The TSL’s Grindhouse: Steele Justice (dir by Robert Boris)

“You don’t recruit him!  You unleash him!”

That’s what they say about John Steele, the man who Martin Kove plays in 1987’s Steele Justice.  John Steele served in Vietnam and he was one of the best and most fearless members of the special forces.  On the final day of the war, he was on the verge of arresting the corrupt General Kwan (Soon-Tek Oh) until Kwan suddenly announced that the war was over and the Americans were leaving.  Steele laughed, shrugged, and turned his back on Kwan and started to walk away.  Was Steele planning on just walking back to America?  Well, regardless, Kwan shot Steele and his friend in the back.  Fortunately, Steele survived.  Steele may be stupid but he’s strong.

Years later, both Steele and Kwan are now living in California.  Kwan is a prominent businessman who is also the secret leader of the Vietnamese mafia.  Naturally, his main henchman is played by Al Leong.  If Al Leong’s not working for you, are you even evil?  John Steele has not been quite as successful.  He was a cop until he got kicked off the force.  Then he got a job transporting horses across California.  Despite his cool guy name, John Steele doesn’t seem to be that good at anything that doesn’t involve killing people.

But then Kwan murders Steele’s best friend and former partner, Lee (Robert Kim).  In fact, Kawn not only murders Lee but he also kills Lee’s entire family.  The only survivor is Lee’s daughter, Cami (Jan Gan Boyd), a piano prodigy who is supposed to be 14 years old even though she’s being played by someone who is in her 20s.  Steele and Lee’s former boss, Bennett (Ronny Cox), gives Steele permission to track down the people responsible for Lee’s death.

John Steele sets out to destroy Kwan.  The film gives us a lot of reasons to be on Steele’s side but it’s hard not to notice that a lot of innocent people end up getting killed as a result of Steele’s vendetta.  Any time that Steele goes anywhere, Kwan’s people attack and a bunch of innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire.  For example, Steele’s ex, Tracy (Sela Ward), agrees to look after Cami.  It turns out that Tracy is a music video director and, of course, she takes Cami to work with her.  The video shoot turns into a bloodbath, with even the members of the band getting gunned down.  And yet, not even Tracy seems to be particularly disturbed by that.  One might think that Tracy would at least sarcastically say something like, “Hey, John, thanks for getting the band killed before I got paid,” but no.  Tracy just kind of laughs it all off.  At no point does Steele or Bennett or really anyone seem to feel bad about all of the people who get killed as a result of the decision to unleash John Steele.  Those people had hopes and dreams too, you know.

I really like Martin Kove on Cobra Kai.  I love how his portrayal of the over-the-hill and burned-out John Kreese manages to be both intimidating and pathetic at the same time.  I’ve also seen a number of interviews with Kove, in which he’s discussed his career as an exploitation mainstay and he always comes across as being well-spoken and intelligent.  That said, Martin Kove appears to be totally lost in Steele Justice, unsure if he should be playing John Steele as a grim-faced avenger or as a quick-with-a-quip action hero.  Whenever Steele is angry, Kove looks like he’s on the verge of tears.  Whenever Steele makes a joke, Kove smiles like an overage frat boy who, while cleaning out his old storage unit, has just discovered his long lost copy of Bumfights.  It’s a confused performance but, to be honest, no one really comes out of Steele Justice looking good.  This is a film that features a lot of talented actors looking completely and totally clueless as to why they’re there.

On the plus side, Steele Justice did give this world this totally intimidating shot of Martin Kove, preparing to be get and give justice.  Recruit him?  No, just unleash him!

Kingdom of the Spiders (dir by John “Bud” Carlos)

While many celebrated International Cat Day on August 8th, it also happened to be National Tarantula Appreciation Day. As a result, I decided to return to a film that terrified me when I was little (and watched when I was far too young), 1977’s Kingdom of the Spiders.

As a kid growing up near the beginning of cable, movies were regularly during the weekends shown on prime time TV. This consisted of about 5 main channels in New York City: CBS (Channel 2), NBC (Channel 4), ABC (Channel 7), WNYW (Channel 5, which would become Fox in the Mid80s), WWOR (Channel 9), and WPIX (Channel 11). In addition to this, Channel 5, 9, and 11 would have movies playing on weekday afternoons just before the nightly news. I ended up watching Kingdom of the Spiders at my grandmother’s house, from under her bed. I didn’t sleep well for a while after this movie.

I don’t know why she ever owned it, but my Grandmother had this near clear shower curtain with a giant red and black spider on it. The web started from the center and spread out to the edges of the curtain. The image below is the closest approximation I could find to the one she owned. This was the source of my arachnophobia, which caused me to either enter the bathroom with my eyes closed, or use the basement bathroom (which had the rare added chance of seeing actual spiders). She tried to make me see the reality of it once, scooping me up and lifting me in front of the curtain to realize it was just a plastic sheet. My imagination was a little too much, however, and all I saw was something that wanted to cocoon and drink me dry. I screamed and flailed in her arms, and that was the end of that.

The premise for Kingdom of the Spiders is incredibly simple. At first, life is pretty comfortable in Verde Valley, Arizona. You’ve a family of cattle ranchers in the Colby’s (played by Spartacus‘ Woody Strode and Can’t Stop the Music‘s Altovise Davis). However, when a farmer’s cattle begin to fall ill and eventually dies, Dr. Rack Hansen (William Shatner, Miss Congeniality) is brought in to figure out what’s happening. Between heavily flirting with this brother’s widow Terry (Marcy Lafferty, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Shatner’s wife at the time) and taking care of her daughter, Laura (Natasha Ryan, The Amityville Horror), it’s a surprise Rack has the time to help the Colby’s out.

When he sends in the blood samples to a lab for more research, the diagnosis is spider venom on a highly toxic scale. It’s so toxic that a spider specialist, Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling, Open House) is brought in to help. Of course, this springs Rack into action. After they meet, he cuts her off on the road, gives her his best one liner and then picks her up and takes her to his favorite restaurant (in her car, mind you). Rack’em, indeed.

Over lunch, they come to an understanding that DDT might be the cause of their tarantula menace. Having killed off their regular food sources of insects, the spiders have moved on to larger game. A quick visit back to the Colby Ranch confirms their fears. A spider mound is on their farm and the decision is eventually made to burn it down. Burning helps, but little do the humans realize that the spiders had exit strategies of their own. They also had additional mounds that the humans never even noticed.

With time running around out, Rack and Diane eventually decide the answer is more DDT, but the spiders thwart the attempt and decide from that point on, it’s all out war. Can the town survive the assault?

So, the spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders are just tarantulas. While all tarantulas are spiders, not all spiders are tarantulas. We’re not talking about the small house spiders from Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia. They can be dangerous too, depending on the type. The Brown Recluse in particular has venom that is necrotic and will eat away the flesh around a bite. This movie focuses on the large hairy ones.

From what I’ve read, while most tarantulas have venom, it’s not particularly dangerous to humans. The only real exception to this are the Funnel Web spiders of Australia. They’re super aggressive and their venom can kill. Thankfully, according to a USA Today article, no one on that continent’s been killed by one since 1980. Additionally, some tarantulas only really use their fangs as a last resort. They will usually choose to flick the hairs off their back, which sting the eyes and noses of most predators.

There were about 5000 tarantulas used in the movie, with a mix of real ones for the early close ups and fake models for some of the wider shots. I’ve always wondered if the American Humane Society supervised the film, because it looks looks like a number of them were killed (at least in the last third).

Shatner is pretty much himself here, bringing that style he always does to a role. It’s not the over the top levels of Captain Kirk or Denny Crane, but it’s still fun to watch. Though I haven’t been able to confirm it, I’m told that Tiffany Bolling was one of the few people that wasn’t scared to work with the arachnids and that helped to get her the role. Most of the cast are okay, thought their reactions to spiders might cause one to laugh more than to share in their fear. Granted, I’d probably react the same way as most of them.

There’s one part involving Mrs. Colby with a gun that shares the same musical piece used in David Cronenberg’s Rabid and Scott Sanders’ Black Dynamite. Much like the classic Wilhelm scream, this musical piece seems to pop up in older movies now and then.

Overall, Kingdom of the Spiders is a decent film to unleash upon your Arachnophobic friends to watch them squirm. The spiders may spend more time running away from their prey, but some low to the ground camera shots help to make things more interesting.

Live Tweet Alert: Join #FridayNightFlix For GALAXY QUEST!

As some of our regular readers undoubtedly know, I am involved in a few weekly live tweets on twitter.  I host #FridayNightFlix every Friday, I co-host #ScarySocial on Saturday, and I am one of the five hosts of #MondayActionMovie!  Every week, we get together.  We watch a movie.  We tweet our way through it.

Tomorrow, for #FridayNightFlix, I will be hosting Galaxy Quest!

That’s right!  A film that some people have called the best Star Trek film ever made, 1999’s Galaxy Quest takes a look at what happens when the cast of a cult sci-fi show are abducted from the latest fan convention and are sent into space for real!  It’s a cute concept but what really makes the film work is the cast, with Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tim Allen, Tony Shalhoub, Justin Long, Rainn Wilson, Daryl Mitchell, and Sam Rockwell all giving great comedic performances.

If you want to join us on Friday night, just hop onto twitter, start the film at 10 pm et, and use the #FridayNightFlix hashtag!  I’ll be there hosting and I imagine some other members of the TSL Crew will be there as well.  It’s a friendly group and welcoming of newcomers so don’t be shy.

Never give up!  Never surrender!

Music Video of the Day: Live and Let Die, covered by Guns N’ Roses (1991, directed by Josh Richman)

I have to give credit for Guns N’ Roses.  No matter what else may be said about the band, they were responsible for two of the best covers of the 90s, Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and Live and Let Die.  Both of these covers treat the original version with respect while also sounding very much like the type of music that Guns N’ Roses was known for.

The video for Live and Let Die features footage of the band in concert, mixed in with pictures of them in their younger days.  This was also the last Guns ‘N Roses video to feature Izzy Stradlin as being a part of the band.  This video was put together by Josh Richman, an actor who was also a friend of the band.