Puppet Master: Axis Termination (2017)

Puppet Master is back! After a break of five years since 2012’s “Axis Rising”, the WW2 setting of the previous movies continues. This also represents the first series to have made a new instalment since we’ve started covering them. But let’s talk Full Moon for a minute first!

After “Axis Rising”, apparently, Charles Band promised Full Moon’s fans that there would be a new Puppet Master movie every year. This, of course, didn’t happen. They’ve been too busy churning out new instalments in the “Evil Bong” franchise, I guess? Then, they decided to do an Indiegogo campaign for “Axis Termination”, which was apparently a success although if the news of its existence didn’t make it to me (I’m on their mailing list), I’m not sure how well it was advertised. Anyway, the $77,000 or so they raised allowed them to surpass their goals and bring back Six-Shooter, one of the more beloved of the puppets.

Now, a cruel, or realistic, person might say “perhaps if you can’t afford to make it, don’t” but clearly none of those people spoke to Charles Band before production. If you’re an extremely well-established movie company with a decent fanbase, how on earth do you need to raise money before the actual thing-that’s-supposed-to-make-profit release? The money that was raised for Six-Shooter, by the way, resulted in a grand total of ten seconds of screen time and basically no animation for his puppet. We were promised stop-motion, and there’s perhaps a few seconds of that, too – the low point for special effects comes when we’re treated to a long-shot of a few of the puppets, which is clearly just people in puppet costumes filmed from a distance (they move entirely unlike our friends normally do, for one). We were also promised puppet Torch, but they obviously couldn’t afford to animate him…er, “couldn’t find a place for him in the script”.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, a little. Full Moon being somewhat economical with the truth and acting like scumbag carnies (one of the reasons they were dropped from their major studio development deal back in the 90s, I’d have thought, from which they’ve been dying a slow death ever since) is old hat indeed. Let’s talk the result of their campaign.

Friend of ISCFC Jean Louise O’Sullivan, by far the best thing about the last chapter, does the Final Girl thing of being killed immediately at the beginning of the next – her boyfriend’s muscle-bound Army brother Brooks cradles her dying body and vows to look after her sack o’puppets. Almost immediately, the movie then pivots to be a black magic movie, as evil Nazi black magic guy Sturmbahnfurher Krabke and evil Nazi scientist Dr. Gerde Ernst try, for some reason, to find the formula for the serum that creates the puppets. They both have extremely deadly psychic powers, so quite why they’re so determined to master the puppets, when the little fellas are, to be fair, a bit limited, is a question the movie never answers.

In fact, the entire puppet cast is secondary to proceedings – the Nazi puppets Bombshell, Blitzkreig and Weremacht; good puppets Blade, Pinhead, Leech Woman, Tunneler, Jester and Six-Shooter (with the last two barely even making an appearance) could be removed and I’m not sure anything would be that different. The good guys have a black magic fellow too, “Russian” Dr Ivan Ivanov (who, even though they draw attention to his accent, sounds completely English throughout – fun fact, he’s also Peter Dinklage’s stunt double in “Game Of Thrones”) and the real conflict is between those two forces. The only two puppets who get anything close to any animation are Blade and Tunneler – a few of the others are just shown hanging on to people’s backs as they thrash about in pain.

What they’ve done is really camp things up. Out are the realistic-ish characters of the previous two instalments, in are wild overacting Nazis and weird colourful Russians and impossibly brave square-jawed American soldiers. They’ve also removed the central character of Andre Toulon, the guy who created the puppets – he shows up in footage borrowed from part 1, at the beginning of 2010’s “Axis of Evil”, and since then he’s been written out of the story, basically. Well, as much story as there’s actually been (all three movies could reasonably have been made into one good, action packed one). I know he’s supposed to be dead, but that never stopped anyone before, and it’s weird that his name never even comes up.

This camp element could be fun, and a few of the actors go for it, but it’s so amateurishly acted in the main, poorly made and leadenly directed by Charles Band (garishly lit interiors, no visual flair at all) that it ends up not being that enjoyable. I can see what they were going for but I genuinely expected more from a guy who’s been making movies for over 30 years. He must have developed some directing chops, right?

While my first hope is that this franchise is now done with forever, I’m aware enough to know that’s not going to happen. I at least hope we can wave goodbye to this setting, which is among the more pointless cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac?) in horror franchise history and has never done anything remotely interesting (that wasn’t already done to much greater effect in part 3, also set during WW2 but with the benefit of a budget).

While it’s not as awful as “Axis Of Evil”, or “The Legacy” (which remains the most shameful pathetic rip-off of a movie we’ve covered at the ISCFC), it’s still bad. At least it’s short, scraping in at 74 minutes, with a decent amount of that being credits? Avoid, obviously, unless you’re a glutton for punishment.

Rating: thumbs down

PS – 2018 is set to bring us bizarre Puppet Master news – a reboot of the series, with no Full Moon involvement, called “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich”, starring Thomas Lennon, Charlyne Yi, Mattias Hues, Barbara Crampton and Michael Pare, among others! I mention it because I’m not entirely convinced it’s not just a joke or a tax dodge or something, but if it is released this year, we’ll be there to cover it.

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Creepozoids (1987)

Wow, this was bad. And not just compared to normal, big-budget action-horror movies; even compared to the sort of garbage we normally cover at the ISCFC, this stinks. It’s yet another effort from Full Moon Pictures, who we’ve covered repeatedly over the last five-and-a-bit years, and their house director David DeCoteau, who achieved internet notoriety a few years ago when the trailer for “A Talking Cat?!” was noticed by a few big comedy websites.

Looking back over DeCoteau’s oeuvre, I…well, like most other people who write about this stuff, I’ve been accused of being a wannabe director. Not particularly, honestly, but if I was offered the career he’s had, I’d definitely have turned it down. Would I want to be known as the man who made “The Brotherhood”, the “1313” series, “The Great Halloween Puppy Adventure” and a bunch of movies with “Christmas” in the title that are so bad Hallmark Channel wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot barge pole?

I could go on (“please don’t”, I hear you cry) but let’s discuss “Creepozoids”. We’re in the post-apocalyptic situation of 1998, although the only evidence of this comes in the text info-dump right at the beginning. Humans most dodge gangs of mutants, apparently, and while it might have been fun to see some humans fighting some mutants, DeCoteau isn’t here to entertain! What we see is a few empty streets and a very small amount of the acid rain that’s a constant companion of the nuclear future. Five soldiers – among them “legendary” scream queen Linnea Quigley and Kim McCamy – desert from the army, although I thought society had fallen apart, and try and eke out a living.

ASIDE: As every other review of this movie has mentioned, McKamy, under the name Ashlyn Gere, would go on to a long career in porn, winning a number of awards while still doing bits of mainstream acting (she’d appear in a few episodes of “The X Files”, for instance). Evidently, there are people who watch porn the same way I watch old horror movies, as there’s a lot of interest in this because it was filmed before McKamy had breast implants. I feel vaguely sleazy just from knowing that information, but there you go. McKamy actually refused to go nude for this movie (good for her) but Quigley obliged, because you can’t have a B-movie without exploiting at least one woman.

The series of ideas they ripped off become apparent around now. There’s “Mad Max”, “Dawn Of The Dead”, a little “Day Of The Dead”, “It’s Alive” and “Alien”, and not a lot you could call original. But again, original isn’t that interesting to Full Moon; although, if you look at the computer diary one of the characters finds, it appears computer game “Fallout 3” might have lifted a little of their aesthetic.

The five of them find refuge in an oddly unguarded, well-stocked scientific base, and they discover that the experiments within related to…er…something to do with making it so humans don’t need to eat any more. Perhaps they ought to have aimed for nuclear weapons that don’t leave the planet an irradiated dump after you use them, but I’m no science-guy so what do I know? Anyway, the scientists inside all died, and there are some giant monsters, the creepozoids of the title (I presume, it’s never really mentioned. Plus, they don’t creep because they’re enormous).

For a movie which clocks in at 72 minutes with a lot of credits, it’s almost unbearably slow. If I wanted to see five unappealing actors stood around for an hour, I’d stop writing reviews of B-movies and see a doctor; and you can add to that the criticism that the women in “Creepozoids” do basically nothing. While the men go off and sacrifice themselves bravely, the women stay behind and wring their hands! This happens over and over again and is just stupid.

Talking of stupid, that’s the illness most of the cast dies of. At about minute 50, you discover they’ve had lazer pistols this entire time (!) and just haven’t bothered using them – add that to the “let’s keep going down this dark corridor no-one returns from” sort of behaviour and you’ll spend a good portion of the time, well, the time you’re not just sat bored and wishing you’d picked something else, shouting at the screen.

It’s just lazy and stupid, top to bottom. I’m mostly annoyed that this cobbled-together bit of z-grade garbage was considered worth making or releasing. There’s no development of the post-apocalyptic idea at all, there’s no drama, barely any action and some of the special effects (the giant rat, particularly) would be embarrassing if they were done by a group of broke school students. There are no supporting cast members, at all (the only person other than the main five in the entire thing is the base’s chief scientist, credited as “Woman” and on screen for two minutes at the beginning – she dies in a stupid way too) and nothing worth looking at.

I’m just looking at the VHS cover to this now. “Shake with terror – at the birth of the creepozoid baby!” I mean, if it had been released in the 1950s, that line would still have sounded cheesy, but even though it looks sort of gross for a minute, it’s just another monster that gets killed then mysteriously revives just before the credits roll (thank heavens they never made a sequel).

Wow, Full Moon wasted a lot of good will in the 80s and 90s.

Rating: thumbs down

Eliminators (1986)

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This never happens

If you spent any time in a VHS rental shops when they were still a thing, chances are you’ll have seen this video on the shelf. Chances are also that you wouldn’t have bothered renting it because it was a cheap looking knock-off of a hundred other, better movies, but now all you need to do is go to Youtube and there you are (well, you did, it appears Full Moon got wise and had it taken down).

You don’t get too many mad scientists any more, which I think is a shame. Much like “Cthulhu Mansion”, we’re treated to a turn from a great old English actor – this time, Roy Dotrice, star of stage and screen, as Abbott Reeves. Along with sidekick Dr Takada, he’s built something we come to know as Mandroid out of a crashed pilot and all sorts of high-tech bits and pieces, and he looks like the bargain-basement offspring of Robocop and Terminator (see below). Anyway, they’ve also figured out time travel, which really ought to be the headline of their endeavour, and send Mandroid back to the Roman era to grab some artifacts.

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Reeves wants Mandroid disassembled, but Takada isn’t down with that and helps Mandroid escape. Now, here’s where there’s a bit of a join visible in the script, like two imperfect rewrites welded together. He’s killing Reeves’ henchmen all over the place (a lot of henchmen for a reclusive scientist, but whatever) and decides to kill Reeves then and there – a good plan. Takada talks him out of it, dying in the process, and Mandroid just leaves. If you’ve ever seen a film before, you’ll know there’s another confrontation coming, and he’ll never be this unprotected again. So why leave him? Well, apart from “because that would make the film ten minutes long”.

The film feels an awful lot like a TV pilot, for an A-Team-esque show, just with robots. Mandroid goes to find the scientist who created some of his parts; then the two of them, on their way to find and confront Reeves, meet Han Solo-esque riverboat captain Harry Fontana; then with far too little time left in the film, they meet Takada’s son, a supernaturally gifted martial artist. And it’s these four who become the team…the main face you’ll recognise is scientist Nora Hunter, played by Denise Crosby. She’d go straight from this film to “Star Trek: The Next Generation” but the entire cast is pretty strong.

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The surprising thing about this film is it’s really quite good. Denise Crosby is a strong leading woman, and the plotline is well-done. It doesn’t mess about too much, Mandroid’s robot kit looks pretty good for a low-budget action film, and there’s some nice dialogue. One of Fontana’s riverboat rivals has him at gunpoint and says “I’ll give you til the count of five”, to which he replies “that could take all day”.

This is a perfect Sunday afternoon matinee type of film. Aside from a few seconds of Crosby side-boob, there’s nothing too violent or unpleasant about any of it (the IMDB-listed rating is PG). Just a good action adventure film, with a time-travelling robot in it. It feels like the producers went “what’s famous at the moment?” and came up with a list – Terminator (1984), Romancing The Stone (1984), Jackie Chan (Police Story and Meals On Wheels were big hits at the time), Back To The Future (1985), Commando (1985) and probably a few others, threw them in the blender and out came this. No bad thing, necessarily – if you’re going to steal, might as well do it from the best.

As the end credits rolled, I realised I’d been watching a Full Moon film, which explains the level of competence, the decent acting, and the relatively high budget (back when they had major-studio money behind them). Director Charles Manoogian also did “Demonic Toys”, and producer Charles Band is of course well known to us, being a first ballot ISCFC Hall of Famer. Well, he might have to explain why the fascination with miniature creatures before we let him in, but you know.

Rating: thumbs up

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Dr. Mordrid (1992)

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Full Moon Pictures once held the rights to make a movie based on “Dr. Strange”, the popular Marvel Comics character who’s in the cinema right now. Strange is the “Sorcerer Supreme”, gifted magic powers in order to protect the Earth; he wears a cape and has a powerful amulet. Sadly, nothing came of this, and the rights lapsed in 1991.

In unrelated news, Full Moon released this movie in 1992. Dr. Mordrid is given powers by the godlike Monitor in order, partly, to protect the Earth; he wears a cape and has a powerful amulet. One must salute their originality in bringing these visions to our screens.

It’s pretty strange seeing Jeffrey Combs, who’s played so many creepy villains and oddballs, as the lead. One gets the feeling that co-directors Charles and Albert Band (Albert being the Dad) would have liked Bruce Campbell, who’d have been perfect for the part, but he’d have been making “Army Of Darkness” at the time; Combs, with a decent haircut and an occasional smile, is a perfectly reasonable replacement. He lives in a massive apartment, walls covered in books, maps and arcane detritus; down the hall are a couple of colourful characters who might as well have “filler” stamped on their foreheads, and the smart “independent police consultant”, Samantha (Yvette Nipar). She consults with the police on black magic and cult stuff – a little surprised there’s a full time job for that, but whatever.

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The villain is B-movie mainstay Brian Thompson (who, along with Combs, seems to have been in all the different “Star Trek” iterations) as Kabal, who’s also a very powerful interdimensional sorcerer. There’s a long and complicated history between the two, but Kabal escapes from magic prison and rounds up some alchemical items in order to open a portal back to the weird floating city that both call home, which is another dimension or something. This will let out a bunch of demons, and then it’s “beyond an apocalypse”, but luckily Mordrid is on the case.

I liked, although was a bit confused, by the scene where Samantha goes to a lecture on “Criminal Justice And The Supernatural”, given by Mordrid. He gives the same speech anyone who’s seen an episode of “Ancient Aliens” will recognise – “can we say this crazy thing isn’t plausible?” and “you must expand your minds!” – followed by a lot of rubbish about the moon and how it affects stuff on Earth (mostly untrue). She’s evidently extremely impressed by this, though, and gets to know the reclusive Mordrid, at the same time as he’s trying to stop Kabal from taking over.

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Mordrid gets arrested, and while you might think he probably should have set up some spells to stop this stuff from happening, it leads reasonably onto the rest of the story. The creeping realisation comes, about halfway in, that this movie is really pretty good! Well, for Full Moon at least. Combs really gives it his all, attempting to convey his alien-ness while aiming for human at the same time, and one gets the feeling he appreciated the opportunity to lead a movie (perhaps angling for a franchise, as this would’ve made a great ongoing story, perhaps a TV series). He might be a little too earnest in places, like he didn’t quite believe what he had to say, but it’s a small criticism. Nipar’s great too, that tough-and-brilliant character whose love interest status was secondary to their character, that the 90s seemed to do so well. Thompson could have done this role in his sleep, but kudos to Jay Acovone as the cop who doesn’t believe a word of it, too. A cast, top to bottom, of people who can act, which – given the murky cinematic waters we usually swim in here – is by no means a given. And the effects are decent too, especially considering the budget, with the finale featuring two stop-motion dinosaur skeletons having a fight and not embarrassing themselves with it.

This is what I wished Full Moon had done more of. 75 minutes with no lulls; a logical, coherent story with a nice helping of camp to it (check out Mordrid’s blue outfit, clearly a Prince ripoff, and marvel at how Combs kept a straight face while wearing it); and an interesting world to take part in. This could well be the best Full Moon movie of them all, with that “house style” working for them – it’s a toss-up between this, “Subspecies”, and “Dollman”, I think.

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Get yourself to www.fullmoonstreaming.com, drop a few $$ and enjoy this (and a few other excellent films too).

Rating: thumbs up

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Mandroid (1993)

This never happens

This never happens

Another Full Moon review! They were the kings of the 1980s video shop, with major distribution for their low-budget shockers meaning they were absolutely everywhere. Check out our Full Moon tag to read our other reviews, and go to www.fullmoonstreaming.com for surprisingly good, cheap and comprehensive access to pretty much their entire back catalogue. Hey, if I had to struggle through “Puppet Master 8”, you lot can as well!

 

The more Full Moon movies one sees, the more their “house style” becomes apparent. It’s a mix of:

  • That slight straight-to-video softness of the image
  • Eastern European location / actors
  • A vague, mild “gothic” undertone
  • Awful music, from Richard Band or someone trying (for some reason) to sound like him
  • Slightly unreal colour scheme and lighting

 

Once you’ve watched a couple of Full Moon’s movies…this leads you, on occasion, to have major movie déjà vu – you see some people who look a bit like normal actors, but not quite as good or attractive, milling about some old knackered Transylvanian castle and you’re all “I’ve seen this before, right?” But it turns out not, that seen-it-before feeling doesn’t let up the longer you go into this one. And before we get going – “Mandroid”? Doesn’t “Android” cover the whole human / robot thing? I wouldn’t bake a bannoffee pie and call it “banoffeefee”. Also, Marvel Comics had “Mandroid” way back in the early 70s, but clearly weren’t as bothered about copyrighting everything to death back then.

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So the gist of everything is, deep in post-communist Russia, in a science station built way back and mostly just staffed by two old man scientists (Zimmer and Drago) and their assistants (Zanna – beautiful; Benjamin – sort of dull), a big discovery has been made. Superconn is the world’s most amazing element, harvested from weird veiny mushrooms, and it can cure all diseases and is the world’s cleanest fuel. Not bad! As an aside, they’ve also invented Mandroid, a big ol’ robot controlled by someone wearing a proto-VR headset (the controller has to move their arms and legs to move Mandroid’s, too, which causes problems obviously). Zimmer wants to give everything to the Americans, to help the world, and Drago wants to control it all and…you know, I’m not sure. Generic world-ruling nonsense? Making billions? Ah, who cares. Can’t help but feel this personality clash should’ve been dealt with before this crucial juncture, but whatever.

 

Into this ticking time bomb comes Wade, a US Government scientist, and Joe, the local CIA agent. Drago tries to steal Mandroid and a batch of Superconn, escapes with the robot but spills a batch of toxic mushroom-goo all over himself, giving him a standard Full Moon deformed face – and from then on it’s Drago and his creepy local helper vs Zimmer and his little gang. Wade and Zanna fall in love, obviously, and Benjamin…well, Benjamin gets knocked into the radioactive test-chamber during Drago’s escape and…slowly turns invisible!

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ASIDE: This movie has a sequel, “Invisible: The Chronicles of Benjamin Knight”, with mostly the same cast and released the same year (presumably made back to back, another Full Moon tradition). Benjamin’s involvement in this movie is basically nil, and the longer it went on the more even the stupidest viewer could notice they were prepping him for his own movie. I guess if I can find a cheap copy, I’ll review that too? I’m not exactly full of anticipatory excitement.

 

There are tons of dead ends and red herrings in “Mandroid”. The biggest one is when Zimmer announces he sneakily made a better version of Superconn, and you’re all “okay, he’s going to build an even more powerful Mandroid and there’s going to be fighting!” Nope, sorry. It’s merely the MacGuffin that gets Drago to try and kill them all so he can possess it. There’s a shocking twist of one of them being a double agent…but it doesn’t go anywhere.

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The problem is, fighting and cool stuff like that involves special effects, and they cost money. If you’re just going to have Mandroid walk about a bit, then all you need is that bloody servo sound effect that has plagued many a movie – from filmmakers who don’t trust that their audience will remember the thing they’re looking at is a robot from one scene to the next. So what you’re left with is little more than a haunted house story, featuring a bloke in a robot suit. There comes a point where, if you want to make genre films like Full Moon clearly do, cutting back more and more just becomes self-defeating.

 

With a few exceptions, Full Moon are the background noise to the Video Shop era. They’re session musicians who kept trying to write their own material. They’re a cheap Ford Focus. I’m sure you can dream up a few analogies of your own. This is so painfully average with such little care put into its creation that I’m more annoyed than I would if it had just sucked.
Rating: thumbs down

Puppet Master news!

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Although it’s been a while since our review series ended (January 2014 was when we covered “Puppet Master X: Axis Rising”) we’ve always retained some love in our hearts for the franchise, even when it was doing absolutely dreadful highlight movies (“Legacy”, part 8) or wantonly ignoring its own continuity (all of them past part 1). We interviewed the star of “X”, Jean Louise O’Sullivan, and she was great, too.

 

So, much like every other time we’ve tried to do “news” on here, we’re months late with fun information. “Puppet Master: Axis Termination”, which Charles Band calls the 11th film because he’s ignoring his own “Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys” as non-canon, had an Indiegogo campaign which finished in January and was completely successful. Watch the video here. Even though I’m a reviewer (okay, bottom rung, but I’m still  on the ladder) and asked to be put on Full Moon’s mailing list years ago, I had no idea this even existed. The $50 “mystery box” reward sounded amazing, absolutely 100% guaranteed to be whatever stuff they had knocking around that didn’t sell – Full Moon clear out their storage space, you all get valueless tat.

 

Now, crowdfunding for successful movie companies like Full Moon is just a way of making money. They’re always full of stuff like “we’re going to use this to do extra effects shots”, or whatever, but I’d lay every penny I would’ve spent on this campaign on a bet that the movie was already finished and this is just adding to their bottom line. It’s like pre-release piracy insurance – not necessarily the worst idea in the world, but still a pretty sleazy trick. I’m not exactly helping my case to get on the review copy list for the new one, am I?

"I must have been really drunk last night"

“I must have been really drunk last night”

But that’s not all! There’s also going to be a reboot of the franchise! The guy who directed the amazing-sounding “Bone Tomahawk” is on board to write, and it’s got people with serious money behind it. I have literally no idea why anyone would choose to do this, the last “Puppet Master” film that had more than pocket change spent on it was 20 years ago and even at its best, it was pretty poor. But there you go. Stuff that current movie execs, probably around my own age, liked as kids is always going to get another look, and it’s always been this way.

 

Enjoy all this Full Moon-related news, and I’ll see you for a review of “Axis Termination” (as soon as it pops up on Full Moon Streaming, a seriously great site) and for a review of this reboot, when it comes out (I’ll guess never, when someone with sense and money finds out about it).

Arcade (1993)

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David S Goyer has had an interesting career. Now, he’s Hollywood’s go-to script guy for intelligent genre and superhero stuff – from the amazing “Dark City” to  “Blade” to Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy to “Batman vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice”; but he got his start writing Jean Claude Van Damme movies, as well as working for our old friends at Full Moon! “Demonic Toys” is one of his, and this is the other. I think he deserves every success, as he’s a guy who worked for Albert Pyun – yes, dear reader, after promising to stop watching his dreadful nonsense, here we are again. Can one of genre cinema’s finest writers defeat one of its worst directors?

 

This is a fine addition to the genre of killer computer movies, along with stuff like “Demon Seed”, “Johnny Mnemonic”, “Lawnmower Man”, and, I suppose, “2001” and “Terminator” (although I feel dirty even mentioning those last two in the same breath as “Arcade”). Alex is a suburban teen who wakes up every morning with the memory of her mother’s suicide fresh in her mind; her father is a wreck and she’s barely holding it together. She’s got a boyfriend, Greg, and a group of friends – Nick, Stilts and Laurie – and one day they decide to go and visit Dante’s Inferno, the local video arcade, to preview the new game “Arcade” (poor name, I reckon). It’s all about virtual reality, but it’s super-evil and while everyone’s backs are turned, beams Greg into itself; the rep from Vertigo/Tronics hands out home virtual reality machines and you know there’s going to be some problems.

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Almost immediately, the only people left from the arcade are Laurie and Nick, and they’ve got to figure out what’s going on and, obviously, go back into the game, which is now taunting them with their trapped friends. They’ll need help from the programmer and to find out the game’s secret, which goes back to its initial creation. And you know there’s going to be some sweet early 90s CGI!

 

Not only is there a big name as writer, there are some fairly big names (in terms of the ISCFC) in the cast too. Leaving aside the star for the moment, Stilts is Seth Green, almost unrecognisable with a nose which must have had some surgery done to it before his first appearance on “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” a couple of years later; Nick is Peter Billingsley, known to a generation as the kid from “A Christmas Story”; and Laurie is AJ Langer, also in “My So-Called Life” and now a member of the British aristocracy, being married to a Duke or Earl or some such nonsense. Representing the game manufacturers are John de Lancie (aka Q from “Star Trek”) and Norbert Weisser, one of those fine “that guy” actors. But our star is a Full Moon regular who’d go on to bigger things, Megan Ward. Her first role was in “Crash and Burn”, but she also appeared in “Trancers” 2 and 3 before a long career in TV and the movies (including “Dark Skies”, “Politically Correct Party Animals” and several years on “General Hospital”). She didn’t make it as far as Goyer did from these humble beginnings, but it’s always nice to see a success story.

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One film I didn’t mention in the comparisons was “Pulse”, the Japanese modern horror classic that inspired a decent US remake. That was about the way technology is taking over our lives and the way we communicate – represented by people literally disappearing after viewing a certain website. How that movie succeeded was by showing you the wider world, but only at the corner of the frame – so the main couple would be driving along, and you’d notice there was no-one else on the road. Chilling and brilliant. Now, “Arcade” could’ve been, with a tweak or two, on that level, but it thinks too small, with the only people who disappear the handful of kids present in the arcade that night. It’s still a pretty cool idea for a movie, though. I did like the slasher film structure to it all, though, and thinking about it, it bears more than a passing resemblance to “A Nightmare On Elm Street” (apart from the gore and all that).

 

It’s definitely not without its problems, though. Firstly, why does a virtual reality machine need plugging into a TV? It’s all in the headset, right? Well, it’s so characters can take off the headset yet the evil VR can still taunt them, but it’s kind of an odd choice. And then there’s the motivation of the VR itself…when you learn just what they used to build it, you’ll groan, partly because it’s ludicrous, but mostly because it makes no sense. The programmer is entirely oblivious to the fact his new game is actually abducting people from reality – seems a weird functionality to build into an arcade machine, but whatever – and the corporation itself is more incompetent than evil, leaving you with no-one to root against. I’m not sure how much to blame Albert Pyun, because this movie features actual establishing shots and other things he’s normally dead set against – this doesn’t feel like one of his, which is a substantial compliment.

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And the game itself! We barely see any of it for the first hour, a sensible choice, and then the entirety of the last act is set inside the game, with its mix of real locations and awfully cheesy CGI. I guess the curse of films about computer games is games age really really quickly, so they end up looking stupid, often by the time they’re released. This one had such awful special effects that they pulled it from release to re-do them, and it’s not like the re-done versions are much good either, so I’m sort of fascinated how bad they could have been.

 

Factor in an extremely heavy-handed message (“glued to the tube” is used to describe modern society), and the way the game mirrors the name of the arcade for absolutely no reason whatsoever, and you’ve got a film that’s…well, it’s not great, that’s for certain, but there’s a darkness to certain sections of it that hints at the potential for a much more interesting story, and that means you can’t completely dismiss it. Goyer apparently wrote a sequel that never got made, a fact I’m surprised Charles Band (Full Moon head honcho) didn’t rectify when he realised he had a script from an A-lister on his desk that he could use for free.

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Rating: thumbs in the middle

Vampire Journals (1997)

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So we come to the end of another movie series, one that I can call solidly above average. Although I don’t pretend to know how the movie business works, I can imagine writer/director Ted Nicolaou being slightly annoyed that his “Subspecies” series was on hiatus (by the time this was filmed, it had been five years since the last time he’d worked on them) and decided to tell a story in the same universe, hoping to get some money from Full Moon to finish the story of Radu Vladislas off properly. Or something completely different, as I would like to point out my hit-rate for theories about why some movies get made is pretty low.

 

Should you be interested in that sort of thing, there’s some continuity fun here. What happens at the end (no spoilers) indicates that this movie probably comes after “Subspecies 4”, chronologically speaking; but there’s also an actor in this whose character died in that movie, so if you think it’s the same character then the opposite could also be said. If you factor in the woman our “hero” kills in this movie’s distant past, who turns up as the same character with the same name in part 4, then all bets are off. Perhaps I should be happy as this doesn’t even crack the top ten of Full Moon’s crimes against continuity?

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Ash is largely the same fellow we met in the last (next?) movie, the curly haired Byronesque music-loving vampire, who runs a brothel / casino in an unnamed city, and has a coterie of vampires and loyal humans around him. There’s Iris (Starr Andreef), his human assistant and the front for his businesses; Cassandra (Ilinca Goia), his protégé and favourite for over 2 centuries; and Dimitri (Mihaili Dinvale, who was also the doctor in “Subspecies 4”) as a rather sad vampire. The one interesting thing the movie does, right off the bat, is establish Ash’s relationship with the people around him as less master and servant, and more drug dealer and junkie. He has a number of vampires staying with him, who give him half their worldly goods in return for privacy and a supply of willing participants in blood-draining. They don’t venture outside much, but this relationship doesn’t really endear them to their benefactor and this all gives an interesting flavour to proceedings.

 

Into this mix come two people. First up is Sophia (Kirsten Cerre), a concert pianist who Ash hears and falls in love with. She’s sort of okay, if perhaps the stupidest character in this entire series, and the other one is Zachary (David Gunn). He’s a vampire who wants to wipe other vampires out, and specifically Ash and all of his bloodline, because of them killing his wife centuries ago. Thanks to a horribly flat and pointless voiceover, we discover he’s travelled the world and killed many, only to realise the futility of his quest (they get created quicker than he can kill them). He carries on anyway, and here is where what is otherwise an excellent movie hits its first roadblock. Whether it’s his sub-par acting or the script, Zachary is a dour, misery-driven character who acts like his wife was killed last week and not during the Renaissance – watching him is d-u-l-l. Ash, on the other hand, is playful, violent, warm and a lot of fun to watch; the movie spends more time with Ash than it does with Zachary, too, so the inescapable conclusion is you’d rather see the bad guy triumph. And he’s definitely a bad guy, too, tricking people and killing those who try and double-cross him, just so there’s no doubt. But he’s still a much more interesting character, which is perhaps the result of being numbed to vampiric atrocities by shows like “The Vampire Diaries”, where mass murderers are the romantic leads.

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Zachary rescues Sophia from Ash, so there’s a love triangle element to it too. If you were wondering why I called Sophia stupid, well, after being frightened half to death by Ash stalking her in the streets, appearing in the mists in front of her, and so on; and then being warned by Zachary to not mess with Ash as he’s a bad guy, she’s invited to play a solo recital for Ash, at his club, by Iris, to which she immediately and gleefully accepts. Seriously? Come on, Sophia, show some instinct for self-preservation! So, she’s trapped by Ash, Zachary tries to work out a way to free her and kill him, and the movie rolls along.

 

The one thing all these movies nailed was the atmosphere. Old Romania is the perfect location for a proper vampire story, and the sets are all superb, giving the feeling of the classic vampire stories, before more modern concerns took over (“Twilight”, comedy horror movies and so on). Something about the way all five were made has given them a small, but extremely vocal, fanbase. The large underground den which is where most of the action takes place was obviously a budget choice, but it works too (even if they could have done with stretching their wings a little). It’s a strong, tightly made movie with a decent plot.

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This wouldn’t be a Full Moon review without multiple timeline complaints. The sword which Zachary has is the Blade of Laertes, which Ash lost 700 years ago. Bummer, right? But in “Subspecies 4”, which came before this in the timeline, he has it. Now, this is minor compared to the stuff at the top of the page, but it’s the same writer and director, and if he can’t be bothered to get stuff like this right, then it’s a legitimate worry that he cared equally little about the rest of the little moments that go towards making a great film.

 

Add in a double bummer of an ending – the last line before fade to black is “her life, like mine, would be an endless nightmare” and you’ve got a curious movie. Vampirism is absolutely not seen as a good thing in these movies, even the good guys kill occasionally for food, and their weaknesses are many. So I can understand why Sophia (and Michelle in “Subspecies”) didn’t want to become vampires, and think Radu and Ash should’ve picked more willing participants, of which there must be many. Hell, put an advert in the paper!

 

Final final thought: how big is the candle bill for the average vampire?

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Rating: thumbs up