Friday, May 23, 2014

Used Cars

(R, Columbia Pictures, 113 mins., theatrical release date: July 11, 1980)

If I told you about a movie which was from the creators of Back to the Future, with Steven Spielberg as executive producer alongside maverick story writer John Milius, and starring Kurt Russell in one of his first major breakaways from his Disney child star past, the unspoken assumption would be of a prestige picture so massive that Tom Hanks himself would've hopped in the magical DeLorean to covet it if given half a chance. Alas, the Academy Awards weren't quick to acknowledge the result of such a lofty-sounding collaboration, which turned out to be the 1980 cult film USED CARS, a scrappy but satirically-blessed comedy in the rude, crude model of Slap Shot, Animal House and Caddyshack. A screwball comedy with a liberal dose of T&A and roiling patriotic pessimism from the man who later gave us Forrest Gump. Go figure!

Remember Daffy Duck's sing-songy disdain of "honesty in business affairs" from Quackbusters? Well, here's a feature-length, live action extension of that scoffing attitude, with enough double talk and dirty deeds to forge the establishment of a whole new colony. It's the tale of two dodgy motor salesman so full of B.S. that they each, naturally, have political aspirations. On the one middle finger, you've got Rudy Russo (Russell), who wheels and deals at the disreputable New Deal Used Cars lot owned by Luke Fuchs (Jack Warden), a paternal but ailing old gent who disapproves of Rudy's conniving but prefers those to the schemes of his twin brother Roy (Warden again), who runs the Auto Emporium across the way. Rudy is ten grand behind on buying a seat in the Arizona senate for grafts and gratification, whereas Roy has bribed the mayor in an attempt to advance the construction of a highway overpass which will cut a swath in his sibling's business.

Impatiently, Roy decides to stir Luke into a fatal stroke with the aid of demolition man Mickey (Michael Talbott). After a chrome-plated funeral for Luke in the driver's seat of an Edsel, Rudy and his associates concoct an excuse to prevent Roy from seizing the property, namely that Luke has driven to Miami Beach for some R&R. This gives them free reign to start jamming television broadcasts and hiring strippers (including Hill Street Blues star/future filmmaker Betty Thomas) to boost their flagging sales, but Roy is hardly deterred. Rudy, meanwhile, develops guilt when Luke's long-lost daughter Barbara (Deborah Harmon) arrives for a go-nowhere reconciliation with her pappy and a budding romance with Rudy.

But first there's both a football game and a presidential address to sabotage with the assistance of Michael "Lenny" McKean and David "Squiggy" Lander as electronics wizzes Freddie & Eddie, the latter boastful of his DIY $12.95 pacemaker for the former. In the midst of a colorful cast of character actors (watch out for Al Lewis, Dub Taylor, Alfonso Arau, and Dick friggin' Miller) as well as Kurt Russell, both these moments as well as several others are duly stolen by Gerrit Graham in a typically offbeat, outlandish supporting role as Rudy's right-hand man Jeff. Superstitious to the point of self-loathing, he has an FCC-violating meltdown on the first go when posing in front of "a red chariot to take my ass straight to Hell!" And that's before he gets hopped up on valiums and decked out in cowboy garb as Marshal Lucky for an orgy of shotgun and dynamite destruction which even Jimmy Carter hears with unmistakable clarity.

Not to diminish Russell's rakish charms, which were as plain as plaid even before his string of Carpenter classics, or the brazen villainy of Warden as Roy L. Fuchs, but Graham is in top form for the many set pieces he's called on to carry. When a down-and-out Rudy wagers his life savings on the opposite team in a football match, Jeff (sym)pathetically springs into action to turn the odds against himself, spilling every salt shaker and opening up every umbrella within reach ("Is there a black cat in the house? How about a ladder?"). In a ploy to guilt trip a bulky family man into driving off in a pre-owned Gran Torino station wagon, he feigns the death of beagle mascot Toby ("I raised him from a puppy!"). And it's Jeff who holds the fate of New Deal Used Cars when Roy finally comes within crushing distance of his competitors. In short, Gerrit Graham makes every moment he's in a joyride.

Robert Zemeckis, scripting with occasional partner and producer Bob Gale, would go on to helm two more decade-defining comedies, including the masterful Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but even within the confines of a rare R-rated romp such as this, the esteemed Spielberg protégé gets a surprising amount of mileage from perceivably junky materials. The aforementioned Marshal Lucky commercial provokes some hysterical impromptu reactions from Graham, Warden and Russell, who distracts the unaware Harmon with a ridiculously prolonged kiss. There is a memorable gag which deploys a cadaver pre-Weekend at Bernie's as well as an action-packed finale where 250 cars are piloted by drivers ed students, with a chain-whipping Roy hot on their trail. Credit is especially due to film editor and Spielberg stableman Michael Kahn, who is expertly fluid in making a two-hour trip.

But at the center of it all is Russell, one of those boisterously funny gentlemen who can perk up many a commentary track (including the one he shares with Zemeckis and Gale on this film's DVD/BD releases), but whose CV in hindsight is more action and drama-oriented. Embracing the profane rat-a-tat dialogue and cocky duplicity with an élan akin to freedom, you wonder why he as well as Zemeckis haven't returned to that embellished form of japery in so long. Used Cars is the kind of movie whose opening montage of a lemon being twisted into a cherry (a twist of the pliers here, a wad of bubblegum there, don't forget that store-bought spray of factory freshness) pretty much sums up the talents of its makers. It's one of the funniest films of its era. Trust me.

Boutique label Twilight Time, known for their limited-to-3000-copies pressings of various catalog titles, ported over this one from Sony and retained several of the original DVD extras, namely the outtakes reel, vintage radio/TV adverts (see Russell cameo in a plug for the real life Mesa Chrysler lot which doubled as Roy Fuchs' Auto Emporium) and that indispensable three-man commentary track, in which the participants are stunned that Columbia Pictures let them make this movie, although their marketing wing ultimately proved ineffectual. Exclusive to this edition are an expanded photo gallery, an original theatrical trailer and two isolated score tracks, including one which restores several alternate, grandiose music cues from an unaccredited Ernest Gold.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Circus of the Dead

(116 mins., screened May 2-3, 2014 at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas, Texas)

Whatever happened to Junior Healy?

I ask this because of all the axes Michael Oliver's titular hellspawn from the Problem Child movies had to grind, do you remember what his biggest pet peeve was? Clowns.

It wasn't that Junior was merely afraid of clowns in the traditional sense, the kind of primordial dread which has become fodder for many horror filmmakers to latch onto. No, he had an intense loathing of circus performers hardwired into his DNA. He despised clowns genetically, so much so that the most heartwarming moment in Dennis Dugan's 1990 original involved Michael Richards' "Bow Tie Killer" socking one poor Jocko right in his big red nose. There's no room for treacle when you're staring down the barrel of a crazed children's entertainer who has the alarming power to scare kids as much as amuse them.

Movies have been downright relentless in their treatment of clowns as pesky nuisances or worse. Even if there was one positive example of a film about a sympathetic circus clown, it would have to contend against at least ten depictions of face-painted monsters wreaking trails of fear and carnage away from the confines of their three-ring tents. I've seen movies in which clowns were in actuality asylum escapees (Clownhouse), bloodthirsty aliens (Killer Klowns from Outer Space), bitter alcoholics (Uncle Buck, Shakes the Clown), mass murderers (Gacy), vengeful bogeymen (It, Drive Thru), and perverted psychos (any appearance of Sid Haig's Captain Spaulding). And it's the last type of terror which is loose from its cage in Billy Pon's feature debut Circus of the Dead.

Papa Corn (Bill Oberst, Jr.) is the ringleader of the tormentors this time around, with his albino face paint relatively clean save for some touches of black around his eyes and chin as well as a proper blue dot on his nose. He also wears a hood which sports one lone curly tuft peeking out from the top, and is quite formally dressed. If such an appearance is subtle compared to his peers in the Creepy Clown contest (he could pass as a member of Kiwi new wavers Split Enz), then Papa Corn's behavior is enough to make even Pennywise vomit into a balloon. He's even nastier than your own worst impressions of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope.

But Papa is also cut from the same cloth as Jigsaw, preferring to channel his sadism and sickening impulses into showing morally-stunted victims the error of their ways. His latest candidate is bored family man Donald Johnson (Parrish Randall), who takes a rare opportunity to treat his wife Tiffany (Chanel Ryan) and daughters Alyssa & Hillary (Jordan Bell, Madi Lane) to a night out at the circus. As they watch the quartet of clowns dress up as policemen to assault a sap dressed in prison stripes, little does the family realize that they're laughing at a man who had just had both his hand and his tongue severed in the clowns' trailer. And Don himself is soon going to experience his own extended degradation at the hands of Papa Corn and his minions.

Papa none too subtly eavesdrops on Tiffany's extramarital tryst with well-respected lawman T.C. (Roger Edwards) before descending upon the duo post-coitus. Don arrives home later than his daughters and is at first duly oblivious to the sight of his murdered wife upon stepping through the door. But Don soon finds himself the center of Papa's depraved attention, as he promises to let Don see his kidnapped brood with the Catch-22 being that he go for a Frank Booth-style joyride dotted with rape and murder.

Having started out as a fake trailer completed for that Grindhouse-spawned short subject competition back in 2007, Circus of the Dead is in the grand yet recent tradition of exploitation movie throwbacks such as Cabin Fever, contest victor Hobo with a Shotgun and Rob Zombie's first two flicks. Indeed, the opening sequence with four old men in a greasy spoon debating country performers, including an emasculated Conway Twitty, is very reminiscent of the many salty exchanges found in The Devil's Rejects. Co-writer and director "Bloody Bill" Pon wears his influences on his sleeve, which includes one of the most random allusions to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre I've ever seen.

But my real frame of reference in talking about Circus of the Dead isn't Rob Zombie, Tobe Hooper or any of the older killer klown movies, but instead the early screenplays of Eric Red, the man who in the 1980s wrote The Hitcher and collaborated with Kathryn Bigelow on both Near Dark and Blue Steel. Those three movies thrived on the psychosexual allure of the violent sprees which involved naïve protagonists and unhinged villains, so much so that they are like little Stockholm Syndrome passion plays. They are also coming-of-age stories, if you'd afford them to be, albeit ones steeped in savagery and graphic violence. That hangs over the bi-play between the eloquently evil Papa Corn and the colorless if sympathetic Donald. Not to say that the convenience store scene will surpass the barroom bloodbath from Near Dark, but Pon, co-writer Lee Ankrum and his actors give moments like these a dangerous, disturbing edge.

Bill Oberst, Jr., already one of the most prolific indie horror actors today (and no stranger himself to coulrophobia thanks to Scary or Die), might just net a franchise-worthy character in Papa Corn. It is a role which he embraces with the kind of fearless, demented gusto that turned Robert Englund into Freddy Krueger or Anthony Perkins into Norman Bates. It is unforgettable, through and through, the extent of his commitment to Papa Corn's persona, one which Oberst himself has described as "A homicidal serial rapist with a taste for necrophilia whose day job happens to be as a circus clown." It would be saying too much to go any further than that. And the equally prolific Parrish Randall finds all the right grace notes as Donald, not making him overly simpering but worthy of investment and the slightest hope of redemption which you probably shouldn't get too hung up on if you are as versed in B-movies as I am.

Pon doesn't quite follow through on the eroticism inherent in Red's writing, though, which ultimately reduces the film to the level of nihilistic comfort food, like a bowl of popcorn drenched in plasma-colored butter. Not to mention that the novelty of clowns acting as psychos has already decomposed, leaving a series of brutal set pieces which go over-the-big-top to shock and amuse, but are likely to leave many cold since the flagrant amorality effectively drowns out whatever revelations Donald is supposed to have. His complicity simply adds to the body count and any attempts to moralize on how he has effectively killed the things he loves somehow doesn't approach real tragedy. Instead, there is an omnipresent irony in the Coliseum-style prurience of spectators cheering on the clowns in their twisted displays of retribution, in which they prove themselves the equivalent of Rodney King's tyrants.

The overlong if decidedly unpretentious Circus of the Dead is not too concerned with indicting the gorehound masses as much as whipping them into a frenzy. For anyone eager to see the grisliest show on earth, Pon's maiden effort ought to fill quite a lot of seats, especially if you have sensitive bowels.