Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Dozen Ways to Die!! (1990)

Directed by:
Randall Hill

Some movies really got robbed of potential cult status by their obscurity. In this case, that can be traced right back to its original VHS distributor. Platinum Productions, not to be confused with Platinum Pictures (whose catalogue consisted almost exclusively of Chuck Vincent movies), was never one of the major players in the video era. What didn't help matters was their consistently awful box art, which usually featured an anonymous hired model who wasn't in the movie doing some kind of dumb pose. The one box of theirs that was kind of eye-catching was their release of the gritty / tasteless slasher flick Blood Splash (1981; better known as NIGHTMARE or Nightmare in a Damaged Brain), which featured a woman drenched in blood getting hit in the head with an axe. The company also threw together unrelated independent shorts for the bogus anthologies Final Destinations and TERRIFYING TALES (1989) and had perhaps their most interesting acquisitions in One Minute Before Death and THE OVAL PORTRAIT, a pair of (not very good) Mexican Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that starred a couple of has-been former Hollywood stars, were filmed back-to-back in 1972 and are often mistaken for the same film.

Like many other low rung distributors, the company also attempted to cash in on the Faces of Death craze with their own rip-off tape called Inhumanities (1989), which desperately tried to pass off scenes from EMANUELLE AND THE LAST CANNIBALS (1977) as authentic cannibal footage. There was even a sequel to that. Other Platinum pick-ups included the terrible Primal Scream aka Hell Fire (1987), the Mormon propaganda flick Savage Journey (1983), the escaped slaves blaxploitation (with a white “albino” lead!) trash Black Rage (1972) and the extremely cheap black-and-white sci-fi spoof It Came from Somewhere Else (1988). What do almost all of those have in common? Well, most are bad, most didn't make it out to all that many rental stores and most are currently unavailable on DVD. Unlike most of the other titles listed above, A Dozen Ways to Die!!, while itself bad, is actually pretty entertaining and should be in consideration for a DVD release.

Sheriff Jake Bouvier (Gilbert Houseaux), his wife Maggie (DeeAnn Varns) and their teenage daughter Melissa (Christy Bruneau) are traveling cross country in their truck / camper when they make a few stops in some rocky desert area best described as Hills Have Eyes territory. During one of those stops, they're menaced by a biker who does a bunch of spins around them and hisses “I'll be back!” before speeding off. For some foolish reason that defies all common sense, the family decide to camp out there for the night. The next morning, guess who shows back up? Yup, the same threatening biker along with seven of his sadistic biker friends who are ready to capitalize on the “easy pickins.” While they do a lot of cliché bad biker things frequently seen in these kind of movies, the filmmakers go to hilariously ridiculous lengths to give them all a specific character, which results in perhaps the least believable biker gang in film history.

The gang is led by top-billed Darwyn Swalve, who is also the only person in the cast who had any kind of film career outside of this one movie. If you're unfamiliar with this actor, you can probably guess exactly what he looks like based on other characters he's played. These include “Bar Tough Guy,” “Bear,” “Ox,” “Hog”,” “Skin Head,” “Crusher,” “Huge Inmate” and, last but certainly not least, “Scary Inmate.” Yep, he's big, bald, fat and mean-looking. Horror fans may know Swalve best as the homeless psycho in the slasher OPEN HOUSE (1987) but he also appeared in small roles in some 'A' films like Barton Fink and Summer School. His character here is called Cyclops because he has a third eye tattooed right in the middle of his forehead. Cyclops is not only ringleader but also slave master seeing how every one of his followers does exactly what he tells them to do while he spends most of the movie lazily sitting around drinking beer and barking out orders.

As far as the rest of the gang is concerned, Village People comparisons aren't too far off the mark. There's Panzer (Lee Thomas), a helmeted, eye patch-wearing Nazi with an awful German accent who refers to Cyclops as “Mein Führer.” Billy Bob (Tate Wilford) is a hick decked out in full cowboy garb who yells “Yee haw!” The amusingly dry Chains (Linda McCall), sole female of the group, runs around in an open vest with her tits hanging out for most of the film. There's also a pot smoking hippie who doesn't last very long, another big guy named Tank who is upset he never gets any “poontang,” Mexican pothead Pancho (Anthony Gamboa) who says things like “Give me some of that loco marijuana, ese!” and even a ninja armed with a samurai sword named Banzai who keeps his face covered most of film. When they're not terrorizing families, they sit around drinking, smoking weed and spouting amusingly insipid dialogue like “This stuff makes me more hornier than a three peckered billy goat."

When the gang attacks, Jake is beaten, dragged through the desert behind a bike, forced to play Russian roulette, knocked out and staked to the desert floor and left as “buzzard bait.” The wife and daughter try to hide in the camper but Cyclops cuts through it with a chainsaw and they're both dragged out screaming. Cyclops then rapes the virginal “sweet meat” daughter while the Nazi gets a go at the mom and drools all over her. After the bikers blow up the trailer, the ladies are kept prisoner and taken to another location. Cyclops keeps the daughter by his side on a chain just like Jabba the Hutt does with Princess Leia while the mother is thrown into a wooden cage where she must watch helplessly as her daughter gets pulled into the trailer for sex while shrieking things like “Let my daughter go YOU MOTHER FUCKER I'LL KILL YOU!!"

Naturally Jake manages to free himself, packs a bag full of supplies and then sets out after them. What follows is a lot of running and riding around in the desert with Jake picking off the bikers one by one while delivering truly groan-worthy pun-liners. One disappointing thing about this one is the lack of ingenuity and variety in the kills. When I hear “A Dozen Ways to Die,” I expected a dozen individual ways to die... not for half of the cast to be shot! Most of the other kills (like a hanging, strangulation with a chain and getting blown up) aren't memorable either but this does at least have two good ones, including a rattlesnake head fashioned to the end of a spear used to poison someone. This also gets bonus points for managing to surprise in a major way during its final scene, which I didn't see coming at all. It's the best ending to a biker film since Cycle Vixens (1978)!

Though most of the acting is pretty bad, it's the good kind of bad where at least the cast is spirited and enthusiastic about what they're doing. Not like, say, Keanu Reeves in Coppola's overrated version of Dracula, which is plain bad acting that's not the least bit entertaining because he's so dull. Strangest of all is the male lead, who's French and doesn't quite have a grasp on enunciation and what words to emphasize in the English language as he's attempting to emote, giving his line delivery a Tommy Wiseau-type feel. Had this movie been made twenty years later or been better distributed, who knows? Gilbert Houseaux may have found himself now being portrayed by an Oscar-nominated actor in a major Hollywood film.

While I had a lot of fun with this and enjoyed it, I can't lie: This is, technically-speaking, really bad. Inept even. It has virtually all of the traits of being a first film from a first time, inexperienced, untrained director who bit off more than he could chew. For starters, there are constant ragged cuts because they clearly didn't shoot the right amount of footage and didn't pay any attention to shot continuity. They sometimes try to hide that by inserting nature shots (mostly birds flying around) at random times. The editing and fight choreography are also some of the worst I've ever seen, especially a bit where the ninja decides to demonstrate his martial arts skills to Jake after Cyclops sends him out on a mission to decapitate and castrate (?!) him. But, hey, at least that's preceded by the should-be immortal line: “The ways of ninjitsu will triumph. I will bring his balls back to you!"

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