Sci-Fighters (1996)

I’m 100% sure the makers of “Sci-Fighters” came up with the title first and the plot second, without worrying about any of those pesky things like what it meant, if it made any sense, etc. Looking for a plot, they made an amalgam of “Blade Runner” and “Die Hard” (two movies with titles that also don’t make much sense); voila, another 1990s video shop classic is born.

It’s a fond return for one of the more long-lasting ISCFC genres, the “space prison” movie. So far, we’ve covered “Alien Space Avenger”, “Moonbase”, “Lockout”, “Assault on Dome 4”, “Starfire Mutiny”, “Total Reality”, “Critters”, “Fortress” 1 and 2, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten; I am prepared to go on the record to say I will watch pretty much anything set in a space prison. Although “Sci-Fighters” only uses it as a jumping off point, but makes sure to make it as confusing as possible, in case you had any crazy ideas about enjoying it or anything like that.

Billy Drago, one of the all-time great “That Guy” actors, is Adrian Dunn, in prison on the Moon, and because one of the other inmates steals a cigarette from him, he starts a circular saw fight (!) and ends up by beating the other guy to death. While trying to make it look like an accident after the fact, Dunn digs an alien parasite of some sort out of the dead guy and puts it in his arm, then “dies” from the exposure. He definitely does this deliberately, although why he does it and how he knows it will have any effect on him is a matter the movie chooses not to bother itself with.

Back on earth, our good friend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is Detective Cameron Grayson, who’s a special cop with a black badge, which means he can investigate whatever he likes, no matter what his super-stereotypical Captain has to say about it. Thanks to some very crude exposition, we discover the Earth has been under a layer of night (called Econight, caused by volcanic ash maybe?) for 79 days, and everyone’s getting a bit tired of it. They try and simulate daylight by turning on as many lights as possible during the “daytime”, but it’s not working. Oh, and it’s 2009! I love a good “future that’s already happened” movie. He was partners with Dunn but they had a very unpleasant (and, at least initially, unspecified) falling-out, many years ago.

Turns out Grayson and Dunn were partners on the police, way back, and had an (at least initially unspecified) serious falling out some time ago. Presumably, before the being locked up in space prison thing? Anyway, Dunn is brought back to Earth for burial, but he revives thanks to his body’s guest and goes back to his old killing ways, while gradually deteriorating, both physically and mentally. The spore thing he carries inside him spreads, sort of a bit like “The Hidden” but not really, and Grayson has to stop him. To this end, he ropes in scientist Dr Kirbie Younger (Jayne Heitmeyer, “Earth: Final Conflict”)…

Okay, there’s a rather large and entirely pointless coincidence here. Turns out that Grayson’s dead wife, who he “stole” from Dunn and who Dunn then killed, looks exactly the same as Dr Kirbie. There are no flashbacks, and aside from one moment where she tries to convince Dunn she’s still alive and he should stop murdering people, it’s a sub-plot they do nothing with. I presume there was something left on the cutting room floor?

Anyway, there are no real surprises in store if you choose to watch this, just lots of bits cribbed from other, both better and worse, sci-fi / action movies. Piper and Drago are both excellent, pitching their performances perfectly for the material, and once again Heitmeyer shows she was wasted on cheap genre stuff like this. The OTT captain is lots of fun too, there are plenty of fun minor characters…but it’s really really slow in the middle, and the weird way the three main characters are linked ends up being rather annoying.

There’s some fun world-building, though, and you might be forgiven for expecting a sequel. Director Peter Svatek dipped his toe in these genre waters before becoming a TV movie guy, but writer Mark Sevi has previous ISCFC form, having given the world “Scanner Cop 2” and “Terminal Rush” (and lots of movies we really ought to cover). There’s plenty of talent involved, is what I’m getting at in a rather roundabout way. I’m just not sure any of them could be bothered in this instance – maybe there’s a really interesting story about the production? It just feels like they thought up a cool future-world, some great characters but then abandoned the script after writing a beginning and an end.

Not one you’re going to remember much a few days after seeing it, but still good fun. Ish.

Rating: thumbs in the middle


The VRAs – Frozen Scream (1975)

This is our ongoing series about films that were banned by the British government, using the Video Recordings Act of 1984. You have the right-wing gutter press and a few Christian pressure groups to thank for these films becoming more famous than they had any right to be (in all but a few cases), and the fact they’ve now virtually all been re-released, uncut, while the law remains in place, tells you more about moral panics than it does about the content of the films. See the VRAs “mission statement” here.

It’s been a while since we did a video nasty, and that’s because, if we’re being honest, they’re sort of samey. Slow-paced late 70s euro-thrillers with occasional nudity and a few scenes of ultra-violence, and with the passing of the years and the wide availability of movies so violent they make the video nasties look like family films, it makes the whole pursuit sort of pointless. But, I run a movie blog that only a handful of people read, a pursuit far more pointless than that, so let’s go nasty!

Although “Frozen Scream” is apparently American, its pitiful dubbing and weirdly bland locations mean it could easily have been another Italian “epic”. The Girards, Ann and Tom, are having a nice conversation on the phone, she visiting her parents, he sat in his office, but the happiness is to be short-lived as he’s chased through his house by a bunch of robe-clad dudes who are invulnerable to bullets and…okay, here’s where the first weird thing happens.

He dies, and she apparently witnesses it. But, minutes ago, she was out of town, right? Whatever. Because she’s a woman and this was the 1970s, people are way more interested in telling her to shut the hell up and get on with her life than they are in believing her, so she calls on her ex-boyfriend Kevin, who’s now a cop, to help her out. And here’s where the second weird thing happens.

For the first half of the movie, every now and again we’ll be treated to some of the cop’s voiceover, which appears to be inserted at random – it’ll just play over conversations that seem sort of important, start halfway through scenes, and so on. It’s a genuine bad-movie-classic sort of choice, and I love it (I actually paused the DVD to make sure the sound of the voiceover wasn’t coming from somewhere else).

The plot involves some drug which apparently makes you immortal, but which Dr Lil Stanhope (Renee Harmon, also the producer and co-writer) thinks can turn you into a low-temperature zombie. Sure, why not? Given her mover-and-shaker status, it sort of explains why her performance is wooden even by the standards of this sort of garbage, her extremely thick German accent not exactly helping matters. You know how I mentioned dubbing above? Well, her sidekick, the weird old doctor guy who’s doing the actual experiments, Dr Sven, was dubbed by a guy whose voice definitely does not look like it ought to be coming out of that body.

One of Kevin’s earliest voiceovers is saying how he and Ann were once a couple until she suddenly left him one day for Tom – a red herring so enormous that you may well boo when it’s left unresolved at the end. Anyway, even though her husband died mere days ago, he’s desperate to get her back, which must have looked a little creepy then and seems almost pathological now – but, he’s the hero of the piece. Hurrah for the 70s!

Then there’s the flashbacks, which aren’t announced, and with all the men sort of looking the same, you could be forgiven for not realising are even flashbacks. I think Ann and Tom were in a cult, based round the idea of eternal life? Which sort of explains why he was so unhappy to see his cult brothers at the beginning of the movie, and why they were invulnerable. But when you don’t even get a wobble-fade for your trip back in time, there’s understandably going to be some confusion.

One of the most fun things about these video nasties is trying to figure out why they were banned in the first place. Some of them (“Toolbox Murders”, for one) were just because of the similarity of the name to other, more famous slasher movies, I’m sure. One of them, “Contamination”, was even re-released, uncut, with a 15 certificate (sort of like an R, I guess?) several years later. There’s almost no nudity in “Frozen Scream” so it’s down to gore, and that’s pretty minimal too – an axe to the head, with the aftermath shown in lots of detail, and a shard of glass to the face. I feel bad for the gorehounds of the mid 70s, trying to get their thrills from such meagre fare.

It’s not a bad movie, particularly. It’s even interesting, in places, as the flashbacks and the bizarre voiceovers give it a vaguely surreal air; plus, the party scene where the band plays copyright-abusing versions of famous rock-n-roll hits is an all-time classic. Completely decent ending too.

But overall it’s not all that good, either, with a script that, hilarious mockery aside, is just rotten from top to bottom. Were it not for its status as a video nasty it would be legitimately completely forgotten, like…all those 70s horror movies that no-one gives a damn about.

Rating: thumbs down

Creature From Black Lake (1976)

“Like Boggy Creek without any of the documentary nonsense”. One would assume that’s how this 1976 drive-in monster movie was sold to its backers, as 1972’s “The Legend of Boggy Creek” had made a decent profit (and would go on to spawn many sequels, as previous reviews have shown); and there’s nothing producers fear more than originality.

They even reference the southern Arkansas setting of the more famous forebear, as a couple of Chicago university get some funding from their Professor (who’s one of those “science was wrong once, so why can’t it be wrong again?” idiots that litter movies like this, and is played by the director) and drive down south to see if they can’t rustle themselves up a Bigfoot sighting in rural Louisiana – in “extremely odd coincidence” news, that place, Bossier City, is the same location a lot of Andy Sidaris’ movies were shot in…and “Olympus Has Fallen”, at least partly. Who’d have thought that little sleepy backwater we see here would become a hub of movie activity?

Anyway, the plot. Two fish-out-of-water guys, and a town who wants nothing to do with city folk disturbing their miserable status quo. Hey, that was quicker than I expected! I guess there’s one local who believes them, and that is Jack Elam, who you’ll recognise from his all-time great performance as the Doctor Nickolas Van Helsing from the “Cannonball Run” movies. There’s a couple of local ladies who are a surprisingly modern-feeling love interest, a Sheriff who’s a decent guy really, and a few other bits of the local colour that are so beloved of things set in the South. They go camping, and…

I don’t mind a bit of waiting for my monster to turn up, but this is about the Beast like “Waiting For Godot” is about Godot. It’s on screen for about 4 minutes, maybe, and it’s a shame because, terrible costume aside, it’s actually a pretty scary creature, with a good scream and a good line in tearing people and personal possessions up. We don’t really get a good look at it until…75 minutes? Something like that. Anyway.

This is definitely of its era, in terms of pacing too. I feel like maybe when movies are created for drive-ins, the directors know to have something exciting at the beginning and end, and never mind the middle, as that’s when drive-in patrons are busy having sex in the back seat. Or is this just me trying to fit the evidence to my very patchy knowledge? Lots of these movies have really really boring middle sections, and I have zero first-hand knowledge of what drive-ins were really like. But if you’ve seen stuff like “A Touch Of Satan”, or indeed the first Boggy Creek movie, or one of hundreds of slow, largely uneventful 70s horror / thrillers, you begin to wonder just why they’re all like that.

But it’s not all boring. For example, the two main characters have some nuance to them, and have some interesting conversations- for example, about one of them being a Vietnam vet and the other being a Canada-based conscientious objector. But they’re friends, have a totally believable friendship, and get through it, which is different and shows some ambition from writer Jim McCullough (who also wrote “Mountaintop Motel Massacre”, which will be a future ISCFC review). Director Joy N Houck Jr was a drive-in “auteur”, also making “Night Of Bloody Horror” and “Women And Bloody Terror”.

So, it’s kind of interesting, with its washed-out 16mm 1970s aesthetic, even if it’s sort of dull and nowhere near enough stuff happens. It’s on Youtube for nothing, though, so if you’re drunk and have run out of all your other blu-rays and DVDs, you could do a lot worse.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Ninja, The Violent Sorcerer (1982)

Welcome back to our series of Godfrey Ho reviews, dear reader, where we try and puzzle on just why the great man does what he does. His tactic is buying up a movie from elsewhere in the Far East that never got a widespread release, filming some new footage, usually with ninjas or martial artists in it, editing the two together seemingly at random, giving it a ludicrous title and releasing it to the world. If you’ve encountered some of his work, it’s usually in one of those DVDs that packaged 4 movies together and were bundled with cheap DVD players (and are now a mainstay of the bottom, dusty shelf of second-hand shops).

“Ninja, The Violent Sorcerer” is a great title, isn’t it? But it’s no more accurate than any of his others. While there’s a ninja and a violent sorcerer, in it, they aren’t the same person: in fact, the only way the title could work is if they added “Not The” to the beginning.

The plot, though, is classic Godfrey Ho gibberish, and it sort of centres round the world of gambling. Gambling in the Far East looks way more fun than the Western version, as it seems to be more sleight of hand and doing cool card and dice tricks than it does any, er, gambling. The bulk of this movie is from a 1982 Taiwanese effort called “The Stunning Gambling” and is about a guy who wants to be the ultimate gambler, and he kills the previous King Gambler, and the King’s brother or son or something gets revenge. Entirely forgettable, until Ho sprinkles in his incomprehensible extra plot, about two magic dice obtained from the mouths of two dead former gamblers who are now vampires; and how an as-yet unknown member of the dead gambler’s family is a ninja and seeks revenge.

Chinese vampires are a curious lot – also known as “hopping zombies”, or jiangshi, they seem pretty rubbish by Western standards. Pretty much anything can immobilise or kill them, most famously sticking a piece of paper with a spell written on it to their foreheads (although I do wish that would work in, say, the “Twilight” movies). Our friends at “Taliesin Meets The Vampires” (whose screenshots these are, by the way) think they’re tough, but your mileage may vary, I suppose?

So, you get a bit of the gambler king, and how the family of the dead former king gets help from a drunk gambling master, who cleans up his act to help them out. Or something. Honestly, it’s really difficult to focus on. And the ninjas fight the vampires, and I think they get some special new skill or power or spell or something in order to defeat them.

What I think I’m most annoyed by is how Godfrey Ho appears to have made an effort to blend the two movies together. A few dubbing dialogue changes and carefully spliced footage, and it does actually seem like maybe the gambling king is getting help from vampires? But the end of both stories are utterly unrelated, and all the work they’d made to this point (way more than any previous Ho epic that I can think of) just seems annoying. Just make it weird, Godfrey!

I also wanted to briefly talking of the ending, and how it’s similar to so many other cheap kung-fu movies of the era. I’d never really noticed it until now, but I saw it and my eyes were opened. So, you get the final fight, the killing blow is landed, and… “The End”. Hard cut, not even a “hey, we beat the baddie” final line sometimes. It’s like they all got together and decided no-one really cared after that point, so thought there was no point filming stuff to go beyond then.

I think if you’re going to line up a Godfrey Ho series, then this could fit in amongst the genuinely batshit entries like “Ninja Terminator”, “Ninja Squad” or “Death Code Ninja”. Heck, it’s free, so why not?

Rating: thumbs up

Killing Gunther (2017)

I’ll give low-budget B-movies a fair bit of latitude, so if they show some invention or life to them, I’ll try and find something to enjoy and ignore the slow spots and technical shortcomings. But when big-budget, major studio efforts, starring famous names, do the same? They have no excuse.

Writing and directing “Killing Gunther” is the reason Taran Killam was fired from the cast of ”Saturday Night Live”, and right about now I’m willing to bet he’s wishing he hadn’t bothered. It’s a movie that expects the plot to make you laugh, because there are great long stretches where it’s just a room full of annoying people shouting at each other with nothing resembling a joke anywhere nearby.

The plot is, Killam is a hitman who’s annoyed with Gunther (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the world’s greatest hitman, so decides to kill him, assembling a team politely described as wacky to do so. There’s Donnie (Bobby Moynihan), an explosives expert; Sanaa (Hannah Simone), the cold-blooded daughter of a former terrorist – the Dad follows her round her kills cheering her on; Yong (Aaron Yoo), a poisoner; Gabe (Paul Brittain), the tech expert who’s terrible with tech; and Mia and Barold (Alison Tolman and Ryan Gaul), a couple of all-round Russian monsters. Oh, I forgot the guy with the robotic arm, who’s a one-joke character anyway, just not a good joke.

Anyway, as mentioned, most of the first two-thirds of the movie is this group of people failing to kill Gunther and arguing, with extraordinarily weak special effects for “blood spatter” and explosions, like, Troma-level bad. I mean, I’d have been embarrassed to have them in my movie, if I was Killam, and I can only imagine how bad they’d have looked on a full-size cinema screen.

For a movie with Arnie front and center on the poster, he’s barely in it. He doesn’t show up at all until 67 minutes, and then doesn’t really do a lot in the last thirty either. Well, I say thirty, there’s a long long end credit roll, like seven minutes or so. His bits are mostly great, and he shows a real flair for comedy, although I’m certain a few of the jokes were ones he asked for himself, showing that wealthy actor / former Governors are not necessarily the best judges of joke quality. But I could be wrong, it’s not like the rest of the movie is much better.

The central conceit is one that’s been done to much greater effect by other filmmakers. Christopher Guest has made many comedy mockumentaries, and they’re almost always funnier than this, despite having the “excuse” of being largely improvised. Heck, there’s even been one about a murderer, the fantastic “Man Bites Dog”, which is funnier, darker and cleverer than this could ever hope to be. I admire the lengths “Killing Gunther” goes to to maintain the conceit, though, to the extent that when the documentarians who Killam has forced to film him under pain of death abandon their cameras, the only footage we get is when the actors happen to be in the shot. Doesn’t make it any funnier, of course, but they commit.

I know it’s an obvious thing to say when the majority of your main cast are famous sketch comedy performers, but it feels like it’d have been better as a sketch. Killam isn’t much of a director, allowing the handheld nature of his format to dominate proceedings; nor is he, sadly, much of a writer, which is the most surprising part of all of it. Moynihan is the only person who emerges from proceedings with dignity intact – his part was funny and fully-realised. But Killam was dull in the main role, having a series of tics but no real character, and then there was a whole thing with his real-life wife Cobie Smulders which was a complete nothing of a subplot.

Perhaps the worst thing about it is you can occasionally see a much funnier film poking through. Performers this good are going to hit the mark occasionally, and there’s a few infectiously funny scenes and moments. But from the moment I turned it on, full of energy and anticipation, it just gradually sucked the energy out of the room, and had an ending so stupid and pointless that it managed to make a bad movie even worse.

If you want to watch a mockumentary…about killers…made by a documentary crew doing it under protest…then there are still several better options. If you don’t, there are thousands. “Killing Gunther” was almost certainly funnier to make than it was to watch.

Rating: thumbs down