Android Apocalypse (2006)


SyFy’s ungodly 2006 mix of “Wedlock”, “Enemy Mine” and…er…anything that’s ever had human-looking androids in it is quite surprising in its goodness. Okay, it doesn’t make a lick of sense if you think about it, but I think we can all agree that we rarely watch this sort of movie to think too much. It’s got a pro wrestler in a small part, plus a star of the 90s and some splendidly bizarre acting from its supporting cast. Let’s get into it!


Post-apocalypse! I think it’s environmental, but they sort of handwave it away. Humanity now lives in a few remaining domed cities, one of them being Phoenix, Arizona, and the first thing we see is a trio of androids rescue a wealthy woman’s son, after he just goes for a wander in the wasteland. It turns out that we created a bunch of Probes (mining robots), but made the mistake of giving them tons of really good weapons and enough intelligence to become sort-of sentient and rebel. So they’re patrolling the wilderness picking off any human without the sense they were born with, but the androids can kick a little butt and come home with the kid. Main android is DeeCee, and he’s played by Joey Lawrence, 90s sitcom star (“Blossom”); there’s also TeeDee (pro wrestler Chris Jericho) and Tranc, who not only doesn’t follow the android naming protocol, but gets to wear shorts and kind-of impractically long hair (Armenian-American actor Anne Bedian).


At the same time, Jute (Scott Bairstow, for whom this was his last ever role) is losing his job at the shovelling plant. Seriously, the poor fella looks like he’s just got to shovel things into a fire-y tube all day long, so if I did that job and they replaced me with an android I’d be delighted. But he’s not, and this fuels his anti-android feeling – by the way, if you’re thinking this is some racial allegory, it’s not that smart. This does raise a quite important question, however – what point is there, with a fairly small non-mobile human population, having unemployed people? Democracy seems to exist, sort of, so it’s not like they’re just after a tiny handful of wealthy humans and androids to serve their purposes. Use androids for stuff humans can’t do, why don’t you?


Jute gets into a bar brawl with TeeDee and eventually “kills” him, which leads to the arrest of him and his wife Rachel (Amy Matysio). DeeCee is a prototype, and his emotions get the better of him, so he’s sent off to Terminus, a combined re-programming centre / prison out in the wilderness, and of course the two men are handcuffed together on the transport there. So you’ve got Jute first fighting with, then learning to respect, DeeCee, then getting captured, escaping, discovering the big evil plot, and saving the day.


The guy who’s in charge of building and maintaining the androids is the most obvious villain in (non-superhero) movie history. An absolutely splendid performance, complete with super-villain costume, he’s Varrta (Troy Skog) and he’s magnificent, another one for the Overacting Villain Hall of Fame. He’s sick of humanity, despite being human, and is building a new generation of Probes to beat the other Probes up, but also to kill all the remaining humans and take over, because no supervillain plot is complete without something like that. There’s also a subplot with him inventing an exact replica of human brain fluid, as that’s the thing that’s been holding his work back apparently? There’s another hefty logical problem, with the various androids…Varrta says DeeCee is his greatest creation but flawed (he just wants emotionless robots to rule over, it seems) but both Tranc and the rather doughy male android who’s helping her track down DeeCee and Jute also show emotions, lots of them, to the stage you’re wondering if the director remembered they were supposed to be androids too. If anything, DeeCee is the least emotional of the main androids we see.


The movie switches between Terminus, Phoenix and the desert, but respect to the person who found the sets for them to use. Terminus is a giant chemical plant, which is fairly standard, but it also looks like it’s still in use, so it adds a little authenticity; there’s also some great abandoned buildings out in the desert. It’s a cool looking film.


Add in a strong final fight, as our heroes take on the forces of Terminus (after being almost rescued by Rachel, and it was nice to see her do something) and you’ve got a completely entertaining SyFy movie. It’s a long way from being original, but it figured out what it wanted to do, found a bunch of decent actors and some good locations and just did it. Okay, Scott Bairstow just grimaces and punches people, but given he’d not worked since 2003 and this was his last performance, he’d probably already mentally checked out of the movie business.


Kudos to director Paul Ziller, who’s very familiar to us at the ISCFC. He did “Bloodfist 4” way back in the 90s, but starting with 2004’s “Snakehead Terror”, became one of SyFy’s go-to directors, directing a good dozen of their original movies up to 2012’s “Ghost Storm” (so it’s perhaps best he stopped). But this is solid, entertaining and if it gets repeated, definitely worth your time.


Rating: thumbs up


Freeway (1996)


Our love of cinematic trends here at the ISCFC is not (of course) for the initial, brilliant movies that started them, but for the trash that came after, as every bottom-feeder and indie company would try to wring a few £££ out of us. We’ve reviewed plenty of movies that were “inspired” by “Alien”, “Porky’s” or “Die Hard”, emerging in their wake, but today is the turn of Quentin Tarantino, whose shadow falls wide over 90s cinema.


“Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” caused more missing of the point than a nervous person at a “lay on a bed of nails” competition. Rather than the intricately crafted plots, ingenious pop culture dialogue (it’s tough to remember a time when that was remotely original) and violence-drenched non-heroic action, the producers we’re interested in saw “violence, scumbags, and swearing”. How many terrible 90s crime movies have you seen? “Very Bad Things”, “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead”, “8 Heads In A Dufflebag”, “Two Days In The Valley”, “Coldblooded”…these are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head, but it’s a deep list. And “Freeway”…is definitely on that list!


The plot is perhaps the 90s-est, Tarantino-rip-off-est of the lot. It’s “Little Red Riding Hood”, but with the Wolf as a paedophile serial killer, Red as a violent foul-mouthed teenage criminal, and the woodsman as “Chopper”, her drug-dealing gang member boyfriend. Red’s mother is also a drug-addict prostitute and her stepdad appears to do nothing but smoke crack and lay around in filth watching TV. I couldn’t shake the feeling that people this tick-all-the-boxes sleazy wouldn’t be able to exist, but you never know I suppose. Anyway, her parents are arrested for the usual catalogue of crimes, and Red decides to handcuff her social worker to a bed, steal her car and make a run for her Grandma’s house up in northern California.


“The I-5 Killer” is operating on the stretch of highway she’s on, and wouldn’t you know it, her car breaks down, and she gets a ride from Mr Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), who’s definitely not an insane murderer, oh no. They have a conversation which seems to go on forever, with her shrill foul mouth, and his vaguely creepy platitudes – it must have seemed like a lot of fun to film, all that dialogue, but it comes across horribly on screen. Anyway, after him admitting he’d like to do “sex stuff to (her) dead body” she shoots him six times (including once in the head) and leaves him in a clearing miles from anywhere. He survives, of course, hideously disfigured, and the chasing and murdering and robbing and prison stints all goes on til we get a denouement of sorts at Grandma’s house. There’s lots of those sort of performances which are just the wrong side of over-the-top, like Brooke Shields as Mrs Wolverton, Dan Hedaya as a cop, and Brittany Murphy as Red’s cellmate.


There’s another scene, the police interview, where you can tell everyone expected this to be in some “90s crime drama” highlight reel for years to come. The dialogue overall is like an empty impression of Tarantino at his worst, and by the end you’ll want to mute the TV whenever Reese Witherspoon is on screen. It’s a really annoying central performance, which might have been okay if you were young and in the 90s, but if you’re any age in 2016, you’ll get really tired of it really quickly.


The guilty party is writer / director Matthew Bright, who took a brief detour through Full Moon early in his career (1988’s “Shrunken Heads” is one of his) before an odd, if thankfully short, career. He also wrote and directed this movie’s straight-to-video sequel, and a few other crime-y movies, before wrapping up with “Tiptoes” in 2003. Never heard of “Tiptoes”? It’s the one where Gary Oldman plays a midget (by walking on his knees) and Matthew McConnaughey his brother, who grew up average-sized. Widely regarded as one of the most spectacular misfires of all time, it finished off Bright’s career, but if this was the best he could manage, it’s perhaps not that great a loss.


Witherspoon is awful and Sutherland is as good as could be expected, going wildly over the top and obviously having a great time. But…I feel this misses the mark by not understanding why this genre (and the director they’re aping) was so popular. There’s no-one to cheer on or even to operate as an anti-hero, it’s just scumbags against slightly bigger scumbags. “Hey, what if we did a fairy tale where everyone was absolute human garbage?” You need some real skill to pull that sort of story off, and no-one involved in making it had that skill.


It’s interesting  to see what a strong critical reaction it got at the time, with people like Roger Ebert being very positive about it. While I’m sure many smart people hold different opinions to me for entirely legitimate reasons, I think at least some of the critical lauding this got was a case of Emperor’s new clothes, with no-one wanting to say “this hyper-cool, stylised, violent, profanity-laden new movie is a bit rubbish, isn’t it?” It’s so different to the source text that the occasional nod to the fairy tale (like the final scene) feels weird, like I was wondering why they bothered. It’s a little too humourless, unless you find a shrieking Deep South accent saying horrible things intrinsically funny.


Rating: thumbs down

Dead Rising: Endgame (2016)


Last year, we covered the first Dead Rising game, “Watchtower”, and despite me not being a particular fan of the games, I rather enjoyed it. Nice sense of humour, decent special effects, well-shot action, for a computer game movie produced for a website, very good indeed. It was either a success or they just shot two movies at the same time (possibly the latter), so now we get this.


Returning from part 1 are investigative reporter Chase Carter (Jesse Metcalfe), his sort-of-girlfriend Jordan (Keegan Connor Tracy) and General Lyons (Dennis Haysbert), who’s gone from the moral ambiguity of the first movie to full-on villainy in this one. It’s two years since the events of “Watchtower”, Jordan died in Army custody and Chase is still going into the quarantined area of East Mission City to find stories about how the army is treating the people there. Zombrex, the drug which stops infected people turning into zombies, is now administered via a chip with a year’s worth of concentrated doses, implanted into the body.

42116 dead rising endgame

Given that it’s supposed to be a quarantine area, there’s very little evidence that humans still live there – it’s basically Army guys, investigative reporters and zombies. It’s a bit “well, we have this set but not enough money for extras”, I suppose. One day, Chase finds evidence that General Lyons is involved in human trafficking, and there’s a mysterious something called “Afterlife” which seems to have got a lot of people interested. Factor in the biotech company Phenotrans (who, we’re supposed to think, started the zombie outbreak in the first place) and you’ve got yourself a good mystery.


The writer of part 1, Tim Carter, returns, but he’s got a co-writer this time, Michael Ferris, who got his start on “Bloodfist 2” back in 1990, and also wrote “The Game” (Michael Douglas version), “Terminator 3” and “Terminator Salvation”. While it’s a leaner and probably slightly better movie, the oddball sense of humour part 1 had is all but lost, and that’s a bit sad. One definite plus in changing crew was Zach Lipovsky, director of part 1 (and also of the rotten “Leprechaun: Origins”) getting replaced by long-term Canadian TV director Pat Williams.


So, with conspiracy everywhere, Chase assembles a team to help him get the truth out. There’s hacker / new love interest Sandra (Marie Avgeropoulos), whistleblower George Hancock (Ian Tracey), Chase’s producer Jill (Jessica Harmon) and Garth (Patrick Sabongui), who’s a bit of a tech genius – we see him playing “Dead Rising 3” as his character’s introduction, which is only surprising in that it took them til half an hour into movie 2 before they did it. It turns out “Afterlife” is…well, no spoilers, but they need to get to a server “farm” located right in the middle of the quarantine zone to stop it.


The fight scenes are really well done. Chase swings his home-made weapons about like a pro (even though he’s, y’know, a TV reporter) and they use that hand-held camera to great effect. Perhaps they’re a bit over-choreographed? But this is small potatoes. There’s also a really nicely done escalation of the threat facing our heroes, as they discover Phenotrans has been working on new strains of the zombie virus, which turns the undead super-strong and fast. While it’s not terribly original, anyone watching a sequel to a movie based on a computer game wanting originality ought not to be allowed to watch B-movies ever again.


Casting is strong – despite Dennis Haysbert looking like he’s waiting for his cheque to clear, then he’s right off set and never looking back, everyone else is fine. There’s a nice Billy Zane cameo, who’s presumably annoyed James Spader stole his look for “The Blacklist”, and I imagine it was a fun set to work on, as almost all the actors are Canadian TV veterans who have worked together before (two actors from “The 100”, and four who were on “Continuum”, including Victor Webster, who apparently plays the star of the second computer game. No idea).


With the sort-of announcement of a “Dead Rising” TV series, I imagine this will be the last movie. It’s less of a shame than I’d have said after the end of part 1, because that installment’s humour and structure set it apart from a lot of the pack. This, while slicker, and a bit better acted, is sort of samey – when you’ve seen one conspiracy to do something scientific with the undead, you’ve seen em all. Although, I suppose, you don’t see tons of zombies get offed with a baseball bat with a knife shoved in the end, and nails driven into it. If you have access to Crackle, you should definitely put this on and you’ll have a fine time.


Rating: thumbs up

Alien Apocalypse (2005)


Some actors, despite them never being A-listers or anything like that, always elicit a “why are they slumming in this?” response when you see them in a SyFy Channel original movie, one of them being Bruce Campbell, among the most entertaining movie stars ever. If you’re the sort of person who reads reviews on the internet and don’t know Bruce and all the wonderful things he’s done, then go away from these words right now and immerse yourself in one of the finest bodies of work you’ll ever see.


Heck, he’s even good in this, a relatively early attempt for SyFy. It’s a sort of half rip-off of “Planet Of The Apes”, as osteopath Dr Ivan Hood (Bruce), other astronaut Kelly (his “Xena” co-star Renee O’Connor) and a couple of cannon fodder, come back to Earth, having spent 40 years in suspended animation in space. Not sure why, to be honest. Presumably some mission somewhere, but it’s really never mentioned, it’s merely an excuse to have a bunch of people gone for 40 years. Bruce is a dick to his co-astronauts, immediately hoping the world has gone to hell while they’ve been away so he can use his medical skills to become known as “The Great Healer”, and of course he gets his wish.


The world has been taken over by alien termites, called “Mites”. They’re human sized and are moderately confusing, if truth be told. They enjoy eating human heads, fingers and…wood. Y’know, being termites and all. They dropped bombs on most of the cities, destroying the people but leaving the forests intact, and have set up humans as slaves to cut trees into presumably delicious and manageable planks. One character says “they aren’t growing any new ones” as if that’s supposed to explain this patently ludicrous plot. Why don’t they just ship back a bunch of lovely Earth earth and cut out the middleman? Why aren’t they growing new trees? Why aren’t new ones just growing anyway? Why is the lumber yard where most of the action takes place surrounded by trees? Wouldn’t they cut the closest ones down first?


Asking questions of the plot’s logic is definitely a fool’s errand with this one, so I’ll try and stop. After a couple of early deaths, Ivan and Kelly get captured by the overseers (humans who work for the aliens) and we get to see the wonderful state of the extras. Every beard in this movie is horribly fake, for no good reason (several male actors are clean-shaven, so it’s not like they wanted everyone with one) and they’re all victims of the worst dubbing job I’ve ever heard. Now, I understand if you’ve not got much budget and are filming in Eastern Europe, you’re going to need to hire locals, but could they not hire ones who could act a little? And when it came to dubbing them, for the dozens of voices, they used one guy. Every single bloody human sounds the same!


Most of the movie is Ivan’s escape and transformation from selfish asshole to humanity’s saviour, Kelly’s recapture and the story of him building an army out of the remaining pockets of free humanity. Luckily, they’re a short walk from where the last President and his senators are holed up, but of course they’re no good, but lots of people join up, mostly thanks to Ivan solving their relatively minor back problems. Bearing in mind humanity’s only been enslaved for 20 years, almost no-one remembers doctors or indeed anything about the old world, which isn’t played for laughs as much as I thought it’d be. Oh yes, there’s the local woman who joins Bruce, skinny, beautiful and well-shaved in the way many modern women are, but very very few post-apocalyptic women would probably be. Did they find a cache of old razors? There’s also a bit where Kelly sees a couple of gross dirty locals having sex a few feet away and gets so turned on she goes and jumps Ivan’s bones immediately.


The plot hinges on Ivan killing a Mite with a small bit of metal, and every single human acting as if it were impossible. So, in the entire history of human enslavement, not a single person swung a stick at a Mite’s head, or fired an arrow, or punched, or even shot a damn gun? When the humans figure out that yes, they can fight back, we’re then treated to a “Spartacus” ending, where the slaves rise up, everyone says “I’m responsible” to save Ivan’s hide, that sort of thing.


While it’s got a decent sense of how ridiculous it is, and both Campbell and O’Connor are lots of fun, it’s so shoddily made that the “we’re just having a laugh” excuse becomes less usable. There’s no excuse to have only one voice guy, or such terrible fake beards. Director Josh Becker and Campbell have been friends since childhood, which explains why he agreed to do this; looking at his credit list, Campbell and the Raimi brothers have appeared in most of his directing efforts since the mid 80s. It might reasonably be said without his more famous friends, he wouldn’t have had a career, but it’s…fine, I guess?


The biggest issue comes from the lack of connective tissue. While I often complain about  movies which take too long to get going, it’s jarring to see a movie where the main character is captured and working as a slave inside the first ten minutes – I’d have liked to see more of the world they found themselves in first (we get a shot of a destroyed Portland, but it’s not really enough). It’s like they wanted to get to the good stuff so just skipped character building and a decent narrative arc and all that.


You’ll have fun with this one if you’re a fan of Campbell, and if they repeat it on SyFy you could do a heck of a lot worse.


Rating: thumbs in the middle


American Horror House (2012)


Welcome back to our SyFy Channel review series, this time featuring another writing credit for Anthony C Ferrante, now much better known as the director of the “Sharknado” series. He’s been partially responsible for some of our favourite SyFy movies – “House Of Bones”, “Ghostquake” and “Leprechaun’s Revenge” – and provides a minor example of the odd business practices of low-budget producers. Of the films I listed above, two of them were also released under different titles (Ghostquake as “Haunted High”, Leprechaun’s Revenge as “Red Clover”) and so it is with tonight’s review, which has seen DVD release as “Paranormal Initiation”. I presume it’s to either save money or occasionally trick people into paying for the same movie twice and while it’s not unique to Ferrante’s oeuvre, it’s a puzzler.


Luckily, Ferrante’s lightly humourous touch is on display throughout this top-tier SyFy effort, although we start off with a nicely creepy bit as a girl in her early teens is shown in the aftermath of butchering her parents, smiling and singing a nursery rhyme. Flying forward through time to the present day minus a month, we’re in a sorority house where everyone just seems a little mean. Come on everyone, cheer up! Although I did discover that you have to pay to live in a sorority house (I assumed it was free) so lord knows why anyone wants to join one, ever. A girl who can’t mime playing the violin worth a damn is murdered by her violin teacher, then we go forward that last month and are in the present day.


The protagonist is Daria (Alessandra Torresani, “Caprica”, “The Big Bang Theory”), one of four new pledges to the Kappa sorority, who seems sort of bright and independent and I liked her immediately. We set our stall out early by having her and three other pledges strip to their underwear and go to a fraternity house to steal a 1900-era giant bear costume, which is sort of dumb, but it does introduce us to Daria’s love interest Lloyd, who’s quite good as that sort of character goes.


Anyway, “American Horror House” gets going quickly and never really lets up. People drop like flies, after a slightly quiet start, and it all seems to the fault of ghosts, with a link of some sort to the fake House Mother (really, just their landlady, as their old house burned down) Miss Margot, played by Morgan Fairchild. She’s obviously creepy as hell, but clearly has some law-and-order repelling powers, as the only person who shows up interested in the murders and disappearances is one solitary private investigator, who’s sort of rubbish at his job. So we’ve got the ghosts murdering people, the gradually dawning awareness in Daria and Lloyd, and the large party, organised by head of the sorority Colleen (a splendid performance from Jackie Tuttle, despite her looking far too old to be a college student).


The party is a really fun scene, with lots of well-sketched minor characters and performances, and plenty of murders too of course. It’s around here that I have to throw the brakes on recapping any more as revealing anything would give a few too many spoilers away. Suffice to say, it’s a surprisingly fun and interesting way of doing it, but I will ask one question which you can ponder throughout act 3 – why are all the ghosts evil, except that one time?


Sadly, there’s a couple of irrelevant subplots in there to push things to feature length – the sorority girl who paints and the psychic powers manifested by both Miss Margot and Daria (Margot says “you have the gift of sight” – er, shouldn’t that be second sight? I have the gift of sight, it’s not that special you know). Some scenes feel underwritten, like they knew what they wanted but forgot to think about the logic of it all – and, the ending is pretty bad, pulling off the sort of final reveal they do here is tricky, and some movies have managed it, but this one feels pretty weak.


Overall, I liked it a lot. Not perfect by any stretch, but a good sense of humour, a mostly decent pace, and lots of fine performances. This may sound like damning with faint praise, but these things are a long way from being a given when it comes to SyFy. I also realised while writing this that it’s probably an attempt to cash in on the TV series “American Horror Story”, the first season of which was set in a haunted house – but I didn’t watch that and you don’t need me pretending like I did. Anyway, this is a decent movie! Give it a go!


Rating: thumbs up

Ice Twisters (2009)


This never happens

As many long-term readers will know, one of our missions here at the ISCFC is to review every single SyFy Channel original movie. We’ve already done quite a lot of them, have found good and bad (mostly bad), but the number left to review is still vast. To that end, here’s “Ice Twisters”, an extraordinarily generic “okay, this is definitely SyFy” effort from 2009 with a hefty array of people who wish they were famous enough to be “That Guy” actors.


The thing about doing the same thing over and over again is you get pretty good at it. The setup is slick and almost perfect…perfect, if you were thinking of having a nap and didn’t want to miss any important information. A group of climate scientists have figured out how to make it rain, and they’re doing a field experiment, in a field, with a couple of big military-style tents filled with important tech stuff. It’s a success! At the same time they’re celebrating, famed Michael Crichton / Stephen King-esque thriller writer Charlie Price is doing a book signing in a small town, of his new novel “Ionos-Fear”. I’d say there’s a strong chance of that being the movie’s working title, as it’s badass – but as we get a dissatisfied “fan”, we get tons more information about him. He’s a former scientist himself and his books are full of elaborate plans to save the day that aren’t always scientifically accurate. As that unhappy reader leaves the bookshop, the scientists say that they’re getting weird readings from a small town about 15 miles away, nowhere near the area their experiment was supposed to cover…


If you can’t tell every single thing that’s going to happen from that, then I’m not sure you’ve ever seen a movie before (much less a SyFy one). It takes a few minutes and even if it’s something we’ve seen a million times before, it’s really well done. I think my favourite of all the SyFy tropes is “a scientist finds himself close to a disaster related to his area of expertise, coincidentally” – okay, this time it’s a scientist turned author, but it’s still the same and still great.


There’s a weird-ish B-plot too, which had me wondering if it was some last-minute addition to bump the time up. On the road is a young couple who might not be an actual couple (maybe they’re students, or a student and his teacher – it’s hard to tell and they’re both too old to be college students. Oh, SyFy, why do you test me so?) They’re on their way to do a “day in the life” style piece on Charlie, which doesn’t sound too weird, but the thing is, they don’t come close to the other half of the plot til after the hour mark. They drive through some beautiful mountainous country, visit the town which got hit by the ICE TWISTER and then find an abandoned local TV station to broadcast their footage of the disaster.


Charlie is old friends with Joanne, someone high up in (MADE UP FEDERAL DISASTER AGENCY) so the bulk of the action is him, her and the scientists trying to figure out just how their tampering in God’s domain went wrong, while the top brass want to keep the experiment running, no doubt for nefarious purposes (honestly, I didn’t pay tons of attention to this part). It’s so super-generic, with the only difference being there’s not much of a romantic subplot between X and Y. If you’ve seen any SyFy movies, you’ve definitely seen something very similar to this.


The effects are quite decent, I suppose – things fly through the air and at least most of the time it looks like they’re actually flying through the air. Kudos must also go to the person who scouted out the shooting locations, too, as they did some fine work. A nice small town, beautiful mountains, believable destruction…enthusiastic thumbs up to that person. A big thumbs down, though, to the person who worked on the logic. There’s one scene where our couple are running towards a car, with a person inside it, and they’re close enough to be heard over the rapidly incoming twister. The car gets sucked up into the air, and the people are fine. Cars weigh a lot more than people, you guys (even me, and I’m way heftier than anyone in this movie).


Everything else is fine, I guess. The acting is dependably bland, with X trying a little too hard perhaps, and the bad guys not seeming quite bad enough, but otherwise it’s okay. It’s really difficult to summon up much of any feeling either way towards “Ice Twisters”. It does feature a welcome return for ISCFC favourite trope “haha all our friends are dead”, as the main couple remember all their fallen comrades, so there’s that.


Rating: thumbs in the middle


(because thumbs down would imply I hated it – I didn’t, I nothinged it)

Nightmare City (1980)




I really dislike movies that cheat – whether it’s having twists that rely on information we weren’t given, or magic reset buttons, or (as is the case here) “it was all a dream” endings. Has anyone ever gone “that entire movie that took place in someone’s head was really good”? No, is the answer, and if you have any friends that come close to this nonsense, I suggest cutting them from your life immediately. I’m sure there are exceptions (please mention them in the comments, it’d be nice to know people read these) but my rule is good and worth following.


“Nightmare City” is one of the “classic” Italian zombie movies, along with stuff like “City Of The Living Dead”, “Burial Ground” (my favourite), and “The Beyond”. There’s a fantastic blu-ray restoration of it done by Arrow Films (seriously, give those guys your money, they put tons of work into making old, cheaply shot movies look as good as possible) with tons of special features and all sorts. I’m not saying make this your first ever Arrow purchase (I’d have to go with “Dawn Of The Dead” for that) but even their less-than-great releases are at least interesting to find out about.


A bearded fellow awakes from uneasy dreams and needs to get to work, while his wife lounges in bed some more. He’s a news reporter and is off to the airport to interview…someone? I was switching between the Italian and English audio at the time and missed that bit. Don’t worry, it does not become a plot point in any way. So, he’s at the airport when a large military plane comes into view, radio silence. In 2016 it’d have been shot out of the air miles away, but in 1980 it’s allowed to land, so the army gathers round it, with the emergency services and our plucky reporter and his cameraman. Out of the plane? ZOMBIES! There’s a lot of the undead packed onto it, too, because they just keep streaming out.


Now, a word about the zombies. The blu-ray cover calls them “pizza-faced”, which is being rather polite. “Normal people with a bit of sticky crap on their face” is still being a bit polite to them. Blu-ray is a bad medium to see such pathetically bad makeup (which in almost every instance, ends at the neck – zombies have remarkably fresh hands, it would seem) and while it’s certainly not the worst makeup ever (I remember one where all the zombies just had grey paint on their face) it’s right down at the bottom. Even the more grotesque undead just look like they’re wearing a crap-covered balaclava. And all their eyes are fine! Ah, never mind.


There’s an Army general and his far-too-young-for-him girlfriend too, with the Army guy being decent-ish. His commanding officer, though, is a piece of garbage, when despite what must be thousands of deaths he refuses to issue a warning or help civilians in any way (Army guy spends most of the second half of the movie flying about in a helicopter, indicating the producers paid for one and they were going to get every penny out of it).


What’s nice in horror movies is an escalating sense of threat. Humans will pretty quickly figure out how to kill zombies, so there either needs to be more zombies, or the humans need to get weaker, or the zombies need to get more powerful. In “Nightmare City”, though, they start off virtually invincible and just stay there. They run! They use guns and knives! They drive cars! Out of all the humans, only Reporter Guy shows even the most basic instinct for self-preservation, kicking the zombies out of the way, running around, and most importantly not just standing there shouting as someone eats your face. Or boob, as it seems at least a few of our zombies have a penchant for chewing on a breast.


There’s only so long you can watch a bunch of incompetent humans get gradually picked off by a completely over-powered group of zombies. There’s bits of entertainment in there, I suppose, like the zombie attack on a TV studio showing a live jazzercise program, or the TV that gets thrown and explodes like a grenade, but it’s pretty slim pickings for what should have been a rip-roaring classic. And, even for an Italian zombie movie, it’s pretty appallingly sexist. Even leaving aside the constant chewing on boobs, there’s the way the only two plot drivers are Reporter Guy and Army Guy – their women are complete window-dressing and only slow things down, cause problems, cry and moan, and so on.


Director Umberto Lenzi is the very poor cousin of Italian exploitation cinema, and with an ending like the one he gave us, he deserves to be. Here be spoilers, I guess…so, Reporter’s wife dies (turning into a hilarious stuffed dummy as she falls the entire height of a rollercoaster, and things seem to be going pretty badly for him, until he wakes up! It was all a dream! But not only that, he then goes to the airport, meets his cameraman, and sees a military plane land in complete radio silence. Basically, they replay the first few minutes of the film, with the only difference being Reporter Guy has a slightly more puzzled expression this time. Nothing else changes at all, and the movie cuts off when the plane door opens. So BOOOOOOO


It’s not fun enough to get past its massive limitations. If you’re desperate for an Italian zombie movie, you have many better ways to spend your time and money.


Rating: thumbs down

The Immortal Voyage Of Captain Drake (2009)


Once again, SyFy Channel have made a movie that I imagine looked a lot better on paper than it did in execution. Adrian Paul, who’s a fine comedic leading man, as a heavily fictionalised version of Sir Francis Drake, with tales of derring-do as he takes on Spanish captain Don Sandovate – played by the Maori actor Temuera Morrison. Throw a few CGI creatures in there and that’s your recipe for a SyFy movie. But it ended up a bit…silly?


Drake is “the Queen’s Pirate”, rightly enough (they must have run out of time to talk about him being heavily involved in slavery) and as we join him he’s defeating Sandovate and stealing his stuff. Only Sandovate kidnaps his daughter, Isabella (Moroccan-born actress Sofia Pernas, in her movie debut) who’s also the girlfriend of Drake’s first mate, Easton (Wes Ramsey, doing a perfectly passable English accent). There’s a super-obvious “I’m going to betray you later” guy in Drake’s crew, as well as the world’s smartest fellow who regularly spouts deep philosophy in an Italian accent. So, all in all, things look good so far.


A Sultan then gets his magical overacting assistant lady to cause a storm to bring Drake to his castle and things go a bit off the rails. He wants Drake to go and find the Tree Of Life and bring back its fruit, because all his people are dying of some disease or other – if he returns, he’ll return all his treasure, multiplied by 20. So off Drake pops, pursued swiftly by Sandovate, and we’re then treated to a giant monster fights, trickery and backstabbing; Isabella escapes and is re-captured, and the Tree Of Life seems no nearer.


“Drake” is hampered mostly by its presumably very low budget. There’s a lot of boat-y CGI, and it’s really cheap-looking – perhaps they paid some company to do it, and had to use it based on their outlay, because there’s no other reason a film made in 2009 should look that bad. All the outfits look far too clean and new to belong to long-time sea dogs, and Sandovate’s is the worst of the lot, resembling nothing more than a kid’s set of toy armour. “My First Conquistador” perhaps? The beyond cheap snow effect at the end (as they track the Tree to the North Pole) is just par for this sad course.


If it’s anything, it’s a Middle Ages version of “National Treasure” (this observation was by my wife, as she’s reading this over my shoulder and demands credit), as our heroes consult maps, make surprising links from very thin premises, and go on wild goose chases. Plato apparently drew a map which not only features Atlantis but also the exact locations of every other famous mythical place, so they need to decipher that; they see the hidden words in normal texts, and so on. It’s kind of a fun idea but with one guy so amazingly smart, it ends up just being him explaining large chunks of the plot to the rest of the crew.


Of course, the main reason people would be watching this is Adrian Paul, and he doesn’t disappoint. He plays Drake as sort of a dick at the beginning, and it’s only when it’s revealed just how evil Sandovate is that you understand why. Otherwise, he’s channeling the spirit of Errol Flynn, crossed with his own lighter moments on “Highlander”. I like Adrian Paul, but of course your mileage may vary (and if you don’t, then there’s no reason to watch this movie) but I get the feeling he might be difficult to work with. Case in point – Drake’s accent. Despite Drake being English, and no-one really knowing what accent he would have had, therefore it being fine for Paul to play the part with his own also English accent, he goes for some weird mix of Irish and Cockney which I can’t imagine was the director’s choice. “Hey, Adrian, why not just use your own accent?” he might have gone, to which he got the reply, “nah, I got this. Don’t worry!”


I love that they tried going for the spirit of the old “Jason And The Argonauts” movies, with a lightly camp tone and lots of fun locations and monsters, but it didn’t quite work. Script not quite tight enough, budget too small, everything just a little off. I presume writer Rafael Jordan doesn’t remember a thing about this, as he’s written what seems like half of the last decade’s SyFy Channel movies – from “Lost Colony: The Legend Of Roanoake” (also starring Paul) to “Frost Giant” to “Stonados” to “Ragin Cajun Redneck Gators” to “Crystal Skulls” – wow, did I ever hate “Crystal Skulls” – he’s prolific but sadly, on this occasion, uninspired. Director David Flores, on the other hand, is only responsible for a few other SyFy movies, having done “Invasion Roswell” and “Sands Of Oblivion” (which we loved).


I wish they’d had a little more time and money, because I love this sort of adventure movie. And it was set up for either a sequel or a TV series too, with most of the characters surviving and lots of locations to re-visit. A (slight) shame.


Rating: thumbs in the middle