Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fifth Annual Schlock-O-Thon Anniversary Special

Hey Superfans!

We are about to cross a truly monumental landmark in April as we celebrate 5 years of Fantasmo! Hard to believe we’ve been doing this for half a decade now. It seems like only yesterday we were all sitting down together for that first show to watch Logan’s Run and Buckaroo Banzai. How time flies! Given that this year is sort of an extra special anniversary, we’ve decided to do something extra special to commemorate the occasion. As you know we typically hold our annual Schlock-O-Thon in April, letting you vote on the worst movies we can find. Over the past 4 years you’ve picked some really great, bad stuff, including legendary films such as Gymkata, Night of the Lepus, Solarbabies, The Apple, Shark Attack 3, and Can’t Stop the Music. Of course selection implies that there were a number of potential gems that you voted against. Who knows what treasures may have been overlooked. Well the truth is your Team Fantasmo knows exactly what was overlooked, and this year we’re bringing back all the films that you turned down. Literally we’ll be showing the worst of the worst : ) If you’ve been secretly pining to watch Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, Troll 2, Mac and Me, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Roller Boogie, etc., then your long wait is finally over!

All of this is not to say you won’t have a choice in the matter, we’ll still vote on the films as always . . . it’s just that it will be a lesser of two evils scenario. And honestly how much worse could the selections be than “successful” films from previous years such as The Ice Pirates? The only way to know is by coming out on Friday, April 16th at 8:00 p.m. to ring in year #6! See you there!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Galacticon Saturday!

Hey Superfans!
This weekend is the 2010 edition of the Galacticon sci-fi convention taking place at Virginia Beach Central Library. Much in the spirit of our own FantaSci here in Chesapeake the event features local fan groups, collectible vendors, authors, artists and gaming. If you love sci-fi you'll definitely want to check it out! On a related note I'll have more info up soon on FantaSci, which will be taking place this summer on June 26th . . . so mark your calendars : )

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Movie Review: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Recently I picked up the fantastic Blu-ray set of the Planet of the Apes saga, and have been working my way through the films having not seen them in several years (with the exception of the original). While I generally love the whole series, I was interested in the set for the primary reason of finally being able to see the oft discussed director’s cut of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Supposedly the alterations imposed for the theatrical release made quite a difference in the tone of the film, particularly with regard to the ending. As is frequently the case with challenging films, the footage was excised due to a negative reaction from test audiences, and because it put the film in jeopardy of earning an R rating. Having seen the unaltered Conquest I can honestly say I understand the former, and suspect the latter was a very real possibility. The “new” ending and various restored snippets not only make an already dark film darker, they also intensify the impact of the somewhat watered down message of the theatrical cut. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on what you are looking for in an Apes film experience. My feelings are somewhat mixed on the subject, but overall I prefer the director’s cut because it plays out in a more consistent fashion.

For those unfamiliar, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is fourth in the cycle of five entries in the Planet of the Apes series. The story picks up a few years after the events of Escape From the Planet of the Apes, with circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) acting as foster father for the fully grown child of Cornelius and Zira (who were killed at the end of the third film). Roddy McDowall returns as the lead ape, who is given the prophetic name of Caesar during the course of the film. Due to a space virus that wiped out the Earth’s cat and dog population, humans have taken apes as the new domestic pet of choice. However given the apes’ more advanced abilities, they have also been put to work as servants in everywhere from restaurants to beauty salons. However there have been signs of a growing ape rebellion, leading to a heightened sense of paranoia on the part of the totalitarian-style government that exists in America (in the far flung year of 1991). When Armando is arrested for harboring the world’s only talking ape, Caesar goes underground and hides as a servant where he witnesses extreme cruelty. Not content to stand idly by while he watches the mistreatment of his fellows, he lays plans for a full-scale revolution. By the end of the film he and his followers have won a significant victory over the humans, marking the beginning of the "planet of the apes."

As a kid I saw Planet of the Apes a number of times on television, and it was one of those special films that was on another level for me (e.g. Star Wars, Superman, etc.). I was fascinated by the ape makeup and the whole environment of the film, and Charlton Heston’s Taylor quickly became an iconic hero alongside Captain Kirk and Han Solo. Interestingly I didn’t form a strong attachment with the other movies because they weren't shown often (or at all) in the television market I was in. I saw Battle for the Planet of the Apes a number of times, but the rest I only saw breif clips of. In the few scenes I caught of Conquest I remember it seeming rather bland due to its being staged on the University of California Irvine campus. The studio opted for the locale to save money, using the “futuristic” architecture of the school as a backdrop. Unfortunately it didn’t have the same impact as the wonderful sets of the earlier films. Of course now it doesn’t look so futuristic either, yet it still has a cold feeling about it which fits well with the mood they were shooting for. Either way it lacks the visual punch that the better films in the series possessed. As a result it was many years before random chance finally found me sitting down to watch Conquest (which I obtained in the laserdisc format in a record store bargain bin).

I’ve got to admit, despite my historic lack of interest, I was pretty excited when I popped that giant laserdisc into the player for that initial viewing. I thought just maybe there was potential for discovering a lost (to me at least) classic. Part of this goodwill came from my love of the original, and the other part came from the fact that I had just snagged a $70 laserdisc for $12. As laserdisc collectors out there will remember, the Apes films all went for a staggering $69.95 per film. An outrageous sum, but the only way to see them in widescreen back in the day. I had plopped that down for the first entry, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it for the rest. So watching Conquest on that initial viewing I was ready to be blown away. I’ll say this much, I felt I got every penny of my $12 back in entertainment value, but I was a little underwhelmed with Conquest as an Apes film. First off it was visually lacking due to scaled down production values. The costumes and makeup were clearly second rate in comparison to what had come before. More problematic than that however was a sense that Conquest lacked the courage of its convictions. After building up a rather pessimistic scenario, there was an out of left field happyish ending that seemed to belong to an entirely different film. Despite staging a pretty violent siege, Caesar is quickly talked into a peaceful/compassionate resolution.

Let me set the record straight before we go any further, I’m not one who likes downer endings just for their own sake. There are some folks who will herald a film for being brave or cool because it takes the road less traveled by denying the audience a happy conclusion. This proposition only rings true in my opinion if the downer ending is internally consistent with the rest of the film in question. Using another prominent sci-fi example, it would have been outrageous for Return of the Jedi to end with the death of Han Solo and defeat of the Ewoks given its upbeat tone. Empire Strikes Back on the other hand ended appropriately on a down note as it was a consistently darker film. Conquest posesses neither levity or optimism at any point, so its arrival in the last couple of minutes makes no sense. It's even out of place with the other resolutions in the series, which all ended on an unapologetically apocalyptic note. Consider the following breakdown of POTA series conclusions:

*Planet of the Apes - Taylor discovers Statue of Liberty/learns of nuclear war.

*Beneath the Planet of the Apes - Taylor launches a warhead that destroys Earth.

*Escape from the Planet of the Apes - Cornelius and Zira are killed.

*Battle for the Planet of the Apes – Final shot of a tear rolling down the face of a statue of Caesar, indicating the failure of man and ape to coexist.

So as it stands when considering the theatrical incarnations of the films, Conquest is the odd man out. It completely defies the established Apes tradition of sending movie goers out of the auditorium with a sense of hopelessness/despair, which one could argue is the hallmark of the series. Being different is okay, but Conquest's forced ending was not earned and failed to ring true. On a side note it’s kind of fascinating that as kids we all loved the movies and didn’t focus on that apocalyptic element. I remember thinking the makeup was cool, and that I needed every POTA toy I could get my hands on. Yet every one of these films forecasted that mankind was doomed to destruction. Usually movies that promoted that idea or dealt with nuclear war freaked us out (e.g. The Day After). Strange that when that message was communicated via talking apes it somehow made the proceedings palatable. Weirder still to consider that a movie heralding doomsday would be marketed to kids with action figures, bed sheets, lunch boxes, board games, etc. I mean you wouldn’t have seen View Master reels or trading cards for The China Syndrome!

Anyhow back to Conquest being the exception to the rule. Flash forward 15 years from my laserdisc days, and I’m now finally able to see Conquest in the manner it was originally intended. You know a lot of times so-called director’s cuts don’t amount to much more than a few scene extensions that have zero impact on the final film. They are used as marketing tools to sell copies of movies you already own. I can emphatically say that is not the case with regard to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Although there is not a large amount of restored footage, what there is makes an incredible difference. The first thing that is noticeable is that the violent scenes are more intense. It’s not that the scenes are necessarily gratuitous or graphic, they are simply for lack of a better description more somber. In the original cut there is a superficial quality to the action that provides no sense of gravity, whereas the minor extensions here provide just enough weight to communicate the seriousness of the proceedings.

More important still is that the original ending has been put back in place, and it is not of the happy variety. Instead of backing away from his revolutionary zeal, Caesar holds true to his principle that might makes right. It’s not a pleasant scene to witness, but it is the only outcome that makes sense given all that has taken place. Furthermore Caesar’s corruption is a far more effective demonstration of the anti-violence message the filmmakers are trying to communicate. Seeing a once peaceful, heroic character succumb to the worst aspects of human (or ape) nature is sobering. Where the theatrical cut delivers empty speeches and false ringing changes of heart, this cut forces the viewer to witness the devestating consequences of completely abandoning compassion in favor of violence. The Apes films argue that while violence is sometimes necessary, if allowed to spiral out of control it can only lead to an ever narrowing path toward annihilation. The restoration of the original ending continues this theme, and also improves continuity with the final film in the franchise. Although the apes have established their dominance, in doing so they have become that which they fought against. Unable to break away they will set in place a never ending time loop which sees the destruction of man, ape, and ultimately the Earth.

There’s no doubt that the director’s cut of Conquest is a better film with the restored footage and original ending. It feels more in tune with the message of the series and is also internally consistent. That said it is a difficult film to watch in that it is visually less interesting than previous installments and is relentlessly bleak . . . now even more so. All of the other films, even the so-so Battle for the Planet of the Apes, had moments of adventure and humor. Those made the films both entertaining and thematically interesting. As a viewer who appreciates being entertained, the absence of those elements makes Conquest somewhat of a tough proposition. While in some ways the fact that it makes for uncomfortable viewing is a measure of its success, there is a problem in that Conquest simply doesn't balance the eye candy/fun factor vs. message delivery as well as the other films. I guess you could charge that it never sets out to do that in the first place, but the fact is if you're going to slap Caesar on a lunchbox you have to be prepared to give a little something back that would warrant that type of marketing. No matter, if you're an Apes fan you'll love this new version and probably have the lunchbox already : )

Monday, March 15, 2010

Demons @ The Byrd

The historic Byrd Theatre in Richmond is at it again, holding another screening of a cult classic from the 80's. In the past year they've featured rarities like Lucio Fulci's Zombie and Dark Night of the Scarecrow. Now they are serving up another top tier zombie movie at midnight on April 17th in the form of Lamberto Bava's (Mario's son) Demons. I've seen this one several times over the years, and it is one of the most stylish and fun films of its kind. Certainly a high watermark of 80's zombie cinema (more watchable than Romero's Day of the Dead, although that is a fine film in its own right). What's particularly interesting about this one is that the setting of the film is a perfect fit for The Byrd. The story involves a group of people invited for the screening of a new horror movie in an old theater. During the course of the film, through the use of a cursed mask, the attendees start turning into zombies. Technically I guess they are being taken over by demons, hence the title, but the net result is the same. Either way watching this setup in The Byrd will be particularly creepy.


Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Movie Review: Dark Angel, a.k.a. I Come In Peace (1990)

The Itunes frenzy continues this week, as I just keep finding great titles that aren’t available on home video. While Yor was an exciting discovery it pales in comparison to the review I’m bringing you today – Dark Angel (a.k.a I Come in Peace). Ever since my foray into the world of DTV (direct-to-video) exploration, Seagal has dominated my reviews. This is understandable given that he was my gateway into this below-the-radar underground of cult cinema, courtesy of Vern’s excellent book Seagalogy. If Seagal was my gateway then Dolph Lundgren was the fellow who cemented the deal. After watching close to 20 Seagal DTV films I needed a break and happened to notice that Dolph was still working. To my knowledge he had dropped off the face of the earth after Johnny Mnemonic, but in fact he had become just as prolific as Seagal in the realm of DTV. I picked up one of his directorial efforts, Missionary Man, and was fairly blown away by the quality. Unlike the Seagal films which banked on audacity as the key selling point, Lundgren actually made a solid action film that delivered the goods on a budget.

Impressed by his abilities I started going through his back catalog and quickly found that he had matured into a true action star, even if Hollywood proper was unwilling to acknowledge this fact. This will no doubt be an earth shattering statement given how my love of all things Seagal is firmly established, but in my appraisal Lundgren is the most well-rounded action star to come out of the 80’s. You see Seagal, Van Damme, Norris, Schwarzenegger, and all those guys (with the possible exception of Stallone who does reach from time to time) all are fairly predictable from film to film. They play themselves over and over. Seagal is interesting in that he promotes certain themes and can be classified as an auteur, but his films (which I love on their merits) aren’t as diversified. Lundgren is a capable actor and director, there is a surprising amount of variety within his filmography, and he’s truly a cool guy (how many other action stars can boast of being a world champion in martial arts while also holding a master’s degree in engineering). He often gets lost in the mix among the stars who generated better box office receipts, but I suggest that if you take the plunge and embrace Dolph you will be happy you did.

So let’s talk about Dark Angel. Honestly I was floored to see this on Itunes, not to mention completely ecstatic. Of all Dolph’s early films this is perhaps my favorite, running neck and neck with The Punisher (which is still the best incarnation of the Marvel comic, even if he doesn’t wear the costume). Although released in 1990, Dark Angel is without question a product of the 80’s. This is not only due to the fashion, music, and hairstyles, but most significantly because it is set in perhaps THE trademark 80’s action film scenario – the mismatched buddy cop movie. Thanks to Lethal Weapon the combination of streetwise/rogue cop paired with by-the-book/traditionalist cop became a hallmark of the decade. While it’s being parodied by Kevin Smith in theaters at the moment in Cop Out, there was a time when people couldn’t get enough of the scenario. Even Lethal Weapon had (regrettably) four entries! The cool thing about Dark Angel is that it combines the setup with a sci-fi storyline, which makes the formula feel fresh (even if The Hidden already did it pretty well in 1987). Essentially a sci-fi criminal comes to earth to collect human brain fluid, which is apparently an extraterrestrial drug that’s a hot item on the galactic market. Unfortunately for him Dolph is assigned to the case, so you know he doesn’t stand a chance of collecting his wares!

Aside from the coolness of combining a sci-fi premise with the buddy cop formula, Dark Angel is special for a couple of other reasons. First and foremost is the main baddie Talec. B-movie regular Matthias Hues turns in a top notch performance as the creepy universal drug dealer come to earth (in peace). He has translucent eyes, is ridiculously tall, and has a fancy gun that fires bullets which cause enormous explosions. The explosions are one of the most memorable aspects of the film, and I recall at the time thinking the budget must have been pretty healthy since nearly everything gets blown up. It reminds me of current video games where the selling point is that players can demolish anything in the environment (e.g. Red Faction, Infamous). Folks seem to like that now, and they must have liked it in the late 80’s too judging by how much gets blown up here. It does seem like “blowing stuff up real good” as a marketable commodity in genre films really came into its own in the 80’s, given the number of films that featured show-stopping explosions.

Dark Angel certainly takes a page or two from this chapter, and ramps it up to the extreme. In my mind it does it better than most of its 80’s brethren though (e.g. Die Hard), as it makes a point of how absurdly over the top the explosive gun is through its self awareness of the fact. With something like Die Hard one expects that a building wired with explosives will blow up big as a matter of course, thusly the setup dictates the result and prepares you for its arrival. In fact the promotion at the time of its release made a point of how realistic the goings on in Die Hard were, with Bruce Willis intentionally cast as an everyman hero. Let’s face it though, realism in Die Hard probably begins and ends with Bruce arriving at the building. In Dark Angel the explosive gunplay is gleefully ridiculous/continuous and the filmmakers acknowledge it as such from the word go. Consequently as a viewer you get caught up in the enthusiasm and playful spirit that these guys were shooting for (no pun intended). Don’t get me wrong I love Die Hard and films of its ilk, but it’s refreshing to see something like Dark Angel that engages in a touch of self parody.

Back to Talec though. The other neat thing is that every time Talec captures another poor victim, he says to them “I come in peace.” This is the gag that the whole movie more or less rests on, as immediately after he says this line his poor victim is dispatched in a dramatic fashion. This is probably a good time to discuss the title(s) of the film, and my impressions on that front. First off, you’ll notice this is a review of a movie called Dark Angel. That’s the European version of the film, and the version available on Itunes. The title here in the states was I Come in Peace. During the film’s initial run I must confess I didn’t care for the title. It just seemed clunky, and made it sound like a second rate release rather than blockbuster material. I’ve warmed to it over the years however, and with most people I know who follow such things the title generates fond memories. Truly it could be argued that the title has been responsible for keeping the film alive in people’s memory. This is likely due to the wonderful (if obvious) use of the line at the end of the film (spoiler coming) in which the alien utters the line to Dolph, and Dolph responds by saying “and you go in pieces.” Brilliant.

It’s a bold approach to go with a catchphrase as the title of your film when you think about it. Let me illustrate. When you consider a movie called The Terminator for example, that has a cool/action-packed sounding ring to it. If the same film were called I’ll Be Back I don’t know how well it would have fared. I Come in Peace boldly adopts a title that highlights a running joke throughout the film. If they had called it something like Alien Vice or the like it might have had better luck at the box office. For my money though (at least in hindsight) I feel they made the right decision. Apparently in Europe they thought the translation of I Come in Peace wouldn’t work and went with Dark Angel. It’s been out on DVD over there for years under that title in glorious widescreen (which caused some major jealousy on this side of the pond). I admit it is a pretty cool sounding title and I’m not upset that Itunes went with the European edition . . . but the movie will always be I Come in Peace to this viewer and other fans. Without that title, which foreshadowed its iconic usage in the final reel, the film might have slipped into total obscurity.

Along with the aforementioned factors, the other quality that makes the film a classic is the chemistry between the two buddy cops. It should come as no surprise that this is where buddy cop movies ultimately succeed or fail. If the leads don’t have a solid foundation then the formula will not work (see Red Heat with Schwarzenegger and Belushi for a prime example of this). Here the leads are Dolph and Brian Benben (Dream On, Radioland Murders) and they are terrific. Dolph is the perfect slacker cop who runs on instinct, which had to be a surprise to audiences watching it back then. Most people knew him as either Ivan Drago or He-Man at that point in time, so the Dolph image was that of a rigid character. This movie is where you can notice him starting to become at ease as an actor and a star. It’s clear that he’s having a good time free from the pressure of turning in an iconic performance laced with expectations. His speech is also more natural than his earlier performances, as I believe he was still honing his accent up until this point.

With regard to Benben he’s in full-on Benben mode. If you like his trademark combo of sarcasm and hyperactivity then you’ll love his by-the-book FBI agent. For example the stock scene where the two partners are introduced could have come off as old and tired (even at that point in time), but the way Benben plays it is terrific. He keeps belittling Dolph’s intelligence, bragging that as an FBI agent he has more education than a regular cop. He’s totally in Dolph’s face with the smugness, which is crazy because Dolph could clearly wipe the floor with him. This begins a terrific ongoing joke throughout of how Dolph dwarfs Benben in size, so it works on a visual level as well. Most importantly as the characters grow to grudgingly like and respect one another, you can tell there is a genuine camaraderie between the actors. Pairings like this either work or they don’t, and in this case the casting department did a fantastic job. Caine (Lundgren) and Smith (Benben) may not be Riggs and Murtaugh in stature, but for what it’s worth I would have rather seen I Still Come in Peace than Lethal Weapons 3-4!

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a Dolph movie, or even if it hasn’t, this is a great one to revisit. I can’t heap enough praise on Itunes for coming through and making films like this, Yor, and so many others available. I had never seen this in its original aspect ratio, and for films that rely on visual effects that’s a significant drawback. I Come in Peace on a panned-and-scanned VHS tape, that had a poor image to begin with, is an entirely different experience when viewed in the digital realm. I still have a few more reviews for Itunes finds coming, and I’m going to get myself psyched up for our April Schlock-O-Thon by taking the plunge and watching Vanilla Ice’s Cool As Ice. I can’t tell you how close I’ve come already to downloading it off Itunes . . . my curiosity at seeing a pristine, widescreen copy of this is nearing a crescendo. No doubt I’ll end up confirming the old saying “what good is wisdom if it brings no profit to the wise,” but truly how much worse can it be than The Apple and I sat through that twice! Stay tuned.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Fantasmo @ The Williamsburg Film Festival

Hey Superfans,

Those of you who have been around a little while know that your Team Fantasmo is good friends with the folks behind the annual Williamsburg Film Festival. The festival is a celebration of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with a particular focus on Westerns. Over the years we've been fortunate to have guests from the program participate at Fantasmo in the form of Q&A sessions on films we've screened (e.g. The Eiger Sanction, Friday the 13th, etc.). This year's festival is happening this weekend, and in a Fantasmo first we will actually be hosting a special episode at the event as part of the official program lineup!

Now you may be thinking to yourself that we don't really show much in the way of Westerns at Fantasmo. True enough, but there is a connection! While the guests all have significant backgrounds in Westerns, most have extensively appeared in genre film and television as well. One of the featured guests this year is Paul Picerni who, among many other cool roles, notably did battle with Vincent Price as the hero in the original House of Wax.

With this in mind, we will be hosting a screening of that delightful cinematic jewel with Mr. Picerni on hand to answer questions and talk about that experience. I for one can't wait to hear his thoughts on what it was like working with both Vincent Price and Charles Bronson! The show starts at 11:00 p.m. Friday night at the festival, but you should really come for the whole day (or weekend for that matter) as it is absolutely one of the best film events in this area (if not the best). Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Movie Review: Yor, The Hunter From the Future (1983)

"Yor's World, he's the man! Yor's World, he's the man! Lost in the world of past, in the echo of ancient blast. There is a man of future, a man of mystery. No tribe to lead the way, in his search for a yesterday. Misty illusions hiding, his famous destiny.

Yor, the touch of fire. Yor the proud and free desire.He never sees the sun, he's always on the run, him and his days are gone.They say he will go on, his search goes on and on.Yor's World! He's forsaken the name! Yor's World! And the world was like fire!

He's gonna make all the wild things look tame tonight, in his fight!Yor's World, he's the man! Yor's World, he's the man!

Yor's World! He's forsaken the name! Yor's World! And the world was like fire!Yor's World! On the sun there's a soul! Yor's World! And the world was like fire!Yor's World! He's forsaken the name! Yor's World! And the world was like fire!”

Ah Yor, The Hunter From the Future, you sweet, sweet treasure of the cinema. The lyrics above comprise the theme song from the 1983 film starring the incomparable Reb Brown . . . or at least I think they are. I found them online and they sound pretty close to what is being said in the song (which is pretty hard to decipher), so I have no reason to doubt them. You see what most people who had the good fortune to see this gem back in the 80’s likely remember, if they remember the film at all, is the cheesy beyond belief synth-pop theme song. And more to the point they remember how it keeps repeating over and over “Yor’s World, he’s the man!” To get a flavor of this you can easily find it on YouTube, and it is well worth your time. If you find it intoxicating then you absolutely will want to seek this one out, because it totally delivers on the promise of those lyrics. The film is a mish mash of 80’s barbarian/sword and sorcery/sci-fi cliches, that is nothing short of brilliant entertainment (and I don’t say this in mockery). Any reasonable person viewing Yor would have to conclude, given how outrageous it is across the board, that the vibe was intentional. Long unavailable on home video, I had the pleasure of rediscovering this one on Itunes over the weekend in glorious widescreen (I had only seen panned and scanned on cable back in the 80’s when it was shown constantly). Thanks again Itunes for restoring another lost classic!

You might imagine that the plot of a film called Yor, The Hunter From the Future would be a fairly unpretentious, straightforward affair. For about the first half of the film that turns out to be exactly the case, as we follow the adventures of a wandering barbarian named Yor (who else) played by B-movie legend Reb Brown (Space Mutiny, Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf). After running around a pretty interesting looking countryside (the film was shot in Turkey among some interesting rock formations) to the wild theme song, Yor stumbles upon a father and daughter named Pag and Ka-Laa under siege by a hungry triceratops. This is an early Rubicon of sorts for the viewer, as the animatronic triceratops is a cold splash of water for anyone expecting Jurassic Park type effects. From this reviewer's standpoint, I was perfectly willing to buy the battle between Yor and an oversized, not particularly mobile puppet because Reb Brown totally sells it. He attacks the rubbery beast with such conviction you can’t help but be won over!

After saving the couple, Ka-Laa falls head over heels for Yor. Grateful for his efforts Pag invites Yor back to their village which is quickly attacked by another, more primitive tribe. There follows a brief regrouping period before Yor, Ka-Laa, and Pag head off in search of the origin of a strange medallion Yor wears around his neck. This is where the typical barbarian style plot takes somewhat of a left turn. As it turns out (spoilers ahead) Yor comes from an advanced race that went underground after an atomic war on Earth. The underground society is ruled by an evil dictator named The Overlord, who is building an army of superior robot androids. Little does Yor know that The Overlord is planning to use Yor’s genetic imprint as the pattern for his robot army. Interestingly, Yor doesn’t exhibit an intellect that would necessarily be coveted as the imprint for an army of robot androids. My only guess here is that The Overlord doesn’t want to imprint them with a superior intellectual capacity to his own for fear of coup d’etat. The joke’s on him though, as Yor ends up overthrowing him due to his physical prowess and cunning instincts. Rocket scientist he may not be, but he can swing a mean broadsword.

Perhaps the first tipoff that Yor is going to be something special, from a technical standpoint, is that it was orchestrated by legendary Italian cult director Antonio Margheriti (War of the Planets, Mr. Super Invisible). Like many of his other films the official credit goes to his alias Anthony M. Dawson, but there’s no mistaking the trademark touches of rubbery creatures, rickety spaceships, and shoestring budget adventure. Sometimes those things can be a real hindrance to a film, but Margheriti makes them work by providing no letup in the action to give one time to ponder any moment of absurdity, and exuding a love for craft in his execution. Lesser directors are just putting out a product but Margheriti’s sincerity, much like that of Ed Wood, buys a lot of good will. If you want another perfect example of just how talented a director he is, you should check out Castle of Blood. With next to nothing in the way of resources, save for a good cast, Margheriti made one of the great (no kidding) 60’s gothic horror films. It would absolutely rival the better Hammer films.

Given Margheriti’s presence it also should come as no surprise that the film is an Italian production, which means there’s dubbing. While no doubt the film would play better in the original Italian, it’s important to bear in mind that there would still be some issues as Reb Brown would still be dubbed. Actually, unless I’m mistaken, I’m pretty sure he’s dubbed in the American version (which is an interesting situation in and of itself). He has a distinctive voice which is hard to replicate. The thing is Yor spends a lot of time yelling, and that makes distinguishing where the real Reb Brown begins and ends somewhat tricky, as onscreen yelling is a Reb Brown trademark (see Space Mutiny). The bottom line is that the dubbing makes the already cheesy film all the more cheesy. I’m just saying don’t dismiss it out of hand on that basis, as really Margheriti didn’t have much of a choice on that front.

Anyhow one interesting piece of trivia I came across with regard to the film’s origin, is that it was an Italian television production (a 4-part miniseries in fact) cut down for theatrical release. Supposedly the television version ran 190 minutes, whereas the U.S. theatrical release ran only 88. Frankly I can’t imagine a three-hour version of Yor, but rest assured I would line up to see it! Taking this into consideration I think the 88-minute version fares remarkably well in terms of being comprehensible, with the fast pacing in my mind standing out as one of its greatest assets. What is perhaps just as impressive is how good the visuals look in light of this revelation. Evaluating Yor strictly as a theatrical release one might be quick to point out the shortcomings of the effects and production values. As a television production though, especially for the period in question, I would say Yor makes the most of its resources. It’s not so much that they look good or convincing, they surely do not, but they somehow come off as worthy of a theatrical exhibition. As a parallel I would point to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The pilot film was screened in theaters, and looked pretty okay. I’m not sure Yor is quite on that level, but it’s pretty close. While Reb Brown may be to Gil Gerard what Bruce Campbell is to Robert De Niro, I would say to you that I dear reader like Bruce Campbell. So take that for what it’s worth.

Speaking of Reb Brown I would be remiss if I did not talk a little about the fellow and what exactly he brings to the table, as he is another indicator of Yor being worthwhile. For the uninitiated Reb Brown was a prominent B-actor in the late 70’s and early 80’s. He memorably played Captain America on television, had supporting roles in A-list features such as Uncommon Valor and Distant Thunder, and then became a legend in the likes of Space Mutiny. In some respects Space Mutiny was probably responsible for his lasting impact, as it was immortalized on one of the most beloved episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The film was mercilessly ridiculed for production values and performances. Brown was specifically taken to task for his one-note, testosterone-fueled hero. In the context of MST3K that's fair enough, but upon closer inspection I think there's something to be said for Brown's trademark bravado. To oversimplify and dismiss his particular talent is shortsighted.

You see the fact of the matter is that B-grade, testosterone-fueled heroes is what Brown does, and for my money he does it as good as anyone in his circle. He’s one of those performers who is a “star” rather than an “actor.” When you see Reb Brown in any given role you’re getting Reb Brown the star/person, not Reb Brown’s “interpretation” of the character. As a consequence some might criticize him for having a limited range, but there are plenty of A-listers to whom this model applies. A prominent example would be Harrison Ford. With rare exceptions (e.g. Mosquito Coast) Harrison Ford typically plays Harrison Ford. If you love Harrison Ford, which a lot of folks do, then this is just dandy. I would submit that Reb Brown should be held to the same standard. If you love what Reb Brown does, then you’ll have little to complain about.

One of the things I personally love the most about Yor is how it is sort of a bait and switch film. You know the type. The film is sold as one sort of film, and switches gears at some point creating a surprise for the audience. A classic example of this subgenre would be From Dusk Till Dawn which begins as a heist picture, and turns into a vampire epic. In the case of Yor it begins as a barbarian movie in the vein of Conan, and turns into a post-apocalyptic sci-fi yarn (always a favorite with your Team Fantasmo). It is true that you get a bit of a heads up with the fantastic poster pictured above (not to mention the title), but really it just hints at what’s in store. As such Yor distinguishes itself from the sword and sandal crowd by breaking out of the accepted mold. In my mind this is arguably the chief element that has cemented its cult status, as it possesses a broader appeal and keeps viewers engaged in wondering what may come next. While others have attempted this tactic with mixed results (I’m looking at you Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time), none have ever come close to duplicating Yor’s success.

On the subject of the poster, it is one of my favorite genre posters from the 80’s. It’s from the old school of poster art where the action depicted sells the film as being more epic than it actually turns out to be. The poster shows crazy looking UFO ships and a barbarian waving his weapon at them. This never happens in the film, and those ships don't end up looking that cool, but it sure makes you want to see it. These days posters tend to show the faces of the actors in the movie and not much else. Movies are sold on stars rather than the situations and goings on that take place in the story. It’s a shame because it renders poster artistry as something of a lost craft. The reason for this development is most likely that back in the days before the Internet, posters had to do the heavy lifting in selling the movie. Now one can easily catch trailers on YouTube and official web sites, so posters tend to be churned out lazily.

To take a current genre example one need look no further than The Wolfman. The poster shows all the principals (Hopkins, Blunt, Del Toro, and Weaving ) prominently, and way in the background it shows a tiny image of the wolf man. Does that seem just a little crazy to anyone? I mean could you imagine the poster for Star Wars just being the faces of Hamill, Ford, Fisher and Cushing lined up against a black background, rather than X-wings flying toward the Death Star, Vader’s helmet looming large in the background, and Hamill wielding a lightsaber?!? Absolutely not, just compare the two below and you'll see a stark contrast. The first time I remember seeing this was the poster for the original Scream, which just showed the cast and nothing else. The film became a monster hit, so I guess everyone figured if a plain poster like that could produce a franchise then why bother doing anything more elaborate. In their defense those posters do seem to generate blockbusters, so I guess you can't really blame them for being practical - it just regrettable from an aesthetic standpoint.

Before leaving Yor I would also like to provide a little bit of context for its place in movie history, as it arrived in theaters at an interesting moment in time. Yor was released in the summer of 1983, August to be specific. The summer of 1983 followed what is considered by many to be the greatest summer ever in the way of genre releases. It included movies like Blade Runner, Star Trek 2, Conan, Poltergeist, TRON, etc. It also saw the release of one of the most audacious B-movies ever in the form of Hal Needham’s Megaforce. So 1983 had a lot to live up to . . . and it tried mightily. Here is just a sampling of what folks were watching that summer: Return of the Jedi, Blue Thunder, Jaws 3-D, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Octopussy, Psycho II, Superman III, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and WarGames to name but a few. We’re talking some pretty great stuff.

And then there was Yor. Now remember this was an edited from television, low-budget Italian film starring Reb Brown. Can you imagine after sitting through a summer of films of the caliber listed, finishing things up with Yor?!? Such a thing would never happen today in the cookie cutter movie world we have now. Yor would be strictly direct-to-video. In my mind this represents a great loss, as most wouldn’t have enjoyed the opportunity to accidentally discover it in a mainstream theater as moviegoers did that summer. For that matter the same would hold true for Megaforce. You know when you consider it, Yor could be counted as the Megaforce of 1983 (which is quite an honor depending on your point of view).

On a final note something I find to be a curious coincidence. Another film released in the early summer of May 1983 was Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (in 3-D) starring Peter Strauss. While it did not feature barbarians or a bait and switch format, it was cut from the post-apocalyptic sci-fi quest mold. The main villain in the film, played memorably by Michael Ironside, was called The Overdog. Yor, released a couple of months later featured a villain named The Overlord. Weird. Was there something in the air that led to this, or was the “Over Something” naming convention just in vogue for whatever reason? It’s like when situations occur where there are 3 Wyatt Earp films in one summer, only this is much more subtle (and therefore more mysterious). There was also another parallel in that both films marked the only time Strauss or Brown would headline a major theatrical release, much less a summer blockbuster. So perhaps the “Over Something” naming convention represented a curse of sorts as well. The heroes may have triumphed over the villains onscreen, but the movies arguably took down the careers of the real actors. Either way the movies are both a lot of fun and beloved by many. Spacehunter is thankfully available on DVD (although sadly not in 3-D). And again Yor is strictly an Itunes option, at least if you want it in the original aspect ratio . . . the way it was meant to be seen!