It’s always fun to see what a filmmaker can accomplish within budgetary limits, especially when it comes to genre films. There have been countless instances of pre-production concepts that were either discarded or altered during principal photography, editing or even during the screenwriting phase because the producers had to pinch a few pennies and cut a few corners just to get the movie made. One of the fundamentals of low-budget filmmaking is knowing what’s necessary for your story, which can be a great asset to the creative process and an efficient way of maintaining the film’s budget. A textbook example of this type of cost-effective film production is the infamous Italian director Luigi Cozzi’s 1980 Alien cash-in, Contamination.
Meet the Cacodemon’s vegan cousin.
In this sci-fi splatter-fest, an investigation of a seemingly deserted ship that washed ashore near New York Harbor leads to the discovery of a slew of strange alien eggs and the decimated corpses of the passengers who fell victim to the deadly toxins that the eggs secrete. This chain of events leads a government agent (Louise Marleau), a former astronaut (Ian McCulloch), and a NYPD lieutenant (Marino Mase) into the web of a genocidal extraterrestrial menace. Due to its low budget, Contamination resembles nothing more than an alternate universe version of Alien that was made on the cheap in the sixties by Herschell Gordon Lewis or Guy Hamilton. To be fair, Cozzi and his crew put their limited resources to good use. Instead of the lived-in, claustrophobic interiors of the Nostromo and the congeniality of its crew, the cast of Contamination attempts to project an aura of sophistication while they fight masked henchmen and wander around big cities, beautiful villages and James Bond-esque military bases and secret labs. Although the pacing is a little too languid to be truly thrilling, some of the other elements of the film more than make up for it, including the believable chemistry between Marleau and McCulloch, the appropriately disgusting design of the chief alien creature, and the intense synth rock score by the Italian band the Goblins, who are best known for their collaborations with the innovative horror director Dario Argento.
In conclusion, if you crave a creepily chaotic cavalcade of campy creature carnage, consider Cozzi’s Contamination.
April 26th is Alien Day, a celebration of the insanely popular sci-fi horror film franchise, Alien. Debuting in 1979, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s spine-tingling tale of the USS Nostromo’s fateful encounter with an astronomic apex predator that would eventually be dubbed the Xenomorph has endured and influenced several generations of science fiction storytellers and analysts. Of course, much like the Star Wars phenomenon, the immediate impact of Alien spawned a slew of low-budget imitators that copied the film’s moody aesthetic, used future sensibilities and intense action. 1981’s Galaxy of Terror, produced by reputable independent filmmaker Roger Corman and helmed by Hammer director Bruce D. Clark, is a notable knockoff that attempts to aim for loftier heights but is somewhat curtailed by its desire for shock value.
Hell had to make room for the new jacuzzi.
Like Alien, the appeal of Galaxy is reliant on the chemistry of the cast. If Galaxy has a definitive strength, it’s in the performances that slightly elevate the film above the level of a typical B-grade schlockfest. Grace Zabriskie, as the starship captain leading the rescue mission that kicks off the plot, gives a somewhat haunting portrayal of an officer who survived a disaster and seeks to maintain control of her new crew. Other standouts include Ray Walston as the enigmatic cook of the crew, a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Robert Englund as a technician, Bernard Behrens (Obi-Wan Kenobi in the NPR Star Wars radio dramas) as the mission commander, and Erin Moran (Joanie from Happy Days) as the ship’s empath. The film is also carried by some pretty impressive practical effects, featuring some of Aliens director James Cameron’s earliest production design work. Unfortunately, these fascinating elements are mixed in with a story that’s both barebones and scattershot, often indulging and wallowing in every horror and space opera cliche in the book. This lack of focus is best exemplified by a strange framing device involving a being called the Planet Master that feels like a weak stab in the direction of more thoughtful sci-fi in the vein of Forbidden Planet and 2001 and robs a bit of mystery from the suspense.
Despite its haphazard approach, Galaxy of Terror is an enjoyable piece of low-budget cheese that’s more than just James Cameron’s demo reel for Aliens and Terminator. There’s enough imagination on display that makes it stand out in the realm of cheap, Alien-influenced exploitation films.
Today is the 80th anniversary of the release of Detective Comics #27, the debut of Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s “young socialite” Bruce Wayne and his “mysterious and adventurous” alter-ego, Batman. Ever since his inauguration, the legends of the Caped Crusader has been retold and reimagined in many ways by both professionals and fans. Today’s subject is a particularly interesting interpretation of the World’s Greatest Detective: the 2005 animated short Batman: New Times. The directorial debut of Star Trek: Voyager visual effects artist Jeffery Scheetz, the DAVE School short utilizes character designs based on the Minimates toyline created by Art Asylum and features the vocal talents of two major Batman franchise alumni, Robinson Crusoe on Mars star Adam West and Mark Hamill of Corvette Summer fame, as well as Courtney Thorne-Smith (Ally McBeal) as Catwoman and the illustrious Dick Van Dyke as Commissioner Gordon.
For Black History Month, I’ve decided to take a look at two of the strangest films starring one of the biggest stars of the blaxploitation era. The man in question is Jim Kelly, the actor and martial artist who is best known for his portrayal of Williams in the groundbreaking 1973 action classic Enter the Dragon. Most of Kelly’s roles were demonstrations of his proficiency in Okinawan Shorin-Ryu karate, which earned him the World Middleweight Karate Title at the 1971 Long Beach International Karate Championships. Since his appearance in Dragon, Kelly became a rising action star during the 70s, starring in such notable films as Black Belt Jones and Three the Hard Way, but the subjects of my joint review don’t share the same amount of fanfare. Let’s take a look at 1977’s Black Samurai and 1978’s Death Dimension and see how they stack up.
Both films feature Kelly as some sort of law enforcement agent dealing with the bizarre machinations of a crazed supervillain with nothing but his wits and his martial arts prowess. The main difference is that Samurai is an adaptation of a popular adventure novel series written by Marc Olden, an African-American mystery author with black belts in karate and aikido. Besides Kelly, the other thread that ties these films together is the presence of infamous B-movie horror director Al Adamson. Although both films are structurally similar to many low-budget thrillers of the era (right down to the excessive amount of fun but pointless action scenes and gratuitous sex appeal to make up for the boilerplate story), Adamson brings a sense of tension and an affection for outlandish imagery that can only come from a director who’s honed his craft in exploitation cinema, which give the films a distinct style. The performances are more of a mixed bag, with both films relying on Kelly’s charisma and athleticism to make them something watchable. Dimension is notable for featuring two alumni of the James Bond film series, with former 007 George Lazenby (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) giving a formulaic performance as a police chief and Harold Sakata (Oddjob from Goldfinger) hamming it up as the ice-bomb-wielding gangster known as the Pig. For the sake of comparison, one of the biggest stars in Samurai is Felix Silla of Addams Family and Buck Rogers fame, portraying a henchman working for a Voodoo-practicing crime lord nicknamed the Warlock.
Overall, I’d say both films have something of merit. Between the two, Black Samurai has a more fascinating premise and crazier fights but Death Dimension is more focused and consistent in its storytelling. Whether you’re looking for a fun bit of campy action or a decent showcase of Jim Kelly’s considerable martial arts skills, this funkadelic duo should hit the spot.
This month marks the arrival of the 4 Indiana Jones movies to Netflix. With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at one of the many adventure films that attempted to take advantage of the popularity of 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Today’s subject is the 1983 film High Road to China, an adaptation of Jon Cleary’s 1977 adventure novel about an aerial journey from England to China. In the pre-production phase, many top directors and actors were bandied about, including John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Jacqueline Bisset (The Deep), Sidney J. Furie (The Entity), Bo Derek and her husband, director John Derek, and the then-current 007 Roger Moore. In the end, Where Eagles Dare director Brian G. Hutton was chosen to helm High Road, which would star Bess Armstrong (Nothing in Common) and Thomas Magnum himself, Tom Selleck, who was originally intended to play Dr. Jones. Let’s find out how high this particular Indy knockoff soars.
What sets High Road apart from Raiders is its focus. Most of the action is driven by Armstrong as heiress and pilot Eve Tozer, who searches for her long-lost father, played by an unusually energetic Wilford Brimley. The result is akin to a re-imagining of Raiders from the perspective of its feisty heroine Marion Ravenwood. However, the events of High Road proceed at a more leisurely pace compared to the breakneck speed of Raiders, which can cause the movie to drag in some spots. As far as the performances go, it’s a mixed bag. Armstrong does pretty well as Eve but there are some scenes where she feels less like Marion and more like the infamously annoying Willie Scott from Temple of Doom. Selleck gives an admirable portrayal of a world-weary tough guy as the jaded ace pilot O’Malley while venerated character actors Robert Morley and Brian Blessed ham it up as two of the villains of the piece. Perhaps the most thrilling scenes in High Road are the tense aerial combat sequences, which were skillfully edited by John Jympson (A Hard Day’s Night) and utilized replicas of actual World War I-era biplanes, giving the battles a highly tactile quality.
Although it was released to cash in on the fame of Raiders, there are enough unique elements in High Road to China that make it a fairly engaging story on its own merits. For the most part, I’d say this bit of high adventure sticks the landing (sorry, couldn’t resist).
This Christmas season seems to be a pretty good time to see an adaptation of a superhero comic. With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Aquaman garnering a great deal of positive buzz and this year’s Deadpool 2 being re-released for the holidays, I’ve decided to take a look at the 2002 short film The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special. Based on the eponymous 1991 one shot comic by Keith Giffen, Alan Grant and Simon Bisley and directed by Scott Leberecht, the short features DC Comics’s hypermasculine, pseudo-parodic alien bounty hunter Lobo (Andrew Bryniarski of Batman Returns and Street Fighter fame) on a mission to assassinate Santa Claus at the behest of a desperate Easter Bunny.