Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '88 - Ira Brooker ""

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Underrated '88 - Ira Brooker

Ira Brooker is a writer, editor and trash cinema enthusiast living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His Letterboxd account is a document of a life poorly spent. You can find his writing all over the place, and especially at atalentforidleness.blogspot.com, irabrooker.com and @irabrooker.

Check out his Underrated '98 list here:
Night Wars (Directed by David A. Prior)
The ‘80s saw dozens of riffs on “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” but only one of them subbed out Freddy Krueger for the goddamned Vietnam War. That’s right — “Night Wars” is the story of two traumatized former POWs whose flashback dreams have started manifesting themselves in physical injuries and nighttime violence. In order to reclaim their sanity, they hatch a plan to go into their dreams armed to the teeth and rescue a buddy they left behind enemy lines in the clutches of a sadistic American traitor.

Director David A. Prior made his name as a pioneer in direct-to-video ‘80s action movies, many of them, including his signature film “Deadly Prey,” involving Vietnam. “Night Wars” might be the weirdest and best of the bunch. It’s a film packed full of goofy imagery — the sequence with two grown men taking a nap while decked out in full military gear and firing rifles into the ceiling takes the cake — but at the same time there’s a genuine grimness to the proceedings that make the Vietnam sequences surprisingly unsettling. It’s wild, ambitious stuff that couldn’t have existed in any other era. It also has Dan Haggerty playing a beleaguered crisis counselor, which has to count for something.
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Epitaph, Fresh Kill, The Glass Jungle, Heat Street, The Killing Game, L.A. Crackdown, and L.A. Crackdown II (Directed by Joseph Merhi)
I went back and forth on whether to spotlight just one of the movies Joseph Merhi cranked out in 1988. Ultimately I decided I’m just too enamored of the man’s overall output to narrow the field. Working with a shoestring budget and a bunch of grungy Los Angeles locations, the cat directed no less than seven movies released in ‘88, and also wrote or co-wrote six of them. Even if I didn’t adore the Merhi aesthetic, I’d be impressed with that kind of drive.

But adore the Merhi aesthetic I absolutely do, especially his ‘80s work as co-founder of City Lights production company. Merhi’s cheaply made but caringly crafted video store shelf-fillers are almost always about skeevy lowlifes on the outskirts of the L.A. underworld. They’re frequently invested with a singular melancholy that gives them a more haunting, lasting impact than most of their bigger-budgeted peers. Of course, they also frequently feature handgun massacres, electric guitar-fueled action montages, and Robert Z’Dar, so there’s a little something for everyone.

If I had to pick one recommendation from Merhi’s stunningly prolific ‘88, I’d probably have to go with “Epitaph,” in which a family tries to settle into a quiet life in the suburbs while ignoring the fact that Mom is a hard-drinking, emotionally abusive serial murderer.* It’s atypical Merhi in a lot of ways, leaning more toward horror than action, but it’s still chock full of his trademark soul-sickness. If you’re looking for something more representative, I’d go for “Heat Street,” a sort-of “Death Wish” riff that’s grim going by most standards but borders on light-hearted in the Merhi-verse. But hey, you’ve got seven movies to pick from, and if you’re the type who takes any of this as a recommendation, you’re going to dig whichever one you pick.

*Some sources list “Epitaph” as a 1987 film and Merhi’s “The Newlydeads” as a 1988 release. I don’t know who to trust so I’m going with my gut. Either way, the cat put out seven dang movies in 1988. That rules.
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Phoenix: the Warrior (Directed by Robert Hayes)
The well of Italian and Australian “Mad Max” knock-offs was pretty close to drying up by 1988, but America still had one more deep dipperful to share with the world. Most of those post-apocalyptic George Miller clones stuck steadfastly to a familiar formula, but “Phoenix the Warrior”… well, it does pretty much the same thing, but with women!

So yeah, this movie was clearly made largely as an excuse to film 90 minutes of ripped, multi-ethnic ladies stalking around the desert wearing next to nothing, but it winds up being refreshing almost in spite of itself. The plot is suspiciously similar to “Mad Max: Fury Road” — a bad-ass drifter tries to help a pregnant slave overthrow a merciless queen of the wasteland — but, y’know, way cheaper and less ambitious. In an era and genre where women were portrayed almost entirely as sidekicks, sex objects, and/or cannon fodder, it’s pretty cool to watch a movie with a nearly all-female cast where just about everybody gets to be an action star. It helps that the film itself, dumb and derivative as it inarguably is, is also a lot of fun. 
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Prime Evil (Directed by Roberta Findlay)
I’d say there’s a case to be made for Roberta Findlay being one of the most important female directors in cinema history, but that would imply that there’s also a case against it. There is not. As a pioneer in smut, sleaze, gore, and all angles of exploitation, Roberta Findlay is a towering figure in cinema history, and she’s never come close to getting her due. Hell, as of this writing, she doesn’t even have her own Wikipedia entry — she’s bundled in with her former husband and collaborator Michael, even though she did much of her most important work without him.

“Prime Evil” isn’t the best of Findlay’s late career work — I’ll give that crown to 1985’s “Tenement” — but it’s still a gem of post-”Exorcist” satanic panic filmmaking. There’s devil worship, evil priests, multiple stabbings, human sacrifices, grimy New York location shots, and every form of abuse under the sun. The narrative doesn’t unfold so much as it spews out all over the place. It’s nasty business at every angle, but that’s exactly where Roberta Findlay always excelled. Long may she run.
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Encounter at Raven’s Gate (Directed by Rolf de Heer)
I’m a sucker for a movie that refuses to show me all of its cards, and this Australian sci-fi joint is tantalizingly withholding. A punkish ex-con hires on at his brother’s remote farm just in time to watch everything go topsy-turvy. Animals die mysteriously, neighbors lose their minds, and large quantities of water disappear.

Most of the whys and hows of these peculiar occurrences are kept at arm’s length as director Rolf de Heer leans more on establishing an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. It’s low-key, uneven, intentionally obtuse stuff that isn’t like much of anything else, with an added swirl of Aussie aesthetics that I really dig..
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Hellbent (Directed by Richard Casey)
“‘Faust’ on the ‘80s L.A. punk scene” is pretty much all you need to know about this one, plot-wise. It’s the kind of movie that lives or dies on style alone, and “Hellbent” has plenty of that. It’s a bright, brassy, borderline cartoonish production that generates a ton of sleazy energy, anchored by Phillip Ward’s jittery lead performance as the punk-ish nerd steering into a satanic tailspin.

It’s the type of movie where Satan roams the earth under the clever guise of “Mr. Tanas,” pulling off blackmailings, kidnappings, and drive-by shootings with a gang of thugs who occasionally break into song. Neon and hairspray abound, there’s a solid punk and new wave soundtrack, and the devil’s cough syrup-chugging crime buddies are a blast. It’s not the most original concept, but “Horror House on Highway 5” director Richard Casey pulls off this trashy spin on a classic with flair to spare.
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Beyond the Rising Moon (Directed by Phillip Cook)
There’s not much I like better than an ambitious failure, but an ambitious modest success ranks right up there too. Made in Virginia on a minimal budget, this is a high-minded sci-fi adventure that wears its inspirations (“Blade Runner,” “Terminator,” “Escape from New York,” and “Star Wars” among them, although that makes this movie sound far more action-packed than it is) on its sleeve but manages not to feel like a blatant imitation of any of them.

Tracy Davis is very good in the only lead role of her career, playing a rogue “synthetic human” rebelling against her role as a corporate espionage weapon as she tries to protect a priceless treasure from her bosses. The storytelling is heavy on the exposition, and it’s not without its slow stretches, but it’s well worth it for some big ideas and really great practical effects. Writer/director Phillip Cook* peppers the movie with some old-school model work that ranges from charmingly handmade to genuinely impressive, a nice metaphor for a film that gambles big and breaks better than even.

*Odd note: Cook re-edited this movie for a Sci-Fi Channel re-release in 2004, retitling it “Outerworld.” I’ve not seen it, but from what I’ve read, that version is shorter, much more CGI-intensive, and less compelling.
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Robowar (Directed by Bruno Mattei)
OK, this is pretty much just “Predator” but cheaper. Director Bruno Mattei was arguably the most blatant of the Italian knock-off artists (look up his “Cruel Jaws” or “Shocking Dark” for further evidence), and this story of a bunch of over-muscled alpha males getting stalked through the jungle by an unstoppable killing machine makes zero effort to pretend it’s anything but the palest imitation. If you’re the type who can make peace with that, though, it’s a heck of a lot of fun watching Reb Brown and a gaggle of character actors bark nonsensical macho catchphrases at each other and get eviscerated by a staggering robot that’s plainly just an overdressed dude in a helmet. You will come away from this movie dumber than you went in, and sometimes that’s precisely what you need from an evening’s viewing.
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