Editor’s Note: Thanks to our readers for quickly making this one of our most-visited reviews, with Denverites contacting us to discuss their memories of this mostly-never seen theatrically, hard-to-find film on grey-VHS. Even the director himself, Russel Kern, discovered our review! Yes, the positivity of the Internet is real. Now, let’s sit back with a filling Denver Sandwich and a cold Colorado Bulldog and enjoy the show!
“Jupiter is in the house of Aries . . . the great one will cool his sword in blood.”
— The Roman god of Jupiter, or is that the Greek god of Zeus, over the opening credits, warning of man’s end
“Jupiter and Saturn, Oberon, Miranda and Titania. Neptune, Titan, Stars can frighten.”
— Syd Barrett
Denver on Film
After enjoying my revisiting with Micheal Krueger’s Denver, Colorado, shot-and-released SOV’ers Mind Killer and Night Vision (1987)*, my analog memories drifted back to this comic book shop renter: an unidentified flying oddball if there ever was one. Okay, The Spirits of Jupiter isn’t an official SOV, as it’s analogous to Don Dohler’s Fiend: a drive-in production shot on 16mm and blown up to 35mm. But you know how we feel about the 16 to 35 flicks: they walk and quack like an SOV duck, more so when our first exposure to those films wasn’t in a drive-in, but as a home video renter.
And with a cover like the one on the left, you can’t not rent it on the 5-5-5 or one-day .49 cent plan. As for the bogus cover on the right: it in no way represents the movie under the slipcover. The one on the left, however, ever so sadly, does.
Who’s Russell Kern?
Prior to making his directing debut within The Spirits of Jupiter, self-made Colorado filmmaker Russell Kern, in his scripting debut, cast go-to old codger TV western actor Sunshine Parker** in the G-rated family film, Spittin’ Image (1982). I vaguely remember that film spin spinnin’ on a lazy, UHF-TV afternoon, right around the same time I was first exposed to the likes of the not-really-kid-flicks The Little Dragons, Mystery Mansion, and the old man pedo-alien non-starter, The Force on Thunder Mountain. I have no interest in remembering anymore than that — or give it a review proper, seeing Sunshine Parker in another film, be damned.
At that point, Russell Kern vanished, only to return as the producer and director of the never-heard-of-or-seen drama Pools of Anger (1992), about a man who dedicates his life to suicide prevention. Is it a Christploitation flick? It appears on various lists, based on one’s opinion as such, but there’s no information on the web regarding the plot to verify if it is, in fact, a Christian-slanted tale. (Speaking of which: check out our “Exploring: ’70s Christian Cinema” feature, it’s loaded with films to check out.)
Anyway, let’s pop in a copy of the lone film by Russel Kern that I know all too well: the George Romero rip that is The Spirits of Jupiter . . . but we must emptor our caveats before we get started. . . .
Is this as bad as the Canadian in-the-woods-talking SOV apoc-romp Survival: 1990? Eh, er . . . an on-the-fence “No” to that question. Is it any better than the Gary Lockwood-starring South America-doubling-for-Texas apoc slop that is Survival Zone? Definitely a “No,” to that one, as that movie stinks but Lockwood’s presence makes it watchable. Did this all need a touch of David A. Prior? God help me, but a resounding “Yes!” Where was David A. Prior when we needed him with his fleet of post-apoc Jeep Cherokees from Future Force and Future Zone. Maybe if Cornell Wilde made this back in the ’70s and he had some planetary, gravitational pull junk science bring down the fall of man in his apoc-opus, No Blade of Grass. . . .
Instead, we got the production savvy-common sense of Prior’s celluloid partner-in-crime David Winters’s concrete-blocked wall space ships complete with PCs on folding tables from Space Mutiny.
Yes, for you are about to be Def-Conned, as well as Def-Fucked, 1.
If you’re a fan of Cirio H. Santiago’s Equalizer 2000 and Anthony Maharaj’s Return of the Kickboxer (1987), Rex Cutter, Richard Norton’s co-star in both of those films (as Dixon and Col. Ted Ryan, respectively), stars here (and Executive Produces, as this is his vanity affair). Speaking of Kern’s debut film, Spittin’ Image: that film served as Cutter’s feature film debut, after getting his start as a background actor on several episode of Battlestar Galactica — as a Cylon Warrior. As is the case with most self-financed, regional-made flicks: the rest of the cast is one-and-gone, sans one: Chopper Bernet, who makes his acting debut, here. The ‘Chop is still crazy after all these years, with a lot of video game voice work on his resume for the G.I Joe, Marvel, and Star Wars franchises.
Okay, enough with the trivia. Let’s get into the “Romero Connection” of it all.
Hell, forget about the Romero premise. Look at the box: you’ve got a John Wayne lookalike (the hero), a CHiPs motorcycle cop (the villain), a racing Piper Cub, a helicopter, what looks like robed monks on horseback (that never show up in the film), a wayward couple on the run (to be rescued) — and Jupiter aligned with a bunch of planets. So what’s not to rent, here?
This film’s raison d’etre, however, isn’t just George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead, well, more to the point, The Crazies. This time, instead of an errant chemical spill or crashed space probe, it’s the Jupiter Effect: an effect that fueled many of the speculative documentaries of the 1970s regarding humanity’s demise, as well as various Christploition apoc flicks.
Don’t laugh, ye reader: for the fear — as with the biblical-assured The Rapture — of the scientifically-predicted Jupiter Effect, was real.
Grade school and middle schoolers were chilled to the bone, via the pages of Scholastic magazine in our English classes and the pages of Popular Mechanics in our Industrial Arts classes. When you turned on TBN – The Trinity Broadcasting Network, Hal Lindsay, he of the bible prophecy document The Late Great Planet Earth, had all of the bible passages collated and correlated to “The Jupiter Effect” at the ready: for by March of 1982, the door would be opened for the rise of The Antichrist.
The “fear” began with the worldwide, international best seller, The Jupiter Effect (1974), written by John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann. They advised that, on March 10, 1982, when Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were aligned on the far side of the Sun, a multitude of catastrophes would befall the Earth, including a great quake along the San Andreas Fault; a devastating quake that would “snap” South California off the North American continent and plunge into the Pacific.
Well, er, ah . . . California is still here, so?
The duo wrote a second, lesser-selling (natch) book, The Jupiter Effect Reconsidered. Now, according to their new prediction: The Jupiter Effect actually happened, only two years earlier — and it triggered the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State, on May 18, 1980.
Well, at least we got a movie out of it, with an honorable mention to Hal Lindsay, but a HUGE thanks to George Romero . . . we think. Yeah, let’s blame Georgie Boy.
In George Romero’s Pittsburgh in 1968: an errant military chemical spill triggered a worldwide zombie plague (meanwhile, in Jean Rollin’s La Morte Vivante, U.S aka’in as The Living Dead Girl*˟, a chemical spill over a coffin in a family crypt vamps (or zombifies) a too-soon-dead young woman; she triggers a plague, natch). In Russell Kern’s Denver in 1980: Jupiter’s “increased gravitational pull” affects the human brain (since it’s mostly made of water) — especially people with “certain blood types” — in higher elevations. And since the state of Colorado’s elevation runs between 10,000 to 12,000 feet, residents in the Rocky Mountains (especially in the highest point of the fictional Canon City) start acting irrationally (e.g., the town sheriff airs out the ol’ doggers on his desk — then shoots off his toes; implied, not shown, as we cutaway to Jupiter, again), then transform into flesh-hungry (on-a-budget, of course) zombies (i.e., people running around, growling, sans Fulci guacamole or Mattei grease paints; you know, just like a Rollin Spirit gummed-corn flakes n’ Karo Syrup and Red Dye #5 joint).
However, unlike a Romero joint: the local Denver acting troupe cavorting amid the frames stinks like the rotted, porcine non-thespin’ that it is. The effects — which take a snail’s pace to get to — are a bunch of cutaway-not-gory, clumsy rubber-misses. Our hero looses an eye in a (darkly shot) dog attack: end scene. Next scene: he’s sportin’ an eye patch. A butcher lops-off a customer’s hand (in a cost-effective wide shot): End scene. Next scene: there’s a rubber hand on the counter. A shovel-growling mob take a man to task, again, in a wide shot, for another SFX denial.
So, what about the plot?
That’s just it: we’re 40-plus minutes into this and there still isn’t one. There’s zero gore, for it’s all cost-effectively implied. And there’s not that much crazy. People are just unruly: men smack their wives and hold a knife to the throat, a bar fight breaks out, people rant at invisible people, and a woman threatens suicide — by jumping off a sidewalk. Of course, every time someone has an episode, there’s that pesky cutaway to Jupiter — so we know that Jupiter is at fault, here, and that the people of Denver aren’t just behaving at the usual, human status quo. Too bad we can’t blame all of 2020’s protests and CHOP n’ CHAZ zones shenanigans on gravitational shifts caused by a gas giant. (Oh, Jupiter, ye god of the skies and thunder: Did you organize the Kyrie Irving protest at the Brooklyn Barclay Center? I hope the heavenly collection plates cleaned up on the Nets losing their home opener loss to the Charlotte Hornets.)
Anyway, the lone unaffected here is our faux-John Wayne/Rooster Cogburn, aka Big Jim Diller, aka our fair Rex Cutter. And why isn’t Big Jim going nuts? Oh, you must have fast-forwarded though that plot-point: a midget Indian shaman who runs a desert junkyard warns Big Jim to wear a gold plate under his ten-gallon hat.
Finally, it took us an hour, but we’ve gotten to the apocalypse. And it ain’t all that apoc, natch.
Big Jim’s finally made it back to his hometown from his remote silver mine — now under a klaxon-echoing, car-carass and street fire-strewn apocalypse, complete with law enforcement vs. military machine gun fire (the only action-driven SFX in this borealypse) — to rescue his son and daughter, which he comes to discover, have been kidnapped by the town sheriff.
Ugh. Not this worn out apoc-plot, again.
Remember the apoc-slopper The Survivalist, where Marjoe Gortner makes it his life’s mission to bring Steve Railsback to justice — apoc fallouts, be damned? Well, our infected town Sheriff, who, before the plague broke out, suspected Big Jim of hiring illegal aliens (i.e. “undocumented workers”) to work his silver mine. And our sheriff will bring Big Jim to justice, Jupiter Effect fallouts — and racism — be damned.
Eventually, at the 70-minute mark — and we still have 40, yes 40 minutes to go — Big Jim hooks up with a group of scientists holed up in an abandoned mine that was secret-converted to a bomb shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And be grateful they did: their junk science-babble about the moon, the Earth’s tides, and man’s body is 90% water, the brain is mainly water, etc., really helps along (not) the film’s exposition-heavy plot of all talk and no action. . . .
Now, moi, referring back to our Syd Barrett quote: I’d have scripted a conspiracy that Syd Barrett “Eddie Wilson’d” his own death and he converted the mine into a home (converting missile silos, bunkers, and other abandoned government installations is an architectural reality) and the ex-Pink Floyd leader solves the mystery: for “Astronomy Domine” foretold it all. But alas, Russell Kern, and not your fair R.D Francis, has the funds to fiance his own screenplays. So we end up with Rooster Cogburn, and not a faux-Syd Barrett, saving Denver from an apocalypse.
Yes. The Duke of Denver will save you. Where’s Issac Hayes when we need ’em? Or Sunshine Parker. Or Ernest Borgnine. . . . Hey, know your Escape from New York actors, buddy.
Wrapping It Up (You’re still here, reading?)
In the end, Russell Kern’s The Spirits of Jupiter isn’t a horror film. It’s a not science fiction film. It is, however, a sometimes (very bad) comedy. It’s not a western, but in a Mad Maxian sense — courtesy of Cutter’s John Wayne-cum-Max Rockatansky — it is. And it takes us one hour fifty minutes to get there. Yes. Not 80. Not 90. But a snooze-inducing 110 minutes. A valiant effort? Sure. No one sets out to make a bad film . . . but this time, for this reviewer, this almost-forty year and forgotten grey-market apoc’er ain’t cutting it in my beloved apoc sweepstakes. No offenses to any of the hard-working cast and crew, intended. And I am not the only reviewer who expressed these same concerns. . . .
Ah, on the upside, let’s give Mr. Kern (some) credit where it is due:
If you know your zombie history: English romantic poet Robert Southy wrote a book, The History of Brazil (1819), and gave us the first use of the word “zombie” in the English language. Ah, but Southy pinched the term from Thomas Lindley, who used the West African-Kongo language term fourteen years earlier, in his Narrative of a Voyage to Brazil (1805). Back then, “zombie” referred to a “soulless corpse revived by witchcraft,” as well as a West African-Haiti voodoo serpent-deity. Then, once W.B Seabrook published his account of his travels in Haiti with The Magic Island (1929) — with a tale of freshly-dug bodies revived by sorcery — all clichéd Hell let let loose in Hollywood. And yes, you watched that book as the Bela Lugosi-starring White Zombie (1932).
Since then, the U.S., Italian and Spanish film industries, once the Tinseltown sprockets tired of the voodoo angle and the “when hell became full” inversion, gave us zombies via space probe crashes, by priest suicide, by secret government chemicals and warfare, and the corker, courtesy of Jorge Grau: by ultrasonic radiation to kill insects: yes, an insect killing machine, in The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974).
So, to Russell Kern one-upping Grau’s bug-machine zombies with new-and-improved Jupiter Effect-zombies: we thank you . . . well, just a little. . . .
As with Will MacMillan’s vanity SOV’er Cards of Death (which I friggin’ love to death), after a quick-and-gone local release, The Spirits of Jupiter, never seen a full-scale U.S. release and never made it out on video. While MacMillan’s vanity affair made it back to U.S. shores as a grey-market VHS out of Japan, Rex Cutter’s vanity effort crossed the ocean from the ports of the Netherlands and Poland as a U.S. grey marketer. The later, Euro-titled greys as Planet Gone Mad ain’t helping, either, as it leads you believe you’ve been duped with a repack of another apoc-sloppy non-starter, World Gone Wild (1987). And you wish you were duped with that Adam Ant-starring mess. And we thought Steve Barkett’s vanity apoc’er The Aftermath (1982) was a mind-trying watch. Well, Russell Kern topped it, or bottomed out, depending one’s celluloid masochistic perspective.
In the end, that’s what is all about at B&S About Movies: we may rip these old, ’80s VHS’ers now and again, but man: we love these films from the VHS shelves of grey-market yore. In fact, some commenters on the IMDb, Letterbox, and various VHS message boards have mentioned that they got their copies of The Spirits of Jupiter from VSOM, Video Search of Miami’s catalog (this Tap Talk thread will get you get you up to speed on that beloved, catalog-order shingle). That’s how dedicated we ’80s video junkies are to analog trench-warriors like Russell Kern. It’s guys like Kern that made comic book video store renting all-the-sweeter.
So, should you skip The Spirits of Jupiter . . . and stick with the small-town-gone-wild shenanigans of Bud Cardos with Mutant (1984) and Nico Mastorakis’s Nightmare at Noon (1988) for your eh-it’s-not-a-Romero-chemical-spill-joint-but-why-not-I’m-desperate-for-entertainment apoc fix? Opinions vary.
You can watch The Spirits of Jupiter on You Tube . . . then again, this 11 minute highlight reel should be enough to wet your whistle, padre. Eh, that may be too much too belly up to the bar for, Big Hoss. So toss back this two-minute reel of the “madness” scenes to diminish your own snow-drifting, analog madness.
Insights from Director Russell Kern in July 2022
“Well, I did enjoy your review, and little did you know: you reviewed the bootlegged, early version of Spirits of Jupiter. By the way: the equally-stolen Planet Gone Mad (the 2nd DVD cover in your nicely written piece) is a horrid, bootleg dub off the preview VHS [that was] further dubbed down to remove all our hard fought-for action. For instance: the deputies and sheriff blast the miner from the rooftop (our stuntman, Dave Ross, killed so many times in the movie because our 2nd stuntman, John was injured early on in a motorcycle stunt that was unusable in any version of the film). Though many have cited various influences on the story, I had this script [completed] from the late 1970s and never saw [George Romero’s] The Crazies. It was sold as, originally Zombie Hunters, as just a legalized, zombie extermination-extension from Romero’s idea. But we got a producer on board whose family had recently suffered a terrible tragedy; he was insistent we cut back the really good stuff, that is: the little girl seen earlier in the cemetery was to be drinking the shot fellow’s blood, as it dripped from the roof edge.
“I would argue that early on, in our final 75-minute version [again, we’ve reviewed the 110-minute bootlegged version], you get the ‘Prophesy’ special effects sequence, a headless restaurant customer, the murder of Happy the Miner (shot at least 20 times with dozens of effects squibs); the death by pistol and shotgun (more effects squibs) and subsequent fall of Dave Ross; Chief Switcher shooting off his toe, the airplane duel when the Chief tries to stop him on the runway, and the flight to the mine all in the first reel, roughly 12 to 15 minutes. In the next ten minutes: the miners attack and chop up the wonderful [actor] Walt Jaschek; one gets impaled on a forklift, another by pitchfork, and some good action as Drill gets to the plane of which propeller chops off the head of yet another miner during the escape, then Jaschek gets chopped up by shovels, then Drill kills two more from the air (an excellent shot). By the way, these were some good effects done by Sam Peckinpah’s SFX-guy who kindly came out for the fun of burning down a city on camera, Peter Chesney. Body Count Score: 15 minutes: 8 or 10, dead.
“And then it gets weird. . . .
“Steve Flanigan, my producing partner [who relays the same production issues in a 2013-review and interview of the film at Video Junkie.org], when we ran Producers Group Studios, did a fantastic job shooting Spirits of Jupiter worth mentioning in any review. [He completed] beautiful, wide screen camerawork from one of the two helicopters we [acquired] for the movie, as well as the Piper Cub-hero airplane. I think it wasn’t that the acting that was so bad . . . as the lack of judicious editing, hastily assembled into the version [you’ve reviewed] as we solicited a distributor. I take credit there, I’m afraid.
“Rex told us not to send out anything until it’s ready, but at the same time: he suffered from an urgent need for income, and the early rough cut, which was intended for us to trim down, is what most folks have seen [and you reviewed]. Tragically, the Los Angeles attorney handling the distribution, passed away, and his entire estate went into [legal] limbo. Pieces leaked out years later . . . and have now become the two examples you happen to have seen. That’s the bad part.
“The good part: we worked hard on that movie, put far more into it than we were paid, and shot it in two weeks in some of the most beautiful, as well as a few eerie locations, we have here in Colorado. We continue to enjoy working in Colorado. Thanks so much for looking at Spirits of Jupiter.”
Thanks much to Russell for being a good sport regarding our review and reaching out, contributing to the review. It is much appreciated. One day, hopefully, an official DVD or Blu-ray would be possible of the intended, 75-minute version. . . .
* Other Denver-shot films we’ve reviewed include Curse of the Blue Lights, The Jar, and Manchurian Avenger. Other other, obscure Mile Highers we’d like to review, but there’s no copies to be had, are Savage Water (1979), Lansky’s Road (1985), and Back Street Jane (1989). And you thought the Pittsburghese the B&S staff spews is weird: turns out Coloradoans have their own regional colloquialisms. Bone-up before you hit the “303” and fit in. Don’t yinz embarrass us.
** Sunshine Parker’s career dates to Gunsmoke in the ’60s, with his best-known, recurring TV role in the ’70s on Little House on the Prairie. On the big screen, you know Parker best as Emmet: Dalton’s farm-loft landlord in Road House.
*˟Remade — or was it ripped, or sequeled — by Jean Rollin himself, as Revenge of the Living Dead Girls?