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).

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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

Subspecies 4: Bloodstorm (1998)

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I was about to do our traditional “we come to the end of another series” opening to this review, but it’s not quite true. For no good reason, Ted Nicolaou made another vampire movie a few years before this called “The Vampire Journals” (entirely unrelated, I’m sure, to both the popular “Vampire Diaries” books that had been published several years before, and “Interview With The Vampire”), starring former British sitcom actor Jonathan Morris as Ash. Nicolaou inserted a throwaway line in that movie about how Ash’s creator was Radu, thus providing a link; so when it came time to making what has been, to date, the last “Subspecies” movie, it was simple to slot Ash into a supporting role. If I’d been sensible, I’d have watched them in order of release, but so be it.

 

A hearty BOOOOOOOOOOOO too this movie, as it joins the tradition of “kill the cast members we didn’t want / couldn’t afford to bring back, before the movie starts”. A young woman is driving down a small road, and glancing over to the side sees the crashed car that was taking our heroes away at the end of the last movie. The US Embassy guy (who is, amusingly, referred to that way in the extra features by Denice Duff, as if he wasn’t worth being remembered), Rebecca (Michelle’s sister), and the random local they rescued from the castle, all survived a vampire attack but couldn’t survive an old car and the Romanian highway system. The rescuer, Ana (Ioana Abur), finds Michelle, alive, in her bodybag, says “I’m a doctor, I can help”, bundles her in the back of her car and drives her away.

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And a second hearty BOOOOOOO when we discover just where this doctor works and who her boss is. Ana is a doctor at the Vitalis Institute, which specialises in blood disorders and cleaning the blood of debauched rock stars; also, the boss, Dr Niculescu, is creepy as hell, knows about vampires and the Bloodstone, and can apparently cure Michelle so she can walk around in the daylight. This is such a colossal coincidence that it sort of ruins what comes after, and the original script had the surviving car of people searching for a doctor who might be able to help Michelle and taking her there. This would have at least made sense, but as it was six years since the last instalment had been filmed and the other actors had moved on, this was the substitution we got.

 

Want one more BOOOOOOOO? If you’d like to cast your mind back to the end of part 3, you’ll remember Radu, on fire due to the sun’s rays, shot with silver bullets multiple times, fall off the side of the castle only to land on a bunch of spikes and remain there. The last scene was the blood dripping down and creating a Subspecies, so it was certainly left open to a part 4. But…the Subspecies were clearly expensive to animate, so they don’t show up; what we do get is Radu burning for a bit, then falling off the spikes and landing in a stream, where he’s able to get up, pick up the Bloodstone and get himself to safety, recovering fully by that evening. It’s even cheesier than those old 1940s serial cliffhangers, where you’d see a plane fly into a cliff but in the next episode they’d tell you “no, they totally swerved at the last second and everyone is fine”.

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So, Radu goes to Bucharest and meets up with Ash, his former “protégé”, who’s been running Radu’s family businesses there for a century (a casino, a brothel) along with his own protégé, Serena. The conflict is obvious and immediate, and while he’s dealing with them, we get Michelle dealing with the lunatics at the Institute. The Bloodstone finally becomes important to the plot (it can help humans to become immortal, maybe), and when Radu discovers where his favourite woman is being held, things really kick off. The thing is, I know I’ve just mocked the setup of this movie, but the central meat of the plot is really strong – Radu is a great vampire, the relationships are believable, and while it’s all a bit obvious, sometimes obvious is good.

 

While the idea behind the movie is strong, sometimes the execution fails a little. The endless supply of lit candles in ancient tombs that no-one goes in, once you notice it, becomes a Rocky Horror-style moment of audience interaction; why 1875 is on the Vladislas tomb when the youngest son, Radu, is a thousand years old; but it’s not all trivial stuff. Marin, the cop from part 3 we all loved, is back…sort of. He gets turned into a vampire by accident and then is on screen a few times, in footage I’d bet was filmed back at the time of part 3 and spliced into this, and it’s just filler – a poor ending for a fun character. Then there’s Michelle’s wildly changing moods. She hunts and kills, but every time is guilty about it afterwards; and then while Radu confronts Ash, she’s on Radu’s arm, smiling as if she’s finally on board for evil. Minutes later, Radu is throwing her around as if she’s there against her will. I think she’s by and large excellent in this series (and has one of the all-time great looks to be a vampire), but something was off here.

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Anders Hove, playing Radu, is the strongest part of this movie by a distance. His threat to the staff of the Institute is genuinely terrifying, and knowing what we do about how tough it is to kill him, even the most well-organised attack is probably going to fail, badly. The final battle, while a bit confusing in terms of where everyone is and where the fight is taking place, is good too, even if the various plot strands never really came together. Although that looked like Bergman compared to the very ending, a voiceover which basically admitted “yup, we didn’t really finish this one, sorry”.

 

This has been a frustrating series. The atmosphere is superb, none of the self-referential comedy that spoils so much modern horror, and the plot is interesting and well done too. But it doesn’t feel like four movies worth of it! “Some girls go on holiday to Romania, one of them gets turned into a vampire, the head vampire guy falls in love with her, she tries to escape”. I’m not leaving a lot out there, either.

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Long-term readers will remember me saying this about many different Full Moon movies, so I appreciate it’s a bit boring. Perhaps (after “The Vampire Journals”) we’ll have another long break from reviewing their stuff, because this feeling they’ve made a little go a long way, but gradually alienated all but their hardest hardcore fans, is difficult to shift.

 

Rating: thumbs down

Bloodlust: Subspecies 3 (1994)

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Full Moon Entertainment had a deal with Paramount, to produce low-budget but still decent entertainment for their home video section, along with the occasional cinema release. Paramount got more stock for their catalogue, Full Moon got financing and distribution. This was a sweet deal, but with changes in the market, Paramount cut ties finally in 1995. Full Moon were going to make two movies for them for proper cinema release, but Paramount cancelled that deal, and they could see the writing on the wall. So they took what were going to be higher budget shoots, for “Subspecies 2” and “Puppet Master 4”, and got those crews to make two cheaper direct-to-video movies each.

 

This caused a problem for the subject of this review, and it’s the same one “Puppet Master” 4 and 5 had, which is they didn’t bother writing enough plot for 2 movies. Michelle, the beautiful new vampire (Denice Duff) was re-captured in the terrible non-ending of part 2, then spends the entirety of part 3 in the thrall of Radu (Anders Hove), vacillating between wanting to learn all the powers of being a vampire, and wanting to die. Her sister Rebecca (Melanie Shatner) and Mel, the guy from the US Embassy (Kevin Spirtas) sort of flirt with each other; and replacing the comic relief Professor is a comic relief cop, Lieutenant Marin (Ion Haiduc, a decent actor considering it’s not his first language). Radu’s mother, an immortal witch I guess, doesn’t like Michelle so there’s going to be a showdown between mother and son.

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Here’s how they could have done it. Michelle escapes the castle at the beginning of part 2 and calls her sister. She then gets recaptured by Radu and this training / indoctrination from part 3 starts. Rebecca arrives, then meets up with the guy from the Embassy and a local cop, and the three of them try to track down Radu. They find out about the professor but perhaps there’s a confrontation at his office, as our heroes get the information they need but the Prof still dies. All this while, Michelle sees a chink in the mother-son armour, so starts criticising her to Radu, which leads to their eventual confrontation. A tooled up and prepared Rebecca turns up at the castle, ready to fight for Michelle.

 

Okay, I’m not a scriptwriter, and I hate armchair-quarterbacks when it comes to movies, but the above is just an example of how to fit the decent bits of plot from the last two movies into one. I’m not saying “Subspecies 3” is full of padding, necessarily, it’s just full of not-terribly-interesting stuff, and as neither film is very long (80 minutes each) there could be one very good movie to be made out of these two okay ones.

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I think I understood what the movie was going for, but I think they let themselves down a little. Take Radu and his Mummy – the sole foreshadowing for them having their final “argument” is a few crossed words earlier on, so given how devoted he was towards her, it felt like it came out of nowhere. And Michelle didn’t sell the conflict between wanting to become a proper vampire and wanting to die / escape; the idea was good (if beyond played out) but the execution was weak.

 

Of course, it’s a bit “Beauty And The Beast” as well, with Anders Hove occasionally nailing the performance. He seems to have forgotten how to act since part 1, though, and he really hams it up here. I never really got that he was as in love with her as his actions indicate, but he tries I suppose. A lot is made by this movie’s defenders of its tragic love story, but she’s certainly never in love with him and he vacillates between extreme love and “I’m just off to murder your family and friends now, see you in a bit”.

 

The special effects are a mix of brilliant and terrible, with little in between. Radu’s face and fingers are excellent, and the various death scenes are gory and look convincing. However, the shadow effect, used to decent effect in part 2, is awful here. I think they might have used proper lighting to create shadows in that one, but in this the money must have gone so it was all done via the medium of animation, and looks terrible.

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Still, I have to give them credit. The Subspecies and the Bloodstone actually appeared useful, right at the end (well, the Subspecies themselves are in about 1 minute per movie, nice work if you can get it). I don’t know. I’ll leave the discussion of how they left Radu at the end of this movie in my discussion of part 4, should you wish to join me.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Bloodstone: Subspecies 2 (1993)

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The sequel to “Subspecies” is intriguing, for several reasons. First up is the name. In the special features which Full Moon used to put at the end of all their VHS tapes (and subsequent reissues, I think they’ve stopped doing it for new stuff as a matter of course though), we found out from part 1 that the titular creatures were the little gargoyle-looking fellows that evil vampire Radu could create from his own blood – or possibly finger ends, it was never really clear. Anyway, one would expect a movie named after the blighters to have them in it, from time to time. Well, apart from the “previously on Subspecies” recap, which is done with in two minutes, we get nary a single sighting – they even made it to the movie’s poster, indicating head honcho Charles Band’s love of all things miniature was not to be thwarted by something as insignificant as them not being in it.

 

So for those of you keeping score at home, evil vampire Radu had been decapitated, staked and then just left in the middle of the floor, while good vamp Stefan and his love Michelle, who’d been bitten by both brothers, went for a sleep in a nearby coffin. The subspecies helped Radu’s head back near his body and removed the stake, and after a surprisingly good re-attaching effect, Radu’s back! Michelle sensed danger or couldn’t sleep or something, so went for a stroll (with the Bloodstone, which Stefan had liberated at the end of part 1) and while she was off, Radu staked Stefan who just immediately turned to ash. He wasn’t bothered about coming back for the sequel, and neither was original Michelle actress Laura Tate, replaced by Denice Duff.

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A brief aside – Tate was an atypical, and therefore interesting, horror heroine. Short hair, tomboyish look, remained fully clothed throughout, smart and resourceful. Duff is much more stereotypical – long curly hair, gorgeous, flowing dresses, a couple of “tasteful” nude scenes, and doesn’t have the sense she was born with (okay, that’s down to the script, I guess). I think Duff fits the atmosphere much better, as it turns out, but it would have been nice to see Tate have a go at the sequel.

 

When she discovers her boyfriend has been turned into dust, Michelle hightails it to Bucharest with nothing but a few crumpled dollars, her passport and the Bloodstone. Because Radu can turn into a shadow now and cover large distances in no time at all, he follows along, as it turns out his Mum, the evil witch, is still alive, living in a Bucharest cellar, looking like a particular ugly and dried-up zombie.

 

She, for reasons the movie never bothers to clue us in on, wants the Bloodstone. I mentioned in my review of part 1 that you could remove it from the plot and everything would be exactly the same, and that criticism can also be levelled at part 2. Apart from Michelle drinking a few drops of blood from it, no-one uses it for any purpose and it doesn’t seem to confer any power or other abilities on anyone. It’s not even really a MacGuffin – those drive the plot, this is completely secondary to it. Oh, there’s some reference to it containing “the blood of the Saints”, but this is never elaborated on either.

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Michelle calls her sister Rebecca (Melanie “daughter of William” Shatner), who drops everything to fly out from the USA to Romania, and the rest of the movie is Rebecca, the hot guy from the US Embassy, and a weird old professor called Popescu, traipsing round the sights we remember from the first movie. That sounds a little dismissive, and it shouldn’t be – while I think Michelle loses her mind a little quickly, phoning her sister up and then doing everything in her power to not see her, it’s a decent, solidly plotted movie.

 

The Romanian locations are used to the fullest, with more stuff filmed in the centre of Bucharest this time. It was a fascinating looking city, and it again gives what was a fairly low-budget movie a boost. Strong camerawork too, with some lovely shots (particularly of Duff, who just has the perfect look for this movie). And the acting is good too! Even the people you’d expect to be weaker, like the Professor, are fine, and there’s a nice Full Moon strand of humour running through things too.

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So, aside from an irrelevant title and a non-MacGuffin, we’re onto another winner. Oh, I suppose the ending is a bit dumb, but I’ll leave you to ponder that one for yourselves (I will say, though, “why didn’t they wait inside, together?”).

 

Rating: thumbs up

Subspecies (1991)

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As our review series have headed down some weird paths (the recent swathe of “erotic” “thrillers” has been tough on us) it’s always nice to get back to one of the ISCFC’s grand projects – this time, it’s Full Moon Entertainment. Charles Band’s merry group, while not always right at the top of the quality tree, are like Shakespeare writing for Tarantino compared to some of the movies we’ve watched recently, so I hope you like this review series of “Subspecies” (which will stretch to four movies and a sort-of spinoff that didn’t go anywhere).

 

Before we get going, because it’s 100% going to be the thing you’re most impressed by with this movie, let’s talk filming locations. There may have been a small handful of others, but this is billed as the first movie allowed to film in post-communism Romania, and the free access they had to some amazing locations makes it looks like the budget was ten times bigger than it really was. Old ruins, amazing castles, forests that look nothing like anywhere in the USA – it’s a bit of a visual treat. Apparently, all the sequels are also filmed in Romania, so there’s no dread with the idea of watching four more of these.

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Radu is an evil vampire, the result of a dalliance between the vampire king (Angus “Phantasm” Scrimm, here with a magnificent mane of hair) and a witch. He wants the Bloodstone, which is in the possession of his father, but the King quite sensibly realises Radu is a bad ‘un, so calls his other son to come home and take over the family business. Here’s where the Subspecies comes in – the King traps Radu in a cage, so he chops his own fingers off and the fingers turn into little creatures, freeing him, stealing the Bloodstone and allowing him to kill his father. One might think that the King would know his son had those sort of powers, but his complete lack of self-defence indicates not. It’s also sort of weird that this entire movie series is named after the monsters created by Radu’s blood, bit like calling The Wizard Of Oz “Flying Monkeys”.

 

The good brother Stefan doesn’t show up immediately, although it’s pretty obvious who it is, when he interacts with our main characters, three college students, Michelle, Lilian and Mara. Mara is Romanian and met the other two at college in the USA, and they’re off to Transylvania to do a bit of study into the local folklore. So they go to stay at the mysterious castle, there’s friendly locals and mysterious ones, a few vampires, all that good stuff that a movie like this needs. Radu takes a shine to Lilian (who, to be fair isn’t aware of his existence), and Stefan and Michelle are making googly eyes at each other from early on.

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I like the use of local customs to inform the plot. While it’s not the first movie to be set in Transylvania, the use of the real location, along with the reason for their annual festival (the murder of an invading Turkish army by vampires, back in medieval times) gives it a fresh flavour, I think. It’s basically a tightly made, fun movie, with decent special effects and totally serviceable acting.

 

Respect to director Ted Nicolaou as well. He shot local stuntmen in rubber suits as the Subspecies, and put them against giant sets to make them look small, but when he noticed that they were a bit rubbish at acting, replaced them with models and special effects. I admire a guy who’s prepared to cut his losses when he knows something isn’t working. We’ve already covered a number of his movies for Full Moon – “TerrorVision”, “Bad Channels” and “Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys”, and he’s among their strongest directing assets.

 

Time for the traditional “it’s not all good news” paragraph! The Bloodstone is sort of a MacGuffin when the movie doesn’t need one – in other words, you could completely remove it and the end result would be exactly the same. I think it’ll do something in one of the later movies, but that’s no excuse. Radu was a bit too Nosferatu-y, and while the end fight was decent, his little post-movie wink to the camera was just the sort of garbage which makes people not want to watch sequels.

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Anyway, this is a surprisingly good movie, and I’d definitely recommend it. Go to www.fullmoonstreaming.com and pay a low low monthly price for access to all their movies and behind-the-scenes videos, why don’t you (I am not getting paid for this recommendation, or any other one I give, although I’m totally happy to be bribed if you make movies and have cash).

 

Rating: thumbs up

Shadowzone (1990)

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When you have a problem with the fundamental premise of a movie, it needs to be really good to get over that hump and be enjoyable. Sadly, “Shadowzone” is not that movie. I mean, it’s got James Hong (aka David Lo Pan off of “Big Trouble In Little China”) and a woman who’s the spitting image of the curly haired one from “One Tree Hill” in it, so that’s nice, but it’s…well, let’s see what you think.

 

A NASA agent has been sent to a research laboratory to investigate the death of one of the scientists there – standard procedure, apparently. Upon arriving at this lab, he discovers it almost empty, as seismic activity caused a cave-in / partial evacuation. Why the agent wasn’t aware of this millions of dollars worth of damage is a question sadly left unanswered. Come on, Mark! This is only the first hurdle, you’ve got to power through this review! Anyway, this – again – high end NASA research base has got a hillbilly repair man, an even hillbilly-er lunch-lady, and three scientists. Because it bears printing more than once – there is less than no chance of NASA having a centre that looks anything like this.

What? Oh, this corpse? Are we still talking about that?

What? Oh, this corpse? Are we still talking about that?

To say their attitude towards the rather gruesome looking death of their colleague is casual is to understate it somewhat. His mutilated body is just lying there, and they let their pet monkey stand on the end of the table while they’re inspecting him. Lo Pan couldn’t give a toss! Based on what happens in the rest of the movie, these attitudes make absolutely no sense.

 

CAROLINE AWARD! Our trophy for movies with full-frontal male nudity is back (if any readers want to design a little graphic of an award, I’d be…well, surprised I have that many readers) Now, this movie does have boobs in it, but nothing below the female waist, so it counts. We see this clothes-absent gent in a tube, as the experiments the scientists are conducting involve severing one part of the brain from the others, and putting the test subject in a super-deep sleep. This opens up a portal to another dimension, obviously, and on setting 31F some mysterious and extraordinarily violent creature who the scientists have named “John Doe” came back through.

X marks the "spot"

X marks the “spot”

John Doe is a creature who can see your fears, or your dreams, or something, and uses this to change its appearance. So what we have is a very very poor man’s version of “The Thing”, as the base’s electronics are shot, meaning no-one can get out or communicate with the outside world (it’s all underground). Everyone is kind enough to split up at the first possible opportunity, to make it easier for Doe to pick them off, and the two hillbillies are kind enough to provide comic relief. When the characters’ biggest fears were being realised, I said to no-one “wow, that monster is clever – my biggest fear is a dull, slow movie”.

 

I think I’ve given you enough of a flavour of what this is all about, so now it’s time to answer why I didn’t even agree with the premise, along with the many issues of execution. Why would NASA have a research station in what looks like a very badly maintained Cold War bunker? There’s no reason at all for them to be underground, for one. Why would it be so poorly staffed? Why does a base with four people need a cook? Why does no-one care about the death of their co-worker? What’s the end-game of the people who are covering up the presence in our dimension of some evil dream-monster? Why did John Doe come to our dimension in the first place?

Jazz hands!

Jazz hands!

And so on, and so on. It’s not a terribly made film – writer/director JS Cardone is perfectly serviceable at the directing part of the job – but it just feels like it was made without any thought for how they were going to end it. And much like just about every single other movie from Full Moon (yes, this has Charles Band as producer), it could lose the middle half-hour and no-one would miss a thing. While the special effects are fun, with real grotesque models, the music is not, supplied by Charles’ brother Richard – you know, the guy who makes the same soundtrack over and over again. Perhaps that’s literally the case, as it’s so dull to listen to that my brain tries to forget it immediately.

 

I feel bad – reading other reviews of this in case there was something I missed (okay, to rip people off) I found a series of people who enjoyed its low-rent trashy fun, who liked the acting and thought it was okay to see a worse version of “The Thing”. Perhaps I suffer from some very specific form of anhedonia, related to the movies of Charles Band? “Shadowzone” was just no good though, and I come back to “what was the endgame of the scientists?” It feels like they shot the first half of the movie then had some catastrophe and had to completely alter the second half. Or that this movie company’s successes are accidental and garbage like this is their baseline

 

Rating: thumbs down