Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood

(R, Universal Pictures, 87 mins., theatrical release date: August 16, 1996)

Pop culture will eat itself, and Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood is, in its self-devouring way, as voracious as a behaviorally-reconditioned zombie falling for the rich taste of spilled entrails all over again.

In the first part of this mercifully split review, I offered half-hearted praise to Demon Knight, Ernest Dickerson's attempt to launch HBO's horror anthology series as a cinematic commodity. It wasn't as satisfactory as films like Warlock or Dr. Giggles, which I found unabashedly entertaining, but it also wasn't as much of a bust as Evilspeak or Wishmaster. The many elements of Demon Knight aligned well enough to give it a recommendation, from Dickerson's exuberant style to the varied performances to the giddy thrill of the hand-crafted gore.

What I really wanted to get across was that there was potential for the Tales from the Crypt Presents franchise to carry on the series tradition of combining left-of-center talent with comfortably crass formula. Bordello of Blood, sadly, skimps on the "talent" part of equation and jackknifes into the quicksand bog of "crass."

The first sign of trouble is that this is solely based on a story by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and not scripted purely by them. Demon Knight was not an original idea from any of the show's brain trust, but seeing the men who brought you Used Cars and Back to the Future in the credits is enough to raise your expectations. However, this was an idea that existed as far back as 1973, which somehow did not attract the checkbook of a single enterprising drive-in merchant in almost two decades of sundry Crown and Cannon films.

Taking rewrite credit are director Gilbert Adler and A.L. Katz, Crypt series honchos who also produced Freddy's Nightmares (which I forgot to mention the last time) and previously collaborated on the screenplay to Children of the Corn 2: The Final Sacrifice. All I can say is this: Imagine an unproduced Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond script being revived by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.

That is Tales from the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood. I wish I could end it on this.

The movie begins with an extended riff on the fake-out opening sequence from Demon Knight, only one which actually ties into the story to come. We are introduced to Vincent Prather, played by dwarf actor and Charles Band regular Phil Fondacaro, leading some greedy banditos on an expedition through the Tierra del Fuego. What appears to be a treasure hunt turns out to be a ritual involving the desiccated corpse of Lilith (Angie Everhart), a Queen Attila whose drawn-and-quartered heart is restored and thus allows Vincent total control over this ancient harpy.

"Where's our old pal, the Crypt-Keeper?" says no one but the hopelessly faithful, and sure enough, what we've just seen is a story idea being pitched from one Mummy (see if you can guess the actor, and no cheating) to another. The bandaged schmoozer proves a bit too irritating for our John Kassir-voiced mascot, and thus they engage in an all-or-nothing round of Chop Poker. P.S. that previously unnamed veteran character actor is neither Lance Henriksen or Kevin Tighe.

One overlong wraparound segment later, and we finally get our ever-groping hands with Bordello of Blood. The set-up involves the unruly metalhead brother of a Bible-thumper on a fateful visit to a funeral parlor where the password to pleasure is "Cunningham wake." Said miscreant, Caleb Verdoux (Corey Feldman), and a barroom bud get an eyeful of the underground brothel's chesty clientele, but say a mouthful in the presence of Lilith, who comes in for the heart-ripping climax.

Caleb's sister Katherine (Erika Eleniak) files a missing persons report with the procrastinating police, but is approached at the station by Rafe Guttman (Dennis Miller), a persistent, penniless P.I. who goads Katherine into allowing him the case. In a performance that suggests what would happen if Bill Maher were cast as the lead in Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions, Miller is unflappably sarcastic as he navigates every gumshoe cliché which follows, as Lilith develops an insatiable appetite for Guttman's sleazy blood.

Nothing's surprising at all about Bordello of Blood except for the fact that even as "a bad Tales from the Crypt episode" (Miller's description, not mine) stretched out to 80 minutes, it makes its immediate competitor in the hip bloodsucker stakes From Dusk Till Dawn seem like a GREAT feature installment of the series. Say what you will about that Quentin Tarantino enshrinement, at least it was craftier in its exploitative nostalgia. It had its heart and ate it, too.

Adler goes for a camp-vamp overkill which places it squarely in the lower rungs of the genre, with enough dated satire and leery T&A to completely ruin almost any chance this film as at being funny or sexy. The shadow figure of Lilith's nefarious pyramid scheme is Reverend Jimmy Current (Chris Sarandon), an obvious swipe at Jimmy Swaggart which was no longer fresh the moment Ozzy Osbourne released the scabrous "Miracle Man" in 1988. Chris Sarandon, who like Feldman seems to be here solely for his association to more fang-tastic career highlights, is valiantly animated as the gimmicky guitar thug who duck-walks and windmills his piety, but the welcome is ultimately wasted.

Despite all the hardbodies Adler rounds up in various skimpy burlesque costumes, the only nudity which sticks out involves a cadaver who is given unsavory attention by nutty mortician McCutcheon (Aubrey Morris), who tweaks her nipples with a hearty "Toot! Toot!" God damn.

And with his unceasing flippancy and stream-of-thought references to Catholicism, Agent Mulder and the Fortress of Solitude, Dennis Miller comes across as less Bill Murray and more Mike Nelson than one anticipates. He's so stuck in riff mode that the character proves gradually transparent and all that's left is a bottomless keg of Miller Lite, which is still somehow enough to leave you tapped-out on the third pint. You can't even laugh out loud at some of his more inspired throwaway quipsm instead just chuckling quietly and thinking to yourself "Enough already!"

The wad-blowing finale is as formulaic as they get, with enough exploding hookers to rival Frank Henenlotter without his trashy sincerity (and Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" finally proving insufferable) and a capper which will come as no surprise. And when you get an Oscar-winning "special guest" who is known for her sense of humor to show up out of nowhere, at least devise something funny for her to do.

The only thing Bordello of Blood doesn't completely bungle is Angie Everhart's saucy, slinky command of her villainess Lilith, who doesn't get much to really do but gives the film its only semblance of sex appeal and proper camp. She's to Bordello of Blood what Billy Zane was to Demon Knight, bless her. Lilith knows that the best way to a man's heart is in his pants, but there's nothing else as convincingly kinky to rival her, not even Phil Fondacaro's Sinful Dwarf.

Bordello of Blood helped drain the life force out of the Tales from the Crypt dynasty, so much so that the trilogy's end, 2002's Ritual with Jennifer Grey and Tim "Death of Some Salesman" Curry, was consigned to DVD purgatory. The Crypt-Keeper went out without a scream, but a Dead End.

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