The Skid Kid (1991)

“The Skid Kid” is a masterpiece. Although I don’t often do this, here’s a trailer for it, produced for a 2015 showing at Cinefamily in LA (undoubtedly, the original release never had a trailer), and if you don’t immediately fall in love with it, I’m not sure we can be friends any more.

https://vimeo.com/119506070

This is part of our “Made In STL” season, which is really the “Made In STL” season of the St Louis Video Society, the fortnightly event where cult movie connoisseurs get together and watch some locally-produced gem. We’ve had “Justice: Ninja Style”, two early movies from Eric Stanze, and “Fatal Exam” (well, they can’t all be winners). There’s plenty more to come, so if you’re reading this and want to come along, get in touch with the Society on Facebook.

This movie features two actors who’d go on to real, serious careers. One much more than the other, I’ll admit, but impressive nontheless. Starring as the Skid Kid himself is one Gary Wolf, who’s been in “The Nice Guys” and has lots of bit-part work; and as his romantic rival for the beautiful Stephanie, Scott Wolf. Yes, the Scott Wolf from “Party of Five”, “Perception” and “The Night Shift”, one of the more dependable TV actors of the last 20 years, right at the very beginning of his career. They’re brothers, and in case you were wondering why Stephanie had zero chemistry with either of them, she’s played by their sister Jessica.

One might also wonder why the Wolf kids found themselves in Union, Missouri. Trying to think of something polite to say about it, it looks quite clean, but it’s a small town in the middle of nowhere and given the Wolf kids appear to have grown up in Boston, with Scott going to high school in New Jersey and college in Washington DC, it’s a puzzler. We do know a little about the origin of the movie, though, thanks to an interview with director Glen Gruner done by the great people at www.trashnite.com – he shot a short film on super-8 film as a college project in the early 80s, and in 1989 someone suggested he turn it into a feature, so he took his super-8 camera and did it (the reason there are no interior shots is because super-8 works much better in natural light, take it inside and it gets really grainy). Every frame of the original student film is in the finished product, too, which I like.

So, one day high school everyman Scooter (who’s apparently a distant relative of the famous director, having the surname Spielberg) is walking home from school when he finds a pair of black boots in the middle of a country road – we saw the original owner of them die after being hit by a car – and realises they’re effectively magic boots. So he puts them on and becomes the Skid Kid! This mostly involves sitting down and, via the magic of stop-motion, speeding along the ground. That his boots get worn out but the ass of his jeans doesn’t is one of the many magical things about this wonderful movie. Oh yes, and they’re powered with RC Cola!

Union is a crime-ridden hell-hole so the Skid Kid wants to clean it up, and the cops want to stop him. He doesn’t tell his girlfriend about his alter ego, but the cops figure it out remarkably quickly and are just waiting to catch him wearing his outfit before they pounce.

Apart from the clearly bonkers premise, this could be any one of a hundred ultra-low-budget, vaguely genre related movies produced in the early days of home video. But what sets it apart is its sense of humour (and, you know, having a couple of decent actors in main roles certainly helped too). Because continuity was almost impossible in a movie made over the course of two years with zero budget, and because he knew the kids who were its main audience wouldn’t care, Gruner had a laugh with it, as Skid Kid’s outfit changes, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, in the middle of scenes. Ten different Skid Kids were hired (hence the rather odd credit list for the character) but Gary Wolf was the only one who stuck with it – plus, if your main actor isn’t around but you get the chance to shoot some footage, just put the outfit on anyone who’s roughly the same size!

There’s some classic “Shoot the Parade”, the low budget film trick where they film some small town’s big event and subtly insert themselves into it. Here, it’s a biking carnival, featuring kids on Big Wheels and then teenagers on mountain bikes – the number of limbs that get run over in the free-for-all is horrifying to my 2017 eyes, though. Health and safety, people! Talking of bicycles, while at the carnival, Gruner decided he wanted a scene of a kid doing a really long wheelie to insert in a few scenes. One local volunteered, they went on a back road, shot a really long wheelie, and while Gruner got his name at the time, he’s no idea who the kid was (a kid who almost certainly never watched, or perhaps even knew about, the finished movie).

It’s just delightfully home made, though, with Gruner doing almost all the work (about three-quarters of the credits are fake, to make it look higher-budget than it was – Gruner contacted his friends and asked them if they’d mind their names being used as make-up supervisor, or whatever) and his family acting in a bunch of scenes. His mother is the TV news reporter, for instance. Gary Wolf brought Scott to the set, and got him his one scene, so it might even be “The Skid Kid” that persuaded Scott to give the whole acting thing a try – Gruner says that while the Wolf kids were great to work with, he’d no idea the stars they’d become. There’s a guy in a Halloween mask as an apparently real character, a local fraternity appearing as thugs who just happened to be the nearest frat to where they were filming…there are dozens of little stories like this that contribute to making it the gem it is.

I normally finish these segments off with “good luck with finding a copy, though”, but I don’t have to in this instance, as it’s available on Youtube. The sole distribution it ever got was through Gruner himself, who’d mail out VHS tapes to anyone who asked for $20 a pop, and made a nice profit from it; no special edition blu-ray yet, sadly. But now we can all see it and revel in what is a hidden classic of the video-shop era, made with love and dedication.

Rating: thumbs up

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Fatal Exam (1990)

No matter where you live you’ll have some filmmakers who live and toil in relative obscurity, and St Louis is no different (in fact, almost all our filmmakers do so). Thanks to the St Louis Video Society, we local fans of genre cinema have been treated to some gems in recent months, and their first showing was this – which I had to track down later as I missed it.

Jack Snyder is living the dream in LA, making actual movies with real money and real actors in them – okay, none of them sound like my cup of tea, and he’s fallen into a partnership of sorts with Asylum mainstay Griff Furst, but he’s giving it his best shot. “Fatal Exam” was his first movie, made in 1985 but with post-production not actually finished due to budgetary constraints until 1990 – he didn’t make another full-length til 2007’s “Ghost Image”.

One thing you’ll notice, should you ever choose to watch it, is how long it is. Your average B-movie should, I feel, not go much longer than 75 minutes, because you don’t need to spend quite as much, don’t have to have too much of an act 2, can get straight to the good stuff, but “Fatal Exam” clocks in at a numbing 112 minutes. 112! And it feels it, too.

There’s actually a pretty cool cold open, with an interesting dream sequence and a story about a bad local who’s conspiring to run for President (with Governor Eric Greitens attempting to out-Trump the current President, this feels eerily prescient to our 2017 eyes); but, the vast majority of the movie isn’t anything to do with that, it’s that old standard, the scientific trip to a haunted house. A group of students, who all look at least 30 years old, are tasked by their parapsychology professor to go to a famous mansion and do experiments on the things there.

Back to that 112 minutes, you might think they’d at least fill that time with plot, but they just prove that they ought to have hired an editor. We see the “star” of the movie make breakfast in excruciating detail, and there are multiple scenes which just go on…and on. If there was a reason for it, any reason at all, I’d have given them some leeway, but he waited 5 years to finish off this stuff! Did he think “well, I need every minute of the breakfast scene, screw the length”?

Sorry. It’s just…nothing happens til about 1:15 of this 1:52 movie! There’s one fun guy, the guy who loses his cool really quickly and just starts angrily swearing, but there’s so little else. Watching bad actors who are pretty difficult to look at, wander round a poorly lit, ugly house is really really boring after a while, but there’s really nothing else to do here. There’s a demon in it, and some sacrifice subplot, but it’s way too little, way too late. The “final girl” is a guy here, and he’s as doughy and plain a leading man as we’ve seen in a long time – but as the entire cast have this as their sole credit of any kind in the biz, he’s hard to tell apart from the other doughy and plain cast.4

I’m sorry, dear reader, for having so little to entertain you with in this review. I can only work with the material I’ve been given, and there’s really not much here. Let’s cut our losses and move on to the next one – this weekend’s “Skid Kid” sounds absolutely amazing.

Rating: thumbs down

The Fine Art & The Scare Game (1992?)

Thanks to the St Louis Video Society and their tireless efforts to unearth the finest independent cinema from our region, we have another couple of gems for you. Eric Stanze is, as far as I can tell, still living in the St Louis area and is still very much involved in the business – he edits documentaries for blu-rays, and also does 2nd unit directing for some fairly mainstream movies. But neither of those things are interesting to a site like the ISCFC, and it’s his 25 years of making low-budget horror that we’re delighted by.

He’s achieved some notoriety in his career for stuff like “Scrapbook” and “Ice From The Sun”, chock full of unusual imagery and ultra-violence, movies that even have the luxury of their own IMDB pages. But where we’re going we don’t need IMDB or, indeed, any other record of their existence (they’re not listed on Stanze’s own site anymore, not for sale anywhere), which is (are?) his earliest forays into long-form filmmaking, “The Fine Art” and “The Scare Game”. Both clock in at a little under an hour, are extremely low-budget and surprisingly good fun.

“The Fine Art” starts off as a romance movie, of sorts, as we meet Valerie, just a girl in an office-drone job looking for love. Her friend suggests Bill, who works as a camera-guy for a local TV show (maybe she works there too, because dialogue seems to indicate they’re in the same building at least, although I’m not sure and it’s not important). Anyway, they meet up and it’s love at first sight – as far as you can tell from the two performances, which are fine but a little on the amateur side from Lisa Morrison and Jeremy Wallace. But at the same time as their relationship is blossoming, the Cedar Hill Slayer is doing his thing and a discovery at Bill’s house leaves Valerie unsure of just what he might be, and what sort of person she is herself…

It’s got some odd twists down the road, for sure, but from the very beginning you can tell that Stanze isn’t just interested in telling a flat story or putting as much gore as possible on screen. While “visual flair” might be overstating it a little, he tries to do as much with his extremely limited resources as possible, and gives us some cool camera and sound work. I mean, yes, it does look like it was filmed on a cheap VHS camcorder, but it shows promise.

The version we saw was from a VHS, presumably from its initial local release, but it was remastered and re-released on DVD by Sub Rosa Films some years ago, although that release has disappeared as completely as “After Last Season”. If you’re reading this and have that disc at the back of a cupboard somewhere, please get in touch.

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Second on the tape was “The Scare Game”, which manages to be even cheaper-looking and more washed out than its predecessor (I’m guessing that the order indicates release date, but the information is extremely hard to come by). Now, this one has a tale to it. A few years later, the director would make “Ice From The Sun”, and in terms of plot it’s extremely similar to this – indeed, in an interview many years ago he said that was this’s sequel (best guess – Stanze decided to wipe as much evidence of the existence of these early works as he could when his budgets and ambition started increasing).

Sporting a mullet so unbelievably hideous I thought he’d tied some cotton candy to the back of his head, and braces (okay, everyone was young when they made this), DJ Vivona is “The Presence”, an imposing figure who just strolls into the house of a random guy one day, pops a black wooden box down in the middle of his coffee table, and walks off.

Rather than freaking the hell out, the two friends seem pretty cool with this development (perhaps I missed a line of dialogue that said “can’t wait for that mystery present I ordered to be delivered”), and read the incantation inside the box, which causes words to appear in the hitherto empty notebook that was also contained. Six people are needed for the game, and luckily the two men know four other people who are similarly cool with really strange things happening.

It’s a little “Nightmare On Elm Street” esque, although the reason for what happens when they’re inside the game is more reminiscent of “Manos: The Hands Of Fate”. Vivona, although he’s a little mannered in his movements, is really quite imposing and does a great job as the villain / games-master; and there are some other totally okay performances from the rest of the amateur cast (including Stanze himself, who has small parts in both).

What I was most impressed by is how Stanze, who was director, writer, producer, actor, editor and a few other jobs besides, played to his strengths and tried to minimise his weaknesses. Rather than just make an extremely cheap version of a mainstream horror movie, he used interesting editing techniques and camera angles to suggest some of the more gory effects than show them (although there’s still plenty of gore).

Without wanting to appear too over-the-top about a pair of super-cheap shot-on-video movies that have been apparently disowned by their director, they show an interest in doing more than just being traditional horror movies, and because they’re not terribly long, they miss that boring act 2 that B-movies often struggle with. I’m happy to say, if you ever happen to discover one of the rather rare releases of these two movies, then you could do a heck of a lot worse.

Rating: thumbs up

Justice Ninja Style (1989)

The ISCFC loves regional genre cinema – those movies that existed in the early days of VHS and video rental stores, when seemingly anything could turn a small profit. We’ve covered many of them and hope to cover many more, so it was with great delight I found the St Louis Video Society and their recent showing of a local movie so obscure it doesn’t even have an IMDB page, the amazing “Justice Ninja Style”.

This gem was filmed in DeSoto, a little drive out of St Louis in what would politely be referred to as rural Missouri, and is the brainchild of one Ron White, an apparent 10th dan black belt in karate. He’s written a few books, including one with the excellent title “So You Want To Be A Private Detective”, and was featured in a local news story as one of the Navy SEALs who took photos of Castro’s missile sites for JFK in the early 60s. Anyone who remembers Frank Dux, the serial fabricator whose story inspired “Bloodsport”, will realise where this is going…some, most or all of his claims are false, and while I have no particular reason to doubt he’s a martial artist, I’m not 100% sure I’d trust him on any of the other stuff. What is it with martial artists who feel the need to make themselves into superheroes?

Anyway, Mr White wrote five movies (although this appears to be the only one that was produced), and made at least one other video called “How To Be A Ninja” which has generated hearty laughs from those fortunate enough to have found a copy. But we must limit our laughter to this one magnificent movie, made with the full help of pretty much the entire town of DeSoto, many of whom are extras. We start off with a couple of ladies off for a drive in beautiful-ish rural-ish Missouri, only they get a flat tire and are forced to stop at the side of the road. Right here is where things go crazy. Carol goes off to find a mechanic, while Shelly decides to sun herself and wait for a friendly local to drive past – sadly, they meet a couple of local deputies, one of whom, George, has long had a thing for her. Well, he immediately tries to rape her and when she rebuffs him he hits her with his nightstick and she dies! Of course, George isn’t prepared to admit his murder, so he gets very lucky when running past is local martial arts instructor Brad, who he gets to hold the murder weapon, then arrests. Lurking in the shadows (well, behind a few trees) is a mysterious black-clad figure, who sees all but is invisible to the untrained eye.

Brad is locked up in jail but escapes thanks to the ninja, whose presence in the woods and interest in Brad’s case is never once made clear; he must try and clear his name with the help of a fellow instructor, Dan, and Carol, who he convinces of his innocence. And that’s about all the plot you need – there’s lots of running round the town and the surrounding wilderness, a few fight scenes and lots and lots of the sort of baffling decisions that only get made in movies like this.

My favourite is, perhaps, the way that Dan and Carol don’t seem to be all that bothered by their predicaments. Carol is laughing and joking with her friends mere hours after seeing Shelly’s corpse; and Dan finds the whole experience amusing, giggling at the exploits of his ninja saviour and giving Carol a friendly slap on the ass when she succumbs to his manly charms. Despite, you know, being on the run with a murder charge hanging over his head. I feel like he was maybe written as a teenager and literally no-one bothered to correct those parts of the script – although this sounds like I’m giving someone way too much credit (I don’t think the script had that much complexity to it).

I’m also a fan of the odd credit, and this one has a couple of doozies. First up is a gentleman by the name of James Flippo, credited as (Willie Nelson “Look a Like”); then you have Ron Pryor as (yells “Ninja”) and Joann Joseph as (Girl says “Fire”). It is my dream to have this sort of credit for myself, one day.

We, of course, shouldn’t expect great, or even good, from a movie that’s so obscure the only references to it online are local ones – whose entire cast and crew never made another movie, even (unless you count White’s ninja instructional). But you can certainly expect entertainment, and “Justice Ninja Style” supplies that in droves. It’s never boring, everyone involved gives it their all (the evil deputy is even a half-decent actor) and the music! Kudos to the person who noodled on a keyboard for a few hours to create the soundtrack to “Justice Ninja Style”, as it’s amazing. Well, not terrible, which is sort of the same thing at this level.

Most of the background information about this movie came from an Inside STL article which you can read here – http://insidestl.com/small-town-shinobi-a-history-of-justice-ninja-style-2/1942940 . Although it would have you believe all White’s stories are true, it did lead me to an interesting discovery which I’d like to share with you – this $20,000 movie was initially released on VHS and barely made it past 70 minutes of run-time; then “the studio” (sleazy backers do occasionally offer to fund reshoots for low budget movies in order to contractually wrest control away from the original creators – ISCFC friend Donald Farmer also suffered this fate with “Vampire Cop”) re-edited, added new scenes and released it as “Ninja, The Ultimate Warrior”, clocking in at 90 glorious minutes. This adds backstory to the deputy, and promotes the ninja to top billing, along with the new name “Liberty King, The Ninja” – a name that is certainly never referenced at any point in the 70 minute original.

Or maybe White needed no prompting, did it himself and lied about it later (the “re-edited by” credit, and the fact he’s now first billed despite hardly being in it, would seem to bear this out)? Anyway, the upshot is you can join me in enjoying one of the strangest and most fun examples of the regional genre movie, as it’s available in its entirety on Youtube.

Watch and enjoy, and if you’re local I hope to see you at the next St Louis Video Society showing on the 30th September.

Rating: thumbs up