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...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Body Parts

(R, Paramount Pictures, 88 mins., release date: August 2, 1991)

Bleeding heart criminal psychologist Bill Crushank has been tasked with rehabilitating a 20-year Death Row inmate, but confides to his loving wife Karen that he's become disillusioned with his profession. With his career in doubt but his family life in perfect stability, Bill drives to work one snow-capped morning only to dodge a swerving car with a popped wheelie on the freeway. A Mack truck fails to brake in time, and Bill is rushed to the hospital with a stump where his right arm used to be. Enter radical, reserved Dr. Agatha Webb, who persuades Karen into signing a waiver which will allow Bill to receive an immediate replacement limb. The last thing the unfortunate shrink sees before he's anaesthetized, in an operating room under armed security, is Dr. Webb severing the head of his donor with a bone saw...

It was inevitable that during the current horrorthon which has kept me productive, I would decide to focus on a movie by one Eric Red, the enigmatic writer of two seminal desert-based shockers in The Hitcher (1986) and Near Dark (1987), the latter a collaboration with future Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow and one of my all-time personal favorite films. Based on the novel Choice Cuts by the French fiction duo of Boileau-Narcejac, who inspired the suspense classics Diabolique and Vertigo (as well as scripted the immortal Eyes Without a Face from 1960, a nightmarish alternative to the Nouvelle Vague), the noirish Frankenstein riff Body Parts is equal parts psychological descent and medical paranoia in which an inquisitive scholar of violent impulses becomes his own worst case scenario through the miracles of modern science. Eventually, the movie implodes after an hour's worth of brooding, inquisitive self-doubt and relies upon a batty, bloody showdown between Bill and his benefactors. If Red's hands-own approach were not so assured, this conflict transplant would be harder to take than any stitched-on appendage. But still, you might want to buckle up, which is good advice Bill Crushank (Jeff Fahey) himself apparently forgot to heed.

Bill's new arm proves more than serviceable, demonstrating reflexes and stamina that make him a better father and husband than ever before. But this is truly a "devil in the flesh" situation, and frequent images of grotesque violence begin to overcome his mind. During a session with jittery convict Kolberg (Paul Ben-Victor), Bill learns that the tattoo on his wrist denotes "helplessly homicidal" and descends into further research. A thumbprint scan reveals that his arm once belonged to Charley Fletcher, a proud psychopath who butchered women and cops for kicks. As mild-mannered Bill continues to endure aggressive mood swings and physically terrorizes Karen (Kim Delaney) and their children, Bill seeks out two more of Dr. Webb’s (Lindsay Duncan) patients, the formerly wheelchair-bound Mark Draper (Peter Murniek) and the recipient of Fletcher's left arm, Remo Lacey (Brad Dourif), a self-professed hack painter who translates Fletcher’s murderous memories into grisly gold.

Eventually, Bill’s animus side becomes too consuming and he has to isolate himself from those he loves, going into self-imposed exile and impotent rage as he demands Dr. Webb take back the arm. Inevitably, he's reduced to drinking to his despair with the company of Mark and Remo, who echo the consolations of anima figureheads Karen and Dr. Webb ("That arm can’t do anything you don’t want it to"). But he still can't fully control himself, and Bill finds himself under the custody of Detective Sawchuck (Zakes Mokae). The stakes have to get higher, so the head of Charley Fletcher is recycled to further haunt Bill and instigate a particularly tense car chase which eventually stirs Bill into reconciling the darkness within.

Jeff Fahey was a rising star in the early 1990s, having made his big splash in movies directed by former partners Clint Eastwood (White Hunter, Black Heart) and Sondra Locke (Impulse). This 1991 mainstream horror effort from Friday the 13th series producer Frank Mancuso Jr. was a non-starter, though, infamously gaining controversy after the Jeffrey Dahmer killings stalled any promotion in Wisconsin. The mediocre if moderately-lucrative The Lawnmower Man followed before Fahey's enduring prolificacy in direct-to-cable and direct-to-video fare. Nowadays, he has gained some popular traction thanks to TV's Lost and Robert Rodriguez casting him in both Planet Terror and Machete. The blue-eyed thespian with the drawling, disturbed voice does some understated if ferocious character acting in Body Parts, preserving Bill's intelligence and compassion even in the face of mounting dread and self-preserving madness.

The film's most puckish element is in the ever-reliable presence of Brad Dourif as Remo, whose childish pretension and flashes of wit liven up his encounters with Bill and establish him as more offbeat than off-kilter. The performances as a whole are top-notch, from a smoldering Kim Delaney to the icy determination of Lindsay Duncan and Zakes Mokae, best known as voodoo gangster Peytraud from Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, as the reasonable officer who aids Bill even when he’s forced to drive him downtown. And Eric Red matches his careful attention to actors in terms of composition, fashioning some legitimately unnerving moments with a lurid efficiency comparable to Brian De Palma, chiefly in the hospital sequence where Bill prepares to be operated on and in that aforementioned chase scene, which works like gangbusters despite a familiarity to Maniac Cop 2.

Another component of surprising elegance is the cinematography of Theo van de Sande, perhaps best remembered previously for lensing the apocalyptic love story Miracle Mile (1988) but soon to become a mainstream cameraman currently over-saturating dreadful Adam Sandler comedies. The movie’s lighting scheme almost seems to follow the deterioration of Bill's firmness, getting grittier and darker as it goes along, reaching a clinically creepy peak when Bill returns to the operating room looking for resolution and discovers a grisly literalization of the film's title.

Body Parts is one of those films whose inherent ludicrousness (think of the killer toupees and eyeballs seen in both The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror IX and John Carpenter Presents Body Bags) is kept at bay thanks to assured style and skill from those involved. The build-up is consistently intense, thanks to Jeff Fahey's grounded, guilt-addled charisma as Bill Crushank as well as Eric Red's undervalued sense of economy. And though sum of its parts might not be all that amazing taken as a whole, with the finale indeed sticking out like a severed thumb, it's just as much engrossing as it is just gross. The best way to watch this movie is through Paramount's unfortunately OOP DVD edition, a bare-bones affair which nevertheless presented a stellar remaster of the movie in its intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio and a solid Dolby 5.1 surround mix.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

House (1986)

(R, New World Pictures, 92 mins., release date: February 28, 1986)

"Believe it or not, he's crawling the walls
He never thought he could feel so free-eee-eeeaked..."

Overburdened author Roger Cobb is having trouble getting both his career and his personal affairs in order. He's trying to make the transition from cheesy if popular horror titles to something more autobiographical, but too many inner demons have stalled his momentum. Cobb has recently been willed the house he grew up in after the suicide of his Aunt Elizabeth. Could her mysterious death have dampened his drive? Or is it something else, be it the dissolution of his marriage to a working actress, the unsolved disappearance of his son or the palpable grief over the death of a comrade during the Vietnam war?

Roger moves into his abandoned former home to find peace and solitude, but stranger things are about to happen. Something in this house knows his every weakness and unless he can conquer his fears, Roger's troubled mind might just be foreclosed permanently.

From the creators of Friday the 13th comes House, a deadpan, lightweight riff on the possessed house genre which borrows liberally from both the supernatural Amityville saga and the phantasmagoric A Nightmare on Elm Street. William Katt, The Greatest American Hero himself, suffers a fate worse than prom night with Carrie White as the beleaguered hero. The house preys on his subconscious gradually, beginning with the ghost of his aunt (Susan French) warning him to get out of the house for the sake of his own free will, all the while fashioning the noose around her neck. Recurring visits from grotesque creatures turn personal once they assume the form of Sandy (Kay Lenz), the soap star from whom he's currently divorced.

And his slipping grasp on reality is tested by levitating garden tools, a mounted marlin flapping loudly against the walls and the insistent snooping of his new neighbors, corpulent busybody Harold (George Wendt, TV's Norm) and vivacious knockout Tanya (Swedish pageant queen Mary Stavin).

The tone as adopted by director Steve Miner and screenwriter Ethan Wiley (based on a story by Fred Dekker, author of Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad) is one of somnambulant, stoic surrealism. Roger cracks early when he mounts a line of cameras to capture a gross poltergeist whilst dressed in his aged camouflage and runs out of the house, gliding down the front porch in premature victory only to find Harold standing startled. The awkward if well-meaning Samaritan tips off Sandy to Roger's madness and calls the cops after hearing a shotgun blast he assumes to be Roger attempting suicide. Alas, it's just Roger's mind, and the machinations of his Victorian digs, playing tricks on him.

House is very reminiscent of the concept for Stephen King's 1408, which became a movie in which John Cusack himself played a disillusioned writer spending time in an eerie isolated environment which plays practical jokes at the expense of his psychology. That Mikael Håfström film was a more earnest, roller coaster-style thrill ride that Steve Miner, who had directed the same year's Soul Man with C. Thomas Howell in blackface, doesn't quite predict. Instead, the movie jumps from one comical commotion to the next. Roger has to dispose a dead body whose dismembered hand crops up at the worst possible moments, namely when Tanya arrives asking him to babysit her son Robert. Alas, it's not so extreme he needs to call Bruce Campbell for back-up, instead buttressed with covers of R&B staples "You're No Good" and "Dedicated to the One I Love."

Roger's scattered memories of the Vietnamese tour of duty which he's trying to translate to literature finally make sense by the final act, when the bony zombie of a captured grunt named Big Ben (Richard Moll, TV's Bull) is revealed to the source of Roger's deepest anxiety. The reckless, overeager soldier is still stewed that his brother-in-arms didn't kill him before the enemies put him in torture camp. The stakes suddenly become too high for Miner to deal with, as the previous events have all been tinged with sardonic, sitcom-style inconsequence. Never mind the rubber-bodied Ben looks like a wimp compared to Kane Hodder's hulking Jason from Friday the 13th Part VII, to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance (the legendary stuntman himself worked on this project).

House is the diametric opposite of the portentous family dramas found in any of the three Amityville adventures from prior. The heroically V-necked William Katt doesn't quite give the impression of someone gone completely unhinged, even when he frets over possibly killing his demure if caring ex-wife. Like Wendt and Moll's supporting characters, the handsome small-screen Superman plays the King-style lead with enough reserve to keep the film's comedic tone afloat. And House is primarily a farce when you get right down to it, not particularly nightmarish but genial and ghoulish enough to have become enough of an item that it spawned three sequels, the most extreme of which was the unofficially-titled third entry The Horror Show from 1989.

Watching it now, I confess that I find House less charming than fellow Class of ‘86 horror-comedies Night of the Creeps, TerrorVision, April Fool's Day, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Luckily, there is a modicum of slight if smirking gallows humor and many subtle touches of insanity to entertain. And Steve Miner seems proud enough of it to have made a rare appearance in world of DVD bonus features, recording a group commentary with Katt, Sean Cunningham, and Ethan Wiley. Alas, you need to seek out the OOP Anchor Bay edition for this addition, as Image Entertainment's "Midnight Madness Series" reissue drops every single extra from the older release, even the Percy Rodrigues-narrated theatrical trailer.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Basket Case 3: The Progeny

(R, Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment, 90 mins., release date: February 14, 1992)
If you're looking for a proper evaluation of how Frank Henenlotter's three Basket Case films evolved, it would be best to invoke the kind of directorial kindred spirits one could glean from each particular outing.

The 1982 original was a seedy, sensationalist splatter classic that established the 42nd Street urchin as heir to the damp, sticky grindhouse throne once lorded over by Herschell Gordon Lewis and Andy Milligan. Filmed on the lowest of low budgets, it was advertised with canny precision (elliptical trailers and free surgical masks for theater patrons) and eventually became one of the defining cult movies of its decade thanks to VHS.

After lucking into a three-picture deal with Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment, one of which is the legendary Frankenhooker, Henenlotter was persuaded into making a pair of proper sequels to his beloved debut. For the first of them, 1990's Basket Case 2, the director broadened the universe of deformed "others" and made them the heroes against an exploitative, greedy society of "normals." Henenlotter drew upon the spirit of Tod Browning moreso than Clive Barker did in the same year's thematically-similar Nightbreed.

Basket Case 3: The Progeny wasted no time coming to fruition, released a mere couple of years after the last film and eventually proving to be a disappointment for Henenlotter, who never made another feature until after more than a decade with Bad Biology (2008) and instead focused more on his boutique video label Something Weird. What's surprising about this third entry is that the depraved imagination of Henenlotter, who once pitched a project called "Insect City" that was deemed too outrageous for any studio to fund or any moviegoer to pay to see, felt less feverish than ever before. The result was something which could've easily been filmed by the likes of Lloyd Kaufman, thus answering a question only the most brain-damaged of horror geeks have ever asked themselves:

"What if Frank Henenlotter had directed a Troma movie?"

Picking up after the previous film's events in a manner similar to the way Basket Case 2 launched itself from the window of the Hotel Broslin, Part 3 recaps how Duane Bradley's (Kevin Van Hentenryck) panic attack drove him to steal away his deformed, surgically-removed Siamese twin brother Belial post-coitus(!) and heal old wounds with a needle and thread. This was clearly not a good idea, as Duane has spent months in solitary confinement, replete with padded cell and straitjacket, at the house of monster matron Granny Ruth (Annie Ross). Belial has cut off all telepathic communication with Duane, but they may be forced to make some grasps at peace once the news breaks that Belial has impregnated Eve (Denise Coop), his lumpen love interest from the second film.

Ruth resolves to break out the old school bus and gather all of her colorful charges for a road trip to Peachtree Valley, Georgia, so that Dr. Hal Rockwell (Dan Biggers) can safely deliver Eve's brood. In the interim, Duane thinks of escaping and befriends Opal (Tina Louise Hilbert), the petite daughter of the town sheriff. Eve's water breaks upon arriving at Uncle Hal's, where Granny Ruth reunites with her long-lost son, Little Hal (Jim O'Doherty), a mountainous man-blob with multiple arms who films Eve's miraculous birth of twelve junior Belials. It's at this point where Duane finally gets free and runs to the police office to confide to Opal, only to get arrested and inadvertently lead a pair of dopey deputies to Hal's doorstep hoping to capture Belial for a million-dollar reward. Instead, they murder Eve and make off with the newborn mutant children.

Basket Case 3 proceeds to rehash the revenge story of its predecessor, as Sheriff Andrew (Gil Roper) threatens the safety of the freak community and Granny Ruth, Belial and the rest of the clan form a militant revolt against their oppressors. Plot-wise, there's nothing different going on compared to the previous movie, only the villains have changed, even if there are still leftover potshots to be taken at yellow journalists (in this case, a Geraldo Rivera doppelganger introduced at the very last moment). The sheriff is introduced as a close friend of the Hals, but turns disloyal and dastardly without any real reason. He's just another boring casualty in Granny Ruth's campaign for abnormal rights.

The long-tested fraternal bond between the infamous Times Square Freak Twins is equally squandered. The first film, a fish-out-of-water in which the fish was a piranha, established a convincing jealousy between Duane and Belial as the former tried to find happiness with an office receptionist. Part 2 introduced darkly-funny psycho therapy and ended with the promising bout with madness seen at the start of Part 3. Henenlotter doesn't find a novel way to progress their relationship, reducing Duane into a kooky nuisance and retaining Belial's stunted, perpetual anger to the point where all of Granny Ruth's "breakthroughs" prove useless once Belial attacks Uncle Hal simply because there needed to be a flashback to the separation scene from the original.

Basket Case 3 hints at some good ideas in its own wild way, including the bizarre fantasy sequence involving Belial having a threesome with twin sisters (Carla and Carmen Morrell) that suggests Belial dreams of bachelorhood and freedom from familial responsibilities both brotherly and paternally. But they just don't go anywhere at all. Brain Damage and Frankenhooker showed more courage of conviction on Henenlotter's part, using their tasteless set pieces to follow through on their own twisted views of morality.

Henenlotter forsakes all promising elements and instead becomes afflicted with a fatal case of the wackies. This is the most emptily madcap of anything he's made, and the increased emphasis on broad comedy becomes stifling. Little Hal is allowed to riff during Eve's childbirth like a bad Rip Taylor impersonator. Opal is revealed to be a leather-clad dominatrix who bullwhips Duane into non-submission. Granny Ruth scat-sings her way through a group sing-along of Lloyd Price's "Personality," which, to be fair, is really fun. And Belial is presented with a mechanical body clearly stolen from the Power Loader seen in Aliens, although with Belial operating it, it brings to mind Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon.

The gore effects suffer from this gear change, too, as one victim is strangled to the point where his eyes and mouth bulge out like it were some live-action recreation of a Tex Avery short. Granted, the "parasite pants" scene from Brain Damage and the Super Crack massacre of Frankenhooker were just as chintzy, but they still managed to evoke chuckles and cringes. The most gruesome scene here involves the accidental flattening of one of the terrible tots, but that comes across like an afterthought and has no genuine set-up.

Fittingly, the performances become even more campy. Kevin Van Hentenryck and Annie Ross are as enthusiastic and game as before, but by having to reprise their roles to no greater good, their pleasures are more isolated. Duane eating a bowl of Corn Flakes as Belial kills one of the offending deputies (affording another instance of insufferable improv involving an Elvis drawl) offers mere chuckles when it could've been truly hilarious. And watching Granny Ruth go shopping for condoms at a drugstore or ordering fast food from counter girl Beverly Bonner (whom you may remember was kindly prostitute Casey from the original) are needless diversions compared to her gleeful, nationally-broadcast send-off speech. The rest of the cast strain way too hard with very little charisma for cheap laughs.

Frank Henenlotter felt cheated by the movie's producers, whose demands apparently resulted in causing eleven pages of possibly interesting material to fall by the wayside. Not only that, but the need for an R-rated feature which could be easily picked up by major video distributors (MCA/Universal initially handled the videocassette release) showed noticeable fallout from the ratings board struggles which plagued Frankenhooker. Basket Case 3 suggests the dangers of compromise in breeding more of a natural abomination than anything Gabe Bartalos could ever concoct in an FX lab.

This is what happens when a Maverick goes on autopilot.

(Synapse have released single disc editions of both sequels, but Part 3 gets no bonus features to speak of excepting a trailer. If you're as much of a fan as I of Frank Henenlotter, skip directly to Second Sight's region-free UK release of the entire Basket Case series on Blu-Ray, which includes an honest retrospective featuring interviews with Henenlotter, Kevin Van Hentenryck and Annie Ross among others).

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Pack (1977)

(R, Warner Bros. Pictures, 99 mins., theatrical release date: November 20, 1977)

In the last official Dirty Harry vehicle from 1988, The Dead Pool, the prime suspect in a series of celebrity killings is a pompous schlock film director named Peter Swan. To get a better idea of his disreputable resume, the SFPD glance at a sizzle reel consisting of lurid clips from three of Swan's movies, including a scene of demon seed childbirth as well as one of a woman in a car being attacked by a bunch of mad dogs. It turns out that these moments were actually lifted from a triptych of past titles distributed by Warner Bros. and newly contextualized as a joke against Swan's Limey pretentiousness.

Even better from an ironic standpoint, the UK censor board removed both of those aforementioned instances of stock footage, the first being from Larry Cohen's It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) and the latter rooted in 1977's The Pack.

As used in The Dead Pool, it could be inferred that Swan had merely ripped off Cujo for a cheap buck, as the scene bears an uncanny resemblance to Lewis Teague's popular Stephen King adaptation from 1983. In reality, The Pack not only preceded King's novel by several years, but also boasted the same veteran animal wrangler from the film version, Karl Lewis Miller, to prod the dogs into action (Miller also directed the furry stars of Stand by Me, Beethoven and Babe). Also, it was not a scene-stealing Liam Neeson who was responsible for helming The Pack, but instead Yankee journeyman filmmaker Robert Clouse, who worked steadily for the Warners, reaching his zenith with the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon (1973) and his nadir with the Kurt Thomas turkey Gymkata (1985).

The Pack is also part of the big boom in "Nature's Revenge" movies which began in earnest at the start of the 1970s but was deathless upon the mid-decade success of Jaws. Adapted from a novel by David Fisher by Clouse himself (Clouse also turned an early James Herbert novel into a feature with Deadly Eyes from 1981, which also involved dogs albeit dressed up as rats, Killer Shrews-style), it was initially titled The Long, Dark Night and was also a reunion of Clouse with star Joe Don Baker, who previously had the lead role in the 1974 Hong Kong caper Golden Needles. Baker was perennially cast as rogues and vigilantes in the wake of his breakout in Walking Tall, but this is one of the rare exceptions in which his character is as affable as he is commanding.

Widowed marine biologist Jerry Preston (Baker) is wrapping up a two-year expedition studying shrimp on Seal Island, a popular tourist destination, with intentions to live there full-time after falling in love with teacher/fellow single parent Millie (Hope Alexander-Willis) over the past couple of summers. With the fall approaching, the ferry arrives to take the last vacationing families away, although without their pet dogs as they are set loose to fend for themselves in the grimy, barren woods. A collective of abandoned canines take shelter in a desolate barn and group together to gather whatever food they can get their paws on. They begin by feasting upon a horse belonging to storekeeper Clyde Hardiman (Richard B. Shull), then by tearing apart the guide dog of blind recluse McMinnimee (Delos V. Smith, Jr.). It isn't too long until they learn the taste of human blood, and with a whole cabin full of kibble arriving via a quintet of weekend visitors, it's up to Jerry to unite the survivors and barricade themselves as they await rescue from the mangy, marauding mongrels.

A popular theme amongst these tales of bad animals (one best detailed in Melbourne cinephile Lee Gambin's comprehensive Massacred by Mother Nature) is man's inhumanity to mammals as well as his indifference to the environment. Lines are drawn between the people who have a pure connection to the critters of the world, namely Jerry, with his loyal bond to his German Shepherd companion Rye, and those who do not, which is generalized to include all city folk. "Most of these dogs were just tourist pets until a couple of weeks ago," Jerry asserts when pressed by his frightened, insolent charges. Indeed, the variety of breeds on display, which include collies (one Lassie look-a-like in particular is spared for thematic purposes), spaniels, Dobermans and even Dalmatians, allow for a wider canvas of once-docile companions gone primal in their need for survival, thus eventually they will target the human race who left them behind with anger in their eyes and froth on their fangs.

The Pack excels in the scenes of brutal violence committed by or against the dogs based on this empathetically visceral realization that these former pets have crossed into feral territory. We're not dealing with wild wolves, but relatable specimens of Man's Best Friend. There is a leader amongst them, a mixed-breed mutt whom Jerry first encounters after he bites Rye on the leg and whom he alerts the rest of the population as a potential danger due to its irreversible madness. This particular dog stands out amongst the others because it is made up to look particularly battered and vicious, his coat seeming to have been skinned in many a scuffle. In dialogue and throughout the final confrontation with Jerry in the attic of Hardiman's shack, the creature is elevated to head vampire status. This headlining horror hound proves a very memorable emblem of fright.

If only Clouse had been a bit more generous towards his supporting cast of two-legged performers, who are a disparately clichéd bunch at best. The newest guests on Seal Island are a blowhard banker named Jim Dodge (Richard O'Brien) and his entourage, including craven vice president Walker (Ned Wertimer), secretary Marge (Bibi Besch), supposed cook Lois (Sherry Miles), and Dodge's obese, resentful son Tommy (Paul Wilson). If these characters seem like innocent people caught in the crossfire of a suddenly hostile situation, their behaviors and attitudes negate such an easy route to sympathy. The most foolish drama involves Dodge trying to force blonde bimbo Lois, introduced chiefly by her bun-hugging blue jeans, onto the droopy, diffident Tommy, who resists every potential pass ("He just sat and talked. He didn't even try to grab a tit!").

Lois follows Tommy into the forest after an argument with his dad, and the kid bares his soul for a brief moment. But that's immediately rendered moot since they both end up receiving chase from The Pack, and it's embarrassing for both Miles, whose Lois helplessly fails to catch up with the overweight Tommy and klutzily tumbles into a brook, and Wilson, who is shown running for his life in protracted slow-motion which emphasizes his flop sweat and flapping flab.

Seal Island even has its own designated Quint clone in the form of cantankerous Cobb, played with admitted relish by R.G. Armstrong. After Dodge grievously tries to mow down the dogs in his truck and then gets mauled to near-death for his troubles, Cobb fires off a bitter riposte at Walker and summates his own hostile attitude toward mankind ("Far from me to get upset when a fool dies"). Alas, he volunteers to row the 18-mile path towards civilization, and it turns out as well as you'd hope.

Thankfully, Joe Don Baker offers up a surprising warmth and provides more unfettered charisma than one would expect given his propensity for ignoble anti-heroes. Rarely does one comment on the man who played Mitchell as being "the heart and soul" of a 1970s exploitation effort, but boy does he prove himself such. Hope Alexander-Willis is also solid as his romantic interest, quite beautiful in her relationship to Jerry and convincingly perturbed in the show-stopping car assault scene. Ralph Woolsey provides atmospheric, natural cinematography that turns the remote island locale into a gusty, shadowy death trap, and composer Lee Holdridge offers a tense, terse accompaniment to the action which works hard to smooth over the crudeness in Clouse's direction.

I'm pretty positive that however Peter Swan's "Hotel Satan" had turned out, it wouldn't be worthy of running with The Pack. Warner never officially released the film on DVD, either by itself or in a pack of its own, but the company's manufactured-on-demand Archive vault has this available in a sturdy anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, though is strictly no bones in the bonuses department. The theatrical trailer for this has been preserved in all its 35mm glory on Synapse Films' 42nd Street Forever, Volume 3 DVD compilation.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Anguish (1987)

(R, International Spectrafilm, 88 mins., U.S. release date: January 8, 1988)

In the wake of the concurrent deaths of Roger Ebert and Jess Franco, somehow the passing of Spanish director Bigas Luna passed me by. This is quite a shame for me, as I had a youthful familiarity of the man based on his 1987 horror flick Anguish, which was lucky enough to have caught my eye first in a VHS reference book showcasing recommended genre titles and then by seeing the actual physical version of its videocassette box at a Video Update in Mesa. The Key Video catalog release showed the memorably creepy face of diminutive actor Zelda Rubinstein superimposed over a spiral, and I was savvy enough to know that the suggestion was that of hypnotism without having to read any cautious preambles. I picked it off the shelf the exact moment I saw it and made it my mission to actively experience it.

Luna is perhaps best known for affording breaks to young homeland actors Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz with his surrealistic, sex-crazed soap opera Jamón Jamón in 1992, years before the great Pedro Almodovar later helped make them bigger stars via Live Flesh and All About My Mother. No current household names are to be found in Anguish, although American stars Michael Lerner (Hill Street Blues) and Zelda Rubinstein (Poltergeist) are well-known and have vigorous enough personalities to help sell this film's twisty indictment of spectatorship. Luna also seems to set his anarchic sights on William Castle-style gimmickry, the Oedipal complexes of many popular horror touchstones, and the notion of the vicarious release which constitutes the reason people consume horror movies, for better or for worse.

I feel like a certain sense of tact is needed in handling the developments of Anguish, a movie that pulls the rug from under its own artificiality only to engage in quirky juxtapositions and parallel situations that give it the heady allure of solving a puzzle box. Most horror films involving methodical slashers aren't as intentionally mind-contorting as this. So I'll try to keep spoilers to a minimum whilst doing my best to deliver my impression of this very odd, surprisingly complex story.

Anguish begins with a loudspeaker announcement warning of free-by-ticket-purchase medical service available in the theater lobby for those who may need it. At the same time, there is onscreen text which rehashes what the film's advertisement touted up as that there are certain "subliminal messages and mild hypnosis" which may be of no permanent consequence but, once again, advice is given that you "leave the auditorium immediately" should you become upset.

The proper movie stars Lerner as John Pressman, a hospital orderly and optometrist's assistant rendered nearsighted from diabetes and living under the care of his elderly Mother (Rubinstein). Henpecked at work after a haughty patient named Caroline (Isabel Garcia Lorca) complains about her contact lenses cutting into her eyes, John gets bloody revenge after his clairvoyant Mother puts her son under a deep trance. No longer the "hiding, happy" snail the world has reduced him to, the vindictive Ms. Pressman mind-melds with John, and she guides him towards murdering Caroline and her lover at their penthouse and then slicing out their eyeballs for souvenirs.

And then a whole new perspective is introduced, meaning that what we've just seen is indeed a fictional construct being observed by the audience of a Los Angeles cineplex. To put it plainer, it was "only a movie," a film called "The Mommy" currently being screened for a matinee auditorium at the Rex. One member of the crowd, teenage Patty (Talia Paul), is exhibiting signs of serious distress and begging her friend Linda (Clara Pastor) to take her home. The disturbing images continue to take an unhealthy toll on Patty to the point where John's dramatized carnage, which soon extends to a revival screening of The Lost World, becomes all too real for her to handle.

The second act of the film, therefore, has the Anguish audience (re: us) watching the watchers of "The Mommy," as Patty and several others experience disorientation from the reverberating, repetitive mantras of Mother as well as the graphic violence more akin to Italian giallos than MPAA-submitted U.S. slashers. This part of the film eventually proves more fascinating than the fictional film onscreen, especially since "The Mommy" is just a programmatic piece of lurid bloodletting with laughably prolonged, deliberately old-fashioned "surrealism" (you try not to chuckle when John is framed against a spiral and the camera frenetically swoops in and circles around). A teen boy in a circle of friends clutches his heart due to the psychology-warping intensity of the sound mix when Mother hypnotizes John, whilst another lonely man (Angel Jove) with a shocked, stretched face seems to check his watch in anticipating the film's end, although his motivations turn out to be not quite so simple.

Eventually, Linda, who has spent the better part of act on berating her frightened friend whilst staring at the screen and snacking on popcorn, comes to realize Patty's paranoia and feverish imagination is wholly justified. Finally, the movie develops a decent amount of suspense in time for a grand finale that turns the Rex theatre into a crime scene and finally sends poor Patty into full-on hysteria.

Bigas Luna has given us the ultimate in voyeuristic fascination: a movie where we become spellbound at the sight of others being spellbound because of a movie. The third act is not as fluid at juggling both of the unfolding films, as "The Mommy" peters out at the moment where John fatefully reunites with Mother, but it is captivating to see the way in which life imitates art for the poor people at the Rex. And Luna's canny compositions both on-camera and through sound design keep the illusion strong like blood rushing from the heart to the head and back down again. Luna is also fond of his recurring motifs: snails, caged pigeons and, of course, lots and lots of eyes. It's almost as if Luna is reclaiming the violence toward sight away from Lucio Fulci and replacing it in the surrealist Spaniard tradition of Un Chien Andalou. Certainly, Luna's golden hues, controlled if copious use of cross-cut edits and engrossing Scope framing put a lot of lesser schlock cinema to shame.

When describing Anguish, I do feel the closest comparison piece is Lamberto Bava's outlandish if more entertaining shocker Demons (1985), which unspooled supernaturally when spilling out the slaughter from the projected image to the communal setting. It also was a lot more exaggerated, as the people in the theatre were colorful and diverse in their personalities. Anguish is a noticeable inverse, as the Rex audience is more typical of a nondescript weekend afternoon crowd and has no punks or perverts in sight.

Anguish, though, loses momentum to a certain degree since Luna's academic fascination with the conflicting behaviors in which people who binge on bloody B-movies exhibit reveals a filmmaker more heady in his intentions than heartfelt. Remember the advice from the theatre owner at the start of the film? This falls on deaf ears for Patty and some of the more squeamish, impressionable cinemagoers, and for all his boasts of medical service and oxygen masks, the lobby is entirely barren save for a few staffers who duly get murdered. The resonance of Luna's experimental approach lies in the way in which the viewer is forced to examine his own objective relationship with the lurid power of celluloid, especially since it's easy to lose patience with the thinly-sketched roster of characters in either film.

Luna is nowhere near the soulful provocations of Pedro Almodovar or the brutal self-reflexivity of Dario Argento in dealing with the meta-textual, nor does he transcend the sum of his influences like those two international icons. But if he inspires a gorehound to some degree of thought, at least such an intention is noble, and when the closing credits crawl in yet another amusing bit of surveillance, it seems reasonable that we can finally trust our own eyes again...maybe.

(The film's copyright date is 1986, but Anguish made its theatrical debut in native Spain in 1987 as Angustia, getting picked up for American release the following year. The movie was released on U.S. digital video in its intended 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and with a properly enveloping 5.1 surround remix to boot, through Anchor Bay/Blue Underground.)

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Dr. Giggles

(R, Universal Studios/Largo Entertainment, 95 mins., theatrical release date: October 23, 1992)

"Get ready to take your medicine, Moorehigh. The doctor is in!"

At the beginning of the 1990s, the slasher film was truly on life support. The defining horror subgenre of the previous decade, and the source of much profits and pontification, had already run its course and started to drill itself into a shallow grave. Such was plain to see in the development of many of the era's biggest franchises. Freddy died, Jason went to Hell, Michael took a vacation to Planet Druidia, and Chucky was experiencing the kind of diminishing returns brought on by a hasty venture to military school. But there was still a market, and undaunted producers attempted to fill the void by any means necessary.

So along came sadistic leprechauns, cuckolded dentists and, for the purposes of this review, the serial malpractitioner known as Dr. Giggles.

His real name is Evan Rendell, Jr., the son of a once-respected surgeon who was lynched by his fellow small town residents of Moorehigh after his wife's heart disease brought about a psychotic new M.O. He was orphaned at the tender age of seven and recently lived as an inmate of the Tarawood State Mental Hospital. But this psychotic prodigy finally pulled off a bloody breakout and is coming home with a vengeance.

He's a depraved homicidal killer, and he makes house calls!

Dr. Giggles, the movie, directed by Manny Coto and co-written with Sonny Boy scribe Graeme Whifler, gathers together all the classic tropes of its forebears like a Now! hits compilation. "The night HE came back" from Halloween? Check. Hedonistic horn dog teenagers too late for Friday the 13th? No matter, as they're all right on time for their appointment with death. Ominous spooky house and nursery rhyme mythology from straight outta Springwood? One, two, Freddy's going to sue. The methodical murders and post-mortem zingers of Krueger's later years also surface. And the mad doctor's loony chuckle is as distinct as that of Charles Lee Ray.

Akin to Robert Englund and Brad Dourif's iconic work as Freddy and Chucky, maverick character actor Larry Drake brings the right kind of aplomb to the role of Dr. Giggles. Fresh off his rogue supporting performance in Sam Raimi's Darkman and in the midst of his televised L.A. Law fame, Drake resembled a modern day Peter Lorre and is exquisitely sarcastic in handling his over-the-top penchant for medically-themed wisecracks. Coto frames Drake with enough cock-eyed angles and plenty of imposing ground-up P.O.V. shots to preserve the illusion of menace. But there's also a refreshing humor in seeing his grotesque funhouse mirror reflection as well as the oddball camera placement from within a victim's mouth as Rendell inspects her tonsils. The combined playfulness of director and star proves irresistible and is certainly a step above the likes of Child's Play 3 or Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.

But Drake was also known for two separate appearances on HBO's Tales from the Crypt, particularly the Robert Zemeckis-directed pilot "And All Through the House," wherein Drake took on the axe-wielding Santa suit. Coto was responsible for an episode as well in 1991's "Mournin' Mess," about a killer of hobos. Dr. Giggles feels like its ideal home would be on paid cable television, even if it was originally filmed in 2.35:1 Panavision (currently only available on a 1993 LaserDisc release). Given the plot's lightweight sense of pulpiness and reliance on familiar scenarios involving make-out spots (Breeder's Hill), isolated houses from which Rendell springs from out of nowhere and, of course, the use of a crowded fairground in a chase sequence (this time it plays as a direct homage to Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai), this has the distinct appearance of a late-blooming if then-modern shocker.

The titular maniac's canny, campy perversion of Hippocratic Oath is exploited to its fullest potential. Armed with a handbag full of makeshift instruments and familiar hospital paraphernalia, Rendell systematically makes his rounds butchering the locals with syringes, scalpels, otoscopes, and thermometers. His most novel method of dispatch involves a de facto wicked stepmother played by 1980s starlet Michelle Johnson (Blame it on Rio, Waxworks) and a hydraulic portable liposuction machine with lethal blades inside the tubes. Regurgitated ice cream and blood flows with grisly glee.

Future Charmed coven member Holly Marie Combs, predating Sidney Prescott in her Plain Jane pluckiness, is the sullen survivalist/female teen lead, Jennifer Campbell, who is given parallels to Rendell by virtue of a dead mother's specter and hereditary cardiac woes. Trying to adjust with the help of an attentive if wayward boyfriend, Max (Glenn Quinn), her frail heart is in danger of breaking thanks to the machinations of sardonic siren Coreen (Sara Melson), who flirts with Max over saxophone lessons. Jennifer's concerned father (Cliff De Young) blows off his trophy squeeze Tamara (Johnson) when his daughter disposes of her EKG tracker and ventures off into the cruel world at her most vulnerable. When Rendell discovers Jennifer's illness, he sets his twisted mind on capturing the girl and finishing what his daddy started.

Plenty of shameful secrets are exposed, the origins of Rendell's madness are recounted via flashbacks and a final confrontation ensues in which Max and young policeman Officer Reitz (Keith Diamond) attempt to rescue Jennifer before she goes under Rendell's knife. Coto and Whifler adhere to formula slavishly, complete with a waiting room full of Rendell's rotting victims, but the gallows humor is consistent and more clever than expected. In one of the film's queasiest scenes, one of Jennifer's oversexed friends forgoes putting a condom on before making out and crawls into bed to find not his lingerie-clad girlfriend, but 42-year-old Rendell awaiting with a pithy one-liner and a circumcising scalpel. Even better and sicker is the sight of Rendell ailing a gunshot wound in a manner which brings twisted élan to the old adage "Physician, heal thyself," which is sure enough written into the script.

Dr. Giggles does manage to believably entertain better than a lot of the films of its ilk. It's not cutting-edge by a long shot, but it certainly is a cut-up. By all rights, this film should've signaled the death knell for the mainstream slasher film until Wes Craven defined irony amidst all the dicing. And its paltry gross of $8 million demonstrates just how unassuming Coto's film really is. Larry Drake went on to reprise Robert Durant in the DTV world, but his Dr. Giggles was perceived as a one-joke routine. That's such a shame considering how committed Drake is to his performance and that it helps turn an also-ran into an admittedly minor cult favorite. It's a minor blessing that Drake, playing a loon in scrubs more hazardous to your health than Drs. Howard, Fine & Howard combined, manages to incise a path into your heart only to tear it out and leave you with enough of a spasm to jolt your funny bone.