Film Review: Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans (1987)

Also known as: Deathstalker II (original title)
Release Date: September 12th, 1987 (Japan)
Directed by: Jim Wynorski
Written by: Neil Ruttenberg, Jim Wynorski
Music by: Chuck Cirino
Cast: John Terlesky, Monique Gabrielle, John LaZar, Toni Naples, Maria Socas

Aries Films International, New Horizons Pictures, Concorde Pictures, 85 Minutes

Review:

“You have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch the prince of thieves.” – Deathstalker, “It is early in the morning!” – Princess Evie

I’ve already reviewed the first and third Deathstalker movies because watching these in order doesn’t really matter. Each film seems to have its own tone, a totally different actor in the lead role and they’re mostly total crap.

However, this one is actually kind of enjoyable.

I think that this chapter is the most palatable because it is actually a lighthearted comedy mixed with sword and sorcery and glorious boobs. It has a charm that the other movies don’t and frankly, the two leads in this are more charismatic than the leads in any of the other films.

That could also be due to the fact that I’ve been crushing hard on Monique Gabrielle ever since I saw her in The Return of Swamp Thing, as a kid. Finding out later that she was a Penthouse Pet was a pretty stellar discovery in my teen years.

Like the other films, this one was made by Roger Corman’s studio but he didn’t direct it. Instead, he hired Jim Wynorski, who had just come off of directing the cult classic horror/sci-fi/comedy, Chopping Mall. I think that his style was beneficial to this picture and how it was presented as a more amusing movie than its predecessor.

The story is pretty cookie cutter stuff for cheap Conan knockoffs but it has some unique bits. For one, we are treated to an intergender wrestling match in an actual ring around the midpoint of the film. Also, it doesn’t try to emulate and ripoff Conan as much as the first film and works as its own thing in a similar setting.

The special effects are pretty cheap but everything still looks okay for what this is. It certainly looks better than the European sword and sorcery movies of the era. In fact, it feels similar in visual tone to the first Beastmaster. Sure, it lacks Beastmaster‘s hard edge but it utilizes the night in the same way, keeping things kind of small scale, production-wise, without exposing too many of its budgetary flaws.

All praise aside, this is still a cheap movie, as Roger Corman associated productions go. But out of the Deathstalker pictures, I’d say that it looks the best and uses its budget pretty well.

Rating: 5.25/10
Pairs well with: the other Deathstalker films and other very low budget barbarian movies.

Film Review: Swamp Diamonds (1956)

Also known as: Swamp Women (original title), Femmes Gangsters (France, Belgium), Cruel Swamp (reissue title)
Release Date: April 1st, 1956 (Coshocton, Ohio)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: David Stern
Music by: Willis Holman
Cast: Beverly Garland, Carole Mathews, Mike Connors, Marie Windsor, Jil Jarmyn, Susan Cummings

Bernard Woolner Productions, 84 Minutes

Review:

“[digging for diamonds] Ouch! I busted the only nail I had left!” – Billie

Out of all the Roger Corman films that I’ve seen, this might be my least favorite.

I actually think that it would have benefited more from being in black and white instead of color. Mainly, because ’50s Corman films have a certain look to them, which this film is missing, and because the color in this looks terrible. Maybe it looked better in the ’50s before age did its number on the surviving prints but there isn’t a version of this that I’ve checked out that looks good.

Out of the Corman flicks featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000, I really disliked The Gunslinger but this one is worse. Strangely, they both star Beverly Garland but that shouldn’t be a knock against her, as I typically like her in movies and television shows. Frankly, this is just a bad script with pretty bad acting and extremely bad dialogue.

Despite the poor writing, most of the bad acting falls on the director: Roger Corman.

This came out very early in Corman’s career, however, and I don’t feel as if he really found his footing as the man behind the camera. He was the master of filming movies at a rapid pace and putting out as many films as humanly possible. Swamp Diamonds is a clear example of the fact that he hadn’t quite mastered his tried and true formula yet.

While the acting in Corman movies was never great, excluding his movies with Vincent Price, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, it would get better and work well within the style of his pictures.

I think that the idea for the plot was okay and this has some exploitation vibes to it, which I dig, but the execution was poor and everything seems off.

Rating: 2/10
Pairs well with: other Roger Corman movies of the era, as well as other schlock-y D-movie crime films of the ’50s.

Film Review: The Trip (1967)

Also known as: A Lovely Sort of Death (working title), LSD (Denmark), Os Hippies (Portugal)
Release Date: August 23rd, 1967
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Jack Nicholson
Music by: Mike Bloomfield, The Electric Flag
Cast: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, Susan Strasberg, Dick Miller, Luana Anders

American International Pictures, 82 Minutes, 79 Minutes (DVD cut)

Review:

“It was a heavy trip. I slept for 36 hours, man. Blind. That was my last trip on Roybal, I’ll tell you that.” – Max

The Trip… is just that, maaan…

Written by the Jack Nicholson, directed by Roger Corman and starring regular Nicholson and Corman collaborators: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern, Susan Strasberg, Dick Miller and Luana Anders, this movie about a man’s actual LSD trip is much better than I thought it would be.

It’s not that I expected this to be bad, by any means, but most movies about drug trips aren’t that well done and they just rely on unreliable narrators, weird visuals for the sake of weird visuals and nothing making a whole lot of sense and being left open for any sort of interpretation.

The Trip, on the other hand, is very clearly written and directed in a way that feels pretty authentic to the LSD experience. Knowing that Jack Nicholson had some experience with the drug, as well as stars Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Bruce Dern, this film is able to go places that similar films can’t. I’m not sure if Corman ever partook but he had enough people around him to help steer the ship.

The film does greatly benefit from Corman’s experience on his horror films, especially his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations with Vincent Price. Reason being, those Poe movies usually had some sort of trippy sequence that saw their star, usually Price, go through some sort of haunted dream or hallucination. Corman, in those films, would experiment with trippy camera angles, lighting, lenses and all sorts of other tricks and special equipment that would give the viewer a sense of uncomfortable otherworldliness. He takes those skills that he developed in the few years before this and then applies them here and ups the ante quite a bit, making this his mindfuck magnum opus.

The Trip also benefits greatly from the acting of Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern and Dennis Hopper. All three guys commit to the bit, take this all very seriously and make a compelling and thought provoking picture that with less capable actors would’ve probably just been a throwaway druggie movie for the middle class hippies of the day.

This isn’t Corman’s best picture or the best that Jack Nicholson has worked on creatively, but it is still a lot better than most of the films like it and I honestly enjoy it more than Easy Rider, which featured a lot of the same people behind and in front of the camera, as well as a hell of a lot more mainstream recognition.

Rating: 7.75/10
Pairs well with: other Roger Corman films from the ’60s, as well as other counterculture and drug pictures of the time.

Film Review: Gunslinger (1956)

Release Date: June 15th, 1956
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles B. Griffith, Mark Hanna
Music by: Ronald Stein
Cast: Beverly Garland, John Ireland, Allison Hayes, Dick Miller

Roger Corman Productions, American Releasing Corporation, 78 Minutes

Review:

“I’ll make you a deal. I won’t try to make you a bad woman, if you stop trying to make me a good man.” – Cane Miro, “You’re not bad, you’re just no good.” – Marshal Rose Hood

This came out before Roger Corman really found his footing as a filmmaker. While I love how Corman could make so much with so little, his pictures typically survived on the charm he was able to put into them. Gunslinger, however, is just so drab and pedestrian that I have to put it as one of Corman’s worst.

That sucks because the film does have an interesting premise, especially for a mid-’50s movie. It sees the town sheriff get murdered by criminals and then his widow picks up his badge to take out the scum that killed her man. The story is the type of female empowerment stuff that I love. But unfortunately, it completely lacks any sort of badassness and feels more like a half-assed pilot to a ’50s western show that had no chance of getting picked up.

The film stars Beverly Garland, along with John Ireland and a small role for Corman favorite Dick Miller but it lacks any sort of energy or emotion.

Even though Roger Corman may have the record for most films riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, I don’t feel like this one really fits the mold that well. It’s just dry and weak and even though MST3K features schlock, this film feels out of place among the other Corman flicks they lampooned.

In a time where I hadn’t seen this, if someone came up to me and asked, “Hey, have you ever seen that Corman picture where the dead sheriff’s wife picks up his badge to get revenge?” I’d have been like, “No! Fuck! We gotta go watch it!” But I would’ve been let down, severely.

Rating: 2.75/10
Pairs well with: other western schlock from the time, as well as other ’50s Roger Corman pictures.

Documentary Review: Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen (2004)

Release Date: September 4th, 2004 (Germany)
Directed by: Michael Palm
Written by: Michael Palm
Cast: Edgar G. Ulmer (voice, archive footage), Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, John Landis, Ann Savage, John Saxon, William Schallert, Arianne Ulmer, Tom Weaver, Wim Wenders

Edgar G. Ulmer Preservation Corporation, Mischief Films, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), 77 Minutes

Review:

While I was perusing the offerings on the Criterion Channel, I came across this documentary about filmmaker, Edgar G. Ulmer.

This guy made magic in three of my favorite genres: horror, science fiction and film-noir. I believe that this documentary may actually be included on the Criterion Collection version of Detour.

What’s neat about it is that it features interviews and conversations with a lot of well known directors and actors that worked with or were influenced by Ulmer’s work behind the camera.

This also features his daughter who gives more intimate details on Ulmer, his life, her life as his daughter, as well as talking about her time in front of the camera with her father directing.

I really liked the conversation here between Joe Dante and John Landis. I also enjoyed the parts with John Saxon, Ann Savage, Roger Corman and Wim Wenders.

This was just a solid piece of work that really went through the man’s career with insight from some of the people who were there and others who had their own unique insight.

I couldn’t find a trailer for the documentary, so I put a trailer for Detour below, as it is my favorite Edgar G. Ulmer picture.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: other documentaries about horror, sci-fi and noir filmmakers.

Film Review: High School Big Shot (1959)

Also known as: The Young Sinners (UK)
Release Date: June 21st, 1959 (Fargo premiere)
Directed by: Joel Rapp
Written by: Joel Rapp
Music by: Gerald Fried
Cast: Tom Pittman, Virginia Aldridge, Howard Veit, Malcolm Atterbury

Sparta Productions, Filmgroup, 70 Minutes

Review:

“I am a thief, not a crook.” – Harry March

Mystery Science Theater 3000 used to feature a bunch of juvenile delinquent and beatnik movies from the late ’50s and early ’60s. This one probably takes the cake as being the worst though. Well, maybe not the worst but certainly the one that has the least impact.

It’s just not that interesting and frankly, we’ve seen these stories before and done much better in films that are still pretty terrible films.

Surprisingly, this was financed by Roger Corman, a master of schlock, but by comparison, this film makes Corman schlock look like ’70s Coppola.

Also, the film borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. In some ways, I guess this film is kind of noir but it lacks any sort of visual style to make it look like anything other than some film school reject’s guerrilla project.

The plot revolves around a teen with an alcoholic father. The teen gets used by the hot girl in school to help her cheat. He obliges but gets caught and destroys his academic future. After overhearing the plans for a drug deal at the docks, he decides to steal the one million dollars being held in a safe there. The idiot teen boasts to the hot girl but she obviously has backstabbing plans of her own.

Where noir has twists and turns and surprises, this is a predictable dud with a predictable ending and honestly, it mostly feels like the film is a total waste of time.

Rating: 2/10
Pairs well with: other awful beatnik and juvenile delinquent movies from the time.

Film Review: The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

Release Date: June 24th, 1964 (London & Los Angeles premieres)
Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles Beaumont, R. Wright Campbell
Based on: The Masque of the Red Death and Hop-Frog by Edgar Allan Poe
Music by: David Lee
Cast: Vincent Price, Hazel Court, Jane Asher, Patrick Magee, Nigel Green, Robert Brown

American International Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

“Somewhere in the human mind, my dear Francesca, lies the key to our existance. My ancestors tried to find it. And to open the door that separates us from our Creator.” – Prospero

While I can’t talk highly enough about all of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations by Roger Corman and Vincent Price, I really can’t talk highly enough about The Masque of the Red Death, which is one of the best of the lot, as well as the most aesthetically pleasing.

Other than a couple quick scenes, the entirety of this picture takes place within the castle walls of the Satan worshiping Prince Prospero. He has entombed his party guests and a few villagers he spared within the structure in an effort to wait out the “Red Death” outside the castle gates.

While trying to avoid the plague, Prospero tries to influence the young girl he feels he saved from death. He shows her his secrets and opens up about his allegiance to the Devil himself. All the while, the reach of the Red Death works its way into the castle to deliver Prospero’s inevitable and unavoidable fate.

There is also a neat side story that was based on Poe’s Hop-Frog. I liked this mini story within the larger story and how it was all tied together.

I also like that this film re-teamed Price with Hazel Court and also threw in Patrick Magee, Robert Brown and Nigel Green. Now it’s not a star studded cast like what Corman delivered in The Raven, a year earlier, but it is a good ensemble of character actors and ’60s horror icons.

This is a pretty imaginative film that is visually stunning and alluring. The big climax is superb, especially for those who are a fan of Corman’s style when it’s rarely at its artistic apex.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: the other Roger Corman/Vincent Price collaborations.