Poltergeist (2015)

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It really seems like Hollywood has run out of ideas and has turned to mining the back catalogue of old movies and remaking them. But the truth is Hollywood has been doing it for years, only these days people are much more aware of it.

And remakes are a funny thing: there is no guarantee that new version is going to be any better or, in fact, any worse than the original. For example, The Thing is a fantastic remake of a 1950s science fiction B movie, Thing From Another World. And the 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is suitably terrifying.

But for every time that the remake is better, there are just as many, if not more, examples where the result is worse, e.g. The Italian Job, Total Recall and The Day The Earth Stood Still.

I’m not sure that the horror genre has any more remakes than any other genre but it certainly seems that way to me. Carrie, Children of the Corn, Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Fright Night, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for example.

Worse, I am not a fan of the horror genre but there are a few horror movies dear to me: the aforementioned The Thing, An American Werewolf In London, The Descent, Paranormal Activity and, my absolute favourite, Poltergeist.

Poltergeist just received the remake treatment this year, 33 years after the original was released. The world has changed a lot since the first version was made and consequently, I can see there is scope to make a new, more relevant version of a classic suburban horror story.

So yes, curiosity got the better of me and I watched the new version. And then the original, immediately after, as I wanted to review the new version in context of the old (but mostly because it is awesome).

Inevitably, this is going to be more of a “compare and contrast essay” than a review, so rather than bore the people who just want to know whether the remake is worth watching, let me lay that spirit to rest: the original is better, in spite of its age. The remake isn’t a bad film per se, it just doesn’t improve on anything and actually does a lot of things worse.

Right, that’s the verdict, let me go into a bit more detail about why…

Warning: there are spoilers below!

Both films follow the exploits of a nuclear family moving into a new home in the suburbs. There is a father, a mother, an older daughter, a boy in the middle and a young girl.

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In the original, the father is a successful estate agent who works for a development company selling the homes in the suburban estate his family have just moved to. In the remake, the father is out of work and the family have moved into cheap housing out in the sticks.

The key differences here are that the original family are an ordinary, fairly happy family: the kids are typical kids who play and fight. The parents are ordinary parents, Dad watches football with his mates, has problems with the next door neighbour, Mom smokes weed in the bedroom once the kids are in bed and big sister is secretly on the phone to a friend.

Whereas the remake family are struggling with financial worries, mother is a writer (who doesn’t write and considers herself a crap mother), the eldest daughter is (stereotypically) horrid to her family for forcing her to move and the boy is somewhat neurotic, after a traumatic experience being lost in the mall by his mother for a couple of hours.

I don’t think modern families are suffering any more than they were 30 years ago. Has society changed so much that we don’t want to see happy families anymore? Do we only empathise with down on their luck Joes or families that worry about sending their children to psychiatrists?

Here, the original does a much better job of simply making the family look like a family. The phrase “show not tell” comes to mind as they let the family just get on with being a family. In the remake, the characterisation is so bland you can easily imagine the two sentence paragraphs that were written to describe the characters of the remake family.

Worse, there is real chemistry between the original cast members and a real sense of them living in a suburban community (but then I suppose that is Steven Spielberg’s influence there). Conversely, there’s little chemistry between the cast members of the remake, especially between Sam Rockwell (Remake Dad) and Rosemary DeWitt (Remake Mom). I guess Rockwell can only play off-beat characters with any conviction?

There are further, more subtle but quite important differences between the two films. To start with, 1982 Poltergeist has the family already living in their home where as 2015 Poltergeist has the family viewing the house and then moving in. The original has a lot of humour in the first act, which goes a long way to disarming the audience.

This to me changes the subtext of the film from an ordinary suburban family being terrorised by ghosts to a troubled family moving into a haunted house. Subtle but important.

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Then the spooky things start happening. Carol Anne (youngest daughter in the original) starts talking to people in the TV, then the ghosts fly out of the goggle box and into the walls of the house, Carol Anne giving the viewers the creepy line, “They’re here!” It is all very downplayed at the beginning, again, lulling you into a false sense of security.

Maddy (youngest daughter in the remake) starts talking to people in the TV, a nice modern LCD TV, then there is a closet they cannot open in her room (but touching the handle makes the kids hair stand on end), there is a collection of creepy clown toys in the attic… there are a lot more jump scares and attempts to ramp up the tension. Completely opposite to the original. Even to the classic “They’re here!”… Maddy announces “They’re coming…” and then “They’re here!”

Everything is more contrived to scare you in the 2015 version. The original wanted you to feel like you were watching a family movie, when ghosts turn up, the horror being that this could happen to your family… The remake, realising the audience expects certain horror tropes, just plays it as a straight horror film.

Once the ghosts arrive, there are major differences between the original and the remake. The latter is more about Griffin, the son, exploring the house and catching Maddy talking to nothing. The former is more about the mother experiencing really strange occurrences, like the chairs rearranging themselves and objects sliding across the floor, as if moved by an unseen hand.

I really feel like the remake missed a trick here. They talk about the son needing therapy and if they had given him medication, they could have played up the family not believing him and really done something interesting.

In fact, the film does focus on the son a lot more whereas the original was more about the mother in general but we will get to that later.

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The mother experiences lots of supernatural occurrences which they simply cannot explain. The father is suitably disturbed by it and seeks to come up with a solution. In the remake, all the supernatural weirdness happens to the son and Maddy.

Just a quick ‘sidebar’, in the original, when the mother shows the father the supernatural happenings in the kitchen, she gets excited, doing a star jump and a high kick, clearly indicating that she was probably a former cheerleader. It’s the little “show, not tell” details of the first film which demonstrate just how much better made it is.

Anyway, so when Carol-Ann and Maddy both get ghost-napped, it makes sense that the 1982 family go straight to parapsychologists whereas in the 2015, it is a bit of leap of logic when the family ignore the Police or any other explanation for the disappearance of their daughter and go straight to parapsychologists…

The ghost-nappings themselves are similar. Unsurprisingly, the original uses a lot of practical effects (some more ropey than others) while the remake uses more digital effects. Both feature a tree coming to life and trying to eat the son. I can’t objectively judge which version did it better because the original has terrorised me for 33 years… though looking at it now, the original is an impressive feat of practical effects that, while looking fairly good despite the age, you can see how it was done. The new version looks great but doesn’t impress me, given how much easier it is to do SFX these days.

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Then there is the youngest daughter actually being kidnapped. In the earlier version, the closet sucks her into a ghostly purgatory. This clearly involves a mocked up bedroom on a rotating spindle, to give the effect of the furniture being drawn in. That’s a big practical effect and looks really good (though I had to smile when it became clearly obvious that the “Carol-Ann” in this scene is a doll). In the modern version, the ghosts just kind of trick her into walking into the portal. It’s a stylistic choice I guess. I really liked the original though, so the new version just seems a bit underwhelming.

The next act plays out pretty similarly between the two films: a team of parapsychologists arrive at the house to investigate the supernatural activity. Both a led by a strong woman, have a cynical white guy thinking the family are trying to fool them (though interestingly, in the new version, he thinks it is to get their own reality show) and an African American (which is pretty important for 1980s film but a bit sad that there is only one person of colour in a 2015 film).

In the original, it feels like the family have been living under the threat of supernatural craziness for a while before the parapsychologists arrive. In the remake, the parapsychologists are right there when everything happens, so the family feels less important to the narrative.

For example, the mother has clearly been experimenting and tells the parapsychologists about the best way to contact Carol-Ann. In the remake, it is the parapsychologists that tell them to call out Maddy’s name and so on. Again, subtle but important differences.

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This act of the film is mostly the family and the parapsychologists investigating the supernatural occurrences. Both result in failure, resulting in a specialist being called in. In the original, it is “Tangina” (Zelda Rubinstein), a very unusual individual who you could imagine as a psychic, and in the remake, it is “Carrigan Burke” (Jared Harris of Fringe and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), a TV psychic, complete with famous catchphrase “This house is clean!” (which is also a call back to the last line uttered by Tangina in the original).

With the focus on the parapsychology team in the remake and Carrigan Burke being a TV supernatural investigator, it becomes clear that someone was thinking about potential sequels, which is why I think they changed the emphasis of the narrative: I can really see a series of films following the exploits of Carrigan Burke investigating various supernatural haunting and that being quite good! Maybe I am just being cynical but the changes seem deliberate and I think they weaken the remake.

Indeed, the original has powerful performances from the various cast members, from the sense of wonder, joy and the pain and sorrow (there is one bit where the mother clearly distrusts Tangina’s instructions but reluctantly obeys, hissing “I will hate you for this”), it just makes for a believable experience, whereas the only the character of interest is Carrigan Burke in the remake. The most cynical part of that being when the 2015 father has a moment to witness Carrigan Burke seemingly-sacrifice himself to lead the ghosts out of purgatory.

A large part of the new film is about the son’s guilt at leaving Maddy alone. As stated earlier, the ghosts seem to torment him and no one believes him. I think the film does focus on him more as a character, less on the family and has the parapsychologists calling all the shots, rather than investigating something the family has had to suffer through.

It makes for a different movie but I prefer the mother-daughter relationship of the earlier one (largely because JoBeth Williams who plays the mother is a really good actress).

The remake then seems to focus a lot more on the supernatural plane of existence, from sending an aerial drone through the gate (which for some reason can transmit camera footage through to our reality) and an extended sequence as the son goes into purgatory to rescue his sister. I mean, it looks good, particularly all the lost souls tied to the house reaching toward the light, but they forgot the other maxim of “less is more”.

Once they get the youngest daughter back, there is a final act where the restless dead make one last attempt to get her back.

In the original, the father has to take care of something but insists that they will leave the house forever when he gets home. The mother is assaulted by the ghosts, in another practical effect where she is dragged up the wall of her bedroom and across the ceiling. Then she attempts to get into the children’s bedroom but is barred by a weird ghost creature (which I think looks pretty good, given it is 30 years old!).

One of the best bits is when the father returns home, caskets bursting out of the ground, and he screams in his former boss’ face, “You moved the headstones but you left the bodies!” (sidebar: in the remake, Carrigan Burke arrives and just tells them that he thinks they just told people they moved the bodies… against, placing the emphasis on Carrigan and the parapsychologists).

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In the remake, the family fully get into a car and are about to drive away when the oldest daughter gets Carrigan Burke to say his catchphrase, “The house is clean”. And then Maddy goes “It isn’t though”. I liked that, it was quite chilling… then ghosts grab the car and flip it.  They are dragged into the house and have to effect an escape as it starts to collapse, complete with Carrigan Burke going in after them.

The original finale deliberately lulls you into a false sense of security once more with the mother taking a relaxing bath, the kids are in bed (and the daughter lies there with her brother’s Luke Skywalker action figure in her mouth) and then all hell breaks loose again.

The remake literally has them leaving the house and then all hell breaks loose again (and I still have no idea where the pristine Mini Cooper they escape in comes from, despite watching the end sequence twice… the power of product placement compels you!).

I think the stylistic choice of the remake is just an example of the differences between what modern cinemagoers expect (or what Hollywood thinks we expect) and what the 1982 filmmakers decided on.

The original isn’t slow paced but just more deliberate. The remake is pretty much breakneck speed by comparison however, assuming that the modern audience needs constant stimulation to hold its interest. In fact, the only time there is a break in the action is when they are building up for a jump scare, a technique now so common in horror that it only serves to telegraph the scare.

Where I think the original wins hands down is the destruction of the house. The original has the house collapse in on itself as it is sucked into the gate in a really cool effect. The remake has the house explode in a beam of light as the ghosts are led toward final release.

Both films end on a similar joke. The original has the family in a hotel room whereupon they put the TV outside. The remake has the family viewing a new property and the estate agent talks a lot about closet space and the age of the house, whereupon the family just leaves.

So there you have it. A fairly faithful, fairly decent remake of a classic horror movie for a modern audience. Mostly the changes are stylistic alterations (though I did raise an eyebrow at the GPS and aerial drone working through a portal to purgatory and why they had an aerial drone in the first place), complete with very pretty special effects.

I don’t think the remake really adds anything, to be completely frank. The original is just better paced, better made and has a stronger theme of normal folks brushing shoulders with the supernatural. And that is where the horror comes from. The remake seems to have missed that and focused on SFX set pieces and jump scares.

I think it also highlights the difference between modern computer generated SFX and the practical SFX. When creating special effects, they didn’t have computers and so they either hand animated it or used real effects to do things. And good practical effects will always trump CG effects.

I mean, compare the gate between worlds in the closet in both films. In the original, they used lighting and fans to create the effects and although it seems obvious to us modern viewers how they did it, it still feels more ‘real’. The remake is all CG, all the time. And while it looks better, it doesn’t feel as solid. I really want Holllywood to understand that practical effects touched up with CG would yield far more impressive effects.

This is why films like Alien, the original Poltergeist, Close Encounters of the Third Kind etc still look damn good, despite 30 years having elapsed.

TL:DR; “While I can’t say it was an unnecessary remake, I can say that it fails to really trump the original. Worth a watch, if only to satisfy curiosity.

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April Fool’s Day (1986)

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I’m not the world’s greatest movie reviewer. “What?” I hear you cry. “That time you mumbled on about Halloween Resurrection for nearly 2000 words was great though!” That’s very kind of you, dear reader, but I’m not; and I’m certainly not good enough to write about “April Fool’s Day” without spoiling something important. So here’s the deal – it’s a great movie, go and watch it. Seriously, you won’t be disappointed, with a few very limited exceptions it’s perhaps the best movie to have ever been lumped in with the slasher genre. Then come back here after you’ve done it and we can have a nice chat – of course, if you’ve already seen it, read on.

 

So, did you figure it out? The first time I watched it as a teenager, I was completely fooled right up to the reveal, but when you watch it for a second time they give you an absolute ton of clues that are just cleverly disguised as exposition. If you’ve been a very bad person and continued reading past this point, or don’t remember the details, the basic gist of things is Muffy St John (Deborah Foreman, who by rights should have had a fantastic career but stopped acting on screen in the mid 90s) has invited eight of her friends to spend spring break at her family’s huge mansion on an island somewhere near Martha’s Vineyard (“on a clear day, you can see the Kennedys”). Crucially, the eight don’t all know each other, and are from different parts of Muffy’s college life – study partners, drama club friends, ex-boyfriends – and the early part of the movie gets us to know these characters, while at the same time telling us everything we need to know about this magnificent movie.

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Anyway, the college kids play pranks on each other – fake knives, blood squibs, and all that – so you’re sure that the killer, when they’re revealed, will be deadly serious. It’s not like “My Bloody Valentine” is actually a romance film about faking a bunch of murders to get a date, right? (Although seriously, that would be an amazing idea for a movie – and if you want to see “trick the audience” done in the wrongest way possible, check out the 2009 “My Bloody Valentine” remake).

 

The weekend starts with an accident, so there are no boats on the island…then the pranks continue, but become less funny when people start disappearing. Who’s behind it all? Why has Muffy suddenly changed her clothing, hairstyle and personality? Will the Sheriff ever make it over to them? It’s the way it looks so much like it’s going to be your typical 80s slasher movie that makes it so rewarding, I think.

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Firstly, a note about the actors. It’s a rarity for an 80s horror movie to not have you grimacing about at least a few of the main characters, so it’s a real treat to have a small cast, all made up of people who nail their parts exactly. Most famous to us is Thomas F Wilson as Arch (you’ll recognise him from the “Back To The Future” movies); but there’s Amy Steel from “Friday the 13th Part 2”, and plenty of people who’ve had long careers in film and TV; even if a similar amount gave up on acting in the early 90s. Perhaps we ought to give credit to director Fred Walton (“When A Stranger Calls”) and writer Danilo Bach (the first “Beverly Hills Cop”) for the skilful mix of horror, suspense and comedy, and the cast of believable types.

 

Another thing, while I’m gushing with praise, is the way the movie looks. Slasher movies, and by extension 80s horror, barely ever bother with any of the art of cinema – they’ll just go “what’s the cheapest and easiest way we can get from murder A to murder B?” April Fool’s Day, on the other hand, features tons of little moments that make you realise someone was really making every effort on this – a character walks through a small pool of light on his way across a pitch-black deck, looking out over the lake, something as simple as a shot of a corridor…it’s perhaps easiest to say you only notice the “craft” of cinema by its absence, but after watching months of terrible slasher movies and summer raunch, you can really tell when someone knows what they’re doing. It appears cinematographer Charles Minsky used this as a calling card and went on to a long career (including filming “Pretty Woman”, among many others).

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Because nothing’s perfect, if you really think about it, and watch it a few times, there’s the odd problem that brings you slightly out of the movie. For instance, the Sheriff is called when the phone briefly works, and he’s at the hospital with the deckhand who was injured at the beginning of the movie. Except why would he be? And why would he look so serious? It’s there to trick us, obviously, but it probably ought to have been replaced with the fuzzy sound of him on the phone. And the post-movie coda doesn’t make a lick of sense. Anyway, small potatoes.

 

“April Fool’s Day” is mentioned briefly in the 2006 documentary “Going To Pieces: The Rise And Fall Of The Slasher Movie”, and divides opinion. One former exec says he loved it, but others are less friendly, saying marketing what is effectively one long joke as a horror movie was a bad idea. What was a bad idea was making tons of terrible horror sequels and garbage slasher movies, but whatever. Good films, to movie execs = films that made money, nothing else.

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While the DVD is pretty bare-bones, it’s also $0.01 on Amazon (packaged with the original, half decent “My Bloody Valentine”) so it’s absolutely worth checking out. A classic of 80s horror, every bit as much fun the second time of watching as it is the first.

 

Rating: thumbs up

Turkey Shoot (2014)

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Fans of Ozploitation will know about the original “Turkey Shoot”, a tight and fun little thriller about “deviants” held in a re-education centre getting hunted and killed – also known as “Blood Camp Thatcher”, a title which held more significance in the early 1980s. Well, any good idea is worth plundering, and that’s why we’re here.

 

I’m sorry, readers, but the trailer fooled me. It looked like a futuristic camp bit of fun, with a stoic Dominic Purcell offing a weird and colourful selection of characters; but what we get is some sort of mix of “The Running Man” and all those “The Most Dangerous Game” ripoffs, with barely any of the original movie. Purcell is Rick Tyler, an army assassin who kills the Libyan dictator in some attempt to stop “World War Africa”, with a mighty impressive bullet which makes his head explode; but the next thing we see is “three years later”, with Purcell in the Neo-Alcatraz prison.

 

These flavours of some sort of dystopian future are dotted throughout (Tripoli is seen as some CGI mega-metropolis, oddly), but really add nothing to the movie and aren’t used in a particularly interesting way. Purcell fights off a murder attempt while inside prison, and then for some reason is picked to be the next contestant on “Turkey Shoot”, the world’s most popular TV show. Round 1 – runner against four trained, armed killers; the runner has 90 minutes to get to a large glowing box and open it with his thumbprint. Round 2 – eight trained killers; and no-one’s ever made it to round 3, where the prize is freedom.

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I suppose we ought to talk about how this movie really doesn’t make a lick of sense, and this is as good a time as any. The show has been going for at least three years, and no-one has ever made it to round 3? Imagine “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” where no-one ever got past £32,000, and how boring that would be. The most famous of the killers is the sniper, “Ramrod”, who just waits for the runner to get near the box and then kills them. Does that sound like a lot of fun to anyone? “Oh great, the massively outmatched guy got shot by the hidden sniper. Let’s be sure to tune in next week!” The rest of the hunters are a colourful, multi-ethnic group of slightly pudgy, unthreatening-looking killers.

 

Oh, and Ramrod used to be in the army with Rick, which makes no sense either – and the General who sent Rick to kill the Libyan leader didn’t really want him to succeed, but then has a crisis of conscience about starting another world war so sends one of his soldiers, Jill (Viva Bianca), to rescue him from Turkey Shoot. Plus there’s the TV network representative who seems to have a finger in every pie…

 

I feel analysis of this movie continuing to slip away. It’s all to do with the assassination, and the way that he ended up in prison because the murders of a bunch of women and children was pinned on him – all of which is crucial to the war, for some reason. So, they really want to kill Rick, but the only way they could think of to do this was have other inmates try and shiv him. Why not have a guard shoot him and blame it on an escape? Why not poison his food? Anything other than “put him on a reality TV show where one of his old army buddies is the chief hunter”, really.

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Let’s talk about the TV show aspect of it for a moment. A nice idea, if a little old hat, but they largely ignore this conceit except for the introduction of each round. When Purcell kills one of the hunters, they should be cutting back to the studio, showing the crowd cheering or booing, having interviews with retired hunters, anything other than the nothing they actually do.

 

The entire thing feels like it was written in the 90s and left largely unchanged. Thinking about the evolution of TV, and how it might be in the future, it hasn’t really got more dangerous or more violent (in the most part). If anything, it’s become much more corporate, with adverts being more fully integrated with shows and whole channels devoted to the minutiae of rich peoples’ lives. That idea that TV will evolve to the stage where murders will be shown live just doesn’t seem like a sensible extrapolation any more.

 

But let’s take it at face value. In round 1, he’s parachuted, mostly unconscious, into a forest. Now, if he’d not woken up before he hit the ground, or had taken a nasty knock on a branch, that would have been show over, immediately. Seems pretty stupid, right? And for round 2, he’s left (again unconscious) in the middle of a dock’s storage area, and as he wakes up he sees a woman riding a bike at his head. If he’d been a little slower to wake up, or she’d been a little faster, his head would have been blown up and the show would have ended in seconds. Again, seems pretty stupid, right? Oh, and without spoiling too much, round 3 is just set on the streets of a major city…and they’ve mentioned throughout how popular Rick is with the public. Do any of them help him? Or, despite the lack of any cash prize, do they just attack him constantly, wherever he goes? I’ll leave that non-question for you to figure out, dear reader.

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I’m sure the filmmakers would defend this film with “it’s deliberately camp, OTT on purpose” but it just isn’t. Some of it is obviously played for laughs, but none of the actual hunt is, and when you get stuff like the President filmed in front of a plain white wall, or an Australian minister filmed in what looks like a filthy back alley, arguing “it’s camp” is just an excuse for not bothering to put any effort into your movie.

 

Purcell’s fine, although he could stand to express a few emotions other than stone-faced stoicism, and everyone else is as good as a bunch of Australians putting on American accents could be. It just looks cheap, though, as if they started making a bit of effort but then the money ran out so they just did stuff in plain rooms and back streets and with security cameras.

 

It’s not the worst movie ever, but it definitely needed someone who was prepared to commit to the concept, or someone who could see the huge flaws in the script (both direction and script are from Jon Hewitt). I can forgive cheapness – it’s an indie movie made in Australia – but I can’t forgive laziness. Stick to the original, or just put a pin in a list of movies which rip off “The Most Dangerous Game”, and you should be able to do better than this.

 

Rating: thumbs down

 

Balls Out (2015)

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This poster doesn’t reflect the movie at all 😦

Sport comedies are a tricky proposition, and there’s a couple of reasons there aren’t a ton of good ones around. They either stick too closely to the beats of the traditional sport epics, rendering them kind of redundant (that last second play, the outsider coming good in the end, etc, not doing anything with the cliches); or they’re made by people who don’t understand why people enjoy watching or taking part in sport themselves. There’s probably a ton more reasons too  – like all modern comedies having a low hit-rate, no matter the subject – but we need to get on with this review and can’t just keep listing reasons!

I was attracted to “Balls Out” by the trailer, featuring a number of current “Saturday Night Live” stars – Beck Bennett, Kate McKinnon and Jay Pharaoh (oddly, none of their characters really interact with each other at any point). The sport in question in this movie is intramural flag football. Colleges are super-curious places to a British outsider – as well as the sports which are on national TV and make millions for their colleges and organising body NCAA (although the actual players, the people who generate all this money, get nothing but an “education”, of course); there’s intramural sport, which seems to be more to do with the spirit of college. They’ll be more casual, more fun but will still have that team-building, healthy aspect to them – and one of them is “flag football”. It’s like American football, but instead of tackling , to end the play you need to grab a “flag” tied to a player’s waist.

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In their junior year, the Panthers, a team of oddballs led by Casey (Jake Lacy), beats the Titans, the sort of fascist sport-jocks you get in movies like this, with the last play of the game – a play that leaves star receiver Grant paralysed from “the cock down” by Titans captain Dick (Bennett). The guys drift apart after this, and we see them again as fifth-year seniors (presumably, I suppose, for people who are studying super-complicated things?) Casey is getting ready for an entrance exam for Harvard Law School, and is in a relationship with Vicky (McKinnon), who seems entirely unsuited for him, or indeed any other reasonable human being – crazy eyes, worship of reality TV, complete ignorance of her boyfriend’s interests or ideas. So, to cut a long story short (plenty of meaty backstory packed into a short amount of time here, well done movie) he feels unsatisfied with his life and his now-impending marriage to Vicky, and decides to get the gang back together, along with his insane housemate Hank (Nick Rutherford).

All this is just an excuse for a comedy movie which is wildly over-the-top about something which has basically no consequence – an amateur bit of fun at college. The almost empty bleachers have a couple of commentators who are commentating to no-one – no recording equipment, and it’s not like anyone would listen anyway. It’s just a thing you have in sports movies, so those guys are there, and they’re great. The Titans treat every game as if it’s the last few minutes of the Superbowl, and our heroes on the Panthers (opera-singing farmhand, nerd, street magician, and ultra-slob) realise, with their various dull lives, how much they enjoy doing this too.

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Every sports cliché is trotted out, handily spelled out by Grant – laid on perhaps too heavily, if we’re being honest – who becomes the crusty wheelchair-bound coach to the team, even though he’s the same age as them all. We get the training montage, the interpersonal conflict that turns into friendship, the gradual improvement, all of it. Casey then meets Meredith (Nikki Reed), a beautiful, friendly woman at a game who could not be any more different than Vicky – she likes cool movies and keeps up with him, joke for joke. She’s the villain’s sister too! And…here’s where the movie hits its first roadblock, I think.

McKinnon, an amazing comic actress, plays a monster who (hopefully) couldn’t exist in real life. I’d have no problem with her, if the “other woman” was OTT in a different way; but, the relationship that grows between Casey and Meredith is the same one we’ve seen in non-comedy movies (while still pretty unbelievable in its “could these guys be any more perfect for each other?”-ness, I suppose), and Casey’s awful behaviour (cheating on his fiancée) is rewarded while Vicky’s, well, isn’t. She’s treated too badly by the movie, and doesn’t fit with everything else, tonally. Thinking about it, she doesn’t really need to be in the movie at all (you could replace her with “the big job interview” or some other roadblock), and it’s a shame she didn’t get a meatier role.

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The sad thing is, “Balls Out” absolutely nails every single other thing! The pacing is perfect, the jokes come thick and fast, the characters are hilarious (Rutherford especially is a complete revelation, and Bennett is as perfect a comedy villain as I’ve seen in a long time) and every bit part is filled with someone from a US comedy troupe – as well as the SNL people, we get BriTANick, Derrick Comedy and Good Neighbor – all competing to do the funniest turn. Some of the ideas, like Dick going absolutely nuclear in destroying Casey’s life, and the game against the all-female team, are just brilliantly done; but some of them just don’t feel like the filmmakers got the tone quite right.

Perhaps the best example (and one that won’t spoil the movie) is the “where are they now?” stuff that plays along with the end credits. They, really cleverly, don’t bother telling us if Casey and Meredith are still together, and Dick’s segment is perfect…but then they do lame old stuff like “this guy became President” and showing Vicky crying over being left for about ten seconds before just latching on to the nearest available guy.

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There’s about two-thirds of a genuinely fantastic comedy movie here, one that shows an extraordinary amount of skill from second-time director Andrew Disney (great IMDB pic, by the way) and writer Bradley Jackson, who’d only done short films before this. Hell, two thirds of a fantastic movie is a great deal better than most comedies manage these days. And they were really, really close to going over the top to being full-blown classic, which is the only reason to be even slightly upset.

I feel like I’ve missed loads of what made “Balls Out” great, but that just gives you stuff to discover yourself. This movie is available on all the main streaming services, so get on it, and you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: thumbs up

Endless Bummer: Fraternity Vacation (1985)

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For some odd reason, our “Endless Bummer” series has featured a heck of a lot of future superstars, either in their first starring roles, or in tiny uncredited ones. “Fraternity Vacation” is no different, with future Oscar winner Tim Robbins right at the beginning of his movie career. By the way, someone who really hates Robbins wrote his IMDB trivia, as it’s full of mocking references to his political activism – way to be passive aggressive, IMDB person!

 

Iowa is so snowy and miserable in the spring that it’s in black-and-white, and out of that hellscape and into the airport come three likely lads from Iowa State University- “Mother” Tucker (Robbins), Joe (Cameron Dye, who was so generic I had to look up his name again between starting this sentence and typing it out), and Wendell Tvedt (Stephen Geoffreys, who’s probably called “Evil Ed” by his own family these days). Wendell is an “awkward” sort, the most uncoordinated nerd of all time, but he’s pledging to a fraternity anyway, and thanks to his rich Dad owning a condo in Palm Springs, he’s got the two coolest guys in the frat to come along with him. The Dad is a super-nice guy and asked Mother and Joe to look after him and perhaps help him out with the ladies, and off they all go.

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As an outsider to all these US youth rituals, I tend to look a lot of things up if movies feel less than authentic. Right at the beginning, they’re cruising down the street with hundreds of other cars filled with hotties, and super-annoying DJ Madman Mac (Charles Rocket, former SNL cast member) talks about how it’s raining in Fort Lauderdale at the moment, so the only party is happening in Palm Springs. So, dear reader, I apologise for wandering off on a “there’s no way!” tangent.

 

The words “spring break” are never mentioned, at least partly because Palm Springs was never a spring break destination, being the home of the rich and famous and not wanting a bunch of drunk college scum raiding it. There’s lots of hotties of both genders around, though…but during several outside scenes in the evening, you can hear crickets. Where are all the partiers? Madman Mac makes reference to some end-of-season blowout party…what season? And hell, where’s the party? It happens entirely off-screen. And, going a little further down the rabbit hole, they’re in Wendell’s parents’ place, which is right next to a large pool, full (occasionally) of partying, horseplay and other shenanigans. Why would a middle-aged couple spend so much to live in such a place?

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It’s a frustrating movie, feeling like it was slapped together out of bits and pieces. Our three heroes meet two guys who go to a different fraternity at Iowa State, who have two women with them. Now…because of frat wars or whatever, they decide to play a prank on Mother and Joe, which involves sending the women to seduce them, get the guys naked together in the same bed, strip off for them, go into the bathroom and then loudly talk about having herpes before coming out, ready for sex. Mother and Joe freak out and leave the room, to find their laughing nemeses waiting for them in the lounge…let’s say the bathroom door had been thicker, or the guys had decided to put on a condom and risk it, or whatever. This is a terrible plan! Also, what relationship do these women have with the frat guys? Because I’m pretty sure no girlfriend I’ve ever had would agree to do this for me, if I wanted to play a prank on someone.

 

If you’ve wondered why I’m not getting on with the plot, it’s because there’s really not much of one. After seeing Sheree J Wilson in a neighbouring condo, looking beautiful but sad, Joe and Bad Frat Guy #2 have a $1,000 bet to have sex with her, and the way that plays out is as pathetic and creepy as all these bets in all these movies have ever been, with exactly the same result (she finds out and hates them both). Wendell meets Nicole (Amanda Bearse, future sitcom second-banana par excellence) at a bar and it turns out she just wants a pathetic loser to make her Dad angry – oh, and her Dad is the Chief of Police, so when Wendell gets accidentally arrested for attempted rape, then the next day is invited to meet Nicole for lunch…hijinks!!

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SIDEBAR: This lunch-date, and the subsequent disappearance of Wendell, happens a very short time before another “important” scene, at a party the Police Chief is holding at his home, because Nicole calls Mother and Joe in tears that he’s disappeared. Would you go for lunch to a restaurant an hour before hosting a large party? I feel like maybe the restaurant paid to be in this, and that’s the only way they could crowbar them in.

 

Anyway…we’ve got douchebags converting to the side of light, an unexpected visit from Wendell’s parents, Wendell finding love eventually, and all being well with the world. Plus, perhaps the worst soundtrack ever – as well as a bunch of songs which I hope were written specifically for this movie, there is a lot of Bananarama. Wow, Bananarama were terrible singers! As great a song as “Cruel Summer” is, if they’d done that on any talent TV show, the hosts would have been all “nice tune, terrible delivery, I’ll pass” (or whatever it is they say on those shows).

 

As I hope I’ve gotten across to you, this is a curious movie. When they arrive at the condo, the living room is completely unfurnished (yet the fridge is stocked with beer)…best guess, the production people found an apartment to film in but couldn’t get hold of any furniture? That sums up the entire movie, to me – it’s people wanting to make a movie to cash in on the trend of summer raunch, but not really having any other reason to. So much of it doesn’t make a bit of sense if you think about it for more than a few seconds, and for a raunch film, it’s surprisingly un-raunchy (lots of bare behinds of both genders, though, if that’s your cup of tea).

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It’s safe to say that Tim Robbins doesn’t give much indication of the Oscar winner he would eventually become. The rest of the cast range from excellent (John Vernon as the Police Chief and Max Wright as Wendell’s dad are both old comedy hands), to okay (the women are all picked for acting ability, not nudity, which is a nice change) to awful (third billed Cameron Dye, as Joe; and Matt McCoy as Bad Frat Guy #1, both painfully generic). Oh, and Britt Ekland pops up for what I can only assume was “I’m in town and have half an hour to spare” circumstances.

 

There’s a funny bit here and there, and when Wendell calms down a bit and his performance is a bit less…annoying?…the film warms up. But it feels like half a film – not enough people, not enough furniture, not enough comedy, not enough anything.

 

Rating: thumbs down

Endless Bummer: Private Resort (1985)

I think a few filmmakers in the 1980s realised that, as long as they had some nudity every ten minutes or so, they could do whatever the hell they liked, and this has led to some interesting movies as part of our “Endless Bummer” feature. I don’t want to say “good”, because that could be seen as praising the rampant sexism, homophobia, racism and just plain sociopathy on display, but a few of these movies have been almost a pleasant surprise.

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Such is the case with “Private Resort”, on the surface a boob-and-bad-joke delivery system, but really structured like a classic English farce, with all the hijinks that entails. And it’s pretty relentless, too – some of the setpieces go on for ages, where someone will enter a room, then our heroes try to sneak his drunk girlfriend out the other door, then he comes back out of the room so they have to drop her behind a sofa, pretend to hiccup when she does, then avoid the psychotic hotel security manager…it can leave you feeling pretty breathless at times.

 

Of course, this film is much better remembered (when it’s remembered at all) for its star Johnny Depp (and to a lesser extent, the top-billed Rob Morrow). Depp had made his debut in “A Nightmare On Elm Street” the year before, and this wouldn’t have clued anyone in to the A-lister he was to become, springboarding from 1987’s “21 Jump Street”. Before then, he bummed around in short films, TV movies and this, and on its own it’s sort of fun seeing Depp as a mega-horndog in his early 20s.

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So yes, it’s a farce, with a heavy slapstick element. Two guys (Depp and Morrow) go to a beach resort for a long weekend, and in doing so get themselves involved with a bunch of oddball characters. There’s Hector Elizondo as jewel thief “The Maestro” and his moll; the ludicrously angry head of hotel security and the German hotel barber; older horndog Andrew “Dice” Clay, just going by Andrew Clay at the time; the waitress who Morrow falls in love with and her evil supervisor; and the Grandma with the very expensive diamond necklace, who for some reason has brought her granddaughters along on a beach resort weekend – one of whom is the female equivalent of Depp, the other a religious nut (following the teachings of Baba Rama Yana). These people combine and bounce off each other in every farcical way possible – there’s misunderstandings about sex, identity, attempts at infidelity, the theft of the diamond, romance with the typical roadblocks, and an extended sequence where Depp and Morrow have to run away from two guys trying to kill them.

 

I think there’s such a thing as “too horny”. Depp and Morrow arrive at the resort and, almost immediately, their eyes are out on stalks as they see the bikini-clad lovelies all around them. Are there no women where they’re from? They don’t seem shy or hideous-looking, so it’s quite odd. There’s also such a thing as authority figures being too authoritative, too – everyone who works at the hotel seems angry to an almost psychopathic level. While Morrow romances the waitress, her supervisor (who has designs on her himself) assaults him, and it leads to a fairly substantial brawl. I’d have phoned the police right then and there, but when the head of security has a gun and fires it at guests, I suppose all bets are off.

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Now for the traditional “wow, I can’t believe they did that then” bit. Aside from a bit of mild anti-Japanese racism, the main offender is fat people jokes. I’ll admit, as a larger fellow myself, I have a bias, but it’s still really bad. The one woman at the entire resort who’s overweight pulls someone trying to help her out of the pool, in (and, of course, shows no shame in doing so); then at the end, in the middle of a firefight, she uses the lack of any other people at her table to eat all their food. Ah, the hilarity! I’ll give an assist to Depp’s suggestion of using Quaaludes to “loosen a woman’s inhibitions”, and not as, you may know it, a pretty famous date-rape drug.

 

Last-time director (he was much better known as an editor) George Bowers and long-time TV writer Gordon Mitchell lay the ridiculousness on thick and fast. You’ll find a maid trying to clean rooms in the middle of the night as not even the tenth least likely thing to happen in this movie; and, of course, there’s the classic of all men being irresistibly attracted to a man in fully-clothed drag (when the entire resort is full of hotties).

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Depp and Morrow are apparently ashamed of this movie, in the same way that George Clooney is ashamed of “Return Of The Killer Tomatoes”. But that’s rubbish, I think! Depp ought to be more ashamed of just about everything he’s done in the last five years, and Morrow ought to be pleased he was top-billed in his debut. Okay, it’s not the greatest movie ever made, and it’s not even the greatest mid-80s beach resort  movie ever made, but it’s fun, relentless with the farce, nice and short and features almost complete nudity from both male stars to go along with the parade of boobs. All told, not a terrible effort.

 

Rating: thumbs up

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Absolon (2003)

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When you start recognising the landmarks that low-budget movies are filmed around (either Canada or Eastern Europe), it’s a good sign that you’re perhaps wasting your life. And that’s sadly how I felt when giving yet another post-fame Christopher Lambert movie a try – a potentially interesting dystopia ruined by a lack of anyone seeming to give a damn.

 

Incompetence is handy, in a way. If you see it early on, you know you can mentally check out, start thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, pay attention to the cat that’s climbing all over you, that sort of thing. So, right at the beginning of this movie, when we get both a text info-dump and then, immediately afterwards, a guy narrating the plot to his grandson, you’re all “ah, they’ve had to do all this to explain this garbage, it’s going to suck”. But in case you’re not sure, or you’re one of those innocent fools who insists on giving a movie a fair crack of the whip, here goes.

 

After environmental disaster, a virus hidden underneath the rain forests is set loose, and wipes out more than three-quarters of the world’s population. Some scientist guy invents Absolon, the drug that holds back the virus’s progress, but needs to be taken every day and the UPC corporation controls the drug. Plus, we don’t have money any more but time – Lambert’s character Detective Norman Scott says he only earns 500 hours a week – which seems somewhere on the pointless/confusing axis; although if you’re a primacy junkie, you could note that the Justin Timberlake movie “In Time” used the same concept several years later, only they bothered to make it work.

"Well...that was disappointing"

“Well…that was disappointing”

Some other scientist guy (I think, although it might have been the same one) has managed to invent a complete cure, and naturally UPC aren’t thrilled with this, so boss guy Ron Perlman sends agents from the World Justice Department to kill him. He hides the disk with the important information, under his desk in an envelope which luckily the bad guys don’t think to look for, and for reasons too tedious to go into Scott and his team only have three days to crack the code on the disk, find the antidote and start producing it. Scientist guy’s old assistant Dr Claire Whittaker (Kelly Brook) helps Scott out, and the two of them go on the run, with the cops helping them and the WJD trying to kill them.

 

Along with a few twists and turns, that’s pretty much it for the plot. The thing I like about conspiracy movies like this is how quaint they seem in the post-Wikileaks world. While our governments haven’t tried anything quite this evil on us yet, all they’d need to do would be to claim the scientists were socialists, or Islamic sympathisers, and gangs of thugs would do their work for them and no-one would take the antidote, even if it were free. That they go to such lengths to suppress it, and are so absolutely terrible at hiding their global conspiracy, is like a relic of a far simpler age. There’s secret handoffs of documents, sneaking “clean” phones to your partner, all that Cold War-looking stuff.

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“Absolon” is awful, of course. Lambert was clearly coasting at this point in his career, and looks washed out; him being the love interest of Kelly Brook, 22 years younger than him and (to be fair) way way out of his league, is worse even than the Hollywood standard. This is Brook’s first push into the US market, as this was from roughly the same time she was doing her recurring role on “Smallville”, leaving her days of TV presenting in the UK behind. It was the start of a decade or so of small roles on film and short recurring roles on TV, and from here she certainly got better at acting, although not too much admittedly. Talking of odd acting, Lou Diamond Phillips and Ron Perlman clearly realised what sort of movie they were in quite early on and just chewed scenery and shouted randomly – plus, I’d lay good odds on Perlman only being paid for a day or two, as he shares basically no screen time with the rest of the cast and does his entire part from one office. Lambert’s cop sidekick Ruth (Roberta Angelica) looks like a reject from some mid 90s rave movie, all wild hair and with the crop-top / ultra-baggy trousers combo.

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Even ignoring the problems that come from this being a cheap TV movie (budget, filming schedule) it’s no good. A script which feels like it sat in a cupboard for 20 years from a scriptwriter who made a weirdly large number of Christopher Lambert movies, a director who should stick to the storyboarding where he seems to have most of his credits, and a cast who seem unsure why they were all brought together.

 

Rating: thumbs down

Death Racers (2008)

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This will be the last Asylum review I ever write. I’ve had problems with their business model for some time now – the use of unpaid interns to do most of their special effects, lack of health & safety on set – but a recent article cemented it all for me. They strung along scriptwriters for years, in some cases, getting them to send in spec ideas and write first acts of potential movies for no money, and you know that some of the ideas they got sent in were used, with no accreditation to the poor writer who came up with it. They just seem like a bad example of the bottom-feeding scum that populates the lower rungs of the movie industry. Sorry, everyone! You’ll have to look elsewhere for your “Sharknado 3” review in a month or so.

 

But one movie snuck in under the wire, and that was thanks to the starring role of the Insane Clown Posse. They’ve been doing their thing for over 20 years, and while I’ve never enjoyed a single one of their songs, in real life and on “Insane Clown Posse Theater” (a music-video version of “MST3K”), they seem like okay guys. Guys I’m glad I don’t know, but okay nonetheless. It’s their TV work on “ICP Theater” which got me interested in them again, so expect a few other reviews of their independently made “Big Money Hustlas” and “Big Money Rustlas” coming up soon.

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But enough of all that! This is the Asylum’s mockbuster for “Death Race”, the 2008 Jason Statham-starring sort-of-remake of 1975’s “Death Race 2000”, one of my favourite movies of all time. If you’ve seen either of those two, there’ll be few surprises here – we’re in a dystopian situation, where martial law has been declared; and to maintain order, the “Red Zone” is created, a prison which eventually houses 1,000,000 inmates. Inside the Red Zone, which is more a walled-off city than a prison, an evil mastermind called The Reaper (former pro wrestler Raven) has worked out a plan, although the exact endgame of his plan is frustratingly vague – he’s going to flood the water supply with sarin (a pipe supplying millions of people helpfully runs right underneath the zone).

 

The Governor of whatever state they’re in, already upset at having the world’s biggest prison on his land, decides to start and televise a Death Race! As well as keeping the masses happy, this race has a points system – 20 points per inmate death, and a big 500 for bringing the Reaper in alive (slightly less for dead). Get more than 1000, and you’re free! The 2-person teams picked for this are –

  • the Severed Head Gang (Hispanic, biggest gang in the US)
  • Homeland Security (two disgraced former soldiers)
  • Vaginamyte! (generic hot, evil women)
  • The Insane Clown Posse (playing themselves)

The ICP’s music was so hardcore ,it inspired every major crime, so it’s been banned and the ICP have been locked up. But no matter, as they all get the chance to kill a bunch of other criminals, quip and then, eventually, figure out what’s really going on. One of the SHG gets his head exploded before the race has even begun, to demonstrate the power of the kill-chip the Governor has installed inside them all (and to answer the question “why don’t they just drive away?”) Homeland Security don’t make it much past the first half-hour, and so on. You know the drill.

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This movie at least makes an effort to make things look post-apocalyptic. Throughout the movie, we get the TV hosts talking about the points system and commentating on the action, and it sort-of works, despite the slightly wooden delivery of the male host. The Governor’s office is half-empty and just randomly strewn with books; they manage to film in suitably grim-looking locations, and if they can’t at least use angles to hide the most obvious things; and best of all, there’s a weird colour filter over everything which does a lot for not much effort. All these things put it in the top echelon of Asylum movies, straight off the bat.

 

Unfortunately, everything else lets it down. The acting is truly mind-buggeringly terrible, with only Jennifer Keith (as “Double Dee Destruction”) and Violent J of the ICP as anything other than charisma vacuums. But they’re not helped by the editing, which goes beyond rotten into some netherworld of badness. To have a snappy conversation, it’s best to edit tightly round the spoken lines, so it can ping from one character to another – I’m sure you know the sort of thing I’m talking about. Now imagine one of those conversations, but with a second of awkward silence before and after every line is spoken, and see how good it’d be. I guess the unpaid intern they were using to edit the movie couldn’t use the software very well, and no-one bothered, when seeing the rough cut, to do a damn thing to make it better.

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You’ve got twists and cheap-looking explosions and body parts being hacked off and seemingly no-one paying attention to the scores, as they go down at one point (again, kudos to that editor). It rips the ending straight off from the 1975 original, and while I sort of grew to like the characters, everything they did was saturated in Insane Clown Posse music – one song is repeated at least 8 times, and the credits list a good dozen of their songs.

 

Ultimately, it’s a standard Asylum mockbuster, with the bonus of some fun stunt casting. Cheap, with effort made in some areas but seemingly negative effort made in others, it’s really only worth checking out if you’ve watched the three modern “Death Race” movies, the original, and still need to see cars running people over while the drivers cackle with glee.

 

Rating: thumbs down