Monday, March 14, 2016

Headhunter (1988)

... aka: Duo pour une mort noire (Two for Black Death)
... aka: Head Hunter
... aka: Die Stunde des Headhunter (Hour of the Headhunter)

Directed by:
Francis Schaeffer

Miami police officer Pete Giuliani (Wayne Crawford), whose hard-bitten, hard-luck, hard-drinking character is laid out for us early on by his razor-nicked face and mass consumption of Alka Seltzer, and his more sensible, compassionate and straight-laced partner Katherine Hall (Kay Lenz) get assigned a new case involving a gruesome murder. A Nigerian immigrant has been decapitated and not in a normal way either. The head almost seems to have been cauterized right off the shoulders and is nowhere to be found. A second identical murder happens in a trinket shop. While leaving the latest crime scene, they encounter Dr. Samuel Juru (Sam Williams), a professor of Pan-African studies at the University of Miami and also a shaman and spiritual leader to all of the Nigerian immigrants now flooding into the area. Sam is called down to the station to offer his insights and informs the skeptical cops that the wave of Nigerians moving there aren't coming for the weather but instead are fleeing their country to escape a “curse.” Said curse is an ancient African demon called Chikatitumo, who doesn't like the fact so many are now out of his reach so he's come all the way to a large American city to get them... and he may end up liking there here so much he'll make it his permanent home.

Sam continues to warn the authorities that the demon will become more powerful with each victim as it feeds on the human spirit and is decapitating victims to separate the mind from the body. The collection of heads signify that he's captured their souls and he gravitates toward those with the most resistance to believing he exists. The cops are all naturally skeptical (“It's Exorcist time, kids!”) and all his warnings end up accomplishing is making him a suspect in the murders. Pete and Katherine's superior, Captain Ted Calvin (TV star Steve Kanaly of Dallas fame, who is pretty awful here and has a terrible come-and-go Southern drawl), even force them to throw the poor guy in jail, though he's soon exonerated as the slaughter continues even when he's behind bars. During one ridiculous scene, a pastor using the recent string of murders to “save” the Nigerians so they'll be “leaving all of that jungle darkness behind” is in the middle of baptizing a woman when a huge sword travels along the water like a shark fin accompanied by Jaws music (!) and decapitates her, prompting him to run away screaming, “I'm never using this fucking river again! God damn devil in here!”

The banter between the two detectives isn't only about the case at hand, but also about Pete's personal life as his marriage to Denise (June Chadwick) has just ended. She's left him for another woman (“My wife is a muff diver!”) and kicked him out of his own home, forcing Katherine to let him shack up with her and sleep on her couch even though she's dating another cop named Roger (John Fatooh). Considering Kat's relationship is spotty at best, is romance eventually in store for our heroes? Not if the demon, who has managed to amass a band of obedient torch-wielding followers who'd rather do his bidding than die. has anything to say about it as he attempts to kill both of them. Once Sam is murdered by the cult, Pete and Katherine pay a visit to Professor Robert Sinclair (Gordon Mulholland), author of “Life Among the Tribes.” which has a chapter specifically dedicated to the severing of heads. His suggestion? Sever all limbs and decapitate the demon. Easier said than done, but a late night trip to a hardware store provides a chainsaw that may come in handy finally completing the task.

I've heard pretty much all bad things about this one but it's not completely awful. Lenz and Crawford have decent chemistry with one another and make for likable, engaging leads. Good thing too because this is heavier on the talk than it is the action. Some scenes are tense and fairly well done (others not so much), the creature design (not seen until the last five minutes) is adequate and some of the spirit POV camerawork is pretty cool, too. The demon's ability to impersonate people to trick victims doesn't really come into play until near the end and one wonders why it even bothers, especially considering it has no issue sweeping in to lop off every other victim's head in about three seconds. So much time is wasted that the ending is rushed through in frantic fashion (albeit amusingly frantic fashion!) and those who live in Miami or are familiar with the city may chuckle at the fact this clearly wasn't filmed there, but in South Africa instead.

This was one of around a dozen productions made by Gibraltar Entertainment in the late 80s into the mid 90s. Most of these were filmed in South Africa, some played at film festivals or in very limited engagements in theaters and all were primarily just video shelf / cable TV filler. Crawford starred in no less than seven of them. They also frequently reused Chadwick, who co-starred alongside Crawford in Quiet Thunder (1988), The Evil Below (1989) and Rising Storm (1989). Ted Le Plat, who plays an obnoxious detective here, was also in four and many of the other actors seen here were in the others. Gibraltar's stable of regular actors also included Zach Galligan, William Katt, John Rhys-Davies and Martin Hewitt.

Multiple scenes from the Z grade "classic" The Hideous Sun Demon (1959) can be see on TV sets at various points for some reason. There hasn't been a legit DVD release here in America for this one yet, nor for many of the other Gibraltar titles. It was, however, well-distributed on VHS by Academy and received a laserdisc release from Image.

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