AUTHOR’S NOTE: This review originally ran on November 13, 2017. As part of our month of all things James Bond, I brought it back, did some editing and included some links so that you can stream it for free. It has George Lazenby pretty much playing Bond (Drew Stargrove) and while uneven, is still a fun watch. Enjoy!
I grew up on James Bond. More than that, at a young age, I was obsessed with Bond. One magical Christmas, the only gifts I got were the James Bond role-playing game from Victory Games and all of the expansions. I saw every single one of the movies, even the original Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again, the bootleg Sean Connery film that came out of Kevin McClory’s legal battles with Eon Productions, the Fleming estate and United Artists. I’ve seen every Bond ripoff, from Flint to Matt Helm to Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs(it helps that Mario Bava directed that one). Post Timothy Dalton, I grew bored with the more realistic Bond and never came back. I grew up with the ridiculous world of Roger Moore.
I get the feeling that plenty of other folks have had similar experiences, thanks to comics like Jimmy’s Bastards and Kingsmen (also a series of movies). And this movie — Never Too Young to Die guest stars the Bond from my favorite of the series, the only appearance of George Lazenby, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as Drew Stargrove, but we can just pretend he’s James Bond.
Stargrove has a son, Lance. He has a theme song. And he has a mission, to stop psychopathic hermaphroditic gang leader Velvet Von Ragner (Gene Simmons, sure he’s in KISS, but let’s celebrate his ridiculous IMDB page, where he’s either played himself or been in some amazingly insane films, like Trick or Treatand Runaway). But his luck has finally run out. He’s dead and his somewhat estranged son must leave behind his gymnastic days at college to take over his role as the best secret agent in the world.
Lance is played by John Stamos, mostly known for TV’s Full House. This is his star turn, all fresh-faced and ready to break hearts. He’s joined on his mission by Vanity, who may have had a short and sweet film career, but got to be in some incredible stuff, like The Last Dragon, Action Jackson, Tanya’s Island, 52 Pick-Up and Terror Train.
Your ability to enjoy this film depends completely on your ability to enjoy ridiculousness. And facts like this — the nightclub outfit that costume Gene Simmons wears in the nightclub scene is the same one that Lynda Carter wore for her 1980 ENCORE! special, where she sang KISS’ “I Was Made for Loving You.”
Writer Steven Paul also created the Baby Geniuses series and had uncredited help from Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (TV’s Batman, Flash Gordon), which shows. Paul also wrote 1992’s The Double 0 Kid, where Corey Haim dreams of being a secret agent.
Director Gil Bettman produced and directed tons of 80’s TV, like The Fall Guy, Knight Rider and Automan, a one-season wonder that combined police drama with Tron. I may be the only human being to have watched the entire season. His other major movie in 1986 was Crystal Heart, where Tawny Kitaen plays a rock star who falls in love with a boy who lives inside a crystal room because he has an auto-immune deficiency.
This film has an incredibly uneven tone. At times, it’s a family movie. Other scenes, Road Warrior clones are tearing off Vanity’s clothes and threatening to rape her. Sometimes, everything is treated with wacky humor. And then, you see people fall to their deaths and smack into the ground. It’s also a much better movie the more mind-enhancing substances you consume, I figure, as I watched it cold sober and it kind of dragged (no pun intended).
Oh yeah — Lance’s roommate, Cliff, is played by Peter Kwong, who was Rain in Big Trouble in Little China. And because this movie was made in the 1980’s, Robert Englund contractually has to be in it.
Okay, so Sam, B&S About Movies illustrious proprietor, swings by Eide’s Entertainment, a cool vintage music, comics, magazines, and videos joint in Pittsburgh and picks up a copy of Mill Creek’s “Explosive Cinema” 12-film pack—for the sole purpose of getting a copy of Brent Huff kicking ass in 1985’s Nine Deaths of the Ninja (and it really is the BEST movie in the set!). So, Sam and I get to talking about the other films on the set—1986’s Scorpion, in particular.
Directed by Columbia Pictures’ behind-the-scenes-of-movies documentary purveyor William Riead, Scorpion—the only starring role of karate champ Tony Tulleners, the one guy the “invincible” Chuck Norris could never beat—chronicles the adventures of super-agent Steve “Code Name: Scorpion” Woods. After Scorpion thwarts a Los Angeles airline skyjacking, he uncovers an international scheme involving the assassination of an imprisoned drug-kingpin turned government informant. And when the bad guys murder his partner—he lets loose his “sting” to avenge the death.
Now if this low-budget romp sounds familiar, like Steve McQueen’s Bullitt familiar, that’s because it’s practically a shot-for-shot rip-off of McQueen’s iconic action film—right down to Don Murray (!) (Governor Breck from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes?) in the corrupt lawyer/politician role played by Robert Vaughn (watch this Vaughn scene from Bullitt to see what I mean). In fact, there’s touches of Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry”-era films in the mix (watch this scene from Magnum Force and you’ll see what I mean).
But as with those low-budget romps from Crown and American International Pictures, the cast is the thing: it’s why we suffer through them—and enjoy them. So, in line behind the always-a-pleasure-to-see Don Murray, we also get Robert Logan from the hit ‘60s TV series 77 Sunset Strip and Daniel Boone, Bart Braverman, who’s been in everything, from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) as a kid actor to the hit ‘80s TV series Vegas, Ross Elliot, who’s been in everything as well, from the early Clint Eastwood war movie Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and TV’s The Virginian, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke, Robert Colbert from Irwin Allen’s TV series The Time Tunnel and Hunter in the ’80s, and John Anderson, who’s been in everything, from ’60s TV’s The Rat Patrol and MacGyver in the ’80s.
So, why is Scorpion the only movie Tony Tulleners ever did, you ask? He did, after all, kick Chuck Norris’s ass three times in the ring—and Norris ended up with the film and TV career? What happened?
Did Tulleners see the film, realized it sucked, and quit Hollywood? Or did Hollywood think Tulleners sucked—and gave him his walking papers? Truth be told: Scorpion really is awful: just a like an ’80s action direct-to-video flick should be. Like Crown International Pictures awful. Hey, wait a minute. Crown made this! Ah, no wonder it’s so bad. But again, what saves this blatant rip-off of Bullitt and Dirty Harry is the fact that Crown made it—and we know the barrel of crap we are getting into with that studio—and we want to get into the muck and mire with that studio. Why? Again, it’s the crazy “Where’s Waldo” who’s who casting of our beloved UHF-TV ’60s and ’70s television reruns cast in Crown’s oeuvre.
Here’s the thing with Scorpion, the feature film writing and directing debut by William Riead: No one would be talking about this film at all if it wasn’t for it being confused with the “specialty video” Scorpion (1986) shot by John Howard of Spine fame and starring Linnea Quigley (aka Jessie Dalton). So don’t be duped by the reviews on Riead’s Scorpion, in KY Jelly-anticipation for Linnea Quigley’s “hot tub kidnapping” and “extended bondage-torture scene.” Stow the pocket rockets, boys. Move along, now.
And god bless ‘em, Don Murray is still active in the business. He most recently starred in the 2017 limited-series reboot of Twin Peaks and is currently filming the low-budget direct-to-video western Promise. Most recently, Bart Braverman starred alongside Jeffrey Donovan of TV’s Burn Notice in the two season run of Hulu’s 2016 series, Shut Eye.
And writer-director William Riead is still at the keyboard and behind the camera. He made, what I think, is a pretty decent romantic-thriller that’s above the usual Lifetime damsel-in-distress flick-junk, 2001’s Island Prey (aka Broken Vows) with Don Murray, along with Ed Asner (TV’s Lou Grant) Tony Dennison (TV’s Prison Break, The Closer, and Major Crimes), and Olivia Hussey (Black Christmas, Ice Cream Man, Turkey Shoot).
Riead’s most recent effort was his fourteen-years-in-development passion project: 2014’s The Letters, a biographical drama that explored the life of Mother Teresa and starred Max von Sydow (Flash Gordon, Judge Dredd) and Rutger Hauer (Nighthawks, Blood of Heroes). Sadly, Riead’s passion didn’t translate into box office gold: the $20 million film’s worldwide gross was less than $2 million (and does not deserve to be called-out in our “Box Office Failures Week”). The beautifully shot and acted film won the Audience Favorite “Best of the Fest” Award at Arizona’s Sedona Film Festival, while Riead won the Best Director and Juliet Stevenson (as Mother Teresa) as Best Actress at Rome’s International Catholic Film Festival.
You can watch a VHS rip of Scorpionalong with the trailers for Island Prey and The Letters, all courtesy of You Tube. There’s no PPV online streams or free rips of Island Prey available, but The Letters is widely available on all the usual streaming platforms—including You Tube. There’s no online rips of John Howard’s Scorpion but, if you absolutely must see the cover, you can, on Letterboxd (don’t worry; there’s no nudity and it’s safe to look at, provided ropes don’t offend you).
Phew! See what happens when you go shopping at Eide’s Entertainment? Watch out for more reviews from Mill Creek’s “Explosive Cinema” 12-pack all this week.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.
Frank Harris and Leo Fong! My head is swimming. Where do I begin with this review?
Well, first off, you can get both of these Crown International releases on Mill Creek’s “Explosive Cinema” 12-pack (along with Scorpion, Skydivers, and 9 Deaths of the Ninja). Second: You also get Troy Donahue (Omega Cop), Richard Roundtree (Q: The Winged Serpent), and, say what? Cameron Mitchell (Space Mutiny) appears in both?
Harris. Fong. Mitchell? Sign me up!
What’s that? Harris also did the post-apoc romp Aftershock and the cop actioner Lockdown (1990; trailer) with Richard Lynch from Deathsport and Ground Rules? What? No way! And Fong did Showdown (1993; full movie) with Lynch as well? Rock on! Richard Friggin’ Lynch. Rock on, Ankar Moor, you post-apoc bad ass.
Writer, director, producer and cinematographer Frank Harris got his start as a reporter for a small California TV station. But his true love was film. He got his start in the movie business courtesy of the fifth film from Asian action star Leo Fong, 1976’s Ninja Assassins (aka Enforcer from Death Row), who hired Harris as a cinematographer. (I have wonderful memories of my older cousin, Bobby, who studied martial arts and was ready to go into the military, taking me to the Drive-In after seeing the film’s commercial on TV. Yes, I rented it when it came out on VHS.)
After putting one more cinematography gig under his belt with the 1984 actioner Goldrunner (trailer: race cars, motorcycles and kidnapping), Fong hired Harris to not only serve as the cinematographer, but as the producer, director and screenwriter for his eighth film as an actor: Killpoint.
Then there was Harris’s directing gig with 1996’s Skyscraper, an awful attempt to turn famous-for-being-famous ex-Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith into—not only into an “actress” and not only into a “leading lady”—an “action star.” Anna Nicole as a hot, corporate helicopter pilot who goes “Die Hard” when terrorists take over her employer’s office tower? Huh and W.T.F. It’s one of those movies where you simply can not turn away. And let me make this point perfectly clear: there’s a lot of people to blame for it, but Harris isn’t one of them; he was just a director-for-hire. (Watch the full movie at your own peril; the trailer might even be too much to bear.)
Cameron Mitchell returned from Ninja Assassins, this time as Joe Marks, an illegal arms dealer who robs a Californian National Guard Armory with plans to sell the weapons to L.A’s street gangs. Lt. James Long (Fong) a bitter, troubled L.A detective still dealing with the rape and murder of his wife a year earlier, gets his chance to go “Dirty Harry” —well, “Jackie Chan,” actually—when he discovers Mark’s sidekick, known as Nighthawk (professional ex-boxer Stack Pierce; worked on several of Fred Williamson’s Blaxploitation films), was responsible for her death. Teamed with FBI Agent Bill Bryant (Richard Roundtree), they bring them to justice.
Of course, while Fong was already a major star in the Eurasian marketplace, he was an unknown commodity in the States. So while Roundtree’s part in Killpoint is a minor one, as you can see from the below poster images, that didn’t stop the distributors from highlighting Roundtree’s contribution—and giving Leo Fong the short shift on the U.S Drive-In and video campaigns.
Low Blow (1986)
Karen Templeton (Patti Bowling; her only film role) is a young, wayward Patty Hearst-type heiress brainwashed-kidnapped by the Church of Universal Enlightenment, a Jonestown-styled religious cult run by Cameron Mitchell’s Jim Jones-inspired Yarakunda.
After seeing Joe Wong (Leo Fong), a harried ex-San Francisco detective take down a couple of thugs who mugged an old lady, Karen’s tycoon-father (Troy Donahue) decides Wong is the man for the job to rescue his daughter. So Wong recruits a Vietnam vet and ex-pro-boxer (Stack Piece is back!) to get her out. Once inside, Wong fights the cult-camp’s ninjas and world-renowned martial artist and Tae Bo exercise program guru Billy Blanks (Tango & Cash, Lionheart) in his first film role.
Leo Fong is still going strong at the incredible age of 91. He starred in three films in 2018: Hidden Peaks, Dragon to Dragon, and the most recent film: Challenge of the Five Gauntlets. And he has four more films in various stations of filming and pre/post production: Pact of Vengenance (with Jon-Mikl Thor!), Asian Cowboys, Runaway Killer, Hard Way Heroes, and Junkers. You catch up with Leo and his Sky Dragon Entertainment at LeoFong.com.
Other films in the Harris-Fong oeuvre include 24 Hours to Midnight with Cynthia Rothrock (1985; clip), Hawkeye (1988; full movie) (seen them on VHS), and the direct-to-DVD releases Brazilian Brawl (2003; trailer) and Transformed (2005; full movie) (honestly, never heard of them or seen them; I need to change that).
In rural Oklahoma, late one night, Tor (Michael Shamus Wiles, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy) murders Denise and then dumps her body in Lake Tenkiller. So begins the 1986 one and done film by Ken Meyer, Terror at Tenkiller. Soon, Leslie and Janna show up for a vacation at the remote cabin in the woods, but are they next on the list of Tor the killer?
Shot entirely in Oklahoma near Lake Fort Gibson and the Fort Gibson dam — not at the actual Tenkiller Ferry Lake which is actually named for the Native American family who donated it — this movie honestly doesn’t have a single thing that I can recommend it for.
Some guys come down, some people get killed and there’s little to no drama as to what happens for the rest of the film.
At least the VHS box has some great artwork.
Terror at Tenkiller tells you who the killer is right away, its kills are boring and the end attempt at a shock ending is as vanilla as it gets. At least the Rifftrax guys took a shot at making it better. You can watch it with their commentary on Tubi and Amazon Prime.
When her sister is kidnapped by a gang of white slavers, Margaret (Karen Kopins, Troop Beverly Hills, Once Bitten) knows she needs a hero to save the day. That becomes Jake Speed (Wayne Crawford, who wrote the script and also appeared in Barracuda and Valley Girl, another film he produced and fought the studio to keep Martha Coolidge in the director’s chair) to life from the pages of pulp novels.
Along with his trusty sidekick Desmond Floyd (Dennis Christopher Chariots of Fire, Fade to Black), Jake is ready for action. He’s recommended by Margaret’s grandfather, along with Mack Bolan. Everyone thinks that the old man is insane, but it turns out that somehow Jake is a real person.
Everything sounds awesome, right? Well, it turns out that ringleader of the slavers is none other than Jake’s arch-nemesis: Sid (John Hurt, Alien)! It’s obvious that Hurt had a blast making this film.
I love that this movie is a tribute to the pulps. In the world of this film, Remo The Destroyer Williams, Mack The Executioner Bolan and Doc Savage are all real, with the novels about them actually true facts. Jake even talks about these men as his contemporaries. If you’d like to see two movies that came from the pulps, you should check out Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins and Doc Savage. Of course, the best pulp-inspired movie ever made is Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film that this movie owes some debt to.
Me? I’m a sucker for any movie that gets meta.
Director Andrew Lane, in addition to producing several films with star Wayne Crawford, also directed 1989’s Zach Galligan starring thriller Mortal Passions — that box art was a video store favorite — and 1991’s Lonely Hearts, a movie that dares to pair Beverly D’Angelo with Eric Roberts.
Ready to watch this? Grab the new Arrow Video release on blu ray. This release features a brand new 2K restoration of the film from the original 35mm interpositive, as well as a new interview with co-writer/producer/director Andrew Lane as well as one with producer William Fay. As usual, Arrow does an amazing job giving you the absolute best version of a film for your library.
While we’ve watched Hands of Steel before, sometimes it’s nice to go back to a film after you’ve experienced more in life. After watching Over the Top and Shocking Dark, a movie like this makes more sense. Of course, not a lot as it’s an Italian ripoff film being made halfway between Arizona and Italy.
It’s also sadly the last movie that Claudio Cassinelli would appear in, as he died in a helicopter crash during filming as the rotor blades struck the underside of the bridge and broke off, sending the helicopter into a canyon.
The National Transportation Safety Board would go on to discover that there were prescription drugs in the pilot’s hotel room that may have impaired his judgment. Luckily, because John Saxon was a stickler for Screen Actors Guild rules, he refused to appear in any of the non-union American shot footage, only doing his part in Italy. He believes that the SAG saved his life, as otherwise, he would have been on that helicopter.
Our hero is improbably named Paco Queruak and he’s played by Daniel Greene, who played Dwayne Cooley on TV’s Falcon Crest. He’s gone on to appear in several Farrelly Brothers movies like Kingpin; My, Myself and Irene; There’s Something About Mary; Fever Pitch and Shallow Hal.
While this movie never seems to outrightly state that it’s after the end of the world — obviously, it’s Arizona and everyone still has motorcycles and trucks — it’s all about how Paco was created by evil industrialist Francis Turner (John Saxon) to kill an ecological leader. Our hero fails in his mission and runs away to the American Southwest, where he gets involved in the sport of arm wrestling.
Janet Agren from Fulci’s City of the Living Dead shows up, as does B&S About Movies spiritual avatar George Eastman, whose real voice can be heard in this movie. He plays an evil arm wrestler who tries to kill Paco.
This is what we call a hybrid movie, even if the cocktail doesn’t always add up. Here’s how to make a Hands of Steel:
This is not the most insane Martin Dolman movie that was shot in the United States. It’s strange, but nowhere near as marvelously batshit as American Tiger, a movie that has a gymnast under an astrological curse that drives a rickshaw battling Donald Pleasence as a televangelist who is really a warthog. Yes, this is a real movie.
You can either choose to watch this on the Pure Terror set, on Amazon Prime or grab the blu ray from RoninFlix.
Fred Walton has directed some pretty decent thrillers, including When a Stranger Calls, The Rosary Murders, the remake of I Saw What You Did, When a Stranger Calls Back and The Stepford Husbands. He’s a great hand for this, a late in the game slasher that is much closer to an Agatha Christie novel than a blood splattered bit of mania.
It’s produced by Frank G. Mancuso Jr., whose Friday the 13th producing history led many to believe that this would be exactly one of those kinds of slashers.
April Fools’ Day is when some college pals all head to a ritzy island mansion and decide to play pranks on one another. There’s Nikki (Deborah Goodrich, Just One of the Guys), Rob (Ken Olandt, Summer School, Leprechaun), Arch (Thomas F. Wilson, Biff Tannen forever), Kit (Amy Steel, Friday the 13th Part 2), Skip (Griffin O’Neal), Chaz (Clayton Rohner, also in Just One of the Guys) Nan and Harvey, who have all gathered at the home of Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman, Waxwork, Valley Girl).
Before they even get there, horsing around leads to a deckhand getting gravely injured. And the pranks keep coming once they reach the mansion, which escalates until dead bodies begin to pile up.
Soon, the phone lines are dead and there’s no way to get off the island. That’s when everyone still alive learns that Muffy has an insane twin named Buffy who wants to kill them all.
I’m not going to give the ending to you, but what ended up on the screen was a lot different than the original cut. You can learn more in the Jeff Rovin paperback novelization of the movie, which has an alternate ending in which Skip sneaks back onto the island to kill Muffy for his part of the family’s vast treasures. But it’s all a ruse and he stays behind to help her make the house into a bed and breakfast.
There was also a 2008 remake of this that really doesn’t have much to do with the original other than taking the name. If you read our article on slasher remakes, you know that this isn’t the first time that that ever happened.
At the tail end of the slasher boom, hell, maybe even a few years past its expiration date, Steven Baio — yes, the brother of Scott, co-produced and starred in Evil Laugh. We all have dreams. Dreams that Scott Aaron Stine, in The Gorehound’s Guide to Splatter Films of the 1980’s, would crush by saying that “There is nothing, I repeat, nothing worthwhile or even remotely worthwhile or even remotely memorable about this waste of celluloid.”
A decade ago, an orphanage is being rebuilt after the community burning it down, thanks to rumors of child molestation from the janitor who lived there. He went nuts, killed a bunch of people and totally has nothing to do with Freddy Krueger.
Much later, some medical students decide to rebuild the space as a foster home, but they get killed one by one. Probably the only person of note — other than the Baio sibling — is star Kim McKamy, who is better known as adult star Ashlyn Gere. She refused to do nude scenes for this movie, which is kind of ironic.
Another actress in the film, Jody Gibson, was known as Sasha of the Valley and boasted a call girl service with clients alleged to be Bruce Willis, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols and Tommy Lasorda. Oh yeah — her mom is the talent agent who found Tom Cruise. Life’s crazy, people.
When the wee pups of the video fringe first watched Spine during its initial release 33 years ago, it was, as was the case with most of the Big Box VHS/SOV horror flicks of the ‘80s, acquired via mail order from an ad in the back of a monster or underground film magazine. Just one look at that very heavy metal, bloody-carved knife font: you had to have it. Spine was supposedly so “nasty” that video stores wouldn’t carry it in their horror section. The fact that these stores were renting out copies of the infamous SOV blockbuster-nasty, Blood Cult (1985), and not Spine — well, telling someone they can’t have it only makes them want it more.
On the rare occasion when a store did carry Spine, it was cataloged in a three-ring binder on the counter that you were not even allowed to browse through, with the VHS tucked away behind the green curtain in the “21 and over only” porn section. When the more adventurous (well, clueless) store operators did carry Spine on the main floor in the horror section — alongside the oeuvres of Argento, Bava, Carpenter, Craven, Fulci, and Lenzi — the word-of-mouth marketing kicked in and Spine became a top-rental.
Yeah, those marketing gurus at Xeon, Ltd. knew how to sell a film on the video fringe.
We’ve read the online reviews advising us that Spine is woefully inept and downright boring in parts, with no gratuitous nudity and no on-screen kills. Every time something good is about to happen, the scene cuts away or fades to black (and has way too many clunky fade-edits). We’ve seen more graphic sex and eroticism in Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and more gratuitous nudity and violence in ’70s Italian and Spanish Gialli. When the actors aren’t overacting, they’re underacting. When actors aren’t staring into the camera, they’re visibly reading their lines from papers on a desk. In an Ed Wood-Tommy Wiseau casting snafu: a bearded actor cast as one of the detectives — who quit in mid-production — is replaced, without explanation, by one of the film’s crewmembers — because he had a similar beard/build, as if no one would notice.
Yes, if Tommy Wiseau wrote a slasher flick, it would be Spine: Do you remember the scene in The Room when we learned Lisa’s (superfluous) mother was “dying from breast cancer” — then it was never mentioned again? Spine has a lot of those “is plot twist” moments. Oh, and most importantly: there are no spine removals.
“Uh, so why would anyone want to see a film that’s that awful?” you ask.
Well, for those wee horror and heavy-metal lovin’ pups of the under-21 variety surfing the ‘80s video fringes, Spine, unlike the films it attempted to mimic, provided those teen renters with their first exposure to . . . a porn movie — and they were masturbating to the film’s extended bondage scenes. Now that sounds crass, but it’s the truth. While masquerading as a slasher flick, Spine is really an adult erotic film — and chickens are choked in the process.
Today, those extended bondage scenes seem mild in a post-James Wan and Eli Roth torture-porn world, but in 1986, for those hormone-infused teen minds that never experienced a porn film: Spine was a sensory overload. Sure, those teens experienced light “damsel in distress” moments on the police procedural TV dramas of their youth — everything from Dragnet to Charlie’s Angels — but nothing like Spine’s “X-Rated” scenes.
As I write this review three decades after its release, we horror geeks are still coveting, talking about, and purchasing copies of Spine. Collectors are shelling out $200 to $400 for the original VHS — and willing to plop down $150 just for the box. The official 2015 DVD reissue by Massacre Video sits on the shelves of your local Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart. It’s even available on Amazon and eBay with your PayPal account.
Oh, how the times have changed.
Not bad for a week’s worth of work in the summer of 1984 in Los Angeles — shot on the fly without permits via broadcast-news ENG cameras and 3/4-inch U-Matic videotape using Ikegami cameras on a $20,000 budget. It’s that S-VHS and U-Matic recording format that lends to the fuzzy, color hazing of the film that leaves it with an almost documentary-like pale. The film came together with financing from porn purveyors 4-Play Video, Inc., and producers Xeon, Ltd. created the SS “Sterling Silver” Video imprint for the sole purpose of distributing Spine without the nasty porn aftertaste. Released with a 70-minute running time, Spine was marketed as a 90-minute feature film, so as to get it out of the back room and into the horror section shelves of the main floor. Plans for Xeon and SS to produce and distribute another horror-porn film never materialized.
Spine required a set of reshoots when co-director/producer Justin Simonds realized the final edit clocked in at 45 minutes. The film needed more material: so he wrote and shot an expanded detective storyline that was interposed into the existing slasher footage shot by John Howard with actor R. Eric Huxley. Most of the film was shot at a commercial-office complex (doubling as a “medical center”) owned by the same businessman who loaned out his spacious house where the film comes to its harrowing conclusion. The “police station” is actually a computer company where Simonds worked his day job.
When you factor in its production cost-to-box office ratios, Spine, more than likely, has a profit margin percentage analogous to John Carpenter’s Halloween and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In an adult film industry perspective: the ‘70s Golden Age of Porn blockbuster-classics Behind the Green Door, Deep Throat, and The Devil in Miss Jones. Spine is, simply put, The Room of ‘80s SOV horror. No one is going to be talking about the highbrow, 2019 Oscar winners Green Book and Roma thirty years from now and clamoring for extras-packed DVD reissues on either.
While it was shot-on and edited-on 3/4-inch video like its fellow, lo-res audio-buzzing, Big Box/SOV horror brethren Boarding House (1982), Sledgehammer (1983), Truth or Dare (1986), 555 (1988), Things (1989), and Gorgasm (1990) — Spine is a semi-pro production. It’s obvious that co-directors/writers/producers John Howard and Justin Simonds knew what they’re were doing and, in spite of the budget and time constraints, did their best to emulate John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980). If the duo had, say, a month-long shooting schedule and a $100,000 budget that allowed them to hire a skilled, student screenwriter from UCLA looking for a break, along with studied, non-porn actors to flesh out their concept of grafting Giallo-inspired plotting into a porn production, it could have, at the very least, elevated Spine to the commercialized sleaziness of The Toolbox Murders (1978) or Pete Walker’s even sleazier The Confessional (1976) and Charles Kaufman’s sick-fest, Mother’s Day (1980). A nudity-loving Paul Naschy-directed version of Spine would have become a Spanish Giallo classic.
John Howard and Justin Simonds each have long resumes in the adult film industry, producing a successful series of 30 to 70-minute “specialty videos” (i.e. bondage films) for the industry-respected California Star Productions (aka CalStar). As is the case with adult films, their productions didn’t waste time with plot contrivances and concentrated on women being tied up — the more ropes and knots, the better. While their films showed lots of skin, sometimes with the occasional, mild sexual situations, their main objective was to expand upon those very same “damsel in distress” bondage scenes seen on police procedural TV dramas — without any yammering cops or whiny villains getting in the way of the knots and ropes.
According to reviews published at the time of its 1986 release, critics logically — because of the killer’s similar obsession with nurses — believed Spine was inspired by Richard Speck’s July 1966 Chicago murders of eight student nurses. The irony of that Richard Speck analogy is that Speck’s murder spree served as the inspiration behind Charles Bronson’s entry in the ‘80s stalker-slasher blood pool, 10 to Midnight (1983) — which isn’t far off the mark on what Spine failed to accomplish with its “detective vs. serial killer” plot. (Cobra and D-Tox are Sly Stallone’s two solid examples of the genre.)
Courtesy of a Massacre Video interview with Justin Simonds, it turns out that it was Brian De Palma’s Dario Argento homage, Dressed to Kill (1980) — and not Richard Speck’s exploits — that led to John Howard’s idea for Spine. Unfortunately, that slasher-porn concept was compromised at the last minute by the film’s two lead actresses urging the directors to cut-out the nudity and create a more commercially-accessible slasher film. It’s a decision Simonds now regrets: the gratuitous nudity (and sex) would have served as an effective counterbalance against the film’s technical and creative shortcomings.
While the script is an arduous journey through an exposition-burdened hell that grossly violates the “show, don’t tell” edict of screenwriting, along with “plot twists” to nowhere that don’t even come close to the beloved red-herring modus operandi typical of a Giallo, still, there’s actually a very Giallo-sleazy tale lost amid the film’s low-res hums.
Eric Huxley’s creepy and seriously screwed-up mama’s boy — a Norman Bates-styled may-have-had-a-sexual-relationship-with-mama fey who laments on how much he enjoyed “rubbing momma’s back and feet” — successfully carries the film as the hulking, perpetually aviator-shaded, cowboy boots and pink western shirt-clad psycho, Lawrence Aston. (For inside Hux’s chest beats a Tommy Wiseau-committed-to-the-role heart.)
As a successful entrepreneur who runs his family’s business (expositional cop babble), Larry leads a double life terrorizing the nurses of Los Angeles. His modus operandi: First, he binds them ass-up over the backs of chairs and rapes them (camera-angled out of view and not as graphically portrayed as you’d expect; again, you’ve seen worse in the critically-acclaimed, mainstream-porn that is The Wolf of Wall Street). Then he hogties them and, as they struggle, the rope from their feet to their neck tightens and strangles them — in a form of “self punishment” for “hurting mama” (on-camera). Then, after administering a flurry of stabs wounds (camera-angled out of view/cuts away), Larry beheads them, carves out their spines, and with their blood, scrawls “Linda” on the wall (all off-camera exposition via cop talk). And, we’re just sleazy-guessing: Larry-boy goes home, puts on his dear, dead momma’s dresses and masturbates. And probably plays with decapitated Donald Duck heads, like in a Fulci movie. And, like in an Argento movie, obsesses over crystal bird feathers, nine-tailed cats, and grey velvet-fluttering flies.
So, when nurse Carrie Lonigan (Janus Blythe), whose friend becomes Aston’s sixth victim, interrupts the killing of nurse number seven (another one of Carrie’sfriends; it seems all of the victims work at the same medical office?), Carrie becomes the next “Linda” to be relieved of her spinal cord. (And why did Larry pick Carrie’s two friends and what’s Carrie’s connection to the mayhem? Why did Larry pick that medical office? Was his mama treated there? Was Linda employed there? It’s never explained.) That sets up the film’s extended bondage scene third act (that everyone rented for) where Larry-boy ties up and tortures Carrie, along with her recently Kansas City-transplanted friend, Leah Petralla (Lise Romanoff).
Although the execution is clumsy, the Howard-Simonds collective does a commendable job in taking the time to develop Carrie and Leah as real people that viewers can care about: Leah “got into trouble” in Kansas City and had to runaway to Los Angeles; Carrie previously visited Kansas City and met Leah through a mutual acquaintance; Carrie owns a van because she loves swap meets and camping; she house sits a friend’s mansion while they’re vacationing in Europe. Even the bumbling cops are developed as ordinary average guys with everyday problems: dealing with computer issues, job pressures and sports betting pools, bitching about crappy coffee and putting the moves on the hot police dispatcher, and so on. Again, a valiant effort was made to develop the characters and story beyond porn norms.
“Okay, so what’s the deal with Linda and her spine?”
It turns out that poor, lonely Larry developed a crush on his sick momma’s healthcare nurse — Linda. When he made a clumsy, romantic overture (in his mind; he really tried to rape her) she gouged-out his eye with a pair of scissors (we see it for a second; no great shocks). Then, while he’s chilling out in the nuthouse, momma took a tumble down the stairs in her wheelchair — and broke her spine in three places. Now little Larry is convinced that Linda — in an act of revenge to take away his momma from him, forever — “pushed momma down the stairs.” (Again, all of these plot-twisty events are off-camera exposition. And we never meet the “real” Linda, either. And why not stab “Linda” symbolically, three times, say in both eyes and the heart? Hey, don’t over think the plot, my friend!)
Of course, no Italian Giallo-homage is complete without some fucked-up dream within a dream plot twist — complete with Leah discovering she has “psychic abilities” linked to the killer, as all Gialli damsels do. So, Carrie and Leah still have their spines and . . . no, wait! Larry is hiding in the shadows of the garage and Carrie’s going to take out the trash and close the mysteriously opened garage door . . . again. “Carrie, don’t go in the garage, he’s in there!” screams a bug-eyed Leah.
So goes the tale of “The Linda Murders” plaguing Los Angeles during those first two, carefree weeks of Larry-boy’s release from the nuthouse, when he killed nine nurses. Or was it seven nurses? No, five? Argh! Leah’s confounded deus ex machina psychic-dreaming hysteria screwed up the kill count.
While Janus Blythe has done better work, she certainly deserved better than having to take a role in an SOV horror flick — financed by a porn studio, no less — to pay the rent. (Several years ago, a fellow con-freak told me Janus was “in the running” for the Janet-role on ABC-TV’s Three’s Company and, she “lost out” on the part of Lynn Starling in Rocktober Blood? I’ve been unable to confirm those “facts.”) In addition, Lise Romanoff, in her only acting role, does a pretty decent job as well. It would have been nice to see her develop as an actress.
The same can’t be said for the rest of the cast, especially the perpetually changing baseball cap-clad (is it a Tom Selleck-Magnum in-joke?) lead detective on the case, Leo Meadows (Antoine Herzog, the acting alias of director John Howard who, in a pretty decent bit of comedic writing, is constantly mistaken as “Leo Fields” by Blythe’s character). Fairing worse, god bless him, is Simond’s non-acting father, James, as the precinct’s commanding officer. Considering their castings were the result of the two “professional” actors cast in the rolls dropping out at the last minute, you’re willing to cut them both some slack. Seriously, how many dads do you know — with no acting experience — who would bail out his son’s film by taking a role? And Howard, he was Wiseau-committed: come hell or high water, Spine was going to get made. And, for better or worse, he got his film made. And that’s awesome.
“So, where’s the cast and crew of Spine now?”
Janus Blythe is always etched in our ‘70s drive-In and ‘80s VHS hearts, courtesy of her breakout role as the tough-as-nails Ruby in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, along with her turns in Stu Segall’s exploiters C.B Hustlers and Drive-In Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, Bob Kelljan’s Black Oak Conspiracy, William Sach’s The Incredible Melting Man, and The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (just released by Arrow Video and newly reviewed on B&S Movies!). Before retiring from the business, Janus kicked some serious, gun-slinging ass alongside Gil “Buck Rogers” Gerard, Charles Napier, and Dan Haggerty in her final film: the not-so-awful 1991 direct-to-video Rambo knock-off, Soldier’s Fortune (trailer). Yeah, we dig you, Janus!
Also appearing in a small role as one of Spine’s precinct’s detectives (acting under the Ray Hicks nom de plume) is Roger Watkins. In 1973, at 24 years old, with $3,000 bucks in his pocket and a 16-millimeter camera, he produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the well-regarded grindhouse classic — now a highly-coveted VHS — Last House on a Dead End Street (it has an extensiveWikipage). Unable to obtain a foothold in mainstream films, Watkins forged a successful career in the adult film industry — he produced several films for CalStar directed by John Howard — up until his death in March 2007. (Our “spines” are tingling in anticipation as Joe Rubin and the Vinegar Syndrome crew currently works on Last House’s DVD restoration.)
The most successful person to rise from the ranks of the SOV horror ‘80s is Lise Romanoff. After becoming a successful special effects artist (Night of the Creeps is one of her many credits; it’s newly reviewed on B&S Movies!), she became a mainstream producer and distributor, eventually incorporating and becoming the CEO of Vision Films. In addition to serving on the board of the IFTA (Independent Film and Television Alliance), she’s a noted industry authority on film copyright and trade laws.
Don Chilcott, the musician responsible for Spine’s scuzzy, slasher-appropriate synth-soundtrack, also scored the SOV horror romp Bits and Pieces (1985). Don never stopped rocking: he became a successful studio musician and a respected guitarist and lead vocalist for several California-based blues bands. An age-restricted VHS rip of Bits and Pieces is available on You Tube and you can learn more about the film on Horror News.
John Howard (Letterboxd) — with R. Eric Huxley as his go-to leading man — stuck with the vision he set forth in Spine, injecting extended bondage scenes into erotic adult films featuring fleshed-out characters and extended out-of-the-norm-for-porn plots. His films starred our beloved exploitation scream queens from the USA Network cable-TV ‘80s: Linnea Quigley (aka Jessie Dalton) and Michelle Bauer in Avenged (with Crystal Breeze of Rollerblade, newly reviewed on B&S Movies!), Scorpion (female agent/spy action), Stalked (white slavery adventures), and Flash! (a plucky investigative reporter-photographer runs afoul of drug dealers). So, if you want to see more of John Howard and R. Eric Huxley’s joint-oeuvre, it may be worth it to seek out those films.
Spinewas reissued as a DVD-R rip on the Substance grey-market imprint (2005) and Vultra Video issued a VHS repack in a retro-clamshell case (2012). Alongside Justin Simonds, R. Eric Huxley contributes to Massacre’s audio commentary track and gives an on-screen interview that gets into the nuts and bolts regarding the hardships of low-budget filmmaking — conducted by Massacre Video’s Louis C. Justin and Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin. In addition to a generous stills gallery, Massacre’s official 2015 DVD reissue (Region: 0 NTSC) comes with high-quality, reversible cover-art that replicates the original’s big box artwork. You can purchase Spine direct from Massacre Video or through Cinema Wasteland and Amazon. There’s an age-restricted VHS rip of Spine to enjoy on You Tube. Will there ever be aremake proper of Spine? As B&S Movies recently points out in “Exploring: Slasher Remakes,” the scuz-classics The Toolbox Murders and Mother’s Day were remade — so why not Spine (with Sly Stallone hunting down a Linda-hating “Spine Killer,” perhaps?).
Contrary to the web-chatter/caveat emptor John Howard sidebar: The Scorpion (1986) reissued on the Explosive Cinema 12-film pack by Mill Creek (Amazon, Walmart) — starring karate champ Tony Tulleners, the one guy the “invincible” Chuck Norris could never beat — is not the same film as the “specialty video” Scorpion (1986) shot by John and starring Linnea Quigley. You can watch the VHS rip of Tulleners’s Scorpion and listen to an extensive review by All Natural Reviews on You Tube.
The 1985 Hong Kong actioner The Serpent Warriors (Wikipedia) — starring Clint Walker (Killdozer, TV Movie alert!), Eartha Kitt (as a snake bitch!), Christopher Mitchum (Aftershock, SFX Retaliator, double yes!), and Anne Lockhart (Battlestar Galactica: TOS) — is not the same John Howard who directed our beloved Spine. (Don’t forget: Asian-Pacific Rim-produced oddities from the ‘80s VHS fringe are infamous for their untraceable, americanized director-pseudonyms.) While its rare VHS goes for about $40 bucks, beware of those bogus DVD-R grey-market rips (and know your regions before you buy, if you must). Sadly, there’s no video-hosted VHS rip of The Serpent Warriors, but you can watch the trailer on Daily Motion. If you need to know more, you can read an extensive “Snake Week” review at Daily Grind House. Here’s to hoping the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome or Arrow Video do a reissue of this slithery, beautiful disaster that, somehow, “roped” Catwoman and BSG’s Sheba into starring.
“Dude, you know way too much about John Howard. What kind of a freak are you?”
Oh, be sure to join me for more Italian and Spanish Giallo explorations this Halloween season with my investigative reviews of the heavy-metal horror classic Rocktober Blood and the tales of Paul Naschy’s Alaric de Marnac in the films Panic Beats and Horror Rises from the Tomb.
Okay, I need to go get my “freak” on. Now, where is that little rabbit? Where’s the chicken? Have a knotty . . . uh, I mean, naughty Halloween, ya’ll!
Post Script: Courtesy of Mill Creek “Explosive Cinema” 12-pack, which we reviewed in full, we have since posted full reviews on Scorpion starring Tony Tulleners and The Serpent Warriors starring Clint Walker.
About the Author:You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.
William Fruet made his directorial debut with Wedding in White, which was based on a play that he had written. The film won Best Picture at the Canadian Film Awards in 1973 and starred Carol Kane and Donald Pleasence. He followed that up with an intriguing string of Canuxploitation films, obviously taking full advantage of those wonderful tax shelter laws that produced so many statistic favorites.
There’s proto-slasher Death Weekend (released in the U.S. as The House By the Lake), Cries In the Night (known better here as Funeral Home), redneck rampage film Trapped(AKA Baker County U.S.A.), Spasms, Bedroom Eyes and the kinda-sorta Alien by way of animal experimentation oddity Blue Monkey, as well as episodes of Goosebumps, Friday’s Curse (perhaps better known as Friday the 13th: The Series) and Poltergeist: The Legacy.
That brings us to Killer Party, a movie once named April Fool before the similarly named April Fool’s Day went into production.
College students Vivia (Sherry Willis-Burch, who is also in Final Exam), Jennifer (Joanna Johnson, who was on the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful off and on from 1987 to 2014) and Phoebe (Elaine Wilkes, Sixteen Candles, My Chauffeur) are sorority pledges at Briggs College who are in the middle of Hell Week.
They’re warned by their housemother Mrs. Henshaw to avoid the Pratt House, then travels there herself to the grave of a man named Allan, who she asks to leave the kids alone before she’s murdered.
On the day of the initiation — this is a similar slasher trope, just witness Sorority Girls In the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama,One Dark Night and The Initiation just to name a few — the girls prepare to break in and steal some clothes. We also meet Blake (Martin Hewitt, the doomed obsessive lover of Brooke Shields in Endless Love) and Martin (Ralph Seymour, Surf II, Just Before Dawn), who with interested in Jennifer.
During the hazing, the girls are forced to hold raw eggs in their mouths. Soon, all hell breaks loose and the lights begin to flicker and glasses rise off the table. Vivia goes to see where the noises are coming from, which leads to the group finding her get beheaded in a guillotine. Somehow, this was all a ruse and part of a prank that she decided to play. This part kind of confuses me, as I have no idea how a pledge — or why, to be honest — could set up such an elaborate trick.
That said, that prank becomes the reason why Vivia makes it into the sorority. She’s asked to recreate it at the April Fool’s Day masquerade that they’re throwing at — DUH DUH DUH — the Pratt House. That’s when we learn — via Professor Zito’s (Paul Bartel!) exposition — that Allan died in such a hazing ritual involving a guillotine 22 years ago. That said, Allan may have been way into the occult and conjured an evil force that was behind his death.
Bartel is the best part of this movie. I’ve said that sentence so many times, but it’s incredibly true here. Sadly, he doesn’t last much longer as when he decides to inspect the house, someone in the basement electrifies him. Also, his Zito character is named after Joseph Zito, who directed Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and The Prowler. That’s because the former of those films was written by this film’s writer, Barney Cohen.
During the prank at the part, Jennifer is possessed by a spirit and stops the trick. As the party falls apart, the killing picks up, with Veronica being killed with a hammer, Pam stabbed with a trident, Martin’s head ends up in the fridge while Albert also loses his noggin and then Blake is drowned in a bathtub. Vivia and Phoebe run from all this carnage right into Jennifer, who discloses that she’s possessed by the ghost of Allan.
They try and escape through a window, but Vivia is thrown to the unforgiving earth, breaking both her legs. Phoebe ends up killing her possessed friend by impaling her with a board, but she’s overtaken by Allan, just as the police put both women into an ambulance. The movie closes on Vivia screaming that she can’t be left alone with Phoebe.
The reason for the quick burst of murder in this film is because it had to be re-edited following numerous MPAA cuts. That’s why the film seems to have no gore and is edited so that the murders have little room in between. In the original cut, there was more time between each kill, as well as plenty more gore, like Pam getting completely impaled by the trident.
If you’re watching this and wondering, “Have I seen Briggs College before?” you have. It’s the same school as 1998’s Urban Legend.
Killer Party was a late comer to the slasher era, but it’s a quick moving burst of fun. It’s not perfect, but how many of these movies are?