Friday, March 31, 2017


(R, 20th Century Fox, 93 mins., theatrical release date: February 8, 1985)

I spent the inauguration day of Mr. 45  watching Better Off Dead, but there was nothing nostalgic about it. The effect felt like putting an old friend out to pasture after having been bitten by a slavering zombie. It should have felt like a reason to believe, but failing that, it became a requiem for whatever amber waves washed over the detritus of pop cultures past.

2017 marks the 35th anniversary of Porky's, and so when I revisited it, I tried to understand how something like that could have been such a blockbuster given that it was riding coattails of previous heavy-hitters like American Graffiti and Animal House. I still don't consider Bob Clark's movie to be in the same league as Lucas or Landis. Not even Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which I really like, could compare to either of those, let alone Diner. And dopier fare like The Last American Virgin, with its unearned "poignancy," or Zapped!, aka "Carrie in Charge," just leaves me cold.

To cut a long intro short, I don't fetishize the 1980s model of mindless adolescent entertainment as much as others do. If pressed to do so, I would look to 1985 as the definitive year of the teen comedy, because overall they were far more diverse and refreshing than the umpteenth "let's get laid" jaunt. Yes, you still had Porky's Revenge and Fraternity Vacation and Hot Chili and whatever other sludge was at the bottom of that well. But there was reason to be cheerful in the deathless deluge of teen capers that were still made-to-order.

Heaven Help Us, itself an evocative boys' club caper located in parochial school, may be the most underrated of the pack because script, direction and acting were all at peak warmth. Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing incorporated old-fashioned romance into its sexual confusion and "snob vs. slob" antagonism. Vision Quest had Matthew Modine and Linda Fiorentino, which went a long way towards humanizing another athletic perseverance curio. Better Off Dead made surreal strides towards being a live-action cartoon, although I think Joe Dante bettered Savage Steve Holland with Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Just One of the Guys has its minor merits, as does watching both Fred Ward and Lori Laughlin in Secret Admirer.

Even Back to the Future, despite its sci-fi trappings, sprung a novel twist on the "coming-of-age" template by placing a contemporary boy in a 1950s environment to play matchmaker to his future parents, Zemeckis & Gale milking the scenario for all the metaphysical and hormonally-conflicting anxieties they could.

Between the poles of hackneyed and inspired came Mischief, which is where '80s nostalgia meets '50s nostalgia and threatens to cancel each other out. Norman Rockwell's Porky's, the critical consensus was likely to refer to it back then. The writer and executive producer, Noel Black, once directed Pretty Poison and made a music-only short film which was a smash at Cannes. Then in 1983, he directed Private School, to a lowest-common-denominator majority. It had Linda Barrett, Mr. Hand, Emmanuelle teaching sex ed, the aforementioned Modine, topless Betsy Russell, and a bawdy ol' Harry Nilsson break-up anthem for its opening credits, the single best musical cue of any teen sex comedy of its time. And yet, the Porky's curse was still casting a pall over the movies geared towards teens.

Whereas Noel Black once possessed enough clout to make Private School seem like the proverbial thankless task, the director of Mischief is Mel Damski, who delivered his own turkey the same year as Black with Yellowbeard. There's nothing in his biography worth mourning. 

Mischief was also looked at by film reviewers in '85 as less the progeny of American Graffiti and more like a blue spawn of TV's Happy Days, with Doug McKeon from On Golden Pond in the Ron Howard role and first-timer Chris Nash as Henry Winkler. This is another modernized "period piece" that communicates its story purely though signifiers and stereotypes, only the seams stick out more by virtue of its Johnny Come Lately development. There's even a snippet of Rebel Without a Cause thrown in to set up an impressionable chicken race which is a transparent excuse for one of those most egregious teen comedy clichés: the "hilarious" destruction of a borrowed car.

You don't need to be Janet Maslin or Owen Gleiberman to stifle a yawn at the predictability factor here.

McKeon plays Jonathan Bellah, the self-described "dreamer" who would've been played much more colorfully in a contemporary setting by Anthony Michael Hall. He's got the rolled-up khakis and dentist's heir glow of the introverted geek. Nash is Gene Harbrough, the new kid in Nelsonville, Ohio, with the whole PG-friendly greaser accessory kit (slicked-up hair, leather jacket, blue jeans, motorbike) and stern concert violinist father, who we realize too late is played by Terry O'Quinn(!) Gene is Jonathan's new neighbor, and the awkward kid finds a big brother surrogate in the hip stranger. More pertinently, he finds a new tutor.

The reason for that is Marilyn McCauley, the local sexpot, played by Kelly Preston with deliberate shades of both Norma Jeane and Cybill Shepherd from The Last Picture Show. Jonathan wants a shot at her in the worst way, and bored Gene decides he'll make it his mission in life to turn the spaz into a stud. Not that Gene will have to go away empty-handed, as he himself is smitten with Bunny Miller (Catherine Mary Stewart), a perky sweetheart in an arranged courtship with loutish preppie Kenny Brubaker (D.W. Brown). On the margins of these competing courtships is ugly duckling Rosalie, a soda shop waitress who is biding her time until she can shed the braces and thick glasses and emerge bodaciously as the Jami Gertz we all recognized back in 1987.

The plot synopsis needn't go any further, and sadly, despite all the names I just listed in the cast, neither the characters. That's the fault which damns Mischief in the worst way: the rigid confines of these characters slouching and strutting through the equally limited plot. Jonathan realizes his wildest fantasy come true, but it means shattering both his naiveté and his appeal. Gene wastes no time establishing his delinquent-with-the-heart-of-gold bona fides and is ridden with angst over Bunny's inability to stand up against Kenny. Marilyn's more experienced ways throw Jonathan for a loop at the last moment, and he counters perfidy with petulance in the vomit-inducing tradition of Boaz Davidson, although Mel Damski directs his actors far better.

Earnest and laconic is the way Black fashions his script, which helps out immensely in the friendship that develops between Jonathan and Gene. Yet his oft-risible dialogue often betrays the loose tone and Damski's direction can't rise above anything better than workmanlike. These combine to give the scenes between Jonathan and Marilyn, which are the crux of the movie, a toxic sense of apathy. From the way Jonathan cavalierly clutches at Marilyn's breast after taking a pratfall to their inevitable bedroom encounter, in which Jonathan bluffs his way out of his lack of rubber-centric preparation but still climaxes traditionally, Jonathan's sexual awakening feels at once passé and piggish.

All Mischief truly delivers on is the Eisenhower-era nostalgia, from the sock hop outfits to the tacky Studebakers (I can hear Kathleen Turner laughing in my head), from the county fair kissing booth raising awareness of polio to the long-needled immunity shots (where's Wade Walker when you need him?). Just like American Graffiti and Lemon Popsicle, the period oldies are ladled over liberally: Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, The Platters, Mickey & Sylvia, a little Elvis, and Bill Haley's Comets giving Jonathan an ultimatum to "See You Later, Alligator" as he sneaks out through Marilyn's window. If you can get past some minor issues with the film's stated setting of 1956 clashing with the release of a few 45s (particularly the late Berry's), you can enjoy the swinging soundtrack on its own terms.

Other than those chestnuts, Mischief goes according to plan for anyone who has seen enough teen farces. Jonathan takes his first swig of hard liquor and commanders Gene's trusty but anachronistic Triumph, with obvious results. The conflict involving Kenny is good for a salacious prank at the expense of his dad's department store, but mostly it's tediously prolonged fight sequences and upturned milkshakes. And when the heroes find themselves in romantic straits on prom night, the one who's been recently kicked out of his house is forced to sleep out in the barren countryside.

With a better-than-average cast on board (Catherine Mary Stewart, despite being raised in Edmonton, credibly plays the all-American girl here as well as she did in The Last Starfighter or Night of the Comet) and a willing assemblage of pros to make the pastel-pretty visuals come alive (including DP Donald Thorin, set decorator Ernie Bishop and costumer Mina Mittelman), it's a shame Mischief works only on a strictly superficial level. This is yet another film that takes an obviously '80s (or '70s, in the cases of Davidson and Lucas, who gets ribbed right at the opening) sensibility to '50s growing pains. Two schools of "they don't make 'em like they used to" thought combined to excuse a film which begs to have been made better than it did.

If that's your kick, then seek out Diner or Heaven Help Us, instead.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Home + The Id

(Unrated, Inception Media Group, 87 mins., DVD release date: Mar. 1, 2016)

(Unrated, Hutson Ranch Media, 87 mins., DVD release date: October 25, 2016)

It has been a brutal series of months since my last review, so it's only fitting that I return to the fray with yet another two-in-one, thematically-paired, no-holds-barred SHOWDOWN! 

Previously, I decided to evaluate the early '90s transitions of two B-actors into more hands-on filmmaking: Keith Gordon, who played the misfit in Dressed to Kill, Christine and Back to School; and Steven Antin, who played the meathead in The Last American Virgin, The Goonies and The Accused. The winner of that bout turned out to be Mr. Gordon with his wintery-wartime adaptation of William Wharton's A Midnight Clear.

Gordon directed a promising ensemble (Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, Kevin Dillon, Peter Berg, etc.) to their best abilities, displayed a breathtaking visual style and showed admirable humanism towards both sides of the armed conflict. As hindsight beckons, I find A Midnight Clear to be one of my favorite movies of 1992, and an underrated gem I wholeheartedly recommend. On the opposite end was Antin's maiden voyage into screenwriting with Inside Monkey Zetterland, a headache-inducing vanity project directed clumsily by Jefery S.F.W. Levy and showing no empathy towards Antin's proxy's struggles with work and family, as well as boasting unfocused, improv-heavy exaggerations from an overqualified cast (Martha Plimpton, Rupert Everett, Sandra Bernhard, Katherine Helmond, etc.).

The irony is that Sofia Coppola, back when she was still being raked over the coals for The Godfather Part III, would go on from her minor role in Monkey to make this kind of movie with elegance and insight as both Lost in Translation and Somewhere. And funnier, too.

So with the Revenge of the Nerd having come to pass, now we flip the gender and confine the action to one universally-beloved genre touchstone. Thus, I welcome you to MISS ELM STREET 2016!

Wes Craven passed on in August of 2015 of brain cancer and the sting of his death still lingers. I had nothing but the utmost respect and adulation for the man, who remained a vital force in horror for three decades on the strength of the controversial Last House on the Left, the commercial Scream series and the slasher-defining surrealism that is 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street. 2016 was a pivotal year for me, since I got to meet Robert Englund, Ronee Blakley and Amanda Wyss at Texas Frightmare Weekend (as well as Mitch Pileggi, Matthew Lillard and David Arquette). My only gripes were that I missed Lance Henriksen's table and wasn't able to reacquaint myself with the fourth major figure of this micro-Nightmare reunion, Heather Langenkamp, whose I Am Nancy screened at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2011.

Freddy's first victim and Freddy's first victor are the subjects of this dual-review, which flashes forward 32 years in time from Craven's masterpiece of fantasy terror.

Langenkamp began her screen career with walk-on gigs for Francis Coppola's two S.E. Hinton-based youth pictures, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, but those were sadly excised. Then she made her starring debut in Nickel Mountain, a love story involving diner owner Michael Cole and pregnant teenager Langenkamp. Alas, it was Langenkamp in the buff that was the only thing which was memorable about that one, and another instance where, like Diane Franklin's back-to-back exploitation movie roles of 1982, a budding talent was being trivially misused. Luckily, the comely Tulsa native won the coveted role of lieutenant's daughter Nancy Thompson in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the rest is history.

Well, chances are you may not recall that Langenkamp was the endangered princess in ZZ Top's video for their 1985 hit "Sleeping Bag." If you aren't familiar with 1980s sitcoms, maybe you forgot that she was once Marie Lubbock in the Growing Pains spin-off Just the Ten of Us which once aired on ABC-TGIF (around this time, sadly, Langenkamp was attracting overzealous fan mail). And in her spotty career, mostly for the small screen, she played a different Nancy in a teleplay based on the Tonya Harding controversy and was cast against her wholesome, chipper type in an after-school special ("Can a Guy Say No?") where she played temptress to...Steve Antin, in another rare moment when he didn't play a macho creep. And his dad was Beau Bridges, go figure.

Langenkamp settled down and started a family with Oscar-winning effects artist David Anderson and has herself done cosmetic work for some prestige pics (Cinderella Man, Star Trek into Darkness) in between sporadic returns to independent film acting. Amanda Wyss, meanwhile, has popped up on my site a couple of times in Better Off Dead and Shakma, which ought to give you a clue as to how this blonde bombshell of the 1980s kept on in the wake of Tina Grey's ill-fated, post-coital beauty sleep. Yes, she was in Fast Times at Ridgemont High a couple years earlier, stating rare autonomy in a sideline girlfriend role: "I don't want to have to use sex as a tool, Brad." But she also closed the decade out by giving in to erotic impulses in To Die For, a yuppie Luca Westerna who emasculated her beau by hissing "You fuck like you have your nose in a book."

Where do you go from there?

Wyss persisted in the 1990s with guest roles on TV and bit parts in action schlock, her claim to fame at this point being Randi MacFarlane in the Adrian Paul era of Highlander. In the previous decade, though, Wyss threatened to break out of cult stardom with appearances in the likes of Silverado and Powwow Highway, where her pluck and beauty were undeniable. She had the charisma and tenacity to become a great journeywoman among her 80s starlet peers. And yet, to this day, she remains just another best kept secret. Wha?!

Now we come to 2016, in the wake of Heather Langenkamp further questioning/solidifying her place in pop culture history with I Am Nancy, an assemblage of candid interviews, convention footage and comedic clips (including well-edited Paul F. Tompkins stand-up), and Amanda Wyss finally getting some overdue leading roles now that she's in her mid-fifties. And their roles are juicier than ever in the cases of HOME and THE ID. UCLA grad Frank Lin [giggle], who previously directed Fabio(!) in an ethnically-diverse rom-com called American Fusion, helmed the former; Thommy Hutson, who looks eerily like Ira "Will, the Wizard Master" Heiden, makes his debut with the latter following extensive production/writing work on such franchise retrospectives as Crystal Lake Memories, More Brains and Never Sleep Again (he also wrote the book of that same name focusing exclusively on the making of Nightmare 1).

Langenkamp previously played a distressed mom in Jonathan Zarantonello's The Butterfly Room opposite Barbara Steele's wicked witch-next-door. In Home, she's the mater of an interracial lesbian nuclear family. Didn't see that coming! The shock of Miss Wyss as Meredith Lane in The Id comes purely from the psychological toll exacted on her by her invalid dad, who makes Burt Young's serially abusive, gun-polishing mook from Amityville II: The Possession look like Ward Cleaver. Whereas Home is a spookshow about an overnight caregiver in the recent tradition of The House of the Devil and Babysitter Wanted, The Id is an eerie chamber drama in which the aging caretaker ferociously claims a life of her own, even if it means murder.

Like in Babysitter Wanted, the central character of Home is a young woman of strict Christian breeding who clings to her scripture in the face of unnerving terror. With her missionary father away in India, Carrie (Kerry Knuppe) arrives at the recently-purchased house of her mother Heather and her lover Samantha. Since a Kerry plays a Carrie and Samantha is played by Samantha Mumba, aka Irish Rihanna, you can deduce who plays Heather. Hint: her last name's not Locklear. There's even a Lew (Temple) and an Aaron (Hill), in case you doubt this movie's attempts at naturalism.

Lin treats Carrie's fundamentalism as a form of teenage rebellion (abstain from fleshy lusts, she certainly doesn't) and Heather becomes an apologist to atheist Samantha for such defiant acts as dressing formally for Sunday dinner and saying grace, not to mention Carrie's irresponsibility in looking after Samantha's moppet daughter Tia (Alessandra Shelby Farmer, who screeches more in repose than in jeopardy). Eventually, once Samantha and Heather leave for a business trip, Carrie and boyfriend Aaron become internet-trained exorcists as random phenomena suggests the previous homeowner, an occultist/ventriloquist, still holds a grudge. 

Home spices up its gumbo of funhouse clichés (spooky dolls, spooky paintings, spooky upstairs noises, spooky children, and so on) with welcome quirks and attempts at intimate domestic drama which sadly don't go all the way in alleviating the solemn familiarity of it all. Once again, like with Monkey Zetterland, the decision to encourage ad-libbing doesn't graft structure or depth upon the strained relationships of Heather/Samantha, Heather/Carrie, Samantha/Tia, and Carrie/Tia, despite mostly solid performances from the cast. Heather Langenkamp, in particular, has matured with greater warmth than ever and Kerry Knuppe shows the same potential Langenkamp did back when she was a dream warrior.

The improvisation backfires completely in the case of Lew Temple, who plays an elementary school guidance counselor who awkwardly introduces himself to the gay couple and whose earnestness carries a lecherous subtext. This character may have been intended as comic relief, but the humor falls flat.

Frank Lin pulls a fast one on viewers by treating Old Man Roberts as a red herring of a poltergeist, with a big reveal that is truly shocking if as anemically handled as the character dynamics. But there isn't any freshness to the atmospheric slow-burn style which makes up the majority of the film, which was definitely not the case with either House of the Devil or Babysitter Wanted. Lin just goes through the motions, as TV sets power on of their own accord and glass shatters from on high. This isn't as oppressively mundane as any of the Paranormal Activity movies, but it's no more novel. 

Home is more commendable for its tokens of acceptance rather than its fright potential, whereas The Id gets much nastier in the battle of wills between sheltered, doting Meredith Lane and her sarcastic, belittling Father (Patrick Peduto). Lin shuttles Langenkamp out of the ensuing panic, but Thommy Hutson refuses to shy away from Amanda Wyss' deteriorating faculties. The moments of respite wherein Meredith numbs the pain with television and erotic fantasies in the bathtub are capsized by the karmic wave of Father's cruelty. Even his incontinence becomes a snickering form of one-upmanship.

Meredith refuses to be patronized by well-meaning social worker Tricia (Jamye Grant), who stops by every morning to drop off food, but she's nostalgic to the point of desperation and pitifully unable to follow up on any stand she takes against her dad. Not just any desire to leave the house, but even the act of wearing lipstick stirs him into a mocking fit. In Better Off Dead, Lane Meyer's shrine to Wyss' Beth was an caricature of romantic idealism; Meredith Lane's room of high school memories is decidedly more tragic in its codependence, especially after her senior year sweetheart Ted Harborough (Malcolm Matthews) calls her up one afternoon.

For all the dementia and hostility Father shows daughter, Meredith is about to pay it back in the name of stunted independence.

Clearly having studied his De Palma as well as his Craven, Hutson plants his tropes on firm psychological topsoil and splits his screens for symbolic clues and stark contrasts. He strips his leading lady of all glamour and focuses the camera harshly upon her; even when she's dressed up in her old prom night gown, the bags under Meredith's eyes leap out just as much as the red of her fabric. The unreliability of Meredith and the irascibility of Father creates a mysteriously hostile bond, though Father does quote fanatically from the Book of Revelations and uses almost every vulgar word for "loose woman" he can think of. Father is right to assume that Meredith is still "daddy's little girl," meek as she is given that she's been withdrawn so long. Meredith is right to presume sexual jealousy in her father's acidic outbursts, because if his current state is any indication, no woman on earth could stand being married to Mr. Lane.

Patrick Peduto is also rendered compellingly unphotogenic as the Father, but unlike Wyss, he has no grace notes in Sean H. Stewart's screenplay to seize. He simply slanders the women in his life and flaunts his superiority over Meredith with all the subtlety of Montgomery Burns.

The movie follows a trajectory worthy of Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, as Meredith sinks further into madness even after she's cut the umbilical cord. How one will react to the latter half of the film, which uses phantasmagorical "Boo!" moments and sepulchral voices liberally, depends on the identification one feels towards Meredith. The movie pushes her into areas of outright nastiness which threaten to undo all the goodwill Wyss builds up, including some obscene yearbook annotations which renders Meredith irredeemably perverted in her longing for aged Ted, who is now a doofy, bald-headed husband. On the way to its fateful conclusion, the movie demonstrates the same kind of nihilism cloaked in morality as Father, which is all too easy and way too much. 

The Id works best as a belated showcase role for Amanda Wyss, and it's clear she and Thommy Hutson have thought about the character very deeply. She plays Meredith so close to the bone, it's the celluloid equivalent of osteoporosis.

So who makes the best impression after 32 years of "One, two, Freddy's coming for you" chant-alongs? This isn't as cut-and-dry as when I championed A Midnight Clear over Inside Monkey Zetterland. Heather Langenkamp's innate maternal instincts and time away from the spotlight makes you treasure her all the more, whereas Amanda Wyss' hard work and perseverance has rewarded her the role of a Lifetime. The films themselves have to be taken into consideration, too. Home is hardly as ambitious as The Id, even though I appreciate its minor idiosyncrasies in the wake of Hutson's caged cauldron of resentment. But all the depth I craved in Lin's film is more ample in Hutson's movie, and Wyss deserves to be in the same Fangoria Chainsaw Hall of Fame as Nancy on the strength of Meredith Lane.

I'm tempted to call it a draw, though I really should settle for Amanda Wyss. Nancy was a symbol for homely young girls across the world to act on their survivalist impulses, and Langenkamp will go down in history for it. Wyss deserves better than being that one chick who dumped both Judge Reinhold and John Cusack, as well as finding a new life away from Tina. The Id, whatever its flaws, has opened doors for her to do so, and it's about time.

So congratulations to Amanda Wyss, Miss Elm Street 2016. No longer the girl in the rubber bag, now she's proudly wearing the tassel.