Richard Grieco hits the acting skids in “Final Payback” (2001)

 

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   Johnny Depp is known to be pretty much the coolest guy in movies. Not only is he probably the most entertaining guy out there with his varied roles, he seems to be just a good guy (things like recording personal messages for a young coma patient; sending pieces of his wardrobe to fans; or appearing with his former teenage bandmates for a 20-year reunion just to play music). He got his start on “21 Jump Street”; a pretty successful series for the Fox Network that was suppose to launch the career to superstardom of another actor on the series- Richard Grieco, but things didn’t turn out as planned. While Johnny hooked his star to directors like Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and Robert Rodriguez, Richard ended up with straight-to-video “mavens” like Chuck DuBus (Fish Don’t Blink); Christian Viel (Evil Breed: The Legend of Sam Hain); and David Wu (Webs). This time he picked Art Camacho, a Stunt Coordinator and sometime Director (his biggest flick to date is the recent Half-Past Dead 2), and together they unleashed Final Payback, a DTV of a slow and talky man-on-the-run versus a corrupt-police-force-out-to-get-him flick…

 

  When Grieco goes dippin’ his ink in the company well- well, no good can ever come from that apparently, and he wakes up to his girlfriend (Priscilla Barnes, in probably the most thankless role of her life) dead in her shower. Oh, and it’s a Police Chief’s (John Saxon– SURPRISE! As another cop!) wife; the same Police Chief who had ol’ Rich bounced off the force a few years earlier. He hears cops, hops on his Honda, then scoots away, causing the lone cop car following him to flip and burst into flames…

 

   Well, after THAT, you get scenes of drug dealers and users being brought in by (drum roll, please) Martin Kove, chewing scenery from here to L.A. He grits his teeth, rolls his eyes, and sucks up major to the Mayor (Corbin Bernsen, who’s few minutes of screen time must have either been as a favor to the makers of this or commanded pocket money for a weekend in Sausalito). Kove is easily the best thing in this (maybe not BEST- let’s say “most entertaining”)- Grieco could have made this his, but with his sulking, overacting and facial ticks, it’s hard to like him. His greasy hair and earring, his oily and pudgy face, his stupid leather jacket all made me hope that they’d turn the tables and off the good guy (I don’t want to give it away, but no luck). It’s kinda fun- there are some flourishes that make this not as static as typical fare (the junkie hitmen- one played by Manuel Sanchez that is a low-rent version of the great Danny Trejo; a buddy-turned-informer trippin’ out in an alley), but in the end, it’s just a fairly-good time-waster…

 

   The flick itself is shot flat and pretty static, though nicely framed in widescreen 1:85. The most surprising thing is the lack of real stunts, but the fight scenes that are here are well-staged. This DVD is released by Digiview and can be had for a buck at pretty much every WalMart on earth. No extras, but that’s OK- I can’t picture really wanting a “Making Of” or a “Director’s Commentary” for this; nothing all that exceptional here. One last thing- for some reason most of the cursing is bleeped out (“Son of a ____”); however they left an “F-word” in.

 

 

 

Final Payback– 2-1/2 out of 5*

 

 

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Creature

 

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   Let’s see- it’s got:

 

 

   * A mixed-sex crew of older and young explorers, investigating strange goings-on in a space outpost…

 

   * An almost silent-but-strong Security Officer who seems to have more going on that at first appears, and Corporate-backed expeditions in the hope of finding, uh, SOMETHING…

 

   *Space turf that continually fogs and  thunders and is too dark to see much further than a few yards ahead of you…

 

   * Titillation in the form of hot chicks stripping down for the sole purpose of giving the audience something to ogle at, as everything else to look at is drab and boring industrial pseudo- functional backdrops…

 

   *A thumping bass-heavy score, punctuated by occasional squeaks, heavy-breathing sounds, and pings designed to jar you out of your seat…

 

   * Gloppy space mutants that come in a variety of shapes and leave behind astronauts in bloody heaps……

 

 

 

   So is it Alien? Of course not- it’s the easily-available 1985 B-flick Creature; filmed as Titan Find and made by monster fan, makeup artist and still-working director William Malone, who made another Alien-clone prior to this one called Scared to Death (1981) (aka filmed as Syngenor) and went on to helm most famously the House on Haunted Hill remake and Feardotcom. And if you get a chance, visit his pretty-cool-for-a-Hollywood-Director website (http://www.luminousprocesses.com/ )…

 

 

   The flick itself is very low budget (said to be well under a million dollars), but also somewhat claustrophobic, has some well done SPFX (including the spaceship scenes and the bloody carnage left over in the aliens’ wake, and a pretty good, if kind of by-the-numbers, main monster) and some taunt suspense. Probably its most surprising aspect (well, for me at least) is the above-average acting from some familiar faces (familiar to people that constantly wade through movies like I do, at least); people like Diane Salinger (you may recognize her as Simone- Pee Wee’s dinosaur companion in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure), the cute-as-a-button Wendy Schaal (who’s been in a bunch of stuff but sticks with me most in the Where The Boys Are remake)- who ends up coming up with a way to dispatch the monster by remembering how the crew from the 1950’s The Thing killed the giant carrot monster; Lyman Ward (three words- Ferris Bueller’s Dad- now of COURSE you know who THAT is); and, best of all, that old German nutbag Klaus Kinski, at his greasy-smiling, boob-grabbing best, as a fellow astronaut from a rival conglomerate, thrown into the mix for laughs and all-out creepiness. And, by the way, if you’ve never seen a Kinski performance, then I recommend that you drop what you’re doing (well, I guess I mean AFTER finishing reading this blog), go on IMDB and randomly pick out 2 or 3 flicks of his to see- you will NOT be disappointed!…

 

 

   The print I watched this on (part of the 10 movie “Space Odyssey” set put out by the late-and-lamented BCI-Eclipse, which also includes other recent-vintage somehow-they’ve-become-public-domain-fodder like Slipstream and Abraxas) is a weak video dupe, but the only time I remember seeing looking anything more than average was on a cable broadcast in the late ‘80’s; it seems like every dollar DVD manufacturer uses the same crappy dupe. Of course, it’s worth it for the pittance that you’ll pay (I know that pretty much every Walmart has Digiview’s version of this for a buck), but it would be nice if some enterprising Company would put this out in a pristine clear print complete with extras (I would LOVE to know what the fellow cast thought of working with ol’ Klaus!)- I have to doubt that will happen though as Creature seems to be stuck in some PD loophole Hell. Such a shame…

 

 

   ….anyway, if you see it, pick it up- a fun way to kill 90 minutes of tacky video viewing…

 

 

 

Creature– 31/2 out of 5*

 

 

 

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Carmen Electra IS an “American Vampire”

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   I was GOING to review American Vampire (released in 2006 from Digiview Entertainment and, apparently, known in some parts as An American Vampire Story) but I can’t bring myself to do it. I spent a whole buck on the DVD and feel like I was cheated for 97 cents- it is totally unwatchable, and I turned it off after 15 minutes (and you are talking to someone who’s seen thousands on movies and have only walked out of two of them- (9 to 5 and Time Bandits). It has Adam West- the Original (and still the best) “Batman”; Sydney Lassick (the uber-creepy guy who basically upstaged Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and creeped out Carrie in “Carrie”) and the afore-mentioned Carmen, but it is just so bad that it can’t be believed. It’s basically about kids at a beach house vacationing, who get more than they bargain for when they run into some hot blood-suckers. And it’s not bad in a Plan 9 kinda way- like in a nuclear meltdown disaster. PLEASE- for the sake of sanity for you and everyone that you know and love, approach this movie ONLY with a HASMAT suit and Teflon tongs…

 

 

   …it’s THAT bad…

 

 

American Vampire– ZERO out of 5*

 

 

R.I.P. Ray Dennis Steckler- King of the Cheapies

 

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   Ray Dennis Steckler was probably the cheapest filmmaker out there (with apologies to Ted Mikels and the late Andy Milligan), and having passed away January 7th I figured that a few words would be in order…

 

 

   Just in my teens, I saw my first Steckler movie (and his highest-budgeted at $38,000)- The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-up Zombies at one of the last Saturday Matinees that was still around in the late ‘70’s in Orlando. I had already loved crappy movies as a little kid; my Mom and I shared very little in the way of interests but we would park ourselves on the couch to watch Tampa’s Channel 44’s “Creature Feature” With Dr. Paul Bearer and his absolutely gonzo double features. But “Incredibly” was something else- my first real “cult” movie; before I would trek religiously to Midnight Movies at least weekly to catch Rocky Horror; Heavy Metal or Dawn of the Dead. From then on I would look for any of his cheesy-yet-fun movies any time they would (very rarely) play on late-night UHF TV, and even called him (after lots of microfiche and out-of-town-phonebook research at the local library) just to let him know that I was a fan (he was curt but semi-appreciative before brushing me off with a quick “Good Luck, Kid”)….

 

 

   Eventually I was able to catch most of his films on VHS and later on DVD and became hooked by most of his 60’s output- The Thrill Killers; Rat Fink a Boo Boo (which was SUPPOSE to be titled Rat Fink AND Boo Boo but when the titles were made for the movie someone in the lab goofed and he didn’t want to spend the extra movie to correct them!) and especially Wild Guitar, which is an amazing rags-to-riches rock and roll story…

 

 

   Wild Guitar stars the fleshy-faced Arch Hall Jr. as the hayseed “Bud Eagle” a starry-eyed rock-and-roller with nothing but 15 cents in his pocket (he can’t even afford tax on his meal at a diner), a crummy guitar, a giant blonde pompadour and a dream to make it big in Hollywood. Ten minutes after arriving he meets the pretty blonde Vickie (Nancy Czar), who, as luck would have it, is just on the way to her big break- dancing on a TV Variety Show. After her jiggling and writhing, the singer who’s suppose to follow her gets so nervous that he bails, so a stage hand at the urging of Vickie (who, by the way has never seen her new friend sing), lets ol’ Bud go out there to sing- and after tripping onto the stage, regains his composure and belts out a song that, at the end of it, has the girls in the audience go nuts. This gets the attention of a sleazy Producer Mike McCauley (played by his real-life Dad Arch Hall Sr.), who insists that he A) “Call me Mike”; and B) will handle everything. Well, he does and HOW- soon Bud is a huge star on national tours and records but only has a rented apartment, six new suits and a shiny guitar to show for his efforts as fatherly Mike is cookin’ the books and pocketing a chunk ‘o change. After more drama Mike suddenly gets smart and, with a scheme that could only be dreamed up in a movie where someone becomes a national superstar after only being in town for eight hours or so, ends up with the money and the girl (and a recalcitrant Mike seeing the error of his ways). That this was made in glorious Black and White at a cost under $30,000 in 1962 is truly astounding, and a personal favorite of mine as a junk-food movie…

 

 

   Ray’s output slowed down in the 70’s on, and the dozen or so movies he did make weren’t quite as fun (he even delved into hardcore porn for awhile) but were even cheaper (it’s said that he never spend anything more than he did for “Incredibly Strange Creatures”!). He ended up getting a divorce from his wife (and featured performer) Carolyn Brandt, opened a video store and make the occasional movie until he died of heart failure in early January…

 

 

   As for his output on DVD- you can find a great sample of his best work on 2 boxed sets readily available at places like Amazon or Best Buy for under $20 each: “Midnight Movie Collection”- which collects Strange Creatures…; Rat Fink A Boo-Boo (probably my second-favorite of all his movies); The Thrill Killers and The Lemon Grove Kids (Ray’s take-off of The Bowery Boys with him as the lead “Kid” and looking very much like Huntz Hall); and “Midnight Movie Collection 2”, which has his more recent works like Blood Shack; Body Fever; and his almost-silent soft-core horror dual features The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher and The Las Vegas Serial Killer. Each movie is on their own disc and cased individually, all with commentaries by the engaging Steckler as well as interviews and promotional materials…

 

 

   Don’t wanna spend 20 bucks? Break open the piggy bank and spring out 4 quarters and head to your nearest Walmart; Dollar Tree or check cashing store; ‘cause you’ll probably find Digiview Productions DVD of Wild Guitar there (along with a 2nd great feature The Beatniks; another singer-plucked-from-obscurity feature (this time from a dirty beatnik gang) starring a pre-“Big Valley” Peter Breck acting particularly crazed). Granted, the picture isn’t the silvery- B&W you would find on a carefully restored Criterion disc, but some movies, like Ray’s, can be enjoyed through the splices and scratches just fine- thank you very much. RIP Mr. Steckler- I just wished that I had the chance to shake your hand or have something signed; that would have been a true honor …

 

   PS- One more way to get his movies would be through his web site (http://www.raydennissteckler.com/) but I’m not sure if the Store is operational now that he’s passed- at least you would know if it IS that some of the money would be going to his family…

 

 

   Wild Guitar– (4* out of 5)

 

 

 

Dragon (2006)

   Usually when you get these “Dollar DVDs” they are of older vintage- 60’s or 70’s public domain movies that have been deteriorating on a shelf somewhere, so when you get one (from our friends at Digiview Entertainment, who do a nice job with their case graphics at least) that is relatively new AND includes features like Deleted Scenes, Outtakes, a Trailer (though not a trailer for the movie that you’re actually watching) and even Behind the Scenes footage- well, something is amiss. You might be surprised with this one…

 

   Dragon (the box art actually says “Leigh Scott’s Dragon”, like the name recognition- if it actually existed- of Leigh Scott would draw you in and make you say to yourself, “Wow- I’d lay down 100 pennies for a LEIGH SCOTT movie!”) is a fantasy adventure that promises (quoting the case blurb) “The Action of REIGN OF FIRE, the Adventure of LORD OF THE RINGS”. What it actually DELIVERS, however, is a movie that seems to be make in the backyards woods (with the end credits bragging about being “Filmed in Milwaukee”- which made me laugh) of some RPG geeks who have a modicum of talent and not a lot of money…

 

   The premise is a kingdom is being taken over by an evil force and it is up to the good Princess Vanir and her small band of hanger-ons to defeat the dark forces and get help from the neighboring kingdom. In order to fulfill her quest however, she’ll need to travel through the worst part of the woods to enlist her help, and that will mean doing battle with (dun-dun-DUUUUU) The Dragon…

  

   The Good: Well, it’s filmed very nicely; widescreen and clear and clean. The special effects are obviously effects, but they at least have a grand scale to them. It’s amazing what some dorks and enough computer power can do. They’ve also intercut some sweeping footage of mountain vistas to good use- trying to give you the epic feel of “The Rings Trilogy” or other medieval epics. I guess their hearts are in the right place- too bad the BAD outweighs the good. Also, as I pointed out before, the Extra are a nice touch on a budget release- the Behind the Scenes making-of is a concise (17 minute) overview of the low-budget filmmaking process that will probably be all you ever need to know about Dragon, but at least it shows some effort…

 

   The Bad: This is SO damn boring! Countless tight shots of the characters standing around babbling on and on about absolutely NOTHING. The acting varies WILDLY, from some passable European accents (some of the actors are actually British) to ones that waver in and out all over the place; sometimes within the same line of dialogue. Also, the sound is problematic- some of it sounds muddled and tinny and some of the audio effects are very mis-matched, with leaf-crunching underfoot sounding 5 times louder that (supposed) metal swords clanking in battle. I can’t recall a recent movie where I have been consciously aware of how distracting the poor sound has been; in this case it’s disturbingly weak…

 

   The Company that put this out (Asylum Home Entertainment) specializes in direct-to-DVD rip-off of major films currently in theaters- though not usually on a dollar DVD line (I’m guessing because they think that people are stupid and if they see their knock-off art on the shelf of a video store the customer is going to confuse their low-budget property with the real thing). Some examples of their look-alikes are: Hillside Cannibals (their version of The Hills Have Eyes); Transmorphers (their take of Transformers); Snakes on a Train (see if you can guess what THAT is a knock-off of!), etc. The director is nothing if not proficient- he has 12 Directing credits in a span of three years according to IMDB, which means that he must be incredibly busy; even if they are similar in scope to Dragon that would be a lot of work. Here’s hoping he’s getting some cash for his efforts…

   The movie is not rated, but would probably be PG-13 if it were, due to some blood and a bit of tension. The running time of 84 minutes isn’t short enough. Oh, and the box promises this as the beginning of a TRILOGY, which, to date, hasn’t been completed. They’re probably better off just forgetting to keep THAT promise. You should be able to find this one at any “Wal-Mart” across the country for $1.00- just look near the register and weed through the piles of Betty Boop cartoons and WWII documentary DVDs and it’ll be there…

 

  

   Dragon– 1-1/2* of 5