Friday, 25 September 2009

Conquest (1983)

No, you do not need glasses.
The whole fucking movie is shot like this.

A Lucio Fulci sword and sorcery film? Sign me the fuck up! On paper it sounds like the best thing ever, but there are few things holding it back and it's not just because there aren't any fucking swords. Firstly, don't be fooled by the nunchuck-wielding Conan wannabe on the cover, the hero of the movie is actually this leather-clad wiener named Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti from The New York Ripper). As the movie opens he is being lectured by a bunch of toga-wearing beardos on a misty, soft-focus beach. A man gives him a longbow and then tells him that long ago a hero named Cronos was able to use it to fire laser arrows. Ilias asks "It was magic, wasn't it?" which I thought was a reasonable assumption but according to this guy it was a sign he had become a man. After some more rambling prophecy and vague words of wisdom, he is sent away to a strange, distant land to fulfill his ill-defined destiny.

This mysterious land is home to an evil Sorceress named Ocron, who rules over the six or seven peasants with an iron fist. Despite the fact that the peasants are all wrapped in furs she likes to walk around completely naked save for a g-string and a feather boa, not that I'm complaining. She also wears a metal mask that conceals her entire head, but I immediately recognised those breasts as belonging to Sabrina Siani (2020: Texas Gladiators). In her employ she has an army of wolf men (at first I thought they were just furries, but there is some mild articulation in their masks to suggest they are actually werewolves) and S&M masked henchmen. I say army even though there's only half a dozen or so but since there's only a handful of peasants, it works out pretty well. At first she seems like a pretty cool boss, at the end of a hard day slaughtering the innocent she lets you hit the crack pipe with her and then watch her writhe around naked and covered in snakes. If you fuck up, however, she'll torture you or roast you over some hot coals. So like any job there's some good and bad.

During one of her drug orgies she has a strange vision, a faceless man shooting her with a magic bow and arrow, so she sends out her soldiers to kill him. In Ilias' his first battle against them he puts in an utterly pathetic attempt to fight them off (he only thought to bring about four arrows). Luckily this muscled, long-haired dude leaps into the fray and starts whipping ass with a mace while our hero lies face down in the mud. He is named Mace and carries a mark on his forehead that means he is a friend to no man, probably because they all make fun of his generic name. Instead he has developed a kinship with all animals, but don't think he'll show you any mercy if you are a wolf man. I guess if you wear pants you are fair game.

His Conan-meets-Beastmaster philosophy has some interesting loopholes, though. For instance, he uses Ilias' bow and arrow to kill an innocent hunter and then steals his boar and eats it for dinner. When Ilias protests he replies "Hey, I didn't kill it." He uses the same excuse later when he steals a sheep to impress some hot cave women. Plus, despite his supposed hatred of all mankind he immediately takes a shining towards Ilias and saves his life on multiple occasions. He even lets him bone his girlfriend's sister. He's a man of contradictions. I like that.

We've discussed tits but another important part of sword and sorcery and indeed any of Fulci's films are the over-the-top gore effects. The highlight is early in the film when a couple of wolf men attack a naked cavewoman. They grab her by the ankles and pry her legs apart, so I braced myself for some old-fashioned barbarian gang rape, but instead the two wolf men keep on pulling at her legs until they tear her in half. Then they take her severed head back to Ocron so she can crack that baby open and eat out the brains. Apart from that there's several decapitations, brain splatterings and messy impalements, but nothing too outlandish.

Another typical Fulci scene is when Ilias gets stung by some poisonous quills, fired off-screen from an creature that is neither seen nor mentioned. As our hero lies there unconscious (again) Fulci documents every oozing, bursting pustule in gratuitous close-up while Mace battles swamp zombies to find a magical plant that will cure him. He also fights this guy named Zora that Ocron had conjured into the body of her pet wolf. He takes several forms in the film, but usually it's a guy in a cool outfit that resembles a Chinese jade burial suit. Ocron makes a deal that if he kills Ilias' then he can have her body forever. He's pretty eager, especially since you know she's probably got a hare lip or some shit under that mask. Although I guess he's completely covered in plate armour, so he can't really judge.

After being cured Ilias decides to pack it in and go home (quitter!) and Mace is captured by some cool-looking chirping mummies and crucified. Ilias decides to come back just as Mace, still mounted on his cross, is being dumped into the ocean. It's pretty funny because Ilias doesn't even try to save him, he has to get rescued by a couple of friendly dolphins like fucking Aquaman. I guess Ilias must have become a man somewhere along the way (I didn't notice) because suddenly there is an eclipse and Ilias starts using his bow to fire magic blue lasers, like that ranger guy from Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. They can split into multiple arrows, curve around corners and do all sorts of cool shit.

Up until know I was wondering why we are stuck with this dork instead of the awesome Mace. Well, I guess the four (!) writers must have thought so too, because pretty soon after the two of them escape Ilias gets kidnapped and decapitated by some of Ocron's wolf men. Wow, I sure wasn't expecting that. Zora tries to claim on their deal and you'd think decapitating him would have been enough, but now she starts talking some bullshit about how he had slain his body but not his soul. He probably dodged a bullet, though, turns out that under her mask she's the worst butter face ever (I'd still do her).

The rest of the film progresses pretty much the way you'd expect. Mace finds Ilias' headless corpse, burns it on a funeral pyre and then rubs the ashes all over himself, imbuing him with Ilias' spirit so he can use his magic laser bow to get revenge on Ocron. He shoots her with a blue laser she and Zora both turn into wolves and run off into the sunset together. Then the movie then ruins my assumptions of historical legitimacy by claiming that "Any reference to persons or events is coincidental".

There isn't much of a plot, the movie just kind of drifts along amiably with some weird unexplained shit happening every so often. Lots of boring traveling, mostly implied since most of the film looks like it was shot in somebody's backyard. It it has a few good things going for it, though. There's a throbbing Claudio Simonetti soundtrack and the dubbing is surprisingly good. The costumes and set design are a delicious mixture of inspired and cheesy and there's a fair bit of gore and nudity. Unfortunately, and this is one of my major gripes with the film, you can't actually see any of it properly for all the smoke and haze and darkness and soft-focus lenses. I know Fulci likes his dream logic and fog machines, but it's fucking intolerable here. Why would you have Sabrina Siani show her tits for an entire movie and then obscure them with fog? What an asshole. If you can put up with that though (just pretend you have glaucoma) this is a pretty decent Conan rip-off.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Maximum Revenge (1997)

Sleeves? Richter needs no sleeves.

Maximum Revenge
is one of the few films by prolific low-budget director/wrestler Fred Olen Ray not to include the word "bikini" in the title. I can't deny that Maximum Bikini Revenge would have been a catchier title, but it wouldn't be particularly accurate. The star of this film is an Olen Ray regular, a guy who the back of the DVD claims is "action superstar Paul Michael Robinson". Nah, I don't know who he is either but he's been in a bunch of knock-off Emanuelle films and some other softcore skin flicks, so he's got some valuable experience in sweatily grappling people with his shirt off.

In fact he can't go five minutes without exposing his rippling torso, earning his character's incredibly manly name of Mason Richter in the very first scene. He single-handedly (and shirtlessly) foils the kidnapping of a Prince of a fictional Middle Eastern country I've already forgotten the name of. During the rescue attempt the Prince pulls a gun on him and gets killed - turns out he had masterminded the whole thing to scam his uncle - but wouldn't you know it, the bureaucrats upstairs don't want to jeopardise already-strained relations with oil rich Fakeistan so, since he has the worst lawyer ever, Richter gets put away for murder.

Cut to some journalist working on a story about the botched kidnapping. His wife says he's working late, but she's got an armful of groceries so it's either not that late or she likes to shop at night. He explains that the terrorists have broken out of prison and I guess clumsy exposition pushes her buttons because the two of them launch into a softcore sex scene where she displays her creepy and perfectly hemispherical silicone boobs. Unfortunately they get interrupted by Murdock, the terrorist leader, who isn't happy about the journalist's coverage of the incident or something (it's not really clear). He kills them both and steal's the journalist's press badge.

Six months later, Richter and about half a dozen other cons are being transferred to a brand-new ultra-liberal high-tech prison while a a couple of journalists are given a guided tour by the warden. The prison is completely ridiculous, with it's own MRI machines, saunas, spas, computer science classes etc. The smug warden condescendingly refers to his prisoners as "guests" and laughs off any concerns about security, even though the prison is located in middle of an LA residential area. If he had taken security a little more seriously he probably would have noticed that one of the two reporters is obviously a terrorist (he has a ponytail) with a six-month old press badge and pretty soon a van load of terrorists have marched in and taken over the facility.

Coincidentally these are the very same terrorists from the attempted hi-jacking at the beginning of the film and they plan to detonate a nuclear bomb in the basement of the prison and blame it on Fakeistan. This way they can force the American government into a confrontation with the Arab world. Ha, ha, ha... like that would ever happen. Being able to polish off Richter is just the icing on the cake, so I guess it isn't really Maximum Revenge at all, it's Supplemental Revenge. Even Richter isn't particularly interested in taking revenge, he's just trying to prevent millions of people from being killed. It's a pretty stupid title. Revenge isn't even quantifiable.

After the terrorists shoot her cameraman they lock the sexy female reporter and the chief warden are in the control room where they manage to overpower the guard, log in to the computers and reverse the terrorist's lockdown of the facility. For some reason this unlocks every cell door in the whole joint but luckily there's only Richter and a handful of other prisoners in there since it hasn't officially opened yet. I don't know if they're planning on transporting them all six at a time, it could take a while. Like all criminal-coddling liberals the chief warden is a cowardly scumbag so he immediately abandons her and tries to escape but he is shot in the process.

The handful of prisoners scatter after the terrorists try to shoot them, and after playing John MacClane for a while Richter saves the sexy female reporter from a stereotypical Latino serial rapist. While she patches Richter up in the infirmary she gives him a speech about how tough it is being a female reporter and how she is just eye candy and nobody takes her seriously. Ironically, this is immediately followed by a softcore sex scene and Richter makes the rapist (his name is Hernandez or something equally generic) stand watch (not stand and watch, mind) outside while they do it. Yeah, no rush guys, just a bunch of armed terrorists trying to blow up L.A., plenty of time for soft-focus partial nudity and cheesy saxophone music. Naturally the rapist kidnaps her again later but he is shot dead before he can do anything too bad. Unfortunately her savior is Murdock, leaving her conveniently well-situated for the climax of the film.

I haven't really mentioned the rest of the prisoners but they are a pretty cliched bunch. There's the nerdy corporate criminal, the accidental murderer etc. Luckily one of them is a bomb expert and the terrorists have left the bomb completely unguarded, so he sets to work disarming it while Richter takes out the remaining terrorists. In what is ostensibly the big fight scene is his showdown with Stefan, a terrorist with a mullet of Don-Niam-in-Undefeatable proportions. After that it's the final showdown with Murdock and his sexy terrorist sidekick, and in a film that dutifully follows every action movie cliche it would be remiss of them not to the scene where they cut the red wire with one second to detonation. With a grotesquely exaggerated kiss for our sexy reporter, Richter saves the day and shows us all exactly how by-the-numbers and generic an action film can get. Hooray!

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Tiger Joe (1988)

Snakes... why'd it have to be -
wait, I already made that reference

Antonio Margheriti was incredibly prolific in the early 80s and knocked out a string of jungle adventure films, ranging from blatant Indiana Jones rip-offs like Ark of the Sun God to slightly less blatant Indiana Jones rip-offs like The Hunters of the Golden Cobra. Tiger Joe is the middle film in a trilogy of shot-in-the-Philippines Vietnam war films (although it isn't really set in Vietnam) sandwiched between The Last Hunter and Tornado. Like many of Margheriti's films, Tiger Joe stars the great B-movie regular and would-be Bond David Warbeck.

Warbeck plays Joe, a pilot who does some gunrunning for a group of Cambodian guerrilla rebels with his partner Midnight (Tony King). He is also helped out by his grizzled mechanic Lenny, played by Luciano Pigozzi (it's a Margheriti film so he's bound to pop up somewhere). During his Last Big Score he is attacked by the Khmer Rouge and his plane is riddled with bullets. He escapes death but crashes into the river.

After narrowly avoiding death by jungle trap he is captured by a different group of guerilla rebels and is tended to by the lovely Kia (Annie Bell from House on the Edge of the Park), an American woman who has taken up the rebels cause. They take him to a nearby village, but the entire rebel army is wiped out by Khmer Rouge forces. Only Joe, Kia and her childhood friend Tatu survive. It should be noted that Kia does a lot of screaming for a battle hardened rebel soldier and someone should probably tell her that an oversized t-shirt and no pants is not suitable clothing for guerrilla warfare. Meanwhile Joe spends most of his time wandering around without a shirt, so I guess between them they have one full set of clothing.

It should go without saying that eventually Kia succumbs to Joe's hairy-chested masculinity. This comes to a great disappointment to Tatu who attempts to kill Joe in a jealous rage but is stopped by Kia. The three of them are relentlessly pursued by soldiers into an abandoned house where Joe has an amusing Mexican stand-off with a deadly cobra. Tatu redeems himself by throwing himself onto a knife and saving Joe's life and Kia finally decides to put some pants on.

Meanwhile Midnight, Lenny and their cowardly boss Ronsky attempt to mount a rescue mission of their own. Their plane crashes after they are attacked by the Khmer Rouge and they are nearly captured but eventually Joe and Kia show up and save their asses. Ronsky demonstrates why surrendering to the Khmer Rouge is rarely a good idea and the rest of them manage to avoid dudes with flame throwers and other dangerous jungle foes, such as a man-eating tigers (or at least stock footage of a man-eating tiger). Disappointingly, after scaring it off with machine gun fire, Joe claims ominously that "it's still out there" and then it's neither seen nor mentioned for the rest of the film.

Subsequently our heroes wander around getting into scrapes and trading quips flavoured with the casual racism that is a beloved part of so many Italian genre films. For example Midnight is black (duh) so Lenny peppers their banter with terms like "son of sambo" and "spearchucker". Oh Lenny, you hilarious racist! I guess Midnight doesn't harbour any resentment though, because when Lenny is killed in a tunnel collapse (spoiler) Midnight bursts into a fit of anguished screaming that must be seen to be believed.

Despite a great performance from David Warbeck and an entertaining and bullet riddled finale, I didn't think this was one of Margheriti's better ones. It's relatively free of Margheriti's trademark model work (except for a train explosion that rips off Bridge on the River Kwai) and although it steals several action scenes from his superior Vietnam war film The Last Hunter, it doesn't steal it's gritty anti-war sentiment. In fact the film avoids making any statement about war whatsoever, except for a scene where Warbeck rants vaguely about "causes, those damn causes". Yeah, fuck causes! It was obviously made as a means to use up the leftovers from The Last Hunter, kind of like when they used all of Arnold Schwarzenegger's leftover DNA to make Danny DeVito in Twins. Like that film Tiger Joe is probably best avoided.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Stuck (2007)


After watching the highly enjoyable Dagon I thought I would check out some of Stuart Gordon's other recent films, starting with Stuck. It's based on a horrifying incident that occurred in 2001, where a former nurse's aide hit a homeless man with her car, leaving him lodged in the windshield. Then she drove home, failing to contact the authorities, and the man died several hours later. It's a terrible tragedy and a story that has the makings of a harrowing psychological thriller, but Gordon can't help but give us a wink and a nudge and includes the same elements of gore and black humour that characterise most of his other films.

It starts with a montage of sad old people shuffling around at an aged-care facility, set to gangster rap. I do love an ironic montage and it's a funny choice of music, but it also helps set up the two sides of the main character, caregiver Brandi Boski. When we first meet her she is hosing shit off an old man's ass (we've all been there) and her cartoonish super-bitch of a boss is using an impending promotion opportunity like a carrot on a stick. It's a lousy job, but you can tell she really cares about these old people. If you're an old man, who knows what will happen around this woman? Maybe she'll hose shit off your ass or maybe she'll hit you with her car and leave you stuck in a windshield for several days. It is a mystery.

The woman in the original case was black, but her counterpart here is played by Mena Suvari who is, as I'm sure you've noticed, super white. If Gordon wants to avoid the racial component that's fine, it's his story, but there are all these distracting nods to black culture. Her boyfriend and her best friend are black and she likes to hang out at hip-hop clubs etc. It's kind of weird, like a hilarious sitcom mix-up where they cast Mena Suvari thinking she was black, and then she turned up on set and they had to just had to play along. This is worse than when she played a military hard-ass in the Day of the Dead remake. Worst of all they give her white-girl cornrows, which always look terrible but look particularly awful on Suvari. She's rocking an Ursula-Andress-in-Slave-of-the-Cannibal-God level of forehead. Not a good look.

The victim in this story is Thomas Bardo, a former project manager who wears the ratty suit and beaten-down expression of the long-term unemployed. He is played by Stephen Rea, a great actor who is especially good at playing these kind of droopy-faced hangdog characters. He is kicked onto the street after his latest attempt at seeking employment is foiled by bitchy secretary and a bureaucrat who went to Franz Kafka school of business. He is told to move on by a policeman when he tries to sleep on a park bench, so he puts all his meager belongings in a shopping trolley and trundles his way to a mission.

Meanwhile Suvari is heading home from a nightclub with the trifecta of reckless driving: drunk, high and checking her cell phone messages. She might as well be blindfolded, so it's not exactly surprising when the two characters are introduced to each other at high speed, filmed in slo-mo for added horror. Suvari considers dropping him off at the hospital but chickens out and drives home. She locks her car and her new hood ornament in the garage and after her boyfriend manages to calm her down (thinking it was a normal hit-and-run) they have sex, during which she has traumatic flashbacks and starts shrieking hysterically. Making it particularly uncomfortable to watch are the cornrows and monster forehead which make her look like Herman Munster. It's terrifying. Shit, now I've got flashbacks.

The rest of the film follows Rea as he attempts to escape and Suvari as she tries to cover up her crime. His escape attempts come pretty close but are foiled by the usual suspects, including a dead cell phone battery and an immigrant family who find him but refuse to call the police in case they are deported. There's also a gory and wince-inducing scene where Rea extracts a broken wiper blade from his stomach. Also, Suvari hits a naked woman in the face with a frying pan (long story). By the end of the film Suvari has a narcissistic meltdown where she starts splashing the garage with petrol while blaming him for everything that's happened. Thankfully it has a far more cathartic ending than the real life story.

There's a few dark laughs to be had, such as a when a lapdog runs in through a hole in the garage and starts nibbling at his open wounds, but I kind of wish they'd played things straight. There are several scenes that should be suspenseful but aren't due to hammy acting, such as when Suvari and her boyfriend are trying to hide the accident from her friend or when he squeamishly attempts to finish off the injured Rea. At a shade over 80 mins it's entertaining and doesn't overstay it's welcome, but with such a juicy premise I wish they'd treated this shit like Shakespeare. Shakespeare with terrible white-girl cornrows.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Body Count (1987)

Hey look, I think I see the 1980s.

Slasher films are like comfort food. They aren't good for you but you know exactly what you're going to get. I picked up this particular slasher because of director Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust) and although it's known under the titles The Eleventh Commandment and Camping Del Terrore, Body Count is probably the most accurate. It's a transparent attempt to appeal to the American market but it was pretty late in the game to be cashing in on slasher mania. People were already tiring of the formula and the Friday the 13th series had lapsed into winking self-parody. Still, I was hoping Deodato could put a twist in the slasher formula by cross-pollinating it with the stylised violence and absurd exploitation that makes Italian horror so much fun.

As the film begins John Steiner (Cobra Mission) appears as a doctor with nothing better to do but hang out at high school basketball games and examine teenage athletes. Kind of suspicious behaviour now that I think about it. His daughter (who looks about 30) heads out into the woods with her boyfriend for sexytimes, and during a post-coital walk in the woods she gets knifed by a mysterious killer known as "The Shaman". He may look like a guy in a crappy Halloween mask but he's well-prepared, bringing along a matching curly wig so he can fool her boyfriend and then knife him too. Now that's planning ahead.

Cutting to fifteen years later, a group of obnoxious teens are on an aimless road trip through Colorado in an RV. There is Tony the cool one, Tracy the Southern belle, Sissy the slutty blonde with huge hair, Carol the forgettable-one-who-will-probably-become-the-Final-Girl and Sidney, a particularly annoying variation on the fat prankster archetype (ie the Shelley). Along the way they pick up Ben Ritchie, a friendly young chap who is returning home after military service. He insists that they head out to his family's nearby campsite, the stalking ground of the Shaman. This comes as an unwelcome surprise to his father Robert Ritchie (David Hess) who has long since closed the campsite and has already had to deal with a trio of outdoorsy teens who have decided to camp here too (Sharon, Scott and Dave, no fucking way am I writing out all the actor credits for all this slasher spam, go check imdb if you're interested).

Scott and Sharon are the first to go, killed while on a kayaking/rock climbing expedition. Scott is pushed off a cliff with such force that by the time he hits the ground his hair has changed length and colour. Sharon runs aimlessly into the woods and is knifed by the killer too. Scott actually shows up later in the film, somehow stumbling back to camp and then lapsing into a coma. Nobody seems particularly disturbed by this development, or the fact that Sharon is missing, and their debauchery continues unabated.

They partake in many fun outdoor activities, such as tooling around on a dirt bike and doing outdoor aerobics. They take great delight in renovating the local shower block so the girls can have a legitimate place to strip off all their clothing, and once it's in working order the girls avail themselves of it at every opportunity. I think there's about six boobs on display in total, eight if you count the fat guy who strips naked at one point. Gradually the teens are picked off one by one and act even more stupid than usual. After one girl's boyfriend is killed she inexplicably runs upstairs and lies on the bed, just so they could rip off Kevin Bacon's arrow-through-the-throat kill in Friday the 13th. Hell, if you're going to rip off Tom Savini effects you'd better be able to cut the mustard and these guys aren't even close.

Turns out that Ben witnessed the original murders those many years ago, and since then his father Robert has become obsessed with the Shaman. Robert's is so consumed by his obsession that it's driven his wife Julia (Mimsy Farmer) into the arms of the sheriff (Charles Napier). I hope the sheriff a better lover than he is a cop, because he seems way more interested in boning her in the woodshed (not a euphemism) than finding the increasing number of missing campers. Since David Hess is contractually obliged to rape or kill at least one woman per film, Robert finds out about the affair and tries to strangle her, but she clocks him on the head and locks his body in the woodshed. It kind of gets complicated with some mistaken identity, but in the end a not-quite-dead Robert kills Julia, locks Carol (who witnessed the crime) in the woodshed and escapes into the woods.

It takes way too long for Carol to realise that there might be something in the woodshed to help her cut her way out, and by the time she chainsaws her way through the door she discovers she is the Final Girl. She and Dave confront the killer and the sheriff finally does something useful by gunning down the killer at the last minute. There have been many hints to suggest that Robert is the killer (not the least of which being that he's played by David Hess who is, as usual, awesome at playing an unhinged nutbag) so it's obvious that it's someone else. The identity of the killer is not much of a surprise but it still leaves several murders unsolved, which the sheriff attributes to the curse of the Shaman. Colorado's finest, ladies and gentlemen.

Much of the film was actually shot in Colorado, so it looks pretty good and there is some decent cinematography. It has some interesting character actors (Ivan Rassimov also makes a brief appearance) and a great soundtrack courtesy of Claudio Simonetti from Goblin, but it's dragged down by an overwhelming sense of familiarity. It's at it's best when it breaks from the slasher mould, such as a surreal nightmare sequence involving severed legs, heads in jars and Fulci-esque showers of maggots. Unfortunately that isn't very often. If you're after 30 year old teens doffing their tops and getting knifed in short order you'll walk away satisfied, but don't let Deodato's name fool you into thinking it's anything other than a generic slasher pic. And in case you're wondering, the body count is 12.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Slugs (1988)

Holy shiiiit!

I do love an animals-run-amok movie, but by the late 80s all the scary animals were taken. Bears, boars, bees, snakes, ants, spiders and especially sharks, they had all played their part in the eternal struggle between nature experts and unscrupulous capitalists. So where to go from here? Well, Slugs: The Movie takes the killer animal genre to it's logical and not-at-all-scary conclusion. Obviously the idea of killer man-eating slugs is pretty hilarious. These are creatures that are frequently squashed accidentally and can be outrun by a man with no legs. They aren't even giant 40 foot monster slugs, just slightly-larger-than-average garden slugs. Scary is out of the question, so the best you can hope for is a sublime ridiculousness. In that respect, Slugs delivers like FedEx.

It's clear from the pre-credits opening scene, two "teens" in a fishing boat on a lake, that this film is going to leave no cliche un-plundered. In the first line of dialog the girl complains "So, you weren't kidding about going fishing, huh?" which makes me laugh because not only is it a clumsy and unnecessary line of exposition, it implies she watched him load up the fishing rods, reels, bait etc and thought it was all an elaborate ruse. It kind of makes sense then, that when the guy is pulled under the water she would stand there in her bikini briefs like a moron and say stuff like "Come on! It's not funny!" over and over until blood starts to bubble up to the surface.

With those two out of the way it becomes the story of a man named Brady, head of the local health department. He is asked to respond to an eviction call, along with the local sheriff, but when they get there they discover a half eaten corpse lying on the couch and the floor covered in slime trails. The sheriff's conclusion: "Wild dogs?" Of course it was. Naturally the slugs always manage to sneak away from the scene of the crime. In the most ridiculous example a couple of 30 year old teenagers are so busy sexing it up that they fail to notice the thousands of slugs that have covered the bedroom floor. When the sheriff finds their bodies the next day the slugs have completely vanished. Slugs are truly the ninjas of the gastropod world.

The good thing about having such a nonthreatening killer animal is that you have to get pretty creative with the kills. For instance, in one scene an old man is attacked when he puts on a gardening glove that is inhabited by killer slugs. When he has difficulty removing the glove (are we to believe that the slugs are holding it on?) he takes the hilariously drastic measure of lopping off his hand. In the struggle some chemicals are jostled and a fire starts. When the flames hit a tiny jerry can of fuel the greenhouse goes up like an atomic bomb.

One of the most hilarious and gruesome deaths is when a drunken housewife cuts up a lettuce with a killer slug inside and feeds it to her husband. He falls ill and the next day he has to attend a big meeting with some clients at a fancy restaurant, so you know there will be some Larry David style social faux pas. Sure enough, before the entrees even arrive his face explodes with virulent parasitic bloodworms. How embarrassing. I bet that never happened on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

While all of this is going on Brady is running around trying to convince people of the killer slugs. He discovers that the town was built on a toxic waste dump (it was either that or secret government experiment I guess) which the mayor really doesn't want to hear since he's busy trying to clinch a big real estate deal. Nobody seems overly concerned about all these bodies piling up, so it's up to Brady and Don the Sanitation Supervisor to take down the slugs. As you can tell, they've got all their cliches covered, the only omission is that the film wasn't set against the backdrop of the tri-county lettuce growing competition.

In a film like this you've got to have a scene where a local expert wows us with some fun animal facts about slugs. In this film it's a British-accented egghead who tells us that because of the slugs' mucus trail they can crawl along the edge of a razor blade without harm. It's not exactly Dreyfuss' "swim, eat and make little sharks" speech but it's pretty hard to make slugs sound deadly. He develops a substance to destroy the slug, a highly volatile chemical that explodes on contact with water. Together they formulate a plan to go down into the sewer, herd all the slugs into one area and spray a drum full of the highly explosive chemical down a manhole. Doesn't sound like the best idea to me, but as Brady says "they have no other choice." Uh, how about fucking salt!

Don says goodbye to his ugly wife, telling her "When I get back how about we get naked and get crazy?" (gross) which all but guarantees he will die by the end the film. Once in the sewer they discover that herding slugs is a fucking stupid idea, although they do manage to electrocute some of them. Naturally Don falls into a slug pit and dies but Brady manages to climb out just before the scientist dumps the chemical into the sewer. This causes several buildings to explode and a fiery blast to erupt from every manhole in town, no doubt killing more people than the slugs would have, but at least the town's supply of crisp, green lettuce is safe from slug molestation.

The film was shot in Spain and the USA by Juan Piquer Simón, best known for his ridiculous 1982 horror film Pieces. Like that film Slugs has terrible acting, worse dialog and abysmal post-production dubbing. Direction is really inept, with strangely edited scenes, a poorly chosen soundtrack and actors frequently pausing mid-sentence and stepping on each other's lines. Gore scenes are cheap-looking but plentiful and surprisingly explicit. Really, there's just an all-encompassing corniness and stupidity. It worked for me though. You get the impression that Simón really bought in to the concept of killer slugs, which makes the parade of nonsense all that much more enjoyable.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

10-4 good buddy, haulin' this shipment of
pumpkin bombs to the Big Apple

Did you know that passing through the diffuse tail of a rogue comet can cause everyday machinery to come to life and attack people? That's what the opening text of Maximum Overdrive suggests. Or maybe it's got something to do with the UFO that a heavily armed "Russian weather satellite" shot down, as mentioned in the closing text. Who knows? Such are the mysteries of Maximum Overdrive, Stephen King's first and only foray into direction, a film that explores mankind's dependence on machines through the medium of people getting fucked up by trucks and household appliances.

Much of the film takes place at the Dixie Boy truck stop, which is populated by a bunch of forgettable trucker stereotypes and also Emilio Estevez. Estevez plays a short order cook who I guess is the hero, even though we don't know anything about him except that he went to college and used to be in jail. During the film he bones a hitchhiker, who arrives at the truck stop courtesy of a slimy bible salesman named Loman. There is also the truck stop waitress, who is attacked by an electric carving knife early in the film. Later on she goes completely off the rails, screeching "WE MADE YOU!" over and over before (thankfully) being jackhammered by an animated jeep-mounted machine gun. For pure eardrum-shredding annoyance though, you can't go past Connie and Curt, the most annoying newlyweds ever. Connie is played by Yeardley Smith and spends approximately 40% of the film screaming hysterically. You will pray for her death. Stephen King is known for his character development but here the characters are less than one dimensional. They are zero dimensional, an infinitely small, singular point in space-time.

Occasionally the film cuts away to follow a kid as he attempts to find his father at the truck stop. This subplot adds nothing to film, but it does provide some of the more memorable scenes. For instance, his little league game is interrupted when a steamroller bursts through the fence and flattens a little kid (awesome). Later, as he rides his bike through a deserted suburban neighbourhood he passes by several dead bodies, including a dog with an RC car jammed in it's mouth. This had the potential to be genuinely creepy, but the kid exhibits nothing but a blank stare and the soundtrack doesn't do him any favours. King personally selected AC/DC to score the entire film, which is an interesting experiment but doesn't always work out that well. There are a lot of scenes that could and should suspenseful, but the tone is constantly undermined by wailing guitars. Apparently there is such a thing as too much AC/DC. Who knew?

The "villain" of the film is a truck with a plastic Green Goblin head mounted on the front, and when all of the trucks comes to life he acts as the leader. One part I really liked was the trucks circling the truck stop like hungry sharks and then, when they run out of fuel, forcing the humans to man the fuel pumps at gunpoint. This is the part of the film most faithful to the short story upon which it is based (Trucks) and apparently there is a 1997 TV movie that concentrated solely on this idea. I don't know if it's any better for it, but there are all sorts of inconsistencies as it's presented here. Trucks are evil but cars are driven around just fine. A jeep mounted machine gun can aim and fire itself but when Estevez finds a hidden cache of firearms nobody seems to have any problems. Where is the line drawn? I mean, technically any sort of pulley or lever is a machine, but I didn't see any killer wheelbarrows.

The film has some decent effects with a lot of car crashes and a surprising amount of explosions, thanks to a bazooka with seemingly unlimited ammunition that the truck stop owner just happens to have. I thought there was a reasonable amount of blood but there is also a rare uncut version of this film that includes some additional censored scenes. For instance, there is a head explosion effect when the kid is run over by the steamroller and when the waitress is shot there is a Verhoevian amount of bloody squibs. One of the craziest things I read is that apparently when Loman is lying half-dead in a ditch, a man (who is also hiding in the ditch for some reason) cuts off Loman's face with a knife and runs off with it. He is credited as "Man the Face Stealer". What. The. Fuck.

During interviews King admitted that he was "coked out of [his] mind" when he was making this film and had no idea what he was doing. The film isn't as crazy as you might expect from that statement, although it is outrageously stupid and campy, especially compared to most other King adaptations. I kind of enjoyed it though. I guess the experience of watching Maximum Overdrive is best summed up in the opening scene of the movie. King makes a cameo appearance, attempting to use an ATM which plaintively declares "You are an asshole." That is this movie. It is your DVD player calling you an asshole.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Soldier of Fortune (1987)

You wish you were this cool.

A lot of people complained about the magic amnesia bullet in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but bullet-to-the-brain induced amnesia is part of a rich tradition in action cinema. If action films have taught us anything, it's that a bullet bouncing around inside your skull causes nothing more than a mild headache and some temporary memory loss. Such is the case for Vincent Miles (Daniel Greene), wearer of white turtlenecks, hater of music and hero of Pierluigi Ciriaci's Soldier of Fortune. After copping a bullet to the head from a sneaky Russian, the only thing he can remember about his last mission in Afghanistan is chilling out with a bunch of natives while a blonde woman seduces him with some belly dancing. As far as wartime flashbacks go, it could be a lot worse.

Miles leaves the army but pretty soon a couple of government spooks respond to his ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine. They have orders direct from Section Y (that's one letter more secret than Section X!) to take him to meet his former CO, "the Colonel" (Bo Svenson in an eyepatch), at a shack on the Afghanistan border. There he is offered a top secret mission to recover the wreckage of an experimental Russian fighter jet that went down somewhere in Afghanistan. Accompanying him on his mission is a dorky egghead in shorts named Professor Rossi. He is a big fan of rock music and although no specific bands are mentioned I would guess that he is one of those guys who won't shut up about how Pink Floyd is the best band ever. Unfortunately Miles hates music and in fact when Rossi starts listening to his walkman Miles threatens to "shove it up your ass." Well, I know someone who isn't invited to Rossi's next Guitar Hero night.

When Miles and Rossi safely arrive in whatever rocky Eastern European country is passing for Afghanistan, they meet up with their contacts and do their best to evade the entire Russian army using nothing but a dirtbike and an uzi. Between bouts of getting captured and escaping they occasionally manage to check in with the Colonel (codename: Donald Duck) under their secret codenames Hewey and Louie. Dewey is MIA, I guess. Eventually the top brass catch wind of the Colonel's mission and they aren't happy. Apparently he was categorically ordered not to select Miles for this mission but he was like "whatevs" and did it anyway. Naturally the pencil pushers in Washington relieve the Colonel from active duty, canceling the mission and leaving Miles and Rossi at the mercy of the Russian army. As Hondo growls menacingly: "There's a problem at Disneyland. Donald Duck has been replaced."

After getting captured by some Russians and then busted out by some different Russians, Miles runs into the guy who put that bullet in his brain in the first place. He reveals that Miles' real name is Johnny Hondo, which is pretty awesome. It would suck if you found out your real name was Herbert Nerdlinger or something. The Russian is after the Eye of the Prophet, the mysterious artifact that Miles/Hondo was trying to find during his last mission. You see, Hondo was actually working for the Department of Science and Archaeology. Of course! Nobody is going to suspect a government department with such a goofy sounding name! I've never even heard of the DSA, but I guess that goes to show how secret they are.

Eventually Hondo and Rossi escape into a cave where they find the Eye of the Prophet, which turns out to be Ulysses 2000, a shiny high-tech bowling ball that contains all of human knowledge. I think something like that could be pretty useful here on Earth (like at quiz nights) but NASA decided to shoot it into space, where it was believed to be destroyed by a Russian killer satellite. Rossi concludes that the explosion somehow threw it backwards in time, where ancient peoples worshiped it as a god. Duh. Also hanging out in the cave is the woman from Hondo's recurring flashbacks, a psychic named Hanlulu, and she uses her powers to force a massive amount of exposition on the audience.

Due to Hanlulu's psychic powers she's the only person on the planet sufficiently advanced enough to interact with Ulysses. I guess it makes her pretty useful to have around, like a human Google, but it also gives her the power to fry some evil Russians somehow. As the Professor says "this woman is a terrible weapon! She could rule the world!" Luckily their problem is immediately solved for them when Hanlulu is shot dead by a proactive Russian soldier. Hondo and Rossi escape as the cave collapses, a bunch of crappy models are flooded around them and Ulysses explodes. During their escape Rossi breaks off part a stalactite which is apparently a huge uncut diamond, or as Rossi puts it "Tangible proof of the mountain's generosity." As they drive away that sneaky Ulysses comes rolling after them, giving us all a chance to wave goodbye to the camera crew, who are clearly reflected off it's surface. Goodbye Pierluigi!

Since this film was made in 1987 it should go without saying, but Dardano Sacchetti wrote the script. The guy wrote dozens of scripts in the 80s and I think the stress must have got to him by about the 70 minute mark of this film, where it loses any notion of being a low-budget Rambo cash-in and goes bugfuck crazy. Those with a hankering for more Johnny Hondo should check out Afghanistan: The Last War Bus, easily the second best film in the armoured-school-bus-being-driven-through-a-warzone genre of Italian cinema. Those disappointed with Daniel Greene's goofy-looking non-acting will be pleased to know that in that film Johnny Hondo is played by Marc Gregory (aka Trash from Bronx Warriors) whose goofy-looking non-acting is at least more entertaining to watch.

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

I really wanted to make a Forest Gump joke, but a guy
in the film already did, so... uh, how about that local sporting team?

Man, that fucking title. I don't know what they were thinking with that one. I guess it's nice that they trust audiences not to act like a bunch of snickering adolescents, but when I saw the trailer for this film the whole theater burst out laughing. Not me though, I was really looking forward to it. Like Hellraiser and Candyman (which I consider horror classics) it's based on a Clive Barker short story and despite some of his more recent misfires, Clive Barker's name still holds some sway with me. Obviously Lionsgate didn't have much faith in the film, they skipped critical screenings and dumped it on a handful of dollar theaters where it flopped around and died like a cow getting a captive bolt to the forehead. I believe it got a cinematic release in Australia but it lasted only slightly longer than the length of the film, so I only got around to it on DVD.

The film follows the story of a photographer named Leon (Bradley Cooper) who is obsessed with capturing the essence of the urban environment (they never say which city but if it's supposed to be New York it isn't very convincing). After being criticised by a weirdo gallery owner (Brooke Shields!) for his mundane subject matter, he photographs a girl being menaced by some stereotypical gangsters and the next day he reads that she is missing. His investigation of her disappearance leads him to Mahogany (Vinnie Jones, and I never caught his character's name in the film, I had to look it up) a sharply-dressed butcher who he suspects is murdering people on the midnight train and covering it up somehow.

Naturally Leon becomes obsessed with his subject, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend Maya (Leslie Bibb) and friend Jurgis (Roger Bart). He starts hanging photos up everywhere, falls off the vegan wagon etc. In desperation he follows Mahogany onto the train, only to witness him slaughtering the passengers and hanging them up like sides of beef. When he tries to bring his story to the police it becomes clear that they will not help and are possibly involved with the killings. As he pushes Maya and Jurgis away they too begin looking into the mysterious killings and soon everything he cares about is in danger. What's gonna happen? Oh my god!

Like many films based on a short story, this one feels stretched a little thin. I can't say I was ever bored, but it does get a little repetitive. Leon stalks Mahogany, his girlfriend screeches at him for getting too involved and then Mahogany kills some random people on the train, and this pattern continues for most of the film. I think they could have spent a little more time on Leon's descent into obsessive madness but at least it doesn't outstay it's welcome. The whole thing has a very dreamlike atmosphere and there isn't much explanation until the very end. It's all wrapped up in an unusual but satisfying ending. It doesn't do anything revolutionary but it's executed well.

I really didn't think that Ryuhei Kitamura would be a good match for this material. Azumi and Versus were brainless fun but they didn't suggest Kitamura could do atmospheric horror. I was worried this film would be plagued with music-video editing but I was surprised at how well he manages to build tension and communicate things visually. Sometimes he gets a little too fancy for his own good (like where the camera rotates around a train carriage in slow motion) but there are some great suspenseful chase sequences and some of the dramatic camera angles and sustained overhead crane shots made me think of Dario Argento. He gives everything a suitably grainy look, bathing the underground scenes in a sickly blue light, but it's not as self-consciously grimy as a Saw film. It looks good.

In terms of gore this film is about as gruesome as you'd expect from a film about guy butchering commuters with a meat tenderiser. There's a wince inducing scene where he prepares the bodies, removing fingernails, eyeballs, hair etc. Sometimes they employ some dodgy CG in aid of a flashy special effect, such as a eyeball flying out a victim's head in slow motion or a guy watching his reflection in a pool of his own blood as he is murdered. Usually I hate CG gore effects in horror films, but somehow it worked for me here. Clive Barker's stories usually take place in surreal, dreamlike settings, so the hyper-stylised violence seemed to fit in.

Performances are pretty solid. Bradley Cooper and Leslie Bibb are both good and I'll let you guess whether Vinnie Jones is any good playing a scary motherfucker who bludgeons people to death and strings them up like a Christmas turkey. On the whole this film is pretty good and the fact that something like The Midnight Meat Train gets shafted while Saw V gets a worldwide release makes me want to take a meat tenderiser to a few people myself. I wouldn't call it a classic, but it's a potent blend of psychological horror, gore and the supernatural.