The Terror Within (1989)

Imagine Alien: taut corridors, an overworked crew, a horrifying creature that uses ventilation shafts to quickly maneuver around a claustrophobic interior. There’s fear there too, the fear that you’ll be maimed, killed, or worse, bred.

Now take that, set it on a post-apocalyptic Earth ravaged by a terrible plague, stuck down in a bunker with a crew running low on food and water, and make the monsters look bad. Really bad. Keep the impregnation angle but make it way more rape-forward. Add in George Kennedy and a lower budget, and make sure Roger Corman is producing it. Yeah, that’s The Terror Within.

On the surface, it’s not necessarily a bad idea for a way to copy Alien. There is a lot of running around with an overworked and underfed crew forced to use makeshift weaponry in relatively claustrophobic corridors. Setting it on Earth doesn’t really hinder things, because plague and mutation has forced the last survivors into bunkers, with only limited radio contact with other facilities. The trouble is where you start getting into the general lack of atmosphere; this movie just doesn’t have it. It does have characters I like, the kinds of folk that have openly turned to distilling their own liquor and will turn surgical lasers into cannons with the right motivation and a couple of hours to work. There’s even a bad throwaway reference to Star Trek from the team’s doctor, and I do so love my bad throwaway references. The real problem is that the monsters are just so goofy looking.

Picture this: a seven-foot-tall rubber muscle suit with protruding teeth, exposed ribs, and almost no ability to bend in any natural way. I feel bad for the guy inside of it, because that thing could not have been comfortable. Yeah, the monster looks tough; it also looks like they took a bad Halloween costume and distressed it a little, and that’s what is roaming the halls. The first time I saw it crawling through the ventilation system, I admit I laughed. That’s not something you want to happen, especially when the film was actually doing ok for not showing any of the monsters for the first 30 minutes. That monster had to show up sometime though, and when he did, the crew decided I needed an eye fill. And another. And another. Hell, the creature gets enough camera time to qualify for an Academy Award. It won’t win one, but it could.

This is all a distraction from what this film is really about: rape. Yes, Roger Corman once again produced a movie with rape. It’s like we keep going back to that one scene with the worm in Galaxy of Terror. But this movie is completely about it: the monsters literally murder men and rape women, leading to a massively quickened gestation cycle that will result in the birth of another little monster and the death of the mother. You could potentially save the woman by performing an abortion, and now we’ve discovered an ethics quandary about abortion for rape victims. Thanks, Corman. You’ve given me something new.

Not that ethics is the focus here; it’s on using dog whistles to stop cheesy monsters. But it’s there just under the surface, and now I’m forced to face a serious issue through the silliest of ways. Damn it, I’m finding deeper meaning in schlock films again!

Maniac Cop 2 (1990)

Maniac Cop 2 is the best of William Lustig’s trilogy and is actually what he considers his best film to be. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it is everything it needs to be: more violent, more sleazy, more nasty than the first without going overboard the way the third did.

At its heart, Maniac Cop 2 is a combination of zombie and slasher film. Officer Matt Cordell is an undead disgraced cop who has come back to humiliate the police force and local New York City government after he is murdered while wrongfully held in prison due to the machinations of corrupt local officials. To do this, he creates panic by killing the innocent and letting criminals go, all while still wearing his uniform. In the first film, he scared the populace into distrusting the police. In the second, he openly hunts his chosen targets, including the heroes who bested him the first time around.

In fact, not only does he hunt them, he bests them. This is a movie where Cordell’s plan works out exactly as he wants. By the end, his revenge is complete, and he can rest in peace…or will he? Maniac Cop 3 says no, but in that one he’s purposefully recalled via voodoo. But enough about that movie, what is it that makes Maniac Cop 2 a solid film?

First, Robert Z’Dar, the man playing Matt Cordell, is huge and more scarred up than ever in this movie. He is massively physically imposing over the other actors, and the sound alone of him spinning his baton effortlessly as he stalks the night is intimidating. He makes a great and creepy villain, but also one you root for as you realize he’s just a man who was wronged greatly.

Second, everything is bigger in this movie: more violence, more blood, more gratuity, more more more. Cordell attacks a police station in this first film, but it’s nothing compared to him getting an automatic weapon and walking calmly through doors and walls as he silently picks targets and unloads. The scene of him opening fire from the darkness of a shooting range is sheer bloody brilliance. He also kills the previous film’s heroes almost effortlessly and even takes a chainsaw to the hand in the process without flinching. Later he teams up with a hooker-hunting serial killer to break into Sing Sing, and once he’s inside, the stunt work is incredible as a burning Matt Cordell hunts down the inmates who brutally stabbed and slashed him to death years before.

In a way, Maniac Cop 2 is a great payoff, and I’m glad I watched the series out of order and didn’t finish with Maniac Cop 3 instead. I am happy to send off this trilogy this way, on a high note that I feel it deserves. This is quality B-movie entertainment.

And it’s still way WAY better than Psycho Cop.

Heatseeker (1995)

It is the future. MMA continues to dominate as a spectator sport, and the current champion is Chance O’Brien, an all natural human in a field full of cyborgs, in a sport where competitors can be up to 20% cybernetic. But the Siano company wants to win big in the cybernetics industry, so they hire Chance’s greatest rival, Xao, and create a tournament where fighters can be up to 50% mechanical. To ensure ratings, the Siano corporation kidnaps Chance’s trainer and girlfriend, Jo, to force him into the tournament. Can Chance defeat Xao and the evil Siano corporation in a future full of artificial enhancements, cheap porno lighting, and perfect asses?

Yeah, this is an Albert Pyun-directed ’90s cyberpunk movie. It’s full of ridiculous overacting, awkward costumes, cartoonishly evil villains, cheap sets, and low-budget special effects. But then, if you’re watching a Pyun movie, you should know to expect that. And he is here in full glory, using his stuntman fight scenes and a tournament structure which makes little sense to make up for the limited budget.

But that’s ok, you’re not watching it for the ridiculous plot, and the film definitely delivers on people roundhouse kicking each other in the face. I don’t think 10 minutes go by without someone getting his or her perfect ass kicked.

If there is anything this movie taught me, it is that fist injuries don’t really matter, cyborgs break easily, and “DON’T YOU GET IT! HE NEEDS LOVE! LOVE!” is the greatest line ever spoken in any movie ever. Yeah, it’s a bad movie, but the fights held my attention, and the rest of it was such a glorious train wreck, I couldn’t look away. Pyun isn’t exactly a well-respected director, but I enjoyed his ridiculous cyberpunk action film Nemesis way more than this movie. This one just felt like it was trying to cover up its limited budget way too much. But what it covered it with is lots of people beating each other up and buns of steel. I can live with that.

Ninja the Protector (1986)

A team of ninja are running an illegal counterfeiting operation. The law is hot on their trail, with a mole inside their organization. But nothing can be done, as only a ninja can defeat a ninja. It’s a good thing the head of the police team investigating the counterfeiters happens to be a ninja himself! Richard Harrison is NINJA THE PROTECTOR: A Godfrey Ho film.

…or something like that. Godfrey Ho is famous for having filmed only pieces of material and then editing them together with a variety of other films from other countries to create multiple movies on the budget of a single Z-lister and then paring them with titles based on other recently released films but with the word “Ninja” attached. Case in point: Ninja the Protector, after Jackie Chan’s 1985 film The Protector. Ultimately the two have absolutely nothing in common, but that never stops the exploitation community from ripping off whatever they can. Using this technique, Ho created so many films, even he doesn’t remember what all he has done.

I first became aware of Godfrey Ho’s filmmaking around 2001, when several friends and I rented his movie Cobra vs. Ninja, in which the Thai mob bets on ninja fights, which a ninja named Cobra manipulates so he can challenge Ninja Master Gordon, played by Richard Harrison. Harrison actually played the role of Gordon in at least thirteen Ho productions, though for all we know he only filmed enough material for a handful of those movies. But Ninja Master Gordon is also usually the best part of these movies, as he literally flips out and kills people, often sporting outfits in a variety of colors. In Cobra vs. Ninja it was a deep red gi with a bright yellow headband that had “Ninja” written on it. In Ninja the Protector, Ninja Master Gordon appears dressed in a camouflage gi and wears eyeliner for some reason. Apparently the cosmetic choices of ninja are shrouded in mystery.

Anyway, there is a plot in Ninja the Protector, but it’s not a good one: the mole infiltrates the counterfeiters by trying to become a male model. He then sleeps with two women and has trouble with his suicidal girlfriend, while his brother who has a dirt bike fetish goes and mucks things up. Meanwhile a couple of white dudes investigate the gang, and whenever he gets the chance, Ninja Master Gordon shows up and fights. That is pretty much how everyone gets arrested in this movie, a ninja shows up to handcuff them. I think that’s totally legal in Taiwan. At least, I’m kinda sure.

Bad editing, bizarre cinematography, ridiculous dubbing, and a nonsensical plot rule the day. Characters who were completely alive are suddenly declared to be dead, two of the police make an absurd logic jump into believing their boss is a ninja after joking around that all the guys they have been catching have been on their way to costume parties, and the pacing is ridiculous. During one non-ninja fight sequence, the choreography visibly skips back and forth and even replays the same sequence three times. But you aren’t here for any of that.

You’re here for ninja fights.

And you get it! Ninjas jousting on motorcycles! Ninjas fighting with swords, smoke bombs, and throwing stars! Ninjas waving their hands in the air and suddenly appearing in full costume! Ninja Master Gordon even shoots an enemy ninja in the back with a hunting crossbow. Hell yeah!

Let me explain the basic layout of a Godfrey Ho motion picture:

Ninjas do stuff – Shit – Ninja Fight – Shit – Ninja Fight – Shit – Ninja Fight – The End. Welcome to the wonderful, terrible world of Godfrey Ho cinema.

It should be noted that Ninja the Protector, AKA Project Ninja Daredevils is IN NO WAY the movie Ninja Project Daredevils, which is also known as Ninja Masters of Death. Totally different movies. But with ninjas.

Death Powder (1986)

There is cyberpunk film, and then there is Japanese cyberpunk film. While cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction film, Japanese cyberpunk borrows many of the themes of cyberpunk but ventures into extremity and generally eschews or defies traditional narrative interpretation. Blade Runner is just as much an influence as the likes of Videodrome and Eraserhead here, and body horror is a typical component. There is a specific set of core films within this style, of which Tetsuo: The Iron Man is the most well known. All of these movies trace their history back to Burst City, a dystopian punk film from 1982 that proved to be hugely influential for underground Japanese filmmakers, but the film that really got things moving was Shigeru Izumiya’s 1986 film Death Powder.

What is Death Powder like? Well…it’s gory, but not to the level of later Japanese cyberpunk movies like 964 Pinocchio. There is a plot, in which three scientists are holding a female robot prisoner created by another scientist, and this robot can breathe the titular death powder. But a lot of other things are going on, and once the actual powder appears, it is no longer really possible to say what is actually happening, because the character who gets it in the face begins to imagine his own omnipotence and hallucinates the past, a possible future, hideous monstrosities, violent men, and even a montage of nighttime city shots set to smooth jazz. This is a film that isn’t quite sure of what it is doing as a film, so it becomes extremely avant garde and less of a workable movie that one can sit and easily digest. If anything, I felt more like this was an initial run at the ideas that would champion the subgenre, but they are still half-baked and not fully formed.

It’s tough to quantify Death Powder, partly because it is so incomprehensible, but also because it is unreliable. The audience has also taken the death powder, so what is fantasy versus the reality of the film is unknown. Is the explanation for the robot’s creation by Dr. Loo real? It looks more like a music video. Do the workers at the end really end up eaten by a wall of flesh? And who are the scarred people and their wheelchair-bound boss?

Also, what is life without flesh? If there is a poignant question for the future, it’s the back and forth argument that the hallucinating man has within his own mind as his face bubbles and melts away, arguing over whether life as a robot is really life or if the flesh is just a prison containing the true self. Somewhere Ray Kurzweil is shouting at the moon, I’m sure.

Do not expect any easy answers from this genre; you won’t get them. I love the original Tetsuo, but it can be interpreted in a variety of ways, as can Death Powder. If you take an interest in extreme film and look these up, Death Powder might be the best place to start, because it is a bizarre and twisted heap of a film but also a great introduction to the productions that follow, even if I believe the later ones make for a better ride.

Also, flesh wall. I want you to really think about what that must look like.

I am Sartana, Your Angel of Death (1969)

This is the second of the official Sartana films, but the first by director Giuliano Carnimeo, who directed the rest of the official series. Gianni “John” Garko played Sartana in all of the films, but the first in the series, If You Meet Sartana Pray for Your Death, was directed by Gianfranco Parolini. Parolini went on to direct the Sabata series of spaghetti westerns with Lee Van Cleef.

In I am Sartana, Your Angel of Death, men rob a bank of $300,000 while one of them is dressed as Sartana. The bank then puts up a $10,000 reward on Sartana’s head, so Sartana must contend with numerous bounty hunters, including friends of his, while he tries to find out who really robbed the bank and clear his name. To do this, well, he pretty much kills everyone. The thing is, Sartana is a charismatic and well-dressed man with a penchant for sleight of hand and card tricks. He comes and goes, deceives his enemies, and prefers throwing knives and a pepper-box derringer for his tools of the trade. He also has one pal on his side, Buddy Ben, an eager opportunist and bum who is happy to share a rumor or two in the hopes that he’ll get some of the $300,000.

I really enjoyed this. Really really enjoyed it! It’s hard not to like Sartana, and while he can be gruff and amoral, his manner and methods really sets him apart from other traditional Western anti-heroes. The supporting cast also shines, including Klaus Kinksi in a role as an unlucky gambler and bounty hunter after Sartana named Hot Dead. The showdown with Hot Dead in a gambling den is probably the highlight even though it isn’t resolved by a gunfight; instead it’s two old friends (and brilliant gunslingers) playing a game of chance and letting luck decide their fate. In a movie chock full of violence, this scene shines through.

If there is a downside to the film, it’s that the constant deception and the heavy use of darkness in some scenes occasionally makes the plot and action difficult to follow. In particular there is a scene where a character is beaten up in the dark, and while the cinematography is wonderfully handled, spinning the camera back and forth as men mercilessly beat the victim, it is also incredibly disorienting. Also, to make sure the body count is high, there is a lot of fodder who often appear to have some kind of backstory that isn’t elaborated on before they are slaughtered. But then anything more would inhibit the bloodshed, and that’s exactly what this kind of movie is about.

For fun I sometimes like to see if I can date Westerns by the weapons that are used. This movie is likely late 1860s, very early 1870s, as every rifle appears to be a Winchester M1866, and most of the revolvers look to be Colt Dragoons, Walkers or other pre-1870 revolvers. I believe Sartana’s derringer is custom-made, considering the special cylinder and the custom grip. I know, it’s a weird quirk. You should try it sometime.

Warbus (1985)

Ah, ‘Namsploitation. Where every gun has infinite bullets, every weapon is always set to rock and roll, and everyone fires from the hip. Also, shit explodes. From the fiery ashes of the Viet Nam comes classic films about heroism in a shithouse jungle hotbox, where Charlie hides behind every tree, and discipline has broken down to nothing. Where every GI sports a beard and has forgotten how to salute, and every step is booby trapped. Into this maelstrom of shrapnel and fire rides a school bus, driven by missionaries and hijacked by three abandoned US marines who are desperate to get the hell out and go back to the World.

The year is 1972, the US has pulled out most of its ground forces along the North/South border, and the NVA are now launching the Easter Offensive. A South Vietnamese major and a group of missionaries board a school bus driven by an NVA spy who tries to head north…until the Marines stop him and commandeer things. The ragtag group initially despises each other, until they begin recognizing the need to work together to survive. Along the way, they encounter NVA battalions and booby trapped corpses of American soldiers, raid abandoned South Vietnamese and American fire bases, scrounge for fuel and supplies, and discover that one of the missionaries is actually an epileptic schizophrenic who isn’t always trustworthy.

Stuff explodes in this movie. A lot. And for some reason, everyone constantly rolls and leaps around whenever they get into a gunfight. Yet despite how depressing the material is, it’s still an entertaining ride. I’m not saying this is a good movie; far from it. But I still rooted for the good guys to kick butt and evade the bad guys, even when I thought they looked ridiculous doing it. Everyone is desperate to survive, and everyone has been out in the jungle for way too long, so the constantly frayed nerves don’t come off as bad as they might have in a different situation. Sure, the acting is poor, but considering just how bad things were in Vietnam in the 1970s…well, the over-the-top nature of many of the performances actually don’t seem that weird. These people are crazy, but they all just want to get home, no matter what.

I liked Warbus. It’s not great, but it’s not as awful as I was expecting. And it is way, way better than dreck like Robowar. And Warbus is what made the North Koreans notice Ferdinando Baldi and hire him to make Ten Zan, in which one of the Marines from this film, Romano Kristoff, also starred. Hell, to bring it home, the Warbus sequel stars Mark Gregory of both Ten Zan and the Thunder films. Would I watch that? You bet your sweet candy ass I would.