DOUBLE FEATURE RETROSPECTIVE – Alien Space Avenger (1989)/Dark Tower (1989)

21-movies
Alien Space Avenger (1989)

SUMMARY
In 1939 a spaceship carrying four alien escaped prisoners crash-lands on Earth and the aliens take over the bodies of four locals. Fifty years later the aliens find out that an artist has written a comic book called “Space Avenger,” which they believe is about them. They go to New York to try to kill the artist.

PRODUCTION
The aliens have the ability to regenerate their bodies at will. Whenever someone tries to slow them down by shooting off an arm or leg, they just shake it off and grow another one. This plot device provided more than enough work for makeup and effects supervisors John Bisson and Ralph Cirella, who were busy creating severed limbs and appendages to suit just about every occasion.

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“The film contains quite a bit of dark humor,” said Haines, citing a scene in which one of the aliens courts disaster by attempting to regenerate while intoxicated. causing a hand to grow from the remains of a severed foot. In another humorous aside. veteran adult film star Jamie Gillis puts the make on an alien temptress, but ends up being burned alive for his efforts, as she proves to be a bit too passionate.

In addition to the comedic element, one of the appeals for Haines and producers Bob Harris and Ray Sundli was the creative challenge that the film’s 1930s sequences presented. “We loved the idea of using 3-strip Technicolor for the ’30s segments,” said Haines, a film archivist and collector who is no stranger to the process. “Printing stocks for features today are pretty poor,” complained Haines. There is no real richness, and the colors tend to appear washed out and dreary.’

For SPACE AVENGER, color coordinator Juan Cobo was employed in order to achieve a balance between the saturated ’30s sequences and a glossier, rock-video style for the contemporary scenes. In addition, producer Sundlin, cinematographer Mustafa Barat and art director Linda Schubell-Sundlin screened several classic Technicolor prints in order to acquaint themselves with the “look “they wanted.

“To produce a film that will survive the years and maintain richness and proper color, “explained Sundlin. “Steps must be taken from the very start of principal photography.” As further proof of their dedication. Haines and associate producer Frank Calo contacted Beijing Labs in China (the only film lab in the world still equipped for it,” they said) where negotiations are underway for the processing of dye-transfer. 3-strip color release prints of SPACE AVENGER.

In an additional nostalgic gesture, the filmmakers handed the lead role of the ambitious comic book artist to a young actor named Kirk Fairbanks Fogg, a direct descendant of legendary swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks. Completing a somewhat eclectic cast are TOXIC AVENGER star Robert Prichard and newcomer Gina Mastrogiacomo. “I’m a shameless film buff.” confessed Haines, who sees himself as an embodiment of the total filmmaker.” one who assumes an active role in nearly every aspect of production: writing, editing, even creating his own trailers. “Whenever I’m presented with the opportunity to tossin a bit of trivia or an obvious film ‘in joke,’ I usually jump at it,” he said.

Is it true you had problems with Troma during the making of Class of Nuke ‘Em High?
Richard W. Haines: Although I wrote, edited and co-directed Class of Nuke Em High I did not have creative control over the film.  It has since been re-edited into another version.  I no longer credit it as “A Richard W. Haines Film” and leave it off my resume.  In hindsight, I wish I had made it independently.  In my next feature Space Avenger I retained complete creative control and it’s a much better movie with good production value, photography, music score and is even in dye transfer Technicolor with the prints made in China.  I did some research and discovered they had sold the British Technicolor equipment to the Beijing Film Lab so I contacted them and arranged to travel there and make real dye transfer prints.  This is why being an indie filmmaker is so critical since I knew no studio would be interested in that type of innovation.  So, my experience as a ‘work for hire’ inspired me to form my own production/distribution company, New Wave Film Distribution, Inc. which is still in operation although I’m not producing any more features, just marketing my library.

How did you come to cast Michael McCleery nearly ten years later in Space Avenger?
Richard W. Haines: Ray Sundlin co-produced “Space Avenger” with me.  He was also one of the producers on Mother’s Day which is where I met him.  He suggested McCleery for the role of one of the alien terrorists since he was one of his friends.  I auditioned him and agreed he’d be good for that role.

You cast Robert Prichard back-to-back in both Class of Nuke ‘Em High and Space Avenger and then again in Head Games. Was that a good working relationship?
Richard W. Haines: Prichard remained loyal to me during my difficulties in the first two movies and was easy to direct so I used him in the third movie too.  I’ve used a number of actors in more than one feature.  It’s very difficult to find performers willing and able to work under the difficult conditions of low budget productions with long hours, limited pay and resources.  Those that can I used over and over again if they’re available.

Cinefantastique v18n05 (July 1988) Alien Space Avenger (1989)

What inspired the offbeat story of Space Avenger – alien bodysnatchers from the 30s on the loose in modern day New York, crossing paths with a comic book artist?
Richard W. Haines: I’m a comic book artist and that was one of my earlier goals as a kid before I decided to become a filmmaker.  I was able to utilize my illustrations in the Children’s Book, Animal Kingdumb years later.  I grew up reading the Marvel comic books so I thought it would be an interesting premise to have an artist interacting with his fictional characters.  “Life imitates art” was a theme that I used for the other two pictures in my trilogy involving writers.  The others are Unsavory Characters and What Really Frightens You.

CAST/CREW
Director
Richard W. Haines

Music
Richard Fiocca

Screenplay
Richard W. Haines
Clyde Lynwood Sawyer Jr.

Producers
Robert A. Harris
Ray Sundlin

Robert Prichard
Michael McCleery
Charity Staley
Gina Mastrogiacomo
Angela Nicholas
Kirk Fogg
Marty Roberts
Jamie Gillis

Makeup Department
John Bisson  … special makeup effects artist
Jeff Bouvier … assistant special makeup effects
Ralph Cirella    … assistant makeup artist
Chris Triolo … assistant
Leslie Sternbergh … art: comic book illustrations (as Leslie Alexander Sternbergh)

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Dark Tower (1989)

SUMMARY
After a window washer plunges to his death from a Barcelona high rise, several people come to investigate, including security consultant Dennis Randall (Michael Moriarty). He cannot locate a problem, but decides to investigate further when more gruesome deaths take place inside and around the office building. His investigations prove that there is a sinister force behind all the deaths, a supernatural entity, that is not about to stop.

PRODUCTION
After Freddie Francis’ pronouncements about the limitations of horror movies and how his genre reputation sabotaged it’s a pleasant surprise to find him back in familiar territory. Next to classic Hammer director Terence Fisher, Francis is the most famous fantasy filmmaker to emerge from Britain, so even if Dark Tower’s plot doesn’t set your nerve endings on fire, be prepared for a few frissons.

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“Because I’ve been involved with this type of picture before,” he continues, “I’ve looked quite deeply into what makes them work, and one of the things I enjoy is being able to cheat an audience in terms of their expectations. The great fun is to always be one step ahead of the viewers.”

“The element of evil in the story, for me, was secondary to the psychology of Michael Moriarty’s character,” he explains. “He’s a man who has this recurring nightmare of being pushed from a high building, and once the events start, he is convinced nothing will stop this from becoming a reality. So the question the audience will ask is, *How’s he going to stop it from happening?’”

Francis, however, was not the first choice of veteran producer Sandy Howard. Originally, Ken Wiederhorn was slated to helm the picture, which he wrote with Robert J. Avrech and Ken Blackwell, but he pulled out of the $2 million project at the last moment.

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“I was called in by Sandy Howard, with whom I’ve had an on-and-off relationship for some time. When he’s called in the past, I’ve usually had other commitments. They said they were going to shoot this in Spain and that the original director had dropped out due to personal problems,” says Francis. “I read the script, which I thought was good, and agreed. But I came on to the project with very little preparation.

In fact, Francis had just three weeks before principal photography was due to roll. This should have proven no problem for the replacement director, but Dark Tower turned out to be a project with more than its fair share of complications. “When we got to Spain, we found certain problems, which I’m not at liberty to divulge,” Francis discloses. “That pushed back the start date by a few weeks. There wasn’t really much time, but that doesn’t worry me, if the script is fine.”

According to both Moriarty and McCarthy, the FX were the major problem.
“I’m happy with my work on the movie,” says Moriarty, “but they did have a lot of trouble with the special effects.”

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“I’ve been told the picture needs further work,” McCarthy said. “I enjoyed working with Freddie, but he had no money to make the movie. They had spit,” the actor emphasized. “I hear they’re calling in someone else to finish it. Freddie had a hard time, since maybe only two people on the Spanish crew knew what was going on. That was the real problem-the people in Barcelona didn’t have enough technical know-how.”

Discarding several Spain-shot sequences, Dark Tower’s producers returned to Los Angeles and spent three or four days doing reshoots. Theodore Bikel and the lovely Agutter went through the paces again, this time without Francis, while a stand-in took the place of McCarthy. Additionally, Sandy Howard hired Steve Patino and his Sho-Glas Props and Molds crew to supply various special FX, including a bleeding and crumbling wall, a pulverized man makeup and other blood and guts pickups. Steve Neill provided a requisite zombie.

Questioned further on the subject of Dark Tower’s troubles, Francis refuses to comment, though he does concur on the subject of technical resources leaving much to be desired. “The main Spanish film industry is located in Madrid,” he explains. “There are world-class technicians there, but in Barcelona, we didn’t have the people we needed. This kind of film is really dependent on good special effects.

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“It was maddening,” the director continues. “There was no way we could afford to bring in people from Madrid. It would have cost as much as importing a crew from London. My only saving grace was a great gaffer schief electrician) from Madrid, whom I insisted on having, and my camera operator Gordon Hayman, with whom I’ve worked for several years.” Consequently, Francis and Hayman felt like they were running a film school. The pair had to teach most of the crew what the project required. Francis also shot the film himself.

Having lensed David Lynch’s Dune and The Elephant Man among others, Francis is widely regarded as one of the best directors of photography in the world. As he puts it, “On that kind of budget, I’m not going to find a photographer who is going to satisfy my requirements.’

With the technical difficulties encountered, one wonders why the film was shot in Barcelona at all. Francis has his own theory. “My film business experience has taught me that if people smell a deal, they often lose all their business acumen. All this talk of, ‘It’s cheaper to make a film in Italy,’ or Spain, or wherever … Well, I never believe the figures people quote about budgets, anyway.

“For example, Dune, which I shot in Mexico, was shot there because it was supposedly cheaper than if we’d done it in London or Hollywood,” Francis recalls. “But we needed an international crew because the Mexican expertise was not up to standard. I question whether, considering the time it took to shoot that movie, it was less expensive to shoot that film there. And that situation applies to Spain on Dark Tower.”

In addition to the ins and outs of “The Deal” and having to teach a relatively inexperienced foreign crew how to shoot a supernatural story, Francis had to contend with less than satisfactory locations. “If you had the budget to build a 30-story building, fine, but with the deal that was made in Barcelona, we had a seven-story office block,” he reveals, “and the only floors we could shoot were the second and third. Plus, all the Spanish elevators seem to be made for a maximum of three people. Obviously, a 30-story office block would have bigger elevators. These were problems we had to overcome and did, but the script had to be changed.”

Script rewrites notwithstanding, Francis still had to film in several different locations. The interiors were shot in the seven-story office building, while a huge vestibule in a Barcelona hospital was used for the lobby sequences. The production built elevators of various sizes in a large warehouse. Despite the time involved moving from location to location, Francis brought the picture in on its schedule of 30 days.

Renowned for his atmospheric photography, Francis instead opted for a very realistic look on Dark Tower. “If I could have shot it in a studio, I would have gone for a rather more stark style, with large sets that would have dwarfed the actors,” he admits. “I do believe this was a major factor in the success of Hammer’s output. All of those films were 95 percent studio-bound, everything was under control. And good effects are difficult on so many locations; this kind of film needs to be shot in a studio where you have total control.”

CAST/CREW
Directed
Freddie Francis (as Ken Barnett)
Ken Wiederhorn (as Ken Barnett)

Produced
John R. Bowey
David Witz
Sandy Howard

Written
Robert J. Avrech
Ken Blackwell
Ken Wiederhorn

Michael Moriarty as Dennis Randall
Jenny Agutter as Carolyn Page
Carol Lynley as Tilly
Theodore Bikel as Max Gold
Kevin McCarthy as Sergie
Anne Lockhart as Elaine
Patch Mackenzie as Maria

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Videofugue
Cinefantastique v18n05
Fangoria#71

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