Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nightmare in Wax (1969)

This is exactly the kind of schlock that used to get played on Creature Feature after midnight on Saturdays when I was a kid. I probably even saw it back then. It's got all of the elements of a B horror movie: a washed up Hollywood star (Cameron Mitchell in this one and so many others), spoooooky theremin music, lots of scenery-chewing, and a story so dumb it would only be convincing to a child. As a child, I might have seen it and been convinced.

The story is that someone is kidnapping Hollywood stars and drugging them so they remain paralyzed and then using them as figures in a Hollywood Wax Museum. Who's doing this? Former Hollywood make-up artist Vincent Renard (Mitchell), that's who! The movie lets us in on this secret five minutes in. About ten minutes in, they explain why: he was in love with an actress (Anne Helm), but the fat fuck producer Max Black (Berry Kroeger) also loved her and mutilated him with a flaming cocktail (in full view of an entire party of people who apparently didn't notice how intentional the attack was).

Well, old putty face probably could have kept porking the actress, but decided instead to work at the wax museum, which for no apparent reason allows him to work with a giant vat of boiling wax uncovered in the basement. In fact, that vat of wax, which is akin to big bubbling vats in classic schlock films, is the single best thing about the movie. Probably second place would go to the go-go dancers shaking their goodies to a hip band called the T-Bones about halfway through. Vincent trolls the go-go club for victims, Max trolls the club for pussy, and otherwise the scene has nothing to do with anything, but was probably a career high point for the T-Bones.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!
The worst parts of the film are an idiot security guard who's here for comedic effect, and especially Mitchell's dialogue to the paralyzed victims, which just goes on for-fucking-ever. If this thing was shot in more than a weekend, they wasted time. Also, if these "wax figures" are alive, how long can they last until they starve to death? It's not like the guy is feeding them. Probably a crapping wax dummy would arouse suspicion anyway. Finally, there's a huge subplot in which two detectives try to solve this big mystery of where these actors are disappearing to- they don't suspect that it could be the batshit crazy, mutilated weirdo with a serious grudge against the studio who just happens to be putting up really lifelike figures of those actors in his wax museum almost immediately following their disappearances! Nobody even suggests that might be in poor taste! I mean, if there were two detectives on the force who weren't fictionally brain dead, the whole movie would have been over in five minutes.

Man, what a crappy movie this was!

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

The first time me and my baby saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, in a drive-in, she said, "Ya know, it's too good to be a bad movie, but it's too bad to be a good one." I dunno. It's grown on me quite a bit since it was first released in 1986. To give you an idea what a different world it was back then, I first saw it in another drive-in (pre-sweetheart) on a double bill with Day of the Dead. No fucking shit. No way you'd see a bill like that today, when even the drive-ins are chains. (Me and my baby saw it during a closing show when our local drive-in got bought out by some idiots who show nothing but multiplex movies now).
It was about this point in its run that the Muppet Show got really weird...
Anyway, Texas Chainsaw 2 seems like a bit of a mess the first time you see it. Filmed under high pressure circumstances with the Golan Globus clock running down and a script being frantically typed out by L.M. Kit Carson and slid under a hotel room door, the movie sort of falls apart in the third act, which is dispiriting because Texas Chainsaw Massacre is basically a perfect film. The second film loses me though, nearly every time. At the point that Dennis Hopper is running around the abandoned theme park and screaming like an idiot and the film is recreating the dinner set piece from the first movie, I usually tune out.

The exact opposite of safe sex.
Okay, but let's go back a bit. The opening sequence, in which two yuppie punks in a car get chainsawed by Leatherface in a monster truck driving backwards over a bridge is just as awesome as the description makes it sound, even if the effects by make-up Elvis, Tom Savini, got chainsawed out by the MPAA (which make no fucking sense, Tobe, because the movie went out unrated). It's a really brilliant set piece that shows off Tobe Hooper's development as a director. In fact, the entire first act, in which Texas radio DJ Stretch (played with real spunk by Caroline Williams), investigates a series of chainsaw massacres that have been plaguing Texas for years with the help of Sheriff Lefty (Dennis Hopper, drunk as fuck, apparently), and runs afoul of the cannibal family from the first flick, is great. Even if the movie never bothers to explain that Platehead is supposed to be the brother of the dead hitchhiker from the first film, Bill Moseley still does a great, if not legendary, job in the role. Not to mention Leatherface pretending to fuck Williams with a chainsaw, one of the best sequences in the series.

I think one of the problems with the film is that they actually had a sizable budget this time around, which might have taken away some of the hunger that fueled the first movie. The theme park set is great and the design is gorgeous, but you get the feeling that they shot a lot of things and cut out half of them. Hooper has talked about doing a director's cut to put back in some of the gore effects that he needlessly cut (given the movie was released unrated anyway), but it doesn't entirely cohere anyway.

Also, Lefty's a pretty thin character. He's the Uncle of the kids in the first movie and wants revenge, so he buys a big chainsaw and goes to get revenge. That's about it, really. Revenge is one of those themes that looms large in drama all the way back to Greek theater, but here it's just another element in the insanity. Once everyone gets to the abandoned theme park the film goes a bit crazy.

But, as my friend Aaron at the Zed Word blog pointed out to me this time I saw it, it's also really wonderfully demented nonetheless. Jim Siedow returns as the Chef who can't take no pleasure in killing. Moseley is great as Vietnam vet Platehead, whose metal head plate is financing this whole operation. Then you have Dennis Hopper running around and chainsawing the joint while screaming "I'm bringing it down!" And the effects by Elvis Savini are pretty frigging amazing. The film seems to just let these insane people act nuts, which would be good enough, but Hooper works in some of his favorite visual motifs, such as lots of weird lights everywhere and chases to nowhere. And there's even a sort of weird quest theme as well as a coming of age love story.

Which brings me to a sudden realization: if Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a near perfect horror film, maybe Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 should be seen as a near perfect midnight cult film.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

So, we've all seen this horror classic hundreds of times. What can you possibly say about it at this point? Thanks to the cool dementoids at London, Ontario's Vagrancy Films, I got to see it again on the big screen recently in all it's celluloid glory.

Out for a stroll
Well, the first thing is it really is a lot scarier on the big screen with that pounding mono soundtrack. I've known quite a few people who felt a bit let down when they first saw Texas Chainsaw. That title and that opening credits crawl make you think it will be the most gruesome thing you've ever seen and really the only bit of serious gore, arguably, is the chainsaw connecting with Leatherface leg at the end. It's totally different on the big screen, though, where the filmmakers are totally assaulting your senses for most of the running time. They really pulled out all the stops with this one.

It's also a bit like a fairy tale. The children shouldn't have wandered into that old house in the woods where the witches live and eat children. The girl has to fight to escape from them after they have her over for dinner and try to eat her.

Texas Chainsaw Assacre
It's also a bit like a found document- the cinema vérité look has been imitated dozens of times, but there really are scenes here that look purely accidental or totally off-kilter, while adding to the tone of the film. The scene with the empty lake is unnerving for no apparent reason, but it just builds to one of the best murder scenes outside of Psycho. And note the subtle current of eroticism that only adds to the tension before the climactic murder.

Nope. It's from "Hour of the Wolf"
Visually, TCM reminds me a bit of Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, another horror film about a dinner banquet at a menacing house back in the woods. Bergman was fairly popular with this generation of horror filmmakers and was, in my opinion, the greatest horror director ever not to be recognized as one. Check out the scene in Hour where Max Von Sydow goes running through the fairy tale horror woods and compare it to the expert chase scene in TCM. At the least, the two movies would make an interesting double feature.

Everything about TCM is expert though. For Tobe Hooper, this movie must have been a mixed blessing because it was his first hit and wound up being an iconic horror classic. It's a damn near perfect film too. Even the crippled brother Francis, who is annoying as hell, works in this movie because he's just another element in gradually ramping up the tension throughout the film. There's nothing reassuring or comforting in TCM; it's like a vice that slowly tightens on the viewer. You can watch the movie several times without catching its skewed sense of humor.

The hills are aliiiive...
Has there ever been a better ending to a horror film than the iconic chainsaw dance in TCM? It's one the purest expressions of madness on film and a pique so fevered the film can go nowhere but to black.

For Tobe Hooper, though, the problem is you can only go down from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He's made some surprisingly great movies, with my second favorite probably being Eaten Alive, and there's a sort of visual continuity to all of them- he has plenty of shots of people running through the underbrush and disorientingly bright lights, for example. Many of his movies play like demented fairy tales. He's also particularly adept at filming madness and mania. Yet, he doesn't really seem to get the accolades that other genre filmmakers have. Maybe it's time for a serious reexamination of his body of work.

But end with Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's as self-assured a film as you're ever going to see, and if you see it on the big screen with a hushed audience, one of the scariest.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Unholy Rollers (1972)

It was sort of a thing for exploitation filmmakers in the 70s to try to capitalize off of trends that were popular with the young people they were trying to get out to the drive-ins to watch their movies. Hence there were flicks like The Van about customized vans and The Unholy Rollers about roller derby girls. This probably would not work as well today; it's hard to imagine Facebookin'! or Cell Phone Fever being nearly as cinematic.

Roller derby, however, is back in force. Our local team, the Hammer City Roller Girls, are kicking all sorts of ass, and trend-chasing acting robot Drew Barrymore has made a recent flick about roller derby with less bare breasts and more of a female empowerment message than the old flicks- sort of "roller grrrl" let's say. Roger Corman 's version, Unholy Rollers, takes a totally different approach. Here, there's less in the way of female empowerment and more in the way of female dis-enshirt-ment.

The story concerns Karen (Claudia Jennings), a spitfire worker in a dog food canning plant who starts a fight with her pawing boss and quits, putting her and the kooky gearhead couple, played by Candice Roman and Alan Vint, who live with her and screw all day into a predicament. In order to do something with her life, Karen joins the Los Angeles Avengers, a successful roller derby team run by some sleazy managers and popular with a crowd that's out for blood. Much of this is played for corny Mad Magazine style laffs and the team isn't exactly noble, but Karen's supposed to be out-of-control. Too much success. She shoots a gun at people from the back of a boyfriend's motorcycle, and yells at her teammates a lot, and then finally loses her marbles and starts smashing everybody like the Hulk. Because she can't put the team first, they strip her nude in a bar and trash her new car!

The movie never goes too long without displaying some female flesh, staging a roller derby sequence, or having Jennings freak out. The derby scenes are pretty well shot, if a bit badly lit, and edited by a young Martin Scorsese in a way that packs in a lot of action. There's also a great supporting cast, with exploitation luminaries like Collins, Jennings, Betty Ann Rees and Roberta Collins in prominent roles.

The big problem with the movie is the main character is a loony asshole for most of the flick. Jennings plays Karen as a chick who takes no shit, even when people really aren't giving her any. We get some indication of why she's this way when the film introduces her lower class mother, but suspect Mom is right when she calls her daughter crazy. Her character doesn't really change much over the course of the film- she's raging pissed at the beginning and out-of-control pissed at the end. It's more a story of lunatic empowerment than anything else. Definitely worth seeing if you're a derby fan- again the derby scenes are pretty good, although the Avengers only ever seem to take on one other team!- or a fan of exploitation actresses though.