Choke Canyon (1986)
Rogue physicist Dr. David Lowell (Stephen Collins) is convinced he is able to develop a clean, infinite source of energy out of sound waves. To prove that particularly interesting theory, he has set up a lab with awesome blinking doodads in beautiful Choke Canyon. There, he’s waiting for the passing of Halley’s Comet because he’ll need to somehow use the comet’s soundwaves for his experiment. Or something – the film’s rather vague about its ridiculous nonsense science, so we’ll just have to take it at its word. Alas, Lowell has leased the canyon from the evil nuclear energy corp of one John Pilgrim (Nicholas Pryor), and Pilgrim really needs the place to illegally dump a huge ball full of nuclear waste there. You’d think the film would go for an “evil nuclear energy corp wants to destroy progressive green science” but that’s not happening.
First Pilgrim’s people – as mid-level henchman-managed by Lance Henriksen himself – try to buy David out, which he of course declines, for the time and place for his experiment isn’t optional (oh, please, don’t ask me why). Then they come back to rough him up, shoot up his lab with submachine guns and probably frighten him into submission, but only manage to make our hero even more determined, if now without a lab. To correct that, Lowell gets on his (non-metaphorical) horse, blows up parts of the facility (or as we know it, a couple of sheds) supposed to house the illegal nuclear waste and tries to blackmail Pilgrim into buying a new lab for him.
From there, things escalate further quickly: Pilgrim calls in The Captain (Bo Svenson), a man with “methods” as well as a flying circus job when he isn’t working as a heavy for an evil corporation. His day job will be important for the film’s biggest set piece. Lowell puts The Captain in a barrel; The Captain brings a mortar. Finally, Lowell kidnaps Pilgrim’s daughter Vanessa (Janet Julian) – who will of course change sides soon enough because what’s hotter than a little kidnapping, right? – and threatens to blow her up(!) which actually gets him his new laboratory, but certainly no peace, so the film will just have to culminate in a big chase scene between The Captain’s air carnival biplane and Lowell and Janet in a helicopter carrying the big ball of nuclear waste beneath them, followed by a tiny little punch up. The practice of physics is clearly more physically demanding than our teachers let on.
Yes, all of these things really happen in Chuck Bail’s Choke Canyon, and the film truly is as bonkers as this makes it sound. Fascinatingly, despite making no darn sense at all and being the sort of family-friendly action film where automatic weapons, mortar and nuclear waste are applied in various violent ways without anybody ever actually getting hurt, the film doesn’t seem to be meant as an action comedy. It does play most of this awesome and inspired nonsense as straight as you can, which of course does make it much funnier than it otherwise would be, as well as even more bonkers.
Speaking of bonkers, among the awesome elements I didn’t mention when talking about the film’s plot (such as it is) is Lowell’s dress sense, which turns him into more of a cowboy scientist than a rogue scientist, what with his long coat, the appropriate cowboy hat, as well as a disturbingly close relation with his Bollywood approved anipals, a horse and a goat. For the record, I have not the faintest idea why the man has a goat in his lab, but he has, and he clearly loves it very much. In this context, the rather wrong love story between our hero and Janet looks comparatively healthy. After all, Choke Canyon teaches us, what’s a bit of kidnapping and threatening to blow someone up among hot young things?
Then there’s the final fist fight between Lowell and The Captain, a scene that isn’t satisfied with just showing to guys beating each other to a pulp but also finds Lowell having to shout computations between punches, because of course The Captain comes for his revenge exactly in time for the big experiment. An experiment which for its part generates much pulsing of Lowell’s doodads (and probably his equipment too), a cheap light show, and the scientific revelation that Lowell’s theory works, “if only for a moment”. Well, he’ll have time enough to iron out any wrinkles in his computations, given his need for Halley’s Comet.
Now, all of this awesome, inspired nonsense doesn’t really sound like the kind of thing US low budget film makers are usually up to, nor feels much like it when you’re watching it. I’d really rather call this a nominally American movie, for while director Bail (a veteran of stunt work, as well as a bit of acting) certainly is American, and this was visibly shot in Utah, the film’s producer and co-writer is Greek exploitation film impresario Ovidio G. Assonitis (working for a company with a decidedly Dutch sounding name), one of the other co-writers is Sheila Goldberg, who was responsible for the dubbing scripts of various Italian genre films, and the final writer is the glorious genius we know as director, writer and all-purpose provider of the bizarre Alfonso Brescia, which is about as European exploitation style as any writing team can get. No effort is made by anyone to write (if “write” is what you do to produce a script like this) anything in a more American style.
As a fan of Brescia’s peculiar sensibilities in particular I’m not complaining, mind you, preferring the man’s combination of the shamelessly bizarre with the outright silly played seriously to most other approaches to scriptwriting I can imagine; particularly since Brescia-style madness seldom is boring.
The great joy about Choke Canyon though is how the Italian writing approach and the mildly off acting (probably caused by the actors’ confusion about what the hell it is that’s going on in the script) collide with the not terribly cheap looking, and generally impressive shots of the desert and rock landscapes, and Bail’s very accomplished version of the classically – by 1986 probably rather old-fashioned to a contemporary audience – American way of shooting stunts and action, mixing approaches to low budget filmmaking that don’t mix all that often, providing the best of both worlds for a precious one and a half hours.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?