Sunday, February 10, 2013


Directed by Don Coscarelli
96 mins.  Color.
DVD Released by Anchor Bay, 2007

Coscarelli went into the mountains with a great cast and came out with an extremely entertaining and well-paced action film.  On IMDB, it says that this film came out in 1988, but it came out in the states in 1989.  There is very little to go on, but I’m guessing it was completed earlier and just released around the time of Phantasm II, with hopes to share some attention.  Either way, that doesn’t seem to have worked as this film continues to be under-seen.  Which is a shame, as this is a really well done film.  It is missing some of the crazy genre-bending I have come to love about Coscarelli, but super entertaining all the same. Along-side Kenny and Company, this is a “serious” foray outside of horror.  His character development is great in all of his films, but it is the entire basis for this film.  

The film is set in the Rocky Mountains at the North Rockies Survival Quest School, a four-week journey into the wild for those hoping to prove something to themselves.

It is such a joy to watch Coscarelli’s films, because they are so genuine.  He truly loves his characters.  Here, he builds an ensemble with Lance Henriksen and Catherine Keener providing a deep anchor.  Keener is never off, (in my opinion she may be the best actress alive, if not the most versatile) and here she is the emotional core.  She plays Cheryl, a recently divorced woman who wants something of her own.  She struggles and fights and has the hardest time of it.  The rest of the group is made up of Hal (played by Ben Hammer, related to Greg “The Hammer “ Valentine?), who is an old dude trying to prove he’s still got it, hot babe Olivia (Traci Lind - also seen in CLASS OF 1999!) is recently engaged to what seems her parents’ choice and wants one last escape, Jeff (Dominic Hoffman) who is a big-time douche, Joey (Paul Provenza, who you may recognize from Miami Vice, Empty Nest or Northern Exposure) is mostly inconsequential, and Gray (Dermot Mulroney - Heart-throb to all) a convict out for the month on some kind of “leave” who hopes to use this as redemption.  The group is led by Hank (Lance Henriksen, eternal rugged genius).  On the way, we get to see Reggie Bannister as the pilot, wearing a Kettle Chips hat.  

Unfortunately for the Survival Quest School there has been a fire elsewhere in the Rockies and Jake’s (Mark Rolston, also in Aliens) group of fascist military thugs has to use the same area for their survival quest.  Among his group is Raider (sweet character name and played by Steve Antin, who was Troy in Goonies) a big time tool who is a trouble-maker.  This group is so much fun. Jake loves to kill stuff and believes that he is a long-lost member of Cobra-kai. If there was a circumstance where he could ask one of his group to sweep the leg out from Keener, I have no doubt he would do so joyously. My favorite quote, "The Meek will never inherit anything but shit!"

The film starts with a huge helicopter shot over the mountains.  No music.  No sound.  It's an eerie indication about how Coscarelli sees the wilderness.  It's a vast, scary and dangerous place.  The groups are introduced in completely different manners.  Hank's group is individualized, each making their way to the plane.  Jake's group is a pack of anonymous douchebags, who proceed to criticize and insult each of the opposite group.  

Coscarelli goes to work, creating a very clear dichotomy.  When the groups arrive at the base of the mountains, Hank's group is intimidated, except for Gray who nearly kills everyone by lighting up a cigarette near the gas tank.  They are escorted up the mountain to meet Hank, who is on his roof, waiting for a cuppola to hang (obviously an inference on his zen-like disposition).  As they head into the mountains, the team begins to come together.  Gray shows compassion for an old man, as he gets bullied by some of Jake's group.  Keener starts struggling to keep up and the group has a discussion about whether or not they should split up her bags.  They decide they should, even though Jeff complains.

Jake, on the other hand, is training his group how to cut the ear off of an enemy.  He explains, "we are predators." He later instructs four members of his group to remove their shirts saying, "What's fundamental rule of survival?  To never get caught." He then has a bunch of dudes take their shirts off and has them maced. He tells them to hide, ordering the others to hunt them. "In the real world, the grade for failure is death."

Hank teaches his group how to survive and each become leaders, depending on one another.  Jake's group has live ammunition parachuted in.  There is a confrontation between Hank and Jake, and Raider gets involved.  He accidentally shoots Hank and Jake gets all pissed.  So, Raider shoots Jake and tells the others Hank did it.  Naturally, the fascists proceed to hunt down the remaining members of the survival school.  There is some pretty great stunt work and action sequences leading to some sweet explosions.

The whole set-up is pretty straight-forward and, at first glance, seems very outside of Coscarelli's other work.  His films are generally a mix of horror, sci-fi and fantasy.  Here, those elements are missing.  However, themes of friendship, adventure, crazy action and explosions fit him perfectly.  I look at scenes like the final act of Beastmaster, when Dar totally boots that dude into the fire and he explodes as a basis for Coscarelli's sensibilities.  That same humor is also on display here when Gray leads Raider toward that gas tank he nearly blew up and then blows it up.

The Trivia:

  • Filmed in the Charlton Flats in the Angeles National Forest

Set Yourself Up:

  • Gather a group of two to three friends who can enjoy a good action romp
  • Buy a bunch of dried fruit, beef Jerky, sunflower seeds and powdered kool-aid to put in your canteen
  • I would also recommend brewing some cowboy coffee and moonshine.

The Goods:

  • Anchor Bay put out a solid DVD release in 2007.  Very little in the way of special features (a short behind the scenes and trailers for Phantasm, Phantasm III, Kenny & Company, a crazy looking John Hurt movie called The Garden and Near Dark), but it might be cheaper than the VHS.

All in all, a necessary component to your Coscarelli collection.

- J. Moret

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