Sunday 30 December 2012

Astro-Zombies: M3 - Cloned (2010)

Director: Ted V Mikels
Stars: Fletcher Sharp and Donna Hamblin

After avoiding sequels for almost forty years, Ted V Mikels began to embrace them as the century changed. His first was The Corpse Grinders 2 in 2000 and his second, Mark of the Astro-Zombies quickly followed in 2002. Then came three more originals, a couple of horror movies and a family film called Heart of a Boy, but Mikels apparently decided that what the world really needed most was more astro-zombies. Initially aiming at a trilogy, to be completed by the clumsily titled Astro-Zombies: M3 - Cloned, Mikels has already followed it up with Astro-Zombies: M4 - Invaders from Cyberspace, and as he isn't remotely out of energy at 83 years young, who knows how more may yet see the light of day. Next up looks like The Corpse Grinders 3, but surprisingly Mikels is only serving as its executive producer, the director's chair instead being relinquished in favour of a young Spanish filmmaker, Manolito Motosierra. Perhaps he's passing the torch.

As I'm a fan of the astro-zombies themselves far more than the films I've seen them in thus far, I'm not particularly against the concept of more pictures, but they aren't working out quite how I'd hoped. The first sequel fixed every one of the problems that plagued the original film, filling the screen with machete wielding astro-zombies rampaging through strip malls and the back streets of America. Yet it was ambitious enough in its use of early digital effects that it's painfully dated after only a decade, and the traditional effects were wildly inconsistent too. It was so full of detail that it often looked like a cinematic equivalent of the Bloomberg channel. Worst of all, the acting was, with a few notable exceptions, painfully amateurish. Mikels solves all those issues here but returns to some of the original ones. It's almost as if he's in constant reaction mode to the last film, aiming to improve on it in every way but forgetting the lessons he learned when making it.

That means that Astro Zombies: M3 - Cloned isn't the next step at all, it's an amalgam of its two predecessors. In fact, it's more than that. Mikels aims a little wider than he's ever done before to combine some of his other previous work into a single chronology. There's a DC universe; now we have a TVM universe. So, to combat the astro-zombie menace, we're given the Doll Squad. I even noticed a couple of cans of Lotus Cat Food, tying us into The Corpse Grinders too. I quite like this approach, but sadly it's done almost entirely the wrong way round. This is emphatically an astro-zombies picture with the Doll Squad only brought in at the end to clean up. I couldn't feel more strongly that the film would have been a much bigger success if these two sides had been given equal bandwidth. If this had been a Full Moon picture it would have been titled Doll Squad vs Astro-Zombies and that's really how the script should have been developed.

The plot is as complex and character filled as Mark of the Astro-Zombies, but it has a much better focus. Thankfully gone are the cheesy aliens with their papier maché crocodile heads, the Jar Jar Binkses of the TVM universe. Gone too are characters like Crystal Collins, who was quirky and fun but entirely unrelated to the story at hand. Instead we're grounded in a traditional story that pits the US government against itself. On one hand, we have the astro-man project, now government funded and run out of Area 51 because the military needs insane numbers of expendable killing machines. On the other hand, we have the Doll Squad, brought in to save the day, when shock horror, the astro-zombies run wild and start to massacre the general public. The subplots tie in, such as Leonard Bullock, a conspiracy theorist who writes books about this stuff, and Malvina Satana, some sort of enemy agent with her own troupe of men in black in dark sunglasses.
Many of the actors from Mark of the Astro-Zombies return here, but in Andy Sidaris style, none of them play the same roles, making this something of a surreal experience. At least the actors who shone brightest in the last film get the bigger roles in this one. I'd called out Donna Hamblin as being worth a lot more than just a mere secretary; sure enough, this time she's playing a major character: Dr Stephanie DeMarco, granddaughter of the creator of the astro-zombies. Volmar Franz, the George Carlin lookalike, switches from a linking character to the man in black who pressures Bullock. Scott Blacksher moves up from an angry henchman to a master sergeant with a Hitler moustache, overacting hilariously. He grew on me in the second film but he's like a force of nature in the third, yakking about 'cerebral cortex tampons' and hurling out lines like, 'I don't want any more brain dissertations. I want vicious killing machines that I can control!'

Going further back, two ladies return from much earlier pictures. Tura Satana returns for her third astro-zombies movie and her last screen role, though in a rather bizarre fashion. This time she's Malvina Satana, presumably the third in a family that carelessly loses a member every time out. This sibling gets less screen time than her sisters, presumably because of health concerns, Tura spending time in hospital around this point. Her dialogue is new, recorded specially for this film, but what we see is archive footage from The Astro-Zombies of Satana in her pink outfit, displayed as a hologram. Francine York reprises her role as Sabrina from The Doll Squad, looking great and still in charge of the squad at the age of 72, even though it's been fully 37 years since we last saw her. That's over half her lifetime, but she's going strong. Sadly, she only interacts with the story over the phone, like Henry Fonda in Tentacles, as she's supposedly stuck on assignment.

The thrust of the story follows the attempts of this new Dr DeMarco to raise a viable astro-zombie from DNA recovered from the Astro-Zombie Disintegration Grounds and then clone it. How she's supposed to achieve this, given that astro-zombies are Frankenstein-like constructs of parts from many human beings, I have no idea, but continuity has always been a tenuous concept in astro-zombie movies. This makes a lot more sense than bringing aliens into the mix like Mikels did in the last picture, though it does beggar belief that the doctor would raise her first zombie with a machete ready in his hand. I liked Donna Hamblin as Stephanie De Marco. She brags a little about feeling like God as her subject comes to life, but she's a truly dedicated scientist who won't allow herself to be distracted by things like husbands. She's also down to earth enough to wear glasses and constantly tousled hair, all the more sexy for not trying to be.

Unfortunately her superiors aren't quite so dedicated and, of course, one of them is a traitor to the cause, secretly working for the holographic Malvina Satana, who now owns the disembodied head of Dr Septimus DeMarco, Stephanie's grandfather, which chatters away in the background. Fletcher Sharp is apparently one of the focal points as Randolph, some sort of agent who fits into the chain of command somewhere, but he gets worse as the film runs on. It's only when he gets longer speeches towards the end that we realise how bad he is. Higher up the chain is Gen Ivan Mikacev, in the form of Ted V Mikels himself, who sets the project in motion at, get this, an Area 51 Bioterrorism Conference. There's no way that could ever be misconstrued, right? He believes the US army needs man-killing machines, hundreds of thousands of the things. Mikels is good as the general, but goes way over the top as his happy hippy twin brother, Crazy Peter.
To keep us on our toes, there are a host of other characters dotted around this story who we can't fail but recognise from the previous one, even though they're in new roles here. As Agent WQ9, Shanti takes a keen interest in the conference. She's as wonderful in her dark hat, glasses and coat as Agent WQ9 as she wasn't as Dr Owens, the remote viewer, in Mark of the Astro-Zombies. She works for Sen Caldwell, who was Gen Kingston in that film. Most confusingly, the President of the United States in the last picture has been apparently demoted to just Dr DeMarco's boss here. Fortunately the army of amateur actors who woodenly read their way through cue cards as lesser characters in the last film either don't reappear in this one at all or, at least, take much smaller roles with maybe just a single line of dialogue. Unfortunately Scott Miller doesn't return, which possibly explains why he's missing an IMDb credit for his role in Mark of the Astro-Zombies.

I mention all these characters because I get the feeling that the script grew around them. The heart of the story is simple: the army raises more astro-zombies, they go on a rampage and the Doll Squad gets called in to dispose of them. Unfortunately, getting to the rampage is a long and tedious process that seems designed mostly to give a large ensemble of actors something to do. I'd hazard a guess that Mikels rewrote every time a new actor committed to the project, entirely so that each of them would have something to do. As you can imagine, the wider picture suffers greatly from this approach, to the point that we wish everyone would quit talking and let us see some astro-zombies rampaging around somewhere with machetes. We don't get clones until 67 minutes in, very strange clones that are different shapes and sizes, but even then they escape their cloning room only to go hang out in the desert looking moody.

It's no less than 79 minutes in when the action really starts. The astro-zombies go wild out in the sticks and the Doll Squad finally show up with cool blowguns and explosive darts to take them down. It gets serious at the 85 minute mark, when their leader escapes captivity to join them. She's Queen Amazon, so named because Sara Dunn is a voluptuous bundle of curves, and she's a promising character, but she's unfortunately absent for much of the picture, having been torn away from it before she could join in by a drag queen assassin played by the legendary Peaches Christ. It's always great to see Peaches, a midnight movie maven and champion of underground film in San Francisco, on screen again but one reading of this story could suggest that she, by neatly crippling the Doll Squad, is the reason the movie derails. Film four should have followed a movie fan back in time to assassinate the assassin and so shift the thrust of the story back to the Doll Squad vs Astro-Zombies concept it should always have been.

And that's how I left this film. So much is improved on Mark of the Astro-Zombies. The production quality is stronger, the acting is more accomplished and the effects are notably improved. Even the continuity, hardly a key focus in a Ted V Mikels picture, is more consistent. Yet on the flipside, the frenetic energy of the second film is gone too, leaving this one overlong and a little boring. It isn't like the original 1968 picture, which was boring because nothing much happened. Here, it's that what happens isn't what we want to see. We want to see a slew of rampaging astro-zombies like we were gifted with in the second film. We want to see the Doll Squad infiltrating the military and tracking down the menace at hand. The Doll Squad is my favourite Mikels film thus far and I was excited at the opportunity to watch them kick ass again. Unfortunately we get very little of either: leaving this scant on Doll Squad and scant on astro-zombies. So what's the point?

Saturday 29 December 2012

The Haunted World of El Superbeasto (2009)

Director: Rob Zombie
Stars: Tom Papa, Sheri Moon Zombie, Rosario Dawson and Paul Giamatti

Obviously a labour of love for Rob Zombie, The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, an old school animated feature based on his comic book series, was stuck in production for years while other, more commercial propositions, concentrated his attention, especially the reboot of the Halloween franchise. However, he stuck at it and, as his name became more important within the industry, the budget ballooned from a half million dollars to ten. The catch is that the film is so effectively an outpouring of everything that Zombie loves from a hundred years of pop culture that the target audience is effectively him. Others may get kicks out of it, but they're only going to get a fraction of what Zombie threw in and, especially to young audiences, that fraction could end up as a tiny one indeed. I recognised a lot but I missed a lot too. I left it amused but unimpressed, interested more in the musical cartoon series cited as its key influence, Sabrina and the Groovie Goolies.

Now, Sabrina and the Groovie Goolies was a children's show, a spinoff of Sabrina and the Teenage Witch, itself a spinoff of The Archie Comedy Hour, all shown by CBS on network television. As you might imagine, Zombie's version isn't remotely kid friendly, though frankly it's kids who may just love it the most. It maintains a ten year old's level of humour, but transplants it into a very adult feature full of sex, violence and bad language, not to mention death. If anyone was insane enough to try to screen this on CBS, they'd need to trim it down from 77 minutes to about 10, and they'd still get complaints. Common comparisons to Ralph Bakshi's adult animations are almost entirely invalid, as the tone is utterly different. Comparisons to John Krikfalusi's Ren & Stimpy are fairer, as they share both a look and some of the same animators, but this film goes far beyond that show's ​​​innuendo. Zombie has said that it's what would happen 'if SpongeBob and Scooby-Doo were filthy.'

While it's almost impossible to focus on the big picture here because there's so much to distract us, there is an actual story and it's a pretty simple one. We're given a hero, El Superbeasto, and a villain, Dr Satan, who used to be nerdy little Steve Wachowski but turned to the diabolic side after receiving one too many wedgies at school from the hero. From his secret lair, Dr Satan searches the globe for a woman whose body sports the mark of the beast, so he can make her his unholy bride in the high school gym and so, in accordance with legend, become all-powerful, but villain and hero are destined to tussle again as Dr Satan's intended turns out to be Velvet von Black, a stripper whose magnificent mammaries El Superbeasto has fallen head over heels in lust with. To get her back and stop Dr Satan's quest for power, he needs the help of his sister, an eyepatched super agent on a quest to head off the second coming of the Third Reich. You know, the usual.
Realistically though, nobody cares about the story. We care about the characters and where they came from, because half the fun is in riding the attention deficit rollercoaster without a care in the world and the other half is in figuring out the plethora of pop culture references. El Superbeasto in particular, did nothing for me, being as egotistical as cartoonly possible and driven entirely by his appetites. That's not to detract from the voicework of Tom Papa, the stand up comedian who wrote the script from Zombie's material, because he does a great job. I just wasn't interested in the hero at all, except for the fact that he's a Mexican wrestler turned actor in a suit and a luchador mask, just like El Santo, Blue Demon and their cohorts. The movies he shoots are far more exploitational than anything I've ever seen in Mexican wrestling cinema, but it's truly refreshing for this film fan to see the lead character in an American film be a masked luchador not played by Jack Black.

I was more impressed by Suzy-X, not just because she's a bodacious and hyper version of Christina Lindberg but because she's forever kicking ass in spectacular fashion. We first meet her infiltrating a mountaintop castle full of Nazi werewolves in search of a jar that contains the disembodied but still very much alive head of Adolf Hitler. Yes, that's a reference to They Saved Hitler's Brain. She makes it out alive with der Führer's head, only to be chased by an army of Nazi zombies. Luckily she has her very own transforming robot sidekick, Murray, a take on the robot in the Bela Lugosi serial The Phantom Creeps, who is both smitten with his mistress and hornier than a ten peckered owl. Even with the innuendo stripped away for mass consumption, I'd love to see a Suzy-X cartoon show. Talk about action packed! Sheri Moon Zombie, who's more than a little cartoonish to begin with, is utterly perfect for the part. This is by far her best role and she nails it absolutely.

Of course, younger audiences aren't going to get these references and I wonder how much it will matter. Even if they haven't seen an El Santo movie they may get the Mexican wrestling concept from ¡Mucha Lucha! or Nacho Libre. They may not have seen Thriller: A Cruel Picture, but they'll recognise its influence in the Bride from Tarantino's Kill Bill. What they'll think of Murray, I have no idea, but it'll probably tie to anime rather than classic movie serials. I'd doubt if many even know what classic movie serials were. The whole movie is full of this sort of cultural disconnect. It even begins in black and white with an introduction, title screen and score reminiscent of the Universal version of Frankenstein. Most tellingly, Velvet von Black is a sure nod to old school go go dancers and blaxploitation, with Rosario Dawson's foul mouthed voicework exceeding anything I've seen from the seventies, but nowadays she's probably going to be interpreted as a Jerry Springer guest.

I can't even nail many of the references and, as a reviewer of fringe movies across the decades, I ought to do pretty well at it. While clearly there's a lot of German expressionism in Dr Satan's first appearance, I'm sure I recognise the mask he wears but I just can't place it. I swear I know where his assistant, Otto the talking gorilla with a smart screw in his head, is sourced from as well, but it eludes me for now. Of course, what felt like every B movie back in the forties had its own man in a gorilla suit, but one day I might stumble back onto the one with a screw in its head. It's difficult to concentrate on that here with so many other characters to recognise spattered up onto the screen like buckshot. The majority vanish as soon as they arrive, just there to be a background reference, so we have to either try to recognise what we can on the assumption that, like Pokémon, we can't catch 'em all, or we go back and watch the whole damn film on slow frame advance.
To illustrate the problem, let's just look at the Haunted Palace, the titty bar that El Superbeasto frequents and is itself a Roger Corman reference. He runs over Michael Myers getting there, but inside are many more characters who may or may not be deliberate references. Many certainly are: I caught Leatherface, an alien exploding from John Hurt's chest, the fifties Fly, Jack Torrance from The Shining, the Bride of Frankenstein and the Christopher Lee era Count Dracula just from his first visit. Velvet von Black's routine is introduced by Peter Lorre, while Rudy Vallée croons her theme song through his megaphone. Baby and Captain Spaulding from House of 1000 Corpses sit at a table with Otis B Driftwood, The Devil's Rejects version. Later, he tries to get fresh with Varla from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! I saw Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc and the Phantom of the Opera too, but are the rest merely generic monsters in this world of Monsterland? Who did I miss?

Certainly I missed some of the guest stars. I did catch Danny Trejo as one of El Superbeasto's old homies, in a Hispanic scene that's painfully stereotypical until it's turned neatly on its head; Ken Foree as a presumed Fritz the Cat homage by the name of Luke St Luke who spends most of the picture stuck inside El Superbeasto's trousers; and Tura Satana briefly revisiting her most famous character for a mere thirteen seconds. She's denied the opportunity to take down Driftwood, which would have been fun to see but it's good to hear Varla again regardless. Bill Moseley and Sid Haig reprise their regular roles for Zombie as Driftwood and Spaulding. Clint Howard is Joe Cthulhu, the bartender at the Haunted Palace, Cassandra Petersen is one of the vapid bimbos auditioning for El Superbeasto's kinky porn movie and Dee Wallace is... well, I haven't quite figured out who she is yet but she's in here too. None of these roles are large, but some are tiny even for cameos.

Spotting references for 77 minutes can be tiring, even under the influence, strangely a vice not brought into the story, so Zombie distracts us by making it a musical with original songs from a comedy duo called Hard & Phirm, who do a fair job of providing a versatile set of songs that don't just entertain but help provide background to some of the characters. Some descend too easily into the puerile tone and become quickly forgettable, but a few are real gems. My favourite is the recurring theme of the zombie Nazis, which is a stream of consciousness piece that describes in precise detail exactly what's going on, just like Weird Al Yankovic's Trapped in the Drive-Thru. It also highlights how much detail is king here, because Suzy-X's action aside, the best bits are the little bits: the Benny Hill homage, the QVC moments or El Superbeasto's Domo Arigato, Mr Roboto ringtone. It's a shame that they outshine the big picture, which works best when being described.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Mark of the Astro-Zombies (2002)

Director: Ted V Mikels
Stars: Tura Satana, Liz Renay and Brinke Stevens

The Astro-Zombies­ was one of those cheap B-movies that I really want to love but can't quite find the conviction to do so. It had everything it needed to succeed: an imaginative horror/scifi monster with a cool mask and a quirky gimmick, John Carradine as a mad scientist with a bizarrely hunched mute assistant and Tura Satana as a dangerous and exotic foreign agent. Yet it fell short in almost every way. There was only a single astro-zombie for a start, even though there was nothing to the costume but the mask. He didn't get to kill often and when he did it was painfully slow. The various subplots took a long while to connect together, so we weren't sure quite what we should be paying attention to. Almost every scene was drawn out through lackluster editing. It looks awesome as a three minute trailer, but it didn't extend out well to the feature length, ending up as nothing more than a sad disappointment and a lost opportunity. And a Misfits song, of course.

When filmmaker Ted V Mikels returned to the concept no less than 34 years later to shoot a sequel and reinvention, he seems to have aimed very deliberately at avoiding every single one of those complaints. In fact he begins Mark of the Astro-Zombies with a rampaging mob of astro-zombies, raging through a strip mall with their machetes and killing with abandon. There are literally more kills by astro-zombies within the first three minutes of this film than during its entire predecessor, and that's just the first rampage. A couple of minutes later, there's another one, with more yet to come. The pace and editing are so fast that, for a while, we read the background as much as we hear it. Mikels doesn't even slow down to introduce characters or situations, substituting creative dialogue for scrolling text thrown onto the screen. He brings back Tura Satana for her first picture since 1973's The Doll Squad and even resurrects John Carradine in the form of a special effect.

So you can't accuse Mikels of not paying attention to criticism, and frankly he delivers everything an astro-zombie nut might possibly request, along with a whole lot more, updating the franchise to a new generation. Does that make this film a good one, though? Well, no. Not remotely. In many ways it's more of an unholy mess than the last one. It's a sprawling nightmare of a picture with a cast that may just include half the city of Las Vegas, most of whom couldn't act their way out of a paper bag. It's also obviously shot on video with a bizarrely inconsistent set of special effects: the CGI is primitive but actually pretty good for a 2002 movie with this lack of budget; the gore work is transparent but reasonably effective; but the aliens are awful beyond description. Most of them are like Saturday morning cartoon nightmares with half fish, half crocodile heads that don't move. Their leader, Zekith, is a humanoid reptilian, like an alien from V in burned papier-maché and a barbarian robe. He's an action figure sprung to life.

And yes, aliens. In 1968, the astro-zombie was the creation of a human being, Dr DeMarco, a mad scientist sacked from the US space programme. In 2002, that hasn't changed because he's here too as a disembodied head kept alive by a rival for its insight. Tura Satana's character is the sister of the agent he killed in the first film and she seeks her revenge in this one. Yet, the astro-zombies here are created by evil aliens from a giant asteroid who, according to the opening, 'have come to force their intentions upon us'. Presumably 'their intentions' translates into 'bloody death' and little else, because their instructions to their creations are as simple as could be: 'Kill! Kill! Kill!' doesn't leave much room for misinterpretation. This is the reinvention part, this somehow being a sequel, a remake and a reboot all in one. With aliens. Who speak in the deep manipulated voices that bad cartoons use. So get used to that, OK? If you can't get past the aliens, you might as well give up.

As crazy as the story gets, there is one and it has a whole ensemble of characters. I got the feeling that Mikels cast anyone who agreed to show up, whenever they showed up, shot their entire parts in a single day and then spliced it all together later. Certainly every scene with either Tura Satana or Brinke Stevens was shot over a mere two days. At least they're experienced actors, especially Stevens, who's a delight here as Cindy Natale, a pleasingly short skirted TV reporter for News 13. It's hardly the deepest or most substantial role she's ever landed, but she does everything asked of her with a twinkle in her eye and a spring in her step. Except when she's kidnapped by Malvira Satana, of course. As her namesake, Tura Satana gets more to do than she's had since Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which was shot 37 years earlier when she was 27. She's a lot older and a lot larger here but the old Varla magic still shows when she shouts at Zokar, her obnoxious assistant.
Of course, with an alien invasion going on, if you can call rampaging astro-zombies with machetes an alien invasion, the President has to get called. Here that's Ward Pennington, who in the form of Gene Paul Jones looks rather Reagan-esque, but the similarities stop there. Pennington can't even get the Oval Office for his debriefing, because it wasn't available. What could be going on that's so important that the president can't meet in the Oval Office to remediate an alien invasion? Well, the sort that won't call in the big guns, that's who, because it's too soon. Instead he has his military attaché, Gen Kingston, assemble a crack team of doctors, scientists and experts to figure out how to respond. Yeah, that's totally what Reagan would do. Of course he'd let Kingston hire a 'specialist in interplanetary communications' who's more than a little reminiscent of George Carlin to consult with a lecturer on remote viewing who looks like a bad fortune teller. Of course he would.

Actually, Volmar Franz, the George Carlin lookalike who plays Dr Randolph West, is one of the few lesser names here who can actually act, even though he's only made it into one film not directed by Mikels. There are a few budding hopefuls, to be fair, but none get much screen time. Donna Hamblin is capable, but she only plays a secretary. Scott Miller lives up to his brief part as a capable FBI agent even though he tries a little too hard. He's still head and shoulders above most of the cast, who are often unintentionally hilarious. I wouldn't even call them amateur actors, as that would suggest that they actually have a calling. Most of them feel like fifty-something office workers who got stuck in scrubs or suits and given a card to read. A conspiracy theorist might suggest that Mikels hypnotised them first or drugged them with serum to make them comply with his directions, if in word only. Few of them could have heard of intonation, let alone what it means.

Some of them are here because they're characters in real life. Second billed is Liz Renay, the sort of larger than life celeb who makes it into John Waters movies. Hers was Desperate Living. Renay was a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, a stripper who worked an act with her daughter and a convicted felon, earning three years as the girlfriend of mobster Mickey Cohen. She divorced five husbands and outlived two more, which helps make her role here as Crystal Collins, a bloated Liz Taylor-ish actress who was abducted by aliens, all the more believable. She has precisely nothing to do with the rest of the plot, only there to add colour to proceedings. Shanti does likewise as the remote viewer, Dr Owens, with her oversize rings, clipped accent and wild make up, but she doesn't have Renay's charisma. Best known as Dr Wendy Altamura, Mikels' latter day companion, she shouldn't be on screen. 'I'm very uncomfortable with what I'm getting,' she says and we can believe it.

There's so much in this film that it's hard to decide what to focus on next. It feels like that was a challenge for Mikels too, when trying to hold the script together. Every shot seems to bring in a new character, setting or concept, perhaps all three. Oh look, there's a gratuitous shower scene! Hey, is that a completely different set of three-eyed aliens? Here's Mikels in a cameo with his hair mussed up but his trademark handlebar moustache left intact. There's the disembodied head of John Carradine bickering with Tura Satana. 'All you are is a bad form of taxidermy,' she tells him. 'Your cerebellum has long since expired from neglect,' he replies. One minute we're at NASA, the next in a morgue, then the president's briefing room. All of them look like hotel conference rooms with that recognisaby generic decoration. And whenever we might blink, there's another horde of machete wielding astro-zombies massacring another slew of willing locals.

Watching Mark of the Astro-Zombies feels like watching a half dozen exploitation movies thrown into a blender with scenes rearranged so that they make some sort of sense. The production cost was obviously not high with Mikels shooting on digital video rather than his usual film stock, but we get past that pretty quickly. Generalising horrendously, if you make it past ten minutes, you're going to stick it out; while you're likely to shake your head at the end of it and wonder how to get that hour and a half of your life back, somewhere deep inside you're going to be a little happier for having made the effort. Never mind the aliens, there's old school fun to be had in Tura Satana's hokey auction routine, Brinke Stevens will charm everyone and I defy you not to grin a huge grin through each astro-zombie rampage. I want to follow up right now with the clumsily titled Astro-Zombies: M3 - Cloned, with Francine York, Peaches Christ and, in her last film, Tura Satana.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Breaking Val (2007)

Directors: Joops Fragale and Michael Long
Stars: Lindy Star Taylor and Buddy Hyde

Florida based 386 Films now have a half dozen short films under their belt, with the most recent being The Guy Knows Everything, surely to be appearing at film festivals soon. I came in at film five, the excellent Date Night, then worked backwards through Simone and Parting to Breaking Val, the second of two shorts that kicked off 386 Films as a production company in 2007. While it's clear that co-founders Joops Fragale and Michael Long, who co-directed these first two shorts, have notably improved as filmmakers since that point, the vision that they've followed through the years was already in place here. Certainly there are obvious themes. The four that I've seen thus far are all dramas centered around women. I wouldn't call them feminist, but they certainly take a solid aim at traditional gender roles and it's telling that the only one with a strong male character is the one that Fragale didn't write. He's obviously drawn to strong female characters.

This time out, the strong female character is the Val of the title, but she couldn't find herself in a less strong position than the one she's in as the film opens. She's duct taped to a chair, looking up at the looming figure of her abusive husband, unable to escape a textureless tarped area that looks rather like a Dexter kill zone. She's a mess, purple from bruises and blood, but still sassy. 'Is that all you got, pussy?' she spits at her captor. She constantly puts him down. 'I have the balls,' she emphasises. It's almost like she's abusing him, but she's the one tied up and fearing for her life. He's tasked with little, merely to occupy the shadows as a silent, unsure and obviously unstable oppressor. Her voice is all we hear for a while, but eventually he speaks and we realise that he's a joke, stereotypical and clichéd, not because of bad writing but because he's not the character of substance that she is. He's just big and powerful, while she's everything else.
The film's synopsis tells us that they're Valarie and Tom, a blue collar couple in their fourth year of marriage. Clearly they're not as happy as others might imagine them to be. This latest spat is ostensibly about her sleeping with someone else, something he's been doing for years. It's only the setting for the film though, its focus is the relationship as a whole and the dynamics that led it down a dangerous path to this point. I'm not going to fault Buddy Hyde, who plays Tom, as he's given very little to do and all of it is to show that he's just a big dumb hunk of meat, not the most flattering role for an actor to play. It's Lindy Star Taylor under the spotlight, quite literally, and she dominates so effortlessly that I wondered if the few scenes where we see anyone else could have been cut to turn this into a one woman show. Maybe not, but the thought abides. As Fragale has pointed out, this isn't a 'girl tied to a chair' movie, this is a 'chair tied to a girl' movie.

Whenever Tom is in the room, she's a sassy bitch that hurls verbal abuse calculated to belittle him and diminish his control. Whenever he's gone, she demonstrates how panicked she really is, underlining her predicament, expressing her frustration and summoning the energy needed to enter another round. Eventually, of course, as the deceptively clever title suggests, someone or something has to break, and while I wasn't surprised at the outcome, I was still happy about it. The way it lingers into the end credits is especially appreciated. It's a very nice touch, and there are a few of those on offer to enhance what is really a very minimal set, with few props, lights or cast members to attract our attention. The camera moves pretty well around this confined space and the few glimpses of flashback are capably handled. This is clearly an early 386 Films piece and they've progressed since, but it's not an embarrassing resumé filler, it's a solid beginning.

Breaking Val can be viewed for free at Vimeo.

Parting (2008)

Director: Joops Fragale
Stars: Robbie Cox and Jennifer Ward

After reviewing Joops Fragale's Date Night and Simone, I couldn't resist working back to a couple of his earlier films that are available on Vimeo, Parting and Breaking Val. This one's much more minimal than his more recent films, but it's satisfying nonetheless, building neatly to a pleasing twist ending. It's entirely set at a single booth in a café, where a young couple argue about their relationship. I'd say that that's it, as the structure really is that simple, but it's only deceptively so. There's reason to the location, being where this couple first met, and reason to the dialogue that they run through. We don't discover that reason until the end, though there are a few hints dropped along the way, but this is far from being just a twist movie. The arguments have value all on their own, as the energy and focus alternates well between the two characters and both the actors do good work. So much of what they say has dual meanings, not least the title.

He's Calvin Roland, known as Cal and played by Robbie Cox in his debut on screen. He's honest and sincere, which combined with his eyes and his slight beard makes him a little reminiscent of Wil Wheaton. He's also shy and introverted and has trouble expressing himself, which is a focus here. He has dialogue in his head, great dialogue that he rarely gets to speak aloud because she has a habit of interrupting and taking over conversations, believing that she understands where he's going. She's Sara, played by Jennifer Ward, who would play the title character in Fragale's next short, Simone. Sara is very different from Simone, well adjusted and very comfortable with the world around her, one of the reasons for the frequent arguments she has with Cal, who isn't. Snippets show us how different they are, such as his difficulty in working for anyone compared to her lack of need to ever do so, being a trust fund baby. Both have material to unload.

The script by Gene Doucette is the big winner here. Even on my first time through, I knew that it was leading me somewhere, though I was never quite sure where, but it kept my interest while I puzzled it out. I did well, successfully nailing much of it but not quite everything, which helped the final scene work really well. Everything really builds up to that finalé and, running through the film again, I could see the cues that I'd missed as well as the ones I'd caught, all of which help to underline how well Doucette crafted his script. Fragale directs with a deceptively loose hand on this one, with none of the flash that he'd bring to Simone. The most obvious flaw is the lighting, a common complaint in Fragale's films. Here it often oversaturates, but it's no big deal, perhaps unintentionally serving as another script cue, given the very deliberate clothing choices. Cox's reddening face may also be either a subtle metaphor or another lighting flaw.

The actors is excellent, both of them building well as the film runs on. Cox has most screen time and he gets to both begin and end the story, so he's more of a focal point, but Ward refuses to let him dominate, fighting him for our attention as much as her character fights his to get her points across. Cal and Sara are an unlikely and problematic couple, as her wider vocabulary and better enunciation suggest, but they're a believable one, those problems not hurting the film at all but rather helping it, serving to provide depth both to us and especially to the actors who were clearly gifted with a great deal of opportunity to flesh out their characters. As they bicker back and forth towards a common understanding, we discover far more about this couple than we might ever have expected from a 22 minute short. That's a huge success. This isn't a showy or spectacular piece but it's an accomplished one worthy of repeat viewings.

Parting is available to view for free on Vimeo.

Monday 10 December 2012

The Doll Squad (1973)

Director: Ted V Mikels
Stars: Michael Ansara, Francine York and Anthony Eisley

Tura Satana got to be ahead of the curve a couple of times in her career. Our Man Flint dealt with man-made global warming in 1966. Here, Ted V Mikels starts The Doll Squad with the Challenger shuttle explosion in 1973. Well, it's really the launch of a rocket called Star-Flight XII but it does seem rather prophetic, especially as it lifts off from Cape Kennedy. The difference here is that the disintegration is deliberate, as a mysterious voice tells Senator Stockwell, head of the Defense Committee, right after launch but before the explosion. Fortunately, he has an IBM System 360 just down the corridor, with punchcards and coloured buttons and the ability to decide from next to no information which department should attack a particular problem. This time, the teleprinter suggests the Doll Squad as the most capable to investigate, under the leadership of SO-1 Sabrina Kincaid. This is Our Man Flint all over again, but with chicks kicking ass.

As you can imagine, the Doll Squad is a squad of dolls. In case, you don't grasp the concept from the name or the action that unfolds in lurid negative colours behind the credits, the tagline should do the trick. 'They're beautiful!' it reads. 'They're dangerous! They're deadly!' Really, that in itself is enough to warrant a viewing of The Doll Squad, but it proves to be pretty capable too. Sure, it's obviously not shot with a huge budget, the quarter of a million dollars Mikels claims to have spent on it certainly not all going on the production itself. It looks a lot better than The Corpse Grinders, made a year earlier, and it goes back to what Mikels did best, showcasing strong women. There's a lot more consistency than in The Astro-Zombies: all the characters, whether male or female, seem capable and decisive, the light feels appropriate and the changes of scenery are believable. The soundtrack is dated but appropriate. It all feels like an Andy Sidaris film without boobs.

Obviously the concept is completely ludicrous. The president allows Stockwell two weeks to make an investigation before he shuts down the Star-Flight XII program, but the senator believes, on the word of a computer, that it's more than enough for Kincaid to assemble a team, all of whom have day jobs, then track down and take down the mysterious villain. Sure, whatever you say, senator. Yet, ludicrous or not, it's also exploitation genius. No wonder Tarantino borrowed the concept to unleash a Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in Kill Bill. It really isn't a stretch to believe that Aaron Spelling borrowed it too when he created Charlie's Angels three years later, especially as he was invited to the film's premiére, but Mikels was never going to win his lawsuit. While they share a lead agent named Sabrina, the Sabrina here is more like Charlie. The jeeps, boats, bikinis and flares seem consistent but instead of three angels there are eight dolls and lots of death.
Nowadays, there would be a different teaser poster released for each of the girls, not to mention their own action figure if the film succeeded, so they deserve to be introduced individually. Most obvious by far is Francine York as Sabrina, clearly a better actor than the men who hire her. She was also more experienced, with numerous credits going back to 1961 in film and 1959 on TV. Still acting today at the age of 74, her last picture thus far is another for Mikels, Astro Zombies: M3 - Cloned, reprising this role. York had both connections and talent but sadly they somehow didn't translate to anything major on screen. Her lead roles were in lesser genre films like Wild Ones on Wheels or Space Probe Taurus, but she could only glimpse the big time in small parts or uncredited slots in vehicles for Elvis Presley, Jerry Lewis or Marlon Brando. I should track down some of her lead roles because she's very watchable here, for both her looks and her talent.

The girls on her team are a little more varied. The first two are quickly disposed of, so get little to do. They're Carol and Cherisse, a martial arts instructor and a scientist played by Carol Terry and Bret Zeller, though I'm not sure which is which. Judy McConnell, a former Miss Pennsylvania best known for her ten year run on Santa Barbara, is Elizabeth White, a librarian and psychiatrist. Tura Satana plays an exotic dancer, of course, exotically named Lavelle Sumara, but she's an expert in electronics too. She looks younger here than in The Astro-Zombies, though this came five years later. Leigh Christian is an Olympic swimmer called Sharon O'Connor. That leaves Jean London as a mystery girl called Kim Luval on her first doll mission, who's quickly kidnapped from an undercover gig in a carnival to be switched out with the villain's girlfriend, and Cat, played by one of Mikels's key castle women, Sherri Vernon, who also did the hair, make up and some editing.
These girls are pretty capable, for the most part, at least the ones who don't get themselves killed or kidnapped before they can do anything. They all look great, in costumes that either show a lot of skin or are tight enough to amply highlight what we can't see. They get matching jumpsuits too, with white lines to highlight their delightful profiles from the side, proving yet again that style and subterfuge are not incompatible in the world of exploitation film. Quite a few of these girls could have joined the Angels, Sherri Vernon acquitting herself particularly well. They do benefit from one of the most outrageous plot conveniences in film history though. They know who the villain of the piece is because it's Sabrina's old boyfriend, a former colleague gone mad called Eamon O'Reilly. She recognises his voice on the message he sent to the Senator and confirms her suspicions in the computer room twenty minutes in. How's that for a shortcut to the usual investigation plot?

Given that O'Reilly is mad, it may be understandable that he doesn't seem to grasp concepts like using a fake name or disguising his voice. He's also played by Michael Ansara, whose authoritative voice is one of his most powerful attributes and surely a key reason why Mikels hired him. He nails the role, looking and sounding exactly as he should, even when given inane dialogue to work with. 'I never make mistakes,' he intones, while outlining his secret plan to take over the world to the assassin sent to kill him. Ansara nearly makes us believe O'Reilly, but not quite. Christopher Lee couldn't have done it either; it's just that out there. Everything so far has tied to his need to obtain microfilm detailing America's ballistic missile plans, but then we discover that his maniacal plan has nothing to do with ballistic missiles in the slightest. This whole thing is constructed on utterly fake foundations that fall away the moment we ask our first question about consistency.
Mikels did well here nonetheless, delivering everything he aimed for. It runs along at a reasonable pace, never dragging and with something thrown in to distract us every time it might: a death scene, a bikini scene or one of the bizarre explosions that seem to be special effects on the film itself. Much has been mentioned of the various gun battles all being shot at night, a single night at that because Mikels could only get hold of one machine gun, so he handed it round to each actor he felt should use it, all during one long twelve hour shoot. Yet all that looks fine to me, if perhaps a little dark, while the explosions certainly needed work. Everything else technical looks fine, with Mikels's castle ably serving as the villain's island headquarters. You can't argue at the cost when shooting in your own home. It's edited much better than The Astro-Zombies, lit like The Corpse Grinders should have been and it all feels like a coherent, if flawed, piece of work.

The biggest flaw is with the script. Mikels often has scripts sitting around for years until he can get the funding to shoot them, but this one feels like it was written on the fly, like it was always going to be about ballistic missiles, only to be changed when Mikels couldn't figure out how to make that work. After all, if he could only get one machine gun, he wasn't likely to get hold of anything that looked remotely like a ballistic missile. The admirable build up sadly means that the various dolls in the Doll Squad get little to do. They each get their moments in the spotlight but not much more. While Tura Satana gets to take down a few enemies, it just isn't enough and she doesn't get to use any martial arts either. All the girls would have benefitted from a hand to hand combat scene or six and there's no reason why O'Reilly couldn't have had five times the guards, even if he had to have the same actors play them over and over again. More action is never a bad thing.

Yet they do enough for this to easily be seen as a feminist film. The male authority figures here, Senator Stockwell and Sabrina's boss, Victor Connelly, are capable men, unlike their equivalents in The Astro-Zombies, but generally men here are villains. There's only one girl in O'Reilly's operation and she's completely useless. Basically, the good guys here are girls and the bad guys are guys. It can't get more telling than the scene where O'Reilly explains the details of his plan to a crowded room of foreign agents, all of whom are male, while Sabrina surreptitiously listens to everything in her form fitting jumpsuit with its profile defining white line. How can this scene be read if not that the world is about to be destroyed by men but there's a good looking girl ready to save it? It's only a shame that Mikels couldn't get a sequel in place soon after, if only to give Tura Satana something worthy to work with. As it was, she vanished from the screen for almost thirty years.

Sunday 9 December 2012

The Astro-Zombies (1968)

Director: Ted V Mikels
Stars: Wendell Corey and John Carradine

Ted V Mikels is a name every explorer of exploitation film eventually discovers. He may not be one of the most talented filmmakers out there, but he's certainly one of the most colourful and, in his way, one of the most imaginative too. Partly that's because he's done almost everything there is to be done on a film, often for his own independent movies. Mostly, though, it's because he's so impressively eclectic, not even attempting a sequel until almost forty years into his career. The Astro-Zombies now has three of them, which fact would surely shock anyone who saw it in 1968, but back then it was something new again. His sixth film as a director, it followed a thriller (Strike Me Deadly), a nudie cutie (Dr Sex), an sexploitation movie (One Shocking Moment aka Suburban Affair), a race movie (The Black Klansman) and a go-go dancing flick (Girl in Gold Boots). At that point, horror and sci-fi were fresh territory and he had $37,000 from Wayne Rogers (Trapper John on M*A*S*H) and his partner, Eddie Altos, to work with.

For a while we have no idea what Mikels is going for here, because it takes so long to get there. A woman with an impressive cleavage drives home to listen to crickets in her garage and apparently stand still until the man in the cool Halloween mask in the shadows finally decides to kill her with a trowel. I love the blood spatter on her white Mustang and I love the mask, but this plays about as well as the battle sequence between toy robots and tanks that accompanies the opening credits. When they're over, we watch a driver die in a crashed car, only for a sleazy weirdo to sidle up and steal his corpse. Hang on, wasn't The Corpse Grinders Mikels's next picture? Then a man rewinds a reel to reel tape while being driven somewhere in LA in complete silence, while a secret agent recruits a former suspect to help investigate some mutilation murders, having been cleared by the doctor who's been working undercover in his lab for the last couple of months.

These are all long and rambling scenes with lax editing and they don't appear to have anything in common, so we can't help but wonder what this story is all about. We focus on the last angle first, not least because it's the only one with dialogue. The secret agent is Holman, the undercover man is Dr Porter and the suspect is Dr Petrovich, but this is all about his research partner, Dr DeMarco, who was dismissed from the Aerospace Research Center despite widespread successes. He'd built a mechanical heart, pioneered thought wave transmission and developed a silicon skin that can withstand being hit by micro-meteorites. It was all for the space program, which is building quasi-men to hurl into orbit and talk to via computer. No, I'm not sure what led Mikels in this direction either, or what it has to do with mutilation murders, but it's obviously important and warrants the attentions of Chuck Edwards, from the Subversives division. That sounds important, right?

Before we find out where this is going, we catch up with some of those other silent subplots. The man with the reel to reel tape is taking it to Satana, a foreign agent unsurprisingly played by Tura Satana, who's exquisitely exotic in such a black and white way that she looks like a kabuki actor. Obviously cast because of her work in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, she's just as tough here but she has minions to do her work for her now. She's even taught them karate moves and how to use cars as weapons, but she still has to step in and get things done. The hunching weirdo is Franchot, who works for Dr DeMarco in a sparsely furnished underground lab, obviously in a cellar. They're going to remove the dead driver's mind and put it on some sort of crystal using machinery that emits enough beeps and chirps to fill an entire Krautrock album. The missing piece of the puzzle is that the tape now with Satana comprises a lecture Dr DeMarco delivered. She wants his knowledge.
The biggest problem thus far is that it's boring. It's not incapably shot, with some decent angles and fair choreography. The sound is decent, both in what we hear and how we hear it. The story is patently ludicrous but it's fine for a B movie, as long as it ties all the strands together in the end. The acting isn't even terrible, though I wouldn't praise it too highly either and it's the supporting characters who are most interesting. The problem is that every shot runs on for far too long, as if there's sixty minutes of story stretched out to fill ninety so the editing is deliberately half hearted to compensate. For instance, when Franchot replaces the blood in the driver's corpse, it runs on so long that we wonder how many pints this man has. Dr DeMarco spouts so much techno-gibberish while lecturing to Franchot that we start laying bets on whether he'll ever get a line that means anything. I found these scenes play better audibly as an ambient slice of weirdness than visually.

Even at this point there's plenty of B movie potential. Tura Satana looks great in a variety of exotic costumes and she gets to pose stylishly while viciously killing CIA agents. The only thing that lets her down is the continuity: she asks questions after she's given the answers and her outfit changes colour without notice. Certainly she's a lot more interesting and efficient than her assistants, Juan and Tyros, who alternate between talented promise and imbecilic disappointment. There's mystery to Franchot too, Dr DeMarco's assistant, even though we're not convinced he even understands the English language. Certainly he never speaks and he turns and squints so often that I wanted to rewind the film and count the reused shots. He constantly appears to be on the verge of doing something outrageous, not least because he has a cute Asian girl in a bikini strapped to a table in Dr DeMarco's cellar laboratory that his master keeps distracting him away from.

Strangely it's the leads who disappoint most. Wendell Corey is top billed as Holman, but he slurs his way through his lines as if he's had too many to drink. Maybe he had, as his career nosedived due to alcohol abuse from films like Rear Window and Sorry, Wrong Number, not to mention a stint as president of the Academy, to films like this and he died soon after its release. John Carradine is surprisingly restrained as Dr DeMarco, given the material. He played so many mad scientists that he could play them in his sleep. Maybe he finally did, or maybe I've seen enough of them that yet another one failed to register. Pseudoscience works better in small doses and this one is dished up in overdose quantities. To my mind, neither of them are worth watching, but Chuck Edwards is even worse. 'You can't be all things to all people,' says Dr Porter, but he hadn't been anything to anyone, except a laugh at Satana's club when he successfully completes a drinking trick.
Perhaps it's that Mikels is much better at writing female characters than male ones. Certainly the CIA agents share a lot of screen time but don't ever seem to do anything of substance. Edwards isn't the only waste of space. Holman talks a lot but never leaves his office. Dr Porter serves only as a link between other characters. Dr Petrovich is supposedly important but he never does much. Dr DeMarco, the driver for much of this story, just tinkers around in pseudo-scientific fashion but only ever interacts with Franchot. Yet the female characters are all worth watching, even if they're only in the picture to be victims. To me, the most watchable characters were Satana and Janine Norwalk, in the form of Joan Patrick, a strong redhaired lady who's like a sixties version of Shirley Manson. She's Dr Petrovich's lab assistant and Dr Porter's girlfriend, as well as being the former assistant of Dr DeMarco. She gets to act as bait too to catch the mutilation murderer.

And of course, that's the character of the title, which is plural only to suggest what Mikels couldn't deliver. He's the quasi-man, the astro-man, the astro-zombie, whatever you want to call him, and he's bizarrely enjoyable whenever we actually get to see him, which isn't often enough to my way of thinking. In keeping with the rest of the effects in the film, which range from bad to really awful, his costume consists of one Halloween mask, which is admittedly cool enough that I'd be happy to buy one. It's also fundamentally important, given that he's a mechanical monster built out of human parts (remember those mutilation murders?) rather than an actual human being. So, given that he's powered by light and unwisely chooses to attack in the dark, he needs batteries to keep him going. This prompts the logically sound but frankly hilarious concept that he has to run home with a flashlight pointed at his skull when those batteries get knocked off in a fight.

I was expecting this to be a lot worse. It's not good, make no mistake about that, but there is a story here that makes reasonable sense. It's stupid, sure, but it's consistently stupid, at least until the glaring plot conveniences and day/night discrepancies towards the end. Its key value is really as the beginning of the collaboration between Mikels and Satana. Given that he enjoyed powerful women enough to fill his bona fide Californian castle with a continuously rolling bevy of beauties known as 'castle women', it's hardly surprising that he was drawn to her performance in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! For a brief time, she was one of his castle women and she's said in interviews that she enjoyed the experience. Certainly she came back for more, shooting three more films for Mikels over 37 years. In between, Mikels made other movies, some of which he even made money on. The thirteen months he spent on this legendary trashy masterpiece didn't earn him a dime.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Director: Russ Meyer
Star: Tura Satana

What a difference two years can make. In 1963, Tura Satana was working in Hollywood. She had a few lines as a Parisian prostitute in a Billy Wilder picture, then, as an uncredited stripper, served as the exotic backdrop for a Tijuana scene in a Dean Martin vehicle. In 1965, she was back on the big screen but this time playing the lead in a black and white indie flick for renegade filmmaker Russ Meyer. Not only is she the focus of the film rather than a distraction, the tone is utterly different. Irma la Douce may have been written around salacious subject matter, but so far around it that it assiduously avoids the sex that drives its characters. Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? was notably misogynistic, a sad product of its time. Yet this is something of a manifesto for feminine power, so much so that with hindsight, we might be excused for thinking that Satana should have been snapped up by Hollywood as the next big thing. In reality they were scared stiff of her.

Back in the sixties, American cinema was dominated by men and there were few good roles for women on or off the camera, talents like Bette Davis struggling to find material of substance and only Ida Lupino able to represent the fairer sex in the director's chair. Of course, it hasn't changed much today (just compare Hollywood's current output to that of modern French cinema) but it's better than it was. At least there's a strong indie scene, with a low cost of entry and a number of options for distribution. When this film came out, there were few indie filmmakers and they were mostly crooks. Meyer was a rarity, an auteur with a strong vision, the ability to make movies and the contacts to get them seen. He was a glamour photographer with early Playboy centrefolds to his name, he shot production stills for Hollywood movies and he filmed combat footage for the US Army during World War II. Many colleagues from those worlds also worked on his films.

It's something of an irony that it took Russ Meyer to champion the power of women, as he's hardly the epitome of the feminist. His first films, like The Immoral Mr Teas, Eve and the Handyman and Wild Gals of the Naked West fall into the nudie cutie genre, while his later ones, like Supervixens, Up! and Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens are unmistakable for their plentiful use of topless or naked women with impossibly large breasts. He's an exploitation filmmaker frequently described as sexist and there's much in his pictures that precludes him from being identified as a feminist. Yet, with a few of his mid-period black and white films and especially with Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, he was the brightest beacon of light, not for the equality of women but for the superiority of them, in the whole of American cinema. He equates sex with violence from the outset, putting that power firmly with 'this new breed, encased and contained within the supple skin of woman'.

Meyer had a type, certainly, but it went beyond huge breasts to a more buxom version of the old pinup standard, which is exemplified here by three otherwise different leading ladies: Tura Satana as Varla, an exotic Amazon with make up that enhances her cat like eyes; Haji, a continental vixen with a strong accent as Rosie; and Lori Williams as Billie, an all-American blonde. All three know how to move, being supple and flexible dancers even in tight jeans that emphasise hips and waists as well as breasts. Perhaps most importantly, all three possess a wild and strong spirit apparent whether dancing in a go-go bar or racing sports cars in the Mojave desert, both of which they do in the opening scenes. It's far from accidental that one is a traditionally female role while the other is traditionally male, as this film is all about obliterating those boundaries. Meyer's women are as powerful as they choose to be, as dominant as Varla, as submissive as Rosie or as free as Billie.
The first twenty minutes are a cinematic textbook worthy of exploration. The introduction is avant garde, featuring a growing number of spectographs of the narrator's voice, before exploding into life in a go-go bar. Meyer's camera literally looks up to these three powerful leads, except when they're wrestling in the water or sand. He places them into traditionally exploitative settings like exotic dances and catfights while demonstrating that they're not being exploited, in command of their own destinies. They're above the world at large, whose pecking order is mirrored within the trio. Meyer quickly establishes their respective places: Varla clearly dominant, Rosie submissive to her and Billie wild enough to question but not tough enough to challenge. Compare them to Linda, a bouncy Gidget­ clone who doesn't get out of her boyfriend's car until after him. She's as weak as the others are strong, but she can't comprehend their threat, not just to her but her way of life.

Watching Linda and Tommy interact with Varla and the others is almost surreal; it's easy to read it in a much wider cinematic context than it was ever intended. Linda and Tommy are happy, polite and asexual, even with Linda in a bikini, only able to function within the confines of a strict set of rules, like the Production Code under which mainstream American film had been restricted since 1934. Yet Varla and her girls ooze defiance and sexuality with every word, move and action, reminiscent of the precodes or, more prophetically, the films that would kill the Production Code only a couple of years later and lead to the temporary creative freedom of the early seventies. Like the Code was doing at the time, Linda and Tommy are fighting a battle they can't win as don't understand what they're fighting. 'Would you like a soft drink?' asks Linda, almost mindlessly happy. 'We don't like nothing soft,' replies Rosie. 'Everything we do is hard.' They're speaking a different language.

The most obvious new ground is set here too, namely Varla's murder of Tommy. Clean cut, with a cute girlfriend and an obsession with his car, which he tunes to perfection and races against the clock, Tommy is the epitome of the American boy. We don't need to be told that he was his high school's quarterback or he was voted King of the Prom, we just know. Yet he's just as unable to deal with these strange new girls as Linda. 'What's it mean if you don't beat anyone?' asks Varla and he actually tries to answer. His only defense is to not play her game, to retreat to his car and wait for reality to follow him. Unfortunately Linda presses him to race. Temporarily in his element again, he succeeds, but then Varla changes the rules and runs him off the track. He's lost again, unable to even leave his car until his damsel is in distress. Even then, Varla proves tougher than him. She leaves him dead on the sand and traditional American masculinity with him.
To be honest, the film could have ended there, with Varla snapping Tommy's neck, less than twenty minutes in, and critics like me would still have as much to say about it, but there's a story still to be told, sparked by a talkative gas station attendant. Out in the desert is a crippled old man, with a fortune stashed away on his property because he doesn't believe in banks, and Varla wants it all. What she finds isn't quite what she expects. The old man is a twisted character with a whole slew of secrets beyond the location of the money. He lives with two sons, one a brain damaged muscle man, tastefully known as The Vegetable, and another who seems to be fighting his own battles in the household. The ambiguity of the characters is appreciated: not one of the good guys is entirely good and not one of the bad girls is entirely bad, so we have to find our own moral ground in the maelstrom of motivations that the story rolls on through like the trains that are so frequently referenced.

There are about a million reasons why this film shouldn't work. It's a broadly painted big picture with a few little portraits within it. The acting is far from accomplished, with Satana shouting most of her lines, Williams whispering most of hers and Haji's accent proving as elusive as it is wild. For all the new ground it breaks, it chooses not to explore other taboos, such as the obvious lesbian relationship between Varla and Rosie or the proclivities of the old man. Yet it ably succeeds where greater films have failed, as it never loses the tension, danger and threat of violence that it starts with. Most of this is generated by Satana, who dominates effortlessly throughout. Rosie describes Varla as 'a velvet glove cast in iron' and it's a fair description; as tough as she is, and Satana did all her own stunts and fight scenes, she's unmistakably female. The old man's description is 'more stallion than man,' again highlighting grace and power without masculinity.

This is perhaps Russ Meyer's greatest film and certainly his most remembered. It has all the great composition of frame that he's known for, given his background in still photography, and the same sort of dynamic editing which creates much of the motion in most of his films. One rare departure from the norm here is the use of a cinematographer, Walter Schenk, who also shot Mudhoney, as Meyer tended to shoot his own films, in addition to writing, editing, producing, directing and, once home video became his biggest market, even answering the phone to take orders. Yet, unsurprisingly, it isn't Meyer people remember most about this film, it's Tura Satana. While Meyer was able to move on to more films, finding new, ever more buxom, stars to showcase in ever more outlandish plots, Satana found it harder. Of course, film wasn't her primary medium to begin with, being a hugely successful exotic dancer, but Meyer isn't the only one to regret that he never cast her again.

Her role here wasn't restricted to the character she played on screen. She designed her own make up and costume; wrote or improvised some of her dialogue, including a few of the choicest lines in the film; and added real martial arts knowledge to her fight scenes. She began to learn aikido and karate after she was gang raped at the age of nine by five men, then spent fifteen years exacting her revenge. No wonder she was so believable and so relentlessly tough as Varla; she really was as relentlessly tough as Varla. Whatever the provenance of the character, how much was written by Meyer and how much brought to the table by Satana, how much it's fictional and how much it's real, Varla is certainly one of the most abiding icons of exploitation cinema, so abiding that her influence has spread far beyond it. For a black and white 1965 indie film that cost a mere $45,000, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! continues to resonate today, as relevant as it ever was.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

Director: Panos Cosmatos
Stars: Michael Rogers, Scott Hylands and Eva Allen
This film was an official selection at the 8th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.
Surely the most uncompromising vision of recent years, this debut feature from second generation filmmaker Panos Cosmatos was immediately loved and hated; I was rather surprised to find myself somewhere in the middle. Aiming to create a film that could believably have been shot in 1983, the year Beyond the Black Rainbow is set, he surprisingly didn't dip into his father's output, which with pictures like Leviathan, Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II, is quintessentially eighties. The key influence was a concept. He remembers visiting a rental store called Video Addict as a child, but being too young to actually watch many of the horror/sci-fi movies available, imagined his own vesion of those films from their covers and the synopses on the backs of the boxes. If this film has a direct provenance, it's to all those imaginary versions of real movies that he conjured up when he was young, albeit combined with some of the real versions he saw years later.

There is a story, though it's a very simple one and it's drawn out through the power of art to much longer than would normally be the case. There's a deliberate absence of detail, right down to the exquisitely clinical architecture of the Arboria Institute in which we spend the majority of the film, so that everything here can be read in more than one way. Put simply, a young lady named Elena who has mysterious powers has been trapped in a near catatonic state within this institute, which is ironically dedicated to the goal of happiness, 'serenity through technology' as the motto has it. She's kept captive by Dr Barry Nyle, its sinister head of research, her powers dampened down by a mysterious pyramid at the heart of the institute. She may or may not be Nyle's own daughter and she may or may not have been at Arboria since she was born. Given that Nyle observes that she looks more and more like her mother, she may or may not also be a sexual obsession for him.

All this is kept ambiguous, but it becomes clearer on repeat viewings. It's far more likely that Elena is really the daughter of Dr Mercurio Arboria, the founder of the institute, and his wife, Anna. It's a sure bet that she doesn't believe Nyle to be her father, as her only dialogue is a telepathic plea to him to let her see him. However it's still possible, as Nyle certainly pursued Anna and eventually murdered her, under the influence of pharmacological experimentation gone horribly wrong, back in 1966, when Elena was born. At that point, she's depicted as some sort of star child, supposedly the beginning of a new age of enlightment, which of course fails to materialise. It may not be too much of a stretch to see Elena as the real experiment, created by Nyle through his obsession with Anna and using her as the means. However, it's Dr Arboria's death and the subsequent transfer of knowledge that allows Elena the means to overcome Nyle and the pyramid and make her escape.

In most films, delving that deeply into the storyline would mean providing spoilers, especially for a film released only two years ago. Here though, everything is kept so deliberately ambiguous and open to personal interpretation that I could tell you frankly what happens in any scene you like and it still wouldn't constitute a spoiler. While the story is there and perhaps enough repeat viewings can fully nail it down, it's hardly the most important part of the film. It's the feel of that story and the means by which it's told that Cosmatos was obviously aiming for most. You could call it style over substance, unashamedly so, but there is, at least, substance beneath the style. What makes this film so discussable is that as many arguments could be waged over the influences of the look and feel of the piece as to what it all actually means. The last film to truly fit that category may be 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was hilariously 42 years old when this was released.
Stanley Kubrick was clearly a major influence. The precise visual style, the deliberate pace and the careful use of sound are very reminiscent of Kubrick. The colour is too, with Elena a white symbol of purity throughout and Nyle frequently red, the Devil's colour. The fades to red are surely a nod to A Clockwork Orange. Most obviously, the set and furniture design is so clearly channelled from Kubrick that many scenes could easily have been alternative sets from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They're deceptively functional too, but in a subversive way. Rather than provide function, as would be the norm, they restrict it. There are no clocks so we're kept outside the flow of time, just in the year of 1983. Beyond not knowing where the Arboria Institute is, we have no idea of its internal geography either, even after an hour and a half, as the consistently sparse and sterile design frees us from spacial recognition too. We're as lost in time and space as Nyle within his acid trip.

David Cronenberg is another clear influence, with ideas borrowed from many of the films he made as the seventies became the eighties. When the pyramid's influence is dialled down, Elena has the psychic power to explode heads, a concept borrowed from Scanners. Most of the characters here only connect to the outside world through television, something inspired by Videodrome, and the ending is an overt nod to that film too. The idea of hacking the human body as a way to enhance our control of it is a frequent Cronenberg theme, here explored in a number of ways, most overtly through the Arboria Institute's dream of using 'benign pharmacology, sensory therapy and energy sculpting to create 'a different way to think, a new way to live, a perfect way to believe'. The fear of physical transformation is another, manifested here in the changes we see within Dr Nyle later in the film. Of course, Cronenberg often merges the psychological with the physical, as this does.

While I don't have a list, I'd be astounded if the titles that Cosmatos imagined into his versions at Video Addict included Cronenberg pictures, not least because they share a nationality, Cronenberg being from Toronto, while Cosmatos grew up on Vancouver Island. For all the connections, this isn't a Cronenberg picture though. The first half is mostly seventies science fiction, both American films like Silent Running and THX 1138 and Russian ones like Solaris and Stalker, the locations of all of these films being reminiscent in the isolation and sparse population of Arboria Institute and many of their settings and themes being touched upon also. Then, the second half turns into an eighties slasher movie, but with the style of the first half allowed to bleed through into it. The Cronenberg angles both overlay and underpin all that, as befits the filmmaker who originated the sci-fi/horror hybrids of the era that Cosmatos aimed at most.
No discussion of Beyond the Black Rainbow can fail to acknowledge the huge impact on the film of its score. Unlike any other picture I can name, it's intrinsically part of the piece. Given the visual style and the sparse dialogue, it might be an interesting experiment to watch the film on mute to see how much is lost. I'm sure it would be a notably lesser film but conversely, listening to the film without visuals is enjoyable. I don't mean a soundtrack album, I mean all 110 minutes stripped off the movie and played in entirety. It's ironic that we can then imagine our own movie from it, just as Cosmatos did from his videotapes. It's all generated on analogue synthesizers, but runs the gamut from ambient to krautrock via drone, Italian prog and John Carpenter themes. It merges seamlessly with Eric Paul's sound design to mimic the power of the pyramid and incorporate all the analogue clicks, beeps and tones of the props, even Nyle's voice.

In the end, the film's biggest success is in how all these elements work together as an immersive experience. While the stubbornly sedate pace makes it tough to pay attention and, on its own, will alienate most of its audience, I found myself rivetted. The music ties so closely to the sound and, by extension, to the delightfully analogue interfaces that are the antithesis of most technology in modern films that I found myself engrossed with the little details as much as the big picture. The actors do magnificent work, especially given that only Michael Rogers has much dialogue as Nyle and even then far less than the average. They have to compensate with body language, especially Eva Allen as Elena, who gets a large amount of screen time but hardly gets to speak. That makes them almost moving props for Cosmatos to manipulate along with everything else we see.

It really is an accomplished piece, uncompromising and not remotely commercial, but Cosmatos self-financed it and frankly doesn't care. He knew what he wanted to put on film and he achieved that. There's nothing here at all that tells us that this isn't a lost film from 1983, just knowledge that it isn't, it's 'a sort of imagining of an old film that doesn’t exist', as Cosmatos would have it. He shot the film on two thirds 35mm using a period Panavision camera, with exposure techniques used to raise the grain. Michael Rogers certainly looks like he stepped right out of the eighties; I surely can't be the only one to notice the resemblance between the controlling Dr Barry Nyle and the controlling Steve Jobs. Perhaps the key is in some of his words. 'I know who I am,' he explains to Elena. 'It's what gives me my confidence and my power.' While we may not understand exactly what Cosmatos tells us here, he certainly does and he tells it with confidence and power.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Nipples and Palm Trees (2012)

Director: Dylan Reynolds
Star: Matthew James

It's pretty clear from the provocative title that this film will find an audience, but it's less clear if it'll find the one it's aiming at. It's a fair title, given that we see a good deal of both nipples and palm trees as we follow its lead character through Los Angeles, but it's also a little misleading. It conjures up visions of a lost Andy Sidaris movie or perhaps a glitzy HBO Hollywood exposé, but this is deliberately grounded in the reality of everyday life at ground level in the city of Angels. The film's creators, Matthew James and Dylan Reynolds, claim inspiration from 'maverick filmmaking movements' from the French new wave to mumblecore and I can buy that, as it felt to me like a Tom Sharpe novel translated into American and adapted by John Cassevetes. Given that Sharpe wrote situations and Cassevetes was all about performance, the two approaches do clash but it's clashes that make the picture, not least the one between love and sex.

James, best known for his recurring role as Merl the demon on TV's Angel, wrote and produced Nipples and Palm Trees, presumably as an expansion of his 2009 short film, Jackson Harmony. More obviously, he reserved the lead role for himself and the camera rarely leaves him. It's fair to say that this picture stands or falls on his performance, but that's fortunately one of its high points. Jackson is a struggling artist in Los Angeles, which makes him Everyman, but he has a day job doing some sort of phone support for a photocopier company. Harmony is his girlfriend, or at least he thinks so. She doesn't live with him and she doesn't answer his calls but she does pop over out of the blue every once in a while to jump in the sack with him. I wouldn't describe that relationship as anything substantial, however stereotypically romantic the trip they take to the fair ends up being. Certainly her name isn't mirrored in any quality she brings to his life.

In fact Jackson's life is about as far away from harmony as it can get without becoming unstable. Everything in his world seems to be a struggle. He struggles as an artist, because people aren't buying his paintings and the galleries are jerking him around, so he has to work to make ends meet. He struggles with his relationship, obviously looking for more than Harmony is, more than she's willing or able to give back. He struggles with his urges too. For someone who's trying to get more out of his girlfriend than sex, everything else in his life appears to be driven by it. His paintings are pornographic, his conversational banter is built entirely from sexual metaphor and a couple of weeks of phone silence from Harmony is all it takes to drive him back to an Asian massage parlour for the full package from his favourite girl. Finally believing it's over, we quickly find that he can't keep it in his pants, literally honing in on girls who walk past him in the street.
Part of Jackson's charm is that he's constructed believably. He seems to be a nice guy, but he's riddled through with character flaws. He's confident, so it's not too hard to buy into how easily he finds women, even with a laid back, mumbling voice and perpetual two day stubble. Yet he has a quick temper, a knack of saying the wrong thing and the uncanny ability of finding the craziest bitches around. Perhaps it's because he finds them by following his dick, clueless about looking for anything but sex. He knows he's looking for more, but he can't figure it out or learn how to phrase it. 'A nice girl, not some crazy ass,' he explains to one man who's been invited to dinner by the same girl who invited him. He shows up with flowers and a bottle of wine but he doesn't know her name. He's very much his own worst enemy. James reminds a little of Tim Roth with a Nicolas Cage vibe, which fits well for me as to my mind only half of that is a compliment.

The other main character isn't really Harmony, though of course everything returns to her in the end. It's the city of Los Angeles, because the suggestion here is that what we see is normality in LA, that the city should be about love but is somehow unable to rise above sex. Given that the production quality is solid throughout, I can only assume that the shots of Jackson against the window in his apartment that have him bathed in so much light that he almost fades into it are a deliberate suggestion that he's one with the city. Of course, if we buy into the concept that all the men in LA are really looking for love while apparently looking for sex, we also have to buy into the flipside, that all the women are seriously crazy and absolutely only looking for sex. The women that Jackson finds certainly fit that bill, as evidenced through a succession of quirky, surreal and outright bizarre encounters that provide much of the humour in the film.

An uncredited Jacqui Holland is the first, an unnamed girl who literally struts past Jackson. 'I'm not just some hussy you met on the street,' she says, giving him a handjob in a back alley within a minute of meeting him. By the time she gets his name, it's over. It's hardly a good start for his quest to find 'a nice girl, not some crazy ass', but the next one is crazy as a loon. Then there's Liz, who he has high hopes of being the nice one, even though he meets her at a grocery store, but the romantic dinner at her place that he expects becomes hilariously weird before she ever gets there and gets weirder still by the minute. It's telling that the most down to earth girl that he meets is the most unusual: Cali, who lifts weights and tends plants outside a neighbouring apartment, but is played by Dallas Malloy, a female boxer and bodybuilder who plays guys more often than girls. It's also telling that she's the only girl in the film that he doesn't hit on.
Even Cali can't provide any real meaning here because it's not that sort of film. 'You love what you love' is the closest that she gets, and that simple piece of homespun philosophy drives the third act, which is as believable and appropriate as it is inevitable and unsatisfying. Of course, endings aren't what slice of life films are all about, they're about slices of life and this one is all about Jackson and his fumbling attempts to find meaning in his. Matthew James is excellent as Jackson, really good at externalising the inner conflict of his character. It's no stretch to believe that he's aching for something that he can't quantify, all the while being a slave to his pecker. Sadie Katz is solid as Harmony, not just an obvious object of desire but a character who exudes the emotions Jackson can't see. The supporting cast are consistently quirky and able, even if many scenes are so loose that they feel improvised.

And I do wonder about that. This is obviously a long term project, not only a 2012 indie feature but a 2009 short film too. James didn't merely star in both, he also wrote and produced. Dylan Reynolds edited, produced and directed. So how does something that they've worked on for so long feel so loose? Maybe it's finding actors who can keep both our belief and our attention as they spout inanity, like Akihiro Kitamura as Jackson's co-worker. He says absolutely nothing of substance and we can easily believe that he and James improvised their entire conversation on the spot, but it adds just the right colour to the background. Maybe it's by carefully writing key moments of meaning but improvising the blanket of banality around it to highlight how rarely Jackson encounters substance. Maybe it's all in the floating camerawork, which is rarely jerky and handheld but often so up close and personal that it's almost a conversation partner.

However it was achieved, Nipples and Palm Trees succeeds at being carefully loose, like one of the impressionistic paintings that fill Jackson's apartment. Like them, there's nothing here that we haven't seen before. Like them, it's painted in broad strokes that still manage to provide us with a coherent picture. Like them, it's full of emotion but may not have a soul. Its achievement may be in what artists always aim at with their paintings but rarely achieve, an immersion that forces us to ask questions, not just to wonder about what happens next but to take away what we see back to our own worlds. This isn't a groundbreaking piece of art, and it's not going to be for everyone, but it's successful at what it aims to do and it's difficult to suggest ways in which it could do it better. There are a hundred things that I'd like to have seen differently, but I realise that they're all about Jackson's life not about the movie. It is what it is, right?