Sunday, September 12, 2021

Endgame (1983) review

Al Cliver (Ron Shannon), Laura Gemser (Lilith), George Eastman (Kurt Karnak), Gabriele Tinti (Bull), Hal Yamanouchi (Ninja), Gordon Mitchell (Colonel Morgan), Mario Pedone (Kovack), Dino Conti (Professor Levin), Nello Pazzafini (Kijawa), Christopher Walsh (Tommy), Franco Ukmar (Stark), Bobby Rhodes (Woody Aldridge), Alberto Dell'Acqua (Gabe Mantrax)
Directed by Joe D'Amato (as Steven Benson)
The Short Version: Joe D'Amato's surprisingly entertaining post-apocalyptic, Orwellian adventure starts out as a junkier version of Richard Connell's short story 'The Most Dangerous Game' by way of Lucio Fulci's flashy THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983); then quickly transforms into 'The Magnificent Seven In the Wasteland'. No matter the influences and current relevancy, this Italian hodgepodge is a blast. There's barely a budget, but lots of bang for those few bucks.

Ron Shannon, Endgame champion for 22 years, agrees to sit out the 23rd as a hunter and be the hunted for the seventh time; tracked by three specially selected predators over a 12 hour period in the internationally televised, human-hunting sporting event. During the game, Shannon encounters a mutant named Lilith. Part of a segment of society gifted with the ability of telepathy, the government wants them all wiped out over fears they will eventually overthrow their tyrannical rule. She offers Shannon a job escorting her and a group of other mutants to a safe haven 200 miles away from the totalitarian city limits. To do this, Shannon needs more men for the journey where they encounter human-animal mutations, cannibals, a crazed, black-robed and blind band of cultists, and the government's militaristic police force led by Colonel Morgan. Following not far behind is Shannon's arch nemesis, Karnak; who wishes a final duel with Shannon to End the Game.

Aristide Massaccesi, aka Joe D'Amato (and numerous other pseudonyms) directed a lot of crap in his career; and then he helmed some genuinely exceptional, and highly entertaining motion pictures. One distinguishable trait between the good and bad is that the humble D'Amato had a signature style that alerted viewers to whose movie they were watching if they happened to miss the opening credits. The ghoulish BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979), aka BURIED ALIVE, is arguably the best movie of his lengthy resume. ENDGAME deserves a spot at the top of that list, too; and, according to D'Amato himself, it's his favorite film of his career.

Another in the string of Italian-made, post-apocalyptic adventures, ENDGAME (1983) combines Richard Connell's short story 'The Most Dangerous Game' with THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954); or, its more commercially viable remake THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), if you prefer. The first 30 minutes is not only a futuristic version of Connell's oft-filmed story, but it manages to cram the entirety of Fulci's classier, more polished WARRIORS OF THE YEAR 2072 (1983) into that first quarter (but minus the dueling motorcycles).
After that, it's Cliver and Laura Gemser (under the pseudonym of Moira Chen) wandering the gravel pits in Rome to recruit mercenaries to escort the mutants to an unnamed safe-zone. Mutants are something ENDGAME has in plentiful supply. The dubbing refers to the peaceful telepaths as mutants; but there's also the cannibalistic lepers, and the ape and fish people variety of man's evolutionary regression. 
The rest of the cast is a cool collage of D'Amato regulars and genre favorites like Gabriele Tinti (THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW), Hal Yamanouchi (2020 TEXAS GLADIATORS), Bobby Rhodes (DEMONS), Nello Pazzafini (ARIZONA COLT), Gordon Mitchell (THE FURY OF ACHILLES), Alberto Dell'Acqua (SEVEN GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS), and a brief appearance by Michele Soavi (CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD) before he hit the big time as Italy's last major director of horror pictures.
The pacing seldom lets up as our heroes go from one set-piece to the next. Gas is generally in short supply in these movies but energy is something ENDGAME never run out of. Shot in and around an abandoned factory, the filmmakers make do with very little resources. Stunts are minimal, and mostly limited to a few guys crashing their bikes into the mud and a cool jump over some cars. One character's exit from the picture ends in a head-on collision and explosion. There are no car chases that these movies normally demand, but so much happens in D'Amato's movie you don't even notice it.

Popular cult actor George Eastman wrote the script (as Alex Carver), punctuating it with plenty of action and an array of characters that encapsulates the Quest paradigm more successfully than other films of this style. After ENDGAME, Eastman would also write 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS (1983) and start the film as its director; but shortly into production, lost confidence in being able to complete the job, so he asked D'Amato to take the reigns.

Eastman's ENDGAME script places its exploitation value within the framework of an all-controlling government--not unlike the direction our own is headed--that watches your every move and benefits monetarily from the public's misery. This government has partnered itself with various corporations and the entertainment industry to keep the masses under control; those not immediately deemed undesirable, that is. 
We learn there's a contingent of society that has the power of telepathy. The government fears them because they believe these telekinetic freedom-lovers may one day overthrow the tyrannical overlords; so the black-clad, masked, secret police force seeks out these individualists with special powers to exterminate them.

The character Eastman plays (Kurt Karnak) is arguably the best major role he ever essayed this side of the Anthropophagus Beast. Wearing a cool black and red outfit and sporting a shotgun, Eastman's Karnak is unique in that he's basically a villain, but an honorable, anti-hero type. He follows our heroes throughout their journey, even helping them out on occasion, and saying little. The mystique as to where his allegiance lies is key to Eastman having written the best portrayal for himself. The rest of the characters, colorful as they are, are largely one-dimensional in comparison.

A familiar face in European exploitation movies, Al Cliver (alias Pier Luigi Conti) is a curious choice for a leading man in a movie like this, but he makes it work despite his face never moving. It's the sort of wooden acting style of numerous Italian westerns where the protagonist uses actions in the place of words. Cliver may have been channeling Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken minus the style.
With Plissken in mind, these movies tend to riff off of either ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981) or THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981). Some show influence from Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (1979), like Enzo Castellari's BRONX WARRIORS series. D'Amato's Italian title links itself to Castellari's popular series as well as the others mentioned. Like Fulci's WARRIORS OF THE YEAR 2072 (1983), ENDGAME appears to have influenced Paul Michael Glaser's THE RUNNING MAN (1987) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. THE RUNNING MAN was based on a Stephen King novel (under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman) written in 1982. It's entirely possible the Italians read the novel; but if not, it's one of the only times an American production--whether consciously or otherwise--would seem to have ripped off the Italian one.
The END of the GAME both closes things out with an unexpected display of Jedi powers, and a final scene that sets up a sequel that never came. Nonetheless, it's a satisfying finish to a highly entertaining, if cheaply made adventure.

This review is representative of the Severin blu-ray. Specs and Extras: 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English dubbed and Italian language versions; English subs; George Eastman interview; trailer; Bonus CD of the film's soundtrack; running time: 01:36:46

Monday, August 2, 2021

Stingray (1978) review

Christopher Mitchum (Al), Les Lannom (Elmo), William Watson (Murray Lonigan), Bert Hinchman (Tony Abrosio), Sherry Jackson (Abigail "Baby Doll" Bratowski), Cliff Emmich (Roscoe), Sondra Theodore (Hitchhiker), Steve Snyder (Bug), John Carl Buechler (The Flamer)

Directed by Richard Taylor

The Short Version: STINGRAY is SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT with bloody shootouts. An Action-Comedy rubber-burner, this recently unearthed Director's Cut reinstates some 8 minutes of scenes and bloody violence cut from the film's original theatrical release. Chris Mitchum and Les Lannom drive fast with a million in drugs and cash unknowingly stashed in their Stingray. With the bad guys in hot pursuit, Sherry Jackson takes the wheel and never lets it go as the film's lead villain; a lady terrorist who shoots first and asks questions later. STINGRAY is high-gear entertainment for anyone revved and ready for fast cars and hard thrills.

After a drug deal goes bad, two dealers shoot the undercover cops then chuff the stuff and stash the cash in the backseat of a 1964 Corvette Stingray at a nearby car lot. Going back the next day to retrieve the money and drugs, they, along with their psychotic leader Abigail, discover two guys, Al and Elmo, buying the car. Upon leaving the lot, the two men get pulled over so Abigail does a drive-by, killing both cops while the boys end up taking the blame. With both the drug dealers and the police after them and their Stingray, the chase is on to both clear Al and Elmo's names and evade certain death.

Just when you think every Drive-in style cult flick has had a special edition lavished upon it, you find there's still some gems out there left to discover. STINGRAY (1978) is one of those Drive-in diamonds, dug up and made all shiny again from Dark Force Entertainment. Speeding at 90mph virtually the entire running time, director Richard Taylor only takes his foot off the accelerator in the last ten minutes when the movie goes on a little longer than necessary. Otherwise it's packed with chases and gunfire through the city and rural locations.

Christopher Mitchum (BIG JAKE, RICCO) co-stars with Les Lannom (SOUTHERN COMFORT), as a couple of happy-go-lucky guys who buy the title speedster and end up being chased and fired at all over Edwardsville, Illinois (and some Missouri spots) for reasons initially unknown. Elmo eventually finds the 1 million worth of cocaine hidden in the car and stupidly wants to sell it to make them both rich. 

Something else they're unaware of is that the bad guys had a tracer planted with the goods that allows them to find their location within a three-mile radius. If that weren't bad enough, the vest Tony put in the car that Elmo also finds and wears throughout the movie has a quarter of a million dollars stashed inside of it.

Once they pick up a beautiful hitchhiker (Playboy Playmate, Miss July 1977 Sondra Theodore), things take a slight turn for the better for our duo; they have skills behind the wheel, but less so of the decision-making kind. She makes so much sense one wonders if she isn't connected to the villains. Turns out she's just sharper-brained than Al and Elmo put together. The lovely lady is never even given a name; nor is she integrated into the plot in any major way other than just being some eye candy. Ms. Theodore's first role, she didn't do much else afterwards. A former Sunday school teacher, Ms. Theodore is probably most famous for being Hugh Hefner's girlfriend for a few years; even featured on the 1978 Playboy Pinball Machine.

Mitchum and Lannom do work well together, spending the entire movie avoiding being killed by bumbling bad guys and their loony leader. They do have a slight resemblance--from the hair and build--to Bo and Luke Duke (John Schneider and Tom Wopat) of the iconic DUKES OF HAZZARD (1979-1985) series. Funnily enough, Christopher's brother James co-starred in MOONRUNNERS (1975); the movie that the DUKES was based on.

Leading the charge against our heroes are a couple of drug-dealing buffoons played by William Watson (THE HUNTING PARTY, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER) and Bert Hinchman (who passed away in May of last year). The movie begins in deadly serious fashion with the two crooks blowing away some undercover cops. From there the film quickly descends into comedy. However, the goofiness is intermittently interrupted whenever the script requires some poor victim to be shot or blown up. The jarring shifts in tone may distract some viewers and will surely add to the Drive-in experience for others.
Aside from the numerous car chases, crashes, and shell casings littering the highways, the best thing about the movie is the turbo-charged performance of brunette bombshell, Sherry Jackson. If you're familiar with her, you've never seen Ms. Jackson like this before. She takes the film hostage and is hellbent on never letting it go. Featuring in countless television programs, one of her best-known roles was as Andrea, the half-dressed android in the 'What Are Little Girls Made Of?' episode of the original STAR TREK (1966-1969). She's a literal holy terror in this movie. And when you first see her, she's decked out in a nun's habit and has a mouth like a sailor.

Jackson's Abigail Bratowski is a trigger-happy domestic terrorist armed with an AR-18 rifle and Luger pistol. Easily agitated, she derives some laughs from the insults she gives to random strangers and when she's punching Tony in the face (Bert Hinchman's character) for saying the wrong thing. Then there's the moments where she derives shocks from casually blowing people away. One scene in a bar is pretty funny, though. John Carl Buechler (above at left) tries to get fresh with her and she sets his crotch on fire. Horror fans will recognize Buechler from his many makeup effects work on various horror films; and directing FRIDAY THE 13TH 7: THE NEW BLOOD (1988).
Since the movie is mostly one chase after another between the main characters, the filmmakers do change things up beyond the rural and concrete settings. At one point Al and Elmo get separated. During a sequence at a gas station, Al speeds off and is pursued by Lonigan and Tony while Abigail and the rotund Roscoe pursue Elmo on foot. Eventually, Elmo and Armalite Abby hop on some dirt bikes out in the woods belonging to a lovemaking couple and we now have two chases going on instead of one. It's around this time that the two dope dealing dum-dums contemplate ditching Abigail and making a go on their own.
Taking a detour from the typical good guy vs. bad guy scenario, director Taylor's own script has karma playing a major role in how things are wrapped up. For Al and Elmo, it's in picking up the beautiful hitchhiker. For the double-dealing, homicidal antagonists, it's their own greed that does them all in.
World-famous stunt car driver Carey Loftin is among the stunt guys behind the wheel for the standard, but energetic driving scenes. There's a cool high-diving stunt at the end, so likely champion diver Bobby Sargent pulled that one off. Rounding out the other stunt drivers and performers are Eddie Mulder, John Hateley and Jerry Brutsche.

Something else STINGRAY has going for it is its fast-moving soundtrack; even if some of the cues are far more comical than the film is as a whole. The country twang fits just right and Jerry Riopelle's main theme 'High Gear' is catchy as hell; so you'll likely be humming it after the movie is over.  
Despite the wildly erratic changes in tone, STINGRAY is a ton of fun and arguably one of the best Drive-in movies ever made. In the same camp as other stunt car mash-ups from this period like MOVING VIOLATION (1976) and SPEEDTRAP (1977), STINGRAY stands out by having a bit more under the hood.

This review is representative of the Dark Force Entertainment blu-ray. Specs and Extras: New HD master of the only surviving 35mm version of the Director's Cut; 1080p anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1; interviews with director Richard Taylor, actors Bert Hinchman, Les Lannom, and Sherry Jackson; Edwardsville, Illinois Tour; 'High Gear' music video; 40th Anniversary Q&A with cast and director; original trailer; running time: 01:45:00
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