Tuesday, June 26, 2012

June Quick Picks and Pans

The Quiet Earth (1985) This low-key sci-fi thriller from New Zealand underscores the fact that they just don’t make ‘em like this in Hollywood.  The focus is on ideas and relationships rather than overblown action scenes or elaborate set pieces.  The beginning is similar to the Twilight Zone episode “Where is Everybody?” but soon goes off on a completely different tangent.  Zac Hobson (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up to find that he could be the last person on Earth.  He eventually links up with two other individuals that have somehow managed to survive this mysterious worldwide cataclysm (their reason for being presents an interesting, yet enigmatic twist). 

Zac was part of a shadowy multi-national science project (initiated by the Americans) called “Project Flashlight” – part of a global array meant to tap into the power of the sun as a means of virtually inexhaustible power.  As a direct result of the experiment, virtually the entire worldwide population has vanished and the fabric of the universe has been compromised.  As if things weren’t bad enough, Zac concludes that the changes aren’t over.  The Quiet Earth raises many questions, but only answers some.  Much is left to our own speculation.  One of the dominant themes is the guilt that Zac harbors over his culpability for the disaster, bringing to mind World War II’s Manhattan Project.  Zac is haunted by his compliance in an endeavor that he knew was morally objectionable, and wants to remedy things, if it’s not too late.  While director Geoff Murphy’s film ponders the philosophical and ethical implications of a science experiment gone very wrong, he never forgets about the human element. Even in this post-apocalyptic world, human connections still matter, including love, companionship and the petty jealousies that go with them.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD.

The Innkeepers (2011) Writer/director Ti West’s (House of the Devil) creepy haunted hotel flick succeeds by teasing our expectations instead of overwhelming our senses.  After more than a century in business, the historic Yankee Pedlar Inn is closing its doors for good, and it’s the last chance for its staff to learn if something unworldly really walks the halls.  Luke (Pat Healy), a slacker in his 30s, and Claire (Sara Paxton) 20-something without much direction, are the skeleton staff assigned to the hotel in its final days.  Both leads provide likable, naturalistic performances, balancing the tension with brief humorous moments.  Kelly McGillis plays one of the few remaining guests, a cantankerous, aging actress who moonlights as a paranormal investigator.  Aside from the unassuming performances, there’s nothing particularly new about The Innkeepers, with its requisite assortment of jolts, false scares, and people splitting up when common sense dictates that they should stay together.  Amidst these rather predictable elements, however, West really knows how to create a slow build without showing his hand until the film’s conclusion.  Save it for a chilly autumn evening for maximum effect.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

 The Resurrected (aka: Shatterbrain) (1993) This direct-to-video effort from director Dan O’Bannon is worth a look, if you can find it.  Writer Brent V. Friedman’s retelling of H.P. Lovecraft’s short novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward elicits some genuine chills, despite an uneven pace.  John Terry plays private detective John March, hired by Claire Ward (Jane Sibbett) to track the whereabouts of her husband, Charles Dexter Ward (Chris Sarandon).  Mr. Ward has become increasingly aloof, choosing to immerse himself in his work rather than spend time with his wife.  March follows Ward’s trail of blood and body parts to a series of macabre experiments based on his ancestor’s journal.  This otherwise cut-rate production boasts some surprisingly good makeup effects and generates an ominous tone of Lovecraftian dread.  Unfortunately, the DVD appears to be out of print, but it’s available for the time being through Netflix.  Catch it if you can.

Rating: ***.  Available on Netflix Streaming


 The Sword and the Sorceror (1982) A would-be epic fantasy directed by Albert Pyun, which appeared during the glut of similar 80s fare.   The characters are paper thin, and the story drags too much in the middle to be considered good dumb fun.  Our nominal hero Talon (Lee Horsley) is mostly ineffectual throughout the movie, and not very likable.  His primary motivation seems to be claiming the right to bed the woman who hired him to rescue her brother from the clutches of the scheming despot Cromwell (Richard Lynch).  The titular sorcerer (Richard Moll) disappears after the first third of the movie, only to return at the flaccid climax.  The Sword and the Sorceror’s dubious claim to fame is one of the most awkward weapons committed to cinema, which could only have sprouted from a 14-year-old boy’s imagination.  Talon sports a three-pronged sword that can launch the individual blades at his enemies (Which begs the question, does he carry spares?).  It’s a geek favorite that just doesn’t stand the test of time.  Close, but no cigar.

Rating: **.  Available on DVD.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Once Over Twice: Forbidden Zone

(1980) Directed by Richard Elfman; Written by Richard Elfman, Matthew Bright, Nick L. Martinson and Nicholas James; Starring: Hervé Villechaize, Susan Tyrrell, Marie-Pascale Elfman, Matthew Bright and Gisele Lindley; Available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Rating: *** ½

Saying that Forbidden Zone won’t appeal to all viewers’ tastes is like stating that alligator wrestling isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  It’s a true cult flick, meaning that it will be an overlooked treasure for some, and an endurance test for everyone else.  I discovered this twisted little film in the late 80s while working as a video clerk, and have never been the same since.  I felt like a pop culture archaeologist, unearthing the missing link between one musician’s humble performance art origins and more ambitious commercial aspirations.   

Forbidden Zone showcased the talents of director/co-writer Richard Elfman’s avant-garde music/theatrical group The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (later just Oingo Boingo, under the guidance of his younger brother Danny).  Richard financed his ultra-low-budget film partially by selling homes, and kept costs down by employing a cast largely consisting of friends and family members.  Among the non-professionals in the cast were his real estate broker (credited with the pseudonym Hyman Diamond) as Grandpa Hercules and business associate Phil Gordon as Flash Hercules. 

Richard Elfman commented that he didn’t go to film school, which explains a lot.  He claimed to have learned about filmmaking by making this movie, which plays like a series of sketches, rather than a coherent narrative.  Many of the disjointed scenes were derived from the old Mystic Knights stage shows, which Richard had stopped participating in by this point.  The plot, such as it is, centers around the dysfunctional Hercules family (based on Elfman’s childhood experiences with a neighbor family) and their adventures in the Sixth Dimension, a hoary netherworld lorded over by King Fausto and Queen Doris.

Richard claimed that there were no drugs involved in the making of this picture, although the end results might suggest otherwise.  The black-and-white photography adds a surrealistic dimension to the film, which is augmented by Terry Gilliam-esque animation by John Muto.   The flimsy-yet-effective sets, owing much to German expressionism, were created by Richard’s wife at the time, Marie-Pascale Elfman (who also played the role of the plucky Frenchy Hercules).  While not technically a special effect or a part of the art design, weirdo performance artists The Kipper Kids, who seemed to have crawled out of another dimension, contribute to the movie’s bizarre tone and trippy atmosphere.

The late Hervé Villechaize, best known for playing the role of Tattoo in the Fantasy Island television show, and as the diminutive assassin Nick Nack in The Man with the Golden Gun, stars as the lecherous King Fausto.  Villechaize was a former roommate of Forbidden Zone’s co-star and co-writer Matthew Bright (who appears as the obsequious character Squeezit), which led to his consideration for the role.  He seems to enjoy his villainous turn as the ruler of the Sixth Dimension, who keeps women chained up in a subterranean dungeon, and pursues the affections of Frenchy Hercules, much to the chagrin of the Queen.

Susan Tyrrell* (who was Villechaize’s girlfriend in real life) provides the film’s best performance hands down, as the merciless Queen Doris of the Sixth Dimension.  She appears to be operating on another wavelength, putting her best into a role that other, lesser, actresses probably would have turned down.  Amidst the chaotic proceedings of the rest of the film, she manages to provide a performance that’s bold, funny and unforgettable.  Among the film’s several musical numbers her song “Witch’s Egg” is a clear standout.

* In a sad coincidence entirely unrelated to the timing of this post, Susan Tyrell passed away on June16, 2012 in Austin, Texas, at the age of 67.

Forbidden Zone’s eclectic score is by Richard’s younger brother, Danny Elfman.  His first film score represents a hodge-podge of different musical genres, including 30s scat, 20s jazz, Yiddish vaudeville ditties, post-punk and other unclassifiable bits and pieces.  In another memorable musical interlude, Danny appears as Satan, singing “Squeezit the Moocher” (a modified version of the Cab Calloway staple, “Minnie the Moocher”).  Fans of The Nightmare Before Christmas (also scored by Danny) will spot the obvious influences that this scene had on the Oogie Boogie segment in the latter film.  In many respects, the Forbidden Zone soundtrack contains many of the raw materials that Elfman would utilize and refine in his future work with Oingo Boingo in the 80s and early 90s, as well as his numerous film soundtracks.  Danny Elfman, who also cited Russian composers Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev as key influences, threw out the rule book while composing his score.  His wildly original and infectious soundtrack deftly keeps up with the frenetic pace of his elder brother’s film.

Richard Elfman pointed out in his DVD commentary how he’s been attacked by various groups over the years for allegedly depicting racist stereotypes in his movie, such as characters in blackface.  While a surface interpretation might contend that he’s only adding fuel to the fire with political incorrectness, much of the film is actually a post-modern reinterpretation of earlier film genres and styles (some of which were unabashedly racist).  By playing with these stereotypes rather than simply perpetuating them, he’s pointing out the inherent absurdities that existed in what passed for entertainment in decades past.

Forbidden Zone is a one-one-of-a-kind experience that will irritate some and fascinate others.  If you belong to the latter category, you’re in for a warped treat.  Aside from its general lack of narrative coherence, it’s a must-see for fans of weird cinema, Danny Elfman, or Oingo Boingo.  If you’re the right sort of person, it will reward on repeated viewings.  All others need not apply.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Classics Revisited: An American Werewolf in London

(1981) Written and directed by John Landis; Starring: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter , Griffin Dunne and John Woodvine; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: **** ½

Several years back I was fortunate enough to attend a horror convention in Los Angeles, and listen to Clive Barker discuss his thoughts about writing and filmmaking.  Barker remarked (I’m paraphrasing here) that comedy and horror rarely worked well together.   So, what does this have to do with John Landis?  Well, it got me thinking about the two disparate (some might argue mutually exclusive) genres, and how the two rarely mix successfully.  An American Werewolf in London is one of those rare examples, balancing equal measures of scares and laughs.  It’s a combination that shouldn’t work, yet somehow does.

David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are two American friends backpacking through Europe.  Failing to heed the warnings of suspicious locals, they inadvertently wander from the main road and onto the moors.   A mournful howl cuts through the night air, as they attempt to make their retreat back to the road.  Jack is savagely killed by an unseen assailant and David is injured, lapsing into unconsciousness.

Death, however, isn’t the end for Jack.  He’s doomed to wander the Earth in limbo until the last werewolf is destroyed, which of course, means that David will have to die.  Jack returns to David in an increasingly advanced state of decay, warning him about his impending fate.  The interplay between the two actors is consistently amusing, with Dunne often getting the best lines (“Life mocks me even in death.”).   While his character was often morosely funny, Dunne commented that he felt “incredibly depressed” in Rick Baker’s corpse makeup, as if he were confronting his own death.

Landis cast Naughton for the role of David, based on his appearances in the Dr. Pepper commercials that were a ubiquitous presence on TV in the late 70s.  Naughton is instantly likable as David, who’d rather be laughing at his ridiculous supernatural circumstances than brooding.  He’s an otherwise ordinary person trying to make sense of an extraordinary situation.  As it dawns on him that he’s afflicted with an irreversible curse, his tone becomes more melancholic.  Naughton’s performance compares favorably to Lon Chaney Jr.’s tortured portrayal of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man.  In one of the film’s saddest scenes, David calls home to speak to his family.  The tone is deceptively light as he bickers with his youngest sibling, but we know that he’s saying goodbye forever.  We’re invested in David, who’s in over his head; a slave to forces he can’t control. 

Naughton in his previous job

Jenny Agutter plays Alex Price, the nurse assigned to David’s hospital ward.  She’s strangely attracted to him, drawn by his charisma and sadness.  Against her better judgment, she invites him to follow her home to her flat.  There’s a nice chemistry between Naughton and Agutter, making David and Alex’s brief romance seem credible, despite the unlikelihood of the situation.

* Fun Fact #1: Agutter and Landis had a mini-reunion of sorts nearly a decade later, when they both appeared in a cameo as doctors in Sam Raimi’s Darkman.

Writer/director John Landis skillfully traverses the line between comedy and horror with An American Werewolf in London, frequently evoking laughter and revulsion in the same scene.  In one of the most memorable darkly comic moments, David is confronted by his victims in an unlikely location – a Piccadilly Circus porno theatre.*  Jack and the other victims try to provide helpful hints for committing suicide.  Another memorable scene involves a dream-within-a-dream sequence that was influenced by Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (A favorite of Landis’).  Another inspired touch is Landis’ choice of music throughout the film, incorporating songs with “moon” in the title: “Bad Moon Rising,” Moondance,” and “Blue Moon.  In his screenplay, which was originally written in 1969, he successfully weaves the metaphor of body transformation within the lycanthrope mythos.  

* Fun Fact #2: The Title of the film playing in the theatre (and emblazoned across the theatre’s marquee) is See You Next Wednesday – a Landis in-joke that can be found in several of his films.  The title allegedly refers to an unsold screenplay by Landis, but it also references a line from  2001: A Space Odyssey, another one of Landis’ favorite films.

Rick Baker’s Academy Award-winning makeup effects work has stood the test of time.  The effects are still just as impressive more than 30 years later.  It took six days to film David’s transformation scene, requiring taking casts of Naughton’s entire body.  Landis wanted the transformation to occur entirely on-screen, as opposed to jump cuts or other trickery.  Baker developed sophisticated prosthetic devices to depict the excruciatingly painful body restructuring, showing what it would look like for hair to grow, skin to stretch, and bones to crack and reshape.  Landis also insisted that his werewolf should be a departure from previous versions, walking on all fours instead of its hind legs.  We only catch brief glimpses of the final result, which resembles something like a cross between a wolf and a bear.  Baker’s makeup depicting Jack’s various stages of decomposition is similarly masterful.  The final version of Jack utilized a puppet instead of the actor (with Dunne providing the voice and controlling the mouth movements instead). 

Some critics disliked what they deemed to be an inconsistent tone in An American Werewolf in London, unsure whether it wanted to be a horror movie or a comedy.   For audiences that have come to love and appreciate the film over the years, this seems to be a moot point (It’s okay to be both).  Landis’ groundbreaking film set the standard for many subsequent horror films that contained a similar mix of jokes and thrills, but with generally inferior results.  In Landis’ film, the comic elements humanize the characters, and bring us closer to their plight.  It’s a testament to the film’s effectiveness that every time I watch it, I hope that the outcome somehow changes, but like David’s fate, it is destined to run its course.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Corner: Monsters in the Movies

 "A monster is a distortion of something that has a normal, non-threatening form. The monstrous form is threatening and disturbing because it is beyond the pale of what we consider normality.” – David Cronenberg

Some books are not meant to be read cover to cover, but paged through at random, revealing a new surprise at every turn.  Monsters in the Movies – 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares, by John Landis, is just such a book.  Landis is no stranger to monster movies, having created the seminal hybrid comedy/horror flick An American Werewolf in London (watch for my upcoming review).  He’s also a frequent contributor to the delightful web site Trailers from Hell, providing snarky and insightful commentary for an eclectic assortment of movie trailers.  Although his recent directorial efforts haven’t been quite up to snuff, he’s produced a book about monsters that’s a joy to read.

This book is Landis’ love letter to movie monsters, past and present.  He traces film creatures from their humble beginnings in silent cinema to the current crop of CGI beasties.  Landis admits that his book was not intended to be an exhaustive survey of movie monsters, referring to himself as an entertainer, not a scholar.  Because this isn’t a comprehensive collection, you’ll probably find some of your favorite movie monsters conspicuously missing.  But it’s not what’s missing, but what’s present that counts.  Browsing this book feels like you’re walking the halls of a movie monster museum with hidden treasures in every corner.  It’s wonderfully illustrated, with many rare stills from collector-extraordinaire Bob Burns’ private collection.

Landis, a true Hollywood veteran, doesn’t simply languish in the past.  He takes a surprisingly evenhanded approach to covering his subject across the decades, from the works of Tod Browning to Peter Jackson.  His emphasis is clearly on classic horror, but the new stuff gets its day in the sun as well.  The pages are filled with an intriguing assortment of film images, recollections, trivia tidbits and opinions (he doesn’t mince words when he expresses his disdain for the Twilight vampires).  The real gems, however, are the interviews with several of his colleagues and idols, including Joe Dante, Christopher Lee, Ray Harryhausen and Rick Baker.  His dialogues reflect a genuine respect for each individual, and read more like an informal conversation with one of his friends than a hard-hitting interview.  It’s great to hear each interviewee talk about his respective influences, and the films that made the biggest impact (Island of Lost Souls pops up frequently).  It’s particularly enlightening to observe how each individual provides a distinctly original definition of what a monster is (my favorite quote is listed above). 

Monsters in the Movies – 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares is the perfect guide to leaf through on a lazy summer day (Oh, I suppose you could buy the ebook version, but where’s the fun in that?).  With its odd assortment of vintage photos and Landis’ wry commentary, there’s enough to keep ardent film fans and casual moviegoers entertained.  I’m happy to report that this book has taken up residence alongside my Psychotronic guides and Marcus Hearn’s The Hammer Story, as movie books worthy of repeated browsing.

Rating: ****

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cinematic Dregs: Crimes of Passion

(1984) Directed by Ken Russell; Written by Barry Sandler; Starring: Kathleen Turner, John Laughlin, Anthony Perkins, Bruce Davison and Annie Potts;
Available on DVD.

Rating: ** ½

My decision to cover Crimes of Passion for The LAMBs in the Director’s Chair spurred some internal debate.  Was it an appropriate choice for this blog?  Did I really want to write about this sort of movie?  Yes, and yes.  While I’ve included the occasional big budget hit from time to time, my blog was founded on the principle of discussing the smaller movies that slipped through the cracks for various reasons.  This film certainly fell into the latter category, and has become a cult favorite in certain circles.  Was this reputation truly deserved? 

 Crimes of Passion was the product of the late director Ken Russell (who passed away in 2011), a filmmaker not known for his subtlety or stark realism. For the most part, it was savaged by critics upon its initial release.  Roger Ebert described it as “one of the silliest movies in a long time,” which seemed to echo the general sentiment of other mainstream critics.  Over the years, it’s gained a devoted following, despite this shaky start.  So, is it a misguided erotic thriller or a brilliant satire on American society and sexual mores?   Although I can’t quite bring myself to agree with the second stance, I can see how a valid argument could be made for either point of view.   

In the DVD commentary*, Russell explained that he intended to depict middle-class American suburbia and the masks that we wear to conceal our vulnerabilities. Barry Sandler (who wrote the heavy-handed screenplay) also contributed to the commentary, stating that he wanted to depict the inherent hypocrisies in society.  The film contrasts domestic complacency with lurid sexual fantasies, jumping back and forth between a seedy red light district and a sterile suburban neighborhood.

* In a strange (and unfortunate) turn of events, Russell disappeared about halfway through the DVD commentary.  According to co-commenter Barry Sandler, he had to catch a plane.

Kathleen Turner plays Joanna Crane, a “talented” fashion designer by day (despite the fact that we never see examples of her work) and call girl China Blue by night.  Her character reinforces the concept that people aren’t who they seem.  While Joanna is repressed and stilted in her interactions with men, her sublimated desires emerge when she’s China Blue.  When her alter ego emerges, she’s all about becoming whatever her clients desire.  Suddenly, she’s transformed into a beauty queen, a nun, or a stewardess (sorry, “flight attendant” just doesn’t cut it).  Turner seems to be having a lot of fun with these different personas; presumably the more absurd the better.  It’s almost a shame when China Blue reverts to Joanna, who seems drab and boring by comparison.

The other primary character, Bobby Grady (John Laughlin), is supposed to be the “everyman” of the story, but just comes across as loathsome and unsympathetic.  His whiny, obnoxious demeanor serves to distance him from the other characters.  We’re supposed to believe that he’s one of the good guys, but his motives seem mostly selfish.  We never see much motivation for his wife’s unresponsive behavior (played by Annie Potts in a thankless role – most of her scenes were cut).  Grady runs a home security business, and is hired by the owner of a fashion design company to observe one of his top employees (Joanna).  Instead of uncovering industrial espionage, however, he finds that she’s leading a double life.  He becomes entranced by China Blue and her anything goes persona.  Their relationship strikes a chord that presumably makes each individual more authentic as their true selves emerge, but it never really gels onscreen.

By far, the most compelling character is the Reverend Peter Shayne, played by Anthony Perkins at his creepy best.  He’s a deranged street preacher who appoints himself as China Blue’s savior, but he’s a walking contradiction.  Shayne is repulsed by the flagrant displays of debauchery that he witnesses on the street, but frequents a local strip club and indulges in recreational inhalants.  He stalks China Blue at every turn, choosing their encounters as an opportunity to proselytize about what he perceives to be her depraved, soulless lifestyle.  Russell remarked that Perkins actually used amyl nitrite and slept in his preacher clothes to immerse himself in the role.  The results speak for themselves.  Perkins completely steals the show every time he’s on screen, with his wired, unhinged performance.  In the middle of Shayne’s climactic confrontation with Joanna/China Blue, he breaks into a rousing piano-accompanied rendition of “Get happy” that must be seen to be believed. 

Russell continually keeps things interesting from an auditory and visual perspective.  He frequently employed classical music in his movie soundtracks, and Crimes of Passion is no exception.  The music by Rick Wakeman of the progressive rock group Yes utilizes variations of Dvořák’s New World Symphony throughout the film.  The cinematography helps create a world ripe for China Blue’s erotic fantasies.  In her domain, everything is bathed in a garish red and blue neon-infused glow.

Crimes of Passion is obviously the work of a talented filmmaker, with its juxtaposition of sacred and profane imagery and themes of people who lead dual lives.  Even though it’s only partially successful in reaching its objectives, it’s eminently watchable.   It’s worth a look for Perkins’ eccentric, off-the-wall performance that borders on self-parody, as well as Turner’s uninhibited portrayal of a woman living out her id-driven compulsions.  Sandler’s screenplay, unfortunately, isn’t quite up to the level of its director or lead actors, with its simplistic depiction of women, who only seem to fall on either side of the Freudian fence (i.e., Madonna/Whore complex).