Shark Exorcist (2015)

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My experience of the movies of Donald Farmer has been discovering them years after the fact, so it was with bated breath I awaited the release of a brand new movie on DVD, with a great-looking trailer, that I would be watching at the same time as everyone else. We have Kaleidoscope Home Entertainment to thank for bringing this one to us, and should you be a particularly uncritical Christian you’ll be happy to know they’ve also put out “God’s Not Dead 2”, with Melissa Joan Hart and Jesse Metcalfe in it, doing a pose on the cover like they’re in a slightly saucy romantic comedy and not a miserable piece of fundamentalist anti-intellectual propaganda. But they’ve also got some really amazing-looking films on their site, so check them out.

 

Anyway, Donald Farmer! He’s a lovely chap, with a great social media presence where he shares photos of cool old cinemas, behind the scenes stuff from his old movies and his extremely eclectic DVD, blu-ray and soundtrack collection. He’s also happy to discuss his oeuvre with people online too, so an enthusiastic thumbs up to him (he’s certainly nicer than the director of “Things”, who sent me an abusive email the other day).

 

So it’s with heavy heart that I must report “Shark Exorcist” is…well, seemingly unfinished. The closing credits kick in at 59 minutes (admittedly, not all that unusual for Farmer) with a mid-credits scene which bears no relation to anything that’s gone before; then a post-credits scene which only seems to be there because someone remembered they’d left a storyline completely unresolved. The plot which is described on the back cover of the DVD would have been fun…if they’d actually done it. The cover even makes reference to “villagers”, like whoever wrote the blurb thought it was set in the olden days.

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I feel genuinely bad criticising a new Farmer movie, but I have to assume it had a very tough time making it to release. “Shark Exorcist” was originally listed on IMDB in 2012, but is now 2015, and what that information and seeing the film screams to me is that maybe half of the action we see (the main plot, probably) was filmed back then, but money ran out or some other disaster befell the shoot. It perhaps sat on a shelf for a few years before someone dug it out, filmed a bunch of new scenes with new actors to get it to the absolute barest minimum length to release as a feature film? There’s an odd-sounding credit – “filmed and edited by Jamie Nichols” – which might mean he had a larger hand in that extra stuff? Or I might be completely wrong and just speculating blindly. I know what you come to these reviews for!

 

Let’s talk plot! I’m not sure I’ll be able to manage it, but here goes. A nun who’s committed some unspecified evil act is confronted by a woman at the side of a lake. The nun stabs her, throws her into the water and summons Satan, and he sends a demon shark to help her out. Or maybe it’s Satan himself? Anyway, ONE YEAR LATER, and we’ve got three young women heading off to the lake-side for a relaxing day out. Channing Dodson as the most sensible of the three, Emily, is a decent actor, the other two are…well, not so much bad as just not actors at all. One of them gets bitten by the shark, a bite which recovers remarkably quickly, and which leaves her with a sudden interest in water. Possession!

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There’s also the crew of the show “Ghost Whackers”, consisting of a very enthusiastic redhead and her cameraman (oddly enough, I identified him in the credits much more easily than her, as he’s just billed as “cameraman” and I missed her name the only time she said it). At one point, she’s talking to the camera, but her guy is in shot, meaning she’s talking to the movie’s camera, not her own; that this only happens once makes things extra confusing. Anyway, she wants to be possessed by the shark-demon, and after writhing round by the side of the lake a few times, gets her wish about halfway through the movie, suddenly appearing outside a coliseum-style building and eating the woman from the rival show “Ghost Fakers”.

 

Bobby Kerecz pops up as a sleazy dude, gives his real-life wife (the possessed lady from earlier) a lift to the beach and frolics with her before getting eaten; then he shows up as the priest the back cover of the movie promised us, only this arc, as the titular character, is barely more impressive than his original one. Characters drop in and out seemingly at random, there’s a scene where a few people walk round a super-depressing looking funfair, and it doesn’t so much come to a conclusion as it does just find a semi-convenient place and stop. Trying to be as diplomatic as possible, the way the main plot is wrapped up is frankly pathetic.

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For a movie which, once again, has its closing credits at 59 minutes, it’s got a ton of padding. We see every second of a guy jogging round the quay; and the scene where an unidentified man pervs on a rather beautiful young woman sleeping while sunbathing is absolutely 100% pointless and absolutely 100% shown at great length – plus, when said woman is inevitably attacked by one of the movie’s several shark-women, the visual is bizarre because the victim is athletic and has clearly lifted some weights, and the aggressor is a 95lb woman who’s…well, not. The camera focuses on reactions to gore rather than actual gore itself, a money-saving trick (perhaps he was going to film the special effects later and never got round to it) and, if you’re not counting a swimming CGI shark or a bit of blood on a woman’s leg, the first thing you could call an “effect” doesn’t happen til almost three-quarters of the way through!

 

There are a few lovely lines in it, though, examples of the sense of humour Farmer has displayed throughout his career. If I had to guess, I’d say the entire thing was built around the line “we’re gonna need a bigger cross”, which is hilarious, and the “Ghost Whackers” lady is clearly having a good time chewing every bit of scenery she can find.

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It gives me no great pleasure to criticise this – Wild Eye Releasing, a brilliant company, have had a hand in its release, Kaleidoscope have some fun stuff in their catalogue, and of course Donald Farmer is a great chap – but it’s just really really bad. Heck, even the actual physical product – the pre-order price was £12.99 but it ended up being £8; for a movie which barely lasted an hour with absolutely no special features on it whatsoever, it still feels like a bit of a cheat (it’s apparently a fiver in Morrisons, should you be interested). Even if the movie had been good, I’d have still felt a bit aggrieved. If these companies aren’t prepared to put any work into their DVDs, why should we put the money into buying them? Okay, “Sharknado” is still a big thing, and a wacky-looking DVD will no doubt make a few £££ for everyone involved, but it’s such a rotten trick to pull on people. And everyone who gets tricked by this will definitely think twice before spending money on low-budget horror in future, making it ultimately a bad thing for us all.

 

But it’s the movie itself that really ought to be our focus, with the real upset coming from thinking that someone looked at this and went “yes, this is in a reasonable state to release and expect people to pay for”. There’s the odd moment where you can sense Farmer going for a European 70s horror vibe, a couple of well-composed shots (although more Dutch angles than any movie really needs), some fun performances and a nice sense of humour; but, while I fear an unfriending in my near future, I can’t with good conscience recommend anyone spends their hard-earned money on this. I have to, just have to, assume serious problems somewhere in the production of “Shark Exorcist”, because there’s no way this was the desired finished product.

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It’s absolutely worth getting yourself some Farmer DVDs, though. “Red Lips” and “Scream Dream” are both singular experiences, and you can witness Melissa Moore, Debbie Rochon and Ghetty Chasun at their best, all excellent actors who deserved more from the industry than they got. If “Vampire Cop” gets re-released next year, definitely pick that up. “Compelling Evidence” is a bizarre delight. The more recent “Chainsaw Cheerleaders” is loads of fun. If you’re going to go for this, at least try one of Farmer’s better movies first.

 

Rating: thumbs down

The Philadelphia Experiment (2012)

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1984’s “Philadelphia Experiment” is well regarded, but it’s a bit on the bland side, if we’re being honest – although they did blow up an entire city block in Utah for real for one of the stunts, which is pretty cool.  Honestly, my memories of it are very fuzzy and while, if I were a real serious pro movie reviewer, I’d have rewatched that too to give you, dear reader, all the comparison insights, I’m not a real serious pro movie reviewer, so I didn’t. If you can imagine a stereotypical mid-budget big studio “fantastic” action movie of the 1980s, chances are it’ll be fairly close to what that was. 2012’s version, on the other hand, has SyFy levels of money so has to concentrate itself a little more tightly and is the better for it.

 

It also feels a little like a reunion for SyFy Channel series “Sanctuary”, with two of the main cast also being main cast on that show – Emilie Ullerup as coffee shop worker / hacker “Molly Gardner”; and Ryan Robbins as Government super-genius and good guy “Richard Falkner”. Or you could say the same thing for adventure/soap “Arctic Air”, with Ullerup again and John Reardon as her boyfriend, local Sheriff’s deputy “Carl Reed”. It’s perhaps safer to call this an example of a movie full of Canadian TV all-stars, with lots of those faces you’ll remember from big US shows that film in Vancouver (or just big Canadian shows, like the two above, “Continuum” and so on). It’s got a heck of a strong cast for a SyFy release, really, with Malcolm MacDowell, long past the era he’d appear in literally anything (remember “Cyborg 3”), clearly owing one of the producers a favour; and Michael Pare, star of the original “Philadelphia Experiment”, here playing the evil Government lady’s main goon. Poor old Michael Pare, eh? While he’s still in regular work, it looks like he really annoyed someone in Hollywood around 1990 or so, because if you can spot a film that you remember from after then, that he had anything other than a cameo in, you’re a better person than I.

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So, the movie. The Army is working on secret invisibility research, and it looks like Falkner has cracked it, disappearing the car of evil Army / government lady “Kathryn Moore” (Gina Holden, a regular in ISCFC-reviewed movies, I’m sure she’s delighted to hear) then bringing it back again. But, of course, the device goes wrong – the number, a measurement of the level of “Teslas”, keeps going up and up and suddenly, appearing on an airstrip 15 miles outside Philadelphia, is the USS Eldridge, fresh from 1943! Turns out the official story (that the “experiment” was a complete failure, if it happened at all, and the ship was eventually renamed and decommissioned before being sold to Spain) is bunk, and the ship just went missing.

 

The only survivor is  “Bill Gardner” (Nicholas Lea, “The X Files”), and they make a very sensible decision with him, as soon as he gets off the boat (he basically swaps positions with Deputy Reed, who investigates it and gets sucked in). In time travel movies, unless the entire thing is going to be about culture shock, it’s best not to dwell on those aspects too much, because we’ve seen them a million times before. So Gardner looks baffled by a modern street and the cost of a cup of coffee, but otherwise very sensibly keeps his mouth shut and doesn’t run down the street screaming “what year is this?” A very well-acted little bit from Lea there. It turns out he’s Molly’s grandfather, and the two of them eventually meet up, with the great sadness of finding out what happened to his wife, 70 years ago.

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Now, that 70 years is important. Ullerup was 28 at the time of filming, which would make her mother unusually old to have had her only child; but while that’s odd, it pales in comparison to the next odd thing. On the run from Pare, they go to find one of Bill’s old buddies who worked on the project, Morton Salinger (MacDowell). Now, if he was a scientist back in 1943, he’d have been at the very earliest, say, 25 at the time? So Malcolm MacDowell, a spry and young-looking 69 years old, is supposed to be at least 95. Small potatoes compared to the often insane continuity errors we deal with here at the ISCFC, but worth pointing out I think.

 

As the action ratchets up, the Army get extremely evil, and the race across the country – the ship disappears and reappears all over the world (destroying Sellafield in the UK at one point), with Falkner trying to help out the Gardners at the same time as being held basically at gunpoint. When he complains early on about not having the right information about the Eldridge to do his experiments, Moore tells him “we gave you all the information you needed to know”. I’m going to say there’s a zero percent chance of that line ever being true, if it’s ever uttered in any movie. Oh, and it turns out Bill has got superpowers, as he was genetically fused with the power of the experiment when it happened, or something. He can send out electrical shock-waves with his mind, which is pretty handy, but only when he’s getting his ass kicked (in other words, not when it’s inconvenient to the plot).

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It’s a bit daft, of course, but it’s a lot of fun, made by people who weren’t afraid to take bits out of the original’s plot if it was a bit dull or didn’t work too well – I personally enjoyed the lack of a tedious romance, as Bill just wanted to get back to his wife who he left, to him, a fortnight ago. Emilie Ullerup is really good, and ought to be in much bigger films than this; Nicholas Rea also seems a bit too classy an actor to be in this (although he hams it up well when he’s firing energy bolts at people). It’s stacked with decent actors, mostly fine special effects and a story which knows where it’s going (by no means a given).

 

Rating: thumbs up

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Showdown At Area 51 (2007)

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I’m sorry to say we’re at the end of another season here at the ISCFC, and that season is “Jason London films with Area 51 in the title, where he goes down a long slide at one point”. As soon as more movies are released to cope with the demand for this hottest of all genres, you can be sure we’ll be here to review them.

 

It’s SyFy, it’s one alien fighting another, different alien on Earth, it ticks a lot of boxes. But sadly it’s really quite dumb, and I’m not sure why. The basic gist of things is your classic race against time plot with a few interesting sprinkles on top – London is Jake Townsend, the slightly alcoholic black sheep of the family, whose brother dies defending what appears to be a “wildlife preserve” (but is really Area 51, I guess we’re supposed to believe). Jake used to work there too, before being discharged for reasons unknown, so he goes to find out what’s going on.

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Turns out, an alien called Jude (Coby Bell) is after the MacGuffin Rod, which will turn off the Omega Seed, which will save the Earth from being destroyed – it’s due to go off quite soon, I guess. It also turns out that another alien, Kronnan, a great hulking fellow, is also after it, and he also wants to save the human race. Or does he? Or is Omega the villain? With lots of fights between the two, and with them facing off against the might of the US Army (aka a weak-looking fool and about 50 guys), you have plenty of time to figure it out. Oh, and the Rod only has five gems but needs six, so they have to go to a junkyard and talk to the friendly and extremely knowledgeable owner to get it. There’s a weird bit where Diamond Joe, the junkyard owner, looks at Jude (who’s black) and makes a reference to “your kind”, which elicited some sharply drawn breaths…but it turns out “your kind” is aliens! Phew!

 

Also sucked into this race against time / mystery of who to believe is Monica Gray (Gigi Edgeley, “Farscape”), who’s Jake’s ex-girlfriend. Turns out, she did some work on decoding the MacGuffin Rod back when they both worked at Area 51, but when the powers that be found out about it, Jake took the rap for her, with one of the provisos being he could never speak to her again. Not sure how they’d have enforced that, but okay? So we think he was a flake who messed up his relationship, but he’s actually the most stand-up of all stand-up guys. Although, when he runs a roadblock later on in the movie, he straight-up kills the main Army guy by running him over, so even though he saved the world, I’m thinking a nice long time in a jail cell is in his immediate future.

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Quite a bit of the final third of the movie is wondering which alien is actually evil, and which is lying. But the problem is, it’s extremely obvious which one will end up being the good guy, so it’s a lot of time wasted for no good reason. Kronnan helps out a little kid stuck on a swing-set, and justifies his actions at one point, but then forgets to speak for the rest of the time and just grunts as he’s attacking whoever. Not a great sign. Kronnan’s race apparently feeds off pollution, so when Monica quite reasonably asks “why don’t they just ask nicely for it?” Jude replies “they don’t negotiate, they destroy”. Seems a very wasteful way of doing things, honestly. Invading takes a lot of time and money, asking for an entire planet’s pollution would be simple and quick, and make you a new friend. Aliens, eh, with their weird plans.

 

Taking the ending into account, where we see a huge force of ships in orbit round Earth, sent home when our heroes save the day (the subtitles say “invasion has been cancelled! Everyone home!”), they’re really pretty stupid aliens. You’d think they’d hang around a bit, having come that far, even if just to find out why the Omega Seed was deactivated. But no, they’re an entire race of people who suddenly remembered they left the oven on at home.

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It’s cheap, too (when cars fall over in the junkyard due to laser blasts, you can clearly see the person in the background shoving them), but rips along and has a few fun moments to keep you interested, should you find it playing one evening. London and Edgeley are both fine, too (and there’s an excellent cameo from the most stoned stoner I’ve ever seen)…plus, it has a slight personal resonance, being filmed in and around St Louis, my soon-to-be home (yes, dear reader, one part of the ISCFC will be relocating to the Midwest of the USA soon).

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Vampire Cop (1993)

aka “Midnight Kiss”

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Normally, I’d say “not to be confused with the other Vampire Cop from a few years earlier” at the start of a review like this, but I have a confession to make, dear reader, and that is, I did confuse them for years. I told a story about trying to find the worst trailer on the worst-looking movie on Blockbuster’s shelves, back in the VHS days, then find the worst trailer on that tape, and so on down until we theoretically came to the worst movie ever. We found “Vampire Cop”, several rounds in, but never saw it for sale or rental. Fast forward to this site, and I decided to find it again, and that’s what brought me into the world of Donald Farmer, a world I’m delighted to inhabit. Then…the other day, I was telling my friend about Mr Farmer, and wanted to show him the trailer for “Vampire Cop”. I searched on Youtube, up this popped and I had a sudden realisation that this was the trailer I’d seen all those years ago, and I had to track it down and watch it as soon as possible.

 

I think the vampire represents feminism – watch the arc. The police station is absolutely chock full of the most appalling sexism, and our hero, Detective Carrie Blass (Michelle Owens) is perhaps understandably a little annoyed by this. A vampire bites her and she suddenly understands her power, and goes around beating the crap out of guys. If she finally kills a guy and drinks their blood, she’ll become a full vampire (feminist), but instead kills her sire and goes back to her ex-husband and her job, where nothing at all has changed. I didn’t say it was in favour of feminism!

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I’m not sure the movie intended this to be the case, it could just be a guy with weird attitudes towards women trying to make a movie where a strong woman is the hero? Anyway. It starts off where a nice-looking middle-aged woman is sat in an almost deserted bar and the world’s sleaziest, medallion-wearing douchebag is hitting on her. She refuses, understandably, and walks outside to her car, where Medallion follows her and decides to take what he wants by force. But who’s that coming out of the shadows? Dressed as a vicar, with a sweet cross earing, a man billed only as “The Vampire” (Gregory A Greer, channelling Crispin Glover) gets involved by tearing Medallion’s face off (!), then taking a few shotgun blasts from the bar owner before grabbing the gun and blowing his head off. If you’re wondering if he’s there to save the woman, you’ll only have a few seconds to wait for an answer, which comes when he drains all her blood.

 

This is apparently the 16th murder in recent months, and the Homicide detectives are stumped- when they’re not busy ogling female corpses or loudly mocking any woman within earshot, that is. Carrie was a detective and is now in the new Rape Crisis Squad, and she (of course) annoys all the men when she walks in and is able to get loads of good information from a vampire attack victim, with the simple technique of talking to them as if they were a human being. So, she wants back on the case, but to do that she’ll need to be a detective; luckily, one of her female co-workers informs her that the Captain is more than happy to promote women who agree to sleep with him. She did it, and it was the best decision she ever made! Carrie resists until the case escalates, then decides boffing the captain is the lesser of two evils and agrees to meet him after work one evening. Guess where he takes her? Yes, to a strip club! Carrie’s ex-husband, Dennis (Michael McMillen) interrupts them with news about the case, sees Carrie and loudly accuses her of brown-nosing, maybe three feet away from his superior officer. But he’s a guy so has no problems!

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I’m really getting bogged down in the soul-destroying aspects of this movie. Anyway, she gets bitten while on a stakeout, and The Vampire takes something of a liking to her. I think, I’m really not sure, as his insane overacting makes spotting his actual emotions a touch on the difficult side (he’s a quipper, too, should you be down on your groaning quotient for the month). Oh, and the formerly married couple are forced to be partners by the Captain – I don’t know tons about police procedure, but I’d bet every penny I’ve ever earned that there’s a rule specifically forbidding that. Because she’s not been a detective for a while, we’re also treated to a training montage, where Dennis shows Carrie how to run and fight and shoot a gun, and from hating him there’s clearly a new-found respect and friendship between the two. Really?

 

I’m sort of circling round the plot, and that’s because there’s really not one, traditionally speaking. When Carrie starts displaying vampiric tendencies, you think she’s going to take revenge on the male cops who’ve treated her so badly, but in fact the Captain’s eventual punishment for appalling sexual harassment…is nothing. The other cops? They get off scot-free too. The only person who really suffers (apart from The Vampire), is Carol, the woman who Carrie helped near the beginning of the movie – she’s also turned into a vampire but deals with it with slightly less aplomb than our hero. All Carrie does is nearly eat some raw meat, beat up a surprisingly multi-ethnic gang of thugs, and then get her ex’s help to do all the hard work. Oh, and she murders a guy who’s got a gun in the foyer of the police station by bashing his head against a wall until his brains come out…but the rest of the cast treat it as a mild inconvenience, so perhaps it wasn’t brains and the guy was fine.

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What of our vampiric friend? Well, he and Carrie have one thing in common – this is the only movie they ever worked on, in any capacity (something they share with a good half of the cast). When you hit the top your first time out, why try again? Not only does he grimace and give good quip, but he also has one amazing scene where he buys a book, but before you’ve got the time to think “oh, this is deepening his character a little” he’s reading a bit, laughing maniacally, then tearing the page out. It’s the Bible! Boom, take that, Christianity!

 

I would love to really mock this movie or say it was a hidden gem, but sadly the truth is somewhere, well, not in the middle, it’s way closer to the terrible end of things. It’s technically incompetent, of course – holes pre-appear in peoples’ chests before the stake arrives, pages are pre-torn out of books, that sort of thing. It’s one of the most sexist movies I can remember, and I’ve seen a lot of terribly sexist movies. But there’s the faintest whisper of a good movie there – I wish I could relate it to the director or the two credited writers, but their careers amounted to a whole heap of the sort of thing you’d have avoided in a video shop of the time (even more so than this, because at least this has a badass title). Take, for instance, the scene in Carol’s house near the end. It’s a weird mix of the extremely camp (Carol’s appearance and dialogue) and the quite creepy (how her house looks). It’s a scene that I wish had had better people working on it.

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I’m actually sort of irritated it had just enough interesting stuff to make me bothered about thinking about it all through the day after I saw it (were it not for the notes I take, half the movies I review would be forgotten by the time it takes me to hit “stop” on the remote). Maybe give it a try if you’re in a forgiving mood.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Area 51 (2011)

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I’ll forgive the SyFy Channel for a lot of things, and have given positive reviews to all sorts of daftness. But there are times when the introductory logic of a film is so daft that you spend the first half shouting abuse at the screen, and you know what? That’s rarely a good indicator of enjoyment. That the second half is plenty entertaining is even more surprising, I suppose; but I’m still not sure it ends up on the “win” pile.

 

Maybe SyFy are hoping you’ll ignore their bonkers premise with what is a very strong (for them) cast. Bruce Boxleitner is Colonel Martin, Rachel Miner (one of my favourite should’ve-been-much-bigger actors) is Sergeant Hanna, and Jason London is Sergeant Aaron “Shoes” Schumacher; then, on the civilian side, there’s John Shea (“Lois and Clark”, “Mutant X”) as TV news anchor Sam Whitaker. Any one of those four could headline a normal SyFy movie, and while I might not be exactly happy, I’d at least accept it. And then there’s a surprising name in the director’s chair – Jason Connery! He’s still acting here and there (although he doesn’t appear in this), and has also directed five movies.

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Okay, so let’s discuss some fine examples of “there’s no way!” logic. Due to pressure from the media and the public, the US Army has decided to open up Area 51. To this end, they’ve invited the world’s media…oh, did I say “world’s media”? What I meant to say was one TV news anchor, his camera operator, and a blogger (apparently, the world’s most famous one, but still) with her photographer. Two people, in effect. To the opening of the most famous secret secular place on Earth. Two people.

 

Next up is the security and staffing of the base. When things kick off (more on that later) anyone is allowed to use the lifts to go up and down to the most secret levels, whenever they like. I know absolutely nothing about military security, but I reckon it’d be a bit beefier than…well, not having any security at all. Like a special guarded lift to get the surface, or a fingerprint scanner, or something like that. From that level of security we move to the actual guards themselves, who talk about how none of them are real soldiers or have been in proper combat (all except Sergeant Hanna, whose battlefield heroics were discovered to be fake by the blogger lady and her site “The Fact Zone”). Now, if you’re guarding what the movie reveals you to be guarding, why leave like 20 completely green recruits to be the only protection you have? And why does the movie go out of its way to portray them as stupid? What the hell is going on?

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As well as the logic of all this, there’s the hefty coincidence that starts the movie. Anyway, let’s get to it – turns out Area 51 does indeed house several different aliens! The first one we meet is “Patient Zero”, who looks like a normal human entirely covered in gross testicle skin, and can transform itself – clothes and all – into anyone he touches, and perfectly recreate anything it hears that person say. Then there’s Lady Death and her son Little Devil, who both look like the aliens from “Aliens”, but with the barest minimum of legal differences between the two. Oh, and J-Rod, who looks like a classic “grey”, can speak, is quite friendly, and is basically super-powered. J-Rod’s cool, but the other three decide that day out of their decades of confinement is the day they’re going to try and escape, which seems a coincidence too hefty to be called a coincidence (there’s no indication that any of them know that’s the day the reporters are coming, or even – J-Rod excepted – that they can understand human speech). Given the terrible state of the base’s defences, I have no idea how they even managed to allow themselves to be locked up in the first place.

 

So the plot then turns into a diabolical mix of “Aliens” and “The Thing”. For some reason, this is the worst lit military base in the world, too, which always irritates me. “Movie lighting” is a guideline, not a rule! Anyway, humans get picked off fairly quickly and with plenty of gore thrown around, Sergeant Hanna redeems herself, re: bravery, “Shoes” redeems himself re: combat, and there’s something of a twist when it comes down to whether the news of real aliens existing is going to get out into the world.

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Like I said, it’s sort of fun, I’m a big fan of Rachel Miner and Bruce Boxleitner, and provided you don’t think at all, you’ll probably have a good time. But it’s just so lazy! It feels like we’re supposed to imagine the real Area 51 and just superimpose it on top of this cheap, rickety, almost empty set, imagine more reporters, imagine better aliens. If I wanted to imagine things I wouldn’t be watching a damned SyFy movie!

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Andy Sidaris season! Hard Ticket To Hawaii (1987)

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Relatively speaking, this is pretty well-known for a movie we’re reviewing. There’s a drinking game devoted to it, Red Letter Media have covered it, a small clip from it went viral (“Skateboard Assassin”) and it’s attracted its fair share of “famous” film reviewers having a go at it, down the years. But much like Donald Trump, I’m hoping to cultivate a rabid army of fans who are unaware that other film reviewers even exist, and will hang on my every word like gospel, so here goes anyway.

 

This is the first example of what I believe is many, of Andy Sidaris linking his films. The house shared by hot federal agent Donna (Dona Speir) and hot lady-in-witness-protection Taryn (Hope Marie Carlton) is covered in posters for Sidaris movies (1973’s “Stacey” and 1986’s “Malibu Express”, among others), and as the movie actually starts on the same boat, the “Malibu Express”, that the last movie ended on, they explain that Cody Abilene left “the agency” (I’m pretty sure he was just a bad PI, but whatever) to become an actor. Why he appeared in a movie based on his own life, using his own name and his own boat, are matters sadly left undealt-with. We get another link too, as Ronn Moss (“The Bold And The Beautiful”) appears as “Rowdy Abilene”, Cody’s cousin and new owner of the boat, who seems to have inherited Cody’s lack of shooting ability too.

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Donna and Taryn run a small plane freight / passenger business, taking vacationing couples and boxes of stuff around the islands. Thanks to the world’s most rubbish warehouse, they’re given an extremely large and poisonous snake in a very poorly secured box; a snake who was made so deadly by “being infected by the DNA of cancer-infested rats”. Marvellous! But the weird thing is, the snake could be removed from the movie completely and it really wouldn’t make much difference – it kills a couple of goons, I suppose, and comes to a wonderfully comical end, but that’s pretty small potatoes. It’s like a MacGuffin, but one that doesn’t drive the plot in any way.

 

The real issue kicks off when, taking a stroll through the beautiful Hawaiian wilderness, Donna and Taryn stumble upon a huge drug deal. A ship pulls up with the extra-sleazy Romero on it, and he sends a radio-controlled helicopter into that very same wilderness with a couple of pouches of diamonds on it, to fund a ton o’ cocaine. Never mind that he’s so far away he’d never be able to see where the helicopter was, let alone successfully pilot it! So our heroines fight the goons who are there to pick up the diamonds, leave the scene with one of the bags, the other falls into the undergrowth, and there’s a group of sort-of mafia who are very upset indeed.

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Introduced a little later are Rowdy, who’s also Donna’s boyfriend; and Jade (Harold Diamond, “Rambo 3”, a proper competition martial artist). I’m not entirely sure what they’re doing at the beginning of the movie, but they’re sort of hanging out by the Malibu Express, and they only come to Hawaii when summoned with news of the danger (although they seem to know plenty of people there). Even then, they don’t exactly hurry to get to the ladies, stopping off at a hotel and a few other places first. They’re spotted immediately by Romero and his people, though, and it’s this that causes the sequence of events recapped in the “skateboard assassin” video, which I take great delight in placing here for you:

While it’s by a distance the most amazing scene in the movie, there’s plenty of other great stuff. Our four friends, and the blond TV sports reporter who’s Taryn’s beau, run around the island trying to stop the drug dealers, crack amazingly weak jokes, and use weapons in ways they weren’t intended. Not only do we get a bazooka fired at a guy on a skateboard, but both swords and nunchaku are thrown as opposed to…wielded? Is that the word? Not only that, but things that aren’t weapons are turned into them, most notably the evil guard who likes playing Frisbee so much he stops his guarding and is open to taking a Frisbee covered in razor blades to the neck. He’s well-known enough to have a nickname – “Shades” – and a file with the federal agency that some of our heroes work for – well, I presume it’s a federal agency, I have no bloody idea. I felt bad for “Shades”, always having to tip his head back so the cameras weren’t shown in his mirroring.

 

I feel like Andy Sidaris assembled this movie out of his dreams, and whatever he had lying about. There’s a snake in it because, I reckon, one of his friends had a cheap prop snake; the skateboarding, sex-doll-holding wannabe assassin did his thing because he had a skateboard and a sex doll in his car when he came to the set that morning; there were a couple of famous college footballers in Hawaii for something entirely unrelated, so Sidaris used his sport connections to get those guys in too. It moves quickly, it’s a lot of fun and nothing makes any sense at all.

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I’ve not even mentioned the main reason Andy Sidaris movies exist, and that’s to show acres of female flesh. Most wonderfully of all, Donna and Taryn, when they pick up  the bag of diamonds, wait til they’re both in the Jacuzzi before opening it, and then immediately get out of the Jacuzzi and go to a local bar, but there’s plenty of scenes like that too. The women, sadly, weren’t hired for their acting ability, but for their ability to show how weak 80s bra elastic really was. But, the thing is, everyone seems like they’re having a good time. Our women give as good as they get, kick ass without the help of the guys, and enjoy sex every bit as much as the men do. It’s a vision of a happier world, where all the guys are goofy muscleheads and all the women are well-endowed blondes. I mean, yes, the scales are tipped almost entirely one way in terms of who’s on display for the male audience, but…I can’t hate it anywhere near as much as I hate some of the cheaper, nastier films made by people like Fred Olen Ray or Jim Wynorski in later years.

 

Andy Sidaris sure did love lame gags, too. “She’s so dumb, she went home to study for the PAP test” is a particular gem, and there’s my favourite, when our heroes tell the half-Asian, half-English villain “it’s all over”, he replies “in a pig’s arse!” Such a brilliantly English insult. As bad as all this is, and as many groans as it elicited from my friends, at least he’s trying! When you spend as long as I have at the very bottom of the cinematic barrel, little things like this make a lot of difference.

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Of course, this is a classic. If nothing I’ve said has put you off, you’re going to have a great time watching “Hard Ticket To Hawaii”. Crazy scenes, weird acting, awful jokes, beautiful locations. It’s aware of how cheesy it is without winking at the audience all the time, so you end up laughing with it, not at it. Or at least I did.

 

Rating: thumbs up

Interceptor Force (1999)

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I think I might write a longer piece on the golden age of video shops at some point soon. There’s at least one book (“The Golden Age Of Crap”) which is a collection of reviews of the films released in that period (with plenty of background, too), and probably loads of scholarly articles, but none from the perspective of a socialist, sci-fi / slasher movie aficionado, too much time on his hands 40 year old. So look out for that, and if you have any cool photographs of video racks in corner shops from way back when, please send them in.

 

But in the meantime, there are yet more Olivier Gruner starring, Phillip Roth directed, sci-fi movies of the late 90s / early 2000s to review. Gruner is Shaun, who is introduced stealing important documents then beating the crap out of a bunch of guys with guns with his hands tied behind his back, just so you know how badass he is. He’s in charge of a small group of military types called Interceptor Force, who do the jobs the real military can’t, or something. Their boss is Brad Dourif (did he owe the director money?) and has he got a mission for them!

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In my last Roth / Gruner review (“Velocity Trap”) I spent ages just recapping the insane first twenty minutes of plot, and I could very comfortably do the same thing here. I think the issue is, there’s too much “stuff” in it. There’s an alien ship being shot down with a nuke and the escape pod crashing in Mexico; Interceptor Force being told it’s a normal military plane crash; them being given new team members, who clearly know more than they’re letting on; there’s a huge conspiracy involving multiple governments; and the Mexican village the escape pod landed in is apparently controlled by a drug cartel which has local law enforcement in its pocket. That’s a lot of plot for a 90 minute sci-fi B movie, right? When they leave out important stuff – like, what Interceptor Force actually is, who they work for, and so on – you will sort of wish they’d crammed a little less in, and let the important stuff breathe a little. The Mexican village which is apparently Drug Central is just a completely normal looking little rural village, with a gang of about ten guys in it, who all dress like normal villagers (apart from the leader, who appears to be channeling Antonio Banderas in “Desperado”), which leads me to wonder why they didn’t simplify the whole process a bit.

 

So, when all the plots have been revealed, Shaun and his comrades have to take on a creature which is a lot Predator-y (an alien that can go “invisible”), a bit chameleon-y (if it eats you, it can transform itself into you), and a bit Nightcrawler from X Men-y (it can sort of turn itself into smoke and teleport). His team (and the rest of the cast) is populated with B-movie mainstays – you’ve got William Zabka (“Karate Kid”) as his sidekick Dave, Glenn Plummer (“Speed”, “Showgirls”) as the tech guy, and as well as Brad Dourif, the main army guy (who honestly sounds drunk through most of his performance) is the great Ernie Hudson.

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The action in the Mexican town is a lot of fun, but there are some really bizarre little moments leading up to it that make you wonder if anyone was paying attention during filming. While on the plane to get to Mexico, rather than sit in their seats, they sit inside the 4×4 in the hold – I mean, they clearly didn’t have the money for a plane set, but it looks so strange visually! There’s also the way Dourif talks, as if he understands every bit of his dialogue is the worst exposition, like he’s having to explain the plot to a 7 year old, and resents being there. Or there’s how the new female member of the crew has chosen fashion leather trousers to wear to go on the mission.

 

So, while the cheap CGI alien does its thing (when it transforms into dead team members, it’s a nice budget saver), the movie covers up for its fairly standard progression by just having even more stuff which doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. Sending a group of soldiers to fight an almost indestructible alien but not telling them what they’re up against is a recipe for getting them all killed; and as they’re told quite quickly by one of the new team members, makes less than no sense. There’s the way Gruner is able to beat a nuclear strike’s spreading sphere of destruction by just running away, and obviously suffers no ill effects.

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But the final scene deserves its own paragraph. Gruner survives (there’s a sequel, come on, it’s not that bad a spoiler) and, walking out of town, sees a young woman sat by the side of the road, crying. He looks around, but there’s no-one else there…then punches the woman in the face! When she reacts like any woman punched in the face by a pro martial artist would react, he apologises and the movie fades to black with a woman we’ve not met to this point kicking and shouting at Gruner as they walk across the plain, back towards civilisation. What the hell? Playing assault of a woman for laughs, as THE CLIMAX OF YOUR MOVIE, is genuinely one of the oddest choices I can think of a movie making.

 

Throw in the dreadful incidental music which plays over almost every second of the movie, no matter the scene, and you’ve got yourself another splendidly odd little movie from the Gruner / Roth stable.  They don’t make enough weird counter-productive choices to get themselves into rarefied bad movie company, but for what appears to be a straight sci-fi / action B-movie, it’s weird as hell and absolutely worth putting on. Will the sequel be as good? Visit us in a few days for the answer!

 

Rating: thumbs up

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Youtube Film Club: Velocity Trap (1999)

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Of all the wonderful genres running through the golden age of VHS (early 80s to late 90s?) my personal favourite was always proper sci-fi, with spaceships, weird guns and so on. We’ve covered a fair few of them here, and it’s always nice to discover another one, especially as the decent budgets allowed for movies back then (straight to video being reasonably lucrative) meant they tended to look okay and weren’t quite as difficult to watch as some of today’s bargain-basement efforts.

It’s a welcome and quick return to the ISCFC for Olivier Gruner, last seen by us in “The Circuit 3”. For a former martial artist, he’s an okay actor, and doesn’t seem crazy like a Seagal or a Van Damme. He’s recently moved into writing and directing (with apparently disastrous results, which means I’ll be reviewing them soon), but this is from his strongest era – from 1999 to 2002, he appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows.  Add in director Philip Roth, who seems to have spent his career giving the world exactly the sort of movies I like, and we should be on for a good time; and a good time it is, although it really requires you to not think about the plot at all, for reasons which will hopefully become apparent during the course of this review.

 

Gruner is Ray Stokes, Enforcement Division (ED) officer. He gets a couple of crooked ED guys arrested, so the people who were benefiting from all the crookedness decide to get even with him. Right at the very beginning, the plan gets crazy convoluted, and I don’t feel I can unpick it without telling you all of it – don’t worry, it’s all right at the beginning and doesn’t spoil too much. Ready?

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The guy in charge of the moon of Ramanaya, and the Ramanaya Mining Corporation, John Dawson (Craig Wasson, “That Guy” actor extraordinaire), is married to Stokes’ ex-wife. Marriage contracts are fixed-term in the future, but Stokes wanted to stay married, although he was a marine at the time, though, and was away for years. They had a baby who died during one of those times away, so Dawson helped her with the medical bills and then swooped in when she was vulnerable. This woman is so remarkable, though, and Dawson wants to keep her so much, that he arranges for Stokes to be on duty when the chief of all the galaxy’s ED comes to the moon; then, he plants a bomb which kills that guy, and gets one of his other goons to kill Dawson’s fellow officer in the ensuing chaos, pinning the murder on him. I hope you’re asking “why didn’t he just kill Stokes and make it look like an accident?”, to which the answer is “he didn’t want to make his wife sad, because she still loves Stokes”. All that, just because he wanted a quiet life at home! He then, of course, ruins this by arranging for Stokes to be given the worst ED detail possible, then mocking him as he leaves the moon, without a care for how his wife feels. And all this is the beginning of the first act!

 

So begins yet another “Die Hard in space” clone, with the added bonus of it being a bit like “The Count Of Monte Cristo”. I’ll give “Velocity Trap” credit for doing a lot of work in setting up its universe, though, with the main driver of this one being cyber-crime has rendered electronic money transfers impossible. Humanity has gone back to paper money, and moves billions of dollars from outlying banks back to Earth via heavily armed ships (they have super-cool auto-cannons which blow up anything which gets within a certain distance, which we see thanks to a TV advert for them at the beginning of the movie). The ships are largely automated, with a skeleton crew – captain, navigator and engineer – but on this one, ED has decided to put an officer on board who’ll stay awake for the entire six month journey while the crew is in cryo-sleep.

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Joining Stokes is the captain of money ship FED 397 (Bruce Weitz, “Hill Street Blues”), who according to IMDB is called “Turd” Fenner; Cruz, the engineer; and Beth Sheffield, the navigator (Alicia “no relation to the famous ones” Coppola, a fine actor). For some reason, Beth and “Turd” take an instant dislike to Stokes, but Cruz is cool…although if you watch this, see if you can think of a reason why Cruz should perhaps be slightly worried about his presence on the ship. Anyway. “Fun” fact: Coppola was only on the movie because the original Beth got injured by shrapnel early in filming and quit.

 

3 months into the journey! Stokes is dealing with the boredom by making elaborate patterns out of chewing gum and doing a spot of ballet dancing, but his fun is interrupted when the Endeavour, a huge freighter long thought missing but now crewed by space pirates, plucks the FED 397 out of space and goes about stealing all the $40,000,000,000 from it. It then tries to be Die Hard for about ten minutes, as Stokes wakes up Beth and gets her to lie about there being anyone else on the ship…until he just emerges from behind a wall and threatens them. Idiot! So, from then on, it’s Stokes and Beth against the criminals, led by Nick Simmons (Ken Olandt, “April Fool’s Day”, “Leprechaun”) and his wife Alice Pallas (Jorja Fox, who must have signed up for “CSI” right after making this). They’re really good, and one thing Roth is superb at is sketching a character out well in very little time.

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Apologies if your eyes are glazing over right now, but there’s more lunacy to come. One thing you’ll notice is that this ship, carrying unimaginable amounts of wealth, has zero security or safety features (once the baddies are given inside info to disable the auto-cannons from attacking them). “Turd” takes Stokes’ bullets away because they might tear through the hull of the the ship – I think if you’re in space and a single bullet could do you in, you need to redesign your ships. But luckily, one of the villains fires a space-bazooka later on and the ship is fine – the bazooka is a prop so spectacularly cheap looking that even the most amateur cosplayer would be ashamed to carry it round. There’s one bit where Stokes is trying to escape, ends up in a service tunnel…and gets attacked by a huge robot with lasers! Hey, robot, why weren’t you protecting the rest of the ship? Why were you not mentioned before or after? At every stage where you’d expect a space ship months from humanity to have a feature to deal with a problem, it doesn’t.

 

“Velocity Trap” is absolutely packed to the gills with stuff. Enough plot for two sci-fi B-movies, a wild pace that ensures you’re never bored and don’t get too long to question the bonkers thing you just saw, and plenty of funny little moments too. There’s so much, that every now and again they have a newsreader to fill us in on any plot points we missed! The ending, when the two survivors (no spoilers!) decide what to do with the money is a wonderfully clever little bit of business.

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I really liked it, while acknowledging it’s full of plot holes and a bit on the silly side. Gruner is a fine lead, Coppola is excellent (and they’re freed from having an annoying love interest plot, because he just wants his wife back, and she hates him) and if you have any love for straight-to-video sci-fi, this’ll be right up your street. I think we’ll be doing some more Philip Roth movies, so look out for some 90s recommendations over the next week or so.

 

Rating: thumbs up