24 July 2013

Dark Shadows: Collection 14

Dark Shadows Collection 14 Gets Hairy and Heavy
By Kristin Battestella

The gothic sixties soap opera Dark Shadows adds even more vampires, werewolves, curses, ghosts, and paranormal panache to its DVD Collection 14 as the 1897 timeline moves along with toppers and twists.  

 The mysterious Laura Collins (Diana Millay) returns to Collinwood determined to take her children Jamison (David Henesy) and Nora (Denise Nickerson) away from Reverend Trask’s (Jerry Lacey) boarding school. Her former lover Quentin Collins (David Selby), however, has other occult plans for her. Barnabas Collins – who has traveled back in time and is once again a vampire – also battles Laura with the help of gypsies Magda (Grayson Hall) and Sandor (Thayer David). Unfortunately, his unraveling of Quentin’s secrets has deadly consequences, and Barnabas must help family matriarch Judith (Joan Bennett) in the past to save the Collins’ future.   

These plot summaries keep getting tougher thanks to increasingly lengthy, intricate, spoilery turns here in the still somewhat early leg of the long 1897 flashback. Collection 14 opens with children in peril in Episode 736 and continues with the wolfy foreplay thru 775. Characters occasionally line drop David Collins, the 1969 reasons for the time travel, and advance the connections with dreams and prophecy, but the 1897 action interweaves itself well enough to forget the then-present. These storylines are well interconnected, one doesn’t dominate over the others, and the smaller ensemble tackles several plots at once. Of course, this wouldn’t be Dark Shadows without bloopers and flubs, and the 1796/97 inconsistencies with the past phoenix storyline may feel like a retread or an unnecessary sidetrack. This unique, fiery story does have its entertaining purposes, however. The pace flows well from episode to episode – something is always happening, the quick half hours feel like real time events, and each night we follow as these quality twists unfold. Collection 14 piles on a lot for Disc 1 alone, but first time viewers unaware of what happens next will be on the edge of their seats for surprise character connections, reveals, and curses adding to the murder, ghosts, blackmail, and poisons on Disc 2. Great suspense, hysterics, guilt, and a solid cliffhanger to end each episode make for a sweet resolution to the phoenix storyline on Disc 3, and major lycanthrope strides, vampires, and gypsy twists round out Disc 4. Audiences will certainly have favorites or prefer some storyline aspects more than others, but Collection 14 wonderfully layers and builds Dark Shadows’ all around paranormal world with vampires, bats, werewolves, doppelgangers, and more.

Poor Barnabas Collins, stuck in a foreign time and dealing with ghosts, wolf investigations, and vampire victims all at the same time – his flub, “My cousin, Uncle Jeremiah…” is certainly understandable! Jonathan Frid keeps Barnabas on form whether he’s going head to head with Laura Collins, keeping it teethy and sensual, or fearful of failing the future and being caught as a vampire. He has e’sHHHeehto beat that sunrise! The supernatural ages and time hopping irony isn’t lost between Barnabas and Laura, and there’s a lovely little poetic, sympathetic turn with the crazy Jenny and Barnabas pairing. It’s great to see our anti-hero vamp and ex-ghost Quentin begrudgingly working together, too. We feel for Barnabas’ difficulty, yet it’s still a touch too creepy when he’s hypnotizing the kids. Further keeping it juicy as always is Lara Parker as Barnabas’ witchy nemesis Angelique. She’s always ready to throw a wrench into things for Barnabas or be his unlikely ally as needed. Parker doesn’t appear much on Collection 14, but Angelique has some great chemistry with Quentin and it’s a real paranormal treat to see her and Laura go head to head!  

Well, Magda is still greedy as ever, and Grayson Hall hams it up, thrusting gypsy fun into each Collins’ face as the familial twists deepen. Though these motifs are stereotypical and dated, the gypsy curses and talismans make for fitting old world flair and superstitions. The lycanthrope angles and gypsy ties aren’t revealed all at once, and Magda’s attitude and anger change to regret once she realizes who will be affected by her curses. Likewise, Thayer David’s Sandor is the perfect cute couple companion to Magda as her bemusing scaredy cat sidekick and Barnabas’ helper foil. Episode 749 brings the first mention of David’s second 1897 character and oft-aliased Count Petofi, but we won’t see him until Collection 15.

Boy can David Selby scream! The impish Quentin is oh so suave, calculating, and full of love to hate charm as he causes trouble in every way possible. That laugh, his music, the angry relationship with Magda, and the illicit, rough love with Beth. He and Barnabas uneasily dance around each other’s secrets while Quentin remains both clever and suspicious yet stupid with women and paranoid, “Stop staring at me as if I were some kind of exhibit!” Despite his previous haunting twistedness and further wicked ways in 1897, it’s simply lovely to follow Quentin’s journey – for he knows his bad deeds are catching up to him. His romance with Beth is troubled, full of arguments and action both tense and tender, yet somewhere along the line, even Quentin earns the audience’s sympathy. Terry Crawford as Beth and Marie Wallace as Jenny also have lovely but difficult conflicts and role reversals. They are friends – although one is a servant and there’s betrayal all around – and it’s great to their pentagrams, dolls connections, and a young Ezra Braithwaite tie into the previous 1969 plotline. Marie Wallace has to be doubly over the top as this gothic sixties soap’s resident crazy person, but now she’s not annoying at all. In fact, her lack of understanding of the undead is bittersweet and tragic, and Jenny’s events cap off Disc 1 and set and Dark Shadows’ past werewolves in motion for Disc 2.

Collection 14 opens with quality scares for David Henesy as Jamison and Denise Nickerson as Nora, but the children spend more time being referred to on Disc 2 thanks to Jamison being locked in a closet for most of that time! Henesy’s delivery is sincere, with emotion, confusion, and fear as needed, and Nickerson uses her expressive cherub face for great moments on Disc 3. It’s sad how the adults paranormally tug and pull the children for their own gains, and perhaps Diana Millay as Laura with her campy phoenix sun god rites and rituals is the biggest culprit. Her passive aggressive maternal issues do however make for a unique plot full of Egyptian mythos. There’s great chemistry in her hate with Quentin, too, but Roger Davis is once again too icky as Laura’s henchman and Collins’ overseer Dirk Wilkins. He’s so lame, annoying, heavy breathing, and up in Laura’s face. Despite his big twists to end Disc 4, the fast forward button always tempts me whenever he’s onscreen! 

I confess, I didn’t miss Kathryn Leigh Scott and her sporadic appearances as meek Rachel Drummond on Disc 2, and Don Briscoe as Tim Shaw is also a touch too dry and noble amid all this Victorian dirt. It takes some good old-fashioned shades of 19th century Manchurian Candidate brainwashing for him to get interesting! Jerry Lacey and his juicy Reverend Trask use both of them to feed his oh so deliciously shady ways – from cruelty at the school to intentions on Judith Collins and more implied salaciousness. I’d rather meet the werewolf in the woods instead of Trask! Clarice Blackburn doesn’t appear until late on Disc 3 as Minerva Trask, but Quentin quickly manipulates the perfectly annoying Mrs. and her bad marriage while seemingly devout but latently vampy Nancy Barrett as daughter Charity Trask moans, “Oh Barnabas, please! Make me happy!” The suggestive camera cuts away from the vampire bite and returns when she buttons up her collar in a perfectly subtle acknowledgement of her righteous yet totally hypocritical style.

Barrett, Louis Edmunds, and Joan Bennett each briefly appear as their original 1969 characters in Episode 767, but Edmunds’ Edward Collins is once again so serious and worried about the family honor. His plans to save the family grow more elaborate as he is forced to defend Quentin and become the reluctant werewolf hunter and supernatural expert. We don’t see frumpy Judith much on Collection 14, but her witty words battle with Quentin, harshness towards Beth, and bitchiness over the gypsies wonderfully contrast her rapport with Barnabas. Judith wants someone to trust but can she really trust this creepy cousin? Humbert Allen Astredo’s Evan Handley is also slick as ever; his woefully inaccurate rituals and pentagrams make for some dang sure entertainment and suspense, and that topper on Episode 761! His and Trask’s mutual blackmailing alliance is a treat, too, and when John Karlen returns as Carl Collins to conclude Collection 14, well… psychics, murder, and Victorian dance hall style follows.

Spooky sets, period music, and cheap decorations certainly keep Dark Shadows loaded with gothic mood. On form but sometimes slightly off music cues accent the bizarre dream sequences, cool crypts, candles, and wobbly Styrofoam tombstones. These hokey designs and effects capture the fun, camp atmosphere, and wolf howls, ominous knocks on the door, voiceovers, eerie lighting, and suspense pacing tie everything together. So what if Alex Stevens’ stunt wolf is finely dressed and a foot shorter than the always bloodied and shredded Quentin – every woman wears a blue and green dress at some point, too. I think they bought that ugly fabric wholesale! The contemporary viewer can forgive the mistakes or enjoy a drinking game party for every boom mike or erroneous shadow because Dark Shadows comes together so effectively. Retrospective interviews on Collection 14 featuring David Selby, Kathryn Leigh Scott, publicist James Butler, and executive Leonard Goldberg recall the sixties teen phenomenon, fan mail, associated publishing endeavors, and how the legacy of Dark Shadows lives on. Damn straight!

 Well played, action-packed half hours keep Dark Shadows DVD Collection 14 intense and ambitious. Every episode cliffhanger makes the invaluable play all video option both a blessing and a curse. One can easily be swept up in almost 4 hours straight viewing!  The complex characters, storytelling twists, torment, and paranormal layers do everything they are supposed to do here, and I’m already digging in to Collection 15!

20 July 2013

Tales from the Crypt Season 1

Tales from the Crypt Season 1 A Tasty Sample
By Kristin Battestella

Sometimes one just gets the itch for that shrill cackle from the irrepressible Crypt Keeper as he tells his twisted little tales of warped, awry, and wicked! Fortunately, the 1989 debut season of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt is quality and quick enough to soothe your macabre mind.

Thanks to his design, puppeteers, and voice artist John Kassir combining for a solid presentation, that sassy little Crypt Keeper ghoul still makes for a well done puppet and fictitious host. His gruesome charm adds to the tongue in cheek comedy and horror camp tone of this anthology series – even if some of the puns and “boils and ghouls” demented word substitutions are a little dumb now. The Crypt Keeper winks at the audience, and the spooky old house, hidden crypt, and boney style of the show’s introduction immediately gets one in the fun midnight mood. For this Season 1, HBO and the big names behind the series – including Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), David Giler and Walter Hill (Alien), Richard Donner (Superman), and Joel Sliver (Die Hard) – add internal HBO jokes and adapt tales from classic fifties pulp comics such as Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear. Despite the mid century origins and eighties production values, the plots for these six episode hold up well – although some of that 1989 hair, music, and fashion didn’t.

Horror portmanteaus in film and television are nothing new, but “The Man Who Was Death” is a very fine first half hour for Tales from the Crypt. Bill Sadler’s (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey) ironic casting accents the askew angles, deathly zooms, and macabre subject matter. The black comedy, humorous breaking of the fourth wall and witticisms add personality – part of that stem’s from Sadler’s role as a down on his luck ex-executioner with a penchant for electricity. However, this style, foul language, and nudity in smart uses set the tone for the almost whimsical scares of the series, and Tales from the Crypt immediately debuts its hallmarks as a mature, morbid anthology with free reign – unlike earlier classic series like Tales from the Darkside and their hands tied G ratings. It’s surprising then, that the series’ second episode is an update of “And All thru the House,” which was previously a segment in the 1973 Amicus anthology film Vault of Horror. Direct Zemeckis ups the paced, seventies suspense with effective scares and action for then-wife Mary Ellen Trainer (Lethal Weapon) thanks to lots of snow and jump moments – not to mention a very creepy looking Larry Drake (Dr. Giggles) as a fatal, on the prowl Santa escapee.

Man with nine lives Joe Pantoliano (The Matrix) and carnival ringmaster Robert Wuhl (Arliss) star in “Dig That Cat…He’s Real Gone” and pave the way for the more name guest stars often found on Tales from the Crypt. The audience likes the characters and thus needs to see an episode thru to the twists – even if the viewer is already counting down the lives here and looking for a deathly miscalculation. Likewise, beauty obsessed hooker Lea Thompson (also of Back to the Future) joins suave, sophisticated Brett Cullen (Falcon Crest) in Episode 4, “Only Sin Deep.” Though somewhat standard, not scary, and perhaps tough to believe, the attitude quickly changes here once voodoo, crime, and crooked pawnshops interfere.  The good life will always be too good to be true on Tales from the Crypt, yet there are always morbid tokens of morality or eerie, careful what you wish for warnings here. Even when an episode may feel sub par, the kickers and irony remain memorable.

“Lover Come Hack to Me” also suffers from a slightly typical and thin premise, as meek Amanda Plummer (So I Married an Ax Murderer) and her new gold digging husband Stephen Shellen (who totally looks like Charlie Sheen!) enter an abandoned mansion to escape a storm on their wedding night. Thankfully, the excellent atmosphere, apprehension, sexy gone awry, and bloody marital bent make up the difference. Maybe it’s a bad turn, campy, or simplistic, but there’s a certain fun to this kind of ghoulishness and watchability even when you know what happens next. “Collection Completed” stars Audra Lindley (Mrs. Roper on Three’s Company!) as a crazy cat lady with a bitter retiree M. Emmet Walsh (The Jerk) as her husband for even more demented domestic bliss. This couple just can’t get along now that they have all the time they desire. The dark humor and stuffy old people clichés won’t be for everyone, and major viewer warning for animal lovers!

As a macabre teen, I looked forward to watching this show and stopped for a rerun every time Tales from the Crypt was on – that opening, the Crypt Keeper, the stars of the hour, the forthcoming topper. Even the stinky ones have at least one memorable thing about them, and at 93 episodes total, it’s easy to browse, pick, and choose your favorites. Of course, the DVD presentation is a bit unusual, with basic or pointless features beyond the elsewhere available Tales from the Crypt: From Comics Books to Television documentary on Disc 2 of this Season 1 set.  Although I like not having the series’ introduction with each episode or the need to skip over it, it is weird that it only plays to start the video. Sometimes you just really look forward to that creepy, cobwebbed house tour and Danny Elfman’s (Edward Scissorhands) theme to get you in the mood, so the option to skip the opening with the play all feature might have been better. Fortunately, this Season 1 is all together on a very affordable, convenient set, often packaged with Tales from the Crypt Season 2. I do wish the series were still airing on television or at the very least streaming somewhere, but for the length and price, Season 1’s six episodes make for a super sized anthology movie-esque starter sampling. It’s easy to marathon Tales from the Crypt Season 1 for a macabre evening any time of year.

15 July 2013

Foreign Horror, Oh Yes!

Classic Foreign Horrors, Oh Yes Indeed!
By Kristin Battestella


Of the 900 odd channels we currently have on cable, one of the ones we don’t get is the classic Spanish movies channel, which seems to have some great scary films in its tantalizing grid listings! This conundrum inspired me to search far and wide for intriguing international horrors of old. So let’s get our foreign freaky and frightful on, shall we?

The Brainiac – Oft scary star Abel Salazar leads this black and white Mexican horror and SF combo, but this English title doesn’t fit as well as the original El Baron del Terror – or so it seems. Despite being a bit too telling instead of showing, the 1661 inquisition opening is effective enough thanks to lots of shadows and creepy men in black hooded robes. The picture is a bit dark, too; the sound’s uneven, and there’s bad science on top of poorer science fiction effects. I mean, the comet plot device – used by our titular sorcerer to return in 300 years, just in time for the swanky, swinging sixties – looks like a streak of snot on the camera lens!  There are bad monsters, more simple smoke and mirrors, and the bare bones DVD has no subtitles, but the bemusing dubbing adds to the camp charm. Fun music, updated castle scenery, and low budget but suave mod décor matches the screaming ladies and cranky detectives. Perhaps the one by one ancestral vengeance plot is nothing new, but the sci-fi spins, historical twists, and obligatory deaths are suspenseful and well paced. Smart editing, nice zooms, and a few shocker moments cap off the creepy atmosphere, as well. What is that, pâté? It looks yummy! Perhaps you have to like bad horror and camp fun to appreciate this one, but at only 77 minutes, one can easily enjoy this SF scary amid a fun movie marathon.

The Curse of the Crying Woman – It’s pretty much expected that the dubbed dialogue and English subtitles won’t match in this otherwise eerily effective 1961 Spanish creepier again starring Abel Salazar. It’s also a bit bemusing how the awkward, wooden voiceovers make one sound so casual when mentioning how there’s a maniac on the loose! In addition to the uncanny music, black and white mood, and period stylings, the story and script here are actually well done, if standard – a couple in a scary house with a witchy aunt and all that. It’s also nice to see a twisted woman lead and her hunchback servant instead of the more typical masculine terrors.  From the eyeless chicks, fast cut violence, mauling dogs, zesty camerawork, and sharp zooms to the skeletal effects, creepy webs, derelict lairs, and shocker moments, wow, there’s some quality gothic production here. The opening freaky and weird imagery unravels slowly and remains spooky for the entire 80 minutes thanks to a countdown to midnight, bloody rituals, macabre flashbacks, wicked mirrors, and a destructive, fiery finale. I’m surprised at the lack of information available for this film, as touch of mid century hokey aside, this one has plenty of gothic mood and solid scares.

Fury of the Wolfman – Paul Naschy is Waldemar Daninsky again for the fourth turn in this haphazard Spanish werewolf series, and an opening narration and flashback scenes provide some of the wolf origins here.  More sexy innuendo, whips, chains, and even a yeti add to the car crashes, asylum secrets, affairs, science debates, abominations, mind control, and seemingly evil lesbian internships. Sweet period cars, clothes, candles, and excellent storm sounds help forgive the somewhat simplistic wolf transformation effects and standard dubbing. Some of the were-action is filmed and paced in almost a silent film style, which adds to the demented love and mind drama, but the uneven editing and mixed camera styles unfortunately contribute to some of the science fiction and horror crossover story confusion. Detective and reporter elements are also weak and dated – though it’s nice to see an investigation instead of just killings without consequences in a self-involved bubble. I wish this was a bit more polished, but behind the scenes troubles, a delayed 1972 release, title changes, and edited video prints only add to the frustrating pursuit of this not completely available, free form franchise. It’s a pity as the layered plots and twists here are dang entertaining.

The Man and the Monster – This 1958 macabre musical gets right to it with a crazy good car crash and continues the sinister build, slow reveals, and solid suspense pacing for the whole 78 minutes. Naturally, there are hints of Phantom of the Opera as the pained, eponymous Enrique Rambal maestros the pretty, talented Martha Roth. However, enough twists happen here – including a wicked mother, creepies more ala Psycho, and a unique demonic bargaining for those said musical gifts. In addition to the great piano compositions, frightful, pulsing orchestrations, and opportunities for silence or sparse diegetic sounds, the black and white photography effectively hides any filmmaking flaws whilst heightening the shadowed, hidden ghastly. The then contemporary fifties cars, fedoras, and frocks are mid century cool, yet a moody, gothic atmosphere lingers thanks to overgrown abandoned estates. Yes, Abel Salazar doesn’t have much to do as our good guy businessman and the ensemble is slightly over the top. Some of the piano playing is obvious fakery, and though high end at the time, the monster effects are hokey today. The narration was also unnecessary in the tell-all flashback for the sequence plays out wonderfully on its own. Fortunately, these dated quirks invoke classic silent film styles and keep the regrets taught and wild finale avante garde. Perhaps this one isn’t out and out scary to modern audiences, but it’s still an effective, entertaining little morality tale.  

I must say, it does help to have some knowledge of a particular film’s original language, as the subtitles and dubbing don’t always match. Fortunately, the DVDs almost always have the necessary language options – although I swear it seems Netflix only has one copy of these types of elusive, eclectic videos. I had to wait for each of these for quite some time, and many more I’d like to see have so little information about them or are simply no longer available and may never see the light of digital day. It’s a pity, as I’ve enjoyed the old foreign horror I have seen more than some of this contemporary chiller drivel!

For more commentaries on ye olde foreign language horror films, here’s a list of some global scares already reviewed!


Atom Age Vampire

Black Sabbath

The Bloody Judge

The Bloody Vampire

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Crypt of the Vampire

The Horrible Sexy Vampire

House of Shadows

Nightmare Castle


Spirits of the Dead


Terror Creatures from the Grave

The Vampire Happening

The Vampire’s Night Orgy


Werewolf Hunter

The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman

The Witches Mountain


09 July 2013

More Early Horror!

More Early Horror!
By Kristin Battestella

Not everyone may like the dated production values and low video qualities of film’s earliest efforts. Nevertheless, here’s a quartet of fun, moody, scary, and atmospheric old tales for fans of classic movie macabre.

Frankenstein – Wow! It’s easy to find time for this rediscovered 13 minutes from Thomas Edison Studios just for the 1910 novelty alone. Of course, the print looks poorly, but numerous editions are available now and it’s fascinating this holds up so well. Though the credit admits to being a very loose Shelley adaptation, the new inter titles help clarify the tale and the expected, overdone acting. There are both black and white and sepia or other colored plates, too, and the wonderful period to us design and styles simply cannot be done today. Great music accompanies the touch of scares and the fantastical, fiery monster creation, too. The effects and monster design may seem primitive today, but they are actually pretty well done, even frightful despite the short run time. This one’s perfect for a creepy viewing party or macabre book discussion night.

The Rogues Tavern – The introductory music is somewhat whimsical to start this 1936 hour plus, and the dated, simplistic dialogue, lame humor, and weak investigation will be too old fashioned for some. The video quality is a little poor, too, but interesting panning and dolly camera work and lots of silence add to what is perhaps an obvious or Scooby Doo-ish, old hat premise. The cast of characters trapped in this isolated hotel seem stereotypically familiar- the fool, the detective couple, the creepy old couple, the creepy psychic lady, a man in a wheelchair, a loudmouth with a gun, and an implicated wolf dog. There is some good spin, however, and the early thirties dressings, cool looking staircase, and gothic touches accentuate the murderous screams. Charming ala Clue, the good deaths, tension, and mystery are well paced and entertaining for the duration.

Svengali – John Barrymore (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) gives a wonderfully disturbing performance as the eponymous hypnotist in this 1931 gothic drama based upon the book Trilby by George du Maurier. The look foul Rasputin-esque makeup is very effective, and the creepy eye effects are damn near diabolical. The look matches his greedy intentions and the seductively so wrong, suggestive dialogue as sympathy builds for the cute Marian Marsh (The Black Room). No way would anybody today send his or her daughter to this piano teacher! Perhaps it’s too long at 80 minutes and slightly slow when Barrymore is off screen for the standard young love plot, but great zooms, camera work, angles, and shadows keep the pace ghoulish. Fine costumes, décor, a black cat, and French elegance tie it all together as we are tricked into thinking we see more of this pre-code scandal than we actually do. Although some of the singing may be shrill and the acting or humor dated, the music is delightful and this adaptation remains spine chilling.

Torture Ship – This 1939 hour suggested from Jack London and directed by Victor Halpern (White Zombie) has a lot of tough to understand colloquialisms and dialogue. It’s slow to start and a little confusing for such a short piece. The subject matter is also simplistic and not very psychologically deep, and one can’t expect much gore or debauchery from the crooks and titular experiments, either. Fortunately, the mood and creepy are definitely here, with boating sets and nautical touches to keep things interesting. The dark print is tough, granted, but the lighting and shadows are excellent accents to the sinister medical equipment and overboard deaths. Perhaps this one isn’t totally scary, but the atmosphere is twisted, the science is awry, and the fun is quite bizarre.

Conveniently, these particular titles are also all in the public domain and available at varying sources online or streaming. So, there’s no excuse in getting your frightful early film feet wet!

06 July 2013

Soldiers of Fortune (2012)

Soldiers of Fortune Has Too Many Mixed Fortunes
By Kristin Battestella

I was eager to see this seemingly fun and action packed 2012 ensemble yarn, but Soldiers of Fortune is a disappointing mixed bag of what could have been.

Ex-army Captain Craig McCenzie (Christian Slater) reluctantly joins a special operations mercenary training organization funded by millionaires interested in playing soldier at the highest stakes. Metals magnate Dimidov (Sean Bean), video game developer Sin (Dominic Monaghan), banker Charles Vanderbeer (Charlie Bewley), Texas tycoon Sam Haussmann (James Cromwell), and weapons dealer Grimaud (Ving Rhames) don’t take the training seriously at first, and each has their own motives for joining in the rebellion against ex-CIA agent Carter Mason (Colm Meaney). When their play mission turns into a deadly coup d'état, the team must shape up to make it out alive.

New director Maxim Korostyshevsky and writers Alexandre Coscas, Joe Kelbley (Booking Knights) and Robert Crombie (Ink) open with international intrigue, Taliban infiltration, and bikers, but the onscreen titles telling the audience the when and where do little to explain what’s happening. Between telling Craig’s back story, showing the repeated recruitment attempts, and all the island rebellion whys, Soldiers of Fortune takes too many times to start it’s tale. The tired, down on his luck soldier premise also puts the film off on the wrong foundation, resulting in too much time being spent later on in clarifying who is who. There’s no such time to spare in a 95-minute action caper – Soldiers of Fortune should have focused on the adventure for hire sardonics as its cool with no angry military whip them into shape off kilter. This is supposed to be an action film, not a war allegory, and I don’t really care about Craig’s history in comparison to the irony of millionaires playing soldier who end up really saving the day and writing it off as charity. This could have been a funny, unrealistic bombastic romp or dead serious and heavy in its political statements. Heck, Soldiers of Fortune could have even stayed middle of the road subtle irony wink even, but the picture just feels so aimless and topsy turvy.  Maybe it’s not that original either, but seeing these richy, badass, screw ups already ala Major League had to be more entertaining than Soldiers of Fortune actually turned out to be. I keep thinking of editors who say forget the prologue, open in media res, and cut your first thirty pages. The early training scenes come too easily for the quirky team, and turncoat speculations don’t seem to matter. Despite their charm and likability, the learning the ropes muddled vision and save the island rebellion mission feel like one big macguffin. This askew start and all over the place plotting certainly makes Soldiers of Fortune confusing, and unnecessary flak prevents the ensemble’s potential from blossoming.

Christian Slater is a very unusual choice for the lead here, yes. Though he is physically capable, swift, and believable with the guns and gear, some of the action is a little too preposterous, and it’s tough for one to get over the “It’s Christian Slater! Pump Up the Volume! Kuffs!” feeling. His dialogue and delivery are also uneven. Either this is a poorly written character with undeveloped emotion or Slater is too dry for the part. Craig’s reluctant drill sergeant is neither ruthless nor funny when he’s threatening to kill the next person who answers his cell phone during the obstacle course. He starts out so angry over being unjustly dishonorably discharged but ends up happily joking with the millionaires. Again, hinging Soldiers of Fortune on this flat character was wrong. Can you still have Slater in a military or action movie? Sure, but not as the faulty lead.  Likewise, Freddy Rodriguez (Ugly Betty) is all but useless as Craig’s best bud. You never feel his sidekick is going to amount to anything, and their lack of chemistry adds to the lack of believability here. I mean, Christian Slater has to whip these guys – these guys – into shape. Are you %^&#(*^ kidding me? I don’t love him or hate him and feel uber harsh, but Slater is outclassed in what is a direct to video action yarn.

Damn straight Sean Bean already knows how to fire a rifle! One expects the Game of Thrones alum to be the angry army guy – he did that, in fact, in Age of Heroes the year prior – but Bean looks great as a suave jet setter with big toys and lots of babes. Dimidov has badass history, international playboy clout, zing, and an insistence for his own room, “Helen and I will take the dining room…” Yes, I am Bean biased.  I totally admit he was my reason for seeing Soldiers of Fortune, and I’ve seriously enjoyed some of his recent, smaller independent material. However, it’s more bemusing to watch him play paintball target practice with a cigar firmly between his teeth than watch Slater try and teach anybody to play soldier. There are some sloppy hints that Dimidov is suspicious and greedy, but it’s another wasted opportunity to not let Sean Bean have a full on good time with his badass image. And let’s not forget about Ving Rhames! I’m not sure what sort of accent he was attempting, but Rhames (Pulp Fiction) is always delightfully slick – and his Grimaud seems to know more about weaponry and tactics than Captain Craig. Zigzag so you can’t be targeted so easily…you don’t say! This is actually the second time in recent memory I’ve seen this simplicity not being utilized on film, and it really makes screenwriters look like they don’t do any basic research. Grimaud’s an armory dealer with morals on both sides, but his gray is never fully developed, and again, only Rhames’ charisma saves the character. I’d believe him as an angry military drill sergeant! Reverse Rhames and Slater and Soldiers of Fortune increases tenfold.

Need more character class? Soldiers of Fortune should have given James Cromwell (L.A. Confidential) more to do as the fun and crusty cowboy Haussmann. He has his bucket list with lots to chew on, but he doesn’t seem to be onscreen enough, nor is Colm Meaney (Deep Space Nine). If he’s the military nemesis to our millionaires, you should see him in more equal screen time. His Mason is also a little too ruthless or over the top, as if it can’t be decided whether he’s a heavy, deadly villain or a lighthearted parody. Dominic Monaghan is his usual fun self, too – and the subtle broken leg humor works. The jabs on who is richer or who has a bigger gun – literally – go a long way, and Soldiers of Fortune should have used this flair instead of resorting to a convenient mishmash. The women are nondescript, and Charles Bewley (The Twilight Saga) is far too cliché as Vanderbeer – the seemingly wimpy banker using this excursion just to prove his street cred. If his quirks aren’t going to be highlighted, then why bother? Despite some attempted but obvious plot twists, I honestly didn’t notice when Vanderbeer wasn’t onscreen. How is the audience supposed to care when the characters themselves gain or lose their conscience or sympathies as needed? Some members of the team seem to die or feel written out as if the writers realized those players were pointless, and Soldiers of Fortune completely misses the boat in utilizing the built in fun of having Bean and Monaghan together again. What, no Lord of the Rings jokes?

Thankfully, sarcastic flashbacks, a touch of panoramic zooms, sweeping angles, and fun editing add smarts and help Soldiers of Fortune wink at the absurd. Onscreen graphics, text, satellite imagery, scope camerawork, and slow motion also add panache. Most of this is quality, but some pieces feel unnecessary or noticeably present just for the expected looking cool. Hip quips also feel misplaced amid what’s supposed to be tragic resistance scenes, and their plight feels somewhat small scale compared to the rest of the colorful action and battle scenes. The sets, locales, and outdoor adventuring do fit the bill, and the spectacle isn’t super chaotic and in your face – although there is a lot of gunfire, blood capsule pops, and old fashioned fake kills. Soldiers of Fortune is rated R, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it should be. It’s also disappointing that this is a bare bones, featureless DVD. The menu interface advertising the titular and tax deductable adventure is fun, but it seems like the production team sold Soldiers of Fortune short. It has the people, the budget, and the action. What happened?

Miscasting and missed opportunities prevent Soldiers of Fortune from becoming the witty, stylized yarn it could be. The step-by-step clichés and confusing encounters will make your head hurt at the waste. Fans of the cast or contrived action films can have a few hours of good fun with the absurdity here, yes, but Soldiers of Fortune could have been much, much more.