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Can't speak highly enough about PIECES, a genuinely demented bit of
Americanized Euro Horror from producer Dick Randall, the gutter-minded
genius behind such bizarre masterpieces as KONG ISLAND, THE MAD
BUTCHER, SLAUGHTER HIGH, LIVING DOLL and the comparatively classy DON'T
OPEN TILL Christmas. This time out it's the college hacker formula,
approached with the kitchen sink brimming over with every possible
derivation on the mad slasher movie you can think of, raised to new
lows of delirium as a mommy obsessed psycho roams a Massachusetts
college campus with a chainsaw, grinding up co-eds to construct a
life-size jigsaw puzzle pin-up babe to replace the one that mommy threw
away when he was a wee lad.
The killer was a fairly obvious guess, and indeed the film doesn't really bother with setting up a beguiling mystery so much as concentrating on parting shapely nubile co-eds from their clothing, placing them in danger, and giving the killer a chance to carve off whatever parts he needs for his disgusting little hobby. Girls get carved up by the chainsaw in broad daylight, in the shower, by the pool, in the locker room, basically any fetishized misogynistic setting that a chauvinistic pig might think college girls frequent when not trying to ball their handsome professors.
The catch though is that like Randall's best productions, the film knows it's essentially a working exercise in applied sleaze and doesn't bother trying to redeem itself with anything even remotely resembling meaningful content -- though there is a strangely "arty" feel to a scene where one of the babes gets spiked through the skull with a butcher knife while flailing about on a punctured water bed. Leave it to Dick Randall to find beauty in the gutter, as well as a few laughs for viewers who are demented enough to understand that the film is essentially a put-on of sorts, though it's hardly a parody.
Point being that the movie is so absurd and over the top that if they weren't playing it straight the whole thing wouldn't work. If nothing else here is a great example of 1982 era B movie horror cinema with no aspirations about being anything else except a ninety minute scum bucket, with more nudity, gore, sleazy voyeurism, tacky production standards, bizarro performances and jet-black humor than I've been treated to in quite a while. The one thing which might annoy some viewers is the completely phallocentric nature of the fantasy, catering so exclusively to the male gaze that every woman -- including the killer's unfortunate mother -- is reduced to sexual terms, and none of them are entirely innocent either. Here is a movie for people who love slutty college harlots, and even more correctly enjoy seeing them carved into gooey, dribbly bits.
But if you have a strong stomach, a taste for the bizarre and a few beers this would be a great pick for some grease-ball movie party where the guys all get together to misbehave, crack off-color jokes, and drool at naked breasts on TV. And for some of people out there that constitutes a good time, and PIECES serves it's role very well as a barf-bagger party movie. Enjoy, but if you take it seriously enough to actually be offended by any of it you are one clueless S.O.B. It's only called PIECES and about a maniac with a chainsaw carving up co-eds. What do you expect??
Even I have my limits for Italian genre cinema, it turns out, and Aldo
Florio's "Five Giants From Texas" is pretty close to it. As far as I
can tell there are exactly two reasons to see this film, three if you
count the somewhat mind-numbing brutality depicted. The first is the
presence of Guy Madison in one of his earlier Spaghetti Western roles,
playing one of a group of cowboys from Texas who travel to some dusty
hellhole to avenge the murder of a mutual friend & the rape of his
wife. The second is the presence of Joe D'amato on the production
staff, credited for "cinematography", which in this case translates out
to standing by the camera and telling it's operator where to point it.
I lost track of the story very quickly though there isn't much to it. Look, I love ultra-low budget Spaghetti Westerns as much as anybody. One of my favorites is FOR A DOLLAR BETWEEN THE TEETH with Tony Anthony, filmed on a Mastercard budget on exactly three locations and packing ten times the artistry of this film. The difference has to do with not just the approach, writing and acting so much as the application of imagination, wit & style. None of the above is evident in this film, it's a dismal, ultra violent and talky slog through yet another vengeance plot that exists only as a way to make a genre film for grown-up audiences, with the inclusion of some strikingly graphic violence and a truly detestable rape scene.
In many ways this film stands as evidence to what the Italians and their Spanish collaborators were going for with Spaghetti Westerns. The Americanized approach is usually meant for more general audiences, with shootouts and hell bent for leather riding segments, maybe a romantic scene between the leading man & his lady out by the corral fence as the sun sets. The Italians and Spaniards instead used the conventions of a Western as a framework upon which to weave an adult melodrama complete with hangings, whippings, sexuality, scenes of torture & bloodletting that would never be acceptable by those Hollywood standards. Usually I can admire the approach no matter how seemingly heartless & cruel the results, provided it's made with a sense of style. Even composer Franco Salina's musical score fails to be involving, and if the musical score to your Spaghetti Western passes without notice you know you're doing something wrong.
Redeeming factors are few but one of them is that this is a decidedly Spanish Spaghetti, not just by counting the names in the cast with Spanish roots but in the methodology involved with telling the story, which lingers on the brutality & suffering of those involved. It serves to set up a vicarious sense of justice to the climactic and phoned-in shootout between the five heroes and the sadistic monsters who are fueling the plot. Spanish art has always had a pre-occupation with tragedy and suffering, a better example of the approach actually working in a Western is a film called FEDRA WEST which was filmed for as low of a budget and with even more graphic brutality & suffering than is on display here. The difference is that the film is made with that all important sense of style.
So I don't know about this one. It's a joyless, brutal and unrewarding film though that may very well have been the point and I am just being slow to appreciate it. The reason I adore Spaghetti Westerns so much is that they usually exist as fantasy pieces with an emphasis on arty indulgence that seems to be utterly lacking here. I am sure that the beatings, stabbings, shootings, whippings, hangings, rapings, maulings and assorted carnage & suffering may be right up the alleyway of some, but I gotta call things like I see them. This movie is appalling, difficult to enjoy, and almost impossible to recommend especially considering how many overlooked and clever little gems the industry produced. This isn't one of them.
4/10: Obscure to a point, and there's good reason for it.
I'm an unabashed admirer of "The New Three Stooges" animated kids show
even though I'll be the first to admit that not only does it not make a
whole lot of sense, but it's profoundly disturbing on a subconscious
level that's very hard to describe. The show format is somewhat
inspired, with the boys hosting live action "wraparound" segments where
they engage in their usual antics albeit slowed somewhat by advancing
age ... and perhaps the knowledge that the routine was growing a bit
Still it's miraculous television, the animation bizarre and with an twinge of middle 60s pre-psychedelia influenced pop art. Which isn't to suggest that the Stooges themselves were perhaps sharing hookahs between takes so much as the younger artists and animators working on the show probably were. The production also has a kind of post-Freudian neurosis to it that one might actually refer to as polymorphously perverse. Where the classic era Stooges represented a kind of anarchic form of surrealism (think Curly furiously building the framework of plumbing pipes around himself only to find that he's trapped when it's finished), the animated shorts have a more minimalist approach where the surreal juxtapositionings are suggested rather than spelled out by squeezing someone's head in a tailor's press.
The cartoons also don't tell "stories" so much as they explore archetypal settings: A western town, a trip to the dentist, babysitting duty or a camping expedition. The animators show only as much as might be needed to suggest such a setting and then allow all hell to break loose with a sort of free-form visual exploration where beginning & end meet, or effect proceeds cause. First we see the eggs oozing down Moe's cartoon face, then we realize that Curly Joe was trying to make pancake batter.
Back to the disturbing nature though ... there is something "wrong" about the mixture of the live action segments with these (by then) puffy looking aged performers closing folding camping furniture on each other's heads, pretending to be zoo attendees cleaning up after the elephants, and especially actually interacting with young kids as in one really freakazoid trip to the beach that sees Curly Joe dressed up like John Wayne Gayce & doling out bottles of unidentified lotions to little girls. Like, ew. Granted I'm viewing the material with the jaded sensibility of someone living in a time forty years after the material was filmed, but by golly this show was really, really weird, and even with the live-action segments unlike anything you may be expecting when you hear the name Three Stooges.
But, it's amazing television, and if you look around at your favorite discount retailer's bargain bin DVD selections you can usually find collections of them for a dollar or so. Usually they are packaged to make them look like "family" fare, which usually implies kids being able to watch them on their own, which might not be a wise idea. They are harmless, mind you, but the kids might start to think about what it all might mean, especially after the shows start giving them nightmares. And the conclusion they will inevitably come to is that you are one weird, sick person for thinking they might actually like it.
5/10: Neutral rating since it's so weird as to defy traditional critical review. And that's why I love it.
I cannot speak highly enough of this movie. Made available over the
years under such varied titles as WAR DEVILS, THE LEOPARDS OF WAR and
CODE NAME RED DEVIL, Bitto Albertini's contribution to the 1967 - 1971
Italian Spaghetti Euro War cycle is one of the most enjoyable entries
to the mini-boom of low budget WW2 potboilers churned out by the
Italians in the wake of the box office success of THE DIRTY DOZEN and
TOBRUK. I am completely fascinated by the mini-genre, mostly because of
how the films tend to have had a cartoonish air of make believe about
them that is reminiscent of playing Army Guy as a kid in the sandpit
near the lake house up in Maine during summer vacations. They are B
grade genre movie quickies made on the cheap, and this one is probably
better than most.
The stories usually took one of two forms, either "French Villa" commando raids ala THE DIRTY DOZEN, with a squad of misfits on a do or die mission to infiltrate & destroy some country manor where the Nazis are cooking up a secret weapon, or the "Desert Battle" variant where a legion of soldiers would face off in Tunisia to try and stop Rommel from paving over North Africa. Then there would be the standard plot points for the story to check off: The Training Sequence, the Withering Assault meant to trim the cast down just to those with speaking roles; the Sadistic Gruppenfuhrer scene were the vicious SS kommandant of the Nazi legions demonstrates that while the Italians may have started out as Fascists who collaborated with the Germans in WW2 they weren't as bad as the Nazis; a War Is Hell interlude with some unspeakable atrocity meant to demonstrate that while the movie may be fun, fun is fun but War Is Hell; a Disarming The Mine sequence where the soldiers have a tense moment or three trying to disarm a landmine, a cheap but effective way to build tension; the Singing Nazis interlude where the decadent Nazi officers are seen drinking schnapps and singing some drunken ode to der Vaterland; the Heroic Sacrifice treatment when one of the team members sacrifices himself heroically for the good of the mission; and a Final Showdown usually between the intrepid commando leader and the less vicious, honorable Wehrmacht officer who has found mutual respect for the intrepid commando leader. There are slight variations including the obligatory Romantic Partisan or Lost Nurses angle thrown in by the Italians, who always made a point to work some attractive 20 year old women into their war movies. God bless 'em.
What makes WAR DEVILS so remarkable is that Bitto Albertini managed to not only combine both the French Villa raid and Desert Battle variations into a single script, but actually infuses the story with a genuine sense of humanity for once. The plot here concerns a good-natured Wehrmach commander (Venantino Venantini, who's baritone voice opens the film & sets up composer Marcello Giombini's memorable musical score) and a devil may care American commando squad leader (Guy Madison, professional, smooth and cool as always) who find themselves stranded in the desert together after a tank battle -- comprised of footage from Georgio Ferroni's THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN to keep the production costs down -- who's two units must work together to get back to their respective lines before dying of dehydration. After a "parting scene" that is right out of a Western the film changes gear and the two find themselves pitted against each other again in France when Madison's commandos (a different squad, since they all bought the farm out in the desert) are assigned to a mission raiding a French Villa who's forces are under Venantini's command. The twist on the story being that instead of destroying a Nazi secret weapon the commandos are instead assigned to rescue an allied officer with knowledge of a secret weapon program, who is himself sworn to secrecy or death.
The reason why it all works is largely due to Venantino Venantini's performance as a principled, level-headed man who is weary of the war and it's endless carnage, and has learned to value the life of even those who should be his enemy. He has found himself in command not because he seeks glory, but because he is loyal to his country and can see the duality of war as a necessary evil. Guy Madison is also good but plays his role with a more cynical sense of chagrin, and when he tells Venantini that he'll see him in Berlin there's a sense of inevitability to it that even Venantini accepts. He knows Germany is doomed but it's his duty to serve, and will do so even if it means that someday one of them will have to shoot the other in the back. War is, after all, Hell.
But because of the way the plot is structured this is a fast moving and rather energetic little potboiler, with great music, offbeat though low-key cinematography, some great lines about the futility of war and a high enough body count & images of things being blown up real good to keep any action/adventure fan entertained, regardless of whether or not the uniforms are right and the equipment accurate to the period. You get caught up in the film's human story, which is the quality that WAR DEVILS shares with the other exceptional efforts from the Euro War fad: DESERT COMMANDOS, THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN, FIVE FOR HELL, EAGLES OVER London and DESERT BATTLE. They may not have been on the same scope as the great Hollywood war epics but for low budget B grade cinema you can do a lot worse.
I'll say this much about Jose Luis Merino's WHEN HEROES DIE: It
diverted my attention and absorbed me for about an hour or so. It's
also one of those films that brings up the question that even if the
first seventy minutes or so are dynamite, if your whole film unravels
in the last three or four minutes, did you blow it? Most of these Euro
War movies made by the Italians & Spaniards between 1967 and 1970 or so
are merely Spaghetti Westerns with guys driving tanks instead of stage
coaches. There aren't that many of them, and most are pretty much the
same. This one is different, if only because it tries to push some
different buttons while relying on the tried & true formula of a
commando squad made up of lovable misfits trapped behind enemy lines
glommed onto from THE DIRTY DOZEN. Instead of trying to get behind
German lines to impregnate some impregnable fortress, this movie works
backwards through a series of deliciously evil twists & turns that are
spellbinding ... until the last few minutes.
The plot works like this: A group of allied commandos from an unseen mission have been captured, and their objective was to kidnap General Rommel (played with gusto by Spaghetti Western demigod Piero Lulli). Simply put, the commando team is tortured (mostly off-camera) and after revealing the nature of their assignment, the Nazi high command under the orders of Himmler himself decides to turn the table on the allies using a double of Rommel (Lulli again) and doubles of the commando squad (led by fellow Spaghetti Western demigods Craig Hill, Aldo Sanbrell, Charly Bravo and Euro Horror favorite Charles Quiney). The doubles are psychologically conditioned to become the people they are impersonating, with the objective being to fight their way back to allied lines and "escape" with the fake Rommel, who has been pre-programmed to assassinate Dwight Eisenhower, causing the Normandy invasion to fail. Or, something like that.
Quite honestly I very happily got lost in the labyrinth of details that lead up to the turning point in the film where the squad is to be extracted by spy plane; There are so many twist and turns, hidden loyalties & secret agendas, that it's somewhat difficult to keep up with just who's who. But meanwhile these ambiguous duality riddled characters are actually fighting both the Germans and the French resistance while disguised as American GI's and dragging poor Piero Lulli across the countryside as their prisoner ... even though he's one of them. Along the way the movie takes the time to write in two utterly gorgeous Euro Genre film babes, María Silva and the breathtaking Annabella Incontrera, and not only gives them a chance to engage in mild erotics but lets them shoot people with machine guns while showing some thigh. What a war!
Then there are the surrealist touches, starting with a totally bizarre series of dream sequences that depict in fish eye lensed psychedelia the medical horrors that the team members had to undergo during their transformation from loyal SS Waffentroops into misfit Yankee commandos. This blending of horror elements with action is actually quite common in the Spaghetti Western idiom but this is the first example of it I've seen in a Euro War film: some of it is actually quite harrowing to the brain. The other totally surreal touch will probably be read as a gaffe by most viewers when a brigade of tanks from a different movie attack the partisan stronghold where the film meets up with the girls. The tanks are rolling across a desert landscape (probably Morocco and looking like borrowed footage from BATTLE OF AL ALAMEIN or BATTLE IN THE DESERT) who's cannon blasts blows up stuff on the Spanish farm set standing in for France. It's both silly and downright surreal at the same time, especially considering how well the cause/effect relationships are edited together.
In any event the story continues to convolute and twist and turn and remain just on the near side of unfathomable, up until a groaner of a surprise ending that is surprising all right, but somewhat of a cop out. The copy of the film I found on Greek video runs only 78 minutes, of which I'd say about 73 minutes or so are really, really good. That last five minutes though ... You can let all the air out of a balloon with the smallest pin prick, and the question remains does letting it all unravel in the final moments snuff the whole film? I'm willing to extend this one the benefit of the doubt, because while it does play into most of the usual Euro War clichés it nonetheless defies formula for most of the runtime, mostly because of how the usual plot has been subverted; Like with Umberto Lenzi's superior DESERT COMMANDOS from 1967 -- one of the best examples of the classic era Euro War thrillers -- the audience finds themselves rooting for the commando team to succeed, and the implied success of their mission would be a dead Eisenhower and a failed Normandy invasion. They are Germans fighting Germans, under orders from other Germans, and if they succeed the war is lost. Hello?? That's so weird it works!
The film also gives director Jose Luis Merino a chance to wallow in some of the cloistered, dank, atmospheric catacombs & dilapidated locations that would become a staple of his Euro Horror classics, and this may indeed have worked with his Spaghetti Western REQUIEM FOR A GRINGO as a dry-run for the visual iconography he wanted to see. Combined with a moody, languid music score by Nico Fidenco, this is one of the more unique examples of the Euro War potboiler, certainly more carefully written than many, and more visually compelling than most. Too bad about the final few minutes, though.
7/10; Whoever was playing Himmler deserved an Oscar.
Leon Klimovsky's LEGION OF NO RETURN (or BRIDGE OVER THE ELBE) is
another one of those Italian & Spanish made European genre films from
the 1967 - 1971 period when THE DIRTY DOZEN and GUNS OF NAVARRONE were
the big formulas to rip off. The film is essentially a Spaghetti
Western, as evidenced by Michele Lacerenza's seemingly misplaced
musical score, with guys dressed up like G.I. Joe instead of cowboys,
driving in jeeps instead of riding horses, and carrying machine guns
instead of six-shooters.
And like any Spaghetti Western worth it's salt we get a name-brand American star (Tab Hunter) collecting some alimony money during the tail end of his career, a stable of familiar looking Euro genre actors hiding under their US surplus military garb instead of peeking out from under cowboy hats (Daniele Vargas, Barta Barri, Claudio Trionfi, Ángel del Pozo), and the scriptwriters were even resourceful enough to write in a couple of roles for some good looking women (Erika Wallner and veteran genre actress Rosanna Yanni) to remind us of what we were fighting for.
And like a good Italian/Spanish Spaghetti Western, history goes out the window with any sense of realism, which is remarkable since the story is derived from a novel about the incident in question by Lou Carrigan. I've not read Carrigan's novel but the pulp potboiler basics of the story is familiar territory to anyone who may have seen a couple of these Italian produced WW2 films from the late 1960s: A platoon of hand-picked commandos with unsavory pasts & specialized killing skills is sent to try and win the entire Second World War by beating the Russians to an important bridge spanning the Elbe River, which looks remarkably like either a cheap special effects model or a secondary road crossing spanning some irrigation canal in the Spanish countryside, but never mind. The interchangeable plot combines elements of THE DIRTY DOZEN's misfit commando squad formula with THE GUNS OF NAVARRONE's impregnable fortress idea, with the bridge guarded by a battalion of crack German Waffentroops under the command of a brutal crazed Gruppenfuhrer (complete with a "Dr. Strangelove" inspired dead arm strapped to his Iron Cross) who's cynicism about the way the war has turned against Germany is only matched by his single-minded devotion to the order to allow no one to cross the bridge and to take no prisoners. This applies even his own men, since after all War Is Hell.
Guys scamper around dressed up in army uniforms and pretending to spout off military jargon, with the quirky individual traits of the commando squad being employed in a reverse order of who gets killed off, the most memorable character being a gruff, amoral gunnery sergeant type who brought his pet chicken to WW2 with him. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the film is how Klimovsky and his scriptwriters manage to re-define the obligatory opening montage of WW2 stock footage to set the film up, complete with a doleful sounding narrator who more or less sums up the complexity of the Normandy invasion into a fifteen second sound byte.
I adore these Euro War potboilers because they resemble more than anything else me & my knuckle-headed brothers, relatives and friends playing Army Guy in the sand pit near the summer home of our uncle off Watchik Lake up in Maine. Nobody in the entire film recites one mundane line of dialog, which is all right out of the pages of "Sgt. Rock" and allows the Yankee squad -- who don't seem to be carrying much in the way of equipment or even ammunition on their commando mission -- lots of time to sit around having Spaghetti Western type discussions out in the open behind enemy lines. The film is a display of sentiment, the prevailing sentiment being an apparent wish by the Italians & Spaniards who made the film to cast themselves on the sides of the Allies and show that while their own governments of the times may have collaborated with the Germans, they weren't as scurrilous or evil as the Nazis. To demonstrate this we get lots of scenes of Nazis strutting around while playing the Shickelgruber role to the hilt, while inflicting unspeakable losses on the implacable allies in extended War Is Hell sequences that are meant to demonstrate that while fun is fun, War Is Hell.
The two main objections to these films is that they care not one bit about historical accuracy of details like weapons + equipment, and that they try to achieve a sense of being morality plays by having the Hell of war serve as the backdrop for the human dynamics at work in the screenplay. Since it is impossible to deconstruct the insane tragedy of war it's difficult to genuinely object to the formulaic nature of the approach because they celebrate our victory over the Nazis. This one moves along at a brisk pace with a peppy musical score and as such might prove more entertaining than others, and fans of Klimovsky's horror films will have fun trying to spot the recycled sets & locations from his werewolf films with Spanish star Paul Naschy, whom one half expects to see slink out of the background at times to paw at Rosanna Yanni.
It's disposable plastic cinema, made as inexpensively as possible with the intent being to toss it on a double bill with something more or less along the same lines to sell tickets in a movie theater for a week or two. The following week there'd be something just like them there instead to continue the cycle. The only things that made them unique would be who the starring name brand actor was, or who composed the music. Just like a Spaghetti Western.
5/10: Relaxingly stupid, and ultimately worthy of it's obscurity.
Forget about "The Twilight Zone" or "Outer Limits" or the classic
"Doctor Who" years with Tom Baker: CTV's THE STARLOST is the creepiest,
most subtly disturbing television show ever made for general audiences.
The background story about how the show came to be reads like a Nazi
War Criminal Tribunal transcript: Harlan Ellison -- not exactly the
most laid back person in first place -- is suckered into helping to
create an epic television show set in the future, with space ships,
laser beams, intergalactic voyage, combining the best talents of the
era (Douglas Trumbull, Ben Bova, "Star Trek"'s alumni of superlative
writers) with state-of-the-art technology, to be filmed in London for a
worldwide audience hungry for creativity that had never been seen
before. The scope would have dwarfed "Star Trek" with an emphasis on
real science, astronomy, physics, engineering and a fearless sense of
speculation about what could be out there in the universe.
Then it all fell apart: The budget was drawn & quartered, the production syndicated, to be made on the cheap in Canada with a production staff of unknowns who were not trained or equipped to handle such a project. The story premise reduced to the lowest common denominator and the talent marginalized by the stupidity of those who only saw it as another way to sell toilet paper, frozen dinners and underarm deodorant. Blatant misrepresentation of intent finally drove Trumbull and Bova from the sets, and finally Ellison announced he'd had enough. Before the first pilot episode was ever taped he'd demanded that his name be removed from the credits lest the producers reap an undeserved bounty off his well-respected propz. Hyped beyond any possible ability to deliver what it boasted, the show premiered in 1973 to abject indifference from thunderstruck audiences who could not fathom what the point of it all was, mixing 3rd rate television production techniques, bizarre illiteracy of both form and content, and bare-bones production values that were put to shame by that which it attempted to mimic.
Without Ellison's guidance the show became a sort of working example of how NOT to approach the science fiction genre, at the same time dumbed down beyond belief and yet defying any sort of accepted formula. Punctuated by bizarre, ultra-cheap quasi-minimal production design, brain dead writing and lunkheaded conceptual inconsistencies, it is a unique, remarkable failure of humanity attempting to do something great and yet stubbing their toe on the wainscoting with each step. It was canned almost immediately with the basic conflict of the last remnants of humanity in search of a new world on a giant, derelict space ark unresolved. They are still out there, somewhere, lost and unable to find their way home due to indifference, greed and incompetence.
And yet what a show it IS in the form of the precious 16 episodes that were made, 10 of which are available now on a DVD box set from Britain. It's the creepiest television show ever made for family audiences, nightmares of it's basic concept of three lost humans moving from compartment to compartment on an unbelievably huge, lumbering, abandoned "Earthship Ark" haunted me for thirty years. Most of it isn't very good in the traditional way of looking at television, but as a kind of kitschy, ambiguous and hopelessly retarded entertainment it's truly one of a kind, for which we should probably be thankful. Harlan may not wish it so but THE STARLOST remains a remarkable example of humanity at their most clueless, with the potential of what could have been eclipsing that which was.
I will let others describe the details of the premise, what interests me about the show is how utterly rudderless, forlorn and misdirected it all feels looking at the remnants 30 years later. If you want a more accurate look at what the show COULD have been, make sure you read the book adaptation of Mr. Ellison's "pilot episode" story, PHOENIX WITHOUT ASHES, which opens with a really eye-opening 20 page account of the hell he went through just to get this much accomplished. By all accounts he is to this day bitter, caustic, and openly hostile about the experience, and I agree that an authorized present day attempt to re-visualize his concept is entirely appropriate. Not a "re-make", since THE STARLOST as it is known today doesn't really officially exist. It was taken away from him and made stupid by those who pulled the strings; The idea is still worthy.
None of which, by the way, is meant to denigrate the efforts of those who stuck around & gave it the good old college try. It's not their fault. They did their best and just happened to come up empty, though some of what survives to this day is remarkable: The principal leads (Kier Dullea, Gay Rowan, the perpetually gruff Robin Ward, and William Oster as the endlessly helpful computer "host") were very well cast and gave their all, and the guest appearances by some of the best & brightest of the day (the late Lloyd Bochner, a misplaced Walter Koenig, "Space: 1999"'s Barry Morse, priceless Ed Ames, and John Colicos who even makes the word vegetable sound like a Shakespeare sonnet) are wonderful. Trumbull's special effects don't come across well on the small screen but are entirely practical given Bova's scientific guidance. Superficially the show resembles "Doctor Who" though far, far less profound as realized.
If it had been made right by honest visionaries who were interested in amounting to more than the sum of their parts it could have gone on for three or four seasons at least, perhaps even fulfilling Ellison's proposed story arc of the three heroes eventually repairing the ark and setting it on it's way again. Yet as an unfinished sketch of that idea it exists like a half remembered dream, haunting because of it's fleeting nature rather than hampered by never having been finished.
8/10. In spite of everything, 8/10.
First off, I'm not sure what the problem here most people seem to be
having with this movie. I mean look, the film is called SNAKE ISLAND.
It isn't called FAREWELL TO ARMS or THE GRAPES OF WRATH, it's a B grade
direct to DVD/video movie about a boatload of people who get stranded
on an island infested by a zillion snakes. WHAT are you people
SNAKE ISLAND was directed, written, produced, and stars my new favorite B movie icon, Wayne Crawford, a person about whom there is very little information. Mr. Crawford appears to be an opportunistic part-time genre filmmaker who surfaces every few years to helm a new little "vanity project" with himself in the starring role. He got his start in a demented little horror shocker in 1972 called AUNT MARTHA DOES DREADFUL THINGS, is perhaps best known for his work as the title character in the 80s home video detective thriller JAKE SPEED (and manages to play characters named Jake in many of his projects), though my favorite Wayne Crawford film is the 1978 JAWS ripoff and X-FILES anticipating rampaging barracuda/chemical experiment sleeper BARRACUDA (THE LUCIFER PROJECT) which SNAKE ISLAND actually reminds me a lot of.
Others have done ample justice to the plot, what little there is of it: Humans trapped on an island with a zillion snakes attacking from every angle once the drunken topless lezbo techno dance party is over and everyone has gone back to their cabins to throw up. William Katt has fun as the expatriate American writer looking for something to write about, and Crawford casts himself as the somewhat grizzled tour guide who manages to find time to go skinny dipping with his female lead. Yes, making B movies can be fun, just remember to keep your day job, and Crawford is now apparently employed as a college professor, hopefully teaching film. People can learn a lot from him I am sure, as is evidenced by how much brain-dead fun there is to be had with this movie provided that one steadfastly refuses to take it seriously. ANY of it.
As another reviewer pointed out, the difference between SNAKE ISLAND and the majority of the recent PG-13 oriented giant snakes on the loose movies is that this one was accomplished without relying too heavily on computer graphics effects -- they apparently actually used many actual snakes when making this movie, which makes me wonder how it slipped under PETA's usual animal watch radar. One reason might be that it's so easily dismissed as being just a load of crap, filmed in South Africa on the cheap, with no recognizable star names (William Katt??) and no real point to it's existence other than helping jaded viewers occupy 90 minutes of their lives in an entertaining manner.
And it IS an entertaining little movie, especially if you can suppress both your brain and taste centers for an hour or so while the story sets itself up. One other aspect that proves useful is that the film actually has a subtle little sleaze factor going on, with some agreeable nudity, the infamous lezbo techno dance, a laugh or two about safari theme park attractions and finally the inevitable Night of the Snakes sequence, which is impressively staged. It won't make anyone forget stuff like SSSSSS or STANLEY but heck, for a few thousand dollars Mr. Crawford was able to gather an attractive cast, pick out a suitably isolated setting, and cut loose. Looks to me like the film was made in about two weeks with minimal fuss, and sent straight to the rental shops where stuff like this probably has it's most beneficial application.
Genuine B movies are on the wane as of late, with the independent market being gobbled up by message movie attempts and the major distributors all looking for the next big event film package that will result in a franchise. That left people like Wayne Crawford free to fill the vacuum as far as mindless, disposable entertainment goes. Unlike JAKE SPEED or BARRACUDA I doubt that SNAKE ISLAND will gather much of a cult following and it's not the sort of film that will command repeat performances, but for a $1.50 three-day DVD rental you can do a heck of a lot worse. Which is what a good B movie should amount to.
6/10; Sets it's sights low and achieves what it set out to do, and you sort of have to admire it for being true to it's nature.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I still remember sneaking downstairs one June evening when I was about
12, watching the tail end of Johnny Carson and then managing quite by
chance to catch BARRACUDA on The Late Show. This would have been in
about 1979, and amazingly three scenes stuck with me for the ensuing 28
years: A cute young chick in her swimsuit (identified as one Jill
Shakoor, who was cute enough for me to have a crush on all summer after
seeing it that one time) playing fetch with her dog in the surf before
finding a severed human head, a nauseating roadside diner lunch
consisting of fried fish with the eyes still intact (echoes of
CHINATOWN, maybe), and the predictably nihilistic paranoid 70s ending
where the two heroes are blown away in slow motion by a legion of
crooked state troopers.
If you think I just gave away the whole movie rest assured that there's a LOT more going on here than meets the eye, even on a threadbare budget that barely afforded a dune buggy for the hero to drive around in during the big climax. As a matter of fact, this movie has a bit of everything: JAWS ripoff, environmental "nature strikes back" thriller, a newspaper investigative editor on the trail of a hot scoop, government corruption intrigue, a few girls in swimsuits, PG rated but still somewhat gory barracuda attacks, a doctor who may be mixed up in a military chemical warfare experiment, men in black government assassins with chirping silencer equipped pistols, intriguing underwater photography, a greedy chemical plant owner with a somewhat retarded son, goons menacing people with shotguns, a touch of summer love romance, and an amusing parade of late 70s fashions & hairstyles that is exemplified by the hero's striped rugby shirt -- remember those?
Nearly 30 years later now I managed to track down a foreign language subtitled VHS of the film and was pleasantly amused to find out that while BARRACUDA is a home-brew vanity project of sorts (written in part by Wayne Crawford, directed in part by Wayne Crawford, produced in part by Wayne Crawford, and starring Wayne Crawford under his clever early years screen name of Wayne David Crawford, who is still at it these days with favorites like 2002's SNAKE ISLAND) it's actually a pretty competent little low budget "Regional Horror" effort made in and around Pompano Beach, Florida, that managed to anticipate THE X-FILES 20 years before Chris Carter debuted his creation, including an ominous electronic synthesizer music score by Klaus Schulze. Someone had their thinking cap on when they wrote this.
We get the scruffy looking post-doctorate grad school teacher marine biologist hero-type trying to get to the bottom of a mystery of why the local barracuda population has suddenly turned to attacking humans, teaming up with a reluctant local sheriff (Hershel Gordon Lewis favorite William Kerwin), the requisite Fat Cop deputy (longtime supporting heavy favorite Cliff Emmich), the sheriff's sweetie pie 19 year old daughter (Roberta Leighton, looking fresh), and the local newspaper editorial staff (Wayne Hackett, along with future gay porn actor Scott Avery as his, ahem, assistant) with the town doctor (the late Jason Evers, whom Star Trek: TOS fans will recognize as Scalosian leader Rael from "Wink of an Eye") implicated by shady connections to the mystery which -- get this -- involves creating a "hypoglycemic condition" within the townspeople via the chemical waste produced by the corrupt chemical plant owner (ubiquitous bad-guy expert Bert Freed in another priceless role) that is really the front for a government run chemical warfare experiment on creating hostility & disorder within a civilian population.
In other words the movie has almost too much going on, with the at times gruesome barracuda attacks just a red herring to involve viewers in a mystery that explains itself from the back to the front: Events in the final ten minutes cast ominous light over actions from the body of the film which seem at the time to have little bearing over the story (people arguing for no reason, a seeming addiction to bottled water, the doctor doling out odd looking blue tablets for the slightest ailment), but by the time the pieces all fall into place the heroes have been effectively condemned by their mounting paranoia, with only one possible conclusion.
So here's a movie who's ideas are actually bigger than the production itself. The cinematography is rather pedestrian with no real grabber moments -- aside from the three big barracuda attacks, which occur at roughly 20 minute intervals -- and none of the acting will make anyone forget about Brando's monologue about nearly being a contender. A couple of the sequences are lifted directly from JAWS, most notably a dinner table discussion followed by late night scuba mission that is as close to plagiarism as it gets. But the story being told is convoluted enough to help the film amount to more than the sum of it's parts, and rewards patient viewers with a taste for regional low budget horror with something that's quite out of the ordinary ... in spite of how ordinary it appears to be.
It's too bad that DARK ECHO never really gels, because it is an
interesting ultra-low budget production, made in Austria & Hungary by
people with good intentions who just didn't seem to understand the
horror genre. Apart from a couple of effective underwater sequences, a
nice gross-out horror moment and the film's unique mittel-European
flavorings it really doesn't have much zest and seems unsure of exactly
what it wants to be. But it IS interesting ...
Unknown actor Wolfgang Brook stars as a psychic brought in by the local police detective to solve a series of bizarre attacks on the local populace of a sleepy Austrian village nestled between the mountains ringing a cold, deep, icy clear lake that was the site of a tragedy a hundred years before. It seems than an excursion craft loaded with sightseers sank under mysterious circumstances, and apparently it's captain is seeking revenge for having been abandoned -- ala John Carpenter's THE FOG. A still lovely Karin Dor wanders into the film from her retirement as a distant relative of one of the victims, and joins forces with the plucky detective to try and get to the bottom of the mystery.
The film does have some really nice atmospheric scenes filmed in and around some nice, crumbled old ruins of local medieval monasteries & castles, filled with the skulls of long dead worshipers with their names and dates of death painted on the bones. A subplot about some sort of cult practicing blasphemy in the catacombs of an old church provides some brief frissons but doesn't really go anywhere and seems tacked on just to provide some salacious content. There's also a cackling old witch played by veteran supporting actress Hanna Hertelendy, who's presence is the most interesting role in the film aside from the captain, who's rotting carcass is remarkably spry and intact for a body that has supposedly been festering in the wreck of a ship for a century.
The film was the sole directorial effort of George Robotham, a stuntman turned sometimes actor famed for his double work for John Wayne and Rock Hudson, amongst others, and his affinity for staging fight scenes and underwater photography. And indeed the underwater scenes provide the film's most interesting moments, especially the evocative images of the zombified captain swimming up from the depths to claim more victims. Zombies living in lakes or waterlogged conditions are of course nothing new, with Jean Rollin's ZOMBIE LAKE being perhaps the most well known example aside from Carpenter's THE FOG, which may indeed have been inspired in part by DARK ECHO's basic story.
Mostly however the film serves as a sort of travelogue of the sights & sounds of the regions in which it was filmed, with ample trips to the local tavern for mugs of fine Austrian beer, performances by musicians playing traditional instruments, trips to the ornately magnificent churches and centuries old town halls, and lots of conversation scenes between the principal actors as they wander about the picturesque settings. If only the film knew what it wanted to be: There's one dynamite scene where the captain returns to pester the old witch and actually slices her skull in half, providing a great barf-bagger moment that is in stark contrast with the rest of the film's somewhat lethargic pacing. This is not a film for those with low attention spans and in fact it's primary interest besides the presence of Ms. Dor is probably how it's absolutely obscure and difficult to find.
If only those who made it perhaps had a bit more experience with horror as a genre. The images of the rotting carcass sliming out of the lake is pretty creepy and the low budget sort of works in the film's favor, allowing it to be a study in moods rather than the all out assault on taste and senses that it probably should have been. Then again you can't fault art for simply being what it is, and for my money this is an interesting example of regional Euro Horror that defies the usual formula of bloodshed & breasts.
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