Thursday, January 23, 2014

Enchantéd, Part VII: TerrorVision


Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin

VII. TerrorVision (1986)
(R, Empire Pictures)



Charles Band, more so than Golan/Globus or Dino De Laurentiis, was responsible for producing a great deal of my adolescence. It was through his 1980s distribution company Empire Pictures and subsequent Full Moon Features that I was inundated with pretty much all the cheesy bliss my heart could ever stand. Of course there were the Puppet Master and Trancers series, plus certified classics such as Re-Animator and...err, Ghoulies. That latter movie's poster art was the perfect distillation of Band's entrepreneurial ability to con you in with a memorable image and tag line. Have an ugly green monster emerge from the potty and slap on the tag line "They'll get you in the end," and the low-hanging fruit of such was the siren call of schlock cinema. It may have been funnier than anything in the movie it promoted (intentionally so), but it helped produce a surprise theatrical hit that kept the Empire banner afloat for a while.

And Full Moon was also one of the best video companies in the early 1990s by virtue of Band's engaging promotional newsletter called "VideoZone," which mixed behind-the-scenes footage and trailers and merchandise plugs to give us perhaps the earliest and most significant form of special feature on tape. Of course, DVDs now have enough room to offer closer, crisper approximations of the theatrical experience and hours worth of paraphernalia, but renting a film like Demonic Toys or Arcade or Bad Channels at least offered a little more than your average feature presentation.

Besides, Band's legacy has yielded a glorious trickle-down effect. Without Troll, Claudio Fragasso would have been forced to name his Z-movie cornerstone simply "Goblins." Without Trancers and Dollman, Tim Thomerson would have never established himself an unlikely action hero. Without Re-Animator and From Beyond, Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs would've been remembered as irreverent theatre vets instead of true gifts for the bookish B-movie buff. And without TerrorVision, chances are I'd have forgotten completely about Diane Franklin, writing her off as a one-flick wonder to my endless dismay.

TerrorVision, writer/director (and occasional editor) Ted Nicolaou's 1986 feature debut from Band's Empire days before helming the Subspecies series for Full Moon (as well as Bad Channels), arrived at the starting gate with yet another indelible image predetermined at Band's will, that of a monstrous eye staring from within a satellite dish as its tentacles (as in te-NT-acles) reached out to an entire suburb. And aside from a top-billed Diane Franklin, fresh off her shamefully ignored star turn in Better Off Dead..., the rest of the cast was a cult cinema fantasy league drafting in Gerrit Graham, Mary Woronov, Jonathan Gries, Bert Remsen, and Alejandro Rey. With those names and that one-sheet, TerrorVision was bound to become an underground transmission of immense proportions.

Yet Nicolaou and his movie experienced multiple static frequencies from a shoestring marketing budget, the lack of a massive wide release and non-stop negative reviews. Even Joe Bob Briggs' reaction upon its release was lukewarm at best. Both of the video movie guides I owned as a boy awarded TerrorVision with their lowest possible grades, be they a turkey or a "Woof!" Naturally, the only outlet for which it could deserve any defense was on home video, and sure enough the Lightning Video cassette was unavoidable on horror shelves out where I lived. And it was a lucky thing they printed the credits right at the bottom of the box, the better for me to catch a glance at the first name on the starring roster and realize it was Monique herself.

Even luckier to me was the discovery that Diane Franklin was permitted to go to Camp.

Looking back at the movies in the series thus far, both The Last American Virgin and Amityville II: The Possession don't completely qualify as campy fun particularly because of their crudely-committed solemnity. These are bitter movies at their core, calculated exploitation endeavors whose promise as empty, exaggerated diversions are weighed down by taboo subject matter, earnestly mimicking the affectations of Afterschool Special-level melodramas with no intended absurdity (the incestuous shenanigans of Amityville II, in particular, are unfeasible but still incredibly icky). They don't go for broke in the manner of a Mommie Dearest, where the hurtful reality of child abuse is glossed over by Faye Dunaway's diva/devil ferocity and the dialogue takes even the slightest, most innocuous trigger (bearing walls, rose gardens and, of course, wire hangers) as an excuse to take off from the runway of sanity. Second Time Lucky and Better Off Dead..., by contrast, take more gonzo chances with their characters and locales than either Virgin or Amityville. And honestly, Diane seems a lot more uninhibited as a performer, by extension also completely delightful to watch, in the movies made from Summer Girl to TerrorVision.

What I'm trying to say is that I feel that the best gauge of a performer's charisma and intelligence isn't so much emotional breakdowns as it is inhabiting a larger-than-life version of a human being. Michael Shannon, for instance, did a giddy job as crooked detective Bobby Monday in David Koepp's courier chase flick Premium Rush. There was an energy and determination and humor to that role which is admirable to take in whether you chose to watch it actively or not. John Waters, of course, has been consistent in regards to directing name stars like Johnny Depp, Kathleen Turner and Johnny Knoxville to their fullest potential as character actors. And Diane's co-stars Gerrit Graham and Mary Woronov have each built reputations for themselves in the realm of camp, if titles such as Phantom of the Paradise, Used Cars, Rock ‘n' Roll High School, and Eating Raoul stick in your memory.

That's where Suzy Putterman comes in, the truest symbol of 1980s spunk by virtue of her cosmic embellishment. With her rainbow-colored weaves, Dale Bozzio eye shadow, Encino accent, and Madonna/Cyndi Lauper fashion sense, Suzy is beautifully tacky pop art made flesh. Go visit the Cinema Gonzo web site if you doubt just how Warholian little Suzy truly is. In the TerrorVision chapter of her autobiography, Diane Franklin talks about how she gravitated towards comedy as a means of expression beyond the ingénue image she was saddled with throughout her career. She makes the same point in the special features on Shout! Factory's release of the film, but by the end of the 1980s, the Princess Joanna role in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure arguably put her back in that box just in time for Diane to develop a bankable name for herself. That she endured as a cult star doesn't feel so much directly tied into her blue-eyed, birth-marked sex appeal as much as it demonstrates she had a chameleonic propensity and accompanying range the industry never really could fulfill.

Diane holds her own against the bug-eyed Gerrit Graham and the rubber-lipped Mary Woronov as the most flamboyant members of the Putterman clan, the straightest straw being drawn by eleven-year-old Chad Allen as Sherman, although even he's polluted by the weirdness surrounding him. Sherman is a pint-sized Lane Meyer in this case, the only one who catches wise to the chaos, endures continued screams of disbelief and is forced to hold his own against the self-centered instincts of his elders. And father Stanley (Graham) is the one who obliviously begets the televised invasion of the plot, as a beam of energy containing an exiled Hungry Beast from planet Pluton is picked up by Stanley's brand new Do-It-Yourself 100 satellite dish. Ostensibly over his head in trying to install the device, Stanley is even more klutzy in regards to his primary reason for buying the damned thing: to put the final touches on his high-tech Pleasure Palace and become the hippest swinger in town.

Mary Woronov portrays the inverse of Mrs. Bland here as the pushy Raquel Putterman, whose forays into hedonism aren't purely materialistic but just as misguided. Her and Stanley answer a classified ad and pick up a couple of eccentric Los Angelenos, glad-handing Grecian Spiro (Alejandro Rey) and shrill-voiced actress Cherry (Randi Brooks), whose kinks intimidate and embarrass them. Stanley is worked into a libidinous frenzy at the sight of Cherry in her Gordian-knotted string bikini, whereas Raquel learns that Spiro is way too faithful to his boy-loving heritage, a definite turn-off for the Spartan, straight-laced Puttermans.

Suzy, meanwhile, is out on a date with her new boyfriend, the heavy metal bozo O.D. (Jonathan Gries), and Sherman is left home alone for a spell under the watchful, wacky care of his grandpa (Bert Remsen, who had a bit part in Jeff Lieberman's equally cross-pollinating Remote Control), a survivalist nutter who advocates lizard tails as a resourceful form of junk food. The boys stay up all night to ogle chesty creature feature hostess Medusa (Jennifer Richards) until the Hungry Beast materializes and devours/mutates first with Gramps and then later with Stanley and company, leading to a bizarre moment which bridges the gap between John Carpenter's The Thing and Brian Yuzna's Society. Suzy and O.D. return to taunt the hysterical Sherman until they come face to face with the monster, who proves docile at the sight of O.D.'s studded leather armbands, thus easing him into an E.T.-style crash course in the wonders of music and television. 

Thus, they have successfully trained the world's first extraterrestrial couch potato. Oh, but for how long?

Perhaps that's the funniest joke in the entire film, the notion that the already doofy-looking beastie is as much of a TV junkie as the MTV-obsessed lovebirds and the status-seeking parents. Like Sherman and Grampa, the Hungry Beast is distracted by the sight of Medusa and her science fiction marathon showcasing such 1950s ephemera as Robot Monster and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, grunting giddily as the alien threat of the latter lays waste to national landmarks. As designed by Empire stableman John Carl Buechler, the Hungry Beast is a mountainous turd of a terror replete with a third eye attached to a stray limb and a lethal pincer that reduces hapless victims into gooey green puddles to be lapped up by a mile-long tongue. Revealed to be a common pet on its home planet, the Hungry Beast is like man's best friend if said owner happened to be Seth Brundle.

Fittingly, TerrorVision suggests a telepod experiment which merges nuclear-family sitcoms, Ed Wood, an entire VH1 special's worth of Eighties signifiers, and the aforementioned Spielberg blockbuster into one lumpy sum. It's also one of the many Charlie Band flicks released in 1986 where the production migrated to Rome, resulting in a distinctly Italian mise en scène similar to From Beyond or Crawlspace. Cinematographer Romano Albani had already twice collaborated with Dario Argento (see: Inferno and Phenomena) before lensing TerrorVision and Buechler's own Troll concurrently. And production designer Giovanni Natalucci, who worked on all of Band's foreign affairs, doubled up here as art director. The idiosyncratic color schemes and set decorations they devise end up pushing TerrorVision further into surrealism, especially the pornographic artwork and erotic sculptures which consume the entire Putterman household.

As for how Ted Nicolaou's script capitalizes on all this lurid excess, let's just consider TerrorVision a film at the crossroads where Dada meets dum-dum. The plot is 1950s kitsch in a hyper-modernized setting where narcissistic characters grouse about the most minor of inconveniences, lean too much on pop culture in their personalities and are mannered to the point where you expect a laugh track to chime in at any second. Mary Woronov is introduced wearing aerobic Spandex (similar to her villainous appearance on the season finale of Sledge Hammer!) and nagging about the bad reception getting in the way of her regimen. Jonathan Gries as O.D. makes Bill & Ted and Wayne & Garth look like savants by virtue of his dopey, dim-witted swagger. Gerrit Graham and Alejandro Rey strip down to their briefs and quirk up their every line of dialogue, from the way in which Stanley pronounces "Jacuzzi" to sound like "j'accuse" to Spiro's Italian waiter patois. Suzy foolishly decides to become the monster's "business manager," blissfully unaware how the rules of King Kong could apply to this very scenario. Rather than something you'd normally see on Adult Swim, Frank Zappa's juvenile approach to satire is the norm here, very much an acquired taste (Mr. Mother of Invention himself was considered as a composer before the job inevitably went to Richard Band).

Nicolaou's approach is perhaps more polarizing than Boaz Davidson or Savage Steve Holland, primarily because it is so committed to going far out and far gone from anything resembling a familiar universe. That's very much the film's greatest charm or an insufferable hindrance depending on your perspective. Even Killer Klowns from Outer Space allowed the alien threat to feel genuinely threatening and produced a couple of frightening, grisly set pieces. TerrorVision is pure goofball abandon, extremely self-conscious about its genetic tackiness and Me-Decade trappings to the point where even the horror elements do not feel legitimate, especially given that every character appears made from straw and slime. Although categorized as "horrror," TerrorVision plays wholly as comedy, and in a just world, TerrorVision and Killer Klowns from Outer Space would've swapped places at the Video Update I remember renting both those tapes from.

I also bring up Killer Klowns because in the spirit of that film's loopy musical assistance from punk rockers The Dickies, TerrorVision boasts a catchy theme song of its own as written/performed by The Fibonaccis. Singer Magie Song chirps, chants and croons through a senseless array of lurking horrors and gloomy lust in the lyrics, which at least mentions Medusa in the pre-chorus. Still, damned if I could locate swarms of insects anywhere in the film proper. It's more dreamlike compared to the direct awesomeness of "Killer Klowns."

TerrorVision is the epitome of the kind of movie one would see on the monitors of a trendy nightclub or hipster house party, a visually deafening experience that is equally loud in terms of concept and performances. It's equally right at home in the living room of any 13-year-old boy crazy enough to give it a temporary pardon from the VHS shop. It's a bizarre hydra of elements that are equally over-the-top and under-ambitious, squeaking by on its spirit rather than by story or smarts. One would be better off embracing the same year's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as a merciless, dark comic send-up of big business, sexual mores and dysfunctional families, although the New Wave-riding pastel paradise which is TerrorVision does have a worthy "the more things change..." attitude. It's an iridescent display of intellectual decay, but at the end of the day, I simply can't resist Diane Franklin puckering her lips as she bops along to W.A.S.P. 

I'll take the last train out of Squidsville, fer sure, like, totally!

TerrorVision shares space with 1987's zombie-themed The Video Dead on Shout! Factory's combo pack double feature release, but both films are given bonus commentaries and featurettes to satiate the whims of each film's audience. Of course, after seeing and hearing Diane on the Second Time Lucky DVD, I gravitated towards the former. She joins Ted Nicolaou and Jon Gries for a yak-track that is sprightly and contains plenty of amusing production specifics and quirks such as Gries' industry connections stemming back to the sci-fi films of the 1950s, namely King Dinosaur, not to mention the familiar-looking shape which the remains of his O.D. form upon disintegration. It's equally amusing to see the trio on-camera for "Monsters on Demand," which incorporates more of the cast (Chad Allen, Mary Woronov) and crew (the brothers Band, John Carl Buechler) for a cohesive summation of the film's inception and reputation. When you hear the remarkably perky Diane proclaim her "No way!" reaction to some fans' recollection of the flick as well as her quoting of certain Suzy-isms, it's hard to think that a potentially debuting Belinda Carlisle could hold a candle to the actress. Meanwhile, Woronov provides a good word for the absent Gerrit Graham and Allen recalls walking around the risqué set in the company of his Italian Catholic parents. There is a still gallery to round things out, but surprisingly missing is the theatrical trailer. 

The things we do for love...


Friday, January 17, 2014

Kick-Ass 2


KICK-ASS 2
(R, Universal Pictures, 103 mins., theatrical release date: August 16, 2013)

Remember the moment in the original Kick-Ass from 2010 where Nicolas Cage's Big Daddy awkwardly joked about the amateur fighting skills of the titular character, suggesting that he should name himself "Ass-Kick," instead? That's the self-fulfilling prophecy of Kick-Ass 2, a hacky sequel that plays at superhero satire with none of the vulgar verve or filmmaking skill that Matthew Vaughn's original demonstrated, revealing itself to be every bit the overmatched pretender that the protagonist himself was the first time around.

It's a major studio release from the same distributor who mercifully gave us Guillermo Del Toro's sumptuous Hellboy II: The Golden Army, nobly saving a worthy franchise from the annals of cultish devotion. In this case, however, Vaughn opted to step down for a mere producing credit,  personally selecting as his understudy one Jeff Wadlow, best known if at all for the teen-oriented likes of Cry_Wolf and Never Back Down. As far as I'm concerned, we're already in trouble, as neither of those films were all that fun and the latter was a woefully hypocritical concession to the theme of choosing your battles wisely, dragging down the MMA subculture with a neutered grab bag of pandering clichés a la Burlesque (poor Cam Gigandet will never seem to have a respectable acting career).

Wadlow's base, impersonal marriage of superficial morality and glorified brutality is the norm of Kick-Ass 2, particularly when he's not trying to ape Vaughn's reckless style as evident from scene one, a nod to the bullet-bearing endurance test Big Daddy subjected his daughter to. In this case, the child becomes the father to the man, as Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) is training her ally/surrogate older brother Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to withstand the force of a 700 mph gunshot at close range. One would assume the rest of the movie would capitalize on the unlikely bond between the precociously embattled Hit Girl and the noble if milquetoast Kick-Ass, but Wadlow gets sidetracked by so many subplots that the lack of chemistry between Johnson and Moretz is rendered all the more unfortunate.

Alas, Mindy/Hit Girl is pressured into giving up her vigilante vocation by new legal guardian Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut, feebly replacing Omari Hardwick) and instead focusing on her freshman year in high school, where she is the target of a cheerleader bitch squad. Dave/Kick-Ass is clearly in need of a new mentor, which he finds in Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), a born-again ex-Mafioso who heads the good guy contingent called Justice Forever. Dave's envious best friends decide to get in on the DIY heroism craze, the chunky Marty Eisenberg (Clark Duke) having christened himself "Battle Guy" and stolen the motivation of Bruce Wayne in a feeble attempt at self-justification.


The biggest grudge remains held by the former Red Mist, Chris D'Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, borderline insufferable), still stewing over his father's vanquishing via bazooka and given to hissy fits of rage which cause him to inadvertently murder his mom (Yancy Butler). Inheriting her guns and fetish wear, Chris settles upon the Oedipal-sounding moniker of The Motherfucker in his quest for super-villainy. The pipsqueak naturally puts his fortunes to use in hiring a slew of rough-and-ready minions with names like Genghis Carnage (Tom Wu), Black Death (Daniel Kaluuya) and Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), the only one of whom to earn her keep thanks to her ingenious methods of death and destruction such as backing up at full speed towards a cop car with a running lawnmower atop the trunk. But Dave remains oblivious to the creeping threat until tragedy strikes thanks to a hot tip from Chris' other friend, Todd Haynes (Augustus Pew).

Kick-Ass 2 begins with Dave settling back into his masturbatory dweeb groove as previously established at the beginning of Vaughn's film, complete with an arbitrary, dopey send-off for former crush Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca). That introductory rush of regression tells you what to expect from writer/director Wadlow, who hits the reset button before proceeding yanking away the controls in order to play the exact same game Vaughn did, but with all the expertise of a doltish dad trying to bluff through Assassin's Creed. Whatever gravity and quirkiness its predecessor established has been calcified and buttressed by a sophomoric, sociopath complacency which utterly ruins the action and comedy. There's no disreputable thrill to be had anymore at the sight of a preteen girl wielding guns and slinging foul-mouthed one-liners, and the supposed principal character has been reduced to a cipher despite his newly-acquired pectorals. The novelty is simply no longer there, replaced by desperation and self-conscious stabs at irony and transgression.

Caught in the crossfire is the character of Mindy Macready, who in a just world would've been given a spin-off movie of her own. Chloe Grace Moretz became a lightning rod for controversy thanks to the brazen bloodletting and back-talking Hit Girl exhibited in the original, but she approached it with seasoned comic timing and a guarded tenderness. It's only fitting that the movie expand on her personality and give her a dilemma no different from any number of caped crusader flicks. There are moments in Moretz's portrayal of this prickly wallflower which flirt with brilliance, namely a hormonal awakening at the sight of a boy band music video (the group in question is Union J, clearly subbing in for One Direction) and a cheerleader tryout sequence in which Mindy returns to the mindset of Hit Girl for a crowd-pleasing routine, one which naturally rankles queen bee Brooke (Claudia Lee). Under Wadlow's vantage, though, the latter sequence is more interested in capturing every hyper-sexual gyration of the pretty pink princess than presenting a clever shattering of boundaries. Wadlow even resolves this identity crisis with thudding scatological bluntness, continuing to dawdle in regards to any natural growth in regards to Mindy.

Moretz is one of the best young talents working now, but the platitudes and pedantry she's saddled with doesn't help her at all. Furthermore, Wadlow's dramatic inertia doesn't really give her a stake in the ensuing action or an arc worthy of what Vaughn achieved on the first go. And it's not as if either of her boyish co-stars are given anything inventive, too. Dave Lizewski is shoehorned into a Peter Parker copycat narrative in his opposition to his father (Garrett M. Brown), with Chris D'Amico as Harry Osborn, which Wadlow plays overtly straight. The only "satire" arrives when The Motherfucker and his cronies swoop upon Dave's new love interest, Miranda Swedlow/Night Bitch (Lindy Booth, star of Wadlow's earlier Cry_Wolf), and Chris' plan to rape her is defused by a sudden bout of impotence. That she's instead roughed up with no real lingering damage is another of many strikes against Wadlow's soft-pedaling insistence on invoking the phrase "real life" throughout the picture, especially amidst a succession of extremely artificial action and fight sequences clearly aimed at exploiting the comic book-collecting crowd (did I forget to mention that this is based on the Marvel series created by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.?).

Filling in for the late Big Daddy is an underused Jim Carrey, who infamously refused to do publicity for Kick-Ass 2 by citing moral qualms in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Naturally, the reaction from the media as well as the remaining cast/crew served to compensate for Carrey's denial. Far from questioning his stance, what Carrey's reaction suggested was that this film's violence quota is anywhere near the brazen if entertaining irresponsibility of the first film, when in fact it's really just numbing and badly filmed/edited in the typical shaky-cam, CG-reliant, cut-cut-cut style. Playing a bone-crunching missionary who doesn't even carry a loaded gun and instead has an attack dog named Eisenhower as his top weapon (trained to go for the nuts, just like Chopper from Stand by Me), Carrey gives it his best, as does the equally squandered John Leguizamo as the D'Amico family servant Javier, but both of them have so little to do that their farewells are of minor consequence.

And that's what Kick-Ass 2 is all about when you get right down to it, inconsequential fanservice that pussyfoots around anything savvy or sincere. Matthew Vaughn once used Joan Jett, Sparks and a pop-punk version of the theme from The Banana Splits to his giddy advantage and owed more to John Woo in his over-the-top butchery. He and Jane Goldman wrote a plum role that reminded us of all the right Nic Cage can achieve onscreen given the proper care. And he demonstrated assurance in the film's tonal duality which served the irreverence as well as the innocence.

Jeff Wadlow, meanwhile, proves himself out of his depth and fresh out of ideas in trying to up the ante, reduced to putting another Jett song (a bad remix of "I Hate Myself for Loving You") alongside a clear imitation of a pivotal scene from John Hughes' Ferris Bueller's Day Off (his derivations from Mean Girls have been duly noted by so many other critics).  His eye for character detail, chiefly the implementing of a bullied homosexual teen as well as a pair concerned parents who honor their missing child into the Justice Forever league, are mere devices to be shrugged off. And the superfluous subplots and contrivances lead you directly to a predictable finale complete with a Chekhov's Shark Tank comeuppance that doesn't so much kick ass as it winds up having its own ass kicked.

As Hit Girl herself would put it, "Game over, cocksuckers!"


Friday, January 10, 2014

Evilspeak


EVILSPEAK
(Unrated, The Moreno Company, 97 mins., theatrical release date: February 26, 1982)

Satan worship and the underdog story, two great tastes that go together... Wait, that was how I started out my last review, which was of Warlock, a movie good enough to deserve the Reese's-referencing intro. Good God, I need to keep working on my Diane Franklin tribute or else I'll never get the peanut butter girl out of my system. I should be talking TerrorVision...what movie is this, again?


Ooh, boy, I'm watching Evilspeak! Or, as I like to call it, "The Computer Wore Devil's Horns." This is the 1981 movie in which Gentle Ben's playmate concocts the world's deadliest virus to get back at the noxiously sadistic students and staffers who abuse him at every turn. It's based on a story by Stephen King...er, Joseph Garofalo, but what's so familiar about watching a bullied kid pushed into a corner where his or her only salvation is the supernaturally-assisted homicide of his many tormentors? Besides, the main character's name is Stanley, and the movie proper isn't eponymous as opposed to those many genre divas with names like Carrie or Jennifer or Ruby.

Like many a young actor, the incomparable Clint Howard had a small window of time around the dawn of the eighties where he was in his early twenties and could pass himself off as high school characters. So after playing Eaglebauer, the bathroom stall entrepreneur of Allan Arkush's Rock ‘n' Roll High School, he was cast as a teenager in Eric Weston's Evilspeak, specifically an orphaned outcast named Stanley Coopersmith. A puppy-faced charity case enrolled at West Andover Military Academy, the odds are clearly stacked against Stanley's sad psyche from the start. The alpha male clique led by Bubba (Don Stark, Donna's daddy from That ‘70s Show) is tempted to sabotage the weak Coopersmith's pleas for affirmative action on the soccer field by the coach himself. Not even the sympathetic black friend Kowalski (Haywood "Dwayne" Nelson) proves to be much of a buffer. The brutish headmaster Colonel Kincaid (Charles Tyner) berates and paddles whatever discipline he can into Stanley, and the kid's detention duties are to clean up the chapel's dingy basement under the supervision of an alcoholic pederast named Sarge (old reliable R.G. Armstrong).

Is it any wonder that Stanley gravitates toward the tutelage of the ancient occultist Lorenzo Esteban (Richard "Bull" Moll!), an excommunicated Spanish monk who once deduced that "Satan is God" but whose portrait still graces the church walls?! Stanley uses his computer to translate the Latin passages of Esteban's journal, but soon his wicked spirit has been manifested fully into the mainframe (Windows Update can bite me). Stanley tries to perform his own Black Mass ceremonies, but is oblivious to the flashing screen demanding he procure a human sacrifice. Circumstances beyond his control turn out to be in Stanley's favor: first the Sarge has his neck snapped by the possessed PC, and then Colonel Kincaid's frumpy/foxy secretary, Miss Friedemeyer (Lynn Hancock), who confiscated the book with the sole purpose of prying the Pentagram off its front cover, is attacked in the shower by bloodthirsty boars. The tome conveniently teleports itself back to its rightful owner.

Bubba's goon squad inevitably go past the breaking point in their traumatizing of Stanley ("Arf arf..."), and on the eve of the big homecoming game, "Cooperdick" finally succeeds in raising Hell. Except for that gonzo 10-minute stretch of Reckoning Day retaliation, where our levitating loser takes delight in decapitating the Colonel with a broadsword, those evil pigs make an encore and the whole church bursts into a glorious inferno, Evilspeak is just as programmatic and dimwitted as you'd anticipate.

What‘s most damning about Evilspeak is that it's just so boringly base until its wad-shooting finale. Despite a checkered cast of TV icons and character actors which also includes Claude Earl Jones as the passive aggressive coach, Lenny "Luca Brasi" Montana as the merciful chef and Joe Cortese as the Reverend Jameson, there is too much misery for the sake of misery. Much like Jennifer and definitely unlike Carrie, the bullies in this film are charisma vacuums built for maximum contempt, cruel ciphers whose bile-inducing detestability is clearly meant to push the viewer over to Stanley's (and by extension the Devil's) side. There's something potentially mischievous about this blatant manipulation, especially when Jameson's pious sermon built around a sports analogy cross-cuts with Stanley on the verge of his breakthrough/breakdown. But co-writer and director Eric Weston has staged the earlier proceedings way too po-faced and drearily for it to make much difference. If Brian De Palma is fiendishly campy, Eric Weston is flat corny, the single worst attitude an exploitation filmmaker can exhibit.

It takes a leaden touch to make the shameless synergy of cheesecake and sausage factories that is Miss Friedemeyer's bare-naked demise by carnivorous hogs complete and utter tedium. You can claim in defense that Weston's devotion to establishing Stanley's hopeless plight be taken as slow-burn, but the moments of straight schlock such as this stop the film cold and only add to the sense of cynicism. All of the characterizations are purely one-note, even the Methodically gangly Clint Howard in the first lead role of his kooky career, so much so that your defenses actually strengthen rather than crumble.

Like My Bodyguard as re-written by Anton LaVey, only much less compelling, Evilspeak did manage to court some controversy when it was classified as a Video Nasty in England thanks to an uncut print distributed on tape without ratings board certification. In America, the film was clumsily censored so it would pass with an MPAA-approved R, never to be seen in any kind of restored form until Anchor Bay issued a composite print on DVD in 2004. The finale itself is rather cheesy as far as FX work goes, with the many slashed heads resembling stuffed fruit or pointy sculptures, but at least Weston finally delivers those long-awaited thrills. The eeriest image involves a Christ figure's wrist pulsing to life, the embedded nail loosing itself to fire directly into Reverend Jameson's forehead. Also worthwhile are some effectively ominous computer graphics and subterranean set design. And Clint Howard gives a painfully earnest performance, the best this film has to offer, which makes up for in conviction what it lacks in plausibility.

However, that Anchor Bay disc is out of print, so the home video rights moved over to Code Red Entertainment, a company sadly known at this point for becoming a money pit. If you really want to experience Evilspeak, hold off until Shout! Factory issues it on Blu-Ray in the spring of 2014. At least an eighth of the movie will definitely be worth the wait.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Warlock (1989)


WARLOCK (1989)
(R, New World Pictures/Trimark Pictures, 103 mins., theatrical release date: January 11, 1991)

Time travel and Satan worship, two great tastes that go together in Warlock, one of the last New World Pictures productions which got a belated theatrical release two years after its completion. The former Corman house, several years after going public and branching out into video and television (thank them for Alan Spencer's cop comedy Sledge Hammer!), were in financial ruin after failed acquisitions and court cases deprived them of any gains they stood to earn from such successes as Soul Man or the Hellraiser series. Like Cannon Films, the dissolution of New World was a messy one, although unlike Golan/Globus, New World went out with a bang when they acquired Michael Lehmann's seminal teen comedy Heathers. They also had Warlock, but it was shelved until early 1991 when another independent company, Trimark Pictures, properly unleashed it to the world at large.

Producer/director Steve Miner had done two movies for the company in 1986 with the aforementioned Soul Man and the previously reviewed House, but here was perhaps the best of the three, a black magic take-off on the premises of Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time (1979) and James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) which shifted from Salem to SoCal as the forces of good and evil waged ancient war in modern times. Part of the reason Warlock worked so well was the casting of the primary combatants, two rising British talents in the form of Julian Sands and Richard E. Grant. Sands was already familiar thanks to notable parts in The Killing Fields, Gothic and the Mechant/Ivory drama A Room with a View, whereas Grant had made his debut in the cult classic Withnail and I. This was a considerable boon, as they play admirably straight characters who would've tempted a more winking treatment had they been instead filled by established superstars.

Sands and Grant admirably resist the allure of parody, playing cool and consistently their respective parts as the nameless Warlock and witchfinder Giles Redferne. The film opens during the supernatural scare in Massachusetts circa 1691, as the Warlock has been successfully captured and incarcerated for heresy by the dogged Redferne. On the eve of the prisoner's execution by funeral pyre (with cats for kindling, natch), the Devil throws a curve by whisking the Warlock away through a time-vortex twister, although Redferne catches wise and jumps in after him. Their destination is three centuries later in Los Angeles, where first the Warlock and then Redferne happen upon Kassandra (Lori Singer), a twenty-something Valley Girl waitress with diabetes who rents a room with the openly gay Chas (Kevin O'Brien).

No sooner have the two taken in the stray sorcerer than our villain literally plants the kiss of death on hapless Chas, eventually making his way to a dubious spiritualist played by the great Mary Woronov, an old guard from the New World (Death Race 2000, Rock 'n' Roll High School). She channels the spirit of the Devil against her will, informing the Warlock of his mission: to retrieve the scattered pages of the Grand Grimoire, the coveted anti-Bible which contains the true name of God which, when spoken backwards, can beget the apocalypse. Intrigued by the notion of becoming "the new messiah" (watch the theatrical trailer, where the line is taken from an unused alternate death which apparently also involved demonic eyes pasted over the psychic's nipples), the Warlock sets about collecting the various sheets starting at Kassandra's house, after she has already been introduced to and called the cops on Redferne.


The vain Kassandra is cursed to age twenty years per day thanks to his machinations, and has no choice but to bail out Redferne for help. The two reluctantly travel cross-country in an attempt to catch up with the witch, who has already murdered an Arizonan preteen (Brandon Call, the boy sidekick to Rutger Hauer from Blind Fury) of impure soul so that his fat can be harvested for flying potions and hidden in the basement of a Mennonite farm out in Colorado close to completing his task. The final pieces of the puzzle will take them back to the hallowed grounds of Boston, but can Redferne finish the job when his archenemy is more hellbent than ever before?

Figuratively speaking as an eighties B-movie enthusiast, Warlock is very much a witches' brew of a movie. Miner and screenwriter David "D.T." Twohy (co-creator of the Vin Diesel Riddick series) have all the proper ingredients to fit the recipe, especially when you factor the cast by itself: lips of Sands, larynx of Grant, legs of Lori, eyes of Mary (and yes, that's voice actor Rob "Yakko Warner" Paulsen in a walk-on role as a gas station clerk). Miner doesn't quite stir the pot with the kind of cackling vigor of a Witch Hazel, but instead relies upon the leisurely dry humor evident in all of his prior horror efforts. Case in point: the ironic cut from a severed tongue sizzling in a pan to Kassandra serving an omelet at her place of work, a joke which frankly would've gotten the point across without a cop immediately making the connection via interrogation. After the bottom-line bloodbaths of the Jason films and the broad farce of House, Miner is refreshingly droll with the basic tone of Warlock.

Twohy's script allows for Middle English and Malibu personalities to contrast against each other with aplomb. While Redferne sets up his witch compass in his first sudden, uninvited appearance at Kassie's ("Now, brute, one last time we play the game out"), she phones the emergency police line ("He's got a thing for blood...draw your own conclusions") with no intention of waiting for them to show up ("I'm skatin' right now!"). Redferne demands her to stay until the cops arrive, at which point he matches whips with tasers and is suitably outmatched. Kassandra is bewitched and fools herself that she can pass for 40 with a tennis skirt and a new dye job on her hair. The script has plenty of requisite references that show just how far out of time the ancient duo has come (The Wizard of Oz, faucets instead of wells), but this doesn't act as the movie's only source of comedy.

The visual effects are of a particularly rough quality, dependent on wires and bright orange opticals whenever the Warlock flies or lets loose with magic. Luckily for Miner, he doesn't lean too much on either, which is fine since he got some natural magic out of two proper actors in Julian Sands and Richard E. Grant. One of the more delightful tricks involves Kassandra nailing the Warlock's tracks as a means of crippling him, and Sands' agonizing screams get the point across with gusto. It should be said that Sands, here suggesting the heir to Malcolm McDowell's charismatic creepiness, makes a top-flight antagonist by virtue of his smolderingly Aryan good looks, wicked smirk and verbose grandiosity.

Although Sands returned for the first sequel in 1993, the hammier Anthony Hickox-directed Warlock: The Armageddon, missing from that film was an opposite number of Grant's caliber, a personality every bit as wry and wonderful as Sands was initially. Grant as the blue-eyed, fur-lined, God-fearing Redferne has an equally likely commanding presence and knack for character-specific subtleties that is truly dignified. Lori Singer's part is a bit less distinctive than that of the male leads, but she has a spacey comic timing and manages a solid job of her own.

Linger too long on Warlock and its ridiculousness becomes transparent, especially in the bizarre sight of Lori Singer in shoddy old-age facial make-up trying to limp about as a 60-year-old in her glittering leather miniskirt. The rubbery Richard Moll zombie from House looked more convincing. The true delight of Miner's film is in the way he and Twohy spin such a breezily entertaining chase pic out of superstitious sundries, from the painted-on hex mark outside the Mennonite barn attic to the various threats and colloquialisms dropped by the main characters. You've got to love how Redferne warns a priest of the imminent danger of the Warlock reversing all of God's designs into something akin to "Satan's black, Hell-besmeared farting hole," whereas that same man of cloth is later threatened by the witch to aid him lest his "children be born slugs of cold flesh."

In a word: Huzzah!

Warlock remains available on DVD in the American market specifically in a full-frame, bare bones release. A special edition would be a preference, especially considering how Jerry Goldsmith's colorful, ominous original score would benefit greatly from an isolated music track. Also, a crisp widescreen print mastered in HD would undo my murky VHS memories and bring new life to the film's rich scenery and production/costume designs. There are Blu-Ray releases from certain European territories, but this is something British distributors Arrow Video would do wise to explore for one of their own catalog titles. Chances are Lionsgate Home Entertainment in the U.S. won't be getting around to this one until the world ends. Must be the Devil, I don't know.




Sunday, January 5, 2014

The To Do List



THE TO DO LIST
(R, CBS Films, 104 mins., theatrical release date: July 26, 2013)


Brandy Klark is the keynote speaker for the graduating class of 1993 at Merriwether High in Boise, Idaho. Captain of the Mathletes, record-holder of the establishment's highest GPA and able to balance both the school newsletter and her own feminist zine ("Womyn"), Brandy boasts an intellectual sense of accomplishment, but, as her peers are quick to point out, she is flunking out in terms of carnal knowledge. To put it bluntly, she's a virgin! That almost changes when she reluctantly attends a keg party where she gets the hots for blonde hunk Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), who's jamming an acoustic Def Leppard cover to a flock of hotties. A mistaken booty call is picked up by the inebriated Brandy, but she nervously outs herself as "valedictorian" and Rusty flees. What's a hormonally late-blooming girl to do?

Although originally titled "The Hand Job," The To Do List doesn't stop at that particular gesture, as Brandy outlines her new sex education curriculum by writing an inventory of every trick she can find. But her obliviousness to the rules of motorboating, teabagging ("Must be British") and rim jobs (it's not in the Encyclopedia Brittanica, so she makes a mental note to ask the librarian) is the most subtle reminder of the pre-Google period of pornographic sophistication. Self-biographer Maggie Carey, making her feature debut, stuffs era-specific signifiers into every nook and cranny of the dialogue, costumes, settings and song selection. If you ever wielded a Trapper Keeper, hiked up your denim skorts and squealed at the prospect of watching Beaches on VHS (the distinction made clear in case you assumed anyone in this film could afford Laserdiscs), then you'll be on this like Humpy Hump to a bowl of lumpy oatmeal. If you just groaned at that analogy, you'll long for the subtlety of Greg Mottola's Adventureland very early on.


Brandy consults her experienced best friends Fiona (Alia Shawkat) and Wendy (Sarah Steele), as well as her abrasive big sister Amber (former O.C. babe Rachel Bilson, uncharacteristically uproarious), for guidance/pressure as she randomly fulfills her fuck-it list. The only person initially willing to experiment with her is the unfortunately-named Cameron Mitchell (Johnny Simmons), the reluctantly platonic friend who doesn't realize his role as mere guinea pig and confuses Brandy's advances as romantic interest until she stands him up on a date and he conveniently discovers her records. Brandy's not too distressed as she's got a bigger fish to hook, namely Rusty, whom she decides will be just the right person to deflower her once there's nothing more to learn.

The premise is prototypical early 1980s child's play, but this time, the focus is on a single strong-willed heroine instead of a group of boorish mates. More vexing are some meandering concessions to the summer camp formula through Brandy's temp job as a lifeguard for the local public pool/daycare center, where she's humiliated to no end by her crude boss Willy (Bill Hader), although the worst incident involves a floating brown log which she assumes to be a Caddyshack-style goof until she actually tastes the truth for herself. Did I mention Willy has a rivalry with the elite country club vandals? This is bad Meatballs sequel territory which has no bearing on the plot or even a worthy pay-off.

Speaking of which, our Bill Murray in this case is Aubrey Plaza, not merely a decade too old for the part but also too confined to her sardonically defensive persona as cultivated on TV's Parks and Recreation. It's hard to shake the feeling that this could've been a spin-off movie for April Ludgate with only a few quick re-writes. This only worsens the character flaws of Brandy Clark, a studious, self-centered automaton rarely allowed the sliver of a genuine conscience or spontaneous vibrancy. A gutsier move would've been casting either Sarah Steele or perennial second-banana Alia Shawkat, routinely denied the vehicle she truly deserves in the wake of not just Arrested Development but also Drew Barrymore's undervalued Whip It, as the blossoming bookworm. Either of them could have made Brandy affecting, whereas Carey and Plaza jointly render her facetious.

Plaza, to her credit, gives off a few glimmers of expressive subtlety and is reliably game when it comes to the many seed-spilling scenarios thrown her way. As a sketch-comedy veteran consigned to a vignette-centric narrative, Carey calls upon the talents of several big name comic performers who liven up the episodic succession of semen and lube gags. Alas, for every sublime showcase for someone like the invaluable Bill Hader, who often reaches for a chuckle yet knows when to sincerely drop his guard unlike Plaza, or the giddy Andy Samberg as the vainglorious, spacey grunge rock singer whom Brandy goes oral for, there's a squandered appearance by Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the weaselly best friend or Donald Glover as the straightforward token minority conquest. Too much of The To Do List feels ancillary and aimlessly vulgar, not to mention anachronistic in the many blatant similarities to American Pie (chiefly in form of Brandy's oppositional caregivers played by Connie Britton and Clark Gregg). This formless familiarity undercuts the easygoing sense of gender-reversed generosity Carey wrote into the story.

Remember those frank, funny conversations Stacy and Linda had in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or even the asides between Vicky and Jessica from American Pie? Carey captures the spirit of those scenes in the many zippy exchanges between Brandi, Fiona and Wendy, who are enlightened by magazine articles about the nifty benefits of pineapple juice and the solidarity found in Bette Midler sing-a-longs. And it ends zestfully with a long-overdue orgasmic climax that supports the girlish inhibitions coded throughout the film. The males in the film are properly mocked for their conservatism, and the moral is treated with both a bratty indifference and a bold defiance. Contrary to what Brandy's dad believes, it's best to leave some doors, even the ones in the back, open since that is how the light gets in.

Carey earnestly aims for a John Hughes-style youth caper which takes account of sexual "edge" of such forebears as Porky's or The Last American Virgin. Truth of the matter is that the majority of those pre-Sixteen Candles films were too easily distracted, morally bankrupt and downright sexist to make their growing pains resonate. Hughes' sense of ambiguity, surrealism and empathy set a standard which not only helped legitimize the teen flick in the 1980s, it planted a giving tree for future generations to harvest. His broad strokes seemed organic rather than contrived, the fantasy elements came with a premium (there's no denying that The Breakfast Club would be back in their separate food groups come Monday) and when he directed Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy, the actresses didn't come across as mannered or self-conscious. Carey is closer to the exploitative aesthetic rather than the emotional, which does a disservice to both her revitalizing perspective and her stunted, stunt-casted leading lady. It also makes The To Do List a way more apt title in hindsight than "The Hand Job."