Ho Meng Hua’s THE OILY MANIAC「 æČčéŹŒć­ă€to Blu-ray in July from 88 Films

Today in “things I never thought I’d live to see”, 88 Films have announced via their facebook page that director Ho Meng Hua’s deliciously bizarre action-horror-revenge fantasy The Oily Maniac 「 æČčéŹŒć­ă€, from Shaw Brothers in 1976, will see its high definition video debut in July.

From the 88 Films FB:

Danny Lee (THE KILLER) played one of cinema’s most unlikely superheroes in THE OILY MANIAC (1976) – a Shaw Brothers creature-feature classic that is only now gaining a much-deserved premiere in the UK! In this gooey gem of a monster-mash, Lee plays a Hong Kong everyman who has been crippled and is down-on-his-luck – that is, until he learns of a spell that can turn him into a transformative and transmorphing pile of ferocious but malevolent mush. Yes, he is THE OILY MANIAC – and in this Cantonese predecessor to Troma’s THE TOXIC AVENGER, he is able to appear and re-appear at will, making it all the more tricky for his arch-enemies to dillute his delirious brilliance. Directed by the prolific Meng Hua Ho (THE FLYING GULLOTINE), this is one Far Eastern B-movie masterpiece that deserves to be seen and appreciated in full HD!

Full details have yet to be made available, but The Oily Maniac is expected to release on the 24th of July. The disc is already available for pre-order through Amazon.co.uk. We can hardly wait!

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.

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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?

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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.

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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!?

Die Schlacht der Stahlgiganten: Stuart Gordon’s ‘Robot Jox’ (1990)

coverFifty years following a global nuclear holocaust conventional warfare has been outlawed. Territorial disputes between the two superpowers (the United States and the USSR, here reborn as the Market and the Confederation respectively) are instead settled by a new breed of warrior – the Robot Jox, superstar pilots of the giant robot war machines of the future.

Such is the setup for this oft overlooked special effects yarn from director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), a film I stalked through the TV listings regularly as a kid. Plagued by production difficulties and long delayed in its release by the dissolution of the debt-addled Empire Pictures, Robot Jox‘s conspicuously Cold War-inflected smashy-robot future failed to click with either critics or audiences when it finally reached theaters in late 1990, more than a year after the opening of the Berlin Wall. I wouldn’t catch up to the picture until even later, when it received its video premiere in the summer of 1992. My tastes have shifted considerably in the near 25 years since then, and a bit of critical perspective has made the film’s weaker aspects more obvious than ever, but nostalgia is a hell of a thing. To the eternal 6-year-old lurking not-so-deeply within my psyche Robot Jox is still pretty much the best movie ever made.

Though intended as a more serious, thought provoking affair by screenwriter Joe Haldeman (author of The Forever War), Gordon’s emphasis on the more juvenile aspects of the concept and subsequent clashes with Haldeman resulted in a film that’s more a light sci-fi twist on Rocky IV than anything, and with hackneyed Cold War histrionics to spare. No-good Confed jock Alexander (Paul Koslo, The Omega Man) is putting a serious hurt on the Market’s territorial ambitions, stomping his deadly way through their fighter ranks and paving the way for a Confederation domination of the West. Only one man stands in his way: Achilles (Alien Nation‘s Gary Graham), the sole surviving Market ace and the last of his generation as well, soon to be supplanted by a regiment of genetically-engineered Jox.

It would be pointless to hash out Robot Jox‘s narrative meanderings too much more from there. Aside from some bumbling third act clandestine intrigue the film plays about as one might suspect, with the generational (and frequently sexist) conflict between natural-born Achilles and the Market’s new race of “tube-ies” (led by In the Heat of the Night‘s Anne-Marie Johnson) serving as prime distraction between the picture’s pair of bookend mecha match-ups. Traces of more substantive material occasionally surface – rumination on the human toll of even so alienated a brand of warfare as this, and glimpses of a society in which the bulk of the population are a dehumanized, commodified underclass (“bleacher bums”) – but there’s no denying that this is pretty childish stuff writ large (doubtless to the chagrin of its credited screenwriter). A few flashes of graphic violence, some swearing, and a couple of blips of MPAA-patented “brief nudity” are all that really keep the film from being a pure children’s picture, though I’m not one to argue that as a negative. Robot Jox is about giant fight-y robots first and foremost and, for whatever else it may leave to be desired, the plot here drives viewers from one effects setup to the next relatively painlessly.

And it’s the effects (courtesy of Academy Award-nominated VFX director David Allen) which remain Robot Jox‘s most admirable quality. The sum of it all may seem quaint to modern tastes, acclimated as they are to regular helpings of hundred-million-dollar whiz-bang CGI, but it’s worth noting that at the time it was produced there was nothing quite like Robot Jox in domestic live action – robots didn’t fight outside of cartoons, and certainly not with this degree of production flair. Allen’s methods are a tried and true blend of live-action miniatures and smaller scale stop motion animation, with some process photography, old-school pyrotechnics, and a few animated lasers to bring it all together. It all works quite well on-screen, particularly the detailed large-scale miniatures (filmed on location against the stark backdrop of the El Mirage lake bed), and I remember being enthralled by the ambitious scope of it all as a child. I’ll still take Allen’s stop motion punch-ups over the slick and antiseptic CGI of the present – that distinctly physical sense of craftsmanship is too often lost in the effects productions of today.

2013’s Pacific Rim served as proof positive that, despite its failure at the box office, Robot Jox certainly had its influence – and why shouldn’t it have? Bolstered by Allen’s keen VFX production, a good deal of enthusiastic dramatic silliness, and a resoundingly heroic, Western-infused score from FrĂ©dĂ©ric Talgorn (Fortress), Robot Jox achieves a certain degree of indelibility before its terse 85 minutes are through. Sure, it may put war machines with giant buzzing chainsaw cocks and space-bound mecha torpedo fights before quality human storytelling, but that’s ultimately part of the charm of the thing. Criticisms be damned. Robot Jox is awesome.


The screenshots in this review hail from the film’s German Blu-ray release, issued by Alive GmbH subsidiary Explosive Media in October of 2014, and should give a reasonable indication of what to expect from Shout! Factory’s eventual Blu-ray of the title (due sometime this Summer). The MGM-licensed transfer serves the film well without being particularly exceptional – there’s some noisiness in the film texture, but nothing unforgivable, and the image has more than its fair share of speckles, dust, and other unrestored incidental damage. Still, colors pop, detail is suitably robust, and the gritty appeal of Allen’s hands-on effects production is easier to appreciate than ever. The disc’s single-layer Mpeg-4 AVC encode is supportive enough, averaging 28.4 Mbps for the 1.85:1-framed transfer.

Audio is two flavors of stereo 16-bit / 48 kHz LPCM 2.0, German (default) and English. The BIG-sounding mecha sound effects could have benefited handily from the additional LFE bump a proper surround remix might have provided, but the lossless 2.0 encode serves the Ultra Stereo production well – the channel separation in those beefy robot stomps is lovely. In a strange turn, no German subtitles are included, but an occasionally awkward set of English subtitles are. No complaints here. Supplements are limited to an original trailer, a two-minute video image gallery, and an ad reel for other Alive / Explosive Media releases, but the disc is all region compatible (despite being marked ‘B’, this played without issue in my Region A-locked PS3) and the price is reasonable – Robot Jox can generally be had for EUR 14 (~$16) or less. The release arrives with an FSK-free slipcase and reversible sleeve art (with and without FSK label), and looks pretty good on the shelf. I dig it. Robot Jox is available now through Amazon Germany and elsewhere.

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The Shadow (1994)

Seemingly bored millionaire Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) actually has a rather interesting hobby during his nights: so he can atone for the sins of his past as drug-dealing Eastern warlord, and channel his inner evil into something good a Buddhist monk has taught Cranston the power to cloud men’s minds, providing him with basic invisibility and other fun powers. So by night, Cranston turns into the mysterious crime-fighting vigilante only known as The Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men and fights New York’s underworld, recruiting people like taxi driver Moe Shrevnitz (Peter Boyle) as his agents.

The Shadow’s life becomes rather more difficult when Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last descendant of Genghis Khan arrives in town. Shiwan Khan has learned the same mystical powers as The Shadow. but he’s quite violently not bought into that whole atonement business at all. Instead, Khan plans to use his power to conquer the world, a plan that clearly can’t help but start with the kidnapping of one Dr Reinhardt Lane (a horribly underused Ian McKellen), and end with the threat of a rather premature nuclear bomb. The Shadow for his part will do all in his power to safe New York from destruction.

It’s quite easy to play the game of imagining one’s own perfect The Shadow movie out of whichever bits and pieces of Walter Gibson’s pulp novel series and the radio show it spawned and that would influence the continuing novels if Gibson wanted (which he didn’t) or not one prefers. The more pulp knowledgeable among the reviewers of Russell Mulcahy’s film tend to do that, of course, which generally results in attempts to compare the poor film with one’s dream adaptation, a process that can only lead to tears.

If I, by now grounded a bit more in Shadow lore than I was when I first watched and enjoyed the actual film at hand, would play the old game of pick and choose myself, this would certainly be a different film, one which would keep the Shadow himself quite a bit more mysterious than the film does (probably turning the Lamont Cranston identity into the pure mask Gibson in the end decided it to be), which would play up the role of the Shadow’s agents, give Penelope Ann Miller’s Margo Lane a bit more to do than fetchingly wear awesome dresses and not get kidnapped, certainly provide the Shadow with a rather more creepy laugh, and would most definitely hire someone for The Shadow’s facial prosthetics who knows what she is doing.

However, not being one’s dream movie seems to be The Shadow’s main problem, at least as far as that curious bird, the 90’s blockbuster pulp movie adaptation/superhero movie in the wake of the success of Tim Burton’s miserable first Batman film goes. The rest of the weaknesses are just your typical mid-90s blockbuster stuff, things I take as a part of the genre make-up of the film. So The Shadow quite expectedly demonstrates a horrible fear of actually being dark when it is required to be and a love for rather lame hero’s journey stuff business even if that approach to heroics doesn’t fit the actual hero it concerns itself with at all.

However, despite all these flaws and various possible niggles, I still enjoy Mulcahy’s film a lot, beginning with its surprising success at taking one of the Shadow’s “yellow peril” enemies and not having him end up as a horrible racist caricature. In part, that’s thanks to David Koepp’s script only using the most neutral tropes of this sort of thing – and to good effect – adding knowing nods like Shiwan Khan’s sartorial liking for Brooks Brothers suits, but to a larger degree, Khan works through a performance by John Lone that goes through ranting, raving, and clever little jokes with a wonderful physical presence and just the right amount of irony. Never so much of the latter it drifts into the realm of camp – generally not a problem of this particular film anyway, thankfully – but enough to turn Khan into something different from a racist caricature, not a bad guy because of his skin colour but because of his character.

And then there’s the other great joy of the film, its incredibly artificial style in the whole of its production design reaching from costumes to an architecture. All of it locates The Shadow in an artificial dream world of style that takes iconic elements of 30s and 40s fashion and architecture and blows them up to ridiculously beautiful proportions, a 30s and 40s of the imagination. I believe we have Tim Burton’s Batman – if you ask me a much less entertaining adaptation of a piece of pulp culture – to thank for a mainstream production being indulgent in this kind of way.

In any case, it’s this aspect of the film that turns it into a film not of the “style over substance” kind certain critics love to talk about and that I have only very seldom encountered myself, but one where – like in a Chor Yuen wuxia but of course not as incandescently – style is substance, dragging an audience into a world that very consciously isn’t the real one, treating cinema as a place of shared cultural dreams, or in this particular case, a place where an audience can dream about their own contemporary ideas of shared cultural dreams gone by. Not so we can self-consciously point and laugh and tell ourselves how morally superior we are to the past but – perhaps – to find the point where the old dreams and the new touch.

Mulcahy as a director is a perfect choice for this sort of thing, having spent the better parts of a career going up and down and up again making films that try to tell all they have to say through their surfaces (polished like mirrors), leading audiences into places that are often more akin to dreams than they are to stories as such; unless they end up being Highlander II: The Quickening, but putting shared dreamscapes on screen isn’t easy.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Back in Action (1993)

As is traditional, tough cop Frank Rossi’s (Roddy Piper) partner is slaughtered by one of the psychopathic goons of drug lord Kasajian (Nigel Bennett chewing the scenery like any good low budget action villain, and getting a rather funny acupuncture scene later on, because evil people like needles) during a fake drug trade that turns into a giant shoot-out, leaving Rossi with a giant hate-on for Kasajian and his guys.

The cop’s not the only one who really doesn’t like this particular bad guy. Former special forces operative and shirt-hater Billy (Billy Blanks) was at the scene of the shoot-out to drag his sister Tara (Kai Soremekun) away from her really rather stupid drug dealer boyfriend (Damon D’Oliveira, I think), the kind of guy who thinks it’s a brilliant idea to take his girlfriend out on a big drug deal. Alas, nobody really notices Billy dragging away Tara, so Kasajian and co decide she’s clearly responsible for the appearance of the cops. So, even though this makes not a lick of sense in context of what happened, Tara has to die.

Thanks to his adeptness at all kinds of violence, Billy’s quite good at protecting his sister from harm – there must after all be an upside to his type of Neanderthal sister-parenting – but Tara’s just as adept at running away from him in an attempt to reunite with her boyfriend and then run away with him, a plan I couldn’t help but sympathize with, given Billy’s style. This situation does of course give the film many an opportunity for everything we come for in an action film. Soon, the increasingly unhinged and bloodthirsty Rossi and the already unhinged and probably bloodthirsty Billy meet, punch each other in the face in a scene that looks like a much shortened version of the big punch-out in They Live, and team-up. Rossi’s TV reporter on-again off-again girlfriend Helen (Bobbie Phillips) involves herself in the case, too, adding a second character to get kidnapped, hooray.

Do I even need to mention that explosions, bloodshed, shoot-outs and many a shot of angry man faces with bugging eyes will occur before the situation can be put to rights, if by “put to rights” you mean all the bad guys readied for burial?

The thing is, despite the most generic plot imaginable, and the usual nasty “hooray for vigilantism” subtext, Steve DiMarco’s (with an IMDB-suggested assist by future SyFy movie maestro Paul Ziller I so much want to believe is true) Back in Action (please don’t ask what the title has to do with anything) is a fantastic example of what’s good about 90s US low budget action movies, with a smidgen of martial arts provided by the mummy-faced Blanks.

The director(s) do a straightforward yet really effectively dynamic job, with not too many attempts at flashy editing tricks, so you can see what’s going on with the violence without many problems, yet enough of an actual visual concept there’s no question there’s more going on with the film than just people pointing the camera at stuntmen; it’s the best of both worlds, really. Why, even the copious amounts of slow-motion make sense enough to only very seldom become ridiculous; even better, I never got the impression the director(s) was out to senselessly ape John Woo with its use. The effect is action that feels exhilarating instead of as cheap as it actually is, with fine stunt work and two male leads who are great screen fighters in any situation the film throws at them. Back in Action also has a spirited approach to the expected genre clichĂ©s, with villains that seem to enjoy their own evilness hugely, a cop on the edge versus boss shouting-match of great entertainment value, and other kinds of idiocy presented with the kind of enthusiasm that can’t help but turn them awesome.

Piper and Blanks also have pretty good chemistry going, with Piper for my tastes the definitely more likeable of the pair, as well as the slightly better actor but Blanks very ably using his physicality to make up for his problems with the finer parts of the acting job. And really, it’s not as if Blanks were bad, particularly not when you keep in mind how good he looks kicking people in the face here, which is the more important part of acting anyhow.

I was positively surprised by the comparatively un-annoying way Back in Actionhandles its female characters. Sure, they’re there to get kidnapped and wear short skirts, but the film does give them a little agency and even some involvement in the finale beyond the getting kidnapped part, with enough of a sense that Helen and Tara are persons there’s no need to gnash your teeth at the film. Sure, they both act pretty stupid at times, but that’s no difference at all to the film’s supposed heroes or its villains, because nobody involved here thinks anything through for even a second.

It’s better this way, too, for if even half of the film’s characters had any brains at all, there’d be no opportunity for all the shoot-outs, punch-outs and explosions, no face-kicking and probably not even a single scene of Rowdy Roddy Piper winning a fight but looking like he really got a work-over after it (which is a thing I like in my action heroes). In short, there’d be no opportunity at all for Back in Action to become the piece of choice entertainment that it is.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Avenging Force (1986)

AvengingForce_posterFormer intelligence agent Matt Hunter (Michael Dudikoff) packs in his family – consisting of his grandfather (Rick Boyle) and his little sister Sarah (Allison Gereighty) – to visit his old secret ops partner Larry Richards (Steve James) and his family in New Orleans. Larry’s retired too, but apart from being a family man, he’s also running for senate, clearly on the sort of humanist platform that’ll get you labelled as a communist by quite a few people, particularly when the politician in question is a gentleman of colour like Larry.

So, despite being rather awesome, Larry has made enemies, in particular a secret society of rich fascists around Professor (who knows of what, though further proceedings suggest it has something to do with being evil) Elliott “Hitler was right” (actual quote) Glastenbury (John P. Ryan), who add to their evilness by having stolen their name from the seminal British folk rock band (The) Pentangle. Because Nazis are assholes, some of the groups’ henchmen attack a Mardi Gras parade Larry, Matt and their families take part in, murdering one of Larry’s children in the process.

Things don’t become more pleasant from there on in, and various attacks on our heroes eventually leave only Matt and Sarah alive. The Pentangle’s leaders have a hobby quite befitting their politics, and love to hunt The Most Dangerous Gameℱ, so they “invite” Matt to take part in one of their hunts as their chosen victim. Which must have seemed like a good idea at the time; one suspects the Professor ignored the decidedly un-Aryan subject of hubris in his studies.

Quite surprising for the generally exploitative way the Cannon and Golan-Globus chose their movies, they didn’t immediately follow up the success of American Ninja with a direct sequel. Instead, they put American Ninja’s leads Steve James and Michael Dudikoff and its director Sam Firstenberg to work on a film that does not contain any ninjas at all, but which otherwise does contain pretty much everything else you’d expect from a low budget (though not that low budget) action film, except exploding huts. For reasons I don’t even want to ponder, this seems also to be meant as some sort of sequel to the Chuck Norris vehicle Invasion U.S.A., despite the only connection I can make out without having to watch a Chuck Norris (tied with Seagal as my least favourite US action movie lead) film, being Dudikoff’s character name, his job, and dead parents. And since all action movie heroes from the 80s are basically the same guy anyway, that’s not really enough to think of this as a sequel at all.

Instead of the ninjas, you get a film that works very, very hard to establish its heroes as the most awesome thing since sliced bread and its villains as the scum of the Earth, people who aren’t just Nazis (and just listen to how exactly the film actually hits the complete idiocy of right-wing “intellectuals” in Glastenbury’s speeches), people who hunt others for sport, child killers, and probably puppy eaters, but also the kinds of guys who plan to sell Matt’s twelve year old sister into prostitution. Speaking of Nazis, it’s always a particular joy to find an 80s US action movie that uses them as its big bads instead of the more typical “Asian enemy of the day”, or “the Russians”, and I really appreciate the extra miles the film goes to turn its Nazis into proper cartoon villains while still keeping them perfectly in the correct spirit.

Of course, it would have been rather nice when, with the film’s heart placed on the left as it is, it would have made another step and not killed off James in your typical “black best friend in an action movie” style, particular since Steve James really is more charismatic, a less stiff actor than, and also nicer to look at than Dudikoff, but then, we really can’t ask everything of what is only meant as basic action fodder.

Speaking of action, Firstenberg really was one of Golan-Globus’s more dependable directors, not flashy but often able to rise above mere basic competence into the realm of the highly entertaining. In Avenging Force’s case this means there’s hardly a boring second on screen. Whenever nobody gets shot, spiked, strangled or otherwise killed, there’s a car chase, or a scene between Dudikoff and his sister that turns the emotional hysteria up to eleven (see also the imaginary chapter in my imaginary book about the action film as melodrama even when it doesn’t come from Hong Kong), or Steve James losing his shirt, with little that happens on screen having anything much to do with that pesky reality business, and instead everything aiming for the same kind of awesome kids of all ages get out of Power Metal. Best of all is that Firstenberg’s not just aiming at but hitting the mark in every scene, sometimes through the varied style of the action sequences, sometimes through the addition of little silly bits and pieces (a chase scene becomes something different once the chased bad guy puts on a straw hat, it turns out), clever application of atmospheric New Orleans and bayou locations (some of which were of course situated in LA), or outright ridiculous cheese like the costumes the Pentangle like to don during their chases. My favourite among the last is of course the wrestler gimp outfit, as pictured in one of the screenshots.

On a more direct level of craft, I’m quite impressed with Firstenberg’s handling of escalation here. Instead of ever louder, higher in body count, and explosive, the action in Avenging Force becomes increasingly up close and personal, with shoot-outs and car chases in the end making place for grimy and dirty hand to hand struggle in the mud and the (excellently used) rain.

It’s all pretty inspiring stuff, really, at least as far as dumb yet affectionate entertainment goes; which is pretty far with me.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

The Machine (2013)

In a near future dominated by a new Cold War between the West and China with a new arms race taking place on the field of cybernetics. Scientist Ava (Caity Lotz) has brought the AI she is developing as close to getting through the touring test as any AI has ever managed. Despite misgivings, she hires on to a secret UK military project lead by the brilliant Vincent (Toby Stephens).

Vincent has been working on brain implants that will give soldiers back those brain functions they lost in various unpleasant ways, and he has been so successful some of these soldiers are actually working as guards on the underground base where his – and now Ava’s – experiments take place. On the negative side, some months after they get their implants, the soldiers lose their ability to speak and tend to become rather, well, inhuman in their behaviour. Curiously enough, nobody involved in the project seems to think anything of the behavioural changes beyond the muteness, and somehow also everybody seems to miss that the cybered-up soldiers actually can talk to each other in some kind of machine language.

While all this still sounds rather humanitarian, the experimental subjects are basically held as prisoners, and the experiments at large are not exactly in tune with any rules on human experiments. And of course, Vincent’s ridiculously evil boss Thomson (Denis Lawson) dreams about mind-controlled cyborg super soldiers and killer/spy androids, and little of helping people cope with brain damage. Vincent for his part is only involved in the whole project because he wants to find a way to cure his brain-damaged little daughter.

Soon after she arrives on base, Ava has quite the breakthrough with her AI, getting her to evolve what rather looks like actual consciousness; unfortunately, she also digs into the project’s secrets without hiding her trails very well, which gets her killed by a fake Chinese assassin.

Vincent, who was really rather fond of her, builds an android body made in Ava’s image to house her AI (also Caity Lotz, obviously). While he is trying to nurture the strange new artificial kind of life he has helped give birth to, and understand what it is Ava and he actually created, Thomson does of course go the killer android route faster than you can say “Terminator”, with a rather more thoughtful and complicated version of the expected results.

Caradog W. James’s The Machine is the curious case of a film that has some major and very obvious flaws yet that I’d still highly recommend to anyone with even a mild interest in clever low budget science fiction. As my – still quite abridged for a film that doesn’t even reach the ninety minute mark – plot synopsis probably shows, the major problem of the film – beyond some dubious lines of dialogue – is that it tries to squeeze too many elements into too short a running time and too low a budget to do everything included in it justice. This leads to a state of affairs where something like the eventual replacement of the human race through artificial life – reminding me of a Terminatorprequel that sympathizes with the machines – which would usually be quite enough to base a film on is just one among a huge number of things The Machine is about in one way or the other.

There’s also some pop philosophical thought about the nature of humanity and love, the trans-humanist element as represented by the cybernetically enhanced soldiers, the question of moral responsibility in research, the evilness of evil governments (of evil), father daughter relationships, the problems with selling one’s soul, and various assorted ideas. Come to think of it, it’s a bit of a surprise the film actually finds time to think about any of this at all while still keeping its plot together. Not that it’s a very complicated plot, or a very surprising one, but, if you ignore some plot holes that might actually be explained by shoddy “results before security” thinking by the project’s boss Thomson (as if his evil evilness of evil weren’t enough), and behaviour by Vincent that smells more of wilful blindness than plot hole to me, it’s coherent, makes sense, and hangs together well with the film’s various thematic interests – all one hundred of them.

Even more surprising is how deeply engaging the film stays even though it can’t do its cornucopia of ideas as much justice as I would have wished for, how much it still manages to do with some of these ideas, and how it builds fascinating stuff like the suggested implant soldier culture out of a few scenes and a handful of suggestions of meaning. Really, the reason for my disappointment with The Machine not getting too deeply into any single one of its elements lies in how interesting the surface here is, and how much further this wee low budget movie mostly shot in one of those warehouse-looking sets goes in thinking about transhumanism and AI rebellion (of a sort) than any contemporary mainstream production that could actually afford to do much much more but just won’t. There really aren’t – for example – many movies that suggest the replacement of the old (aka humans) by the new (aka AIs) might be a natural thing in a cosmic sense, while at the same time keeping enough sympathy for humanity, as the dramatically ironic ending demonstrates. Perhaps Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning would be comparable, if you stretch the word “mainstream” a bit far, though Hyams does of course talk a very different filmic language from James, even though both visibly appreciate the stranger edges of their given genres.

The Machine is also full of nods in the direction of the films about AIs, cyborgs and androids that came before it. It’s mostly films from the 80s of course, because that was pretty much the high water mark of films thinking about the nature of humanity via AIs etc, beyond the Pinocchio riffs. It will hardly be a coincidence how much the Ava/Machine looks like it came out of Blade Runner and even the handful of echoes of Universal Soldier it includes seem quite consciously positioned. It would be rather silly to pretend not to be influenced by the films that came before thinking about the same things one thinks about, after all.

A final reason for the impressive effect The Machine had on me despite its obvious flaws is Caity Lotz’s performance as the Machine, with a body language that suggests the alienness of something that never had a body before, as well as the fragility of a child, but also demonstrates an ability to switch to the appropriate body language for the more violent stuff. Her performance also makes it that much easier to get over some of the more problematic moments of the film’s dialogue, like my personal favourite – “I didn’t know man and clown were the same”.

The Machine really is much better than you’d expect of it, a film that perhaps attempts too much than it could reasonably achieve yet still offers a lot, if you’re inclined to look at it from the right angle.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Phoenix the Warrior: She Wolves of the Wasteland (1988)

The world has been quite destroyed by germ warfare that killed all men and only left a small number of women alive, which is the sort of thing that really does make a further propagation of the human race rather improbable.

Somehow, though, thanks to the machinations of an ancient evil youth-sucking woman only known as the Revered Mother (Sheila Howard) or the Reverend Mother, depending on your ears, the post-apocalyptic world is populated with quite a few shapely young women. Alas, the germ warfare seems also to have destroyed most of the world’s clothing reserves as well as the knowledge of the ancient art of sewing and mending, so the poor women have to make do with the shoulder pads, strategically placed strips of cloth, rags that never seem to be quite big enough and bikinis left. On a more positive note, there are large amounts of make-up, hairspray, dune buggies, automatic weapons and ammunition available, so there’s nothing standing in the way of a good post-apocalyptic lifestyle, even under the iron claw of the Revered Mother.

Mother and her main henchwoman Cobalt (a Persis Khambatta so fully clothed, we an assume she’s the one hogging all the clothing reserves in this brave new world) for their parts have to cope with a small bump in the plans of breeding male babies (not to be able to repopulate the world easier, mind you, but so Mother can suck out their life force). Keela (Peggy McIntaggart), a woman carrying the first male embryo in ages, has fled from Mother’s arms on account of the woman’s evilness, and catching her is more difficult than expected since she quickly meets and befriends wasteland warrior woman Phoenix (Kathleen Kinmont). And Phoenix is basically a more personable female version of Conan, just with less
no, wait, actually more clothing on than Conan prefers.

Ah, Action International Pictures, the gift that keeps on giving. Robert Hayes’s post-apocalyptic romp wasn’t made in Alabama, nor by the company’s core team, though, so I assume it was produced independently of the company and locally, and bought up after the fact or something in that manner.

Be that as it may, Phoenix the Warrior is quite good fun – if you like your silly post-apocalyptic cheese fests as much as I do, at least. Despite including many an inappropriately dressed woman, and featuring a bit of nude, ecstatic waterfall frolicking (which is what waterfalls are for anyway, surely), the film’s not at all as exploitative as you’d expect, at least if you can cope with its dress code. The rest of it plays out just like any cheap, trashy post-apocalyptic piece of wonderful nonsense, with lots of awkward hand-to-hand fighting, dune buggy buggying, and some minor explosions, treating its heroines just as a male-cast adventure movie of its type would, so the awkward hand-to-hand-fights never become cat fights, the female baddies are just as evil as male ones, and Phoenix is just the usual competent badass without the film suggesting that men would be better suited to her role.

In quite an uncommon turn of events for post-apocalyptic films with this kind of gender imbalance, Phoenix doesn’t even fall for the full-grown man (James Emery) – brilliantly named Guy – the script basically pulls out of its arse, and Guy certainly isn’t her superior in anything except perhaps early onset hair loss and porn moustache growth. That’s rather refreshing and pleasant from a film whose claim to existence and main selling point at the time was probably “bikini women with guns!”.

Consequently, the film is rather good fun for most of its running time, with nary a moment where nothing enjoyable or of interest is going on: there are the awkward fights I already mentioned, acting that’s just as awkward more often than not, a pointless five year jump forward in time (that doesn’t see anyone aging in any way or form, of course), the traditional arena fighting bit, a handful of very bad yet still funny jokes, and many a shot of deserts and junk yards. It’s all very impoverished from a budgetary stand point, of course, but I find something joyful in a film that just pretends a handful of shacks in the desert is the central base of an evil science witch planning on world domination by boy-soul sucking. Particularly when it’s a film as clearly not ashamed of what it is and what it does as Phoenix the Warrior.

From time to time, the film even stumbles into the realm of most refined cult movie delight, like in the basically throw-away moment that shows Mother keeping her boy child prisoner in what looks decidedly like a parrot cage to me, or the utterly lame yet inspired way our heroines beat her in the end. I’d also be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the scene concerning a group of robed mutant cultists who are convinced that just the right amount of human sacrifices made while chanting the names of old TV shows will get those heavenly television broadcasts starting again. Their sacrificial poles have TV antennas dangling on top.

Even better, if you can imagine that, is the performance of Persis Khambatta (looking a bit like Rekha in her 90s action movie phase here), full of deranged eye-goggling, melodramatic shouting, and absolutely peculiar line readings, as if she wanted to show the rest of the cast how to really act IN ALL CAPS.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how it’s done.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Sci-Fighters (1996)

coverIt’s the far-flung future of 2009, and what a time it is. What we see of the cities looks like Blade Runner lite, there’s a high security prison on the moon (so I assume the economy’s booming), and people carry little personal electronics devices quite like smart phones without the phone part around. Oh, and Earth has been hanging under a cloud of dust for nearly three months now, leading to an eternal night the locals call Econight, perhaps because The Eternal Darkness was already taken.

Anyway, back on the moon crazy murderer and rapist Adrian Dunn (Billy Drago) decides to infect himself with a mysterious (yes, of course it’s alien) virus that seemingly kills him. Unfortunately, Adrian isn’t quite as dead as people think he is, so once his body has been returned to his native Boston in a way one might find rather unhygienic and left lying around in the local spaceport, he rises from the dead quite exactly like Jesus, if Jesus had been an increasingly leaky, muttering and physically and mentally quite appalling Billy Drago; so, depending on your favourite parts of the New Testament, perhaps not quite like Jesus.

The newly reborn Adrian continues to do what he loves best, namely going around killing men and raping women in a city that doesn’t seem to care all that much. Well, police detective – with a “black badge” that makes him some kind of institutionally condoned version of Dirty Harry or a comparatively harmless version of Judge Dredd – Cameron Grayson (Roddy Piper) cares once he realizes there’s a dead virally active murderer around, particularly because he has very personal reasons to hate Adrian. In his quest to catch and preferably kill Adrian, and postpone what might very well turn out to be a viral doomsday, Grayson teams up with virologist Dr. Kirbie Younger (Jayne Heitmeyer) and her mentor Dr. Washington (Tyrone Benskin). Given the surprising powers of not-dying-from-getting-shot and leaking icky fluids Adrian develops, the state Adrian’s victims are in after a while, and the generally fucked-up state of the world he’s living in, Grayson will need all the help he can get.

As far as direct-to-video SF/action/horror films go, Peter Svatek’s Sci-fighters (whose title of course has sod all to do with the film it belongs to) is really rather good. Sure, the production design is mostly a much cheaper version of Blade Runner‘s, the world building isn’t exactly deeply thought through, and the plotting is very much as archetypal an example of low budget SF/action with added body horror ickiness as you’ll find, but Svatek’s execution of the whole affair is much better than it needs to be.

It does – of course – help the film a lot that its four larger characters are played by Piper, Drago, Heitmeyer and Benskin who all had been around the low budget movie block for quite some time when this was made, and who all bring charisma and professionalism to roles that could in other hands have turned out pretty boring instead of somewhat sympathetic and slightly interesting. It’s certainly no surprise that Drago knows how to chew scenery, or how to go into melodramatic bodily contortions when an infection with an alien virus calls for it (he does that sort of thing every day), but it’s as much of a pleasure to watch here as it ever is; as is Piper’s ability to keep his character vaguely sympathetic despite him being a bit of a prick.

Mark Sevi’s script is sharing some responsibility for this general lack of suckiness too, for it does use the clichĂ©s it’s working with sometimes quite well. The shared background between Adrian and Grayson is a smidgen more interesting and complicated than usual in these cases, and because its details beyond the most obvious ones are disclosed slowly over the course of the movie, it stays vaguely interesting throughout. Even the obligatory romance between Grayson and Kirbie is more interesting than these things usually are, with a slightly more grown-up idea of how damaged people like Grayson relate romantically. Why, the film even doesn’t put the mandatory sex scene in where it would usually be placed, and ends the romance sub-plot at an open yet not all that hopeful point. In this regard, it’s also rather interesting which character it is in the end who kills off Adrian, and who it isn’t; let’s just say it isn’t “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.

Sevi’s script does quite a bit more of this kind of thing, keeping inside the lines of low budget genre filmmaking of its day and age yet showing some thought, even some ideas of its own. I found myself particularly impressed by the way the film handles all that raping without giving the deeply unpleasant impression a lot of low budget films of all genres fall into – probably seldom on purpose, to be fair – that rape is kinda hot (and the best way to show breasts in a movie). In Sci-fighters, rape and rapists are clearly vile, an idea that is of course cemented further by Drago’s performance and physical changes, as well as by the whole alien, terraforming virus angle that puts extra emphasis on rape as something unnatural and inhuman. This does of course also carry a metaphorical echo of the way many raped women feel afterwards, though I’m not too sure the film is having this resonance on purpose and not just by a more or less happy accident.

On the other hand, the film also has the heart to have little moments that suggest Adrian isn’t as easily filed away as a monster (that is, something beyond and below humanity) than as a twisted and broken human being; if you ask me, that’s a rather more horrifying thought than the completely evil Other could ever be.

Of course, all these slightly more clever bits and pieces which I’m not even sure are in the film on purpose, are all just minor parts in a rather generic, competently filmed piece of SF action horror (a sub-genre that should have its own name), and are the kind of thing you realize more once you start thinking about a movie than when you’re actually watching it. That’s as it should be, for while the kind of film I (and I suspect anyone reading this) spend most of my time with is often rather more clever than people not involved in the joys of low budget genre films assume, a film like Sci-fighters lives and dies on its ability to deliver cheap thrills. Fortunately, it’s good at that, too.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

A Prior Engagement: Night Wars (1988)

Vietnam veterans Trent (Brian O’Connor) and Jim (Cameron Smith) never really left the war behind them. Particularly not the memory of the time when their platoon was betrayed by the eeeevil McGregor (Steve Horton wildly chewing scenery), and they had to leave their friend Jhonny (Chet Hood) – yes, that’s how the film spells the name – behind when fleeing from his torture-loving hands.

More than a decade later, Trent and Jim start suffering from nightmares about the McGregor/Jhonny situation even worse than the ones they already had. Quite peculiar nightmares these are too, for wounds inflicted in them stay right with you when you’re awake. And as our heroes will learn once they’re convinced they are not just suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome, this works the other way round too, so they are able to take items, weapons for example, with them from the waking world into their nightmares.

In utterly appropriate dream logic, Trent and Jim decide the obvious solution to their shared nightmare problems is to go kill Dream-McGregor and free Dream-Jhonny. Alas, before they can go and do that, they have to cope with a well-meaning veterans hospital doctor (Dan Haggerty) who understandably thinks they’ve gone crazy, and learn that Dream-McGregor has learned a few moves from Freddy Krueger.

To my perhaps ever so slightly twisted mind, the movies David A. Prior directed for his Action International Pictures (I’m not going to call it A.I.P.) are a delight in their curious mixture of local filmmaking gone direct-to-video, awkwardness, self-deprecating humour and often deft as well as daft high concepts. It’s as if classic (or, depending on your taste “classic”) Men’s Adventure paperbacks from the 70s had gone to the US South, developed a degree of self-consciousness and decided to make strange genre mash-ups that just aren’t satisfied with being one kind of movie at one time.

The sources for Night Wars‘ particular genre mash-up are pretty obvious: firstly, it’s the dreary ‘Namsploitation sub-genre concerned with bringing the boys back home, secondly, it’s good old A Nightmare on Elm Street, which turns out to be a combination as ridiculously un-obvious as it is entertaining. Instead of your usual jingoistic affair, “bringing the boys back home” takes on a slightly different meaning when said boys – or really just one boy – are probably only still alive in the protagonists’ dreams, and the usual story of winning the war after the fact turns into one of people trying to live through their guilt and trauma. Of course, this being a David A. Prior movie, living through one’s guilt and trauma is done by shooting and blowing up nameless Asian henchmen in one’s dreams, but hey, baby steps. Actually, this pinko communist is for once rather happy that these nameless Asian people are commanded by an evil, ranting American (even though the whole traitor “because the Vietcong pays better” angle makes little sense with its suggestion the Vietcong had much money to spare for anything); it at least spares us some really unpleasant stereotyping. In fact, most Action International films I’ve seen by now don’t have their heart set on being racist at all, which is rather uncommon for the action and war genres in their US versions, and is of course quite welcome.

When Night Wars isn’t showing us Asian American extras throwing themselves backwards in absurd death throes, or bamboo huts exploding (we can for once blame hand grenades), it gets around to a handful of creepy scenes too. Particularly the death of Trent’s wife (played by Jill Foors) is rather effective, set up to be at once surreal and horrifying on a very basic human level, and does fine work with the way it turns something normal and pleasant into something horrible. That scene, and a handful of others, are as effectively dream-like as Prior can manage on his budget and with the overly bright lighting the film can’t seem to escape even in dream sequences.

Of course, this being an Action International Pictures film, the neat ideas and effective moments are not enhanced by slick filmmaking. In fact, this late in his career, Prior’s direction wasn’t usually as raw and awkward as it is here, with slow and counter-productively staged action sequences, often little of visual interest shot even less interestingly, and acting so shoddy Dan Haggerty is the best actor on screen. Still, like with most Prior films, there’s something deeply likeable about his approach. Watching even the shoddiest of his films, I never get the feeling a given movie’s problems are attributable to laziness, nor to a lack of interest in the film by its makers but are side-effects of seat-of-your-pants regional filmmaking that can’t always be avoided. Plus, while Night Wars can look unintentionally funny – a boy can take only so much of Dan Haggerty staring dramatically at a dozen alarm clocks, after all – it is never boring or lacking in interesting, if potentially misguided, ideas.

I’m quite sure that the film’s unwillingness to explain why or how McGregor is some sort of dream demon will drive more than one viewer to conniptions because this very basic part of the film’s set-up doesn’t make much sense without any explanations, unless you want to read everything what’s going on here as a metaphor for the protagonists’ PTSD, which I find impossible to believe in an Action International film. Anyway, I for my part think this lack of clarity and explanation just enhances the film’s mood of weirdness, as does the fact that Vietnam looks a lot like California, or as do puzzling moments like the scene where we realize that our heroes are shooting their guns in the real world too when they do so in their dreams; I’d like to have their very patient neighbours.

But then, I’d also like to own Blu-ray special editions of my favourite Action International Pictures films, so my needs and interest just might be somewhat special.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?