Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness (1986)

In the 1985 horror anthology, Tim Ritter created a short called “Truth of Dare” in the movie Twisted Illusions. A year later, he’d expand that story into this slasher.

With a budget of $200,000, this was shot on 16mm film so it’s another one of those “if it’s released on video, it’s shot on video” films. Well, it was made expressly for the direct to video. market and mom and pop shops, so there’s that. Ritter was just 18 when this was made in Palm Beach County, Florida and due to creative differences with the producers he was removed from the film and producer Yale Wilson is listed as the director on the original VHS release.

There are several sequels, all directed and written by Ritter: Wicked Games, Screaming for Sanity: Truth or Dare 3, Deadly Dares: Truth or Dare Part IV and I Dared You! Truth or Dare 5, as well as a bootleg sequel, Writer’s Block, which was sold as Truth or Dare 2.

Mike Strauber (John Brace) finds his wife Sharon in bed with his best friend Jerry and poor Mike has the kind of mental breakdown that inevitably turns one into a slasher villain. He heads off and picks up a hitchhiker and remembering a game of truth or dare where he cut himself with a razor blade, he listens to the hitchhiker’s requests and slices himself up. Except that there’s no hitchhiker. Mike’s lost it.

A year later, Mike gets released from the Sunnyville Mental Institution. Blame budget cuts. Blame too many patients. Blame the fact that Mike is crazy but also smart. His good behavior is noticed and the first thing he does when he gets out is killing Jerry and then go after his ex-wife. When he’s wounded in this murder attempt, he goes back to Sunnyville and is soon back to hallucinating disfigured patients telling him to destroy his face and wear a mask. After one of the attendants is dumb enough to taunt Mike with a photo of his ex-wife, he stabs the orderly with a pencil to the eye Fulci-style and finds a cache of weapons, because that’s exactly what is sitting around a mental hospital.

At this point, Mike just goes wild, committing crimes such as hitting a stroller with his car — the baby launches high in the air — and then going back to roll over the mother; machine gunning an entire bench full of senior citizens; doing a drive-by chainsawing of a Little League player and finally trying to kill his wife all over again. Oh Mike, they’re just going to put you back in Sunnyville.

Ridiculous in all ways and therefore worth watching. I also believe that Rob Zombie completely took the papier mâché first mask that Michael wears in his remake from this movie.

You can watch this on YouTube.

Hawk Jones (1986)

Bugsy Malone is one of the strangest movies you’ll find, Sir Alan Parker’s gangster musical that stars Scott Baio, Jodie Foster and an all-child cast. Hawk Jones does that and goes beyond, with an all-child cast from Moline, Illinois shot on video and instead imitating the days of Dillinger and Capone, they’re making a direct to video cop movie complete with doomed women and machine gun aided revenge.

Director Richard Lowry kept on making movies after this, like President EvilAlien Overlords and Rapture. He was inspired by seeing a Jello Pudding Pop commercial where all the kids were acting like adults. It was written by his brother Tor Reyel.

Hawk Jones (Valiant Duhart) is a cop who all the other cops make fun of for being such a maniac. He’ll also flip out if you make fun of his mother. His partner is in love with him, but he’s dating Lola, the gangster’s moll who is fated for a bad ending, and he’s been battling a crime boss named Antonio Coppola for years, a man — well, a child — who has hired a punk rock larger kid named The Destroyer to take out Hawk.

Kids in bars. Kids singing in Vegas-style numbers. Kids battling with guns in scenes that feel like a sub-Cannon 80s action movie except, again, with children and sound effects written on the screen like Batman. And best of all, a sword fight ending that’s better than almost any movie you’ll see this year.

Johnny LaRue couldn’t get his crane shot but somehow, this movie could.

Night of Terror (1986)

The one and done directorial work of Felix Girard, Night of Terror was written by Renee Harmon, who went from being in an acting group in Texas with fellow Army officer’s wives to roles in Al Adamson’s Cinderella 2000 as well as Frozen ScreamLady StreetfigherVan Nuys Blvd.Jungle Trap and Hell Riders. She also stars Chris Nilsen, who is being kept in a mental hospital against her will by her philandering husband Alex (Henry Lewis) and Dr. Seymour Harper (Frank Neuhaus), who just wants to experiment on his patients in a very Hellhole scenario.

Her lawyer finally gets her released and she moves into the former home of Harper — bad idea — and becomes friends with Harper’s wife Ellen (Lynn Whitmire) — bad idea again — and stays there even after learning that Harper’s mistress Inez (Susette Andres) was killed there in the worst of all these ideas. If that doesn’t just beat all, there’s also a hooded would-be giallo killer in the form of Harper’s patient Paul Peterson (Steven Neuhardt) who is haunting the house as well.

Somehow, in the midst of all of this, we get to see Chris’ stepdaughter Becky (Lauren Brent) go to a pool party where a new wave band plays and by plays, I mean we hear the entire song and not just a clip of them.

As all of this is happening, Chris also meets Paul’s psychic mother Celeste (Arline Specht) who uses an Ouija board — oh man, Ouija and SOV in the same movie, alert my Letterboxd lists — to introduce our protagonist to her spirit guide Julian.

Obviously this was also produced by Harmon, so no one told her not to speak in an impenetrable accent — to be fair, she was born in Mannheim, Germany but had lived in the U.S. for some time and there’s usually always a second take but come on, there wasn’t we all know that — or play scenes from Frozen Scream as happening at the same time as this tale, despite that movie being made ten years or more before that.

That said, I kind of love this whole enterprise. From Paul wearing a full set of fancy pajamas while supposedly in a mental hospital — topped by the bald female patient who looks to be wearing an outfit from a combination fast food restaurant and Nickelodeon game show — this is a movie full of choices, so few of those choices being ones that make the slightest sense. It also has a Night Killer-level scene of its lead character having a long conversation with herself in a mirror and you know how much I love that.

This is also a film that ends with potential forced surgery and a ghost melting her face in front of everyone, as well as Paul being absolved of all the murders he’s committed and yet stalking our heroine in a twist sting that made me laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of it all.

Keep in mind as you watch this that Renee Harmon was an acting teacher in East Texas and yes, of course she was. She should have been. More people should make movies like Night of Terror, which is also called Escape from the Insane Asylum. There are Dutch angles, sure, but there’s also a scene where Harmon screams at herself and puts lipstick all over her face and man, that’s cinema.

You can watch this on YouTube.

Gore-met Zombie Chef from Hell (1986)

Don Swan directed, wrote and produced one thing and this is it, the story of Gozu, a man damned to be alive forever but forced to feast on flesh, so why shouldn’t he share that with the rest of the world and start chopping up customers and serving it to other customers? For six hundred years, this is the way he’s been doing business, but at least now he’s figured out how to smoke out and wear comfy Hawaiian shirts in addition to masticating on people.

There’s a lot of 80s jazz — there’s a whole band playing live so this has commitment — and lots of women milling around Gozu’s beach restaurant, as well as some health inspectors and a cult called The Holy Order of the Righteous Brotherhood that has watched over the chef for centuries. Also: he is not a zombie, but that title is too good to play with. I guess if he doesn’t eat meat he turns into one.

One of the people he’s already devoured part of, Azog, stands outside the place and yells at people to avoid it. If he and the other hooded members of the Brotherhood are still alive are they eating flesh as well?

Filmed on location at Smokey Joe’s Cafe in Charlotte — which is still open, so eat there at your own discretion — this movie shopped local, as it has dancers from the Paper Doll Lounge. The fact that this business still operates more than forty years later proves that people in North Carolina know how to support mom and pop (and probably a lot of single moms) businesses.

I wrote for a burger restaurant for a few months and they always called out how they didn’t have freezers and ground their meat fresh every day. Goza’s Deli and Beach Club can claim the same thing but perhaps even better — or worse — because some of their ingredients are so fresh they’re still crawling around the plate.

The main drama kicks in when a girl named Stella disappears. Her man Jerry tries to get Tracy, a meat packing hard drinking girl who tells every man to “fuck off,” to help, but she just gets co-opted by Gozu, joins his side and kills the dude who may have been our protagonist. Stella’s roommate Missy, however, may be the prophesized high priestess destined to destroy Gozu.

The sad part of it all is that this movie is aware of itself and if it weren’t, it would be amazing. At least the box art is incredible.

The Song of the Sword (1986)

There’s a place down by the Pittsburgh Zoo where the USS Potemkin (a Star Trek fan club) used to volunteer to clean the road in costume, where firefighters burn a fake building for practice, the Shuman Center used to hold the worst yinzer teenagers and the Society for Creative Anachronism would do fake swordfights. For some time, if you looked this place up on Google maps street view, you’d see this microcosm all coming together as one.

It’s this kind of magic that led Abraxas Productions to make this movie all over Kansas — mostly in Lawrence — and it’s a sword and sorcery film without even the budget of a Joe D’Amato production. I’ve tried looking up director J. Stanley Haehl and there’s nothing on IMDB. There’s no entry on Letterboxd. This is literally undiscovered territory and even crazier, it feels like Gor on a less than paperback budget.

Imagine, if you will, LARPers — Live Action Role Playing — but on a much larger scale, filmed by video camera, fuzzy drained video colors coalescing to give us wanderers with walking sticks in the woods, primitive video effects in the place of computer generation magic and best of all, everyone is so serious about it. Like, serious enough to get out amongst the jagger bushes — my Pittsburgh is showing, you know, those trees that catch on to you in the woods — and mosquitos in a loin cloth of all things.

You ever pore over that old Monster Manual and have a Hook Horror LJN figure? Then you’re going to get this. Maybe you’d like to see ladies in Renaissance Faire garb sword fight one another in the hometown of William Burroughs, possibly behind a mall? Do you like dialogue like, “Do mine eyes deceive me or is it Shan-Ra?” And people bowing and saying, “My lady, I beseech you for protection?”

This movie makes me feel like everyone in this is really into symphonic metal, BDSM, polyamory or painting miniatures. Maybe and instead of or. And look, I could make some jokes about Charisma rolls and doing 3d6 damage and knowing that TSR stood for Tactical Studies Rules but the last time I started talking like this, well, my wife still hasn’t slept with me. So yeah, in another time and place, I would have totally been part of a movie like this. I’ve worn a ST:TNG costume in public. I mean, I have no shame any longer. So I really can’t make fun of this. I mean, you totally will.

I’m also totally thinking part of this was shot at the Coronado Heights Castle, a place where Francisco Vásquez de Coronado gave up his search for the seven cities of gold and went back to Mexico. In 1936, to celebrate this, the Works Progress Administration built a stone shelter that looks like a castle. But no, it was shot in Kanopolis State Park and Douglas County.

Man, by the end, the video effects get wild and some dude has a rune on his forehead and the synth and howling woods kick in as the dialogue gets thick and the good guy looks like he could be in a hair band that no one knows like Shark Island or the Sea Hags. Or Banshee from Kansas City, but those guys were on Metal Blade and more power metal.

There’s also totally a big fight scene with a dude who looks like he could alternatively be in The Scorpions or a VCA movie fighting dudes with lit torches while a shirtless Shan-Ra poses above a castle.

If you drink every time someone says thou or thee, well, you’re going to die. I love the character names as well, like Grimwald Graelie (Ry Brown, who also wrote and produced this), Kalydia (Maria Anothont, who wrote and produced too) and Death itself! Oh yeah — Ry and Maria also designed the costumes and fabricated them, so my SCA theory holds up.

Also: Merlin shows up!

Also also: Dudes totally look like Manowar.

There’s also an accommodations consultant in the credits, so I assume that’s the guy who knew where the hotel was.

Please drink every time Ry and Maria’s names are in the credits.

I want to know. everything there is to know about this movie, so if you were in it or have a story about it, get in touch now. Please. I’m dying to know more. I know I’ve made fun of it for around seven hundred fifty words now, but Crom, I have never prayed to you before. I have no tongue for it. No one, not even you, will remember if we were good men or bad. Why we fought, or why we died. All that matters is that I need to know facts about The Song of the Sword. That’s what’s important! Trivia pleases you, Crom… so grant me one request. Grant me knowledge! And if you do not listen, then to hell with you!

You can watch this thanks to Demolition Kitchen Video on the Internet Archive.

DISMEMBERCEMBER: Regalo di Natale (1986)

Starting around 1983, cinepanettoni movies started to be released every Christmas in Italy. The name means cinema and panettone, a sweet bread traditionally given during the season. A lot of these movies are about Italian families abroad getting into hijinks. The holidays — just as over here — are a great time for people to get out of the house and into theaters.

If you’ve only seen his films Arcane Sorcerer, Nine Deaths a Week, Zeder and The House with the Laughing Windows, you may not think director and writer Pupi Avati is someone filled with the Christmas spirit. Yet he made this, a film in which Christmas night is spent amongst a group of former friends — Gabriele (Alessandro Haber), Stefano (George Eastman), Ugo (Gianni Cavina) and Franco (Diego Abatantuono) — who get back together after years of distrust. They want to be friends again but are unsure how to do it. Perhaps ripping off the rich and mysterious Avvocato Santelia (Carlo Delle Piane)  in a game of poker is the way to make their lives come back together.

Each of them is at a bad place in their lives. Gabriele is tired of his newspaper job and just wants enough money to be able to write about what he really loves, the films of John Ford. Stefano is struggling to keep up his heterosexual ruse but truly loves men. Ugo is divorced and ugly at love. Only Franco is rich enough to get Santelia to play a game of poker. However, he’s now the owner of a cinema and doesn’t want anything to do with Ugo. His secret is that his life seems rich and powerful on the outside but he must answer to so many people. Money could help. Can’t it always? Uggo promises that he will make up for a past slight to Ugo, who still doubts his former associate.

Franco and the lawyer are the ones in the lead as the game begins and as we see the cards play, we also learn what happened in the past: Franco’s first wife Martina — the only woman he has loved — made love to Uggo. As the stakes go higher, the true reasons for the evening will become known.

This was so popular that in 2014, Avati made a sequel, La rivincita di Natale, with the same cast. That film even has a scene that discusses the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the work of art that The House with the Laughing Windows is based on.

It’s so odd to see a smiling ladykiller George Eastman in this movie, playing cards instead of doing what he’s better known for, ripping into a woman’s stomach and eating her unborn baby.

 

PITTSBURGH MADE: Gung Ho (1986)

Not only was this film shot in Beaver, PA, it stars Michael Keaton, who was born in Kennedy Township and grew up in McKees Rocks, Coraopolis and Robinson Township and went to high school at Montour. His first acting work was on public station WQED and he played one of the Flying Zookeeni Brothers on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, where he was also a production assistant. How big of a yinzer is he? He negotiated a break during the filming of Batman in case the Pittsburgh Pirates made the playoffs that year.

Of course, they didn’t.

While the movie is set in Hadleyville, Pennsylvania, the factory was in Shadyside, Ohio and the town itself is the aforementioned Beaver, a town minutes from where I grew up. It was a big deal for the town that they donated a gazeebo and it’s still there.

Keaton plays Hunt Stevenson, who has traveled to the Japanese offices of Assan Motors Corporation to convince them to reopen the closed plant in his hometown. They agree and send Takahara “Kaz” Kazuhiro (Gedde Watanabe) to run it in the Japanese style, which conflicts with the blue collar workforce played by George Wendt, John Turturro, Rick Oberton and Clint Howard (Ron directed and got him and their father roles, but he’s as always awesome in this; Howard, Keaton and writers Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel had all worked on Night Shift together).

You can see the conflict coming. Stevenson wants to please everyone and ends up nearly costing the town everything — Rance Howard plays the mayor who has a breakdown and tells the entire assembled townsfolk that much — while losing the respect of his friends and almost causing his girlfriend Audrey (Mimi Rodgers) to finally dump him.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, Toyota’s executives in Japan have used this movie as an example of how not to manage Americans.

ARROW VIDEO SHAW SCOPE VOLUME 2 BOX SET: Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986)

The only collaboration between film director Lau Kar-leung and actor Jet Li, Martial Arts of Shaolin has Li playing Lin Zhi-ming, a young man training to become one of the best fighters in the Northern Shaolin school. Orphaned as a child, he was raised by the Shaolin Temple but has a tendency to break the rules, such as teaching his skills to the local children. One day, he learns that two of them will be performing a dance at the celebration for magistrate He Suo — the very same tyrant who killed Zhi-ming’s family. He asks them to let him perform instead. At the same time, Si-ma Yan (Huang Qiuyan) — the niece of the master of Southern Shaolin — decides that this is the time that she too should finally avenge her family and murder He Suo.

The secret ankle band that Zhi-ming has is shared by Si-ma Yan, meaning that they are fated to be together. However, he is honor bound to the Shaolin and even after being caught by his master, he agrees to serve a punishment as he went against his school. This means that he can never be with her, but again, duty to the Shaolin is above all else.

This is actually the third film in a series that includes Shaolin Temple and Kids from Shaolin. You don’t need to see those movies to understand this, as it can stand all by itself. Actually, it’s pretty close to the original film’s plot.

THANKSGIVING TERROR: Deadly Friend (1986)

Somewhere along the way, the idea that Wes Craven was a genius became accepted fact. While I enjoy A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Hills Have Eyes just fine, so many of his films fall apart and feel wildly uneven.

Case in point: 1986’s Deadly Friend.

The film was intended to be a science fiction film, based on the novel Friend by Diana Henstell. After Craven’s original cut was shown to a test audience, the audience felt let down that there weren’t any nightmare scenes or gore shocks. So the studio imposed reshoots and a new edit, ending in a film that veers from the wacky comedy hijinks of a robotic best friend with an old woman’s head being exploded with a basketball. Nearly any plot development was lost and we’re left with a main character who feels like an utter creep. A second set of test audiences hated the graphic violence and gore. You just can’t win.

That said — Wes Craven’s output is often marked by explanations of studio interference and bad test screenings and screwed up budgets. I understand that Hollywood is rough and the ghetto of horror movies — which he yearned to escape — doesn’t matter all that much to the bean counters. But seriously — there are more excuses than successes in the oeuvre of Craven.

Teenage science genius Paul Conway (Matthew Laborteaux, Little House on the Prairie star and former U.S. Pac-Man champion) and his single mom have just moved to town. Paul’s got one friend so far, newspaper boy Tom Toomey (Michael Sharrett, Theodore Rex and Savage Dawn). In one of their first conversations, they discuss withdrawn next door neighbor Samantha Pringle (Kristy Swanson, the future Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but mainly discuss her breasts. Yes, the boys of 1986 didn’t even hide what sexist jerks they were.

Samantha and Paul get close when she’s not being beaten into oblivion by her dad Harry (Richard Marcus, who played Dr. William Raines on the TV series The Pretender). But there’s a silver lining — they all have a robotic friend named B.B. that Paul built when he isn’t taking over the college classes he’s attending early or doing autopsies. And oh yeah — B.B. is voiced by Charles Fleischer, whose sub-Robin Williams mania only really worked in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Here, his voicing of B.B. will instantly remind you of Roger while grating on you with each successive second of screen time.

Other than the abusive dad and a motorcycle gang, the kids’ main enemy is the old lady who lives next door, Elvira Parker (Anne Ramsey from The Goonies and Throw Mama From the Train; it seems this was the role she did best, a harridan who makes people want to kill her). Instead of a tender Home Aloneexplanation of why she hates kids, she’s a one-note villain: she steals basketballs and fires shotguns, including a harrowing scene (or joy-inducing if you’re as annoyed by this robot as I was) where she murders B.B. with several blasts of hot lead.

After a Thanksgiving night first kiss with Paul, Sam’s dad gets so upset that he ends up shoving her down the steps to her death. She soon expires, leading Paul to go insane and try to bring her back to life with the chip he saved from B.B. This leaves us with Sam as a proto-goth robot zombie with superhuman strength.

What follows is pretty much why this movie is well-known — you’ve probably seen the animated GIF of Elvira’s head being splatted by a basketball — which is wall-to-wall mayhem. People get thrown through cop car windows, Sam dives from a second-story window and lands on her feet to no one’s surprise at all and the end if laughably tacked on, trying to be an ersatz Carrie, with her face graphically splitting open to reveal the visage of B.B. before she kills Paul. Also — the requisite studio asked for dream sequences are here and ready to bleed all over your eyeballs.

PS — that ending is also totally a studio conceit. Writer Bruce Joel Rubin told Fangoria, “That robot coming out of the girl’s head belongs solely to Mark Canton, and you don’t tell the president of Warner Brothers that his idea stinks!”

Seriously — executive vice president of Warner Brothers Mark Canton went mathematic on this film — demanding additional gore scenes be added to the film, each progressing in visceral excess. For his part, Craven would distance himself from the film, feeling that his vision had been compromised. Dude — you were making a movie about a girl being turned into a robot. He dreamed of crossing over like John Carpenter did with Starman. At the risk of being a jerk, I’ll just say what I’m feeling: Wes Craven was no John Carpenter.

Maybe I should be a little nicer. After all, Craven was dealing with anywhere from eight to twenty different producers on this film, as well as a divorce and being pulled from Beetlejuice and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Wow — I would actually love to see what Craven would have done with that one! He was also in the midst of a plagiarism lawsuit, as someone claimed that he had stolen the idea for A Nightmare On Elm Street from them. Craven claimed that he worked on Deadly Friend because his agent said to him, “You should do a studio film, because otherwise you’ll be stuck doing small films for the rest of your life.”

As for Rubin, he’d deal with similar studio interference on a later project, Jacob’s Ladder. Ah, Hollywood.

MILL CREEK NIGHTMARE WORLDS: Hands of Steel (1986)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sean Collier is a writer and movie critic. Listen to his podcast, The Number One Movie in America, on all major podcast apps. Follow him on Twitter for more reviews: @seancollierpgh

It’s an Italian/American ’80s cyborgsploitation arm-wrestling action western. You know, just another one of those.

After The Terminator hit, the overarching mode of genre cinema lurched into the near future as studios and directors around the world began developing stories featuring fancy gadgets and lots of action in mild dystopias. Sergio Martino, who had already flashed forward with 1983’s 2019: After the Fall of New York, likely had little trouble conceiving this story of a cyborg with a conscience on the run from everyone.

Paco Queruak (Daniel Greene) is tasked with assassinating a cult-of-personality environmental leader — “You Have No Future,” says his on-the-nose posters — but hesitates at the last moment, merely maiming him. Drawn to the Arizona desert, he evades law enforcement until he washes up at an out-of-the-way bar and motel run by Janet Agren (Linda), who will gradually become Paco’s love interest.

It takes an awful long time to get to the reveal, but you’ll have it figured out early — Paco is a cyborg, mostly mechanical but assembled using the spare parts of a mortally wounded man. (Yes, Martino quite cleanly conceived the “Robocop” plot a couple years early.) Now he’s being pursued by three different groups — the FBI agents investigating the attack, his creators and the local arm-wrestling goon and his minions.

Oh, right — the arm wrestling.

Soon after Paco arrives in Arizona, Linda explains that her bar is a hotspot on the underground arm-wrestling scene. Paco quickly defeats the house tough, Raul (George Eastman), making himself a demented enemy; by the next day, Raul has arranged for a high-stakes match where the loser will be immediately bitten by a rattlesnake.

It goes without saying that the arm-wrestling scenes are the absolute highlight of the film. (And yes, Martino also conceived the Over the Top plot a couple years early.)

While much of the acting is wooden — Greene can’t match the level of scenery-chewing rivals such as Eastman, even if he does look good knocking a guy out with a dual backhand chop — “Hands of Steel” more than stays afloat on its style and low-budget creativity, as Martino works overtime to create memorable action sequences on a shoestring. He’s helped considerably by the Claudio Simonetti score, which marries the composer’s synth instincts with elements of ’80s smooth rock.

Unfortunately, Hands of Steel is better known (as far as it’s known at all) for tragedy, rather than its merits. While filming a tricky helicopter scene, an on-set crash killed Claudio Cassinelli, who plays a mid-level bigwig in the organization that built Paco. The excellent Italian actor — memorable for roles in The Suspicious Death of a Minor, several Hercules films and dozens of others — died instantly. (Rumor holds that John Saxon, the film’s big bad, would’ve been on the same helicopter, but insisted on filming his scenes in Italy since it was a non-union shoot in the U.S.)

Like The Twilight Zone: The Movie, it’s hard to sit back and enjoy the movie, knowing the circumstances. If you can manage it, there’s a fun blend of science fiction, western and pure style; no judgment, however, if you’d rather not approach Hands of Steel.