Arcane Sorcerer (1996)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: A.C. Nicholas, who has a sketchy background and hails from parts unknown in Western Pennsylvania, was once a drive-in theater projectionist and disk jockey, Currently, in addition to being a writer, editor, podcaster, and voice-over artist, he contributes to Drive-In Asylum. His first article, “Grindhouse Memories Across the U.S.A.,” was published in issue #23. He’s also written “I Was a Teenage Drive-in Projectionist” and “Emanuelle in Disney World and Other Weird Tales of a Trash Film Lover” for upcoming issues.

In the world of horror films, there are the great directors who spent almost their entire careers in the genre, like George Romero and John Carpenter. And then there are directors who worked in a variety of genres and, when they dabbled in horror, produced masterpieces. Sometimes just one masterpiece, like Britain’s Michael Powell with Peeping Tom. Or two, like Spain’s Narciso Ibáñez Serrador with The House That Screamed and Who Can Kill a Child? But someone who has three horror masterpieces in his filmography—and is one of my favorites—is the great Italian director Pupi Avati.

Avati has been directing films in different genres for over 50 years. A jazz musician, he even directed a biopic filmed in Davenport, Iowa, about early jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. I’ve heard him referred to as the “Stephen Spielberg of Italy.” But for me, his three horror films, The House with Laughing Windows (1976), Zeder (1983), and Arcane Sorcerer (1996), stand as some of the least-seen, best horror films ever made. All are slow burns with little violence and action but with the most pervasively chilling atmosphere you can imagine. Perhaps someday folks will recognize Avati as the natural successor to Mario Bava, a director who could create atmosphere with the simplest of things, like the sound of the wind or the movement of a shadow.  I dare you to walk through a cemetery at night after seeing a Pupi Avati horror film.

In Arcane Sorcerer, his third film in the genre, Avati does a couple of striking things. First, he sets his film in rural 18th century Italy. And second, he manages to make a wholly original film, while combining and expanding upon his two previous genre entries.

Without giving much away, the plot concerns a young seminarian played by Stefano Dionisi (Sleepless) who, to avoid prosecution by church authorities for a huge scandal, hides out. He takes a job as the secretary to a defrocked monsignor, a perfectly cast Carlo Cecchi (The Red Violin and Stealing Beauty). The monsignor, who practices the black arts, is a scary figure to the local villagers. Indeed, he lives in isolation in a castle with a huge, foreboding library and does weird stuff like sending coded letters to dead people. Through the course of the film, the young man will see a lot of disturbing things, including a twist that fans of Avati’s work will surely recognize.

Everything about Arcane Sorcerer is first rate. The production design is terrific (love that chandelier in the library), the cinematography is gorgeous, the score by genre favorite Pino Donaggio is spot-on, and it’s all put together with intelligence and loving care. (There’s a memorably creepy scene featuring a long-dead body that must be moved to consecrated ground.) But what impresses me the most is how writer-director Avati scored yet another personal triumph. He has this uncanny, preternatural ability, like Bava, to make the smallest things terrifying. And he makes it all look easy. I have yet to see another living director pull off what he does. (Robert Eggers came close with The VVitch.)  It’s Avati’s special gift, and I’m glad that we have his three horror films. He’s now 83 years old but still working, so I can dream of one last masterwork from this still relatively unknown master of horror.

Apart from a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, I don’t believe Arcane Sorcerer ever had an official release in any English-speaking territory. Indeed, I only recently tracked down a DVD rip in Italian with dreadful English subtitles loaded with typos. Avati’s The House with Laughing Windows took years to find its U.S. cult following. Arcane Sorcerer would find its cult too if Vinegar Syndrome ever released a Pupi Avati box set. It certainly deserves it.

Invisible Mom (1996)

Researching this movie — yes, I am home alone on a Sunday obsessively writing about Fred Olen Ray movies while you live your life — I discovered a website called The Chucks Connections which documents every appearance of Chuck Taylor All-Star shoes in movies.

If you liked Disney live action movies of the 70s but perhaps wanted some weirdness under the skin, then you’ll find something here, a movie in which a dad makes an invisibility serum, the son wants to drink it to get back at a bully and the mom (Dee Wallace!) drinks it. And hijnks, as always say and will say all week when writing about Ray’s movies, ensues.

This is a movie that not only has its child hero watching Beast of the Yellow Night on TV but also has that movie’s star John Ashley show up as a henpecked neighbor. It’s also nice that producer Andrew Stevens got some work for his mother Stella here.

I also endorse Russ Tamblyn getting acting gigs anywhere and anyway that he can. Same as Gary Graver, who shows up in a small role here, and is the only man who could convince Orson Welles to edit a scene in an adult movie.

The tagline for this film is “Not seeing is believing,” which kind of is hurting my brain right now and putting it into loops and making me think about gnostic dualism.

You can watch this on Tubi.

Passionate Revenge (1996)

Also known as Friend of the Family II, this Fred Olen Ray film was written by Henry Krinkle, who also wrote Night Eyes 4, which seems like decent training for this movie.

And no, this has nothing to do with the first one other than its antagonist being played by the same actress.

Alex (Paul Michael Robinson) decided to have an affair with Linda (Penthouse Pet of the Month January 1992 Shauna O’Brien) while he’s on business in New Orleans. Somehow, she had a better flight than him, because when he gets back home, she’s already been hired as his family’s new nanny.

Nicholas Medina is, of course, Fred Olen Ray. He’s making his own Hand the Rocks the Cradle here, but that movie had more days to shoot, more of a budget and you know, more actual thought than this. It did not, however, have Shauna O’Brien or an ending where Alex’s wife yells, “Oh my God! Where’s the baby?”

I can hear you asking, “But did Gary Graver do the cinematography?”

Of course he did.

You can watch this on Tubi.

APRIL MOVIE THON DAY 12: Santa Claws (1996)

John Russo lives in Glassport, which I can see from my house, and he wrote the idea that became Night of the Living Dead, which would probably be enough, but he also helped make Return of the Living Dead happen. And he also made Midnight and The Majorettes, two movies that fall into that strange genre that can only come from Pittsburgh, the yinzer giallo. He also was the publisher and managing editor of Scream Queens Illustrated, which figures into this movie.

Raven Quinn (Debbie Rochon) used to be a scream queen but ever since she had two children with a scream queen magazine publisher who would rather take nude photos of models than work on his marriage. Luckily, she has Wayne (Grant Cramer), a neighbor who once watched his mommy do more than kiss Santa Claus, lost his mind and killed them both. So perhaps she is not quite so fortunate.

Beyond getting to see Night stars like Marilyn Eastman, who played Helen Cooper, Karl Hardman, who played her husband Harry, and first zombie — and the director of The Majorettes and FleshEater — S. William Hinzman, you can pretty much see this as an American Night Killer. They’re both set at Christmas, they both deal with broken marriages and they’re both absolutely berserk movies seemingly made by maniacs.

Waste not, want not, as Russo edited this into Scream Queens Naked Christmas.

Yinzer bonus: Numerous scenes of characters wandering Market Square before anyone went there, back when George Aiken was still making the best-fried chicken ever, when National Record Mart still had that huge store and G.W. Murphy’s was still open. I mean, the killer runs into the Oyster House for a second and I was awash with 90s dahntahn memories, like Honus Wagner, the smell of Hare Krishna’s t-shirts, Candyrama and so much more.

In short, a killer that uses a garden cultivator as a weapon, like a total South Hills Blood and Black Lace, all with softcore dancing that makes me wistful for dollar pizza at Anthony’s and the old sign that was painted on the wall at the Cricket and hey, John Russo wrote two songs for this, “Christmas by Myself” and “Brand New Christmas.”

If you remember that old store Novelties in Market Square that never seemed to sell anything and was put out of business for a Dunkin’ Donuts, well, I want you to know that this movie has the killer buy his Santa Claus suit in that very store.

Welcome to the yinzer giallo list, Santa Claws. Meet us under the Kaufmann’s clock for your framed certificate.

JESS FRANCO MONTH: Killer Barbys (1996)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We covered this back on September 10, 2020 and wow. It’s an odd movie even by Franco’s standards. 

While the movie is called Killer Barbys, it features the Spanish punk rock band The Killer Barbies, who are fronted by Silvia Superstar. They’ve used the alternate spelling to avoid legal action from Mattel, but at other times use the “ie” spelling.

Released along with their first album Dressed to Kiss, this movie finds the band on the road when their van breaks down. Arkan (Aldo Sambrell, who was in everything from Leone’s Italian Westerns to Yellow Hair and the Fortress of GoldSilver Saddle and Operation Condor: Armor of God 2) welcomes them to the castle of Countess Von Fledermaus (Mariangela Giordano, Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror), who is really the artist Olga Luchan, who has remained alive for decades.

Billy and Sharon elect to stay in the van — continually aardvarking throughout the movies — while Flavia, Rafa and Mario all discover the secret of the Countess. Yes, she’s remained young on a diet of semen and blood.

There are only two songs by the band on the soundtrack and you will know them both well by the time the movie is done. You’ll also be amazed that Franco had made way more than a hundred movies before this, but so much of what I love is that you never really know what kind of movie the director would bring you.

Basically, imagine if Scooby-Doo had every character having sex with one another, but pervy sex because Jess Franco wouldn’t have it any other way. What a magical lunatic. The band would also work with Mr. Franco again to make 2002’s Killer Barbys vs. Dracula.

You can watch this on KinoCult.

Lone Tiger (1996)

While searching Las Vegas for the man who killed his famous father — a wrestler known for his trademark tiger mask who is totally not Naoto Date, the Tiger Mask of anime and pro wrestling fame, despite this being written by Hisao Maki (Joe vs. JoeBodyguard Kiba), the younger brother of Ikki Kajiwara, who actually did create Tiger Mask — Chuji Kurenai (Bruce Locke, Shang Tsung from the Mortal Kombat: Conquest series and Otomo in RoboCop 3) discovers a world of fighters that battle to the death, which gets in the way of his quest to defeat Dark Tiger (Matthias Hues, Oscar the Lion Tamer in Big Top Pee-wee, as well as Kickboxer 2, TC 2000 and Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich), the pro wrestler who killed his father.

Meanwhile, Bruce Rossner (Richard Lynch) wants him as his main fighter, using money as motivation, as Hisao is taking care of some runaways — kind of like how Naoto Date would take care of the orphange (and to this day, Japanese fans of the manga and anime anonymously donate to childrens’ charities using Date’s name). He asks his main fighter, King (Robert Z’Dar) to train Hisao to be a killing machine, which takes all of one wacky montage.

Somehow, Tomothy Bottoms is in this. Yes, the same Timothy Bottoms from The Last Picture ShowJohnny Got His Gun and The Paper Chase. Then again, this is also the same Timothy Bottoms that was in Total ForceIn the Shadow of Kilimanjaro and The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, in which he played President George Bush. The George Walker Bush President Bush.

Warren A. Stevens also directed Dragonfight and Eagles Law, but spent most of his career doing stunts, like Cannon’s Lambada and Super Mario Bros.

As for the movie, well, instead of spending time showing us pro wrestling or fighting to the death, there’s an extended fried chicken eating scene. And the tiger mask of this Nise Tiger Mask is poofy and goofy and the fight scenes seem shot underwater, but then again, seeing Z’Dar spit out fake blood and a character scream, “I love to pee!” are the better parts of the film, so maybe it could have used more fried chicken eating.

You can watch this on YouTube.

GREGORY DARK WEEK: Animal Instincts III (1996)

When Joanna Coles falls for blind rock promoter Alex Savage she finds the man who satisfies her desire for experimentation, as he’s a voyeur. But he’s also blind. Can I Do It Until I Need Glasses?

Oh yeah. He’s also a blind knifethrower.

There’s also some music industry ridiculousness — director Gregory Dark would know, seeing as how he directed videos for everyone from Sublime to Britney Spears — and lots of the voodoo masks and rituals that made up so much of the look of Dark’s even dirtier films.

But the most charming thing about this movie is that it was written by Selwyn Harris, whose name combines the Selwyn Theater on 229 West 42nd Street and the Harris Theater on 226 West 42nd Street, a man who also wrote The Devil in Miss Jones 5: The Inferno for Dark. And, in case you didn’t know, Selwyn was really Mike McPadden, perhaps the finest writer on not only 42nd Street, but heavy metal movies, teen movies and just life.

Sadly, Mike is no longer with us, but the books and movies and words he wrote are. He was a major inspiration to me, so seeing his other name appear in the credits made me so overjoyed.

Mike told The Daily Grindhouse so much about this movie: “Greg was a nut. He was a dear friend, a terrific talent, a great guy to work with, and, very much, a nut. At the time we started Animal Instincts III, Greg was heavily into hip-hop music and had expanded his intense martial arts regimen to include knife fighting. So his ONLY instructions to me were: “Make sure the movie has hip hop music and knife fighting.”

And thus the plot centered on a record producer who was an expert knife thrower. The fact that he was supposed to be blind, too, plays into the challenge of showcasing new variations on the oldest form of human interaction. When his wife fucks people in front of him while thinking he can’t see, it adds a deeper component to her exhibitionism and his voyeurism — in theory, at least. The finished movie is an apocalypse.

As a porn screenwriter, both hard and softcore, the sex scenes function as the posts from which the whole rest of the movie hangs. Like haiku, you can write whatever you want, as long as it fits into the form’s singularly defined structure.

One of the movies I wrote for Greg, Devil In Miss Jones 5: The Inferno is great. The rest meander from one near miss, Sex Freaks, to a couple of negligible efforts. Animal Instincts III stands alone as gloriously horrendous.”

Thanks for so much Mike. You still make me laugh and still will, long after you have been gone.

Still Screaming: 25 Years Later

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Vaught has worked in the entertainment industry for several years. Nick currently serves as an Associate Producer on the upcoming horror documentary In Search of Darkness: Part III. Nick also worked on the long-running CW series Supernatural. In 2019 he co-wrote the well-received episode “Don’t Go in the Woods.” In addition, Nick has written punch up jokes on multiple TV pilots and teamed with actor Jason Mewes to help write his biography.

Seemingly no movie genre lives and dies more than horror and in the mid 90’s, the horror genre was as dead as the asshole jock character that populates these movies.  Popular franchises such as Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street had run out of steam with both critics and fans alike. Let’s face it, sequels had killed our beloved franchises. The genre was in much need of an originality boost and that’s where ironically, Dimension Films came in. I say ironically because Dimension Films was part of the sequel-itis that was plaguing horror films. The Bob Weinstein-led subsidiary of Miramax was primarily known for its horror and sci-fi films. They scooped up the rights to Children of the Corn, Hellraiser and Halloween and began producing subpar (putting it mildly) sequels to the once-powerful franchises. 

Then, in 1995, they optioned a script by an unknown writer named Kevin Williamson. The script was called Scary Movie (before it was changed to Scream) and it was strong enough to attract the attention of horror master Wes Craven, who was in desperate need of a hit.  The script focused on a masked killer terrorizing a group of high school friends. The cast was comprised of a lot of up-and-coming actors: David Arquette, Skeet Ulrich, Rose McGowan, Jamie Kennedy, Matthew Lillard; as well as tv stars, Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox. The biggest name in the cast was Drew Barrymore, who played “Casey Becker.” Barrymore was initially offered the role of “Sidney Prescott,” which would ultimately be played by Campbell. 

It didn’t take long after cameras began to roll for issues to begin to rise. Weinstein was incredibly unhappy with the first round of footage that came in; the footage of the opening scene with Barrymore. Editor Patrick Lussier scrambled to put together the scene in its entirety and get it to Weinstein, who was pleased enough with what he saw to spare Craven’s job.

After filming was completed, Dimension Films made an odd choice by giving the film a December 20th release date in 1996. Horror films simply weren’t released during the holidays; only blockbusters and feel-good comedies were. I suppose Weinstein was hoping for Scream to end up as counter programming Well, it didn’t work and Scream only made around $6 million in its opening weekend; it was dead, or so it seemed. Something almost unheard of happened the next weekend, the gross went up and up and up until the movie topped out at a whopping $103 million at the end of its run. How did this happen?

Word of mouth happened. The people that did see it on that opening weekend loved it and told others. The before mentioned opening scene became one of the most iconic opening scenes not only in horror history, but cinema history. Barrymore’s character finds herself alone in her parent’s house in the middle of nowhere making Jiffy Pop. She gets a call from what she assumes is a wrong number, but is actually a deranged killer with a cell phone and a penchant for horror movie trivia. The Jiffy Pop begins to rise as the tension does; a master stroke by Craven. Shockingly, Barrymore’s character is killed off and the movie never lets up after that. From that point, Scream focuses on Campbell’s “Sidney Prescott,” who gives a strong, grounded performance as the movie’s final girl.

Personally, I had only gotten into horror the year before and when I saw Scream for the first time it cemented my love of horror. Even though I was relatively new to the genre I had never seen anything like this. The filmmakers invited us to be part of the movie; we were watching ourselves onscreen. We were screaming the answers to “Ghostface’s” questions during Drew Barrymore’s scenes. We were yelling at Jamie Kennedy’s character “Randy” to turn around as he was saying the same thing to Jamie Lee Curtis’ character while he was watching Halloween. The characters were well aware that their situation mirrored that of a slasher movie; in fact, they would mock their predicament. The movie also introduces the rules of surviving a horror movie, some which hold true, but then subverts one of the biggest rules by taking Campbell’s virgin character, having her have sex and still outwitting the killers in the end. It was meta before the term would enter our cultural zeitgeist.

Metaness aside there was plenty else to like about the movie. For starters, the movie was a well-crafted whodunit with elaborate death scenes. There were several red herrings throughout the movie and while many in the audience may have guessed that the character of “Billy” was a killer, nobody in the audience could’ve guessed that there were two killers. I can still remember the audible gasps in the theater when Matthew Lillard’s “Stu,” the lovable, goofy sidekick was revealed as the second killer. The character of “Stu” was so popular that there’s still clamoring to bring him back, despite you know, him being a murderer.

Speaking of the lovable “Stu”, strong, three-dimensional supporting characters is another area where Scream excels. Most scary movies just throw a bunch of thinly written characters in the middle of the woods just for the sake of adding to the body count; you usually don’t even care whether they live or die. Scream gave us fully realized, grounded, characters that we had a vested interest in their fate. Rose McGowan’s death scene is a highlight of the movie, but we’re generally disappointed when her strong-willed, character bites the dust. 

And let us not forget the now iconic “Ghostface” mask. Every villain needs a killer look, pun intended. The Scream mask was instantly terrifying the first time we saw it and it gave the killers a sense of personality as well. I think it’s safe to say that people who haven’t even seen the movies know where the mask is from. 

Scream turned 25 years old on December 20th and not only are we still talking about it, but a new Scream movie is due to be released on January 14th of this year, which will give us a Scream movie in four straight decades. For many of us, Scream is a pinnacle entry in the horror genre and if you’re like me, it’s a major reason you have a diehard love for horror. Thanks to this franchise for keeping me screaming a quarter of a century later. 

Pandora’s Clock (1996)

Based on the book Pandora’s Clock by John J. Nance, this movie draws on the author’s experiences as a Braniff Airlines pilot by telling the story of a deadly virus on a Boeing 747-200. The governments of the world have left the passengers — including Ambassador Lee Lancaster (Robert Guillaume) — to die, but Captain James Holland (Richard Dean Anderson) and his crew are struggling to save them all.

Nance shows up as a high-ranking Air Force official, plus there’s Daphne Zuniga, Jane Leeves, Robert Loggia and Stephen Root on hand.

One could argue my smarts in watching a movie about quarantines and pandemics and viruses while the Omnicron variant is in the news. There are so many disease of the week movies that now are not as much fun to watch as they once were.

You can watch this on YouTube if you feel like dealing with some dread.

Carnosaur 3: Primal Species (1996)

Some terrorists think they’re stealing uranium. Nope, it’s frozen dinosaurs.

Some cops think they’re going after drug dealers. Nope, they find dead terrorists and then get killed by two velociraptors and a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

As for you, you’re here for the third Carnosaur movie, one that stars Scott Valentine, who went from being Nick Moore on Family Ties — a character so popular that they tried to spin him off three times* — to My Demon Lover, Roger Corman’s Black Scorpion movies and The Unborn 2.

He’s Colonel Rance Higgins, who must team with Dr. Hodges (Janet Gunn, Silk Stalkings) to escape the dinosaurs.

Seeing as how this was once called Primal Species, it was not made to be a Carnosaur movie. But we all know how 90s direct to video sequels work. I also have been made aware that 2001’s Raptor has footage from these films — and stars Eric Roberts — which means I will have to watch it, as does the 2006 movie The Eden Formula which also has the much better title Tyrannosaurus Wrecks.

*Taking It Home was canceled when Valentine’s co-star, Herschel Bernardi, died. Anther was a Friends style sitcom and the third was The Art of Being Nick, which did air unlike the other two pilots but was not picked up.