Thursday, March 21, 2013


Shout! Factory is back with another impressive collection of back-in-the-day video store fixtures from their MGM licensing deal, now available in anamorphic widescreen transfers at the incredible list price of $9.99 for four movies over two discs.  With only one total clunker in the set, this is one of the must-have genre DVDs of the year.  Disc 1 is a double shot of exploitation icon Fred Olen Ray with CYCLONE (1987) and ALIENATOR (1990), while disc 2 is the Gary Busey actioner EYE OF THE TIGER (1986) and the vigilante sequel EXTERMINATOR 2 (1984), which also features a commentary track with director Mark Buntzman and co-star Mario Van Peebles.

(US - 1987)

Heather Thomas had just finished a five-season run on the Lee Majors TV series THE FALL GUY when she got to headline her own big-screen action film with this enjoyably dumb Fred Olen Ray joint.  The extremely prolific Ray has cranked out about 130 movies over the last 30 years but the mid-to-late '80s found him at a weird crossroads where he almost could've had a major Hollywood breakthrough. These days, he's responsible--under a variety of pseudonyms, much like fellow almost-famous '80s genre vet Jim Wynorski--for a lot of those not-quite-pornos you see on Cinemax and the specialty HBO channels around 2:30 am.  Minus the gift of writing, he was doing the Quentin Tarantino thing with casting your has-been heroes about a decade before it was cool.  In addition to providing work for the usual suspects like David Carradine and Bo Svenson, Ray's earliest efforts featured the likes of Buster Crabbe and John Carradine.  Thomas capably carries CYCLONE, but gets a ton of support from one of the strangest casts of any low-budget B-grade '80s action flick.  Teri (Thomas) finds herself pursued by government agents and hired assassins when her tech-head boyfriend Rick (RE-ANIMATOR's Jeffrey Combs) is killed over the Cyclone, a top-secret super-cycle he's developing that runs on converted hydrogen and could feasibly put an end to reliance on traditional fuel.  Teri takes off with the Cyclone, with ruthless killer Rolf (legendary stuntman Dar Robinson) and his psycho sidekick Henna (Ray's then-wife Dawn Wildsmith), plus two government agents (Martine Beswicke and COUNT YORGA's Robert Quarry) close behind.  Pulling the strings from behind the scenes is mysterious big shot Bosarian (Martin Landau, just before his TUCKER/CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS comeback), who's promised the Cyclone to a Japanese crime organization.  Also with Troy Donahue, Russ Tamblyn, Huntz Hall as a pervy old motorcycle parts dealer, Ashley Ferrare, Tim Conway, Jr., the punk/metal band Haunted Garage, and Michael Reagan, making CYCLONE the only low-budget action cheapie of the 1980s to co-star a son of the sitting US President. 

CYCLONE is dedicated to Robinson, who was killed shortly after the film wrapped in the fall of 1986, performing a routine stunt for the 1987 bomb MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY.  He was filming a driving stunt, missed a turn, and drove off a cliff.  The famed stuntman was just 39 years old.  With films like CYCLONE and, earlier, Burt Reynolds' STICK (1985), where he played a psychotic albino henchman, Robinson was trying to break into character parts and with his imposing presence, likely would've succeeded.  With Robinson onboard, it's no surprise that Ray shows off some spectacular stunts, car chases, and explosions in CYCLONE, and though it's nothing close to a great movie, let it be said that even on a cost-cutting project like this, Ray's action sequences still look better than a good chunk of the CGI silliness that moviegoers inexplicably accept in $100 million movies today.  (R, 86 mins)

(US - 1990)

Another Ray film, this one a D-grade sci-fi outing that's already several notches below CYCLONE quality-wise.  Shot in 1988 but unreleased until 1990, ALIENATOR feels like three films edited into one, and none are particularly interesting.  On a distant planet, death row prisoner Kol (Ross Hagen) escapes into a pod and crashes on Earth.  The prison commander (Jan- Michael Vincent) sends a cyborg soldier called the Alienator (female bodybuilder Teagan Clive) to retrieve him.  Meanwhile, on Earth, Kol is clipped by an RV filled with four obnoxious vacationers who take him to the nearest ranger station, run by Ward (John Phillip Law), as the Alienator chases them in circles through Topanga State Park.  ALIENATOR has a great cast of veteran B-movie and TV actors--there's also P.J. Soles, Hoke Howell, Fox Harris (in his last role; he died in 1988 and the film is dedicated to him), Robert Clarke, Robert Quarry, DAY OF THE DEAD's Joe Pilato, Ray regulars Dawn Wildsmith and Jay Richardson, and a spirited turn by Leo V. Gordon as a crusty old war vet who helps Ward battle the Alienator--and a pro like Law actually appears to be taking this seriously, but other than the fun cast, ALIENATOR just stinks.  Lousy special effects, terrible acting by the younger cast members (Wildsmith and Richard Wiley, as the beer-guzzling RV driver, are especially bad), mumbling apathy from Vincent, and plodding pacing kill it, and an irritating score by Chuck Cirino gives it the distinct aura of a bottom end Roger Corman/Concorde release from that era.  The one outright dud in this set, ALIENATOR isn't even an entertaining bad movie.  It's just bad.  (R, 93 mins)

(US - 1986)

The modern-day western EYE OF THE TIGER was in and out of theaters in a week back in the fall of 1986, but don't let that fool you:  it's really a shame that this low-budget, testosterone-heavy actioner isn't better known.  While the title was merely an excuse for Scotti Bros. Pictures to trot out Scotti Bros. Records artist Survivor's 1982 chart-topper "Eye of the Tiger" one more time as if ROCKY III never happened, the movie itself kicks all kinds of ass.  Gary Busey is recently-paroled ex-con Buck Matthews, a Vietnam vet who ended up serving time over a self-defense killing.  Buck just wants to head back to his small Texas hometown and lead a quiet life with his wife Christie (Denise Galik) and young daughter Jenny (Judith Barsi, who would die tragically in 1988 when she and her mother were murdered by her father, who then killed himself), but with the corrupt sheriff (Seymour Cassel) who trumped up his murder charge acting as his parole officer, things aren't going to be easy.  Buck saves a local nurse from being gang-raped by a group of vicious, drug-running bikers led by Blade (William Smith), who retaliates by killing Christie and putting a catatonic Jenny in the hospital.  With the sheriff on Blade's payroll and the townfolk too cowardly to help, Buck is forced to take on Blade and his psychos alone, but gets some help from buddy J.B. (Yaphet Kotto).

How evil is Blade's gang?  Not only do they kill Buck's wife, but then they dig up her casket and leave it in his driveway.  Other highlights include Buck stretching wire across a road and decapitating some speeding bikers, and later, torturing another by shoving a stick of dynamite up his ass and lighting the fuse.  Director Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT), who previously worked with Busey on 1973's Rod Steiger vs. Robert Ryan hillbilly feud drama LOLLY-MADONNA XXX and 1984's Bear Bryant biopic THE BEAR, stages some impressive explosions and stunt work, and Busey, two years before a head injury in a motorcycle accident began his slow and painful transformation into a reality show punchline (he's an Oscar-nominated actor, folks), is in top form.  EYE OF THE TIGER isn't a Cannon film but it sure feels like one, and seeing it again after 25+ years, it's an absolute blast and a great example of what a fun and fast-moving B-grade action flick should be. (R, 92 mins)

(US - 1984)

Four years after the surprise box office success of the 1980 vigilante thriller THE EXTERMINATOR came the sequel, only this time the dynamic duo of Golan & Globus got involved.  Without the original film's writer/director James Glickenhaus on board, Cannon had EXTERMINATOR producer Mark Buntzman handle the directing chores, and to say it didn't work out is an understatement:  Buntzman was fired during filming and Cannon moved the production from NYC to Los Angeles as William Sachs (1977's THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, 1979's VAN NUYS BLVD, 1980's GALAXINA) was brought in rewrite part of the script and to finish directing the film.  As a result, EXTERMINATOR 2 exhibits all the tell-tale signs of a troubled production:  choppy editing, mismatched shots, obvious stock footage, continuity errors, superfluous padding, blatant gaffes (co-star Frankie Faison looks straight into the camera twice in one scene) and most noticeably, the complete absence of star Robert Ginty for the last 20 minutes of the film.  When Buntzman was fired, Ginty left as well, and Sachs had to somehow shoot major sequences in order to finish and salvage a film without access to its star, and it's dealt with in classic Fake Shemp fashion by having Ginty's John Eastland either shot from behind or above or spending entire scenes hiding behind a welding mask, even when he's just running around (two stuntmen are credited with doubling Ginty). That, coupled with the laughably cheap sets and obvious low budget (there's a nightclub set in this that's almost as chintzy as the bar with folding chairs in SAVAGE STREETS), pretty much dooms EXTERMINATOR 2 from the start, and while it really pales in comparison to the first film, it's moderately entertaining trash if you're in the right mood and approach it with the lowest possible expectations.  Eastland is still taking out NYC's trash as a flamethrowing vigilante by night and runs afoul of a cartoonish street gang that seems to have wandered in from the set of an Italian post-nuke outing, and is led by the ruthless X (Mario Van Peebles, giving it his all in an early role).  When X's goons attack Eastland's dancer girlfriend (Deborah Geffner) and his buddy Be Gee (Faison), Eastland fortifies Be Gee's garbage truck into a ridiculous high-tech tank and takes on X and his gang at the requisite abandoned factory.

THE EXTERMINATOR is a great example of a grindhouse film with complex characters that holds up very well, but EXTERMINATOR 2 dates pretty badly (need to add a few minutes to the running time?  Then have Ginty and Geffner walk through Central Park and watch some breakdancers) and isn't helped by behind-the-scenes problems that are all too apparent in the finished product.  A while back, Cannon expert and genre historian Paul Talbot wrote a terrific piece on the EXTERMINATOR films for an issue of Screem that does a far better job of detailing the behind-the-scenes discord of EXTERMINATOR 2 than the wasted opportunity of a commentary track does here.  Buntzman and Van Peebles talk a lot of trivia, like Van Peebles going into how he put his character's wardrobe together and Buntzman saying he's the one who talked Golan & Globus into making the breakdancing epic BREAKIN' ("but they made it without me") or that he "rode around with garbagemen" while prepping for the movie.  There's long silences and comments that are left hanging (Buntzman: "a lot of ideas from this ended up in THE TERMINATOR," and "Bob (Ginty) had a sweet side.  He had a really angry side, but he had a sweet side, too") with no follow-up or explanation.  Or, after a particularly long space of dead air, Buntzman says "It's interesting to watch this again...it's like I'm just watching the movie."  Van Peebles: "Yeah, it is interesting."  The two men barely talk about Ginty and both get Geffner's name wrong (calling her "Deborah Geffen").  The backstory of EXTERMINATOR 2 is far more interesting than the film itself, but it's a story that neither Buntzman nor Van Peebles--who have remained friends through the years as Buntzman has had small roles in several of Van Peebles' subsequent directing efforts, and Van Peebles mentions Buntzman is godfather to one of his kids--appear interested in telling.  Buntzman says something about when "we moved the production out to L.A.," and how Ginty is doubled in the climax because "we didn't have him," but Buntzman was fired by that point.  At one point, Van Peebles mentions Cannon, and Buntzman chuckles "I haven't even gotten into that yet," and he never does.  Buntzman's firing and replacement by Sachs is never mentioned, even when the closing credits kick off with "Additional scenes directed by William Sachs."  I suppose it's possible some of this was discussed in the long silences and maybe the comments were edited out, but if the rest of the track is any indication, these guys just don't have much of anything substantive to say about EXTERMINATOR 2 and the commentary is ultimately a waste of time.  The film itself, despite its many issues, still has some sleazy grindhouse charm to it, though it's quite a step down from its predecessor.  (R, 89 mins)

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