Archive for December, 2013

My thoughts on the “The Time Of The Doctor,” the “Doctor Who” 2013 Christmas special, for Through The Shattered Lens website.

Through the Shattered Lens

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I highly recommend that you remember this moment , not just because it’s Christmas (for a few more hours, at any rate) and that’s always (hopefully) nice — oh, and Happy Holidays to you all, by the way ( just out of curiosity, does me saying “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” mean I’ve picked a side in the imaginary “War on Christmas” cooked up by Fox “news”?) — but because, for once, yours truly is genuinely at a loss for words.

I know, I know — me not having an opinion (or keeping it to myself if I do have one) is something a lot of people have been waiting a long time for. Consider it my Christmas gift to all of you, then. I just wish I knew  why I didn’t have much to say. It’s not that the finale of the Matt Smith era of Doctor…

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So it occurs to me that we’re well into the “teeth” of this year’s holiday season (Christmas being a scant three days away), and yours truly hasn’t reviewed a single, solitary Christmas-themed flick yet. Let’s do something about that right now, shall we?

I therefore direct your attention, my friends, to the 1976 Italian production Love By Appointment, also known, variously, as Holiday HookersChristmas At The Brothel, or, in its native land, Natale In Casa D’Appuntamento, a reasonably ribald tale about a woman named Nira (Francoise Fabian) who runs a high-class escort service fronted by an art gallery (“sales” of “paintings” being code language for “rental” of ladies) but dreams of something more — namely, escaping the lucrative life she’s built for herself and retiring to a cozy country cottage with her dashing, worldly lover. Insert on-again/off-again subplot about a couple of well-to-do American businessmen (Robert Alda and a slumming Ernest Borgnine, who by this point was about as far away from Marty and The Wild Bunch as you can imagine), both of whom are on the hunt for hijinks  but one of whom is also on the lookout for true (in Borgnine’s case), frame the whole thing around the holiday season given that Nira would like to turn over this new leaf of hers come the new year, and you’ve pretty much got yourself a movie with a plot thin enough to allow for plenty of filler in the form of gratuitous nudity, simulated lesbian make-out sessions, etc.

There’s just one wrinkle to complicate things — Nira can’t quit being a bitch. She becomes increasingly ruthless toward her stable as the light at the end of her proverbial tunnel gets nearer, forcing many of them to cut and run, and in order to prevent her entire operation from going belly-up before she can head for the exits, she turns to her married neighbor, Senine (Corinne Cleary) to handle her bookings because she just can’t seem to resist fucking everything up if left to her own devices.

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All systems go, then, for her to get this new life of hers on schedule, right? Wrong. Because our gal Nira can’t even manage a smooth working relationship with Senine in the few measly weeks she has left. And fate, fickle mistress that she is, has one more out-of-the-blue twist in store before this holiday season has run its course that’s sure to complicate matters even further —

Obviously, this isn’t “gather the whole family ’round” Christmas viewing, but it has to be said that, even for what it is, Love By Appointment is no great shakes, and that’s because Nannuzzi manages to pull of what ought to be a cinematic impossibility — making a movie packed with gorgeous, naked Italian women boring. Seriously, this is a massive snooze-fest. There’s just enough story to get in the way of the sex and just enough sex to make you not give much of a shit about the story. It’s sort of amazing to see him take a premise this “can’t-miss” and somehow — well, miss at every possible turn, but he does. And while that sort of incompetence may be an art from in and of itself, the end result isn’t art that’s worth your time.

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We’re all used to flicks of this nature having more sizzle than steak, I suppose, but the simple fact of the matter is that Love By Appointment reverses the equation by having just enough steak but no sizzle whatsoever. The “drama” falls flat, the near-softcore sex is shot in a largely clinical and disinterested (not to mention disinteresting) manner, and the whole thing’s enough to to make you wonder why didn’t just watch some milquetoast holiday movie currently playing on cable instead.

If you absolutely must, though, the fine folks at Code Red have at least done a nice job with the recently-issued DVD of this passion-free turkey. The widescreen transfer looks positively stunning for the most part, the remastered mono sound is crisp and clear, and while extras are scant, the one that is included, an on-camera interview with producer Alfredo Leone, is at least interesting. Perhaps moreso than the film itself.

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Final verdict, then — good DVD, bad movie. If you put a roomful of gorgeous Italian ladies together and covince them all to take their clothes off in front of the camera, odds are that, even with no  previous film-making experience whatsoever, you’d come up with something more watchable than this. Hmmmm, there’s a fine idea —

 

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So Marvel has finally bowed to the incessant fan whining going on out there and brought back Peter Parker — sort of.

A year after purportedly “killing” Parker off in The Amazing Spider-Man #700 and re-launching the Spidey comic franchise as The Superior Spider-Man, a new series based on the remarkable, if easily reversible, gimmick of Pete’s body being taken over by the mind of one of his greatest foes, Dr. Octopus (a.k.a. Otto Octavius), the original Spider-Man is back, albeit in flashback form, in a new five-part mini-series continuing the numbering of the old title, but with a twist — rather than going out with the straight-forward numerical designations that would have seen these books being The Amazing Spider-Man  701, 702, etc., they’re instead being issued as numbers 700.1, 700.2, etc. I know, I know, say it with me — whatever.

Anyway, I plunked down eight bucks for the first couple issues of this revolving-creative-team fiasco, which are written by Hollywood screenwriter David Morrell and illustrated by comics veteran Klaus Janson, and even though more or less nothing happens here story-wise — New York is blanketed in a massive snowstorm, the power goes out, and Spidey is trying to get over to Aunt May’s place to make sure she’s okay (seriously, that’s it — no villains to fight, nothin’) — one thing became crystal clear as I read these sparsely-dialogued, if competently-enough-illustrtated issues : it’s a damn good thing that Peter Parker is dead and we might as well enjoy it while it lasts (because, let’s face it, no “death” in comics is permanent).

Blasphemy, you say? I beg to differ. Think about it : sure, the new Octavius-Spidey is a d-bag and something of a fascist, with spy-cam Spider-bots literally stalking every inch of the city, an island fortress headquarters, and a blackmailed Mayor J. Jonah Jameson under his thumb, but shit — at least he’s a somewhat interesting character, and that’s something Peter Parker stopped being a loooooonnnnngggg time ago.

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While I have little doubt that The Amazing Spider-Man .-whatever-the-fuck probably improves as a series with its third installment when Joe Casey takes over the writing chores, it’s not something I bothered to hang around to find out, simply because Morrell and Janson have, inadvertently, reminded me just what a dead end Parker is as a character. All he’s really good for is acting like a self-absorbed prick and then feeling sorry for himself because he is, in fact, such a self-absorbed prick. Yeah, fair enough, the supposedly “Superior” version of Spidey is even more of a self-absorbed prick, but at least he’s set his sights higher than blowing off Aunt May for a date with Mary Jane Watson or somesuch. He seems to be out to pretty much take over New York by any mean necessary, and doesn’t bother to slow down enough to have an internal debate with himself about the legal or moral ramifications of what he’s doing, much less take a cold, hard look at why he’s even doing so in the first place. In short, he’s a man of action, and Peter Parker had pretty much been doing nothing but tread water as a character for the last 50 years. Otto-Spidey even shows some signs of moral complexity — he’s dating a dwarf (or “little person,” if you prefer) and genuinely cares about her, even though he’s pretty much nothing but an arrogant bastard the rest of the time. Peter Parker wouldn’t have the guts to do that — he’d simply reject her advances, feel sorry for her, and then feel guilty for breaking the poor girl’s heart while he’s out with some supermodel-type.  He’d have some pity for her (whether she wanted it or not), but you can bet he’d have even more  pity for himself.

Okay, you can fairly argue that Pete “advanced” as a character by  doing  things like, I dunno,  aging at maybe one-tenth (at most) the normal human rate, quitting his job at the Daily Bugle and becoming a full-time scientist, getingt married, reverssing time and undoing his marriage to save Mary Jane from no less than Satan himself, etc., but that’s all circumstantial window dressing — basically, he’s always been the same boring blowhard he’s been since Steve Ditko quit drawing (and, let’s not kid ourselves, writing) the book back in 1967. Ditko’s interation of Parker was, in fact, compelling and interesting :Pete always seemed to be the slightest nudge away from a complete nervous breakdown, and shit almost never went his way — he lost out on love with Betty Brant and Liz Allen, got picked on by Flash Thompson, inadvertently got his Uncle Ben killed — you know the drill. He was a genuinely tortured soul. It was melodramatic as all get-go, sure, but at least it was fun stuff to read.

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The minute Ditko flew the coop, though, it all went south — Peter Parker went from being a thin, mousy, bookworm to being a rugged, square-jawed, stereotypically-rendered “hero.” He started to get the girl every time. And Flash Thompson became his best friend.

Oh, sure, he still sat there and fretted about what a shallow, egotistical dweeb he was, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to be a shallow, egotistical dweeb, and we as readers were asked to continue feeling sorry for him not because he never got anything he wanted, but because he sometimes  didn’t get every single thing he wanted. I’m sorry, but screw that. This is a character that deserved to get killed years ago!

Morrell’s interminably lazy script for Amazing issues 700.1 and 700.2 seems to serve no other purpose than to lay on the Parker-nostalgia as thick as possible. Wow, isn’t Pete selfless for trying to make sure the woman who raised him isn’t freezing to death; isn’t he heroic for stopping on the way to her house to rescue people from various storm-induced calamities; and gosh, more than anything and everything, isn’t he just the most noble and awesome guy who ever lived?

Well, no — he’s not. He’s just plain boring. And he has been since the one creator who understood what made him unique in the first place left.

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There hasn’t been any genuine angst in any of the Spidey books since Ditko’s departure — there’s just been one phony attempt at interjecting angst after another, all ofwwhich have fallen completely flat and resulted in Peter Parker becoming less and less likable as time went on. Dan Slott’s take on Otto/Spidey in Superior may be far from perfect, but at least he’s not treading water, which is all that Marvel was willing to let other creators do for nearly a half century now. I have no doubt — nor should you — that all this will be undone within the next year or two, but damn — at least Spider-Man is worth reading again for the time being, and that’s at least worth a little something, isn’t it?

I’ll grant you, at the end of the day the folks who say The Superior Spider-Man is an asshole are right — but The Amazing Spider-Man was a boring, pouty asshole with a martyr complex. I know which I prefer.

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Okay, so it’s 2013 — for a few more weeks, at any rate — and we don’t seem to be hearing all that much about the so-called “War On Terrorism” anymore. Thank God. I mean, I guess technically we’re still “fighting” it — Dick Cheney assured us that it would never end “in our lifetimes” and we all know he’d never lie — but seriously, it doesn’t seem to be dominating the headlines like it once did.

There could be a million reasons for this, I suppose — we’re told that Osama Bin Laden’s dead, we’re purportedly winding down “operations” in Iraq and Afghanistan, even the right-wingers finally seem to be sick of Big Brother looking at our emails, tapping our phone lines, and busting us for no reason (not that they minded any of that shit when a Republican was in the White House) — but more than anything, I think the main reason we’re getting nothing but radio silence from the front lines (wherever they might be) of this “war” is because, quite frankly, the American public just got fucking bored with the whole thing. Okay, this “war” — like the one on drugs — will never end, will get more pointless the longer we fight it, etc. We get that. So just go do your thing, Pentagon, CIA, FBI, NSA, etc.,  and shut up about it. We all know you’ll get every single goddamn dollar you supposedly “need” to keep it going, just please don’t remind us how much of our money you’re wasting for no apparent purpose apart from keeping the Daddy Warbuckses who own the military-industrial-intelligence apparatus fat and happy.

I think we’ve achieved a type of silent consensus on the whole thing — we all know it was nothing but a hustle from the get-go, but we’ll keep feeding the hucksters who sold us this faulty bill of goods as long as they keep it all off the front pages and don’t rub our faces in it. We’ll keep on being suckers as long as we don’t have to face the fact that we’re suckers.

Or, hell, maybe you’re one of the six or seven people left who believe that “they hate us for our freedom” and “they could smuggle a ‘dirty bomb’ into America and destroy one of our major cities at any time.” In which case, please contact me ASAP about a terrific deal on a bridge I’ve got for sale. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Really. I promise.

Still, if the military juggernaut and it’s cowed and subservient stenographers in the media ever want to get folks interested in their “War On Terrorism” again, I might offer a humble suggestion — put Nick Millard in charge. The end result might not be much different, but at least it would be wort paying attention to again, if only to see the whole sow-mo train wreck for what it is clearly.

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Fair enough, Nick’s better known for his shot-on-video, straight-to-VHS horror fare (all shot in his former Pacifica, California residence) like Doctor BloodbathCemetery Sisters, and the Death Nurse movies (all of which have been reviewed on these virtual “pages” previously), but when he brought his singular style of no-budget idiosyncratic visionary aueteurship to the action genre in flicks like .357 Magnum and Gunblast, the results were equally perplexing — and equally awesome. Case in point : 1980’s The Terrorists, the subject of our little treatise today.

Hopelessly dated by the time anyone got to see it being that it sat on the shelf until 1988 when it was released on VHS by a less-than-small-time outfit called World Vision Home Video, this one’s capable of fooling you for a moment — it’s shot on actual 16mm film rather than videotape, and on location in Munich, no less! — the semi-professional trappings won’t fool you for long : this is still pure Millard all the way, with its over-riding goal being nothing more (or less) than killing 60 minutes of runtime, getting outta Dodge, and hopefully making a few bucks in the process.

It might suck, sure, but at least it’s more honest in its intentions than any ten Hollywood mega-blockbusters combined, which essentially exist to serve no other purpose than to part you from your money but have the temerity to insult your intelligence by claiming to be about something — anything — other than precisely that. “We’re here to give you a new perspective on the world!” “We’re here to enlighten and entertain you at the same time!” “We’re here to make you ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ at our magnificent CGI wizardy!” “We’re here to give you a cinematic experience you’ll never forget!”

No, studio big-shots, you’re not. You’re here to spoon-feed us dull, conformist, inoffensive product in order to fleece as many of us as possible out of our hard-earned dollars while forcing as few of us as possible to actually think. At least Nick Millard has enough integrity to not even try to sell us the illusion that he’s after anything other than that. That kind of honesty might be brought on more by necessity than choice, sure, given the budgets Nick’s always had to work with, but nevertheless, it still counts for something in my book.

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Anyway, the drill here goes as follows : Military (which branch is never stated, nor does it matter) Investigator James Luke (Marland Proctor, who “starred” in all of Millard’s “action” movies) is on the hunt for the the killer of a Congressman’s son in Munich , where he’s joined in his “efforts” by German “shoot first, ask questions later” cop Paul Steger (Hans Grabinger). Their sleuthing eventually (as “eventually” as you can get in a hour-long flick, at any rate) leads Luke to fall in love with a local news reporter (Nick’s wife, Irmi Millard), and for our intrepid heroes to come face-to-face with a terrorist mastermind known only as The Professor (fellow Millard regular Albert Eskinazi), who had a dastardly plan to assassinate Jimmy Carter (who was president when this thing was made, but long gone from office by the time it was released) when he hits town in a few days!

The already-scant length of the proceedings is padded with numerous pointless gunfights featuring pistols that evidently hold about 40 rounds in each magazine and a ten-minute striptease scene that was probably shot for other film altogether, but what the fuck — it all leads from Point A to Point B easily enough, the good guys win, the “intrigue” falls as flat as you’d expect given Nick had to get every scene done in one take and spend no money while doing so, and afterwards we can all get on with our lives.

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So, yeah, like I said — put Nick Millard in charge of the “War On Terrorism” now. It may not be any more interesting, it may not be any more successful, and it may not have any more of an actual point, but on the plus side it won’t cost anything and it’ll all be over with fairly quickly.

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Anybody who “came of age” in the 1980s can tell you one thing — this whole nostalgia trip some folks seem to wallow in for that decade is seriously fucking misplaced. I was there and I can relate, in no uncertain terms,  that the ’80s absolutely sucked. Yuppies wearing Polo shirts with upturned collars. Journey and Air Supply blaring on top 40 radio. The rise of truly repugnant social forces like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. Illegal arms sales to drug-running terrorist armies that our government had the nerve to call “freedom fighters.” Skyrocketing federal budget deficits. People so hysterically freaked out by the rise of AIDS that they had the idiocy (not to mention the unmitigated gall) to claim that it was “god’s revenge on gays.” Horrid TV sitcoms like Family Ties and The Golden Girls at the top of the ratings charts. Reagan looming over ever part and parcel of the decade like the grim shadow of death that, for all intents and purposes, he looked like (or probably looked like — it was hard to tell under all that stage makeup he wore).

About the only thing that seemed to offer any hope of escape from the cultural, social, economic, and political death spiral we were stuck in was the deep-seated fear we were all being inculcated with courtesy of the horror story spoon-fed to us by the media, our teachers, and in some cases even our parents,  that those evil Russkies might unload their purportedly enormous stockpile of nuclear missiles on us at any minute and put us all out of our collective misery.

It was all a hustle, of course. The Russian people were starving to death and the Cold War was just a cheap scare tactic being used to prop up our out-of-control warfare — excuse me, “defense” — establishment, but shit : it sure sounded good. A mushroom cloud waking you up in the morning or an alarm clock radio playing “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Survivor — which would you pick?

Of course, I was a young, stupid kid so it all seemed perfectly “normal” to me. And besides — I had comic books, goddamnit, and if there’s one thing the ’80s actually were a good time for, it was being a comics fan.

There were a couple of forces at play that were revitalizing our favorite beloved but beleaguered medium at the time — on the one hand, you had superhero revisionism in full force at DC, with books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen redefining the possibilities inherent in the guys-n’-gals-in-tights genre by pointing out, in the most stark manner possible, what a bunch of bullshit the founding pillars of said genre were in the first place, while brewing just underneath that was a booming independent comics scene that was allowing mostly amateur creators to tell — well, whatever kind of stories they felt like, basically. Between the two trends, it honestly felt like the possibilities were endless. As Timbuk3 were telling us, the future was so bright we had to wear shades.

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It all fell apart, of course. The “Big Two” grasped the superficial appeal of the superhero  revisionist genre easily enough without understanding — or even caring to understand — the deeper implications of why those two seminal works of 1986 mentioned earlier were so important, and as a result we got a steady stream of “darker” and “grittier” masked vigilantes that continues unabated to this day, while the “black and white boom” the small press enjoyed soon became a “black and white bust” when the market was over-saturated with a bunch of third-rate, quick-cash-in books that didn’t sell because,hell, they sucked.

Still, a lot of talent that would go on to take the “major leagues” by storm got started in the independent “minors” — maybe names like Adam Hughes, Eddie Campbell, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and Matt Wagner (to mention just a small handful) ring a bell? And plenty of titles from that time hold up pretty well, it has to be said : MageGrendelStrange DaysNexus — all of these are better the 30th (or 300th) time around than most of what’s being pumped out by Marvel of DC these days. Heck, even Fish Police wasn’t too bad.

Maybe it’s just the first sign of my inevitable mid-life crisis, but shit — I really do miss the “anything goes” spirit of some of those indies. Which is why I’ve found myself smiling ear-to-ear through each of the first two issues of Protectors Inc., the latest offering from J. Michael Straczynki’s “Joes Comics” imprint, which seems to have found a new (and hopefully permanent) home at Image Comics.

It’s not that it’s a perfect book, mind you — far from it. But it seems to be taking a fresh angle to the by-now-thoroughly-played-out ’80s trope of super hero revisionism by applying the loose, maybe even amateur (and I mean that as a positive) stylistic trappings  of the ’80s indie boom and the end result is a title that , at least so far, is a hell of a lot of fun to read.

Sure, Straczynski probably has this sucker tightly plotted out from the fist page to the last, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. Some WW II soldier gets super powers, starts calling himself “The Patriot,” and saves the world time and again. But then one day he just disappears. And a bunch of rich people with nothing to do suddenly declare that they, too, have powers beyond those of mortal men, form an outfit called Protectors Inc. (obviously), and take up The Patriot’s mantle of saving us all from — shit, I dunno, ourselves, I guess, because there aren’t any super villains to speak of in this world.

A bunch of good guys with no bad guys to fight — that’s either gotta be the best, or the dumbest, idea anyone’s ever had. I haven’t decided which is the case here yet, but finding out is certainly going to be interesting.

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In the meantime, some ex-spy from the “wrong” side of the former Iron Curtain disappears in a flash of blinding light, there are un-natural thunderstorms every night, and some Chicago homicide detectives are investigating some apparently unconnected murders. Don’t ask me what any of this has to do with anything yet, but again, it’s a blast seeing it all play out. Straczynski seems to be in no hurry here, and that’s a good thing — he’s giving his characters time and space to breathe, to reveal themselves, and even folks you know probably won’t be central figures to the proceedings are provided ample opportunity to develop somewhat distinct personalities. Like the best of those ’80s indies, it all feels very organic, maybe even a little bit “loosey-goosey,” but the book’s core premises are intriguing enough to convince us folks out here in reader-land that we should stick with Protectors Inc.‘s creators and trust that they’ll get us all to wherever we’re all going. Even if we don’t have the first clue as to where that is yet.

On the art side, seasoned veteran Gordon Purcell (who, ironically, I knew pretty well back in the ’80s when he was just starting to break in at DC and worked part-time at the local comic shop where I was known as the loudest-mouthed, most opinionated little bastard who frequented the store — before growing up to become a loud-mouthed, opinionated, not-so-little bastard on the internet — the more things change, the more they stay the same) is handling the pencilling and inking here, and seems to have found a perfect style match for Straczynski’s script. There’s something deliciously eager and enthusiastic about Purcell’s (sorry for calling you by your last name, Gordon, if you ever happen to read this) art here,  and while I hesitate to say that it invokes memories of some of the better, still-not-quite-ready-for-prime-time artists of those ’80s indies I keep blathering on about, it definitely feels more like the work of an ambitious young talent who wants to draw the coolest super-heroes he can think of rather than that of a guy who’s been at the game for well over two decades. It reminds me of the kind of art that used to be in the modules for that old Champions role-playing game, and that’s just plain beyond fucking perfect for the tone and mood of this series. Michael Atiyeh’s atmospheric and sensitive color palette complements the images to a proverbial “T” and the end result is a book that, again, isn’t perfect to look at, but has a kind of raw, vital, youthful energy to it that just can’t be faked.

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All in all, Protectors Inc., at least through its first two issues, is that rarest of anomalies — a comic done by two veteran hands with something like a half-century of combined experience between them that reads, looks, and feels as dynamic, honest, and downright fun as the work of a couple of promising up-and-comers. Sometimes it’s maybe a little too eager to please, and a little scattered or unfocused, but I have faith in these kids, and if their work here is any indication, they’ve both got bright futures ahead of them in this business.

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Are there any movies that you like, well — just because?

That pretty much sums up my view of director Richard T. Heffron’s 1976 effort Trackdown, a pretty standard out-for-revenge flick that certainly doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself from the pack, but doesn’t really do anything wrong, either, and is just well-executed enough — and enough of an obviously- dated product of its time — to make it an enjoyable way to spend just over 90 minutes of your life.

In short, is it anything special? No. But is it probably better than whatever else you were planning on watching tonight? Sure!

The particulars, then : Montana tough guy Jim Calhoun (or, as he’s more commonly referred to here, just “Calhoun” — played by James Mitchum, who for a minute there looked like he might pick up the family mantle from his old man) hits the sleazy streets of L.A. in search of his runaway kid sister, Betsy (Karen Lamm). Of course he gets no help from the cops, so he’s forced to enlist the aid of long-legged Good Samaritan Lynn Strong (Cathy Lee Crosby, a few years before she started ending all of her sentences with “—and that’s incredible!”) and the youthful Latin lover, known by his “street handle” of Chucho (a pre-C.H.I.P.S Erik Estrada), who got the poor hapless country girl into all this trouble in the first place!

And what sort of “trouble” are we talking about here, you may ask? Oh, you know : drugs, prostitution — the usual stuff we’re told all innocent young females who land on Hollywood Boulevard end up in. If you must know the running order of indignities, here goes : Chucho engineers a set-up whereby his buddies rip off Betsy’s  suitcase,then proceeds to fall in love with her over the course of an afternoon,  but that evening his buddies come back and take her from him, gang rape her,  pump her full of “downers,” actually fucking sell her to a purveyor  of carnal pleasures for the well-to-do-crowd  named Johnny Dee (Vince Cannon, hamming it up in a deliciously sleazy role) when his main squeeze (played by Anne Archer) takes a shine to the drugged-out damsel, and the poor kid finally winds  up dead when an asshole john her newfound “friends” fix her up with decides to get a little too rough with her.

Of course, big bro doesn’t know she’s dead while he’s out kicking ass and taking names, but once he finds out — all bets are off. Not that he was exactly playing “Mr. Nice Guy” to begin with.

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So — hey, like I said, not much to complain about here. A pretty solid cast, some above-average stunt work, a reasonably involving (if a bit by-the-numbers) story, and some fun vintage (now, at any rate — it wasn’t at the time) Hollywood Boulevard location work all combine to make Trackdown a more enjoyable ride than any film with a couple of original songs by Kenny fucking Rogers probably deserves to be. A thoroughly satisfying conclusion that doesn’t linger too long on any pesky questions about the morality of revenge, or portray Calhoun’s ultimate “victory” as somehow being a hollow one, caps things off nicely, as well — after all, Heffron and company didn’t bother to make you think at any point up until the end, so why start in on that shit late in the game?

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If this sounds like solid DVD bargain-pack material, the good news is that, thanks to Shout! Factory, that’s exactly what it is, since they’ve just included it (along with BulletproofBamboo Gods & Iron Men, and Scorchy) on their two-disc 4 Action Packed Movie Marathon Volume Two double-disc set. There are no extras to speak of, the widescreen picture transfer looks pretty crummy (half the time you can’t tell what the heck is happening in the night-shoot scenes, the blackness is so impenetrable), and the mono soundtrack is merely adequate, but you’re able to make out what’s going on well enough to pump your fist in the air when Calhoun starts getting his pound of flesh, and that’s what movies like this are all about, right? At under ten bucks, the collection gives great value, even if we’re not exactly talking about great cinema here.

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Sometimes “good enough” is precisely that — good enough. If you’re in a mood where that’ll do quite nicely, thank you, then you could do a lot worse than Trackdown. It’s a notch above “merely competent,” but several notches below “memorable.” It effortlessly occupies that nice middle ground of serving up something that lets you shut your brain off and just go with the flow. Sure, you’ve seen all of this done before, and all of it done better — but you’ve seen it done worse, too.Nobody involved with this has anything to be ashamed of as far as their work here goes, nor do they have anything to be tremendously proud  of, either.

Shit, I didn’t want to make this sound like any given day at the typical American office, but doesn’t it, though?

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It sounds like a perfect set-up, doesn’t it? A past-her-prime (assuming she ever had one, and as she’s played by Z-grade actress Penny Arcade that’s a dubious proposition at best) hooker (to judge by the way she’s dressed, at any rate) drops the baby she’s carrying on its head while she’s being accosted (and later, apparently, raped and murdered) by two fully-grown conjoined twins. The kid, named Eugene,  ends up being mentally retarded, wheelchair-bound, and raised on the streets by his homeless aunt. When she — how’s this for coincidence? — is also raped and murdered by a couple of winos (one of whom is portrayed by L.A.-area cult semi-icon Johnny Legend), wheelchair boy (brought to less-than-convincing life by Ron Litman, who’s at least 35 fucking years old) swears revenge on all “normals” — shorthand, I guess, for mentally and physically functioning folks like you and me. Anyone’ll do — if you can walk and talk, you’re dead. Bums, strippers (porn legend Hyapatia Lee), aerobics chicks (a slumming Michelle Bauer), steroid-pumped muscle-heads — it just doesn’t matter. If you’re of sound mind and body, Eugene’s out for your blood. Honestly, what could go wrong?

The answer, apparently, is plenty, because 1992’s shot-on-video, straight-to-VHS production Hellroller, the “brain”child of co-writers/co-directors/co-producers Gary J. Levinson and Stuart Wall is, without doubt, one of the most rancid, incompetent, thoroughly lame flicks ever unleashed on the world.

In other words, it’s all kinds of awesome. Provided you have the same warped definition of “awesome” that your humble host here does.

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First off, it looks like shit — even for SOV. Half the time Wall, Levinson, or whoever was manning the camera doesn’t even bother to clean off the fucking lens. Secondly, it sounds like shit — you can hardly parse out the dialogue underneath the actually-almost-passable music score half the time, not that it probably matters much. Thirdly, no one involved with this thing can act, especially Litman, who’s probably the least likable slasher ever — you actually want him to get killed himself, rather than do any more killing, and speaking of killing —

This production is so goddamn cheap (notice that well over half the film is shot on the exact same rooftop, for instance, including the purported TV news studio scenes) that they only show ketchup/blood twice, with all the other “murders” being implied through the use of standard camcorder effects like negative images and washing out the screen in red. I imagine the entire “budget” was blown on Bauer and Lee, who spend about ten minutes each getting naked (naturally) before getting killed, and that left Levinson and Wall with 60 minutes to kill and no money to do it with. Hell, Eugene doesn’t even ride around in a real wheelchair — it’s a standard household wicker chair with a couple wheels jerry-rigged to the bottom.

Still, the absolute disregard and/or basic knowledge of what makes for passable film-making exhibited by monsieurs Levinson and Wall results in the creation — entirely by accident, mind you — of a universe all its own for Hellroller, where the normal rules of style, competence, and even space and time themselves no longer seem to apply. When Eugene encounters the conjoined twins who did in his mom again decades later, for instance, they don’t appear to have aged a day (and they’re still wearing the same two purple shirts with their “attached” middle arms visibly dangling freely inside), while he’s grown to adulthood. Script continuity, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

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Of course, all of this could be forgiven, I suppose, if the film-makers were playing things purely for laughs, but that doesn’t appear to have been the case here. Legal wranglings surrounding the post-production of Hellroller lead one to believe that Levinson, at least, thought he’d made a genuinely passable piece of cinema here. First off, both men sued another fly-by-night (did I mention this was released on VHS by a one-and-done outfit called Dark Side Home Video?) shady home video operator for the supposedly “unauthorized” use of one of their stills of Bauer on the cover of a cheap “scream queen” documentary he put out — the case was taken up by none other than Judge Wapner himself on The People’s Court, which saw our two — uhhhmmm — “heroes” walk away in defeat. Then, Levinson bought out Wall’s 50% stake in the film, struck his former partner’s name from the credits as co-director, and seems to have launched a one-man campaign to redeem his pride and joy’s image all by himself. Witness, for instance, the three positive reviews (among nine total) on IMDB for this flick that all say more or less the same thing — that this film is “not a ripoff, unlike so many other slashers,” that the “effects (which, according to the VHS box, were done by the “creator” of Evil Dead 2 and Luther The Geek — yeah, right) are awesome” and that it has “the best cast ever assembled for any horror movie,” including “Ruth Collins, Elizabeth Kaitan, and Mary Woronov.” Ya don’t say? I saw Kaitan and Collins for, oh, roughly ten seconds apiece, but I must have blinked when Woronov made her purported “appearance,” because I didn’t see her at all — nor is she listed anywhere in the credits. My bet is that all “three” of these glowing appraisals originate either from Levinson himself or a friend that he put up to it, using different names, and given that none of the “three” people have posted reviews of any other movies on  IMDB, so I feel this is a pretty safe assumption I’m making.

Still, this kind of blatant hucksterism  — attributing the effects work to people who have worked on larger productions (even billing them as the “creator” of said bigger productions), claiming that the movie stars people it doesn’t, and then putting up phony “shill” reviews online to promote this piece of shit over two decades after it was made — are the kind of things we salute around here, so my hat is off to Levinson or whoever might be behind this no-budget guerrilla “marketing” campaign. The spirit of carnival barker-style publicity a la Herschell Gordon Lewis and William Mishkin definitely lives on, even in the internet age.

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And while we’re at it, I also doff my cap to the triumvirate behind VHShitfest.com, who have had the audacity to recently release Hellroller on DVD as a completely bootleg effort. I’m not sure how much publicity the guys want for this, but shit, it’s on the front page of their website, so I guess they don’t have too much to hide. While I can’t for the life of me understand why they chose to blow the image up to widescreen rather than just leave it full-frame — unless they wanted the movie to look even shittier than it already does — they’ve otherwise assembled a terrific package here. There’s a text interview with Wall; an on-camera interview with actor David H. Sterry, who plays two parts in the movie; two commentary tracks, one of which is a mash-up of them and some friends reading the film’s original shooting screenplay with the other being a more “traditional” track by the guys accompanying the flick itself; their original YouTube review is presented in its entirety; and they’ve even included the People’s Court segment mentioned earlier! Plus, as if all that weren’t awesome enough, in my package containing the DVD that arrived the other day, they included an actual paper copy of the flick’s original shooting script, complete with hand-scrawled, last-second director’s annotations! Sure, the fellas don’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of all things cult cinema that we’ve come to expect from the folks behind labels like Code Red, Scorpion Releasing, Vinegar Syndrome, Blue Underground, etc. — they seem to have no working knowledge of who Hyapatia Lee or Johnny Legend are, for instance (although their description of Legend as an “Alan Moore-looking motherfucker” is pretty awesome) — they more than make up for it with sheer enthusiasm for what they’re doing. This is one killer disc they’ve put together that’s well worth the under-twenty-bucks they’re asking for it. Not that we encourage the piracy of copyrighted works around here, of course, your honor.

Seriously, folks, if you’re looking for the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the bottom of the barrel, this just light be it. 555 and even Black Devil Doll From Hell look like Hollywood blockbusters in comparison to Hellroller. Shit, even Nick Millard’s shot-at-home-in-one-afternoon numbers exhibit more professionalism and ability. How many ways can you say “move this to the top of your ‘must-buy’ list immediately”? What are you waiting for, an invitation?