Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981, Steve Miner) Cinemachine Commentary Track



Merry Christmas! Here's a gift for every Friday the 13th fan, a commentary track I recorded with my friend Tom during a rare visit. More than anyone he's the one who compromised my taste in classy horror movies and taught me to embrace slash trash.

I don't think we cover any information you couldn't find on the Internet, but since there's no track on the Paramount DVD that's kind of the point.

Enjoy!

Friday the 13th Part 2 - Cinemachine Commentary Track

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I Spit On Your Grave (1978, Meir Zarchi)




An early target of Siskel & Ebert's pompous national campaign against misogynist slasher movies (this from the guys who rated Evil Dead their "dog of the week") was Meir Zarchi's Day of the Woman, rereleased in 1980 as I Spit On Your Grave. Had Ebert seen the film under the original title he might have gotten a clue that Zarchi was making probably the world's least projectional xploitation film, one in which the story of rape and revenge places viewers almost completely in the victim's point of view. One tagline read More Devestating Than Deliverance! and while Ebert might have conceded there was an artistic statement to be made in a feature length version of that mainstream classic's infamous rape scene, the exact same film becomes misogynistic if the victim (who avenges herself, even) is a woman.

The only American film to create a similar experience of a similar nightmare was Wes Craven's The Last House On The Left (1970). Zarchi's even more miniscule budget denied him the opportunity of finding talented unknowns like Last House's to play his criminal rapists. The creeps in Spit are all one-movie-and-out amateurs, and just convincing enough to give the acts of real life horror a harder edge. Only the giggling man-child of the group comes off as someone's friend doing a silly voice, which he is, yet his participation in the crimes is just as brutal. He and the other male leads may not have even harbored future acting aspirations, considering virtually all of them embrace full frontal nudity to add to the queasy realism. 

The most startling lack of polish may be the complete and total absence of music. Initially Zarchi browsed library music tracks but none of them fit the mood he was trying to evoke. Zarchi's usual framing technique is the full body wide shot, as if everything were being filmed by a bystander standing ten feet away. The most artistry he employs is pacing the slow repeated stalking of Camille Keaton, when members of the hillbilly gang descend into frame one by one like gathering birds. The suspense is sometimes unbearable in a way that might not have happened with music score. Zarchi's subsequent career in film has either been one of bad luck, or like Robert Hiltzik merely one of periodic Lovecraftian awakening from darkness for the 1985 action trash Don't Mess With My Sister!. At least he's had good luck with titles. Incredibly, he's slated to executive produce a remake.

Camille Keaton began her acting career in a handful of 70s Italian horror and suspense films including the giallo classic What Have They Done To Solange?. As the granddaughter of Buster Keaton she was acting nobility, and not having known this when I watched Spit her stonefaced vengeance is completely recognizable as the stare of Buster. Zarchi had easy access to his one star; they were married.

The movie finally shows its seams when Keaton begins her revenge, due to Zarchi's weird dialogue and sense of human interaction. English is not his first language and neither Keaton nor her rapist receivers of vengeance seem sure how to handle scenes where Keaton seduces her former captors who thought she was dead. Language is also no explanation for one rapist's abnormally long delayed reaction time to his own castration. Until these moments, all preceding awkwardness at least feels deliberate, as when after barely surviving the assault of Spit's two-act (that would be rape, and revenge) Act One climax she visits a church. Except for a little old lady playing church organ, the place is as empty as if she'd walked into Carnival Of Souls.

I Spit On Your Grave is well deserving of notoriety for how effectively shocking it is to the point of being uncommercial. The male nudity alone has kept it off television forever, and the probable retreat from such realism in the new remake will be sacrilege. Day Of The Woman is more recognizably anti-man than pro-woman but at least sympathetic at all times to the avenging victim: that's the director's own wife, after all.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Bloody Valentine (1981, George Mihalka)




This year's 3D remake of My Bloody Valentine converted me to the 3D horror bandwagon; the gimmick which supposedly will get people back into movie theaters is best suited for trash horror. However, I wasn't expecting the original to be so inferior, even with an infamous nine minutes of additional gore re-inserted on the DVD by Lionsgate to promote the new film. The dip in film stock quality during the restored death scenes is extremely noticeable. Fortunately since the restored moments are the most extreme, this uncensored version takes on a kind of William Castle murdervision gimmick where the screen itself is practically specked with blood / picture artifacting.


Fans of Valentine 81 were forgiving of the dubious restored footage, since this is the type of remastering genre fans wanted on DVD: the restoration of extra sex and violence. Fans of slash trash have had a grudge against Paramount for years for losing all the trims made to the Friday the 13th series, with the sole exception of The Final Chapter's unedited, unused raw footage surfacing on the last DVD release, separate from the film. Those effects being from Tom Savini, they probably came straight from his personal storage vault of lost footage since Paramount obviously prefers the trash can. Ironically the quality of the lost Final Chapter footage is nearly flawless and as long as they included the option to see the original film, Friday fans would have loved to see newly extended death and gore scenes. Some fans on YouTube have already done the job for fun.


My Bloody Valentine fans and slasher fans are one in the same, there's no fidelity to this above all others in the genre as there are for Halloween nor diehard series fans as there are for Friday the 13th who might raise a stink if some new official version were put out that was different from the versions they grew up with. Valentine 81's DVD does give you the option to watch the original film with all MPAA-sanctioned cuts intact, and I wouldn't recommend that. Staying awake during the filler is hard enough.


Filmed during Canada's short lived pro-capitalist Canadian Film Development "Corporation" which gave tax breaks to low budget Canadian and American studios with the incentive to produce more commercially viable films-as-product, as in xploitation. Before the PBS mentality went back to throttling the fun from Canadian film, this period gave David Cronenberg his break in trash as well as spawning a ton of neat genre films. Many of these were slashers and in 1981 they were considered mainstream to the point that Universal was pushing Halloween II and Paramount was not only pushing Friday the 13th Part 2 on the cheap but picking up CFDC slasher ventures like Valentine to release.


Like the founder of Paramount Pictures Adolph Zukor, George Mihalka was a Hungarian immigrant who immigrated to the continent of opportunity. His trash break came in Canadian teen xploitation the previous year with Pick-Up Summer, aka Pinball Summer and this was his sophmore effort. The film's location in the windy Northwest of Nova Scotia in Canada, with cottage style town architecture and unlike slasher convention, layers of clothes on the women (due to the cold) and a neverending abundance of plaid. This all lend the story a certain rural timelessness. At first the main characters seem to be a swath of hammy old Canadian stage actors playing mayors, police chiefs and other authority figures who cover up and panic over the return of an escaped killer while the young folk take the town legend as a joke. Corny as they are, these older guys are a lot more charming - especially radio and tv personality Don Francks - than the young people who get slaughtered.


The young victim players are really hard to pin an age on. The Sydney Mines of Nova Scotia provide them all with a shared occupation and a backstory for the town. They're not teenagers or college co-eds, just young shitkickers whose mining town is so dull that everyone can still get excited for a Valentine's Day dance. Either they're not really that young, or mustachioed young fat guys in Canada look precisely like someone's fat older uncle at Christmas. When the dance gets called off again for the first time since however many years ago when there were murders, all these young miners and their girlfriends have no qualms about moving the party to where they work and sweat and risk asphyxiation for a living during the rest of their week. Why don't they just move and live down there forever? Even away from the auspices of the old codgers warning them that they're all doomed, these couples are extremely chaste. Only the opening credits sequence of the film features lurid nudity from a nameless and quickly offed young girl while the couples in the rest of the movie barely reach second base. Canadians are so well mannered.


Even with all these Northwestern quirks My Bloody Valentine can't distinguish itself in construction from any other slasher named after a holiday turned suddenly murderous except for the idiosyncratic choice of a miner as the killer. Between the opening scene when the naked girl mentioned above gets a pickaxe through the heart-shaped tattoo above her left breast and the scene soon afterwards when Don Francks receives a Valentine's Day poem in a heart-shaped box containing a real heart, writers Stephen Miller and John Beaird do the impossible and sell the thematic connection between the two completely unrelated ideas. Besides the pickaxe, this killer miner has the terrific added gimmick of a miner's helmet light which shines on victims like a targeting beacon and the effect would look great in 3D twenty eight years later. "Harry Warden" the crazy miner's brief flashback origin story is better directed than most of the rest of the film. Unfortunately after making a strong showing at the beginning of the film he disappears for most of the middle while the whodunnit aspect - is it really Harry Warden? - is developed amongst the young cast, something else which I can't believe the remake managed to put a better spin on.


Thanks to, and only, the newly unearthed scenes of major miner carnage, My Bloody Valentine is finally worth a look for fans of the early 80s slasher explosion and the epochal year of 1981. Everything else is rather middling and as much as I appreciate Mihalka's commitment to the gory goods, he couldn't even make the dark tunnels of a mine look scary. 3D may have finally made good on the old canard that the only sensible movies to remake are the bad or mediocre ones, especially those with long dark tunnels and weapons that protrude both ways.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Lady Terminator (1988, H. Tjut Djalil)



Lady Terminator begins with a sadistic Indonesian South Seas Queen dispatching a serf with her vagina dentata, and surprisingly proceeds to become a very faithful tribute to The Terminator. She comes back hundreds of years later, of course, as the non-robotic Lady Terminator. The filmmakers gambled that the science fiction of The Terminator wasn't the reason it was successful and they're at least half correct.

The South Seas Queen legend actually comes from Indonesia and is the only real Indonesian xploitation movie I know of to be so fortuitously marketed at both Indonesian and American audiences, including the occasional foreign xploitation use of no-name American actors. About half the film seems to have been filmed in English so that the two halves could alternately be dubbed, and I saw the English dubbed version and there's no way English was screenwriter Karr Kruinowz's first language, nor did H. Tjut Djalil know a good dialogue take from a bad one, only briefly marking time between the action scenes. Watching Lady Terminator is like being a kid and listening to another kid describe a movie like the first Terminator: only the good parts, and enthusiastically embellished.

As pure ripoff artists, Djalil and Kruinowz are free to copy only the most memorable scenes and moments from the original while ratcheting up their base appeal. The Terminator who rises naked out of nowhere to begin zeroing in on her assassination target isn't the governor of California, she could be Miss California. Without Cameron's apocalyptic robo-futurism, the South Seas Queen legend prologue makes Lady Terminator unrecognizable as Terminator knockoff at first. When Barbara Anne Constable rises from the South Seas fully naked, knocks off a couple of moron punks and if you've seen the original Terminator you've got your roadmap. Since there's no future to protect, her gun-toting rampage is targeted at a girl whose ancient necklace is magical and presumably enables her to rule the world. They correctly never presume you care.

Essentially the most fun and cheesy aspects of elements of James Cameron's film are all incorporated and enthusiastically one-upped: the nude Terminator walking around is now a beautiful mousse-haired lady and the Kyle Reese part is a cop whose Sarah Conner figure is another young girl. As a product of the times, the 80s-ness of The Terminator has soured into the curdled milk of the late 80s, where everyone's hair is at least as big as Linda Hamilton's in the original, including the men.

Under this thick gauze of free floating action cliches and the South Seas night life of 1988, the story jogs through Terminator greatest hits while amping up the violence: the police station assault scene (in which Lady Terminator doesn't even bother trying to talk her way in before driving a car through the front doors,) the eyeball self repair (which handily looks better than Schwarzenegger's animatronic puppet,) slow-mo Tech-Noir discotheque shootout (the music's worse) and of course the (Lady) Terminator rising from flames all charred and nasty to pursue Kyle and Sarah through a factory. This time she has laser eyes. The script has some forced but appreciated references like "Come with me if you want to live" and whoever did the costumes got perfect matches for Schwarzenegger's punk jacket and Michael Biehn's overcoat!

Lady Terminator is recommended heartily to fans of Asian action and The Terminator who have a sense of humor. If you liked Terminator: Salvation or even those old Dark Horse Comics, this may be way too unserious.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Radio Flyer (1992, Richard Donner & David M. Evans)




When a movie opens with Tom Hanks, and begins a flashback structure using Tom Hanks narration, my expectations are already very low. Tom Hanks has been sold to us for decades now as the modern Jimmy Stewart, an everyman whose friendly face and lovably earnest persona supposedly make him as at home essentially in any movie, which is exactly the reason he has been groomed as such by studios. He's blandness personified, a mediocre comic who starred in some really unfunny comedies and increasingly precious Oscar bait designed to pull heartstrings. His oeuvre (and mediocrity co-conspirator Ron Howard's for that matter) are what Holden Caulfield railed against when describing movies which condition phonies to cry at the movies but not in real life.

This is the long way to saying that Radio Flyer is the first movie containing Tom Hanks I can stomach which didn't take place during World War II.

Awesomely, screenwriter and unofficial co-director David M. Evans debuted as the writer of the 1987 slasher movie Open House, in which Someone is killing off nubile real estate agents and followed up with a right wing 80s action movie starring Bluto. Then he got out of trash and wrote the 1993 Disney kids baseball team classic The Sandlot and a comfy career directing kidstuff pablum like Beethoven's 3rd and 4th and Ace Ventura JR. Since his middle initial actually is "Mickey" Disney recently let him direct The Sandlot 2 straight to DVD. He's still quite active, and you would be too if your Radio Flyer and Sandlot scripts sold for over a million bucks each.

I'm not sure Radio Flyer is worth a million dollars as a screenplay. Unlike The Sandlot, Evans attempts to dramatize a story about child abuse within the context of a genuinely nostalgic film about childhood which includes special effects assisted dramatizations of dreams and a illogical, metaphorical twist ending. This is a huge order and Evans' depictions of family violence are powerfully suggestive thanks to Donner's direction, who apparently was called in to replace Evans when as a first time director he couldn't handle the more elaborate sequences. The second and more unique accomplishment is the balancing of scenes between the scary side of the childhood recollection story and the happier moments of backyard discovery, invention and imagination.

Ultimately this isn't the feel good romp of The Sandlot where the young protagonist's dad was totally going to kill him if he and the rest of the Little Rascals didn't get the Babe Ruth autographed baseball back from the giant scary dog next door, nope. Young Elijah Wood, he whose eyes were born that size, is worried little Timmy from Jurassic Park Joseph Mazzello is going to get killed quite literally by their alcoholic stepdad. Donner's direction of Adam Baldwin as this nightmare authority figure starts with the old trick of hiding adult's faces in movies about children, later revealing quick glimpses and close-ups for dramatic effect. This is analogous to the role of violence throughout the film, which empathetically startles us as badly as the boys by unexpectedly erupting out of nowhere at first. When Donner lingers with doom upon Baldwin opening up another beer, there's terrible suspense in how bad the damage will be this next time around.

Lorraine Bracco is good. Did she specialize in period moms around this time?

Radio Flyer does so many things well, especially thanks to Donner's mythic widescreen compositions and strong performances by Wood and Mazzello, that I can't really fault the particulars. Some of them are just the cheesiest in the world, like the boys' loyal dog who protects them from neighorhood bullies, but Donner just shrugs and makes it work on a gut level. Even the folksy platitudinous narration by Captain Sincerity works. What's more interesting is how Evans wrote a great screenplay which was filmed into a good movie that is by definition probably too intense for the intended audience. Even if the stepdad didn't frighten kids into seeing something else, why would kids want to watch such a movie for fun? There's nothing on the poster to indicate that Elijah and his brother are playing with their Radio Flyer to escape an abusive home and even if they had, what parent wants that awkward afternoon at the movies? The only parents I can conceive wanting to take the kids are those doing it because it's good for them, or because they suspect their significant other is responsible for those strange marks and are planning after the house lights come up to ask the kids if there's something they want to share. To this effect, the producers end the film with a child abuse hotline(!) Well meaning, but inevitably uncomfortable.

The clean, innocent kiddie humor and wide-eyed wonder of Radio Flyer clearly deign the film for little kids more than anyone, yet only older and wiser children will have the emotional capacity or interest for the drama. While only making a fraction of the budget back at the box office, Donner's approach to the material has endured at least as far as the recent Where The Wild Things Are, of which director Spike Jonze cited this film as an inspiration. Wild Things has been a lot more successful in ostensible kidstuff filmmaking secretly catering to hipster "adults" who are perpetually channeling their inner infant anyways, and who are now finally the perfect audience to go back and get the most enjoyment out of Radio Flyer.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2009, Oren Peli)



The success of Paranormal Activity is more interesting than the movie itself. At this point a lot of people are going to see what the buzz is about, and I can't imagine there have been a lot of repeat viewings, even from those who had a good time being scared.  The success has trounced Saw VI, which may encourage other studios to pit their horror movies against Lionsgate's franchise in October. Recently Trick R' Treat became a big word-of-mouth video hit (does that even happen anymore?) after Warner Brothers finally decided to dump the long completed film straight to DVD. Why? No stars. No stars? Paranormal Activity doesn't even have a budget and just look. Not only is this the type of success story everyone who's ever even thought about films has wanted for themselves, this is the sort of low budget success the horror genre has more or less owned since George Romero's Night Of The Living Dead. Somehow the common denominator is always a dash or dollop of cinema verite style, through Last House On The Left, Texas Chainsaw, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer all the way up to ten years ago, with The Blair Witch Project.

The really remarkable thing about this film vis-a-vis Blair Witch is that at the time, some people were convinced by the Internet that the hand held camera feature film was real footage and not fabricated. They were also tricked by a Sci-Fi Channel faux documentary; equally incredible to think that just ten years ago the Sci-Fi Channel had cultural influence. More importantly, no one who walked into the movie wanting to be fooled walked out of the movie unconvinced. Paranormal Activity couldn't possibly have advertised a hoax the way Blair Witch did any easier than a Blair Witch copycat could have in the first few years afterward. Since then, Cloverfield was a hit seemingly apropos of the handheld subgenre style (what would the monster look like, people wondered,) George Romero embarrassed himself with Diary Of The Dead (which takes your dad's perspective on the new media age) and a supposedly shot-for-shot remake of the excellent Spanish handicam horror film •REC called Quarantine was ignored by audiences everywhere. There will probably be a slew of handicam horror flicks coming out soon from major studios - some ghost related one did - despite the helpful evidence from recent releases in the same subgenre that the subgenre isn't what people care about. The same glut might've happened after Blair Witch except Artisan cranked out Blair Witch 2: Book Of Shadows so quickly that they killed it themselves. What's happened now as then is a lot of people simply heard their friends say that this movie, in particular, is supposed to be really scary. Well, that and a few people had to see how they used the budget, which is a fraction of even Blair Witch.

The aesthetic works. Katie Featherson and Micah Sloat are convincing enough in their casual scenes and escalating panic scenes, Featherson a bit more so. Their careers probably stand a much better chance in the future than the cast of Blair Witch since people won't feel as though they've been made suckers of afterward. The movie's most iconic image, the one which adorns the posters like the inside of Heather Donahue's nose did for Blair Witch, is also a camera angle. Featherson and Sloat's room is where most of the effective creepiness happens, from the camera's view opposite the wall of the bedroom door and mattress where the couple sleeps. The simple stuff from this innocuous angle works great - rustling sheets, a door that closes by itself - and with each successive night that passes the suspense swells around the silence. Hard to say if seeing this with a crowd and hearing every tenative gasp or shriek at the possibility of the smallest movement improved the experience. The video format would seem better suited for home video viewing, which is where this was nearly dumped, yet I can't imagine Blair Witch being what it was if not for the communal event going on. That's a special effect without a price. The actual special effects used by Paranormal are the most distancing aspect, and mercifully few. The biggest is the final shot of the film, the big chair-jumper, and they would've been better off having that be the only. There's also some stupid low tech special effects which attempt to build creepiness despite phoniness so obvious that the supposed reality of the handicam makes them worse - effects like weird noises or found objects that you'd roll your eyes at in any other horror movie.

The sizzle-to-steak ratio isn't really close with this one. Fans of the genre will be just as happy waiting for home video and non-genre fans aren't going to be converted. If you only see one handicam horror you should still see •REC, which like Paranormal Activity and unlike Quarantine has a sequel in production. •REC nestles comfortably between the showiness of Cloverfield and the shadows of Blair Witch, giving you scary monsters and a convincing hand held style of shooting. Paranormal Activity doesn't show the monsters and considering the beating it gave torture porn's flagship series at the box office, that may be how the average moviegoer wants to be scared again. Here's hoping a lot of little horror movies get their shot thanks to this one.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Munchie Strikes Back! (1994, Jim Wynorski)




Roger Corman certainly deserves both praise as well as condemnation. I've praised him a lot lately and must now mention one of his biggest stinkers, the career of Jim Wynorski. His oeuvre is not offensively bad, yet there's something cloying about every film being self-aware and campy to compensate for lack of budget. That's what killed the Troma epoch too quickly. Wynorski's greatest accomplishment was the direct to video "special" Scream Queen Hot Tub Party for obvious reasons. Today Wynorski continues to enjoy directing implants and hangin' naturals on dvd every now and then with softcore titles like The Breastford Wives.

Corman kicked off Wynorski's b-movie period (which includes the sub-cult favorite Deathstalker II) by producing 1985's Chopping Mall. Wynorski appreciably shoved as many Corman insider references as he could, including cameos from Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov reprising their roles from Eating Raoul. A couple Corman sequels and official remakes later, Wynorski was turned loose by Corman's new kidvid label with the first Munchie. The target demo was essentially undiscriminating kindergardeners and possibly bored elementary schoolers. The Munchie puppet was almost completely unconvincing without somone's powers of perception still developing in their skulls.

That puppet was one of two draws for the kids who made the film a a video hit, the other being Dom DeLuise as the voice of Munchie. His distinctive chords had recently become a staple of animated movies and automatically gave Munchie some kind of credibility to get onto video shelves. Credibility for a kid's movie, anyway. Lonnie Anderson and Arte Johnson alone weren't going to hold the attention of any child born in the 80s. Deluise's performance was not synched to the movements of Munchie the puppet in any way. The giant head rocked and rolled around the neck hole as the lips wriggled open and shut, revealing hideous teeth while his useless little forearms gesticulated generic borscht belt poses and his face frozen in a blank, permanent leer. As if Corman calculated the exact minimum special effects budget needed to satisfy a child's imagination and cut off the line of credit there.


Literally not one aspect of the original film's story was original. Munchie grants wishes to a young boy with a hot single mom lovingly photographed by Wynorski, the wishes go wrong, lessons are learned and villainous adult buffoons are humiliated. Munchie Strikes Back! is more of what you've seen a million times before and this time they didn't even splurge for Dom Deluise. The new voice isn't anyone distinguished. The puppet doesn't look any better, cheaper if anything. There's one motor vehicle chase with flip and crash at the end, so maybe that's where the budget went.The sneering, mugging evil principal from the first film is now Lonnie Anderson's sneering, evil boss who wants to capture Munchie. He's an extremely irritating man. Jim Wynorski's sense of humor is basically the same as if he were directing Scream Queen Hot Tub Party except he doesn't have breasts to fall back on.




The first few minutes of Munchie feature Munchie blowing up some other kid's school in a prologue, then being accosted by head angel Angus Scrimm - the Tall Man from Don Coscarelli's Phantasm series - in heaven. This was sort of promising as far as b-grade kids movie lunacy goes, but things became so deadly dull immediately after the opening credits that I don't think I could've lasted through this one as a kid, only a masochistic adult. This is worse than the first Munchie and that's an accomplishment, especially from the same director. The first one even had Jennifer Love Hewitt's film debut, and Munchie Strikes Back! can't even claim anything that impressive. I can't even believe this movie was made in 1994. It looks at least ten years older.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Private Parts (1997, Betty Thomas)






I haven't read Howard Stern's Private Parts. The film version is a mediocre movie and the content strongly suggests that the book is better. The problem is that there are really two movies here, one about Stern's rise to fame and the other about his subsequent battle with censorship. What makes the latter feel so separate isn't the film's fault, even though the forces of censorship are embodied by a single villain, NBC exec Kenny Rushton. Having an important antagonist introduced halfway through is disjointed. To ease the transition, Thomas cast an unknown actor. What she didn't foresee is that actor becoming Paul Giamatti. Watching in 2009, he all but steals the show in Stern's own movie. Movies will always be bigger than radio. This was the largest role Giamatti ever had at the time and while taking another ten years for your breakout role doesn't make you an overnight sensation, this featured part in a hit movie ensured he'd be playing less "FBI Technician" type parts. So if nothing else despite my criticisms, Private Parts gave Giamatti his big break. Playing a Southerner, even. He probably has the third most dialogue after Stern and Mary McCormack as Stern's then-wife Alison. Number one in ugly after Stern and Baba Booey, whose handful of handheld camera man-on-the-street interstitials are basically straight from Stern's TV shows and feel like intrusions from some docu-verite third version of the movie. Most are easy to discredit in the post-Borat age and more reminiscent than anything of 1990s MTV bumpers shot cheaply on the streets of Brooklyn, except this was with a 35mm camera pretending to be a camcorder. Using the gimmick in a movie was new in 1997. The very first shot is of an actress pretending to be an old school teacher of Stern's, disturbed beyond words by his memory. The timing of when Thomas cuts from this fake interviewee's awkward silence to the opening credits and anthemic rock soundtrack is completely modern, obnoxious and stylistically taken for granted amongst the genre of snarky "funny" documentaries I loathe. Fortunately Baba Booey's bits only show up in Stern's Private Parts a few times. As if to acknowledge the fakery, Giamatti shows up during the credits amongst talking heads of real people as his character, recounting Stern's career and the destruction of his own. Never has anyone gone to such artistic lengths to ensure David Merrick's axiom that it's not enough to succeed; others must fail....and in the movie of your life, everyone else must know.

If you can't trust autobiographies with the facts of the author's own life, how to approach a film based on an autobio which actually stars the author? How egomaniacal can you get? At least Audie Murphy had the excuse of being psychotic. Aside from one brief reference to the suspension of disbelief required to see him play his college age self, there's no humorous humility whatsoever even in the Baba Booey bits - no comments about McCormack looking better than Allison in real life. Stuttering John pops up during the credits to claim bullshit that he wasn't in the movie, but so what? Robin Quivers is the only other person to play a younger version of herself, proving she and Howard were made for each other as far as ego. Hollywood movies are usually designed without a shred of self-reflexivity, let alone self-effacement. Stern's brilliance on the radio is cutting through pretensions, and Private Parts is full of them. Especially in the battle against Giamatti and without ever elucidating why the battle is important. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, screenwriters of Ed Wood and The People Vs Larry Flynt and the lesser Man On The Moon were figuring out how to show the cultural importance of their biographical subjects at the same time this film was co-adapted by Len Blum of Meatballs, Stripes and Heavy Metal. His efforts are comparable in the sense you can practically hear 13 year olds giggling through each scene at the somewhat mild outrageousness like Howard looking at a woman and imagining her breasts inflating with CGI, which is basically a Heavy Metal gag. Worse than being uninterested in what makes him unique, Howard Stern's movie about himself is actually kind of tame compared to Len Blum's classy animal comedy work for Harold Ramis or even an episode of Stern's old TV shows. Troma Films' Lloyd Kaufman recounted in his autobio being stunned at the premiere of Private Parts that the audience would laugh so uproariously at the same lowbrow gags and nudity he was putting in his sex comedies 15 years earlier, which were now in a respectable Hollywood production. That's the compromise on display which ultimately swindles Stern fans: by embracing Paramount Pictures and toning down his act, Stern gets to star in the movie of his life. By embracing Stern, Paramount gets some faux-edgy street cred without releasing anything that'd seriously cause trouble. Much like their release of South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut two years later, which is actually a far braver film with similar themes of man's right to profanity.

The first half of the film weighs heavily on McCormack as Alison Stern, whom Howard Stern was more hilariously honest about his relationship with on his radio show. That's the whole point of how Howard Stern improvises and lives in the moment when on air (including television); he says what he's afraid to say in real life. Len Blum and co-writer Michael Kalesniko only understand that halfway, they seem to think the greatest thing about Howard's career is perseverance to opposition creatively and in the form of self-appointed guardians of the public mind. That's been an incredibly important part of his career to this day but as a document of the man's life his success if reflected more as popularity than originality. There's a single throwaway line from his wife about how he should talk more like he does in real life when on the air, and even though the results seem overnight they aren't even acknowledged as such. I'm almost positive the book must be great, since Stern also excels on his shows at tearing people apart. It'd be nice to get the juicy dirt on some real names beside the poor movie whipping boy of Paul Giamatti's character.

The two parts in Private Parts I remembered from the TV ads running ad nauseum in 1997 were Stern throwing a frisbee into the head of a mentally handicapped person whom his wife is helping, and AC/DC performing a concert in Stern's honor at the end of the movie. Trailers show the movie the studio wanted, and their pushing two such pandering scenes in the advertising says everything about the homogenization of a unique talent like Stern in the event-comedy formula of the 90s.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Not Of This Earth (1957, Roger Corman)



Charles B. Griffith might have been the best screenwriter Roger Corman ever snagged. Before turning Ib Melchior's grim dystopian short story "The Racer" into the camp satire of Death Race 2000, he created two brilliant loose variations on the tale of Sweeney Todd: the unacknowledged A Bucket Of Blood, in which a janitor who turns people into sculptures to impress beatniks, and The Little Shop Of Horrors in which a nerd feeds people to a plant in order to impress a girl. Not Of This Earth, his predecessor to both, features Paul Birch playing a sort of erudite Tor Johnson who is really an alien in disguise. Living in an LA mansion he must obtain human blood to send back to his dying planet and to sustain himself. Unlike Griffith's dry black comedies this is more of a genial straightforward suspense story taking only an occasional grim chuckle at Birch's quasi-vampirism and the methods used to trick people inside his house. While less Faustian than the bumbling antihero protagonists of Bucket and Little Shop, the survival of he and his home planet create some degree of sympathy even as he menaces the human protagonists during the final reel. Heck, he's even memorialized in the final scene, which is where the film's title comes from. Griffith has a wonderfully weird of life and what it takes to get by. I'm guessing co-writer Mark Hanna filled in the cop and doctor exposition while Griffith came up with scenes like Dick Miller, future Bucket Of Blood star and Corman regular, playing a beatnik door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman who meets his demise in Birch's basement.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 used to feature a lot of Corman's bad movies like It Conquered The World and occasionally they'd feature the plucky bright spot Beverly Garland, whom at least one writer developed a crush on. I understand why. While conservative genre laws of the day dictated that the woman must end up rescued from the arms of the monster, Garland is charming and intelligent as a nurse commissioned by Birch to give him blood transfusions and, of course, not snoop around and find any of his alien apparatus or bloodless bodies. Acerbic and subtle, she makes a great counterpart to both Birch and the dopey small time ex-con he's hired as a houseboy, played by Little Shop's Seymour Krelboin himself, Jonathan Haze. He and Birch have their own comic setpiece at one point where they corral winos into a car, which aside from exemplifying Griffith's twisted sense of humor also illustrates how he allows a seemingly marginal character to emerge naturally as a leading character. Garland has better chemistry with Haze than Morgan Jones, the square jaw cop she's going to marry. He and Haze have a history of run-ins, AND he's friends with the doctor Garland works for. Everyone already knowing everyone is clever time saving device when none too obvious. The reason Garland, Birch and Haze ultimately take center stage from the cliched authority figures is Griffith. The cop fiance and doctor are pretty boring as well. Garland passed away only last year but she was surrounded by stiffs long before that. The only tedious scene in the whole film is waiting for them to rescue her at the end.

The utilitarianism of NOTE's setup - especially when used with outright comedy - allows character and dialogue to take center stage in the service of a story that lasts only a scant hour and ten. This only works if your screenwriter is really good and Griffith has become one of my favorites for this particular trilogy of late 50's Corman cheapies, made with increasingly funny bad taste and creativity with A Bucket Of Blood and culminating in The Little Shop Of Horrors. Corman required stories revolving around a central location where the killer lures his victims, in this case a Los Angeles mansion, so as to knock through production in a few days. His reparatory casting combines perfectly with Griffith's witty dialogue and efficient storytelling. There are a few special effects on the margins, like a flying brain on a string. They're unnecessary. The biggest special effect is really a cost saving device wherein Birch communicates telepathically to save on sound recording. This flick was so efficiently fun that Corman even let his favorite hack Jim Wynorski direct a twenty years later starring recovering porn starlet Traci Lords in Garland's role. Wynorski wrote a new script as well. At least the Piranha remake (no, not that one, this one) had the decency to rip off John Sayles reverentially, and yes I'm saying Griffith was a better writer than Sayles. For Roger Corman, anyway.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The St. Valentines Day Massacre (1967, Roger Corman)



My dad recounts this film's notoriety upon release, and now the film has been completely forgotten. The brutality of the ending was apparently hyped the same way the bloody squib-laden ending of Bonnie & Clyde was that same year. One was a classy picture pretending to be gritty. This is Roger Corman's gritty crime epic, an imitation of a classy old time picture with far better direction than Arthur Penn, who is a real middlebrow hack. Faye Dunaway and the fact they were really the good guys (read:hippies) stole the gory glory. At the New Bev screening there was a kid of 7 or 8 seated beside me who accepted his mom's hands over his eyes a few times during some of the more violent coming attractions and when the feature presentation culminated in those men being gunned down en mass massacre the kid assured his mom he could take it. You can probably guess the ending of this story; kids today have higher bloodlust threshold. He was digging the old fashioned hard boiled ambience. The most enticing selling line in the trailer is the blood red text crawl warning those of us with faint stomaches to leave the building, did Corman get to design it? The enticingly illicit selling lines are pure AIP and the title alone commits wholly to showmanship of the shocking truth the same way another famous massacre (more famous by now, I guess) in Texas.

For Roger Corman this big time studio deal with 20th Century Fox was his potential ticket into studio sized budgets and the public's apparent indifference to a slickly made old fashioned gangster movie with a great cast in 1967 marked the end of his 1960s silver age. Jason Robards is incredible as Capone, bringing the nuance of modern acting style to the explosive gangster archetype and more or less inventing the way gangsters like Pacino's Scarface have acted ever since. He even does the routine with the baseball bat with David Mamet stole carte blance for The Untouchables.

The movie needs at least one strong central figure like Robards with such a kaleidoscopic cast, packed to the brim with tough guy character actors from 20th Century Fox television and Corman's old b-movies: Clint Ritchie, Alex Rocco, Silvera, Bruce Dern, Dick Miller, and a silently uncredited Jack Nicholson. George Segal has a big part, but it's hard to call anyone aside from Robards a "star" of this film based on screen time. Every single one of them based on real persons, which screenwriter Howard Browne gives equal importance to during the complex double dealings of the plot thanks to the most amazing and occasionally funniest use of voiceover I've ever heard. Especially in a fictionalized historical potboiler. Paul Frees, narrator of George of the Jungle and voice actor in many other classic cartoons, does an uncredited bravura marathon of deadpan Dragnet inspired information on literally almost every new speaking character who appears, no matter how small. As if to constantly reassert the authenticity of the painstaking research behind the scenes, we are told in a police blotter monotone everyone's full name, aliases, crime records and odd personal details of no importance along with how they fit into the scheme. Often Frees gets so excited he cuts off his subjects mid-sentence. The lack of credit and occasionally dry sardonic one-liners added to his script suggest the possibility of a typical Corman stroke of last minute genius in creating the world's most narration heavy drama ever, so that people would know what was going on in a story with a cast the size of an army. Either way the fake authenticity is alternately authoritative and campy it becomes the film's trademark.

Corman lends his two best qualities - making the most of a budget and good casting - and the results when applied to a big budget exceed expectations. Far from being overwhelmed, his earlier experiences making small sets and stage look big and getting maximum camera coverage of his actors when on set turn The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre into a rapidly edited nailbiter even when nothing is actually happening. Freed up in time and budget (he reportedly completed final cut under budget and ahead of schedule) Corman's camera also composes wide, symmetrical framing of giant sets with quasi-Kubrickian precision. Some establishing shots look exactly like Edward Hopper and some aerial matte paintings move like living paintings populated by tiny animated dots. The production design of the world his actors inhabit is lavishly detailed with studio costumes, props and cars. There doesn't appear to be a single real location in the entire runtime, only Corman making full use of studio privilege and experimenting. Many sequences stand out for their elaborate ostentatiousness, like an endless drive-by restaurant shooting for which Corman is at his most playful and leisurely instead of having to rush through or ration such setpieces.

The birth of big studio budget gangster pulp, The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre triumphs like a highly entertaining true crime novel (index included) come to life. The best aspects have been imitated without credit for years and far less imagination. HBO or Martin Scorsese might have amplified the violence to retain the attention of that kid sitting next to me, but no Sopranos machismo is half as interesting as Corman bringing the movie to a dead halt so a gangster and his moll can have the fight of the century while the camera suddenly turns shakily handheld. Changing styles for just one scene! Pretty much every gangster movie owes this one a debt, with interest. Nice place you got here. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Palindromes (2004, Todd Solondz)



Todd Solondz is a man of deftly disguised humanity. Sympathetic characters for whom we do not merely relate but empathize are virtually extinct. The alternatives offered by "alternative" channels or faux independent subsidiaries of media conglomerates (like the distributors of this picture) are typically vapid soulless stand-ins for the author's egomania. When sketching a myriad of characters with the intent of satire, cheap and distancing stereotypes replace reality. Were Todd Solondz interested in belly laughs he might be Mike Judge, or if an urbanite, Harmony Korine. Comfortable and superior revulsion from movie weirdos like nerds and Mexicans has undergone a hipstercratic air, epitomized by the success of Napoleon Dynamite. Todd Solondz all but demands some degree of identification with his odd tragicomic characters on the fringe of society, and implicates us in their mistakes through understanding. With the worst behaved of his characters, including one or two in Palindromes, they can be awful to the point of uneasy pity when also this tragic and pathetic. Between Korine's verite and Judge's cartoon features Solondz seems to have genuinely taken influence from David Lynch with some skill, and a major exception: his dramas sometime become relativist black holes the space in which provokes moral quandary. That provocation is not easy to raise entertainingly. He shares with great satirists a natural ear for banalities taken for granted every day and the fallout when problems too big to be rationalized away force their way into daily routine. Instead of the hipster ironist method of dispassionately faking profundity for glibness.

The harrowing story of thirteen year old Aviva, played by a variety of actresses older and younger, is that of a runaway girl pregnant on purpose and despite the conceit of multiple actresses is truer to life than the conceits and occasionally actually funny. The film's centerpiece is Aviva's stay at an orphanage of, as Solondz originally titled Welcome to the Dollhouse, faggots and retards. These unwanted children saved mostly from abortion by the benign devout Christian "Mama Sunshine" have Solondz's greatest admiration in their innocence. Aviva is portrayed during this lengthy fugue by Sharon Wilkins, a fat black woman. At no time are any of these regular easy targets, the kind who populate phony comedies and dramas made by white suburbanites about "outsiders," exploited for their dignity just as poorly as they would be in a future Larry The Cable Guy installment. By comparison, the yuppie household Aviva runs away from is brimming with repressed privilege taken for granted by comparison to the rainbow collection of children's house in the woods which takes her in. Aviva's mother, played by Angela Pietropinto, has an amazing scene giving the quintessentially reasonable upper middle class argument for abortion to her baby obsessed daughter. Her previous lack of involvement with Aviva fostered the disastrous casual suburban sex with a dead eyed neighbor boy, and every step of the scandal is leaden with the snobbery.

The family may be Jewish, like Solondz's memorably dysfunctional family in Storytelling if only for some dueling religious contrast with the strong Christian environment of the orphanage. There's equal opportunity for moralizing in the end, although the fact remains that Aviva's biological will is stronger than an open-minded household can handle. Mama Sunshine's closest friends are secretly ordering a hit on the abortionist who happens to have operated on Aviva, with the employment of an adult who sexually took advantage of her after running away from home. The bliss of ignorance Mama Sunshine creates for the children protects her as well. Aviva's endorsement of the crime and misplaced affection for this John whom she hooked complicates audience sympathies as she continues to reach out helplessly to him and the he reeks of guilt for what he's done. I'm inclined to guess Solondz made Palindromes as an anti-abortion statement about the universal desire for motherhood, no matter how many actresses pay that yearning. Their variety is in the end a gimmick and far from the central philosophical grappling. Whatever his thoughts, Solondz has continued to demonstrate an understanding of views opposite his own and the perfect alchemy of cringing with contemplation.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Halloween II (1981, Rick Rosenthal) The ALAN SMITHEE COMMENTARY TRACK

Mr Sandman, bring me a dream!

As promised, the very special premiere of my first commentary track with Andrew of The Stop Button and our Alan Smithee Podcast: Just in time for - actually, a pre-emptive strike against Rob Zombie's Halloween II: The Sequel, our commentary is on Rick Rosenthal's 1981,Halloween II better known as "the one at the hospital"!


at iTunes


in MP3



Halloween II features great Dean Cundey photography and very Friday the 13th style everything else. While never scary, there's a ton of continuity from the first movie making it a fan favorite and as much as we make fun of it, we both agree the last 15 minutes are cool. It's one of the better 80s horror sequels that suck compared to the original, and good middling junk fun.

Join us as we revisit a quasi-slasher classic!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Coming This Week! All New! HALLOWEEN II (1981, Rick Rosenthal) Commentary Track!

Hey, folks!

This weekend I will be recording my first feature length film commentary with Andrew Wickliffe of The Stop Button on a very special episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast.



The film is the ORIGINAL Halloween II, in honor of Rob Zombie's Halloween II which opens August 28th. There are a lot of bad things to say and a few good ones too. We'll do our best.

Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, and stay tuned!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Orphan (2009, Jaume Collet-Serra)




The quasi-incestuous pedophiliac scenes of Orphan are already bound for footnotes in the downfall of Western Civilization. The sole unexpected moment in the whole move comes directly after (except the twist ending, which is only an explanation - we know she's evil pretty quickly - is whom is titular orphan Esther's second and final victim. Everything else is telegraphed miles ahead, even by the camera setups. In two hours, Alex Mace's story and David Johnson's screenplay use every minute to rip off every every killer kid klassic anyone has every seen and no manipulation comes as a surprise. Very little makes sense and happens only in service of the amalgamating the subgenre's beloved cliches, like the psycho who moves from family to family a la Terry O'Quinn in The Stepfather and the psyching-out of terrorized children a la The Good Son. In the role of The One Person Who Knows The Truth But Whom No One Believes is Vera Farmiga, as the mom. Her character had a drinking problem, you see, and in a slightly clever deviation from cliche, Farmiga was the one who wanted to adopt in the first place. Of course you the viewer already know that Esther is bad news. A lesser movie might've killed a lot of time forcing the audience to pretend to guess at what we already know is happening, like when the first act of Child's Play pretends we don't know for sure if Chucky is alive because that mom is still figuring. Thankfully doesn't turn into a superpowered ass kicking machine in the final act, and holds her own dramatically in the face of her disbelieving idiot husband and psychiatrist who think her ravings about Esther are just a bad case of buyer's remorse.

CCH Pounder brings a lot more nuance to her role as the nun who signs the adoption papers, and the kids playing Farmiga's two previous children are also well cast. They feel like a real family, or a least a real TV family. The boy playing the son has an intriguing turn when Esther takes his place as the dominant child, and the girl playing the young daughter has the dramatically anticipatory handicap of being deaf, yet neither of these details pay off. Mace and Johnson packed so many plants so many setups that Collet-Serra can't even get through them all. Instead, thankfully, he embraces the formula at hand and focuses on drawing credible performances from the oblivious victims and a sinister one from his lethal little lady.

The whole movie hangs on Isabelle Fuhrman as the orphan, and she's good enough. Some adoption agencies protested the film's advertising, which teased "There's something wrong with Esther, and you too if you're an easily offended bastard in a basket." The poster mirrors one half of Fuhrman's face to achieve a subtle creepy effect, athough her porcelain skin is practically normal by the pore-shrinking standards of modern movie poster photoshoppery. This and the other tagline, "Can you keep a secret?" both imply a lot more pretension and annoying guessing games than are actually in play - none whatsoever. Collet-Serra is refreshingly eager to please with his creepy kid and her bad behavior and everything is as it seems. Every escalation of danger happens comfortably by rote and with only two victims the film relies mainly on Esther's intimidation and manipulation of others for entertainment. This alone makes Esther one of the more memorable horror villains in a decade when the genre has sorely lacked good performances. What keeps her and the film far from classic status is that for as many fun killer kid kliches she embodies so schizophrenically well, there's nothing new to see. Having the girl simply be a manipulative psychopath and not the vengeful spirit of Farmiga's stillborn (as the dreamy prologue depicts) is a deliberate throwback after the recent epoch of creepy little Asian ghost girls. Like her predecessors, this evil tyke doesn't need special powers to get away with murder. Only an array of astonishingly stupid adults, the kind who have sex in the kitchen while their kids are in the other room.

That Collet-Serra's setpieces, all ripped from other movies anyway, have any excitement at all is a shocker considering how predictable everything is. Occasionally descending to complete tastelessness, as in the aforementioned seduction, Orphan is joyfully reverent to the cliches killer kid fans expect and plants its feet on each visible cue mark proudly.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Moon (2009, Duncan Jones)



The young lady behind me at Moon couldn't stop giggling at the Kevin Spacey smiley face robot. His voice comes out of a space age trash can on an arm that more resembles a piece of hospital bed apparatus than R2-D2, and the small LCD screen mounted in front like a blood pressure monitor instead displays a yellow smiley face that makes a lot of chatroom emoticon faces. Spacey's mellifluous voice is the only other co-star in terms of screen time besides Rockwell, more than the people he talks to or watches on a video screen. Films as solo acting performances are either boisterous or dispassionate, and fortunately Rockwell's bizarre non-reaction to discovering a duplicate of himself creates the mood of a great existential mystery. The film's other niche of the duplicated actor film hasn't been used this way before and the effect is successfully otherworldly. In space anything can happen in the movies, and while the ultimate revelation isn't transcendental, the curiousness of Rockwell literally finding himself in the same place at the same time - breaking the first law of physics - is allowed to linger for a while before the rather humdrum explanation. Rockwell isn't particularly easy to empathize with, but he's believable in a role that demands a lot of creation from silent discovery and contemplation.

Jones has made a refreshingly simple science fiction movie bereft of all the cliches which turn science fiction into action. The story would've been at home in paperback form, and possesses a subtlety occasionally interjected by the smiley face robot or great looking views of the alien lunar surface. Rockwell, having previously sullied himself in the long awaited, instantly forgotten The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy acquits himself admirably in holding convincing conversations with pieces of plastic, and actors who aren't there, even when they're him. Paranoids way wish to observe Rockwell's character in Hitch-Hiker's had two heads. When seen living in Moon's lunar space station, Rockwell feels home. The production design correlates to the bone dry humor of Rockwell having lived there brilliantly by fashioning the architecture out of modern IKEA inspired minimalism. The pristine phoniness recalls 2001, both films could be travel brochures for commercial space living except Rockwell keeps a pile of dirty laundry and belongings against the wall of his private quarters. His world feels more plausible than any grungy cyberpunk sci-fi dorm room. Outside the station, the miniature and model work of the moon's landscape is superb during some extensive moon buggy driving sequences.

Jones' fable of a clock punching astronaut bears a lot of resemblance to the long allegorical chapter about "Space Monkeys" in ultra feminist Susan Faludi's 1999 book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man: for all the hype surrounding the few men who had "the right stuff," ultimately they live as gears in a gigantic vehicle and life support machine. The appearance of a twin suggests thematically a loss of individuality, which is intriguing since the isolation of space is so all consuming, as is the weight of importance when there may only be a few dozen human beings in space at any time. Moon never lets on exactly how far in the future it takes place, only far enough for Rockwell to do the farming. By successfully hanging on Rockwell's performance, both blank and identifiable, Jones strikes the tone of his themes early and loudly enough to echo past the relatively uninspiring resolution. Despite a lot of empty space, the mood passes by with the quality of an old Twilight Zone or Outer Limits.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bloodsucking Freaks (1976, Joel M. Reed)



Lloyd Kaufman, director of The Toxic Avenger and distributor of this film to this day, remarked in his autobio that Bloodsucking Freaks is possibly the most morally irredeemable film the infamous Troma Entertainment ever associated with. I have long held The Toxic Avenger's hit and run/head crushing scene as the personal barometer of offense. Every longtime exploitation film fan likes to think of themselves impervious to any context of onscreen violence, yet we all have a film in mind that does the damage as personally as the sounds of nails on a chalkboard for some people, fingers on a rubber balloon for others, and still more sounds for each individual. Bloodsucking Freaks is ripped off from Hershel Gordon Lewis' The Wizard of Gore, about a stage magician of death whose "magic" murders are real, except in Freaks the women are supplied from a secret lair in the back of the New York theater owned by the evil Sardu and his dwarf henchman Ralphus. During their non-performing hours, they torture the nameless, faceless girls in an endless procession with minor interludes into ridiculous sublots about kidnapping a ballerina and a theater critic.

The real show is the torture, as Reed's original title The Incredible Torture Show denoted before the quizzical change to BSF. Kaufman's offense at his own company's pickup distribution title became apparent ominously at first. If this nameless woman being tortured is not really part of the act, why doesn't she scream for help? Then when we first see Sardu's recreational torture games backstage, why are all the women just taking it? The script refers to his racket as "white slavery," but how many white slaves just stand around like zombies waiting to be killed after having darts thrown in their bulls-eye painted butts? In one telling scene, Ralphus runs a shipping room to other white slavers full of live shaking shaking inside cardboard boxes. When one lamely springs out, he konks her on the head and marks the package FRAGILE. Bloodsucking Freaks has perhaps the most passive female victims in movie history. If you're the kind of person who yells at slasher movie bimbos for not running fast enough or in the right direction, BSF should make your head explode.

The mostly mute and naked women are objectified in a carnivalesque manner so pure and crude I've never seen before, actually making the film an important document: this is the film to distinguish true misogyny in exploitation films, as opposed to the various balances of cheap eroticism and righteous womanhood in rape/revenge film like , I Spit On Your Grave, all the way up to Savage Streets. The dirty little secret of films like those and that of Russ Meyer or Lloyd Kaufman is that for all their fear, exploitation and occasional mutilation of the female form, these movies always contain some degree of empathy for them to soften the exploitation of their sex appeal. There's nothing remotely erotic about Bloodsucking Freaks, which neatly reduces countless naked women into meat for gran guignol death setpieces. The sole male victim of Sardu in the whole film is eaten by a cage of women starved into mindless cannibals; growling and mewling as Ralphus the dwarf dances a happy jig. It's astonishing these women were even credited by name. The misogyny of the Hostel movies is by comparison deeply restrained and lacking such single minded focus on torture with a plot that touts omniscient moral superiority while hypocritically enjoying the pageantry of execution. Sardu's women victims are more disposable than Friday the 13th bimbos, and unlike them, Friday girls have a wealth of character by comparison - you might know what their favorite sandwich is before their head goes flying off, for instance.

Joel M. Reed might have intended to soften the blow of a movie about the novelty torture of women by making them faceless, in the sense that after awhile the cartoonish nature of constant set pieces in degradation would become anticipatory. The question of how low can things go is the same asked rhetorically by both viewers who do and do not want to find out. Low key hamball Seamus O'Brien's lead performance is a bearly passable Vincent Price imitation while Luis De Jesus simply leers at everything like a good creepy little person should do. The staging of scenes is as hokey as the setup, as if O'Brien is hosting a late night creature feature on TV while high pitched organ and calliope music screeches maniacally. The violence and gore is exactly along the creative lines of young boys with firecrackers and frogs, both gimmicky and skirting the line where cartoon violence meets real life consequences. I think this must have been where Kaufman took an interest in picking up this film. His Toxic Avenger head crush scene skirts that line for me personally and if cold blooded violence against women is your personal disturbance, Bloodsucking Freaks touches a raw nerve with the same tasteless black humor that The Toxic Avenger later tapped with verve, skill and by comparison a moral center buried somewhere.

The shoddy special effects are nonetheless consistently shocking thanks to their willingness to deliver on punchlines to every disturbing setup Reed conceives: one girl is placed in a guillotine and the draw string placed in her teeth, when she's tortured further into letting the string go, we see a fake head lopped off. When a woman's feet are sawed off, we see two painted broom handles dragged in crawling motion across a pool of blood intercut with the actress crying pitifully on her hands and knees. In a flabbergasting reversal of expectations, these fake looking effects become more real the longer we see them, which is always longer than necessary to make the point. The incessant screaming of the women helps bring you into the madness of each moment by inducing headaches. Troma's poster tagline "Join the fun! Home style brain surgery...Dental Hijinks!" actually refers to the same scene, the most protracted and sickly setpiece of the film involving a dentist who takes out "in trade" Sardu's dental bill on a woman victim. The fake head is then belabored upon so long that the scene takes on a life of it's own and you truly feel as though you're staring through some magic window into an actual deranged sadist's imagination, with comic relief.

According to an uncited claim on Wikipedia, Reed produced this film on commission from backers in the New York S&M market. Even if this is true, it's impossible to believe they could've wanted anything so simultaneously sadistic, disgusting and goofball.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Savage Streets (1984, Danny Steinmann)



Linda Blair's career trajectory took a camp icon turn somewhere along the line, not blossoming into other actresses debuting in horror like Jamie Lee Curtis or Sigourney Weaver. The often mocked The Exorcsit II: The Heretic was no Aliens and after some light dramatic work, the late 70s and early 80s brought starring roles in trash classics like Roller Boogie, Hell Night and Chained Heat. Savage Streets is the forgotten apotheosis of her career as a strong female lead in B movies. As exploitation, little is spared: the bad guys are ruthlessly sadistic, her righteous vengeance is merciless, there's a lot of cheesy original songs and jiggling to compliment the strong women. Popular on video, the recently pressed DVD has already gone out of print and goes for two or three times suggested retail price, which is unfortunate because this is so quintessentially of exploitation aficionado interest that Linnea Quigley shows up as Blair's mute goodie two shoes sister.

Danny Steinmann is best known as the director of Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning. Like the notorious Fred Dekker, he's a genre hack with essentially one trilogy of directorial outings respective fans mention. Steinmann having a background in porn before that, his tastes run a lot sleazier. Dekker has a zombie movie, a kids-befriend-monsters movie and a Robocop movie to his name, but before Friday Steinmann has gone unknown for the story of a deformed killer in a mansion flick The Unseen and Savage Streets. As director he brings the sensibility that no opportunity should be missed to intercut cheesecake, as during a long rape sequence we alternate seeing Linda Blair in a high school locker room towel fight with her rival teen queen bee. The story pits Blair's gang of tough high school girls against a psychotic gang of anachronistic greasers, led by Robert Dryer and backed up with by good overacting and distinctly goony personalities. Their violence and rape are played realistically in absurd performance, but the effect is more gritty than Friday 5. Blair on the other hand has a few one liners during her last act revenge eliminations.

Blair's teenage friends are a lot more interchangable, they're mainly eye candy and seem to live in a world without grownups and rarely with police. Is it a copout to say Steinmann creates their chemistry well when they're only being set up for Blair to avenge? The revenge subgenre of exploitation usually involves rape, since what other crime would most warrant gran guignol measures? The internal struggle is that no matter what, the woman taking revenge is a fetish and is subject to the lingering camera on her naked body, or in this case Linnea Quigley's, although Blair's are shown under less duress later. When Blair dons an all black leather suit for her revenge sequence, the icon is complete. This revenge and the violence of Dryer and his gang are as mean spirited as you could expect from the director of a Friday the 13th and likewise his disposition to the female form bears itself every chance he can throw in: if Blair's going to have a catfight with her prissy rival at school, she's going to tear that shirt of hers clean off.

The songs by which Blair gets pushed too far are rousing anthems, as stoic in the manner of their time as the inspirational butt rock of Rocky movie hit singles. Streets' are all about "justice for one, justice for all" and other highminded platitudes and Steinmann slows down the action to let us listen and contemplate, as when Linda Blair sits naked in a bathtub contemplating the leather outfit and crossbow she's about to arm herself with while cheesy power chords chant about justice. Tastefully distasteful, yet fulfilling the bottom line of the nudity you want to see. Savage Streets walks the line damn near perfectly between the female revenge exploitation genre as supposed female empowerment and girlie show, and does so with style.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Joysticks / Joy Sticks (1983, Greydon Clark)



In a blaze of grungy 80s excess, Joy Sticks takes the dubious honor of the greatest movie ever made to do with videogames. All they had to do was throw a lot of half naked women around an arcade and add the other basic comedy ingredients of nerds, fat guys and an older authority figure who wants the teenage hangout of sin and depravity shut down. The offhanded regard this film bears for the boilerplate setting makes the place equivalent to the raunchiest of cheesy comedies set in frat houses, private schools, dance halls, drive-ins, or anyplace where sexy girls go topless in the movies. Thus do tits meet videogames and this film stands high atop all childish attempts in the years to come. Uwe Boll can't or won't show enough skin in a body of work completely aimed at video game fans, let alone construct a sentence. The key may be the period; while the fine documentary King Of Kong hampered itself with dully ironic Karate Kid music, Joy Sticks is musically and all else a product of the time. Made when arcades were still popular with the kids and not a niche, everyone involved is shamelessly eager to please with earnestly bad jokes and hot bodies, tucked into the kind of sexy/tacky clothes American Apparel can only hope to imitate 25 years later.

This is not a good movie by any stretch, yet it triumphs as entertainment through breathless self indulgence. The great thing about director-producers like Greydon Clark is their mercenary attitude towards filmmaking. Rather than stray one step away from the cliches of the trash they're making, they include everything the audience wants and expects to see and in lieu of anything new to do, amplify their intensity as much as possible to giddy results. I haven't seen Clark's catalogue of 70s exploitation titles - Satan's Cheerleaders, Black Shampoo, Dracula Vs Frankenstein, Skinheads - but the versatile swagger speaks for itself. You can even order signed stills and check on upcoming personal appearances at from Greydonclark.com! What a great capitalist.

Before all the corporate cross media promotional kid flicks of the 90s and emotionally stunted video game movies for "adults" like Doom, this bold opportunist producer dared to cash in on the last days of the video arcade as a cultural phenomenon and make an R rated comedy for teens in a trendy place. Probably chosen between this and an aerobics studio, Greydon Clark made a raunchy comedy which dared intercut Pac-Man with tits and an original title song about playing video games. Everyone who even kinda likes video games, and loves stupid comedies with nudity owes themselves this incredible work of bad taste. In the days before Super Mario Brothers, videogames had a social rep somewhere near drug addiction. Playing Atari at home with grandma could be one thing, but arcades were inhabited by sweaty strangers and besides, you were throwing your money away. Joy Sticks validates those concerns first after the opening titles, when two teenage girls in a convertible strip for access to the newest games at the arcade. Later we see comical ethnic stereotypes flicking switchblades near Q-Bert so we know the manager isn't keeping out the riffraff.

If this film were made today, the manager or proprietor of such a zany establishment would be a Hollywood nerd, as in whomever they'll cast for the dramatic version of King of Kong. In 1983 Scott McGinnis plays Jefferson Bailey, a strapping preppy whose minimal duties include organizing "strip video" with the local valley bimbos. Even back in the early 80s, Clark must've realized the arcades of America not populated by children were occupied mainly by dorks. That just didn't matter, this was wish fulfillment comedy! The twangiest of the valley gals is the lovely Corinne Bohrer, who must've been changing bikinis on the highway going back and forth between this and Surf II (1984). She's squeaktastic. Rounding out Bailey's crew are a nerd - seemingly the only nerd in a whole arcade! - named Eugene whom everyone torments, including our hero, and a requisite William Paul animal comedy fat guy named Dorfus (door-fuss.) Real life fat guy and "Fat Boy #2" in Surf II Jim Greenleaf embodies the bigger-is-funnier ethos of the movie perfectly. He farts, belches, and in the film's most shining moment of politically incorrect humor, encourages nerd Eugene to take a housewife in her sleep.

The villains are even better. First we have Joe Don Baker as Corinne Bohrer's daddy, who adds his own sweat and gristle to the movie's sheen. He's far better playing fat cranky dads than hard boiled tough guys in the ludicrous Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic films Mitchell or Final Justice, the latter of which sadly was directed by Clark. Blustering and swinging his arms about in the best chicken fried slapstick mode he knows, Joe Don makes everything gel just by quivering his jowls in rage. The other bad guy is played by character actor Jonathan Gries, the only other actor you'll see whose career had gone or was going somewhere. "King Vidiot" is the centerpiece of the film in many ways; in a movie full of no-budget overacting his satellites somewhere in the region of Troma. Decked out in candy colored "punk" clothes and makeup while flanked by poodle haired punkettes who imitate Pac-Man ghosts, Gries enters every scene screaming, acts like a spaz, and exits like a maniac. He's awesome.

Pac-Man references aside, there are perhaps only three or four video games seen in Joysticks, out of dozens, that even video game historians would recognize. Aside from a few big titles like that and Donkey Kong whatever cabinets were at your local arcade varied entirely on your sales region across the country. Clark seems to have picked up whatever the cheapest were, as an early video game playoff between King Vidiot and Dorfus (with gigantic man sized joysticks, natch) over the obscure shooter Satan's Hollow features minutes of game playing intercut with shrieking video groupies. This is a far cry from Todd Holland's disinterested use of officially licensed Nintendo footage in The Wizard a movie for children and presumably fans of Nintendo, but that's because Holland wanted to be classy. Clark uses what he paid for liberally, also heavily featuring an unknown Pac-Man knockoff and the newest official Pac-Man sequel, Super-Pac, which bears little resemblance to the original. Namco also apparently OK'd the use of Pac-Man gobbling the screen itself to show the passage of time. Pac-Man was a bona fide American cultural phenomenon in his day, from joke books to cartoons and Buckner and Garcia novelty songs, but how many American film producers were looking to literally put him in the movies? Did Namco know there would be nudity? Todd Holland might have put more effort into making people playing video games exciting on film for his climactic Super Mario Brothers 3 battle, but Clark just said fuck it and threw some nudity in to keep things compelling.

The original soundtrack gives the film an insular bad movie a world onto itself, almost as much as the specifics of the arcade. Like many other low budget comedies, original songs were recorded for Joysticks and in the style of the times, there's a cheesy titular song in addition to incidental songs about being "video vidiots." The lyrics of the title song are as follows, and to be fully enjoyed needs to be heard during the film's credits sequence of a hot girl playing various video games:

Keen eyes/Quick hands
Energize/My soul again
Gonna See/My name in lights

PLAYING WITH MY JOYSTICK

Wiggle left/Jerk it right
Zappin' every/thing in sight
Shoot fast/Shoot straight
Video to the maaax!

One down/Two to go
Can't stop/on a roll

Videooooo! (JOYSTICKS)
I need another quarter!
Videooooo! (JOYSTICKS)
Please let me have a quarter!
Videooooo! (JOYSTICKS)
I got to have a quarter!

Totally awesome videogaaames!

Here they come/There they go
Humanoids/UFOs
All day/All night
Video to the maaax!

One down/Two to go
Can't stop/I'm on a roll

Videooooo! (JOYSTICKS)
I need another quarter!
Videooooo! (JOYSTICKS)
Please let me have a quarter!
Videooooo! (JOYSTICKS)
I got to have a quarter!

Totally awesome videogaaames!


This song is repeated during the epic final battle between King Vidiot and Bailey over a game of Super-Pac, at which times there are naked breasts intercut from the hanky panky happening elsewhere in the arcade. My brain nearly exploded with joy.

Joysticks is filthy fever dream for fans of 80s pop culture trash, which from what I hear is bigger than ever. This is the video game movie every game player wishes could be made today. A must watch.