Straight to the Point: John Eyres’ Project Shadowchaser II (1994) & III (1995)

Matty sings the praises of the direct-to-video auteur’s no-nonsense sequels. 

Generally speaking, the directorial output of John Eyres is defined by genre-hopping and a birra-this, birra-that ‘deli platter’ style. When it works we’re gifted such primo video-era brilliance as Project Shadowchaser (1992), The Conspiracy of Fear (1995), From Beyond the Grave (1996), Octopus (2000), and Ripper (2001). When it doesn’t we’re left with passable but undisciplined offerings like Slow Burn (1989) and Monolith (1993): movies that are more compendiums of scenes and half-sketched ideas rather than cohesive wholes. With that in mind, it’s interesting that two of Eyres’ most potent pieces are also the Mancunian maverick’s most streamlined efforts: his ruthlessly efficient Shadowchaser sequels, Project Shadowchaser: Night Siege and Project Shadowchaser III

Initially teased in the trades as ‘Shadowchaser: The Resurrection’ at the end of 1992, approximately six months after the original flick’s highly successful US VHS release, it took PROJECT SHADOWCHASER: NIGHT SIEGE (1994) longer than intended to hit the market for a couple of reasons. The first was due to Eyres and longtime collaborator Geoff Griffiths’ company, EGM, parting ways with the co-producers of Shadowchaser numero uno, Lloyd Simandl and John A. Curtis’ Vancouver-based North American Pictures — a separation that, if a few unverifiable behind-the-scenes murmurs are to be believed, led to Curtis’ own departure from North American in 1993 [1]. The second was, in the interim, British expats Eyres and Griffiths had become preoccupied with setting up shop in Century City during the making of their ‘Hollywood’ debut, the aforementioned Monolith

Looking back, Eyres and Griffiths had a lot riding on Monolith. Pimping it in both genre and mainstream press, from Starlog to The Guardian, this $8million, LA-lensed blockbuster (well, compared to EGM’s previous low-budget standards anyway) starred Bill Paxton, Louis Gossett Jr., and John Hurt and was unofficially designed to catch the attention of the studios; a sort of ‘little film that could’ which Eyres and Griffiths hoped would land in cinemas and ingratiate them with the Hollywood hoi-polloi. Alas, despite the numerous studio reps present at Monolith’s premiere — a sales screening at Cannes on Friday 14th May 1993 — interest from the majors was minimal. Sure, it was eventually picked up for US distribution by Universal (via Shapiro-Glickenhaus), but, like the rest of EGM’s catalogue pre and post, Monolith was ultimately fated to play on home video and home video alone, arriving on either side of the Atlantic in early to mid ‘94.

While the specifics of Monolith not getting a theatrical run rest upon Universal’s brass (it had enough technical moxie and a modicum of marquee appeal), it’s easy to theorise why when you consider the film from a critical perspective. As stated, narratively Eyres’ cops vs. alien caper is — whisper it — jumbled and kinda clunky. It’s all over the bloody place! And if the suits felt the same, nudging Monolith to tape, a forum where these flaws don’t hinder a film’s chance to make money as much, was the safest bet. Still, it must’ve been an incredibly frustrating experience for Eyres and Griffiths. You certainly get that impression watching Project Shadowchaser: Night Siege. Because if the first Shadowchaser was Eyres overcoming imposter syndrome and accepting his legitimacy as a filmmaker, Night Siege is his snarky, middle-fingered salute to those who label him as ‘just’ a B-movie action guy.  

Featuring a bevy of bullet-sprayed set pieces and more ultra-fiery explosions than you can shake a Wine Lodge Video Club membership card at, in terms of sheer spectacle, Night Siege is the absolute peak of the four-strong Shadowchaser series [2]. But there’s a mean, nasty, and slyly self-referential streak to Eyres’ bollock-knotting thrill-ride that suggests an element of satire. Mounted by EGM as a co-production with the mighty Nu Image — a company that, by and large, allowed directors to do whatever they wanted as long as they delivered the action movie meat n’ potatoes — and shot in South Africa, Night Siege nixes any semblance of story, presenting only a high-concept framework for Eyres to pin his cornucopia of carnage to. The effect is startling. Seemingly channelling every ounce of rage at coming so close to infiltrating the cliquey studio system, Eyres ladles on the slo-mo, squibs, and testosterone-fuelled destruction with wanton abandon, to the point of absurdity. Set at Christmastime, even a chap dressed as Santa gets pumped full of holes — and in the rare, breath-catching pauses between Night Siege’s wall-to-wall gunfire and bomb blasts, you can almost hear Eyres screaming “keep me in the DTV arena, will you?!” as he readies another round of operatic chaos. “You want the finest, no-frills, straight-to-VHS action extravaganza imaginable? You got it, pal!” 

Of course, if you were to split hairs, Eyres eschewing his usual cross-genre/tangled plot template in favour of a simplified ‘Die Hard (1988) in a missile silo’ scenario does yield a pair of problems. The immediate one is the inescapable sense of repetition. Eyres and scripter Nick Davis (who also supervised Night Siege’s special FX and directed its second unit) recycle chunks of the first Shadowchaser beat for beat. Give or take nary a handful of touches, Night Siege is a facsimile, right down to the film’s antagonist, The Android (a returning Frank Zagarino — by now a Nu Image contract star), once again being denied a quality robo-schlock payoff. 

And therein lies Night Siege’s biggest missed op: here, Zagarino’s metallic status is totally inconsequential. Indeed, if it weren’t for a bit of throwaway dialogue and some data-laden POV fluff, you wouldn’t even know The Zag was supposed to be a cyborg: you’d think he was just some random, flat-topped muscleman trying to commandeer a nuclear base with his gaggle of rent-a-terrorists.  

Still, they’re minor gripes in the grand scheme of things. Night Siege is too adroitly handled and too exciting; too crisply photographed, sharply cut and scored (by a triumvirate of Eyres regulars: Alan M. Trow, Amanda I. Kirpaul, and Steve Edwards, respectively) to be quelled by fussy nitpicking. Top-billed and introduced in God-like fashion (“Merry Christmas”), The Zag is in tremendous form throughout, jettisoning Shadowchaser 1.0’s flutters of Blade Runner (1982)-indebted existentialism and instead unleashing an impressionistic performance of bug-eyed pantomime villainy that complements Eyres’ commitment to breakneck splendour perfectly [3]. Zagarino’s fellow Nu Image mainstay, Bryan Genesse [4], is good value as Night Siege’s hero, too — a former baseball wiz-cum-boozey janitor who, naturally, can kick arse when needed (Genesse also choreographed the film’s bone-breaking martial arts).

Following Griffiths’ amicable resignation from EGM, Eyres remained with Nu Image for PROJECT SHADOWCHASER III (1995). Also known as ‘Project Shadowchaser 3000’ and ‘Project Shadowchaser: Beyond the Edge of Darkness’, Eyres was evidently at peace with his DTV auteur standing and, along with Night Siege scribe Nick Davis, elected to adapt the Terminator (1984)-type flourishes of the first two Shadowchasers and move them into different but nonetheless fiscally proven video store terrain when Night Siege’s US tape distributor, New Line, came knocking for a part three [5]. ‘Fresh’ yet ‘familiar’ were the operative words. James Cameron aping was out, Ridley Scott worship was in, and Project Shadowchaser III is exactly what its elevator pitch was: Alien (1979) with a homicidal robot.

Project Shadowchaser and Night Siege’s continuity was already tenuous (read: ‘non-existent’). But, in Shadowchaser III, Eyres, Davis, and additional dialogue scribe John Cianetti disregard it completely — a fact accentuated by Project Shadowchaser supporting player/Eyres stalwart Ricco Ross popping up as an all-new character [6]. Opening with an evocative, Alien-esque credit sequence replete with a chilly, ambietic theme by Steve Edwards, Shadowchaser III is a steely, atmospheric sci-shocker that finds the crew of a Mars-orbiting communication spaceship, the Comstat 5, falling afoul of Zagarino’s creepy, shape-shifting tinman during a salvage mission. 

A rock-solid Alien imitator, Eyres imbues Shadowchaser III with a glorious air of menace and macabre. Moodily lit and framed by Mark Morris, Eyres allows the film’s simple but engrossing ‘intergalactic old dark house story’ to steadily unfold before going potty in a gripping last half hour, when The Zag reveals himself proper. Augmenting the visuals and Eyres’ assured direction is Edwards’ richly satisfying soundscape. Alternating between icy shudders and rousing pomp, Edwards emphasises the emotional peaks and troughs of the increasingly fraught and frightened Comstat 5 crew (among them: Ross, Sam Bottoms, Musetta Vander, Christopher Atkins, and quirky cult fav Aubrey Morris) with genuine elegance.     

However, tech-wise, it’s Mark Harris and Image Creators Inc. who deserve the plaudits. A veteran of Project Shadowchaser, Night Siege, and Monolith, Harris’ production design is marvellous. He fabricates an entire world in a Burbank warehouse with nothing but goodwill and, presumably, the change in his pocket, and gives the sterile-looking Comstat and the industrial nightmare of a ghost ship that Zag’s cyborg is stowed away on a striking amount of depth and texture [7]. Image Creators, meanwhile, need a medal for finally slapping a bunch of robot make-up FX on screen. They ain’t Stan Winston, but the riotously rubbery appliances that David Mosher, Mark Rios, and Fred Spencer cover Zagarino’s face with are delightful and possess a quality that, personally, I always — always — admire: that if you saw Project Shadowchaser III as a kid, you’d be convinced they were the coolest thing you’d ever seen.

[1] File under ‘Rumour & Conjecture’. But, hey: Curtis has toiled with Eyres since, on Ripper. Simandl, who’d go on to helm Ripper 2 (2004) for Curtis, hasn’t.
[2] It finished with Mark Roper’s Eyres-presented Shadowchaser: The Gates of Time (1996).
[3] As an aside, Zagarino’s gurning, eyebrow-heavy uttering of “I just love the Fourth of July!” is unforgettable — a real ‘moment’.
[4] Interestingly, Genesse and Zagarino would team up again in another Nu Image-backed droid-sploiter, the equally engaging Cyborg Cop III (1995), directed by Project Shadowchaser: Night Siege’s second unit DP, the late, great Yossi Wein.
[5] Most accurate VHS release dates available (as of this writing): Project Shadowchaser: Night Siege: US – November 1994, New Line; UK – September 1994, Medusa/Columbia Tristar // Project Shadowchaser III: US – 21st November 1995, New Line; UK –  September 1995, Medusa/Columbia Tristar. As with Monolith, both Shadowchasers premiered at their respective years’ Cannes Film Market.
[6] In addition to his two Shadowchaser spots, and distinguished turns in Eyres’ Octopus and another EGM-produced space-based thriller, the nifty Timelock (1996), Ross’ genre chops extend to a pair of further Alien-rooted sci-fi horrors at the polar ends of the sublime/stinker spectrum: he was in James Cameron’s barnstorming Alien sequel, Aliens (1986), as Private Frost, and Bob Keen’s dismal ‘Alien on an oil rig’, Proteus (1995).
[7] In short: it’s no wonder Harris was poached by Paul W.S. Anderson to serve as Event Horizon’s (1997) art director.

Special thanks to William Wilson

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