Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Nest

(R, 1988, Shout! Factory, street date: February 19, 2013, SRP: $26.99)


I remember when MTV aired a 30-minute infomercial in 1996 for their first foray into feature-film production, an adaptation of the short subject Joe's Apartment, hosted by none other than Ralph and Rodney Roach, themselves. There was a mini-montage of prior movies that included memorable cockroach cameos: William Castle's Bug (1975), David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch (1991), the classic transformation scene from Renny Harlin's A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988), and, the alpha itself, 1982's Creepshow, whose grisly comeuppance for E.G. Marshall's Upson Pratt was amazingly broadcast in all its gross glory. Strangely enough, I had rented the 1988 Corman company castaway The Nest on VHS by this time, so I was quick to notice a glaring omission. If they could air Tom Savini's air-pumped money shot of Pratt's chest bursting with bloody bugs, then why not the wild reveal of the mayor morphing into a mansect? Maybe Harlin's film did it better in the same year, but for completists like me who can recall eyeball-squishing goodness at the drop of a dime, I found it to be duly missed.

Did I actually miss The Nest in the years since then? Nostalgically, yes, but impartially, no.

Produced by Julie Corman under the Concorde Pictures banner, The Nest is an old-fashioned Jaws knock-off in the proud tradition of movies as delightful as Piranha or as disposable as Up from the Depths. The Spielbergian template remains as does the memorably subversive tweaks of John Sayles and Joe Dante. Take a coastal tourist town of very little urgent disaster (missing pets, pages and past paramours), throw in a compromising position that allows a biologically-advanced outsider menace free reign, film copious ground-level tracking shots set to discordant sound can you miss with a list like this?

Chief Martin Brody of Amity Island is now Sheriff Richard Tarbell of North Port, here played by Franc Luz as the slovenly heir of a proud patriarch in the police department. Currently betrothed to café owner Lillian (Nancy Morgan), daughter of wacky beach hermit/junkman Shakey Jake (Jack Collins), Tarbell reluctantly greets the return of mayor's daughter Elizabeth Johnson (Lisa Langlois), whose troubled history with her father in the wake of mom's "accidental overdose" still lies irreconciled. Daddy's too busy, it seems, renovating his town at the expense of providing the mysterious Intec Corporation private research property for who cares what.

If North Port's obvious cockroach infestation offers any clue, the town's fate is sealed when first a watchdog and then Jake are devoured whole by a hissing horde of creepy, crawly predators. Tarbell's investigative instincts are further triggered by the appearances of black droppings in the local market's meat department and shady ex-MIT biologist Dr. Morgan Hubbard (Terri Treas), whose research into the development of genetically-altered breed of cockroach progresses in such supernatural ways that Hubbard herself seems ever ready to pupate.

Mayor Johnson (Robert Lansing) surrendered his town to Intec in the hope that there would be a temporary, effective solution to the growing roach population. Trouble is the result is now making the 700-strong citizen count decline steadily. North Port is now the latest and greatest model of the roach motel: The roaches are checking in, and no one else may be checking out.

This is an unusually modest exploitation effort than one would expect from the Roger Corman factory, devoid entirely of nudity or any accidental if acerbic wit. The movie plays off one particular phobia, man's orderly disgust of big, ugly insects, at the expense of any real innovation in terms of story or production. The script is very indebted to Jaws in a backdated manner not unlike watching some post-Tarantino bastard child a decade removed from Reservoir Dogs, and that the script seems so lackadaisical in regards to characters and plotting only makes such too-familiar beats (there are times when one's mind wanders adrift to mid-1980s memories of Re-Animator and The Fly, as well) come across as just lazy instead of playful.

The people in this movie are but plain, simple types of little discernible color. You've got the hometown girl returning from the city to face her familial demons and reacquaint herself with a jilted lover, only the whole love triangle aspect with the sassy diner woman doesn't have any traction. There's the noble policeman protagonist who can't help but look homely and humble as he surrenders his badge and heart with equal dignity. There's the hopeless government official who gets more than he bargained for and places his island populace's lives, not just his already conflicted daughter, in collective jeopardy. And here's the ice queen scientist who loves her work way too much in polite company to the point where anyone with the smallest fraction of a brain would quickly take the next ferryboat out. The actors do okay in these parts, particularly Franc Luz, Terri Treas and the wiry Stephen Davies as the bumbling but brilliant exterminator (that's "independent pest control agent" to you!) Homer Birum, even if they're no match for the entertaining quirks of Bradford Dillman, Kevin McCarthy or Barbara Steele.

Comedic elements are equally passed on second-hand, as for every amusing mass roach massacre set to "La Cucaracha" incorporating blenders and fry vats, there's a stale shit-eating throwaway gag or oblivious teen girl whose headphones drown out her aunt's screams for help as syrup-scented roaches eat her alive. The movie doesn't milk this dopey scenario to the wittiest of its advantage, which is where Spielberg once again proves victorious thanks to the release of Arachnophobia years later.

Telegraphed regularly and tonally under-thought, The Nest threatens to skitter away from consciousness but doesn't quite due to the charm of its practical effects work. Aside from some unpleasant kitty and canine corpses as well as a few severed arms, there are a couple gory creature designs which arrive way too late in the game to make you pay fervent attention, but attend to it, you do. There is an outlandishness in their reveal that is irresistibly gross but also kind of hilarious. Somehow, these invincible, innocuous little pests become The Thing, absorbing the genes of their victims and passing them onto their progeny. You can bet that by the end, one unlucky character is going to bug out for real, preferably starting with their eyeballs.

Director Terence H. Winkless provides an audio commentary track (the sole bonus feature in this set) that is criminally more charming and self-effacing than the finished film. Every Roger Corman production is a trial by fire, and the best participants see the humor of their opportunistic scenario as well as the ingenuity. Winkless knows this and offers up tons of details from the script on down to roach wrangling and finally the editing with true amusement. Inserts and location specifics are diverse, plentiful and delivered with mirth, as is the reveal of him having to repurpose one small detail so that random stock footage of an explosion could be properly recycled despite a hilariously dumb continuity error.

Scream! Factory issues The Nest on combo pack BD/DVD, although only in the standard-def format do you get both 5.1 and 2.0 audio mixes in Dolby Digital. The BD is strictly DTS Master Audio 2.0 mono, which is admirably clean if flawed on budgetary principle, but the magnificently sharp 1.78:1 HD image alone is enough to make any copy of the old New Concorde disc in its vicinity grow some hinders and scamper away.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Enchantéd, Pt. IV: Summer Girl/Deadly Lessons

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin

IV. Summer Girl/Deadly Lessons (1983)

(Unrated, CBS/ABC TV)

In my introduction to this series, I realized there was no chance I could assess the complete works of Diane Franklin. To put a finer point on it, Diane’s TV work trumps her theatrically-released resume by a notable margin. Focusing on just the seven movies from 1982 to 1989 wherein Diane was cast seemed like a good idea at self-discipline, kind of like how I used to withhold watching Better Off Dead... on cable until I got through a considerable chunk of my homework. But it also doesn’t do justice to what I’d like to achieve with this retrospective tribute: a reappraisal and re-evaluation of Diane Franklin as an actress throughout the varied films of her career, as well as an honest examination of each title. This means that I have pondered deeply the notion of giving at least a couple of Diane’s televised feature performances due processing.

The 1982 double-header of The Last American Virgin and Amityville II: The Possession are readily available from the same home video distributor on MGM DVD and were previously issued on VHS. The two accompanying Diane Franklin vehicles from the next year have barely been placed on the market thus far (there was a now OOP VHS edition of Summer Girl), now resigned to DVD-R obscurity except that you can’t even buy them on-demand. What kind of world am I living in when one of Diane's horror vehicles, a mad psycho mystery which co-stars Ally Sheedy and Bill Paxton(!), and another of her most full-bodied roles in both physicality and performance aren’t a click or two away from being in my cinematic library? I understand compromise all too well, but I can’t just let my first filmic flame become extinguished that easily.

I was intending to proceed straight to 1984's Second Time Lucky, but thanks to some anonymous help, I have allowed myself to break one small rule in the name of respect and depth. In part four of Enchantéd, I will spotlight Diane’s two subsequent TV movies from 1983, Summer Girl and Deadly Lessons.

Journeyman episodic TV director Robert Michael Lewis' adaptation of the eponymous Caroline Crane novel, Summer Girl feels like the most glaring blind spot in Diane’s oeuvre. Compared to her prior films, this is an outright showcase of a role, as Diane magnificently turns up the heat and the horror for her first truly antagonistic character (remember, Karen with a K was simply fickle, not evil). Cynthia, or Cinni to her friends, is a teenage seductress with a malevolent maturity and alter ego delusions of Greek myth superiority that gives her the confidence of both a truly sexy young woman and a cunning sociopath. Hired as a nanny for a fractured family, Cinni seizes upon their disillusion in order to tempt the workaholic father and teach his children to betray their frazzled mother. More than just a good girl gone bad, Cinni is a devious goddess as acidic as she is alluring.

Better Off Dead... co-star Kim Darby takes the raisin-free lead as harried housefrau Mary Shelburne, a retired photographer and mother of two, Jason and Fern (future Bundy brood David Faustino, Laura Jacoby). When an unanticipated third bun arrives in the oven, it generates fiscal arguments between Mary and workaholic husband Gavin (Barry Bostwick), who is straining to pay for the beach house where Mary’s doctor suggests she rest at to prevent further stress for a couple of weeks. Despite his providing, lighthearted demeanor, Gavin feels caged in by a surplus of soul-deadening responsibility and the strains of domestic turmoil.

When Mary considers appointing a babysitter, along comes a bookish, frumpy teenager named Cinni for an interview. Honest and polite if a bit too prissy, dressed like she just raided her grandmother’s closet, Mary is impressed by the high school student’s bluntness and sense of responsibility. Once she leaves the room, Cinni’s hyper-intelligence reveals itself to be the product of schizophrenia and violent jealousy. And three weeks later, the Shelburnes arrive to pick up Cinni only to discover their supposedly Plain Jane caretaker is actually a statuesque, sunshiny knockout who gives their elderly neighbors Jack & Esther Reardon (Murray Hamilton and Millie Slavin) equal pause.

Cinni’s playful rapport with fun-loving Gavin quickly morphs into erotic entrapment. On their second day at the beach, Cinni tricks Gavin into rescuing her from drowning, flatters him with calculated timidity and then lotions herself up with come-hither cuteness. Mary’s suspicions are aroused enough that she reassumes her shutterbug talents, but it gets worse when Gavin leaves on business. That’s when Cinni starts manipulating and menacing Jason and Fern, revealing her fantastical lineage to Artemis, the fabled Greek goddess of the moon whose Roman counterpart is inadvertently named Diana. She tells the kids about her secret island kingdom, where no other women can trespass but she gleefully teases that their daddy can come.

Unlike Karen or Patricia Montelli, Cinni affords Diane Franklin a boundless opportunity to fuse the desirable with the dangerous, the model California girl gone to the Land of Nod, the glamour of Jane Russell and the psychosis of Norman Bates. Women’s costumer Christine Zamaira (Modern Romance) flatters Diane with so many modes of drop-dead gorgeous in various one-piece bikinis, tank top/hot pants combos, dresses, and evening gowns that it feels like the world’s hottest history lesson in sexy fashion trends. Yet these choices wouldn't fully matter had Diane not matched such diverse surface allure by twisting the same star-making attributes found in her debut performances (her teased curly brown hair, beguiling eyes, twinkling smile, inviting voice, and fantastic body) into something so persuasively, vicariously frightening as well as scintillating.

Whether crushing Jason's newly-captured jellyfish with twisted delight, reliving the heated murder of her best friend after first adjusting the downed strap of her nightgown or dreaming up a chilling soliloquy whilst demonstrating the body language of a witch but with the actual body of Gidget, Diane Franklin proves herself utterly spellbinding as a femme fatale with a very playful if iniquitous poise. Siren though she may be, Cinni could just be Diane’s definitive "babe" performance in every loving definition of the term. It is certainly her most undervalued turn.

The result naturally makes the already credible performances of Kim Darby and Barry Bostwick that much more worthy of investment. Everydude Bostwick is both excitable and tormented as the young-at-heart Gavin, thus providing a morally-grounded sunniness to Cinni’s moonlit charms but giving off enough inner turmoil to make him feel believably weak. But it is Kim Darby as Mary who has to anchor the picture with a very sympathetic display of unwanted neurosis and maternal fear. Distraught but darling, Darby humanizes the pulpy melodrama in valiant ways. You never doubt Mary’s sanity even as her own husband tries to tell her she’s gone overboard in her rightful mistrust of Cinni, and you’re with her every step of the way in uncovering Cinni’s murderous manifesto. Also in the cast are Martha Ellen Scott as Mary's doting mother and soap opera superstar Hunt Block as Peter, the lovesick victim of the apathetic Cinni’s anti-affection.

The cinematography looks TV-movie protocol, a bit too flat due to inferior source quality, but hopefully a restored print (the Warner Archive Collection needs to give this a chance) will do justice to the Hawaiian summertime glow of the beach scenes and the ominous darkness in the night shots as well as the flesh tones and costumes of sumptuous Cinni.

However, as a feminine battle of wills and a domestic drama about the old reliable notion of the home-wrecking coquette, the characters are so well-handled that you're kept in a state of relentless unease. Robert Lewis and adaptive writer A.J. Carothers know how to generate tension, and despite any handful of contrivances and a easily redemptive third act built upon child endangerment, the stakes prove to be very high. All in all, Summer Girl is trashy fun for all seasons and deserves to be rescued from the bottom of the teleflick barrel.

After such a bravura change of pace, the disappointing Deadly Lessons sets back Diane Franklin in Amityville II mode as the naïve ingénue ensnared in a hostile environment. Fourth-billed despite leading character status in this William Wiard-directed chiller, scripted by Jennifer Miller (also responsible for the pre-Summer Girl nanny from hell MOW The Babysitter), Diane plays Stephanie, the sheltered new summertime scholarship student studying French ("Mon dieu!") at Starkwater Hall, an all-girl private school. Arriving dressed similarly to Cinni at the start of Summer Girl, Stephanie is greeted by two of the more friendly girls whom she first meets, including Marita (vivacious Ally Sheedy), who in turn introduces Stephanie to shy Eddie (Bill "Severen" Paxton, Esq.), who is grooming the Saudi stallion belonging to Stephanie’s roommate Shama (Vicki Kriegler of The Competition).

After squeezing in as many characters as possible during the first seven minutes, we cut to stern but immoral headmistress Miss Wade, played by Donna "Miss Ellie Ewing" Reed (who cursed in vain this movie in her last days), holding an inaugural assembly warning the girls to keep away from both townsfolk and the neighboring boys academy (during which we meet Nancy Cartwright from the same year’s Twilight Zone: The Movie as awkward loner Libby). A whole lotta casual cattiness and suspicious glances at muddied boots ensues before sweetheart Stephanie (the kind of girl who enjoys playing murder mystery board games like "Evidence!") and friends uncover the first sign of mortal danger floating in the lake.

"I guess they have a different attitude about death in the east, don’t they?"

A network-friendly slasher/giallo-style mystery made three years after the trendsetting Silent Scream and Friday the 13th is hardly an intriguing alternative, especially in the same year when films as batty, bloody and badly overdramatic as Pieces or Sleepaway Camp were playing theatrically. The latter film’s annoyingly vulgar characters are thankfully not the norm here, as the female students are to a degree plucky and appealing, though clearly some have a hard time looking like convincing young adults (Cartwright may voice Bart Simpson, but it’s tough to suspend disbelief when you actually see her). The movie doles out ominous references in the form of detective movie posters, curriculum quizzes about The Merchant of Venice (wherein Stephanie is thrust into her first catfight in a scene that should’ve been more OTT) and the world’s most carefree red herring in the form of Shama. And there are enough shifty characters who either seem like they have secrets to protect via murder (Miss Ward’s clandestine affair with horse-riding instructor Ferrar, played by David Ackroyd) or just stand about dishing idle threats or looking particularly odd, including Eddie (who we learn has quite an ethics-questioning history in relation to his brother) and the atypical shadowy groundskeeper.

The resulting movie unspools like a more chaste variation on numerous other films of its type (The Dorm That Dripped Blood, The House on Sorority Row), albeit one that’s still quintessentially 1980s in set design (Marshall Crenshaw poster!), vernacular ("grody" and "barfy") and fashion. Cliffhanger transitions and screeching string/synthesizer sections do most of the heavy lifting in terms of suspense until Marita finally gets abducted by the psychotically protective Talking Killer(?). The performances all around seem serviceable, starting from the supporting vets at the top of the cast list, Donna Reed and Larry Wilcox (doing Cameron Mitchell proud as surly Detective Russ Kemper) on down to the effervescent team of Diane Franklin and Ally Sheedy, who truly could‘ve annihilated playing sisters in a much looser, funnier project, and finally a sullen, hunky love interest in the form of Bill Paxton’s Eddie, who, truth be told, felt more at ease in the same year's Mortuary.

And if you always wanted to see Diane as an amateur equestrian before crossing over into horse whisperer for that one Savage Steve Holland-helmed Encyclopedia Brown episode, this one will definitely be on your must-see list. She even takes a fateful, commercial-transitioning roll in the hay, albeit all by her lonesome and without my cushy frame to level the fall and keep her comfy. Have you noticed already how I am just so sweet on her? You try watching Stephanie screaming in panic on a wily horse and resist yelling for help. Discrete as I try to be, I can’t deny that Diane has quite an eternally appealing hold over me.

Deadly Lessons, the movie, it pains me to say, does not. Although her eyes still enrapture, I didn't notice a lot of smiling on behalf of Diane’s character Stephanie, which does mirror my own reaction to this. Whereas the last three films I focused on were quite bracing and stylish, this one has a rather listless pace and a dearth of engrossing set pieces. For a cast that includes three other very likeable, gifted stars in Cartwright, Sheedy and Paxton, people whom Franklin speaks very kindly of in her book, the characters as written don’t make full use of the their glowing presences. The movie overall is actually quite leaden, cluttered and a bit too self-conscious of its TV-friendly trappings enough to feel like an honestly entertaining movie.

It deserves to be seen on the basis of nostalgic star power, a modicum of intelligence and a dynamite third act, but it’s nowhere near as irresistible or revelatory as Summer Girl, in which the drama truly comes alive enough to warrant the anxiety, the central characters feel more relatable and, yes, dream queen Diane Franklin proves herself to be stirringly sensual and multi-faceted in time for her next film. Although I had to pre-empt it, said film demonstrates with the same enticing vigor just how weak in the knees my favorite moon goddess can make me when I’m in the mood for love.

Holy claymation hot dog, I feel lucky tonight!