Witchboard 2: The Devil’s Doorway (1993)

This is a curious movie. It’s a bit like renting a VHS tape called “Sexy Zombies” and expecting, you know, sexy zombies; instead, you get a totally well made, interesting historical drama. “Witchboard 2” has a ouija board in it, but it’s merely the MacGuffin that gets the plot rolling, a plot about guilt and being prepared to pay a price to follow your dreams.

Well, maybe I’m giving it too much credit, but let’s see. Kevin Tenney is back as writer-director, seven years after part 1 (I can only assume the producers had a spare million dollars lying around and threw darts at a board with all their available franchises pinned on it) and he’s got another interesting story to tell, which is also an early example of the “unquel” – a part 2 (or later) which has no links to the previous instalments in the series.

Paige (Ami “daughter of Micky” Dolenz) has moved to the city to become an artist; she’s welcomed into her new apartment by the extremely sleazy Jonas, and his wife, landlady and super-hippy Elaine (original SNL cast member Laraine Newman). The ouija board just falls out of her closet one day, and she sets it up on her mantel as if it’s a prized possession, and we get a bunch of shots from the board’s POV, a lovely touch.

Elaine also has a much younger brother, Russell, who comes across as a super nice guy, but is very obviously hiding something; she also has an ex-boyfriend, a cop by the name of Mitch, who appears to be half a step from being a rapist (so is then, by movie logic, bound to be a nice guy in the end). This love triangle burbles along for a bit, and Elaine starts using the ouija board, talking to a woman called Susan, who claims to be the previous resident of the apartment and a victim of murder.

There’s nothing terribly surprising on display, as Paige starts getting sucked in by the board’s power, ignoring her job and the men in her life (the job thing feels like a more meaty B-story that was cut significantly in post-production, as it goes absolutely nowhere). It’s a whodunnit punctuated with the ouija-based ghost taking revenge on both its enemies and those of Paige – my favourite kill is definitely the one where Susan possesses a wrecking ball and finishes off one of the characters in spectacular fashion. I don’t quite buy Paige’s transformation into a vamp from a “prude”, but it’s at least an arc of sorts.

Kudos must go to Tenney for his inventive camerawork – one gets the feeling he wasn’t all that interested in the material so decided to try and make it as visually exciting as possible. The kills are more fun, there’s all sorts of impressive non-CGI camera movement and a few great set-pieces – just goes to show what you can do with, relatively speaking, a decent amount of money and a bit of desire.

The reveal is sort of boring, which is a shame; and the acting is sort of bland too – well, either that or way OTT, and the two do not blend well at all. Because the rest of the stuff in the movie was so good, this came as an extra disappointment, but perhaps there are just no new spins on this sort of thing. I do appreciate these movies can both be read as about how difficult it is for women to just do what they want – Elaine supports a husband who clearly despises her and a brother who doesn’t appear to do anything; and Paige must put up with the mostly unwanted attentions of two men when all she wants to do is be left alone to try and become a “real” artist. Perhaps the “men being desperate the women don’t use it on their own” is just a metaphor?

So, not a lot else to say, really. Ouija boards are still stupid and not really a thing, being the same as a game of Monopoly, so a lot of the scares of this are completely lost on me. But…worth a watch, which I didn’t expect to be saying. There’s a 1989 movie called “Witchtrap”, also by Tenney, which was forced to put a disclaimer in its opening credits saying “this is not a sequel to Witchboard” and is apparently has quite a lot of parody in it – I hope to track that down and bring you a review of it soon. Plus, there’s a part 3 to this series, so yay I guess?

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Prom Night 3: The Last Kiss (1990)

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Many years ago, my friend Dan worked in a 24-hour garage, on the night shift. Usually, it was very quiet, so we’d pop over and keep him company (we were all students or unemployed at the time), and part of the fun was grabbing a VHS tape from the bargain bucket and playing it over the store’s TV. We saw / fell asleep ten minutes into many a terrible B-movie, but the one I remembered with most fondness was “Prom Night 3” (having never watched parts 1 or 2 at the time). But now I have!

Mary Lou Maloney is in hell, after the events of part 2. Her hell is a Prom, a sort of hideous mashup of her 50s past and the disco of part 1, with shuffling zombies her only companions; but she’s resourceful, so with nothing more than a nail-file and a can-do attitude, she’s off and back to Hamilton High school! A quick couple of murders later (the janitor and an old boyfriend) and she’s ready to get involved with the main story.

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Our human “hero” is Alex (Tim Conlon, making his debut), an average student in every way – height, weight, shoe size, grades, everything. He has a beautiful, smart girlfriend, though, Sarah (Cynthia Preston); but she wants him to go work on a farm with him after graduation and before college, whereas his best friend Shane (David Stratton) wants the two of them to get motorbikes and hit the open road. I mean, a summer on a farm does sound like sort of a crappy way to spend your last free time, but what do I know? In school late one night, Alex hits his head and while he’s lying completely dazed on the floor, wrapped in the American flag which fell off on top of him, Mary Lou, flying through the school’s corridors looking for fresh victims, sees him and falls in love.

Now, here’s where my carefully constructed feminist persona may crumble slightly. This is the first time in the movie we see the face of the new Mary Lou, Courtney Taylor (for whom this was her debut too). Now, we all have our favourite genders, sizes, shapes, and hair colours, but to say I developed a little crush on Ms Taylor is to understate things considerably. She was so beautiful that the film could have been a massive pile of crap and I’d still love it to this day – luckily, it’s great so I don’t have to pretend. Thank heavens the internet wasn’t a thing back then, I’d have made a horrible embarrassment out of myself – anyway, she’s also a lot of fun in the role too, playing someone who is so pleased to be out of Hell that she falls deeply in love with the first nice guy she sees.

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Unfortunately for those around her, Mary Lou’s way of showing love is somewhat influenced by her past. A science teacher with a sweet tooth is about to give Alex an F, so she tears his chest open and replaces his guts with chocolate and ice cream. The guidance counsellor thinks Alex is only good for menial labour, so Mary Lou melts her face off with battery acid. Then, because she may be an utter psychopath but she’s not stupid, she forces Alex to dispose of the bodies, which he chooses to bury in the middle of the “football” field for some reason, making sure he’s bribed well with sex. This bonds the two of them together quite well.

Alex turns into a cool kid sort of by accident, as the confidence he gets from Mary Lou (along with the murder of his enemies), and a bike / leather jacket from his parents (as a reward for acing a test that Mary Lou actually filled in for him), elevates him in the school’s eyes. He and Sarah have some serious problems, and Shane struggles with the new Alex too.

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As I always say, if you want a poorly worded recap you can just go to Wikipedia, so let’s talk character. Sarah is interestingly-played, as she’s pretty boring, wanting Alex to do a really dull thing with her, and having no obvious interests (that she’s not into sex, it would seem, is the icing on the cake for a teenage boy). She’s the archetype for many of that sort of character in teen comedy cinema, but rarely would they give her so few redeeming qualities. Mary Lou represents destroying small town tedium, and as well as being staggeringly beautiful, it’s very obvious to see how a guy obsessed with his own average-at-everything nature would fall hard for that. Alex is the everyman, and I’m pretty sure I identified with him quite a lot when I first saw it.

Then there’s the comedy element, as “Prom Night 3” is most definitely a comedy first and a horror second. The brutal murder of people around him is played off with a sort of off-hand, casual indifference by Alex, but his nightmarish rise to the top of the school’s social pyramid is funny as well. It’s not jokes or wackiness, but laughs that come from the characters and the situations; okay, there are some great lines too, such as Alex’s “What am I talking about? I just stuffed my dead biology teacher into the cupboard. Things are not alright”, but then, that’s all in the delivery too. There are also some weird / brilliant visual touches, like the cactus shaped like a penis that keeps blocking the shot as Alex talks to the guidance counsellor; but, of course, some of it is terrible, like the PA announcer, whose lines feel like they were rejected from the worst, lamest “Airplane!” ripoff.

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The entire “Prom Night” series qualifies as “unquels” – sequels that bear no relation to what came before. The first one is a largely serious slasher movie; part 2 is a wicked black joke of a horror, which introduces a new central character; part 3 keeps the main character but completely alters everything about them; and part 4 isn’t even set at a prom! The curious-ish thing is that parts 2 and 3 were written by the same person, Ron Oliver, who now does kids’ TV and romance movies. He also got to direct part 3, which is perhaps why its odder comedic elements get dialled way up.

Is this movie any good? It’s almost impossible for me to separate my enjoyment of it from the time I originally saw it, but its dark, almost post-modern take on the wronged-girlfriend-slasher movie seems refreshing, even today. As comedy fans are unlikely to stumble upon it, most of its press has come from horror sites, who seem upset that something which looks like a horror movie actually isn’t- the same treatment that the (far superior) “April Fools Day” also got. Very few horror-comedies get reviewed well, because I don’t think fans of either genre understand much about the other, and while I’m not saying I hold any unique perspective, as a fan of both I can appreciate the movies that get it right. Whether that’s a comedy with a horror setting, or a gory horror with a few dark laughs in it, or something in the middle.

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Okay. It’s a long way from perfect, with an ending which smacks of “we ran out of money, will this do?” and a lack of normal human response to any crisis leaving things curiously hollow at times, but the the good outweighs the bad to a huge degree. Funny, a couple of great debut performances at the centre, a black heart at the centre of a light movie – it’s absolutely worth tracking down. Not for you if you like movies that take themselves seriously, but otherwise you’ll have a fine time.

Rating: thumbs up

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Live Wire: Human Timebomb (1995)

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This is perhaps the first movie we’ve done here at the ISCFC where it’s such an “unquel” that I didn’t even realise it was the sequel to something else. 1992’s “Live Wire” is a Pierce Brosnan-starring thriller about people coated with some sort of liquid explosive being sent to assassinate politicians (I think, I’ve never seen it as it sounds terrible), and “Human Timebomb” is about brainwashed super-soldiers. No cast or crew are shared, which is just the way we like our unquels.

 

We last saw Bryan Genesse in all-time cast iron classic “Screwballs 2: Loose Screws” and he thankfully keeps the same cheeky grin from that movie, here playing wisecracking FBI agent Parker. In a pretty well-shot and fun opening scene, he’s the lead man at a huge arrest at a drug deal taking place in a real disused drive-in cinema, with a group of Cubans buying what looks like a tiny piece of gold in a small glass case with a suitcase full of cocaine. Why are they so interested in this tiny thing?

 

Unfortunately, the plot sort of falls apart right here. Arriving on the scene after the arrests have been made is CIA agent Gina Young (J Cynthia Brooks), who informs Parker that the lead Cuban drug guy is the nephew of a Cuban general, and therefore has diplomatic immunity. Fun fact: the US and Cuba had no diplomatic relations in 1995 and there’s absolutely no chance that they’d have honoured diplomatic immunity for a drug-smuggling murderer. But let’s not worry about that! Gina takes the nephew back to Cuba on a pretty small, non-official-looking plane and Parker decides pretty much on the spur of the moment to tag along, which brings us to the subject of coincidences.

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Coincidences happen in movies because it’s difficult to figure out ways to bring characters together and have them either come into conflict or fight on the same side. I understand that. But if they’re too big, too tenuous, or there’s too many of them then it becomes too stupid and takes you way out of the movie. Wonder if you can guess where I’m going with this particular review?  So, it turns out that Parker was in the military, and his best buddy was left behind in some shady operation in Cuba, missing presumed dead. This best buddy is also the brother of Gina, and she’s kind of being blackmailed by a rogue Cuban general to bring across that tiny piece of gold which is actually a chip that turns people into mindless killing machines, as her brother is still alive! And they also need Parker to become the latest chip-controlled automaton and kill a bunch of people at the upcoming US / Cuba trade negotiation, allowing the rogue General to take over!

 

I haven’t even mentioned Joe Lara yet, the sole reason anyone would possibly want to watch this movie. He’s Price, a former US soldier who went to work for the rogue General, and is in charge of his team of killers – leading to a classic “here’s my men training” montage (which “Wayne’s World” mocked so well a few years previously). To say he’s a bit evil is to say water is a bit wet, and he’s the best thing about every scene he’s in. I was sort of fooled by the publicity for this movie, expecting it to be a little futuristic, but it’s not; although it’s a great Lara performance, so it goes into his season of movie reviews.

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Parker is captured, gets implanted and becomes a killer for Price, although all it takes is banging his head on a steel pipe for his chip to malfunction and his previous personality to be restored. Hurrah! The movie spends a substantial amount of time in Cuba before rushing to Miami for the trade negotiations and denouement, and it’s amazing. Imagine in 2015 a trade deal between the Secretaries of State for two countries – think about how much security there’d be, and its location. Back in 1995, all they got was a normal hotel full of holidaymakers and a couple of security guys circling the hotel on a monorail (best guess – this hilarious image was crowbarred in because the hotel that let them film in return for free publicity demanded they show off their sweet new purchase).

 

You take what you can get from straight-to-video action/thriller movies, and this one was pretty rough in places. The plot is ludicrous, the acting is ropey, it borrows the US-to-Cuba-to-the-US timeline from one of the worst movies ever (“Red Zone Cuba”), and even if you accept its premise, it still makes no sense. Aside from all the stupid inconsistencies and plot holes and gibberish all movies like this have to an extent, the main issue is that the US is fighting to protect Fidel Castro’s regime against a coup from someone who sounds like he’d be much more amenable to Washington. Even the most undiscerning video store renter in the 1990s must have scratched their heads at the ultimate meaning of this movie.

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Add in some of the worst music ever, and one of the more unusual endings in movie history:

“You’re some piece of work, Parker”

“Yeah”

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And…well, you’ve got yourself a movie. If you’re in an extremely forgiving mood or are more of a Joe Lara completist than I am, give it a go!

 

Rating: thumbs in the middle

American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt (1989)

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When a main actor doesn’t come back for a continuation to their franchise, I always wonder exactly what happened. Did Dudikoff ask for too much money? Unlikely, as he’s back for part 4. Was he busy? I doubt it. My best bet is, Golan went to Globus, “you know, that main actor guy was showing dangerous signs of charisma in the last movie. Let’s replace him with someone even worse” (real, boring answer: Dudikoff didn’t want to film in South Africa due to apartheid. Good work Michael!).

Luckily, some traditions remain. The title is meaningless, and there’s plenty of technical incompetence for everyone to enjoy (a lot of people stare at the camera in this movie). Oh, and that “teach ninja skills to Westerners and die” philosophy has now turned into “literally everyone in the world is a ninja”.

The one unqualified good thing about this movie is the return of Steve James as Jackson, who had the physique, fighting skills and acting ability to anchor this franchise on his own. Aside from Carl Weathers, I can’t think of another black guy who got to star in his own action movies at the time, and it’s a shame, and especially a shame as Cannon Films never had a single black lead in any of their movies (apart from “Crack House”, which isn’t a good example). In this, while he’s got the same name as in the last two, he seems to be a different person; and no mention is made of the fact he used to be in the army or had a best friend who was also a ninja (in fact, no mention of Dudikoff at all) He’s just a guy at a martial arts tournament.

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Anyway, James has to play second fiddle to David Bradley, the sort of generic action guy who got starring roles in movies thrown at him for a while there. He’s Sean Davidson, a karate champion who’s travelling to…who cares?…for a tournament. Jackson is there too, to take part in the sword portion of the tournament, and the two of them, along with comic relief Dexter, become friends immediately because that’s what you do in these movies.

For a film set at a karate tournament, you don’t really see a lot of it, but what you do see is lots and lots of ninjas, this time led by former child evangelist turned actor Marjoe Gortner (seriously, look his story up, he’s had a pretty weird life) as “The Cobra”. He’s trying to do some genetic experiments, in “we got the script for part 2, changed a few names and the number on the front, and just used it again” fashion; and he infects Sean with some virus or other. Our three heroes have to kick some ass to get the antidote, only it turns out at the end he didn’t need to bother due to NINJA MAGIC

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The message of these films is, anyone who’s reasonably fit will be able to beat the snot out of any 5 ninja, really easily. Their training must be in something non fight related, because they’re complete cannon fodder here, not putting as much as a scratch on any of the main actors. Plus, the training Sean receives as the hands of his adoptive Japanese father is more karate than it is anything ninja-related – and how many ninja decide to supplement their day job with being a pro karate fighter? You see, these are the questions that you will find yourself asking during the course of this fine and exciting movie.

Most of the boring final fight sequence I spent wondering if this qualifies as an “unquel”. Despite a returning actor, and a similar generic action movie plot, there’s really nothing which ties this to the previous movies in the series, which were about a guy in the Army doing ninja things. I think it probably does.

And that’s how exciting this film was!

Rating: thumbs down

PS- Review site Dorkshelf did a whole article about this movie and the downfall of Cannon Studios which you should read – http://dorkshelf.com/2014/02/24/unsung-anniversaries-3-american-ninja-3-blood-hunt/

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Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995)

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This film is so odd it’s forced me to coin a new phrase – the “unquel”, for a sequel that bears no relation to the film that came before it. There are plenty of these, and I think it’s worth an article on its own, so look forward to that in a future ISCFC update.

But before that we must review this film. Alex, the star of the first “Nemesis”, is announced to have failed his mission before the opening credits have rolled. Sorry, Olivier Gruner! Then we get the info dump which establishes what this film is all about. 73 years after the events of the previous film, the world is completely dominated by cyborgs. Some human scientists invent super-DNA, which will hopefully produce super-humans to save the world; their first test subject is born but, for some reason, has to go back in time to 1980 to be safe. So, the mother and baby end up in East Africa, the mother dies and the daughter, also called Alex, is raised by the local tribespeople, and grows up to be a super-ripped warrior woman.

A brief aside about Sue Price, who plays Alex. She was a bodybuilder, placing well in a series of tournaments in the 90s, but the three “Nemesis” sequels are her only film credits. Not a “henchwoman no.2” in an episode of “Baywatch”, no background work in bodybuilding movies, nothing. It’s not like she’s particularly bad, either. Ah well, maybe working with director Albert Pyun is enough for anybody.

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So, bounty hunters from the year 2097 are sent back to kill Alex and stop the super-DNA from eventually leading a human uprising against the cyborgs. And that, really, is the plot. Alex rescues a couple of women from a baddie tribesperson, and they’re very obviously dodgy – turns out they’re gold thieves (although the gold they steal is in coin form, which isn’t what I expected). At some point in the film, Pyun clearly ran out of black people, so there’s a bunch of white “mercenaries” thrown in there for no real reason too…but the main battle is between Alex and the sole future cyborg, which ranges over dunes and rocks but ends up in some long disused mine buildings.

Now, here’s the thing. I think this film was intended to be a standalone film, about a woman who was possibly an alien, like Superman, being chased by alien bounty hunters. Then, at the last minute, Pyun’s producers told him they wanted a sequel to “Nemesis”, so he altered some of the alien POV stuff, did some ADR and spliced in a bit of footage of future LA. My evidence is the “cyborg” has messages running across his field of vision telling him he’s almost offline, or is out of ammo, but in the next scene he’s fighting just as well as he ever was.

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Or it could just be directorial incompetence. Pyun is renowned as an Ed-Wood-level director, even if people keep giving him money (he’s directed more than 40 films, and is still going now); and even I’ve noticed he has trouble getting across that one scene follows another scene. It’s not like this film is incredibly cheap, either – they blow up a bunch of buildings, for real, in the climactic fight scene.

So, the film sort of finishes, although to say it’s lacking a crash-bang-wallop ending would be understating the case somewhat. Alex is driven off by some helpful passing…soldiers?…and we’re prepared for a sequel (which was filmed at the same time, and uses a hefty portion of this film as flashback material, apparently). For a sci-fi film, it really didn’t have a lot of sci-fi in it. I’ve no idea why people making these sorts of films think that we fans of the futuristic and alien-y would accept a film which could be, minus the cyborg’s armour and Alex’s super-knife, be any of a thousand boring “action” films. My desire to finish this series, strong after the first film, is definitely weakening now, although I read that Tim Thomerson comes back for part 3, so I’ve got that to look forward to.

Rating: thumbs down