Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Best of Charles Band

Writer/director/producer Charles Band has left his mark on some of my favorite movies. As much as I hate to admit it, it is increasingly appearing to me like his creative Golden Age was during the 1990s and that he may never reach those heights of inspired madness ever again. I keep hoping that he will Find His Groove again, but I'm growing increasingly doubtful. (I'm starting to wonder if the missing element in recent years has been the late Kirk Edward Hansen. He was co-producer on most of Band's best efforts.)

However, thanks to the DVD, we can always enjoy his old movies. Here are reviews of Band's five best pictures. I'd love to hear your take on them, if you have one.

Trancers (aka "Future Cop") (1985)
Starring: Tim Thomerson, Helen Hunt and Michael Stefani
Director: Charles Band
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Just as the toughest cop in Angel City of 2247, Jack Deth (Thomerson) wipes out the last diciple of Whistler (Stefani), a powerful psychic and cult-leader who turned his followers into homicidal zombies, he learns that Whistler has fled some 250 years into the past... to 1985 where he is hunting and killing the ancestors of those who thwarted his plans of domination. Whistler plans to change history and only Jack Deth can stop him by following him back into the past, and do what he does best: Hunt trancers.

"Trancers" is a fun sci-fi flick that should be counted among Band's finest efforts. classics. It doesn't have any of the weird puppets and miniatures that would soon become hallmarks of Band's films, but it has a well-crafted script with lots of creative ideas and a plot that zips along at a lightning-fast pace yet still leaves time for character development that adds depth to the proceedings, and his other trademark--a mix of slightly off-kilter humor that's tinged with horror.

The success of the film is also, naturally, due in no small part to excellent performances by Tim Thomerson and Helen Hunt, who both take their first turn as stars in this picture. Thomerson is great as the hardboiled future cop who finds himself out of his element and forced to rely on help from Hunt's character, a liberated woman who had just wrapped up a one-night stand with the ancestor whose body Jack Deth's consciousness ends up inhabiting. Hunt is equally excellent asthe strong-willed Lena who won't be told what to do by anyone. While Thomerson is every bit the leading man as a fullblown movie star, his roots as a stand-up comedian and character actor stands him in good stead as he forms what is first an uneasy partnership with Hunt's character. Hunt's comedic timing that would help make "Mad About You" such a successful series is also on full display here, even as she comfortably fits into the role of an action-adventure sci-fi movie sidekick.

With everything else it has going for it, we can add the fact that it's a time travel movie to the mix. I love time-travel stories, and I think this one is particularly fun as it has an unusual method of time travel--minds/consciences can be sent back in time to inhabit the physical forms of direct ancestors. Some of the other theories of time travel are a bit shakey, but it all makes sense on the comic-book universe level that the film's world exists on.

"Trancers" is an entertaining little film that sees its stars and its director doing some of their most interesting work. It's worth checking out if you're in the mood for some light, spirited sci-fi action.

Head of the Family (1996)
Starring: Blake Bailey, Jacqueline Lovell, J.W. Perra, Gordon Jennison, and Bob Schott
Director: Robert Talbot (aka Charles Band)
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Smalltown coffee shop and grocery store operator Lance (Bailey) uncovers a dark secret harbored by the strange Stackpool family and uses this knowledge to blackmail them into "disposing of" the dangerous husband (Jennison) of the woman he loves and loves to boink whenever possible (Lovell). Unfortunately for Lance and his sexy sidekick, Myron (Perra), the figurative and literal head of the Stackpool family as his body is 90% head and he controls his siblings with mental telepathy, doesn't appreciate being threatened....

"Head of the Family" is a funky little film that spoofs the "erotic thriller" and "psycho Southerners in the woods" genres as only Charles Band and Full Moon Entertainment could have done. It may not have puppets or stop-motion animation, but the make-up and split-screen photography that turns actor J.W. Perra into a character that's nothing but a big head still embodies that Full Moon weirdness that makes the company's output from the 1990s so much fun to watch. And the perverse and twisted nature of the characters matches the level found in other of Band's best, like "Hideous!" and "Blood Dolls".

This film has the further benefit of being an effective spoof of both genres it's poking fun at, with satire and comedy running through every scene and every actor showing a talent both for drama and comedy. The film is especially hilarious when the genres collide at the movie's climax, creating a perfect end to a perfect script.

And, of course, it helps that Band took full advantage of the fact that his leading lady mostly appeared in softcore porn movies when this film was made. There is no skimping on the "erotic" as far as the "erotic thriller" part of the film goes--there is more sexy nudity in this film than any other Full Moon movie I've seen, with Jacqueline Lovell spending quite a bit of time on screen half-clothed, fully naked, and being one half of the Beast With Two Backs. That said, she, like the rest of the cast puts on a great show... she is fun to watch both for her gorgeous body and for her talent as a comedic actress.

From comments Charles Band made during a personal appearance here in Seattle, I got the sense that "Head of the Family" is one of his personal favorites. It should be.

The Creeps (1997)
Starring: Rhonda Griffin, Bill Moynihan, Justin Laur, Kristen Norton, Phil Fondacaro, Jon Simanton, Joe Smith, Thomas Wellington and Andrea Squibbs
Director: Charles Band
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A mad scientist (Moynihan) builds a machine that transports Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and Frankenstein's Monster from the books and movies they usually exist it, into the real world. But interference from a librarian (Griffin) and a wanna-be private detective (Laur) who were recovering an original hand-writen draft of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein novel that the scientist stole to use in his experiment, cause the process to go awry. The four monsters are brought to life as 3-foot-tall midget versions that are not quite as imposing as their fictional counterparts. Dracula (Fondacaro) doesn't appreciate his diminished height, and he sets about getting the scientist what he needs to redo the experiment, getting it right this time.

"The Creeps" is a fun film, with creative well-written dialogue and full of creative and crazy ideas that are well-implimented. As such, it ranks as one of my favorite Full Moon movies. However, there is an air of cheapness to this film, an air that will grow more pervasive in Band's films through the first half of the 2000s, only starting to dissipate with the release of "Doll Graveyard" and "Gingerdead Man 2".

That said, this is not a Band production where the cheapness hurts. Instead of puppets and special effects to bring to life Band's obsession with stories about tiny terrors, we're instead, surprisingly, treated to "little people" taking on the roles of Universal Pictures' Big Four Monsters--Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man.

The script is fun and fast-moving and the story is populated by quirky characters that may be little more than two-dimensional cartoons, but they are great fun and being portrayed by talented actors who seem to be having a load of fun.

In the entire movie, there's only one actor who plays his part straight and that is Phil Fondacaro as Dracula. In fact, Fondacaro plays a more convincing and creepy Dracula than many actors in serious horror movies, giving a performance that is comparable to the Draculas of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Jack Palance. It's a performance that shows that Fondacaro is a far more talented actor than he'll probably ever get a chance to fully show, because of his small stature. (I think he could be a great Hop-Frog, though, if that story is ever properly adapted to the screen.)

The only complaint I have about the film is that it's rather illiterate in its approach to classic horror. First off, as excellent as Fondacaro's Dracula performance is, the character design doesn't resemble Dracula as he has appeared in any movies nor as he is described in Bram Stoker's novel; the only Dracula design that springs to mind is the one that appeared in a small handful of comics from Marvel in the mid-1970s and late 1980s. The film also implies that the Frankenstein Monster that the mad scientists causes to manifest is somehow tied to Mary Shelley's novel. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Shelly's monster was intelligent and articulate while the monster here is a midget version of the Universal Studios Frankenstein Monster. (And Thomas Wellington does a great impersonation of the creature as it was played by Boris Karloff.)

"The Creeps" is Charles Band close to his craziest and it's a film that will be a perfect addition to any Bad Movie Night line-up (or to any movie night spotlighting weird comedies).

Hideous! (1997)
Starring: Michael Citriniti, Mel Johnson Jr., Jacqueline Lovell, Gerard O'Donnell, Tracie May and Rhonda Griffin
Director: Charles Band
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

A pair of rival collectors of "medical oddities" (Citriniti and Johnson) are trapped inside a sealed house with their staff with a bizarre mutant who has re-animated a collection of deformed fetuses and turned them into tiny killing machines.

"Hideous!" is a another very strange horror comedy from Full Moon that's full of random weirdness--with the sewer-born mutant giving life and intellect to pickled fetuses actually being less strange than the bizarre character portrayed by Jacqueline Lovell. (And if you're going to cast a character who commits a robbery while topless and wearing a gorilla mask, giving the part to a softcore porn star is a very good choice. The choice is even better if that softcore porn star happens to be a fine actress with excellent comic timing.)

Benjamin Carr wrote over 20 films for Full Moon, and this is not only one of the strangest but also one of the most effectively structured. He recognized how weird the film and its characters are, so he inserted a surrogate for the viewer, a stereotypical hardboiled detective (played with great flair by Gerard O'Donnell) who voices what's going through the viewers mind as the film unfolds, such as 'Doesn't anyone think this is strange?". Although he has plenty of funny lines, O'Donnell's character is the closest thing to a straight man in this crazy movie. Everyone else is in comic and over-acting overdrive, chewing on the scenery and playing as if to the back row of a very large theater. But, in this movie, it works and it works brilliantly. Just when you think the film has reached it's weirdness quotient, it gets stranger.

Although Charles Band has helmed some so-so movies in recent years, both as a director and a producer--okay, so most of his recent films have sucked hard--but "Hideous!" dates from a time when you could count on him to deliver the goods when it came to insane horror comedies.

This is a movie that will be a big hit as part of any Bad Movie Night you care to host. (Just remember that Jacqueline Lovell appears topless--except for a gorilla mask--for an extended scene if you're going to have young kids present and/or you're sensitive to nudity.)

"Hideous!" is available on DVD for around $10. That's the price to see a movie in the theater these days, but this film is much funnier than most so-called comedies that are being released now.

Blood Dolls (1999)
Starring: Debra Mayer, Jack Maturin, William Paul Burns, William Draper and Phil Fondacaro
Director: Charles Band
Producers: Chales Band, Donald Kushner, Peter Locke and James R. Moder
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When an alliance of shady business people threaten to bankrupt reclusive billionaire Virgil Travis (Maturin), Travis sets about gaining bloody revenge upon them, using his trusty clown-makeup-wearing assassin and ordained minister Mr. Mascaro (Burns) and a trio of living killer dolls, the Blood Dolls of the title.

"Blood Dolls" is perhaps one of the most unusual movies that has issued forth from the mind of Charles Band. it is also possibly one of the purest manifestations of his creativity as he handled the producing, scripting, and directing of the film. The end result is perhaps the best movie to bear his name in the past ten years, and justifiable one of his personal favorites among all the movies he's been involved in.

There are some movies that a reviewer can ruin if he says too much about what happens in it; "Blood Dolls is one of those movies. Part of what makes it such an interesting experience is the strange and bizarre characters that populate it and revealing the secrets they hide or the fates they suffer as the film unfolds will rob it of much of its impact... as the main joy of watching this movie is its bizarreness. (In fact, even watching the preview reveals some things about the movie that viewers should come to cold.)

I will say this: If you liked the overall tone of "Head of the Family," you're going to get a kick out of "Blood Dolls." The same is true if you're a fan of the writings of the late Steve Gerber.

This film features an unusual mix of genres being spoofed (in this case, erotic thrillers, John Grisham-type dramas, and Band's own tiny terror films) and social satire that gives it a completely unique feel. It also has a (for a Full Moon/Charles Band movie) unusual, Gerber-esque theme running through it--that everyone wears masks and no-one is who they seem.

From the semi-protagonist Virgil Travis--there really aren't any traditional "good guys" in this film (who wears a mask to hide a most unusual deformity) to his most trusted henchman, Mr. Mascaro--(who feels that his real face is the clown make-up he wears unless he's "in disguise") to Travis's main adversaries, Mr. and Mrs. Yulin (who wear the most elaborate masks of all) to Travis' Blood Dolls, none of the main characters in this film are quite who or what they seem. (And, just to take the masks and deceptive appearances a step further, Mr. Mascaro plants evidence to convince the world that a man who is described as the "most heterosexual of all of us" was killed during a homosexual rendezvous, forcing a deception/mask upon someone else.) This running theme adds a very interesting dimension to the film.

Please don't assume that this is an "intellectual" horror film or comedy just because it's got an interesting subtext. It is not. The primary reason to watch the movie is to watch a billionaire freak so rich and crazy that he's got a goth-rock band trapped in a room that provides his life with a oh-demand soundtrack; to watch his midget major domo demand they perform properly ("Play #6! Louder! Louder!") and apply electrical shocks to them when they don't; and to watch Mr. Mascaro and the Blood Dolls execute Travis plan of revenge... unless they get outsmarted by the equally mysterious and strange Mr. & Mrs. Yulin. The bit with the masks is just the frosting on this very strange cake, like the social satire and deeper messages were added value to the monster stories Steve Gerber wrote for "Man-Thing" and "Tales of the Zombie".

Also, don't assume that the presense of Charles Band's trademark tiny terrors makes this an inferior copy of "Puppet Master" or "Dolls". You might be prone to think that way if you've seen "Doll Graveyard", but you'd be wrong. The dolls of the title play a relatively minor role in the film, their presence being little more than an excuse for Band to create and market tie-in merchandise (which he did, in the form of a Pimp Doll. I'm even prone to think the film might have been better if Band had stayed clear of his usual impulse and simply made Mr. Mascaro the lone assassin in the film and given him a range of unusual weapons. This film is more about characters than the vast majority of Band's movies, and the dolls detract more than they add.

(The girlband and their songs is another manifestation of Band's dreams of tie-in products; he had intended to create a record label and he was going to release a CD, but they fell through However, they fit seamlessly and hilariously into the film. The Blood Dolls, while amusing, do not.)

No one will ever mistake "Blood Dolls" for "Citizen Kane", but it one of Charles Band's best solo efforts to date. It's a film that you can feel comfortable about adding to the line-up of any Bad Movie Night, and it is bound to surprise and amaze those in attendance. (Oh... and anyone fanatical about political correctness is bound to turn purple with rage at the sight of the Blood Dolls, so that's another reason to get a copy of the film.)

I have a blog devoted entirely to Charles Band and the output of the production companies he has headed over the years, The Charles Band Collection. There, you'll find reviews of famous flicks like "Puppet Master" and "Trancers." Click here to check it out.

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