Director: Charles Bail
Code Red DVD

A scientist cowboy tries to harness the power of Halley’s Comet in an attempt to prove that sound waves can be converted into energy, but is constantly thwarted by an evil conglomerate that wants to use his backyard as a dumping ground for nuclear waste. Sounds like a pitch for a BUCKAROO BANZAI sequel but it’s actually a pretty solid, yet strangely wholesome, sci-fi tinged action flick that's worth seeking out.

Dr. David Lowell (Stephen Collins, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE) may have uncovered the answer to the ongoing energy crisis. In theory, Dr. Lowell believes that sound waves can be converted into a clean, renewable source of energy and for the last two years has exhausted his bank account in order to conduct an experiment that could confirm just such a hypothesis. In nine days, Halley’s Comet will pass by Earth on its 75 year tour of our galaxy. Hoping to harness the vibrations set off by the comets passing, Dr. Lowell has rented a stretch of land from the Pilgrim Corporation known as Choke Canyon, which happens to sit directly under the comet's scheduled path. Unfortunately John Pilgrim (Nicholas Pryor, RISKY BUSNIESS, DAMIEN: OMEN II), president of the Pilgrim Corporation, is looking to renege on their lease. Stuck with a large quantity of toxic waste and nowhere to properly store it, Mr. Pilgrim sees Choke Canyon as the ideal solution to his problem. Simply dump the poisonous sludge in the canyon and walk away, wiping his hands clean of the whole ordeal. His attempts to buy his way out of Dr. Lowell’s lease however prove moot, as David has no intentions of going anywhere anytime soon. Deadlocked, Mr. Pilgrim's right hand man (Lance Henriksen, PUMPKINHEAD) has the doctor's research station blown up, sending a clear message that “no” is not an answer they are willing to accept. They however have greatly underestimated, and pissed off Dr. Lowell takes to the nearby mountains to wage a guerilla campaign to reclaim his property in time for Halley’s passing.

The premise is rather ridiculous, I’ll give you that, but the film plays well with its conventions and it doesn’t take long before you find yourself routing for the maverick scientist whose only friends are a horse and a baby goat. He’s cool headed, physically fit and not afraid to abduct and imprison a defenseless woman - Pilgrims daughter, played by Janet Julian (KING OF NEW YORK) - in order to get what he wants. Stephen Collins is probably best known for his role as the patriarch on the family television series "7th Heaven”, which for many (myself included) will make it hard to take the actor seriously in his role as a rugged, physicist cowboy. It’s much easier to believe Nicholas Pryor as an asshole CEO or Bo Svenson (THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS) as a commando sent to force Dr. Lowell out of the canyon, but Collins pulls it off, playing a likeable hero who somehow makes kidnapping seem like a minor inconvenience.

Jumping in head first with the action, you have to give CHOKE CANYON credit for stepping up the typical clichés. It’s not enough to drive one jeep off of a cliff. After all, that’s been done a hundred times before. But two jeeps, simultaneously, like Siamese twins connected at the hip, exploding on impact; now we're talking. Yes, the dialogue is silly and the film's score quickly becomes draining as it is comprised of only two pieces which are played over and over to death, but boy does stuff blow up good. Every 20 minutes something explodes, often for no other reason than to watch something blow up. It’s like a Michael Bay film but without the pretentiousness or feeling of sadness that comes with the realization that you just wasted your time and money on a Michael Bay film. The piece de resistance however has to be the aerial cat and mouse chase between Stephen Collins and Bo Svenson. In an attempt to extricate the giant metallic ball of toxic waste resting in his backyard, Stephen and Janet hijack a helicopter and make haste into the skies of Utah, towing the large toxic sac behind them. Determined to bring the doctor down, Bo and one of his cronies follow suit in an airplane, resulting in a risky dog fight through the belly of the canyon. After forcing his lackey to ride on the wings, the plane fails to… well, who knows what either of them were thinking on that one, Bo catches up to Stephen just as his helicopter is overheating. His whirlybird about to drop, Stephen is forced to land the helicopter and the toxic orb on the back of a moving transport truck. Not to be outdone, Bo lands his plane on the roof of a charter bus traveling behind the truck (!), resulting in the most ridiculous, yet impressive chase sequence I’ve seen in some time.

Clearly the influence of former stuntman turned director Charles Bail is evident throughout CHOKE CANYON. After coordinating the stunts on a number of biker pictures (WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS, THE CYCLE SAVAGES, HELLS ANGELS ON WHEELS), Bail turned his eye toward acting and directing, helming a number of exploitation pictures including BLACK SAMSON, CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD and THE GUMBALL RALLY, all of which were distributed theatrically by Warner Brothers. Bail keeps the action fast and the pace brisk in CANYON, allowing for numerous explosions and theatrics, some comical, others outrageous but all entertaining. After CANYON Bail took to television, directed several episodes of “Dragnet”, “Adam 12” and “Baywatch Nights”.

Released on VHS thought Media Home Entertainment in 1987, Code Red is finally releasing CHOKE CANYON to DVD after several months of delay credited to poor pre-book sales. With an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, the print features the alternate U.K. title ON DANGEROUS GROUND suggesting that the materials used were located across the pond. Coloring is pleasant, allowing Dante Spinotti’s desert cinematography its proper highlight but the print does suffer from a healthy covering of black and white spotting. Such spastic blemishes tend to fade about 15 minutes in, but are noticeable given the predominantly red and brown landscapes. Audio is listed on the disc's back cover as being Mono but some of those explosions sure sounded like Stereo. Either way the English speaking track bares fare, though there were several spots of low spoken dialogue that had me rewinding to catch what was being said.

Special features include a commentary track with co-producer Peter Shepherd, moderated by Lee Christian. Shepherd, who passed away earlier this year, reflects on both the picture and his colleagues, touching on CANYON's co-producer and co-writer Ovidio Assonitis, the man behind TENTACLES, MADHOUSE (1981) and BEHIND THE DOOR (the latter two currently available on DVD through Code Red) and providing several “what if” scenarios, such as the prospect of Janet Julian’s character being portrayed by either Courtney Cox or Helen Hunt, both of whom auditioned for the role. Clocking in at just under ten minutes, Bo Svenson sits down for a interview that he clearly does not take seriously. I’m not sure if he was in a weird mood or just didn’t want to be there, but it’s an interesting interview to say the least. The film's original trailer, as well as trailers for POWER PLAY, THE INTERNECINE PROJECT and STUNT ROCK round out this release's extras.
(Jason McElreath)