Direct-to-video movies get very little respect, and with good reason: Most of them rot. But who needs respect when you can have money? The little cheapies dotting the shelves of videmporia everywhere are hugely successful, mainly just because they’re there — when the current hits are all out, renters love to search through the schlock. These are the exploitation films of the electronic age, covering the action-adventure, horror, and erotic-thriller genres, and sometimes fusing all three.
Take the queasily nihilistic Psycho Cop 2, a good (well, not good good) example of the direct-to-vid hybrid. Employing a scenario that writer Dan Povenmire probably concocted with a remote in one hand and a tube of Pringle’s in his lap, it combines big-breasted bimbos (Penthouse Pet Julie Strain is third-billed though she’s got about three lines of dialogue), various forms of ”action” (shootings, stabbings, etc.), and a ”supernatural” angle (Satan worship). The sophomorically jokey tone suggests that the creators consider themselves above this sort of thing, and the stench of condescension makes Psycho Cop 2 genuinely offensive, as opposed to merely stupid and inept.
Psycho Cop 2 is, of course, a sequel to Psycho Cop, itself something of a rip-off of Maniac Cop. Sequels are the lifeblood of the direct-to-video market, where any character or concept that creates some rental business stands to be milked till it’s dry — or dead, as the case may be. Angel 4: Undercover bears practically no relation to the 1984 original, and in fact, the title character has never been played by the same actress twice. With this one there’s even false promotion: The box says ”executive by day,” but in fact the title character is a police photographer, not my idea of a Fortune 500 candidate. Nor does she hook by night. She impersonates a groupie to investigate a friend’s murder. And even then she doesn’t sleep with anyone — doesn’t even disrobe. Still, Angel 4 is perverse fun, because it contains some amusingly lurid touches unique to the d-to-v category — a phoned-in turn from a former A-picture star (here a lizardlike Roddy McDowall), an over-the-top depiction of celebrity decadence (the scenes of rock star Shane Fraser worshiping his pill supply are hysterical, as is his on-again, off-again Brit accent), and the requisite TV game-show host (smarmy Studs farmer Mark DeCarlo) getting all excited over his big break into motion pictures. Schmuck.
At least the Kickboxer series tries to maintain some sort of continuity, and with good reason: The star of its first movie was Jean-Claude Van Damme, the d-to-v Tom Hanks (in terms of prominence, please). It’s a cinch, then, that the producers capitalize on their only true name, and sure enough, Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor begins with plenty of expository Van Damme footage from the first film. From then on, it’s bargain-basement martial arts all the way, with a plotline snatched from Enter the Dragon, a needlessly sadistic climax, and, of course, an opening for yet another sequel.
Scanner Cop is, in effect, Scanners 4, and as bad as it is, it at least throws its lead character a juicy conflict: His ability to read minds and make baddies shake and palpitate (as John Candy’s Big Jim McBob put it on SCTV’s ”Farm Film Report”) are helpful to his police work, but could eventually drive him mad. But the method of these movies is to take an idea only as far as it needs to go in order to set up the gruesome special effects, which are the genre’s reason for being. All too often, obviously, direct-to-video means lots of nudity instead of any attempt at real eroticism, lots of stunts and gore instead of suspense and thrills. Angel 4: C+