Sunday, August 18, 2019

Scared to Death.. the OTHER Slithis

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!

If you've read other posts of mine, you no doubt deduced that I am a fan of the film Slithis.  Growing up in the mid-west, I loved watching films with a lot of Los Angeles area exterior shots.  They always severed to convince me Southern California was beautiful and laid back.  Every day just life in a Beach Boys song.  You can imagine my surprise when I moved to Southern California and found it hardly relaxed or laid back.  Hearing a car horn in the mid-west was somewhat of a rarity but pretty much just par for the course when driving around Los Angeles or the Inland Empire.  Given the release date for Slithis, it seems likely it was not riding the "Alien" train but was attempting to be more of a "Jaws homage".

However, released in 1980, "Scared to Death" is clearly a response to "Alien" with a Giger inspired creature stalking the dark of both the city streets and the sewers below Los Angeles.  Although it is as enjoyable as "Slithis", "Scared to Death" doesn't boast quite the amount of Los Angeles footage but, still manages to capture a moment in time before the Me Decade got underway in earnest.

The plot of the film centers on a rash of homicides...with a significant amount of what appears to be KY Jelly left behind.  As an aside - I've always wondered what posses a character in a film to so robustly put their fingers in whatever viscous fluids that tend to turn up at murder scenes. Having worked in the "custodial arts" at least twice after grad school I can tell you, emulsified fluids of any kind were more cause of concern than curiosity... and I never considered sticking an ungloved digit in the mess.  There is no mystery for the viewer, we know right away some horrific creature is responsible for the murders, the film is more about investigators and law enforcement coming to grips with the cause of the murders.

Det. Lou Capell (David Moses) desperately wants to bring in former LAPD detective, and now paperback novelist Ted Lonergan (John Stinson) on the case as brutal and bloody murder was right up his alley before departing the force.  But, Police Chief Dennis Warren (Walker Edmiston) wants the best-selling author far from the case.  So... of course Lonergan becomes involved.

There are some slow spots and some obvious padding to the make the run time, but, I've long since learned to ignore these issues in my beloved low-budget films. Sometimes it just a necessity.  Occasionally it is handled brilliantly like the opening of H.G. Lewis's "The Gruesome Twosome" and sometimes handled with a bit less aplomb like the lengthy first murder in "Scared to Death".  But, first time director William Malone can be forgiven these pacing issues.  The only way a director conquers those issues is simply be continuing to work and study so I never find them scene breakers.

"Scared to Death" is a film I've been familiar with since I was a kid.  But, only managed to see recently on Amazon Prime ( well you know me Amazon Prime).  I was really excited to see it up pop up in my recommended movies.  And, I loved something about it that might put off other viewers.  The transfer is just horrible.  The sound drops, the video appears to be dubbed from an old VHS tape and the film itself is just swimming in artifacts (see the phone screen capture).  For an old fart like me it was almost synonymous with the cracks and pops you get from vinyl when you throw the second album by The Rainmakers (or the first from The Hooters) on the old turntable.

So, if you have 93 minutes and are looking for a fun throwback film to clear your palette of the over produced CGI brain candy around today, look up Scared to Death on Amazon Prime and enjoy your trip down memory lane.

Miss you Pops!

Friday, July 5, 2019

The Dead Pit

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!

 If you stop and give it some thought, no matter how the technology changes, somethings about the movie business haven't really changed - namely, the marketing.  It is really a matter of cash, how much can be spent to market a picture and what is the most effective way to make someone remember the name of a film or better yet, in the video store days, make them grab that coveted tape from the shelf or drive to the multiplex and check out the new movie. 

The film Jaws generally got the ball rolling, but, of course, it was Star Wars that made the marketing of a film actually more important than the quality of the film (well, to the extent that is still the case - you could argue William Castle started that in the 50s).  Not so much in the case of Star Wars ( a great film), but, you and I can, no doubt, name two dozen other films where this is the case.  I still have the watches from Burger King used to promote Congo, and aside from amazing performances from Ernie Hudson and Bruce Campbell I couldn't tell you much about the movie... other than I have two watches, still in their boxes, from when Congo was hitting theaters. Hell, what year was that.... 1995?

The watches, nor Ernie Hudson or Bruce Campbell could save Congo.  But, being honest, toys created the Transformers franchise and we all know how the third Batman movie was altered to make it more toy friendly... as were the Star Wars prequels.  Thanks George Lucas.

So, Jake (you're probably asking yourself) what does this have to do with The Dead Pit?  Great question - if you were a horror movie fan in October or November 1989, or even if you just went to the video store in late '89, you might recall a box on the shelf embellished with a series of raised graphics of an evil looking creature raising from a pit to give it a bit of 3D and tactile feel and a small button near the bottom.  When you pressed the button, the eyes of the creature would turn a vile green and flash. I watched dozens of people, who had no interest in renting the film, press the button and make a remark as they walked by.

Me?  Oh shit - I was sold.  I had to see that movie.  The graphic below doesn't really do the cover justice, but, it certainly gives you some idea what the cover looked like... just add flashing green to the eyes.

The point is - me, and thousands of others, rented this film, not because we necessarily cared or knew what was in The Dead Pit, but, the William Castle like marketing with the tape cover sold me and others, and made the movie a profitable venture for both video store and film maker alike.  Other low-budget fare would follow this lead. The two I'm most familiar with is DemonWind and Frankenhooker.  Although, the quote from Bill Murray on the back of Frankenhooker sold me more than the high-pitched "Wanna Date" from the Frankenhooker cover.

I come back to this film every couple of years.  It is certainly a bit of a guilty pleasure, and, honestly I'm thinking more about the first time I rented and saw it then I am generally paying attention to the picture itself these days when it's playing.  Such was the case five weeks ago when I saw it pop up on Amazon Prime... and feeling nostalgic (as I always seem to), I decided to fire it up.  However, this time, perhaps for the first time really, I watched it for the film itself - the pacing, story, plot points.  All the things you watch for when you are a "never was" screenwriter, and honestly, I was sort of impressed by the film.  Impressed enough to begin looking for the DVD or Blu-ray...and of course, I found it (once again from Code Red).

Released by Code Red in June 2008, the commentary is a bit dated.  In fact, two of the participants have since died, which always makes listening to the commentary on older discs bitter sweet. But, one thing came through on the commentary.  In fact, one thing always comes through on my favorite commentaries - the sense of camaraderie and struggle.  By the time Brett Leonard did the commentary, he had directed big budget features with Pierce Brosnan and Denzel Washington, but, in that recording room, looking at the film with the people who had helped make it, you can feel that sense of awe and wonder he had in the first place.  That Mickey and Judy, "Hey Kids, lets put on a show" enthusiasm that steers so many people into the film industry.

 The plot if The Dead Pit is not a spectacularly new or brilliant one.  To some extent, it is a mad scientist story not unlike the ones we have been watching for decades.  However, what comes through in the viewing, and the commentary, is the awareness the story may not have been cutting new ground, but, the desire for it to still evoke a feeling of genuine dread, and provide a creepy good time for the people who did pick this gem up in the late '80s. 

I must note, Cheryl Lawson, portraying the female lead of Jane Doe, nails her performance.  And the same can be said for the entire cast - some of them financially vested in the picture and some simply volunteers who wanted to help "put on the show." 

I never made movies (and likely never will).  I don't know a lot of horror fans excepts as followers (or people I follow) on Twitter and so, the genuine love and respect filmmakers, especially of smaller genre pictures, have for the time they spent with the people that helped make the movies resonates very deeply with me.  I don't have that... and I really want that kind of sincere fellowship with creative people. Maybe some day.

And, the commentary also drives home the point that, whether you're making The Dead Pit, or Mystic Pizza, if you are running on a tight budget and with little to no sleep, you are learning the craft of film making the way it was, ultimately, meant to be learned. By doing it.

Anyway, I don't mean to be a shill for Code Red, but, I am certainly happy I picked up the disc...11 years later.  But, even you don't pick up the physical media, order a pizza, grab a six pack and invite some friends over and spend some time enjoying The Dead Pit on your streaming platform of choice.

Miss you Pops.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Strange Beauty of - The Strangeness

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!

Many of us remember the joy of wandering into a Mom and Pop video store on a Saturday night looking for those wonderful, obscure jewels. Sure, those days are gone and I miss them.  But, I'd being lying if I didn't admit that from time to time, perusing the films recommended to me through the "all knowing algorithms" of Amazon has served to be a replacement for that feeling of finding buried treasure in crowded aisles of the local video store.

Such was the case earlier this week.  After a long day at work, I decided to crack open a beer and see what I could uncover on my Firestick.  I must have scrolled through my options for 20 minutes and then, just as I was about to throw in the towel and just watch another RiffTrax...there it was...

The film is centered around an aging abandoned mine.  A mine that has more than its fair share of documented deaths.  To ensure the proper level of tension, the film opens with a teaser that is well done and sets the mood nicely. Afterward, a group of explorers is hired by Myron Hemmings (portrayed by Rolf Theison).  Writers Chris Huntley and Melanie Anne Phillips put together a grand set of characters to send into a cave...and be picked off one by one by some unknown force as the crew delve deeper and deeper.

The sincere and earnest nature of the film had me completely taken in.  And although, while I was viewing it, I could tell it had many of the telltale signs of a low budget production, I couldn't help but marvel at how well the entire film was executed.  So, as the end credits rolled, I begin a bit of digging to find out more about the film.

One thing I found out was that in August 2009, distributor Code Red released a special edition DVD and Blu-ray disk.  Still intoxicated by the film, I ordered it right away.  And while I would have been perfectly happy to just have this amazing film on tangible media - what I got was so much more.

What I learned from the commentary and interviews was not only enlightening but provided enough encouragement to me that I felt the need to fire up the blog again after a year and a half hiatus. I've been fortunate to listen to a significant number of great DVD commentaries.  But, the one provided by Code Red was exceptional because it provided a glimpse not only at the true camaraderie of the filmmakers but also the hard work they all contributed to make the film.

If you read any of the essays I've written, it is patently clear that I suspend disbelief with reckless abandon once opening credits begin.  But, the set pieces in the film drew me in and I was stunned when I learned how much of the film was made.  And even better, director Melanie Anne Phillips goes in to amazing technical detail about both the shooting and the looping of the film.  And the old fart in me could only think about how little those making digital movies know about the struggles of the generation prior to them. It is the struggles of filmmakers 30 and 40 years ago that make feel the need to "defend bad movies" (although they aren't bad at all).  Inside of me I feel the need to make people aware of how much hard work went into making a film just two generations ago - even if the film was destined for the drive-in circuit.

So, even though the video store might be gone - we are very fortunate to have companies like Code Red, Vinegar Syndrome and Severin to restore these classics and provide them with the respect they richly deserve.

Over the years, I've had a chance to meet some of my favorite filmmakers and tell them how much I've appreciated their efforts.  I hope, someday, to meet the inspiring artists responsible for this film and tell them personally how amazing it is and how their craftsmanship shines through in every frame.

The world needs more filmmakers like them...

By the way, I'm not being paid or put up to by Code Red, but, their catalog is amazing and I'd order every disk if I ever win the lotter.  Be sure to check them out at Code Red

Likewise, if you appreciate under appreciated or obscure cinema do check out Severin Films 
or Vinegar Syndrome