Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The ITALIAN SCIENCE-FICTION COLLECTION - DVD REVIEW


Even though science fiction was clearly not a strong point for most Italian filmmakers, it was inevitable that some would try and create their own “epic” space adventures following the monumental worldwide success of George Lucas’ STAR WARS (1977). Despite a couple of enjoyable rip-off’s such as Luigi Cozzi’s STARCRASH (1978) and Aldo Lado’s The HUMANOID (1979), it was Alfonso Brescia that took a real interest into galaxies far, far away even though his budgets were far, far from respectable.  Released in 2002 by Retromedia as “The Italian Science-Fiction Collection”, this 2-disc set contains both WAR OF THE PLANETS (1977) and The WAR OF THE ROBOTS (1978) in fairly sub-par, but watchable transfers, which have since been released by numerous budget-priced companies in all sorts of other sci-fi collections.  Unfortunately, this attractively packaged set is now out of print.  

Along with Brescia’s The BATTLE OF THE STARS (1978), STAR ODYSSEY (1979 – also released on DVD by public domain specialists Alpha Video) and The BEAST IN SPACE (1980 – also available on DVD courtesy of Severin), it was quite astounding to witness just how similar and interchangeable these trashy no-budget films are in terms of casts, cruddy special effects and similar plots.  While this aspect of low-budget filmmaking is nothing new, these five films remain a truly exasperating endeavour even for scholars of European exploitation.  To this day, I still get them mixed-up.  So, on that note, let’s take a look at WAR OF THE PLANETS, the first film in this set.

Beginning on a rather dubious note, our intrepid space crew headed by Captain Fred Hamilton (John Richardson) is navigating through an asteroid field but, just as they are about to collide with an oncoming rock, it mysteriously disappears.  Apparently this was a “refraction of a cosmic explosion that occurred 10 million years ago”.  Uh, ok.  The credits begin and veteran composer Marcello Giombini’s odd tonal effects – obviously copied from Fred McLeod’s Wilcox’s FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) – slowly emanate on the soundtrack as the screen is filled with all sorts of floating asteroids, satellites, stock footage of rocket launches and pseudonymous credits.


Giant robots attack Captain Hamilton and his crew.



Back on Earth, Captain Hamilton is about to be disciplined for insubordination on the grounds of his rebellious behavior, mostly because he refuses to take orders from his superior officers who “take notes from an electronic hunk of metal”, a super-computer known as The Wiz.  As expected, this opens the never-ending argument about the benefits of technology, the main theme of this hilariously shoddy production.  On account of his defiance, he is to command the MK31, a spaceship that is leaving for the “Vega Sector” to repair a satellite or something, which he and his crew perform dutifully.  On their way back, some strange laser signals accompanied by jarring sound effects are picked up by the ship’s computer and, with a rather flippant tone, Captain Hamilton simply states that the “computer is drunk” or that “these strange signals could be radioactivity meeting a cosmic belt”.  It sounds like Captain Hamilton may have had a few too many, but the Wiz knows better and verifies that there is an alien intelligence behind the signals, which they are forced to investigate.  Unbelievably, it takes almost 30 minutes to establish this rather minor set-up.  

"Charles Borromey" freaking out!

Despite finally moving forward, the film continues to float aimlessly like an asteroid through space.  Captain Hamilton’s crew merely sits around and randomly push buttons on a variety of consoles and keyboards.  For no apparent reason, the amateurish but highly entertaining sound mix also has some sort of bizarre mechanical whir on a never-ending loop, which actually becomes oddly hypnotic.  Taking time to rest from staring at flickering screens and flashing lights, two members of the crew (West Buchanan and Malisa Longo) engage in some “cosmic love”.  This involves sleeping in separate beds while a glowing sphere in the middle of the room projects all the requisite sensations to the participants as they moan with obvious satisfaction.  Of course, this leads to the inevitable discussion of technology as Captain Hamilton and Mila (Yanti Somer) engage in some old school lovin’ in another compartment.  Brescia and his editors (Carlo Reali and Larry Marinelli) briefly crosscut between the two scenes while Hamilton offers his best advice to Mila, “You must never be fooled by imitations.”

Interrupting Hamilton’s dime-store philosophy, an uncontrollable gravitational pull takes the MK31 to an unknown planet – the one with the alien signals – that appears to have favourable conditions to sustain life.  As they exit their ship, revealing grainy stock footage of barren landscapes, they discover a large monolithic gate that acts as a portal to other dimensions as a large, clunky robot with glowing red eyes and a giant raygun roams the rocky landscapes.  They also come across a group of telepathic beings coated in silver body paint and pointy ears. Led by Etor (Aldo Canti), they all seem to communicate telepathically, but through Hamilton’s brilliant deductions, their “brainwaves make the telepathy become sound”.  According to Etor, their once prosperous planet was taken over by an even bigger robot with a big ominous voice when it helped defend their planet against hostile aliens.  Of course, it’s now up to Captain Hamilton to help them defeat this giant robot, which to be honest, looks like a 4-year old  created it.

After a brief but much-needed rest, it was time to move onto the next feature in this set, the much-maligned WAR OF THE ROBOTS or, as it was to known to collectors of big box VHS tapes, REACTOR.  

On a futuristic-looking Earth, Captain John Boyd (Antonio Sabato) and Lois (“Melissa Lang” – that’s Malisa Longo once again) are in love, but Lois is kept busy working in Professor Karr’s (Jacques Herlin) laboratory because he’s on “the verge of discovering a great secret that could lead to immense power.”  As soon as John leaves in his fancy black sports car, a group of robots – in shiny gold suits and blonde bob wigs – abduct Lois and Professor Karr and take them to their distant planet Anthor.

Antonio Sabato trying to "contact the computer memory bank."

Following the orders of Commander King (an uncredited Roger Browne), Captain Boyd and his crew are sent to the depths of Brescia’s cut-rate galaxy in search of our hapless duo.  To up the suspense even further, Professor Karr’s experiments have apparently damaged the atomic reactor so they need to find him in just over eight days before it explodes and destroys the city.  Captain Boyd assembles his crew which includes Julie (Yanti Somer) who is in love with Boyd; Roger (“James R. Stuart” / Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) who wants to bed Julie; the ship’s doctor Paul (“Vernon Vernons” / Venantino Venantini); a Texan named Herb (another uncredited appearance from West Buchanan) who enjoys wearing his cowboy boots when he’s put in charge of the ship; and Sonia (“Mickey Pilgrim” / Ines Pellegrini), who just happens to have a similar blonde bob wig as those silly robots.  Along the way, Boyd gets to float through space in order to “contact the computer memory bank” on a remote satellite in order to retrieve the coordinates of the alien spaceship and, we the viewers, get to see Captain Boyd floating against the phoniest star-filled background you’ll ever see.

Landing on a heretofore-unknown planet for reasons unknown other than it being a “sensational spot for a weekend”, Captain Boyd instructs his crew to get the “anti-radiation suits”.  Our reconnaissance crew is next seen wearing skin-tight suits with no helmets, so it means they must have some invisible shield to protect their noggins from the apparently harmful radiation.  Brescia’s regular DP Silvio Fraschetti (hiding behind the pseudonym of Cyril Franks) utilises lots of day for night photography and coloured gels to get the desired gloomy effect of an inhospitable planet, which admittedly, are quite effective; sort of a very, very poor man’s Mario Bava.  After poking around some deserted caverns - which look suspiciously like the ones at the end of Brescia’s terrific polizieschi NAPOLI… LA CAMORRA SFIDÁ, LA CITTÁ RISPONDE (1979) – they are attacked by a bunch of blind guys in dusty cloths and medieval-looking helmets.  When their leader Kuva (“Nick Jordan” – that’s Aldo Canti once again) orders them to be killed, the robots show up and Captain Boyd and Kuva team-up to destroy them.  Eventually reaching Anthor, Captain Boyd soon discovers a terrible secret involving Lois and then he and his crew try and make their way back to Earth to prevent the “uncontrolled reaction” of the atomic reactor.

Antonio Sabato shootin' robots.

Despite all the goings-on, these juvenile exercises in sci-fi hokum are woefully lacking in any excitement whatsoever but are somewhat saved by a surprising amount of ineptitude on display.  The bulk of the films are taken up by seemingly endless scenes of spaceships whizzin’ through space, which would easily cure even the most severe cases of insomnia.  If that wasn’t enough, most of the familiar Euro cast sits in front of a variety of consoles and flashing panels – the same cheap sets used over and over and over again - that look like slightly re-modeled sets from Byron Mabe’s threadbare SPACE THING (1968).  Even though both Antonio Sabato and John Richardson have appeared in numerous stinkers in their long and varied careers, these are way below standard even for them.  Sabato in particular has always been a fairly intense and physical actor that got to flex his acting chops in a number of polizieschi, but even he seems to be going through the motions after realizing the ridiculousness of it all.  The undisputed “stars” of these films are the English dubbing teams led by the prolific Ted Rusoff and his wife Carolyn De Fonseca (he voiced Giacomo Rossi-Stuart while she did the chores for Malisa Longo) that provide all the hilarious dialogue.  They must have had a ball in the recording sala. 

While very humble indeed (I’m trying to be generous), this pair of sci-fi clunkers is definitely entertaining for anyone with an interest in bottom-of-the-barrel Euro flicks.  It really does boggle the mind that signor Brescia actually churned out 5 of these turkeys, but at least he managed to put together The BEAST IN SPACE for all to enjoy, which in my opinion is an unparalleled Z-grade trash masterpiece.

Monday, September 15, 2014

DEATH PROMISE - DVD REVIEW


That’s one of the lyrics to Opus’ nutty theme song for Robert Warmflash’s DEATH PROMISE (1978), an almost indescribable low-budget action flick trying to capitalize on the popularity of the martial arts craze with another exploitation staple of the ‘70s – the vigilante film. 

Charles Bonet stars as Charlie Roman who, come to think of it, doesn’t do anything but train at the local dojo with his sparing partner Speedy (Speedy Leacock) and Shibata (Thompson Kao Kang), his teacher and owner of this lowly dojo.  In between his martial arts training, Charlie is also fighting an on-going battle with the “rich slumlords” that “go to ruthless extremes to evict the poor tenants” as some impromptu narration informs us in case we weren’t paying attention.  Along for the fight is Charlie’s hot-tempered Dad, Louie (Bob O’Connell – credited here as Rocky Crevice!) who, in between his best James Cagney impersonations, also gets to engage in some sloppy fightin’. 

It seems the Iguana Reality Corporation is trying to vacant their tenements in order to build new, more expensive buildings in their place.  Unfortunately for them, “the laws are all twisted to protect that sort – those welfare people”, so they have resorted to hiring cheap muscle in flared slacks and even cheaper dress shirts to continually harass their tenants, which includes everything from turning off their utilities to unleashing rats in their buildings.  The main players of this little “landlord syndicate” include E. Bartley (Vincent Van Lynn) Alden, a “financier” who calls the shots; Jackson (Abe Hendy), a ruthless criminal who “climbed to the top the hard way”; Mirsky (Thom Kendall), a “clothing manufacturer and ladies’ man”; Enstrom (David Kirk), a judge from the State Supreme Court; and Albano (Tony De Caprio), a labour unit president. 

When Louie is found dead after threatening Alden, Charlie vows revenge and, with the help of Shibata, travels to what is presumably the orient to train with renowned Master Ying (Anthony Lau), who turns out to be one of the most pitiful “sensei” imaginable.  Charlie’s “advanced training” is just more fighting with fellow student Sup Kim (Bill Louie), who skills are actually far more advanced than Master Ying’s.  Returning to NYC, Charlie is ready to “honour his father best by revenge”, but in a highly implausible turn of events, everything isn’t as it seems.

From L to R: Charles Bonet, Bob O'Connell & Speedy Leacock.
Throughout the ‘70s, cinema screens were flooded with all types of martial arts flicks as every small-time distributor imported anything and everything with even a passing resemblance to Robert Clouse’s ENTER THE DRAGON (1973).  Bruce Lee’s final film The GAME OF DEATH (1978) is referenced immediately as Charlie and Speedy are seen running through the streets of NYC in bright yellow tracksuits, similar to the one worn by Bruce Lee in that very film.  In a hilarious and sloppily edited scene, their run goes from Central Park to lower Manhattan and then the Bronx without even a hint of continuity.  Before Charlie even has a chance to cool down from his monumental jog through NYC, he gets into a punch-up with a couple of seedy looking characters ending with the clichéd, “Who sent you?”  With the help of his Dad Louie, the film continues this way as more and more of Alden’s henchmen try in vain to vacant these “rat-infested tenements”.  Louie is definitely the instigator of this uprising and “educates” both Charlie and Speedy on the shady complexities of “dummy corporations” and even shares some anecdotes from his boxing days when he fought Sugar Ray Robinson.  When he takes on Alden and neglects to accept a bribe (“You can take your polite bribe and shove it up your polite ass!”), he is killed and the film truly goes off on a tangent.  Charlie is “instructed” by Shibata to go the orient, which actually looks like a farm somewhere in upstate New York while Anthony Lau as Master Ying looks positively terrified in front of the camera.  He couldn’t deliver a line if his life depended on it, even his old-age make-up is thrift-store quality at best.  His dojo is also nothing more than an empty room with some spears and machetes hanging from the wall, which looks like some 5th rate porn set similar to that of Bill Milling’s kung-fu porn hybrid The VIXENS OF KUNG-FU (1975).  The only thing Charlie seemed to learn from Master Ying was an “old Japanese assassin trick” when taking care of Judge Enstrom.  Most of the other “death promises” are much of the same with exaggerated sound effects as everyone punches, kicks and hollers at each other.  The climatic “battle royale” is long, drawn out and entertaining as hell, which also holds a few, rather obvious surprises that will certainly get your head scratching nonetheless.

Master Ying supervises Charlie's "advanced training".

Director Robert Warmflash hasn’t really directed too much else and according to Code Red’s packaging served as a post-production supervisor on Abel Ferrara’s NEW ROSE HOTEL (1998).  He’s actually worked on many other films in the same capacity including James Toback’s TWO GIRLS AND A GUY (1997) and, in the last few years, has seemed to focus his attention on documentaries beginning with Leon Gast’s WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996), Louie Psihoyos’ critically acclaimed The COVE (2009) and Joe Cross and Kurt Engfehr’s FAT, SICK AND NEARLY DEAD (2010).  “Star” Charles Bonet also appeared in Tommy Loo Chung’s The BLACK DRAGON REVENGES THE DEATH OF BRUCE LEE (1975) alongside headliner “Ron Van Clief”, but one of his more interesting credits is Joseph Ellison’s nasty but effective horror shocker DON’T GO IN THE HOUSE (1980).  Stunt co-ordinator and actor Bill Louie was yet another New York bit player that also turned up in Matthew Mallinson’s bargain-bin mainstay FIST OF FEAR, TOUCH OF DEATH (1980) and the NYC re-shoots for Ryuichi Takamori’s Sonny Chiba actioner KARATE KIBA, which was released in the US as The BODYGUARD (1976).  In a truly bizarre bit of casting, Thompson Kao Kang also starred in George Bange’s East-meets-West spaghetti western KUNG FU BROTHERS OF THE WILD WEST (1973) alongside William Berger and Donald O’Brian.  For those that are interested, it was released on VHS as The MASTER KILLERS in one of those big Wizard Video boxes.

Charles Bonet in action during one of the many sloppy street brawls.

Released by Code Red in a nice 16x9 transfer in its original 1.78:1 framing, DEATH PROMISE has probably never looked better and, to be honest, probably never will.  Preceded by a trailer for The KING OF KUNG FU (1978), the disc also includes trailers for DEVIL’S EXPRESS (1975 – by all means pick this up immediately!!!), The BLACK DRAGON REVENGES THE DEATH OF BRUCE LEE (1975), DEATH MACHINES (1976), CUT-THROATS NINE (1972), The UNDERTAKER (1988) and a trailer for DEATH PROMISE.  Any self-respecting exploitation junkie will love this.  That’s a promise!