Monday, August 12, 2019

The Killing Kind

THE KILLING KIND
(R, Media Cinema Group, 95 mins., theatrical release date: April 7, 1973)

A singularly nasty if hopelessly sketchy revenge drama, Curtis Harrington's The Killing Kind takes the loss of innocence to some unpleasant extremes. It begins with 19-year-old Terry Lambert (John Savage) bullied into sex with 17-year-old Tina Moore (Sue Bernard) under a beach pier. Terry's subsequent incarceration shifts the mantle of victimhood from the assaulted girl to the reluctant rapist, who is released from prison two years later, reduced to an impotent creep goaded on by the eccentric older women in his orbit. Resentful and disturbed enough to find pleasure in demonstrating the proper use of a mousetrap, Terry escapes from the smothering bosom of his mom, Thelma (Ann Sothern), to seek murderous retribution against his female oppressors. But when will he stop? Can he stop? And which of the ladies in his life are going to finally wise up and stop him?

If Psycho IV: The Beginning had been a grindhouse programmer from the early 1970s, it would certainly resemble The Killing Kind. Actually, there are some ace cards in Harrington's deck that Mick Garris wasn't dealt, namely the gauzy but accomplished cinematography from Mario Tosi (Carrie, The Stunt Man) and a liberated performance from Ann Sothern, whose over-the-top hag routine gives way to a wrenching isolation that, bizarrely enough, provides the most well-rounded characterization in the cast.

Like Norma Bates herself, Thelma Lambert is incestuously possessive of her caged-up son, quick to denigrate more age-appropriate contenders for his affection as "tacky whores," one and all. And the script by Tony Crechales and George Edwards indulges her spiteful outlook. But they don't stop at the programmatic Puritanism which came to define the post-Psycho slasher boom. When Terry tries to reactivate his libido by masturbating to a porno magazine, he is foiled by the passive gaze of Tina, whom he immediately telephones while she is in bed with another stud. Terry learns that he is likely the last person she remembers from that gangbang under the pier; he can't even get the base satisfaction of an obscene phone call. Was Terry the only one Tina sought to prosecute because he didn't want to have sex with her, or because he failed to perform under pressure?

"It must be wonderful...being raped," goes an actual line of seduction aimed at Terry from Louise (Luana Anders), the repressed librarian who witnesses his violent behavior in the presence of aspiring model Lori (Cindy Williams). Stuck caring for her senile father (Peter Brocco) so as to avoid being lonely, Louise drunkenly admits her darkest secrets to Terry but is rebuffed for her honesty. The next day, when Terry viciously rejects her studious apology, she is ennobled to tell a similarly insulting truth in regards to his musical inability. Luana Anders, an underground actress who was tight with Jack Nicholson and Sally Kellerman, exudes such a strange sexiness in her supporting performance that I wished Louise would've dominated the last act more so than Lori and Thelma.


If Louise were more integral to the story at hand, The Killing Kind could've emerged as subversively kinky in its psychosexuality. Her words combined with Tina's actions imbue the film with a daringly pro-rape bent, but the film is ultimately too episodic and slavishly devotional to Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Aldrich to really develop a brazen identity of its own. Though Curtis Harrington means to pull us inside Terry's mind, he alternates camp and sadism with confident if still jarring results. A nightmare sequence in which in Terry finds his fully grown self back in the crib, with Thelma's aging tenants going from awestruck to condemning as Tina is thrown into the mix, is like failed comic relief to relieve us from Terry's attempt to strangle his mother during a neck massage.

These moments are grounded in Thelma's incessant doting over the son whom she still believes is essentially a "good boy," which is consistent as far as she goes. It's all bottomless glasses of chocolate milk and snapping photographs of her boy at every opportunity, even in the shower. But with Louise almost completely absent from the moment Terry smashes his guitar, the ancillary character of Lori has to defy common sense by coming onto the very person who nearly killed her in the pool and slashed her underwear before inspecting her broken shower head. It's hard to reconcile the pretentious and the sordid, and The Killing Kind is another testament to that dichotomy.

The real MVP of The Killing Kind, more so than rising stars John Savage (The Deer Hunter) and Cindy Williams (American Graffiti), is Ann Sothern, fresh off a string of midlife triumphs opposite Lucille Ball and Henry Fonda. She sells the brassiness, codependency and shame which Thelma progresses through. In spite of the faulty screenwriting and faded glamour, the sexagenarian Sothern allows Harrington the prickly poignancy he's constantly shooting for. It's Sothern who awards The Killing Kind its semi-respectable pantheon in the field of unjustly obscure early ‘70s thrillers, which is more than can be said for Harrington's later leading ladies, be they the talented Piper (Ruby) Laurie or the tarnished Sylvia (Mata Hari) Kristel.

But those two films had also had Dimension Pictures and Cannon Films as their distributors, so Harrington's lesser efforts at least were run through quite a few projectors in their day. The Killing Kind wasn't so lucky; it was treated as a tax deduction for Media Cinema Group, provided it only appeared in a bare minimum of theaters. And since no record was kept of the places where it played, Harrington couldn't court wider distribution from any other potential takers. The movie had numerous VHS releases and pay-TV saturation (cf: the Cinemax advert linked at the end), yet it was never released on DVD until after Harrington's death in May 2007.

That previous Dark Sky Films acquisition has now been supplanted by Vinegar Syndrome. Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, there are handy screencaps at Mondo Digital of both the DS and VS transfers. The latter's been scanned in 2k from the original negative, and it bests that old anamorphic DVD in all regards.  Not only is there more detail on all corners of the frame, but the film's naturally grainy and glazed look is preserved with less cosmetic chicanery. Skin tones, costumes and outdoor foliage all appear with top-tier clarity and far less waxiness. Black levels and shadow details strike a proper balance given the constant darkness in which Terry acts out his malevolence. There isn't a wealth of distracting print damage, though a film of this vintage has its jittery moments. The color palette on display is superb throughout. Audio is strictly DTS-HD MA in mono, and it surpasses the source's limitations, but there is an option to listen to Andrew Belling's isolated score in Dolby Digital 2.0.

The bonus features are not as screen-specific as one would expect, instead taking a broader and more anecdotal perspective towards Curtis Harrington himself. In addition to a 22-minute interview with the director ported over from the Dark Sky disc, the 24-minute "Harrington on Harrington" featurette directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and Tyler Hubby is preserved on the Vinegar Syndrome release. Combined, these oft-overlapping interviews do give you a sense of Harrington's bizarre career trajectory, from humble beginnings to courting Kenneth Anger all the way to Paris to his renown in both the horror cinema and melodramatic TV fields. He touches on the double-dealings which caused The Killing Kind to go down in a blaze of obscurity, but both of these bonuses are more about the journeyman and his path, with a larger discussion of his work as a whole and the industry connections he made.

Two people who had their own connections are the Davids Del Valle and DeCoteau, the former being the recognized raconteur of fringe cinema and the latter being the exploitation workhorse who is a Vinegar Syndrome staple thanks to Nightmare Sisters and Murder Weapon/Deadly Embrace. Del Valle was a long-time friend of Harrington (introduced thanks to Robert Bloch and Forry Ackerman) and is thus able to be upfront about his unpredictable personality as demonstrated on this joint "historical" audio commentary track. He also appears to have worked as an uncredited production assistant on The Killing Kind, but the esteemed film historian rarely dishes any trivia endemic to the feature presentation. DeCoteau, meanwhile, was more serendipitous in his meeting Harrington (via Fred Olen Ray via producer/screenwriter George Stevens) and Ann Sothern. It was under the wing of Killing Kind production manager Sal Grasso, a.k.a. Steve Scott, Sal's nome de porn (both adult movies and pseudonyms would become crucial to DeCoteau's own resume), that DeCoteau was hired as Sothern's driver and assistant. 

What you get from this combination is a lot of frequently amusing, occasionally hilarious stories which do justice to how ostentatious and outspoken both director and star could be. DeCoteau crashed his car at the behest of Sothern en route to a restaurant; Del Valle remembers Harrington's feisty response to a rough cut of Top Gun pre-Kelly McGillis. There are also laughs at the participants' expense. When Ruth Roman appears in The Killing Kind as Terry's failed defense attorney, former Corman employee DeCoteau recalls the time he sent Roman's agent the script for Galaxy of Terror (specifically, the role which went to Grace Zabriskie) convinced she'd take any job if she was willing to appear in, say, Day of the Animals. Granted, both are catty camp connoisseurs of the highest order, so they go back to 1974's Impulse, which in which she starred opposite William Shatner in another script from Killing Kind story writer Tony Crechales, to marvel at Roman's schlock discrimination.

Del Valle and DeCoteau are still a hoot, and have been teamed up many times in the past so that their chemistry is shatterproof. But still, I can see some point where they could ease back on the six-degrees associations and get down to maybe talking about behind-the-scenes facts related to The Killing Kind. The IMDb page includes several interesting notes not found in Harrington's interviews nor David & David's commentary: the most fascinating was a scene that was cut to Harrington's dismay because producer/co-writer George Edwards was being pressured by a distributor. In it, Terry is further tormented by the sight of Tina having carefree sex that belies whatever "trauma" she experienced that day on the beach. Again, it has to be said that The Killing Kind has a charge to it whenever it concentrates, as cruel and thorny as it becomes, on the shattered sexuality Terry fails to recover. That combined with Ann Sothern's work makes this one of the better Vinegar Syndrome catalog titles I have seen recently, and I can keep this pilgrimage up for days.




Sunday, July 28, 2019

Hellmaster (Them)


HELLMASTER (aka THEM)
(R, Dolphin Entertainment Group, 92 mins., release date: September 16, 1992)

"God Is Dead," sayeth Friedrich Nietzsche at the start of multi-hyphenate Douglas Schulze's HELLMASTER. If the movie's title hasn't made clear, we are far from Pure Flix territory, so there's no Kevin Sorbo to be found (consider yourself safe). No, Schulze opens with that quote because we're dealing with a more traditional mad professor, the kind who wants the Almighty's position all for himself and proclaims that he has, indeed, murdered God in his maniacal labors. The kind who believes in survival of the fittest, making him a touch Darwinian in the bargain, and whose drug-induced method of creating supreme beings also has "pusherman" baked into his philosophy. Punishment and reward.

Our esteemed scag-shooter is Professor Jones (the great John Saxon), and once again, credit Schulze for going with the most obviously evocative surname imaginable. Exiled from the Kant Institute (hot damn, Philosophy 101 is written all over the architecture, too) for the habit of using students as lab rats, he managed to rebuild Jonestown in the nearby crackhouse to the shock of a reporter named Robert (David "Flyboy" Emge in a rare screen appearance), whose exposé was mutually sabotaged by the Dean/Professor Damon (Robert Dole) as well as Herr Jones. The disgraced Robert is now a hermit who lives in the abandoned chapel where Jones' experiments were once conducted, and where gallons of the experimental narcotic have been stashed in the steam tunnels. It's been 20 years since his fiery expulsion, but the presumed-dead professor has returned to the university with his small army of mutant derelicts to pick up where he left off.

Filmed in Pontiac, MI, over five weeks during the winter of 1989, with the Clinton Valley Center (or the Eastern Michigan Asylum for the Insane) doubling for the campus, Douglas Schulze's feature debut can be charitably termed the "old college try." Aside from writing, producing and directing, then-twentysomething Schulze also edited, served as art director and had a hand in set design. It's the ultimate independent movie juggling act, but Schulze ends up with many of the balls left in pieces on the ground.

Cinematographer Michael Goi has taken some phantasmagorical lighting cues from Dario Argento's Suspiria, and Schulze brings to mind the same stylish proficiency as Don Coscarelli and Sam Raimi. There are some unique touches such as the J emblem favored by the chief villain, a fascistic perversion of the sign of the cross, as well as the three-pronged syringe/claw and self-dosing catheter which are strapped to his arms. Professor Jones' megalomania opens doors for potential intrigue, as he is motivated to convert the Kant Institute's current student body over to his race of genetically-altered junkie killers. He also holds psychological dominion over the living, as he mocks one victim's fear of pregnancy as well as convinces an insecure, crippled boy to accept his miracle cure.

Unfortunately, said ideas tend to either get steamrolled by conventions or are undercut by terrible decisions in writing/editing. The aforementioned handicapped boy, Joel (Sean Sweeney), is introduced bemoaning his lot to his best friend and the movie's heroine, Shelly (Amy Raasch). He wants blond Barb (Lisa Sheldon) to notice him, but the object of his affection has not even been properly introduced in the film and we don't even know who he's referring to until twenty or so minutes later. The result is a shallow character whose disillusionment rings hollow even before he shuns his friends ("My handicap was born, yours was chosen") and stumbles into the sway of Professor Jones. There is no pay-off to Joel's ill-fated cross to the dark side; he's merely beaten to death with his own crutch and the result lacks any pathos (cf: the fate of Stephen Geoffreys' Evil Ed from the original Fright Night).

It's not just Joel who is shafted by Schulze's ineffective handling of his young characters, who seem to flit in and out at random and lack even a modicum of discernible personality compared to the usual dead teenagers. A similar lack of understanding ruins what should be a traumatic experience for heroine Shelly, whose brother Adam (Todd Tesen) works for campus security and is not only attacked by Jones' minions, but tied to the back of the patrol car and drug across the gravel until he manages to get himself free and crawl away to a future death. Only one of the victims leaves any concrete impression, and that's the determinedly unsympathetic Jesse (Jeff Rector), who we actually see as a bully and a sleaze. His opposite number, Drake (Edward Stevens), survives the film the same way he enters: blandly.


One would assume that the baddies make up for the loss of presence evident in the youths, but they look more interesting than they behave. Jones' ranks include a mutant boy (who we get a good look at before his transformation, sitting criss-cross in Jones' slum lab), a limping nun (played by Ron Asheton, the guitarist who egged on Iggy Pop in The Stooges) and one "Bobby Razorface" (Eric Kingston), whose similarities to Pinhead were not merely compounded by the Hellmaster title and marketing, but also by a scene in the actual film where, just like in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, he is confronted by an image of the human being he once was. But Schulze fails to deliver the new Cenobites in these junkie monstrosities, who aren't given any thing interesting to say and are allotted little imagination in their homicidal spree. Too often they'll stumble on a character, particularly Barb, and decide they're no fun to torture. Wasn't Jones supposed to be experimenting on these ciphers to begin with?

Even in the most undemanding mood, Hellmaster is confusingly tepid schlock. I've read reviews beforehand that mention a joke involving Shelly, who is the only actual gifted person in the entire student body, using her mind-reading powers to deduce that Jesse's douchebag behavior stems from growing up a bedwetter. If I had not bothered to seek out the Vinegar Syndrome release of Hellmaster, I'd wonder what the hell these writers were talking about because this very scene appears in an alternate cut of the film that is not called Hellmaster. Yes, there are two versions of this movie on the BD/DVD combo pack, and the one scanned in 2k (or in 4k, the box lists  both) from the elements is the "original theatrical version" titled THEM.

Having watched both Them and Hellmaster for this review, it's obvious that Douglas Schulze re-edited the movie directly for the home video market. This makes Hellmaster not simply a hack job, but a hash job. In the Them cut, we get a real introduction to Barb during the opening lecture instead of waiting a half-hour to find out whom Joel was referring to. We even get to see her walking past a throng of judgmental students who christen her the campus "slut." And her killing of the chemically-altered Joel at least puts Barb in a sympathetic state of shock, and allows for Shelly to grieve somewhat over what Jones did to her supposed best friend. Professor Damon is also more culpable for Jones' nefarious research as demonstrated in a flashback, and unlike in Hellmaster, which is rife with exposition dumps, this device doesn't come across as tedious.

It would be tempting to run through all the myriad changes between the two cuts, since Schulze's audio commentary on the Them version doesn't elaborate too much on the looped lines and increased attention to character. His yakker is actually a pretty dry affair, hobbled by the fact that he's watching this particular edit for the first time in decades. He tends to repeat the same anecdotes about the sets and pay the same compliments when he's not doing play-by-play after a spell of silence. But we do get some fun notes on how the padded cells of the Clinton Valley Center, which was still active, were used as production offices and rooms for the actors. And a few specific woes involving stolen generators and financial backing are compelling. Schulze and producer Kurt Mayry's mid-2000s commentary for the Hellmaster version is the more lively track based on Mayry's observation at the start: "This is version 200, I believe."

In both commentaries, Schulze is at least upfront about his deficiencies as a first-time filmmaker. Focusing too much on the technical aspects of production, he admits not giving his actors enough attention and is quick to point out how the proceedings devolve into camp. He wasn't particularly adept with writing dialogue and had to draft his brother into aiding the script. He was constantly incorporating new ideas into the project instead of developing them into separate entities. And he regrets not getting a "seasoned" editor to whip his film into shape, although his preferred Hellmaster edit is more the "glorified student film" compared to Them (Schulze claims it hews closer to the original screenplay). In the theatrical version, two separate monster attacks are crosscut and demonstrate some form of momentum; in Hellmaster, they play out separately and in linear fashion, but because one of them involves characters who were not formally introduced, the result solicits a shrug.

When you get right down to it, the Them cut is the far superior viewing option in terms of structure, pacing (though it runs a whopping four minutes longer than the director's cut) and simple visual quality. Schulze and Mayry point out that the Hellmaster cut, ported over in SD from the 2006 Mackinac Media release (as is their commentary), was composited from an early ‘90s answer print as well as the original negative. The 1.33:1 image looks like it came from a deteriorating VHS copy, full of snow and murkiness and faded colors. Vinegar Syndrome's treatment of the theatrical print is the undisputed keeper, presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and with far more loving care tended to Michael Goi's cinematography, where primary colors are lit up so bright as to distract from the decrepit buildings where Schulze was filming. Despite some noticeable negative damage, the image is natural 35mm goodness, with tighter black levels and more radiant reds and blues.

The DTS-HD MA track is in 2.0 stereo and while some of the dialogue suffers a lack of real fidelity (John Saxon's introduction, in particular), there is a more-than-sufficient punch to Diana Croll & John Traynor's synth-gothic score. Optional English SDH subtitles are available on the Blu-Ray copy. Beyond the feature(s) and their respective commentaries, the newest and best extra is a new 26-minute video interview with Michael Goi called "Creating Reality," in which Goi admits that they were aiming for something opposite what the subtitle implies. He also recalls turning Schulze onto Suspiria for the first time and the director's immediate reaction to it when Mayry walked in on the screening, and Goi also credits Mario Bava's Black Sabbath as an influence. Goi is eloquently realistic about the process of filming on a tight budget in terms of conception vs. execution (his career is to make compromise seem intentional) whilst recalling certain issues with lighting, shooting around John Saxon's limited schedule and working in the dead of winter.

The AIP Video trailer for Hellmaster, a brief gallery of conceptual art (including posters for Them as well as one for the alternate title of "Soulstealer"), a second short gallery of behind-the-scenes stills, and a four-minute location scouting video showcasing the Clinton Valley Center (and scored to backmasked, industrial-sounding Muzak) round out the bonuses. The die-cut slipcover designed by Chris Garofalo for the limited edition release offers a nice fiery orange in the shape of the J-symbol and there is the reversible cover art that includes the Razorface close-up which got the film its minor notoriety on videocassette. In lieu of a trailer, I close with some behind-the-scenes footage not available on the Vinegar Syndrome release but is on YouTube for the curious.



Sunday, June 30, 2019

Mountaintop Motel Massacre


MOUNTAINTOP MOTEL MASSACRE
(R, New World Pictures, 95 mins., theatrical release date: March 14, 1986)

In one of his earliest stand-up routines, Patton Oswalt revealed what he considers the greatest movie title ever: "Texas. Chainsaw. Massacre." The beauty of it, as opposed to the mealy-mouthed romantic comedies in the mainstream, was how you envisioned a free movie playing in your own head based on those three words. But the most substantial element for me is the word "massacre" alone, because it has been the perfect hook for B-movie entrepreneurs, especially thanks to Tobe Hooper's film: Massacre at Central High, Drive In Massacre, Mardi Gras Massacre, The Slumber Party Massacre, Microwave Massacre, Women's Prison Massacre, etc. etc. Just affixing "massacre" to any object or setting fires up the projector in the mind, which is great for the imagination but also troublesome knowing the concept has already been made tangible. This is where the burden of expectations comes in.

Hooper's film worked far beyond most people's mental image of a Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and a few of the mercenary examples listed above were pretty much as straightforward. Yet in the summer of 1986, the novelty of "[fill in the blank] Massacre" wore off thanks to Hooper's official sequel to his decade-old trendsetter. But there was another pretender from earlier that year thanks to New World Pictures, who picked up a regional horror film from Louisiana (premiere date: July 15, 1983), commissioned a new finale and shipped it out for wide release with "massacre" tacked onto its original title.

The result was MOUNTAINTOP MOTEL MASSACRE, and it's not just the title which tipped me off to the debt that all movies with "Massacre" at the end owe to Tobe Hooper. The film itself strikes me as the type of movie Hooper could've made near the mid-80s were he not spending Golan-Globus' money, with mundane characters in foreboding rural environs getting picked off by a deranged loner. His 1976 follow-up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive, itself took place at a bayou lodge and featured a scythe as a notable murder weapon.

Jim McCullough Sr. was the director, instead, his second feature effort following Charge of the Model T's and once again working from a script by his boy Jim Jr. These were filmmakers more of the Charles B. Pierce mould, as Jim Sr. produced (and Jim Jr. wrote) the Boggy Creek-style Creature from the Black Lake around the time Hooper was making Eaten Alive. But compared to not only Pierce, who kept a more active resume and worked with recognizable actors (Ben Johnson, Michael Parks, Jessica Harper), but even Don (Nightbeast) Dohler, the McCulloughs never amassed much of a wide-reaching legacy, although Vinegar Syndrome are seeking to at least give Mountaintop Motel Massacre a new lease on life.

A lack of ambition is likely more of a nuisance than the slasher they have concocted for this particular massacre movie. She is Evelyn Chambers (Anna Chappell), a former inmate of the Arkansas State Mental Hospital from July 1978 to January 1981, and one who obviously didn't receive the best possible rehabilitation as Evelyn carves up both her daughter and a baby rabbit in a fit of madness. With her husband unexplainably dead and her daughter's murder (she was caught holding a séance to communicate with daddy) written off as a gardening accident, Evelyn tends desk at the Mountaintop Motel on a convenient dark, stormy night that brings in all manner of customers/victims.

Aside from the typical young couple looking for a honeymoon suite and the reliable preacher and carpenter types, one of the waylaid travelers is an advertising exec from Memphis named Al (Will Mitchell) who turns out to be the hero. But in the grand tradition of Tom Atkins, horny ole Al picks up two nubile coeds, cousins Tanya and Prissy (Virginia Loridans, Amy Hill), and deceives them into believing he's really the owner of Columbia Records. Tanya is more gullible than Prissy, natch, but they perform a meek rendition of Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" regardless until Prissy catches on for good and is hacked up in the bathroom by Evelyn.

This murder doesn't occur until nearly an hour into the film, as the McCulloughs do the slow burn shuffle by having Evelyn attempt to disorient her tenants with roaches, rats and even a rattler for the newlyweds. It's only after the occupants refuse to go back into the rain that the deranged Evelyn, who is scurrying about in the basement and popping up from beneath trap doors, starts screeching "Away, Satan!" and planting her scythe into the bodies of her guests.


When New World Pictures distributed Mountaintop Motel Massacre at the end of the slasher boom, they hedged their bets fabulously with the very one-sheet pictured atop this review. Dig that tagline, in particular. Sadly, the actual film is less the campy hoot the studio promises and more, all-too-fittingly, garden variety. Joseph Wilcots (Roots) provides slicker cinematography than one would expect from a film that cries out for a grungy treatment, but otherwise he's one of the few people in the crew who distinguishes himself in any regards. The atmosphere is willing, but the plot is weak even by the standards of the genre.

I wish I could give Evelyn the benefit of the doubt as a villain, and to credit Anna Chappell for a committed performance. Her only other film role, surprisingly, was in Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon (1991), famous for introducing a 14-year-old Reese Witherspoon. But there is nothing in the script to give Chappell any depth of character beyond the type of role already owned by Nancy Parsons. It's the usual trite motivations, from voices in the head to religious fanaticism, and they don't add up to a fearsome, let alone pitiable, personality. You never really worry for any of her victims, either, with the possible exception of the black carpenter, Crenshaw (Major Brock), and that's because his dialogue is ripe with jive, especially when he monologues his uneventful escape from the premises. This is the closest the McCulloughs come to humor.

At some point, you'd figure the characters would learn the value of safety in numbers, especially since their antagonist is hardly Pamela let alone Jason Voorhees. But they tend to split up and wander off half-cocked into Evelyn's lair all too predictably, and the reason for their isolation is nothing more than feeble. You also got to hand it to our nominal hero, Al: he's so lasciviously committed to duping the girls that he ignores the value of the working car phone in sending out for and responding to any help in dealing with the mentally ill mass murderer, the fallen tree blocking the road or the snake-bitten honeymooner.

Mountaintop Motel Massacre continues Vinegar Syndrome's tradition of reviving regional horror titles people would have otherwise missed, such as Disconnected or Horror House on Highway 5. I can't recommend it as much as I do either of those other, stranger obscurities, both of which have gone out-of-print following the same Halfway to Black Friday 2019 sale which offered Mountaintop Motel Massacre as an exclusive release. Without the creeping dread and sordid abandon of Tobe Hooper (or even the cornpone playfulness of Motel Hell), this family affair is just another dull saw sans teeth.

Mountaintop Motel Massacre isn't so much raw as it is perpetually dark, a point driven home by Vinegar Syndrome's spanking new 2k transfer from the original 35mm elements. The tacked-on ending sticks out even more after watching this top-notch visual presentation, which brings out the best in its source negative and presents consistent accuracy in terms of color saturation, facial/clothing details and those ever-important black levels. Looking back further in my evaluation, I do also have to credit Drew Edward Hunter's production design for the underground passageways of the motel; like the film, it's nothing original or particularly engaging, but it looks spooky enough to deserve a better film. Wish the DTS-HD MA 2.0 track made me feel more affection for Ron Di Iulio's score, but the best I can say is that the musical-box keyboard tones are as crystal as the dialogue.

Two still galleries, one devoted to behind-the-scenes photos and the other a short gathering of news articles (less extensive than Lust in the Dust, to be true), and the original theatrical trailer are included alongside the usual packaging perks (slipcover, reversible artwork). Other than that, extras are limited to two appealing interviews with Mr. Hunter and assistant cameraman David Akin. Hunter's recollections are carried over from the UK BD release by 88 Films, and it covers childhood influences, getting discovered at a haunted house exhibit, various props and drawings he fashioned from the script, and the eventual reshoot. Akin recalls being plucked from Texas video school by McCullough Sr. and discusses his working relationship with Joe Wilcots and is more candid about the distribution demands of New World. We still don't get to see the original cut of Mountaintop Motel which debuted that night in July 1983 in Opelousas and played the next year in Jackson, Mississippi, which would've certainly boosted my recommendation of this combo-pack release if not the film.


Friday, June 21, 2019

Lust in the Dust



LUST IN THE DUST
(R, New World Pictures, 84 mins., theatrical release date: Mar. 1, 1985)

Long regarded as the Uncanny Valley of instacamp Western burlesques, Paul Bartel's LUST IN THE DUST finds the black comic master of Death Race 2000 and Eating Raoul wandering self-consciously into John Waters-burg. This was more of a passion project for wayward heartthrob Tab Hunter, who'd been wanting to produce his own offbeat spin on the desiccated genre for a while (the title comes from Joseph Cotton's nickname for the 1946 epic Duel in the Sun) and found himself energized by his experience on Waters' Polyester. The coupling of him with the heavyset transvestite Divine proved a match made in heaven (Criterion announced Polyester as a September 2019 release as I write this), and Hunter no doubt recognized the potential in placing Waters' MVP atop a burro and shipping him off as a dance hall diva. There was even a role for Edith Massey, another inextricable member of Dreamland, which was cut tragically short because of the Egg Lady's declining health.

Perhaps as much a hurdle as the Waters associations was how 1985, the year Bartel's movie went into wide release, was raring to be clogged with attempts to bring back the Western. If it wasn't Lawrence (Silverado) Kasdan or Clint (Pale Rider) Eastwood, it was Lust in the Dust's closest competition at the multiplex, the Tom Berenger vehicle Rustler's Rhapsody, another featherweight satire. And a year later, John Landis' Three Amigos! came along and was ultimately rewarded the hipster cult audience that came naturally to the unflappable if glib Landis. Basically, 1985 was the year of the cult movie, some more intensely marketed than others, but it felt like all under-performers of 1985 would go on to build their own rabidly defensive fanbase.

Lust in the Dust, however, seems to be one of the lesser cult movies of that crazy, crazy year. How could this be?! You had Divine and Tab Hunter reunited so shortly after the trash masterpiece that is Polyester. There were goofy supporting roles for Geoffrey Lewis, Courtney Gains, Henry Silva, and Cesar Romero. And then you had Lainie Kazan, so hilarious as the Jewish mother with eyes for Peter O'Toole in the magnificent My Favorite Year, in a corset trading mesquite-grilled barbs with Divine, who was finally being recognized outside of Waters' own Baltimore creative hub. And Paul Bartel was no novice, either, although he sadly didn't get as much respect as he deserved based on some disheartening evidence found in the bonus features of this Vinegar Syndrome release.

Bartel and co. labored so hard to put the vamp in "revamp," and yet Lust in the Dust has the reputation of a saddle sore to this very day. Why?

The fact that Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, held up by a lot of cranks as the last bastion of political incorrectness translated to riotous comedy, continues to cast a shadow over every attempted Western comedy is inevitable. Neither Bartel nor scriptwriter Philip John Taylor (making his sole foray out of TV programming) were ever going to compete with Brooks or ZAZ on a joke density scale. Lust in the Dust presents Tab Hunter as a Man With No Name-style drifter only to christen him Abel Wood, which never rises above groan-worthy pun status despite the frothing horniness Lainie Kazan, going full Mae West, brings to the brassy saloon owner, Marguerita Ventura. Same goes for Courtney Gains, as...well, Red Dick!

None of these nudge-wink nicknames can compare to the sheer majesty of Divine's playacting. Rosie Velez would be a stock ingénue in a less ironic parts; Divine gooses the role with enough offhand humor and force of personality that his charisma remains consistent. "Always the little ones got something to prove," she deadpans, with true Lily Von Shtupp sarcasm, upon finding the dwarf sidekick to bandit Hard Case Williams (Geoffrey Lewis) between her legs in the middle of the night. When she interjects upon Kazan's musical number, "South of My Border," it is the perfect encapsulation of the playfully bitchy chemistry between them. Nothing stops Divine; even a line like "My ass is on its last legs!" solicits a guilty chuckle when he delivers it.

Rosie, of course, arrives in Chile Verde, New Mexico, the archetypal small town rumored to possess gold in their hills. There are a broken map and a limerick as clues, although the former's assembly will be become obvious once you immediately deduce the bawdiness inherent in the words "two butes." And it all ends with the characters on receiving ends of gun barrels, even Marguerita's most aged prostitute, Big Ed (Nedra Volz, in the role that Edie Massey read for). The plot is certainly as flimsy as the wardrobe on Gina Gallego as the least eccentric senorita of the saloon, Ninfa, and for as much energy as the cast brings, this plot doesn't bring Leone down a single peg. It's the Clue conundrum all over again: amped showmanship which doesn't make up for the lack of real ambition or the hoariness of most of the jokes.


Certain moments in Lust in the Dust do solidify the playfulness Bartel labors to bring to the movie. Henry Silva, in what has to be his funniest role since Alligator, is a hoot as the trigger-happy Bernardo, addressing the Chile Verde Rotary Club in his attempt to rouse a mob to silence the already stoic Abel. Kazan's big musical number is so outrageously horny, she grinds upon Henry Silva's inanimate body and manipulates him like a puppet, and it slays me every time. Divine belts out "These Lips Were Made for Kissin'" in all his hoarse but pitch-perfect glory, and there is a solid running joke about the way Rosie's loins tend to literally smother any prospective lovers. It pays off at the end, complete with a tasty "Come and get it!" in regards to the film's other primary focus of lust away from Tab Hunter. And Geoffrey Lewis as Hard Case Williams, the son of a Boston preacher ("may he rot in hellfire"), adds to his rogue's gallery something truly hilarious.

The comedy of Bartel's film is, like Eating Raoul, situated at the crossroads of straight and loony, which is high-risk, high-reward. Trouble is that Eating Raoul felt more novel and had more of an axe to grind at swingers and bondage cases, which gives it more of an edge compared to this softer R-rated romp. But that was Bartel's own unique sensibilities at work; Taylor, meanwhile, is merely transgressive for a television writer, and he doesn't measure up to what a Paul Bartel or a John Waters could do in peak mischief. I don't agree with Graeme Clark's assertion that Tab Hunter doesn't get one funny line, as there is a bone tossed in his confession scene with Cesar Romero's man of cloth about "lockjaw Indians." But he does have less personality than the Eastwood-style desperado he cosplays, and for all the eccentrics bouncing off him, Hunter feels less vital here than he did as Divine's hopeless infatuation from Polyester.

There is no doubt a small cult devoted to Lust in the Dust, as Lainie Kazan's own gay fans will attest to, and singling out Divine for a Worst Actress Razzie nomination is mean-spirited in a petty way, hardly worthy of Waters and Bartel at their most enjoyably catty. I'll take Lust in the Dust over a St. Elmo's Fire or a Teen Wolf in a heartbeat. But if one can be completely objective about such security blanket subversives as Clue or Better Off Dead or even The Goonies, and can put aside any further Mel Brooks or John Waters comparisons, Lust in the Dust looks weak in the presence of the more truly gonzo highlights of 1985, be they Re-Animator or Pee-Wee's Big Adventure or The Last Dragon. Those pure entertainments knew how to go over the top with the best of them; Lust in the Dust isn't so tarnished, but it wheezes by like a lonely tumbleweed.

Funny thing happened when Anchor Bay released this on DVD for the first time in 2001: though not shot in CinemaScope, their transfer reframed the film to a 2.35:1 aspect ratio to mimic the look of its inspiration. No information exists as to whether it was screened as such theatrically from its festival premiere in '84 to the wider release around the same time as The Sure Thing, and Bartel isn't here anymore to supervise or elaborate on if 2.35:1 was a conscious decision. The original aspect ratio appears to be 1.85:1 as befits a low-budget 35mm production. The Vinegar Syndrome "Halfway to Black Friday" exclusive release preserves them both, and they appear to possess the same overall picture quality.

Which is good, because they've located the original 35mm negative and made it sing for this 4k scan. This is the real Divine Madness the way our lady Glenn appears, and everyone and everything on show looks astoundingly crisp. Floral print dresses, bloomers and corsets are as robust as the sweat, mascara and lipstick on the performers. Black/blue levels in nighttime sequences never smear, and there is a light, natural grain to an otherwise error-proof transfer. The 1.0 DTS HD-MA mix is exquisite, with clean dialogue throughout and dynamic musical cues, especially the opening ballad. Though the track is monaural, there is atmosphere to the sound effects, and the optional English SDH subtitles are more accurate than most VS transcripts.

The 15-minute "More Lust, Less Dust" featurette produced for the Anchor Bay disc by David Gregory  is carried over, which is generous with on-set footage and even includes the audition tape of Edith Massey reading the part of Big Ed. Producers Tab Hunter and Allan Glaser are on hand, as are actors Lainie Kazan and Gina Gallego (sadly, no Courtney Gains), and there are enough production details to satisfy, as well as some choice audio clips of Divine and Paul Bartel. Real life couple Hunter and Glaser return, a decade and a half later and before Hunter's death in 2018, for the 20-minute "Return to Chili Verde," produced by Automat Pictures (I Am Divine), which elaborates further on the pre-production process (Shirley MacLaine as well as Chita Rivera were initial choices as Marguerita) as well as Divine's involvement ("Mr. Producer" was his pet name for Glaser), with a third Hunter/Divine vehicle that, tragically, never came to be. Both do a great job conveying the rugged nature of setting and outfits.

"The Importance of Being Paul" is Gregory's 16-minute overview of Bartel's career, featuring input from Roger Corman, Mary Woronov, Bruce Wagner, and John Landis among others. Since Lust in the Dust was elaborated upon further in Gregory's other featurette, much of the doc focuses on Eating Raoul, which Bartel made on no budget and through personal favors (Landis would order extra film for his own concurrent studio pic and donate to Bartel). There are minor discussions of Death Race 2000, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and Bartel's extensive resume as actor, but it's his late career downfall that hits the hardest. His last feature film from 1993, Shelf Life, was unable to find major distribution in the wake of studio switch-ups, where executors could care less about Death Race 2000 or Eating Raoul. Bartel was unable to get his sequel to Eating Raoul, "Bland Ambition," which had a completed script as early as 1986, into production before his death in 2000, with financing secured the day prior.

Topping things off are a newspaper archive gallery set to the tune of "Tumbling Tumbleweed" and a TV spot for the movie. You can still secure a limited edition copy at Vinegar Syndrome, complete with slipcover. Here's the proper theatrical trailer, though, which isn't included on that release which I just reviewed:


Sunday, June 16, 2019

Nightbeast



NIGHTBEAST
(NR, Amazing Film Productions, 81 mins., release date: November 1982)

Don Dohler reluctantly if energetically recreates his decade-old The Alien Factor for the early 1980s exploitation scene with NIGHTBEAST, the most notorious of Vinegar Syndrome's 2019 Halfway to Black Friday home video releases. Distributed through VIPCO in the UK, the cassette release was classified a "Section 3" Video Nasty, which meant that, though not prosecuted on obscenity charges, VHS merchants were bound by law to turn over their copies for immediate expulsion/destruction. Nightbeast enjoyed a smoother reputation in America; after a spell on the Las Vegas-based Paragon Video, it was snatched up by Troma in the early 1990s and became ubiquitous enough to merit an appearance in Panos Cosmatos' Mandy. And a 15-year-old composer named Jeffrey Abrams, who was a disciple of Dohler's from the days of his self-published Cinemagic magazine, made good in his thirties by creating the likes of Alias and Lost for ABC under the name J.J.

At this point in time, close to 1978 (the year when The Alien Factor was distributed through Cinemagic six years after completion), Dohler was still reticent about filmmaking, having agreed to turn over directorial reins for Nightbeast to Alien Factor star Dave Geatty, who found himself in over his head. Geatty's inability to function on a micro-budget left him behind schedule and over budget (he spent a day trying to perfect a single tracking shot and with nothing to show), and at least 15 people on the cast & crew turned up at Dohler's doorstep issuing a joint ultimatum. The project fizzled enough so that Dohler could scale back and direct his sophomore effort, 1980's Fiend, in comparable peace. But the siren's call of Nightbeast proved irresistible, and new director Dohler started it back up shortly after the release of Fiend.

The year now being 1982, Don Dohler could no longer attract attention just by blundering his way through an old-fashioned monster mash, as the post-slasher vogue for instant sensationalism was in full swing. Splatter and sex were in, handmade yet hokey visual effects were not. This tendency towards luridness is on full display through Nightbeast. Not only is the gore quota high enough that it would have undoubtedly warranted an X rating, but there are also two instances of violence towards women which would've sent Siskel & Ebert leaping off the balcony. And they involve the two "actresses" who were successfully coaxed into providing top-to-bottom nudity. There is also a more liberal use of profanity compared to The Alien Factor.

It's not even the sordid accoutrements of the modern horror trend that shows up Dohler's need to adapt. The titular space invader no sooner claims his first few victims then he is engaged in back-to-back shootouts with the Perry Hall PD, firing his trusty laser disintegration pistol at the hapless expendables doing no damage with shotguns and six-shooters. Though one elderly marksman pries the advanced weapon from the alien's grip, it comes at the expense of his son's life, leaving Sheriff Jack Cinder (Tom Griffith) to butt heads with Mayor Bert Wicker (Richard Dyszel) over evacuation protocol and the very real need for outside help. That election-minded Wicker blows off the warnings to carry on a pool party meant to schmooze up to Governor Embry (Richard Ruxton) is typical; when townie Jamie Lambert (Jamie Zemarel) embarrasses him by dispersing the party with warnings of a "poison gas leak," it reduces the Mayor and his ditzy secretary Mary Jane Carter (Eleanor Herman) to alcoholic wrecks awaiting their most gruesome comeuppance.

Not that Sheriff Cinder and his aides aren't oblivious to the danger from within. Blindsided by the arrival of an intergalactic mutilator, they fail to properly deal with psychotic biker Drago (Don Leifert), who is shaping up for notoriety as the Perry Hall Strangler. First, Drago murders his girlfriend Suzie (Monica Neff) in a jealous rage, and after getting beaten by the avenging Jamie in a fistfight, he takes out his aggression on Deputy Lisa Kent (Karin Kardian) until Jamie finally finishes him off by blasting a hole through Drago's chest. All the while, the three law enforcers and their scientific allies (George Stover and Anne Frith as Steven Price and Ruth Sherman, respectively) scramble for a solution to besting the indestructible alien.


Give Don Dohler this much credit: the nastier elements of Nightbeast impose a slickness which provides more novelty than the aimlessness of The Alien Factor. And want as I am to turn the other way at the predominantly cheesy acting talents on display, quite a few in the cast display greater gusto just as well. Although Dyszel and Herman are all too believably insufferable in their comic banter ("Stop calling me Bertie!"), Jamie Zemarel makes a strapping second banana and his longtime friend Don Leifert, doing a 180 from the mild-mannered astronomer who saved the day thrice in the last half of The Alien Factor, is gleefully demented as the brutish Drago. And George Stover, whose propensity for camp was nurtured as much by John Waters as by Dohler, blends in just fine as the concerned doctor. Equally reliable is the input of creature effects artist John (The Deadly Spawn) Dods, who understands that while sympathetic aliens are defined by their eyes, the least friendly of them squeak by on their instruments of chomp.

Nightbeast is a tighter, more efficient, certainly more outrageous retread of The Alien Factor by any metric, but one can still sense Dohler bucking under the strain of newfound expectations. The love scene between Sheriff Cinder, all gray perm and handlebar mustache, and his blonde deputy comes right out of nowhere and is inconsequential to a fault. An gut-ripping attack sequence early in the film is edited like the Tasmanian Devil yet still ridiculous protracted. The film ticks off nearly all the same boxes as The Alien Factor, and is shameless enough to refer to characters by the exact same names as in Dohler's earlier effort, which hinders the amount of genuine surprises to the more sordid supplements. And the limited resources may be admirable when it comes to optical effects and cinematography, but they're taxing for some of the performers; Karin Kardian was the hairdresser to Dohler's aunt, and you can tell by the thinness of her role and the abilities she brings to it.

But damned if Dohler's scrappiness doesn't have its charms, and being issued on Blu-Ray by Vinegar Syndrome does wonders for the first few minutes alone. The Nightbeast's entrance makes it clear that there is nowhere to go but down, thus ensuring the R-rated material its own undemanding appeal. And if, say, the creature from It Came Without Warning tended to be less hands-on in his approach to murder, preferring to launch bloodsucking Frisbees at his quarry, then the Nightbeast's grisly rampage is chock full of claw-sullying horror. I can see why this would appeal to a Stephen Thrower (the Nightmare USA author who extolled the movie's virtues on the second Video Nasties trailer compilation) or a Mike Vanderbilt (the Daily Grindhouse drifter who spilled ink on this back in 2015 for the AV Club). It was made for a Troma or a Vinegar Syndrome to revive, and may well live up to its reputation as Don Dohler's most accessible film, make of that what you will.

What's indisputable is the uptake in video quality, with Nightbeast presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in a 2k scan from the 16mm negative. No hi-def presentation will ever relieve Nightbeast of its gaudy, grainy source flaws, but it sure looks well-calibrated in all of its colors, although reds and blacks tend to fare best. Nighttime sequences will no longer strain anybody's eyes, although the detail of the lasers burn straight into your retinas. Flesh tones are believably natural and the monster mask holds up well under closer, clearer inspection. Nothing distracting in the way of compression artifacts or haloing, and print damage is minimal. The monaural DTS-HD track brings out J.J. Abrams' keyboard/piano score nicely; his contributions were mostly chase sequences as well as the requisite tender love theme. Rob Walsh's compositions as well as library music gets an equal boost in clarity, and dialogue remains understandable despite the mix's limitations. The sound effects may lack directionality, but retain their punch.

Extras start with the theatrical trailer ("This is the story of how the little people answer the big questions!") and a four-minute visual FX gallery, plus the same outtake reel which appeared on the Troma DVD release. Also recycled is the feature commentary track with Don Dohler and George Stover, which the latter dominates with his recollections of special effects challenges and friends/family in walk-on roles. They touch on some various homages (including Vincent Price and The Thing from Another World) and provide ample detail about locations, which isn't surprising given Dohler himself remained in Perry Hall until his passing at age 60 on Dec. 2, 2006.

Dohler documentarian John Kinhart locked down interviews with Dohler and the also-departed Don Leifert, as well as comments from Stover, Greg & Kim Dohler and J.J. Abrams, himself, all of whom are heard on the 25-minute "Nightbeast Returns." There's more detail on the project's doomed genesis as well as an anecdote about how Abrams, at 16, enlisted his grandfather to drive him to a video story so he could buy a VHS copy of Nightbeast for posterity. Three fresh interviews shot specifically for the VinSyn edition include actor Jamie Zemarel, cinematographer/actor Richard Geiwitz (who also shared associate producer credit with Stover and Tom Griffith) and visual FX artist John Ellis (no relation to Alien Factor alumni Dave Ellis), each lasting 15-19 minutes. Zemarel, who won a contest to be an extra in the blockbuster Grease, didn't realize how big his role in Nightbeast was until he was handed the script and is refreshingly self-critical. Geiwitz does a nice job breaking down his own beginnings and visual quirks, while Ellis is upfront about his working relationship with Dohler and the literal pennies used in presenting a cinematic version of outer space.

Copies of this limited edition release are still available at the Vinegar Syndrome website.


Monday, May 20, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum



JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM
(R, Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment, 130 mins., theatrical release date: May 17, 2019)

Not only does Keanu Reeves' pistol-packing "boogeyman" bleed throughout the course of JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM, but the tagline could have read "More of the night he couldn't come home." In the original John Wick, the sanctity of his abode was violated by Slavic thugs and resulted in the stolen car and murdered dog that brought him back to the gruesome lifestyle he worked to retire from. Chapter 2 simply burned that shelter to ash thanks to the Italian schemer who demanded Wick honor a blood debt to usher him into the assassin's version of the Round Table. This loyalty was rewarded with a $7 million price tag for Wick's corpse, and as the series picks up where we left off, that bounty has doubled now that Wick has been declared excommunicado, leaving him nowhere to hide and with more enemies than allies, to put it lightly.

Frantically surveying the final 30 minutes of his running start, and being treated for a puncture wound as the last seconds are counted down (the doctor played by none other than the Keymaker himself, Randall Duk Kim), Wick gives chase during the first act of Chapter 3, marshalling whatever reluctant resources at his disposal into guiding him towards making amends for his life-threatening transgression. The High Table, that aforementioned shadow committee whom Wick defied in his murder of Santino D'Antonio on consecrated ground, has sent an operative known as the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to ensure those who abetted Wick swear their fealty anew or pay the gory consequences. The life of one dog doesn't amount to a hill of pencils in this universe.

Series director Chad Stahelski inherits the thankless task of expanding the most meat-and-potatoes motive for revenge into a full-blown mythology where for every 25 kill shots to the head, there's a solemn vow or an existential crisis. John Wick's laser focus and five-star survival instincts, reflected in the giddy ultra-violence that has been packing them in, is bound to be recalibrated once again at the cliffhanger ending of Parabellum, which really does prepare you for war.

The NYC Continental, the scene of Wick's disgrace, becomes ever more the battleground this time, with manager/mentor Winston (Ian McShane) and concierge Charon (Lance Reddick) up to their torsos in spilled blood. So is Wick, who calls upon the Russian ballet instructor/mercenary trainer (Anjelica Huston) of his orphaned youth ("I am Jardani Jovonovich") to tear his "ticket" to Casablanca, where he seeks further assistance from Sofia (Halle Berry), manager of the Moroccan branch of the Continental. Both Sofia and the Director are amusingly blunt about the danger Wick's presence will surely invite, represented by the Adjudicator's hired cadre of sushi-serving shinobi (a couple of whom are veterans of Gareth Evans' The Raid). Their leader, Zero (Mark Dacascos) is starstruck at the opportunity to combat Wick and proves a more formidable foe than any of the brats Wick has perforated previously.

There was a time before Point Break erected his action hero stature in earnest where Keanu Reeves' prime talent was for comedy (the Bill & Ted adventures, Parenthood, I Love You to Death). The John Wick persona not only refines what made the 54-year-old actor such a draw in the Speeds and Matrices of yore, but has allowed Reeves to channel his droll timing into a Zen-like sarcasm. When Wick makes his initial errand at the New York Public Library, an ogre (Boban Marjanovic) is there to collect early on that $14 million contract. It's a lot of money, the giant reasons, but "not if you can't spend it," Wick retorts. The ensuing scuffle is as much a knockout for the viewer, with Wick using one of the many found weapons at his disposal, a book of Russian fairy tales which doubles as his storage locker, to make his towering foe practically eat his words.

Stahelski, Reeves' ex-stunt double made good, alternates confrontations like these, boffo and balletic simultaneously, and graced with the proper amounts of wry humor, with plenty of screw-turning surprises. At one point, Wick finds himself up against the High Table's very own SWAT team, all of them armored to a tee, which puts welcome strain on Wick's God mode-style impenetrability. In a reprise of the shopping montage from Chapter 2 ("I need something robust...precise"), Wick has to march back to the weapons room and upgrade his arsenal with hilarious frustration. Another spin on the second film has the museum installation showdown, previously involving Mr. D'Antonio, moved to a hall of glass panels and crystal skull displays, which ups the ante on an old action movie chestnut in a nervously rousing style.

This is where the final confrontation occurs between Wick and Zero, and it has to be said that Mark Dacascos, the Iron Chef who was once a leading man of martial arts vehicles in the days when the late Brandon Lee was similarly poised for stardom, reminds me of all the fine qualities that Lee demonstrated in his tragically short career. There is a boyish enthusiasm and elation in his scenes with Wick, including one of those uncomfortably silent truces between professionals itching to beat each other to a pulp (cf. Common's Cassian and Wick demonstrating their "professional courtesy"). The way Dacascos breaks the ice in that moment is priceless. And he matches Wick's never-say-die prowess with every particle of his being.

Laurence Fishburne, parodying Morpheus as a gloating pigeon whisperer, returns as the Bowery King, and without giving anything away, he's like the upscale Winston in he refuses to give up his turf without a self-righteous but sassy vengeance. Anjelica Huston, who has drawn flak for asking that her golden years allow her more dignified roles than that of sitcom-style geriatrics, makes the most of her snarling cameo as The Director, and in much the same way that Ian McShane (excellent, it should go without saying) wrings the right amount of subtle cockiness in the way he says "Enjoy your stay at the Continental," there is a recurring line throughout Parabellum about service that are like verbal bullets the way Huston spits them out. Halle Berry is in prime form, too, freshly adrenalized and endearingly surly as the tragic hotel proprietor who shares Wick's fondness for dogs. In Sofia's case, her best friends are two Belgian Malinois who defy the odds to turn junkyard nasty after a pivotal interrogation.

The union of star and director, however, remains a tailor's dream. Keanu Reeves, the once and future Wyld Stallyn, continues to step up his game and throw himself into a new variety of mano a mano overkill. Stahelski's continued attention to unbroken shots and spatial detail, which is where you'll once again find the projected image of Buster Keaton, brings urgency to even the most incredulous of circumstances. The Cannon films of the ‘80s which touted Bronson and Norris never once had their He-Men switch to riding side saddle in Manhattan traffic to get that perfect aim, nor were they blessed with directors as inventive as Stahelski. His style is a Cuisinart of at least 10 feverishly adored pulp filmmakers, from Walter Hill and John Carpenter to John Woo and Kinji Fukasaku, but with its own sardonic, soulful personality. Granted, its two-hour length does causes one to suggest further tightness, yet Reeves' charisma and Stahelski's color ensures perpetual investment, excess and even pleasure. Wick breaks into an antique shop in a futile attempt at coveting firepower, but ends up making human pincushions in a frenetic knife fight that awaits to be topped.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum expands upon the brutal truth that John Wick may thinking, yeah, he's back, but that the consequences have effectively cost him any true peace until the entire system of safe havens and bureaucrats and top-ranking mobsters consumes itself whole. When he finally gets his meeting with the Elder (Said Taghmaoui) out in the Moroccan desert, he fights to reaffirm his life for love, but both his sacrificial offering and the task assigned to him push him further into the mythology of John Wick, the nightmare vision of the criminal overworld (I don‘t call it underworld because of that climax), and away from the man he was just weeks earlier. Keanu Reeves' face is that of a samurai warrior lost at the bottom of the pond he got sucked into. As a matter of fact, John Wick truly IS the boogeyman. Here's hoping Stahelski and Reeves carry on like they do until Wick's reckoning day.

(If you liked this take on John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, and have the means to support further reviews that would also benefit me in a time of need, please donate via the PayPal button or through this GoFundMe campaign that is dedicated to the memory of Gertrude Bishop, August 23, 1934-May 2, 2019)
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Sunday, November 4, 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody


BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY
(PG-13, 20th Century Fox, 134 mins., theatrical release date: November 2, 2018)

"This thing called Queen
I just can't handle it
This thing called Queen
I must get around to it
I ain't ready!
Crazy little thing called Queen."
- Freddie Mercury, R.I.P.

It's 10am on a Saturday, and I figure coffee can't compare to a shot of Queen's incomparable pomp rock in seat-shaking Dolby Surround. That's not a backhanded compliment for the record: Queen are perhaps the only real combo who made bombast sound fun. An old Rolling Stone article declared Queen "the first truly fascist rock band," and those late ‘70s anthems have a jackbooted arrogance to them. But if they didn't have hooks, energy and especially Freddie Mercury, I could hold no nostalgic yearning for them. They'd slot easily into the same AOR ghetto with Journey, Styx and REO Speedwagon, all of whom pale in comparison to the Mercury-May-Deacon-Taylor music machine.

But as Bohemian Rhapsody, the band-sanctioned biopic of their rock ‘n' roll reign, concluded with an abridged recreation of the 1985 Live Aid mini-set which showed them at the height of their power, I surrendered. It's all in the tune of "Radio Ga Ga," the Roger Taylor-penned hit from 1984's The Works (it only went to #16 in the U.S.A., but was a chart-topper or a notch close to such in 14 countries). It's got the martial beat, the synths, the note-bending guitar, the shout-along chorus, the earnest lyrics mourning a format which means even less almost 25 years later. It's sounds stripped down compared to the band's flamboyant first decade, a credit to the evolution begun with the pop-minded 1980 LP The Game. And I sang along to it in the theater shamelessly, or at least the first verse and final chorus.

Then there's that titular behemoth, a song whose pop-cultural revival is the stuff of legend. There are even text graphics filling the screen which shows just how reviled Queen were in 1975, when they embraced rock and opera with the kind of kitsch abandon even Pete Townshend was too reserved for. But cut to 1992, after the death of Freddie Mercury, and a little movie called Wayne's World is released on Valentine's Day, the better to plant a big wet kiss on the kind of music which punk and metal were meant to discredit. Wayne Campbell, Garth Algar and friends singing along, banging their heads, weeping to the fatalistic coda; it was a glorious sequence which began the revitalization of Queen.


Not a lot of bands deserve such an afterglow, but Queen did. Looking back on the jewels of their discography, from "Killer Queen" to "You're My Best Friend," "Somebody to Love" to "Bicycle Race," "Another One Bites the Dust" to "Radio Ga Ga," Queen were the misfit band they proclaimed themselves to be in Bohemian Rhapsody. When they were on, they were the champions of the world. This adrenaline rush was just what I needed first thing in the morning. "Hot dog?" I say "Cool it, man." Let's just surrender to the many glories of Queen without question.

Bohemian Rhapsody should be the essence of Queen. We're not dealing with a hot-tempered soul innovator like James Brown or an insular, troubled pop genius like Brian Wilson. Queen were comparably modest even if they didn't sound like it. They would and did rock you, and their legacy presents an interesting dichotomy. Queen are the stadium band to end them all yet a campy pleasure who scored the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. Freddie Mercury is a homosexual icon and showman supreme, but was introverted and soulful enough to counter any stigma. Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor (here played by Gwilym Lee, Joseph Mazzello and Ben Hardy, for the record) were all undeniably talented as songwriters and musicians. I wanted a whole movie to reinforce the very reaction I get upon hearing that compact version of "Radio Ga Ga" from their Wembley barnstormer, a moment to rival U2's equally compelling extended version of "Bad."

Alas, the widely-reported controversies behind the eight-year production and the simple appeal of Queen have clashed together to result in a film that is a rock biopic pile-up. It isn't exactly "Death on Two Legs," but better to serve it with the title "Hammer to Fall." Bohemian Rhapsody contrives a series of blunt melodramatic clichés which left me numbed by the time Live Aid is shoehorned into a third-act redemption arc. There I was turning as skeptical as Queen's past critics. This isn't merely a group of British pros putting on a great show for the ages in support of a worthy cause. It's a broken family coming together for the first time "in years." It's a wayward frontman learning humility, mending tattered relationships and coming to grips with AIDS. It's the most important charity guest appearance ever, with telethon lines ringing off the hook and funds raised into the stratosphere. It's no longer amusingly pompous but wretchedly hagiographic.


It didn't have to be like this. Spearheaded by Rami Malek's laudable approximation of Freddie Mercury's strutting, saucy charms, Bohemian Rhapsody is not lacking in charisma. Whether working up a paying crowd or a crowding player (look beyond the Gerry Rafferty makeup of one impresario for a flash, ah-ah, of stunt casting), Malek is dashing and daunting when duty calls. This is the first half of the movie, when the band is on the rise (there is a joyful depiction of their first studio sessions) and shacked up in a muddy, creaky country house to record A Night at the Opera. I could overlook the fact that during their preceding Sheer Heart Attack era, the movie version of Queen is blasting through "Fat Bottomed Girls," which wasn't released until 1978's Jazz (no "Stone Cold Crazy," which Metallica so awesomely covered, or "Brighton Rock?").

But then the movie progresses, fudging chronology and fabricating pitfalls with such superficial aggression that I was constantly demanding "Don't bore us, get to the chorus." It's London 1980, and Queen are now working on "We Will Rock You." Memo to screenwriter Anthony McCarten: "News of the World, motherfucker!" I would also assume the band members know the name of a certain single/live staple from that ‘77 album to be "Spread Your Wings." And why do we need hackneyed "Freddie goes solo" tension (which leads to the overstated Live Aid gig) when we could have Queen in 1977, taking one look at the punk landscape which was gobbing in their general direction and laying down the raucous "Sheer Heart Attack?"

Get On Up and Love & Mercy both had more respect for context than McCarten and directors Bryan Singer & Dexter Fletcher (not to mention consultants Brian May & Roger Taylor). They are like revelatory deep cuts next to Bohemian Rhapsody's exhausted hit parade. I came out of Get On Up genuinely sparked by the towering ambition of James Brown as well as the full extent of his brutishness, against bandmates, lovers and perfect strangers. Love & Mercy was rich with empathy for the frazzled soul of Brian Wilson, who heard searing symphonies and pained reveries in his head until he was drugged into possible oblivion. Everything about Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, especially his sexual orientation, is a hedged bet, a concession to formula which negates the declared intent of Queen's music.

Forgive me if I sound like I'm angling for a think piece, but the stodgy construction of this really does stink of the hetero-genous. I'm not asking to see what Sacha Baron Cohen or Stephen Frears originally had in mind. But as an adult, I would care for a depiction of Freddie Mercury that doesn't make his homosexuality look like a sheepish trip down the proverbial rabbit hole guided by a wasted Allen Leech as duplicitous manager Paul Prenter, tinted in infernal clubland reds and subject to migraine-inducing funhouse mirror-lenses when Mercury is grilled about his private life in a press conference. Never mind the way Mercury's real life soul mate Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) and his bandmates are trotted out as reactionary figures, as well as the sexless bond he has with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), another important friend of Freddie reduced to an agent of salvation. I think Freddie Mercury is more than worthy of wrenching pathos, an unfortunate casualty of a wasting disease which during the 1980s was seen largely as Biblical retribution by assorted religious fanatics and politicians. But damn are these filmmakers pushing for the retrograde; Bryan Singer showed more solidarity towards gays in his inaugural X-Men entries.

The performers are willing, but the flesh is decayed. Lucy Boynton, the love interest of John Carney's transcendent Sing Street, is as worthy of better material as Malek. Imagine a film which delved deeper into the intimacy between Freddie and Mary, the kind which inspired Freddie to treat her as his top confidante and inheritor in his will. Here, she is reduced to a fling, forcing Freddie into an emotional void he immediately fills with decadence and pageantry. All of the relationships, including the former Farrokh Bulsara's defiant connection to his Parsi parents (Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das), have this half-formed (or less) quality to them. Freddie was so much more larger-than-life in actuality, but you'll never know from the way the disco thump of "Another One Bites the Dust" juxtaposes a fateful walk through a leather bar. Didn't John Deacon write that song out of appreciation for Chic's "Good Times?" I heard no Nile Rodgers (Rick James, instead, another anachronistic credit to the film's millennial wankery), but I did get a "THIS IS DISCO!" fit to lead me into another false-improvisatory recording session. Did Steve Dahl ghostwrite this?


Let's be clear: Bohemian Rhapsody is geared towards the more middlebrow section of Queen's fandom, people who titter at a meta joke involving Wayne's World but do not feel a tinge of regret that director Penelope "The Decline of Western Civilization" Spheeris herself didn't contribute a eulogy which would've closed with greater power than the predictable trope we do get. Having mentioned Spheeris and Stephen (My Beautiful Laundrette, High Fidelity) Frears does no favors to Singer and Fletcher; with the latter connected to an Elton John biopic, whose teaser trailer graced Bohemian Rhapsody, look forward to more edgeless plug-and-play rock star dramatizations (please don‘t let me down, Lee Hall).

And Bohemian Rhapsody is strictly plug-and-play, to inexplicably reference "Weird Al" Yankovic (remember his "Bohemian Polka?"). Montages soak up whatever potential resonance there is to be gained from watching a baggage handler born in Zanzibar realize the highs and lows of stardom, and they just keep absorbing and absorbing until the film is as dry as the Atacama. Each musical moment proves an oasis, but they seem scattered because of the way Live Aid bookends the film. And these moments make up the bulk of the offending montages; every workhorse of a song is handled unimaginatively, their accompanying geneses too cute for their own good.

The more I think about it, the less I consider this even a "biopic," since it's too unreliable to have the quotes removed. What you ultimately get with Bohemian Rhapsody is a breakout performance from Rami (Mr. Robot) Malek that wants badly to be of Oscar caliber (Paul Dano and Chadwick Boseman, we hardly knew ye) and as disposable a reminder of Queen's popularity as Hollywood could muster. I don't anticipate what'll happen to, say, Judas Priest when the wind blows their way (save a prayer for Rob Halford). I should've cried those intended tears of joy as they wrapped up at Live Aid but wound up as sad as Garth Algar upon the immortal last words of "Bohemian Rhapsody" itself. Nothing really matters to me.*

*Except the songs, of course. But I can sing along with "Don't Stop Me Now" or "Play the Game" for free.