Friday, February 22, 2013

WITCHTRAP (MAGNUM ENTERTAINMENT - 1989)


Do you like "Witchboard?"  Of course you do, who doesn't?  Well despite this film being written and directed by Kevin Tenney of Witchboard fame, this motion picture is NOT A SEQUEL TO "WITCHBOARD!"  You will be alerted to this by a notice on the back of the handsome Magnum slip cover as well as a warning at the beginning of the movie itself.  This warning immediately succeeds a trailer to... wait for it... Witchboard.  But it's not a sequel.

It is impossible to begin to review Witchtrap without first addressing the sound, which is entirely dubbed.  Despite the movie's humble budget, (which was spent mostly on explosions, melt effects and Linnea Quigley), it is definitely a movie that wouldn't ordinarily be dubbed.  VHS Summer's own Max Dropout has a bit of insight into this from when he screened this film last year and spoke with the director - he may be able to provide an addendum as to why the original audio was compromised.  It certainly limits its effectiveness as a horror movie, but it adds a great deal of comedic levity, especially the one-liners from the main characters. (We had to get Kevin to the airport fairly early the day after the "Witchboard" screening, but we had breakfast at IHOP on the way to the airport. I was still groggy, and had a mouthful of pancakes when we talked about the audio, so my memory might be slightly warped. I do remember him telling me that the audio was lost -- but part of me recollects him telling me that it was actually stolen, which makes it even weirder. Who the fuck steals the audio for a film? That's an ultimate dickhead move since you can't really do anything practical with it. - M.D.)

The plot of the film surrounds a haunted mansion and its heir, Devon Lauter, who is bound not to sell or demolish it by the will of his deceased uncle, Avery Lauter  He is trying to rid the place of the lingering spirit of his uncle so he can turn the place into a B&B, and he assembles a crew to do the job.  Half of the crew are metaphysical types, half are detectives paid to run security for the operation, and Linnea Quigley is the A/V tech (niiiice!). From the get-go, it's fairly obvious who's going to live and who's going to die.  The story has some interesting points and is executed fairly well with some nice effects, but it's not really the plot that makes this a fun watch, it's the visual style and dialogue.

The banter between the detectives is hilarious.  With lines like, "He may be a walking hard-on with feet, but he's a good detective", and, "I wouldn't drink that if I were you... it's as flat as my ex-wife's chest", there's no shortage of laughs to be had, even if the viewer is laughing at, not with, these characters.  The main character, Tony Vicente, is the best casting job in the movie, by far.  He carries this movie with his partner, Levi Jackson, and their buddy cop vibe works pretty well.  The psychic-type people are thoroughly annoying with their pomposity and crybaby antics.  You start to really wish they would just die in dramatic fashion, which makes a few kill scenes extra enjoyable.  The antics of the Deliverance-worthy groundskeeper, Elwin, are perfectly peppered into the mix to provide a change of pace.

Overall, this movie has maximum camp because of the dubbing and is an interesting (enough) story with an engaging (enough) main character.  It has competent special effects and is visually pleasing from a technical standpoint. It's an interesting little flick that, like the spirit trapped in Laughter Mansion, will be confined forever to VHS.  Floating somewhere in the late '80s between "Witchboard" and "Witchboard 2," and featuring scream queen Quigley, Witchtrap does well to live up to its tagline "This time, it's not a game"....   wait, "game"... like a Ouija board? Last time!?!  JEEZ, IT'S NOT A SEQUEL!!

Sadly this film has no YouTube presence in English, however...


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ODDBALLS (LIGHTNING VIDEO - 1984)


By nature, the rip-off is unapologetically cheap and undignified. It doesn't kid itself about what it is. It’s there to bank off of someone else’s already-successful mold. I’m not one of these guys who gives a shit about originality. I care way less about who did it first, and more about who did it BEST. Granted, there are some really lazy rip-offs out there, but there is such a thing as a good rip-off. The good rip-off strives without shame to clone and amplify the greatest elements of its predecessor, and sometimes the results can even surpass the original because it distills it down to only the best parts. I say, if theft results in someone making better use of whatever was taken then it is not a crime.

If you look to your left, there’s a whole lot of lure-fluff and hook. This is obviously trying to sell you Summer camp boner jam that took a bite off the “Meatballs” craze, and that’s a good thing. Still, I've been on my game a long time. I’m no stranger to the box art bait-and-switch. I've been hustled enough to know when someone is running a game on me, and the “Oddballs” box art tripped the alarm. Amid the camp setting, you have bikini babes, and camp councilors cheering on their buddy as he moves in for the kill. Hell, it even has “balls” in the title. Still, there was something suspiciously flat and generic about the overall composition of the art, and I was right to be wary. No one even remotely similar to any of these characters actually appears in the film, so if you’re hoping for something that’s on the “Last American Virgin” track, you can forget it. The protagonists are actually a pack of pre-teen boys, who are hell-bent on getting laid before being shipped back to their respective homes. Of course, the kids aren't really old enough to get into any truly raunchy trouble, but they are a refreshingly realistic stereotype of adolescent horniness, and some of the situations they get into are still suggestive.

There’s not much of a plot to report back, really. A bunch of savvy delinquents get shipped to Camp Bottomout, but their libido-driven hijinks are jeopardized late in the game when some asshole winds up purchasing the place for a future shopping complex. But much like any pack of dysfunctional family members who boast of their hatred for one another, when something threatens the sanctity of what is theirs they go to war to defend it.  It’s a story that’s been done to death over the years, and this is no fresh variation. Rather, it is a standing rack upon which tons of terrible jokes are piled to the point of near-collapse.

The first fifteen minutes of the film are amusingly mortifying. Right off the bat, it just reeks of definitively Canadian low-rent production values. It has the oppressive atmosphere of “The Kids of Degrassi Street,” which is endearing in some ways if you’re a fan of that sort of stuff. The gags are so cornball that they are almost surreal, but at the same time the writers have married into them a certain grim attitude. The meanness of the humor occasionally perforates the sophomoric surface like a shark fin, totally hinting at the dark force operating the bubbly, candy colored mascot suit from the inside.

A big piece of broken glass at the bottom of the kiddie pool comes in the form of comedian Foster Brooks, who plays kid-hating camp owner Hardy Bassett. Here, Foster plays a variation of the Lovable Lush persona which became popular on the talk show and variety hour circuit during the seventies. He toured and appeared with the Lush gimmick for years, but it was always considered comedy for the sophisticated adult market. One of the main points of genius to “Oddballs” is that the creators have taken the Lovable Lush, tacked on depression and suicidal tendencies, and PUT HIM IN CHARGE OF KIDS! 



At one point, Bassett is chastised by his daughter for hiring a convicted child molester to serve as one of the councilors before the film cuts to scene where a flamboyant homosexual has a heart attack while huffing poppers during his morning exercise drills with the kids. Topically, it’s a dark moment for something that was probably intended for a teen audience, but the humor which surrounds it comes in such broad strokes that it makes it palatable. The sharp edges are wrapped in soft stuff and that’s what makes this movie brilliant. 


While Brooks steals the show and plays the only characters with a real arch, the rest of the cast are likable enough to keep you invested. The movie is routinely accused of being bogged down with bad acting, but in the performances are in line with the goofball material. It's strong for the sort of acting that it is. There are some solid comedic performances here, particularly from the younger cast members. Even the production design is solid despite the low production values. While it’s definitely not as polished as “Meatlballs,” its intelligently mixed styles of humor easily make "Oddballs" the superior film.  If you don’t hold the fact that you won’t get the nudity-saturated sexual situations the box hints at, you’ll still be in for a strange and satisfying ride that delivers a few bawdy shots in spite of the kid cast.

For the total nerd out there, the script was penned by Ed Naha, who was also responsible for polarizing works such as "Troll," "Dolls," "Spellcaster," "Wizards of the Lost Kingdom," "C.H.U.D. II: Bud The Chud," and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!" That's a career!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

YOUNG WARRIORS (MGM/UA HOME VIDEO - 1983)


From the back of the original MGM/UA Home Video release:  “What do you get when you cross ‘Animal House’ with ‘Death Wish’? ‘Young Warriors’ – a unique combination of fraternity hijinks, high-speed action, wildly imaginative animation, and hard-drivin’ rock!”

About twice a year, I get some weird call from a company claiming that I won an automatic drawing, and that I have been selected to receive a speed boat, or some crap. Up front, I am totally into the idea, but when they tell me that all I have to do is come down to their warehouse and claim the prize, I automatically suspect it's just the cops trying to bust me for some awful thing I forgot I did twelve years ago. Now, the back of this box has the side show bark down. I was way intrigued by the idea of seeing Paul Kersey and John Blutarsky’s two-headed bastard kid. The proposal of such an unlikely meeting sounds amazing at first, but when you mull it over for a minute you realize you might be getting scammed. Well, since I wasn’t risking potential arrest, I jerked the curtain back, rushed in, and I am now very happy to report back to you fine people that this disgusting mutant baby is very real and not just a bunch of bullshit some yokel made out of paper mache to bilk you out of your money. This one is worth every penny!

Like I said, I was apprehensive that the box had written a check that was likely going to bounce hard, and I was even more skeptical when I realized this was directed by Lawrence David Foldes – a dude whose films are real hit-or-miss for me. While “Don’t Go Near The Park” is a total rager, Foldes was also responsible for the brutally crappy Linda Blair actioner “Night Force.” I was never as impressed by his work that had real money behind it. However, I walked away from “Young Warriors” with a new-found appreciation for the director. Calling this his best effort doesn't really convey how good a movie this is, as it towers high above his others. Granted, there are a few technical faux pas, but the action is rock solid, and it features some ideas that challenge the average rape/revenge mold.

"Young Warriors" tries to be many things, but it never worries about tastefully breaking down the wall of separation between all its elements. Other filmmakers might concern themselves with blending the college humor with the vigilante elements, so that everything feels congruous. Foldes doesn't give a shit about that, and that's why this movie is so great. There’s a satisfying mental whiplash when the film decides to shift gears, as one moment we’re treated to a hazing ritual where some guy is forced to shave his butt cheeks in order to garnish cocktails, and the next we’re getting run off the road in Rapesville U.S.A!  Instead of worrying about everything clashing, Foldes focuses on the quality and the effectiveness of the individual components. The comedy and the characters are good enough to have been from a great 80s sex comedy, while the action side is mean and gritty.

The story opens on a few light-hearted scenes which establish the bond between several characters as they make the jump from high school to college. Kevin Carrigan (played by lesser Van Patten, James) is our central character, inexplicably studying animation while running new pledges through a ringer. Following the vicious assault of his sister, Kevin has a hard time settling back into his usual antics. In fact, he becomes a violent dissident toward the college establishment and even his detective father for failing to bring his sister’s attackers to justice. Craving vengeance, Kevin and his frat brothers decide to form a vigilante squad, which prowls the city by night and (in theory) corrects injustices. However, they mostly just indirectly hurt innocent people in the process, or get their asses kicked. One of the most hilarious aspects of this “urban death squad” is that the frat house’s mascot – a poodle – rides shotgun for most of their patrols. These guys like the idea of justice, and they mean well, but for the most part these sheltered individuals don’t possess any real familiarity with real life violence. Instead, they're only upholding the idea of revenge as seen on TV and films, which does not mesh well with their reality. While our protagonists may have a noble cause, this is a film where the good guys really aren’t so good. In fact, they are contemptibly inept. This profound examination of vigilante violence was and still is very fresh, and is commonly overlooked by most of the film’s critics who discard it as shallow action fluff. There are some really wonderful ideas within the film, for which Foldes deserves more recognition.

Eventually, Kevin and his crew catch up with the guys responsible for the gang rape of his sister, and everything concludes in an unconventional and unhappy way. Foldes’ entire film not only questions Hollywood violence and the perceptions of law and humanity we derive from them, but his ending completely defies the usual clich├ęs you might expect from films of this nature.

Hardly enough of a fault to bring the film down is Kevin’s scantly-featured cop father, played by Ernest Borgnine, and partnered with Richard Roundtree. What little on-screen time they have leaves us wanting more, but that’s not a terrible thing. Other noteworthy appearances include Mike Norris, son of Chuck, as one of the frat boys-at-arms, the phenomenal Dick Shawn as an animation professor, and Linnea Quigley.