Monday, February 22, 2010

Short Film: Asparagus (USA, 1979)

Should the short no longer be embedded below, it is still easily available online but on a website in a language we don't understand: it can be watched online at this Russian website here.
In January 2010, the Short Film of the Month was by a graduate of Cal Arts; this month, the film chosen is an old classic by an instructor at Cal Arts, Suzan Pitt. I first caught this film many, many, many moons ago, back when I was still a young virgin who shaved once or twice a week at most. I saw it when it was shown as the opening film at a midnight screening at some theater in Georgetown, a neighborhood of Washington DC where rich white folks and college students live. I was much too stoned or drunk at the time (I confess, I smoked my first wacky weed in 3rd grade) to really comprehend what the film was about — if that is really possible — and the fact that the theater was simply playing some loud music as part of the pre-feature-film happening (instead of the film's track) didn't make it any easier to follow short, but the images kept my eyes on the screen. It was art, man! On top of that, it was pretty fucking weird to a stoned 16-year-old — as it probably is to many a person no matter what their age and stoned or not. Like, how many women crap without cleaning butt afterwards? But then, how many women crap asparagus?
Those are but a few of the less intellectual questions that a person might find themselves asking when viewing Asparagus, Suzan Pitt's award-winning Surrealist classic from 1979. A beautifully executed animation combining cell animation with claymation, the film features a bright-colored world of phallic plants and startling images that are as shocking as they are (occasionally) inspiringly funny.
Asparagus is also available on a DVD anthology of three shorts by Suzan Pitt entitled EL DOCTOR, JOY STREET, AND ASPARAGUS: The Wonderfully Strange & Surreal Animation of Suzan Pitt.

Die Treppe (Germany, 2005)

Die Treppe—which literally translates to "The Steps"—is a low budget black comedy short by first-time director Dennnis Knickel, who was 22 years old at the time he wrote, directed and produced the film. (One German-language source on the web claims that the idea for the film occurred to him as a dream while sleeping on a train.) The blurb across the plastic wrap hails the film as the new cult hit in the vein of Stefan Prehn's and Jörg Wagner’s Staplerfahrer Klaus (2000), which, in all truth, is actually only half true. Yep, both are short films, black comedies and entertaining, but Staplerfahrer Klaus, a persiflage of educational safety films, is truly a bit more successful in its handling of the actors, the consistency of its humor, use of music and all overall effect. Which isn’t to say that Die Treppe doesn’t have a certain level of appeal to fans of blood-drenched, nihilistic satire, for it will, it's just that as funny as Die Treppe is, it really doesn’t have the same polish as the cult short some marketing director decided to compare it to. On the other hand, the lack of polish is easy enough to ignore since the film makes up for its deficiencies with some wonderfully inane dialogue and situational comedy that (as in Staplerfahrer Klaus) might be relatively predictable but still causes hearty laughter. Furthermore, to give credit where credit is due, it is perhaps a bit more difficult to make a funny short film that satirizes society, self-centered yuppies and dysfunctional relationships than it is to satirize educational films, the latter pretty much already being a joke in themselves.
Die Treppe begins with a typical asshole yuppie in a suit—the type of full-of-himself, low-level office worker that thinks he's God’s gift to the world but that can’t tell the difference between his asshole and his brain—throwing a hissy-fit because some cop (Martin Ihm as "Polizeikommissar Andreas Kneller") had the nerve to pull him over for drunk driving. But before the yuppie can be dragged down to the precinct, a fortuitous Mack truck does a hit & run, leaving the yuppie (Gerry Jansen as "Der Kaltblütige/The Cold-Blooded One") unscathed but the cop dead. Less fortuitous is the fact that the cop and yuppie are already handcuffed together. Being the cold-blooded man that he is, the yuppie hauls the dead cop into his Beamer and goes on home to his Sweetheart (Ariane Klüpfel as "Schatz"). Dragging the corpse up the stairwell, calling for his darling to come help him, he is suddenly confronted by "Kriminaloberkommissar Braun" (Jörg Germann), who was come to the house because the traffic cop no longer checked in after calling in the asshole's license plate.
Within the tight confines of the house stairwell, Die Treppe overcomes the poor acting of its only female and, taking full advantage of the absurd combination of a dead cop, a pissed-off commissioner, a dysfunctional relationship, a hungry cat, a hair-trigger finger, a knot-tying girlfriend, a self-righteous yuppie and a slippery floor, successfully delivers a variety of tasteless to blackly ironic laughs through some great dialogue and situational comedy before culminating to a neat end.

Short but far from sweet, Die Treppe never outstays its welcome and really deserves more attention than it has yet had.

Flight of the Living Dead (USA, 2007)

"She's gumming me to death."
Frank (Kevin J. O'Connor)

Contrary to popular opinion, despite being a 2007 release, Flight of the Living Dead: Outbreak on a Plane—or Plane Dead, as it goes by in Germany—is not a parody or intentional take-off of the bigger budgeted (and, truthfully, more successful) flick Snakes on a Plane (2006 / trailer). Co-writer and director Scott Thomas has often stated that despite basic plot similarities, the actual idea and pre-production for his film was in development long before the public relations for Snakes on a Plane even went viral.
A shame then, considering the longer lead time the Thomas's film had, that a little more care wasn’t put into the script, for as entertaining as the film might be—even in the butchered form common in Germany—the flick suffers some really huge "what-the-fuck" developments that sorely test the patience of the most forgiving viewers. But if you look past the plot holes and overly ridiculous events—like a plane built so flimsy that the living dead can rip their way through the floor but that turns out later to be built well enough to withstand the explosion of an improvised bomb—Plane Dead does offer some mindlessly fun (if somewhat repetitive) mayhem in a totally new location (for zombies, anyways) as well as some great humor, both deadpan and not. Fans of trash film will definitely enjoy this direct-to-DVD, especially if they are in a forgiving mood—which is actually rather easy when a low budget film at least tries, and this flick does.
Plane Dead starts out almost as a parody of that never-ending, campy Airport (1970 / trailer) franchise that inflicted four films upon the gullible public throughout the 70s—about the only thing missing was a singing interlude by the nun. But unlike all the flying disaster flicks of the Polyester Era—and all flights in real life—the 747 airplane on its way from Los Angeles to Paris in Plane Dead is over half-empty.... at least until the zombie sickness spreads and the plane is suddenly overbooked with the undead.
Three scientists working on a viral revive-the-dead weapon based on Malaria (which actually isn’t a virus, but who cares) are transporting a container in the baggage department containing Dr. Kelly (Laura Cayouette), the infected wife of one of the docs, a Dr. Lucas (Dale Midkiff, whose acting has noticeably improved since Pet Sematary [1989 / trailer]).
Needless to say a storm pops up and out pops Kelly and in no time flat the infection spreads, especially since the plane has more airshafts than the Empire State Building, the floor is made of cardboard and the zombies are of the fast-running variety popular since 28 Days Later (2002 / trailer) and the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004 / trailer). Although the build-up to this point is a little slow, when the virus spreads the numbers quickly dwindle to a Tiger Woods character (Derek Webster as "Long Shot") and his bitchy wife (Siena Goines), a cop (David Chisum), a con artist that just happens to know how to fly planes (Kevin J. O'Connor of Lord of Illusions (1995 / trailer) and Deep Rising (1998 / trailer), a plucky stewardess (Kristen Kerr) and an Air Marshall (Richard Tyson, the heartthrob in Zalmon King's Two Moon Junction [1988 / trailer] and the psycho bad guy in Kindergarten Cop [1990 / trailer]). In the meantime, the US government hasn't been sitting on the toilet twiddling thumbs until the Ex-lax arrives: realizing how quickly the virus would spread were it to reach a populated area, a fighter jet is sent out to destroy the 747—will our courageous heroes survive?
In her review of Plane Dead, Final Girl hits the nail on the head when she says "All in all, watching Flight of the Living Dead is a bit like eating a whole bag of chips: it's not good for you and there's no nutritional value, but it satisfies a craving. You may hate yourself in the morning, but you'll enjoy it while it's happening—even though you know you shouldn't."
Think twice and you could tear Plane Dead to shreds, but accept it for the visual trash food that it is and you'll enjoy yourself. Still, for future projects, Scott Thomas and his fellow duet of scriptwriters should definitely put some emphasis on improving their scriptwriting abilities. A junk meal might work once, but too much empty junk food can make even the most forgiving viewing public go Dan White.

The Mutations (Great Britain, 1973)

(Spoilers.) Don't know what part of the Getty Family had their hand in producing this grotesque monstrosity, but it surely wasn't the Gettys responsible for all the high culture museums in Los Angeles. This film is probably one that everyone involved – at least those who still have a career – wishes to forget. The Mutations, also commonly found on the lowest shelf of secondhand video stores as Freakmaker, is a film with truly no redeeming social values and little if any true horror, but with a perverse fascination that will keep true lovers of the disgusting and idiotic (like me) glued to their television.
The Mutations seems to be the last film that the much awarded cinematographer Jack Cardiff ever directed. If it destroyed his directorial career, it did little damage to his career as cameraman, for the man who previously shot such acknowledged highbrow masterpieces as Black Narcissus (1947 / trailer) and The African Queen (1951 / trailer) went on after The Mutations to do the cinematography for such popular hits as Death on the Nile (1978), Conan The Destroyer (1984 / trailer) and Rambo II (1985 / trailer).
The actual story development of the movie is so short that the scriptwriters, "Edward Mann" and Robert D. Weinbach have to include a lot of filler to bring the film up to normal length. ("Edward Mann" is the pseudonym for sleaze merchant Santos Alcocer, who also wrote Oliver Stone's "forgotten" horror film Seizure [1974 / trailer].) Mostly, they use Donald Pleasence a lot to fill time with long, rambling speeches, but they also include a very long pre-credit sequence, an out-of-place visit to a prostitute and a long, depressing interval at a freak show in which real freaks show their stuff, including a lengthy interlude of the legendary sideshow performer Willie "Pop Eye" Ingram, whose nickname explains his specialty. One whole subplot in The Mutations is stolen directly from Tod Browning's legendary Freaks (1932), complete with a party at which the group of freaks start chanting "You're one of us – we accept you," the big difference being that instead of chanting to some murderously inclined, cold-blooded Russian beauty queen named Olga, they chant to a Rondo Hatton wannabe (played by Tom "Dr. Who" Baker) who they eventually knife to death instead of converting into a human chicken.
The Mutations is true exploitation grind-house trash. But then, what else can a film be when the best actor in the whole movie is beautiful former Miss Norway, Penthouse Pet and failed scream queen Julie Ege. (Two years later and she was more or less out of the business and back in Norway, where she eventually became a nurse and, in the interim, has died of breast cancer.) The part of the muscle-bound American Dr Brian Redford, the film's nominal hero, is also amazingly unnecessary, and was probably scripted in primarily to pad time with an airport scene and to supply a part for associate producer Brad Harris. (Harris, an Idaho-born muscle man who began his career in such sandal films as The Fury of Hercules (1961) is still occasionally active in Euro-trash films of today. Also known as "John Braun," in regards to sleaze cinema he reached his highpoint in modern exploitation in 1977 with parts in the lesbian-tinged Lady Dracula and the ultra-exploitive SS Hell Camp / Beast in Heat [trailer].)
The Mutations opens with Professor Nolter (Donald Pleasence), a biochemist, giving a beady-eyed lecture about mutations and cloning to a class of bored students at some unnamed English college, and in no time flat the busty redheaded student is being chased through a foggy park by a bunch of threatening midgets. Lynch (Tom Baker) delivers her to Nolter who, between feeding bunnies to meat-eating plants and cultivating trees that bleed, is trying to cross plants with people. (We learn later that he is doing because he wants to "feed the world" by developing animals that live from photosynthesis, which logically explains why he creates so many plants that eat meat to survive.) Lynch, playing Igor to Nolter's Frankenstein eventually kidnaps another student, Tony (Scott Anthony), but he escapes after being mutated, eating a homeless man along the way. The next student to get kidnapped and strapped down naked on Nolter's operation table is the curvaceous Hede (Julie Ege), but just as the good doc begins his experiments Brian shows up, all the freaks enter the scene throwing switchblades, and Tony the Plant Monster drops through the skylight....
Really good stuff, as you can well imagine.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Demon Island (USA, 2002)

The last scene of Demon Island (aka Piñata and Piñata: Survival Island) shows the three survivors on the beach being questioned by two similar looking police detectives—a guest cameo by the Hillenbrand Brothers (David and Scott), who wrote and directed the film—as various emergency workers clean away the remnants of the other nine non-survivors. The detectives ask the two gals and guy something to the effect of, "So, what exactly happened?" And the three over-age college students looks at each other with a facial expression that more or less says, "So, how the fuck are we going to explain this?"
That, in turn, is the question likewise faced by any would-be reviewer who, for whatever inexplicable reasons, might actually find this film half-way entertaining. For like King Cobra (trailer), the Hillenbrand Brothers' earlier, cheap, CGI-heavy, half-assed direct-to-DVD "horror" flick from 1999, Demon Island is a pretty ridiculous piece of celluloid (or whatever it was filmed on), so tacky and full of holes and stupid that it comes across less a true horror film than a seriously misguided attempt at making a horror comedy, like the two siblings did for real seven years later with Transylmania (2009 / trailer)....

But then, it is the film's overall stupidity, its total lack of redeeming values—other than some surprisingly good acting from a few of the featured players and some decent camera direction and framing—that make Piñata so much fun, that makes it such an enjoyable guilty pleasure. (Had they only bared a few of the obviously beautiful boobs beneath those T-shirts—two of which are shown above, but not in the film—Piñata would have been a stupendously enjoyable guilty pleasure.) Without a doubt, the flick is a check-your-brain-in-at-the-door experience, but without a brain and no excessive thinking, the flick is well worth watching—assuming, of course, that you are one of those types of folks that likes wasting their life.
Under whatever name you find Demon Island / Piñata, the flick is about a demon trapped within a clay piñata that not only manages to remain undamaged for decades (if not centuries) but actually floats unharmed (!) downstream and across the ocean to a wilderness island. (Clay floats? Ooops! Remember: don't think!) To this island comes a unisex group of alcoholic, overage collage students—including a Nicholas Brendon, whose career has either really stagnated since Buffy (97-03) ended or who accidentally mistook the script of this film as a hip comedy ala Psycho Beach Party (2000 / trailer); Garrett Wang, who really has disappeared into deep space since Voyager (95-01) [and his role as Harry Kim] ended; and Jaime Pressly, a hard-looking blonde model and former bulimic who has body like Madonna and is best known for her parts in such tasteful, high-class material as DOA: Dead or Alive (2006 / trailer) and Not Another Teen Movie (2001 / trailer).
After doing the normal amount of drinking and saying the normal amount of stupid double-entendres the party-hearty group gets down to their real reason for coming to the island: to collect panties. And to do so, they are sent out as competing hand-cuffed couples. The stoner couple, consisting of Lisa (Lara Wickes) and some no-name dude, promptly use a procured key to unlock their cuffs and light up a doob—and boy, what good stuff it must have been, for when stumbling upon a one-of-a-kind Piñata (half-submerged in water and the only clay one on the island) that looks well to be an archaeological find, instead of thinking about which museum they will sell it to, they decide to break it open. (That's college students for you.)
After they crack the thing, the now living monster-piñata expresses his thanks for being freed by obliterating the boy, while Lisa goes screaming back to camp. For the rest of the film the monster alternates between being a crappy CGI-monster, a crappy CGI-fireball, and a crappy rubber suit lined with crappy CGI-cracks, but what it continues to do in all its forms is obliterate the college students, which it hunts using Predator-vision ala in Arnie's early classic Predator (1987 / trailer). Some of the educationally challenged die off-screen, but the gore is not spared when the deaths are shown: a head literally smashed by a shovel, ripped-off testicles, bodily severance, and half a torso hanging in a tree are among the rather eye-catching sights of the film... But damn! With claws like that, why didn't that demon-piñata rip off at least one of those nicely stuffed T-shirts first? Are Mexican demons gay or something? (That could explain why it went for the one guy's testis, I guess…)
Once the remaining three go into "the hunted become the hunters" mode Piñata does lose some of its steam, but not enough to totally ruin the movie's enjoyable general incompetence. The concept that destroying the demon piñata will kill it when cracking only it wakes it up is a bit obtuse, but then, as previously pointed out, the film is the kind of film where nothing—the actions of the characters, the actions of the monsters, the action in general—survives a second glance or further consideration. It is actually rather a shame that the directors decided to go for CGI effects instead of the rubber suit, for the CGI (like the film) is hardly "scary" and a rubber suit might have been even more idiotically funny. But what the hell, with or without a rubber suit, Demon Island / Piñata is still fun.
Yo! Just give that brain of yours up at the door and enjoy Demon Island for what it is: some damn fine, fun and unadulterated stupidity. If nothing else, after watching it you can lay claim to having seen the best killer-piñata ever made—if not the only one.
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