Friday, February 28, 2020

Enchantéd: Nick DeLaurentis' GOOD BOY

Enchantéd: Nick DeLaurentis' GOOD BOY

It's getting tougher to write these days, if I can continue to use my platform for honesty's sake. Something about that last review just feels too candid for me to even think about, and I can't pretend that what I said isn't still plaguing my psyche in the worst way. I didn't feel compelled to go back to my Amityville Murders review. This was the kind of piece so close to my heart, it came together more effortlessly than I could have hoped. I wrote in one sitting, because it was so direct to the core of what has become of me. And even though Diane Franklin herself as well as English critic Kevin Matthews have typed their support, I'm too confused to persevere. Did I withdraw in disgust or am I merely surrendering to apathy? When someone like Diane believes I have a novel in me, does that kind of faith have a long term effect? What am I even trying to accomplish now that I have let distance rule my heart?

There aren't that many celebratory options for me as I approach 36, so I elected to make one that will take me out of my comfort zone and maybe prove as rewarding as the piece I did on Olivia DeLaurentis' short films, which like that last article about her mother came out of confronting death. In the case of Olivia's tribute, my father was the departed as opposed to the more recent death of my grandmother. But it's more than just the passing of family now that is taxing my creative inspiration. It's the losses of certainty, of connections and of conviction. I'm flying blind as I try to do something I haven't done since I published all my work on the former Epinions site: I am going to write an album review.

I am talking about the debut LP of Diane Franklin's youngest child, Nick DeLaurentis, the young Jesse Holiday from Devon Bight & the Sensitive Boys and composer of that film's mock teen pop. In fact, I am going to repost the link to Olivia's short film on Vimeo and ask that you watch that please before I make the transition.

My knowledge of Devon Bright is the sole piece of context I have in regards to Nick DeLaurentis, unless I must also credit him with the orchestral cover songs sprinkled throughout Royal Effups. A classically-trained teenage musician, Nick is currently pursuing his passion in Chicago, based on the interview conducted by Christian Thorsberg over at Navy Peer. His first two Spotify singles, “Knowhere” and “Beauty Mark,” showed his skill at acoustic guitar, and both songs carry over to Good Boy, his admittedly introspective solo debut. Boundless if not restless, Nick is already contemplating his follow-up as a truer extension of his taste, less informed by the indie folk scene like Good Boy is. My biggest takeaway listening to the album is that, as the title implies, Good Boy is a young man's fresh start, one which asks encouragement as he accrues further experience and curiosity.

For now, Nick is acting on the instincts of the moment, so I look to the opening track “Bone Dance,” also the source of his inaugural music video, for a proper introduction. Closer to Emma Bull than Miley Cyrus, the lyrics remind me of Gotye's “Eyes Wide Open,” which could be construed as a troubled relationship lament either interpersonal or ecological in scope. For his song, Gotye fashioned a bass part by sampling percussive rhythms off a musical fence in Winton, Australia, whereas Nick DeLaurentis is on the beach, specifically Montrose, the faint sound of bowed strings conjuring the sound of seagulls. Finger snaps provide a skeletal rhythm, with acoustic tolls and scrapes pulling the song further away from the DOR urgency Gotye favored, yet still attaining an irresistible groove. The overtracked chorus, delivered Monk style, comes across as jarring given the softness in Nick's verse vocals: “Everyone I know plays god games, but they don't even pray.” As rats threaten to breed in charm bags and the instruments drop out for an Imogen Heap-esque coda (“30 years away/No prayers left to pray/Singing Amen”), I hope I'm hearing this particular observation correctly for the sake of levity: “The things you left behind, you think I won't discover/I give you Olive Garden, but you just want the butter.”

The “Bone Dance” video shows Nick being tortured by mirrors, but on his first single release, “Knowhere,” he seemed preternaturally doubtful against a coffeehouse bossa nova backdrop. “I want you to be happy/I want you to be kind,” he sings on “Bone Dance,” a sliver of light through overcast clouds. But the tentative steps towards the outside world on “Knowhere” offer no relief when “we are still trapped in the fire,” with worldly knowledge proving insubstantial in the end. A corny opening couplet which rhymes “plane” with “train,” not to mention one of the clumsiest chorus lead-ins I can recall (“And you could be the president of Cuba/I'll bet you think you are important, too, yah”), prove more twee than such an existential joke can bear. At least the version of “Knowhere” on Good Boy ends less bleakly than before, mitigating the insular anxiety and promising some joy in life's journey. 

Amidst the overtaxed empathy and sensory overload of “Chatter,” the album's peppiest track (with vocodized “blah blah blahs” for good measure), Nick gasps “I need peace!” but is generous enough to wish the same for his town and the planet in general. The hearth of family, luckily, helps Nick towards realizing it for a few lovely songs. The fondness of “Sweatshirt” could be dedicated to Diane DeLa...erm. Franklin, herself: “Some people play make believe/But I know it's all real after you leave/Your ghost by my side/Kissing me on the cheek.” On “Beauty Mark,” which opens once again with imagery of flames a la “Knowhere,” Nick sings “You twist my arm/I love you, anyways” in that rare “Just the Way You Are” ballad that references both the Phoenix and chocolate-covered marzipans in the same space. And Olivia DeLaurentis provides background vocals on the least foreboding love song in show, “Storage Space.”

“The Abstinence Dungeon” undercuts comically nervous portrayals of platonic affection with a blunt if faintly-sung “I would like to know how it feels to not be f***ing indecisive all the time,” and is way less insufferable for a Nice Guy anthem than “Treat You Better,” even without a lyric sheet (which I admittedly would appreciate: Nick sings like a young Steve Miller and gets overpowered easily in the mix). Nick's predilection for atmosphere resurfaces for the remaining songs, the title cut (which comes with an instrumental prelude and continues the beach ambiance from “Bone Dance” with Maui-style buoyancy) and the closing “Prelude to Dreams.” That last one seems sculpted from the indie folk cookie cutter, to be true, yet if Nick DeLaurentis chooses to embrace a fuller sound next time, this particular Good Boy will continue to listen patiently.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Enchantéd: The Amityville Murders (For Diane Franklin on her 58th birthday)

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin

Part X: The Amityville Murders (2018)
(R, Skyline Entertainment)

Consider the following article my present to Diane Franklin on her 58th birthday. I have to admit that it took me longer than I hoped for to restart this tribute to the woman, if only because I've spent six years in a kind of existential limbo. Many unfortunate situations have befallen me ever since the nightmare year of 2016, and when I turned 30 a couple years prior, I had my first painful gut feeling about my future as a writer. For someone who has been trying to mature and give life to his dream craft, I observed too much regression and ignorance and insularity, and from all sides. People who I respected for their smarts or their hearts or even for just simple enthusiasm turned out to be closet nasties, with social media exposing their very hypocrisies and corruption.

Quality of life decreased sharply and didn't seem to improve as time went on. I had gotten to the point where the depression was too strong, and I left social media in 2016 for the purpose of clearing my head and then regarded what should have been a healthy return as a big mistake. I could not shake the continued realization of just how disgusted, disillusioned and discouraged I was in the company of two-faced acquaintances who were deadly smug in their noxious attitudes and behavior. I took a lot of abuse out on myself because I let myself take certain people seriously. Even when I tried to make it out in public, using an event in Stockton as an example, there was one certified cult icon who I met for the first time, but who confused me with someone else, someone he himself hated. I was in a bit of shell shock, and said simply, "I'm not that person." But the world around me had changed so much, that even if I was not that person, it was better to perceive and assume.

The event ended awfully for me, with one more supposed "friend" betraying me, although I had thicker skin at the time because I could see that he was a troll in male nurse's scrubs. He was a gay man living in Ceres, CA, with a partner who was critically ill, but also someone with misdirected emotions, and thus was susceptible to the worst kind of cult misanthropy. He was the kind of person who struck me as, to quote Maynard James Keenan, a "smiley glad hand with hidden agendas," and I desperately wanted to cut those people out of my life. I wonder sometimes if he has wizened up, but I don't dwell on it too much. It was just another disappointment in a long string of them, and I had to take another powder.

I was inconsolable for the most part, trying my damnedest to soldier on despite knowing full well that this sense of alienation was growing stronger. The longer I tried to keep a profile, the more I was seeing the very same smug piety in the people I was trying to present myself to. I came into film criticism and hoped it would resemble the "adulting" process: full of drudgery, to be true, but also ripe with discovery and people who would find similar joy in variety and expansion. It didn't happen that way: the internet is but a series of security blanket niche communities, unquestioning and repetitive and hardly as adventurous as I expected. I was seeing mediocrity or worse placed on pedestals, taken as ritual, damn near made the Golden Rule. And respectfully disagreeing, in the most tactful of comments, wasn't endearing me. I wanted to be as much a loudmouth as the next person, but I hated myself more for it, and my confidence was already depleting to near-nothing.

2016 set me on the path to a very clear epiphany, and it was this: I didn't want to be a part of any cults anymore. Even ones I was most active in, these communities were basically what Jello Biafra described in The Dead Kennedys' "Chickenshit Conformist," as "closed-minded, self-centered social clubs." Everything felt homogenized and trivialized and masturbatory to a breaking point, and the eternal misfit within me wanted to leave again. So I closed down my Twitter page, and further pruned Facebook to what was to be only my ten best high school friends. What happened to me is reminiscent of all that I found disreputable in the online environment, but there was no peace I could find. Everybody just wanted their egos stroked, and there was no such thing as genuine discourse.

There was one person who was caught in the emotional crossfire, and unforgivably so, given just how essential she meant to me for so long. Her name was Diane Franklin.

This photo was taken at the 2019 Los Angeles Hollywood Show, an event which I couldn't attend without the participation of my closest friend, John Grigg. Alas, he had moved to the Philippines soon after, and we now compare hardships through Messenger, although at least he had good reason to leave. In 2018, I lost my uncle to a heart attack brought on by prescription medicine. Almost a year later, I watched my grandmother succumb to dementia, having a fatal stroke on the day she was supposed to see a doctor. Even my pet chihuahua, a brown beauty named Rosie, couldn't survive because of a bum ticker. Unable to leave Mesa myself, I rented out the two empty rooms my departed family members occupied to a couple of Millennial manchildren, which means I get to hear the n-word frequently over nightly Xbox benders (to say nothing of the boring ass white boy cover of Sia's "Chandelier" played on a loop). And though I am out of touch with the online world now, I can't avoid hearing more tragic news about our best and brightest passing away. 2016 was a tough one to handle, but I have to dole out R.I.P.s no less frequently, be it for Scott Walker, Rutger Hauer, Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston, Rip Torn, Rip Taylor, Ric Ocasek, Danny Aiello, Marie Fredriksson (from Roxette), and most recently, the titanic Neil Peart of Rush.

Even when I met Diane Franklin at that L.A. show, it was unavoidable that we would mention the departures of Louisa Moritz, who was the nympho Charo from The Last American Virgin, and James Ingram, the voice behind the Quincy Jones track “Just Once” which was used so much on that movie's soundtrack. I managed to rediscover an old SCTV episode, largely a network-based parody of The Godfather, where Ingram mimed that tune on Count Floyd's “3-D House of Beef,” ending with the singer getting his own in-your-face lampoon. The three members of Rush were no doubt fans of that great sketch comedy troupe, and I remember Geddy Lee made a reference to Mayor Tommy Shanks, played by the gone-but-never-forgotten John Candy, in a comical “dinner” short of their own. Canada, you're alright!

When Neil Peart wrote the lyrics to “Limelight,” a song from the perspective of a renowned musician “living in a fisheye lens,” he stressed the importance of barriers as a means of sanity. I put them up, Diane Franklin has put them up, it does work as long as you have a healthy perspective. Yet something stirred within me that I wonder what Peart would make of: this stranger suddenly made an honest-to-goodness, if not long-awaited, friend. Diane Franklin and I became great supporters of each other, and every piece I wrote about her movies are a testament to the genuine feelings I have towards Diane as a human being. And what I love about writing these is that I don't see Diane Franklin solely as an icon of the 1980s, though she is certainly packaged as that every time she makes a convention appearance or signs on to “'80s in the Sand.” I see her as a very talented and warm lady, compassionate and perky and droll and practical and playful and someone who is always a treat to talk to and spend time with. Given the parameters of our communication, I adore Diane Franklin with every fiber of my human being.

But I am out of the loop now, and it is a very melancholy development. For someone who was so excited about Diane's future, as well as that of her daughter Olivia DeLaurentis, cutting out social media not only limits my ability to network as a writer, but also leaves me cold to the endeavors of these two incredible women. Diane has so many upcoming roles to watch out for, and Olivia is still doing comedy with Sydney Heller and even getting her own feature film shot with producer Kimberley Kates, Diane's fellow princess from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. It also didn't help that switching computers last year resulted in a sudden crash upon file transference, which means a lot of convention photos, and ones of me and Olivia in the same room, now lie rotting on an internal hard drive. Kimberley, too...and Kimmy Robertson, Adrienne Barbeau, Marilyn Burns, Virginia Madsen, and so many others. Sometimes I am accused of being too hard on myself, but FML just the same.

All this needed to be said before I summon up my courage and allow myself the chance to watch THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS, which is Diane Franklin's first widely-distributed film role since not only Bill & Ted, but also How I Got Into College, and her performance in Savage Steve Holland's third film seems to have been her recurring character in the short films Diane produced for Olivia. In a few weeks to day I am starting this review, Diane Franklin will be turning 58. Soon, I will be 36. And yet I cannot stop following my heart when the route leads to Diane, because I cherish her beyond comprehension. This should create conflicts of interest, but I hope that I was sufficiently clear-eyed in my past pieces on her, and if you follow me on Letterboxd, you will know that I have been open about my opinions about her filmography.

As it stands, I gave four stars to what I consider my favorite Diane Franklin movie, and you will be surprised to learn that it is the made-for-TV Summer Girl. This is the performance for me that exemplifies all that is not only sexy but superb about Franklin's screen presence. There is so much range that she demonstrates, and I always get a kick out of seeing someone so gorgeous playing such a demented, diabolical villain. I hope for a remastered DVD release, so it will do some justice to cinematographer Fred Koenekamp, who in his prime did Francis Coppola's Patton and Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls in the same year.

Better Off Dead and TerrorVision, the latter of which has what I think to be another great Diane Franklin performance, both were rated one notch below, so they were graded 3.5/5. Maybe it's the fact that I haven't watched Better Off Dead since the inauguration of our real life Roy Stalin, but for as big a fan I am of Holland's debut, and the film which made me fall in love with Diane Franklin as a boy, I just want people to realize that Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing, which launched John Cusack as a leading man, might possess an edge in terms of the onslaught of teen comedies from 1985. That phenomenally charming romantic comedy may not have the catchphrases and stoopid gags that are admittedly priceless in Better Off Dead, but it too had a heart and even better chemistry among Cusack & Zuniga.

Second Time Lucky (and Deadly Lessons, another two-star decision despite the fine Ally Sheedy and the late Bill Paxton in supporting roles) is where I start to feel less certain about Franklin's past work. It's too cute and unambitious for its own good, and maybe it does play like another transparent chance to admire Diane Franklin in the buff, but her Jean Harlow impression is too irresistible for me to write that one off completely. And I do cop some uncomplicated arousal from Franklin in that film, whereas both The Last American Virgin and Amityville II: The Possession, the films that introduced her to the world, are repellent in insidious ways. These are films that I find a lot of people condescend to in their appreciation, and watching Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films only made like Boaz Davidson's film less than I did when I was 19, initially giving it a cold two stars.

It's that abortion sequence, the camera ogling Diane Franklin as she removes her panties even as it pans up to Karen's scared face. And the cutaway to the pizza being sliced. That kind of tastelessness I don't find celebratory. If we can knock Sixteen Candles and Revenge of the Nerds for their dated and off-putting sexual politics, then I don't see why something equally sickening should be ignored. Furthermore, it's the films I watched later which confirmed my initial turn-offs to The Last American Virgin, and not just Davidson's first two homegrown sequels to Lemon Popsicle, the foreign film that people don't know was remade to be Franklin's inaugural cult classic. It was the coming-of-age cornerstone Summer of '42, which laid bare just how derivative the characterizations of the male leads and many of the sniggering sex gags truly were, and also John Duigan's 1987 film The Year My Voice Broke, which starred very young performers (including Aussie character actors Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn) and was also a period piece like the original Lemon Popsicle, dealing with mad teenage infatuation and unrequited love. Yet it had all the graces (character development, comfortable silence, adults who weren't all dunces) Davidson forever lacked as a writer/director, and came across more honest than to be just another mean-spirited quickie pandering to its adolescent audience (“See it or be it,” indeed).

I can't say I anticipate a remake of The Last American Virgin. I get the hunch that the late James Ingram's soulful voice will be replaced by the overwrought crowing of Lewis Capaldi at the end. Blame it on one of my roommates playing “Someone You Loved” to absolute death already, but I can't call that song nowhere close as successful as “Just Once.” Quincy and Jimmy had Brill Building team Mann/Weill as composers, and they also wrote "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin.'" Even if Capaldi's song is on the nose enough to fit, it is not a particularly dignified expression of the particular form of heartbreak which capped off The Last American Virgin, and it's going to make the remake actively worse.

Which brings me to Amityville II: The Possession and, by proxy, THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS. You know, I am proud of the pieces that I wrote for Diane Franklin's 1982 flicks, because they weren't as overbearingly negative as they could have been. But I cannot bring myself to give either more than a 1.5/5. Let Siskel & Ebert be remembered for their unfairly scathing review of Better Off Dead, but also know that Gene elected that sequel (“or was it a prequel?”) as one of the Stinkers of 1982. And I get it more than I do his opinion on Better Off Dead. Compared to the rest of the series, its repulsiveness and opportunism and nihilism certainly makes it stand out compared to its slew of DTV successors. But oh, Diane Franklin does have a bit of a questionable legacy. I can still remember Rhett's observation from

“Sonny first flirts with his sister Patricia, then gets her to undress, then has sex with her, and then calls her a slut throughout the rest of the picture. It is incredibly uncomfortable viewing, and as if the clash between suspense-driven and effects-driven horror weren’t enough, the incest flavoring makes the film even more of a head-scratcher...As if it weren’t bad enough that Diane Franklin gets raped by her brother, it is also discovered late in the film that (surprise!) the priest was also leering for her virginal body. Between being leered at by her brother and priest in Amityville II, and impregnated by her irresponsible boyfriend in her other 1982 debut, The Last American Virgin, actress Diane Franklin may just be the teen queen of misogyny.”

Rhett's frank commentary on Diane Franklin's exploitation beginnings sounds like a Malcolm X speech compared to what a Bill Chambers or Jack Sommersby or even a Kim Newman would write, and it does have more truth. Besides, didn't Rick call Karen a whore in the library? The old virgin-whore dichotomy served up for hipsters aiming to one-up the old critics who once called a spade a spade. This ain't no party at all. And Diane Franklin deserved better, as Newman pointed out in his review of THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS.

(Save your TL;DRs, I'm about to transition here.)

Daniel Farrands is certainly an Amityville II fanboy, else why would Diane Franklin be coaxed into making her comeback in the very role Rutanya Alda played back when? There's even Burt Young, although our Anthony Montelli is now Paul Ben-Victor. It's on brand for Farrands, who along with partner Thommy Hutson bankrolled several comprehensive horror franchise retrospectives. In between their Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street exposés, they also produced an independent film called The Trouble With the Truth alongside its leading actress, Lea Thompson. And I recommend that film even if you never once lusted after Zoey Deutch's mom; it's a career-best performance, dialogue-driven but full of honest emotion and nuance, to match Lorraine Baines or Miss Amanda Jones.

I'm learning that Thommy Hutson in particular really loves the scream queens of his youth and has been doing them solids in the industry over and over. I never saw Prank, which was directed by Halloween 4 & 5 stars Danielle Harris (who gets to share the opening scene of The Trouble with the Truth with John Shea) & Ellie Cornell as well as Heather Langenkamp (I can only dream of doing for Diane Franklin what Hutson does for Langenkamp), but my positive response to Amanda Wyss in Hutson's own The Id is on record. And now Farrands in the position to make Diane Franklin come alive on the screen in such a fresh, fascinating way like Lea Thompson or Heather Langenkamp or Amanda Wyss. I am so pumped up that these women have starring/directing/producing roles that are revelatory in a way that proves you don't need only a Tarantino to reward their longevity and professionalism.

If you could imagine me shuffling my feet in the presence of Lea or Diane or Amanda, think of how I'm finally getting to THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS after Daniel Farrands unveiled his followups, The Haunting of Sharon Tate and The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Then watch me turn and run. As Lionel Richie once sang: “Oh no.” I need to see The Final Interview or Waking Nightmare to reassure myself that there's such a thing as an up to go to.

Farrands takes off from the DeFeo family massacre just like Amityville II: The Possession did, but there have been differences made in the past 25 years besides Franklin aging enough to play the materfamilias. Dino De Laurentiis has given way to Jason Blum. We are no longer plagiarizing The Exorcist, but instead Paranormal Activity and its progeny. Computers do all the dirty work as opposed to technicians. But there are similarities to go with the changes. George Lutz remains a hoax perpetrator, and it's equally tough these days to entertain demonic possession as the catalyst for “Butch” DeFeo's homicidal mania. The more pressing reasons, particularly that toxic household of neurotic relatives, are reduced to caricature. And there's more speculation than immersion to be taken in; though callous incest is no longer a factor, there's a lot of shady mafia ties and dealings to provide non-credence to a claim from the real life Butch.

Farrands has, based on the uniform reception of his three directorial efforts, tried for an unholy mixture of morbid elements, perhaps bucking for that camp value dollar. There are authentic photos and phone calls from the documented tragedies buffering nods to conspiracy theories and conflicting 'n' shifting testimonies, an unappetizing Butterball which is then stuffed with slasher/spookshow conventions, all at store brand prices. Overheated acting cooks the bird, and indiscriminate horror enthusiasts are tasked with the feast. With THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS, at least, the pumpkin pie is served before dinner, as this marketing still will prove:

Hard as it is to believe, I don't have a pin-up of fifty-something Diane Franklin hanging on my walls, but the temptation to bust out the tacks is hard to fight. Diane is a naturally gorgeous guiding light, and I always will acknowledge that in the interest of friendship. But what about the performance behind the portrait?

She plays Louise DeFeo with an accent I haven't heard from her before, that of your atypical Italian-American from Long Island, a description you can levy upon the DeFeo family here. The grandparents are played by Burt Young and surprising fixture Lainie Kazan (My Favorite Year and Lust in the Dust), so she's in good company. The opening credits present home movie footage, narrated by teen daughter Dawn (Chelsea Ricketts) on her 18th birthday, and though it's clear this is a cutthroat clan in which the father, Ronnie Sr. (Paul Ben-Victor), aims to lord over everyone in orbit with brute force (even trying to dominate Burt Young, who is having none of it), these are comparatively peaceful times. The exposition even affords Kazan a chance to insult repressed Louise's recipe for marinara sauce ("It tastes like your father's old socks").

Dawn DeFeo is a far more normal girl than Patricia Montelli ever was, with a circle of friends she takes to the red room that was the childhood hiding place for she and her twin brother Ronnie Jr. (John Robinson), aka "Butch." Butch himself doesn't come across half as unwieldy as Sonny; he's relatably sullen and rich with shaggy facial hair that is authentic enough to support comparisons to George Lutz. The teens have their own séance in the red room with grandma Nona's book of black magic, and one of the loutish boys breaks the ice with an Exorcist reference. But Ronnie Sr. soon poops all over their party, and goes one further in his physical abuse of his son compared to Anthony Montelli, rolling his belt around his fist and socking Butch in the nose.

Farrands does these scenes far better than Damiani did, and the DeFeo dynamic cuts deeper than the Montellis' cruel fate, especially since Amityville II writer Tommy Lee Wallace can be too nihilistic in his horror efforts (including Halloween III). The performances by Ben-Victor, Robinson and Ricketts are also given more weight compared to Young, Jack Magner and even the younger Diane Franklin. But then Butch notices his father being paid off by some organized crime types, the first in a bizarre motif, and combined with the supernatural elements introduced earlier in the red room, the focus begins to zig and zag unsatisfactorily.

Butch begins hearing those familiar white noise whispers of evil, and while he's out in the pouring rain having sex in his birthday-gifted car with Donna (Rebekah Graf), he asks for a tab of acid and experiences a violent hallucination which causes him to kick Donna out of the car. It's like a twist on the way the demon from Amityville II assumed Patricia's form to accuse Adamsky of lechery. But then the camera pans up to that 112 Ocean Avenue architecture, with those lit rooms as staring eyes. And I have to admit, though it is an image to remember, I was getting a bit worried about the film's catchall ambiguity.

The next morning, Louise learns whilst collecting laundry that Butch has been kicked out of college. If that weren't enough, she comes across heroin paraphernalia and a diary full of ominous ink blots in Butch's nightstand. All the while, the house is creaking and sputtering like it's announcing complicity in these antisocial revelations; a pigeon even kamakazies itself against the door, and Louise is ready to bash it with a rock until it dies on its own. Cut to Halloween 1974. We get a fraction of time to know the youngest of the DeFeo children (one of the more undernourished aspects of the story) before sickly Butch is left alone with his demons and is presumed to have trashed the house, with the familiar inscription of "PIG" on a mirror and dad's dirty money missing from the safe.

THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS pursues this alternating structure I've attended to quite stoically, with scenes of domestic quarrel giving way to worn-out tropes involving Ouija boards, levitating bed sheets and creeping Steadicams. At some point, I wanted more for these very good actors to do than to just go through the same traveling roadshow haunted house. Even Diane Franklin herself, who makes Louise incredibly gorgeous even at her most dowdy. Her face has unmistakably aged, and it will come as a shock to those who idealized Diane's younger appearances, but it's a dignified and darling process in her case. The stage is set for the adult performance Diane Franklin never gave after leaving fickle showbiz at the start of the 1990s. But Louise is another relatively thankless role, her interactions with other characters mostly shows of fretful hysteria. Diane's innate charisma and playfulness kind of gets the shaft (even in Amityville II, there were moments where she grabbed your heart away from the sleaziness), and there is a potential for depth that is compromised. That regal portrait of Louise I showed earlier never rubs off on the script.

It takes 48 minutes before Butch finally picks up that shotgun for the first time, stirred by his dad's callous abuse of Dawn (she is bent over the kitchen table to make a lewd point to her “hippie” friends) and Louise (whose hands are scalded by boiling water and whose stomach takes a sharp elbowing). Daniel Farrands' slow burn approach is admittedly far superior to the Amityville II school of smash-and-grab plotting, and that outburst is followed by Louise's portentous monologue of togetherness ("I see the end coming. A terrible, beautiful end"). All of a sudden, Diane Franklin kills it, especially in the way Louise, who is ready to pack up and take the kids, calls out her pious husband for misplaced religious beliefs ("Butch is not the devil, he's your son!").

Dawn is also distressed enough to want to spirit her brother to safety, given that dad would rather send him to Bellevue. The $500,000 of lost mob money turns up as Butch slides further into dementia, walking around empty rooms as shadowy figures stalk him. We all know where this is going, and if the film wants to leave us with the visceral gut punch of the mass killings, the story needs to demonstrate economy. Instead, we get a loopy "last supper" from which Dawn is absent and the grisly visions keep negging him, his family coming across as refugees from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and escape being magically impossible. The film can't stop dawdling, producing a numbing effect that actively negates the real tensions that have kept the thin plot afloat. There are moments of psychological unease that needed to be drastically streamlined.

When the inevitable finally occurs, and those poor souls sleeping with their faces down get blown away, the result is sloppy. Louise dies with rosary clutched in hand, but the symbolism is unearned, and the pain I would've felt at the murder of Dawn DeFeo is equally undone. If it hasn't already been inferred, Farrands winds up with too much inconsistency that it undercuts his fascination with this true story, trying to stay true to the Amityville brand while reminding us that barbarism, indeed, begins at home. Thus, the true finale of the film is not the collage of vintage newsreels and photos of the DeFeos, but the introduction of the house to the Lutz family, thus handing over the mantle to a far more dubious reality.

It's all so much and yet too half-baked to digest. I felt the same way about The Last American Virgin, which couldn't square the overbearingly smug juvenile humor with the soppy attempt to humanize its teen cartoons. It just didn't really possess true integrity for that tonal shift, and I am left similarly puzzled by THE AMITYVILLE MURDERS. And I honestly believe Farrands to be the better filmmaker, too. I'm not anticipating the Sharon Tate and Nicole Brown Simpson movies by any measure, but I am thankful he didn't make such a travesty to compare with Amityville II: The Possession. His touch, however, is heavy-handed when compared to a movie like The Id, and more rigid in structure. It's not the CG phenomena or the rampant tackiness of its DTV-level period recreations that strains my critical eye. It's the poor form.

And thus I end up looking forward to Diane Franklin in the future once again. Given all that has gone wrong, chances are it'll be I stumble upon her next movie by serendipity, or at least I hope to given I disconnected from so many circles, hers included. I keep yearning for some kind of happy return, but the last time I tried, it was the bane of my battered soul. And it still haunts me. But Diane Franklin was never the problem, because her support has kept me going for the longest time. If this is to be my birthday present to a woman who values my friendship, I have to end it by wishing her a great 58 and to make one more wish for myself on April 3.

Diane Franklin, I hope to rediscover you through all this masquerade and somehow stay in a state of grace with you. I believe there's a ghost of a chance. R.I.P. Neil Peart, and Happy Birthday, Dear Diane.

(P.S. I hope those who get those that particular Rush reference will make the connection to Better Off Dead.)

Monday, August 12, 2019

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)

(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

(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

(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: