Saturday, January 21, 2006

Review: Megaforce (1982)


In an unspecified part of the world (one of the parts with lots of sand and not much else), a paramilitary group is mounting raids on the peaceful country of Sardoon. This group, under the command of an evil General named Guerrera (Henry Silva), drive their tanks into Sardoon and blow up power stations and other resources, then flee across the border to the neighboring country of Gamibia. The Gamibian government gives Guerrera's men refuge and refuses to allow the Sardoonian military to persue Guerrera into their country. Unable to combat Guerrera themselves, two officials from Sardoon's army, Major Zara (Persis Khambatta) and General Byrne-White (Edward Mulhare) seek the help of a clandestine organization known as Megaforce.

Megaforce is a top-secret, rapid-deployment defense team which monitors the globe and protects all good people from terrorists, communists, and other evildoers. The free nations of the world contribute their most skilled soldiers, most brilliant scientists, and most advanced weaponry to this elite group, and they control its actions. Megaforce is headquartered in a huge underground complex in the American desert and their base of operations houses an incredible array of futuristic weaponry (fancy dirtbikes, mostly).

The commander of Megaforce is puffy-haired, spandex-sporting Ace Hunter (Barry Bostwick). Other members include southern-drawling Dallas, antisocial scientist and brilliant inventor Eggstrum, token black guy Zachary Taylor, and a gaggle of good-natured foot soldiers from across the globe. Megaforce prides itself on its amazing array of futuristic weaponry, and Zara and Byrne-White are given a demonstration of some of the most incredible items in the Megaforce arsenal, including the aforementioned dirtbikes (which can shoot tiny rockets) and a dune buggy whose paint turns black in the dark. They also have fantastic 3-D computer displays which they use for planning missions and showing really stupid cartoons.

Ace and company put together a brilliant plan to sneak into Gamibia and strike Guerrera's base of operations, then lead Guerrera and his men on a chase which will take them across the border and into the hands of the Sardoonian army. Zara (who also happens to be the daughter of Sardoon's president) likes the plan but wants to participate in the attack herself. Ace is strongly opposed to the idea, but lets Zara go through a long and tedious series of tests to prove that she is just as skilled as any man before rejecting her from the mission. All the while, Zara and Ace flirt in a nauseating fashion.

Finally, the night of the big attack arrives. Megaforce ride into Gamibia on their bikes and dune buggies and many things are blown up. Unfortunately, the Gamibian government quickly gets wind of the attack and announce that if the Sardoonians allow Megaforce to cross the border, it will mean a declaration of war between the two countries. The only way out of Gamibia for Ace and his buddies is to be picked up by transport plane, and Guerrera's tanks are positioned at the only nearby landing strip to keep the planes away.

Ace leads Megaforce around behind the tanks and they attack Guerrera, providing enough of a distraction to allow the planes to land. Megaforce rushes to the waiting planes, but Ace stays behind for a minute to make a smarmy speech to Guerrera. The planes begin to take off, and Ace must use the special, super-secret button on his dirtbike which causes it to sprout wings and fly. He flies up to meet his cheering pals in the transport plane. The plane flies back to Sardoon and Ace and Zara exchange their patented revolting salute of love and triumph (kissing one thumb, then extending it in a "thumbs-up" gesture.) The audience tries desperately to make it to the bathroom before vomiting.


Megaforce was directed by Hal Needham, a man who made his mark in Hollywood as a stuntman. In fact, Needham may be the most famous stuntman in film history. He designed the first vehicle to break the sound barrier on land, was the first human being to test the automobile airbag, and was the highest paid stuntman in Hollywood for over a decade. He won an Academy Award for his invention of the "camera car," which has been used to shoot chase scenes in innumerable movies. Sadly, Megaforce will forever be a blot on Needham's otherwise illustrious career.

Speaking of blighted careers, Barry Bostwick really stepped in the Megapoo with this one. Bostwick is perhaps best known for is role as Brad Majors in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Bostwick once made some less-than-sensitive remarks about the famously rabid fans of Rocky Horror, who have since taken to calling Bostwick "asshole" at every possible occasion, reportedly shouting the appellation at him whenever he comes out in public. Whatever Bostwick's offscreen sins may have been, he definitely earned his nickname in the role of Ace Hunter.

Admittedly, there are certain things about Ace Hunter that Bostwick probably had no control over. His name, for instance. Or his cheese-souffle-like hairstyle. Or his grotesque, skin-tight costumes. I also concede that he didn't have much to work with in the script. Bostwick, however, brings quite a bit of what we might call "personality" to the role. It's the sort of personality that makes you yearn to break a pool cue over his head. Ace is by turns smug, cocky, obnoxious, and idiotic - not the best combination of traits for a leading man. And I really never wanted to see every contour of Barry Bostwick outlined in a gold spandex jumpsuit. Really, I didn't.

Seeing Ace flirt with Zara only adds to the repulsion. They exchange smoky glances in a variety of situations, including one rather curious scene of flirtation during the act of skydiving. Persis Khambatta's career never really took off after she appeared bald in Star Trek: the Motion Picture, and you can tell from her performance here that she knows her best days are already behind her. Her complete lack of charisma is an interesting foil for Bostwick's over-effusive Ace; when the two share a scene they sort of cancel each other out and it becomes something like watching a test pattern.

Megaforce is one of those films that tries to break stereotypes, but then inadvertently reinforces them. It takes pains to show characters defying supposed expectations, but then the other characters' shocked reactions countermand the effect. (A black guy who likes classical music?! A woman who can fly a helicopter?! The world's gone crazy!!) It's a well-known fact that if you make a big point of demonstrating that you aren't a sexist or a racist, you're probably going to end up looking like one.

The scene near the end of Megaforce featuring Ace's incredible flying dirtbike is one of those movie moments that are difficult to adequately describe. It's so completely unbelievable that it singlehandedly boosts the film up to the next plateau of badness. Seldom have special effects been less special. Do we have a case of bad-movie transcendence here? Indeed, we do.

The last few minutes of this movie are very deceptive, so much so that they actually fooled me - temporarily - into thinking that it had a happy ending. Ace makes his smarmy victory speech to Guerrera in which he states "the good guys always win - even in the 80's." He joins the rest of his Megaforce team amidst cheers of joy, and he and Zara do their stupid thumbs-up thing, faces beaming with happiness. Unless you actually stop and think about it, it seems like our heroes came out on top here. What nobody points out is that, in actuality, Megaforce completely botched its mission, nearly started a war, and fled Gamibia with its tail between its legs. This pokes some serious holes in Ace's little theory about good guys winning, even in the 80's.

Final Analysis

Despite the fact that I had no idea what was going on during half of this movie and that on numerous occasions I had to avert my eyes from Barry Bostwick's shiny gold batch, Megaforce has enough goofy entertainment value to make it worthwhile for the bad-movie enthusiast. This is the sort of film in which the needle on the stupidity gauge is in the red zone from start to finish, and the magical flying dirtbike is virtually required viewing for the serious Dregophile. Don't rush right out for this one, but if you happen upon it, don't pass it up.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Review: Tarantulas: the Deadly Cargo (1977)


In Ecuador, a couple of small-time American hustlers are hoping to make big bucks by smuggling coffee beans into California and selling them at a huge profit. Some Ecuadorian workmen are helping them to live this wonderful dream by filling up burlap sacks with the aforementioned beans, seemingly oblivious to the large, hairy spiders that are crawling all over the place. Due to either apathy, stupidity, or bad screenwriting, the workmen just shovel the spiders into the bags along with the coffee.

In addition to the coffee, the Americans slip three would-be immigrants onto their small-engine plane and take off for the States. On the way, however, some of the spiders escape the bags and start biting the Ecuadorians in the back of the plane. As if that weren't bad enough, one of the engines fails, forcing the Americans to make an emergency landing. They try to set down in a small orange-growing town in California but miss the runway and crash in a barren field.

We are quickly introduced to every important figure in the town: Bert the fireman (Claude Akins), Doc Hodgins (Pat Hingle), Mayor Douglas, Police Chief Beasley, and fresh-faced young couple Joe and Cindy. In fact, the entire community descends on the crash site in a matter of about 45 seconds. Bert, Joe, Cindy, and Doc Hodgins start trying to get the doors of the plane open, but they won't budge. Joe notices that the plane is leaking gas like a scenic waterfall, so people start digging a trench to divert the petrol.

Some idiot comes speeding toward the crash site on his motorcycle and, for unknown reasons (bad screenwriting?), he crashes his bike into the gasoline ditch, lighting the fuel and blowing up the plane. The plane explodes in a fireball but the flames are extinguished in a minute or two by Bert and the other firefighters. The very sturdy and evidently flame-retardant spiders start to make their way out of the wreckage and into town.

The spiders descend on the community with a speed which could only be explained by supernatural powers (or bad screenwriting). Within hours they are biting people all over town, and their venom is so toxic that it kills the victims almost instantly. Doc Hodgins converts his house into a triage unit and fairly quickly determines that the deaths are being caused by big honkin' spider bites. Joe just happens to know a world-renowned spider expert, and the expert tells Joe that they must be Ecuadorian Banana Spiders.

Meanwhile, Mayor Douglas is trying to get his crop of oranges ready for market and he doesn't want any arachnid interference. He ignores the warnings of Doc Hodgins, Bert, and Joe, and refuses to close down his processing plant. The plant immediately becomes Spider Central, the spiders evidently being attracted to the bugs that are attracted to the oranges. With the death toll climbing at an alarming rate, a plan of action is desperately needed.

Joe reads in a book that Ecuadorian Banana Spiders are terrified of a certain kind of wasp, and if the spider hears the wasp buzzing it will freeze, remaining immobile for several minutes. Joe rounds up some bees, records their buzzing, then sets up his hi-fi at the Mayor's orange plant. Bert throws some fruit on the floor of the plant to attract bugs. The spiders all come running out to eat the bugs, then Joe turns on his stereo and the bee sounds cause the spiders to freeze in horror.

Bert, Joe, Doc Hodgins, and Cindy go into the plant with shovels and tongs and pick up all the immobilized spiders, dumping them into buckets of alcohol. There's a brief setback when somebody accidentally shorts out the power and the spider-removal team gets trapped in the plant without the bee-noise to save them, but they escape rather easily and subsequently go back and finish the job. The spiders are wiped out, the oranges go to market, and the town is saved. The bees are given a ticker-tape parade down Main Street. Okay, maybe not, but they really deserved one.


Tarantuals: the Deadly Cargo is a little made-for-tv movie from the 1970's which did actually see theatrical release in Europe (sucks to be you, Europe). It's a very dated film, both in terms of the hideous polyester clothes and the very idea of the plot. Nowadays, you would never try to scare your audience with ordinary tarantulas. You have to have mutant, 50-foot-tall tarantulas that fly and spit fire, or people just doze off.

Being that I was only about a year old when this movie came out, I can't speak from my personal memories, but I'm not sure tarantulas were scary even back in the 70's. They're big and furry and all, but if you don't have full-blown arachnophobia, I doubt a movie like this would conjure more than an "ewww, yuck" from the average viewer. They try to tell us that they're extremely terrifying "Ecuadorian Banana Spiders," but when they named the movie Tarantulas: the Deadly Cargo, do they really expect us to buy that?

This is a curious film in that it seems to be divided into four segments that don't particularly relate to one another stylistically. The first segment features the happy-go-lucky American smugglers making their way out of Ecuador, and it plays like a sort of light-hearted buddy pic with spiders. Part two, when the plane crashes and the townsfolk rush in, has the feel of a first-responder training film. I suppose it's interesting to see in detail how to dig a trench to divert a fuel spill, but this segment has way too much detail and not enough action. The third segment is a rather by-the-numbers Jaws rip-off, with the spiders terrorizing the town and the self-centered Mayor refusing to deal with the problem.

For the climactic final section, the screenwriters threw caution (and logic) to the wind and came up with one of the most convoluted and idiotic resolutions I've seen in many moons. The idea that every spider in town would have convened at the orange plant is bad enough, but a recording of some honey bees as the secret weapon? Is this a joke? At first the buzzing isn't working on the spiders, and the solution Joe comes up with is to "turn up the bass! All the way!" Brilliant. Saved by a subwoofer.

Of course, the flaws in logic aren't limited to the end of the film. I'm still trying to figure out how the spiders 1) survived the explosion of the airplane, and 2) managed to disperse themselves all over town in about twenty minutes. Were they hitching rides on people's bumpers as they drove away from the crash site? Beyond that, there are so many of them by the end of the movie that, unless tarantulas can divide like amoebas, those bags of coffee beans on the plane would have had to be about fifty percent coffee and fifty percent spiders.

On a more positive note, the cast of Tarantulas: the Deadly Cargo features some quality b-movie actors. There's stony-faced Claude Akins and tuberesque Pat Hingle, both of whom put in solid performances. Howard Hesseman, a great actor best know for t.v. roles like Dr. Johnny Fever from "WKRP in Cincinnati," is appropriately sleazy but likable as one of the American smugglers. As a whole, the cast is pretty good; the only problem is that they forgot to include an actual star. Maybe the lead actor pulled out at the last minute and they just went ahead without him/her, but there seems to be a definite hero vacuum here.

I also give this movie points for not wimping out about killing off a little kid. Cindy's cute little brother Matthew prods at one of the spiders with a stick, then later he tries to catch one for Doc Hodgins. When he gets bitten, there are no heroics to save his life - he just croaks. Many films will manipulate the audience by having the cute ten-year-old nearly die, but they usually manage to save him in the end. It takes guts to eighty-six a pre-teen in a movie like this.

Final Analysis

In the end, a good b-movie cast and the willingness to knock off an adorable little boy just aren't enough to save Tarantulas: the Deadly Cargo from its various and sundry flaws. Watch this only if you really, really need to know how to dig a ditch to divert a fuel spill.