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.

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