Sunday, October 30, 2016

JACK-O AND FRIENDS - THE STEVE LATSHAW COLLECTION - DVD REVIEW

In the spirit of Halloween, let’s take a look at Retromedia Entertainment’s JACK-O AND FRIENDS – The STEVE LATSHAW COLLECTION, which contains JACK-O (1995 – identified as JACKO LANTERN in the opening credits), a very low-budget if lively production about a resurrected demon sporting a giant jack-o’-lantern for a head.  Produced by Fred Olen Ray for his American Independent production company, JACK-O is the main attraction on this limited, 2-disc triple feature DVD, which also contains Latshaw’s earlier DARK UNIVERSE (1993) and BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE (a.k.a. BIOHAZARD 2, 1994), a sequel of sorts to Ray’s BIOHAZARD (1983).  While deceased at the time of filming, both John Carradine and Cameron Mitchell appear in JACK-O, thanks to the resourcefulness of Ray, who had unused footage of both late actors at his disposal.  Utilizing true exploitation chutzpa, Latshaw and screenwriters Ray, Brad Linaweaver and Patrick Moran incorporated most of this footage into the main feature. 

Unfolding in the fictional town of Oakmoor, an old warlock (Carradine) was put to death by Arthur Kelly (Mike Connor) and the local townsfolk, but, before dying, he unleashed Jack-O, a demonic killer known as “The Pumpkin Man,” to exact revenge on his killers.  Having been destroyed by Kelly, the pumpkin man lay dormant for decades, until three drunken teens – who all appear to be well into their twenties, as per the usual norm – desecrate the grave on Halloween night, thus setting Jack-O free.  Not only does Jack-O wreak havoc in the quiet suburban town of Oakmoor, he also seeks vengeance on Kelly’s ancestors; in particular Sean Kelly (Ryan Latshaw), an unassuming child who has recently been plagued by various nightmares involving the pumpkin-headed horror.

In spite of the very low-budget, JACK-O is one of the better direct-to-video films produced during the mid-’Nineties.  Obviously not to be taken seriously, JACK-O does – possibly inadvertently – capture the spirit and fun of the Halloween season and, as silly as the titular scythe-wielding demon is, his bulbous pumpkin head – with glowing orange eyes and an evil grin – is eerily effective at times.  Populated with the usual rather stiff actors, it must be said that Latshaw’s son Ryan actually manages to portray a meek-mannered, bullied kid rather well… but perhaps he wasn’t just acting!  As the obligatory babysitter, veteran scream queen Linnea Quigley performs her ‘duties’ with solid professionalism, including doing a lengthy and totally gratuitous shower scene, which was most likely expected of her.  Much like he did in Robert Worms III’s direct-to-video compilation TERROR ON TAPE (1983), Cameron Mitchell plays Dr. Cadaver, a horror host showing something called “THE COVEN”, featuring original footage of Brinke Stevens as a witch, which doesn’t propel the story forward any, but does add to the Halloween spirit of it all.  At times overly convoluted with a host of peripheral characters, JACK-O is a surprisingly entertaining bit of innocuous silliness that delivers all the requisite exploitation staples.  

Isolated to the first disc, JACK-O is loaded with special features, including a solid commentary from both Latshaw and producer Fred Olen Ray, who offer some great anecdotes about filming low-budget films, and, in a few instances, things even get a little heated when they seem to be taking opposing sides regarding the gratuitous nudity and its placement within the film; it’s a good, lively listen.  Other extras include a fairly in-depth “making-of” featurette, which includes loads of behind-the-scenes footage.  A trailer for the film finishes things off.

Yet another direct-to-video release, BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE, opens the second disc and, according to Latshaw, this actually played theatrically in South Korea, where its “name”-star, Christopher Mitchum, is (was?) big box-office. Much like Ray’s original BIOHAZARD, this is yet another monster-on-the-loose film, which – even when compared to Ray’s cheapo 35mm original – was done dirt-cheap.  Triton Industries has, through the use of combined human DNA from a number of donors, developed a slimy humanoid creature that is viciously offing folks in and around central Florida.  An ex-employee at Triton named Mike (Steve Zurk), along with a feisty reporter (Susan Fronsoe), are trying to get to the bottom on the rash of killings, but, further complicating matters, a laconic hitman named Quint (Tom Ferguson) is attempting to destroy any evidence related to Triton at the behest of Brady (Christopher Mitchum), the company’s ruthless CEO.

Lionsgate's 2005 DVD release.
Originally conceived as a simplistic creature feature along the lines of Stephen Traxler’s SLITHIS (1977), director Latshaw seemed intent on doing something different with BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE, and the film quickly morphed into an overly ambitious action film, which does move at an entertaining enough clip, with plenty of poverty row action scenes, some of which were even spliced-in from F.O. Ray’s The TOMB (1986), but don’t necessarily mesh well with the other footage. Designed by John Carl Buechler, the titular so-called “alien force” (a silly retitle, since it’s not extraterrestrial in nature), is an effective man-in-a-suit monster, which looks like a cross between the creature in William Malone’s SCARED TO DEATH (1980) and Don Dohler’s rubbery, inexpressive NIGHTBEAST (1982) baddie; which isn’t a bad thing per se, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before.  Although BIOHAZARD: THE ALIEN FORCE does have some inventive touches – for instance, the creature seeking out its DNA donors – it’s really up to the cast to inject any real substance.  TV character actor Steve Zurk plays the usual ‘hero’ with the necessary but stereotypically gruff self-confidence. As the resourceful reporter, Susan Fronsoe interacts well with Zurk, and, in typical exploitation fashion, she even gets topless during a rather amusing post-coital bedroom scene.  In another gratuitous scene, the ‘well-proportioned’ Katherine Culliver – as one of the DNA donors – is interrupted while making love and sculpting (!?), both at the same time!  Pioneering Florida filmmaker William Grefé also gets a cameo discussing “jellyfish monsters” and the “death curse of Tartu”, which does register as a little forced, but it’ll make most “in-the-know” viewers smile just the same. 

Featuring yet another relaxed but enjoyable audio commentary with Latshaw and Ray, they freely admit to “smokin’, drinkin’ and eatin’ pizza,” and encourage viewers to do likewise while watching the movie.  As usual, both men have plenty of stories revolving around their economical resourcefulness to tell – such as how they utilized shots of explosions from Disney’s ‘Miami Vice Stunt Show’ in their film, thus adding significant production values to it.  This commentary makes for another solid and entertaining listen.

Retromedia's 2001 DVD release.
Taking cues from Val Guest’s The QUATERMASS XPERIMENT (1955) and Robert Day’s FIRST MAN INTO SPACE (1959), the second film on disc 2 is about an astronaut (Steve Barkett) who returns to Earth as a giant alien after becoming infected by strange orange spores from outer space.  Upon crash-landing out in the Florida everglades, the alien begins stalking and picking-off a search crew while the extraterrestrial spores begin taking-over the entire swamp. 

The is easily the most threadbare of Latshaw’s films in this collection, so it’s nice to see the improvements he made with each successive film.  Featuring endless scenes of talking heads – where no one really says anything of any importance – and aimless wandering through the everglades, the film is all exposition, and even the monster is kinda ineffective and ho-hum; a typically inexpressive and immobile, H.R. Giger-inspired alien.  As is customary, DARK UNIVERSE does provide the usual exploitation staples, including nudity, some gore, and, in one particularly hilarious (and certainly original) scene, an infected armadillo attacks an amorous couple right in mid-coitus!    

DU features yet another audio commentary with Latshaw and Ray, which is far more interesting than the movie itself, with the usual anecdotes and interesting tidbits of info and trivia, such as how the monster was reused in Ray’s and Jim Wynorski’s threadbare DINOSAUR ISLAND (1994).  Other extras on disc 2 include trailers for both BIOHAZARD 2 and DARK UNIVERSE, a blooper reel for BIOHAZARD 2 (7m34s) and footage from GATOR BABES (7m20s [“that jungle is full of big, mean, pissed-off Amazon women!”]), plus a trailer for said mock movie, which was used in Ray’s BIKINI DRIVE-IN (1995).

Totaling a nice, inexpensive triple feature, Retromedia’s JACK-O & FRIENDS is an undemanding night’s entertainment, which is well worth picking up for the commentaries alone, especially for a mere twenty bucks.  Currently available on Amazon here, grab this limited edition DVD before it sells out and starts commanding exorbitant prices online!   

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