This month marks the 45th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s seminal seafaring thriller, 1975’s Jaws. Widely considered to be the first modern, high-concept blockbuster, Jaws would reshape the landscape of Hollywood with its broad but intriguing characters, minimalist approach to storytelling and emphasis on exciting set pieces. As is the case with many popular blockbusters, the success of Jaws spawned many imitators of varying quality. Today, let’s take a look at 1978’s Piranha, one of the better-known copycats and a somewhat more ambitious knockoff than the others that were released at the time. One of the earliest films directed by visionary Gremlins helmer Joe Dante and produced by Dante’s collaborator Jon Davison and independent filmmaking mogul Roger Corman, Piranha was once the target of a lawsuit from Universal Studios because it was so similar to Jaws. When Spielberg praised the film after an advance screening, the lawsuit was dropped. With that kind of ringing endorsement from one of the greatest directors around, Piranha must be good, right?
Lost River Lake: the birthplace of bikini pool float rodeo.
Surprisingly, Piranha kind of works! The script, written by Battle Beyond the Stars scribe John Sayles, is clever, the quick pace keeps the action flowing, Pino Donaggio’s score carries the right balance of suspense and strangeness and Dante’s signature comedic approach to science fiction and horror gives the film a consistently fun tone that matches the crazy premise of a bloodthirsty school of mutated piranha invading a river near a peaceful town. As far as the acting goes, the late, great Dick Miller, a frequent associate of both Dante and Corman, steals the film in his role as Buck Gardner, a crooked resort owner whose place of business is overwhelmed by the deadly fish. Miller’s character may lack the depth of his Jaws equivalent, Mayor Vaughn, but he’s still a lot of fun to watch. Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) gives a strong, grounded performance as a government scientist who is haunted by the fact that he led the project that created the mutant piranha and the two leads, Heather Menzies of The Sound of Music fame and King’s Crossing’s Bradford Dillman, have an interesting chemistry. The special effects are more of a mixed bag. This is the kind of movie where impressive stop motion creature animation and convincing prosthetic work share the screen with rudimentary puppetry and drab set design.
Spielberg may have been onto something. Although it’s a cheap Jawsploitation cash grab, Piranha is a unexpectedly charming movie with a clear sense of purpose and enough self-awareness to keep your interest.
Thank you for the inspiration, Little Richard.
I think it’s safe to say that the legacy of the blaxploitation subgenre is precarious. On one hand, the subgenre included some of the first American films that featured black characters in leading and prominent roles, commented on the oppression of black Americans that was ingrained in American society, and promoted outlooks associated with the Black Power movement. On the other hand, a lot of these films would glorify some of the negative stereotypes associated with predominantly black communities, such as high crime rates and violent activity. Regardless of your feelings about the films themselves, blaxploitation has left a permanent mark on how African American life can be depicted in popular culture. In its own strange way, 1974’s Three the Hard Way mostly succeeds as both a pseudo-political, Afrocentric parable and an exciting, hardcore action flick.
Three the Hard Way was directed by the late Gordon Parks Jr., son of famous photographer and blaxploitation pioneer Gordon Parks. The younger Parks was no stranger to handling contentious subject matter, as evidenced by the fact that he directed the successful but divisive crime drama Super Fly two years before Hard Way’s release. With Hard Way, Parks makes a smooth transition into action filmmaking and does a pretty solid job of translating Eric Bercovici and Jerry Ludwig’s provocative story of a heroic black trio’s quest to stop a sinister white supremacist plot to poison every black person in America into a well-structured film. Of the three leads, Jim Kelly gives the best performance despite having very little to do beyond demonstrating his mastery of Okinawan karate and staring intensely at his foes. Three-time American Football League All-Star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson brings some necessary charm and humor to the proceedings, while Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown acquits himself well in the action set pieces but acts a little stilted in scenes that demand more emotional weight. Sheila Frazier, who previously worked with Parks on Super Fly, does the best she can in a limited role as the love interest of Brown’s character and Jay Robinson (Emperor Caligula in The Robe) and Richard Angarola are appropriately unpleasant as the racist villains. The film’s themes of black empowerment are consistently applied, the action scenes hit all the right beats and the film moves at a quick pace, although there are a few slow spots where songs by the Impressions play over long montages of characters walking around or driving vehicles.
If you’ve only heard about Three the Hard Way, I suggest you check it out. The story may be incendiary, especially by our current standards, but its message of Black Power rings true even now.
Credit: Department of Afro-American Research Arts Culture
Today’s review is inspired by one of the most tantalizing tales of technological terror and twisted time travel ever filmed, James Cameron’s 1984 science fiction masterpiece The Terminator. This year marks the 35th anniversary of the franchise that just released its sixth theatrical installment, Terminator: Dark Fate, this month so I wanted to take a look at a particularly strange Terminator knockoff in honor of the occasion. 1993’s Time Runner is a low-budget sci-fi thriller filmed in Canada that aspires to be smarter and more politically aware than other Terminator wannabes of the era but falls victim to its bland story, scattershot editing and uninspired direction.
Think, McSkywalker! Think!
Time Runner was directed by Michael Mazo, a Canadian producer who has worked with many talented performers throughout his career, including Christopher Plummer and Nastassja Kinski. This story of a space station captain who travels back in time to prevent an alien invasion that will devastate Earth in the year 2022 is carried by the three lead performances from Brion James of Blade Runner fame, Quest for Fire’s Rae Dawn Chong and Body Bags star Mark Hamill. The eternally underrated Hamill puts a great deal of effort into his portrayal of the station captain who finds himself lost in the year 1992. He effectively sells his character’s struggle to understand his dangerous situation and fulfill his responsibility to save Earth’s future. The only compelling scenes in the film are the captain’s interactions with his mother, played by Suzy Joachim, when she was pregnant with him. James brings a creepy charm to his role as an icy US Senator and Chong does the best she can with her underwritten role as the scientist from the past who helps the captain with his mission. The rest of the cast runs the gamut of B-movie acting quality, ranging from a bland henchman played by Mark Baur to an obnoxious comic relief guy portrayed by Gordon Tipple, who is also one of many actors to play the part of the Master in another staple of time travel fiction, Doctor Who. When it comes to the actual story, there’s an interesting seed of a subplot involving a government conspiracy tied to the alien invasion that comes across as something that was tacked on at the last minute. Even the action scenes and VFX shots, the elements that could have made for a fun B-movie, feel wooden and unsatisfying.
As a movie, I can only recommend Time Runner if you’re either a Mark Hamill filmography completist or someone organizing a cheesy movie night. When it comes to Terminator knockoffs, I guess you could say this film’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack.
Credit: YouTube Movies
Today’s review was prompted by three recent events. First, Halloween season is underway so I thought about looking at something appropriately spooky. The second event was the theatrical re-release of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic Alien, which prompted me to review yet another low-budget Alien wannabe. Finally, the cancellation of a convention I planned to attend in September called VampCon Chicago inspired me to examine something related to vampires. Put that all together and you’ve got my analysis of a certain substandard, sanguinary space adventure: 2004’s Dracula 3000. Although this is one of many incredibly loose adaptations of Bram Stoker’s highly influential 1897 horror novel Dracula, this low-budget space thriller has some interesting aspects that are buried underneath the layers of shoddy filmmaking.
Look at you, movie. A pathetic story of junk and kitsch.
Helmed and co-written by Oscar-nominated South African filmmaker Darrel Roodt (Sarafina!), the one major theme from the original story that Dracula 3000 truly understands is the idea of learning from the past to preserve the future. By setting the film in the distant future and establishing that religion is all but forgotten in the year 3000, that notion is able to be demonstrated in a unique way, especially through Udo Kier’s character of a starship captain who survives the slaughter of his crew at the hands of the vampiric Count Orlock by holding on to a crucifix. Even though he has almost no interactions with an adequate main cast that includes former wrestler and Fifth Element star “Tiny” Lister, Baywatch’s Erika Eleniak and Casper Van Dien of Starship Troopers fame, Kier’s eerie performance gives the film a little bit of prestige that transcends the cookie-cutter used future aesthetic and cliched storytelling and balances out the campier elements, such as rapper Coolio’s broad and unrestrained turn as a character that can best be described as a stoned Renfield. Surprisingly, the weakest link in the cast is Langley Kirkwood’s stale, charisma-deficient portrayal of Orlock. He does a decent job and I wasn’t expecting the second coming of Bela Lugosi but his distinct lack of menace or charm is very evident, which isn’t helped by Roodt’s frustratingly inconsistent direction, which often changes from scene to scene. Some scenes feel like they were guided by a bargain-bin Ridley Scott while others feel like stuff that Friedberg and Seltzer would reject.
Disappointing antagonist and weird tonal issues aside, Dracula 3000 is an decent slice of sci-fi horror cheese that could have used a little more time to sort out the story it’s trying to tell. If you’re a Dracula completist, this is worth at least one viewing.
Today is the 130th birthday of Nintendo, one of the biggest names in the video game industry. From its humble beginnings in 1889 as a hanafuda playing card production company called Nintendo Koppai, the company would go on to manufacture a variety of innovative gaming consoles, introduce the world to the creative visions of the likes of Shigeru Miyamoto, Satoshi Tajiri and Masahiro Sakurai, and develop many beloved and iconic video game series such as The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, Pokemon, Metroid and Super Mario. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the Wachowskis’ trailblazing sci-fi action epic, The Matrix, which still holds up surprisingly well after all these years. Today’s showcase is a 2004 animated short that effortlessly combines these two pop culture institutions. Super Mario Reloaded, a shot-for-shot remake of the famous Burly Brawl from The Matrix Reloaded that was first posted on Newgrounds by Eddsworld animator Paul Ter Voorde, replaces the characters from the film with sprites from various Nintendo games, most notably Super Mario World. Even with 16-bit visuals, the sprite animation is fluid and matches the intensity of the original scene. In full disclosure, I saw this short before I actually saw The Matrix Reloaded and I think I enjoy it more, too.
Today marks the 80th anniversary of the release of the 1939 cinematic classic The Wizard of Oz! The momentous, Oscar-winning musical fantasy film is the most well-known adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s revered 1900 children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz but ever since the release of the Victor Fleming film, there have been countless reimaginings of the tale of Dorothy Gale’s journey into the whimsical land of Oz, including television shows, novels, comics, plays, games and several other films. Today, we’re going to take a look at a particularly strange reworking of the original Oz story called The Wizard of Mars, a 1965 sci-fi adventure featuring the legendary character actor John Carradine in the eponymous role. Is Carradine’s involvement in this project enough to make it worthwhile? It’s hard to say.
It’s an Oz adaptation served in an authentic outer space atmosphere.
Also known as Horrors of the Red Planet, Wizard of Mars takes place in the far-flung future of 1975, where a crew of four astronauts (including a crewwoman named Dorothy) crash land on a very Earth-like vision of Mars and encounter various hazards before following a golden pathway that leads to an abandoned city inhabited by the fearsome collective consciousness of a Martian hive mind played by Carradine. Of course, the saving grace of Mars is Carradine’s monologue near the end of the film about the hubris of the Martians, which brings a small amount of thematic gravitas and grandeur to such a low-budget production while also highlighting how deeply flawed the rest of the film is. David L. Hewitt’s direction and the performances from the rest of the cast are as heartless as the Tin Woodman, the visual effects are predictably cheap and the script is so brainless, the Scarecrow could poke some holes in it. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit regarding the production of Mars is the fact that Forrest J. Ackerman, the illustrious literary agent and science fiction writer who is best-known as the editor of the influential horror film magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, was chosen to be the film’s technical advisor.
If you have the leonine nerve for low-budget sci-fi, The Wizard of Mars may not be a wickedly satisfying trip but there are a few things that make it notable. Naturally, you have to decide that for yourself. Just pay no attention to those strings holding up the spacecraft.
Credit: Krell Venusian
Celebrate both Father’s Day and the 40th anniversary of the debut of the Son of Svengoolie (Rich Koz) with this fascinating interview from the Decades TV Network!
Credit: Decades TV Network
It’s only fitting that the Bootleg Bug Hunt series ends on the 40th anniversary of the release of the groundbreaking sci-fi horror thriller Alien. Throughout this series, I’ve looked at some of the strangest and silliest low-budget movies that attempted to exploit the popularity of Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s creation in a multitude of ways ranging from bog-standard horror films with a freshly applied coat of science fiction paint to psychedelic, visually impressive space operas. The subject of the final Bootleg Bug Hunt review, 1985’s Creature, is planted firmly in the former category but it may be one of the better examples of Xenomorphs-ploitation you could ask for.
The sandworms from Beetlejuice are back with a vengeance!
Creature shows us the fateful voyage of the Shenandoah, a vessel owned by a futuristic multinational corporation, as its crew undertakes their mission of exploring a mysterious laboratory located on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Along the way, they answer a peculiar distress signal and discover a member of a rival company who was stranded on the moon by a dangerous alien monster that controls the minds of its victims with parasites. Of course, Creature shares numerous similarities with Alien but the most surprising element that it imitates is the corporate intrigue. The first act of Creature spends some time setting up NTI, the company the crew works for, as well as its rivals before the main story kicks in. In theory, this could have been a great way to set the film apart from other Alien knockoffs but the concept isn’t given a lot of emphasis or closure in the narrative. Furthermore, thanks to its derivative design and clunky motions, the titular creature is somewhat disappointing. Fortunately, William Malone’s energetic direction, the impressive makeup effects, Thomas Chase and Steve Rucker’s spooky score and some solid performances from the cast are enough to make up for undermining a potentially more riveting story. The standouts in the acting category include Diane Salinger (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) as an icy security officer, American Dad’s Wendy Schaal, who brings much needed humanity to her shallow role as an audience surrogate, and character actor Lyman Ward, best known as Ferris Bueller’s father, who provides a bit of dignity as one of the corporate heads of NTI.
I’d give Creature a chance if you have a taste for a decent sci-fi B-movie. Despite its formulaic nature and routine script, it still delivers its fair share of thrills and chills.
In many ways, Alien is a film about sex, how society understands it and how it affects others. This symbolism presents itself in almost every aspect of the film through a wide variety of motifs, ranging from the obvious visual metaphor of the Facehugger and Chestburster scenes representing sexual assault and forced reproduction, as well as the phallic design of the Xenomorph, to the more subtle details like the crew of the Nostromo referring to the ship’s computer as “MOTHER”. For some audiences, Alien’s innate eroticism may be one of the most significant parts of the film’s enduring appeal. Of course, many low-budget Alien knockoffs responded to these analogies by offering a multitude of erogenous images without any real nuance. However, there is one notable Alien copycat that attempted to address the subconsciously prurient themes of Ridley Scott’s film: 1981’s Inseminoid.
“I just ate a whole bathtub full of cherry cobbler.”
Partially funded by the prolific Shaw Brothers Studio, Inseminoid was directed by Norman J. Warren, a British filmmaker who specialized in erotic dramas like Her Private Hell and horror films such as Satan’s Slave and Prey. The story, penned by the married couple of Gloria and Nick Maley, involves a interplanetary mining expedition that goes dangerously wrong after Sandy, a crew member, is raped by a hostile extraterrestrial. The unborn hybrid twins, designed by Nick Maley, proceed to control Sandy’s mind in an effort to protect themselves. If you’ve never seen this film before, the premise itself may be an obstacle that keeps you from truly enjoying the overall work. On one hand, Judy Geeson (The Eagle Has Landed) easily provides the most intriguing performance in the film as Sandy, managing to compellingly balance sympathy and intimidation. On the other hand, it’s very troubling that after Sandy is impregnated, she is somewhat dehumanized by the narrative by becoming a puppet for her unwanted offspring. Compared to Alien’s understated and sophisticated approach to the topic of sexual violence, Inseminoid almost seems to address Sandy’s situation like a carnival barker beckoning guests to see the sideshow. Although Warren’s direction throughout the rest of the film brings the appropriate amount of gloom and suspense, it falters in its portrayal of Sandy’s plight by wallowing in her pain and confusion.
Sandy’s treatment aside, I’d say that Inseminoid still holds together as an adequate Alien facsimile. It has above-average acting, creative cinematography and a stirring electronic score by John Scott. Perhaps if it was a little more mindful of its central character’s agony, it could have gained a better reputation as a cult classic.