Neon Maniacs (1986)

“Neon Maniacs” is one of those movies you’ll think you’ve seen before, even if it turns out you probably haven’t (see, it’s the next morning and I’m still not sure this was the first time). If that were the only thing that made the viewer feel a little puzzled, then we’d be okay, but sadly it isn’t. It was also difficult to shake the idea it was one of those Italian-made genre ripoffs, even when everyone was American and they used the actual Golden Gate Bridge in the background of one shot, just because it has that feeling to it. You know the feeling (well, you will if you’ve watched as much garbage as I have).

The first shot of the movie is a cannon-fodder character picking up what looks like a series of trading cards of the villains of the movie, a group of mutants of different shapes and sizes, such as Samurai, Archer, Soldier, Ape, Axe, Juice, and Hangman. You might think they’d want to keep their identity and location a secret, but then…nah, I got nothing. I guess we can at least say the maniacs look decent, like the person who did the effects for them knew what he was doing and was given a reasonable amount of money? Anyway, this fool dies and we’re onto the main part of the movie.

Right away, “Neon Maniacs” shows us it’s not quite like other movies by killing off the group of horny teens you assume will be the faces of the entire thing. Of course, it’s Natalie, the sweet virginal one who survives (Leilani Sarelle, “Basic Instinct”) who survives, but because the maniacs mostly clean up after themselves, there are no bodies to be found, only some neon-coloured goo on the ground. As an aside, she gives up almost immediately when faced with danger, and is such a useless Final Girl that we get another one (more on her in a few minutes).

No-one believes Natalie, thinking it’s a prank. Is this filmmakers really having no idea what teenagers are like, or did this sort of thing happen a lot in the 80s? “Let’s all pretend we were slaughtered by a gang of mutants and hide out for a few days!” The cops seem really really casual about all this and it annoyed me.

I’ll stop just recapping this nonsense in a minute, but after witnessing the murder of her friends and then not getting believed by a bunch of dumbass cops, Natalie decides to lounge around in a bikini before going for a dip in her pool, while being witnessed by one of the maniacs. Wait, what? Did they steal her address book? Did they implant a GPS tracker in her body? This happens multiple times throughout, with several different characters. Who cares, right?

A gang of sorts forms to fight the maniacs. There’s Natalie, who recovers remarkably quickly; the guy who’s initially too scared to ask her out even though she’s not particularly cool and he’s the handsome lead singer of a cheesy 80s synth band, Steven; and nerdy wannabe filmmaker Paula (Donna Locke). A word about Paula – she’s got real nerd cred, wearing a Nostromo hat and jacket (from “Alien”) and a cool Star Wars shirt, back in the day when those things couldn’t be ordered on a million websites.

So the mutated Village People act gone wrong just keeps finding our heroes, until eventually they figure out the rather enormous weakness they have and come up with a plan. Despite the piling up of missing people, and weird green goo that no-one can figure out, the cops just kick back and relax until it’s way too late – my notes are full of “cops are the dumbest” and “that was the stupidest plan ever”. The monsters appear able to go wherever they like and do whatever they like with no-one spotting them, taking pictures of them or reporting to anyone else what they saw. There’s a guy who works the turnstiles on the subway who sees them all and just goes “eh” and carries reading a newspaper whose pathetic inaction costs several lives.

After all this criticism, I sort of liked it, most of the way through. It felt like Steven Spielberg trying to do a wacky horror movie, with his lightness of tone and plucky teen protagonists, only with grotesque goo-monsters on the other side. But then everyone’s so unforgivably stupid, and the ending is so perfunctory (they might as well have had the cast wander into shot, mutter “will this do?” and for a big “The End” thing to scroll up) that you won’t be comparing it to Spielberg at all. Except to say “Spielberg was really good. This totally sucked”.

This was one of only two directorial efforts for one Joseph Mangine, better known (barely) as a cinematographer. Perhaps the actual director for this mess pulled out and he took over at the last minute? The writer, Mark Patrick Carducci, also made the Plan Nine From Outer Space documentary, so good on him.

I hesitate to call it an interesting failure, really, because of how rotten the ending was. Best just to call it a failure, expunge it from our memories, and move on.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Ghoulies 4 (1994)

So we come to the end of another horror series, one which (due to its chequered ownership history) appears unlikely to come back in the form of a remake, soft reboot, part 5, anything like that. Thank you, complicated entertainment law!

I have complained, often, about horror movies which don’t really feature the titular creature or villain, which just use the name to sell a few extra copies. The later “Hellraiser” and “Witchcraft” entries are the best examples of this, but there are dozens of others, and to that long long list we must add “Ghoulies 4”. The ghoulies are 100% entirely irrelevant to the plot, show up maybe three times, and interact with the main cast once.

Kudos for this and other puzzling choices must go to the director, ISCFC’s old friend Jim Wynorski. I once won a $10 voucher at a trivia night for knowing about “Chopping Mall”, so for that and the excellent LP I bought with the voucher, thanks Mr Wynorski, but those of you with long memories may remember my less-than-kind words about him and the other more recent movies he’s made. Since the millennium, he’s given us “Cleavagefield”, “The Witches of Breastwick”, “The Hills Have Thighs”, numerous entries in the “Bare Wench Project” series, and “House On Hooter Hill”, among lots of family movies presumably destined to trick undiscerning grandparents on Netflix searches for their grandchildren; and sub-SyFy Channel efforts like “Dinocroc vs Supergator”.

I find him, David DeCouteau and Fred Olen Ray to be among the worst that B-movies have to offer, as their sole purpose in life – certainly since the fall of Blockbuster – appears to be to spit out “content” for late-night cable channels that are obliged by some obscure clause in their charter to make X hours of original programming a month. Two hours (with adverts) of a Wynorski movie is cheaper than sending a film crew to show topless women at mardi gras, one presumes – and while I don’t think they’re to blame for the state of low budget cinema, they certainly eagerly participate in its worst excesses.

But that’s a subject for another time. We’re here to talk the last Ghoulies movie, featuring a return from Peter Liapis as “Jonathan Graves”, star of part 1. He’s now a cop, because why not, and is the sort of loose cannon that we bad movie afficionados know and love, with the added wrinkle that his Captain is his ex-partner and ex-girlfriend, Kate (Barbara Alyn Woods). He gets a new partner, who’s a complete imbecile; and he’s also got a girlfriend who’s a prostitute, who he seems happy with her plying her trade while the two of them are an item.

Into this fun and games steps another ex-girlfriend, Alexandra (Stacie Randall), from way back in Jonathan’s life, back when he was still messing with the dark arts. Wait, says the viewer of part 1. His girlfriend back then wasn’t called Alexandra, and his entire life in the dark arts was documented in that movie – he wasn’t into it before, and as all his friends nearly died, one would assume he’d stop messing with if afterwards. So why has he got an ex who he clearly did black magic with? Shhh, dear viewer. Think not on such conundrums. Anyway, Alexandra is trying to find a special jewel with which she can summon a sexy male demonic entity called Faust – she loses the first jewel because she’s an idiot and Faust gives her poor instructions, but our old friend Jonathan has the second one, hung round his neck.

Jonathan investigates the theft of the first jewel, which is how he gets involved in the plot, and the aborted attempt to summon Faust causes an open door, through which come two ghoulies. Well, I call them ghoulies. Unlike the puppets of parts 1-3, Jim Wynorski just decided to hire two midgets and have them run around in largely identical outfits (save for a few shades of colour) that look absolutely nothing like the other ghoulies. They chat, crack “jokes” and seem, in a rather odd 180 from previous instalments, to be good guys.

What else to say? My notes include “anti-Bechdel test”, which is a conversation between two women so intently focused on one man that it was almost a joke. There are boxes in one scene labelled for delivery to Miskatonic University in Arkham, MA, aka the place where lots of HP Lovecraft stories are set. There’s a weirdly light-hearted scene where Kate gets a full condom thrown on her from another car, by accident.

A few words about Jonathan, who’s now sort of an alcoholic. Imagine you have to go through the stuff he’s gone through, and being an alcoholic would be about the best case scenario – but I do wish he’d taken better care of that jewel round his neck. He fights an Asian dude near the end for absolutely no reason, and the reveal of who Faust actually is is pointlessly undercut by a few lines of dialogue about ten minutes before. Same old, same old.

It’s just not very good, even if it’s not particularly obvious that Wynorski was going cheap on the making of it. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens, with no consistency in tone and no good jokes. Best that this series is now retired.

Rating: thumbs down

Smokey And The Hotwire Gang (1979)

Although you may not have heard of him, Tony Cardoza is bad movie royalty. His most famous series of credits is as producer and co-star of the entire filmography of Coleman Francis – “The Beast of Yucca Flats”, “The Skydivers” and “Red Zone Cuba”, three of the most miserable, dark-hearted, and just plain incompetent movies ever made (although they have a few defenders). You may have seen them covered on “Mystery Science Theater 3000” – to be fair, you’re unlikely to have seen them anywhere else – and those sleazy performances, along with whatever he did to secure money for Coleman Francis, means his place in the ISCFC Hall Of Fame is already set.

But there wasn’t just that. This one-time welder was bitten by the movie bug, so as well as helping Francis, he produced a few films for other people – the Ed Wood Jr movie “Night Of The Ghouls” is probably the most famous, but there’s also “The Hellcats” and a smattering of other biker movies. He also, which is the thing that interests us today, directed two movies of his own, twenty years apart. One is a genuinely puzzling-looking cop comedy from as late as 1998 (“Misfit Patrol”), and the other is this.

It might reasonably be said the super-success of “Smokey and the Bandit” in 1977, and lesser stuff like “Convoy” persuaded Mr Cardoza to put aside biker movies and move on to…whatever genre you’d say those gems inhabit. Easy-going Southern comedy? Whatever it was, he rustled up a few dollars and was able to give the world “Smokey and the Hotwire Gang”.

The first thing you see is a couple of good ol’ boys get tricked by a sheriff who’s using the CB to encourage drivers to speed down the stretch of road he’s looking after. Unfortunately, his car is garbage and theirs is a Porsche, so they blow past him and continue with their day. One of them is on leave from the Army, the other one is…blond. That’s about as much character as I got from them. They exist to get the audience up to speed on how amazing CB radio is and how dumb cops are, basically.

After that, all bets are off on what the movie is about. There’s a van, with some sweet paintings on the side, driven by “Billy The Kid”, and he picks up a hitch-hiker who’s also got their own portable CB radio which they use to ask for rides. Then there’s a couple of car thieves who spend some time at classy strip joint “Filthy McNasty’s” before heading off to an upscale party hosted by one “Hotwire”, aka Eleanor Brookhurst; she’s the crime boss of the city, stealing cars for her upscale clients (who ought to be able to afford their own), running prostitutes, and (in what passes for the central plot of the movie) arranging for an armored car full of a million dollars to get held up.

There’s a mobile brothel, run by two cheerful prostitutes, who announce their wares over the CB too; a guy who’s handle is “The Jewish Cowboy”; and a couple of idiot cops. The cops suck at driving so they release a guy in a weird sparkly costume from jail so he can drive them round – sparkly suit guy then really gets into being on the side of good. Oh, and a gang of Hotwire’s mafia-style goons, one of whom is Tony Sirico, who’d go on to huge fame as Paulie Walnuts in “The Sopranos” (despite him being listed in the credits, this doesn’t show up on his IMDB profile).

ASIDE: There’s also James “Son of Stacy” Keach, Alvy Moore (formerly of sitcom “Green Acres”) and Tony Lorea (who was in “What’s Up, Hideous Sun Demon?” and “Hot Shots”) rounding out the cast. So, Cardoza had a few dollars to throw around, at one point.

ASIDE 2: If you’d like an extremely detailed recap of “Smokey”, then feel free to visit http://www.roguecinema.com/smokey-and-the-hotwire-gang-1979-by-albert-walker.html because they must have watched it multiple times to get that amount of information from it. I’m more a broad strokes kind of guy.

My chief broad stroke is that Tony Cardoza perhaps bit off more than he could chew when it came to his directorial debut (I think he wrote it, as well, under the “pseudonym” T. Gary Cardoza). I’ve listed a bunch of different characters above, and I’d love to say one of them is the star, but they just sort of bounce of each other in random pairings, or are just featured in short scenes on their own. The CB radio is perhaps the star of the movie, as every character uses it, and we’re treated to tons of CB speak, which for the uninitiated is just sorta like the language that develops around large websites, only said by a bunch of people with mostly redneck accents.

I’ve tried, quite a lot, to figure out why this movie was put together the way it was – Cardoza seems to have had almost complete control over it, so the way it looks like it was edited mostly at random (apart from a few scenes near the beginning and a few near the end, the rest could be in almost any order) is weird. It amounts to a series of 2-minute scenes featuring whichever actors he had on set that day? I mean – the acting is tolerable, it’s lit so you can tell what’s going on, the camera remains in focus throughout – but it does have quite a few technical issues, like focusing on the wrong character in a scene, or the sound being weird, stuff like that.

Oh, my favourite is when you see a shot of two people talking in a supposedly moving car, and it’s very obviously standing still. I love that they try to give the impression it’s moving, by rocking it a little and running a light over it (to recreate street lights zooming past) but then don’t bother not shooting the background, which stays completely still.

It does have one of the most amazing pieces of product placement I’ve ever seen, too (more for the time it was made, when that really wasn’t a thing that movies did). Action basically stops for a minute while the entire screen is taken up with an ad for Dad’s Root Beer, with the impression being it’s on the TV that a couple of characters are watching. But it’s an advert, straight-up inserted in the middle. Well done, Mr Cardoza!

Perhaps the most curious thing about it all, though, is the complete lack of anything approaching progress. Take the Jewish Cowboy, who appears to just be some guy driving through town. The movie takes place over several days, but he’s still close enough to the action to be able to continually comment on it. Where was he going? He ought to be half a country away by the end of the movie. At least “Convoy” and “Smokey and the Bandit” ended up somewhere different to where they started.

So strap yourself in for some 70s slang, 70s sexual politics, and get ready for a good time. This is why I love bad movies so much – anyone can make a normal-ish drama, there are tons of perfectly competent actors and technical crew around for the hiring. But not everyone can make something that sort of looks normal but is in fact absolutely bonkers, seemingly without effort. Anthony Cardoza has been involved in the making of many such bonkers movies, and for that we must celebrate him. I see an old interview with him where he talks about writing an autobiography – he’s sadly no longer with us, but if anyone reading this knows his family, and that book is sat somewhere unpublished, I’d love to read it. I bet he’s got some fascinating stories of the Z-list.

Rating: thumbs up

Ghoulies 3: Ghoulies Go To College (1991)

The moment when Charles Band sold the rights to “Ghoulies” to Vestron Video, a company formed by an asset-stripping former HBO executive, was probably the best thing that ever happened to the franchise – not a terribly high bar to clear, admittedly. Although Vestron were no more committed to quality than Band, it turns out that just having someone else do it was it all it needed to turn the little rubber puppets into comedy stars.

This is given further credence by the choice of director being one of the Full Moon “stable”. John Carl Buechler was a special effects guy, who did a lot of the Full Moon movies (“Dungeonmaster”, “Trancers”, the “Ghoulies” themselves, “Terrorvision”, etc. etc.) and even real normal mainstream efforts (later sequels in the “Nightmare On Elm Street”, “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” series, making him perhaps the answer to an obscure trivia question). He’d previously directed a few things, including the original, not-famous-for-being-terrible “Troll” and “Friday the 13th Part VII”, too.

ASIDE: I’d be interested to know who the script was actually by – it’s credited to Brent Olson, and given it’s their only IMDB credit of any kind, I’m guessing it’s a pseudonym for a writer who was under contract to another studio, or who was either in or not in the union (depending on what sort of production this was).

So, we’re off to college! This time, the Ghoulies are literally born out of a toilet, completing the journey of that one particular prop from being on the poster but not in the movie in part 1, to being the scene of a death in part 2, to being their home in part 3. A drunk frat boy finds a comic hidden inside the wall of his toilet, starts to read the dialogue of it, the special carved toilet starts to bubble and shake, a green light emerges…then he’s called away and the ghoulies go back (this gag is repeated).

It’s a classic college raunch comedy, as we have a frat who’s on probation for doing too many pranks. Led by Skip, with support from Mookey and Kyle, they’re in competition for the Prank Week crown with the evil frat, led by Jeremy Heilman (a sort of Nazi joke, I guess). There’s the humanities teacher who’s obsessed with the occult, Professor Ragnar, the woman who wants Skip to be normal, Erin, the insanely slutty Veronica, Barcus the security guard, and so on.

The ghoulies are eventually summoned by Ragnar, although neither he or anyone else realise they’re there for a while. He demands they kill Skip, they sort of half think about doing that while killing a few other people and getting involved in the Prank Week spirit themselves. The body count is very low (four people, I think?), and while there’s the occasional bit of goo and rubbery special effects as body parts are pulled beyond normal length, there’s not a drop of blood.

There’s not a ton more to say, plot wise. I will say that the Ghoulies now talk, and are a constant Three-Stooges-esque wisecracking presence in their own scenes – this is absolutely a good thing, as their puns keep a few scenes from going flat. It’s really a comedy that uses the trappings of horror, without ever being all that gross or scary.

It’s the acting where “Ghoulies 3” really excels, though. Chief among them is movie legend Kevin McCarthy as Ragnar – he was in the late period of his career, where he was just having fun being a goofy over-actor, and he dials it up to 10 (even by his own standards) here. Evan McKenzie is a bit of a non-entity as Skip, looking like every hero of every 80s comedy combined; but the rest of the cast! Patrick Labyorteaux, soon to be a TV mainstay on a decade-plus of “JAG”, is Mookey, and Jason Scott Lee, recently seen by us in “Timecop 2”, plays completely against type as the nerd-ish Kyle. Griffin O’Neal, shortly before giving up on the movie business altogether, is excellent as one of the evil frat guys; and weirdly pleasing to the ISCFC, having a great time as Veronica is Hope Marie Carlton, who you may remember as “Taryn”, star of the early Andy Sidaris series (“Hard Ticket To Hawaii” and so on).

Much like part 2 had a famous screen debut – Mariska Hargitay – so does part 3, with a first-ever performance from Matthew Lillard, two years before his next role (he signed on as an extra, right out of high school, but someone must have liked him I guess).

I guess my main problem with “Ghoulies 3” is how the entire cast, minus the dead ones and Ragnar, doesn’t realise anything weird is going on until 74 minutes of the 93 minute running time. Not so much as “drunk guy who no-one believes” – so it goes comedy, comedy, comedy, comedy, wow there are dead people and the Professor summoned Ghoulies, end. I don’t think it works all that well, structurally. But, it is genuinely funny, the set dressing is superb and the effects (from Buechler himself) are great, it’s not boring, and is by a million miles the best Ghoulies movie so far. Well, I say so far, part 4 is directed by Jim Wynorski and all the Ghoulies are just midgets in rubber outfits, so I’m going to call it now and say part 3 is the best of the franchise.

Rating: thumbs up

Ghoulies 2 (1988)

I was really struggling with the thought of watching three more Ghoulies movies. But then I discovered two important things – one , that this actually featured the ghoulies more, making them part of the plot and not just window dressing; and two, that this is the last entry to have any involvement from Charles Band, as he sold the rights to the “franchise” to another company in order to try and save Empire Pictures, which was going through financial difficulties at the time. Whether those financial difficulties were anything to do with Band basically making the same movie over and over, doing it cheaply and never ever delivering on the promises put out in pre-release publicity is unknown.

I discover there’s a couple of books written about Mr Band, both of which seem to share my opinion of his work and attitude. The thought of spending that much time thinking about Full Moon makes me sad, but good work to Dave Jay for writing them both. One’s called “It Came From The Video Aisle” and the other is “Empire Of The B’s”, both perfect stocking stuffers for someone you don’t like very much.

Let’s get on to Ghoulies 2, though, which features a full moon prominently at the beginning, so much so that I wondered if this was where they got the idea for the company name from. But possibly not? Anyway, we establish immediately that the little critters laugh off being thrown in a vat of acid, by an unknown saviour of humanity; they stroll off and find the next passing truck to stow away in, which is one of the set trucks for a carnival (funfair?), on its way to its next small-town engagement.

Now, carnivals are rubbish. Always have been, always will be. Watching them set up is a profoundly depressing experience, with their spray-painted sidings always reflecting pop culture references a good decade out of date and their games which are designed to not be won, or to award pathetic prizes…although the carnival here appears more modelled on that in “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies”, the all-time most miserable-looking carnival ever. There’s a few “freaks” (bearded lady, etc.), a bunch of scantily clad dancing ladies, and – the thing we saw the Ghoulies hitch a ride with – a chamber of horrors.

That attraction is run by old drunk Uncle Ned (Royal Dano), his nephew Larry (Damon Martin) and the midget who dresses up as a weird goblin thing to scare kids, Sir Nigel Penneyweight (Phil Fondacaro). They’re in danger of being closed down by the new evil corporate owner of the carnival, but “luckily” the Ghoulies start frightening asshole teenagers, who go and tell everyone, and then the haunted house becomes the no.1 attraction.

You’ll definitely side with the Ghoulies in this one. Divorced of any particular reason for their existence, they’re just little plastic puppets trying to live their best life, and are having a good time. Everyone else is just a money-grubbing carny. I guess there’s the love interest of Larry, one of the dancers, who rejects the advances of the owner and immediately helps out when Larry needs it, although she’s perhaps the homeliest-looking exotic dancer in the history of the movies. Nothing wrong with that, but I do wonder why she attracts the attention of so many different men.

It’s perhaps best to think of it as a cheap Gremlins ripoff. Although the first one predates the first Gremlins, it’s clear that Band and co learned their lesson – that lesson is “be as similar as possible to something which made a ton of money”. This just happened to be part of that sweet spot of time where one of Band’s obsessions coincided with a popular movie franchise.

I’m not sure what to say about this, really. It reminds one of the aforementioned “The Incredibly Strange Creatures…” and that is never, ever a good thing. It’s a bit more interesting than the first instalment, but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement. The ghoulies still look absolutely terrible, like they were knocked up in someone’s shed in the weekend before filming began, and the gore is still rubbish.

I’m really, finally bored of Charles Band movies. I wonder why anyone would be a fan of this sort of thing, really, enough to keep him going for over 30 years. There must be people in the world who look forward to new Full Moon movies? There’s not a single one of them that wouldn’t benefit from being 20 minutes shorter, and…treating them as a bit of a laugh, or cheesy fun, distracts from how mercenary and soulless it all is.

Or maybe I’m being too harsh. I don’t know. But I do know that when Ghoulies is done, I’m going to move on to something more fun.

Rating: thumbs down

PS. Oh yes, the toilet. The cover of the first movie has a ghoulie coming out of the toilet, but there’s no such scene – they sold the movie based on the poster, no doubt, and they suffered criticism for not carrying through on their promise (one of many lies they’d tell). So they put one in this, and it allowed them to mostly re-use the previous cover.