Death Chase (1988)

Welcome back to our series of reviews of the movies of the Prior brothers, who were crazily prolific in the late 80s – an average of 5 movies a year were directed by David A. Prior between 1988 and 1990. And not all of them had the same plot!

Although this could, quite reasonably, be said to be a development of the “themes” that he “developed” in “Kill Zone” and “Deadly Prey” – in other words, it’s yet another spin on 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game”. A car chase between a guy who’s so happy to have a random .44 pistol that he kisses it in a quiet moment, and a few ugly, badly dressed goons, introduces us to Steve Chase (yes, the title isn’t just a description of what goes on!), played by William Zipp, probably the best of the stock company Prior had at the time. He’s off out bicycling with his sister, but is caught up in the chase – he lies on the ground but his sister decides to run over and check on the status of the guy who was being chased.

She gets shot, and the chasee hands over his gun to Steve, saying he’s “it”. Please bear with me, this stuff is sort of important to the plot. So, the surviving chaser asks for the gun, but rather than hand it over, Steve shoots him, only to be witnessed in the act by an old lady (who apparently saw nothing else of the extremely noisy and bullet-drenched battle that went on just outside her house) and forced to go on the run.

So it’s a game, sort of a game of tag, but an extremely deadly one. The person with the gun has to survive teams of people trying to kill them, and the game is overseen by a room full of rich assholes – although what they gain from it, and just how the winner goes about claiming their prize, are matters of no interest to writer/director Prior or writers James Hennessy (“China O’ Brien 2”) and Craig Hyde (the latest member of the ISCFC One-Timers Club, having this as his only credit of any kind). The rich assholes have a guy on the ground overseeing things, and he’s the late great Paul L Smith (“Midnight Express”, “Popeye”, “Crime Wave”, “Pieces”). He’s “Steele”, and he makes sure that cops don’t stop him (by shooting them) and that hunters are punished for failure (by shooting them).

“Death Chase” gets going quickly, which I love. It’s barely ten minutes in before Steven is running from cops and teams of doughy, shabbily dressed assassins, seeming genuinely perplexed about how they keep finding him, and what the hell the game is all about. This is a level of perplexity he shares with the audience – I think Prior just assumed “rich people pay poor people to hunt other poor people” would be enough plot, no sense worrying about how they observed the competition or bet on it or whatever.

I do love how shabby it all is, though. There are too few movie car chases which prominently feature run-down old Volvos, and it’s one example of many of it looking exactly like a modern, big budget action movie, just without all the effects and A-list names and so on. Put Liam Neeson or Ryan Reynolds in the William Zipp role (a sentence I never thought I’d write) and you’ve got yourself a dependable slice of summer action fare.

My theory of Prior not being interested in exploiting women due to him possibly being gay took a battering with “Death Chase”, which features a scene in a strip club with a whole heap o’ nude ladies. But it’s also a really ugly, miserable looking strip club, so perhaps this is just him doing a scene to titilate the audience, but super-resentfully.

Not only is Chase dragged into proceedings entirely by accident, but so is his love interest, Diana (Bainbridge Scott). She’s just some passerby who nearly runs him over with her car, and from such a tiny acorn doth grow an oak of love. She doesn’t trust him, because obviously, then when she sees a bunch of people try to kill him for no reason, her opinion changes a little. It’s quite sweet, if a little Stockholm Syndrome-y. Then there’s his old buddy and a crooked cop to round things out.

If there’s any advice I could give to low-budget filmmakers, excepting the dozens of pieces of advice I’ve tried to foist on them down the years, it would be “pick your angles”. When you can’t afford to close a set, but have a gun battle going on twenty feet away from entirely indifferent motorists, it looks a bit weird. Just shoot from above so we can’t see the background so much, or something.

But I love their sense of making do with whatever is lying around, which is done here when they switch to boats at the end for no reason, I’m sure, other than someone offered the producers the use of a couple of speedboats for the afternoon. It’s a lot of fun and leads to you never being sure what to expect next.

The good – Zipp, Smith, the pace

The bad – most of the other actors, the moderately incomprehensible plot

The ugly – all the sets and cars and so on

I think this is probably my favourite Prior movie so far. It’s every bit as quick and strange as “Deadly Prey”, and has the bonus of no brain-twisting coincidences. It has a nice satisfying ending to it, and if you can track it down, I predict a fun evening ahead.

Ratin: thumbs up

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Night Wars (1988)

Our voyage through the movies of David A. Prior (and his brother, actor Ted) brings us to an interesting movie, which – while not spookily similar – predates “Jacob’s Ladder” by two years, and poses some interesting questions about the psyche of the fellow making it.

For those keeping score (in other words, me) this is the third of Ted Prior’s six movies to date to feature Vietnam, people getting tortured in the “jungle”, and a main villain who’s an American soldier who collaborates with the enemy, Amazingly, it looks like three of his next four movies – “Operation Warzone”, “Hell On The Battleground” and “Jungle Assault”, all continue the trend (the other – “Death Chase”, looks like another riff on “The Most Dangerous Game”, but set in an actual city!) Although biographical info is in short supply, it seems Prior did indeed serve in the military in Vietnam, so perhaps something he saw or did there traumatised him to the extent of working through it, over and over again, in his movies.

The level of darkness to these scenes is certainly unusual among his b-movie brethren, where war is rarely portrayed as such unremitting hell. It starts off with Trent (Brian Edward O’Connor) having a terrible dream about his time in Vietnam – he escapes from his torture room, frees his friend Jim (Cameron Lowery) but before he can free his other friend, the sadistic American who’s helping out the Vietcong, McGregor (Steve Horton), shoots him. The torture isn’t particularly graphic, but it it feels weirdly real, like it’s not a photogenic Hollywood actor getting beaten up but surviving it manfully. They look like they’re genuinely in pain.

Anyway, the two men meet up and discuss their trauma, and how it’s happening to them both. Jim is married and his marriage starts to suffer, there’s perhaps the world’s sleaziest car salesman in a fantastic cameo, and Grizzly Adams himself, Dan Haggerty, shows up as a particularly unconvincing psychiatrist. His part, much like that of Cameron Mitchell in “Deadly Prey”, feels tacked on and a little unrelated to the rest of what’s going on (plus, his actions – tying the men up and holding them at gunpoint til they snap out of it – seems super-unethical). I mean, I’d worry too if a guy produced a severed finger which could be matched back to a guy who’d been officially dead for 20 years, but still.

In its second half, it sort of pivots to become “A Nightmare On Elm Street” – McGregor realises he’s a figment of their psychosis but still wants to kill them both, over and over again, as “death doesn’t exist here”, and even decides that if they can visit him, he can visit them; and Trent and Jim start arming and preparing themselves for battle over in the dream-Vietnam, figuring that if the injuries they get over there transfer themselves back to the real world, then they can rescue their friend and bring him out too.

I’m not sure it’s all that good a movie, but it’s interesting in a way that a more big-budget movie might not be, as it feels very personal. If Prior had to go through anything like this in Vietnam, then I feel deeply sorry for him (while still appreciating the USA should never have been there in the first place), but the repeated use of these tropes in his movies goes beyond just wanting to get it right and goes into the idea that he can’t get past those images. I have to assume his friends at A.I.P were going, “hey David, want to try some different genres? I think we’re good for dark Vietnam stories for a few years, thanks”.

While budgets are obviously a concern, with Vietnam still looking like the Alabama backwoods it was undoubtedly filmed in, there’s some visual fun, like the juxtaposition of the grotty jungle camp with the flowery bedroom the two men are performing their sleep experiments in; and of course, the old ISCFC favourite, the

WOODEN GUARD TOWER!

As we all know, it only has two variations – it either gets blown up (because if you make a movie, you don’t build a wooden guard tower for the hell of it) or someone gets shot out of it and tumbles to their just-off-camera-crash-mat death. This is version B, and I’m glad to see it.

Just because something’s earnestly made, doesn’t necessarily make it enjoyable to watch, and it’s safe to say that “Night Wars” isn’t going to be in anyone’s top 10 war movies list. But, it’s different. It has a twist-ish ending that you’ll never see coming, and the way it messes with reality is quite interesting too.

Ted Prior didn’t act in this one, but he did get a co-writing credit and serving as art director (not sure what that means in this instance, but good on him). There’s also a rather surprising link to a previous ISCFC review series, with Joe Lara (of “Final Equinox”, “Hologram Man” and “Steel Frontier”) showing up as one of the American army extras in the Vietnam scenes. Join us in a few days for “Death Chase”!

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Deadly Prey (1987)

As great painters refined their work, going back to the same set of ideas time and again, so it is for filmmaker David A. Prior. After making the thoroughly confusing “Killzone”, he still clearly had something to say in the “guy chased through forest by group of mercenaries” genre, so he wrote and directed “Deadly Prey”, his first cult-movie classic. Well, classic is perhaps stretching it a bit, but it’s certainly beloved and is every bit as entertaining on rewatch as it was when I first saw it.

Returning is Ted Prior, as Mike Danton, who we see in the very first shot do one of those poses like you saw at the end of “The Breakfast Club” or “Red Dawn”, so the entire movie is a flashback from that moment, or something. More crucial to the first few moments is David A. Prior’s love of grenades. If real grenades produced a pitiful flash and did as little damage as they apparently do in his world, I’m not sure anyone would ever bother using them, but he clearly worked out a way to do the grenade effect on the cheap, and uses it a heck of a lot (they’re a constant throughout his early movies, at least).

Anyway, it’s all just a ripoff of “The Most Dangerous Game”, where bored hunters decide to let humans loose in the forest and hunt them instead. This is one of the most enduring of B-movie templates, because it’s cheap (you only need a small cast, and sets can be kept to a minimum). A group of mercenaries, led by Colonel Hogan (Prior regular David Campbell) have decided the best way to train is to grab guys off the street and hunt them. Okay, I guess? Confusion comes from them filming a few scenes among a mass of military hardware, tanks and so on, that don’t really get used. I know why – they probably just borrowed the stuff from the local National Guard and weren’t allowed to use it – but it makes their low-rent training methods look even weirder.

In the grand tradition of bad movies, there’s a coincidence so monumental that you’ll either cheer it or abandon the movie in disgust. Danton is sleepily taking out the trash when some of Hogan’s men, looking for a new subject for their training, happen to be driving past. They see him and grab him, and even leaving aside the extremely simple questions “why not get homeless guys? Mexicans trying to sneak over the border? Literally anyone other than a guy from a rich looking suburb who’s more likely to have people who want to find him?” it’s a heck of a weird one. Turns out Danton is a former special forces soldier, trained by Hogan, who says when he finds out that he was the best soldier he ever trained! Come on! That one of the other soldiers is Danton’s friend from the army (thus keeping the “one of the bad guys is a secret good guy” streak going in Prior’s movies) is small potatoes compared to this.

While this is going on, we get a couple of B-movie legends showing up in small roles, an indication of Prior’s increased budgets. One is Cameron Mitchell, sure to be an ISCFC Hall of Famer (“Toolbox Murders”, “Raw Force”, “Demon Cop”); and the other is Troy Donahue, who was a teen heart-throb in the 1950s before a later career in such gems as this and “Hollywood Cop”. Mitchell is the Dad of Mrs Danton, and Donahue is the guy bankrolling this mercenary army. They have parts purely because Prior could afford them and wanted the star power – they’re billed first and second despite appearing for maybe three minutes each.

Of course, Ted is the star, and is great. I know I’ve speculated about David A’s sexuality before, as he has zero nude ladies (almost unheard of in the b-movie world he inhabited) but lots of ripped shirtless dudes. Here, he pans up the ripped shirtless body of his own brother, which might just be him doing his action-director job, but certainly could be seen as psychologically…a little odd? You do you, though, David A!

What’s perhaps most surprising is how it gives us an entire movie’s plot in the first third – Danton is captured, figures out who’s in charge and slaughters a lot of people, while wearing nothing more than jean shorts. He’s got a heck of a line in home-made booby traps, though (another recurring Prior theme). My wife, half-paying attention, said “there’s an hour to go? Seriously?” at this point, but the rest of the plot is the bad guys kidnapping his wife, and Danton just strolling out of the woods and going home to find her missing. Seriously, they say they’re 75 miles south of LA at one point, and they don’t even show him hitching a ride or getting on a bus or anything. There’s a couple of redneck locals who get involved in things, despite this being completely the wrong part of the world for rednecks – another trend making a repeat appearance in the Prior oeuvre.

The reason it’s so beloved is to do with how much weird stuff goes on, I think. Mitchell offers to help look for Danton, and he’s a retired cop, but evidently none of the other cops are interested in the rogue mercenary group operating on their territory as he’s the only guy who shows up to help. There’s the way our heroes slaughter many people, but keep leaving Colonel Hogan alive, for absolutely no reason. There’s the way one of the soldiers goes “we’re not hunting him…he’s hunting us!” and doesn’t even wink at the camera. There’s a guy getting beaten up with his own severed arm. There’s an embarrassment of riches in “Deadly Prey”.

Factor in a genuine “what the hell?” ending and you’ve got yourself a bad movie classic you should all try and watch. There’s a way OTT performance from Ted Prior and a crazily bad one from his wife (and a surprisingly good one from his old friend William Zipp, who deserved better than this), all sorts of fun and never a dull moment. There’s so much cold-blooded murder in this movie! And someone gets scalped! Low budget craziness for ever, I say.

Rating: thumbs up

Mankillers (1987)

Because I’d like some of that sweet Twitter recognition, here’s my 140-character review of an almost completely forgotten movie by a director whose recognition even in cult movie circles is pretty patchy – in other words, guaranteed to get countless thousands of retweets:

“It’s the Dirty Dozen, only with women. Except they’re just normal convicts, not military ones, and also the movie is rubbish”.

Now please stay with me for another thousand words or so of largely the same thing. Yes, we’re back in the land of David A. Prior, for his first movie without any involvement from his actor brother Ted (who was possibly working on “Surf Nazis Must Die” at the time). I’m beginning to notice some themes creeping into Prior’s work, so we’ll discuss them, should you be remotely interested.

We’ll also get into one of my favourite new topics – “Bad Guy Economics”! Yes, dear reader, it’s that time where I single out something a bad guy does and wonder just how economical it really is. Our villains in this epic are led by renegade agent John Mickland (the wonderfully named William Zipp). Anyway, he’s trading three women to some sleazy guys for a suitcase full of cocaine, but rather than do the deal he suspects a double-cross and kills them all – turns out he was right to suspect that, but it’s not important to our discussion. The number of double-crosses in drug deals in bad movies are super-frequent, which leads me to wonder, if you were a drug dealer, would you go and do business with a guy who slaughtered the last lot of salesmen who went to his place? How would Mickland, in the world of the movie, ever be trusted to buy drugs again? This is a question that can be asked about hundreds of movies, and one that’s never satisfactorily answered.

Our hero is Rachel McKenna (Lynda Aldon), described by the head of the CIA as too much of a loose cannon – she’s crazier than the criminals! But as she has a previous relationship with Mickland – she went rogue when he did, although he double-crossed her and left her for dead – she’s called in as the only person who can bring Mickland down.

She says she’s going to need a team of 12 women, which inspires the wonderfully dismissive line “how in the hell are you going to pull off this mission with women?” (her response is sort of reasonable for the genre and year). However, when you’ve finished watching the movie you realise that the gender of the strike team is entirely irrelevant – maybe they were going to go undercover as “merchandise”? Nope they’re just there to fight, and apart from maybe one tiny scene, you realise Prior had an idea for a female Dirty Dozen but couldn’t be bothered to provide any justification for it.

Nor could he be bothered to write a scene where McKenna picks her team – to all intents and purposes, it looks like she wanders through a prison and picks 12 women at random. Luckily, they’re all skinny model-types, and unluckily about two-thirds of them are blonde and look very similar to her, which would’ve been a problem if they’d bothered trying to give them any character. We get a training montage and one character – the really mean woman who becomes the most dedicated member of the team after being whipped into shape; and then the CIA guy tells them they only have 12 more hours to finish their training. Why not just hire 12 women from the army if they needed them combat-ready so quickly? Sorry, more questions the movie chooses not to answer.

The fighting and gunplay is genuinely pitiful, like I felt sorry for the people who had to do it. At least Ted Prior, bless him, could throw a punch – neither women or men in this movie look like they’ve ever fought or shot a gun before. There’s a scene where the women set off on their mission and just run into the bad guys in the middle of the woods – neither group is in any sort of cover, but the death rate is remarkably low.

A quick mention of how un-titilating “Mankillers” is. I know I normally complain about the preponderance of T&A in these things, but a trashy 80s movie about a gang of women with absolutely zero nudity is unusual enough to be worth commenting on. This was one of the very first movies from A.I.P., the production company that specialised in action-trash from the late 80s to the mid 90s, and with Prior being one of the founders, he presumably had a lot of control over what went into his movies. Another producer might have demanded nudity? I certainly can’t accuse him of being a feminist, or of lingering on the male form either, so who knows. Perhaps he was too cheap to pay women to disrobe – although given one of the gang, Edy Williams, is very well known for getting naked on camera, even that sounds unlikely.

There are times when this feels like it’s using sets or plot ideas left over from “Killzone”. Someone is tied to the wall of a corrugated iron shack and tortured. It’s yet again about a large, heavily armed group living in a bunch of shacks out in the woods. Yet again, precious little information is given about why they’re doing what they’re doing or why the authorities are so desperate to bring them down. It’s safe to say that Prior had a central set of ideas he liked working through multiple times, much like Andy Sidaris or Coleman Francis. Given I’ve seen the next movie we’ll be covering, “Deadly Prey”, years ago, I can confirm that these themes will show up again. Making its first appearance, though, is Prior’s love affair with grenades, although the explosions they cause here are a little embarrassing.

The final fight is fun, as it starts with Mickland getting shot in the chest and just goes on from there – he’s one surprisingly resilient fellow. But the rest of it is just a waste of time. It feels like he had about half an hour’s worth of money that he stretched to 90 minutes – there’s no variation to anything, no logic, and no fun. It has none of the surreal touches that made previous Prior movies so entertaining, but it does have plenty of plot holes. Kudos to some fine overacting from lead villain Zipp, though, who looked like he was doing cosplay as porno legend John Holmes.

Probably one to avoid if you’re selecting a Prior marathon for some masochist film festival.

Rating: thumbs down

Killer Workout (1987)

When I decided to watch all the films of the Prior brothers – director David A and actor Ted – I was a bit worried that, after a delightfully incompetent surreal slasher (1983’s “Sledgehammer”) they’d get normal and boring, but it looks like we’re good for many years of curiosity. They’re so excited to be making movies they keep forgetting to explain the twists!

I’d lay good money on this having been “inspired” by the John Travolta / Jamie Lee Curtis movie “Perfect”, which came out in 1985 – this was made in 1986, not released til 87. One can tell because it seems like they told the aerobics dancers / extras to just recreate all of Travolta’s moves, every hip-thrusting, lycra-clad second – still, it’s fun to remember the time when this sort of thing swept the nation. Well, I say fun.

After an opening where an unseen woman is burned in a gigantic sunbed (built by co-star Fritz Matthews, apparently) we’re right into the world of Rhonda’s Workout, a gym with a crudely fashioned sign out front, in what looks like a strip-mall. Rhonda is Marcia Karr, a regular with us here at the ISCFC despite a career that ended in 1990 – she was in “Maniac Cop”, “Death Blow: A Cry For Justice” and “Night Of The Kickfighters”, three more different cheesy 80s movies you couldn’t imagine. Anyway, there’s background hotties, a couple of women who have “cannon fodder” stamped on their foreheads, and guys so sleazy they really deserve to be in jail. Matthews is Jimmy Hallik, who hits on Rhonda with an intensity you don’t see outside of sexual assault movies, and Richard Bravo as Tom…actually looks really similar to Jimmy, so it’s quite difficult to tell them apart when you’re watching on a nice fuzzy VHS. He keeps trying to unzip the front of the main instructor’s lycra outfit and I’m not glad about many things, but I am glad that movies have changed to make this sort of crap unacceptable in 2017.

There’s really no need to get bogged down in detail, though, as this movie is nice and simple. People start getting killed and there are tons of red herrings. Is it one of the two pieces of human garbage, or is it the new employee, Chuck (Ted Prior, whose puzzled expression is hopefully about the weird parts his brother keeps giving him)? What about the extremely angry cop, Detective Morgan (David Campbell, the villain from “Killzone”)?

Chuck has been at work maybe ten minutes when he drops the garbage he’s carrying, has the first of two hilariously incompetent fist-fights with Jimmy, and then just goes for a drive with one of the gym-bunnies? I guess you know he’s a good guy because he just drinks Diet Pepsi and asks her for information about the place rather than hitting on her – she throws herself at him a few minutes later though, and he’s only human.

The murders are mostly done with a giant safety pin, for some completely unknown reason. In the grand tradition of crappy slasher movies, no-one fights back when they’re grabbed by the killer, they just go “oh well, such is fate” and wait for the final blow to land. I felt sorry for Diane, who just wanted to make a human connection, but ended up getting murdered (the cop, for some reason, is hammering on her door at that exact moment, but rather than immediately identifying himself, he just shouts “open up! Come on, let me in!” for a few minutes first.

One interesting thing is how “Killer Workout” tried out alternate titles for itself, inside the movie. A couple of graffiti kids decide to tag the front of the building with this:

“Aerobicide” is its original title, probably dropped when the aerobics trend passed its high water mark, and “Death Spa” was actually used as the title of a rather similar-sounding horror movie from 1988.

This leads us on to perhaps the most curious thing in this movie full of curious things. By the hour mark, 7 people have been murdered in or around the gym. Yet this doesn’t affect the attendance there at all? We keep seeing full classes of gyrating flesh, despite (in one scene) them literally putting a corpse into a body bag in the next room, as the class is going on. My notes have, several times, “GO SOMEWHERE ELSE TO EXERCISE”, and in fact I’d have opened another gym in that town with the sole selling point “You Are Much Less Likely To Be Murdered Here”.

You have the standard thing of the killer being a stealth-ninja able to break into properties and murder at will, and someone taking a garden rake to the leg but still being able to climb fences and run at a fairly decent speed; with this one, though, you can also ponder why all those sleazy guys hung around the gym from the second it opened to when it closed – they certainly don’t work there.

Technically it’s fine – I mean, it’s cheap as hell, but what do you expect? The acting is mostly okay, even if Marcia Karr as Rhonda is a bit grimace-y and OTT, the effects are fine, it’s shot okay (despite, apparently, the DP being extremely difficult to work with, according to David A)…no real issues on any of those scores, and nothing much to mock either.

The twist is strange, and the final twist is perhaps even stranger; I’m not sure how long I can continue to blame Prior being new the filmmaking game, and fear this is just what we’re going to get from here on out. While it’s full of stuff that makes no sense, and isn’t gory or titilating in the slightest, it’s weird enough to be of enjoyment to bad movie enthusiasts. I love how Ted Prior is shown as being a crap fighter in all of his brother’s movies to this point – I’d have maybe read the script and gone “can I not win just one? Please?”

Add in a soundtrack full of songs written specifically for the movie, synth-cheese at its finest, and you’ve got yourself an entertaining, if thoroughly bizarre, movie. Bring on “Mankillers”, and let’s have some more fun.

Rating: thumbs up

Killzone (1985)

The ISCFC’s journey through the movies of the Prior brothers continues with director David’s second, and it’s a puzzler. I will have to give away the twist, as otherwise this would be a very short review (it does happen fairly early on, too), so if you’re interested in watching it, I’ll post the link to the full movie on Youtube below these very words right here so you can check it out for yourself.

Trapped in a POW camp in Vietnam are a bunch of soldiers – most notably McKenna (Fritz Matthews) and Mitchell (Ted Prior). The scenery is nothing at all like Vietnam, and the camp is tiny and cheap-looking, but I laughed this off as just the miniscule budget that Prior was working with. Little did I know! There’s a “hot box” made out of corrugated iron, and the head of the camp, Major Ling, along with collaborator Colonel Crawford, are really pumping McKenna for information. McKenna seems like he’s losing his mind, and will give up the secrets the Vietcong are asking for, when he sees a chance to escape, kills a guard and hightails it into the woods.

This is maybe the first half-hour of the movie, and while it’s not original, it’s kind of okay. My interest was definitely held. But then…it turns out the entire thing is some sort of “survivalist-type military camp” and, one would assume, all the men have paid to be there! Mitchell breaks character to demand the Colonel answer for his excessive treatment of McKenna, and suddenly a lot of questions come up. Did McKenna pay for the entire thing himself? Why? How long were they there, as presumably McKenna didn’t lose his mind on day one? Why did everyone maintain character at every second, even when they can see they’re about to have a huge problem? What sort of crazy business model is this?

The rest of the movie is a rough approximation of “First Blood”, just with one good guy (Mitchell) on the other side too. McKenna runs into some locals, and has some vivid dreams where his friends are dead and he’s unable to help them. There’s a weird reference to George Lucas – one of the other soldiers is named Lucas, and when he gives his name, rank and number, it’s got 1138 in there (Lucas’ first movie was “THX-1138”, and there’s been 1138 references in all the old Star Wars movies) – and a helicopter chase which, despite being well-filmed from a technical perspective, goes on for way too long and is completely pointless.

So much of this is skating round the central issue of not really knowing why it’s there. Unless I missed a crucial line of dialogue, the existence of this camp makes absolutely no sense whatsoever – a largely similar plot, just one that bothers to be remotely logical, would be used to far greater effect in “Deadly Prey”, which the Priors would make with most of the same cast a few years later. One of McKenna’s “flashbacks” involves Crawford killing his wife and kid, but whether this is guilt over something he did himself, just a fantasy or literal reality is never commented on by any character or the movie itself. This somewhat surrealistic take on action movie tropes leads me to believe Prior still had no idea what he was doing, but it didn’t fit quite as well as the oddity of his first movie, “Sledgehammer”.

One thing that Prior lucked into was having a decent leading man in his back pocket. Ted Prior, honestly, deserved a better career than he had, as he’s got a great look and can actually sell a scene pretty well. Co-star Fritz Matthews, whose entire career was five or so Prior movies, is the same, a solid actor with a decent look. There’s not a weak performance among them, really, and there’s even a small part for Simon Rhee – aka the bad guy from the first “Best Of The Best” and one of the UniSols in the first “Universal Soldier”. I’d have enjoyed seeing Ted in something where he got to stretch his wings a little, but if they were both happy with the arrangement, who am I to complain?

I think this can safely be disregarded as minor work from the brothers, and unless you’re like me and have some sort of compulsion, skip from “Sledgehammer” maybe straight to “Killer Workout”. It’s just…boring? I mean, you get a fun decapitation and a few cool scenes, but you also get a ten-minute helicopter chase with no payoff and a plot which is bonkers (just not in a good way).

Rating: thumbs down

Sledgehammer (1983)

After the Prior brothers’ “The Final Sanction”, reviewed the other day, I thought it’d be fun to go watch the entirety of their ouevre. But you probably don’t think that, or you may just not want to watch every single movie from a director you sort of half-liked, so you come here to find out if it’s worth bothering with. Well, yes and no. But read on, please!

Back in 1983, people just didn’t make shot-on-video slasher movies. “Boardinghouse” had come out the year before, widely regarded as the first full-length movie to take advantage of the new technology, but “Sledgehammer” was hot on its heels – and if you’d like to be pedantic, as “Boardinghouse” actually played in a few cinemas, this could be said to be the first to ever be made specifically for the home video market.

From the little information I can gather, Ted Prior moved from New Jersey to LA sometime in 1979 to become an actor, and ended up bodybuilding, becoming a fairly popular model for “Playgirl” magazine well into the 80s. Presumably, David followed him out there, and rather than shlupping himself round the studios trying to get work, he just made one himself, shot almost entirely inside his own apartment, in 7 days, for under $50,000 (probably significantly under, if we’re being honest). Apparently, the cameras were borrowed from a training-video company, so while they’re not just average normal ones bought from a shop, they’re still significantly fuzzier than even 16mm was at the time. The opening credits are surprisingly creepy / great, with some chilling synth score playing over the sort of credit font that I imagine the cameras came pre-loaded with. I’m a sucker for a good bit of synthy music.

If you’ve seen “Halloween”, you’ll recognise the opening scene, where a kid is locked in his room by his scumbag mother, who wants to have sex with her new boyfriend, only for the kid to emerge from the locked room, grab a sledgehammer (not just a clever title!) and beat them both to death. This scene has the best gore effect (the lover’s extremely fragile skull being split open) and also, I suppose, gives the kid motivation – which our old friend Michael Myers never really had. But, the scene might just be shot weird, or it might have been some indication that the kid didn’t really do it – how on earth did he swing a large hammer that hard? How did he escape from the room?

I was about to write “we don’t really have time to ponder that” but we do. We have a lot of spare time, as Prior, possibly to pad his movie out to feature length, has a quite staggering number of slow-mo scenes, including such non-essentials as a door handle being turned, a couple walking down a path, and so on. It’s ten years later, I think, and a group of hard-partying guys and gals in their late 20s turn up with one cooler of drinks between 6 of them – it’s not even all beer! – and they make sure to insert a scene where a mechanic takes their van away to be serviced, just so we know there’s no getting out of this mountain retreat. Yes, they say it’s up a mountain, 50 miles from anywhere, and no, we aren’t ever told why the family from the beginning would choose to live in such a remote location. In fact, the family at the beginning worry about what the townspeople would think of their union! Anyway, can’t get bogged down in minutiae that none of you care about.

Ted Prior, as Chuck, is the commitment-phobic boyfriend to final girl Joni (Linda McGill, although I have no idea why I’m listing any of these actor names as apart from Ted, none of them did much of anything in the industry). There’s also other people, who I’ll call Cannon Fodder 1-4. Because that’s what people do, apparently, they have a food fight in a room which might comfortably seat three; there’s one moment where an off-screen character tells them to stop, and I honestly thought for a moment it was the director and they’d just forgotten to edit that bit out. Then they have a séance, after a not-exactly-eventful first half-hour, and as Chuck relates to them what happened in the house long ago, things begin to happen, developing into a traditional “spam in a can” movie with a bunch of weird trimmings.

I love watching first-time directors doing low-budget genre movies, as they’re always unique in their own weird ways. The “this isn’t the way you do things” people hadn’t gotten to Prior by this point, so we get all sorts of weird stuff happening. The killer ghosts his way through closed doors, and sends other people through them too, but later on is seen messing with handles like he can’t get through. He’s the same kid from the beginning, impervious to damage, at one point, then he transforms into a man and suddenly becomes vulnerable. There’s a pentagram drawn on the wall in blood, but if it’s got a Satanic theme to it then it’s extremely under-developed. Chuck ignores slasher movie law and tells everyone to stay together, in the one room, and wait til morning (it doesn’t do any good, but it’s still sound advice).

All this is hidden under a layer of slow motion, and weird periods of silence like he ran out of incidental music, making everything seem slightly surreal, otherworldly. It actually reminds me a little of all-time worst movie “Things”, but not in terms of quality, acting, or plot, just that enclosed location and the washed out tones of a video camera. The lighting and the blankness of the walls begins to get to you after a while, and it’s creepy almost despite itself.

I think the Final Girl wasn’t given enough character, as it feels all the way up to the penultimate fight that it’s going to be mostly about Chuck; but they stick to that one bit of slasher law, almost set in stone even by this early point. Prior, by the way, was a canny guy, and even though he knew the slasher movie was on its way out (although it’d be revived by Freddy Krueger a couple of years later) he figured if he made it cheaply enough he’d still turn a profit. And he was right – he parlayed this into bigger budgets, peaking around 1990 with his movies for AIP, before slowly tailing off (he took a decade off, coming back with Ted for a bunch of movies starting again in 2007).

I felt quite clever during the final credits, thinking to myself “some of these names sound fake. Is it union guys working under a pseudonym?” I think it’s more likely to just be the same three or four people doing all the jobs, but eventually the names become so ridiculous anyone could spot it – right at the end we’re treated to “Jac Meough” and “I.P. Phreilee”. Well done, Mr Prior!

It’s boring, slow, and ugly, with a ton of basically amateur actors – but all truly bad movies fail in their own weird and wonderful ways, and “Sledgehammer” is worth watching to see how it fails.

Rating: thumbs down

Youtube Film Club – The Final Sanction (1990)

You may be aware of the work of the Prior brothers. From 1983’s “Sledgehammer” to his death in 2015, David A. Prior directed 34 movies, most commonly military / conspiracy thrillers; 32 of them featured Ted Prior, usually in a starring role. You might have of “Deadly Prey”, covered by the Red Letter Media fellas, or “Future Zone”, which had a comedy commentary provided it by Rifftrax; or you might have got lucky and avoided all of then. Well, today we begin another project we’ll probably get bored of halfway through, and are going to review all the Prior brothers’ work. I feel confident doing this because, despite it being a bit cheesy, both of them appear to be actually competent at their jobs!

Also, Ted had that sweet sweet AIP money behind him. AIP was American International Pictures, then Arkoff International Pictures, then Action International Pictures, and no matter what company claimed the three letters, they all produced cheesy b-movie fun. Back in the video shop days movies such as “The Final Sanction” could actually have a budget, as there was money going round at even the lowest levels, so they sort of look okay, have effects and real actors in them.

If you love movies which grossly misjudge the future, I have you covered. Made in 1990, this posits a world which tips over the line into nuclear war between the USA and the Soviet Union…despite the Iron Curtain coming down the very next year, and the interest of the pro-war section of the US ruling class switching to Islam pretty much immediately afterwards. So, we see a bunch of bombs come down, and then…nothing?

I don’t know what would happen if multiple nuclear weapons were dropped in the USA and the Soviet Union, but I reckon it would affect peoples’ lives quite a bit. After the stock footage, in fact, no reference is ever made to it again, and we move into the meat of the movie, which is a one-on-one fight between a hand-picked Russian soldier and one of America’s finest, much like “The Hunger Games” crossed with “Rocky 4”. The Russian rep is Sgt. Sergi Schvackov, played by the late great Robert Z’Dar (making his second appearance this week for the ISCFC), and he’s trained by the ultra-gruff Maj. Galashkin (William Smith, another legend of low-budget). His training is full of mental toughness exercises and high-tech gadgets, plus target practice with those fancy combat shovels that the Spetznatz guys used to use, whereas the American training is…er…we see their guy eating a healthy lunch one day, I suppose? This is for all the marbles, although quite what will happen when one comes out victorious is never mentioned – will the USA just hand over the government to Moscow if their guy goes down? What a difference that would make today, amirite guys?

Ted Prior is Sgt. Tom Batanic, and he’s brought back into the Army specifically for this fight, having been in prison for the murder of his entire unit during an exercise to protect the Secretary of State. He’s obviously innocent, which is the B-story rumbling along while the A-story explodes across the screen, and he’s also got a communication chip implanted in his head and gets advice from Lt Tavlin (Renee Cline, who was a badass in several movies in the late 80s), who starts off hating him but gradually warms to his wisecracking personality.

The huge majority of the movie is set in a variety of disused buildings and forest areas, as we see one or the other soldier stalking round it, firing at his opponent, the other firing back, and so on. It’s important to state that, despite both these being well-trained soldiers, never really resorting to cover, they barely ever take a hit, and then only a glancing one. Why are people in movies such terrible shots?

No sense spoiling any more, though – it’s on Youtube and you should all pop it on and have some fun. You’ll enjoy the developing relationship between the two men, and the one between Batanic and Tavlin (two names generated by picking letters out of a Scrabble bag, surely) and the inevitable but no less fun for it resolution of the conspiracy plot. Damn you, military industrial complex! “The Final Sanction” also features one of the most bizarre beginning-to-end arcs in movie history. Take the first scene and the last and see if any of it makes the slightest bit of sense!

I’ve picked it apart a lot, but the Priors made a fun movie. Ted can act, and it’s sort of a surprise he never really did anything away from his brother, as he’s got a good action-hero look too. The rest of the actors are fine; the only real crime is not having enough stuff happening in act 2. A lot of other reviewers have bashed it for not being a “typical” (read: hilariously awful) AIP movie, but that’s a pretty strange criticism to make – “I didn’t like it because it wasn’t bad enough!”

A quick word, though, about the extremely misleading poster, provided above. AIP may well have been like Cannon and got funding for movies that hadn’t been made yet, based on the promotion – well, neither of them wears leather at any point, there are no souped-up fast cars (or trains, if that’s what is in the background), and that sort of makes it look like they’re fighting together, which is misleading for like 95% of the movie’s running time. In fact, it makes it look vaguely post-apocalyptic, which I can believe was the first draft of the script but is definitely not what made it to the screen.

Pop it on, have some fun, and we’ll back with more AIP or David A. Prior reviews soon.

Rating: thumbs up

 

SPOILER BELOW FOR FINAL IMAGE OF MOVIE