Sunday 27 December 2015

Moonrunners (1975)

Director: Gy Waldron
Stars: James Mitchum, Kiel Martin, Arthur Hunnicutt, Chris Forbes, George Ellis, Pete Munro, Joan Blackman and Waylon Jennings
Just the good ol’ boys, never doin’ no harm... well, these aren’t quite the Duke boys, even if they start the picture being pulled over by the cops in front of the Boar’s Nest. Gy Waldron, who created The Dukes of Hazzard in 1979, wrote and directed this movie in 1973 and, while it does have some things going for it as a standalone, it’s far more interesting as a prototype for that TV show. Few of the details remained the same, though Waylon Jennings is already in place as the Balladeer, the very first voice we hear. However, most of the rest of what we know and love from the show is already here in evolutionary form, as seeds ready to grow. Maybe the most surprising thing isn’t that the show was based on this movie, though that was surprising enough, it’s that this movie was based on real incidents in the life of Jerry Rushing, one of its stuntmen. Rushing claimed that no less than thirteen characters in either the film or show were based on either himself or people that he knew. Some of them didn’t even have their names changed.

One other surprise is that James Mitchum, eldest son of Robert Mitchum (the resemblance is unmissable), is top billed, but he plays a laconic second fiddle throughout to his screen cousin, Kiel Martin. They’re the Bo and Luke Duke characters, but they go by Grady and Bobby Lee Hagg. It’s Martin who’s given the vast majority of screen time as Bobby Lee, right from the outset. The fact that they only occasionally play the double act we might expect is one of the biggest problems of the movie; mostly this is Bobby Lee’s show and Grady just adds colour in the background as a stock car racer and a ladies’ man. Mitchum seems to know that and ratchets down his performance accordingly, while Martin plays up Bobby Lee to be a wild and crazy good ol’ boy. Most of us know him from Hill Street Blues, where he was just as memorable as J D LaRue and often in similar ways. He’s fond of all the things that a good ol’ southern boy should be and he gets to indulge in many of those pursuits here, which start him out with thirty days in jail.

That’s irrelevant to the real story, which eventually figures out what it wants to be in the final act when a character we don’t expect to die definitely ends up dead. It’s a moral story about standing on principles, even when they’re illegal. Uncle Jesse, who is pretty close to the Uncle Jesse we know from television, as a devout Baptist who can out-quote the local preacher when it comes to the Bible and a true artist when it comes to the liquor he brews to the same recipe his family has used since before the War Between the States. He only sells whiskey that’s been aged for two years and bottled in glass. He also won’t sell it to the local boss, Jake Rainey, because he knows that it’ll be watered down with lower quality product and, given that Rainey is now in with a syndicate from up north, that’s becoming a problem. He doesn’t want anyone running liquor in his area unless they work for him, which means that Uncle Jesse ends up on his hit list, along with Bobby Lee and Grady, who run his whiskey for him. Let battle commence!
Before we get to that moral story, though, there are many little stories which add or don’t add something to the big story, depending. For instance, after Bobby Lee is released from jail and dropped at the county line, he hooks up with Beth Ann Eubanks, a pretty young thing who is clearly the closest character to the Daisy Duke of the show (Jake Rainey’s bartender at the Boar’s Nest is played by the much larger Spanky McFarlane, who had replaced Mama Cass in the Mamas and the Papas). Beth Ann comes with a car which looks remarkably like a General Lee without a confederate flag and a back story that seems certain to be a major force in the picture. She’s escaping her father, a Mississippi sheriff, in a stolen vehicle that she’s already driven over a state line; and the very first thing Bobby Lee does behind its wheel is to reverse it through the wall of a bar and grill where someone poured beer over his head. Like this isn’t the start of a beautiful friendship? Well, Beth Ann just fades away as a mild love interest and her story fades with her.

Perhaps, even while writing a feature film, Waldron was thinking about a TV show. This is far less family friendly than anything the Duke boys got up to, but they were a little edgier in the first season and some of what we saw there started here, not least the character of Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane, who is shown to be an honest cop who started working for Rainey in his last year in office because his county didn’t have pensions for law officers. Bruce Atkins, who apparently specialised in law officers in hicksploitation films, isn’t James Best in any way, but this would still have been improved by more of him. My imagination ran riot when his character was introduced and I was disappointed when he also faded away. It’s no surprise to find that his story, like so many of the others that are merely hinted at here, continued on in the first season of The Dukes of Hazzard. I’m very tempted to follow up this movie with the show just to see how much else followed on. Certainly, three of the actors here played other parts in the first few episodes.

The only one to become a regular is Ben Jones, who became the mechanic Cooter Davenport. Here, he’s a visiting revenue agent from Chicago called Fred who helps to blow up Uncle Jesse’s still on a raid. He’s completely recognisable, even though this film was shot six years before the show began. Cooter is here too, but he’s played by Bill Gribble, one of those actors who turned up early in the show’s run, playing a character in the second episode. This sort of shuffling around of names is everywhere. Everyone knows that the Dukes’ stock car is the General Lee, but the Haggs’ is Traveller instead, after Lee’s horse. Lee’s name here is borrowed by one of the leads instead, Bobby Lee Hagg. Some will remember that Bo Duke’s name is really Beauregard; here that’s the name of Uncle Jesse’s mule, which faithfully runs between the still and the farm, however many times he has to buy him back in auction from the authorities. There’s even a character who stutters, though here it’s a local bootlegger called Roy rather than Sheriff Roscoe.
Clearly the best reason to watch this film is to look at these connections, which becomes a full time job. However, I did watch with an eye on whether there was something here beyond that. There is, but hardly a great deal. The story, as long as it takes to focus, is one, because it tells a moral story with bootleggers, appropriate material for the time when society, film and music were dealing with rebels and outlaws. All the music here, as tame as old country might seem to us today, was part of the outlaw scene that shone brightly at the time with such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and, of course, the man who narrated both Moonrunners and The Dukes of Hazzard: Waylon Jennings. While Bobby Lee and Grady Hagg are young idiots more than they are rebels, Uncle Jesse is written particularly well as an outlaw character and, as ably depicted by Arthur Hunnicutt, an Oscar nominee in 1952 for The Big Sky, he’s clearly the bedrock of the story, both moral and otherwise. He retired the year of the film’s release.

Another is the stunt work, because the stuntmen were clearly driving their cars very fast on and around very narrow rural roads and they generate a thrill through danger that was lost for years until Mad Max: Fury Road finally brought it back. What’s more, they do it without a single leap of the General Lee or one single rebel yell. There are a variety of fast cars here, including a section at an actual stock car race, shot at the West Atlanta Raceway. Frankly, the road race that follows it is more fun. Grady races Zeebo and his cohort Cooter on the track, but Bobby Lee challenges Zeebo afterwards. They load up with bootleg liquor at Roy’s, then race to deliver it to Rainey at the Boar’s Nest; what’s more, to spice things up, they report themselves as moonshine runners so that the Shiloh County cops can join in on the fun! It’s almost like The Dukes of Hazzard in The Cannonball Run, which is an interesting idea. It’s appropriate here too, as it weaves the Hagg boys tighter to Rainey, even as things hot up between the two sides.

The weaker side is surely in the pacing and the focus. Given that all the edginess is in theme rather than actual content (there’s no nudity, no swearing and no overt violence, even though one character runs a brothel behind his bar and most of the rest make or run illegal liquor), this feels like it could easily have been cut into an episode of a TV show, so an hour less fifteen minutes for commercials. The story would have gained focus with that approach, even if many of the smaller parts would have been inevitably cut, or in that format merely showed up in the next episode instead. As a feature, it’s too long, even with my copy running seven minutes shorter than the 110 that IMDb claims. Some scenes could easily be ditched entirely and others trimmed into shadows of their former selves, especially those revolving around less important characters, which abound in this film but are epitomised in a couple of the ladies who surely deserve to be more than just eye candy but don’t get the opportunity to do so.
Beth Ann Eubanks is the most obvious, of course, given that she shows up early with great promise but vanishes into obscurity by the end of the movie. Chris Forbes is sassy and looks great but Waldron must have forgotten why she was even in the picture. Another is Jake Rainey’s wife, Reba, who isn’t remotely like the Lulu Hogg we know from the TV show. She’s played by Joan Blackman, who had played opposite Elvis Presley in a couple of pictures just over a decade earlier: Blue Hawaii and Kid Galahad. Maybe that’s why her name was deemed important enough to appear in the opening credits, even though her role was restricted to one cheating scene with Grady Hagg and another where she literally sits in the background doing nothing except distracting the character who’s talking. Given that both these characters became fan favourites when reinvented for television, Gy Waldron clearly figured out a lot between Moonrunners and The Dukes of Hazzard. I’m at a loss to figure out anything that the movie did better.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Director: Steve Binder
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Of all the films I’ve reviewed for Weird Wednesdays, this is surely the most notorious, partly because it’s a tape trader’s dream. The first official Star Wars tie-in after the original movie, it was broadcast once on CBS in November 1978 and once in a few other English-speaking countries, before vanishing into legend. It has never been re-screened or given an official release, meaning that it’s circulated for years only in a variety of horrendous quality copies. Fortunately, a first generation copy surfaced a couple of years ago, recorded directly from that CBS broadcast on WHIO in Dayton, OH. It’s of vastly higher quality than any previous version I’ve seen, enough so that I finally sat down and watched the whole thing. What I found was that it’s pretty awful, though not quite as irredeemable as some would have it. There are points that are deliberately funny rather than just accidentally so. However, it’s so consistently off kilter that it’s an easy choice for Weird Wednesdays. What’s weirdest is that George Lucas allowed it to happen.

Today, we tend to look down on Lucas, who turned to the cinematic dark side and became everything he hated: the businessman over the filmmaker, known as much for Jar Jar Binks, midichlorians and licensed products as weird as severed wampa arm ice scrapers for your car windows as he is for creating the Star Wars universe. Back in 1978, however, he was admired not only for the original Star Wars movie but also for American Graffiti, which is a quality film that deserves to be remembered as more than a footnote in his career. People even enjoyed the unprecedented movie tie-in merchandising that Star Wars generated and I’m sure many of them regret ditching their 1978 toys after deciding that girls were more important. What people didn’t enjoy was this, which stunned audiences in roughly the same way that The Phantom Menace did 21 years later. Today, it’s hard to figure out who might have enjoyed it as it’s so inconsistent as to bore kids and make adults roll their eyes. No wonder it went down in legend.

The opening sets the scene magnificently. Everyone who fell in love with Star Wars and eagerly wanted more got an early Christmas present for about seventy seconds. Sure, the cockpit set of the Millennium Falcon looks a little flimsy but that’s really Han Solo and Chewbacca racing through space in an attempt to escape not one but two Star Destroyers. As they hit light speed, the holy words, ‘a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...’ appear on screen to the joyous accompaniment of John Williams’s famous theme. I’m sure that, at this point, people were not too fussed about having to miss a week’s worth of Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk. The opening credits are horribly narrated but at least folk were going to see a host of original cast members: not merely Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher but Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca and, well, R2-D2 as R2-D2. Quite why Kenny Baker would be so slighted, I have no idea, but it’s still promising. See, the voice of James Earl Jones as Darth Vader!
It’s at this point that everything goes horribly wrong and never manages to recover. We’re going to see Chewbacca’s family: his wife, Malla, his father, Itchy, and his son, Lumpy. C’mon! Oh, and special guests: Beatrice Arthur, Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, the Jefferson Starship and Harvey Korman. And just in case that hadn’t sunk in, it immediately breaks for commercials and returns with what must be the weakest sponsorship screen ever. ‘The Star Wars Holiday Special, sponsored by General Motors, people building transportation to serve people.’ That was as catchy as an entire advertising department could think up? And Itchy and Lumpy? What sort of family did Chewie have? It might have helped if the five writers had explained that these were pet names, Malla being Mallatobuck, Itchy being Attichitcuk and Lumpy being Lumpawarrump. Then again, no. That would suggest that Star Wars made fun of ethnicities two decades before Jar Jar and Watto would delve into African American and Jewish stereotypes.

Fortunately, we can sit back and relax a little because the first nine and a half minutes of the movie are actually silent. As a classic film aficionado, this approach can’t help but remind me of the Dawn of Man sequence that begins 2001: A Space Odyssey and I have to respect the sheer balls of the producers for delivering almost ten minutes of banal but surely family friendly Wookiee dialogue entirely unsubtitled. Why they thought it might be a good choice, I have no idea, but maybe they’re silent movie fans, as the first variety performance, of an acrobatic troupe displayed holographically from some plastic device in Chewie’s front room, is highly reminiscent of what French cinemagician Georges Méliès was doing three quarters of a century earlier. Even this is kept silent, the intended announcements of ringleader Yuichi Sugiyama cut and replaced by electronic music. The tumblers are the Wazzan Troupe, the jugglers the Mum Brothers and the gymnast Stephanie Stromer. They’re all far better than this movie.

As I’m sure you haven’t guessed by now, the plot of the Holiday Special has to do with Chewie trying to return home to his home planet of Kashyyyk through an Empire blockade to celebrate Life Day with his family. What Life Day actually is we’re never too sure, even though we eventually get to see a bunch of Wookiees in blood red robes walking into a star, only to find themselves in a cave full of dry ice in which Princess Leia sings some soporific nonsense to the vague tune of the Star Wars Theme. Nobody explains how Luke, Leia and the droids magically make their way to this cave but, if it was that simple, why was it such a trek for Han and Chewie? Did they really need five writers to come up with plotholes like these? Then again, this must all be high entertainment on Kashyyyk, where the Empire apparently broadcasts routine dispatches to stormtroopers via every TV set on the planet, just in case. And you complained about Jersey Shore? The only reason Wookiees keep TV sets is because they double as communicators.
And yes, as communicators suggest, we do end up venturing back into the world of dialogue that isn’t in what is presumably the Thykarann dialect of Shyriiwook. Somehow that never achieved the popularity of Klingon among nerds. I wonder why. Thykarann Boggle must be a riot. Anyway, having the special centre on Chewie’s family means a number of things. One, the budget needed for the cast is cleverly contained: Mickey Morton, Paul Gale and Patty Maloney hardly commanded salaries like Hamill, Ford and Fisher were surely asking post-Star Wars. And why Chewie’s wife is played by a man and his son by a girl, I don’t want to know. Two, Chewie being late home for Life Day celebrations is a convenient way for Malla to reach out to everyone in the Rebel Alliance to ask about him and so provide them with much cheaper cameo slots. And three, we don’t see Kashyyyk in the first movie, so we can’t complain about how much cheaper it’s look here. Well, except that Chewie apparently lives inside a painting. That’s cheap.

Finally, there are plenty of opportunities to throw in variety performances and guest appearances without having to spend much money on sets. Most of them are televised, so they didn’t even need to fly people in to the same place. Jefferson Starship appear in the form of a holographic video used to distract a thug from the Empire, which basically means that they’re small and they glow pink throughout. Art Carney is a local trader who shows up initially via communicator but joins the main thrust of the story at Chewie’s as the only guest who takes part in the plot. Bea Arthur is Ackmena, bartender at the infamous Mos Eisley Cantina, her story oddly told as an official Empire broadcast to highlight Life on Tattooine. Harvey Korman appears as three different characters: in drag as Chef Gormanda, a four-armed parody of Julia Child, who Malla fails to keep up with; as a malfunctioning Amorphian android on an instruction video which makes precisely no sense; and as a complete moron in Mos Eisley who’s fallen hopelessly in love with Ackmena.

Worst of all is Diahann Carroll in what must surely be the most misguided scene in this misguided special, credited as Mermeia Holographic Wow. When Saul Dann, Carney’s rebel supporting trader, brings Life Day presents to Chewie’s family, we think he’s nice, but he brings weird presents. Itchy, Chewie’s father who looks remarkably like a furry version of the Cryptkeeper, is apparently a pervert, so he’s given a full size cyber sex machine that allows him to conjure up his fantasy, right there where his grandson’s playing. It is a private gizmo but many parents surely spent some acutely uncomfortable minutes wondering if their kids were imagining a geriatric Wookiee whacking off to a black chick in some nightmarish shared Star Wars bestiality fan fic experience. ‘I exist for you,’ croons Carroll suggestively. ‘I’m getting your message. Are you getting mine?’ ‘Ah, we’re excited, aren’t we?’ ‘We can have a good time.’ ‘I find you adorable’. ‘I am your fantasy.’ ‘Experience me.’ Trust me, I’m never going to see Paris Blues the same way again.
There’s no doubt that this section is the most wildly inappropriate part of this special. It’s so wrong that I can’t comprehend why anyone could ever have thought it a good idea to write it, shoot it or, once they’d seen it, leave the frickin’ thing in. When Nathan Rabin, the first head writer of the AV Club, wrote, ‘I’m not convinced the special wasn’t ultimately written and directed by a sentient bag of cocaine,’ he was surely thinking first and foremost about Diahann Carroll and Itchy the perverted Wookiee granddad. Hilariously, as relentlessly suppressed as this holiday special is, it’s officially canon, partly because the animated bit introduces the popular character Boba Fett for the first time, so we can’t ignore that Chewie’s dad is into bestiality, Luke Skywalker understood Wookiee before The Empire Strikes Back and Bea Arthur has more Star Wars dialogue than any other woman except for Carrie Fisher until the prequels showed up. That’s a heck of a factoid to use to upset nerds everywhere. What’s most hilarious is that she’s pretty good.

And that’s the real surprise here. Sure, this is an unholy mess, even for variety television, but it’s not the $115m unholy mess that was The Phantom Menace. Carrie Fisher has said that she has a copy to screen at parties, ‘mainly at the end of the night when I want people to leave,’ but I’d suggest that it’s not quite as embarrassing for its actors as that first prequel. Sure, it’s hardly a jewel in their filmographies, but the work they do in it is generally cameos or skits, not serious acting; nobody’s judging their talent based on this holiday special. However, actors of the stature of Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, whose talents were so spectacularly wasted in The Phantom Menace, have to live with millions of people knowing their work only from that billion-dollar grossing nightmare. Remember that Sir Alec Guinness, a legendary actor with classic after classic to his name, is known primarily today for what he describes as ‘fairy-tale rubbish’, albeit fairy-tale rubbish that made him rather wealthy late in life.

The only part that most see as a highlight is the animated segment, officially titled The Faithful Wookiee to keep in theme with the rest of the special, but known today as the introduction of bounty hunter Boba Fett. It’s a ten minute piece, produced by the Canadian animation studio Nelvana, best known today for children’s television shows like Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears, but George Lucas was a fan of their holiday specials and kept them onboard after this for Saturday morning Star Wars cartoon series in the eighties like Droids and Ewoks. It’s actually quite fun, as utterly stupid as it is, with Han and Chewie crash landing onto the ocean planet of Panna while searching for a mystical talisman that makes things invisible. Luke and the droids follow them, only to fall prey to Boba Fett, who seems to be a nice guy just trying to help. It’s primitively done but with some style, like a budget cross between Moebius and Carlos Ezquerra. Of course, I like it just because it forced the Holiday Special into being canon.
If The Faithful Wookiee is arguably the best segment and Mermeia Holographic Wow is clearly the worst, my favourite is probably the Life on Tattooine broadcast that unfolds in Chalmun’s Spaceport Cantina in Mos Eisley, where a whole bevy of actors in recognisable alien costumes drink, enjoy the music of Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes and refuse to leave when the Empire imposes curfew and closes them down. Just as Art Carney treats the weak material in his scenes with respect, Bea Arthur does far more with her portion of the film than anyone perhaps expected. She’s funny in the early scenes with Harvey Korman’s lovesick Krelman, an alien who drinks by pouring alcohol into a hole on the top of his head, but suitably emotional when she buys a round for everyone and sings a song that’s half Jewish singalong belter and half cantina jazz. I have no idea why the Empire wants stormtroopers to see this or how Chewie can be a secret rebel when Wookiees watch cartoons about him, but I enjoyed both.

That’s not to say that I enjoyed the entire holiday special. Most of it alternates between being horrifying, unfunny and boring; it often manages to be all three at once. The cast are almost entirely ashamed of it, George Lucas has said that, ‘If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it’ and even the die hard Star Wars fans who have kept this alive on the grey market for 37 years are hard pressed to say good things about it. Yet, I’d suggest that it’s worth watching once, just for the experience and as a warning about how careful you should be when licensing your product. Sure, Lucas clearly wanted to make as much cash from his budding franchise as possible, so agreeing to such outlandish ideas as inflatable tauntauns, Darth Vader ponchos and Jabba play gel, but this was one step too far, even with a Kenner action figures advert to wrap up proceedings. Lesson learned: don’t license a television special and don’t license a Christmas album, but everything else is fair game.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Antfarm Dickhole (2011)

Director: Bill Zebub
Stars: Michael Nastri, Jessica Mazo, Bill Zebub, Adam Kuligowski and Steve Nebesni

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

With a title as outrageous as this, there’s no doubt that Bill Zebub (geddit?), the underground auteur who made this film (filling what might just be every role in the crew there is), was aiming for a reaction. When described it as having ‘the most WTF moments in movie history’, he got the one he was surely aiming for, because that quote shows up wherever the film is mentioned, including the cover of the DVD. He’s also clearly not aiming for a multiplex run or a review from Rolling Stone, though some of his sixty plus films have made it to mainstream outlets like Blockbuster, FYE and Netflix. He’s a prolific creator but always in the underground where things are done only for the love of it. Nobody ever started a fanzine to get rich, but Zebub’s death metal zine, The Grimoire of Exalted Deeds, is almost a quarter of a century old and still going strong. He even hosts a weekly radio show on WFMU delivered in character as Professor Dum Dum: Scientist of Music and Human Behavior.

Of course, it’s his movies for which he’s best known, because you can’t make sixty movies with titles like this and not get noticed. He has a strong fanbase, as suggested by the fact that the limited edition DVD of his crossover of nazisploitation and jungle cannibal movies, Holocaust Cannibal, was 250% funded on Indiegogo. Just browsing the titles of his films highlights his career themes. There are Jesus movies, such as Jesus, the Total Douchebag, Zombiechrist and Jesus, the Daughter of God. There are rape movies like Rape is a Circle, Frankenstein the Rapist and Forgive Me for Raping You. There are metal documentaries, such as Black Metal: The Music of Satan, Death Metal: Are We Watching You Die? and Metal Retardation. There are movies about movies, like Assmonster: The Making of a Horror Movie, Indie Director and The Worst Horror Movie Ever Made. When he gets inspiration, he even merges themes like with Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist, up there for the Most Offensive Title award with Loving a Vegetable. Oh, that was his too.

Now, nobody’s going to accidentally find themselves sitting down with the extended family after stuffing themselves at Thanksgiving to watch Antfarm Dickhole. Zebub does point out on his website that he gets a lot of 1/10 ratings, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could be surprised by what they see unless their DVD was mislabelled 101 Dalmations. However, he also gets a lot of 10/10 ratings, because there’s a sizeable audience for Z-grade movies that may not deliver good acting, good stories or good anything, but do at least deliver on what they promised. In case you’re scared to imagine what a movie with a title like Antfarm Dickhole actually promises, it features a young man who discovers that an army of ants has made a home in his urethra and his immediate reaction, after they eat his girlfriend to death while she’s giving him head, is naturally that they seem like the perfect way to find revenge against the bullies who have plagued his young life: he traps their girlfriends, then whacks off some ants to eat them alive.
Nothing controversial here, right? Well, actually, I have to admit that this wasn’t quite what I expected. I do see odd movies like this with outrageous titles and plots but they tend to be horror movies, as indeed you might expect this to be from the brief synopsis I provided, but this one really isn’t. It’s not horror and it’s not porn either, even though almost every female cast member was clearly hired on the grounds that they had no problem with full frontal nudity rather than that they could act. It’s actually a comedy, which was my first surprise, and a funny one in its way, which was my second. The story is your standard bully story, as written by an imaginative metalhead high schooler on drugs and abuse, but all the cast are too old to think about school and I’m pretty sure a few are older than me. This makes the experience jarring, a word that Zebub likes a lot. Just to jar us even more, the comedy is a wild mix of childish wordplay and weird philosophising about things like evolutionary psychology.

No, you didn’t read that last line wrong. Let me provide a fresh synopsis with character names. Our lead is Ant-Drew, who’s talking with his friend, Ant-Thony when he’s pushed over in the park by a bully. When he gets home, his unnamed girlfriend strips and gives him a blow job but ends up dead because clearly they thought she was an anteater! They leave her a skeleton, even eating her labia ring. Walking to the police station to report this, Ant-Drew is accosted by another bully, gets wedgied for the second time in ten minutes and out come the ants to defend him once more. And so Ant-Drew realises how he can plan revenge on all his bullies because, hey, if he can’t have a girlfriend, they can’t either! I lost track of who was who, because they aren’t all introduced properly, but there’s Ant-Gela, Ant-Tonette, Ant-gelica... He traps the first in a car and humps its tailpipe, sending ants into the vehicle to eat her. The second takes a shower at home (in her panties, no less), so he climbs up to whack off through her bathroom window.

So this is hardly rocket science (the scientist here is Ant-Drea, a buddy of Ant-Thony, who looks things up on the anternet), but instead of actually following the story, we’re drawn into all sorts of surreal humour. Ant-Drew’s reaction to seeing the skeleton of his girlfriend is to ponder on the consuming powers of the amoeba. Ant-Thony is an incorrigible grammar Nazi. ‘You think I like correcting grammar?’ he asks. ‘It’s a burden!’ Then again, he’s an ant-achronism because he doesn’t watch TV. He says so, in a scene right in front of the TV. Continuity is not a strong point here. One woman shows up a few times reading Richard Dawkins on her couch (in a bikini, no less). We wonder who she is, until Ant-Thony visits and we discover that she’s an antomologist. Their entire conversation is built from philosophical puns, centering around Freud and Jung. There’s philosophy everywhere here, mostly for comedic effect, and no, I wasn’t kidding about the evolutionary psychology angle. Just what you expect from a character called Ant-Thony, right?
I’ve played up the comedic angle because it’s by far the best thing about the film. I didn’t laugh at all the jokes, which are often deliberately lame for effect, but I laughed a lot. The dialogue is not at all natural, a surreal Z-grade movie take on Kevin Smith if Kevin Smith could talk about something outrageous for a full ninety minutes and not bring up Star Wars. Never mind Tusk, this is what Smith would make if he had ten bucks for a budget and no equipment worth speaking of. There’s enough material here to pick favourites; do I go with, ‘Torturing serial killers is thirsty work’, ‘No matter how gently you touch my penis, the ants would still see you as an intruder’, ‘Army ants are evil and they’re making you evil’ or ‘I’m waiting for you to get used to the pain of your dick exploding before I cut off your balls’? Clearly I should find some way to use these in everyday conversation at work. Hey, how are you today? ‘I found the dick who killed my bitch!’ Yeah, that’ll be a challenge for sure.

The rest of the film lags notably behind. Antfarm Dickhole looks pretty terrible, but as it fits towards the end of the Prosumer Days of Zebub’s filmography, it’s likely to look notably better than the seven which he shot on VHS and the seven shot on camcorder. The lighting is terrible and colour correction is absent, meaning that sometimes people’s armpits are orange and roads can be yellow without any Oz metaphor being intended. The camerawork isn’t good, with some shots even cutting off the tops of people’s heads. The editing is awful, with many of the characters unintroduced and some showing up before they’re part of the film. It’s about Ant-Drew’s ant-laced masturbatory revenge until, well, it isn’t; suddenly it’s about some chick getting raped by a giant spider. The effects are almost non-existent; the ants are plastic ants from a dollar store and Ant-Drew’s stunt dick surely didn’t cost that much. The music is varied but cheap and underground. One song used twice has a spoken word bit that gets in the way of the film’s dialogue.

It could be argued that all those technical aspects are still better than the acting, because that’s utterly inept. Surely none of these people are actors; certainly most of them haven’t appeared in anything that wasn’t made by Bill Zebub. Many scenes needed retakes that never happened, including most of those featuring girls who were hired for their willingness to shed clothing. A few behave as they should; most grin their way through their entire performance as if they can’t believe they’re doing anything quite this awesome. The lead is Mike Nastri, who has never acted before and delivers all his lines as if they’re just conversation, apparently unable to comprehend the occasional need for emotional investment, such as when he discovers the skeleton of his girlfriend, killed while sucking him off. Most charismatic is Zebub himself, playing Ant-Thony. He’s done this long enough to know exactly how he wants things timed and he can deliver that even if nobody else can. Well, him and the scenestealing cat.
There’s precious little to counter any of this. The subject matter is neatly outrageous enough to be one and Zebub’s surreal wit leads to amazing things like an ant-POV shot of a banana being carried back to be stuffed down Ant-Drew’s erect stunt cock while he sleeps in the park. Zebub’s dialogue is certainly another, as it’s by far the best thing on show and I‘ve grinned my way through this review because I’m still remembering some of it. I should mention sound because, of all the technical aspects, it’s the only one that works; we can at least hear almost everything we’re supposed to. Choreography isn’t needed much but there’s a slo-mo fight scene that’s actually choreographed pretty well. The poor soundtrack is enhanced by the presence of Shooby Taylor, the Human Horn, which came out of nowhere for me. If I’d ever really thought about which movie might feature him scatting all over Stout Hearted Man, I’d never have plumped for this one, but it’s there while Ant-Thony steals an anteater, and again later. Respect!

Above all, though, even beyond the willingness of so many young ladies to shed all their clothing for art, there’s Zebub’s willingness to make films like this. He must enjoy the process, or he wouldn’t have made it past those first seven shot on VHS flicks. Now he’s preparing to make a seventieth movie, an amazing achievement for someone making big bank from this stuff but especially for someone who probably isn’t grossing in the nine digits per feature. Clearly he makes this sort of material because he wants to and it’s fair to say that there’s no better reason to make movies. As horrible as much of this was, it left me with a strong respect for Bill Zebub. I was expecting to see ninety minutes of outrageous gore but found an odd comedy that avoided gore in favour of female nudity and wild subject matter. For anyone stunned by the American penchant for fetishised violence but puritan sex, this might start to redress the balance. It’s as healthy as a deliberately offensive film can be. And that’s one reason I’ll look for some more Bill Zebub.