Tag Archives: Empire Pictures

Zone Troopers (1985, Danny Bilson)

The saddest thing about Zone Troopers is Biff Manard gives a fantastic performance and there’s no reason to see it. Nothing Manard could do would make Troopers worthwhile; it’s got so many problems—cast, direction, photography, editing, music, budget (though some of the effects are outstanding)—the thing is a wreck. With a few good ideas, a great performance, and a lot of derivative nonsense.

I got ahead of myself. I was being positive—the second saddest thing about Zone Troopers. When it has those good ideas, it can’t figure out how to execute them. You watch it, getting hopeful, then it fails and you don’t just get disappointed, you feel bad for the movie; you can tell what director Bilson (who co-wrote with producer Paul De Meo) and he just couldn’t figure out how to do it. Zone Troopers, visually, needs a lot of things—it needs cinematographer Mac Ahlberg to light sets better, it needs Bilson to figure out how to shoot his actors, and they need a crane. They really, really, really need a crane. The movie takes place in an Italian forest during WWII and there’s not a single good establishing shot in it. Not even when a crane would have helped. Bilson just can’t do it. He’s got maybe three creative shots and they’re not so much good or even better than the standard bland composition, but they’re creative. Someone thought about them. No one thinks about much in Zone Troopers.

If anyone did, Timothy Van Patten wouldn’t happen. Van Patten is the young guy in the movie. He’s the private, Art LaFleur is the corporal, “top-billed but should’ve had an the ‘and’ credit” Tim Thomerson is the sergeant, an atrocious John Leamer is the inept greenhorn lieutenant, and Manard is the wartime correspondent. LaFleur and Manard are definitely in the forties, Thomerson looks a little too old too, so for the battle scenes before the aliens show up, Zone Troopers basically looks like WWII reenactment with middle-aged men. Bilson’s direction doesn’t help with that feeling either.

Anyway, Van Patten is the young Italian kid who reads sci-fi magazines and talks all the time, especially in dangerous situations, and ignores Thomerson’s orders and almost gets everyone killed over and over again. Until the movie evens out a bit in the second act, the only thing Troopers has to keep one occupied is the hope Thomerson will just shoot Van Patten in the head for insubordination.

And Van Patten is objectively terrible. No one could watch what he was doing and think it was a good idea, not even in a movie where the script has commercial breaks in the second half, like Bilson and DeMeo were plotting a three or four-part cartoon… though it’d be a lot better as a three or four-part cartoon. Van Patten wouldn’t be in it.

The effects work is bad when it comes to the lasers and the humanoid aliens are silly, but the bug-monkey alien is at least a good suit and the script handles that character surprisingly well. Again, Bilson and DeMeo have some decent ideas, they’re just in the muck of bad performances and lifts from E.T., The Thing, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and… something else no doubt. They don’t have any lifts from Empire Strikes Back, which is weird because composer Richard Band rips off its score mercilessly. It and Raiders. Clearly likes his John Williams.

And if it’s not going to be a four-part cartoon pilot, Zone Troopers does seem much more like a Spielberg movie. Just an amateur one. A poorly directed and acted amateur one. With WWII re-enactors.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Danny Bilson; written by Bilson and Paul De Meo; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Ted Nicolaou; music by Richard Band; production designer, Philip Dean Foreman; produced by De Meo; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Tim Thomerson (The Sarge), Timothy Van Patten (Joey), Art LaFleur (Mittens), Biff Manard (Dolan), William Paulson (The Alien), Max Turilli (SS Sgt. Zeller), and John Leamer (The Lieutenant),


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TerrorVision (1986, Ted Nicolaou)

TerrorVision is a masterpiece of pragmatism. Writer-director Nicolaou works the low budget to the film’s advantage–whether it’s the fifties sitcom nuclear family only with Mom and Dad swinging or how the monster from outer space is cute, even though it’s a disgusting space mutant, with the cuteness makes up for the limited special effects. Or the sound stage “exterior” backyard scenes, which just adds to the sitcom feel. But Nicolaou keeps it in line–TerrorVision never looks cheap, it just looks absurd. If things get too silly on screen, Nicolauo and editor Thomas Meshelski bring in some almost comically gross and ominous space monster noises.

The performances take a similiar, exagerrated approach. The first act quickly introduces the family–Gerrit Graham is the TV-obsessed dad, Mary Woronov is the fitness freak mom, Bert Remsen is the annoying, paranoid grandfather, Chad Allen is the all-American kid, Diane Franklin is the punk rock daughter. Graham’s gesticulation is hilarious. Woronov works great with the other actors. Remsen is fine. He’s all much, but he’s fine. Allen’s a decent kid lead. Franklin’s fine.

All the performances are fine. Whether or not they’re good is immaterial; when Allen’s solid in his scenes with an M–16 pointed at a giant slimy space monster, the importance is the effectiveness. TerrorVision very clearly delineates its limitations in the first act–being effective, within the budget, is more important than being ambitious.

Jon Gries is fun as Franklin’s metalhead boyfriend (with a lot of Ted Logan’s intonations and catchphrases). Jennifer Richards riffs well on the Vampira/Elvira monster movie host. Both Graham and Woronov are good, especially after they work up some rapport. Remsen’s nowhere near as funny as he needs to be as the survivalist gun nut.

The leads–Franklin and Allen–are uneven, both in script and performance. Franklin’s fine but not fun. Gries’s character gets all the personality, Franklin’s functional; she’s around to get him in the door. Literally. She brings him back to her house after the monster has been unleashed. But Nicolaou doesn’t write Franklin any personality outside the caricature (with one exception). It’s similar but different for Allen. He never gets to reflect on the events going on around, which turns out to be a smart scripting move. It lets Nicolauo use avoidance to ratchet up the absurdity.

Nicolauo aims for a fun spoof of a spoof and delivers. It’s silly, it’s gross, it’s fun. Maybe the strangest thing is how good William Paulson’s alien makeup is compared to the rest of the effects; in the midst of goofy alien gore, the mask for Paulson’s alien cop looks phenomenal.

It’s another one of TerrorVision’s many, often pleasant surprises. Nicolauo knows the film’s limits and he does a lot within the constraints.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ted Nicolaou; director of photography, Romano Albani; edited by Thomas Meshelski; music by Richard Band; production designer, Giovanni Natalucci; produced by Albert Band; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Chad Allen (Sherman), Diane Franklin (Suzy), Gerrit Graham (Stan), Mary Woronov (Raquel), Bert Remsen (Grampa), Jon Gries (O.D.), William Paulson (Pluthar), Sonny Carl Davis (Norton), Alejandro Rey (Spiro), Randi Brooks (Cherry), and Jennifer Richards (Medusa).


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From Beyond (1986, Stuart Gordon), the director’s cut

I’m having a hard time with this one. The From Beyond movie poster and VHS box scared the crap out of me as a kid. Even now, having seen the movie and knowing there’s nothing as visually creepy in the film itself, the imagery disturbs me. Villain Ted Sorel apparently having his face melted off. Only he’s not. He’s growing into a huge flesh monster. The film goes all out with Sorel’s flesh monster, while admirably executed, it’s not convincingly executed. From Beyond can’t do with its budget what it wants to do with its special effects and director Gordon doesn’t quite know how to compensate.

Turning Barbara Crampton into an uncontrollable nymphomaniac for a fourth or fifth of the runtime is one of screenwriter Dennis Paoli’s solutions. It’s not a successful solution, it’s an unfortunate one. Crampton plays a compassionless psychiatrist charged with figuring out if crazy man Jeffrey Combs (who’s pretty darn good) is really crazy or if he and Sorel did figure out a way to activate the sixth sense.

From Beyond has a lot of neat ideas but Gordon and Paoli don’t translate them into any good ideas for the film. Even after it promises Crampton, Combs and a wonderfully affable Ken Foree in a haunted mansion, it doesn’t deliver. Crampton and Combs have no romantic chemistry, which gets to be a problem. Especially since–even though Combs can imply a creepy romantic chemistry–all Crampton is doing is a nymphomaniac trope. Sure, she’s being influenced by an enlarged pineal gland but it’s awful. It’s not disturbing because the special effects aren’t good enough. And, like I said before, Gordon doesn’t know how to compensate.

Good supporting performance from Carolyn Purdy-Gordon.

There’s a lot of good technical work on From Beyond. Editor Lee Percy does a fantastic job. Mac Ahlberg’s photography provides a visual continuity Gordon’s direction does not. Richard Band’s music is good. Even Gordon does well, just not when he’s doing the haunted mansion sci-fi stuff. He seems to be banking on the appeal of the cheesy special effects; From Beyond is supposed to be absurdly funny and Gordon just tries too hard to get there. In the end, it’s not absurd, it’s not funny, it’s just exasperating. And with a less than ninety minute runtime, exasperating is a terrible quality. Especially since there’s so much energy and enthusiasm (in so many bad directions).

Hell, I’m exasperated just trying to talk about it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Gordon; screenplay by Dennis Paoli, based on an adaptation by Brian Yuzna, Paoli and Gordon of the story by H.P. Lovecraft; director of photography, Mac Ahlberg; edited by Lee Percy; music by Richard Band; production designer, Giovanni Natalucci; produced by Yuzna; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Jeffrey Combs (Crawford Tillinghast), Barbara Crampton (Dr. Katherine McMichaels), Ted Sorel (Dr. Edward Pretorius), Ken Foree (Bubba Brownlee), Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (Dr. Bloch), Bruce McGuire (Jordan Fields) and Bunny Summers (Neighbor Lady).


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Re-Animator (1985, Stuart Gordon)

Re-Animator. A romantic comedy about wacky med students who contend with vindictive deans, lecherous professors and student loans. With some good, old-fashioned decapitation thrown in.

No. That description is way too reductive. Even though it’s technically correct.

Director Gordon recognizes that camp possibility for the film, but he never lets the camp overwhelm the characters. No matter how loony its characters get, Re-Animator never plays them for laughs. And Gordon’s got Jeffrey Combs in one of the great comedic performances (undoubtedly so, as Jim Carrey aped Combs in most of his films to box office success) but he’s also got a very difficult role for David Gale. As the aforementioned lech, Gale’s got to make his not-so-brilliant, but way too ambitious surgeon believable through a rather extraordinary character arc. Gale, Gordon–and Gordon’s co-screenwriters, Dennis Paoli and William Norris–make it work, with Gale’s character revealing important ground situation details late in the film. They planted the seeds to these details early and then, to continue the metaphor, watered them discreetly.

If it weren’t for Combs’s awesomeness, Gale would give the film’s best performance.

But Gordon doesn’t have any weak performances in Re-Animator. Lead Bruce Abbott, the straight-edge preppy med student, gets a great arc thanks to his serendipitous introduction to Combs. And he gets that romantic comedy subplot with Barbara Crampton. It’s set in a med school, so she’s dean Robert Sampson’s daughter and he doesn’t approve. But most med school romantic comedies don’t involve getting your girlfriend’s father killed and then reanimating his corpse.

Re-Animator certainly has one up on the rest of the genre there.

Abbott and Crampton are both good. Abbott’s able to sell a somewhat complicated arc. Crampton’s just a damsel in distress but she’s still good.

Some excellent photography from Mac Ahlberg and Robert Ebinger–Gordon plays with depth a lot, to great effect–and the cinematography’s essential. Same with Lee Percy’s editing, especially in Combs’s scenes. Speedily cut scenes always have these wonderful punctuation shots with Combs.

And Richard Band’s music is awesome. Playful, mischievous, saccharine.

Re-Animator is an elegant film. With some great, gross special effects.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Gordon; screenplay by Dennis Paoli, William Norris and Gordon, based on a story by H.P. Lovecraft; directors of photography, Robert Ebinger and Mac Ahlberg; edited by Lee Percy; music by Richard Band; produced by Brian Yuzna; released by Empire Pictures.

Starring Jeffrey Combs (Herbert West), Bruce Abbott (Dan Cain), Barbara Crampton (Megan Halsey), David Gale (Dr. Carl Hill), Robert Sampson (Dean Halsey), Gerry Black (Mace) and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (Dr. Harrod).