Monday, January 28, 2013

Survival Quest

(R, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1989, theatrical release date: November 10, 1989)

Considering the surreal, supernatural majesty of the Phantasm saga, the Marc Singer-mounted cheese factor of The Beastmaster and his recent appraisal of cult authors Joe R. Lansdale (Bubba Ho-Tep) and David Wong (John Dies at the End), Don Coscarelli doesn't have the most prolific of resumes. Having made his first movie at 19, Coscarelli is one master of horror with a restless creative spirit that was made for the bizarre fancy of his 1979 breakthrough feature about extra-dimensional grave robbers and the sentient silver spheres which serve them. Instinct drives Coscarelli more than prolificacy, which kept him from realizing Phantasm II had to be made until close to a decade after the original's sleeper success. Interestingly, much of the creative personnel behind his ill-fated summer sequel studio picture from 1988 were busy with another project during at the time, the adventure-drama Survival Quest. It's been a while since Anchor Bay dropped Coscarelli's black sheep into video stores alongside the original and third Phantasm ventures, but in the wake of John Dies at the End, I figured I'd try for a second opinion about Survival Quest.

A down-to-earth, in-the-rough fable freed from Coscarelli's fancifully homebrewed eccentricity, Survival Quest puts two opposing factions of self-perseverance schools on the same flight to the Rocky Mountains. The first outfit are collectively known as the Blue Legion, an Outward Bound subdivision of the Cobra Kai dojo from The Karate Kid led by militarist Jake Connor (Mark Rolston). The second are the titular Survival Quest students being taught by Hank Chambers (Lance Henriksen), a more reformed and refined father figure whose philosophy is more of solidarity and coexistence with both nature and man. The former group consists of your typical young gallery of grunts and dogfaces, with the clear leader-in-training being the spiteful Raider (Steve Antin). The latter is more inclusive and opens its ranks to unemployed seniors (Ben Hammer as Hal), sullen divorcees (Catherine Keener as Cheryl), boyish jokesters (Paul Provenza as Joey), and chain-smoking convicts on probation (Dermot Mulroney as Gray).

Hank's charges eventually learn to rely on and value each other's strengths despite their disparate backgrounds. Their first group problem-solving activity underestimates the strength of the women (expect a broken nail jibe at the expense of Traci Lind's bride-to-be Olivia) and places loner Gray further in a box ("He's probably good at climbing walls"), but both Cheryl and Gray come to demonstrate leadership and empathy thanks mostly to the sage guidance of Hank. But if Hank is meant to be Sgt. Elias in this film's friendlier platoon, then Jake is clearly a surrogate for Barnes.

"The penalty for failure is death" is the fascist bully Jake's creed ("When you walk in these woods, you are the predator...a predator trusts no one") even if the Blue Legion's campfire rituals come across more like fraternity hazing than the more disciplined, rigorous regime of even a bandana-clad hippie like Hank. The overeager sociopath Raider functions solely as Jake's whipping boy until the script demands that victim become aggressor, at which point the Survival Quest team have to work together against a legitimate threat boasting live ammunition and a Hitler Youth hive mindset.

Don Coscarelli may have not had the gods of high grosses on his side when Phantasm II came out, and indeed that film's deliberately gonzo tone is a clear heir to the madcap likes of Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and Stuart Gordon. But there was a cracking energy, offbeat charm and courage of conviction that made it so beloved over time. Coming off that minor letdown, Survival Quest is an even greater loss in regards to Coscarelli's talents. On a thematic level, it doesn't betray the ingenuity and derring-do of characters like Mike, Reggie or The Beastmaster; when it comes to execution, though, something went wrong on this journey.

The film is a jumble of elements from wilderness thrillers (Deliverance, Rituals), war movies and every variation of The Most Dangerous Game and The Lord of the Flies committed to celluloid. But there's no subversion or spirit built into this film's conventional DNA, just an indifferent sense of pacing, staging and plotting. The film goes over the halfway point in allowing us to gauge Hank's students' stamina and learning, so much so that the Blue Legion threat arrives far too late and with even more perfunctory purpose. Furthermore, the film needed to be tighter in regards to both sides' training activities, especially to skim out unnecessarily silly scenes like when Jake forces his grunts to play Hide and Seek and to just avoid the formulaic monotony of this back-and-forth between the two teams. It takes an entire hour for Hank's team to begin their fateful trip 80 miles towards safety, but the stakes are very low and the set pieces utterly devoid of genuine urgency or horror, unless one poorly-conceived waterfall escape and the usual dumb encounter with a mother grizzly are enough to stop your breath.

With the exception of another steely, dignified turn from the truly great Lance Henriksen, riding high on a late-1980s wave which peaked gloriously with both Aliens and Near Dark, the script barely serves its stars with their one-note characterizations. His Aliens co-star Mark Rolston does a serviceable enough job as opposite number Jake, especially when he finally reveals his self-defeating humanity, but is nonetheless trapped in a snarling throwaway role. It's disappointing enough to know Steve Antin (The Last American Virgin, The Goonies) is playing another insufferably underwritten dickweed, but his more conditioned creepiness as Raider is less Vincent D'Onofrio and bears a more startling resemblance to Eric Freeman's campy, hyper-masculine psycho from Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2. The same Catherine Keener who would prove herself a brilliant performer in midlife is squandered, and even the lovely genre stalwart Traci Lind (Fright Night Part 2, Class of 1999, even My Boyfriend's Back) is not given much charm or color to her character. There's no chemistry between her and Dermot Mulroney in the film's poor attempt at romance, instead throwing all its heart into the exchanges between Gray and Hank, whom Henriksen instills with a rugged but admriable warmth.

Phantasm II cinematographer Daryn Okada does capture the gorgeously authentic scenery with the assistance of a couple of smooth, sweeping camera movies. The mountains, plateaus, rivers, and snow-covered hills along the Sierra can't help but look invigorating. But the overly lightweight score by Fred Myrow and Christopher Stone hardly registers on the same hypnotic, pulse-pounding level as their compositions from Coscarelli's earlier fare.

The DVD version of Survival Quest was sourced from vault elements provided courtesy of Don Coscarelli himself and supposedly re-edited from its original theatrical cut. However, he opted out of including a supplementary commentary or interview, which is another shame coming from such a natural moviemaker. There is instead an eight-minute reel of behind-the-scenes footage and a triptych of trailers, one of which reminds you that MGM did distribute this theatrically before dumping it on VHS from CBS/Fox in a double feature with something called Damned River.

Not even a welcome Reggie Bannister cameo can distract me from the feeling that this movie needed some silver balls of a different type.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Premium Rush

(PG-13, 2012, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, street date: December 21, 2012, SRP: $35.99)


With a title that brings to mind a bargain bin classic rock compilation, a plot that has been overstated in its similarity to a mid-1980s Kevin Bacon vehicle and yet another whacked-out, wacky supporting turn for Michael Shannon in the spirit of his vicariously vulgar Kim Fowley imitation from Floria Sigismondi's The Runaways, Premium Rush sounds zippy in all the weakest ways. Never mind Sony's decision to keep this on the burner until what seemed like another banner year for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, following the sweep of The Dark Knight Rises (there's also claims of plagiarism from novelist/treatment writer Joe Quirk). Prolific scribe and frequent director David Koepp (Ghost Town) arrives with a movie that my cynical side is shocked to find hasn't been released in January, but had to eat the high-profile dust of the summer of 2012.

The result was an under-performing little castaway in the same company of shame as flops like Rock of Ages, That's My Boy and The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure. Having seen Premium Rush in my romanticized style of unassuming home video exposure, consider this one a deserved catch worthy of the chase.

I'm a big believer in B-movie economy, and David Koepp has a crackerjack sense of pacing, action and storytelling that, with all due respect to the late David R. Ellis, has been perfected by Koepp. He's written his fair share of hot properties, be they Jurassic Park, Spider-Man or Indiana Jones, but also worked frequently on films directed by Brian De Palma, and it's the latter collaborations that butter this movie's popcorn thrills. Premium Rush doesn't overstay its welcome, comes on with a wild sense of purpose and has the all-consuming breeziness of an actual bike trip.

Koepp's cartoonish courier caper names its two-wheeled, single-geared hero Wilee but endows him with the Road Runner's navigational prowess. Being the speediest delivery boy in Manhattan, where the traffic congestion comes thick and furious, Wilee uses a cellular GPS to map his destinations but does his best directional thinking during split-second dilemmas whenever he reaches an intersection. Looking to the left may bring unwanted harm to a pedestrian, whereas riding on the right could bust him down to the level of the pavement. Surveying his options and relying on both speed and cunning, Wilee does his best to "pay heed" as one colorful side character espouses, but acknowledges that the possibility of taking a hit is very common and real.

Wilee isn't ready to either hang up or touch up his bicycle, though, especially if plan B is donning a law student's three-pieced suit and thus living by the brakes he so foolhardily denies installing. His recent route involves his hot-and-bothered girlfriend Vanessa's (Dania Ramirez) own strung-out roommate Nima (Jamie Chung), a Columbia University alum who entrusts Wilee to deliver an envelope to Chinatown, where a snakehead named Sister Chen is waiting to pick up the parcel by 7:00 P.M. In a little over 100 minutes (doesn't this sound so much more like Darkman than Batman?), Wilee has to fulfill his end of the job without getting accosted by the NYPD traffic cops or, even worse, rogue detective Bobby Monday (his primary alias: Forrest J. Ackerman), who has the type of desperate stake in intercepting the envelope that brings out the raging psycho in him both before and after he first intimidates Wilee.

The frequently fanatical character actor Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) bestows Monday with an unhinged, unpredictable zest akin to a modern day Cagney. The narrative rewinds itself a la Run Lola Run at key points to develop the motivations of both Monday and Nima, but Shannon's relentless bogey with a badge dominates many of these flash-backward vignettes. Monday flakes out on a gambling debt by simply taking his rebuy money across the street, where he duly loses it and suffers a beatdown from a pair of thugs who bludgeon him with the phone book ("Is that Chinese?"). When they remove him of a tooth, Monday retaliates by knocking one of the enforcers near death and is forced deeper into moral betrayal by accepting the tip-off involving Nima's $50,000 package. Before that, the audience has already watched him gleefully taunt both Wilee ("This is silly. You're gonna skin your knee.") and himself ("I'm chasing a bicycle. Heh heh!") with his first ill-fated pursuit of the loot. Shannon's cackling, cowardly, crazed performance is a blissful example of precisely-calibrated overacting, as funny it is frightening.

Both Gordon-Levitt and Shannon anchor (or is that anvil?) the film with their respective charisma, the former giving a lightweight but brazenly charming lead role less Sam Witwicky and more vintage John Cusack. They blend in well with Koepp's scenic eye, fleet-of-foot action and fondness for unfettered stunt work (including a memorable on-set injury preserved in the end credits) that makes the copious street-beat set pieces approachable and, yes, often exciting.

Escapism doesn't get more basic and old-fashioned as Wilee's attitude of "taste my pedal steel," even if it admittedly has no logical bearing in both reality (not a single motorist or cavalry of cops decide to pose the same challenge as Monday or the more innocuous bike cop, played by Christopher Place, whom Wilee dodges) or story wise (Wilee and Vanessa have a chaste little thing called love, one hardly challenged by a third-wheel braggart of an antagonist named Manny, played by Wolé Parks). Koepp's cracking pace and quick, evenly-handled cuts give the chases breathing room and draw deserved attention to the ingenious camera placements and colorful locales.

Low on stakes but high on vigor, Premium Rush is simply wunderbar. The Blu-Ray edition boasts a remarkable 1080p HD image and whiz-bang lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack utilizing discrete effects and ambience with the foremost proficiency. The bonus features, though, are limited to 22 minutes worth of EPK interviews and some previews. Hipster Sleigh Bells fans (the noise-pop duo have a fleeting cameo to the final notes of "Crown on the Ground") may consider forming a flash mob.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Enchantéd, Pt. III: Amityville II: The Possession

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin 

III. Amityville II: The Possession (1982)
(R, Orion Pictures)


1982's The Last American Virgin was an unexpected detour into adolescent tragedy, bringing into question the conflict between love vs. lust, the transfixing trauma of one-way affection and the self-sabotaging juvenilia which holds one back from shaping or accepting their reality. It wasn't as hilarious as I hoped, despite a few moments that worked on the skill of the young actors, but I was sold on the dramatic all giving-no returning between Gary and Karen. And though I tried to tiptoe my way through recapping the entire movie, once you watch Diane Franklin as Karen make her fateful decision to forgive and forget, it comes with as much humanity as it does horror. For her first couple movies, Franklin plays characters with a twinkling tenderness that ultimately wrecks the viewer, as contrivance and manipulation in the story reveal ugly fates molding a striking beauty.

So swiftly it seems that Franklin, as relayed by her autobiography, got asked to audition for Amityville II: The Possession after wrapping up Virgin. Produced by Dino De Laurentiis and importing Italian filmmaker Damiano Damiani, the follow-up to 1979's The Amityville Horror was based on Hans Holzer's Murder in Amityville, a speculative recounting of the real life crimes committed by Ronald "Butch" DeFeo, Jr. in November 1974. Avoiding all conflicting theories and alternative motives, it has to be said that a tragedy did occur as DeFeo was the sole survivor of a brutal mass homicide that claimed the lives of his entire family. Whatever may or may not be true about the Lutz family's postmortem paranormal claims, there was unwarranted blood spilled. Let us not lose track of the honest-to-goodness pain of this story, especially in the wake of a 2012 scarred by the loss of some innocent souls in both Connecticut and Colorado.

Perhaps it's a combination of the real-life traumas of the last year, the stylistic dreamscape atmosphere mastered by the Italian horror icons such as Dario Argento & Lucio Fulci and my unwavering faith in Mrs. Franklin's au natural likeability that makes this particular image from the movie feel like a painful requiem for the now:

The crux of Amityville II: The Possession is the twisted story of a picture-perfect family concealing multiple perversions and resentments. The Montelli clan has for its paterfamilias a hair trigger-tempered martinet who unbuckles his belt with irrational and alarming frequency. The God-fearing mother valiantly tries to instill unity and sanity but is not safe from her husband's wrath, reduced to neglected hostage instead of beloved spouse. The firstborn son and blossoming daughter have a more solid bond, albeit one that immediately gets sullied once the residential demon of 112 Ocean Avenue settles itself in the young man's soul. The younger siblings, meanwhile, exhibit a playful rapport consisting of attempted violence. The plot doesn't need to lean too much on the supernatural as the viewer can sense an implosion could happen at any moment.

Tommy Lee Wallace adapted Holzer's book for the screen, with unaccredited punch-up from Dardano Sacchetti. Wallace worked on Halloween III: Season of the Witch around this time, whereas Sacchetti had already penned the likes of Fulci's The Beyond (Seven Doors of Death) and City of the Living Dead (The Gates of Hell). In Halloween III, the controversial choice to jettison bogeyman Michael Myers resulted in a "pod people" pastiche about an Irish-founded California town where a Celtic occultist-cum-inventor malevolently inverts the past time of "trick or treat" to wipe out an entire coast's kiddie population and, with any luck, their parents. In both of the aforementioned Fulci films, the portals to hellish realms of zombies and pestilence are blown wide open by vengeful spirits, be they a suicidal priest or a lynched warlock. Like peanut butter and chocolate, the script for Amityville II: The Possession is at its most succulent in combining these two poles of existential gloom and mystical menace.

However, Amityville II: The Possession is very much an exploitation film, calculated to latch onto prior and present box-office glories (The Exorcist and Poltergeist, namely), integrating taboo themes for deliberately vicarious shock situations (I neglect to mention Franklin's nudity in these early films because the contexts are far from titillating) and filmed on the fly with low-budget resources (notice both Jim Morrison AND Debbie Harry posters in this film supposedly set in the early 1970s?). Dino De Laurentiis began the decade with a belly flop as the producer of Flash Gordon and invested much of the early 1980s into producing horror movies, the most notable of which were Halloween II and Halloween III. Amityville II: The Possession feels like a safe bet, a backwoods carnival spookshow ride with the invaluable Lalo Schrifrin's Herrmann-esque discordance piercing your ears and the fetid stink of cavernous basement passageways filling your nose. That it ends with a self-sacrificial shouting match of "Demon Be Gone" is just further formula in motion.

But Amityville II: The Possession has moments of prosthetic and elegiac poetry so ripe with fascination that, upon the hindsight-clouded second opinion, the renegade Damiani and crew may have made the endless series' sole crown jewel.

Anthony and Dolores Montelli are played by Burt Young and Rutanya Alda at a low-key point in their careers following appearances in definitive 1970s films such as Rocky and The Deer Hunter. Hardcore horror fans may recall Young from Blood Beach and Alda from Girls Nite Out (The Scaremaker), and theatrical adverts for both have been featured in compilation releases like 42nd Street Forever Vol. 3 and Trailer War. Jack Magner has his only starring role as Sonny Montelli, bearing a striking resemblance to the charismatically creepy Malcolm McDowell of 1982's Cat People. Diane Franklin, of course, acts the part of Patricia Montelli and real life siblings Erika and Brenda Katz play Mark and Jan Montelli. The supporting roles belong to eventual hero James Olson as Father Adamsky, Moses Gunn as Detective Turner and the consummate Andrew Prine, no stranger to haunted houses thanks to 1978's The Evil, as Adamsky's right-hand Father Tom.

The idyllic opening duly shows the Montellis arriving at their new Long Island habitat in separate cars, with Anthony, Mark and Jan getting there first and Dolores and Patricia pulling up afterwards. Mother and daughter beamingly sing a bar of "Home! Sweet Home!" to which the perpetually scowling Anthony shoots them down with an acidic retort. It gets worse when Sonny, delayed by the excitement of his cherry-red automotive anachronism and the hankering for some smokes, is chewed out for not following the women and threatened with a whipping. Already, the mighty Burt Young has excelled at the seemingly thankless task of playing a teeth-gnashing ogre of such feverish dislike that even the impromptu warmth of a steak dinner as recollected by Patricia itself reveals a nasty agenda fueled by dominance and conditioned docility.

Moving into their abode, Anthony and Dolores find the windows mysteriously nailed shut and the latter is shaken up twice by bizarre phenomenon in both the kitchen and the cellar. But it is Sonny, egged on by ghostly voices emanating from his Walkman(!), who is set-up as the perfect host for the apparition who continually provokes the Montellis on their first night within the house, causing peaceful dinners to erupt into verbal tantrums and making paintbrushes turn sentient in order to deface the tots' bedroom walls with blasphemous commands and twisted images straight from a bleeding Birthday Party album ("Now pay witness to Sonny‘s burnnnninnng!").

Dolores anxiously turns to pastor Adamsky to bless their home, but neither Anthony or the other Evil take kindly to this favor. When Dolores demands Anthony visit Adamsky to give a rightful apology, the withdrawn Sonny stays behind as the rest of his family goes to church. The following sequence depicting Sonny's fateful seizure by the wicked spirit is a gonzo tour de force of pyrotechnics, practical make-up effects, blinding red/green color filters, and one particularly offbeat POV tracking shot which is heavily indebted to Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, to be honest, but astounding in its execution just the same. The special effects team of John Caglione and Gary Zeller do a top-notch job of making Sonny's flesh pustulate and inflate whilst the camera careens madly and the lighting gets Technicolor lurid. The cinematography of Suspiria gets fused with the pubescent body horror of An American Werewolf in London, making for a warped moment of stylish dread that trumps anything Stuart Rosenberg's 1979 blockbuster accomplished.

No virtue goes unpunished once the now-possessed Sonny makes his way to his sister's room. At this point, Patricia Montelli begins a queasy character arc, one based on the unreliable Butch's claims, that pushes my buttons on how much onscreen abuse I can see a sentimentally-beloved young actress take. Sonny encourages Patricia to play model for him (remember a little film called Maniac, anyone?), and she even obliges his request for her to doff her nightgown. Audiences and actor alike marveled at the gullibility over this moment, but then Sonny produces a pair of panties he pilfered from the laundry. The stunned Patricia is weakened enough for the impure-minded Sonny to pounce upon her.

Bless Diane Franklin for being such a trouper, and for the cognitive capacity to get out of backseat negotiations with aplomb (for God's sake, read her book!), but growing up under the nurturing wings of Better Off Dead... and TerrorVision drove me not just mad with amour for such a vivacious, attractive woman, but also attuned me to her underappreciated comic chops and an untapped, genuine commitment to odd characters. At my tender teen age, Franklin was one of the first It Girls who I felt had an honest-to-goodness It to be noticed, one which she has preserved in the wake of her retreat from the majors. Thus, her back-to-back film debuts from the same year were a huge shock to the nervous system the first time I watched them. Indeed, people who shouted obscenities at the screen during the end of The Last American Virgin may have blissfully felt karma was dealt upon seeing her in Amityville II. In both cases, I can only sense Franklin showing me how much the love of my coziest celluloid memories are stronger than the bleakness of either Virgin or Amityville II.

Like her mother, Patricia turns to Adamsky for guidance during a trip to confession, but can't bring herself to finger her brother as the molester whose sole motivation in his conquest was "to hurt God." A later visit to the priest before Sonny's birthday bash is further proof that Adamsky is astoundingly oblivious to inner human turmoil, although he rightfully asks permission for an exorcism from the church's ornery archbishop before Sonny's final judgment. Adamsky blows Patricia off not just because he has a sermon to work on, but also because a parishioner has just passed away and Father Tom has arrived to spirit him away on a fishing trip. One reels at the possibility of him actually stepping in for five minutes to wish Sonny happy birthday, because Dolores notices the incestuous advances of Sonny and, after her psychotically-gestating brother has berated her as a "dumb bitch," Patricia is confronted by her mom and slapped across the face out of ill-minded spite (the Golden Raspberry committee must have had this admittedly laughable scene fresh in their minds when they dishonored Rutanya Alda once again with a Worst Supporting Actress nod following Mommie Dearest).

I liked Patricia Montelli, as she was the only person of the family to actually feel guilt, sorrow and moral conflict. She's a very pretty girl. That's why it's decided that Sonny will kill her last.

DeFeo reportedly murdered his family in their sleep, whereas Patricia is awake and in fear throughout the stormy, stalk-n-splatter massacre. This accounts for much of the suspense and revulsion I felt, as Sonny systematically picks off his relatives armed with one of his father's rifles, starting with his parents and then his youngest siblings. And then he concludes with a teary, pleading Patricia, and we see her being hauled off in a body bag when daylight comes and Father Adamsky, startled in his sleep, tells Tom to turn around and go back to Long Island, where he watches the police cart away an amnesiac Sonny.

The third act of Amityville II: The Possession is rather tedious, as Sonny veers between calm and crazed in plain sight of Adamsky (played with stoic semi-nobility by James Olson), who finally shows some initiative when he defies his Catholic elders and the judicial system simultaneously by convincing Tom and Detective Turner that Sonny should be broken out and taken back to Ocean Avenue for the final cleansing. And it's the phantom of forsaken, misunderstood Patricia who pushes him forward, first in a vision from the house's front door and then over the telephone. The subjectively-filmed, slasher-style evil is expositional bunkum that mixes Salem witches and Indian burial grounds but fails to create a memorable image for them, thus placing it leagues below The Beyond. And if you count all the derivations from The Exorcist with all available digits of your body, you'd swear this was produced not by Dino De Laurentiis but Ovidio G. Assonitis (indeed, this movie kind of reminded me of 1987's Lovecraftian Southern Gothic hack job The Curse, which is definitely not a good thing despite my long-time fascination with said Wil Wheaton vehicle).

The aforementioned melancholic image of Patricia at the door is the greatest reward one could attain from watching Amityville II. The movie doesn't quite give much thought to anyone other than Sonny and Patricia in terms of post-mortem madness, which is a bit of a shame since seeing the ghosts of Anthony and Dolores taunting the priest would've been warranted and allowed Adamsky a further emotional stake in his exorcism. And when Patricia resurfaces out of the blue at this point, Franklin is tarted up big time to tease the priest for his covert lust ("CONFESS!"). Even in death, this tragic little teen dream is defiled and discarded.

But let's give credit to a rather neglected source by decreeing that Jack Magner is like the Mark Patton of this franchise. This is not going to be snarky, so don't shame yourself by assuming I'll be so. I've spent so much time on Mrs. Franklin, who some quarters have cited as an inspiration for the J-horror archetype of the sullen ghost girl, that I almost forgot to say that Magner has a quiet empathy and range of expressive traits that were a lovely contrast to the glut of horror from those days. Call it the Final Boy syndrome: like Patton (Jesse of the immortal A Nightmare on Elm Street 2) or Brian Backer of The Burning, Magner taps into his blood-borne qualities with gusto, whether it be a wide-eyed look of alarm, a rakish grin or a deep-seated expression of accepted abuse. I don't know if De Laurentiis remembered him to help out for a bit in Firestarter, but let's acknowledge that Magner gives a legitimate performance in this movie, just like Young, Olson, Alda, Franklin, and even Andrew Prine in what I would consider the most inconsequential supporting role in the film. And to mix the best of both worlds, watch the playful chemistry between Magner and Franklin in single-shot moment that feels like a harbinger for the coming danger.

Damiano Damiani is also someone which who you could do worse by in comparison to, say, Claudio Fragasso. This being filmed during the banner years for cult cinema from Italy, Damiani's crackpot camera techniques and moodiness occasionally works very much in the film's favor. Lightning storms, upside-down and back-to-front Steadicam movements, the relentless darkness and shadows within the house...all of these elements are quite unnerving. It's a bit too showy and campy when the camera lens swoops on Sonny as he lays in bed, because it feels like Count Floyd just came onboard an understudy director, but the sexual implications of such gel with the incestuous angle. The last third doesn't quite have the same zip as the prior acts, and the special effects are too conventional and lack the thematic fluidity of yore, but Damiani has done so insanely much to keep you amazed by the end of Sonny's rampage that you are attentive enough to become bored.

Nevertheless, I felt the same exact way watching Amityville II as I did when revisiting The Last American Virgin after nearly ten years. There's a realistically downbeat tone to the film which is at once respectable, inconsistent and overbearing. The plot is so derivative of more bracing source material that you can sense the half-heartedness and lagging all too well. I carry certain moments from these films in my head and my heart, but I can't honestly say in good company or online that I well and truly love them as wholes. Maybe it's just the way I personally came to deify Diane, a divine image both comely and comical, but for all the qualities both good and bad in her first features, there's a reason why the gateways to geekery passed onto me when I was a boy deserve to be carried over to future generations. I'll get to them soon, but for now, and in preparation for a future Diane Franklin-themed piece, I will fashionably tempt you, Troy McClure-style, with the following words: "Hardcore Nudity!"

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Enchantéd, Pt. II: The Last American Virgin

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin 

II. The Last American Virgin (1982)
(R, Cannon Films)

Welcome to the first film in my always independent but never disengaged look back at the films starring American actress Diane Franklin. This is dedicated not just to a true heroine from my childhood, one who brought soulful and sincere qualities to any number of roles from well-remembered cult films from the 1980s, but to those who, like me, at least remember. If you haven’t read my introductory piece, please go back and read it by clicking here and you’ll know what I mean. With all the love and respect born from years of memory retention and genuine affection, as well as a naturally inquisitive, informative disposition, I’m eternally grateful to Diane Franklin not just for coming back to public attention to revisit her movies in a fantastic book available on Amazon, Diane Franklin: The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the Eighties, but for her Cult Radio a Go Go program which talks openly to fellow female fixtures of the 1980s cinema scene who have been relegated to obscurity but who have proven endearing in their own special ways as Mrs. Franklin. I will touch upon as many films as I can, hopefully including her TV movie appearances, and cap it all off with a book review.


With that said, I must say that in taking it upon myself to plan and commit to this retrospective, I realized the inevitable possibility that I would be revisiting Franklin's big screen debut, 1982's The Last American Virgin. Every thought about this movie leading up until now would immediately be haunted by my mental jukebox queuing up Lloyd Cole's "Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?" in a peculiarly psychological understanding.
Franklin was 19 years old when The Last American Virgin began pre-production, coincidentally the same age as I was when I first came upon the movie on the shelves of a Best Buy store on August 5, 2003. I had come to pick up a DVD copy of Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing, the first of two beloved John Cusack vehicles from 1985 alongside, serendipitously, Better Off Dead... MGM had just released a slew of 1980s teen movies digitally, including 1983's elusive Valley Girl and countless others that I had an awareness of, be they lousy (1986's Johnny Be Good, with Anthony Michael Hall playing a jock in my own first outcry of casting heresy) or mediocre (1988's Bright Lights, Big City). I immediately touched upon two titles released theatrically by Cannon Films, who in their schlock-o-block salad days rarely appealed to the young demographic as directly as they did with Breakin' and The Last American Virgin.

The latter's cult reputation was already well-established, and it had a bikini-clad eye-candy DVD cover (see also The Sure Thing) that was similar to what I later found was the cover for the UK Lemon Popsicle series box set. I turned it over immediately and found at least three name actors in the then-unknown cast with at least one unforgettable appearance in films watched during my youth. Not just Diane Franklin, but also Lawrence Monoson of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter immortality (wherein he foreshadows through exposition a fatally libidinous Crispin Glover's post-coital doom with two harsh, computer-generated words) and Steve Antin from The Goonies. Finally, it was called "bittersweet, humorous and insightful" in a major magazine's pull quote (see also The Sure Thing).

Call it a Shabba-Don't if you must, but I cashed in the free DVD offer applied with purchasing both The Sure Thing and Valley Girl on The Last American Virgin.

My favorite coming-of-age movie made in the 1980s, one which I thank my older sister for hipping me towards, was the one set in the 1950s that was not associated with the teen sex craze of the contemporary times. I'm talking about Stand by Me, Reiner's finest hour-and-a-half as a director following This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing. Corey "Mouth" Feldman left more of an impression in that film as Teddy Duchamp, another outlet for the teen idol's typical cocky bravado albeit one leavened by an existential destiny he hasn't the introspection and growth to subvert. Try and recall, if you can, the moment when he foolishly projects his own idealistic dénouement to Gordie Lachance's "Barf-o-rama" campfire story. Don't read any further until that scene is properly fixed in your memory.

This is the exact same reaction I had to the cherry-bombing conclusion of The Last American Virgin.

Imagine a teensploitation film like Porky's ending with the same leftfield violence as Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop or, to be more astute, an alternate Fast Times at Ridgemont High in which Mark Ratner's puppy love for Stacy Hamilton escalates into a monumental wreckage of deceitful instincts, lonesome desperation and, in then, in the end, sad-sack martyrdom.

Throughout The Last American Virgin, the most empathetic character amongst the hedonistic cast of sexually-active archetypes is taunted by an unattainable desire for consensual passion from the girl of his dreams. He sees her first in a transfixed state of instantaneous infatuation, is told that the best he can hope for is a rebound once she instead clings to his callous best friend, proves himself to be the most compatible choice once she gets disposed of in her time of greatest need, and then comes to the realization that not only will his love remain unrequited, but that he had just been used in the same manner as his paramour. Without a safety net to fall back on, the viewer has just witnessed a vicious cycle of casual cruelty and ambiguous despair in the wake of a typically broad sex farce that pushes the concept of schadenfreude to its brink only to give you a kiss and send you plunging into the poignant, painful abyss.

If Better Off Dead... helped to embolden whatever hopeless romantics responsible for it's word-of-mouth credibility, then The Last American Virgin has the polarity to drive the same quixotic contingent to actual suicide. Still, after a decade of abstinence, I'm finally prepared to answer the burning question I posed to myself in the wake of my inaugural viewing experience: "Was it bad for me?"


The Last American Virgin was Tel Aviv-born co-writer/director Boaz Davidson's attempt to translate his 1978 blockbuster Eskimo Limon (Lemon Popsicle) for the Anglos (an alternate American title was Going All the Way, although no enterprising thought was ever given to "Israeli Graffiti"). The original film was Davidson's attempt to confront a cycle of adolescent turmoil that dogged him until he was 33.

The character of Benji, played by 18-year-old Yiftach Katzur in what would be his career-definer, was Davidson's fictional surrogate engaged in a solitary battle between the hormonal and the heartfelt, the center of a trio of promiscuous boys living in the 1950s ("but only if you measure in terms of years"). One of the other roles went to Zachi Noy, who came to the filmmakers' attention due to a role in 1977's The Garden (a film which imported an American actress named Melanie Griffith) and was reportedly hired without a screen test.

Eskimo Limon was released domestically in February 1978 to a very wide and lucrative audience, so much in fact it was deduced that nearly half of Israel's population came out to see it. When it played in Milan during the MIFED International Film Market festival, producer Yoram Globus remembered people getting up to leave a half-hour into the film, giving him the impression that they were walking out of the screening out of disdain, but in fact they were merely trying to secure distribution rights. The movie went on to be released and received with astounding success internationally, which was a huge boon for the Israeli film culture, was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and no doubt went on to land Globus and cousin Menahem Golan their great prominence as the owners of Cannon Films starting in 1979.

The deluge of sequels all incorporating the original lead actors would last until 1988, although Davidson surrendered control of the franchise following the fourth film, Private Popsicle, after feeling there was no more authenticity and originality to be gleaned. Around the same time as Private Popsicle, Davidson and the Cannon Group pushed to create a proper, contemporary U.S. update of Lemon Popsicle seeing as how there were unprofitable stigmas to foreign films either dubbed or subtitled. There were fresh new faces behind the character types made famous by the original, the return of future renowned cinematographer Adam Greenberg (an irrefutable, expressionistic genius in my mind since the first VHS viewing of Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark) to capture alluringly neon lighting and, in the spirit of the original film, a wall-to-wall soundtrack of era-defining songs, only this time the evocative boogie-woogie and balladry of Little Richard and Paul Anka gave way to the new/old wave represented by Devo and The Commodores.

None of the information I have just regurgitated (let's give due credit right now with a footnote link to the UK Lemon Popsicle franchise database) was provided to me when I first picked up the MGM DVD of The Last American Virgin because it was a one-bone affair in terms of special features. No context, no connections, nothing at all but a theatrical trailer which duly pimps the roster of artists (and using their proper promotional fonts!) just as much as the theatrical poster. I felt like there were K-Tel personnel inhabiting the Cannon Films marketing wing at the time.

Time would pass for The Last American Virgin to get some due recognition, beginning in particular with a 2007 screening at the New Beverly hosted by filmmaking fanboy Eli Roth and boasting a micro-reunion Q&A panel that included Lawrence Monoson, Louisa Moritz, Kimmy Robertson, and Brian Peck, but alas no Antin (now an openly gay scriptwriter and director, bless him for life, but I really hope he hits a stride greater than Burlesque) or Franklin (what's this I see, but…hey, a book!) or Joe Rubbo (now a network executive based in South Florida). Being a regular reader of the superlative criticism site Film Freak Central clued me into founder Bill Chambers' positive appraisal of the film in a review of The Monster Squad. And Diane Franklin, you magnificent mother of pearl…have you read her book?!

Once you have done so, then you'll be aware of just how much authenticity and critical insight Franklin bestows onto Karen (or Nikki, to conjure the original character), the luminous stranger who is unable to even buy her first rocky road ice cream cone without a longing look thrown her away. The gawker in question is Gary (Monoson as Benji, suitably giving off non-stop puppy dog vibes), a terminally awkward pizza delivery boy who comes to the local youth-frequented diner to meet up with easygoing buddies Rick (Antin, playing a more conventionally hunky version of Bobby rich with unctuous confidence) and David (Rubbo as Huey, still a portly smoothie with a black book for keeping tabs). So far, so Limon-y, although the updated scene where the trio zero in on a random collective of girls leads to a straight lift not from the first movie, but the 1981 second sequel known by us Yanks as Hot Bubblegum.

This means that the triple date converges at Gary's house, where Rick and David effortlessly charm their targets into putting out ("I'm not on the pill" "Neither am I") than the host, who gets stuck with the obese, bespectacled and completely apathetic third wheel of the bunch. Having bluffed their way so far with the promise of drugs, they rely on sugar substitute as a replacement for cocaine (in a very well-acted gag moment), and by the time Gary's parents come home, his nude guests arrive in time to shock Gary's mom into stress, thus resulting in the classic gag where the odd man out (David) sneaks unawares into a bed not with his intended, but a frightened older other woman who screams rape.

The same doubts that Davidson had about continuing to advance the official Lemon Popsicle films come back to render The Last American Virgin the entertainment equivalent of sloppy seconds. A lot of the humor in this takes its tenor from the farcical Hot Bubblegum, which opened with beach-bound shenanigans at fat Huey's expense (complete with a dog pissing in his face as he stood buried up to the neck in sand) and proceeded into a particularly icky subplot about a buxom cousin pitting Benji against his father in attempting to lay her. This extends into the trio's encounter with the oversexed and all alone Spanish bombshell (here Carmela, played by the legitimately Cuban C-queen Louisa Moritz as a Charo-caliber caricature of carnality), which is more silly than sexy. Davidson loses touch of the naturalism and raw terrain of the film that begat it at times and this revamp feels more like a bored compendium of a trilogy than a worthy update. It counts the beats rather than getting into the groove, as a true 1980s paragon of playful perkiness would soon advocate.

The episodic aversion to flow in the editing only exacerbates things. It's sitcom protocol, to get right down to it, and the broad comedy just comes in and out without any real lasting smiles. When David has his turn with Carmela to the tune of "That's the Way I Like It" by KC & The Sunshine Band, it throws into sharp relief what more earnest teen movie figureheads like John Hughes and Savage Steve Holland were able to achieve in terms of rhythm (two years later, Revenge of the Nerds would ironically cop The Gleaming Spires' "Are You Ready for the Sex Girls," which simply fades into the background here despite being the abrupt harbinger of a scene transition). But the surprisingly meticulous soundrack cues often have the power to literally pinpoint the romantic highs and unanticipated lows in Gary's pursuit of Karen, especially in the recurring appropriation of Quincy Jones & James Ingram's "Just Once."

Somehow in all the conventionality, which post-1982 begat the likes of the Porky's sequels, Spring Break, Hardbodies and Losin' It, the movie boldly deigns to put the lord of the woobies through the ultimate ringer. After tricking bike-toting Karen into accepting a ride to school, trying his damnedest to charm and appeal to her single disposition, the next time he sees her at a party, she is immediately Rick's new squeeze. A few self-sabotaging swigs of a whiskey bottle don't impress her and also reduces his confidential request to David to "tell Karen I love her" to crazy drunk talk. Gary further delays Rick's inevitable deflowering of Karen by introducing the trio to a hooker who finally and swiftly relieves Gary of his virginity (and his dinner), just so we can get the three of them reconvening at school with a rude venereal awakening that produces the movie's own photocopied but still hysterically awkward highlight when they go to the pharmacy coyly trying to ask for ointment.

And then it happens, the point at which Gary should realize his fruitless dream is only going to hurt him severely. He still can't let it go, as he has continually denied the willing advances of Karen's best friend Rose (the stunning Kimmy Robertson as the original’s Martha, with purple highlights in her hair and superfluous glasses) and refused to take David's word that Karen is not worth it. This doesn't stop him from driving to and searching about the football field where Rick has lured Karen, hiding out in the press box above, for the conception of the dagger that will later draw the final bit of innocent blood from Gary.

The final act of the film starts when sullen Gary sits alone in the diner waiting for Karen to return, and there she is with Rick, who screams the truth to a disbelieving Gary. It is at this point the movie stops trying to be funny and decides to get serious. The fallout stemming from Karen's pregnancy allows Gary the overdue opportunity to show Karen what he's willing to do to care for her, no matter what the cost. Since the rest of the group are convening on the slopes for Christmas break, the two of them have some quality time alone. The result plays out exactly the same as Lemon Popsicle with the exception of one chaste detail: Gary and Karen don't have the smoldering embrace which was immortalized on the poster for the original film. It's just a kiss, and Gary refuses to take advantage of Karen, going so far as to blanket her erogenous parts as she lays sleeping.

What hurts most about this development now as it did then is that in a movie that treats its female lead as a cipher and male a dewy-eyed loser, Lawrence Monoson and Diane Franklin, especially in regards to close-up shots, display natural graces denied to their characters throughout the prior two acts. The European sensibilities, which are wholly archetypical and deliberately streamlined for a purpose, just vanish for small moments. All you get are two all-American kids who can only see the dark forest for the shady trees. The programmatic paces can't stop both these actors, who were genuine teenagers at the time, from being wholly endearing, thus providing a tender set-up to the sucker punch that, like Stella, surely is a-coming.

Somehow, someway, and in this supposed comedy about boys trying to nail, the biggest impact comes when you realize somebody is truly going to get screwed.


For the longest time, I've been on the fence about how unfair my initial criticism of The Last American Virgin was when I first published it on Epinions. I've come around to finally resigning that piece to the great recycle bin in the sky and allowing it the blessing of a proper erasure. Honestly, I was very false, not to mention crude and juvenile, and looking back on it has proven to be a huge embarrassment. I was philosophically not in direct opposition to an exploitation movie that paraded its artificiality only to really offer up one of the most blunt truths about the nature of love, and watching the original Lemon Popsicle made me appreciate The Last American Virgin more on principle alone. Yet I felt so much outrage at the time that I wasn't able to articulate the faults in execution to the best of my ability, but they're still there, mainly my initial hunch that the script doesn't have the sensitivity to carry the rough edges underlying the emotional turmoil and that the comedy is ultimately boring and very boys' club meeting in its overall scope. And, really, who wouldn't let Diane Franklin and Kimmy Robertson, two lasses with a good sense of humor and courage, climb up into their treehouse?

If this film was intended to launch an American equivalent of the Lemon Popsicle series, it wasn't going to happen, vicious audience receptions notwithstanding. This is disheartening considering it was creator Boaz Davidson who handled the job. Not much effort really went into updating the source script for the Eighties, as a lot of the same dialogue, scenarios and set-ups from the first film (and, as I mentioned in one case, the third) are merely just cloned. The humor is handled indifferently and with way less tact than before, and the drama sticks out in the worst way, because you just don't get any real personalities to decipher and the banal laffs undermind it instead of complementing it.

The performances are suitable if clearly mannered (the actors may have taken more of their cues from watching Lemon Popsicle), and in the cases of Monoson and Franklin, very winning in their unguarded displays of humanity. Yet you can only appreciate Robertson at arm's length (the unsung tragedy of this stalled series was that Rose's foreign prototype had a wrenching scene of her own in Davidson's second Eskimo Limon movie, Going Steady) and Return of the Living Dead franchise fixture Brian Peck (a dead ringer for Fred Armisen as much as Joe Rubbo provides the missing link between Malcolm Danare and Jonah Hill) is squandered as the stereotypical nerd with a curious understanding of manly competition.

Revisiting it for the first time in years, though, I was taken aback by the potency of the soundtrack in providing intermittent commentary both caustic (Oingo Boingo's "Better Luck Next Time" during the first party scene) and devotional (Journey's "Open Arms" for when Gary consoles Karen in the locker hall following her row with Rick). The song selection alone, despite hewing close to era-confined acts like The Waitresses and Tommy Tutone, complements the drama with the finesse and fluidity that the cutting and comedy both seem to defy. The DVD version, due to rights issues, had to drop The Human League's narcotic synth-pop gem "Love Action (I Believe in Love)," and of any potential song released around the time (I lamentably discount ABC's "Poison Arrow" from 1982) that could serve as an elegy for Gary, this easily was the best. The chorus alone gets right at the root of the problem when Gary first encounters Karen ("Lust's just a distraction/No talking, just looking"), but the verses give voice to the introspection necessary to allow Gary true faith in his later romantic travails.

It took long enough for me to reach a peaceful conclusion, but I can't deny now that The Last American Virgin feels as raw an experience as a one-timer of sex itself, a night of passion fueled by irresponsibility and the transfusion of sticky fluid and feelings that make up life. You'll come for the laughter, yet cry for the future. Once you get over it the morning after, chances are you may try to distance yourself from it to the best of your ability. Yet it lingers in the most sensual and aching of ways, and though you may not yearn to see it again, it does reward a repeat offense.

God, I’m horny.

Part III of this series doesn't exactly promise you a rose garden, either. Next up will be Amityville II: The Possession, which once again has the beatific Franklin, fresh off The Last American Virgin, as a girl victimized through a queasy sexual awakening, but only this time the tragedy, more explicit in both theme and character, is bestowed upon her. As I prematurely beg for the sweet release of Monique Junet, I'll once again leave you with a sweet distraction.