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! 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


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
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.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Wizard (1989, Todd Holland)

Todd Holland directed many hilarious episodes of The Larry Sanders Show and several good episodes of Twin Peaks, so I at least knew this would be competently staged pablum. There's discernible skill on display in what he admitted at a New Beverly Cinema screening was simply grist for Fred Savage's potential film career and Nintendo payola. Despite the a heartwarming spin on Rain Man for kids with Nintendo in Reno substituting cards in Vegas, the screenplay was apparently written by David Chisholm with video games as an incidental skill chosen because kids play Super Mario and not poker. Once Nintendo was chosen by Universal to supply the games, the exclusive tie-in potential multiplied and two scenes were created which give this film its infamous reputation for campy crass commercialism: a climactic tournament of the soon to be released Super Mario Brothers 3, and a run-in with a bully who wields Nintendo's disastrous peripheral waste of money, The Power Glove - a futuristic looking glove which supposedly enabled what the Wii now does: motion controlled gaming. The latter is especially hilarious, yet Holland reigned in the entire rest of the film with the banal professionalism of a director who, as he described, pitched himself to the producers as someone whose ignorance of video games guaranteed their inclusion wouldn't happen at the story's expense. Unfortunately this principled approach leaves only a smarmy kids movie in which children go on the run to teach their parents a lesson and eventually triumph by outsmarting the cretinous boob adults who surround them, cracking wise all the way. Will Seltzer is particularly annoying as the missing child locator who hates kids and the parents he's ostensibly supposed to be helping.

The scenes to do with Nintendo are the only reason anyone remembers this tripe. There is also a fine pitch for the Universal Studios Theme Park when the moppets are chased through the King Kong ride and past park employees dressed as Frankenstein and Charlie Chaplin. There's never enough blatant tacky promotion of Nintendo to keep things interesting, nor even an attempt to work video games into the kids' characters - despite their mutual hobby, not once does Fred Savage roll his eyes and exclaim "Game Over, man!" which is disappointing. Compared to that other great landmark in product placement feature filmmaking Mac and Me, which had ET knockoff aliens being brought back from the grave with Coke and McDonald's, The Wizard is tame. Mac also had a total lack of respect for the audience, which ironically makes it more entertaining in retrospect. Despite Luke Edwards' character having some kind of post-trauma mute autism, his handicap is never exploited tastelessly the way Mac's wheelchair using lead boy was thrown off a freaking cliff so Mac could save him. Unless you count the funny moments when Fred Savage, like Tom Cruise, uses his savant brother to hustle "video heads" on the road to Reno for quick cash. In a delightful turn of ignorant screenwriting and child wish fulfillment, said vidiots are businessmen who bet money with 12 year olds over Double Dragon. If only there were more such nonsense to liven things up, instead of being quickly parsed plot functions! Having video games mentioned in "real" media, like movies and television, used to happen so infrequently it would send gamers into fits of ecstasy comparable only to comic book readers when some magazine interview with a famous person revealed they had a favorite super hero.

The retro hipsters in the theater with me had to wait good and long for a few seconds of Nintendo footage on 35mm to cheer. After the infamous Bully-With-A-Powerglove scene there's a good long wait until the Super Mario Brothers 3 scene, which somehow makes it all worth it if you catch a viewing with a crowd of game dorks. These are the only two scenes in which Holland has to try making people playing video games seem exciting on screen, and in this one the game is neither competitive for multiple players nor has been released. The film at least acknowledges this, before having one of Edwards' friends yell out tips about hidden secrets she couldn't possibly know. How? Why? Easy, for the kids at home to try when they buy Super Mario Brothers 3. All the rapid cuts between possibly the greatest game ever made, Fred Savage's reaction shots and the histrionic actor playing a way overexcited video game MC are what finally elevate The Wizard to high nostalgia camp, but only for the moment. There's no reason to recommend the film in full, the rest is too dull by comparison. Everyone with a career is simply, competently phoning it in, from Fred Savage to Lloyd Bridges as his dad and Christian Slater as his older brother. Everyone without a career is mugging like crazy, especially the aforementioned child bounty hunting villain who somewhat resembles a whiny Clarence Boddicker. Only Jenny Lewis as Savage's love interest registers any kind of charisma, selling their eventual obligatory PG love scene where Savage alone cannot.

View the best bits on YouTube and skip this, the funniest video game trash movie classic of all time is Joy Sticks.