Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Ice Cream Man + Disconnected

(R, A-Pix Entertainment, 86 mins., video release date: May 9,1995)

(R, Generic Films, , 84 mins., video release date: July 1984)

Vinegar Syndrome's triumphant release of Liquid Sky in its first genuine digital video incarnation (Arrow Video, eat your heart out) was one of three Black Friday 2017 exclusives at their online store. I've procured copies of the other two after being wowed by Slava Tsukerman's cult film, and while the movies are nowhere near as essential as Liquid Sky, Vinegar Syndrome have issued them with similar TLC and are a boutique label to adore for their efforts.

To be true, neither Norman Apstein's ICE CREAM MAN nor Gorman Bechard's DISCONNECTED are particularly cosmic discoveries. The former not only has the misfortune of being reissued following Andy Muschietti's successful adaptation of the adolescent chapters of Stephen King's It, but is also the sole skin-proof effort from porn stalwart Norman Paul Apstein. The latter is a student film from the future director of Psychos in Love, whose acquisition by Vinegar Syndrome has allowed Disconnected the luxury of escaping the obscurity to which it has long been confined. 

Ice Cream Man presents Clint Howard in his first headline role since 1982's Evilspeak, when he was in his early 20s and already settling into his storied career as the king of the celebrity sibling B-actors. This was undoubtedly the ironic thought process when MTV bestowed upon Clint their Lifetime Achievement Award at their 1998 movie-based ceremony, but it happily backfired thanks to Clint's sincere acceptance speech. He was in the same pantheon as Godzilla, Chewbacca and Jason Voorhees, but also Jackie Chan, Richard "Shaft" Roundtree and The Three Stooges. The joke forever deflated, Clint Howard was instead allowed his rightful legacy as a genre icon.

And Ice Cream Man, which made its "world television premiere" the following year on TNT's MonsterVision with drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs (a.k.a. John Bloom), is a better showcase for Clint's oddball charisma than the revenge fantasy of Evilspeak. Although his hairline receded faster than Phil Collins, his facial features hardened to perfection in adulthood. Squinty-eyed and scowling, Clint resembles a baby-faced Larry Drake. He also blew his vocal cords in preparation for each take, the resulting rasp a wonderfully OTT counterpart to his deranged countenance. He goes all the way so as to deliver such lines as "Not every day is a happy, happy, happy day" with the respect they deserve. When he digresses towards soft-shoe shuffling and grisly puppetry, Clint is still no less the proper combination of diabolical and entertaining.

Norman Apstein (of the Edward Penishands series, which is no joke) and screenwriters David (The Wedding Crashers) Dobkin and Sven (one-flick wonder) Davison are less assured in their method than Clint. Story creator Dobkin may have intended a sick-humored Pied Piper update for the Spielberg Generation, but at least Clint Howard can claim biological rights to his derivations from brother Ron. The child's eye perspective of the story is muddled, to say the least, with hackneyed parent drama (fundamentalism and infidelity) and conflicting characterizations of the titular menace. It may do wonders for Clint Howard's range to go from affectionately retarded loner to wisecracking novelty maniac, but it robs the film of any believable danger.

It's ludicrous from the get-go, as little Gregory Tudor finds his neighborhood ice cream vendor gunned down for reasons undefined and is placed in psychiatric care at Wishing Well, a Funland for the criminally insane where Gregory's prescribed alternating doses of brain-freezing treats and mind-altering drugs. Released under the custody of Nurse Wharton (Olivia Hussey, who is certifiably ageless), Clint Howard's Gregory resumes the practice of the late Butch Brickle while adding a secret ingredient in his hand-picked hard pack which draws the flies and cockroaches to nestle in the containers. Woe onto thee who ask for a cherry on top.

This sounds like it should be a hoot, with the toy piano jingle heralding the unpacking of icky delights for the local brats, particularly the four which form The Rocketeers. When one of them, the brainy Small Paul (Macaulay clone Mikey LeBeau), is abducted by the friendless Gregory, the remaining trio (Justin Isfeld of American Pie semi-fame as Johnny, voiceover pro Anndi McAfee as Heather, JoJo Adams plus obvious pillow padding as the husky Tuna) try to obtain proof of Gregory's malevolence as a pair of detectives (Jan-Michael Vincent, Lee Majors Jr.) follow a hunch which leads back to the supposedly harmless ex-inmate. But Apstein, who was initially chasing a PG-13 rating even with three severed heads and a joke involving a dead tramp's diaphragm, is insufficiently sordid despite his adults-only past.

The flavorful cast also includes David Warner as Heather's preacher dad, David Naughton & Sandahl Bergman as Tuna's splintered parents and a few more less accomplished but familiar names from the realms of sports, TV and Apstein's true vocation. But despite their efforts as well as those of the principal child performers, Ice Cream Man is still curiously soupy. Vinegar Syndrome's DVD includes the actual MonsterVision "Summer School" broadcast of Ice Cream Man, with Joe Bob Briggs interviewing Clint Howard during commercial breaks. TNT's work was cut out for them, given editor André Vaillancourt's frequent use of fade-to-black scene transitions which also suggests Apstein may have been shooting straight for cable.

Thankfully, Clint Howard has one or two scenes above marginal interest. There's a moment where Gregory visits the grave of his fallen hero and tries to pay respects with the most appetizing ice cream cone on show throughout the entire movie. His feelings get hurt upon hearing (to himself) Butch Brickle's spirit as well as those of his cemetery neighbors: "You guys having a party?" Howard elevates the material with his hearty good humor (ahem) even as the writers fail to ply him with a decent catchphrase; I groaned twice when he opened his mouth during the abduction of Tuna.

Still, for all its low-cal silliness, Ice Cream Man landed a minor cult following, one which sadly wasn't enough to warrant a proposed sequel in a 2014 Kickstarter campaign. Disconnected was a strictly regional effort filmed in Waterbury, Connecticut (budget: $40,000; camera: Bolex 16mm) and soon relegated to the kind of VHS rental shops its main character works at. She is Alicia (Frances Raines), a lonely young woman whose life devolves into a low-budget horror film, to borrow an observation from a different character. An elderly stranger vanishes mysteriously from her apartment after he's invited in, but eventually her mind plays greater tricks on her. Alicia has dumped her boyfriend of two years, Mike (Carl Koch), under suspicion of cheating on her with her twin sister Barbara Ann (Raines), who has been long been sabotaging Alicia's love life. Since then, she's been inundated with what seem to be prank calls bombarding her with shrill white noise.

There's also a sex maniac on the loose, which might explain those creepy calls, but who actually turns up in person at Alicia's job asking for a date. He's Franklin (Mark Walker), the kind of introvert who is likely to exclaim "see ya, bye" as one word instead of three. But we see the threat he poses her when he butchers a pick-up to the tune of XTC's "Complicated Game," of all songs. The movie begins and ends with Aussie rock legends Hunters & Collectors' 1982 single "Talking to a Stranger" (also heard in Brian Trenchard-Smith's Dead End Drive-In from 1986) for bonus alt rock cred, and future Hollywood composer/album producer Jon Brion appears with power-pop outfit The Excerpts (whose "You Don't Love Me" plays throughout) after the smartest guy in the room name-drops Talking Heads and Elvis Costello. And if you own Haysi Fantayzee's eternally oddball Battle Hyms for Children Singing LP, guess which cut ends up used as a tool of seduction in Disconnected (it isn't "John Wayne Is Big Leggy").

Given that Gorman Bechard would go on to direct Color Me Obsessed, a fan's-eye view of Minneapolis cult rockers The Replacements (surely one of my all-time favorite bands), these aren't hollow hipster throwaways. In fact, they seem as off-kilter as the film's narrative, which is part slasher cash-in, part ghost story and part psychological study. There's even time out for a police procedural, with Psychos in Love lead/co-writer Carmine Capobianco addressing the camera in a precursor to the Woody Allen flourishes of that future bad taste treat. Bechard edits these strands together for all the maximum disorientation his shoestring budget can afford, which isn't very much. He gooses up the soundtrack with enough screeches and portentous sound effects as compensation.

Mark Walker, a veteran of Canadian productions who previously starred in Cronenberg's Rabid, is suitably creepy even in agonizingly long takes of dialogue. But the real draw for '80s exploitation experts is Frances Raines (Claude's niece) in her only lead role, which also happens to be a double. Best known for The Mutilator and a handful of porn purveyor Tim Kincaid's schlock (Breeders yes, Robot Holocaust no), Raines is groomed by Bechard as the '80s B-movie answer to a Hitchcock heroine rather than your standard "final girl." As Alicia, Raines handles the ambiguously disorienting material with reactive aplomb, whereas Barbara Ann allows her to dolly up her voice, curl her hair and enthusiastically deliver some of the requisite nudity.

Bechard provides a couple of twists in the mundane murder plot, from the lecherous and rude customer who ends up dating Barbara Ann to the resolution of Alicia and Franklin's sex scene. There's still only so much he can do with the means at his disposal, as when the sun is glaring right onto the camera lens for a good 45 seconds or his lifelessly static shots even during the police's showdown with Franklin. Making allowances for the shift in plot nearly an hour into this 84-minute feature debut, there are still points in the movie which drag in the familiar style of most outré, student-directed micro movies. What virtues Disconnected possesses are mostly in music and minutiae: the cutaway to a Groucho Marx doll, the posters on Alicia's living room walls (one, naturally, for Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry), a second Hunters & Collectors track played on the radio, the DJ announcing Cheapskate Records selling X's More Fun in the New World album for $5.99 before queuing "the #1 song in the country," The Excerpts' "Death in Small Doses," to soundtrack Alicia's weepy relapse back into isolated terror.

What both Ice Cream Man and Disconnected have going for them in the long run are their eccentricities, from Clint Howard's dominating performance to the bizarre if well-scored mulligan stew of horror tropes Gorman Bechard cooks up. Vinegar Syndrome have given both films renewed purpose on Blu-Ray with 2k transfers, sourced from original negatives, that bury all previous tape and disc presentations. Ice Cream Man has its share of gauzy lighting but is also presented with a clarity and attention to detail which belies whatever statements I made about it being worthy of a cable TV creation. This 1.85:1 widescreen image is consistently as cool as its confectionary namesake. Disconnected, digitally scanned from "16mm vault elements," can't help but look hazier, grainier and more dated by comparison. But rescued from full-frame purgatory as it is, there is much to admire about Frances Raines' luminous looks and dresses. Flesh tones are actually solid all around, and there are plenty of rich colors outside of Carmine Capobianco's Hawaiian shirts.

Ice Cream Man has an equally above-average DTS-HD 2.0 audio mix, whereas Disconnected is pitched at monaural 1.0 with all its limitations on display, especially in regards to speech and song cues (not hearing XTC and Hunters & Collectors in glorious stereo is a crying shame). Luckily, each package has their proper bounty of bonuses. Bechard & Capobianco reunite for Disconnected's audio commentary track as well as provide individual video testimonies. Capobianco, who comes across as a cuddlier Joe Spinell, seems to retain pictographic memory of the locations as well as a jovial presence which complements Bechard, whose recollections have become fuzzier with age. The biggest surprise is the inclusion of Bechard's initial foray into documentary filmmaking, the hour-long Twenty Questions (1987), as well as footage from its premiere at the 2017 New Haven Film Festival. In it, a diverse group of Waterbury citizens attempt to answer intimate questions from 20 flash cards, surrounded by magazines and TV sets which air sensational clips from Bechard's own filmography. One visual artist is as stumped as anyone having to simply name five books: "The Great Gatsby...is that a book?"

As for Ice Cream Man, you can watch the movie as it was aired on TNT's MonsterVision (clocking in at two hours even with minor copyright-minded edits), with Clint Howard dishing out amiable anecdotes as well as fielding Joe Bob's questions about past glories in Evilspeak and The Wraith. It's interesting to note that only a couple instances of gore had to be censored, specifically the disposal of a dog. Howard also appears in a contemporary interview, as do Norman Apstein (who passably handles the audio commentary gig) and producer David Goldstein. All three are candidly critical of the movie and/or the pressures of the production, especially Goldstein. His seven-minute piece is so full of disgust that Clint Howard, who also provided set photos for a stills gallery, is allowed to be the hero for the first time since I saw him on MTV.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Flatliners (2017)

(PG-13, Columbia Pictures, 109 mins., theatrical release date: Sept. 29, 2017)

Did you know that when you die, apparently your spirit leaves your body and swoops down the same CG cityscape as seen in the current HBO Feature Presentation bumper. That's all there is to learn from the 2017 revival of the previously-discussed Flatliners. I'm not fond of Joel Schumacher's 1990 brood feast in an everlasting way, but at least it once played on HBO with a minute-long introduction (in SPACE!) which earns its nostalgia. There are no specs rosy enough to make the new model seem appealing now let alone in 2044.

Schumacher had been a fickle, flippant filmmaker throughout the entire 1980s (following the "hip" ensemble dramedy St. Elmo's Fire with the "hip" ensemble horromedy The Lost Boys), whereas Niels Arden Oplev at least has the original 2009 adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to his credit. But it hasn't been a good year for Tomas (Let the Right One In) Alfredson let alone Oplev, on top of everything else you can think of going wrong in 2017. Screenwriter Ben Ripley adapts Peter Filardi's original story, but he's not at Source Code efficiency this time. Despite his user friendly surname, Ripley is slumming it in a dimwitted regression to the DTV half of the Species saga he began with.

Full disclosure: I needed the fast-forward button on my DVD player to keep me from death by boredom. Flatliners runs a grueling two hours thanks to protracted, derivative scenes of creeping terror but still manages graceless transitions and a dearth of investment. Oprev and Ripley ignored the notion that flatlining creates the kind of rush which one character suggests should be bottled and sold as a "club drug." Theirs is instead a sleepy-time depressant you swig once the party's over.

Kiefer Sutherland re-emerges from Schumacher's gothic amber playing not the older version of ringleader Nelson Wright, but instead an inconsequential cameo as the movie's Dr. House, "Woolfson." It's Ellen Page as Courtney Holmes who assumes Nelson's obsession with the afterlife nine years after drowning her kid sister Tessa in a texting-while-driving wreckage. Courtney strong-arms second year womanizer Jamie (James Norton) and the fearfully studious Sophia (Kiersey Clemons) into assisting her two-minute demise. The Oliver Platt-like outsider is Diego Luna's morally assertive yet mischievous Ray, and our Julia Roberts manqué is the woeful Nina Dobrev as Marlo.

Working in the basement of their hospital in order to take advantage of a functioning MRI machine, they competitively stop their hearts by lowering their body temperature via a cooling jacket and receiving a fatal hit from the defibrillator. Courtney claims that her astral projection was actually "a little sexual," but good luck sensing this based on the screensaver visuals Oprev preserves. The carnality is strictly TV-PG, as Sophia has a vigorous if ridiculous tryst with Jamie and moony Ray confesses his love to Marlo. Save for Ray, the resurrected med students tap into repressed mental faculties whether it's book knowledge or bread recipes or, in the 25-year-old Sophia's case, standing up to her mother, who demands she Win At All Costs.

Sure enough, they also dredge up their guiltiest secrets in the form of vengeful apparitions. Courtney is haunted by the Samara-style ghost of her sibling. Player Jamie, instead of being shamed by all of his conquests a la Billy Baldwin, is pestered by one long-lost lover he deserted upon impregnating. And in a racial inverse of Kevin Bacon's sin, it's black Sophia who humiliated a smarter schoolmate by hacking and dissembling her naked photos. This entails the same quest for forgiveness as before, but only after one of them is flatlined permanently by his/her demon.

The urgency of their predicament is euthanized by the deadening ways in which they go about killing themselves and then celebrate their complicated resuscitations with slow-mo hedonism before their interminable torment by Paranormal Activity spooks. Flatliners has no soul to lose. Without visuals worthy of Jan de Bont's breathtaking cinematography from the original, the numbing cycle instead comes on like probable outtakes from Platinum Dunes' A Nightmare on Elm Street 2. Schumacher, for all his flaws, was at least wittily portentous and filmed the original's crises of conscience with variety and elegance. Oprev's Flatliners has no identity of its own away from the most crushingly familiar of "quiet...quiet...BANG!" exploitation.

Even more so than the original, there is a airbrushed vacancy to the characters' games of one-upsmanship and their ability to function as promising healers. Though Courtney and Jamie come out of the experience with amazing powers of diagnosing rare diseases and administering life-saving drugs, I didn't feel the overriding sense of real, irresponsible danger in these egotistic tests. There's no mortality to their madness, and whatever invigoration they get from playing chicken with death doesn't seem worth the possibility of brain damage or psychological instability or terminal malpractice.

Flatliners flits from one half-assed conceptual triviality to another, freed from gravity just like its cast during those out-of-body experiences. Not since posing as Kitty Pryde for disgraced hack Brett Ratner has Ellen Page been so egregiously squandered. Diego Luna (has it already been 16 years since Y Tu Mamá También?) and Kiersey Clemons (a comedic charmer as seen in Neighbors 2) have too proven themselves overqualified for this tedium, which is more than can be said for small screen ciphers Nina Dobrev and James Norton. The work Oplev and Ripley have done could've been accomplished by any slumming work-for-hires toiling under the Screen Gems banner. There's nothing exquisitely tricky or emotional to make their Flatliners come alive, just 110 minutes which transition into rigor mortis early on and never lets up. It's the kind of stiff which you don't so much as review as perform an autopsy on. And with so many people trying to look on the bright side of a downer year, the sooner we bag and tag Flatliners '17, the better.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Liquid Sky

(R, Cinevista, 112 mins., U.S. theatrical release date: April 15, 1983)

It's a rare but welcome surprise when a cult film manages to trip you up. Midnight movie masses tend to flock towards the most inept, most earnestly dreadful movies ever brought to fruition, so the discovery of one which actually is novel and assured rather than derivative and amateurish is something I celebrate. James Nguyen is a hero to the Rifftrax audience, and Tommy Wiseau has his own Ed Wood treatment thanks to James Franco. But I was burnt out with both Birdemic and The Room instantly because they don't reward ritualistic viewing thanks to being both hopelessly shoddy and thematically sloppy. They exist purely for ironic pleasure, and this is one of the biggest turn-offs I have developed in response to a world of online criticism where arch glad-handing has allowed mediocrity to thrive in the places where genuinely great films deserve to occupy.

Liquid Sky is a deathlessly kinky anomaly in a cult movie pantheon that often requires neon signs advertising a film's ineptitude to get recognized. It's safe to say Liquid Sky has osmosed itself into fringe appreciation, especially when you ponder the inspiration for such musical provocateurs as Peaches and Lady Gaga. But I have the hardest time trying to explain Liquid Sky categorically. Is it a new wave Ms. 45 via Paul Morrissey and David Cronenberg? What do I make of a glamorous lead actress who plays a supporting role in male drag? Are the performance art take-offs embellished satire or another stretch at anthropological authenticity? How do I deal with the micro-plots involving a deadbeat junkie husband and a Jewish TV producer seducing a German astrophysicist? Are the heat vision visual effects transcendent of their shoestring appearance?

When a movie raises that many questions, my instinct is to watch it over and over looking for my own answers. And Liquid Sky hit me with that laser beam, in 1980s parlance, relaxing me with its deadpan charms enough to let the film's casual cruelty and "fashionable" desperation swirl around in my mind instead of slapping me upside the head. Conceived by Russian émigrés in tandem with an American performance artist, Liquid Sky is at once inside and outside the nihilistic DayGlo pageantry of the post-punk club scene. There is heroin, rape, catfighting, necrophilia, and enough free-floating hostility to make George Carlin seem like a pussycat. It's also visually and aurally sumptuous.

Liquid Sky takes place in the span of one day, and Slava Tsukerman labors to preserve a more unique portrait of New York than usual when compared to its seedier contemporaries. The Empire State Building is viewed as a shrine in the glow of golden hour cinematography. Not content with mere aerial shots, Tsukerman manages fresh footage of an airplane landing and makes the most of the window and rooftop motifs. The city streets are reassuringly heavy with traffic during lunchtime, and there is a dazzling make-up session conducted under black light that epitomizes the richness of the primary colors. There is also a nightclub sequence near the end which is rendered more extraterrestrial than the requisite UFO, which is no larger than a dinner plate and inconspicuously settles atop an apartment building cluttered with empty bottles and crates.

The alien craft is drawn to the penthouse suite occupied by model Margaret (Anne Carlisle: Desperately Seeking Susan, Crocodile Dundee) and dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard: Alice, Sweet Alice) on the promise of heroin, which upon injection stimulates a chemical reaction in the brain which the aliens harvest for sustenance. Or at least so until now, as West Berlin scientist Johann Hoffman (Otto von Wernherr) has gone from noticing the bizarre pattern of deaths in drug-abusing punk circles to finding a connection involving sexual intercourse, particularly the rush of endorphins at the orgasm stage. The defiantly androgynous Margaret proves useful in the alien's mission as she is exploited by predatory soap stars, professors and failed artists, all of whom wind up with glass arrows lodged in their heads and/or vanish completely post-coitus.

Margaret was once of "Mayflower stock" before moving from Connecticut to Manhattan to pursue indoctrinated ideals of fortune, going from the notion of marrying a lawyer ("And on the weekends, we'd barbecue...") to waiting tables and wishing upon an acting agent instead. These modes of subservience and blind luck are shattered completely by the realization of her newfound power of sexual agency, which isn't limited to men. With her already outré face paint and hairdos, Margaret reaches the depths of her alienation even before she is emboldened to snatch a naive mate off the Danceteria floor ("Be nice to your audience") and send him off to a euphoric oblivion.

Her roommate Adrian is made of harder stuff, "concrete mazes, stone and glass." Confrontational and vulgar, this child of a hospitalized mother who once baptized a fancy restaurant with her urine is more of an outspoken nihilist than Margaret, who still retains tokens of gentle femininity (even when she turns primal, she's essentially Fay Wray as King Kong). Though she talks about relocating to Berlin, the European hub of glam culture and creative freedom, nothing becomes Adrian so much as her decadent New York environment. Whether reciting a ferocious poem devoted to her rhythm box ("It is preprogrammed/So what?/Who of your friends is not?") or writhing sensually atop the corpse of Margaret's acting teacher Owen (casting director Bob Brady), Adrian takes to being one of the damned with sardonic, sickening relish.

Trafficking in smack, Adrian's most pathetic client is Margaret's boyish opposite number, Jimmy. He latches onto Margaret at the start just so he can raid her apartment looking for the fix he can't afford, and proceeds to act even nastier to her as they share photo shoots. Anne Carlisle gender bends in the grand tradition of David Bowie by playing both these rival models, with trick photography and seamless doubles allowing them to be within striking distance of each other. As Jimmy, Carlisle flashes a 1000 watt sneer and takes cues from the Bowie/Ferry image of the debutante, slicked blonde hair and dapper tuxedo. The heated confrontation near the end between Margaret and Jimmy, where she is goaded into performing oral sex on the spiteful Jimmy, has to be seen to be believed.

The interactions between Margaret, Jimmy, Adrian, and the overbearing types courting them (from cocaine-huffing designers and their catty underlings to snooty reporters) are highly vitriolic comedy. Jimmy mocks Margaret by referring to her as an "ugly chicken" and steps on her toes, and her sadomasochistic response is to flatter his enabled ego as "the most beautiful boy in the world." Margaret is constantly defensive of her colorful style, as when Owen chastises her for looking like a hooker despite his history of wearing blue jeans as his own form of theatrical rebellion ("You thought your jeans stood for love, freedom and sexual equality while we at least know we're in costume"). Adrian's eulogy for the horny professor is delightfully profane and bitter ("You dropped dead fucking! It suits you well..."). And when Margaret is assaulted for the first time by soap opera hunk Vincent (Jack Adalist), who forces Quaaludes down her throat to render her docile, she resists with dry gusto. Incidentally, I didn't realize until a second viewing that Vincent would return later in the movie when Margaret accepts that there is one more score to settle.

Luckily, not all the humor is that black. Otto von Wernherr is endearingly straight as Dr. Hoffman, who asks his colleague Owen "How can I study the behavior of this creature if it's on private property?" His failed attempt to warn the defensive Adrian of the alien invasion is misinterpreted as a narco threat. And when he finds suitable space to conduct his studies, it's with Jimmy's mother Sylvia (Susan Doukas), the aforementioned Semite who works in television and throws herself at the duty-minded Donald Sutherland analog with an arsenal of playful bon mots ("You have protection from aliens? You have a laser gun in your pants?"). These lighter touches are effective counterpoints to the vagina dentata exhortations of Margaret, whose sci-fi venereal disease may arouse connotations with the then-nameless AIDS epidemic which was claiming hundreds of lives as early as 1982.

Credit joint screenwriters Slava Tsukerman, Nina Kerova (Tsukerman's longstanding wife) and Ms. Carlisle herself that Liquid Sky, while unavoidably rough due to a filming budget of less than $500,000, is never stilted or cloddish. Even as Tsukerman and DP Yuri Neyman seek to dazzle you with their ace location photography and vivid lighting, the characters in Liquid Sky possess inner lives and aggressive personalities. Margaret, jaded as she is, is played by Anne Carlisle with a voice as enthralling as her appearance. Paula E. Sheppard finds the sexiness in Adrian's hippie-gone-hostile patois. And the snide monotone Carlisle adopts for Jimmy is its own comic reward: when Sylvia tries to offer him a ride uptown, he matter-of-factly states "No, I'm going down."

Tsukerman also helped out on the film's eccentric score, composed on a Fairlight CMI handily available for public access at a library. This pricey synthesizer, which was big among experimental musicians for its ability to program natural sounds as musical notes (think Peter Gabriel's fourth album and Kate Bush on The Dreaming), allowed for variations on new and existing melodies, sometimes coming across as harsh (in that traditionally fast, processed "new wave" style) and other times gentle (bell-like and carnivalesque at a stately pace). He even feeds spoken dialogue into the keyboard for added disorientation, particularly the point where Margaret is taunted by all sides, especially from Jimmy, at her last modeling gig.

Liquid Sky has been a hard movie to come by, but Vinegar Syndrome offered a limited edition BD/DVD combo package (3000 units total) which sold out fast over the 2017 Black Friday shopping weekend. Restored from 35mm elements and remastered in 4k resolution, Liquid Sky is a revelation even if you only check out some of the screen caps posted at the AV Club. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle discuss the film in brand new interviews as well as an Alamo Drafthouse Q&A session (co-composer Clive Smith is also in attendance), although their commentary track is disappointing; recorded in what appears to be another apartment room, there are stretches of awkward silence which last for minutes where it would've been better to revert back to the soundtrack proper. The best option of all these bonuses is the 50-minute Liquid Sky Revisited, which boasts a wider array of participants (Kerova, Neyman, Doukas, and many more) as well as the chance to see Carlisle revisit shooting locations. The nightclub no longer stands, but I smiled knowing that a Petco has taken its place.

Liquid Sky has fast become one of my favorite movies of the 1980s. Here's hoping this alien artifact touches down again in a reissue format.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Crush + The Hand


(R, Warner Bros. Pictures, 89 mins., theatrical release date: April 2, 1993)

There's an old maxim about horror movies and thrillers where one's enjoyment is directly proportional to the grandiosity of the villain. How many of the most beloved hair-raisers can you recall which were as good as their principal antagonist? Die Hard remains a towering inferno of a popcorn pic largely because of Alan Rickman's deceitfully debonair Hans Gruber, whose propensity to praise designer suits in one moment and then blow someone's brains out the next brought out the fiery urgency in the equally interesting hero, John McClane. In the Line of Fire worked a similar magic between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich (Cyrus the Virus, anyone?), and who can forget Hannibal Lecter even after all those inferior spin-offs? There's even poker-faced appreciation of such slasher behemoths as Freddy, Jason and Leatherface, mythical characters who were never meant to be relatable to in the first place. The Crush wants to be on that plain so badly, you can hear writer/director Alan Shapiro's back snap like chilled celery at his self-elevation. 
His anti-heroine is certainly a familiar type even by the lax standards of 1993, where Drew Barrymore graduated to femme fatale (cf: Poison Ivy) and Amy Fisher was a gossip rag fixture. But what really got me interested in revisiting The Crush reaches past an entire decade prior to Shapiro's film (and the year before my birth date), way back when a TV movie called Summer Girl premiered on CBS. That Diane Franklin vehicle casts a large shadow over every and all subsequent film I will ever see involving a teenage girl whose sexuality is so sociopathic, it threatens to expose the adult victims as even more childish than their adolescent tormentor.

And thanks to Shapiro, I've never felt more confident about such a generalization in my entire life, because The Crush is just that shallow.

This has nothing to do with nostalgia in regards to Alicia Silverstone, who rode MTV's gravy train to It Girl super-stature on the back of this film. Surely, I can remember seeing Aerosmith's string of Get a Grip video singles ("Cryin‘" and "Crazy" and "Amazing") knowing full well that the blonde starlet anchoring them was the joint winner of the network's trophies Best Breakthrough Performance and Best Villain for her portrayal of  "Adrian" Forrester. And I grew up watching Silverstone's career reach the heights of Clueless and plumb the depths of Batman & Robin. And once Blast from the Past with Brendan Fraser came and went, so did Ms. Silverstone, making way for Reese Witherspoon and fading into the ether of '90s kid memories just like Diane Franklin at the end of the '80s.

More important is that The Crush occupies that nutty boom in Hollywood post-Fatal Attraction involving that most programmable of stock villains, the Deranged Interloper. I saw it in Pacific Heights, The Good Son and a dozen other movies involving crazed lovers, roomies, policemen, and nannies. There was hardly anything subversive about them except for their vocation, concocting cheap paranoia among the upwardly-mobile who had every reason to believe their temp secretary or their fruit-of-the-loom progeny were out to get them. The Crush is the jailbait-next-door equivalent of those films, and as good a reason as the death of the music video to feel upset stomach at the rise of MTV as pop culture gatekeeper.

Alicia Silverstone's first-time luck is certainly more fascinating than anything in The Crush, including the central character. While MTV and Fangoria latched onto her star, nobody in 1993 was singing the praises of Cary Elwes, not even with the forthcoming release of Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a deliberate echo of the goofy charm Elwes demonstrated in The Princess Bride. The Londoner was instead saddled with one of the weakest lead roles in cinematic history, his "hero-victim" Nick Eliot being the epitome of complicit dullardry. A bespectacled milquetoast and journalistic writer of the teensiest skill evident, Nick nevertheless cruises out to Seattle once hired for Pique magazine, a coastal tabloid whose managing editor (Matthew Walker) thinks his investigative talents are esteemed enough to land an interview with a notorious embezzler. He finds suitable living and working residence in the guest house of Cliff and Liv Forrester (Kurtwood Smith, Gwynyth Walsh), but nearly mows down their 14-year-old daughter Adrian before setting one foot on their property.

Nick's apparent detriments of intuition and acclimation come into greater focus once Adrian starts making her play on the dopey if handsome writer. No review would be complete without mentioning that Silverstone's character was named Darian when the movie initially circulated, based on a genuine underage suitor Alan Shapiro had the misfortune of attracting. The real life Darian's parents threatened to sue James G. Robinson, thus the name was changed to protect the guilty for subsequent television and home video releases, including its BD debut from Shout! Factory. Soundalike actors dubbed all instances of the name "Darian" and an obvious insert appears at one point, although those who still have eagle eyes at the end will notice one slip. And the theatrical trailer has yet to be tampered with, either on disc or YouTube.

Anyway, "Adrian" (quotes will be dropped as long as you know who I'm actually referring to) is half of Nick's 28 years and the Valley Girl as bookish overachiever, with advanced knowledge of entomology, equestrianism and classical piano performance. It's hard to watch The Crush in any format and not see Cher Horowitz shoehorned into the role of a lonely, disturbed prodigal child, albeit one with a truly Californian hardbody Shapiro ogles in scantily-clad close-ups to the tune of Auto & Cherokee's "Taste," which was previously heard in the end credits of Stay Tuned minus the female moans. This happens after she has stolen a kiss and sucked Nick's fingers whilst assuring him "Don't be afraid of me." She even calls him up to taunt him with the phrase "I got my period," getting a rise out of Nick despite no actual puppy sex going on.

Teasing is the nature of Adrian's game, as when Nick sneaks into her bedroom looking for a missing photograph and hides in her closet while she disrobes for a bath. He bumbles further, she turns around and flashes him full frontal with a grin. Making a break for the front door, Nick is greeted by Cliff Forrester, who takes him up to the attic where his failed childhood present, a restored carousel, sits in neglect while he does the usual possessive daddy shtick with a pair of pliers. Forget about the name change: this doting fruitcake of a father alone seems more like a lynchpin for legal matters. No wonder Kurtwood Smith's insult of choice on That '70s Show was "dumbass."

When voyeurism fails to sway him, Adrian gets really steamed and scratches an obscene word onto Nick's snazzy car. Having screwed herself out of any future acts of endearment, she erases the floppy disk containing his deadline interview with the reclusive embezzler after having successfully rewritten his previous article. In the single most ludicrous moment of this consistently overheated film, Nick realizes Adrian's sabotage during a staff meeting, drives all the way back to his house, calls out for Adrian, wanders into the girl's candlelit shrine to him in the basement, gets duly creeped out, seals up the basement with hammer and nails, rewrites the entire article from memory whilst ignoring Adrian's desperate phone calls, drives all the way back to the office, and arrives with his salvaged article well before sundown. We see that Nick had asked his photographer girlfriend Amy Maddk (Jennifer Rubin: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Screamers) to stall for him, and I can only assume that she performed the same trick Winona Ryder used to wow the troops in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.

Nick sleeps with Amy, who is then attacked in her bolted-up darkroom by a hive of wily bees...erm, wasps (?) fed through her air duct in a plastic bag but reappears at the end looking just as Karen Duffy-ish as ever, if not more so. Adrian also promptly arranges the horseback "accident" of her best friend Cheyenne (Amber Benson) when she sees her attempting to warn Nick somewhere more private. Only after Nick is evicted, fired and arrested on a sexual assault charge does Cheyenne, who was clearly out of the hospital before his disgraces (and why didn't he visit her there?), does she confess to Adrian's murderous past in time for her to be tied to Mr. Forrester's prized merry-go-round for a predictably vicious, slow motion-enhanced climax. You see what I mean about the previous paragraph highlighting the film's piece de ridicule?

There will be those in the bottom-feeding world of online critics who will tell you The Crush succeeds on some dubious camp level. Don't bother. Not only does Alan Shapiro, who previously toiled in Disney's made-for-TV wing, fail to measure up to the entertainingly lurid gaslighting and dementia found in Summer Girl let alone the rabbit-stewing tension of Fatal Attraction, but The Crush is far less provocative and sexier than David Fincher's music video for Billy Idol's 1990 hit "Cradle of Love." For all her deliberate Lolita poses, Adrian emerges as another somnambulant psychotic akin to Macaulay Culkin from The Good Son. And the exceedingly passive and bland Nick is a torpid substitute for Humbert. Romanticism is evoked through another literary staple, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, both physically (a poster for the 1939 William Wyler movie adaptation) and verbally, but the contributions of first-rate cinematographer Bruce Surtees and veteran suspense composer Graeme Revell are staggeringly unambitious, tailored as they are to Shapiro's prevalent crassness.

If his autobiographical elements are to be believed, The Crush is at once embarrassing and reprehensible. Nick is a hack writer whose work is improved by the proofreading of a 14-year-old girl and who, for all his supposed snooping credentials, can't even creep inside her house without acting the fool. He seems completely devoid of moral confidence let alone common sense (these have to be voiced by Jennifer Rubin, who makes the best of her ancillary love interest role), cloddish qualities unbecoming of a mature professional and which hinder any genuine sympathy for his mounting plight. Cary Elwes' faltering American accent attests to the lack of real sophistication in Shapiro's handling of this mild-mannered victim. 

Adrian functions in a psychological vacuum just as well, nothing more or less than a vindictive brat whose fanatical devotion to Nick is, as is often the case with these movies, skin deep. Proffered as sumptuous virgin flesh ("You can taste it if you want"), Shapiro fails to establish Adrian as a social misfit from an wealthy if unhappy family and instead ratchets up the pout-lipped pathology to numbing indifference. She's a prurient sop to male vanity who makes a handy punching bag knowing you're too stupid to match wits with her. And because Elwes and Kurtwood Smith are that dense, it's naturally appalling to see Adrian taking a hit which sends her literally flying across the room.

But don't worry about a thing. Adrian gets such great psychiatric care, they don't even straitjacket her so as to prevent her from writing letters to the man whose life she tried to ruin. And there's a friendly staffer who keeps the cycle intact for the open ending. At which point, I mourned tearfully not for the direct-to-video which never was, but for the Channel Awesome episode that remains to be seen.


(R, Orion Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures, 104 mins., theatrical release date: April 24, 1981)

Oliver Stone's The Hand comes with an equally auteur-minded reputation for having aired some deep psychological sludge from the toxic waste barrel of the mind. To be fair, Stone (already having won an Oscar for his script for Midnight Express) is working from a Marc Brandel novel, The Lizard's Tail, whose bitter aftertaste was too strong not to fester into the movie adaptation. And given the choice between The Hand and The Crush, I'll take Oliver Stone over Alan Shapiro in a millisecond. He directs Michael Caine to an edgy, volatile extreme that is more grounded yet cheerfully over-the-top than Alicia Silverstone was allowed. Tinges of honest humor shake up the nastiness, especially when Caine's Jon Lansdale, a displaced comic strip creator, pounces on a lucrative teaching engagement only to wind up in California's closest equivalent to Hicksville, with its redneck bar, doltish students and woodsy cabin home raring to fall down around his ears.

Sadly, The Hand has a ridiculous plotline of its own and even shakier execution that draws more from classic creature features than contemporary baby boomer thrillers. A dispute between Lansdale and his unfulfilled wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) over her relocation to New York is settled prematurely by the accidental severing of Lansdale's right hand. The appendage is lost in the nearby grass field, and Lansdale finds his career takes a similar nosedive given he's no longer able to draw anymore. His burbling resentments are reciprocated by the missing hand, which goes about killing those who have angered him. These murders proceed even after Lansdale relocates to his professor gig, and come Christmastime with his family (also including Mara Hobel from Mommie Dearest as the Lansdales' daughter), he's dreading Anne's killing at either his loose hand or its mechanical replacement.

David Cronenberg made his name on a similar demonstration of biological revenge with The Brood, but Stone gets it started only to shut it down with attack sequences worthy of Ed Wood and a mean streak at the expense of fleshing out a juicy pulp premise. It's not required that a film about a repressed man's seething anger over his dippy wife's yoga fetish and his comic strip's unauthorized overhaul try to be tactful, since it does achieve a slow-burning cauldron of rage deserving of spillage. When Annie McEnroe (Beetlejuice, Howling II) as lustful local girl Stella Roche, a checkout clerk who plays teacher's pet in a fit of boredom, gets strangled by Thing for her carnal indiscretions, it's like...sheesh, the slasher movie lives. 

The sentient hand restrains itself by not wrapping its rotting fingers around the neck of Charles Fleischer as the opportunistic "collaborator," David Maddow, who essentially overthrows Lansdale with the blessing of his agent, Karen Wagner (Rosemary Murphy). This makes Stella's demise seem all the more queasy and sexist, especially given Lansdale's grudge against Anne's self-help guru, a stereotypically fruity sensitive man. Caine's egomaniacal loner operates on a level of mental darkness that doesn't mesh with the B-movie revelation that he may himself be the real killer, an expository dump which falls upon the lovely Viveca Lindfors, guest appearing as a psychiatrist and who is as welcome here as in Creepshow and The Sure Thing.

Oliver Stone sacrifices himself by playing a drunken vagrant whose laughably convulsive death scene is made worse by the lack of a zipper on the front of his hobo pants. Needless to say, this doesn't mitigate the bilious disappointment of the ensuing movie, which doesn't earn all of its male pattern paranoia. Michael Caine, for what it's worth, remains a class actor who brings measured intensity to his character and who isn't as shouty as The Hand's reputation suggests. He did more braying in the opening scenes of Deathtrap, a better film but also a more deliberately stagy one. My own memory of The Hand is inexorably tied to viewing it Joe Bob Briggs' late night cable show MonsterVision, where the drive-in critic was caught off guard by faulty censorship during Caine's most vulgar dispute between him and Andrea Marcovicci (The Stuff, Jack the Bear). What better endorsement can you give Caine's work other than the fact that the folks at TNT were so invested in Lansdale's meltdown that they let a couple of four-letter words slide? Top that, Vincent Canby!

Stone bettered himself easily once he finally got to direct Platoon (again for Orion Pictures) and Born on the Fourth of July, projects which needed an intriguing failure like The Hand and a couple of sideline gigs for Milius and De Palma to attain some gravity as well as the all-important greenlight. The Hand tries for atmosphere even during its requisite POV shots and it all leads to nothing. At least here, as opposed to The Crush, tech levels appear to have more finesse. Can you imagine an effects team including Carlo Rambaldi, Stan Winston and Tom Burman giving it the college try? James Horner on the soundtrack, Richard Marks' editing prowess and J. Michael Riva doing the production design? Bruce McGill and Tracey Walter in supporting roles? That's my idea of Hollywood catnip if there I ever imagined such a brand.


Friday, November 17, 2017

American Nightmare + Visiting Hours

(R. Pan-Canadian Film Distributors, 88 mins., Canadian release date: Mar. 8, 1983)

(R, 20th Century Fox, 105 mins., U.S. theatrical release date: May 28, 1982)

I think it's aboot time I tackled some early 1980s Canuxploitation, including one which was a certified Video Nasty. And they do have a few things in common, particularly the presence of both Michael Ironside, the balding, scowling king amongst Canadian B-actors, and Lenore Zann, who managed to survive a career in trashy thrillers with ample amounts of voiceover work and Democratic representation for the government of Nova Scotia. There's also a lot of women being threatened with knives, if that happens to floot your boot.

If you remember that Black Christmas was a North American (read: north of the American border) production way before Halloween and Friday the 13th, then it becomes less peculiar that the slasher boom that was birthed by Carpenter and Cunningham was dotted by flicks which wore their maple leaves on their sleeve. My Bloody Valentine is at the top of my list, and David Cronenberg was undoubtedly a rising talent in the field. And then there was Paul Lynch, who was inspired by Halloween producer Irwin Yablans to make his own festive murder mystery with Laurie Strode herself in the cast, given that she was shooting Terror Train concurrently.

The result was Prom Night, the Canadian horror blockbuster of 1980 and the lynchpin for Paul Lynch's subsequent career as not only director, but also as a producer. So in addition to helming 1982's Humongous, Lynch financed American Nightmare in 1981 with Anthony Kramreither, producer of Humongous, to the sum of CAD $200,000. The film's producer, Ray Sager, was Lynch's assistant director on Humgongous and many of the other big Canadian horror films at the time, including Terror Train and My Bloody Valentine. Its screenwriter, John Sheppard, would be employed by Lynch again when it came time for Olivia d'Abo vehicles Bullies, featuring Bernie Coulson from The Accused, and Flying, which starred some kid who was in a lot of forgotten Canadian films from the mid-‘80s. I think his name was...Keanu?(!)

Composer Paul Zaza, the workhorse that he was, tinkled this out between My Bloody Valentine and whatever Bob Clark project he'd go on to score. And in addition to Ironside and Zann, I noticed the rapist from Humongous, Page "The Hitchhiker" Fletcher, playing Zann's moralist fiancé who gets interrogated by Ironside at the moment his girlfriend is prime killer bait. American Nightmare, which is often trumpeted as a Canadian giallo for those in the know, is an exploitation film whose topic is essentially exploitation. When the brother of a missing 18-year-old prostitute seeks police assistance, Sgt. Frank Skylar (Ironside) decides to let her closest friends die without any hope for protection. When said hooker's closest friend tries out for a hostess gig on a fundraising telethon, the producer demands she drop her skirt and snap off her blouse. And the truth of the girl's disappearance involves so many skeletons in the family closet that one of the more repulsive is preserved on Betamax.

The opening scene leaves us no doubt that Tanya Kelly (Alexandra Paul: Christine, Baywatch) the street name of teenage runaway Isabelle Blake, was brutally murdered by her last client despite a phone call warning her to get the hell out. So despite the Hardcore similarities when Eric (Lawrence S. Day: How Sleep the Brave) comes investigating based on a frightened letter from his estranged sister, this isn't Schrader. Tanya's slayer conveniently stalks about her squalid, graffiti-strewn apartment waiting to pick off her roommates as they return home from the strip joint they all perform at, the Club 2000. The cops are hardly concerned with the girls' safety, preferring to see them as the dregs of society, so they're easy pickings. Even the friendly transvestite next door, Dolly (Larry Aubrey: The Vindicator), inadvertently helps by not only leading the killer to the strippers' place of employment, but returning to the apartment even after one girl has been murdered there and the heroine, Louise Harmon (Lora Staley: Risky Business, Summer School), has fled after discovering the killer broke into Dolly's own room.

Eric, taking time off from his famous lot as pianist, comes to Louise for answers regarding his sister, but they are resentful of each other to melodramatically defensive extremes. Louise is such a hardened cynic, she blows off the fact that Tanya/Isabelle has been missing for 48 hours by saying "They come and they go." She assumes the blandly concerned Eric is another prudish scold and indignantly blows him off. When he tries to reconcile following the framed-as-suicide murder of Andrea (Claudia Udy: Joy), it's Eric who gets offended by Louise's decision to audition for his father Hamilton Grant's (Tom Harvey: Strange Brew, Scanners II: The New Order) telethon. Mr. Grant runs a charity program for needy children called Uni-Save, yet drove both Eric and Isabelle out of their childhood home.

Such a pussycat is Eric that he has to say he's sorry to Louise twice ("You come to a funeral to apologize?"). It isn't until Eric rips a mugger's ear off in self-defense that they both cop to feeling scared. Louise even treats him to one of her routines at the Club 2000 as well as something much better than a lap dance in a motel room. Now Eric has the sack to confront Tanya's hotheaded pimp, Fixer (Michael Copeman: The Fly, Gnaw: Food of the Gods II), for possession of the videocassette revealing what became of his sister that the killer is trying so viciously to conceal.

American Nightmare is the proto-Stripped to Kill, developing an endangered community of erotic dancers including a topless juggler as well as Lenore Zann's memorable Tina, who straddles a pitchfork as she absorbs the leery energy of the red lights. Zann, it has to be said, may have beaten Amanda Wyss to the punch as a blonde damsel-in-distress. The movie threatens to establish her as the female star by offering us an intimate argument with Page Fletcher's Mark, who hopes to marry her out of this seedy environment. Louise doesn't factor until the first scene in the ladies' dressing room, and even then she seems like an ancillary character. Zann has a tremendously fragility on her face when she scrambles for eyeshadow, ignoring Mark's further points of lovesick contention. And Tina's showdown with the killer in the empty bar, set to gleefully taunting whispers as she pops the safety corks off her stage prop, is easily the film's sterling moment.

Lenore Zann gives the film's most sensuous, compelling performance. It's no surprise director Don McBrearty (Coming Out Alive) recycles her devil-may-care stage show for a brief reprise once he's exhausted all other avenues for T&A. Second best is Larry Aubrey's Dolly, who play-acts as one of the girls without going the full monty and whose panic is the least pharmaceutically-induced and the most endearingly humorous. Lora Staley is charismatic enough, but poor Lawrence Day (not to be confused with Lawrence Dane) dredges up memories of Scanners' lead Stephen Lack in that all of his screen presence is contained within his eyes. As for the eternal Darryl Revok, "Mike" Ironside, he cuts his dependably imposing swath largely because the make-up crew have left untouched that blister-like scar above his left cheek. Playing the insensitive if gritty detective without that fanatical menace, Ironside doesn't steamroll over the rampant sleaziness of the rest of the film. 

American Nightmare was shot on 16mm in late 1981 but didn't surface on the Toronto streets where it was filmed until March of 1983. Its U.S. release the following year was straight to video via Media Home Entertainment. Michael Ironside didn't get to capitalize on his Scanners infamy until a full 16 months later when Visiting Hours premiered theatrically with major distriPorky's became the studio's biggest success story and, as Roger Ebert once put it, the era of the "Dead Teenager Movie" gave way to the "Horny Teenager Movie," equally low-rent and just as heavily criticized for sexism but with different aims.
bution clout from 20th Century Fox. By that point in 1982, a Canadian import called

Produced by the same team behind Cronenberg's splodey-head sleeper, Filmplan's Pierre David and Victor Solnicki, Visiting Hours corralled Oscar-winner Lee Grant (Shampoo) and returning Star Trek captain William Shatner and marked the English language debut of French-Canadian director Jean-Claude Lord (The Vindicator, Mindfield). It was part of a brief blip of body count films located in hospitals (Halloween II, X-Ray) and an even bigger trend involving adult female celebrities in jeopardy (The Howling, The Fan, The Seduction). But what gave Visiting Hours its everlasting charge is the fact that it was seized by those limey gatekeepers of morality and tacked onto that notorious list of 72 allegedly obscene Video Nasties.

Turns out they just didn't like protracted scenes of knives being swept up against the half-naked bodies of pretty girls. Go figure.

Grant plays Deborah Ballin, a firebrand telejournalist who is rebuking speculation that a woman who shot her husband in self-defense faked her own tokens of domestic abuse. Shatner is her pushover producer and lover, Gary Baylor, who considers pulling the heated debate to avoid a libel suit. And Ironside's Colt Hawker apparently works as the studio's janitor and is not too pleased with Ballin's crusade for women's rights. Ballin comes home to find Hawker dressed in her jewelry and mad with homicidal rage, having already slaughtered her maid. He delivers one nasty knife wound and jettisons her out of a dumbwaiter, but she is saved when Baylor arrives to find her crawling on the floor in agony.

Thus sets up, to quote Frank Cotton from Hellraiser, "the cat-and-mouse shit" to come, with Colt Hawker taking time out from his fitful pursuit of bedridden Deborah Ballin, who is awaiting surgery in time for her follow-up interview concerning the battered wife on trial, to assault Lenore Zann's frizzy-haired Lisa after picking her up at a diner. He also endeavors to menace overworked nurse and single mother of two Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl: Crazy Mama, The High Country), who catches Hawker exiting the building after claiming two more victims, including an old woman whom the resentful psycho subjects to first-degree euthanasia, snapping photographs of her asphyxiating face. Screenwriter Brian Taggert throws in plenty of pat psychology for the burly misfit, from framed letters spewing vitriol at every minority to an ignoble father who was scalded with hot oil when Hawker was a boy and now lives in a rest home.

American Nightmare and Visiting Hours are indeed similar films not just in the pairing of Michael Ironside and Lenore Zann. They are both painfully outside attempts at sensationalizing social pathologies, courting those patrons of the arts who smuggle liquor in their raincoats whilst catcalling the nubile actresses on screen and cheering on their vile tormentor. They aren't developed enough for subversion or lingering criticism, kind of like the race-baiting Fight for Your Life. American Nightmare threatens to undo itself with every strip club interlude Don McBrearty serves up, but it does have small moments like the ones with Zann's Tina and Dolly the scared transvestite that humanize the deviant casualties. And the murder mystery plot outline affords it curiosity and anticipation.

Visiting Hours, meanwhile, is like a glossy rehash of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain with elements of Peeping Tom and The Fan mixed in. The post-Psycho swath of disturbed loner bloodbaths seem to run together if you dwell on them too much, and whatever earnestness the film conveys about "repressed hostility" (which another pundit talks about within ear's reach of the antagonist) is moot given that every woman Colt confronts is reduced to whimpering docility by his sick, self-righteous vengeance. Michael Ironside is a fine actor who can freshen up a routine villain with some welcome sarcasm (Watchers) or playfulness (Total Recall) or guilt (Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) or glazed hamminess (Destiny to Order). But with one fleeting exception where he cracks in the hospital's basement, Colt Hawker is basically a human bogeyman, the Shape of Halloween II without the costume, allowed unfettered powers of access and infiltration not limited to Ms. Ballin's operating room. Nobody at all can deduce his overwhelming presence save for Lisa, who trashes Hawker's room in retaliation and notices Sheila's face enshrined in his closet hit list.

Hawker's methodical prowess, epitomized by his self-mutilating last ditch effort to gain entry into the hospital, is stretched to the breaking point even further thanks not only to incessant stretches of pronounced victims creeping along unsafe houses, but also the bumbling way in which he fails to finish off Ms. Ballin every time he gets into that hospital. It's worth noting that he fails to kill Ballin, Lisa and even Sheila because these combined blunders drag the movie out to 105 minutes, during which time Taggert offers a few inconsequential lambs Hawker does successfully butcher, such as a meddling nurse and a gabby fellow with gallstones (R.I.P. Harvey Atkin: Meatballs, Funeral Home).

American Nightmare, for as shoddy as it gets, has the courage of its guttural convictions, whereas Jean-Claude Lord and the name cast he shepherds are a professional lot who seem to be squandering their talents. Lee Grant becomes more shrill with every scene, William Shatner seems like a complete and total afterthought and Michael Ironside coasts on his remorseless death‘s head glare. Lord is a more competent cameraman than either Rick Rosenthal or Boaz Davidson, but his occasionally tense set pieces would've had more power were they not attached to Brian Taggert's redundant, rudderless script. Taggert would go on to write the cheeky man vs. rat flick Of Unknown Origin, which was far more assured and also boasted richer contributions from director George Pan Cosmatos and star Peter Weller, but he's also responsible for Poltergeist III, another by-the-numbers spook show ripe with nefarious plot holes and teeth-rattling repetitions of character's names ("Carol Anne! Carol Anne!") where a decent story should've been.

Putting aside its memorable one-sheet poster art, Visiting Hours should itself be hooked up to a life support machine. And after having reviewed it twice in my lifetime ("Lenore Zaan?" "Video Nasties last?" Jay-sus!), I suggest we pull the plug.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fight for Your Life + Cannibal Apocalypse

(R, William Mishkin Motion Pictures, 86 mins., limited release date: Nov. 1977)

Looking back at the Video Nasties outrage via the two Severin Films DVD packages I belatedly reviewed, I find it to my eternal amusement just how seriously the watchdogs of public morale took some phenomenally low-rent, dreadful movies. Even from the clips on show in the trailer reels and documentaries, that something like Snuff could trigger extensive media pearl-clutching is boggling to my mind. It was all based on the fear of depravity and corruption in children and never about the quality of so many of these films being skid row deficient. God knows that if there were discussion of the filmmaking merits of Snuff or any handful of titles charged with obscenity, a real discussion would be held and the whole furor would be exposed for the self-righteous farce it was. The argument was never about the seams showing in these films, and similar seams in the parliamentary crackdown on Video Nasties were effectively quashed by a self-serving deference to "morality."

One of the movies I staved off watching for the longest time until those two write-ups were completed was Fight for Your Life, which is unique in the history of the DPP 72 in that it has endured as a craw-sticker since being denied cinema certification in England back in 1981. It has not been released on UK video ever since the pre-classified tapes were seized by police, and Stephen Thrower's enthusiasm for it has gone unheard in the age of DVD. In this case, as with I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, the combination of low-rent production and down-and-dirty subject matter has awarded the film a shelf life beneficial to any cult cinema gawker in the mood for the disreputable.

But unlike Meir Zarchi's bloodthirsty "take back the night" saga of retribution nor Wes Craven's implicating if frustrating knock on Ingmar Bergman, Fight for Your Life taps a grindhouse theme wholly uncommon to its vilified brethren: racial prejudice. Though director/producer/editor Robert A. Endelson and screenwriter/associate producer Straw Weisman ladle on child endangerment and sexual assault for that extra dose of queasiness, much of the harshness pertains to wall-to-wall verbal abuse and the demeaning reinforcement of stereotype at gunpoint. Whereas Krug Stillo felt compelled to demand Phyllis Stone piss herself in Craven's flick, Jessie Lee Kane (William Sanderson), the alpha psycho of Fight for Your Life, gets cross-country mileage out of the many ways the epithet "coon" can be used against the middle-class black Turner family.

Kane's particularly obsessed with breaking down the paterfamilias, reverend Ted Turner (Robert Judd). Though he bandies about "Deputy Dawg" and "Aunt Jemima" in regards to mother (Catherine Peppers) and granny (Lela Small), Kane's ire for "Martin Luther Coon" is fiery enough to demand Ted do a Stepin Fetchit shuffle, firing off bullets at his feet in the manner of a Wild West gangster. Ted, a devout Christian who sermonizes "the meek shall inherit the earth" almost every time at the pulpit, is even brutalized with his own good book by Kane, who tests the "turn the other cheek" philosophy to its depraved extremes. Kane's hard knock life is the source of some psychologically-deep impotence, which is how Ted and Grandma Turner dish out their own spiteful retorts in the fog of Kane's bigotry. In a more polished movie, a genuine battle of wills could emerge in the way Ted is enabled to act on his primitive rage only to push his virulent captor that one step further over the edge.

The only polish Fight for Your Life receives is from the fine folks at Blue Underground, who've remastered the film to a rather distressing sheen. I got the feeling that DVD is not the ideal way to view a movie like this, which cries out for thick grain, frequent projector stutters and a rowdy crowd willing to receive the pervasive invective for its ultimate reward. From its awkwardly-looped first scene, where a pimp dutifully shakes down one of his clientele for heroin, to the show-stopping duel between Kane and Ted, facilitated by a feeble police squad who undergo their own compromising of principle, Fight for Your Life is downtown gristmill fodder all the way.

As his behavior should make obvious, Jessie Lee Kane is indeed an extremely dangerous fugitive, who takes advantage of the police truck transporting him nearly getting fender bended by cold-cocking and then shooting the officer who decides to check on him. His accomplices on the run are the Hispanic thug Chino (Daniel Faraldo) and scar-faced Asian bogeyman Ling (Peter Yoshida), and the trio make off in said pimp's ‘76 Mercury on a violence-dotted run for the border. A liquor store robbery is witnessed by Corrie Turner (Yvonne Ross), Ted's daughter, whose captivity by the trio results in the ultimate appearance of these convicts at the Turner household.

Lt. "Rulebook" Reilly (David Cargill) commandeers one of the least-interesting manhunts ever, grating against the lax local jurisdiction of Captain Hamilton (Richard A. Rubin), while Kane and friends make themselves at home under the Turners' roof until sundown. Two family friends are sacrificed in the process, done in by the hulking Ling. Karen (Bonnie Martin), the white girlfriend of slain soldier son Val Turner (Ramon Saunders), is chased off a cliff while fleeing the rapist's pursuit of Ling, who then bludgeons preteen Floyd Turner's (Reginald Blythewood) best bud and blood brother Joey (David Dewlow), who also happens to be the son of Captain Hamilton.

Perfunctory and deadening rather than unpredictable and relentless, Fight for Your Life isn't as distressing as Last House on the Left or the similar invasion terrors of Straw Dogs and The Desperate Hours. A sequence in which Kane decides to "teach a lesson" to one of the Turner women with some rope and a tree peters out sans any truly disturbing lynching correlations, thus Endleson and Weisman fall back on the gang rape of poor Corrie as the breaking point for the family. The aforementioned beating of Ted with his Bible is presented in fast-motion POV that ridiculously undercuts the brutality of the moment. And the film's narrative momentum is so hokey that when the Turners pick up knives during one moment of convenient revolt, it also comes off an inconsequential despite further aggravation of the main baddie.

Robert Judd, whose only other acting credit was in Walter Hill's Crossroads (released in the same year Judd died), is the one relative unknown performer whose ascension to vengeance is natural enough to give them film a needed edge of vérité. But the main draw of Fight for Your Life is character actor William Sanderson in his screen debut as Jessie Lee Kane. In 1982, Sanderson's career picked up steam thanks to roles in Blade Runner, Raggedy Man and on TV's Newhart, but until then he was counted on to provide hillbilly menace in films like this and David Paulsen's Savage Weekend, filmed in 1976 but shelved for three years until The Cannon Group salvaged it. Sanderson's performance is equally as rough as Judd's if not more so, and Robert Endelson doesn't capitalize on those "sad eyes," to borrow a phrase which Granny uses to taunt Kane. There's more pathos in J.F. Sebastian's silent elevator ride to doom than there is any moment Kane grouses about his lost manhood.

There's also rougher justice meted out to Krug and Co. in Craven's Last House than there is to the criminals in Fight for Your Life. By the time the tables have turned for good, one of Kane's accomplices is shot in the groin and another flies out of a window to be impaled on a shard of glass. The basic purpose of these exploitation pictures is to watch cruelty reciprocated by the victims with rabble-rousing urgency followed by stone silence, yet between the rainbow coalition of hostility indoors and the worthlessness of the cops who arrive as Corrie is plainly being raped, Fight for Your Life is the kind of nihilism which indifferently shrugs it off by saying "You get what you pay for."

(R, Eurocopfilms/Almi Cinema 5, 96 mins, U.S. theatrical release date: Sept. 18, 1981)

Find some comfort food, improbable as it may seem, in a movie called Cannibal Apocalypse. Despite its title being censoriously taboo for the British government, this isn't another indigenous Italian melee of animal snuffing, barbaric torture and "are we the real savages?" philosophy. Antonio Margheriti begins in the jungle, but takes us instead to Vietnam with a passel of stock footage that eases us into the ensuing wartime mission. Sgt. Norman Hopper (John Saxon) comes upon an ambush, replete with surprise use of plastic explosive, but blasts his way out and locates a couple of POWs, including his hometown friend from Atlanta, GA, Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice). The captive soldiers, alas, have developed a taste for human flesh, and burly black prisoner Tony Thompson (Tony King) decides to take a nibble from Hopper's outstretched hand.

Such is the recurring nightmare/flashback Hopper endures in domestic life, and things get worse once Bukowski is granted a temporary leave from psychiatric hospice and tries in vain to rendezvous with his former superior. The rebuffed veteran decides on a matinee screening of From Hell to Victory only to suffer a lip-smacking relapse while observing a couple making out, necking the young woman quite literally. Fleeing the scene, trailed by a biker gang hankering for vigilante justice, Bukowski holes up in a flea market and takes arms against the marauders. Hopper is called to negotiate Bukowski's surrender, but he and his cannibalistic malady refuse to be contained much longer.

Perhaps the purest action director in the gut-bucket genre lorded over by Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei, Margheriti tempers the grisly chaos with energetic set pieces such as the opening 'Nam  attack and Bukowski's civilian battle, humming a twisted "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as he feasts on one of the bikers. Having gotten the most bang for his buck, Margheriti suitably deploys some top-notch FX work from Giannetto De Rossi (of Fulci's Zombie and The Beyond fame) as the virus circulates, with an infected nurse locking and chomping tongues with Hopper's blood analyst and another of the rabid survivors getting a hole shotgun blasted through his stomach. The way it is filmed, the camera panning the victim's face down to the open wound and then back up again, is the most indelible money shot I've ever seen in a proudly Italian gorefest.

Margheriti also borrows from Fulci the scriptwriting services of Dardano Sacchetti (in a movie full of Anglicized credits, his is "Jimmy Gould"), who tries to incorporate some vague biological rationale for the cannibalism as well as frame Hopper's torment within concerns of betrayal on account of his wife, TV news reporter Jane (Elizabeth Turner). It seems that Dr. Phil Mendez (Ramiro Oliveros) was a former beau of Jane's, and the good doctor even goes so far as to say "You should've married me instead." A tragic story of renewed love is paid off, despite wobbly characterization that has Hopper succumbing out of nowhere to the childish advances of the teenage tart next door, Mary (Cinzia De Carolis). This tryst is meant set up something more ironic for the last reel.

At least Johns Saxon and Morghen (Mr. Radice) command the screen no matter the war zones. Saxon was vocal about his soul-crushing disappointment towards the cannibal subgenre in a documentary included on Image‘s DVD (which I ridiculously reviewed on Epinions.com once upon a time), but it doesn't show in his performance. And while I prefer Dario Argento's Tenebre, in which Saxon was a mere supporting star, Saxon is credible despite the material. Radice, however, looks the part of a boyish case of shell shock rather uncannily and acts with crazed vigor. To rightly contrast their playing styles, just watch the scene where Hopper talks Bukowski (love that literate name) into deflating a tear gas canister with urine. Radice is no stranger to Video Nasties, thanks to appearances in Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox and Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park (he was also memorably drill killed in Fulci's City of the Living Dead, but that somehow escaped the Brits‘ attention).

Given the low-key plague scenario as well as the original Italian title being Apocalypse Domani (translation: "Apocalypse Tomorrow"), Cannibal Apocalypse tries to find some inspiration outside of George Romero, conjuring Cronenberg‘s Shivers & Rabid as well as Francis Ford Coppola. Margheriti is too pulpy a filmmaker to realize such a fascinating mash-up, but compared to Fight for Your Life and many of the sluggishly sleazy Video Nasties I'd just as soon forget, it's not a total detriment. If you want to read into it a particularly lurid translation of post-traumatic stress disorder, with electric saws grinding up human goulash in loving close-up and Saxon fitting himself back into his old Vietnam War uniform to accept his fate, you wouldn't be off-base. Personally, I embrace Cannibal Apocalypse for what it most resembles: a large pizza Margherita with double the cheese and tomato.