Wednesday 18 November 2015

The Fuzzy Fairy Incident: A Furry Tale (2000)

Director: Charlene Dunlap
Stars: Stoney, April, Sam and Molly

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

This week’s Weird Wednesday review isn’t remotely horrific, sexual or inappropriate in any way and I just hope that you won’t be too disappointed. However it is certainly weird, at least to me, because Charlene Dunlap didn’t just make one movie about dogs played by real dogs, but at least ten of them, according to her website, Canine Horizons, right up to the newest, The Whisperwood Arsonist, in which JD and Sydney, a pair of doggy detectives, solve the mystery of the arsonist who lights ‘suspicious fires on Whisperwood Lane’. In fact, that’s even a sequel, to The Theft of the Rothchild Ruby. Those films only run ten minutes or so and are available to view on YouTube, but this one, with its cuteness overload title, runs past thirty and is only available on DVD. There are five such half hour shorts for sale at Canine Horizons and I’ll be covering two of them for this week’s Weird Wednesday, starting with this one, which does at least have a plot and a three act structure. I’m still not quite sure what the other one has.

Dunlap is a dog lover, first and foremost, given how the variety of material on her website descends all the way to poodle limericks and cartoons, but a dog trainer not far after that. There’s nothing strange in that and she certainly seems like a very nice lady who cares very much for her animals and trains them to the best of her ability with patience. I don’t doubt that, based on what I see here. What I doubt is her sanity, because she seems utterly sincere in reading her dogs bedtime stories. At least when her fellow human co-actor, Lynn Franklin, answers the phone, realises it’s one of Charlene’s poodles and promptly hands it to her own, saying, ‘It’s for you, Sam,’ she does so with a knowing air to her, as if she’s playing along for the sake of the film. Charlene, who wrote, directed and edited, doesn’t seem to acknowledge any weirdness here at all. Her clear lack of acting ability doesn’t help, because we know inherently that the character we see is the character she is, simply because she can’t pretend not to be.
At least there’s an actual story here, if we can get past all the weirdness. Charlene has two poodles and she reads them stories at bedtime. Apparently, the favourite of both Stoney and April is The Fuzzy Fairy and we get to hear at least the gist of it as an introduction. It features Melody, a well-mannered poodle, who finds a fairy in her garden with invisible wings. It’s a mischievous creature, who likes doing things like knocking over the birdbath, and, because human beings can’t see fairies, Melody gets blamed. This does end happily, but I blinked and lost how that happened. It was that sort of story. Anyway, the key is that dogs can see fairies, who cause trouble without any chance of being caught because people can’t see them. Guess where our film is going to go, given that Charlene has brought home a magic trick set because she wants to build a routine around it for the local Dog Talent Show. If you can’t conjure up the rest of the plot, you really aren’t paying attention.

Yes, April takes the wand which Charlene left conveniently hanging off the table for her, waves it around and, hey, there’s a dog fairy played by Molly, who seriously gets an ‘introducing’ credit at the beginning as if she’s already signed by a major studio and booked to co-star with Vin Diesel in her next picture. At least she could out-act him too. Sure, Molly’s a mischevious little dog fairy, though she teleports around with a reasonable sparkly effect rather than flying around on invisible wings. I was hoping for that, but it clearly wasn’t anywhere in the budget to be found. Most of the rest of the movie revolves around Stoney and April finding themselves in all sorts of trouble, for which they’re never punished in the slightest, and trying to find a way out of it by using the cool techniques they learned during training, like calling in the cavalry and taking a Polaroid of the little monster knocking coloured toilet rolls off the counter. To show the depth of humour here, they’re even taken to Dr Q T Wags, dog psychologist. Actually I liked that.
I found The Fuzzy Fairy Incident: A Furry Tale pretty awful, both as a story and a film, but I wasn’t bored while it ran through its half hour. The story is wildly predictable but it’s decent enough for a very young audience. Canine Horizons claims that these films are for ‘both children and adults who love dogs,’ but I find it hard to believe that many adults would get anything out of this except a sense of surreal wonder about what goes through Charlene Dunlap’s mind on a daily basis. At least she has the modesty to know she’s being out-acted by a pair of poodles; what’s odd is that she still thinks it’s a good idea to train the critters in very specific ways and put them to work in ‘professional quality movies complete with music, sound effects, and entertaining stories’. I use quotes there because the quality, music and sound effects are roughly what you’d expect from a GeoCities site in 1998. Then again, this was made in 2000, so that may be what Canine Horizons looked like back then. I should consult the Wayback Machine.

If it’s decent as a story, it’s pretty awful as a film. The editing leaps out for most disdain, because there are so many wasted opportunities to show off the skills of these dogs, which was surely the whole point of making the movie to begin with. Yes, we see all four animals in the story doing tricks, but they’re set up horribly. Instead of using long takes to demonstrate how clever the creatures are, we get fast cuts to the moment of truth. If April can ring a doorbell when asked, then let’s see a single take from command to ring, not a cut to her paw on the bell. I got the impression from some of Dunlap’s stumbled dialogue that she just wasn’t interested in multiple takes; her work was in training the dogs to begin with, so the film should just be shot quickly and edited together to make it seem as real as possible. Given that she also apparently has no problem with using not one but three separate wah wah waaah sound effects, I have no real investment in her ability to make good judgement calls.
There are no dogs in my house right now, but I do have a library ferret and, frankly, I’m finding it tough work training him not to do some of the things that Dunlap has trained her dogs to do in this film. I have to say that Dunlap’s house looks pretty neat and tidy so I presume that training Molly to climb up on the kitchen counter and push cereal bowls onto the floor hasn’t backfired yet. Sneakily sliding books under ottomans seems safe enough, but I ask you: if you had mad dog training skills, would you train any dog who lives in your house to climb up on a chair and put your car keys into a cup of coffee? At least she’s able to train dogs and I have to grudgingly admit that I was impressed by what she did with the three of hers who dominate proceedings. I just wish she (or Glenn Dunlap, who handles the camera) had similar skills at filmmaking. The editing during the magic show practice is worse than Georges Méliès was doing a century and more ago. And this tells me that I’ve fallen into this film far too far and need to escape.

Let’s just leave The Fuzzy Fairy Incident: A Furry Tale bemused at the idea of a dog trainer making films (plural) without any apparent knowledge of filmmaking technique beyond pointing a camera in the right direction. Let’s leave shocked at the realisation that the whole point is to showcase the tricks that these dogs have learned but which was apparently forgotten once that camera was switched on. Let’s leave in the knowledge that the best actors on screen are canine, even though two of their persons share a host of scenes (a dog’s owner here is not called ‘an owner’ but ‘its person’). Let’s leave in the understanding that there are four more of these half hour films out there, including ones in which the leading doggies don’t have banal names like Molly and Sam but spaced out hippie ones like Cherdon Moon Dancer and Myramagic Wizard of Ahhs. Let’s leave in the knowledge that at least this contains no dream sequence poodle poetry from Charlene Dunlap, presumably ‘doggerel’ in more ways than one. But let’s leave.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Brutal Massacre: A Comedy (2007)

Director: Stevan Mena
Stars: David Naughton, Brian O’Halloran, Gerry Bednob, Gunnar Hansen, Ellen Sandweiss, Vincent Butta and Ken Foree
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
This film, a 2007 mockumentary from Stevan Mena, who had previously directed Malevolence and would go on to direct Bereavement, wasn’t only selected by Gunnar Hansen as one of his two Make It a Double choices; it was also chosen by the film’s lead, David Naughton, making it the only film thus far chosen by two separate people. Interestingly, it also features a third actor who has participated in Make It a Double, Ken Foree, but he didn’t pick anything this new. I have to say that, having now seen Brutal Massacre, it’s not hard to see why Hansen and Naughton picked it but Foree didn’t. He’s decent in the film, but he has a relatively small part that doesn’t give him the opportunity to do anything more interesting than sing a bit. Hansen has a small role too, but he’s able to get his teeth into his wild-eyed, foul-mouthed, beer-swilling Vietnam veteran within seconds. It’s a very memorable performance. And Naughton has a blast in a gift of a part in a film that plays to the knowing. The more you know about filmmaking, the funnier this gets.

He’s Harry Penderecki, a director of horror movies who had one huge hit but has been struggling to find a successful follow-up. His career has continued unabated, but the outrageous titles he’s been churning out only seem to be successful in generating controversy. Bowel Movement, in particular, features characters who eat gunpowder and blow themselves up, and Retirement Home follows someone who dresses up as the Grim Reaper and leaps out of closets to scare old people to death. It isn’t just the content of the films that’s controversial; a fan was killed imitating a stunt from Teasing a Gorilla and someone seems to have died on every film Penderecki’s made. The opening scene at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors, at which he appears with Mick Garris on a panel and gets every question, shows that he does have die hard fans, but critics despise his work and potential investors aren’t interested. ‘Everything was going fine, until they insisted on reading the script,’ he tells Bert Campbell, who’s filming a documentary about him.

If this sounds remotely familiar as a concept, you won’t be too surprised to find that it follows the This is Spinal Tap formula relatively closely, with a formerly important artist finding himself much lower on the artistic ladder than he’d comfortably admit but with the possibility of a major resurgence if he can only get his next project right. In comes a documentarian to chronicle how well it goes, but of course he finds himself suffering every setback in the book, from bad planning to bad luck, via bad karma. The result is not of the same quality as Spinal Tap, which is justly one of the all time classics, but it may well be the second best mockumentary I’ve ever seen. Like its mentor, it has a glorious sense of humour that pours out of its characters and both large and small details. Perhaps one reason why this isn’t better known is that some of these jokes are subtle indeed and, given how quickly some of them arrive, they’re easy to miss. ‘You think Apocalypse Now was a walk in the park?’ Penderecki asks Campbell. ‘Ask Scorsese.’
So, it’s a comedy for those who know films. It’s especially a comedy for those who have made films, not necessarily as directors but at anywhere in the chain all the way down to extra. Just as Spinal Tap took place mostly on tour, Brutal Massacre takes place mostly during the production of, well, Brutal Massacre. Naughton and his cast and crew head out on location to shoot a three week picture and, courtesy of the documentary that Campbell is shooting, we’re privy to the two months it takes to do that, along with the preparation and the post-production. I’ve been an extra on a few shoots and experienced working sets; while I’m not going to suggest I’ve seen this sort of calamity first hand, I can say that it rings very true. I’d really love to screen this to an audience of filmmakers and listen not only to when the laughter rings out, but also to how guilty it sounds. There are hilarious mistakes made here that I’d bet money people I know have made themselves. In many ways, the film within a film is a textbook of how not to do things.

Harry Penderecki is a great character and David Naughton has a lot of fun playing him. He’s a construct of contrasts: an enthusiastic child and an embittered veteran, an arrogant man in charge and a coward who can’t face another flop, a driven filmmaker and a tired man. He’s one of those people who seem to be happy a lot of the time but whose happiness hides layer upon layer of sadness. Of course, he has no concept of money, like most filmmakers. He has an innate fear of dying in his sleep. In many ways, he’s the quintessential madman, passing for sane reasonably well at the outset but gradually losing it as the shoot gets completely out of hand; we wonder less about whether he’ll do something crazy by the end and more about what it’ll be. Yet, if he’s the killer in a stereotypical horror movie, he’s also the victim: a scene late in the film has him alternately threatening and pleading as if he can’t figure out which of the two is stronger within him. As they say, you don’t have to be mad to direct a movie but it helps.

If Naughton is the overt star of the film, Stevan Mena surely comes close, even more as the scriptwriter than the director. The writing here is not entirely consistent, because he veers away at points from the believably true (but funny) scenes to include believably true (but emotional) scenes, as if he knew this had to be a comedy but wanted to make it a drama and slipped a few of his favourite serious scenes in for good measure. One of the funniest moments I can recall in film is the one where Penderecki, after a screaming match with his lead actor about all the comforts of home that cannot be found in the remote location in which they’re filming, hurls out the standard Hollywood line, ‘You’ll never work in this town again,’ only to hear back the very appropriate, ‘Good!’ It’s not the most original line ever (this may not actually be the first time I’ve heard it) but it’s so perfect for this moment that I split up laughing. There are a number of other moments that stand out here too, but I don’t want to spoil them all.
The one I will spoil, though for a good reason, is the character of Krenshaw, played by Gunnar Hansen. Just as the location scout and AD finally find the right house for their maniacal killer, Krenshaw appears out of the woods like a textbook slasher. ‘Need a killer?’ he asks. He has no problem with the production using his property, even before they pay him, and he’s even happy for them to damage it however they like because he’s planning to tear the whole thing down and rebuild it next year. Of course, by the time we reach the end of the film, we learn that, while he was the owner, he isn’t any more because the bank foreclosed on him and he’s still pissed about it, so Penderecki finds himself in big trouble. I mention this because Stevan Mena wrote this from life, having experienced this on Malevolence. He paid a thousand dollars to use the location, only to get arrested a couple of weeks later and required to pay for all of the damages they’d caused. That owner had been foreclosed on and used him to get back at the bank.

If there aren’t enough reasons why this would play better to filmmakers and knowledgeable genre fans than a regular audience, the cast surely counts as another. A viewer who doesn’t have a background in horror movies might not recognise anyone here, except perhaps Brian O’Halloran, the assistant director, who many will know from Kevin Smith movies such as Clerks. However, genre aficionados will recognise quite a few folk, not least the three major names I’ve mentioned already: Naughton, from An American Werewolf in London, Hansen, from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Foree, from Dawn of the Dead. I also mentioned Mick Garris, the creator of Masters of Horror and the director of a whole slew of Stephen King adaptations, but he only plays himself in a small silent role. A little more obscure, Ellen Sandweiss and Betsy Baker are unrecognisable because we only know them from The Evil Dead. Both are so good here that we wonder why neither acted again for a quarter of a century.

Baker is especially good as Gladys Oppenheimer, the casting director, and she succeeds in many of the same ways that Naughton does, such as little facial movements to build her character. Oppenheimer is far shorter on hope than Penderecki, though, stuck in a job where she has to work with idiots and really doesn’t want to any more. Sandweiss gets a more prominent and vocal role as the production manager. She’s a tough cookie and she’s sharp too, but she has to deal with all the inevitable crap and so spends most of her time shouting at people. She does do more than that, which leads to an unintended pun in the previous sentence that you won’t understand until you see the film. They’re merely two supporting characters of many here, this being very much an ensemble performance. I didn’t know Gerry Bednob before this film, but he’s a blast as Hanu Vindepeshs, the Indian DP with a temper. Gunnar Hansen still dominates, though, with lines like, ‘I was in the Nam, pussy fart. I’ll twist your head off and go bowling.’
So this is a good grounding for a mockumentary with an impressive ensemble cast doing good to great work from a strong script that doles out amazing dialogue. There’s such a sense of truth to it all that we wonder how much Mena or his cast and crew actually lived through on previous projects. His is the only name on the script but he could well have compiled it from a host of tales told by a host of people, even grown it organically during filming as people chimed in with new material. And best of all, the subtleties are hilarious, even if they will often sadly go unnoticed because they’re so quick or so subtle that we’ll miss them by blinking. When Penderecki discovers that the sound on one scene was flawed, his line (‘I don’t like dubbing; it doesn’t look right!’) is itself dubbed. That’s genius. Clearly Naughton and Hansen both loved this picture and it’s easy to see that it’s both for their own parts and for the film as a whole. It’s also exactly why I’m loving this Make It a Double project so much.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Gimme Skelter (2007)

Director: Scott Phillips
Stars: Mark Chavez, Billy Garberina, Jillian Parry, Ashley Bryce, Trent Haaga, Jaymi Lynn McNulty, Kurly Tlapoyawa, Sarah Turner and Gunnar Hansen
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
This weekend we lost Gunnar Hansen, a legend in the horror community from the moment he first put on the mask of Leatherface in Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. If anything, the fact that he left that iconic performance to break away from acting, mostly to write books, underlined just how much of a presence he had in that film; he only made one other picture in fourteen years, so there was nothing to weaken it. By the time he returned, for Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, he was a different actor and movies like Repligator weren’t going to get noticed anyway. When I asked him to pluck two films from his career for me to review in my Make It a Double project, he picked those that he made in 2007, remembering that they were both enjoyable little pictures; I guess I’ll have to leave Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre for another project! This was the first of the pair, a low budget slasher movie by Scott Phillips, who had made a minor name for himself with a lower budget zombie comedy, The Stink of Flesh, two years earlier.

It starts out pretty well. ‘Calver Weems, you are a bad man,’ says a driver as he heads into Jimmy Regal’s. The music’s good, the sound isn’t and the girls are naked. The one who talks him into a lapdance is pretty and, while we’re set up to believe that he’s getting ready to kill her, she beats him to the punch. Well, the slash. She takes him down with a knife in a violent, bloody and unexpected attack. And we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet! Fortunately the poor sound improves but what’s really weird is that the film that unfolds isn’t even remotely what we might expect it to be, whether our expectations come from the title, the DVD cover or that opening sequence. It’s not even really a horror movie, as soaked in blood as it becomes at times and as grounded as it is in serial killer lore. It’s really a small town character study where those small town characters just happen to be the targets of a young man who believes himself, or at least purports himself, to be the bastard son of Charlie Manson, eager to make his daddy notice him.

This small town is Banion’s Cross, NM, population 67. Of course everyone knows each other and everyone hates the presence of that strip joint 24 miles away, by the highway. There’s no cellphone service in town and only the local whore has internet. She can’t be doing too much business, especially as she has to pay her landlord in sexual favours. That’s Gunnar Hansen as Porter Sandford, and he may be the only guy in town who’s making bank, but he’s too busy attempting to talk his daughter Kelly, in the form of his niece Kristin, out of leaving town. Banion’s Cross is the sort of sleepy place where everyone talks about leaving but nobody ever quite manages to get round to it. Kelly doesn’t either, but not for that reason, of course. We’re introduced to a variety of locals, wandering around town doing what they do without a heck of a lot of effort. The only thing they seem to put any effort into is sex, but perhaps that’s the only thing that they really have to do in Banion’s Cross. I had to start a count of the actresses who didn’t get topless.

We soon realise that the focus is falling on Todd Aherne, a young man with a girlfriend who’s in love with being in love. He makes her all ‘fruity and fluttery’, as she tells her BFF. He’s not quite so happy, perhaps because he has to make up a song for her before he can leave the house every morning and he’s getting fed up with it. ‘I know I love her,’ he tells his friend, Chris, in the café, ‘even if she is retarded sometimes.’ The catch is that, after lecturing Chris, a serial cheat, on what counts as cheating and what doesn’t (the dialogue in this picture is often as quirky as Chris’s opening line: ‘Is it cheating if you watch a girl pee?’), he promptly falls prey to the temptations of the flesh himself. It may be his first time astray, letting a girl bite his chocolate bar outside the gas station and promptly escalate into her welcoming body in an alley, but Jonda just happens to be walking by and that’s the end of that relationship. Well, maybe not, because she’s clearly not bright and we have eighty minutes to patch things up, but then Phillip happens.
Phillip is ostensibly the leader of the gang that’s just rolled into town, the foster child who believes in his heart that he’s really Charlie Manson Jr. He’s in Banion’s Cross with Luther, Swan and a trio of ladies, who don’t seem to be too capable at following orders. Delilah was the one who prematurely took down Calver Weems at Jimmy Regal’s the night before and Brass is the one who just tried to ‘recruit’ Todd in the alley, leading Phillip to reiterate to her that, ‘This is the town. There’s no saving anyone.’ The third is Pajamas, who doesn’t get introduced for quite some time but who’s just as sassy as the other two. It isn’t just that they all strip off at the drop of a hat that steals our attention from their supposed leader and his cronies, it’s that Delilah and Pajamas have a purpose that the half-hearted guys just don’t have. Somehow I don’t think the girls in the Manson Family stood up to him with lines like, ‘You’re not the boss of me!’ It’s hardly surprising to find the girls leading the killing to drop Banion’s Cross from population 67 to population 0.

While the biggest joy to me that my Make It a Double project brings is the discovery of hidden gems that the stars value over the more prominent films for which they’re primarily known, I’m also finding a great joy in trying to figure out why they picked the films that they did. While it took all of a second of screen time to realise why he picked his other choice, it took a while to realise what Gunnar Hansen found with this one. I think it was the fact that it’s really a sheep in wolf’s clothing, looking precisely like a movie he would feature in but turning out to be something completely different, a quirky character-based comedy using the framework of a slasher movie to get noticed. While the death toll is raised with much blood, it isn’t the point of the film. The point is that these crazy loons who rush into town to commit mass murder are the most normal characters we meet; girls who just want to have fun and a leader who just wants to escape the anonymity of being an orphan. They’re not good people, but they’re straightforward.

The townsfolk, however, aren’t quite so straightforward. Phillips paints the town as a happy place, with a café as the central meetingpoint and a downhome atmosphere of brotherly love. Yet behind closed doors, it’s a rather different story. Todd and Jonda appear to be the perfect couple, but that quickly proves not to be the case. Chris has cheated on every girl he’s ever known. The town’s doctor is a lech, whose opening line is ‘Hello, Mrs Taggart. What’s gone wrong with your rectum today?’ Even after that, he propositions her. The happy-go-lucky guy sleeping on the floor of the gas station is really the brain damaged victim of the owner, who used to hit him with a baseball bat. And yet it gets weirder, in scenes that I don’t want to spoil. Let’s just say that there’s one point when even Phillip is taken back by the good folk of small town America. ‘Who does something like that?’ he asks rhetorically as he leaves one house, shocked at what he’s seen inside. This from the man who plans to kill 67 people just to feel loved.
This approach could have been a lot more overt and a lot more stylised. You might think from my words that this is David Lynch on a shoestring budget, but it’s too nice for that. Maybe if David Lynch had made Pleasantville, but even then it would have played much darker. Sure, this is surreal stuff, but it’s nice and quirky stuff that’s constantly laid back, even with a sextet of maniacs running riot with knives. We almost start to feel for those maniacs, as if acknowledging that at least they’re trying to shake this town out of its lethargy. I remembered Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, in which the guests at a dinner party find themselves unable to leave the music room, trapped not physically but psychologically. I felt that in this film, the 67 residents of Banion’s Cross found themselves in the same predicament, locked into the town and its sleepy routine by the power of their own minds. I doubt this was a major point that Phillips was pushing in his script, or he’d have played it up more, but it was an obvious theme for me.

I think Phillips was probably aiming more at the situation comedy feel of an indie auteur like Alexandre Rockwell, who made surreal masterpieces with quirky characters played by ensemble casts, such as 13 Moons and Pete Smalls is Dead. The budget Phillips had to work with isn’t remotely viable to command actors of the same quality as Rockwell’s, but he wants to give them similar things to do. He wants them to have their eccentricities, their turns in the spotlight and stories that intertwine with each other. He even does a reasonable job of putting this into place, though again he could have gone much further. I think he tried to compensate with dialogue, which drives his film. Todd and Jonda don’t matter; none of these people matter, but their quirky and often inane dialogue tends to end with insight or well-framed humour. Even Phillip doesn’t matter, pausing at one point to count how many bodies they’ve racked up, just to see if they’ve topped Manson’s count. He’s sad rather than dangerous, trapped in his own role.

Given that Gunnar Hansen picked this as his first Make It a Double choice, I should talk more about what he gets up to. However, he doesn’t get up to a heck of a lot. He’s very much in support in both the films he chose, even if he’s by far the biggest name in this one. He gets a few scenes early on, but the two he shines brightest in are his last. I won’t talk about the latter, except to say that he gets to put his size and power to good use for a little while. The former, though, is a gem of monologue which he recites whilst laid back on his bed, never leaving it throughout. He runs through a long and tedious tale to the obvious discomfort of his daughter, not because it’s inappropriate but because it’s clearly what Porter Sandford has done, night after night, that has prompted her to pack her bags and prepare to leave. She’s not just fleeing the monotony of Banion’s Cross, she’s fleeing the monotony of her father’s stories. Yet, while he bores her to tears, he doesn’t do that to us. It’s quirky like the film and it’s a good reason to remember it.

Friday 6 November 2015

Firebird 2015 AD (1981)

Director: David M Robertson
Stars: Darren McGavin and Doug McClure

It’s always dangerous for science fiction movies to name the years in which they’re set, unless of course they’re Back to the Future Part II, in which case people will wait years for viewing parties ‘in the future’ of the movie. This one doesn’t just name the year, it flaunts it in its very title, which is especially arrogant. It turns out that its vision of the future (now our present) isn’t entirely outrageous, as this 1981 film built on the energy crisis sparked by the Iranian revolution two years earlier to set up a US in which gasoline is banned but ten states allot supplies anyway in defiance of federal orders. I applaud such an ecological subtext underlying the plot but laugh at the idea that the government would come for our cars. That’s a wild right wing paranoia fantasy to rank right below the one that has the United Nations coming for our guns, but hey, if they believe that, it doesn’t stretch the imagination too much to grasp that they might buy into this one too. Maybe this movie is doing the rounds in survivalist bunkers underneath Montana.

While the film came out in the early eighties, the stars are all seventies mainstays. Darren McGavin, who many might remember from A Christmas Story, still two years away, is still firmly camped out in my mind as Carl Kolchak in the original version of The Night Stalker (let’s forget the remake), which racked up two TV movies and twenty episodes by 1975. Here, he’s a burner (someone who drives illegally), who rebuilt an entire Firebird from black market parts and keeps it in an abandoned mine in the middle of the desert. On the other side of the law is Doug McClure, who spent the second half of the seventies dominating the fantasy genre in pictures like The Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth’s Core and Warlords of Atlantis. He runs a government department here, who ride around the desert on dirtbikes looking for burners to kill. They’re terrible shots, as they show by utterly failing to take down a burner with machine guns at point blank range. However they do have a psycho nutjob on staff who thinks he’s an Indian but can still aim.

McGavin is Red, for no apparent reason, and he’s a well adjusted sort of lawbreaker. We can’t forget that he’s a lawbreaker, even if he’s obviously the hero of the story, because his son keeps reminding him. ‘It’s against the law!’ he cries. ‘You’re wasting limited resources!’ Why his son is even there, we have no idea, because the kid’s mother kept him out of his dad’s life completely until the moment he stumbles onto his underground lair and is immediately recognised. Yeah, continuity is not this film’s strong suit. Folk wear helmets, they they don’t, then they do again. Even the colour of their overalls changes on the fly, which is so unlikely a continuity error that it makes us wonder if the filmmakers knew it about all along and just hoped we didn’t notice, like the famously flimsy tombstones in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Naturally we’re with Red, as McGavin is his usual endearing self and Red breaks the law for reasons as wildly antisocial as racing his friend Indy around Silvermine county for imaginary championships and gas.
Certainly we’re never on McClure’s side, even before we find out that his character’s name is McVain and he’s a lawman who’s going beyond the law. Mostly it’s because everything we see is in complete isolation from civilisation and so we can’t buy into the importance of what’s going on. Sure, Washington DC gets a few mentions here and there, but we never actually go there; we spend the entire film driving around the middle of nowhere, which turns out to be Canada rather than the US, the stark landscapes we see being Drumheller, Alberta, better known as Dinosaur Valley. Even if we buy into the ecological grounding for the story, with nothing on screen whatsoever to back it up, there’s no reason for us to buy into the DMC, the enforcers of the government’s policies, doing what they do here. Maybe back in the cities, where millions of cars make a serious dent in the gasoline supply, but never out here where there are more DMC agents than burners. What good are they possibly doing? They’re wasting more gas than they could ever save.

To be fair, there’s dissent in the ranks. The token chick in McVain’s DMC team questions the legitimacy of their work and highlights the bill coming up in Washington that might put them out of business entirely. It would appear that the DMC aren’t supposed to be actually killing people, but McVain is more interested in protecting his insane brother, Dolan, the one who strips off on the top of mountains, daubs himself up in warpaint and whoops and hollers like a stereotypical Native American from a hundred years earlier. Fully half the team seem to be eager rapists and McVain himself has an unhealthy obsession with the Firebird for no reason to which we’re ever made privy. There are even suggestions that the DMC may ambush an important senator working on repealing these laws, just to keep themselves in business. This hamfisted approach gets quickly annoying, because there was no reason at all to make this good guys vs bad guys. It wouldn’t have been difficult to paint both sides in shades of grey. It might have been harder not to!

Some of this is fun. I liked the general idea of the film, with its amiable ‘55 year old juvenile delinquent’ as an endearing lead. McGavin is a lot of fun and he works well with both George Touliatos, as Indy, and especially Mary Beth Rubens, as Indy’s tomboy daughter, Jill. They don’t get many scenes together, as she’s shuffled off quickly into a routine romance angle with Red’s son Cam, but she sure works better with Red than Cam. Given that Cam is intensely annoying for the entire picture, that’s perhaps a given, but it mostly isn’t his fault. This was the first screen appearance of Robert Wisden, who didn’t act again for another four years, but he’s gone on to a successful career in film and especially on television, with his last film role being as Richard Nixon in Watchmen, at the other end of the budget scale to this film! I wonder if I enjoyed this, as bad as it is, because all the good guys are so nice. Red and Indy and Jill are just really nice folk, the sort you’d want your car to break down in front of. They’re feelgood characters.
Unfortunately they’re stuck in a really bad film and it’s bad for a whole lot of reasons. There’s the false advertising, the picture really not being ‘One Big Exciting Blast of Speeding and Exploding Cars!’ as the tagline would have it. There are a few scenes where people drive around the desert a lot but only one exploding car until the finale, which does have a number of explosions but is so poorly constructed that we don’t really care. There’s the horrendous characterisation, which affects the DMC team and Cam the most, but really touches everyone in the entire movie. Not one character is really believable and no-one has any grounding in reality; only Jill has any connection to the world at large and that’s just by having a job which she apparently doesn’t show up to. Nobody’s motivation makes sense, especially McVain, who must have been a real puzzle for Doug McClure. I think he just gave up trying in the end and just picked up his paycheck, because there was nothing of any substance for him to really connect to.

With the technical side capable and the actors generally decent, if often struggling with the material, the problems all come down to the script. There were three writers credited, which is three more than might have been expected. Barry Pearson had written a number of films before this, but apparently poured all his imagination into his other 1981 credit, the underrated Bloody Birthday. Maurice Hurley debuted here as a writer, though he had directed Lance Henriksen in a snowmobile movie almost a decade earlier; he went on to write a lot of television, including shows as well regarded as The Equalizer and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Biff McGuire is far better known as an actor, mostly on television but also in movies as important as The Phenix City Story, The Thomas Crown Affair and Serpico; his only other writing credits were for a couple of TV episodes back in the fifties. Why these diverse talents came together to foul up this script, I have no idea but it’s a textbook example of how not to write a feature film.

It starts with an interesting idea but never follows up on it. It sets up a social science fiction story which unfolds far away from society. It raises a number of intriguing questions but refuses to answer them. No plot strand is ever followed up, let alone wrapped up. Characters change motivation at the drop of a hat. Nothing ever makes any sense. In fact, while we’re enticed by Darren McGavin into breezing along with Red, we can’t ignore how nothing makes sense and the stupidity of it all eats at our brain until we begin to think about how wrong the script is and then we’re lost. The more you think about this, the more the whole thing just falls apart. The story really wants to be about a bunch of patriotic ‘terrorists’ saving a senator from the clutches of a renegade DMC team, but it doesn’t even raise that particular subplot for over an hour, then, literally as it begins to actually happen, the end credits roll and the film’s over and done. Those three screenwriters drove their script off a cliff and all we hear is McGavin’s laughter.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969)

Director: Anthony Newley
Stars: Anthony Newley, Joan Collins and Milton Berle

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Anthony Newley was a major star in 1969 and had been one for long enough that his ego had apparently decided that it was time to ejaculate all over the filmgoing public. This picture, which he wrote, directed, scored and starred in, is surely remembered today mostly for its unwieldy name, which Chicago Tribune readers voted ‘The Worst Movie Title Ever’, but that title is only as pretentious as the film it heralds. I’ve racked my brain but can’t come up with anything else as remotely self-indulgent as this movie. I applaud Newley’s desire to experiment with the cinematic medium, but this was never going to be anything more than a bizarre footnote in an otherwise highly successful career, not least because the many boobs lent the film an X certificate and so it was banned from advertising itself in many American newspapers. After all, he had played the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, co-written the theme for Goldfinger and racked up a dozen hits (two number ones) as a singer. This project reeked of professional suicide.

As it turned out, Heironymus Merkin didn’t end his career, though it did contribute to his divorce from his third wife, Joan Collins, who plays a major role here as Polyester Poontang. Perhaps part of that had to do with the casting of their four and six year old kids in an X-rated movie. The majority surely has to do with what he says about both him and her as real people in a thinly disguised autobiography that has Collins playing herself. Given how absolutely stunning Joan Collins was in 1969, how he chooses to reject her is important; it demonstrates how utterly wrapped up in himself Newley must have been at the time. What would he have been like if the Oscar nomination he received for co-writing the score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971 had become a win? But, as decried as this film was by the critics and the filmgoing public, it actually made money at the box office. And hey, wife number four soon showed up in its wake and stayed for eighteen years. Somehow things worked out for Anthony Newley.

At least he did have a wicked sense of humour, because the plot, if this picture can be said to have such a thing, is astoundingly autobiographical, as wild as it is. He starts out only a day past forty years of age and, as such, confronting his mortality. His response is, of course, to gather the detritus of his life onto a beach from whence it will be shipped to the Heironymus Merkin museum so that the world can know the truth, because that’s what the rest of us will do. In front of his mother, played by Patricia Hayes, and his kids, played by his kids, he attempts to tell his story in film in a variety of styles, which bewilder as much as enlighten. For example, the first is some sort of flashback sequence, depicting him as a marionette in thrall to Uncle Limelight, played by Bruce Forsyth trying to be Jason Robards as he stalks the boards of a half built theatre set belting out a musical number. It just gets stranger from here, with the aid of simple animation, dramatic narration and the constant interruptions of George Jessel as a wise-cracking angel.
For all that Merkin (and yes, he named his own autobiographical character after a pubic wig) wants us all to know his story, he leaps quickly forward to his rampant womanising years, visualised in subtle style by staging a long line of women in front of his tent, so he can lean out and order, ‘Next!’ There are moments of seriousness, such as the coverage of Merkin’s lack of a father and the childhood death of his firstborn, both autobiographical details of Newley’s life, but he treats himself with such scorn that we can’t feel for him even then. His second marriage, which lasted seven years in reality, is turned into a shotgun affair because she showed up pregnant, only to be quickly discarded after the child’s burial. Merkin puts on a magnanimous air, standing aside so she can leave with a truer love, but then flounces around in delight at his escape from boredom. And how seriously should we take the narrator’s question: ‘Oh, Heironymus Merkin, how many thousands of theatre lovers have you pleasured with the enormity of your gifts?’

At least at this point, Newley’s autobiography and Merkin’s meet in the form of Joan Collins, an audience member who interrupts his performance of Shakespeare to insightfully point out that the film she hasn’t been watching is clearly all about him. Is this a family discussion or character development? Who knows? Given that we’re soon stuck watching three critics discussing the film so far, while scriptwriters scrabble at their work and Merkin puzzles between the two sides, we wonder just how much of it reflects what the ego of Newley was really trying to do. The suggestion is that he’s soul searching, attempting to discover his real identity at a crucial point in his life, sparked by the work of Federico Fellini, whose pictures were often this wild but never this disjointed. Maybe it was here that I started to appreciate Newley’s honesty, as he accepts that his picture is masturbatory filmmaking, only to suggest that The Birth of a Nation and Mutiny on the Bounty were better pictures but suffered for the lack of good songs and pert tits.

For all the weirdness, and this film is full of the stuff, the oddest moment might just be the most telling, in which Newley the director threatens Newley the actor with the sack. While we’re watching him screen his life story to his family, we’re also watching him construct it. Newley may be admitting schizophrenia just as he admits paedophilia, without pressure from Goodtime Eddie Filth, the take on Satan played by Milton Berle, who guides him poorly throughout. At the very least it appears to be an attempt at suggesting that Merkin isn’t Newley, or perhaps is only a single aspect of his personality. So we ride into Chapter IV, ‘The Dream of Humbert Humbert or Snow White Meets Attila the Hun’. The studio don’t want this scene to be shot, let alone seen, which naturally makes it rather interesting. It begins by introducing Mercy Humppe, the other title character, played by Playboy centrefold Connie Creski, only to morph into an astrological dance sequence with Newley naked and Collins singing Chalk and Cheese. I feel for his therapist.
And, as Merkin can’t decide between Mercy Humppe and Polyester Poontang, we can’t help but wonder about the movie’s title and whether this whole project was an externalisation of Newley’s thoughts at the time, a sort of cellulloid mid-life crisis. If it’s really an honest soul-baring plea to keep his wife at the cost of his sexual obsessions, it’s a bitter irony indeed that he promptly lost her with this film cited as one of the reasons why. I can’t blame her, of course. How else was she supposed to interpret the choice of her husband of seven years and the father of her children to cast her not only as herself but also as the lady to which he, whom she has already personally identified in the film as playing himself, cannot commit? And why? Because the devil made him do it! It’s less a plea for forgiveness and more an admission that he hasn’t been faithful to her and has no plans to ever do so. Oh, and he’s going to make this completely obvious to everyone including their kids. Daddy loves mummy but, look, there’s Hope Climax! Woohoo!

If it wasn’t for the fact that he had major work left in him, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and its Oscar nomination still two years away, I’d interpret this movie as an attempt to derail his own career, the only argument being whether he did so deliberately or subconsciously. It isn’t just the title and the weird choice to write a script that relentlessly bashes his own character, then take the role for himself. It’s also in the frequent diversions from point that go as far as a fairy tale that casts Yolanda (of the dance couple Yolanda and Veloz) as a princess who falls in love with her donkey and spends her scenes with it naked. I do recognise that it ends with a pun that supposedly gives it validity, but no, it doesn’t. It’s just another opportunity for Newley to highlight that his sexual shenanigans take precedence over his marriages. This is honest, but it’s very sad indeed. Naming the princess Trampolina Whambang could have been genius but we’re too concerned for his mental wellbeing at this point to really notice.

Today, the film wants to be forgotten. It’s acutely a product of its time, when films were released once to theatres and almost never found their way back in front of eyeballs again. Heironymus Merkin did find a very brief release on VHS and DVD, but is almost impossible to find today; and I do wonder what Newley, had he not died in 1999 roughly when the insurance tables that spark this film suggest, would have felt about people like me seeing it almost half a century after its day in the spotlight. Most people would be acutely embarrassed, but this film suggests his ego was vast enough to crush any embarrassment that might creep up to be acknowledged. Roger Ebert’s contemporary review suggested that it might be the first attempt to make a personal film in the English language to sit alongside those of Godard and Fellini. I’m not going to argue but when Fellini juggled, he kept all his balls in the air. The last word here goes to the Presence: ‘Gonna be one of the all time greats,’ he says. ‘Definitely Hall of Flame material.’