Monday, October 30, 2017

Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part 2

(Unrated, Severin Films, 687 mins., DVD release date: Feb. 10, 2015)

As fascinating as I have long since found the "Video Nasties" scare from the dawn of video, it feels like a strictly British phenomena. I haven't heard a lot of American commentary or perspective on the subject, the most prolific was during a 1987 Siskel & Ebert episode which doesn't even acknowledge the Video Recordings Act of 1984, or the mass burning of videocassettes, or present any clips from prosecuted titles besides Faces of Death, which Gene Siskel held up to ridicule. Ebert's choice to represent the general idea of a Video Nasty was Bloodsucking Freaks, which was never released in England even before the controversy, but one which I plucked from the video store shelf at a tender age and plays something like Lucio Fulci's New York Ripper in terms of unrelentingly grotesque violence against women.

Removed from those (pre)teen years of not quite forbidden viewing, and with my horizons legitimately broadened by discoveries of Cronenberg, Argento and early Peter Jackson, I no longer covet either Ripper or Freaks and am not particularly eager to revisit them. But the hobby I pursued way back when seems to have something in common with Video Nasties: Draconian Days in terms of seeking out marginalized genre cinema by any means necessary. The story Nucleus Films' Jake West and Marc Morris tell is of moral indignation pitched as extreme as any violence from the DPP 72 list of alleged obscenity. Siskel & Ebert may have fallen into that trap themselves in their x-ray segment, although the real violence was mostly directed at animals rather than humans (again, they don't mention the jungle cannibal subgenre where turtles, monkeys and snakes were legitimately butchered for shock value). There was also some committed against the actual genre, too.

Video Nasties, by and large, were simply the dregs of the rental shop's horror section. I think I could've said that back when I snuck a peek at Bloodsucking Freaks (I certainly don‘t love it like I do Suspiria or Tenebre), but looking over the DPP 72 as well as the "Section 3" list of films that were equally touchy despite not being taken to court (unclassified copies of which were instead confiscated and destroyed), people took a lot of lackluster cinema way too seriously under the guise of social awareness. I would wager about 40% of the movies are actually films I can adamantly recommend as a reviewer, especially George Romero's titles and The Evil Dead and the more idiosyncratic low-budget fare (Last House on the Left, Bay of Blood, Dead & Buried) which had more going on than just the gore. But very few in the U.K. government and law branches were making distinctions, and horror movies were getting the absolute worst name in this blanket assemblage of video offenders and the means in which they were being demonized. And if you were a genuine fan in the land of Thatcher, it felt like a new fascist age.

Draconian Days is a follow-up to Nucleus' Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, the 2010 documentary which focused exclusively on the events leading to the Video Recordings Act. This focuses on the British Board of Censors' new purpose of videocassette classification, under the stewardship of James Ferman, and their own excessive crackdown on violent images meant to protect children and aggravate adults. Controversies were planted in the tabloid papers that looked to certain movies as indisputable evidence of moral decay leading to homicidal mania, whereas frustrated horror movie buffs who went underground to find banned movies and uncut copies of classified, bowdlerized video releases were singled out for arrest.

Ferman was an American expat (not Canadian, as one participant proclaims) who came to Britain while serving in the U.S. Air Force and had a career directing teleplays before taking his seat on the censorship committee. In trying to placate both the conservative party, led by Mary Whitehouse, who pushed for stringent legislature preventing certain movies from entering households and those who wished to be left alone, Ferman's own biases and peculiarities arose with his newfound power. He had zero tolerance for fetishized violence and rape as entertainment, and the exotic cultures of weaponry prompted him to impose heavy edits on Rambo 3 and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 ("Combat coldcuts!"). Controversial cornerstones such as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Cronenberg's Crash were all passed uncut with "18" certificates for VHS release, but The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were denied distribution license on an annual basis.

In regards to the late Tobe Hooper's relatively bloodless fright classic, Ferman unwisely mirrored the condescending viewpoint of the far right in declaring that "it's all right for you middle class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?"

James Ferman even managed to pull one over on FrightFest curator and journalist Alan Jones during a BAFTA lecture, presenting a sizzle reel of cinematic unpleasantry before re-screening them in their unedited versions. Two days later, the dandy Argento scholar who agreed with him realized he would never trust a censor again. Ferman was that canny, and when the jaw-dropping murder of infant Jamie Bulger was being falsely linked to a rental of Child's Play 3, he was at odds with MP David Alton, a Liverpool democrat who bought the bogus correlation to the point where Ferman seemed like a voice of reason. Kim Newman, writer of a two-star video review in the pages of Empire, has perhaps the most priceless observation in this documentary: "We knew that the response would not be ‘We were wrong, you're right, this is really bland!' It would be that ‘The bar for what's offensive is now set on the other side of Child's Play 3.'"

The documentary's partiality is solidified by the presence of Ferman himself, interviewed before his death in 2002, and the likes of Carol Topolski, one of a dozen examiners whom Ferman fired in a power play, and Nigel Wingrove, whose short film Visions of Ecstasy was denied classification on the grounds of blasphemy. Wingrove would go on to found Redemption Films in retaliation and co-wrote a book about Video Nasties with Marc Morris. Of all the budding talents who were caught in the crossfire, his vilification cuts the deepest knowing he wouldn't be able to release that 1989 effort until 23 years later. Topolski, a psychoanalyst and probation officer who would open a rape crisis center in Canterbury, reacted to New York Ripper in just the right way, and though I wouldn't deign to censor it, it surely holds more of a potential to scar than either Child's Play 3 or TMNT 2.

Also in the mix is Alex Chandon, who had his own Martin Barker moment being drowned out on a talk show appearance but represented more of a youthful insouciance as opposed to intellectualism. He'd made low-fi home movies filled with the type of gory set pieces the BBFC snipped out, such as Bad Karma and Drillbit, and flipped them the bird directly in his credit scrawls. Chandon was meant for the black market of VHS trading and all-day film festivals which the Video Recordings Act instigated. However, it was hardly a safe space, as policemen came to his house looking for incriminating tapes. David Flint, who was one of many who ran undergound fanzines (his was Sheer Filth!) devoted to fringe horror, shares the most vivid memory of the police raid which happened when he was 31 and researching pornography for his book on the subject, Babylon Blue.

Producer Marc Morris is given ample interview time, and his best moment is when he relates how certain video store employees would take a copy of an edited movie home and record over it with the uncut version in its place. But Draconian Days is never more bracing than when discussing the truly problematic points on the timeline, especially the Jamie Bulger tragedy which led to a front page story on The Sun which outright said "Burn your Video Nasties for the sake of the children." Ferman's comeuppance was a result of his decision to legalize the sale of hardcore pornography in sex shops without going through proper governmental and public channels. It's almost like hara-kiri the way his career-damaging ideas towards home video certification finally loosened England up so as people could finally acquire tapes of The Exorcist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Video Nasties: Draconian Days is considerably longer and looser than Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape. There's more of a Mark Hartley style to the freewheeling shifts in topic and the form of the film in general, not to mention the lack of urgency which applies to chronicling the aftermath as opposed to the deceitful tactics which caused the VPA to pass. But Jake West and Marc Morris bring together another invaluable collection of interviewees and, not unlike the clips from The Young Ones which offered comic relief previously, throw in Ferman's discussion with Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G from time to time. My favorite visual reference, however, is to a classic Spitting Image sketch poking wicked fun at Sir James Anderton, Manchester's chief constable who was known as "God's cop" because of his hard line Christian beliefs.

The initial set, Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide, contained the first documentary as well as accompanying trailers for the 72 titles initially prosecuted. For Video: Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part 2, the previews feel like the main attraction rather than Draconian Days. There were 82 horror movies, a few in various VHS permutations, which ran afoul of the "Section 3" designation of official seizure and destruction. And original trailers for all of them are spread out over two DVDs, once again complete with optional introductions from Kim Newman, Alan Jones and many others. These might also include snippets of other promotional materials or a bonus interview, as Michael Anderson discusses his Mark of the Devil and actress Caroline Munro is present for The Last Horror Film. The various scholars also try to suss out the reasons for why these titles were considered corruptible.

Aside from Newman and Jones, the two most prevalent faces also turn up in the documentary: Stephen Thrower (former member of the avant band Coil as well as author of Nightmare, U.S.A.) and Justin Kerswell (webmaster of Hysteria Lives!). Thrower discusses many of the more obscure titles, including opener Abducted and closer Zombie Lake. Kerswell will turn up for more well-known cult favorites like Nightmare City, The Evil and Happy Birthday to Me. To their credit, Thrower did entice me to give blacklisted character actor Marc Lawrence's Pigs a go (the recent Vinegar Syndrome special edition restores the film to its original, less tawdry glory), and Kerswell hipped me to something called Blood Song, in which Frankie Avalon, of all people, goes on a homicidal rampage seen psychically by Donna Wilkes (Schizoid, Angel). Their comments aren't as entertainingly critical as Jones or Newman, who rip the dodgier elements in certain flicks (The Last Horror Film, Prey). Thrower looks on the bright side of Jean Rollin's Zombie Lake, which is the poor man's Shock Waves, and Kerswell tackles Dawn of the Mummy with kid gloves, bringing up Fulci when the clips on view suggest a brazen knock-off of what was known in the U.K. as Zombie Flesh Eaters (we Yanks just call it Zombie).

Stephen Thrower gets one of the more gonzo assignments in sticking up for Mad Foxes, which tackles the revenge on a group of Hell's Angels in a bizarrely homoerotic manner. It's a film in which a sleazoid is forced to eat his own severed penis and another gets a grenade tossed into the toilet which he's occupying. There's also a pretty bad low-budget psycho killer film shot on authentically grimy NYC streets called Headless Eyes which Thower tries to palm off as a satire on bohemian arts culture, never minding Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood. If at times Thrower seems to be holding back from saying a film is not recommendable, then I was genuinely happy to see him discuss a couple of bona fides in Don Coscarelli's Phantasm and Cronenberg's Rabid. It's as heartwarming for me as hearing Alan Jones' soft-spoken enthusiasm for Italian cinema and its stalwarts. And Thrower's segments have the most enriching accounts of trivia of all the participants, like when star cinematographers like Ron Garcia and Robert Harmon pop up in Abducted and The Black Room.

Australian scholar Patricia MacCormack, who was a familiar face from the first Video Nasties package, returns here for exciting lead-ins to such titles as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (an aboriginal revenge saga directed by Fred Schepisi), The New Adventures of Snow White and an all-around "flaccid" soft core rape/revenge loser called Wrong Way. Marc Morris himself appears to declare Jess Franco's Cannibals the worst of its subgenre [he also talks about Naked Fist (Firecracker), which along with Foxy Brown got targeted for some sexualized violence in a kung fu setting], and Franco also throws Thrower for a loop in the form of Oasis of the Zombies, which is pliainly not one of Jesus' best efforts even as Thrower (who sympathizes with those who like Franco enough as director to consider many of his early '80s video releases subpar) characteristically tries to find some merit.

Fantastic Fest programmer Evrim Ersoy hits a brick wall with 1980's Demented, starring amateur damsel-in-distress Sallee Elyse (also of the Body Count by Jake slasher Home Sweet Home, another Section 3 offender addressed by Kim Newman), but bounces back with The Executioner (Massacre Mafia Style) and Shogun Assassin. Regent's University doctorate Karen Oughton appears to read too much boilerplate sociology into the mondo film Brutes and Savages, and is grasping at straws with Savage Terror. But I do thank her for guiding me toward something more up my alley with The Aftermath, a post-apocalyptic survivor yarn with Sid Haig as the heavy.

Julian Grainger has only two appearances in my notes, so check out his excellent intro to Honeymoon Horror, written and directed by the openly gay Harry Preston. The experience for Preston was so frustrating, he wrote a fiction novel inspired by his disgust with the producer who torpedoed his only film. C.P. Lee penned a biography on Cliff Twemlow, the Manchester bouncer and self-described Tuxedo Warrior, thus he turns up to sing the praises of Twemlow's shot-on-video vehicle G.B.H. (Grievous Bodily Harm).

Kim Newman and Alan Jones, bless ‘em, remain my favorite talking heads on the platter. I wanted Jones to share at least one of his lovely anecdotes about David Warbeck, lead actor of Antonio Margheriti's The Last Hunter, and he naturally gets all of the Argento (Suspiria, Deep Red) and Norman J. Warren (Inseminoid, Prey) titles on the Section 3 list, except for the one he made an onscreen appearance in (it deflects to Evrim Ersoy). Jones also makes an unlikely but appreciable lead-in to Friday the 13th 1 & 2 (given Justin Kerswell's involvement, I expected he'd be trusted with those), and some of the slam dunk cult titles like Alfred Sole's Communion (Alice, Sweet Alice) and Michael Laughlin's Dead Kids (Strange Behavior) are best put over by his earnestly dry voice.

Newman wrote the book on Nightmare Movies, but he's equally entertaining discussing many of Section 3's all-time best (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Thing, George A. Romero's first two Dead movies) as well as their most mediocre throwaways (Graduation Day, Invasion of the Blood Farmers, Scream for Vengeance). He describes Mausoleum as the third best mortuary-themed horror title (it's not even on the level of Tom McLoughlin's One Dark Night), but has a laugh knowing it'd still tickle his fancy. He takes to Christmas Evil (You Better Watch Out) with as much festive giddiness as diehard fan John Waters. And he's perplexed by such nutty films as Blood Lust and The Toy Box, the latter directed by Ron Garcia, the aforementioned DP for Abducted and who is one of two cameramen who'd go on to work with David Lynch.

And in case that was not exhaustive enough (taken as a whole, the trailer reel and their introductions last a whopping nine hours and change), there is also a three-part still gallery devoted to the many, many, many fanzines devoted to shock/schlock horror. Oh, you Nasty boys.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

(PG-13, The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 111 mins., theatrical release date: July 2, 1993)

"Sigh no more, ladies/Sigh no more/Men were deceivers ever," intones Lady Beatrice (Emma Thompson) as the most empathetic bachelorette in literary history. As merry as the day is long, this particular Shakespearean shrew is anything but a buzzkill. She's cheerfully enamored with her own wit and belligerence, firing tart-tongued arrows at the foundation of love but with a radiant beauty and self-security to make rewarding her eventual thawing. The witnesses to her unmarried ramblings, namely her uncle Leonato and cousin Hero, can see the guarded sexiness as much as we do. Ditto Benedick (Kenneth Branagh), full of himself and his own theoretical freedom from the silly games of courtship. They aren't opposite numbers by a long shot, and once Signor Benedick did in fact shoot the "false dice" in what they both consider the craps game of amore. They're simply the wiser, wiseacre parallels of naïve youth and familial matchmaking which has everyone Much Ado About Nothing.

Kenneth Branagh's forthcoming return to the big screen with Murder on the Orient Express compelled me to go back into the scrapbook of teenage memories, where I once played Leonato in a high school production of the Bard's gift to romantic tragicomedy. And where I was first acquainted with the 1993 screen version despite a passing awareness of Branagh as the contemporary revivalist of Shakespeare's work. It was a kick to see the queen of this Apache Junction Glee Club play mush-mouthed, addle-brained constable Dogberry, and there was one tall handsome man who gave Keanu Reeves a run for his goatee as Don John the Bastard. I must have had some inkling of an old man's dignity to wind up a Leonato instead of a Verges, but knowing what I feel now, I sure do wonder if my heart betrays my thirtysomething stature. I don't need spirit gum anymore to cultivate facial hair.

That's another story. Much Ado About Nothing was, in Branagh's own words, a present to teachers in that it had enough cleavage and tight trousers to get modern students to sit still and pay attention. What it also had was star power akin to another American Playhouse offering I reviewed earlier, Bloodhounds of Broadway. That one, if you don't remember, was a Damon Runyon pastiche which accommodated Madonna, Matt Dillon and Randy Quaid among others. Branagh's pedigree was enough to land Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington and [ahem] Keanu Reeves. Luckily, Much Ado About Nothing doesn't have the troubled post-production of Howard Brookner's unheralded period piece. More fortunately, Branagh does true justice to his source in the scenery, his direction and some of the principal performances.

Casting himself and his former wife as the sparring loners, Branagh relishes the bawdy wit and poetic dialogue enough to renew interest in such an academic and thematic mainstay. He finds the earthly slapstick and ribald repartee within the text almost effortlessly. The real test is of characterizing the combatants to the broader mass without sacrificing loyalty. Benedick, the owner of those "false dice," is not merely a card but a full hand of conflicting thoughts; Beatrice is a 17th century diva who has to come to terms with her range of desires as much as Benedick. The union of these two is combustible, and very hilarious, but their moments in isolation are handled just as wittily. Having grown up with John Cusack movies, I've been conditioned enough to delight in the way Branagh as Benedick prides his own individualist intelligence only for his heart to outsmart him, causing him to reframe his verbal cunning in a lighter capacity ("The world must be peopled!"). And when Thompson bursts out of her cocoon, her smile is pasted on the viewer‘s face.

What changes their minds are the fabricated accounts of restless lust devised by their compatriots, the "noting" of which entertains powers of unlikely union to surpass Cupid. Aragon prince Don Pedro (Washington), Count Claudio of Florence (Robert Sean Leonard) and Leonato (Richard Briers), governor of the play's setting of Messina, are somehow giddier than the women in their scheming. But where there's smoke, you can count on fire: Don John (Reeves), the brooding half-brother to Don Pedro, corrals his own associates, Borachio (Gerard Horan) and Conrade (Richard Clifford), into sabotaging Claudio's impromptu nuptial with Leonato's daughter, Hero (Kate Beckinsale). One fraudulent display of infidelity causes the sun-kissed revelry to explode with raw anger and bloodlust. It is the slander of Hero that brings Beatrice and Benedick closer together, but this time out of Beatrice's demand of retribution against Claudio for his misjudgment of her maiden cousin.

Leonard, who first stood out as Perry from Dead Poets Society, is exceedingly adept at handling the dramatic and comedic requirements of the noble young Claudio. His character undergoes a lot of personality changes en route to the uplifting finale, shifting from moony to mischievous to malevolent to mournful. And yet he plays each mode with tremendous sincerity and conviction. Beckinsale, a beatific 19 years of age in her screen debut, is uncommonly wrenching during her accusatory firestorm. The supporting cast of English stage vets and Branagh regulars acquit themselves incredibly well. Briers' regal, perpetually wronged Leonato provides a solid interactive bedrock, with sparkling assistance from Brian Blessed as his temperamental brother, Antonio. Phyllida Law, mother of Thompson, also makes the most of her den mother Ursula when we get her.

The more unconventional casting decisions, however, stick out in differing ways. Denzel Washington has not been as successful in comedy as he remains in drama. The same man who excelled as martyrs against apartheid Stephen Biko and Malcolm X also wound up cheated by inferior material as early as 1981's Carbon Copy. As Don Pedro, gently forsaking his own love life out of soldierly honor, Washington demonstrates remarkable gaiety whilst retaining his reliably dignified composure. In a way, he generously underplays the role of Don Pedro so as to enhance the contributions of Emma Thompson and Robert Sean Leonard.

Alas, Keanu Reeves doesn't benefit as much as Denzel. Shirtless and in leather pants at the dawn of his discontent, he carries all the unintended peculiarity of a rawk star who is punching disastrously beyond his weight. And that's odd considering Reeves doesn't lack for cunning awareness of his limitations (as in his many effective action movie roles, from Johnny Utah to John Wick) or even basic comic timing (see here and here). Don John never becomes anything more than an obvious menace, and though I won't be as harsh on his struggles with Shakespearean prose as, say, The Critic, Reeves seems unnecessarily stolid and joyless. There's no mischief in his delivery or his countenance.

And galloping just as treacherously in the reverse path is Michael Keaton, who hasn't looked this mangy and acted this dementedly since Betelgeuse. You want to give yourself a tick bath, he's so three-dimensionally filthy. But Keaton has an irresistible panache which Branagh certainly has followed since Night Shift, and the particular brand of linguistic lunacy inherent in Dogberry ("Thou wilt be condemned into everlasting redemption for this!") cries out for a fervency which someone like Keaton, here embracing up a screwy Irish brogue, has extensively specialized in. That combination of disgustingly gonzo physicality and egomaniacally crude lawfulness doesn't make an ass out of Michael Keaton. Dogberry, forsooth; Keaton, negotiatory.

The Villa Vignamaggio of Tuscany is perhaps Branagh's biggest coup, more so than the superstar ringers. Rich in shrubbery, fountain pools and courtyards, Branagh and cameraman Roger Lanser encounter the perfect natural environment to unleash everyone's inner pixie. Though they introduce the royal soldiers on horseback in a style that is more American Western than Italian Renaissance, the sudden explosion of shower-and-swim ecstasy which follows is truly bold. Placed alongside the montage of masquerade ball jubilation, these stylistic concessions turn out to be rewarding rather than constricting, especially since so much of the movie colorfully embraces outdoor expansion. Branagh has achieved some of the most majestic long takes I have ever seen in a straightforward Shakespeare adaptation (granted, I could stand to see more).

Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing invests the deception from both sexes with sterling dramatic and comic dynamism. For every moment such as when Benedick stands idly by Beatrice in Russian mask (and hilariously thick burlesque accent) listening to her shoot him down ("She speaks poniards! And every word stabs!"), there's her solemn entreaty to Benedick to kill Claudio for his hot-blooded confusion. The same Claudio, Leonato and Don Pedro who stir amorous second thoughts within Benedick will splinter into heated confrontation when Don John's damage is done. And for all of Dogberry's illiteracy, there's still a mad fire in his eyes and earned lower-class nobility in setting things right for the broken unions. It remains to be seen how well Kenneth Branagh can marshal his resources for the parlor mystery tropes of Agatha Christie, but his phenomenal work with Shakespeare will earn him a lifetime's reception of "Hey nonny nonny."

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Million Dollar Mystery

(PG, DEG, 95 mins., theatrical release date: June 12, 1987)

How do you go from distributing seminal films by David Lynch, Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow to declaring bankruptcy by promoting trash bags and the reconstructed London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, AZ? That is the Million Dollar Mystery of Dino De Laurentiis' eternal miscalculation. Legend has it that Dino observed a crowd lining up in New York and was told they weren't waiting to see a movie, but instead wanting to gamble on the state lottery. I believe the producers of The Squeeze were also inspired by the same procession. And who knows? Maybe they were in that very line.

Dino De Laurentiis, however, wanted to give something back to the people who forked over hundreds trying to gain millions, to make undemanding entertainment for the serfs of our proudly democratic country while dangling a Glad waste bin liner full of $1,000,000 cash in front of them (that was actually the poster). The Glad Products Company were official sponsors, and specially-marked boxes offered clues that the film may not have provided viewers in guessing where the million was hidden in the movie so that they could fill in the entry form, name that location and win De Laurentiis' personal jackpot. The final tally: 356,306 people gave the correct answer, and a drawing was held to narrow the field down to one winner. So when you get right down to it, Million Dollar Mystery was essentially Dino De Laurentiis' excuse to stage his own lottery competition.

The winner, for the record, was preteen Alesia Lenae Jones from Bakersfield, CA. You'd think that, in the spirit of showmanship, perhaps Dino would select 10 or so people and someone would broadcast their own race for the prize in the manner of a game show like Supermarket Sweep. Surely, it would've helped ease the financial loss of the movie. I don't know how many wary patrons actually slammed down the $6 to watch Million Dollar Mystery, or decided on Predator instead, or if they just stayed home with their Glad products and went from there. But multiplying the number of correct applicants times the ticket price, you get $2,137,836 in potential box-office earnings. Here's what Million Dollar Mystery, budgeted at $10 million, actually grossed in the summer of 1987: $989,033.

Can't you hear its heartbeat?

The most entertaining thing about Million Dollar Mystery in retrospect is in seeing some of the premier critics of the time shilling this branded gimmick in their newspaper columns and on TV. Consider Janet Maslin of the New York Times, who actually wrote down the P.O. Box address where one could obtain a blank entry form in her very review of the film. And get a load of poor Roger Ebert, in the very same year he'd go on to obliterate Bill Cosby, "the richest man in show business," for hawking Coca-Cola to appease his corporate gods in Leonard Part 6. Maslin rightly called the movie an "afterthought" to the contest, but tries to look on the bright side in that most passive of statements: "All things considered, it could be a lot worse." Gene Siskel, Ebert (to some extent) and the Washington Post's Hal Hinson were far less forgiving than Maslin.

Boy, they're upset. And you know, I am, too!!

That's because Million Dollar Mystery is not just capitalizing on the theatre-going public's deeper-seated needs for financial security, escapist fun and waste removal supplies, but the premise itself is one of the baldest "stop me if think you've heard this one before" knock-offs this side of the equally cynical Mac and Me. A stranger dies in front of a gaggle of goofballs, but not without asking them how they'd like to get rich off a strategically-placed bounty. Dollars dancing in their heads like sugarplums, these dopey commoners run out to their cars and engage in reckless pursuit of the loot, with plenty of property and vehicular damage along the way. And the fates will conspire to make sure none of them will discover or recover the money without various slapstick encounters and comeuppances.

Your premonition is correct. Million Dollar Mystery is the 1980s model of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which had been ripped off many times before, like in Scavenger Hunt (to be fair, that 1979 version has the best cast outside of Mad, Mad World) and some obscurity called Flush (1977), which must have been made exclusively for Keith Bailey. And as I mentioned previously with The Gumball Rally, the entire automotive subgenre of Cannonballsploitation is also in debt to Stanley Kramer's wacky touchstone. With but a lonely few exceptions, you can usually tell these comic charlatans apart from the real thing by the lack of star power, their amateur replacements, the derivative gags, their abysmal timing, the harebrained characters, their crummy dialogue, the inferior filmmaking, their complete and utter indifference towards who makes the goal first. Million Dollar Mystery, alas, is no Rat Race.

Why even talk about Million Dollar Mystery as a movie, when it's so transparently a product? [sigh] Here goes nothing. Instead of Jimmy "Smiler" Durante having skimmed $350,000 in tuna factory profits, it's Tom Bosley, the TV pitchman for Glad bags himself, as government traitor Sidney Preston, who has embezzled $4 million worth of kickbacks from the Libyans. After divvying up the bounty and secreting it in four ways, he pulls over at the Apache Acres Motel and Restaurant for a bowl of their special chili. You know the old man is in mortal danger when the cook proudly lists rattlesnake and armadillo as his choice cuts, so it makes no sense to write the phrase "faster than you can say 'Change my order to the soup.'"

Faster than you can say "Change my order to the soup," Preston has a fatal heart attack and everyone else in the diner swarms around him as he hips them to the four million-dollar placements, "each one is in a bridge." He won't tell them where to begin until the redheaded waitress he's obsessed with gives him a kiss goodbye. George Kennedy in Bolero had smoother moves than the former Mr. C. A newscast on TV validates his story by declaring him a wanted man likely hiding out near his hometown of El Puente, and awaaaayyy we go!

The abovementioned hostess, Dotty (Pam Matteson), and her brother/chef/co-owner Tugger (Royce D. Applegate) lead the charge. We get Eugene...erm, Eddie Deezen and Wendy Sherman as four-eyed newlyweds mad with consummate lust. There's Rick Overton, wife Mona Lyden and moppet son Douglas Emerson, who is such a dead ringer for Peter Billingsley, I was anticipating Stephen McHattie would arrive to stalk him and kill him. I knew that was my heart's desire when, watching the nerdy nymphomaniacs suck face in the diner, he quips: "Can you imagine what their kids are going to look like?" I'm guessing they'd all resemble Ronny Howard from Village of the Giants, just like Douglas Emerson. Even more annoying are three blonde Bananarama wannabes and their handler, played by who could care less (I‘m told one of them is a Playboy centerfold).

Along the way, they encounter Rich Hall, a one-season wonder on SNL in the Carl Spackler mold; H.B. Haggerty as a pro wrestler once again, but without the fatherly twist afforded him in Blake Edwards' Micki + Maude; Mike Farrow as P.I. Tommy Sledge in a noir parody which, as Tugger is quick to proclaim, "looks right out a 1940s movie," but is still not ready for prime time even if your mind doesn't drift to Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid; and Kevin Pollak playing a deputy officer in his screen debut, wearing out his welcome fast with gong-banging impressions of Dudley Moore, Ronald Reagan and Peter Falk. That he comes across as a nightclub performer is no surprise, but his preferred destination isn't the Comedy Store, but the Bomb Shelter from Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life.

This was 71-year-old Richard Fleischer's glum finale, the dismal capper for a slump in the ‘80s that began with Neil Diamond as The Jazz Singer and encompassed additional De Laurentiis productions Amityville 3-D, Conan the Destroyer and Red Sonja. I got the impression that this decade wasn't kind for a lot of Old Hollywood royalty when you find out that Diamond's co-star was Laurence Olivier (next stop: Inchon) and that Stanley Donen had gone from Charade and Singin' in the Rain to Saturn 3 and Blame It on Rio. Fleischer, meanwhile, had done Soylent Green, Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Dolittle, 10 Rillington Place, and Tora! Tora! Tora! among many others. His loyalty to De Laurentiis is touching, but just like Donen in his last movie, dumb comedy is a depressing means to bolster your retirement funds. And Million Dollar Mystery is the lowest of the low. Red Sonja is a great deal funnier accidentally than this one is purposely.

It's a bad, bad, bad, bad film. Since the talent pool in front of and behind the camera is practically non-existent, the shrill, stupid characters aren't worth enduring even for the now-hypothetical cash prize. It's so unpleasant, you feel like a hostage taken at ransom by the world's worst comedy improv troupe. Stanley Kramer's 1963 prototype escalated the absurd jeopardy to suspenseful extremes and pushed its greedy characters past the point of civil obedience amusingly. The hoary Fleischer and his writing team go at justifying De Laurentiis' gimmick with no invention or investment. The great Jack Cardiff is wasted as cinematographer, the music consists of bland boogie songs and a synth-pop cue which is a shameless nick from The Art of Noise's "Paranoimia" (where's Matt Frewer when you need him?) and the Southwestern setting makes an unintentional parallel to the barren landscape of humor on screen.

But what else can you say? Million Dollar Mystery only exists because of the contest, and while you'd never see Golan & Globus pony up a fortune in cinematic reparations ("combat pay"), the slapdash feature it spawned isn't even as rewarding as the best/worst of Cannon. Please offer a moment of silence, though, for Hollywood stuntman Dar Robinson, who died on set November 23, 1986, the result of a motorbike leap which went awry. His name pops up in the credits while Mack Dryden & Jamie Alcroft, who are the federal agents trailing the money-hungry mob, try to pad out the "It's up to you!" reveal with more third-rate shtick. Unfortunately, Dar Robinson's dedication isn't saved until the end and is also bracketed in quotes, as if it were another glib line in a movie that is nothing at all if not artificial.

Sunday, October 8, 2017


(PG, Warner Bros., 116 mins., theatrical release date: March 19, 1982)

Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap, based on the long-running Ira Levin twister which premiered on stage in 1978, plays to win and then plays all over again, becoming more playful with each curveball. It's a blatant pun to hang an opening statement on, but Levin and the characters he wrote kid knowingly with the impetus of creation, the huffing motivation and the dramaturgic glossary of the pre-production stage. And Lumet, whose Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express will be getting revamped by Kenneth Branagh, has relinquished his grittier side (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) for sprightly humor and potboiler suspense. The main character, an over-the-hill author of theatrical murder mysteries (with names such as "Gunpoint," "In for the Kill" and "The Murder Game") realizes while clutching his own outside goldmine: "Even a gifted director couldn't hurt it." One can easily picture Lumet coming to the same epiphany with Levin's sure thing, rewritten for the screen by Jay Presson Allen.

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) could use such a windfall more than Sidney Lumet. "Murder Most Fair" has just opened appallingly at the Music Box, his fourth successive flop and the catalyst for derisive jeers from producer Seymour Starger (Joe Silver) and the theater critics on TV, among them Joel Siegel and Jeffery Lyons. "I'm doing the only sensible thing," Bruhl screams at his wife Myra (Dyan Cannon), who's resting up back at his Easthampton abode. "I'm getting pissed!" But he gets too soused and misses the train station, reaching the end of the line at Montauk ("Bloody symbolic"). Further humiliating him is the unimpeachable first draft of a play called "Deathtrap," written and sent by one Clifford Anderson, who attended Bruhl's most recent college seminar. Estimating its value at up to $5,000,000 (not including T-shirt sales), Bruhl looks at the antique mace on his wall mount of weapons, stage props and genuine articles both, and contemplates making a killing.

The purse-clutching Myra, whose angina has set her constantly on edge, is catatonic at how serious Bruhl is about the murder plot. He calls Anderson up and invites him over under the pretext of collaboration and counseling. When Bruhl goes to pick up the first-time protégé, it's not a "glandular case" or a stammering dolt he encounters, but a handsome boy scout. Anderson (Christopher Reeve), taking along the proof of his beckoning career's work, coyly rebukes Bruhl's egomaniacal assistance, all the while Myra raises a voice of frazzled conscience. Alas, Bruhl bluffs his way into one-upping Anderson by proclaiming he's got two hot new projects. One of which is based on Harry Houdini, the better for Bruhl to entice Anderson to try on "trick" handcuffs.

Welcome to Act I of Ira Levin's (filmed) play, the 40-minute set-up for ever more chicanery fraught with suspicion, envy and homicidal urges. Deathtrap continues the battle of wills between Anderson and Bruhl, but what happens is far too eccentric and witty to dictate in review form. 35 years later, it is fairly known that a chaste smooch between Caine and Reeve appalled straight audiences, inspiring novelty musician Tom Smith to claim that "Two Guys Kissin' (Ruined My Life)." Mad Magazine ridiculed the film in their October 1982 issue, and Dyan Cannon was singled out by the Golden Raspberry committee for a Worst Supporting Actress nomination (Cannon, Rutanya Alda from Amityville II: The Possession and Colleen Camp in The Seduction all lost to Aileen "Annie" Quinn).

Come on. I just tore Seltzerberg a fresh asshole for their thoughtless crimes against parody. I wouldn't trust an obscure "filkie," a poor man's National Lampoon and the homeless man's Stinker Movie Awards to make fun of what already is an immensely humorous effort. And there is a lot to laugh at in Deathtrap without acting on juvenile superiority. Dyan Cannon is advertently playing Myra for laughs. Her every doting exclamation of "Sidney" or "darling," even going so far as to call Sidney "my darling darling," is a friendly, ticklish poke in the ribs instead of a balled fist. But she is also convincingly fearful in those speechless moments as she watches Bruhl scheme, her cupcake-sweet face going haggard and pupils dilating in close-up, nervously clutching her ring finger in the backdrop. The guilt she confesses in her attempt to tell Sidney to move out is palpable.

And Cannon isn't the only one with a firm grasp on the insanity of it all. Michael Caine has been in a lot of schlocky movies where he was reduced to a stick of dynamite begging for a match. The character of Sidney Bruhl puts the flame to the fuse. Christopher Reeve was clearly still fixed in the collective conscious as a mere comic book hero. As Clifford Anderson, he's sexier, smarter and phenomenally sinister when the occasion calls for it. Caine and Reeve would recycle the same personae in Peter Bogdanovich's version of Noises Off a decade later, but Lumet not only scratches the surface, he gets these actors' exposed marrow. Reeve feigned nosebleeds as the dimwitted hunk in Noises; Deathtrap allows him uncut hilarity after rising from the dead in the Bruhls' vegetable patch.

And there's a fourth party, the Dutch empath next door who occasionally surveys the hazardous shack while sensing "pain, pain, pain!" every foot of the way. Helga Ten Dorp is a budding showbiz personality with a book about her fantastic life of ESP-assisted criminal investigation and a slot on The Merv Griffin Show. And she is played by Irene Worth in one of the most amusing supporting performances of 1982, a comic blitzkrieg on the level of Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli, Bill Murray's Jeff Slater and Joe Bologna's King Kaiser. She will, in as much as the principal stars, be diagnosed with Bruhl calls "thrilleritis malignus," or "the fevered pursuit of the one-set, five-character moneymaker." And like the "master plotter" himself, the fortune awaiting the run of "Deathtrap" strikes her as an enticing retirement fund, as she is aging out of her precognitive talent as much as Bruhl.

The biggest change from Levin's original amorality tale comes at the end, which wraps up in cautionary fashion with Anderson and/or Bruhl's play causing Helga and the porter to become starry-eyed over the prospect of their very own shot at "Deathtrap." The movie diverges in that, complementing the addition of an opening scene depicting Bruhl's pitiful opening night, we actually see who reaps the rewards (here, the porter is played by Henry Jones). The decision strikes me as less of a cheat than the Hollywood ending of Noises Off, if only because there is some context and the kind of irony you'd find in the non-directory yellow pages. The shock cut which takes us there, however, makes it come across as a rushed, if not false, note.

Sidney Lumet does more wonders with the baked-in staginess of Deathtrap than Bogdanovich on Noises Off. Once again assisted by Andrzej Bartkowiak (of Prince of the City and the subsequent The Verdict), Lumet fashions a homely menace out of the countryside mansion, replete with dapper door and windmill, and judiciously moves his camera to get over the one-set, two-act treachery. The foreboding storm which darkens the house at the conclusion works the strobe light a bit too much, and the same overkill is applied to Dyan Cannon's piercing scream during an equally scary set piece, which results in an obvious dubbing gaffe. Would that those were as natural as Johnny Mandel's frisky score, the presence of Tony "Signore Bumbacelli" DiBenedetto (as Burt, the Bartender) and Tony Walton's astute contributions to both production and costume design. 

Deathtrap's ultimate enjoyment comes down to a quartet of excellent performances, the moments where fanatical ambition gives way to sociopathic psychoses and the inflating manner in which real life writes the play. What compels Sidney Bruhl and Clifford Anderson to succeed by nefarious pragmatic necessity is either a self-loathing yearning for the simplest possible life or the cocky, deranged reverence which is the downside of most aspiring self-starters. Bruhl wants to hold on to upper-class prestige without being lumped in with the "ex-mistresses of ex-presidents, former CIA assassins and happy hookers" just out for publicity. Anderson's giddy demeanor just feeds off that fantasy. Where Myra Bruhl and Helga Ten Dorp fit into this story...well, I suggest you find out for yourself. Deathtrap is really that good. Even a gifted reviewer couldn't hurt it.

[Thanks to Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg of the '80s All Over podcast for lighting the fuse of this particular rundown.]

Friday, October 6, 2017

Cult of Chucky + Spy Hard + The Money Pit

(R, Universal 1440, 91 mins., video release date: October 3, 2017)

The Chucky saga isn't as overbearing as Freddy or Jason, but ever since Karen Barclay bought the possessed play pal for her son Andy in 1988‘s Child's Play, the trajectory proved fairly similar. First, there was that intriguing and clever original from director Tom Holland. Then came a routine “the terror continues” sequel wherein the rebuilt Chucky proceeded to menace Andy Barclay and his adoptive family. It was tolerable, but the third installment made it look like Aliens by comparison. Controversial for the time as a lynchpin for the Video Nasties furor over in England, Child's Play 3 was also the series' nadir for a spell. Writer Don Mancini steered his creation through a couple of pomo revivals with the decent Bride of Chucky and the tired Seed of Chucky, which veered off too far into winking camp.

2013's Curse of Chucky gave Mancini's psychotic toy a fresher sense of purpose and also introduced the gifted Fiona Dourif (daughter of Chucky vocalist and character actor Brad) into the fray. This wasn't the Friday the 13th idea of a new beginning, but instead a leaner, meaner chamber thriller with a transfusion of new blood. Cult of Chucky, a.k.a. Child's Play 7, follows the path of Curse, but incorporates the more self-aware elements of the post-Scream Bride/Seed as well as tries for a trickier third act than expected from the reliable formula. The combination still seems unrefined: self-promoted director Don Mancini is no Wes Craven, and to watch Chucky brag about beating mean old Ms. Kettlewell with a yardstick is to cringe once again at the diminished returns which set in too early. Cult is a lesser movie than Curse despite its ambitions, but more tempered than previous rehashings and hinting at what could be a decent finale if Mancini tries for a third effort.

Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) and Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif) are most assuredly not well off for having made it out alive. Andy has never experienced a real childhood thanks to Chucky, and his adult life is even more abnormal. When another blind date ends in rejection because of his violent past, Andy retreats home to torture the disembodied, taunting head of his lifelong tormentor. Andy (and the child actor who played him in the first two movies) may have grown, but he's still mentally 12 and burning his action figures in a mutually spiteful dynamic. Paraplegic Nica, meanwhile, took the rap for the mass killings of Curse and is now in psychiatric care, with deliberate echoes of Brad's Oscar-nominated debut role as well as Fiona's association with the crowd-funded indie chiller Fear Clinic.

In a fraction of the time it takes for Nica to be rehabilitated, who should come interrupting her group therapy sessions but a Good Guy Doll with the familiar name of Chucky! The body count rises and Nica's warnings go unheeded by her lecherous shrink (Michael Therriault as Dr. Foley). Outside of these confines, Andy is mocked over the phone by Charles Lee Ray's paramour Tiffany Valentine, whose soul continues to live on in the body of actress Jennifer Tilly. Turns out there's an even more abridged version of the Damballa voodoo chant which Charles exploited to inhabit the Chucky toy. Worse, there's enough of the Lakeshore Strangler to go around when there are eventually three Chuckys going to murderous work at the funny farm.

Mancini quotes the visual tricks of De Palma and Kubrick (split screens and sterile palettes) as he peppers his dialogue with throwaway references to not just earlier Child's Play movies, but even the Hannibal TV show. Just as ham-fisted are his attempts to discredit Nica's sanity by having Dr. Foley hypnotize her into believing she is the real homicidal maniac, which only serves to set up the big ironic twist to come. There's a strong Elm Street 3 vibe to the proceedings, especially when Andy arrives to take care of Chucky but is punk'd in much the same way Nancy Thompson was at the end of Dream Warriors. Alex Vincent has less screen time than Langenkamp, but he does make a stronger impression up until he ends up in the cell. The characterizations of Nica's fellow inmates, which include the smooth-talking former vagrant Michael (Adam Hurtig) who believes her as well as the nastily skeptical Claire (Grace Lynn Kung), are as stock as a supermarket's inventory.

What remains good about Mancini's series are both Brad and Fiona Dourif, the delirious mixture of graphic violence (the worst saved for an unsuspecting orderly who walks into Dr. Foley‘s office) and psychological trickery (Elisabeth Rosen as Madeleine forms a deranged attachment to Chucky in repose) and his willingness to embrace unconventional narrative outcomes. I've come around to the diabolical fates for Andy and Nica in hindsight, and the film's reliance on practical puppet/splatter effects is old-fashioned in the best ways. And like Curse, the unrated version of Cult of Chucky is baited with a credit cookie that brings back another beloved survivor (“You seen dolls that pee?“) and gooses up Mancini's cliffhanger finale. It's tempting to suggest that Don Mancini, whose energies are better spent on writing, should hand over the directorial reigns to, in Chucky's vulgar parlance, your “goddamn women drivers!” You think the Twisted Twins would sign on for it? This is 2017, after all, and at least in the entertainment world, the honor of saluting the good old days of horror should itself transfer to a more progressive body.

(PG-13, Hollywood Pictures, 81 mins., theatrical release date: May 24, 1996)

Turner Classic Movies aired Who's That Girl recently as related from a tweet by Bill Chambers of Film Freak Central. But having reviewed it myself, it's just another sub-mediocrity which has benefited way too much from glib nostalgia. I dread TCM turning into I Love the '80s, but 1996’s Spy Hard doesn't make me pine for the dregs of the next decade to end up on the suspect list of modern "classics." Another case of something which stunk from the beginning and has rightly decomposed, Spy Hard appears to be a feature-length vehicle for director Rick Friedberg and spoof comedy superstar Leslie Nielsen. But it was also the debut screenplay credit for Rick's son Jason and his college roommate Aaron Seltzer, and one's heart not only sinks at this, it forces you to leave your seat to ensure it didn’'t fall right out of your ass.

The seminal send-up of espionage tropes already came from the ZAZ trio with Top Secret! All Spy Hard adds to it is "Weird Al" Yankovic's send-up of the Maurice Binder title sequences from umpteen James Bond movies and the discreetly bombastic theme songs accompanying them. Without his Airplane!/Police Squad benefactors, Nielsen winds up in his very own Leonard Part 6 as secret agent Dick "WD-40" Steele, facing arch-nemesis General Rancor (Andy Griffith) 15 years after blowing up his helicopter, but merely ridding him of both arms in the process. Rancor has taken hostage Barbara Dahl, daughter of Steele's deceased one-and-only Victoria (both Dahls played by Stephanie Romanov), but what the 80-minute Spy Hard is most concerned with are the kind of toothless pop culture references Friedberg & Seltzer have beaten to death since then as amateur parodists: from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid to Sister Act to Speed, with an already-expired swipe at Cliffhanger (and a Michael Jackson gag better used in Neil Young's "This Note's for You" video) and an aimless recycling of Pulp Fiction's dance sequence which fails to do for that iconography what “Straighten the Rug” from Top Secret! did for Elvis movies.

With Nicollette Sheridan as the Yurrupean love interest (or Agent 3.14), Charles Durning as the Agency's master-of-disguise chief, Marcia Gay Harden as Moneypenny, and Barry Bostwick & Robert Guillaume as the reigning top agents, Spy Hard doesn't lack for a willing ensemble. Bostwick affects Ted Kennedy's Brahmin accent with blithe merriment, and the times when Nielsen simply coasts on his mugging, velvety charisma are comparatively painless to the inferior jokes he delivers. But the Friedbergs and Seltzer and fourth writer Dick Chudnow can't even do right by the cameo talent they've corralled, let alone their principals. Aside from both Mr. T and Alex Trebek in the opening riff on Mission: Impossible, there are the wasted likes of Ray Charles as a bus driver, Pat Morita (first Collision Course, now this) as a gay maitre d' and, as passengers on Charles' bus, both Curtis Armstrong and Michael Berryman. That I didn't notice or laugh at Curtis Armstrong at first watch is a special form of stupidity (the late Taylor Negron is in this, too, as a painter, but I don't want to see any more Savage Steve Holland MVPs pissed away like this). Eddie Deezen is in this, too, but so what? He's been too good for a lot of his post-Grease career.

Spy Hard plays like a dark omen for the way spoof movies would devolve into mean-spirited, cheapjack redundancy rather than genuine subversion or anarchy. Bond movies tended to be in on the joke even at their laziest and lamest, and Spy Hard doesn't push their inherent ridiculousness over the edge in an amusing way. Seeing Talisa Soto, the gangster moll from Licence to Kill, and Robert Culp, the other half of I-Spy who's not Cosby, doesn't lend it any charitable relevance. We get a lot of femme fatales and ancillary characters dispatched in cartoonish ways, including a dancing fool who pops up frequently to take bullets and throwing stars for Steele. But they are about as unfunny as the Home Alone rip-off (read: NOT parody, just regurgitation) which casts John Hughes' Dennis the Menace, Mason Gamble, to be Macaulay Culkin only to have the thugs rough him up as revenge for Getting Even with Dad and both My Girl movies. That Gamble-as-Culkin has to say he wasn't even in My Girl 2 only reinforces this malignant recognition-as-joke approach would get worse in the future with the "movie" movies. Ian Pugh, also of Film Freak Central, said it so well in his book-exclusive takedowns of Friedberg/Seltzer's Meet the Spartans and Disaster Movie from the FFC 2009 Superannual. And so did Doug "The Nostalgia Critic" Walker in this editorial.

It took "Weird Al" Yankovic seven years after UHF to come up with the single funniest element of Spy Hard. In a shorter time frame, Seltzerberg have been distressingly rewarded for their brainless, repetitive, shoddy contributions to the genre. There have been six of them ranging from Date Movie to The Starving Games, and there isn't one moment in any them that could light the menorah like Yankovic did when he married the music from "Money for Nothing" to the lyrics of "The Ballad of Jed Clampett." Mark Knopfler is no match for such dire straits as this. In the spirit of Yankovic, here's my final thought on Spy Hard courtesy of Rip Torn's Artie from The Larry Sanders Show and the aforementioned Savage Steve Holland: "You opened with a showstopper. The movie's over...You can go home now." Move-ah, move-ah.

(PG, Universal Pictures, 91 mins., theatrical release date: March 26, 1986)

Had Richard Benjamin's only directorial credit been My Favorite Year, I would embrace him as a legendary one-shot akin to Charles (The Night of the Hunter) Laughton. Alas, the retired actor kept plugging away from behind the camera, his follow-ups from 1984 being the romantic Racing with the Moon, starring Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage, and the pedantic City Heat, starring Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Benjamin took the latter gig when Blake Edwards was booted from the production, and it turned out to be a thankless task. Neither of the macho marquee idols lived up to the charming self-deprecation of the great Peter O'Toole, and it was clear that not only had Edwards' muse abandoned him (he fittingly declined credit for the sloppy script by changing it to S.O.B.), but that Benjamin couldn't handle tonal changes even in a B-grade gangster movie.

Still, My Favorite Year was a pleasant surprise back in 1982, and the box-office king of that year was paying attention. The Money Pit should've closed out another banner year for Steven Spielberg as a Christmastime release in 1985, but with his own The Color Purple bucking for Oscar-validated prestige that he did not get, it was delayed until the following spring, upon which it was razzed all over in the critical press as a disappointing ancestor of both the Cary Grant/Myrna Loy gem Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and Spielberg's own Poltergeist. Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, Benjamin's leads here, each provided good work for Ron Howard in the past (Night Shift, Splash) but make a lackluster impression together, even if their individual appeal breaks through on occasion.

If Pacific Heights were a broad domestic comedy instead of a middlebrow thriller, The Money Pit is what springs to mind. Walter Fielding (Hanks) and his girlfriend Anna Crowley (Long) have respective gigs in the music biz (he as a legal advisor, she as a concert violinist), but they are dirt poor and crashing in the home of Anna's symphony conductor/ex-husband Max (Alexander Gudonov) on his European engagement. His tour ends prematurely, forcing them to decide upon buying a home just as swiftly. With luck, Walter and Anna hit upon a million-dollar mansion being sold at a $200,000 song by Estelle (Maureen Stapleton), whose husband Carlos has been detained by Israeli spooks. Or at least that's what she tells Anna; she neglects to mention the house is so decrepit, it's practically as stable as a castle made of Elmer’s Glue and popsicle sticks.

The entire staircase comes loose and collapses. The water main appears to be connected to the sewage system. One flick of a light switch sends wily sparks shooting up the electrical wiring. The naïve couple invest whatever cash they have for repairs in the service of men named Shirk (Joe Mantegna is the grossly disreputable carpenter) and hellion laborers who tear out the ground and leave holes in the walls. The ones who do renovate work for weeks on end, which doesn't prevent further destructive chain reactions. The lovers' morale is eaten away like a cartoon termite feasting on the Pink Panther's cottage, which leaves them to vulnerable to suspicion and infidelity.

Richard Benjamin is on surer footing here than he was with City Heat, and a couple extended scenes of the house wreaking havoc harken back to the slapstick vigor of My Favorite Year. Compared to Spy Hard, Benjamin is better at stacking his cards and toppling them than Rick Friedberg. And when it comes to peripheral jokes, writer David Giler shames Seltzerberg as much as The Nostalgia Critic. Walter seeks a cash advance from a prepubescent multi-millionaire he represents, coming up with this assertive form of blackmail: "If you don't loan me that money, I’ll not like you anymore!" There's also a fine gag involving Anna's medicine cabinet, and Gudonov's conceited, contemptuous Max upstages even the hysterical Tom Hanks.

But like Hanks' previous The Man with One Red Shoe, another terribly wan spy caper, The Money Pit lacks a black comedy foundation to go along with the elaborate catastrophe. It's inevitable that the unmarried Walter and Anna will require some patching up of their own, but this is thrown at us half-baked and hastily. Spielberg and Giler, as executive producers, have commissioned the house to be the star at the expense of Hanks and Long, still small-screen personalities in 1986 and saddled with a script that lets them down not just physically, but materially. The contrivance of their love story eventually shows up the limited capacity of the comedy, and since The Money Pit isn't as whimsically demented as Back to the Future or Gremlins, the Spielberg productions it truly recalls are the more labored, self-conscious carnival rides of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies, and still on a lesser scale.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Project X (1987) + The Accused (1988)

(PG, 20th Century Fox, 108 mins., theatrical release date: April 17, 1987)

The Roger Corman Academy is known for turning out some formidable directors back in the 1970s: Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Ron Howard, and Jonathan Demme (R.I.P.). But the most ignored of them has to be Jonathan Kaplan, which is a shame because he has a skill with economy that could've only come from filming on the cheap and tawdry. Scorsese himself broke Kaplan into Corman's good graces, which resulted in the sexploitation efforts The Student Teachers and Night Call Nurses. Then he directed Jim Brown in The Slams (for Roger's brother, Gene Corman) and Isaac Hayes in Truck Turner (for AIP). In 1975, Kaplan delivered a B-movie hit for Columbia with White Line Fever, only to bomb two years later with the Terence Hill vehicle Mr. Billion.

The failure of that film must have caused some apprehension amongst the majors, because nobody paid attention when Jonathan Kaplan rebounded in 1979 with what I consider one of the greatest teen angst movies of all time, Over the Edge. Funded by Orion Pictures and starring both Matt Dillon and Vincent Spano in their debut roles, it should've restored the Parisian Kaplan to the top of the B-list. Over the Edge was instead handled with kid gloves due to the controversy kicked up by Walter Hill's hoodlum-rousing The Warriors. It got buried as a limited release, only to reemerge in 1981 through the festival circuit and HBO. By 1983, Kaplan got his chance to return to the big screen, after a trio of TV movies, with Heart Like a Wheel, a biography of drag racer Shirley Muldowney which netted Bonnie Bedelia a Golden Globe nomination.

Much of what Kaplan did in the aftermath of Heart Like a Wheel wound up on MTV, since he directed videos for Rod Stewart ("Infatuation," co-starring White Line Fever actress Kay Lenz, and "Lost in You") and John Cougar Mellencamp ("Lonely Ol Night," "Small Town," "Rain on the Scarecrow"). Which leads us to PROJECT X and THE ACCUSED, two of the topical dramas which were among his last feature directorial efforts of the 1980s. Kaplan graduated from Corman's fringy New World Pictures to a pair of heavyweight production teams responsible for some substantial blockbusters. Project X came from Walter F. Parkes & Lawrence Lasker, whose WarGames managed to conquer a sizeable chunk of the summer of 1983. The Accused came from established mogul Stanley Jaffe and his partner Sherry Lansing, as well as Paramount head Dawn Steele, who boasted the second-biggest hit movie of 1987 with Fatal Attraction.

From what I've researched, Project X is loosely based on real accounts of the U.S. Air Force having exposed roughly 3,000 rhesus monkeys to radiation far beyond the standard lethal dose in order to gauge human endurance during a nuclear war. But there was a larger controversy involving Kaplan's own dramatization when the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation, as spurred on by TV personality Bob Barker and the United Activists for Animal Rights, investigated an alleged 18 felony counts of animal abuse from several trainers. This went against the reports of the American Humane Association, who were officially active during filming, but Barker pressed on by going public with photos from the set which he believed showed chimpanzees being threatened with blackjacks. He was hit with a multimillion defamation suit from the AHA which was settled for $300,000.

Project X's lukewarm reputation has not been helped by being caught in such a scandal, and one might be tempted to view the movie with eagle eyes to see if the chimps' behavior may have been provoked by blunt force stimuli to validate what some claim is hearsay and others harmful. All I can say is that the movie did work on that visceral, primal level which helped make Over the Edge such a surprise.

The film pivots on one simian actor, Willie, in the role of Virgil, who is captured from his jungle habitat and put on the black market. He eventually lands in the care of Theresa "Teri" MacDonald (Helen Hunt), a grad student at the University of Wisconsin's psych department. Her intentions are to teach the playful animal sign language, although she strikes up a friendship with Virgil which ends once her grant is cancelled. She is told Virgil will be moved to a Houston zoo to receive proper care, but given his innate desire to fly, fate detours Virgil to the Strategic Weapons Research wing of the U.S. Air Force in Lockridge, FL.

His ‘sapien counterpart is Jimmy Garrett (Matthew Broderick), an insubordinate airman who is grounded against his will and assigned to the "Experimental Pilot Performance Project" at the Lockridge laboratory. It would appear that Garrett's ultimate goal is to innocently teach Virgil and the rest of the caged primates how to master a flight simulator, but Garrett notices the morale of his fellow draftees, Isaac Robertson (Johnny Ray McGhee, Kaplan‘s A-1 regular) and Watts (the great Stephen Lang), calcifying into stony silence. And he's picked up on Virgil's aptitude in talking with his paws, forming a bond just as deep as the creature once had with Teri. So when Garrett takes Watts' position as "lord of the apes" and is granted clearance to witness the end results of the chimps' VR air travels, he too is rattled by the radioactive death sentence Dr. Lynnard Carroll (William Sadler) has planned for the primates.

WarGames found Broderick, as the teenaged instigator David Lightman, in a race against the machine, one designed to simulate extreme and destructive conditions (like the arcade-friendly flight cabinets in Project X) but working of its own rationale and buying into the non-existent threat of "Global Thermonuclear War" with missiles bared and ready to launch. Project X renders the recycled peril a frigidly manmade decision as opposed to mechanical (Sadler, playing the first in his singular repertoire of chilly antagonists, specializes in evasively academic validation) and doesn't shy away from the physical casualties. However, it is also comparatively lighter in the lead-up to the nefarious reveal, with composer James Horner offering a dry run of the sounds that would make Titanic unsinkable a decade later and some cute monkey business in which Virgil's cellmates pick up on less civil gestures than the domesticated hero, who clutches a toy alligator in his first encounter with Garrett.

Jonathan Kaplan keeps a commendable pace before and after the 42-minute mark, the point where Garrett's affable naiveté as caretaker is shattered by his powerlessness upon witnessing the "graduation" ceremony for Bluebeard. Matthew Broderick, subdued in a way that must have thrown his Ferris Bueller fan base for a loop, adapts to the material with his reliably superb wits and expressiveness. Having been established as a miscreant, wheedling a ridiculous excuse for treating a girl to a champagne-fueled night flight, Garrett asks the right questions about the illogic of the experiments (namely, that a human pilot's knowledge of impending death is unlike how a chimp thinks) to get him fired by Dr. Carroll. He reaches out to Teri in fear but just as cravenly tries to take his mind off the horror by getting drunk and playing poker at an Air Force tavern. Just as excellent as Broderick is co-star Willie the Chimp as Virgil; when he discovers the frightening truth, his shrieks of alarm startle the viewer as much as it does Garrett.

Aided by master cinematographer Dean Cundey, Kaplan offers no-frills contrasts underlining the remoteness in Garrett's environment as another freshman to the project receives the same routine from Sgt. Krieger (Jonathan Stark, of Fright Night and House II: The Second Story) he once gave Jimmy. The movie does succeed at its stated goal of making the chimpanzees as intelligent as the humans, and there is a moment where the chimps in the vivarium taunt and stare at Dr. Carroll that is like a moment of eerie calm before they act upon their primal rage. The biggest hurdle in the story comes when Garrett and Teri lead the monkeys on their escape, a moment of uplift which allows Virgil to realize his wildest wish (as well as for Garrett to echo the misdemeanor which busted him down to the project) at the expense of credibility. Yet Kaplan's sleek effectiveness gives what could have been shameless melodrama a potent urgency, and both sets of actors are handled with care.

As a fan of Kaplan's Over the Edge, I suggest one watch out for appearances by Daniel Roebuck, who made a strong impression in OE scriptwriter Tim Hunter's River's Edge, as well as the two leads of that that ‘79 film, Michael Eric Kramer and Pamela Ludwig, in minor roles. Peter Gabriel's oft-misinterpreted "Shock the Monkey" (which literally happens at one point during the finale, as Dr. Carroll futilely tries to control the escalating revolt) is deployed for the opening credits, which leads to a cameo by none other than Dick Miller.

(R, Paramount Pictures, 111 mins., theatrical release date: October 14, 1988)

Inspired by the New Bedford assault case of Cheryl Araujo from 1983, The Accused is the adult flipside to the family-oriented science fiction of Project X, a fight for autonomy from the perspective of a rape victim instead of a lab animal. Sarah Tobias (Jodie Foster), who is as uncouth as Goliath but graced with enough integrity as Virgil, is a low-class waitress who decides to release a thick cloud of steam from a domestic quarrel by visiting her best friend at a roadhouse dive, The Mill. One thing leads to another, and soon Sarah, her senses weakened by casual marijuana and alcohol use, is sexually assaulted by three men on a pinball machine in the recreation room, a rowdy batch of yokels egging them on. This is staved off until the final act, though. Kaplan begins at the climax, fixating on the Mill's freeway-stationed exterior for the main credits, followed by Sarah bursting out of the front door in obvious distress, hitching a ride to the hospital where the doctor inquires about her recent bouts of intercourse and whether she carries a venereal disease.

Birchfield County Deputy D.A. Katheryn Murphy (Kelly McGillis) appoints herself Sarah‘s prosecutor, but the battered client poses a huge risk as a case subject. Outside of being stoned and intoxicated, her ordeal could be cheapened by such looming double standards as provocative dress and flirty banter, the latter Sarah doesn‘t confess to until far too late in the investigation. To the goons who were there, Sarah was obviously teasing and putting on an exhibition; this "consensual" chauvinism is paralleled by Ms. Murphy's chief executive boss, Paul Rudolph (Carmen Argenziano). Leveling a lesser charge of reckless endangerment at the plea bargain, Murphy commits a flagrant offense to Sarah by denying her a proper courtroom recounting. It isn't until after Sarah has an unpleasant encounter with her aggressors' head cheerleader, Cliff "Scorpion" Albrect (Leo Rossi), and rams his pick-up truck in retaliation does Murphy seek a proper legal statute to go to trial with: criminal solicitation. "No deals," the women finally agree to demand in a precedent-setting act of litigation which will set the record straight.

There is transparent foreshadowing when Ms. Murphy and Lieutenant Duncan (Terry David Mulligan) consult the initial rape case with Mr. Rudoph while watching an ice hockey game, where the violence is expected to be cheered if not goaded on by the carefree spectators. Barmaid Sally Fraser (Ann Hearn) is only good for pointing out Scorpion and the two other aggravators; she provides unflattering truths to Murphy about Sarah's carnality and fled the scene of the crime without so much as an anonymous call. The only significant testimony could come from Ken Joyce (Bernie Coulson), the college student who has kept a sullen distance since reporting the gangbang. Murphy gets to him, but Ken becomes reluctant to take the stand once he's aware that his frat buddy, Bob Joiner (Steve Antin), will be indicted for the rape Ken knew he'd committed and serve the full prison sentence of five years.

In its own generous if grueling way, The Accused is a fitting reprise of the major theme of Project X, as studied complacency stirs a righteous call for justice. For Sarah, defiantly regaining her self-confidence by kicking out her dealer/musician boyfriend Larry (Tom O'Brien) and cutting her hair so as to resemble a trailer-park Laurie Anderson, it's the betrayal of her lawyer and the badgering of that odious bystander which activates her sensitivity to the beleaguered Ms. Murphy and the frightened Ken. Murphy's patronizing careerism gives way to bold humanity by acknowledging an equally independent, gutsy soul as vulnerable as she is unrefined. And Ken, the silent witness, selflessly experiences a moral awakening in distinct opposition to the nasty machismo of Bob and Scorpion.

The Oscar-winning Jodie Foster plays Sarah so phenomenally close to the bone to that it would seem to elbow out the solid work of Kelly McGillis (Witness, Top Gun) and "newcomer" Bernie Coulson, a Canadian actor who did one notable exploitation role as aggressive townie Jimmy Cullen in Paul Lynch's Bullies. McGillis does live up to her character's given name by turning in a performance as exquisitely composed as Kathryn Harrold (cf: Modern Romance, The Sender). Kaplan directs both the moodily blue-eyed Coulson and even schlock stud Steve Antin (that conspicuously gay monotone aside, it's his best work to date) within their element. The plot's true catalyst is Scorpion, the most boisterous of the six indicted cretins, embodied with disturbing gusto by Leo Rossi (Heart Like a Wheel, River's Edge, both Halloween and Maniac Cop's first sequels).

Foster, 25 at the time and painfully self-conscious, found herself at the second wave of her career but with trepidation about the alchemy of her character. It's a confidently heartbreaking portrayal, built from offhand sheepishness and bravado but suffused with a lonely pathos Tom Topor's script and Kaplan's more stylish camera seize upon. After returning to the Mill with Murphy and Lt. Duncan to locate two of her violators, Sarah is driven home and, her voice still cracked, asks whether her face looks good. She tries reaching out to her mother, who is typically frigid, hoping for a vacation which will allow her to recompose herself. The fact that Sarah's vanity plate reads "SexySadi" is tempered by the discovery that it's referring to her pet cat. The one subject she does have deep-seated knowledge about, astronomy, is cathartic rather than insular, especially since Sarah is not your average dippy star child or grotesque palm-reader.

When The Accused takes us to "show time," reconstructing the night of April 18 from Ken's confessional, it is very unpleasant and charged with a volatile sexuality brought on by Sarah's cocksure cock-teasing. Entertaining it is most certainly not, given one does not defend the predominantly piggish male crowd, but it is effective given the degree of character investment we've been spoiled with. You know enough about Sarah to realize she's flawed and fascinating, but the test which arrives 30 minutes near the end is whether you can deny the "blame the victim" outlook and perceive not just the three-pronged crime of forced entry, but also of excessive verbal abuse. Jonathan Kaplan puts us in Ken's horrified position over by the arcade on that night and as well as under oath (it pains me to consider Bernie Coulson another case of drug-addicted showbiz insouciance, since he is so capable under Kaplan's guidance).

Since his career peak with Over the Edge, Kaplan's ability to spin sensationalism into gold has been taken for granted. Both Project X and The Accused confirm that his talent runs deeper than most people have given him credit for. Whether it's restless teens banding together to send a destructive message to the PTA or a reckless young adult who commands our sympathy if not our pity in the wake of a degrading molestation, Kaplan paints broadly but knows well enough to keep a can of gray primer at his side. More so than the populist Ron Howard or even brilliant formalist Martin Scorsese, Kaplan is both accessible and resonating. That his fortunes waned after Bad Girls (1994) and Brokedown Palace (1999) is Hollywood's loss as much as it is ours. Give him some of our brightest contemporary talent and a worthy script again, and maybe we can all flash that signature Roger Corman grin.