Posts Tagged ‘B movies’

Cover for Volume Two of Robin Bougie's "Cinema Sewer" from FAB Press

Okay, in fairness this book came out in August, but I just got around to finally finishing it and can safely say that Volume Two of Robin Bougie’s “Cinema Sewer,” billed (quite correctly, as it turns out) as “The Adults Only Guide To History’s Sickest and Sexiest Movies,”  from FAB Press, is even better than the first and is the must-have movie book of 2009.

As with the first volume, this is a collection of stuff largely reprinted from Mr. Bougie’s magazine of the same name (this new collection highlighting work from more recent issues within the past couple of years), with some important new material included for good measure, and is the same great combination of semi-pro film history criticism and underground cartooning that made the previous book such a goddamn joy to read.

Topics and films covered this time around include ultra-sleazy 70s porn staple “A Climax of Blue Power,”  second-rate biker flick “Chrome and Hot Leather,” John Carpenter’s all-time horror classic “The Thing,” the deservedly notorious “Emanuelle in America,” a history of  the rather more unbelievable episodes of TV’s “Diff’rent Strokes,” including the two-part story “The Bicycle Man” featuring Gordon Jump as a pedophile after Arnold and Dudley, a look at one-of-a-kind cable access show “Industrial Television,” a detailed examination of the history of MST3K favorite “Manos : The Hands of Fate,” a solid overview of the career of the one and only John Holmes and a great review of  the criminally underappreciated Wonderland Murders-centered flick “Wonderland” starring Val Kilmer as Johnny Wadd himself, and waaaaayyy too much more to mention.

Whether your interests lie in classic grindhouse and exploitation B-movie fare,  overlooked Hollywood gems, great horror, old-school, shot-on-film-like-it-should-be pornography, 1980s teen sex flicks, extreme modern porn, underground alternative cinema, weird TV, or any combination thereof, you’ll find hours of reading that’s right up your alley in this splendidly sordid collection.

Get it — now! That’s an order!

Not that I’ve got the right to order you around or anything.

"Combat Chock" VHS Cover
“Combat Shock” VHS Cover
DVD Cover for original Troma release of "Combat Shock"

DVD Cover for original Troma release of "Combat Shock"

For fans of cult director/author/film school professor Buddy Giovinazzo—and who in their right mind isn’t?—August promises to be one hell of a month. First off we’ve got Troma’s new double-disc edition of Giovinazzo’s first full-length feature, “Combat Shock.” Not to be confused with the earlier, 91-minute “Director’s Cut” DVD that’s just slightly longer than the VHS release, this is the full 96-minute cut that played just a few times under the film’s original “American Nightmare”  title before being picked up by Troma for distribution and undergoing a name change. The new two-disc set, which will be part of the so-far-damn-impressive “Tromasterpiece” collection will also feature all of Giovinazzo’s pre-and post-“Combat Shock” short films,  a new interview with Giovinazzo, and they’re “porting over” the absolutely awesome commentary with Giovinazzo and fellow underground cinematic auteur  Jorg Buttgereit from the original DVD release.

 If you were only going to buy one DVD  all freaking year, I have a feeling this would be it.  The story of Frankie (played by Giovinazzo’s brother Ricky, who also did the music score for the film, one of most seriously deranged soundtracks ever), a so-far-down-on-his-luck-he-can’t-even-remember-what-luck-is-anymore Viet Nam vet has been described by Giovinazzo himself as “Taxi Driver” meets “Eraserhead,” and I’d have to say you could throw a bit of  “The Deer Hunter” into the mix as well, but in truth it’s better than any of those flicks—heck, it’s better than all of them combined—and still has the power to shock the living hell out of an unsuspecting viewer over 20 years after its original release.  Hollywood pablum like “Born on the Fourth of July” has nothing on this movie in the grim-tale-of-a-returned-nam-vet sweepstakes. Giovinazzo blows megabuck epics of  Stone, Scorsese, and Cimino out of the water with the harrowing, less-than-zero-budget grittiness of this film. See it if you haven’t, see it again if you have. It’s availabe now (yup, came out on Tuesday) and mine’s on the way from Amazon as we speak. A full review will follow once I’ve has the chance to watch it a couple of times.

Troma's new "Combat Shock" double-disc release

Troma's new "Combat Shock" double-disc release

But the good news doesn’t stop there, because August 25th sees the DVD release of Giovinazzo’s latest feature, “Life Is Hot In Cracktown,” based on his book of the same name. This one got a very limited theatrical run—it certainly never made it here to Minneapolis—but it’s supposed to be pretty damn gritty and uncompromising, as well. It’s got a veritable all-star cast (just check the poster below) and a decent-sized budget, but the reviews of it I’ve read all seem to indicate that it’s still pure Giovinazzo. I can’t wait to see it.

"Life is Hot in Cracktown" movie poster

"Life is Hot in Cracktown" movie poster

So there you have it, the month of August is bookended with Buddy G.  Reason for conoisseurs to be excited indeed. In the meantime, if anybody might know where a guy could track down one of those “Combat Shock” t-shirts with Frankie holding the gun to his head saying “Fuck It!,” let me know—best movie t-shirt ever, bar none.

We’ve lost far too many off-beat independent DVD labels that specialized in exploitation and horror cinema in recent years. Barrel Entertainment, Unearthed Films, Psychotronica, BCI/Navarre to name just a few—and now I’m afraid it looks like another is on the ropes.

Code Red, the absolutely great outfit that has put out first-class releases of flicks like “Don’t Go In The Woods,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “The Forest,” “Terror Circus,” , “Savage Streets, ”  and “Beyond The Door,” among other great titles, seems to be having some—ahhh—issues. Their release of the 1981 horror not-so-classic “Scream” was first pushed back, now cancelled altogether (at least according to Amazon), their release dates for the “Rareflix Triple Feature Collection” volumes four and five were pushed back and now they appear to have been cancelled as well, and their upcoming release of “Riot on 42nd Street” has also, sadly, been scrapped. Two other titles they had pre-listed, “Choke Canyon” and “Trapped!,” are officially “delayed” for the time being, but could suffer the same fate.

This is especially a drag to me because they have three upcoming releases that I’ve been waiting some time for—“The Strangeness,” “Weekend Murders,” and—at long last!—a proper, remastered version of the great “Messiah Of Evil.”  I hope these will all still see the light of day. Heck, I hope a lot of these cancelled and/or  delayed titles still somehow make it to the shelves, since I for one really dig the “Rarefilx” collections and think “Scream” is a pretty fun flick, too.

I know times are tough and people are tightening the metaphorical belt as far as their entertainment budgets are concerned, but I hope Code Red can weather this storm and pull through okay. They do an absolutely great job with their releases, really seem to care about their product and the fans, and understand the old axiom that a job worth doing is worth doing right. Too many companies flood the market with crummy, substandard releases. Code Red is not one of them. Let’s hope this is all just some temporary setback, and I hope all the horror and exploitation fans out there will buy their upcoming releases (assuming the come out) and help support the future survival of Code Red. We need them to stick around!

Original European poster for "Syngenor"

Original European poster for "Syngenor"

Whatever happened to the guy in the rubber suit?

Ever since “The Creature From The Black Lagoon,” the rubber  reptilian (usually) monster has been something of an on-again, off-again mainstay in the world of horror cinema, and while CGI has certainly made putting an actual human inside one of these slimy sweatboxes redundant at best, it’s fair to say that the era of this particular type of movie baddie was over long before today’s computer effects wizards went to work.  The purported “sophistication” of more modern audiences convinced filmmakers long ago that a dude in a goofy costume just didn’t have what it takes to scare people anymore, and while I can’t say for certain, it seems to your humble host that the 1990 horror-sci-fi semi-thriller “Syngenor” is quite probably the last stand of the rubber-bedecked bad guy, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a look.

First off, it should be stated that “Syngenor” is a sequel — of sorts. Actually, it’s not so much a “part two” as it is another movie featuring the exact same monsters as William (“Creature”) Malone’s 1981 ultra-low-budget (but nevertheless effective) “Scared To Death.” It’s not in the least bit necessary to know the first thing about the earlier  film, though, in order to fully comprehend this later offering, so I won’t go into detail about it here beyond saying it’s definitely worth a look,  and it’s a fair bet that most audiences (such as there were) that caught “Syngenor” during its ultra-brief theatrical run didn’t know the first thing about the previous Syngenor flick, either. Malone himself was not involved with the movie in any way—he had written a brief outline of a script which was later changed more or less wholesale by screenwriters Michael Carmody and Brent V. Friedman, and the directing duties were handled by George Elanjian, Jr., so this thing probably doesn’t even count as a “follow-up” to “Scared To Death” — like I said before, the best way to describe it would probably be to call it a movie that features the same monsters as another, earlier movie.

The plot is pretty simple stuff — a couple of low-life yuppie types pick up a couple of ladies of  “easy virtue” and take them back to the flashy corporate headquarters (actually L.A.’s disused Ambassador Hotel, infamous for being the site where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated) of Norton Cyberdyne, where the fellas serve as mid-level executives. Unbeknownst to the women, though (and to one of the yuppie scumbags himself), they’ve been “selected” to become “test subjects” for the ruthless killing efficiency of the Syngenors (shorthand for Synthesized Genetic Organism), a race of reptilian super-soldiers genetically engineered by the corporation to fight in the hostile climate of the Middle East (it’s worth noting that Gulf War I was going on at the time this film was released) The Syngenors don’t need any water, and survive by drinking the spinal fluid of their victims with their long lizard-tongues. They also reproduce asexually by laying a pod every 24 hours from which a new Syngenor hatches, fully-formed and ready to fight. So even if there are any casualties on the Syngenor side, they’re replaced rather quickly. Obviously, then, the Pentagon is pretty hot-to-trot to get these new slime-coated soldiers into action.

The in-on-the-plot yuppie, a greasy operator named Armbrewster (Charles Lucia) turns the Syngenors loose on his colleague and their—uhhhmmm—“dates,” but he doesn’t count on one of them getting loose from headquarters  and going straight to the home of their creator, a reclusive scientist named Ethan Valentine (Lewis Arquette, patriarch of the Hollywood Arquette clan) who has left Norton Cyberdyne and now works out of his garage on various mad-geneticist-type projects. Evidently, though, the Syngenor doesn’t harbor warm feelings for its surrogate “father,” and mauls him to pieces before laying a pod in his garage.

Unfortunately for her, Valentine’s live-in niece, Susan (Starr Andreeff, who bears something of a resemblance to a younger Mariska Hargitay), gets home from an evening out just shortly after her uncle’s murder, and the Syngenor attacks her in the family home. She manages to get away, though, and report what happened to a friend of her uncle’s who works as a police lieutenant. She doesn’t get a whole lot of help from the cops, though, who bury her report under pressure from Norton Cyberdyne’s CEO, Carter Brown (David Gale of “Re-Animator” fame who delivers an equally fun and OTT performance here as a corporate boss slowly losing his mind as his whole world comes crashing down around him—largely due to his own sleazy machinations).

She does, however, find help in the form of newspaper reporter Nick Carey (Mitchell Laurance), who went down to Norton Cyberdyne HQ in order to do an “executive of the year” puff-piece on Brown and ended up finding out about the previous night’s murder from a chatty secretary (played by Melanie Shatner — yes, you-know-who’s daughter) who also happens to be Brown’s niece.  The younger Brown also clues Carey into the fact that a leading scientist for the company quit a few weeks back, and when he can’t get in to see Brown to write his fluff story, he decides to follow his reporter’s instincts and go check out the home of said no-longer-employed-there scientist. That’s when he meets Susan, finds out what happened to her uncle, and the two of them go on the trail of the Syngenor mystery.

The Syngenor, last of the rubber-suited villains

The Syngenor, last of the rubber-suited villains

From there the pace does drag a bit as we get enmeshed in corporate scandal between Carter Brown, Armbrewster, who’s trying to depose him and move up the ranks, and a third untrustworthy executive , Paula Gorski (Riva Spier), who Brown has the hots for but who’s secretly playing both he and Armbrewster against each other for her own ends.  Things get a bit talky, in other words, and the action lags as our heroes (who quickly also become lovers) investigate all this company intrigue, but it never gets truly dull, and watching Gale (who really does look like John Kerry with a receding hairline) portray Brown’s gradual melt-down really is a lot of fun (I just wish I knew what the green serum he’s always injecting in his neck is—it’s never explained and, according to the commentary track on the DVD, this is intentional. Still, I’d be curious to know—that’s just the kind of guy I am).

David Gale in full nervous breakdown mode

David Gale in full nervous breakdown mode

The somewhat slower middle section is certainly worth it in the end, though, as the pod in Susan’s uncle’s garage hatches and terrorizes her and Nick at the house before they make their escape and plunge into a  final, protracted battle against the Syngenor army at company headquarters, with Brown going apeshit and killing everybody the evil reptiles don’t.  It’s  an absolute blast to watch, with plenty of bloodletting, pretty solid gore effects (from Robert and Dennis Skotak, who worked with James Cameron on “Aliens” and “The Abyss”), and an impressively high body count. In other words, don’t give up on this thing halfway through because the finale is everything you could hope for and then some.

“Syngenor” certainly isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s definitely plenty solid all things considered,  has a seriously great performance from Gale, and pays off the patient viewer, with interest, at the end. All in all, the era of the rubber-suited monster (and it’s a pretty damn good rubber-suited monster at that) probably couldn’t have asked for a better send-off.

DVDCover For Synapse Films' release of "Syngenor"

DVD Cover For Synapse Films' release of "Syngenor"

“Syngenor” is available on DVD from Synapse Films in a terrific package that includes an impressively sharp 1.85:1  widescreen transfer, a newly-remastered 5.1 surround audio track, an extensive gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and publicity stills and artwork, three pretty interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes, and an audio commentary featuring actress Starr Andreeff, screenwriter Brent V. Friedman and producer Jack F. Murphy.  A really nice “special edition” that, for once, genuinely lives up to that name.

Original VHS Box Cover for "Another Son Of Sam"

Original VHS Box Cover for "Another Son Of Sam"

Over the years, your intrepid host has sought out films that literally no one has anything good to say about in my endless quest to prove consensus opinion on just about everything wrong . Quite often it does seem that the masses are mistaken, of course, as the chart-topping success of drivel such as “American Idol” or “Transformers” proves. On occasion, though, I have to say that what passes for “conventional wisdom” is, in fact, absolutely correct, and some stuff that most people think is crap really is, well, crap.

The few reviews I found over the years for stuntman-turned-director-for-a-minute Dave A. Adams’ 1977 slasher (I guess) flick “Another Son Of Sam” stated in no uncertain terms that one’s best course of action was to just stay away from the thing. That even for zero-budget regional cinema (this was shot in Charlotte and Belmont, North Carolina) this was lamer than you’d expect. Any particular saving graces the film had went unmentioned even by the most seasoned exploitation junkies, and if this movie couldn’t even appeal to that crowd, well—it must be irredeemably lousy.  So few people ever saw this thing that any information on it was scarce at best, but what little I could find painted such an unflattering picture that I felt literally compelled to see the thing just to see what all (and I use the term “all” loosely, trust me) the slagging-off was about.  Could it really be as bad as the tiny handful of commentaries about this film suggested? For that matter, could ANYTHING  be as bad as the tiny handful of commentaries about this film suggested?

The answer, as it turns out, is yes, it can, and yes, it is.

The "original" Son of Sam, David Berkowitz

The "original" Son of Sam, David Berkowitz

First off, let’s deal with the absurdity of the title. Harvey, the escaped-mental-patient-turned-serial-killing-maniac in this film has about as much in common with David Berkowitz, the “real life” Son of Sam killer,  as Steve Miner’s horrendous “Day of the Dead” remake has with George Romero’s original.  Apparently the original title of this film was “Hostages,” which is dull as watching paint dry (then again, so is the movie) but at least bears some relevance to the plot. Apparently Adams changed the name at the last minute in order to “cash in,” as it were, on the story that was dominating the headlines at the time (and before the credits roll, we’re treated to a short list of history’s other famous serial killers, everyone from Jack The Ripper on down). That’s an established trick in exploitation filmmaking, of course, and I don’t hold it against the guy—it’s the film itself that he deserves a verbal drubbing for.

The “action” starts off with a pretty generic 70s -looking dude and his girlfriend going around in circles in a speedboat. This, we find out in short order, is our “hero,” police Lieutenant Claude Seltzer (played by Ross Dubuc, a Charlotte-area TV weatherman — you’ll believe it when you see him), and his lady-love, psychiatrist Dr. ( I don’t think we ever get her fist name) Ellis (Cynthia Stewart, another local “talent”).

After a hard day’s waterskiing that we’re told about incessantly for the first ten minutes but never see, our loving couple heads over to a seriously ultra-70s cocktail bar called the Treehouse Lounge, where they find a cop buddy of Claude’s moonlighting as the emcee and take in the mellow sounds of seriously ultra-70s crooner Johnny Charro, whose musical number “I Never Said Goodbye” is probably the “highlight” of the picture (Adams must have thought highly of it, as well—or more likely couldn’t afford any other music, since the song pops up  every time somebody turn on the radio and again over the end credits).  Think of a poor man’s Tom Jones.  Hell, think of an absolutely destitute man’s Tom Jones. Think of the most flat-busted, never-had-two-nickels to-rub-together-in-his-life man’s Tom Jones. Then knock your expectations down about another ten rungs. That’s Johnny Charro. Oh, hell, words can’t do the man justice, THIS is Johnny Charro—

Lounge Lizard Johnny Charro

Lounge Lizard Johnny Charro

As an aside, our guy Johnny is apparently still at it. He bills himself as “the Dean of Tampa Bay nightlife”( he must have done at least some regional touring in the late 70s to make it up to Charlotte) and you can catch his act every Thursday night at the American Legion Post 111 and every Saturday night at Tampa Bay Sports Grille in Oldsmar. He’s also got a new record out called—I kid you not—“Do-Wa-Diddy Ybor City.” This all according the clearinghouse for all things Charro,  http://www.johnnycharro.com.

Anyway, where were we (and does it really matter)? Oh yes—after a groovy night out, it’s back to work the next day for our middle-aged lovers. Claude is sitting around his office doing a whole lot of nothing, but his ladyfriend has spent her morning giving  electroshock “treatment” to a violent psychopath named Harvey, who seems pretty pissed off about the whole deal. So angry, in fact, that they have to restrain him, which still doesn’t do any good as he breaks his restraints and kills the orderlies attending to him.

After a phone conversation with the good Dr. Ellis where he mentions waterskiing yesterday yet again, Claude decides to head over and see her, but on his way he’s detained by an urgent call to go investigate the robbery of $500 from the dean’s office at a local (apparently all-women’s) college (who knew deans kept a cash box around?). It proves to be a very costly call, though, since while our guy Seltzer is taking statements and dropping off his business card at the college, his girlfriend is being attacked by her hospital’s resident psycho-on-the-loose.

When Claude pulls up to the hospital, he has to slam his brakes to avoid hitting a man fleeing from the scene with blood literally dripping from his hands. Rather than do what you’d think any cop would in the situation and actually go after the guy to see what the hell was happening, though, our crack police lieutenant instead just saunters inside, makes some idle chit-chat with one of the other doctors, and heads down the hall to find his girl.Needless to say, she’s in pretty rough shape (a coma, we later find out, although we never do find out if she lives or dies—and trust me, by the end of the movie you really don’t care, either) and he finds the strangled orderlies, as well.

Then—finally!—the “chase” is on, but it’s a pretty limp one—Claude’s buddy from the Treehouse and another cop head over to provide backup while he chases the killer around the park a little bit, draws his gun, and then doesn’t fire. After that harrowing action, we’re treated to a little bit of standard right-wing get-tough-on-crime cop dialogue, with Claude’s buddy telling him “don’t worry, Lieutenant, we’ll catch him,” with Claude replying “and then what? We let him out on the streets again?” (funny, I didn’t realize that escaped mental patients who killed people with their bare hands were turned back out on the streets in even the most liberal jurisdictions—which I’m assuming Belmont, North Carolina isn’t).

In short order our two competing subplots neatly dovetail, with Harvey taking refuge at the dormitory of the women’s college and killing the girl who stole the $500 before taking a couple of her friends hostage during an agonizingly lengthy and dull standoff with the cops, who have a SWAT team in tow.

Essentially, after the initial escape “Another Son Of Sam” turns into nothing more than a crushingly boring police procedural, with lots of cops standing around talking about not very much. We learn that Harvey was sexually assaulted by his mother (what a surprise) at a young age and his mind completely snapped. He’s not averse to using firearms. He takes pleasure in killing young women.  He can’t be reasoned with. He won’t be taken alive. And we learn all this because the cops have brought in another of Harvey’s doctors who provides this info-dump off-camera and then decides he’d better leave the scene of the hostage crisis because, hey, he’s gotta get back to work.

During the standoff, Harvey makes an absolute mockery of the cops and their highly-vaunted (and apparently pretty new at the time) SWAT team, who can’t find him, can’t fire shots at him for a million convoluted reasons, and essentially can’t do anything right. He kills Claude’s Treehouse buddy and has no problem dodging the other policemen at every opportunity until they finally get him pinned in a room, at which point they resort to what must be one of the most unorthodox (and very probably illegal, or at least against every regulation in the book) methods of “crisis negotiation” in the annals of police lore. They actually bring Harvey’s sexually abusive mother over to talk her son out of the room. She apologizes for never visiting him in the hospital. She says she just wants to talk. She promises he won’t get hurt if he just comes out of the dorm room. She says the police are there to help. Harvey listens. He responds. He opens the door. He comes out—

—and the cops shoot him dead on the spot. Folks, Harvey’s mom isn’t exactly the strongest candidate in 1977’s Mother of the Year contest. First, she sexually abuses her son, turning him into a raging psychotic maniac, then she doesn’t visit him in the hospital, then she lures him into his death. Not exactly June Cleaver material. Next time your mom is driving you nuts about something or other, remember — things could be a lot worse.

Finally we’re “treated” to some inane dialogue among the surviving female hostages, and the movie, mercifully, ends around the 1:10 mark.

I don’t mean to be too hard on “Another Son of Sam”—well,actually, I do—but I will say this in its favor. Its absurdly low budget does, in fact, provide a few not-quite-sublime-but-nevertheless-fun “flourishes” to enjoy—for one thing, all we ever see of Harvey is the exact same shot of his eyes staring out of complete darkness. Lighting and location of the rest of the scene aside, Harvey’s eyes are always peering out of a pitch-black background, even on a sunny afternoon.  For another, Harvey himself is never shown full-on until the movie’s end and we “experience” things from his point-of-view through a series of patently amateur hand-held “perspective” shots that are so poorly executed as to be almost disorienting.  Thirdly, there are numerous occasions during the movie when the film literally stops dead yet the sound keeps rolling for another four or five seconds (this could be considered, I suppose, some sort of attempt at artistry using intentional freeze-frame shots, but believe me when I say it looks a lot more like what happened was that Adams shot this thing using nothing but short ends a la Andy Milligan and that they kept running the sound even after the film had run out of the camera). And finally, of course, there’s Johnny Charro — honestly, maybe he’s as much awesomeness as one film can really handle.

“Another Son of Sam” is available on DVD-R from Something Weird video. It probably goes without saying that this is as close to an “official” DVD release as this flick is likely to get — and about as close as you’d probably want.

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

—transformed into Christian action heroes, that is! Yes, folks, blaxploitation veteran Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and second-tier martial arts star Leo Fong staged a comeback in 2005, but you probably missed it if you weren’t looking too closely. Williamson, star of classics like “Bucktown,” and Fong, star of less-than-classics like “Revenge Of The Bushido Blade” got themselves some old-time religion and re-emerged in the 2005 Jesus-vs.-the-drug-lords modern cinematic parable “Transformed.”

The mean streets of Westgate (which look to be Los Angeles suburbs) are the setting for this tale of—ahem!—intrigue , corruption and redemption, the debut (and to date only, as near as I can tell) directorial effort of Efren C. Pinon, who, if he plays his cards right (if his religion allows him to play cards at all, that is) could very well become the Ron Ormond of the 21st century—and who wouldn’t aspire to that lofty goal?

Westgate is a city besieged by the scourge of illegal narcotics, and while exactly which drugs are tearing the community apart isn’t spelled out (in a Christian flick apparently just saying the word “drugs” will do), the goal of the evil dope-pushing syndicate is apparently to get every kid in town hooked on their product (again, whatever that nameless product may be).

Enter Pastor Debra (Shirlee Knudson), a plucky young lady of the cloth who’s determined to win back her church’s neighborhood, and then the city, from the pushers, lead by the ruthless Cholo (Ken Moreno), a guy who’s apparently dealing drugs to provide a better life for his young son—by getting all the boy’s friends hooked. That little dichotomy doesn’t seem to bother Cholo much, though, and why should it? He’s got friends in high places, including none other than the mayor himself, who are all in for a piece of Cholo’s action and look the other way while he turns the children of the city into hopeless dope fiends.

Pastor Debra is no pushover, however—she’s evidently one of those hip, modern preachers who isn’t above engaging in some hardboiled martial arts action if that’s what it takes to keep the kids in her community safe. Watching her and her friends beat up the pushers in a local bar and then high-fiving each other and saying “praise Jesus!” really is a sight to behold, and I’d venture to guess you won’t find anything like it in any other movie ever made—which probably isn’t such a bad thing, in and of itself, but you have to give Pinon and the other folks behind “Transformed” some credit for not being afraid to be unintentionally absurd.

Our tough-as-nails pastor has some friends in high places, too—the mysterious aged ninja-type known only as The Fist (Fong), who always seems to show up when trouble is at hand, and the equally-aged-but-no-less tough mercenary warrior known as The Hammer (Williamson), a top-dollar freelance operative brought in by a secret unnamed group of good guys to provide help in Westgate’s hour of need.

It won’t be an easy fight—the whole city power structure is lined up against our good pastor, the local DEA office is on the take, and secret computer files reveal that the drug network reaches all the way to the top, with President George W. Rush (yes, really) and Vice President Dick Chaney (yes, really again) named among the nefarious network’s head honchos.

The hand of God has a way of intervening in these things, though (apparently often through tragedy), and when Cholo’s son O.D.’s on product supplied to the school kids by old man’s network, he lets Jesus into his heart while he prays by his comatose kid’s hospital bed (hence the “Transformed” title) and now Pastor Debra and her mystery men have a powerful ally on the inside and are ready to take down the dealers and their ninja army (well, okay, it’s just a few ninjas, and they look pretty old and slow themselves, but it’s the thought that counts).

I don’t know how else to say it, folks, “Transformed” is one of those things you’ve just got to see to believe. Scripture-quoting badass preacher lady and her arthritic protectors taking on a drug network that reaches all the way to the White House yet is apparently inept enough to be brought down by essentially a handful of concerned neighbors, albeit concerned neighbors who know how to fight. The seasoned action exploitation fan will find a lot to like here, people who  like just plain  weird movies will find a more-than-generous amount of  jaw-dropping moments, and everyone else will wonder, probably quite rightly I might add, just how this thing got made, and more importantly — why?

“Transformed” never got a theatrical release and I couldn’t even find any movie poster or stills for the thing to include in this review. It is, however, available on DVD, as you can tell from the photo at the top of this post, as part of the “Rareflix Volume 4” box set from Media Blasters. For those who haven’t been picking them up, I have to say that the Rareflix sets are not only a bargain, they’re also a blast. Volume 4 features James Bryan’s “Groove Tube”/”Kentucky Fried Movie”-style comedy “Boogie Vision” and Antonio Margheriti’s spaghetti Bond rip-off “Lightning Bolt” in addition to “Transformed.” The extras on the set are pretty light (the hysterical commentaries featuring various semi-inebriated Media Blasters behind-the-scenes personnel that featured on the first two volumes are sadly missing), but “Transformed” does include a commentary from Leo Fong and each disc is packed with previews for other cool Media Blasters titles, so it’s still a damn solid value for your entertainment dollar.

Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when you’re imitating yourself, what should that be called? Resting on your laurels? Beating a dead horse? In the case of the 1982 reworking of “Maniac” known as “The Last Horror Film” such pejoratives are probably undeserved, and we’ll settle, I think, on calling it a transplant—more specifically, a rather successful transatlantic transplant of a damn good slasher film. Not so much a sequel or even a rip-off as maybe a companion piece. Read on and all will be explained—

Most slasher fans will acknowledge that William Lustig’s “Maniac” was undoubtedly one of the genre’s finest early-80s offerings(a time period with an embarrassment of riches to choose from, so that’s no small feat), featuring as it did two standout elements, the first being the late Joe Spinell’s absolute tour-de-force performance in the lead role. He absolutely oozed creepiness and patheticness at the same time, and delivered one of the signature performances in horror movie history. Spinell didn’t even seem like he was acting, truth be told—he absolutely inhabited his character, to the point where I’m not sure I’d want to be the guy’s neighbor in real life. He wasn’t playing a lonely, pathetic psycho—I’ll be goddamned if it didn’t seem like he was a lonely, pathetic psycho. Chillingly believable stuff from start to finish, and in a sane and just world he probably would have won an Oscar for it.

The other star of the film was Tom Savini’s outstanding gore effects, limited as they were—particularly the classic ending scene. This was the era when Savini was really coming into his own and earning his legendary reputation with every project he worked on.  Gut-wrenching stuff—-literally. What this guy could do with “real” effects and a shoestring budget still puts today’s CGI “wizards” with millions of dollar as their disposal to shame.

Sadly, Savini wasn’t a part of “The Last Horror Film” (aka “Fanatic,” a title that tied it in even closer with its—ahem!—“source material,” probably even a bit too close as it was little more than a glaringly obvious attempt to paint the film as a type of “Maniac 2”—which, okay, in many respects it is, but since the original “Maniac” died, it’s rather ridiculous to paint this as a “pure” sequel — not that death ever stopped the Jasons, Michaels, and Freddies of the world), nor, unfortunately, was director William Lustig, who wove an atmosphere of tension and inner psychic decay with his expert helmsmanship, in truth TLHF is more dependent than ever on Spinell to carry the show himself, teamed as he was with relative newcomer David Winters in the director’s chair and, generally speaking, less-experienced folks behind the camera in all respects. Without Lustig and Savini around, then, “The Last Horror Film” gives Spinell a chance to prove how much of the success of “Maniac” was down to him alone and how much was due to Lustig, Savini, et. al.

As it turns out, Spinell answers that question forcefully and with supreme confidence, turning in another fine performance as, for all intents and purposes, the same character, albeit with a couple of fun twists.

This time around, Spinells’ non-“Maniac” maniac is a New York cabbie named Vinny Durand, a mama’s boy who still lives at home (go figure) and is the sole inhabitant of the absolute bottom of his own social barrel, a guy who’s such a loner and a putz that even the other geeks at the local comic book store give him shit. Vinny’s a bit of a dreamer, you see, and his mind is always at the movies. He lives, eats, breathes and sleeps celluloid, and has big dreams of making his own films a reality. And the star of all his filmic fantasies is the lovely Jenna Bates  (Carlone Munro, Spinell’s co-star from “Maniac,” providing another strong tie to Lustig’s , errrmmmm, let’s call it “original,” even if this isn’t a sequel, strictly speaking). Vinny’s bout to prove all those doubters and finger-pointers wrong, however—he’s been saving his pennies (living at home is cheap, after all) and is headed to the Cannes film festival, where he intends to win the attentions, and the heart, of the woman of his dreams and cast her as the leading lady in the horror film he’s got swirling around in his head (no evidence of an actual plot on paper on Vinny’s part is ever offered).

Once at Cannes, Vinny is summarily rebuffed in all his attempts to get at Ms. Bates or even any of her handlers, and decides that if he can’t get her to work with him by using conventional means, he’ll simply eliminate anyone and everyone else around her to the point where she’ll have no one else to work with — call it process of elimination, if you will — elimination of the permanent sort.

The sights and sounds of the festival are on full display here, including a guerrilla-lensed (I’m assuming) take or two of contemporary sort-of stars like Cathy Lee Crosby making their entrances into various festival venues.  Vinny’s staying in a fleabag hotel adjacent to, of course, a movie theater (that’s playing “Cannibal Holocaust”!) and quickly decks out his room to look much like his—err, not his— hovel in “Maniac,” with pin-ups on the walls of Ms. Bates, dim lighting, and sparser-than-sparse actual furnishings. The room’s got “nutcase” written all over it.

When Vinny goes into action murdering Bates’ handlers (including her love interest)and anyone else around whose work rubs him the wrong way, the killings are inevitably brutal and bloody, and while lacking the sheer panache of Savini’s “Maniac” work, they remain nonetheless effective and even semi-memorable in their own way. Needless to say, some of Vinny’s attempts to get at his leading lady border on the absurd, and when he does eventually get at her the border is even crossed, but Vinny’s not one to let an army of hangers-on and middlemen stop him, and the shots of him scaling hotel rooftops and performing various other feats of physical dexterity that would be well beyond a guy of his challenged physique are well and truly ridiculous, sure, but Spinell’s performance is so effective that he gets you to literally believe that our guy Vinny is compelled to do the near-impossible by sheer force of his demented will alone.

Vinny’s a good boy and calls home every day, of course, and he even seems to have his mom believing that he’s on the way to becoming a superstar director who has attained the services of the film industry’s most-desired starlet for his film.  It’s classic stuff, and while the live-at-home loser who will kill to fulfill his sick fantasies has been done a million times over, nobody does it quite like Spinell and it’s also, to my knowledge at least, never been done in a setting quite this exotic.

To be sure, “The Last Horror Film” lacks some of the dramatic tension and raw impact of “Maniac,” but that’s only to be expected—after all, Cannes setting aside, we’ve seen this all before. Still, everything here is done well enough that you certainly won’t mind seeing it again, and if for some reason Joe Spinell didn’t convince you the first time around that he was one of the best actors ever at playing lonely, pathetic psychopaths, seeing him do it just as well a second time should cement his argument.

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

“The Last Horror Film” has recently been re-released on DVD by Troma (it had been available earlier under the “Fanatic” title) as part of its fledgling “Tromasterpiece” collection. In addition to the usual nonsensical Lloyd Kaufman introduction, it features an interview with “Maniac” director William Lustig, the Buddy Giovinazzo-directed, short film “Mr. Robbie” (aka “Maniac 2”—which I guess sort of makes this “Maniac 3”),the original theatrical trailer and a collection of TV spots, an interview with the late, great Joe Spinell’s best friend, Luke Walter, and a full-length(and highly engaging) audio commentary by Walter, as well as the usual semi-absurd Troma-themed extra stuff.  Well worth your time and money, it’s a pretty impressive package to go along with what is a pretty impressive slasher flick — one that by all rights should feel a lot more redundant than it actually does.

"Hitch Hike To Hell" Title Sequece

"Hitch Hike To Hell" Title Sequence

Sure, there are the films we all know about that are famous—or infamous—for obliterating the boundaries of taste and decency and going where even the most jaded audiences didn’t think they really would. The late sixties to early eighties offered a veritable smorgasbord of such movies to choose from, and while we as a society have purportedly become more sophisticated and less prone to good old-fashioned shock, the fact remains that to the average modern viewer, taboo-smashers like “Cannibal Holocaust,” “I Spit On Your Grave,” “The Last House On The Left” and “Bloodsucking Freaks,” to name just a few, still haven’t lost any of their visceral power and on first viewing can still quite literally knock you flat on your ass even though we’ve been inundated with sadistic torture porn-lite of the “Saw”  variety for years now.

Most of the films that are considered to be the “most shocking” ever made are the stuff of semi-whispered legend (okay, until the days of the internet, now you can find raging debate and discussion on just about anything and whispers are few and far between), but the film under the TFG microscope today goes where even the flicks I mentioned a moment ago, and just about any others you’d care to add to the list, don’t.  And the damndest thing about it is—until about the last 15 minutes you sure never would expect it to.

“Hitch Hike To Hell” is another “never take a ride from a stranger” story from exploitation king Harry Novak’s Box Office International Pictures, directed by B-movie vet Irv Berwick (you may remember his son Wayne from our earlier review of “Microwave Massacre”—and the junior Berwick also worked as the sound man on this film) in 1967.  Like a lot of marginal cinematic product, it has a spotty distribution and release history. It sat around until 1970 when it finally got a limited release at the drive-in, then sat around some more until 1977 when it finally got a full nationwide release , at which point the whole thing probably looked pretty dated since 10 years is, generally speaking,  enough time for a “contemporary” piece to look anachronistic, but probably not quite long enough for it to look charming and/or nostalgic.

"Hitch Hike To Hell"'s Howard, the eternal mama's boy

"Hitch Hike To Hell"'s Howard, the eternal mama's boy

In any case, after a rather delightfully cheesy opening theme tune sung by some lady trying her level best to do a solid impression of Tammy Wynette, we’re introduced to Howard (we never get his last name), a typical B-movie mama’s boy closet psychopath played in deliriously OTT style by Robert Gribbin. Howard drives a delivery fan for a dry cleaner and his job takes him all over town. This being the late 60s, he naturally happens upon quite a few hitch hikers. Howard’s not averse to offering them rides, but depending on how you answer a few questions, you may or may not make it out of his van alive.

Howard likes to know if his passengers are running away from home or if they just need a lift. He also likes to know whether or not they love their mothers. Answer either, or both, questions incorrectly, and Howard take a wire coat hanger and wraps it around your throat.

Our guy Howard, you see, has always been a good boy. He lives at home with his doting mother even though he looks to be about 30 years old. She pampers him with root beer and home cooking and he does his part by being nice to his mom and spending his spare time in his bedroom working on model cars instead of going out and tearing it up or, heaven forbid, trying to get himself a girlfriend.

His sister Judy, on the other hand, apparently was a bit of a troublemaker. She ran away from home not too long ago and broke their mother’s heart. Evidently mom is not a “forgive and forget” type, because when stories start appearing on the news about young female hitch hikers turning up raped and murdered (Howard’s handiwork, unbeknownst to his mother), she says that while she sometimes wonders if that’s what happened to Judy, if it did it would only serve her right since she had it coming to her.

"What? You don't like your mom's cooking?"

"What? You don't like your mom's cooking?"

Howard has taken his mom’s disappointment pretty personally, evidently, because he now figures that the best way to “do her a favor” is to kill any hitch hiking girls he meets who are running away from home and don’t love their mothers sufficiently. And so our bloodbath is underway.

Only it isn’t. “Hitch Hike To Hell” is a pretty bloodless affair, all in all, and for a “psycho on the loose” movie, the body count stays pretty low (five, by my count).  In addition, even though the victims are all raped according to the news reports, Berwick never shows any of the sexual violence too graphically—he might show half a naked breast while Howard strangles one of his victims, but that’s about it.  That’s what makes the final act so shocking (even though it, too, is bloodless)—but more on that in a minute.

Howard is also a pretty dumb criminal, it must be said. He leaves the bodies of his victims on the roadside without even trying to hide them, and he’s prone to doing stupid stuff like losing his glasses at crime scenes. Not exactly an evil mastermind. He doesn’t remember his crimes too clearly afterwards, apart from the occasional flashback, but honestly, if you were as half-assed a serial killer as Howard is, you probably wouldn’t want to remember the details just out of sheer embarrassment at your incompetence.

Still, as dimwitted as Howard is, he’s an absolute genius compared to his boss at work, Mr. Baldwin, who keeps chewing Howard out for being late with his deliveries, and not even being able to offer good excuses as to why, but keeps giving him one chance after another even though he’s practically begging to be fired, and the cops, led by one Captain Shaw (played by Russell Johnson—yes, The Professor from “Gilligan’s Island”), who know the killer uses a wire coat hanger, has a van or other large vehicle, and even find a pair of his glasses—but still can’t manage to catch him until the last victim turns up with a Baldwin Cleaners delivery clutched in her dead hand!

And speaking of that last victim—Howard sticks with killing runaway girls in their upper teenage years until about an hour into the movie, when a flamboyant gay guy literally invites himself into his van while he’s taking a lunch break and, of course,  talks about how much he hates the crummy little town, his family, and especially his mom. Needless to say, the next we see of him is when The Profess—err, Captain Shaw and his partner respond to a call and find his body in a ditch. So Howard apparently will stray a bit from his MO—but just how much? Apparently quite a bit.

Little Lisa is just 11 years old and her mom and dad argue like crazy. It breaks her heart and of course, she figures the only solution is to run away from home and go live with her grandma. From the moment Lisa turns up on screen, we know she’s doomed. The only reason you introduce a character like this well over an hour into the film and show her home disastrous home life is to set the stage for her running away and meeting up with Howard, and he’s not the type to have a sudden crisis of conscience.

Okay, we don’t actually see Howard strangle her. There’s no mention of him raping her. But from the moment she tells him she’s running away, you get a sinking feeling in your gut—not one of “my God, he’s not going to, is he?,” but one of “Oh, geez, he’s really gonna do this.”  Again, no on-screen violence here, but when Captain Shaw responds to a tip and opens up a dumpster in an alley and finds her body —which they do show for a moment —you really do feel dirty just for watching this thing.  Showing a dead child on-screen is a line very few films have crossed, and to have it happen at the tail end of what is, in every other respect, a pretty tepid little “psycho-in-a-van” flick that has for the most part eschewed anything too grim or graphic—well, it tends to throw you for a loop, to say the least. The fact that it’s the friggin’ Professor from “Gilligan’s Island” who finds the body gives the scene an added frisson of the surreal, as well.

So there you have it — “Hitch Hike To Hell.” Perhaps the most understated—and certainly the most unexpected—taboo-buster in the annals of exploitation cinema.  It may not leave the strongest impression for the most part, but it definitely leaves a stain.

"Hitch Hike To Hell" DVD from Something Weird Video

"Hitch Hike To Hell" DVD from Something Weird Video

“Hitch Hike To Hell” is available on DVD on a double bill along with “Kidnapped Coed” from Something Weird Video. As with all the SWV Special Edition releases, it’s loaded with a generous serving of extras including anti-hitch hiking PSA films, a tour of Harry Novak’s office, previews of related titles, a cool gallery of exploitation movie one-sheets and press books, and more.

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Let’s face it, grown men who have unresolved issues with their mothers, particularly those who still live with them, have been a staple among movie bad guys since the days of Norman Bates — and while it may have become something of a cliche, it’s one that works, because to the rest of us, there’s just something creepy about a guy in his 30s or 40s who lives with his mom.

Donnie Kohler (Dan Grimaldi), the central character in writer-director Joseph Ellison’s 1980 grindhouse psychodrama “Don’t Go In The House” has a million and one reasons to move out of his mom’s drafty old Victorian tomb of an abode, but he doesn’t. His mom used to burn him as a kid, you see, holding his hands and arms over an open gas flame on their gigantic old stove when he’d been a bad little boy. As a result, Donnie grew up not only with unresolved mommy-issues, but with a peculiar fascination with fire, as well. He’s both attracted to and frightened of it in equal measure in his adult years, as evidenced by the fact that he works in an incinerator but when a co-worker catches fire, he freezes up and is unable to assist in his rescue, forcing the other guys at the plant to save him even though Donnie is closest to the scene.

Needless to say, this act of cowardice doesn’t go over well with his co-workers, and Donnie leaves the plant humiliated. If he thought he had a bad day at work, though, things only get worse when he gets home — his mother, you see, has finally succumbed to old age and departed this mortal coil, and with her goes Donnie’s last (admittedly tepid) connection to reality. He’s on his own now, and has a lot of shit to work out as he finally “grows up” in his own uniquely twisted way.

His first actions are natural enough—he blasts his stereo at top volume and gets drunk. But this youthful (err—okay, so he’s not youthful) fling with excess quickly loses its appeal and Donnie soon combines his unhealthy fascination with fire and his unresolved issues with an overbearing mother (issues that he has now, in a classic case of psychological transference, grafted onto the entire female gender as a whole) in a decidedly toxic fashion. He starts calling in sick from work every day and nailing sheet metal to the walls, ceiling, and floor of  one of the many large and unused rooms in his house. Then, it’s time for him to get busy and bring home some “dates,” by any means necessary—but his idea of a good time with a member of the opposite sex requires him to wear an asbestos suit. That’s right, our guy Donnie decides to bring women home, chain them up, and take a flamethrower to them.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there’s nothing terribly original about the premise here (apart from Donnie’s preferred method of dispatch for his victims), but Grimaldi really sells you on the character with his performance.  He absolutely seems like the quintessential loser who never left home, has no social skills, is terrified of the opposite sex, and blames them (all of them) for his problems. Ellison’s script is a character piece through and through, and the casting of Grimaldi in the lead was a brilliant stroke on his part. In the hands of a lesser actor, this would be standard—or even substandard—exploitation fare, but Grimaldi’s virtuoso performance alone elevates this movie several notches above where it probably belongs.

The house itself is a brilliant piece of location scouting, and succeeds in first capturing, then magnifying, the twisted mental landscape of  our psycho protagonist. The winter shooting schedule of the film in the New York/New Jersey area adds to the overall intensely moody atmosphere, as well.

All in all, this is a classic case of a film whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The creepily inherent understanding of the lead character’s twisted psychological worldview on the part of both the writer/director and the star, combined with (I hesitate to use the term but it really does apply here) a perfect physical setting takes what is, on paper, nothing too terribly special and transforms it into something very special indeed. Sick, twisted, depraved, abhorrent, offensive, shocking, perverse, and sleazy, to be sure—but very special nonetheless.

Media Blasters released “Don’t Go In The House” on DVD under their “Shriek Show” label a few years back, and it features a fine feature-length commentary with Grimaldi, an on-camera interview with the actor, an alternate take of one of the film’s more brutal scenes, the original theatrical trailer, and more. It’s available alone or as part of the “Grindhouse Psychos Triple Feature” boxset, together with “Cop Killers,” an early Rick Baker special effects effort, and Roberta Findlay’s notorious “Tenement.” Great stuff!

Promo Poster For Dire Wit Films' "Isle Of The Damned"

Promo Poster For Dire Wit Films' "Isle Of The Damned"

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not at all a fan of Troma-style “instant cult classics,” if you will, and prefer films that actually earn their “cult” status without the aid of a fully-laid-out blueprint, but I must admit that “Isle Of The Damned” the second feature from director Mark Colgrove and Dire Wit Films, is a refeshingly bizarre serving of intentional cinematic sewage that spoofs the excesses of the Italian cannibal film subgenre while not losing completely the sense of genuine unease that the best of these flicks, like Deodato’s “Cannibal Holocaust,” instill in their viewers. In other words, “Isle Of The Damned” does make you laugh and also makes you feel ashamed for doing so.

This is thanks in large part to a truly disturbing subplot involving Billy, the young teenage ward (played by a guy in his late 20s/early 30s, naturally) of lead character “Jack Steele” about which the less I reveal the better— suffice it to say that Billy’s travails are the source of much uneasy laughter during the course of the film, and while the typical cheesiness of fake moustaches, overtly lousy dubbing, over-the-top cheap gore effects and the like are easy enough to crack fun at without feeling guilty, laughing at the struggles of “poor little Billy” will give you the same feeling as watching the animal slaughter in “Cannibal Holocaust”—you don’t really want to see it, but you can’t turn away. In that sense, then, “Isle Of The Damned” succeeds because it not only mocks but also captures the spirit of the Italian cannibal subgenre, since it’s just as cringeworthy, albeit in a completely different way.

Sure, much of the humor is overly obvious (the supposed “director” of this “lost classic” is “Antonello Giallo,” for instance, and the film’s promo poster blares that it was “Banned In 492 Countries,”) but there is plenty of unexpected and more ambiguous ” humor” peppered throughout in addition to blatant absurdities like a “jungle locations” that look like upstate New York or southern rural  New Jersey and a huge mansion located on a primitive, “uncivilized” island.

Does the entire film still have the overall subtlelty of a hammer blow to the skull? Of course, but that’s part of its—and I use this term loosely—charm. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this film to everyone, but if you think that the “instant cult classic” genre has nothing to offer, I’d humbly suggest that you give “Isle Of The Damned,” warts and all, a chance. Shot for something like $20,000, this film delivers the warped and twisted goods and leaves you feeling guilty for having so much fun. Who can ask for more than that?