Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Ring of Fire 3: Lion's Strike (1995)

Grandpa's got a gun!

What's up with the subtitle to this film? There aren't any lions, nor any super-powerful secret martial arts moves that go by that name. I feel cheated. Maybe it's explained in the first two Ring of Fire films, which according to my extensive research (five minutes on imdb) are a legitimate series with continuity and everything. This is a welcome change from Don "The Dragon" Wilson's Bloodfist films, which are united only by their inclusion of blood and fists.

In these films, Wilson plays Dr. Johnny Wu, medical practitioner/kickboxing champ. This seems like an unlikely combination, but it mustn't be that rare because when the film opens he's sparring on the roof of the hospital with a fellow kickboxer/doctor (Timothy D. Baker from No Retreat, No Surrender). They are interrupted by a bunch of mafia goons trying to break out their geriatric Don before he's transferred back to jail, and as the Don escapes in a helicopter he witnesses Wu shooting his grandson in self defence. You'd expect the rest of the film to be about the Don seeking vengeance, right? Wrong motherfucker, because Wu hangs off the side of the building and blows up the helicopter with a few shots from his magic pistol. Actually this sequence has fuck all to do with the rest of the movie; it's just an average day in the life of Dr. Johnny Wu, Ass-Kicker MD.

Things are pretty stressful for our resident doctor/martial artist. Not only does he have to deal with the mafia shooting up the hospital staff and street punks tearing through the wards on their motorcycles, but he's also raising his son Bobby (played by Wilson's real-life son) alone, his wife having died in a car accident sometime after Ring of Fire 2. The hospital is critically understaffed as well, (especially after Dr. Wu hospitalises a bunch of unruly street thugs in the emergency room) so naturally his boss decides it's the perfect time for Wu to take a holiday with his son. He even lends Wu his sweet mountain cabin, so remotely situated that his brick-sized cell phone has no reception. Gee, I wonder if that will come back to bite him.

Meanwhile, an international co-operation of organised crime bosses are branching out into the lucrative field of smuggling stolen nuclear weapons. This "worldwide mafia" includes some other Italian mafia guys, the Russian mob, the Chinese triads, the Bogota drug cartel and the Yakuza. Once again the black man is excluded by The Man, but a couple of enterprising young African Americans decide to break into the mafia's offices themselves, stealing, among other things, a floppy disk containing 1.44 Mb of hard evidence implicating the crime bosses in their smuggling operation. Some mafia goons kill one thief and chase the other down in a big explosion-y car chase, but when Dr. Wu stumbles across them and intervenes the fucking idiots run away and leave the bag of loot behind. Naturally the bag is identical to Wu's doctorin' bag, so in a mix-up that makes no sense whatsoever, Wu heads off to the remote cabin with the diskette.

Up at the cabin Wu and Bobby are busy inspecting a caged wildcat when they run across Kelly Scarborough (Bobbie Phillips), Army Ranger turned Park Ranger with a penchant for tight-fitting ribbed turtlenecks. "Pretty nice cougar, huh?" says Bobby. It sure is. Actually, early in the film Wu mentions that Bobby is desperate for a new mom, and he's not kidding. When Wu teams up with her to deliver a beat down to some poachers Bobby gets so excited he pounds the shit out of their groceries. Impressed by her fighting skills, Wu invites her to their cabin for a super awkward date and when they kiss Bobby pumps his fists and shouts "Yes!" I think Wu needs to have a word with him about the realities of dating. It could get pretty traumatic if she doesn't stick around for Ring of Fire 4.

Anyway, after their date is over the bad guys manage to track them down and surround the cabin. There's a pretty weird continuity error when one of the goons collapses from a blow-dart in the neck before Wu even knows they are there, but the long and short of it is that Wu manages to sneak up and take them out while they are blowing the shit out of the cabin and their car. The remainder of the bad guys somehow manage to escape back to the city, gather reinforcements (including a Russian psychopath who hates being called "Boris") and fly back to the mountain long before Kelly and Wu can stash Bobby at a nearby farm and hoof it back to civilisation.

This kicks off a Hard Target style style cat-and-mouse game as the Russian/Italian mobsters chase them through the snow and shoot everything in sight. Wu and Kelly use the poachers' bear traps to their advantage, but things get pretty weird when the bad guys stumble into trip mines and net traps. Are trip mines standard poaching equipment or were Wu and Kelly able to rustle them up with whatever they had on hand? Anyway, the dastardly Russian ends up heading back to farm and kidnapping Bobby, arranging an exchange for the disk at some factory somewhere (when deciding the setting for their action movie climax the filmmakers flip a coin that says "abandoned warehouse" on one side and "factory" on the other).

Wu seeks the help of a cop, a friend from the earlier films from what I can gather, who refuses to inform the rest of the force, adding that most of the force is in the mafia's pocket and that "they said no cops!" Wow, fantastic. The two of them head to the factory for the final showdown and when the Russians make a last-minute power grab from the Italians, Wu is given enough time to snatch his son and have his sweaty, shirtless, somewhat anti-climatic fight with the evil Russian.

This is a pretty terrible movie by any metric you care to name, but for Direct-to-Video it's pretty action packed, even if the action doesn't always make sense or have anything to do with the plot. Actually, this is one of the most enjoyable Don "The Dragon" Wilson film I've ever seen. I also like the idea of a doctor who beats people up in his spare time, so maybe I'll track down the other Ring of Fire films. I have to mention the hand-painted art they used for the DVD menu, though. I mean, I know I picked this up in a 12-pack of dodgy action films so I'm lucky there's any menu at all, but... Jesus, just look at it. Who did that, Rob Liefeld? Is that supposed to be Don "The Dragon" Wilson? Nice font for the title too. Holy shit.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Body Melt (1993)

This is what happens when you stifle your sneezes.

Body Melt is directed by Phillip Brophy, best known for his experimental music group → ↑ → (which I guess explains the weird techno soundtrack) and Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat, an experimental short film that is centered around various bodily fluids. I guess a crazy splatter film like this was a fairly natural fit. I bet this guy gets sick of this film being compared to early Peter Jackson just because he's from a country that is in a similar geographical area with similar accents, but the comparisons are unavoidable. This film has a slightly different feel to it, though. It has more of a satirical bent, poking fun at things like the 90s fitness craze and happy suburban families.

An evil pharmaceutical company/health spa named Vimuville decides to test their latest batch of body-enhancing drugs on the residents of Pebbles Court, a cul-de-sac in an outer suburb of Melbourne. Disguising the drugs as vitamins, they send out free samples and invite some of them to their facility for a free treatment. One of their top chemists has a change of heart and tries to warn them, but the villainous Dr Shaan (Regina Gaigalas) gets wise to his plan and injects him with a fatal dose of the drug during a sweaty sex scene. As the rogue chemist drives there he begins to show symptons of the drug, which include headache, nausea and writhing tentacles bursting from your neck. He makes a quick stop at a servo to chug some dishwashing detergent, but when he reaches Pebbles Court he crashes his car and gets splattered all over the driveway. When the two detectives show up on the scene they dismiss it as a road fatality, although they do stumble upon the chemists tape recorder, which contains the message "The first phase is hallucinogenic... the second phase is glandular... and the third phase is AAARRGH!"

The storyline is nearly impossible to follow and none of the characters are developed in any detail, so for much of the film you are left floundering for a protagonist. You'll think you have a handle on who the main character is supposed to be, only for them to be killed off. There's no real consistency in the drug's effects either, so really the film seems like an excuse to show people dying in weird and crazy ways. One woman chokes to death after her tongue swells up to the size of her forearm. Another woman's head deflates like a punctured balloon. Another man's penis explodes when he tries to watch some porn. In fact, one of my favourite deaths had nothing to do with the pharmaceutical company at all. A young boy has a grisly accident while roller-blading on a half-pipe, and fatally crushes his face, the camera lingering on the gruesome aftermath. The funny part is that afterwards his family never find his body or even wonder where he is. He's completely forgotten.

A couple of young guys at the beginning of the film probably get the most screen time in a sub-plot that is almost completely divorced from the rest of the film. They get lost on their way to the health spa and end up in a completely different film, a farm full of inbred freaks who like to kill kangaroos and snack on their adrenal glands. This segment seems out of place but it isn't completely unrelated to the rest of the film, since the patriarch of the family is a former employee of Vimuville and his freakish foster children are the results of failed experiments. One of the guys decides to make out with his grotesquely neanderthal daughter, which is bad enough, only for her to freak out and stab him in the balls with a pitchfork. The other suffers a more ambiguous but undoubtedly horrible fate.

One thing I liked about this film is that the cast is full of well-known Australian soap stars. There's something deliciously surreal in seeing, say, Ian "Harold Bishop from Neighbours" Smith getting his ear ripped off by a zombie or firing a gun at a family station wagon. Even a very young Lisa McCune appears as a pregnant newlywed, and I'm sure all the 80-year-old TV Week voters would revoke her 1,392 Gold Logies if they ever saw her here, giving birth to an animate, malevolent placenta that murders her husband. One of the Daddo brothers makes his obligatory appearance (Cameron, the Alec Baldwin of the Daddos) as an eager rookie cop. Even the guy from the Goggomobile ads appears as a cop. It's an all-star cast!

The gore effects in this film are plentiful and pretty decent. They went crazy with the gore and slime. There's also an extended autopsy sequence that is pretty impressive. But that's really all there is. It's fun, but not for fans of well-developed characters, comprehensible stories or cinema in general.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break (2009)

Gives new meaning to the term "shoe tree"

Although I'm not as hard on Eli Roth as a lot of people, I wasn't hugely impressed with his directorial debut Cabin Fever. I didn't hate it, but I don't remember much about it except that the characters were unlikeable and incredibly annoying. Luckily he doesn't have anything to do with the sequel Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break. The only reason I picked it up was because of the involvement of Ti West, director of the 80s horror throwback House of the Devil that has the internet popping huge boners and still hasn't come out here in Australia. He directed this film (or about 95% of it) and after continued studio interference he eventually disowned it, forcing massive re-edits and a couple of years of the shelf followed by a Direct-to-DVD burial. Apparently West tried to use the pseudonym Alan Smithee, a name that directors use when disowning their own work. I find this whole Alan Smithee thing fascinating. I mean, can you use it in other professions? Could doctors avoid malpractice suits by performing drunken surgery under the pseudonym Dr. Smithee? Hm.

If you remember the end of Cabin Fever, which I sure didn't, you'll know that it ended with Paul (Rider Strong) succumbing to a flesh-eating virus and collapsing into a lake, a bottled water company unknowingly sucking up the filthy water to distribute nationwide as Down Home Spring Water. Well, this film opens with the apparently-not-quite-dead Paul waking up, stumbling into the road and getting splattered by a passing schoolbus (the film title is placed over a freeze-frame of the body exploding like a water balloon, which is a nice touch). Deputy Winston Olsen (Giuseppe Andrews), the only other returning character from the original film, dismisses the pile of entrails as belonging to a deer (what about his clothes?) and sends the busdriver on his way, to a high school that just so happens to be the recipient of the first shipment of bottled water.

The bottled water doesn't really play a huge role in the film, the real source of the outbreak is the prom-night punch getting spiked by the infected urine of an angry janitor, but before we get there the film spends a fair bit of time building up the characters. This is generally a good thing, but... well... stop me if you've heard this one. John (Noah Segan) is a nerdy nice guy who has spent the last couple of years pining for Cassie (Alexi Wasser) a hot girl he has known since childhood. Unfortunately she is dating a popular, asshole rich-kid named Marc (Marc Senter). John also has a fat, sex-obsessed buddy named Alex (Rusty Kelley) and with prom only a few days away... oh, so you have heard this one before? Not surprising, since it's the plot of every movie set in a high school since the beginning of time, and probably earlier. There is a nice "Fuck yeah!" moment where John calls Cassie on her bullshit and asks her why she is dating such an asshole. I thought they were going to do something interesting, like maybe she was pregnant or feared for her life, but no, she just breaks down and starts crying. Strong female characters, y'all!

I mean, pretty much every character is a stereotype from an 80s high school movie. The principal (Bowen Brown!) is an asshole with a statue of Napoleon in his office (and is also gay for some reason). The evil rich kid practices martial arts on a wooden dummy in front of a huge Japanese flag like that kid in Nightmare on Elm Street Part 4. Some of the stereotypes are weirdly anachronistic too, like the science teacher with a bee-hive hair-do and a scarred lip. These kinds of 80s influences/anachronisms, like the reel-to-reel projectors used in classrooms, corded phones, wood-panelled decor and etceteras, are where Ti West's direction is felt most of all. There are direct references to films like Rock'n'Roll High School and Carrie and they even use the Paul Zaza song Prom Night a couple of times. He brings an old-school filmmaking sensibility too. No fancy digital editing tricks, just well-chosen camera angles and moody coloured lighting. I liked this.

Unfortunately the editing didn't fare as well, no doubt due to the studio-mandated changes, so structurally it's a total mess. I expected the prom itself to be the climax of the film, a massive showcase of gory death, but instead it's rushed through in a couple of minutes with a half hour to go. That's important too, because the film barely scrapes over 85 minutes, including the crudely animated intro and outro and a fucking awful epilogue at a strip club (not directed by West) that is stapled onto the end of the film with no respect to tone or pacing. There's also a weirdly disconnected subplot that follows Deputy Olsen as he realises the source of the infection and tries to escape town, dodging the CCD soldiers that lock down the school and shoot anybody who they suspect of having the disease. This subplot includes a role for Marc Borchardt (American Movie) and a cameo by Judah Friedlander, who gets a great line: "She said she was 18; I always believe what children say" but it's ultimately pointless. The film feels unfinished.

The gore effects are pretty great and sometimes manage to outdo the original. There's a prosthetic cock discharging blood and pus. There's a hand amputation with a circular saw and cauterisation by blow-touch. There's a Irreversible-esque scene of a skull being busted open with a fire extinguisher. And of course there is lots and lots of vomiting blood. If you've come for the gore then you probably won't be disappointed. Or maybe you will, I've become so desensitised to this shit I can't even tell anymore. It certainly wasn't enough to save the film for me, especially since the goriest deaths usually happen to people you couldn't give two shits about. That asshole Mark dies from a relatively tame nail through the skull.

I remember this one getting a lot of buzz when it came out, but I didn't think it was great. Sorry internet. I see where Ti West was going and I'd definitely be interested in seeing a Director's Cut, but in it's current form it's a dog's breakfast; I don't blame West for dumping it in the trashcan like a newborn at prom. Also, I have no fucking idea why it's called Spring Break, unless it was an attempt to convince the audience that it contains a lot of titties. Which it doesn't.

Reviewed by Alan Smithee

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Sword of Honor (1994)

Flex somewhere else, man. You're
messing up the reception.

This Direct-to-Video actioner revolves around two cops, Johnny (Steven Vincent Leigh) and his partner Alan (Jeff Pruitt). The two of them are martial arts enthusiasts, as demonstrated during an aborted convenience store robbery where they deliver some high-kicking beatdowns to stick-wielding street thugs. On their off-time they give martial arts demonstrations to youngsters at a dojo belonging to Alan's sister Vicky (Sophia Crawford), an activity that Alan likes so much he has decided to quit the force and start teaching martial arts full time. Unforunately his retirement party is interrupted by news of an auction-house robbery, perpetrated by dozens of machine-gun and rocket-launcher wielding thugs. Alan has a bad feeling about this, so Johnny advises him to stay behind. He doesn't.

We've seen this set-up dozens of times, so it's pretty clever for the filmmakers to subvert this cliche by... nah, I'm just kidding. Alan totally dies. He takes a bullet for Johnny, which is noble but a little misguided since Johnny is wearing a bullet-proof vest and Alan isn't. Whoops. The murderer escapes and the cigar-chomping Angry Chief (tm) gives the case to a couple of seedy vice cops Frank (writer/director/producer Robert Tiffi) and Dogger, both world-class assholes with a shocking lack of respect for the death of a fellow cop. Johnny decides to team up with Alan's grieving sister and bring in the killer himself.

It turns out that the stolen artifact is the Sword of Honor, a mystical weapon that enabled a Ming warrior to defeat the entire Mongolian horde (which amounted to about a dozen guys, according to the flashback sequence that opens the film). The robbery was arranged by mafia boss Rudy Anthony (Jerry Tiffi) and his right-hand-man Richie (Angelo Tiffi, and yes, Robert Tiffi put his entire family in this film), who intend to sell the sword to the highest bidder. The first potential buyer is a Japanese business-man named Yoshimo. Rudy invites him to his nightclub and has a pretty weird conversation with him about his enormous curly-haired bodyguard:

"You appreciate beauty. Look at my man. [To bodyguard] Take off your clothes. Look how beautiful he is. See how powerful he is. Power is a beautiful thing, isn't it, Yoshimo?"

"[Nervously] I'm only a businessman. I don't know of such things."

Wow. Thankfully this is just a sexually-charged preamble to a fight between Rudy and Yoshimo's bodyguards. Rudy's bodyguard wins handily, and with that ultimately pointless display of power out of the way, Richie leads Yoshimo to the rooftop for the exchange. Yoshimo gives them the million dollar asking price, but the only thing he gets in return is a bullet to the eyeball and an unceremonious burial in one of Las Vegas' fine dumpsters. Rudy figures that they might as well kill off all the potential buyers and take their money, keeping the sword for themselves. What a fucker. Bet he scams people on eBay too.

Meanwhile, Johnny and Vicky's investigation isn't going too well. Johnny's snitch gets killed and he accidentally fucks over a federal case by busting into an unrelated drug deal at a strip club and shooting a couple of dealers. To make things worse they are constantly interrupted by random kickboxers looking to start some shit, whether it's some street punks loitering around Vicky's car for no reason or a couple of roid-raging gym junkies who really want to use the lat pull-down. The fights may be an annoyance, but they give Johnny some serious investigative success in the area of Vicky's pants.

Johnny's post-coital martial arts exercises (which he performs in front of a stack of staticky TVs, a mystery that goes unexplained like Vicky's British accent) are interrupted by a phone call from a fellow police officer, asking to meet him at an abandoned warehouse. Vicky follows him and when the cop turns out to be an assassin she becomes the second character to take a bullet for Johnny, landing her in intensive care for the rest of the movie. It's turns out that the assassination attempt was engineered by the Angry Chief, who gets a bullet to the head for botching it.

Not knowing who he can trust (even a hot dog vendor turns out to be an assassin in disguise), Johnny seeks the help of Frank and Dogger. While Johnny heads to the wrong address in a Silence of the Lambs inspired fake-out, Frank and Dogger get into a car chase with some hand-grenade wielding goons, providing flimsy yet adequate justification for a huge explosion. Meanwhile a feud between Rudy and Richie comes to a boil amidst the dealings with another potential buyer, a buffoonish Russian mobster who eats everything in sight, including the scenery and eventually a bullet. In the end Johnny, Frank and Dogger storm Rudy's mansion and there is a final battle in which the titular sword plays part in Richie's extremely goofy death. Victorious, Johnny returns the legendary sword to it's rightful place (at an auction house to be sold off to rich assholes) and decides to take his partner's place at the dojo, teaching whiny little kids to kick eachother in the head.

The action in this film is okay, for what must have been a very limited budget. Punches often noticably miss their mark, but there is some decent Hong Kong inspired choreography, plus a little bit of John Woo acrobatics. Pruitt and Crawford have had long careers in stuntwork so they do a good job and Leigh is decent fighter, though not the most charismatic leading man. Crawford does get her kit off at one point if you're interested, although she's so toned and muscular it kind of scared me. I can't say this is a great film, but it isn't memorably horrible either. It's a functional and utilitarian Direct-to-Video that gets the job done.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Turkey Shoot (1982)

"Help! My hands are caught in my sleeves
and I've spilt pasta sauce everywhere."

Turkey Shoot (aka Escape 2000 aka Blood Camp Thatcher) is another Australian genre film made for international markets, which means it's got a lot of blood, tits and explosions. It's produced by Antony I. Ginnane (duh) and directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith (The Man From Hong Kong) both of whom have a lot experience with capturing all three on film. It's pure exploitation cheese, but Trenchard-Smith has enough skill behind the camera to make it watchable and generally entertaining.

The movie begins with some stock footage of riots and conflicts from around the world, which is movie shorthand for society going down the shitter. It's the far-flung year of 1995 and a totalitarian government has risen up and taken control of the country (Australia, I guess?), shipping off all youthful dissidents to remote re-education camps. Arriving at one such camp are the multiple-escapee and freedom-fighter Paul (Steve Railsback), prostitute Rita (Lynda Stoner) and the naive, wrongly-accused Chris (Olivia Hussey). They are greeted at the camp by the head warden Thatcher, who gives them a standard welcome-to-hell speech while his Chief Guard Ritter (a bald, moustachioed Roger Ward) slaps around some poor girl for failing to recite the camp rules.

Early on, this film reminded me of a women-in-prison flick. Chris is taken under Rita's wing and taught the ropes. She is forced to do menial tasks like gutting fish and dodge sleazy wardens who try to molest her while she's taking a shower. Thankfully the movie takes a different turn when Thatcher and all his bigwig cronies gather up a number of prisoners (including Paul, Rita and Chris) and send them out into the wilderness to be hunted with exploding crossbows, machine guns, bazookas, bulldozers and silly-looking cars that were probably pretty futuristic-looking back in '82. Dick Cheney would love this shit, although at one point they decide to remove a victim's pinky toe because the big toe would slow him down too much; there's no way Cheney would be that sporting.

A big problem with this film is that I found the villains a lot more interesting than the heroes. There isn't much character development, so all the heroes do is run for their lives while wearing identical yellow jumpsuits. The bad guys, on the other hand, have memorable personalities and unique costumes and weapons. For instance, one of the hunters is a sexy lesbian named Jennifer (Carmen Duncan), who is openly homosexual (despite it being a capital crime). Almost every line out of her mouth is some sort of double entendre about guns, she wields a crossbow with exploding bolts and enjoys hobbies such as customising rifles and assembling machine guns while blindfonded. Rich people are pretty different in the future.

One of the strangest elements of this film is that one of the hunters has a wolf man wrestler as a sidekick. They casually slip in a line that he picked him up at a carnival freakshow, but seriously I don't know what the fuck. Maybe one of the producers owned a wolf man as a child and only agreed to fund the film if they included one in the script to honour his memory. For hours and hours he'd play with Fido in the back yard, feeding him human toes and practising wrestling moves. Well he got his wish, and the wolf man even gets to snap a guy's spine over his knee. Unfortunately things go awry when the hunter tries to attack Paul with a bulldozer, accidentally pinning the wolf man to a tree and cutting his legs off, forcing the hunter to use a rocket launcher that he probably should have used in the first place.

Eventually Chris and Paul team up together, and after a fight with Ritter that ends with Chris chopping off his hands (which she apparently almost did it for real during shooting, misunderstanding Trenchard-Smith's shouts of "cut!"), they get control of a jeep with a mounted machine gun and stage an assault on the camp, busting out the prisoners and leading them in a rebellion against Thatcher. This action sequence is a lot bigger in scope than I was expecting (if a bit ridiculous; there appear to be more camp guards than prisoners) but it's lacking in stuntwork and the gunfire and explosions get slightly repetitive after a while. Thatcher ends up being blown apart by machine gun fire, an effect using an exploding dummy that was totally awesome. A definite rewinder.

According the DVD extras, the film had almost a quarter of it's $3.5 million budget cut at the last minute. Consequently the action sequences were scaled down and a big helicopter chase sequence was scrapped. They also removed some of the so-called "1984" scenes that fleshed-out the totalitarian government, so the political commentary begins and ends with the head warden being named Thatcher (although that fact probably accounted for the brisk ticket sales in the UK, which were the only thing that saved this film from being an epic bomb). Boobs are lacking, mostly confined to a single shower scene, and the movie is quite chaste around the two leading women. Hussey uses an obvious boob double during her only shower scene and they even have a sexy bathing scene where Stoner doesn't remove her jumpsuit.

I suppose I'd recommend this one, if only for the wolfman and the level of skill that Trenchard-Smith brings to the proceedings. It moves at a brisk enough pace and I can't say I was ever bored, but it definitely requires a certain tolerance for campy gore for one to derive any enjoyment out of it. I enjoyed it, but you probably won't.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Law Abiding Citizen is one of those films that uses our thirst for revenge-based entertainment against us. It sets up a Death Wish type scenario in which an everyman's family is killed, but his revenge goes well beyond what most people would consider reasonable. For instance he murders the guy who killed his family (reasonable) by subjecting him to hours of brutal torture (less reasonable) and then sends a DVD recording of it to a ten year old girl (unreasonable). He's also one of those smug, seemingly-omniscient villains who murders people according to a twisted moral philosophy using complicated death-traps, so Saw is definitely an influence, although he gets his hands dirty a lot more often than Jigsaw, the fuckin' pussy.

The movie begins with a home invasion where Clyde Shelton's (Gerard Butler) wife and daughter are killed by a couple of junkie assholes. On one hand they seem pretty organised because they are wearing plastic bags over their feet, but on the other hand one of the guys isn't too concerned about leaving a DNA deposit in his wife after he stabs her. The two men are caught and Assistant DA Nick Rice (Jaime Foxx) decides to make a deal for one to testify against the other rather than risk going to trial. One gets a death sentence, the other gets ten years for manslaughter, and the one who gets the reduced sentence is the one who did all the raping and stabbity-stab-stab. Clyde isn't happy about this, so he goes into hiding for several years and plans a complicated revenge scheme on the people he blames for the injustice.

He starts by replacing one of the three canisters of chemicals used for the killer's lethal injection, so that he suffers a more violent and painful death. Each canister injects about a liter of fluid in a few seconds, so they are luckily he didn't just straight up explode. He also kidnaps the other killer, with the help of some deadly neurotoxins and false moustaches, and subjects him to grisly torture (amputating his legs with a circular saw, cutting off his balls with a Stanley knife etc) and a slow, painful death. He also films it and sends the DVD to Foxx's ten year old daughter.

You see, Clyde doesn't just blame the murderers but the whole broken justice system, so he's got it in for all the lawyers, judges, legal assistants, guy-who-gets-the-coffee etc involved with the case. With the two killers out of the way, he puts into action his hugely elaborate scheme to bump them all off, which involves getting captured by the police so that he's got the perfect alibi. For some reason he decides to strip off so that when the SWAT guys bust in he's standing there butt-naked like a crazed serial killer. Maybe he was just trying to save them some time. No need to strip search me guys, it's all taken care of.

Once he's in jail he demands to see Foxx (their meetings take place in a cell that looks like a huge bird cage; they should have included a seed bell and a mirror to complete the illusion) and starts making crazy demands in exchange for the lives of the other people he's planning to kill. He manages to negotiate for a sweet mattress and a steak dinner. I thought he was going to use the bedsprings to pick a lock or something, but that's just a red herring. Instead he uses the t-bone from the steak to stab his cellmate to death. Should have given him a rib-eye I guess.

Meanwhile all the people involved in the case are getting murdered one by one. Foxx's former legal assistant gets blown up by a series of car-bombs (he blows up all the cars around her first, just to fuck with her I guess). Foxx's mentor gets murdered at a funeral using a bomb-disposal robot that has been ironically repurposed for bomb-deployment. My favourite was a surprise death involving a booby-trapped cell phone, which I've probably just spoiled for you, sorry. Foxx runs around trying to figure out how Clyde is killing all these people while he's sitting in solitary confinement.

There's also a part in the film where a mysterious CIA guy agent contacts them and reveals that Clyde worked for the military building deadly gadgets and planning assassination attempts. "This is a guy you don't want to fuck with" etc. I thought this was pretty amusing, because usually these kinds of films don't bother to explain why or how one guy could plan and carry out these insanely complicated schemes. Turns out it's this guy's day job. They also explain that he got super-rich from some successful patents, which is how he was able to buy up a bunch of abandoned warehouses to build all his death-traps and torture dungeons.

By law, all films involving a super-intelligent serial killer must conclude with a big twist, no matter how unbelievable or ill-concieved. Well, in this one it turns out that Clyde had dug a tunnel from one of his warehouses to his cell in solitary, which is how he was able to get around the city, so either he knew which cell he was assigned to ahead of time or he dug a shitload of tunnels. He doesn't think to include a Ferris-Bueller-style animated dummy in his cot, but luckily nobody bothers to check on him while he's dashing around the city. The grand finale of Clyde's scheme involves blowing up up the courthouse with a napalm bomb, so Foxx secretly plants in his cell so that Clyde sets it off with his mobile phone and Foxx can dramatically walk away from the explosion in slow motion (which from the looks of things demolished about half the prison).

I read some reviews that were really angry about this film, railing against Clyde's revenge scheme as if he was the hero. Maybe they were confused by the title, which I believe it is meant in an ironic fashion. Although it's pretty clear that Clyde is the villain, you definitely build up more sympathy for him than the erstwhile hero, whose upper-middle-class problems (will he or won't he attend his daughter's cello recital?!) seem pretty pathetic in comparison. Butler also seems to be having a lot more fun with his role than Foxx, whose Best Actor Oscar looks more and more like an embarrassing fluke of Halle Berry proportions.

This movie was written by Kurt Wimmer, so I presume he's been sentenced to write Saw knock-offs as punishment for Ultraviolet. I guess the justice system does work sometimes. It's directed by the anagram-loving F. Gary Gray, who did a bunch of hip-hop related stuff as well the Vin Diesel vehicle A Man Apart and the Volkswagon-relaunch vehicle The Italian Job. He does a pretty good job here, I guess. The pacing seems a bit weird and the twist is awkwardly revealed. It's dumb but it's an enjoyable kind of dumb. It's enjoyadumb.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The Children (1980)


Having a kid in a horror film is a bad sign. They are dumb and they are lousy in a fight, but you know they are going to survive because the filmmakers usually lack the balls to kill them off. Instant tension deflation. This one of the reasons I like the "killer kid" subgenre. Here kids can get shot, stabbed, beaten, you name it. All bets are off. There's also something profoundly creepy about malevolent children. It's interesting to see a film that uses our obsession with childhood innocence and "kid wisdom" (ie crippling ignorance and self absorption) against us. The Children probably isn't the best example of the genre, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

The film takes place in the small New England town of Ravensback. Thanks to two lazy technicians at the local nuclear power plant, a radioactive cloud leaks onto the local highway (no doubt inspired by the still-fresh incident at Three Mile Island), contaminating a school bus and turning the half-a-dozen children on board into mindless zombies with an unquenchable thirst... for hugs! Normally this wouldn't be too bad, but these kids also have the ability to flash-fry someone with a touch of their fingertips. You can't hug with nuclear arms. The radioactive children are easily identified by their emotionless faces, pale skin and black fingernails. Good thing the goth look hadn't taken off yet, or things could have been a lot worse.

Sherriff Billy Hart is the first to find the abandoned bus, and sets about the grim task of informing the parents. Strangely it seems all the parents in the town are liberal weirdos who don't show the slightest measure of concern about their childrens' disappearance. One boy's parents are a lesbian couple, one a catatonic painkiller addict and the other an extremely irritable woman who seems mostly annoyed by the Sherriff's news and only heads out to the abandoned bus under severe protest. Later she is burned to a crisp by her own son. The Sherriff finds another girl's mother smoking dope and lounging topless by the pool. Upon being informed of her child's disappearance she remarks to her bodybuilder husband "A kidnapping in Ravensback? Oh Jack, how exciting!" Eventually they suffer the same fate. The subtext is clear, fail to conform to small-town values and your children will burn you alive.

The only parents who show any measure of distress are the relatively sane John and Kathy Freemont, although they aren't likely to win any parents-of-the-year awards either. At one point Kathy lights up a cigarette while muttering apologies to her unborn baby. Her husband is no great shakes either. In the third act of the film, John, Kathy and the Sherriff become trapped in their house Night of the Living Dead style. Despite failing to tell Kathy anything useful about their situation, John is completely shocked when Kathy clobbers the Sherriff with a vase after seeing him gun down some approaching children. Come on John, the key to a successful marriage is communication, especially during a zombie apocalypse.

John's lack of communication also comes back to bite him when Kathy sees their daughter Jenny in the front yard and rushes out to meet her. John saves Kathy, but not before Jenny burns the shit out of his hand. Jenny may be a write-off, but luckily their son Clarkie didn't catch a dose of radiation since he was absent from school with an illness. Unfortunately Clarkie is similarly ill-informed, so he lets his zombified friend in through the window. After a short game of hide-and-seek, Clarkie gets fried. This occurs off-screen, but it still surprised me as even in a film like this the only kids to die are murderous zombies.

Before the radioactive kid can do any more damage the Sherriff recovers and, having already proven that riddling the children with bullets doesn't do anything (except make me laugh), he grabs a samurai sword off the wall (I thought that only happened in Steven Seagal films) and cuts off the boy's hands. Apparently this is the source of their power because the kid goes down with an unearthly screech and the fingernails on the severed hands turn back to normal. This is a pretty big deviation from the standard "aim for the brain", but it does provide the entertaining image of grown men hacking the limbs off children with an axe, a samurai sword etc.

After all of the children have been dealt with (Jenny suffering a particularly gruesome fate at the sharp edge of a machete), the film ends with a strange epilogue that makes me wonder if they ran out of film, time, money or all three. Kathy goes into labour and while John delivers the baby there is a montage of shots including their farmhouse, a sunrise and most amusingly, a slow pan over the dead bodies of the mutilated children. After the baby is delivered John is shocked to discover that the baby has black fingernails. Dun-dun-duuun. Eat that Shyamalan.

Obviously this film will dip under the threshold of quality for most people. The special effects mostly consist of peeling latex makeup, and when one woman is burned alive it's shown through a dissolve similar to the transformation scenes from the original The Wolf Man. There's a pretty good Harry Manfredini score, but it's almost identical to his score for Friday the 13th. Acting is terrible. Still, I can still find a lot of things to recommend about it. They don't try to do anything too fancy with the story; they keep things small and self-contained, so it mostly works. The director has a good grasp of building suspense. The smiling children, walking with hands outstretched, are genuinely creepy. Plus a kid gets a point-blank shotgun blast to the chest. Recommended.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Executioner, Part 2 (1984)

The Executioner demonstrates proper gun safety

There's an amusing part in the 1980 vigilante film The Exterminator where Christopher George flubs his line during a phone call, almost calling the titular Vietnam-vet-turned-crime-fighting-vigilante "the Executioner" before quickly correcting himself. The producers of this film must have been paying attention to that scene, because they decided to release this rip-off as The Executioner, Part 2 in the hopes of tricking people into thinking it's a sequel (don't bother looking for The Executioner, Part 1, there isn't one).

Like The Exterminator, the film begins in the middle of a Vietman flashback. Two men, Mike (Antoine John Mottet) and Roger (Christopher "Look at me, dad! I'm an actor just like you!" Mitchum) are injured by friendly fire and have to crawl through a suspiciously deciduous "jungle" to the extraction point. Due to the severely limited budget, explosion effects are achieved by firing a flamethrower at the camera from just outside of the frame. Indeed this counts as the special-effects highlight of the film, after this scene whenever they need pyrotechnics they just cut away to the same grainy stock footage of an explosion again and again. The Executioner was a pretty cheap film, but this one makes it look like Avatar.

Many years later in New York, a vigilante dubbed "The Executioner" is on the loose murdering junkies, pimps, killers etc. Consequently the crime rate is dropping, the cops are embarrassed and the public are cheering on his campaign of justice. You don't have to do too much reading-between-the-lines to pick this stuff up, since an anonymous radio announcer chimes now and again in with a quick cliff's notes of the plot and themes. Something to keep in mind if you're planning to write an essay about this film. He also lets us know that the vigilante murders his victims by slitting their throats with broken bottles or stuffing live grenades into their pants. Quite entertaining in theory, but since this film lacks the budget for both explosions and blood effects, it's not that great in practice.

Mike and Roger are still the best of friends and have found employment as a car mechanic and a police lieutenant respectively. Although the film tries to build a bit of mystery around the identity of the vigilante, it's clear that Mike is the culprit, working off his post-Vietnam mental health issues on the local hoodlums. The Exterminator may have had a few screws loose, but he has nothing on the Executioner, whose Vietnam flashbacks are scored with trippy psychadelic music and see him waving a rifle around while shouting "Charlie must die!" When he's fighting criminals he seems quite lucid though, so I guess there's something to be said for his particular brand of PTSD therapy.

The gang members that suffer the brunt of his rampage are of the typical The Warriors inspired variety; tight jeans, midriff-baring t-shirts and bandanas, bandanas, bandanas. The leader of this gang has the most questionable outfit of all, looking like a gay Han Solo with his white shirt knotted at the waist, dark vest and red scarf. The same half-a-dozen scumbags appear again and again, whether it's raping a woman on a rooftop, stripping down cars or pouring dairy products over helpless convenience store clerks. Surprisingly they don't ever break out into spontaneous rap-dancin' (this ain't a Golan-Globus joint) and instead their scenes are always scored with cheesy disco music.

Meanwhile, the crooked police commissioner (played by Aldo Ray, who obviously didn't stick around on set long as he he's only in a couple of scenes and is never shown in the same shot as anybody else) has ordered Roger track down the Executioner, dead or alive. In a bid to find out more information he teams up with thickly-accented German-American TV reporter Celia Amhearst (Renee Harmon), a woman whose frequent on-air endorsements of the Executioner quickly attract the ire of a local crime boss known as the Tattoo Man.

Unbeknownst to Roger, his daughter Laura is hooked on drugs and being pressured into prostitution. Her best friend Kitty, a giggly blonde with an extremely annoying laugh, extolls the virtues of the sex trade while the two of them are high on weed. Cocaine is Kitty's drug of choice, though; "Oh how I wish this were coke!" she explains as she puffs on a joint, adding "Oh, heavenly coke!" Naturally Laura refuses to go on the game at first, only acquiescing after Kitty wears her down with her nihilistic views on drug addiction. "Once you're on drugs that's all there is and screw everything else." Yeah, she's probably the worst friend ever.

She convinces him to visit Pete "the Pusherman" Vance, a slimy associate of the Tattoo Man, whose taste in music, fashion and decor are so odd (even for a pimp) that I'm convinced it was some sort of inside joke. Intending to soften her up for the Tattoo Man, he dopes Laura up and turns her over to his two favourite hoes, but they turn on him when they decide that she's too young and pin him down so Laura can escape. The hookers call Pete a jerk as he shouts "You're letting my virgin get away!" I mean, that's not something you see in your everyday vigilante movie. Despite her somewhat ordinary looks the Tattoo Man is determined to have her, sending out his goons to kidnap her and Celia.

Roger does a little forensic detective work and proves the should-have-been-obvious fact that Mike is The Executioner, which is confirmed when Mike gives him a crazy, Rambo-esque speech about "crime running the streets" and sticks a gun in his mouth. He talks Mike back from the brink of suicide and tells him "You've got three hours", convinced that his suicidal mental breakdown and severe case of the Vietnam crazies will give the edge he needs to rescue Celia and his daughter. The final battle is pretty ordinary (culminating in yet another stock footage explosion), but there is an amusing scene where Celia pins a goon to a couch by impaling him with a samurai sword, only to have him crawl to his feet and walk towards her with the couch still stuck to his back!

The Exterminator was blessed with a genuine sequel the same year, which is pretty big step down from the first but still better than this lazy rehash. This one would be on par with an Exterminator 7 or so. The Exterminator was that magical combination of cheap and sleazy that makes for high entertainment, like your mother. This one doesn't get the balance right: too much cheap, not enough sleaze.