Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Piranha (1978)

(Spoiler alert.) Another low-budget classic from Roger Corman’s production factory, one of the better of the numerous exploiters he had churned out during the T&A heyday of the 70s. As the movie’s lead actor Bradford Dillman said in an interview in Shock Cinema #22 in 2003: “Piranha still works—for cineaste snobs, no; for artless filmgoers, yes.” Corman obviously thought this as well, for Piranha is one of a spate of his later classics that he eventually had remade in the 1990s. None of the remakes came anywhere as close to being as good as the originals, and some, as in the case of the television movie version of Piranha starring William Katt, were nothing short of painful. (Still, the TV version is not as painful as Corman’s first attempt to cash-in on the movie’s success, the absolutely abominable sequel in 1981, Piranha II: The Spawning. The directorial debut of James Cameron, the film evidences no talent on part of anyone involved and isn’t even so laughably bad as to be good. Avoid at all costs.)
Joe Dante’s original version of Piranha has long since been relegated to the nether regions of late-night television, so most “artless filmgoers” who have had the pleasure of enjoying the movie have been raised on a truncated version, low on both blood and jiggle. Piranha is still a fun film in this form, but just like watered-down Jack Daniel’s, much of the punch is missing even if you don’t first notice it. The first thing that becomes obvious while watching the uncut version is that though the mammaries are seldom big, they are numerous and not silicon. Likewise, the bloody attacks that often accompany the bared breasts are generally much longer and much redder than the attacks on TV, even if there is basically just more red-coloured water than gore. Alongside The Howling (1981), Piranha is without a doubt Dante’s best film, miles better than Gremlins (1984), Innerspace (1987) or any of the other equally quirky but much more digestible movies on which his limited mainstream reputation is based.
Of course, the “artistic” success of Piranha as a whole cannot be put purely upon Dante’s shoulder, for the film was as much a labour of love for him as it was for the movie’s scriptwriter John Sayles. A true Renaissance Man, Sayles has long found true critical success as an independent filmmaker with a vision, the maker of such little people movies as Passion Fish (1992) and Lone Star (1996). Prior to his advance to critical respectability, however, Sayles helped pen some of the true favourites of New World Pictures trash, including The Lady in Red (1979), Alligator (1980), The Howling (1981) and Battle beyond the Stars (1980). (My hope is that one day Sayles might decide to return to his trash roots, if only for one more movie.)
Piranha opens with a typical horror movie conceit: two brainless teenagers go somewhere they shouldn’t, do something they shouldn’t and then die from it. In this case, two young Kiwi backpackers slip into a closed governmental compound and then go skinny dipping in the swimming pools they find there. Some nice boobs are briefly shown, but the pleasantly natural love pillows (like the unseen wiener) quickly become fish food. Reporter Maggie McKeown (former Playmate Heather Menzies and widow of TV macho-man Robert Ulrich) is soon on the scene in search of a story. Bulldozing the alcoholic and unwilling semi-hermit Paul Grogan (Bradford “I-never-said-no-to-a-script” Dillman) to help her, they make their way to the compound where, as little mutant lizards scurry around unnoticed in the background (a fun if somewhat out-of-place homage to Ray Harryhausen), they: 1) discover that the teens were there; 2) empty the big pools into the nearby river; and 3) knock out the resident mad scientist Dr. Robert Hoak (Kevin McCarthy, who starred in the original The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)). Hoak ends up wrecking the jeep while attempting to escape, and in no time flat all three are floating downriver aboard a homemade raft. Hoak eventually explains that the pools contained deadly piranhas, the hybrid results of a nasty governmental war experiment. (Oddly enough, though his guilt in the creation of the fish is often referred to, McKeown’s culpability in releasing the creatures onto the world as a whole is brushed aside in seconds and never mentioned again.) The race is on to reach the damn further downriver before the regular release of the run-off. Along the way the dead, half-eaten body of Grogan’s nearest neighbour and pal Jack (character actor Keenan Wynn) is discovered and a young boy is saved even as his father disappears in a rage of red, bubbling water. Though Grogan is indeed able to stop the damn from being opened, the military and government sent mad-scientist Dr. Mengers (Barbara Steele) not only refuse to take the needed additional action to stop the fish from escaping down a subsidiary creek, but also put McKeown and Grogan under “tent arrest.” With the help of McKeown’s glandular pulchritude the two are soon on the run, trying to get to Grogan’s child at the kiddy summer camp even further downriver before the camp holds its summer swimming competition. Atypical of these types of films, though Grogan’s kid remains unharmed, a lot of prepubescent innocents actually become fish food. The run is now on to get to the new water park opening even further down the river, but all to no avail, for as one employee tells his boss soon enough, “Sir, the piranhas are eating the guests.” (Unlike on television, the movie version of this scene is a long one with a lot of red-coloured water, ripped flesh and naked, if mostly unexceptional, bitten tits.) Though an alcoholic, Grogan’s brain cells are obviously not pickled for somewhere along the way he realises that if the genetically altered fish make it to the ocean the world is lost (amongst other abilities the fish share is that they can survive in both fresh and salt water). Now the race continues yet again, this time to reach the closed factory downstream, in hope of releasing gallons of deadly chemicals into the river—major environmental pollution as the saviour of mankind as we know it....
Needless to say Piranha, like the less entertaining Alligator, is an unabashed rip-off (inspiration?) of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). But in as much that Spielberg’s film is also simply a well-made version of untold other creature-in-the-water/nature- turns-against-man films, one cannot really accuse Dante and Sayles of unoriginality. Besides, not only do the two hold their inspiration up proudly—they even make a few sight gags, such as a video game, to bring the source home—but the film is done with its tongue planted so knowingly in its cheek that Piranha seems less an imitation than a lampoon, all the while still supplying the necessary exploitive aspects needed, wanted and loved in truly fun cinema trash.
Artless filmgoers out there, you know who you are! Do yourself a favour and catch Dante’s version of Piranha—the original, the best, the most entertaining. (Then, if you want to go up on the sleaze and down on the “artistic” claims, follow-up Dante’s movie with the original 1980 Corman production of Humanoids of the Deep.)

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

(Spoiler alert.) The term "classic" gets tossed around rather easily nowadays, especially by any firm re-releasing some forgotten black and white genre film from yesteryear. But just as not every film starring Kevin Costner sucks, not every B&W horror film starring Boris Karloff, Vincent Price or—as in the case of The Beast with 5 Fingers—Peter Lorre is a classic, forgotten or otherwise. Oddly enough, in the case of this movie, it is not just those who stand to gain commercially that expectorate the hyperbolic. Even The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, usually one of the better sources available in regards to a film's true quality, gushingly identifies The Beast with 5 Fingers as "the last decent American horror film made for at least another decade." Pretty heady stuff, but also total bull.
The movie does indeed have its brief flashes of brilliance, which is the least that should be expected of a film directed by the talented and unjustly overlooked Robert Florey and starring both Peter Lorre and J. Carrol Naish, but as a whole this gothic melodrama features very little true horror. Rather, it has an overabundance of flaws in story development, characterization, editing and pacing. True, the cinematography, supplied by Wesley Anderson, a man who normally lensed educational films, is truly top notch, and the typically bombastic musical score by the one-time child prodigy (and student of Gustav Mahler) Max Steiner is more than adequate, but the film as a whole—but for one or two specific scenes—fails to satisfy. The grandiloquent piano variations on Bach and the few scenes in which the hand scuttles around are indeed truly amazing and effective, but they also serve to aggravate, for they give a taste of how great the film might have been had the production been a true horror film or been given more attention.
Aside from its technical and thespian shortcomings, the movie is also populated by unsympathetic characters, plods terribly, is highly predictable and is hampered by one of the worst endings ever to be tacked onto a movie. Hell, the first time the librarian Hilary Cummins (a disappointingly over the top Peter Lorre) opens his mouth, the viewer already knows that the supernatural element of the killer hand will have a "logical" explanation and that the true killer will prove to be the wacked-out librarian. The movie as a whole only serves to delay the revelation.
The Beast with Five Fingers opens in one of those typically quaint Old World villages so common of the movies of yesteryear, where we are introduced to Bruce Conrad (Alan Alda's daddy Robert Alda, just starting his decline into bad-movieville after his splashy debut as George Gershwin in Rhapsody In Blue (1945); the decline in his career instigated an eventual move to Rome in 1960, where he went on to act in such high-brow classics Lisa & The Devil (1973) and Holiday Hookers (1976)). A conman in Italy who makes his living fleecing brainless American tourists, Conrad is typical of all the characters in the movie: a shyster and a user, there is no reason for the viewer to identify with him for, despite his more than questionable expostulations of love for the main female lead, he never actually does anything to make one believe that he is anything other than a smooth-tongued, amiable leach. When he isn't gypping tourists, he plays chess with the decidedly egoistical Francis Ingram (Victor Francen, who fled France in 1940, an émigré of the war like Lorre), a one-armed and sickly pianist who resides in a huge villa outside town. Ingram is obsessed with his nurse Julie Holden (Andrea King, who evidences absolutely no acting talent and went on to such top productions as Red Planet Mars (1952) and William A. Levey's masterpiece of unadulterated z-trash Blackenstein (1973)), who, smothered by his never-ending demands, plans to leave the villa. Conrad admonishes his love for her, and that he will join her when she leaves, though, since we know him only as a shyster, it is hard to believe that his motives are sincere. Ingram's secretary Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre), who spends all his time in the library researching the ancient secrets lost when the library at Alexandria was burnt down and obviously has numerous screws loose, has a hissy-fit and reveals Julie's & Bruce's plans to Ingram, who tries to strangle him to death as reward. Somewhere along the way, a will is signed, Ingram rides his wheelchair down a stairwell and kills himself, and a couple of money-hungry relatives show up for the reading and get mighty pissed when Julie gets everything. When a light shines in Ingram's tomb and it is investigated, Ingram's body is now missing his left hand, seemingly cut off by the dead man's right hand. Before long, the majestic sound of Bach being played on the piano resounds through the house and the first death ensues, seemingly committed by the demon hand…
The Beast with 5 Fingers
is a beautifully shot film, and exudes a seemingly high production value that easily outdoes the quality of the script and editing. Hampered with a predictable story and unlikable characters whose actions often completely defy any logic, the movie disappoints much more than it satisfies. And anyone who manages to overlook the numerous flaws and enjoy the film anyways will have their mettle seriously tested—if not completely destroyed—by the unbelievably inane last five minutes in which J. Carrol Naish, as the town's police commissioner, first explains how Hilary was able to do everything and then proceeds to take part in not one but two "humorous" interludes making fun of the concept of a killer hand. The Beast with 5 Fingers is not a film to be avoided at all costs, for it does have some nice aspects to it—the film just is not essential viewing, and definitely does not qualify as a "forgotten classic" of any sort.

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

(Spoiler Warning!) Released in the United States as The Devil's Bride — the title change supposedly due to the original title sounding too much like a Western — The Devil Rides Out is one of those legendary Hammer films that, for a longtime at least, one always read about but seldom had the chance to see. In general, all written references to the movie give it glowing reviews, and, according to at least one source, Joe Dante even tried at one point to get a remake of the material going in the 1980s.
Fine and dandy, all these rave reviews, but The Devil Rides Out is also one of those films that, after you have seen it, you can't help but scratch your head and wonder if all those people who throw out the superlative adjectives have ever actually seen it themselves. Despite all the talent involved — including Richard Matheson, Fisher, Christopher Lee and an excellent Charles Gray — The Devil Rides Out is an incompetent and boring film; were it not so dreadfully dull, it would be laughable as well.
As to be expected with a Hammer film, the production design is excellent. Regrettably, the characters — but for Mocata (Charles Gray) and Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) — are all either uninteresting, dislikable or idiots (a few are also atrociously acted), and the story a disjointed mess. A tale of good against evil, most of the film has good chasing evil to the right, followed by evil chasing good to the left, after which good chases evil back to the right and so on and so on and so on. Where, pray tell, are the Keystone Cops when you need them?
In any event, the film has little suspense and few thrills but numerous twists that leave the viewer groaning, one of the worst being the unbelievable cop-out super-duper happy ending…
Seeing that the movie is based on the "classic novel" — or so it is called during the movie's rather cheap looking opening credits — by the English author Dennis Wheatley, one might give Matheson some benefit of the doubt and lay the blame of the script's failings on the original source. This seems all the more possible when one takes into consideration that the other Hammer film based on a Wheatley novel, The Lost Continent (1968) — cobbled together from the book Uncharted Seas — is also just as pathetic. (Unlike with The Devil Rides Out, however, The Lost Continent is so hilariously over-the-top bad that it becomes enjoyable).
Set in the 1920s, the ping-pong like action of The Devil Rides Out starts in the first frame of the film, when Rex Van Ryn (Leon Greene, whose attempt at an American accent was so dreadful that his voice was later re-dubbed by Patrick Allen) arrives by plane for a reunion with his good friend Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee). Wondering what has happened to Simon Aaron (Patrick Mower), the son of a deceased friend whom Richleau views almost as his own son, they decide to pay the young man a surprise visit. And what a surprise, for they discover that he has fallen into the hands of a coven of Satanists led by the charismatically menacing Mocata (Charles Gray). In no short order, the two kidnap the young misled youth, but before you can say "Hey, don't leave him out of your sight," Mocata has him back. To find out where he has been taken, Rex kidnaps Mocata's escort, the lovely Tanith (Nike Arrighi, great accent, no talent), but he soon loses her as well. (Throughout the movie, Rex often serves little function other than to do something stupid so that the next episodic event can occur.) A laughable car chase is on, one in which, whenever they drive through a puddle, the movie cuts to a close-up with back projection and someone off-screen throws a bucket of water into their faces. Of course, the devil makes sure that Rex cannot catch up with Tanith — not by simply killing him, as one might expect, but rather by first turning his car's windshield milky (Rex punches it out) and then by calling up some fog. Scary! Of course Rex ends up driving into a tree, but unlike anyone else who does so, he awakens in the totaled car nary a scratch and can get up and walk away. Two minutes later, what does he do but stumble upon the house where Tanith has taken refuge! (The man's mother must have been a bloodhound.) A phone call later — love how they have telephone boxes in the middle of nowhere in England — Rex and Richleau crash one of the lamest, tamest black masses ever, in which a bunch of older, overweight people dance around smiling in white robes. Oh, yes: The Goat of Mendes — commonly known as The Devil (Eddie Powell) — just happens to be there as well, but they dispatch him with what seems to be a firecracker. Grabbing Tanith and Aaron, good goes riding off to the right again. (Tanith and Rex are sort of in love by now, though who knows why.) Taking refuge at the manor of Marie (Sarah Lawson) and Richard (Paul Eddington), in no short order Richleau leaves and Mocata shows up, almost getting the goods again. When he fails, he delivers the best line of the entire film: "I shan't be back, but something will…." Promises, promises. That night, Rex and Tanith run off somewhere and the rest face off death and demons from the safety of a magic circle — logically enough leaving Marie's and Richard's young daughter unprotected upstairs. Mocata fails at getting the four, but he does get the daughter and kill Tanith. Aaron runs off to sacrifice himself for the little girl, the rest soon follow and, with the help of the spirit of Tanith and some mumbo-jumbo, they save the day and everyone worth saving… including Tanith, who is permitted a gag-inducing revival during the last four minutes.
The Devil Rides Out is a groaner of a film which defies its unjust reputation as a Hammer "classic." A waste of the film stock with which it was filmed, it is just as much a waste of the video cassettes and DVDs it is now available on. Films like this one make it easy to understand why Hammer eventually went belly-up. To be avoided at all costs, unless you have a masochistic streak and get satisfaction from painfully boring movies.

The Spanish Prisoner (1997)

Were David Lynch to jettison his penchant for explosions of over-the-top violence and rediscover linear plots, he might possibly make a film like this. The Spanish Prisoner is an odd little low-budget thriller much too obsessed with its own cleverness but fun to watch nonetheless. Written and directed by famed playwright David Mamet, the movie overflows with overly playful and witty dialogue and wears its contrivances proudly on its sleeve. This results in a neat if not completely odd little thriller that defies all rules of reality. Technically, the movie is full of completely unexpected twists; on the other hand, if one begins to expect the unexpected, it becomes oddly easy to predict the next twist. If there is a message in this film (other than "Nobody looks at a Japanese tourist"), it is too deeply hidden to be found; more than anything else, The Spanish Prisoner is simply a celebration of Mamet's ability to write fine dialogue. One source states that Mamet used a metronome to rehearse the dialogue with his actors, which is very easy to believe, as no one in this movie comes close to delivering a naturalistic performance and instead all talk in the slow, perfectly timed mode so favored by David Lynch and bad avant-garde European films of the past (like Andrezej Zulawski's confusing horror-film-cum-drama Possession (1981)).
The title is a direct reference to a specific con game, an updated version of which Joseph A. 'Joe' Ross (Campbell Scott) suddenly finds himself caught in. A small clog in the machinery of a large firm, he invents an unnamed and un-shown "Process" which is guaranteed to make untold masses of money for the company he works for. On a business trip to the Caribbean, he meets millionaire Julian 'Jimmy' Dell (Steve Martin) and is befriended by an even lowlier coworker, the secretary Susan Ricci (Rebecca Pidgeon), who obviously has the hots for him. Back in NYC, he slowly begins to feel that his boss Mr. Klein (Ben Gazzara) is out to screw him, but before he can protect his interests, he not only finds out that it is actually Jimmy who is out to screw him but actually gets screwed. A twist and a turn and a twist and a turn and a double and triple twist and turn later, Ross is not only bereft of The Process but is also seemingly framed for the murder of his buddy George Lang (Ricky Jay). Everything everywhere points to Ross, while Jimmy is nowhere to be found. With the help of Susan, he sets out to prove his innocence, but the film still has a good dozen twists to go before the last line of smart dialogue is crisply delivered…

The Spanish Prisoner
is not for fans of blood and guts or visual pyro-techniques or mystery-movies of the week. In fact, it is hard to say exactly who the movie is made for – in all likelihood it was made simply for Mamet himself. But most people out looking for something interesting and a little odd will probably find the movie a nice alternative to the big budget crap normally served by the film industry. Hard to believe it was written and directed by the same man who wrote the script for Hannibal (2001).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Leopard Man (1943)

(Spoiler alert.) Considering how brief producer Val Lewton's career was, the quality of his projects and the influence they had is amazing. Born Vladimir Leventon in Russia, he moved at a young age to Hollywood, where he was raised by his mother and his aunt, the infamous Alla Nazimova. A Jack-of-All-Trades, he eventually slid into the movie industry, finally ending up as the head of the newly created B-movie production unit at RKO in the early forties. As any fan of genre movies know, the rest is history. Given a selection of lurid titles to work with, Lewton managed to make a series of some of the best low-budget classics of the 1940s, including Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Isle of Dead (1945), The Body Snatcher (1945) and Bedlam (1946). By 1951, however, after finally leaving horror behind and graduating up to producing uninteresting A-features — he did three — Lewton died of a heart attack.
Amongst the eleven films he produced for RKO, he gave three to Jacques Tourneur to direct. And while Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie have both been given safe, solid positions in the history of both American horror and low-budget films, Tourneur's last project with Lewton has, for the most part, been forgotten. Unjustly so, for even if The Leopard Man is hardly a consummate masterpiece like the other two films, it is nonetheless a darn fine film, much better than its forgotten status would indicate. Indeed, even if the film itself is flawed, it does include some truly masterful sequences that remain in one's mind long after the film is over. And the film is over quickly: it has a running time of 66 minutes (including credit sequences).
The Leopard Man is hardly the horror film that the title seemingly infers. Rather, it is a mystery thriller, adapted by Ardell Wray and Edward Dein from Cornell Woolrich's third novel Black Alibi. (Dein wrote numerous B-films before finally moving onto directing. His best directorial efforts are probably the unjustly castigated cult film The Leech Woman (1960) and the completely forgotten vampire western, Curse of the Undead (1959).) Wray and Dein obviously had some trouble honing the story down to fit the 66 minute running time, for, on the whole, the plot development of The Leopard Man is too quick, the resolution too rushed, the story too disjointed. (The story becomes choppy because the focus of the events often changes: every time a victim is introduced, all other characters disappear until the woman is dead. This might help in making the victims more sympathetic, but it is detrimental to the film as a whole.)
Tournier himself seems to have found the film as structurally flawed, as he once admitted that the film "[…] was too exotic, it was neither fish nor fowl: a series of vignettes, and it didn't hold together." Had the film been longer, and had the stories of various individuals been given more time to intertwine and develop, The Leopard Man would have been much more structurally sound, and thus much better.
But for all the flaws in the story and plot development, Tourneur's direction remains deft, Robert de Grasse's cinematography excellent and the film's use of sound exceptional. Much like the two preceding, acknowledged classics Tourneur made for RKO, The Leopard Man bathes in atmosphere, featuring some beautifully fluid camerawork and an equally masterful utilization of light and dark, black and white. Indeed, the only reason this film is probably viewed as substandard is because it was made by Tourneur; had it been the product of virtually any other director working in B-films during the 1940s, The Leopard Man would be hailed today as a forgotten classic. (It is definitely better than many an other movie commonly touted "forgotten classic," such as Robert Florey's bigger-budgeted The Beast With Five Fingers (1946).)
In some sleepy, forgotten little New Mexican town, as the film poster states, "Women Alone the Victims of Strange, Savage Killer!" Though dusty and small, the town does happen to have a rather large, almost posh nightclub, and the film begins with a beautifully fluid camera shot which pans from blackness into a dressing room where Clo-Clo (Margo, whose career ended soon after she married Eddie Albert two years later) is practicing her castanets and onwards into the dressing room of Kiki Walker (Jean Brooks, who eventually fell into obscurity — even most biographies of her one-time husband director Richard Brooks fail to mention that they were married — and died from complications resulting from alcoholism in 1963). Kiki's act at the club is obviously less popular than that of Clo-Clo, we learn as she complains about it to Maria (Isabel Jewell, who, despite the auspicious beginning of her career, died in obscurity and poverty in 1972, soon after making her last film appearances in Curt Hanson's sleazy debut Sweet Kill (1972) and the "underground" docudrama Ciao! Manhattan (1973)). As a publicity stunt, Kiki's manager Jerry Manning (forgotten B-movie leading man Dennis O'Keefe) rents a black leopard for her to enter the nightclub with so as to upstage her Latino rival. Ever the spitfire, Clo-Clo frightens the leopard with her castanets, and it escapes off into the night. That very evening, a frightened young girl sent out to buy cornmeal by her mother falls victim to the cat. Her odyssey to the store and back home is truly frightening, the tension mounting steadily until the final, horrific moment when a puddle of her blood seeps in under the front door of her house. The hunt for the killer cat is on, but soon there is another victim, the beautiful young Consuelo Contreras (the Finland-born Tuulikki Paananen), who meets her fate when accidentally locked up alone in the local cemetery. Everyone is convinced that it was the leopard, but Jerry isn't sure. Could it be the work of a madman? Chief Robles (Ben Bard) and Dr. Galbraith (James Bell), the director of the local museum, think Jerry is barking up the wrong tree. Soon after, not only does Clo-Clo bite the dust, but the body of the dead, mutilated leopard is found. Who can the murderer be? Jerry and Kiki decide to set a trap…
Simple plot, to say the least, and greatly hampered by a total lack of viable suspects. Indeed, if the viewer disregards Jerry as a possibility, there is only one person left that comes in question: Dr. Galbraith. Tourneur cheats a little here in his attempt to direct suspicions as well: throughout the film, Galbraith smokes a pipe, but whenever the (mostly) unseen mystery killer shows up, the killer smokes cigarettes, just like Jerry.
Actually, it is the excellent craftsmanship that makes the movie, for the script itself is truly lacking despite its original source. But then, amongst the many noteworthy aspects of all the RKO films that Lewton produced, the ability to make so much out of so little is one of the most obvious. Once again, style surpasses the substance and the film, as a whole, becomes something fantastic. Rediscover and enjoy The Leopard Man.

The Bat Whispers (1930)

One of those early "masterpieces" which, though highly interesting, doesn't quiet hold up to its reputation. Unbelievably enough, Leonard Maltin description of Roland West's film as an "excruciatingly archaic 'old dark house' thriller" in his generally unreliable Movie & Video Guide is on the mark. (He is much kinder in his opinion of Crane Wilbur's 1959 remake The Bat, starring Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price.)
Based on the hugely successful and influential play The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood from 1920—the play in turn based on Rinehart's bestseller of 1908, The Circular StaircaseThe Bat Whispers is West's second film version of the theatre piece; he had previously made a silent version as The Bat in 1926. In all truth, though both of West's films feature a varying amount of interesting if not groundbreaking visuals, neither movie is half as good as the silent version of the other classic "old dark house" comedy-thriller The Cat and the Canary, made by Paul Leni in 1927. (Leni's film was also based on a play, written by John Willard in 1922, which in turn was a rip-off of Rinehart's piece.)
For all the highpoints to be found in West's movies, when comparing his two versions of Rinehart's play to Leni's of Willard's, it is still easy to see that while West was influenced by the Expressionist directors of Germany, Leni was the real thing. Even West's "revolutionary" use of a movable camera (made possible through a camera dolly designed especially for the director by Charles Cline) is less revolutionary than simply a quicker, flashier utilization of a style already mastered by the German director F. W. Murneau.
Still, West does display a fine eye for thrilling visuals and eye-catching compositions; regrettably the creaky source material does much to obliterate the effectiveness of the direction. Likewise, though the film begins with some truly amazing use of miniatures, some superb tracking shots, a fine use of shadows and some excellent dissolves, The Bat Whispers loses much of its visual steam once the action moves into the old, dark house. Once indoors, the stage-bound and overly talky aspects of the already-dated-at-the-time stage play take the upper hand and seriously hamper the fun. As popular as the literary output of Mary Roberts Rinehart was in its day, her product tends to be somewhat turgid; her play is no exception. In general, the visual impact and strength of the images of The Bat Whispers are most powerful when seen as stills or photos; the actual narrative of the movie is so excruciating and the acting so outdated that most of the visual power of the direction gets lost.
The Bat Whispers opens to the chiming of what sounds to be Big Ben. Some unidentified big city is being terrorized by a masked master criminal known only as The Bat, who has announced that he shall steal a necklace from a millionaire that very night. Despite the presence of the police, The Bat carries out his threat before "leaving for the country." A train ride and car chase later—though who is chasing who is never completely explained—we witness The Bat's shadow as he watches someone rob the safe of a bank. Eventually we make it to a huge house rented by the rich socialite Cornelia van Gorder (Grayce Hampton—whose dry delivery saves her performance). Soon, numerous other people show up, including the comic maid (Maud Eburne), the inscrutable Dr. Venner (Gustav von Seyffertitz), van Gorder's niece Dale (Una Merkel, best known for her cat-fight with Marlene Dietrich in Destiny Rides Again (1939)), the drunken caretaker (Spencer Charters), and Detective Anderson (Chester Morris). Thunder claps, lightening flashes, long shadows are thrown against walls and everyone seems to be searching either for the loot taken from the bank (which is hidden in a secret room in the house) or for The Bat, who will stop at nothing—not even murder—to find the money first. (Needless to say, time follows little logic here, as the initial jewel robbery, the theft at the bank and everyone's arrival at the house all seems to happen the same night, when logic would dictate days if not weeks.) The plethora of characters who appear and disappear is meant to help keep the viewer mystified about who exactly The Bat is, but in truth it does little more than annoy and confuse, all the more so due to the excess of badly dated comic performances. The resolution is mildly surprising, but if the viewer pays attention to the gradual visual disintegration of the appearance of a specific character as the night goes on, the revelation can be seen in advance. West adds an odd reference to the theatrical roots of the movie by adding a final scene in which stage curtains close upon the resolution and Detective Anderson comes out to request that the ending not be revealed to others. Otherwise, The Bat will get angry…
The Bat Whispers was not a big hit at the time of its release, supposedly due to a critical and commercial backlash to the overabundance of the old dark house sub-genre everyone was tired of. West's next film, Corsair (1931) was just as unsuccessful; that and the scandal that resulted from the unsolved murder of his live-in girlfriend Thelma Todd are probably the grounds why he stopped making films thereafter and concentrated instead on his restaurant in Pacific Palisades. Though he was never charged for her death, West obviously remained the main suspect in the eyes of the police, for though Todd's death was ruled a "suicide," the case was never officially closed until West died in 1952.

A Crack in the Floor (2000)

86 minutes worth of film for five minutes worth of good ideas. A Crack in the Floor is the first film of two directors, and one can only assume the other films they made must be better for this one is doggy diarrhea. Populated with guest appearances by bad film regulars — in order of screen time: Bo Hopkins, Tracy Scoggins, Gary Busey and (blink! — you missed him) David Naughten — any and all of them act all the victims-to-be off the screen. Way too much time on the “character development” of the slasher-fodder, but they are in general such bad actors and so broadly drawn that the more you know about them, the more you want the slaughter to begin. The film can’t seem to decide if it’s set in someplace in the backwood hills of West Virginia or the mountains outside of LA, but no matter where it should be the screenplay has so many holes in it that it obviously never went through a single rewrite. Basically, little Jeremiah gets to watch his religious fanatic mummy get raped and killed and then spends the next 33+ years living under the floorboards of the family cottage, killing all those who happen to invade his space. The best things about the film is the ease with which Bo Hopkins fits his typecasting as the sheriff, Busey’s obviously adlibbed appearance as a deranged chicken killer, one set of silicon tits that get flashed much too briefly, and a nicely downbeat ending. Amongst Jeremiah’s overly rounded-out fodder is Mario López, whose career has to date already had its highpoint in the overtly homo shower scene in Nip/Tuck in 2006 — he may have a hot ass and abs (which we don’t get to see in this film), but he sure ain’t an actor (for safety’s sake, he should really consider a second career). In any event, whatever he has to show probably ain’t half as interesting as what slasher-fodder number one (Daisy McCrackin as Heidi) probably has, but she doesn’t show anything more than her long red hair and beautiful blue eyes. We get a pitchfork in the stomach, a twisted neck, a face in a bear trap, a (laughably fake) slit throat, couple of pickaxes in the back and a lot of ketchup thrown on the wall. And, damn! Why do all slasher-fodder that have the chance to kill the killer always only strike the killer once and say something like “He’s dead, we’re safe now” instead of doing something logical like bashing his brain to pulp so as to make sure he really is dead? Idiots like that deserve to die. Yawn.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dr. M (1990)

(Spoiler alert.) To date, this flick is the last of numerous films utilizing the name (and often little else) of a character first introduced in Fritz Lang's classic silent Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), to which director Claude Chabrol rather un-ingeniously inserts at least two obvious direct citations in this terribly dull movie: the first citation is the title typeface superimposed during the credit sequence, which is the same as that used for the posters of Lang's original films; the second is a brief recreation of an out-of-place gambling scene midway into the movie. (One could probably consider the fact that the movie is set in Berlin a citation as well.)
Dr. M is one of those semi-science fiction flicks taking place in some near future, a future that was already outdated at the time of the film's release: the near future of the film, which was released after the fall of the Wall, still includes a walled and divided Berlin and, in turn, the separate states of West and East Germany. In regard to the two Germanies, one should cut Chabrol some slack: back when the film was actually filmed nobody — not even those of us living here — ever expected the Wall to one day fall. In all other aspects, however, the future as Chabrol saw it is pretty cheesy. Released in its English language video form under the title Club Extinction, the film is a dreadfully painful experience to watch. Anyone who actually sits through the whole thing will only regret having wasted the time.
In Dr. M, a rash of suicides has taken the city, the numbers of which are so large that some people fear that a mysterious virus might be at work. Police lieutenant Claus Hartman (Jan Niklas) is led by the few leads he has to the model Sonja Vogler (Jennifer Beals), whose image graces the large video-billboards and televisions found everywhere throughout the city, constantly telling the citizens "Time to go." No, she is not telling them to off themselves, but rather that they should go to the vacation resort owned by her ward Dr. Marsfeldt (Alan Bates), who also owns an industrial-goth dance club and the city's main television station. Hartman and Volger end up doing the grind together as some mildly sinister East German man tries to find out what role Dr. Marsfeldt actually plays in this city-wide suicide craze. Eventually the Eastie Beastie gets shot in the back with a ray gun but before he buys it he drags himself across the entire city to the airport to tell everything he knows to Hartman and Voglar and die in their arms. (The happy couple are returning from their escape from Marsfeldt’s resort, where Hartman was not killed despite Marsfeldt's express instructions that he should be. In fact, at one point at the resort, Hartman actually gets overpowered and injected with something that knocks him out for a few hours, but for some reason he is allowed to wake up and more or less walk away from the compound, Voglar in tow.) At the last second, the two manage to stop Marsfeldt's plan of driving the entire city to suicide by hijacking the television broadcast which is meant to set the mass suicide off. Seemingly simultaneously they appear at Marsfeldt's secret hideout in the goth club to listen to him give a long speech about beauty and death before he ends up killing himself and they walk off along the Spree into the early morning sun…
The choppy, illogical story is in no way exciting, suspenseful, witty or particularly intelligent, and the acting is universally horrendous. Most fatally, Chabrol's famed editing technique — a style taken to extreme by the great Doris Wishman — has, in Dr. M, simply degenerated to incompetence. At first, there is some perverse enjoyment to be gotten by the fact that Chabrol obviously cast all parts — but for that those of Alan Bates and Jennifer Beals — on the basis of how bad the German actors' accents are, but not only does the joke becomes old after awhile but it also really adds nothing to the film as a whole.
1990 must have been a bad year indeed for Chabrol; not only did he make this turkey, but he also directed the atrocious film version of Jours tranquilles á Clichy/Quiet Days in Clichy, an unbearable film lacking any all of the wonderful playfulness and languid beauty of Henry Miller's short novel.

Der Verlorene (1951)

Roughly two years after coming to international attention for his unbelievable turn as a hunted child killer in Fritz Lang’s master-piece M (1931) — and despite a whole spate of roles in highly successful top-notch German productions — Peter Lorre fled his mother country and the horrors of the regime in power. His long career in the United States had many highs and lows and was eventually hampered by a morphine addiction, but with the exception of an edited-in appearance (from stock footage) in the anti-Jew National Socialist propaganda film Der Ewige Jude/The Eternal Jew (1940), it was roughly twenty years before he took part in another German movie. In 1951, given the chance to direct his first (and only) movie by producer Arnold Pressburger (the producer of Sodom and Gomorrah (1922), Berlin–Alexanderplatz (1931) and Hangman Also Die (1943)), Lorre returned to a scarred and healing Germany to direct Der Verlorene/The Lost Ones.
Much like The Night of the Hunter (1955), the singular directorial work of Charles Laughten, Lorre’s film is a flawed artistic work of wonder. Der Verlorene is a postwar masterpiece, but at the time it was made, for a country still trying to come to grips with the horrendous mistakes of its then-still-recent past, the film was the cinematic equivalent of sticking one’s finger deep into a badly healing wound. (True, there were more than enough films back then dealing with Germany’s recent mistakes, but few were as unremittingly pessimistic and without hope as Der Verlorene.) Critically applauded and lauded with prizes when released, the movie was still something less than a commercial success and, as with most early post-war German films, its international release was spotty and limited at best. Thus, as a result of the disinterest of the land it was made in and the general unavailability of the movie internationally, over the years Der Verlorene has been unjustly consigned to oblivion.
The movie opens soon after the war with the movie’s nominal “hero” Dr. Rothe (Lorre) working in a refugee camp. There, the world-weary Dr. Rothe takes true concern in the health problems of the poor refugees he tends. Into the picture enters one Novak (Karl John) as helper, but Rothe’s reaction to his presence reveals an unknown connection between the two. Retiring to the Doctor’s office and then to the camp canteen, the two chain-smoke cigarettes and down numerous bottles of schnapps as the dark past connecting the two unfolds in flashback. Novak is actually Hoesch, one-time undercover Gestapo and lab assistant to Rothe, back when the war was still going strong and Rothe was working on some important project for the government. One day at work, Col Winkler (Helmuth Rudolph, who also appears in another postwar and forgotten masterpiece, Affaire Blum (1948)) shows up and reveals to Rothe that his fiancée Inge Hermann (Renate Mannhardt) has been spying for the enemy and has betrayed lab secrets to the English. Going home where he lives with his fiancée and her mother, Rothe ends up killing his fiancée. Too important for the war effort to be arrested, Hoesch & Winkler arrange the murder to look like a suicide, leaving the unhinged Rothe free to kill again. A prostitute (Gisela Trowe) realizes what is on his mind early enough to escape, but a woman on a train does not. Deciding to get revenge on those who caused him to become what he is, he goes to kill Col Winkler, but when he finds out that Winkler is on a plan to kill Hitler, he stays his hand. Hoesch, however, aware of Winkler’s duplicity to the NS Party, fouls the plans. Nonetheless, fate seems to smile on Rothe, for a bomb falls upon his house while he is out, killing everyone inside, and he too is assumed dead—and, indeed, in a sense he is. His brief career later as camp doctor is but a feeble and desperate attempt to assuage his guilt and make up for the evil he did in the past, but the arrival of the unrepentant Hoesch/Novak causes him to realize that there is no way to make good, that they are all lost. This realization leads to a most depressing final…
Needless to say, the movie is as startling and disheartening as it sounds.
Though a masterpiece, Der Verlorene does have its flaws. The acting of the main figures is surprisingly uneven, the sound is atrocious, the music mostly unbearable and the low-budget much too obvious. Likewise, in all truth, the utilization of flashback is a big stylistic no-no (be it in movies or written work), though it is arguable that the flashback structure is needed to establish Dr. Rothe as a mildly sympathetic person before revealing his sordid past; had the film been told in chronological order, his character could have been too strongly branded as a “nasty” for the viewer to develop any sympathy.
In total, however, the flaws found in Der Verlorene are easily overlooked due to the overall punch of the movie itself. Whether viewed as simply a German postwar film grappling with the subject of national guilt or seen as the singular attempt of a great actor at directing, it remains a shame that the movie has been so thoroughly forgotten.

The Savage Eye (1960)

Back when this movie came out and made some critical waves, The Savage Eye was lumped under the general genre of documentary, which is probably why they even managed to get away with the stripper scenes. But then, despite the "story" told in the film, it is indeed much more a documentary than a narrative film — for the lovers of labels, the best description of The Savage Eye is probably "experimental documentary". Like many an experimental film of yesteryear, The Savage Eye has in many ways not withstood the test of time. But in whatever way it has aged badly (ever so slightly), the film remains interesting, if not occasionally startling.
Basically, the three directors collected existing documentary footage and strung the disparate sections together by supplying a slim narrative thread, the story of the life of Judith (Barbara Baxley), an emotionally scarred divorcee who flees to Los Angeles after being dumped by her husband for another woman. As typical of a time when divorcees were used merchandise, Judith is unable to get past being dumped and slowly drowns in the listless life she lives between support checks. Judith is, of course, a further example of the throwaway society through which she wanders — an emotionally cold and alienating United States.
Judith wanders from shopping excursions to beauty salons to wrestling matches to burlesque shows to church healings to oversized gambling centers, usually as much of an observer as participant. Along the way, in place of dialogue, the off screen narrative of "The Poet" (the voice of Gary Merrill, best known for becoming Bette Davis' husband in real life after playing her boyfriend in the film All About Eve [1950 / trailer]) continually comments on and questions Judith's actions and thoughts in ad nauseam throughout the entire movie. Indeed, this dialogue eventually becomes rather annoying, for it often takes on a most supercilious tone; the film might have been much stronger had the filmmakers not relied on The Poet to continually hammer home the movie's thematic strands and instead placed much more trust in the strength of the images shown. Likewise, a slightly less dramatic soundtrack would have been an asset. The overdone melodramatics of the score supplied by Leonard Rosenman — who supplied the background tunes to films as varied as Rebel without a Cause (1955 / trailer) and Robocop II (1990 / trailer) and even won an Oscar for Barry Lyndon (1975 / trailer) — quickly get on one's aural nerves.
Amongst the most striking footage, aside from the obviously shocking images of accidents and fire, are the burlesque sequence and church healing. Whatever a strip show might supposedly reveal about the alienation of US society, the aged footage reveals a substantial difference between the shows common of the past and the strip common of the present. Whereas nowadays the girls generally just jiggle back and forth on stage flashing their beaver and shaking their love-pillows in search of the almighty dollar, back at the time The Savage Eye was made the women actually had shows with artistic pretensions, complete with costumes and choreography, which seem to have had as much to do with modern dance as they did with stripping. It is highly doubtful that a purveyor of today's strip joints will ever get an actual dance show as offered by Venus, The Body (Jean Hidley) in the joint visited in The Savage Eye.
The church healing sequence is truly a disturbing one. A couple of old geezers in suits stand at the front of a long line of dried up, frustrated woman and spout the name of the lord as they lay hands and heal the various actual and imagined ailments of the flock. Numerous women go into orgasmic spasms, speaking tongues and shaking, often to such an extreme that some of the old geezers doing the heeling seemingly have a slight problem accepting it as normal. And while this scene serves well to show that when there is nothing else left to live for, you can still find god, in regard to the film's narrative it serves as the catalyst for Judith’s eventual automobile accident.
The three directors cum scriptwriters — Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick — aside from their leftist roots, shared the same basic background of cinematography, editing and scriptwriting. A labor of love, The Savage Eye took a number of years to reach completion. (The timespan needed to complete the film is most obvious in the cars Judith drives: In every other connecting narrative scene, she drives up in a new — or at least different — car, something a divorcee living check by check could hardly afford to do in real life.) Maddow, who died in 1992 and had such films as Intruder in the Dust (1949) and Asphalt Jungle (1950) in his writer's CV, was even a victim of blacklisting back in the days of the Red Scare; he eventually managed to get around it by working under the front of the non-blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Philip Yordan.

Joseph Strick's Oscar-winning documentary from 1970, Interviews with My Lai Veterans is included as an extra on the DVD. Much more a disturbing piece of cinema than The Savage Eye, Stick creates a strong indictment against the massacre and war in general without actually ever stating an opinion. The veterans he interviews span the range from the hillbilly who claims only to have seen the aftermath, the clean-cut good ol' boys who maintain they were following orders and did no wrong, to the young black guy who tells how he was ordered to shoot or be shot and seemingly can remember every single woman, child and old man he brought down. (For all those he killed, he comes across as the most sympathetic and likeable, for it is obvious that at the time of the interview, unlike the "nicer" white folks, he was suffering inside for every person he killed.) It would be interesting to know what became of those Veterans… most likely, those who regretted what happened are also the ones that didn't move up in life. Vietnam may be a long time past, but the documentary is still a strong piece of film making, equally valid now in this age of crazed American aggression as it was back when the public was just beginning to realize that the US doesn't fight clean either… something we have seemingly forgotten in the meantime.

Zeder (1983)

(Spoiler alert.) Amongst the numerous film magazines around, one of the better is undoubtedly Video Watchdog, and when some DVD carries a blurb from the magazine stating "One of the best horror films of the 1980s!" and that the movie in question "is actually scary," a person's hopes tend to go up. In the case of Pup Avati's 1983 supernatural thriller Zeder, it is indeed scary, if not unbelievably horrifying, that anyone — let alone someone writing for Video Watchdog — would describe this piece of digitalized celluloid shit as being anything other than 98 minutes of unremitting boredom. Mary Lambert's Pet Semetary came out six years later so Avati's cinematic fart can't be dismissed as simply a lousy Italio rip-off of an already lousy US film, but still, since Stephan King's book came out the same year as Avati's film, the question of the chicken and the egg does arise. In the end, seeing that all three suck, the question remains immaterial.
In Avati's working of the plot device, the flick starts out with a bang with death of some old lady, and continues for about 5 minutes as if in the middle of a story, almost as if film reels had been put on out of order. Basically, some dead dude buried in a basement comes back and kills, so some other living dudes unbury him, and that's that. Boom! It's many years later in Italy, where some ugly writer named Stefano (Gabriele Lavia, also to be seen in three Dario Argento films: Profondo rosso / Deep Red [1975], Inferno [1980] and Non ho sonno/Sleepless [2001]) is given an electric typewriter by his hot looking wife Alessandra (Anne Canovas). Changing the ribbon that night, he notices that the text of the previous owner can be read from the ribbon; fascinated by what it has to say, he transcribes the text. The text describes the research of some mysterious Dr. Zeder, who was convinced that there were specific areas on earth, so called K-zones, where all the rules of time and matter do not apply, and in these areas, the dead can be brought back to life. (Zeder, of course, was the dude buried in the basement at the film's beginning.)
Fascinated by what he has discovered, Stefano begins to do a little research to locate the previous owner of the typewriter, an ex-priest named Luigi Costa (Aldo Sassi), and slowly gets completely obsessed with finding out "the truth." A group of Zeder's followers who are researching Zeder's theories — financed by some big, fat, rich and powerful man and consisting of virtually everyone Stefano comes in contact with — are out to stop him from finding anything out, but though they are rather willing to kill those out to help Stefano, they never bother simply killing him.... that would simply make too much sense.
Ever so slowly he tracks the clues to a K-zone where the bad guys have buried the body of the now dead Luigi Costa, the shit hits the fan and the movie ends with an ending already expected ten minutes after the movie started. Around this plot, the characters talk, talk and talk, and when they have finished talking, they talk some more. Simply put, aside from featuring some of the worst film music ever composed (despite being scored by the highly talented Riz Ortolani), Zeder features zero tension, zero suspense, zero scares — but oodles of never-ending dialogue. Indeed, since Alessandra display no injuries when she turns up dead near the film's end, it easy to assume that she was talked to death. In any event, whoever watches this movie also has a good chance of dying of boredom long before Stefano finally gets what he deserves… a shame that the director didn't die with him.
A film to be avoided.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001)

(Spoiler alert.) This flick has been given a lot of bad press, but it is easy to see why. Saddled with a lot of pretty big Hollywood names, most people who have seen it probably expected something else than the farcical, thoroughly socially unredeeming multi-violent black comedy that the film is. Had 3000 Miles to Graceland starred a bunch of unknown (outside of) Hong Kong actors or third-string American character actors, it is easy to imagine that Daniel Lichtenstein's second cinematic release would have been better received, if not become an underground favorite. Which is not to say that the film is a masterpiece—it is too flawed to come close to being one—but much like the equally illogical, violent, visually exciting, hokey and unrealistic Hong Kong ballistic ballets it owes so much to, 3000 Miles to Graceland is a pretty damned good ride. If you're a fan of Kevin Costner or Kurt Russell or even Courteney Cox, go rent a different movie; if you generally or totally despise one or more or the three names, then this film might be worth a gander. Who knows, you might come away thinking that for the first time ever, the given Hollywood hack has finally made a good film.
In any event, 3000 Miles to Graceland is probably the best multi-violent white trash action film to hit the screen since Tony Scott's True Romance (1993 / trailer) which, aside from being an early Tarentino-scripted film—a filmmaker Lichtenstein obviously respects—also features Christian Slater, whose appearance in 3000 Miles to Graceland is amazingly short.
Lichtenstein's only prior big screen credit is the muggy, barely passable low-budget thriller Lowball (1997), thus it is a mystery how he managed to get so many names to appear in this movie.
Since graduating from film school, Lichtenstein's earned his keep by doing commercials and he's obviously learned a lot of tricks about how to make visuals look good or interesting; in 3000 Miles to Graceland he pulls all of them out of the bag. (Had this movie been made before the advent of MTV, hell, it would probably even be called "arty.") Sometimes the movie goes into visual overload—like when it shows an explosion from 100 different angles—but in general the stylistic excess remains enjoyable, the orgiastic excesses eventually serving to underscore the general irony of the movie's innate lowbrow black humor.
As mentioned before, it is easy to pick apart the script, but why bother? 3000 Miles to Graceland is not a socially relevant movie; it has all the redeeming values of a porno film but was made with a Hollywood budget and production value and without the bonking. The flick is simply big-budget trash, and needs to be accepted as such to be enjoyed. (Give it another 15 years, and it'll be a video junkie's secret fave.) With that in mind, it doesn't matter that Michael Zane (Kurt Russell) is the good guy only because he's the only one who doesn't shoot to kill during the big robbery, or that Cybil Waingrow (Courteney Cox) falls in love with Zane for no reason other than that he's a good fuck or that she is such a loving mom that she simply deserts her son Jess (David Kaye) at one point, or that Zane seems to be amazingly technically efficient for a freshly released con, or that Thomas may be a cold-blooded killer but he still swerves to avoid hitting a coyote, or that the character Hamilton (Ice-T) exists for no reason other than add more flash to the final shoot out, or that Thomas kills everybody who crosses his path but Cybil (who he oddly enough simply puts into the car trunk), or that the fact that Thomas tends to betray his buds indiscriminately doesn't seem to bother other buds like Jack (Howie Long), etc. etc. etc.
Okay, the script is not Oscar material—in truth, neither is most of the pretentious shit that normally gets the golden dildo—but this movie isn't out to get any awards. It's out to be flashily and crassly entertaining, and it is. Check your brain in at the door.
Unless, of course, your one of those people who like to keep their eyes open for all sorts of inside jokes, which this movie is full of. But is it really that interesting to know stuff like that when the little brat kicks Kurt Russell in the leg in the opening scene, the scene is a direct reference to It Happened at the World's Fair (1963), in which Kurt Russell (as a lil' chil') runs up and kicks Elvis in the shin?
The plot is hardly exciting; what keeps the film going is simply the visual acrobatics of the direction. Zane (Russell) shows up at some gritty motel outside of Vegas to take part in a casino robbery during an Elvis imitator convention. To pass the time and give the flick a romance sub-plot he bonks a white trash sex-pot named Cybil (Cox) who has a kleptomaniac son named Jesse (David Kaye). Dressed as Elvis imitators, Elvis' bastard son Murphy (Kevin Costner), Hanson (Slater), Gus (David Arquette), Franklin (Bokeem Woodbine) and Zane pull off one of the most violent robberies since the fucked-up one in Michael Mann's Heat (1995) and fly off in a helicopter. Franklin, being black, is the first one to go, dumped from the helicopter after taking a bullet in the heart during the heist. Murphy, a true Elvis-from-hell, ends up double-crossing and shooting everybody, but since Zane was wearing his trusty ol' bullet proof vest, he survives and takes off with the cash, Cybil and Jesse in tow. The chase is on, with federal marshals after Murphy who is after Zane who is after Cybil, after she dumps him with the kid and takes off with the money. There are showdowns on highways, bodies all over the place and a happy end, with Murphy dying next to a toilet (another in-joke for those who know where the real Elvis died) while Zane, Cybil and Jesses sail off into the sunset.
The shootouts do get a bit long, but the black humor and sheer adrenaline force of the flick goes a long way. The love story aspect doesn't do too much damage and, in fact, might help to make the film a bit more palatable to the other half of the household who likes that icky-stuff in her films. Russell is fine as a semi-Elvis, as was to be expected by an actor who owes his return from childhood-actor-has-been-obscurity to John Carpenter's TV film Elvis (1979). And though the motivations of her character's actions are often hard to understand, Cox makes a more than acceptable cheap fuck. Best of all, however, is Costner. The perennial has-been chews the scenery like a true asshole, filling the screen with more presence than is found in all his previous films put together—if he were smart, he'd stop making that patriotic, family-value crap he likes to star in and concentrate on a new career as a (nasty) character actor.
So, for you multi-violent trash lovers out there, if you want a break from having to read the badly written subtitles of the obscure Hong Kong flicks at your local video store, give this amoral, white trash piece of celluloid a chance. Hey Mikey, you'll like it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

The type of film that nowadays only appeals to those adults with a nostalgic yearning for the bad flicks they used to watch as kids after school on the local afternoon creature feature program. Director Bernard L. Kowalski, in his second film (his first being the previous year’s Corman production Night of the Blood Beast [trailer]) went on to become a successful television director and producer, and considering that the 62 minutes of this flick goes as slowly as it does, it is really no wonder that his forays into feature films were seldom and that he was so successful working in TV.
In the backwaters of the swampy Florida Everglades (actually somewhere in California), giant mutated leaches – looking much like men in cheap costumes – kidnap a bunch of poor white trash, stash them in an underwater cave and suck them dry. Not much action, not much excitement, but the abject cheap, sleazy trashiness of the poor white trash does have its appeal.
Cult fave Bruno VeSota (the occasionally perported director of the truly great artsy oddity Dementia [1955 / full film], among other things) plays Dave Walker, a fat storeowner accused of killing his sexy, two-timing tramp wife Liz-Baby (a hubba-hubba Yvette Vickers, Playmate of July 1959), who is actually serving as dessert in the leeches' cave. The nominal heroes of the film do the most damage to the flick, combined they don't even have the charisma of a waterlogged Kotex. The term square-jawed applies well to local game warden Steve Benton (Ken Clark), who decides to solve the mystery of the disappearing white trash with the assistance of his gal Nan (Jan Shepard) and her dad, Doc Greyson (Tyler McVey). And while the leeches never get them like you wish they would, the Italian movie industry did get a hold of Clark in the 1960s: he eventually sashayed his manly-haired, fit-and-slim bod through a series of much more entertainingly bad Eurotrash spy flicks.
The brief sight of the various dead slowly drifting up from the depths of the Everglades is relatively effective, but in general the water scenes (all obviously filmed in a swimming-pool) are amazingly dull. A slow 62 minutes but definitely more fun than cleaning house or doing homework; had the focus of the film remained on the inbred inhabitants of the Everglades rather than the clean-cut and educated, Attack of the Giant Leeches would have been much more fun.
Leo Gordon, who supplied the script, didn't do much better a year later with The Wasp Woman (1960).
Full movie:

Popcorn (1991)

Horror lite, to say the least, but not a bad way to spend an evening, even if one expects the worst at first since the movie has the gall to start with one of those great scriptwriting mistakes: a (bad) dream sequence.
The script is credited to "Ted Hackett" but was actually written by Alan Ormsby, the man behind three superior trash-classics of early 70s horror: Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things (1973 / trailer), Deranged (74) and Dead of Night (72 / trailer). Ormsby was also the initial director of the film, only to be replaced by the actor Mark Herrier; Herrier hasn't been very active as either an actor or director since then, but probably not due alone to this movie, his first and as of yet last job as a feature film director.
Popcorn has enough bad aspects to it that is should be a painful to watch, including under-used talent (cult-actor Dee Wallace-Stone and Woody Allen regular Tony Roberts), extremely bad acting (in particular the hero Mark [Derek Rydall, who has also fallen off the face of the earth] and heroine Maggie [one-time scream-queen Jill Schoelen, who has since smartly retired into marriage]), no real gore or T&A and a thin plot with mostly flat jokes. But if the movie itself really isn't all that good, what saves Popcorn more than anything else are the entertaining films-within-the-film which punctuate the narrative: Mosquito, The Stench and Attack of the Amazing Electrified Man. (One can't help but wonder if the guys who wrote Tibor Takiács’s Mosquito Man [2005] ever saw this film.) Without them Popcorn would play like a substandard episode of some third-rate television horror movie.
The plot involves a group of film students who organize a retro-night of bad films and who, on that said night, are bumped off one-by-one in the style of the William-Castle-like gimmicks employed in the tacky films being screened. Could it be that the crazed, deceased "avant-garde" filmmaker Lanyard Gates has come back from the dead to complete his unfinished film The Possessor? Or is there some other, equally implausible reason behind the chain of events?
The film's logic is impeccably bad from start to finish and plot holes abound, but there are a few nice moments aside from just the three entertaining burlesques of bad 50s film. This includes a hilarious and whiny tirade from the killer during which he keeps switching faces, a slightly icky scene involving a sticky facemask and French kissing, and a nice final in which it looks as if the heroine is going to be killed in front of an audience of Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975 / trailer) refugees.
All the same, Popcorn leaves one with the feeling that the movie should have been much better than it actually is.

Voodoo Dawn (1998)

First-time director Andrzej Sekula has shown talent as a cinematographer both prior to and after this piece of straight to dvd dogshit, but going by Voodoo Dawn (aka Fait Accompli) he doesn't cut the mustard as a directorial hack, much less a director. He has no control over the actors, much less the film, though his meandering, where-are-we-now rhythm is on par with the script's bad plotting, lousy sound, painful dialogue and inane characterization. Few of the contemporary b-movie names involved can actually claim to be acting, and the one who tries – James Russo in a small part which hardly merits a headlining poster credit – overdoes it recklessly. Michael Madsen, as has become normal for him, sleepwalks through the film playing his trademarked tightlipped, moody bad guy; Rosanna Arquette simply comes across as lost (as does her southern drawl, which comes and goes throughout the movie), while the only impression Balthazar Getty makes is that he is much too fat for his (at the time) 23 years.
The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the few seconds of Arquette flashing her tits while in the tub, but this brief respite is hardly a valid reason to sit through the entire celluloid sleeping-pill. Supposedly a supernatural thriller, the supernatural aspects of Voodoo Dawn seem thrown in at second or third thought and the "thriller" aspect is simply not there.
The flick lacks a real plot, and the little that exists seems unintentionally deconstructionalist: Madsen goes to jail where he learns some voodoo. When he gets, out he sort of owns a club and Arquette, too. Along the way, he's out for revenge and has a feud with a voodoo queen, who has placed a curse on a bag of money he acquires. Arquette wants freedom and the money, but is used by Madsen as lure to hook Getty for some reason to do something. Getty smokes cigarettes but actually only wants to sleep. Everyone talks a lot but no one seems to listen to each other and the movie takes much too long to meander pointlessly from start to finish.
Better films than this have ruined many a career: Voodoo Dawn is probably one of the most boring pieces of shit any of those involved have ever had the displeasure of being in. What all a person is willing to do simply to pay the rent…
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