Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Willies

(PG-13, Force Majeure Productions, 92 mins., video release date: December 27, 1990)

The demand for kid-friendly horror movies by the late 1980s wasn't huge, but the genre was still substantial enough to make for a few choice VHS rentals. Disney had a couple of early ‘80s efforts, including an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. And although they pushed their PG ratings to extremities which the MPAA soon rectified, the Steven Spielberg productions Poltergeist and Gremlins remain bona fide classics. In 1987 alone, both The Gate and The Monster Squad began their paths to cult discovery. My personal favorite of these movies is Nicholas Roeg's genuinely creepy 1990 film The Witches, adapted from a book by Roald Dahl, produced by Jim Henson and boasting a memorable lead performance by Anjelica Huston as the nefarious yet glamorous Grand High Witch.

It's certainly not to be confused with rather homophonic The Willies, which plopped itself directly to video store shelves after Christmas 1990. Released through Prism Home Video, there were many copies which bore the classic Paramount Pictures logo, and on them was the tagline “If you want to see a cute, nice, sweet little movie...RENT SOMETHING ELSE!” I don't know how many people heeded that advice, as I'm guessing that a large percentage of American families were probably watching Home Alone in theatres for the tenth time. Alas, I personally never discovered the film in my youth, and had to wait until I was 30 years old to get around to it.

Even my inner child doesn't like this one, though.

The Willies is, of course, named after the slang term for goosebumps, but R.L. Stine this is definitely not. The writer and director of this one is Brian Peck, a Fred Armisen doppelganger best known among 80s cultists for minor roles in The Last American Virgin and The Return of the Living Dead. Here his role is to cater to literal minors, taking a sharp turn from the R-rated shenanigans of those two films to instead fashion a PG-13 twist on the horror anthology format seen in Creepshow or Deadtime Stories. You know, movies that an actual 13-year-old stumbles upon instead of following the parameters set up by ratings boards and Blockbuster Video policies.

Chances are if I had watched this at my most impressionable, I'd be sniggering more than shivering, because The Willies is a patently juvenile experience. This is Gordie Lachance's fable of the pie-eating contest from Stand by Me expanded to feature length, told from the perspective of three adolescents camping out in the backyard. The leader of which is named Michael and is played by Sean Astin, who is duly leveled with a token reference to his character from The Goonies. It would've worked better had he taken an occasional respite from his stories to occasionally take a hit from an inhaler, but you can't have everything.

Anyway, Mikey's bickering cousins Kyle (Jason Horst) and Josh (Joshua Jon Miller, not to be confused with the Joshua John Miller who played Homer in Near Dark) swap tall tales which are episodic re-enactments of well-accepted urban legends. A customer at a fried chicken restaurant (in a scene nowhere near as classic as the finger food bit from The Hitcher), an old man riding a Haunted Mansion-style fairground ride and an old lady drying off her wet poodle in the microwave are the unappetizing appetizers before Mikey spins his yarns and the movie spins its wheels.

Whereas most anthology films have a minimum of three disparate stories, Brian Peck is limited to two of them. As a result, The Willies drags them both out an to excruciating degree, not exactly the tried and true method of creating suspense. In the first, set at Greeley Elementary School, meek Danny Hollister (Ian Fried) is put upon by a trio of cocky bullies as well as spinster schoolteacher Miss Titmarsh (Kathleen Freeman), his only ally being kindly custodian Mr. Jenkins (James Karen). Danny's misfortunes simultaneously worsen and improve when he finds a monster in one of the boys' room stalls (not made out of feces, mercifully) and lures all of his tormentors to their doom. Danny doesn't realize what the eagle-eyed viewer notices, though, in that the monster has a human disguise as made clear by the fact that a decapitated head looks unmistakably like a mask.

The second entry is decidedly unpleasant thanks in no small part to its central character, Gordy Belcher (Michael Bower), a noxious, rather sociopathic fat kid whose hobby is collecting flies and using them for dioramas. His bickering, belligerent parents aren't so much enablers as sad specimens of humanity themselves, and Gordy's idea of a good joke is to feed a pretty girl raisin cookies of a rather unsavory recipe. But Farmer Spivey (Ralph Drischell) has invented a “miracle manure” which may prove to be Gordy's undoing once the boy steals the fertilizer for his own purposes.

The Willies is thematically consistent in regards to the fantasy of seeing unruly boys getting their karmic come-uppance, with Gordy and Danny's foes making dutiful, straw-filled antagonists. The problem with The Willies is that it lacks the color or the quirks of any number of EC Comics descendants, fashioned so basically as to be anemic and not helped by a uniform level of cheapness in performances and imagination. Sure, there are a couple of grisly gags, mainly in the dream sequences Gordy encounters which involve maggots and the even more disturbing sight of Kirk Cameron talking back at him during an episode of Growing Pains. But instead of any kind of juicy allegory or over-the-top dark humor, the stories come across as weak and tedious, boring set-ups which lead to lame pay-offs. The average Troma movie is campier and more creative than this.

Peck calls in favors from friends for several cameo appearances, so Kimmy Robertson, Dana Ashbrook and the venerable Clu Gulager make the briefest of appearances (Return of the Living Dead FX artist Kenny Myers is also credited here). And seeing James Karen as the passive-aggressive Mr. Jenkins is good for a smirk. But Kathleen Freeman, who in the same year played a deliriously sauced-up satire of Julia Child in Joe Dante's Gremlins 2: The New Batch, is curiously sedate as the disbelieving teacher and the young stars throughout are directed with little flair. The only real impression is made by Bower, who went on to star as Donkeylips on Nickelodeon's Salute Your Shorts, and that's because the lisping, whiny Gordy renders him completely insufferable and amateurish. And you have to put up with him for a torturously long half-hour, to boot.

This isn't even as scary as a repeat viewing of Joseph Sargent's Nightmares on cable television. The Willies is something I would've found just as forgettable as a preteen as I do now, and it's a shame that Peck, in his only auteur credit, pooled all his resources into something this leaden and lifeless. It makes Return of the Living Dead Part II look like Evil Dead II.

Let's Do It Again

(PG, Warner Bros. Pictures, 110 mins., theatrical release date: October 11, 1975)

In 1990, Bill Cosby was still attempting a resurgence as a movie star in the wake of his post-Huxtable success, having already bet the farm on the infamously disavowed Leonard Part 6. For the family comedy Ghost Dad, as if there was the decision that nothing should be left to fate, Cosby reunited with friend and frequent 1970s collaborator Sidney Poitier. Poitier had previously directed a trio of star vehicles for himself and Cosby, lighthearted buddy capers which were decidedly not to be lumped in with the rougher-edged blaxploitation bonanza from around the same time. Working under the boutique label of First Artists he helped to found with the likes of Barbra Streisand and Steve McQueen, Poitier chanced into co-starring in and helming Uptown Saturday Night in 1974, and the result was successful enough that Poitier, Cosby and screenwriter Richard Wesley must have said to each other, "Let's do it again!"

And so they did.

Let's Do It Again isn't a sequel in the technical sense, with no continuity or characters ported over from Uptown Saturday Night, but the framework remains faithful. Poitier and Cosby play working class buddies, milkman Clyde Williams and forklift driver Billy Foster, who are also active pillars of their Georgia community, namely the Sons and Daughters of Shaka. Their fraternal lodge, however, is threatened with relocation and there isn't enough donation money to help them move. As the treasurer, Billy hits upon a scheme involving the $20,000 in their kitty: under the guise of a vacation to New Orleans with their wives, Billy and Clyde wager five-to-one odds on beanpole boxer Bootney Farnsworth (Jimmie Walker), with Clyde ensuring their windfall by hypnotizing the contender into unleashing his inner tiger. The plan succeeds until one of the thugs they swindle, Kansas City Mack (John Amos), ekes out the truth and puts the muscle on Clyde and Billy to rig the rematch in his favor, preferably to also bankrupt rival turf kingpin Biggie Smalls (Calvin Lockhart).

The result is a loose assemblage of farcical antics, as shaggy as Bill Cosby's facial hair, wherein our proletariat heroes are forced to bluff themselves in and out of various sticky situations. The duo get in to Bootney's hotel room with phony press passes, but are forced to try and sneak out through the window only to interrupt a sexual liaison after they land themselves back in. Their luck gets worse after Mack and his cronies follow them home, whereupon they are busted by the New Orleans police department and call upon the services of their wives as decoys in their risky attempt to pull one more over on the sparring mobsters.

Poitier and Wesley don't really stray too far from the elements of their earlier film, with certain roles and routines that seem interchangeable, but there is an easygoing assurance in the director's style that provides many organic charms. Of course, the unison of Poitier and Cosby as a comedic tag team does bring out the best in each other, with the former's straight-laced yet game goofiness playing well of Cosby's broad, improvisational flamboyance. This mutual sense of comfort also helps out in terms of smoothing over the familiar plotline and bringing moments of wry subversion to the forefront as well as selling the gags, such as Bootney's super-Herculean destruction of various training equipment. An early dinner sequence between the couples goads a randy exchange between Cosby's Billy and his love interest Beth (Denise Nicholas) which alarms Clyde's overly reserved wife Dee Dee (Lee Chamberlin), poking fun at romantic mores whilst allowing all four participants their share of character-building good humor.

Billy and Clyde's comically flashy disguises, each presenting themselves to Mack and Biggie as Mongo Slade, also provide a sublime study in contrast. Poitier's smooth voice and stoic demeanor makes him seem like a credible understudy for an underworld figure, whereas Cosby, in bow ties and wraparound shades, embraces the ridiculous nature of his ruse. This extends to the choice of getting the wives in on the act, with Chamberlin's coyness offset by the studied bluster of Nicholas when she gets in with Biggie. A lot of the funniest set pieces herein involve play-acting of sorts, whether it's Billy trying to convince the aforementioned fornicators that he's a hotel detective or Beth passing herself off as moll for a new Chicago syndicate or the two guys attempting to get past Bootney's manager by claiming that they simply wanted to share a song they wrote for the champ.

Poitier has a keen eye for establishing community both in the settings and in the casting, with a slew of great black talent in support of him and Cosby. Good Times alumni John Amos and Jimmie Walker don't share a scene together, but they each leave a humorous impression that is as welcome here as it was on TV.  Amos himself is flanked by the equally imposing and comically-gifted Julius Harris, perhaps best known from Live and Let Die and the two Black Caesar flicks (“Big Papa!”), as Mack's manservant Bubbletop. Ossie Davis brings his reliable authority to the role of the lodge elder for a couple of amusing sermons, and the opening credits boast a cameo from George Foreman(!) and an early appearance from Jayne Kennedy, future sportscaster and ex-wife of Penitentiary lead Leon Isaac. The soundtrack, meanwhile, was overseen by Curtis Mayfield and vocalized by The Staple Singers for that extra touch of soulful 1970s cool.

Let's Do It Again is surprisingly charming and playful, a reminder that Bill Cosby, at least back in the day, had the chops to make a successful comic screen presence. Like his contemporary Richard Pryor, the 1980s proved to be an erratic period in terms of continuing his cachet, but when he's on, the results are sublime and irresistible. Maybe it was having the right collaborator in Sidney Poitier which helped out, even though I wouldn't recommend Ghost Dad on my death bed, but the resulting partnership worked well for them both here and it helped establish a pleasant sense of goodwill that was dashed the moment Cosby arrived too late and too short at the spy spoof in 1987's Leonard Part 6. Let's certainly not do that again.