The New Year

Audiences were left wanting more at the end of The Old Year and when Thomas Crudup’s brain-twisting followup The New Year was released six months later, they finally had all their questions answered, but the answers given probably weren’t the ones they were expecting.

An opening montage rifles through every second of The Old Year, compressed to about sixty seconds. We slow down just as the montage reaches the end of the first film, as the man (Ed Scarborough briefly reprising his role from the first film) closes his eyes and hears the woman’s voice say “Today is the day you wake up.” There’s a flash of light and a baby opens his eyes. He’s inside a glass box, almost like an incubator, and a dark-haired woman dressed in a bright white outfit stands over the box. They seem to be in a solid white room. She speaks to the baby in a soft voice and begins explaining that everything that the baby just saw were memories from a previous life.

The New Year bears almost no resemblance to The Old Year, despite coming from the same creative mind. Crudup bathes the sets in white, glowing light and the camera has a robotic, structured movement. The woman (played by Carol O’Grady) is on screen most of the film’s running time, and she speaks in hushed tones, acting like a narrator for the audience.

It’s soon revealed that the various white rooms are inside a giant ship moving through space. The year is 2556 and the baby and this woman have been on the ship for almost 50 years, yet time moves much differently here than it does on Earth. The woman is a scientist, who is carrying on experiments with consciousness and perception. The baby was chosen because the children are most susceptible to the experiments.

Audiences weren’t sure how to accept this moving, especially since it was supposed to be connected to The Old Year. Some critics found themselves upset because this film seemed to render the previous film in a different light, almost as if the old man’s life was nothing more than a dream or a figment of some baby’s imagination. Others saw it as a natural extension of the man’s life, that his consciousness lived on inside the baby’s mind.

Crudup unfortunately never revealed which group had the right answer, but he seemed to enjoy all the fuss over his little movie, one which he called his most personal film. Again, he never quite explained how it was so personal to him, beyond saying that it one were to watch both film’s back to back, several patterns would emerge that would make the meaning behind the story obvious.

The woman, who’s also never given a name, eventually takes the child to a giant glass chamber, with one side looking out into space. As she puts the child inside, she whispers, “If I never see you again, thank you.” As she closes the chamber, it begins spinning with intense speed and a mechanical arm pushes it away from the ship and out into space. As it floats away from the ship, the baby begins to grow and mature at an accelerated rate. Within a few moments, the baby has become ten years old. A few seconds later, he’s a teenager, and even later still, he’s a grown man (played by Elijah Cranston). The glass chamber continues to float through space as the man studies the universe around him.

The effects are surprisingly well-crafted, which is no wonder when learning that Ray Williams was behind them. He built a masterful spaceship miniature that is beautiful in all its detail.

Soon the glass chamber gets close to a planet and is pulled into its orbit. The chamber falls towards the planet and lands in a vast ocean. As the man escapes the chamber and reaches land and begins his trek to find civilization. The end won’t be spoiled here, because it really must be seen to be believed, but it does end up throwing in an unexpected connection to the The Old Year.

The movie doesn’t really hold anyone’s hand, with the exception of the opening monologue from the woman, and it is tough to find the meaning in the film, but it’s still a marvelous technical feat to behold. This and The Old Year are two wholly original works from Crudup’s unique imagination who was always pushing boundaries and never satisfied with himself, something for which film fans are lucky.

The Old Year

After What Are You Thankful For? was a success, writer/director Thomas Crudup began work on his passion projects, The Old Year and The New Year. If there was any doubt regarding Crudup’s talent, then these two films quickly put those doubters to rest. The first, The Old Year, is restrained and beautiful, telling the touching story of an unnamed elderly man on the last day of his life — with a glimpse of what comes after.

Over black, we hear a woman say, “Today is…” Before she can finish, the man (played by Edward Scarborough) wakes up. We follow him through his morning routine, the camera pulled back, allowing the action to take place on its own. These scenes are some of the most effective, with Scarborough lending gentle frailness to the man with no name. He showers, makes coffee, gets dressed, moving at a natural pace, unhurried. To him, this day is no different from any other. Scarborough doesn’t have many lines in the film, but he sells the character through his mannerisms and the way he looks at things with a cocked head. There’s no other actor who could’ve played this character like Scarborough does.

The man leaves his apartment building and begins walking down the street, when suddenly a car swerves to avoid a dog that’s run into the road and drives onto the curb, colliding with the man. The screen fills with black. We hear the same woman’s voice from the film’s opening, but she has more to say this time around: “Today is the day…” Her voice is soft and comforting, almost as if she’s speaking to a child.

The screen slowly fills in and we see that the man is in a hospital. Someone (we’re never told who) has placed a small Christmas tree on his bedside table, with a card that reads “Get Well Soon!” The calendar shows that it’s December 31. The man’s eyes slowly open and he looks around, realizing where he is. This scene mimics the film’s opening remarkably, but with some slight differences. He quickly gets out of the hospital bed, unhooking tubes as he goes. He frantically gets dressed. The camera follows his distress as well, taking on less fluid, more frantic movements.

The man leaves the hospital, hoping not to attract attention. He’s a man on a mission, though one we’re not privy to just yet. He makes a call from a payphone and speaks to someone, begging for just five minutes of the person’s time. The person seems to agree and the man hangs up, hurrying off down the street.

The man arrives at a coffee shop and finds a middle-aged woman waiting for him. He asks her not to speak and then sets out everything he’s done wrong and everything he could’ve done better throughout his entire life. This scene is terribly heartbreaking, with Scarborough supposedly pulling moments from his real life to give the character a little more realism. It’s no surprise that he received numerous accolades from several film critics. We learn that the woman is the man’s daughter, and when she asks, tears in her eyes, why he’s told her all this, he responds, “Because today is the day I die.”

The rest of the film follows the man as he makes amends with several other people. It’s never revealed how he knows that today is the day he will die (at least not yet), but it doesn’t matter. Scarborough sells the man’s determination to leave the world with a clean slate.

It isn’t until the end of the film that we realize that everything is not as we thought it was. As he lies in his bed after writing up instructions on how to deal with his dead body, he looks at the ceiling and slowly closes his eyes. It’s then that he hears the familiar woman’s voice and she’s finally able to complete her sentence: “Today is the day you wake up.” The screen then fills with a close-up of a child’s eye opening before slamming to black.

This final image confounded audiences during the six months that they waited for The New Year. Crudup refused to say anything about that final image, mentioning that hopefully audiences would understand once they saw the next film. He also has remained notoriously tight-lipped regarding the story’s genesis, saying only that it was his way of dealing with his life after prison as well as rationalizing his father’s death, which happened while Crudup was in jail.

Once again, Crudup delivered an intriguing piece of cinema history that deserves to be watched and re-watched, back-to-back with The New Year.It should be a yearly tradition in every cinephile’s home.

The Kwanzaa Killer

Director Clark Bernstein’s and writing partner Jerry Skwiski’s The Twelve Slays of Christmas opened to mediocre reviews and a tepid box office, and the duo had stopped speaking to each other during the production of the film. Many industry insiders wondered if their third film, The Kwanzaa Killer, would even be released.

In February 1993, a month before the script was due, Skwiski met studio executives at Liberation Films and asked to be released from his contract. A few months later, Skwiski was asked why he didn’t stay on to conclude the film series he’d started with his friend. His response: “What Clark did is unforgivable. I will never work with him again.” No one has yet been able to decipher what exactly Skwiski meant, but the two men were never seen together again.

The dissolution of their partnership obviously affected Bernstein’s ability to writer a proper close to the trilogy, as The Kwanzaa Killer is a jumbled mess. It’s amazing this film got a theatrical release at all.

The film opens just before the final moments of Twelve Slays, with Detective Reuben Goldman (Tommy Cline in his final performance) standing over the body of his ex-wife just after she’d been stabbed to the death by the Santa Claus Killer. The Dreidel Killer is dead, too, slumped in the corner. The Santa Claus killer then tells Goldman that he still has more to do, and more people will die. Out of nowhere, there’s a massive explosion, with the church collapsing and Goldman barely escaping.

“Kwanzaa” feels completely removed from the previous films, with actions and dialogue that seem completely off-type for the Goldman character. Most damning, though, is that despite the title and marketing materials, there’s absolutely no connection to Kwanzaa at all. It is baffling for a series that is based around the holidays and the movie seems more or less a continuation of the “Twelve Slays” storyline. Its seems as though Bernstein (who wrote the film solo) couldn’t be bothered with any research and just decided to do a sequel instead.

The movie did not make its scheduled December 1993 release, due to the issues between Bernstein and Skwiski. Also contributing to the movie’s lateness was Cline’s failing health. Re-shoots were required, with a stand-in for Cline during long shots and over-the-shoulder shots. The film was pushed back to December 1994, and with that the promise made by Bernstein and Skwiski before they began Dreidel of Dread had been broken.

The film is one long cat-and-mouse chase, with the Santa Claus Killer running from Goldman and killing innocent bystanders along the way. Cline was obviously close to the end in this film, but he still gives it his all, but there’s nothing for him to work with and his efforts are ultimately useless. It never seemed possible that Cline would star in a bad movie, let alone two in a row, but that’s exactly what happened.

The end of the film seems to be Bernstein taking the “kitchen sink” approach, throwing in everything he’d ever wanted to put in a movie, probably because he knew this might be his last film. There’s a helicopter chase, an exploding school bus, and a dissection all in the last 20 minutes. It’s all a bit much, and the cuts between Cline and his stand-in are painfully obvious.

There’s really not much else to say about The Kwanzaa Killer. In fact, there’s nothing to say about it all really. It’s a baffling movie that marked the end of a brilliant actor’s career, one that he didn’t deserve. There’s absolutely no reason to see the film, unless you’re a Tommy Cline completest, but even then, it’s best to stay away, lest your memory of the man be tarnished.

The Twelve Slays of Christmas

After the moderate success of Clark Bernstein’s Dreidel of Dread — the first film in his and writing partner Jerry Skwiski’s “Holiday Horrors” trilogy — the duo set to work on The Twelve Slays of Christmas, set for release in early December 1992. Reaction was mixed regarding the ridiculous ending of Dreidel (the killer literally steps out of the shadows and is revealed to be a character no one has even spoken to throughout the course of the film) and the duo said in stated reports that they wanted to make sure there was no chance audiences would feel cheated this time around. How well they kept this promise is up for debate, though, as reaction to Twelve Slays was even more mixed.

The film opens approximately one week after Dreidel, with Detective Reuben Goldman (again portrayed by Tommy Cline) still recovering from his encounter with the Dreidel Killer. He isn’t given much time to rest though, as a young man named Johnny has been found murdered in the city park. His body is strung up in a tree, a noose tight around his neck. Pinned to his shirt is a note with the words “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…” The note is signed “S.C.” Cline is once again perfect in the role of Goldman, and he’s one of the only things that stays consistently good throughout the trilogy of films, even when given shoddy material. And unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of shoddy material in this film.

From the beginning, the production was mired in problems. Bernstein and Skwiski reportedly couldn’t agree on a story, and so each turned in separate ideas to the studio, who in turn hired a young writer named Mel Kirkland to mold the best parts of each treatment into a working script. Kirkland delivered a first draft in early February 1992, a mere month before shooting was scheduled to begin. Executives at Liberation Films were happy with his draft and pushed forward with shooting.

The mood on set was tense, with Bernstein and Skwiski refusing to speak to one another without lawyers present, and this detachment comes through in the film, with many scenes falling flat and the actors seemingly unsure of what to do, as if Bernstein had forgotten how to do the one thing he’d done reasonably well on the last film.

The murder of a girl named Lisa and another calling card (“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…”) leave Goldman feeling helpless to stop the murderer. He visits the Dreidel Killer in prison and for whatever reason, the convicted murderer seems to know a lot about the ongoing case. In the previous film, we spent no real time with the killer after he was revealed so seeing him played as a psychopathic genius is slightly strange. He delivers enough expository dialogue that just about anyone would be able to figure out the film from that point forward.

As it turns out, a man dressed as Santa Claus is committing the murders (information which was carelessly given away in the marketing materials), and, like the first film, his motive and identity are ridiculous. Goldman is somehow able to piece it all together, and despite Cline’s acting ability, even he has difficulty selling Goldman’s pure luck in the case.

Along the road to the finale, there’s a ludicrous phone conversation with the Santa Claus Killer, where he tells Goldman that if he doesn’t find him by December 25th, he’ll disappear forever. The Dreidel Killer escapes from prison. Goldman finalizes his divorce (even though it’s never mentioned at all in the previous film). All of these moments come to a head in an abandoned church, where both killers and Goldman’s ex-wife appear, complicating matters even further. It’s a jumbled mess that makes absolutely no sense. It’s almost like Kirkland got lost while trying to piece together both sets of ideas from the two men and just sort of slapped together something that would end the movie at a studio-approved moment, setting up for the final chapter, 1994’s “The Kwanzaa Killer.”

There’s no real reason to ever watch The Twelve Slays of Christmas other than Tommy Cline’s once again excellent performance. He’s the only thing keeping this movie afloat, but even he must’ve sensed the material was a little weak and there are a few scenes where you can tell he’s become frustrated and upset. There’s a particularly sad moment towards the end of the film, when Goldman shouts, “I don’t know what to do!” where it seems he’s just talking to the director and not acting anymore.

Watch The Twelve Slays of Christmas only if you want to a watch a cinematic train wreck by two flash-in-the-pan creatives who thought they had more talent than they actually did. But at least it’s not as bad as The Kwanzaa Killer.

Dreidel of Dread

Despite the market’s lack of acceptance of Hanukkah-themed horror (both Menorah of Blood and Eight Deadly Nights failed to burn up the box office) Liberty Pictures took a chance on first-time director Clark Bernstein and his writing partner Jerry Skwiski and financed Dreidel of Dread under the company’s independent imprint, Liberation Films. Bernstein and Skwiski had never been involved in such a high-profile project before, mainly working on commercials and a few soaps, and many in the industry wondered if the duo could pull off what they were promising: A trilogy of holiday-themed horror films, delivered one after the other, for three years in a row.

When the deal was made in February 1991 and Dreidel was announced for a late November release, skepticism was high that the two newbies couldn’t deliver. Somehow, Bernstein and Skwiski were able to round up a hard-working crew, secure locations and secure some respected actors (including Mother May I star Tommy Cline) and produce a movie that is overflowing with white-knuckle tension and some pretty ingenious twists and turns before the grinding, grating stall-out at the end, leading into a bad sequel (The Twelve Slays of Christmas) and an even-worse third film (The Kwanzaa Killer).

Dreidel opens on a tight shot of a spinning dreidel and pulls back to reveal a woman tied to a chair, her mouth stuffed with cloth, her eyes wide. The dreidel teeters slightly and topples onto its side. The camera lingers on the dreidel, showing the Hebrew symbol for “all.” The bound woman’s eyes go wide and she tilts her head to stare across the table at the figure who’s beginning to stand. She begins to cry and the figure passes in front of the camera, blanketing the screen in darkness.

It’s the first day of Hanukkah, and soon we’re meeting Detective Rueben Goldman (Cline) as he approaches the spot where the gagged woman, Christine Abramson, was found, her nude body covered in stab wounds and frozen by the cold. In her hand is a dreidel, probably the same one she’d watch seal her fate. Goldman doesn’t speak during this scene, simply moving back and forth in front of the body, looking for anything that catches his eye. Even though it’s a fairly straightforward scene, it’s helpful at establishing Goldman’s mindset and his working style. The presence of the weathered Cline lends the production some gravitas and his face sells his emotions better than words ever could, which Skwiski must’ve realized because he doesn’t give Cline’s character a lot of dialogue.

As expected, the killer soon strikes again, kidnapping another young woman on the second day of Hanukkah. This time, however, we hear the killer explain the rules of the dreidel game he was playing with Christine Abramson: If the dreidel lands on “none” he will let you go. If it lands on “half,” he takes one of the things that you have two of — hands, eyes, feet, and so on. If it lands on “put” (as in “put in” or “give”), he will give you the chance to offer him something for your freedom. However, if the dreidel lands on “all,” you die.

As the raspy-voiced killer explains the rules, each potential outcome plays out, and soon the dreidel is spinning. We don’t see what it lands on, but we’re soon in a field with Goldman and the girl’s fate is revealed: she must’ve landed on “half” because th killer cut off one of her legs and then let her go. She bled to death and she froze.

Goldman soon receives photos of the second victim, the words “More to come” scrawled on the back. Later that evening, middle-aged David Walzer stumbles into the police station, beaten and bloody, but very much alive. He reveals how he was kidnapped from his apartment but during the game, the dreidel landed on “none” and the man flew into a rage and hit David in the face. When David awoke, he found himself outside his apartment.

The film plays out in predictable fashion, with more kidnapped victims, more murders and more near-misses by both the predator and his pursuers. There’s one particular moment near the middle of the film where Goldman and the killer are close enough to touch each other that had me on the edge of my seat. Unfortunately, the film never manages to achieve those levels of tension where they’re necessary during the finale. The killer’s reveal is downright absurd and so out-of-left field that even talking about it makes anyone listening that much dumber. Apparently the suits at Liberty and Liberation still wanted to see what Bernstein and Skwiski had planned for the final two films, and gave both sequels a greenlight during Dreidel‘s opening weekend. This would be a bad decision on their part and would lead to a downward spiral from which neither Bernstein nor Skwiski would recover.

For what it is, Dreidel of Dread isn’t terrible, but the ludicrous ending and the sequels that follow tarnish an otherwise good film. Cline is excellent, the camera work is effective and some of the supporting cast handle their own pretty well. It’s definitely worth a watch on a cold December eve, right after you’ve lit the Menorah and played some dreidel games.

What Are You Thankful For?

When asked about his directorial debut What Are You Thankful For?, Thomas Crudup told a reporter, “The only time I feel confident in my writing is when I’m writing something truthful, or when I’m taking something truthful, or something that happened to me, and scattering it through a prism of the bizarre,” which is a disturbingly accurate description of the film in question.

Known as Shanksgiving in foreign markets, What Are You Thankful For? opens a few weeks before Thanksgiving in Winslow State Penitentiary. A bus arrives outside the gates of the prison carrying freshly-convicted Joe Jefferies. Dressed in the customary prison blues, Joe looks beat; his eyes are sunk deep into his skull and his face is long and gaunt. Clifton Andrews (who also played escaped convict Darren Groverwood in the schlocky Flag Day) plays Joe with a quiet menace. We’re not quite sure how he ended up here (at first), but we know things weren’t supposed to go this way.

We watch Joe as he integrates into the thriving society of Winslow, learning the ins and outs of the community and trying to keep himself from running afoul of any of the prison’s more unsavory characters. Unfortunately, fate seems willing to push Joe into the path of disaster. In a series of somewhat contrived circumstances, Joe finds himself face-to-face with self-described prison king Ray Schneider (played with scene-chewing gusto by former Detroit Lions linebacker Darnell “Spud” Grady). Their first encounter is overflowing with tension, as the audience waits for someone to make the first move.

Crudup’s direction deserves high marks for its effortless, restrained quality. There are no fancy camera tricks or spastic editing that sometimes plague overwhelmed, first-time directors. Crudup seems concerned first and foremost with telling his story and he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of that.

After Joe’s initial run-in with Ray, he spends a good bit of the film’s first half hiding out from Ray’s thugs. There’s one particularly effective sequence set in the shower room where they catch up with Joe and try to rape him before taking him to Ray. Joe fights them off and ends up slamming one man’s face against a hot pipe, scalding his flesh. This, of course, does not sit well with Ray, who steps up his attempts to kill Joe.

As the film reaches its midpoint, we begin to learn of the crime that landed Joe inside prison. This portion of the film is littered with flashbacks and these are some of the most startling moments overall. They reveal who Joe really is and what he’s capable of, which definitely took me by surprise. The flashbacks seem to throw a new light on the entire first half of the film, and if this were a lesser movie, it might derail the whole thing. Somehow, though, Crudup and company manage to keep everything on track, even answering the question posed by the film’s title.

In the last quarter of the film, the two leads come together for their inevitable showdown during the prison’s Thanksgiving meal. Since these scenes are informed by the flashbacks that precede them, there’s a hint of what Joe has up his sleeve, but in the end, it was still quite a shocker. Even though Crudup was attempting to tell a cerebral, subdued story, he does have a little fun with the finale, using concertina wire in an unusual way and drenching his main actors in blood in the process.

When Crudup told the reporter that he employs a “prism of the bizarre,” he wasn’t just being clever. Crudup actually served time in prison for vehicular manslaughter, where he supposedly wrote the first draft of this story. Though Crudup has never come out publicly and said if any of the events in his script really happened, he’s said that jail was “the absolute worst thing that could’ve happened to me and the absolute best. It got me to start thinking clearer and sharper.”

As strange as it is to say this, Crudup’s jail sentence was a blessing for cinema fans, because we got movies like What Are You Thankful For? and his genre-bending epics The Old Year and The New Year. This Thanksgiving, after you’ve gorged yourself on turkey and dressing, pop in this film and check out what Joe’s thankful for. Then ask yourself the same question.

Veteran’s Day

Director Jarvis Duncan erupted on the scene with his stylish 1979 thriller Veterans Day. In an expertly filmed opening flashback, we meet our protagonist Captain Troy Richards (played with intensity by Victor Crewes) deep in the heart of Vietnam. He’s flanked by some of his men: Sergeant Timothy Smith (Walt Wilson), Specialist David Douglas (Ben Thompkins) and Sergeant Charlie “Chuck” Petersen (Andrew Clive, giving an utterly heartbreaking performance). They’ve been ambushed by the Viet Cong and are taking heavy fire. This sequence is breathtaking, with Duncan filling the frame with as many explosions and spent ammunition as possible. A crackle comes through the radio; an air raid is coming. The men begin to make their way to a safe area when Chuck is sniped from behind and goes down. As Troy goes back for him, the first bomb drops and things start getting fuzzy. We see Troy being pulled away as Chuck is engulfed in smoke and debris and disappears.

We’re rocketed back to the present as Troy wakes up on the morning of Veterans Day, over two years after he left Chuck to die in the jungle. Troy’s wife Sharon (an overly cheery Meredith Baker) has breakfast cooked and on the table when he comes downstairs. She’s purposeful in her attitude because she knows today will be hard for Troy; it’s also Chuck’s birthday.

The scenes with Troy are filmed with very little flair or showmanship. Duncan deserves a lot of credit here, giving the scenes a loose, carefree vibe, never quite letting the audience know what kind of movie this will turn into.

Troy goes off to visit Chuck’s grave, but not before his wife can remind him of the Veterans Day parade that afternoon. He and Timothy and David are supposed to ride on a float with a few other guys and she doesn’t want him to be late. Crewes and Baker are great in their scenes together, though they only have a few throughout the film. Their later pairing in the comedy “Cluck of the Irish” gives them a bit more screen time, though in a much different capacity. Nonetheless, their relationship feels real and grounded, and you can tell Sharon is there to support Troy.

The looseness of the camerawork and direction is replaced by a very sure-handed and deliberate style as we see Troy walking across town to the cemetery. The camera tracks him from various vantage points, mostly rooftops, with Troy always far away in the frame, heading away from the camera. This continues for a few moments, giving us a good look at the town and its populace. As Troy moves into the town square, spying groups putting final touches on the floats, the camera stops inside the clock tower, lingering. Troy heads away from the camera and the long barrel of a rifle enters the frame, aiming at Troy’s back. A black gloved finger slips into the trigger guard and pulls the trigger. There’s a click but no shot. The gun isn’t loaded. The figure lowers the weapon and then begins lining up bullets on a small table.

This sequence is downright scary compared to the earlier moments of the film, the opening flashback aside. Duncan has an eye for detail and he focuses on the small things, like a loose thread hanging from the glove and the click of each bullet as it’s placed on the table. These details aren’t really important to the overall story, but they help maintain the tension of the moment.

Troy visit’s Chuck’s grave and talks out loud about how he wishes he could’ve saved him. Crewes is great in this scene and his monologue is beautifully written and really got the tears going (credit again goes to Duncan, also the film’s writer).

Troy visits Timothy and David and they have a few drinks in the local bar before heading over to the parade. They reminisce about Chuck and talk about life and their plans for the holidays. It’s a very real sequence and it almost feels like Duncan just turned on the cameras and let the men talk. It’s an excellent piece of improvisational film-making, if that’s truly what happened.

Eventually, the parade begins. And so does the shooting. Almost immediately, gunfire erupts from the clock tower. Dirt kicks up near the float that Troy is riding on. This sequence is absolute chaos, with several shots almost directly mirroring shots from the opening flashback. It’s a genius move on Duncan’s part and all of the extras acquit themselves well with running around and screaming.

Troy spots the location of the gunman and rushes into the clock tower. As he kicks in the door, he comes face to face with the madman and drops to his knees. By this point, especially with the amount of foreshadowing given throughout the film, it should come as no surprise as to who the gunman is, but if you really don’t want to know before you see the film, read no further.

Troy is staring directly at Chuck, but something’s off about him. His arm is metallic, robotic. One eye glows red. His jaw is solid metal. In another well-crafted flashback, we see what happened to Chuck and how he came to be here. This takes the movie into a whole new realm that definitely wasn’t expected, even if the reveal that Chuck was the gunman could be seen coming a mile away. While I won’t give away every detail, just know that in Jarvis Duncan’s universe, the Viet Cong possessed cyborg-building and brainwashing capabilities.

The film concludes in an unusual manner as well, with everyone actually living happily ever after. The power of love runs strong through this film, in the far-too-brief scenes between Troy and Susan, and in the finale, where Troy reminds Chuck that he’s still a man and he’s still in control of his life, no matter what Chuck might believe. This was a very pleasant surprise and actually made the movie more enjoyable.

Helped by Duncan’s steady, confident direction and some amazing performances, Veterans Day is a great film that will likely bring a tear to the eye of any movie lover, veteran or not.

Cheer Up, Mr. Jack O. Lantern!

Whenever one is asked to name things that represent Halloween, a jack-o-lantern is almost guaranteed to be near the top of the list. Scowling, grimacing jack-o-lanterns are synonymous with Halloween, but what about a melancholy jack-o-lantern? What does that represent? And why is he so down in the dumps to begin with? Writer-director Stuart Winstonson decided to pose that very question and try to answer it with his 1981 family film Cheer Up, Mr. Jack O. Lantern!.

In the town of Samuel’s Hollow, nine-year-old Timmy Woodrow (precocious first-time actor Will Phillips) and his twelve-year-old brother Roger (David Tet, a commercial actor whose biggest role was in the presidential time-traveling farce Washington, B.C. over a decade later) are awakened one October evening when they hear the sounds of someone moving in to the house across the street. They can only see their new neighbor in shadow, but they do notice his exceptionally large head. He’s a very private person and almost never comes out of his house, but Timmy sometimes sees him walking around the neighborhood at night, his head hung low, his shoulders drooping. The man doesn’t appear to be up to any mischief; he just seems sad.

One night, after Timmy’s parents have tucked him in, he sneaks out of his room and follows the man. In a fairly suspenseful sequence, it’s revealed that their new neighbor is a walking, talking jack-o-lantern! Timmy quickly befriends the man, whose name is Jack O. Lantern (played by fantastic character actor Reggie Bunton), and learns that he’s one in a long line of beings who protect the balance between good and evil during Halloween, when demons have the ability to cross into the land of the living and ruthlessly murder human beings. Unfortunately, Jack has become disillusioned with Halloween, doing the same job for several thousand years, and he’s come to Samuel’s Hollow to wait for the coming apocalypse. Naturally, Timmy doesn’t want to be murdered by a demon, so he sets about trying to reinvigorate the sad sack Jack and save the world.

Movies that rely on children to carry the film are sometimes at the mercy of the child’s acting abilities, and sadly Cheer Up is no different. Phillips is definitely a cute kid and he has spunk, but his delivery is either flat or over-the-top. There’s really no middle ground with him, and that really hurts the film’s finale, especially when he needs to bring in the drama. Thankfully, everyone else is good in their roles, and they probably helped Phillips be better than he would’ve been otherwise. Bunton in particular is a stand-out, acting through the rubber mask and really make us feel sorry for this pumpkin man. He’s been doing this job for a very long time and he’s grown very tired and he’s ready to give it all up.

The film has a point and gets to it, not really wasting a lot of time on filler. Timmy tries several amusing tricks to get Jack to realize that humans are worth saving, like setting him up on a date with his teacher and racing go-carts. In fact, the movie has no real conflict. It’s simply scenes of Timmy and Jack doing fun things together. Eventually, his family finds out what’s going on and joins in on the fun as well, having picnics and watching home movies.

The ending does take a bit of a turn and moves into dark territory, but, sadly, the inability of young Philips to convey drama and the film’s small budget really undercut the sequence, which should’ve verged on terrifying. The make-up effects for Jack are outstanding, but when he’s casting a spell to ward off the approaching demons (who we hear but never see), the lightning effects are shoddy and no one is reacting the way they should. They all appear too passive, probably because the lightning was added in post-production.

Overall, Cheer Up, Mr. Jack O. Lantern! is a fun film for the kiddies, but might be too repetitious for older viewers. Put it on during a late October afternoon after the kids are in from school. They’ll want their very own Jack O. Lantern as a friend, I guarantee it.

Columbus: The Revenge

Columbus: The Revenge opens in typical 1980s slasher movie fashion: a killer’s POV of two teens kissing on one of the town’s Columbus Day floats. Very quickly, they’re undressed and having sex. Soon enough, the unseen assailant is close enough to strike, impaling both of them with a thick, wooden pole. The teens die, looking into each others’ eyes, never seeing their attacker. Director Mikhail Bogrov films the scene with fluidity and calculation, lingering on a shot of the two lovers, still intertwined and twitching, before enveloping the bodies in blackness and splashing the titles across the screen. It’s a startling open, but the film is unable to sustain the momentum.

Mark Gregson (Paul Thoms) is in charge of this year’s Columbus Day Parade. Mark lives in the town where Christopher Columbus first landed (named Columbus Hollow in this film for some reason) and Columbus Day is a big deal. As Mark arrives at the warehouse where the floats are held, he passes a large group of Native American protesters, their signs proclaiming Columbus Day an “unfit holiday” and “the devil’s day.” Mark shrugs them off and heads inside, where he stumbles upon the two dead bodies of his teen volunteers.

From here, the movie switches into procedural mode, with the police trying to find out who killed them, while also dealing with the protesters outside. Tragically, there’s another killing, this time Mark’s elderly mother. Mark is devastated, but you wouldn’t really know it. Thoms, a small-time soap star, can’t act to save his life. Upon discovering his dead mother’s skinned and scalped body, he reacts almost with subdued glee. For a while, I was convinced that he was the killer, but unfortunately it’s just Thoms’ terrible acting skills. It doesn’t help that he’s saddled with awful dialogue, like, “My mother is dead. I can’t believe it. One second, she’s baking Columbus Day cookies and the next, she’s had her skin cut off.” He says this line with absolutely no expression, just dead-eyed and staring. Maybe that’s Thoms’ way of conveying heartbreak or showing that he’s flabbergasted, but it doesn’t work.

Behind the camera, it’s not much better. Bogrov was a director-for-hire, an up-and-comer from Moscow who’d directed a few commercials and made friends with producer Cliff Sales at one of Sales’ notorious cocaine parties. Rumor has it that Bogrov didn’t understand the concept of Columbus Day and barely spoke any English. Most of the words the cast and crew did understand were “Action,” “Cut,” and “Better,” the last of which Bogrov used in such a way that no one was sure if it was an acknowledgment or a command.

As more bodies pile up, the central conceit of the movie is revealed: Mark is actually a descendant of the real Christopher Columbus and the killer is actually after him for the crimes of his ancestor. Seems obvious then that the killer is someone in the throng of picketers, right? Well, not so fast. First, some back story…

Turns out producer Cliff Sales had made friends with notorious director Russell Kandar, of Trigger & Sledge infamy. Sales really fancied Kandar’s adult films and went gaga over Kandar’s epic Columbus: The Devil Explorer. He wanted to try and revive Kandar’s struggling, almost non-existent career, so he snapped up the rights to Devil Explorer and set about making a sequel, which resulted in today’s film. Though it doesn’t appear to have any follow-through, there is a somewhat clever connection, though it’s executed extremely poorly.

Upon Mark learning of his heritage, the killer is revealed to be a collection of ghosts of the Native American tribes that Columbus slaughtered in the finale of Kandar’s movie. This leads to a lengthy flashback where a good portion of Devil Explorer is shown, catching up any viewers who might’ve missed out it a decade earlier. As stated, this is an interesting reveal and a unique way to tie the two films together, but Thoms’ just can’t support this material and it’s probably that Bogrov didn’t really know what was going on. Sales spoke enough broken Russian that he could explain the scene to Bogrov and then interpret the director’s wishes to the cast and crew.

There’s a big ghostly fight sequence at the end of the movie, where the ghost of Christopher Columbus (again portrayed by Lorenzo Giacomo, who’s looking downright terrible) shows up to tussle with the Native American ghosts. It’s a dizzying scene and in a better, well-versed director’s hands, it might be a thing of terror and beauty, but as it is, it’s just a mess.

In my review for Columbus: The Devil Explorer, I called the uncut version of the film “a beautifully shot, brutal work of psychological horror.” It’s a shame I can’t say the same for this sort-of sequel. This Columbus Day, stick with the original (if you can find it).

Columbus: The Devil Explorer

Several years before his first mainstream film — and the controversy surrounding it — Trigger & Sledge director Russell Kandar made his name with low-budget pornographic movies. Kandar prided himself with his voluminous output, releasing over 40 adult films in 1970 alone. In some of his later works, particularly Meeting Richard Johnson and Missy Lou’s Dairy Farm, Kandar began to show off a previously unseen flair for storytelling, even mixed with the hardcore pornography inherit to his career field. The best example of Kandar’s cinematic eye has to be Columbus: The Devil Explorer.

Columbus is Kandar’s take on the Christopher Columbus story, but told through a twisted, dark lens. Taking a cue from the exploitation films that were growing in popularity, Kandar infuses the film with a griminess that truly gets under your skin.

His Columbus, played by Italian theater actor Lorenzo Giacomo, is downright reprehensible, groping women and slurring most of his lines, giving truth to the rumor that Giacomo was constantly drunk on set.

The movie doesn’t bother tracing Columbus’s steps leading up to his famous voyage, but rather begins with the crew already at sea. Columbus is in the middle of whipping a man in front of the others for a crime that is never revealed. This sequence is brutal, the whip tearing the man’s skin open, his cries of agony filling the soundtrack. Many believe this scene actually occurred, because the whipped man had been caught stealing from Giacomo’s trailer. After the movie’s release, director Kandar came out and said the scene’s very-real nature was due to their master special effects artist Rory Bluestone, but most weren’t convinced, and the actor portraying the Whipped Man (as he was listed in the credits) never came forward to talk about the scene.

The film’s budget was never made public, but whatever the cost, Kandar ensured all the money made it onscreen. The ship in particular is well-constructed, realistic and looks like it just sailed out of the fifteenth century. The production values alone almost make you forget you’re watching a porno.

It doesn’t take long to be reminded of this fact, though, as within five minutes of the opening, after an impressive storm sequence, the crew has made landfall and met the naked, unnaturally-attractive natives. It only takes another minute before an explicit native group sex sequence begins. The natives are performing this act as a sign of respect for the visitors, and Columbus watches with a terrifying gleam in his eye. Kandar chooses to take the audience from sheer eroticism to utter horror by slowly zooming into Giacomo’s face until the screen is filled with his twitching right eye.

The film is notable in its use of actual adult film stars as some of the Native Americans, though the majority wore body paint to make their skin appear darker. Most of the male actors played dual roles, as both natives and Columbus’s crew, which leads to a few awkward scenes where Columbus’s men are watching themselves as natives engaging in sex acts.

After an encounter with the native elders and the sharing of a peace pipe, Columbus and his men take a few of the more attractive native women (one portrayed by celebrated adult film actress Maggie “Mamms”  Malcolm) back to their ship and proceed to have sex with them in a series of dimly-lit sequences. These sequences are fairly unremarkable with the exception that most of the actual sex footage seems to show a different actor in the role of Columbus. Rumor has it that Giacomo refused to perform his own sex acts, as he felt it was beneath him. Many believe it was because he was constantly intoxicated and therefore unable to achieve arousal. Because of this, Kandar had to splice in footage of another actor cavorting with Mamms Malcolm. There’s a brief moment where the actor, most likely Kandar-staple Rodney Jerkins, looks toward the camera, but he resembles Giacomo enough to not ruin the sequence.

For those wondering where the devil is in The Devil Explorer, he makes his appearance during Columbus’s post-coital rest period. In a dream-like sequence, the room is bathed in eerie red light and a horned figure is glimpsed in the shadows. His otherworldly voice wakes Columbus and instructs him to kill his crew and live with the native people as a king.

In a move that defines historical inaccuracy, Columbus is soon wielding an axe and hacking up members of his crew. During every kill, Columbus is awash in the same red light from his bedroom and after the massacre has concluded, the horned creature appears over Columbus’s shoulder and congratulates him on the first step. These moments are effective and downright terrifying, with Columbus acting like an animal, cackling and drinking the blood of his victims. This sequence was filmed when Giacomo was supposedly undergoing cocaine withdrawal and his twitchy performance truly sells Columbus’s possessed state of mind.

Columbus then appears on land, covered in blood and axe in hand. He’s soon cutting a swath through the rest of his men and forcing himself upon the native women. There are additional sex scenes throughout the murder sequence, something that Kandar was forced to insert to ensure playability in adult theaters.

Columbus finally reaches the Native American camp and finds them waiting for him. Apparently, the supposed devil that is controlling Columbus is actually one of the natives in a decorative disguise and it was all a ploy to make Columbus kill his own men. Soon, Columbus has been captured by the natives and tied to a sacrificial altar. The blood-soaked finale, with one of the natives being split in two but continuing to move around, is something that must be seen to be believed. The beautiful last shot shows Columbus clinging to a piece of driftwood, alone in a vast ocean, unsure of what comes next.

Kandar definitely steps up his game here, and creates a beautifully shot, brutal work of psychological horror. Perhaps the only area of the film that actually needs work is in the depiction of the natives. It’s a fairly stereotypical affair, but as Kandar was not an educated man, it’s easy to forgive him. Sadly, porn theaters found the film too dialogue-heavy and strange, and Kandar was forced to fund its release through R.K. Pictures, his personal production company.  He did attempt to resell the film with the hardcore sequences removed, and it’s this version that caused Jackson Dill to take notice and provide funding for Trigger & Sledge.

Unfortunately, as is common with Kandar’s more ambitious works, this film is extremely difficult to locate in its unedited form. The sex scenes are a bit excessive after a while, especially during the prolonged murder sequence toward the end of the film, but without them, the work is missing the poetry and flow of the original.

If you’re able to come across an unedited version of Columbus: The Devil Explorer, snatch it up as fast as you can. It’s an interesting take on a historical tale and showcases the maturing voice of one of the most misunderstood directors of our time.

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