It’s 2016, and I have too much to watch.
Or, to be more accurate, I have too much that I already should have watched: SOV oddities, turkish action movies, Polish science fiction.. There’s so much interesting and strange material out there, but I’ve been so consumed with writing about no-budget films and filmmakers over the past four years or so that I just haven’t been able to carve away the time necessary to watch some of my mounting collection of filmic curiosities.
Which is where THE VIDEO TOASTER comes in. Every week I’ll be picking three films from my assemblage, chosen semi-randomly, and feature them in short, capsule-style reviews to both make me feel less like a hoarder, and to hopefully reveal a few hidden gems in the process.
SELF DEFENSE (a.k.a. SIEGE) (1983/Canada)
After a police strike leaves Halifax, Nova Scotia unprotected, a gang of right-wing hosers calling themselves the “New Order” start hasseling the locals at a gay bar. After one of the clientele accidentally ends up dead, the groups’s hard-nosed leader (played by the late Doug Lennox, who looks sort of like an amalgam of Henry Silva and Leonard Cohen) starts murdering everyone in the place. One guy manages to escape, and hides out in an apartment building, where the young tenants try to keep him alive as the gang members attack from all directions.
That’s right! Nova Scotia! This rare East-Coast Canadian action picture launches from a real-life 1981 police strike in Halifax (we get some brief news footage), and received a belated U.S. cinema release via New Line in 1985. It makes for a lightning paced combination of action and suspense, with an atypical (for post-DEATH WISH 80s conservative revenge pictures) message of tolerance at its core. Of course, it’s also quirky as fuck, with some Daredevil-esque students from a local school for the blind — played by Jack Blum and Keith Knight from MEATBALLS — being the oddest touch. There’s also a faux-Carpenter thumping synth score, just in case you weren’t already being reminded of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.
It’s all great fun, with a strong lead performance from (American) Western regular Tom Nardini, and plenty of home-made ordnance turning the final 1/3 into a goofily violent spin on HOME ALONE. Even Brenda Bazinet’s shrieking, self-righteous Barbara isn’t enough to dull the amusement. I’ve been told that something like 15 minutes of character development was sliced out of the U.S. version, and you definitely won’t miss it. Canuxploitation gold.
TOUGH AND DEADLY (1995/US)
Just two years after 1993 squibfest BACK IN ACTION, someone had the bright idea to reunite stars “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Tae Bo” Billy Blanks for this deliriously entertaining action-comedy, which revels in cliches to an obscene level.
Blanks plays a CIA super-soldier who loses his memory after being kidnapped and drugged. Thankfully, he runs into genial bounty hunter — wait for it — Elmo Freech, played by former wrestler Piper, who suspects Blanks might… I don’t know. His end-game is a bit undefined. Still, they become fast friends and eventually unleash some TOUGH and DEADLY punishment on Richard Norton and a big bunch of faceless thugs. Also, James Karen is there.
While Banks is a terrible actor, he’s tremendous at kicking things, which for a movie like TOUGH AND DEADLY is much more important. He kicks heads, legs, barrels.. Really, he’ll kick just about anything. There’s even a scene where he hides behind a doorframe, tilting his legs up to a horizontal splits position, before slamming down with a scissor kick! Why did he do it? WHO CARES?
There’s also a great montage of Blanks and Piper working out in a park, with them doing pull-ups and jogging around with their shirts off and just palling around in a way that makes you forget that the two characters barely know each other. At one point, Blanks can’t find Piper, but then discovers it’s because he’s taken a break from jogging to enjoy some delicious ice cream! What a card!
It’s fucking great, and the only way it would have been better is if Blanks’ character was actually named “John Tough” and Piper was named “Fred Deadly”, though Elmo Freech is such a goofball moniker that I can accept that as a substitute. I wish we had gotten five sequels and a television series on the USA network, but instead Roddy Piper is dead because this universe sucks.
A relic of an era when you could just toss a bunch of Super-8 shorts onto a VHS tape and call it a movie, STRANGE TALES is — unsurprisingly — a mixed bag, but still manages to fit a few gems into its hour run-time. Though compiled (and edited together) by Vidcrest’s Robert D. Weinbach, the films are from a variety of directors and — despite with the cover might suggest — are of varying quality, genre and tone.
The best of the bunch is the startling semi-animated piece TWILIGHT JOURNEY (by Jeff Morrison and Jim & John Sindelar) which mixes surreal visuals and rotoscoping into a stew that resembles David Lynch meeting Ralph Bakshi. Check it out:
Also worthwhile is the brief, goofy THE CRYSTAL QUEST by Clay Staub & Jim Towler, where a nearly silent Indiana Jones/Snake Plisskin amalgam steals a crystal from some furturistic space monsters, but his motivations might not be as straight-forward as they seem. It’s all great fun, with a perfectly silly ending and wouldn’t have been out of place in an anthology film like THE GROOVE TUBE or THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE.
The rest is more of a mixed bag, though Paul Mack’s THE VISITANT (which kicks things off) at least has that cool looking zombie from the cover, along with a fairly creepy atmosphere. Much worse are the forgettable A DAY IN THE LIFE OF SNIDLEY CARMICHAEL and — in particular — Robert Loveren’s THE BUS BENCH, which aims for revelatory, but ends things on a dour, first-year-film-student note.
All of the films look and sound extremely rough, and there’s — perhaps mercifully — no framing story or host segments. The full shorts run, usually with opening and closing credits. Would be worth a watch if I didn’t already link the best segment up above.