Sunday, December 22, 2013

Enchantéd, Part VI: Better Off Dead...

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin

VI. Better Off Dead... (1985)
(PG, Warner Bros. Pictures)

Now, here's an 1980s nostalgia trip worth the ringing of the tubular bells...

The CBS daytime game show Press Your Luck is one of those rare entities (see also: any iteration of Double Dare) where I actively rooted for the contestants to lose, simply because of the Whammies. The more prizes you amassed in the course of your spins, the more painful it was to hit a Whammy and watch them all get taken away. But to add insult to injury, an animated vignette would pop up in which a Whammy would experience some form of violent humiliation straight out of a "Looney Tunes" short or taunt you under the guise of a famous caricature. Paul Revere, The Beatles and Boy George ("Who would ever hurt a Whammy?") were among the many personalities satirized in the name of sadism.

One of the key animators of the Whammies would go on to have a fruitful career in children's television, but in between that he was a burgeoning filmmaker in the post-John Hughes era of teen-friendly capers. That man is Savage Steve Holland, a young California college student who had a bit of a death wish despite his WWF opponent nickname. When his high school sweetheart dumped him as a means of advancing her status, Holland was so defeated that he tried to hang himself, fashioning a noose from an extension cord tied around a water pipe. Having second thoughts didn't help as he fell through the garbage can he was standing on, causing a flood which nearly drowned him.

Holland made this the crux of a short film which aimed for sympathy but was greeted as a comedy. And thus, the impetus for one of the most feverishly-adored cult comedies of the 1980s, Better Off Dead...

Fresh off his starring debut in Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing, it allowed John Cusack another opportunity to carry a film with his droll, sharp presence. Better Off Dead... also scored a coup in casting Curtis Armstrong, previously seen in colorful supporting roles in both Risky Business and Revenge of the Nerds, to continue his offbeat path towards cult stardom. It had a score composed by English musician Rupert Hine, whose production work on albums by The Fixx and Howard Jones were successful enough that both artists loomed over the oh-so-Eighties soundtrack (listen during the climactic duel for a piece of music which closely resembles a reggae remix of Animotion). There were enough beloved gags and one-liners which fans have quoted to the point of delirium, none more so than the dreaded cry "I want my two dollars!"

But the biggest takeaway I got from Better Off Dead... was this: I was in L-O-U-V-R-E with Diane Franklin, the single most stunning woman of any film I had watched in my vast teenage logbook of cinema. 

Don't get me wrong...I'm impartial enough to avoid the mere "fan boy" tag just by processing the films of hers which I've revisited, and admitting that quite a few are problematic. I couldn't take The Last American Virgin all that serious or diverting as a lot of people make it out to be. Perhaps it's because I've seen the first four Lemon Popsicle films, and Boaz Davidson's constant wringing of sour grapes and his thin, exploitative approach to writing/directing is proof enough that he was better suited to being the Israeli Roger Corman. Amityville II: The Possession gets points for Lalo Schifrin's creepy score, earnest performances and a willingness to be more gonzo than Stuart Rosenberg's original, but it's tasteless and derivative to a fault. The murder mystery Deadly Lessons is tame even by TV-movie standards. The clearest victor thus far in this retrospective is Summer Girl, which is a juicier melodrama than any of the ones I just mentioned and quite the model of economy, professionalism and guiltless entertainment.

I got more from the evenly lowbrow Second Time Lucky than The Last American Virgin in terms of why I not only find Diane a "babe," but just an undervalued actress, in general. Despite Franklin's emotional investment and sex appeal, Karen too easily blended into the movie's childishly sexist attitude, treated with no less scorn than Rose, or the three girls from the opening, or that hooker with VD. That movie had no innocence to lose, and I ended up despising all of the anemic, uniformly unlikable main characters way before the brutal climax, thus sending me into early detachment. It's not like Patricia Montelli or Cynthia Ricks or even Eve in Eden. In Second Time Lucky, once you get past any issues of objectification or backdated ideologies, you can actually marvel at Diane's range and bask in her commitment to the many incarnations of Eve, especially her perky, humorous Thelma Todd/Jean Harlow surrogate Evie Sands.

The Last American Virgin just feels so coldly cynical at heart, which is definitely not what I get from Better Off Dead... Savage Steve Holland has slapped together a movie from the same bleak aspects of teen life, particularly the sting of rejection at such a vulnerable age. The biggest difference is that here, you don't end up contracting any self-pitying disdain, but some better form of catharsis. Holland can laugh off the notion of snuffing himself, for God's sake, and he wants you to find the same self-deprecating, affirmative outlet in this pre-Heathers blast of suicidal farce.

And who better to make you feel so completely at ease than the most luminous transfer student in the history of cinema herself, Monique Junet?

Or, for that matter, Lane Meyer. Cusack's disavowal of this film is the stuff of legend, and in interviews, Holland openly admitted how badly it burnt him out. In a nutshell: Holland met Cusack by recommendation of Henry Winkler, one of the executive producers of The Sure Thing, and the attitude during filming was purely of good vibes and trust. Cusack got along well with the filmmaker and fellow actors, and by contractual obligation, was all set to play the lead in One Crazy Summer, which distributor Warner Bros. gave to Holland out of faith thanks to some well-received test screenings of his debut. Better Off Dead... screened again on the set of Summer for cast and crew, and that's when Cusack got mad. Leaving after twenty minutes, Cusack eventually told Holland that he felt tricked, and was no longer willing to trust him anymore. 

To this day, I'm not sure if Cusack has fully buried the hatchet, despite concessions to the surprising endurance of Better Off Dead... in Hot Tub Time Machine in the exhaust fume asphyxiation gag Rob Corddry engages in as well as a certain catch phrase involving not just a dime, but twenty of them.

Holland's faith was further shaken when Better Off Dead... actually began its theatrical run (wide release date: October 11, 1985), greeted with total indifference by filmgoers and outright contempt by critics. Holland made only one more feature with How I Got into College (1989) before carving out his niche as a regular writer and director for Disney and Nickelodeon programs. Better Off Dead... instead found a more sympathetic audience through VHS and cable, myself included.

Looking back at the day I first saw this in my elementary school prime, I was more than happy to see Cusack in another movie after having absorbed The Sure Thing through videotape. And he was like my matchmaker, seeing as how both Monique Junet and the lady who played her never escaped my heart, even in the wake of my own personal despondency.


Cusack plays Lane Meyer, who is so totally enamored with six-month squeeze Beth (Amanda Wyss, fresh off A Nightmare on Elm Street) that he apparently raided her vast photo album library and adorned every square foot of his bedroom with his findings. Already, this is the second Cusack movie in a row that begins with reminders of Rod Stewart's video for "Infatuation." The obsessive joke goes even further when Lane's wardrobe closet is stuffed with hangers that bear his girlfriend's likeness! But since it's teenaged John Cusack, he's actually more well-adjusted than such psychotic devotion entails.

If anything, the rest of the Meyer household is the suburban equivalent of Danvers. Al Meyer (David Ogden Stiers, fantastically flabbergasted) is perpetually tormented by newspaper-tossing hellion Johnny Gasparini (Demian Slade), constantly having to replace his garage door windows to the point of irreversible insanity. Jenny (Kim Darby, in the flipside of her logical Summer Girl materfamilias) is what we like to call a "Greendale Wife," something even worse than Stepford, based on her questionable culinary choices, where every entrée comes out disgustingly turquoise, from the boiled bacon for breakfast to some form of raisin gruel at suppertime which scares Lane straight at one point by turning into The Blob. And his little brother Badger (Scooter Stevens)...well, let's say he's Al Goldstein trapped in the body of Alfred E. Neuman.

The only sane thing to do is get out of the house and onto the snowy mountains for a little skiing action, Lane's favorite past time. Alas, the new captain of the ski team is a bohunk by the name of Roy Stalin (Aaron Dozier), the only man who has lived to brag about conquering the dreaded K-12. Wager a guess as to how Beth feels about him compared to Lane? Yep, Beth flocks to Roy and sends Lane into a self-destructive depression, which would be enough except that Lane has other reasons to worry besides just being dumped.

For one, that Johnny kid has come to collect his $2 fee and won't take "no" for an answer, especially not from Lane Meyer. Two, a pair of Chinese brothers (one mute, the other speaking only in "Howard Cosell") keep popping up at the worst possible time to challenge Lane to drag races, with frequent disastrous results. And three, he's captured the fancy of the foxy French exchange student Monique Junet (Diane Franklin), and with her the insufferable presence of her hosts and next door neighbors the Smiths, the clinging Ricky (Dan Schneider), who fits that "fat kid with glasses who eats paste" type which the earlier Cusack wiseass Walter "Gib" Gibson predicted, and his nasally-voiced mother (Laura Waterbury).

Like the manifest destiny of Gib and Alison from The Sure Thing, it's inevitable that Lane wises up to his renewed purpose through his solidarity with fellow outsider Monique, who reveals both her fractured English and yearning to see Dodgers Stadium in a fit of Ricky-induced rage (in a word: testicles). If she can help fix his junky ‘67 Camaro to mint condition, she can certainly give Lane all the reason to get over Beth, or at least encourage him to make good on a race with Roy down the K-12. Like any predetermined path, the trick is how writer/director Holland (or is that Mr. Savage?) chooses to get there.

The solution: imagining a universe just a little north of Toontown. Holland pushes the scattered, situational plot into creative levels of live action caricature (the hand-drawn fairy tale prologue is a fitting harbinger of the man's style) and makes exaggerations of virtually every character and encounter. It's a funhouse mirror view of adolescent angst more perpetually Dada than the most incidental John Hughes aside, as the impromptu Frankenstein homage involving a claymation hamburger miming Van Halen's "Everybody Wants Some" shows. Lane's sullen perception of the world carrying on around him turns everyone around orbit into strangers, with the emphasis placed on "strange." From the overeager algebra students of one Mr. Kerber (Vincent Schiavelli) to the troglodyte basketball jocks he unwittingly enrages by hitting on their main squeeze Chris Cummins (Tina Littlewood) to his spazzy best friend Charles De Mar (Curtis Armstrong), Lane is stuck in a rut typical of the mixed-up, shook-up teenage boy, allowing Holland to keep the embellished schadenfreude running hot.

The supporting cast find their own kooky niches in the process. Dan Schneider as Ricky Smith makes his mama's boy nerd equal parts ogre and oddball, his wallflower presence at a Greendale High social showcasing the film's most inspired physical performance. The recently departed Laura Waterbury relishes in her Fran Drescher-style whine and intrusive congeniality, her uproariously embarrassing Christmas morning gesture to Monique another token of madcap treasure. Aaron Dozier is lovable to hate as the unctuous main bully, Roy Stalin, in that he plays the role to the absolute hilt, locating more vainglorious timing than your average blonde butthole from many a teen comedy. The reliably jovial Curtis Armstrong does Dudley Dawson 2.0 essentially, busted down from toking Wonder Joints to snorting snow and gelatin ("I can't even get real drugs here!"), but not to be overlooked are Fast Times at Ridgemont High alumni Amanda Wyss and Vincent Schiavelli making good in a more comical capacity.

Imagine the show tune-squawking car ride from The Sure Thing extended to 90 loopy minutes, which isn't all that dreadful since John Cusack navigates the madness with one-legged hangdog aplomb. The grounded, innate charisma of both him and Diane Franklin allow for some semblance of sanity and sweetness. Franklin remains a find, boundlessly wry and whimsical in a performance that should have brought on bigger and better things, but those international language lessons ("I think all you need is a small taste of success...") proved selective. That's a shame, because she's every bit as soulful and smart as Cusack, though the sole blockbuster in her resume, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, found her in a comparatively minor "love interest" role which was nowhere near close to the iconic, incandescent Monique Junet. And I will be lauding her comedic skills even more when I next delve into TerrorVision.

There was something in Monique Junet which enraptured me endlessly. Behind the over-sized coats and vests was a genuine spark which ignited serious wildfires in my romantic imagination. I fantasized about her cuddling next to me in the middle of Dodgers Stadium in my Dick Tracy sleeping bag when I was younger. I still manage to dream about her now!?! Monique Junet inspired me to feel something so raw and close to the bone, I feel it's a misnomer to call it merely a crush.

Apparently, multi-instrumental mogul and first-time composer Rupert Hine was also spellbound, as he wrote two dizzying, synth-oriented love themes around Monique Junet, the regularly-reprised "Arrested by You" (which was later covered by Dusty Springfield, to my eternal surprise) and "With One Look (The Wildest Dream)," the latter featuring guest turns from vocalist Cy Curnin and guitarist Jamie West-Oram, members of The Fixx. Even Howard Jones' "Like to Get to Know You Well," a mere bonus track on his Dream Into Action LP, is one poppy, sloppy French kiss by proxy. Having previously had a minor hit with "Misplaced Love" in 1981, which would've been at home on the soundtrack to The Last American Virgin, Hine's behind-the-boards prolificacy on the pop charts meant his fingerprints are all over the official soundtrack, even as a co-writer and producer on tracks from Berlin ("Dancing in Isolation"), Martin Ansell (the ski slope romance of "Shine") and Thinkman ("Come to Your Rescue"), the latter essentially Hine operating under a pseudonym. His only considerable absence is on the two tunes given to actress/singer E.G. Daily (Dottie from Pee Wee's Big Adventure, another inventive oddity from the same year), who is the featured entertainer at the new year's dance party.

Mr. Savage's aesthetic choices don't always match the density of his absurd imagination, and credit must go to editor Alan Balsam (Revenge of the Nerds) for allowing some form of disciplined, consummate structure. The recurring gags, chiefly Lane's tumbling down the K-12, come across as repetitive because the camera doesn't quite approach these with any fresh perspectives, a letdown considering Holland's background necessitates storyboarding. Moments tend to be overtly static when close-ups or P.O.V. angles would've added to the comedy. And the film doesn't have the distinct visual pop of an actual cartoon, even when the hamburgers start to rock out and the French fries do Busby Berkeley routines. To be fair, Holland manages a few impressive moments with Lane being hunted down by Johnny and his minions on the way home from the dance, as well as when Monique finally becomes the rightful coach Charles was too distracted to handle. Those scenes have real vigor on a technical level.

Better Off Dead... continues to endure as an anomaly in its genre, which means Holland deserves a great deal more credit than Cusack wasn't willing to offer. Had Airplane pilots Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker actually sent up the teen comedy at the height of its dominance, this is close to what you'd picture it being. Holland's total generosity towards his actors and easygoing silliness in the face of endless, demeaning odds is more commendable and refreshing than simply expecting you to have fun in the presence of venal, carefree idiots. It's free of pretension, animosity or even civilization, which is how Savage Steve lives up to his nickname. Now, if only he had been named Nick...


Available on Blu-Ray through CBS Video/Paramount, Better Off Dead... is a budget release in the tightest sense. Despite an upconverted 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio mix for a film that screams dual-channel stereophonic, its 1080p 1.78:1 widescreen image is clipped from the original aspect ratio, and should've been given a judicious remastering. The real crime is that there are still no special features, although they did provide us a theatrical trailer complete with the old Warner Bros. logo. In lieu of a welcome making-of retrospective, let me direct you to a très bien Moviefone article which includes commentary from Savage Steve Holland, Diane Franklin, Curtis Armstrong, Aaron Dozier, and Amanda Wyss, who reveals a proposed alternate title which makes that Heathers comparison even clearer.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Sure Thing

(PG-13, Embassy Pictures, 95 mins., theatrical release date: March 1, 1985)

"I was a freshman at a small southwestern college. I never thought these letters were real until a few days ago, I had an experience that changed my mind. I just had to share it with you..."

There was a reason I never felt satisfied being a writer at, an online shopping site which I used to find my voice as a film reviewer ever since attending Apache Junction High. It had to do with my enthusiasm for communicating my thoughts on movies, which often had me typing what seemed to many like full-fledged dissertations instead of mere buying guides. I can't even begin to count how many comments I received from impatient readers despite consensus votes of "very helpful." You could say I was unconsciously preparing myself for the sleepless, soul-crushing hell that is writing your thesis, but I just knew what I liked and unleashed the filter. I couldn't have cared less how long it took you to read it, so long as you understood my position and learned something out of it.

So there I was in early August of 2003, with three DVDs from a recent trip to Best Buy. Two of them are movies which accrued huge cult followings thanks to the presence of star names in promising breakout roles, the other I picked up for free mainly due to a breath-robbing crush on its lead actress carried over from my elementary days. I'm talking, of course, about Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing (1985), Martha Coolidge's Valley Girl (1983) and Boaz Davidson's The Last American Virgin (1982). The first and third titles hold a very personal significance because if I hadn't seen one on VHS numerous times as a boy, then I wouldn't have realized that my inamorata would come back to thrill me at the close of my adolescence as she did when it began.

It was Lane Meyer and Monique Junet of Better Off Dead..., themselves, worlds apart in movies of contrasting attitudes regarding teenagers. I'm still reeling from my recent decision to focus on the career of the woman who made my Greendale-by-way-of-Paris heartthrob so deeply integral to my childhood, especially now that I realize just how loveable Diane Franklin is in person. I feel as though I need a warm-up before I even begin to make some kind of objective reunion, so I've chosen to give a second Epinion to The Sure Thing, the other 1985 romantic comedy featuring the leading man of Better Off Dead...

Nobody in my family other than me had the fortitude to find entertainment from Rob Reiner's debut This Is Spinal Tap, a shaggy, side-splitting satire of over-the-hill rock stars. And yet, it was my sister who introduced me to Reiner's third film, the exquisitely poignant Stand by Me, which I still hold up as his zenith. C'est la vie! The Sure Thing, therefore, is the proverbial middleweight in hindsight, an obvious attempt at updating Frank Capra's 1934 romantic farce It Happened One Night, which netted all five of the major Academy Awards, for the 1980s slobs vs. snobs/teenaged sex comedy market. I was so cozily familiar with The Sure Thing over the years that of all three of the titles I mentioned shopping for, that was the one I was most eager to have in my library.

John Cusack, not unlike Lawrence Monoson of Virgin, was a true life teenager at the time of filming. Although he had previously appeared in bit parts (Class, Sixteen Candles), being cast in the main role meant Cusack had to be legally emancipated and placed under the custody of producer Roger Birnbaum (Henry Winkler is credited as an executive producer). But it was Reiner who nurtured his natural talents and is responsible for unleashing the first beloved John Cusack alter ego of the decade, Walter "Gib" Gibson. Sure, Gibson is typically concerned with sex, libidinous enough to compete with the post-Porky's crowd, but he's introduced striking out twice with a ready-made speech about a "cosmic Adam and Eve," solemnly licking his senior year wounds in the company of his dim-witted best friend Lance (Anthony Edwards).

The two budding freshmen go their separate ways upon graduation, with Lance heading to California and Gib opting for the Ivy League, where his bad luck streak continues unabated. It could be because Gib decides to make a move on the worst possible prey, Alison Bradbury (Daphne Zuniga), an overly prim preppie who lives her life as dictated by her schedule instead of her instincts. After tricking her into a study session to keep him from flunking English, and eventually being rejected with a swift kick while he's down, Gib is further demonized by Alison when their vivacious professor Taub (Viveca Lindfors) reads Gibson's saucy Penthouse letter aloud in class.

Lance calls Gib on the verge of winter break offering mercy in the form of a hot, nameless blonde (Nicollette Sheridan) who bears the titular description, her uncomplicated desirability telegraphed in the opening credits via a sexy, string bikini-clad sunbathing montage to the tune of Rod Stewart's "Infatuation" (was Kay Lenz unavailable for the role?). Gib darts out looking for convenient transportation and winds up accepting the same carpool that Alison has claimed for the same westbound destination, where she will be reunited with her equally stuffy fiancé Jason (Boyd Gaines). Naturally, the two spar with each other to the point where they break the will of their flagrantly chipper, musical-mauling hosts (Tim Robbins and Lisa Jane Persky, ace scene-stealers) and are left to fend for themselves.

A reluctant friendship forms between Gib and Alison as they endure all manner of on-the-road hardships ranging from skeevy redneck drivers to utter destitution, as the slovenly but sensitive Gib wears down Alison's defenses. But by the time they make it to Los Angeles, Gib's unspoken intentions insult Alison's intelligence in a less superficial way, and the next time their paths cross means it's time for decisions to be made.

The Sure Thing thrives on the diametric synthesis of John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga, both cast principally on Reiner's own whims about the kind of personalities he felt most intriguing to follow. Gib is a boor, but far from a bore, a motor-mouthed scholar of constellations and comfort food (pork rinds and cheese balls, washed down fittingly with beer) yet so quick-witted and absent of malice in his charisma that he's hardly an outright creep. He's precocious enough to fool bartenders into serving him double bourbons, but has enough wounded soul in his eyes to mix right in with the hapless geezers in his company, enjoying a festively inebriated sing-along of "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...").

Alison, meanwhile, is naturally beautiful but resigned to her own studious form of security. She's completely justified in mistrusting Gib initially, even after he apologizes for his priggish persuasion, but could definitely benefit more from the companionship of such a misled but mirthful opposite number. Alison gets along with Gib with relative ease, given that she enjoys a good swoon at Graceland or a game of car window peek-a-boo ("Come to mama, boys!"). Like some bizarre inverse of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" trope, which has been applied to Monique from Better Off Dead..., it takes a Gib to loosen up Alison to the point where not just can she shotgun a can of beer like a pro, but also to feel the kind of legitimate disappointment that could conceivably lead to bookish barriers.

It's amazing to see Cusack, the master of droll and deceptive comic invention, reach highlight reel gold so early on. His first memorable monologue is a guilt trip Gib lays on Alison in an indoor pool, bellyaching about his tragicomic prospects as a college failure beginning with the shame of his parents to his eventual imprisonment and insolvency:

"And then one day, they find me, face down, talking to the gutter, clutching a bottle of paint thinner. And why? Because you wouldn't help me in English, no! You were too busy to help me, too busy to help a drowning man!"

Never has a character getting soaking wet felt like such a hilarious punch line. Reiner captures this with a typically unbroken shot, representing the kind of lightly confident touch and trust in his actors that would reap dividends with even younger stars on his next project. There are tons of other throwaway quips ("Did you know that Nietzsche died of syphilis?"), deadpan reflexes and full-blown set pieces ("I'm talking about a total maniac!") that need to be seen to be believed for anyone in the dark about Cusack's innate humor.

Zuniga, meanwhile, is just as beguiling despite her rough demeanor, countering Cusack's rakishness with all the seasoned frustration of a jaded spouse before letting some well-earned giddiness seep in, especially when Alison feigns pregnancy as an advantage to hitching (it'd be fruitless for her to bare her gams Colbert-style given she went topless purely for fun). She has a few priceless reactions, especially the disheartened realization that her father's credit card is to be used only in emergency situations, like the one she and Gib are currently in.

Steven Bloom and Jonathan Roberts' screenplay (which Bloom leadenly revived in 1998 with the Paul Rudd/Reese Witherspoon vehicle Overnight Delivery, never mind the fact that the team co-wrote the 1998 Jack Frost with Michael Keaton) has more zip and wit than the normally base forbears in the horn dog pound of youth-oriented comedy, and Reiner obliges by eking out consistently appealing supporting work from the great Viveca Lindfors (her philosophy: "Make love in a hammock!"), Anthony Edwards as Lance ("Every relationship starts with a one-night stand"), Joshua Cadman as Gib's bulky but seductive roommate Jimbo, George Memmoli & Sunshine "Cowboy Guy" Parker as the amiable barflies Gib befriends, and a young Nicollette Sheridan, whose character is essentially thankless (her Sure Thing's kicked to the curb without much dignity) but not without a certain spark, one which was better ignited on the small screen as Edie Britt from Desperate Housewives.

(Interestingly, aside from Tim Robbins, one of Gib's football friends is another frequent Cusack collaborator Steve Pink, co-writer of both Grosse Pointe Blank and High Fidelity, and director of Hot Tub Time Machine).

There are so many keen nuances to be discovered (notice how Robbins' Gary Cooper's clothes are, indeed, color-coordinated) and nuggets of disarmingly uproarious dialogue (repulsed by his Hawaiian party get-up, Gib jests that he ought to just "shave my head and join a Polynesian monastery") that The Sure Thing proves bountiful with each repeat viewing. Bloom and Roberts' plot may be structured with sound reliability and slavishness, but there was no point in time more kind to Rob Reiner than the 1980s, and he's every bit as perceptive and playful as prime John Hughes. The movie earns its emotional wavelengths and pretenses to realism by not letting the juvenilia fully overwhelm its intelligence. It's traditionalist and fittingly quirky in all the right ways, a balance even Hughes often strained to perfect.

The Sure Thing doesn't condescend for an inch, making all 3000 miles of its lovelorn trek an utter delight.

"...It was a movie, that's all. A movie like any other movie. A movie like no other movie."

MGM's DVD release of The Sure Thing was, like Valley Girl, given the royal treatment. However, whereas Deborah Foreman was sadly absent from the interview-based supplements on Girl, both Cusack and Zuniga as well as Reiner, Birnbaum, Sheridan (who dominates the few outtakes included as hidden menu features), the screenwriters, the casting directors, and more appear to discuss the experience of making the film. The real treat is seeing Cusack so misty-eyed and humble after all these years in regards to his respect to Reiner, unlike the next director he'd go on to work with. There are four featurettes in total, plus a pop-up trivia track, original theatrical trailer and a solo Rob Reiner audio commentary which is quite somnambulent, for lack of a better word. Sheridan's frank, funny presence is missed right from the get go, as her lotioning montage was curiously directed not by Reiner, who got too nervous to handle it, but cinematographer Robert Elswit.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


(Unrated, 89 mins., Ascot Films, U.S. release date: May 30, 1986)

"The sleep of reason gives birth to monsters."

A nervous schoolgirl named Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) steps off the subway train headed to West Berlin, uncertain of where to go next and too choked up to ask for directions from strangers. Her anxiety only gets worse when she hears the faint sounds of what she presumes to be a stalker headed her way, a badly scarred man with a metallic face plate, swinging a canister. Fearfully, Cheryl runs towards the upper platform of the station and encounters her silent pursuer, whose only interest is handing her a golden comp ticket to a 6:00 P.M. screening at the Metropol cinema. She sweetly asks if he can offer a spare ticket for her friend as well as whether or not his costume is simply promotional. He says nothing, but Cheryl does meet up with her chum, Kathy (Paola Cozzo), and the two agree to take in a flick for an innocent diversion.

It's the perfect set-up for a movie like Demons (Demoni), the kind of reliably sensationalist splatter flick one would conceivably skip school for, or at least partake in on a sick day. Even better is that this Italian effort has a big-name pedigree which involves the son of a legendary genre icon, Lamberto "il figlio di Mario" Bava, as well as the iconic Dario Argento, here branching out as a producer in the wake of several renowned forays into lurid, gruesome murder mysteries such as Deep Red, Suspiria and Tenebre. Argento's involvement alone puts it in a higher tier than the kind of cheap marinara massacres one would expect from such an industry. However, the story goes that Argento climbed aboard this primarily for securing the finances to finish off his current passion project, Phenomena (Creepers), which starred Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasance and vast swarms of flies.

The swanky Metropol turns out to be a previously rundown site newly renovated, and a crowd gathers to experience its grand re-opening. Among the patrons are a diverse lot which includes a bickering middle-aged couple on their anniversary, a blind man and his seeing-eye wife (who goes off to shag a random man behind the curtains) and, the fan favorite, Tony the Pimp (Bobby Rhodes), all gruff and tuft with his chrome dome, unshaved side burns and mile-long moustache. Cheryl and Kathy are even given a couple of studly date fodder in the form of buddies George (Urbano Barberini) and Ken (Karl Zinny). The movie they're watching is some schlock about a group of curious kids bent on uncovering the tomb of Nostradamus, but an isolated incident in the lobby, wherein one of Tony's lady friends scratched herself on a prop mask, starts to take on an eerie significance when the exact action occurs in the film.

Said hooker, Rosemary (Geretta Geretta, here credited as Geretta Giancarlo), goes to bathroom to freshen up when her wound resumes bleeding, but it becomes a pustule and her flesh starts to mutate into something inhumanly gross. And with that one sickening Sergio Stivaletti special effect, Demons starts a jaw-dropping crusade to raise the rafters in unrelenting chaos. Rosemary's possession proves contagious as countless theatergoers are mauled by and morph into slime-spewing, glowy-eyed maniacs, leaving the young quartet at the center to desperately barricade themselves from the threat in the manner of a Romero zombie film.

Written by the team of Bava, Argento, Phenomena co-writer Franco Ferrini, and the prolific Dardano Sacchetti, Demons has quite a lot of parallels to the Pittsburgh iconoclast's undead oeuvre, something unavoidable given Argento's involvement with Dawn of the Dead. There are also echoes of Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead in the roving "force" POV camera movement, fresh-faced young protagonists and its unwavering devotion to the goopy, grimy carnage on display. However, the movie's most novel twist involves the juxtaposition of manufactured monstrosities (here represented in the exhibited film as simply knife-wielding psychos, hardly demonic in the purest terms of folklore) with the unspooling violence in the Metropol. The most bracing example occurs when Rosemary's friend, Carmen (Fabiola Toledo), takes a claw to the throat and screams for help from behind the movie screen, the timid Kathy being the only one who senses danger (Ken assures her "It's just the Dolby system," a nod to the fact that this was the first Italian film with a proper Dolby Stereo mix).

This gimmick would be recycled by the late Spaniard Bigas Luna in Anguish (Angustia), wherein Michael Lerner's serial compulsion to carve out and collect human eyes is rendered hypnotic and contributes to the dementia of innocent teens and disturbed adults. But Luna was more portentous in trying for an artsy kind of meta-commentary, whereas Lamberto Bava doesn't kid himself that his Grand Guignol glee has any higher ambitions than the typical movie house of your fancy, be it the inner-city grindhouse or middle-of-nowhere drive-in.

Carmen's extended transformation also invites comparison to Rick Baker's game-changing prosthetics from An American Werewolf in London, with its inflating pockets of flesh, red-tinted contact lenses, ginsu press-on fingernails, and lingering close-ups of demon fangs bursting from the gums of the possessed. But DP Gianlorenzo Battaglia lends an atmospheric lighting scheme that helps to mesh with Stivaletti's queasy make-up designs in a pulpy if puke-worthy form of elegance, something missing from the film's hurried-up sequel Demons 2 a year later. In quick succession, necks are torn apart, eyes are gouged out and scalps are ripped off as the audience members run for their lives, only to find all of the exits mysteriously bricked off.

And then there's the coterie of punk caricatures, straight out of a Return of the Living Dead rip-off, cruising around in a stolen car with the likes of Go West and Billy Idol blaring on the radio (they must have hot-wired a 1963 Chrysalis), passing around a Coke can which they sip through their noses. "Coke adds life," like they say…or to put it more bluntly as the alpha of the bunch, a charming fellow named Ripper (Pasqualino Salemme), enthuses, "This shit‘d wake up the dead!" Ripper doesn't take kindly when his sidekicks spill their narcotic refreshment, demanding they scrape up every gram from the upholstery. This leads to the unforgettable gag, one which trumps Lucio Fulci (The New York Ripper), wherein the hambone goonie Baby Pig (Peter Pitsch) teases the exposed, powdered tit of Nina (Bettina Ciampolini) with a razorblade, her face scrunched up in a vaguely stimulated sneer.

Watching Demons, you can't proclaim Lamberto Bava a master of horror on the level of Mario Bava or Dario Argento, both of whom he clearly tries to emulate to an uncertain degree, but you end up admiring his unrelenting, spartan tastelessness. Tony the Pimp rallies up the frightened survivors into the mechanically-operated projection booth only to suggest they "Smash everything!" thinking that the film itself is to blame. Leave it to the blind man, now officially with holes where his failing orbs once resided, to declare like a Greek oracle, "It's the theater!" Two heavy-petting youths (one of whom is played by Fiore Argento, leaving Asia to pick up the nepotistic slack for part two) split apart from the group and crawl through a vent shaft looking for an escape, with unexpected, disastrous results. And the Outlaw of Gor himself becomes a one-man army with the aid of a motorbike and katana on loan from the foyer, cutting down most all of the ghoulies until salvation rears its untimely (and unbelievable) head.

Like Dario Argento's own Phenomena, Demons is unmistakably a transitional film in terms of 1980s trends creeping in to the aesthetic choices, case in point being the pop song-studded soundtrack. Well, not exactly pop (as evidenced earlier in what the punks are listening to), but more heavy metal as you can clearly hear the likes of Motley Crue, Accept and Saxon crunching up the show with their own "instruments of evil." Rick Springfield and The Scorpions are also listed in the credits, but they only use a droning, instrumental sample of the former's "Walking on the Edge," and the latter's "Dynamite," used in the original Italian track when the panicked patrons try to break free, was replaced entirely by Pretty Maids' "Night Danger" in English-language versions. The incidental music, meanwhile, are original compositions of Goblin vet Claudio Simonetti, whose electronic grunts and growls are just dandy.

Also worth noting are the appearances of former child star Nicoletta Elmi, who appeared in Bava's Bay of Blood (or Twitch of the Death Nerve) and Argento's Deep Red, as the ginger-haired usherette who's introduced caressing her stocking-clad leg, and another key figure in the Italian horror boom, Michele Soavi, in a dual role as the creepy Phantom of the Metro and one of the characters in the movie-within-the-movie. Soavi would soon graduate from minor acting roles and assistant directing gigs, like on this one, to making a splash with the body count thriller Deliria (Stage Fright), the official third Demons entry known mainly as The Church and the surrealist zombie classic Dellamorte Dellamore (Cemetery Man).

Demons is in the grand tradition of proudly illogical Italian horror cinema, replete with stubbornly archetypical characters, a plot more interested in sensory provision than sensible progression and an apocalyptic dénouement which sets the town ablaze and leaves you with one more jolt which makes you wonder why they even bothered with a Demons 2. That film was a beat-for-beat rehash which had all the thrill of a roller coaster trolley going up the peak, only to retreat and return to its starting position. The original Demons is pure amusement park spectacle, loopy and loud and demanding you just go with the flow. And like all the best strange entertainments, it keeps you coming back for more.


Sentimental me, I can recall seeing this for the first time on VHS via New World Video when I rented it in a video store in Zephyrhills, Florida, about 30 miles or so away from my birth town of Port Richey. Oh, sweet Jesus, did I feel like this was the movie of my dreams! The funny thing is this new Blu-Ray/DVD combo release from Synapse includes the American monaural soundtrack that has noticeably alternate dubbing compared to the English stereo mix familiar to the digital video market. You'll notice the voices and dialogue between Ripper and his gang are the clearest anomaly when you compare the two. Was that the version I saw as a teen boy? I'm betting that it's so, based solely on Baby Pig's jokey invocation of "Count Dracula" when the gang concern themselves with the noises coming from the theater.

Anyway, the two BD versions of Demons available now that are worth seeking out are either Synapse Films' 3000-limited Collector's Edition Steelbook, which has yet to be an official release in the typical Amaray case format, or Arrow Video's own in Britain. Both films offer solid high-definition transfers from archived negatives, but the Synapse team sunk in a lot of money to color-correct the film and remove transfer flaws. In fact, their Herculean efforts can be researched on their official site, which also delves into some specifics about the aforementioned mono track that further perplexes me. Oddly enough, barring the purist impulse to listen to the film in its native tongue, the mono mix, which is exclusive to the Synapse release, feels like the more natural option than the English stereo track. Still, couldn't they have found someone better to speak for Urbano Barberini? It's like hearing Christopher George talking over William Zabka.

The extras are also quite different between the US and UK editions. Synapse wins out with exclusive interviews from Lamberto Bava, Dario Argento and stuntman Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, alongside the more scholarly musings of both Luigi Cozzi, who also appears on Arrow's disc to recount his ten favorite horror films, and Alan Jones. Arrow films imported the old Anchor Bay audio commentary track with Bava and Sergio Stivaletti, which was always an awkward sit seeing as how they needed English-speaking moderators to carry them along. Luckily, a second, subtitled commentary shows Bava and Stivaletti more relaxed and abetted by Claudio Simonetti and Geretta "Ciancarlo." Synapse have opted to include the latter, thankfully, which needs the looser presence of Bava and the giddy humor of Geretta.

The Arrow version somehow skimped out on the original trailers, a problem not lost on Synapse.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Devil's Men (Land of the Minotaur)

(Unrated/PG, Cathay Films Ltd./Crown International Pictures, 95 mins./88 mins., release dates: August 11, 1976/June 1977)

The Minotaur of ancient Greek lore, born with a human body but also the head of a bull, was a bestial abomination that had to be contained in a labyrinth used for ritualistic child sacrifices, where it was eventually slain by Athenian hero Theseus. In classic literature, Dante revived the legendary beast by locating the Minotaur in the seventh circle of his Inferno. Recently, the TV series American Horror Story put a perverse spin on this interspecies image via the employment of a serial killer. But not too many films have acknowledged the existence of the Minotaur, save for the first Percy Jackson adaptation, naturally, and David Wain's child-care comedy Role Models, in which Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott were shilling an energy drink of the same name.

If you need proof of just how hard the mighty have to fall to agree to be the mascot for carbonated Toxie piss, look to 1976's Land of the Minotaur, initially known as The Devil's Men prior to its American theatrical release through Crown International. The independent studio, in that time-honored huckster tradition, used a lurid one-sheet to dupe audiences into expecting a creature feature along the line of, say, Equinox. The actual movie instead owes more to antecedents such as The Wicker Man and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, detouring away from rural England and rustic America to situate itself in Greece, with all three territories unionized as producers. Greek-savvy grindhouse scholars will best remember this region as the site of Nico Mastorakis' Video Nasty reprobate Island of Death, and it would appear the Greek film industry was poised to gain the most from this United Nations of exploitation, from the location scouting right on down to the director being Kostas Karagiannis, who may as well be considered the Baltan Jess Franco based on the evidence herein.

Even the film's imported name actors don't really make that much of an impression, which is quite shocking considering they're horror icons Donald Pleasance and Peter Cushing. In short time, they'd both be considered for a career-defining star performance in John Carpenter's Halloween with the victor being Mr. Pleasance, who also carries this film along in a manner similar to the character of Dr. Sam Loomis. Here, it's as Father Roche, an Irish Catholic priest living on the isle of Minos who is concerned with the unsolved disappearances of an Englishman and a French woman during an expedition. Sure enough, further lambs show up when Australian archaeology students Ian (Nikos Verlekis) and Beth (Vanna "Gelsomina" Reville) pay Father Roche a return visit with a friend from Boston named Tom (Robert Behling, the male lead from Island of Death) in tow, seeking out the locale where a bull-headed trinket was discovered. They sneak out of their hospitable old friend's quarters and become missing persons to the shock of Tom's girlfriend Laurie (minor Hammer starlet Luan Peters), who was invited by letter to take a flight out to see him.

Thus desperate Father Roche places a call to New York City asking for the favor-returning aid of private investigator Milo Kaye (Kostas Karagiorgis, billed here as "Costa Skouras"), duly introduced during sexy time in a scene that without doubt was edited heavily for the PG-rated U.S. version. At least in the uncut version, Milo admits a debt of gratitude is owed to Roche amidst servicing his nude blonde mistress (Jane Lyle, the other half of the incestuous sadist couple from Island of Death), although it doesn't fully excuse his complete irrelevance to the ensuing non-action (if you like your heroes six steps behind the villains at all time with frequently dumbfounded looks in their eyes, Milo and Roche are a godsend)  or the insufferably unfunny arguments between the supposed old friends over Milo's reckless driving. Also truncated for mass palatability were some mild gory violence and sudsy shots of a barenaked Luann Peters, although like the Milo Kaye character, her damsel-in-distress duties as the objectified Laurie were also thanklessly rote.

All three of them cross paths with Baron Corofax (a slumming Peter Cushing, clearly on holiday), a Carpathian expat as snobbish as he his shifty. Corofax is the high priest of the underground temple of the Minotaur, presented here as an anatomically-correct(!) stone idol who sneezes fire and bellows, with all the gravity of a monster truck show announcer, death threats to the hippie outlanders in its presence. Undead minions proceed to terrorize the trio, particularly helpless Laurie, whilst visions of Father Roche's intended murder on the altar are telegraphed to Beth and the Baron to no consequence, as the priest duly kicks ass for the Lord with hosannas and holy water.

You'd think that given the already sensational origins of its chosen deity, Corofax and the rest of the suspiciously civilized populace would be spilling the blood of their own children in their eagerness to appease. Alas, The Devil's Men boringly sticks to "death of the summer of love" sub-textual ciphers, all scruffy facial hair and denim hot pants, hardly worthy of the tragedy that befell anyone in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The Baron's own raven-haired brood stares ominously at Laurie, the better for the director to abuse close-up reaction shots more numbing than nefarious. Karagiannis comes across as a Greco-Roman hack job of the highest order, not just in representing his native land on film but in relying too much on shock-cut editing and zooms to disorient when all they do is distract. And the dialogue from teleplay veteran Arthur Rowe is a shambles too, making references to character details of jarring inconsistency (Father Roche lacks the finesse and beleaguered conviction of the later Dr. Loomis, coming across more like a crusading crackpot and perpetual nag) and conversations never held, all delivered by badly-dubbed, bored-sounding English speakers even in the case of Cushing and Pleasance.

However, the most curious credit in the entire film is that of the composer, electro-ambient icon Brian Eno. The score sounds exactly like you'd expect a slasher movie soundtrack would as churned out by the former Roxy Music knob-twister, only somehow more annoyingly atonal than atmospheric, and it makes Rick Wakeman's later work on The Burning sound like Bernard Herrmann in contrast. The only interesting thing about the rock ‘n' roll tune played during the end credits ("Devils! Demons!") is that it may have been used as flimsy evidence of the genre's corruptive influence in that infamous 1982 Christian propaganda film Rock: It's Your Decision.

The Devil's Men has the pacing of a funeral procession, the scare factor of a tabby kitten and enough squandered resources to instigate a massive government bailout. You'll pine for the tender "boy meets goat" romance of Island of Death if only for the element of surprise this film never offers you. The PG-rated Land of the Minotaur edit has fittingly made the rounds in multiple cheap DVD bundles of Crown International titles through Mill Creek Entertainment. Code Red and Scorpion Releasing have kept this film's reputation as a mere place-holder alive thanks to their own competing double-feature releases under their "Maria's B-Movie Mayhem" and "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" catalogues. In this battle, the edge once again goes to Katarina and friends since they've inaugurated the first official American release of the R-rated The Devil's Men (it's too tame to be deemed "unrated" as the box specifies), restoring all that precious T&A to a movie already too passionless to waste your seed on, demonic or not.

In lieu of a trailer or TV spot or radio ad (none of which are available online), here's a nostalgic link to the Commander USA's Groovie Movies presentation of Land of the Minotaur...

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Stephen King's Graveyard Shift (1990)

(R, Paramount Pictures, 88 mins., release date: October 26, 1990)

"Good benefits, early retirement" - Voiceover artist Percy Rodrigues, as heard in the original trailer for Stephen King's Graveyard Shift.

Gates Falls, Maine, is a one-horse town with a thousand-rat population. These persistent pests tend to congregate at the Bachman Textile Mill, the dingy, damp center of the town's meager economy, mostly during the 11-7 working hours, where they stare ominously at the poor schmucks hauling bags of cotton into the picking machine. One such dope, Jason Reed (Jonathan Emerson), goes a little too crazy from the heat and not only pounds his fist into a nail, but starts talking to the rats and threatening to systematically feed them into the picker. This angers some grizzly-sized Mother Rat who spooks Jason into falling into the device and getting gnashed into enough blood-drenched cloth to feed all of her hungry babies. And with that, the Bachman Mill once again posts that they are now hiring.

Oh, the satirical possibilities for a black-and-red horror comedy about the ways in which desperate wage slaves are run through the mill and fed upon by vermin of the human, rodent and supernatural varieties. Were it that Graveyard Shift realized that possibility to the fullest and became a bona fide B-movie instead of a C-list footnote in the deathless well of Stephen King film adaptations. Indeed, the full title is Stephen King's Graveyard Shift (perhaps to avoid confusion with the vampire cabbie flick from 1987), a dubious ploy for mass consumption despite the fact that its source material is a short story from the 1978 anthology tome Night Shift. This was before The Lawnmower Man tempted litigation from the author himself based on its loose association to his original text. And Graveyard Shift is also a precursor to Tobe Hooper's The Mangler, which swapped pickers for pressers and did away with the middle man by just having the titular machine be demonically possessed.

In this story, it's a gargantuan, grotesque rat/bat entity who threatens to permanently clock out the overnight crew of the Bachman Mill (now that I mentioned King, no doubt you finally got the in-joke, if it wasn't clearly obvious in the second sentence). Not that it keeps oily manager Mr. Warwick (Stephen Macht) up at night, as he lecherously assigns off-the-street replacement staffers free from those pesky Union constraints. Warwick's latest find is John Hall (David Andrews), a roaming Robert Ginty understudy with a college degree who calls his bluff when told that drifters make for unpromising applicants. Hall assumes the late Reed's duties in his own characteristically pacifist way, merely fending off the rats he sees by slinging soda cans with Robin Hood-worthy skill. Hall even stirs jealousy in Warwick by striking up a friendship with Jane Wisconsky (Kelly Wolf), the only one of the Bachman crew with as much baggage and integrity as he displays.

Warwick entices/coerces all of his employees into working the Fourth of July holiday week in order to clean up the mill and keep the inspectors off his back. He even blackmails the Vietnam vet exterminator Tucker Cleveland (Brad Dourif) into inspecting the nearby cemetery to avoid embroiling him in any license-revoking red tape. Needless to say, all their paths lead underground, as the mill rests atop a labyrinthine cavern which proves useful in allowing the creature to make quick work in vivisecting Warwick and his personnel save for the one noble soul who learned the proper trade secret from the batty rat catcher.

After the popular success of Pet Sematary, producer Ralph Singleton opted to direct his own King-based shocker and thus drew upon the easily-licensed "Graveyard Shift" for inspiration. His fortunes weren't helped by the fact that Rob Reiner's Misery won all the critical and commercial glory in late 1990, thus showing up his shlocky effort as another in the long line of misguided mediocrities associated with King that the man himself was responsible for temporarily stalling thanks to 1986's Maximum Overdrive. Another debit was that Singleton, despite a considerable pedigree as assistant director, was not the visual type of artist Mary Lambert was. She at least had a couple of iconic Madonna videos and a prior feature debut to her professional claim, whereas this was Singleton's first and only go after working up the ladder for well over a decade.

The trouble with Singleton here is that despite surrounding himself with some able crew members, chiefly production designer Gary Wissner (later the art director on David Fincher's Seven) and DP Peter Stein (no stranger to subterranean shock cinema thanks to C.H.U.D.), he can't do anything with them except make a very minor Tales from the Crypt episode. The movie has so little horror because while it knows the atmosphere from which King writes about, Singleton can't put his own creative stamp on it like De Palma, Kubrick, Cronenberg, or even made-for-TV Tobe Hooper did. The set-up for the movie is nondescript fish-out-of-water barnacle involving a bunch of colorless characters who literally live and die by their clichés, most egregious of which are the Fat Bully and the Jumpy Negro, who are even pitted against each other at one point for no good reason.

The performances are regrettably shoehorned by this lack of interest, with the only gold stars going to the hammiest of the lot. Of course, seeing Brad Dourif is good news considering his reliable foul-mouthed fervor serves the jaded exterminator role to a T, resulting in another memorable monologue (this time about the Viet Cong torture technique involving hungry rats) equal to anything found in The Exorcist III. But he gets done in like Ed Harris from Creepshow to my eternal displeasure. Even more unpredictable and unbelievable is Stephen Macht as Warwick. Although he had only been trained, albeit rather extensively, in London, Macht adopts an Englishman's over-the-top accent and overplays with such a swaggering, drawling enthusiasm that he frequently upstages the rest of the cast he has to routinely interact with. Not even Andrew Divoff, the once and future Wishmaster, can keep up with him as a cowardly underling.

After an hour's worth of stodgy, soapy conflicts, during which the most extraneous characters are bumped off without much grief from within the movie's universe or amongst its audience, it all culminates in a boring chase sequence full of every stupid situation you'd associate with a low-grade horror film, including wimpy hysterics, sprained ankles and characters reaching into holes where something is waiting to bite their arm off. The reveal of the monster itself doesn't live up to the hype, either, especially after countless scenes of giant wings and tails in plain sight of thudding oblivious stereotypes. But Warwick almost makes it all worthwhile by channeling his inner Fred Dobbs, turning his noxious self-preservation into psychotic mania by smearing soot all over his face, starting a brawl with Hall on top of a mountain of skeletons and crawling across the murky pits like he was once stationed with in Con Thien with Tucker. Macht also dominates the movie's loopy end credits theme, a Planes, Trains and Automobiles-style mix of chintzy funk crossed with random, looped sound bites.

Stephen King's Graveyard Shift is campy cable fare through and through, the kind of movie where laughter is constantly provoked instead of fear and it disappears from your memory save for a few ludicrous pleasures. At least it is available on DVD by Paramount in one of their commendable "widescreen collection" releases complete with 5.1 Dolby Surround remix and not a single bonus feature. Best to pick this up in the triple-feature budget pack with the superior April Fool's Day and the slightly more enticing Tales from the Darkside: The Movie to give you more and better viewing options.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

April Fool's Day (1986)

(R, Paramount Pictures, 89 mins., release date: March 27, 1986)

In 1986, it seemed that the slasher subgenre seized upon every holiday in the calendar with the exception of April Fool's Day. There was already a movie called "Pranks," in actuality 1982's The Dorm That Dripped Blood, which could've easily been retrofitted into a first-of-the-month festival of jokes and japes, yet it wasn't until rather late in the game that such a device was engaged. What made it more interesting is that two April Fool Killer titles were unleashed in that same year, from competing personnel behind the trend-setting Friday the 13th films. On the one hand, producer Stephen Minasian was teaming up again with schlock merchant Dick Randall, in the wake of the immortal Pieces ("BAAASTAAARD!") and Don't Open Till Christmas, to bring Slaughter High to the world. But beating them to the punch was Frank Mancuso Jr. at Paramount, working with Beverly Hills Cop screenwriter Danilo Bach and When A Stranger Calls director Fred Walton for what is the official winner of the "April Fool's Day" title.

Each of the produced movies played right into the designated producer's respective trademarks. Slaughter High was another cheap, openly ludicrous Z-movie with established genre credentials in the casting of British starlet Caroline Munro. April Fool's Day was a mainstream effort with a younger cast and the typical pastoral ghastliness found in every camp or forest-themed slasher movie to that point. And they had their own humorous attitude, whether or not the viewer had to condescend to it (Slaughter High) or it was intentional from the start (April Fool's Day). The biggest difference between them is that Slaughter High had greater freedom and lack of shame, delivering on the exploitation hallmarks of splatter and skin, whereas April Fool's Day tones down the exhibitionism to the point where you are supposed to take it as an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery and not merely just another Dead Teenager Movie.

Christie is directly referenced in the dialogue very early on, as are fellow authors Milton and Ibsen, which gives this film a more literate pedigree than a lot of its ilk. Indeed, of this film's Ten Little Indians, there were three left by the conclusion to confront each other in the posh St. John family manor in which several of its guests had already been dispatched and disappeared. There was friction between the disturbed denizens, suspicions were slung about and windows and doors became bolted down to cage in the last remaining few. However, with a film titled April Fool's Day, it would be wise for the fresh audience member to expect the unexpected, namely a nice poke in the ribs from its prankster personnel.

It duly begins with eight college students of varied affluence invited to spend Spring Break weekend at the lakeside home of mutual friend Muffy St. John (Deborah "The Val Gal" Foreman). Amongst them are the requisite cadre of pranksters and pretties, played by a number of faces recognizable to anyone with fond memories of Back to the Future (Thomas F. Wilson as perpetual buffoon Arch Cummings), Just One of the Guys (Clayton Rohner and Deborah Goodrich coupled up as camera-wielding clown Chaz and wild oats-reaping bombshell Nikki) or Friday the 13th Part 2 (Final Girl extraordinare Amy Steel as the equitable Kit, girlfriend of Ken Olandt's buff med school applicant Rob). New to this circle of friends are Muffy's broodingly distant cousin Skip (Griffin O'Neal), bookish thespian Nan (Leah King Pinsent) and gawky Southern gent Harvey "Hal" Edison, Jr. (Jay Baker), seen chomping at the bit, and perhaps literally on his cigar, to ingratiate himself into Muffy's profitable lineage.

Tragedy strikes when boat hand Buck (Mike Nomad) fails to rope in their ferry before it closes in on him and causes grisly damage to his face. No matter, as Muffy and friends continue to eat, drink and be merry until the next morning, as lonesome Skip turns up missing and presumed dead after Kit and Rob discover his lifeless body in the midst of making out in the boathouse. The situation becomes more dire as the guests systematically turn up murdered and the survivors scramble for help. And eccentric hostess Muffy already seems a bit more aloof and dodgy than usual, mispronouncing Arch's name and striking a raw nerve in Nan via a tape recording of a crying baby. Could this all be Muffy's idea of a joke?

Although it wasn't a reversal of fortune for the stagnating slaher genre at the time of its release, April Fool's Day has gone on to some measure of acclaim as one of the missing links in the postmodern revival of body count terror solidified in the 1990s by Wes Craven, the father of Freddy (the even carried over Elm Street composer Charles Bernstein). Walton, Mancuso and Bach decided that if they're going to pay tribute to the one day of the year which encourages amiable treachery, they'd work the practical jokes into the plot as well, thus April Fool's Day attempts to trick around with the conventions of the genre. None of the kills are actually depicted, a definite departure from the FX-oriented brutality of every other 1980s slasher film, even if some of the aftermaths look duly unpleasant. The simple-minded archetypes of sexually-active teens are shaken up with a considerable attention to character detail and camaraderie, as even Arch, who falls for the breakable chair gag more than once, is aware that this "privileged, independent, hope for the future" gang still can't settle upon their goals in life. The character of Nikki, who in a lazier screenplay would've been merely a snobby bimbo, is handled with more wit and vulnerability than one would find.

Even the performances are a cut above the norm by comparison. Surely, there was no lack of naturalism in most casting of early 1980s horror films, but there weren't many as generous to their actors as this. One the one hand, you've got Tom Wilson, best known as Biff Tannen, giving a loose and highly enthusiastic comic performance as Arch, an attitude which infects equally laid-back work from Clayton Rohner and Jay Baker. And then there's Deborah Foreman, a normally effervescent screen persona, starting out atypically charming as Muffy and becoming curiously dowdier and more cagey, finding just right touches of quirk to suggest she's truly not acting like herself. Foreman's natural perkiness instead passes on to Deborah Goodrich, who possesses a wonderfully silky voice which went criminally underused amongst 1980s babes (see Jeff Lieberman's Remote Control). The reliably droll Amy Steel, who was the first worthy adversary to Jason Voorhees as Ginny Field, was actually hired at Mr. Mancuso's suggestion and her solid straight-woman pluckiness is just as engaging.

With a healthy self-awareness and uniform sense of gameness amongst the ensemble established, April Fool's Day does have a proper set-up for the ensuing carnage and twist ending. The latter development managed to irk a lot of die-hard horror fanatics, but on second thought actually comes across much less like a cheat and more of a natural extension of the film's playful qualities. An off-hand reference to "taxes" by Nikki and the introductory scene with Muffy raiding her basement for trinkets and toys, coming upon a jack-in-the-box of sentimental if scary value, do prepare you in their own subtle ways. And this acknowledgment of subtlety in characterization and conflict is what's most intriguing about April Fool's Day compared to the bottom-line, bottom-barrel bloodlust of its progenitors.

That doesn't mean Fred Walton builds upon the iconic "Have you checked the children?" opening of his When a Stranger Calls, as April Fool's Day has minimal suspense even in its conclusion, which feels terribly rushed in order to get to the Big Reveal. Say what you will about Scream, but at least Wes Craven knows how to stage a tense chase sequence which really tightens the screws. The pacing feels a little too quick for April Fool's Day at times, so it doesn't do proper justice to the intended satire and instead plays like merely a straight-up rehash.

Yet, in my previous evaluation of House, I talked about the big boom in humorous horror which started to thrive in the mid-1980s, with 1986 in particular having a veritable slew of them, many of which deliberately wallowed in their frivolity. April Fool's Day fits right in with the best of them, especially in a moment where Chaz jokes about the frightening possibility of somebody exposing their penis and then the camera cuts to a hot dog being pushed out of a pack as the ladies cook up beanie weenies. Or the moment of awkward silence in which Kit suddenly comes to terms with a moment of grave fear revealing itself to be the mother of all April Fools. Or the exaggerated but spirited treatment of its interchangeable expendables, resulting in such sublime juxtapositions where a character trying to lighten up his lover by donning a gimp mask is immediately found in a fatally compromising position.

Luckily, Paramount didn't let this movie's relative obscurity (there was a 2008 "remake" which debuted on DVD, more closely resembles another sucky in-name only adaptation in Sorority Row and has not a single chance of even matching the original's newfound cult reputation) keep it from coming out on disc in 2002 in the kind of crummy budget release that combines a washed-out full-frame digital transfer (they shot this with the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in mind, damn it!) and tinny "Dolby stereo" soundtrack (no tasteful 5.1 surround sound remix) for a painful home entertainment experience more befitting of a Artisan Entertainment atrocity title like the Watchers series or Shadows Run Black or even...[gulp] SLAUGHTER HIGH!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Society + Spontaneous Combustion

(Unrated, Republic Pictures, 99 mins., theatrical release date: June 11, 1992)

(R, Taurus Entertainment Company, 97 mins., theatrical release date: February 23, 1990)

Brian Yuzna, producer of 1985's Re-Animator and director of its first sequel, aims low at the upper crust with what was his inaugural filmmaking bow, Society. Shot over five weeks and completed in 1989 for entry in that year's Cannes Film Festival, the movie never got an official American theatrical release until three years later, which feels like an injustice considering this is many ways a transitional film, one of the last in both the body horror and teen comedies of the 1980s, but bold enough to fuse both genres in a deliciously perverse fashion. If you ever wanted to see an amalgam of Gary Sherman's Dead & Buried (1981) and Michael Lehmann's Heathers (1988), Society will shunt itself right up your alley.

What exactly is "shunting," you might ask? Well, if I could try to put this as mildly as I possibly can, it's got something to do with the Beverly Hills nouveau riche asserting their privilege in ways that suggest a Salvador Dali nightmare of Caligula. And given that the man responsible for bringing this indelible image to life is Screaming Mad George, who handled Brooke Theiss' cockroach disintegration scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, you might want to lay off the munchies given that the entire third act of Society involves a mass shunting party held for the indoctrination of teenage lead Bill Whitney (Billy Warlock, Baywatch star and son of stuntman Dick Warlock from Halloween II & III).

Society has been waiting for Billy, but he's been left wanting. Despite his affluence presenting him alpha male status as both a basketball jock and senior class president, Billy still visits a shrink, Dr. Cleveland, confessing to a home life plagued by "incest and psychosis," and that there is something dubious about his privilege that he's afraid to explore. Enter David Blanchard (Tim Bartell), the chunky ex-boyfriend of Billy's pampered sister Jennifer (Patrice Jennings), whose planted tape recorder unveils references to "copulation" in regards to the girl's coming out party that frighten Billy even more. Blanchard turns up dead, and the unctuous taunts of elite preppie Ted "The Tycoon" Ferguson (Ben Meyerson) force the reluctant Billy to scratch the surface of society.

You see, in this particular posh upper-class paradise, the emphasis on "good breeding" in regards to jockeying for position is a sick joke Yuzna is all too happy to push to its extreme. Billy feels the pressure to become more of an elitist from not only his family but also his cheerleader girlfriend Shauna (Heidi Kozak from Slumber Party Massacre 2). The obvious twist in Billy's infatuation with frisky free-spirit Clarissa Carlyn (Devin DeVasquez) might just lead him further astray given that she tools around with the contemptible Ferguson. The only loyal friend Billy has is the comparatively nerdy Milo (Evan Richards as Corey Haim), who feels betrayed enough to play a couple innocent practical jokes yet sticks by Billy when he realizes his suspicions may be valid.

Woody Keith and Rick Fry's screenplay refashions all of the teen movie tropes of its era into something that rivals the later Robert Rodriguez/Kevin Williamson collaboration The Faculty. Here, the John Hughes lineage is played less self-congratulatory and is treated like gospel, thus making the satire much more fun to decipher. Coming across like a beefy Michael J. Fox doppelganger, Billy Warlock is relaxed in the role to the point where one gets the impression that Bill Whitney is like a periphery Hughes character, e.g. Jake Ryan or Amanda Jones, pushed to the forefront. The usual concerns about class you'd expect from a Hughes screenplay are given a more anarchic, outrageous frame of reference, even if the love story doesn‘t fully break from tradition. The ways in which peer pressure and status quo mould our personality are played straight only to get twisted into Guignol macabre as is the kind of common mistrust of the 1%. All of these anxieties, both in thematic and physical manifestations, play on the kind of "plastic reality" Yuzna once used to describe the grisly, dreamlike practical effects work found in horror movies from A Nightmare on Elm Street onward.

Society packs plenty of unforgettable images involving the goopy, ghastly contortions of flesh. Early on, a voyeuristic glance at Jenny in the shower hints at shapes of things to come, and Billy's sexual encounter with Clarissa, in which she is found in a rather "funny position," is shrugged off with a "pissing in the tea" joke. It all culminates in a finale that gives Yuzna and Screaming Mad George (credited with not merely special, but "surrealistic make-up effects") the chance to one-up the methyl cellulose monstrosities of Stuart Gordon's From Beyond. To arrive there, though, we have to consider the notion that Bill might potentially paranoid, a bit of character detail that doesn't particularly shine through in script or performance. It really isn't a matter of whether or not Bill might be too self-absorbed in his angst, but of waiting for someone to recognize the shady goings-on involving (dis)appearing corpses and incestuous sexuality are not detritus of the imagination.

Still, Yuzna's dementedly allegorical debut is part of the ruling class as opposed to Tobe Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion, the Texan filmmaker's return to features following his ill-fated tenure with Golan and Globus. Hooper's preoccupation with the "nuclear family" is taken literally when in 1955, all-American lovebirds Brian & Peggy Bell (Society nerd Brian Bremer, Stacy Edwards) withstand a hydrogen bomb blast beneath the Nevada Desert as part of "Project Samson," a government experiment involving underground bunkers and an anti-radiation serum that nonetheless proves fatal when the subjects burst into flames following the birth of their son. 30 years later, the Bell's only child is known as Sam Kramer (Brad Dourif) and working as a high school teacher in Trinidad Beach, although an escalating series of personal humiliations and deceptions unleashes a fiery temper which results in those close to him being afflicted with the titular fatality. When he learns that his life has been a set-up at the expense of friend o' the family Lew Olander (William Prince), Sam takes back his identity as David Bell and takes revenge on those who threaten him.

Once you get past the amusing faux-newsreel which touts the Bell couple as Atomic Age celebrities, know that the remaining 80 minutes is essentially an unfair trade-off in which Tobe Hooper demonstrates just how far he's fallen since Chainsaw Massacres, Salem's Lot and Poltergeist and where Oscar-nominee Brad Dourif gives a rare central performance, certainly his first most notable lead since his Hazel Motes of Wise Blood (1979), which goes beyond the call of duty. The perpetually-fevered, perennially-deceived David Bell is desperate for answers about his manipulated life and Dourif gives every emotion an urgent intensity and sense of palpable pain. By contrast, Hooper's storytelling ability is hindered by a morass of stilted exposition, poor editing and a numbing succession of badly-realized optical fire effects which inspire fits of derisive laughter, especially in the scene where a testy radio station techie played by John Landis shoots fire out of his mouth like he's Godzilla.

The constant plot similarities to Firestarter are hard to ignore, as is the feeling of immunity to Dourif's valiant over-acting, which often mistakes fanaticism for fear, and the sense that screenplay co-author Hooper, whose previous Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was the manna of gonzo B-movie heaven, cannot quite bring out the shock or the satire in this dated No Nukes screed. Sam/David's self-discovery coincides with protest over the midnight launch of a nuclear power plant, but Hooper cannot find a single provocative thought when you compare it to the era-defining grotesqueries of either Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequels. It ends only with a bald rip-off of Wes Craven's Shocker in the ultimate show of misplaced priorities.

Spontaneous Combustion is just so frustratingly dumb, unable to explain away Sam's late-blooming pyrokinesis or the fate of his parents or the shady intentions of Sam's caregivers in a way that is in any way gripping or the least bit satisfactory. Shouldn't Sam have been treated like caged rat in a top-secret facility a la Martin Brundle in The Fly 2? Or shouldn't the outside world be so exaggerated as to suggest a real life sense of being sheltered? The sudden revelation of Sam's bland love interest Lisa (Cynthia Bain) being a similar product of nefarious deeds could crack your skull in its face-palming thoughtlessness, and it's resolved just as poorly.

But what bugs me the most is that Tobe Hooper could've sincerely made a return to form with this movie and kept his name from slumming any further as it eventually did. Instead, Spontaneous Combustion just shows up how mercenary mainstream projects like The Funhouse or any of his three Cannon Group endeavors demonstrated more inspiration and entertainment value. The only reason I have allowed this movie to endure in my memory banks for so long is that Brad Dourif was its big name star, the principal reason I sought this out on tape as a boy, and it's simply not enough anymore. The sad truth is that Hooper himself flamed out, and Spontaneous Combustion isn't so much kino as it is kindling.

Anchor Bay issued both Society and Spontaneous Combustion as separate entities before joining them on a flipper-disc "Drive-In Double Feature" which would've made more sense had the former actually been released in 1990, too. Brian Yuzna explains the reason for this as well as points out autobiographical details in Woody Keith's script and the retrofitting of GMT studios, a privately-owned facility with a hugely Christian clientele, for the film's ungodly climax in a solo commentary track which is the only notable extra included for either flick. At least they included their original trailers...