reporter cameo. Of course that means that this was shot around the Pittsburgh area (e.g., Moon Park)… but wait… this is a slasher film… in Pittsburgh? A film shot near Pittsburgh that isn’t zombie-related? Is that a thing?! Okay, yes, I kid. But it’s important to also remember that this slasher is also a fairly broad comedy.

After the inevitable and well played prologue, we are introduced to Doug, our hapless hero who is an independent... wait for it… filmmaker. Life is tough for him at this juncture as his life falls apart, which we are informed through a montage involving his unfaithful ex, Gina (Nikki Nader). With her, like most of the cast, it’s hard to avoid all the tattoos (not a complaint, just an observation). Luckily for most viewers, I am assuming, she also supplies some ample and well-appreciated skin.

Like Doug, his two friends are also nerdy goofballs, who are married with kids (we don’t see either of their families, though). Despite that, they all hang out regularly to play video games in basements, mock each other, and generally make asses of themselves to just about, well, everyone. Of course, that makes them quite endearing to us nerdy types. What I especially appreciate is that these guys don’t look like models, but are everymen who plays videogames in basements and watches micro-budget horror films. I also appreciate that the story doesn’t try to imply these guys are in their early ‘20s.

We also meet Doug’s creepy neighbors, MC Pink… I’m sorry, I mean Doug Flowers (Seth Gontkovic) and his cute wife, Diane (Nikki Howell, who I’m assuming is no relation to Thurston and Lovey). It’s no secret there’s something up with them, and for once, no red herrings.

People are being gruesomely butchered in the neighborhood and especially the local park (SFX beautifully handled by Cody Ruch). Filming some incidental material in said park, Doug accidently videos some nefarious action by a dark-clad figure wearing a bandana over his lower face, who is no surprise due to body shape and close-up of the eyes. But all things considered, such as the direction of the film, it’s all good.

Ben Dietels and Nikki Nader
Needless to say, the killer knows who our luckless trio of friends are, and is prepared to take action. And this is where the fun especially kicks in at full throttle (though at go-kart level, not NASCAR… which I joyously prefer, I might add). Our dweeby pals plot and scheme a way to get the bad guy before he gets them; whether they are successful or not – and things don’t always turn out as planned – well, I’m not going to tell.

Because Dietels, Litner and O’Donnell also co-produced the film, even though Dietels is credited with writing the film, most of the dialogue feels like it was ad-libbed at the moment. This usually works for them, as they really know each other well enough to play off the others, but sometimes it comes off as just plain goofy.

There are lots of indications they’re using their own houses, such as posters on the walls for previous Dietels films (e.g., 2012’s Captain Slickpants, which shows up in two different locations). Then again, the cast is part of an artist collective of filmmakers from the area, which also tells a lot about how they are all connected.

Yeah, there are lots of plot holes that you can fly a plane through, but it’s easily forgivable if one keeps in mind that this is essentially backyard amateurish filmmaking, but the reason it works is because of the heart behind it. You know these guys were having fun doing this, and it shows. It’s kinda like when you hear a demo tape of someone that was recorded on a cassette in a living room. Sure, a studio taping could give more texture, but the heart behind it makes the demo that much more interesting.

The acting is nothing that one can take very seriously. I mean, no one here is going to win any prestigious awards for their performances (e.g., Dietels acts a lot by rolling his eyes, O’Donnell tends to giggle, and Litner often looks like he’s exasperated). But again, there is a charm that lifts this to a different plane than some “serious” piece of art/filmmaking. It’s like watching a minor league baseball game: sure, it’s not the level of the majors, but that doesn’t mean to say it’s not going to be a good game.

For me, though, I believe this could have been edited down by at least 20 minutes. There are too many redundant scenes, such as one near the beginning with Dietels on his skateboard, or another towards the end where Robbie is driving his vehicle, and the camera comes back to him peering around numerous times; to be fair, there is a funny joke at the end of it, but it could have been handled quicker. Watching the guys josh with each other may build some background to the style of the friendship, but we get that pretty quickly, and some of that could have been in the “Deleted Scenes” when/if it hits the DVD market. And on another note, do we really need to see Doug woof his cookies three times? But don’t let that change your mind about seeing the film, because it’s not a key focus, it’s just yucky, and not in a good way (i.e., the SFX is good yucky).

Which leads me to something I really enjoyed about the film: even though the ending is a blast and totally unrealistic, it shows that despite the insults and behaviour between them, their friendship is quite deep and they will help a bro no matter what. As not all of them come out unscathed by the final act, the film actually does a nice job with showing the PTSD that most films ignore, after having been through such traumatic encounters. And still manage to do it with humor.

Yeah, this is silly, unrealistic, has holes, a bit too long, and the acting isn’t near superb, and yet I’m going to recommended it, again, to the kind of audience who can appreciate micro-budget horror with a big heart.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

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

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
Directed by John De Bello
Four Square Productions; MVD Visual
65 minutes, 1978 / 2018

Back in 1978, I attended the Worst Film Festival, held in New York City, which was sponsored and hosted by the Medved brothers, Harry and Michael; they wrote the book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (with Randy Dreyfuss). There, I was present for the world premiere of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Also in attendance was the director, John De Bello, who I remember talking about how the helicopter crash in the film was real, and they kept it in because it was great footage (and rightfully so).

Yeah, AotKT gets flack for being bad, but in retrospect the film can be seen as either a turning point or effected one, because just two years later, Airplane! (1980) would hit the theaters and change the way cinema looked at comedy (as Mel Brooks had done in 1974 with Blazing Saddles). That absurdist humor that we had loved so much in the previous The Groove Tube (1974) and Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) came to adulthood (such as it was; perhaps it regressed...) with Airplane!. However, AotKT was the missing link between the two sketch comedy films and the fully grown Airplane!, taking short bits and stretching them into a full movie, albeit with sketch-like set pieces. I mean, this film even has multiple amusing Public Address Announcements, which was also employed often by Airplane! Coincidence?!

I haven’t seen the film since that time (and have never seen the multiple sequels), yet I was pleasantly surprised to find that it really was a bit ahead of its time. Audiences, however, were just not ready to appreciate it. And that includes me. I remember it being bad, but I also recall being amused by it. It makes more sense in the perspective of the comedy timeline I mentioned above.

For those who don’t know, the basic premise is that tomatoes had genetically mutated and became flesh-eating monsters, including some that had grown to enormous (human) size. The film doesn’t waste any time, immediately jumping into the fray with the first scene. Of course, most of the violence occurs off-screen since this is a low budget film (despite the destruction of the whirlybird), and well, most of the time they used real to-may-toes (as opposed to to-mah-toes; yeah, I don’t know what that means either; I’m just gettin’ with the program, Jack).

The humor is both broad and subtle, but all of it bada-boom, bada-bing, bada sis-boom-bah. In other words, it’s non-stop. For example, in just one scene – and this isn’t everything by a long shot – generals and scientists gather in a meeting room that is way too small, a Japanese scientist is obviously and badly dubbed; at one point he knocks a photo to the bottom of a fish tank, and of course it’s of the battleship USS Arizona. Then the head of the Federal Intelligence Agency makes a point that he doesn’t need to check into the background of anyone involved with this project; a future Trump selection?.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of fun made of the (fictional) president in the film. Now, this was released during the time of Jimmy Carter, but it seems pretty obvious to me it was written during the tenure of Gerald Ford by the manner of which he is duplicitous (e.g., getting rid of a submarine base because “those funny little black ships just keep sinking anyway”).

Some of the humor is quite topical, and has now reached the stage where it might get lost on a younger audience. For example, two soldiers are looking and a map and someone asks what the blue dots on a map mean, and is told “Those are Mobil stations,” from the days when gas stations gave out free maps. Or someone calling the operator on a pay phone and claiming he got a wrong number and wanting the money back (yes, this really happened).

Also, a lot of the humor that was hysterical then is kinda rubbing against the PC model, with some gay and racial humor (e.g., a Black man in disguise dressed as Hitler), and a rape joke and assumption that it is women’s duty to sleep with someone to get what she needs for her job (in this case, a reporter). One could also see a bit of sexism if they wanted in a love song that professes, “Our love will be classy / Just like Timmy and Lassie,” but I’ll leave that one up to you to decide.

There are a number of song set pieces in here making it a musical-Lite , such as a salesman explaining to a government official about how he knows how to sway an audience (a pre-Wag the Dog influence, decades before that 1997 release?), or an Army officer doing an Elvis-ish song and dance with a chorus of soldiers that’s a cross between a Monty Python bit (“Oooh, get her / You military fairy!”) and a foretelling of Mel Brooks’ dancing and singing Merry Men in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993). Another spoof song that shows up occasionally is “Puberty Love,” done in a high-pitched whine by Matt Cameron, who went on to become the drummer for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. With all that, the song that most people remember is the title one written by the director, sung in a bravado voice and whose chorus is incredibly catchy.

Sharon Taylor
As for the story proper, well, it’s a bit all over the map, but the closest thing to a protagonist is a government agent named Mason Dixon (David Miller). His not-so-bright sidekick is pilot Wilber Finletter (Rock Peace, aka J. Stephen Peace, aka the co-writer of the film) who always has his parachute trailing behind him. The government is trying to either keep the killer tomatoes a secret, or to convince the public that there is no danger, whose drive is led by Press Secretary George Wilson (Jim Richardson). However, news reporter Lois Fairchild (the willowy and unconventional cutie Sharon Taylor who has a Julie Hagerty vibe), is hot... on the trail of the story. Meanwhile, someone is trying to assassinate Dixon, while the huge tomatoes are gobbling people up.

Many of the people in the film went on to other roles, though few had spectacular film careers beyond the sequels, arguably other than “Twin Peaks” actor Dana Ashbrook, who had a non-credit role here. That is not to say there aren’t a couple of cameos here and there, such as English actor Eric Christmas (you’d probably recognize him if you saw him; d. 2000), and especially Jack Riley (d. 2016), a comic performer who had many roles in the 1970s and ‘80s, but is probably best known in the recurring psychiatric patient role of Mr. Carlin on “The Bob Newhart Show.”

There are two discs on this set, one in Blu-ray and one DVD, so you can watch it in any contraption. I don’t have an HD teevee, so I couldn’t tell the difference, but both have the same extras, which include the following:

Jack Riley
Of course, there is a commentary track, with the three original creators of the film, De Bello, Peace and Costa Dillon. They still work well together to tell the story of the making of the film through inception to anecdotes, all with a sense of humor without stepping all over each other, which is great. Even though it was recorded a quarter of a century after the film was made but a decade before this version of the release for the DVD in 2003 for the DVD release, as was the rest of bonus material, it still sounds relevant.

You may not know that the film actually started as a 17:35-minute short in 1976, which is presented here both without and with commentary track. It’s worth the view (for both) to see just how many of the gags they kept intact – if not nearly identical – and the storylines that were added to pad it out to a feature. It’s still pretty funny, shot as a college course student film on 8mm. The acting is horrendous, but it’s important to remember the context of when and why it was made. Also showing is an even earlier 32:27 short, “Gone with the Babusaland” from 1971. Being a silent film, it just comes with the commentary. It doesn’t really make too much sense, and it is funny in parts, but what makes this most interesting is it presents the early version of the Mason Dixon and Finletter characters that were incorporated into the main feature later. Unfortunately, the volume of the commentary is much lower than the others, so it’s a bit hard to hear.

The 14:14 short “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes: The Legacy” follows. This is a really fun documentary/interview with the three main behind-the-scenes guys, and pieces with people like Bruce Vilanch and other fans. For 3:40 there’s “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes Redux: Chopper Crash” which is about, well, duh. It’s an enjoyable mixture of news and archival material mixed with 2003 follow-up interviews with the crew and Jack Riley. The subsequent short is three “Deleted Scenes” that are enjoyable to watch, but yeah, they were right to be pulled as there was plenty of other gags that worked better that remained. The very short – err – short, “Famous Fowl,” comes after that at a mere 2:21 about the San Diego Chicken mascot discussing his being in the penultimate scene, shot in the San Diego stadium.

Next up is a 4:33 short titled “A Killer Tomato Invades Hollywood” (also called “Killer Tommatomania”). We meet “as seen on television” interviewer Wendy Wilder (I have no idea who is she is, FYI) talking to some effervescent dude dressed as a “killer tomato guy” (described as “desperate actor”). He walks around Hollywood asking people (in an obnoxious way) to complete the sentence, “Attack of the Killer ____.” It’s more goofy than interesting. What I found more appealing (and humorous) is the 2:52 “Where Are They Now?” which catches us up with the main actors (as of 10 years ago, of course), narrated with funny dialogue. “We Told You So!” is a 3:07 look at how ahead of the game the film was in warning the world about GMO “Frankenfoods,” told in a humorously told-you-so snarky manner.

Rock Peace and David Miller
As for trailers, we get the theatrical one (see below), two radio spots, and oddly enough, the coming attraction for the Lech Kowalski punk film, D.O.A.: Rite of Passage.

The last presented is a series of clips of the songs, with the lyrics underneath (and a follow-along bouncing tomato ball, natch), and then “Slated for Success: The Killer Tomato Slate Girl,” with a 1:57 tongue-in-cheek honor for Beth Reno (who was also the production accountant), the film’s “Slate Girl.” It shows just how wonderfully silly this whole film is, in the long run.

There is a reason why AotKT has reached such a strong cult status, in my opinion. While not as noteworthy a bad film as The Room (2003), it’s come to be a funny mess that is worth the watch for the nostalgia, the mostly decent corny jokes, the political humor, and a snapshot of comedy of its period. It’s also interesting, as I’ve implied, to see it in a rear view mirror (as Marshall McLuhan would have put it), to note how the use of humor is reflected and arguably copied in more infamous films to come.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Review: Red Krokodil: Director’s Cut

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

Red Krokodil: Director’s Cut
Directed and cinematography by Domiziano Cristopharo
The Enchanted Architect / Unearthed Films / MVD Visual
80 minutes, 2012 / 2018

I saw the first two films that Domiziano Cristopharo directed, House of Flesh Mannequins (2009) and The Museum of Wonders (2010). He’s released at least 20 since then, so I was curious. His style is very artistic and precise, so after nearly a decade, I’m glad to have the opportunity to see what this Italy-based artiste was working on – even if this film is five years old, though now it’s getting a new Blu-ray release.

As the opening title card tells us (and I am abbreviating a lot), Desomorphine, a real opioid drug that originated in the US in the early 1930s and is now made and used recreationally in Russia, Produced in this way, it’s made of corrosive materials mixed with Codeine from over the counter products, and is nicknamed “krokodil” due to the blistering skin around injection sites.

At a snail’s pace, we meet Him (Brock Madson). He’s a mess on so many levels, spiritually and physically. His clothes (when he’s wearing them) are filthy, including dark stains on the bottom of his untidy whiteys, there is what looks like mold everywhere, he is unwashed and unkempt, and is missing his two front teef.

We watch much of what happens to him, as he repeatedly gives himself shots from the same needle, goes through withdrawals until the next injection, and segments of overseeing him fitfully sleeping. The viewer gets the feeling of claustrophobia as he moves around his small room; he is practically the personification of the description of the Divinyls song, “Elsie.” 

While filmed in Italy, this takes place in Russia; however, the inner monologs we hear are in English. Because of his drug addled mental state, we get to share what he sees, be it a giant Bunny Man (Viktor Karam) or a bandage swathed Monster (Valerio Cassa), who are the only other characters in the film, albeit in brief snatches.

The only dialog we hear other than grunts and groans is Him’s inner thoughts, which are usually a mixture of stories of his life (e.g., why a stuffed crocodile is important to him), a description of his dream visions, or philosophizing about his hallucinations. One example is when he sees a mannequin face inside a hole in the wall, part of his existentialist treatise as he smiles is, “God is watching me inside the eye; the whole universe is inside the eye. Even I am inside the eye.”

Either because of the corrosive effect of the krokodil drug, or perhaps what is going on inside his mind (or both), his body is full of gross scabs and abscesses that we see in detail. Him is convinced he lives in a post-apocalyptic world, and perhaps he is, which would explain the lack of people in part, but he never ventures from his hovel. How much of it is in his mind and what reality is mostly up to the viewer.

Despite all the grossness of picking at the wearing down of the flesh, this is definitely in the category of art film. Sure, you may not see it on IFC due to its visual content, but philosophically and stylistically, it would actually be quite comfortable there.

Most of the time the color is drained out of the image we see, as it is missing from Him’s life; it’s only when we see him roaming around in nature (again, nude), do we see a natural hue of any time. The sharp contrast is alarming, and shows the levels to which Him has sunken – again, both spiritually and physically.

This is not exactly what one might call the feel good movie of the year, but it is a poetic and disarming – and sometimes visually stunning – vision of what I would imagine being desperately addicted to something that harsh to the body (I’m pretty straight-edge).

Madson co-produced the film, and he certainly gives a full emotional range, much of it without dialogue. It’s a strong character study, and he certainly is up for the task. This is good showcase for him, even considering all the visuals.

There are some nice extras, as there tends to be especially on a Blu-ray. First up is the 2:30 Alternate Music Ending, which shows the end of the film with, well, different music. It’s more piano based, with almost religious solemnity. It’s quite beautiful, and in my opinion, works as well as the film proper. The Deleted Scenes lasts 8:50. A combination of unused footage, some with inner comments, it’s nice and interesting, but having it out of the film makes sense, too. It does, however, help you get a little more depth on Him’s character.

The 2:42 Photo Gallery is set to the soaring “incidental,” neo-classical music. It’s all shots taken from production, such as make-up, fooling around the set, and scenery beyond the shoot premise; much better than just still from the film. Last is the Nuclear CGI Test, where we see different versions of a digital nuclear explosion that lasts for 1:14. There are also a bunch of trailers from Unearthed Films, nearly all of them reviewed on this blog at one point or another, such as the American Guinea Pig series and Atroz.

I’m still trying to figure out, visually speaking, if the film went too far, or if it didn’t go far enough. That’s part of what makes this such as interesting piece, though patience is definitely needed as you follow Him on his path, painful minute by painful hour.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Review: Lights Camera Dead

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

Lights Camera Dead
Directed by Tim Reaper
Sub Rosa Studios / Asthesia Productions / Duke Studios /
White Lightening Productions / MVD Visual
80 minutes, 2007

Independent cinema can be quite inconsistent. Sometimes you find utter trash, and other times you end up with classics like Re-Animator or Evil Dead. Well, Tim Reaper (aka Tim Moehring) hasn’t quite given us an equal to those two, but I will say that this sets a pretty damn high bar.

What better way to formulate a horror flick than to make one about the making of one? Lights Camera Dead [LCD] starts off with auditions for actors and crew for a below low budget film (to be shot on VHS!), called “The Music Box.” The audition scenes are hilarious as even the real director gets to have his cameo as a southern mumbler. Some of this footage is in the trailer, attached below.

The premise, written by Tim and his wife, who is also one of the key characters in the film, Monica Moehring, is quite simple and explained on the box: Halfway through filming, a fed up cast and crew quit, thus shutting down production. But not for long…the fast, efficient filmmakers devise a plan to “finish” off their flick…and there will be blood.

While this is actually a decent sized cast, the main core stands at five:

Amy Lollo is the female lead, and the core of the troupe, keeping the meta-production together, though thoroughly underappreciated by the director and writer characters. Lollo is strong in her role, and plays various emotions well. She has a strong Sarah Michelle Gellar vibe and look going on. When she confronts her boyfriend, I actually backed up on the couch and cringed. That’s effective.

The other female lead is Monica Moehring, another alpha woman whose chest is referred to often (remember, she is one of the writers), but never seen bare because as she explains in one of the commentary tracks, and I found this quite amusing, when she is not filmmaking, she is a school teacher. Her facial expressions as she tries to explain what is going on to a drunken redneck (their word), played by director Tim’s actual dad, who apparently really was drunk, is easily one of the most amusing scenes in the flick. Kudos, dad! Monica has a couple of other acting credits, in films associated with this same production group.

Coldon Martin seems to act by widening his eyes until there is all white around the pupil, but he is also a decent comic relief, especially thanks to a good sense of timing. I have to say he looks quite a bit like a rockabilly version of Casey Affleck. He plays a crew member (and also does the same in the real production, apparently) who is good bad, but he’s not evil. Well, maybe… This is his only official acting credit.

J.C. Lira plays Steven Dydimus, the writer of the doomed production, as well as the “monster” in the rubber mask that is supposed to be a demon from hell. A frustrated horn dog, his level of violence – not expected for his milquetoast character – escalates throughout the making of the meta film. Again, this is his only official acting credit.

Last is Wes Reid, who plays the desperate and borderline – and then over-the-line – psychotic director of the picture, Ryan Black, who will do anything to get it completed. As the horror film is being created, he turns more and more dictatorial, and blames everyone else for his own short sidedness and lack of ability. Wes is becoming sort of a touchstone for Jonathan Straiton’s productions, with a half-dozen of them under his belt; the trailers for most can be seen in the special features section of this DVD. Wes’s weight changes dramatically throughout the film, up and down, as he was also acting in other roles while LCD was being filmed down in Virginia.

While some of the film has that shoestring feel, the cast and crew make the most of it, and seem to actually be enjoying their working together. There is also some interesting writing and filming involved, such as when Lollo’s character is trying to decide whether to open an envelope from her ex-, while he comes to her in her mind in both loving and abusive modes (you can tell which by what he is wearing); this moment also produced the best fright, but I won’t give too much of it away.

I guess I should mention that Richard Christy, of the Howard Stern Show, makes a manic cameo as a music soundtrack writer (this is the only scene shot in Brooklyn, NY), which is amusing, but gotta say I don’t listen to Howard Stern, so I have no idea who Christy is, but his brief commentary on the special features shows that his character in the film is pretty damn close to the real guy. Five minutes long, and he was having trouble figuring what to say.

Anyway, I liked LCD, and from the one indie film I worked on, there is some level of truth to the goings on in this type of production, sans the gore and killing, of course (even though our shoot stayed friendly).

It should be emphasized that this is also a pretty humorous film coming from a very dark, dark place. Fairly put, this film is more purposefully funny than unintentional, much in the way as are the other two films I mentioned in the first paragraph. So go grab a beer, sit back, and enjoy.

Speaking of beer, the full-length commentary on the film is quite fun in most parts, but somewhat annoying in spots. There are four or five people there, including the core of the production staff and some actors, which makes it a bit confusing, though the conversation is usually lively even as they tend to talk over each other (ironically, the video editor of “The Music Box” within the film makes that very complaint stating that it’s hard to edit because of it). People walk in and out of the range of the microphones, there is occasional talking in the background so it’s hard to make out what people are saying near or away from the mics, and at one point, Tim says to Monica, who has left the mic, “Hey, bring me a beer.” You can often hear the tabs being pulled on the beers throughout the commentary. While it’s a bit of a mess, there is still a lot of good information about the writing and making of the picture, so I still recommend it.

So other than the full length commentary, the short Christy comments, and the trailers, there is also an earlier shot short film (2005) by Tim Reaper Moehring called… The Music Box, which is actually not related to the main feature, except the same box appears in both. It is pretty bad and amateurish, shot on video, and shows just how much Tim learned between the two, because the main feature is so much better. It’s more interesting as a historical document in comparison than as a stand-alone short.

I’m grateful films like this get made, because as fun as mainstream horror films can be, it is the indie films like this one that tend to be made by fans, and so there is usually quite a bit of heart. And in this particular one, a bit of intestine, as well.

Originally published in