Monday, October 28, 2019

Like This Job?! An Interview with Actor Thom Mathews

Every October, I do Drive-In of Terror, where I review horror-related games and movies.  I've been doing this for three years now.  For this year's Drive-In of Terror, I wanted to mix things up and interview an actor known for starring in horror movies.  So, I reached out to Thom Mathews.

For horror fans, the actor is best known for playing Freddy in The Return of the Living Dead, Joey in Return of the Living Dead Part II, and Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.  He's also starred in his fair share of non-horror titles, such as Alien from LA, Nemesis, and Down Twisted.

Thom is still acting, having recently starred in a western called Warpath, and he even reprised the role of Tommy Jarvis for the fan film Never Hike Alone and Friday the 13th: The Game.

In this interview, I ask him about how he got his start in acting, working on the likes of Return of the Living Dead and its sequel, his roles outside of horror, and construction, especially construction.

It was an honor to speak with Thom.  If you want to listen to the audio interview, the video will be embedded below.  Check out the channel "Will and Matt's Excellent Podcast" for commentaries on the first two Return of the Living Dead movies.

Without further ado, here's the interview.

1. How did you get into acting?

I was out of high school and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I kept myself busy doing stuff.  My family comes from a construction background and so I did that for a while, but for a lifelong goal I didn’t have anything.  When I was in my early 20s, I was seeing this girl and she suggested, “Why don’t you become an actor?” And a lightning bolt went off my head like, “That’s it!”

So, I started studying and gearing myself towards that.  I didn’t call myself an actor for the longest time because I was studying, practicing, and not getting paid for it.  I had a plan to get my SAG card which involved working at Lorimar Productions on shows such as “Dallas” and the like.  It took me about a year, but the casting department eventually gave me a walk-on role on one of their shows, and it was off to the races.

2. How did you come to learn about casting for Return of the Living Dead and what did you do to prepare?

I came to learn about it through my agent and they sent me the script, which I thought was cool, but it was a horror film, yet I prepared for the audition.  I worked on it and went into the audition for Stanzi Stokes and thought I kicked ass at the audition, but I didn’t hear back from them, thinking I had lost the part. 

Nine months later, I get a callback.  The reason for the nine months was they were having legal troubles with the title.  They call me back, I’m the only one of the guys there, a couple of girls were there too, and I was thinking, “This is weird, there’s usually a lot more people around for callbacks.”

It turns out I had already been cast and I was there to read lines with one of the girls, Beverly Randolph.  And then from there the cast rehearsed a couple of weeks before principle photography.

3. What was it like working with James Karen on the film?  I know you two became good friends during production.

We did, we did.  You know, we found out during the making of Return Part II we had the same birthday, which was November 28.  He was amazing.  Most of my scenes were with him so we spent a lot of time together in the mornings as the make-up and costumes were put on us.  He had all of these great stories from his time in the industry, and as a young actor, I was just eating them up.

He’s a veteran.  He was on Broadway in stuff like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and really good friends with a lot of actors and again, he had these really great stories to share and we did become friends after filming.

4. What about Dan O’Bannon?  This was his first time directing a film so I assume it must have been challenging for him trying to keep the cast and production in line.

It was challenging, but from my experience it was great but then again, he didn’t have a lot of criticisms with me.  In my mind, if he was one of the young ones, he would have been my character.  As such, I think he was kinder to me versus what he was like around some of the other actors.

For a first-time director, he did things a bit differently because he was open to suggestions, which allowed for a little improvisation.  One of the lines, “Like this job?!” is something we came up with.  Jimmy (James Karen) came up with the sacrifice scene in the crematorium and stuff like putting the wedding ring on the incinerator switch in that scene.  It was really a collaboration and kudos to Dan for allowing us to collaborate, which again, is something a bit unusual for someone who’s both the writer and director on a film.

 5It’s been nearly 35 years since the movie came out.  Why do you think the movie has held up and is still regarded as a classic in the horror genre?

Who knew, right?  I think it’s because it’s got a lot of heart and the soundtrack really propelled it and added to the flavor of the movie.  It truly is a dark comedy and we acted our asses off.  What makes it so genius is the situation, it’s so ridiculous, so hysterical, that’s what makes it so funny.  You can watch it today and the make-up and stuff holds up since there’s no CGI or anything like that.

It’s part of pop-culture as well.  Ask anybody what zombies eat and they say, “Brains!” But when you ask them if they knew where it came from, they say no.  It struck a chord with everybody what with the humor, one-liners, and the stuff we get ourselves into.

6. It’s definitely a “lightning-in-a-bottle” type of movie.
It is.  It is, and when you watch it it’s like getting on a freight train at a hundred miles per hour.  You can watch it and it just takes off.

7. Was the fact you starred in ROTLD part of the reason you were cast as Tommy Jarvis in “Jason Lives”?

That’s a good question, and I don’t have the answer to it.  Tom McLoughlin (the director), who I’m actually going to see in a couple of weeks at a convention, HamiltonCon in Canada, will have the answer to that.  I think it was because I looked very similar to John Shepard and maybe also because I had “Return” under my belt had something to do with it, but I’ll find out and let you know.

(Editor’s Note: As of this writing, I have not gotten permanent confirmation from Thom regarding why he was casted.  This article will be updated when said info comes in.)

8. Were you ever approached to reprise the role of Tommy Jarvis in any of the later sequels?  I know you'd eventually come back to the role for the fan film "Never Hike Alone" and the video game.

In “Part VII” they used my likeness and some quips from “Part VI,” but that’s as far as it went.  Wasn’t asked to be in “Jason X” or “Jason Takes Manhattan.”

“Friday the 13th” at the time was kind of the red-headed stepchild for Paramount.  It was there and it was a moneymaker, but no one was proud of it.  So, what they did was treat it like a flavor of the year, adding in psychic powers for one installment and sending him into space for the next.

9. It’s ironic you starred in three horror movies within the span of three years.  Did you find this unexpected?

Totally.  I was just a young actor looking for a job, so I got lucky with “Return” and “Friday the 13th Part VI.”

10. You and James Karen came back to star in ROTLD Part II, what I’ve always wondered is did they ever shoot additional scenes with the two of you as zombies since you both sort of disappear from the movie after turning?

They didn’t.  Do you know how we came back as different characters?
Wasn’t it something like Tom Fox requested to the director or something like that?

No.  When the producers got the script, they went overseas to the foreign distributors to get money for the movie.  As you know, they sell the rights to films to foreign countries like Norway, Sweden, and Japan.  Well, “Return 1” was a huge hit in Japan so the company asked a studio in Tokyo for money.  However, they wanted us in the sequel, so that’s how we came back.

11. Although Part II has its fans, a lot of people say it isn’t as good as the first, as someone who starred in the movie, why do you think this is the case?

It’s easy because “Return 1” was a dark comedy and you laughed at the situations the characters got themselves into.  With “Part 2,” they tried to play up the comedy, which is why it wasn’t as good as the original. 

They went for the comedy, it was very tongue-in-cheek, but a lot of it didn’t work in my opinion.  It wasn’t as grounded as “Part 1.”

12. If a studio announced they were doing an ROTLD movie, remake or otherwise, and wanted you and some of the other cast members to appear in it, would you accept the offer?

I’m not sure, given how all the characters from the original died.  That’s a tough question.  Ultimately, I think what it boils down to is if the script is good.

13. Besides starring in horror movies, you’ve done a bunch of other types of movies and even television shows, including “Alien from LA”.  What was it like working on that particular film?

“Alien from LA” was originally called “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

Why the name change?

I’m not sure.  That was either Albert (Pyun)’s doing or the studios.  I was added after the fact because originally Bill Moseley had been casted, and I replaced him as Kathy Ireland’s love interest in that movie.  The audience really liked my character, so he upgraded my billing on the movie.
She (Kathy Ireland) was great to work with.  This was before she did voice work and we ironically make a joke about her voice in the movie.  She great, very professional, and it was a fun, little script.

Fans of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" will recognize
Mathews from the film "Alien from LA,"
which was riffed on season five of the series.

14. You also starred in one of “The Dirty Dozen” sequels, how did that come about?

It was a “Movie of the Week” for CBS if I recall.  I auditioned for it and we, the cast, had a great time doing it.  I was a big fan of Telly Savalas, so it was fun to work with him even though it was so cold out there in Europe.  We tried to stay inside as much as possible.  Telly likes to play poker, so it became more of a poker game than an actual movie shoot.

15. To deviate a little bit, what’s your favorite aspect of acting?

My favorite aspect, which doesn’t really come up a lot, is having a great scene and getting lost in it.  As an actor, you can look at a movie and be like, “Oh, that was the audition scene.”  When you’re spending a lot of time running around, getting the scenes done, it’s whatever, it’s moving the story along.

There are maybe one to three scenes where you can really sink your teeth into and have a great scene that you get lost in.  Nothing exists around you in moments like these.  The camera guy doesn’t exist, the make-up guy doesn’t exist, you’re just doing your thing. 

16. Going back to “Alien from LA,” this wasn’t the only time you’ve worked with director Albert Pyun, as you would go on to appear in other films of his like “Nemesis” and “Kickboxer 4.”  What’s it like working with Albert?

I’ve been in 11 movies for Albert.  Right now, he’s living in Nevada and I was approached about a month ago to appear in a documentary about his life.  He’s an indie film director and producer still going at it even though he’s got some medical issues going on right now.  He’s worked with some amazing people and they’re trying to get them all on the documentary.

Albert is a sweet person, which is funny because I realize having worked with him that the sweeter the person the more outlandish the films are.  He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, yet his movies are filled with all sorts of mayhem and death.  He gave me a lot of great parts in films like “Down Twisted” and I had a lot of fun with the characters he’s let me play as.

For example, with “Down Twisted,” the character I was casted as was supposed to be 6’4” and 225 pounds so I started working out and dyed my hair dark.  The dark hair didn’t mix well with my skin so I ended up bleaching it white and then went down and arrived on location in Mexico.  Albert didn’t recognize me at first, but when he did, he said he loved what I had done. 

The only problem was that we had a reshoot a few months later so I had to re-dye my hair for one day.  Regardless, it was fun, and Albert was great and always open to suggestion.

Thom Mathews as the bleach-blonde villain of
"Down Twisted."
17. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you do a movie that didn’t see the light of day for like 15 years or something like that?

Yes.  It was called “A Letter to Dad.”  That was an interesting story.  The guy who wrote and directed it, no, the producer, it was his story and it was an homage to life.  He did what I do which was work on houses, fix them up, and sell them, which was how he got the money to fund the movie. 

We were 80 percent done and he ran out of money and then unfortunately committed suicide not long after.  It went into arbitration and eventually the director did get it back.  One of the last scenes shot was done 15 years later.  John Ashton, who played my dad, was someone my character had issues with growing up and as such, he couldn’t commit to a relationship.  It was hard for my character to commit to anyone due to the fighting between the two.

But yeah, we had it wrapped up 15 years later.  You could say it was a movie 15 years in the making.

18. Besides acting, you also run a construction company.  Is construction something that runs in the family?

As I said in the opening, my dad was in the construction business as was my grandfather, who did a lot of work for the studios.  I always had it around me, I always had it part of my life.  I took wood shop in high school and similar courses, so it was second nature to me.  Eventually, my construction company (Hammer and Trowel) took off and at one point, we had 18 employees on staff.

We’ve done a bunch of housing projects including Ozzy Osbourne and Sharon Osbourne’s house.  We did a bunch of interesting stuff with that place like take a cast of their daughter’s fist and made them into hinges for the front door.  Sharon brought some stain glass from England of Moses coming down from the mountain with the tablets and I told her, “Let’s make them into doors.”

She also had these cool chandeliers that were shaped like boats and she asked what we could do with them.  I told I’d think of something and after a few days I suggested taking them, putting them down this long hallway and calling them the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. 

19. What movie projects are you working on now?  I know you recently starred in a western.

We finished a western (“Warpath”) that I finished about a year ago and premiered in Detroit about a week ago.  I did another movie a little bit before the western called “Killer Therapy,” which was shot here in Los Angeles.  I finished that one on a Saturday, flew down on Sunday, and started shooting the western that Monday.  This was the second time in my life I had something like that happen, the first was when after I did “Friday the 13th” I went down south to do “Down Twisted.”

In the western, I actually sing a couple of songs which I was a little embarrassed by and I actually asked the “Warpath” director, Josh Becker, “Can we cut the singing scenes?  You don’t want me singing, it’s not the best,” but he told me it was integral to the movie, so we went from there.  Luckily, they were folk songs, so it worked out well.

Now, in “Killer Therapy,” I play the father of a son who’s mentally off, he’s not quite there.  We don’t know what it is.  My wife in the movie was adopted so we don’t know her medical history and the other kid we have was adopted due to the condition of our son, who’s put in therapy.  These therapists give him treatments which don’t help him and instead make him into a serial killer.

He does what the therapists did to him like electroshock therapy, so at one point, he gets a toaster, puts it in a car, and uses jumper cables to electrocute his mother like the therapists did to him.  It’s pretty gruesome and will be a lot of fun for the horror community.

Next month, I’ll be shooting a teaser for a movie called “Stain Free” where I play a crime scene cleaner who’s hired by this mysterious group that turns out to be run by vampires to go out and clean up the murders committed by them.

20. How long have you been doing conventions?

It feels like six, but it’s really more like 10.  I didn’t want to do it for a long time because I felt like I would just be selling my soul being there, signing autographs, and getting money for it.  I tell you, though, it’s been so much fun going to them and hearing these stories from the fans about how they saw the movies I was in.

They’re dedicated and really passionate about horror.  It’s so much fun to talk with them and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say they were like eight or nine when they saw these movies, which I’m totally against because kids will have nightmares at that age.  It was always through an older brother or cousin that they saw a particular horror movie.  I didn’t let my kids see the films I had been in till they were in their early teens.

It’s crazy seeing people with stuff like tattoos from “Return of the Living Dead” or “Friday the 13th” all over their arms, and again, hearing their stories.  I’ve been all over the place to places like Germany and the UK.  Soon, I’ll be going to HamiltonCon in Canada and then to Spooky Empire in Florida.

21. You should consider coming down to Mississippi next year.  We have a comic convention we do every summer.  That’s something you might want to consider looking in to.

Usually how it works is if you want me considered as a guest you hit up the promoters on Facebook that’s how I and others normally get asked to come to the conventions.  I’ve been to the one in Canada a few times because the fans keep requesting, I come and C.J. and Tom McLoughlin will also be there at this year’s event.

I do a lot of the “Return of the Living Dead” cast reunions and everyone including Clu Gulager usually shows up.  As you know, James Karen and Don Calfa are no longer with us, but they’re always watching over us in heaven.

22. Before I close the interview out, what advice would you give to those looking to get into acting?

Don’t do it, unless you really have to.  It requires passion, because it is a very tough business.  If you think about it, what it takes to cast a film is insane.  The script has to be good, and it requires effort.  The western I did, it took 20 years to make.  I look at people who try to get cast and I notice they go through the same emotions I went through.  They get nervous, get anxious, it’s mind-bending.

If you have the passion for it, do it.  Live simple, have a routine you can fall back on, whether it’s going to the gym or learning a new language.  It might end proving useful on a future project because when I was younger, I took karate because my older brother used to beat me up and I ended up using what I learned in the movies.

Keep it simple and keep your mind straight because it will get to you.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Drive-In of Terror IV Presents Evil Dead Regeneration (PlayStation 2)

Trilogies come in two flavors, either they start out good and end bad, or they are consistently solid.  A trilogy being the latter is rare, but what's even rarer is a trilogy where the first installment is bad, and the quality improves with each installment, such is the case with the Evil Dead games.  The first title, Hail to the King, is an appalling cash-grab and a waste of Bruce Campbell, while the sequel, A Fistful of Boomstick, is an enjoyable beat-em-up experience.  Rounding out the trilogy is Evil Dead: Regeneration, a game that is not a sequel to the previous title but a "What If?" scenario.  In this case, what if Ash wasn't sent back to the Middle Ages and instead arrested and committed?

Having hacked up his friends at Knowby's cabin, Ash is declared insane and sent to the Sunny Meadows Asylum.  The institution is run by Dr. Reinhardt, who has gotten his hands on the Necronomicon, unbeknownst to Ash.  Reinhardt reads the incantations and unleashes the evil forces on the asylum.  With all hell breaking loose, Ash finds his gear and suits up, but he's not alone.  Joining him is Sam, a half-man/half-Deadite Reinhardt experimented on.  They need to act quick as Reinhardt teams up with the Dark Ones and orders them to track down Ash's lawyer Sally, who has Professor Knowby's diary, which is needed to stop the evil from spreading.

Evil Dead: Regeneration's story is interesting.  Instead of acting as a sequel, it's an alternate timeline, one where the expected events play out, but not in the way fans expect.  After the opening levels, though, the story turns into a meandering adventure, one where subplots are introduced but never paid off.  In an unfortunate twist of fate, the game ends on a cliffhanger.  Why is it all Evil Dead products, be it movies, television shows, or video games, have to end on a cliffhanger?  No sequel ever followed Regeneration as the developer, Cranky Pants Games, renamed themselves Sandblast and made Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon, and we know how that turned out for them.

Wouldn't be a video game with at least one swamp level.
Although the plot leaves much to be desired, it's made up by the writing and humor.  You can tell Cranky Pants Games were huge fans of the movies, as the cut-scenes and dialogue exhibit all the hallmarks of Sam Raimi's films, even going so far as to recreate much of the trademark camera work the director is known for.  Ash's cocky antics are balanced out by Sam's hijinks.  Since he's part-Deadite, Sam can't die, which leads to a lot of great scenes where he's put through all sorts of extreme punishment.  The banter between the two is hilarious, and it helps that Sam is voiced by Ted Raimi, younger brother to Sam Raimi.

Like the last game, Regeneration is an action-adventure experience, but the combat has been drastically overhauled.  Instead of a 3D beat-em-up, it's now a hack and slash in the vein of Devil May Cry, or in this case, Evil Dead May Cry.  Ash's movement is flexible and smooth.  He can lock onto enemies with ease and perform a selection of stylish combos with his weapons.  He starts with just a pistol and the nub of his arm but it isn't before long that he reacquires his chainsaw and shotgun.  Later, he gets an explosive launcher and is able to equip a harpoon gun and flamethrower to his right arm.  None of the weapons can be upgraded, but all guns now have infinite ammo.

During gameplay, when an enemy is weak enough, they start to glow green, meaning Ash can pull off a finisher to dispatch them.  Some enemies can block all of his attacks, which is where Sam comes into play.  With the press of a button, Ash can kick Sam onto the nearest foe, which either results in an instant kill or distracts them long enough for Ash to finish the baddie off.  The game encourages the player to abuse Sam as much as they want, given how he can't die.  Every once in a while, Ash will possess Sam via a special portal so Ash can reach an inaccessible part of the map.  Escort sections pop up where Ash must protect his partner as he takes a soul back to a gatekeeper, which always happens at the end of a stage.

When things get tough, Ash can trigger his rage mode and turn into a hulked-out version of himself.  While in rage mode, all attacks deal double damage.  Despite having a variety of weapons and combos, Evil Dead: Regeneration is an easy experience.  Although the fluidity of combat is excellent, the evil forces don't put up much of a fight.  The lack of different difficulties means the five-to-six-hour experience is a cakewalk.  The lack of upgrades or new moves to unlock is disappointing, given how A Fistful of Boomstick let the player equip different ammo types and whatnot to the firearms.

Like the previous games, the boss fights are simplistic.  All of the bosses have easily identifiable attack patterns, which makes the scuffles quick and painless.  The only challenging one is the final boss, but even that's not saying much.  There's not much incentive to go back and replay the game once the adventure is over either.  The only reason you might revisit this title is if you missed any of the collectable Necronomicon pages that unlock extras like behind-the-scenes videos and concept art.

Feel free to juggle Deadites to your heart's content.
Evil Dead: Regneration looks good.  Some of the the environments look bland and ugly, most notably the swamp stage, but others like the levels set in the world of the Dark Ones look great.  Cranky Pants Games did aa remarkable job capturing the look and feel of the films, and it's easily the most authentic-feeling Evil Dead game of the three.  Sound is excellent.  Bruce Campbell is once again back as Ash, and the dialogue between him and Sam is hilarious.

Is Evil Dead: Regeneration the best Evil Dead game?  Yes.  Is it a good game in its own right?  Yes and no.  The premise is unique and the switch to hack-and-slash combat works well, and the incorporation of Sam leads to some interesting and funny gameplay sections.  On the other hand, it ends on an abrupt note and the lack of upgrades or optional difficulties means the game is a bit of cakewalk.  At least Evil Dead: A Fistful of Boomstick had a challenge mode to test your combat skills.

Still, you can tell the game was a labor of love, and had Cranky Pants Games been allowed to expand upon the ideas in a potential sequel, then it's possible we could have had the ultimate Evil Dead experience.  Alas, such talk is merely speculative, given the penultimate fate of the studio in the years following this game's release.  The Evil Dead games are an interesting batch of licensed titles, as it's the only time a trilogy goes from bad to decent.  They have their problems, but they're still worth a look, except for Hail to the King.


Thursday, October 17, 2019

Drive-In of Terror IV Presents Evil Dead: A Fistful of Boomstick (PlayStation 2)

Evil Dead: Hail to the King is like being thrown into a pit with a Deadite.  Suffice to say, you're not going to survive.  Despite its mediocre reception, the game received a sequel in 2003 with Evil Dead: A Fistful of Boomstick.  Whereas the previous affair was developed by Heavy Iron Studios, this follow-up came from VIS Entertainment, who at the time were best known for developing 2001's State of Emergency.  In a surprise twist A Fistful of Boomstick isn't awful, probably because it jettisons the survival-horror angle of the first title in favor of an action-adventure experience reminiscent of the studio's previous game.

In between the events of Hail to the King and Fistful of Boomstick, Jenny, Ash's squeeze, died in a bus accident, leaving the badass to live life in an alcoholic stupor.  While drowning out his sorrows at the bar for the umpteenth time, a local television show hosted by Trisha Pettywood has acclaimed author Professor Eldridge on as a guest for tonight's program.  Trisha has gotten her hands on the Necronomicon and Knowby's tapes, which she decides to play live on the air.  This unleashes the evil forces yet again onto the streets of Dearborn.  Realizing all hell has broken loose, Ash dusts off his boom-stick and chainsaw once more to stop the evil dead.

One of the biggest problems of Hail to the King was its over-reliance on nods and references to the movies.  This sequel avoids this misstep and is a completely original adventure, which, while not perfect, is more fun than its predecessor.  The biggest strength of the narrative is its usage of time travel.  Instead of going back to the Middle Ages for the umpteenth time, Ash travels to different eras of Dearborn, Michigan, including the colonial and Civil War eras.  Utilizing this town as the principle setting means that while Ash travels through time, the layout of the place stays similar.

Dynasty Warriors: Boomstick Edition
Even better, the game plays into the idea of cause and effect, meaning what Ash does in one time period results in some changes when he travels to a further point in time.  The supporting cast is forgettable and their actions predictable, and not helping matters is that like the last game, this one ends on a cliffhanger.  If you're hoping to see Ash fight possessed samurai and more in the follow-up, think again.

A Fistful of Boomstick ditches the clunky survival-horror gameplay and is an action-adventure beat-em-up.  Ash will travel from present-day Dearborn to the past and back, all the while completing objectives, solving puzzles to collect items, and slaughtering never-ending hordes of Deadites trying to kill him.  Controls and mobility are a step up from the tank movements of Hail to the King.  A lock-on system allows Ash to easily switch from target to target, and a cool touch is how he'll hoist his gun over his shoulder if someone approaches him from behind, just like in Army of Darkness.  Melee combat is a bit rigid, though, which means moving from enemy to enemy isn't as smooth as expected.

Enemy variety is also limited.  It's Deadites, Deadites, and more Deadites, and no matter where you go, they will follow.  It can be a bit annoying when you're trying to figure out where to go next, but it does keep the player on their toes.  While the roster of bad guys isn't much, the weapon selection is diverse.  Ash starts off with his shotgun and a shovel, but it isn't before long that he finds a chainsaw.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, as he'll also acquire new weapons such as a pistol, a sword, a flamethrower, and even a Gatling gun.  These firearms and others can be equipped to his left and right hand, and there are different ammo types to use with each gun, such as incendiary and explosive rounds.

Besides using an assortment of weapons, Ash can harness the power of the Necronomicon to use against the forces of evil.  Spells are found over the course of the game and require energy to use.  As a whole, the combat is an improvement over Hail to the King's unsatisfactory action.  Although Evil Dead: Regeneration has the smoothest combat of the games, this one has the most variety in terms of weapons and abilities.  Although the Deadite killing is fun, trying to figure out where to go next isn't.  The lack of a map can make navigating locales a bit confusing at times, especially the last level set in post-apocalyptic Dearborn.

Sadly, the game doesn't deliver on the boss fights, either.  They're simplistic and easy.  It's a short experience, only taking five hours to beat, but there is extra content in the form of a challenge mode, a making-of video, and art galleries that are unlocked after beating each level.  The challenge mode is surprisingly enjoyable since it tests your skills with the game's combat mechanics.  Aside from earning a rank after each round, though, there are no other rewards for beating each stage, but it is an amusing diversion.

Visually, the game looks fine.  The best part of the graphics is the high enemy count since at any point, Ash may be swarmed by as many as 20 enemies.  Chopping and shooting ghouls into bits is meaty and bloody, but the character models and locations look basic.  The worst-looking one is Ash, who's in-game model makes him look like he's constipated.  The poor lighting also makes it hard to tell what you might be running into.  Voice acting is greatly improved from the dull performances of before.  Bruce Campbells sounds interested in the material and his dialogue is amusing.

Good news, Evil Dead: A Fistful of Boomstick is worth playing.  The story is familiar territory, but the emphasis on time travel is interesting.  Instead of being cumbersome, the gameplay is frenetic and action-packed.  Slicing demons in half with a chainsaw or mowing them down with the Gatling gun feels great, and the diverse selection of weapons and spells keeps things varied.  What does drag the experience down is the confusing level design and dull boss fights.  Though it's not perfect, A Fistful of Boomstick is leagues better than its predecessor and is at least fun for what it is.


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Drive-In of Terror IV Presents Evil Dead: Hail to the King (PlayStation 1)

Evil Dead is perfect material for a video game.  Heck, the first movie is like a survival-horror experience, while the sequels amped up the action and fantasy.  Prior to Hail to the King, the only other game based on the cult hit was an adaptation of the original for the Commodore 64.  Evil Dead: Hail to the King marks the first in a trilogy of Evil Dead tie-in games published by THQ.  Before the remake and before Ash vs. Evil Dead, these games were the closest fans got to a continuation of the trilogy.  Plus, this title features the king of the chins himself, Bruce Campbell, reprising his most famous role of Ash Williams in video game form.  Sounds like a recipe for success, right?  Eh, not really.

Having managed to return back to the present, Ash has gotten his job back at S-Mart and has found new love in the form of his co-worker, Jenny.  Despite this, he's haunted by the events that unfolded at the cabin.  Jenny suggests they go back so he can face his fears, but when they arrive, the two notice the cabin is surprisingly intact.  Further investigating leads to Ash's severed hand popping up and sneakily turning on the tape recorder with Professor Knowby's translations of the Necronomicon.  The evil force is resurrected, and Jenny is kidnapped.  With a newly built chainsaw and boom-stick in tow, Ash sets out to save his girlfriend and put an end to the nightmares for good.

On paper, Hail to the King's set-up is fine, but the execution of the story makes the experience feel like fanfiction filled with too many unnecessary callbacks.  A lot of the nods are contrived, such as the fact that the cabin looks fine and it's not in shambles, or how the tape recorder is in pristine shape.  Over the course of this three-hour adventure, more pointless references rear their Deadite head, such as the film projector from The Evil Dead, a boss fight against Annie from Evil Dead II, and a detour into Damascus a'la Army of Darkness.  It's an unsatisfying adventure from beginning to end, capped off by an out-of-nowhere cliffhanger that is promptly ignored for the sequel.

Get ready to run away from enemies... a lot.

Evil Dead: Hail to the King
 is a survival-horror affair in the vein of Resident Evil, right dow to the tank controls, fixed camera angles, and pre-rendered backgrounds.  As blatant as it is, a survival-horror Evil Dead experience sounds like a winning time, but it isn't.  On the contrary, the game is tedious and cheap.  The series is know for its over-the-top blood and gore but taking on Deadites and other creatures is about as fun as getting thrown into a tree by Evil Ash.

Instead of satisfying chainsaw action, melee fights between Ash and the demons are pitiful-looking slap-fights.  The combat is made extra annoying by the respawning enemies.  9 times out of 10, after a Deadite is defeated, another one spawns in its place.  As a result, you'll find yourself evading foes as much as possible since there's a strong likelihood you'll die trying to take them down.  Enemies do drop health, but it feels like a trade-off for all the health you lost just trying to kill a ghoul.  Using the chainsaw is slightly satisfying, but since it runs on gas, it's better to just run away.  Also, collision detection can be incredibly wonky, as sometimes Ash's attacks will miss, despite you being in their range, or Deadites will hurt Ash even though he's at a safe distance.

On the subject of weapons, they're nothing special.  The arsenal includes an axe, a chainsaw, a pistol, a shotgun, and a rifle.  Because the fighting is unsatisfying and the collision detection all over the place, none of the weapons, especially the guns, feels like you're doing any damage.  Even when Ash finds upgrades to make them better, they still lack impact.

When you're not struggling with the irritating combat and controls, you're exploring locations to find items to solve puzzles.  Whereas puzzles in the original Resident Evil titles can become time-consuming affairs, here, they're simple and easy to do.  Speaking of simplistic, the boss fights!  In what will become a recurring trend in these games, the boss fights in Hail to the King are basic affairs lacking in difficulty.  The only unique encounter happens late in the game.  While in Damascus, Ash encounters a 20 ft. tall knight with strong armor.  To weaken him, the player needs to pour hot steel and then water, exposing him to attack.  Its decent fight amidst a series of underwhelming ones.

Thankfully, the experience is incredibly short, taking around three hours to beat.  Unfortunately, there are no rewards to obtain for beating the game within a certain amount of time like in Resident Evil.  Plus, why is the game split across two discs on the PlayStation 1?  With how short the story mode is, there wasn't much of a reason to cut the adventure in half.  If there's one positive to this dud, it's that you can spam audio clips to your heart's content while in the inventory menu or when Ash reacts to a locked door or finds something out of reach.

Pre-rendered backgrounds? Check. Tank controls? Check.
Fun? Nope!

Evil Dead: Hail to the King looks alright.  The pre-rendered backgrounds look fine and the game does a passable job at trying to build atmosphere through said visuals.  What hasn't held up are the FMV cut scenes, which look appalling.  Nothing says terrifying more than PS1 FMV Bruce Campbell.  On that note, while Bruce Campbell does voice Ash, the performance comes off as sounding bored, but give how the dialogue is just the greatest hits of Ash Williams, it's understandable.  The music is serviceable, but none of the tunes stand out, despite the soundtrack having the involvement of famed video game composer Tommy Tallarico.

Evil Dead: Hail to the King is less a love letter to the franchise and more a lazy cash-grab.  The story's reliance on series lore and pointless references results in an experience that's not Ash vs. Evil Dead, but an exercise in monotony.  As for the gameplay, the clunky combat, finicky collision detection, easy-peasy bosses, and short length derail what is a promising concept.  In the hands of a better developer, a survival-horror Evil Dead could have been a fun time, but in the hands of Heavy Iron Studios, it's not.  Although this start to the trilogy is a failure, you can take solace knowing the sequels are vastly better than this monstrosity.


Saturday, October 5, 2019

Drive-In of Terror IV Presents The People Under the Stairs (1991)

In the world of entertainment, it can be hard to escape typecasting.  When an actor or director becomes famous for a particular line of work, it's hard to associate them with anything else other than that.  With directors, they tend to be type casted towards a genre, often horror or science fiction, but every once in a while, they break the mold and create something unexpected.  For Steven Spielberg, it was Schindler's List, for John Carpenter, it's Starman, and for Wes Craven, it's The People Under the Stairs.  Although rated R, the film is more akin to a modern retelling of a fairytale, with shocks and humor thrown in for good measure.

A kid nicknamed Fool (Brandon Adams) is convinced by a thug (Ving Rhames) to join him and his buddy on a heist attempt.  The target is a home in the suburbs owned by an enigmatic man (Everrett McGill) and woman (Wendy Robie) who have a firm grip on many of the houses and neighborhoods in the city.  According to a treasure map found by Leroy, there's a treasure trove of money tucked away inside the house, and they're going to find it.  The next day, the three put the plan into motion, but they have underestimated the houseowners.  There are booby traps, electrified doors, and a ticked off dog all in place to keep intruders out.  Leroy's friend is killed not long after he makes his way in, and then Leroy and Fool get locked inside and must escape, hopefully finding the loot in the process.

The People Under the Stairs is an interesting spin on many of the established tropes one associates with children's fairytales.  Fool is the poor pauper looking for a way to help his family, and the house he gets convinced to help rob is the castle filled with riches but also danger.  It's an R-rated version of The Goonies and Home Alone, with a deranged "couple" standing in as the crooks the kid must outwit.  There's a lot of gags and jokes, such as a bit where Fool grabs on to an electrified door handle to channel electricity to Leroy, who's struggling to get a guard dog off him.  The film is surprisingly funny, but it has its bits of brutal violence and scares to remind the viewer this isn't a family-friendly experience.  Trying to survive the house of terrors is Fool, an inner-city kid caught up in an extraordinary situation.

They seem like nice enough folk.

Fool is the audience's viewpoint into the insanity that is the house.  Usually, the kids are the ones with traps and other gadgets to thwart the attackers, but in this movie, the adults get to play with the toys.  The man and woman are a manipulative pair, using switches to change the layout of the house and voice communicators to keep in touch with one another while hunting Fool and Leroy.  They're also keeping something secret in the basement besides money.  What is this secret?  Various boys they've captured in an effort to find the perfect son, and when they misbehave, they're locked away and lose either their eyes, tongues, or ears as part of the punishment.

Notice how this review doesn't mention the names of the man and woman.  Never once do we learn their real identities, it's kept a mystery, but it's clear the couple is not only deranged but also overtly religious, especially the woman.  Fool meets a girl, Alice, who, like the ones in the basement was kidnapped at a young age and brainwashed into being their daughter.  Keeping with the fairy tale allusions, Alice is the princess locked away in the castle that Fool attempts to free from her captors.  When she falls out of line, she's severely punished and forced to do things like scrub a bloody floor or clean herself up in steaming, hot water.

This is where the horror aspect of People Under the Stairs comes in.  The horror isn't the skinny, albino-looking boys trapped in the basement, but it's the matter of people being abusive toward children.  Wes Craven is clearly commenting on the topic of children who are raised in strict households, and the abusive parents who watch over them.  In an essence, the man and woman are the monsters, not the ones in the cellar.  Did I forget to mention they're really brother and sister?


Weirdly, an important player in the plot is the house.  As discussed, the house is layered with traps and other devices, but it's also got hidden routes behind the walls which the characters make use of to escape the man and woman.  It reminds me of Resident Evil 7 as in that game, the protagonist makes use of secret passageways to evade his pursuers and reach a safe spot.  Guiding fool is Roach (Sean Whalen), one of the kidnapped boys who's managed to escape the basement and use the passages to move around the place without getting caught.  The hidden traps and mangly-looking boys call to mind The Hills Have Eyes, but with more shotgun-wielding gimps.

The People Under the Stairs is one of Wes Craven's hidden gems, right along with The Serpent and the Rainbow.  There are no serial killers or vampires in Brooklyn; instead, it's a boy trying to save his family from eviction by taking a trip into a madhouse.  The movie is an urban version of the classic fairy tale, and like those stories, everyone lives happily ever after, albeit with a few casualties.  It's fun and very humorous, but also gives us a glimpse into monsters that don't kill you in your dreams, but are rather people like us.


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Drive-In of Terror IV Presents Shocker (1989)

Wes Craven is one of horror's celebrated directors.  To mainstream audiences, he's the man who created Freddy Krueger and Ghostface, to horror gurus, he's the man behind films such as The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House of the Left.  Some of his films fare better than others, but at least one can agree his filmography is diverse.  In the late 80's, Freddy Krueger had become a household name, but Craven was dissatisfied with what New Line Cinema had done to the Elm Street killer.  No longer was he the man who terrorized people in their dreams; now, he was a practical joker who relished in toying with his victims and putting them through elaborate and fantastical dream sequences.  In an effort to one-up his own creation, Craven released Shocker, a movie about a killer with the power to harness electricity.

Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg) is an average teen who finds himself caught up in a manhunt for Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), a serial killer who masquerades as a TV repairman.  After Pinker kills his mom and siblings, followed by his girlfriend (Cami Cooper), Jonathan wants the man stopped before he gets to anyone else.  Through premonitions he has, the police are able to find and arrest Pinker, and he's immediately sentenced to death by the electric chair.  Little do they know that the man specializes in black magic, and after he's fried, Pinker's ghost begins possessing people and manipulating electricity in an effort to kill Jonathan Parker, who's really his son.

Joe Rogan: The Early Years
Shocker is heavily derived from Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Instead of a killer who gets you in your dreams, it's a guy who can possess people and pop out of televisions to get the drop on his victims.  Ironically, dreams are how Parker is able to know when Horace Pinker will strike next.  It's a tad unoriginal, but Shocker is fun and exhibits personality through its late 80's heavy metal soundtrack and inventive kills.  The film is like three different movies rolled into one.  The first act is a straight-and-serious crime thriller, the second act is a possession flick, and then the finale is an over-the-top spectacle as Jonathan and Horace chase each other through different television channels and programs like Frankenstein, Leave it to Beaver, an Alice Cooper concert, and a televangelist show.

At the center of this madness is Jonathan Parker.  He shares some similarities with Nancy from Elm Street, such as doubtful parents and a personal connection to the killer.  The difference is that Horace is his biological father, whereas in Elm Street, Nancy's parents were involved in the burning of Freddy Krueger.  In the first act, he's able to determine where the killer will strike next via dreams he has, but this power is never explained and doesn't come into play at any other point in the picture.  Indeed, one of Shocker's biggest issues is its inconsistent logic.  Characters learn of new powers conveniently when the story demands it.  For example, when Horace Pinker is cornered by Alice's ghost, he only then realizes he can jump into electrical sockets for a quick getaway.

Speaking of which, Alice, Jonathan's girlfriend, comes back as a ghost who shows up at the right time to save him.  Why she's able to come back from the afterlife is another thing left unexplained.  As stated before, the movie copies a lot from A Nightmare on Elm Street, the only thing it didn't copy was clear rules behind the killer's powers.  It's a shame Horace's ability to manipulate electricity doesn't come into play until the finale.  With a movie called Shocker, one would expect to see scenes where Horace's ghost possesses technology like cars to kill people; instead, he does most of his murdering by taking control of cops, mothers, construction workers, and Jonathan's friends and family.

His powers might be all over the place, but Horace Pinker is a badass.  Whereas Freddy Krueger used his wit to intimidate his victims, Horace Pinker goes straight for brute force.  Mitch Pileggi is awesome as the killer.  At times, his acting can be a bit hammy, but it only adds to the charm, and like the Springwood Slasher, he has a variety of catchy one-liners at his dispose.  Like the heavy metal soundtrack, he's large and loud.  Speaking of the soundtrack, it reads like a heavy metal fan's wishlist.  The songs include tracks by The Dudes of Wrath, Megadeth, Dangerous Toys, and Iggy Pop, among others.  It's a film made for the Headbangers Ball generation, and the crazy anarchy is best summarized via Megadeth's cover of "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

"Jonathan, what did I tell you about messing with
the ketchup?"
Shocker might not reach the same heights of A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Hills Have Eyes, but it's an entertaining if flawed experience.  At times, it's a bit too formulaic and only in the final act does the film deliver on its namesake, with a majority of the movie playing out like a supernatural version of The Hidden.  Plus, the rules behind the killer's and protagonist's powers are never clearly explained, and feel like they were thought up on a whim.  Additionally, while the metal songs rule, the composed music is a bit too melodramatic, especially with its over-reliance of having a loud piano crash anytime a scare happens.

It's uneven, yes, but it exhibits style.  The villain rules, and the scenes of him terrorizing Jonathan Parker are delightful.  It's clear Shocker was meant to be the next big thing in the world of horror, but things didn't pan out as intended, which is a shame.  A sequel that upped the ante and expanded upon Horace's powers would have been amazing.  Who knows?  In the age of smart phones and computers, a modern-day retelling of this movie offers a lot of potential.  This is merely speculative, and at the end of the day, Shocker delivers on the thrills, despite its flaws.