Youtube Film Club: Prototype (1992)

Thank you for sticking with us for a few weeks while we did a bit of “housekeeping” – in other words, reviewing series that have been added to since we stopped reviewing them, once-lost-now-found movies from our favourite directors, that sort of thing. You, dear reader, are likely much less obsessive about these things than I, but hopefully you’ve been entertained and informed.

We love covering post-apocalyptic movies here, too, and given there are approximately an infinite number of them, we’ll never run out of review material. 1992’s “Prototype” is a peculiar one, though, for several reasons. It’s a welcome return for one of our favourite directors, Philip Roth (“Interceptor Force” 1 and 2, “Total Reality”, “Digital Man”, “Velocity Trap”) and a slightly less welcome return for “the extremely confusing plot”, and its twin brother, “the info-scroll at the beginning that doesn’t really explain anything”.

 

So, it’s the future, and I guess there’s been an extinction-level event of some sort. The remnants of humanity are hanging on, then some boffin creates “Omegas”, who are genetically altered humans. I think. They figure out how to reprogram themselves, and this period of history is known as “the time of the mad minds”.  Why? I don’t have the foggiest idea, my friends, because the Omegas don’t appear to do anything bad, either before or after they re-program themselves.

Then, again for reasons that are never revealed to us, humanity invents the Prototypes to hunt down the Omegas. Whereas the Omegas are just people, the Prototypes are a sort of garish rip-off of Robocop; it appears they’re successful, as the last one powers down, its mission complete, after killing off what it believes is the last Omega. Sadly for it, the Omega thing, whatever that thing is, is implanted in a little blonde girl who manages to escape the carnage.

 

Fast forward 20 years. There’s the adult version of the blonde girl, a scientist working in what I presume is the last military base on Earth, someone who might be a soldier or she might just be his assistant, a guy in a wheelchair with a really sweet mullet, a kid who’s maybe related to the guy in the wheelchair, and a guy with that cornrow / mullet combination who is, a later info-scroll tells us, a genetically engineered protector for the Omega. Not an Omega, who are also genetically engineered, just a super-strong fighter who’s there to protect her. If you’re feeling a little lost, join the club.

One of the comments from my wife while watching this movie was “is this sponsored by Marlboro?” Everyone smokes, all the time, to the point where you have to wonder how cigarettes are still being made in the post-apocalyptic world of 2077. But such trifles distract from the central question relating to “Prototype”, viz:

 

What the hell is going on?

 

The info-scroll definitely indicates that the Omegas are the bad guys, and the Prototypes have restored peace in some way, yet later on the final Omega, Chandra Kerkorian (Lane Lenhart) is the hero, and the organization behind the Prototypes are the bad guys. Wheelchair-mullet guy, Hawkins Coselow (Robert Tossberg), we discover, was once in the Army, so scientist lady asks him to step up to be put in the Prototype armour, which will allow him to walk again (they had a body on ice for this purpose, but the bonding process didn’t take).  He’s definitely a good guy, and is in love with Chandra, who seems completely indifferent to him, and indeed every other person in the cast. But then there’s a virtual reality sex thing where Hawkins goes through his fantasies with Chandra, although she might be taking part in some of them?

The movie sort of ambles along for an hour or so before they decide to put Hawkins in the suit and get on with the plot. It bears some similarities in its meandering please-get-to-the-point nature, as well as a post-apocalyptic setting, with British sci-fi movie “Hardware” (not much of a compliment). But it also has a kind of film noir feel to it, like the filmmakers were aiming for something they weren’t quite talented enough to pull off, which goes to the editing as well, which is extremely curious in places (presumably on purpose).

 

Even though I tried to find entertainment in “Prototype”, as I love a good post-apocalypse movie, I just couldn’t quite manage it. Whose side was anyone on? Who are we supposed to want to win? Are there any normal humans in this movie? What was this war all about?

 

Unless you’re a completist, either of Roth movies or post-apocalyptic ones, might be best to steer clear of this one. But, it’s up there for free, so you’ve only got your time to lose.

 

Rating: thumbs down

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Space Kid (1999)

Donald Farmer has long been a favourite here at the ISCFC, as we’ve been covering his movies pretty much since we started. There were a few, though, that seem to have avoided our piercing critical gaze, either because we couldn’t find them or because they’d never been officially released on home video. Well, a future review – “The Strike” – will be coming because I figured out I’d been searching for it under the wrong name (it had a DVD release), and Farmer himself paid for a very limited DVD release of “Space Kid” last year.

 

So now, dear reader, you get to learn about yet another oddball entry into the Farmer-verse. And, I think there’s actually a Farmer-verse! This movie gave me the key, and I think numerous movies exist in the same world. A central part of “Space Kid” is the tabloid TV show “American Expose”, and the same show appears in “The Strike”. There’s also a very similar show in “Vampire Cop”, and Dana Plato plays an investigative reporter in “Compelling Evidence”. Can you imagine that erotic thriller and “Vampire Cop” existing in the same world? I might try writing a script and see if Mr Farmer would like to direct it.

 

But that’s for another day. We’re here to talk about “Space Kid”, which starts in a quarry – er, an alien planet – as Queen Nebula (listed in the credits as “Space Mom”), pursued by rebels, leads her son to safety, while being pursued by agents. At one point, she appears to use her own child as a human shield, but I have to assume they were aiming for something else with that scene. She gets shot while scrambling up a hill, but the kid (who will come to be known as Charlie) manages to beam himself aboard an intergalactic space-ship, ending up on Earth. I feel that bit was glossed over, but it’s also entirely possible I was distracted.

So, he ends up on Earth and then it becomes the sort of thing you may have seen a few times before – Charlie befriends a lonely kid roughly his own age, helps her with bullies, an evil babysitter, doing the dishes, and other problems, but she’s quite honest about the fact he’s an alien. Some people believe her, some don’t, and then there’s scientists and government agents teaming up to track him down (including two Men In Black, played by long-time Farmer regulars Andre Buckner and Maria Ortiz). It’s got a little bit of a lot of kids’ science-fiction TV and movies of the time, but is no worse for it.

 

It’s quite short (55 minutes, with substantial closing credits) but that’s not always a bad thing when it comes to the lower budget end. There’s some decent acting on display – Ortiz is excellent in her brief role, Melanie the TV reporter pitches her performance very well, and Donald Farmer is a decent actor as the producer of “American Expose”.

 

If you’re not already a fan of Mr Farmer, then I’d suggest not starting here, but if you’re already in deep, like me, then come on in and experience another string to his bow – kids’ movies, to go along with civil war, vampire, zombie, cannibal, and demon movies.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Robo-Warriors (1996)

Don’t worry, this isn’t a “No Retreat, No Surrender” sequel too

This might be the least sequel-y bunch of sequels we’ve ever covered. Five years ago, the ISCFC sort of tolerated 1989’s “Robot Jox”; then, presumably relating to a clause in a contract somewhere, we got two sequels, from the same company, also about giant fighting robots, that specifically didn’t mention their relatively famous forebear or anything that happened in it. That would be 1990’s “Crash and Burn” and 1993’s “Robot Wars”, and both of them were actually listed as “Robot Jox 2” in some less copyright-interested countries round the world, and were surprisingly decent! Okay, the standard was low, but still!

I’d quite like to know what brought this movie, which had the working title of “Robot Jox 3”, into existence. It’s nothing to do with the Full Moon, who produced the first three, although their regular guy Stuart Gordon (director of “Re-Animator” and one of the best HP Lovecraft adaptors) gets a “based on characters created by” credit, and Richard Band does the soundtrack.

As we continue on our early 2019 pledge to wrap up a lot of our review series, I know you were all clamouring for information on which was the best giant fighting robot movie (subcategory: Full Moon and adjacent companies) to which I can tell you…probably “Crash and Burn”. But wait! There’s a few hundred more words with vague jokes and low-quality information to come!

This is a “Premiere International Production”, which made me smile as it reminded me of “Prestige Worldwide” from “Step Brothers”. Sadly, this smile would be my last for the next 90 minutes – but enough about me! It’s 2035, and the Earth has been invaded by the Terridaxx, who look like the sort of thing a cheap episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” would try to pass off as aliens.

Anyway, they enslave us pretty quickly, but…and here’s where the first confusing thing happens. We start off with a group of human soldiers in the jungle, led by Ray Gibson (the great James Remar), attempting to find a giant fighting robot, which had been abandoned / lost there, to take on the Terridaxx. Not on the battlefield, but in an arena, as apparently we can get them to leave if we beat them at one-on-one fighting. The last one the humans create is the best, but for no reason we’re ever given, they leave it in the jungle, and by the time the humans find it, it’s overgrown and half-buried.

Then, we discover all that is a flashback, a story being told by an old man to his grandson, Zach (Kyle Howard, who’d go on to be a successful adult actor in stuff like “My Boys” and “Royal Pains”). Try and keep this timeline in your mind, I guess. Zach decides, after a brief search on the internet (the sweet innocent internet days of 1996) to just wander off into…a warzone?…to find Gibson and get him to help defeat the Terridaxx. Gibson hasn’t aged a day, and the jungle scene (when they get to it) with the robot in it is identical to when Gibson was there last.

Oh, it turns out the grandpa is also a highly trained giant robot engineer, so he and Zach help Gibson when he decides to help, and the aliens, despite being in total control of Earth and not needing to, agree to a one-on-one giant robot fight. Earth wins, the Terridaxx go home; the Terridaxx win, and…who cares, it’s not going to happen anyway. Probably something like the human race agreeing to slavery, or whatever.

This is really a kids’ movie with the vaguest hint of it being for adults. The hero is a kid, whose blind optimism for a better future (although just how bad the Terridaxx are is never really mentioned, can’t be any worse than the current President I’d have thought) is the push that all the adults need to get off their asses and repel the alien threat; he repairs the robot in a moment of need and provides tech support during the final battle. The issues are simplistic, and easily overcome.

I admire how low-budget movies ply their craft, sometimes. They get round this being the future but all the technology being suspiciously 1996-era by saying “the Terridaxx confiscated all our good stuff” (even if I’m not sure what good it would do them to get rid of future microwave ovens or whatever). My favourite, though, is the final battle, which doesn’t use stop-motion or animation or CGI or any of that good stuff – it looks back to Godzilla and just has a couple of guys dressed up in giant robot outfits. Now, the robots are basically immobile so…I’m really not sure why they’re fighting each other? They’re just stood toe to toe, blasting each other with their best weapons, and the fact that they’re giant chuffing robots seems secondary to the battle. Why not do it another way? Or show one of the robots dodging a few bullets every now and again?

Anyway, it’s very slight, as most cheap entertainments for kids were from that era. Are you desperate to see all four movies in the Robot Jox-verse? If so, have at it, if not, avoid.

Rating: thumbs down

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2018)

The Puppet Master series exasperated us over the late 2013 / early 2014 period, but the main takeaway was that Full Moon head honcho Charles Band tried, repeatedly, to make half a movie’s worth of plot stretch to feature length. This is literally the case with parts 4 and 5, which was going to be one cinema release, but when it was decided to release it straight to video, Band decided to split it into two movies to make more cash.

 

His penny-pinching tactics eventually caught up with him, and he went from having a major label distribution deal with decent budgets, to just hanging on at the outskirts of the micro-budget market, with hardcore fans and people who think a title like “Evil Bong” is intrinsically funny his only customers. Getting annoyed with Full Moon movies became boring a long time ago, but they’re still going, even if no-one’s really paying attention. “Puppet Master” is Band’s most abused franchise, stretching to 11 instalments (plus a “non-canon” entry where they took on Band’s other group of mini-things, the Demonic Toys). As well as the split movie mentioned above, there’s the ultimate scumbag’s trick, the clip movie – yes, part 8 of this least glorious of all franchises has about 5 minutes of new material in it

Which made the news that Fangoria Films were making a reboot of the series, with no Full Moon involvement, sort of good news. A proper budget! Actual actors! I heard Thomas Lennon, Charlyne Yi, Michael Pare and Mathias Hues were going to be in it, I started having the thought that…maybe this would be good? Add in sitcom “That Guy” Nelson Franklin and Full Moon veteran Barbara Crampton (who was actually in the first “Puppetmaster”, briefly, and was amazing as the star of “From Beyond”) and I was sold – the writer and co-directors seemed like new faces, but free of the “let’s do it for $10,000 in a week” impulses of Charles Band, I was ready for a winner.

 

I was not disappointed! This is easily the best “Puppet Master” movie, which is admittedly a low barrier to clear, but it’s funny, well-acted, actually quite frightening in places, transgressive, and liberally drenched in gore. It makes the puppets, who’ve long been cutesy figures of fun, into genuinely scary monsters, and left me really wanting more – a feeling that has yet to trouble with me any other Full Moon movies.

 

There’s a cold open with Udo Kier in it! He’s Andre Toulon, who’s been in most of the Puppet Master movies, as their initial creator, then a villain, then a sort of benevolent voice from beyond the grave. Here, he’s a full-on Nazi who escapes Germany with his inventions in tow when he sees the writing on the wall for Hitler and his lot. But we first see him in 1989, in a dive bar, when he butchers two women who make fun of his weird appearance and habits, and think he’s a creep. I mean, they were right, as he did murder them.

Thomas Lennon is Edgar Easton, a recent divorcee forced to move back in with his parents – the father seems to hate him, the mother is kinder. He works in a comic store but also draws a well-regarded strip, which has been on hiatus since the divorce. His employer at the comic book store, Markowitz (Nelson Franklin) and he have a fun, banter-filled relationship which actually sounds like how real nerdy friends talk to each other; and he meets a woman, too. The younger sister of one of his old high-school friends, Ashley (Jenny Pellicer), and they fall almost immediately into the sort of perfect romance that you get quite a lot of in movies, but sadly too little of in real life. But, the characters are good, and it’s enjoyable to watch them interact.

 

But this is a Puppet Master movie! It’s not just about well-observed characters and too-sudden romance! While cleaning out his old room, he finds a box of his deceased younger brother’s toys, including our old friend, Blade (who’s had a slight character redesign, but still looks good). He discovers it’s an original Toulon-created toy, and is worth a small fortune, and luckily there’s a convention coming up with a guided tour of Toulon’s old home (who was a well-regarded toymaker as well as being a famous murderer).

 

Markowitz and Ashley decide to accompany him, because of course, so the main table is now set. We’ve got a bunch of people bringing their old toys to a hotel, so you know there’s going to be some puppet-based mayhem. And mayhem there is! The puppets begin disappearing and people start turning up dead, and they do not spare the blood.

When I mentioned “transgressive” earlier, I really meant it. An early death scene involves a puppet flying up a pregnant woman’s vagina, then tearing out of her stomach and stealing the foetus from inside her; and it becomes clear that the puppets preferred murder victims are those who don’t correspond to Nazi ideas of ideal people – a lesbian couple, a black guy, and a Jewish couple, are among their early victims. There’s an amazing scene later where Markowitz, who’s a fairly observant Jew, takes a Hitler-looking doll and throws it in a lit oven, saying “see how you like it”. Limbs get chopped off, innocent children die and the corridors of the hotel are covered with bodies. There’s also a fair bit of sex and nudity, well, more than you’d expect from a movie with Thomas Lennon in it I guess.

 

Michael Pare turns up as the cop, Barbara Crampton is the tour guide, being one of the cops who killed Toulon back in 1989, Charlyne Yi is a hotel employee who strikes up a flirtatious friendship with Markowitz, and Mathias Hues is a random German tourist who gets his spinal cord replaced by a puppet and turned into a puppet himself. By a distance, the best cast any Puppet Master has had.

 

For us Full Moon-heads, a bit of puppet talk. Pinhead, Blade and Tunneler are the three main puppets from the original series to make an appearance here – there’s also Kaiser, who looks a bit like one of the Nazi puppets from the more recent movies, and Happy Amphibian, who replaces Jester. One of the models has six arms in tribute to Six-Shooter, who doesn’t make an appearance, but Torch does (who’s not been in the “classic” movies since part 5). Oh, and talking references to earlier movies, one of the characters drives a van with “Bodega Bay” on the side, the name of the hotel from multiple previous movies.

So, it’s a gore-drenched masterpiece, in terms of Puppet Master movies, anyway, but there’s some criticism too. Ashley’s character feels like she was waiting around for Edgar to come back into town, and the beginning of their relationship is horribly under-written (although they work extremely well together as characters). The three of them being so excited about going to a fairly niche convention about a Nazi murderer is a bit unlikely, too. It feels like Barbara Crampton’s police officer had a bigger role left on the cutting room floor, although it’s nice to see one Full Moon alum in this. It feels like there’s a few too many people with significant roles in it, and it could have stood with being a bit longer, or having a few of those actors trimmed. But, again, this is still so much better than every previous Puppet Master movie that I can’t even begin to tell you how much fun I had watching this.

 

The writer, S Craig Zahler, is already something of a genre superstar, having written “Bone Tomahawk”, “Brawl in Cell Block 11” and the soon-to-be-released “Dragged Across Concrete”. He must have been a fan of these movies growing up, but like any half-sensible human, figured he could have written better, and did. The two directors have their upbringing in low-budget horror, but I’m interested to see what they do in future.

 

I hope there are more of these movies, and the hilariously perfunctory “to be continued” scene indicates there might be. There are some excellent images and ideas, and I hope it was enough of a success that we get more. Although that will no-doubt encourage Charles Band to knock out more in his “original universe”.

A quick word before we say goodbye, dear reader: one of the more mainstream reviews of this movie said it robbed the puppets of what made them special. Comparing this unfavourably to any of the Full Moon movies? What had that reviewer seen? Special? Did he see part 8? Okay, they don’t have a ton of personality, but I’ll take this over 80 incident-free Full Moon minutes any day of the week.

Rating: thumbs up

Nemesis 5: The New Model (2017)

We’re nothing if not completists here at the ISCFC, and that’s what early 2019 is all about – wrapping up long-running review series, giving you, dear reader, the information you need to make an informed choice about the entire filmography of a certain director, or every sequel, prequel and spin-off of some franchise. Or entertaining you, at the very least, as only crazy people would care about some of these movies.

I was completely unaware of the existence of a fifth movie in the “Nemesis” series until yesterday, when I was aimlessly flicking through the movies available via my preferred streaming service. Who thought it would be a good idea? Presumably, the name cost someone money to obtain, so how far down the list of utterly forgotten 90s sci-fi properties did they have to get before they found a name they could afford? Were “Project: Shadowchaser” and “Cyborg Cop” too expensive?

Which brings us to this, a movie which barely makes it to 70 minutes, and that’s with a solid 6 minutes of credits at the end, a long info-dump at the beginning and several entirely static scenes where someone gives a monologue about information that was already covered in the info-dump.

While I recommend you go and read the reviews of parts 1 to 4 (click HERE to go to our sci-fi franchise review page), I’ll give you a potted history. The first movie deals with what appears to be a turf war between the LAPD and an organisation called the Red Army Hammerheads, but is actually the Hammerheads trying to stop the takeover of society by a robotics company, who are creating duplicates of powerful people and killing off the originals. Freedom fighters – good guys, LAPD – bad guys. Then, part 2 takes place 70 years afterwards – the hero of part 1 was killed offscreen just after that movie ended, and humanity is screwed.

Alex (Sue Price), a bodybuilder and non-actor, is sent back in time to 1988 to as she’s got super-DNA which will help to defeat the robots, and her mother doesn’t want her to fall into the hands of the baddies. She hangs out somewhere in Africa and has future bounty hunters and cyborgs chase her, which takes up the entirety of parts 2 and 3. Then, in part 4, she’s back in the future, when the war is over, or at a truce or something, and is a killer for hire, and she also has a bunch of cybernetic implants now because why not?

I’ll give part 5 the faintest praise imaginable – they tried to square the circle of a series where none of the sequels were really related to what had gone before (except 2 and 3, as 3 was created largely from offcuts during the production of 2). The long Star Wars-esque scroll at the beginning attempts, using “er, time travel”, to make them all part of the same whole, and as much as anyone can be bothered about the continuity of a bargain-basement B-movie series whose last instalment was 21 years ago and never gave a damn about its own continuity before, they make it work.

My question of “who would make this?” was answered when I checked IMDB, and discovered the director’s name was Dustin Ferguson. Mr Ferguson, who’s directed an eye-watering 60 movies and shorts in the last ten years, makes his living from no-budget horror production and distribution, filling the lower ranks of Netflix searches with cheap, ugly garbage. But, and this is slightly more germane to us because I’m beyond tired of modern no-budget horror movies now, he also creates very cheap sequels to long-dormant franchises, either those which never filed their copyright claims properly, such as “Night Of The Living Dead”, “The Legend of Boggy Creek”, and “Silent Night, Bloody Night”; or modern remakes that no-one cared about, such as “Sleepaway Camp 2”, “Camp Blood” parts 4 and 5, and a couple of movies with “Amityville” in the title to beat that long-dead horse some more. Plus, he does terrible-looking original movies that just try their hardest to look like more famous franchises, such as “Robo-Woman” (Robocop), “House Of Pain” (The Purge) and “Horndogs Beach Party” (which I just wanted to mention because it had such a ludicrous name).

Then this. I have no idea why this happened. No-one in the world was crying out for a continuation of the franchise, were they? Best guess is, Ferguson met Albert Pyun (director of parts 1-4 and one of those awful lazy directors whose work we keep stumbling across here) at some event and plucked “Nemesis” out of thin air as a project he’d like to work on. Pyun agreed to hand over the name in return for a cut of the profits and an Executive Producer credit, and $20,000 later, here we are.

800 words in and I’ve not even mentioned the movie yet! Can you tell I’m trying to put it off? Ari Frost is first seen as a young girl in the far future, where the Red Army Hammerheads have won and turned the world into, er, even more of a dystopia than it was before. No explanation is given as to why they’re the bad guys, except it was 2017 when this movie was made and people don’t even think of criticising the police any more. She meets the now elderly Alex (Sue Price, making her first appearance in front of a camera since Nemesis 4), who trains her and tells her all about the past. As Alex is too old and breaking down now, they decide to send Ari back in time to 2077 to stop the Hammerheads from taking over the world’s media, although to call this plan somewhat undercooked would be giving it significantly too much credit.

So she goes back, gets involved with…some guys?…and runs around the wilderness, a few vacant lots and some ugly interiors, for about an hour. Slap on a miserable non-ending and you’ve got yourselves a movie!

Let’s discuss sound. If there’s any two bits of advice I could give to low-budget filmmakers, it would be to invest more in lighting and sound. Stop paying women to take their clothes off and get a decent microphone, my friends, because the sound here is just abysmal. A solid half the lines are basically inaudible, and if you turn the sound up loud enough to hear it, the background music wrecks your speakers. There’s just no excuse for this pitiful display nowadays.

Not even a little powder to take the shine off his face? Seriously?

Lighting is sort of dealt with here by having a ton of day-for-night shots with a heavy colour filter over them, which honestly isn’t the worst idea in the world. But, it’s one of those effects which ought to be used a little more sparingly, perhaps?

I’d like to break down one scene, and that’s where our rag-tag group of freedom fighters go to a bar. Now, there’s a Nebraska licence plate in one scene, so I noticed the posters on the wall and a quick Google later, discovered this is a real place called the Zoo Bar, in Lincoln, Nebraska, a fun-looking dive bar by all accounts. But that’s not important! So, they turn up, and the bar’s owner is persuaded by his girlfriend to rat them out to the Hammerheads. The patrons of the bar go from uninterested barflies to gun-toting maniacs, and our heroes are forced to slaughter them all. Minutes later, the same “busy bar” background noise is playing, as who cares about making an effort to make your movie good, right? And there’s a bunch of people sat round as if there wasn’t just a huge massacre ten feet away from them.

The “climax” is them facing a Nebula robot, which you may remember from Nemesis 2. It’s supposed to be this near-invincible killing machine, but a couple of people who look like they’ve never held a gun before are able to defeat it quite easily – perhaps a metaphor for the amount of effort “Nemesis 5” made. Oh, and there’s a few hand-to-hand fights featuring Ari, and even though she’s not a fighter in the slightest, they make her do it. Did no-one realise it looked terrible? Could you not cut around it, or just not have a fight scene if none of your actors were capable? Oh, and the guns are cheap plastic kids toys, in case you were expecting anything better.

So, factor in the long opening and closing credits, the tedious monologues, and the sub-Youtube level drone footage, and the amount of actual movie in this movie is somewhere around 30 minutes. Why do people insist on doing this? Actually, I think 75% or so of low budget genre movies are just excuses for guys who look like me (schlubby, late 20s to early 40s, metal fans) to hang out with attractive women for a few weeks, with the finished product being incidental.

I’m annoyed I spent any time with it, although I imagine the people who made it have turned a profit from us small handful of people who remember the Nemesis series enough to check out a new one. Shame on all of us, really, but please, dear reader, avoid this like the plague.

Rating: thumbs down then into the eye sockets of the people who made this movie

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

Even if “Phantasm” were nowhere near as good a series as it is, you’d have to give it some credit for its continuity. Going since 1979, no reboots or anything like that, with the same guy in charge (writer/director Don Coscarelli just co-wrote and produced this most recent instalment) and the same four actors starring in this one as starred in the first one 37 years before. Also, they bring back one of the actors from part 3 in 1994, who basically quit acting back then but looks like she hasn’t aged a day. It has, admittedly, been 18 years since the last instalment, but they’re still keeping on.

 

One of the things that was most unusual about part 1, the dream-like logic that came with filming on off-days and weekends over a two year period with no money, is right back at the centre of things here, for a similar reason. Director David Hartman (best known for the Transformers animated series) and Coscarelli were making a series of “Phantasm” shorts and realised they had enough footage to turn it into a movie. The leaps between realities are handled pretty well, though.

 

Anyway, we first see Reggie (Reggie Bannister), still in his ice-cream man outfit, trudging down a desert road, lamenting the loss of the car he hid out in the desert 18 years ago. But luckily, the thief drives up to him and Reggie’s able to get it back. He’s chased by silver balls, and then gives us a line which he’s used at least once before – “like all good stories, it starts with a girl”. This is Dawn (Dawn Cody), and Reggie helps her before doing a bit of mild flirting, but she rebukes him and he immediately accepts it – a pleasant change from the old days. But then the silver balls come again and he’s on the run.

Or is he in a mental hospital, after having been found wandering the desert, being looked after by his old friend Mike (A. Michael Baldwin), apparently suffering from dementia? Or is he in a nightmarish future of an Earth completely taken over by the Tall Man and his silver balls, having been asleep for a decade? These are the main strands of story which are weaved through over the course of the movie.

 

I sort of assume you know the rough story of the Phantasm franchise, if you’re reading a review of part 5, but perhaps not. The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) is first seen as an undertaker, stealing bodies in his hearse and taking them to (SPOILERS) an alternate dimension where they’re turned into midget minions and…not really sure what his end-game was, honestly. Universal domination? What happens with a person when they actually achieve their plans, I wonder? What would you do if you owned literally everything? He merrily goes on with this plan over the course of the series while Reggie tries to stop him. The two brothers who were the stars of part 1 (Reggie being the comic relief, sort-of) pop up to help out too.

 

Anyway, Reggie is reunited with Mike and even Mike’s older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury, whose last non-Phantasm acting role was in 1984), and it’s really cool, seeing the three of them together again after little more than cameos in the previous couple of movies. Which strand of reality is the “real” one? Will the Tall Man finally be defeated, this being the last movie and all?

Here’s where I’d like to get on my soap-box a little. Those of you who remember the last episode of “Quantum Leap”, where they knew without a doubt it was the end, may sympathise with me. At the very end, they just throw their hands up and say “yeah, he never made it home, just carried on leaping for the rest of eternity”. Is this satisfying?

 

I think it’s fair to want an ending to a piece of entertainment, for the foe to be defeated and for the sacrifices made by the main characters to mean something. This doesn’t apply to everything, of course, but it feels like a slight cheat to know you’re not making any more movies (your lead villain being terminally ill during shooting) but still to just leave it open-ended. There are other analyses of the ending of “Phantasm: Ravager”, but it’s still us imposing our wishes, desires, or whatever, on an unfinished piece of entertainment. Imagine if “Moby Dick” had ended with Ahab still chasing the whale?

All that aside, it’s not bad! The main actors and Coscarelli clearly have a deep friendship that’s lasted down the decades, and it was nice to see Gloria Lynn Henry as Rocky again, although it was weird that, during the mid-credits sequence where she and Reggie meet up again, he’s not more pleased to see the last woman he had sex with (in fact, he makes a reference to her companion, who he briefly met earlier in the movie, and not her, as if she was added in at the last moment after they’d already filmed Bannister’s scenes). It was a little sad to see Angus Scrimm so frail, though, although they hid it well by having one scene be filmed in bed, and lots of middle-distance shots where you can CGI his head onto someone else’s body.

 

I didn’t love the almost non-story, the cheap special effects or the disjointed-for-its-own-sake narrative, though. I’m surprised there was so little money available for a “Phantasm” sequel in 2016, given the generations of fans it had, but I wish they’d sat down and written a proper movie, or kept it as the web-series it was originally intended as, because this halfway house is unlikely to really please anyone. Amazingly, the budget of “Ravager” was the same as the budget of the first movie from 1979! ($300,000)

 

One last thing is the interesting ambience that parts of 3 and 4 had. The Tall Man took over whole cities, after starting with small towns, not to invade but to use humans as slaves to do whatever it was he was doing elsewhere in the universe. Villages were empty, and at the end of part 4 LA is completely taken over. This is an interesting idea, but although they have the same setting for this one – empty roads, desolate areas – they have none of the same atmosphere. There’s always the idea that humanity is carrying on as before, just off camera, and the Tall Man is just after the three of them.

I’m sorry to see the end of “Phantasm”, but perhaps it was for the best. RIP Angus Scrimm, and the franchise you made so memorable.

 

Rating: thumbs down

 

 

 

 

 

Murder In The Orient (1974)

Sometimes the obscurest movies pop up in the unlikeliest places. One of those 4-movie DVD sets that were given away with cheap DVD players back in the day contains “Kill Cruise”, a completely forgotten Patsy Kensit / Elizabeth Hurley / Jurgen Prochnow movie from 1990; “Zig Zag”, which is like twentieth on the list of movies with exactly that title, and is a Russian-made, Russian-acted (just in English) thriller from 1999; “Massacre”, David Heavener’s first movie which we covered years ago; and this.

 

Ronald Marchini has long been a favourite of the ISCFC, a legit martial artist who for a time acted, making gems like “Omega Cop”, “Karate Cop” and “Jungle Wolf”. For years, we’ve been trying to track down his first movie, but it wasn’t even available from less legal online sources. When I discovered that new ISCFC favourite Leo Fong also debuted in the same movie (!), I tried again, and happened upon this terribly obscure box set. One excited trip to eBay later, and here we are!

It feels like this movie predates the trend of giving legit martial arts champions their own movies. Chuck Norris’ first starring role was in 1977 (he’d been in a few movies in bit parts and villain roles before that, admittedly) and all the rest of the champion-fighters-turned-actors didn’t show up til the 80s. There’s a martial arts documentary, produced by Elvis Presley, from 1973 called “The New Gladiators” which featured Marchini and perhaps sparked interest in putting him in front of the camera. No, I’m not going to research it and find a proper answer! Baseless supposition is this site’s bread and butter!

 

“Murder In The Orient” was originally known as “Manila Gold”, which is a much better name, even if it sounds more like a strain of weed than a movie. It appears that the trend of changing names to get money meant for a more big-budget production is older than I thought, as there was an A-lister stuffed version of “Murder On The Orient Express”

 

Paul Martelli (Marchini) is a playboy, caught in the movie’s opening scene in bed with a married woman. As he’s escaping the scene in his sweet 70s ride, another woman, being chased by some mean hombres, hops into his car and asks for his help. This is also a central plot point to “No Retreat, No Surrender 4”, featuring ISCFC Hall of Famers Loren Avedon and Sherrie Rose, and respect to those guys who’ll just help whatever random hottie happens to hop into their car.

The plot, which is thin even in relation to other paper-thin things, involves gold buried by Japanese soldiers during WW2, and the Filipino government wanting it back.  The woman doesn’t survive very long, but she gives Paul a piece of a map, or something – the map is on two different ceremonial swords, which need to be put together in order to show the location of the gold.

 

Chasing the gold is a gang, led by King Cobra, and his main enforcer who goes by the name of Kang The Butcher; plus a couple of excellent goons. They’re trying to track down the map, and when they kill the woman, this brings her brother Lao Tzu (Fong) into the plot, who’s living in another country as a karate instructor. He comes seeking revenge, and he even gets into a fight with Paul (“They Live” style) before he realizes they’re both on the same side, Paul having been recruited by the Filipino government to track down the gold in the meantime. There’s fights, action, lots of high-quality blood squibs when people get shot, everything the discerning fight-movie fan will want.

 

I like that Paul keeps getting distracted by women and then smashed over the head, as it reminds me of one of my favourite old TV shows, “Randall And Hopkirk (Deceased)”. He gets a sweet beach scene with his love interest, wearing matching (and genuinely hideous) beach outfits, too, and shows that…well, let’s say he was as good an actor in his first movie as he was in his last. That sort of counts as a compliment, right?

Leo Fong is a different kettle of fish altogether. He was already 46 years old when this, his debut, came out, and had been a minister, a professional boxer, been friends with Bruce Lee, been featured several times in “Black Belt” magazine, and had developed his own style of martial arts (he and Marchini would go on to write a book together). I imagine he’s a fascinating guy, and friend of ISCFC Len Kabasinski hired him to act in his most recent movie, “Challenge of the Five Gauntlets”, at age 90. Both he and Marchini appear to be having some sort of secret competition to see who can do the most wooden line reading, but they’re both fine, honestly. Who cares about wooden acting when you’ve got an entire movie stuffed with the sweetest 70s fashions and wildly overacting goons?

 

It’s cheaply made and underlit, even by the standards of the time, and it’s legitimately been thrown on the garbage heap of history by even martial arts movie afficionados. But thanks to the presence of two legends of our particular corner of the internet, we picked it up and present it to you now.

 

The DVD clearly used a very poor quality print of the movie, as it’s full of scratches and jarring edits (which may, I admit, have been present in even the best print) and the dialogue is completely inaudible at times. But, it just adds to that grindhouse flavour, and at 74 minutes, you’ve got no time to get bored.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

The Battle For Glory (2000)

The ISCFC is finishing up some long-dormant review series in 2019, because we know what you want! “Mark,”, I hear you ask, “what about some reviews of movies so obscure we’d have to pay a small fortune or break the law in order to watch them?” I’ve got you, dear reader, so let’s spend some more time with Donald Farmer.

Farmer is a legend, one of the reasons I started doing these reviews and a genuinely nice chap. He’s still making movies, and I’m even a producer on one of them! (this involved Gofundme $$$, not me getting on the set and demanding big changes be made) We reviewed almost all his movies in 2015-2016, but a few of them slipped through the net – mostly, it’s that they were either unfinished or never got a home video / DVD release (Charlie and Sadie, Fighting Chance, Bollywood and Vine); in the case of today’s review, it’s that the DVD was obscure and expensive and I wasn’t even aware of its existence until Mr Farmer helpfully pointed me in the direction of an Amazon listing.

We’ve already covered part 1 of this movie, “Blood and Honor”, and it might be a good idea to go back and read that. I had to, it being over 2 years since I saw it, to refresh my memory of characters and so on. But…it’s sort of confusing, if you intend to watch “The Battle For Glory”. Why is that?

David Heavener, an enduring name in low-budget cinema, is the producer of these movies. The original version Farmer handed in was a “Gone With The Wind”-esque 3 hours, designed to be split into two nights as a TV special / mini-series, and was based on a vanity-published novel by Maurice J Fagan (a dentist with a number of inventions to his name). In a two-and-a-half-hour format, this did indeed get at least one run on TV, on the long-forgotten B-Movie Channel. Then, Heavener decided the best way to go for home release was to edit this into two separate movies (this edit had no Farmer involvement), but not really to have them as part 1 and part 2 – in fact, they use a lot of the same footage, just occasionally edited to give it a slightly different perspective. I admit that I did check my notes several times to make sure I wasn’t just watching the same movie again.

There’s even, according to “sources close to the production”, a fair amount of stuff that never made it to either version, including most of Michelle Bauer’s scenes. Her character is massively underdeveloped, and it’s a shame – given how she’s one of the more famous actors in it, it seems especially strange.

This shares a “trick” from the previous movie of having a voiceover play over footage that clearly has dialogue in it, leaving us wondering what those characters were saying (possibly, “stuff about plots we cut”). This voiceover was specially requested by Heavener, who called Maria Ortiz into a recording studio to do it – it at least provides a different flavour to part 1. There’s also some edited highlights at the end, some of which weren’t actually in the movie – I feel like this was done deliberately to be confusing, or as a joke by someone involved in the editing, but who knows.

I don’t think it’s really all that worthwhile to write a whole fresh review. The main differences are that Henry is a slightly better character, not forcing himself on any women; and Caroline the maid (Ortiz) is more central to proceedings, and gets a rather bonkers monologue at the end which seems to imply that she’s the Devil, or an angel of death, or something like that. There’s also less Miles O’Keefe in this movie, which is a shame as I rather liked him.

My overall thoughts are exactly the same as they were for “Blood And Honor”. It’s entirely competently made Civil War story, and Farmer gets some excellent performances out his cast, most notably Maria Ortiz, who really deserved a bigger career than she got (she died, sadly, at age 27, in 2000). The problems are nothing to do with Farmer, and that’s the pedestrian source material, which I’d suggest was dictated by the author (who served as a producer, and has a co-writing credit); and also the editing, which trimmed lord knows what from the final two cuts.

I forgave “Blood and Honor” quite a lot, because I assumed we’d get the ending to the story in “The Battle For Glory”. But we didn’t, and the ending is barely an ending. It would have been nice to have a scene at an actual battle (as opposed to randomly spliced in footage of some Civil War reenactors), or to have the end of the Civil War featured, or indeed anything than a retelling of the same few events (unhappy marriages, scheming maid, Union soldiers staying in a southern home).

Thanks to that source for my production info (although I made sure to keep some baseless supposition in there, because I know that’s what my readers love), and honestly? You could do a lot worse. Watch them back to back with a few friends and some stiff drinks and enjoy!

Rating: thumbs in the middle