Wednesday, 28 May 2008

2020: Texas Gladiators (1982)

Who ordered the beefcake?

You know what kind of of film you are in for when the first shot is a guy getting a throwing knife in the skull. The awesome kind! Sleaze king Joe D'Amato directs (under a pseudonym, but that's implied with D'Amato) yet another post-apocalyptic knock-off. Watching this film you might get a sense of deja vu, since D'Amato re-used many of the actors, locations and props from his earlier post-apocalyptic film Endgame. Hey, why make a film once when you can make it twice?

As everyone knows, once the bombs drop it's every man for himself, and it's not long before dirty faced mutants start fussin' and a-fightin', invading ruined churches to rape nuns, crucify priests etc. Luckily there's the Rangers, a gang of five topless, greased up vigilantes, and if there's one thing they hate more than wearing shirts it's filthy mutants. They consist of Nisus (Al Cliver), Jab (Harrison Muller Jr.), Halakron (Peter Hooten), Red Wolfe (Hal Yamanouchi) and Catch Dog (Daniel Stephen). Surprisingly George Eastman does not make an appearance, though he did pull writing duties.

Cowering in a corner is the beautiful Maida (Sabrina Siani) and the sight of her exposed nipple is too much for Catch Dog. When the rest of the gang catch him in the act (of rape) they chastise him for breaking their code of honour. They kick him out of the gang and Nisus runs away with Maida to live a life of non-violence.

Years later Nisus is wearing a shirt and working at a power plant, cementing his "hero" status by stopping a leak of exsplosive[sic] gas. Soon after, their commune is attacked by a gang of post-apocalyptic bikers, led by Catch Dog himself. They manage to repel the raiders, despite heavy casualties on both sides, but before they can exchange high-fives they are attacked by the armoured stormtroopers of the New Order, a totalitarian regime led by the Black One (Donal O'Brien from Zombie Holocaust). They break through the plant's defences, thanks to shields that emit a bullet-repelling force field. The New Order take control of the power plant, and Nisus is killed when he intervenes to stop his wife from being raped (again). Hm, didn't expect that.

The films over already? No sir, it's just begun. We now cut to Jab and Halakron entering a saloon straight out of a spaghetti Western, complete with pinball machines and a Defender cabinet in the corner. Two guys are playing Russian Roulette (apparently all the playing cards were burnt up in the apocalypse) and the loser, a guy in a very Deer-Hunter-esque red headband, blows his brains all over the wall. Jab and Halakron notice that the winner has one of their special Ranger medallions and Maida, and win them both back by cheating. Afterwards they get into a bar-room brawl and are sent to the salt mines for their troubles.

They are busted out by Red Wolfe and chased by Catch Dog and his crew into the same fucking quarry that's in every one of these Italian post-apocalyptic films. It's interesting to note that although most people are armed with a wide variety of historical firearms, Catch Dog is armed with a stupid-looking laser gun. They couldn't afford any laser beam effects so instead it just makes zappy noises. Catch Dog attempts to kill them by starting an avalanche, but they trick him and escape.

It's now that Jab, Halakron, Maida and Red Wolfe venture into a very un-post-apocalyptic forest and seek the help of the most unconvincing bunch of Indians I have ever seen. They refuse to help at first, but Halakron repeatedly calls them cowards until they acquiesce. You see, the New Order's shields provide no protection from bows and arrows because they aren't hot like bullets. Or something. Now that they have backup, it's time for the remainder of the Rangers to march on the power plant, liberating it from the evil oppressors once and for all.

There's a lot of violence in this film, and because this is a Joe D'Amato film there's also a lot of rapes. Plant workers, nuns, teenage boys... none are safe in a D'Amato film. Poor Maida gets raped twice. D'Amato leers over the action in typical fashion, in fact sometimes the heroes will pause for several minutes before acting, just so we can take in a few more acts of depravity. Most of the violence is fairly uninspired, but it keeps the film moving along at a pace that's less sluggish than your average D'Amato film.

Acting is generally pretty poor. O'Brien stars gives a truly insane performance as a pseudo-Nazi officer, including one of the most over-the-top maniacal laughs in motion picture history. Plus with all his hair shaved off he looks like Popeye. Toot, toot! Also, Sabrina Siani is totally hot in that suede mini-dress.

As far as budgets are concerned we are really scraping the bottom of the barrel, even for post-apocalyptic films. In fact, we've probably scraped right through the bottom of the barrel and are scooping out the dirt from underneath. The ridiculous "futuristic" buggy our heroes get around in makes the customised golf carts of The New Barbarians look like Hum-vees. I like the idea of combining the spaghetti Western with a Mad Max style post-apocalyptic setting, but here the two genres jostle uncomfortably next to one another. It's more like a cheap, uninspired post-apocalyptic film with a few jarringly anachronistic "Old West" touches.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Guy N. Smith Book Review - The Black Fedora

Although trilbies have seen a comeback in recent years, largely thanks to that slimy weasel Pete Doherty, the fedora is still the quintessential men's hat. Classy yet functional, it was once seen as an essential component of formal and business attire. It's also a very masculine hat, the down turned brim lending the wearer a mysterious edge when compared similar, flat-brimmed hats, such as the homburg. It's popularity amongst movie stars and gangsters alike have solidified it's place as the hat of choice for men everywhere. I think we can all agree that the fedora was a good choice for the protagonist. I doubt The Black Porkpie would have been the runner-up for the coveted Lichfield prize.

Lichfield also happens to be the setting for the book, and it's a buzzing hive of activity. People are gearing up for an historical re-enactment of the Battle of Worcester, the local clergy believe that Satan himself is planning a visit and the Polish premier is coming to town to visit a mass-grave of Polish troops killed during WWII. It's rumoured that he is a descendant of Jack the Ripper, which people seem to take quite seriously despite the fact that Jack the Ripper was never identified. He is, however, a known war criminal, and rumoured to be targeted for assassination by the French assassin known only as the Wolf. What's more, a bunch of hippies have ridden into town to protest his arrival. Damn those filthy peaceniks, what have they got against genocide anyway?

Among their number is a man in a black fedora known only as Haggard. Not sure why he doesn't make much of an attempt to blend in, but his lack of facial hair or comfortable footwear attracts the ire of the commune's leader, Benjamin. Shouldn't he be called Moonbeam or something? He gets into several petty arguments with Haggard and is frequently on the verge of beating his girlfriend senseless. Man, he's pretty uptight for a hippie. His girlfriend takes a shine to Haggard and really there's no contest. Haggard's wiry, athletic physique is contrasted against Benjamin's nasty rolls of belly fat at every opportunity. Benjamin pimps her out to the rest of the commune, while Haggard tenderly makes love to her on a blanket under the stars. Plus Haggard carries a gun, and you know what that does to the ladies.

Benjamin also has plans to deface the priceless Lichfield gospels because the parchment was made from animal skins. That sounds like a pretty flimsy justification to me, but he has another motive in that he thinks he's Satan (spoiler). He spray paints the gospels (which turn out to be a replica) with an inverted cross and a pentagram. Actually Smith uses the word "pentagon" but I'll assume Benjamin is obsessed with satanic symbols and not five-sided polyhedrons. Things get even worse when a copper gets knifed in the back and a local prostitute gets her throat slashed and dumped in the river.

How are all these incidents connected, and what does it have to do with... the man in the black fedora? Dun dun duuuun! Well, the focus on Haggard makes it pretty apparent that he's not the villain of the piece, but they cheat on the cover by depicting him as a weird mutant surrounded by flames. The ending is pretty interesting as Haggard fucks it all up spectacularly. A heap of people die, but luckily most of them are communists so it's alright. Haggard's motives are kept in the dark until the very end where, in typical parlour mystery fashion, he blurts out several pages to the police chief explaining what he was doing and how he managed to piece it all together.

As you may have guessed, with this book Smith tries his hand at a mystery/thriller rather than the usual gore horror. People expecting the buckets of gore and sex of his horror books might be put off by the book's pace and focus. I mean, there's no giant crabs in sight, unless you count the ones nesting in the pubes of those filthy hippies. Did I mention how filthy and lazy those hippies were, because Smith did, many, many times. As a mystery it's not bad, but the book would probably be improved by the addition giant, rampaging crustaceans. But that can be said about most books.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Belly of the Beast (2003)

I could easily make a gay joke here, but I'm going to
take the high road and make lots of fat jokes

Like performing brain surgery while someone vomits in your ear, working with Seagal is the ultimate test of skill for any action director. It takes a confident hand and careful choreography to make modern-day Seagal look like an action hero instead of an aging fat man. Not many directors are up to the task, but I think we've come the closest with Hong Kong action veteran Ching Siu-Tung. He handles it the best way possible, which is to say "Fuck it!" and throw out any notion of restraint or believability.

Seagal is, as usual, an ex-CIA operative. He has since retired and makes money on the side by sneaking his way into buildings (via stunt men) and stealing secret documents. This kind of stuff is child's play for Seagal and during his latest mission he even takes the time to grab a bottle of water from the fridge, though I was expecting a turkey leg. He's probably grateful when his daughter is kidnapped while backpacking through Thailand and he's got an excuse to get back into the action.

Yeah, that's right, Thailand. No dreary Eastern European locations here. While in Thailand many years ago on CIA business, his ex-partner Sunti (Byron Mann) accidentally shot a woman during a gun battle and as a consequence he quit and became a Buddhist monk. Now that Seagal has arrived, it's time for him to hang up his robe and trade his prayer beads for a 9mm.

Seagal also enlists the help of a former CIA colleague, a skanky nightclub owner named Fitch (Vincent Riotta), and if you can't tell he's the bad guy within the first few seconds then you might be the target audience for this film. While in the nightclub he saves a hot girl (Monica Lo) from some goons and afterwards she pants and drools over him like he's the studliest guy in Asia. I mean, to a Fatal Attraction level, it's really creepy. If she's got a thing for old, fat guys with frizzy ponytails she should try her local comic book store. The bad guys kill her roommate for no reason that I can discern, other than to make her vulnerable enough to sleep with Seagal. Thankfully the scene ends before it gets too explicit. Poor girl must have been crushed like a grape.

Ching Siu-Tung is an old hand at fight choreography, with some great action films under his belt (New Dragon Gate Inn, Swordman I and II, The Heroic Trio) so I was interested to see what he could pull off with a handicap like Seagal. The result is pretty hilarious. Requiring a stunt double for anything more than a brisk walk, Seagal basically just stands there while enemies flip and tumble around him, and every awkward blow of his sends a stuntman flying ten feet into the air. Occasionally a much thinner stunt double will step in to execute a flying kick.

Ching Siu-Tung also found a way around Seagal's policy of never getting hit, ever. Turns out that Seagal is vulnerable to magic, just like Superman. During the final battle the villian gains the upper hand by hiring the services of a voodoo priest. Luckily Seagal's got a whole temple of Buddhist monks on his side and their furious praying lets him defeat the bad guy. He finishes him off with a Tai-Chi blow that catapults him thirty feet across the room and into a glass cabinet. It's the most awesome thing I've ever seen. In another fight he tears the bra padding off a kung fu fighting transvestite, adding "I liked you better as a bitch!" Oh snap! So far Seagal has used the word "bitch" to refer to a fighter jet, a suitcase nuke and now a transvestite.

Aside from all the wire-fu, there's plenty of John Woo inspired gunfights featuring bottomless clips, the ubiquitous bullet-time effects, hailstorms of debris and body counts in the triple digits. It's pretty unconvincing when Seagal leaps through the air (I think there were half a dozen stuntmen carrying him) and fires a gun sixteen times before he hits the ground, lands on a rail cart and fires another sixteen rounds before reloading, but the end result is quite entertaining.

The story doesn't make much sense at all, and some goofy exposition added in post-production doesn't really help clarify things. There's also plot elements that seem to be dropped by the wayside, such as where a random woman on the street leads him into a back room and doffs her top, revealing her breasts and some sort of script written on her chest in invisible ink. Maybe it was Thai, maybe it was illegible English, but either way it's never explained and Seagal just nods sagely like it's perfectly normal.

During most of the film Seagal gets around in 4XL kimonos and Mao jackets from the Big & Tall Asian Collection, standing a good foot above the local populace. It's the most hilarious culture clash since Seagal wore a do-rag and spoke "street" slang in Half Past Dead. Saying that Seagal's performance is lousy would be redundant, instead it's a question of how much of the cast he manages to drag down with him. Byron Mann is good enough that I'm sad for him to be playing second fiddle to Seagal. Most of the Asian parts are played by Chinese people, with local Thai actors being relegated to play cardboard targets for Seagal.

Frankly, I kind of enjoyed this one. It's painfully dumb and derivative, but the sense of fun shines through. Most of Seagal's recent films have been joyless CIA thrillers so it's nice to see a film that realises how ridiculous it all is but doesn't see the need to wink at the audience about it either. Ideally I'd like to see a bunch of different directors provide their own unique take on the Seagaliverse, like one of those reality shows where they get a bunch of interior decorators together, give them each a shitty apartment and see what they can make of it. I think Direct-to-DVD provides an ideal venue for that kind of experimentation, but most producers would rather cut their balls off than take a chance on something like that. It's much easier to churn out the same CIA-centric stinkers again and again, but a man can dream, can't he? A man can dream.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Black Dawn (2005)

I Can't Believe It's Not Seagal

Ladies and gentlemen, Jonathan Cold is back! Who? Well apparently he was the protagonist of 2003's The Foreigner, which technically makes Black Dawn a sequel. Strange choice, since the The Foreigner was Seagal's first Direct-to-Video film and was considered by most to be his worst. Compared to his later output, however, it's Citizen Kane, or at least Hard to Kill. Not sure why they bothered anyway, Seagal is only capable of playing one character: Steven Seagal, an ex-CIA martial-arts expert on the run from corrupt government spooks. And that's exactly who Jonathan Cold is!

Jonathan Cold is a CIA operative who works for a government branch so secret that nobody knows who he is working for or what he is doing... not the terrorists, not the CIA, and especially not the audience! He does claim that he does things for national security that most people would consider "immoral or illegal", and in the opening scene he busts an illegal arms dealer out of prison so he can help broker a deal to sell some nuclear weapons to Chechen terrorists. Yep, I think most people would classify that as illegal and/or immoral. Come on Seagal, I know you've fallen on hard times recently but you're supposed to be the one fighting corrupt government weasels.

Well, I think he's supposed to be undercover actually, not that it's ever explained why, but he's forced to break cover so he can rescue CIA Agent Stuart (Tamara Davies). Soon he's on the run from the nuclear arms dealers, the Chechen terrorists and also some corrupt CIA agents. You know, the usual. There's one quite entertaining scene where the two of them escape by jumping out of a warehouse window and onto the roof of a passing truck. The truck driver gets shot in the arm, but instead of stopping like a sensible person he keeps rumbling on down the road, swerving all over the place and smashing into parked cars. Hammer down, good buddy, gotta keep making those deliveries!

Anyway, the Chechen terrorists are planning on detonating a suitcase nuke in the middle of Los Angeles. Not sure how that's supposed to help their cause, but these guys partially funded their operation by a daring night-time robbery of a brightly lit, glass-fronted diamond store on a busy street. So not the brightest bulbs on the tree, or whatever. Doesn't really matter in the end, since Agent Stuart's evil boss Greer (Timothy Carhart) steps in to kill them and detonate the bomb (spoiler), and he has even less motive than the terrorists.

Seagal must have fallen asleep during his bomb defusal training, because his solution is to squeeze into the cockpit of a helicopter and toss the bomb into the ocean. He quips that the two of them may "glow in the dark for a while", but considering their proximity to the explosion I'd say that's a very real possibility, not to mention the several miles of L.A. shore that they just contaminated. Afterwards Seagal and Agent Stuart are having dinner in a restaurant (there is classical music in the background, shorthand for "this is a fancy restaurant") and they talk about having had slept together a number of times (more than three, if you can believe it). Man, thank Christ they cut out those scenes. Seeing Seagal's bloated form huffing and puffing away would be more than I could bear.

Seagal's army of stunt doubles get quite a workout in this one, but seriously guys, you can't just slap an embarrassing Seagal wig on any old stunt man. At least try to get the same body type. In one scene it took me a while to realise that Seagal was supposed to be the one fighting and not just standing around watching some other guy fight. I don't know, maybe they don't want to hurt Seagal's feelings by casting a stunt double who's a bit on the chunky side. They try to disguise his weight by cramming him into slimming pinstripe suits instead of his usual leather trenchcoat, but that isn't fooling anybody. Hell, at the beginning of the film the dash of his SUV is crammed with fast food wrappers.

Tamara Davies is actually pretty good. Like the audience, she's constantly confused about what's going on, but unlike the audience she seems very emotionally engaged during the proceedings. There's a brief interview with her on the DVD where she seems painfully earnest about her performance. She's one of the bright spots in the film and it's nice to have her compensate when Seagal starts stinking up the screen.

It's decently if blandly directed by Alexander Gruszynski. The script isn't as retardedly complex as The Foreigner, but it's full of the usual CIA shenanigans and double, triple and quadruple crosses that make up a Seagal plot. It isn't too bad, considering it's the fourth film Seagal made in 2005. Seagal must be stretched to the breaking point, much like the suits he wears in the film.

Black Thunder (1998)


You'd have to pretty desperate for ideas to start plundering the plots of Michael Dudikoff films, but that's exactly what they did for Steven Seagal's 2007 Direct-to-Video shitfest Flight of Fury. It was essentially a remake of this film, so I thought I'd give it a look and see how the Seagal film stacks up to the original.

The film follows the same plot of the stolen next-generation stealth fighter with the same ridiculous invisibility cloaking device. After piloting the experimental aircraft during a test flight, Colonel Nick Moore (John Furey), his girlfriend and her silicone implants are perforated by his exact double. I've always been a sucker for these type of stories (I was hoping it was a long lost twin brother or something) but it turns out to be fellow pilot Ratcher (Richard "Gymkata" Norton) in a latex mask, who had faked his death in a test flight the previous day. He poses as Moore and, like his character in Flight of Fury, steals the plane and flies to a terrorist camp in Libya where the evil Stone (Robert Madrid) plans to drop biological weapons on Paris and Kansas(?)

General Barnes (Michael Cavanagh) recruits ace pilot Vince Connors (Dudikoff) to retrieve the aircraft. He is teamed up with a hotshot pilot named Jannick (Gary Hudson) and, well, you saw Flight of Fury so you know how it plays out. Unfortunately there's no lesbian makeout session in the original as the lesbian terrorist is a man sporting a accent that wavers somewhere between Russian and German.

The climax sees Dudikoff taking on an entire air force base with a couple of pistols and a handful of grenades. Hilarious stuff, especially when the dumbest guard in the world just sits there for several minutes watching Dudikoff approach on a motorcycle. Suicidally stupid Libyan soldiers run headlong into gunfire, inexplicably pause out in the open long enough to get shot and get thrown through the air by trampolines... uh... I mean fiery explosions. There's also some re-used footage here and there.

The aerial combat scenes are much better than Flight of Fury (hey look, two jets in a single shot!) but does that really need saying? Some of the footage looks like it was appropriate from other sources and there's some cheesy looking models used in the final dogfight. Libya suspiciously resembles the deserts of Southern California, and the Libyan soldiers are all played by Americans who use bad accents whenever they remember. The fighting is of the 80s American variety, full of slow, telegraphed punches and heads being banged into metal surfaces. Dudikoff doesn't do as much fighting as he usually does, but this is almost 15 years after American Ninja and he's a lot better than Seagal.

The Dude is also a much better actor than Seagal and as a result his character is a lot more likable. Rojar (Robert Miranda) the "Produce King" is an even more embarrassing comedy sidekick in this film, while Mela (Nancy Valen) is basically the Jessica character in Flight of Fury with a "Libyan" accent. Both of them play a much less active role in the original. Gunfights are pretty much A-Team style bloodless affairs (boo!), and including the pilot's silicone enhanced girlfriend there's four (4) boobs on display in total, but I'm pretty sure Nancy Valen used a body double.

Director Rick Jacobson doesn't shake the camera around as much as Keusch, which I like, but I've never been a fan of Michael Bay style strobe light editing. I think Jacobson does a better job of telling the story too. However, if I didn't know better I'd swear this film was made in the mid 80s. Only Dudikoffs 90s style hair gives it away. I think Black Thunder edges out Flight of Fury as the better film, but either way it's 100 minutes of your life that you won't get back.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Flight of Fury (2007)

Woohoo! Steven Seagal slow motion hero walk!

After pooping out two releases in 2006, Michael Keusch and Steven Seagal teamed up a third time in 2007 to bring us Flight of Fury. In this film Seagal squeezes his generous girth into the cockpit of a stealth bomber, a first for him, and attempts to take down a cabal of Afghani terrorists before they can unleash a deadly biological weapon.

The film opens with Seagal about to have his memory wiped because he is too awesome. He escapes thanks to the help of a janitor and a sexy nurse, who are neither introduced nor seen again. Seagal can never stay out of trouble for long, and he only stops in at a diner for a few minutes before three guys attempt an armed robbery. Seagal intervenes and after a violent gun battle everybody is dead, including the cashier, and the store is shot to shit. Thank goodness Seagal was there or it could have been trouble!

Meanwhile General Barnes (Angus MacInnes) is preparing to test the new X-77 stealth fighter. It's fitted with "active stealth" which means that turns it invisible like Wonder Woman's jet. Optic camouflage might be a bit of overkill for a stealth bomber that flies at 50,000 feet, but that bloated military budget won't spend itself. During the test, however, the pilot Ratcher (Steve Toussaint) flips on the cloaking device and sets a course for a terrorist camp in Afghanistan. A terrorist group led by the Oxford educated Stone (Vincenzo Nicoli) intends to load it up with chemical weapons and drop them on Europe and the United States. Why? Because they're evil terrorists, that's why!

In every Seagal film there must be a scene where a bunch of people gasp in awe at how amazing Seagal is. In this film it's at the police station, where some cops are crowded around the robbery surveillance footage, convinced that Seagal is some sort of unbelievable bad-ass on the level of Superman or God. Seagal is bailed out by General Barnes, and we learn that Seagal is also the best fighter pilot ever. He is assigned the task of retrieving the stolen bomber and reluctantly partnered with a rookie hotshot pilot named Jannick (Mark Bazeley).

During their long, boring flight to Afghanistan, their ground support crew of Navy SEALs are wiped out when they are ambushed by terrorists and stupidly stand in the middle of an open room until they are completely surrounded. Soon after arriving in a curiously Romanian looking area of Afghanistan, Seagal and Jannick get into a firefight with some terrorists and Jannick is captured. Seagal meets up with his contacts, some hot chick named Jessica (Ciera Payton) and Rojar (Alki David), the token good Arab. Together they set out to rescue Jannick and retrieve the stolen bomber before the terrorists carry out their plan and/or the terrorist base is blown to pieces by American forces.

The rest of the film plays out pretty much as you'd expect. The final action scene at the terrorist camp is actually pretty entertaining, even if the subsequent stock-footage heavy dogfight pretty much squanders all that excitement. Keusch pulls out every trick in the book to make Seagal look threatening, but it's rarely convincing. Highlights include an awkward stick fight between Seagal and a terrorist that drags on for several minutes, and a fight that is framed so that only Seagal's stunt double's legs and arms are visible.

Keusch uses a lot of stock footage in this film, and it varies greatly in quality. Don't expect to ever see two jets in a single shot, even when they are dogfighting. Hell, they are usually surrounded by completely different terrain. The same few clips of fighter jets are used over and over, and the film is padded with establishing shots of aircraft carriers and the like.

Seagal sleepwalks through his performance, with an army of stunt doubles and voice-dubbers ready to pick up the slack. The dubbing isn't as prolific as in Attack Force, and the guy at least attempts to imitate Seagal. Ciera Payton is pretty hot as Jessica, who must be the most provocatively dressed woman in Afghanistan. At one point she even seduces a lesbian terrorist. Alki David plays a pretty embarrassing stereotype, constantly calling Seagal "boss" and shouting "Kiss my big fat Arab ass."

The previous two Seagal/Keusch films were plagued by a jumble of idiotic, poorly-told subplots. Thankfully, Flight of Fury keeps it simple with a single idiotic, poorly-told plot. There's still a lot of plot holes, but at least you can tell what's going on most of the time. Flight of Fury squeaks over the line of mediocrity, and that's a marked improvement over Attack Force and Shadow Man. This is probably your only opportunity to see Seagal in an uncomfortably snug flight suit though, so if that's what you're after, have at it.

Friday, 16 May 2008

2019: After the Fall of New York (1983)

Behold! The last hope for humanity (not pictured: ape-man)

Another entry in the sizable catalog of cheap 1980s post-apocalyptic action films, but this time the Italians aren't only to blame. Also the French! Sergio Martino's 2019: After the Fall of New York is a French-Italian co-production that combines the souped up muscle cars (except in the finale when they are inexplicably traded for a family station wagon) and desert locations of Mad Max with the "man on a mission" plot of Escape From New York. But did those films have George Eastman as an ape-man? No. No they didn't.

An opening narration reveals that the world has split into two factions, the Pan American Confederacy (America i.e. the good guys) and the Euracs (Asia, Europe, Africa... basically everyone else). The ensuing nuclear war has left the planet a barren wasteland and women infertile. No child has been born in fifteen years (sorry Children of Men, the Italians were there first), and the evil Euracs are combing the ruins of New York for survivors they can use in genetic experiments.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Nevada, a group of post-apocalyptic punks excitedly watch a demolition derby taking place in an abandoned quarry. The winner is a grizzled longhair in tight jeans named Parsifal (Michael Sopkiw). He claims his prize from a creepy cyborg clown: a handful of License-To-Kill tokens, each good for one free murder and all the victims possessions, and a hermaphrodite sex slave. A few miles out of town he ditches the slave and the tokens (this is how we know he is a good guy), and is soon after captured by some Pan Am Con soldiers in a hovercraft. He is taken to a cheap model of their secret headquarters in Alaska, where is he is offered a mission.

Luckily for the human race, the Pan Am Con has determined that there is one (1) fertile woman left in the world, secreted away somewhere in the ruins of New York. If he retrieves her, he will be given a seat on a spaceship that is headed to a life-sustaining planet somewhere in Alpha Centauri. He is joined by Bronx, a New York native with a robotic hook for a hand, and Ratchet, a one-eyed strongman with some sweet retractable chains with metal balls on the end. They ride their motorcycles to the shore, where a radiation-scarred man plays a mournful tune on a trumpet. He should start a band with the drummer from 1990: Bronx Warriors. "See that?" He says "They baked the big apple!" Mmm... baked apple.

After being attacked by some punks in a scrapyard and having hot oil dumped on them by hobos, they come across the Needle People, a tribe that hunt rats with metal spikes (the humans have the spikes, not the rats). In true Italian fashion, dozens of presumably real rats are impaled, squished and flagellated. Sorry little fellas. Our heroic trio are captured when they intervene to save the life of a midget.

That evening, by virtue of capturing the largest number of delicious rats, one of the tribe members gets his pick of the women. Understandably he picks Giara (Valentine Monier), who boasts any number of attractive features over the other women, not the least of which being her lack of weeping pustules and full head of hair. Before things go too far, the Euracs bust in and start with the killing. Ratchet escapes, but Bronx and Parsifal are captured, as well as a handful of the Needle People.

Back at Eurac HQ, Parsifal is restrained and interrogated by sexy Eurac officer Ania. She is played by one-time Miss Italy Anna Kanakis, last seen in another post-apocalyptic film The New Barbarians. Ania tries to seduce the information out of him, he buys himself some time by falsely identifying Giara as the fertile woman. Bronx, meanwhile, is interrogated by a less sexy Eurac commander, and uses his metal claw to gouge out his eyes. As punishment he is strapped to a futuristic torture device, and Parsifal is conveniently taken there to watch the results. Parsifal manages to overpower the guards and together they rescue Giara and escape.

They are aided in their escape by the midget they helped earlier, and he takes them to the underground hideout of his midget tribe. He goes by the unoriginal name of Shorty, and just so happens to know the location of the fertile woman. He promises to take them to her in exchange for passage out of New York. He doesn't seem to show much compassion for his midget brethren, but this is soon made irrelevant when the Euracs arrive with an sonic device that kills the entire tribe. Our heroes, including Shorty, manage to avoid a grisly death by stuffing their ears with wax and absconding.

The subsequently run into a tribe of ape-men, led by Big Ape, a man in cheap Planet of the Apes makeup and dressed like a flamboyant Arabian prince. He is played by post-apocalyptic juggernaut George Eastman (The New Barbarians, 1990: Bronx Warriors) . After defeating a rape ape with a sneaky kick in the balls, Parsifal reveals their mission to Big Ape who insists on accompanying them so he can impregnate her with his simian seed.

Once they get to the secret laboratory where the fertile girl is being kept on ice, they find that the professor is dead. Luckily he left a high-tech method of transportation to help them escape the city... an early-80s station wagon! Shorty, Parsifal and Ratchet head to a junkyard to find some makeshift armour, during which Shorty sacrifices himself to help them escape. While they are away, Big Ape knocks down Giara and presumably knocks up popsicle-woman, but by the time they return Giara has recovered from her bludgeoning and doesn't seem to care.

After reinforcing their vehicle they manage to plow it through a brick wall and a series of Eurac barricades. Even a huge laser cannon is no match for the little Station wagon that could. During their escape Big Ape gets fried by a laser, but not before decapitating three Eurac soldiers with a single throw of his scimitar!

Once they escape into the safety of the desert it's revealed that Ratchet was a cyborg and planning to kill Parsifal all along. For some reason. The two of them engage in a fight that leaves Giara fatally stabbed in the gut. She mutters some gibberish about humanity being worth saving before expiring. Parsifal and the frozen girl return to Alaska and the two of them are blasted off into space. I guess that nine months later she gave birth to an ape-baby.

Oh yeah, there's a bit before this where the Eurac commander gets his eyes replaced and chastises Aria for failing to capture the heroes. She shoots him and takes over, but we never see her again after that point, so who gives a shit?

The effects are about as cheesy as you'd expect from a film like this. The equally cheesy synthesiser score is by Guido & Maurizio De Angelis (aka Oliver Onions) the duo behind the awesomely bad title song from Yor: The Hunter From the Future. There's a bit of gore, but nothing out of the ordinary, and no sex or nudity. The two leads, Michael Sopkiw and Valentine Monnier, aren't too bad, actually.

It's a good thing this film moves along at such a brisk pace. Any lull in the action might cause it to collapse under the weight of it's own stupidity. If you don't stop to question the enormous plot holes and inconsistent character motivations, you might find yourself enjoyably swept along by the action. If you only watch one post-apocalyptic film this year, watch Mad Max 2. Then Escape From New York. Then The Warriors, I guess. But if you aren't sick of the genre by the tenth or so film, then try this one.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

La Terza Madre (Mother of Tears: The Third Mother) (2007)

Who knew that witches looked like David Bowie fans circa 1972? Dario Argento did.

I'm a big fan of Dario Argento, so when I heard that he was finally going to complete his "Mother" trilogy of Suspiria and Inferno, I was excited, but also wary. The last film of his I'd seen was The Phantom of the Opera, which wasn't great. It took a few unusual deviations from the original story. For instance, the deformed phantom was now a man who was raised in the sewers by psychic rats. I suppose you could call my position: optimistically cautious.

Plot has never been one of Argento's strong points, but here goes. An urn is uncovered near Viterbo that contain some mysterious artifacts. It is sent to the Museum of Ancient Art in Rome, where Sarah Mandy (Asia Argento) and her friend work as restoration technicians. As soon as they open it and start pawing the contents, her friend is gruesomely killed by cackling demons and the urn stolen. There's also an evil monkey, what's up with that? Sarah escapes, thanks to a mysterious disembodied voice.

The urn has fallen into the hands of Mater Lacrimarum, the Mother of Tears. The magical golden t-shirt inside gives her witchy super-powers, or something. As a result, Rome is becoming infested with witches that look like extras from a glam-rock video. They are constantly cackling and giggling to themselves. I don't know if they're scary (the Japanese one with the gold tooth is kind of freaky, though) but by God are they annoying. In addition to all these goth witches, insanity is spreading throughout Rome resulting in a rash of suicides and violence in the streets.

After some cat-and-mouse games with both the witches and the cops, Sarah travels to visit an occult expert who spills the beans about her past. Turns out that the ghostly apparition that has been guiding Sarah is her deceased mother Elisa (Daria Nicolodi), formerly a white witch. Although Sarah has been raised to believe she was killed in a car crash, she was actually killed in magical battle with Mater Lacrimarum. Now Sarah has inherited her mother's powers and must use them to put a stop to the evil witch's plans for world domination. It's like Harry Potter, except with Asia Argento instead of that fucker Harry, Udo Kier instead of Dumbledore and Voldemort is a hot, naked chick. I know that sounds like the best movie ever, but her powers don't really figure into the story all that much, unless you consider the manipulation of a pointed stick to be witchcraft (I don't).

How did Dario manage to produce Asia Argento? It is one of the world's greatest mysteries. He continues his tradition of putting her in totally hot nude shower scenes, which is kind of creepy. She isn't a fantastic actor, but she struggles through. It's cool seeing Daria Nicolodi in an Argento film again, but she isn't given a lot to do. Morian Attias makes an impression for the five minutes she is on screen as Mater Lacrimarum, by which I mean she is hot and naked.

The dialogue is laughable, the characters are hastily sketched and the climax is resolved far too quickly. Nothing new for Agento there, but more importantly there isn't the same sense of style. There are scenes in Suspiria and Inferno that are so beautifully composed it's like looking at a painting, but there's nothing on that level here. No vibrant colours or meticulous art design. That's not to say it's a bad looking film, it just doesn't push the envelope like his earlier films did. The score, by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame, is pretty good but the tunes won't burrow into your brain like the music from Suspiria or Tenebre. It's probably not fair to continually come back to Argento's earlier films, but because it's meant to be tying together the other two films I didn't expect such a completely different style.

One thing you can't fault this film for is a lack of gore. You've got a girl getting a drill shoved in her mouth, disemboweled and then strangled with her own intestines, like in Story of Ricky. You've got a priest being stabbed in the face. You've got lesbians getting their eyes poked out and spears shoved in special areas. You've even got a baby being tossed over a bridge, which is bad enough, but because it's an Argento film it smacks into a pylon on the way down. Argento's films have always been gory, and this is his goriest yet, but it just seems sleazier this time around. Argento has a way of making unbearably cruel death sequences seem operatic and even kind of beautiful. This looks more like Lucio Fulci. The gore is mostly well-realised old-fashioned physical effects. The CG effects are a bit phoney looking, but luckily there isn't a lot of them.

Mother of Tears has lost the dreamlike atmosphere that made Argento's films so enduring. It may have been at attempt to make the film more grounded in reality, but it had the unwanted effect of placing the nonsensical plot and weirdo dialogue in sharp relief. You expect faulty logic and strange dialogue in a dream. In reality, not so much. Did I mention that Mater Lacrimarum was hot? Because she was pretty hot.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

1990: Bronx Warriors (1982)

Waxed chests and leather vests... a chilling vision of the future

Now that we've looked at The New Barbarians it's time to take a look at the other Enzo G. Castellari helmed 1982 post-apocalyptic action film starring Fred Williamson. That's not to say it's a total retread. Whereas The New Barbarians was an unashamed, bottom-of-the-barrel rip-off of Mad Max, Castellari branches out into new territory with an unashamed, bottom-of-the-barrel rip-off of Escape From New York (with some of The Warriors thrown in).

In the extremely near future (a rather pessimistic eight years after the film was made) the crime rate in the Bronx has risen to such catastrophic levels that it has been declared No Man's Land. The authorities have given up any attempt to enforce law and order, and now the streets belong to the gangs.

Fleeing to this post-apocalyptic hell-hole is Ann (Stefania Girolami). She is on the cusp of her eighteenth birthday, and on that day she stands to inherit the Presidency of the Manhattan Corporation, the world's largest arms producer. Fearing becoming a puppet of corporate villainy, she naturally decides that the Bronx would be a good place to hide. Soon after arrival, she is attacked by a lame street-hockey themed gang called the Zombies. They aren't exactly the Baseball Furies, but they can hold their own against a 17 year old girl.

Luckily she is rescued by Trash, permed, pouty-lipped pugilist and leader of the biker gang the Riders. Played by Mark Gregory, he looks like a member of the sissiest hair-metal band ever to don a pair of skin-tight jeans, and looks particularly incongruous next to his gang, most of whom were played by genuine bikers. He walks in a bizarre, feminine gait and his expression is permanently set to baby-faced bewilderment. The only way I'd buy him as leader of the gang is if he were elected as some sort of prank, like Carrie as prom queen, but he was too stupid to get the joke and the rest of the gang just ran with it.

According to the opening text, the Bronx belongs to the Riders, but it's clear that the real guys in charge are the Tigers. I mean, the Riders may have Nazi uniforms and customised hogs with glowing plastic skulls on the front, but the Tigers wear pimp suits and drive around in classic hotrods. As opposed to the hair-metal reject Trash, the Tigers are led by the self-titled King of the Bronx "The Ogre", played by Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. Whereas Trash is flanked by fat, hairy bikers, The Ogre has a whip-wielding dominatrix sidekick named Witch. I think we know who the real top dog is.

Anyway, the Tigers meet up with the Riders at a wharf to discuss a territorial dispute. Apparently the Tigers have killed one of Trash's men, who, according to the Ogre, was carrying a police tracking device called a "Gizmo". The entire scene is scored to a drum beat, banged out by dude who is sitting there out in the open with a full drum kit. He doesn't appear to have any connection to the gangs and nobody says a word about it. If you've even wondered why I sit through these cheap Italian knock-offs, it's for insane moments like these.

Thrown into the mix is Hammer, played by actual Bronx native Vic Morrow (soon before dying on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie). Hammer is a former resident of the Bronx who is hired by the Vice President of the Manhattan Corporation (played by Enzo G. Castellari himself) to rescue Ann. Hammer also sees it as a chance to take out as many scumbag gang members as possible. He's like Charles Bronson in Death Wish, only he's the bad guy. He starts by infiltrating the headquarters of the Riders (colourfully labeled by the grammatically poor graffiti: "This shit heap is Riders home"). He is disguised as a mailman, complete with a shotgun in a poster-tube, but I question the idea that the mail service is still operating in this neighbourhood. He gets discovered, but he manages to take out a couple of Trash's men before escaping.

Hammer tries to frame the Tigers for the deaths by planting some evidence. Although the Riders call for war, Trash is unconvinced, claiming that "it could be a pile of shit out of somebody's asshole." Yes Trash, that's generally where shit comes from. When Hammer's attempts to turn the gangs against each other fails, he employs a traitorous member of the Riders named Ice to turn against their leader.

Ann blames herself for the deaths of Trash's crew and tries to run away, but the idiot is immediately captured by the Zombies. Ice goes to meet the leader of the Zombies, Golan, to try and convince him to turn Ann over to Hammer. Golan is played by none other than George "The New Barbarians" Eastman. He doesn't fuck a guy in the ass this time, but he does wear a crazy shogun-inspired outfit like Sho' Nuff.

Trash, meanwhile, has decided to take a few of his men and ask The Ogre for help to rescue Ann. In order to reach the Tigers' turf, however, they must make it through a gauntlet of gimmicky gangs a la The Warriors. I don't know why they had to take a shortcut through the sewers, but in doing so they were attacked by the Scavengers, a group of underground cavemen. The most hilarious gang of all is a group of tap-dancing thugs wearing bowler hats and glittery makeup, kind of like the drag version of A Clockwork Orange.

Once they arrive at the Tigers' headquarters Hammer tries to frame Trash one last time, but Trash manages to convince The Ogre of his innocence and get his assistance in rescuing Ann. On their trip back, Trash comes across his second-in-command, attacked by the Scavengers as he tried to warn him of Ice's treachery. Trash is just in time for a tearful death scene that I was convinced was going to end with a passionate kiss (maybe in the deleted scenes). Ogre, Trash and Witch rescue Ann and kick the asses of Golan and all of his roller-skating flunkies.

The Ogre takes Ann and the Riders back to his headquarters, even baking a spectacular birthday cake for Ann, but soon Hammer arrives, clad in black leather and doing some serious overacting, with a platoon of flamethrower-wielding riot cops on horseback. I wouldn't think flamethrowers and horses would be a good mix, but they do a good job of roasting the gang members. Pretty much everyone dies, including Ann, and the film ends with Trash impaling Hammer on a grappling hook and dragging his corpse through the streets of the Bronx. Long live the Riders!

Yeah, so this film is pretty dumb. I mean, why are they so intent on getting Ann back so she can run the company? I mean, this is a girl who decided that the best course of action was to run away to a crime infested slum and shack up with a bubble-headed, pretty-boy biker named Trash. We're not talking top-shelf material here. I also don't understand how Hammer's plan was supposed to work. By the end of the film he doesn't seem to care why he's there at all, and I guess it's assumed that you don't either. The film also loses points for casting Fred Williamson and naming a completely different character "Hammer". However it's never boring, with lots of good action and some nicely choreographed fights. Throw in a few surreal Italian touches and some hilariously bad "tough guy" dialogue ("You're playing with fire!" "I know, and I love it... I love it"), and you've got a recipe for good times my friend.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

The New Barbarians (1982)

Dune buggies, laser guns, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson and
George Eastman fucking a dude in the ass. This film has everything!

After the huge success of Mad Max, it didn't take the Italians long to realise that they could make their own post-apocalyptic epics using nothing more than some bearded Italians, a disused quarry, a few dune buggies and some leather S&M gear. Enzo G. Castellari's The New Barbarians (aka Warriors of the Wasteland) was one of them. It takes place in the year 2019, and the world is a pretty different place. For starters, people wear transparent bubbles over their boobs. After the bombs dropped, frightened and desperate survivors banded together, trying to intercept signals from civilisation as they hold off assaults from gangs of raiders.

Scorpion (Giancarlo Prete), on the other hand, is a loner who prowls the wasteland and steals to survive. He gets around in a sweet Dodge Charger, which doesn't have a scorpion airbrushed on the hood, sadly, but does have a shiny silver skull as a hood ornament, which is almost as good. It is also customised with glowing plastic bubbles, pvc tubing and other futuristic accoutrement. It isn't all cosmetic though: At the push of a button he can open the door for the lizzadies or activate the rocket launcher hidden in the trunk. Hell, his mechanic probably laughed at him when he requested a button to blast off the passenger door, but it sure came in handy when a bad guy stuck a mine to the side of his car.

You'd think all of this stuff would cost a fortune in gas or water or women or whatever has become the currency in this post-apocalyptic wasteland, but you'd be surprised how much sway you have when your mechanic is a 10 year old boy. He is played by none other than Giovanni Frezzi aka Bobby from House by the Cemetery. Luckily he's dubbed by someone else this time around, adopting a gruff Brooklyn-accented voice more befitting of a Warrior of the Wasteland. He's good with a slingshot too. I don't know what he was shooting, but the bad guys were dropping like flies in the finale.

Who are the bad guys? Well, Scorpion is being pursued by a group of white-clad raiders called the Templars, headed by the enigmatic One (George Eastman in a hilarious wig). The One has some sort of grudge against Scorpion (in addition to smouldering lust), but it isn't explained. The Templars have a philosophy that boils down to the destruction all life on Earth, which is at odds with Scorpion's desire to live. The Templars have dirt bikes and customised silver golf carts that can move at about 10 km/h, but are packed with all sorts of accessories, like flame throwers, spinning blades etc. It even has a flimsy looking fan that they use to decapitate people who are too stupid to duck.

Did I mention that the Templars are homosexuals? The leather outfits, the meticulously styled hair, the sensibly fuel-efficient cars, it all makes sense! In fact, their initiation ritual involves being sodomised by One in front of all the other Templars, something he proceeds to demonstrate on Scorpion. The synth-heavy soundtrack (by Claudio Simonetti ie Goblin) starts bleeping and blorping even more than usual, and the film cuts rapidly from Scorpion to One to the reaction shots of the henchmen. One doesn't even give him a reach-around and frankly that's just rude.

Before he is finished off, Scorpion is rescued by Nadir (The Hammer) who creepily stalks him from place to place, helping him out of jams with his explosive-tipped arrows and shiny gold codpiece. Who knows why, but when Scorpion is being dragged along behind a dune buggy, he slo-o-o-wly takes out all of the accompanying motorcyclists before turning his attention to the guy driving the buggy. Maybe he just likes watching him suffer, which explains his absence during Scorpion's unfortunate butt-rape incident.

The film builds to a climax at a survivor outpost, where the trio of warriors take out the entire Templar army. Nadir and the mechanic take on the henchman while Scorpion has a spaghetti Western showdown with One's second-in-command. Scorpion even whips off his poncho to reveal his bare torso encased in laser-proof translucent bubble-armour. Sergio Leone, you've just been served! The mechanic also whips up a four-foot drill for his car, so he can exact some penetrative vengeance on One during a climatic low-speed car chase.

As far as Mad Max rip-offs go, this one isn't too bad. Giancarlo Prete is a pretty poor Mel Gibson substitute, but the presence of The Hammer almost makes up for it. It has a lot of explosions (they are mostly the cheap-looking kind with lots of sparks and smoke) plus a few cool decapitations by exploding arrows. Most of the cars look like you could outrun them on foot, but there are lots of crashes and cars flying off ramps in slow motion. Ann Kanakis, Miss Italy 1977, appears briefly as window dressing, but she's very good at it, looking good even when the dirt on her face makes it looks like she has a five o'clock shadow. The 90 minutes or so move pretty quickly and I doubt you'll be bored, unless you hate explosions, laser-battles, James Bond style gadgets and life, in which case, the Templars are always looking for new members. Bring lube.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Delirium: Photo of Gioia (1987)

"Can you help me find my contact lens?"

As a director, Lamberto Bava has always lived in the shadow of his father, but you can't help invite comparison when you release a giallo with a setting so similar to one of Mario Bava's best (Blood and Black Lace). Gioia (Serena Grandi) is a porn star/photographer turned owner of a soft-core skin mag called "Pussycat". Unfortunately some nutbag is killing her models and then sending her photos of the victim posed in front of a giant topless photograph of her. Who could it possibly be? Well, let's look at the list of suspects.

Firstly, there's the wheelchair-bound pervert next door who likes to make obscene phone calls to Gioia, watch her through binoculars etc. She's cool with this. He is the one who alerts her to the first murder, but when she goes out to look for the body in the pool it's gone. Even the blood has been magically removed. In order to cast further suspicion on him, the film hints that his paralysis may be psychosomatic.

She also has an assistant (Daria Nicolodi), who appears in the film just long enough to look suspicious. When the policeman announces that the killer has blonde hair, Nicolodi squirms and makes a face as if to say "I hope nobody notices I'm the only one here with blonde hair." Of course, he gives himself an out, claiming that the killer might be wearing a wig, as if wig-wearing killers are an everyday occurrence. Although in giallos they usually are.

There is also her quick-tempered photographer (David Brandon). He's a homosexual which in the context of a giallo means he's likely to be a crazed homicidal (homocidal?) deviant who hates women. While searching his apartment, the cops find the enormous poster of Gioia that was used in the photos of the vicitims. They call up Gioia to warn her, just as the photographer knocks on the door with some urgent news about the killer. Will he chase after her and then get hit by a car before he can divulge the identity of the killer? Maybe.

There's a few minor characters to round things out, such as a bitchy rival, Gioia's maid (she walks in just as a character says "there's something we're missing") and a few others. George Eastman plays Gioia's on-again, off-again boyfriend who shows up in what is essentially a cameo, for a cheesy softcore sex scene in the tub. There's a saxophone noodling in the background but they forgot the hundreds of lit candles, so somebody dropped the ball on that one. In an interview on the DVD, Eastman calls his work on Delirium "a waste of time", which is damning criticism considering some of the films he has been in. Plus he got to grope Serena Grandi, that's got to count for something.

The film's central conceit is that when the victims are stalked, we see them through the distorted mind of the killer. This means lots of crazy coloured lighting (Lamberto doesn't use it as well as his father, I'm afraid) and the victims are seen as strange and fantastical creatures. For instance, one victim is seen as a bug-eyed cyclops and another as having a giant bee head. Of course, these grotesque heads are still perched atop sexy female bodies, which looks more than a little goofy. Like his mentor Argento, Lamberto scores the kills with rock music, but the cheesy synth-rock on offer here isn't exactly Goblin.

Those expecting the excessive violence of Bava's most famous giallo, A Blade in the Dark may be disappointed by this tv-friendly film. The death scenes are reasonably creative, one woman gets a pitchfork in the gut and another is killed when thousands of bees are released in her apartment, but don't expect blood and gore. They tried to make up for it with the nudity. Since it's set at a nudie mag, there's plenty of topless women cavorting about, especially Serena Grandi.

This film is Serena Grandi's second film after having an impromptu cesarean section in Joe D'Amato's Anthropophagus. Apparently Grandi is known as the "Dolly Parton of Italy", but I can't find any mention of her country music career, so I don't know what they're talking about. She isn't the breast actor in the world so tits a mystery why they hired her. She is frequently overshadowed by her two co-stars and frankly it makes the casting director look like a boob. Jubblies. Funbags. Serena Grandi has huge knockers, is what I'm saying here.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Guy N. Smith Book Review - The Master

Art teacher Ann Rawsthorne can't believe her luck when she gets a job at Hurst College, an exclusive boarding school for wayward rich kids in the remote Scottish highlands. However, when she arrives she immediately notices that something is wrong. The teachers are all glassy eyed zombies, the students are obsessed with sex, athleticism seems way more important than academics, and the headmaster is a lecherous jerk. Well, so far it all sounds normal, but it's also home to an undead deformed dwarf and a Satanic cult that worships him.

Headmaster Lazenby is the black priest of this evil cult, and the congregation is comprised of the school's top students. Together they perform the usual Satanic shenanigans: sacrificing chickens, gangbanging virgins etc. Basically they need to impregnate a virgin so the Master can be reborn. You see, several hundred years ago the Master was the Laird of Hurst, a deformed dwarf who tortured and tormented the peasants. I guess he was such an asshole than even Hell didn't want him, and he's now a skeletal zombie living in the crypt underneath the school's chapel, waiting to be reborn.

Lazenby rules over the students with an iron fist, ensuring that his cult remains a secret from the teachers and from the outside world. I think this is a bit of a shortsighted plan. What happens when they graduate? One student tries to escape, and when that fails he hangs himself. In order to hide any evidence of wrongdoing, Lazenby insists that he be buried on school grounds. And his father agrees! Another girl dies of a burst appendix, and when her parents insist on taking her body home with them, Lazenby steals it from the morgue. Both bodies get offered to the Master, and eaten up I guess.

I should add that the police are bunch of useless morons. They show up after the students die and again when a local crofter, sick of students stealing his chickens for use in Satanic rituals, tries to burn down the chapel but ends up burning himself down as well (then the dogs eat his barbecued corpse). The cops act all suspicious, and then shrug and leave.

Now it's up to Ann and Phil Cumbes, the PE teacher who takes a liking to her for some reason, to piece together the evidence. Too bad Ann is as dumb as a bag of hammers. She doesn't find it overly suspicious when the headmaster asks her if she's a virgin (correct answer: "Fuck off"). Even after discussing the possibility of students being involved in a Satanic cult and finding a book of Satanic rituals in the chapel, she agrees to go to a midnight service in the underground crypt. When she arrives she finds everyone dressed in black robes, everything draped in black cloth and she still thinks the inverted cross behind the altar is the result of clumsy carpentry. Jesus, lady!

By now it's too late, Lazenby is babbling about the Master and forcing chicken blood down her throat. They pull out the ceremonial Fucking Couch and start stripping, even the Master crawls out of his crypt, eager for a bit of undead action. He even regenerates his undead wing-wong somehow. Thankfully Phil shows up just in time and starts blasting the naked Satanists with a shotgun. They escape just before the crypt collapses, burying the Master and his followers under several tonnes of rubble.

I guess this book was okay. The protagonists are so roughly sketched they might as well be sock puppets, but Headmaster Lazenby was a truly sinister character and about ten times more interesting than the heroes. I was eagerly awaiting the point where he'd receive his just comeuppance, but it never really happened. In fact, the ending seemed rather hasty and unsatisfying for all the suspense that preceded it. I can't say this book made a huge impression on me. Even a brief bout of schoolgirl lesbian experimentation wasn't enough to save it, and that's saying something.

Magma: Volcanic Disaster (2006)

Xander Berkely and Amy Jo Johnson drink heavily and
commiserate about being stuck in this film

Xander Berkeley plays the generically named Dr. Peter Shepard, an expert vulcanologist. When he is not lecturing he travels around the world to research volcanoes, assisted by three male grad students and a perky newcomer, played by Amy Jo Johnson (pink ranger). Supposedly they are brilliant geochemists, but they still take time out on plane rides to explain extremely basic principles of vulcanology to each other. During an expedition to a supposedly dormant Icelandic volcano there is an eruption, evidence that points towards his pet theory, "Exodus". He predicts that the earth's core is expanding and soon every volcano will blow it's top simultaneously. The consequences? Extinction of all life on Earth (dramatic sting). Of course, when Dr. Shepard presents his theory to a room full of government bigwigs, they all laugh it off.

It wouldn't be much of a film if it turned out that the weaselly bureaucrats were right, so soon volcanic activity is erupting all over the place. While Shepard's team are exploring a Columbian mine, one of them is killed when they stupidly wander into a lava tube. To be fair, the lava tube is fitted with electric lighting so you can see how they'd be confused. Also, Shepard's wheelchair-bound mentor and his foxy assistant are killed in Japan (unconvincingly played by Bulgaria) while examining Mount Fuji.

The Doubting Thomas' call Dr. Shepard back to the war room, cap in hand and suitably ashamed. One slimy weasel even hacks into Shepard's servers and steals his data rather than admit he was wrong. Luckily Dr. Shepard has a plan: Launching a bunch of nuclear warheads into the ocean floor, creating fissures that allow the magma to escape safely. Is there any problem that can't be solved with huge explosions?

Soon they've donned scuba gear and are airdropped into the ocean so they can swim onto a submerged nuclear submarine. No time for the sub to surface, there are lives to save! As the multi-national task force undertakes mission "Heal the Earth", the President gives a solemn and rousing speech that hits every cliché imaginable. Unfortunately, the retarded plan fails and the planet is consumed by molten lava. Nah, just kidding, it works perfectly.

We've only got about an hour of screen time here, so we need a few subplots. Luckily Dr. Shepard has an estranged wife (Reiko Aylesworth), and they have long, boring phone conversations throughout the film. Would it surprise you to learn that her life is jeopardised by the volcanic eruptions? And that the events of the film bring them closer together? Only if you've never seen a disaster film before or had one described to you.

This is a Sci-Fi channel movie, so it's lousy with bad CGI. Would it be so bad to have a few scale models? If you're going to have cheap, fake-looking effects then go with the physical effects I say. At least then it looks like things interacting in the real world. In fact, this whole film was probably generated by a computer, so determined is it to hit every disaster movie cliché in the book. I mean, Jesus, at one point the President says "Atlas has shrugged, gentleman. What are we going to do about it?"

The only reason to watch a movie called Magma: Volcanic Disaster, or indeed any movie with the word "disaster" in the title, is to see thousands of panicked citizens running for their lives, famous landmarks consumed by lava, skies choked with black ash, fire raining from the sky, etc. Unfortunately, this film fails to deliver on that front, such large-scale disasters are only hinted at through news reports (one mentions Rome being threatened by Mt. Vesuvius and Mt. Etna, which are nowhere near Rome). We do bear witness to a few minor disasters, such as Old Faithful spewing magma onto some unfortunate tourists, but we are usually limited to a handful of cheap Bulgarian extras.

In conclusion: This film is no good.