Sunday, June 29, 2014

Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)

... aka: And Frankenstein Created Woman
... aka: Frankenstein Made Woman

Directed by:
Terence Fisher

After THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), Hammer returned for a fourth go at their lucrative mad doctor series... but what could they do to mix things up? Why, make a female "monster," of course! A virtual unknown named Susan Denberg ended up with the part. Denberg was born in Germany under the name Dietlinde Zechner and raised primarily in Austria. In her late teens, the voluptuous green-eyed blonde became sick of the "provincial ways" of her home country and went to the UK; quickly finding work as a chorus dancer with the Bluebells of London. The group toured Europe and the U.S. and Susan decided to stick around once she came to Las Vegas and met her first husband; actor / singer Anthony Scotti (the union lasted just six months). From there, she migrated to Hollywood in an attempt to start an acting career. Warner Bros. was interested and tried to make her happen; giving her a supporting role in a film and holding a nationwide contest to choose a new stage name for her; all of which were rejected. The same month her debut film See You in Hell, Darling (aka The American Dream) premiered, Susan appeared in a pictorial in Playboy magazine, becoming the August 1966 Playmate for that month. She landed the lead role in this Hammer production shortly thereafter. It ended up being her final role and she was dubbed by another actress (Nikki Van der Zyl - who also dubbed Jenny Hanley in Hammer's SCARS OF DRACULA [1970]) in the final product due to her inappropriate accent.

Denberg celebrates her 22nd birthday at a London's Playboy Club.
Pictured (l-r): Denberg, Cushing, Fisher, Walters and producer Anthony Nelson Keys.

Denberg's Playmate data sheet tells of a young hopeful looking forward to a long acting career and enjoying the beach, the discos, the parties and fast cars while she's at it, but Denberg quickly burned out on drugs and the fast-paced show biz lifestyle. She had several affairs with co-stars that frequently made the tabloids (she was romantically linked to director Roman Polanski, singer / actor Sammy Davis Jr., actors Stuart Whitman, Trini Lopez, Charles Bronson, Sidney Poitier, Jim Brown and numerous others), developed bad drug and alcohol problems and sank into a deep depression after several years and had to spend time in a mental institution, where she received shock treatments. By 1968, at the age of just 24, her modeling and acting career was all but over aside from unflattering tabloid exposure and nude appearances in European adult magazines. In 1972, she emerged yet again with dyed black hair and was working as a topless bartender and nude dancer in a porno movie theater in Vienna. A 1974 suicide attempt landed her back in a mental asylum and she returned less than a year later to another institution, this time pregnant with child. Rumors circulated for years that she had committed suicide. In reality, she's still alive and still living in Austria to this day, where she apparently prefers the quiet life and doesn't like to grant interviews.

Of course the name here of most interest to horror fans will be top-billed Peter Cushing, in his fourth appearance as the well-intentioned albeit morally-challenged Baron Victor Frankenstein. At the end of Evil, Cushing's mad doctor was trapped in a cellar along with his monster creation as a lab fire engulfed the entire room and caused the castle to explode. At the beginning of this entry, the Baron is in some kind of primitive cryogenics chamber waiting to be resurrected, and that's just what his associate Doctor Hertz (Thorley Walters), who functions as sort of an alcoholic Jiminy Cricket throughout this tale, and troubled young assistant Hans Werner (Robert Morris) are about to do. With a jolt of electricity and some smelling salts, the Baron returns to life and he has such deep probing questions on his mind when he does, like why he'd been dead for an hour yet his soul never left his body. Though this entry is part of a series, the Baron here isn't the same Baron as in the previous films. His name does not proceed him. He isn't on the run from the law. It's almost as if he's playing the same guy but with a completely clean slate, which, of course, doesn't stay clean for too long.

The Baron's experiments are still essentially the same: to achieve immortality ("We have conquered death!"), though in this entry he goes about it in a completely different way that involves separating the soul from the body and transplanting said soul inside a new body. While the Baron is fine tuning his technique, Hans is having problems of his own. He has fallen in love with the local innkeeper's daughter Christina (Denberg), a meek girl with low self-esteem who walks with a hobble and keeps her mousy brown hair over half her face to conceal a hideous disfigurement. Hans doesn't mind any of that. He still loves her and vice versa. Troubles arise in the form of three obnoxious, though well-bred, local hooligans; Anton (Peter Blythe), Karl (Barry Warren) and Johann (Derek Fowlds), who frequent the tavern and get their jollies tormenting poor Christina. Hans gets into a brawl with all three that has to be broken up by the police. The thugs later sneak into the tavern and beat Christina's father (Alan MacNaughton) to death. Hans is blamed for the crime, goes to trial, is found guilty and is sentenced to death by guillotine; a fate that also befell his drunk father (Duncan Lamont) years earlier. Upon learning of her beloved's execution, Christina jumps off a bridge and drowns herself. Now the Baron has plenty of raw material to work with.

Blackmailing the jail keeper, the Baron and Hertz are able to acquire Hans' body. Townspeople also conveniently deliver the dead Christina right to their doorstep. The Baron extracts Hans' soul, puts it into Christina's body and then spends months operating on her face and body to restore her to pristine condition. When the bandages are removed, Christina is a beautiful blonde with partial amnesia who can't remember who she or anyone else is, or how she got there. She does however have vague memories of the past; enough to feel compelled to get revenge against the three thugs responsible for the deaths of Hans and her father. Using her newly-acquired beauty and seductive charms, she's easily able to lure all three men to their deaths. The film is, technically-speaking, well-crafted all the way around, with adequate production values and fine performances from everyone involved (despite the dub, Denberg herself shows definite signs of talent)... and yet I still couldn't help but be disappointed.

What I felt was a major letdown with this one was that a genuinely interesting premise goes completely to waste. The idea of a man's soul trapped inside a woman's body is an intriguing one rife with potential subtext, but this movie is having none of that. The male soul is interested in one thing and one thing only: revenge. There's no exploration of any kind of gender / sexual or identity war going on inside the new Christina. She is overtaken by the Hans part (sometimes even speaking in his voice) long enough to do the dirty work and that's it. In other words, potentially rich subject matter is cast aside in favor of a standard, predictable plot. The film certainly had time to do more with this idea but the soul-to-body transfer doesn't even occur until the last half hour and by then too much time has already been wasted. I suppose the script by "John Elder" (Anthony Hinds) is ultimately what's to blame for all of that. Perhaps I was expecting too much from this one. I just don't like seeing good ideas go to waste.

This was originally conceived as And Frankenstein Created Woman (titled to recall Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman [1956] starring Brigitte Bardot) and was going to be the follow-up to Hammer's second Frankenstein entry THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) but the project was shelved for awhile. In theaters, it frequently played on double bills with The Mummy's Shroud (1967), and was followed several years later by Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed! (1969). Well-served by frequent TV showings and VHS and DVD releases over the years, Created received a Blu-ray release earlier this year from Millennium Media. Their release contains several episodes of the "World of Hammer" TV series, a documentary and a commentary track with actors Morris and Fowlds moderated by Jonathan Rigby.


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Line of Fire (1991) [copyright 1988]

Directed by:
Bruce Cook

Never heard of this one? Well, that's probably because the only VHS release appears to have been on the Canadian label Astral Video. Another likely reason for this film's obscurity is that it's pretty much a huge misfire and can never quite decide just what kind of movie it wants to be. There are elements of survivalist film, teen comedy, redneck action, backwoods horror and quirky black humor, but none of it quite gels either together or apart. Terrible dialogue, long, boring stretches where nothing much happens and mostly awful acting don't help matters any either. World-famous botanist and professor Dr. Ian Cook Finch (Jerry Lee) organizes a trip into the California wilderness with five students. Graduate assistant Ed ("Steve" / Stuart Quan) is a short, nerdy Asian-American who knows karate, is used for annoying comic relief with his obsession with animal droppings and goes by the nickname "Dorf." Jason (Bobby Sands) is an alpha jock with a bleached mullet, April (Tracy Hatton) is a big-haired, big-breasted slut, Jamie (Brenda Vance) is a cheerleader with a morbid sense of humor and Freddie (Eric Bishop) isn't given much of a personality at all. The six stop by a gas station, get into a fight with a couple of rednecks and finally meet Sheriff John Hardash (Bob Walker), who pretty much tells them they're not wanted there and that he doesn't want any of their "preversions" up on his mountain.

The professor takes the students into the woods, where they walk around, collect water, soil, plant and scat samples, camp out, wash up in a creek and do other boring things while talking about nothing much in particular. This goes on for the entire first half of the movie and it's all utterly useless and boring. While all of that is going on, we get to see glimpses of deranged biochemist Omar Capulet (Manuel Alvarado) in action. Omar lives in a secluded cabin in the forest where he's attempting to create a new kind of cocaine and tends to cocoa plants in a lab / greenhouse while listening to "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" and watching It's a Wonderful Life on TV. Omar doesn't like intruders, so he sends out his huge, muscular idiot manservant Lummis (played by professional bodybuilder and 1980 Mr. America winner Gary Leonard) out to spy on the campers. Being the bumbling moron he is, Lummis destroys their car with a wrench and sledgehammer and attempts to shoot one of the ladies with a crossbow. She freaks out, falls and hits her head on a rock. The group splits up, with some going into town for help and the others setting out into the forest to find out what's going on. Eventually everyone clashes together at Omar's house.

There's a long karate fight between Lummis and Dorf (Quan is a trained martial artist who also had small roles in Big Trouble in Little China, License to Kill and numerous other action films), death by crossbow bolt, POV stalking camerawork, puking, the slutty girl in a wet t-shirt and a scene where the sheriff crashes a live TV broadcast with a polka band and dancers. At the very end, there's finally a tiny amount of blood when one of the students is tortured by getting his finger cut off, face drilled and teeth grinded down with a sander, and is shot in the head. Based on how light and goofy the majority of the rest of the movie is, this scene seems completely out of place, and therein lies another huge problem: This film is completely unable to find the right tone. It was filmed in North Fork, Bass Lake and Fresno, California in the Fall of 1987 and carries a 1988 copyright date, though the film wouldn't make its VHS debut until 1991. I have no idea whether it was screened theatrically or not but I seriously doubt it.

Though listed as different people on IMDb, I'm pretty sure this director is the same Bruce R. Cook who directed the bizarre Nightwish (1989) since several of the production people worked on both of those as well as Brian Yuzna's SOCIETY (1989). Executive producer Randolph Cohlan went on the make his own low budget genre movie: the werewolf film NIGHT SHADOW (1989). It also wasn't very good either (though better than this one), was barely released and also starred Vance and Quan.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Devil's Express (1976)

... aka: Death Express
... aka: Devil Express
... aka: Gang Wars
... aka: Gang Wars: Devil's Express
... aka: Phantom of the Subway, The

Directed by:
Barry Rosen

China. 200 B.C. - A group of monks put a amulet inside a coffin with a corpse and drop it down into a cave. Afterward, the leader (Yoshiteru Otani) decapitates all of his followers with his samurai sword and then slashes his own throat. Cut to present day New York City. Martial arts instructor Luke Curtis ("He's not one of the best... he is the best!") finishes up a lesson with a "pig honky" client of his and gets ready for his big trip over to Hong Kong, where he'll do some more training with martial arts guru Master Leung (Duncan Leung). Accompanying Luke (Warhawk Tanzania) on his trip is one of his students, Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan), a coke dealer / gang banger who really could use some soul cleansing. The two men arrive in China, go to the camp for some laughable training exercises and then venture into the woods to meditate. While there, they stumble upon the cave. Despite Luke's "bad vibes," Rodan finds the coffin and, unbeknownst to his buddy, pockets the amulet. Both men get on the midnight flight back to the U.S. ... but they're not alone. As it turns out, after they left the cave, a living corpse (actually a resurrected demon) busted out of the coffin, made its way to a dock, possessed a businessman (Aki Aleong) and then hitched a ride aboard a ship heading to, you guessed it, New York City.

Once the ship arrives in New York Harbor, the possessed dude (now blinded and sporting some huge white eyeballs; an effect achieved by having the actor close his eyes and painting his eyelids white!) stumbles down the street and disappears into a tunnel. His chest bursts open and something comes out. Not long after, mangled corpses start turning up in the subway. The amulet, which Rodan now wears around his neck, seems to have some kind of power over the demon / monster / zombie or whatever it is and the creature would like it back. Lt. Cris Allen (Larry Fleischman) of the NYPD is put on the case, and he's assigned new partner Mike (Stephen DeFazio) for a clichéd odd couple pairing. Cris is street-smart and tough while Mike loves tennis and country clubs and thinks mutant animals (!) may be responsible for the killings. The two men hit the streets to try to figure out what's going on and don't seem to take an eyewitness who claims to have seen "a deformed monster" in the subway all that seriously. Meanwhile, there's a vicious rivalry going on between two rival gang factions: one a Chinese gang called "The Red Dragons" and the other a black gang called "The Black Spades" (seriously... ).

If you're sitting there at home pulling out your hair because you can't decide whether to watch a blaxploitation movie, a demon movie, a kung fu movie, a gang movie or a buddy cop movie then don't fret: Devil's Express has got you covered on all fronts. So does it actually pull any of that off successfully? No, it does not... but that is not necessarily a bad thing depending on what kind of viewer you are. Most of the acting is terrible, the characters aren't the least bit likable, the editing is ragged, the dialogue is boring, the blood is tomato soup and the action is just pathetic. The subway horror scenes are few and far between to begin with but the lighting is so dark (even in the restored version) you can barely even see anything. The demon itself is not fully revealed until the very end but, again, it's difficult to really make the thing out because of the lighting and editing. Where this truly shines for fans of bad movies is in the fight choreography, which is some of the worst ever. For starters, the black actors clearly have no real martial arts training and are pitted against Asian actors who do, which is extremely awkward to watch (and makes it extremely difficult to believe that the "Spades" could whip their asses). That's made even more awkward than it already is by the fact fists and feet typically don't come within a foot of their desired target. Add some canned 70s-style kung fu sound effects for the body impact and the back alley brawls are a laugh a minute. I am still laughing writing this up a few days later.

This film is also odd in that there's no real central focal point. Top-billed Warhawk Tanzania (whose name cannot be said enough in its entirety as far as I'm concerned) features prominently in the beginning, but is strangely absent from the majority of the mid-section when it focuses its attention over on the cops, the gangs (of which Luke has no involvement because he's an upstanding guy) and the murders. Though Tanzania's acting skills and on-screen charisma border on nonexistent, he does at least come through for a hilarious finale; strutting around, doing various cliché kung fu poses and beating up a bunch of guys (and the demon) while wearing gold lamé bellbottoms. The "actor" had appeared in another kung fu blaxploitation flick called Black Force (1975) before this one, but nothing after.

The major talents to emerge from the production were director of photography Paul Glickman, who'd go on to shoot many other films (including a half-dozen for Larry Cohen) and assistant cameraman Stefan Czapsky, who'd move up the ranks to become a cinematographer himself (winning some major awards for Tim Burton's Ed Wood [1994]). David E. Durston (director of the cult classic I Drink Your Blood [1970]), Sherry Steiner (from several early William Girdler films), Domonic Paris (director of Dracula's Last Rites [1980]), Fred Berner (later an Emmy-nominated TV producer) and Brother Theodore (in a truly bizarre cameo as a manic preacher) all have small roles, as well.

Though listed on IMDb under the title Gang Wars, this was filmed as The Phantom of the Subway and was first released theatrically under the Devil's Express title in 1976. The Gang Wars moniker was a re-release title hoping to cash in on the success of The Warriors (1979). There was at least one early U.S. VHS release on the Simitar label (under the Gang title) and one early pre-cert issuing in the UK by FLK Video. In 2005, Videoasia either accidentally screwed up their packaging or intentionally led people astray with their DVD collection "Tales of Voodoo: Volume 3;" which claimed to contain Devil's Express, when in fact the movie on the set was actually The Devil (1981), a gruesome black magic film from Hong Kong originally titled Xie bo. It wouldn't be until 2013 that Code Red finally released the film legitimately.

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