Thursday, February 27, 2014

Once Upon a Midnight Scary (1979)

... aka: CBS Library: 'One Upon a Midnight Dreary'
... aka: CBS Library: 'Vincent Price's 'Once Upon a Midnight Scary'
... aka: Once Upon a Midnight Dreary
... aka: Vincent Price's Once Upon a Midnight Scary

Directed by:
Nell Cox

Made for the series "CBS Library," this was an hour-long (about 47 minutes minus commercials) TV special featuring three short subjects culled from three different horror novels as well as linking segments featuring a sinister host who also narrates each story. It is geared directly toward children and the message is made abundantly clear throughout (with all the subtlety of being smacked in the face with a ruler): Read books, kids! In between the stories, which are basically short, anti-climactic portions of the source novels without any closure or ending to them, our master of ceremonies pops up to inform us that if we want to find out what happens, we must read the book. While I could see this possibly enticing kids to read back in the late 70s, if you tried this same technique nowadays a child would probably laugh in your face and then text "4get dat idiot 4 wantin me 2 reed sum st00pid azz ol book" to all their friends. The only thing about this that may pique the interest of an adult viewer (including yours truly) is the guy hosting this thing. You may have heard of him before... and if you haven't, I'm sorry to say we can no longer be friends. Just u 4get it punk!

So it goes without saying that one Vincent Price is clearly the chief drawing card and probably also the only reason this managed to get a video release in the first place. Price is his usual animated, enthusiastic self here. The guy can somehow manage to flick away an awful rubber bat whilst simultaneously bringing an air of class and sophistication to otherwise cornball productions such as this one. He's also one of the only people on the planet I'll let get away with lecturing me on reading after rising from a coffin with a goofy grin on his face. Price never says he's Vincent Price here. Instead, he calls himself "an expert on the terrors of the night" and turns out to be something a little less than human in a twist that even the juvenile target audience will see coming from a mile away. The three stories he's linking together are "The Ghost Belonged to Me" (based on the book by Richard Peck), "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (based on the book by Washington Irving) and "The House With a Clock in Its Walls" (based on the book by John Bellairs).

"Ghost" (which lasts about 8 minutes) centers around 13-year-old Alexander Armsworth (Christian Berrigan), who runs across the bratty Blossom Culp (Jessica Lynn Pennington) while out taking a walk. Blossom's mother is a psychic who claims that Alexander's barn has a "halo" over it and glows pink, which means it's haunted by the ghost of a young girl. Later that night, Alexander sees the barn glowing, meets the girl ghost (Alexandria Johnson) and then ends up stopping a bus from crossing a bridge right before it's washed away in a flood. The end. An unfortunate slice of "Sleepy Hollow" (also running less than 10 minutes) is up next. Awkward, geeky school teacher Ichabod Crane (Rene Auberjonois) is fighting handsome Brom Bones (Guy Boyd) for the affections of Katrina Van Tassel (Pamela Brown) before ending up being chased through a forest on horseback on a dark night by the legendary Headless Horseman (Robert Foster). Since this same story has been filmed in its entirety numerous times, this brings absolutely nothing new to the table aside from Auberjonois' over-the-top, flamboyant comic portrayal of Ichabod, which had me laughing my ass off.

Finally, we get "House," which at 20 minutes is the longest of these stories. Young orphan Lewis Barnavelt (Mike Brock) is forced to go live in his kooky uncle Jonathan's (Severn Darden) creepy old home. His first night there, he sees his uncle - who's a warlock - going around knocking on all the walls because inside is a "doomsday clock" that can spell the end of mankind if it's activated. To impress a neighborhood kid, Lewis uses one his uncle's books to raise a corpse in a graveyard. That corpse is that of Selenna Izard (Mary Betten) and she also happens to be the wife of the guy who made the doomsday clock...

Despite the presence of Price, this concept simply does not work. It's extremely unsatisfying to watch tiny snippets of incomplete stories which are then made even less satisfying by the muddy videography and cheap production values. The performances are also pretty awful, with untalented child actors mixed up with a bunch of adults desperately chewing the scenery in order to appeal to the juvenile audience. Video Gems was the VHS distributor.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Syngenor (1990)

... aka: Cyborg Soldier
... aka: Scared to Death II
... aka: Soldat Cyborg
... aka: Syngenor: Synthesized Genetic Organism
... aka: Syngenor: The Synthetic Experiment

Directed by:
George Elanjian Jr.

The Norton Cyberdyne Corporation has created the "virtually unstoppable soldier of tomorrow" in the form of Syngenor, which is short for SYNthesized GENetic ORganisms. These black, reptilian-looking killing machines (played by men in suits) are impervious to conventional weaponry, trained only to kill, can easily survive harsh desert climate because they require no water and live only on their victims' spinal fluid and are capable of asexually reproducing every 24 hours. Wanting to sabotage the company, smarmy executive Stan Armbrewster (Charles Lucia) lures "expendable" PR man Tim Calhoun (Jon Korkes) and a couple of drunk party girls to the basement of the high rise Cyberdyne building where the creatures are kept and lets one free. The Syngenor lives up to expectations by quickly dispatching Tim and the girls, then escapes the building and goes to the home of scientist Ethan Valentine (Lewis Arquette), the man who originated the Syngenor project but has since quit. It kills him and then goes after his niece Susan (Starr Andreeff), who manages to fend it off using a can of aerosol spray and a lighter. Naturally, the police don't believe Susan when she tells them what really happened, especially after Cyberdyne CEO Carter Brown (David Gale) throws them off their trail.

Nosy reporter Nick Carey (Mitchell Laurence) shows up to do a piece on Ethan's death and teams up with Susan. She wants to justice while he's simply looking for a good story. Meanwhile, at Cyberdyne, icy megalomaniac Paula Gorski (Riva Spier), another high-ranking exec, wants to take over the entire company by any means necessary. Not only does she have the pussy-whipped Stan wrapped around her finger and at her bidding, but she's also been sleeping with Carter while conspiring behind his back to drive him crazy. Stan tricks Carter's 17-year-old bimbo niece Bonnie (Melanie Shatner, daughter of William) into going to the basement and unleashing over twenty of the Syngenor they have on hand from the thermal vault. After she's electrocuted and her death is relayed back to Carter, he starts going even crazier than he already was. Nick and Susan (posing as his photographer) arrange for an interview with Stan, who wants to use the opportunity to implicate Carter for the deaths that have occurred thus far. Our heroes have the misfortune of showing up on a Saturday morning just when the shit is really hitting the fan. Not only are the creatures on the loose throughout the building (even wiping out all of the facilities armed guards) but the unhinged Carter proves to be even more dangerous.

Apparently, this is a loose, belated follow-up to director William Malone's Scared to Death (1980) featuring the same design of monster. A sequel had been announced in Variety back in 1984 (see below) complete with a great poster and with Malone listed as the director and co-writer, but the project was shelved at the time after Malone bowed out to direct the higher-budgeted Creature (1985) instead. It would later be made without his involvement. While I have yet to see Scared, for a medium budget 'B' monster movie, Syngenor really isn't too bad. It's consistently entertaining and often very amusing, the creature designs (by Malone and Doug Beswick Productions) are decent, the production design is heavy on silver, blue and purple giving it a handsome, sleek futuristic sheen, there's plenty of chaos and action and even a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor about the whole silly thing. I enjoyed myself.

The 1984 Variety ad.

French poster. Soldat Cyborg = "Cyborg Soldier"

Trivia Note: The kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel doubled for the Syngenor lair!

We call this "corporate scum."

Green Eggs and Gale.

The original, none-too-exciting-looking American VHS box.

Now this is more like it!

I've always enjoyed Andreeff as an actress, especially in Katt Shea's underrated vampire film DANCE OF THE DAMNED (1989). She makes for a likable tough heroine in this one as well and is nicely-paired up with the amiable Laurence. Gale is also another standout, though I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. It's more just like a weird thing. The late actor, who was able to secure work in films just like this after his memorable turn as Dr. Hill in the cult classic Re-Animator (1985), gives one of the most unrestrained, over-the-top performances I've ever seen in any film. He screams and laughs maniacally while injecting some kind of glowing green drug into a boil on his neck, makes hilariously goofy faces, bugs his eyes out, childishly bounces up and down, starts blasting his employees to smithereens with a "Death Rattle Gun" (which can dispatch 1000 rounds of ammo in a second) and keeps crying "Hold me!" in a baby voice. By the end, he's running around wearing a bunny mask and killing more of his own employees (after stripping them down to their underwear) than the monsters! If you're a fan of completely unrestrained acting, you won't want to miss this.

Syngenor was a modestly successful venture that apparently did better business overseas (particularly in Japan) than here in the States. After a brief theatrical run, it was issued on VHS by Southgate Entertainment and then reissued by Hemdale a few years later before making its DVD debut in 2003 through Elite Entertainment. In 2008, a "Special Edition" DVD was released by Synapse Films, which includes several behind-the-scenes featurettes and a commentary track from star Andreeff, producer Jack F. Murphy and writer Brent V. Friedman.

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