Monday, March 7, 2016

Retro Review: THE CURSE (1987) and CURSE II: THE BITE (1989)

(US/Italy - 1987)

Based on H.P. Lovecraft's 1927 short story "The Colour Out of Space," THE CURSE could ostensibly fit in with the Stuart Gordon-led Lovecraft revival that was going on at Empire Pictures (RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND), but probably belongs more with the waning, last hurrah days of Italian horror. A U.S.-Italian co-production shot near Tellico Plains, TN, THE CURSE was produced by noted Egyptian-born Italian schlock king Ovidio G. Assonitis (BEYOND THE DOOR, TENTACLES, THE VISITOR), who brought along a mostly Italian crew hiding under subtly Anglicized names (cinematographer Roberto Forges Davanzati goes by "Robert D. Forges," editor Claudio Cutry is "Claude Kutry," composer Franco Micalizzi is "Frank Micalizzi," and most notably, associate producer Lucio Fulci supervised the second unit and the gore effects team and goes by "Louis Fulci") to work for AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and FIRESTARTER star David Keith, making his directorial debut. Keith hasn't had much to say about THE CURSE since a Fangoria interview prior to its release (when it was known as THE FARM), so little is known about whether Assonitis resorted to his usual "fire the director" routine, which he's best known for pulling with a then-unknown James Cameron on 1982's PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING, an experience that left debuting director Cameron so upset and bitter that he decided to devote all of his energy to finishing a script he was working on called THE TERMINATOR. THE CURSE is perhaps best known as the first movie young Wil Wheaton made after his breakout starring turn the previous year in Rob Reiner's STAND BY ME. There were probably an untold number of ways Wheaton could've capitalized on his success in Reiner's critically acclaimed, sleeper hit adaptation of Stephen King's coming-of-age story "The Body," and you'd have to think that starring in a cheap-looking, low-budget Ovidio G. Assonitis production where his name is misspelled "Will Wheaton" in the opening and closing credits wouldn't have been near the top of the list. As written on Wheaton's blog, his memories of THE CURSE are not fond ones: "Your Uncle Willie was just a young'un, and some really evil producers from a scary foreign country came to him and said, 'We have this movie for you to be in, and we want to give you lots of money to be in it.' And Uncle Willie didn't have the best advisers at the time, and nobody told him that this big pile of shit would be around forever."

To a point, THE CURSE, scripted by David Chaskin, who had just written the 1985 landmark in homoerotic fever dreams A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE, is relatively faithful to Lovecraft's source story, in the sense that it involves a crashing meteor poisoning the land, causing grotesque mutations in humans and animals and driving them insane. Wheaton is Zach, whose widowed mother Frances (Kathleen Jordon Gregory) moved him and his little sister Alice (Wil's sister Amy Wheaton) in with her new husband, the stern and fanatically religious apple farmer Nathan (Claude Akins). Zach doesn't get along with Nathan's oafish, perpetually plumber's-cracked son Cyrus (Malcolm Danare), but that's the least of his troubles once the meteor crashes and all hell breaks loose. Soon, the vegetation is poisoned and the water causes hideous changes in everyone who drinks it and cooks with it. Zach and local doc Forbes (Cooper Huckabee) can't convince anyone outside of town that something's wrong, and greedy real-estate sleazebag Davidson (Steve Carlisle) is trying to keep the truth from Willis (John Schneider), a Tennessee Valley Authority surveyor who's there to greenlight a development project in which the scheming Davidson has invested tons of money. THE CURSE has some fleeting moments of colorful or foggy atmosphere that establishes a nice mood until the film's general sloppiness ruins it--you can clearly see the pole to which the meteor is attached when it crashes into the miniature set, just like you can see the arm of a crew member moving behind a miniature of Nathan's farm, or how actress Gregory flubs a line when she tells Zach "Eat your eggs, Wil" (or "Will," according to the credits), or that the film completely forgets about the copiously hirsute handyman (Steve Davis), who just vanishes from the movie after Nathan figures out he's sleeping with the sexually frustrated Frances. A lot of the positives of THE CURSE come from the technical experience of the Italians, and it has that distinct late '80s Filmirage look to it that reminds one of the Joe D'Amato and Claudio Fragasso films of the era. But Keith's work behind the camera is largely undistinguished and it's not surprising that he only directed one more film, the 1988 INDIANA JONES knockoff THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF TENNESSEE BUCK, where he cast himself in the lead. THE CURSE, probably the last Italian horror film from the glory days to get a wide release in the US, would become the first installment of an unexpected four-part franchise consisting of unrelated films that would be retitled with the CURSE moniker slapped on them. (R, 91 mins)

(Italy/US/Japan - 1989)

Though it didn't set the box office on fire, THE CURSE was enough of a minor hit in theaters and in video stores that in 1989, the Assonitis-produced THE BITE was turned into an unofficial and unrelated sequel when Trans World Entertainment rechristened it CURSE II: THE BITE. THE CURSE wouldn't be the first Assonitis production to be followed by bogus sequels cashing in on a recognized brand: his 1975 EXORCIST ripoff BEYOND THE DOOR led to Mario Bava's 1977 film SHOCK being renamed BEYOND THE DOOR II for its 1979 US release, and 1989's AMOK TRAIN was retitled BEYOND THE DOOR III for its 1991 debut in US video stores. Directed and co-written by Italian Federico Prosperi (under the name "Fred Goodwin"), CURSE II: THE BITE centers on Lisa (THE STEPFATHER's Jill Schoelen) and Clark (J. Eddie Peck, soon to star in Cannon's LAMBADA), a young New Jersey couple travelling across the country and out west in Nevada (the film was actually shot in Las Cruces, NM). Their vacation is derailed when Clark is bitten by a mutated snake that's poisoned with radiation from a nuclear test site. He's given an antidote by travelling salesman/amateur doctor Harry Morton (Jamie Farr in an Italian horror movie?!), but it turns out it's the wrong medication. As Harry frantically tries to locate the couple on the back roads and desert highways, Clark's left arm is slowly turning into a snake, with the radioactive virus infecting his entire body. This leads to some impressively slimy, oozy, and gnarly creature FX courtesy of Screaming Mad George (SOCIETY), and Prosperi doesn't really hold back on the gore and the splatter. Finally able to be seen in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio on Scream Factory's new Blu-ray (where it's paired with the correct 2.35:1-framed THE CURSE, no doubt to "Will" Wheaton's disapproval), CURSE II: THE BITE is revealed to be a well-shot film that really takes advantage of its wide-open desert locations and Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli's cinematography, especially in one legitimately famous scene (famous for fans of the movie, at least) where Clark and Lisa's Jeep speeds down a snake-covered stretch of highway, with snakes squashing and exploding under the tires. It's so visually striking that other than Clark slither-chasing Lisa while barfing up snakes as his body transforms into a giant one in the climax, it tends to be what people who've seen CURSE II remember the most. It owes a small debt to Cronenberg's remake of THE FLY, but it also fits in with Assonitis' trend towards rural or desert back roads horror in the late '80s, which also describes THE CURSE and the immortal 1990's immortal SONNY BOY.

CURSE II: THE BITE is an insane piece of work that should probably have a larger cult following than it does. It's spectacularly gross; Bo Svenson seems to be playing the same asshole sheriffs he played in the first two THUNDER WARRIOR movies; it's a reminder that Schoelen was an adorable scream queen in her day; there's a bizarre, out-of-nowhere appearance by a crazy, religious Swedish family with a mom played by Assonitis' girlfriend Savina Gersak and a kid played by a young, pre-ROSWELL Shiri Appleby; and Jamie Farr gets laid in the most unlikely horror movie appearance by a M*A*S*H vet until Gary Burghoff got a lap dance and went full batshit in 1992's SMALL KILL. It was only a matter of time before Christopher Lee ended up in the CURSE series whether he was aware of it or not, and a couple of years later, the 1989 Lee-headlined South African voodoo horror film PANGA was retitled CURSE III: BLOOD SACRIFICE for its straight-to-video US release in 1991. 1993 saw the release of CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE, which was actually the long-shelved and incredibly dull 1988 Empire production CATACOMBS, which has since been released to DVD under its original title. Though none of the sequels have anything to do with the 1987 original, the gloriously disgusting CURSE II: THE BITE is probably the best "dude turns into a giant snake" movie since 1973's unforgettable SSSSSSS ("Don't say it...hiss it!"), and deserves to be the face of what's perhaps horror's most disingenuous franchise. (Unrated, 98 mins)

1 comment:

  1. Another release screaming for some contextual extras. I'm dying to know the stories behind both flicks; Wil Wheaton loves to hear himself talk, so one would think he would do an interview just to bad-mouth the movie (same for Keith David). The more stories from Assonitis sets, the better! And giving CURSE II: THE BITE some long overdue respect for exceeding all expectations would have been nice. It makes no sense that Assonitis would work for Code Red, but would turn down an interview request for this release.