Sunday, 24 March 2013

Dead Man's Hand

Director: Charles Band
Writer: ‘August White’
Producer: Charles Band
Cast: Sid Haig, Michael Berryman, Scott Whyte
Country: USA
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Film 2000)

My momma always said to me, Forrest she said, life is like a boxed set of Charles Band DVDs. You never what you’re gonna get.

Actually, she never said that and this DVD wasn’t in a boxed set ... but I believe the point is still valid. A Charles Band movie is a lucky dip. You might get Dollman, you might get Bad Channels. You might get Trancers, you might get, well, Trancers 6. Every time you put an unwatched disc into that machine (or an unwatched tape, in old money) you’re rolling the dice, you’re spinning the wheel, you’re being dealt a fresh hand.

Which brings us to Dead Man’s Hand, subtitled (on the sleeve and on-screen) Casino of the Damned. This is a haunted casino film. It may in fact be the haunted casino film. Charlie says, in the 15-minute Making Of, that he’s not aware of any other movie about a haunted casino and frankly neither am I. Just to emphasise the point, the film was re-released as The Haunted Casino.

(Reminds me of when I worked in magazine publishing and the company launched a rugby magazine called First XV. Great title: alliterative, short, memorable, made for a great logo. The mag sold poorly and market research indicated that many potential readers simply weren’t aware of it. If they had seen it, they simply hadn’t realised it was a rugby mag. So the title was changed to... Rugby.)

Aside from the casino schtick however, this is a very straightforward movie. Young man inherits property from distant relative, visits it with his friends, they stay the night - the ghosts kill them off one by one. That’s pretty much it. You can stop reading now if you want, or at least jump to the bit where I start listing the interesting credits of the production designer and the DP.

Scott Whyte (Reeker, Voodoo Moon, Dark House and the unbelievably inept Haunted Prison) stars as Matt Dragna - no, I can’t work out the significance of his bizarre surname either - who has inherited the Casino Mysteria, a semi-derelict gambling house in the middle of nowhere. He’s taking his girlfriend and two other couples to check the place out and he has ambitious ideas of restoring and reopening it - except he doesn’t have any money.

However, before we meet Matt and his chums, we have a very, very long prologue of the estate’s executor (Diane Mizota, a former dancer who played Fook Mi, one of the Japanese twins in Austin Powers: Goldmember) and a buildings inspector (Bob Rumnock: episodes of Scrubs, ER and CSI: Miami) creeping around the place. This goes on for the best part of six minutes, devoid of dialogue except for a brief, clumsy “As I already told you...” infodump right at the start. They do both get messily killed by something unseen, but it takes a while to get there and, by the time the opening titles have concluded, we’re more than ten minutes into the picture.

To be honest, this looks like typical Band padding, but it’s not necessary because even without this prologue the film would still run more than 70 minutes. The sleeve actually claims 86 minutes and, while that’s a six-minute exaggeration (why bother?) at least we’re not spared one of those glacial, ten-minute end credit crawls.

Also, it must be noted that the two dead bodies do reappear in the film much later - in a clever and interesting way - so this isn’t just one of those gratuitous splash-panel openings. Band’s regular latter-day pseudonymous scripter 'August White' (ie. Critters writer Domonic Muir) is too skilled for that.

So eventually we are introduced to Matt and his sexy, kind-hearted, optimistic girlfriend JJ (Robin Sydney: Big Bad Wolf, Evil Bong, The Gingerdead Man). They’re staying overnight in some crappy motel room along with slightly-out-of-it Jimbo (Wes Armstrong, who starred in a short directed by Demi Moore) and deeply cute nerdette Emily (Lily Rains: Ghost Image) who are not a couple. In fact a later scene reveals that Emily is a lesbian but in an amazingly original twist (a) she doesn’t make out with anyone and (b) she isn’t sex-mad. In fact, she’s just a lezza who hasn’t come out yet. It’s actually one of the most realistic portrayals of homosexuality you’ll ever see in a horror film, not least because it is completely irrelevant and therefore completely ignored.

In the next room are Skeeter (Kavan Reece, who was in an episode of Buffy and the Marc Hershon-scripted Monster Makers), a spiky-haired wannabe rock star with erectile dysfunction - there’s a character description I don’t type very often - and his glamourpuss groupie girlfriend Paige (Kristyn Green: Evil Bong, Carver, Doll Graveyard). Skeeter doesn’t want anyone to know about his problem downstairs so Paige is wearily yelling out fake orgasms while he bangs on the wall - and it’s this apparent OTT shagging that has persuaded the gang to spring for a second room for the couple, despite their otherwise parlous financial situation (mentioned a couple of times but not really relevant - you don’t have to be particularly poor to not be able to afford to restore a derelict casino).

The actual exterior shots of the casino are well-done and the only thing that really betrays them as an effect is that we never see any people in the same shot as the building.

Now there’s some sort of family legend attached to the place, apparently. Matt’s uncle killed five people: two gangsters who wanted to get a piece of the action and three of his staff who were actually working for the gangsters. Although it is not explicitly stated, presumably Matt’s uncle was subsequently arrested and imprisoned and that’s when the place closed and fell into disrepair.

An extremely convenient old newspaper from 40 years ago has a front-page story about the ‘casino massacre’ with photos of Sid Haig and Michael Berryman, tipping us off that they’ll be turning up as ghosts at some point. And indeed they do. (One of these roles was originally earmarked for Bill Moseley but I'm not sure which.) Haig comes to this film on the back of a 21st century career revival that kicked off with House of 1,000 Corpses and has subsequently taken in The Devil’s Rejects, Night of the Living Dead 3D, House of the Dead 2, Kill Bill Vol.2 and the remake of Halloween. Way-back-when he was in Blood Bath and Spider Baby and episodes of classic Star Trek and Batman and Mission: Impossible and loads more. He gets his name above the credits in the opening titles but this contractual kudos is slightly offset by the misspelling of his name as ‘Sig Haig’ in the cast-list at the end...

Scary-faced Berryman is iconic from The Hills Have Eyes and has also turned up in Voyage of the Rock Aliens, Weird Science, Star Trek IV and V (different roles), Saturday the 14th Strikes Back, Beastmaster 2, Wizards of the Demon Sword, Double Dragon, Haunting Fear, Teenage Exorcist, Spy Hard, The Devil’s Rejects (alongside Haig), Penny Dreadful, Satan Hates You and even as a gag shot in the second live-action, straight-to-DVD Scooby Doo movie, Curse of the Lake Monster. What a fine collection of top-quality tat!

Anyway, there are a few bits of random spookiness at first: the sound of someone crying in the ‘restroom’, some bloodied teeth which emerge into the cash-tray of a one-armed bandit (but then disappear) and, oh yes, all the toilets overflow with blood, which Matt puts down to ‘rusty water’. Shyeah right. Emily demonstrates to Jimbo that her nerdy grasp of statistics makes her a skilled blackjack player; Paige strips to her sparkly undies so that Skeeter can take a series of (very tame) raunchy photos ‘for her website’; and Matt agonises to JJ about how he’s going to be able to afford all this.

Then they all bed down for the night.

Emily awakens and discovers a blackjack dealer (Rico Simonini: 18 Fingers of Death, Max Payne) at one of the tables, assumes it’s all a dream and plays a few hands. Paige and Skeeter argue and split up, then he wanders off and encounters a ‘slots girl’ - basically a pretty lass whose job is to encourage punters to throw money away - who comes on to him but Paige witnesses this and accuses the other girl of being a ‘skank’. (For some reason the slots girl is given a character name, Melissa, whereas the blackjack dealer is just ‘Blackjack dealer’. She’s played by Jessica Morris who was in Scream Bloody Murder, Decadent Evil II and Dangerous Worry Dolls.)

Meanwhile, Matt and JJ are awakened by - and threatened by - Messrs Haig and Berryman. Haig plays Roy ‘The Word’ Donahue, whose distinctive characterisation is that his word is as good as his bond - hence his nickname. I’m not sure that make sense entirely. A completely honest gangster? How is that going to work? The essence of crime is dishonesty. All the police would have to do is arrest him for something minor, release him on bail and Bob’s your uncle, he can’t do anything without breaking his word. If he gets bound over to keep the peace, that’s it - he either keeps the peace or forfeits his nickname.

Anyway, at least he has a character. And some dialogue. In one of the most shameless pieces of wasteful stunt-casting known to man, Michael Berryman as Donahue’s henchman ‘Gil Wachetta’ has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do except to stand next to Sid Haig and say a handful of lines in the manner of “That’s right, boss.” A well-trained macaw could have taken the role.

It seems that Donahue wants his revenge on the Dragna family for the five deaths, including his own, which constituted the ‘Casino massacre’. He’s also keen to get his ghostly hands on a stash of silver which Matt’s uncle secreted somewhere within the building.

All this takes place overnight and in the morning the gang compare stories which might individually have been taken to be dreams but considered together suggest supernatural shenanigans. This is quite a nice sequence because Jimbo slept soundly and experienced nothing and he now gets to come out with some cynically level-headed objections to the insane-sounding theories of ghostly goings-on.

Anyway, it all kicks off shortly afterwards as the ghosts return and start enacting their terrible revenge, along with a fifth apparition, a roulette croupier. All three of the ‘staff’ ghosts develop freaky heads when they turn deadly which are rendered using good, old-fashioned physical effects rather than this modern CGI rubbish - although truth be told only the slots girl’s head is both effective and scary. She goes all blackened, screaming, smoky skull and her eyes rotate like the barrels in a slot machine. The blackjack dealer’s alternative head is thin and freaky-looking and apparently supposed to resemble a Jack card. The croupier’s head turns big and round, sort of wheel-like I suppose.

Our heroes and heroines find themselves individually trapped and forced to gamble against unfair odds until Matt takes on Donahue but makes him promise beforehand that the cards aren’t rigged. See what I mean about the inherent problems of trying to manage a life of crime (or even a death of crime) while maintaining scrupulous honesty? It just doesn’t work. Along the way, Matt makes a lucky guess about where the silver horde was stashed.

Donahue is defeated because he has only managed to kill four people so presumably the two in the prologue don’t count but then why did he kill them? It’s a slightly anticlimactic ending to what has otherwise been a fun and even occasionally exciting B-movie horror diversion - and of course Matt and JJ are left with explaining to the cops why they’ve got six dead bodies in their newly acquired casino.

Along with a likeable cast, occasional moments of genuinely imaginative dialogue and some enjoyably icky murders, Dead Man’s Hand benefits from great production design and we completely buy that we’re inside an old casino. Keeping the lights off/low most of the time helps enormously but there’s a logic there because a casino would not have any windows or skylights. There are a few lights so evidently power is still on but not being fully used for some reason. Also, the toilets are out of action quite early on so where precisely are people going when they feel a call of nature. They’re not going outside because all the doors and windows are bricked up, apparently, according to a throwaway scene that smacks of trying to provide an explanation for why they can’t escape but hoping nobody asks the question anyway.

Anyway the production design is very good but the credited production designer, Phillip Mac, seems to have no other credits. Perhaps it’s Philip Mac with one L, who is a production designer on commercials but doesn’t list any feature credits on his site. Charlie Band explains in the Making Of that they bought a single vintage slot machine and then managed to use it as a template to make several dozen reasonable facsimiles.

Visual effects were handled by John Lechago, director of Blood Gnome, Magus and Bio-Slime aka Contagion who, on the basis of this work for Band, was given the chance to direct Killjoy 3, not one of the most eagerly-awaited sequels of all time but hey, it’s a gig. His FX credits include Danny Draven’s Ghost Month, Dan Doley’s Shadow, Caleb Emerson’s Frankie in Blunderland and Mimic 2 as well as his own movies. The spooky heads were provided by Brannon Wright who gets a ‘Creatures designed and created by’ credit in the opening titles and ‘SFX Prop Master’ at the end. Wright has a bunch of cool credits at various levels of props-ness and effectsitude including Critters 2, Star Trek VI, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, Candyman, Universal Soldier, Dolly Dearest, Van Helsing and the first Power Rangers feature, plus that Pepsi ad where Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire.

There’s a curious situation with the editing credit, as there isn’t one. Just an ‘Additional editing’ credit for Casey Ethelson, who had a similar mention on Decadent Evil but is otherwise anonymous. The Inaccurate Movie Database lists Danny Draven (who, while not ashamed of his Full Moon credits, likes to play them down in order to avoid being typecast on this sort of movie) and Elijah Dylan Costa, additional editor on Crash and Burn, Dark House and Pirates: The True Story of Blackbeard.

Cinematographer Terrance Ryker is a regular on recent Band flicks including Evil Bong 2, Demonic Toys 2, Decadent Evil 2 and Skull Heads. Gloriously named costume designer E Dee Biddlecombe also worked on Dr Chopper, Dinocroc, Doll Graveyard, The Gingerdead Man, Dangerous Worry Dolls, Evil Bong 2, El Chupacabra, The Bogus Witch Project and the Black Scorpion TV series. Janeen York (Doll Graveyard, Petrified, Evil Bong) was responsible for key make-up and was also on-set medic. Jethro Rothe-Kushel directed the Making Of and is credited as a co-producer on the IMDB but not on-screen,

A perfectly respectable entry in the 21st century Full Moon catalogue (and better than some) Dead Man’s Hand lacks the franchisable puppet-characters that distinguish Charlie Band productions which may be why it remains relatively unknown and completely unsequelised. But for what it is, it’s a decent little B-movie, blessed with better than average script and cast. and at least there is no impression of watching a TV episode that has been dragged out with a ten-minute end-crawl.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 27th December 2010

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