TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)

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ESCAPE FROM L.A. (1996)

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to other reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

It took 15 years, but in 1996 John Carpenter finally brought Snake Plissken back for another escape. This flick takes place in 2013 and finds Plissken (Kurt Russell) being caught gunfighting in Thailand and brought to the West Coast to be deposited in the lawless island of L.A. A massive earthquake, predicted by the United States’ right wing religious president (Cliff Robertson), has separated L.A. from the mainland and now any immoral or criminal individuals are deposited in this no man’s land. Meanwhile, the president’s daughter, Utopia (A.J. Langer) has rebelled and fled to L.A. into the arms of Peruvian terrorist Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface) with a doomsday weapon. Like in New York, Plissken is offered his freedom and a pardon of all his crimes, if he infiltrates L.A., kills Cuervo and Utopia and returns the weapon to the U.S. president.

Escape from L.A. was a box office and critical disappointment back in 1996, but with a lot of John Carpenter’s lesser films, it grows on one and now, viewed all these years later, is an entertaining watch finally finding it’s fan base. Carpenter directed from a script by he, producer Debra Hill and star Kurt Russell. It’s lighter in tone and more colorful than Plissken’s apocalyptic first adventure and the characters are a bit more cartoonish than those Snake met in NYC. The budget is almost 4x as much, though bargain basement CGI FX make it look a lot cheaper than it’s 1981 predecessor. The story is a thin remake of the first film and is a bit more politically preachy, with it’s religious right president and police state where even smoking and red meat are criminal offenses. Thankfully Snake is still Snake and he’s cool as ice, even when surfing a tsunami alongside Peter Fonda. The action is somewhat bigger than in EFNY, though a weak villain and too many disposable characters lessen the film’s overall impact. The flick follows the 1981 original’s template too closely to really resonate as a new adventure, but there is a lot of entertainment in watching Carpenter poke fun at politics and Hollywood, no more evident than the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills (Bruce Campbell) segment. It is a flawed movie, but with a little added nostalgia, at over two decades old, it can be fun…and at least we get to see Russell back in action as Snake, one more time.

Carpenter always assembles a good cast. Russell steps into Snake Plissken seamlessly and despite the outlaw being 15 years older, it seems like just yesterday, he was escaping New York City. Russell plays him very seriously despite the film’s lighter tone and Snake is ever the badass up until and including the very last shot. A classic character used far too sparsely. The only disappointment in the cast is Corraface as Cuervo Jones. The actor tries hard, but doesn’t have the presence or ferocity to make him a strong villain worthy of taking on Snake. He’s weak. Issac Hayes’ Duke of New York seemed far more deadly and dangerous. Langer is fine as the ditzy Utopia, though the character is too light to fit in a Plissken adventure. Same could be said of Buscemi’s ‘Map To The Stars’ Eddie. He’s a jokey substitute for Borgnine’s Cabbie and another character that feels out of place. Keach is good as Malloy who would be the Bob Hauk character, as is Robertson slimy as the religious zealot president. Michelle Forbes, Valeria Golino, the great Pam Grier and Peter Fonda are all fine in their supporting roles, as is Bruce Campbell a hoot as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills. A good cast for the most part.

Overall, this was a bit disappointing when seen opening day 1996, especially to those of us who had been waiting 15 years for Carpenter to unleash Snake Plissken again. Decades later, now that the disappointment has abated and nostalgia has set in, it’s doesn’t seem so bad. Sure, it’s a bit too much of a remake to feel like a completely new adventure, but Russell is still awesome as Snake and at least we have two adventures to watch instead of just the one. There is a lot of action, aside from some sly political commentary and showbiz satire and some of it is more relevant now than back in the day. Not one of Carpenter’s best, but like many of his lesser titles, one that has actually aged better than expected…except for the awful CGI. Where was James Cameron and the New World Pictures FX crew and their model work when you needed them.

-MonsterZero NJ

Rated 3 (out of 4) Snake Plisskens.

 

 

 

 

 

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MONSTERZERO NJ’S SATURDAY NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE: CLASS OF 1984 and CLASS OF 1999

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I haven’t done a double feature in a while and what better double feature than these two Mark Lester action/exploitation flicks!

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CLASS OF 1984  (1982)

Class Of 1984 is a good old fashioned exploitation flick and it knows it! Story finds idealistic music teacher Andrew Norris (Perry King) entering the crime and gang ridden Abraham Lincoln High School with the intent or doing some good. He immediately runs afoul of the most vicious gang in the school run by the charming but demented Peter Stegman (Vince Van Patten). The more Norris challenges the gang, the more they push back. Family, friends and biology lab animals are all caught in the crossfire as this feud escalates into a war and a peaceful teacher is pushed to the brink of savagery in response to Stegman and company’s increasingly cruel…and personal…attacks. Will anyone survive?

Sure, one could argue that Norris is a fool for putting, students, friends and his pregnant wife (Merrie Lynn Ross) in harm’s way by taking this gang of creeps on, but this is a sleazy exploitation film and co-writer/director Mark Lester knows it and delivers the goods. We let it slide that Norris continues to antagonize these vicious punks even though they let him know early on that they know where he lives and they are not going to relent. His crusade to rid the school of these deviants gets a lot of people…and cuddly lab animals…hurt, including a vicious attack on his pregnant wife, but Norris continues till they drive him over the edge and then, the real fun begins. Even back in 1982 this flick, that Lester co-wrote with Tom Holland (Fright Night, Child’s Play) and John Saxton, created controversy with it’s portrayal of violence, prostitution and drug dealing all perpetrated by high schoolers…and then the violent and bloody revenge exacted on them by one of their own teachers. It’s over-the-top portrayal of a school run by delinquents may actually seem more appropriate now with what is happening in today’s school and far less likely such a film would have gotten made today, even on an exploitation level. It’s violent and while over-the-top, it takes itself seriously and is an effective and brutal action flick that isn’t afraid to go places that are considered taboo, maybe even more-so today. Great movie…no. Damn effective exploitation flick…hell, yes!

I wouldn’t say the acting is great, but the cast all take their roles seriously. King is convincing as the idealistic and somewhat naive teacher who thinks he is going to just walk into a troubled school and clean house. He also is convincing…and a little scary…once that good man is turned into a vengeful savage whose vengeance may almost be crueler than the actions of those he’s seeking revenge upon. Van Patten is very effective as Stegman. Charming and crazy and totally living in a moral vacuum due to a rich mother who has blinders on to his heinous actions. Not her baby, absolutely not. He is vicious and cruel and will stoop to the lowest levels to maintain his iron grip on “his” school. Van Patten nails it. We have veteran Roddy McDowall, who is a teacher who prefers to look the other way, but snaps when drawn into Norris’ crusade. McDowall always gave his all, even in a sleazy film like this. We also have a pre-“Alex P. Keaton” Michael J. Fox as one of the few good students left and another person Norris’ obsession gets hurt.  Rounding out the main characters, Ross is fine as the sweet, loving loyal wife who we know from the start is there to be victimized and those scenes are brutal and added to the film’s controversy.

This is an exploitation flick through and through. It steamrolls right into controversial topics and does so with a bloodthirsty gusto at times. It never pretends to be anything else but what it is. It’s effective and relentless and even has some legitimate suspense and chills in it’s portrayal of a good man drawn into a personal confrontation with complete trash. An effective B-Movie that still resonates in today’s world of violence in schools. Title song “I am The Future” is performed by Alice Cooper.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 and 1/2 saw blades…ouch!

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SPOLIER WARNING: This trailer does show some scenes which reveal key moments!

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CLASS OF 1999 (1990)

(Clicking the highlighted links brings you to corresponding reviews and articles here at The Movie Madhouse!)

Eight years after his controversial but profitable exploitation flick, Class Of 1984, Mark Lester co-wrote and directed this follow-up which shares similar themes, but goes further over-the-top by adding elements of Terminator and Escape From New York. The film takes place in the future…or what was the future when it was made…where youth gangs have gotten so out of control that the police establish “Free Fire Zones” around schools where they will not enter and it’s up to the Department Of Educational Defense to use their own private security force to establish order. They also have collaborated with a robotics company called Megatech to create cybernetic teachers to educate and discipline these unruly students. Unknown to Principal Langford (Malcolm McDowell) the devious Dr. Forrest (a spooky Stacy Keach) has used combat robots as prototypes for these new teachers. Now it is the teachers whose methods of discipline are out of control and it’s up to former gang member Cody (Bradley Gregg) and the principle’s spirited daughter (hottie Traci Lind) to stop these automatons before more of their classmates are slaughtered.

Sequel is more of a straight-up B-Movie action flick than an exploitation flick, like 1984 was. But like that flick, the film knows it and dives straight into it’s over the top story and just runs with it…like a good B-movie should. First off, Lester earns B-Movie high marks by casting exploitation icon Pam Grier, 80s movie bad guy Patrick Kilpatrick and B-Movie veteran John P. Ryan as the three cybernetic teachers who turn killing machines. They add a lot of personality to their villains. The action in the film is decent but unremarkable, but Lester saves the best for last for the finale when the surviving gang members take on the three combat robots in the halls of Kennedy High. It’s this last act where the movie really comes alive and is at it’s most fun, as the teacher’s reveal their true T-800 nature and the high school hallways become a bloody war zone. This film, obviously, has a bit more of a sense of humor than Class Of 1984 and doesn’t get anywhere near as cruel or vicious, though it has a few violent moments. Lester moves things along quickly and while it lacks it’s predecessor’s intensity, it has fun with it’s premise by flipping things around and having us rooting for the delinquent students this time. It’s not a great movie and under-performed at the box office, but overall, it’s a fun little B-Movie though, not quite up to Lester’s work on Commando.

The cast are fine, it’s obviously veterans like Grier, Ryan, Kilpatrick, Keach and McDowell who stand out with their over-the-top performances as robots, mad scientist and the principal caught in the middle, respectively. Bradley Gregg does make a sufficient anti-hero with an Edward Furlong-ish quality. He could have had a bit more of a presence as a supposed former gang leader, but he does well with portraying a young man who wants out, but is pulled back in. Lind is an adorable and very feisty leading lady. She sadly is demoted to damsel in distress for the finale, but she gives her Christy a lot of spunk and fire for the rest of the flick. I had a huge crush on her back in the day and while I like her here, I still like her Alex in Fright Night Part II better. Alex had a bit more fight.

I like this flick. Not as strong as Class Of 1984, but it is still a fun B-Movie action flick that just goes with it’s silly story. I did see it in a theater…I think it was the Hyway Theater in Fair Lawn, N.J., another cool place to see B flicks like this…and had fun with it. I still enjoy it now, even though 1999 has long past and we don’t have cybernetic teachers…that we know of. It’s an entertaining little movie from a director who made a career of fun flicks like this and was never afraid to take his stories and run with them. A fun time and a worthy second feature to the first flick. As said, it performed poorly at the box office, but must have done well enough on home media as there was a second sequel, without Lester, that went direct to VHS in 1994. Also stars Near Dark’s Joshua John Miller as Cody’s brother.

-MonsterZero NJ

3 cybernetic disciplinarians.

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