Monday, July 9, 2012


For a long time this was only one of those movies I only had vague recollections of seeing late at night on TBS or TNT as a kid.  I always dropped in on it randomly, just in time to catch the classic samurai fighting cops in urban Los Angeles. Those scenes really haunted me, and I’d periodically describe what I did remember to friends with the hope that it might seem familiar to someone else who might even remember the title. Years later, while digging through the stock room at Gamefellas, I chanced upon a Vestron Video tape which had a surprisingly great oil-painted cover and a description that rang a bell. Sure enough, "Ghost Warrior” (a.k.a. "Swordkill") was the film I’d seen so many years ago as a kid.

Going into this, all really I remembered was the situation, and nothing about how this Samurai from the 1500s winds up in 1980s Los Angeles, so this was a fresh experience for me. All I really knew was that if this movie didn’t somehow have a sushi bar scene I was going to be pissed. I was not disappointed.

The movie begins with a prologue which takes place in feudal Japan, where we are introduced to noble samurai Yoshimitsu in the midst of rescuing his lover from some heavies on horseback. Yoshimitsu winds up dueling for his woman and wins. But these dudes are jerks without honor so he ends up with an arrow in his shoulder, which sends him toppling off a cliff and into the icy waters below.

Flash ahead to the 80s, where a couple of hikers happen open Yoshimitsu perfectly preserved in a block of ice. You’d think this would be a major discovery, but somehow the samurai winds up in the clutches of a private American corporation who intend to thaw him out for television appearances. Not really, but they never really let you in on why they’re so interested in this centuries-old warrior.

The corporation also hires Chris Welles (the lovely Janet Julian), an expert in oriental culture to serve as a sort of mediator. Chris doesn’t speak Japanese well, but that doesn’t matter since Yoshimitsu’s dialect is s dated that it hardly resembles modern Japanese. This is a particularly intelligent twist one would not expect to find in a production of this caliber, but it is much to the film’s credit. Still, even though she doesn’t speak his language, Chris is well versed in samurai custom, allowing her to communicate with the warrior once he’s off ice.

There’s always a point where things go to hell in these kinds of movies, though, and in this case it comes in the form of an orderly whom you can tell really likes to party hard. You need cash flow to party really hard, though, and so he decides to snag Yoshi’s invaluable antique sword. Instead, he winds up getting his ass stabbed. Frightened, Yoshimitsu flees while security is too busy watching W.A.S.P. videos.

From there, we get Yoshimitsu wandering the streets of Los Angeles, where he is oddly low profile alongside all the other weirdo punk rockers and winos. This portion of the film is sadly too short, which is unfortunate because watching him slice through contemporary thugs is easily the film's greatest reward.

The film’s final quarter drags a bit as Chris attempts to harbor the samurai. They never really come out and have them fuck, instead merely imply infatuation between the two characters, which is a wasted opportunity. Worst of all, the film's ending makes makes the entire affair pointless. If anything, I was hoping for more vigilante style squashes featuring the samurai and some Death Wish-style hooligans. Instead, they wrap it up, bummer style.

There’s still some goodness to this Empire Pictures production, though I wouldn’t exactly say it’s in their top tier of ass-kickers. Richard Band actually produced one of his finest scores for this film, and even though it drags a bit, the film’s finale certainly feels of a larger scale than most other Empire productions. Performance-wise, the charismatic Hiroshi Fujioka (Kamen Rider) absolutely commands as Yoshimitsu. Aside from the plot holes, a horrible narrative track from Janet, and a lame payoff, there’s enough good to make this watchable and worth owning.

This was apparently available on DVD in both Germany and in Japan as part of a box set, though both were very limited in terms of their release, and both go for way too much money now. 


Today, Highland Mall in Austin Texas is only a former shell of what was once a hub of activities during the 80s. Now, only thirty percent of its spaces are occupied by commerce, and that is shrinking every day. Seriously, it has all the vibrancy of a rest home. No one’s really sure what’s happening with the place either. Management has made some pretty bizarre attempts to keep the place alive by renting it out for quinceaneras and teen fashion shows. Upstairs, they even let some shyster run a Saturday night variety show in the space that used to be some clothing store for fat ladies. Get this, the food court fucking serves beer! Even though this place is clearly struggling, whenever someone’s lease runs out they refuse to let the business re-sign. They even hedged out Dillard’s, which has since become a fucking FEMA headquarters! Just bad decision after bad decision has bent this once-great mall over a rail, and fused it in place. In fact, this place is so ravaged that I have taken to affectionately referring to it as "Wasteland Mall."

One of the last hold outs at Highland is a store called Gamefellas, a surprisingly large store that resells games for various obsolete systems as well as DVDs. They also have a wall of VHS toward the back along with a limited number of laserdiscs. When I first discovered them, I was shocked to find a number of old Paragon tapes still shrink wrapped.

I fast became the weird and probably only guy who bought tapes. I’d routinely spend 20 to 50 bucks at their store while the clerk shown a smirk like they were selling me a bridge to Manhattan. Eventually, the manager mentioned that they had several huge sheds full of tapes and he told me if I bought more that they’d continue to replenish the shelves. Apparently, during the PS2 days, Gamefellas ran a promotion, where if you brought in 100 VHS tapes for trade you could get a brand new PlayStation 2. They’d then go on to retail the tapes for 5 bucks a pop. Eventually, interest in their tape section waned, and they wound up stuck with hundreds of tapes – some of which were quite rare.

After several years, they stopped putting out new tapes, and before I’d walk out empty handed I would ask the manager if he’d consider letting me into those sheds he’d mentioned. Each time, he’d ask for my number and tell me he’d think about it. This same song and dance went on for five years – until last month.

I decided to take my friend Blake to Highland Mall, as I really enjoy watching people react to this absolutely desolate and depressing environment. Blake’s response would be the best since he used to go to the mall during its actual hey-day. The contrast was pretty stark for him, and he kept muttering, “dude, this is brutal.” Truly, if you’re looking for deals at Highland, turn right around. However, if you’re looking for a mall to kill yourself in, this is the place.

Before we took off though I decided I’d yank Blake out of the darkness and end on a brighter note by checking out Gamefellas. As I walked in, the manager and I connected eyes, and he said, “I’m about to make you a very happy man.”
                I asked, “Oh, yeah?”
                “Oh, yeah,” he said, “I actually lost your number and was hoping you’d come in here. We restocked the VHS, and we have a ton of other stuff in the back. I don’t do this for everybody, but you’ve been waiting like five years for this, so I’ll let you grab whatever you want.”

Within a few minutes, Blake and I had started sweating profusely with the fever of a mania as we hunkered between narrow steel cage shelves in the back of the store, pulling gem after gem from the shelves. For however oppressive the atmosphere at Highland Mall is, it was worth trudging through the despair to get to this exact treasure.

I walked away with around 60 tapes, including shockingly pristine stuff from the likes of Video Gems, Paragon, Media, and even Unicorn. Meanwhile, Blake broke the bank at 112 tapes.  Truly, this was a honey hole of the gods.

Here are just a few of the titles I snagged that day:

The moral of the story is that you just never know where you're going to find the next great hall. It could happen anywhere. You might find pure gold on some podunk gas station's spinner rack next to a Ray Stevens cassette display. Or even at some shitty estate sale. Or yes, even a video game store in a mall. You just never know, so keep your eyes peeled. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


We've all seen films with a protagonist who is recently released from an asylum and haunted by visions that can't be explained. This film follows the standard conventions of that subgenre but uses the familiar story as a means to delve into domestic misery and present a damning indictment of alcohol abuse.

The lead character is Karen Nichols, a recently recovering alcoholic, who moves into a new home in LA with her husband Al. They are attempting to make a fresh start but Karen is having disturbing visions of a brutal decapitation. The film frequently moves in and out of psychedelic sequences which allow us to see Karen's visions first-hand. The plot presents a variety of unusual supporting characters whose motives we are supposed to question but the primary focus of the film is actually the destructive power of alcohol on the family unit. Karen's husband can't trust her and suspects that her hallucinations are brought on by drinking. Most films would use the device of the murderous premonitions to create tension in an otherwise healthy household but the dynamic between the central couple is awkward and unloving from the very beginning. The scenes between them in the home are all fraught with the uncomfortable knowledge that the bond between them has been obliterated by problems they've experienced before the film began. Alcohol has eroded their trust and destroyed the strength of their relationship. Given Al's total disregard for Karen's situation and feelings it is possible to believe that they never would have married in the first place if she had been sober. 

Very little money seems to have been spent on the movie and it appears to be a late 70's production despite the video box reporting the release year as 1982. There are occasional bursts of blood which have the color and consistency of house paint. The sets and costumes all have the distinct look of having been purchased second hand. It is impossible to say whether or not the film was always intended to be a heavy-handed, moralistic condemnation of alcoholism but that is what one takes away from the experience regardless. It is worth a viewing if for no reason other than it its unique spin on old tropes. The Prism video release has a bizarre and highly misleading cover showing a woman with a forked, serpent-like tongue snaking out at you from a menacing sky. Nothing like this happens in the movie and you may find yourself wishing it did.


Here we have the lone starring vehicle for vocal trio Hot (Gwen Owens, Cathy Carson and Juanita Curiel). The ladies of the group meet in prison and discover a shared musical talent they aim to pursue after exiting the big house. The post-jailhouse story is an unwieldy melding of "rise to the top" music industry journey and engine revving "chase-sploitation" flick. The jokes remain resolutely low-brow while the cast tries to keep up with the constant schizophrenic tonal shifts. The plot involves the band running afoul of a judge, sheriff and parole officer in the town of Pitts, where their performing career begins. Our heroines pull pranks, perform songs and race up and down the highways of the heartless American desert.

The film is more entertaining than one might expect and the members of Hot seize their moment in the spotlight with delight. They have an easy charm and cozy familiarity with one another that makes it up onto the screen. The car stunts are more than competent for the budget class the film was made within although it never gets quite as reckless as most of the better known gearhead movies of the period. It is forgiveable though because the creative forces behind the scenes have the good sense to keep things moving quickly and cut to a rousing music number if things start to stall out. No matter how sloppy or inconsistent things get you are never bored and that is more than one can hope for with most large-scale Hollywood product.

The stand-out in the cast is American treasure Hy Pike in the dual roles of Bartender and Used Car Salesman. The characters can be distinguished from one another by the different outrageous facial hair Mr. Pike sports as each of the men. The Bartender has a giant fake mustache while the Used Car Salesman has an oversized wig and full beard piece. Other than those obvious superficial differences the characters are fairly similar, both played with the kind of manic, unhinged energy Pike brought to every job he landed. Easily the most spastic actor in film history, you get the sense that there is a terrible beast within him threatening to claw out of its fleshy, human cage at any moment. In a better world there would be a statue erected to pay tribute to this important if undignified artist.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Those who passionately care for this film herald it as a sign of its times, and they might be right. After all, there is no other period in American culture as vapid and hollow as the 90s. There is virtually nothing salvageable here. It's not even so bad it's good. It's a total air sandwich. I know in the past I have said that very rarely are films born without a shred of redemption, and I still stand by that. However, “Side Out” is the anomaly that defies that standard. Almost every aspect of this movie is damaged. The story sucks, the characters are unlikable, and the soundtrack is horrible. Now, I understand, there are some people who will say, “You don’t understand. This came out right about the time I was getting big into volley ball.” To which I must reply with, “Shut the fuck up. No one was ever really into volley ball.” Seriously, was volley ball ever even a thing? I thought that was just some game that nudists played.

The seeds for this movie were most likely contained within that one oiled-up scene from “Top Gun.” In fact, they go so far as to crucify the connection to its audience’s skull by utilizing Kenny Loggins’ “Playing With The Boys” during a tournament montage. Way to jump on the 1986 phenomenon at the height of its momentum in 1990, dickheads. Sadly, this film never goes anywhere near the homoerotic apex of its source, which is one of the film’s main failings. Basically, it’s just not gay enough.

In “Side Out,” C. Thomas Howell plays douchebag Monroe Clark, a mid-western basketball player and law scholar, who’s in California for the Summer to work for his hot-shot litigator Uncle Max (Terry Kiser virtually reprising his Bernie Lomax role here). Monroe is immediately handed the shit task of serving eviction notices, which leads him to the slums of Venice beach. It is there that he becomes entangled with dead beat evictee/former king of the beach Zach Barnes played by Peter Horton, falls for tomato-headed Courtney Thorne Smith, and gets wrangled into playing volley ball on a semi-professional level even though he shows absolutely no inclination toward being good at it.

Initially, Barnes starts coaching Monroe’s team under the condition that he stall his Uncle Max from evicting him by conveniently misplacing paper work back at the office, but then a bunch of stupid shit happens which forces Zach and Monroe to team up for a big tournament.

You may be asking how a box that promises such a bounty of greatness could possibly come up so short, what with the huge ass and C Thomas Howell. There’s a load of potential that was screaming to be harvested, but they spiked the ball here. Instead of anything remotely entertaining, we get an overly complicated vanilla story-line filled with unlikable characters. Everyone is an asshole in this movie, and their failures are pretty much the only thing worth cheering. Each character is a hackneyed mess without integrity, and yet still so bland. No character utters any line of worth anywhere in this movie. A huge part of why they are all so despicable is because they are so goddamn banal.

 As mentioned before, Monroe never really shows any natural athletic ability, even though he is supposed to be some big-shit college basketball player. In fact, he gets his ass handed to him up until he teams up with Peter Horton’s thoroughly loathsome Zach Barnes character.

A little back story here: Barnes was at one time the king of the beach who no-showed a big league tournament, simultaneously destroying his career and fucking over some volley ball promoter who was in love with him I guess. I don’t really know. I really had no will to care. Anyway, at some point Barnes offers to coach Monroe’s team and lead them to victory. After an uneventful montage, Barnes sets up an exhibition game between the new kings of the beach and Monroe’s loser team. The new kings of the beach also happen to be sponsored by the promoter that Barnes fucked over years ago. For some reason, the promoter shows up at Barnes’ house before this big match that means absolutely nothing and fucks him to waylay him from showing up to support his team, thus costing them the match. Only, they would have lost anyway because they are fucking terrible. When Monroe confronts Barnes, the coach is completely apathetic to his plight. Hurt and angry, Monroe then says he’s going to make sure he screws Barnes in court and hands him a summons for his eviction hearing. The next day in court, Barnes is pretty much S.O.L. until Monroe has a change of heart and decides to burn his uncle Max FOR NO APPARENT FUCKING REASON by revealing some loophole that frees Barnes of his obligation to be a responsible, rent-paying adult! And all after his uncle gave him a job in his law office, let him use the company car, and even gave him the keys to his multi-million dollar pool house! Yeah, way to be a prick! I’m really excited to see you win and get the girl, you fucking piece of shit!

Then there’s Courtney Thorne Smith, who is just god awful here. Her character has her fair share of illogical moments, but her performance compounds an already awful script. Pretty much every line she speaks in this movie is uttered in the tone one uses to convey sexual innuendo. Like, she might say “I’m going to go take a shit,” and yet she’d try to make it sound totally suggestive. Not that she ever says she’s going to go hit the brown note in the actual film. None of her dialog is actually that good.

I’ve already touched on this film’s lack of homoeroticism. Not only is this thing clean as a whistle on a surface level, but there’s nothing sleazy lurking beneath its cocoa buttered hide either. No fun at all ANYWHERE! In most 80s films, demonstrations of machismo or male bonding are so vigorous that they come off as totally queer. That’s what makes a film such as the 1987 classic “North Shore” so endlessly fascinating. I’ve seen that film almost fifty times, and I’m still mining homoerotic nuances from its depths. Another thing that “North Shore” also has is a much better subject – surfing. Surfing actually has a subculture of its own, much like skating. A surfer or a skater was distinct during this period because they dressed a certain way, they had jive, and they even had their own respective sub-genres of music. Volley ball on the other hand isn't attached to any particular culture, which is a major reason why this movie is so flavorless. The jargon, the fashion, and the music weren't considered very heavily, so ultimately we end up with a movie where a bunch of tanned douchebags listen to Paula Abdul while playing with balls. Yet somehow this movie still isn’t gay at all. What a paradoxical turd.

All you people heralding this as the greatest movie ever made, even if you’re just being ironic and funny, please, stop. You're only hurting yourselves.