Center of the Web (1992)

As we progress further into the 1990s with David A Prior, we happen upon what might be called, if you squint and are extremely generous, his attempt at a homage to Alfred Hitchcock. There are double and triple crosses, innocent people being mistaken for assassins and drawn into plots, romance, murder and a variety of colourful locations. Okay, there’s nothing quite like Mount Rushmore, but they try!

Our “hero” is John Philips (Ted Prior), an acting coach who has a bit of a weird introduction as he’s asking a couple of his students to act out a love scene on stage. He gives a bit of instruction to his class about rolling with the punches, like if you’re acting and something goes wrong, you’ve got to improvise. Fine advice, and not at all foreshadowing. He’s dating a lawyer, Kathryn (Charlene Tilton), and while he’s waiting outside a building for her to get her purse, he’s bundled into a car by a bad-looking fellow, Tony (William Zipp, making a return to the Prior-verse), and instructed to kill some Governor, or something. But before he’s had the chance to say much more than “no idea what you’re talking about, mate”, some other car is chasing their car and peppering them with bullets.

From this misunderstanding (or is it?), a web begins to trap John, with every turn being a bad one for him, getting more and more entangled in the world of the Department of Justice, hitmen, the CIA (I think), and, er, Tony Curtis. The DOJ want him to continue playing the part of the hitman to infiltrate the bad guys, the bad guys want him to kill people, you know the drill.

Tony Curtis. We’ve encountered him before (“Bounty Hunters 2”), at the back end of a glorious career, owing an alimony payment and therefore doing a quick few days’ work on whatever garbage movie wanted his name on their poster. Here, he’s the friend of Kathryn’s dead father who promised to look after her, but as you don’t have Curtis in your movie for such a nothing role, and they make zero effort to hide that it’s him, it’s no surprise when he’s revealed as some sort of kingpin – although to confuse us, they don’t tell us why he’s doing what he’s doing or what he hopes to gain from it.

As I mentioned in my review of “Raw Nerve”, this second stage of Prior’s career featured bigger names and budgets. We get Robert Davi (“Maniac Cop 2”) in a great role, and (for some reason top billed) Charles Napier as a guy who turns up in one scene just to get shot. There’s some fun stunts, too, like the school bus chase scene, and the one where Ted has to climb over a speeding truck, but during the end credits they – for some reason – play it at normal speed and it looks embarrassing.

I also mentioned that things became somewhat duller. With that pivot towards more mainstream thriller fare, and the smoothing of the rough edges that made Prior’s earlier movies so memorable, there’s a definite loss somewhere. Perhaps when you’re aiming for Hitchcock rather than some cheesy war movie, your failures become more apparent – or the reverse, you’re aware of just how skillful Hitchcock was at generating plot and suspense.

So, another movie that’s bad because it’s not as bad as what came before, if you catch my drift. The sheer volume of twists and double-crosses and reveals becomes wearying after a while, too – it would be more of a twist if they just told a straight story once in a while.

Rating: thumbs down


Raw Nerve (1991)

Welcome, dear reader, to phase 2 of the filmmaking career of David A Prior. We made it through 1989 and 1990, where he had a hand (writing, directing, or both) in a staggering 11 movies; cast his old friends, such as William Zipp, Fritz Matthews, and Douglas Harter; often used “traumatised war veteran” as a central plot point; and heavily filmed in the woods outside his beloved Mobile, Alabama.

Phase 2 appears to last all the way to his “retirement” in 1997 (he made a handful of movies starting in 2007, though). He made fewer movies a year – two, on average; used actors you might have actually heard of; and the budgets, if this is any indication, went way up. Actual sets, inside buildings!

I got worried at the beginning, as I thought this was going to be set in a funfair, and as we all know, all movies set at funfairs suck (exception – “Carnival Of Souls”). But it’s just the spot of the first murder, where a couple of twins wearing red high-heels go into the hall of mirrors and are offed by a mysterious figure. One is strangled, the other, more importantly to the plot, is shot in the face.

Our star today is a welcome return for Ted Prior, who I wanted to interview about his brother’s movies but I looked on his Facebook page and saw tons of Donald Trump propaganda so I just insulted his dumb views instead and moved on. Anyway, he is, according to the VHS box, Jimmy Clayton, a race-car driver who is bringing up his sister Gina (Traci Lords) after the deaths of their parents some years previously. Jimmy has to go and earn a crust from driving a race-car, in a show that starts at 10:30am (?), so he’s off to pick up his mechanic / best friend, Blake Garrett (the great Randall “Tex” Cobb).

During the race, he starts having psychic visions of the murder that happened the previous night. Now, my first thought was “he could have just heard about it on the news that morning, it’s not that psychic” but he goes to the fun-fair, sees a newspaper and realises he has visions of what went on. Being a good citizen, he goes to the police to offer his help, and so we meet the other half of the cast.

The captain is Gavin (Glenn Ford, aka Pa Kent from the 1978 “Superman”, and a million other roles in a busy career- this, sadly, was his last before he retired) and his lieutenant is Bruce (Jan Michael Vincent). We met Vincent before, in 1990’s “Xtro 2”, where he was so indifferent to the filming process that he had to have every line fed to him from just off screen, before he said it. His alcoholism, which stopped his film career in 2002, had already seized control of him, although he could still just about operate. The final piece of this puzzle is Gloria (Sandahl Bergman, “Hell Comes To Frogtown”) as a reporter who’s also Bruce’s ex-wife. She sees Jimmy claim he’s a psychic and decides there’s a story there.

So, we discover the dark story behind the deaths of the parents, the fact the killer has a thing about women wearing red high heels, and the fact the entire female cast seem obsessed with taunting the killer by wearing red high heels at every opportunity. Blake finds a high heel in the back of…Jimmy’s car?…and we can’t tell if he’s remembering murdering someone or worried about the killer leaving evidence on his car. This deliberate and crude withholding of information is, while stupid, at least an attempt to make an interesting thriller, I guess.

There’s some good dialogue, too. My favourite is this exchange between Gavin and Bruce.

Bruce (given work he doesn’t want): I shoulda been a dentist.

Gavin: I should have been a florist. (PAUSE) I like flowers!

It’s all in the delivery, and when you’ve got an actor of Glenn Ford’s calibre, you can have these moments.

Everything completely falls to pieces in the last fifteen minutes, with characters behaving in bizarre ways just to keep the movie going, and I can’t tell if it’s just my having seen twenty Prior movies in the last few months, but the twist was painfully obvious. Still, the final effect, where a truck flies off the top of a multi-storey parking lot, looked completely real and therefore quite expensive. Not a bad effort!

While I admire how Prior is prepared to go dark, and put his central characters in situations that more mainstream directors wouldn’t, it’s still a bit confusing and boring. Like, why make Prior’s character a race-car driver if you’re not going to have some sort of use of his skills towards the end of the movie? Just little things like that begin to wear on you after a while. So, it’s definitely a step up from phase 1, perhaps the reason phase 1 was so often enjoyable was because they were cheap, and a bit shoddy. This feels too average.

Rating: thumbs down

Deadly Dancer (1991)

I can already imagine your response.

“Hey, Mark,” you say. “I know you’re trying to watch all the David A Prior movies, but his only credit in this is story. He didn’t write or direct it, or even produce it. What gives? Are you feeling okay?”

I understand, and my voice will become calming as I say it’s another AIP movie, directed by Kimberley Casey (who also directed “Born Killer”), and Ted Prior has a “casting” credit, which at least keeps it in the family a little. Then I’ll try and help you explain that the completist’s curse is on me, and we’re over the halfway point so let’s just get through the rest of it together.

“Okay, I guess? You’re the idiot watching these movies”.

Welcome to “Deadly Dancer”! One of the criticisms I levelled at Ms Casey’s previous directorial effort is that it seemed edited very strangely, like she was uninterested in showing why things followed on from other things, and that tendency is very strongly in effect here too. Even if you’re really closely paying attention, there’ll be many moments where you’ll wonder what’s going on, why person A and person B are in a scene when five seconds ago they were in the middle of different conversations in different scenes. So a lot of this review is sort of a best guess as to what she’s aiming for.

Credited first, but maybe fifth in terms of screen time, is one Shabba-Doo. Our younger readers (like, below 50) will probably have no idea who this man is, but he’s one of the pioneers of hip-hop dancing, was in a ton of music videos, and was on “Soul Train” for many years; he’s also a perfectly reasonable actor, playing here Tony Penter, the boss of a dance club. He’s not in the first scene, but later we see him look on approvingly as a black woman dances in a leopard-skin outfit, while the white women get to wear less racist gear.

Okay, this movie goes confusing right away, so, let’s see if I can unpack it for you. We see a guy post a mysterious device in a small flimsy envelope, then walk into a club and pull a gun on the head dancer. Someone who’s sat there having a drink says “no!” but we don’t get a resolution to this scene, cutting straight to the two of them chasing down some bad guys. They’re cops! But does scene 2 follow scene 1 or is it a flashback? “Deadly Dancer” doesn’t worry itself with making sense!

This isn’t even the most confusing thing in the first ten minutes, though. Mike (Walter Cox) and Jack (Jeff Herbick) are doing their police chasing thing in a pretty well-shot, fun little segment. Jack tricks a criminal, there’s some banter, it’s all fun. But then, for some reason, a hitherto unseen third cop dressed identically to Jack takes over the second half of the chase. Here’s Jack:

And here’s the other guy:

As we’re operating in the only-ever-released-on-VHS hinterland here, information about this movie is very very hard to come by. But, in the next scene, when Jack keeps his back to the camera throughout, we start to realise something’s not quite right – then, later on, when he has romantic scenes and we only see his back, or his head’s not in shot, or the camera moves round him to ensure we never see his face…it appears that, for a solid half of his screen time, Jeff Herbick was not around for filming, so they just replaced him with the only other guy on set who had a moustache, despite Jack 2 being several inches taller, 20 pounds heavier and less tanned. This is weird, even for a low-budget movie, and makes the “lead actor wore a wig during reshoots” stuff from “Samurai Cop” look almost normal.

(the scene above, by the way, feels like they added an extra bit in reshoots to bulk the running time. Jack’s “never trust a cop” line is a perfect ending to that scene, but it goes on for an extra minute with the other guy)

I’ve not even mentioned the plot yet, which is kind of appropriate as the plot listed on the video box doesn’t really get going til the last half-hour. And, I’ve not mentioned the second really weird thing about this movie, but we’ll get to both of them soon.

Mike and Jack are told by their captain to take some R&R time, so decide, obviously, to go to a strip club (the same one we saw in the first scene, so we’re in “72 hours earlier” territory). Except it’s not a strip club. There are lots of women in the audience, and none of the dancers take their clothes off. It’s basically small groups of people, or solo women, doing pop-video style dancing to pop-style songs. Wait, what? That was a thing? Later on, Penter tells a dancer who auditions by taking her top off (the only nudity in the movie) that this is a “couples club” and they don’t do that here. Now, the internet is not all-knowing but I searched for any evidence that couples’ clubs were a thing that existed and found a lot of pages about swingers clubs but absolutely nothing about ones where couples went to watch fully clothed dancers in this sort of milieu.

Anyway, Jack takes a fancy to lead dancer Kaycha (Smith Wordes) and despite her not being interested at first, wears her down quite quickly. While the two cops are at the club, though, one of the other dancers is murdered, and so the plot sort of lumbers into motion. Jack starts a relationship with Kaycha while Mike sort of tries to solve the increasingly large number of murders, all of which happen while both Jack and Penter are nearby.

There are tons of odd editing choices to make you think both Jack and Penter are the murderer, so even though you’re fairly sure it’s neither of them, the movie goes through the motions for half an hour or so. The twist isn’t much of a twist, but it does make a lot of the previous scenes really confusing in retrospect – like, why did that character behave that way? Hell, why does Penter have such a large part in the movie? Other than being the most famous name, I mean.

“Deadly Dancer” feels like someone just wanted to film a bunch of dancers (who are all really good, by the way) but then was told to find a plot to fit round the dancing scenes. I’d love to ask Jeff Herbick what was going on that they needed to find another guy to play him in half his scenes…I’m also fairly sure he’s the same guy from Amir Shervan classic “Killing American Style”, but in that movie he went by the name “John Lynch” – perhaps a union thing.

This is a really good one. I don’t mean good like a normal movie enthusiast would use the word, but good like it makes no sense but is entertaining as hell. Enjoy every weird b-movie choice in this brief detour from the movies of David A Prior, why don’t you?

Rating: thumbs up

Made in STL: Death Kick (1998) and Gun’s Eye (1989)

The St Louis Video Society does great work, finding old and obscure movies which were filmed in St Louis and shining a light on them, organising public showings and so on. Please check the tag “Made in STL” for the other reviews in this series; and please join STLVS head James, myself and the other low-budget movie afficionados of this fine city at a future showing.

First up is a surprising reunion with one of the ISCFC’s favourite figures, one David Heavener. Heavener was the star of “Border Of Tong” (aka “Massacre”) and produced the Donald Farmer movie “Blood and Honour” – the rest of his filmography will be a future ISCFC project. He produced this, too, which was largely filmed in a tile warehouse in downtown-ish St Louis (as well as having the opening credits pan over Union Station, when it wasn’t the rusted out hulk that it is today).

So, a movie called “Death Kick”, with the tagline “this guy kicks people to death”. Would you surprised if I told you no-one kicks anyone to death, and kicking is among the least important of the action moves on display? I would also like to apologise for the lack of names in this review – the cast don’t have IMDB photos or, indeed, character names.

A criminal plots his revenge on Adrian Lane, the prosecutor who, I guess, prosecuted him successfully? He gets three other failed criminals together, and gets them to each hire a “champion”, a good fighter I guess. At the same time, he kidnaps Lane, takes him to a tile warehouse, and ties him up. The three criminals each get a chance to have their champion beat the prosecutor to death. Well, they untie him first, to make it…fairer? Apparenty, the movie mentions he’s a cross-trainer and therefore ought to be quite fit, but zero indication is given that he can actually fight, so when he successfully knocks his first assailant out, my “huh?” levels started to rise.

So, it’s a weirdly over-the-top performance from the main villain, while Lane acts slightly puzzled rather than afraid for his life. He even gets to reunite with his ex-girlfriend! He’s also the writer and producer of the movie, and writes two exceptionally long and boring scenes where women threaten him with different torture weapons – I do love a good example of someone sneaking their fetishes into low-budget movies!

I think maybe, just maybe, someone realised how silly the entire thing was and aimed the production towards the camp end of things. Check out the pro wrestling guy that one of the villains hires to slap Lane about! But it’s equally possible that William Hartig (the writer/producer) knew a few high-level martial artists – much like the “Bloodfist” movies, the martial arts credentials of the main cast are listed over the closing credits – and had a pile of money and a desire to star in his own movie where he gets to kick ass. That makes him the sort of person we want to know!

Anyway, it’s short, which is a plus, but it’s incredibly stupid and the fight scenes are all lame as hell, which is a minus. But it’s got energy to it, and for that I salute the people who worked on this movie, for almost all of whom it’s their only credit.

Second up is a far different proposition, a slasher movie with a fascinating central premise and some strong body-horror elements, which has sadly passed into almost complete obscurity. Only available as a Dutch VHS tape and, realistically, not the sort of movie that’s going to get a loving blu-ray re-release from a company like Vinegar Syndrome, you’ll need to be dedicated to track it down. There’s not even a single screenshot available online to show you!

“Gun’s Eye” is the sole lifetime credit for writer / director / producer / editor / star Jerry Koch. He plays Vick, a young man who goes into a pawn shop one day to sell the engagement ring he was going to give to his girlfriend, who (presumably) left him. The leering weirdo in charge of the store is testing his WW2 Luger pistol, Vick sees it and becomes fascinated with it, for no visible reason. One trade later and he’s out of there, new pistol in hand.

Then it pivots towards classic slasher territory, as Vick, and a group of his friends go to his parents’ home on Lake Of The Ozarks (about 4 hours drive from St Louis) and Vick becomes increasingly divorced from reality. The gun has possessed him, you see, and in the spirit of the title, we see a lot of history from the gun’s point of view, literally down the barrel of the gun. Lots of Nazis, obviously, but also hints about its previous owners. The body-horror manifests itself when the gun begins to literally weld itself to Vick’s hand and there’s some horrific (and rather well-done) special effects as his body begins to produce bullets. Or perhaps Jerry Koch is one of those sticklers who hates it when movie guns fire too often?

I don’t want to go over-the-top with my praise of “Gun’s Eye”, because it’s slow and the acting isn’t great and the alleged mega-amounts of gore ended up not amounting to a great deal of anything. But. That a guy only ever made one movie and it was this – a dark, complex, ugly bit of horror with a fascinating premise and an unusual central visual motif – means it’s worth our time. That it’s disappeared so completely while many many worse movies have special-feature-laden re-releases is a shame.

ISCFC ONE-TIMERS AWARD: I’ve retired this award in recent years, as listening to a commentary with Donald Farmer made me realise that lots of my single-credit actors and directors were just moonlighting under different names in non-union productions to earn a few dollars. But “Gun’s Eye” is one of those rare movies where all the actors and every member of the crew listed on IMDB has this as their only credit, which leads me to believe it’s true for them. Well done “Gun’s Eye”!


Rating: come to St Louis Video Society

Lock n Load (1990)

After a few movies where new things were tried – plots, locations and so on – we’re back in familiar territory for David A Prior, in the last of the 7 (!) movies he wrote or directed, or both, in 1990. We made it out of 1990, people!

It’s been a while since we’ve seen brother Ted in one of these movies, and “Lock n Load” is no exception, featuring one Jack Vogel in the lead role. Vogel is a fine lead actor, but his career was largely focused in the late 80s and early 90s, mostly in Prior movies, making a few appearances in Prior’s much later efforts (more on such gems as “The P.A.C.K.” and “Zombie Wars” later).

Here, Vogel plays Paul, a Vietnam vet (take a shot), who’s having traumatic dreams (take a shot), but not about his actual wartime experiences. He’s walking down a corridor which looks like it was borrowed from the set of a cheap sci-fi movie, and an unseen figure at the far end is trying to get him to submit, or something, but…he wakes up sweating, etc.

Paul realises something is going on when, listening to the radio, he gets information that one of his old Army buddies has robbed some drug dealers, then killed himself (we saw it in the “cold open”, which was rather confusing, but I liked it). Helpfully, he has a list of the guys from his old platoon, and it’s got a few Prior in-jokes on it – one of the crossed-out names is Doug Harter, aka “Pappy” from most of our recent reviews, and “David Prior” is one of the names too – so he tries to call a few of the ones who are still alive to talk to them. Evil businessman Jordan Prescott tells him to take a hike, but one of his buddies, Ken, who’s in what looks like a very unhappy marriage to Claire (Renee Cline, the female lead of “Invasion Force”), invites him to a barbeque the next day so they can discuss it.

But, before he gets there, Ken receives a phone call which says simply “lock and load”, which causes him to go into a trance, walk out the door (not before punching Claire, who tries to stop him) and go rob some security guards. He drops the money off in a secret location before driving to a secluded spot to blow himself up – Paul almost saves him, but sadly Ken has a bunch of dynamite on him. Luckily, one of the cops is both friendly and believes Paul’s rather odd story, so he sort of teams up with both him and Claire to try and get to the bottom of things.

One might wonder “did brainwashed Ken just instinctively know where there’d be people with sacks of cash?” But don’t worry about that, as the movie doesn’t (at least until the very end). One might also wonder how quickly Paul and Claire get together, but…she’s been treated badly for a long time, and Paul is a decent human being, so it’s not too odd. But seriously, Paul! She’s your friend’s wife, and he’s been dead for like two days!

Act 2 is s-l-o-w. There’s a horribly underdeveloped army guy who tells us of the secret of “King’s Pawn”, and there’s a Governor who is introducing environmental laws, who Jordan is feuding with, being an evil businessman and all. They crawl towards an understanding of what’s really going on, despite the actual villain being obvious as hell, until things kick off again towards the end.

What becomes apparent is that the script is underbaked. I try to avoid being an armchair quarterback when it comes to these things, but it would have taken relatively little to massively improve “Lock n Load” (including trimming about ten minutes off the run-time). The military insist that the cop stops investigating these brainwashed men committing robbery-suicides, but why? It’s not like the guy doing it is in the military any more, or is doing things that benefit the military. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for them to kill the guy who was actually doing the brainwashing?

Then there’s the twist at the end, which is so obvious that…well, I realised it. “Hey, looks like you were wrong,” says my wife, to which I reply “he’s faking it” (no names, in case you want to watch this one yourself). But then there’s the twist’s twist, which makes no sense when you think about it for more than half a second.

I feel like this sort of movie, featuring brainwashed soldiers, would have had more resonance in the Soviet era, when Americans were so desperately afraid of being exposed to a better way of organising society (satire!) that these sort of half-baked “Manchurian Candidate” inspired efforts would have seemed scary.

There’s a lack of the gun-battles that Prior “fans” know and “love”; sadly, it’s no better for their absence. The acting is fine, the visuals are different (filmed in actual snowy Colorado), but…eh. It’s alright?

Rating: thumbs in the middle

White Fury (1990)

For those of you following the ISCFC’s review series of David A Prior, you may have noticed how he started to change – not having every movie be a weird Vietnam revenge story with a bad gunfight in it, for one – but prepare to be even more surprised by a movie which bears almost no relation to anything he’s done before (one delightful actor notwithstanding).

It’s a snow movie! Our hero is Danny (Shaun Holton), a snowboarding champion, whose girlfriend Christine (Christine Shinn), best friend Greg (William Berg) and Greg’s evil girlfriend Lesley (Chasity Hammons) go off to a cabin in the woods, in the snow, for a weekend of fun. Well, Lesley is a hideous beast who won’t let her boyfriend touch her hair and doesn’t want to go on a snowmobile; Greg is a miserable wet blanket who’s only interested in sex…but we’re expecting some sort of hijinks.

At the same time, we’re introduced to Tyler and Marcus (Deke Anderson and Michael Kaskel), two psychopathic bank robbers. After they’ve taken the money from one bank, they stand there and murder like 20 or so people with their assault rifles, then murder their own getaway driver later! There’s a hefty hint that murder is now Tyler’s main interest in all this business, as his look of sexual pleasure at butchering people does not go unnoticed. They decide to lie low with the bag full of cash, and guess which secluded spot they choose?

The final piece of this jigsaw is one Doug Harter, rapidly becoming an ISCFC favourite thanks to his roles in “Rapid Fire”, “Invasion Force” and now this. I’ll forever know him as “Pappy”, his character name in “Rapid Fire”, but here he’s a bounty hunter by the name of Martin Towers, who, despite being much older than Tyler, has apparently devoted his life to tracking him down. It takes him so long to integrate with the main plot that I began to wonder if this movie, entirely unlike any previous David A Prior effort, was actually someone else’s and Prior had bought it to splice some footage of Harter into to get to sellable length (it’s not this).

If you can get past the negative levels of charisma the four main cast members have with each other, and how Marcus looks more like a bland substitute teacher than he does a murderous bank robber, you’ve still got some curious editing decisions to really put you off making sense of “White Fury”. I’ll try to give an example.

At one point, all four stars are in the room, playing charades together. Tyler and Marcus are outside watching them, wondering why their lovely empty cabin is full of teen assholes. Tyler, who has rape and murder on his mind, looks pleased – but Danny is outside the room when the two men break in, instantly turns into a stealth-ninja and no-one apparently is aware he’s there until he tries to attack one of the men about ten minutes later. Plus, he steals the robbers’ cash to use as leverage, despite it being impossible he could have any idea what the men were carrying.

Further editing oddities include the weather changing from heavy snow to bright sunshine, depending on which character in a chase we were following, and in some cases changing even for those characters. Did no-one notice when inspecting the dailies for this movie? Did anyone inspect dailies? Did anyone apart from a bored, drunk editor watch this movie before it was released? You will be annoyed when you think back to the snowboarding at the beginning, which features a guy in a full scarf in the long shots so we can’t see it’s not Danny; then in closeups has the poor actor, now minus scarf, pretend to be flying about a snowboard track, despite there being no wind and the clouds and trees in the background staying entirely still as he makes his body shake about.

What I thought was the end, but was in fact just the middle, drags on to a ludicrous extent as the two men terrorise the teens and Towers is occasionally seen getting closer to his prey. It’s cheap and ugly looking and boring and everyone is a terrible actor, so it was a real bind to sit through, dear reader: when I discovered there was a whole extra bit, where Tyler turns into some superhero, getting shot, beaten with a baseball bat and still able to overpower three strong, well-rested guys and a bunch of park rangers, I really started to get bored.

Boredom is, unfortunately, the main thing you’ll feel while watching “White Fury”. It’s by far the most amateurish Prior movie to date, with nothing interesting visually, a script that forgot to have a remotely interesting central conflict or any good dialogue, and a running time that felt terribly padded even at 82 minutes. It’s available to watch for free, but unlike many of the AIP movies we’ve covered so far, it’s not even worth watching for that much.

Rating: thumbs down

PS – this even disproves my previous theory that rocket launchers or bazookas make all movies more entertaining. Even the nice guy bounty hunter carrying around multiple high-powered explosive devices failed to raise any excitement from this reviewer.

That’s Action (1990)

Welcome to one of the more curious entries in the canon of AIP and David A Prior, a documentary made in the middle of their most prolific period (late 80s / early 90s) about their own movies. Well, I say documentary, it’s like a “greatest hits” collection from a band that didn’t really have any hits.

Robert Culp, a legend of TV – “I Spy” and “Greatest American Hero”, to name but two – and a not-so-much legend of movies – “Xtro 3” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night 3”, for instance – is the host for this wander through the filmography of Action International Pictures. Almost all of them are from our old friend David A Prior, but a few others sneak in there, such as “Code Name Vengeance”, “Phoenix the Warrior”, and most memorably, “Space Mutiny”.

So the basic gist of things is – Culp will read the terrible script, and say “here are some movies with X in them”, then a clip, completely devoid of any context, will play. Some of the clips are ten seconds long, some three or four minutes. The areas covered are:

* Car chases

* Gunfights

* Fistfights

* Ladies

* People on fire

* Stuff in the sky

* Pyrotechnics

* Bad guy deaths

There’s one rather crucial problem with this endeavour. If you’ve seen these movies before, then unless you’re some weird masochist, you’re not going to want a VHS tape with random scenes from them on it; and if you’ve not, then the it’ll be more confusing than anyone else. The final fight scene from “Born Killer” is shown at great length, and my wife, who had never seen that particular gem, despite accompanying me for many Prior epics, said “why is that guy covered in red paint? Why are all the cops stood round watching?”

Some scenes are half-explained, like Culp will go “these soldiers are actually vampires” about “The Lost Platoon”, and so on. But most of them aren’t, and some of them are so short – like, we get a shot of a person being blown up, then move on to the next thing – that explaining them would be kind of impossible.

Culp sort of very slowly undresses over the course of proceedings. Like, he comes on in an immaculate suit, but before he’s even finished with the first link he’s unbuttoning his jacket, which is just weird, visually speaking. By the end his tie is loose and his jacket is wide open, as if the sum total of all these amazing clips had a very slight effect on him.

We get one scene repeated, for reasons which presumably made sense at the time (Kalgon kicking the dude on fire out his way in “Space Mutiny”) and lots of scenes which were adequate in their original context, but suck out loud when apparently being used as an example of a classic of their kind – like, a really dull car chase from “Death Chase”, not even the funnest example of a chase from that movie. The “star power” of AIP is represented by a few seconds of a clearly drunk / high Oliver Reed, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss him shot of Dan Haggerty. Can Cameron Mitchell even be called star power?

They proudly show one of the more embarrassing moments in AIP history, where the villain tries to crush a prop beer bottle in his hand and fails the first attempt, which gave me a good laugh. Imagine having twenty movies to mine for material and picking that!

I wish I had more to relate to you, dear reader. But, it’s a TV actor reading a bad script and introducing random clips from mostly average movies. You try and write a good review about that!

Rating: thumbs down

Invasion Force (1990)

Welcome back, dear reader, to our review series of the oeuvre of David A Prior. It would appear that around late 1989, someone told Mr Prior that his work was getting somewhat samey, and to keep the public’s interest he ought to widen the scope of movies he was borrowing from. So we got dystopian-ish sci-fi (“Future Zone” and “Future Force”), vampire soldiers (“Lost Platoon”), a sort-of First Blood / Deliverance hybrid (“Born Killer”), and now this, a sort of gentle riff on the Chuck Norris classic “Invasion USA” – starring that movie’s villain, in case you didn’t quite make the connection. The fact that Prior wrote, directed or wrote and directed seven movies in 1990 (how did he have the time to sleep?) is perhaps an indicator that the quality will not always be the highest, but he was trying different things!

He must have been feeling confident because the beginning of “Invasion Force” even has a twist to it. It starts off as a rather cheesy-feeling “Rambo”-a-like, with the blond, muscled Troy walking into a very flimsy-looking army camp, blowing it all up while standing stock still (and never getting shot, of course) before rescuing the rather wooden damsel in distress. More explosions, a few quips and a rather fun denouement when he trades a diamond for the woman, only the diamond pouch is full of explosives…

It’s a film within a film! Obviously, this is well-trodden ground, but it’s nice to see a director like Prior stretch his wings a little. It turns out, AIP (the real company that David co-founded) is shooting a rather AIP-sounding movie, out in the woods near Mobile, Alabama (where David normally shoots). This really feels like he understood and even half-agreed with the criticism that the late 80s version of me was dishing out – that they were formulaic, silly even, and although the viewers could probably notice this was cheesy even for them, it wasn’t quite cheesy enough that alarm bells started ringing.

Our film crew features “Pappy” from “Rapid Fire”, Doug Harter, playing a character called Doug Harter, and a fellow called Charlie Stedman playing himself…but no others. Were the rest of the actors all “I’d rather you not use my real name, thanks”? Perhaps they didn’t want to start throwing too many in-jokes in there.

The other side of this particular conflict is something we’re a little more familiar with – a mercenary army led by a figurehead General whose plan seems to very important but never mentioned ; and a second-in-command, a mercenary whose sole interest seems to be in killing. This is pretty much a retread of the plot of “The Lost Platoon” – I didn’t say Prior had gone crazy and started using entirely original plots, did I? The mercenary is played by B-movie legend and ISCFC favourite Richard Lynch (“Cyborg 3”, “Terminal Virus”, “Scanner Cop”) and it’s always nice to see him.

Their plan is to take over a small town and hold everyone hostage. There’s more to this, but I’d be wandering far too close to spoiling the end of it if I told you the rest. Of course, they’re miles away from civilisation, so it’s just the film crew who have to save America from their evil plan. Have they got enough real bullets? Can the special effects guy make reasonable-looking explosions from the stuff he has lying around? Will the director and his leading lady realise they’re perfect for each other before one of them gets shot?

Let’s play “same / different”, where I list things this movie does exactly the same as other Prior efforts, and then things he tries that are different.

Same: the banter. Oh god, the terrible banter.

Different: people actually take proper cover when other people are firing at them!

Same: military base in a bunch of tents in a forest clearing.

Different: an interesting central relationship between a man and a woman.

Same: Even though the VHS box claimed “town”, it was set in the forest, again.

Different: This was a bad idea, I can see that now.

The movie crew’s plan to rescue their kidnapped director is so perfunctory that it might almost have been designed as a joke – as is their big plan to stop the invasion. Then there’s the crazy reasoning behind it all, and then…there’s quite a big twist, and an even bigger final twist, which is ballsy, sort of explains every ridiculous thing that’s gone before and fits rather well.

It feels like maybe this and the following documentary “That’s Action” are of a pair, building the mythology of AIP. They’re so good their crew could fight real terrorists! Okay, maybe not. But it’s…well, I’m not sure what it is, but I admire them again trying something different, even if the VHS connoisseurs of the time must have been a little nonplussed.

Rating: thumbs up