Archive for February, 2016

Friday the 13th Part 8 (1989)

Director: Rob Hedden

Starring: Jensen Daggett, Kane Hodder, Peter Mark Richman, Scott Reeves, Barbara Bingham, V.C. Dupree, Kelly Hu

Upon release, certain critics called “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan” the best film of the franchise. I can’t for the life of me figure out why. Let’s start with the title: “Jason Takes Manhattan.” Catchy, isn’t it? There’s one problem… Jason and his would-be victims don’t even reach New York until just over an hour into the 100 minute film. That leaves about forty minutes where we’re actually in the Big Apple. Most of the film actually takes place on a cruise ship where, consequently, most of the murders take place. Speaking of the murders…. they’re as ridiculous as ever. Not Nintendo Power Glove from “Freddy’s Dead” ridiculous, but still outside the laws of physics.

Before any of the action even begins, during the film’s main title sequence, we’re treated to the song “The Darkest Side of the Night” by Metropolis. It’s admittedly contageous, in a very cheesy 80’s sort of way, but it doesn’t really belong in a “Friday the 13th” film. Harry Manfredini’s more familiar, “Psycho”-like score is sorely missed here. After the first couple of murders, we’re introduced to our main characters: Rennie (Jensen Daggett), her love interest Sean (Scott Reeves), and her overbearing legal guardian Charles (Peter Mark Richman), a.k.a. Asshole. There are several other secondary characters, most of which are done away with in the first 30-40 minutes…. so why bother listing them, right? I’d praise anyone able to remember all their names without first looking them up online.

When this series first started, most of the kills were pretty standard hack, slice and stab. They weren’t that hard to imagine being carried out in the real world. That made those scenes, although explicitly gory, still somewhat creepy. As the sequels kept coming, the writers felt they had to come up with new ideas to keep the audience’s attention, leading to moments of increasingly extreme silliness. Two of the murders… an impalement on the boat and Charles’s drowning in a sewage barrel… involve giving Jason an extra ability he never had before: teleportation. Don’t believe me? Just watch the two scenes I’ve cited! Jason is clearly seen well behind Miles (Gordon Currie) on the boat before pulling him off the ladder and impaling him. He is also seen trailing behind Charles in New York. As the Asshole enters a building and runs up some stairs to the second floor, Jason somehow not only catches up with him but actually beats him to the second floor and tosses him out the window, eventually to dunk him in the barrel of toxic waste. Speaking of which, when were there ever open barrels of toxic waste just lying around on the streets of New York?

Secondly, and this is very nitpicky… Jason had to get a brand new hockey mask from his first victim, the previous mask (from Parts 3 through VII) having been ripped in half by Tina (the telekinetic girl)’s powers in Part VII. Strange thing is that the new mask has the same exact chunk taken out of it that the original mask lost when Jason took an axe to the head in Part 3. Thirdly and perhaps most important of all is Young Jason’s appearance. Except for a flashback that provides one of those aforementioned unnecessary character developments, Young Jason does not appear as his usual mongoloid self. In fact, for the first time at any age level since his initial unmasking in Part 2, Young Jason is seen with a full head of hair! Oh, and speaking of the flashback, it seems to hint that Jason remained in Crystal Lake until his mother was killed. Yeah…. I don’t think so.

Finally, I come to perhaps the most confusing part of the film: the ending. Having chased Rennie and Sean into the sewers of New York, Jason is finally subdued by a flood of toxic waste. The thing is, once his body dissolves away, suddenly the naked form of a familiar-looking child is left behind. One can only wonder how in the hell they could have possibly tried to pick up the series from there. One of the only wise decisions that New Line Cinema made after acquiring the property was to ignore this ending entirely.

Now that I’ve ranted about everything I found wrong with “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan,” is there anything left that was right with this film? Sure there is. One, this movie is WAY better than “Jason Goes to Hell: the Final Friday,” its immediate successor which I’ve seen once many years ago and will never, ever watch again. Two… and I know I’m repeating myself… “The Darkest Side of the Night,” while mostly inappropriate as a part of this film’s soundtrack, IS listenable in a cheesy 80’s sort of way. Lastly, this movie contains the funniest moment of the whole series. While chasing Rennie and Sean through the streets of New York, Jason kicks a boom box out of his way, breaking it and pissing off the punk kids who were playing music on it (Jason must really hate rap music!). The leader pulls a knife to challenge Jason but, instead of killing the insolent little prick, Jason simply lifts up his mask. The camera is shooting over Jason’s shoulder, so all we get is the reaction shot from the punks who run away in terror, allowing Jason to continue his pursuit of our heroes.

Evidently, this was where Paramount Pictures had seen enough. After the pitiful box office numbers were in for “Friday the 13th Part VIII,” the franchise changed hands over to New Line Cinema. It would also be the last film in the series until the 2009 reboot to bear the name “Friday the 13th.” It’s just as well. Completists will no doubt want to check this one out. Part VIII has a certain so bad, it’s good flavor to it. Realistically, the last really good “Friday the 13th” was Part VI. If you’re not a die-hard fan, then you’re better off quitting while the series is still on top of its game.

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Return of the Killer Tomatoes (1988)

Director: John DeBello

Starring: Anthony Starke, George Clooney, Karen Mistal, Steve Lundquist, John Astin

I’ve seen post-apocalyptic movies where killer robots from the future are hellbent on wiping out mankind. I’ve seen movies where people were hunted for sport. I’ve seen movies where an oppressive government controls everything and there’s just no stopping it. Hell, I’ve seen movies with endings so bleak that I feel as though I’ve been somehow altered by the experience. But a world where tomatoes have been outlawed, which then changes the don’t-screw-with-it recipe for pizza forever, and everyone seems okay with it? This, ladies and gentlemen, is madness! It’s also the first of many good jokes to be found in “Return of the Killer Tomatoes.”

We finally have an answer as to the true cause of the Great Tomato War from “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” and no it’s not a bad acid trip. That would be Professor Gangreen (John Astin), who is still smarting from his defeat ten years later. The professor has decided that music, which was his downfall last time, shall be the source of his triumph this time around. After dipping regular tomatoes into a chemical formula, Professor Gangreen places the tomatoes into a transformation chamber. Depending on what kind of music he puts on next, the tomatoes can be changed into any kind of human that the professor so chooses. Most often, he uses rock music to create a group of soldiers. Music of a more seductive variety will result in tomatoes changing into beautiful women. To that end, the professor has created an assistant named Tina (Karen Mistal), who remains loyal until the professor casts out an improperly mutated tomato which Tina dubs Fuzzy Tomato, or “F.T.” for short.

Tina looks for shelter with Chad Finletter (Anthony Starke), nephew of Great Tomato War hero Wilbur Finletter. Chad works as a delivery boy for his uncle’s tomato-less pizzeria, which is how Tina has become familiar with him. While Chad is decidedly much smarter than his uncle, is still completely oblivious to the fact that there’s something odd about Tina. To be fair, Chad’s not the only one. Chad’s roommate Matt (George Clooney), who prides himself on being a ladies’ man, has no more of a clue that Tina’s affinity for cooking, cleaning and extensive knowledge of sexual positions aren’t merely the characteristics of what Matt considers the “perfect woman.” Tina does have her hangups, such as a complete dislike of all forms of music… and, oh yes, there’s also the fact that she bathes in fertilizer. That’s bound to cause a misunderstanding or two between Chad and Tina, which it does.

When Tina goes and gets herself captured by Professor Gangreen and his henchman Igor (Steve Lundquist), it’s up to Chad and Matt to help save her. Well, actually, it’s up to them to get caught themselves and require the assistance of F.T., Wilbur and others. From there,  they rescue Tina and foil the plans of Professor Gangreen. Another adventure is teased, this time in France, although that’s not exactly how things ended up. The next entry in the franchise is “Killer Tomatoes Strike Back,” which is only then followed by “Killer Tomatoes Eat France.” I’ve never seen either one, and I’m not sure I want to. I do fondly remember the short-lived “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” cartoon, whose characters and situations were based on the events of “Return,” though it’s all-together possible that nostalgia could be getting the best of me there.

“Return of the Killer Tomatoes” succeeds in areas where “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” failed, such as casting. John Astin makes for a great villain, and may be the only thing that makes the latter sequels worth a look if I ever get around to it. It also helps when you have a talent like George Clooney on hand, even if he’s not the lead. Though he frequently blasts the movie nowadays, it’s better than he’d have you believe. Execution is a big factor there. When the original film ran out of plot, it filled those holes with obvious humor and mind-numbing musical numbers. I won’t say that “Return of the Killer Tomatoes” doesn’t include its fair share of forced laughs. But at least the musical numbers are absent. Also, once the movie reaches its halfway point (give or take a few minutes), I can’t help but be impressed when suddenly the movie literally stops. The money for the picture has been used up! What to do? Product placement, Clooney suggests! Aided by Clooney’s ability to mug for the camera, this sequence where the characters shill for various food, beverage and dental hygiene products is easily my favorite part of the movie. It pokes fun at the ridiculous degree to which product placement intruded into movies in the 1980’s, and this commentary is even more relevant nearly thirty years later. Unless you become a die-hard fan, one Killer Tomato is probably more than enough for anyone. That being the case, if you only see one “Killer Tomatoes” movie, make sure it’s “Return of the Killer Tomatoes.”

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978)

Director: John DeBello

Starring: David Miller, George Wilson, Sharon Taylor, Jack Riley

In watching a couple of Troma movies last month, I was reminded of a tamer but still bizarre low-budget comedy called “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” which I’d seen twice before but has since been gathering dust on my DVD shelf. Both begin with the most absurd premises imaginable. Both aim for humor that is decidedly juvenile. However, the comparison pretty much dies right there. The differences begin with the definition of the word “juvenile.” Films under the Troma banner are notorious for their reliance on over-the-top violence, sexual innuendo (minus the innuendo) and bathroom-related jokes. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” having no relation at all with Troma or the creative minds therein, goes for the complete opposite extreme. This movie mostly contains humor that might have worked best when I was a child.

The best thing about “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” by far is its main title theme. This approximately two-minute song is genuinely hilarious. It also immediately follows a well done prologue scene where a tomato makes its way up through a garbage disposal and kills an unsuspecting young woman. So far so good. Later, it’s discovered that there’s been a rash of reports citing sentient tomatoes attacking and killing humans. One such incident occurs when a bunch of tomatoes take to the water to pursue a group of swimmers. In this case, I don’t mind the obvious “Jaws” parody, complete with the “Jaws” theme. For some reason, “Jaws” parodies never seem to get old.

To combat the tomato problem, the President assembles a team of specialists so thoroughly unremarkable that he’ll probably lose a few percentage points in his approval rating. The team leader is Mason Dixon (David Miller), who can best be described as what you’d get if John Belushi dialed down his insanity volume to zero. Joining him in the fight are parachutist Wilbur Finletter (Stephen Peace), “expert” disguise artist Sam Smith (Gary Smith), Olympic swimmer Gretta Attenbaum (Benita Barton) and deep sea diver Greg Colburn (a character so thoroughly unimportant I had to look up his name to remember it). Eventually, Gretta is attacked and eaten by tomatoes, not that she’d been much help either. In fact, it’s hard to say that any of Dixon’s assistants really contribute much other than demonstrating sheer incompetence. Sam Smith’s biggest accomplishment is infiltrating the tomatoes’ camp only to reveal himself by asking for some ketchup.

As if Dixon hasn’t got enough problems, he’s also got an assassin tracking him down. This later turns out to be U.S. Press Secretary Jim Richardson (George Wilson), who plans to take over what remains of the world. He is not necessarily behind the creation of the mutated tomatoes, but he claims to be able to exert some sort of control over them. There’s also a subplot with a reporter named Lois Fairchild, on a mission to get a story that should make her career. It’s made blatantly clear that the character is meant to be a spoof of Lois Lane, Superman’s love interest. In fact, it almost seems to be a spoof of the Margot Kidder version of the character. I don’t know how that’s even possible, though, as 1978’s “Superman” was released two months AFTER this movie.

The tomatoes should be able to win this battle rather easily. Even our armed forces aren’t enough to beat them back. The one thing no one could have anticipated (but you’ll be able to predict if you’ve seen “Mars Attacks!”) is that the tomatoes’ one weakness is bad pop music… specifically a song called “Puberty Love.” Think Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” sung a capella, and you’ve got the basic idea. Providing the shrill vocals for “Puberty Love” is a then-teenaged Matt Cameron, who is more well-known in the music world as the drummer for both Soundgarden and (since 1998) Pearl Jam.

The main flaw of “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” …and it’s pretty much a fatal one… is that it’s not half as funny as it wants to be. Its best moments come when it relies not on the ‘one-joke premise’ of the tomato invasion, but when its low budget allows for some unintended laughs. There’s the giant tomato which is clearly moving thanks to a wooden board on wheels. There’s the tiny conference room where everyone is constantly crawling over one another just to get to their seat. It’s the funniest meeting place in a movie since the War Room from “Dr. Strangelove.” Best of all is the helicopter crash. It’s the real deal, captured in all its accidental glory. Thankfully no one was either seriously hurt or killed in the process. Otherwise, you have a thoroughly unremarkable cast of characters tied to a plot so slowly paced that the musical numbers (yes, plural) seem there to distract from the fact that they’ve run out of jokes.

All three times I’ve seen this movie, I’ve fallen asleep at about the midway point. “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” is a bad B-movie spoof of even worse B-movies from the 1950’s. Yet, it is popular enough that there are three sequels, and there even existed a short-lived cartoon series (which served as my introduction to the franchise). From here, the only direction the “Killer Tomatoes” series could possibly have gone was up, but it would be ten years before anyone knew for sure. If you were going just by what is presented here, you’d find yourself wondering why they would even bother.