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.

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.’