Sunday, December 30, 2018

Dead End Drive-In

(1986) Written by Brian Trenchard-Smith; Written by Peter Smalley; Based on the story “Crabs,” by Peter Carey; Starring: Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford and Wilbur Wilde; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“I have a motto: If in doubt, blow it up, or at least set fire to it.” – Brian Trenchard-Smith (from the Arrow Blu-ray commentary)

Many filmmakers have celebrated the drive-in movie theater and the car culture that surrounds it, but it took director Brian Trenchard-Smith to transplant these elements into his dystopian action film, Dead End Drive-In. This adaptation of Peter Carey’s 1972 short story “Crabs,” (written for the screen by Peter Smalley), has been described by Trenchard-Smith as “part Mad Max, part Exterminating Angel.” What’s a distinctly American invention doing in an Ozploitation* flick? While the concept never caught on in most places around the globe, Canada and Australia** are notable exceptions. The film was largely shot in Sydney’s last standing drive-in on a budget of $2.3 million (presumably Australian dollars). 

* Fun Fact #1: According to Trenchard-Smith, American distributor New World Pictures wanted to dub the film with American accents, as had been done with Mad Max (1979), but wisely decided against it.

** Fun Fact #2: According to, the U.S. leads the pack with more than 300 surviving drive-ins, 40 in Canada and 16 in Australia.

Dead End Drive-In hovers in the gray area between post-apocalyptic and dystopian movies, depicting conditions that have grown progressively worse. Although not quite at the point of civilization crumbling, it’s well on the way. After a global economic crisis, prevailing conditions have forced governments to take drastic measures to safeguard what’s left. In the opening scenes, we get a taste for everyday life in the changed world. When we’re initially introduced to our protagonist Jimmy, known as “Crabs” (Ned Manning),* he’s running for his life against a roving gang of thugs. His brother works as a tow truck driver, picking up wrecks and fighting off ruthless scavengers for auto parts.  Crabs takes a break from his less than idyllic life, bringing his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) on a date to the Star Drive-In in his brother’s prized ’56 Chevy (you can probably guess it doesn’t remain in mint condition for long). The young lovers are unaware that this evening’s diversion is destined to be a one-way trip. After some hanky- panky in the Chevy’s back seat, Crabs discovers two of his wheels have been stolen. When confronted, the drive-in manager Thompson (Peter Whitford) feigns ignorance, but he’s in league with the cops who took the wheels. We soon learn the Star Drive-In is part of the government’s solution for containing society’s undesirables: the homeless, aimless youth, and eventually a group of immigrants. The restless detainees live out of their vehicles, forming enclaves, watching movies all night,** taking government-issued drugs and eating junk food all day.

* Fun Fact #3: Ned Manning claimed to be 24 when he auditioned for the role, but was actually 36 at the time.

** Fun Fact #4: The films shown at the drive-in are conveniently from Trenchard-Smith’s filmography, including Turkey Shoot and The Man from Hong Kong. The director remarked that he endeavored to synch the action on the drive-in screen with the action in the film.

As Crabs and Carmen bide their time in the drive-in concentration camp, their relationship progressively deteriorates. While Crabs looks for a way out and resists making friends with the local denizens, Carmen doesn’t question their internment. Like many of the people who are stuck there, she’s content to have someplace to sleep that isn’t on the street. Unfortunately, Carmen proves she’s not much more than a pretty face when she reacts adversely to the new arrivals, joining the mob mentality of anti-immigrant sentiment.  

Dead End Drive-In works on different levels, as a mindless action flick with the requisite amounts of guns, mayhem and nudity demanded by the genre, but it diverges from similar fare with an exploration of the darker side of human nature. Aside from the conspicuously ‘80s fashion and music (supposedly depicting the mid-90s), the movie’s themes hold up now. Anyone paying attention to today’s headlines will see much in common with the events in the film, when a group of Asian immigrants are brought into the drive-in community. Bigotry rears its ugly head, as they’re met with suspicion and hatred, becoming the scapegoats for everything that’s wrong in the drive-in (with the white troublemakers conveniently ignoring the fact that it was a terrible situation before the immigrants ever arrived). In his commentary, Trenchard-Smith pointed out the intentional parallels to Australia’s recent history with Vietnamese immigrants (the “White Australia Committee” at the drive-in mirrors the racist White Australia Policy from the early 1900s). He commented that the Australian distributors didn’t like the inclusion of the Asian immigrant subplot, because the controversy hit a little too close to home. It was a message the older folks didn’t appreciate, but the youth understood. This segment of the film only serves to illustrate how the terrible cycle repeats. Change the location and the ethnicity, and the same irrational fears and tired rhetoric follow.

There’s a point in the third act of many films where the situation escalates, raising the stakes for its characters. Depending on the skill of the filmmakers, the audience chooses to go with it or not. In the case of Dead End Drive-In, Trenchard-Smith injects a dose of social commentary into the action, distinguishing it from being simply another dumb youth in jeopardy movie. We never see the outcome to the drive-in’s impending race war, but it’s not too difficult to speculate how it might end. Similarly, Crabs’ fate is open-ended because it has to be. As he embarks on an uncertain future, it’s left to us to decide what sort of world we want to inherit. Are we going down the dark path to social inequality or can we overlook our differences and finger-pointing to arrive at mutually acceptable solutions? Dead End Drive-In achieves a balance between schlock and thoughtfulness without ever seeming preachy. If you like crazy stunts (including a truck making a 160-foot jump through a sign) along with an extended metaphor of the drive-in as a microcosm of society, then you’re in luck. Not bad for a simple exploitation flick with guns, boobs and car crashes.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Acción Mutante

(1993) Directed by Álex de la Iglesia; Written by Jorge Guerricaechevarría and Álex de la Iglesia; Starring: Antonio Resines, Álex Angulo, Frédérique Feder, Juan Viadas, Saturnino García and Fernando Guillén; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½

“You can conclude that I am some sort of sadist who mistreats his actors and his crew, and that is true. No, I’d like to say that I have also suffered a lot in this movie. And if you have the opportunity to see any sequence I was also shooting, I got hurt. We all had a great and an awful time and I think that is what it means to make a movie.” – Álex de la Iglesia (from DVD making of featurette)

Who says dystopian flicks have to be all gloom and doom? Álex de la Iglesia’s ambitious, audacious feature film debut manages to address the big issues without being heavy handed or preachy. Instead of hammering the concerns home with depressing settings and gloomy characters, he’s distilled the dystopian themes into a potent, lively brew. As a tonal starting point, he blends early Peter Jackson (think Bad Taste and Dead Alive), Robocop-era Paul Verhoeven and Terry Gilliam (especially Brazil and Time Bandits), with elements from Treasure of the Sierra Madre thrown into the mix for good measure. The finished product, however, is unmistakably de la Iglesia’s.  

In the near future setting, perhaps a step or two away from our present, we’re introduced to an oligarchical society, run by big corporations and the wealthy. A militant group of disabled and deformed people, “Acción Mutante” (or “Mutant Action”), wage war against the wealthy, the beautiful, and anyone who strives for perfection. Their leader, Ramón Yarritu (Antonio Resines, in a standout comic performance), just released from a five-year prison sentence, meets up with his old gang to plan their next act of defiance (“Society treated us like shit, and now we’re gonna kick some ass!”). They target spoiled rich girl Patricia Orujo (Frédérique Feder), heiress to the Orujo Bakery fortune, for kidnapping at her wedding reception. After a botched operation, starting with a gunman hidden in a giant cake, they still manage to wreak chaos at the party and abduct their target. The gang, with Patricia in tow, escape in their rust-bucket spaceship Virgen del Carmen to the mining planet Axturias. Her father (Fernando Guillén) and new husband (Enrique San Francisco), aren’t about to take this sitting down, and pursue with their own army.

Ramón is a walking contradiction, as a fighter for the oppressed masses and a not-so-selfless seeker of personal gain. Greed gets the best of him as he imagines the perceived wealth from the ransom money, and he systematically eliminates his co-conspirators. One thing he didn’t count on was his hostage developing a strange affinity for her kidnapper (Ramon complains, “Not the Stockholm Syndrome again!”). After he removes the staples from her mouth, he wishes he’d left them in, as she launches into a diatribe of anti-establishment rhetoric (“It’s incredible how much the system can alienate you.”). By the   end of the movie, they’re reduced to bickering like an old married couple.

Acción Mutante is packed with a series of inspired gags – I don’t want to spoil the fun by detailing them here, but the common denominator among them (a common de la Iglesia trait) is that things don’t go as planned, starting with the wedding cake. After Ramón kills Alex’s (Álex Angulo) conjoined twin Juan (Juan Viadas), Alex is forced to amble about, attached to his brother’s stuffed corpse. Each situation builds on the next, leading up to a final irony-drenched scene. No exploration of the film would be complete without mentioning the awful, absurd costume design by Estíbaliz Markiegi and Lena Mossum. Some highlights are the avant-garde fashions worn by snooty party-goers, Patricia’s father’s Nazi-like uniform (including an Orujo Bakeries arm band), and a TV news reporter’s suit that resembles a bunch of rocks (to match the miners’ bar on Axturias, the setting for the climactic ransom exchange).

Álex de la Iglesia has a strong following from a dedicated group of fans, yet he remains a best-kept secret of sorts to most American audiences. He’s made arguably better, more polished films since Acción Mutante (such as with El Crimen Ferpecto – that’s not a typo, 800 Bullets and The Last Circus), but this remains a solid introduction to his movies and skewed sensibilities. Acción Mutante isn’t afraid to address some serious topics, depicting marginalized members of society fighting against inequities, class division between rich and poor, and how money (or the promise of it) corrupts. Somehow, de la Iglesia manages to inject his commentary on social ills, and we can still keep a smile on our collective faces. Warning: You might have to dig to find the film* (I found my Region 2 DVD through an independent seller on Amazon UK), but it’s well worth endeavoring to beg, borrow or steal** a copy.

* According to a 2005 interview, one reason for the disc’s relative scarcity may be that the filmmakers didn’t have the rights to the Mission Impossible theme, which figures prominently in one scene.

** The writer assumes no liability for anyone who chooses this third option.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Soylent Green

(1973) Directed by Richard Fleischer; Written by Stanley R. Greenberg; Based on the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison; Starring: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Cotten, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors and Brock Peters; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“The relevancy of the picture today stands up very strongly against what is happening. This picture is usually listed under science fiction, but as far as I’m concerned, the fiction part isn’t valid anymore. This isn’t even a science picture, but we’re much closer to it than we realize or want to be.” – Richard Fleischer (from DVD commentary)

You asked for it, you got it. Thanks to a recent Twitter poll, the film du jour for Dystopian December is the one and only Soylent Green. I wouldn’t need much prompting, however, to discuss one of the landmark science fiction films of the 1970s, directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer. Not enough credit is given to Fleischer for his exemplary contributions to genre filmmaking. With 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and Fantastic Voyage (1966) under his belt, he adopted a less fanciful approach to depict a planet in crisis. Stanley Greenberg’s script, based loosely on Harry Harrison’s book Make Room, Make Room, explores the source material a step or two further, taking the consequence of overcrowding to its logical, horrible conclusion.  

Even if you’ve never watched Soylent Green, you’re probably aware of the more (ahem) unsavory aspects of the plot. For the benefit of those who haven’t seen it, I’m taking the middle ground, and will do my best to steer clear of any big spoilers. The opening credits effectively set the tone for the rest of the film, with a montage of still photos, which depict, beginning in the 1800s, a steady rise of the population, linked with rise of the industrial revolution. Urban centers become increasingly congested, and pollution, strife, rampant unemployment, poverty and sickness follow. A caption informs us the population of New York City (the movie’s setting) has skyrocketed to 40 million in 2022. The term “gritty” is overused, typically to describe a reboot/reimagining, etc. of a movie, but in this case, it’s an appropriate descriptor. The Earth has been irreversibly damaged by the greenhouse effect, raising the temperature and making basic resources scarce. Society is in decline and stagnation, literally and metaphorically feeding upon itself. Most of the populace lives in crumbling buildings,* choked in a perpetual gauzy, pollution-choked haze.** Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (Symphony #6) figures prominently in one of the film’s key scenes and end credits, a callback to a verdant past that no longer exists.

* Fun Fact #1: according to Fleischer, this was the final film to be shot on MGM’s backlot, before it was demolished. The ramshackle state of the building facades only added to the film’s atmosphere.

** Fun Fact #2: Fleischer worked with cinematographer Richard H. Kline to develop a filter, using water and green dye, to simulate the polluted air of the street scenes.

Charlton Heston stars as detective Thorn, who works for a corrupt police department where everyone’s on the take (His boss, Chief Hatcher (Brock Peters), explains, “You’re bought as soon as they pay you a salary.”). By virtue of having a job and a residence (he shares a dingy apartment with his roommate Sol), he’s more fortunate than most. When he’s sent to investigate the murder of a well-to-do corporate board member, he’s not above pilfering his luxury apartment for a few niceties. Everyone gets a cut, from the clean-up crew to his boss. Heston successfully walks the line between integrity and roguish behavior with his character. Thorn’s just a survivor, like everyone else in this damaged society.

Joseph Cotten leaves a lasting impression in his short role as William Simonson, a lawyer on the board of the Soylent Corporation who learns a terrible secret. He lives a sheltered life in a high-rise luxury apartment building, isolated from the squalor of the city below. The weight of the secret proves too much to bear, and someone decides his knowledge is too dangerous to be kept. In a polite exchange with his assassin, Simonson, resigned to his fate, concludes his death is inevitable, based on the dire circumstances. It’s not right that he dies, but it’s an inevitable byproduct of the wheels that have been set in motion.

Leigh Taylor-Young presents a tragic figure as Shirl, Simonson’s former lover and semi-permanent resident of the apartment building (she and her cohorts are referred to as “furniture”). She’s emblematic of the role of women in this future society, as little more than servant and sex object, fit for entertaining and odd chores. After Simonson’s demise, she’s worried about her fate, and being accepted by the new tenant. For Shirl, there’s no escape from her life of indentured servitude. She faces an uncertain future as she grows older, which we can only speculate about.

The film’s most affecting performance belongs to Edward G. Robinson,* in his celebrated 101st and final role (Robinson passed away a few weeks after filming completed). He proves his versatility as Thorn’s roommate and moral center, and serves as the heart of the film. As a former college professor, he understands the value of books, knowledge and beauty, and laments what has been lost. He’s lived too long and seen too much, remembering a time when good food was plentiful and living conditions were more hospitable. Not much is made of their living arrangement, or how they came to become roommates, but they interact like an old married couple, cognizant of each other’s moods and idiosyncrasies. There’s an unspoken love between them, best illustrated by an endearing (mostly improvised) meal scene.

* Interesting Fact: According to Fleischer, Robinson was almost completely deaf by the time he appeared in Soylent Green. Through meticulous rehearsals and careful timing of his scenes, Robinson concealed his inability to hear his fellow actors.

Food, and its scarcity, is one of the movie’s focal elements. Even for the wealthy, fresh ingredients (fruit, vegetables and meat) are rare and prohibitively expensive. Strict rationing is a way of life for the masses. Most people subsist off government-issued processed food wafers of questionable nutrition: Soylent Red, Yellow and Green,* pure sustenance, nothing more. When the supply of Soylent is exhausted, resulting in a full-blown riot, Thorn and his fellow cops are called upon to keep the peace. Big trucks equipped with scoops help collect and disperse any lingering members of the crowd. The trucks, and other waste vehicles throughout the film reinforce a recurring theme, how most people are regarded as little more than garbage.

* Fun Fact #3: If you ever wondered what Soylent Green tasted like (And why would you?), according to Fleischer, the green crackers were nothing more than pieces of wood painted green.

Soylent Green may not be the flashiest science fiction film to come out of the 1970s, but it’s among the most thought-provoking. The superb cast, including two golden age actors, Robinson and Cotten, sell the dire circumstances of a world stretched beyond the breaking point. Of the many dystopian movies, this one seems to present the most plausible scenario. We’ve already seen many of the factors in the movie come to fruition, with too many people and not enough resources, widespread corruption, big corporations that are more interested in the bottom line, and elected officials that are paid to look the other way. Sadly, Soylent Green becomes less fiction and more fact with each passing year, a rumination on what could be, as well as a reflection of what already is.