Thursday, October 4, 2018

Absurd (1981) review


George Eastman (Nikos Stenopolis), Edmond Purdom (Priest), Katya Berger (Katia Bennett), Annie Belle (Emily), Kasimir Berger (Willie), Charles Borromel (Sergeant Engleman), Ted Rusoff (Dr. Kramer)

Directed by Joe D'Amato

The Short Version: Sort-of sequel to D'Amato's gross-out classick turns George Eastman's Greek cannibal into Michael Myers; and Edmund Purdom's scientist of the cloth into Dr. Loomis. There's a fleeting connection to ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) in this follow-up with a little more to chew on; and a handful of references to current American slashers (and foreshadowing slashers to come) that share screen time with some unique, excruciating death scenes. The pacing lags in spots, but the wild, nearly incomprehensible plot is occasionally tense and surprisingly entertaining overall. ABSURD is just that.

A mysterious Greek man is mortally wounded while being pursued by a strange priest. Undergoing emergency surgery in the hospital, it's discovered the Greek is virtually immortal--possessing the ability to repair damaged cells. The police learn that the priest is a biochemist and the insane man escaped from his lab in Greece; and that the only way to put an end to the hulking monster is to destroy his brain, the one organ that doesn't regenerate. Meanwhile, the murderous man leaves a trail of corpses before terrorizing the occupants of a villa--including a babysitter and two youngsters--one of which is Katia, a bedridden, teen-aged girl suffering from a spinal injury, who must escape the vicious monster before she becomes his next victim.

Joe D'Amato's gut-crunching cult favorite ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) was an international success so it didn't take much to convince producers and D'Amato himself to bring the Grim Reaper back for round two. With the release of FRIDAY THE 13TH in 1980, the slasher movie was about to explode; yet the precedent for the resuscitated killer returning for sequels hadn't been firmly established so Joe D'Amato (Aristide Massaccesi) and George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori) were unsung pioneers to a degree.

1981 was a banner year for slasher movies and two of the genres big guns-FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 and HALLOWEEN 2--were released that year. The former was Jason Voorhees's maiden voyage that saw him avenging the death of his mother; the latter had Michael Myers take six bullets before getting up and killing again on that same Halloween night; but George Eastman's 6'9" cannibal man required a bit more effort into his return.

Since the title flesh-consumer was last seen gorging on his own innards, how to logically bring him back presented a problem. While not really a direct sequel, it was marketed as one in some territories. The links to the first film are ambiguous at best, but more on that later. 

To his credit, George Eastman (yes, he's the writer, too!) devised a less ridiculous scenario than what the writers of HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION (2002) came up with two decades later in bringing Michael Myers back after he was decapitated in HALLOWEEN: H20 (1996). And with HALLOWEEN (1978) being an obvious influence on Eastman for the second sanguinary sojourn, there's more than a few similarities between them; as well as some original ideas that sets Eastman's lumbering butcher apart from your finer garden variety slashers.

Eastman's script (billed as John Cart for his writing credit) is vague on details, focusing on the scientific as opposed to supernatural means in what keeps his killer going. In this case, it's cell regeneration that makes Eastman's unstoppable killer so unstoppable. He never delves into what sort of experiments the priest was working on or why the crazed Nikos was his patient. Much like HALLOWEEN (1978), Eastman may have been intentionally leaving things to the imagination in the same way Carpenter did in presenting Michael Myers as a force of evil.

Some other nods to Carpenter's seminal classic include referring to the regenerating maniac as "the boogyman"; and the presence of a babysitter watching over two youngsters for the night. In ABSURD, the role of the babysitter is not the 'Final Girl'; that popular genre convention is reserved for an unlikely candidate in the form of Katia, a young teenager suffering from a spinal injury. This unique concept is easily the most creative addition to Eastman's script--even giving the film one helluva final shot to end the film on.

And whereas the Italians were famous for being influenced by American productions, it would appear that ABSURD--unwittingly or not--laid the groundwork for some of the American counterparts... like SILENT RAGE (1982), the only slasher movie to star Chuck Norris. Released in 1982, Chuck had to Karate chop, kick, run over, and throw off buildings, a maniac stupidly brought back to life by mad scientists via a serum that repaired damaged cells rendering him invulnerable.

The connection between the two ANTHRO films is negligible, but intriguing just the same. The character is still named Nikos and mention is made of him having been lost at sea. That's where the bridge ends with the first movie. Just for kicks, one could use their imagination in "filling in the blanks" by saying Nikos was found on the Greek Isle by the priest. Barely alive, he was taken under his care and experimented on to cure him of his insanity and craving of human flesh. This led to his inexplicable ability to naturally repair severe wounds.

Owing a lot to the slasher craze, ABSURD swipes a bit from the cinematic zombie outbreak of the time by stipulating the only method to kill Nikos is by shooting him in the head; or separating his noggin from his shoulders. Regarding said head removal, one can't help but think of Russell Mulcahy's wildly popular HIGHLANDER (1986) when it's divulged Nikos is immortal! 

ABSURD (1981) has some fascinating ideas along with the familiar ones, there just isn't a lot of plot orbiting around them. The film does slow down somewhat once the action settles at the Bennett house. It's here where the most tense moments occur, only these would be more effective if some fat had been shaved off in the editing room. Moreover, the English version runs 94 minutes (more dialog and extended, non-gory bits) while the Italian is a brisk 88 minutes. Some scenes go on too long--particularly a group of adults gathering to watch a football game in what amounts to some unintentional humor. Shot entirely in Italy, D'Amato and Eastman attempt to convey an American suburban setting, and fail terribly at it.

What keeps the movie alive are the gore effects and George Eastman himself--lumbering from one scene to the next, enthusiastically killing off the cast. He plays the character in much the same fashion as the prior movie--wild-eyed and grunting his sole form of communication--only he has a full head of hair and it doesn't look like oatmeal has been glued to his face.

Having met D'Amato during the shooting of  the THEY CALL ME TRINITY knock-off BEN AND CHARLIE (1972), Eastman and the versatile filmmaker formed a duo of their own that lasted nearly 20 years. Their most notorious collaboration came with the aforementioned ANTHROPOPHAGUS (aka THE GRIM REAPER aka THE SAVAGE ISLAND, etc); an occasionally suspenseful slasher sabotaged by technical flaws.

Edmund Purdom was a British actor of repute for approximately two decades between the 1950s and 1960s. When the 1970s rolled around, he began appearing in productions that catered to the exploitation crowd like THE DEVIL'S LOVER (1972) and FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS (1974). This sort of work dominated his resume in the 1980s with roles in films like PIECES (1982), 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK (1983) and DON'T OPEN TILL CHRISTMAS (1984).

His unnamed character in ABSURD is a somewhat wasted opportunity. After the first 30 minutes, he's absent for long stretches of the movie. The idea of a priest who is also a scientist seeking a killer he is responsible for is an intriguing one; if only Eastman explored the character to any degree. He's more successful at capturing a meager atmosphere of HALLOWEEN (1978) via Eastman's killer and Purdom's priest. The latter even gets some brief dialog in the spirit of Donald Pleasence's Loomis with "... he's not a man anymore, he's a creature of evil." Just don't expect Purdom to approach the role with the same level of gusto as Pleasence did.

Released in the 1980s under a number of titles, one of the most prominent was MONSTER HUNTER; a Wizard Video VHS release with some incredible box art that had very little to do with the actual movie. With its 2018 US debut on blu-ray via Severin, the film has never looked better, allowing for a better assessment of D'Amato's work. Due to Eastman's creative penmanship, it's a slight improvement over the previous movie, with a much better score to boot (some cues sound like reworked tracks from Lenzi's CANNIBAL FEROX). It's a silly premise that works in spite of how outrageously ABSURD it is.

This review is representative of the Severin limited edition blu-ray set including ANTHROPOPHAGUS. Specs and extras: 1080p HD 1.85:1; Interview with George Eastman; archive interview with Joe D'Amato; interview with Michele Soavi; trailer; second disc is original soundtrack CD limited to 3,000 units; reversible cover art; running time: 01:33:55 (English dubbed version): 01:28:33 (Italian version w/English subtitles).

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Space Raiders (1983) review


Vince Edwards (Hawk), David Mendenhall (Peter), Patsy Pease (Amanda), Thom Christopher (Flightplan), Luca Bercovici (Ace), Drew Snyder (Aldebaran), Ray Stewart (Zariatin), George Dickerson (Tracton)

Directed by Herman Cohen

The Short Version: The first movie released through Corman's Millennium Films banner after selling New World Pictures is an outer space pirate movie that fails to launch. With barely any new SPX shots, most of the interstellar footage is pilfered from Corman's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980) and some space scraps from the provocative ANDROID (1982) among others. It's not a total barrel-scraper, though; Cohen's movie benefits from some likable performances and witty banter from a cast who strike cool poses that make nice imagery for poster artwork. The malnourished sets, "laser" guns that shoot sparks out of their barrels, and a reliance on space footage from other movies are indicative of the sort of RAIDing being done in this underfunded, derelict SPACE opera.

After stealing a ship for its cargo, space pirate Captain Hawk and his crew discover the ship is empty save for a 10 year boy who got aboard during a firefight. Before they can decide what to do with him, the corporation they robbed sends a robot ship to hunt them down; an ID card worn by the boy allows the huge vessel to track them. Taking a liking to the spunky kid, Hawk and his cohorts go out of their way to return the boy to his home while various cutthroats and the robot ship are in hot pursuit.

Negligible movies like SPACE RAIDERS carry with them a nostalgia factor. They're not very good, but there's something undeniably fun about them that, upon seeing them again years later, you're able to see why it was so good to you once upon a time. Roger Corman was known for his penny-pinching ways, but he was also notable for his uncanny ability to make spare change look like a million bucks. Unfortunately, this is not one of those occasions.

When STAR WARS took the world by storm in 1977, Corman got a piece of the action by spending some 2 million on a space epic of his own with the star-studded BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980); written by John Sayles as SEVEN SAMURAI in outer space. The film was a success and Corman, not one to let anything go to waste, recycled everything from the music to the special effects for numerous later productions--SPACE RAIDERS being the most abusive example. Essentially, it's a film about plundering intergalactic pirates produced by a filmmaker ransacking his own backlog of celluloid booty.

But more on that later... 

Evidenced by the handful of movies he helmed, Howard R. Cohen was a better writer than a director. He wrote the cheap in budget--rich in entertainment value Conan coattail rider DEATHSTALKER (1983); but later directed (and penned) the worst entry in that series with DEATHSTALKER IV: MATCH OF THE TITANS in 1991. SPACE RAIDERS was Cohen's second directorial effort; the first being the enjoyably silly horror spoof SATURDAY THE 14TH (1980). Cohen would later direct the scarily unfunny sequel, SATURDAY THE 14TH STRIKES BACK in 1988. The 1980 horror spoof arguably being his most palatable picture, any and all creativity was sucked out into the vacuum of space when he got around to captaining the cockpit of his less than (inter)stellar outer space opus.

STAR WARS fever was still a palpable Force to be reckoned with in 1983. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) was a guaranteed box office monster set for release in May of that year. Instead of a futile attempt at looting JEDI's takings, Corman's movie blasted off a few weeks earlier that same month to capture some of its momentum. SPACE RAIDERS was the first theatrical release from Roger Corman's Millennium Films; a company he set up after selling New World Pictures to two Hollywood talent lawyers Harry Sloan, Lawrence Kuppin, and producer Larry Thomas.

Prior to the sell, Corman had announced that New World was soon to produce a $5 million adaptation of Marvel Comics' SPIDER MAN. While his movies often made well over a million bucks, it was rare Roger Corman ever spent that much on one of his pictures. Needless to say, that version of SPIDER MAN was never produced (although Corman did manage an unreleased, anemically budgeted, but spirited film version of THE FANTASTIC FOUR in 1994).

One such production Corman did spend over a million dollars was the aforementioned BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980). Sadly, such an expenditure was denied SPACE RAIDERS--the sort of film that needed it. This lack of funds is visible in every aspect of the production. Ironically, it's Cohen's 'Saturday Matinee' style script and spunky performances that makes this an enjoyable experience rather than the expected special effects sequences this type of movie is built around.

As mentioned above, SPACE RAIDERS not only lifted most of the space shots from BATTLE but its music as well. Composed by James Horner (STAR TREK 2, KRULL, TITANIC), cues from his soundtrack for HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1980) were also utilized. 

Additionally, some shots from FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982) are used; and even the low budgeted ANDROID (1982) had some of its models raided for Cohen's space pirate non-epic. Some new mattes, brief stop-motion animation; some cheap monster masks; a few shots of asteroids and some new shots of BATTLE's booby ship are all that's new (many of which are scattered throughout this review). The same two explosions are seen over and over; and even shots of guys falling after being zapped by the sparkler laser guns are repeated. BATTLE's deep space dog fights were boringly staged to begin with; ships flying in straight lines, and rarely with more than one seen on screen at once.

The set design fares no better. The landfill in space decor looks like junk electronic parts cluttered everywhere. There wasn't even enough money allotted for laser effects. The cast have what amounts to futuristic cap guns that fire sparks. The sound FX are good although some of those are recycled from GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) and the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA television series. Made up of a literal salvage yard of spare parts, SPACE RAIDERS is one of Corman's most economically efficient, if creatively barren motion pictures ever produced.

The performances are, along with the storyline, the best attribute.

Vince Edwards as former Space Force Colonel C.W. Hawkins--now just Captain Hawk, is an effective leader of the pirates; playing the role like a wizened old patriarch. He takes a genuine liking to the young stowaway (played by David Mendenhall); acting as a role model for the boy. Cohen's father-son relationship between the two is what anchors the movie--with both actors doing a great job garnering a lot of audience sympathy.

Best known as the lead in the popular hospital drama BEN CASEY (1961-1968), Edwards initially had a high-profile career that, by the 1970s, turned into high-profile trash with films like THE DESPERADOES (1969) and THE MAD BOMBER (1973); and continuing into the 1980s with such pictures as THE SEDUCTION (1982), RETURN TO HORROR HIGH (1987), and CELLAR DWELLER (1988). Edwards died in March of 1996 from pancreatic cancer.

At 12 years old, David Mendenhall made his film debut in SPACE RAIDERS playing the ten year old Peter; an imaginative, enterprising young kid who stealthily hops aboard a spaceship manned by thieves who steal cargo for a living. None of the cast of cutthroats likes him at first, but eventually, the crew warm up to him, as does the audience. Again, the camaraderie is easily the most appealing aspect of the movie and Mendenhall is a key proponent. Outside of their mannerisms and periphery information, we don't learn a lot about the "good guys" in Hawk's company; but we like them through their interaction with Peter.

For SciFi fans, the most welcome face (even though you never see his face) is Thom Christopher as the telekinetic alien Flightplan. Two years earlier, Christopher played another alien in the second, and last season of BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (1979-1981). On that show, he was a half-human, half-bird man named--like Vince Edwards in SPACE RAIDERS--Hawk. An imposing presence even under heavy makeup, Christopher turned up again in a few other motion pictures--one of which was playing the main villain in DEATHSTALKER III: THE WARRIORS FROM HELL (1988), written by Howard R. Cohen and directed by Alfonso Corona, the well known Mexican director known on these shores for such classic Mexi-horrors as WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES (1961) and SANTO VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN (1962). Incidentally, the third DEATHSTALKER movie likewise reused James Horner's BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS music.

Cinema everyman Luca Bercovici is not only one of the busiest thespians in the cast, but he possesses one of the most varied and colorful careers. A really good actor (with roles in movies like 1982s PARASITE and 1983s FRIGHTMARE), he not only worked with numerous big names, but eventually moved on to a successful career as a director as well, guiding low budget cult items like GHOULIES (1985) and erotic thrillers like DARK TIDE (1994) and the gory comic horror of THE GRANNY (1995).

Patsy Pease as Amanda resists the kid's charms the longest, stating at one point she doesn't like them. That's about the extent of her character that's learned about. She's got charisma to spare when she's onscreen and strikes some cool comic book style poses with her spark gun. Both before and after SPACE RAIDERS, Pease became an accomplished actress on various daytime soap operas.

Nowadays, a movie like SPACE RAIDERS would go straight to video; but in 1983, you could still see this type of microscopically budgeted movie in a theater. It played in my small town back then for a week or two. I never saw a trailer; just the title on the marquee. Being a big STAR WARS fan, the word 'space' caught my attention as did the word 'raiders'--it reminiscent of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)... and back then, who didn't like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK? As an 8 year old kid, it was a fun experience; and the barely half full theater seemed to feel the same way. People laughed in the right places, and even felt a bit of sadness in others. I wouldn't see BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS till a few years later on WGGT-TV channel 48 on a Saturday afternoon. A sense of Deja vu overcame me in relation to virtually all of the space sequences since Cohen's movie used so many of them.

Of Roger Corman's space-set catalog, SPACE RAIDERS is near the bottom, nestled atop others like 1991s DEAD SPACE--a remake of FORBIDDEN WORLD, and another Corman cribber. What redeems SPACE RAIDERS is its heart; and it has a surprising amount of it predominantly due to the actors. The story is affectionately told even if there wasn't much passion behind the practice of scraping together shots from a multitude of sources to tell it.

This review is representative of the Scorpion Releasing Blu-ray limited to 2,000 units (Blu-ray). Specs and Extras: Brand new 16x9 HD Master from the original IP in 1.78:1; Interviews with star David Mendenhall, producer Roger Corman, production supervisor Clark Henderson; Original theatrical trailer; trailers for SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE; SEIZURE; THE DIRT BIKE KID; WOMBLING FREE; Running time: 01:23:18

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