Friday, September 9, 2016

Transformations (1988)

Written by: Mitch Brian
Directed by: Jay Kamen
Starring:
Lisa Langlois as Miranda
Rex Smith as Wolf Shadduck
Patrick Macnee as Father Cristopher
Christopher Neame as Calihan

On June 5, 1981, the CDC published a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describing several cases of a rare lung infection called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in otherwise healthy young gay men. The men also had other uncommon infections as well. The evidence led officials to believe something had caused the men's immune systems to shut down. It wasn't until September of 1982 that the disease, until then referred to as GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, became known as AIDS. By December of that year, an infant was found to have contracted the disease through a blood transfusion and it became clear that the problem was not isolated in the gay community.

By 1988, the global battle against this nightmare disease was in full swing. U.S. Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop launched the first coordinated HIV/AIDS education campaign by mailing more than a hundred million copies of a booklet called Understanding Aids to American households, while the FDA announced that it would allow the importation of small amounts of some unapproved drugs for people with HIV/AIDS. World AIDS Day was designated by the World Health Organization and supported by the UN.

Not one to shirk his duty as an advocate for major world issues and humanitarian crises (he was, after all, the leading [and only] activist brave enough to tackle the issue of people's toys coming to life and killing their owners), Charles Band joined the fight by commissioning a script for a cheap, shitty space AIDS movie to be shot in Italy for what would barely be enough money to buy a decent house in many parts of the country.

Wolf Shadduck is a space trucker, flying a hold full of cargo from Dafuqknows to Nunnayobiznis when...something happens. It's a little hard to figure out on first watch, because the movie was re-edited and completed by a third party releasing company many years after shooting had wrapped when the IRS seized Empire Pictures' assets for back taxes owed and the company went bankrupt. The company spliced in some space ship footage borrowed from Roger Corman, and extended many of the scenes to pad the movie out to 84 minutes. We see what appears to be another ship approaching, and then a shot inside the ship of a slime-covered creature in a tattered uniform walking somewhere with great purpose, implying that the second ship is heading for Wolf's ship, piloted by a monster, with the intention of boarding him. It then appears to him as a very 80's looking woman, who proceeds to boink him silly, turning briefly back into a monster while riding him but his eyes are closed so he doesn't notice.

What actually happened is that the company who finished the movie cared even less about it than the Empire Pictures producers did, and couldn't be bothered to make sure the spaceship footage matched. There is only ever one ship, and the shots of the stalking slime-glopola monster is duplicated from a scene at the end of the movie just so the audience gets a monster right off the bat, because otherwise there's no monster until the last five minutes. We will find out later that things are, in fact, a whole lot sillier than we previously suspected.

Wolf's autopilot brings him down on a prison planet where the prisoners serve their time working a colossal strip-mining operation, overseen by a minimal staff backed up by a force of genetically engineered synthetic soldiers who serve as guards. A large staff isn't required because the massive equipment used to essentially peel an entire planet like an onion gives off such an intense electromagnetic field that any ship entering the atmosphere while it's operating will short out and crash. Supply ships are scheduled to arrive during maintenance shutdowns so they can make planetfall safely. Notice I said his ship brought him down, not landed him gently.

The crash has left Wolf with some fairly serious injuries. He regains consciousness in the infirmary under the care of Miranda, the sole medical professional on the entire planet (and really, she's not even a professional – she was born to one of the prisoners despite them all being sterilized, so the colony's real doctor took her in and raised her and taught her all he knew before dying). Before long, he's wandering around outside the infirmary against strict orders and hate-fucking prostitutes to death at the behest of the space AIDS lurking inside his festering space scrotum, at the same time that a supply ship has entered orbit for a scheduled shutdown and a small band of prisoners are planning to escape by stealing Wolf's ship.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Father Christopher, the prison chaplain, has seen something like this spreading sickness before. He encountered it on a space station he worked on decades ago, and it nearly cost him his life and his faith. You see, Wolf wasn't infected by a creature boarding his ship, as the confusingly edited opening scenes suggest. It was no space creature at all. It was, in fact, a literal demon from literal hell; a succubus intent on destroying the souls of everyone on the planet by spreading its perversity and covering everyone in pus. Kidnapping Wolf and stranding yourself in space with him is starting to look like sort of a poor decision now, huh, wannabe escapees?

According to director Jay Kamen, who seems to consider the production of this movie the worst experience of his entire life, the version of the movie available on video today bears almost no resemblance to his final cut of the movie, which was presumably destroyed when the Charles Band's Empire ended as most empires do; with the tax collectors knocking on the door. Clocking in at an already lean 84 minutes, it's a good ten minutes longer than his version (which also included a fucking musical number!) because they extended the end of almost every scene by a few seconds just to pad the movie out further. It's something that I didn't really notice until the second watch with his amusingly bewildered commentary track, but once you know what to look for it's obvious where the sloppy edits were made. Despite the fact that neither Kamen or his moderator like horror or science fiction movies or know anything about them, that commentary is worth listening to for all the gems he has to tell about the production, like how Band somehow finagled to rent Dino de Laurentiis's studio for the shoot at such a low price that Dino became enraged at how little money he was getting and completely gutted the heating and air conditioning systems before turning the building over to Band.

The performances range from perfectly profession and competent in the face of the ridiculous material (Langlois, Macnee), to what-the-fuck-were-they-thinking (mostly the dubbing crew hired to complete the Italian actors' unfinished dialog), and the effects lifted from Corman are nifty. When we finally do get the monster payoff at the end (in one of the most egregious cases of, “That doesn't look like the poster!” in film history), it looks like the FX crew somehow got a mold of the creature mask from Blood Freak and covered it in KY jelly and scraps of lunch meat.

Despite the movie gods doing their very best to smite this flick from the hearts and minds of men, here it is almost thirty years later, looking quite smashing in high definition for all its impoverishments. It's cheap and sleazy and dumb, and there's a lot of fun to be had with it. Oh, and if you were wondering, the cure for being turned into a turkey monster sex demon from outer space is being shot in the face with a flamethrower. And true love. Look, just go watch the movie.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Death Machine (1994)


Written by: Stephen Norrington
Directed by: Stephen Norrington
Starring:
Brad Dourif as Jack Dante
Ely Pouget as Hayden Cale
John Sharian as Raimi
William Hootkins as Carpenter

Everyone wants to be a director. The actors, the producers, the writers, the grips and gaffers and doughnut runners from craft services; everyone thinks they can make a movie. Special effects artists are no different. Most of the directorial efforts by special effects artists tend to suggest that they're probably very good at designing special effects. Only a small handful of them have turned out to be really great: Pumpkinhead; Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake; To Catch A Yeti. Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get my point. It's a short list, and among those honorable few is tonight's movie.

Stephen Norrington worked on the creature effects for quite an astonishing array of great movies, including Aliens, Alien3, Hardware, Young Sherlock Holmes, and one of my personal favorite movies ever, Split Second. After tonight's feature, he went on to direct the first Blade, and, unfortunately, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which seems to have ended his directing career. Which is a damn shame, because he showed a tremendous amount of promise as a filmmaker.

The Chaank Corporation, which specializes in military hardware and defense contracting, has been having difficulties keeping their shareholders happy lately. Stock prices keep dropping, despite the rollout of an exciting new project called Hard Man. Hard Man is one of those super-soldier programs wherein war vets who have sustained catastrophic brain damage have their memories wiped and are placed into powered armor exo-skeletons. The project has, however, gone over about as well as New Coke because the test subjects keep breaking out of the lab, causing enormous amounts of property damage, and killing innocent civilians.

Along with the public outcry over the Hard Man disasters, Chaank has also been experiencing a great deal of tumult within the company. Hard Man has been headed up by Chaank's resident mad scientist, Jack Dante, and every time someone confronts him about the project's failure, they've wound up scattered all over Chaank HQ in little pieces. Rumor has it he's been working on another project deep within the lowest levels of the R&D department, where he also lives in his weird little cyberpunk lair. It's something called a “frontline morale destroyer”, and the top brass have a feeling he's been letting it loose in the building after hours. They've brought in a corporate investigator named Hayden Cale to look into both the Hard Man failures as well as the internal killings. They're all too afraid to address the problem themselves, so they figure someone from the outside might be able to get the job done and save all their skins for them.

Cale calls for full public disclosure and the immediate termination of Dante. She goes about trying to lock him out of all the company's systems at the same time a group of activists break into the building to steal all of Chaank's private files and expose them. The group, led by Sam Raimi (yes, this is one of those movies, but it's at least a little bit clever about it – more on that later), take everyone hostage at first. It's not long before Dante escapes into his lab and sets the Warbeast loose, and their only hope for survival may be the very thing the activists came to put an end to: the malfunctioning Hard Man armor.

As I said before, this is one of those movies where all the characters are named after cult horror icons who influenced or inspired the filmmakers. However, Norrington actually makes clever use of some of his nudge-winkery. There's a scene late in the movie when Raimi fires a missile at the Warbeast, and the camera follows along hot on the projectile's exhaust trail in a shot very reminiscent of the POV shots of the evil in Evil Dead. The script is generally quite clever and blackly funny. There's some solid corporate satire stuff that manages to stand on its own two feet and not just feel like a poor man's Robo-Cop, and in the extended version currently available on YouTube, Cale gets some extra back story that her husband left her because she was giving their baby a bath in the sink and accidentally ground its arm off in the garbage disposal. Horrifying, I know, but it almost feels like it's being played for appalled laughter rather than straight up shock.

The performances are excellent across the board. Hammy where appropriate, but in a controlled and intentional way that adds to the humor. When Raimi gets strapped into the Hard Man unit and it takes control of his brain, he begins screaming all of his dialog at the top of his lungs and it's an amusing touch that they took what should be the big badass hero of the movie and made him an over-the-top shouty doofus instead. It's not surprising, considering this flick has quite the roster of character actors. Raimi is played by John Sharian, who had small parts in lots of big movies like Fifth Element and Saving Private Ryan, but he's most recognizable to us Smeg Heads as alternate Lister in the Red Dwarf episode “Back to Reality.” John Carpenter is played by the delightfully named William Hootkins, who also appeared in lots of big movies like Batman and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It also features Richard Brake, who played the ambulance driver who says, “Fuck” about five hundred times before dying in Rob Zombie's Halloween 2, and is currently the Night King on Game of Thrones, as well as being the first feature film appearance of Rachel Weisz.

Of course, the real star of the show is Brad Dourif, who is in full-on cranked-up-to-11 crazy mode here and absolutely owns every frame he appears in. I'd rather meet him in a dark alley as Charles Lee Ray than Jack Dante, honestly. Dude is bonkers.

Death Machine was a UK/Japanese co-production, and even though the only connection seems to be monetary and there's nary a Japanese name in the crew, the miniature effects shots and indeed the whole aesthetic of the movie is a lot like a Japanese sci-fi movie from the late 80's/early 90's like Gunhed or Zeiram. The Warbeast itself is awesome. It's sort of a giant metal dinosaur with Cuisinarts for hands and a three-foot hydraulic powered bear trap for a head.

This one is definitely worth your time to check out. It's a great action/horror/sci-fi genre blender and comes highly recommended by yours gruesomely. Sadly it hasn't gotten the Blu ray special edition treatment yet (and I'll damn well be the first in the checkout line when it does), but the extended cut on YouTube isn't bad as VHS rips go and hey, it won't cost you anything.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Emanuelle In Bangkok (1976)


Written by: Ottavio Alessi, Maria Pia Fusco, and Piero Vivarelli
Directed by: Joe D'Amato
Starring:
Laura Gemser as Emanuelle
Gabriel Tinti as Robert
Ely Galliani as Frances
Ivan Rassimov as Prince Sanit

I've discussed in previous reviews my idea that the Emanuelle series bears a number of similarities to James Bond. I've also mentioned before that I wound up watching these things all out of order and that doing so is really not advised because these movies, to my utter shock, actually follow a logical and well-written story arc. This is the first in the series of gloriously sleazy Emanuelle movies that Laura Gemser and Joe D'Amato made together, although it's the second time that Gemser played the character more or less as we see her here.

While watching the Cannon Films documentary on Netflix recently, I had my computer in my lap with another Netflix window open adding everything they mentioned that I hadn't already seen. One of the movies that wound up on my watch list was Bolero, and there are sections of this movie that seem to have informed the latter Bo Derek vehicle, but I'll get to that later.

Investigative photojournalist Emanuelle (played once again by the ever-lovely Laura Gemser) has been sent to Madeupistan to do a story on Prince Sanit. On her journey through Madeupistan, she meets Robert (played by Gemser's real-life husband Gabriel Tinti), and his wife Frances. She also lives with a young woman in the desert for a while, which is the part that reminded me of Bolero. She gives the young woman her sexual awakening, and they ride off into the dunes with a sheik and his entourage to belly dance and puff on hookahs and have wild, off-camera group sex.

Unfortunately, also much like Bolero, this movie is pretty innocent and goofy since we're seeing Emanuelle before any of her experiences from the later movies have turned her into the jaded badass we came (huh huh huh) to know and love. With the exception of one sleazy scene where a group of Prince Sanit's men corner her in an old building and gang rape her to scare her away since their secretive boss doesn't want a photo essay of his sexual hijinks published, the movie is too unfocused and light and fluffy to hold the attention of a viewer who's expecting more than a romp.

The aforementioned scene does, however, contain the seed (huh huh huh) that will allow Emanuelle's character arc to grow through the rest of the series. It is revealed that she has something of a sexual superpower, in that with a bit of concentration she can turn any sexual encounter into a source of pleasure for her. By the time the first of the men (and D'Amato must have gone to some lengths to find the six or seven ugliest men in all of Western Europe, because these dudes are not pleasant to behold) gets on top of her, she's having a grand old time, and (once again, off camera, and praise Cthulhu for that because ten minutes of these doughy, pasty CHUDs grunting and sweating is not something I wanted to see) manages to fuck the entire group of them into submission! By the time it's all over, their leader is happy to give her all the information she wants to know about finding Sanit.

Even going in with the knowledge that this flick is not fighting in the same smut class as its successors doesn't help much to prepare you for just how dull the movie is. There are relatively un-sleazy Eurosmut movies that are still very enjoyable to watch, like Laure for example. This one is just a snooze. Unless you're a Laura Gemser completist, or just really, really desperate for some boobs (psst, you're reading this on the internet...there are places you can go for that which don't require you wade through 80 minutes of uninteresting plot), you can safely give this one a pass and start with the next entry in the series. You won't really be missing anything, and you'll have a much better time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Attack of the Killer Podcast

It is a great pleasure and an honor to announce that I have been invited to join the crew of Attack of the Killer Podcast as a full-time crew member! That doesn't mean I'm abandoning Cinemasochist Apocalypse. I'll still be keeping my erratic and lazy posting non-schedule here. Just wanted to share the good news!

I'm still plugging away at Emanuelle in Bangkok, but in the meantime, enjoy our new episode on horror documentaries!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)


Written by: David Seltzer
Directed by: Walon Green and Ed Spiegel
Starring:
Lawrence Pressman as Dr. Hellstrom
A bunch of bugs as themselves

Tonight on June Bugs, we take a look at a movie I've been wanting to see since I found out that micro-cinematographer who shot the insect footage was Ken Middleham, who was also behind the brilliant ant scenes in Phase IV, one of my favorite science fiction movies. This flick is a bit of an odd duck. In a seeming feat of precognition, it anticipates the glut of paranormal and cryptozoological documentaries of the next decade by parodying them before they ever had a chance to make their mark on the collective pop culture psyche. Even the greatest of these, Legend of Boggy Creek, came a year after tonight's movie.

Hellstrom Chronicle purports to be a document by one Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist with some apocalyptic theories regarding man's dominance on Earth. Consisting primarily of spectacular footage of various insect species in action, it is interspersed with segments of Dr. Hellstrom living up to his infernal-sounding name by raining down verbal hellfire and brimstone about how man's time on Earth is short if he continues to destroy it. Insects, being infinitely more adaptable and having a nearly incalculable population advantage, are simply waiting in the wings to take over as the dominant life form once the folly of humankind has reduced everything else to a radioactive, glow-in-the-dark slag heap.

Both the dialog and performance during the Hellstrom segments are almost ludicrously florid and delivered with all the urgency of an alcoholic street preacher wearing a THE END IS NIGH sandwich board. Pressman overacts the hell out of his role, and looks like he might pop an aneurysm at any moment. Seltzer has said in interviews that this was intentional, that, “every third line we were elbowing the audience in the ribs.” I almost wish that wasn't the case, because I kind of like the idea of a totally earnest group of super Left-wing filmmakers trying to push their environmental message through to the bull-headed macho redneck Right by challenging their manhood. “Come on, you bunch of sissies, you don't want to lose dominance of your planet to a bunch of bugs do you? You pussy bitches better find some alternative fuels and disarm your nuclear arsenals or you're going to have to hand the reigns over to ants!”

The real reason to watch this movie is the bugs, of course. If any of you are fans of nature documentaries (and if you're not, what the hell is wrong with you?), there's a lot to love here. Particular highlights include the segment featuring carnivorous insect-eating plants, and giant Japanese hornets attacking a bee hive. The bees eventually win the day, but with massive casualties, and those hornets are fucking terrifying. Also of special interest is the segment on termite colonies; specifically the bit about how they will wall their queens up for safety when a colony is under attack, like an insect version of Poe's “Cask of Amontillado.”

That's really all I've got to say about that. It's an interesting time capsule of a movie with an intentionally goofy message, but full of spectacular photography that more than makes up for any weaknesses on the part of the narrative.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Blue Monkey (1987)


Written by: George Goldsmith and Chris Koseluk
Directed by: William Fruet
Starring:
Steve Railsback as Detective Jim Bishop
Gwynyth Walsh as Dr. Rachel Carson
Don Lake as Elliot Jacobs
John Vernon as Roger Levering

Welcome back to yet another installment of June Bugs. I almost didn't do one this year (and I can hear your sighs of relief from here), but I discovered that someone finally put an exceptionally lousy VHS rip of this flick on YouTube. I'd been wanting to include Blue Monkey in a June Bugs since I started doing these things, but it was impossible to find. It was one of those movies that I spent all the time at the video store staring at the box of when I was a kid, when I was meant to be selecting an appropriate cartoon instead. I remember the image of the old man with the larva crawling out of his mouth burned itself into my brain and made me think this movie must be terrifying. I did eventually see it many moons ago, and recall being pretty disappointed after all that time building it up in my head. Will it hold up to a second viewing? Will I even be able to see what the hell is going on in this awful copy? The answers to these pulse-pounding questions and more in the paragraphs below. Read on, if you dare!

Ah. You dare. Very well, then. An old handyman named Fred gets the ball rolling when he gets stung by something hiding in the foliage of a flower which gardener Marwella recently obtained from a newly discovered Micronesian island. She calls an ambulance, and by the time he reaches the hospital his condition has worsened to the point that he's comatose. Then his throat begins swelling and he regurgitates a semi-mobile pupa that Dr. Rachel Carson (and yes, she is named after the author of Silent Spring) captures and takes to a lab for further examination. Detective Bishop comes along because he was hanging around the hospital waiting to hear if his partner will to survive a gunshot wound, and apparently death by gross weird bugs is now a thing the police handle.

Meanwhile, a checkup of Marwella has revealed that fatal insect stings aren't the only surprise that Micronesian flower had in store. A strange bacterial infection has her quarantined to bed rest. The doctors can't figure out what kind of bacteria she is carrying or how to stop it since regular antibiotics seem to have no effect. Her granny hooligan roommate (is it a good idea to quarantine people with unidentified infections in shared rooms with no kind of hermetic precautions?) Dee Dee, however, insists she has the cure; a bottle of whiskey. I'm a sucker for rebellious old lady characters in movies, and Dee Dee deserves to take her rightful palace in the pantheon of great cinematic geriatric hellraisers who fix everything with booze.

Entemologist Elliot Jacobs is also conveniently on hand to dispense invaluable bullshit science he has no possibly way of knowing once that gross pupa grows into a seven-foot praying mantis-like insect which wreaks havoc in the hospital's basement, because having it rampaging around slicing patients to pieces would be too expensive. It's a good thing the hospital is surfing the wave of the future and has a brand new surgical laser in its lab, which the tech boys haven't been able to figure out how to get off the PEW PEW PEW setting yet.

This movie is pretty dumb. This should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever seen one of the infamous Canuxploitation tax shelter movies of the 80's, when everyone and their dog decided they could become a producer in Canada. Implemented in 1974 and lasting 14 years, the Capital Cost Allowance was designed to entice filmmakers to bring their business to Canada by offering 100% tax deductions and deferrals for money spent on making movies in Canada until said movies started turning a profit. If any of you readers out there participate in or at least have any knowledge of Health Savings Account programs through your employers, basically imagine if your boss told you you could do the exact same thing except with hundreds of thousands of dollars and you got to do something awesome with it instead of buy blood pressure medicine and topical cream. Like make a movie about Charles Manson and some alcoholic old ladies fighting a giant bug with a malfunctioning laser gun.

How dumb is it, you may ask? Remeber when I said the entomologist character is there to dispense bullshit science? Think about how easy it would be to have him just say some stuff about actual praying mantises. It's not like they aren't fearsome predators, and blown up to roughly the size of a pony they wouldn't be utterly terrifying. But no. This bug is a hermaphrodite, which in the world of Blue Monkey means that the male gives birth to a smaller, fully pregnant female who will lay dozens of eggs that will hatch males which will...you get the idea.

It came as a bit of a surprise, then, that the laser which seems faintly ridiculous on its face is actually represented with a fair bit of accuracy. When Dr. Carson is showing Detective Bishop around the research lab, she describes it to him as an Nd: YAG laser and goes on to list a series of applications that such a piece of equipment may be more or less used for in reality. Nd: YAGs are solid state lasers which use man-made yttrium aluminum garnet crystal doped with neodymium as the lasing medium. When a laser is switched on, atoms of the doping agent carry out a population inversion with atoms of one of the elements that form the crystalline lattice. This excites the electrons of the swapping atoms, and when photons of a specific frequency are forced through the crystal, they interact with these electrons and drop them out of their excited state to a lower energy level. The energy released into the electromagnetic field by this process then creates new photons with properties identical to the incident wave (the original batch of photons). Now you've got a boatload of extra photons to shoot at whatever nasty creatures have invaded your hospital.

While it makes absolutely no sense that a hospital would have a weaponized laser, solid state lasers like the Nd: YAG are indeed being developed for military use. Goldsmith and Koseluk must have had a crystal ball, though, because it would be twenty years from Blue Monkey's release before defense contractors Northrop Grumman announced their FIRESTRIKE as the world's first combat ready laser weapon. They're also being developed as modular add-ons for the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter. Then in 2011 the United States Navy test fired an extremely high powered laser that they claimed had an effective range of miles. Just think of all the giant bugs you could zap with that!

There you have it. Blue Monkey is a reasonably amusing way to kill 90 minutes. If you don't see it, you're not missing anything, and if you do see it, you won't wish you hadn't. That's about all there is to say about that. But hey, if the women don't find you entertaining, they should at least find you informative. Remember, we're all pulling for you, so keep your stick on the ice.

Friday, June 10, 2016