“Not when you’re hungry”: Conquest

To say the least, Halloween 2020 is going to be very strange…and maybe not in the good way. In case you’ve been living under a rock clad in a blindfold and earplugs, you’ll notice that the world’s been going through a lot of stuff lately. This Halloween season, browsing streaming sites and watching horror movies of varying levels of quality is a great way to unwind during these stressful times. I found the subject of today’s review while I was perusing the free streaming service Tubi. Within this collection of cinematic odds and ends, I discovered 1983’s Conquest, a weird fantasy adventure helmed by the renowned Italian giallo director Lucio Fulci. Although Fulci made films in a multitude of genres, he is best known for his stylish and ultraviolent horror movies like The Beyond and Zombi 2. With Conquest, he puts a bloody and brutal spin on the typical sword and sorcery tale.

Oliver Queen experiments with a Green Lantern ring.

Produced and written by two-time David di Donatello Award winner Giovanni Di Clemente, Conquest is the story of a young, magic bow-wielding hero named Ilias, played by Andrea Occhipinti (who worked with Fulci in 1982’s The New York Ripper). The evil spirit Zora, portrayed by Conrado San Martin of The Colossus of Rhodes fame, and a gratuitously nude sorceress known as Ocron (Sabrina Siani) plot against him after Ocron receives a vision of her own demise at the hands of an archer armed with the magic bow. Along the way, Ilias befriends Mace, a charismatic nomad played by Jorge Rivero, and the duo embark on a mission to stop Ocron’s evil forces from conquering the land. Barring the exception of an interesting twist near the end, the plot is pretty standard for the genre and the performances are typical as well. Conquest‘s main hooks are its trippy visual storytelling and the copious amounts of barbaric violence. The various creatures and costumes may look like rejected designs from the set of Quest for Fire but at least Alejandro Ulloa’s cinematography tries to make them look majestic, otherworldly and frightening. The synthesizer-intensive score by Dawn of the Dead composer Claudio Simonetti also sets the appropriate level of mystery and intensity, especially during the gory battle scenes.

You might not think of Conquest as a typical Lucio Fulci film but his distinctive style and directorial chops elevate this otherwise bland sword and sorcery adventure. If you’re looking for an unconventional Halloween movie marathon entry this year, give Conquest a try. Did I mention it’s free on Tubi?

Credit: CampMovieCamp

Carcharodon Copycats: A Tornado to Move the Boat

Back in the 70’s and 80’s, Italy seemed to be the low-budget knockoff capital of the world. Whenever a Hollywood genre movie becomes a huge hit, you can bet that there would be at least one Italian film made to exploit the popularity of the global blockbuster. Jaws was an easy target for exploitation compared to most big movies because its simple premise allowed for a stronger focus on suspense and character drama. If Steven Spielberg can extract cinematic gold from the modest idea of a great white shark threatening a resort town, then making a hit movie should be simple. All you need is a ferocious sea-dwelling animal and enough money to afford boats, scuba gear and a trip to a peaceful seaside town. Unfortunately, most Italian knockoffs of Jaws put a lot of effort into the aquatic creature to the detriment of every other element of the film. A textbook example of this is the subject of today’s review, 1977’s Tentacles.

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Family Circus took a weird turn in the 70’s.

Known as Tentacoli in Italy, the concept of Tentacles is more intriguing than the film itself. The film’s direction, provided by former Cannon Pictures CEO and Pirahna II producer Ovidio Assonitis, is very rudimentary, especially when the film’s antagonist, a deadly giant octopus, is offscreen. The only real suspense in the film comes from any scene involving the savage cephalopod, who feels like a terrifying presence thanks to some decent model work, clever editing by Angelo Curi and the skilled cinematography of Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli, who would work on another infamous knockoff of a famous blockbuster, Starcrash, sometime after this picture. The standouts of the oddly star-studded cast are the legendary John Huston (director and screenwriter of The Maltese Falcon) and Oscar winner Henry Fonda, who do the very best they can with the stilted direction and a hackneyed and inconsistent script written by Jerome Max, Escape from the Bronx scribe Tito Carpi and former Star Trek script editor Steven Carabatsos. Another Academy Award-winning star, Shelley Winters (The Diary of Anne Frank), shows up to waste her time in a cloying subplot that desperately attempts to evoke the sense of dread that surrounded Alex Kintner’s death scene in Jaws. The overall tone of Tentacles lacks any semblance of harmony between its horror elements and its playful humor which isn’t helped by Stelvio Cipriani’s bizarre, synth-heavy score and some weird scenes like Bo Hopkins (American Graffiti) giving a pep talk to a pair of killer whales that are sent to fight the octopus.

If you’re looking for a cheesy horror film that’s good fodder for a bad movie night with friends, I highly recommend Tentacles. It’s always fun to see a group of top-tier actors slumming it in a schlocky B-movie and this Jaws knockoff is no exception.

Credit: BisXploitationcinema

Carcharodon Copycats: A Sin Against an Animal

One of the most brazen things that a ripoff of a famous blockbuster can do is film a scene that functions as an obvious dig at the blockbuster in question. In most cases, it’s a kind of move that can easily backfire because it reminds the viewer of the more popular film. Perhaps the most notable example is a brief moment in the infamous Star Wars knockoff and subject of a fan-favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Laserblast where Kim Milford’s character blows up a Star Wars billboard for no readily discernible reason beyond the behind-the-scenes desire to mock any potential competition to Laserblast. One of the earliest scenes of the subject of today’s review, 1977’s Orca, shows the titular killer whale slaughtering a great white shark, which is a moment where the in-story justification of making the orca both threatening and appealing is outweighed by the out-of-universe purpose of taunting Jaws, its biggest influence. When you see it, you can almost hear co-producer Dino De Laurentiis, prolific producer of countless cult classics, screaming at the top of his lungs, “I’m coming for you, Spielberg!” With a scene like that, you’d think that Orca would simply be a cheap, simplistic duplication of a better movie. Instead, Orca has a surprisingly thoughtful approach to its storytelling and themes that sets it apart from other, less subtle Jaws ripoffs.

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Behold, a relic of the good old days, when movie posters told you the entire story of the movie.

The biggest aspect that sets Orca apart from its competition is making the titular creature, played by Yaka and Nepo, an important and sympathetic character in his own right. The movie truly comes to life whenever the whales appear. The impressive cinematography, effective model work and Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score effectively sell the audience on the emotional plight of the chief orca and the merciless terror he creates throughout the film. The standout actor in the human cast is Richard Harris of Camelot fame, who gives a stirring performance as a ship’s captain who becomes the target of the orca’s ire but begins to understand the whale’s hunger for revenge. The rest of the cast, which includes Zardoz’s Charlotte Rampling as a whale biologist and Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as a somewhat stereotypical Native American teacher, is adequate with the weakest link being a young Bo Derek, best known for her role in 10, who looks lost in any scene that doesn’t involve a killer whale. Orca is directed by The Dam Busters helmer Michael Anderson, who tries his best to make a threadbare script, written by Sergio Donati and co-producer Luciano Vincenzoni, feel tense, believable and meaningful by focusing on both the captain’s personal conflict and the orca’s quest for retribution, as well as placing a strong emphasis on visual storytelling.

Orca is a much more intriguing film than its reputation implies. By putting a spotlight on the thoughts and feelings of the eponymous creature, the film finds a different angle that enables it to stand out in the Jawsploitation craze.

Credit: Youtube Movies

Carcharodon Copycats: Fish Don’t Eat People

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?

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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.

Credit: sideshowcarny

“Brother, brother, help each other”: Three the Hard Way

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.

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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

“Talked about worms or something”: Time Runner

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.

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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

“Nothing but a big-ass hearse”: Dracula 3000

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.

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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.

Credit: totoqro

Never Send a Plumber To Do a Koopa’s Job

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.

Credit: DrakenT78

“A golden road”: The Wizard of Mars

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