Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Reel Bad Cinema: The Last Shark (1981) review


James Franciscus (Peter Benton), Vic Morrow (Ron Hamer), Joshua Sinclair (Mayor William Wells)

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari

A rampaging great white shark devours swimmers and anyone who gets into the water in the coastal town of Port Harbor. When the mayor refuses to cancel an annual regatta, a shark specialist and a local shark hunter get together to hunt down and destroy the monster before it kills again.

I don't know what it is with Italians and their propensity for ripping off popular American movies. What is even more perplexing is how brazen they are in interviews when they claim their movie was damaging to the success of the one they are ripping off. Such is the case of THE LAST SHARK from action film ace, Enzo Castellari. Coming from a family of filmmakers, Castellari is very dependable when it comes to delivering kinetic action sequences in both modern style (HIGH CRIME, THE BIG RACKET) and old school spaghetti westerns (7 WINCHESTERS FOR A MASSACRE, KILL THEM ALL & COME BACK ALONE).

James Franciscus takes on the big roaring shark head alone

But when he tries his hand at doing horror, he's fairly unsuccessful. His father did it with gut busting and gut munching gusto with the cult favorite, ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST (1980). When Enzo went for the jugular, his movie fails on most levels. While it's one bright spot is the finale, this Italian imitation is a laughable, note for note rip off of the superior JAWS (1975) and JAWS 2 (1978). As most people know by now, fraudulent producer, Edward L. Montoro (GRIZZLY, DAY OF THE ANIMALS) imported the film under his Film Ventures International banner. After a couple weeks in release Universal got a court injunction to get the film yanked from American theaters.

To hear those involved in this European production say it, Universal was scared of the thunder THE LAST JAWS was stealing from the first summer blockbuster that was JAWS. Now, when you do a comparison between the two movies there is no doubt that the Italian movie is inferior in all departments. How anyone could think Castellari's movie would be any serious competition for Spielberg's picture, or is even one iota of the craftsmanship of that seminal shark flick is beyond comprehension.

The big roaring shark head with the round mouth attacks some people on a ripped apart pier

About the only major difference between the two is that in Spielberg's film, there is a genuine sense of dread and you rarely see the shark save for the end. In the Italian clone, they rub this lifeless model in your face at every available opportunity and it even roars! If seeing a runaway Thanksgiving day float pop out of the water wasn't enough, we get to hear it bellow loudly. The shark itself changes size from shot to shot. At some points it looks a bit like a rubber dolphin. In others it's stock footage of sharks of varying size. In one shot, it just sits there in the water and looks much smaller than the model that frequently pops out of the water during the last half.

The mostly lifeless shark model snacks on an equally lifeless helicopter model

Another difference is there is a bit more gore. People are bit in half, have their legs ripped off, etc. The mayor goes one step further than Murray Hamilton did in JAWS (1975). He decides to head out to sea in a helicopter to try and kill the shark. Instead, he gets eaten and causes the helicopter to be pulled into the water by the rampaging shark head. We also get a shot of the model fish pulling a model copter beneath the waves.

Quint (Vic Morrow) and Brody (James Franciscus) attempt to convince the mayor (Joshua Sinclair) to close the, wrong movie...Ron (Vic Morrow) and Peter (James Franciscus) attempt to convince the mayor (Joshua Sinclair) to stop the regatta before swimmers and daysailers are killed by the huge, fake, roaring shark head

You could go on and on about how awful this movie is. The performances are terrible and American actors Franciscus and Morrow (who have both seen FAR better days) attempt to keep a straight face throughout doing their best Brody and Quint impersonations respectively. I will say this--it's far more entertaining than JAWS THE REVENGE (1987), but not nearly as "good" as JAWS 3D (1983).

Castellari rips off another Italian for this shot lifted from TENTACLES (1976)

Castellari should have been ashamed of himself for this often times embarrassing piece of shit. But the JAWS clones didn't stop here. Others include Joe D'Amato's boring DEEP BLOOD from 1989 and Bruno Mattei's hilarious knee slapper CRUEL JAWS (1995) which uses stock footage from both Castellari's crapfest and D'Amato's sleep inducing chore. Other similar movies include Lamberto Bava's DEVOURING WAVES (1985) and two KILLER CROCODILE movies from the late 1980's. Ovidio Assonitis got in on the act with the superior TENTACLES (1976). That film, while not really a JAWS clone at all, often gets lumped in with those that are. However, if it weren't for the success of JAWS, it's likely we wouldn't have seen that, or been "blessed" with Castellari's celluloid disgrace.

THE LAST SHARK (1981) may never get an official US release on DVD, but it has been released pretty much everywhere else on the digital format. It recently saw a release on a Swedish label and also a nice quality release in its native Italy. No English options on the latter, though. It apparently was popular in Japan as it's been released there as have so many Italian exploitation non-classics in the same vein. I like terrible movies as much as the next guy, but when the director of movies like KEOMA (1976) turns in work like this, it begs the question, "Why?" You'll either love it, or hate. For die hard cheese mongers, approach with caution, it's got mold on it and I aint talkin' Gorgonzola.

The Burning (1981) review


Brian Matthews (Todd), Leah Ayres (Michelle), Brian Backer (Alfred), Larry Joshua (Glazer), Ned Eisenberg (Eddy), Jason Alexander (Dave), Fisher Stevens (Woodstock), Holly Hunter (Sophie), Lou David (Cropsy)

Directed by Tony Maylam

***WARNING! This review contains pics of graphic violence and nudity***

When a camp prank goes horribly wrong, Cropsy, the now deformed caretaker of Camp Blackfoot returns to stalk and kill a group of campers out of revenge for the terrible accident that burned his body beyond recognition five years prior.

This popular 80's slasher had a reputation long before its American DVDebut in uncut form. It was one of those movies that held a great deal of anticipation for horror fans anxious to see it in its unexpurgated version after hearing so much about Tom Savini's grand gore effects. When it finally made its appearance on the digital format in the US in late 2007, it didn't disappoint most fans who were familiar with it.

I remember renting the old Thorn EMI/HBO Video VHS and not being very impressed with the movie. It has some cool moments, but you had to wade through a lot of muck to get to them. The same holds true for the DVD. While it looks great and the cinematography perfectly captures the New York forests aiding the atmosphere immensely, the movie is still kind of a frequent bore. Watching it yet again the other night, my opinion has changed a bit. The characters are the typical nerds, geeks and assholes inherent in every slasher movie, and a lot of time is spent getting to know them. After the first ten minutes, there's not another death scene till the 49 minute mark.

The film itself has quite a pedigree which only adds to the films status on the slasher popularity poll. The Weinstein's got their start in the business working as producers and writers on the picture. Several popular television and screen alumni started out here such as Jason (SEINFELD) Alexander, stage and small screen actor, Fisher Stevens and Holly (RAISING ARIZONA) Hunter. Rick Wakeman, of the band Yes, handled the score for the movie. Jack Sholder, the director of the superior slasher, ALONE IN THE DARK and THE HIDDEN was the editor and an individual by the name of Corky Burger was a presenter.

THE BURNING is pretty much interchangeable from any other slasher movie of the time, particularly those of the 'killer in the woods' variety. There are others that I think are better (MADMAN) and there are those I think are inferior (THE FINAL TERROR). THE BURNING falls in between there. It has several good horror moments, but not really enough to make it stand out from the pack, at least in my eyes. The film begins good enough with its setup showing Cropsy being burned up and the eventual hospital scene where he hear a voiceover state the skin grafts didn't take.

After the opening credits, it does something different from the usual 'killer in the woods' motif. Cropsy is in the city fresh out of the hospital and pays for a hooker. When she takes a gander at his mishapen face and shows distaste for his appearance, he kills her with a pair of scissors to the stomach. There's also an editing mistake here. You can see that the scissors are cut off when the camera stays on too long when the killer pulls the implement away.

With the film taking so long to get to the red stuff, there are several great build ups and false scares. The bulk of the action doesn't happen till the last 20 minutes. One of the best sequences and the one that seems to get the most mention is the raft scene where five characters are killed off all at one time. When their rafts suddenly disappear, the campers all split up to find them. One group builds their own raft and locates one of the canoes a good distance from their location. Investigating, they discover that Cropsy is waiting for them and kills them all with his garden shears, his weapon of choice.

The ending also eschews the usual "final girl". In this case, it's a "final guy", or more accurately, two final guys. It's suitably gory and itself contains a few false scares (as well as a twist) till the killer is finally dead. Tom Savini provided his patented realistic gore effects and the burn make up on Cropsy. The original ending was supposed to have taken place inside a cave, but unsafe conditions kept that from happening. Even with all the ratings problems this production went through, seeing it now, it's a bit tame when compared with other Savini gore spectaculars such as MANIAC and THE PROWLER (both 1980).

While it seems to have a fairly healthy following, casual horror fans, or impatient viewers accustomed to Hollywood's current means of keeping them entertained by a "thrill a minute" will most likely be bored with this movie when people aren't being butchered. Recommended for slasher and 80's horror enthusiasts only.

This review is representative of the MGM DVD

Hell Night (1981) review


Linda Blair (Marti), Vincent Van Patten (Seth), Peter Barton (Jeff), Kevin Brophy (Peter), Jenny Neumann (May), Suki Goodwin (Denise), Jimmy Sturtevant (Scott)

Directed by Tom DeSimone

In order to become members of Alpha Sigma Rho fraternity, four pledges must spend the night in creepy Garth Manor. But this abominable abode has a terrible history. 15 years before Raymond Garth massacred his entire family save for one of his sons who witnessed the entire gruesome act. Of the four murders and one suicide, only three corpses were discovered. Andrew, the remaining son, was never found and is believed to be living somewhere within the walls of the ominous house.

In between slashers in the woods and various holiday hacking horrors, Compass International Pictures released this moderately successful combination of both the slasher movie and the haunted house horror. Tom DeSimone, who directed the enjoyable 'Women In Prison' send up, REFORM SCHOOL GIRLS (1986), took the reigns of this nifty little spook show. I remember first catching it on HBO in the early 80's and it scared the hell out of me. There's lots of great goosebump inducing moments ably supported by an ace score from Dan Wyman, who also composed the alien soundtrack for the fan favorite, WITHOUT WARNING (1980).

The house itself is a terrifying construct and brilliantly lit on both the outside and inside. And that's not counting all the hidden tunnels beneath the monstrous mansion by which the killers (yes, I said killers) maneuver about in order to stalk their prey. Just the lighting in general and the way the film is lit is striking. Even the oldeworld costumes the four main characters wear accentuates the Gothic atmosphere put off by the house itself. There's so much about this movie I like. It's one of my favorite horror films and one I frequently revisit.

While it has so much going for it with its eerie ambiance, great score and some choice scares, it lacks what so many people watch these movies for and that's gore. While it's not without splashy effects (there's a decapitation, impalements and a head twisted completely around among others), it doesn't get overly extreme, but it doesn't need to. The picture also benefits from an awesome climax.

Linda Blair plays Marti, one of the pledges and also a resourceful heroine. Blair does a lot of screaming (and bouncing) in this movie. I've always been a fan of her movies and she's always reminded me of Jamie Lee Curtis when it comes to her scream queen status. She appeared in a great many genre and exploitation movies after her big break in THE EXORCIST (1973).

There was ROLLER BOOGIE (1979), RUCKUS (1981), a movie very similar to the following years FIRST BLOOD and whose trailer marketed it as a comedy in the SMOKEY & THE BANDIT vein. She starred in the sleaze favorite, CHAINED HEAT (1983), the mega violent SAVAGE STREETS (1984) and also the tasteless comedy cult film, NIGHT PATROL (1984). Blair also was a producer and co star in the little seen and bizarre horror/revenge movie, GROTESQUE (1988).

One of the best scenes has Jeff and Marti holed up in a room waiting in the hopes that Seth will return with the police. The camera is a bit off center giving us a view of the room behind them. Slowly, something begins to rise beneath the carpet on the floor behind them. It's one of the killers and upon stabbing the creature with a pitchfork, it is revealed that there's a basement that leads into the caves beneath the huge mansion. This is one of those classic HALLOWEEN (1978) style moments where people in the foreground are oblivious to something going on in the background.

For years I assumed that one of the killers was the father of the Garth family and the other is, of course, Andrew. But on the commentary track the filmmakers state that it was another brother. It's stated before the pledges enter the mansion that only three corpses were found about the grounds, but there were four murders. In the caves below the house, two rotted corpses are there in addition to a fresh one. Only Andrew is mentioned as hiding within the house of horror. It's never quite clear just who the other killer is. Marti makes a comment at one point that maybe there were other Garth's no one knew about.

HELL NIGHT (1981) is one of my most fondly remembered horror movies of the 1980's and one that has a large following. It also has its detractors, too. It's not an overly gory movie outside of a gruesome 'severed head in a bed' gag and a bloody scythe murder. It's got some choice jump moments, a good storyline and a damn creepy location. Any Blair fans should definitely check it out. Those looking for a FRIDAY THE 13TH style slaughterthon might be disappointed, though.

This review is representative of the Anchor Bay DVD.

The Revenge of Spartacus (1964) review


Roger Browne (Valerio), Giacomo Rossi-Stuart (Fulvio), Scilla Gabel (Cinzia), Gordon Mitchell (Arminio), Daniele Vargas (Trasone), Germano Longo (Marcello), Giovanni Pazzafini (Muzio), Pietro Ceccarelli (rebel)

"We must remain united...and we must revenge for Spartacus!"

Valerio (Roger Browne) and Arminio (Gordon Mitchell) form an uneasy alliance

The remaining followers of Spartacus remove his crucified body and spread the word that the rebel slave is still alive. However, it is later learned that the famed freedom fighter died from his wounds. Meanwhile, a Roman legionnaire named Valerio returns to Rome and joins in the search for the remaining Spartan warriors. With orders to kill any followers, Valerio discovers too late his family was harboring one of the rebels which turns out to be his brother, Marcello, who manages to escape. His family slain, Valerio takes to the mountains and joins the resistance led by Arminio. It is discovered too late that the treacherous Arminio was working with the Romans all along and that the rescue of Spartacus was an elaborate plot to eliminate his followers.

Gordon Mitchell (left) and Pietro Ceccarelli (right)

Michele Lupo directs the first of his obscure (at least in the US) gladiator trilogy that continued with SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST THE WORLD (1964) and concluded with SEVEN REBEL GLADIATORS (1965). None of the three films are connected save for the same cast and crew. Whereas the next two installments had a high comedy quotient spearheaded by the participation of midget performer Arnaldo Fabrizio, this entry is dead serious save for a brawl in a grain mill. Having now seen all of Lupo's peplum and fusto films, I've noticed he had a penchant for utilizing sporadic comical moments although here, he eschews that approach entirely.

Mitchell gets rough with the gorgeous Scilla Gabel

This film is a rousing revenge story peppered generously with undercranked action sequences and a stirringly opulent and romantic score from Francesco De Masi. It's probably the best historical soundtrack I've heard from this underrated composer. He must have been a favorite of Lupo's as De Masi worked on many more of his movies including all of his costume epics. He also contributed a very nice score for Lupo's excellent spaghetti western ARIZONA COLT (1966) starring genre mega star, Guiliano Gemma.

Valerio (Roger Browne) arrives home just as his brother races past him and Roman soldiers are slaughtering his family

Roger Browne totally gets into his role as Valerio. The scene where he is walking home to see his family and a slew of Roman soldiers rushes past him towards his home is one of the best in the movie. He quickly runs home as fast as he can only to find his family slaughtered by the soldiers. He goes inside and finds them looting the house. It is at this point he throws away his life as a soldier and becomes a fugitive. He kills the Romans and heads off to join the Spartan renegades and gets into a relationship with a woman named Cinzia played by the astounding beauty, Scilla Gabel.

Arminio threatens to kill a young boy

Gordon Mitchell was the single most imposing actor in the muscleman canon. He had a striking face akin to the leathery looks of Charles Bronson. Chiseled in granite, Mitchell was also one of the best and most energetic of the actors to appear in these movies. He really got into his roles and truly shined in THE FURY OF ACHILLES in 1962. He was also one lucky bastard getting to share the stage with Chelo Alonso in his first outing in MACISTE IN THE LAND OF THE CYCLOPS (1961) released here as ATLAS AGAINST THE CYCLOPS. Mitchell was one of the most successful American actors to appear in Italian genre movies. Mitchell also returned in Lupo's next installment, SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST THE WORLD (1964).

Nello Pazzafini third from left

Spaghetti western favorite, Nello Pazzafini (billed here as Giovanni Pazzafini) featured in countless of these movies, but he gets a lot of screen time and a handful of dialog sequences.

Brothers reunited, Marcello tells Valerio what happened to Spartacus and the rebels

What makes THE REVENGE OF SPARTACUS so immersive is its storyline, some stand out performances and that wonderful score by De Masi that brings it all together. This is truly one of the best of the last in the peplum cycle. This is one of the relatively few serious and dramatic sword and sandal films during a time when the bulk of them were either comical, or an excuse for non stop mindless action scenes. Curiously, the opening of the film is in bad shape and appears either sliced in from another source, or was so badly damaged, it couldn't be repaired to the splendor of the rest of the film. The film quality becomes impeccable once Mitchell and company kill the guards and remove Spartacus from the cross.

The antagonists--Fulvio (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) and Trasone (Daniele Vargas)

One of the best scenes is during the finale. Trasone and his Roman army along with the traitorous Arminio casually ride along the beach marveling at the dozens upon dozens of dead rebels, young and old. Trasone begins to laugh at all the impaled, bloodied bodies and the rest of his regiment do likewise. What they don't realize is that a good number of these "corpses" are merely playing, waiting for the Romans to pass over.

The only thing that hurts the movie in my opinion is the closing fight between Browne and Mitchell. Mitchell cleans house and has a nice fight with Browne, but the way Mitchell's character is finished off is kind of cheap. It's as if the filmmakers said, "Okay, we are out of time, let's get it over with." The last scene is touching as the women and oldsters wait impatiently by the sea not far from the battle hoping their loved ones are victorious. All in all, it leads to a very satisfying conclusion and two sequel/follow ups with virtually the same cast.

Sword and Sandal fans definitely need to seek this one out. It's well worth your time and the print is gorgeous. Oddly, some of these Eagle Pictures releases are in 1:78 wide. They're all 2:35 up until the credits then they revert to a different ratio. There doesn't appear to be much compromised, though. At any rate, you will never find a legit release for these titles any time soon, if ever at all. No English subs, or dubs, which is to be expected. Italian subs are available, though, and you can make do with translating them using babelfish.

Michele Lupo was a fine director of torch and toga epics. This production is the best of his films in this genre. It's easily the most dramatic and poignant which is due in no small part to that damn fine score by Francesco De Masi.

This review is representative of the R2 Italian PAL DVD from Eagle Pictures.

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