Director: Ted V. Mikels
Vinegar Syndrome

With their sixth Blu-ray release, Vinegar Syndrome also inaugurates their “Ted V. Mikels Collection” with the spectacularly cheesy THE DOLL SQUAD and the later, lesser-seen MISSION: KILLFAST.

When a space-bound rocket explodes upon launching, Senator Stockwell (John Carter, TV’s BARNABY JONES) and CIA agent Victor Connelly (Anthony Eisley, DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN) realize that an anonymous party who tried to extort the microfilm plans of anti-ballistic missiles from the senator has made good on their threats. Connelly consults the government’s supercomputer BERTHA for the best agents to track down the culprit, and “she” recommends THE DOLL SQUAD – cue title sequence – lead by Sabrina Kincaid (Francine York, WILD ONE ON WHEELS). Two of the agents she attempts to recruit – Carol (Carol Terry, BOG) and Cherisse (Bret Zeller, SINTHIA: THE DEVIL’S DOLL) – are brutally murdered and Sabrina barely survives a run-in with a trio of henchmen (one of whom she disfigures with a flame-throwing cigarette lighter). When an autopsy of two of the men reveals silver discs planted in the base of their necks, Sabrina and Connelly realize that they have a leak within the organization since the operation in which the silver discs were used was never disclosed in a report (only verbally briefed among the agents). This revelation leads Sabrina to realize that the voice is that of supposedly dead agent Eamon O’Reilly (Michael Ansara, IT’S ALIVE), and that the senator’s secretary Nancy (Lillian Garrett) is a mole (who reveals the location of Eamon’s lair on the island of San Lorenzo before offing herself with a cyanide capsule).

When questioned about potential team members, BERTHA’s results “pick up something in Eamon’s personality that experienced women should do the job”, possibly because his psychological profile reveals “occasional impotence” stemming from an Oedipal complex (really). Thus, Sabrina recruits a team of undercover agents – stripper Lavelle (Tura Satana, ASTRO ZOMBIES), psychiatrist Liz (Judy McConnell, TV’s SANTA BARBARA), librarian Sharon (Leigh Christian, BEYOND ATLANTIS), and Olympic swimmer Cat (Sherri Vernon, one of Mikels’ TEN VIOLENT WOMEN, who also served as make-up artist and assistant editor) – to infiltrate Eamon’s operation and find out why he wants the missile plans. Eamon and his henchman Joseph (William Bagdad, HEAD) attempt to replace the squad’s island contact Kim (Jean London) with Eamon’s jealous lover Maria (Lisa Todd, THE DEVIL’S RAIN), but The Doll Squad are onto them and rescue Kim. Having learned the location of Eamon’s fortress from a hypnotized Maria, Sabrina hires out a boat to get her and some of the squad to the other side of the island – while Cat and Kim take a bouncy jeep trek along the mountain roads – not realizing that their junky guide Rafael (Rafael Campos, SLUMBER PARTY 57) is leading them right into Eamon’s clutches.

Although the scope of Mikel’s filming is quite ambitious for a low-budget exploitation film, the plotting isn’t so much ambitious as cluttered – the same can be said of MISSION: KILLFAST below (although possibly for different reasons) – with more characters than one can easily keep track of – thankfully The Doll Squad members can be so easily deceived, captured, and killed otherwise there would be more of them to account for – including a pair of twins (Scandinavians Bertil and Gustaf Unger as mad scientists), and a none-too-compelling explanation by Ansara’s villain. Although there are quite a few satisfyingly bloody squib gunshot effects – especially for a PG-rated film – the film’s many explosions of objects, buildings, and people (by way of bazookas, explosive charges, and nitroglycerine vodka cocktails – as well as Sabrina’s cigarette lighter flamethrower were accomplished with unintentionally hilarious – i.e. not sixties BATMAN-style comic book opticals – by Van Der Veer Photo Effects (who started out with TV shows like THE OUTER LIMITS and STAR TREK as well as films like DREAM NO EVIL, BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE DEVILS, and NIGHT OF THE WITCHES in the early seventies before moving onto bigger productions like THE SWARM, SUPERMAN, and FLASH GORDON later on).

Mikels – who also distributed the film through his company Geneni Film – apparently decided to trim the film down a little after the negative was cut and fully conformed since several of the scene transition opticals and dissolves cut off abruptly (including one that starts to dissolve into a group shot before cutting directly to a close-up of one of the actors). The nightclub act that follows Lavelle’s striptease: The Penny Brothers Show are prominently credited, but the camera cuts away to Lavelle’s dressing room just as they are about to start performing. Other than these, I’m not sure if any expository scenes were cut out or never existed since parts of the story sometimes require leaps of logic beyond usual spy film genre “surprise I knew it was a trap and came prepared” plotting. That THE DOLL SQUAD is still eminently watchable is due not so much to “bad movie-isms” as much as Mikels obvious desire to entertain the viewer, as well as the cast’s sober approach to the material (particularly York, Ansara, and Satana). Solomon King provides the James Bond-ian theme song “Song for Sabrina” with music by Mikels regular Nicholas Carras (THE GIRL IN GOLD BOOTS).

THE DOLL SQUAD was first released on tape in the early eighties from World Video Pictures whose line included much of Mikels’ oeuvre as well as Andy Milligan’s THE BODY BENEATH, Nick Phillips' CRIMINALLY INSANE and SATAN’S BLACK WEDDING. The first DVD release came from Image Entertainment in 2001 as one of six Mikels titles (seven if you count ASTRO ZOMBIES, but that was licensed from Worldwide and issued the year before). The anamorphic widescreen transfer featured an audio commentary by Mikels and a brief audio interview with Tura Satana. THE DOLL SQUAD and the other Mikels titles were later reissued legitimately by Alpha Video (who also reissued Image’s Sam Sherman BLOOD ISLAND films) as part of a six disc Mikels set (and then more recently separately as a burn-on-demand DVD-R).

THE DOLL SQUAD/MISSION: KILLFAST is Vinegar Syndrome’s sixth Blu-ray release, but actually their first solo Blu-ray release since the others have been combos (there is no equivalent DVD release of this title). Their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded 1.85:1 widescreen transfer does not immediately impress because of the opening stock footage. It’s grainy, muted, but clean… however, the first original shot from the film is immediately striking in its sharpness and color, looking better than anything I would have expected to see in a Mikels film. The psychedelic titles look almost brand new and much of the film looks exquisite for its age and budget. It’s not all perfect however, but the faults seem to be those of the original cinematography. Some smudgy shots are not DNR’d; they’re just plain out of focus (particularly night exteriors where cinematographer/operator Anthony Salinas (BLOOD ORGY OF THE SHE-DEVILS) – assisted by actor Curt Matson (who also plays the boat’s captain) and Jamie Anderson (who later shot Joe Dante’s PIRANHA) – either unable or unwilling to follow focus (although there are some other static shots that may either be out of focus or sourced from multi-generational sources). The aforementioned explosion and fire optical effects always looked ridiculous, but the increased resolution does some of Van Der Veer Photo Effects other opticals no favors (the television mattes for instance, which more apparently float on top of the screens). That said, it’s still a spectacular presentation that may look better than it did theatrically – even Mikels says on the commentary that there is “no print in a theater that looks like this” – or, at least, perhaps that might be said of Vinegar Syndrome’s 2K scan.

The film is accompanied by a brand new audio commentary track with Mikels moderated by Elijah Drenner. The original script was titled THE VIOLENT SEX and was about a woman who rounds up a group of other women to take revenge on a psychopath. He reworked the idea into its current form, and recalls that Aaron Spelling attended the premiere (when CHARLIE’S ANGELS came out, more than a few professional friends pointed out the similarities and a lawyer even contacted him about suing). Mikels is good-humored about Drenner’s quips about the film – which are never mean-spirited – and speaks warmly of the departed cast members like Tura Satana and Rafael Campos, as well as the ones still around who he still sees regularly (including York and Vernon). He also reveals that Ansara’s lair was a house that belonged at the time to Zsa Zsa Gabor, and that Ansara was one of the surprise guests a tribute held for him in Las Vegas a few years ago. He speaks proudly of the solarized title sequence and the kaleidoscope transitions (he admits to trimming the transitions for TV slots – the film runs just over ninety minutes – but he says the source used for the transfer here is uncut) as well as the opticals even as he notes their limitations. Biographical information on the track includes discussion of his early work as an assistant to Mandrake the Magician, his early filmmaking experiments as he refined his technique as a cinematographer and editor finishing other peoples’ films (all the while acquiring his own equipment), his love life, and his current projects.

New to the Vinegar Syndrome release is an interview with actress Francine York (7:08) who still admires Mikel’s ability to make “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” (more so than Corman given Mikels’ budgets). She discusses the recurring theme of dominant women in Mikels’ filmography and speaks briefly of Tura Satana – recalling that bazooka scene – Sherri Vernon, and Michael Ansara (whose then-wife Barbara Eden visited the set). Also included is an interview with Mikels (8:05) which is actually composed of outtakes from interviews conducted between 2006 and 2008 for the documentary AMERICAN GRINDHOUSE. One of the bits includes Mikels discussing his early interest in magic which lead him to create his own act while still in high school. He wanted to film the act, and soon realized that you could not simply set up a camera in one place and film (which lead to his interest in editing and lighting). After he graduated high school, he ended up working as an assistant to Mandrake the Magician, and the tips he picked up about misdirection he found would soon apply to the magic of filmmaking. He speaks briefly about his early filmmaking experiments, and about developing THE CORPSE GRINDERS. We also get a peek into his office, including a look at the Moviola he edited all of his 35mm features with and the newer though piecemeal digital editing set-up on which he is seen editing the 2009-released feature DEMON HAUNT (with SPIDER BABY’s Beverly Washburn). The disc also includes trailer for THE DOLL SQUAD (3:22).

When a set of nuclear detonators go missing, the CIA suspects that casino owner Anselmo D’Appolito (Harry Pugh, THE BIG TURNAROUND) may have returned to his former illegal gunrunning operation. Agent Harry Brennan (Ronald Gregg) has a difficult time convincing Tiger Yang (DRAGON ON FIRE) to work the case since he has moved on to civilian life as a martial arts instructor (although his black belts seem mission-ready). Intelligence has turned up nothing on D’Appolito who is using his photographer son Shannon’s (Kyle Edward Cranston, 10 TO MIDNIGHT) skin magazine SCAM as a front for their operations. Model Chantelle (Wendy O. Altamura aka “Shanti” – director Ted V. Mikels’ main squeeze according to his THE DOLL SQUAD commentary – who also served as production manager on the later shoot and assistant editor) is working at the magazine as a mole, and her intel about a forthcoming shipment is just the latest in a series of information leaks of D’Appolito’s operations.

Tiger and his black belts quash the arms transfer but the detonators are nowhere to be found. It turns out that the detonators are in safe keeping with a mountain militia group – lead by a terrorist played by Iranian star Behrouz Vossoughi (TIMEWALKER) – while D’Appolito’s at-odds associates Nick Julius (Myron Natwick, PROJECT VAMPIRE) and Fike (Chuck Alford, THE HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER MEETS THE SKID ROW SLASHER) try to strike a deal for them with various parties including Murak (“Rat Pack” comedian Sonny King). The leaks continue – even after Chantelle has been taken out with a bullet during a photo shoot – leading D’Appolito to suspect his own son who is being awfully cagey about where he got the money to start his magazine business. Nick hires psychopathic assassin “Cocoa” Charlie (Rex Ravelle) spy on Shannon’s operations and eliminate the source of the leaks just as Catt Valone (Sharon Hughes, CHAINED HEAT) – daughter of an undercover agent murdered by the militia – has agreed to go undercover at the magazine as a model.

IMDb lists the release date for MISSION: KILLFAST as 1991 while Vinegar Syndrome’s back cover(s) cryptically list “1980s”, and Mikels clarifies this in a newer video interview (8:51) in which he discusses starting the film in 1981 in Reno on the promise of a large investment while running up a hotel tab for himself and his cast and crew. When the promised funds did not arrive, he edited together what he had only for someone to have stolen two of the final reels. Universal was apparently interested in the film if Mikels would add a sex scene between the leads, but he refused to do so (Yang and a nude Hughes do appear in the same bedroom – although not in the same shot – and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD’s Jewel Shepard is also on hand as “Miss August” and bares all for a rather undignified death scene). In 1989, he brought back three of the actors and shot new footage (clips illustrate cutting back and forth between the two shoots). It's certainly the lesser production, but one has to admire Mikels' determination to complete a film which stalled nine years before (and it's not bad as a B-feature for the more entertaining THE DOLL SQUAD or as a bonus feature on the disc).

The cross-cutting between new and old footage itself may be as seamless as Mikels states, but the story itself is so choppy and cluttered that one wonders if this is an effect of the reshoots or if Mikels’ original scenario was always this busy considering. Yang is no Jackie Chan in terms of charisma, and Mikels’ coverage fails to make the martial arts – choreographed by Yang – or the stuntwork (choreographed by actor Perry Genovese, who also plays D’Appolito’s parachute pantsed, mesh-shirted, be-mulleted enforcer Mario) exciting (and yet the cinematography and editing are otherwise proficient). What is funny is “Cocoa” Charlie’s disguise when he assumes the identity of a dead detective to get close to Shannon and Catt (taping false eyebrows and a mustache shaped from a toupee), and it’s even more hilarious that no one notices. The titular MISSION: KILLFAST is the last minute raid on the militia camp, but it’s got plenty of on-set explosions, squibs, and a throat-slitting.

MISSION: KILLFAST was apparently self-distributed by Mikels on VHS under the TVM Global label in 1991 (distribution was held back two years while Mikels was trying to get out of a deal with a New York distributor who did not even have the funds to strike prints). It was not one of the titles licensed by Image, but it did pop up under-the-radar on DVD in 2003 courtesy of Media Blasters’ “Guilty Pleasures” line (which also released Mikels’ 1963 film STRIKE ME DEADLY) with a Mikels/Shanti commentary track and interview. I have not seen this release (or Alpha Video’s 2008 release, but Vinegar Syndrome’s new 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded 1.85:1 transfer most likely comes from the same source, although it also likely is the better-looking version by virtue of its master being newly-scanned in 2K. Bright, well-exposed daylight exteriors and lit interiors are almost free of grain while night scenes and shadows – more so in the 1981 footage – are swimming in it. Splices are occasionally bumpy, but I’m guessing that has more to do with the post-production (meaning they were probably bumpy on tape as well) than the care of the element. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is slightly hissy, but the dialogue is clean (enough to reveal that the optional SDH subtitles are sometimes way off the mark in their transcription) while the synth music is free of distortion. The aforementioned Mikels interview is the only associated extra, but the reverse side of the cover features MISSION: KILLFAST artwork. (Eric Cotenas)