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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Daylight’s End (2016)

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In April last year, I reviewed “One In The Chamber”, a fun thriller starring Cuba Gooding Jr and Dolph Lundgren, and said director William Kaufman was one to look out for. I, of course, promptly forgot all about him until the other day, when I noticed he had a new movie out, so here we are.

 

It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller, which is right up there with my favourite genres – that, martial arts tournaments, and anything set in deep space, are probably the top three. In a surprisingly ballsy opening, we’re introduced to our main character, Rourke (Johnny Strong), as he does some pretty weird stuff – locks the door to a freezer that clearly has someone in it, then chains it to his car, drags it out in the sun and opens it. Vampires! Well, they’re sort of vampires, perhaps a bit more like fast zombies with an extreme sun allergy, but it looks like there was an outbreak and it pretty rapidly took over the world.

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The first five minutes or so are silent, just Rourke trying to survive in scenes which do double duty as most of the exposition you need, and it’s really good to see a director this confident about their material and ability to shoot it. Having seen about eight hundred B-movies in the last four years, finding a director who actually knows what they’re doing is rare indeed. If you’re at all like me, you’ll be able to tell very early on if a movie is going to be good or not, and I felt like I was in safe hands with this one.

 

Anyway, Rourke saves a group of cops – well, not quite a group at the end of the battle – from a gang of scavengers, who just want to do some raping, murdering and stealing but are stopped in a hail of bullets. He and Sam (Chelsea Edmundson) go back to the cops’ base, which appears to be their old station house, complete with cells where everyone sleeps at night for safety – he’s promised food, fuel and ammo, but gets sucked into helping. The two names you’ll recognise are Lance Henriksen (“Knights”, “House 3”) as the head of the little group, and Louis Mandylor (“Champions”) as his son – there was another son, who was engaged to Sam, but he was killed in a previous raid.

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Someone discovers a cargo plane, so the plot then becomes rounding up all the survivors and getting them from where they are to the airfield, all during daylight hours. There’s debates about whether to go or not, debates about how to do it, and things are sped up when along comes an “Alpha”, a vampire who’s capable of higher thought and is organising the vampires, blocking the road to delay their escape. He’s fixated on Rourke, so it seems, and it’s these tensions that drive the main narrative of the movie. Rourke sticks around partly to help them, partly so he can have a chance at the Alpha (the fixation goes both ways).

 

Let’s be fair before we get to the gushing praise, this isn’t the most original idea in the world. It’s healthy doses of “I Am Legend”, “Assault On Precinct 13”, “Mad Max 2” and “28 Days Later”; crossed with any of a hundred 80s Italian post-apoc movies, where the loner hero meets a pretty girl, or a kid, and gets dragged into a battle, learns a bit of humanity, before wandering off at the end and leaving the main female cast member looking wistfully at his departing car.

 

All that is standard, but it works. What I did really like was the dealing with the debates on how to tackle the situation, as they actually seemed like well thought-out positions and not just empty words. The addition of the Alpha to proceedings gave it an interesting flavour, too.

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It’s in visuals and atmosphere where “Daylight’s End” really excels, though. We know that daylight is safety for the humans, and night is death, but so much of the movie takes place in the murk, as if the characters are trying to drag themselves out of the darkness but can’t succeed fully. The characters try to make connections with each other, try to re-forge the bonds of friendship, but it’s as if they realise that all this is pointless and the ultimate aim of their journey (a settlement way out in the desert, that can’t be reached in one night’s travel, protecting it from vampire attack) is futile and about as likely to be safe as any other refuge in any other post-apocalyptic movie. There’s not so much as a whisper of levity here, and the characters are tired and filthy and one gets the feeling they just want it all to be over, one way or the other.

 

If you read anything else about this movie, you’ll read a lot about the gunplay, and how it’s much better than your average big-budget action movie. No argument from me on that score, it’s shot very well and the visual and spatial sense of the movie is strong. If I was feeling particularly harsh I’d say there’s perhaps a little too much of it? It’s very long for a B-movie (over 100 minutes) and I wouldn’t have been too upset if they’d trimmed 10 or 15 minutes from it. There’s only so many times you can watch faceless cannon fodder get gunned down in the middle distance before it becomes a bit samey. I also think the Alpha could have done with more development, perhaps cut a few battles and give us a hint of what the vampires do when there’s no human around. Are they completely animalistic? Or is there some sort of society?

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But this is small beer. Johnny Strong, who also composed the soundtrack, is an excellently stoic lead (he’s worked for Kaufman before, but has barely acted in years), Mandylor, Henriksen, Edmundson and the rest of the cast are great, and it’s got an atmosphere you rarely see in lower-budget B-movies. I’m delighted people are giving William Kaufman money to make movies, and I look forward to seeing more of his stuff (I’ll also review some of his older movies, if I get the chance).

 

Rating: thumbs up

Knights (1993)

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Our series on Donald Farmer’s movies will continue – we’re currently keeping our fingers crossed that our efforts to track down a copy of his unreleased-on-video-or-DVD “Space Kid” will come to fruition, and then we can carry on. But in the meantime, ISCFC readers need to know what long-forgotten movies are good or not, so we’ve got work to do.

 

And this brings us back to another ISCFC “favourite”, Albert Pyun. After losing our minds with annoyance at “The Sword And The Sorceror”, we’ve left him alone for a bit, but here we are. It’s got a typical Pyun story behind it, too. After making the surprisingly boring “Cyborg”, Pyun clearly wanted to make a sequel, but the producers decided to go with something people might actually enjoy watching, hiring Elias Koteas and Angelina Jolie. Our Albert wasn’t to be deterred though, and decided to make a couple of cyborg movies anyway, just with different names, which is why we have this and 1996’s “Omega Doom” to enjoy.

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We’re in a typical post-apocalyptic situation – well, I say we are, it’s never really touched on by the movie. Cyborgs and their human slaves raid settlements in order to kidnap people, take them back to their base and drain their blood. The cyborgs have figured out that doing this allows them to live longer, or something, which is actually a pretty cool if impractical idea, given the number of humans this one band of cyborgs gets through in the course of the movie. So, in the middle of a weird fight where the screen is full of dust and you can’t see anything – although we do get a brief cameo from ISCFC Hall of Famer Tim Thomerson, who must have owed Pyun a favour – we meet our hero Nea (kickboxer and her era’s Gina Carano / Ronda Rousey, Kathy Long) and the guy who helps her out, good cyborg Gabriel (Kris Kristofferson).

 

There’s really not a lot more to talk about in terms of plot. The cyborgs are about to invade some town somewhere, and Gabriel was programmed to put a stop to them. There’s an evil creator guy, but he’s only on screen for a few minutes and is clearly there to set up the sequel which never came; and a potentially fascinating subplot where the evil cyborgs say “are we alive?” and start discussing their programming, only to have that entire idea dropped like a hot potato, like a better writer / director had wandered onto the set and filmed that segment. Other than that, it’s the standard hero’s journey, where Nea is trained by Gabriel to take on the big bad.

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That big bad is chief cyborg Job (Lance Henriksen). Henriksen realises how silly this all is and gives it his overacting all, so that’s another mark in this movie’s favour; his henchman is 90s action movie mainstay Gary Daniels, and he’s a little more problematic. Basically, all Job’s lieutenants dress the same, and sort of look the same too (big white guys with stupid hair, and masks covering their faces) so I was under the impression Daniels was killed three or four times. Although one person who couldn’t be accused of looking the same is Kristofferson’s stunt double, who looks a good thirty years younger and has a completely different hairstyle.

 

Our most common complaint about Pyun is his lack of willingness to film transitions, to show how one scene connects to the next. That’s not a problem here, because pretty much nothing happens. Basically the entire second half of the movie is Nea fighting cyborgs and their human lackeys – while some extended fight scenes work due to escalation of the action or through bravura editing / filming techniques, this is just watching an admittedly skilled fighter dispatching hundreds of guys in one of three or so fairly similar ways. There comes a point where you’re begging them to get on with it, to have something else happen, and if Long was a complete non-actor, I’d understand, but she’s really not that bad so some variety would’ve been nice.

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It’s not the worst Pyun movie we’ve ever seen – that’s the three “Nemesis” sequels, in a tie – and it’s always nice to see a woman who looks like she can fight, with an athletic build rather than an impossibly skinny one, but too little happens to make it worth your while.

 

Rating: thumbs down

House 3: The Horror Show (1989)

How shall we describe House 2?

How shall we describe House 2?

If you didn’t have the DVD of this, you’d be forgiven for not realising it was part of the “House” franchise, as it’s just called “The Horror Show” on screen. Plus, it’s got an Alan Smithee writing credit – that being the name used by writers and directors who want their name taken off a film, for whatever reason. “Fun” fact- this is indeed entirely unrelated to the first two films and was only renamed “House 3” for distribution outside the USA. This should be a stinker, right?

Luckily, those same credits give us reason to hope. It stars Lance Henriksen, and reminds us of an era when an odd-looking sorta small guy like him could headline a major studio horror movie, and Deedee Pfeiffer right at the beginning of her career. Chief baddie (because he’s only ever going to be one) is Brion James, one of the all-time great villlains, previously covered by us in “Steel Frontier” . So let’s go!

There are two main things to notice about this film, right from the off. One is, it’s a heck of a lot gorier and less funny than the previous instalments – right at the beginning, Detective Lucas McCarthy (Henriksen) is tracking down serial killer Meat Cleaver Max (James) through a building, and there’s bits of other cops strewn everywhere, with lashings of blood. Two, it’s incredibly similar to “Shocker”, released later the same year. Max is captured, sentenced to death, gets the electric chair , “dies” and then decides to take his revenge. It seems weird, but in a bit of research no-one appears to be blaming anyone for ripping the other off, so perhaps it’s just a bit of electric-powered-murder synchronicity.

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Okay, it’s definitely the least of the House films. It’s basically a traditional slasher movie, with jump scares, long periods where not a lot happens, a main character who’s losing his mind, and has no-one believe him about the bad guy. So far, so ordinary. Also, the body horror special effects look absolutely awful in HD, yet another reason why all 80s horror movies should only be available in VHS-quality.

Brion James is the saviour of this film. He’s an amazing character, and his initial “death” scene is a genuinely over the top, gruesome and frightening moment. As he gets deeper into McCarthy’s mind, we’re treated to one scene where he takes over the TV standup comedy show they’re watching and does a lot of “take my wife, please” style jokes, where the punchline is always murder. Standup’s loss is…nah, he’s awful at it, but the scene is great. He’s another first-ballot ISCFC Hall Of Famer, and according to an interview this was his favourite ever role.

I appreciate “House” was always intended to be an anthology film series, but to have part 3 so different in tone and execution from parts 1 and 2 is still a little odd. Part 2 was pretty much completely a comedy, with comedy leading men in it, but part 3 is a slasher movie with no jokes, apart from ones the characters see on TV. Still, Henriksen plays the harried everyman pretty well, and were it not for the glacial pace of the central section, it would be a decent addition to the series.

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Before we go, a word about how this film is related to “The Evil Dead”. Italy, for many years, was a copyright-free zone – if you had a bootleg CD in the 90s, chances are that’s where it came from. When the first two Evil Dead films were released there, they were renamed “La Casa” 1 and 2, and some scumbag distributor decided that building on the success and quality of those two was easier than starting from scratch, publicity-wise. The “Casa” horror series just continued with a series of entirely unrelated movies (much like the “Zombi” series took Dawn of the Dead as their starting point). That list:

La Casa = Evil Dead (1981)
La Casa 2 = Evil Dead 2 (1987)
La Casa 3 = Ghosthouse (1988)
La Casa 4 = Witchery (1988)
(featuring a between-TV-shows David Hasselhoff and Linda Blair possessed by a demon)
La Casa 5 = Beyond Darkness (1990)
La Casa 6 = House 2: The Second Story (1987)
La Casa 7 = House 3: The Horror Show (1989)

I love it. I love every stupid audience-cheating bit of it, including not using House 1 as part of the series, and having House 2 and 3 in there, despite them not even being related to each other. I want La Casa 8, you guys!

Anyway, House 3, eh? Anybody want us to cover “Shocker” next?

Rating: thumbs down