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Friday, December 6, 2019

Ninja Commandments



Ninja Commandments
1987
Joseph Lai, Godfrey Ho

Godfrey Ho is the unassailable king of cheap ninja movies. His secret was to purchase other Asian films for little money and then splice in his own cheaply shot ninja footage creating a bizarre hybrid movie that usually saw the ninjas seeking some object like spy plans or a magic sword.  The other half of the movie was most often a crime film of some kind, this seems like it would a natural fit, there is usually some action, some sneaking around, and maybe a little sex. The end result was mixed at best, it usually resulted in two narratives that had very little interaction. Not all of Godfrey Ho’s ninja movies were paired with crime films, there was also fantasy, comedy, and in one notable entry an incredibly grim drama.

Enter Ninja Commandments.

Ninja Commandments opens with a ninja leader informing us that the ninjas, Rodney and Janet have been kicked out of the clan for breaking that most precious of ninja commandments: “No sex before marriage.” While Rodney and Janet live a pastoral life stripped of their ninja powers, Rodney makes some enemies out of a gang of gamblers (by stacking dice?), who promptly beat him up and get him thrown into prison. Janet, meanwhile, is not only forced to raise their child on her own, but she is also horribly disfigured rescuing her ungrateful child, Daniel from a fire.

Everyone playing D&D has done this at some point.
These increasingly grim turns of fate create complete tonal whiplash when we jump over the see what eternal Godfrey Ho star, Richard Harrison here playing a ninja named Gordon, is up to. It seems that the master has been murdered by a ninja named Stuart while Gordon was away on a mission. Now Gordon must murder the bad ninjas of his clan and take control once again. So here we are facing a brutal family drama when we suddenly cut away to see Harrison in his glittering ninja costume run up a hill and shout, "NINJA" to no one in particular, it is a peculiar experience, to say the least.

The ninja footage in these Godfrey Ho films is generally enjoyable, there are flashy costumes, ridiculous weapons, and the actual fight choreography is well done. It is usually the other movie filling that is tedious to sit through, but here with Ninja Commandments, the heavy drama is a welcome change and it is decently made too. The acting and the story are interesting mainly due to the drama becoming so bleak that it dips into absurdity.

"Ninja? Never heard of them."
Ninja Commandments is not a good movie, but it is a great Godfrey Ho ninja movie. It is refreshingly bizarre even by the micro-genre’s standards. Both halves of the stitched together story have something to offer even if neither part has much to do with the other. Grab some friends and sit them down in front of this film without letting them know what awaits for, “A ninja should never reveal his secrets.”

Friday, November 29, 2019

We need to talk about that scene in Getting Lucky. No, the other one.

The sex comedy has all but died out at this point landing in the pile of other virtually deceased subgenres like jungle adventure films, and biker gang movies. There are several reasons for its decline, the ubiquitousness of sexual imagery on the internet and the rise “prestige” television shows such as Game of Thrones which often features sex and violence far exceeding anything in mainstream cinemas today. There is also the matter of the slow but gradual change in the public’s view of consent and autonomy. Strange early blips of this modernity can make an interesting note out in an otherwise unremarkable movie.

Getting Lucky, released in 1990 from director Michael Paul Girard is one of those(mostly)  unremarkable sex comedies. Getting Lucky is the tale of a nerd who happens to find a leprechaun trapped in a beer bottle. The leprechaun must do three good deeds to escape. The nerd pines for a girl way of out of his league, and you can guess the rest.

Around the half-way point, Getting Lucky decides it’s time to spice things up with an attempted rape. Video below, content warning for sexual assault.


99% of romantic comedies up to this point would feature a determined man pursuing a woman who is, at best, dubious about having sex. Revenge of the Nerds (1984), for example, has seen its reputation rightly soured from scenes of men spying on women and coercing them into sex. So when high school jock, Tony (Rick McDowell) starts forcibly trying to have sex with cheerleader Krissi (Lezlie Z. McCraw). These two were a couple earlier in the film and Krissi did sneak out of date to go have sex with Tony, so I expected this scene to turn into a ‘boys will be boys’ moment and an uncomfortable reminder of this movie’s era. So it was with some surprise that the scene kept going and that it wasn't letting Tony off the hook or soft-pedaling what he was doing. It’s only the intervention of Krissi’s mom (Pattie Gordon) that prevents anything more awful from happening. Tony even faces some consequences for his actions in the form of some jail time.

This whole scene is a weird dark note in an otherwise forgettable sex comedy that is only notable for a) constantly airing on USA’s Up All Night and b) a scene where Bill shrinks down and accidentally ends up in Krissi’s underwear. The underwear scene is the kind of goofball titillation that I expect in a sex comedy from the early 1990s. The movie doesn’t have the resources to render giant thighs and pubic hair with any realism so the whole thing takes on a surreal quality. Even here there are consequences for Bill as Krissi wants to break-up once she discovers him in the girls’ shower returned to full size. Krissi wields an unusual amount of agency for a subgenre that is notorious for denying women any; they are often objects to be pursued or challenges to be overcome.

This isn’t to say Getting Lucky is some spearhead of progressiveness, the core of it is still a mindless horny comedy featuring a badly realized leprechaun in a beer bottle, but it is indicative of the cultural change that would be coming later in the 1990s and onward. In that respect, it has at least earned itself another footnote in its bizarre history.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus


The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus
1962
Roul Haig

Dr. Momus Alexander Morgus aka Morgus the Magnificent (Sidney Noel Rideau) was a television horror host from the 1950s to the 1980s originating from New Orleans, Louisiana. Horror hosts have a long and storied history popping up in regional television all over the world, beginning with Vampira in 1954 the tradition carries on to today.

"This presidential portrait is coming along splendidly!"
In general horror hosts existed to add a little flair to prepackaged or public domain films that television stations could air for cheap while still pulling in that sweet sweet ad revenue from the commercial breaks. A horror host will usually introduce the film and offer commentary or skits interspersed at the breaks. This means that audiences see a host in action for only a few minutes at a time and that these characters are usually very broad in order to maximize their impact in such a short period of time. What happens when that same character has to carry an 83-minute film with no opportunity to take a break with either a rubber monster movie or an ad for used cars?

In the case of The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus, nothing good.

There is a plot in The Wacky World of Doctor Morgus, but the movie takes its own sweet time getting around to a kooky and extremely 1960s affair involving Morgus making a machine that can turn people into sand and back again. A tiny nation catches wind of this invention and creates a plan to sneak spies into the governments of major countries all over the world. There are a lot of tiring hijinks with spies wielding terrible phony Eastern Bloc accents doing stuff and Morgus being grotesque and oblivious to all. All this supposed comedy is smashed into your ears as well as your eyes thanks to an overbearingly zany score full of wah-wah trumpets and other comedy sounds that were already worn out by 1962.

It's still better than House of 1000 Corpses.
The scenes with Morgus and his weird inventions or him dealing with normal people just seem to go on with no end. These scenes might work fine as short skits, Dr. Morgus himself is a fun character, perfectly embodying the whole ‘monster kid’ culture that arose in the 1950s with the advent of E.C. Comics and American International Pictures, but he has very little to play against. Later Elvira would star in her own movie and the lesson seems to be learned there, a horror host centered movie not only needs a plot it also needs other decent characters to interact with.

If you’re a horror history completist or even a horror history fan, you might have some interest in The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus, just be warned it is neither scary nor funny. It might even work better to occasionally pause the film and watch 5-10 minutes of another low budget horror movie to simulate the horror host experience. It certainly can’t be worse than sitting through this film from beginning to end uninterrupted.



Friday, November 15, 2019

Nacho Chihuahua


Nacho Chihuahua
2001
Jim McCullough, Sr

The world of talking dog movies, no-budget shot-on-video (SOV) shelf fillers, and mockbuster rip-offs collide in the movie, Nacho Chihuahua. Wait, is it actually a movie? It only runs thirty-five minutes long, and I would hesitate to say it has an actual plot. It also has Jared Watson and Stacey Wallace performing some pretty racist accents as the dogs, Nacho and Nina. So, this not a movie you can enjoy in the traditional sense, it is far too cheap and poorly made for that. This is a movie you watch to see a complete mess unfold in front of you. In the end, you might appreciate it, should that kind of thing appeal to you.

It appeals to me.

One look at the cover and it is apparent that this movie was designed as a cheaply made talking animal movie that would hook unsuspecting parents and kids into thinking they were renting a Disney movie or at the very least something Disney-esque enough to keep the kids quiet for ninety… *checks notes*  I mean thirty-five minutes. Sure the dogs are cute and in general kids' standards are low, but I can’t imagine Nacho Chihuahua would hold even the dullest child’s attention for very long.


"Yo quiero una mejor pelicula."
Nacho Chihuahua was also created as a way to cash in on the then-popular Taco Bell dog known for saying, "¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!" Hence the atrocious faux-Mexican accents and notorious moments like Chip (or is it Nacho? The film seems confused on this issue) only eating dog food if it includes a tortilla and a jalapeno. There is also a whole mountain of white people trying to use Mexican stereotypes. There is a musical number about half-way through called, “Don’t Cry for Maria, El Nina” which is as wonderfully terrible as you can imagine. This short film simultaneously appalls and delights with its incompetence.

Speaking of incompetence, the story consists of Nacho (Chip?) desiring to go back to South of the Border, no not Mexico the country but a real (racist) theme park in South Carolina where apparently they tell kids that possums are actually giant rats and you can just grab a chihuahua out of an open box and take it home. Chip's (Nacho's?) adventures take him and his girlfriend Nina around town but ultimately the story just gives up at the thirty-one-minute mark and has both dogs find their owners, never even getting close to their destination. The whole thing just kind of ends with a shrug.

If the credits of Nacho Chihuahua are to be believed this was directed by Jim McCullough, Sr. the man responsible for Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1983), The Aurora Encounter (1986), and Video Murders (1988). Those movies are not spectacular but they are competently directed. There’s only so much you can do with two chihuahuas and a package of hotdogs to make them go where you want, but McCullough worked with what he had, resulting in a movie that at least has some recognizable images. It’s not much but Nacho Chihuahua sets the bar very low.

When the best thing in a movie is a random monkey you've got problems.
In the end, it’s fun? I think? I have an affinity for really awful talking animal movies and there is something delightful about watching this trashy attempt to cash in on larger trends flail around. There is a kind of affable hucksterism here that will be perfected in places like The Asylum, but it also retrains its homemade SOV roots.

This review wouldn't be possible without the work done over at http://feedyourvcr.com/. So give it a look and you should definitely pick up your copy.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Vibrations




Vibrations
1996
Michael Paseornek

T.J. (James Marshall) is the leader of a garage band destined for its first big gig. On the way to the show, he runs afoul of drunk rednecks who accidentally crush his hands while destroying his car. With his musical career in shambles, T.J. runs away and lives on the streets of New York. There he meets Animkia (Christina Applegate) who works at a local dance club. Anamika and her roommates use what they have to build T.J. a set of mechanical hands and the techno superstar known as Cyberstorm is born.

I do my best to go into any movie holding on to the chance that it will hold something valuable or at least memorable. I went into Vibrations expecting to goof on it just a little bit, the plot description alone felt earnest and 1990s enough that I knew it was going to be hokey and silly. I was correct, Vibrations is overly serious and sincere to a fault and it utilizes many tropes of its era, but it also won me over with those aspects. Perhaps that’s just the nostalgia talking.

I went to college in the 1990s, and while grunge was held up as the musical signifier of my generation,  I really found my connection in techno. The scene had been long established and the music was finally breaking into the mainstream around 1996 with MTV dedicating more air time to ‘electronica.’ Living in the Midwest I had zero access to any real rave scene and living with anxiety kept me from going to any dance clubs, so my explorations of electronic music were largely confined to buying CDs out of the tiny techno section of my local music store and listening to them as I drove around. This might have been an atypical way to engage in music that primarily designed for large groups on drugs, but its what I had. I have always been taken by the energy and emotiveness that electronic music can communicate from the seemingly cold confines of technology. It can be joyful, angry, and often irreverent. Surprisingly, Vibrations manages to tap into some of this emotion for me.

"I don't know how to get these things out of demo mode."
The scene of T.J. losing his hands never shows anything graphic but it is still played for horror. His recovery and depression are handled with a seriousness I wasn’t expecting. This grates against the sillier parts of the movie that come in later with the jokey roommates and the creation of the robot hands, but it still manages to keep an emotional honesty threaded throughout the story. T.J. suffers through crippling depression and alcoholism after his accident, but he still rises to the occasion in an emergency. These brief heroic interludes keep the movie from being a dour slog as we wait for him to get his mechanical hands.

Vibrations displays a very sanitized image of rave culture and in fact only really gives it the briefest touch, since this is a film from 1996 it wouldn’t be complete with taking some time to talk about Generation X and virtual reality. It is a very shallow time capsule of popular culture from the time, but the film means what it says, it just doesn’t allow itself much time to say these things. The underbelly of 1990s media is here too, we have quite a few men who harass and assault women and every character is safely straight and white. There is an interesting side plot where T.J.’s friend and serial sexual harasser, Simeon (Scott Cohen) confronts Anamika’s boss about attempts to coerce her into sex. I would like to think this was an attempt at character growth but the moment is never expanded on.

Ravebot or Doctor Who costume? You decide.
It also wouldn’t be a movie about techno and raves without some music and Vibrations pulls out some fun tracks. I found my head bobbing to those moments and with a decent sound system that music still delivers. T.J.’s Cyberstorm persona adds some much needed visual flair to the proceedings. It’s during these moments that Vibrations transcends its own hokey rags to riches story and becomes something engaging and fun.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Satan's Triangle


Satan’s Triangle
1975
Sutton Roley

Coast Guard officer Lt. Haig (Doug McClure) boards a derelict vessel in the middle of the ocean. His helicopter co-pilot, Pagnolini (Michael Conrad) must leave to refuel. Onboard Haig finds a few dead bodies, one thrown through the hull, another hanging from the mast, and the third… well, the third is in a very strange position. He also finds a survivor named Eva (Kim Novak). Eva recounts the events leading up to the deaths of the crew and it all begins with finding a priest lost at sea…

Satan’s Triangle brings together two of the 1970’s favorite fads, The Exorcist (1973) and The Bermuda Triangle. The fit is surprisingly smooth considering these two things are seemingly unrelated. Satan’s Triangle leans heavily on mystery for its first half and it is this section that is the strongest. The film holds on long lingering scenes of Doug McClure moving through the strangely empty boat, the only sounds are the wind and the distant rotors of the Coast Guard helicopter. The two obvious corpses are a tip-off that something bad is afoot, but Satan’s Triangle manages to up the mystery with something even stranger below deck.


We're imps.
The middle section is largely a flashback to the events that lead up to the present mystery and it is where the film starts to drag. None of the boat passengers or crew are particularly interesting. Things pick up once they rescue a priest from the ocean. Since this movie has Satan in the title it is isn’t difficult to discern the true intentions of Father Martin (Alejandro Rey). Haig stretches credulity by coming up with commonplace explanations for all the corpses. He seems neither sufficiently skeptical or desperate enough to completely ignore the strange things happening around him for this to a believable reaction. There is the consideration that he’s only doing it to calm down the lone ship survivor, Eva, so that he can have sex with her, but this is ambiguous.

The weakest element of Satan’s Triangle is in the motivations of its villain. Throughout the film, we are shown that Satan tempts to cajole others into indulging in their sins and then killing them. This sets up the wonderful twist ending, but the path there is muddy. We get a few words about Haig’s lecherousness but then nothing until the end of the second act. We get a mention of his co-pilot’s boring piousness which also becomes a factor near the end, but we are only told about it, we spend so little time with him that we don’t get to see it.

"Oh hi, a totally normal person here... yep, nothing weird going on. Can I get on your boat?"
Despite this flaw when Satan’s Triangle hits its climax, the story pulls several welcome surprises on the audience culminating in a chilling finale that still holds up over forty years later. I was under the impression that television movies especially skewed towards softer endings so as not upset the potentially broad audience that was watching them, but Satan’s Triangle proves this is not always the case. Satan’s Triangle is a minor gem for horror fans and I would recommend it for some late-night TV viewing.

Friday, October 25, 2019

This House Possessed


This House Possessed
1981
William Wiard

At the outset, broadcast TV movies are at a disadvantage because they have to obey FCC rules and regulations which can hamper the content and they have to have commercial breaks that can interrupt the flow of the story. So a good genre TV movie needs to operate as a series of vignettes with mini-cliffhangers leading up to each commercial break. A haunted house film works well in this structure as we often get the slow escalation of supernatural events which break and then start to escalate again. This House Possessed proves to utilize this structure well and ends up being a better than average entry.

This House Possessed is the story of Gary Straihorn (Parker Stevenson) a musician suffering from mental and physical exhaustion. He takes a liking to a nurse named Sheila Moore (Lisa Eilbacher) and takes her on as his private attendant. Together they move into a high tech mansion isolated from a small town. Once there, strange events begin to occur and houseguests begin to die. What is the secret of this house?

Welcome to PTV, all Parker Stevenson all the time.

This House Possessed throws out a couple of false leads in hopes of keeping the narrative alive, although things do sag in the middle, it largely succeeds. Throughout the early part of the film, we see a television and security monitors seemingly watching events occurring far away. Later we are shown that these screens exist in the house that Gary and Sheila move into. Is something watching them or is there a human hand behind the strange events? Also, there is something surprisingly eerie about a television showing someone’s personal life to no one in a dark room.

The second narrative trick the film uses is to switch up the central protagonist. At the start, this looks like it’s going to Gary's story, but slowly it is unveiled as Sheila’s, it is her history that is tied up with the house. The turn had the potential to really shake things up but the execution is muddled through some terrible exposition. The answers to several questions are dumped on us by local oddball Margaret (Joan Bennett), but it comes very late in the story and what she has to say isn't surprising in the least.

This house comes equipped with a Bathory 5000.
The real horror of This House Possessed are the musical numbers that Parker Stevenson sings, usually in an unbuttoned shirt. The songs are bad… really bad. They are the worst kind of vapid soft rock that might have passed muster in 1981 but they have not aged well and they drag the progress of the story down with them. The character of Gary is annoying and it is a welcome change when the story moves its focus to Sheila. Lisa Eilbacher is earnest and believable as someone who is thrown into a situation they can barely comprehend and need to find a way to escape.

This House Possessed is a decent TV horror film that offers some terrible music but some surprisingly good twists and even a chill or two.