Friday, December 16, 2011

You'd Better Watch Out: Volume 3


For the past couple of years I've posted lists of unconventional Christmas films around the holidays, to provide an alternative viewing roster for those inclined toward something off the beaten path. Titles have included such cheery favorites as 12 Monkeys, Brazil, Trancers, Die Hard, etc. This year I ended up watching a great one out of Finland called Rare Exports. The film tells the story of a small group of villagers in present day Finland, whose lives are upended when a mining company discovers the real Santa Claus buried deep within the heart of a local mountain. The problem is that this isn't the Santa we all know and love, but the Santa from myth and legend. This Santa does more than leave a lump of coal for those who are naughty, sees reindeer as a source of protein rather than a useful means of conveyance, and does not arrive with the charming red suit and hat.

Of course once Santa inevitably escapes the restraints the mining company attempts to impose, he runs loose and wreaks havoc in the village. A young boy, his father, and a couple of hapless locals manage to corral him, but intend to make the mining company pay top dollar due to all the reindeer Santa took out along the way. One of the most creative pieces of business is that everyone has to be careful not to swear or do anything naughty, or Santa will focus his radar on them. It's sort of like having to remain motionless to avoid the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, not feed Gremlins after midnight, etc. There a lots of little touches like this that make the film unique and fresh.

I went into this movie pretty much free of any expectations, and have to say it mostly was fantastic. What you have is a combination of the isolation and wintry chill of The Thing, mixed with "magic of childhood" vibe of 80's Spielberg, and a dash of overblown modern action. I could have probably done without the last element, because it somewhat diminished the wonderfully creepy atmosphere established in the first 2/3 of the film. Not a deal breaker though by any means, and when we finally see the true Santa it is truly a jaw dropper.

So if you're looking for an alternative to A Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story marathons, check out this daring little gem . . . and we'll see you all at Fantasmo in the coming New Year!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Fantasmo Episode 68: Team Fantasmo Vs. Lovecraft


Hey Superfans!
Thanks to everyone who came out for our BIG holiday episode, and especially to Santa Claus himself who was on hand for picture taking and wish list hearing! It was truly a Fantasmo to always remember : ) Never ones to live in the past, we're already looking to the future and our groundbreaking first episode of 2012. For this very special Fantasmo we are paying tribute for the first time in our history to legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Filmically adapted on numerous occasions over the years, Lovecraft's brand of fright involves creatures from another dimension trying to force their way back into our world . . . and in the process driving anyone they come into contact with totally insane.

Although Lovecraft was most famously essayed by horror director Stuart Gordon with the likes of Re-Animator and From Beyond, we have chosen to focus on some of the more obscure efforts: Die Monster Die! & The Dunwich Horror. These two come from the horror factory that was American International Pictures during their glory days of the late 60's and early 70's. It's drive-in schlock meets Lovecraftian terror, and the results are pure cinematic gold! Die Monster Die! features Boris Karloff delivering a trademark mad scientist role, squaring off against B-movie legend Nick Adams. Classic. The Dunwich Horror on the other hand is an exercise in pure weirdness, as Dean Stockwell turns in one of the most bizarre performances of his career. It's a really strange movie befitting the source material. So without any further ado, here are your full Episode 68 details:

When: Friday, January 6th @ 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Die Monster Die! (1965)

9:30 p.m.: The Dunwich Horror (1970)

So there you have it Superfans, another exercise in cinematic perfection to kick off the New Year! You dare not miss these creepy classics back on the big screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! See you there!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Movie Review: Endangered Species (1982)


It is a widely held opinion among genre fans that the greatest summer film season ever was the summer of 1982. I've written about it here on the blog, and we've screened several of the films at Fantasmo. To give you some idea of how it has earned this reputation, films from that summer include: Conan the Barbarian, TRON, Blade Runner, Star Trek 2, Cat People, Poltergeist, The Thing, E.T., etc. Without question E.T. was the box office champ among the crowded field, with some of the darker films (e.g. The Thing) falling prey to negative reviews in the shadow of that feelgood crowdpleaser. Even so Blade Runner, The Thing, and Cat People, to name a few examples, were reassessed and eventually obtained the appreciation they deserved. Another genre film released late that summer, also featuring equally dark subject matter, has yet to undergo a hindsight evaluation.

Endangered Species came out in early September of '82 and, from my recollection, disappeared quickly. I caught it on a late night cable screening a year or so later, and remembered it being quite creepy. It featured mutilated cattle, strange lights in the sky, intense chases, and Robert Urich making the jump to the big screen. Without question it is a clear forerunner to the X-Files. I've always wanted to catch it again to see if it would hold up, but it has been out of circulation for many years. Now thanks to the Warner Archive on demand program, it is available at last (and thankfully in its theatrical aspect ratio). I could at last find out if Endangered Species was a lost classic, or a dated dud better forgotten lest it blemish the sterling reputation of that storied summer.

So what's it about? TV legend Robert Urich (Vega$, S.W.A.T., SOAP, Spenser For Hire) stars as Ruben Castle, a celebrated New York cop who is attempting to overcome a battle with alcoholism. In order to get his head on straight, he pulls his teenage daughter out of school and the two head to rural Colorado to visit his old newspaper friend Joe Hiatt (Paul Dooley). Instead of finding a little peace and relaxation, Castle finds himself in the middle of a mystery involving a series of local cattle mutilations. The newly elected local sheriff (JoBeth Williams), unable to find a trace of evidence, has considered theories ranging from U.F.O. abductions to Satanic cultists. However when Hiatt turns up dead and Castle gets involved, the two discover something far more sinister than they could have ever imagined.

I don't know if Chris Carter saw Endangered Species prior to making The X-Files, but I'm guessing it had to be one of his sources of inspiration. Wild card male cop, straight arrow female cop, and extra-terrestrial conspiracy theories. Sounds pretty familiar. If it had no other redeeming features, Endangered Species would certainly qualify as important for being the first out of the gate with the subject matter. Luckily director Alan Rudolph manages to sustain a nice level of suspense, and there are some terrific highlights here and there. In particular he spends a good deal of time up front with some quiet scenes of "something" chasing cattle from an airborne point of view. There's something unsettling about it that's hard to put a finger on, but if forced my finger would land squarely on the deliberate pacing. Rudolph takes his time with these sequences, which are interspersed nicely with the introduction of Castle and his daughter, investigations the crime scenes, and town meetings discussing the phenomenon. The first 15 minutes or so truly prepared me for potential greatness.

Unfortunately the early momentum is not evenly sustained throughout the film. For lack of a better description things become choppy. The remainder of the running time feels like an assemblage of parts rather than a cohesive whole. It's like Rudolph knows all of the stock situations required of a thriller and proceeds through a checklist, splicing them together with little consideration of how they flow. Some of these scenes are downright excellent. For example, there's a scene where Urich is being chased across the plains by a menacing black helicopter that could stand tall against the best thrillers. However for every one sequence like this there are three flat scenes that aren't up to par, mostly of repetitive exposition regarding the tension between the local cattle baron (Hoyt Axton), the sheriff, and Castle.

This uneven quality runs across every aspect of the film. Urich and Williams are solid in their roles, but then you have genre vets like Peter Coyote and Hoyt Axton dropping the ball. They so overplay their villain roles that it becomes laughable. And speaking of Coyote he dons the worst fake mustache I've ever seen in a big budget studio film (thanks HD television and your gloriously high resolution). That sort of attention to detail deficit rears it's ugly head time and again. Just taking body hair once more as an example, Dan Hedaya wears a wig that makes him look like a disco refugee instead of the menacing thug he's supposed to be. It's bizarre that these small, yet glaring details get overlooked when big effects items are executed so well. The ominous black helicopter is cooler looking than Blue Thunder, and some of the laser graphics and optical effects would have been fantastic for the period. It really is puzzling and frustrating that things don't come together the way they should.

One final item that bears mentioning is what a time capsule experience Endangered Species can be. It plays up the tensions between the U.S. and Russia that were so prevalent, and this aspect factors large in the narrative as events progress. It's amazing how many genre films of the time ranging from Wargames to Gymkata used the arms race as a plot point. Certainly every era will have examples of how reality filters into fantastic entertainment, and the 80's function as a prime example of that phenomenon. Most of all, for better or worse, music here is a real flashback to cinematic signs of times. Whenever there's a tender or tough moment between Urich and Williams or Urich and his teen daughter, we're treated to a sappy montage with a love ballad. No doubt this happens in movies now, but never was it done so cheesily as in the 80's. On the subject of music, the score for Endangered Species is an interesting electronic concoction. Some reviewers have suggested it's reminiscent of John Carpenter, and when it's at its best that's a fair statement. Like so many other elements in the film however, when it's firing on all cylinders the music is great, but when it isn't it REALLY isn't.

The overall problem with Endangered Species is that while it has plenty of good moments, they never add up to greatness. It is absolutely worth seeking out, particularly if you're a fan of X-Files type shenanigans, just be prepared for an uneven experience. The real tragedy of the film is that it was Urich's leap to movies, and its lackluster reception likely stalled his career. He then followed with the cult favorite The Ice Pirates, which sent him right back to television. It's a shame because he has a great presence and deserved better. Interestingly Williams and Coyote had both found big success earlier that same summer in Poltergeist and E.T. respectively. Guess that helped them to write this one off and move on.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fantasmo Episode 67: The Holiday Episode


Hey Superfans!

Hard as it is to believe, another year of Fantasmo is coming to a close. Of course this can mean only one thing - it's time for our annual holiday episode! Those of you who have been with us since the beginning know that for years we screened the Village People classic Can't Stop the Music as our December highlight, but we've been taking a break and maybe we'll dust it off next December. For this very special holiday episode we're screening two seasonal classics in the form of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Joe Dante's original Gremlins. But that's not all, we've also arranged for Santa Claus himself to be on hand to kick off the proceedings, hear wish lists, and take pictures with our younger Superfans! Truly an evening filled to the brim with holiday cheer!


Without any further ado, here are your full Episode 67 details:

When: Friday, December 2nd, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films & Special Guest:

7:00 p.m.: Pictures with Santa!

8:00 p.m.: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas

9:30 p.m.: Gremlins

So there you have it Superfans, another perfect holiday episode to celebrate with your Team Fantasmo! See you there!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Special Fantasmo Halloween Event!


Hey Superfans!
Your Team Fantasmo is doing something a little different this Halloween, having decided that Monster Fest just wasn't enough to last us through October! For the first time ever we are holding a special edition of Fantasmo on Halloween night, and will be showing the original War of the Worlds on the big screen. It may not be Orson Welles, but George Pal's 1953 epic is still terrifically creepy! Of course we'll also have a plethora of candy and refreshments as always, certainly everything you could want for Halloween :) Without any further ado, here are your full Halloween Special Edition details:

When: Monday, October 31, 8:00 p.m. (doors open at 7:00 p.m.)

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Film:

8:00 p.m.: War of the Worlds

So there you have it Superfans, our first ever Halloween episode! Hope to see you there!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fantasmo Episode 66: 80's Action Cheese Festival


Hey Superfans!

A BIG thank you from your Team Fantasmo to all who came out to support our 8th(!) annual Monster Fest event! It was a blast for us to put on, and we hope you had as much fun as we did :) For November, we thought we'd switch gears from horror and have our first ever 80's action night. For the record we did celebrate Chuck Norris specifically, but this is more of a general, loving tribute to that decade. There are certainly plenty of titles to choose from, and many outstanding ones to be sure, but we thought we'd focus on two films that include every cheesy cliche the 80's had to offer: Commando and Cobra!

Everyone is familiar with Schwarzenegger and Stallone, and the many iconic characters they have portrayed over the years (e.g. The Terminator, Conan, Rocky, Rambo, etc.). Along the way they also found themselves in starring vehicles that, while less iconic, weaved their way into the hearts of action fans around the world. Commando was Schwarzenegger's first film in which his very presence (not the character he played) sold the film. It was a movie where Schwarzenegger played Schwarzenegger, and it cemented his as a bankable star. It's also perhaps the most outrageously over-the-top movie in his long career of over-the-top movies! Here is where the one liners became a trademark, and where moviegoers experienced their first brush with The Matrix (John Matrix that is).



Where Commando was a certified box office hit, Stallone's Cobra was not quite so successful in its initial run. The Italian Stallion was at the height of his Rambo power, and chose a project in which to work with his significant other Brigitte Nielsen. It was roundly dismissed by critics, and failed to be embraced by audiences. Even so the character of Marion Cobretti has earned a special place in the pantheon of cult cinema, and we feel Cobra is long overdue for reconsideration! Believe us when we tell you there are enough needless explosions, cheesy one-liners, ridiculous villains, and scenery chewing performances to fill several 80's B-grade action films. Crime is the disease, and he's the cure!

So without any further ado, here are your full Episode 66 details:

When: Friday, November 4, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Commando (1985)

9:45 p.m.: Cobra (1986)

So there you have it Superfans, our first ever tribute to 80's action. At the risk of overstating the case, this may very well be the greatest episode in the history of Fantasmo! You dare not miss these bigger than life titles on our bigger than life screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Monster Fest 8!


Hey Superfans!

It's that time again, time once more for our annual Monster Fest convention, an all-day celebration of horror films and literature! We have what may be our best lineup yet this year, with a full day of programs, a full house of special guests, and a full evening of classic horror films. Best of all, the event is 100% free! The event takes place on Saturday, October 1st, starting at 9:00 a.m. here at Chesapeake Central Library (298 Cedar Road, 23322). Our full schedule for the day is as follows:

9:00 a.m.: Classic Horror Movie Trailers

10:00 a.m.: Ghostly Apparitions: Seeing Is Believing - Presented by: Lee Anne Ball, Angela Ghataora, and Laura Carr Griffith from Spirited History Radio


10:00 a.m.: Can Good, Scary Literature Translate to Film and Television Successfully? - Presented by: Pamela K. Kinney, Elizabeth Blue, Jim Bernheimer, Debbie Painter, and Tony Ruggerio

11:00 a.m.: "Hi There, Horror Movie Fans": Documentary Film on The Bowman Body - Presented by: Sean Kotz and The Bowman Body


11:00 a.m.: Writing Scary Stuff - Presented by Tony Ruggiero, Jim Bernheimer, Elizabeth Blue, Teresa Bane, and Pamela K. Kinney

12:00 p.m.: Torres Vs. Zombies: Tips on Surviving a Zombie Attack - Presented by Alfredo Torres

1:00 p.m.: Horror Costume Contest (all ages welcome)

2:00 p.m.: Special Preview of Dr. Madblood's Halloween Hijinks Show - Presented by Dr. Madblood

2:00 p.m.: The Human in the Monster - Presented by: Tony Ruggiero and Elizabeth Blue

3:00 p.m.: Super 8 Horrors: Early Video Horrors of Yesteryear! - Presented by: Craig T. Adams

3:00 p.m.: The Lesser Known, But Equally Frightening Films of Bela Lugosi - Presented by Debbie Painter

3:00 p.m.: Beyond Godzilla: More Beasts from the East - Presented by: Tony Mercer, Lee Hansen, and Chris Johnson

5:00 p.m.: Library Closes

7:00 p.m.: Library Reopens for Fantasmo Horrorthon - Movies begin at 8:00 p.m.

Movie Schedule:

Big Movie #1: House of Dracula

Big Movie #2: Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack

Big Movie #3: Jeepers Creepers

Big Movie #4: Fright Night (The Original!)

So there you have it Superfans, another amazing Monster Fest lineup! For even more info be sure to visit the official site at: www.monsterfestva.com. See you there!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fantasmo: The App!

Just a quick heads up about the link and QR code over on the right side of the blog. For those of you iPhone users out there, there's a nifty new app called Bloapp which essentially converts blogs to apps. Just download the Bloapp app to your iPhone, scan the QR code, and presto you have the Fantasmo app! Great for those of you who need to have ready access to the latest Fantasmo info 24 hours a day (and really isn't that all of us : )

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Fantasmo Episode 65: The Price is Right Vol. 5


Hey Superfans!

It's once again time for another round of awesome Vincent Price films, as your Team Fantasmo proudly presents the 5th(!) edition of our always popular Price is Right series! This time around we're screening another one of Price's Poe collaborations with Roger Corman, as well as an unhinged horror comedy from legendary director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People). Best of all both feature all-star supporting casts which include the likes of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and even Jack Nicholson. In addition to all this greatness you'll of course have the always delightful Team Fantasmo commentary, and a cornucopia of free snacks. So without any further ado, here are your full Episode 65 details:

When: Friday, September 23rd, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, Va 23322

Films:

8:00 p.m.: The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

9:45 p.m.: The Raven (1963)

So there you have it, another fantastic of evening of Vincent Price classics . . . and a perfect warm up for Monster Fest 8 on October 1st (more details coming soon)! See you there!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Freeplay Update

Hey Superfans,
Due to the impending hurricane this weekend, Freeplay 2 has been canceled. Those keeping score at home may remember we had to cancel once before due to a snow event, but we came back stronger than ever! So keep watching the blog (and most importantly attending Fantasmo), and we'll keep you updated on a new date for Freeplay 2. In the meantime have a safe, and hopefully uneventful weekend!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Freeplay Returns!


Hey Superfans!

Thanks to all of you who came out to our Planet of the Apes marathon this past weekend! It was a blast, and you can look forward to more of these series type mararthons in the future : )

Not content to take a rest, we'll be back with another full day of action on August 27th for our second annual Freeplay event! If you missed it last year, Freeplay is a full day and evening filled with classic video game consoles, arcade machines, movies, and guest speakers. If you miss going into the arcades of the 80's, it will be a true trip down memory lane . . . and if you missed it the first time around you can now experience what all the fuss was about!

The fine folks of South Eastern Virginia Gaming make this event possible, and have a full list of games up at their site (with more to come). The gaming and programs will run from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., after which the Library will close. We'll reopen at 7:00 p.m. for a special evening Fantasmo featuring Tron Legacy at 8:00 p.m. and Scott Pilgrim at 10:00 p.m.

As an added bonus we'll also be featuring our own Library developed game, $ave $teve, throughout the day. If you play it here on the day of Freeplay you'll get a free t-shirt and be registered for a chance to win an iPad (for adults) or Nintendo 3DS (for kids). Life doesn't get any better than that!

So come out and join your Team Fantasmo for a full day of free gaming, free game movies, and free game programs . . . you can leave your quarters at home! See you there!

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Cinema of Joe Don Baker


A few weeks back I detailed my shock at discovering Lee Majors had a robust (if brief) film career back in the late 70’s/early 80’s. Well, courtesy of Netflix I have once again made another such discovery, this time with respect to prolific character actor Joe Don Baker. Folks from my generation will remember Baker from memorable supporting roles in 80’s films such as Fletch, The Living Daylights, and the unfortunate Leonard Part 6. Other than a few appearances on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and his iconic role as Sheriff Buford Pusser in the original Walking Tall, I was not well versed in the Bakerverse . . . until now. I was browsing through Netflix again, and came across a movie called Golden Needles. This wouldn’t have necessarily caught my eye, save for the fact that instead of poster art the graphic displayed with the title was just a headshot of Baker. Now that in and of itself wouldn’t draw me in either, but the combination of Baker in a film called Golden Needles raised my curiosity. So I plunged deeper and things started to get really crazy.

Golden Needles is an early 70’s martial arts film directed by Robert “Enter the Dragon/Gymkata” Clouse, starring Baker and Jim Kelly as the heroes, and Burgess Meredith and Roy Chiao (Lao Che from Temple of Doom/Van Damme’s father in Bloodsport) as the villains. The madness does not stop there, as the plot is just as unusual as the talent roster. The action takes place primarily in Hong Kong, where gangsters, antique dealers, and the police are all trying to obtain an ancient statue. The statue, which includes a set of golden acupuncture needles, shows the locations on the body where the needles can be used to make one practically immortal. The film opens promisingly with a sequence in which an expert in the ways of acupuncture is summoned to the home of an elderly businessman to use the needles. After inserting the needles in the specified locations the man is miraculously healed of his infirmities, thus verifying the efficacy of the statue’s wisdom. Unfortunately everyone in the room managed to miss the fact that two guys dressed in full reflective silver/flame retardant suits, carrying huge backpack style flamethrowers, snuck in during the procedure. They then proceed to torch the room, and everyone in it, and flee with the statue.

This opening scene is completely outrageous, and prepared me for what I was certain would be an equally ridiculous 90 minutes to come. While the film doesn’t quite manage to maintain this over-the-top vibe, there are plenty of worthwhile moments. My favorite is a rooftop battle where Baker dispatches a number of thugs by continually throwing them through skylights (you think they’d watch out for that after the first couple of guys fall prey). What is just incredible however, and makes it all worth it, is the film’s insistence that we buy into Baker as both an action hero and a ladies man. Perhaps he is, but it’s not really where my mind goes when I think of the Baker persona. To see him depicted as such here is both astounding and refreshing. It’s also a perfect example of why the 70’s were so amazing, because an actor like Baker could be promoted as a leading man. These days actors have to be ridiculously perfect and fit to warrant such treatment, and that’s a real shame because a number of talented folks are pushed to the wayside in favor of looks over ability.

To get back to my original point, as with discovering Lee Majors in The Norseman, seeing Baker in Golden Needles made me wonder if there was a whole roster of Baker vehicles out there I wasn’t aware of. Sure enough, a quick trip to the IMDB revealed that he had a lengthy run as a leading man throughout the 70’s, before ultimately becoming a sought after character actor. As with my survey of Majors, I’m going to run down the list and give brief descriptions. To be clear these are just the films where Baker was the lead in a theatrically released film, and the list excludes his long history of supporting roles. I haven’t seen most of these, but several look quite intriguing!


Walking Tall (1973)
Unquestionably the ultimate Joe Don Baker performance, and the film that put him on the map. Baker plays Buford Pusser who, upon returning to his Tennessee hometown, discovers that corruption has run rampant. Not one to sit idly by he runs for Sheriff and starts to clean things up. Unfortunately the criminal element doesn’t take this well and proceeds to wage war, injuring Pusser and his family . . . and then things get really crazy!

I saw this on cable many years ago, and my memory is that it is a solid revenge film. I also recall that Baker does an excellent job in his characterization of Pusser, particularly when he voices his principles to corrupt officials. It’s not surprising that he rose to stardom on the back of this, and the film launched two sequels (not to mention remakes starring The Rock and Kevin Sorbo).


Charley Varrick (1973)
Baker co-stars with Walter Matthau in a no-nonsense heist film. Matthau robs a small town bank, inadvertently taking mob money. Baker plays the hitman sent to retrieve the stolen funds.

Reading the reviews of this, folks are comparing it to some of the greatest films of the 70’s (e.g. Taxi Driver, The Godfather). Wow. Lending credence to this high praise is the fact that it was directed by the legendary Don Siegel (Dirty Harry), and features an all-star cast including Andrew Robinson, John Vernon, and Norman Fell. Definitely a must see.


The Outfit (1973)
Baker co-stars with Robert Duvall as a pair of ex-cons out to avenge the murder of Duvall’s brother by the mob. Hollywood legend Robert Ryan plays the mob boss, with a supporting cast featuring Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror), Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner), and Richard Jaeckel (The Green Slime). Seems hard to go wrong here.


Framed (1975)
Baker reteams with Walking Tall director Phil Karlson for another revenge film. This time around Baker plays a gambler who is ambushed after a big win, and is wrongfully convicted for killing a cop during the altercation. After serving his time he goes to work getting revenge on the corrupt officials who sent him away.

All accounts indicate this is a solid revenge film, plus it features legendary character actors Brock Peters (To Kill A Mockingbird, Soylent Green) and Paul Mantee (Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Day of the Animals).


Mitchell (1975)
If you want to point to any one movie that is responsible for undermining Baker’s reputation as a great actor, this would be the one. Mercilessly skewered by Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mitchell is a pretty lackluster affair that plays like a TV movie of the week. When I used to work at a mom and pop video store back in the day, I used to put the MST3K version on a couple of times a week. Customers loved it, I loved it, and it is easily one of the show’s finest episodes. But none of that helps Mitchell or Baker, except for purpose of condemning them to infamy. John Saxon and Martin Balsam lend their considerable talents to the mix as the bad guys, with Linda “Dynasty” Evans as the romantic leading lady. The horror, the horror.


Checkered Flag or Crash (1977)
Apparently an off road racing movie in which Baker plays a legendary racer being written about during a major race by embedded reporter Susan Sarandon. Larry Hagman plays the bad guy. This one sounds pretty iffy from the reviews, but seems to get positive marks for the stunt footage. The pairing of Baker, Sarandon, and Hagman also sounds bizarre enough to be mildly interesting.


The Shadow of Chikara (1977)
On IMDB this is classified as a Western horror film, and some have likened it to Predator. Following the Civil War, Confederate Captain Wishbone Cutter (Baker) and a band of motley companions search for a treasure trove of diamonds on a cursed mountain. Along they are assailed by demon spirits.

Directed by the writer of The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Co–starring Sondra Locke, Ted Neeley, and Slim Pickens.

Every review I’ve read of this has me thoroughly intrigued. It sounds like a grim, 70’s supernatural movie, with great atmosphere. Would love to see a quality release of this one.


The Pack (aka The Long Dark Night) (1977)
This one I remember being absolutely terrified by as a kid. A wild pack of dogs are loose on an island resort and start terrorizing vacationers. Joe Don Baker plays a marine biologist(!) who takes the lead in handling the situation.

The trailer for The Pack turned up recently on a 42nd Street Forever trailer compilation, and I would love to see it again if it ever hits DVD. What I didn’t realize as a kid is that this is directed by none other that Robert “Enter the Dragon/Gymkata” Clouse. Unbelievable. For my money this is the ultimate Joe Don Baker film. Seriously. Robert Clouse directs Joe Don Baker as a marine biologist battling a horde of killer dogs. How can you argue with that?


Speedtrap (1977)
So Baker had four(!) releases in ’77, two of them car chase films. In this one he plays a private eye who helps cop Tyne Daly track down a car thief called the Road Runner. Not too sure about this one, but it apparently has a notable stunt where a car jumps across two tall buildings. Richard Jaeckel and Robert Loggia are along for the ride.


Wacko (1982)
Okay there’s a little bit of a gap from ’77 to ’82. Baker did a short-lived TV series called Eischied, and two TV movies before returning to the big screen in this slasher movie spoof. Baker plays police officer Dick Harbinger, who tries to warn his small town that the dreaded Lawnmower Killer has returned to wreak havoc. Directed by Greydon Clark (Satan’s Cheerleaders) and co-starring George Kennedy, Stella Stevens, and Andrew “Dice” Clay.

Oh how the mighty have fallen. I remember the previews for this but never saw it . . . I do not feel bad about that. This is really the last movie I remember being a theatrical release for Baker as leading man. He did play the lead in Greydon Clark’s Final Justice, also mercilessly skewered by MST3K, but I don’t believe that made it to theaters in any sort of significant fashion.

So there you have it, the theatrical leading man run for Joe Don Baker. All in all I’d say not too shabby, with a fair number of interesting genres represented. I do wish he’d thrown in a post-apocalyptic action film, but The Pack kind of compensates for that. So on this hot summer weekend if you find yourself looking for some worthwhile endeavor to pursue, why not check out a fine early work from Joe Don Baker. As his character in Final Justice, Deputy Sherif Thomas Jefferson Geronimo III, might say – “Go ahead on!”

Monday, July 25, 2011

Team Fantasmo Goes Ape!



Team Fantasmo's first ever commercial, produced and directed by Fantasmo/Monster Fest/FantaSci guest lecturer, occasional Fantasmo co-host, and Original Superfan Tony Mercer! If ever a Fantasmo event were befitting of such royal treatment, it's our all day Planet of the Apes marathon!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

FantaSci 9: Return of the Krackle Botz!


Hey Superfans!

It’s once again time for our annual FantaSci sci-fi/fantasy convention here at the library, and this year promises to be one of our best yet! The date is Saturday, July 23rd, and it will run from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., with a special Fantasmo taking place that evening. Our theme “Return of the Krackle Botz” heralds the release of an online game called $ave $teve we designed here at the library, featuring a sci-fi steeped story, including the appearance of the mysterious Krackle Botz. All day at the event we will have our computer lab open so that attendees can play the game and save Steve . . . those who do will get a free t-shirt and a chance to win a fabulous prize (details coming soon at www.savesteve.org). But that’s just the beginning! Other highlights include:

* A special Transformers display courtesy of Regal Cinemas, featuring a 10 ft. tall Optimus Prime made out of real car parts (on display at Central Library now through the event)!

*A Star Trek Blood Feud in which you can donate blood on the American Red Cross Bloodmobile, while also helping defeat either the Klingons or the Federation!

But that’s still not all! We’ll also have a full day of panels and programs, authors and artists, and fan groups and vendors. Our full schedule is as follows:

10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.: Mysteries of the Krackle Botz Revealed! Come be among the first to play $ave $teve and uncover the mystery!

10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.: Star Trek Blood Feud: The American Red Cross Bloodmobile will be present throughout the day, as Star Trek factions compete in a race to donate the most blood!

11:00 a.m.: Buying the Right Lightsaber – Presented by Rick Baer

11:00 a.m.: World Building for Fantasy Fiction Writers - Presented by Leona Wisoker

11:00 a.m.: The Incredible History of Uncle Forry – Presented by Deborah Painter (Author of Forry: The Life of Forrest J Ackerman)

12:15 p.m.: Primal Paper Comics Q&A – Presented by Justin Cristelli, Bob Fresh, Mike Federali, Drew Moss & Vince White

12:15 p.m.: Classic Dr. Madblood Episode – Presented by Craig T. Adams

12:15 p.m.: It’s Star Trek, Captain, But Not As We Know It -- The Future of Trek – Presented by Starfleet Atlantic

1:30 p.m.: Klingon Makeup 101 – Presented by IKV Devastator

1:30 p.m.: Grab Your Reader on the First Page! – Presented by Pamela Kinney, Jim Bernheimer, Daniele Lanzarotta, Deborah Painter, Tony Ruggiero & Betty Cross

1:30 p.m.: Of Gods and Men: Star Trek and the Supernatural – Presented by Christopher Johnson

2:45 p.m.: Ask the Writer: From Craft to Publishing to Promotion – Presented by Tony Ruggiero, Theresa Bane & Leona Wisoker

2:45 p.m.: Jedi Temple Invasion - Live performance by the Tidewater Alliance

5:00 p.m.: Library Closes

8:00 p.m.: Library Reopens for Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion: Special Lance Henriksen Edition! – This special edition of Fantasmo celebrates the release of Lance Henriksen's new biography Not Bad For a Human, as well as the 25th anniversary of Aliens! For our BIG double-feature we will be screening both Aliens and The Terminator!

It’s going to be a full day of sci-fi and fantasy, with literally something for everyone . . . and in particular if you are a fan of giant robots, video games, Lance Henriksen, or any combination of those ingredients!

Lastly, a word about two special programs we have coming up in August (for those of you who have been asking : ) Our August Fantasmo will take place on Saturday, August 6th, and will be a full day event in which we will screen all of the classic Planet of the Apes films. Details on times will be coming soon. On August 27th we will hold our second annual Freeplay event, in which we will fill the library with classic video game machines and consoles. If you want to know (or reminisce on) what it was like to walk into an 80’s video game arcade, you don’t want to miss it! Plus we’ll have related talks and programs, video game film screenings all day long, and a special edition of Fantasmo featuring Tron Legacy and Scott Pilgrim!

There’s a LOT of summer left to go, and we’re just getting started! See you on the 23rd at FantaSci!

For even more details on guests and goings on at FantaSci visit www.fantasciconvention.com.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Cinema of Lee Majors



As a kid growing up in the 70’s, fixated on genre television and cinema, there were a few pieces of filmed entertainment that stood tall above all others. These were: Star Wars, Star Trek, Superman, and . . . The Six Million Dollar Man. Clearly the last entry there, at least in the year 2011, is not on the same level as the others. It hasn’t aged particularly well, and the principals have long been out of the limelight. Even so, to this day Lee Majors ranks high in my book of actors who are on the highest planes of coolness. In his iconic role as Col. Steve Austin, he was every bit the equal to the likes of a Captain Kirk or Han Solo back in the day. Shortly after the show left the air, Majors actually turned up in my hometown in Kentucky to shoot a movie called Steel, which ultimately became famous for a terrible accident. After that there was a long silence until he found more success on television with The Fall Guy. So as far as I knew, Majors had only that movie to his credit and no more. All these years I’ve labored under the misconception that his television typecasting confined him to the small screen during the interim period between Steel and The Fall Guy. Boy was I wrong!

Recently I was digging through Netflix and came across a movie called The Norseman(1978). I’m not particularly a fan of Viking movies, but the poster image looked very cool. It’s one of those wonderful, painted posters that were so common in that era, and it inspired me to investigate further. Lo and behold it turned out the star was Lee Majors! I sat there dumbfounded wondering how I’d missed that during my youth. Needless to say I added it to my queue, and gave it a quick sample. In the course of about 10 minutes I understood exactly how I’d missed The Norseman. As many of you who frequent our program know, I have a high tolerance for schlock, and a special fondness for the lowest of B-movies (I’m looking at you Gymkata). The Norseman plunges to an epic level of bad however, and offers a grueling test for the most tolerant of critics. Let’s just say that Majors, a fellow Kentucky native, has no business being cast as a Viking. His delivery and accent don’t ring anywhere near the vicinity of truth (sort of like Keanu Reeves in those period dramas folks were intent on casting him in during the 90’s). This was his first big screen role following The Six Million Dollar Man, so I guess the filmmakers hurtled forward with the singular goal of cashing in on his name recognition. It’s a miracle Majors survived this. Rarely do I say don’t bother watching, but I urge you to stay away. Life moments you’ll never get back await you.




Following The Norseman Majors landed the lead in Steel (1979). Even though Steel was filmed in my hometown, and had its premiere at a local historic movie house, I didn’t end up seeing it until cable. This is a bit of a miracle because we frequented the drive-in, and no doubt it ended up there at some point. My memory of the film is not at all bad, but it failed to register as an action classic. The setup is pretty awesome, and typical for the early 80’s. In a nutshell a reluctant/renowned expert is drawn out of retirement/seclusion to do what he does best (e.g. accomplish an impossible mission), and assemble a team of skilled experts to help him in the cause. In this sense it is not unlike a few Seagal movies, save for the fact Majors is portrayed as having human flaws. Majors plays Mike Catton, a legendary construction foreman who has lost his way due to a terrible accident (leaving him afraid of heights). Fortunately for action movie lovers everywhere George Kennedy shows up to lure him out of retirement, so that Majors can help him build a building before an evil developer closes in.

Aside from an appealing setup, the movie has a few other interesting items of note. As I mentioned it’s infamous for the stunt accident which cost stuntman A. J. Bakunas his life. I can remember the shot in the trailer of the fall in question, and it was pretty spectacular looking. Apparently they shot the footage without a hitch, but reshot it to achieve the record for high falls. The fact that it was so unnecessary makes it all the more tragic, and I also recall there being a significant backlash to the film as a result. Beyond this regrettable aspect, Steel boasts an all-star cast featuring the likes of Jennifer O’Neill (Scanners) and always reliable villain Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer), and at the helm is cult director Steve Carver (Big Bad Mama, Lone Wolf McQuade). Most interestingly it was produced by Peter S. Davis and William N. Panzer who would go on later to make all of the Highlander films. I need to track this one down again, as I suspect at this stage in life I would appreciate this film a great deal more (having immersed myself in low-rent, DTV action films and learned to love them).




Despite the controversy surrounding Steel, the Majors big screen express could not be stopped. Next up he starred in an Italian Jaws rip-off called Killer Fish (1979) with Karen Black and James Franciscus. This one mixes jewel thieves and piranhas, which sounds like a no lose proposition as far as I’m concerned. Plus it’s directed by Antonio Margheriti, director of Yor, the Hunter from the Future! I can’t imagine that it is a quality film in any respect, but the talent roster guarantees that it will be entertaining. It would have to go a long way to top Enzo G. Catellari’s awesome The Last Shark (aka Great White), which also starred Franciscus a year or so later (Castellari must have been impressed with his emoting during piranha attacks), but I can’t wait to find out how close it comes to doing so when I finally locate a copy.




So Majors had done Vikings and piranhas in addition to his construction man action piece, and I managed to remain blissfully unaware. How does one top such a triple threat? Easy! By making a political thriller on the dangers of subliminal advertising, beating Michael Crichton’s Looker to the same thematic punch by a couple of years. In Agency (1980), Majors plays an ad agency worker who discovers the dark motives of his firm’s new owner (played by Robert Mitchum). Again I neither saw this during its release, nor have any recollection of it whatsoever. The reviews I’ve read mention that it opens with an over-the-top deodorant commercial that is unforgettable, and quite frankly that alone is enough for me. Plus it has another cool poster and a Can’t Stop the Music Connection by way of leading lady Valerie Perrine.




If you’re keeping score here, since his departure of The Six Million Dollar Man in 1978, Majors made four films in the span of 3 years. Continued television success was just around the corner in 1981 with The Fall Guy. Surely it would be impossible to squeeze one more theatrical release into that period, right? Wrong! Majors capped off a five film run with the ecological thriller The Last Chase (1981). I vaguely remember this one on cable, and it has recently been given a special edition DVD release by Code Red (so I will be refreshing my memory of it very soon). In the not too distant future when oil is scarce, the United States government has outlawed all gas guzzlers. Majors, a former race car driver, rebels by taking his old car and heading out for California (which has seceded from the Union). Along the way he hooks up with Meatballs star Chris Makepeace, as they are pursued by a fighter jet piloted by retired Korean War vet Burgess Meredith. I don’t know about you, but the idea of Burgess Meredith chasing Lee Majors in a fighter jet is outrageous enough to sell me on this one! Perhaps even more interesting than that however, is the fact that this plot sounds incredibly topical 30 years later with oil prices being a major concern.

I can speak with personal authority only on The Norseman, but across the board each of these films has received horrible reviews online. That being said you have to admire Majors’ drive in making five films, covering a host of genres, in such a remarkably short period of time. Perhaps that time factor has a great deal to do with the quality of the efforts, but they all sound intriguing and feature interesting cast/talent rosters. The process of writing this has in fact made me inclined to go back and retract that statement warning you away from The Norseman. I hereby take it back and encourage you to watch The Norseman immediately! Hey, at least it’s easy to come by. I just checked on Steel at Amazon, and OOP VHS copies are starting at an absurd $2,475 dollars (doesn’t sound like a “steal” to me . . . couldn’t resist : )

Regardless of the quality of these films, Majors’ choice of subject matter in selecting projects which I was wholly unaware of has only increased my respect for him. And besides, regardless of what you may ultimately think about the films, you have to admire a guy who is willing to parody his action hero status in the mini-movie The Night the Reindeer Died in Scrooged. To me that type of self-deprecating humor speaks volumes about what a cool guy he must be in real life. To reiterate, go watch The Norseman immediately!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fantasmo Episode 64: The Urban Fables of Walter Hill


Hey Superfans!

Summer is in full swing at Fantasmo HQ, and we’re rolling on with a truly awesome June show. For this very special episode we’re focusing on the fantastical works of director Walter Hill. A few years back we screened what many consider his best film, the 1979 cult favorite The Warriors. The version we screened however was a re-envisioned cut, featuring some dramatic artistic choices that altered the flow of the film (in a way a lot of folks didn’t warm up to). So in the spirit of satisfying fans, and as an excuse to see The Warriors on the big screen again, we’re holding an encore that will feature the original cut of the film! But that’s not all . . .

First up we’ll be showing one of Hill’s most underrated works, the 1984 “rock & roll fable” Streets of Fire. This movie was intended to be a huge summer blockbuster, but its quirky combination of action, sci-fi, and rock failed to catch fire at the box office. The fact is that the film is a wildly original, one-of-a-kind experience that deserves to be rediscovered. It features great performances from an all-star cast led by Michael Pare and Willem Dafoe, incredible production design, and of course an amazing soundtrack (we guarantee you’ll know several of the songs). If you’ve never seen this one before you owe it to yourself to make it to this screening!

So without any further ado here are your full Episode 64 details:

When: Friday, June 3rd, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films:

8:00 p.m.: Streets of Fire (1984)

9:45 p.m.: The Warriors (1979)

So there you have it, a rocking double-bill for your June Fantasmo. You dare not miss these urban fables from the legendary Walter Hill projected on our BIG screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! See you there!

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Henriksen Principle of Elevation


Today marks the beginning of the epic Lance Henriksen Blog-A-Thon, and for my part here at Fantasmo I’ve chosen what I believe to be the most interesting facet of the talented actor. Having appeared in an extensive list of genre films over the years, his filmography includes titles ranging from amazing (e.g. Aliens) to the not so great (e.g. Sasquatch Mountain). What is absolutely true however, despite the quality of any particular film, is that Henriksen’s participation guarantees that there will always be something worth watching. You see no matter what the project may be he gives it his all. Whether you are watching him in an A-list film like The Right Stuff or Dog Day Afternoon, or in any number of direct-to-video cheapies, you get the same top notch level of performance. Honestly I have never seen a Henriksen performance I didn’t like, and I can think of few actors out there for which I could make a similar claim. I challenge you to put this assertion to the test. Watch a “prestige” picture like Appaloosa back-to-back with something like Screamers: The Hunting, and tell me you disagree that Lance is any less engaged in the latter, low-budget affair!

Bearing this in mind, I’d take things just a bit further. Because Henriksen consistently gives his all, he actually raises the watchability of lesser films. Using the 4-star scale of film ratings as a starting point, if Henriksen is in a movie it would automatically get a star in my universe (maybe two depending on the extent of his participation). For the purpose of this essay, I’m going to refer to this as the Henriksen Principle of Elevation. To illustrate this principle in action, I thought it would be interesting to examine one of his all-too-rare leading man appearances in a theatrical release, the 1989 film The Horror Show. No one will ever mistake this movie as a classic, nor is it particularly noteworthy in terms of its place in horror cinema. However it is a textbook example of how a pedestrian film, which basically amounted to a lazy copy of the Elm Street movies, is made worthwhile by Henriksen’s contribution.

For those who have not had the pleasure of seeing The Horror Show, the film features Henriksen in the role of Detective Lucas McCarthy. McCarthy has finally captured the legendary serial killer Max Jenke (Brion James), but has begun having nightmares in which Jenke has come back to kill him. After attending Jenke’s execution, McCarthy believes life can return to normal. Unfortunately as it turns out, Jenke has perfected a way to return via electromagnetism, and proceeds to inhabit the circuits at McCarthy’s home. This allows Jenke to bend reality and stalk McCarthy and his family. McCarthy learns from a local college professor that he will have to force Jenke back into reality via a massive jolt of electricity, leading to a climactic final battle spanning McCarthy’s home and the hereafter.

The Horror Show opened theatrically in late April of 1989, essentially kicking off the summer movie season. More accurately it was dumped out by the studio in the quiet period before Batman and Indiana Jones arrived, in the hopes that it might have a shot at generating at least a little revenue. The fact is that The Horror Show is little more than a blatant attempt to rip off the 80’s slasher/otherworldly killer hybrid made popular by Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, etc. Unfortunately the movie was about 5 years too late in this endeavor. All of the major series had already been ripped off several times, and even the continuing installments of Friday, Nightmare, and others were themselves failing at the box office. Incredibly the film was produced by original Friday the 13th mastermind Sean S. Cunningham, who should’ve known better at that point. Likely he was hoping to reignite his faltering House series, with this as its next installment (The Horror Show was actually released as House III overseas). Needless to say this gambit failed to pay off. It might have worked if it had premiered in October, but the remarkably similar Shocker by Wes Craven would have been in direct competition.

The chief problem with The Horror Show is just how transparent the intentions are behind it. Max Jenke is clearly meant to be a new Freddy, and many of his fantastic appearances seem lifted directly from Elm Street. For example there are sequences where Jenke appears as a turkey creature during a family dinner, he shows up on a television show the family is watching, and he appears as McCarthy’s lawyer following an interrogation at police headquarters. One could easily insert Robert Englund into any of those scenarios without missing a beat. Despite a solid effort by the always reliable Brion James, the whole thing just feels tired. The turkey creature might have been shocking circa 1983, but by 1989 we’d already seen Freddy morph into any number of creatures, rendering the whole business well past the prime of such tom foolery. Perhaps indicative of the ingenuity not at work here, one of the writing credits belongs to Alan Smithee.

Further compounding The Horror Show’s problems is the look of the film. No question it is a low budget effort, but that can often be overcome with imagination on the part of the filmmakers. Here the execution is workmanlike, with very few truly interesting visuals. In a movie that involves the merging of reality and a nightmarish, otherworldly plane of existence, you really have to make a point of interpreting the fantastic in an interesting way. The only thing consistent in terms of a vision on display is, ironically, murky lighting. The Horror Show has a muted color palette and is sometimes so darkly lit that it’s hard to see what’s going on (particularly in basement sequences where much of the action takes place). There are also occasional flashes of neon pink and blue, an unfortunate reminder of the worst trends of the 80’s. In a nutshell the whole thing is a muddy mess. Apparently the original director on the project was let go, and James Isaac (the special effects guy on House 2) was brought in to finish the job. I don’t know how much to lay at his doorstep, but he later went on to do Jason X which has similar problems, make of that what you will.

So The Horror Show is uninspired thematically and visually, how about the rest? Fortunately this is where the filmmakers really got things right. A number of familiar faces pop up including genre vets Thom Bray (Prince of Darkness), Dedee Pfieffer (Vamp), and Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs). Their presence helps to distract from the other elements lacking in the picture. Better still was the decision to put Brion James in the role of the Jenke, a part he was born to play. James is terrific in the role and is clearly having a ball with the material. I can’t help but believe Jenke’s creepy laugh, which James executes very well, was meant to be a signature trademark that would have carried through any number of Max Jenke adventures (never to be). Above and beyond all of these players though, we have the element that holds it all together . . . Lance Henriksen.

From the first frame of the film Henriksen takes the proceedings seriously. There’s no wink in his eye that he’s in on any joke, or slack in his step because he’s not working with James Cameron. He exhibits an intensity and weariness that register as genuine. His trademark chiseled appearance and deep voice of course help in this endeavor, always coming in handy for his portrayal of tortured souls. And make no mistake, McCarthy is tortured. Having seen Jenke’s wicked path of destruction, including the grisly loss of a partner during his apprehension, he is at the end of his tether. A lesser actor viewing The Horror Show as a throwaway B-picture might have phoned in the performance. Not Lance Henriksen. He makes McCarthy a real person that the audience can identify with. He’s not a supercop by any stretch of the imagination, just a dedicated professional trying to make sense of that which has no explanation. After Jenke’s execution, as he starts to hallucinate and potentially endanger his family, Henriksen makes us feel like we’re in his shoes. His dedication to creating a believable character pulls the viewer in, making one forget (at least for a time) that they are watching a cheapo Nightmare on Elm Street rip off. In a way Henriksen’s performance as McCarthy reminded me of his character in Millennium, who is haunted by the unending struggle to shield his family from the ugliness in the world. McCarthy is a little less cerebral than Frank Black, but they certainly share a great deal in common.

Because Henriksen is so invested in the role, it also elevates the effectiveness of Brion James’s Jenke character. If you had a bland actor in the role of McCarthy, who was merely there because of affordability, James would be utterly overwhelming. Henriksen has no problem holding his own, and the confrontations between the two leads are a lot of fun to watch as a result. It’s like you’re seeing a cop from a great crime film confront a most convincing, raving lunatic. I kept thinking while watching the film recently that Henriksen would have been terrific as the lead in something like Prince of the City (in which he co-starred). Or imagine him as one of the principals in Michael Mann's Heat. Instead he has to settle for The Horror Show, but that doesn’t matter. As far as he’s concerned there’s no difference between the two, he’s still going to give the same committed performance. Honestly the pairing of Henriksen and James alone is enough to recommend The Horror Show regardless of any reservations. The problem is they don’t have enough screen time together, but what there is makes the trip worthwhile. It’s a shame the creative folks behind the project couldn’t match the ability of their talented leads.

Let's be honest, there are better films out there featuring Lance Henriksen in a leading role. Near Dark, Pumpkinhead, Survival Quest . . . and even Piranha 2(in my humble opinion) come to mind. Nevertheless, The Horror Show still figures as an important entry in his filmography, mostly due to the inspired pairing of Henriksen and James. Also, given his leading man status, it provides an abundance of evidence of how Henriksen invests himself in every performance, no matter how big or small the production. There is no moment in The Horror Show where I felt Henriksen (or James for that matter) was involved only for the paycheck. In some ways it was almost a dry run for his iconic character Frank Black, and on that note alone quite enjoyable. In terms of the Henriksen Principle of Elevation, The Horror Show is a fine exemplar on two counts. First, Henriksen’s performance allows the audience to identify with the lead character, compensating for the lack of positive elements in other areas of the production. Secondly, Henriksen’s investment provides a solid presence to counter James’s over-the-top performance. A lesser actor would have been completely overshadowed in the situation. I rest my case!

For the sake of full disclosure, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big Lance Henriksen fan, with Millennium being one of my favorite pieces of filmed art ever. Even so again I challenge you to find a Henriksen film where you think he’s on autopilot. I have yet to experience anything of the kind, and I’ve sat through a LOT of DTV my friends : ) I would also encourage you to seek out a Henriksen move this week that you haven’t seen before, especially if you know him only from theatrical movies like Aliens and Hard Target. And if you do know Henriksen, be sure to join in the Blog-A-Thon by writing up your thoughts. Click on the link to the right for all the details on how to get in on the party! Not bad for a human indeed!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Drive-In Super Monster Rama Returns!


Hey Superfans!

I've written about the wonderful Drive-In Super Monster Rama hosted by the Riverside Drive-In each fall, and am thrilled to report they have posted this September's lineup. In my personal opinion it is their best yet! It includes Mario Bava's Black Sabbath, The Last Man On Earth (the original I Am Legend adaptation), both Dr. Phibes films, the original Count Yorga, and more! All of these are 35mm prints and you'll also get to see a ton of vintage trailers and promos. Team Fantasmo ventured up there a couple of years back and it was a blast . . . I think we'll definitely be returning this year for a pre-Monster Fest warm-up : )

Also don't forget Monday kicks off the weeklong Lance Henriksen Blog-A-Thon celebrating the forthcoming release of the biography Not Bad For A Human. For more details or to participate click the image on the right. I'll have a post up on Monday offering my thoughts on one of my favorite Henriksen films, as well as its importance in the context of his larger oeuvre. Satisfaction guaranteed!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fantasmo Episode 63: Creepy Anthologies


Hey Superfans!

May kicks off our BIG summer season here at Fantasmo HQ, and we’re starting things off with a couple of horror anthology classics! Anthologies are one of our favorite areas of horror filmdom, as they offer such a variety of tales. Sometimes the stories work, and sometimes they don’t. The beauty is they come at you so quickly that if you don’t like the one that’s onscreen, there’ll be another to come along shortly that is possibly a classic. For this very special Fantasmo we’ll be screening two of the best ones out there, each featuring heavy participation from horror masters Stephen King and George Romero. Our first film is the 80’s classic Creepshow, which was essentially a cinematic translation of the E.C. horror comics from the 50’s. It is also perhaps the best anthology film ever made! Second on the bill is a big screen version of a small screen 80’s staple, Tales From the Darkside: The Movie. In some ways the television show was inspired by the likes of Creepshow, and the movie carries on its mischievous spirit. If there’s a better time at the movies this summer, I can’t imagine what it would be! Without any further ado, here are your full Episode 63 details:

When: Friday, May 6th, 8:00 p.m.

Where: Chesapeake Central Library, 298 Cedar Road, Chesapeake, VA 23322

Films:
8:00 p.m.: Creepshow (1982)

10:15: Tales From the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

So there you have it, a terrifyingly fun start to our Fantasmo summer lineup. You dare not miss these classic anthologies as they unfold on our BIG screen . . . THE WAY THEY WERE MEANT TO BE SEEN! See you there!

Monday, April 11, 2011

This Just In . . .

Fantasmo All-Star Daniel Perry has just started a cult cinema blog called The Celluloid Coffin! I am honored to also let you know that he has chosen for his initial posting to discuss our headliner from last week's show, the 1982 Hal Needham masterpiece Megaforce! Most amazing of all, Daniel has broken down the plot into an intelligible synopsis. Honestly I've seen Megaforce several times over the years, and reading his post was the first time I had any understanding of the specifics of the plot (likely due to the fact that my jaw was on the floor in shock from the horrendous costumes and special effects). Be sure to check it out for some great reading!

Lance Henriksen Blog-A-Thon

Hey Superfans!

Longtime friend of Fantasmo Joe Maddrey, who recently visited Monster Fest with his excellent documentary Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue, has checked in regarding a cool event. In celebration of the upcoming publication of Lance Henriksen's biography Not Bad For A Human, there will be a weeklong Blog-A-Thon to discuss all things Henriksen. Being a huge fan you can expect a post here at Fantasmo, and there will be many others across the web. For more info visit the link above, or check out the host site over at John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Film & Television. I for one am looking forward to lots of great writeups about Lance and his prolific career, as well as what promises to be a very interesting book!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Movie Review: Up the Academy (1980)

As a kid I can think of few sources that were as important in fostering my love of reading as MAD Magazine. I remember trading the magazines on the playground from first grade onward, and spent many an hour absorbed in the sophomoric humor contained within its pages. In particular I was fascinated by the movie parodies, as I had developed that love with an unparalleled rapidity. MAD skewered all my favorites including Jaws, Star Wars, Alien, Superman, etc., and I couldn’t get enough of it. It even eclipsed my love of comic books at the time, which was no small feat. So just imagine my excitement, given that movies and MAD were pretty much my two favorite things in the world as a pre-teen, when I learned that a MAD movie was being release in the summer of 1980. It’s a wonder I didn’t pass out from shock when I saw the first television ad featuring a live action Alfred E. Neuman. Unfortunately the movie was rated R, and although my parents could be coaxed into the likes of Alien or Saturn 3 style monster movies, they were not about to take me to what looked to be a riff on Animal House. My disappointment was profound.

I ultimately ended up watching MAD Magazine Presents: Up the Academy a few years later on cable, but was surprised to see no references to MAD or Alfred E. Neuman (more on that later). Furthermore, not only was it a cheap knock off of Animal House, it was kind of dreadful. I had outgrown MAD by that point so it wasn’t a devastating experience by any measure, but more of an odd footnote to the saga. This past week in anticipation of our Schlock-O-Thon, I revisited the film which now has the MAD connection fully restored. The story behind the two versions of Up the Academy is more interesting than the film itself, and the inclusion of the cut footage elevates an awful movie to a bona fide curiosity.

Briefly summing up the plot, four rebellious teens are sent to a military academy to straighten their ways. They immediately run afoul of the school’s commander and a battle of wills ensues, culminating in a soccer game where all stand to lose a great deal. In between fill in any number of lame sight gags that aren’t funny in the least and you more or less have the picture. What distinguishes Up the Academy for special disdain is that in addition to being not funny it is also offensive. I have a high tolerance threshold when it comes to envelope pushing material, but this movie targets ethnicity and gender in a way that is truly mean-spirited. There is no stereotype Up the Academy fails to embrace, resulting in a constant barrage of groan-inducing moments. Watching it I felt bad for the performers, and have to wonder how they ended up signing on to the project. Ron Liebman, who actually turns in a hysterical performance as the evil commander, felt so strongly he had his name removed from the credits.

This brings us to the major controversy regarding the film, the participation and subsequent withdrawal of MAD magazine. Apparently after National Lampoon had enormous success with Animal House, MAD wanted to lend its support to a similar effort. In this case not only did they “present” the film, but they also provided their signature character Alfred E. Neuman to the proceedings. Following the opening credits of the film a live-action version of Neuman opens the film shrugging his shoulders in the “what me worry” mode. He shows up again toward the end after the wild soccer game finale. In addition he was featured in the poster art and the trailers, leaving no question that the spirit of MAD infused the film. After seeing the final product, and being none too pleased, MAD paid $30,000 to Warner Bros. to have their name and all references (i.e. Neuman) removed (at least from the television version). MAD Publisher William Gaines even sent personal apologies to all the readers who sent in complaints. Wow.

Again it’s difficult to understand how these folks could have missed the warning signs, unless the script was somehow lacking in detail. Either that or everyone just jumped on board because it had the smell of success due to its similarities with Animal House. The fact is that Robert Downey Sr. (yes Iron Man’s Dad) executed the direction of the film competently. I don’t see any way he could have elevated the material, and the photography and performances are all on target. The opening credits sequence in particular, which features a decent sounding punk rock song played over images of toy soldiers being knocked over, is pretty cool. It gears one up to expect a much better movie. Speaking of the music, the film has an outstanding soundtrack featuring the likes of Blondie, Lou Reed, Cheap Trick, Iggy Pop, The Kinks, Pat Benatar, Nick Lowe, Sammy Hagar, Ian Hunter, and more. Clearly an effort was made to produce an outstanding musical roster, and the closing credits even play over images of a recording studio.

The excellent music brings up one of the most perplexing aspects of Up the Academy, in that it features a number of positive ingredients that it had going into battle. In addition to the music it had the participation of a well-loved magazine and iconic character, respected indie director, and a talented cast (including Liebman, Ralph Macchio, Stacey Nelkin, Tom Poston, Barbara Bach, and Antonio Fargas). Perhaps most intriguing of all, soon-to-be Oscar winner Rick Baker designed the Alfred E. Neuman make-up. That’s right he went from Up the Academy to An American Werewolf in London. I should mention as well that the Alfred E. Neuman mask is one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen. The effect has a strange quality that hovers between real and fake-looking. Instead of being funny and comical like the persona depicted in MAD, the result is downright unsettling. Don’t get me wrong it’s an amazing piece of work as you would expect from Baker, but there’s no question it does not have the effect they surely must have desired.

I have seen many, many bad movies in my time, but Up the Academy occupies a special circle of the Inferno. It’s not “so bad it’s good” like a Gymkata or a Megaforce, and it has on display some material that is absolutely tasteless. With that in mind, on an entertainment level I can’t recommend it. There’s no denying however that as a cultural artifact it is fascinating. If you can stomach the 90-minute ride it’s worth seeing for the disturbing Alfred E. Neuman character, and the fun performance by Ron Liebman. But it’s a long haul with few rewards. That so many talented people could have been attached to a project so without merit is astounding. The bottom line is that the film has no heart at its center because it has a screenplay that fails to understand the Animal House template it seeks to copy. While Animal House is no masterpiece (and I think more than a little overrated), there’s no denying it has a lighthearted, good-natured tone. It’s gross and crude, but it never devolves into the ugly level to which Up the Academy descends. One thing’s for sure, the “what me worry” tagline for which MAD became known certainly had a prophetic quality in relation to their first and only cinematic endeavor.