Tag Archives: Action

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: PRISONERS OF THE GHOSTLAND (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Sion Sono

FEATURING: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Bill Mosley, Nick Cassavetes

PLOT: By order of “the Governor”, a nabbed robber must infiltrate the Ghostland to rescue the Governor’s grand-daughter.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Directed by Sion Sono, featuring Nicolas Cage.

COMMENTS: “They helped me because I am radioactive.”

This epic line is delivered, epically, by Nicolas Cage, standing atop a grand stairway beneath a massive clock, his right arm shattered, his left testicle likewise. He stands before a crowd of downtrodden souls. Amongst them is the bookish Enoch, volume of Wuthering Heights in hand, as well as the gaunt undertaker who collects souls. Watching from the periphery is Ratman and his Ratmen, a crew of thieving mechanics. Bernice, chalk-limbed and with obsidian-black eyebrows, begins a chant of rebellion. And so, the prisoners of the Ghostland rally, before marching on Samurai Town to depose the evil Governor.

Forgive me if I am telephoning in this review, but I was up until almost two o’clock this morning and arose shortly after six. Though rendering me useless for almost anything else, this primed me perfectly for Sion Sono’s latest, Prisoners of the Ghostland. Having snaked its way through the festival circuit all this past year (thank you very much, Covid, for keeping me from covering this at Fantasia…), this oddity has finally hit a handful of screens as well as pay-to-stream services. Under-slept and over-caffeinated, I watched, intermittently overcome with awe, perplexion, and hearty guffaws.

“They helped me because I am radioactive.” Even within the confines of this film, the line makes no sense. There is a permeating sense that something deeper is going on here: the growing flashbacks of a robbery gone wrong, the strange drawl-stilted speechifying by the white-suited baddie the Governor, the analogue slide show—narrated by a Greek chorus of the dregs of humanity—recounting the horrific crash between a truck full of convicts and a truck full of nuclear waste. There are moments of surreal whimsy, as when a hail of bullets cracks open a gumball dispenser, its candy-coated contents clattering in slow-motion throughout the carnage; or when Nicolas Cage’s “Hero” catches a burnt-out football helmet and busts out his gravedigger audition for Hamlet. Yes, the minds behind this story aimed for a much-too-muchness, half hitting the mark, half sputtering into the fizzly “What the?” of miscalibration.

I should be slapping the “Recommended” tag on this; I should have had my “Must See!” entreaty swatted aside by more reasonably-minded site administrators. However, as much as I enjoyed watching Prisoners of the Ghostland, it suffers from one or more of the following: too much incoherency, not enough incoherency, too much crazy, and not enough crazy. Nicolas Cage, as always, delivers; but his too much is only mostly enough. Its Sergeo Leoneciousness borders on Jodorowskity, but never quite makes the final leap. As a movie, Prisoners falls short, constituting merely a wacky, weird exercise in eccentricity and nuclear-samurai-symbolism; but in memory, I have little doubt it shall blossom into a strange patchwork of giddily campy memories of a Hero, played by Nicolas Cage, whose force of will makes me believe that he is, indeed, radioactive.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No movie with Nicolas Cage, directed by the wonderfully weird Japanese director Sion Sono, should be this taxing, drawn out, and plainly boring…  Cage and Sono are truly kindred nutcases: they are artists who do not question themselves, and while they have a sense of humor stranger than we can comprehend, they are too sincere for irony. But ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland’ is truly just a beginning; a false start to what should, and still could be one of the greatest cinematic collaborations since sound met motion.”–Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)

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“The most dangerous film ever made.”–Roar promotional materials

“Never work with children or animals.”–

DIRECTED BY: Noel Marshall

FEATURING: Noel Marshall, , , Kyalo Mativo

PLOT: A family runs a wildlife conservation habitat for lions, tigers, leopards, and various exotic wildlife, struggling to coexist peacefully with the animals while maintaining a funding grant.

Still from Roar (1981)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Roar is a movie that breaks all the rules, including our standards here. The movie itself, on paper, isn’t weird at all. What’s bizarre is the extraordinary circumstances of its making. With a cast of dozens of untrained and barely-half-tamed big cats, unscripted scenes with actors actually getting attacked and bleeding real blood, and the shocking commitment of the crew beyond all limits of sanity, Roar earns its place next to vérité oddities like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Nobody will be crazy enough to make another movie like this again, so there will always be exactly one Roar.

COMMENTS: Roar is the story of a wildlife refuge for exotic animals, particularly those from the African plains, tended by a family with a heavy “live in harmony with nature” message. If that was all we told you, you might expect this to be a specimen from the mid-1970s slew of mediocre G-rated theater spam of the same ilk, family pictures like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams or The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (from Sunn Classic Pictures and Pacific International Enterprises, respectively). And that is probably the original intent behind Roar (1981), but then things went… wrong.

As the opening titles proudly remind us, no animals were harmed in the making of this movie. But seventy members of the cast and crew were. This only counts the injuries requiring hospital treatment; Hedren later admitted in interviews that the injury total was closer to a hundred or more. Highlights include cinematographer Jan de Bont (lion attack, 220 stitches to the scalp), Tippi Hedren (elephant attack, fractured leg and head injuries), Noel Marshall ( multiple feline attacks, numerous injuries, hospitalized with blood poisoning and gangrene), and John Marshall (lion attack, 56 stitches). Injuries or not, most of the takes with an attack in them ended up in the final film cut. Understandably, staff turnover was brisk, including one incident where twenty members of the production crew walked off the set all at once. Melanie Griffith also left at one point, telling her mother Hedren “I don’t want to come out of this with half a face.” She had a change of heart and returned to complete her role, whereupon she promptly almost lost half her face (lion attack, 100+ stitches and facial reconstructive surgery).

On paper, the story is a big yawn. Patriarch Hank (Noel Marshall) Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)

CAPSULE: PERDITA DURANGO (1997)

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AKA Dance with the Devil

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rosie Perez, , Aimee Graham, Harley Cross,

PLOT: Perdita Durango teams up with Santeria priest/bank robber Romeo to transport a truckload of fetuses to Las Vegas, kidnapping a couple of college kids along the way for fun.

Still from Perdita Durango (1997)

COMMENTS: Sexy leads Rosie Perez and . Alex de la Iglesia directing with a mid-range budget. Barry “Wild at Heart” Gifford co-scripting from his own novel. Small parts played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and .

From this assemblage of talent, you’d predict an unqualified gonzo masterpiece. But, although it has its fans, Perdita Durango‘s results are qualified, at best. True, the film is wild and unhinged: any movie with black market fetuses as a plot point has got some impudent imagination going for it. The problem is that Perdita Durango and Romeo Dolorosa aren’t sympathetic outlaws like Sailor and Lula from Wild at Heart, or the sinful-but-valiant trio of de la Iglesia’s previous outing, Day of the Beast. They’re unrepentant sociopaths, in the vein of Mickey and Mallory, but lacking those characters’ satirical edge. That leaves de la Iglesia trying to navigate a dangerous border between black comedy and grindhouse nihilism; and although the movie work in spurts, he never gets the difficult tone flowing just right.

The big problem is the rape scene that happens fairly early on. It’s one thing to rob banks, or even to plan to eat your victims in a Santeria ritual—those are understandable, forgivable movie crimes, motivated by greed and misplaced mystical beliefs. But this sadistic violation is motivated by pure meanness, and Perdita and Romeo can never quite recover our affection. The script only compounds that problem when, instead of offing the dead weight after their cannibal ritual is foiled, Perdita and Romeo let their blonde collegiate kidnap victims tag along for the rest of their spree. Their neglect in ruthlessly killing these two is totally out of character, and seems transparently motivated by narrative interests—giving the criminals someone to talk to other than each other, providing opportunities for suspense from the teens’ escape attempts, and maybe even granting Perdita some kind of unearned character growth—rather than any sort of logic.

And that’s a shame, because Perdita Durango has a lot of cool pieces that could have cohered into a fun movie: Javier Bardem’s Aztec mullet. Random Herb Alpert music scattered throughout. Genuine sexual chemistry between Perez and Bardem. Santeria rituals involving snorting obscene amounts of coke and tossing hearts at the wall while Screamin’ Jay wails in the background. A jaguar dream sequence. But alas, when there’s no one in the movie to root for, and not enough humor (or weirdness) to compensate for the depravity, it’s all for naught.

Normally, I would blame the distributors for cutting the film by ten controversial minutes, retitling it Dance with the Devil, and barely releasing it at all—but this project was a mess from the beginning. It was originally to be directed by Bigas Luna, with Madonna, Victoria Abril, , , and all variously attached before dropping out. Four writers worked on the screenplay. Dialogue slips from Spanish to English (heavily accented, often difficult to understand English, in Bardem’s case). Overall, the production was unsettled, and the chaotic, underwhelming results were almost to be expected. Bardem would go on to better things, Barry Gifford would again collaborate with on Lost Highway, and de la Iglesia would bounce back; but this is something of a low point for most everyone involved. Nevertheless, thanks to Severin films and their 2021 Blu-ray release for rescuing this early de la Iglesia film from oblivion.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] kinetic and bizarre journey through the dark underworld of wild debauchery, reckless abandon, and Santeria.”–Jason Buchanan, All Movie Guide

(This movie was nominated for review [as Dance with the Devil] by “StarWanderer.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE: JUSTICE IS GRAY (2021)

‘s Justice League: Justice Is Gray (2021) is four-hours (!) of sullen macho masturbation that drains away whaever minuscule color and joy were left in the DC deities. The title is half-apt; look elsewhere for justice, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more epically gray landscape of Fascistic mediocrity.  While the Snyder/Whedon Justice League (2017) was an understandably lopsided affair, it at least had a few affecting moments.

Zack Snyders Justice League: Justice is Gray (2021)Like the Mango Mussolini cult, Snyder’s fan base heaps their rabid obsessions on the least deserving object of adulation. While HBO Max’s Justice League had strong viewership on its premiere, it eventually got knocked out of the public consciousness when the ape and lizard started strutting their stuff. In a 2 plus 2 equals eight moment, a faction of Snyder disciples made like QAnon (or like Snyder’s Taliban, or Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door—take your pick) to review bomb Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) on IMDB, revealing their barrel-dwelling lunacy. Snyder himself came out of his narcissistic closet, mantling his best Dotard impersonation, thanking his believers for sharing the dream.

Snyder epitomizes macho movie-making for low-demanding pubescents. There’s nothing authentically masculine or aesthetically competent in his Triumph of the Will for the funny papers. Some critics have heaped praise on it, pontificating about its better sense of depth. No, that’s merely excessive exposition from characters that have gone from symbolic (and vulnerable) heroes of justice to two-dimensional combatants, straight out of a soulless Transformer movie, who will eventually team up against a big black shiny villain named Darkseid (Ray Porter) who makes for one of the most personality-bankrupted antagonists in all of cinema.

Wonder Woman () is portrayed in sharp contrast to her character in ‘ films (and although WW 84 is flawed, it’s considerably better than this excrement). She’s merely a video byte here and the only time she manages to emit any light is when she kills (yup, she kills).

The Flash (Ezra Miller, who pales next to Grant Guston) provides the 7th grade humor. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) provides the yawn-inducing macho one-liners, variations of quips we’ve heard in hundreds of action pics. Batman (Ben Affleck, delivering a white trash portrayal of the Dark Knight, repeatedly seen riding a horse) channels Terminator‘s talk of “the looming war” in a banal landscape that literally zaps out all the color that Whedon infused into it. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, as a digital blob) compete with Darkseid for dullest characterizations. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) waxes wide-eyed, hand-wringing desperation awaiting the resurrection of Superman (Henry Cavill). One would think a literal resurrection would be accompanied by bells, whistles, and a jubilee. Nope. You see, these mother boxes… just don’t ask.

Our “heroes” (i.e., nationalist deities), step down from a Nintendo Mount Rushmore and stand in the drab, ashen horizon. Checking the watch here, one might be thankful for the finale. Nope. That was just a teaser, because there’s epilogues galore to come, all of which practically announce the sequels (which apparently are not not going to happen and/or will be Hack Snyderless).

This four-hour masturbation orgy doesn’t offer anything vital that we didn’t receive in its 2017 forerunner. That one was no great shakes, but it’s tolerable compared to this sadomasochism dictated by mob rule. While the Snyder cultists didn’t physically storm the Capitol, they did storm the studio demanding their prophet the chance to spew his unabridged sermon. Now, they’re toxically flooding social media demanding a “restoration of the Snyderverse.” You can’t make this shit up.

CAPSULE: DEAD END DRIVE-IN (1986)

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DIRECTED BY: Brian Trenchard-Smith

FEATURING: Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford

PLOT: After two of his tires are jacked at a drive-in theatre, Jimmy finds himself trapped in the car lot with his girlfriend and hundreds of society’s rejects.

COMMENTS: It’s a glorious thing to randomly stumble into a movie and find out that it’s Australian. This pleasant surprise was augmented by an error on the part of the video streaming service, which claimed that Dead End Drive-In was from 2011. I was awed at how the filmmakers had captured everything about New Wave dystopian aesthetics a quarter century after the fact. When I saw the copyright date at the end of the credits I was somewhat disappointed, but also relieved. (“That makes a whole lot more sense,” my brain acknowledged.) Still and all, it Brian Trenchard-Smith’s “ozploitation” picture is a helluva lotta fun.

Trenchard-Smith was the brains behind Turkey Shoot, another “society collapses, and here’s a mess of violence” film, set in the post-apocalyptic year 1997. It hasn’t gotten as bad by the time Dead End Drive-In takes place, but it’s getting there. Jimmy (Ned Manning) is a wiry weenie of a guy who wishes his rough, tough brother would let him in on his lucrative towing business. Car parts are a hot commodity, so whenever a car gets smashed up, the first wrecker on the scene gets the bounty. Jimmy borrows his brother’s ’57 Chevy to take his sheila to the Star Drive-In for a movie and sex, during which the passenger-side wheels are swiped. Jimmy is informed by the fatherly drive-in operator that, no, he’s not going anywhere. Ever.

The misfit milieu found within this open-air prison (which doubles, nightly, as a drive-in theatre) is everything one could hope for from a mid-’80s assemblage of the best deadbeats society has on offer. Transvestites, drug users, vandals, welfare bums… I put these all in the same list not to cast any particular judgment or insinuate moral comparability, but because they all fit in the slot that button-down 80s traditionalists would consider “undesirable.” However, they’ve formed a raucous-but-welcoming society within this prison. There are occasional brawls, sure, but there’s a camaraderie, as evidenced by the freely intermingling coteries and the pick-up games of cricket.

Dead End Drive-In‘s camera work is worlds better than should be expected for a B-movie actioner. An early foreshadowing shot of a jogging Jimmy beautifully frames him behind a chainlink fence, the center demarcated by two perfectly placed tail-fin cars. The “Star Drive-In” first appears in a postcard-worthy frame. And a low shot of a police van approaching a cockerel on the lot captures the startled bird as it is flanked by the moving vehicle tires.

My one criticism of the film would be its strangely shoe-horned social commentary. When a convoy of Asian prisoners arrives at the drive-in, the locals immediately get riled up and speechify about the intruders. Obviously the director is trying to say something, but it’s both a little unclear (is all “white trash” racist?) and over-the-top (everyone but our hero immediately goes from zero to vicious in their racist mania). Regardless, Dead End Drive-In is a wonderful diversion filled with New Wave classics, gratifying camerawork, and Australians.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a doozy of an Ozploitation piece packaged with crazy characters, bizarre situations and solid action.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (Blu-ray)

(This movie was nominated for review by “dirty_score.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: EMPIRE OF THE DARK (1990)

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DIRECTED BY: Steve Barkett

FEATURING: Steve Barkett, Christopher Barkett, Tera Hendrickson, John Henry Richardson,

PLOT: A bounty hunter haunted by the memory of an old flame who was killed by a Satanic cult swings into action twenty years later to bring them to justice and solve the remaining puzzles.

Still from Empire of the Dark (1990)

COMMENTS: The first thing you will notice about Empire of the Dark is that it’s a passion project by writer/director/star Steve Barkett, he of only two directing and three production credits. But give it a chance. Barkett is at the opposite end of the shoestring auteur spectrum from the likes of Neil Breen. Barkett is self-aware, has a sense of humor, and places the audience first. He has every opportunity to turn his story into an ego fulfillment fantasy, but cheerfully writes his script with a female character turning down his advances just to deconstruct that trope. Every decision he makes is based on producing the most entertaining movie possible, given his limited means. Even though Empire of the Dark is a low-budget production with plenty of rough edges, it is by far the best budget vanity project your humble reviewer has ever watched. You can even riff on the silly parts. Recall my rule about distinguishing brainless movies from stupid movies. This is one of the brainless, fun ones.

We open on a Satanic cult hiding out in a cave which is accessed by a portal in the wall of a house. Blades aloft, cultists are about to sacrifice both a woman, Angela (Tera Hendrickson), and her baby on the same altar. Enter our hero Richard Flynn (Barkett), who fights his way through the fanatics, making it to the altar with one bullet left. Two cultists are bringing their knives down on two victims, so he has to choose. Angela screams at him to save her baby; Richard obliges by shooting one executioner and rescuing the kid, running away with him in his arms even as Angela meets her fate. 20 years later, that baby grows up to be Terry Nash, returned to town with a mysterious photo of the cult leader and some news that the Satanists are behind a present-day string of murders deemed the “demon slasher” case. Meanwhile, Angela appears to Flynn in dream sequences, to get good use out of that fog machine.

What follows is a swashbuckling yarn as Flynn, an unlikely action beefcake who knows exactly how out of shape he is, shoots and stabs his way through bad guys. This will take him through a painfully amateur and yet thrilling pursuit within a small-town grocery store, an ambush in the woods from sword-wielding cultists dispatched with exactly one bullet each, and ultimately back to the foam-rock caves of the cult’s lair to confront them and a testy summoned demon. Flynn’s sidekick in this quest is local cop Eddie Green (John Henry Richardson), who plays it hilariously straight as a hard-boiled stereotype who is not the least bemused by demon-summoning Renaissance-fair rejects. Consultations with a nun and a psychic take just long enough to drop a clue, throw in some ham, and move on to the next body-count scene. While the dialog is hokey, with the occasional glib line, there is mercifully little of it. The pace jogs along nicely, with just enough reflective inter-action palette cleansers to allow you to catch your breath. Even though the gins never run out of ammo and can be blessed by the local clergy in preparation for taking down Satanists, Flynn and his team will sometimes abandon them for swords.

While Steve Barkett isn’t exactly a major talent, as a producer he has a talent for spending the money where it counts. Empire of the Dark is chock full of ballsy stunts, cheesy late-80s monster-madness special effects, and a full orchestral score which punctuates the whole movie with a trite, but ear-friendly, action soundtrack. Cinematography is on point and the shooting location (which I’m guessing is in the U.S, Northwest?) does it many favors. Just be advised, it still gets silly! Every cultist is dressed in an identical Dollar Tree hooded robe and mask costume. One after another, they die like flies, yet there seems to be thousands of them, like a video game level you can’t clear. The big bad demon is sometimes a puppet and sometimes stop-motion animated. The fake blood is played by what appears to be dainty smears of raspberry jam. Vast plot holes are never explained. But this movie doesn’t care beans whether you’re cheering it or laughing at it, as long as it kept you amused.

Let’s not kid ourselves: this is the exact movie all of us would have liked to make when we were 14 years old. Empire of the Dark is best served with a bag of Halloween candy and an ice-cold Mountain Dew. The fact that this movie is not better known, even as a cult weird-o fan favorite, is flabbergasting. But that’s life when you’re a vanity project.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Enveloped by an exceedingly melodramatic and non-stop symphonic score, and peppered with delirious optical effects and endearing stop-motion monsters, Empire of the Dark is a trampoline of a movie, repeatedly reaching its ambition before hilariously tumbling down into sublime silliness.”–Laser Blast Film Society

(This movie was nominated for review by “Penguin” Pete Trbovich, whom stumbled upon it thanks to a lucky random Tumblr click. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: VERSUS (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ryûhei Kitamura

FEATURING: , Hideo Sakaki, Chieko Misaka

PLOT: Two escaped convicts make their way to the location where gangsters are supposed to pick them up; double-crosses follow, complicated by the fact that the rendezvous spot is a mystical forest where the dead quickly return to life.

Still from Versus (2000)

COMMENTS: Although there’s a token plot involving a gate to Hell and reincarnation, Versus is basically nonstop dopey comic book violence, choreographed by filmmakers who don’t care as much about logic as they do about making sure the actors look cool while shooting zombies. From about the ten-minute mark until the credits roll after two hours, the movie  is one long melee, with a few pauses to catch its breath.

Because the dead pop right back up as zombies here in the “resurrection forest,” there’s seldom a lack of victims; if the script temporarily runs short of bodies, it just brings in another platoon of yakuza or cops from off-screen and the killing starts again. The cast is so large that you lose track of who’s killed who, and how many times. Sometimes it only takes one bullet to take down a zombie; sometimes twenty are needed. For variety’s sake there’s ample kickboxing, knife fights, some kind of combination machine gun/bazooka, and samurai swords pulled out for the final showdown. The violence is often played for grossout laughs—Evil Dead II is a big influence here—with heart-eating, a bad guy who can punch straight through heads, and eyeballs stuck on the ends of fingers. More conventional comic relief comes in a cowardly yakuza, and there’s also a tiresome running gag where the hero keeps knocking the heroine unconscious. The mythology motivating the massacre is serviceable, the leads look good, and the action is sold in bulk. And that’s about it.

In hindsight, Versus is not an incredibly weird film, although the mix of samurai, yakuza, zombies, and nonstop gore was novel at the time. The movie was significant as a proto- film, however. Not only did it launch the career of cult action star and subgenre icon Tak Sakaguchi, but it’s also the first screenwriting credit for , who would go on to mix the absurd violence found here with -style body horror in Meatball Machine (2005) to launch the line of bioweapondry-obsessed B-movies that grew increasingly ridiculous throughout the early 21 century.

Arrow Video’s 2021 “Limited Edition” Blu-ray is another Criterion-quality set from the specialty releaser, with numerous extras and a second disc housing the “Ultimate Edition” of Versus. This 131-minute cut provides an additional 11 minutes of fighting footage that was newly shot in 2003. If you’re surprised that they went back to the forest to film even more fight scenes, rather than some extra exposition or character development, then you’re probably not in the target audience for Ultimate Versus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Kitamura’s gonzo flick is overstuffed to the point of nausea, its barrage of gory outrageousness becoming wearisome after the first fifty fatal mutilations…”–Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Martin,” who described it as a “Japanese gangster, zombie, martial arts, apocalypse movie. Mind blowing.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)