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

“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

“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

Bootleg Bug Hunt: A Carrot From Another Planet

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.

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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.

Credit: DST3KTrailers

Bootleg Bug Hunt: Ruled by Twins

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.

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“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.

Credit: bmoviereviews

Bootleg Bug Hunt: Dingwhopper

Roger Corman has had an interesting relationship with the film Alien. When the film was in development, Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett offered their treatment to Corman with the intention of filming it on a low budget before getting a better deal from Brandywine Productions. After Alien’s runaway success, Corman, with his distribution company New World Pictures, produced two attempts to capitalize on the public’s sudden interest in sci-fi horror. First, there was 1981’s Galaxy of Terrorwhich featured above average performances from Edward Albert, Robert Englund and Erin Moran, as well as intriguing production design from legendary director James Cameron. The second, which is today’s subject, is 1982’s Forbidden World, a film that may lack the star power of its predecessor but still has a strange appeal that makes it a pretty fun viewing experience.

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Quick, Henry, the Flit!

Forbidden World is the thrilling story of an agent for a futuristic government who is assigned to monitor a research station that houses a murderous genetic experiment that, in a twist that seems eerily prescient after the release of Alien: Covenant, contains trace amounts of human DNA. Compared to the somewhat thoughtful Galaxy of Terror, Forbidden is a much more vulgar, broader and more experimental film, with chaotic editing and exaggerated directing courtesy of Galaxy editor Allan Holzman. The self-awareness of Holzman’s direction and the performances of some of the cast members seem to be compensating for the recycled Galaxy sets and the bargain-basement effects, especially the goofy monster that resembles an amalgam of the Xenomorph and Audrey II. The most noteworthy performance comes from obscure character actor Fox Harris as the scientist who discovers the key to defeating the beast. Because the other actors come off looking like either bland cyphers or melodramatic flakes, the quirky yet naturally endearing Harris carries the film. Tying the film together is a spellbinding, John Carpenter-esque electronic score by Susan Justin that suitably imparts the various moods of the film.

Overall, when it comes to Corman-produced exploitations of Alien, Forbidden World may not have much polish or class but it’s still exciting and crazy enough to keep your attention.

Credit: HD Retro Trailers

Bootleg Bug Hunt: That’s Not Coffee

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.

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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.

Credit: ObscureTrailers

Bootleg Bug Hunt: Doubt is Demon Brother to Despair

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.

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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.

Credit: Trash Film Orgy