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

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Massacre (1985) (aka Border Of Tong)

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I love introducing people to “big” names from B-movie history, and we have a fine one for you today, David Heavener. Sadly, details on his early life are hard to come by, but he apparently parlayed money made from writing country songs into a film career, and has written, produced, directed and starred in 15 movies since the late 80s (as well as just starring in a bunch more, plus producing and distributing others).

 

Like every cheapo director with pretensions of grandeur, he’s hired the occasional big-ish name to turn up for a few minutes in his movies, such as Martin Landau, Karen Black and Tony Curtis; sadly, this was right at the beginning of his career, when he was just hired as “star”. His output is a bit like normal Hollywood stuff, only uglier, cheaper and more stupid; we may get bored of Heavener after a few movies and leave his career overview to another site, if “Massacre” (aka “Border Of Tong”) is anything to go by.

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Just recapping this movie is confusing. We’re treated to a “Star Wars” style info-crawl at the beginning, and you’ll be pleased to know that it keeps up with the tradition of every movie with an info-crawl (“Star Wars” excepted) being absolutely terrible. The Tong were a friendly organisation for new immigrants way back when, but with reducing resources had to turn to crime, or something, while still being welcoming to new immigrants desperate for things that remind them of home. None of this makes the slightest bit of difference to the movie that’s about to unfold, in case you were wondering.

 

There’s a couple of Chinese guys, and they find a guy on the street who’s presumably a friend of theirs, but seems super-unwilling to go with them. They then go to a gambling den of some sort and kill everyone inside, but the unwilling guy, Joseph…nah, I got nothing. I have no idea why these people did what they did, and knowing it’s based loosely on a real-life case (the Wah Mee Massacre, in 1983), does little to resolve my confusion. It’s a robbery, apparently?

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A very significant problem with “Massacre” is that the dubbing is really bad. All the Chinese actors are dubbed by people who appear to be reading English phonetically, for the first time, which leaves every bit of motivation for the characters curious at best. The actual people who are doing their own voices are fine, including Heavener himself, who isn’t terrible considering it’s his first ever movie, but…well, I guess it strays over the edge into being quite funny at times?

 

There are only a couple of chuckles, even if you’re a really dedicated bad movie enthusiast. There’s the way that the people tracking Joseph and his new girlfriend (who’s a really really bad actress) seem to have supernatural powers, as they’re always two steps behind him, no matter what he does. And there’s lots of fun to be had watching Heavener as he does all the things a badass cop from the mid 80s would do – have a sweet-ass mullet, for one, and sit on a chair the wrong way round, for two. Near the end, he says “I’ve been on this case for a year”, and you’re all “huh? If you’d said three days I’d have believed you, but a year? At least give some indication of the passage of time, dammit”. Although it sorta felt like I’d been watching the movie for a year by that point

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The other, and far worse, problem, is how boring it is. The alleged star, Heavener, is barely in it (more on that in a moment), and Joseph is such a wet blanket, giving no indication why he’s doing anything or why we should care about him. After a while, he manages to attract a prostitute and they run away together (why is he hooking up with a prostitute? Because he thought he was going into a noodle place, apparently) but their trip to Canada and setting up of an origami business feels like a weird fantasy and not so much a thing that would happen in real life. But it’s also dull, we need to remember. Any fun you might get is quickly sucked out by the lack of a sense that anyone involved knew what they were doing.

 

Now, it turns out that a substantial amount of the footage was shot for a movie called “Dark Side Of Chinatown”, which was only released in Hong Kong, as far as I can tell. Heavener is in that even less than he’s in this, and there’s apparently more motivation given for what the characters do and some scenes are edited differently. This feels like a trick from our old friend Godfrey Ho, but it’s not two movies cobbled together, just one movie edited in two different ways.

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There are millions of movies like this, leaden thrillers from all over the world rushed into production after the success of stuff like “Lethal Weapon”, the VHS boom ensuring they’d turn at least a small profit. If you spent any time in a video shop in the 80s or 90s, you’ll have seen the boxes of hundreds of them. Sadly, I can’t recommend this one, even a little bit. Not funny as a bad movie, not interesting as a good one. I guess we’ll try and track down “Outlaw Force”, his next movie, made three years later and with him as director, producer, writer and star, and see if there’s more fun to be had.

 

Rating: thumbs down

Blood And Honor (2000)

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I discovered the films of Donald Farmer a few years ago and life’s never been the same. He’s been directing since the mid 80s (and SRS Cinema are now putting out his super-8 stuff from even earlier), and has made some of my favourite bonkers horror – “Vampire Cop”, “Scream Dream” and “Red Lips”, to name but three, but pick any of them (okay, maybe not “Red Lips: Eat The Living” or “Dorm Of The Dead”, they’re pretty tough to sit through) and you’ll have a good, if occasionally baffled, time.

He’s also one of the nicest guys on social media, and it was thanks to him pointing me in the right direction that I was able to watch this film at all (perhaps it never got a UK release due to the movie sharing its name with a group of Nazi music enthusiasts – ps. go fuck yourselves, Nazis). Anyway, I need to pick a spot to start because this story could get long. Dentistry!

Dr Maurice J Fagan Jr was a dental pioneer, holding a number of patents, writing dozens of articles, helping out the Pope’s dentist, and so on. But as if this wasn’t quite enough for him, he also wrote a novel as a favour to a friend (who left him an outline) called “The Isle Of Hope”. This was printed by one of those self-publishing places in 1992, and here’s where I could just ask Donald Farmer what happened but I much prefer baseless speculation. I think Fagan, or someone close to him, wanted to be in the movies, wanted to create their own “Gone With The Wind”, and had a bunch of cash, so a friend of a friend said “hey, I know this director”.

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So the money is rounded up, Civil War enthusiasts are contacted to be extras, an old plantation house is borrowed, the movie is shot…and IMDB lists it as 4 hours 33 minutes! This is what gave me the “Gone With The Wind” thoughts, as that’s only a whisker under 4 hours itself. Anyway, this beast of a movie, completely unlike anything its director has done before, is sold to a distributor, and they go “nope” and cut it into two separate movies, of which this is the first (“Battle For Glory”, the second part, is at my friend’s house in the USA, so a review for that will have to wait a while).

That distributor is one David Heavener. His name looms large over the sort of bargain-basement cinema we like to cover here, and he’s been writing, directing and starring in films that have flown completely under my radar for over 30 years. He also produces and distributes movies, and this is one of his – he left a ton of material on the cutting room floor, as that one 4+ hour movie is now two of around 80 minutes each. For evidence of this, the end credits (which play over “highlights” from the movie) feature people we never see, characters having conversations despite them never having met, and so on.

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I suppose I ought to discuss the movie! After some footage of Civil War re-enactors (cheaper than staging a battle yourself, I guess), during which cars are clearly visible in the background, we get a voiceover, which certainly helps the rather chopped up narrative. This is supplied by Farmer collaborator Philip Newman (the writer / producer / star of “Body Shop”, who also shows up in this as the head of one of the families), who has a great voice for it. It centres around two couples deep in Confederate country during the Civil War – the first is Craig and Olivia. She fakes a pregnancy to get him to marry her, then turns into the least competent gold-digger of all time, and all this time anyway he’s been sleeping with the maid Caroline. On top of this, he’s also in love with Olivia’s sister Angela, but she’s married to Henry. Henry has a sister, Maude, who’s not thrilled by his wife.

Andy Hamrick, in his only role, plays Henry, and it’s a really tricky part to pull off – he never really convinced that he was too conflicted or worth caring about, flitting from sex with one woman to another to almost forcing himself on Angela at one point. Ortiz is fantastic as the Cajun (although her accent was rotten) Caroline, with a performance full of seduction and lies, and it’s her that drives most of the plot – murdering Olivia’s father when he threatens to reveal the affair to his daughter, then…well, no sense giving any further spoilers. I mean, with the amount of sass she gives her employers, I’d have kicked her out on the street months ago, but perhaps good help was hard to come by at the time. The rest of the plot is driven by the coming to town of a group of Union soldiers, led by Colonel Evans (Miles O’Keefe, the early 80s “Tarzan”). He’s a decent guy but his soldiers are absolute rapist monsters; they hole up in the house of Olivia and Angela’s family and then sort of do nothing – they don’t appear to be fighting, or on a mission, they’re just hanging out at the house.

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First up – this is in the running for the most coherent of Farmer’s movies. I understood who everyone was and roughly why they were doing what they were doing. It looks completely decent, being shot on actual film (I think), and the sets were excellent, being real old houses and proper beautiful Southern forests where the moss hangs from the trees. The haircuts were a little 1990s, perhaps, and I’d be surprised if the women of the time were quite as feisty as they were here, but Farmer is a steady hand, he’s easily able to control all the threads and directs it well.

It’s honestly a surprise that none of my criticisms of a Donald Farmer movie are to do with the direction – he’ll normally do something so completely out of left field that you’re left scratching your head at the end, despite them almost always being enjoyable. Not here, mind you – it just makes me wish he’d been given this level of money for all his other movies. Okay, he does stuff like show the same battle scene twice, and the blood effects are rough, but that’s so minor for the same filmography that gave us “An Erotic Vampire In Paris” that it barely needs mentioning.

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Every problem with this movie is the story, although…it’s not terrible, I guess? It’s just completely unremarkable, and feels like exactly what it is – a vanity project from a Civil War enthusiast who knew how to get the beats of story down and in the right order, but not how to make it interesting. In case you were about to say “didn’t Farmer write it?” – well, yes, but given Fagan actually appears in a small part in the movie, I’m guessing he was firmly in control of the script too. The issue of slavery is completely ignored, as it’s fairly clear the author’s sympathies were not on the Union side (or if they were, he had a terrible way of showing it). There are only two black actors in the entire movie, and they’re only in it to have the first murder that Caroline commits pinned on them; I’ll admit to not knowing if families kept their slaves during the war itself, but it does seem odd that the only domestic servant isn’t black.

I should also mention how it just sort of ends in the middle of a scene, but that’s nothing to do with the making of it, it’s the weird edits that were forced on it by the distributors. Perhaps 4 and a half hours of an amateurish Civil War movie would’ve been too much, but how many other low-budget horror directors do you know of who’d have taken on something so massive?

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This is another review which isn’t exactly going to drive traffic to our site – it’s out of print, and I’m willing to bet there’s some legal stuff which’ll keep it from ever being re-released. But if you see it in one of those “4 movies for £1” box sets, which is apparently where it has been known to dwell, chances are it’ll be the best movie in that set. Please look out for our review of part 2 when I have a copy, and in the meantime go to SRS Cinema and drop a few £££ on Farmer’s stuff. Without all our support, all we’ll be left with is the worst blandest mainstream product, and I don’t want to live in that world.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

PS – if you get the “David Heavener Presents” version of this DVD, then you’ll also have a memorable special feature, a 6-minute (!) trailer for his movie “Massacre” (aka his first movie, “The Border Of Tong”). Marvel at how you understand less at the end than you do at the beginning! The un-subtitled dialogue! The way the people sort of look like funhouse mirror versions of actors! That might have to be our next review.

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