Mar 23 2017

Night Trap (1992)

Before toy giant Hasbro got into the blockbuster biz with the Transformers, G.I. Joe and Ouija franchises, it dipped its toes into the movie game with, well, a movie you could play as a game. Initially released for the Sega console, the CD-ROM Night Trap presented itself as a “U-Direct Film,” a rather toothless quasi-slasher that nonetheless generated enough controversy to become the subject of Senate hearings, get yanked from store shelves and result in the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board. Viewing the footage today, one wonders why Congress got its collective panties in such a bunch.

In the prologue, Lt. Simms (William Jones, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn), the skunk-haired leader of the Special Control Attack Team — yep, S.C.A.T.! — directly addresses the player with the setup. At the home of Victor and Sheila Martin (Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s Jon Rashad Kamal and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’s Molly Starr, reminding one of the Taster’s Choice coffee couple from the ad campaign of that era), five teen girls have disappeared while staying there as guests. Now, five more are staying the night, but this time, one of them, Kelly (Dana Plato, TV’s Diff’rent Strokes), is actually an undercover S.C.A.T. agent. Because the Martins’ suburban house is wired with hidden cameras and elaborate traps, Simms instructs players to control those things in order to save the young ladies’ lives, not to mention find out who — or what — is responsible. No worries — Kelly is always breaking the fourth wall to all but hit the button for you.

The girls immediately get down to some innocent partying — you know, a little crushing cookies into bowls of ice cream here, a little tennis-racket guitar antics there. (The latter is scored to Sunny BlueSkyes’ butt-rock theme song containing lines like “You’ll be caught in the night / Night trap!”) Almost as immediately, the threat appears, and it’s not the red-herring neighbor, Weird Eddie (William Bertrand, Attack of the Baby Doll). Instead, it comes in the form of “the Augers,” which are vampires dressed in what looks like scuba gear; their weapon of choice resembles a pool skimmer retrofitted to encircle a victim’s neck to drain it of blood. There’s also a little boy present, wielding a homemade laser gun, which makes as much sense as why there’s a trapdoor at the bottom of the stairs, not to mention a bed that flings its sleepers backward and out a second-story window.

Directed by James W. Riley and Randy Field, Night Trap contains no sex, no nudity and no violence that is not cartoonish. If anything were to offend the public, it should have been not that women were preyed upon by draculian frogmen, but that they were portrayed as helpless, shrieking shrews — and moreover, the kind who spend their free time pretending to shred on a Dunlop like they’re Stevie Ray Vaughn. Hell, let’s also throw in the injustice of the one black guy (Arthur Burghardt, Network’s Great Ahmed Kahn) being forced to don a painter’s cap with upturned bill, a Hawaiian shirt and a Jamaican accent — and all while being 14th-billed to Dana Plato. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 22 2017

Cannonball! (1976)

Like the more serious first cousin of Death Race 2000, the Roger Corman/Shaw Brothers co-production Cannonball! reunites that film’s director, Paul Bartel, and hard-driving star, David Carradine, for yet another round of cross-country carmageddon, this time minus the future setting and pedestrian bloodletting.

Based on the real-life outlaw sporting event known as the Cannonball Run, Cannonball! follows several participants daring to make the four-wheeled, trans-American trek from the Santa Monica Pier to New York City for a $100,000 payday. Per the screenplay by Bartel and 1980s megawatt producer Don Simpson (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance, et al.), the audience is to root for Carradine’s ex-con character of Coy “Cannonball” Buckman, he of the striped Trans-Am, red handkerchief and corrections-officer girlfriend (Veronica Hamel, When Time Ran Out …). His chief rival in the race is the gun-toting good-ol’-boy Redman (Bill McKinney, First Blood), on whom Buckman busts out the kung fu.

Other notable participants include a young and in-love SoCal couple (The Howling’s Belinda Balaski Revenge of the Nerds’ Robert Carradine); a van full of women, driven by Bartel’s frequent co-star, Mary Woronov (Hellhole); and a rotund family man (Carl Gottlieb, Jaws), who cheats by immediately loading his Blazer into a plane and then unloads into his busty mistress (Louisa Moritz, New Year’s Evil). Cameos abound, including Corman as California’s district attorney, Hollywood Boulevard co-directors Joe Dante and Allan Arkush as junkyard gearheads, and as hoods who share a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Martin Scorsese and Sylvester Stallone.

Five years later, the Shaw Brothers’ fiercest Hong Kong studio competitor, Golden Harvest, took the same idea to the bank with the all-star, big-budget The Cannonball Run. But whereas director Hal Needham steered that Burt Reynolds ego vehicle from mere madcap into mental retardation, Bartel keeps Cannonball! on an even keel of action and humor. He even throws in a couple of surprising deaths. Bottom line: It’s a real hubcap-popper that delivers and delivers and delivers. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Mar 21 2017

Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead (2013)

Trafficking in tastelessness, encompassing a comedic streak and in no danger of awards chatter, the indie-horror effort Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead is directed and co-written by Pretty Dead Things’ prolific Richard Griffin. His jacking-around movie works better than its clumsy title suggests. The plot is no great shakes, either, as some stuck-up high school students face a life-changing choice: two hours of detention or a trip to a wax museum? (Spoiler: They pick the latter.)

The site in question is where the eyepatch-sporting Charles Frank — aka Dr. Frankenstein (Griffin regular Michael Thurber, The Sins Of Dracula) — crafts his wax creations using body parts acquired from unwitting bodies, like those belonging to the unwitting teens. They’re easy to catch when they’re participating in such shenanigans as having sex in a coffin and when they’re just plain dumb: “Hey, you’re that boring museum tour guide! Well, fuck you, boring museum tour guide!” (And so it is with “fuck”: all in the delivery.)

Hungry Dead’s advantage? Spirit. I’ve always been a sucker for movies set in wax museums, and if Griffin isn’t, he’s sure done a good job of designing the ruse. This pic both parodies and praises such old-school scares, not to mention your above-average episode of the original-recipe Scooby-Doo. Griffin works so often and so quickly that viewers never know whether the result will be worth a watch (The Disco Exorcist) or not (Murder University); Frankenstein’s Hungry Dead steps into the plus column. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Read the original review in Exploitation Retrospect: The Journal of Junk Culture & Fringe Media #53

Mar 20 2017

Camp Massacre (2014)

Now that the costly process of shooting on film — not to mention developing it — is a thing of the past, technology allows anyone to make movies. But just because you can doesn’t automatically mean you should, and some of today’s DIY efforts not-so-secretly make me wish operating a DV camera required a license. Nowhere does the amateur-hour approach ring louder than in the realm of the slasher movie.

What is it about the venerable but nonvenerated horror subgenre that inspires so many would-be Wes Cravens to cry “Action”? (And why do their screenplays drop a “fuck” — or its endless variants thereof — on seemingly every page?) In hopes of finding the next Make-Out with Violence or Puppet Monster Massacre, I’ve sat through many microbudgeted horrors, none more horrible — and that’s really saying something — than Camp Massacre, originally titled as Fat Chance.

Once it gets past the prologue of former porn star Bree Olson (The Human Centipede III) getting stabbed — with a knife, pervert — in the shower for no discernible reason other than killing two birds (nudity, name value) with one stone, the film by 2013’s The Hospital co-directors Jim O’Rear and Daniel Emery Taylor (who also serves as screenwriter) gets down to business. Unfortunately, that business is fat-shaming in the name of alleged comedy, as 10 rather large men — ranging from merely obese to morbidly so — compete in a 30-day boot camp for the fictitious reality show By the Pound, with a $1 million booty at stake. As the show goes on, the competition becomes tougher — and yet easier, because of the serial killer offing the contestants.

O’Rear and Taylor consistently go for the gross-out, so hardcore fans of Troma pick-ups might find it funny. I can appreciate a good fart joke and other scatalogical set pieces when they’re well-executed, but the bottom line with Camp Massacre is that it’s an ugly mess — visually, conceptually, metaphorically — and too witless to offend. Ironically, the film could have mitigated its awfulness simply by slimming down. In an utterly baffling creative decision, Camp Massacre runs a bloated, Cimino-esque 129 minutes long! One By the Pounder pledges, “We’ll fix it in post.” They didn’t. —Rod Lott

Get it at Amazon.

Read the original review in Exploitation Retrospect: The Journal of Junk Culture & Fringe Media #53

Mar 19 2017

Reading Material: Short Ends 3/19/17

Getting a nightly fix of The Twilight Zone in a syndicated run one summer in the 1980s, I was taught a couple of things: Rod Serling was a frickin’ genius, and not all black-and-white TV is boring. According to TV critic Mark Dawidziak, many more lessons await imparting, which he has detailed in Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone: A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life, a “heartfelt tribute … wrapped in a self-help book.” Here, Dawidziak has taken 50 common-sense life lessons — such as “Never cry wolf” and “If something looks too good to be true, it probably is” — and discusses them in relation to key TZ episodes (even the one with Talking Tina). While the book is not an episode guide, each chapter could stand alone as a fine essay on one aspect of the game-changing series. Fully illustrated with stills from the shows in question and including “Guest Lessons” from the likes of Leonard Maltin and Mel Brooks, Dawidziak’s syllabus is infinitely more relatable than the likes of Zig Ziglar, but you’d better already be a hardcore TZ fan to gain any value.

By the power of Zeus, Italian Sword and Sandal Films, 1908-1990 is not the definitive book I wanted it to be, mostly because so little of it required actual writing on the part of co-authors Roy Kinnard and Tony Crnkovich. Published by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback does cover what its title promises, with films of the peplum genre arranged alphabetically from Adventurer of Tortuga to Zorro the Rebel, but said coverage is largely rendered irrelevant by the existence of the IMDb, because we get a full list of the cast and crew. Comments from Kinnard and Crnkovich, unfortunately, are limited to a sentence or two, except in the rare case of a game-changer like 1958’s Hercules. Otherwise, their contribution to each entry is scant; for example, for Charge of the Black Lancers, they write in total, “It’s the Poles vs. the Tartars in this action drama, co-produced by Italy’s Royal Film, France’s France-Cinéma Productions, and Yugoslavia’s C.F.S. Košutnjak.” Gripping, no? Although illustrations are bountiful, Italian Sword and Sandal Films is more of a list than a book. I suppose if the apocalypse wipes out the internet, it may serve more purpose.

I want to get lost in Rat Pack Confidential author Shawn Levy’s latest book. Not in the sense of perusing its pages, which I’ve already done, but actually retreating to the world it depicts. Pending the creation of the time machine, I was born too late. The next best thing is the book, Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome, and while not exclusively about movies and the men and women who made them (hence the Pucci, as in kaleidoscopic fashion maven Emilio), the cinema arguably did more than high fashion to make the Italian capital a cultural touchstone around the postwar globe; Anita Ekberg’s fountain-cavorting sure saw to that. Part history, part travelogue, all intoxicating, Levy’s multinarrative work vividly recalls a jet-set splendor that, while never can be replicated, at least can be revisited through the film classics that have visually bottled that feeling forever. Or we could always throw an orgy. —Rod Lott

Get them at Amazon.