Sunday, October 15, 2017

Don't give a finger to.....The Giant Claw

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

I guess it is safe to say you work at a pretty cool place when your boss send you a link to a movie that is begging for an essay.  So, as that is the case, it is time for me to shower some love on a much maligned film (although in some cases it is understandable).


After the release of Jaws, there was an endless array of sea faring creature features ranging from Tentacles to Piranha and Up from the Depths.  In fact, I think you could safely say that sub-genre of "Monster" movies continued from 1974 until the summer of 1987 when Jaws 4 The Revenge appeared to finally kill of the trend.  But damn, what a run.  However, due to the dawn of both atomic and space age and the ever growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union the 1950s saw a similar run of monster movies - Them, Tarantula, It, The Terror from Beyond Space, The Deadly Mantis and, of course, Attack of the Crab Monsters (we've all been there amiright?). Among those amazing films is the oft overlooked classic 1957's The Giant Claw.
Now, I'm not obtuse - I genuinely understand why this picture is often derided. The titular beast of the film is, if watched in a particular frame of mind, laughter inducing. But, let's delve a bit deeper shall we?

In the well done opening narration sequence of this Columbia Pictures produced picture, narrated by the director Fred K. Sears, we are reminded of how the world had been utterly altered in only a generation.  The sequence reminds us that even in 1957, the world had grown much smaller and technology and automation where changing the very face of society itself. Of course, the narration leads handily to the first scene of the film as we are introduced to electronics engineer and pilot Mich McAfee (the always great Jeff Morrow) and mathematician Sally Caldwell (the stunning Mara Corday) as they perform radar flight tests in the north pole.

It is during these tests that McAfee first sights the creature and reports a UFO.  However, nothing appeared on the radar.  However, a squadron of jets are scrambled to search for this battleship sized flying anomaly.  During the search a pilot and jet is lost and the military is initially angry with McAfee as they believe the who incident is a ruse - despite the machinations of McAfee otherwise. McAfee and Caldwell are flown back to New York, but, their craft is attacked by a UFO.  In the attack the pilot is killed and McAfee has to crash land the craft.  A French-Canadian farmer sees the crash and brings McAfee and Caldwell along with the deceased pilot to his farm.   Soon it is discovered that other aircraft have gone missing and the military soon have to accept McAfee's assertion that something sinister is flying the skies - and it threatens all mankind.  The last act of the film leads to a climatic battle between man and giant bird over the skies of New York City.

I have been asked a couple times in the past a question that usually boils down to "What is the most distinct difference between b-movies of the past and the current crop of direct to video (or NetFlix) films of today."  My answer is a bit simple but I believe it is generally accurate (in my opinion) and this film demonstrates it very well.  In era without CGI and shower scenes, a film, without regard to budget, had to feature good actors...even great actors.  That is the real selling point of this film.  The cast of actors are so good, their sincerity and commitment to their roles sell the film entirely.  That is why I can enjoy this film and still find some (NOT ALL) of the special effects.....humorous.  And I could say the same about almost all b-movies from the 40s through the mid-70s.  After Jaws, films had to boast at least attempts at great special effects.  They didn't always succeed but, it became a film's selling point in any event.  And if you could throw in a nude scene or two (or three) all the better for the demographics (Corman's Humanoids from the Deep leaps to mind right away - what a great late 70s flick that is).

Now, I'm no prude by any stretch of the imagination...and that goes double when it comes to film. My mantra is and always will be "Art is Art". And if that means a shower scene for no good reason at all well so be it.  My larger point is, without the spectacular work by many of the actors in the these films audiences may very well have walked out on them (or driven out as these were likely part of a drive-in double bill).  Likewise, not every b-movie from the 50s had a cast of great actors (I'm looking at you Robot Monster - but I love you anyway).  But lets face it, as much as I love Charles Band, he's not going to get a Hugh Beaumont level actor to be in an Evil Bong movie...nor does he need to with cheesy SFX and nude shots.  That doesn't mean I don't love me some Evil Bong movies.

If you're remotely familiar with this picture, you're aware the effects were initially slated to be handled by the brilliant Ray Harryhausen (if that is a name unfamiliar to you, stop right now, go to Google and discover his brilliance and artistry), but, time and cost were deemed to be prohibitive. so, with time and money being an issue, a special effects studio in Mexico City which worked on the cheap was hired and created the creature featured in this production. The creature has been ridiculed and reviled essentially non-stop since the picture's1957 release.  I would suggest, however, that is is the sound effects for the creature that have as much to do with the ridicule as the puppet created for the creature itself.  But, in the only handful of times I've seen this picture (last night being probably only my third time in my 50 years) I just keep in mind the budget and other restraints this film had to overcome.  Now days, if Billy Joe Jim Bob wants to make a film about a giant creature, the special effects can be done well and cheap by firing up a laptop.


In any event, the film is available in a number of ways online and I'd encourage you to check it out - even if your goal is just to have a laugh at it.  I still honestly believe you'll find more of the film engrossing than you'll find it funny.  If you have any thoughts or comments, leave them below or feel free to drop me a line at jakebanzai1@gmail.com

Next week I'm going to share some thoughts on writer, director, actor and overall raconteur Kevin Smith.









Miss you pops

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Eaten Alive

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!


Some of the best films I've ever seen are also films I can't watch very often. Off the top of my head Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream comes to mind as does John Cassavetes' greatest film (in my opinion) A Woman Under the Influence (released the same year as Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Both are brilliant...and gut wrenching. Although Gena Rowland (who was Oscar nominated for her performance) and Peter Falk's work in the latter film drag me back at least once a year..and then I take a week or two to recover.  But, that is the thing with art. If you want a comfortable film that is gone from your consciousness five minutes after you've watched it I would suggest a Madea film or perhaps something with David Spade.  Now, before you write me - I'm not suggesting I've not enjoyed me a Tyler Perry film, and, hell, I even have a soft spot for David Spade but I don't think Tyler Perry believes a Madea film is going to affect you on an emotional level for years to come.  And, kinda guessing David Spade forgets what he's done shortly after the check clears (but I could be wrong).
 
I mention this because I made a point of re-watching one of my favorite Tobe Hooper films recently.  One that has gone by a number of titles but when I saw it at the drive-in years ago it was called Eaten Alive. And, because distributors used to plan out their drive-in double bills for maximum effect, I saw it with an equally good and under appreciated English film called Raw Meat ("Mind the Gap!").  I think Hooper's work on Eaten Alive was perhaps his most effective - I mean of his entire career. Certainly this is a topic that is up for debate. Some will suggest that his classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre will always be his Citizen Kane, and if you know me you'll also know that I am in no way maligning one of the greatest American films ever made.


Eaten Alive is the story of a madman named Judd (the utterly brilliant Neville Brand) and his pet Nile crocodile operating the Starlight motel in the Louisiana bayou. As it turns out, Judd is not a people person. The story opens with Buck (portrayed by a boyish Robert Englund) attempting to make a young prostitute named Clara (the late Roberta Collins) do something she doesn't want to do. This leads to Miss Hattie, the madam, portrayed by Mrs. Morticia Adams herself (Carolyn Jones) kicking Clara out.  Clara sets off with a bit of money given her by a kind soul to find a place for the night...and leading her to the Starlight.  Judd, as portrayed by Brand, appears to have some deep seated sexual hangups and knows she is from Miss Hattie's.  This leads him to assault Clara and, in a visceral and disturbing scene, feed her to his croc.  As the story goes on a family arrives portrayed by Hooper stalwart Marylin Burns, William Finley (The Phantom of the Paradise) and their daughter.  Finley's character it appears to be every bit as mad as Judd and is shown in one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the picture.  Rounding out the cast is the father of Clara (Mel Ferrer) and her sister (Crystin Sinclaire) who have been searching for her in an attempt to bring her home.  As the second act winds down we are introduced to the town sheriff played by veteran actor Stuart Whitman.

Despite the indicated location of the film, it was shot entirely on a sound stage at Raleigh Studios, a magnificent studio I had the pleasure of visiting a few years ago but never made it to any of the sound stages.  This was a brilliant move on Hooper's part.  It adds to a claustrophobic feeling of the film.  The perfect lighting and cinematography bring the grime, grit and humidity through the screen.  You almost feel as if you cannot catch your breath...as if the swamp is swallowing you up.

Let me add, when people suggest that Hooper didn't have the chops to direct Poltergeist I would have to direct them to his work with Brand in this picture.  Hooper masterfully leads Brand through madness, cloaked in a home-spun good ol boy persona not dissimilar to people I knew in Malden, MO or Southern Illinois. Honestly, Brand's work in this film was Oscar worthy, but, the Academy then, as it is now, is a club that doesn't necessarily reward talent - but, that's real life I suppose.

It's a hard film to watch - there is no comic relief. No rays of light. No thoughts of escape.  Just a mad man and his croc.

Later this month the New Bev will be showing TCM and Eaten Alive as part of a Hooper tribute.  Currently my intention is to attend.  But, two visceral examples of Hooper's best work back to back might make for a very depressing drive back down the 10.

I watched Eaten Alive on the Shudder option from Amazon.  Although, I do have the special edition 2-disc DVD set arriving soon.  However, there is an extras laden Blu-ray available that was just a bit past my price point.  I cannot encourage people enough to watch this film.  But, have a Madea or David Spade movie on deck afterward.  Eaten Alive is not an easy film to watch - made all the more ominous by the amazing cast (I mean, did Stuart Whitman ever not deliver?).

Also bear in mind this film goes by a number of titles.  I saw it under it original title, but, as you can see below it has had several.  This was not an uncommon thing to do up through the 80s (I saw The Dorm that Dripped Blood under a secondary title of Pranks in the early 80s).  But, it was a standard practice to march a film out through the drive-in circuit annually, but with a different title and perhaps some updated artwork for the ads.


Tobe Hooper really was a one of kind. Brilliant in every way.



















Miss you Pops.  

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Remembering the 1984 Classic Streets of Fire

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!


The 80s, in retrospect, was a decade that provided more than its fair share of "Cult Classics". Films like They Live, Blue Velvet, The 'Burbs, Strange Brew and Heavy Metal pop into my head initially but I'm really just scraping the surface.  Some of the films did better than others at the box office while others floundered and found their cult status later on premium movie channels and video rentals.  That worked out very well for Michael Paré twice.  The first was Eddie and the Cruisers, a film which tanked hard upon its initial release and then became a sensation a year later when the film appeared on HBO. Suddenly you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown band.  In fact, a few years after Eddie in the Cruisers failed at the box office, a sequel was made which also tanked...but could not be salvaged by its appearance on the various movie channels or video tape.  Too bad because, although not as good as the original, its not a bad film and Paré was great as usual.


Meanwhile, Paré went on to star in another film that only found a real audience later, along with a number of great performers like Diane Lane, Willem Dafoe and Bill Paxton, in Streets of Fire.  A film which failed at the box office, and for the life of me, all these years later I do not know why.  It literally had everything an 18 year old male would want in a film - action, music, car chases and a beautiful heroine. Although Dan Hartman's song I can dream about you and its video did get both radio air time and some rotation on MTV, the film floundered and by the end of the summer of 1984 it was only a hazy memory.  Hollywood is full of these sad stories and the stories bounce around my head when I'm in LA - so many great ideas that come to Hollywood to die while another Transformers movie is in the works. It's a logic game you cannot win.

The film, written by Walter Hill and Larry Gross (and directed by Hill) tells the story of a "Rock and Roll Fable". Soldier (mercenary?) Tom Cody(Michael Paré) returns home at the urging of his sister Reva (Deborah Van Valenburgh)...a home that has no name, and looks like a run down factory town from the 1950s.  Reva calls Tom home because his ex-flame, Ellen Aim (Diane Lane), a hometown girl who made good, has been kidnapped by a biker gang called The Bombers, lead by Raven Shaddock (played note perfect by Willem Dafoe). Soon, Cody and  Ellen's manager, Billy Fish (Rick Moranis) come to an agreement and Cody sets out to rescue Ellen.  Along the way he teams up with McCoy (Amy Madigan) to make a late night assault on Torchie's, a bar in the Battery, where Fish used to book bands.

To add heft to an exciting story is the music in this picture.  Two of the best known songs, Nowhere Fast and Tonight is what it means to be young were written for the film by the always brilliant, if not occasionally inconsistent, Jim Steinman.  Although originally slated to be used in the film was Springsteen's Darkness at the edge of town, Springsteen pulled permission to use the song when he found out it would be recorded by other artists. Honestly, this was a lucky break.  The Steinman songs used to replace Springsteen's are far better and add to the "another time another place" feel of the movie.  I think a known song would have detracted from the ambiguity of the time and location.

The film is the direct result of the success of Hill's 48 Hrs. It was the financial success of that picture that made it possible for Hill, Lawrence Gordon and Larry Gross to approach Paramount with what Hill thought would be the perfect film for a teenager saying he wanted to include things he'd enjoyed when he was younger "and which I still have great affection for: custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor." (Streets of Fire Production Notes". MGM Press Kit. 1984).  And he was right - that was pretty much a list he could have pulled from my head in 1984 (or, now for that matter - I'm old not dead).

Despite everything right with the film, it opened on 1 June 1984 to a poor reception at the box office.  In its first weekend in release it only managed to bring in 2.4 million dollars.  In fact, Joel Silver made a joke "Tonight is what it means to be Young? Tonight is what it means to be dead".  Ultimately the picture pulled in roughly 8 million on a 15 million production.  And in the 80s no one really counted on overseas monies to make up a shortfall.  The film was a flop.

I loved it when I saw it that summer - it was like the film had been made entirely for me.  And, as I was the only person in attendance at the theater I watched it in, there really was the impression that was indeed the case.  However, when I saw Eddie and the Cruisers take off after being on cable I held out hope that perhaps the same would happen for Streets of Fire and I'd see more of Tom Cody.


As has often been the case....I was disappointed.

Oddly enough, a 2008 film called Road to Hell is a thing; and the trivia included on IMDB indicates "The film is a spin-ooff of 'Streets of Fire': Michael Pare returns in his role as Tom Cody and Deborah Van Valkenburgh as his sister". I've not seen this film yet (although I will track it down) but Paré is credited only as "Cody" and Van Valkenburgh as "Sister". I'm sure that was as close to skirting the rights to the original production writer Cynthia Curnan and director Albert Pyun (a fave of mine) were willing to come.

Most of the cast of Streets of Fire went on to huge and successful careers however.  Although Paré never fully enjoyed the stardom he still deserves.  Always a great actor in every role. Happily Paré has worked very steadily in both mainstream productions like The Lincoln Lawyer and less mainstream work like those directed by Uwe Boll (I have a real love/hate relationship with his work - don't get me started).  As long as Paré is out there, I still think he'll snag that role that will make him a household name..and an Oscar someday.  And I'll have an insane smile on my face when that happens.

Shout! Factory has recently released a gorgeous Blu-ray edition of this film.  It is stunning and has some interesting extras on it.  Michael Paré returned for interviews but most of the other cast members are sadly absent from the extras.  I'm hopeful they were simply busy because this film should in no way, shape or form be considered a blemish on one's resume - the film was simply ahead of its time.

Check it out if you haven't already - you'll thank me.



If you have any comments you'd like to share feel free below or drop me a line at jakebanzai1@gmail.com.






 

Miss you Pops. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

....a farewell to Tobe Hooper

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

I've re-written this short essay twenty times.  I've really struggled with it because you really only get to say goodbye once.  And for Tobe Hooper I've wanted desperately for it to be perfect.  I've written essays where I go into his amazing filmography and other versions I tried, in almost painful detail, to explain why he was, and always will be, a personal favorite of mine.

And so, weeks after he has left I still struggle to write about the hole his departure left, and because I don't have a billionth of the talent he had, I have to just come to grips with the fact I need to write a note to him to say so long, but, it won't be the one he deserves.

I was a reader of Fangoria magazine from its first issues (which I was I still had) and thanks to Fango I had developed an appreciation for Tobe Hooper almost two years before I managed to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  In fact, the first Hooper films I ever saw were Eaten Alive (some years before I even cared who directed a film) and the Salem's Lot television movie.  It wasn't until a year before Poltergeist came out that TCM screened at my local drive-in.

The anticipation to see a film I'd been reading about for years was intoxicating.  But, when my Dad parked the car just before dusk that night I was a bit nervous.  I wondered, what if I don't think it is as good as everyone says?  A foolish thought in retrospect.

I remember that night vividly.  Not because I'm a sadist and enjoyed watching people suffer but because the film dragged you in and made you live everything that was going on. My Dad and I had watched hundreds of films, and nothing grabbed me by the collar the way TCM did. 


When I heard about The Fun House,  I must have bugged my Dad for weeks before that film opened to make certain he'd take me.  For those of you who have seen it...you know it is brilliant.  And for those of you who haven't yet, stop reading this, find it, watch it and come back to finish the essay.  What a film - atmospheric, claustrophobic, scary as hell.  Sure, as a young genre fan I loved me some Romero and some Carpenter...but, Tobe Hooper was my guy. Somehow I was convinced, when it came to seeing the cockeyed and weird in the world he and I were kindred spirits.


Obviously I was happy for Tobe when I read that he would be directing the Spielberg produced film Poltergeist ...and was hurt when shortly after its release the whispers of "Hooper didn't direct it...Spielberg did" began to crop up.  I always wondered "where did that come from?" The film SCREAMS Hooper.  Perhaps in this chaotic, 24 hours news cycle piece of shit world we live in, Spielberg has come out and made it clear to the world that Hooper directed that picture (which he should have done years ago) and I simply missed it.  If he hasn't, I don't think I care to have much more to do with Steven Spielberg...I'm sure he'll live.

Nostalgia takes over a bit - I saw Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 at what was, looking back, the greatest days of my life.  When I still thought I'd be a writer, do things, love people...be happy.  And you know what happens when I watch those movies now?  They still bring that joy - maybe I could write these crazy stories, do things, love people...be happy. 

But, that feeling passes pretty quickly - usually right after the movie ends.

My oldest is 20 years old.  He doesn't understand when I talk about these things.  And he won't...not for another 30 years when he starts to see his youth die away like I am now. 

In a single year so many of the writers, actors and directors I loved and respected passed away.  There was writing on the wall but I didn't read it.  Then my Dad got sick - that moment you come to the personal realization that everything -everything- you had when you were young is going to leave you no matter how much you kick and scream...and so he did.  When I got home last month from watching some amazing movies at the New Beverly and read that Tobe had died there was sadness...and resignation..and anger. 

My guy was gone.

So Mr. Hooper, all I can say is thank you for everything  - every frame you shot, every word you wrote, spoke or thought, every brilliant second you stomped foot on the Terra - thank you. I am so sorry what I've written does not do you justice.

I'll leave you with a cliche.  But, remember cliches become cliches because there is truth at the core.

Whoever or whatever you love - love it entirely, completely and without ceasing because no matter what you do it will eventually slip away from you. And the only tragedy in that will be having not loved it enough. 

Love it so much you can die without regret.

Love it so much the phrase "should have been" never crosses your mind.

ever











Miss you Pops


Saturday, September 2, 2017

Killdozer and the ABC Movie of the Week

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!


Once upon a time...in the dark ages, there were only three major networks.  The pretentious watched PBS, but, for the most part, Joe Six Pack watched the big three.  This cut throat competition was advantageous to the viewing public because each network fought tooth and nail to garner the ratings required to charge big bucks for advertising.

To some extent, this hasn't changed (at least in regards to ordinary "Television"); Although clearly Amazon, Netflix and Hulu are certainly modifying the very definition of TV.  But, for the sake of this article, I'm not going to focus on the streaming services although I'm sure, in a year or two I'll look back and realize that was a mistake.  When thinking about television, despite having hundreds of channels to watch, it is still controlled by roughly three corporations acting in the stead of the "Networks" of previous decades.  The difference between then and now is not only the number of channels spewing tripe, but, that tripe can migrate from channel to channel so in reality you're often paying to watch the same thing on nine different channels.

What a bargain!

But, in a nation that was less "connected" and weary from Vietnam and Watergate, ABC, CBS and NBC was where the television rested when the family all ended up in the living room for the night's entertainment.  And during this time, ABC on Tuesday or Saturday evenings would broadcast the ABC Movie of the Week.  Films that could be shot for less money and didn't have to fit the standard 90 minutes to two hour convention of theatrical films.  The Movie of the Week provided some truly classic films including Steven Spielberg's first film Duel starring Dennis Weaver which was broadcast on Saturday November 13th 1971.

Also among the storied classics broadcast as a movie of the week was Killdozer which was first broadcast on February 2nd, 1974.  Although I did not see it when it premiered, I caught in a rerun several years later. It is a film that was not forgotten by those who loved it, and thanks to Conan O'Brien, Beavis and Butt-Head, and MST3K, enjoyed quite a revival.

Although the film did not premiere on television until 1974, it was based on a 1944 novella published by the gentleman who co-wrote the teleplay - Theodore Sturgeon.  The film also spawned an issue of Marvel Comics Worlds Unknown #6 under the title The Thing Called...Killdozer. As a quick aside, much like Forrest J Ackerman, Theodore Sturgeon was certainly a character who should never be forgotten for his contributions to literature and also lived an eccentric and fascinating life (people used to do that even before reality television and social media - they did it because that was how they were, not for publicity).

The execution of the film is brilliant.  A crew of six men working construction for an oil company on a small island 200 miles off the coast of Africa (with Valencia, California filling in for the island) must fight for survival when a D9 bulldozer becomes sentient after coming in contact with a metallic like meteor uncovered by the crew; a meteor which landed on the island thousands of years prior.  Once the dozer is in rampage mode, the crew is picked off one by one.

And what a cast this film boasts - Clint Walker,Carl Betz, Neville Brand, James Wainwright, Robert Urich, and James A. Watson Jr.

Each actor in this film provide standout performances - sadly some get less screen time than others because the D9 ends up in death mode.  But, I'm always happy to see Neville Brand (who also starred in one of my favorite Tobe Hooper films) and Robert Urich, who also had the privilege of being the husband of the beautiful Heather Menzies, a wonderful actress I was crushing on pretty badly in the 70s when she was in the short-lived Logan's Run television series (and the film Piranha) with another favorite of mine Donald Moffat.

After existing for years only on YouTube, a DVD release of the film with no extras to speak of can be purchased rather economically on Amazon (as of September 2, 2017). I can't recommend the film enough - it's a well done, wonderfully acted film that hits all the right notes.  It is certainly a sentimental favorite of mine that I meant to write about a year and a half ago (hard to believe all the changes that have taken place in that year in a half though).

As a side note, I mentioned that Neville Brand was also in one of my very favorite Tobe Hooper films (Eaten Alive 1976).  Last Saturday I was sitting in the New Bev reliving my youth while watching Dark Star and The Thing.  Unbeknownst to me, Tobe Hooper was dying not far where I sat.  While I've always respected the work of Craven and Romero...I was and always will be a Tobe Hooper guy and I'm hoping to write a bit about one of the most under appreciated and humble filmmakers of all time next week.  A world without Tobe Hooper is a small sad world indeed.

By the way - feel free to leave a comment below or drop me a line at jakebanzai1@gmail.com.



Saturday, August 26, 2017

Elvira Mistress of the Dark...a glorious classic

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

Years ago, many more than I'd care to admit, one way to add a little spending money to the portfolio of the average 6 to 10 year old was to return soda bottles to the store to get the deposit.  This was in the dark ages, when soda came in glass bottles and the deposit was a method the bottlers used to ensure people returned the bottles for reuse.  This was the method I generally used to purchase copies of Forrest J Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine (Ackerman was truly a national treasure and I hope he is never is forgotten - I know I'll do my best to ensure that doesn't happen).

My dad would throw in any money I was missing because, although I recall stories on the film Bug and an entire issue dedicated to the upcoming (then) remake of King Kong, it also paid homage to the classic films of the 30s through the 50s, and so there was always an article or two Pops was interested in.

Humor me for a moment while I use that to digress into an odd story of my childhood and Famous Monsters of Filmland.

My Dad and I enjoyed the magazine so much that on one occasion, perhaps for my birthday, I don't recall (symptom of being 50 I guess), he said I could buy some back issues.  The last couple of pages of each magazine was generally dedicated to a two or three page ad for ordering back issues.  So, I picked a couple I had missed (we seemed to move around town a lot - never to another city, just different houses in the same town, but, that would throw me off my routine for a bit).  I'm sure once he dropped the order into the mailbox I thought I'd never live long enough to see them arrive.  Strange how I perceived time as a youth.  Nevertheless, at some point they arrived and I'm sure I almost pissed myself opening up the package.

If memory serves, I ran outside, found a corner of the backyard  (one of the houses I lived in had a cool back yard...now its a parking lot for a hospital...) and read them all cover to cover.  On the back of one was a picture of a very dead  Christopher Lee's Dracula with the following words over it - "Dracula died for your sins".  Of course, even at 9 years old and being a pretty dim bulb, I knew it didn't mean anything. I had developed my own religious beliefs (pretty mundane and conventional by today's standards and generally it was just common Midwest Protestant Christianity. Haven't changed much other than I'm not a Protestant anymore).  I had embraced my own set of beliefs based in large part on my attendance of the local Episcopal church and the Billy Graham specials a station out of Kentucky would broadcast.  I did this because my Mother, God rest her soul, was into all kinds of stuff.  Astrology, pyramid power (yeah....that was a thing), meditation, EST, Tarot cards...trust me - all kinds of crazy shit was going on in my house.

So you can imagine my surprise when my mother comes screaming through the house holding up that picture.  Keep in my mind, this was a liberal, religiously fluid individual and she is screaming about "What the hell is this.  What kind of people publish this crap?!  Don't they know kids read this?"  You know...all the stuff you heard a decade later from Tipper Gore.  My Dad and I tried to intervene.  I even testified like I was at my Grandparents small church in Southern Illinois...and I was sincere.  I wasn't just saying it because I didn't want her to destroy a magazine that had an amazing article on The Day of the Triffids.  A bargain was struck, she could rip out the picture, tear it up and throw it away but the magazine would stay mostly in tact.  I recall, as my mother was doing that, looking at my Dad and I know we were both thinking something akin to "Holy shit this lady needs meds."  The irony there is she was no doubt medicated at the time.

In fact, what she should have been worried about was that my hormones kicked in when I was, oh, maybe kindergarten.  Seriously.  And Famous Monster of Filmland would always find a way to have pictures of Vampira, who had been a "Horror Hostess" on a station in the LA area in the 50s (KABC I think but I could be wrong).  To my brain in the early 70s I thought that whole package was HOT.  Admittedly, the tiny waist now just makes my think someone had an eating disorder. But, when I was a kid the only eating disorder I was aware of  was always wanting more to eat.  Nevertheless, this cemented something in my brain which made me keen to that "type" or image I suppose. I've broaden my horizons a bit since then.

So, a decade later when I became familiar with Elvira I went batshit crazy.  I'd never actually seen footage of Vampira (damn those pre-YouTube days) other than her appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space but, I'd seen Elvira on television and rented videos of films she "hosted" and they were brilliant.  Elvira was gorgeous and had a wicked sense of humor.  And once I found out her name was Cassandra Peterson and after some reading I realized she was writing much of the material and so clearly  this was not just some gorgeous lady a company had found and decided to feed lines. No, this was a creation of her own.  In fact, she became so popular that even my small home town had an Elvira knock off who went by the name Misty Brew who had a show on KBSI 23; I can't recall if it was Friday or Saturday nights though.  Misty Brew seems to still be a thing, but, mostly in the Cape Girardeau area I think; appearing at the Cape ComicCon and such - I don't get out that way much anymore (you know the saying "once they've seen the lights of Paris...")

The magazines I read changed in the 80s.  I was a Starlog and Fangoria kind of guy and I also subscribed to a couple of mimeographed fanzines (you know - blogs on paper).  That was how I first heard about the full length movie Elvira Mistress of the Dark. To my shame, I did not see it at the theater - its possible it didn't make it to Cape Girardeau, but, the moment I saw the video tape for rent I cleared my calendar for what turned out to be one of the funniest films, not only of the 80s, but in general.  I watched it again just recently before writing this and its STILL hilarious.

The film, written by Peterson herself along with John Paragon and Sam Egan gets some grief on the interwebs for simply being a retread of Footloose.  I'd like to purchase dictionaries for those whiners and mark the page where "Parody" is defined.  It is a word they should learn...its important.  John Paragon, one of the co-writers who has a small part in the film, might be better known to some as Jambi from Pee-Wee's Playhouse (and some of the other Pee-Wee Herman iterations).  Not since Airplane had I heard such zingers - Example when a letter falls off a theater marquee and lands squarely on Elvira's noggin, Bob the theater manager asks "How's your head" and Elvira responds with "I haven't had any complaints yet."  That line is a serious beer flying out of your nose moment guaranteed.

As the film opens we see Elvira doing one of the things she does best - hosting a horror film on television, much to the chagrin of the news team and others at the station. In disgust over sexual advances from the new station owner, Elvira quits to begin her singing career in Las Vegas - but The Flamingo wants 50K as a deposit in good faith.

Where will Elvira come up with 50K - well, luckily an Aunt she didn't know she had  recently passed away.  All Elvira has to do is go to Falwell, Massachusetts (a brilliant joke in and of itself) and collect her inheritance.  However, when she arrives she is beyond a fish out of water in the small, conservative New England town.  To make matters worse, her great Uncle wants something that was bequeathed to her and for evil purposes.  If I were to simply lists some of the hilarious scenes in this film the list would be longer than this blog post.

The cast is stellar - the late Jeff Conaway, Edie McClurg (who always plays frumpy but I secretly thought was hot), Susan Kellermann and William Morgan Sheppard are amazing in this film (but so is the entire cast).

The film is a co-production of Roger Corman's New World Pictures and NBC, so, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at that pitch meeting.  Somehow I have to think there is a movie in that alone...but I could be wrong.

And, I apologize up front, but I have to spray a bit of vitriol at both the Razzies and the most vile website on Earth Rotten Tomatoes.  Elvira (Cassandra Peterson) was nominated for a Razzie as worst actress for this film and I have to wonder - what fucking movie did they watch?  Because she is brilliant in this film.  And of course, it has an unfathomably low score on RT, but, that's a site populated by chronic masturbaters living in their parents basement so they can all screw off.

The film is available to rent on iTunes and Amazon and also on DVD and Blu-ray.  Trust me, you're safe to make the Blu-ray investment - you can't go wrong. Check it out and tell Cassandra Jake sent you!












Miss you pops!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Giant Spider Invasion of 1975

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!


Trailers still play on television.  I recall earlier in the Summer seeing a trailer for the reboot of The Mummy...and feeling entirely justified in realizing this big budget, digital abortion was entirely worth missing.  However, the trailers you'll generally see on TV these days are exclusively for the big budget "blockbusters" that Hollywood is convinced the United States wants despite tepid domestic box office.

But, two generations ago you might catch a trailer for some smaller budget fare.  This is evidenced by a number of the special edition DVDs and Blu-rays out there which often include television and radio spots for films. What changed you ask? (OK...I'm assuming you asked).  Well, film distribution, at least of smaller, mostly genre based films was much different decades ago.  Films were distributed by region - sometimes by the same distributor or sometimes by a company that was responsible for a single region (like St. Louis to Memphis for instance).  The upside of this was a film could save money for advertising by not having a 1000 copies of the print made.  For a regional release a film might only need 50 prints. Of course, that changed pretty quickly, only five years after the release of The Giant Spider Invasion, Paramount Pictures picked up the distribution rights for Friday the 13th and at one point it was on 1,100 screens (in the years before the multiplex was a regular fixture).

In October of 1975 I was staying up way too late with my Dad (which was pretty much what I did - I don't recall sleeping a great deal as a child...I've been making up for that for the last couple of years). I don't remember what we were watching, but, I do recall when the trailer for The Giant Spider Invasion appeared on the television.  He and I were both pretty stoked...I mean it had our two favorite things - 1. Giant Spiders and 2. Invasions.  At the end of the commercial the announcer said "starting Friday at a Drive-in or theater near you!"  I assumed it would open at the good old Star-Vue drive-in but was surprised when my Dad checked the paper and found it was playing at the Rialto - the same place I would see Friday the 13th five years later.

Because I watched way too much television with my Dad, I noticed the film had both of my favorite Hales starring in it.  Alan Hale (who was Alan Hale Jr. until his Dad passed) best known for playing The Skipper on Gilligan's Island (my Dad wrote a script for Gilligan's Island that the studio was interested in but, the show got canceled...) and Barbara Hale, better known as Della Street on Perry Mason.  So, with a pedigree like that the film couldn't fail.

Directed by Bill Rebane, this is actually the 2nd Rebane picture I've written about.  The first was a short essay on a film that was a bit hard to defend called Monster A-go-go.  The screenplay for The Giant Spider Invasion was written by Richard L. Huff and Robert Easton.  Easton also stars in the film as Kester and he wrote some of the best lines for himself.  For instance, there is a revival in town during the film and Kester uses this as an excuse to sneak out on the wife and enjoy the womanly ways of a local waitress.  When he returns home, just before we are treated to the arrival of the spiders indicated in the title, Kester and his wife Ev have the following classic exchange.

Ev: "I'm sorry I missed the sermon. What was it about?"
Kester: "Sin."
Ev: "What did the minister say about it?"
Kester: "He was against it." 

Giant spiders aside, the film hit a nerve for me because of the characters in the film.  My grandparents had a farm in Southern Illinois and I'd spend a great deal of time there when I was a kid and I realized the people in the film were spot on representations of the people I'd met in a small town called Elkville (which had no elk to the best of my knowledge) and may explain my general disdain for Southern Illinois to this day.

In addition to the local residents is the Revival Preacher featured in this picture - his fire and brimstone sermons punctuate some of the events of the film.  It is a trope that has been used in other films as well but, its done nicely in this picture too.  Watching this show even now reminds me of the times I got dragged to church with my grandparents and had to suffer through the endless "Altar Calls" because, you know, salvation of your soul should be based entirely on the psychological warfare which is the mid-west Altar call. 

Over the years I've probably seen this film 20 times, and some of the most shocking moments have nothing to do with the spiders.  For instance, Dr. Vance (Steve Brodie) can't wrap his head around the fact that Dr. Langer (Barbara Hale) is a woman (when he meets her for the first time he asks for her father, husband and brother before she finally explains to him that she is the Dr. Langer he is looking for).  I grew up with hippies (for some better and some worse - growing up with small town hippies was good for stories but not stability) but certainly one thing I picked up from all the hippie vibes is that a woman could be whatever she wanted; hard to grasp there was a time when that actually had to be explained...and so this exchange is always a bit off putting (of course, I'm happy I find it disconcerting and not funny - as I suspect it must have been meant to be).  There are a couple of other instances in the film of the same kind of behavior.  I don't fault the film however.  Film is a reflection of a time...good and bad. If we write off motion pictures, music, television.....history because we don't like something that is represented then we might as well just become a hive mind.

Although as a kid I thought the special effects were amazing, the budget of the picture shows now obviously.  Nevertheless, there are some truly effective moments in this film despite the small budget.  The first death caused by the huge spider is still creepy, I always respect the hell out of a picture that can overcome constraints and deliver the goods.  Of course, the exceptional cast is also responsible.

And I'll address the elephant in the room - I understand there have been legal issues regarding this film and some bad blood between various people and Bill Rebane.  Let me just say, I own, and have rewatched a number of times, the Retromedia Entertainment version of this picture - the company founded by Fred Olen Ray.  And, you'll never find a negative word written by me about Fred Olen Ray...ever.  So, I believe that should clear that up.

As I mentioned, I watched the RME DVD with Son of Ghoul's intro, but, I believe this film is available on Amazon's Shudder streaming service as well.  Do yourself a favor, grab a Schlitz and enjoy 1975 all over again.






Miss you Pops