Night Wars (1988)

Our voyage through the movies of David A. Prior (and his brother, actor Ted) brings us to an interesting movie, which – while not spookily similar – predates “Jacob’s Ladder” by two years, and poses some interesting questions about the psyche of the fellow making it.

For those keeping score (in other words, me) this is the third of Ted Prior’s six movies to date to feature Vietnam, people getting tortured in the “jungle”, and a main villain who’s an American soldier who collaborates with the enemy, Amazingly, it looks like three of his next four movies – “Operation Warzone”, “Hell On The Battleground” and “Jungle Assault”, all continue the trend (the other – “Death Chase”, looks like another riff on “The Most Dangerous Game”, but set in an actual city!) Although biographical info is in short supply, it seems Prior did indeed serve in the military in Vietnam, so perhaps something he saw or did there traumatised him to the extent of working through it, over and over again, in his movies.

The level of darkness to these scenes is certainly unusual among his b-movie brethren, where war is rarely portrayed as such unremitting hell. It starts off with Trent (Brian Edward O’Connor) having a terrible dream about his time in Vietnam – he escapes from his torture room, frees his friend Jim (Cameron Lowery) but before he can free his other friend, the sadistic American who’s helping out the Vietcong, McGregor (Steve Horton), shoots him. The torture isn’t particularly graphic, but it it feels weirdly real, like it’s not a photogenic Hollywood actor getting beaten up but surviving it manfully. They look like they’re genuinely in pain.

Anyway, the two men meet up and discuss their trauma, and how it’s happening to them both. Jim is married and his marriage starts to suffer, there’s perhaps the world’s sleaziest car salesman in a fantastic cameo, and Grizzly Adams himself, Dan Haggerty, shows up as a particularly unconvincing psychiatrist. His part, much like that of Cameron Mitchell in “Deadly Prey”, feels tacked on and a little unrelated to the rest of what’s going on (plus, his actions – tying the men up and holding them at gunpoint til they snap out of it – seems super-unethical). I mean, I’d worry too if a guy produced a severed finger which could be matched back to a guy who’d been officially dead for 20 years, but still.

In its second half, it sort of pivots to become “A Nightmare On Elm Street” – McGregor realises he’s a figment of their psychosis but still wants to kill them both, over and over again, as “death doesn’t exist here”, and even decides that if they can visit him, he can visit them; and Trent and Jim start arming and preparing themselves for battle over in the dream-Vietnam, figuring that if the injuries they get over there transfer themselves back to the real world, then they can rescue their friend and bring him out too.

I’m not sure it’s all that good a movie, but it’s interesting in a way that a more big-budget movie might not be, as it feels very personal. If Prior had to go through anything like this in Vietnam, then I feel deeply sorry for him (while still appreciating the USA should never have been there in the first place), but the repeated use of these tropes in his movies goes beyond just wanting to get it right and goes into the idea that he can’t get past those images. I have to assume his friends at A.I.P were going, “hey David, want to try some different genres? I think we’re good for dark Vietnam stories for a few years, thanks”.

While budgets are obviously a concern, with Vietnam still looking like the Alabama backwoods it was undoubtedly filmed in, there’s some visual fun, like the juxtaposition of the grotty jungle camp with the flowery bedroom the two men are performing their sleep experiments in; and of course, the old ISCFC favourite, the

WOODEN GUARD TOWER!

As we all know, it only has two variations – it either gets blown up (because if you make a movie, you don’t build a wooden guard tower for the hell of it) or someone gets shot out of it and tumbles to their just-off-camera-crash-mat death. This is version B, and I’m glad to see it.

Just because something’s earnestly made, doesn’t necessarily make it enjoyable to watch, and it’s safe to say that “Night Wars” isn’t going to be in anyone’s top 10 war movies list. But, it’s different. It has a twist-ish ending that you’ll never see coming, and the way it messes with reality is quite interesting too.

Ted Prior didn’t act in this one, but he did get a co-writing credit and serving as art director (not sure what that means in this instance, but good on him). There’s also a rather surprising link to a previous ISCFC review series, with Joe Lara (of “Final Equinox”, “Hologram Man” and “Steel Frontier”) showing up as one of the American army extras in the Vietnam scenes. Join us in a few days for “Death Chase”!

Rating: thumbs in the middle

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Deadly Prey (1987)

As great painters refined their work, going back to the same set of ideas time and again, so it is for filmmaker David A. Prior. After making the thoroughly confusing “Killzone”, he still clearly had something to say in the “guy chased through forest by group of mercenaries” genre, so he wrote and directed “Deadly Prey”, his first cult-movie classic. Well, classic is perhaps stretching it a bit, but it’s certainly beloved and is every bit as entertaining on rewatch as it was when I first saw it.

Returning is Ted Prior, as Mike Danton, who we see in the very first shot do one of those poses like you saw at the end of “The Breakfast Club” or “Red Dawn”, so the entire movie is a flashback from that moment, or something. More crucial to the first few moments is David A. Prior’s love of grenades. If real grenades produced a pitiful flash and did as little damage as they apparently do in his world, I’m not sure anyone would ever bother using them, but he clearly worked out a way to do the grenade effect on the cheap, and uses it a heck of a lot (they’re a constant throughout his early movies, at least).

Anyway, it’s all just a ripoff of “The Most Dangerous Game”, where bored hunters decide to let humans loose in the forest and hunt them instead. This is one of the most enduring of B-movie templates, because it’s cheap (you only need a small cast, and sets can be kept to a minimum). A group of mercenaries, led by Colonel Hogan (Prior regular David Campbell) have decided the best way to train is to grab guys off the street and hunt them. Okay, I guess? Confusion comes from them filming a few scenes among a mass of military hardware, tanks and so on, that don’t really get used. I know why – they probably just borrowed the stuff from the local National Guard and weren’t allowed to use it – but it makes their low-rent training methods look even weirder.

In the grand tradition of bad movies, there’s a coincidence so monumental that you’ll either cheer it or abandon the movie in disgust. Danton is sleepily taking out the trash when some of Hogan’s men, looking for a new subject for their training, happen to be driving past. They see him and grab him, and even leaving aside the extremely simple questions “why not get homeless guys? Mexicans trying to sneak over the border? Literally anyone other than a guy from a rich looking suburb who’s more likely to have people who want to find him?” it’s a heck of a weird one. Turns out Danton is a former special forces soldier, trained by Hogan, who says when he finds out that he was the best soldier he ever trained! Come on! That one of the other soldiers is Danton’s friend from the army (thus keeping the “one of the bad guys is a secret good guy” streak going in Prior’s movies) is small potatoes compared to this.

While this is going on, we get a couple of B-movie legends showing up in small roles, an indication of Prior’s increased budgets. One is Cameron Mitchell, sure to be an ISCFC Hall of Famer (“Toolbox Murders”, “Raw Force”, “Demon Cop”); and the other is Troy Donahue, who was a teen heart-throb in the 1950s before a later career in such gems as this and “Hollywood Cop”. Mitchell is the Dad of Mrs Danton, and Donahue is the guy bankrolling this mercenary army. They have parts purely because Prior could afford them and wanted the star power – they’re billed first and second despite appearing for maybe three minutes each.

Of course, Ted is the star, and is great. I know I’ve speculated about David A’s sexuality before, as he has zero nude ladies (almost unheard of in the b-movie world he inhabited) but lots of ripped shirtless dudes. Here, he pans up the ripped shirtless body of his own brother, which might just be him doing his action-director job, but certainly could be seen as psychologically…a little odd? You do you, though, David A!

What’s perhaps most surprising is how it gives us an entire movie’s plot in the first third – Danton is captured, figures out who’s in charge and slaughters a lot of people, while wearing nothing more than jean shorts. He’s got a heck of a line in home-made booby traps, though (another recurring Prior theme). My wife, half-paying attention, said “there’s an hour to go? Seriously?” at this point, but the rest of the plot is the bad guys kidnapping his wife, and Danton just strolling out of the woods and going home to find her missing. Seriously, they say they’re 75 miles south of LA at one point, and they don’t even show him hitching a ride or getting on a bus or anything. There’s a couple of redneck locals who get involved in things, despite this being completely the wrong part of the world for rednecks – another trend making a repeat appearance in the Prior oeuvre.

The reason it’s so beloved is to do with how much weird stuff goes on, I think. Mitchell offers to help look for Danton, and he’s a retired cop, but evidently none of the other cops are interested in the rogue mercenary group operating on their territory as he’s the only guy who shows up to help. There’s the way our heroes slaughter many people, but keep leaving Colonel Hogan alive, for absolutely no reason. There’s the way one of the soldiers goes “we’re not hunting him…he’s hunting us!” and doesn’t even wink at the camera. There’s a guy getting beaten up with his own severed arm. There’s an embarrassment of riches in “Deadly Prey”.

Factor in a genuine “what the hell?” ending and you’ve got yourself a bad movie classic you should all try and watch. There’s a way OTT performance from Ted Prior and a crazily bad one from his wife (and a surprisingly good one from his old friend William Zipp, who deserved better than this), all sorts of fun and never a dull moment. There’s so much cold-blooded murder in this movie! And someone gets scalped! Low budget craziness for ever, I say.

Rating: thumbs up