Hellraiser IV: Bloodline (1996)


There are two names of interest in this, the fourth instalment of what is almost by default the best of the long-running horror franchises. First up is Adam Scott, comedy superstar, in what I think is his first movie role (he’d been in a few TV shows before this); and second is Alan Smithee. Smithee is the pseudonym adopted by directors who want their name taken off a particular film, usually to do with an extreme amount of interference from the studio or the producer, and is almost always a message to the savvy cinemagoer “this is going to suck”. It seems the principal issue with part 4 – the last in the series to have any input from Clive Barker, or to get a cinema release – was Pinhead. Audiences wanted more of him, and earlier (it is a bit weird how little he’s in the first movie, if we’re being honest), which wasn’t the way original director Kevin Yagher was going.


Although it was reviewed more favourably than part 3 at the time, the years have been unkind to part 4, perhaps because it’s partly set in space. Both “Friday The 13th” and “Leprechaun” have similar instalments, so it was a trend for a while there with the joke being that once you’ve run out of ideas for your fictional killer, send them to space! Or maybe the bad reputation’s because it’s no good? You’ll have to wait a few hundred words to find out (unless you’ve already seen it and are just reading this for a bit of entertainment, of course).


In the year 2127, Dr Paul Merchant has hijacked the space station Minos, for reasons unknown. With a rather interesting remote control robot device, he’s trying to open the Lament Configuration – the fancy name for the puzzle box, apparently – and just as he does so, the front door is kicked in (metaphorically speaking) and in rush some marines. He’s captured, while screaming that he needs to be let free to complete what he started, and eventually is questioned by Rimmer (Christine Harnos), who he tells his family story to.


This story is, actually, pretty interesting. In late 18th century France, his ancestor Philippe L’Marchand (all the Merchant men are played by the same actor) has been commissioned to make a puzzle box for a wealthy aristocrat who has some rather unusual tastes. Scott plays Jacques, the aristo’s servant, and he’s the guy who procures a peasant girl for them to use in their experiments. The box is opened, the skin removed from the peasant girl gets filled up with the demon Angelique and the aristo very quickly breaks one of the rules of possessing a demon and is killed, leaving Jacques to control Angelique and enjoy the wonders of rough sex with a bag of demon-filled skin. Philip learns what the box is about quite quickly, and even creates a design for a “reverse box” which will close the gate to Hell forever, but he’s offed by our evil duo before he gets the chance to do much of anything about it.


In the “original cut” of the movie, as much as this can be said to have one, there was a lot more of this storyline (and there’s a cut circulating online which puts a lot of these deleted scenes back in); but people wanted Pinhead, so we need to race ahead to 1996, where Angelique and Jacques are still having weird sex in France. This is where the movie quite cleverly dovetails with part 3, as we see the building that was “created” when the box was placed in the foundations of a building site. Well, it wasn’t just the power of the box, it was also John Merchant, direct male line descendant of Philip and architect, who was drawn to the box due to some dumb bloodline curse or something. He’s married to Bobbi, played by Kim Myers (“A Nightmare On Elm Street 2”, and a youthful crush of mine), and rather than just going “this is a pretty decent life, I’m an architect and I’m married to someone who looks like Kim Myers” he starts dreaming of Angelique, then she shows up at his office after Jacques rather foolishly got in Hell’s way, and tempts him with her alluring demonic ways…


Pinhead eventually shows up when the box is opened (by a tricked security guard), and he’s got kind of a funny office co-workers vibe going on with Angelique when they first meet. She’s old-school Hell, having been away for 200 years, he’s more new-school, but they both want to use the building, which has become a sort of ultimate cube, in order to…well, Pinhead wants to throw the gates of Hell wide open and let all his old mates out, but I’m stumped as to Angelique’s motivation. Perhaps the same? It’s not really important, anyway. I was surprised Pinhead wouldn’t have popped in to say hello to Angelique during one of his visits “topside”, but Earth’s a big place, I suppose. They have very different methods, she favouring seduction and corruption, him favouring lots of pain and misery, and if this idea had been developed any more than it was (ie. Not at all) then it would have been a cool thread running through the stories. Instead, they have a bit of a fight and Pinhead wins.


As we get back to 2127 and the space station, the problem then becomes we know exactly what Merchant’s plan is and are merely waiting for him to press a button. What takes up 20 minutes of screen time could have been dealt with easily in five, but I guess we need some Pinhead pontificating and / or ripping people to pieces or the “fans” won’t be happy. The ending is pretty cool actually (I always like it when super-powerful beings are tricked by modern technology) but it’s a long walk for a relatively small reward.


Let’s try and make some sense of the Hellraiser universe. It’s really quite good, starting from a small dingy bedroom on a nondescript London street and spreading all the way to outer space. Humanity tries and fails to close the door on the Cenobites, because they represent temptation and there’s always going to be temptation, and it takes a mad genius with cursed blood to finish them off – he has to build a massive space station to do it. It’s surprisingly logical in terms of overarching story, if you don’t sweat the little things, like how the box became a portal to Hell, or the gradual change of the Cenobites from creatures from outside our realm to demons who were once human. Although…given the hack Clive Barker turned into from the early 90s on, I’m sort of glad they simplified the story of the Cenobites from whatever it was to creatures of a dimension called Hell, but which was just a place where weird entities with a thing about skin hung out.


There are little visual touches I enjoyed too, like the way Hell is shown as light through cracks in a building, the same as it was right at the beginning of the first movie. The ties to the previous movies are clever, and Pinhead remains one of the all-time great horror antagonists, even if he’s not the most logically written character – for example, he sort of betrays his own previous commitment to not mess with the innocent by kidnapping John’s son in the 1996 story.


The problem with the way it was weighted, with all three stories given roughly equal time, is that it feels a bit like “stories from the Hellraiser universe”, an anthology movie. Considering this was edited by professionals who are presumably told to make sure things make sense, there are a ton of dropped threads in this, ideas which show up and disappear again in short order, and it’s tough to shake the thought they really ought to have trimmed one of them down a bit.


I was going to talk about the Alan Smithee credit, but I think I’ll leave that to a longer review of the workprint version, which I’ve managed to track down. But even in this hacked-about-with story, it’s a great deal better than many movies where the director was happy to leave his name attached. It’s got real ideas and wants to explore them, and while I’m not as down on studio interference as some (having no particular admiration for the vast majority of directors), it will be interesting to get a little closer to what the director was trying to do.


Rating: thumbs up


Death Machines (1976)


The great thing about Ron Marchini’s movies is they’re never boring. They’re often incomprehensible, always terribly acted and not especially original, but boring? This trend started almost immediately (sadly, his first, 1974’s “Murder In The Orient” appears impossible to find, so this is the earliest movie of his available), through a career where…well, I was about to say that he’s a poor man’s Chuck Norris, but that’s not true at all. Norris’s movies are almost all garbage, and his status as an internet meme has somewhat clouded that fact in recent years. The only Norris movies  I could stand to watch nowadays would be “Invasion USA” or the first two “Missing In Action” efforts, whereas I’d be happy to pop on any Marchini movie. If I can find where he hangs out, or he starts using Twitter or something, I’ll try my hardest to get an interview.


Right from the beginning, I knew this was going to be a fun one. Check out that graphic above, the opening credits pans round it and even though I figured nothing quite that cool would actually appear in the movie, it’s still a good start. Now, the back-cover gives away the basic plot – the evil Madame Lee injects three martial arts fighters with a serum that turns them into zombie-like assassins, and she sends them out against her enemies; but this doesn’t reveal the full wonders that we have to behold. The first time we see the “death machines”, they’re all fighting in what turns out to be the final audition – but it seems Madame Lee is specific about her racial requirements, as the white guy (Marchini) fights another white guy, two Asians fight each other, and two black guys too. Marchini wins his fight in hilarious fashion – after a bit of kung fu on a bridge, he just pulls a gun from his waistband and shoots his opponent! She seems pleased at his thinking outside the box and he’s hired.


Hired for being a drug-zombie killer? I guess? The employment process for this job is frustratingly opaque. Madame Lee has a boss, who remains entirely in the shadows (presumably so they could cast someone else in case of a sequel), and their entire plan is a bit confusing. It involves killing people who want to assassinate crime boss Mr Gioretti, then killing him? Honestly, none of it made a lick of sense, but it does give us some wonderful scenes where our three villains interrupt these potential assassins and just murder them. My favourite bit, pulling up maybe fifty feet away from a guy who really ought to be more observant, taking out a rocket launcher and blowing him to pieces, reinforces one of the prime ISCFC rules:


  • Movies featuring rocket launchers / bazookas are always awesome


For a group of automatons, they’re pretty inventive. And I like that! What I liked a little less was the other half of the story, which feels paced really weirdly, with the “hero” not showing up til half an hour in. So, the Machines are sent to a martial arts school to kill everyone there, and they almost manage it, just accidentally leaving one guy alive (albeit missing an arm). That guy is Frank (John Lowe) and I feel every other “useless main character” I’ve criticised on here can now take a step up the ladder. This guy is terrible! He complains constantly at the nurse, but she falls in love with him because…movies; then moans about his job until he gets his ass kicked by an old man; then does absolutely nothing to stop the Death Machines, relying on the cops turning up to save his bacon right at the end.


Talking of the cops, there are also two cops who I guess you could also call the heroes of the piece, Lieutenant Clay Forrester and his partner Jerry. Clay, the old white guy, is the loose cannon, whereas Jerry, the young black guy, is super serious and by the book, begging Clay to go to the “Human Services” lecture. There’s an angry captain and a sleazy cop who hates Clay too, but they’re not strictly relevant to the story. The sheer number of mentions of doing their paperwork and attending sensitivity seminars indicates it was important to someone, but who and why are questions lost to time, sadly.


As you may have guessed from my bouncing around from one group to another, “Death Machines” feels a little disjointed, like three stories inexpertly welded together. If you think about it, they don’t even feel like part of the same movie – there’s a kung-fu assassins bit, then a buddy cop bit, then a whining one-armed miserable git bit. Perhaps someone was trying to make every sort of 70s movie at once and ran out of money, so just put them all into one. There’s even sub-sections, like how the kung-fu assassins bit briefly becomes a good ol’ boy barroom brawl bit, as Marchini is arrested, escapes, goes to a roadside diner and has a run-in with a rubbish looking biker gang.


That is, by and large, the plot, confusing and open-ended as it may be. If everything else were normal, it’d still be a lot of fun, but “Death Machines” makes a strong case for inclusion in the pantheon of “so bad it’s good” greatness. First up, acting. Ron Marchini, Michael Chong and Joshua Johnson (billed in the credits, brilliantly, as “White Death Machine”, “Black Death Machine” and “Asian Death Machine”) are very good mindless automatons, or just very bad actors. None of the three utters a single intelligible human sound throughout, which is sort of bold! We’ve already discussed what a wet waste of space Frank is, but lastly let’s talk Madame Lee. She’s so bad at acting I thought it was a prank, and her hair is frighteningly big, to the extent I thought she couldn’t act because she was busy concentrating on balancing that enormous thing on top of her head. A picture:


Having spent a day puzzling it out, I’m still unsure about quite a few things. First up is why the Death Machines are virtually indestructible – they’re given a serum which I thought was to do with mind control, but it also makes them impervious to pretty much anything except a bullet to the head (and that only slows them down). But later on, a smack with a wooden chair lays Marchini out for ages? Then there’s how, during his escape, Marchini almost becomes a good guy, defending the people of the diner from the gang and being thanked afterwards, only to go back to murdering quite quickly. I like how Frank takes the nurse out for a coffee, but it’s at the bar he works at, during the time a stripper’s on stage! Or how the old guy (the one who beats Frank up quite easily) destroys the bar, for absolutely no reason. It defies you to make any sense of it.


For all these criticisms, and many many more, it’s an incredibly entertaining bad film. It rips along (the first half hour has as much fun and incident as most low-budget B movies have in their entire running time), and it’s fun to see another side of Ron Marchini. Plus, it’s got an absolutely incredible soundtrack, sort of an avant-garde take on sleazy 70s keyboard funk (although it’s probably more likely to be someone trying to make a funk soundtrack and failing miserably).


Rating: thumbs up

Kingdom Of The Spiders (1977)


When you watch a film for the first time and then your wife insists you’ve both seen it fairly recently, then you know, dear reader, that you’re getting old. Fingers crossed I saw this with the Rifftrax commentary and their comedy stylings made me forget the actual movie, because otherwise I’ve got an abyss to stare into.


The trend of 70s disaster (environmental / otherwise) movies is one we’ve never dipped our toes into here at the ISCFC. For a whole heap of reasons – they’re often big budget with decent casts, and therefore fall outside our normal remit; they’re slick and thumbs-in-the-middle, and that’s boring to write about; and watching one of them reminds me of boring Sunday evenings as a kid, when they always seemed to be the only thing on TV, and that just makes me feel sad. The rest of them, the B-movie trash like “Empire of the Ants”, “Grizzly”, “Beaks”, “Great White” and “Them!” are so miserable that I couldn’t even be bothered to write about them. But luckily, even among the slick dross, you get the occasional oddity, and “Kingdom of the Spiders” is such an oddity.


A hard-working farming couple have a calf that’s ready to go to the county fair and win a bunch of awards, but sadly it gets bitten to death by spiders. The main draw of this movie, William Shatner, playing the amazingly named Rack Hansen, is a vet, so he sends off samples to the big city, then flirts with his dead brother’s wife and drinks beer with the Sheriff and Mayor. Seems like a pretty nice life, and Shatner isn’t the world’s worst actor; while he doesn’t seem much like a good ol’ Southern boy (what with being Jewish, and Canadian) you can pretend he’s – Northern Exposure-style – been forced to work there to pay off some odd debt. Anyway, into this rather pleasant rural environment comes the big city representative from the CDC, Diane (Tiffany Bolling, a fine grindhouse actress who got the part mostly because she was fine with spiders), she’s all “it’s spiders, you guys”, they’re all “no way, spiders couldn’t do this” and then the farmer says “er, have you seen this enormous spider hill in my back garden?” and it’s on.


Much like a lot of mainstream 70s cinema, it doesn’t exactly race along in the beginning. If it was designed for drive-in audiences I guess they realised it would mostly be the backdrop to people having sex for the first half, so when everyone’s calmed down a bit the movie gets going, and the final segment, where the seemingly millions of tarantulas absolutely mess everyone up, is pretty amazing. The streets are littered with cocooned corpses, a plane is brought down, no car is safe, and the action comes thick and fast. It’s got a hell of an ending, too, even if you may think “how many spiders were there in this one town, exactly?” It’s also got one of the dumbest fights in the movies, where one character is shooting spiders with a pistol, only to get one on her hand…and then shoots her own hand and dies!


It’s got an environmental message, warning of the dangers of the pesticide DDT (it’s been so long since I heard those three letters in any context other than being a wrestling move that I forgot it was ever anything else for a few minutes), but…it reminded me a little of a high end clothing shop selling punk t-shirts, in that any message was lost long ago. It says “don’t use DDT” but is quiet on the legions of other pesticides, and of ways to avoid ruining the food chain so spiders come and kill us all, “Kingdom” has none. So, definitely on the right side of the environmental debate, but a little naïve.


I feel sorry for every woman in every movie in the 1970s. While two of them come out of it okay (the farmer’s wife and the bar owner) they’re not sexual – one is black and the other is old. Shatner’s ex-sister in law, Linda (played by Natasha Ryan) lusts for our hero, but he gets angry with her as he could never disrespect his brother’s memory…except when he tells her he’ll probably have sex with her one day. When he brings Diane to her house later on, she pretends like she’s okay, then cries her eyes out in the kitchen, then dies. And Diane! She’s hit on by a chemical toilet salesman while the guy’s wife is stood five feet away, and when she turns Shatner down for the third time, he just picks her up, puts her in the passenger seat of her own car and drives her to dinner. She finds this charming and is about to sleep with him when he suddenly decides to go and burn all the spider hills, and from that moment on is pretty much nothing but arm candy (there’s one line where he tells her how good she is at her job, which I guess is about as much as a woman could expect).


So we never repeat this crap, we need to point out sexism wherever it rears its ugly head. We should demand better, because “it’s just a bit of fun” or whatever the phrase is, keeps trying to slip back into our culture. Just look at any modern monster movie and see the difference in how the men and women are dressed (men – baggy t-shirts and shorts; women – bikinis) – it’s only subtle because it’s so deeply ingrained.


Finally, spiders! One of the special features on the DVD is an interview with the movie’s spider wrangler, and he’s great – showing us the docile tarantula breed that they used throughout the movie, then the extremely aggressive breed that they’d use these days for close-ups (but not for actual human interaction, because they are mean hombres), then the “oh my god its enormous please put it back in its box” breed. The producers paid $10 a spider, so they collected thousands, and even though the wrangler says they were very careful, it looks like they ran over, stomped on and poisoned hundreds of the damned things. I wonder if the American Humane Association were involved in this one?


While in a lot of ways it’s a pretty typical Irwin Allen-style disaster movie, it’s also got that B-movie feel to it too, and is a lot of fun. Obviously, avoid if you’re not a fan of spiders, or like correct titling (“Kingdom?” Really?) but as long as you’re not too bothered about slow starts, the crazy ending will more than make up for it.


Rating: thumbs in the middle


PS – a quick word about the farmer, played by Woody Strode. He had a pretty interesting life, being one of the four men who broke the NFL’s colour barrier in 1946 (no black men had played in the NFL since 1933), and was a college friend of Jackie Robinson, the guy who broke the colour barrier in baseball. Then he was a pro wrestler on and off – but he’s much better remembered for his acting, with a great role in “Spartacus”, finishing off his career in “The Quick And The Dead” (which was dedicated to him, as he died before it was released). He was even married to a distant relative of the last Queen of Hawaii! We here at the ISCFC salute you, Mr Strode.

Detention (2010)

The most overused poster template ever?

The most overused poster template ever?

Given how fantastic 2011’s “Detention” was, I realised that the 2010’s namesake would be unlikely to be as good. But I wasn’t fully prepared for just how rotten it would be, something that looks vaguely like a movie but doesn’t fulfil any of your normal expectations (coherent plot, believable characters, any sense of pace, fun or enjoyment).


Let’s start at the beginning, in 1976. A group of kids that look absolutely nothing like kids from 1976 are breaking into their school at night to steal something, maybe? It turns out they just want to play a “prank” on Gabriel the nerdy student by locking him in a steel cupboard – only a lightning strike from the storm outside rather implausibly sets him on fire. The pranksters run away and poor Gabriel burns to death, really quickly too.


Fast forward to the present day, and…bloody hell, if you can’t tell 90% of the plot from those first five minutes, then I’m surprised you’re clever enough to read. A group of students are given detention for all sorts of reasons, and the only tension of any kind is whether they’re there to solve the mystery of what happened in the 70s and free the restless spirit, or whether they’re the kids of the original students who left Gabriel to die, and he’s manipulated the whole thing so he can get revenge (hint: it’s option 2).

Check out the text of this news report

Check out the text of this news report

The headmaster is David Carradine, one of his astonishing 11 post-death IMDB credits. Oh, and there’s a teacher with an English accent called Miss Cipher (seriously) who knows more than she’s letting on. Played by Alexa Jago, her first ever screen appearance was in “Witchcraft 3”, so welcome back to the ISCFC, Alexa! The students feel like the first time they ever met was the first time the cameras rolled, and are a miserable group of stereotypes. Rich haughty girl; her boyfriend, and I didn’t buy them as a couple for a second; goth girl; stoner; angry jock; cute nerdy girl and cute nerdy guy.


So, they’re initially trapped in the detention room without their phones, the Coach who’s taking detention disappears (or maybe he dies, it’s all very poorly shot), the Principal dies because the producers could only afford David Carradine for a few days, and a mysterious spirit stalks the halls, possessing people, making them hallucinate, and so on. If you’ve seen any kids-trapped-in-school horror, you’ll know exactly how it works and “Detention” does not try anything original at all. They try a twist, but it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever (it relies on someone we’ve seen get possessed by an evil spirit be actually evil all along, a spirit which has already shown it can jump out of dead bodies deciding to just stay in one), although “making no sense whatsoever” at least fits in with the rest of the movie.


Now, just from reading this short recap, I bet you’ve got some questions. Like, how did all the 70s students have kids at exactly the same time, and stay in the same school area? Did the spirit manipulate reality so they could all get detention on the same day? Why did it kill a bunch of people who had nothing to do with Gabriel’s death, like a couple of middle-aged workmen (one of whom is the great “That Guy” actor John Capodice)? Who moved that one corpse so our hero could helpfully pull a sword from its chest on their way to the showdown? It’s not all unanswered questions, though. Okay, it’s mostly unanswered questions. But there’s rotten effects too – the burning scene is laughably bad, and the ghost doesn’t look much better either. Sprinkle a few of the more tedious teen horror clichés and there you go.


I don’t want to blame the kids and their acting – they have no chemistry, but that’s the job of the director. Talking of him, there’s a relationship with the director of our last review, “Hellraiser 3” – the Hickox brothers! James directed this, Anthony directed that. Think of them as like Ridley and Tony Scott, but in the sense that the Scotts are the Beatles and the Hickoxes are a Beatles cover band that get bottled off the stage in your local pub. It feels sloppy, like “will this do?” was the most common words uttered on set.


We’re reviewing every movie with this title for no reason, so hopefully we’ve got the really rotten one out of the way first. Please avoid at all costs. I’ll leave you with one cheery thought, though – from a budget of around $2 million, its box office return was…$190. So there is justice in the world!


Rating: thumbs down

Hellraiser 3: Hell On Earth (1992)


Horror franchises which mess with their own rules have long been one of my least favourite things (movie category, there’s lots of other things I like less), but amazingly “Hellraiser 3” has done it in an interesting way. A franchise that goes from an English suburban house to a New York hair-metal club and doesn’t feel like it’s completely ignored what went before ought to be commended.


The really weird thing is, up to the last half hour, this was probably my favourite of the series so far. It had a plot I could understand, no substantial logic holes or weak characters, and was enjoyably trashy. Of course, as soon as Pinhead emerges at the top of the nightclub stairs, all bets are off, and your enjoyment may vary quite considerably. I mean, I thought it was pretty good fun, but it tends to divide fans.


At the end of part 2, Pinhead was left trapped in a sort of steel pillar, left deliberately vague, and part 3 used that vagueness. That pillar, now encrusted with all manner of screaming faces and body parts, and a cube that it definitely didn’t have before, is sat in the Pyramid Art Gallery, and is bought by super-sleazy club owner JP Monroe – from a tramp who I guess we’re supposed to think is the same tramp from the end of part 1? Now, if I’m in a high-end art place and a bloke who looks like he slept on a park bench is serving me, I’d smell a rat, but clearly JP is in love with the art. He installs it in his apartment above the club, and a bit of accidentally spilled blood is all it takes to bring Pinhead back, although for most of the movie he’s still trapped in the pillar, just with his head sticking out. Using his persuasive powers, and JP’s taste for new and darker experiences, he works a deal similar to those in parts 1 and 2 – bring me bodies, and I’ll give you what you really want.


Joey Summerskill’s a low-level TV reporter, wanting to do the bigger stories but constantly getting stuck with the fluff pieces. While at the hospital one evening, she sees a bloke covered in chains explode, and when she sees the young nervous Terri accompanying the now-corpse, tries to find out from her what’s going on. This leads the two women to become friends, and gets Joey on the investigating trail – she finds out about the cube (which Terri had stolen from the club and her abusive ex JP), about Kirsty from the last two movies, and about Pinhead’s history as Captain Elliot Spencer.


Since part 2, production company New World had gone bankrupt, and “Hellraiser” was bought by Miramax, who were about to hit the super-big time with “Reservoir Dogs”. This was the first movie made under their “Dimension Films” banner, the genre sub-division which would give the world stuff like the “Scream” series, and the later “Children Of The Corn” and “Halloween” instalments, and their involvement means it feels a little slicker. Direction was handled by Anthony Hickox, who’d made the two decent “Waxwork” movies and would go on to…not much, but he handles everything totally well. I mean, it’s got that early 90s sheen over everything, but that’s not the worst thing in the world (and reminds me of how “Manhunter” got a rough deal for looking like an episode of “Miami Vice” when it’s one of the best films of the 80s). Peter Atkins wrote parts 2, 3 and 4, and with him being Clive Barker’s friend from back in the 70s, it’s safe to say Barker at least had a slight say in what went on. He also wrote the first “Wishmaster”, which I guess we’ll review when all the other horror franchises are done.

Hell on Earth Terri

The cast…Terry Farrell (best remembered by me from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) is Joey, and she’s a little too bland, but fine. Kevin Bernhardt as JP is perhaps a little too moustache-twirling to be believable, but also fine. It’s Paula Marshall as Terri that I really really liked, though. She’s a beautiful young woman who’s just been treated badly by everyone she comes into contact with, and it’s heartbreaking (as much as a cheesy early 90s mainstream horror movie can be heartbreaking) to see her emerge from her shell, only to get sucked back into JP’s world, with the last authority figure she listens to being Pinhead. I know it wouldn’t be much of a horror movie if everyone you liked survived, but her character was great and she sold the misery of it very well. MVP by miles.


So, I mentioned the rather poor ending. Pinhead’s dialogue seems weaker here, and it’s strictly heaven and hell stuff, with the idea of the Cenobites being beyond that sort of thing a long-distant memory. The idea that he’s so evil that Pinhead has now separated completely from his “soul” (which allows Captain Spencer to appear in Joey’s dreams and help her succeed) is an interesting idea, but it’s just a bummer when he appears in the club after fully escaping the pillar and starts turning the club-goers into faux-Cenobites (he makes a reference to how they’re not as good as his normal team). It’s just so stupid! Joey’s cameraman friend gets a camera inserted into his head (which can also fire rockets, because why not); the DJ has CDs implanted in his, and a CD dispenser in his chest for using as weapons; and the barman can serve up a Molotov cocktail along with being able to breathe fire (because I guess he lit a few cigarettes?) It’s at that moment, when the quips are raining down thick and fast, should you have been wondering “why does this completely decent movie have such a low rating?”, that you’ll understand exactly why.


It doesn’t help that Pinhead’s plan, to just turn the entire planet into sort-of-Cenobites (he’s going to destroy the cube so he can never be sent back to Hell) is a bit boring. The range of his imagination seems to have shrunk a bit? He’s still good in a lot of scenes, and this is definitely the most he’s ever been on screen in a “Hellraiser”. He’s not responsible for the best-delivered line, which goes to Joey, when a Priest tells her demons are just metaphors, and she goes “then what the fuck is that?” as Pinhead walks through the front door, with a perfect mix of fear and resignation.


While the credits roll and you wonder “just how did Joey afford that gigantic apartment in downtown New York on her salary?” or “how did the Lament Configuration cube physically change the architecture of that building?”, the realisation dawns it’s both the best and the worst of the series so far. Best – great opening, great characters, everything makes complete sense. Worst – the last half-hour. Definitely give it a go, but be ready to laugh at the movie, not with it.


Rating: thumbs up

Mutilations (1986)


There are some movies where the flaws are so numerous they become positives, where they were made with such dedication that you can’t help but admire them. “Mutilations” is, I think, one of those movies. They’re often the most famous of the “so bad it’s good” genre, but the name that immediately sprang to mind when watching this was Don Dohler. He made movies at the same time and in the same place as John Waters (Baltimore, 1970s) but his interest was in science-fiction and horror, also publishing a magazine called “Cinemagic” which gave underground and low-budget filmmakers tips on how to do special effects. His early movies – from “Alien Factor” through to “Galaxy Invader” – are serious movies made for insanely low budgets, and while they’re occasionally a little cheesy looking to our modern eyes, and the acting from whoever he could round up isn’t always that great, the effort he put in to every aspect of the process means you can’t help but love them.


I’d hazard a guess that writer / director / producer Larry Thomas read “Cinemagic”, or some other magazine very similar to it. It’s got that charming near-home-made Dohler quality, while also looking remarkably good in places (thanks in part to pro cinematographer Brett Reynolds, who came in halfway through production to help out and brought his top-end Panavision camera with him). But the other strand that brought “Mutilations” to us is home video. Tulsa, Oklahoma (where this movie was shot, and where its cast and crew are from) was briefly the centre of the straight-to-video world. The company that’s now VCI is from Tulsa, and their first release was 1985’s “Blood Cult”, which seems to be the first movie intended for distribution solely on home video without getting any cinema release at all. The idea that you could do this and make money from it inspired countless thousands of filmmakers, and Thomas was one of them.


An astronomy professor and a small group of his students read about cattle mutilations and mysterious lights in the sky in the small town of Berry Hill, and decide to go on a field trip. The professor, one Al Baker (as with most of the cast, his one and only film credit) appears tired and hungover in his first scene, which isn’t helped by his voice being dubbed – probably too noisy outside that night, and they didn’t have good microphones. Anyway, the little band of them go up there, meet some oddball locals, and eventually go to an old shack out of town, as its owner keeps getting visited, or knows a lot about the aliens, or whatever.


There’s a super-weird scene in a classroom near the beginning which my notes describe as, in script terms, “an idiot trying to explain things to an even bigger idiot”. One of my least favourite tropes is the lecture which is really exposition, and the exposition in this is spectacularly clumsy, with the level of the knowledge on display in this college-level classroom about on a par with elementary school. I felt like leaning through the screen and shaking the director, honestly, but it does get better.


When someone in a diner complained about the high price of $15 for six rounds of burgers and fries, I was like “ah, the 80s”. That diner does have an actor with a rather famous namesake, though – the opening credits mention a Bill Buckner, and a fellow by the same name was a big-league baseball player, and once committed a huge error which cost the Boston Red Sox the World Series (in the same year this movie was released, coincidentally enough. Extra coincidentally, Buckner’s daughter Brittany is now an actress, having appeared in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” among many other things). Just outside the diner, the crew must have stumbled upon some farmer having a fire, and used it as part of the movie (it’s an alien landing site), which shows nous. The last half of the movie is set inside the shack, which is evidently a TARDIS, having almost unlimited space inside. They all have a big discussion about Joseph Smith and the early Mormon church until eventually the aliens show up. They seem to consider us cattle, with no differentiation between their treatment of people and…well, actual cattle.


Those alien effects, a mix of stop-motion and an arm clad in a rubber alien suit reaching out from just off camera, are pretty decent. While most passion projects look like they cost $50, this clearly had some money spent on it, just not in the script or acting departments. They’re entirely practical – CGI would have been both awful and expensive in 1986 – and look decent, mostly. There’s a slight problem with the scenes where the actors interact with effects such as a mutilated cow, or one of the aliens, as the effect is presumably a miniature right in front of the camera, and the cast is back-projected behind the effect. The problem is, the cast seem like they’re not there (the quality difference between the two images is very large), and it happens a lot. I guess you could play it off as charming? The guy who gets his life-force sucked out by an alien (also the video cover image) is really quite unsettling.


There’s some debate about whether “Mutilations” is a comedy or not. I think not – while there are moments you’re supposed to find funny, the actual movie certainly feels like it’s trying to be taken seriously. Also, there’s a little too much professionalism on display for that, or to list it among stuff like “After Last Season” or “Things” – the camerawork is well-lit, focused and framed, for one. The alien “voices” are pretty well done, too, all mangled and sounding like speech without actually being speech. But then, over and above the shockingly wooden acting – one guy sort of seems like he’s in on the joke, but I think he was just nervous and went OTT – and script that feels like it was written to explain space to seven year olds, there’s some flaws that didn’t feel deliberate. One poor woman gets impaled through a door by an alien claw, and rather than do anything, her boyfriend stands next to her and looks a little bored. And there’s the habit of characters using other peoples’ full names, even people they’ve known for ages. The professor’s assistant / love interest comes to rescue him at the end, but I’d hazard a guess the gun she fired on set was the first time she’d ever held one in her life, much less shot it.


I could go on, but I’d feel churlish about doing so. While it slows down considerably when they start walking through the cellar of the shack (I think it’s the cellar, honestly it’s hard to tell), it’s a heck of a lot of fun, and if you’ve got love in your heart for the independent, the cheap, and the “why on earth did they make this?”, then you’ll find something to enjoy with “Mutations”.


What is wonderful news for fans is that Massacre Video – distributors of tons of incredible independent horror and genre movies – are putting this out soon. Go to http://massacrevideo.com/site/ – and while you’re there, pick up some Donald Farmer movies, like “Savage Vengeance” and “Demon Queen”, or the Chester Novell Turner box set. The more sales amazing sites like Massacre get, the more weird old movies they’ll be able to release, and that’s better for all of us.


Rating: thumbs up

Karate Raider (1995)


That is a pretty amazing poster

We’re drawing to the end of our Ron Marchini review series, everyone. I’m sad too! It looks like a couple of his movies were never released on home video – “Dragon’s Quest” (1983) and “Arctic Warriors”(1989) – and his first two movies are apparently available but are proving difficult to track down – “Murder In The Orient” (1974) and “Death Machines” (1976).  But we’ll keep trying, partly because we love Marchini, partly because we don’t understand that reviewing movies it’s basically impossible to get hold of won’t drive too much traffic to our site.


Marchini’s IMDB page had something extra on it until quite recently – a potential gem called “Jungle Wolf 3” from 1993. That is, until someone checked and realised it was the same as this, just under an alternate title. We’re pleased they removed that name, because it’s got nothing to do with the other “Jungle Wolf” movies, even if it does have a lot more dense foliage-based action than “Return Fire: Jungle Wolf 2”. It also represents the first Hollywood work for one Joe Carnahan, who’d go on to write and direct “Smokin’ Aces”, “The Grey” and “The A-Team”. And it’s got one lovely bit of stunt casting, but more on that in a moment.


Narration in low-budget movies is almost always a sign that something got messed up in production and they realised that it made no sense; but in this one, I’ve really got no idea why it’s included, because it’s not like there’s a ton of plot to explain. Ron talks about people wanting to lose themselves or find themselves, and he’s not sure which sort he is. Anyone? Anyway, he’s Jake Turner, a former soldier who’s decided to retire and spend his days fishing, and occasionally taking part in kumite-style matches for some quick cash (he beats one monstrous fellow after just strolling in off the street, still wearing his normal shirt and trousers).


At the same time we’re meeting Jake, we also get to see Pike, an eyepatch-wearing criminal who’s busted out of a hospital by his old gang. The guy on the inside at the hospital who tips off the criminals? Burt Ward! Yes, it’s safe to assume that Marchini loved Batman in his younger day, because he’s had both Ward and Adam West in his movies. Anyway, Pike quickly retakes his old territory and then kidnaps the DEA agent who’s trying to investigate him.


Unfortunately for him, that DEA agent is Jennifer (Shelly Gaunt, only acting role) the beautiful daughter of Jake’s old Commanding Officer, and all it takes is a visit from Jake’s army buddy Bill Digger (Joe Estevez! Not quite as stunt-y as Burt Ward, I suppose) to persuade him to do one final job. Talking of which, is “one final job” the all-time most overused plot device in B-movies? It’s a toss-up between that and variations on “The Most Dangerous Game”, I suppose. That this was literally Marchini’s “one last job” is sad. Both I and the Filipino extras you gave such gainful employment to wish you hadn’t retired.


Jake is off into the jungle to do some rescuing! There’s not, it must be said, an awful lot to distinguish this from a million other “Commando” ripoffs. His Indiana Jones hat, which remains jammed on his head throughout, isn’t helping in the originality stakes; nor is that thing where a guy shoots an entire row of people, and the last guy in the row, who’s had four or five seconds to draw his weapon and return fire, just stands there like a dumbass and gets shot too. There’s “cool guys walking away from an explosions”, which is so famous and well-used a trope that Saturday Night Live did a song about it!


There are a couple of fun moments, which is about all you can expect at times. A punch hits at the exact moment a bomb goes off in the background, which must have been a one-take-only thing for a movie this cheap; and Jake’s “I’m better than everyone at fighting and I know it” attitude during moments where you might expect tension raised a smile from even this jaded cinephile. There’s the cheap-ass tracksuit that Pike wears throughout the movie too – perhaps the actor insisted, because it made him look bad-ass? We may never know. But in case you needed proof that Marchini maybe shouldn’t have directed himself, there are a couple of gems. Jake and Jennifer need to get into a lift, and we see every second of that journey, from pressing the button to closing the door at the other end; and even leaving technical stuff aside, the rescue is almost pathetically easy. It’s not much more than he just strolls in the front gate, shoots a few goons and releases Jennifer – while this was fun to watch once, I’m not sure it did its job of keeping me riveted.


Marchini remains a negative presence on screen, even if he’s slightly less wooden here than he was in the “Omega Cop” series; no-one else is much better, apart from Estevez and Ward (both of whom were presumably hired for a day, as they pop up for one scene and then disappear). It’s totally watchable, much the same as most of his output, but don’t watch it expecting it to be particularly good. Stick with “Ninja Warriors” or “Jungle Wolf” for proper bonkers entertainment.


Rating: thumbs in the middle

The Phoenix Incident (2015)


“Based on true events”. Have there ever been four weasel-ier weasel words in the history of cinema? If I saw someone walking down the street, spun a tale based purely on their appearance and made it into a movie, I could claim that was “based on true events”. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s untrue, I suppose.


Because UFOs and their ilk are quite a contentious issue, I’m going to break this review down into two sections. First up will be a review on the movie itself, technical aspects, acting and so on. Second half will be my views on the event, so if you’re only interested in one or the other, you can just skip.


Part 1 – the movie

Found footage! After a preamble involving details of an upcoming war with an unknown group, we’re told that in 1997, a number of people reported seeing very unusual lights in the sky over Phoenix, Arizona. Lots of smart, sober people couldn’t make head nor tail of it, and there remains doubt about it to this day.


This is a movie about four men who went missing on that same night, who’ve never been found, and is made up of three strands. First up is what I think is real news footage from the time, second is (both real and fictional) interviews conducted with people involved in the case, and third is (fictional) footage from a camera strapped to the side of the helmet of one of the four men. A local Manson-esque crazy person was charged with their murders and has been incarcerated ever since; he gets interviewed too.


As far as anyone knows, no-one disappeared that night, at least related to the lights, so it might be said that it’s a strange decision to have so much of your short-ish movie (69 minutes when the credits start to roll) about a real incident devoted to people who weren’t there. Given that we already know they disappear from the off, I’m not sure why we need a scene shot in a diner where they shoot the breeze about their futures, which has absolutely nothing to do with the lights. The classic found footage movies – “Cannibal Holocaust”, “The Blair Witch Project”, “Cloverfield” – were all entirely fictional so it was as much about these characters discovering what was going on as it was about the cannibals, or the witch, or the giant space monster thing. They’re pretty much the only great found footage movies, too – it’s a genre absolutely lousy with the worst and cheapest that modern cinema has to offer (I know people like the “Paranormal Activity” movies, not seen ‘em so can’t comment).


So, as things progress, our four heroes go into the Arizona desert to do a bit of ATV driving, and see military craft flying all over the place. They investigate, find a crashed alien craft, out come a ton of creatures that look a bit like if the alien from “Alien” had laid its egg inside a horse rather than a human, and eventually they’re hunted down as far as the Manson-alike Walt Gayson’s compound, where things do not get better.


There are some substantial logic holes in “The Phoenix Incident”. First up, who’s broadcasting this footage? Whoever made it not only took the tape from Gayson or the military, but also got hold of tons of military footage (there’s tape from inside the army’s helicopter, for one). Given that the interviews with them are all “nope, nothing weird happened”, this isn’t just an idle question. Why didn’t the Government cover up the existence of this movie if they could cover up what amounts to an alien invasion?


The footage is (in the world of the movie) absolute 100% incontrovertible proof of the existence of aliens. It would be the biggest news since the invention of news, but for some reason the people with the tape felt the need to pad this amazing footage out with talking heads of people who saw something once but were hushed up. Who cares what you think? There’s ALIENS CAUGHT ON VIDEO!!! I did like the interview with a cop where the text on screen said “name withheld” even though his face and badge are right there, on camera, in broad daylight.


“The Phoenix Lights” can be accused of muddying the waters. Imagine looking this event up afterwards and realising almost none of what the movie says happened, actually happened – yes, there were lights in the sky over Phoenix which were pretty unusual, but that’s really it. No-one died, no-one took good enough video to be able to say one way or the other what it really was, so it doesn’t help people come to any conclusions about what did happen. You can’t have it both ways.


Writer / director Keith Arem works in the video game industry, directing voice actors, motion-capture and so on, so he’s used his studio to work on this. And it looks like a decent amount of money was spent on it, the special effects are great and the acting (mostly provided by computer game voice actors) is fine too. The interview footage is a bit cheesy, truth be told, but I’ve seen worse. “The Phoenix Incident” is, amazingly, the fourth different movie about the event – following “The Appearance Of A Man”, “Night Skies” and “They Came From Outer Space” (aka “Phoenix Lights”); plus a couple of different full-length documentaries, if that’s your thing.


The worst crime it commits is just being really dull, though. It’s just a fake documentary with fake found footage attached to it, and you don’t really care about anyone in it. The handheld stuff is mostly unwatchable, and at the very least if this was being presented as evidence, they’d have tried to tidy up the camera judder using “stabilisation” software, which is cheap and easy to use (someone’s stabilised all of “Cloverfield” using consumer-grade software and it looks weird / great). So, perhaps go elsewhere for your aliens on Earth faux-documentary chills and thrills.


Rating: thumbs down


Part 2 – The Lights

I’m a believer that we’re not alone. We’re finding planets all the time, and I’m positive we’re going to find evidence of life somewhere in the universe at some point. Saying that, this event is an absolute nothing. The particular light formation has been recreated using military flares and a slow but steady wind moving in the right direction – which doesn’t prove it wasn’t UFOs, I suppose, but certainly makes proving the case for them a lot harder. I don’t doubt it must have been incredibly strange to see them at the time, but the rather hysterical reaction of people at having their firmly held belief called into question is worrying, and is an indication we need to work on improving our education system and teaching critical thinking to people.


I think if we’re going to expect people to believe extraordinary things, then we ought to provide extraordinary evidence, and so far, we’ve failed to do that for anything on (or near) Earth. The standards of believers ought to be higher, and by pinning so much of the pro-UFO side’s hopes to fuzzy footage of weather balloons, or photographs where the taker refuses to hand over the original but insists it’s un-doctored, we do ourselves a disservice. Because if believers make up stuff about Greys, or triangular shaped craft in Phoenix, and when the aliens actually turn up and are nothing at all like that, we’re going to feel pretty stupid. The universe has got some pretty weird things going on in it we could learn about, no sense filling our minds with nonsense like this.