In 1989 H B Halicki was trying for a come back. He spent the last several years buying up hundreds of cars – yeah you read that right, I said hundreds. The plan was to do a sequel to his first movie and greatest success, Gone in 60 Seconds – but this time bigger and better. Halicki boarded a semi truck and proceeded to crush dozens and dozens of cars on camera before bailing out the driver side window and making his escape on the feet of a helicopter while the semi pile drove straight ahead into a water tower.
He got as far as shooting the first big stunt, but the water tower fall went wrong, cutting a cable which knocked down a telephone pole – right onto Halicki himself. He never made it to the hospital and was pronounced DOA in the ambulance.
I feel a little devastated to discover this man’s demise, despite being 30 years removed. I love that his wife gathered up enough money, enough crew and enough leftover cars to complete the second chase and then, patching it together with footage from the original Gone in 60 Seconds created a short feature, about 30 minutes in running time, which is essentially just one long car chase that crunches over 250 cars in its path of devastation. There’s very little in the way of plot or dialogue but it’s a fitting eulogy for H B Halicki, encompassing his love of the chase, his love of car crashes and his aspirations cinematically. It would be after this was released that his wife would then collaborate with Jerry Bruckheimer to see the Nicolas Cage remake done, forever immortalizing Halicki’s story with a more mainstream audience.
This short film is available here and there, I’ve seen it occasionally on YouTube and manage to score a copy in a “Fast as Hell” DVD collection of Halicki’s films at the dollar store. It’s worth a watch, if for no other reason as a epilogue to this remarkable man’s career.
I’m actually a big fan of Gone in 60 Seconds with Nicolas Cage. In fact, I much prefer it to The Fast and the Furious, which feels like a very similar movie to me – at least the first one did before the franchise turned into ghetto James Bond. There’s something charming about Nicolas Cage when he’s on his game and surrounded by good people. It’s one of only a handful of films that Angela Jolie stars and where I don’t feel like punching her in the face. I mean, I don’t know a thing about what they’re talking about when they’re describing the various cars or engines, but man it sure does makes me wish I did. There’s also something just charming and the filling about a good heist movie where you’re not sure who you’d rather root for – the detective or the thieves. Gone in 60 seconds is absolutely one of those films that I’ll drop everything and watch whenever I’m flipping through the cable channels.
Imagine my surprise to discover that it’s a remake.
Back one year before I was born, H B Halicki was plotting his cinematic debut. He was a mechanic who fixed cars, ran impounds and was a general competent gearhead all around. They say to write what you know, so that’s exactly what he did. He crafted a story around cars and high-speed chases and threw in as many car crashes as he could possibly get away with. He spent the previous years buying up as many cars as he could from auctions and impounds and etc. most of which were purchased for the express purpose of destroying them within his debut film, Gone in 60 Seconds.
You’ll recognize a lot from this film if you’re familiar with the Cage movie. There are a few changes of course. Halicki is an insurance adjuster who moonlights as a car thief, but it’s still a massive car heist on a deadline. They specifically target cars that are insured, that way the owners will be made whole, but this puts him at odds with his brother and his job. We get other elements from the Cage film as well – the scene with the drug dealers car where they have to blow away the heroin by gunning the exhaust is here, as well as the relationship with Eleanor. Also much like the Cage film, the final chase takes up much of the film – this one goes on ridiculously long clocking in at right around 40 minutes, and culminating in the same type of epic jump that Cage manages in the remake… only in the original, the jump isn’t a CG monstrosity against a blue screen, it’s the real thing that ramps up Eleanor 30 feet into the air and 130 feet in distance, landing with an earth shattering crash that jammed 10 vertebrae in Halicki’s spine. He never walked quite the same again, and never regretted a moment of it.
It’s a fairly rough film, and you can tell that it’s Halicki’s first effort. It took a while to complete and occasionally they’d have to shut down production and fix cars in the very garage they were shooting at to raise funds. A great deal the film is overdubbed and shot on extremely grainy stock. The hair and fashions are 70s in the extreme, and I don’t mean Hollywood 70s either. Some of the stunts aren’t actually stunts either. For instance, when Halicki wraps Eleanor around a telephone pole towards the end of the film, that’s not a stunt, that’s an accident. The driver in the car behind him tapped him on the back and sent him spinning out of control. Halicki blacked out as the car came to a teeth rattling stop. When he woke up his first words were reportedly “Did we get coverage?”.
Despite all of its flaws that I can’t help but really digging the movie. The film just has so much heart and I genuinely admire this guy for really going for it. This is a dude who created a film out of nothing, doing his own stunts and creating his own world, and ultimately crafting something that would last forever.
If you dig the Nicolas Cage Gone in 60 Seconds I can’t recommend this enough… If you enjoy 70s films or car chase movies it’s once again an incredibly high recommend and I cannot for the life of me understand why this man did not have a much bigger career.
I spotted this DVD at one of my many pilgrimages to the Dollar store. The cover art is obviously designed to evoke an association with films like The Fast and the Furious, but I knew better. I grabbed this collection mainly for the third feature listed on it; Gone in 60 Seconds part 2. A less knowledgeable fan might have assumed this film had something to do with the Jerry Bruckhimer movie starring Nicholas Cage, but I was expecting something else. It wasn’t until I got home though, that I fully understood what I have purchased.
Previously, I’d known director H B Halicki only by reputation, not even properly by name. What I discovered was that this set was in fact, a collection of most of his feature films, missing only about 30 minuets of his first movie (but more on that in another article). after watching it, Halicki easily made it on to my list of favorite directors that no one has ever heard of. I’m going to hit these films almost completely out of order though we will kick things off with his first movie. Join us over the next few months as we discover exactly how H B Halicki earned the name “The Car Crash King”!
You know, in general I’m not a big fan of revenge films and I’m not even that into car movies. But something about this film obsesses me. You kind of got to hand it to Drive Angry – opening with a car racing through the hellscape and crossing the lane change to bridges, and let you know right away this isn’t going to just be a Fast and Furious rip-off…
Back on the more familiar streets of Earth we see Nick Cage run down a truck and execute the occupants with a shot gun as he grabs the information he needs.
We transition over to a diner in the middle of nowhere where Amber Heard character of Piper is being harassed by her boss. Nicholas Cage’s Milton sits in the corner and drinks coffee flirts with her partner. Pipers had enough of the boss and quits, racing off in her dodge Charger. Milton catches up with her and bums a ride. Across the bridge a ways, William Fitchner’s character, the accountant, arrives to begin his hunt for Milton.
Back at her home, Piper drops off Milton and walks and find her boyfriend boinking someone else. It’s just an excuse to get Tom Farmer, the writer, naked (It’s a goofy cameo much like My Bloody Valentine). Farmer’s character starts to get rough with Piper and Milton comes back to intervene. He and Piper take off into the night. While they hunker down for the evening in a cheap hotel and bar, the accountant has a visit to Todd Farmer to try and pick up Milton’s trail. It’s a good excuse for some nice, bloody violence. The accountant, posing as an FBI agent, appropriates the local cops to go find Milton.
It turns out that the accountant isn’t the only one looking for Milton – cult leader Jonah King is also searching for him. That’s a good thing, because Milton is looking for King as well. King gathers together a group of men to ambush Milton in his hotel room, which leads us to what maybe cinemas first and hopefully only nookie and whisky gunfight. We’ll leave it at that. The cops arrive with the accountant, making things more complicated. Milton escapes again to hunt down King. The Accountant gives chase but Milton still manages to elude him.
Along the way, he takes the opportunity to explain the plot to Piper – His daughter fell in with Kings cult and now he has taken off with her baby. That’s why Milton is after King.
In the meantime, All that gun fire has attracted the attention of the local police, led by the redoubtable Tom Atkins. They’re out to get them and have no intention of trying to take Milton alive.
The King is not too keen on not being taken alive either. An ambush leaves Milton shot and Piper kidnapped, but not for long. A high-speed chase ensues as Piper goes fisticuffs with King inside his campervan. She leaps free, exiting the campervan and gliding through the open front window of Milton’s car. That’s enough for the car though – it breaks down, so it’s time for a pitstop with one of Miltons old allies. After a little bit more exposition, he borrows a car and they race their way into the third act. What they don’t realize is that there is a police blockade waiting for them, a trap that’s been arranged by King.
That’s about the time that the accountant shows up again in a large tanker truck which clears the police blockade on his way to try and grab Milton. Milton and Piper take advantage of it and race past him towards their final showdown with King.
One of the reasons I particularly love this movie is because this is really the perfect (though unofficial) third entry in the Ghost Rider trilogy.
Stay with me on this.
Cage is playing a post-Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze. He really is, it feels like the “Spirits of Vengance” era Blaze from the 90’s comics. No longer cursed, but still damned. We don’t need Ghost Rider or even a motor cycle, because this closes his story arc perfectly. In fact, it’s possibly the best of the Ghost Rider films. Pity it isn’t really one of them. I spoke to Todd Farmer about this and while it wasn’t intentional, he told me I’m not the first to have this observation.
I’ve never understood the disdain for this film. It’s an over the top comic book action movie and I still love it.
I have to admit, I’m walking into this one little reluctantly – I don’t dig the Prophecy films, and even though there’s a couple of recognizable names in the credits like Brad Doruff and Vincent Spano, there’s nothing here to really set me on fire. I’m hoping that Patrick Lussier can bring me some kinetic action and fun the way that he has with his vampire films.
Admittedly, the sight of Christopher Walken in long hair, creeping into a blasphemous tent revival definitely gets my attention. It is interesting to see that the film is picking up pretty much right after from the last installment – I remember that at the end of Prophecy 2, (which I watched for the box set project), Walken’s character had been cast out of heaven and left homeless. He wanders into barnburning tent revival with a heritic preacher who isn’t preaching that God is dead, but rather that he just doesn’t care. As he riles the crowd up, Brad Dourif makes his way up with a gun, shooting the preacher down in the middle of everything.
Miles away, there is a new angel on Earth, but what’s really interesting for me is watching his arrival, as he wanders right past the young crucifix that we saw in Dracula 2000 before heading to a wall full of angelic graffiti. I also noticed that Kenny Banya from Seinfeld is the undertaker again. A nice little bit of continuity throughout the Prophecy films – making sure Christopher Walken isn’t the only return player.
The heretic preacher that Brad Dourif supposedly murders at the beginning of the film, is Danyael – the Nephilim created in the last film. Angel Zophael wants to destroy him, but Gabriel, now immortal, is ready to ally with Danyael , if for no other reason than to just mess with the divines plans.
Over at the police station, Walken is interrogated about the shooting. He toys with a cop as the angel wanders the streets, ultimately arriving at the morgue. Zophael shows up just in time to meet up with Gabriel face-to-face, and they both instantly recognize one another. The problem is, Gabriel never knows whose side Zophael is on and he moves to deny him the Nephilim heart. He’s too late anyhow, Danyael awakens on the slab, and as Zophael runs to get him, Danyael’s already making his escape, right past Banya. I’m not sure who’s more upset, the angel or the Nephilim’s girlfriend who verbally accosts him.
Outside Gabriel spots Danyael making good his escape, while Kenny studies Angels and Nephilim and explains it all the girlfriend so he can catch the audience up on the story so far. It’s good enough to close the first act so that were ready to kick things into action for the last 55 minutes.
There’s things that goes in civil servants just shouldn’t know.
Danyael makes his way to the apartment of Brad Dourif, only to find the gunman dead, his wrists cut open, and on his lap, a bloody braille Bible with angelic symbols scrolled through the pages in Dourif’s blood. Zophael isn’t far behind, witnessing Danyael ’s visit through Dourifs eyes. He follows Danyael to a café where Danyaels been binging sugar… typical for angelic spontaneous tissue regeneration. Zopheal whips out a blade in the chase is on. It’s almost enough, he’s got Daniel and his hand, until walking screeches into the alleyway in a car, slamming into Zophael and granting Danyael a reprieve. He takes it and flees while walking chats up his fellow angel.
Danyaels girlfriend catches up with him, she can’t believe he’s alive. It’s a very doubting Thomas and Christlike gesture he shows her his scars and tells her then that his dying memory is of being in her arms. He transfers the memories of the angels falling to her and then sends her away as Zopheal arrives. Almost as she exits, so feel enters. It’s a quick battle, but what we come to expect from angelic combat. Lots of jumping in an air Melee.
Zophael tracks down Danyael’s girlfriend and uses her to try and find him, racing against time before Danyael can encounter and stop Pyreal, The angel of genocide. Soon, in the girlfriend’s truck, they are on the road, following Danyael on his motorcycle and Gabriel in his classic convertible. Walken is hamming up the scene by switching the radio station from “Earth Angel” over to something that he can play trumpet to while he drives. The girlfriend tries to escape her angelic captor by crashing her truck into a rock and disorienting the angel, but the pistol that she’s packing is sadly ineffective when he comes after her. It doesn’t matter, he’s an angel, and he can convincingly talk her into believing that Danyael is not the same person that rose from the morgue.
It all comes down to a showdown in the desert, (With a quick side stop – breakfast for Walken and a cameo for Mary, little girl from the first film, who points Danyael in the right direction) at Gilles Flats, on a Native American reservation, where they’ll make their stand, and where Danyael must make a choice… to stand with Pyreal to usher in the end of the world, or to oppose him.
Lussier is actually a very good choice for this film, his work on Dracula 2000 shows him to be very comfortable with disturbing and creepy religious iconography. He revels in it when he makes Dracula films, and this seems like a great fit for him – just a natural extension of he comfort zone. His style is evident in quick cuts and flashbacks. Some of the sillier conceits like the way angels perch, are minimized in favor of Catholic iconography and world building. I can also see Lussier has influenceed the interesting angelic switchblade Vincent Spano’s Zophael carries. Indeed his performance as a murderous angel stalking his prey reminds me a great deal of Walken from the first film – in fact, it kind of makes Walken’s presence here completely extraneous. Also, the long hair wig just looks bad. It’s a fairly straightforward story and with the exception of Walken’s presence, stands very much on its own. All of these kind of things end up making it a bit superior to the second film, and Lussier’s far more action oriented vision makes this a surprisingly enjoyable entry in the Prophecy series. Sadly enough, it also marks the end of this particular arc– Gabriel’s story is complete and one could very easily view this as part three of a Prophecy trilogy.
There would be two more films after this, but they begin their own story. It’s a tough thing to do that sort of double duty – stand on your own while integrating into and existing series. Nevertheless it’s a task that Lussier and the Prophecy 3 achieve quite well.
It’s a weird thing, I’m not actually a huge fan of Nathan Fillion or Katie Sakoff, so to see them listed as the cast in white noise two, doesn’t do anything for me.
It kicks things off with a shocking murder, and then Fillion trying to deal with life without his wife and son. After a failed suicide attempt, he starts to see things happening around him – halos and latent images… and those halos tell him when people are about to die.
It seems like a benign enough gift, disturbing but harmless – that is until the dead start to visit him about half an hour in. This inspires him to save the life of the next person he sees about to die – in his mind it gives purpose to his son’s death.
The thing seems to be going alright until Fillion sees some old footage of his wife driving – and the gunmen who killed her just happened to save her life a few days prior. What was previously just a weird movie, has turned into a bona fides mystery, as Fillion discovers the horrifying consequences of his gift and actions.
What we end up with is something that feels like a love child of The Butterfly Effect and the Final Destination movies. It’s all about consequences and changing destiny. It’s Donnie Darko but not as pretentious.
I actually really dig it, and don’t feel like I have to have seen the previous film to know what’s going on – that’s good thing because I haven’t. The religious horror elements that I’m so used to seeing from Patrick Lussier are absent here though he manages to sneak a hint of it in here and there – some of the answers hidden in the Bible, just a bit of Revelation thrown in. Still, it feels largely like its own thing.
I wonder a bit though if Nathan Fillion is miscast – his usual affable, likeable self feels wasted when weighted down with grief and tragedy. Katie Sakoff on the other hand is a delight – bubbly and very girly. I have to admit, I tend to enjoy her more in everything that she’s done that isn’t Battlestar Galactica!
I like Patrick Lussier, and I’m pleased to see Roy Schneider, Gary Tunicliffe and Rutger However, but that stupid Gothic font worries me. I know that Dimension shot a bunch of these in Romania back to back, along with a couple of Prophecy and Hellraiser films. On the other hand, I rather like a lot of the productions Dimension has done this way so let’s see what we’re in for. Jason Scott Lee is the lead in this film, and that’s not a bad thing either… He was excellent as Bruce Lee in Dragon, I remember really digging that as a teenager when I saw it in the theatre. He is also of course, the voice of David, Nani’s boyfriend in Lilo and stitch.
As I’ve mentioned before, Dracula 2000 is actually one of my all-time favorite vampire movies, but it was also one of those movies that I never thought should have been turned into a franchise. It stands alone really well and doesn’t lend itself all that well to further installments, however this isn’t a direct sequel anyhow. It’s more in the spirit and style of 2000, attaching itself as a sort of alternate universe sidequel film much the way Fulchi’s Zombie attaches to Dawn of the Dead as a sequel. Despite saying West Craven presents, Craven have nothing to do with this film.
We start off with vampire action in what looks like an abandoned subway and it’s good stuff – modern and slick and cool. They’re taking a cue from John Carpenters Vampires with cool vampire weapons and a militant priest. The fact that Lussier directed all three of these Dracula movies helps create a uniform feel. In addition to some modern sensibilities, he still manages to infuse the film with at least a touch of Christian mysticism, possibly the reason our protagonist is a priest.
After despatching the two bloodsuckers he returns home for more support
Roy Scheider is just phoning in his role as the Cardinal of the order, but even that’s enough to elevate this film a bit. We get sweeping dramatic shots of the train heading to Bucharest and the now-defunct priest continuing his journey and his mission to rescue his beloved Julia and destroy the vampire plague. It’s an occupied country, and the soldiers and equipment create a tense atmosphere. They take full advantage of the Gothic and stone look of Romania in crafting their film – it’s an effective use of limited resources.
This film has an interesting origin for Dracula as well, establishing a terminology – they’re correct that the name Dracula is not a proper name but rather an honorific – and aspirational one to be one of the dragons, the priest tells us he’s had many names over the years and has existed for a long time under many guises – it’s actually a really well done recap.
The further they get into the city, especially at night the more abandoned things get, unfortunately instead of coming off as creepy, it just shows the lack of budget. A handful of extras wandering around in the background may have actually helped (but they may have needed to save those for later scene in Dracula’s feeding pit). Nevertheless the blue fog and eerie lighting provides a perfectly creepy horror movie setting for them to kill vampires in.
Like John Carpenter’s Vampires, what we get here is basically a horror tinged action movie with some interesting looking bad guys. The stilts vampire has to be seen to be believed. It’s a film that I think is actually strong enough to stand on its own without the name Dracula, and I almost wish they had, but they needed the brand recognition and I’ll admit I probably wouldn’t have found it without that myself so I completely understand. Dracula 3 : Legacy is full of action, intrigue, infections and has a genuinely well thought out story. Much to my surprise, it’s one to recommend
I’ve spent way too much time trying to figure out why this film is so hated. I’ll admit, the font used on the titles is a little over the top and the use of classic Dracula protagonists names for modern characters is a little irritating, but honestly – look at that opening shot of the Demetre… The blue cast that contrasts with the red blood on the people and on the sails. It’s amazing. The footprints in the sand where we slowly see animal turn the human, it’s marvelously understated and yet perfectly effective.
We get a good bit of establishing banter with our characters. It’s perfectly clear who Van Helsing is, but Johnny Lee Miller himself still charms as well. I feel a little heartbroken when Selena turns down his date.
Downstairs, the thieves are quick and efficient. Omar Epps actually does a marvelous job being sinister. He has a cultured style to him that underlies his efficiency. I could actually really dig a pure heist movie featuring this crew… it’s almost a shame that they won’t live long enough for a sequel.
In a gothic cave chamber below Van Helsing’s office (Setting off a few traps to give us some fun, spiky kills) The chamber itself, adorned with vampire skulls, almost feels like a hammer film set. It’s more of an homage than anything else, because the rest of this film will do its best to be slick and modern.
Across the pond in New Orleans, our heroine Mary, he is having bad dreams. Flashes of Dracula, armor, and strobe lighting mix with her face until she awakens terrified. It’s a reasonable bit of foreshadowing considering Dracula is on his way to her in the thieves airplane. The first attacks from Dracula are fast and brutal, and more than once it’s succeeded in making me jump. Gary Tunicliff wields fake blood effectively, though I’ll dmit I wish Dracula’s de-ageing were a little less sudden. Then again, when you got Gerard Butler in your cast, you want to get his shirt off and have him looking pretty as quick as possible.
We effectively sidestep skepticism by having Johnny Lee Miller follow Van Helsing and almost immediately witness the vampires firsthand. They’re well done too, Gary Tunnicliffe chose to make them gruesome more by virtue of blood spatter rather then the physical deformity we see in Carpenter’s Vampires or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Still, there is no mistaking the red eyes and fangs for anything less than monsters. Lussier delivers us a kinetic action scene before Van Helsing takes Miller aside to explain the plot. There is a new twist to the vampire legend here, the idea that Dracula is patient zero – the first vampire, and that the methods that destroy other vampires simply don’t work on him. It’s a logical, organic addition to the mythology. We get additional foreshadowing as silver Mardi Gras coins are dropped from a balcony while Dracula wanders the streets of New Orleans. Foreshadowing is actually something Lussier is good at and the general confusion and massive activity that we get from this admittedly small-scale Mardi Gras celebration provides a colorful and acceptable challenge to our vampire hunters. It’s no challenge for Dracula though, as he finds Mary‘s roommate Lucy to continue the game of cat and mouse that he is playing with her and her father.
Lussier creates an almost Suspiria like atmosphere to introduce the brides and finally give us our first real confrontation with Dracula. We get great wolf and bat imagery as Miller savers Mary and they race after the Church for sanctuary.
We get bloody scripture, exploding bibles and massive cemeteries, not to mention one of the best crucifixion scenes I’ve ever seen and as we finally discover the origins of the first vampire.
There is some cringe here, brilliant dialogue like “we are also much more complicated than our names aren’t we? “Are undercut by goofy dialogue like “I don’t drink… Coffee”. The ever present Virgin Records marketing can get on your face a bit as well and the name itself is admittedly a bit hokey. Still, the imagery, the twist and the action all serve to make this one of my all-time favorite vampire films, second only to the Lost Boys. It’s an incredibly fun vampire romp, not overly grotesque like Fright Night or John Carpenters Vampires but still free of the over-the-top romanticism that Anne Rice and the later Twilight stories would infuse into the genre.
While I was going through one of those big box sets of random films I started to notice something. Patrick Lussier’s name kept coming up. The first time was when one of the Dracula 2000 films was part of the collection. There was a Prophecy movie in there to. It wasn’t one of Lussier’s, but the previous one (Which helped me understand the one I was watching) was.
As I dug further I discovered he was the director of several Todd Farmer projects. I was also discovering that I really enjoyed the Dracula films and realized it was time to do a retrospective on Lussier. The problem is, he’s done so many sequels that we’re going to be constantly sharing time with other categories – Box Set, Franchise Focus, ect. Expect a lot of crossover this year, but don’t let that deter you. I rapidly discovered that Patrick Lussier is one of my favorite directors that I never knew I loved. He’s the only director’s spotlight this year so join me as we kick things off in a week or so with Dracula 2000!
To end this series, we go back to the place where it all began; The Demon Lover.
The Demon Lover Diaries is NOT a Jackson film, but rather a fly-on-the-wall documentary, shot by the camera crew on the film. And when I say the camera crew, what I mean is the dude who actually owns the camera and was therefore the one shooting most of the film. This crew came in expecting a more polished and structured production. What they got was a first time filmmaker and his admittedly on-the-fly filmmaking style.
Because the movie was being shot in Michigan, this out-of-town crew ended up staying with Jackson’s mother. While not approving of his film aspirations, she was humoring him and supporting the shoot. However, being a traditional evangelical Christian, they were afraid of offending her, so the camera operator and his girlfriend presented themselves as man and wife as well as avoiding any mention of what the film was about other than “detective mystery”.
It’s so strange to see Jackson so young. I’m very used to seeing him middle aged and beyond. There’s an earnestness about him, but you can also see the fast talker that Scott Shaw would describe. He’d say anything to get the shot, promise anything to keep people working one more day, even if no one knew what that next day would entail. There’s a moment in the film where a couple of the girls start flinging whipped cream at each other. Jackson’s direction had been to improv the scene and it infuriated the camera operator. Some of the creme got on the camera and the absolute absurdity on top of the constant improved nature of the shoot was almost the last straw for him. Jackson talked the man down by offering the previously pro bono cameraman a thousand dollars to finish.
Yet the cameraman and his crew come in with their own problems and preconcieved notions as well. They trash the space they are staying in, much to the dismay of Jackson’s mother who complains about filth and cigarette butts everywhere. They throw a fit when they arrive at Ted Nugent’s house to film. They object not only to the use of real guns in the shot, but to the house and Nugent itself, acting appalled that he hunts. They talk about him as being crazy because he has game heads mounted on the wall, deer and rabbit and such (Not because he’s doing his crazy Ted Nugent thing – he’s actually quite subdued here. No, they think he’s crazy and bad because he hunts. Really interesting that those particular left wing talking points really haven’t changed that much in all this time).
It all ends badly. Someone gets mad and throws a rock at their car. Mistaking it for a gunshot, the camera crew flees, all the time looking over their shoulder in mortal terror to make sure Jackson isn’t coming after them to kill them. it’s a strange overreaction and I can’t help but wonder how much of it may be staged to give the documentary a more exciting ending. It certainly cements it as a bit of a hit piece to me. Not completely unjustified, but definitely overblown. If it existed in a vacuum, you might perhaps view Jackson and his team as dangerously unhinged maniacs that would never make another film. History has since proven them wrong.
I’m glad I found this at the end of this journey. I’m glad I watched it last, because I can see Jackson’s foibles on full display here. I can also see where the filmmakers opinion is overriding and perhaps unreasonable. But it’s a marvelous time capsule. All of those legends we hear about; Jackson taking sick leave to film the movie, His friend’s fingers getting cut off to fund it, the gurella film making aspects, it all comes to life and I get a very clear picture of the filmmaker Jackson would later become.
This may be the first time in a Jackson Film that I literally don’t have a clue what I’m looking at . A figure clad in black, with one of the pointy Roller Blade hoods dances in front of a yellow tent. No, not a tent, a teepee; complete with Native American drawings on the sides. he’s got a purple cape on and a bow in one hand and dances in a manner that, given the context, feels like a medicine man dancing to bring rain or end a curse.
We go to quick cuts. Flashes of images. A plastic smiley face. A robotic Groucho Marx (We’ll see more of him later – this prop actually gets his own credit at the end . Another static puppet- a classic Jackson flourish). An attractive young African American woman comes in, addressing a penitent monk named Cruisader Blade .
“My name is sister Valjean. I was sent here by the cosmic order of Roller Blade to help”
Oh my God. This is another Roller Blade movie isn’t it? And not just a Roller Blade movie, it’s a Black Roller Blade movie. It’s unclear exactly when this was filmed, definitely sometime around 1999. It’s likely it was around the same time as Legend of the Dead Boyz, since it shares much of the same cast. Cruisader Blade is John Duvernay, a holdover from Deadboyz in his only other film role. I recognize the Blade sisters we are about to meet as the Church ladies from that film
Sister Valjean hands Cruisader Blade her sword, and removes her hood, then begins to dance. Like the Roller Blader, It all has the feel of a medicine man’s rain dance. The man in the monks robe looks on, a large gun by his side.
We flash back to the figure at the tent – I’m wondering is this is a god of some sort. It’s never quite spelled out, though she’ll be out there fighting on Roller Blades later on, like one of the Roller Blade Warrior nuns from the previous films. They were never masked like this though. There’s no clear name in the credits, so we’ll refer to her as the Roller Blader.
Cruisader Blade is transformed in his mind – a smiley face bandana and John Lennon sunglasses, a black coat over a purple shirt and he dances with the Roller Blader as bogos play in the distance.
In another place, a couple embraces under a strobe light, traveling through time in a magical teepee. This is the Pharaoh – the villain of the piece (at least that’s how they talk about him) Their destination, is Los Angeles. The Pharaoh is played by Jimmy Jean-Louis, one of the more accomplished actors of the piece. You may have seen his ripped physique is films like Hollywood Homicide, Monster In Law and Tears of the Sun. Most recently he’s done several episodes of Arrow, as well as a bunch of other TV, but when this movie was shot, his filmography consisted mostly of a handfull of Emanuelle movies. He’d also play the Pharaoh in the unreleased “Blade Sisters”.
We cut away.
“Baby Blade sent you here to save our new order – the cosmic order of the Roller Blade from the evil Pharaoh”
Cruisader Blade prays in the presence of a child an several young women in cloaks. They are the Blade sisters. They draw their power from the kids, baby blade and bo blade.
“I don’t want to fight a Pharaoh,” one protests. “I don’t have any powers!”
Cruisader Blade tells her she has cat senses, and the sisters have their will. This particular sister is not from their world, and all she wants to do is go home. She scoffs as the others pray.
“You must go on a journey through this land.” He warns them, reassuring the sisters that if they get in trouble, he’ll send Baby Blade to help. He then gives a very familiar warning;
“You will meet angels and you will meet demons. But beware, sometimes, they are one in the same.”
For the first time in any of Jackson’s films, I actually hear someone, the scoffer girl, question this philosophy.
“And how are we supposed to be able to tell the diffrence?”
From the inside he replies. – the positive energy.
“May the happy face bring the power and focus to all of us”
We cut to a sillouette of the Blade sisters and Baby Blade as they head into the wastes around L.A. We get quick cuts of the Pharaoh and his woman from the teepee (along with some stage directions that didn’t get muted out) looking out towards the camera, similar to the guardian angels in Legend of the Dead Boyz. Elsewhere, the Roller Blader plots and Cruisader Blade contemplates. Both stare at a roatating disco light.
Arriving at a roadside, the Balde sisters thumb a ride into the city. They are trying to get to the sanctuary where they will perform a ritual. We know all of this because the Blade Sister Mystic chatters on incessantly to the poor schulb who had the bad luck to pick them up.
Cruisader Blade watches them on the rotating disco lightball he referred to as his “crystal ball”. The metal Groucho Marx doll sits next to him. The Blade sisters’ car rolls through the night city and we flash back to more dancing in front of the yellow teepee. The disjointed nature of the scenes provides interesting imagery but makes the story hard to follow.
Suddenly we cut to a fight in an abandoned parking lot. Bandanna and the faceless Roller Blader with her katana leap into action. One of the attackers jumps on a motorcycle and jets, the Roller Blader pursues him on her roller blades. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, In a narrow alleyway, the luchadore masked cyclists traps the Roller Blader and they fight. She knocks him down and we cut back to the swirling (not a) crystal ball. More quick cuts under bongo music as bandana hypnotizes one of the attackers. The motorcycle returns and she jumps on the back, escaping just as the Roller Blader arrives with her sword. We cut to a sword fight – a blade sister versus a man in a gold mask. He kicks and presses the attack, pinning her to a chain link fence, the sword edge at her throat. Bandanna appears from behind and with a touch, Gold mask falls. The Roller Blader skates in circles around him, kicking him down as he ties to get to his feet. He reaches for his sword, but the Roller Blader seizes it. Suddenly a Ninja runs up! He kicks the Roller Blader down and runs off with Gold Mask on his shoulders. Bandana comes an heals the Roller Blader, and they head out to go stare at the (not a) crystal ball.
In the wilderness the ninja swings his sword as the Pharaoh and his consort from the teepee look on and kiss. (I can see a sliver of white skin that ninja by the way, it’s a safe bet that it’s Scott Shaw under that plague mask, doing the sword work). He starts to fight another black suited man in the same mask. It’s impossible to tell which is which (unless its a metaphor for fighting with yourself). We cut to another part of the wilderness as the Blade sisters wander. They find the sanctuary where they will preform the ceremony that will protect them. It’s still in the distance tough. They hope to reach it by nightfall and get to hiking. The rough terrain makes it hard in those high heels.
More ninja fights and bongos as the Blade Sisters draw closer and the Pharaoh watchs on.
By a brook, a lone swordswoman sits. This is the lost Blade Sister, Toledo Blade. She is stalked by an orange ninja in a luchador mask and his dark companion in the plague mask. He gets up and starts to wander through the brush, searching for her horse as the guardians look on. Toledo Blade pushes RoboMarx – (Actually the false prophet Elija who has led Sister Toledo astray – no, really) in a high tech shopping cart by a polluted river.
Meanwhile the other Blade sisters are captured by a laughing maniac in a top hat and his ninja sidekick – the Crow Ninjas! The Blade Sister Mystic arrives to save them, but ends up as just another prisoner. In the cell, the Blade sisters bicker. We get some exposition that the skeptical sister apparently summoned the there blade sisters when she was on her computer searching for a cure to Y2k. It’s all beside the point. They need to find Toledo. The Blade sisters won’t have true power until all three are reunited.
Toledo for her part, is searching for her sisters as well, even as she runs into the french speaking Pharaoh . He asks her to come with him.
“Do you really think I could come with you? You stole the only thing that matter to me! The only man I ever loved…you took his life!”
She continues to wander, trying to figure out who summoned her, and what this Y2K thing is (Considering this didn’t get released until 2008, all the Y2K references not only date it, but now feel quite ridiculous). If she could just contact the mystic,it’d all make sense. Meanwhile the sisters are tied up because one tried to escape between scenes (we don’t see it, we just hear about it) Now they are hoping that Toledo will rescue them.
The Crow ninjas come to harass them when suddenly Toledo arrives out of nowhere, in all her violent spandex glory. She lays a beatdown on the ninjas and frees the sisters.
“We can work it out but you’re going to follow me” Toledo declares.
Baby Blade watches the (not a) crystal ball. the Pharaoh and his woman hold each other in the teepee. Smoke rises behind them, engulfing them.
It ends with familiar images. The Roller Blader dancing in front to the teepee, the blade sisters in prayer.
It’s amazing how much this really FEELS like a Donald G. Jackson film. The improv, the crimped corners on the lens, the locations and the mild premise. It’s always weird to see a found footage film in the days before Blair Witch. They existed certainly, Cannibal Holocaust immediately comes to mind. But there’s a commitment to the casually shot found footage here than was present in Holocaust.
It’s interesting to note that this is billed as a Scott Shaw production. Shaw’s contribution is mostly in releasing the film (and thus trying to profit off it. Good job, you did get my $2.12 from Amazon prime rentals). He may have had a hand in some of the cutting of this VHS shot movie, but for this is really Donald Jackson’s show. It’s a lost film, shot in 1986, abandoned and then unearthed towards the end of Jackson’s life. Still, even though it was released in 2007, it’s definitely early (and therefore better) Jackson.
This psudeo-documentary starts off with a woman pleading with the camera for whomever is watching the video to help her find her lost daughter. It fades out and then switches to a girl in a towel “Susan” who is arguing with the camera operator “Jeff Nixon”. Jeff is a newspaper reporter, and she doesn’t want to help with whatever project he is on. Jeff for this part, is certain it’s his big opportunity to be rich and famous. Susan dosen’t care. She’s late to an audition and is mad.
Gunmen emerge from a car outside and try and break their way into the house. Susan and Jeff escape out to the garage in a cherry red classic Plymouth. Jerry suggests that these are government agents but they didn’t want to be seen shooting people on camera. (which is also a convenient excuse considering the production didn’t have any live ammo and didn’t want to draw attention to themselves by firing guns in the middle of Hollywood). He keeps the camera on the agents as they trail the car, which does nothing to improve Susan’s mood.
Jeff, still on scene, tell Susan a story about how he was at the park taking photos… The photos came out black, and it caught the attention of the agents who must’ve followed him there. Susan looks at him exasperated
“I don’t understand anything that’s going on!”. Join the club Susan, join the club.
They stop for fast food, giving the agents chance to catch up. They flee again in a scene that might be full of tension if it weren’t one continuous static shot. The car next arrives at a parking lot elevated above the street. It’s a great shot, with the fisheye lens now permanently affixed and beautiful lens flares that once again are messed up by losing the corners of the screen as well as sudden audio problems (The film is in a single channel – for instance if you are listening on headphones, you’ll only hear from one side).
The sound mix comes and goes, but we finally get a look at Jeff Hutchinson in the reflection of the shop door. The agents catch up with Jeff and Susan on an escalator and they’re forced to make a run for it. They find a fire escape and ascend to the roof of the building, with the camera firmly aimed at Susan’s tuchas. Presumably they shake off the agents before they return to the car. Their new destination is Rodriguez Rocks where Jeff had his UFO encounter. Jeff uses the rocks as a backdrop for his report, telling the audience that they’ve been pursued by gunman shooting at them trying to suppress the truth about UFOs.
“Um, no one actually shot at us.”
“They tried too! This has got to be exciting or it won’t make the news!”
Jeff and Susan explore the scenic locale, passing by a cave entrance that Jeff uses to deliver a tense report about his hidden evidence. He rolled back some rocks and digs in the dirt angrily searching then running off to another section of cable where he claims to have hidden a n alien artifact – a silver cylinder. It’s not there – the cylinder has obviously been removed. They rush off back to the car to hunt down more evidence. Susan is obviously humoring him at this point. There is a quick cameo from Roller Blade, as one of Jackson’s nuns skates passed the car across the crosswalk.
“What planet do you think she’s from? Hehe!”
They head out to find Jeff’s cameraman Sam – he always hangs out at the beach. The camera is just along for the ride, Jeff letting his arm hang down naturally (Messing again with the sound) and not even going to the viewfinder until we hit the waters edge. He hands it over to Susan and then inserts himself in the frame, trying to conversed with two beach goers. The man is Jed’s photographer, Sam. inside Sam’s home they have an impromptu conference, and Sam denies even being out with Jeff the previous night much less taking or having any photographs. Susan just sits in the corner and videotapes it all. It’s ironic watching Sam accuse Jeff of being high… Sam acts pretty intoxicated himself. Either way, it’s the first real taste of paranoia inserted.
Sam kicks Jeff and Sarah out when he realizes Jeff is recording the entire encounter. Back in the car, Jeff obsesses about the missing artifact, growing more and more agitated. Susan strips down to her bikini top while seductively eating a popsicle while Jeff Rambles about time traveling UFOs and conspiracies.
“Nothing about this is logical!” Susan says, and again, I can’t help but agree.
They head to Jeff’s office to retrieve his notes. They pull up to a beautiful Hollywood building, only to descend into the basement backdoor. In Jeff’s office he finds all his stuff has been cleared away. His editor Stu (who bears an uncanny resemblance to J. Jonah Jameson) demands to know where Jeff has been for the last three days (apparently he’s been missing, though that’s the first we’ve heard about it). The argument devolves into a fight with Susan cold cocking the editor as he chokes Jeff out and they’re back on the run.
They head back to Rodriguez rocks to try and find a witness, Delmore Osborne – the one who originally tipped Jeff off. He interviews Osborne, and discovers the UFO came back, suggesting the artifact Jeff is searching for was retrieved by the extra terrestrials. They climb the hill to search for the UFO landing site when suddenly…..CLIMAX!
There is almost a Blair witch meets the X-Files feel to the film. The whole lone investigator (reporter) with the camera heading out to look for something mysterious while battling the conspiracy. It could have worked with better sound mix and some pacing to add to the tension. It might also have benefited from a narration or wraparound sequence to explain what is happening (again, like Cannibal Holocaust did). It’s a fun ride, but an unpolished one.
Toad Warrior is the third entry in the Frogtown series. It comes at a time when Jackson had fully embraced the zen film making model and was almost exclusively using his cast of stock players. As such, it feels less like a Frogtown movie and more like a late career Jackson film. Not only is Jackson using his Maximo T Bird pseudonym, but he is crediting himself as the writer of the “scream play”
I fear for this film…
Once again, Max Hell retains the name but is a completely different character. This time played by Scott Shaw, he’s a sword wielding lone warrior, very reminiscent of Shaw’s Hawk from “The Roller Blade Seven”.
The film opens with as Max Hell sails over the desert in a parasail plane, over the heads of two Frog people before exiting the vehicle, samurai sword in hand. The toad people are obviously guys in leftover masks from the other films. There’s no attempt to even hid it. We see pink, human legs protruding from shorts, and Caucasian hands. It doesn’t help that these were among the last scenes to be shot, when the project was already running out of steam.
Shaw rescues a busty blonde, and the two leap into a passing pick up truck to try and escape, but one of the frogs gets in the bed and Shaw has to bear knuckle it out with him!
At this point I’m already checking my watch. 80 minutes, I think I can handle that.
Joe Estevez is a mob boss or loan shark of some sort who appears to be trying to extort one of the frog people. The frog boss hires Max Hell to go take Joe out. I Gotta admit, the banter between Shaw and Humphrey Bullfrog is a little fun – it almost feels like there may have been a partial script for this film despite being billed as a Zen film. Fun fact, Humphrey Bullfrog is working out of Donald Jackson’s actual studio office.
Mr. Big’s ninja henchmen kidnap the beautiful blonde scientist who is the only one who can transform frog DNA into human, and Shaw is off to rescue her.
This film actually seems to be very self-aware, and playing a lot of things for laughs… Part of me wants to make fun of the lounge singer girl crooning her rendition of “my kind of frog “, but it’s actually tradition at this point and it’s actually better than the bizarre musical numbers that showed up in the previous film. The fact that this movie seems to understand it’s kind of a joke makes it an easier pill to swallow somehow. This one takes place after the “frog was “ when the scientist unleashed the green plague and humanity.
It’s also notable that Scott Shaw delivers his dialogue far more convincingly here – it appears he’s actually got some acting chops that are properly showcased. It also actually ends up being a much better showcase for Scott Shaw’s martial arts skills than the Roller Blade films were.
The production quality however has sunk down into that $30,000 level that Jackson was making films for the time, and it really shows. It affects this film more than the reduced budget would with the Roller Blade movies. Those things NEVER had any money behind them so we were used to it. But Frogtown, particularly the first one was a reasonably high budget production at about eleven million dollars. For it to sink down to $30,000 really shows. Toad Warrior ends up feeling more like a fan film then a professional production, with things like a shot on Jackson’s favorite overpass above the busy 170 freeway. The cars showing up in the background undermines the whole post apocalyptic world schtick. There are sets that are basically been built out of curtains, loud background noise and incomplete costumes. All hallmarks of Jackson’s late career work. The main things that give this any sort of credibility are the masks, and yet those seem to still have been left over from previous films. Did I mention there is another hand puppet on this one? The Roller Gator from Jackson’s kiddie flick of the same name gets a cameo in a scene where Conrad Brooks (still a swamp farmer) attempts to nap. Sure there are b-lister stars in the movie, but even my 10-year-old daughter managed that for her backyard zombie films!
There is a story in here somewhere, but it gets lost as people meander around and we end up with a lot of disconnected fight scenes and bits of random exposition that don’t really move the story forward.
It’s important to note that IMDB lists a fourth movie in this series. “Max Hell : Frog Warrior” is not really a sequel. Like “Legend of the Roller Blade Seven” or “Hawk : Warrior of the Wheel Zone” Max Hell is actually a re-edit of Toad Warrior. Toad Warrior never had a proper release in the US, only playing theaters in Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines, and for good reason. Neither Shaw or Jackson were happy with the final cut.
“I don’t know if it was the lack of technology at the time, laziness, or just the fact that the editor was more locked into a sense of Traditional Filmmaking than Zen Filmmaking but he and Don really missed the mark on the original edit of Toad Warrior.” Shaw recalls.
“He didn’t like the edit either. He asked me if I wanted to redo it. But, there wasn’t time. To me, the edited film kind of felt like they were just filling in the required eighty-two minutes that it takes to make a movie viable for international sales.” The film was for technically for sale, but not being pushed. Jackson and Shaw were only looking for theatrical deals, which they found in the East.The result was “Post the 1996 AFM Don and I buried the film. We planned to reedit it but we were busy and we never got around to it.”
Somehow, a distribution company managed to turn up a beta master of the film, and dumped it onto a compilation DVD with several other movies. Shaw and Jackson had never wanted this version of the film released in the West. To add insult to injury many of the titles and screen credits of this version were incorrect. An entire stretch of film (the section in the truck and lab) had the audio track missing. By this time, Jackson had lost his battle with cancer so Shaw, now the sole copyright holder chased them down. Due to copyright infringements, this DVD was eventually removed from the market without the need for a lawsuit, but the damage was done. The film was out there.
It was time for Shaw to release his own edit. “What else could I do? I don’t like the cut. Don didn’t like the cut. But to kept that unauthorized version from being the only version of Toad Warrior out there I had to release the authorized version.” Shaw would lengthen certain scenes shorten others. The lab scene was jettisoned, and the entire thing was shortened. It’s interesting to look at both movies side by side, but they both boil down to essentially the same film – the one Jackson and Shaw attempted to bury in the days before internet. Perhaps best to leave it buried.
Return to Frogtown begins in a darkened hall where the frog leader declares it time to rise up and throw off the yoke of slavery! Basically the first few moments are to let you know straight off just how over to top this movie is going to be. It goes even further than the first film and that’s no small feat.
The frogs look good as ever, and I wonder if Jackson made off with some of the masks that Steve Wang had crafted for the last film (Things do go missing from studios from time to time after all). The credits on the other hand, look cheap and shortly we find ourselves in a marble yard that may be the same one he filmed “The Roller Blade Seven” in one year prior. The toad warriors are hunting as a torn old flag flutters overhead. It doesn’t look as if the lips can move on these frog masks being used for the long outdoor shot (There’s a hero mask for indoor close ups with some very basic up and down movement on the bottom lip, but that’ll be it). Not a big surprise. Indie film making usually involves a slashed budget and Jackson is back to his old tricks, overdubbing the whole thing with hollow, tinny sounding looping. He’s chosen appropriate voices, deep and menacing, but the poor dubbing throws the whole feel of the film off – especially when you’re outside. Inside we can forgive a little echoey sound but outside with no lips moving and poor looping… Well that’s classic Donald G Jackson. Still, Robert Z’Dar, Lou Ferigno and even Brion James all show up in the credits which leaves me feeling hopeful.
Then the rocket man appears in the sky, and I’m pretty sure I know exactly what kind of film I’m in for. It’s Ferigno playing ranger John Jones (named after a different green guy than the one he normally plays) and now he’s trapped behind enemy lines.
Robert Z’Dar, One of the futuristic Texas Rocket Rangers (who dress like the Rocketeer only with the helmet on backwards) is assigned to go fly in and find him. Apparently he’s playing Roddy Piper’s character in this installment, I am somewhat mystified as to why they didn’t just create a new protagonist. There is no resemblance between the two incarnations of the character, physical, behavioral or otherwise. Z’Dar is given free reign to do his own thing. He’s accompanied by Denice Duff playing Dr. Spangle. Again, we have a character with the same name from the first film, but who has no actual resemblance to the previous outing. Spangle was blonde, smart and all business in the first one. In this film she’s a spunky brunette sidekick and I think I actually like her better. (To be fair though, that could be just my affection for Duff coming through from her time in Full Moon’s Subspecies series….)
In the meantime back at Frogtown, the toads interrogate Ferigno to discover the secrets of the rocket pack. It almost feels like Jackson is creating a serial here, He’s obviously influenced by the old Commander Cody episodes and stuff this film full of monsters, jet packs and cool vehicles – gun cars and dune buggies.
Frogtown in this installment is an old western ghost town rather than the industrial hellscape of the previous film. That stupid sign is upfront again too, “If you lived here you be home by now”. Jackson seems to have as much of an obsession with this gag as he does with samurai swords. The stock background along with the expressionless masks, limited jaw movement, and hand puppet mutant (and what’s with Jackson’s fixation on puppet nookie anyhow?) give the film a distinctly power rangers sort of feel. This thing is practically a cartoon.
Ferigno is still being interrogated and drugged, but now we see he is slowly being turned into a mutant as well by mad scientist Brion James in the single most uncharacteristic role I’ve ever seen him in. It’s a bizarre. He’s a poindexter type of character, with frizzy hair so wild that it would shame Larry fine.
In the meantime, because this is the 90’s and we’re still recovering from Vanilla Ice’s “Turtle Rap” in the second Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film on year prior, Donald Jackson felt it was very important to include a nightclub scene that featured a four-minute long original song sung by a band completely comprised mainly of mutant frog people and their slave girl dancers..
The Texas Rocket Rangers are captured, but still determined to break Ferigno out. Lou for his part, is looking greener every minute and I’m afraid he’ll hulk out at any moment! I mean that as a joke, but to be fair, Ferigno does bust them out of their prison cell by literally ripping the bars out of the window.
Shotguns in hand, they attempt their escape with the mad scientist and his formula to turn people into frogs. Only Z’Dar is able to slip away, with the help of the hand puppet. He almost makes it, long enough to Don his rocket pack. Suddenly, before he can tak off, he’s surrounded by frogs.
The frog master find the humans guilty of crimes against frog kind (Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d say). Seconds before they’re executed, another Texas Rocket Ranger sweeps in and rescues everyone, blasting the frogs back and freeing Sam Hell up to shotgun everything in sight. This begs the question why they didn’t just swoop in like this this in the first place, (but that’s okay. The film still clocks in at under 90 minutes) Even the turtle head with the gatling gun is no match for our rocketeer wannabes and their hand puppet.
The frog man says “I’ll be back “more frequently than Arnold Schwarzenegger.
We find ourselves in a climactic battle of katana versus katana in a smoky room and we get a somewhat surprising twist with the frog master just before everything blows up.
It’s goofy dumb fun, and a little more unintentionally campy then the original film, but still passable. I’d probably be upset if I paid money to watch it, that wouldn’t necessarily turn it off if it were on cable. The Asylum has done far worse.
Sometimes, I almost forget that Donald Jackson made some fairly legit films. “Hell Comes to Frogtown” is one that even I’ve heard of, though I’ve never seen it before. Still, of Jackson’s filmography, it’s the one that is probably the most recognizable. It’s postapocalyptic, which is right in Jackson’s wheelhouse and looks like it was even filmed in some of the same places he’d use for his Roller Blade series (that’s not surprising. Jackson LOVES his five or so stock locations).
Mutants have kidnapped fertile women, and Rowdy Roddy Piper as Sam Hell ride a shockingly pink truck straight into Frogtown to go and rescue them… and also possibly impregnate them. The role was originally written for a friend of Jacksons, but New World pictures decided that the film need some star power and offered it to Tim Tomperson. I can’t help but wonder how it will be different with him in it. When he passed, New World decided to go with Piper because of Jackson’s previous association with the world of wrestling in his documentary “I Like To Hurt People”. It’s bold casting, considering this is before “They Live” and Piper was an unproven quantity, but he’s actually pretty delightful in this film. I’ve always had a kind of low opinion of him, I’m not into wrestling and I don’t enjoy “They Live” but the way he chews the scenery and goes off on rants here is incredibly amusing. Even more amusing is the high-tech chastity belt they’ve strapped on him to ensure his cooperation. He’s a good pick for the role, his own inherent absurdity matching the lunacy of the film and its premise. Tomperson usually plays characters more straight and I can’t imagine him pulling this off with quite as much fun as paper did.
It’s the bizarre sort of film where women wear camouflage lingerie and fight frogs after all. A world where hot lady frogs throw themselves at Piper, much to his extreme discomfort (Even if she is wearing a bag over her head).
I don’t believe rowdy Roddy Piper for a moment when he says “I’m not just a machine you can turn on and off whenever you want to!” It seems somewhat out of character for him to be so reluctant to knock these refugees up. And yet, he rises to the occasion when it’s time for him to be serious and touching.
“The war was a long time ago,” she tells him. Piper turns and looks at her sadly.
“Not for me…”
I totally buy it.
They make their way into the Frogtown, an abandoned factory complex with Piper’s handler Spangle posing as his prisoner. They are greeted by a sign “Welcome to Frogtown! If you lived here, you’d be home by now! “. Jackson would use this joke again in “The Roller Blade Seven”, with a similar sign in the wheel zone. It wasn’t funny then either.
Inside the bar, we get our first look at the frogs. A go-go dancer struts her stuff on the table as other mutants drink. The make up reminds me a great deal of the lizards from “V”. Piper seeks out somebody to barter with, and encounters a frog in a fez. He’s totally playing Sydney Greenstreet’s Signor Ferrari character from Casablanca, only he’s a frog. Fez Frog serves Piper slightly radioactive beer and kicks off negotiations. There is something slightly disturbing about watching a giant bull frog ask if pipers slave woman can dance, before handing her over to another mutant frog with an eyepatch. It’s these little touches that really sell the characters, and I’m not sure if they’re really meant to be comical or not. The comparison to Casablanca comes into even sharper focus when the deal is busted by the head frog who tells him he’s shut down till further notice!
Everything was going so well until Piper and his handler get captured. Then you find yourself all tied up with a mutant frog holding a chainsaw coming at you.
The good news is, the chainsaw managed to accidentally get piper’s high-tech chastity belt off without hurting him. The bad news is, the belt exploded while the frog was examining it. Actually, I guess that’s good news too… except it didn’t kill him, the detonation just sort of pissed him off. Still, that green blooded such and such doesn’t know who he is dealing with! Piper leas into action, quickly dispatching the frog, then rushing off to save Spangle from the king frog with two wangs.
It’s fun direct to video sort of action, with just enough humor to land jokes and keep things light without turning the film into an out and out comedy. The whole thing has almost a Troma feel to it in its independence. Frogtown makes all the absurdity in it do exactly what it supposed to do… It amuses. It’s fun.
Daniel Jackson always resented the tight rein New World pictures kept in this, but I’m not so sure he should. This is arguably his best film, he seems to do much worse than his own. Despite having a co-director and a co-writer, it’s still distinctly Jackson, with the setting, the fixiation on samurai swords, and the general weirdness of everything. I have to wonder if he’s not better when he has somebody to reign in his wilder ideas. I also for the life of me can’t imagine how he could make a film like this on his future budgets. After all, there’s two sequels that follow this movie. I guess we’ll find out!
“The meek will inherit the earth!”
“Not without a good lawyer.”
– Deleted line from “Hell Comes to Frogtown”
“Hell comes to Frogtown” is probably the most recognizable film Donald G. Jackson ever made. But it has a long history that goes all the way back to Jackson’t previous film, Roller Blade.
There is a section in L. A. they actually call Frogtown. It seems that back in the 1940s this part of the city was overrun by hordes of Frogs, an event that inspired its name. One of the actors in Roller Blade lived in this area, and Don was on his way up to see him. It was the actor, who’s name was Sam Mann, who came up with the title, Hell Comes to Frogtown. The name intrigued Jackson, and he tucked it away in the back of his mind.
“Crazy titles were getting the be the big thing. You could actually sell a movie on the strength of the title”
The title “Hell Comes to Frog town certainly fit in with the weirdness of other films like “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” or “Killer Klowns from Outer Space”. It had potential, but was no time to start planning another film though He still had “Roller Blade” to complete as well as his night job to do. Jackson had worked with both Dennis and Bob Skotak (Who would soon become famous for their visual effects work on films like “Aliens”, “The Abyss”, “Terminator 2” and “Escape from New York”) back when they were still in Jackson’s native Michigan. Bob was the first to reach Hollywood (and had actually been the one responsible for hiring James Cameron in to New World). Dennis followed shortly after and Jackson had leveraged these connections to get his current gig at New World Pictures. It was at this night job for New World pictures that Jackson met Randall Frakes. The twilight shift pretty much consisted of the two men and no one else.
“We worked the midnight shift, setting up effects shots for the Skotak brothers to shoot during the day. During that time, Don and I bonded, and he talked about the kind of movies he loved and wanted to make.” Both were fans of old serials like “Flash Gordon”, “Captian Video” and “The undersea Kingdom”. These films would be huge influences on “Hell Comes to Frogtown”. There in the gloom of the FX studio, Frakes and Jackson let their imaginations run wild. “Working night shift, had time while babysiting the computer cameras doing visual effects to come up with all these bizarre concepts, come up an idea for a screenplay about murders happening in a special effects facility”
Meanwhile, Jackson was just about to wrap on “Roller Blade” when he received what he considered to be an omen.
“I was shooting the very last shot of the movie, I turned around and someone a gang memeber or somebody had spray painted on a brick wall the name “Frogtown” and I turned to the actors I was working with and said “That’s a sign. That’s our next movie; Frogtown”.”
He headed back to the studio but made a wrong turn and got lost, eventually finding himself in strange area, overgrown and full of graffiti on the walls. It’s featured in “The Running man” and “Alien Nation”. Jackson dubbed it “Grand Graffiti train station” and flagged down one of the homeless people squatting there. He convinced the bum to take him on a tour to showcase all the points of interest, and that’s where the world of Frogtown started to coalesce in Jackson’s mind.
Back at New World, the accountants were tallying up the profit on Jackson’s direct to video “Roller Blade”. With revenue topping one million dollars, New World decided to call Jackson back in t osee what else he had to offer. Jackson had one word for them. “Frogtown”. New World didn’t even blink. They set him up with a 150,000 budget and assigned the film to home video.
With the movie now greenlit, it was time for Jackson to call Frakes. During those late night FX sessions, Frakes had constantly tried to stress to Jackson the importance of scripting when it came to story. Jackson was ready to make him put his money where his mouth was. They met at a Mexican restaurant where Jackson bought them enchiladas and pitched his idea to Frakes. He had a page full of notes and ideas about a place called Frogtown and a dystopian future where the main character was the only fertile male on the planet, battling mutant people who looked like frogs. Looking down ant the page of ideas, Frakes was transfixed.
“I looked at it and the whole movie—from beginning to end, pretty much the way the first draft was written—just started playing in my head. I looked at the one-pager in a sorta trance for about 15 minutes.”
Frakes broke out of the trance when Jackson pointed out his enchilada’s were getting cold. Jackson was in a hurry to have a script to show to New World. Frakes rose to the challenge and declared he could have a full script delivered to Jackson in a week. Jackson was skeptical, but willing to gamble. He offered Frakes a five hundred dollar bonus if he made the deadline. Frakes accepted the deal, and began work on the script. Jackson followed him home and watched over his shoulder as he pounded out the screenplay on his battered old typewriter.
“It was pure stream of consciousness stuff—something I’ve never been able to repeat—and it resulted in a script 120 pages long.”
Not confident that the script alone would truly capture his vision, Jackson commissioned a comic adaption to illustrate the look and feel of his world, pulling from the rich underground comic scene he was so fond of. Max Hell stemmed from Spain Rodriguez’s “Trashman” while the frogs were inspired by a combination of Vaughn Bode’s Junkwaffle soldiers and Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Jackson would later work with both Eastman and his wife Julie Strain in his independent film days). He started binding the seven page comic in with the script, making it an eye catching point of interest.
Pre-Production began. Frakes and Jackson were planning to shoot as much of the film as possible on hand-held cameras, giving them a greater freedom of movement. Creature Effects artist Steve Wang, fresh off “Predator” and “The Monster Squad” was brought in to design the frogs. Jackson wanted something catchy, visually interesting. Something he could build a franchise that could be spun off into toys, cartoons, comics and merchandising. Wang drew up the designs in half an hour. Meanwhile, Wang was introducing Jackson to eastern Kung-Fu films and suggesting gags for wirework in Frogtown. Jackson was eager to try it all out.
Elsewhere, the comic adorned screenplay for “Frogtown” managed to catch the eye of Robert Rehme, an established producer with a special flair for action films, and also the president of the Academy Awards. He passed it on to his wife to read and see what she thought of it. The next day she reported back that it was a uproarious send-up of Mad Max and the Planet of the Apes, only they’re frogs! Bolstered by this review, Rehme pulled the script from Home video and transferred it to the theatrical department, causing an uproar. The Video department was keeping New World Alive at the time and everyone knew it, causing a rivalry between the different sections of the company. Rheme pulling “Frogtown” was just the latest slap in the face.
It was however, looking like good news for Jackson and Frakes. Now a theatrical feature, New World increased the budget to 1.5 million dollars and made it a low budget SAG production. Star power was on the table with names like Tim Thomperson and even Jay Leno being tossed around. New World locked both Frakes and Jackson into a pay-or-play deal meaning that even if the film fell through, they would still get paid. Their end would be nearly one hundred thousand dollars. The deal, which sounded like a dream come true, would soon become a nightmare for both men.
“Signing that deal—because it was pay-or-play—meant that we didn’t really have any contractual power and could be fired on a whim if they felt like it. So we lost creative control at that point”
The first signs that Jackson and Frakes were no longer in control came in casting the lead. New World wanted Roddy Piper for Sam Hell. It was a logical choice because of Jackson’s previous association with rofessional wrestling, and piper was quickly becoming one of the biggest stars in the WWF. Piper however, didn’t feel he was getting the recognition he deserved.
“At WrestleMania 2, the entire audience just started chanting my name. Hogan got all sideways. I heard, “Oh, we’ll take care of Piper,” meaning “We’re going to try to downplay his product.” Well, I went and did a movie. So, that stuck harshly with Vince. It stuck in his craw and then Hogan and Vince did “No Holds Barred”. ”
Piper would meet with Jackson telling him “I want to do this part so bad Don, I’ll do it for free!”
Back in reproduction, the studio also nixed the opening stunt Frakes and Jackson had planned with stuntman who had designed a motorcycle that could do a flip and roll and always end up back upright. They planned on featuring this in the opening action scenes where the government forces captured Sam. New World decided that even with the newly ex-anded budget, such a stunt was too expensive and proposed instead an on-screen graphic, a WANTED poster for Sam Hell, overlayed with giant red letters reading “Captured.”. Frakes mentioned this problem to Jim Cameron. He was furious. Cameron went to New world and offered to give the production $100,000 to film the opening chase. New World wasn’t sure to do with this offer. They decided to play it safe and declined to take Cameron as an investor, even after he proposed to put his name (by that time a big box-office draw) on the film as a producer.
Soon the studio was questioning every move. Jackson, not used to such interference started to get edgy. Trouble reared it’s head during his very first day on set.
“They had an art director creating one of the sets. When he finished, I checked it out and it all looked too clean and pretty to be a part of the film. I told him about it, but he didn’t listen. He had all the arrogance of an art director and felt he had to answer to no one. So, when he stormed off of the set, I got a few can of spray paint and went and spray painted graffiti on the wall of the set. When he came back, he freaked out.“11.
Elsewhere, Frakes wasn’t being nearly as subtle in hiding his outrage. The main villian, a frog called “Commander Tody” (named after Commander Cody of the rocketman serials) had been designed with four arms. The plan was to slowly reveal this during the bar sequence. One arm moves as game piece. Another lifts a cup to his mouth. Another reaches out to shake hands, ect. The arms ahd been built and the puppeteers were practicing when a New World executive came to Frakes and suggested the arms would be too expensive to build and operate. (For some reason, even though the overall budget on the film had increased by a factor of ten, Steve Wang’s budget for creture effects had remained exactly the same). Frakes tried to appeal to logic, pointing out that the arms had already been constructed and the puppeteers were hired, keeping this from being an actual cost cutting measure. The exec was determined to have his way. Frakes leapt up on a table, and began to jump up and down as he screamed at the executive about how incompetent he was and what a ridiculous idea this was. The exec left, and headed over to another art of the studio. In an attempt to turn the tables on Frakes, he actually sought out Jim Cameron and posed the question to him, “We don’t really need four arms on this character do we?” Cameron looked at him incredulously. “The more arms the better!” he replied. New World stood by it’s people. The extra arms for Commander Tody were discarded.
Frakes’ outburst on the table did far less damage though than the memo he circulated the next day, calling out the exec for poor decision making, and New Worlds short-sighted move in backing up the administrative decision. Jackson was called into the head offices the next day and informed that Frakes was no longer on the project and that if he tried to come back on set he’d be arrested. Jackson assured the suits that he understood. He did. The next day he would start sneaking Frakes in through the back entrances instead of the front gate where they had his picture posted.
New World was also hedging their bets at this point and assigned a co-director to the project. A veteran sound editor for the last five years named R.J. Kizer. Jackson was insulted that New World was assigning someone with less directorial experience than him to be the lead director on the film. Kizer for his part wasn’t thrilled either. He’d shot some of the US footage for “Godzilla 1985” but this would be his first full feature and he didn’t quite get the strange tone of this weird little movie. He worked slow. Jackson continued to work fast.
Rowdy Roddy piper was also working fast to get u to speed with his acting coach. Frakes had expressed some trepidation when he was cast. Piper’s skills were unpolished and he had a tendancy to mumble. However, he rose to the occasion and filled the heroe’s shoes well. His coach pushed him further, actually filling his shorts with metal shards to make him uncomfortable when wearing the film’s high tech “chastity belt”. When you see him squirm and scratch, it’s for real. So is the fear on iper’s face later in the film when faced with a Frog weilding a chainsaw. The saw was Jackson’s homage to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and it was real. The studio was not pleased.
Jackson had already circumvented New World’s restrictions by building the “Frog Tank” for the climax of the film himself. As the money for “Roller Blade” had come in, Jackson had poured it into rebuilding a ‘62 Plymouth on a truck chassie, then spray painted it cameo colors. The vehicle would be used in several more films, including the second Frogtown movie. It even appeared at one point in an L.L. Cool J video. They were shooting at Vasquez Rocks and Indian Dunes (the last movie to be filmed at the Indian Dunes movie ranch by the way, before it was plowed under for a new housing development) away from Kizer. Unfortunately, the Frog Tank, which had performed perfectly in rehearsals, chose that moment to break down. It had to be kicked into neutral and pushed into every scene filmed, coasting past the camera. Jackson and Frakes struggled to get the ideal shots to make it look good. At one point, they needed a POV shot of a dead frog warrior, plunging off a cliff. A stunt person took the first jump into a mass of cardboard boxes, then they tossed an empty suit off the ledge and filmed it crashing into the ground. Finally, they achieved an overhead shot by Jackson bracing himself then grabbing Frakes’ ankles and dangling him over the cliff with the camera.
Finally, the studio had enough of Jackson’s renegade film tactics.
“I am a very hands on Director,” Jackson once said. “They told me, “Everybody has their job on a studio film. Yours is to direct the actors.” So, that was the beginning of the end.”.” Jackson too, would find himself fired and banned from the lot, though, once New World started to run into financial problems they invited Jackson back to consult on the edit. By the time it was ready for music, New World was in bankruptcy. The score was recorded in October of 1986, at Amigo Studios in North Hollywood, CA, with non-union musicians. In a final ironic twist, despite striking 2000 prints of “Hell Comes to Frogtown” for distribution in theaters nationwide, the movie still ended up going direct to home video.
R.J. Kizer would go on to direct only one more feature; 1992’s “Death Ring” starring Billy Drago as well as Steve McQueen’s son Chad and Patrick Swayze’s brother Don. He would spend the rest of his career back in the sound department. The creature effects in “Hell Comes to Frogtown” would catch the eye of Hollywood and Steve Wang would go on to be a much in-demand creator, providing creature effects for films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Godzilla, Bicentennial Man, Reign of Fire, They, Darkness Falls, Underworld, Blade: Trinity, Underworld: Evolution and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem as well as directing the Guyver movies and several episodes of Kamen Rider. Randall Frakes would go on to be a successful screenwriter, getting regular work on video games, TV movies and small indie projects. He’d team up with Jackson again for “Kill, Kill, Overkill” (aka “Twisted Fate”) and the first sequel to “Roller Blade”
More than a lot of Jackson’s films, Raw Energy starts off feeling very MTV, with an exclamation title card reading “play this flick loud”.
Raw energy is a difficult film to place… It was actually one of the last ones I watched, and the final one I bought. I had some nervousness about this one because it sits right on that edge of post studio era and Zen film era… It could really belong to either one. It’s definitely early Zen filmmaking, it’s even listed as such, but the movie was shot before Scott Shaw really got involved with Jackson. There seems to be more intent to this film, despite Jackson using his Maximo T. Bird Pseudonym. Jackson still has a plan here and isn’t just setting up a camera, rolling film, and “let’s see what happens”.
William Smith then introduces the movie as it’s narrator. He’s standing on a beautiful stone rooftop with the Hollywood sign in the distance as a masked blonde in leather with a katana hanging from her belt films him using Jackson’s old Bolex camera.
“What we have heard of celebration on the cinema!” (Cinema about a serial killer that is) “Are you ready for a few days of raw energy???”
I’m not, but lets go anyhow.
Raw Energy is less of a film and more of a series of vignettes separated by title cards announcing the next chapter. The first one is “Scream of the Succubus”
We get two images intercut, We have Robert Rundle‘s character of Bo Stompkins on a bed, alternately being serviced and choked by a a succubus. It then flashes to Stompkins in his bathroom shaving his head as the Succubus and another naked woman (later revealed to be his girlfriend Crystal, played by Amanda Rushing, ) look on. It’s all overlaid by loud pop techno.
We move onto “Jumpstart Heart”
It’s a typical Jackson set, a large canvas draped over his office walls. Stompkins is now playing with guns next to his girlfriend, and has a large pentagram drawn on his chest in sharpie. He expresses a preference for knives and shows that he’s got everything he needs.
“I got shells and a bandoleer, even a chainsaw!”
Crystal, equally crazed, says she wants little trophies from his mass murderer – things like hearts and stuff. Maybe an eye.
That’s enough exposition, it’s time to cut back to William Smith ranting on the roof before delivering us into the next segment “The Hollywood Hills Have Spies”
Stompkins and Crystal gaze over a stone barrier, still stoned on acid and talking about the crummy rich people below. It almost feels like now they’re trying to homage Natural Born Killers (Which hit theaters a year prior). They pull a gun, and run down to kill somebody that they’ve seen on TV. (it’s Donald Jackson of course – I don’t think I’ll ever seen him in a bandanna before!). They pull him out of his vehicle and throw him to the ground, then steal his car and go to his house. They are greeted by a girl in a sparkly dress, Jackson’s secretary. No, wait. According to the credits, she’s his Sexretary. Our psychos force their way into the house using the gun, then welcome in one of the local hookers. Crystal finds some hidden pot, and then Stompkins force the girls in the house to watch the girlfriend go down on the him. After a few seconds of unconvincing head bobbing action, Crystal makes her way into the kitchen and starts to dance on the counter with a knife, then forces one of the girls in the house to do an awkward striptease on top of the kitchen counter.
The next title card is “Natural Born Blonde”, and cuts to the Stompkins and Crystal working out in an outdoor gym while they wear camo. The whole scene is brief enough to be an establishing shot before moving on to another title card “Bloodwiser”.
It suddenly occurs to the Stompkins and Crystal that it would be a great idea to get married so they go find the local minister. It happens to be Reverend Bloodwiser (again played by Donald Jackson),who is currently chanting a mantra (Fugi, Kodak, Agfa, Target) over a Bible laid across an empty Budweiser box. They brandish their guns at him.
“We came here to get married, a special day! Wedding day! Shotgun wedding!” They convince him to marry them for $700 and a quick flash from Crystal.
He performs the wedding and we move on to “Wicked Messenger”
Stompkins and Crystal are chilling in a trashy bedroom. There is an Iguana there watching them and Stompkins starts to think they have bad luck following them
“It all started when we met that preacher – we shouldn’t of done that. We shouldn’t have let him marry us because I think he was the devil.” The psycho cocks the gun and puts it to his chin.
“I think everyone should try suicide at least once in their lives”.
Crystal object to this and tells him to put the gun down or she’ll kill herself. The iguana continues to watch (and judge). They discuss Angels and Demons, the psychos convinced that the devils are real, and we get flashes of Reverend Bloodwiser as well as the succubus from the first segment.
That’s when a guy in a suit walks onto the bed.
The suit tells them that they’ve both been fucking up but he forgives them, because they’re absolutely crazy.
This doesn’t sit well with Stompkins, especially with all the talk about Angels and Demons. He demands to know whether the suit is good or evil.
“I’ve got magic powers in my head,” Stompkins warns him.
“You’ve got magic powers in your ass,” the suit retorts.
The suit has a deal for them. Nothing so pedestrian as a soul though. He’s interested in owing their deeds. All it requires is a signature and then the suit has rights to what ever they’re doing. The iguana continues to watch very closely.
We’ve gone too long without an interjection from narrator William Smith and the girl in the dancing leather bikini on top of the roof. He rants for a couple minuets before proceeding to the next segment – “Rolling Freedom”
We have two girls pushing a man in his wheelchair, covered by a flag. One of them is the Crystal and, one of them is Jackson’s Sexretary from earlier. This is our introduction to Joe Bob Gunn, played by Jackson regular Jim Whitworth. The women get him into their car and drive off into Hollywood. The Sexretary is still trying to find out what happened to Donald Jackson, demanding that Crystal tell her. She’s also a bit perplexed by Joe Bob and want’s to know what happened to the other guy? “He’ll be back soon enough,” Crystal assures her.
The next section is “Carnival of Dreams” and starts with them pushing the wheelchair across Jackson’s favorite bridge of broken dreams. But then we cut to Crystal and Joe Bob (when he could still walk) spending time in a rollicking nighttime carnival lit by flashing neon and fluorescent lights. The scene cuts back and forth between the two sections, highlighting Joe Bob misery, crippled and melancholy staring out from the bridge.
William Smith comes back in to explain to us where Bo Stompkins has vanished to. It turns out that that he joined a cult. Smith explains that Stompkins got himself involved with the preacher and things seem to be okay… until television got a hold of them. You see, it wants to get into your dreams, that’s when you meet the Dream Ranger.
Once Stompkins discovers Crystal has left him for the crippled Joe Bob, he’s ready to kill them both.
He shoots targets at the wilderness with his fellow cultists, but is tormented by images of the girlfriend and her new boyfriend. It doesn’t take too long though, before Stompkins gets distracted by one of the girls of the cult, a “Target Range Sweetheart” as the next title card tells us.
Around this point in the film the exposition gets strange. It’s rambling and attempting to sound intellectual, but falling flat. It doesn’t help that they don’t have Scott Shaw’s books to crib from this time around. The entire sequence here seems to just be an excuse for Jackson to take the crew out into the wilderness and indulge his love of firing guns. After shooting the other cult members, they take off and the title card shifts to “Crystal Reflections”
We are back with Crystal and her new boyfriend. She’s kind of making plans, and explaining to Joe Bob about how she and Bo were married. For some reason, she seems really eager to have the two men meet. You know what you get when you mix the ex and the current boyfriend? (Don’t worry, the next title card tells us).
The meeting doesn’t go particularly well. The psycho and the veteran don’t take to each other at all, and Stompkins doesn’t want Joe Bob around. Everyone pulls out guns and we get the most awkward looking Mexican stand-off I’ve ever seen. Stompkins tackles Joe Bob out of his wheelchair and they roll around on the ground punching and wrestling – occasionally Joe Bob forgets he supposed to be crippled. Crystal decides to go with Stompkins and shoots Joe Bob, covering him up in the flag he’d been using as a blanket on his legs. Stompkins gleefully wheels a giggling Crystal away in the wheelchair.
The next section, “Woo Woo Assassin” (no, really) starts off with a lady ninja stocking an L.A. rooftop at dusk. She leaves her katana in the stairwell in favor of a pair of guns and sneaks through white hallways dressed entirely in black. She’s not the only assassin there though, The cult girlfriend also creeps through the desolate stairwells wearing hot pants and a halter top while wielding a Luger. Luger girl gets the drop on ninja girl and takes her to the basement for the next section.
Now, in a sort of white dressing room, Stompkins is chatting up the ninja – he’s in a suit and has been doing very well these days. He and Luger Girl blindfold her. It’s more of one of the sleeping masks then an actual proper blindfold, but it gets the job done. Stompkins drips blood on Luger girl and they get busy, shooting down the assassin mid-coitus.
Next up is “Crystals Retreat” (Don’t worry, it’s brief)
Crystal is heading to the airport to skip town (presumably since Stompkins no longer has any use for her, though it’s not entirely spelled out).
“Can the plane go any faster please? Thank you!”
Back to more narration from William Smith before we return to the bridge of broken dreams to see the psycho and his new girlfriend, Luger Girl hanging out and chatting. Random disjointed imagery of an old train bridge, them walking on the tracks, her dancing against the sun, and delivering endless exposition in a tunnel. Jackson uses this opportunity to inexplicably reveal that the psycho has an illegitimate test tube baby in a formaldehyde jar somewhere in Wisconsin, proving that we are in full fever dream mode now, when nothing makes sense and imagery is all that matters.
The film ends with a final title card over silent credits (weird, by the way, that the credits are silent considering the pop techno that pervades the entire film). “Watch for Shotgun Dream Babies – Raw Energy 2”. I’m not in entirely surprised to see this, even though a sequel was never created… It’s the same technique Jackson employed on Roller Blade, announcing a follow-up even though there was no sequel yet in the works.
As Zen movies go, this is actually one of the more interesting ones. There’s a definite plot here and I feel some sense of continuity throughout almost the entire thing. It’s full of Jackson alumni and is an introduction to familiar faces. We’d see Amanda Rushing again a few years later when Jackson would team up with Scott Shaw for Armageddon Boulevard, but for her, Crystal is her one and only shot at a starring role. James D. Whitworth would show up later that year as the dopey security guard in Baby Ghost, then do one more film with Jackson and Shaw Alum David Heavener before dropping out of the industry. Robert Rundel would actually go on to do bit parts in two more films with Jackson when he wasn’t spearheading his own low budget flicks, even directing Jackson regular Robert Z’Dar that year in Run Like Hell. It’s a cast that obviously knows and likes each other and it comes through on screen. That’s not to say that the film is completely successful – it meanders as Jackson has a tendency to do, and because it’s obviously being shot over the course of several months on weekends or whenever he had availability, we see the characters growing visibly change. It’s not just the characters evolving either, you can see the story growing and changing as new concepts and imagery strike Jackson’s fancy. It ends up being interesting film though, and the non-linear sort of storytelling thats going on here might have worked if Jackson had a better (or any) plan and some semblance of a script. The biggest problem is that the characters aren’t terribly likable and it’s hard to get invested in them, yet I still found myself wanting to know what was going to happen next and where this story was going… assuming there was a narrative here at all. That’s the thing, there really was no actual story and the film is exactly what the tagline describes ; following a psycho serial killer loose in Hollywood. It’s not necessarily following the murderous antics or more interesting parts, a lot of times it’s just following his mundane everyday life and occasional head trips. It’s the essence of what could work in Zen filmmaking – and it’s exactly the sort of film that fascinates me when it comes to Jackson. This is exactly the sort of thing I would’ve liked to have seen Jackson do more of and evolve, but alas – Zen filmmaking would end up taking a very different direction. A looser direction rather than a tighter one.
I gotta take a breather from these things for a minuet. I’ve watched enough of these movies that they may just have broken my brain…but I think I’ve cracked the code (feel free to turn this into a drinking game). Take any four or more of these elements, and spend $3000.
Make a sequel to Roller Blade or Hell Comes to Frogtown.
Hire Joe Estevez. If it’s too close to porn, hire Robert Z’Dar instead.
Put at least one character on wheels. Roller skates are preferred, but a skateboard will do in a pinch.
Shoot at the Los Angeles observatory, a junkyard or the overpass above the L.A. 170 freeway. (Bonus points for all three)
Make sure there’s a role for Conrad Brooks.
Include a Samurai sword.
Make one of the main characters a mostly immobile hand puppet. (Bonus points if it’s got a libido)
Hire Julie Strain or Jill Kelly.
Scott Shaw stars and/or produces while speaking as few lines as possible in his suit, t-shirt and amazing shades.
Mix Christian and Eastern mysticism. Quote liberally from one of Shaw’s books.
That’s it. You’ve now made a film indistinguishable from Donald G. Jackson! I’m sorely tempted to do my own comic or novel version. Joe Estevez has kidnapped Julie Strain and is holding her hostage until someone brings him the ashes of Donald Jackson! Scott Shaw straps on his roller skates and brandishes his katana. Off he goes and battles through Ninjas, Toad Warriors and Invisible Chuacabras but gets wounded. He is healed by the sisterhood from The Master of Light Institute and they present him with a rocket pack to continue his journey. He finds himself at the Junkyard where the ashes are stored. There’s a sign on the gate that reads “If you lived here, you’d be home now”. He finds the ashes in a secret room, covered in sheets and guarded by the ghost of Robert Z’Dar.
This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your regularly scheduled broadcast.
I realize going in that the Guns of El Chupacabra is a zen film, but billing it as part of “Zen dance”? Really? We haven’t even gotten into the movie and I’m already aghast.
Moreover, are we just opening this thing with outtakes of Julie Strain from the devils pet (aka Queen of the Lost Island)? Because those smokey shots of her with a sword really looks like it (It’s three years later, so likely not. Perhaps it’s just that so many of the Shaw/Jackson collaborations all look the same).
Barbarian Strain battles against some evil looking creature in purple smoke in a climatic battle…that all ends up just being a dream. She is still in the warrior fetish gear though, so we know it’s going to be a hard Sci-fi romp. Particularly when Strain tells her husband “Send for the Space Sheriff”.
And we’re only one minute in.
According to the space queen, the evil one has unleashed the Chupacabra on Earth and Shaw must go and set things right. In return, She and the Space King will make him into an action hero, with his own franchise!
“Is that good?” Shaw asks.
“It worked for me!” The king winks.
When he arrives there will be angels and demons to guide him, but beware…sometimes there are one in the same(I see were quoting from Shaw’s books again). They hand him his cosmic samurai sword which is how you know were definitely in Jacksonville. The credits feature all the usual suspects, Robert Z’Dar, Conrad Brooks, Joe Estevez and Julie Strain.
In the desert, Conrad searches for something but it appears the Chupacabra is after him. Next we’re treated to rednecks, truck driving and what looks like a gun deal.
Elsewhere, Conrad Brooks is just waiting to meet Scott shortly as he arrives in his space man Porsche.
Enter, bride of the monster.
Two spacemen bring the Chupacabra a female victim, and holy crap, the Chupacabra looks great! That is a sick monster suit, although it should be covered in ultraslime and filmed at night (Something Jackson flat out said he didn’t want to do. He wanted it in the full light to show off the suit) nevertheless, it’s way better than anything I expected.It turns out, the suit itself was built for a completely different movie that Jackson’s financier had backed. The film had been shelved and it was consigned to storage, never to be seen again until Jackson got wind of it and convinced her to loan it out to him.
Did I mention that the girl in the cage is screaming “I am not an animal!” ?
Shaw visits the local gun runner to buy shotguns out of his trunk. We cut back to The rednecks, searching for something in the woods and then back to Shaw with his allies testing out their guns for no apparent reason. There would be a lot of this due to the location Jackson and Shaw had secured
“A friend of Don’s, Bob Mizrahi, was living at this great ranch north of L.A. I am told that it was originally owned by Hoyt Axton. The great thing about this ranch was that not only was it secluded but it had hills surrounding the property. From this, we could fire live ammo, (of which a lot was shot during filming), with no worry of stray bullets traveling onto other people’s property.”
They exploited this to it’s fullest. Not to it’s most effective (By staging exciting gunfights), merely to it’s fullest (Just shooting lots of guns off screen). I don’t think these guys quite understand action. Dynamic shots and shooting guns is great, but you actually have to have a target, and perhaps some peril for it to mean anything. They kind of blew it off as being the attack of the invisible Chupacabra. No, seriously. There is an actual title card that reads “Attack of the Invisible Chupacabra”
In the back woods, “High Noon Newz” investigates the legend of the Chupacabra and the local livestock deaths where the animals have been attacked but there’s no blood. Back to the rednecks. I’m still waiting for them to have something to actually do.
Elsewhere, the FBI camp out in a car. One agent explains that every nation in the world has engaged in genetic experimentation. It’s always been trial and error, and apparently the Chupacabras are the errors. I’m grateful for the explanation. It’s more than we usually get.
We cut to a bit where Scott Shah meets a date after a brief kung fu fighting on the roof of the building. He takes her on an elevator ride and they cross Jackson’s stock bridge (Seen in Rb7 and Toad Warrior to name just a couple).
Meanwhile, back on the unnamed planet the film started on, the love ritual begins. (At least that’s what the captions tell us). Like most sex scenes in Jackson films, it doesn’t actually show any notable skin and lasts less than 90 seconds.
Finally, we are introduced to the Evil one… that is to say, Robert Z’Dar. He’s been here for several hundred years and is obviously the villain of the piece. He’s upset with his minions (Who just happened to be the rednecks, but some of them wear masks) because they’ve let his pets run out of control and command them to go gather them up and bring them back to him.
Elsewhere, Scott Shaw finds another ninja on the rooftop. I’m confused now because that’s far, I’ve seen more ninjas and rednecks and I have actual Chupacabras. There is some great footage of Shaw and one of his teammates shooting at nothing – I’m sorry, I mean shooting at the “Invisible Chupacabra” again. Meanwhile, while Scott sure and company are shooting at nothing, The (very visible) Chupacabra is out on the freeway overturning a car.
I don’t know where, but Joe Estevez shows up in a Texas Rocket Ranger costume from Return To Frogtown, and starts to vamp. I almost wonder if this was shot for different film and just ended up in here to pad the runtime. Usually they do that with random nudity but this actually doesn’t have a ton of breasts in it. Scott Shaw writes in his memoirs that Estevez’s role was intentional and done for this movie as a sort of Narrator. I’m not convinced. Jackson was filming multiple movies over the year that this thing took to shoot and Estevez’s rants have only the most tangential connection to the film he’s actually in.
We head back to the girl in the cage (the one that was brought for the Chupacbra. Where’d he go any how?). She’s rescued by the luchadore masked “Santiago kid”. Shaw arrives, suspicious and with gun drawn. It’s a stand off, but to avoid conflict, the Santiago kid transfers custody of the girl to Shaw and they flee. Cut to more girls in cages being managed by the Chupacabra and a Grey Alien while the Santiago kid gets interviewed on the news… and then gets lucky. That, in between cuts of him in a boxing match with another Luchadore while the Chupacabra and Grey Alien look on.
The next thing we know, Shaw is back on the run with the reporter and they’re being hunted by Z’Dar’s minions. Gunfights and a quick Mele with the Chupacabra ensue.
Suddenly we find out it looks like it was all just a film being made. Seriously. We pull back to reveal Jackson and crew shooting the movie, with the conclusion being given to us by Joe Estevez and his amazing rocket pack. I’m confused by all of this too. Jackson once said of “The Guns of El Chupacabra” “The point was to present, as in all the other films Scott and I have created, that good overcomes evil. That the world is a spiritual place.” shifting to this meta ending seems to undermine this his message of “Be good, be spiritual, be happy, have some fun, and you will be victorious and some good things will
The film is clearly over at this point, but the problem is, it dosen’t actually stop. We now move on to general wackiness, with the director and the star bickering and on unused footage.Where did he even get that bow and arrow that he shoots the Chupacabra with? (Fun fact: This entire scene was designed to damage the costume enough that it wouldn’t be able to be used in any other movie when Jackson returned it) And isn’t the samurai sword to the head of the Chupacabra little overkill afterwards? Do these guys not know how to leave anything on the cutting room floor? I mean, they’re not treating them like outtakes – they really should, that will be fine. Fun even. But no, this is still hardcoded right into the movie, pre-credits.
This is one of those kind of films that I think would probably be a lot more fun if one was drunk or stoned. It certainly can’t make it any weirder.
One of the things that’s confusing about Donald Jackson’s filmography is the sheer number of duplications under different names. For instance, Max Hell has three different editions, the original, the Zen rough cut and the speed cut. But Max Hell : Frog Warrior is in of itself a recut version of Toad Warrior (The third entry in the Hell Comes to Frogtown series). Likewise, “Legends of the Roller Blade Seven” and “Hawk : Warrior of the Wheelzone” are both recuts of The Roller Blade Seven.
Then there’s films like Guns of the Chupacabra 2 and Return of the Roller Blade Seven. Both of these aren’t entirely new films, but rather productions stitched together using mostly unused footage that had been shot for their predecessors. The force behind much of these remixes is Scott Shaw.
You can’t really have a discussion of Donald Jackson without talking about Scott Shaw, particularly when discussing the final age of Jackson’s career. Shaw first came on Jackson’s radar through a head shot of him holding a Samurai sword. Shaw dosen’t remember sending it out and Jackson couldn’t recall how he got it, but the imagery struck him. this isn’t a surprise considering how often these or similar blades ended up in his films. He cast Shaw in his third Roller Blade film; The Roller Blade Seven and so began a long if (according to Shaw) tumultuous relationship that would last until Jackson’s death.
All the way back to his first movie, we can see that Jackson was always a little loosey goosey as far as structure and planning. Scripts were always optinal. With Shaw he took this to it’s furthest extreme, together creating what Shaw would title “Zen Filmmaking”. a process where no script was used. A style that was all about being in the moment, all about doing what came naturally and letting the scene lay out in an improvisational manner as it would. It’s the method Jackson would use for all his remaining films, most produced with Shaw.
Shaw chronicles the making of several of these films on his website and always stresses that Jackosn would stab him in the back, never pay him and take advantage of him. I’m not sure how much of that is hyperbole, how much is just the way Hollywood works and how much is an accurate reflection of the time. I get there were hard feelings, but at the same time, Shaw and Jackson were partners for the rest of Jackson’s life. In many ways, this is the final comparison of Jackson to Ed Wood, only this time it’s inverted. It’s Jackson in the Bela Lugosi role and Shaw in the Wood role. Jackson would shoot bits of various films for years, some of The Guns of El Chupacabra one day, some of Toad Warrior another day, some of Armageddon boulevard another day, then back to Chupacabra. Shaw kept with him, helping him out, acting and humoring him. In 1995, Jackson was diagnosed with Leukemia. Doctors gave him six months. Jackson disagreed with them for another eight years, filming the entire time. If he was going to go down, he was going down with his trusty Bolex camera firmly clutched in his fists.
When Jackson finally lost his battle with cancer, he gave all his film rights over to Shaw rather than leaving them to his wife and family. This enabled Shaw to continue editing and releasing Jackson’s films after his death. In some ways, it was Jackson’s apology for treating Shaw poorly financially, but to Shaw’s credit, it was a good choice. He’s been the best protector of Jackson’s legacy we could have hoped for.
That said, there’s some films where we see more of Shaw’s influence over Jackson’s, and I want to highlight two of those here.
Ride with the Devil (Aka : Ghost Taxi)
Julie Strain dances in hell looking a lot like Bettie page wearing a spider webs, while bandana dude talks about a cab ride in Scott Shaw’s dreams in jail.
This combined with the good lighting, interesting concept and a reasonably full cast had me really anticipating this one. But it’s important not to forget that this is one of the Zen film collaborations with Scott Shaw – something is painfully reinforced by the fact that the credits are not on screen, but rather READ to the audience by two cast members.
Bandanna boy emerges from the credits pontificating on a variety of random subjects while Shaw listens, a blank expression on his face. Occasionally he runs out of things to say or has to take a breath and that’s when they cut to insert of the devil girls just kind of inhabiting the Earth – showing the Devil’s influence here. It’s still all part of Shaw’s dream, it turns out that he is not actually in jail, but rather in hell and the Devil in a three piece suit comes to him with a proposition. Bring the Devil thirteen souls by dawn and he’ll let Shaw go free.
We’re taken over to a bar where the local hooker is listening to the house band and getting ready to call it a night. The Devil in a three piece suit is tending bar and suggests she calls a taxi. The hooker regales Shaw about tales about her favorite regular… A guy who one day just disappeared. His next fare is a cokehead just back from Mexico talking about his adventures. “It’s like the old west back there, action! L.A. has almost become a police state.”
He gets a young girl who accidentally killed someone and then another beat down hooker… he gets a lot of hookers. Shaw for his part though doesn’t speak much, he just lets them ramble on. The car rides are punctuated by quick inserts are devil Betty Page in hell or bandanna boy pontificating on various subjects. It all comes off as very experimental, but it ends up looking more artsy than lazy (though it does start to strain credibility when Julie Strain starts doing her Marilyn Monroe in hell schtick. Honestly, I’m not even sure if it was shot specifically for this movie or if they just had the extra lying around…) and works better than a lot of the Jackson Shaw Zen collaborations.
The thing is (and it seems like I’ve said it before), this could actually be a good film with a little more polish. The ending sees Shah tricking the Devil into being his 13th passenger and wins his freedom. Eerie lines like “That’s alright, I can wait. I have all the time in the world…” from the devil could be chilling if they weren’t so sloppily improvised. Seeing Shaw ride off, there should be a punch-the-air moment, but the pacing is so off and everything just feels flat. Moreover it’s followed by 20 minutes that are completely unrelated, nonsensical footage. It’s all shots of creepy girls dancing in the woods, poolside antics, and drunk devil girl ranting to Scott. It’s almost as if somebody just swept up the cutting room floor and said screw it, we need a little more run time.
As I frequently do, I find myself wondering how much of this was Shaw and how much it was Jackson. In this case it feels much more like Shaw film from a Donald Jackson concept. It’s missing a lot of Jackson’s signature tropes while pushing more the experimental envelope that Shaw always enjoyed doing. It’s worth seeing, but do yourself a favor and turn the movie off after Shaw beats the devil.
There’s another film that really demonstrates this era, Jackson’s “Naked Avenger”. This is the film that really signals Jackson’s shift in earnest towards that he and Scott Shaw would call “Zen Filmmaking” and seems far more Shaw influenced.
It literally starts with a numbered countdown, three, two, one, and the words “fade in” before it actually fades in (This is a Scott Shaw touch. He also frequently begins his essays like this).
The premise of this film was flimsy enough to begin with, a girl in the woods is stranded, loses her clothes and turns on her attackers who just happen to be human traffickers. It’s the epitome of a zen film with no script – basically they just walk out into the woods roll the camera and see what happens. It’s pretty much just an excuse to watch Jill Kelly wander around naked for an hour.
Back at the base, the redneck leader screams into a phone. “No fat ones this time!” The dealer arrives at a small cluster of wooden out buildings, with girls in the cab of his truck, handcuffed. The hunters come out to look her over, doing their best to be obnoxious.
“You wanna touch my gun?”
While they’re in the back getting just a little rapy, the dancers for the event are negotiating rates. This of course turns equally seedy.
Around the 20 minute mark one of the slave traders picks up Jill Kelly walking to work, and takes her to a secluded spot to check her out. After she’s been stripped she overpowers him and steals his gun, then goes wandering through the backwoods to find escape and vengeance. The camera follows behind her mostly, so you get a very good study of her back Tanlines. We punctuate these long sequences of Kelly running with scenes of the head trader making deals for girls on the phone, and occasionally another dude stalking her in the woods. This goes on for 20 minutes until the slaver finally catches up with her and demand she gives him the gun. She gives it to him alright, unloading it on him (There’s no room in the budget for fake blood though, so he just lays crumpled on the floor and she steals his jacket to cover herself up a little).
Things start to get a little disjointed here, and I suspect that they didn’t shoot quite enough footage to properly cover the film. The slaver catches Kelly one minute, then the next, she’s obviously escaped and is on foot again in a junkyard, having lost the jacket.
A gunfight ensues… I think. They basically spend long stretches of time showing each side repeatedly shoot their guns, but no back-and-forth to see who they’re shooting out or if they’re ever hitting their mark. Not only couldn’t they afford blood, there obviously also wasn’t enough money in this production for squibs.
It’s not I spit on your grave or any real kind of revenge flick (it could have been if they didn’t insist on this Zen film making nonsense). The only point of this movie might be to ogle Jill Kelly for the forty minutes (of the sixty one minuet run time) that she’s in the film. But even that isn’t particularly titillating. I think we may have just hit the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Jackson’s filmography, but then again, is it Jackson’s film? This was released two years after his death, despite being filmed around 1997. That tells me it was a Shaw edit, and actually explains the very different tone and lack of so many of Jackson’s touches.
Unlike his previous family oriented films, Roller Gator is pure Donald Jackson production. You can feel the difference with Mark Williams not being on this project. It’s around this time that Scott Shaw’s influence is creeping in, but there’s more Jackson here than anyone else.
Roller Gator starts off with Joe Estevez yelling at people at a carnival. It may actually be the perfect metaphor for Donald Jackson films.
We cut to P.J. Smith, played by Sandra Shuker (who would go on to make no other movie ever) in a bikini at the beach being spied and by the local beach ninja. I’m not entirely certain how the ninja is supposed to blend in at the beach in broad daylight but he manages to do a pretty good job.
From afar inside a cave, a squeaky voice cries out “Hey somebody!”. Bikini girl tentatively searches, exploring the cave for the source of the voice. It simultaneously guides and taunts her – “this way! ““You’re getting warmer! “. It’s almost as if the voice belongs to the most annoying monster ever… and you know what? It does. The Roller Gator is revealed to be a small purple alligator hand puppet.
“You can talk!”
“So what, so can Barney!”
That’s right, in the first 10 minutes Rollergator has managed to out weird “Roller Blade” and all the “Hell comes to Frogtown” sequels.
The ninja is there to try and find the Rollergator – and according to Rollergator the ninja knows kung fu, tae kwon do, and Chef boy Are Dee. P.J. sneaks Rollergator away crossing overpass bridge above the 170 freeway (there’s Jackson’s stock bridge!) with her rollerblades. The ninja follows them on a skateboard.
They arrive back at the carnival which seems like an odd destination to take your talking alligator to – especially since Joe Estevez and his ponytail are complaining about how the carnival is about to go under. Beach ninja feels quite at home at the carnival.
“I don’t believe it! a talking alligator!”
“I don’t believe it, a walking Nimrod!”
Our baby gator nearly falls into the hands of the greedy carnival owner, but is able to escape with P.J. when the carnival owner suffers what appears to be a heart attack. They hide in a hidden part of the carnival and Rollergator explains that all he wants is to go back and find its owner… Swamp farmer Conrad Brooks, of Ed Wood fame.
Baby gator then launches into his best impressions of various movie stars.
Elsewhere, Conrad searches for his lost alligator. Baby gator and his girl decide they better go search too, so she tosses him a backpack and puts her rollerblades on and they head out. The carnival owner sends out the ninja, and a karate instructor after poor baby Gator.
Occasionally, Baby Gator raps.
They trick the ninja into stealing a decoy backpack full of vegetables. Ninjas hate vegetables. They then steal a baby carriage from another lady on rollerblades (did she escape from the Wheelzone of Jackson’s Roller Blade? Or was everyone in 1996 just wearing rollerblades all the time?), and make their way down because way with Roller gator now cozily riding in the carriage.
It really only gets stranger from here. There’s a karate instructor who trains P.J. in some martial arts. There’s also a slingshot skater girl (actually named “Slingshot”) who teams up with them as P.J.’s sometimes sidekick to save Baby Gator and get him back to Conrad Brooks. Baby Gator and Conrad would return in Toad Warrior (Hell Comes to Frogtown part three)
This was one of Jackson’s final attempts at hitting the family video market (and reminds me a lot of Graydon Clark would attempt with Stargames in 1998). It’s a simpler stroy than his previous outings, with a touch of zen filmmaking fluttering around it, and it shows. Believe it or not, there’s actually a Rifftrax version of this. If you’re going to watch this film, get it. It’s the absolute best way to experience this.
I’m assuming this is another kids comedy. You don’t always know, but Jackson IS using his real name in this film rather than his directorial pseudonym “Maximo T. Bird” and the cover art just screams Direct-to-video family film. It’s also an encouraging sign that Jackson is working off an actual script, penned by Mark Williams, a frequent collaborator of Jackson’s.
Baby Ghost starts off in a studio located inside a bland L.A. office building with Joe Estevez as a photographer trying to convince a petulant tweenie to smile for his photos. It’s weird to see Joe Estevez in a Jackson role where he is not the villain, but you can definitely tell he’s a good guy by the goofy demeanor. It’s reinforced by the fact that he wears a bow tie.
On the lookout for a vending machine, one of the kids runs afoul of the overzealous security guard played by James D. Whitworth and heads to the basement to hide. while cowering in the dark, she finds a wooden box that has been chained up and padlocked.Of course all children are natural lock picks, and she figures out the combination easily but leaves the box behind with the psycho security guard shows up again and chases her back into another part of the office building. We pan back to the abandoned box vibrating violently, about to release its contents.
Upstairs, Joe Estevez’s character is questioning his life choices. At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if Estevez himself was doing the same thing after finding himself in another one of Donald Jackson’s films. Estevez calls a psychic hotline and the feminine vice on the other end identifies herself as being from “The Master of Light Institute”. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s used frequently in Jackson’s Rollerblade movies as well (Shared universe? Oh man, I think my brain just cramped). Part of the gag here is that the psychic is looking up the meaning of the cards in a book as she reads them over the phone. In someone else’s hands this would be hilarious but with Jackson’s direction, it falls unfortunately flat. Also, I can’t help but notice that we are back to filming in Jackson’s office for this set (a pretty common method he would employ to keep costs down). Things turn dire though, as her reading seems to portend negative adventures in Estavez’s future. Apparently she works in the same building and as her own run-ins with the psycho security guard.
It’s about this time we get our first glimpse of the baby ghost. It’s a green hand puppet made somewhat transparent with a high contrast dissolve overlay effect on the screen. I almost wonder if it’s actually the same puppet used in little lost city serpent and dressed with green moss. The face looks pretty much the same. Mark Williams worked on both films and his Hollywood background was largely in FX. He was even one of the creature effects crew in Aliens.
It’s a typical Jackson film puppet with very limited articulation and awkward movement. It giggles like a demented child and floods around the building, occasionally buzzing by people just enough to freak them out. It stops by the photographers studio to cut up his pictures with scissors and cause some general mischief, before he goes and chases the psychic through the halls of the building. She runs into Estevez , and the two meet face to face for the first time, discussing the merits of telephone tarot cards. The psychic pulls out one of her books so they can learn more about ghosts. They discover that the ghost cannot leave until it is banished or someone takes it out of its boundaries. This is obviously the exposition scene, because it goes on for ever. I can’t tell if they’re trying to be scared or comical. Estevez seems frightened, but the lighting is so flat that it does nothing for mood.
Did I mention the building manager is Conrad Brooks? He start’s to have his own close encounters with the ghost, though he’s convinced that it’s an alien rather than a ghost. It’s bizarre and amusing to hear him describe the plot of Plan Nine From Outer Space to the gung-ho security guard. As the talky exposition scene continues upstairs, we get periodic cuts to Brooks and the psycho security guard running from disembodied giggles.
In the basement, Estevez and the Psychic locate the box the ghost was trapped in, complete with instructions on how to capture him. The first try to lure the ghost out with a trail of donuts that leads back to the box. It almost works. Our little ghost is falling for the bait…..right up until the security guard and the Manager blunder in at exactly the wrong time and hilariously ruin the plan (well, hilariously in theory anyhow). The group resets the trap, this time luring the ghost down with a hand held video game. Apparently ghosts live video games because this tactic works and they trap him back into the box!
In all fairness, this film isn’t quite as mind boggling crazy as a lot of Jackson’s later efforts. It benefits from having a script to work off of instead of pure zen improv. However it still manages to be fairly weird and feels like it belongs on public access cable right after the local kid’s church show. It’s an okay idea that would benefit greatly from production values, acing and a MUCH BETTER PUPPET!
Little Lost Serpent is obviously Jackson’s attempt at a kids film. He’d do a few of these, financed by a company that was looking for family fare. It’s written by collaborator Mark Williams based on a script by Jackson.
The film begins with saccharine sweet music and a comically nonthreatening middle-aged man wearing a stupid hat and driving through the streets of LA, interspersed with random shots of the ocean.
He’s revealed to be an investigative reporter and meets up with his equally goofy looking partner, Conrad Brooks, and they head out in a beat up old car with obnoxious polka music playing in the background.
After a discussion about how no one ever sees any space aliens or Bigfoot’s, they head down to the seafront to see if there was anything weird on the beach. Once there, they check their equipment – stakes instead just in case of vampires, silver bullets in case of werewolves.
“But what if we find Frankenstein?”
“If you find Frankenstein you do just one thing, run!”
On the beach, a couple of kids discover the lost little sea serpent in a bubble. The detectives observe this from a distance. The sea monster is another one of Donald Jackson’s beloveds hand puppets, probably inspired from Mark Williams FX work, but executed without the budget or skill of a conventional production. It’s cute from the correct angles, but static with limited motion. The kids decide to take him home.
The titular little lost sea serpent objects to be calling a sea monster, and prefers the term “Sea Serpent”. The yippy little dog of the house doesn’t like the sea serpent. This makes it harder t okeep him hidden and the kids start wondering what to do with him.
They ask dad, played with relish by the ever present Joe Estevez, this time portraying a sleezy tabloid reporter. According to Estevez, If anybody ever found out that someone had discovered a sea monster, the government will probably take it and cut it up. After hearing this the kids are more determined than ever to keep it a secret until they can find a home for him. First order of business is to wash him in the bathtub. He escapes course and eats the mom’s goldfish. Honestly, this would be really cute and funny if the puppet wasn’t so ridiculously bad.
The kids have to flee with the sea serpent when his tabloid reporter father comes home, racing on bikes back to the beach with dad in the hot pursuit. There at the beach, they discover the little lost sea serpent’s giant (and even less convincing FX) mother in the water, searching for her baby and they reunite mother and child.
This film has all the production value f you local church puppet video, with cheesy sweetness that would make Full House look positively dystopian. It’s bizarre nightmare fuel for any child who may have laid eyes on it.
Somehow, Jackson would continue to make kids movies for another year until the money ran out.