Monday, December 29, 2014

Raw Force (1982) review



Cameron Mitchell (Capt. Harry Dodds), Geoffrey Binney (Mike O'Malley), Jillian Kessner (Cookie Winchell), Hazel Buck (Hope Holiday), John Dresden (John Taylor), Jennifer Holmes (Ann Davis), Rey King (Go Chin), Carla Reynolds (Eilleen Fox), Ralph Lombardi (Thomas Speer), Vic Diaz (Monk)

Directed by Edward Murphy

The Short Version: Overrated exploitation cult item resembles an R rated version of THE LOVE BOAT produced by Troma and helmed by Andy Sidaris. It also boasts home movie level special effects and some of the worst kung fu fights ever put to screen. Unfortunately, Murphy's script gorges itself on so much comedy that it overpowers the outrageousness of the narrative. The bloody brawl with the Nazi Mexican is a highlight, but most of the time, RAW FORCE just isn't forceful enough. This kung fu and zombie combo is occasionally fun, but is sanitized sleaze at best.

***WARNING! This review contains nudity***

The Burbank Karate Club and various other characters end up stranded on the mysterious Warriors Island, a tropical burial place for disgraced fighters. The island's only inhabitants are Jade hunting mercenaries led by a Nazi reject and cannibalistic, women-hungry monks with the power to raise kung fu zombies from beyond the grave. The Karate chopping castaways must fight their way off the cursed island to avoid becoming a meal for the monks, or a victim of the sword-swinging living dead.

In the mid to late 1970s, kung fu movies were still a very popular attraction, and a number of independent companies made their own versions. These low budget North American interpretations were devoted to retaining the flavor of their Asian counterparts even if the budgets were as bare as the chests in a Chang Cheh macho showcase; and the choreography was about as believable as Bruce Lee lacking the confidence to kick your ass. This kitsch quality was turned up to 11 in movies like DEVIL'S EXPRESS (1976), DEATH MACHINES (1976), and DEATH PROMISE (1977) -- which had non-Asian guys running around imitating the way Asians were presented in the dubbed versions of the superior foreign imports.  That same quality is present in RAW FORCE (1982)... to a degree.

The Chuck Norris style of martial arts film would eventually take over, and his influence is evident in RAW FORCE. After Norris drop-kicked a car windshield in GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK (1978), this sort of stunt cropped up a few more times; only its usage in RAW FORCE isn't as exciting in execution. Strangely enough, as entertaining as it can be, there's not a whole lot to get excited about in this movie.

With a plot promising exploitation movie gold, Murphy's flick delivers mostly the Fool's sort due to a pervasive air of comedy that never lets up. All that's lacking is a laugh track. Speaking of which, RAW FORCE could be described as an R rated, two-part episode of THE LOVE BOAT produced by Troma and directed by skin action specialist, Andy Sidaris. So much time is spent on the cruise ship, one almost expects to hear Jack Jones sooth your senses with "Love, exciting and new...."

...But that background noise you're hearing turns out to be Cameron Mitchell mumbling, or arguing with various characters. Mitchell looks and acts like he's been on a booze binge, and he's one of the livelier things about RAW FORCE, making it a much better viewing experience. He gets some of the best lines, too, like when he gets on the ships intercom and remarks, "This goddamn ship is under siege! We've been boarded by a bunch of maniacs!" Another pearl is when the shipwrecked group stumble upon the Warriors Island graveyard and Mitchell grumpily says, "This must be the place where they buried the goddamn kung fu fighters!" Mitchell is more memorable here than he was in his "all in a day's work" role in the superior KILL SQUAD (1982), the holy grail of martial arts movie mediocrity. 

Speaking of martial arts, a slew of unintentional humor finds sanctuary in these kung fu fight sequences; the bulk of which are about as lifeless as the blue-faced zombies on Warriors Island. Only one battle has any real excitement about it -- between some unknown guy and a Nazi Mexican who has hogtied a naked woman in one of the cabins aboard the Love Boat. The subsequent balsa wood beat-down is the best fight in the entire movie. It's a shame the numerous other duels can't muster the same level of enthusiasm. Only Rey King (Rey Malonzo, a Filipino veteran of dozens of fight flicks) shows natural skill in his handful of punch and kick melees. Sadly, the rest of the fighters won't be snatching the pebble from Master Po's hand any time soon; nor will the kung fu-samurai-ninja zombies (that move in slow motion BLIND DEAD-7 GOLDEN VAMPIRE style) give Romero and the Italians any competition in a flesh-eating contest. 

Perennial Filipino favorite Vic Diaz (above in middle) leads the band of cannibal monks that love to dine on barbecued women; a delicacy that gives them the power to raise lousy martial artists from the dead. Unlike his past exploits in Roger Corman and Eddie Romero movies, Diaz isn't given much at all to do in RAW FORCE except utter a few lines, grin a lot, and laugh uncontrollably.

The stunning Jillian Kessner, master of the naked kung fu style seen in FIRECRACKER (1981), plays Cookie Winchell, a SWAT girl for the LAPD. Her bubbly demeanor (along with some of the other cast members) enlivens the proceedings, but she's virtually interchangeable with the rest of the cast. She keeps her clothes on, but does look tantalizing in a bikini before the action switches to GILLIGAN'S ISLAND with Kung Fu. She comes across as less impressive than she did in FIRECRACKER. Considering Mike Stone (ENTER THE NINJA) handled the choreography, the sloppiness of the action is surprising.

Camille Keaton (TRAGIC CEREMONY, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE) and Jewel Shepard (HOLLYWOOD HOT TUBS, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) have minor, incidental appearances during the lengthy cruise ship sequence where everybody hooks up; or tries to including a musclebound male stripper and a bartender who breaks blocks of ice with his forehead.

Among Filipino cult film fans, RAW FORCE (1982) has a bit of a reputation. Regrettably it only partially lives up to it. In addition to its middling mix of kung fu and zombies, there's dollops of boobs, bare chests, some mild gore, dummy deaths, glaring flubs, and even stock footage from PIRANHA (1978). Virtually everything on the fantastic poster art is in the movie, yet the film doesn't quite match the raucous exuberance of Kim Passey's brushstrokes. It's an entertaining ride, just this RAW trash might of tasted better had it been cooked a while longer.

This review is representative of the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray from the DVD/Blu combo. Extras & Specs: New 2k restoration from original 35mm negative; featurette with director Ed Murphy and DP Frank Johnson; audio interview with Jim Wynorski; original trailer; 86 minutes; 1.85:1; 1080p DTS-HD mono.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Eerie Midnight Horror Show (1974) review



Stella Carnacina (Danila), Chris Avram (Mario), Lucretia Love (Luisa), Ivan Rassimov (The Devil), Gabriele Tinti (Luisa's lover), Luigi Pistilli (Father Zeno)

Directed by Mario Gariazzo

The Short Version: Satan is a horny little devil in this epically trashy, psycho-sexual, satanic mess from Italy. Gariazzo wants to take his poke-n-puke fest seriously, but the power of perversion compels him to sell his cinematic soul to the devil for divine repugnance every few minutes. Even so, it's occasionally sprinkled with artistic flourishes, and a few surprisingly well-crafted scenes of tension. As far as EXORCIST clones go, this EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW regurgitates all of Friedkin's highlights in a greatest hits package like only the Italians could do back in the 1970s.

***WARNING! This review contains nudity***

Danila, a highly regarded, if very young art student becomes entranced with a mysterious, intricately detailed statue of a crucified criminal in a deconsecrated church awaiting demolition. Displayed opposite another crucified, if more Christ-like figure, Danila brings the ancient carving back to her studio. One night while working on a painting, Danila is violated by a malevolent presence that has laid dormant within the Olive Tree carved effigy for hundreds of years. Now possessed by the Devil himself, Danila becomes progressively worse. After science fails to cure the girl, her parents take her to a monastery out in the country in the hopes a well known exorcist can release their daughter from Satan's grasp.

Director Gariazzo's cheap, if wildly entertaining Devil movie crams a handful of famous genre faces in a chain-link of unsavory scenes with thought-provoking themes dangling from it. Gariazzo reportedly claimed he wrote his story some time before Friedkin made THE EXORCIST (1973), but the vast similarities (a title card even states 'This film is based on a true story'!), and heavy amount of cloned imagery is inescapable. Moreover, a scourge of Euro-copies xeroxed from one Italian production facility to another popped up throughout the decade like the recurring stigmata on Danila's (Carnacina) hands and feet. During this gloriously unrestrained time period, any film of US parentage with box office viability was open season to foreign filmmakers wishing to hitch a ride aboard that particular bandwagon. 

As far as THE EXORCIST al dente, the Devil made them do it with the likes of THE ANTICHRIST (1974), BEYOND THE DOOR (1974), and THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975) -- films that tempted many a filmgoer during the 1970s when Italians couldn't compete with slick Hollywood product, so the next best thing was to rip them off, and do so in the most spectacularly offensive ways imaginable. Gariazzo tries to be serious at times, but succumbs to his fascination for feculence before thrusting a bit of expressive visuals in our faces; and then proceeding to lose control of himself all over again.

As this Eerie Midnight Horror Show proves, irony dwells within the framework of Italian exploitation cinema. There's occasionally the best of intentions (so the directors will tell us), but often said good intentions become mired in the violent miasma they portend to decry. L'OSSESSA is another such occasion; only Gariazzo isn't Deodato, and this isn't CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980). For every instance of naked flesh, blasphemy, and burning crosses, there's an insightful sequence about science vs. religion, the nature of man, good vs. evil, and the depiction of sex as a drug that leads to further corruption of the body. Gariazzo's little movie makes some provocative points, but then casts them aside for shock and prurience. Fans of this sort of thing don't come for the subtext, or underlying themes, they come for the lack of decency and expedience of deviancy; and Gariazzo delivers as much as his no doubt meager budget will allow.

"I need something that goes beyond the foolish bounds that you've set out."

The classic dichotomy and the related factors of good and evil, and pain and pleasure is a common thread in between sex and sleaze sessions. When it's not ripping off Friedkin's devil movie classic, the script attempts to exorcise its subtext in correlations of sexual and religious disciplines by way of flagellation. Flagellation is shown as a means to satisfy ones sexual proclivities; while at the same time, its purpose is used to wipe ones sins away. Luisa loves having rose petals gently caressing her body just prior to being savagely beaten with the thorns by her sex-hungry man-slave (played by prolific actor Gabriele Tinti). Meanwhile, Father Zeno nearly succumbs to the succulence of Danila's Satan-possessed flesh, later thrashing himself mightily with his own cleansing accessory.

"I think it's wise to have doubts when a scientist trespasses into the priesthood. I wouldn't dream of telling a physicist how to split an atom. Unfortunately, people doubt everything to do with religion today; laugh at it, even."

The pleasures of the flesh and its apparent ruination of society is probably the major selling point behind this movie -- on both an exploitation and a subtextual level. The script from Gariazzo and Ambrogio Molteni depicts religion in a balanced fashion, detailing its fallacies while using it as the tool to ones redemption. We hear about alleged orgies carried out in secret within sacred walls, and transformation from pagan to Christian iconography, and the redemption of some of the characters in the movie. The treatment of religion and its relationship with man and his inner demons is represented with the two statues seen at the beginning. One might surmise that -- once the evil effigy is removed from the company of the righteous sculpture (which Danila specifies its creator seemed less interested in its detail), only then is the evil let loose. Likewise, it's interesting to hear dialog from the 1970s regarding society's view of religion and its relationship with science, and how much it resembles sentiments of today (refer to the quotation above)

The relationship between Mario and Luisa is obviously one that has lost its luster, if it were ever all that shiny to begin with. Mario is aware of his wife's trysts, but in one scene, he blames Luisa's sadomasochistic tendencies on his daughter's sudden debauched lifestyle. Later in the film, Luisa, after watching her daughter slowly lose her soul, decides to get away from her rapaciously lustful lover -- much to his chagrin. Both she and Mario seemingly re-establish their relationship; but again, this sort of exposition is glossed over in favor of lots of screaming and head-banging from Danila before her transformation to a red-eyed, chapped-lipped, chain-swinging, puke-slinging demon.

Italian singer Stella Carnacina gets many chances to work her vocal chords in the scream fest that is L'OSSESSA. Just shy of 20 when she did this picture, Carnacina channels a variety of emotions, spending most of the film being sexed up by Satan, nailed to a cross (by Satan!), seducing any number of male characters (including her father!), and momentarily putting the breaks on her demonic fits of vocal protestations by ripping out, and eating her hair. She also throws herself into a bit of energetic chunk-tossing business during the climax that ranks with the best of puking scenes.

Euro exploitation stalwart Ivan Rassimov plays the Devil. He pops in and out of the movie, and doesn't have a whole lot to say till the last 10 minutes. Prior to that he cackles a lot when he isn't penetrating Danila's body and soul. Rassimov is perfectly cast, too. Bearing a face suited for such roles, if ever there was an actor who would need little makeup for the classical depiction of Lucifer, it's Rassimov.

Luigi Pistilli appears during the last 25 minutes as the Obi Wan Kenobi-ish Father Zeno; apparently taking this role to pay penance for all the nasty villains he's played over the years. Pistilli is unusually solemn in this role and plays his priest like a man who has seen many terrible things, wearing his experiences like they were tattoos. His role feels like an afterthought, as he's never even mentioned till moments before we see him.

Both Lucretia Love and Gabriele Tinti defend their trash film titles with the greatest of aplomb. Spanning all manner of Euro-trash, the two appear together in one of the films highlights, the rose thorn whipping sex scene. Of the two, Tinti is particularly prolific, lending his swagger to dozens of Europe's top tier of its bottom of the barrel exploitation. TV show fanatics will recall his guest star turn on a season eight episode of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW of all things. But don't get your hopes up, there was no Emmanuelle in Mayberry for Tinti's participation.

He's not credited, but Carlo Rambaldi built the ornate, Satan-housed statue that takes the form of Ivan Rassimov. He also cooked up some demonic special effects on Alberto De Martino's own EXORCIST clone, THE ANTICHRIST (1974), released here as THE TEMPTER. Rambaldi got his start building the dragon in the Italian peplum fantasy, SIEGFRIED (1956), and monsters in films like VENGEANCE OF HERCULES (1960), and PERSEUS THE INVINCIBLE (1962). He dabbled in every genre, and found his greatest fame on films like KING KONG (1976), E.T. (1982), CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984), and DUNE (1984).

It might be little more than a quick cash-in, but THE EERIE MIDNIGHT HORROR SHOW complements its fleeting societal issues with some professional polish on a few occasions. The Devil's first appearance, and his subsequent sexual domination of Danila as the cross he was strapped to burns in the background; and a well directed sequence where Danila is stalked to her upstairs apartment by her Hell-dwelling consort -- invisible, but audible via echoing footsteps and heavy breathing. This scene recalls a similarly effective one in the recent devil doll flick ANNABELLE (2014).

If you're in the market for cheap thrills, you'll get quite a bargain with Mario Gariazzo's tale of demonic possession. It has some things to say, but puts its topical discussions behind loftier ambitions of the salacious sort. Definitely eerie, those who specialize in Italian horror movies should enjoy this horror show.

This review is representative of the Code Red Blu-ray. Specs and extras: Katarina Mode; 85 minutes; 1080p; anamorphic widescreen; 1.78:1. Limited to 1,000 copies.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Celluloid Trails: Spasmic Supernatural Serpents From Canada

"I don't think that many snake stories have been successful. Most people are repulsed by them. People really don't want to sit through a whole picture about a snake." -- Director, William Fruet, Cinefantastique. April 1982

Killer snake movies had been few and far between prior to 1980, and were all but non-existent till the late 1990s when the unexpected box office success of ANACONDA ushered in an avalanche of cinematic serpents. It was a one hit wonder, though, as a Gorgon's head full o' snakes were let loose on the video market (as well as weekly television premieres on cable), injecting a lethal dose of venom to their theatrical life. However, the potential for venom-dripping serpentry on the big screen was high at the dawn of the 80s; but turned out to be a fundamentally short-lived trend just the same. In hindsight, William Fruet's SPASMS (1983) is one of the best, if wholly obscure graduates of Snake Horror U.

This entry of Celluloid Trails takes a look at this ambitious, if seriously flawed movie from Canada's Tax Shelter movie days, and the novel that inspired it. Seemingly dropping off the face of the Earth after production wrapped, SPASMS benefited from two great (if problematic) lead actors; a famous FX artist; and some of the most impressive snake special effects work before CGI came along and ruined everything.

The film version of Peter Benchley's 'Jaws' was a major turning point in the film industry, opening up new avenues for enterprising producers and writers hoping to hit the big time with a simple premise. Seemingly every writer from one end of the block to the next began churning out all sorts of lurid stories of creatures great and small wreaking all manner of havoc on civilization. Enter two stage actors/writers, Michael Maryk (13th CHILD [2002]) and Brent Monahan (AN AMERICAN HAUNTING [2005]).

Michael Maryk (left) and Brent Monahan (right); photo Milwaukee Sentinel Nov. 14th, 1979

These two industry hopefuls decided to collaborate on a similar novel to capitalize on the success of Benchley's book (they had the same agent, in fact) in the hopes of snagging a movie deal of their own. Hitting on the fact that most people are generally terrified of snakes, the authors zeroed in on exploiting Ophidiophobia in a big way. Aside from Alan Scholefield's 1977 novel 'Venom' -- about a group of criminals trapped inside a house with a loose Black Mamba -- slithery serpents was virtually unexplored territory in book form. Maryk and Monahan intended to write something a bit more fantastical for their tale of reptilian terror. After researching various species of snakes, seeking out the deadliest they could find, the duo settled on the taipan -- an extremely aggressive species indigenous to Australia and New Guinea; and capable of killing 100 human beings with but a drop of venom.

Published in 1979, 'Death Bite' told the story of a wealthy Serpentarium owner in Florida illegally importing a nearly 20 foot Taipan from Indonesia to the United States where it ends up escaping and slithering amuck in San Diego. 

With good reviews, and the potentiality of their novel being turned into a movie stamped all over it, the plan for a movie adaptation came quickly in 1980. Unfortunately, the trail from book to screen was anything but smooth.

Martin Erlichman (left) and Michael Crichton (right) on set of COMA (1978)

Dick Smith snake SPASM special effect
Hollywood agent Martin Erlichman of Martin Erlichman Associates bought the movie rights for $5,000 for one year. According to Monahan, Erlichman was fond of optioning screenplays on spec, and had file cabinets filled with the works of many anxious writers seeking to hit it big. Having done nothing with the 'Death Bite' property in the interim, and only a couple months remaining on his option, Erlichman sought to take advantage of the tax breaks afforded in Canada's film industry at that time. Erlichman was in negotiations with Toronto's Filmpro Limited (through banking firm, the Cinequity Corporation) to make the picture. They were offering $150,000 for the rights. Meanwhile, the authors of the novel were trying to get them to hang on till Erlichman's rights ran out and they'd sell it to the company for a lesser price so long as their own screenplay adaptation was used. Utilizing the tried and true salesman technique of "some other guys are also interested", Filmpro bit Erlichman's line and ponied up the $150,000. 

The film was originally announced in January '81 newspaper reports to begin shooting in February of that year; but this turned out not to be the case. 'Death Bite' ended up as a very chaotic production filled with disorganization, reckless spending, bar fights and lewd, rambunctious behavior from the two non-Canadian stars; and even after it was completed, very few got a chance to see the results on the big screen on North American shores.

"Producers always want monsters that can come up and shake hands, serve dinner, wear a tuxedo, and conquer the world. I'm a naturalist first, and I didn't want another monster that opens its mouth and there's a saucer plate inside. I wanted it to be real." -- Ray Mendez, Fangoria #20, 1982.

Ray Mendez (left) and David Brody in Trinidad squatting in bat guano scooping up roaches for use in CREEPSHOW (1982)

During the planning stages, the original aim was to use live snakes for portions of the attack sequences. Herpetologist and snake wrangler Bob Zappalorti was going to provide the reptiles and Raymond Mendez, a well known model-maker, insect wrangler, and photographer would create hand puppets for close-ups. According to 'Death Bite' co-author Brent Monahan, a 14 foot Indian Rock Python was bought and stored in NYC for almost a year before the idea of using real reptiles was discarded. As time wore on, the picture went through various molting stages with a multitude of rewrites and a change of directors. Things got worse when Filmpro Limited went under a week into filming and Cinequity took over bringing two inexperienced men on board as producers. While trying to pre-sell the picture, Cinequity reportedly got worried that their product might have little chance at survival considering a few other snake movies were coming out. A decision was made to differentiate their fanged fiend from the others. Once it was decided the main antagonist would be more of a supernatural monster than an outsized Taipan, they then lost the reptile wrangler, and Canadian director William Fruet (HOUSE BY THE LAKE; TRAPPED; KILLER PARTY) came on board in May of 1981.

Above photo of the snake is not in the film
Invited to watch the filming in Toronto, both Maryk and Monahan left after three days upon becoming irritated with the constant alterations being made to their work. Fruet takes some credit for changing the original novel's reptilian antagonist from a taipan to something more devilish. Snake movies, as Fruet put it in interviews at the time, were the "kiss of death"; and with so many other films built around, or featuring snakes in some capacity, the filmmakers wanted their scaly menace to stand out from the rest. This was reflected in the design Mendez and his assistant Neal Martz came up with. Much like the changing state of the production, the monster went through stages of evolution, too. Originally six different snakes -- each performing its own function -- were to be built, but with a limited amount of money and time constraints, this idea was scrapped and doing as much as possible with a single mechanical snake was considered more feasible. While filming commenced in Canada, Mendez and his small crew of six built their robot monster in New York in autonomy over the course of eight weeks between August and October of 1981. Two 22ft bodies, three 6ft necks to accommodate an armature, and puppet heads were used to bring Mecha Snake to life. Amazingly, this beast didn't arrive till the final week of shooting (some sources say it was closer to two weeks). For a look at a group photo of the mechanical snake and the six-man crew click HERE.

Above photo depicts a shot not in the film
The hydraulically controlled snake, in this writers opinion, was an impressive construction; particularly in comparison to the 36 foot, $20,000 mechanical snake of Dino's big budget Sword and Sorcery epic CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). Mendez's model was made under less comfortable circumstances, was 22ft, and intended to interact with actors in ways not seen before. Unfortunately, little of this interaction made it into the final cut. What we do see of it onscreen is integrated with the live action with some editing assist. With approximately a week to shoot the scenes with the snake, the filmmakers were at the mercy of what it would, or would not do on those last days. The climactic battle between Oliver Reed and his nemesis was highly touted, and describably violent by the makers, but much of this hand to fang combat didn't make it into the finished product. Scenes of the snake swallowing Reed's arm and swinging him around; and Reed ripping into the snakes flesh (see insert) were left out of the final version. Instead, after a brief skirmish, Peter Fonda shows up and uses a machine gun to quickly eliminate the scaly threat. Possibly some of these shots just didn't work well enough to make final cut.

Dick Smith working on a resurrected corpse for a sequence cut from SPASMS.
Other scenes discussed in vintage articles about the films making that didn't find their way into the release version was a sailor having his arm swallowed (in the movie we only see him get bit and the subsequent swelling); and a nightmare sequence involving various victims of the snake with all sorts of gory wounds and dangling flesh. In an interview, Fruet mentions he shot the film for different markets noting a more violent one for the Far East; so it's possible these missing bits and pieces made it into some other version.

"Frankly, I was intrigued by the technical challenge of a new effect.  I realize it's kind of nasty and gory, but I'm funny about that. There are some gory things [like GHOST STORY, for instance] that I don't mind doing." -- Dick Smith, Fangoria #28, 1983

Award winning makeup artist Dick Smith was asked to come aboard in the hopes his expertise would improve the picture. His participation would likely increase interest in the project, too. It also gave Smith a chance to do an effects sequence he'd never done before. Alas, as ambitious as this little (approx.) three million production was, it didn't seem to be organized very well. Future award winning makeup artist, and Canadian native Stephan Dupuis was originally signed on for the makeup effects, but when Dick Smith joined the crew, sources state Dupuis became his assistant instead. Smith's involvement originally was for a simple bladder effect, but as this film was changing so much on the fly, the filmmakers wanted to expand things a bit (pun intended). Al Waxman's literal meltdown was the money shot in 'Death Bite' -- a film that would eventually morph into SPASMS (1983). This FX highlight was featured in the artwork in various territories, and on the videocassette release from Thorn/EMI. An image of the bladder effect also made its way onto the cover of Fangoria #28. As for the sequence itself, it didn't come out to Smith's or the filmmakers satisfaction, but there was no time or additional money available to do it twice (sources differ on the fumbled execution of this FX sequence).

Director William Fruet (center) setting up the opening scene in Toronto where Scarborough Bluffs subs for New Guinea.

The snake is never named in the film, but its appellation was N'Gana Simbu, a demonic snake sent from Hell; referred to by the leader of the devil worshiping cult that wants it, claiming it to be the incarnation of the Devil. Its taipan origins in the book is noted only once by Oliver Reed in the movie (whose character name is different in the book). Aside from the psychic link between Reed and his quarry (also not in the book version), very little of the supernatural element is present in the finished film. For all the changes made to add this darkly mystical tone, it ended up the most confusing, and least explored aspect of the film; which, in hindsight, suits the frantic nature of the production. If nothing else, this Canadian venture managed to get made when a den of other slithery celluloid snakes played it safe without any expansive FX work, or never even got off the ground.

These other snake flicks all had varying degrees of success, or lack thereof. Unfortunately, sword and sorcery movies were the safe haven for snakes as they had little box office potential on their own. As for these other snake movies.... 'King Cobra' molted into JAWS OF SATAN (1981) -- a film about a satanically possessed cobra; 'Serpent: The Ultimate Thriller' transformed into Q, THE WINGED SERPENT (1982) -- a film that isn't technically a killer snake film, but was lumped in with them during its production. A film announced as 'Hiss', and another bearing the title of 'Python' never materialized at all; although that latter title was finally taken in 2000 in a terrible DTV movie (that was so terrible, it got two likewise terrible sequels!). John Godey's 1979 novel, 'The Snake' was being shopped around, but its story of a Black Mamba loose in New York's Central Park was similar to another snake story written a couple years earlier; and made into a movie as VENOM (also starring Oliver Reed), released in 1981. Based on the 1977 novel by Alan Scholefield, it dealt with a group of criminals holding hostages in a London home with a loose Black Mamba stalking the hallways and air ducts.

Paramount's snake thriller had Oliver Reed in common with the Canadian horror movie, but the two productions shared similar promotional campaigns as well. Reportedly Paramount tested its advertising in two different ways -- one that used the image of a snake, and another version that kept its venomous star less apparent. The distributors of SPASMS used the same idea; most of which seemed to go out of their way to hide the fact the movie was about a gigantic satanic serpent.

Spain was one of the few places that wasn't shy about putting an enormous snake on their advertising (see above). Most everywhere else you got the impression SPASMS was in the vein of SCANNERS (1980), or a slasher, or a Cronenbergian body horror type of movie. Such vague taglines as "You scream. You expand. You explode", accompanying images of Oliver Reed with electrodes attached to his head -- and others displaying exploding noggins don't exactly bring about thoughts of serpentine terror. Ironically, Thailand, a country with a rich history of snake lore, played hide-and-seek with their promotion as well (see insert).

Photo: courtesy of Chris Poggiali

The film was expected to open in the fall of 1982, but was delayed. Producer Sandy Howard picked up SPASMS that year and provided some additional financing to improve the film during the final editing stages. New York based Blossom Pictures Inc., a company owned by former Allied Artists and American Cinema Releasing VP Joseph Gruenberg, distributed some of Howard's films; and did likewise with SPASMS. However, the company sold the film to cable and video before releasing it in theaters! This wasn't an unusual practice back then for low budget films both foreign and domestic. SPASMS made a very quiet US debut on April 25th, 1986 in eight New York theaters (see photo above).

Doomed from the start, SPASMS is just another movie lost in obscurity amidst many other forgotten films. The authors of the original novel were displeased with it and Peter Fonda at one time considered it the worst film he ever worked on. Its troublesome history carries on in recent years with the announcement of a DVD release that was put on hold indefinitely. Allegedly, the only print found was missing a reel. With a barren theatrical showing, its cable and VHS days part of a bygone era, the only respite this barrel full of missed opportunities enjoys nowadays is found on a murky youtube upload. It wasn't a total wash for those involved, though; both Maryk and Monahan made a lot of money off of the sale of their book, and the film was sold in virtually every market around the world. Possibly SPASMS will surface in a quality release, and it can be enjoyed for the moderate 'B' movie entertainment it is.

***A huge thanks to co-author of Death Bite, Brent Monahan and film historian Chris Poggiali of the Temple of Schlock for answering questions and contributing additional information about the origins, the making, and the release of this film.***

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