Tuesday, December 30, 2014


(R, Touchstone Pictures, 117 mins., theatrical release date: August 5, 1987)

I must have been nice this year, because St. Netflix has deemed fit to send me another John Badham-directed cop comedy from my DVD queue so shortly after the last. God bless us, everyone!

So in 1986, the Englishman who once directed WarGames and Blue Thunder decided to shake things up by delving into lighthearted family fare with Short Circuit. Badham was known as a dramatist ever since Saturday Night Fever was a disco-era smash, but the success of that cuddly robot caper seemed to give him the freedom to work a clearer comedic angle into his films. The result was Stakeout, a late-summer farce which was less Lethal Weapon and more "Pop Gun Blues."

Put it this way: one film had Mel Gibson pressing a single-shot Beretta to his head (and over the holidays, natch), desperate to end his mad dog existentialism; and the other has Emilio Estevez throwing a stray cat in the car of his blustery rivals (Forest Whitaker & Dan Lauria, marginally magnificent), thus chasing off a pet bulldog, as a prank.

There is still plenty of lonesome angst to contend with in Stakeout, although here it belongs to Richard Dreyfuss as feisty Seattle detective Chris Lecce, who is frazzled but far from Martin Riggs' suicidal mania. Badham previously worked with Dreyfuss during the actor's cocaine-addled downward slope on the euthanasia tract Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981). Stakeout helped to renew Dreyfuss' post-sobriety popularity by becoming the eighth biggest blockbuster of 1987, even edging out Lethal Weapon by a couple grand.

Scripted by Jim Kouf, who also wrote same year's disreputably grand The Hidden under his nom de pulp "Bob Hunt," Stakeout blesses Dreyfuss with a whale of a role, or at least one which serves his fast-talking, quick-thinking reflexes very well. It also requires him to get dirty with fish residue and sawdust in contrasting chase sequences, as well as play off Emilio Estevez as stern sidekick Bill Reimers, who resembles one of the comically mustachioed Beastie Boys from their mid-1990s "Sabotage" video.

The human condition to Det. Chris Lecce is that he's frequently restless, highly combative and newly single after his beloved Bonnie leaves him with little but the bed he loses sleep on, having taken the shades with her. He's such the model of mid-life misery that when he's ordered to pull the night shift in surveying the ex-girlfriend of a fugitive, he has no choice but to get closer to his subject than he or his partner hoped for.

The woman is Maria McGuire (Madeleine Stowe), a lithe Irish-Mexican bombshell whom the policeman peepers duly admire from across the street in their grimy headquarters. Chris bugs her phones by masquerading as a repairman, but fatefully approaches her at the supermarket away from Bill's own watchful eye. It isn't long before the two become romantically entangled, a dalliance which not only throws a wrench into his assignment but may as well put him over his head with Maria's cop-killing squeeze, Richard "Stick" Montgomery (Aidan Quinn), who is coming to collect a hefty sum of cash stashed away at her digs.

When I wrote about Badham's The Hard Way, which preceded the proper sequel to Stakeout by two years, I was quite impressed by James Woods and Michael J. Fox creating such a rambunctious rapport given their tightly-focused characterizations. Revisiting Stakeout, though, I have to admit that though I found Fox more humorously adept than Estevez, Richard Dreyfuss is better than even Jimmy Woods. It's enough to make me mildly embarrassed.

"I don't think I realized until just now the size of the hole I dug for myself," Chris reluctantly confesses at one point in embrace with Maria, and Dreyfuss is in top form getting us to squirm as much as he does at his own randy deception. Coincidence dictates that Maria will encounter Chris at his "office" when he pulls strings to get her free good-hearted brother on work release. Dreyfuss gives it his all, darting his blue eyes from behind his cap, stammering himself silly upon their encounter and finally retreating with tractor beam humiliation.

Not that being at a distance keeps Chris from finding fresh ways to make a fool of himself. After doing Maria said favor at the precinct, he phones her up in solitude as he spies on her in the kitchen, struggling to remember his flimsy alibi and damn near blowing his cover when he sees her skillet catch fire. All the while, Chris tries to assert himself as a loverman beyond his perceived Mr. Nice Guy timidity. He sees it as a stigma, "like medium," and gets a whole new identity to fabricate in his final confrontation with Stick.

Richard Dreyfuss is a joy to watch at his most nervous and such an intuitive actor that he overcomes the dubiousness of playing a mensch with a badge. By contrast, Emilio Estevez can't help but seem hopelessly green having to essay Dreyfuss' opposite number. I can't be unfair to the former Repo Man, ultimately, as he navigates sublimely between the puckish and the parental, establishing a more well-adjusted presence than his earlier roles suggested (no stalking in the rain a la St. Elmo's Fire).

The casual nature of their performances also accounts for why they work well together in the movie. The scene where the duo pass the time with trivia games, with Chris having to guess movie quotes and Bill the history of American ex-presidents (with a Playboy centerfold used as a hint for one of them), is a good barometer of their chemistry. It's also a shrewd joke at the 40-year-old Dreyfuss' expense. Nowadays, male-oriented comedies have pushed the "bromance" angle as far as they can go, so there's something retro-actively innocuous about the bickering between Dreyfuss and Estevez, which is more Homer and Marge Simpson than anything in buddy cop history. But they never compromise their integrity, and this combined with their priceless jesting ("So, did we practice safe sex?") gives me a better understanding of this film's amiable popularity than, say, Wild Hogs.

Still, the threat remains of Stick's encroaching reunion with Maria, as the felon and his cousin drive towards Seattle in bullet-riddled conflict with the law. The Hard Way lacked for an interesting villain in the admittedly goofy Party Crasher, whereas the dryly charismatic Aidan Quinn shows a more volatile, unique menace. Relishing his freedom with childish disbelief and a wicked grin, Stick is also sufficiently brutal in his big getaway and intriguingly petty in the realms of both crime and love. His psychotic jealousy lingers in Bill's mind, even though he cannot help falling in love with Maria and risking the suspicion of his superiors.

John Badham incorporates thriller and action elements rather programmatically, and, like The Hard Way after it, there is a slight feeling of tonal dissonance when things kick into gear. But he at least understands that they are obstacles in service of a smarter perception of lovesick foibles. Madeleine Stowe rises above what could have been purely an objectifying archetype to give Maria homely pluck and perception, her intimate moments with Dreyfuss utterly engaging. Jim Kouf's screenplay is actually quite generous in giving its principal characters equal integrity and workaday empathy, using shorthand and shared understanding in just the right ways to make mundane "shit detail" surveillance jobs as well as impromptu dinners register with warmth.

Stakeout is one of the more humble films to have ever eclipsed the $100 million mark at the box office, even with its studio pedigree and star actors. When Another Stakeout reunited all of its key players in 1993, it felt not only arbitrary but past its time. The Hard Way underachieved theatrically, Lethal Weapon already spun out two increasingly profitable sequels and Estevez got involved in the National Lampoon spoof Loaded Weapon 1. The buddy cop formula got lost in the adrenaline-fueled mid-1990s until Rush Hour arrived, with the only real quirk coming from the science fiction-oriented Men in Black. Not to say Stakeout is trend-setting, since 48 Hours from 1982 remains the catalyst for all that would come, including this, Lethal Weapon, The Hidden, Midnight Run, Downtown, etc. etc.

It does hold up despite its reputation as disposable cable fodder, though, especially with the mature love affair at its spine and the revitalizing performance by Richard Dreyfuss. Not too many of those aforementioned films were eager to defuse their machismo with the mundane devotion to romance and procedure Stakeout provides, so it does stand out in a positive way. That it thinks forwardly enough to allow the heroes to live by their own established groove makes it feel like it's a cozy fictional sequel in its own right. Badham may have shown an increased propensity for comedy, but more than that, he finally made a movie that is straightforwardly charming, no assembly required.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ernest Saves Christmas

(PG, Touchstone Pictures, 95 mins., theatrical release date: November 11, 1988)

Ernest Saves Christmas is a film title of holly jolly irony. Even with all of the goodwill in the world, as befitting a simpleton who is "at one with the Yuletide, kno-wut-I-mean," it seems that throughout this second vehicle for the late Jim Varney's hayseed man-child, Christmas needs to be saved from Ernest. In rescuing a pine tree from the back of a truck, he causes a multiple-car collision. Taking the reins of Santa's reindeer-guided cart, Ernest is given the Jack Skellington treatment by Air Traffic Control. And his perennially overwhelmed neighbor Vern, seen as always through the camera eye, has his living room demolished by Ernest's mercenary party-planning. You feel like hiring Pee-Wee Herman for damage control.

In 1987, Ernest Goes to Camp was the first major spin-off for Varney's persona of Ernest P. Worrell, the rambling yokel who spent the better part of a decade filming one-take commercials out of Nashville for companies both regional and national, although primarily the former. Under the Disney Studio subsidiary Touchstone Pictures, the Ernest brand stretched out to four theatrical releases, the fifth being 1993's independently-released flop Ernest Rides Again. From thereon out, it was DTV all the way, with Disney's only affiliation being Slam Dunk Ernest (1995), co-starring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the short-lived craze for casting NBA heavyweights in family movies (Kazaam, Space Jam).

Varney found greater success in Disney's own Toy Story films as the voice of Slinky Dog, and was duly cast as Jed Clampett in Penelope Spheeris' early 1990s feature revival of The Beverly Hillbillies. Alas, Varney passed away from lung cancer in 2000 and never made it back on the marquee biz. But according to both Varney and directing partner John Cherry, Ernest Saves Christmas has held up as their favorite of the series, no doubt because of it being the most, well, earnest.

A lot of the film's benevolent gravity, however, is in the casting of stately Douglas Seale as the Santa Claus of this story. The twist herein, which surely lent itself to a future hot Dis-cember property, is that Santa's mythology and magic must be properly transferred to a willing mortal man. Like many an aging detective in a gritty cop thriller, even Santa gets too old for this stuff, although no policeman ever had to work the beat for almost an entire century.

Seale's Santa arrives in Orlando, where a businessman engages him in idle chatter, or mingle with the Kringle. Of course, the clues soar over him like a sleigh, whereas even the most jet-lagged tot is keen to the presence of their holiday hero. Santy Claus is away on business, though, and that is to christen children's entertainer Joe Caruthers (Oliver Clark) as his descendant. To get to him, Santa will have to hail a taxi and thus enters Ernest P. Worrell himself into the plot, having dropped off a catatonic passenger at the luggage conveyor belt.

En route to their destination, Ernest picks up the 1980s equivalent of a Dickensian street urchin, a teenage runaway nicknamed Harmony Starr (Noelle Parker) who takes in stride both the bad John Wayne impersonator behind the wheel and the genuine St. Nick riding shotgun. It doesn't end well for either men when Ernest is fired for giving Santa a free ride and Santa is diverted from his conversation with Joe by hotshot agent Marty Brock (Robert Lesser), who is grooming the unemployed Uncle Joey for the lead role in a movie and has his competitor, "Mr. Santos," arrested for vagrancy.

Ernest accidentally forgets to unload Santa's magic bag of toys, thus becoming enough of a believer to take Harmony along on a mission to rescue the imprisoned St. Nick before Christmas Eve, 7 p.m. But the complications snowball when Harmony keeps the sack for herself, Joe remains skeptical about his great promotion and a pair of helper elves arrive to gather up the reindeer only to end up chauffeured by the hapless Ernest, who commandeers the sleigh literally around the world and back.

Jim Varney, by all accounts, got taken at face value a lot by fans of the doltish Ernest character, when he was actually a very learned, gentle man away from his alter ego. There are intimations that Ernest himself is working on an intellectual level more cunning than his slapstick stupidity implies, especially when he disguises himself as a double-talking governor's aide or a mangy snake wrangler. Add this to his guileless warmth and self-confident malapropism, and it's clear that Ernest P. Worrell is deserving of his cult status and position in a Christmas fable.

It's just that Ernest Saves Christmas pitches itself so firmly in the middle ground, punching its weight with corny bathos and overeager farce. Ernest is such a live-action cartoon, with his elastic mandible and wide-eyed "Aw, shucks!" demeanor, that he thrusts himself into an alternate dimension that no one can keep up with, not even reliable supporting players Gailard Sartain & Bill Byrge doing their own bickering, rattled comic shtick as the weary warehouse watchers. Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey each understood when to let their guard down even in the wildest abandon, whereas there isn't a barn door broad enough comparable to Varney's mugging.

The rampant sentimentality is just as wearying, with Harmony set up as such a sarcastic, selfish anti-foil that her dramatic turnaround could immediately prompt the kind of exaggerated eye-rolling Sartain is called upon for. Ditto Joe Carruthers' arc, where the good-mannered and genteel TV personality is shooed into a schlock horror film incorrectly referred to as "Christmas Sleigh." Although its childish wonder and innocence is a very noble ingredient to preserving the benevolence of the Christmas season, you can imagine less dancing sugarplums and more Ernest decking the hells with a sledgehammer way too easily.

Thank goodness Douglas Seale makes the best of his role, clearly demonstrating the right attitude akin to original Miracle on 34th Street actor Edmund Gwenn in his appealing characterization of Santa Claus. A lot of the comic moments involving Seale hint at a cleverness the rampant product tie-ins undermine, with particular bits involving a customs check-in and his carousing his cellmates into caroling seeming rictus-proof.

And yet what to make of a fleeting glance at a "Keep Christ in Christmas" dashboard sticker in Ernest's cab which is of less significance than the triangular advert for Bic's Metal Point Roller pens atop it? It kind of defeats the purity of your modest Christmas comedy to remind viewers of Ernest's commerce-minded origins, as if to give viewers the impression that Santa's jelly belly is actually beer gut resulting from too many bottles of Bud Light (although the Coke ad credits suggest otherwise).

Ernest Saves Christmas isn't the lumpen coal many have made it out to be since its release, but it rarely shines in the way you'd hope. There is as much goodwill as there is ineptness, as this is the kind of movie where Jim Varney desperately loops random one-liners over non-existent lip movements for that extra pinch of annoyance. And even though comedy is notoriously subjective no matter what the demographic, whether they involve sex, splatter or satire, Ernest P. Worrell still comes across as polarizing despite the valiant Varney. If both the actor and alter ego aren't as dumb as they look, though, then maybe Ernest Saves Christmas is pleasantly aware of its single best joke. It's a shame the rest of this caper wasn't let in on it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Hard Way

(R, Universal Pictures, 111 mins., Mar. 8, 1991)

Last year from around the time of this review, NBC took Michael J. Fox and his titular sitcom nationwide, only to renege on their investment the very next month. And that was heavy. Although the show's lukewarm critical reception and disappointing ratings seemed to reflect its early death, there was something refreshing about seeing Fox's return to showbiz, especially comedy. And it wasn't just his Family Ties/Back to the Future heyday which prompted such sentimentalism, but going as far back to 1991 and the buddy cop goof The Hard Way.

This modest Hollywood attempt at culture crash meta-humor from Stakeout director John Badham got a lot of mileage from Fox's insider position as a superstar. In The Hard Way, Fox plays a pampered blockbuster actor named Nick Lang, his net worth $1.2 billion dollars on the back of cartoonish capers like "Smoking Gunn," whose sequel is on the verge of premiering and is being heavily advertised across the country. "I'm the only one who wants me to grow up!" Lang bemoans in the midst of a temper tantrum that just saw him chuck his People's Choice Award at the TV screen which aired the trailer for "Smoking Gunn II."

Of course, the truth was that Fox himself had experienced such a desire to stretch out his range in the wake of lightweight star vehicles like the Back to the Future trilogy and The Secret of My Success. Fox registered a lower-key turn in Paul Schrader's Light of Day and followed them up in the next couple of years with Bright Lights, Big City and Brian De Palma's Casualties of War. The public image of him as Alex P. Keaton/Marty McFly continued to dog him despite his solid character work, especially in that De Palma film where he had to share scenes with Method-y steamroller Sean Penn. Penn is compelling, to be sure, but you couldn't imagine him anchoring something as whimsical as Doc Hollywood or sending up his own ego as Fox does in The Hard Way.

He may not have any Elvis in him, as Mojo Nixon doth protest, but Michael J. Fox has his own star quality and a healthy sense of self-effacement. And to me, that matters a whole lot in terms of establishing a solid presence.

Getting back to the set-up, Lang has his eyes set on a coveted role as gritty policeman Nick Casanov in an unnamed project (only glimpsed subtly before the end credits), though his agent Angie (Penny Marshall, sardonically sweet) doesn't see him as viable a candidate as, say, Mel Gibson. Lang's solution: to ingratiate himself into the life of a real hard-boiled cop and attain the necessary knowledge and motivation to give him the advantage. Just who is his mentor?

That would be Detective John Moss, NYPD, a live wire of a loner played by James Woods, as committed as ever but not above flashing his own witty credentials like a badge of honor. The film opens on Moss as he is rushing to meet a hot date whilst navigating the congestion of Times Square traffic, going so far as to break out his siren to clear a path. Alas, if it's not one thing, it's another, as Moss receives a bulletin related to the case of the Party Crasher (Stephen Lang), a quasi-vigilante thrill killer who assassinates various types in plain sight. His latest mark is a drug dealer at a disco, and he makes sure to phone 911 in advance because, as Moss states, "he craves attention."

Moss and his partners fail to prevent the murder, and the Crasher makes a break among the panicking crowd. When his vehicle is chained to a tow truck, he commandeers it for his getaway, though not without Moss hanging madly on the driver's side door. The Crasher makes quick work shaking off the squad cars and finally Moss, slamming him into an oversized cigarette.

And Nick Lang's face is puffing on it.

So you can imagine Moss's dismay at having to give up chasing the Crasher to break in Lang as his partner. "Not if you tied my tongue to your tailpipe and drove me 80 mph naked through a field of broken glass." Lang, in his best Serpico costume, awaits and admires the verisimilitude of the station: "It's like a movie, it's so real!" This eager beaver shadows his reluctant coach as he resumes the investigation against the orders of Captain Brix (Delroy Lindo), interrogating a street crew called the Dead Romeos (among them teenaged Dante Smith, aka Black Star rapper Mos Def) in hopes they'll rat on the gun manufacturer who sold the Crasher his hi-tech piece. Lang attracts the attention of a rival Hispanic gang and barges in on Moss, thus instigating a shoot-out.

Along the way, Lang desperately tries to convince Moss to let his guard down so he can glean some pertinent wisdom from this "Yoda among cops." The instinctive, embittered Moss rebuts this "Dickless Tracy" prima donna with some hard-hearted gravity of the situation. This is not an acting exercise, after all, and lives are constantly in the balance. But Lang sticks around, whether at the frog dog stand, at Moss's apartment or even the pizzeria where Moss meets prospective girlfriend Susan (Annabella Sciorra, the predecessor of Marisa Tomei) and her daughter Bonnie (10-year-old Christina Ricci).

Woods and Fox prove equally zesty in their conflicting commitments, reaching their joint apex in a riotous moment where Moss has gone to a bar to get the disastrous date, which saw him roughing up a quartet of obnoxious bankers (among them irascible comedian Lewis Black), out of his mind. The student tries to teach the confused, crusty romantic on how to best express himself to a lady. Lang gets into the role of Susan, with his legs crossed and shirt unbuttoned, and thus tries to engage Moss into conversation. It's a play-acting gig which mirrors the male duo's own contentious pairing, but is handled with superhuman precision from both leads, and the scene emphasizes character details (particularly Moss's unfounded jealousy and divorcee frostiness) over cheap laughs.

The script from Lem Dobbs (who co-wrote the story with Michael Kozoll) and Daniel Pyne is rich enough with bickering zingers and Hollywood satire. The opening mock-trailer for "Smoking Gunn II," a cross-pollination of Indiana Jones and James Bond adventures, is sharper than anything from Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder. And two key action sequences are well woven into the fabric of this fish-out-of-Evian commentary, first a shoot-out in a crowded theatre showing "Smoking Gunn II" and a "top of the world" final showdown utilizing a mechanical billboard for Lang's film, heralded by his warning about the "third act" in a vindictive plot. A lot of quirky satire is mined from the act of smoking cigarettes throughout and it culminates in spectacular fashion in the end.

The chemistry between Jimmy and Mikey is just as unexpectedly deft as the Dreyfuss/Estevez coupling from Stakeout, perhaps even more so given the vast gulf between their warring knowledge of reality. But John Badham also wants to preserve the film's more violent edginess, so the Party Crasher is presented as a grinning fanatic who justifies the murder of innocent civilians in his sanctimonious super-villainy. A crucial divide between Moss and Lang stems from the instillation of post-traumatic stress, testing their limits through the danger of wrongly spilled blood. And Lang's manic desire to establish his movie star commitment is lent gravity by a couple of sobering circumstances.

Badham tempers such distressing elements with the kind of pop culture savvy which dominated his Short Circuit, leading to the ultimate realization that for all his commitment, Lang's claim to adulthood is just him doing a Bruce Willis parody. There is a heavy Hitchcock hand to that aforementioned rooftop squabble, which calls attention to life imitating art even more bluntly. And in poking fun at Lang's narcissistic insularity, there is a gag involving subway riders which sticks one to the post-Bernie Goetz, post-Death Wish craze for ordinary outlaw heroes.

The essence of The Hard Way is just the pure entertainment value afforded to and delivered in spades by "hambone" savants Michael J. Fox and James Woods. This is their Midnight Run, albeit a less intriguing variation in terms of criminal antics, and they juice the screenplay for all its quippy, incompatible liquid gold. Coming at the end of a genre that was about to be the domain of lone wolves instead of the bumbling duos, Badham sees this trend off with more energy and efficiency than he would demonstrate in his straight sequel Another Stakeout. The Hard Way is easy going, to be true, but at least it's persistently, procedurally hilarious.

The cast also includes Conrad Roberts (The Serpent and the Rainbow) as the wheezy-voiced gun runner Witherspoon and, among many in Moss's precinct, John Capodice, Luis Guzman and LL Cool J, whose "Mama Said Knock You Out" inconspicuously opens and closes the film. Me personally, I prefer James Woods dusting off the old Max Renn wardrobe for his big Dirty Harry moment in the subway. "See you in Pittsburgh, punk."

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Phantom of the Opera (1989)

(R, 21st Century Film Corpopration, 93 mins., theatrical release date: November 4, 1989)

The mounting success of the Nightmare on Elm Street series back in the 1980s turned Robert Englund into the definitive superstar of the slasher era. Not too many onscreen bogeymen of this time lent themselves to making household names of their performers, as Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Leatherface were played by a wide variety of stuntmen and one-flick wonders. Englund, though, was lucky in that the Freddy Krueger character had such a distinctive personality to match his classical talents, and he secured his legacy based on the original Elm Street franchise, seeing it through many promotional tie-ins, spin-offs and even convention appearances.

By the end of the decade, it seemed like no surprise to learn that in the tradition of fellow horror heroes like Lon Chaney, Claude Rains and Herbert Lom, Englund would essay the iconic Phantom of the Opera, the most durable anti-hero of 20th century literature, theater and film. As far as cinematic embryos are concerned, Englund as the Phantom is a virile conception. New Line Cinema could do no wrong by installing a new bedroom into The House That Freddy Built.

It's a shame to know that the paternity test revealed not Bob Shaye as the daddy, but instead one Menahem Golan. You know what that means: Robert Englund would have to be fired out of a Cannon to get this role.

The Englund-centric update of Phantom of the Opera was originally slated for production by the notorious Cannon Films, but their trio of over-budgeted, under-performing Tobe Hooper genre films led to the company's bankruptcy. The dissolution of the Golan/Globus partnership meant that the project would wind up in the hands of one or the other, and with English exploitation maven Harry Alan Towers on his side, Golan kept that particular project after becoming the new CEO of 21st Century Film Corporation.

The pedigree was initially British, seeing as how it was originally written by Gerald O'Hara and offered to director John Hough, who once upon a time made films like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and The Legend of Hell House. Hough also worked steadily for Disney in the 1970s, making the two Witch Mountain films as well as The Watcher in the Woods. However, the 1980s saw him stinking up his resume with the likes of The Incubus, American Gothic and Howling IV: The Original Nightmare. Golan wisely replaced Hough with Dwight H. Little, who had made a splash with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and would go on to make competent popcorn pictures with Steven Seagal (Marked for Death) and Brandon Lee (Rapid Fire). Also, O'Hara got demoted to a "based on" credit after Duke Sandefur, who previously scripted the 1988 Charles Band obscurity Ghost Town and would later claim a co-writing credit on Atlas Shrugged II: The Strike, was brought in for cost-cutting rewrites, especially since Golan couldn't afford to shoot a chandelier crash with his diminished cash flow.

Although many have been quick to point out the ways in which O'Hara and/or Sandefur's script demonstrates fidelity to Gaston Leroux's inaugural novel (paying more than due respect to Leroux's fondness for Faust), the fact is that this is clearly more in line with Golan's unwavering opportunism. The pizza-faced poster art and Englund's cackling, hack 'n' slash interpretation of disgraced, lovelorn Erik [Destler] are obvious concessions to the Freddy phenomenon. There is no room for tragedy this time around, just brazen condescension.

The old adventures of New Christine also reflect a severe mistrust of the source material, as Erik spends more time predictably stalking than credibly seducing the girl soprano, embodied here by teen dream/scream queen Jill Schoelen (The Stepfather). Her Christine Day is actually a modern ingénue looking for her big break in Broadway, the "welcome to prime time, bitch" arriving via a runaway sandbag which knocks her into an unconscious time warp during her audition. Waking up in ancient London instead of Gay Paree (and recreated in Budapest), Christine is revealed as a cast member in Charles Gounod's opera of Faust, particularly as the replacement for spiteful diva La Carlotta (the late Stephanie Lawrence, undoubtedly cast for her association with Andrew Lloyd Webber).

Under the guise of a fatherly angel, Erik grooms Christine into a powerhouse performer and then bloodily orchestrates her ascension to center stage, eliminating their various foes along the way. The body count is so transparently beefed-up as to include a trio of tavern thugs who accost Erik down a foggy alleyway, and their demise is plucked straight from an Elm Street sequel script, glib retorts and all. Eventually, Christine's gentleman suitor Richard (Alex Hyde-White) and grizzled Inspector Hawking (Terence Harvey) work together to rescue Christine from the risible affection of the wicked Erik, who will have her for eternity dead or alive.

The Phantom's back story this time around involves an unfinished opera called "Don Juan Triumphant," which is discovered in present-day bookends by Christine and meant to create the sense of serendipity that binds them together in the past. Erik capriciously makes a deal with a pint-sized Devil which will allow his music to live forever at the expense of his love life, or at least Englund's hyena-style handsomeness. The rules in regards to how the Phantom is to be unleashed collapse through the stage floor when some shots reveal him as a blue-tinted shadow figure staring out superimposed over Christine in her dressing room, and others deliberately reveal Erik's face, or at least whatever visage he can assemble from the trophies of his victims.

Essentially, Erik Destler is Ed Gein in this scenario, and director Dwight Little offers no shortage of moments where Erik is sowing the skin of others onto his own disfigured flesh. This is meant to be the kind of splatter-punk inversion of the traditional Phantom disguise, but all it does is kill the mystery enough to render much of the action utterly ridiculous. This is especially true when Hawking conducts his search and seizes upon a motive, calling Erik "an artist who specializes in flesh." You'd figure he could catch Erik without the need of a rat-catching stool pigeon, but the script is so formulaic as to be utterly boring, especially when Hawking's search party heads into the sewer and get subsequently picked on and bumped off by the puckish Erik.

Englund's Phantom has no real chance to show genuine romance in regards to his pursuit of Christine, only coming across as another campy pervert (he even shackles up with a harlot to vent his sexual frustrations, calling her "Christine" instead of Maddie) and basement-occupied deviant. The chemistry between him and Jill Schoelen is non-existent, and I thought less of sparks flying than of embers dying, especially when I remember Schoelen would play out this same plot in the subsequent Popcorn, with a faceless serial killer swooping upon a cineplex. Here, Schoelen comes across more like a wooden child bride than a confused young woman, and she is sold distressingly short despite her beaming, bright-smiling charms. Bill Nighy and Molly Shannon, both of whom would make pretty big names for themselves later on, have minor roles as the show's immoral producer and Christine's best friend in the Manhattan wraparounds. Aside from them and Stephanie Lawrence, the rest of the cast are instantly forgettable.

The allure of sensual immortality and the deployment of skinned corpses immediately remind me of Clive Barker, who understands the delicate alchemy used to make proper viscerally-charged dramas of gore and gumption. Sadly, nobody behind the scenes of this are on that level of skill, and The Phantom of the Opera '89 reveals itself to be quite a stain. As an adaptation, it is misguided; as a slasher film, it's tedious; as a vehicle for Englund and Schoelen, it's half-baked. The movie does have a particularly nice level of Gothic detail in the cinematography and production design, but the staging and situations are not at all worthy of this craftsmanship.

Skip to either Dario Argento's 1987 Terror at the Opera, if you want this done right, or the Italian provocateur's own Phantom of the Opera retread from 1998 starring Julian Sands, if you need something amusingly bad. This mercenary murder-fest is the sad ghost of a brilliant idea, and better to call the curtains on it.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Night of the Demons 2

(R, Republic Pictures, 96 mins., limited theatrical release date: May 13, 1994)

Do you remember the three signs of demonic possession as outlined in a certain 1980s horror cult film? No, they do not involve water, sunlight and late night foodie calls, I've moved on from Joe Dante films for the time being. No, I'm talking about infestation from beyond the grave, Satanism and the human body as medium for the morbidly deceased. There are three warning signs you need to know if you ever hope to escape a haunted house post haste.

The noise is the first one, preferably the loud shriek of a teenage girl startled by some apparitional premonition visible only to her eyes, the kind which provokes easy cynicism from the hormonal heathens of the world. Yeah, the shriek may be no cause for real alarm, but then there's the chill. As cold as the touch of the Reaper himself, the kind whose only security blanket is one procured for a dirt nap. But death is too late to make similes for, you realize, and thus you take a deep breath through your nose only to catch a whiff of Hell on earth. The foulest stench is in the air, the funk of 40,000 years, and grisly gh...

I'm sorry, I got a little carried away there. No mere mortal can resist a "Thriller" joke. It's human nature, I tell you.

The point is that the noise, the stink and the chill are things which occur in a precise order and constitute the danger of demonic possession. It's advice that the new batch of doomed youths in Night of the Demons 2 should have picked up on before they wind up in Hull House, the infamous slaughter mill where Angela Franklin and friends threw the Halloween party which ended them all.

And by them, of course, I mean it ended Angela and her friends. Or did it?!

Because Amelia Kinkade is back in black bridal garb as Angela and she wants to celebrate her inevitable return to the corporeal world. Sadly, none of her old friends want to come back in limbo, so Linnea Quigley is out of the picture. And the original's director, Kevin Tenney, is also not on the guest list. However, reprising their positions from the last film are writer Joe Augustyn, producer Walter Josten, cinematographer David Lewis, and special effects designer Steve Johnson, so it's not all that mercenary. And yet every party needs a proper planner, so who is the man to take charge of "Night of the Demons 2: Angela's Revenge," so to speak?

Enter Brian Trenchard-Smith, an Englishman who went on to corner the market for Ozploitation from the mid-1970s onward. Critical consensus dictated that Trenchard-Smith comes from the Land Down Under not just geographically, but also aesthetically, until Mark Hartley's giddy Not Quite Hollywood gave the filmmaker a ringing endorsement from Quentin Tarantino and sincere love for the likes of Stunt Rock and Dead End Drive-In, which I also recommend. The 1990s saw him transition into American B-cinema, specifically the straight-to-video sequel mill which led him to Night of the Demons 2 as well as Leprechaun 3 & 4.

Yes, he was the man who brought you a demented dwarf from Ireland bursting out of a horny space traveler's kiwis a la Alien while quipping "Always wear protection."

There is plenty of phallic humor to go around in Night of the Demons 2, which owes as much to the Porky's school of horny hi-jinks as it does to its 1988 progenitor. The male heroes are introduced peeking through binoculars at the neighboring bedrooms of their lady co-eds, thus ensuring the film's Hard-R credentials. Flirtation involves a basketball which dribbles up towards a miniskirt with magnetic force. The baddest of the bad girls herein has heaving bosoms which allow for easy demonic access to attack the nearest lech. And once the horror kicks in, it's easy to go Freudian with the many snakes and tentacles which lash out in anger.

Caught in the middle of all the kinky chaos is Angela's biological sister, Melissa (Merle Kennedy), the designated Carrie White of St. Rita's Academy, a Catholic boarding school run by Father Rob (Rod McCary) and Sister Gloria (Jennifer Rhodes). Rob is a bit more liberal in his attitudes toward reformation than the strict Gloria, demanding that the students have more input into the upcoming Halloween social than Gloria prefers. Not only that, but Sister Gloria has a...well, habit of interfering with the throes of young lust by waving her trusty yardstick in between the students and commanding, "Save a little room for the Holy Ghost."

The campus alpha bitch Shirley (Zoe Trilling), though, defies Gloria by using her banishment from the dance to convince her girlfriends, including Melissa "Mouse" Franklin, to have their own party at infamous Hull House, the last known whereabouts of Angela. The poor orphaned cadet is made the brunt of a cruel stunt involving a virgin sacrifice, but the wicked spirit of Angela intervenes by hiding within a lipstick tube which fans of the original will know where it's been. The students make it back to St. Rita's, allowing Angela the freedom to come alive and wreak havoc among the student body.

Whereas the original Night of the Demons offered a scenario straight out of The Evil Dead, the sequel takes some of its cues from the gonzo school of splatter comedy in the vein of Peter Jackson where the more the messier. The demons in this film are treated more accordingly to the rules of vampire lore, easily dispatched with holy water and melting down into puddles of goop. In undeath, an athlete's severed head can be used as a basketball and Angela can transmogrify to adapt to any scenario, emerging even as a serpent. And there's a little Dead-Alive in Sister Gloria by making her kick ass for the Lord, although there's no explanation given for how she can overcome her own decapitation when she is not one of the demons. Are we supposed to accept her as an angel?

At least Jennifer Rhodes (of Slumber Party Massacre II and Heathers) has a field day with her performance, as do McCory's skeptical minister (a nod to Stir Crazy, perhaps?) and Bobby Jacoby (the prankster kid from Tremors) as freckle-faced demonology obsessive Perry, who makes a case for being the missing Frog Brother. On the opposite end, Cristi Harris gets the film's most warming character as Bibi, Mouse's lone teenage ally who manages to have premarital sex and survive, and there's Christine Taylor, the future Mrs. Ben Stiller, getting called "Marcia" by one of the jerky boys as the vapid Terri. Clearly, she was going places. Also in the cast are Darin Heames, the circumcision victim from Dr. Giggles, as giggling sadist Z-Boy and Johnny Moran & Ladd York as the nominal but not loathable Everydude heroes.

But as is always the case, the villain is the main reason to watch, and "Mimi" Kinkade gets to indulge both her Rue McClanahan lineage and dancing pedigree as the wicked Angela. Whether taunting a pair of missionaries with a cake party at the start of the film or doing a reprisal of her sultry "Stigmata Martyr" showcase later on, she makes a deliciously feminine counterpoint to the wannabe Freddy Kruegers of the horror world.

Your enjoyment of the film depends ultimately upon your nostalgic reserves for the adolescent T&A  comedies and/or the equally puerile Video Nasties from the 1980s. Brian Trenchard-Smith doesn't exactly come close to either Peter Jackson or Stuart Gordon in his disreputable hand, but he doesn't stand in the way of the cheap thrills and is all the more respectable for it. Maybe I should credit him less for the blatant use of stock footage from Tenney's film, but the film is far too much of a lark to be shocking. Night of the Demons 2 stakes its own claim as a good-time bad movie which might not stand up to repeat viewings, but it walks tall and swings a mean rosary. I'll take it over any of the Leprechaun movies.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Small Soldiers

(PG-13, DreamWorks SKG, 108 mins., theatrical release date: July 10, 1998)

Previously on Mind of Frames, I lauded the "Mega Madness" that was Gremlins 2: The New Batch, Joe Dante's poorly-received but uproarious sequel to the movie which gave him Hollywood clout. One of the things I forgot to mention was that Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas reunited a few years later with the charming Matinee. Haas, you may recall, co-wrote the essential youth movies Over the Edge and Tex with Tim "River's Edge" Hunter, and in Haas, Dante found a worthy successor to John Sayles, who scripted Dante's inaugural Piranha and The Howling. It proved to be another two-picture wonder of a collaboration, though, as Gremlins 2 and Matinee each got poor box-office returns. Haas would never write another feature script again, and Dante was consigned to television projects for a spell.

Enter Steven Spielberg again to renew Dante's mainstream potential, having shifted studios from Amblin to DreamWorks and inciting direct competition with Disney/Pixar in several releases. The late 1990s, after all, was when DreamWorks' Antz and Pixar's A Bug's Life vied for the hearts of junior entomologists. Also on the DreamWorks slate was Small Soldiers, a live-action "send-up" of their rival's benchmark of a blockbuster, Toy Story.

As far as subversive hired guns go, Dante showed Spielberg twice that his aim was true. But whereas Gremlins 2 made a sacred cow of its beloved original and ground it up into a juicy burger, Small Soldiers is processed cheese all the way. The screenplay feels distressingly like a multiple cook crash since it credits three different sets of scribes, including Adam Rifkin (The Chase, Mouse Hunt) and the team of Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio (Aladdin, Shrek), which is all you need to know that this was punched-up to low places.

It could've been a hero on the same sardonic, satirically-gifted level as the Gremlins films. The premise is that a modest little toy company is now the subdivision of a military conglomerate called GloboTech, whose new family-friendly image juxtaposes bombers and babies. When transferring employees Larry Benson (Jay Mohr) and Irwin Wayfair (David Cross, who deserved a crack at this script given Mr. Show was airing on HBO about this time) pitch new toy ideas to GloboTech CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary), Mars demands these playthings be able to play back. Coerced to oblige in a three-month pinch, the more go-getting Larry orders surplus units of the X-1000 microprocessor, a munitions chip, as hardware for both his G.I. Joe-style Army dolls, the Commando Elite, and Irwin's Gorgonites, who are their alien nemeses.

Meanwhile, in bucolic Winslow Corners, Ohio, teenager Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) is left to take care of his father's namby-pamby toy store, "The Inner Child," while he's attending a small business seminar. He strikes a deal with the delivery man (the requisite but reliable Dick Smith) to divert some of the inventory in his direction, figuring it would make some easy money to help keep the place open. Maybe it might even help bridge the divide between Alan, who has cultivated an exaggerated reputation as a delinquent, and his beleaguered daddy Stuart (Kevin Dunn, who would later essay an even dumber-downed version of this sitcom staple for the goddamn Transformers series).

Smith plays this Everydork to the best of his abilities though he looks way too milquetoast for all the underwritten teen angst he has to shoulder. Contrivances aside, Alan is more prodigal son than problem child, and whatever conflict he and his father have is utterly inconsequential. Just as preordained is the arrival of neighborly love interest Christy Fimple (Kirsten Dunst), a sassy, seasoned older girl looking for her kid brother's birthday gift. Their sputtering courtship revolves around a mutual dislike of "Family of Five" (that's Party of Five if you're an actual ‘90s kid and not some hacky archetype) and love for Led Zeppelin (which, as an ex junior high brat myself, I can fully relate to). But, of course, Christy is a footballer's squeeze and Alan is forced to play his romantic cards sparingly.

Love is secondary to war, however, once Commando Elite Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones) punches out of his packaging and rallies his plastic brigade in destructive pursuit of the benign Gorgonites, whose leader Alan has taken home with him. Archer (voice of Frank Langella) makes a private connection with the kid and soon the Commandos are gunning after Alan. Since the Gorgonites have been programmed to cowardice, the remaining extraterrestrial exiles are scooped up from a dumpster by Alan, including a Daffy doppelganger named Insaniac and a cycloptic cutie named Oculus. The funniest movie reference in the film is when Alan's TV is airing 1958's The Crawling Eye, which the one-eyed wonder then glues itself to.

The rest of the cinephile pandering is caught between two extremes. Shrewd voice casting on the dolls' part means that the Commando Elites are performed by The Dirty Dozen veterans Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Jim Brown, and Clint Walker, with Bruce Dern taking over for the deceased Richard Jaeckel. The principal Gorgonites are in turn spoken for by Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer, the legendary Spinal Tap trio. Their dialogue is ripe with pop culture allusions, encompassing everything from Patton to Titanic. The most subtle battalion of one-liners stems from how the Commando Elites take their war games dead seriously even for playthings, screaming "Medic!" when mortally wounded and getting noble eulogies: "His battery has run out, but his memory will keep going and going."

Major Hazard's increasing intelligence and adaptive skills spur his team onto more menacing and dangerous strategies, eventually involving taking Christy as a hostage and finally cornering both the Abernathy and Fimple clans under one besieged roof. And yet Dante's uncanny knack for making flesh-and-blood cartoon chaos isn't as potent here. The scorn many heaped at Dante for pushing disturbing images to children in the Gremlins films at least tempered by a giddy, inventive gusto in the staging, and there was better humor to them, too. Small Soldiers feels ‘roided up on cheap testosterone and let loose without much of a game plan other than the diminished novelty of little things causing big trouble in small towns.

The centerpiece of Small Soldiers is when Hazard tears the microchip from the brain of fallen soldier Nick Nitro and harnesses it to bring Frankenstein-style life to Christy's collection of Gwendies. Proud to be serving as cannon fodder, these Barbie surrogates are then stripped down to camo bikinis and attack with the kind of pun-damaged ditziness that made me genuinely fear Akiva Goldsman was ghost-writing this. Never mind the bizarrely fantastical choice to have Christy still in possession of underage toys whilst jamming to Led Zeppelin and Rush, there is a tonal dissonance in this device which is downright numbing, not to mention serious misjudgment in regards to the satire.

Christy's Gwendy dolls are each given specific accessories and costumes to make them look like Greek soldiers, Cleopatra, Jackie Onassis, Sally Ride, the Swiss Miss mascot, etc. You'd think there would be more ingenuity once they come to life than to just reduce them to condescending Valley Girl accents, giggly sadism and fetishistic objectification, but that's all they do after they're activated. They tie down Christy, pounce upon her useless boyfriend and make lame quip after lame quip, all the while half-naked and deformed. The pint-sized antagonists of Small Soldiers barely stack up against the memorably unhinged Gremlins who once mauled Santa Claus impersonators and rocketed an old lady out of her house. The worst that happens here is that the boyfriend gets his pants leg torched and Benedict Arnolds his way out of the plot.

For all of its middling attempts to be madcap and macabre, Small Soldiers, like Gremlins 2: The New Batch, has the advanced sophistication of mechanical effects on its side. Whereas Rick Baker proved invaluable in building upon the puppetry and conceptions of the creatures in the 1990 film, here Stan Winston and his team mix computer graphics and radio-controlled animatronics to make an impressive illusion of lifelike figurines. And once again, all credit to the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Frank "Skeletor" Langella and the great vocal talents I mentioned before for giving them fairly amusing personalities. Jones, in particular, doesn't ham it up as insufferably like he did with his Harvey Dent from Batman Forever and is more welcome with his wryly macho patois.

Alas, there are many clear casualties in terms of wasted talent. Aside from the two young leads, a visibly typecast Denis Leary and the rakish Joe Dante, himself, I neglected to mention one Phil Hartman, in his cinematic epitaph here as Christy's tech-savvy daddy Phil (seriously?!), because I watch him and all I can hear is Troy McClure egotistically reminding audiences to remember him from this mediocrity. The only real comic chemistry to be found is between MVPs/POWs Jay Mohr and David Cross as the rival toymakers, whose research into the dangers of the X-1000 microchip brings them to its creator Ralph, played by Dante repertoire scene-stealer Robert Picardo as a disgraced inventor turned quarantine manager who used to work under the Pentagon.

Once Ralph designed these microchips to grant "actual intelligence" to smart bombs, now they spur on "psychological warfare" involving Spice Girls songs. Talk about a defective product; you know, wouldn't it have been much funnier and apt if the Commandos blared Aqua's "Barbie Girl," instead? Speaking of a Cheap Trick not done right, I watched the film again knowing that "Surrender" was on the soundtrack listing, and they didn't even use that power-pop gem for laughs. The only songs you hear in the movie with real clarity are mostly re-purposed at the end in trendy hip-hop remixes, such as "War," "Love Is a Battlefield" and "Another One Bites the Dust." I'm confused as to whether I'm being sold a movie, a compilation album (which is better off skipped in favor of Jerry Goldsmith's proper film score), a collection of Chip Hazard-centered tie-in merchandise, or a flame-broiled Rodeo Burger.

Small Soldiers is a sad, strange little film, and it has my pity.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Gremlins 2: The New Batch

(PG-13, Warner Bros. Pictures, 106 mins., theatrical release date: June 15, 1990)

In the 35 years since his solo directorial debut with 1978's Piranha, Joe Dante proved himself to be one of the most lovable anarchists in the cinema biz. His imagination is the product of both a garrulous, genuine love of film and the puckish, feverish invention of a Warner Bros. studio animator. Under Roger Corman's employment and Allan Arkush's partnership, he proved he could sell New World Pictures' line of B-movies with shrewd, demented glee. Even better was when Dante got the chance to make his own independent, irreverent fan favorites like Piranha and The Howling. And then Steven Spielberg, the man Dante was once tasked to rip off, saw his potential and started him small with a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, which finally led him to the blockbuster promised land that was 1984's Gremlins.

Naturally, the sadistic suburban chaos of that anti-Christmas classic proved a tough act to commodify. Neither Dante nor Spielberg were satisfied with the many half-baked treatments sent their way, not that Dante expressed much interest in a sequel to begin with. Desperation caused Warner Bros. to approach Dante with the ultimate enticement for any artist, the lure of total "creative control." I can only imagine the great, Grinch-y grin which graced Dante's mug, as that same mischievous smile was what I got numerous times watching that long-delayed sequel, 1990's Gremlins 2: The New Batch.

The studio was angling for a summer hit to compete with Disney and Dick Tracy, but Dante's flick wasn't the underdog success story you wished it would be. Gremlins 2 grossed merely a third of the original's profits, while Gremlins screenwriter Chris Columbus cornered the family market later that year with the massive, $476 million take from Home Alone. Dante had no interest in hackneyed sentimentality and bumbling slapstick, so once again, whatever Dante glory gleaned from the experience was purely archaeological.

1990 was the year Warner Bros. celebrated Bugs Bunny's 50th anniversary on the backs of two flop sequels, the second being The Never Ending Story II: The Next Chapter, and that one was preceded by an actual cartoon short, Box-Office Bunny. But it was the wraparound animation in Gremlins 2 which had the input of the legendary Chuck Jones himself, after Dante had him in a cameo for the original Gremlins. The movie even begins with the classic Warner logo as presented in the vintage Bugs toons, perched wabbit and all, instead of their reliable blue sky bumper. And sure enough, egotistical Daffy Duck storms in to steal the spotlight only to suffer a fruitfully embarrassing comeuppance.

The next 100 minutes of live-action antics only get much, much Loonier from here.

Gizmo, the cuddly Mogwai mascot/failed household pet, is back at Mr. Wing's (Keye Luke) Chinatown antiques emporium, but New York City's gentrification trickles down like water to start the chaos anew. The trouble begins when tycoon Daniel Clamp, glimpsed only via pre-recorded videocassette delivered by chief assistant Forster (Robert Picardo), wants to buy out Wing's property to build his own version of Little China. The answer again is a direct "No," but it's not like old Wing sounds fit enough to continue fighting. Six weeks later, Wing passes on, and a dozer duly levels his shop, with Gizmo scrambling to escape the wreckage. But the creature won't be homeless for long, as Clamp's tower has men in low places, namely the Splice of Life genetics lab technicians who seize him for study.

Also in Clamp's service are Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates), the Kingston Falls lovebirds now seeking upward mobility at the billionaire mogul's high-tech, sky-scraping office block. Billy overhears a mailman humming a familiar melody in his design department cubicle, which is enough to spur him to rescue Gizmo from the surgical clutches of laboratory head Dr. Catheter (Christopher Lee). Despite Billy's command to keep out of sight until Kate arrives to pick him up, Gizmo ventures out and in the path of a faulty water fountain, which inevitably yet accidentally breeds another clutch of rogue Mogwai not ready to play nice.

The first rule officially re-broken, then naturally comes the dreaded prospect of them eating after midnight. Luckily, the yogurt and salad bars are open all night, and when Kate brings home not Gizmo but a cross-eyed, cackling impostor, he pigs out on chicken and throws the rest of dinner back in the couple's faces.  Freshly cocooned, it isn't long before the Gremlins hatch, and, of course, you realize this means war.

And not just in the Bugs Bunny sense, but a battle worthy of Rambo as the introductory scenes tease out.

The battleground are the many floors of the Clamp Center, already a subject of Tati-style satire from the moment it's introduced given the corporation's sign has the world squashed in a vise. This "smart building" is equipped with revolving doors which travel at 100 mph, inconvenient eco-sensors that go off when menial workers sit inactive for too long and an overbearing PA system possessed of eerie intelligence. In greeting you upon entrance, the announcement is that you "Have a powerful day." Should you enter the executive washroom, it knows if you forgot to wash your hands. Parked in a restricted area? It will straight-up insult your taste in automobiles. And the fire alarm? Well, you need to hear that one for yourself.

Dante and screenwriter Charlie Haas establish this larger-than-life locale as a narcissistic totem to a character modeled trenchantly on both Donald Trump and Ted Turner. Somehow, it not only feels fresher than the original's Capra-esque winter town, but more expansive and ripest for ruination. Daniel Clamp is the entrepreneur to end them all; his self-made empire, already recounted in a best-selling autobiography, corners the market on cable television, construction, sports, finance, jams, and jellies. Filmed on location in Clamp Tower are such niche programs as: "Microwaving with Marge," hosted by the titular soused chef (Kathleen Freeman); "The Movie Police" with Leonard Maltin, who wasn't a fan of the first Gremlins; and whatever is airing on The Archery Channel, where the current Robin Hood actor has snapped his bow in protest.

Having established all these facetious facets, I hope you are duly prepared for the madness once those Gremlin pods melt away. This is undiscovered territory far from what Chris Columbus and, for that matter, FX master Chris Walas ever dreamed of. Let's not forget to clap our clamps and claws for Rick Baker, another in the movie's roster of MVPs, for supervising the creation of this new and improved batch. Thanks to Dr. Catheter's crimes against nature, the Gremlin menace evolves to the degree where the building's occupants are terrorized by an arachnid Gremlin, an electrical current Gremlin, a bat gremlin, the Brain Gremlin who injects the latter with "genetic sunblock" (granting it immunity against bright light, that third no-no in the protection manual), and the Miss Piggy/Bugs-in-drag creation that is the Lady Gremlin, who gets the vapors near the pompous Forster.

Lucky for us, also, is the human defense team which proves equally clever in regards to performances. Zach Galligan is made a more active and honorary foil than before, especially amusing when he makes a wrong turn at Albuquerque and into a Marathon Man reference, and Phoebe Cates gets to flex comedic muscle in a couple of meta moments. There's even the welcome return of Billy's former neighbors and snowplow attack survivors, Murray and Sheila Futterman, played by the no-nonsense Dick Miller and the jovial Jackie Joseph. And Baker has given Gizmo an animatronic overhaul, not just an adorable miniature puppet but an expressive creature able to command the tightest of close-ups.

John Glover, previously having provided eccentric flourishes to his must-see roles in 52 Pick-Up and The Chocolate War, plays Daniel Clamp impeccably against type and emphasizes a child-like wonder which elevates the character from mere yuppie caricature. Haviland Morris, a severely undervalued comedienne who started in Sixteen Candles and whom many feel should've taken Madonna's lead in Who's That Girl, gets a juicy character with the name of Marla, a name solidified in Charlie Haas' 1989 final draft before the Maples/Trump headlines broke wide open. With her loud mane of orange hair, hysterical Brooklyn accent and jittery, chain-smoking poise, Morris is a ball of fire made flesh.

As a late-night horror movie host and aspiring newscaster boasting an uncanny resemblance to Grandpa Munster, Robert Prosky makes a witty impression. Ditto Kathleen Freeman as the dubious cooking expert who adds sherry by the dollop whilst ingesting it by the trowel. Gedde Watanabe, the 1980s precursor to Ken Jeong who was also in Sixteen Candles with Morris, is his reliably hyperactive self as an overzealous shutterbug. Real life identical twins Don & Dan Stanton, of Good Morning, Vietnam and T2: Judgment Day, play Martin & Lewis, the quirky assistants of Dr. Catheter, the disease-obsessed mad doctor played with exquisitely creepy camp by Christopher Lee.

Look, I could go on about the subtle in-jokes and cameos, including many of Dante's friends since the New World years and a couple of WTF surprises which others have spoiled for me. I could talk about how the movie includes any number of offbeat gags involving serene nature videos heralding the apocalypse, characters openly poking holes at the nature of the three rules and the (in)correct uses of microwaves, paper shredders and wet cement. I could geek out over Tony Randall's hilariously haughty voice work as the Brain Gremlin, which culminates in a joyous performance of "New York, New York" which is sublime beyond words. I can applaud the movie for disarming us with more than enough delicious black comedy, as appetizing as the Chocolate Moose served up in that Clamp Canadian-themed restaurant, but doesn't forget the scares and the slime where it counts.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is fondly remembered among Dante aficionados not just because it was so undiluted and unconventional, but also hilarious enough that the hits outweighed the misses. The film's reception and cult legacy kind of reminds me of Savage Steve Holland's Better Off Dead, another film which used a familiar plot as an excuse to dream up surreal situations and comic set pieces. And if Holland saw himself in the John Cusack role, Dante imagines himself a Gremlin in the machine, a pop culture prankster of minimal pretension and maximum destruction. This is my Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it freaks me out. It's a legitimately sardonic, side-splitting and sanity-proof take-off from Dante's biggest hit, which cannot be said about the next film I will cover...

The last thing we need is a fight.

Friday, October 31, 2014

A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge

(R, New Line Cinema, 87 mins., theatrical release date: November 1, 1985)

After Hours, Better Off Dead..., Brazil, The Breakfast Club, Fright Night, Heaven Help Us, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Re-Animator, The Return of the Living Dead, The Sure Thing.

These ten films will all be celebrating their 30th anniversary next year. I bring up these titles in particular, deliberately setting aside the blockbusters (Back to the Future, The Goonies, Rocky IV) and the ball-busters (St. Elmo's Fire, A View to a Kill), because I devoutly appreciate every single one of them from past until present. This is not thorough, as I have failed to mention Mr. Vampire, Real Genius, Runaway Train, Lost in America, and several other gems I caught up with. Even trashier stuff like Commando, Death Wish 3 and Red Sonja I can understand getting some love. But 1985 was the year which gave us John Cusack, Stephen Geoffreys and Linda Fiorentino in heavy doses. I'll gladly stick up for 1985 as a good year at the movies for those three reasons alone.

One of the more interesting movies I can see getting the retrospective treatment is A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge. Yes, I'm talking about one of the most infamous horror sequels in history, in the same year, mind you, that spewed out Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. The film drove a wedge between series creator Wes Craven and New Line Cinema honcho Robert Shaye, sparked a deathless debate over its brazenly homosexual allegory and, like Halloween III: Season of the Witch before it, became a cinematic orphan in mewling need of a willing cult of sympathetic adopters. The comprehensive Elm Street series documentary Never Sleep Again is essential viewing in understanding these bones of contention.

The best thing about Daniel Farrands & Andrew Kasch's project was that it marked the welcome public appearance of NoES 2's long-estranged lead actor, Mark Patton. His entertaining, frank comments on the film's legendarily gay subtext are priceless, but the outtakes from his interview were even more revealing. Patton dropped out of professional acting when his integrity was challenged by the still-prevalent Celluloid Closet and the cattily competitive behavior therein, which was maddeningly trivial even without the real life horrors facing the gays of the world. Patton overcame multiple health concerns, including HIV-positive testing, and is currently living a fulfilling life in Puerto Vallarta. He has kept up a solid profile as an artist, activist and writer, with hopes for completing a documentary called There Is No Jesse which may as well prove just as candid and critical as Heather Langenkamp's I Am Nancy, if not more so.

Patton's character of Jesse Walsh is the new kid on Elm Street, freshly relocated to the same white house with bars on the windows wherein Nancy Thompson vanquished Freddy Krueger. Screenwriter David Chaskin and director Jack Sholder burden Jesse with the same all-too-real nightmares of the scissor-fingered psycho, but they've jettisoned one of the more resonant themes of the original Wes Craven film, the inheritance of the parents' sins. Mr. & Mrs. Walsh, played by Clu Gulager and Hope Lange, are interlopers with no understanding of their new house's eerie history, let alone aware of the mass show of vigilantism which loosed Krueger onto his killers' brood. They are your garden variety suburban caricatures, as are all of the other parental units, and serve no consequence on the ensuing teen angst.

Mr. Walsh, stern simpleton he is, is far from Craig T. Nelson's character in Poltergeist, reacting less plausibly to clearly supernatural phenomena and jumping to jokey conclusions at every opportunity. This type of skeptical, oblivious father who may as well be the absentee parent in many a bad teen sex comedy. Mrs. Walsh is stereotypically passive, and kid sister Angela (Christie Clark) has somehow even less of a personality. The crux of the story is specifically Jesse's gradual torment by none other than the goading spirit of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), who makes it his crusade to possess Jesse Walsh and resume killing in a mortal coil.

If only that were Jesse's lone concern. He is simultaneously bullied and befriended by Rod Lane ringer Ron Grady (Robert Rusler), the two of them bonding over phys ed detention sessions under the sadomasochistic thumb of Coach Schneider (Marshall Bell). There's also the matter of pretty Lisa Webber (Kim Myers), who isn't so well-off that she cannot rely on Jesse to get her to school every morning. Their peer-pressured romantic courtship is at risk thanks to Krueger's machinations, which turn dead serious when a supposedly sleepwalking Jesse makes the bizarre choice to catch Coach Schneider's eye in a gay bar and is taken back to the gym for punishment.

The combination of Chaskin's eccentric if hackneyed plot and Sholder's plebian proficiency as director pays dividends in terms of camp. Grady teases Jesse early on that his soft, pretty boy physique is exactly what gets Schneider's rocks off, but then the leather-vested martinet and his lanky prey turn up serendipitously at a watering hole for homosexuals?! When Schneider starts raiding the supply closet and pulls out a jump rope, all the while Jesse is taking a shower nearby, my brain tells me there's going to be some squat thrusts going on that I shouldn't even begin to contemplate. But then you get to Schneider's death, which involves racquets snapping, balls exploding off the shelves, towels becoming sentient and whipping Schneider's bare ass. Chaskin intended this as simple adolescent wish-fulfillment, but I'll be damned if it doesn't exacerbate the queenie absurdity of it all.

The audience had already gotten an eyeful of the Risky Business rip wherein Jesse dances around his bedroom to club diva synth-pop wearing gold lame sunglasses and closing drawers with his tuches. The production design is so shameless, that Nancy's journal is placed conveniently next to a board game named "Probe" and a "No Out of Town Checks" sign outside Jesse's door has an I pasted over the E. And in a twist on the original scene where Nancy asked her boyfriend Glen to watch over her as she slept, the frightened Jesse, foiled in an intimate moment with Lisa, begs Grady to protect him in much the same way, complete with wake-up call warnings and stoic recitation of "Don't fall asleep."

Objectively speaking, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is simultaneously derivative and defiant of its immediate progenitor. Krueger is still a shadow demon whose favored tropical climes involve boiler rooms and power plants. The bravura opening sequence in which Jesse's school bus teeters over an infernal pit packs the same kind of sweaty, sleazy dread as Tina's inaugural nightmare the last time. The teenagers are elevated to nobility through investigation and open-mindedness, not just their sympathetic supernatural anxieties. And Jesse Walsh is every bit a solid central character as Nancy Thompson or Alice Johnson, relatable even as Krueger eats at both his will and his sanity.

The main problem is in reducing the Freddy mythos to just another slab of Amityville Horror/Poltergeist hokum. The worst offender is the famous scene where a spooked lovebird is loosed from its cage and flies around the living room dive-bombing Mr. Walsh, only to explode in flight. The ludicrousness of the scenario is hardly deflated by dad's dopey rationale for the bird's errant behavior: "It's that cheap seed you've been buying." Furthermore, dream logic matters little in the overall goal of Freddy Krueger being reborn in Jesse's place, especially when a pool party populated by hardly narcoleptic teens are beset by Krueger, who surrounds them in flames, turns the water to boiling and cavorts around, sticking his razors into the panicking herd. It's an equally embarrassing turn of events given the grim urgency of the original, which blurred fantasy/reality and life/death with resolute tragedy. Krueger feels strangely emasculated, saddled with a plan that saps him of his primal fear potential and makes him frightening only in mere context.

Whatever genuine pain this sequel conjures depends largely on Mark Patton's internalized, anguished central performance. The young man looks distressingly fragile, more so than a lot of female survivors in past slasher movies, and there's a glistening, grim pathos that is hard to deny. Whatever psychosexuality and gay repression themes rise up to the top of this milkshake are tempered by Patton's earnest, personal commitment to the role. There is a case to be made for Jesse Walsh as a more effeminate version of the Everyboy persona, and in the film's universe of adolescent confusion and foiled romantic desire, Walsh is well-rounded enough as a character to make the madness sting. The fortitude he lacks is ably compensated by Kim Myers as the concerned, brave female friend Lisa, and there is an innate tenderness to their scenes which is a welcome touch in a youth-driven market fueled by leery sexism.

Kevin Yagher, taking over the FX work begun by David Miller in the original, gives Krueger some distinctly gothic touches, especially in the amber-colored eyes which Sholder locks onto in one memorable close-up. And the film's coup turns out to be Jesse's on-screen rebirth of Freddy, impeccably crafted by Mark Shostrom and filmed with the utmost dread by Sholder. The eye peeking out of Jesse's mouth, the head indenting itself in Jesse's abdomen, the razors tearing out from Jesse's fingers...every shot counts.

The trouble with A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 is that not everyone appears to be on the same wavelength, so the earnest qualities of Jesse's body horror/sexual orientation predicament and the micro-budget inanity fail to mesh together in a proper way. It's formless, jarring quickie product which doesn't quite bastardize Freddy in the same way later sequels did, but it doesn't really add much to the Gloved One even as it subtracts. It's not fully deserving of its disreputable rep, and I'll take this over Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare any day, every day. But there's a reason Wes Craven was allowed some input on the subsequent Dream Warriors. A lot of NoES 2's legacy appears purely incidental, as strange and senseless as any nightmare. But at least they spare us the parakeet's lucid dreaming.

Here's the rare red band theatrical trailer I can recall seeing on my old special edition VHS of A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


(R, Live Entertainment, 90 mins., theatrical release date: September 19, 1997)

Nostalgia can be a cruel bitch sometimes.

Wishmaster, or Wes Craven Presents: Wishmaster as it was advertised, was the kind of processed comfort food a 13-year-old gorehound like my younger self had no qualms about scarfing down. Even in 1997, I could tell that the movie was directed by an FX wizard of great renown, written by the man responsible for milking Clive Barker's Hellraiser until the teat broke off and was populated by several "like, omigod!" horror icons for that extra dose of genre-mad glee. Not many pre-pubescent boys can recognize Phantasm's Reggie Bannister with the same kind of enthusiasm reserved for seeing their father come down the chimney clad in an Old St. Nick cosplay.

So what if the movie was met with critical indignancy and led to a string of bland, dread-proof movies (Carnival of Souls, Don't Look Down, They) which ruined the supposedly-legit "Wes Craven Presents" prefix? It was an homage, a throwback, an affectionate display of celluloid longing for the glory days of four years ago, when you had such AFI-worthy touchstones like Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, Warlock: The Armageddon and Leprechaun 2.

Wishmaster is cheeky enough company for those Cheetos-and-Corona-at-midnight blitzes which demand it. But it's also completely transparent if you stare at it too long, and is relieved of its tedium only by some extraordinary splatter set pieces and the reliably nasty twists on the Faustian adage of "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it." Monkey's paws seem as lucky as rabbit's feet in this universe.

I'm guessing writer Peter Atkins hit the same snafu Wes Craven did when his Freddy Krueger creation turned as cuddly as E.T. and just as helplessly burlesqued. Pinhead essentially became a "genie in a bottle" baddie by the time the 1990s rolled around, so why not go literal or go home? Thus, Atkins concocted the Djinn, a mythical beast forged from holy fire and doomed betwixt the realms of angel and man. No, I am not rehashing my review of The Prophecy, for Christ's sake.

The Djinn feeds on wishes, or to be more accurate, those poor venal souls who make the mistake of confiding to the Djinn. This happened in ancient Persia, where a monarch demanded to be shown "wonders" and essentially got the Boiler Room bloodbath from Hellraiser III for his trouble. You say bazaar, I say bizarre, let's call the whole thing off, as a valiant sorcerer agrees after forging a fire opal and placing a spell on the Djinn which confines him within the ruby.

Earth, 1997-I need to stop repeating myself-America, 1997: The opal has found its way into the modern world after a drunken crane operator destroys a valuable sculpture. I want to stop right there and basically point out that this particular scene is like a guessing game for genre actors, three in particular essaying the roles of the antiques collector who ordered the damaged goods, the unctuous toady assisting him and the blitzed blue-collar buffoon himself. The best part is that you've got the beginners, intermediate and advanced levels all represented here. I'll spoil but one of them, mainly because he's given the prestigious boxed credit in the opening titles: "And Robert Englund as Raymond Beaumont."

But Englund, that eccentric oxygen tank of a man, is only 8% of this movie, the more substantial pie slice on the chart going to small-screen actress Tammy Lauren in her only leading role in film. Don't let the looks fool you, though, Linda Hamilton she is not. Although Atkins writes her a role as an athletic, independent woman who prefers every cross-gender relationship to be wholly platonic, he also wastes a tragic backstory on Lauren's Alex Ambrose which produces little triumph, and even when Alex is coaching her girl's basketball team, Lauren seems more bored than bold. If this is our plucky heroine, then why didn't Kurtzman bother to land Linnea Quigley, Jewel Shepard, Michelle Johnson, or some other recognizable B-babe who would've warmed to the material better?

Alex works at Regal Auctioneers and is tasked to appraise the fire opal once it arrives at their office. It is she who awakens the Djinn from his ugly sleep and thus inadvertently mind-melds with the creature, reborn after a thermal analysis laser prompts the demonic egg to hatch. But The Djinn needs souls to rejuvenate himself and wastes no time prowling about the city looking for impulsive suckers who require his perverted magic. They don't even have to phrase their requests in the form of a wish, the Djinn does it for them, so he never really strikes a hard bargain:

"Do you wish it?"

The Djinn eventually goes full-on Frank Cotton and slips into the skin of fresh cadaver Nathaniel Demerest, allowing for actor Andrew Divoff to finally shed those full-body Human Gremlin prosthetics. Divoff is a roguish character actor on par with William Sadler, best known for playing all manner of terrorists and tyrants in the likes of Stephen King's Graveyard Shift, Toy Soldiers, Air Force One, and Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Compared to the debonair villainy of Doug Bradley and Julian Sands, Divoff comes up short as a formidable foe. While deceptively handsome, his bluntly phonetic line deliveries make him sound as intimidating as Katy Perry. Atkins' dialogue, all boilerplate boasts and witticisms clearly indebted to the Cult of Krueger (or Chucky, or the Leprechaun, or even Dr. Giggles), do him no favors. Nevertheless, the grinning, gallant Divoff seems to be having more fun on the job than the perpetually nervous leading lady.

And the token Fangoria Hall of Fame one-offs in the cast all go head-to-maw with the monster, making for some delicious confrontations. Kane Hodder, the most beloved of the many incarnations of Jason Voorhees, lends his own brand of muscle as a security guard for Regal Auctioneers and is duly absorbed into the steel wall behind him. Perennial screen derelict George "Buck" Flower (of The Exorcist, Back to the Future and They Live) gets into a nasty battle of wits with Reggie Bannister's irate pharmacist, all the better for the Djinn to act as the kind of unfair referee seen in many a classic WWF grudge match. The underused but incomparable Tony Todd plays a bellowing bouncer who deep down wants to escape, although not in the way the Djinn allows.

Wishmaster has all the materials to make for a solid genre film, and I won't say Craven's own Scream ruined the ability to appreciate straight-up schlock without prejudice. But this has all the malnourished hallmarks of an also-ran, substituting grisly special effects for gut-twisting suspense, relying on reams of flat exposition instead of challenging the imagination and depending on the kind of exhausted tropes which had been run through the mill even by the late 1980s. You wish Kurtzman and Atkins had better sense than to lean on cliché jump scares, garden variety grotesquerie and tedious lectures on the limitations of the Djinn's dark dynasty (even if they are delivered by wry Jenny O'Hara, of amazingly no relation at all to Catherine).

It's no shock in a film devoid of them that Wishmaster is best appreciated as a showcase for Kurtzman's legendary effects shop, KNB EFX. There are not one but two crowded room massacres packed with showy if shallow evisceration, and in the Grand Guignol equivalent of throwing in the kitchen sink, there's even a random appearance by Jack the Ripper during the finale (see for yourself!). Yes, the scourge of England apparently reanimated by the scourge of Englund, who gets a "Paging Dr. Giger" comeuppance straight out of Poltergeist II: The Other Side.

Even the technical credits fail to live up to expectations of old-school horror, with Nightmare on Elm Street cinematographer Jacques Haitkin and Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini on low-budget autopilot. Not a single frame or musical sting is on par with either of those beloved films.

Maybe I'm suffering from lapsed nostalgia, but the truth is that I've seen Wishmaster done better many times before. I gave Dr. Giggles, Warlock and the original April Fool's Day positive reviews, and I thought the spotty Hellbound: Hellraiser II brought out some interest elements in regards to character and imagery. I can even find the entertainment in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth even after 22 years. Wishmaster, though, doesn't have much going for it in the long run, except to have lazily exploited my wildest wish for a simple good time.

Djinn-Genie, let yourself go!