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.
It makes sense to take a quick diversion here into the films of Maximo T. Bird – that is to say, the pseudonym of Donald Jackson. As the 90’s began, Jackson, disillusioned from his experiences at Roger Corman’s New World pictures had exited the studio system completely, exclusively raising money and shooting independently. It would be during this time that he would eventually take on “Zen Filmmaking” as his standard. However, before he’d refocus on Sci-Fi fantasy zen films he found himself mired in exploitation.
While quite smutty, I struggle with what exactly to call these films. Are they porn? Jackson is certainly using porn actresses. During the production of “Guns of El Chupacabra” Don came up with the idea of going to the major adult film casting agency in L.A., where he was sure he’d easily be able to get some female talent who were willing to work in the nude. As there was no on-screen sex involved in that film, something that these girls did for a living, he was certain this would be a far easier sell. Jackson paid the two-hundred dollar casting fee, looked through their books, chose some girls, and got their numbers. He’d be making good use of that list of phone numbers for the rest of his career to provide ample nudity and the occasional sex scene for his films.
The thing is, is that enough to make it qualify for Porn? Would you call for instance, Paul Verhoven’s “Showgirls” porn? It also has copious amounts of nudity and sex scenes FAR more graphic (enough to get them slapped with a “NC-17” rating rather than a “R”) than anything we ever got from Jackson. But it also has more story and intent than a lot of these halfhearted attempts by Jackson under the Bird name. The main sort of titillation seems to come from girls walking around and various stages of undress and the vacuous looks of pleasure on their faces.
Many of them feel almost as if someone hired Jackson to make a porn film, and he set out to do as poor job of it as possible (and let’s face it. It’s HARD to screw up porn). It makes me think of Ed Wood’s later films, things like Orgy of the Dead, where the subject matter is definitely meant to be pornographic, but the filmmaker still clings to this fantasy of making real films and injecting some sort of genre plot. This isn’t like something from say, Jim Wynorski – who, when he makes porn… He lets you KNOW it’s porn. These films seem to be trying very hard to straddle the fence between those two worlds; an uncomfortable position to say the least, especially in an animal print thong.
The other thing is, I can’t understand exactly to whom this was marketed. It’s too racy and amateur from mainstream video stores, but not racy enough for an adult bookstore. It would’ve been perfectly normal to see this in one of the grindhouses of the 70s and 80s. “The Devil’s Pet” for instance was released in 1994, the year Rudy Giuliani was elected so it may have made it in as a last gasp before he cleaned up New York. A great deal of Jackson’s work would also end up overseas. He was a regular at The American Film Market, which would attract buyers from all over the world. Also it was still in the thick of late-night Cinemax, and when other filmmakers like Jim Wynorski would make this kind of stuff, that’s where it would end up.
And this is where I’m conflicted. We don’t review or promote porn here. But this is still a pretty integral illustration of Jackson as a filmmaker. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to pick four of these movies that best illustrate the Bird films, and basically give you some descriptions so hopefully you can know enough to avoid them. Let’s start with “It’s Showtime.”
For a moment “It’s Showtime” feels like a return to Donald Jackson’s original documentary roots. Actually, a straight documentary would have been a much better film. Interesting that in this case he uses the bird pseudonym as a film editor, but his real name appears as a director. It’s one of those tricks to pad the crew list and make it look like more people actually worked on this movie than actually did. What’s notable though that it foreshadows the way he’d soon start using it as a pseudonym to fully separate his smut work from the family films he’d start trying to push around this same time.
The movie starts off with a bunch of talking head clips of different strippers, describing what it’s like to work in the industry before heading into the club itself to show the atmosphere. The documentary opening may have been a mistake though. The film itself is a traditional narrative and this highlights how staged it is. We’ve got a familiar face in Robert Z’Dar behind the bar. He’s not around for long though (likely only worked one day on this one) after propositioning one of the dancers to “get ahead “. That proposition gets him fired by the manager/den mom, but as he leaves He threatens them – “I’ll be back” (He makes up on this promise a few minutes later in the alleyway with a knife)
In the meantime, the strippers discuss your lives and one falls on stage, twisting her ankle. Backstage, they examined her heels and find that one has been damaged… Sabotaged! We also
the Mafia type owners who are pigs of course, trying to get favors from the girls. For about ninety seconds it becomes a study of who will and who won’t. It almost wants to be a cautionary tale, but like a kid with ADHD the movie immediately loses focus and goes back to more scenes of the dancers. The monotony of random dancing is broken up when the partner of one of the dancers shows up and goes nuts. This lasts for about three minutes before heading back to dancing and random dialogue. We then get a quickie love affair for the manager that’s made up of a three minute sex scene then two more minutes of the happy couple riding rapturously on horseback. Before it’s time to jump scenes again.
A poolside birthday party is up next, where the girls dance like strippers even when not at work. Another bartender is fired with a cake to the face. Finally we hit the Halloween party at the club. The cops come in, shut it down and arrest the owner so we have some semblance of plot and closure.
Ultimately this seems to want to be just a slice of life – a week in the life of a strip club. Imagine if “Showgirls” had no plot and never got out of that first strip club? That’s what this film is. There are no character arcs, no pathos, no relationships, no goals… Just ordinary life, but in this seedy setting with its almost cartoonish owners and hapless den mother/manager. If you were to pull all of the dancing inserts, the run time would likely drop by half.
On to the next one. “Queen of the Lost Island” also goes by the name “The Devil’s Pet”. Like “It’s Showtime”, the camerawork actually looks decent despite the fact that the sound quality is muddy. We also get the occasional directors trademark where the corners of the screen are periodically cut off from not removing the lens cap properly. It begins with a man dreaming of topless cavewoman and Robert Z’Dar.
Reporters hound him outside a Beverly Hills hotel, asking about people who died on the mysterious island. It seems he is a sole survivor of a trip, and there to tell his story to a magazine writer.
Flash back to Z’Dar, doing a photo shoot in the woods (I can’t help but notice how small the camera is by the way – no special lenses, just a kind of average to high and snapshot camera) . They make an appointment to head to the island for the next shoot. While there, the model starts to have flashes of sinister natives (Possibly a goddess or the spirit of the island, depending on which source you go with). She and her boyfriend find a mysterious bottle filled with a drug that triggers off a series of dire foreshadowing quick cuts. The drug seems addictive though, and inflames passions. They leave the bottle behind where it turns Julie Strain into a topless, native, wild woman. We’ll see quite a bit of her wandering and swinging her sword as filler inserts, designed to stretch this to feature length.
We cut back to our main character, talking about moving onto his next job – shooting girls by the pool. The girls fall into the typical stereotypes, the brain, the slut, and the nice girl. A phone call comes in, and the photographer is off to the island with the three girls. Their arrival is observed by the previous visitors to the island, now mentally changed by the bottled drug.
More topless sword swinging.
The photographer begins work with one of the models (He’s got the same plain camera as Z’Dar), while the other two are discovered by the survivors on the island. Sword girl begins a ritual that seems to be felt by the other survivors. It also seems to summon other native girls on the island to come and chase our helpless models. Our good girl model is forced to drink the strange elixir and everything that entails.
Jackson also resorted to another one of his trademarks, when in doubt go for the quick cuts. The final 15 minutes are almost all quick flashes from scene to image to seeing to image. He even manages a twist ending of sorts. It’s the sort of things that don’t make it feel like it wants to be more than just smut. Indeed, it’s listed on IMDb a “horror” rather than “adult” or even just “independent”. Whatever it is, this film is garbage and even at seventy five minutes this is too long. I watched this on 1.4x speed, and updated that to full double time for the last twenty minutes. Even reduced to 47 minutes it’s too long. I’m a little surprised it didn’t end Jackson’s career. It didn’t though and it moves us on to “Big Sister 2000”.
With Maximo T. Bird and Julie Strain in the credits, I’ve already got a pretty good idea what Big Sister 2000 is going to be like. If that weren’t enough, then opening with a girl in a cage pretty much seals the deal. She is guarded by a man clad in black and decked out in hockey armor, a bandanna, and a top hat. He has a katana. Very much a Donald Jackson-looking character. She escapes and makes a run for it, and the men pursue her. The credits end and we switch to A girl at the shrinks office. He thinks she’s delusional, but she attempts to convince him that what she believes is real, and that there’s a threat “out there”.
Jackson is filming in his office again, and we’re back to the old standard of hanging up curtains to create different sets. There is a fine visual gag in the bedroom set though, a number of Jacksons films such as Frogtown, Kill Kill Overkill, and a copy of “the anarchists joke book”. If anything, the movie is worth it just for that!
A girl is kidnapped from her bed and taken to a dark location where she collapses and wakes up in a prison with three other women.
She’s brought to the theater of pain to be interrogated about her sex life. The questions are interspersed by the torment of other scantily clad prisoners.
Around the half hour mark she is visited by a ghost – the spirit of someone who came to this prison and never left. The ghost reassures her there is a way to escape but only if she tells them nothing. The interrogator can only be defeated if she doesn’t break her (The interrogator has superiors as well who will punish her for failure). We see all of this play out minutes after the ghost’s warning – the interrogator lies, fails and is dragged off by another torturer. Then it’s back to the quick cuts to distract us while the film tries to think of a new direction for the plot.
It’s around this halfway point that the film starts to change, shifting from a lesbian dominatrix fantasy to something more philosophical,l with the ghost making repeated visits and the girls considering the ramifications of being held prisoner. She’s given a new interrogator. this time it’s a man who seems more serious about the job and is looking for a book from her collection. She uses interrogators and weaknesses against him to escape.
Using newly acquired guns, they attempt to navigate the surrounding junkyard (a standard Jackson outdoor set) fleeing armed guards, bullets, and the betrayal on one of their own according to the ghost’s prophecy. Our heroine escapes alone, with the ghosts benediction of “Be strong, go on the light”.
Finally, we discover her boyfriend is one of them and he explains what it’s all about – the men are searching for the anarchists jokebook because if people start making fun of the government, it will do what the government tells them to do! She shoots him and makes good her escape. This brings us back to the beginning where she is telling the shrink about the secret prisons. The problem is, the psychiatrist is in on it too and now, it’s time to escape again.
The weird thing about this is that despite all the garbage in this film, there really is an interesting story here. It almost feels as if Jackson had enough material for half a movie and needed an extra 40 minutes of filler – this is where the smut comes in. It’s a little disappointing, because it feels like he could’ve developed this into something bigger, better, if he’d taken some time to craft a good script. A good scriptwriter can overcome the shortcomings of the meagre cast. Instead, it looks like Jackson charged in with a story and half a script, leveraging his connections with various porn stars to create something quick, rather than taking time to create something good. It’s a problem we’d see time and again from Jackson. Scott Shaw once observed “He had great creative ideas but he couldn’t get anything done.” Don always needed someone to collaborate with, someone who could push him and keep him moving instead of just meandering off task. It’s why I think he tended to produce so much better work under the studio system. However, instead of heading back to the studios, Jackson would move either farther away from them.
Kill Kill Overkill (also known as “Twisted Fate”) opens with a girl on a motorcycle heading home, with a pop rock song overlaid. Jody arrives to find a tape by her TV labeled “Denise”. She pops the tape in and walks away, making a phone call to see if you can find any friends with any other blank videotapes. The videotape features a girl rolling around on the bed – complete with Jackson’s trademark corner cut-offs were somebody didn’t remove the lens fully. We’re about six minutes into the movie before she realizes it’s a tape of her boyfriend been cheating on her.
We cut through the credits to Peter being released from a doctor’s care. Even though he doesn’t want to go, his brother Luther insists they are going to head out on the road and it’ll be the best adventure ever!
Back at the house, the boyfriend tries to convince Jody that the tape is just an audition for his porn career. This particular conversation ends painfully for him.
Down the road a bit, the two brothers from the beginning rescue a hitchikking girl in the process of being assaulted. They jumped out with thier trusty baseball bat. You can tell it’s Jackson at his best here, he choreographs the baseball bat fight as if it were a sword fight with the same moves and flourishes.
The girl joints them on the road, though I’m not in entirely certain what the point of the trip is. I think they’re looking for a new home after getting out of the hospital for the criminally insane?
“I’m so tired of the road Luther, we need a home!”
“Home? Home is where you hang your hat!”
Despite Peter being the one recently getting out of the hospital, Luther seems to be the crazy one. He suddenly snaps and assaults the girl with duct tape. (We’re going to see a lot of duct tape in this movie). “It’s not that she wasn’t a nice person, there’s just not enough room in our truck for three people!”
“I’m so tired of the road Luther, we need a home!”
“Home? Home is where you hang your hat!”
We shift to home videos, shot by the motorcycle Jody’s friends. They’re heading out on a girl’s trip to a cabin in the woods. Jody’s friends are heading out ahead of her (while she fixes her motorcycle at home) and they’re documenting the trip with the videocamera – found footage style (before found footage actually was a thing).
Up in the mountains, the brothers find what they think is an abandoned wood cabin. Of course, it’s the same cabin that the girls are headed to… albeit delayed by a flat tire.
The guys head upstairs to hide as the girls get there. The women notice signs of people having been there, a paper that’s only days old, a huge mess and the ominous sight of a baby doll with its mouth duct taped.
Things take a real turn for the worse around the 15 minute mark when the lights go out and the girls find themselves locked in a room. They find a trailer that looks like blood down to the basement… Only to find out it was all a practical joke by one of the girls! The joker get’s herself exiled to the basement bed.
In the meantime, motorcycle girl finally gets her bike fixed and resolve to head out to the cabin in the morning. The problem is, the boys are there tonight! As the girls go to sleep they come out and begin to creep around. The first girl to be attacked is the one in the basement. Another one of Jackson’s trademarks… foreshadowing something that happens about five minutes later. One by one, each of the girls is captured and bound in duck tape. This guy apparently has a fetish.
“Time to ask this girl is the most important question of their lives! What would you do to stay alive tonight?”
In the hands of a different actor that could be the most chilling line of the film, unfortunately it’s being delivered Buy a hyperactive wombat on speed. Still, I almost feel sad for the younger brother who doesn’t want any part of this and just feels… Lonely. I found myself literally cheering when he laid his brother out with a frying pan. It only knocks him out for a second though, he should’ve hit him harder, but there’s still 15 minutes left in the film to go, and the brothers continue to terrorize the girls all night.
Motorcycle girl wakes up the next morning and head to the cabin. She arrives just-in-time to give the guys a beat down and free her friends. It’s a predictable ending, although Jackson throws one more unexpected twist in the end – as well as anther expected but a satisfying one, wrapping up one of Jackson’s better movies.
I like to hurt people was billed as a documentary, and maybe it is… But Donald Jackson presents it as a linear narrative – far more like a feature than a documentary. It lends itself to this format, because of the inherently staged nature of wrestling, pushing a story line right alongside the gladiatorial combat. Indeed, this feels familiar, with plenty of ringside interviews and grandstanding to inter cut between staged scenes .
We get backstage imagery of one Wrestler threatening the cameraman, spectators at the snack bar discussing the current match, backstage antics and the like. The most notable of these kind of scenes is one with wrestlers waiting in their car to meet their opponents. The camera captures perfectly, their shock when Andre the giant emerges, gargantuan and bigger than life from his ride. I’m going to go on record right now and say this movie is worth the watch just for this and to see more Andre.
In great part, this is the story of heel wrestler Edward Farhat, better known as the Sheik. In the early days of television, the Sheik almost single-handedly escalated the violence and commercial appeal of professional wrestling with a style that was “Hardcore” long before that genre of wrestling ever existed. Steve Slagle, a student of wrestling, wrote in The Ring Chronicle that ”perhaps no other wrestler is more responsible for influencing the current generation of ‘hardcore’ wrestling than the one and only Arabian madman known as the Sheik.” “I like to Hurt people” follows the 6 foot tall, 247 pound villain as he cuts through the wrestling world, changes managers and fights his way through with a showdown against Dusty Rhodes : the American Dream on the horizon. This is professional wrestling, it’s old school. It’s not the glitzy polished events we’re used to seeing with the WWE. These wrestlers are a barrel chested, big guys with less muscle definition, but every bit as much attitude and big personality as you have ever seen in any pro wrestling event. There is blood here too, not quite as much as you might see in the underground hard-core wrestling circuit that 42nd Street Pete promotes , but more than what you are probably used to in your average royal rumble!
I find it particularly amusing to watch Andre the giant literally lift people up over his head and then toss them out of the ring.
In the background, we have the President of the “Stop the Sheik” movement attempting to derail the upcoming match, and get the Sheik out of the circuit. It’s a subplot that helps to hold the entire story together between matches. Interestingly enough, this wasn’s part of the original pitch, but was added in years after the footage was shot to pad the run time and give the film more structure. Eventually the “Stop the Sheik” movement ends when the man behind it just… disappears!
Contrived subplots aside, there’s still plenty of interviews, giving you a clearer picture of why the wrestlers do what they do and what it means to them. It keep the film feeling like a documentary, even as it unfolds as more of a hybrid.
“It’s how I found true meaning. I like to hurt people”
Jackson isn’t content to just cover mainstream wrestling though, we get a side story about a female wrestler named “Heather Feather” who really wants to wrestle a man. Jackson documents the arm wrestling match that leads to the real thing. We follow her into the ring for what is billed as the first pro wrestling match between a woman and a man. It’s a novelty act, but an Ernest one. Jackson not only covers women’s wrestling but also matches with little people – as brutal and pitched as any fight you can imagine.
Back on the mainstream circuit, trouble arises, and the shiek’s manager quits and has to be replaced by an even more colorful character. The Sheik continues on, bringing his boa constrictor with him to the ring and bowing to it before the matches. He rarely speaks, and what he does say is in Arabic, spoken in sinister tones. In the back on his limo, he and his manager ride off to the future.
When we talk about Donald Jackson, we usually like to focus on the bad films. But I’m going to come straight out and say this is a good movie. How can I tell? Because I don’t like wrestling. I may know some of the names because they are pop culture, but I do’t have any interest in the form or genre. Nevertheless, I was completely sucked in. I was riveted by this film on a subject I don’t care a bit for. It goes on Ebay from twenty to fifty dollars.Do your self a favor and scour the goodwill, salvation army and other thrift stores to find a battered old VHS copy of this.
A Drive With Linnea and Donald is billed as a Scott Shaw film, one of his Zen Documentaries. But even when Shaw is in the director’s seat, Jackson’s influence can be very firmly felt. It’s in the questions asked and the way the film is laid out, though Shaw is definitely here too. You can see this in the way the movie is edited – rather in the way it’s not edited. Still, this is meant to be a light, fun visit with old friends. It’s nonsense and small talk. By the way, don’t be deceived by the placement of the names in the title. Despite arguably being the more famous personality, this is not Linnea’s movie. For the lion’s share of the film, the camera is pointed directly at Don, and the ideas are all his.
The movie begins with technical difficulties and the sound guy not being able to hear the monitor… Don helps him figure out the wiring.
He’s in the back seat with Linnea Quigley (and how many of us have had THAT dream? Come on guys, admit it.) who is loaning out the limo to take him to Art’s Deli. It’s a flimsy premise, but a charming one, perfectly in keeping with Jackson’s own predilections. Linnea serves as the interviewer and occasionally the straightman to Don, and they begin their chat with music. Don is well educated when it comes to country and swing and bluegrass, though he’s not completely unknowledgeable about punk and rock and roll. He begins to talk about trying to figure out the difference between Buddha Cowboy songs and getting his groove back the conversation viewers into food and how to tell if there’s any animal products hiding in noodles.
Don and Linnea are both heading out to meet Jackson’s friend Laszlo Kovachs from Chinatown. They lament that it’s one of the last part of Hollywood it still feels like Hollywood – with that old-fashioned, Philip Marlowe, art deco look. The conversation drifts to dogs.
“How long do you think a dalmatian would live?” Don asks Linnea.
“About seven years,” she replies. “The rule is the bigger the dog, the shorter they live”
“What about Snoop Dogg?”
“Depends on how many gangs are after him.”
Don changes the subject to his difficultie’s with actors. One of his friends once told him that hte hardest thing about being a director, it’s not the money thing, but rather the hardest thing is getting the actors in front of the camera. Linnea is skeptical, since there’s so many out of work actors in Hollywood trying to build a reel, but Jackson points out that things are different in the micro budget world.
“I knew this one director who was trying to get this actress to come out and do a shoot for him, but she said she couldn’t because she had to go to class – he told her maybe she could come out and act for him sometime when she had no class…”
Linnea gets irritable when she doesn’t eat.
“You weren’t always a veterinarian?”
Suddenly they realize they have passed the deli and had to turn around to go back.
Linnea asked Jackson if he’d ever got his picture up at a place like Art’s, and he says no but his buddy Laszlo once swapped his own head shot out with Fabian’s up at Pinks Hotdogs no one was looking.
Don likes mustard. It may have something to do with the parable of the mustard seed in the Bible.
They pause their conversation to adjust the lights so that they can better illuminate the back seat. We lose the soundtrack for a couple of minutes while this goes on. That’s one of the things that makes this a Zen documentary by the way, there is no editing – it’s one long shot, no matter what happens. Flubs are left in, lines and stories are repeated and we see it all. To be fair though, Jackson seems to expect this all to get cleaned up and edited out later. Scott Shaw obviously had different ideas.
The sound comes back in with a crash while Jackson adjust his mic.
“Sorry don’t make it, and I can’t believe your driver missed arts deli and ended up with us at Jerry’s… Is she an actress or a driver? “
“Isn’t everybody an actress in LA?”
Jackson’s noticed, that everyone out here seems to have a desire to be something else – do you wanna be in actor or detective or or a rock ‘n’ roll star.
“There’s a big difference between desire and ability. We have the desire, but not the ability – and there is something else… You need passion”
More sound problems, with the audio track going in and out like a bad wire. They have to douse the lights when the cops cruise by – a police car seems far too interested in them. They wait it out and start back up after the cop car vanishes.
“Let’s not have any more technical problems,” Jackson pleads. “What was I talking about again?”
Jackson mistily pines away for the days when Pink’s Hotdogs didn’t sell French fries, back then you could get in and out quicker and the vendors were showmen… Picking up the hotdogs in the middle with their tongs, flipping it up in the air, then catching it in the bun before slathering it with sauerkraut and mustard.
“Some of the people on the Titanic were on their way to Pinks!”
Linnea helps clarify that Jackson is talking about the movie, not the ship.
They finally arrive at Art’s deli. Don’t worry, everything is okay, Linnea has reservations.
It’s a weird little film. I think it was always meant to be a weird little side project…and would have been a lot shorter if edited properly. I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into when I rented this one, but I had been looking forward to it. Linnea is a sweetheart as just about anyone who has met her on the convention circuit will happily attest. Don himself is always an interesting guy who I really wish I could have met. I don’t believe it’s quite the film Jackson envisioned. Despite the contrived nature of the questions and answers, not to mention the technical problems that should have been left on the cutting room floor, at half an hour it’s an easy watch, and in the end, I feel like I came away with just a little more insight on Jackson. That alone is enough for me to recommend this movie.
The Demon Lover starts off just the way I like it, nice and spooky with the sleeping girl and a Satanic cultist casting a spell. I’m actually a fan of 70s occult horror so starting the movie off like this is right up my alley. It sets the tone even while it makes you wonder what is going on.
Funny, the cultist looks more than a little bit like David Mustane from Megadeth. We’ll find later that his name is Damian Kaluta and he’s the cult leader.
I’m a little confused though as to why the victim is wandering around in the dark outside. My previous experience with Donald Jackson films makes me feel this might be a diversion, until A black and skeletal hand reaches out water from the blackness.
We cut back to the creepy basement where a bunch of hippies are enjoying banjo music and alcohol. While everybody relaxes on my grandfathers couch, Frank Zappa is downstairs doing the funky chicken, I kid you not.
The truth is, the cult leader, camping under a pyramid tent, seems to be the only one there taking things seriously. It’s an interesting snapshot of a cult culture in the 70s. The fact that the rest of the cult members are so flippant begins to really anger Kaluta who explodes in a rage.
“What a bummer, how are you going to have any fun if we don’t get drunk and do something scary?” That pretty much sums up most of the members, just there on the lark looking for kicks. He drives them away in frustration
Almost alone in his solitude, Damian Kaluta finds himself with one disciple, and begins the ritual by himself. He manages to conjure up a Demon. It’s a hairy demon, but I guess it WAS the 70s. In the morning the police, lead by Detective Tom Frazetta, find a dead body.
The spell begins to take hold as Damian uses his magic and his Demon to take revenge on his forsaken flock. The deaths attract the attention of Frazetta the local portly detective with a moustache. He visits various occult gatherings at Ted nugent’s house (no, really.) where he encounters former cult members and various mystics including a quick appearance by a VERY young Gunner Hanson. I’m less bothered out by the fact that he’s not wearing a flesh mask like leather face, not it’s the fact that his beard is so dark that it’s almost black. I’m so used to him and his snowy white beard that the dark hair is freaking me out. Detective Frazetta is unimpressed and he goes to interview Damian Kaluta to dig up some dirt, fruitlessly.
We cut to Kaluta in the middle of a dojo, training in martial arts. It’s one of the first touches I’ve actually seen that give some real indication that Jackson was involved. He was always interested in spirituality, but very little of his work dabbles in the occult…it offends his fundamentalist upbringing. Eastern philosophy, though, martial arts and Bushido though always fascinated him and this seemingly random scene inserted in the middle of the film makes perfect sense considering Jackson’s predilections.
The kills, when they come are good and I actually like the design of the demon, hookey as it may be. But the film is poorly paced and the murders are too far apart. You can see it’s still early days for Donald Jackson. He is learning how to craft a narrative and is beginning to understand how to flow from one scene to the next, but hasn’t really learned script writing structure yet, and the sort of ramshackle production begins to show cracks at the seems (Particularly if you know any of the backstory on the perils of this production). “The Demon Lover” has a lot of the same clumsiness that we saw from West Craven in “Last House on the Left”, yet it also showcases much of the same promise for the director.
Nevertheless, I can imagine this being a perfectly acceptable bottom half of a double bill feature at the drive-ins of the 70s which is exactly where it ended up playing. It’s definitely worth a look, especially for fans of satanic horror. It becomes particularly interesting when paired up with the documentary about the production…but good luck finding either.
I’ve seen a lot of b movies and watched a lot of bad directors, but very few have inspired the sort of obsessive fascination I have for Jackson.
Donald Jackson was born on April 24, 1943 in the midwest, growing up in Adrian, Michigan. He began collecting comic books at the age of five and this formed his desire to make movies. While working at a factory building speedometers, he met Jerry Younkins. Younkins was involved in an industrial accident at the factory, losing a couple of fingers. The factory paid him off, giving him about $6000. Jerry and Don quickly decided that this should go towards their shared goal of making their first film. Jackson wanted to do a pulpy privet investigator movie with as black lead. Younkins disagreed and pointed to the success of “The Exorcist” and the hype around occult horror movies. He persuaded Jackson that this was the way to go instead and Jackson reluctantly agreed. Don took sick leave from work, claiming that he was under a doctor’s care, they found a camera crew and set to work creating “The Demon Lover”.
The Demon lover was a troubled production, with Don frequently butting heads with his crew. The inexperienced filmmaker never had a firm plan on what was going to be shot or how to accomplish it, but his charisma managed to draw people in and secure actors and sets. They brought in Gunnar Hanson from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ted Nugent lent them his house and penned music for the film. Money dried up quickly, with a $5000 payout to Hanson alone and another $1000 to keep the camera crew working. Jackson was soon forced to mortgage his house, his car, and even his furniture to get the film made. The camera crew ran off at the last minuet after trashing Jackson’s mother’s home where they were staying.
Somehow, the movie got finished. And after two years of post, it was released to moderate success on the drive in circuit. Jackson never saw a penny, and when the factory discovered he’d been off making a movie instead of sick like he had claimed, he lost his job. Hanson was demanding more money – his deal had been $5000 up front, with another $5000 on the back end if Jackson turned a profit. He never did and was therefore unable to make the secondary payment to Hanson – a sore point that Gunnar would still be holding on to when Jackson ran into him at Comic Con in 2000, more than twenty years later.
“I walked up to say, “Hi.” I asked him why he was mad at me and all he could tell me is that I owed him $5,000.00. ”
In the meantime, The camera crew was spreading the word that Jackson wasn’t to be trusted, even going as far as to release a documentary on the making of “The Demon Lover” in an effort to paint Jackson in as crazy a light as possible. Still, he had made enough of an impact that he was getting noticed. Sam Raimi contacted him, telling him that he was one of Raimi’s biggest cinematic influences, and Don was happy to talk with him about what it was like to work on an indie Production like “The Demon Lover”. Other projects were explored. One even involved legendary Cleveland horror host “The Ghoul”, but never materialized. While he never stopped trying, it would be ten years before he would make a return to the film making world with the advent of the VHS market.
This time around, Jackson would play to his strengths, and his own interests. In addition to comics, Jackson was a fan of professional wrestling.
“In the Midwest, were I grew up, Wrestling has always been one of the lifeblood’s of sports.”
Matches would be on television every weekend and at least once a month there would be one big matchup in the city. Jackson was a frequent attendee. It was there that he started to get an idea for his next film.
“What I began doing was to take, first my 8 mm, then my Super 8 Camera, and later my 16 mm Bolex to matches and I began to put a lot of wrestling footage together.”
What Jackson needed was a star. Someone to focus on. Big names like Hulk Hogan were out of the question. Payments would have to be made, and clearances for every shot would be necessary. Jackson didn’t have that kind of cash or time on hand. He found his star in a well known heel named “The Shiek”.
“I went up to him at a match one day, told him what I wanted to do. And, he was the nicest guy. He gave me full access. He also introduced me to many of the other wrestlers, who allowed me to film them, as well.” A real coup would be getting footage of Andre the Giant and Dusty Rhodes for the nascent film.
Jackson’s idea was to make a horror film based in the wrestling world. “Ringside in Hell” however, failed to get traction and Don decided to change direction, cutting the horror scenes and instead, taking inspiration from Robert Altman’s “Nashville”, began to create something following the people in this world – the stars, the up-and-comers, and the never-will-bes, diving into their own personal stories as they orbit the bigger narrative. Slowly he put together a feature that was half documentary and half narrative. After running out of resources with a film that was too short for a VHS release, Jackson added an entire new subplot revolving around a movement against his main character the “Stop the Shiek” drive. The film would become “I like to Hurt People”, and it would finally garner him the attention of Hollywood. Jackson would take matters into his own hands and sent out copies to various film studios, and New World pictures showed some interest, agreeing to pick it up and distribute it. They paid Jackson $50,000. It was enough to finance his move out to Hollywood.
Now settled in out west, Jackson needed work. He leveraged his contacts at New World to get work there as a camera operator and started to make contacts out there like Fred Olen Ray, who would loan him out both his son Christopher and his girlfriend Michelle Baur to be in his next project. One of Don’s early jobs was assistant camera on effects for the sci-fi foray, “Galaxy of Terror”. It was n this film that he’d make another Hollywood up-and-comer. James Cameron was working on FX where Jackson was shooting and Cameron would become a contact that would lead to more work on future films, not the least of which was “Terminator”.
Cameron was almost finished with the film, but wasn’t happy with everything and needed some additional scenes filmed. The problem was, he was out of money. It was at this point that he called up Don for help shooting things like the opening where Schwarzenegger arrives at the L.A. Observatory. Time drew short. Cameron was on his own dime and the shoot was about to go into overtime for Schwarzenegger, even as the crew decided to break for lunch. Cameron looked to Don for a solution.
“We got a small portable light, known as a “Mini Cool,” out of the truck of my car and I had Jim hold it and pan it as Arnold walked through the scene. We got the shot, Arnold got to go home without being paid overtime, and the movie was completed.”
Still, Jackson wasn’t content to just run film on other people’s productions. he came to Hollywood to make his own films. He was working on his next project – a post apocalyptic roller skating battle called “Roller Blade”, which he was financing using his credit cards. Around this time, the returns were coming in for “I Like To Hurt People”, making half a million dollars for New World Pictures. He was $5000 in debt when New World came to him and asked if he had any other projects in the works. Jackson grabbed the footage he had and cut it into a trailer. It didn’t take long for them to work out that a $5000 movie gave them ample room for profit and New World immediately snatched it up.
I’ve written about Roller Blade elsewhere. It was screened for us at the Cedar Lee theater and left me gobsmacked and unable to move half of my body for several minuets. Yet despite the abject lunacy of a sci-fi epic about roller skating nuns in a dystopian future, the combination of creativity and the unique promotion of Roller Blade as the first film marketed direct to video, made the film a success. After raking in a million dollars in sales, New World was ready to give Jackson a shot at a film with a big budget, stars and support. That film would be arguably Jackson’s most well known film; “Hell Comes to Frogtown”.
The problem with increased budgets from a legitimate hollywood studio, is that they come with increased scrutiny. Jackson suddenly found himself surrounded by handlers. He would constantly butt heads with the script supervisor who insisted on word for word line readings when Jackson was more interested in getting the jist of the dialogue. The strict adherence to structure and process that the studio imposed constantly rubbed Jackson the wrong way and by the time Frogtown was finished, Jackson’s relationship with New World was also finished. Donald Jackson departed the studio system, never to return. Leaving the studio however didn’t mean leaving film. Long time collaborator Scott Shaw once said of him; “Don was an obsessional filmmaker. He loved making movies. But, he was willing to make them at any cost.”. Jackson would spend the rest of his career making films independently, raising the money in any way he could. At one point Jackson even found himself in the middle of a ponzi scheme with investors raising money using his name and reputation. The financiers managed to get their hands on over five million dollars before the bottom fell out. Jackson received a mere $500,000 of that. He managed to get three films in the can before the scheme was revealed and the investors went to court. Jackson emerged with his films as well as footage shot for future movies as well. He began to leverage the name recognition behind films like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” and “Roller Blade” producing sequels to each. The modest budgets in these productions is evident, but there is still a sense of linear storytelling and structure to them. They are commercial rather than strictly abstract and artistic as Jackson’s output would later increasingly become.
More money could be found in the family video market. Shaw recalls the era.
“Don knew that if he attempted to sell these investors on making the kind of films he actually wanted to make; i.e. more exploitation based films, they would never invest. So, what he did was to take his own unique vision of comic book based characters and create films, which he felt could be viewed by the younger audience. He did this, while siphoning money from those films, so that he could create the kind of movies that he actually wanted to make.”
Don himself would put it simply; “What I did, was give them the Donald G. Jackson version of a Children’s film — weird.”
The children’s films were never among Don’s favorites. He used to refer to them as “Just another piece of shit on the crap pile.”, but it was becoming evident that he was building his own style and collection of stock players including people like Joe Estevez and Robert Z’Dar
This was the era where Jackson would frequently collaborate with scriptwriter and actor Mark Williams, possibly best known as the artist who designed the album cover for the band Poison’s “Open Up and Say…Ahh!” record. Jackson met Mark via Steven Wang, the artist that created the creature effects and masks for Hell Comes to Frogtown back in Don’s New World days. Mark had moved to L.A. to pursue a career in movies. Much like Steve, Mark was also an FX artist, pursing a career path in the field when he met Don. Also being heavily influenced by comic books, Mark and Don meshed well. According to Scott Shaw
“Mark became an essential element in the filmmaking of Donald G. Jackson, beyond simply the SFX. Don would provide Mark with the concept for a film and Mark would go home and write the entire script in one evening.”
William’s enthusiasm however didn’t match Jackson’s. Don would go hour after hour, even day after day perusing his cinematic vision. He’d constantly be working on set and it wouldn’t be unusual to see him spending hours doing an insanely excessive amount of takes on a single scene in order to get things just right. Williams on the other hand might show up and just hang out puffing on a cigar while he occasionally handed out story direction or acted in a supporting role here and there. Jackson’s work ethic was fanatical. William’s was not. The relationship burnt out in a quick four years with Don eventually exploding at Williams in anger and furiously firing him. They would never speak again, though Jackson would attend William’s funeral at Dark Delicacies in Burbank after the creator’s untimely death from cancer in 1998.
Williams wasn’t the only victem of Jackson’s temper. Outburst on set were common. Scott Shaw remembers one particular incident “we had brought on this one guy who was the godson of actor William Smith. Good guy. I really like him. But, he pissed Don off for some nondescript reason and Don just went off. I was driving in the car behind them and for nearly an hour I could hear Don screaming at the top of his lungs at this guy”
During the filming of “Rock ‘n Roll Cops”, Jackson started screaming at Robert Z’Dar.
“I wish we could get a decent fucking actor on this set!”
Z’Dar, as huge and intimidating as he was, gave a soft and simple response. “I take exception with that, Donny.” He’d put up with it most days, but at one point on the set wher he and Jackson were filming the sequel to “Hell Comes to Frogtown”, the abuse just became too much. Z’Dar, decked out in leather and a jet pack, ripped off his Texas Rocket Ranger helmet and flung it at Jackson who lept up to doge the large chrome colored projectile.
By far, the worst victem of Jackson’s outbursts was Ed Wood alumni Conrad Brooks. Like Z’Dar, Brooks fell in to Jackson’s regular rotation and the two were fast friends. But Jackson was also abusive. Shaw recalled the way Jackson would treat Brooks.
“I believe this abusive mindset was one of the key downfalls to the overall career of Donald G. Jackson. He would test people and if he would find them venerable, he would go after them nonstop. Conrad was often on the wrong side of this abuse. ”
“I guess I shouldn’t have been so hard on him,” Jackson once admitted, but he never apologized.
Scott Shaw met Donald Jackson when he was called in for The Roller Blade Seven, the third film in Jackson’s post apocalyptic roller skating series. That partnership emerged with mixed results and Shaw parted ways with Jackson for a time under bad terms. Jackson went off and made his kids films and Shaw went off to shoot “Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell” and other films of his own. Shaw would find himself drawn back into Jackson’s orbit in 1995, shortly after Jackson was diagnosed with leukemia. Jackson was given six months to a year to live.
“He found out he only had a few more years to live as he was dying from leukemia. He remembered how well we worked together and that I was one of those people who gets things done. I think he wanted to leave a legacy and without someone like me that wasn’t going to happen.”
Jackson would defy the odds, and live another eight years, producing over a dozen films with Shaw. This was the era he truly embraced Zen filmmaking.
“Many people believe that Zen Filmmaking is simply based upon the fact that no screenplay is used in the creation of a Zen Film. Though this is the basis for Zen Filmmaking, in reality it is much more than this.” says Shaw, who describes how the idea of Zen Filmmaking came to being on the set of The Roller Blade Seven;
“Don and I were very disappointed with the performances of the massive cast we had hired to take part in the film. We looked at each other and realized that the majority of them did not have the talent to truly pull-off the roll of the character they had been assigned. With this, we came to a realization to just go out and film the movie, not expect anything from our cast and crew, and make up the story as we went along. After a few days of this style of production, I had a realization, based in my lifelong involvement with eastern mysticism. I looked at Don and said, “This is Zen. This is Zen Filmmaking.” And, that was it”
Shaw returned in time for Jackson to begin the final installment of his Frogtown series, though that was far from the only collabration.
“It is essential to note that the moment Don and I began working together again, we did not wholly focus on Toad Warrior. We, almost immediately began to formulate, come up with other projects, and begin filming them, as well. Most notable filmed around this same period of time were the films that became Shotgun Blvd. and Ghost Taxi. Though none of these first, “Next Generation Zen Films,” rose to the cult status of Max Hell Frog Warrior, at least in my opinion, they were all better films than Toad Warrior.”
For the rest of his career, in addition to Jackson’s own curious directorial signatures like Swords, roller skates and L.A.s 170 overpass bridge, you can see the specific methods of Zen filmmaking present.
Scott Shaw’s Six Tenets of Zen Filmmaking
1. Make all unforeseen situations work to your advantage.
2. Don’t waste time, money, and energy attempting to create your sets when you don’t have to. Instead, travel to them and allow their natural aesthetics to become a part of your film.
3. Just do it! Ninety-nine percent of the time you can get away with it.
4. Never let your story line dominate your artistic vision. Too many would be filmmakers attempt to write what they believe is a, “Good Script,” and then try to film it. Without an unlimited budget it is virtually impossible to get what is on the page on the stage.
5. Zen Filmmaking is a spontaneous process. If you acutely plan your productions, with screenplays, storyboards, and locations, there is no room for the spontaneity of Cinematic Enlightenment to occur and you will always be lost between the way your mind desired a scene to be and the way it actually turns out.
6. Ultimately, in Zen Filmmaking nothing is desired and, thus, all outcomes are perfect.
If that sounds terrible…it frequently is. And that’s fine by Shaw. ““We did not set out to make Gone with the Wind… It’s not intended to be good.” It’s a quick way of creating movies though. Jackson would always have several movies in varying stages of completion, a valuable thing given the uncertainty of his future. Sometimes things work out. I think “Ride with the Devil” is one of the better efforts. But the films frequently fall short of the artistic heights that this format presumes. Writer Michael Adams, author of “Showgirls, Teen Wolves and Astro Zombies” is perhaps the only person on earth who has watched as many of these films as I have. Here’s how he describes it.
“It’s 1:05 a.m. I’m staring blankly at the blank plasma screen. She (my wife) looks at me, looks at the TV.
“What are you doing, bubble?” she asks, a flicker of concern mixed in with amusement.
“I’ve cracked,” I say. “I can’t watch any more of this dude’s movies. I think this guy has broken my brain.”
“They’re that bad, huh?”
I nod. “And they’re all the same.”
“How much can you say? He tried, mostly failed, and died” Ted Newsome once wrote of Ed Wood.
The term “The next Ed Wood” has been entirely overused since the Medved brother’s golden Turkey awards in 1980 declared “Plan Nine From Outer Space” to be the worst movie of all time (It isn’t. It isn’t even the worst movie Ed Wood ever made). Since then, this mantel has been directed at any and every low -budget filmmaker in Hollywood. Artist Johnny Em even directed the term towards me in my student film days. With most filmmakers it’s mere hyperbole. If any filmmaker ever deserved this sobriquet however, it was Jackson. When looking at Jackson’s life and career in overview, he parallels Wood more than any other director I can think of.
Both men started out working behind the scenes in film doing whatever jobs the studio had available. It was an attempt to break into the business in whatever way they could. They both seized whatever opportunities came their way and bent those films into their own vision whether it was “Bride of the Monster” or “I Like to Hurt People”. Films like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” or “Glen and Glenda” would deliver the studio a far stranger production than they had bargained for.
Both had to fight for creative control of their films. As far back as “Glen or Glenda” Wood had to put up with things like producer George Weiss inserting a short B&D lesbian scene in to the film without Wood’s knowledge or consent. It’s a move that feels very reminiscent of the way Jackson’s financer Tanya York, would recut the footage from both The Roller Blade Seven and Return of the roller Blade Seven into one unauthorized feature she titled “Legend of the Roller Blade Seven”. Wood ended up changing the name and ending of “Bride of the Atom” to appease investors. Still, he fared better than Jackson on “Hell Comes to Frogtown” where control was largely wrested away from him by the studio assigned co-director.
Both men had an unstoppable desire to make films, and yet both lacked resources, time, and patience. They both were masters of the one take scenes and would race through their productions with little regard for traditional film structure. What they lacked in traditional resources, they made up for in their synchronicity with their stock casts. Both had their reliable B-listers; Wood with Bela Lugosi and Jackson with Robert Z’Dar. They would back that star power up with fringe b-listers, Wood with Tor Johnson and Jackson with Joe Estevez and Scott Shaw.
There was a surprising prudishness to both Wood and Jackson as well. In his book “The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood”, Andrew J. Raush writes of Wood’s film “The Violent Years” ” After watching this, one must conclude that Wood was somewhat of a conservative man (startling considering the number of pornographic films Wood would later make or be associated with)”
“His simplistic assertion in the film that leading children “Back to God” would ultimately put an end to juvenile delinquency”
It’s interesting to note a similar conservative message in “The Sinister Urge”, Wood’s cautionary tale warning of the perils inherent in pornography (and sadly foreshadowing his own descent into that genre).
Jackson likewise had his own reservations, particularly when he was still under the influence of his community in Michigan. He was never comfortable with the occult subject matter in “The Demon Lover”, and frequently would express his regret in making it. When he returned home to his native Michigan around the turn of the century, he was welcomed back with open arms and considered the hometown boy made good. At one point Scott Shaw recalled Jackson asking him for a reedit on “the Guns of The Chupacabra” to eliminate the nudity, so he could show it to his friends. That edit would go on to be know as “Crimes of the Chupacabra”.
These old-fashioned values also came through in a certain degree of patriotism. You can frequently see it displayed by wood in places like “The Sinister Urge” where he hints that porn may be a strange foreign plot to wipe out the American way of life. It’s a motif that would pop up from time to time in Wood’s work, not the least of which is “Plan 9 From Outer Space” which can be boiled down to America vs. the Flying Saucers! For Jackson, the best example is simply the names of the scientists in Hell Comes to Frogtown; Star, Spangle, and Banner.
Both Jackson and Wood had one notable film and a lesser known one or two before their careers would be drug down into smut. It’s interesting to note that they were both incompetent flesh peddlers, delivering some of the least arousing nookie films ever made. It’s obvious that their hearts were never in it. Both kept up a good front at first, at least trying to infuse these blue features with some sort of plot before giving up and just delivering the requisite boobs.
To be fair, both Wood and Jackson manage a few legitimate films mixed in with the smut. in 1970 we got one of Wood’s movie scripts made into “The Revenge of Dr. X”, a blatant Frankenstein rip-off. There’s also 1974’s “Fugitive Girls”, a reimagining of the girl-gang theme from “The Violent Years”. Jackson would fire off Toad Warrior, and Shotgun Boulevard along with a handful of other Zen films that Scott Shaw would finish for him.
Neither ever gave up. Neither ever stopped working.
I’m grateful that Scott Shaw was there for Jackson at the end. He helped him keep going, keep filming, keep making movies. Wood should have been so lucky. After all, it’s what he had done for Bela Lugosi. Upon his death in 2003, Jackson transferred all rights to all of his films to Shaw, who has been a fine custodian of his legacy.
It’s a legacy of lunatic guerrilla filmmaking and insane story ideas that absolutely fascinates me and is very much a life that is worth exploring.