Throw Back Thursday Review: Death Race (2008)

Poster for Death RaceIt has taken a bit of time for the concept of Throw Back Thursdays to sink in, aka #tbt but now that it has, thanks to Rich Paschall who gave us another way of looking at this sometimes annoying new trend, the beginning of The Throw Back Thursday Review has started with Death Race (2008).

This lovingly made reimagining of Roger Corman’s classic, and cult favorite, Death Race 2000 (1975), keeps up with the entertainment factor of the original. David Carradine, who starred as Frankenstein in the first film (along with a heavy-set Sylvester Stallone who played Machine Gun Joe as the winning driver’s main adversary) provides the voice of the first “Frank” in this remake as a huge nod and wink to Corman’s camp classic. Roger adores Paul W.S. Anderson (known for Event Horizon and all but one of the Resident Evil films) whom he discovered when the director made his first film Shopping in 1994 with Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Sean Pertwee, Sean Bean, Marianne Faithful and Jason Isaacs.

While Corman’s film dealt with a race taking place out on the road, where members of the public were considered targets by the drivers, the remake (which Anderson says is a prequel to the 1975 film) is a reality TV show brought to the public from inside a high security prison. Overall, the mythos is the same. Frankenstein is the “long-term” winner and crowd pleaser that dies at the beginning of the film. In the original, “Frank” was continually resurrected by faceless drivers as the real one and the subsequent replacements kept getting killed.

In the 2008 version, only one previous Frankenstein exists before Statham’s Jensen Ames puts on the mask. Machine Gun Joe, Statham’s biggest adversary is played by Tyrese Gibson and Ian McShane (Deadwood, Lovejoy) plays Coach; the man in charge of Frank’s pit crew. Joan Hall, the three time Oscar nominated actress from TV’s The Killing, plays Hennessey, the prison governor and the romantic interest in the film is filled by Natalie Martinez (Under the Dome, Secrets and Lies).

Poster for Death Race 2000
Roger Corman’s camp classic…

In this world, Frank must win one more race in order to be given his freedom. In reality the driver would not have gotten pardoned even if he had survived and won his final race. Statham steps in and faces the same opposition from Governor Hennessey who wants high ratings and big payouts for the televised race. Anderson provides action at a good pace and sets up the story well. Statham is brilliant as Jensen Ames/Frankenstein and his supporting cast are all top notch performers who deliver.

The director has admittedly based his “dreadnaught” on the 1981 film Mad Max: The Road Warrior and its petrol truck. Paul is obviously a fan, he even says so in the DVD’s special features, and he also has real respect for Ridley Scott and James Cameron. So much so the cafeteria scene in Death Race borrows a bit from Cameron’s 1986 filmAliens.

In the Cameron film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) slaps a tray of cornbread out of the synthetic human’s (Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen) hand. Pvt. Frost glances up and says, “I guess she don’t like the cornbread either.” In Anderson’s feature, Ian McShane (Coach) and his pit crew watch Statham’s character get into a fight with Pachenko and members of his gang. As the fight concludes, Coach says, “I guess he didn’t like the oatmeal either.” In both films scenes immediately preceding the acts of violence have another character complaining about the food; Aliens – cornbread, Death Race – oatmeal.

Aliens scene from film
Frost: “I guess she don’t like the cornbread either.”

A very cleverly set up homage to another director and his film. Anderson consistently provides entertaining and action packed films, he can also terrify his audience, Event Horizon for example will give the viewer nightmares. In this 2008 film, he pays respect to Roger Corman’s original dystopian vision and brings his own mark to the world of violence presented in the “future.” I adore the film and its perfect mix of stars.

Speaking of which, Death Race earns a full 5 stars for a number of reasons, but mainly, because I am huge fan of Anderson, Statham, Gibson and McShane. The latter I actually met while working as an extra on Lovejoy in England, what a class act and real star only just surpassed by the chap who played Tinker on the series, Mr. Dudley Sutton, who treated everyone like an old mate.

7 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Hell Ride (2008): Biker Film Homage

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Written and directed by Larry Bishop (son of Joey) Hell Ride is an apparent homage to the Roger Corman Biker films of the 60’s and 70’s. The “original” biker films were cheap, loud and full of bad acting and great moments. *who can forget a mortally wounded Bruce Dern in The Wild Angels asking as he dies, “Does anybody have a straight cigarette?”*

Unfortunately Bishop’s homage, while it looks good, does not contain any “great” moments like the old 70’s films. You can call Roger Corman many things, but corny wouldn’t be one of them.

Hell Ride has a good cast:

Larry Bishop
Michael Madsen
Vinnie Jones
David Carradine
Dennis HopperEric Balfour

The film looks like a part of the “Grindhouse” flicks that Tarantino and Rodriguez put out in 2007 and appropriately enough the idea came about when Bishop was working with Tarantino on Kill Bill 2. While the idea might have been a brilliant one, the actual execution left a lot to be desired.

I’ll start by saying what I think was wrong with the film. Firstly, all the leads seemed to be doing their best Clint Eastwood impression. It was all clenched teeth and guttural whispering of lines; even the females. Everyone, that is, except Michael Madsen who played his character like…well, Michael Madsen. If ever there was an actor who could be considered a “one-trick-pony” it is Madsen. Don’t get me wrong, I like Michael, but there is a reason why he doesn’t work that much. There are only so many films that need a Michael Madsen character.

The bikes all looked great, except for the chopper that Madsen rode, it looked like it belonged to another biker and he’d borrowed it. It just did not fit.

Madsen riding his big brothers bike.
Madsen riding his big brothers bike.

The other “problem with the film was the dialogue. It tried too hard to be “cute” and amusing. The blame for that lies squarely on the shoulders of Larry Bishop. It’s obvious that his father (who was known as a “comedians comedian”) was a comedy writer and comic. Where these type of lines, “It’s a business. Speaking of business. How’s business” (Spoken between David Carradine and Bishop) reeked of last generation “smart ass” humour that did not fit in the realm of the biker world.

The locations were fine and in keeping with the Southern California setting that the original biker films favoured. But that was about the only thing the film had going for it.

Eric Balfour as Comanche/Bix/Sonny/Son was pretty much wasted in his part. I’ve already groused about Madsen, so we won’t mention him. David Carradine was seen too little. Vinnie Jones was miscast and seen too much. Dennis Hopper was, as usual, great; Hopper cut his teeth on the Biker Genre a’ la Easy Rider. Larry Bishop? Well, suffice to say, if he hadn’t written the damn thing and gotten Quentin to produce it and had Bruce Willis drop out as the lead, he wouldn’t have had to “star” in the film at all.

And that would have been a good thing.

Speaking of good thing (s): the score was boss. It fit the mood and the feeling of the old biker films, but, a good score does not a good movie make.

The final verdict? Crass, crude, creative-not, cinematic chaos. Poorly acted, poorly edited, and poorly received (by me). If you want to re-live the madness that was 60’s and 70’s biker films, watch the real deal, check out the originals and don’t waste your time on this one.

2 out of 5 stars and that’s only because of Hopper and Carradine’s presence.

The original, watch this instead of a crappy homage film. Just sayin'.
The original, watch this instead of a crappy homage film. Just sayin’.

The Horror Genre: Ya Gotta Love It…

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I’ve been a fan of the horror genre ever since I got permission to stay up and watch The Birds on television at the ripe old age of ten. After getting scared so badly that after the film had finished I locked myself into the bathroom and refused to come out, I knew that anything that could affect me that much had to be a winner.

My father was completely puzzled at my bizarre behaviour, obviously forgetting all the nightmares I’d had when I was younger that had him and my mother galloping into my bedroom after my screams had disturbed their slumber. He and my mother were good parents who always explained that things in movies were not real but my Boeing 767 imagination knew otherwise and all the scary things I’d watched would visit me on a nightly basis.

I started sneaking down around midnight on the weekends to watch the local TV stations Hammer Horror Fest that they aired each weekend. *Local station? Huh! The closest station was one state away in Oklahoma. The home of  The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting with Gailard Sartain as Mazeppa Pomazoidi who did skits between commercial breaks and featured, among other guests, a young Gary Busey. Although I did not discover Mazeepa’s “madhouse” till much later, his show made me laugh and cringe at the same time.*

**If you’ve never heard of The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting click on the link preceding and read John Wooley‘s visit down memory lane as he talks about the show.**

Films were not the only medium that I adored in the horror mode. I found great collections of short stories and anthologies of stories that scared the living crap out of me. One such story was H. Russell Wakefield‘s 1928 short story The Red Lodge. It’s the story of a city fellow and his wife who move to the country and rent this riverside home and it scared me silly. This book gave me an aversion to looking out windows by means of opening the shut curtains. Combined with my Twilight Zone experience with Bill Shatner and the occupants of Red Lodge, it’s a wonder that I can look out windows at all.

Gailard Sartain as Mazeppa. Ah childhood memories...
Gailard Sartain as Mazeppa. Ah childhood memories…

I have fond memories (and sometimes still have nightmares) about those Saturday night “creature features” and the books that helped me develop an insatiable taste for all things abnormal, scary and freakish; in other words horror.

I also remember rolling about the floor in hysterical laughter at a mates house while watching a Roger Corman-ish type film where these radioactive giant frog/men things that came out of a contaminated lake and killed local bikini clad beauties. *At one point in the film, one of these frog things shoves his hand through a plate-glass window trying to grab a mannikin, it’s arm gets cut off and what are supposed to be maggots fall out of his stump. The fact that is was obviously rice, made the scene funnier. Come to think of it, this might have been a Corman flick, I just cannot remember the title of it to verify if it is or not.*

I guess I am a lot more forgiving about horror films that other people feel derisory about. I’ve had a life long love affair with these creative geniuses and “not-so-creative” geniuses who make the films that make you want to scream; either in fear or frustration. Because, damn it, they’ve tried.

I know that horror films are the burgeoning directors first port of call when he or she is just starting out. I also know that a lot of “unknown” actors will be in the thing and that a lot of ex-stars might make the odd cameo, but…

I can still remember laughing and screaming in equal measure at Evil Dead at the drive-in. Evil Dead 2 was even better! The eye scene had us laughing, screaming and gagging all at the same time. I’ve seen other films that can equal that reaction, but not too many.

Still, I am most forgiving when it comes to films “copying” other more successful films, which in all likelihood are homages. Too many folks will poop all over a new horror film because it “borrows” from other films. But honestly? When was the last time you saw something so blazingly original that you couldn’t find a comparable film anywhere?

Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h...
Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h…

For me, it was The Grudge. That was the first film that I had seen in years that was: a) Great, b)original, and c) scared the crap out of me. Of course, I am talking about the American re-make with Sarah Michelle Gellar directed by Takeshi Shimzu. I only found out later that this was his fourth version of a film that he’d made over and over. So in essence the film was not “original” at all. It borrowed from the earlier versions of the film and Shimzu just kept “tweaking” the scenes until they were scary as hell.

I’ve written a few reviews recently that some people have not necessarily agreed with and that is great. Variety is the spice of life and we all have opinions (a childhood friend once told me, “Opinions are like arseholes, everybody has one.” Another friend quickly added on, “And some are bigger than others.)

Back to the reviews, I never go into a horror film (or any film for that matter) with a “preconceived” idea of what I am going to watch. I concentrate on suspending my disbelief and try to get carried away with the film’s story. Often, unless it is so glaringly obvious that a 5-year-old could spot it, I don’t even notice a lot of “copying” from other films. I just sit down popcorn on hand and coke to the side and watch.

Sometimes I am so disappointed that I will pan a film I have just seen, but not often. It has to be really  bad for me to do that and some are that bad, no argument, but I will not judge a film too harshly if the overall story is good, the acting passable and the plot twist (if any) is memorable. Ghostquake is one such dreadful film and I hated it.

Other times, I will find a film that is so blazingly original that it blows my mind. After I watch it repeatedly, I’ll then write about it and ponder why the creativity gods are so fickle and only allow this kind of brilliance to shine once in a great while. The best recent example I can think of was the plot twist in Orphan (thanks GaryLee828 for reminding me of the great film) and of course The Orphanage.

So there you have it, the reason that I am so much more accepting of films that other folks obviously do not like because they “copy” other films. In a nutshell, I love the damned genre so much, that I love even the bad films and I will go out of my way to watch them all. Books, on the other hand, are different. I am not so forgiving there. If they are so badly written that even my overactive imagination cannot connect then they are dismissed immediately and panned.

So as I prepare to trawl through Netflix to find a horror film that I’ve not yet seen, preferably low-budget and gory, I’ll leave you with this thought. Even Sam Raimi copied himself on the first Evil Dead film; it just happens, learn to live with it.

*Oh and if that Corman-ish film sounds familiar, can you give me a title? It would be much appreciated.*

Orphan: 2009 evil child fright fest.
Orphan: 2009 evil child fright fest.

Basement Jack (2009): Corman-esque Schlock

Cover of "Basement Jack"

You know you have divided feelings about a film when it takes you twenty minutes to think of a title for your review. Basement Jack fits firmly in the ‘ambivalent’ arena for me. After watching the film (for the second time, I have to add, so I could pay a bit more attention to it) I decided that I really did like it. I also wondered where the money went from their estimated million dollar budget, it certainly wasn’t spent on special effects.

Directed by Michael Shelton this is his maiden voyage into the directing field. Basement Jack has a competent cast.

Michele Morrow as Karen Cook

Eric Peter-Kaiser as Basement Jack

Lynn Lowry   as Basement Jacks Mum, Mrs Lowry

Sam Skoryna as Chris Watts

Nathan Bexton as The manager

Tiffany Shepis as Officer Armando

The plot is fairly straight forward and is an amalgamation of several different horror classics in the slasher genre.

Basement Jack is Jack Riley. A boy whose father died in the electric chair. A fact that his ‘mad as a hatter’ mother tells Jack as she repeatedly abuses him. The fact that she likes to shock Jack, starting with a battery when he’s really small and graduating to an electric lead when he’s bigger, shows how nutty this woman is.

Fast forward quite a few years later and Jack is no longer the blond cherub who was the target of Mom’s loving torture. He’s now tall, dark-haired and homicidally nuts. At the beginning of the film he murders Karen Cook’s family and she narrowly escapes, wounded, but alive.

Fast forward a lot more years and Jack is out of the booby hatch and on another killing rampage. Karen is following him across the country tracking him by his trail of murdered families.  She thinks that Jack is searching for her to finish the job he started when she was a teenager.

The plot devices work pretty well. We know from Basement Jack’s frequent flashbacks that electricity was a pretty dominant factor in his young life. Whether it was Mom shocking him, or Doctors applying ‘shock therapy’, or Mom handcuffing him to a metal clothesline pole during a thunderstorm, electricity ran through Jack’s veins.

I really cannot praise the cast enough. Their efforts made the film work. The interaction between all the characters was believable and real. The only exception to this was Nathan Bexton as the manager.

Bexton acts like Johnny Depp ‘acting like Ed Wood Jr‘  in Ed Wood. His manager is campy, weird and ‘hammy’, unbelievably this works well for Bexton as it made the manager a weird enough character that he actually stood out. In one scene, he answers the door wearing oven gloves and a kitchen apron. He’s talking on the phone and is clearly covered in blood. As he is admonishing Basement Jack for banging on his door, he gets stabbed. As stand-out moment in the film.

While the film works well in its apparent homage to just about every slasher film ever made and its characters. The film falls down, unfortunately, with its poorly executed ‘bargain basement’ special effects.

The scenes where Jack has to run someone through with his ‘rubber’ machete are laughably bad. In one scene he ‘buries’ the machete in someone’s head. when he removes it, it has been clearly ‘stuck’ to the side of the actors head. In another scene, as he is ‘running’ the blade through someone’s neck it is clearly behind the victim and nowhere near them.

At another point Jack hits policeman Chris Watts with an odd sword and it clearly bends showing that it’s made of rubber.

Unfortunately it is not just Jack who has the misfortune to have his stunts so badly filmed. An English detective (a quick note here. It is never explained why this ‘grunge-punk’ looking Englishman is on the force or how he is even allowed to be a policeman, let alone a detective) has to shoot Jack mid-rampage. With his gun obviously pointed just to the side of Jack, it is clear that the crew were playing it safe with the blanks in the gun. The detective fires and misses but Jack dutifully flinches as the ‘bullet’ still magically hits him.

Most of the laughably bad effects could have been avoided if  director Shelton had not opted for a close-up each and every time. Because the camera lens was right on top of the action the illusion was effectively shattered.

But…But…  The fight scenes were choreographed brilliantly for the most part. Both of Karen’s battles with Jack are masterfully done and very entertaining to watch. The interactions between characters were, as I said before, very well done.

This ‘straight-to-video’ production made me think of the old Roger Corman classics with a bit of Ed Wood thrown in for good measure. Both of these film makers specialized in the ‘B’ features that you had to watch as well as the main ‘A’ listed feature you really wanted to see at the theatre.

As we know, both Wood and Corman were ‘cheap’ showmen who delivered an entertaining film for a fraction of the cost of a ‘big-budget-film.’ Although. it has to be said, Wood’s films were entertaining for a much different reason. Corman’s brand of schlock was a completely different animal. Basement Jack felt almost like vintage Corman to me. Although the direction of Shelton felt very ‘woody.’

That the director is a horror fan is evident by the inclusion of two of tinsel towns better known ‘Scream Queens’ Sherpis and Lowry. That fact combined with the many ‘nods’ to now familiar films like Halloween and Friday the 13th drive this home.

I can only mourn the passing of the Drive-In. Oh I know there are a few left, but if ever a movie was made for Drive-In viewing, it would be this one…Basement Jack.

*I would like to point out that the one million dollar budget I quoted was incorrect. Mr O’Toole very kindly pointed this out to me. I am grateful that he did so and I’ve included this ‘post script’ to correct my mistake. I can only blame incorrect sources.*

English: American filmmaker Roger Corman.
English: American filmmaker Roger Corman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)