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.
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.
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.