Monday, December 28, 2009

Rolling Thunder (1977)

First question: why the fuck isn't this movie out on DVD yet?

Secondly, I don't think anybody's going to make a movie like this today. How many filmmakers are still even trying to make tough-as-nails action/revenge pictures that are also fairly well-detailed studies of sociocultural alienation? Yeah, I can't think of any either.

Rolling Thunder is the story of Maj. Charles Rane, a recently freed P.O.W., just back from Vietnam, who hasn't yet returned to the land of the living. Landing in Texas, he finds that his wife has decided to marry a local cop in his absence and soon small time hoods come to collect on a gift the local department store has given to their small town hero. The hoods try to torture him, which doesn't work since he learned to endure torture in Nam, and they end up killing his wife and kid. You know where the rest of the story is headed. As his military buddy Johnny, (Tommy Lee Jones) puts it: "I'm gonna kill a bunch of people."

When Twentieth-Century Fox saw the film, they were horrified by the violence and sold it to American International for release. And the movie is definitely violent. But, the screenplay, by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould, is well-researched and shrewd. I like the scenes with Rane trying to reestablish order in his life by making and remaking his bed in the Army style. It was also nice that the film didn't feature any hackneyed run-ins with hippies. The dialogue was naturalistic and believable, and Devane's extremely low-key performance works very well.

Paul Schrader, of course, wrote the very similar Taxi Driver, also about an alienated, traditional male in a world that he feels has lost all sense of balance; it is implied that Travis Bickle is a vet as well. Actually, I think you can see Taxi Driver, Hardcore, and Rolling Thunder as three films about more traditional men who are horrified by the cheapening of the culture around them (particularly sexually), who lash out with violence in order to right things in their eyes. Considering the fact that Schrader was raised in an extremely traditional religious community, this is an interesting thread in his work.

So, clearly, they need to release Rolling Thunder on DVD. If not for Schrader afficianados, then surely for Tommy Lee Jones fans or action movie fanatics.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

In the present day, in which it's impossible to think of Christmas without thinking of the "War on Christmas", it's hard to remember that bygone era in which the war on Christmas was over whether or not adults would be able to go see an R-rated movie about Santa Claus as a psycho killer. Far be in from me to suggest that some people were stupid in the 1980s; but indeed, adults went out and picketed this movie because they did not want other adults to see a film that made Santa Claus look bad. The 80s, you see, were a time in which mental giants walked the earth.

Technically, however, Silent Night, Deadly Night is not a movie in which the real Santa Claus kills; instead, a psycho killer who fancies himself Santa does the killing. And, I should mention that, technically, this movie sucks. Silent Night, Deadly Night clearly came in the midst of the 80s slasher cycle, and it hews pretty closely to the slasher formula: a horrible event that happened on a holiday several years ago, young people who screw and get killed, a psycho killer who does the killing, and remarkably flat acting, framing, writing, and direction. Why this film never became a holiday tradition is beyond me.

Christmas Eve, 1971, something terrible happened. A family went to visit their insane grandpa in the insane asylum (hard to believe anything might go wrong, eh?) with their young children. They're in a festive mood and the radio is playing lots of Christmas songs that you've never heard before. See, most of the Christmas classics are copywritten, so the producers had to hire struggling bands to write new Christmas songs and have the actors pretend to recognize them from days gone by. "OH! Is that 'Christmas Rockin' in Havana' by Troy Cunningham and the De-Troy-ers? Turn that up!"

Anyway, the family goes to visit Crazy Grandpa who subsequently freaks out the young son, Billy, by telling him that Santa Claus is an angry, jealous Santa who smites the naughty children with terrible vengeance. This is supposed to be scary; but it's hard not to think Grandpa is actually pretty awesome because the kid is a bit annoying, and the scene is sort of funny. But, now, the seed is planted in young Billy's fertile mind.

Meanwhile, a guy dressed as Santa holds up a liquor store and kills the clerk. Santa's car gets a flat tire, the family stops to help, and he kills Dad and slits Mom's throat. Before doing so, he rips open Mom's shirt so that young Billy will forever connect breasts with killing- and so the producers can shoehorn lots of tits into the film for no apparent reason. Oh, and the kid hides from Evil Santa about three feet away, but Santa doesn't see him. This happens a lot in the movie: people do things mere feet from other people who don't notice them. The film apparently takes place in an alternate universe in which everyone is nearsighted and all of the songs on the radio are by the same shitty bar band from the Midwest.

Now orphaned, Billy and his baby brother grow up in an orphanage run by Nuns and a bitchy Mother Superior. He has Christmas Issues, naturally, and Mother Superior responds by beating him. He receives a grand mal ass-whupping after seeing a young resident and her boyfriend screwing (Oh, no! Tits! Tits make Billy go crazy!), and comes to associate punishment with Christmas. In case you don't get that point, Billy will say "Punish!" repeatedly throughout the film. He also learns that meaningless sex is deeply wrong, a serious problem since this is the 80s and, if you've watched a lot of these movies, you know that young people screwed a lot in the 80s.

Billy grows up to be a strapping man and gets a job at the local department store. He's "making it" now, as evidenced by an inspirational power rock montage about making it. I realize that the American economy is currently in the shitter, and it's possible that the prosperity of the 1980s boom was largely due to power rock theme song montages. Countless 80s movies feature montages in which people make it in the world while forgotten bar bands play power chords to push them onward. I suspect this is what is missing today. I would like to suggest that the Obama administration pay me stimulus money to follow around Americans who are out of work and depressed, playing them 80s power rock songs on a boombox. Rahm Emmanuel- look me up here!

Unfortunately, there's trouble in power rock montage land. Adult Billy still has Christmas Issues- in fact, he's a ticking Christmas package primed to explode. You can see what's coming and only have to wait through interminable scene after interminable scene to get there. Oh. there's a subplot in which Billy has the hots for a a co-worker and fantasizes about her breasts, and a rivalry with a bizarrely hostile co-worker who always wears polo shirts. Also, the boss at the store gets the bright idea to have Billy play Santa.

So, you really know where this is going. The store has a Christmas party one evening. They're all drinking and dancing to all those classic Christmas songs like, "Christmas is Keen" by Kitty Calloway and the Jingle Sluts, and the hot co-worker nearly gets raped in the backroom by the polo shirt prick. Billy sees tits, Billy goes crazy, and you know the rest.

The movie does pick up in the last act. Linnea Quigley has a bit part in which she gets impaled topless on a trophy buck's antlers, while her teenage boyfriend misses all of this from ten feet away. A drunk bully out sledding gets decapitated while his oblivious friend is twenty feet away but somehow also misses it. The police kill the wrong Santa Claus. There's a dramatic final speech from Billy, who finally gets killed. And the final obligatory scary twist.

Silent Night, Deadly Night has its moments. But there's no suspense, the acting is terrible, and the direction is pretty stock. So, the only way to watch it is with friends and alcohol, laughing at how dumb it all is. It never reaches the realm of so-bad-it's-good. Silent Night, Deadly Night 2, on the other hand, is deliriously stupid, and well worth renting.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971) - (Clip 1)

"Why you stoopid little foo!"

If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971)

Is this an exploitation movie? Is it a Christian propaganda movie? Or, friends, is it a peak into a horrifying future to come???....

If Footmen Tire you, What Will Horses Do? shows what will happen when the Communists take over the United States (on horseback) and start killing all of the Christians. Hideous tortures ensue, people are gunned down in the streets, children are confronted with the fact that their Jesus has not brought them candy, Russian troops break into people's homes to violate their wives, one boy is even decapitated for refusing to step on a picture of Jesus... and all of this is supposed to happen because of American cultural decadence. Rev. Estus W. Pirkle informs the audience throughout the film that this is what we're going to get within the next 24 months for watching cartoons and dancing ("the front door to adultery!") Given the fact that the Russians did not invade in 1973, and I'm pretty sure there was no 'cartoons & dancing boycott', the US must have just been too crappy to invade, thanks to all the cartoons and dancing. Maybe the Russian horses drowned during the attempted invasion. Pirkle and Ron Ormond made The Burning Hell in 1974, and they never explained why the US didn't end up in the soup. Did anyone ask for their money back?

The film was directed by Ron Ormond, a vaudeville magician turned director of Westerns, then turned director of exploitation films like Untamed Mistress and Mesa of Lost Women, then writer of books on the mysteries of the Orient; then, he was in a plane crash (possibly two plane crashes), was born again, made religious films (including this one), and finally televised roller derby. In other words, he was a genius of a man.

Ormond used all of his exploitation tricks in If Horses Tire You, What will Footmen do? and The Burning Hell- they're Christian splatter movies really. The high body count works well with Pirkle's fire and brimstone preaching, which inspires more with the stick than the carrot. We're all going to die, most of us will go to hell, the Communists will kill us all, and so forth. Sure, Pirkle; because of the dancing. All gonna die. Got it. If you have any religious background, you'll feel pretty guilty for laughing at these movies. But laugh you will, friends! Will you laugh when you're in Hell???....

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sonny Boy (1989)

In the 80s and 90s, there were a number of films aimed at reassuring children from non-traditional families that their living arrangements were just as legitimate as the nuclear family. If your parents were divorced, or gay, or single parents, the point is that a family is defined by love. Okay, now, Sonny Boy is a movie about a family consisting of a small town crime lord, his 'wife' played by David Carradine in drag, a few underlings (including Brad Dourif, as crazy as ever here), and a son who was accidentally kidnapped at birth and subsequently cut out his tongue, raised him as feral killing machine and let him loose to kill and eat his enemies. Yes, there are all sorts of families in this world. (And, yes, I said David Carradine in drag. It's never explained in the film.)

Sonny Boy is sort of about child abuse and the scars it leaves, and is actually very sensitive in that regard. It's also about a town ruled by crime and fear rising up against its oppressive king. Also, there's a country doctor who was disbarred for implanting monkey organs in people. And a massive desert redneck battle at the end. For the most part, though, the movie is indescribable. There are all sorts of weird details, like the table lamps sitting on the local bar; and there are scenes that don't quite end in a logical way. Supposedly, the studio panicked and shut down production in the last week, which is totally plausible. The film had a very abbreviated theatrical run, and I don't think it's had any legitimate home video release. It used to be available via bootleg tapes.

It's actually surprising that it had any theatrical release, and it's a testament to a lost era in exploitation film making. It's certainly not a perfect film, but it's one of the strangest and most original I've seen. You could call Sonny Boy the best movie in its genre, if only because there are no other movies in its genre!

That's David Carradine singing the theme song. I have no idea if he recorded the song in drag.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Street Trash (1987)

Today, it's hard to imagine how we genre fans were first touched back in the mid 80s by this scrappy little independent movie about a shipment of liquor that has gone bad and now causes winos to melt and explode; but it's safe to say that Street Trash was truly something special. A tour de force, it is both heart warming and melting. And, if you're in Canada, this spring you will be able to relive the experience on the big screen. You'll laugh; you'll cry; you'll ooze.

Street Trash takes place in a New York junkyard populated by bums and winos and shows how they have turned it into their own kingdom, with the king being Bronson, a truly frightening deranged Vietnam vet. The main characters are Fred and Kevin, two brothers who live in a tire igloo and the first half of the movie is like an anthropological study of the world of the bums. Homeless characters aren't often featured in movies, and what makes Street Trash unique is that it takes them on their own terms. You can't see them escaping to a productive life, and the film isn't particularly interested in that anyway. It's more of a bum soap opera for the first half, which some viewers find boring. Not me.

Into the bumocracy comes 'Tenafly Viper', a well-aged hooch that a local liquor store is selling at rock bottom prices, unaware that it's gone bad. Very bad, in fact, as it causes people who drink it to melt into multicolored goop. I've read a review that claimed the hooch is supposed to have been spiked by the government, which if it's true, I never picked up on in all the times I've watched the movie. Then again, I've generally been on hooch myself when I've watched Street Trash; audience participation, you know. The effects, by Jennifer Aspinall and Scott Coulter, are incredibly inventive and over-the-top. I can't wait to see them with an audience.

In fact, much of the film goes way beyond "politically incorrect" to a territory of offensiveness past the town of South Park. One comedic interlude consists of the bums playing "keep away" with an unlucky fellow's severed penis. Another scene is a lighthearted rib tickler about necrophilia. It's a testament to the film that it wallows in sleaze without becoming too goofy (like most Troma films), or particularly alienating. Well, a scene suggesting an off-screen gang rape is a bit much, but wisely is not played for laughs. Overall though, a film whose end credits feature a lounge song about a mafioso being melted can't be taken too seriously.
Street Trash was screwed over by bad distribution the first time around and has been somewhat redeemed by a deluxe DVD edition that features the original 16 mm short, cut scenes, and a feature length documentary entitled The Meltdown Memoirs that is the single best making-of doc I've ever seen.

Even better, the degenerates at Vagrancy Films have secured the rights to screen one of only a handful of 35 mm prints in Canadian theatres and are going to do so in Spring 2010 in various locations in Canada. One of which is Toronto, which means that I will finally get the chance to see people explode on the big screen. (God willing, I'll even be sober this time.) Which is all I've ever really wanted to do in this life.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Slime City (1988)

In the interest of "full disclosure", I should mention that my wife and I drove down to Buffalo to appear as extras in Slime City Massacre, the sequel to Slime City, Greg Lamberson's near-classic from 1988 about a young man who has to kill in order to stop himself from turning to ooze after he eats cursed "Tibetan yogurt", which sort of qualifies as man's existential condition, I'd say.

I say "near-classic" because the film came out a bit too late for the mid-80s horror boom and went through release hell, and so it really wasn't as well-known among horror fans as movies like Street Trash and The Toxic Avenger. It played some midnight showings in NYC and was available on video, where I saw it, but in very tiny releases. So, there was never quite the cult around Slime City that there should have been. Seriously: a movie about a guy who melts and decomposes if he doesn't beat street people to death because he's possessed by a dead cult leader via poisonous wine and yogurt should at least have some cult.

Obviously (okay, well maybe it's not that obvious) the subtext of all this is sexual frustration: our hero wants to fuck his girlfriend, who won't put out. He's also seduced by the leather tramp across the hall and wined and dined by an 80s stud, but he keeps oozing when he gets frustrated, and so has to beat someone to death. It's sort of like any number of 80s teen sex comedies, just with a scene in which a mouth in someone's stomach eats a dude's hand.

Does this sound a bit ridiculous? Sure, in a campy B-movie sort of way. But, who cares? The requirements with a movie like this is that it shouldn't take itself too seriously, it should have gooey latex gore, and it should go out on a bang. This one ends with Alex's girlfriend cutting him up to no avail, until she's finally chasing his animated brain across the floor! I would say a minor clause requires these films to have some sort of nudity, and clearly, they couldn't convince anyone to get naked on film. But, otherwise, it's good for a viewing with beer and friends.