david j. moore is the author of the books World Gone Wild: A Survivor's Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies and The Good, the Tough, and the Deadly: Action Movies and Stars from Schiffer Publishing. His first novel will be published in 2017.
The Chocolate War - 1988 (MGM DVD)
Soon after his mother dies of cancer, freshman Jerry (Ilan Mitchell-Smith from Weird Science) joins the Catholic all-boys high school Trinity, which is being run by the manipulative Brother Leon (John Glover), who plays mind games with his students. A brotherhood of elites known as the Vigils play a power game against Brother Leon, and the leader of the Vigils - a dangerously morose and bored kid named Archie (played by Wally Ward [Langham]) - has pegged several kids for severe treatment simply because the Vigils demand certain sacrifices every term of the school year. When Brother Leon hatches a plan to boost the revenue of the school by having every student sell a collective total of 20,000 boxes of chocolates this year (which is twice the amount sold the previous year), it becomes imperative for each and every student to sell their share of chocolates (50 boxes per student), but the Vigils undermine him by forcing certain kids to refuse to sell any boxes. Jerry, who was chosen for the experiment, goes above and beyond the "assignment" and continues to refuse to sell any chocolates for the rest of the year, which not only undermines Brother Leon's grand scheme and supposedly "infects" the minds of other students to follow his suit, but it cuts into the reputation of the Vigils, who believe that he's defying their authority in the school, which puts their reputation at risk. Jerry becomes a symbol of defiance at his school, and he's relentlessly bullied and harassed for taking a stand again school corruption. Who will win the "chocolate war?"
Radically subversive and fascinating, The Chocolate War was based on the controversial young adult novel by Robert Cormier, who also wrote the book I Am the Cheese, which also inspired a motion picture adaptation. This particular film - directed and adapted by actor Keith Gordon - hits a home run with its ultra cool dream-like pallet, which puts the audience squarely in Jerry's mind, and it digs its heels deeply into his world and feels immediately genuine. The song soundtrack features great new wave hits from Kate Bush, Yaz, and Peter Gabriel. Essential stuff. Also starring Adam Baldwin, Jenny Wright, and Doug Hutchinson.
The Crown and the Dragon: The Paladin Cycle - 2013 (New Video Group DVD)
A young woman named Ellen (Amy De Bhrun) is on her way to a coronation with her ward, and they are to bestow a gift to the rightful king of the land, but they are besieged by bandits, and Ellen's ward is slain. Ellen takes the gift - a rare artifact that is one of several pieces of a magical talisman - and she tries to survive the journey on her own, and she's rescued (again, from bandits) by a rogue named Aedin (David Haydn). Aedin accompanies her to a convent, where the nuns have been waiting for a prophesied warrior (a Paladin) to come save the land from a dragon, and when Ellen is revealed to be that Paladin (much to her own surprise), a dark force shows up to thwart her and make sure the dragon has its fiery day on the land.
Surprisingly well done for a micro-budgeted fantasy film, The Crown and the Dragon has a lot of major plusses working for it. Shot on beautiful locations throughout Ireland in and around beaches and castles, the film looks stupendous. It has a nice score, convincing costumes, horses, swordplay, and adequate CGI effects that aren't distractingly bad. This is some good work for nonprofessionals. The performances are really solid (especially by De Bhrun), and the final confrontation between her and the dragon is nicely developed. If you've seen too many bad no-budget dragon movies with "Dragon" in the title, this one will help cleanse the pallet. Written and directed by Anne Black
Curse of the Dragon Slayer (a.k.a. SAGA: Curse of the Shadow) - 2013 (Phase 4 DVD)
An elf bounty huntress named Nemyt Akaia (Danielle Chuchran) slays a rogue orc named Fangtor Bloodmoon, but just before she beheads him, he curses her and marks her with a tattoo-like mark that slowly begins to spread throughout her body and change her into a cursed being. When she goes to claim the bounty, she is imprisoned and set to be executed (because her curse is evil), but a human cleric named Keltus (Richard McWilliams) saves her because he could use some help on a quest he's embarked on: He intends to put a stop to the resurrection of an undead mega demon god known as Goth Azul, which would herald the end of days. Keltus and Nemyt join forces with an outcast orc named Kullimon (Paul D. Hunt), who vows to assist them in stopping his fellow orcs before they have a chance to complete the ritual that would bring Goth Azul back from hell. There are some race issues that occur between the human, the elf, and the orc, but as they learn to get along they turn out to be a great team, and they're just enough to defeat the demon god just moments after he's resurrected.
Shot on locations in the wilds of Utah, Curse of the Dragon Slayer (which is not the best title for this movie) is consistently engaging, well shot, nicely scored, and filled with action and adventure that greatly elevates it from its fairly low budget pedigree. Once upon a time, this might have been released to theaters and garnered a cult following. The make-up effects are pretty darn impressive, and the performances by the actors and the script (by Jason Faller and Kynan Griffin) are all well above average. Director John Lyde and his team (his production designer on this film was Anne Black) all deliver one of the more fun and entertaining sword and sorcery movies to come out of the independent circuit. Lyde, Black, and their compatriots Steve Shimeck and Maclain Nelson have all delivered good dragon and fantasy films, including things like the Mythica movies, Dudes and Dragons, The Crown and the Dragon, and others. Seek them out.
The Demon Rat (La Rata Maldita) - 1992 (BCI DVD)
A series of ecological catastrophes has pummeled Earth for the last eight years, and the environment is catastrophically altered as a result. Acid rain pours down in heavy doses, humanity is forced to wear oxygen masks outside (and sometimes even inside), animals all over the world (namely elephants, tigers, penguins, and whales) have gone extinct, and the few species left are mutating to monstrous sizes. A schoolteacher named Irina (Rossana San Juan) is going through a difficult time after her wealthy father passed away, leaving his company to her, but through a technicality her abusive husband (played by Gerardo Albarran) has taken control of the company (a nuclear power plant) and he's running the corporation into the ground by misusing the toxic wastes it generates. Irina is also experiencing a domestic terror in the form of a giant rat, and after it devours her cute little dog she seeks the help of a fellow schoolteacher (who's also a biologist) named Axel (Miguel A. Rodriguez) to assist her in combating the mutated rat (which is the size of a man and walks on two legs instead of four) in her house, while confronting her scuz of a husband. As the three central characters are forced to hunker down in Irina's house while acid rain pours down for several days straight, the "demon rat" comes out to play.
Highly unusual on almost every front, the Mexican made The Demon Rat is like a post-apocalyptic version of the George Pan Cosmatos movie Of Unknown Origin, with more than half the film set in one claustrophobic location, culminating in a long, drawn-out brawl between the characters, including a mutant monster man running amok. So many post-apocalyptic themes and ideas are thrown at the viewer that it's fun trying to keep track of all of them and where it's all headed, but when the movie boils down to a tag team donnybrook, it disappoints. Still, this is a pretty radical end-of-the-world horror movie, and as obscure as it is it should be sought by fans of bizarre post-apocalyptic pictures. It's available subtitled in the U.S. on a DVD set called Crypt of Terror: Horror From South of the Border Volume 1. Written and directed by Ruben Galindo Jr.
The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters - 1982 (NOV)
Young teenager Ralph Parker (played by Matt Dillon) has a job working at a mill in the mailroom, and his Old Man (James Broderick) is eagerly anticipating being the big hit of the neighborhood on the Fourth when he busts out his stash of fireworks. It's the late 1940's and Ralph's small world is filled with big events like going on a blind date with a beauty queen and preparing to play his massive tuba in the big parade on Main Street. He hangs with his pals Flick (William Lampley) and Schwartz (Jeff Yonis), and his mom (Barbara Bolton) has sent away all of their washrags in a chain letter. Life is good and memorable for young Ralph and his annoying kid brother Randy (Joe Ine), but it's all about The Great American Fourth of July ... and other disasters.
Based on the written works of Jean Shepherd, whose stories also inspired A Christmas Story, The Great American Fourth of July aired on American Playhouse on television, and it's about an hour long. If you've grown up loving A Christmas Story and have a penchant for nostalgic movies that are set in the late 40's or early 50's, then this lost film should be a priority for you to track down. It's a nice slice-of-life coming of age picture, and it's a great companion piece to other adaptations of Shepherd's work such as The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976), The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski (1983), Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss (1988), and My Summer Story (a.k.a. It Runs in the Family, 1994). Directed by Richard Bartlett. Jean Shepherd appears as the narrator (on camera) at the beginning of the film and at the conclusion.
Orion - 2015
Set several long generations after an unidentified worldwide apocalypse, Orion introduces a redheaded virgin (known as "The Virgin," played by Lily Cole), who is in the captivity of a shape-shifting cannibal shaman (known as "The Magus," played by Goran Kostic). The Magus looks to the stars for signs and omens of a prophecy of the coming of a being named Orion, and he is certain The Virgin will give birth to the savior of humanity, but first he must put her through terrible trials and ordeals and test her through the fires of hardships before that day comes to pass. When a lone vagabond (known as "The Hunter," played by a bedraggled David Arquette) wanders into their area of The Rust (urban wasteland), The Magus sees him as a threat and casts him out, but with the help of a feral girl (known as "The Fool," played by Maren Lord), The Hunter is able to see that The Virgin needs his help and must be rescued from the virtually unstoppable and immortal Magus. As The Hunter approaches the role of the hero, The Magus orchestrates a cosmic shift so that the prophecy can come to pass, allowing The Hunter to prevail and take on the role of The Magus, thus setting the stars in alignment, bringing in the new era of Orion, the savior of humanity.
So unlike any other film with post-apocalyptic themes, Orion is both immediately integral to the genre while also being an extremely polarizing film to watch. The cinematography is shaky and blaringly unsteady, and paired with the film's overly graphic violence and back-to-the-stone age aesthetics of the film's woebegone setting, most viewers will be repulsed by what they'll see here. I found the entire endeavor fascinating and more than welcome, although I was unnerved by the audacity of the film. We see a graphic crucifixion, infanticide, a beheading, strange, disturbing rituals, nudity, and even a face peeling. This movie is not for the faint of heart, and yet I kept thinking that were the world to find itself in such a state, the people living in it might very well be thrust into such a horror. Writer / director Asiel Norton has crafted a verifiable oddball of an end-of-the-world fantasy here, and I give it my highest recommendation, but in doing so I realize that this film won't be an easy sell for most viewers. It pushes apocalyptic themes as far as it can go and sprinkles in some mystical elements in a bloody, gory cauldron and creates a strong stew. It's special.
The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski - 1985 (NOV)
Following the events of The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski has young Ralph (played this time by Peter Kowanko) falling head over heels in love with his new neighbor Josephine Cosnowski (Katherine Kamhi), a beautiful Polish girl with a huge extended family. As usual with Ralph, he's surrounded by a cornucopia of interesting characters, namely his Old Man (played by George Coe), who has his heart dead set on buying a new used car at the lot down the street, while his mom (Barbara Bolton who played Ralph's mom in The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters) has a heavy task of creating a turkey costume for Ralph's kid brother Randy (Jay Ine) for the Thanksgiving pageant. Ralph's pals Flick (William Lampley) and Schwartz (Jeff Yonis) are in the picture too, but the story is really about Ralph's big date with Josephine, who takes him to a huge church gathering where she all but inducts him into her family. When faced with the thoughts of marriage, fatherhood, and all-out misery, Ralph makes for the exit and lives to tale the tale.
A one-hour feature that aired on American Playhouse, this is a more subdued coming-of-age tale from the works of Jean Shepherd, whose material also inspired A Christmas Story. There're laughs to spare, but this is a much more mature look at Ralph's life compared to the other filmed adaptations of Shepherd's work featuring Ralph as the main character. If you're interested in nostalgic coming-of-age stories set in the late 1940's or early 1950's, then this film should fit the bill. For more films featuring the Ralph Parker character, see also: The Phantom of the Open Hearth (1976), Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss (1988), My Summer Story (a.k.a. It Runs in the Family, 1994), and A Christmas Story 2 (2012). Directed by Fred Barzyk.