Maximum Security (1996) & Inferno (1997): Fred, Prime and 101 Too Part II

He tried not to go all Fred Olen Ray crazy again, he really did. But when Matty noticed that 101 Films had quietly made two more of the B-movie maestro’s Royal Oaks actioners available to stream on Prime UK, he just couldn’t help himself.

Despite construction on the high-tech slammer finishing in early 1996, the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles sat dormant until 1997 due to a dearth of operational funds. In the interim, hoping to claw back at least a small chunk of the $400million it cost to build, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department hired out the 1.2million square foot big house to enterprising film crews. While Matthew Bright’s edge-lord Little Red Riding Hood update Freeway (1996) is probably the best-known production to lens at the then state of the art jail, Albert Pyun’s balletic shooter Mean Guns (1997) is the film that makes the grandest use of it.

Fred Olen Ray’s MAXIMUM SECURITY (1996) is a close second.

Though Maximum Security isn’t as strong as Fugitive Rage (1996), Inferno (1997) (we’ll get to that), and Fugitive Mind (1999) (Maximum Security sits with Prophet (1999) in the ‘flawed but interesting’ section of Ray’s ‘90s Royal Oaks Entertainment action spread), as a technical exercise, Ray and longtime cinematographer Gary Graver unleash several stirring moments of visual invention once they get inside the Twin Towers, composing shots that embellish the place’s angular design, and imbue the film with an alluringly clinical tone in keeping with the lock-up’s chilly sterility. 

However, as amazing and value-increasing a location as the Twin Towers is, it’s maybe too big for Maximum Security’s story, which never finds an entirely happy medium between its ambitious scope and financial shortcomings. Indeed, as thoroughly enjoyable as it is — as much as the film rattles along at a fair ol’ clip, and as much as it tingles with a constant air of excitement — it’s bittersweet thinking what could have been if Ray had been given a splash more cash to play with (cf. the helmer’s subsequent, similarly structured, bigger-budgeted action romp Critical Mass (2001), which was produced by Royal Oaks successor Phoenician Entertainment). For instance, there’s an unfortunate sparsity caused by the lack of inmate extras, and scripter Sean O’Bannon is repeatedly forced to remind us why it’s so empty (only the first five felons have been moved in ahead of the jail’s grand opening. Happily, one of them is essayed by the ever-excellent Peter Spellos). 

Another minor misstep is the decision to soften all but one of what few prisoners there are. Their incarcerations are largely either circumstantial or the result of being framed/being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Compared to, say, something like Simon Wincer’s Con Air (1997), which allowed us to enjoy the personalities of the crims at the heart of its drama but never let us forget how truly dangerous they were, Maximum Security is a little coy about its wonderfully twisted ‘lags vs. terrorists’ hook. It’s reluctant to declare any of its ‘birds a bastard deserving of their sentence — well, except Steve Scionti’s frazzled Mexican street thug.

Still, there’s a tremendous amount of fun to be had in this robust Die Hard (1988) behind bars. In addition to its rollicking pace and general feeling of rough n’ tumble giddiness, Maximum Security contains plenty of brilliantly orchestrated scenes of brawling and gun-fu, a terrific score by David Lawrence, and a bunch of nattily drawn central characters. Landon Hall and Paul Michael Robinson — the latter, as the gloriously named Mason Richter, fresh from Ray’s Friend of the Family II (1996) — make a decent fist of their canny, cartoon-type heroes, but it’s Arthur Roberts and the magnificent John LaZar who steal the show. Roberts is fabulous as the pompous and progressive warden who quickly exposes himself a coward when the shit hits the fan, and LaZar — reuniting with Ray and Hall following their ace erotic thriller Over the Wire (1996) — absolutely dominates as the endlessly quotable, wickedly mean-spirited, and ever-so-slightly effete jail-jacker wanting to start World War III.

As an interesting aside, Maximum Security, which formerly frequented U.S. cable as ‘Maximum Revenge’, caused a minor furore in the pages of Femme Fatales magazine c. late ‘95. As well as featuring the gorgeous Hall and the delicious Monique Parent as LaZar’s foxy right-hand woman, the film marked the return of scream queen Michelle Bauer post her first brief retirement. She appears as a doomed terrorist during Maximum Security’s snappy, plane-set preamble.

Shot over twenty-two days in July 1996 in the searing heat of Madras, India and boasting the distinction of being the first American movie to do so, the aptly titled INFERNO is Ray’s Royal Oaks action masterpiece. A feast for the senses, the film teems with a hypnotic aesthetic. Like the Twin Towers in Maximum Security, Ray and — yep — cinematographer Gary Graver milk their locations for all they’re worth, bolstering Inferno’s inherently exotic vibe with fluid camerawork and painterly framing.

Augmenting such ornately designed visuals are the dynamic falls performed by the Indian stunt team at Ray’s disposal. Coordinated by legendary Kollywood stuntman and action choreographer Rambo Rajkumar, their whirling, twirling, and occasionally out and out buffoonish flips and tumbles provide a striking, pizzazz-y exclamation mark to Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson’s bone-breaking bursts of kickboxing. Impressive, impactful, wince-inducing, and deliberately comical — hurting people in a B-flick has rarely looked so painful, stylish, and hilarious.   

The eminently watchable Wilson toplines as a suspended Interpol agent whose attempts to unwind in India after supposedly — SUPPOSEDLY — causing the death of his partner (the rugged Rick Hill) are anything but relaxing. Instead, he finds himself toe-to-toe with an old, hulking nemesis (a tasty depiction of greed-fuelled ruthlessness by PM Entertainment regular Evan Lurie), and embroiled in a nasty tangle between MI6 (represented by Tane McClure, replete with plummy British accent); a slickly-dressed opium dealer (a mischievous Michael Cavanaugh); and a shady “new criminal element” called The Hydra.

Discounting Hill’s non-reveal as The Hydra’s king ding (the cult Deathstalker (1984) icon is back on screen in full villain mode within fifteen minutes of his apparent demise — a bizarre plotting choice since it’s presented to Wilson as a massive ‘surprise’ moment later on), Ray tackles the twists within — double yep — Sean O’Bannon’s tricksy and thrilling script with thunderous aplomb. Ostensibly a crisply penned and gently spoof-y 007 homage (it’s basically Live and Let Die (1973) meets GoldenEye (1995) in India), at Inferno’s core are a wealth of ideas seemingly tailored to Ray’s thematic obsessions, the thrust of O’Bannon’s writing hinging upon ambiguous allegiances, grey moral areas, and uneasy relationships a la Ray’s other keynote texts Armed Response (1986), Alienator (1990), Inner Sanctum (1991), and Cyberzone (1995).

Featuring Jill ‘Mrs. Graver’ Kesner and Hindi superstars Deepti Bhatnagar and R. Madhavan among its cast, Inferno was exec produced by Roger Corman and released on video in the U.S.  under the title ‘Operation Cobra’ by New Horizons as part of Corman’s domestic output agreement with Royal Oaks. It landed on video store shelves on 24th February 1998 — just over a year after New Horizons had distributed Maximum Security on cassette, on 18th February 1997. Here in the U.K., Maximum Security was issued on tape by Guild Home Video in summer ‘97. A physical release of Inferno remains absent.

Original VHS art courtesy of VHS Collector

7 thoughts on “Maximum Security (1996) & Inferno (1997): Fred, Prime and 101 Too Part II

  1. Thanks for the awesome reviews, Matty. These are definitely two of my favorite films that I wrote for Fred, and I really feel that they benefited from their locations. It’s amazing what can be done when you have somewhere really interesting to shoot. Lots of shortcomings can be overlooked, or compensated for. Fred and I got to tour the prison and I must say it was definitely a strange experience. As nice as the prison was, the one thing that I noticed was an absolute lack of any privacy whatsoever. For that reason, among many others, I was very glad that that was the only time I’ve ever seen the inside of prison walls. Regarding Inferno, writing that script was a challenge in that it was at a time when Google was in its infancy. I was writing a script to be shot in a country I had never been to and wasn’t going to visit, so I had to write it using maps of the general area and a Fodor’s guide. The production team really went out of their way to find suitable locations to fit the story, and it’s really to their credit that the film came out as well as it did. As with all of the films that I wrote for Fred Olen Ray and Andrew Stevens, I was given a strict set of parameters and no coloring outside the lines was allowed. It was an intentional Bond homage, and they asked me to combine elements of some of the more down to earth 007 films. For example, the relationship between Michael Cavanaugh’s character and the Hindi Princess, was taken from On Her Majesty Secret Service. However, with a 007 plot, one must have an evil villain bent on world domination. This usually means some sort of mass destruction plot. But because of political concerns in the country, I was asked to steer away from that trope. Hence, the global bank robbery scenario. Nobody likes it when somebody messes with their dosh.

    One could write a book about the experience of filming Inferno, with everything that went on during the production. Many challenges filming in such a country. I did not get to go, because the writer generally is locked in a dungeon and occasionally fed gruel and stale bread. On our birthdays, the gruel is warm, and on Christmas Day they put some fresh gristle in it. From the sounds of things, I’m very happy for that warm gruel and stale bread. Maybe someone who was there will one day tell the tale.

    Thanks again for the great reviews!

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    1. Thanks for reading and providing such a detailed comment, Shawn.

      For what it’s worth, I’m writing a lot of these out of necessity. As mentioned, a British distributor keeps quietly dumping Royal Oaks movies onto Prime and they don’t seem interested in promoting them, which is crazy. They’re literally sat on a cult/DTV goldmine, and – well, I don’t want to sound too highfalutin or anything, but me and my site co-conspirator, Dave, just feel we need to do something to at least draw attention to them, y’know? The thought of an entire chapter of film history sliding into oblivion terrifies us.

      Re: the “strict set of parameters”, the Royal Oaks ‘cook ’em to order’ style fascinates me. Out of interest, in addition to the Inferno stuff you mentioned, what were the other sort of briefs you were given for your various Royal Oaks assignments? I’m guessing each project came with a “dos and don’ts” kind of thing?

      And I don’t suppose you remember when Maximum Security was shot, do you? I’m wondering if it was shot before Albert Pyun’s Blast (1997) , which lensed at The Twin Towers in April ’96.

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  2. I believe Maximum Revenge shot after April ‘96, but Fred would most likely know for sure.

    The ‘cook to order’ methodology was definitely a challenge, sometimes. There were specific sets of rules for every genre. Erotic thrillers had to be written with six scenes of sensuality, for example. All boy/girl stuff. Sometimes, I’d sit there and look at my outline and have to ask, “which characters haven’t schtumped each other yet?” Getting creative with these scenes could definitely be a challenge. The kids movies had very strict rules, especially where gunplay or any quasi-violent activity took place. Like The Kid with the X-Ray Eyes revolved around enemy spies, so I had to make them a little bit like Boris and Natasha rather than any actual credible threat. At one point, I was writing scripts for Royal Oaks three at a time; I wrote an action picture, a crotch opera as you call them(which cracks my wife and I up to no end), and a kids movie all at once. At one point, I almost put a Sam Peckinpah moment at the end of the kids movie, fortunately I caught myself in time.

    A time or two, I threw a couple of zingers in there just to see if anybody was paying attention. Invisible Mom 2 has veiled references to incest and cross dressing on the part of the bad guys, but it went right over everybody’s head.

    I’m glad you and your partner are making people aware of these. It was certainly an interesting period of my life, where I had a great deal of fun punctuated by the occasional bout of wanting to bash my brains in. I got to make pretty decent money for very little actual work, dated a scream queen, met some celebs and got out with my soul semi-intact. All in all, there are worse crimes. 😉

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    1. Ha! That is fantastic — there’s definitely part of me that would have loved to have seen, say, Mom’s Outta Sight end like The Wild Bunch (I was going to say “Mom Can I Keep Her? go Straw Dogs” but that might have been a bit too, erm, *exotic* depending what Straw Dogs scene sprung to mind first..).

      Thanks again for reading and commenting. It’s a joy to read your tales from the B-movie trenches.

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  3. Actually, at the end of Mom, Can I Keep Her, I was so brain fried from the output I was producing. There was a moment where Gil Gerard’s big game hunter blasts the poor ape that’s escaped from the carnival. I actually wrote stage direction along the lines of: “It’s a slo-no Sam Peckinpah bullet impact as Zamora flies backward and kicks up a cloud of dust as she hits the deck.” Fortunately, Fred had the good sense not to film it this way and the grace to keep working with me.

    During this time period, my g.f. Brinke Stevens and I did our damndest to break free of our B-movie pigeonholes, but it seems that the machine likes its cogs to remain as they are. We created some great screenplays together – which remain unproduced – but never quite rose above our station.

    By the time FINAL EXAMINATION rolled around, I was truly creatively bankrupt from schlepping out so many scripts in such a short time. This was the last time Fred and I worked together, and I had truly reached the last knot on my psychological rope. I always took my assignments seriously while still having fun with them, but in this case my brain melted down to the point where I had a character named Captain Hugh Janus of the Honolulu police department. To my surprise, they left it in. I stopped just short of having the head of Internal Affairs being called Lt. Jack Auff.

    I left the Biz in ‘07 and slipped back into obscurity. I’ve got a lot of fun memories, having met famous folks like Christopher Lee and Robert Evans, and doing the con circuit with Brinke. It was a great privilege to work in shoebox, even for a little while.

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  4. While I cannot remember the exact year, I DO know that MAXIMUM was filmed around the time of Mother’s Day as I always flew my mom out to see me for that Holiday and she’s on the airplane at the beginning of the movie, sitting behind Michelle.

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