Greetings, readers, Bill here. We had some new neighbors move into the apartment next to ours this morning, and right as Gina’s getting ready to go to sleep…they begin hammering nails into their walls. So while she’s cocooned herself in the blankets with a pair of earplugs, I’ve been having issues with waking up at 3 every morning so I’m hoping that staying up a bit later with a movie will allow me to sleep until my alarm goes off in the morning. And what better way to spend that time then with a movie? I picked up this slice of Nunsploitation at the Synapse table at Cinema Wasteland last weekend, and am eager to see what it has for me.
Southern Italy, around 1600 or so. After a hard-fought battle between Christian knights and Turkish pirates, Flavia (Florinda Bolkan), daughter of the leader of the knights, steps out onto the battlefield, curious to get a look at an actual Turk. Her father catches her in this, and after an indeterminate number of years of trying to marry her off, finally packs her off to a convent. But Flavia’s far from willing to content herself as a nun. Between fantasizing about the Turk she saw on the battlefield, witnessing the rape of a peasant girl by her father’s liege lord, and seeing members of the Tarantella sect dancing in ecstatic worship in the nave of a church, she soon becomes fairly disillusioned with the whole thing.
When her friend Livia joins in the Tarantella’s worship and is subsequently condemned by the bishop, Flavia tries to flee the convent, only to be recaptured and flogged extensively. She comes to the conclusion that the entire institution of the Church exists only to surpress women’s sexuality and prevent them from controlling men via their powers of seduction and guile. The final straw comes when a band of Turkish raiders attack a nearby village, and Flavia gets to see the men, who are so strong and tough when it comes to beating their wives, flee in terror. She offers herself bodily to the Turkish bey and promising them access to the convent to free her sisters.
This all sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it? And honestly, by every right it should be, but it simply isn’t. It is instead, for most of it’s running time, deadly-dull, with long, protracted sequences of characters talking between all-too-fleeting sequences of torture and sexuality. And for a film that’s carried the alternate titles FLAVIA THE KILLER NUN and FLAVIA, PRIESTESS OF VIOLENCE, long, protracted sequences of people talking aren’t what I’m here for.
Worst of all, director Gianfranco Mingozzi wouldn’t know a well-directed action sequence if it came up and honked him on the nose. The battle sequences are particularly listless and flat affairs, with zero panache or excitement to them. You can practically see they actor’s lips moving as they count the beats of the fight, doing no more than go through the paces. Things pick up during the sleazier sequences, especially a horse-gelding sequence, a crucifixion, and cannibalism (can’t have an Italian movie without cannibalism).
The weirdest thing for me is how the film feels like it wants to be truly transgressive underneath the sleaze, but ultimately backpedals at the last minute. FLAVIA is an Italian production; and the Italians have been perhaps the most fervent Catholics on the planet. Flavia espouses a philosophy that calls for the destruction of patriarchy, of which the Catholic Church is the biggest single example on the planet. She argues that the Church is a sham, a fraud created by men to prevent women from taking power, that “God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Ghost” are creations of Man. That’s subversive, given the time and culture we’re talking about here. But then right at the end, the film pulls a 180 and not only is the status quo restored, but the woman who dared speak out against the system is brought down even lower then she would have been if she’d simply played by the rules. And believe me, the ending Flavia comes to is one of the nastiest I’ve seen committed to film in a long time!
Final Analysis: Make no mistake, FLAVIA THE HERETIC is slow-moving and dull for much of its run-time, and the quantity of nudity (both male and female) as well as some quality gore sequences (including at least one great impalement) do little to distract the grindhouse fan from how slow and talky the film is, and how dull the fight scenes are. The kernel from which a great, smart, nasty exploitation film could have grown is there, but it wasn’t given the room or the care needed to germinate here. Still, for the sickos, there’s a graphic sequence of a horse getting his balls chopped off, decapitations, crucifixions, cannibalism, skinning a person alive, and more, so if you can sit through the chatter, you’ll find some nuggets of exploitation gold.
Well readers, another Cinema Wasteland has come and, sadly, gone. But it’s like I always say – if Wasteland lasted more than one weekend, God would take notice and smite us with a pillar of fire out of a cloudless sky. Yes, Cinema Wasteland’s a little taste of cinematic Sodom and Gomorrah, and I don’t know that we could handle more than two tastes a year.
To recap what I can remember…
After about 4 hours of sleep, I rose, showered, and woke my buddy Travis, who’d crashed on my couch the night before. He was ready to go, so at 4:30 AM we hit the road for Wasteland. It was a smooth 5 hour drive into Cleveland, arriving at the Holiday Inn Strongsville at about 9:45 AM. We immediately began running into friends – Travis has not been to Wasteland in about five years, but he’s such a larger than life personality that he was well-remembered. We got our day-passes, and with Jeff of the Salt City Horror Fest (where I’ll be this coming weekend), settled in for a screening of EQUINOX on 16mm. More than ever, I’m staggered that people haven’t called Sam Raimi to task for ripping this film off. He even reused some of the sound effects!
After that, we hit the dealer’s room, where I got to spend some time talking with Jim Wynorski, who was kind enough to sign my RETURN OF SWAMP THING poster, and Peter Spellos, an actor who’d collaborated with Jim on a number of films. Both men were just incredibly warm, friendly and inviting, dropping a lot of nuggets of wisdom and comedy on Travis and myself, especially in regards Travis’ filmmaking aspirations.
Travis in the scarf, flanked by Jim and Peter.
We ran into and reconnected with the great Kristy Jett, and of course soon staggered into Wes, Zach, BJ, Matt and the rest of the Bloodsprayer family.
That’s me in the red shirt and vest.
We grabbed some burgers for lunch, and then checked into our hotel room at the Super 8 across the parking lot and high-tailed it to Wes’ hotel room for a screening of Zach’s latest short film, EAT IT UP. Full review to come, but let me just say, it fucking rocked.
Hung out, walked around some more, grabbed some sandwiches, I made a phone call home to see how Gina was doing, and then the party fucking started. I caught the tail end of the Ghastlee’s Night at the Movies live show, which is always a hoot – I got to see the end of 42nd Street Pete’s trivia contest, which I’m currently retired from, but as soon as someone else gets 25 questions right, I’m emerging from retirement to challenge them to a grudge match. Following this was Sally Zombee’s game of “put horrible things in people’s mouths” – blindfolded contestants we given an escalating list of things to taste, ranging from babyfood to, ultimately, a Swedish fermented fish dish called Surströmming. According to a Japanese study, this stuff has the most putrid food smell in the world.
They are correct.
Sally’s opening of the can in her hotel room caused the entire second floor to be vacated, and the police had to be called in to investigate fears that someone had died in their hotel room. When the cooler containing the stuff was opened at the show, the first five rows began to gag.
The guys on stage ate it no problem.
Ended up introducing Travis to my dear friend Bonesy, and hanging out in her hotel room for a while, including a couple recitations of the story of how she and I first met. Let’s just say it involved a puke bucket. Ended up spending the last couple hours of the night in the lobby with Travis, Bonesy and the Bloodsprayer crew, and FINALLY got to see “The Crusher” in action.
For those not in the know, The Crusher is a tiny Asian woman in a gigantic platinum blonde wig and enormous hooker heels who shows up and crushes beer cans with her lady bits. I’ve never gotten the chance to see her before and it did not disappoint.
Travis and I ended up going to bed about 2 in the morning, then up at 8:30 on Sunday where we helped ourselves to the Continental Breakfast at the Super 8 (no mention of what continent they eat pre-thawed Eggo waffles on), then a few goodbyes and back on the road to Rochester.
Loot-wise, I went pretty light this show. I got my RETURN OF SWAMP THING poster signed, as previously mentioned, and picked up two issues of LIQUID CHEESE FANZINE from Dave Kosanke, and grabbed just a handful of DVDs – ROCK AND ROLL NIGHTMARE, FLAVIA THE HERETIC, AWKWARD THANKSGIVING (the latest from Wasteland darling Henrique Couto) and the Blood Island trilogy. I’d gone in with a short list of DVDs I was looking for, and almost everything on the list was available at the show. I also got the latest GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY, which I have a brief piece on the first half of the Blind Dead franchise in.
Sometimes, readers, it’s a struggle to make time to watch and review movies. Between work, familial obligations, and working on other aspects of myself that require work (i.e., learning to become a better cook, improving my diet, building better exercise habits, etc.) sometimes it’s hard to find the time to review movies. I had anticipated sitting down with 2014’s WOLFCOP today and so far the time just hasn’t been free enough to devote myself to watching and analyzing a new film. However, Gina and I did put on 1987’s PREDATOR, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers, on last night before bed – a film I’d seen plenty of times in the past, but which she hadn’t seen before. So while I still intend to watch and review WOLFCOP in the near future, and have received requests that I review BLOODY BLOODY BIBLE CAMP and CYRUS: MIND OF A SERIAL KILLER that I intend to fulfill, today the best I can offer is my thoughts on the testosterone-fueled sci-fi horror action majesty that is PREDATOR.
A Special Forces team headed by Major “Dutch” Schaeffer (Schwarzeneggar) is enlisted by General Phillips (R.G. Armstrong, last seen around these parts in THE BEAST WITHIN) to sneak into an unnamed South American country (Val Verde – the same fictional country as COMMANDO – per the film’s novelization; 2010’s PREDATORS would retcon this to Guatemala) and rescue a US official who had been captured by guerrillas. Accompanying them on the mission is Agent Dillon (Carl Weathers, from the ROCKY franchise), a former colleague of Dutch’s.
Their first sign that the mission isn’t all it was pitched to them as comes when they find a half-dozen bodies that show signs of having been skinned alive – and on one of them, the dog-tags of a Green Beret Dutch trained. Dillon is soon forced to tell the truth – he lied to Dutch to get him to take on a mission to wipe out a guerrilla camp receiving support from Soviet advisers before they could overrun the border and start a war with a neighboring country. In the midst of this snafu, however, Dutch has a bigger problem then Dillon’s betrayal. An alien hunter (Kevin Peter Hall, last seen around these parts in MONSTER IN THE CLOSET, essentially reprising his role from WITHOUT WARNING) has staked out the region as its personal game preserve, and has set its sights on adding Dutch and his men to its trophy room.
This movie is so thick with testosterone, it makes COMMANDO look dainty and light on its feet. This movie is so macho, it slams into a Slim Jim for you. With the possible exception of John Carpenter’s THE THING, it’s the most effective of the films in ALIEN‘s wake. And actually, now that I think about it, THE THING is an apt point of comparison for PREDATOR; in both cases we have a cast comprised solely (the hostage Anna is a nonentity in PREDATOR; she spends most of her time on screen effectively comatose) of very masculine men; in PREDATOR, a Special Forces team, in THE THING, a group composed largely of military men and scientists who’ve adopted the traits of military men. They’re trapped in an isolated, unforgiving environment, cut off from any sort of assistance, and being preyed upon by an alien threat.
In PREDATOR, however, we get a stronger sense of which men are “Alpha” males and which are “Beta” males. Dutch and Dillon clash because they’re both very dominant, commanding personalities, though Dillon issues commands whereas Dutch commands respect, and that makes a huge difference in how the rest of the men present view them. Blain, played by Jesse Ventura, and Poncho, played by Richard Chaves, are both heavy weapons specialists – Blain with a minigun, and Poncho with a parabolic grenade launcher, but Blain is the, in his own words, “goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus,” while Poncho is relegated to more of a supporting figure.
And as for that “goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus”…I think Blain and Mac (Bill Duke, of COMMANDO) are intended to be perceived as lovers. It’s never made explicit and it’s never really commented on as such, but Mac’s reaction to Blain’s death doesn’t quite jive with them sharing no more than the bond of loyalty forged between men-at-arms under fire. Mac breaks down when Blain dies, and flies into a homicidal rage in which he empties hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the jungle in hopes of avenging Blain’s death, and then he stands vigil over Blain’s corpse until literally driven from the body’s side by the Predator. “He was…my friend,” Mac notes to Dutch, and that pause speaks volumes. And I think it’s pretty clear that the rest of the guys know about this relationship and just don’t care because it doesn’t limit Mac and Blain’s effectiveness in combat.
Indeed, much like ancient Thebes’ legendary “Sacred Band,” fighting side by side seems to amplify their aggression and fighting spirit – no one wants to look weak or cowardly with their loved one looking on.
I’ll admit, this is a level of progressiveness and subversion I was not expecting to find here; I think even today having an action movie in which gay characters are presented not just in a positive light, but as veritable gods of war, would be a hard sell. For contrast, look at Vernon Wells’ villainous “Bennett” in COMMANDO the year before; he’s not only kitted out in a crocheted vest, but his obsession with avenging himself against Schwarzenegger’s character, John Matrix, has taken on an unhealthy, psychosexual element; he sweats and licks his lips as he thinks about Matrix, fantasizing about penetrating the other man with a phallic surrogate, i.e., his knife. “I’m going to stab you between the balls, Matrix,” he squeals during their final fight, and ultimately his destruction comes when Matrix turns Bennett’s issues against him – and Bennett ends up impaled on a long, hard, narrow tube spraying fluid. Demonizing Queerness has always been easier for Hollywood then presenting it even as a neutral element, so Mac and Blain here are a surprising breath of fresh air.
And really, the film has a couple surprises up its sleeve regarding traditional ideas of masculinity. Look at the way the team comports themselves during the helicopter ride at the beginning of the film and during the lead-up to the discovery of the flayed bodies. They’re cool, they’re calm, they’re happily in their element – fully aware that they’re the biggest, baddest sons of bitches in the jungle. And then, when they discover that there’s a bigger, badder son of a bitch out there? They start to unravel. They get nervous, jittery, start making mistakes. The Predator separates them, one by one, drawing them away from the relative safety of the group and killing them when they’re isolated. It’s very similar to the break-down of the Colonial Marines in the previous year’s ALIENS, and I think it’s because filmmakers, like generals, are always fighting the last war.
In PREDATOR, we have American soldiers dropped into a jungle on what they believe is a simple clean-up mission, only to discover that the situation has been grossly misjudged and they’re woefully unprepared to face an enemy that can simply melt invisibly into the jungle, following them unseen and picking them off at its leisure. It’s Sci-Fi Vietnam.
As a final commentary on the masculinity of the film, let’s look at the final brawl between Arnold and the Predator. Throughout the film Arnold has been unflappable, a perfect icon of masculine stoicism and carefully channeled aggression. He doesn’t get mad, he gets results. The Predator is an enormous bull of a creature, dressed to emphasize its muscular physique – other than the fishnet bodystocking, it’s wearing a codpiece, shoulder pads and gauntlets. And as a big game hunter, it’s participating in the most manliest and macho of hobbies. At one point in their fight, Arnold and the Predator simply stand there and punch each other in the face, and it’s so thick with machismo they might as well be measuring their dicks against each other. Ultimately, Arnold can’t just macho the creature to death with bone-crushing punches and one-liners. He has to resort to guile, to trickery – he lays traps and plans ambushes and that, rather than a full frontal assault, are what saves his ass. And hell – the Predator is so wrapped up in his own macho bullshit that he sets off a thermonuclear self destruct mechanism rather than be forced to acknowledge that he lost!
As for the Predator itself, the suit design is one of my favorite of the 1980s, and is, in my opinion, much better looking here than in the sequels. I like the compact, bulldog-meets-hermit-crab look of the face, I like the mottled, alligator-like skin and the clawed hands and feet. Apparently an earlier design would have had the Predator as a top-heavy, dog-faced creature before Stan Winston redesigned it into the agile hunter we got on screen; supposedly, the Predator’s famous mandible structure comes from Winston sketching the creature while riding on a plane with James Cameron, director of ALIENS, who suggested, “You know, I’ve always wanted to see an alien with mandibles.”
Even more incredible, Jean Claude Van Damme was originally slated to play the Predator! However, Van Damme complained quite a bit about the heat in the suit, and not being able to be seen in the film out of costume, and was a shrimp next to guys like Arnold and Bill Duke, so the filmmakers wisely replaced him with Kevin Peter Hall, who towered over even the 6’4 1/2″ Duke. Hall was apparently a real trooper on the set as well – filming on location with no level surfaces, presumably being hit – like the rest of the cast – with Montezuma’s Revenge following an incident with the water purifier at the Mexican hotel they were living out of, and with no ability to see out of the suit – Hall and Arnold had to very carefully rehearse their fight scenes ahead of time and Hall would have to memorize the beats of the fight and where everybody, and every tree root, mud puddle, etc. was.
It’s fucking criminal that stuntmen don’t have their own category for the Academy Awards, and indeed, that the Academy has repeatedly denied requests to create such a category. But I digress.
Final Analysis: Slam-bang, balls-out action on a level very few other films achieve, PREDATOR is a damn good time from beginning to end. With an extremely solid cast of talented performers including such luminaries as Bill Duke and R.G. Armstrong, I think I’d have to tie this film with COMMANDO for Arnold’s strongest cinematic performance – and I say that as a man who really, really loves CONAN THE BARBARIAN. Nobody is slumming or giving a weak, much less bad, performance here. Couple that with one of the single best man-in-a-suit monsters ever captured on film, with work from Stan Winston that easily matches the quality his team achieved on THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS, this is absolutely a movie not to be missed by anyone who likes to mix science fiction and horror with their action. And with the deeper subtextual layers that can be sussed out, it really is a film that deserves every accolade it’s received and then some.
In seven days, Cinema Wasteland begins. This has been the only convention I’ve attended since 2012, and other than a potential brief jaunt back to Monster Mania this summer to meet Haruo Nakajima, I think Cinema Wasteland will be the only convention I’ll attend for many years to come. Ken Kish puts on an amazing show every year, one very strongly geared towards appeasing the hardcore film fans like myself. Wasteland isn’t a meat market autograph show like Chiller Theatre, and maintains a much stronger sense of focus then shows like Monster Mania tend to.
This show the big focus is the DAY OF THE DEAD reunion, which doesn’t really do a whole lot for me personally; I don’t go for the big reunions for the most part, in part because I really just can’t afford to go down a line and get a dozen autographs.
I will also unfortunately only be able to be at Wasteland for Saturday, April 11th. In the past I’ve been able to do all three days, but nowadays between needing to work myself and the necessity of being available to help my girlfriend get to and from work, I just can’t do all three days.
The plan as it currently stands is for me to get up ungodly early on Saturday, shower, dress, and pick up my good buddy Travis (who I’m still hoping to be able to involve in some stuff with this site down the line), and make the five hour drive to Cleveland, arriving right about 10 am on the dot, just in time to get our badges and get in the door.
I can’t speak for Travis, but I’m looking to attend the 16mm screening of EQUINOX at 10:30, the panel discussion with Jim Wynorski, Peter Spellos and Melissa Moore at 4:30 (which will probably call for me to go in at 3 for the screening of HARD TO DIE to ensure I get a seat), and catch A Ghastlee Ghoul’s Ghastlee Night at the Movies at 8 pm. In between I’ll be wandering the dealer’s room, hanging out with friends, and eating.
I’ll be wearing my B-Movie Battle Jacket, so if you see me, come say hi.
Just a reminder, readers, that Radiation-Scarred Reviews is not your sole source of my brand of scholarly discourse on monster movies. I’ve contributed articles to several ‘zines that I respect and whose creators I admire – I don’t have a tremendous amount of free time in my life right now and my finances are stretched too tightly for me to invest in reading as many ‘zines as I’d like right now, but I do what I can.
Here’s a run-down of some ‘zines I’ve written for:
MONSTER #15: Tim Paxton and Co. put out a stunning little mag on a monthly basis, a worthy inheritor to the mantle of Famous Monsters of Filmland in its prime. I’ve got a review of THE NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS in issue 15, and will be contributing a longer retrospective article on TREMORS 1-4 for issue 16. Pick up issue 15 here.
GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY #2-5: 42nd Street Pete is a personal hero of mine. His knowledge of trash cinema from the 1960s through the 1980s is a thing of wonder. I’ve got reviews in issues 2, 3, 4 and 5. I’ll be contributing to Grindhouse Purgatory as long as Pete will have me.
CINEMA SEWER #27: While Robin Bougie writes a lot more about porn then I do here, his knowledge and flair for presentation make Cinema Sewer a publication not to be missed. I provided an article on the mystery surrounding Georgina Lempkin, a plus-sized adult starlet from Hungary in the early 1990s to issue 27, which can be purchased here.
If anybody out there has a ‘zine or represents one of the larger magazines out there and would like to see my work featured in their publication (you get back in your hole, Spiderbaby, you still need to think about what you did), feel free to contact me and I’d be happy to provide.
Greetings, readers, Bill here again. Gina and I completed our run through the currently-extant TREMORS films last night before bed with a screening of the 2004 prequel, TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS. As I’d mentioned in my review of TREMORS 3, I caught the tail-end of this one on SyFy back when it was still the Sci-Fi Channel, but I’d never watched it all the way through until last night. Which is kind of surprising – given my fondness for TREMORS and the fact that I’m a hardcore mark for any sort of “Weird West” blending of horror and western genre tropes, you’d think I’d have been on this film like stink on a monkey. Let’s take a look at what is for now the last of the TREMORS films, shall we?
Rejection, Nevada – 1889. The Bottom Dollar silver mine is no longer being worked and the miners are leaving the town of Rejection in droves. The issue is not that the mine has run dry – just the opposite in fact, there seems to be no end in sight for the lode of silver under the ground. The miners are leaving because something killed an entire shift of miners, save one, in just a few minutes – and the posse that went in to investigate disappeared too.
The mine’s owner, Hiram Gummer (Michael Gross, this time wearing a little bit of mustache wax and a bowler instead of an Atlanta Hawks’ baseball cap) arrives from Philadelphia to see about reopening the mine. Gummer’s an uptight, arrogant rich boy who thinks he can solve any problem simply by throwing money at it, and his attitude quickly rubs the few remaining settlers in Rejection – Christina Lord, proprietor of the local hotel; the Chang family, who run the market; Tecopa, the local Native American; and Juan, the sole surviving miner – the wrong way.
Investigating the mine, Hiram and Juan soon discover that the miners were killed by burrowing creatures about four feet long, which Pyong Chang soon dubs “Dirt Dragons.” The creatures move too quickly to be shot, so Hiram hires a quickdraw gunfighter to come and deal with them…but the month delay until he gets there just might give those “Dirt Dragons” time to mature…
Once again, we get another new glimpse into the demented life-cycle of the Graboids, this time in the form of a larval stage that soon goes through a series of molts into the 30-foot worms we remember from the original film. We’re also given another example of a Chang giving the creatures their name; presumably Pyong Chang is the great-grandfather (or possibly just the grandfather) of Walter Chang, who would coin the name “Graboids,” while Walter’s niece Jodi named the “Ass-Blasters.”
While the film doesn’t really play with our expectations regarding the creatures they way its predecessors did, here they tinker with the setting and with Michael Gross. We’re used to modern-day firepower and technology being brought to bear against the Graboids – it takes a lot of firepower to pierce their thick, rubbery hides and autofire is pretty much a must when the Shriekers emerge. Setting the film in the Old West, with six-shooters and breech-loading rifles being the height of armament-technology, it becomes a lot more challenging to deal with the Graboids.
I really like that at the end they resorted to a punt gun – a type of extremely large shotgun used in the 19th century to shoot entire flocks of ducks at a time – to blast a Graboid. Punt guns were actually largely illegal by the time the film takes place because they’d so decimated bird populations.
Incidentally, this film introduces the only continuity error I’ve spotted in these films – Rejection is renamed Perfection, Nevada in 1889 at the end of this film. However, in the original TREMORS, the “Welcome to Perfection” sign states that the town was established in 1904.
The second way the film messes with our expectations is through Michael Gross. We’ve become accustomed to Burt Gummer – paranoid, sarcastic, easily-exasperated but overall lovable Burt. By casting Michael Gross as Hiram Gummer, we’re led to expect this great-grandfather of Burt to be a very similar character. He’s absolutely not. Hiram Gummer is rich, spoiled, lives by a philosophy of “do unto others before they get a chance to do unto you” and ultimately has a stick up his ass big enough to bludgeon a Graboid to death with.
But he doesn’t stay that way – over the course of the movie Hiram softens and humanizes, and learns that there are more important things in life then money, and that taking advantage of others isn’t the key to happiness. He even develops a taste for firearms and a love of the geographic isolation of Rejection/Perfection, traits that seem to enter the Gummer line here and reach their apogee in Burt.
In a supporting role, I really liked Billy Drago as the gunfighter “Black Hand Kelly.” I primarily know Drago from his role as the sociopathic Frank Nitti in De Palma’s THE UNTOUCHABLES, and I feel like his performance here was of Kelly as a man trying very hard to cultivate and maintain the image of being a cold-blooded killer like Nitti. He talks a great game, and sitting in the Changs’ market he makes a good show of being unflappable and care-free, but when push comes to shove and the Graboids appear, he shows his true colors – and they’re yellow. Drago gave a great performance in what wasn’t a huge role but man, he brought a lot of heart to it.
Final Analysis: A solidly middle-of-the-road film, it doesn’t bring anything really new to the table but also doesn’t shit the bed with any of its material. S.S. Wilson returns to the director’s seat while collaborating on the script with Brent Maddock, and you can kind of tell they were fishing for ideas here – after all, they’d been told previously by Universal that TREMORS 3 would absolutely be the final film in the series. Michael Gross’ wildly-unexpected performance as the uptight Hiram Gummer and Drago’s surprisingly cowardly gunfighter are the performances that make the film, though nobody really gives a bad performance.
Overall, I give TREMORS 4: THE LEGEND BEGINS (2004)…
Greetings, readers, Bill here again. After Gina and I finished the Daimajin franchise, she commented that she really enjoys watching these series of movies and asked me if I had another series she might be interested in. My mind immediately went to TREMORS. We watched the first film on Wednesday night and the second last night, and jumped into the third one this afternoon. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one before – I know I’ve owned all four currently-available TREMORS films since I was in college, but I mostly watched 1 and 2 over and over again, and I caught the tail end of TREMORS 4 on TV when it was new, but TREMORS 3 I think I missed out on until now. Today was a good day to rectify that though, so let’s jump in with both feet, shall we?
After cleaning out a Graboid/Shrieker infestation in Argentina, Burt Gummer (Michael Gross again) returns home to the sleepy little town of Perfection, Nevada, where he has also just put the finishing touches on Graboid-proofing his compound. His precautions are seen as bizarre by the rest of Perfection – after all, there hasn’t been a Graboid sighting in over a decade. Jodie Chang, niece of Walter, has taken over the family store and sells an assortment of Graboid-themed T-shirts, comic books and other souvenirs in addition to beer and snack foods, while a slick charlatan named “Cactus Jack” is making money taking tourists on bogus “Graboid Safari” tours.
As such, Burt’s the only one prepared when a new Graboid infestation shows up in Perfection…what he’s not prepared for is the feds to show up and slap him down before he can start killing them, citing the Endangered Species Protection Act. Before long, the feds are Shrieker-chow, and Burt makes a startling discovery: there’s another stage in the Graboid lifestyle…and they can fly.
I love that Brent Maddock and S.S. Wilson, the screenwriters of the entire TREMORS series to date (excluding the upcoming fifth film) have been so carefully managing our expectations from the start. Every time the cast, and by extension the audience, thinks they have a handle on the Graboids, think they know what to expect…BAM! We’re hit by something out of left field. There’s a moment in the second film where Earl and Grady are waiting for whatever *ate* the Graboid to come around a corner, and they keep raising their rifles higher and higher in anticipation of it being huge – and then a fat little Shrieker wanders around the corner. As audiences we’re conditioned to expect sequels – especially horror sequels – to be bigger than their predecessors, and that scene plays with that expectation.
Similarly with TREMORS 3: Burt, and the audience, is expecting Graboids and Shriekers, and are prepared for them. But once the new stage, what we might call the Graboid imago (or “Ass-Blaster”) arrives on the scene it has enough similarities to the Shrieker that we’re momentarily lulled into believing that tactics useful against Shriekers will be equally useful against these new creatures. This is not necessarily the case, and relying too heavily on past performance ends up costing Burt his compound.
The new monsters are appealing enough, appearing very much like stretched, darker-toned Shriekers equipped with three ribbed fins – one down the spine and one on each flank. I like the notion behind their powered flight – much like the real-world bombardier beetle, the Ass-Blasters mix chemicals in their body with the resultant blend igniting upon exposure to oxygen – which, while it doesn’t launch the bombardier beetle into the air, is nevertheless plausible – I’ve seen a couple films that suggest the same sort of origin for dragons’ ability to fly and breathe fire.
A surprising number of cast members returned from the first film – Charlotte Stewart as Nancy Sterngood, Ariana Richards as Mindy (who, in the interim, had appeared in JURASSIC PARK, its first sequel, and SPACED INVADERS, a favorite of mine), Tony Genaro as Miguel, and Robert Jayne (aka Bobby Jacoby – who was also in DR. ALIEN and the Masters of Horror episode “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”) returning as Melvin. That reappearance was a surprise to me – and sets Melvin up as a secondary villain both in this film and the TV series that followed.
Unfortunately, I think TREMORS is falling into the same trap I saw CRITTERS falling into – shrinking budgets mean smaller casts, and smaller casts mean fewer pieces of Expendable Meat. In this film, we only see two people killed (one by Graboid, another by Ass-Blaster), with two more killed off-screen and a fifth mortally wounded by Shriekers in an off-screen attack, wandering in long enough to pass on word of what he witnessed before dying. However, at least one of those kills was of someone we’d been allowed to get to know well enough that their death came as a shock in a way that all those gruesome demises in the later entries of the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise don’t.
Final Analysis: I’ve seen this film described as “shitty” but I don’t think that’s quite fair. Do I think it’s the weakest of the series thusfar? Absolutely. It slows down and tends to drag in a couple spots and gets talky in a way its predecessors don’t. The CGI is not spectacular but compared to anything else you’ll see in a direct-to-video horror movie it looks real damn good. New characters are given arcs comparable to those we saw Val and Earl go through in the previous entries, and do well enough with them. Compare this to a film like CRITTERS 3 or, hell, JAWS 3 and tell me again how “shitty” this film is.
Overall, I give TREMORS 3: BACK TO PERFECTION (2001)…
You may have noticed something funny with the release dates of the three Majin movies – they were all released back to back in 1966! Normally this would be a death-knell to sequels, but WRATH OF DAIMAJIN wasn’t too shabby, and I actually consider the final film in the trilogy, DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN, the best of the franchise. And a word about titles – the magic of international film distribution being what it is, all of these films have been released and rereleased under a variety of titles. Notably, this film has *also* been released as WRATH OF DAIMAJIN, and for maximum confusion, both this film and its immediate predecessor have been released under the title RETURN OF DAIMAJIN at one point or another. However, I stick by my policy of reviewing films under the title my copy bears, so we’ll be referring to the final film in the Daimajin trilogy as DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Lord Arakawa, the cruel tyrant of Hell’s Valley, is kidnapping and enslaving the men of nearby villages to labor in the open-air sulfur pits he’s mining to get the raw material for gunpowder. The latest lot he’s taken captive prove to be the fathers of a group of very strong-willed kids who are our primary cast – there’s Tsurukichi, the leader; Kinta, the clumsy one; Lil Sugi, the “kid” tagalong; and Daisaku, the undistinguished one. These kids get it into their head to cross the forbidden Majin Mountain, overseen as it is by a vengeful and petty god, and rescue their fathers from Lord Arakawa’s clutches.
The kids are smart enough to offer up a prayer to the Majin statue at the mountain’s peak as they cross, and thus find themselves under the protection of a hawk that serves as the Majin’s avatar – the bird goes so far as to gouge the eyes out of one of Arakawa’s lackeys. Before long however, the hawk ceases to be up to the task at hand, and the statue animates – Daimajin’s back with a vengeance!
Like I said, I actually consider this to be the best film in the franchise. I felt like the atmosphere as a whole was much darker and more serious then WRATH OF DAIMAJIN, even to the point of being at times startlingly grim.
This time around, we trade in the medieval castles and fog-shrouded forests and shrines for a lushly-shot panorama up and down mountains and valleys, much of it in broad daylight rather than in brooding night. Additionally, this film takes place in winter – the kids are threatened as much by blizzards and dangerously-low temperatures as they are by musket-toting samurai, and the image of Daimajin striding purposefully throw the snow as it builds up in the crannies of his armor is a particularly striking one.
As for the kids, normally they would be the death-knell of a giant monster film; but these kids aren’t the tubby short-pants-wearing little nightmares that would soon infest Daiei’s Gamera franchise, and instead of running around and blubbering, these kids are kickass little survivalists for the most part – they build rafts, the trick the samurai hunting them out of their food, they even shoot the legs out from under their pursuers with bows and arrows! Lil Sugi kneecaps a guy with an arrow! The film does not cut them any slack either – one kid drowns while trying to cross a fast-flowing river and two of the others nearly freeze to death on the mountain. It’s hard to present child-death in a monster movie today, and here it is in a big way in a film from 1966!
In an additional point of departure from the previous two films in the franchise, there’s nary a deposed nobleman to be seen in this entry, with the entirety of the protagonists being peasants. I think this nicely hammers home the point that Daimajin is not a protector of the lords and ladies of feudal Japan, but of society’s downtrodden and defenseless. That being said, he’s still a giant demon inhabiting a stone statue – and much like Pulgasari twenty years down the line, he’s ultimately as much a threat to his wards as he is to their enemies simply by virtue of being a giant monster.
Much appreciated by this reviewer was the return of a more violent Daimajin – in this entry, we see a guy getting stomped into paste, a guy getting pulped against a cliff face, guys getting boiling sulfur water dumped on them, and best of all, Daimajin finally draws the sword that hangs at his waist and puts it to use!
The Daimajin sequence here actually mirrors that of the first film beat for beat – a cluster of samurai try to stop Daimajin with a volley of musketfire, then take shelter behind a big barricaded door that ultimately offers no protection, the evil lord throws his second-in-command under the bus to save his own hide, the evil lord takes shelter in a dark, tunnel-like structure before being grabbed by Daimajin, and finally Daimajin impales the evil lord on a sharp object before walking away.
Final Analysis: A startling dark conclusion to the Daimajin trilogy, but as far as I’m concerned the best of all. Not only Gina, but our roommate Dan watched this with me, and we were all blown away by the sequence of the kids slowly succumbing to hypothermia. We were not expecting that. The production as a whole is lavish throughout, with not a cut corner to be seen. Money was behind this, and it was very well spent. If you only see one Daimajin film, make this the one.
Gina really got a kick out of the first DAIMAJIN movie, and asked to watch the rest of the franchise with me as soon as possible. So as soon as possible, we popped the second movie in to see where the Majin’s continued adventures would take him. Well, we were quick to discover that the DAIMAJIN trilogy is pretty damn loose – it’s almost better to think of the films as three separate Part 1s instead of Parts 1, 2 and 3, as there’s no direct link between the three films except the existence of the Majin himself. Let’s take a look at the second film, released just months after the first, shall we?
This is a story of three villages. The villages of Chigusa and Nakoshi, linked through various aristocratic marriages and pledges of loyalty, are on opposite shores of a large lake, and are prosperous, happy places to live. As such, refugees from the miserable mountain village of Mikoshiba, fleeing from their cruel master Lord Danjo, frequently seek freedom in Chigusa.
Lord Danjo, understandably, isn’t happy about his peasants fleeing to happy, prosperous Chigusa, His solution is to wait until the nobility of Chigusa and Nakoshi are celebrating a joint holiday centered around God’s Island, an island in the center of the lake occupied by a giant statue that contains the spirit of the Majin.
Mikoshiba warriors, smuggled into Chigusa disguised as bales of straw, quickly throw open the gates to the rest of the Mikoshiba army, throwing the village into chaos and taking Katsushige Nakoshi, the son of Nakoshi’s lord, hostage. His sister, Lady Sayuri, flees to God’s Island with her fiance, Lord Juro Chigusa (Kojiro Hongo, who starred in GAMERA VS. BARUGON the same year, and also had roles in GAMERA VS. GYAOS and GAMERA VS. VIRAS). She prays to the Majin to save Chigusa and Nakoshi from the Mikoshiba, but instead is forced to watch as the Mikoshiba blast the statue to tiny bits with an enormous charge of gunpowder.
Blown up or not, it’s only a matter of time before Daimajin rises from the lake, and then it’s not long before Lord Danjo is reconsidering the wisdom of his attempted conquest…
Not as good, in my opinion, as the first film, but a damn sight better than you’d expect it being knowing that it was released three months after the first (I’ve read some conflicting reports on various sites, but it looks like the three films were shot more or less simultaneously).
I think my biggest issue is that the human drama just feels so much less compelling this time around. The characters were less interesting to me than they were the first time around, and I especially thought that, in terms of personality and what they bring to the story, Lord Juro and Katsushige were basically interchangeable, and Lady Sayuri just felt bland after Princess Kozasa in the previous film. Worse, this time around we get comedy relief in the form of Lady Sayuri’s bumbling, heavy-set bodyguard.
I hate comic relief characters in otherwise-serious movies.
Worse still, Daimajin himself feels oddly neutered; in the previous film, he squashed a guy into paste against the side of a building and nailed another guy to a rock with a chisel through the chest. This time, he pushes over some walls and almost steps on a kid but that’s about it. His rampage of destruction is very brief and very bloodless, and while it’s what I’d expect from just about any other kaiju film of this era, it’s not what I’d been led to expect from a Daimajin movie.
That being said, there are some amazing visuals to be seen here; I’m especially fond of a scene in which Daimajin parts the waters of the lake, Moses-style, in order to march across and stomp occupied Chigusa flat. It’s a beautifully shot sequence and the colors on the Blu-Ray release are incredible as Daimajin slowly and deliberately strides down a tunnel of roaring water. Also, when was the last time you saw a city-stomping (okay, village-stomping) monster emulate Charlton Heston?
Final Analysis: While not as unrelentingly brutal as the first film and with a less-compelling human element, WRATH OF DAIMAJIN remains beautifully shot and a wonder to see. Definitely a weaker film then it’s predecessor, Daimajin himself remains the primary draw and his palette of emotions has expanded from simply “rage” to include “irritation,” “contempt” and “more rage.” I might not recommend this one as readily to the casual viewer, but for diehard fans of the genre it has its rewards.
Taking a break from writing about movies to cover some real shit here.
First off, for the time being I’ve been banned from posting links to this site on Facebook. They’ve deemed Radiation-Scarred Reviews “unsafe,” which is interesting as Google and pretty much everywhere that doesn’t rely on McAfee SiteAdvisor has declared me clean and free of spyware, malware, viruses, Turkish horse porn, etc. We’re working to get this figured out and straightened up, because this is, in a word, bullshit. My site is clean.
On to happier news…
On April 11th, I will be loading up my car, grabbing my good buddy Travis and making the drive down to Cleveland for Cinema Wasteland. I’ll only be there for Saturday unfortunately, so if you see me, say hi.
On April 18th, I’ll be in Syracuse for the Salt City Film Festival, though probably only for the first couple films. Again, if you see me, come say hi.