Felony (1994)

Dear reader, I hope you’re still with me on this final leg of the movies of David A Prior. We’ve only got a few more to go before his ten-year hiatus, and hopefully some of the ones from the end of his career never got official releases so we won’t have to bother reviewing them.

Now, I don’t want to get you too excited, but this might be a genuinely good movie! It’s got a strange premise, actors playing completely against type, lots of scenes of such oddity that they must have been played for laughs, and fun banter between cast members. I know, right? After a miserable last effort, Prior came out all guns blazing here, spent his money wisely, and came out with a winner.

We start off with a “Cops” style reality TV show, where a couple of cameramen are following round a group of cops (and some DEA agents) as they’re about to bust a huge cocaine deal. The cop is worried about the monologue he just performed, and wants a take two, which is a nice touch, but the camera guys are pros and tell him he was great. Bill Knight is the chief camera guy, and he’s played by the great Jeffrey Combs (“Dr Mordrid”, “Abominable”, “From Beyond”, “Lurking Fear”, “Fortress”), who seems to be relishing the opportunity to play a dashing romantic hero.

Anyway, the cops run through the house and find absolutely nothing, but while they’re all stood in the lounge pondering what to do next, they’re set upon by a legion of armed guards (who they completely missed in their apparently not-so-thorough raid of the house) and slaughtered. The only survivors are the two cameramen, who of course caught everything on tape, including main villain Cooper (the great David Warner, “Beastmaster 3”, “Final Equinox”, “Cast A Deadly Spell”). Bill has to go to hospital, so he asks his friend to make sure the video tape is snuck out of the crime scene.

I mentioned casting against type, and we’ve got a couple of beauties coming up. Playing the two cops, whose contribution to the movie is pretty much zero, are Charles Napier and Leo Rossi, both of whom you could consider as part of Prior’s company of players by this point, both of whom far better suited for gruff villainous roles than wise-cracking cops. Also, Napier (who got his start in Russ Meyer movies, I discover) would have been 60 years old when this movie was made, far too old to be a normal beat cop.

When Bill is in hospital, he meets nurse Laura (Ashley Laurence, “Hellraiser”), and despite him being in a rather stressful time of his life, hits on her. Men are scum! I was hoping for a shootout in the hospital, as it looked like we were building for one, but they sensibly decided that “Hard Boiled” was the final word in health-care-facility-based mayhem and didn’t do it.

There are even more characters we’ve not talked about yet! Joe Don Baker, smirking like he can’t quite believe he’s getting paid for this, is a stereotypical Texan who’s also a Fed (working for the Office of Internal…something that starts with an M, I don’t remember), and he wants that tape, almost as much as Cooper’s boss, CIA deputy director Taft (Lance Henriksen, “Hard Target”, “Hellraiser: Hellworld”, also some actually good movies). People double-cross people, get chased through city streets by assassins openly brandishing shotguns, you know, the typical. Oh, and Taft has former Miss Olympia Cory Everson (“Double Impact”) as his arm candy, and I get the feeling she had a larger role that was left on the cutting room floor a little.

Let’s discuss one of the plans of the villains, to get to the other cameraman. He offers to sell the tape to Taft, and gets the cash, but Taft goes to shoot him (you know, like all high-level CIA officials, just murdering American citizens on American soil in broad daylight) and the guy gets away, while being chased by a bunch of assassins, firing indiscriminately into crowds of people. Anyway, he gets away and Taft goes “time for plan B”. So, the camera guy gets back to his apartment, and is unlocking the door when he’s approached by a beggar. He gives the guy some cash, only to get shot four times, nice and quietly, and the beggar to get Taft’s envelope back and slip away. Now, for me, plan B seems a lot more sensible than plan A, and I’d have probably stuck with that one!

The next scene, a little over halfway into the movie, is the biggest indication so far that Prior is having fun with making a movie as deliberately over the top as possible. The camera guy survives being shot four times, but doesn’t go to the hospital or call anyone – he makes it all the way to Bill’s house, way out in the suburbs, and slumps against his front window, getting blood everywhere, before dying in Bill’s arms. Come on! But I guess we’re supposed to believe this is a world where cops are super-bothered about the location of a tape but not remotely interested in the dozens of heavily armed assassins patrolling their streets, so never mind.

If you can wade through the mountains of product placement (Bud Light is favoured), the horrible-looking 90s fake boobs in the strip club scene, and get over the fact that no-one seems to mind that the deputy director of the CIA dresses like a Miami pimp, or watching Jeffrey Combs kick a bunch of ass, then there’s a heck of a lot to enjoy here. Like, a weirdly large amount.

There was a key for me, and it was when there was a three-way car chase. Car 1 is being shot at by car 2, but then car 3 gets involved and poor old Cooper is having to fire both ways to keep alive. This scene is so ridiculous that it has to be played for laughs, a director amping up the tropes of action cinema to see how silly he can make it without it looking too ridiculous. When you see and understand that, the rest of it, including the last half-hour which ratchets up the “wait, that character is a spy too? He got shot that many times and is still alive?” to insane levels, fits into place.

Yes, my friends, David A Prior has come up with an honest-to-goodness gem of 90s action-comedy cinema, and it only took him 30 tries to nail it. He hides it in a movie with a generic title, with its best actors nowhere near the front cover of the VHS tape, with a moderately slow first half-hour more than made up for by its insanely paced second half.

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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Night of the Living Dead 3D: Re-Animation (2012)

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If I was given a time machine, after I’d done all the important stuff (stopping wars, recording the lost episodes of Doctor Who), I’d pop over to Pittsburgh in 1968 and make sure George Romero filed the copyright paperwork for “Night Of The Living Dead”. Due to its seeming public-domain status, it’s been the subject of several remakes, a million ripoffs, and full-length parodies, along with many many awful VHS and DVD releases, both colourised and not. In 2006, we were treated to a 3D remake which I never bothered with because it looked terrible; but 2012 brought us a 3D prequel to that movie, and as it starred Andrew Divoff, Jeffrey Combs and Sarah Lieving, I decided to check it out.

 

Divoff is Gerald Tovar Jr, the boss of a cemetery / crematorium / undertaker’s. We know he knows about his rather unusual problem from the very beginning, as the local Health & Safety Inspector is bitten by a zombie just wandering round the graveyard, and there’s quite a lot of the movie which is sort of farcical, as Gerald runs round closing doors and stopping people from walking down certain corridors and so on. He’s got a few staff members – the possibly necrophiliac DyeAnne, pothead Russell, and Aunt Lou; and into this mix walk two people. There’s new hire Cristie (Lieving, whose character is named after Romero’s wife, fact fans), a mortuary expert; and the other Tovar brother, Harold (Combs), down on his luck and needing some cash.

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So you’ve got live bodies and a potentially enclosed location. Everything we need for a zombie movie! And here’s where the logic starts fraying round the edges somewhat. Tovar Sr apparently did jobs for the Government, involving the disposal of “unusual” corpses, but the problem is we see lots of communist paraphernalia round the place, and I find it at least a little unlikely that a communist would agree to help the US government, or that they’d want his help in the first place.

 

The second, and far bigger, problem, relates to how the plague spreads. Gerald carries on helping Uncle Sam after his father’s death, but one bodybag leaks green liquid, it falls on a corpse, that corpse reanimates. The movie’s blurb calls Gerald pyrophobic, but the only explanation the movie gives us is that he can’t work the oven (perhaps I missed that bit?) So, he’s got a basement room absolutely packed with rotting corpses, which he videotapes to see if any of them start coming back. If he sees movement, he blows their head off, job done. Now, peeling that onion, why doesn’t he get the oven fixed, or just ask someone else to operate it? Why doesn’t he decapitate everyone who passes through his doors, so to speak, preventing this being a problem? Why not chuck the corpses in a lime pit or something?

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If you can ignore this logic, there’s a surprising amount to like. Harold is a right-wing conspiracy nut, and loves “Fixd News” with its most famous correspondent, the Alaskan platitude-spewing “Sister Sara”. As well as being the second movie we’ve covered with a Sarah Palin parody in it (the other being the tedious “Iron Sky”), she’s another ISCFC link, being played by the great Denice Duff, last seen by us in the “Subspecies” sequels, and looking like she’s not aged a day in the intervening 20 years. There’s a ton of references to Romero and the previous movies in the series, which is done with a nice amount of tongue-in-cheek; and there’s a scene where DyeAnne, Russell and Cristie smoke weed after embalming a corpse, which is pretty funny.

 

Divoff and Combs are B-movie royalty and do their parts rather well (even if one suspects they could do this in their sleep) and everyone else is fine too. Lieving, though, deserves better. She’s got that combination of talent, physicality (she looks like she could kick ass, in other words) and beauty that mean she ought to be doing roles like this in much bigger budget movies. I mean, it’s nice we get to see her in trash, but it’s time for her to fly!

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I’ve skated round it a bit, but simply put, this is boring. The plot doesn’t really make any sense, and such action as there is is pretty much confined to the last 20 minutes (not enough zombies, guys), with people dying haphazardly and the ending being terrible. That enough bad stuff for you? Okay, more. The special effects are not helped by being in HD – there’s one scene where a zombie’s jaw is punched off but you can still see the actor’s perfectly okay mouth underneath, coated in black paint, for instance.

 

What a shame. I wish they’d doubled down on the comedy personally, or had more zombies in it, or done anything other than what they did with the first hour (which was pretty much nothing). A completely wasted opportunity.

 

Rating: thumbs down

From Beyond (1986)

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It’s something of a surprise to see a film based on a Lovecraft story that captures the spirit of Lovecraft’s writing – not content to hint at the horrors behind the slightly open door, he wanted to throw that door wide open and let you gaze on the creatures he conjured up. This is a story about the opening of that door.

Jeffrey Combs is the guy you call if you want your Lovecraft film to have some pop- after I paused the film to find out, I discovered he’s been in at least 8, and probably more like 12, films based on the work or life of the good ol’ New England racist. He’s Crawford Tillinghast, working at the weird mansion at 666 Benevolent Street on an experiment to stimulate the pineal gland. This gland is, he believes, a former sense organ, and if we can get it going, then we can see…well, beyond. His boss is S&M loving full-on oddball Dr Pretorius (presumably deliberately named after the fantastically camp character from “Bride of Frankenstein”), and unfortunately with their special machine on, the two of them summon / can see a bunch of space-eels, then something else which eats Pretorius’ head.

Because people can’t leave well enough alone, Tillinghast is taken out of Arkham hospital by Dr McMichaels (Barbara Crampton, who was also in “Re-Animator” along with Combs), a famous researcher who is seen as something of a stunt-merchant by the hospital staff, ignoring patient well-being to get big results. Accompanied by cop Bubba Brownlee (the great Ken Foree), the three go back to the mansion to turn on the experiment again, to see if it really works or not.

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Your response to what happens after the first time they turn the machine on will colour your enjoyment of the entire film. It works, but rather than leave – because they proved what they set out to prove – they hang around. Pretorius may not be as dead as his headless corpse would have them believe, the pineal gland stimulation increases McMichaels’ sex drive, Tillinghast gets sicker and Brownlee seems to get a mild headache, although there’s one scene where he runs through a water-filled room in his underwear and we all see rather more of Little Bubba than we ever expected.

While the humans are driving themselves harder, the machine seems to become more powerful, and apart from a too-long detour back to the hospital, this is the main thrust of the film. The really great thing about this film is how it manages to capture the nature of a Lovecraft story, where reality shifts and humanity is seen as a tiny candle in a very very large, very scary darkness. The three central performances are excellent, with top marks going to Barbara Crampton, who has to go from repressed to wildly over the top and manages to nail it all. The special effects, being “real” rather than CGI, are a bit ropey at times, but the transformation of Pretorius is surprisingly gross and well-done. What makes all this more odd is this is the from the director of “Dagon” and producer of “Lurking Fear”, two other Lovecraft adaptations that I really didn’t care for that much.

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So, aside from way too long spent in the hospital in the middle of the film, it’s definitely the best of the Lovecraft adaptations the ISCFC has reviewed so far. Strong acting, good plot, and suitably gross special effects make this a winner.

Rating: thumbs up

 

PS. This is yet another Charles Band / Full Moon film. Those guys really did produce just about every film you could get from a video shop in the 1980s, didn’t they?

Lurking Fear (1994)

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The thing with a film called “Lurking Fear” is you might reasonably expect there to be some lurking fear in it, but this is a film from our friends at Full Moon and the rules are a little different. On the special features at the end of the film, there’s an interview with the writer/director, and he casually dismisses the original HP Lovecraft short story, which he turned into the B plot to an A plot of criminals congregating on a church to find buried loot. Screw you, Lovecraft fans!

The ISCFC has covered a previous version of the exact same short story, 1989’s “Dark Heritage”. That was one of the murkiest, dullest films we’ve seen in many a long day, and this one is both very different and much better. John Martense is a guy just getting out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and to get back on his feet he goes to visit Skaggs, an ex-con friend of his Dad’s who has the other half of a treasure map to his Dad’s last “score”. It’s buried in the grounds of an old church, the same church where generations of Martense family members are buried; a few steps behind John are a group of criminals who are probably owed some money, or respect, or something. The cast is rounded off with a group who knows more than us – Cathryn, a young woman attempting to avenge the death of her sister; a pregnant woman from the local village; and Dr Haggis, who I guess is the local doctor.

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The cast is pretty strong. Skaggs is played by Vincent Schiavelli, who you’ll recognise from a thousand things (most notably for me, one of the teachers in “Better Off Dead”); Cathryn is Ashley Laurence, who was in the “Hellraiser” films and really ought to have been a bigger star; and Dr Haggis is Jeffrey Combs, who admits in the interview video at the end that he’s played a bafflingly large number of doctors in Lovecraft films. The guy playing John Martense is sort of okay, but is very much like a low-rent Josh Holloway (Sawyer from “Lost”).

The original story is about a family who’ve been isolated for so long that they’ve inbred and devolved into ghouls. This keeps the ghouls, but jettisons most of the rest – that John is the last of the Martense line is pretty much incidental to how things turn out. It feels like a very low rent version of “From Dusk Til Dawn” (which it actually predates by a couple of years) more than it does a Lovecraft story. In fact, it’s so unlike the source material that the only reason to keep the name was to draw in rubes like me and my friends, which is a bit bad of Full Moon I think.

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There’s lots of little things which conspire to do this film in. The criminal gang aren’t great, with the female of the group choosing the most weirdly inappropriate times to make her cool quips, and the boss’s London accent slips from time to time. The ghouls are rubbish, not being particularly powerful or scary, more a minor distraction than a worthy foe. People we’re supposed to be cheering on use “faggot” and “queer” casually as insults, which sounds horrible now and must have raised a few eyebrows back then too. Jeffrey Combs, you can tell, did this for a quick buck and you can catch him not giving a damn in the background of a few scenes.

All in all, this is a curious film. There’s a huge amount of potential here, I think, with the cast and source material, and Full Moon at the time making some pretty strong low-budget horror films. I’m going to have to hang this one on the writer / director’s door. This was C Courtney Joyner’s last film as a director, (although he did keep writing, mainly for Full Moon, for years). His cavalier attitude to what is a fairly strong source story is quite amusing, but it would only really be justifiable if he’d made something decent at the end. Sadly, he didn’t.

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Rating: thumbs down

Shark Man (2005)

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Well, three-quarters terror at least

The world of film would truly be a poorer place were it not for the mad scientist. Whether he’s into world domination, money making, revenge or just because those stuffed shirts wouldn’t approve his crazy research methods, mad scientists get the job done in low-budget films. And we have a particularly fine one in this very early SyFy Channel original movie (when it was still called Sci-Fi).

Another uncharted island? You’d think, with this and our recently reviewed “Danger Island”, that you can’t put a boat in the ocean without running into some weird island or other. Anyway, there’s experiments and a casual disregard for human life going on, you know the drill. The people who will be eventually fed to Shark Man are the board of a big pharmaceutical corporation, and their board meeting has normal-looking men, some older, some younger, and the few women who are there are all model-beautiful, of course.

Our stars are William Forsythe as the head of the IT department (I think) and Hunter Tylo as…something to do with research. Who cares? Tylo has spent the last 20+ years on US soap “The Bold and the Beautiful” (1,903 episodes and counting) and despite being 43 when this film was made, has used the finest of the surgeon’s art to try and look like she’s in her late 20s. I only mention it because she’s on the verge of looking a bit…plastic? Anyway, I was writing down “she’s definitely going to do a pose in a bikini at some point, to show she’s still got it” and before the sentence was fully written out, there she was. Not the boldest prediction I’ve ever made.

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Anyway! Jeffrey Combs is the mad scientist, he tried to save his son’s life (cancer) by splicing some hammerhead shark DNA in with his cells. This turns him into some mostly-shark, and Combs’ efforts to save him just seem to involve lots of people getting killed. He used to work for the big pharmaceutical firm – kicked out for his crazy methods, of course – but his discovery interests his old co-workers who fly out to see him.

I don’t know if “The Island Of Dr. Moreau” ever explained how Dr Moreau could afford an island, but this film certainly doesn’t. He has a gigantic research centre, lots of staff paid well enough to kill for him without question, and a seemingly endless supply of human guinea pigs. He’s figured out, with all this experimenting, that if he can get his son to breed with a human, the DNA from that kid would be able to solve all the world’s medical problems…

I feel I have to comment on this. Test-tube babies, artificial insemination, all that good stuff, has been around for decades, and clearly Combs should know about all that. But he’s insistent on his female subject getting inseminated “the old fashioned way”, which just seems wasteful given HIS SON’S A SHARK

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“Mythbusters” has ruined films like this for me, for two big reasons. Firstly, if you’re near an explosion, you don’t just get thrown backwards, the force of it will kill you; and secondly, to stop even the most powerful gun in the world, all you need to do is get more than 18 inches under water (because water doesn’t compress, the bullet uses up all its energy getting through the water almost instantly). The makers of this film weren’t concerned with such details though.

Unsurprisingly, this film was not very good. I can’t say it was terrible, it just sort of existed. All films like this needed to be was entertaining enough to get you to watch the adverts, and then make a few £ on DVD release (under a different name – this one has also been called “Hammerhead”), and I suppose it just about succeeded. It could have done with either being a lot worse or a bit better, though.

Rating: thumbs down