Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

It’s been a little while since we surveyed the at-one-time-booming postapocalyptic subgenre of B-movie sci-fi here, but since I watched 1986’s straight-to-VHS Robot Holocaust on Impact Action On- Demand the other night (once in awhile they do us all a favor by showing something that’s never been made available on DVD , such as this one), now seems as good a time as any to trek once more into the nuclear-irradiated wastelands of the future that, hey, still could happen.

I’d been wanting to see this flick for quite some time ( I understand an MST3K treatment was also done and is available in ten-minute chunks on YouTube), since director Tim Kincaid is a name we know and trust around these parts from works such as Riot On 42nd Street and the world’s first (although that distinction might be debatable) direct-to-video release, Breeders. And I admit I have a soft spot for all these low-grade Road Warrior rip-offs, particularly the ones made by the Italians, like The New Barbarians  and Exterminators Of The Year 3000.

Unfortunately, even in a cinematic realm where one expects very little, to be generous, and the rules of what constitutes a “good” movie or not are pretty much turned upside-down to the point where the cheesier a flick is the better, Robot Holocaust really doesn’t deliver the goods. First off, in case you hadn’t guessed a piece of voice-over narration at the beginning informs us that the titular holocaust of which the movie speaks won’t be on offer here, since it’s already happened. The robots have turned on their human masters and now we’re all enslaved to something-or-other called The Dark One, a mysterious quasi-mystical overlord who enslaves all us flesh creatures in his factories and mines with the help of his mechanical minions. Never fear, though, because a rough-and-ready warrior of the wastelands named Neo (we’re talking a couple decades before The Matrix, here, folks — oh, and he’s played by some guy named Norris Culf, if that matters, which I assure you it doesn’t) has emerged from the fractious clans of humanity’s survivors and is leading a ragtag rebel band through the desolate ruins of the future in a brave quest to bring The Dark One down.

Will he succeed? Of course. Will it be interesting? Not really. For one thing, the “obstacles” facing Neo and his band are pretty weak. Not only are robots few and far between, but the only mosters we see are the so-called “sewage worms,” the humans inside one of The Dark One’s mines are already ginning up a revolt of their own, and The Dark One’s leading henchwoman is pretty damn incompetent, unreliable, and doesn’t really like working for the guy.

So the deck is all rather stacked in Neo’s favor from the outset, which leads to a story with essentially no suspense whatsoever, and really that’s  fine in and of itself, but when a movie can’t even pretend to be trying to approximate something resembling dramatic tension, we’ve got ourselves a problem. I appreciate the lower-than-low grade production values on display here as much as the next guy — cheap modelwork, guys in costumes as “robots,” unconvincing matte-painting backdrops, the disused Brooklyn naval yard standing in for The Dark One’s control center/mine/everything, but when every single plot development from start to finish just makes the hero’s job easier, even the most committed viewer can find him or herself losing interest at some point.

All in all, then, I have to say this flick is a real bummer because it has all the elements for a successful post-nuke laugher, but frankly its too damn dull to even have much fun with.  I can’t help but feel its heart is in the right place, but it’s just such a yawner that you can’t bring yourself to give a shit about what’s happening even though you feel like you should.It almost feels like you’re being forced to root against the home team.

And that’s the real tragedy here — no matter how hard you might try, Robot Holocaust just can’t seem to make you care about it, even though it seems like Kincaid and his cohorts were doing their best given what they had. I’d love to congratulate them for trying their best in the face of daunting circumstances to make something vaguely entertaining — goodness knows that’s usually more than enough for me, as seasoned readers of this blog well know — but the end result here is just really, truly, well — blah.

It’s a shame to see such a copious serving of low-grade cheese go to waste.

How many ways can a film suck? Let’s do a quick checklist, shall we, in relation, to this, Hollywood’s latest megamillion-dollar (well, okay, $70 million dollar, to be precise) waste of time.

1. It can have boring characters.

Check. Battle : Los Angeles doesn’t even have actual characters per se, it’s just got dull, bog-standard stereotypes dressed up in uniform. There’s Aaron Eckhart, who pretty much always sucks and just gets cast because he’s got a square jaw, as the forced-back-into-action military veteran who’s got to lead a platoon (or whatever they’re called) into battle despite the fact that he just got some men killed under his watch in Iraq (or maybe it’s Afghanistan) and was on the way to file his retirement papers. then there’s Michelle Rodriguez playing the same part she always does — a bad-ass superheroine-type who’s tough as nail but also supposedly sexy (even though she isn’t and never has been). Then we’ve got the guy about to get married, the African dude who joined the army to get his US citizenship so he could go to med school when his tour of duty was completed, etc. You’ll forget their names and their faces by the time they (mostly) get killed, and you won’t care when they die.

2. It can have an uninteresting story.

Battle : Los Angeles scores again on that front. After being given the most cursory “introduction” to the characters possible, we learn that the world is being invaded by giant fucking flying saucers with battle-ready robots spewing forth from them and by the time we learn what they’re doing here — evidently they want to rip off all our water — we no longer care (if we’re sane).

3. It can be poorly directed.

Another hit! Battle : Los Angeles is directed by grade-A hack Jonathan Liebesman who can’t decide if he wants to make Saving Private Ryan or Cloverfield and seems to get stuck somewhere in the middle. It’s trying to put us in the “middle of the action” at all times, but since we don’t give a single, solitary, flying fuck about any of the “action,” the middle of it is nowhere you’ll want to be. You just want everyone to get killed and the whole thing to end. Except it drags out for a brutal, interminable 116 minutes. Stay home and watch your toenails grow instead, it’ll be a more productive — and involving — use of your time.

4. It can have bad acting.

Bingo again! Battle : Los Angeles features atrocious, cardboard-cut-out acting from all involved. Nobody does anything above and beyond showing up to earn their paycheck.

5. It can have laughable dialogue.

Bull’s-eye! Battle : Los Angeles features some of the most ham-fisted dialogue to come out of Hollywood in recent memory, and that’s really saying something. No one has anything to say beyond brave-sounding bullshit and useless military jargon. this stuff makes John Wayne look positively fucking subtle by comparison.

6. It can have a stupid, intelligence-insulting premise.

On this score, Battle : Los Angeles is even more guilty than on the others. At its core this overstuffed pig is nothing more than a high-tech military recruitment film, designed to portray all our men and women in uniform (and form all cultures and all parts of the world — today’s army will take ’em all, aren’t they wonderful?) as noble, purposeful people of the highest integrity and unflinching virtue. PTSD , horrible injuries, even death — it all just goes with the territory when you’re fighting for all that’s right and good, doesn’t it? A small price to pay for defending — uhhhmmm — “freedom.” The hard, cold reality — that our government and, more specifically, its corporate bosses, view these guys and gals as nothing more than hamburger for their always-churning meat grinder is conveniently glossed over. Have fun dying for Halliburton and GE, suckers. Hollywood will always be around to spend millions portraying you as noble warriors for truth and justice rather than poorly-paid hired thugs for the corporate class. Might have something to do with who owns the studios, I’m willing to bet. Sure, there’s danger — but danger is cool!  Sure, you might end up on a morgue slab — but you’ll get there the “honorable” way. Your life — and death — will have meaning and purpose, unlike it does now (since most of that meaning and purpose has been robbed from you right from the outset by the same greedy bastards who will then tell you how “heroic” it is to put yourself on the line protecting their ever-increasing profit margins).

Ya know, I think I’m gonna stop right there. Sure, the list could go on and on, but the fact is that there are only so many ways for me to implore you to not see this film under any circumstances whatsoever. Honestly, it makes the Transformers flicks looks like complex, intricate woks of cinematic art. I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords — if it means that no more movies like this will ever be made.

Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, but when I heard there was such a thing as a Christian UFO movie, I just had to check it out. Little did I know before going in that what I would be treated to while watching writer-director Rich Christiano’s 2006’s straight-to-DVD release Unidentified would be the most hateful, self-righteous, and paranoid piece of religious propaganda since Ron Ormond’s christ-spolitation classic If Footmen Tire You, What Will The Horses Do? But while Ormond had the “evil” Soviet “menace” to provide an actual earthly source of worry, these days the Born Againers have to search a bit further afield to find proof of demonic activity here on on our world, and the UFO/alien abduction phenomenon provides a ready-made avenue for their — ummm — “philosophical explorations.” After all, if you don’t believe in life on other planets, but are convinced that something must be happening to account for all these sightings and reports — and your whole view of life, the universe, and everything (sorry, Douglas Adams) is based on an absolutely, independent-thought-crushingly literal reading of the King James Bible, well — the answer to all of this must be in there somewhere, right?

Well, Christiano thinks he’s got the answer, and he was willing to hustle up a reported $600,000 to get his point across in this shot-on-video sermon hung over the barest skin of a “plot.” All these UFOs, you see, are — drumroll please — manifestations of demonic entities!

You saw that coming, right? Honestly, if there’s one thing Bible-thumpers possess in even greater quantity than lack of imagination, it’s lack of intelligence.

Anyway, our erstwhile “hero” here is a schmuck named Keith who works at a supposedly “respectable” news magazine called “Both Sides” with his Australian buddy, Brad. Keith’s a lukewarm believer, while Brad is a devout nonbeliever. One day on a lark, their nice-guy editor sends them down to the heart of Texas redneck country to check out a report of a UFO sighting filed by a local auto mechanic. Since the magazine’s shtick is to cover “both sides” of every issue, Keith is assigned to take the view that the guy might be telling the truth while Brad’s covering the he-must-be-full-of-shit angle. The simple-minded grease monkey is reluctant to talk, though, and even though the boys have at this point essentially got no fucking story whatsoever, the aforementioned nice-guy editor decides there might be “something to all this,” and tasks the boys with writing a three-part series on UFO culminating in a big cover story in a few weeks.

Fortunately for our intrepid reporters (notice I haven’t provided one single actor’s name yet? That’s because they all suck — and I mean painfully suck — and don’t deserve a mention), more sighting reports start to pile up on their desks and soon they’re on their way to Louisiana to talk with a couple good ol’ boys who got abducted while they were out night fishing and a local woman right across town (the specific locale here is never mentioned, but the entire movie was shot in and around Riverside, California, mostly in a half-assed obviously-vacant-the-day-before office space that’s meant to serve as the “worldwide headquarters” of a major news magazine but looks a hell of a lot more like a disused former insurance office or travel agency) who got nabbed getting into her car after work one night.

Keith’s at this point getting some inside help with his investigative legwork from a fellow writer at the magazine named Darren, who just happens to be a hard-core holier-than-thou Christian who also happens to be the biggest asshole in a movie full of them (a role that’s supposed to fall to the dastardly unbeliever Brad, who actually comes off as the only moderately sane individual around). Darren notices a pattern in all these sightings — all the witnesses report smelling sulphur, and he immediately thinks of the brimstone stench the Bible apparently says most demons give off. Also, the young woman was abducted right across town has interests in the paranormal and the occult, the Louisiana yokels had been drinking before they were abducted, and the hapless Texas garage mechanic, well, his wife’s a — gasp! — Wiccan, and they found some porno rags in his truck! Ya see the pattern here? These people are all into bad, bad things (or their wives are) and the devil is using that as a foothold to get into their lives before taking over completely! Souls are on the line here, people, and it’s time for God’s army to fight back!

But first Keith’s gotta get right with the Lord himself. His wife Colleen is a devout believer/sucker, but Keith’s been slacking. He hasn’t found much time to read the Bible these days. His work’s been consuming his life and he’s been ignoring the missus. He hasn’t even been going to church regularly. And like Darren says — you’re either with Christ, or you’re against him. Keith has a hart-to-heart talk with God and decides to get back on board the team. He’s headed for heaven! Not even Brad can stop him!

Of course all the UFO contactees have been paid a visit by “national security” (did you know there was a government agency with that exact name? Neither did I), and Keith catches a break when a grizzled “national security” old-timer decides to talk with him off-the-record a la “Mr. X” from Oliver Stone’s JFK. It seems that according to this former insider he and Darren are on the right track, they just need to keep their noses to the grindstone and keep reading that Bible!

Somehow towards the end the whole thing devolves into an extended harangue about the supposedly-forthcoming rapture and how Satan is going to use UFOs to deceive people into accepting a false explanation as to how and why the Christians have all been taken up into heaven while the God who supposedly loves us puts the rest of us through seven years of trials and tribulations before Christ comes again to apparently rule over a planet his old man has has just decimated. Whatever. It didn’t make much sense to me, either.

A few points stand out here looking back on this stinker —first off, for a supposed UFO movie, there are no actual, you know,  UFOs to be seen. The various “abductions” are all represented by a bright light shining on the victims, but no flying craft are ever on display. Secondly, Christiano has a real asshole, absolutist view of Christianity. There’s a long scene where Brad’s arguing with essentially everyone else at the office and demanding that Darren answer a pretty simple question — if I don’t believe in Jesus, am I going to hell? Darren, Mr. “my way or the highway” Christian, doesn’t even have the balls to answer him directly — he just says “I know what the requirements are.”  Brad then goes on to ask everyone else if they’re going to heaven, or if they’re headed to the hot room downstairs. This is supposed to be the big “moment of truth”/turning point the whole movie hangs on, but it just comes off as one smug, self-satisfied bastard refusing to give a guy a direct answer before the whole thing spirals down into a big, pathetic harangue designed to make unbelievers looks like scared cowards — even though the only chickenshit dude in the room is the Christian. Nice recruiting job for Jesus, Mr. Christiano. And thirdly, apparently deception isn’t a sin anymore, because the Bible-thumpers do it with reckless abandon. First Darren tells the auto mechanic’s wife “Merry part” (supposedly a common phrase used by Wiccans when leaving a room) in order to discern whether or not she’s a wicked, Godless heathen, and then at the end, when it seems everybody at the office but Brad has turned their souls over to Christ, they all get together and fake a worldwide epidemic of disappearances with scared phone calls, lights going on and off, etc. — one of the women at the magazine even goes so far as to claim her own niece and nephew are missing — in order to fool him into thinking that the rapture is at hand. Then they admit that they were all just yanking his chain and everyone’s fine, but gosh, didn’t that put the fear of God — quite literally — into the hapless atheist from Down Under? I know, I know — ha fucking ha, right?

So that’s Unidentified in a nutshell — Christians supposedly have the answer to everything, if you think you’re already a Christian you’re probably not Christian enough unless all you do is read the Bible all the time, and if you’re not a believer — well, hell, watch this flick ASAP because it will show you how utterly fucking insane and zombified about 1/3 of this country of ours is. Honestly, if you watch this thing with the full awareness that this is how millions of people think, you’ll walk away feeling like you’ve just seen the most shocking horror flick in years.  It’s certainly not gonna win over any new converts — only the already-deeply-deluded will think the Christians in this flick seem like anything more than pompous pricks, so Christiano’s really only preaching to the choir here. But if you already viewed the born-again crowd with suspicion, you’ll walk away from Unidentified convinced of their complete and utterly hopeless delusional insanity.

Finally,while I caught this on DVD (since that’s the only format it’s ever come out on), I can’t fairly critique the extras or commentary or anything since I didn’t bother watching them. 85 minutes of this was quite enough, thanks very much. But I did enjoy having all my worst impressions of evangelical Bible-bangers not only reinforced, but amplified. If you see this movie and decide it makes sense, I urge you to seek out professional help — immediately.

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.

German “Stryker” Movie Poster

The flood of post-apocalyptic Road Warrior knock-offs that littered the global cinematic landscape in the early ’80s  definitely gave us some bizarrely awesome shit like The New Barbarians and 2020 Texas Gladiators, but once anybody besides the Italians were in charge, the results were rather putrid at best.

Case in point : Cirio H. Santiago (TNT Jackson, Vampire Hookers)’s 1983 made-in-the-Philippines, damn-near-budgetless glimpse of a world gone mad, Stryker , which was also released under the rather generic-sounding action title Savage Dawn.

Now, I’m predisposed to liking any flick with a title this fucking cheesy, but I gotta admit that Stryker begins to test your patience almost from the word go. The voice-over narration that begins the film pretty much gives the whole game away — the nukes flew, everything’s fucked, lawlessness reigns supreme, and the rarest and most valuable commodity in the world is water — this despite the fact that there are clouds in the sky throughout the film, so presumably, at some point, it’s gotta, you know, rain.

It’s pretty obvious from the outset, though, that logical continuity isn’t one of Stryker‘s strong suits, so any prospective viewer might as well get used to its absence quickly.

The trouble always starts this way —

After our little voice-over-monologue-as-the-bombs-go-off intro, we’re dropped right into the middle of the “action” as some supposed-to-be-bad-ass-looking thugs in souped-up junker cars and on souped-up-junker motorcycles chase down a helpless woman on foot who’s got some water and, more importantly, apparently knows where even more can be had. She’s rescued from her would-be attackers, though, by a dude in a cowboy hat with a rifle slung over his shoulder and some other guy.

At this point, it would be nice to know a few things : who are these two dudes? Is one of them the “Stryker” of the film’s title? Are they working together? If so, why? Do they have a history together? We find out the answer to the first question, but as for the others, well, that stuff is never really made clear.

The damsel in distress takes off in one of her vanquished foes’ cars and we soon learn, more through inference than anything else, that the dude in the stetson with the rifle slung over his shoulder is, indeed, this “Stryker” guy that we’re supposed to give a shit about (although “star” Steven Sandor’s seriously flat performance makes that pretty difficult — his Stryker seems to suffer from a rare psychological affliction that renders a shell-shocked survivor of a nuclear conflagration incapable of expressing any emotion — or even any mood, for that matter —whatsoever.  Must be some variation on PTSD, I’m guessing). He then walks off  and —

Wait. I have to pause for just a second here. The first clue that Stryker is a seriously second-rate post-atomic-holocaust action hero is his means of transport. While guys in other films of this genre tend to have bad-ass cars or bikes, Stryker roams the irradiated wastelands on foot. Dead giveaway that we’re looking at a pretty lame “hero” right there.

Next up Stryker and his (apparent) buddy, who we learn waaaaaayyyy later is named “Bandit,” encounter a tribe of dwarves who are pretty much dressed, and pretty much speak, just like Jawas from Star Wars — the only thing missing is the hoods and the glowing eyes. Stryker makes friends with these lovable little creatures by giving one of them some water, and of course that’s gonna come in handy later when he needs to assemble a makeshift army to take down the bad guys and set the people of post-nuke Earth free.

Whoops, hope I didn’t just give too much away there.

Then we’ve got a series of confusing scenes that I’ll just run down quickly to avoid you, dear  reader, any unnecessary pain (and because actually explaining what any of them have to do with anything is pretty well impossible ) : the girl who Stryker rescued is recaptured, stuck in a cell, raped, and tortured for information. The bad guys are lead by a low-rent Sid Haig-wannabe named Kardis ( although, again, it’s a little while before we actually learn his name), who is informed that the girl got away from the leather-sporting ruffians the first time around because they were “ambushed by Stryker and his men.” Except Sryker doesn’t have any “men.” Again, continuity is not a selling point here. When learning of Stryker’s involvement in the girl’s rescue, Kardis has a memory flash-back to an earlier fight with our stetson-sporting hero, the significance of which is never explained (and you can’t really tell what the hell is going on anyway).  Stryker and his “man” are observed by a pack of quasi-dangerous-looking Amazon she-devils on wheels who carry crossbows. They don’t do anything and Stryker doesn’t see them, so — whatever. Stryker and Bandit find a working car sitting out in the middle of nowhere (apparently the entire film was shot at a Filipino mining works — they get a “shout-out” in the credits, and it’s quite apparent, as the exact same locales are utilized over and over again as supposedly “different” places, that the movie’s crew didn’t have access to the entire quarry). Then our “heroes” attack an armed convoy escorting a tanker, not that we find out what’s actually in the tanker or why they’re attacking it until a lot later, and by then you don’t give a damn anymore because, well — you never really did in the first place. We also learn that, thanks again to zero emphasis being placed on continuity, Stryker’s cowboy hat can appear and disappear from atop his head from one moment to the next.

Things start to threaten to actually make a bit more sense once Stryker and Bandit head for an encampment of survivors lead by a guy named Trun (Ken Metcalfe), who we meet earlier while he’s buried up to his head in sand by Kardis’s men ( yes, Kardis, for his part,  really does have “men”) and gets a “golden shower” from one of them when he complains of thirst. Oh, and he also just so happens to be Stryker’s (much) older brother, and they’ve got a history of sorta-bad-blood between them, as evidenced by sparkling dialogue exchanges like this one :

Trun: But why did you leave?

Stryker : Everybody’s got their own road to hell — you’ve got yours, I’ve got mine.

Well, that explains everything, then.

Never fear, though — Stryker has a plan to lead Trun and his people to freedom — and more importantly, to water. Having sprung the girl he rescued earlier (I’m pretty sure we actually NEVER get her name at ANY point, but it doesn’t really matter a whole lot anyway), they head out for her father’s encampment, where they “locals” are  guarding a secret underground spring they’ve found that provides them with an endless supply of water.

There’s a little bit of “drama” once they get there, with the daughter and the old man having divergent views about sharing their liquid wealth (she’s the generous sort, he’s a little more hesitant — in fact, they found this spring seven years ago and he promised Trun at the time that he’d share water with him and his people if his lot ever found some, and he welched on the deal), then Trun starts to try to turn the camp into an armed garrison under martial law with himself as commander,  much to Stryker’s chagrin (being the freedom-loving “loner” type that he is), and Bandit meets himself a nice girl and gets laid.

Stryker’s through with taking shit

That’s all window dressing, though — the main point is that we’re headed for a big armed showdown between Kardis’s men, who have a couple of honest-to-God tanks, and the ramshackle band of survivors protecting their spring now led by Stryker (even though he’s not the leader type). The amazons with crossbows and the un-hooded Jawas join up with “Team Stryker,” there’s lots of explosions and guns blazing, Bandit’s new girlfriend gets killed in the closest this movie tries to come to an “emotional” moment, lots of other folks on both sides bite the bullet, and finally Stryker and his band of rebels stand triumphant after vanquishing their much-more-numerous, much-better-armed foes. It can only happen after the apocalypse, people. Kind makes you yearn to let the missiles fly right now, doesn’t it?

Oh, and did I mention that, at the very moment their courageous victory is sealed, it actually begins to rain? Looks like things are gonna be alright after all.

“The Grindhouse Experience Volume 2” DVD Box Set Featuring “Stryker”

If you’re really into torturing yourself, “Stryker” is available on DVD. It’s part of the 20-film, 5-DVD “The Grindhouse Experience Volume 2” boxset from VideoAsia — and if you think you’ve seen some bad direct-from-VHS transfers before, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This, like all the other movies in these two sets ( some of which,  like Raiders From Atlantis, are actually pretty damn good),  looks like absolute shit. They didn’t even use a particularly healthy-looking VHS tape for the rip, as there are moments throughout where the tracking goes off , and in dark scenes it’s pretty hard to tell what the fuck is actually happening. Not, again, that it particularly matters. Needless to say it’s presented full-frame, and the sound quality is straight mono and it sucks, too.

Finally, a question I would ask Cirio H. Santiago if he were still alive (and let’s not be too hard on the guy — he did give us Jeannie Bell’s topless karate scene in TNT Jackson, after all) : in the end credits, there are two women listed as “script continuity girls.” What did they actually do?

Nah, don’t answer.

"Breeders" Movie Poster

Reviewing Vice Squad yesterday, I got to thinking about the straight-to-VHS  boom of the mid-80s to late-90s, and the straight-to-DVD industry that of course still persists today, given that the main baddie of that film was portrayed by the one and only Wings Hauser, who absolutely made his living from that point on in direct-to-VHS B-movies, and your inquiring host simply had to find out — what was the first film to be released exclusively on VHS?

It wasn’t an easy thing to find out (and I should make it clear that I’m talking exclusively about movies shot on film here, so the early-years shot-on-video horror “classics” don’t count in this case), and in fact when it comes to haggling over actual release dates and what have you, the jury’s still out on what came first. One thing’s for sure, though — the first movie made specifically for the direct-to-video market, as opposed to films that were made with the intention of being released theatrically only to have those hopes dashed when the DTV boom started was writer-director Tim Kincaid (Bad Girls Dormitory, Riot on 42nd Street)‘s 1986 low-rent sorta-Alien-knockoff sci-fi shlockfest Breeders. In fact, one of the advertising taglines that appeared on the original Breeders VHS box, and in related in-store promos, was “A World Premiere Right In Your Living Room!” Hope you remembered to roll out the red carpet and rent a spotlight.

All in all, Breeders isn’t too bad for what it is — it’s got that cheesy-fun sorta feel to it that so many of the movies we cover here do. And maybe it’s just the New York locations combined with the goofy-ass subject matter, but the whole thing kind of feels like a seriously under-budgeted Larry Cohen production (not that Cohen’s films ever had much of a budget themselves, but they were positively lavish spending sprees compared to this thing). There’s lots of wooden-as-a 2×4 acting, a plethora of less-than-attractive women getting totally naked, some pretty effective, all things considered, creature effects, tons of perfectly serviceable gore, and the story itself is simple yet solid. Nothing much to bitch about, then, right? Aside from the fact that it would be better if the chicks taking off their clothes were actually, you know, hot. But seasoned exploitation veterans know that can be a asking for a bit much sometimes.

We start with a couple of scenes of damsels in distress who are attacked by what appear to be perfectly normal human beings, until slimy tendrils wrap around them, and the screaming starts. Pretty standard Mars Needs Women-type stuff. Later on they start turning up at the hospital in pretty bad shape and suffering from selective amnesia when it comes to — ummm — the “events” in question themselves.

Not to worry, though, Dr. Gamble Price (Teresa Farley, the best-looking woman in the picture by far — but don’t get your hopes up, she remains fully clothed throughout — and check out her ’80s bigger-than-big hair) and police detective Dale Andriotti (Lance Lewman) are on the case. Their ace medical examinations soon discover a few interesting pieces of information —

1) The women who have been raped were all virgins prior to — you know;

2) They’ve all  had a strange black substance — ummm — deposited inside them;

and 3) They’ve all been covered in a fine reddish-brown dust that turns out to be — get this — brick dust, and not just any old brick dust at that — we’re talking about some very specific brick dust, the kind found in the bricks that were used in the construction of the city’s sewer systems over a century earlier, only they ran out of the those bricks and switched to another kind.

Now, when the movie you’re making is only an hour and 17 minutes long and at least half that run time is dedicated to various scenes of helpless young virgins being stalked and attacked in the middle of the night, your investigators are going to come to some very quick conclusions, and in this case that means that their first working hypothesis turns out to be correct — namely that alien creatures are living in the sewers and coming up to the surface to take over “host” human bodies and then attack and impregnate human females in order to propagate their species. Little questions like, you know, why they don;t just fuck the opposite-sexed members of their own kind are best not dwelled on for too long.

The trouble really starts, though, when the women who are hospitalized after being alien-raped start to wake up, and head for the old sewer tunnels themselves! Gotta keep things moving, right, and the best way to do that is to have our doctor-and-detective crack investigation team simply follow them and take on the aliens face -to-gross-face.

I've seen the future, and it's ugly

Since you can pretty well guess how things are going to play out here, or at least you  damn well should be able to, I’ll get back to the overall “vibe” of the film itself here for a minute : all dialogue in Breeders is essentially delivered in a flat, unemotive monotone,  it’s nearly all disarmingly matter-of-fact, and the acting ability of each and every cast member is — ummm — limited, to put it kindly. We’re pretty much firmly in “so-bad-it’s-good” territory here. The only thing Kincaid and his cohorts seem to have actively given a shit about is coming up with decently-executed creatures, and decently executed gore, given the ultra-tight budget they had to work with, and they certainly did a competent enough job with that.

What’s more than just a bit jarring, though, is to see this type of competent (I won’t go so far as to actually call it good, we’ll just leave it at good enough) effects work sandwiched into such a thoroughly incompetent-in-all-other-respects film. But hey, give them credit for laser-like focus on what really mattered, I guess.

The ultra-’80s hairstyles, clothes, computers and all that cement the “ambiance,” for lack of a better term, and as a super-cheap period piece, Breeders certainly works. It’s not terribly memorable in any respect, and some of the more direct Alien knock-offs (I’m thinking specifically here of Creature and Contamination)  were better, but it’s a solidly entertaining enough waste of barely over an hour of your life.

Still, you’d think that, given how ubiquitous the whole DTV industry became, that it would have started off with some a little bit more — I dunno — monumental, I guess, than this — wouldn’t you?

Hell, maybe not.

"Breeders" DVD from MGM

For whatever reason, MGM ended up with the distribution rights to Breeders here in the DVD age, and have released it in a very apropos bare-bones package. The picture is presented full-frame and I doubt it’s even been remastered, although it looks more or less just fine. The same fgoes for the sound — probably in no way touched up for DVD, but it’s perfectly serviceable enough. The only extra is the inclusion of the (non-theatrical) trailer.

While none of the actors in this flick went on to do much of anything, writer-director Tim Kincaid, who  started off his career as an actor, appearing in the blaxploitation quasi-historical flick Quadroon before quickly moving behind the camera and helming the aforementioned Bad Girls Dormitory and Riot on 42nd Street (which is awesome, by the way), also directed a couple of other straight-to-VHS sci-fi cheapies (Mutant Hunt and Robot Holocaust, if you absolutely must know).

Then his resume went strangely blank for just over a decade until he turned up again under the pseudonym of “Joe Gage,” directing a slew of gay porno flicks (and even occsionally starring in them). Rather ironic, I suppose, for a guy who made a movie called Breeders, but hey, whatever pays the rent. I guess Hollywood wasn’t exactly banging down his door in the wake of Breeders – – – even if it is a slice of movie history.

"Avatar" Movie Poster

So, yeah, “Avatar.”

I guess I would be remiss in my duties as an amateur wannabe-film critic if I didn’t at least address the topic, given that it’s probably going to be the all-time box office champion any day now. It’s still picking up another $30-$40 million per week without much sign of slowing down. It’s set to pass “The Dark Knight” for number two on the all-time list domestically within the next week or two, and after that, all it’s got to beat is director James Cameron’s last movie, “Titanic,” (which I still have never seen), and it’s the all-time champ. Most box office observers expect this to happen within the next moth or so.

One thing’s for certain, Cameron has established himself firmly as the uber-Spielberg, as Spielberg on steroids. Everything he touches turns into pure box office gold. He took a long time completing his follow-up to “Titanic,” but so what? He made the biggest-grossing film of all time, then followed it up with the new biggest-grossing film of all time. Cynical as I am, I gotta admit that’s pretty impressive. But is “Avatar” itself?

My answer is — not really. Or maybe it is and it isn’t would be a better way of putting things. Sure, it’s cool to look at and all, and the 3-D is solid (I didn’t catch it in Imax 3-D, just standard 3-D, but from what I hear there’s not a whole ton of difference), but given that the film’s costs were somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 million for production, and another estimated $150 million for worldwide marketing, all I could think was “this is all $400 million gets you?” There aren’t a bunch of make-you-jump-out-of-your-seat-type moments.  The effects are all CG (hell, the whole movie is essentially CG). There aren’t any highly-paid actors in it. So where the hell did all the money go? I’m sorry, but if I’m 20th Century Fox, at this point I’m asking to see the receipts, even if the finished product has already made over a billion dollars worldwide.

None of which is to say that “Avatar” sucks. It’s okay. It’s got a decent little story (though there’s probably no point whatsoever to me giving a detailed — or even brief, for that matter — plot recap here, since all the details of the story are fairly well known at this point). I appreciate the fact that it’s pro-environment, anti-colonialist message is pissing off the right wing to no end (they’ve taken the film’s anti-colonialism to mean anti-Americanism, as if we invented that risible practice. Ever heard of Britain or France, to name just two former colonial powers? Oh, wait, this is the right wing we’re talking about — only the US and its history is of any relevance to them). And the CG effects are just fine — but not anything you can’t get from a Pixar or DreamWorks Animation 3-D flick, which probably don’t generally cost any more than $40 or $50 million, at most, to produce.

And that’s the rub. Evidently Cameron had his cast “act” out a lot of the movie (for instance, actress Zoe Saldana, who plays the main female alien lead in the movie, never appears “in the flesh,” per se, but is still credited as a member of the “cast”) then used sophisticated motion-capture technology to “transfer” their natural, human movements into CGI, if you will. My question is — why? For the most part, “Avatar” might as well be a purely CG animation film. It would’ve cost a lot less and looked just as good. Capturing the “natural” human movements of the actors and actresses makes no difference to the finished product whatsoever, in my view. No one would care if all the CG was just that — high-quality, standard, animated CG. That’s all the impressive sets and backgrounds and what have you are, after all. Why go to the trouble of “casting”actors to portray computerized aliens at all?

To be sure, the integration of the human stars with the computer-generated sets is seamless, but then, it is in almost every movie these days. The “Star Wars” prequels, and anything by Peter Jackson, feature tons of real-life actors doing their jobs in front of blue- and green-screen backgrounds, with the CG added later. It’s nothing new, nothing trailblazing. It’s all done in slightly greater abundance in “Avatar,” sure, but that’s about it. Again, I have to ask — $400 million for this?

I have no intention here, really, of bashing this movie. It’s fine. The story’s fine, the acting is fine, the 3-D is fine. But it doesn’t knock your socks off. And given that’s really the whole goal of “Avatar,” I have to say it falls short of meeting the standards it sets for itself.

"They Live" Movie Poster

"They Live" Movie Poster

Okay, I suppose it’s not at all surprising to find a John Carpenter film on our little “Halloween countdown” list, but the fact that it’s not—well, you know—I suppose that may qualify as a bit, just a bit, of a surprise. And yes, the cinematic adventures of Michael M. are indeed great fun to watch at this—or any—time of year, especially the original. But one thing we hate to be here at TFG is too damn obvious. And truth be told, “Halloween” isn’t my favorite Carpenter film. Nor is “The Thing.”

That distinction belongs to 1988’s “They Live.”

Now, wait just a minute before heading over to my house with pitchforks, burning torches, a noose or two, and cries of “blasphemy!” on your lips.

I freely acknowledge that “Halloween,” The Thing,” “Escape from New York” and “Big Trouble in Little China” are all better movies than “They Live.” All I’m saying is that I enjoy this more than any of them.

Why, you might reasonably ask? I mean, after all, this thing stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, for Christ’s sake!

Okay, that’s a charge I can’t duck. But in his defense, Piper is pretty good as Nada (how’s that for the most unsubtle character name in movie history?) and in truth it’s the cool concepts that carry this film more than its “stars” or special effects anyway.

On paper the basic idea (adapted pseudonomously by Carpenter under the pen name “Frank Armitage” from  Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”) isn’t too terribly different from something you’d find in an old “Twilight Zone” episode — an alien race has secrety taken over the world by disguising themselves as ordinary human beings and maneuvering themselves into the top positions of power in finance, politics, and the media. Along the way they’ve allowed certain select “elite” humans into their globe-spanning secret cabal by promising them a share of the money and power at their disposal, but most of us are just livestock to them, cattle to be worked for all we’re worth before our inevitable slaughter. We are, quite literally, being farmed.

The economy is in ruins with a small slaveholder (not that they call themselves that publicly, mind you) class ruling over the rest of us miserable serfs and hoarding all the planet’s natural resources for their profit while dumping toxins into the atmosphere to replicate the conditions of their homeworld,  leaving for the masses a few meager table scraps on the floor for us to fight over, and keeping us in line with subliminal messages being bombarded at us in our newspapers, books, magazines, movies, and of course, television shows (examples include “obey,” “consume,” “submit,” and perhaps most ominously of all, “marry and reproduce”).

Sound familiar? It should. Except for the fact that the rulers are alien, this is more or less exactly the world we’re living in. There’s nothing too terribly alien about the whole concept apart from the aliens themselves and, as always, subtlety isn’t Carpenter’s strong suit. He’s making his point here with a sledgehammer, and you know what? It works just fine.

There’s one small kink in our Andromedan overlords’ plan, though—a small group of human resistance fighters have developed a special type of sunglasses that allow us to see these interlopes for what they are, as well as the hidden messages they’ve placed all around us and our guy Nada, a down-on-his-luck manual laborer, happens across a box full of these nifty contraptions after the cops raid a resistance meeting at a church near the shantytown where he’s “living” and don’t quite clean up all of the evidence. He puts on the shades and for the very first time (okay, here comes a cliche, sorry) his eyes are opened to the reality of the world around him.

Absurd? Absolutely. But then, is reality itself any less crazy? Think about it for a minute—in the real world we don’t need special sunglasses to tell who these folks are nor to decipher their not-so-secret messages. They operate in broad daylight and go about their business of reducing this planet to a toxic, high-tech plantation largely unmolested. One might be tempted to think, in fact,  that it would all be so much easier  if our rulers really were an evil race from another planet hellbent on our destruction and we could get everyone to rise up if we had some magic device that allowed us to see them as they really are. As it stands, we see them paraded before us every night in both “news” and “entertainment” programming on television and instead of forming angry mobs and going after them, we continue to buy their products, listen to their lies (even those most of us don’t believe them) and vote for them when the time comes.

It's all around us

It's all around us

If all this sounds a bit David Icke, it should be noted that this is one of Icke’s favorite films and personally I think all he did was swap out reptiles for aliens and has made a career out of it ever since.

But, obvious as the message Carpenter is conveying here might be, who can argue with its resonance? Hell, unlike most 1980s horror and science fiction flicks, not only has this thing not become a dated relic, it’s even more relevant now than it was then, as the tentacles of the global (I apologize for using this term, but damn if it doesn’t apply) conspiracy tighten around us all the more.

But mind-numbingly urgent and relevant as the message itself might be, that doesn’t mean this flick isn’t all kinds of fun. In fact, it’s a straight-up blast. We’ve got B-movie genre semi-legends like Keith David and Meg Foster in good supporting roles. Piper himself, as I mentioned before, is entirely (and perhaps surprisingly) adequate. The pacing is tight , the everyman-as-hero archetype just about always works, the dialogue is economical and sharp, there are plenty of good laughs along the way, and rather than roll your eyes at how simple it seems to bring the whole thing down, on the contrary you’ll be wishing it were that simple.

In short, it’s precise and unambiguous social commentary disguised as a throwaway horror/sci-fi/action flick. You can dismiss the whole thing as lightweight, superbly-crafted,  absolutely unpretentious fun while absolutely agreeing with everything it has to say at the same time. It resonates and entertains in equal measure. You don’t have to decide whether or not it’s throwaway entertainment or spot-on allegory because it’s both. I don’t know about you, but in my book that makes it a work of genius, and I don’t use that term lightly. Largely unheralded genius, to be sure, since this is often an overlooked entry in Carpenter’s lengthy oeuvre, but genius nevertheless.

Says it all, really

Says it all, really

“They Live” is available as a bare-bones bargain DVD and is also playing all this month on FearNet. Check it out if you haven’t and see it again if you have!