or VHS: video house safari


For those just tuning in: what I'm doing in this series is heading down to the local video store and finding interesting movies I've never heard of. For younger readers, a "video store" is an establishment that you can walk or drive to and rent Video Home System cassettes, also known as VHS tapes, from an actual person and take it home for your own entertainment purposes (you gotta bring it back to the store when you're done, though.)

I'm basing my selections on the outrageous video boxes, the kind that helped us decide whether a movie looked like it was worth our time back in the days before the internet started telling us everything there is to know about every film before they're even released. Then I'm writing about my VHS safari.

It's not nostalgic - it's just awesome.

{the VIDEO ODDITIES index}

video oddity #15:

fred olen ray, 1994

"My mind has expanded as far as it can go! Any more and it'll pop, know what I mean?"

Welcome to a new era of Video Oddities. A cavalier, free-wheelin' era in which my former rule of selecting movies based on title and video box art alone has been beaten, shot and unceremoniously dumped in a muck-filled quarry. While I'll still be investigating any old school VHS that pique my interest, I'm not going to restrict the selection process. The gates are now open to any obscure video store artifact that's recently come to my attention, even if it's been recommended by the filmmaker himself.

Case in point: this week's entry, the result of a conversation with video house legend Fred Olen Ray during which I asked him to name one of his 148 directorial efforts (he'll probably be up to 151 or 152 in the week between finishing this article and publishing it) that he felt was criminally underseen. Possibly because Chris and I had been ranting about Possessed by the Night in front of him for 10 minutes straight, he wasted no time in pointing me towards Mind Twister, his other collaboration with screenwriter Mark Thomas McGee* to hit video store shelves in 1994.

I need to take a moment to talk about Possessed by the Night, a Pink Smoke favorite. There's even a cute anecdote to back that up: Chris and I once went halfsies on a used VHS of PxN at legendary Rick's Piermont Pictures - the very same copy still sits among my collection to this day. (Chris threw out all his VHS tapes, so I'm glad I was the one who held on to it.) Possessed comes from Fred Olen Ray's "softcore" period of the early 90's. He'd mainly been churning out sci-fi action films (Cyclone, Alienator) and horror-comedies (Beverly Hills Vamp, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers), but followed cinematic soulmate Jim Wynorski into the popular trend of "erotic thrillers" starting with Inner Sanctum in 1991.

Unlike Wynorski, Ray soured on softcore output fairly quickly. In an interview with Crave a few years ago, he revealed that Possessed was a result of becoming bored with the standard erotic thriller formula in which "people are just putting out" and decided to add a supernatural element to the narrative that compelled his characters to randomly go at it. So he cast softcore icons Shannon Tweed and Sandahl Bergman in a movie about a pulsating, one-eyed mutant embryo in a pickle jar that causes anyone in the vicinity to become sexually aggressive. Add Henry Silva as a horny socialite who proudly states, "I don't care what anybody says, I love bimbos!" and you've got yourself a bonefide classic.

Somehow, despite a healthy pre-teen appreciation for the kind of movies that ran on Skinemax late at night back in the day, I never came across Mind Twister. The first thing that caught my eye upon purchase of the Ray-endorsed VHS was that its cover employs one of my very favorite marketing tactics for videos from this era: the ol' "actor last name in bigger, bolder font than first name to make the poor-sighted renter/buyer think it's the name of a big star" routine. My favorite example of this is the Billy Drago DTV actioneer Death Ring, the cover of which promises appearances by "NORRIS", "MCQUEEN" and "SWAYZE." Of course the cast of Death Ring** is actually the brother of Patrick Swayze and the sons of Chuck Norris and Steve McQueen, but you legitimately can't accuse the video company of false advertising - it's your fault for failing to realize you were getting Don Swayze and Chad McQueen (who also popped up in Possessed by Night) in your Most Dangerous Game knock-off action movie. No refunds, sucker.

So any inattentive video peruser can't be blamed for seeing the name "Slater" and thinking they were going home with a movie starring hot-off-Interview with a Vampire Christian Slater. Or even not-so-hot-off-Lassie-remake Helen Slater. Or surfing legend Kelly Slater. Or Rams tackle/future Hall of Famer Jackie Slater. Or 18th century English-American industrialist Samuel Slater. Practically any of these possibilities would have run through the potential renter's mind before realizing he was settling for Chopping Mall alum Suzanne "Suzee" Slater. This slick little marketing ploy doesn't work quite as well with the name "Hudson" - supposedly the renter was to be misled into thinking the movie co-starred Ernie Hudson? (It would have been a little too late for Rock Hudson.) Although 1994 saw the prolific ghostbuster in such high-profile features as The Crow, The Cowboy Way and Airheads, you'd have to be the poster designer of No Escape to think the promise of Ernie Hudson meant anything in terms of commercial return.***

In defense of Mind Twister, you do get Savalas. It's not Telly's actor-singer son Christian Savalas (who would have been about 9 at the time). It's not Telly's brother and Kojak co-star Gus Savalas (although Gus does have a cameo in the movie as a cop). It's not Mickey Savalas, some dude I just made up. It's Telly goddamn Savalas, Feto Gomez/Maggott, A. J./Ernst Stavro Blofeld/Border Cop/"Who loves ya baby" himself - the Savalas you want is the Savalas you get.

Unfortunately you don't get Savalas doing very much. He does end the film by shooting a woman repeatedly in the stomach, but spends most of his time as Police Sgt. Richard Howland being thunderingly incompetent. Some examples:

1. Howland is very bad at getting tabloid reporters to exit a crime scene.

The film opens with a topless blonde wearing a ball gag crashing through an apartment window. Howland and other cops arrive and section off the area, but a sleazy photographer and a pushy journalist both manage to get past the tape. "Take a hike, looky-loo!" Howland demands of the shutterbug, only to have him retaliate with some lame excuse about doing his job.**** You'd think he would respond by calmly placing a lollipop in his mouth, then breaking the camera over this douchebag's head (I never saw an episode of Kojak but I'm assuming that's the kind of thing that happened all the time). Instead Howland looks apologetic and lamely backs off. Oh, ok - please continue taking pictures of the nude corpse, Weegee. Sorry to have bothered you.

Perhaps expecting to hold more influence over the female journalist, he instructs her to beat it... then immediately turns around, allowing her to continue traipsing about a highly contaminable crime scene instead of physically removing her from the apartment! The reporter finds the victim's photo album lying around, shoves it in her purse and sneaks off. Of course it ends up being a key piece of evidence that would have connected the dots much quicker and saved lives, but since Howland couldn't be bothered to secure his crime scene the bad guys are able to kill more people before the end of the movie.

2. Howland is very bad at blowing out birthday candles.

At the station, fellow cop Frank Webb (Richard Roundtree) takes up a collection to buy Howland a birthday gift (two hookers allegedly tipped him off). Now get this: in the next scene, Webb interrogates a pimp in a flashy outfit and ridicules the mack's loud tie. Immediately afterwards, he brings Howland a one-candled cupcake and presents him with his gift: the pimp's tie! It seems to be the same scene, so I doubt Webb went out and bought a similar-looking tie. Apparently he just stole it from that guy? And wrapped it up as a present for Howland, pocketing the collected cash and enjoying his own little in-joke? It is never flatly stated that this is what happened, but it is! What the fuck, Webb? It then takes Howland three tries to blow out the single candle on his birthday cupcake as he unknowingly models a piece of clothing that very well may have been involved in the choking of "bitches."

3. Howland is very bad at driving a car.

The climax comes down to Howland needing to get to the home of the killers before they return to discover the film's heroine snooping around for evidence. Instead of accomplishing the simple task of operating a vehicle, he swerves and slams into some trash cans in a single-car incident that leaves his forehead bloodied and the gal's boyfriend running for the house from there. It's literally the first thing he's done as a police officer besides refilling his coffee cup at the station and he can't manage to do it right. He proves to be a worse cop than J.W. Pepper and Frank Drebin combined.

These are the main impressions I was left with after watching Mind Twister, a film I suspect might be the reason Fred Olen Ray got fed up directing movies that were basically built around cheesily-scored sex scenes. It may be that I'm unfairly comparing it to Possessed by the Night, which more or less parodies the convoluted reasons people in these movies whose lives are in danger randomly decide to disrobe and rub up and down on each other. Possessed was a rarity in this now-obsolete quick-buck DTV enterprise that tended to follow a familiar blueprint: low budget, limited locations, x amount of nudity and prolonged cavorting to pad out the runtime, some violence to sprinkle into the trailer and one or two name stars to sell the video. Ray is a funny and creative filmmaker, but when you're pounding out five titles a year (as he did in 1994) by design most will be fairly generic and barely legit as an actual movie.

That said, Mind Twister isn't without its own charming goofiness. We're basically dealing with three sets of people connected by the opening sex murder of a psychiatrist's secretary. Her two close girlfriends Heather and Melanie decide to go undercover, Heather as a patient and Melanie as the new receptionist, to prove the doctor did it. Then there's the cops investigating the murder, headed by Savalas as Howland, comfortable enough to massage the foot of busty detective Hayley Quinn without asking permission. For her part, Quinn has no problem flirting with every cop at the station, even the coroner whose request for a date she shoots down by telling him, "You're going to have to wait to get me on that slab before you get your hands on me." Quinn decides to get involved with the case even though it's not assigned to her.

That leaves the shrink, Gary Hudson's Dr. Daniel Strahten whose office is located in - I shit you not - a pink building, and his wife Lisa. Though Daniel seems the obvious suspect, going so far as to toss a pair of perfectly good black gloves in the trash ("They make your hands stink!"), it turns out Lisa is the real psycho. Luring women to the couple's basement/sex cave, she starts with some light S&M that quickly escalates into full-blown murder. Daniel, at turns disgusted and excited by his spouse's homicide, harbors and reluctantly supplies her with fresh victims, and Heather is lined up to be their next autoerotic fatality.

No doubt the most disappointing thing about the movie is the overall lack of mind-twisting. Heather enters Daniel's office claiming to have blacked out for several hours on the night of the secretary's murder and describes vague dreams that suggest she witnessed the assault and has since blocked it from her memory (a faked version of what befalls Kevin McCarthy in Maxwell Shane's Nightmare). While this ploy succeeds in making Daniel nervous (and Lisa intent on getting Heather into her bondage/murder dungeon), he's convinced he can use his psychiatric skills to make his new patient believe her "visions" are so much Freudian hodgepodge. It seems like this will be the core of the movie: a sultry mind-twisting contest between these two characters where identities are confused, lines between reality and fantasy are blurred and the stakes are constantly raised to the point that the audience is forced to question, "Who the heck is the real Mind Twister here anyway?" Unfortunately it fizzles out without paying off. Even though there's even a lengthy scene involving hypnosis, it doesn't really go anywhere. The danger isn't going to be psychological, it's going to be old-fashioned "try not to get stabbed or shot" danger.

On the other hand, said danger in the form of bloodthirsty Lisa Strahten is the most compelling aspect of the film. She is undeniably alluring in a way that makes it surprising every time she flashes her murder badge. Even her first appearance is unusual: a drawn-out sequence of Daniel driving home is intercut with Lisa fucking a guy in a bathtub as some new age music plays. Since this is the first time the audience is seeing Lisa and her anonymous partner and Daniel appears reflective in the driver's seat, it seems like he's thinking about something that happened in the past that's about to be explained via flashback. But then he arrives home and interrupts the couple mid-coitous, even hitting a button on a CD player to shut off the new age music. Holy shit, Fred Olen Ray just mind-twisted us!

All that said, Lisa is an unbelievably tactless killer. She goes to the fake address Heather provided and knocks on the front door. Some nerdlinger answers, visibily stunned that this vixen has randomly appeared at his residence - he attempts to woo her inside with promises of snacks: "I have some diet soda... chips?" She declines and beats a hasty retreat, but what was her plan exactly had it been Heather's home? To murder everyone in the house? Later in the film she'll kill two people in Heather's hallway on the spur of the moment, seemingly disinterested that her impromptu massacre of Melanie (her husband's new secretary) and a cop (poor Quinn!) would in any believable scenario land her in prison within 10 minutes. Unfazed by that possibility, she packs a piece on the way to meet Heather's blackmailing boyfriend in the middle of a sunny afternoon, feeling Daniel out by asking, "I don't suppose I could talk you into a little drive-by shooting?" Lady, take it down a notch!

Such carelessness will prove to be the couple's undoing, since Heather is ultimately able to find a videotape of the original murder at their home. To get to this point however, she allows herself to be lured into Lisa's love vault for her own taped "therapy session." "I hope this doesn't end up for rent somewhere," she jokes about what has to be the least subtle induction into amateur pornography of all time. Of the movie's three erotic set pieces, this one's the longest and most memorable, especially the part where Lisa breaks out some day-glo paint and smears it across Heather's breast, a bizarre turn of events that reminded me of Shannon Tweed's bizarre sex scene with Adam Baldwin in Cold Sweat.

I admire Heather's dedication to her cover, but she manages to give herself away since she sports the same butt tattoo as her murdered buddy. (This is the little tidbit revealed to the cops by the photo album: "Three butts, three tattoos - all the same." "Must have been some vacation...") This new information is reason enough for Lisa to set off on a killing spree, first bludgeoning Melanie to death with a portable phone (!) and tossing her body out the window of Heather's apartment, then dispatching Quinn when she shows up on the scene. This leads to a fresh series of characters acting incompetently:

4. Quinn is bad at seeing people standing in an elevator.

After Lisa dispatches Melanie, Quinn draws her gun and enters the apartment building. Finding no trace of the killer, she reholsters her weapon and heads for the elevator. Despite taking a good look before stepping inside, she somehow misses Lisa standing directly behind her and is killed. (What weapon did Lisa use? Did the elevator have its own cordless phone?) Quinn, who's given some early build-up like she may end up being a replacement hero in the third act, turns out to be a pretty useless cop. Yet lo, the prophecy hath been fulfilled: true to her word, Quinn does indeed end up on the slab for the coroner to paw at her lifeless body (he doesn't seem enthusiastic to do so however).

5. Heather is bad at breaking into a glass cabinet with a tiny lock using a giant tire iron.

While her boyfriend fails spectacularly at stalling the Strahtens across town, Heather doesn't do herself any favors by taking 20 minutes to get inside a locked cabinet containing the incriminating video tapes. The murderous couple get back in plenty of time to trap her and almost get away with killing both Heather and her boyfriend but for the interference of a dazed Howland, who made it to the scene despite his impressively incompetent car crash. However...

6. Howland is also bad at shooting armed suspects.

As far as climaxes involving a double fist fight in a sex dungeon go, this is one of the best. In the end, Lisa manages to get control of her gun just in time to be blasted in the abdomen by a late-arriving Howland. It doesn't hurt her because she's insane, and she raises her weapon to continue her murder spree, forcing Howland to shoot for a few more times, each time in the squib-accessible stomach. A head or chest shot would have been a better bet, but I guess the collision must have thrown off Howland's aim. That must be it.

The video box identifies this version of the movie as the "Red Hot Director's Cut", the terms "unrated" and "director's cut" believed to be big marketing draws at the time. The tagline on the cover - "There is a cost of taking the pleasures of the flesh way beyond the innocence of desire" - is deliciously nonsensical. And then there's this, from the back of box: "Heather enters a dark and sinister world of sexual indulgence and sadistic fantasies where everything is possible and anything can happen." Now I'm not the most disciplined writer, but that is a lot of "and"s in a single sentence. Also, is it really a "world" she enters? We're talking about one married couple, and one basement. George C. Scott in Hardcore, Bob Hoskins in Mona Lisa, Craig Wasson in Body Double enter a "dark and sinister world of sexual indulgence and sadistic fantasies" because they meet more than two people involved in all sexual indulgence/fantasies.

Is Mind Twister the oddity that Fred Olen Ray should be recommending to fans? Based on his comments about working in softcore, it's strange that he looks upon it with any kind of soft nostalgia. I'm guessing he's proud to have directed Telly Savalas in a movie, although as far as bragging rights he should be equally proud to have worked with legends like Aldo Ray (Prison Ship), John Carradine (The Tomb), Lee Van Cleef (Armed Response), Charles Napier (Deep Space), Gunnar Hansen (Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers) and Dick Miller (Evil Toons.) Over the years, I have noticed that many directors seem most proud of lesser works (Rainer Fassbinder and Hal Hartley come to mind), and while Mind Twister isn't a complete wash I feel like there must be some crazier F.O.R. entries out there that twister the mind just a little bit farther until it really does pop.

or what i learned later

Scream queen Deborah Dutch (murdered secretary Sheila Harrison) was a Jim Wynorski regular and appeared in the Wynorski-Ray collaboration Dinosaur Island. One of her earliest roles was in the notorious Bruceploitation movie Bruce Lee Fights Back from the Grave; since then, she's racked up 60 acting credits according to iMDB and even directed her own film last year, Hollywood Warrioress: The Movie.

Maria Ford (Melanie Duncan) got her big break in Stripped to Kill 2: Live Girls before going on to star in Stripteaser, Showgirl Murders and Hot Ticket ("Two kidnapped strippers must perform erotic routines for their captors after their plane crashes near a mountain hideaway.") As you may have guessed, F.O. Ray really had her playing against type as a secretary who does not remove her clothes or have sex with anyone. She also starred in 1990's softcore classic Naked Obsession (which also featured a Fred Olen Ray cameo) and served as romantic interest to one Don "The Dragon" Wilson in the kickboxing kumite film Ring of Fire. One of her last credited roles was as a stripper on The Drew Carey Show in 2004, bringing her illustrious career full circle. Reputedly, she has been named by Quentin Tarantino as his "favorite B actress."

Curiously, it's not ostensible heroine Suzee Slater or erotica draws Maria Ford and Deborah Dutch gracing the cover and hogging the stills on the back of the box, but Erika Nann. Mexian-born Nann (Lisa Strahten) could be found in such notable early 90's cable erotica as Night Rhythms, Animal Instincts and Die Watching. She appeared as Jane Russell in the infamous HBO biopic Norma Jean & Marilyn and most recently records Spanish language albums. (Curiously, she left Mind Twister off the resume on her personal website.)

Surprisingly, this was the final role for Suzanne "Suzee" Slater (Heather Black), who retired shortly after the film's release, ending a 10-year career that included an uncredited role in Savage Streets, memorable walk-ons in the Jim Belushi/John Ritter buddy flick Real Men and Christopher Guest's The Big Picture, and the classic scene in Jim Wynorski's Chopping Mall where a robot blasts her head off. Similarly, two-film veteran Angel Ashley (Hayely Quinn) only made one more movie before apparently calling it a day.

This was also apparently the last film for long-time film and TV actress Paula Raymond from The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but honestly I don't remember who she played in the movie. (Heather's nosy neighbor possibly?)

The plot of Mind Twister was largely recycled by Mark Thomas McGee from a script he'd co-written for Jim Wynorski, Sins of Desire, released the previous year. In that one, Tanya Roberts investigates the suicide of her sister by going undercover at a suspicious sex clinic where her deceased sibling sought therapy. The clinic is run by a depraved husband and wife team and once again a hidden tape serves as the film's MacGuffin. Sins of Desire's tagline: "She was seduced into a world of sexual adventure... and dangerous deception." Again with the "world"! Can't it just say "seduced at a suspicious sex clinic"?

Fred Olen Ray is as active as ever, although these days he seems stuck on a theme based on the following titles from his last 4 years of filmmaking: A Christmas Wedding Date, All I Want for Christmas, Christmas in Palm Springs, A Perfect Christmas List, The Christmas Gift, A Prince for Christmas, A Christmas in Vermont. I haven't seen any of these, but I like to think he occasionally slips a one-eyed mutant embryo into them.

Ray actually did end up making a movie with Christian Slater, 2012's Hatfields and McCoys: Bad Blood, a quickie produced to cash-in on the success of the History Channel mini-series from the same year. Funnily enough, in F.O.R.'s movie Jeff Fahey played "Devil" Anse Hatfield, the character brought to life in the mini-series by Kevin Costner, who shot Fahey dead in the western Silverado.

In that same interview for Crave, Ray mentions that "Mind Twister had a million dollar budget, so if you could imagine these erotic thrillers with a million bucks, it was pretty amazing." A million dollar budget??? Where did the money go? Most of it better have gone to Telly Savalas.

The sad truth is that Savalas was actively dying of cancer at the time he made Mind Twister, although he had decided to continue working right up to the end. The movie, dedicated to his memory, turned out to be his penultimate film. His last was Backfire!, a mid-90's Kathy Ireland comedy that ostensibly mocks Backdraft but also features goofs on such random targets as Cliffhanger, Terminator 2 and Falling Down (tagline: "A bonfire of the insanities!")

I can't namedrop Backfire! without mentioning that its writer-director, A. Dean Bell, was a professor at SUNY Purchase when Chris and I were enrolled in its film program. Chris likes to tell the story of how, out of curiosity after meeting Dean, he rented the movie from Blockbuster. The VHS had been left in the middle of the movie, so Chris had to rewind it. Once he couldn't take any more of Backfire!, he went to stop the video... and realized it was at the exact same spot it had been before being rewound. So apparently Backfire! has a universal breaking point for any unfortunate viewer who attempts to make it through the movie.

Backfire! was also one of the last movies to feature Robert Mitchum, just to add to that movie's depressing place in film history.

best fred olen ray titles

1. Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers
2. Possessed by the Night
3. Sleazemania!
4. Maximum Revenge
5. Mom's Outta Sight
(yes it's 'cause she's invisible)
6. Inner Sanctum
7. Scalps
8. Scream Queen Hot Tub Party
9. Wizards of the Demon Sword
10. Bikini Hoe-Down

(It was hard to pick just one "bikini" movie, as his filmography also includes Bikini Airways, Bikini Drive-In, Bikini a Go Go, Bikini Chain Gang, Bikini Pirates, The Bikini Escourt Company, Genie in a String Bikini, Ghost in a Teeny Bikini, Bikini Girls from the Lost Planet, Super Ninja Bikini Babes, The Girl from B.I.K.I.N.I., Bikini Royale 2, Bikini Frankenstein, Bikini Jones and the Temple of Eros, Bikini Time Machine and The Teenie Weenie Bikini Squad. I stand by my decision. Incidentally, according to Ray, the star of Genie in a String Bikini doesn't wear a bikini once in the picture.)

Honorable mention: The Brain Leeches.



~ JANUARY 10, 2017 ~
* McGee got his start as co-director/writer of the cult classic Equinox, and weirdly enough guest-starred on an episode of The Incredible Hulk also titled "Equinox" years later. He also wrote Bad Girls from Mars (1990), Inner Sanctum (1991) and Witch Academy (1995) for Ray and four scripts for the legendary Jim Wynorski: Sorority House Massacre II, Hard to Die, Sins of Desire and Sorceress. Around the same time he penned Stepmonster, in which a boy attempts to avert the marriage of father Alan Thicke to a scaly beast-in-disguise and Corey Feldman plays a character named Phlegm. (Should all this have been saved for the Appendix? I told you bub, this ain't yr daddy's Video Oddities no mo!)
** Death Ring also features 'Smoke favorite Branscombe Richmond, who weirdly is not given billing on the video box. That name means 20,000 additional units sold, Trans Atlantic Entertainment! What were you thinking? Were they honestly worried that making his last name bigger on the video box would suggest that the film co-starred Deon Richmond, aka "Bud" from The Cosby Show? He would go on to co-star in Van Wilder, so joke's on you marketing team.
*** Fred Olen Ray still practices this gimmick, most recently with last year's Sniper: Special Ops, its dvd cover promising SEAGAL and VAN DAM. We do get bloated Steven Seagal, but the "Van Dam" is of course former wrestler Rob Van Dam rather than the implied Jean-Claude Van Damme, who despite the tease in JCVD has yet to appear in a film with Seagal. (I'll leave it to you which Van Dam/Damme you'd rather see in a 2016 Steven Seagal movie.)
A missed opportunity that Mind Twister didn't apply the "embiggened last name" approach for cast members John Blyth Barrymore, who plays a horny pizza guy, and Barney, a dog credited as "shivering unshaven mutt." True, Drew Barrymore was still 2 years away from her big comeback appearance in Scream, but Barney the Dinosaur was a huge fucking deal in 1994.
**** The photographer is played by none other than Fred Olen Ray; whether this early exchange is symbolic of a contentious on-set relationship between director and star is left open to interpretation.