Thursday 24 November 2016

Curse of the Queerwolf (1988)

Director: Mark Pirro
Writer: Mark Pirro
Stars: Michael Palazzolo, Taylor Whitney and Kent Butler

By the time 2016 ends, I’ll have reviewed 35 pictures to remember important contributors to cinema on what would have been (or, in two instances, were) their centennials. Curse of the Queerwolf, released in 1988, is the most recent of them and by far the cheapest to make. Low budget pioneer Mark Pirro shot it on 8mm film for an estimated $10,000, which was four times what he spent on his debut feature, 1983’s A Polish Vampire in Burbank. That picture grossed over half a million dollars in home video and cable TV sales, allowing him to shoot Deathrow Gameshow on 35mm for $200,000 and see it distributed worldwide by Crown International. I own it on PAL VHS, a tape which contributed just a little to the million and a half dollars that it made. Perhaps because Pirro had to sue Crown for royalties due to him, he leapt back down the budgetary scale to shoot this, his third feature, which grew out of a small character role in A Polish Vampire in Burbank of a queerwolf in a hot tub.

Now, which ‘important contributor to cinema’ could be in a $10,000 feature called Curse of the Queerwolf, you might ask? Well, that would be Forrest J. Ackerman, the original fan, whose importance to fandom cannot be underestimated. He coined the term ‘sci-fi’ and invented cosplay. He wrote for the first fanzines and lent his name to a character in the first Superman story (published before the comic book). He co-founded LASFS, the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, the oldest continuously operating sci-fi club in the world; in addition to running LosCon, it also owns Westercon, a regional sci-fi convention which my better half is chairing in 2017. He published Famous Monsters of Filmland and represented some 200 authors as a literary agent, from luminaries like Ray Bradbury to outsiders like Ed Wood. He also collected everything he could and, over half a century, exhibited it to over 50,000 fellow fans at his house, known as the Ackermansion. The fact that he appeared in over 210 films is almost a footnote to his incredible career.
One of those is Curse of the Queerwolf, in which he plays an alcoholic named Mr. Richardson. Seeking treatment for his addiction at the Sweet Holy Mama Therapy Clinic, he’s hooked up to a machine that feeds him an ounce of booze every few seconds, while the therapist, Richard Cheese (he goes by Dick), waves his dirty socks under his nose. It’s aversion therapy and, hey, it might work, if only Mr. Cheese didn’t get distracted by his best friend, Larry Smallbut. Poor Mr. Richardson explodes and that’s the end of Uncle Forry’s part. He appeared in bigger films than this one and in more substantial roles too, but this felt right as a choice to celebrate his career because he was such a fan of Z-movies. Sure, he played the US President in Amazon Women on the Moon, Dracula in Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (and Dr. Acula in many films) and a club patron in Vampirella, a movie based on a character which he named, but this is the underground cinema that he adored. He returned for Pirro’s later My Mom’s a Werewolf and Nudist Colony of the Dead.

I love Z-movies too, when they’re made with imagination and passion. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Deathrow Gameshow that I’m unable to remember much about it but I do remember that I laughed aloud a lot while watching it and I did the same with Curse of the Queerwolf. The story is the standard werewolf legend we know from The Wolf Man and Curse of the Werewolf, among many others. Pirro even nods overtly to the classics that came before by giving torches to the men who trail the queerwolf (or dickenthrope) at the outset (that’s torches with fire like villagers always carried to Frankenstein’s castle rather than torches like British flashlights). Sure, this is a contemporary story and one of these modern ‘villagers’ is wearing sunglasses, but they still have old school torches which they never extinguish, even while travelling by car. Either Pirro couldn’t afford pitchforks too or they were too dangerous to have sticking out of moving vehicles. It doesn’t matter. The torches rocked.
Their victim is a young lady named Paula McFarland, played in lingerie by a young lady named Cynthia Brownell, but the story has the character be a male transvestite, Paul McFarland by name, who had been bitten by a queerwolf and so turned into one himself. Another nod to The Wolfman is the tagline, repeated a couple of times during the picture: ‘Even a wrist that is strong and firm and holds up straight by day may become limp when the moon is full and the queerwolf comes your way!’ I should mention here, just in case you hadn’t noticed, that this is hardly politically correct. Sure, it’s almost three decades old but it was notably over the top in 1988 and it’s still there today. It isn’t just the fact that gays and transvestites are the same thing in this film, but other running jokes are willing to go to places that most filmmakers wouldn’t dream of visiting. One involves Larry accidentally killing at least three puppies, one by microwave. This isn’t Troma so we don’t see it happen but the sound effects are impressively gruesome.

I should add that Larry is a nice guy, but he’s easily led. He’s managed to land a lovely girlfriend, Lois, and things seem to be going really well for them. He loves her, he cares about her and he wants to settle down with her, but it’s a scary proposition, leaving his bachelor days behind, and his best friend, Richard Cheese, really doesn’t help him to move forward. Dick is a complete lech, who is convinced that he should keep Larry from falling into matrimony. So he takes him to strip clubs (‘We just got here four hours ago’) and bars to pick up girls. Larry does feel guilty doing this but he gets talked into it anyway; it’s how he finds himself necking with a young lady on Dick’s couch who turns out to be Paula McFarland. It’s only after she bites him on the ass that he realises that she’s a man pretending to be a woman. The four ‘villagers’ with their torches promptly invade the house and chase poor Paula out into the night so we can tie into that opening scene and start to move forward with Larry as the new queerwolf.
This is a wild comedy but the actors wisely play their parts completely straight (pun not intended). Pirro is known for re-using the same cast members over and over again, but many of the key ones here are new. Michael Palazzolo, who plays Larry, has no other credits on his filmography at all, but he’s well cast nonetheless. Cynthia Brownell, playing the transvestite dickenthrope who bites him, only has one and that was in a small part in Pirro’s previous feature, Deathrow Gameshow. Taylor Whitney, playing Lois, would go on to work for another director, but only once, acting alongside Erik Estrada and a cast of porn stars in a women in prison flick called Caged Fury. Only Kent Butler, the deliciously dry horndog of a best friend, made more than two movies, but almost all were for Pirro. He was the casting director for Deathrow Gameshow, in which he also played a stage manager; he was a still photographer on Nudist Colony of the Dead; and he appeared in Buford’s Beach Bunnies, which starred Tom Hanks’s younger brother Jim.

Not all the cast were this inexperienced, of course, and I’m not just talking about Forry Ackerman’s 210 bit parts. Another victim of Richard Cheese at the Sweet Holy Mama Therapy Clinic is Conrad Brooks, a legendary Z-movie actor, best known for playing a cop in Plan 9 from Outer Space. He made a bunch of pictures for Ed Wood and also worked for Coleman Francis on The Beast of Yucca Flats in 1961, before calling it quits on his screen career. It was Pirro who talked him back for his debut, A Polish Vampire in Burbank, and he’s appeared in many of Pirro’s films since. He’d also go on to work for other modern day B-movie legends, such as Fred Olen Ray, David DeCoteau and Donald G. Jackson, among many others, in a filmography that is packed full of movies with outrageous names that are either awesome or awful or both. Ackerman may not have seen Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots, The Saturn Avenger vs. The Terror Robot or Test Tube Teens from the Year 2000, but he would happily have done so and probably enjoyed the heck out of them.
My favourite character in Curse of the Queerwolf is the gypsy woman who Larry accidentally runs over with his car. She’s Madame Muddyooch and she’s played by Sharon Alsina, who went on to be an anime voice actor and appear in a serious film that I would love to see called Mr. P’s Dancing Sushi Bar. She’s far from serious here, of course, and the joke at which I laughed the loudest came after she sees the pansygram in Larry’s hand, marking him as a queerwolf, just as she saw one on Paul McFarland’s hand before him. With her suitably exotic gypsy accent, she tells him, ‘I see all!’ and he replies, utterly deadpan, ‘Did you see the car coming?’ No, this is hardly sophisticated comedy but it made me laugh long and loud and I always appreciate movies that do that. I also enjoy comedies that are able to laugh at themselves, which this does often. ‘Fourth night in a row we’ve had a full moon,’ Dick tells his current squeeze, Holly. ‘Poetic license,’ she replies.

My reviews often act as recommendations, somehow even when I’m writing what I think are negative ones, but this film is going to polarise people without any commentary on quality. Some people are going to read this, be horrified that such a picture exists and make sure never to watch it. Others are going to seek it out just because they now know that it was made; I’m certainly going to lend it to the gay couple in my family who didn’t just enjoy The Gays but laughed uproariously at it. I’m sure that some won’t be able to buy into the fact that a feature shot on 8mm for $10,000 could contain anything of quality, but I’d suggest that there’s quite a lot, even in places you wouldn’t expect. Every werewolf movie has to have a transformation scene, for instance, and this one has the one you might expect, with Larry watching in horror as his wrists go limp, but it also has a very believable shot of fingernails extending, complete with bright red nail polish. It’s not Rick Baker’s An American Werewolf in London but I was still impressed.
I loved this movie, far more than I expected to. Sure, it’s often inconsistent, usually stupid and sometimes not as funny as it wants to be. It also loses its focus, mostly mirroring the classic werewolf story but veering off on occasion just because. I don’t just mean the gloriously named Det. Morose from Homocide (geddit?) with a loose Sean Connery accent that comes out of nowhere, I mean the way that the parody veers off into other movies. There’s a scene that parodies Deliverance, set to the Beverly Hillbillies theme in lyrics reworked to better suit the occasion, but that diversion can be accepted as a nightmare. The eventual shift into The Exorcist isn’t as appropriate because, even though it’s written carefully enough to wrap up the story, it’s not the parody that we followed for most of the picture and diversions only work if we come back from them. However, my takeaway from this film was to watch Deathrow Gameshow again and track down everything else Mark Pirro made. Thank you, Forry, for everything, including this.

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