Posts Tagged ‘b movie’

Honestly — given the time of year, and the sort of blog this is that I’m supposedly “running” here, I would be remiss in my duties not to review backyard auteur Jordan Downey’s shot-in-Granville-Ohio-for $3,500 2009 effort ThanksKilling, wouldn’t I?  Yes, I would. I really, really would.

So what exactly is it we’ve got here? 70 minutes  (a runtime that would make Herschell Gordon Lewis proud) of pure tongue-in-cheek mayhem featuring a homicidal mutant turkey that kills college kids. And some boobs. Really, that pretty much sums it up. The rubber turkey (at least, I think it’s rubber) is hardly impressive, the gore effects are hardly impressive, and the boobs are hardly impressive, but hey — none of it’s really meant to be. We’re talking, after all, about a flick that boasts the (admittedly genius) tagline of “Gobble Gobble, Motherfucker!,” that lists the  principal characters in the end credits as “The Jock, ” The Nerd,” “The Good Girl,” “The Hot Girl,” “The Sensitive Girl,” “The Funny Fat Guy”  and “The Hick,” respectively, and that boasts right there in bold type on its one-sheet about having naked (non-turkey) breasts less than a minute into the proceedings, so you know exactly what you’re getting into here.

And, really, knowing what you’re getting into is what ThanksKilling is all about. Could you reinvent the wheel with 3500 bucks and a few friends? I kinda doubt it, so why even try? Instead, Downey, co-writer Kevin Stewart, and their cohorts are just concerned with having as much fun with their HD camera as possible and paying homage to all those holiday horrors we all grew up with ( honestly, there are horror flicks based around Halloween, Christmas, New Year’s Eve/Day, July 4th — only Arbor Day, it seems remains sacred, and you can bet that won’t last forever) by digging in and giving the whole slasher-spoof thing the ol’ college try (and yes, this thing really does feel — and look — very much like a student film, even though it isn’t).

I can’t say their efforts are particularly inspired, by any means, but they’re certainly not wasted, either — truth be told ThanksKilling really is good, stupid, disposable fun, with lines so cheesy you have no choice but to groan, production values so substandard you can’t help but laugh, and the best homicidal turkey this side of the classic Blood Freak (not, in fairness, that there have been very many — or even any — in between). Like I said, knowing what you’re getting into is the name of the game here. The killer turkey is even named — you probably guessed it! — Turkie, so hey, there ya go. Putting any thought into this thing as you watch it is overthinking things.

As an added plus, if you’re a Netflix member, you can catch this turkey (sorry, had to) for free, since it’s available via instant streaming (that’s how I watched it, so while it’s also available on DVD I can’t fairly comment on whatever extras it may or may not contain, nor on the technical specifications or what have you), so you really have nothing to lose but barely over and hour of your life if you decide to give it a shot. I think you’ll be glad you did, and honestly, I hope that Hollywood’s paying attention to this flick and others like it, because if a few folks in the middle of BF Egypt can deliver everything you would expect with $3,500  then the major studios should feel downright ashamed of themselves for failing to pony up the goods so frequently with budgets literally hundreds of millions of times larger.

The spirit of DIY cinematic pioneers like Don Dohler definitely lives on in the Jordan Downeys of the world, and while I kind of miss the obvious earnestness of  suburban Baltimore’s John -Carpenter-of-the-cul-de-sac and his fellow toilers in obscurity, I can’t blame today’s no-budget generation for openly not taking their efforts very seriously, since modern audiences are justly much more cynical due to the fact that we literally have seen it all before (even homicidal turkeys). So just sit back and enjoy the ride both for what is and what it’s worth — which, as we’ve already established, is less than four grand. If ya don’t like it, there’s literally no reason at this point why you can’t try to come up with something better yourself, all you need is a camera, some friends, and some free time.

Original “Battletruck” Movie Poster

Who can possibly resist a movie with the advertising tag-line “After the oil wars — out of the rubble of the ciites comes — Battletruck!” Shit, I know I can’t, which probably says a lot about me — first and foremost being that some serious therapy is needed right away. But if you’re equally in need of professional therapeutic help, then Roger Corman’s 1982 post-apocalyptic cheapie Battletruck (also released under the title Warlords of the Twenty-First Century) is going to be right up your alley.

We’ve surveyed some of the low-budget postapocalytpic flicks that sprung up in the wake of The Road Warrior here at TFG before, but one of the things that sets Battletruck apart from the Italian and Filipino-produced (for the most part) films that came to populate the bulk of this genre is the fact that it’s not actually a knock-off, given that first-time director Harley Cokliss (who now pronounces and spells his name Cokeliss — I think you’d do the same) who had pitched his idea to “King of the Bs” Roger Corman as a young, fresh-faced filmmaker just off doing some second-unit work for George Lucas on The Empire Strikes Back, was that it was actually shot in New Zealand at roughly the same time that George Miller was making what was then known as Mad Max 2 over in Australia, and made its debut in theaters two weeks earlier than its more-famous counterpart in 1982. In addition, it’s based on a novel by Margaret Abrams that had come out some years previously, so rather than being a Road Warrior rip-off, this is more like its forgotten twin brother.

There are other factors that set it apart from (and, frankly, above)  the rest of the films that followed in its wake, as well — for one, the south island New Zealand filming locations are gorgeous, yet presented in a suitably drab “after-the-fall-of-civilization” style. Trust me, that takes some talent. I’ve spent plenty of time down on the south island of New Zealand and its one of the most breathtakingly beautiful spots on the planet.  It would be the absolute last place I’d choose to set a movie that takes place after the apocalypse, but Cokliss makes it work.

Also working in Battletruck‘s favor is the fact that, for the most part, the production values on display here are — dare I say it? — good, with the ramshackle tin-hut communes, dilapidated vehicles, ragged homemade clothes, and other accoutrements we’ve come to expect in movies that take place after the shit’s hit the fan appearing very authentic indeed. There’s a reason stories in this genre were so appealing to producers of low-budget cinema — a future society that looks like shit is a pretty easy thing to get looking right without shelling out too much cash.

And speaking of production values, the mighty Battletruck itself is a damn impressive piece of work. A fully-functioning, armor-plated 18-wheeler constructed over the skeleton of a Canadian logging rig, it’s an early progenitor of other bad-ass movie behemoths like “Dead Reckoning” from George Romero’s Land of the Dead and cuts a truly imposing figure on the landscape, as you can clearly see —

Fuck the actors, here’s the real star of the show

Now, to be sure, Battletruck has some solid strikes against it, as well. For one thing, the story’s not especially original. A bad-ass warlord named Col. Straker (James Wainwright) leads a bloodthirsty band of marauders around in his super-vehicle looking to rip off all the fuel and food and women they can find in the post-oil-war wasteland. Gasoline is the most valuable commodity in the world, and the Battletruck doesn’t even come close to meeting EPA standards, which aren’t enforced anymore since there’s no government left (although filmed in New Zealand, the movie is obviously supposed to be taking place in what used to be the USA).  When his pretty twenty-something daughter Corlie (Annie McEnroe) refuses to kill a guy on her old man’s orders, she goes on the run and ends up finding temporary refuge with the hero of the story, a solitary motorcycle-riding man of few words who lives on a mountaintop named Hunter ( played by Michael Beck — ever notice how all the guys in these movies have names like Hunter, Straker, Stryker, or Slade?).  Hunter lives by own code and, while he can (of course) fight with the best of them, if left to his own devices all he really wants  to do is make his way as peacefully as possible through life in a violent world. He’s got a heart of gold under that somber exterior, though, and he can’t refuse a damsel in distress, or leave a wrong un-righted.

He takes her to his friend, scrap-heap mechanic/amateur scientific whiz Rusty (John Ratzenberger, best known as Cliff Claven  from Cheers), who lives in one of the makeshift communal camps that have sprung up in the wake of collapse of the world economy, and despite being the daughter of the evil dude everyone’s scared of, they vote to take her in (everything’s decided democratically, just like in the old hippie communes). Her brief respite is shattered, though, when her dad and his gang show up in the titular Battletruck, trash the place, take her back, and steal all the gas in sight.

Then — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — it’s up to Hunter to come down from the mountaintop, assemble the ragtag survivors into a deadly  and heavily-armed fighting force, get the girl back, and stop Col. Straker once and for all.

So, yeah, nothing terribly original going on there, but you have to hand it to Cokliss and screenwriter Irving Austin — the characters and society they craft are believable, the dialogue never gets too hokey, and the vehicular mayhem that makes up a good chunk of the last third or so of the film is sufficiently exciting, impressive, well-executed, and well-staged. In a movie like this, you’re not looking for them to do anything new so much as to do what’s done before and hopefully do it right, and Battletruck gets all the basic elements very right indeed.

The only other major knock on the film in this reviewer’s opinion is some of the acting. Wainwright is never particularly menacing as Col. Straker, going for more of the flat-and-monotonous approach rather than reeking of pure evil, and Beck as Hunter is equally, at least, uninspired as the hero of the piece. Being a solitary and reluctant warrior is one thing, but this dude’s got all the screen presence and charisma of a soggy three-day-old cardboard pizza box that’s been left out in the rain.

Still, there’s enough going on here that’s done well for this flick to transcend both its budgetary limitations and two listless lead performances.  It’s not exactly authentic but it is reasonably interesting, beautifully shot, has a solid script that moves along at a good pace, and it packs a solid whallop in the action department. If you’re looking for some cheesy post-apocalyptic fun, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Battletruck.

“Deathsport/Battletruck” Double Feature DVD, Part of the “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” Library from Shout! Factory

As of about a month ago, Battletruck is now available on DVD from Shout! Factory as part of their “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series. It’s paired as a double feature with Deathsport, a pretty lame attempt on Corman’s part to recapture the winning formula of one of his earlier efforts,  Death Race 2000 (it even stars David Carradine) that fails on pretty much every level —it’s still worth watching at least once, though, if you’re a B-movie aficionado. Both films are presented in pretty basic 2.0 stereo mixes, which is just fine for Battletruck, where everything is crisp and clear, but a little less successful in the case of Deathsport, which is a mess in the audio department. Deathsport is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, and Battletruck is presented in its inteded full-frame aspect ratio. Both prints have been remastered, but Battletruck looks a hell of a lot better since it was struck from a good-looking answer print while Deathsport had to be stitched together from an edited TV version and excised scraps from a theatrical print, and the contrast is often jarringly obvious. As far as extras go, both feature terrific commentary tracks, especially in the case of Battletruck, which takes the form of a Q&A session between director Cokliss/Cokeliss and moderator Jonathan Rigby. The disc retails for under ten bucks at most online merchants and makes a solid addition to your cult movie library.

Original "Fiend" DVD Cover from Retromedia

The late, great Don Dohler made sci-fi/horror flicks in and around his suburban Baltimore neighborhood with a 16mm camera, some friends, a couple thousand bucks, and little to no concern for what anyone else actually thought about them. The most common “locations” he utilized were his own house and his backyard. He made movies for the most basic, and most compelling, reason of all — because he wanted to. What have you done?

Dohler was something of an accidental renaissance man, to be sure — as he relates in the superb documentary film about his life and work, Blood, Boobs And Beast, filmed before and during  the battle with cancer that he eventually lost, on his 30th birthday a guy broke into the office where he was working, held him at gunpoint, and as his life flashed before his eyes he asked himself — have I really done what I wanted to with my time on this Earth?

When he got out of the situation unharmed, Dohler, who already had a wife and two kids at the time, threw himself into his first love — the movies. Specifically, horror and science fiction movies and the techniques that effects technicians used to make that “movie magic” that so captivated him as a child.

He produced a magazine called Cinemagic that taught aspiring young effects whizzes how to make their own Hollywood-style not-always-so-special effects on a shoestring budget, and future FX legends like Tom Savini have credited Dohler’s mag with inspiring their later career choices. While bigger publications like Forest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland showed eager young readers what the latest sci-fi and horror moviemakers were up to, Cinemagic showed even-more-eager young readers not only what they were doing, but how they did it and, most importantly of all, how you could do pretty much the same thing yourself.

But eventually writing about all this stuff wasn’t enough for our guy Don and he had to have a go at it himself. To that end, in 1978 he hacked out a bare-bones “alien-monsters-on-the-loose script,  got out his 16mm camera, assembled some local actors, friends, and family members into a makeshift cast, rigged up some rudimentary stop-motion effects, and the end result was The Alien Factor, a movie that he spent pocket change making and eventually sold to both local broadcast and then-nascent-and-desperate-for-product-that-didn’t-cost-much-to-secure-the-rights-to national cable television.

The end result? A movie that cost Dohler a couple grand to produce and didn’t get any theatrical distribution whatsoever, a movie that was plugged the hardest in his very own magazine, ended up being on late-night cable all the time and turning a small, but respectable, profit.

Having had his first taste of low-grade “success,” Don was ready to have another go at things in 1980, this time with the somewhat darker and more atmospheric Fiend, alternately known as Deadly Neighbor, a somewhat more polished (as far as these things so) and confident effort that nonetheless does nothing to betray its near-zero-budget roots and doesn’t represent any sort of compromise in Dohler’s vision, admittedly limited as it may be.

Most of the actors are folks who had worked on The Alien Factor and been pleasantly surprised when Dohler was actually able to eventually pay them for their work, so they were game to give it another whirl. He filled out the minor and non-speaking roles, as before, with friends, neighbors, and family members. The bulk of the action again takes place in his house (specifically his basement) and his yard.  And with an improved eye for shot composition and a scaled-down appetite for homemade effects work, he ended up with a film that is by no means great but certainly a hell of a lot better than it should have been or maybe even had any right to be.

Simply put, Dohler knew what he was doing, and can-do and want-to won the day over should-do.

Don Leifert looking very fiendish, indeed

Now, to be brutally honest, all Dohler films have essentially the same story — a monster, or monsters, from outer space threatens a quiet sleepy suburban community, and an ambitious local, or goup of locals, goes after them and eventually wins the day. This is the basic premise of both The Alien Factor and Fiend as well as subsequent efforts such as Nighbeast and The Galaxy Invader.

What sets Fiend apart from the others, though, and makes it my favorite of all Don D.’s flicks is that the emphasis here is more on the horrific than it is on the fantastic. And it’s not so much bloody horror, either — this movie is essentially a gore-free zone. In Fiend Dohler relies on atmospheric horror and a creepier-than-usual twist on his basic plot outline, and damn if he doesn’t pull it off to the best anyone possibly could given the limitations he had to work within.

From the very first scene, a suitably creepy night-shoot at a local cemetery where some weird red energy blob/giant insect from space descends into a grave, animates a corpse, and the zombie-from-space-thing sets about attacking and absorbing the “life energy” out of a young couple there to do some making out, the stage is set. The old-school horror, absolutely magnificent title logo adds to it, and the superbly over-the-top performance of Don Leifert as the titular Fiend, who immediately goes about buying a house in the suburbs, assuming the name of Eric Longfellow, and opening up a violin-lesson business in his new home is  sensationally tongue-in-cheek while not being overly coy or knowingly winking at the audience too obviously.

The Longfellow/Fiend has to recharge his biological batteries every couple of days or so by strangling someone and absorbing their “life energies” in a red hazy glow as he did with that first pair of young lovers, or else he starts looking pretty gruesome, and the cut-rate make-up effects Dohler utilizes to transform Leifert from “normal fiend” to “ugly fiend” are terrific. Leifert looks a bit like Ron Jeremy or Stan Van Gundy’s less successful brother on the best of days, but when he’s running low on juice he genuinely looks downright creepy.

Our “hero” of the story, such as it is, I suppose, is one Gary Kender (Richard Nelson), an average suburban Pabst Blue Ribbon-drinking guy who lives next door to Longfellow/Fiend and is sick of hearing all that godawful amateur violin playing at all hours. His wife, Marsha (Elaine White) thinks her hubby’s overreacting and is even considering taking some music lessons from their new neighbor herself! Every housewife needs a hobby, I guess.

Anyway, needless to say, as the local body count spirals ever upward, and a neighborhood kid who plays in the cul-de-sac Longfellow/Fiend and Kenders lives on is found dead in the woods behind their homes, good ol’ Gary suspects the creepy neighbor is somehow involved and doesn’t buy his line that he and his assistant, Dennis (the always-awesome George Stover, a regular in fellow Baltimorian John Waters’ films as well as appearing in each and every Dohler flick) were listening to violin music in Longfellow’s semi-swank (but still obviously unfinished) basement on headphones and didn’t hear a thing.

And let me make one quick aside here — the kid Longfellow kills (like all good psychopaths he seems to prefer young women, but he’ll settle for anyone in a pinch) was one of Dohler’s own daughter, and while there’s no on-camera child-murder,  he did have her get under a sheet and get carted into the back of an ambulance and everything! And one of Longfellow’s early strangulation victims, a single woman walking home from work, was played by Dohler’s wife! I told you he kept things in the family.

But I, as is my custom, digress. Look, there should be some pretty obvious plot holes visible here by now — foremost among them being why would an evil alien insect-energy creature choose to reanimate a corpse and kill somebody every day or two if all it wants to do is live in a house in the suburbs, hang out in the basement, drink wine, and listen to violin playing? If you’re gonna go through all that hassle to stay “alive,” wouldn’t you at least be looking to conquer the world or something? There are other little logical inconsistencies scattered throughout, as well — where did Longfellow/Fiend get the money to buy a house, for instance? And the amazingly convenient ways in which Kender begins to learn about insect-energy-corpse-animating evil creatures from outer space are downright laughably absurd. I mean, he may as well just pick up a National Geographic and find a cover article about them for all the sense it makes.

But if these kind of things bother you, then you’re not only seeing the wrong movie, you’re reading the wrong damn blog. Fiend is the absolute shit not because it’s a great wok of art with anything meaningful to say about the human condition or even an internally logical storyline, but because one guy with nothing more than a burning desire to make the kind of movie that he liked to watch as a kid went out and did it, near-insurmountable odds against him be damned.

"Alien Fiend" Double Feature DVD from Retromedia Featuring "The Alien Factor" and "Fiend"

And now, 30 years later, people — well, okay, some people — are still talking about Fiend, even though it’s a miracle the damn thing ever got made. Retromedia have released it on DVD on two separate occasions, once on its own as seen at the top of this review, and more recently as part of the “Alien Fiend” two-sided double feature disc with The Alien Factor. Both movies sport digitally remastered full-frame (as intended) transfers that, sure, look a bit grainy and have some artefacting here and there, but on the whole look way better than you’d ever figure they would. The touch-up job done on the prints is very nice indeed. The soundtracks for each are mono, as you’d expect, but are crisp and clear with no audible hiss or distortion to be found. And while you’d probably expect these to go out bare-bones with no extras at all,  each movie features outtakes and deleted scenes (mostly of the “blooper” variety), and feature-length commentary tracks by actor George Stover, who has a razor-sharp memory and not only manages to entertain, but also to inform. They’re a terrific listen. How’s that for a couple of near-nothing-budget backyard homemade space-monster movies?

Which brings us back to where we started — the late, great Don Dohler made sci-fi/horror flicks in and around his suburban Baltimore neighborhood with a 16mm camera, some friends, a couple thousand bucks, and little to no concern for what anyone else actually thought of them. The most common “locations” he utilized were his own house and his backyard. He made movies for the most basic, and most compelling, reason of all — because he wanted to. What have you done?

"Starcrash" Movie Poster

What do you get when an Italian director and crew, French producers, and English and American actors try rip off Star Wars on a shoestring budget? Read on and you’ll find out —

In the later half of 1977 and the early part of 1978, every movie executive worth his or her salt was looking for the next Star Wars. George Lucas’ space epic had literally revolutionized the movie business and become a blockbuster the likes of which the world had never seen before.  And who would you expect to be at the forefront of those looking to cash in, often as directly as possible, on the public’s sudden love for epic space adventure?

That’s right, friends, the Italians were standing right at the front of the line, eager to prove they could so sci-fi intergalactic opera at the very least cheaper, if not better, than anyone else. For a brief, shining moment between the eras of the spaghetti western and the pasta-flavored postapocalyptic yarn, between the Godfather riffs and the Alien rip-offs, the Italians turned their attention to the Star Wars homage, churning out titles like Star Odyssey, War of the Robots, The Humanoid, and the most well-remembered of the bunch, writer-director Luigi Cozzi’s seminal shlock masterpiece Starcrash (also released under the title The Adventures of Stella Star).

The (Stella) Star of the show, leaving no question as to why she got the part

Now, in fairness to Cozzi, he had been pitching an earlier version of this script around for several years before the global success of Lucas’  baby finally convinced a group of French financiers, lead by Nat and Patrick Wachsberger (who would go on to produce to Tom Cruise starring vehicle Vanilla Sky, among others) to green-light his project. But Star Wars blowing up the way it did was both a blessig and a curse for Cozzi — yes, it insured that his pet project would finally get made, but it was with one important caveat — he had to make it as similar as possible to Georgie-Boy’s cash cow, his initial ideas be damned.

And so what began life as an homage to the old sci-fi Saturday afternoon serials of the 30s like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (Cozzi was a lifelong sci-fi fanatic) ended up evolving into a pastiche of a movie  that was — well, that was a modern retelling of those old classic matinee serials, anyway, as Lucas himself has admitted that they were the single biggest source of inspiration for his at-the-time-nascent franchise.

Still, it wasn’t quite what Cozzi had envisioned, and his script was fucked with so mercilessly that co-producer Nat Wachsberger himself ended up with a co-screenwriting credit.

The matinee serial pedigree didn’t really get entirely buried, though, as Starcrash doesn’t so much tell a story as string a bunch of disjointed scenes together. Roughly every ten minutes or so our heroine, intergalactic smuggler Stella Star (British beauty Caroline Munro — looking, it must be said, sensational) finds herself plunged into a new ordeal that barely has anything to do with the last. So don’t expect the script to make much sense here — and Cozzi and Wachsberger’s rather rudimentary grasp of English doesn’t help matters much here, either. What we’ve essentially got is a story that makes very little sense being “explained” to us by dialogue that makes even less. But you’re not here for the story, you’re here for the spectacle, right?

Original "Starcrash" VHS boxcover. Looks kinda familiar ---

On that score, Starcrash doesn’t disappoint. As pure visual feast, it’s unlike anything else you’ll ever see. Which is not necessarily a compliment.  Nor is it a criticism. It just — is.

Due to budgetary constraints above all else, this movie has a unique stylistic — uhhhmmmm — sensibility that was almost certainly achieved by accident, but definitely stands out for its absolute singularity. Starcrash is a unique viewing experience, and I use that term with precise intent. Star Wars may have had revolutionary special effects, expansive sets, seminal costume designs, and sweeping landscapes and starscapes, but goddamn if you won’t find the overall look of this film a whole lot more memorable.

Let’s go down the list of visual treats on display here — art-deco primary-color starfields, glowing planets, dime-store Ray Harryhausen stop-motion robots and monsters (Harryhausen’s work was another admitted huge influence on Cozzi), a blue-headed (and shaved-headed) alien cop, a “robot” with a southern lawman’s drawl that breaks the visual stereotype of characters dressed head-to-toe in black being automatically evil, lava-lamp red blobs which are alternately referred to as “energy waves” and “monsters,” (script continuity, again, is not a strong selling point here), “hyperspace” travel that looks like a drawing of energy-zap motion lines on the screen, black construction-paper “outer space” backdrops, the Maniac himself, Joe Spinell (in the first of three films he would appear opposite Munro in, the others being The Last Horror Film and, as mentioned a split-second ago, Maniac, which TLHF was actually a sequel-in-all-but-name to) decked out in an outer space Dracula costume, and our gal Caroline prancing around for about 3/4 of the movie in a black leather bikini. Yes, this is indeed a feast for the eyes in every sense.

You're probably wondering why I've called you all here ---

The disjointed and entirely nonsensical visuals literally leave the viewer not knowing what the hell he or she will be seeing next, and since the “plot” leaves the viewer not knowing what the hell will happen ext — or indeed, what just happened before — it all works together almost operatically. If you go hit the opera on three tabs of purple microdot, that is.

There are some surprising flourishes of actual quality in here, as well, which makes the already-convoluted proceedings even more of a hopeless mishmash. For instance, John Barry, of James Bond fame, provides the music score, and it’s a lot more elegant and majestic than the antics on camera deserve, to say the least. Barry himself admits that he stole huge chunks of the score for his later, Oscar-winning work on Out of Africa, figuring nobody would remember this thing (even though it raked in $30 million at the box office in the US and over $100 million internationally).

And how about that cast? Sure, we’ve got B-movie stars, and future Z-grade TV stars, left and right — but in the middle of Caroline Munro as Stella, former tent-revival evangelist (and subject of an Oscar-winning documentary on what a fraud his “faith-healing” shtick was) Marjoe Gortner as her faithful and quasi-mystical sidekick Akton, Robert Tessier as the treacherous sellout space cop  Thor, Joe Spinell as Darth Vader-without-the-mask Count Zarth Arn, Munro’s at-the-time husband Judd Hamilton as Elle, the comic-relief-robt-with-a-Texas-sheriff-twang, and a very young David Hasselhoff as Simon, who becomes Stella’s quasi-sorta-semi-pseudo love interest, we’ve got, flown into Italy for exactly 48 hours and probably getting paid  more than the rest of the cast combined — Christopher Plummer, as Simon’s father, The Emperor. More specifically, his full honorific is The Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe. Scoff all you want, but it’s a more prestigious title than you’ll ever receive.

Sure, the story’s not only got problems, the story is problems — but you almost have to stand back in wonder at how they make it all work (and yes, I use the term “work” incredibly loosely). Gortner’s Akton character, for instance, seems to develop new magical, or advanced scientific, powers  at the drop of a hat whenever they need to pull something out of their ass to move the action along from one scene to the next. He’s literally a walking, talking, breathing deus ex machina — that is, when he’s not a walking, talking, breathing info-dump of quick and nonsensical plot exposition.  And The Emperor can command his Imperial Ship to “stop the flow of time!” Don’t try that at home, kids (and it’s not a power that apparently always works, or that he apparently always thinks to utilize — for instance, it would come in real handy at the end, when Count Zarth Arn is trying to kill them all with his ill-defined doomsday weapon, but the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe comes up with a much more discombobulated plan — the “star crash” of the film’s title — to deal with a menace thousands of times more deadly than the one he stopped time to deal with a few minutes earlier). The normal laws of science don’t seem to apply to this flick any more than the normal rules of logic, either — for instance, when the Emperor launches missiles filled with soldiers inside into Zarth Arn’s ship, they break through all the windows and there’s not even the slightest bit of decompression even thoug the vessel is flying through space (specifically through the region known as The Haunted Stars).

She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts --- she'll do .5 past light speed. Whoops, wrong movie ---

But I digress. Again, if you’re here for the story, you’re watching the wrong movie.  If the appeal of Starcrash can be summed up in one word, it’s the absolute and unequivocal otherness of the film that makes it work. It feels like it was made by a group of aliens who intercepted transmissions of Star Wars from Earth, had no idea what it was was about or how to make it, but saw that it was making a lot of money and figured they would give it a go and see what happens. It’s a truly alien viewing experience, and it feels almost entirely decoupled from reality itself. Needless to say, I absolutely love it.

"Starcrash" DVD from Shout! Factory

And I’ve saved the best news for last — for “Crashers,” as the small-but-way-too-enthusiastic cult of fans that has sprouted up around this spaghetti space opera are known, the long wait is finally over. No more bootleg DVD-Rs or 30-year-old VHS cassettes. Thanks to the fact that legendary B-movie mogul Roger Corman (who, it should be stated, had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual making of this film) picking up its US distribution rights back in 1978, Starcrash is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray as part of the Roger Corman’s Cult Classics library from Shout! Factory. The movie is presented in a superb widescreeen 1.78:1 anamorphic high definition transfer that look,s no pun intended, stellar, the sound is presented in either 2-channel Dolby Digital or an awesome new 5.1 DTS surround mix, and as for extras, well —

How about not one, but two commentary tracks by Stephen (Shock Festival) Romano, who’s got to be the world’s foremost Starcrash expert (he wrote a book on the film that remains unpublished) — the first take a detailed look at the story behind the scenes of the film and its pre-production, as well as placing it within the larger context of science fiction movie history, and the second offers a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of its production. They really should be listened to in order, and are numerated as “commentary 1” and “commentary 2” on the on-screen selection menu. Then there’s the trailers — three of them, to be precise. One is the plain, bare-bones version, then we get it with commentary from legendary director Joe Dante, who actually assembled the trailer, and in fact did all of Corman’s trailers for several years before “making it” as a filmmaker in his own right. And thirdly we get it with commentary from Hostel director Eli Roth, who offered his remarks on it as part of his “Trailers From Hell” website. You may wonder what the point is of watching the same damn preview three times in a row, but trust me, you’ll want to. Then we’ve got an enormous selection of still photos featuring screen caps, pictures from the studio floor, behind-the-scenes production stills,  all kinds of advertising and poster art from around the world, and even a selection of fan art. Next up there’s a detailed interview with the man himself, Luigi Cozzi, and to top it all off we’ve got a nearly 20-minute featurette on John Barry’s score for the film.

And folks, that’s just on the first disc (unless you’ve got the Blu-Ray, in which case everything’s contained on a single disc). The second disc features a 72-minute interview with Caroline Munro about her entire career, with special attention paid, of course, to Starcrash, , a feature on the making of the special effects for the film, 17 deleted scenes that Corman excised for the US theatrical cut of the film, a selection of behind-the-scenes home-video taken during shooting presented with commentary by Romano, and the entire original screenplay presented in .PDF format for your PC or Mac, including corresponding storyboard sketches for many of the scenes.

No doubt about it, this DVD/Blu-Ray release is a genuine labor of love, and while all of the releases in the Roger Corman’s Cult Classics series have been, to date, superb, this stands out from the rest of that admittedly dinstinguished pack and is, I think it’s fair to say, the year’s best DVD release.

Do I even need to tell you to rush out and pick this up immediately? I didn’t think so.

"Original Gangstas" Movie Poster

Hey, what the hell, you know?

In the late 90s and around the turn of the millennium, blaxploitation cinema started to earn a long-overdue critical reappraisal, due in large part to the success of films like Jackie Brown and the “updated” (and lame) Shaft — suddenly the opinion-dictators out there, who had written off the entire genre as racist, contemptible crap realized a lot of those old flicks were pretty damn good. And after being wrong for about twenty years, said self-appointed trendsetters were finally right about this terrific, much-maligned genre. And since a lot of the folks who starred in those great old 70s action yarns were looking for work, it was only a matter of time, I suppose, before a “greatest hits” reunion came to pass.

Enter director Larry Cohen, the ultimate B-movie survivor (he helmed blaxploitationers like Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem in addition to tons of awesome B-grade horrors), who in the year 1996  reassembled all the blaxploitation heavy hitters (well, okay, almost all), sprinkled in a few more awesome cult stars, got ahold of a semi-decent script that gave ’em all something to do, and the result its Original Gangstas.

Okay, he might be like 60, but I still wouldn't fuck with Fred Williamson

Just look at this cast, people — Fred Williamson. Pam Grier. Jim Brown. Ron O’Neal. Richard Roundtree. Paul Winfield. Isabel Sanford. Robert Forster. Wings Hauser. Charles Napier. Paul Winfield. There’s just no way any flick with that cast, and Cohen behind the camera, is going to suck too badly.

Is Original Gangstas predictable? Dear God yes. Fred “The Hammer” plays an ex-football player who comes home to Gary, Indiana when his father is brutally attacked in the shop he owns by members of a street gang known as The Rebels, and from the minute his private plane (probably rented for all of ten minutes by the production crew) touches down, you know everything’s gonna work out okay. Any supposed “twists and turns” the plot takes along the way cam be seen from a mile off — at least.

But so what? You’re not in this for anything new. You’re here for the comforts of the familiar, to see the old pros show the young punks how it’s done.

For the most part, the fight scenes are well-enough staged, and you believe the likes of Williamson, Brown, Grier, and Roundtree can still kick a little ass — and that they’ll feel it in the morning. The aura of invincibility around all of them has been brought down a couple notches, and they’re portrayed not as super-heroes, but as people who can hold their own in a fight despite their advanced years. Yeah, it might be a totally unrealistic premise, but at least it’s presented —- uhhhhmmm — semi-realistically.

"Eat lead, muthafuckas!!!!!!!!!!"

It’s essentially the soul music generation vs. the hip-hop generation here, and there’s never any doubt about who’s gonna come out on top in the end. Contemporary elements like drive-by shootings, automatic weapons, ultraviolent gangbangers, and a “gangsta rap” soundtrack all combine to produce an atmosphere where it’s pretty clear the old-timers are, sure, a little out of their element, but they work hard and know how to adjust on the fly. They’re survivors, after all, and they’ll make it out of this scrape okay.

Sure, it gets a little preachy in spots — what’s happening to our neighborhoods?, what’s happening to our youth?, why are the cops so incompetent?, what’s happened to economic opportunities in the black community?, yadda yadda yadda etc. etc. etc.

So what? There was an element of preachiness in all the 70s blaxploitation flicks, usually about these exact same subjects. Give Original Gangstas a break — it’s pretty clear from the outset that the only “original” thing in the movie is the first word in the title.

Real love never dies, baby

It’s all here — the gangland slaying of their son rekindles an old romance between Brown and Grier, hard-working flatfoot detective Forster tries but can’t get anywhere, Napier as the Mayor and Hauser as his assistant don’t actually give a shit, Williamson’s gotta get the old gang back together (he and Brown and Roundtree and O’Neal actually founded The Rebels), and the little kid who everybody loves gets killed. Again, don’t expect anything new under the soggy Gary skies here, just enjoy the ride.

And if you can do that, then goddamnit, Original Gangstas is a  lot of fun. Way more than any flick with a geriatric cast going after one last crack at glory should be. Cohen moves things along at a steady little pace and with consummate professionalism, and not one of the stars seems to be mailing it in, even though all of them could. I won’t recommend it without reservation, but if you know exactly what you’re getting into here — and it’s never any secret — then there’s no reason you can’t just kick back and dig it for what it is — one last shot at the big-time for a bunch of actors who certainly deserve it.

"Original Gangstas" DVD from MGM

Original Gangstas is available as a bare-bones DVD release from MGM, and it’s also playing all month on Impact Action-on-Demand, in HD, on most major cable systems. It’s well worth a look, and even if one viewing will probably do it for you, it’ll be one enjoyable viewing.

The advertising tagline for Original Gangstas is “It’s Time for Some Respect.” The film itself earns just that.

"Best Worst Movie" Poster

Ah, Troll 2. Where would we be without it? Still talking about Ed Wood’s films, I suppose.

Wait, we’re still talking Ed’s films, aren’t we? So I guess my point’s been scuttled. If I even had one. So I guess this review’s got something in common with Troll 2 right there.

But actually, this review isn’t even about Troll 2 at all — it’s about the new documentary that’s about the new king of bad cinema, Michael Stepehnson’s superb Best Worst Movie.

Stephenson himself ought to know a little bit about the subject — after all, he was one of the stars of Troll 2 itself, a wet-behind-the-ears child actor back in 1990 who landed his first cinematic role as Joshua Waits, the little by who sees visions of his dead grandpa warning him to stop his family from vacationing in the scenic hamlet of Nilbog.

Stephenson’s not our main point of entry into the peculiar cult universe that has developed around Troll 2, though — that honor belongs to George Hardy, more specifically Dr. George Hardy, an Alabama-born dentist who was trying to make his mark as a part-time actor in the Salt Lake City area back in the late 80s and early 90s and found himself cast as George Waits, Joshua’s dad.

For George, who now practices dentistry back home in ‘Bama, the Troll 2 phenomenon has given him a chance to be what he always wanted to be  — a star, albeit a star known only to a select group of — uhhhmmmm — initiates, I guess we’ll call them.

We follow Dr. George as he goes from convention to convention, screening to screening, reuniting as much of the cast as he can muster up along the way, and it has to be said, this guy never stops smiling. Even as he admits to the severe fatigue and burnout he’s suffering from having watched the one and only film he ever starred in dozens of times over the years, and having  recited his famous “you can’t piss on hospitality — I won’t allow it!” line probably thousands of times, Hardy just keeps on smiling. He’s both grateful for him accidental cinematic immortality and sick of it in equal measure. Perhaps the film’s most telling moment is when he admits to his desire to get off the convention circuit treadmill (and Best Worst Movie offers perhaps the most realistic appraisal of the drudgery offered up by that particular “lifestyle” that you can imagine) and then, a split second later, when asked if he would be willing to appear in a Troll 3 if it were ever made (and director Caludio Fragasso and screenwriting/producing partner Rossella Drudi are, in fact, in pre-production on it right now) he answers “absolutely.” Dr. George loves the limelight and genuinely loves entertaining people, and his enthusiasm for his (I use this term loosely) art shows through in every moment he’s on the screen, even at a UK convention where nobody’s heard of his film, or him, and frankly they don’t seem interested in finding out about either. When George talks about how his heart has always been in acting but his father pushed him into dentistry, your heart sort of breaks for the guy even though he’s certainly got a very comfortable life.

And there he is, Dr. George Hardy, delivering the line for which he'll always be remembered

For the rest of the Troll 2 cast, life hasn’t been quite so rosy. Don Packard, the genuinely goblin-esque general store owner in the film, has been in and out of mental hospitals his whole life (and was on a supervised leave program of some sort from one when he shot his scenes back in 1990). Robert Ormsby, who played dead Grandpa Seth, lives a quiet and apparently exceedingly lonely life in Salt Lake City. Margo Prey, who portrayed George’s wife, Diana Waits,  live with her ailing mother and obviously suffers from some mental health problems herself — she’s essentially a shut-in and is the only member of the cast to have eschewed all public appearances in conjunction with the movie so far — but George keeps trying!

As for the principals behind the camera, Fragasso still swears he made a great film that’s just misunderstood by the public and berates his cast at every turn for failing to deliver their lines accurately enough. The scene were they return to the original Utah filming locations and re-enact memorable moments from the film is absolutely priceless and conveys the sort of madness that can probably only happen when hot-tempered Italians try to shoot a super-low-budget horror flick in the heart of Mormon country. For her part, Drudi just sort of silently agrees with all her partner’s wild-eyed excoriations, probably figuring it’s the best way to avoid arguments.

The cult that’s formed around the film itself is explored pretty thoroughly here, as well — it never played theaters but was a mainstay on HBO’s late-night lineup back in the early 90s, back when they just needed to fill up airtime with movies whose rights didn’t cost much. Then it slowly caught on in VHS rental shops. Then the internet came along and everybody who had seen it and loved it began to realize they weren’t alone — and the rest, of course, is history. Now this product of Bizarro-World is right up there with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead at the top of the midnight movie pantheon.

Finally, for those who might be wondering whether or not you need to have actually seen Troll 2 in order to enjoy Best Worst Movie, I would say the answer is no — all the basics, like how it had nothing to do with the original Troll, how it was originally titled something else, etc. are pretty well-covered. I will say, though, that if you indeed haven’t seen it yet, after watching Stephenson’s film you’re going to want to. Right away. And that’s perhaps the highest compliment about Best Worst Movie that one can give. For my part, I went right from the 9:40 showing of this on a Friday night last weekend at the Lagoon theater here in Minneapolis to the midnight Troll 2 screening at the Uptown, just up the street, and had the best night at the movies I’ve had all summer, if not all year.

Now, if there’s any justice in the world, we’ll be hearing the name of Best Worst Movie announced on Oscar night, not as “best worst” anything, but as Best Documentary Feature. Needless to say I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen, but it definitely deserves it.

"The Stuff" Movie Poster

B-movie veteran Larry Cohen (God Tole Me To, It’s Alive) could always pull a project together, it seems. The guy was just plain never out of work for long — and still isn’t, although he seems confined primarily to scriptwriting duties these days with projects such as Phone Booth and Captivity. In 1985 he was still a genuine low-budget auteur, though, writing as well as directing projects for the smallest-scale indie distributors, mid-size outfits like New World (who handled the financing for the subject of our — ahem! — “analysis” today), and occasionally even the big Hollywood studios. Working primarily out of New York, Cohen was usually able to put together a pretty decent cast to handle his uniformly well-written and well-executed, if a bit “old-school” horror in terms of their occasional less-than-complete originality, flicks.

Simply put, you generally knew what you’d be getting from a Larry Cohen film — nothing groundbreakingly awesome, but always better-done-than-it-felt-like-they-probably-should-be, some decent budget effects work, a fe laughs, and generally a pretty solid little story. And so it is with The Stuff, in many ways probably the quintessential Cohen flick.

It’s probably a bit ironic that ol’ Larry became best known for his horror (more precisely his horror-comedy hybrid) work, given that he got his start with blaxploitationers like Bone and the truly classic Black Caesar, but if there’s one thing Cohen has proven over the years it’s that he’s a movie industry survivor — when times and tastes change, he’s smart enough to change with them and go with the new flow enough to keep getting work. When blaxploitation started to slow down, it’s only natural that a guy with his keen survival instincts would gravitate toward horror, but one thing he didn’t lose along the way was his nose for making his stories stick with an audience by injecting just enough contemporary social commentary to give his films relevance. It’s never an overpowering element of his M.O., so to speak, but it’s always in there somewhere. Sometimes that makes his projects feel pretty dated, as the issues he’s addressing are no longer of front-burner importance in today’s world. At other times, though, it makes him look downright prescient, as the issues he’s tackling actually grow in importance from the time of the movie’s initial release.

That’s certainly the case with The Stuff, a movie about gelatinous goo oozing out of the center of the Earth and packaged as an ice cream-type dessert that eventually takes over and expels itself from the “host bodies” who are consuming it.

Just can't get enough of The Stuff!

Okay, so the parallels to the horror classic The Blob are pretty painfully obvious here, but like I said, sparkling originality has never been a Larry Cohen signature. What’s remarkable is that the issues he’s tackling in this story — fake foodstuffs, slick marketing (the fake TV commercials for the The Stuff, with their scarily-catchy “Just can’t get enough of The Stuff” jingle are one of this movie’s highlights), and environmental disaster oozing from the ground are more pressing than ever in in 2010, when our grocery store shelves are full of genetically-modified “frankenfoods,” our airwaves (and the internet) are bombarded with with ever-more-aggressive ad campaigns for shit we don’t need, and oil is spilling out of an underwater hole into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 200,oo0 barrels (or something) a day with no end in sight.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Larry Cohen film without a plethora of fairly-well-realized characters. Our main protagonist is a corporate espionage specialist named David “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) , who;s been hired by a consortium of ice cream manufacturers to find out the secret of The Stuff and why it’s eating up their market share (and, quite literally, their customers). In his quest to find out what The Stuff is, where it comes from, and why people just can’t resist its appeal, he teams up with a wide variety of crackpots, independent sleuths, and various hangers-on, including PR-exec-turned-gal Friday (and sorta-love interest) Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), down-on-his-luck cookie magnate (and obvious Famous Amos stand-in) “Chocolate Chip” Charlie (SNL alum Garrett Morris, who meets and awesomely spectacular stuff-induced demise that you have to see to believe), and right-wing militia commander Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino), who basically functions as a cross between Rush Limbaugh and Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay (needless to say, he’s convinced The Stuff is a commie plot to destroy America and he’s determined to wipe every trace of it from the face of our fair land).

If all this sounds like a weird amalgamation of The Blob, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Soylent Green, well — that’s because it is. But goddamn if it doesn’t all work.

Here comes The Stuff!

The effects, as mentioned, are terrific fun. The huge masses of stop-motion Stuff are well-realized and frankly look a hell of a lot better than most of today’s CGI garbage, and for smaller-quantity servings, they just used gobs of yogurt and soft-serve ice cream. Again, damned if it doesn’t work just fine. There are several impressive death-by-Stuff scenes, the just-mentioned one with Morris being the best, but truth be told they all look good, and I’ve watched plenty of flicks with ten, a hundred, or even a thousand times the budget of this one not pull off their supposedly “shocking” death sequences with anywhere near this much effectiveness and aplomb. All told, it’s a genuine visual delight.

And finally, on the trivia front, be on the lookout for appearances from Danny Aiello, the Brothers Bloom, Eric Bogosian, and a very young Mira Sorvino.

"The Stuff" DVD from Anchor Bay

The Stuff is available on DVD from Anchor Bay. It features a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s been digitally remastered and looks great, the sound likewise has been remastered and is presented in a crisp, clear 5.1 mix, and as far as the extras go, while the overall selection is pretty light, there’s a feature-length commentary track from Larry Cohen himself that’s flat-out awesome to listen to.

Is The Stuff a classic? Nah. But it’s plenty good, about 50 times better than your first impression of it would lead you to believe, and a downright professional piece of work. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s incisive, it’s smart, and it’s well-acted, well-directed, and amazingly well-realized visually. It’s one of those movies that, if you own it, you find yourself watching it again three or four times a year just because — well, it’s so damn solidly done.

And with that, I’m off to the Dairy Queen for a heaping pile of soft-serve Stu —- errr, ice cream.