Sunday, May 29, 2011

Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975)

Also known officially as Soul Vengeance and unofficially as "that penis strangulation movie", Welcome Home, Brother Charles is a strange little blaxploitation oddity that's marries via shotgun a social realist story about a black man (played by Marlo Monte, who should have been in more movies) trying to make a life for himself after an unjust prison sentence and a typical exploitation movie revenge scenario in which our hero kills the crooked members of the justice system who sent him away; and on top of all that, he does so by hypnotizing their wives with his enormous penis, which he then uses to strangle them. I'm not kidding.

Jamaa Fanaka is a somewhat unappreciated black filmmaker (is there another kind?) who studied at UCLA where he made three feature films as student projects, an unheard of feat before or since. Of the three, Welcome Home, Brother Charles came first and the third, the prison boxing flick Penitentiary, became the top grossing independent film of 1981. All of his films are focused on the problems of inner city blacks in California in a way that is more socially conscious and even grittier than the average exploitation movie, with more exploitation elements than the average social realist film. Certain scenes in Welcome Home, Brother Charles even echo those in the masterpiece Killer of Sheep, which is not surprising since director Charles Burnett did the camera work on this movie. Like Killer of Sheep, Welcome Home, Brother Charles is an invaluable documentation of Watts and Compton at a time not long after the riots. It's also a record of some truly great, nearly lost soul, jazz, and funk music; the soundtrack is pretty incredible. But how to reconcile all of this with the giant strangling dong?

Okay, let's start from the beginning: the story tells of a small time dope dealer named Charlie who gets busted in the beginning of the film by two undercover cops, one of whom is insanely racist and works over Charles in the back of the cop car, nearly castrating him with a straight razor. During the escape, Charles had hurdled over the cowering cop and humiliated him, but this doesn't really explain why he would attempt castration. We, and he, soon discover the underlying issue: the officer's wife has been cheating on him with a black man, which drives him so crazy that he nearly strangles her! It's hard not to wonder if this bit of information shouldn't have come before the castration scene though. After it just seems ironic instead of important information. Also, the castration never comes up in the trial for reasons that are explained at one point, but not really believable.

The trial scene itself is amusingly sardonic, with the prosecuting attorney delivering a spot on speech about bleeding heart liberals allowing criminals to roam the streets bashing honest people with their "devilish bricks". The incarceration sequence, meanwhile, is effectively nightmarish, with slow pans down an empty prison hallway and black and white photos of Charles in his cell set to avant garde music by the director. Monte does an effective job anchoring the film, although , as the white cop/bomb disposal technician/racist wife choker is not much of an actor.

The storyline also loses a bit of coherence after the incarceration, splitting into three different directions: Charles learning that his friend N.D. (Jake Carter) took the opportunity of his incarceration to hook up with his girlfriend Twyla (Jackie Ziegler) and turn her into a stripper, Charles starting a new relationship with the cute-as-a-button ex-hooker Carmen (Reatha Grey) and attempting some sort of domestic existence, and Charles strangling his enemies with his twelve-foot schlong. Probably the N.D. storyline could have been excised. There are also the usual problems associated with student filmmaking, such as overly long takes, awkward transitions, weak acting, and so forth. Honestly, most of this can be overlooked; but the story leaves some strange questions: why doesn't Charles mention during his trial that the police officer who arrested him nearly castrated him? Didn't the police have to take him to the hospital at some point? Why is the undercover cop also assigned to bomb disposal duty that calls him away at weird times? Why didn't we hear about the girlfriend before Charles went to jail?

And, seriously, what is with that 12-foot cock? How does that make sense in the context of the story? Does it relate to the African demon statuette with a similarly giant dick in the opening credits? Is it a hallucination or real? I have three theories here: the first is that some of this might make more sense in the uncut version of the film. The Xenon DVD, which is about the only way to see the film right now, is at least seven minutes shorter than other prints of the movie and several people who have seen the film during its original release claim it was longer and more shocking. At the very least, there really must have been another scene in which the racist cop was more graphically killed, one of the most disappointing scenes in this version of the film. It's hard to believe that Fanaka would have dispatched the true villian of the film through a few off-camera screams. But a second theory is that the giant killer dick was added after the movie was made to give the thing a more "exploitation" commercial hook. Honestly though, it's hard to imagine a director like Fanaka changing his movie to make it more commercial.

Finally, I think the dick-strangling subplot might all be a very clever play on old white racist myths about blacks. The old story of the black man who dominates white wives with his giant cock originated in slave-owning days and is still fairly popular with white racists and fetishists today. To my mind, Fanaka is saying, "You want that Mandingo bullshit? Well, here you go!" Taken as such, it's actually pretty funny, although most reviews of the movie seem to take a shallower, "black Ed Wood" approach that strikes me as complete nonsense.

Similarly, a white cop trying to castrate a black suspect out of jealousy over black sexual superiority makes little sense on a literal level, but it works as a fairly potent metaphor for a racist justice system that often does seek to constrain or cut off the power of black men- a power that the movie suggests whites really do associate with black dicks. Now, only Freud could say if Fanaka really believes that societal racism can be boiled down to white sexual insecurity, or if racism instead creates sexual insecurity in whites; and I sure as hell can't answer that. But, as a metaphor, it's both outrageous and pretty great.

The sad thing is that much of this confusion would be cleared up by a better DVD release, and yet the movie isn't likely going to generate enough demand for that. It's pretty uneven with some scenes working much better than others: the sequence of Charlie walking about Compton after being freed is a truly wonderful time capsule of the mid 70s black culture; a seduction scene between Charlie and Mrs. Freeman (Tiffany Peters) is laughably awkward. In the end, the movie has too many good aspects to be "bad" and too many clumsy aspects to be really "good", and is just too singular and strange to have any sort of mainstream success. And yet, so what? Art should provoke mixed feelings!

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Rite (2011)

The story of a young priest who is questioning his faith, but realizes the existence of evil when called to perform an exorcism, The Exorcist- oops, I mean, The Rite, offers viewers a less scary, anodyne version of what they’ve seen before. Hooray for Hollywood!

The center of the story is Lucas Trevant, a priest and full time exorcist living in Rome and played by the great Anthony Hopkins. The selling point of the movie is seeing Hopkins possessed by the Devil, but he’s equally good as a man of faith pulled towards the light of God by an inner conviction. Hopkins could read the telephone book and make it interesting, but most of his dialogue is sharp and engaging; he does, however, call another character “kissy lips” at one point.
The character who is supposed to bring us into the story via identification, however, is much less interesting. Michael, a young seminary student, played by Colin O’Donoghue, has entered the priesthood in order to please his father (the very busy Rutger Hauer), but has second thoughts. Lots of second thoughts. He is the character who doubts the existence of God due to his misguided faith in scientific reason. There’s one of these characters in every exorcism movies it seems and they always learn their lesson. Reason is always treated as wrongheaded in these movies in a way that’s more than a bit reactionary: the characters are saved by faith and destroyed by reason, which are taken as being at odds with one another, and there’s a certain type of evangelical American who has to be the target audience here. However, plenty of religious people are also questioning and curious in the real world.

The real problem with Michael is that he’s a bit too much like us: too lazy to learn any Italian or Latin, which makes the special assignment he’s received, to learn the art of exorcism in the Vatican and perform them in Rome, more than a bit absurd; he’s also sarcastic and hip, horny for a female reporter (Alice Braga); and even though he’s supposed to be questioning his choice to enter the seminary, he doesn’t seem remotely religious or even particularly bright. I kept expecting the character to say something like, “Dude, this possession shit is not sweet!” Really, the character is just not believable.

What’s frustratingly tantalizing about The Rite is that this is Hollywood and they have the bucks, so there are plenty of compelling visuals. A mule with red eyes is particularly effective. I also liked the possessed characters spitting up nine inch crucifixion nails. The cinematography is crisp and clear and visually beautiful, and the sets are great stand-ins for Rome (the film was shot in Hungary and Italy). The one exception is the somewhat goofy sets representing the Vatican lecture halls, which look like CIA headquarters.

But the problem with Hollywood is that they’ve become utterly gutless, which impacts the film in two ways. In the first place, they’ve clearly aimed at getting a PG-13 rating here (a bigger audience!), so the film is basically bloodless and the obligatory shocking language of the demon-possessed is along the lines of “you are disgusting and smell”. Your mother sews socks that smell, indeed.

A bigger problem caused by Hollywood’s gutlessness is that the movie is safely homogeneous and uncreative: it’s pretty close to being The Exorcist, but a less challenging, basically toothless version. The Exorcist is a horror masterpiece, in my opinion, and a genuine work of art. I actually like its sequels, with the exception of Renny Harlan’s prequel; I’m one of the very few who likes The Exorcist II. The problem that the other movies in the exorcism genre have, though, is that they’re rooted in a specific religious rite, and so they tend to follow a rigid formula. The twist here is that, yes, there’s a young girl possessed but also a priest, isn’t much of a twist. When the young priest is shouting, “God compels you!” at the demon, it’s impossible not to think of Jason Miller. And this is what’s so frustrating for many of us about Hollywood at this point: tremendous artistry goes into these movies that are just retreads of what’s come before. And why? Because chicken shit accountants are calling all the shots at the big studios. So a film that repeats The Exorcist can get made, but a film as singular and original as the actual Exorcist? Not a chance.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Park is Mine (1986)

A Vietnam vet jumps off a hospital building to his death and his veteran buddy Mitch takes up his plan to take over Central Park with explosives and heavy ammunition. Mitch is played by Tommy Lee Jones, who we last saw in Rolling Thunder, another angry veteran movie that never seems to be available on DVD. In the mid 80s, American cinema developed a renewed interest in Vietnam and its veterans. The Park is Mine came out around the same time as Rambo and Platoon- The Park is Mine was made for cable television- showed up on VHS and has since vanished. It’s out of print on DVD and, thus, popular with bootleggers. Naturally, I was curious.

Mitch is more than a little bit like Travis Bickle in a very similar New York City scumscape to the one depicted in Taxi Driver. He can’t hold down a job, he owes his ex-wife Rachel (Gale Garnett) a fortune, and Rolling Thunder keeps going out of print; so he becomes un uomo d’azione, as the Italians say, wandering around the park in camouflage and face paint and blowing shit up. Soon, he has New York (apparently, the film was shot largely in Toronto though) at a standstill. You probably couldn’t remake the movie today because it would end in five minutes with Homeland Security torturing the main character to death.

Instead, the SWAT team (led by Yaphet Koto) comes in to the park and gets chased out of the park. The Mayor’s office, instead, claims that there’s a team of men holding the park, and admittedly the idea of one man taking over Central Park is a bit farfetched. Sexy reporter Valery (Helen Shaver) sneaks into the Park and makes friends with Mitch, who finally issues a statement explaining where he’s coming from: America has forgotten about its veterans, average men are all-but-invisible, sex is hard to come by and he “just wants to remind people they don’t have to take shit every day”; today, he’d be a blogger (or Sarah Palin’s running mate), but in 1986, he’s blowing shit up. How far we’ve fallen.

Naturally, Mitch becomes an inspiration to average Joes around the city who finally realize they can be someone important, if only they take a few really batshit crazy, suicidal actions. The city sends in commandos.

The Park is Mine is a fairly well-made 80s television drama with a nice central portrayal of urban alienation. I’m always a sucker for watching Tommy Lee Jones act insane and the film does a good job of sustaining a mood. The soundtrack, by Tangerine Dream, has that synth-heavy, slightly inhuman feeling characteristic of John Carpenter’s music (Carpenter was a big Tangerine Dream aficionado). It is a bit lightweight, especially since it’s main message about Vietnam veterans seems to be, “Hey, pay attention to them!” There's also the slight problem of it being completely unbelievable that a veteran could mine Central Park without anyone noticing, or that one man could hold the park against the NYPD. And genre fans should be warned that it has no gore and only very brief semi-nudity- although lots of shit gets blown up. I wouldn't buy a $15 copy from a bootlegger, but it’s worth a five dollar rental, if you can actually find a copy.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fight for Your Life (1977)

William Sanderson looks like the sort of devious low-level hoodlum who would be arrested for disturbing the peace or selling stolen packs of cigarettes. In his other genre entry, Savage Weekend, he played a backwoods stalker type; his country creepiness was played for laughs, however, on Newhart where he was Larry with two brothers named Daryl. All kidding aside, he's a very versatile actor. In Fight for Your Life, he plays an escaped convict/hostage taker who is also incredibly racist, and you have to wonder if he doesn’t leave this performance off his resume.

By definition, exploitation films need something to exploit- mostly they reach for sex and violence- that can't be found in mainstream movies. One approach is to exploit some dicey social issue that Hollywood won't touch; about a dozen 60s exploitationers feature a character's back alley abortion, and Sam Fuller was a regular maestro of racial/ social tension melodramas. Fight for your Life pokes at the open sore of racsism in America, so much so that it was the only "video nasty" to be banned in Britain due not to violence but racist dialogue.

Legendary exploitation producer William Mishkin brings us this sleazy little melodrama, directed by Robert A. Endleson, whose only other film was the porn satire The Filthiest Show on Earth. Endleson is apparently not proud of Fight for your Life, although it’s a competently-made movie that moves fairly well. The story is about three escaped convicts- Kane (Sanderson), Chino (Daniel Feraldo), and Ling (Peter Yoshida)- who take a family hostage and torment them before the tables are, inevitably turned. The twist is that the family are middle class blacks and Kane is virulently racist and spends a good third of the movie tormenting the head of the family (played by Robert Judd) by making racist jokes, forcing him to tap-dance and play to old racial stereotypes, and generally attempting to win the Ku Klux Klan image award. Chino, meanwhile, is a somewhat colorless Hispanic, aside from inexplicably insisting on eating with his hands, and Ling is a Chinese psychopath who giggles constantly. They’re sort like a Benetton rainbow of offensiveness.

The Turner family, meanwhile, are the picture of assimilated black domesticity. The patriarch Ted (Robert Judd) is a preacher; his wife (Catherine Peppers) still doesn’t trust whites but daughter Corrie (Yvonne Ross) has a best friend Karen (Bonnie Martin) who’s not only white but dated her now-dead brother Val (Ramon Saunders); Grandma (Lela Small) is a feisty old lady in a wheelchair; son Floyd (Reginald Bythewood) is a feisty kid who wants to be Muhammad Ali when he grows up. None of this would be out of place on a sitcom from the 70s and I kept expecting the little kid to have a sassy catchphrase.

It's been called the "most politically incorrect movie ever made", which is a claim anyone who's seen Birth of a Nation would protest. It's also been called a "racist movie". Is it a racist movie? I don't think it is. Granted, it has more racist dialogue than twenty episodes of All in the Family. But it's pretty clear where the filmmakers' sympathies lie- Kane, the racist character in the film is a wretched creep who seems to be made out of pure oil, while the black family are clearly virtuous folks in distress. I’ve said before that the grindhouse films were very much of their times and that might apply here. Racism is still shocking but an interracial love scene might have still packed a punch in 1977 that it doesn’t now. But, to my mind, a racist movie is one that portrays its minorities as mostrous- in a way that an actual racist would approve of- and there were more than a few of those in the 70s and 80s. Check out the oeuvre of Charles Bronson sometime for a slightly creepy, often hilarious look at how reactionary whites see urban-dwelling minorities. I'm not saying Bronson was a racist, but damn he knew where his bread was buttered.

The problem with Fight for Your Life isn't that it sympathizes with its racist character- more that it plays the race card to get a rise out of the audience, but then doesn't know where it wants to go. Once you get over the shock value, it's sort of a one-note affair and it keeps playing that note for at least half the running time. The bad guys are really bad and the good guys are really good, and very little happens to complicate our understanding of them. The question, as with every movie in the Straw Dogs home invasion/revenge mode is: How much does it take to turn an average man into a killer? Judd’s performance is great, but it’s fairly hard to believe that the family is in mortal danger from Kane who, again, looks like he’d be run in by the cops for loitering. Ling is a bit more frightening and has one of the truly shocking scenes in the film when he beats a child to death with a rock. However, none of the thugs seems truly menacing enough to keep the family hostage.

The payoff, meanwhile, is a bit muted. All three goons get wasted, but it seems unsatisfying. The movie builds up to a climax that doesn’t quite arrive. Terrible as it sounds, we’re expecting the family to torture the three to death, but for the most part, they’re dispatched quickly. Something about the hostage revenge scenario never quite worked for me and I think it’s the combination of the hostage crisis never seeming like a crisis and the revenge never seeming like revenge.

William Lustig has released the movie on DVD and claims to love it, and it does have a fairly solid plot while pushing all sorts of social buttons. With the exception of a maudlin (and hilarious) flashback that lets us know how much Carol misses her dead boyfriend even though she’s a completely minor character, there’s not too much superfluous material here. And aside from the thugs doing everything imaginable to get caught, most of what happens is realistic. But it’s not exactly edgy, which you expect from these dramas. Maybe if you saw it in a multiethnic group of friends whom you didn’t want to offend there might be some anxiety, but otherwise the movie doesn’t supply much in the way of tension.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

The first time he uses his titular shotgun, Rutger Hauer’s titular hobo character barks out the line, “I’m going to sleep in your bloody carcass tonight!” right before blasting a pawn shop robber into a bloody carcass. Like much of the dialogue in Hobo with a Shotgun, the line is instantly quotable, a bit silly, and over-the-top. It’s also not remotely the sort of thing an actual hobo with a shotgun might say in real life, but more the sort of thing a vigilante character might say in a movie. Do you know the fake movies that play in the background of real movies when they don’t want to pay for the rights to an existing title? Hobo with a Shotgun is like that- everything in it is self-consciously quoting an exploitation film cliché. If you’re a fan of these movies, you’ll enjoy the knowing winks and nudges, but it’s hard not to feel afterwards like the real movie was taking place somewhere else.

When Jessie Eisener's fake trailer for an unmade film entitled Hobo with a Shotgun played before the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse double feature here in Canada, it fit the faux-grindhouse style like a leather miniskirt, perfectly matching the gritty look and outrageous premises of those 70s grindhouse actioners. It looked like it might really be the trailer for a lost movie. So, when word got out that the trailer would be extended to a full-length movie, as Rodriguez did with Machete, fanboys and girls were fairly excited, especially since Rutger Hauer signed on to play the main character.

Rutger Hauer has been a great character actor since Paul Veerhoven first made him a star in their native Netherlands. He has one of those weathered faces that looks like a sun-cracked field where it’s pleasantly surprising to see an occasional smile bloom forth. Here he plays a homeless man who arrives in a crime-ridden city and, like the main character in many a spaghetti western, is finally resolved to clean up that crime by killing a lot of people. Along the way, he meets Abby (Molly Dunsworth), a hooker with a heart of gold, who adopts him as a sort of father figure. They plan to get out of the town and make a better life for themselves as lawnmowers. Everyone in the town plans to get out and make a better life for themselves. It’s a wonder that nobody mentions how hard life has been there, ever since they closed down the factory.

Opposing him are a crime boss named "The Drake" (played by Brian Downey) and his two sons Ivan (played as a sort of psychotic Tom Cruise by Nick Bateman) and Slick (Gregory Smith), who distribute mounds of cocaine, scream "Whooo!" frequently, and kill a lot of people. There are also roving gangs of punk rockers bullying passersby and a bounty hunter duo in full body armor. This is a movie that leaves no cliche unturned.

Of course, very little here is actually supposed to be original. The film is more an homage to those sleazy 80s action films that came in cheap plastic clamshell video boxes with cover paintings that made them look much more exciting than they actually were. Clearly, the filmmakers wanted to make a movie that would deliver on the promise of its title. And they succeeded marvelously at that; to the point that I can guarantee that many reviews will use the verb "delivers".

The movie also makes a strong case for the worth of somewhat archaic filmmaking techniques. The technicolor cinematography by Karim Hussain is strikingly lush, colorful, and gorgeous. The effects are moist and handled practically, without the cartoony CGI bloodspurts of recent genre films. The film is similar to Machete in that it throws a lot of creative ideas at the screen. Unlike Machete, however, Hobo sticks to one main plotline and keeps any political subtext to a minimum- although it parodies poverty, it has nothing to say about it.

It's also more attentive to detail, while Machete felt a bit rushed and shoddy. Here, you get the feeling that the director is trying to stuff everything he enjoyed about 80s exploitation movies and culture into one movie. There are graffiti-soaked alleys, dark, neon-lit video arcades, bad guys who deserve to be turned into action figures, amoral bikini-clad bimbos, overacting bad guys, horrific violence, and plenty of gruesome Youtube-length set pieces that pay due reverence to badfilm classics. If you take it purely on a fanboy level, it's a mini-masterpiece of genre homage and will, most likely, become a cult classic, since it's a pure sugar rush of a sleaze movie.

Okay, but now let's take it on the cinephile dick level.

It's not really a movie, is it? It's more a series of Youtube-ready set pieces that doesn't quite add up to a whole. And once you get past the artistry of the thing, it has nothing in particular that it wants to say, aside from "Hey, do you remember when they used to do that in 80s movies?" Movies now comment only on other movies or pop detritus, but the exploitation movies that we all remember from that era generally had something to say about the outside world. Take Romero's Dawn of the Dead- there's a hell of a lot more going on there than "Hey, remember in zombie movies when they do this?" The people who made the 70s exploitation movies were bringing in all sorts of concerns and interests. Last House on the Left, for instance, is both a parable about American warfare in Vietnam and a remake of the Ingmar Bergman film The Virgin Spring (itself a 'remake' of a Medieval fable), as well as being a grueling (maybe not very good) exploitation film. What are the chances the fanboys have ever watched a Bergman film? Or have any thoughts whatsoever on the military industrial complex? Or, really, have anything to say at all about real life?

There's a difference between having something interesting to say about your time and context and doing so in a fairly hamfisted, inartistic way- which, to be honest, many of my favorite grindhouse movies do- and having a lot of interesting visual ideas, but without any central idea, and hiding any artistic weaknesses behind a retro aesthetic. "It's not supposed to be a good movie!" is the usual defense of these faux grindhouse flicks.

Fair enough. These movies were never high art. But, just like in any other genre, the truly original exploitation films stand out. Hobo with a Shotgun hasn't got many original bones in its tired old body. It's sort of a parody, although it's only sporadically funny. It works best as an homage, but I think I'd rather watch the geniunely bad movies this new wave of faux-filmmakers are endlessly referencing- at least the 70s crackpots were sincere in their artlessness.

Cannibals in the Streets (1980)

Cannibals in the Streets was also released as Cannibal Apocalypse and Invasion of the Flesh Hunters, two titles that are a bit generic and don’t really capture what the movie is about. Cannibal Apocalypse was probably meant to confuse people who thought they were going to see either Zombie Apocalypse or Cannibal Holocaust, but a grand total of about ten cannibals in the movie doesn’t really make for much of an apocalypse, and it doesn’t make for much of an invasion either. This is not to say it’s a bad movie. In fact, I think it’s been disserved by its generic titles and has never gotten the love it deserves.

The movie is about a handful of vets who return from Vietnam with some sort of rabies-like virus that drives them to commit acts of cannibalism. John Saxon plays Norman Hopper, a former Army captain who is trying to suppress his own urges to bite people and fit back in to civilized life, something made particularly difficult when the sexy babysitter who keeps flirting with him hikes up her skirt and lets him go down on her. Apparently, he just nibbles her a bit, something she takes as a new kink, but how long can he hold out for? Meanwhile, his lovely wife is being courted by a doctor friend who is in charge of observing the troubled veterans from Hopper's unit, something that would make anyone want to go bite somebody. It’s a bit like the Italian cannibal film version of The Deer Hunter.

Even more troubled is Charlie Bukowski played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice, who has a great “disturbed” look that he put to use in The Gates of Hell (a.k.a City of the Living Dead) as the disturbed town crazy Bob, and Make them Die Slowly, in which he was really more of a cokehead, but did get the top of his skull lopped off with a machete, which is pretty disturbing. Here he has a great sequence in which he goes to see an afternoon showing of a war film- both an ironic commentary on the subject matter and a reference to May Heatherly, who appeared here as an infected nurse and in the film showing, From Hell to Victory. The film does not disturb him, but he is disturbed by the couple making out in the row in front of him.

Seriously, if you’re going to lay back and let your boyfriend suck your tits in a movie theatre, you’ve got to expect some trouble, but Charlie goes a bit too far by biting her neck. The girl screams and an angry mob of bikers dressed like Eurotrash (the movie is set in Georgia, but filmed by Italians) chase him into a thrift store where there’s a tense standoff with the police, only after he gets chased around the store by a motorcyclist and kills him and then kills the security guard who came running for the gunshots, but not for the motorcycle riding around the store. After a tense standoff, the police take him in. I’ve heard some reviewers complain that the story is slow-moving, but in the first forty minutes, we’ve already had a Vietnam battle sequence, pussy-biting, neck biting, a motorcycle chase, and a police standoff. What more do you want?

It does lose a bit of steam in the middle, as the police (led by the great grizzled Captain McCoy played by Wallace Wilkinson) and the hospital try to figure out what’s going on and Saxon tries to hold it together and keep his wife from leaving with that prick doctor. Luckily, before very long, the cannibals under observation, Charlie and Tom Thompson (Tony King of the Buffalo Bills and Shaft), plus a nurse they’ve infected, escape from the hospital with the intention of reliving their Vietnam experiences and actually flying back to Vietnam, where they’ll ostensibly be permitted to bite whoever they want. First, however, they have to duke it out with that motorcycle gang, who’ve apparently been waiting outside the hospital to jump Charlie for killing their comrade, and flee from the cops into the sewers; as the grizzled Captain puts it, “ashes to ashes and shit to shit!”

The movie reminded me of two earlier genre pictures, Deathdream(1974) and Rabid (1977), and the general perception that this it’s a rip off might be another reason that Cannibals in the Streets has lacked appreciation. In some ways, it’s a smaller scale Rabid and somewhat more effective as the domestic setting of the first half has more resonance- Saxon’s character is trying to hold it together even as he knows he, “hasn’t been the same since coming back from Vietnam.” In fact, the movie plays as an effective little parable about the war wounded who could never quite readjust to civilian life with the psychological scars they brought back, and how those mental illnesses consumed their loved ones and finally the larger society. It’s a bit how Romero’s First Blood might have played.

I’ve often said that social commentary plays best in horror movies when it’s couched as a parable, instead of delivered through didactic speeches. Here, the commentary seems fully intentional (the director Antonio Marheriti said as much), and there are lots of nice little touches- for instance, I love a shot in which a character dies in military uniform beneath a toy airplane with the letters U.S.A. hovering above his head. And yet the story can function just as easily as an Italian Romero rip-off, should you choose to take it as such. Either way, Saxon’s performance is much better than average. And, whether you take the film as a biting social commentary on the Vietnam War, or a movie about cannibals running amok, it’s got enough gore, action, sleazy sexuality, and scenery-chewing dialogue to qualify as fully entertaining.

The Toxic Avenger (1984)

I've still not quite come to terms with Troma Films. Oh, I enjoy the fact that they make gooey, gorey, rabble rousing films of a singular outrageousness. But, usually, the movies are not very good. There's something about the usual Troma movie that reminds me of an unfunny Uncle trying to get you to pull his finger at a family reunion; it's hard to really hate anyone who's trying so hard and harmlessly to be liked, but you can only enjoy their company on a very limited basis. Usually, one Troma movie per year is about enough for me.

All of this explains why it took me so long to actually watch The Toxic Avenger, which is probably Troma's best movie, a compliment akin to "prettiest girl in the leper colony". And it's actually a very entertaining movie. You can see why they spun it off into three sequels, a cartoon series and action figures. I mean, in addition to the fact that Troma is shameless in their attempts to turn a buck. It's a silly little movie because of, and not in spite of, its head-crushing and scenes of kids being run over by cars.

As you likely know, the movie is about a nerdy janitor named Melvin (Mark Torgl) who gets pranked horribly by the beautiful people at the gym where he works and ends up diving into a barrel of toxic waste; fortunately, the toxic chemicals give him super powers instead of cancer and he turns into a hulking, lumpy latex faced mutant (Mitch Cohen) with the strength to easily kill all the bad people in the city of Tromaville, New Jersey. Luckily for him, there are plenty of criminals in the city, including the aforementioned bullies, who also revel in driving over pedestrians, a Mayor (played by Pat Ryan Jr. of Street Trash fame- now it feels a bit wrong laughing at the jokes about his immense weight since it's probably what killed him at age 44) selling out the town to polluting businessmen, plenty of robbers in leotards and face paint (no idea how that was supposed to be intimidating- are they going to commit aerobicide?), and a dude with a beard in drag. Melvin also falls in love with a sexy blind girl (Andree Maranda) and they live together in the dump.

As you can imagine, the movie is shameless in throwing bad jokes at you. Many of these jokes are groaners along the lines of an early visual gag in which an overweight woman does aerobics while eating a submarine sandwich. But, like the Naked Gun movies, there are so many jokes that one of them will eventually work. Admittedly, the majority of the jokes here would have been rejected by the Zucker brothers as too dumb.

So why does the movie work? I think there's just something winning in the film's ability to go over the line in about twenty different directions at once. The makeup effects, by Jennifer Aspinal who also worked wonders on Street Trash, are low budget miracles, the stunt work is pretty impressive, there are some impressive crowd scenes, and plenty of heads get mashed real good. Overall, you have to hand it to Troma- they made a film for an estimated $475,000 that looks like they spent $490,000.

Finally, for a movie about a toxc waste mutant who kills people, it's a surprisingly good natured film that seems to say that even a chronic loser can fall in love and become a hero- he just has to get poisoned by toxic waste. I'm glad that this one was the Troma movie I watched this year.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Devil's Rain (1975)

First off, don't be thrown by the PG rating; this is more like a 70s PG, which means your parents can take you to see it at the drive-in and you'll be scarred for life. Some of us are old enough to remember being scared shitless by William Shatner fighting pipe cleaner spiders in Kingdom of the Spiders. They didn't worry so much about kids in those days- they'd lock us in the car while grocery shopping or smoke at the dinner table and think nothing of it. Or, at least, my parents did. (I remember Dad always used to say, "children are to be seen and not fed".) Anyway, nowadays, this one would be R rated easily for the melting people and eyelessness. Not to mention all the Satanic stuff. Back then, before that son-of-a-bitch Reagan got in the White House, they had us worshipping Satan at a young age. It was a different time.

The Devil's Rain is one of a number of 70s Satan movies that followed the Exorcist, most of which involve convoluted story lines that assume some knowledge of theology (which is sort of the study of the ultimate convoluted storyline) and probably make more sense if you're Catholic. This film was written by three people, so it's safe to assume the storyline is convoluted. Luckily, the exposition is handled by Tom Skerritt and William Shatner, two of the finest actors of their generation.

Shatner plays Mark Preston, a man who fights the Devil. In fact, the movie begins with him going to fight the Devil, or at least the Devil's high priest, John Corbis, played with manic something-or-other by William Borgnine. I appreciated the fact that the movie began with things basically in progress instead of telling us more about Mark Preston. What do you need to know? He fights the Devil; just like his father fought the Devil and his father before him fought the Devil. In fact, his father shows up in the first few minutes to melt into a waxy goop after telling his son that he has to go fight Corbis again. He's polite enough to melt on the front porch instead of on the new rug inside.

So, Preston goes off to confront Corbis in the old Satanic church in a deserted Western ghost town. Look, I know what you're going to ask here and I have no fucking clue why they're located in a deserted Western ghost town, and after we hear their backstory (they were burned alive in New England pilgrim days) it makes even less sense that they'd be in an old wild west ghost town. But there you go- Wild West Satan Worshippers. The Devil worshipping ceremonies, incidentally, are totally legitimate- you know this because Anton LaVey, High Priest of the Church of Satan, served as a consultant on the film, surprisingly the only time he and Shatner ever worked together. (Shatner and Satan worked together for many years until they had a falling out in the 80s) LaVey also appears as a priest in a paper mache helmet that makes him look like a Satanic tit.

There's a lot of mumbo jumbo and the gist of it all is that, when the Devil gets your soul, you lose your eyes- a super creepy makeup effect by the Berman family- and look sort of waxy. Shatner's parents get the treatment and go missing and then he gets the treatment and goes missing. So, his brother (played by Skerritt) and his brother's sexy psychic wife (Joan Prather) come looking for him. The good for nothing Sheriff refuses to help (although he does drive out to the ghost town in order to inform Skerritt that the police will not actually search the ghost town; police in this area apparently being very selectively lazy), so they go themselves to wage war, enlisting the help of their teacher Dr. Richards (played by Eddie Albert, also slumming it).

There's a whole subplot with the "Devil's Rain", which is sort of like a giant Faberge egg with souls inside as well as rain- it apparently can kill Satanists, which is why they keep it in their Church, like the Wicked Witch with that bucket of water. Also, the Devil possesses Borgnine repeatedly, turning him into a goat-man. From one angle, none of this makes a lick of sense, which was a complaint audiences had at the time. From the other angle, mine, it's all awesome as hell. That angle, of course, is also drunk, so take it how you will.

Anyway, the convoluted storyline turned off viewers and the negative critical response effectively killed the career of director Fuest. Sadly, it did not kill the career of newcomer John Travolta (thanks a lot, Satan!) who has a small part. It's also a shame because the movie has a sort of nutty charm and would probably play well on a big screen to the right audience. I have no idea if it would play well with satanists though.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Inconfessable Orgies of Emmanuelle (1982)

And now for the Spanish take on the Emmanuelle films- more specifically Jess Franco’s take on them. Here the character is a more direct rip off- a diplomat’s wife whose name is spelled with two m’s, as opposed to the Italian character who has no husband and one m in her name. The main difference between the French and Spanish Emmanuelles is Franco’s Emmanuelle is horny and promiscuous but her husband does not want her to sleep around. This leads to all sorts of complications because, of course, she does sleep around and it makes him sooooo mad- but of course he forgives her.

Emmanuelle (Muriel Montossé) and Andreas (Antonio Mayans) have come to a sleepy Mediterranean town in order to rekindle their vows and are acting like lovebirds. She soon gets into trouble at a discothèque whose entertainment consists of the sleepiest stripper ever seen on film. Her act consists purely of shifting her weight back and forth from one leg to another in a sequined leisure suit. She stands around looking bored, takes her clothes off, and the drunk wife ends up on stage in a 69 with her. None of this is as interesting as it sounds in the film.

So, Emmanuelle and Andreas break up over this public sexcapade and fuck some people and then get back together. In between, she gets raped by some dudes on the beach, an unfortunate norm in these movies. A more interesting cliché is the progressive 70s ‘sexual liberation’ angle. Andreas comes to realize that monogamy doesn’t suit modern gals: “Maybe the problem is not you, but us. We’ve been brought up with outdated ideas: the couple, the family, the occasional fling. All that will disappear soon. And that will give way to new types of relationships. Maybe to total freedom in love.” Ah the 70s. Can you believe people once believed this stuff?

Anyway, the locations are gorgeous- another cliché with these movies- the lead actress is gorgeous, and the clothes are discotastic. One interesting touch is our narrator Tony, an aristocratic, decadent reactionary who rails about the new generation with their feathered hair and loose morals. He’s a parody of the Spanish aristocracy of the old regime and would make absolutely no sense in anything but a European flick. Of course I liked the promiscuity boosterism as well. And Montossé is lovely.

The problem? Jess Franco. The movie moves at a glacial pace and he has an annoying tendency to let the image go out of focus. Franco has a certain cache, probably because he did a zillion of these movies, but I’ve yet to watch one of his films that didn’t rely heavily on naked women instead of having something interesting happening in the storyline. He should have been a photographer because so many of his films come close to being still photography.

You do have to hand it to them though: the title is fantastic.

Let Me In (2010)

Let the Right One In was a quietly creepy Swedish vampire movie with a unique twist- the vampire in the story was a little girl and the seduced hero was a little boy and this was his very difficult first crush. What was great about the film was just how quiet and restrained it was- the small Swedish town looked like it was wrapped in a shroud of snow and I remember feeling like I was being too noisy eating popcorn in the theatre. The word for it was atmospheric.

Hollywood doesn’t generally do atmosphere, so news that the film was going to be remade for the benefit of those Americans who can’t be bothered to read subtitles and directed by the fellow who made the dreadful Cloverfield didn’t bode well. But, for the most part, this is a creepy, atmospheric vampire flick with a twist- not so unique the second time, of course. Thank god it’s not a betrayal of the source material, drawing from both the original movie and the book upon which the original film was based.

The little town is now in New Mexico, but as snow-covered and somber as Sweden. The young boy, Owen (Cody Smit-McPhee) lives with his mother in a cheap apartment complex when some strange neighbors move in next door: an older man (Richard Jenkins) and a young girl named Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz) with some strange habits. She walks around in the snow barefoot and gets in loud fights with her older caretaker. On occasion, he kills people and drains their blood for her. In spite of this, Owen and Abby become fast friends and love blooms. But, will he still love her when he finds out that she’s not a girl? And what about the bullies at his school who have been making his life miserable; will they get theirs? The questions aren’t quite as open if you already saw the Swedish film, of course.

Simply put, this is a fairly strong, well-photographed genre film with some really clever set pieces and an engaging central storyline. A bit with a killer in the back seat of a car is fairly Hitchcockian and the eerie empty small town spaces reminded me of early John Carpenter, something that might have been intentional as the film is set in 1983; there are definitely some obvious visual homage to Spielberg. I also liked that they caught the same atmosphere of the Swedish film and the basic sadness of the story.

Any problems? Well, there are two: the CGI, as ever, looks fake. At some point, directors have to realize that CGI is just a cartoon, albeit a very detailed cartoon; thus, it almost always looks cartoony. The few times it was used here, it was hard not to start giggling- never good in a horror movie. The other problem is the obvious- the originality of the story is a bit diminished when you see the same story twice with different languages being spoken. But, what can you do? It’s rare enough to see a truly eerie horror film nowadays that it’s worth watching the same one twice.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Sister-in-Law (1975)

A lesson in exploitation movie marketing: To the left, we have the poster for the Crown International Picture "The Sister in Law", which bears the great ad line, "She destroyed her husband's brother- by the most immoral act imaginable!" If you saw this poster, you would think the movie was about a treacherous harlot who commits some sort of outrageous (likely sexual) sin in the movie, right?

Nope. The movie isn't at all about the sister-in-law destroying her husband's brother by any sort of immoral act. In fact, it's basically about a writer destroying his own brother by an immoral act while treating his wife, from whom he's separated, terribly. She's no harlot at all- I want my money back!

She is sexy though- Anne Saxon's performance here is enough to make you wish she'd done more movies. Her character is a wife whose husband has had some success that went to his head, resulting in him both moving in with a younger woman and getting deeply in debt with the mob. His brother, played by John Savage, returns home from time traveling the country and trying to find himself, and gets entangled in this sexual triangle by sleeping with his brother's wife and trying to seduce his girlfriend. Then the writer gets him running drugs to Canada for the mafia. It ends badly.

The Sister-in-law is a strange movie. It has some of the characteristics of an exploitation film: the characters get naked often, there's illicit sex and crime, and pretty shocking violence towards the end. But it's also a fairly straightforward character study with competent dialogue, acting, and direction by Joseph Reuben, who went on to make such great thrillers as "The Stepfather", "Dreamscape" and "Sleeping with the Enemy". It's got aspirations towards being a moral parable and everyone involved is giving it their all. It's also sort of wonky and strange in a way that actually enhances the quality of the film.

In the end, the characters are a bit unapproachable: the writer's a self-deluding prick; his wife should leave him but wants to hurt him; the hippie brother is self-destructive; and his girlfriend is a bit clueless. Now, I think that the characters are supposed to be this way- the film might well aspire to show people trapped in problems of their own making, in the style of Bergman. But it never quite jells- we don't really get to the deeper level of meaning that we do in Bergman, so we're just annoyed in the end at watching people do stupid things to destroy themselves.

Don't get me wrong: the finished product is not on the level of the European art house classics or the great American independent films of the 70s. But it's not remotely the sleazefest the poster promises. In a strange way, that's what's so great about that poster.

The Pick-Up (1975)

Wow, that was not what I was expecting! If you’ve ever caught the trailer for this Crown International drive-in flick, you know that it makes the film look like a hippie sexploitation romp that ends violently. It sort of is that too; however, almost everything in the trailer comes from the first ten minutes or last ten minutes of the movie. What’s in between is a weird, semi-surrealist story about spiritual awakening and Edenic sexual bliss. There’s also a latex-faced clown in a swamp. Wow, man.

The film starts with two female friends sitting in a field together by the road, when they’re picked up by a kid named Chuck (Alan Long) who is delivering a mobile home to Tallahassee. The more sombre and spiritually-inclined of the two, Maureen (Gini Eastwood) is apprehensive about going with the boy because he’s an Aries and Aries is in a period of turbulence. Her friend Carol (Jill Senter) just wants to smoke pot and screw. The recent DVD box claims incorrectly that the movie was made in 1980, but movies like this were not made after 1976.

Maureen’s apprehensions die down after Chuck plays some Bach and Carol has a ball on the ride, doing a sort of interpretive sexy dance for a pickup full of young boys. Sure enough though, the weather starts getting rough and the road takes a detour; soon the mobile home is stuck in the mud of the Everglades.

This is where the film switches gears as Chuck and Carol return to a state of nature and Maureen regresses into memories of her childhood. Soon, the soundtrack is overpowered by trippy outer space sounds and Maureen is visited by Pithia, priestess of Apollo, receives a sacred dagger, and rolls around nude on a white stone altar in the middle of the swamp, while Carol and Chuck run around naked in the swamp. Did I mention this movie’s weird? If you saw it in the theatres during its original run, you were high.

Making the film even more mysterious, both Senter and Eastwood are gorgeous and neither ever did another film. The focus for the next hour is on two stories: Carol and Chuck’s burgeoning love and sexual liberation, and Maureen’s psychological breakthroughs. Maureen was molested by a Priest (they were into girls back then) and has frequent flashbacks to the incident. She is also visited by a two-faced politician who may or may not be the Devil (at one point, he voices support for abortion legalization, but she is ‘against all forms of killing’!) and an evil, latex-masked clown (in the middle of the swamp). While she’s the less-interesting of the two girls, clearly the story is focused on her inner life, something that makes sense with the twist-ending.

Meanwhile, Carol’s mother never understood her free and open sexuality and Chuck is just learning to be free” and “live in the here and now”, which requires him to hunt a wild boar with a bow and arrow- as with some other exploitation films, this one needlessly shows the animal being killed. The girls are freaked out by the killing, but the three roast the pig and Maureen finally burns a hole in her hand with a coal from the fire, so Chuck decides to seduce her. The two leave the bus and screw on the altar with the clown, politician, priest, and priestess watching. Incidentally, if you made this movie, you were also high.

Still, you have to admire the narrative daring of this movie. Combining Fellini and the drive-in aesthetic and going to all sorts of weird places, The Pick-Up takes more chances than most exploitation movies.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Rogue (2007)

The trick with doing a movie about a killer crocodile, alligator, shark or octopus is just to make sure the thing doesn’t look fake. There are a ton of these movies and, particularly with the croc/gator films, the monster usually looks like fifty dollars worth of latex being operated as a puppet off-screen. The Si-fi Channel has, in recent years, proven that computer generated aquatic monsters can look even faker than latex, which is probably vindication for those puppeteers. Finally, for the record, the best of these movies ever, in my opinion, is Alligator, with Robert Forrester and a gator that emerged from the sewers to eat a kid in a swimming pool, among other great things. That was a combination of a real gator on a miniature set and a latex gator that didn’t look real either, but fuck the movie was so nutty that you didn’t care. Ah the 80s.

Anyway, in Rogue the croc is effective because the filmmakers keep it off screen through much of the movie. It’s the Jaws trick- all you have to show is the fin for most of the film and the shark at the very end and you can scare the crap out of people. In the last ten minutes or so, there’s a CGI crocodile that looks a wee bit goofy (seriously, you can’t escape CG looking goofy unless you have Industrial Light and Magic money), but by that point, you don’t care because the rest of the film has been so effective.

Rogue was made by the same Aussies who made Wolf Creek, a slasher film set in the Australian outback that basically pulled the “Psycho switch”- the storyline shifted radically after about half an hour- in addition to being much crueler than expected. I remember actually being shocked when the character we’ve come to expect will fight for survival in the movie is killed early and brutally, throwing the whole film off-balance. The ending of Wolf Creek was a bit of a disappointment, but at least they were willing to fuck with the audience.

This is another Aussie horror story- apparently, crocodiles really are this big and mean in Australia and the filmmakers explain in the making-of documentary that they’re just adopting true stories of croc attacks. In this case, the story is about a river tour boat that pisses off a very big crocodile and gets wrecked on a small island with the tide coming in, and they have to figure out how to get off the island.

Rogue is more a popcorn movie than Wolf Creek (which was not-at-all a popcorn movie), and the thrills are fairly effective without the story getting as rough as that film. They’ve definitely taken notes from Spielberg about how to utilize animals and kids and make minor characters believable and likeable before menacing them with the monster. Like early Spielberg, you could also see this one playing well at a drive-in. As for gore, it’s a bit tame, although a few people get chomped up good, and overall the thrills are effective. So, score one for the Aussies.