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

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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

Demon Lover (1977)

This would've been cool, if it had been in the movie

This would’ve been cool, if it had been in the movie

One of our stated aims here at the ISCFC is to find the very bottom of the cinematic barrel. I think we might already have reached it (“Things”, “One More Time” and “After Last Season” are as miserable as it gets, I reckon), but it doesn’t hurt to continue the search, and to that end we come to Donald Jackson.

 

We’ve met him before, with “The Roller Blade Seven”, one of those movies that’s in the conversation for worst of all time – but that’s more than a decade in the future, and we wanted to start at the beginning. There’s a story behind “Demon Lover” that makes it difficult to hate, as well – Jackson kept himself sane while working on a factory production line by talking trashy B-movies with his friend Jerry Younkins. One day, they got a payout from work due to an industrial accident (Younkins had several fingers chopped off), and decided to spend it to make their own movie. Now, that’s dedication!

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Before we get going, it’s possible you’ve heard of “Demon Lover” without actually having seen it. It’s the subject of a fairly famous documentary, “Demon Lover Diary”, created by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines (Kreines was hired to work on the movie, his partner DeMott saw an opportunity). You know that story I just told? Turns out it might not have been as much of an accident as I originally thought, and that Jackson, Younkins and pretty much everyone who worked on the movie were all raging assholes – the doc sounds fascinating and I’ll try and track it down. DeMott and Kreines would go on to win a Sundance Festival Grand Prize with “Seventeen”, a few years later, and as of the last time I checked are still making films and living off the proceeds of some film-based inventions they created. Jackson, on the other hand, would go on to “Hell Comes To Frogtown”, a long-running partnership with Scott Shaw and an almost uninterrupted stream of the worst movies ever.

 

The movie itself kicks off at a 70s hipster party. A guy who looks like Frank Zappa is trying to hit on all the women, a guy who’s the archetype for every shrill nerd from every show ever is trying to keep the event on a nice even track, and a few couples alternate between kissing and philosophical discussion. They’re waiting for a fellow called Laval, who looks like the sloppy lead singer of a 70s jam-rock band, and when he comes down he tries to round everyone up for a good old fashioned bit of demon-worship.

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Laval wants some women to get naked so he can do real black magic, but mercifully most of the women refuse and the party breaks up. The party-goers are all Occult Studies students at college, who started hanging out with Laval because he seemed to know a lot, but they seem…not exactly indifferent, but curiously casual at the prospect of getting on the wrong side of someone who appears to have real power.

 

This entire first scene is a handy indicator for what’s to come, and even contains hints of the rest of Jackson’s career. The conversations and interactions between the group of friends feels incredibly natural, not in the sense of they’re all good actors, but in the sense of this feeling like a documentary. While a few of them are trying to act, and fail miserably, the bulk of the cast just feel like they weren’t putting on a performance at all, and it’s actually pretty interesting. There’s also a really strange cameo, the Professor of occult studies who the policeman hassles at a party: one Gunnar Hansen, whose sole movie credit to that point was three years earlier, as Leatherface in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (to be fair, that’s a good single credit to have). How did a couple of complete novices from Michigan get Gunnar Hansen’s number? There’s a scene in the documentary, apparently, where they go to right-wing rocker Ted Nugent’s house to borrow some firearms and explosives for the finale – how the hell did they know Nugent? The plot thickens.

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So, Laval makes a sacrifice, and gets some real black magic powers, then starts getting revenge on the women who refused to get naked for him. The guys, trying to figure out a way to beat him, meet in desolate, overgrown woodland, there’s a cop with some excellent investigative skills, there’s a scene where Laval takes some martial arts lesson (so it’s slightly more believable when he beats up an entire bar full of people later), and there’s a pretty wild, gore drenched finale. And there is a demon in it, but his effect is absolute garbage so they sensibly keep him in the shadows. No “demon lover”, though, as far as I can tell. Shame! Laval is more a “demon enthusiast”.

 

What I was most surprised by is how, almost despite itself, “Demon Lover” managed to generate some real creepy atmosphere. The sound is cheesy, with the layered voices and moans, but cheesy works sometimes; and the fuzzy washed out look of the image contributes significantly to that 70s drive-in-horror feel. It’s so amateurish from top to bottom, with so many odd choices and camera placements and acting choices, that…well, one could say that all “normal” movies look the same, while all insane low-budget regional horror B-movies are weird in their own special way.

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I couldn’t recommend it – no sane person would – but it’s certainly interesting, and nicely short. I’m looking forward to digging further into his filmography, and telling the tale of him and Scott Shaw, when the time comes.

 

Rating: thumbs down

Youtube Film Club: Night Screams (1987)

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Credit where credit’s due, dear reader: this movie managed the almost unimaginable, and in 1987, at the end of the first big run of slasher movies, did something original. Not in terms of acting, or direction, or character, or anything like that, but plot. It’s really rather impressive.

A couple of deranged escaped convicts find their way to a large house out in the wilds, where a group of teens have organised a party to celebrate winning a football game. At the same time, a mental patient who murdered their parents is released from hospital, and evidently has some sort of link to the gang.

 

Two different murderers, who don’t know about each other, taking on the same group of teens! It’s especially surprising, as that opening segment makes you think you’re going to get yet another “Halloween” ripoff; this isn’t to say the movie is good, of course. But it might be the best movie ever to be largely filmed and set in Wichita, Kansas.

 

After an opening theme of the cheesiest 80s disco, the sort of music I like to get me in the mood for teens being hacked to pieces, we kick off. This is yet another in perhaps the strongest of all the teen genres – “hold on, everyone in this movie is like thirty years old!” In fact, I feel like this one requires some proof, so check out the below screenshot of the guy walking in front of shot, who seriously looks old enough to have grandchildren. I appreciate there’s probably labour laws which make it tons easier to hire adults to play teen parts, but at least make an effort, guys!

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David (Joe Manno) is the star of the football team, and has just got a big scholarship to a famous University, but he’s got an unspecified issue which requires him to take medication every day, and it’s serious enough for it to be the only thing his parents are really bothered about when they go away for the night and let him have a party. He has a new-ish girlfriend, Joni (Megan Wyss), who’s sort of quiet and not like the cheerleaders who all basically assault him in front of their own boyfriends. One of the guys might as well have “future date rapist” hung on a sign round his neck, but it’s difficult to tell if the movie is supposed to think he’s a reasonable guy or not.

 

While these “teens” are going through their shenanigans, three convicts escape from the local jail and just go wild, stealing a car and murdering a shop full of people. I think the main guy’s name is Snake (this would be his only credit, an honour he shares with a lot of the cast), and he’s got a good line in insane monologues about sacrifice and so on; one of the other convicts questions all the killing so he gets thrown through a plate glass window and left behind for his trouble.

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So, the two remaining crims are hanging out in the cellar of the house (one of them says “it looks deserted” when he’s about half a mile away and couldn’t possibly tell), and the kids are upstairs. They kill one kid, but the majority of the murders are done by someone else…

 

Much like our recently reviewed “Delirium”, this is something that looks like a normal slasher movie, but was made far away from Hollywood and shares none of the mainstream smoothness or top-level cast (relatively speaking) of its more famous siblings. But that’s got its own interest to it, when you’ve seen one Hollywood slasher, you’ve seen ‘em all. As well as that slightly cheap grainy quality that comes from shooting on a very low budget in Kansas, you’ve also got some original kills. People get choked in bags and have stuff shoved through the tops of their heads and get fried on some weird American griddle which is right in the middle of the counter, and much more besides. Our killer is a person who doesn’t like to repeat themselves.

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This odd non-mainstream thing is perhaps most fully realised, though, in the appearance of the Sweetheart Dancers. They’re credited as “the nationally famous Sweetheart Dancers” and we get an entire routine of theirs, as they dance in front of perhaps the worst band ever to be recorded on film. That band? The Dogs, and amazingly according to Facebook, were active as recently as 2011, but I bet didn’t have two keytars (two!) then, like they did whenever this was filmed – it’s got a 1987 release date, but the band had split up the year before. Anyway, the dancers! They have very conservative sparkly tops on, and do a really poor little dance routine, the sort of thing that would get you laughed out of any regional talent show in the country nowadays (plus, they’re performing under their own name, as it were, so I bet someone paid for them to be in this movie).

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A word about nudity. Because the good Midwestern girls who made up the cast of this movie were clearly not paid enough to go topless, the movie gets round it in a slightly ingenious / sleazy way. They borrow a clip from early slasher “Graduation Day” which has a naked Linnea Quigley in it, and later on just some straight-up porn starring legend John Holmes. This footage is watched by the cast regularly, and often in complete full-screen so it’s difficult to tell if it’s supposed to be part of the movie or not (okay, it’s unlikely that John Holmes is going to pop up in “Night Screams”).

 

This was director Allen Plone’s (great name) first movie, and he went on to do lots of Earth, Wind And Fire videos and pretty much nothing else. Writer Mitch Brian created the character of Renee Montoya for the Batman animated show in the 90s, so depending on how his royalties work out he’s probably doing okay. They try! While it’s terribly acted and the twist is obvious and the ending is sub-sub Twilight Zone bad, it’s got some spirit to it, and you can watch it for free if you’d like.

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle