The Ultimate Warrior (1975)

There was none of your internet when I was a wean, none of your streaming, your satellite or cable TV, or indeed your video tape cassettes.  The telly was three channels, eventually four; great late-night movie programming, for sure, but that was your lot.  Much of my enthusiasm for films, particularly sci-fi and the likes, was stoked by reading about them.  I’d pore over the features in my dad’s back issues of Photoplay (the Empire of the ’70s) while all but memorising the likes of Denis Gifford’s Monsters of the Movies and especially Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now.

Sci-Fi Now was published on the back of the upsurge in popularity of “fantastic” genre films in the wake of the then recent successes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  A slim volume – basically an extended essay on science fiction movies and their history – it served as my introduction to The Final Programme, Fantastic Planet, The Cars That Ate Paris, Death Race 2000, A Clockwork Orange … the list goes on.  There were loads of pictures too, most of them on the enticing side of weird.  I was fascinated by these movies, most of which I wouldn’t see for years.  Which brings me to The Ultimate Warrior – Frank is enthusiastic about Robert Clouse’s post-apocalyptic thriller (“an excellent and atmospheric movie”) while noting that the film’s violence was “pervasive and not for the squeamish”.

So, recently I sat down to watch The Ultimate Warrior for the first time.  Over the thirty-plus years since I first read it I’ve seen many if not all of the films from Frank’s book which had sparked my interest, most of them years ago and some of them now firm favourites.  It seemed unlikely that The Ultimate Warrior could live up to that kind of expectation.  As it turns out, while I won’t say it sits beside the very best in the genre, it’s a good film.

New York city of the near future (well, 2012) has been overrun with gangs and general lawlessness in the years following a worldwide ecological disaster which has rendered all food crops non-viable.  One city block is controlled by Baron (Max Von Sydow) who heads a peaceful community numbering among its members his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) and her husband, a botanist who has developed fertile plant seeds.  Also in the ranks is a young Stephen McHattie.  The rest of the neighbourhood is controlled by William Smith, whose villainous character is saddled with the name Carrot.  Yul Brynner stars as Carson, a sort of wandering mercenary who throws in his lot with Von Sydow’s group as their head of security.  He is tasked by Baron to take his daughter and son-in-law – and more importantly the crop seeds – to an island safe haven.  Cue plenty of fighting and a lengthy game of cat and mouse through the disused subway system as Carrot gives chase.

Firmly in the “deserted city streets” school of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the film looks good and is competently directed by Enter the Dragon helmer Clouse.  Yul Brynner is good if oddly cast in a very physical role.  The jazzy score struggles to settle – slightly mismatched to the visuals in places, in others, such as a street chase scene, lending greatly to the atmosphere.  The film’s inconsistencies come close to derailing it – protagonists Brynner and Von Sydow – with their respective Russian and Swedish accents – are supposedly from the USA, the biological pandemic which has brought civilisation to its knees seems also to have somehow rendered guns and motorised transport unusable and the strange introduction to Brynner’s character – he stands motionless in the street for days until someone hires him – goes unexplained.  It seems to be setting up some kind of mystical martial arts hero as per the film’s title but once he’s on board with the Baron’s people, Carson is a perfectly normal guy – just one who’s particularly useful with a knife.  Surprisingly, the film isn’t nearly as violent as Alan Frank’s observations in Sci-Fi Now might have us believe.  While there is some grisly imagery, much of the actual cut and thrust, as it were, occurs off-camera.

There is a hint of optimism in there but with its bookending montages of stationary-shot landscapes and its largely grim view of human nature, The Ultimate Warrior is a downbeat, slightly melancholy film.  That atmosphere lends it weight beyond its limitations.

Tapes for my VCR: The Ultimate Warrior

Original UK Warner’s big box pre-cert release. Online purchase for £11.00

Alan Frank's Sci-Fi Now

Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now. Not sure if this is my original copy – it rings a very vague bell that I had to pick up a replacement in the dim and distant past.

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Night of the Comet (1984)

For this post, I had been going to put together a proper “Halloween special” with a double-bill of appropriate titles I’d missed on their first go-round.  Unfortunately, the other film, 1988’s Leviathan, turned out to suck really quite a lot, so I’ll give writing about it a miss. Ah well. Happy Halloween anyway …

Deep in the heart of the 1980s, cinema employee Reggie, out of The Last Starfighter, and her younger sister Sam, out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, unknowingly survive a Doomsday event only to find themselves in a largely deserted city, what with much of the population having turned to dust.  During trips to the mall, the local radio station and so on, they encounter zombies, psychotic stockroom workers, shady scientists, that guy out of Star Trek Voyager and Juliette Lewis’ dad.

Written and directed by Thom Eberhardt, Night of the Comet certainly serves as an ’80s time capsule – but it’s also a very cool little movie in its own right.  The properly ’80s cast of Catherine Mary Stewart (as well as … Starfighter she was in Weekend at Bernie’s), Kelli Maroney (not only Fast Times … but also Chopping Mall) and Robert Beltran (okay, Voyager was mid-’90s but he was in Lone Wolf McQuade) is engaging and the film is visually arresting.  The post apocalyptic vibe is driven home with lense filters, the sky having turned red in the aftermath of a comet’s passing, while the effective use of empty streets recalls The Omega Man and dozens of zombie flicks to follow.  There’s some social satire in there and a few proper horror moments with everything working on a “cheesy ’80s schlock” level – the mainstream pop soundtrack certainly helps – and as a Joe Dantesque send up of ’50s and ’60s B-movies.  The villainy is top notch with the stockboys from the mall all tooled up and nihilistic-like (“I’m not crazy – I just don’t give a fuck!”) and Geoffrey Lewis providing a scenery chewing turn as the sinister head of a lab where survivors are kept as sources of clean blood.  For, you know, evil research.

I’m glad to have found this one.  I was only vaguely aware of it prior to this viewing – I had, presumably, seen the box in video stores back in the day but had never read up on it. Night of the Comet is well worth checking out – zombies,Doomsday/post apocalyptic sci-fi, ’80s teen comedy and smart pastiche – somehow it manages to convincingly tick all of those boxes.

Night of the Comet

Original pre-cert small box release, online purchase, about eight quid all-in.

Other side of the reversable box art.

Other side of the reversable box art.

They Live (1988)

Unemployed builder Nada (professional wrestling legend Roddy Piper) goes to LA looking for work and ends up staying in a shanty town where he begins to suspect that something Just Isn’t Right.  There’s a weird preacher, television hackers and Strange Goings On at the local church before things take a sinister turn when The Man raids the shanty town, leaving it in ruins.  Nada makes off with a box of contraband, finding that it’s full of gnarly looking sunglasses.  Then he puts a pair on and the film goes mental with ensuing skull-faced aliens, epic fisticuffs, a heavy dose of satire and Meg Foster out of Cagney and Lacey.

Although They Live features one of John Carpenter’s least effective self-composed (with Alan Howarth) scores, his direction remains masterful.  The film is first and foremost a science fiction thriller but serves just as effectively as action movie and satire. Carpenter’s patented nods to other filmmakers are in full effect here too, with a ’50s B-movie vibe to the sci-fi elements and a fight scene which pays tribute to the epic punch-up between John Wayne and Victor McLaglin (also an ex-wrestler) in John Ford’s The Quiet Man.  Interestingly, the VHS’ 4:3 cropping seems to have done no harm.  The framing looks fine for most of the movie including the action scenes, so it seems likely Carpenter was working with the two aspect ratios in mind.  Of course, it does looks great in widescreen too.

That fight, between Piper and Keith David, is a classic – one of the great onscreen brawls and not a stunt double in sight.  A straight five minutes of wince-inducing punishment via old school brawling and some pro wrestling moves (stunt coordinator Jeff Imada would go on to handle the celebrated fight choreography for the second two Bourne movies), it’s made all the more enjoyable by the ridiculousness of the situation; the fight is all over a pair of sunglasses.    

The sunglasses are the McGuffin which leads us squarely into satire-heavy sci-fi territory, setting the pace for the rest of the film.  If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this paragraph as it’s entirely spoilery.  The glasses in question have been developed by a rebel underground to expose a surreptitious alien invasion of Earth.  Put the shades on and you can see not only the real, skull-like faces of the aliens among us, but the true nature of the society they have built and influenced.  Consumer advertising reads: “OBEY”, “STAY ASLEEP”, “CONFORM” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT”.  Paper money bears only the legend “THIS IS YOUR GOD”.  The truth is exposed in monochrome (as in “it’s all right there in black and white”).  It’s all kind of brilliant.

I was prompted to revisit this one after Roddy Piper’s death last month at the way-too-young age of 61. Here, at the height of his wrestling career, he turns in a solid, likeable performance which should have seen him go on to actual movie stardom, although he did amass quite a catalogue of B-movie credits over the years.  He even improvised the film’s most quotable line: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass.  And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

They Live was a modest, low budget box office success on its release.  Given its premise it seems inevitable that it would go on to develop a strong cult reputation – and not just in the world of film fans.  A cursory YouTube search will show that conspiracy theorists and such-like – David Icke amongst them – have long adopted it as proof of a reptile illuminati alien shadow government, or whatever.  In any case, They Live is one of John Carpenter’s best, and I don’t say that lightly.

TAPES FOR MY VCR THEY LIVE

Big box ex-rental, online purchase @ £3.00.

TAPES FOR MY VCR THEY LIVE ALT COVER

Feel that ’80s marketing! Flip the cover for an alternative version, to suit the schlock-levels of your video store.

Aftermath (1982)

A couple of astronauts return to Earth only to find they’ve missed the apocalypse.  Wandering the ruins of L.A., they encounter mutant-zombie things, a kindly museum curator, hot hippie chicks, a wee boy, radioactive storms and a crazed gang of murderous rapists.  Along the way, they somehow knock up a handy laser cannon out of spare parts.

Seemingly a vanity project by Steve Barkett (star, writer, director, producer, film editor), Aftermath is also a family affair, with several additional Barketts credited.  A low budget indie production, it’s nothing if not ambitious.  Shot when affordable digital technology was still decades off, here the film stock, impressive designs and use of glass/matte-painting add up to a visually more pleasing confection than the kind of thing regularly offered up today by the likes of the SyFy channel for the DTV/VOD markets.

Another plus point is the enthusiastic stunt work, firmly rooted in the school of “why walk when you can do a forward roll?”.  In this age of gym-bred bodybuilding protagonists, Barkett himself is perhaps a little unimposing, more like Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation than any other of today’s pop culture he-men.  He nonetheless proves capable in action scenes and appears to be doing most of his own stunts, leaving pretty much no element of any set or location unclimbed or un-jumped over by the end titles.  In one scene he is skipping between buildings at a fair old height just because, well, why not?  There’s a hint of the spirit of the silent movie era about it all, with stars risking life and limb for The Shot. 

Aftermath (also known, misleadingly, as Zombie Aftermath) draws liberally from the post-apocalyptic, dystopian sci-fi movies of the ’70s.  As it was reportedly shot in 1978, Aftermath actually predates the release of Mad Max but there are certainly echoes of Planet of the Apes, Logan’s RunThe Omega Man, A Boy and His Dog and Damnation Alley.  In the end, the vibe is actually more like an extended and unusually violent episode of The Twilight Zone.  That helps to lift the whole project, along with an orchestral score that sounds like it could have come straight from an old Flash Gordon serial and some canny B-movie casting.  Roger Corman veteran Dick Miller lends his voice as a broadcaster, while legendary science fiction superfan, B-actor and originator of the term “sci-fi” Forrest J. Ackerman is onboard as the museum curator.  Perennial TV heavy-of-the-week Sid Haig, who would go on to B-movie immortality as Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects, makes a great OTT villain.

This is exactly the kind of movie I want to stumble across.  I’d never heard of it when I saw a copy of the original UK VHS on eBay.  It was the box art that initially drew me in, spread out across the insert like a gatefold album, highlighting the film’s matte painting design.  Sure, the film itself displays many of the flaws you’d expect from a low-budget sci-fi/horror release – stilted dialogue, acting performances that vary wildly in quality, awkward pacing, sound issues, unintended humour.  All present and correct.  It’s got something, though. 

What I appreciate most about low budget independent filmmaking is the way that creative solutions are needed to realise creative ideas, something largely absent from a franchise-focussed modern mainstream industry built around tent-pole releases, where exploding spaceships and collapsing skyscrapers are an expensively rubber-stamped keystroke away. The enthusiasm, commitment and sheer determination that must have been involved in Aftermath‘s production shine through.  I used the term “vanity project” earlier, but I suspect “passion project” would be closer to the mark.

tapesformyvcr - Aftermath

Original UK big box ex-rental, about £9 online.