Monday, April 28, 2008

Episode 36: Team Fantasmo Freaks Out!

Hey Superfans!

Hot on the heels of our April Schlock-O-Thon, your Team Fantasmo is coming back at you with a horror-filled May episode of classic proportions! May is a special time of year at Fantasmo HQ, as it marks the beginning of a new season of great films (following the particularly brutal April episode). As has become custom, we reserve this month for classic horror and this year we’ve picked two of the greatest cult horror films ever made - Tod Browning’s Freaks and Island of Lost Souls. The first film involves the tale of a group of sideshow performers who seek revenge when betrayed by scheming carnival workers. The film was highly controversial upon its initial release, to the point that it was even banned in a number of cities! It also represented Browning’s most successful production following his megahit Dracula with Bela Lugosi, and remains a timeless horror landmark. Our second film is an early version of H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau, featuring an amazing performance by the one and only Bela Lugosi. Great makeup and atmosphere contribute to what still remains the best adaptation of this cautionary tale regarding the dangers of tampering with Mother Nature! You absolutely can’t miss this freakishly incredible opportunity to a) wash the taste of the Schlock-O-Thon out of your mouth and b) see these classic freak outs on our freakishly huge screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! Here are your Episode 36 details:

When: Saturday, May 10, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road

Films:

8:00 p.m. – Tod Browning’s Freaks (Not Rated)

9:15 p.m. – Island of Lost Souls (Not Rated)

10:30 p.m. – Mystery Bonus Feature (Not Rated)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"And" Steven Seagal Is Ticker!

My journey into the heart of darkness that is Seagalogy continued yesterday, with a film that makes Attack Force look like an unqualified masterpiece. That film my friends was Ticker. A film dealing largely with the subject of bombs . . . an appropriate metaphor for this one unfortunately. Unlike Attack Force which was just absolutely crazy from the word go (its saving grace), Ticker is lifeless with a vengeance. And worse still, it relegates Seagal to a supporting role a la Executive Decision. Yes, it’s the first film that I could actually see not recommending . . . almost. It pulls out an 11th hour save in its final 10 minutes that unfortunately makes it required viewing for budding Seagalogists. Here’s the lowdown . . .

Tom Sizemore stars as San Francisco Detective Frank Nettles, a vice cop who’s dealing with the loss of his wife and son (killed by an unexplained/unrelated to the main plot car bomb). When his partner “Fuzzy” (played by rapper Nas) is killed by a mad Irish bomber (Dennis Hopper), Sizemore turns to the bomb squad for help. The leader of the bomb squad is one Frank Glass (Mr. Steven Seagal), an unorthodox officer given to Zen explanations of his profession (e.g. he insists on referring to bombs as devices or tickers to avoid any negative connotations). Together the two attempt to track down Hopper and his crew using information from a captured accomplice (Jaime Pressly), requisite cop instincts, and Seagal’s wily know-how from his days as a former Department of Defense operative (oh you knew that was coming : ) Can they stop Hopper before he lays waste to the entire city?!?!

Basically what we have here is a REALLY boring, bad rip-off of the 1994 Jeff Bridges/Tommy Lee Jones film Blown Away (which itself wasn’t all that hot to begin with). Dennis Hopper plays the maniacal Irish bomber in place of Tommy Lee Jones (slipping in and out of the Irish accent left and right), and Sizemore/Seagal team up in place of Bridges. Unfortunately for Ticker it has about 1/10th the budget of Blown Away (which at least had some interesting action sequences), Hopper (a sometimes great villain) really phones in his performance, Sizemore is Sizemore, and Seagal isn’t in it enough (but when he’s on it’s pure gold). Oh, and it’s directed by Albert Pyun, the mastermind behind such horrors as Cyborg, Nemesis, and Captain America (not the Reb Brown one). Need I say more.

The film opens with a big action sequence in which the bomb squad is called in to assist with a hostage crisis at a mansion. Seagal and team arrive by chopper, and infiltrate the mansion only to discover they’ve been duped with a decoy bomb (the real one subsequently explodes killing hostages and captors alike). As per custom with Seagal DTV films, he is doubled entirely for this opening sequence. You only see his head as he looks around – literally just his head. When he’s defusing the decoy bomb it cuts from head to double. If he’s walking down a corridor or getting off the helicopter it’s a double. I went back and reread the chapter in Vern’s book on this one, and it helped to explain why he’s doubled so much in this opening sequence – everything (save for Seagal’s head) is culled from another movie. That’s right, the entirety of footage is from a film that is not Ticker!! (Note: This isn’t a first as an armored truck chase sequence in the Seagal film Today You Die was lifted entirely from a Peter Weller/Dennis Hopper film). Hey, why shoot a new action sequence when you can steal a perfectly good one from another terrible film? Bravo Mr. Pyun.

After this breathtaking opening, we are then introduced to Sizemore and Nas as your typical buddy cop team. Nas does have a preoccupation with lecturing Sizemore on letting go of his demons however. Even after he’s shot and dying only a few minutes into the picture (which is pretty amazing given that he’s billed above Seagal), he uses his final breaths to remind Sizemore to let go of his demons. What a guy. Alas Sizemore not only doesn’t take this advice, but allows Nas’s death to provide him with even more demons (the law of unintended consequences rears its ugly head yet again). Needless to say after his partner’s untimely demise Sizemore, not unlike Seagal himself, is out for justice. Unfortunately his department isn’t big on revenge, and gives him grief about participating in the investigation. Which is just fine since we all know he can’t solve the crime until he’s taken off the case. And it helps that Seagal’s Zen bomb squad leader isn’t a stickler for protocol, as he welcomes Sizemore with open arms and drops fortune cookie advice on him throughout the rest of the film during his sporadic appearances.

And really this is where Ticker runs into trouble. If Attack Force didn’t have enough Seagal, then Ticker takes it to an almost Where’s Waldo level. What you get is a lot of Sizemore acting troubled and Hopper chewing some scenery, peppered with a 3-minute or so reminder here and there that Seagal is also in the film. And most of those reminders are not outright jewels. There’s one interesting scene where Seagal teaches Sizemore how to fix his watch which is pretty amusing, but most of the rest feature Seagal operating a police robot or defusing a fake-looking bomb (which believe me never produces an ounce of tension). The one shining exception to this rule is the 10-minute or so climax where Sizemore and Seagal have to stop two bombs at City Hall. Seagal does a little aikido (even throws a guy through a window), but the real winner is when he has to talk Sizemore through defusing a bomb on his own. Here is Seagal’s amazing pep talk to Sizemore (who is nervous about his odds of succeeding):

“Now listen to me man you’re just gonna hafta go beyond hope and fear, don’t get attached to living or dying, or anything else, and understand that death is just another stage on the playground. You have to be able to feel it. And the way you’ll be able to learn how to feel is by coming to know the nature of your mind. And even if you do go today you’ll be back. So if you’re not attached to living or dying, you have nothing to fear. If you have nothing to fear you’re gonna calm down and just listen to me, ‘cause I’m gonna guide you through this. All right?”

Not quite on the level of the "superior attitude" speech from Hard to Kill, but pretty great nonetheless. It’s the few moments like that which alas make this one a must see. In fact I would like to see a standalone Frank Glass film (what a great name for a bomb squad leader), as he really is a classic Seagal character. It’s just a shame that Ticker doesn’t give you nearly enough of him. Instead we have to spend WAY too much time with Sizemore and his demons, Hopper and his on again/off again Irish accent, and a string of uninspired (or completely lifted) action sequences. If there’s a Ticker 2 where Seagal isn’t given the “and” credit, but rather top billing, count me in. Otherwise, I don’t see myself revisiting this one anytime soon. Next up on my viewing list is Mercenary for Justice (only 4 more DTV films to go). Not sure what to expect, but as it pays tribute to a classic Seagal title I have a little more hope than is probably warranted going in. We shall see!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Cult Movie Board Games



Despite my love of cult films, I've never been a big collector of tie-ins, toys, etc. However, there are occasional rarities which spark my interest enough to make me pick up an obscure/unusual item now and then. One merchandising tie-in I've always found particularly fascinating are board games based on cult films . . . especially those that don't lend themselves well to a board game, and/or are questionable in terms of the audience they are aimed at (i.e. R-rated film board games marketed to a demographic well under 17). These games have been few and far between, but are certainly worth seeking out for the curious. Pictured above are some of my personal favorites: George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Alien, Blade Runner . . . and even Michael Mann's The Keep (talk about crazy)! Others I've come across over the years include noteable titles such as John Carpenter's Escape From New York, Aliens, Army of Darkness, and Twin Peaks.

No doubt some of the early titles were released for folks craving an interactive experience before the true advent of video games. Sure there was Atari and the like, but those sorts of adaptations weren't always so great, and board games probably did a better job of creating a fun group experience. On a sidenote, the Atari did claim a few cult horror adaptations including John Carpenter's Halloween, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (!), and Alien. These titles are now quite collectible as well. Now if only there were a Gymkata board game : )

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Creepers Are Coming!


Hey Superfans!

In my last post I mentioned that we had some BIG news coming about this Friday’s Schlock-O-Thon, and now that news can finally be revealed! Before the Schlock-O-Thon starts rolling at 8:00 p.m., Fantasmo will be paid a visit by a film crew from Horse Archer Productions, which is currently producing a documentary on Virginia TV horror hosts titled Virginia Creepers. The crew is looking for fans of Virginia TV horror hosts over the years (e.g. Dr. Madblood, The Bowman Body) to go on camera and share their memories. So if you would like to share your thoughts, be sure to come early (shooting will begin somewhere between 6:00 - 6:30 p.m.) and be a part of the fun. But wait, there’s more . . .

In addition to filming fan interviews, two of Virginia’s most famous horror hosts from years past will also be in attendance to greet the fans! Rick Clark who hosted Chamber Theater as The Keeper on WVEC (1984-1986) will be on hand, along with the first horror host of the Old Dominion Jerry Sandford, who hosted Shock Theater as Ronald on WVEC (1959-1961). If we’re lucky, they may even show some classic clips and share a few great stories (and if you were at the horror host panel at Monster Fest a few years back, you’ll know how fun these can be : ) What was already poised to be a historically significant Fantasmo, is now likely to become the stuff of legend. If there was any doubt in your mind about attending this one, we’re happy to have been able to clear that away with this stunning announcement! But wait, there’s still more . . .

If you would like to learn more about what is sure to be one of the coolest documentaries ever to be committed to film, you can get all the gory details at: www.virginiacreepersmovie.com. Rob and I are thrilled to welcome Team Horse Archer to Fantasmo, and are looking forward to an amazing event! All this and Shark Attack 3 . . . yes friends there is life after Can’t Stop the Music and Gymkata, and it is good!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

400 Years of Training in the Art of Sudden Death - Unleashed Upon 20th Century America!

In anticipation of our upcoming Schlock-O-Thon I thought I’d say a word or two about one of my personal favorites in our stack o’ schlock, the 1983 classic Revenge of the Ninja (the title of this post is that film's delightful tagline). The film is part of a trilogy of unrelated films (Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja 3: The Domination) produced by the notorious Cannon Films studio, which began with Enter the Ninja. The first film starred the legendary Franco Nero (Django) in the role of hero, with Sho Kosugi as the silent, villainous black-clad ninja (Nero was actually decked out in white ninja gear which really calls into question his ability to employ the trademark stealth of the ninja). Despite Nero’s status as leading man, Kosugi stole the show with his amazing display of martial arts mastery. The film became a box office success, igniting the unbelievable 80’s ninja craze, and Kosugi was subsequently cast as the hero in the second installment.

Revenge of the Ninja opens in Japan, where Kosugi is being courted by an old buddy from America to come to the U.S. and open a business (selling porcelain dolls). While he discusses the proposition with his friend, his entire family (save for his infant son and elderly mother) are murdered by a band of ninjas. Sho arrives just in time to eliminate the entire horde in a breathtakingly cheesy sword fight. Having lost his family and wishing to abandon his life as a ninja to raise his son, Sho takes the offer and moves to sunny Los Angeles. There’s a wrinkle though. His friend turns out to be another evil ninja! Worse still he’s using Sho’s porcelain dolls to smuggle heroin into the country. Needless to say, when Sho discovers this dirty secret he breaks his oath to abandon the glamorous ninja lifestyle and rejects the timeless art of negotiation as a means to solve his problem. Who would’ve seen that coming?

There were a LOT of ninja films that came out in the 80’s, many of them starring Kosugi, but this one always stood out to me as the winner. First off it’s a basic revenge story which is always appealing. We witness Kosugi’s family wiped out in the beginning of the film, so there’s an immediate viewer connection to the character . . . in other words we all want payback! Secondly, this is one of the first films out of the gate so the formula hadn’t had time to grow stale. The filmmakers were still trying all sorts of crazy ideas and seeing what worked. For example, the final duel on top of an L.A. skyscraper features everything from swordplay to flamethrowers – madness! Better still, there’s a wild van chase where Kosugi is being dragged while hanging off the back door, with his legs generating sparks! Even Indiana Jones didn’t have sparks coming off of his legs! Later ninja films would rely heavily on uninspired martial artistry and way too much boring exposition. This one is pure action from the word go . . . plus lots of 80’s-inspired music and cheese.

The film was followed by the insane final entry in the series, Ninja 3: The Domination, which also starred Kosugi and Lucinda Dickey (Breakin’). This one crossed the genres of ninjas and horror (what a match), and was a lot of fun, but wasn’t as consistently great as the second film. The assault on some unsuspecting golfers by the evil ninja though is something I will never forget, and easily wins the film a recommendation . . . as if there was any question.

In any case, while it may not be Gymkata, Revenge of the Ninja receives my highest endorsement for your consideration during our annual Schlock-O-Thon. I dare say Rob would even agree with me on this one, despite the fact he has yet to fully embrace Kurt Thomas as a legitimate 80’s action icon (there’s always hope). We have a lot of other great stuff for you to choose from of course . . . and Shark Attack 3. Truly can’t wait! Also, keep watching the blog for a VERY special announcement regarding the Schlock-O-Thon. We shortly expect to receive confirmation on some special guests we are 90% certain will be in attendance : ) You don’t want to miss it!

On a related note, I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention that this week (April 8 specifically) marks the 20-year anniversary of Steven Seagal's presence on the cinematic scene. Above the Law premiered on Friday, April 8, 1988! Wow! Be sure to go out and rent your favorite Seagal film (so many to choose from) this week to mark this momentous occasion! And if you would like a suggestion, you can’t go wrong with Seagal’s DTV epic Belly of the Beast (directed by the fight choreographer of A Chinese Ghost Story 1-3, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers). You have to see it to believe it. Let’s just say you’ll never look at CGI arrows the same way again!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Steven Seagal is Attack Force!


My foray into the world of DTV (direct-to-video) Seagal continued Tuesday evening with the first truly disappointing entry, Attack Force. You may recall my odyssey through Seagalogy began by revisiting all the classic films and theatrical releases up through Fire Down Below. Then I checked out the lesser lights of Exit Wounds and Half Past Dead. At that point I adopted a personal strategy for plowing through the 17 or so video releases, having identified four possible courses of action:

1 – View the films chronologically.

2 – View the films randomly.

3 – View all the bad ones first.

4 – View all the good ones first (good as determined by Vern’s reviews and other trusted sources).

Ultimately, I chose option number 4. My thinking was that by viewing the best of the bunch first, I would build up a reservoir of good will to carry me through to the end. And up until Tuesday that reservoir was overflowing after my screenings of The Foreigner, Black Dawn, Pistol Whipped, Urban Justice, Into the Sun, Belly of the Beast, and Out For A Kill. Let’s just say that I’m glad I chose the course I did, as Attack Force would have been a really rough way to start my DTV journey . . .

First off, let me start by giving you the official plot synopsis from the box:

“Steven Seagal (Shadow Man, Black Dawn) is back in this high-octane, action thriller! When MARSHALL LAWSON (Seagal) loses his strike-team in a cold-blooded and seemingly random attack, he takes it upon himself to investigate the suspicious circumstances of the brutal killings. Soon he uncovers CTX Majestic, a covert military operation so secret, that now the military wants Marshall eliminated. Resolute in his pursuit, Marshall engages in a merciless battle with a drug dealer operation that appears to be secretly funded by a rogue arm of the military.”

This generic description does nothing to indicate the bizarre manner in which Attack Force unfolds. The film begins with an opening action sequence that seems unconnected to anything that follows. I can only assume it exists to introduce Seagal’s character Marshall Lawson (an admittedly inspired Seagalian name). However, it’s unclear as to what is happening and even more disorienting is the fact that Seagal is dubbed (I believe entirely) by a terrible surrogate. To give you some idea, he sounds like the narrator in the extended cut of David Lynch’s Dune. If you are unfamiliar with that reference, think a throaty Wilford Brimley. Unfortunately he is dubbed for probably 75% of the film (easily the most I’ve seen so far, the previous record being Out For A Kill), which does a lot to minimize Seagal’s presence. Then we get some not terribly interesting fisticuffs between Seagal and unidentified baddies, and the scene ends.

From there we cut to Seagal forming a strike team for no apparent reason, whose members are all greatly impressed by their new leader (particularly one fresh recruit). We get a little of the classic business of side characters praising Seagal’s skills, but nothing close to the brilliance of On Deadly Ground and its ilk. After some introductions the characters go out on the town for some R&R (despite the fact they have yet to do anything), and are promptly killed by an attractive girl they meet at a dance club (who dispatches them in a superhuman fashion). Apparently the girl was taking a drug called CTX which gives the user tremendous physical abilities, and also makes their eyes open and close in a reptilian manner. As it turns out the head CTX dealer is planning to release the CTX into the city’s water supply in order to infect the entire city, presumably to endow the populace with super powers. It is never made clear why he thinks this is a good idea, maybe he’s just a generous sort who thinks everyone should be able to live the life of Wolverine. In any event, Seagal then forms a new strike team to avenge the one that was slain in the first 10 minutes of the film. It includes a rock solid right hand man, a female biochemist/combat expert who apparently has some sort of romantic connection with Seagal, and a cadre of faceless gunners who are on Seagal’s “a-list.”

Let me just say this right here . . . the description I have just given you was put together after a) viewing the film, b) reading the box description, and c) re-reading the chapter on Attack Force in Seagalogy. Trying to piece all of this together while actually watching the film is a daunting challenge, as the film is nearly incomprehensible. Attack Force is something that happens to a viewer, rather than something which resembles a typical movie viewing experience where one receives coherent information in which a sequence of events flows naturally in a cause and effect type manner. This film had my full, undivided attention and all I know is there were a lot of mediocre action sequences, some strange futuristic looking weaponry, a dubbed Seagal, and randomly introduced characters that were difficult to connect to the goings on. I’m really not even entirely sure why Seagal’s character was in on this adventure.

Having read Seagalogy however, I knew going in there was a reason for this madness. As it turns out, Attack Force was written to be an alien/sci-fi film (originally titled Harvester). The decision to morph it into a European, drug-trafficking tale was made entirely in the editing room after everything had been shot. This helps to explain a lot of that dubbing! I don’t know why they decided on the change, but it was a terrible decision. The reworking of the plot resulted in a confusing story that almost resembles Woody Allen’s What’s Up Tiger Lily? crossed with Blade 3. In other words a catastrophe of epic proportions. While the futuristic weaponry employed by Seagal and the CTX mutants (e.g. Predator-like wrist-blades and discs) was an interesting first for a Seagal film, it just wasn’t enough to salvage what was really a pretty boring mess.

Yes, you can watch this for the train wreck entertainment value, but I confess I had been spoiled by the previous DTV titles. They were all a little crazy/ridiculous, but nevertheless fun, action-packed, and full of Seagal trademarks. Between the dubbing and a lack of screen time, this one doesn’t feature nearly enough of Seagal. Some of the final moments of the film in which Seagal fights the main villains are pretty fun, but they come far too late. Despite its numerous flaws, this is certainly a must see for devoted/aspiring Seagalogists, but if you’re not a dedicated disciple you’ll probably want to steer clear, or at least save it for later in your viewing cycle. For myself, it confirmed the wisdom of my chosen strategy, and I’m certainly glad my reservoir was braced for the impact.

On a related and more positive note, I must express great thanks to Fantasmo All-Star Chris J. for taking the plunge and beating me to the punch (aikido-style) of purchasing Seagal’s Lightning Bolt energy drink. Chris invested in the “Asian Experience” flavor, as opposed to “Cherry Charge” which I consider a wise decision. He then generously brought a cooler filled with this unique beverage to our Gi-Ant Fantasmo and shared it with myself and others. I had never consumed an energy drink before (unless you count OJ and the like), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turned out, that evening provided a good test run as I was pretty exhausted when we started with Empire of the Ants. Although there was no control group in our experiment, I must tell you that after drinking in the “Asian Experience” I was alert well into the early hours of the morning (truth be told I didn’t get to sleep until around 3:00 a.m.). Whether this was due to Seagal’s magic elixir or the adrenaline rush of seeing giant ants on the big screen is impossible to say, but when in doubt I tend to go with Seagal.

If you’re interested in learning more about Lightning Bolt (and why wouldn’t you be), I highly recommend that you check out the Web site at: http://www.lightningdrink.com/drink/learnmore.html. I particularly love the explanation of how Seagal came up with the name of the drink:

“The name Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt Energy Drink was an inevitable afterthought. When Steven Seagal finished creating a drink that holds untold natural power, there was only one equivalent in nature – The Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt. Both mysterious and powerful, it’s a symbol of the untold energy the earth has to offer – Such is Steven Seagal’s Lightning Bolt energy drink.”

I only wish that I had a Lightning Bolt on hand when viewing Attack Force, as it would no doubt have provided me with a bit of an extra boost during its 90-minute run time. Actually the notion of an “inevitable afterthought” is somewhat appropriate to both Lightning Bolt and Attack Force, as one could make the case that shifting the plot in the editing room from aliens to mobsters was also an “inevitable afterthought.” Luckily the “untold energy” of Seagal was enough to make the experience a worthwhile one in spite of the aforementioned deficiencies!