Saturday, July 29, 2017

Remembering Dark Star...and a well lived childhood.

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!

My Dad had the patience of a saint.  Throughout the 70s and 80s, to the best of my knowledge, my Dad made certain I saw every movie I wanted to see.  Many times he wanted to see them too, and off to the drive-in we'd go.  But, Pops did not have a desk job.  He spent more than his fair share of hours on his feet.  Despite that, I knew there were a few times when all he wanted to do was sit on the couch and relax.  But, if I wandered around the house butt hurt because I wanted to get to the drive-in, about 30 minutes before the box office opened, we would be in the car heading out to see a couple of flicks that he may not have really wanted to see.

But, I never fully realized how often I put that man out until the "Midnight" movie craze arrived in Cape (which generally started at 11:00 instead of midnight).  Although I was able to drag him to see Bakshi's Wizards and Romero's Dawn of the Dead, sometimes he just didn't have a late night at the movies in him and he would agree to drive me down to the theater to see the late night picture.  This, I now see in retrospect, had to have been a somewhat onerous endeavor for him, because, although it only took about 3 minutes to drive from one end of my hometown to another, I'd starting pacing around the house, anxious to get there, around 10:10.  So, although he knew it wasn't necessary, he'd drop me off well before anyone was going to be in the box office.  This meant, he really couldn't just go home and go to bed, because, of course, he had to make the drive back to pick me up; meaning, it was roughly one in the morning before he could call it a night.

And yet, he'd do it. He never said a word or suggested in any way that it was the epic pain in his ass that it must have been.  He'd make sure I had enough extra to get a soda while I was there and when I'd wander out of the Esquire theater in the middle of the night, I'd see his car  down the block in front of Beard's Sporting Goods. There he would be half asleep, and me, having had a Coke in the middle of the night would regale him with the plot of the movie, the cool parts and funny lines and although all he really wanted was to get some sleep, he'd ask a question about this, or wonder why it ended the way it did.  But, I think, only once did I explain the movie so vividly that I think I saw in his eyes that he had wished he had gone instead of staying home watching Star Trek hoping to stay awake so I wouldn't have to walk across Cape at 1:00 AM. 

That movie was Dark Star.

In the late 70s, unless you lived in St. Louis, or certainly LA, where there existed the small art or revival houses which would show the older flicks, you couldn't say with any certainty that you would see a specific movie...ever, because the idea of renting a movie (or streaming it) was beyond fantasy. But, thanks to all the single issue science fiction magazines that arrived in the wake of Star Wars, trying to emulate the success of Starlog magazine, I had learned of the existence of the movie Dark Star in a fairly lengthy article in one of these magazines (magazines I owned because, in addition to getting me to the movies, Pops always made certain to feed my habit by letting me pick up these magazines from time to time when I'd go with him to the supermarket to get the weeks groceries).  But, in spite of knowing ABOUT the film, I couldn't say with any confidence that I might actually get to SEE the film.  But, then in the middle of December 1979, I opened the Bulletin Journal newspaper to find Dark Star was going to play that Saturday night.  I was so excited about seeing it that, to this day, I have the newspaper ad in a scrapbook.

Part of the appeal of the movie to me was Dan O'Bannon. When I read the original article about the film, it was mentioned that O'Bannon was born and raised in St. Louis, MO.  Just two hours up I-55.  This was fascinating to me because, up to that time, I just assumed I had no choice but to stay in my little town, but, then I thought, well, if O'Bannon could go to film school then I could too. Although, in the end it was ultimately me who kept me out of film school - something I wish I could change.  But, as a young kid at the time I was just trying to wrap my head around the prospect that a somewhat "local" guy could make movies. And not just make movies, but make them with John Carpenter.  It felt like a game changer!

So, because I was pacing the house like an expectant Father, my Dad drove me down to the Esquire with my two bucks for a seat and a couple of bucks for a drink. I was standing outside the theater at 10:15 PM on a bitterly cold December night.  The manager looked like a student from the nearby University and she saw me shivering, with a glob of snot running down my nose no doubt, opened the door and told me to wait inside "before you freeze to death."  I forget what the movie that was still playing, but, she took my money and said I could go ahead  inside and watch the rest of the film, which was very kind of her.  But, I told her I was okay to wait in the lobby where I was mesmerized by the lobby cards for The Prize Fighter, a beautiful little film that proved that Tim Conway worked just as well with Don Knotts as he did with Harvey Korman.  I'd start from the left and head to the right and then start all over again.  I seem to recall the film had already played in Cape and wondering why the cards were still up, but, loved looking at them in any event.

It's hard to believe the lobby card is gone now, but, with Facebook and Twitter (and the screens showing the coming attractions all over the multiplexes now, the lobby card is as dead as the Dodo).  In the lobby there must have been a dozen cards for the Tim Conway / Don Knotts film- Sorry, that was a pretty random thought.


Finally, the film that had started at 9:00 ended and a dozen people walked out.  I bought my soda and walked into the auditorium, which seemed huge.  I grabbed my seat three or four rows from the front as the half stoned, half drunk college kids rolled in.  I remember a guy and his date sat down next to me and he asked if I knew what this movie "was even about" and though I had not seen it yet, I  feel I gave him a pretty accurate and concise synopsis.

And began.  The video transmission and the successful launch of Bomb 19 - I was hooked.  Hypnotized as the strains of the song "Benson, Arizona" flooded through the auditorium.  And not only was I mesmerized, but the entire crowed of rowdy college kids fell silent (except for the brutally funny parts). 

Before we knew it, it was...

It wasn't until years later that I learned the whole story about the making of Dark Star...and once I knew all the trials and tribulations endured to make the movie, I loved it all the more.  Because, it wasn't just a movie.  It wasn't just this "thing" cobbled together to make a simple profit and then forgotten.  This was a struggle to make the antithesis of Kubrick's 2001.  This was the blood, sweat and tears, not only of Carpenter and O'Bannon, but also amazing people like Ron Cobb and Brian Narelle.  The story of astronauts, sent light years from Earth to destroy unstable planets to pave the way for future colonization was art!

And - Art is Art!

As I've grown older, my love of this film has never waned. Sure, I love Buckaroo Banzai, The Blues Brothers and a thousand other movies.  But, when I first planted roots in Southern California.  When the die was cast, and Missouri was no longer home, the first film I put in my VCR was Dark Star.  I needed to book end my travels.  Although, remarkably, I was not happy to be in Southern California when I first arrived.  And, I wasted almost two decades in an endless endeavor to get back to a place that, although it was still on the map, did not exist in any recognizable form to me.  But, on that afternoon when the boxes were off the truck, and there appeared to be no turning back, I watched Dark Star and felt a kinship with Sgt. Pinback (beautifully portrayed by O'Bannon himself).  A man who was not meant to be on the ship, but for a tragic case of mistaken identity, Fuel Specialist Bill Froug ends up in the place of Sgt. Pinback and is now trapped in space, light years from home with his attempts to make things around the ship a little brighter mostly frowned upon and his true name all but forgotten.  Oh yeah - I could relate to Pinback.

I'm uncertain why we know so little about Cpl. Boiler, but, throughout the film, in between some of the most scathing gallows humor, we experience the quiet madness of Commander Doolittle, Pinback and Talby.  Each suffering the insanity of their isolation in different and very distinct ways.  The film is a comedy, but, almost 40 years since the first time I saw the film, the ending still takes a toll on me. I'm not certain I've ever seen the last shot of this film without choking up. This masterpiece is now as much a part of me as my arms or legs.

And, just like the excitement I felt, when I first saw the newspaper ad 38 years ago in a Cape Girardeau newspaper, the same thrill shot threw me when the New Bev posted the August schedule and I saw this....

So, I don't know if God himself could keep me from seeing this film again on the big screen for the first time since I was an awkward, nervous kid wondering what the world would ultimately hold.  I won't get to take Pops to see a film I still think he regretted not going to that night...but when the strains of "Benson, Arizona" once again fill the auditorium, I will think of the years and miles traveled from the first time I heard that song until I reached my current destination. What a ride it's been - I guess I can't complain.  If you are in the LA area, I can't encourage you enough to go.  And if you do go...I'll be the weepy guy in the third row.

A million suns shine down
But I see only one
When I think I'm over you
I find I've just begun
The years move faster than the days
There's no warmth in the light
How I miss those desert skies
Your cool touch in the night

Thanks Dad...and thank you Dan O'Bannon for teaching us all to do what we have to do, and fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.  You're both missed.

Miss you Pops.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

C.H.U.D. -- Remembering John Heard

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!

 With the sudden passing of John Heard this weekend, I felt compelled to write a few lines about one of the finest American actors to have graced us with his talent.

My first memory of John Heard was staying up late one night to watch a film called Heart Beat.  Heard played the writer Jack Kerouac.  It was my first exposure to Kerouac.  Up to that point, my general understanding of the Beat generation had been Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis and Dick Miller's Walter Paisley in Corman's Bucket of Blood.  I remember Heard's Kerouac sitting a hallway with a huge roll of paper typing furiously because the words had to come out.  I recall wanting that kind of passion.  The need to do something so intensely the world around me simply ceased to exist.  Sadly, I have to pluck the words out of my head; I have a passion for words although the always seem to fail me.

Not long after that, my Dad took the fam to see the remake of Cat People.  Now, that movie made an indelible impression on me for about ten thousand reasons.  But, among those reasons was the fine work of John Heard.  I didn't see one of his finest films, Cutter's Way, however, until about a year after I saw the film C.H.U.D. But, what a stunning performance (and not just from Heard...the entire cast of Cutter's Way was brilliant).

Then, one night I saw this trailer and knew I had to see this film.

And see it I did - and, it was a trip to the movies I'll not soon forget.  I'm sure those of you who read this blog with any regularity understand I cut certain films a lot of slack.  But, when I was in high school, my ability to be critical of any film was, let us say, under developed.  So, when I sat my butt down in the theater with a couple of chums (I seem to recall John and Rich, but, in my old age I hate to admit there may have been others and I've simply forgotten) I was "all in" for this movie.

As you may have discerned, living in the bowels of New York City are...Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. In this mix we have Heard's character - George Cooper, who was once one of the top fashion photographers in the business and has turned his back on the money to pursue something of more value...documenting the homeless of New York City, called "Undergrounders" by many.  However, a large number of these people are starting to go missing and this concerns A.J. "The Reverend" Shepherd, played wonderfully by Daniel Stern, who runs a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.

Now...from the opening scene of this movie I was all in (like I do).  My buddies...not so much.  And, like an early 80s version of MST3K, they began riffing (brilliantly I might add) on the movie...loudly.  Of course, it wasn't like the theater was crowed but 1.  I actually wanted to watch the movie, and 2. they were being loud enough that I became a bit concerned, since the other members of the audience were not as entertained by the riffs as John and Rich were, that we were going to get tossed from the movie.  In that instance, it was going to be highly unlikely I was going to get to see the film that week because I had used the better part of my allowance that week for the new copy of I was was mostly broke by the time we got to the movies.

I seem to recall changing seats so, in the event they got kicked out, I could still see the end of the picture (because walking home was not a big deal - Cape Girardeau was a moderately safe town then.  Even the part I lived in.  Although I recall being told by a former classmate the street West End Blvd only existed so "my kind of people" knew what part of town to stay in.  Yeah - a lot of respect for that town *wink*.

So, although, as I've mentioned, I recall a number of brilliant Heard performances, that night in my youth, it was his performance in C.H.U.D. that has resonated.

But, I have to mention the stellar cast of this film.  Including Heard, it stars Daniel Stern and features John Goodman, Jay Thomas, Sam McMurray and even has former Home Improvement star Patricia Richardson.  I mean, let that sink in for a moment.

Of course, he went on to be a staple in film and television and was always spot on.  I won't lie though, I was distressed to see him in a Sharknado picture.  But, even in the flick, he was all in. John Heard never balked.

I have to mention, if you have the early 2000s DVD, not only should you watch the movie, but, be certain to listen to the commentary.  One of the funniest, and clearly alcohol
fueled commentaries I've ever listened to.

I'm sad to see him go...and I'm sadder still to have lived long enough to watch much of my youth die away.  It puts things in perspective and reminds you that the clock is ticking.  It always has been, but, sometimes you just need a reminder.

In any event - thank you Mr. Heard for all your work - thank you for teaching me about Jack Kerouac and about cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers.  And - thanks to my friends for making that trip to the theater one I'll always remember (mostly).

Miss you Pops

An ode to....True Stories

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!

There is possibly no time in your life where music becomes an integral part of who you are and how you see the world than in high school - at least if you are a child of the 80s.  Perhaps that has changed, but, my gut suggests it remains the same.  As you make the transition from child to adult (although that appears to take a bit longer than it did in my generation), it is hard to understand, grasp or accept certain situations because, more often than not, they are new to you. In two short years it was possible to go from making sure you had plans for Friday night to wondering what you might do with your life and what kind of person do you want to be.  It can be heady and painful road, with guaranteed failures and moments that will define you and make you smile in your car driving to work for decades to follow.

In my youth, mostly from grade school to middle school, I was almost strictly a soundtrack guy.  Pretty much anything John Williams did, the Popeye soundtrack and Rock and Roll High School got some pretty heavy play in my basement room on Locust street.  And though that gave me exposure to the Ramones, I never sought out an entire album of theirs, I was happy to just relive the movie listening to the soundtrack.  My dad even hooked me up with the Animal House and Meatballs soundtracks.

My brother, I realize now, took an entirely different path.  Not surprising.  He was the "sports guy" so soundtracks didn't hold quite the appeal to him as they did me.  As I got into high school, my chums got me listening to Rush and Pink Floyd, with a smattering of Yes and Blue Oyster Cult thrown in for good measure.  Don't get me wrong - I still listen to them all these years on and I'll always be happy that my first concert was Rush...and that I did the same thing for my son a generation later.  I just don't listen religiously like I used to when I was trying harder to keep my geek cred.  If Rush comes on one of the LA stations, its 50/50 I'm going to listen.  If the song suits my mood it stays on, but, maybe I'm gonna look for a Bob Seger song.  That doesn't mean I didn't get chills when Tom Sawyer started playing half-way through the new trailer for Ready Player One or that a huge grin didn't splay across my face when Rush played a part in the same book.  I just have to be in a specific mood for my dose of falsetto.

What I didn't realize until near the end of college, and then more so each and every day.  Is the music I don't turn off, without regard to mood, is what my brother used to listen to.  If not for him, I'd never know of The Rainmakers, Todd Rundgren, Billy Falcon, Steve Earle and finally...The Talking Heads (although I grew to love The Hooters all on my own).  When I die and they look at the music that has probably now been implanted in a chip in my head, that is the music they will find.  So, I was over joyed when looking through a St. Louis paper one day in 1986 and saw that David Byrne of the Talking Heads had written and directed a film.  However, it never made its way to my small part of the I waited for the video release.

It was worth it.

There are many films I can rewatch, but, as it turns out, the ones I enjoy the most tend to be musicals.  Rocky Horror, Shock Treatment, The Wall, The Apple, Popeye, and of course, The Blues Brothers.  But, as great as these films are (and I've suggested and always will that The Blues Brothers is simply one of the most theologically sound films ever made - fact) the one I will always find a nuance that escaped me before is True Stories.

The film takes place in the fictional town of Virgil, Texas as it prepares a celebration of "Special-ness" to celebrate the the 150th, or sesquicentennial, of the founding of the Republic of Texas.  As Byrne's unnamed, cowboy hat wearing character takes us throughout the town to introduce us to the residents as they prepare for the event.  Through these interactions, as simple as some of them are (and the film switches from documentary style to fourth-wall breaking comedic insight), we get to know not only a truly Texas cast of characters, but, a microcosm of the United States at the top of its game.  Virtually all is grand for the residents of Virgil - in 1986, there was no thought of what could possible go wrong (with the exception of nuclear holocaust).  We were winning.

What a cast this film has.  While many people my age think of John Goodman from Rosanne, I've always remembered him from this film where he portrays a simple man looking for love named Louis Fyne - and his performance at the celebration is a noteworthy and titular moment in this film - I'll try to find a video and include it below.

But, my favorite moment in the film is not a musical number at all and comes from someone who was lost to us far too soon.  Spalding Gray plays civic leader (and Futurist) Earl Culver.  I'd grown quite fond of Gray from watching his one-man shows.  He was sometimes maddening, always insightful, occasionally anger inducing and poignantly honest.  A combination that led to his premature demise.  Depressing to remember we live in a world devoid now of not only Gray, but, Bukowski, Williams and Bowie.

Playing Culver's wife is the beautiful Annie McEnroe, who survived making The Howling 2: Your Sister is a werewolf (I do so love that film) and went on to steal this film and make an impression in the film Beetlejuice.  I've wonder now all these years, how she didn't become a household name.  A wonderful actress and a stunning beauty.

I didn't write this small essay because this picture needs defending.  While not everyone's cup o' tea, the film is certainly NOT reviled. I think most people over time have grown to see the nuanced genius of the film; and, a quick Google search certainly suggests I'm the late comer when it writing a small ode to this movie.

It reminds me of better times when I had my whole life ahead of me and was convinced I would do great things.  I would be a writer and save the world..or at least be a History professor and save the country.  Neither panned out that way - sometimes because of choices I made, sometimes because of choices made for me (don't let anyone plan your life...and never apologize to them for not letting them.  It's too late for still have a chance!).  Maybe the biggest take away of this film for me is that I never thanked my brother for his insanely kick-ass taste in music.  I rather doubt it is what he listens to now...but, that's okay - I took over for him.

Miss you Pops

Friday, July 21, 2017

The best film you think you hate...Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation

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 written, and attempted to find the good (even the great) in almost 50 films to date.  Some films have been harder than others, I won't lie.  Defending  Monster A-go-go was, by far, the hardest, and, no doubt, the least successful defense.  Raw Force needs no's cinema perfection.  But, I don't think there has been a film I've written to defend with such fervor as the film discussed in this essay - Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.  Stick with me on this while I attempt to explain why this very under appreciated film may just the the gem in the rough you've been looking for.  If you've watched in the past, I can't encourage you enough to give it another view.

Just to be a completest, I feel like a bit of a history of the TCM franchise is needed...but I'll be brief.  Of course, the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not only a horror classic, but, quite simply, an irreplaceable moment in American cinematic history.  Few films have so successfully captured sheer terror on film the way the original TCM did.  I count myself fortunate enough to have seen it in it's natural environment of the drive-in theater.  A life changing moment as important in the development of my interest in cinema as Halloween, Star Wars and Baghdad Cafe.  13 years later, Tobe Hooper managed to entirely out do himself in the biting horror comedy sequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre part 2.  Different in feel and tenor, the film managed to be every bit as frightening, but, with a satirical wit as an under current that amplified the humanity of the film in such a way that has allowed it to resonate as both a horror film and a cultural commentary ever since.  And, I still believe it is one of Dennis Hopper's greatest roles.  The third film in the series, while poorly received by critics and fans alike, deserves more credit than has often been bestowed upon it.  While not as unnerving or horrifying as the two previous films, it is an earnest and sincere attempt to capture the feel of the first film.

The next film deviates substantially from what had been done previously.  Written and directed by Kim Henkel, co-creator of the original film, and produced under several titles including The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film takes a hard, sharp turn from the previous installments.  And, despite what many think, I believe this deviation makes for a brilliant, caustic, satire that has flown under the radar for far too long.  To drive this point home, I will be going into a bit more plot detail than I generally do in my essays. And, consider yourself warned, as I write in a stream of conscience manner, there may be, and probably will be, spoilers ahead.  Before I continue, I know there are several cuts of the film available.  I'm writing this based on my early 2000s DVD version which came with no extras at all.  I'm certain other cuts of the film are equally as good or better. But, the version I've re-watched again tonight is stellar as well; even with the poor transfer and off-putting screen format.

As the film opens we are introduced to Jenny (Rene Zellweger) as she prepares for prom night.  While she prepares, her stepfather enters the room. His sexual advances are disgusting and angering. The scene is jarring and painful.  As both a father and human the scene is hard to watch.  I can't put myself in the characters shoes, but, I can recall a time in my youth when you couldn't always see that escape was closer than you thought.  The pain in Zellweger's eyes perfectly captures the angst and pain of Jenny as her high school point of view seems a bit bleak.

However, she is saved by the bell as her prom date Sean (John Harrison) arrives. The standard prom tradition of photos takes place, but, with each flash of the bulb comes the haunting spent flashbulb sound from the original film reminding us these photos are the last happy moments for this couple.  Life and death intend to interfere with the a night that is often considered the apex, the zenith, of high school life.  Perhaps more so than the graduation itself.

As prom night gets under way, Barry and Heather, friends (or former friends) of Sean and Jenny end up in a fight and Heather takes Barry's car.  Barry convinces her to stop, only to find out Sean and Jenny are in the backseat.

The die is cast.

What happens from this point on is both horrific and haunting. But, I have to point out a few specific things which I believe entirely make this the best film you think you hate.

1. Female empowerment.  Prior to the meta Scream series, with the possible exception of Cameron's Aliens, the female protagonist may survive, but, almost by simple happenstance.  Yes, I know the Friday the 13th you're thinking of right now, but, let's face general the female lead survived by sheer luck.  Not so in this film. Zellweger's Jenny is plucky, strong, smart and, in the end, not taking any shit from anyone. Whether it has been the perversions of her  stepfathers, the endless grief in high school, her tenacity and grit..or a combo of all of them, the heroine of this film is playing for keeps.  She says and does the things you wish everyone would do in a horror film, including not simply rolling over and taking it.

2. Yin and Yang.  Henkle brilliantly includes Jenny's absolute opposite in the character of Darla.  While Jenny has appeared outwardly weak her entire life, she is, in the end, the superior in strength.  Outside the insanity of WE (Matthew McConaughey), Darla appears strong, but, is ultimately weak.  That these two woman have, through happenstance or fate, ended up orbiting the world of the Slaughter family is a brilliant touch by Henkel.

3. Rothman.  When reading others views on this film, perhaps nothing divides more than the appearance of Rothman.  Is he a member of the Illuminati, an agent of the Federal government, a psycho yet urbane billionaire?  Is he all of these?  Clearly this is not the family of the first two films (although research indicates Henkel intended this to be the "true" sequel).  Stop and think about the last 25 to 30 years.  Several wars fought for little more than political gain, a President elected just prior to this films release who skated into office on the memory of a President murdered a generation before, the perpetual dumbing down of a country from asinine MTV shows to Mili Vanili, Jeffery Dahmer, OJ Simpson, the list goes on - how far fetched can a family of murderous cannibals sponsored by the government or the Illuminati really be?  In the end, Rothman asks Jenny if she would like to go to the hospital or the police station?  A bold statement from a man who knows he has absolutely nothing to fear from the events that have transpired.

That should frighten the shit out of everyone. 

Don't get me wrong. I take off the rose colored glasses often enough in regards to this film to understand some flaws in logic that could be seen from space.  But, what I'm asking is for you to ignore those and watch this for the bigger picture. Many of you hate this film based on the title.  This film, while giving obvious "shout outs" to the original is entirely unlike the original (or even the almost superior sequel).  That is alright.

Watch this film again.  You'll find it is the best film you've been told to hate.

Miss you Pops.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Nothing says 80s like....Terrorvision

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!

Recently I was having a discussion about movies (like you do) and the question was asked, "What is the most 80s movie ever?"  As the discussion proceeded, the topic morphed into not what is the movie most associated with the 80s (Back to the Future clearly) but what film most clearly captures the glorious, lightening in a bottle madness that WAS the 80s. Less than Zero, Flashdance, even Road House?   I, as usual, had a different take.  If I had to pick a film I felt most perfectly exemplified life in the United States in, say, 1986, the only film that comes to mind is the Empire Pictures classic TerrorVision.

TerrorVision? What is that?  I'm glad you asked.  Unless you are already a fan of the genius of Charles Band and his Empire Pictures and Full Moon.

It is a film, if made today, would probably be called SmartphoneVision (maybe FacebookVision?  Hell, I don't know now).  The film is centered around the very wealthy, guady Putterman household as we watch Stan Putterman (played perfectly by Gerrit Graham) putting in a new satellite system.  Now, what might amaze younger readers, if there are any, is before Dish and DirecTV there were large, full sized dishes that used to reside in the backyard.  And they were infinitely better than the satellite television we have today.  
You literally moved the dish to pick up different broadcasts meaning you could watch things live that might not be broadcast in your time zone for another hour or two.  In any event, for reasons I'm uncertain of today, those systems gave way to the cable lite version of satellite television we have today.

In quick order we are introduced to the entire family of Mom - Raquel Putterman (the ever beautiful Mary Woronov),  the oldest daughter Suzy (Diane Franklin), the little brother Sherman (Chad Allen), and World War II vet Grandpa (wonderfully done by the late Bert Remsen).  Also hanging around and drinking Mr. Putterman's Heineken's is Satellite salesman Norton (played by Sonny Carl Davis, who is a stalwart of Charles Band pictures).

During the opening scene on the planet Plutron, we see somewhat humanoid looking creature who works for the sanitation department disposing of some alien waste. However, there appears to be a malfunction and the alien is headed directly towards Earth...and guess whose satellite picks him up?

Now, reading that plot you may think to yourself, other than its production date, what does this picture have to do with the 80s.  Stay with me.

A couple of History degrees got me two things!  First, I'm pretty good at Trivial Pursuit (just not the sports stuff because I'm not interested in watching grown people play kids games for butt loads of cash...seem crazy on its face).  Secondly, and tragically, you develop a sense of the cause and effect of history.  Especially US History.  Why US History?  Because we are the only industrialized nation whose concept of history ends with who got a rose in the last season of The Bachelor. Seriously, ask the regular American who was President after Lincoln was killed...they'll have NO idea.  Trust me.  Ask them the name of the first President to be impeached.  They'll say Nixon because they used to watch Futurama or something, but that would be wrong.  Ask them about the Warren Court (or the Warren Commission...blank stare).  Ask them who Conor McGregor is getting ready to'll get an earful.

Tragic.  Simply tragic....

Expanding on that, I think it is safe to say that, from the 1940s onward, every decade has been the American public's response to the decade prior.  So, the 1940s battle against Fascism became the battle against Communism  (and against Uncle Joe, who we were allies with...and who killed many more people than Hitler could have ever dreamed of).  The youth of the 60s began to rebel against the standards of the 50s, so we got the Civil Rights movement, The Doors, Woodstock, Anti-War protests, Free Love...and rampant VD.  The 70s got a bit confused because, as the Vietnam war drew to a close, open wounds wouldn't heal and then Watergate topped it off.  However, after a decade (actually a bit more) of Americans wringing their hand and feeling bad about being Americans, the Iranian hostage crisis and the failed rescue...and the cringe worthy Malaise Speech, Americans took a right turn into not just Patriotism (because I hope the citizens of every country...and I mean every country, are patriots.  France, Nepal, Bolivia - LOVE YOUR COUNTRY!) but an orgy of consumerism, constant, chronic entertainment, sexual freedom (not saying it was good or bad, just that it was) topped off by the feeling that after a couple of rough decades...hell, we deserved it good.  And, by God, we reveled in it.

Everything I just mentioned in the paragraph above is exemplified by the film TerrorVision.  Including the confusion of it all.  The swinging parents bring up a porn channel on the new TV set up and the Valley Girl sister, hanging out with a metal head named O.D. (played by the great Jonathan Gries) throws her hand over her little brother's eyes.  An interesting dynamic from the Madonna wannabe.    The parents are swingers, but,, when Mr. Putterman realizes the husband in the couple they brought home wants to have sex with him...he's aghast.  His reaction alone is very 80s - He's like "Here's my thing and that is okay, but, his thing NO WAY."

Don't misunderstand me.  I grew up in the 80s.  I loved the 80s.  Some of the best times of my life took place in that decade..things I could never replicate if I had all the money and resources on Earth (not that these old bones could stay awake for it).  But, sometimes when you love something, you can see the faults without judgement or anger.  Sometimes, things were just what they were for better or worse.  You can hate it, love it or learn from it, it's your call.  And sometimes, when there is judgement, it's more out of disappointment than anger.  No one wants their memories to let them down.

I hope you'll pardon the history lesson...I'm getting old, like the Grandpa in TerrorVision, and, prone to the ramblings of an old fart. I'm old enough now to have lost many of the people who meant the most to me...for various reasons, many self-inflicted.  Watching TerrorVision (about once a year now), I'm reminded of when my whole life lay ahead of me.  Did I get to where I wanted to be or where I expected?  No...not yet.  And that is okay...the game continues.

Miss you Pops

Nothing but respect for....The Ghastly Love of Johnny X

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 remember distinctly the first time I ran across Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K).  I was in Grad school (in my beloved hometown of Cape Girardeau.  See I said something nice about it kinda...geez) and after finishing up some school work I decided I needed a break and flipped on Comedy Central.  There they were - Joel and Bots.  I have to admit, I don't recall what film they were riffing on but I remember my sides hurt from laughing and it was a great respite from the Russian history I was  painfully making my way through.

MST3K would become a Saturday night staple.  Take out Chinese food from Chang's, MST3K then round it off with Ren and Stimpy.  Good times in my quaint, ever pleasant home town.  I enjoyed how Joel, Mike and the bots would pick apart the movies, all the while, giving some films, like Manos or Mitchell an entirely new life and cult status as they encouraged fans to "circulate the tapes!"

I only mention this because, although I feel compelled to defend, or at the very least, promote some films that are considered by the cinematic culturally elite to be poorly made, I've had my laughs at "bad" movies too.  I understand that Monster-a-go-go can in no reasonable way be considered "good" but, I am drawn to defending it because it managed to get made and released during an era where that wasn't shooting something on your phone and uploading it to YouTube.

And speaking of YouTube, a YouTube channel I do enjoy very much is Brandon Tenold's channel called Brandon's Cult Movie Reviews.  The videos are nicely done, he has a great sense of humor ("Do you know what it feels like to fist your own dick hole?" made coffee come out of my nose) and, generally, he is on point.  For instance, in his video about Raw Force he mentions (many times) the fact that Warrior's Island, which is forbidden, has a travel brochure.  He is so correct - WTF?  Do I love that film?  More than I love my own life (although that may not be saying much).

I noticed he had uploaded a video about a favorite of mine, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X.  One thing I enjoy about his videos - they are not brief.  Some of his videos run about 1/3 the run time of the movie itself.  In any event, as he is closing out the video, after giving this amazing film about 20 minutes of grief, he circles back and praises the film as the flawed (and it is) but sometimes successful (and it is) homage to 50's Sci-Fi movies.  And that is where I'd like to pick up because although he was sincere at the end of his video, I feel like additional praise for this film is warranted.

So here goes.

Fact - the film is listed as the lowest grossing film of 2012.  Boxoffice Mojo reported "The Ghastly Love of Johnny X earned just $117 — yes, that’s $117, with no zeroes behind it — playing in just one theater starting October 26."  Okay, sure.  No promotion, a cast of mostly unknowns, and a limited demographic.  Not surprising.  But, if you are reading this blog you can probably easily name two dozen films that were not successful in their initial release but have gone on to become cult classics in the time since.  Anyway - just wanted to throw that out there in the spirit of full disclosure.

 This film marks the final film performance of one of my favorite actors.  An actor who should be well known to any 80s film geeks because of his work with both Joe Dante and Weird Al Yankovic - Kevin McCarthy.  McCarthy, as you might recall, first came to prominence as the lead protagonist in the original, Red Scare based Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Because of his age, the budget, or his right to have had a huge ego, he called of just phoned in his performance as the Grand Inquisitor.  But, that was not his style and he does a great job in this film.  There is certainly no shame to be had in this being his last performance.

This film also features two other favorites of mine - Reggie Bannister and Will Keenan.  Bannister, of course, has spent much of his film career fighting of the Tall Man and his minions, and if you've ever had the chance to speak with at a con or special event, you'll no doubt realize he is not only a great actor but one of the most down to Earth people you'll ever meet.  In fact, I had the chance to talk about meeting Bannister when I spoke at my Dad's memorial - I kid you not.

And, of course, if you are familiar with Troma films at all, you'll know Will Keenan from such classics as Terror Firmer and Tromeo and Juliet.  Both brilliant films.  But, Keenan is not only a great actor, but a writer, producer and even a casting director.  His performance in this film is nothing short of brilliant.  He is able to provide both a sadness and a rage in each and every scene of the film.

Need another reason - two words.  Paul Williams.  His Cousin Quilty character is one for the ages.  His comment on space aliens attempting to impregnate him?  "Enjoyable, but fruitless".

This film was a labor of love by writer and director Paul Bunnell.  It literally took years to complete the film.  After running out of funds, shooting was suspended for six years before production could begin again.  If Michael Bay could show that kind of dedication to a film....  Additionally, it was the last film to be shot on Kodak Plus-X Black and White film.  This is no digital wonder, this film was shot on some of the last film of its type ever manufactured.  Again, I can't say enough about that degree of dedication.

I find the story of the film a moving tribute to both 50s Sci-Fi, musicals and morality plays.  Not every song in this film hits the sweet spot - but no musical does.  I don't enjoy "Damn it, Janet" that much from Rocky Horror Picture Show (although I do think every song in the sequel is great). La La Land is a great flick, but not every number is something I'm humming on my way to work.

In any event - Track down the Ghastly Love of Johnny X and check out Brandon Tenold's YouTube channel.  You'll be glad you did in both cases.

Miss you Pops

Friday, July 7, 2017

Raw Force is Raw Beauty

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!

Seriously, if forced to pick a single year of the greatest cinema known to mankind, it was clearly 1982.  In just a sampling of that year, it gave us ...

The Thing
Blade Runner
Fast Times at Ridgemont  High
The Road Warrior 

Raw Force (AKA Kung Fu Cannibals).

Some films absolutely must be seen at a drive-in with a beat up print, mosquitoes endless buzzing your limbs and the sound of crickets in the background...this is one of those films.

Before I move on, it just hit me - this is the third Cameron Mitchell film I've written about in the same number of weeks.  His film legacy is somewhat amazing to me.  Whether the film is The Toolbox Murders, The Demon..or Raw Force, Mitchell never skimped. Few actors have the ability to lose themselves to entirely to a role - even if he was just playing himself.  When I see how much he put into a performance I'm reminded of the old adage  "there are no small parts, only small actors."

That cool May evening in 1982 was quite a double-bill.  The first film was a an interesting Samantha Eggar and Stuart Whitman vehicle, released theatrically the summer prior, entitled Demonoid.   I don't believe I've watched that film since, and not because it was a bad film - I seem to recall the film was quite good.  The reason is simple - Raw Force was just so much better.  If I want to look back on that evening, it's always Raw Force I'm going to go with.

Where to start with this work of art... Well, we begin with a low rent Hitler look alike played by an actor named Ralph Lombardi.  Currently this film is his only credit on IMDB here, but, I'm certain he shares a small scene as a lounge singer with R. Lee Ermey in the 1978 classic Up From the Depths.  

And seriously, if anyone knows whatever became of Ralph, please contact me. He is just brilliant in this picture and I would love to know more about him..but the Google machine is not telling me much.  I suppose it is safe to assume Ralph Lombardi may have been a "stage" name.
In any event, Lombardi plays a heavy by the name of Speer.  Speer and his "gang" kidnap beautiful young woman and ship them off to Warrior's Island, an island looked over by evil monks who tend the graves of disgraced warriors.  What do they use the woman'll have to watch the movie.  However, in exchange for the ladies, Speer is paid in massive amounts of jade, which he then sells for a very sizable profit.

And we cut to Los Angeles, where three gents from the Burbank Karate club decide to take a six week cruise..and to visit Warrior's Island.  Cameron Mitchell is the captain of the ship, Harry Dodds.  The ship is owned by Hazel Buck played note perfect by Hope Holiday, who would star again with Mitchell two years later in the film Killpoint which I wrote about recently.  The film is a textbook perfect exploitation film.  It succeeds at every level and it was a 15 year old boy's dream film when I saw it initially.

I've mentioned some of the cast - but, let me do a bit more name dropping!

Jewel Sheppard
Camille Keaton
Carl Anthony (who starred in TWO Ed Wood, Jr. films) 
Jillian Kesner who was married to one of my favorite cinematographers, Gary Graver (both sadly deceased) and
Vic Diaz whose filmography is like a Grindhouse must see list.

In the late 1990s, I paid a premium for a copy of this film on VHS and watched only rarely as to not wear the tape further.  Then, a boxed set of DVDs called The Grindhouse Experience was released that had a copy of Raw Force...which was literally just a dub of a video tape.  In fact, near the end the tracking goes wonky before they fix it.

This is how I assumed I'd always see this film.  And I wasn't entirely disappointed.  I know, that sounds odd, but, the poor quality served to remind of the first time I'd seen the film a lifetime ago.   

And then...

Vinegar Syndrome released one of the most beautifully done Blu-ray discs I've ever seen.  I was blown away by the actual quality of the film.  Gone was the fuzzy soundtrack and the smeared, runny colors.  Suddenly, I fell in love with the film for an entirely different was friggin' gorgeous.  It was, simply put, one of the best investments I've made - and I own Blu-rays of Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Drive-in Massacre.  I can't commend Vinegar Syndrome enough for the work they did in bringing the world a whole different vision of one of the greatest movies ever set to celluloid.

Perhaps, with this version of the film being seen by an entirely new generation this final shot will come true at last...  And again, if anyone knows whatever became of Ralph Lombardi...let me know!!

Miss you Pops. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Love Letter

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 lived in Southern California a long time. I've lived here this long because I work here.  And, as would be the case no matter where you live, sometimes work precludes you doing all the things you'd like to.  For some time now, I've been meaning to see more of the Los Angeles area since, if traffic behaves, it is really just a short drive up the freeway. Last weekend, the planets aligned and a most amazing thing happened - I had the opportunity to see one of my favorite films (The Last Starfighter in 35mm) somewhere I could easily see myself calling my home away from home - New Beverly Cinema.

Few film houses have the amazing history of The New Bev.  Originally a candy store, a night club and even a porno theater (which must have been odd in an area of synagogues in the mostly Jewish neighborhood). In 2007, Quentin Tarantino curated a month's worth of films which began his involvement with the theater.  He now owns the venue and surrounding property and continues to schedule the films (many from his own collection).

Those of you who know me, also know I don't always drink the Tarantino Kool-Aid.  Is the guy talented - absolutely.  But so is Fred Olen Ray.  However, one thing I have always supported about Tarantino is there are few greater film lovers or historians than he.  His voluminous knowledge of Grindhouse cinema knows no equal (although David Del Valle is certainly in the running).  And what QT has done with the New Bev is a bold and shining example of his love for film. Few artists of his caliber put their money where their mouth is to the degree Tarantino has.

What I've written does not do this venue justice - check out its history here and their website here.

This leads me to The Last Starfighter.

I'm batshit crazy happy to no longer live in the Midwest.  Spending my weekends checking for ticks and drinking Naty Ice is (no longer) my idea of a good time.  I spent way too much time pretending to like things I didn't care about to impress people I shouldn't have been around because that is just what you do in the Midwest.  Endless hours of trying to impress "the cool kids".  Now, I can like what I like without apology..and generally can find a gathering or convention of like minded people on any given weekend. That said, I don't mean to suggest I hated everything that happened two time zones away and 30 years ago.  Thanks mostly to my Dad, I managed to rack up an endless number of great memories - The Last Starfighter is one of them.  One evening in the summer of '84 Pops noticed they were doing a sneak preview of The Last Starfighter, so, as he was wont to do, he knocked on my bedroom door and informed me that we were going to the movies....and what a movie.  I loved the movie almost immediately as I could entirely relate to the plight of Alex Rogan (Lance Guest).  I loved the movie so much, that a week later I took a date to see the film in Malden or Dexter (can't remember) and she didn't care for me or the movie much...and I didn't even give a shit.  I was just happy to have seen the movie again.

For as long as I can remember I have had the poster for that film hanging on a wall whenever possible (there was some time in a couple of small apartments when it was sadly relegated to a closet).

And seeing the film again, with a crowd of people who loved the film every bit as much as I do was one of the greatest experiences of my life.  No shame to be had at the heartfelt applause at all the right moments

"We're locked into the moon's gravitational pull - what do we do?"

"We die."

And the theater erupted and goosebumps were had.

I can't say enough about what Tarantino has done with New Beverly Cinema...and I can't write enough to tell you not only how amazing The Last Starfighter is...but how amazing it was to see it with that crowd of people.  Sometimes you get a slight glimpse of Heaven...sometimes its called The New Beverly Cinema.

Miss you Pops.