Friday, June 13, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Scare the Nightmares Away

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

On this full moon illuminated Friday the 13th, Cody plays with dangerous toys, Brazil has a zombie problem, and Kane Hodder starts a fight.


With three Puppet Master movies successfully released into the world, producer Charles Band, head of Full Moon Entertainment, was looking to expand his company's stable of tiny terrors. And so the idea struck for a movie originally intended to be called Dangerous Toys, which eventually had its title fittingly changed to Demonic Toys.

Band came up with the concept, then approached a young screenwriter to flesh it out into the script, even providing the writer with promo art for additional inspiration. Despite only being in his early twenties, this writer already had two film credits to his name - the Jean-Claude Van Damme prison thriller Death Warrant and the Van Damme-less sequel to a Van Damme vehicle Kickboxer 2: The Road Back. Following Demonic Toys, this writer would go on to become one of the biggest success stories in Hollywood.

The writer was David S. Goyer, who today is best known for the Blade trilogy and being involved with nearly every DC Comics adaptation Warner Bros. puts into development (he also did an uncredited polish on the Freddy vs. Jason script).

Goyer knocked out the Demonic Toys in just over a week and the movie went into production with Peter Manoogian directing.

The film begins with police officer Judith Gray and her partner/live-in boyfriend Matt Cable sitting in a parked car in an empty city parking lot at night, waiting for a couple criminals named Lincoln and Hesse to show up with $20,000 worth of illegal weapons that the cops are going to bust them for trying to sell. While they wait, Judith informs Cable that she's pregnant... and ever since she became pregnant, she's been having this recurring dream about two young boys playing the card game War in a room full of ticking clocks and rocking chairs that move on their own.

When Lincoln and Hesse show up, Cable is on edge, more protective of Judith than usual now that he knows she's pregnant. When the officers inform the criminals that they're under arrest, the bad guys don't respond with compliance... I find it hard to believe that the cops wouldn't have backup waiting in the wings during a gun-runner bust, but Judith and Cable don't. In the exchange of gunfire that ensues, Cable is killed and Hesse is mortally wounded.

The criminals make a run for it and Judith gives chase, the three ending up in a large toy warehouse called Toyland.

There's a touch of Child's Play to the image of the wounded, bleeding Hesse stumbling among the toys, it's very reminiscent of the opening of that earlier killer toy movie, which featured a mortally wounded serial killer being chased into a toy store by a police officer. But instead of passing his soul into a toy like the Child's Play serial killer did, Hesse just collapses on the floor in an unnatural circle of light. As the blood seeps out of his body into cracks on the floor, some of the toys around him begin to come to life...

The Demonic Toys of the title are a group of four nasty little things designed by special effects artist John Carl Beuchler and brought to life by him and his crew through a mixture of animatronics and hand puppets. The little killers are: Jack Attack, a clown jack-in-the-box with a maniacal laugh and sharp teeth, with a tentacle tail to wrap around a person while he chews on them. Grizzly Teddy, a vicious teddy bear. Mister Static, a robot that rolls on tank treads and fires deadly lazers from its gun arms. And the leader of the pack, mouthy baby doll Baby Oopsie Daisy, voiced by actress Linda Cook.

After the demonic toys finish off Hesse, Judith and Lincoln find that they're trapped in the warehouse with these killer creatures, along with three other potential victims - lazy security guard Charnetski, Chunky Chicken restaurant delivery boy with a bad attitude Mark Wayne, and Anne, a runaway teen who has been hiding out in the warehouse.

A group of toys out for blood isn't all these people have to deal with. There are supernatural forces at work that make escape from the warehouse seemingly impossible, and Judith soon realizes that these forces are exactly what she's been dreaming about... The boys from her dream are both in the warehouse, one good, one evil, waging a spiritual war on each other, and whichever one wins will be the spirit that inhabits the child Judith gives birth to.

The source of all this evil is the little boy played by Daniel Cerny, who would go on to be a cult leader for He Who Walks Behind the Rows in Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest. Here he's a demon that is seeking to be born into our world. His previous attempt was sixty-six years earlier, when he was stillborn on Halloween night. His corpse was dumped on the plot of land that Toyland Warehouse ended up being built on. The demon was imprisoned in that corpse for sixty-six years and has finally been released by Hesse's spilled blood.

So, as you can see, the plot Goyer came up with is ridiculous, and his script is full of his usual nonsensical tough guy talk, but even though a lot of this is delivered completely seriously in an attempt to be as scary and unnerving as possible, it's really all just set-up for some entertaining killer doll mayhem, and the movie does deliver a good amount of fun as the homicidal toys track the characters through the warehouse.

Most of the actors - Tracy Scoggins as Judith Gray, Bentley Mitchum as Mark, Peter Schrum as Charnetski, Ellen Dunning as Anne - do fine work making their characters likeable, enjoyable to spend time with and to watch deal with the absurdity and terror of their situation. The killer toys, demonic possession, and hallucinations really make Mark crack, which makes the situation all the more fun to watch out play out. I'm a big fan of the comedy of hysteria, and Mark gets quite hysterical.

The Demonic Toys themselves aren't as cool as the puppets from Puppet Master, but they are a good batch of characters. As the end of the film nears, Grizzly Teddy is revealed to have a very powerful ability that he only puts to use in this one, higher budgeted entry in the series: he's able to transform into a man-sized beast, chasing down characters, throwing them around, and smashing through doors.

Demonic Toys may not be ranked highly among Goyer's work, but it's a good time, and being the sort of movie watcher I am, I'd much rather spend 84 minutes watching Demonic Toys than I would spend my time watching some of his more recent, more critically adored fare.


Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead was a big influence in Brazilian independent filmmaker Rodrigo Aragão's decision to get into the movie business himself, and that influence is very apparent in his first feature film.
Titled Mangue Negro in its native language of Portuguese, which would translate to Black Mangrove or perhaps the more striking Black Swamp, Aragão's debut feature ended up being given the English title Mud Zombies, which I suppose works well enough...

Regardless of what it's called, the movie plays out like a mixture of The Evil Dead and Peter Jackson's zombie movie Dead-Alive (a.k.a. Braindead) with a Brazilian twist.

Appropriately, given its titles, the story is set deep within muddy swampland, where the impoverished locals are struggling to make a living by catching fish and crabs in the swamp water. Unfortunately, the days when the swamp thrived with aquatic species is long behind it. There's hardly any life in the water anymore, which has caused other animals to empty out of the area as well. Some blame pollution. Others believe the swamp to be haunted.

Those with theories of the supernatural are soon proven correct when the dead start to rise in the swamp, attacking the living, hungry for their flesh, infecting people with their bites and turning them into the living dead, too. Although Aragão's zombies can be dispatched in the same way as George A. Romero's zombies - a shot to the head will put them back down for good - they are very much like Raimi's Deadites when they're rampaging after potential victims; souped-up and demonic, their appearance instantly becoming hideously deformed, screaming and roaring with their vocalizations distorted in exactly the same way as those of the possessed characters in the original Evil Dead were.

The Dead-Alive-esque aspect, for me at least, comes into play with our hapless hero Luis and his unrequited object of affection, tough girl Rachel. When Rachel falls ill from a zombie bite, Luis takes her to an elderly medicine woman, who tells him the story of a spiteful wizard who lived long ago and would spike his enemies' drinks with the poison of the globe fish. The poison would make a person appear to be dead, their family would go through with their funeral and burial, but eventually that person would awake. Buried alive. Legend has it that if a person dies and returns to life, everything that was bad in them will remain dead. And so Luis treks out into the full moon-lit swamp full of zombies to catch a globe fish to feed Rachel its poison, hoping that when she recovers from it the zombie infection in her system will have died off. This storyline reminded me of the mystical elements that were in Dead-Alive.

In addition to writing the screenplay, directing the film, and handling the cinematography himself, Aragão also created the special effects, which are quite impressive. The zombie make-ups are a disgusting mess, with some of the walking dead in such advanced stages of decomposition that they're portrayed by awesome looking puppets. There's even a moment where, apparently just for fun, Aragão created the image of a zombie wrecking a cabin with stop-motion animation.

I can handle all the grotesque effects, but the make-up jobs that truly unnerved me were how Aragão aged up some of the actors playing the elderly characters. These people looked very off, more disturbing than some of the monsters. The old medicine woman is even played by a man, buried under make-up and putting on a voice that is very grating to listen. And that character has a lot of dialogue.

Despite that unpleasantry, and the fact that the movie runs on too long at 104 minutes, Mangue Negro/Mud Zombies is a fun, low budget entry in the zombie sub-genre with a good helping of unique flavor from Aragão's home state of Espirito Santo.

Aragão shows a lot of promise with Mud Zombies in most of the jobs he took on for himself, including some nice camera moves (Raimi-esque zooms), capturing the filth and murkiness of the swamp during the day and then bringing otherworldly beauty to the moonlit night, and of course the terrific zombie effects. Some tighter editing would have greatly enhanced the film's overall strength, but as it stands it's a commendable first effort from Rodrigo Aragão and a worthwhile bit of entertainment.


Korean American Phillip Rhee grew up studying martial arts since the age of four, earning multiple black belts in Tae-Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do, always dreaming of someday breaking into the film industry. Movie opportunities did soon present themselves, and by his late twenties Rhee was working on crews, producing, and had a few acting credits to his name.

In 1980, Rhee's martial arts abilities had landed him a place representing the United States on the Tae Kwon Do Team in the Korean Olympics/Asian Games. His experience in this international competition inspired Rhee to make a film based around a similar situation. He co-wrote the story for Best of the Best with screenwriter Paul Levine and as a producer was able to get the project off the ground with himself in one of the lead roles.

Rhee plays Tommy Lee, a karate instructor and one of many fighters skilled in martial arts who are invited to compete for the opportunity to become part of the US National Karate Team and compete against Team Korea in an upcoming tournament.

Characters gather together from all over the United States and all walks of life to fight matches against each other so the committee and coach Frank Couzo can create a team consisting of the five best fighters among them.

When it's all said and done, the men on the US National Karate Team are: Tommy Lee, Italian ladies man Sonny Grasso, calm and intellectual Buddhist Virgil Keller, rude and racially insensitive cowboy Travis Brickley, and fighter-turned-family man Alex Grady. Alex is a controversial choice behind the scenes; he used to be a fighter but had to retire when his shoulder was badly injured, requiring surgery involving plastic and pins. Couzo insists that Alex be on the team, he was one of the five best competitors they saw and the team needs him.

Alex needs the team, too. A single father of a five-year-old son, Alex has been toiling away in a factory since being forced to leave fighting behind, and the workaday life is crushing his spirit.

As soon as the five team members are picked, they're thrust into a life of constant training. Team Korea trains all year round, subsisting on government funding, so the US team has to try to gain a whole lot of ground in a short period of time. For the three months building up to the tournament, they will live in a dormitory and spend all day every day training.

But first, they have one last night of freedom, which is spent at a bar. Of course, the night ends with a huge bar fight, initiated when Travis upsets a local (played by stuntman Kane Hodder, best known for playing slasher Jason Voorhees for four films in the Friday the 13th franchise) by getting a little too close and touchy-feely with his girl. The karate masters make quick work of the locals who attack them, with even Tommy reluctantly taking part in the fight. He tells his students never to use their skills against another person, but it's a self defense situation and he's forced to.

Training begins the next day, with Couzo and his regular trainer Don Peterson being joined by another trainer, Catherine Wade (Gasp! A female!). Couzo forced Alex onto the team despite the objections of a higher-up, now Wade is forced into his staff at the demand of the higher-up. While Couzo and Peterson's approach is simply to put the men through intense physical training, enhanced with hi-tech equipment like a device that calculates the speed and power of kicks, Wade is there to train the men mentally with the things she's learned while studying in the Far East. Couzo doesn't like it, but Wade works out just fine.

As the tournament nears, the team has to deal with a lot of issues and potential setbacks. Couzo is very demanding and doesn't like to appear to be understanding at all. He even kicks Alex off the team for rushing to be at his little boy's side after he's injured in a car accident. Travis doesn't get along with anybody. Tommy is psychologically tormented by memories of his older brother being killed in a match against Korean fighter Dae Han Park... who happens to be the fighter Tommy will be going against in the tournament.

However, all issues are overcome, and Couzo reveals that he actually does have a heart, just in time for the intact and functional team to catch their flight to Korea.

A lot of the running time up to that point has been dedicated to scenes of the team going through their training, intercut with shots of Team Korea training. The third act consists entirely of the US/Korea tournament, the culmination of all the hard work we've seen the fighters putting in.

Directed by Robert Radler, Best of the Best may not exactly live up to its title in comparison to some of the many other movies in the sports drama genre, but it certainly is among the ranks of the best the genre has to offer.

The characters are very likeable, we get behind them and root for them... even Travis, despite how much of a jerk he can be... They're established as the underdogs in this competition, and we want to see them do well against the very intimidating Team Korea. Well shot and choreographed, with sound design and the score by composer Paul Gilman adding weight to it all, the fights in the tournament are exciting, intense, bloody, and painful.

The story Rhee and Levine came up with is great, providing the characters with depth that makes the tournament something more than just a display of people kicking and punching each other. During the fights there are payoffs to elements that have been set up earlier as well as resolution to dramatic storylines. There are cheer-worthy moments in the competition, but more than that there are moments that make me want to cry due to how effective they are at tugging my heartstrings.

That much of a connection with the characters is able to be made not just because of Rhee and Levine's writing, but also because of the actors who portray them. Rhee himself did an incredible and endearing job in the role of Tommy, and he's surrounded by a cast that includes Eric Roberts as Alex, Chris Penn as Travis, and James Earl Jones as Couzo.

I've been a fan of Best of the Best ever since I started catching airings of it on cable movie channels when I was six, and I watched it (and the sequels that followed) many times throughout the '90s and into the 2000s. Watching it again twenty-five years after its initial release, I still find it to be a very good, entertaining, emotionally involving movie with some great fight scenes.

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