Thursday, December 31, 2015

Horror High (1974)

          A no-nonsense fright flick so derivative and simple-minded that it’s charming in a goofy kind of way, Horror High transposes the central gimmick of Robert Louis Stevenson’s deathless 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into an adolescent milieu—a victimized nerd uses chemicals to transform himself into a monster, and then he goes on a killing spree to eliminate his tormentors. Predictable subplots include the nerd’s relationship with a pretty girl whom he’s initially too shy to ask on a date, and the efforts of a police detective to catch the killer. As in many low-budget horror pictures, logic is not spoken here. Obvious clues connect the deaths to the protagonist, and yet nobody puts the pieces together until the very end of the story. Officials leave the school open despite the presence of a murderer who is systematically eliminating faculty members and other employees. You get the idea. Horror High is the type of picture that requires the viewer to deactivate cognitive-reasoning abilities and simply go with the ridiculous flow.
          That being the case, Horror High is probably only palatable for fans of old-fashioned monster pictures, because the narrative and visual signifiers—archetypal characters, familiar situations, gruesome murders, shadowy cinematography, wild Dutch angles—all emerge from the same genre soup as, say, old Universal Studios creature features and 1950s drive-in distractions. In other words, the fact that there’s nothing even remotely special about Horror High works in its favor, because the picture delivers the same comfort-food sensations that have satisfied viewers’ animal brains for decades. (Example: The monster takes out an abusive gym coach by stomping the man to death while wearing sneakers with metal cleats.)
          Most of the actors are nobodies who render forgettable work, though Austin Stoker, later to achieve cult fame by starring in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), plays the policeman investigating the nerd’s bloody handiwork. And while the exuberant rock music during the finale adds a fun little charge, many elements are decidedly substandard; for instance, the monster makeup that gangly leading man Pat Cardi wears during his rampages is so unimpressive that director Larry N. Stouffer barely ever shows the makeup. Wise move.

Horror High: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Love Thrill Murders (1971)

Originally titled Sweet Savior and later given the more appropriately sensationalistic moniker The Love Thrill Murders, this tacky drama/thriller essentially retells a version of the Charles Manson story as softcore porn, with the added insult of implying that Manson’s victims were asking for trouble by embracing a swinger lifestyle. Former 1950s heartthrob Troy Donahue stars as Moon, leader of a small cult mostly comprising nubile young women. After several innocuous adventures, Moon leads his gang to a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, where the cultists have a sex party with rich people. Then Moon orders his followers to murder the rich people, and the killers escape justice. Suffice to say, The Love Thrill Murders is neither shocking nor suspenseful, given the parallels to familiar real-life events. Instead of tension, the movie offers an abundance of bad taste. The opening scene features Moon initiating a new member via some pagan ritual that climaxes with Moon mounting the young woman in front of his congregation. Moon does a number on his followers’ minds by claiming that we’re all one person, so having sex with anyone is like having sex with Moon—hence the “comic” scene of a shapely cultist servicing a small-time dealer so he’ll give Moon a discount on dope. Upon the arrival of Moon’s group at the party house, one of the rich folks exclaims, “Oh, the freaks are here!” (The movie’s best line.) During the party scene, an over-the-top gay character cross-dresses in order to seduce a male cultist, leading to an extended conversation about sexual-reassignment surgery. Huh? In the film’s trashy nadir, the same compliant cultist who serviced the dealer gives an epic dance performance complete with fully nude cartwheels and handstands—all of which complements such other party-scene vignettes as the endless lesbian sex scene and the strange bit of a cultist licking a statue of a cobra. If The Love Thrill Murders was supposed to be about anything besides titillation, themes got lost in the shuffle of amateurish acting, bargain-basement filmmaking, gratuitous nudity, and silly Manson allusions. As for leading man Donahue, he cuts an interesting figure with his Jesus-trip beard and long hair, but he comes across more like the egotistical leader of a second-rate rock band than a messianic sociopath.

The Love Thrill Murders: LAME

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Miracle Worker (1979)

          In a clever bit of stunt casting, the producers of The Miracle Worker, a made-for-TV remake of the celebrated 1962 film, hired Patty Duke to play the leading role of Annie Sullivan, the heroic real-life teacher who taught blind and deaf child Hellen Keller to communicate in the 1880s. Duke, of course, first gained fame by portraying Keller on Broadway in 1959 and then by reprising the role opposite Anne Bancroft (as Sullivan) in the aforementioned 1962 film. Duke won a Tony for the play, an Oscar for the movie, and an Emmy for this telefilm. All three of these versions of The Miracle Worker were written by William Gibson, who extrapolated the material from Keller’s autobiography. Gibson presents Sullivan’s work with Keller as a psychological duel, so the story provides fantastic opportunities for actors—Sullivan and Keller battle mentally and physically as the teacher tries to break through the student’s fear. And if Duke’s work as Sullivan is ultimately more pedestrian than her famous childhood performance as Keller, she generates palpable intensity with her telefilm costar, Little House on the Prairie actress Melissa Gilbert.
          The telefilm opens by introducing Sullivan, who was partially cured of blindness during childhood and then devoted her life to teaching the visually impaired. She’s impassioned, strident, and willful. Then the picture introduces the Keller family. Living in a comfortable country house, parents Captain Keller (Charles Siebert) and Kate Keller (Diana Muldaur) treat Helen differently from their other children, resigned to the fact that Helen will never escape the private world of her disabilities. The Kellers hire Sullivan with low expectations, and Sullivan quickly alienates Helen’s parents by accusing them of spoiling Helen. Indeed, Helen gets her way by throwing tantrums. Sullivan pushes back against Helen’s demonstrative behavior, even matching Helen slap for slap when Helen attempts to scare her teacher away with violence. Eventually, Sullivan teaches Helen to use hand movements for communication, the “miracle” of the title.
          Gibson’s narrative is so solid that even the perfunctory nature of TV-movie acting and production values cannot diminish the story’s innate power. It’s moving, if unsurprising, whenever Sullivan makes progress with Helen, although the novelty of seeing Duke play opposite what amounts to a younger version of herself ultimately adds very little. In fact, Duke alone isn’t what makes this telefilm work, since interplay is the core of The Miracle Worker. Gilbert relies on commitment whenever her technique is insufficient, just as Duke imbues her characterization with intensity. Therefore, this version of The Miracle Worker may be about the work more than the miracle, but that’s good enough for achieving an acceptable level of quality.

The Miracle Worker: GROOVY

Monday, December 28, 2015

Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? (1970)

          Partly an antiwar film reflecting the counterculture perspective and partly a squaresville pro-military picture promulgating Greatest Generation attitudes, the misshapen comedy/drama Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? depicts an explosive conflict between the soldiers occupying a U.S. Army base and the citizens of the hick town neighboring the base. The movie features myriad subplots and several principal characters, so for about the first hour of the film’s running time, it’s hard to tell who or what the story is about. Once things come into focus—or at least as much so as they ever do, which is not a lot—the sum is less than the parts. Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? includes some amusing performances, as well as fine production values and fleeting passages of snappy dialogue, but the script is simultaneously overpopulated and underdeveloped. Interesting ideas fade into the ether, silly tropes rise to the fore, and it all congeals into a kind of cinematic sludge.
          The basic gist is that a career soldier named Officer Michael Nace (Brian Keith) gets tasked with handling community relations between the base and the town. That’s easier said than done, because troublemaking Army personnel including drunken womanizer Sergeant Shannon Gambroni (Tony Curtis) have made enemies of the town’s sadistic top cop, Sheriff Harve (Ernest Borgnine). As the film progresses, tensions between citizens and soldiers grow worse and worse, eventually inspiring Mace to lead an armed assault on the town. The town fights back not just with police but also with a private militia funded and overseen by megalomaniacal idiot Billy Joe Davis (Tom Ewell).
          This short synopsis excludes easily half of the film’s narrative threads, because characters played by Don Ameche, Bradford Dillman, Ivan Dixon, and Suzanne Pleshette—among others—also have significant amounts of screen time. Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came? is such a mess that it’s not worth expressing frustration that certain elements almost work. Borgnine adds another scenery-chewing monster to his gallery of screen villains, and Keith is entertainingly grumpy, but their efforts are stymied by the general formlessness. As Borgnine says in his autobiography, “We had a lot of fun doing it and I got a paycheck, even though it turned out terrible.”

Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?: FUNKY

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Hot Summer in Barefoot County (1974)

Even if one accepts as a thesis that ’70s movies about moonshiners rarely charted new intellectual terrain, Hot Summer in Barefoot County is extraordinarily stupid—so much so that it seems as if the filmmakers forgot their own plot about 20 minutes into the picture. Despite being presented with the incompetent acting, sludgy imagery, and twitchy editing of the worst low-budget junk, the opening of the picture presents an adequate B-movie premise: Moonshiners have gotten the best of local authorities in rural Barefoot County, so a Southern-bred government agent is sent there to work undercover. Yet as soon as the agent arrives, he gets into a car accident and is recovered and nursed to health by a backwoods matriarch and her three sexy daughters. The agent recuperates quickly but then spends all of his time romancing one of the daughters, periodically calling back to the office to claim that he’s making progress even though he barely ever does any investigating. In fact, just about his only crime-fighting activity involves saving his favorite gal from an attempted rape after a bunch of hopped-up rednecks watch her and her sisters skinny-dipping. Yes, this is the sort of picture in which women are largely portrayed as oblivious sex objects, and in one scene the daughters annoy their mama by trying to paint the family’s moonshine still pink as a means of alleviating their boredom. Alas, nothing can alleviate viewers’ boredom while enduring Hot Summer in Barefoot County, which is basically coherent but so plotless that following the story is like trying to grab vapors. Besides the eye candy of shapely women in barely-there costumes, the only quasi-noteworthy element of Hot Summer in Barefoot County is the presence in the cast of actor Jeff MacKay, who later enjoyed a long small-screen career with recurring roles in Black Sheep Squadron; Magnum, P.I.; and JAG.

Hot Summer in Barefoot County: LAME

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Women in Revolt (1971)

          Essentially a prolonged in-joke disguised as feature-length social satire, the Andy Warhol-produced Women in Revolt lampoons the Women’s Liberation movement by using drag queens instead of actual females to portray a group of ladies who rebel against oppressive treatment by men. Chances are this material is endlessly amusing and fascinating for a very specific audience, but the combination of crappy production values, godawful acting, and semi-explicit sexual content ensures that many viewers will opt out quickly—which, given Warhol’s affection for shock value, was undoubtedly part of the point. (Whichever postmodern artist or theorist first put forth the notion that repulsing viewers is a valid aesthetic maneuver gave license to a whole lot of excess.) Many noteworthy veterans of the Warhol scene participated in this project, from director Paul Morrissey to performers Candy Darling, Holly Woodlawn, and Jackie Curtis (all of whom get name-checked in Lou Reeds “Walk on the Wild Side”). Also appearing, mostly without clothing, is future mainstream actor Martin Kove, a long way from his famous role as the sadistic martial-arts coach in The Karate Kid (1984).
          Although Women in Revolt has a threadbare plot, the movie unfolds as a series of very, very long vignettes, some of which are more interesting than others. The bit in which a drag queen sprays deodorant into her male lover’s rectum while he paints the drag queen’s nails is skanky, and the scene of a drag queen trying to conduct a conversation while performing a blowjob is droll in a trashy sort of way. As for the film’s dialogue, here’s a representative sample. During sex, a stud asks a drag queen, “Are you gonna come?” Bored, the drag queen replies, “I think I’m gonna go.” Some sequences were obviously designed to offend, such as the one during which a drag queen recalls being menaced by a dwarf who masturbated so compulsively that the drag queen vomited. Like many of Warhol’s productions, Women in Revolt exists somewhat outside the boundaries of normal critical appraisal—in terms of storytelling and technical execution, it’s absolute garbage, but in terms of capturing the offbeat carnival of Warhol’s ’70s world via attitudinal posturing as well as improvisation that reveals the thought processes of key figures, the movie has some value.

Women in Revolt: FUNKY

Friday, December 25, 2015

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)

The whole concept of so-bad-it’s-good cinema is something of a wormhole. To enter this realm, a movie must be so spectacularly misguided that viewers can see past the onscreen content in order to marvel at the deranged decision-making that brought the flick into existence. On the other side of the wormhole are the true cinematic dregs, movies so inept and pointless that only the most masochistic of viewers can find any pleasure watching them. That brings us to Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, which has more than a few devotees among the Psychotronic set. Watching Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny isn’t like watching, say, an Ed Wood movie, which might feature a conventional plot executed incompetently. Instead, experiencing Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is like watching someone with massive head trauma trying to form sentences—it’s embarrassing and pathetic and sad that director R. Winer and his collaborators put their names on the movie, much less allowed public screenings. Among countless other problems, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is predicated on a bait-and-switch gimmick. The sequence referred to in the title comprises just the first 30 minutes of the movie, and the rest of the picture is a film-within-a-film about the fairy tale of Thumbelina. Worse, the whole thing is basically an advertisement for a low-rent theme park in Florida. When the picture opens, Santa Claus (Jay Clark) finds himself stranded on a beach in Florida with his sleigh because his reindeer fled the Sunshine State’s muggy heat. Huh? Santa calls for help, so local kids enlist various animals—a donkey, a horse, a pig—to pull the sleigh. Finally, the kids recruit Santa’s old buddy, the Ice Cream Bunny, who is portrayed by an adult wearing a creepy rabbit costume and driving a vintage fire truck. Then the movie abruptly shifts to the Thumbelina sequence, which has nothing to do with anything, and at regular intervals, Winer stops the movie dead to show kids enjoying the rides at the Pirate’s World theme park. Winer prudently left filmmaking behind after this disastrous debut, which survives as the ultimate lump of coal in the stocking that is holiday-themed cinema.

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny: SQUARE

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Very Natural Thing (1971)

          On the rare occasions when gay men were portrayed in mainstream movies during the early ’70s, they were generally depicted as freaks, psychopaths, screaming queens, and/or self-loathing basket cases. (Even the groundbreaking 1970 drama The Boys in the Band features abundant histrionics and stereotypes.) Given this context, the burden of representing gay life in a non-sensational manner fell to indie filmmakers constrained to the margins of popular culture because of limited distribution and low budgets. Hence the serviceable drama A Very Natural Thing, which is about a young man’s quest to embrace his sexual identity and to find a partner for a committed relationship. The movie is earnest and sincere and thorough, exploring everything from the pressure that gay men feel to remain closeted while occupying professional spaces to the tensions that arise when one partner wants to swing and the other doesn’t.
          Still, it’s difficult to identify the audience for whom A Very Natural Thing was made. On one level, it seems to aimed at hip gay viewers, what with the matter-of-fact depiction of casual drug use and orgies. Moreover, flourishes including the slow-mo montage of dudes frolicking nude on a beach seem ill-suited for drawing mainstream viewers into the tent of tolerance and understanding. And then there are the elements that give A Very Natural Thing its gentle sociopolitical message. The documentary footage from Gay Pride events. The prologue showing that the leading character began his life in the ultimate straight community—a monastery. The choice of an unthreatening protagonist who would rather settle down than sleep around. If cowriter/director Christopher Larkin endeavored to make a film bridging gay-rights activism and mainstream entertainment, he didn’t achieve his goal, because the picture is too tame to service the first priority and too in-your-face to service the second. (Even viewed today, the sexual content in A Very Natural Thing is quite frank.) Despite the film’s identity crisis, it’s possible to experience the picture as a simple story about the difficulties that plague all human relationships.
          David (Robert Joel) quits being a monk in order to become a public-school teacher and to embrace his sexuality. At a club one night, he meets a lawyer named Mark (Curt Gareth), and they sleep together. David craves a familial bond, and Mark is more into keeping things casual. They find an acceptable balance between their opposing desires for a while, but during a weekend trip to Fire Island, Mark’s enthusiastic participation in an orgy reveals that being with David isn’t enough to satisfy Mark’s hunger for adventure. And so it goes from there. All of this is completely believable and relatable, even if the stilted dialogue and uneven performances prohibit the creation of an immersive illusion. At some points, the movie even starts to feel like an educational piece illustrating the emotional dangers of trying to make things work with an incompatible partner. At the risk of making a backhanded compliment, the fact that A Very Natural Thing slips into the predictable grooves of old-fashioned relationship melodramas might be the highest tribute to Larkin’s efforts; excepting the overtly homoerotic scenes, he manages to make his characters’ journeys as generic as anybody else’s.

A Very Natural Thing: FUNKY

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Hart to Hart (1979)

          Frothy romantic intrigue somewhat the vein of the old Thin Man movies, Hart to Hart was the pilot movie for a series that ran from 1979 to 1984. (Eight reunion movies came afterward, airing from 1993 to 1996.) With former 1950s matinee idol Robert Wagner in the leading role, the Hart to Hart series never aimed for hipness or relevance, instead presenting the lighthearted adventures of jet-setting millionaire and his beautiful wife as they solve crimes for a hobby. Seen today, the pilot movie is creakier than ever, so it’s actually more interesting to note behind-the-scenes trivia than to explore the onscreen content. Two of Wagner’s famous paramours appear in the telefilm. His wife at the time of filming, Natalie Wood, makes a goofy cameo as an actress in a Southern-belle costume, and his future wife, Jill St. John, plays a supporting role. The series was created by novelist Sidney Sheldon, and the pilot was cowritten and directed by the prolific Tom Mankiewicz, who scribed many of James Bond’s ’70s outings and contributed to Superman (1978). Overseeing the whole project were producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, the titans of trash TV in the ’70s and ’80s.
          Anyway, after a friend dies under mysterious circumstances, dashing businessman Jonathan Hart (Wagner) promises the friend’s widow that he will investigate. Clues connect the dead man to a pricey health farm, so Jonathan hits the road in his jaunty sports car. Along the way, he gets into a playful road race with a beautiful redhead, who leaves him in the dust when he gets pulled over by a cop. Jonathan reaches the health farm and encounters the redhead again, so they spar verbally—and yet that night, she slips into his room and his bed. Because, to the surprise of absolutely no one, she’s actually his wife, Jennifer (Stefanie Powers), recently returned from a European trip. The Harts investigate the health farm together, discovering a conspiracy to brainwash rich guests in order to steal their money. Concurrently, Jonathan flirts with yet another beautiful redhead, Sylvia (St. John), ostensibly to find more clues.
          All of this plays out in tedious fashion. The elaborate introduction to Jennifer’s character feels like a cheap attempt at a Hitchcockian flourish, and Mankiewicz’ would-be pithy dialogue is like champagne that’s lost its fizz. As for the leads, they’re both so vacuous that they seem more like gregarious party hosts than actual performers. Meanwhile, supporting players including James Noble, Michael Lerner, Roddy McDowall, Stella Stevens, and Mankiewicz favorite Clifton James play forgettable roles with bloodless professionalism, and future series regular Lionel Stander, who portrays Jonathans gravel-voiced butler, Max, is underused. Judging from the longevity of the franchise, the folks behind Hart to Hart obviously did something right, but it’s hard to determine what that is by watching this thoroughly enervated pilot.

Hart to Hart: FUNKY

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Clones (1973)

A dopey sci-fi thriller with cheap production values, nonsensical plotting, and wooden acting, The Clones unfolds like one long chase periodically interrupted by boring dialogue scenes, all in the service of conveying a silly conspiracy theory about bad guys trying to control the weather. Even the title is something of a misnomer, because until the final scene, only one clone appears. Yes, there are a few laughs to be had at the picture’s expense, particularly when the filmmakers spiral into such idiotic scenes as the finale, which is set at an empty amusement park where the rides apparently operate themselves. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine many viewers slogging through the countless dull scenes simply to enjoy a few moments of stupidity. Lanky actor Michael Greene stars as Dr. Gerald Appleby, a scientist who is introduced fleeing some mysterious underground laboratory because of an impending explosion or meltdown or whatever. Upon returning home, Gerald encounters friends who act as if they saw him during his absence, leading Gerald to the discovery that he’s been cloned. Meanwhile, the villains behind the cloning send two government agents to kill the real Gerald, lest he reveal their secret, only the agents turn out to be laughably incompetent. Give or take a few details, that’s the whole movie. Even though directors Lamar Card and Peter Hunt try to inject a bit of visual style by using fisheye lenses, no amount of cinematic flair could have enlivened the project’s mindless script, especially with Greene giving such a bland leading performance. Even the usually dynamic actor Gregory Sierra, playing one of the agents, falls victim to the project’s bone-headed plotting and sluggish pacing.

The Clones: LAME

Monday, December 21, 2015

Fraternity Row (1977)

          Though it might seem exemplary of two ’70s-cinema trends, 1950s nostalgia and stories about college students running wild, Fraternity Row is actually a grim rumination on the lengths to which some people will go while seeking to join exclusive clubs. Based on a real-life tragedy, the picture tracks the dual narratives of an empathic fraternity “pledgemaster” who seeks to reduce the amount of cruelty inflicted on freshmen, and an idealistic “pledge” who hopes to change the old-fashioned fraternity community from within. The film tries with some success to ease gradually from merriment to seriousness, and the picture’s greatest strength is the participation of Oscar-winning actor Cliff Robertson, who delivers voiceover narration representing the pledgemaster’s adult recollections of a formative experience. Robertson’s elegant, plaintive tones compensate somewhat for the flatness of the film’s direction, the stilted quality of the dialogue, and the weakness of the acting. It’s not exaggerating to say that Robertson’s narration is the one reason the film more or less works, because in every other regard Fraternity Row is well-intentioned but clumsy.
          Set at a fictional American college populated by the children of the country’s elite, Fraternity Row depicts how pledgemaster Rodger (Peter Fox) uses his position to agitate for the abolition of dangerous and humiliating hazing techniques. Yet some of his “brothers,” notably a sociopathic prick nicknamed “Chunk” (Scott Newman), insist that incoming pledges suffer the same treatment they once experienced. Caught between them is bright, handsome, and sensitive Zac (Gregory Harrison), who respects the traditions of the fraternity system even though he shares Rodger’s disdain for barbarism and stupidity.
          Writer Charles Gary Allison and director Thomas J. Tobin explore the grandeur of such rituals as the “pinning” ceremony during which Rodger and his girlfriend publicly declare their commitment to each other, and some scenes depict the joy of youthful michief. Most of the film, however, portrays devotees of the fraternity system as stalwart defenders of the status quo. (Particularly effective is the characterization of a pathetic businessman whose life revolves around his duties as a fraternity sponsor.) Fox and Harrison give sincere performances, though none of the actors escapes the trap of the film’s workmanlike approach, and the ending is unavoidably histrionic. Still, the ache of the narration and the ugliness of the real-life incident from which the film was extrapolated give Fraternity Row a measure of substance.

Fraternity Row: FUNKY

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978)

          Incredibly, the year 1978 birthed not one but two movies about dogs serving supernatural villains, the theatrical feature Dracula’s Dog (also known s Zoltan, The Hound of Dracula) and the made-for-TV thriller Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell. In the telefilm, familiar actors trudge their way through a ridiculous plot, the titular canine accrues an impressive body count, and the whole thing culminates in a low-rent FX sequence that feels like an excerpt from a fever dream. In a too-brief prologue, a Satanist (Martine Beswick) and her accomplices purchase a female German Shepherd from a breeder, then hold a ritual in which Satan is summoned from Hell in the form of a dog to breed with the unfortunate Shepherd. Then the movie introduces businessman Mike Barry (Richard Crenna) and his family—wife Betty (Yvette Mimieux), daughter Bonnie (Kim Richards), and son Charlie (Ike Eisenmann)—in their quiet suburban neighborhood. The family dog is killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident, and soon afterward one of the Satanists (R.G. Armstrong) turns up in the guise of a traveling fruit vendor who just happens to have adorable German Shepherd puppies available for free adoption. Mike’s kids fall in love with one of the pups, so the dog is given the name “Lucky” and welcomed into the Barry home.
          Weird things start happening immediately, and then people start dying in horrific ways after crossing paths with Lucky. Naturally, Mike is the only person to make the connection, because his loved ones fall under Lucky’s unholy spell. Cue the usual drill of Mike saying to people, “I know this sounds crazy, but . . .” The storyline eventually reaches cartoonish levels of absurdity, as demonstrated by the scene in which Mike tries with no success to kill Lucky with a gun, and the bizarre passage during which Mike travels to Mexico (!) to find an ancient wise man (!!) who tattoos a magical pattern on Mike’s hand (!!!). And we haven’t even gotten to the FX stuff yet. As directed by horror veteran Curtis Harrington, Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell isn’t quite as zippy as it sounds, but the sheer silliness of the endeavor guarantees a high kitsch factor. Crenna looks uncomfortable in every scene, like he’s got a charley horse he can’t shake, and it’s a kick to see Eisenmann and Richards—the kids from Disney’s Witch Mountain movies—acting together in a lesser-known project.

Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell: FUNKY

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Essay: On Revisiting the ’70s

             This weekend, longtime fans and newcomers alike will help give the seventh installment of a franchise that began in the 1970s the biggest opening in movie history. Yet somewhat lost in the din of the wall-to-wall coverage surrounding the debut of Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens is a unique coincidence. Another seventh installment of a franchise that began in the 1970s reached theaters during the 2015 holiday season. Although audiences and critics have bestowed quite a bit of love on Creed, a clever revitalization of the Rocky series, I haven’t seen much commentary devoted to the parallels between Creed and The Force Awakens. Nonetheless, these parallels are formidable and meaningful.
            As becomes plain by scanning lists of successful movies from the last few years and/or schedules of upcoming releases, we’re in an unprecedented era of cinematic recycling. The endless sequels. The numberless adaptations of old games, toys, and TV shows. The pointless reboots of cinematic franchises whose corpses aren’t yet cold. It’s all been exhaustively catalogued, and the whole sad spectacle can be summarized by the fact that Marvel and Sony will soon collaborate on a brand-new Spider-Man movie, despite the fact that the (mostly) beloved Spider-Man series starring Tobey Maguire ended just eight years ago, and despite the fact that a middling attempt at rebooting the series with new star Andrew Garfield unspooled in two movies spanning 2012 to 2014. Even without bringing the whole silly “Batfleck” business into the conversation, it’s inarguable that we’ve gone past the saturation point and entered the realm of the ridiculous.
            Still, there’s an interesting difference between rebooting a franchise (which generally seems crass) and simply continuing a storyline (which is fine as long as there’s still gas in the narrative engine). While it’s wonderful that some high-concept movies have been left alone, with no disappointing sequels tarnishing the brand, many popcorn fantasies were designed to introduce universes filled with open-ended story potential.
Among the most striking aspects of Creed and The Force Awakens is that both films combine elements of these seemingly incompatible approaches. They are simultaneously reboots and continuations.
One could argue that the first Rocky (1976) was a self-contained gem for which sequels were superfluous, whereas the first Star Wars (1977) contained a natural ellipsis all but demanding a sequel—the picture’s unforgettable main villain, Darth Vader, survived the climax, representing a plague on the land that our heroes needed to set right before claiming ultimate victory. In that sense, it’s somewhat shocking that we’re still seeing new Rocky movies in 2015, and less so that we’re still seeing new Star Wars movies. (Obviously, commercial success rather than aesthetic necessity is what prompts the creation of sequels, so let’s accept as a given that we’re talking about franchises the public embraced.)
The most noteworthy quality shared by Creed and The Force Awakens is that each essentially remakes the first movie in its respective franchise. In Creed, an underdog boxer gets a chance to prove himself by battling a world champion, thereby facing not only a physical opponent but also the psychological demons that fill him with self-doubt. In The Force Awakens, rebel heroes struggle to destroy a massive weapon that insidious villains can use to control the universe. Creed features a mentor relationship that toggles between antagonism and paternalistic love, as did Rocky. Concurrently, The Force Awakens features a young hero learning to use the Force, the very same supernatural energy field that a young hero learned to use in Star Wars. The synchronicities between the new films and their predecessors are myriad, from familiar music cues to visual references evoking specific scenes from the original movies.
Ryan Coogler, the co-writer and director of Creed, does a more graceful job of balancing nostalgia with originality than J.J. Abrams, the co-writer and director of The Force Awakens, though it must be said that Abrams faced a bigger challenge on every conceivable level.
Expectations for the seventh Rocky film were infinitesimal, because franchise creator/star Sylvester Stallone dimmed the luster of his own creation with too many inconsistent and repetitive sequels. Expectations for the seventh Star Wars film were insanely high. Not only was Abrams tasked with improving on the preceding three Star Wars pictures, which were disappointments creatively even though they made gobs of money, but he was tasked with reintroducing the beloved actors and characters from the original 1977–1983 trilogy—all while finding a way to make Star Wars relevant to audiences numbed by more than a decade of CGI-centric superhero extravaganzas. Whereas Coogler had essentially a blank canvas upon which he could paint a fresh interpretation of the intimately scaled Rocky legend, Abrams was expected to make the biggest movie of all time and withstand the scrutiny of an obsessive and vocal fan base numbering in the millions.
That both men can be proud of their accomplishments is a testament to their creative powers, even if Coogler’s film is superior not just as a cohesive artistic statement but also in ways that are relevant to this conversation about revisiting the ’70s.
First, The Force Awakens. (As Yoda might say, fret not for no spoilers here there are.) The key creative team behind the picture, including new Lucasfilm overlord Kathleen Kennedy, Abrams, and once-and-future Star Wars screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, made one crucial choice that defines The Force Awakens. Although the picture is a direct sequel to Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi (1983), the heroes of the original trilogy are not the actual stars of the new film. Rather, The Force Awakens introduces the fresh faces whom audiences will follow for at least two more films, the already announced Episode VIII and Episode IX. Smart on so many levels. The story of the original characters has been told, the actors playing those characters have reached ages where their believability in action scenes is dubious, and the introduction of new characters is required to generate story material for future trilogies. (Disney, which acquired Lucasfilm a few years ago for $4 billion, has said it plans to make Star Wars movies for so many decades into the future that the fans who saw the original films as children will not live to see the end of the story—yikes.)
Additionally, Abrams and Kasdan have said they wanted to prioritize brevity, given the tiresome bloat of so many modern blockbusters. Hence The Force Awakens’ running time of roughly two and one-quarter hours, versus, say, the absurd three-hour sprawl of The Dark Knight (2008).
Given all of these circumstances, Abrams faced an impossible job. Reintroduce and service the main characters of the original trilogy, without edging them into leading roles. Generate a handful of new characters and make the audience fall in love with them. Provide a rollicking space adventure that reconciles the comparative visual simplicity of the earlier Star Wars films with the sensory-overload expectations of current moviegoers. And keep the whole thing as close to two hours as possible, figuring that something like six to seven minutes will get consumed by end credits. Did he stick the landing? No. The Force Awakens is a problematic film with myriad dead ends, derivative moments, and plot holes.
I elect to focus on the many things the picture does well. By shooting on film instead of digital and by employing a fair amount of practical effects, Abrams approximates the handmade quality of the original trilogy. He also accentuates the most important tropes from the earliest Star Wars films—themes of destiny, family, heroism, loss, and sacrifice. At its best, The Force Awakens recaptures the fun of seeing relatable human beings juxtaposed with a crazy-quilt backdrop of creatures, magic, and spaceships. The picture even achieves that rare goal in a sequel by legitimately deepening the journeys of returning characters.
Most intriguing of all is the movie’s expression of mortality, a theme that’s embedded deep into the DNA of Star Wars. Rather than venture into story terrain that viewers should be able to enjoy for themselves, I’ll tack to Creed because mortality is just as important to that movie, for the same fascinating reasons.
In case you stopped watching Rocky movies a few sequels back, life hasn’t been amazing for the Italian Stallion since 1990, when the series’ first run sputtered out with Rocky V. At the end of that picture, boxer Rocky Balboa (Stallone) was still happily married to shy Adrian (Talia Shire), and he had a decent relationship with his son. Yet when Rocky Balboa (2006) began, Adrian was dead from cancer, and Rocky was estranged from his now fully grown son. He participated in one more boxing match to exorcise his demons, and then he seemed ready to walk into the sunset.
Enter Coogler, the gifted young filmmaker behind Fruitvale Station (2013). He conjured a story about Rocky becoming the trainer for Adonis Creed, son of the champion whom Rocky fought and eventually befriended during the Rocky movies of the ’70s and ’80s. Coogler persuaded Stallone to reprise his role for the first Rocky movie that Stallone did not write, and the first Rocky movie in which Balboa does not fight. Coogler came up with something quite special, because while Creed honors the earlier pictures, it also gets into the problems faced by young black men raised without fathers—to say nothing of mortality.
The Rocky we meet in Creed is a tired old man waiting for death—just like the Han Solo we meet in The Force Awakens is a haunted old man hiding from life, even though he still has a quick wit and a rascally smile. As of this writing, Stallone is 69 and Harrison Ford, who plays Han Solo, is 73. No other versions of these characters would make sense.
But what does it mean when we watch our heroes age? And what does it mean when the inevitability of our own endings is foreshadowed by watching treasured characters face mortality? I think the answers to these questions address the deepest purposes of storytelling. We look to stories for escape from our daily lives, of course, but we also look to stories for guidance. Simple stories about noble heroes overcoming adversity—like the Rocky films—can seem like platitudes when they’re done poorly, and they can seem like inspirational fables when they’re done well. Layered fantasies about metaphorical characters seeking to balance the benevolent and destructive impulses of the human animal—like the Star Wars films—are stupid when they don’t work, transcendent when they do.
The first Rocky is a shameless tearjerker, just as the first Star Wars is a manipulative crowd-pleaser. It’s easy to regard these movies cynically. On the worthiest plane of audience engagement, however, these films strive to eradicate cynicism. Star Wars presents a galaxy in which good people reject selfishness for the benefit of their community. Rocky revolves around an uneducated man who possesses innate wisdom. Recalling Frank Capra’s optimistic movies of the 1930s and 1940s, the first Rocky and the first Star Wars offer homilies about the great things that young people with their lives ahead of them can accomplish.
Creed and The Force Awakens recycle those themes by introducing new characters with endless potential for positive change, and yet Creed and The Force Awakens also acknowledge that yesterday’s heroes are today’s teachers. Rocky Balboa’s role in Creed involves passing along what he’s learned even as circumstances remind him that far fewer days lie ahead than behind. The roles played by the original heroes of Star Wars in The Force Awakens are similar. Time to pass the torch. Or the lightsaber, as the case may be.
As a child of the ’70s, it’s bittersweet for me to realize that Rocky Balboa will never step in the ring again, and that change will always visit the Star Wars galaxy with its usual savage caprice. It is for exactly those reasons that I think both Creed and The Force Awakens are markedly more resonant than the average reboot or relaunch or remake or retread. Creed justifies its existence by treating Rocky Balboa as a living embodiment of his own legacy, and by exploring difficult issues pertaining to race. The Force Awakens, despite its flaws, casts the ugly shadows of loss and regret and time over the jaunty textures of outer-space dogfights and swashbuckling sword duels.
And that’s where these two movies have perhaps their greatest impact. Like children who understand their parents once they have children of their own, fans of these two franchises must face complicated feelings by engaging with Creed and The Force Awakens. At various times in these pictures, sobering truths take center stage: age replacing youth, disappointment supplanting optimism, fatigue usurping vigor. In twilight, what matters is what is left behind. Legacy. For the story that began with Rocky and continues with Creed, what remains is the quaint notion that each individual has value. For the story that began with Star Wars and continues with The Force Awakens, what remains is the modest proposal that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves. As legacies go, you could do a lot worse.
The ’70s are dead. Long live the ’70s.

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

          Baltimore provocateur John Waters got closer to perfecting his signature style with Multiple Maniacs, an extremely low-budget comedy starring the director’s longtime muse, overweight transvestite Divine. Whereas Waters’ best pictures have a strong element of sociopolitical satire, usually by means of presenting criminals and degenerates as outlaw heroes, Multiple Maniacs has a more scattershot approach. The playful notion of transforming perverts into romantic rebels is one element, but the movie also gets into rape, religion, and revenge. At the risk of giving away one of the more outlandish gags, the fact that the picture’s climax involves a giant lobster indicates that Waters wasn’t aspiring to artistic legitimacy when he made Multiple Maniacs; more than any of his other ’70s features, this one feels like a lark that Waters made with his pals for kicks.
          Divine plays Lady Divine, the proprietor of a freak show called “The Cavalcade of Perversions.” Occupying a series of tents in a suburban neighborhood, the show features people who are odd (the woman who fellates a shoe), repulsive (the self-explanatory “Puke Eater”), and socially marginalized (the amorous dudes billed as “actual queers”). Lady Divine uses the show as a means of luring normal people into the tents so she and her accomplices can rob them, but one day she decides to kill spectators instead. This transforms Lady Divine into a fugitive, so Lady Divine and her boyfriend, Mr. David (David Lochary), take separate escape routes.
          Waters spends a lot of time cutting between Lady Divine’s misadventures and Mr. David’s entanglement with a new lover. In Lady Divine’s scenes, the heroine endures two rapes, one of which leads to a religious conversation, complete with visions of Jesus. Eventually, she finds her way back to Mr. David and she learns he’s been unfaithful. Cue the “hell hath no fury” bit. Most of Waters’ beloved tropes are here, including comically upbeat dialogue, gleeful excess, and hopelessly inept actors. Yet poor cinematography, editing, and sound make it difficult for Waters to cast his special camp/trash spell, especially since the story frequently devolves into nonsense. (Remember the lobster?)

Multiple Maniacs: FUNKY

Friday, December 18, 2015

General Idi Amin Dada (1974)

          By the time Barbet Schroeder arrived in Uganda to commence filming this unique documentary, Idi Amin was notorious as one of the world’s most vicious dictators, despite presenting an amiable public persona. A megalomaniac who rose to power through a violent uprising, Amin became infamous not only by disappearing and murdering domestic enemies, but by injecting himself into international politics. Amin’s twisted dispatches simultaneously praised the Holocaust and suggested that Amin was a once-in-a-lifetime diplomat capable of solving problems in the Middle East. (Two years after the film was released, Amin provided refuge for Palestinian radicals who hijacked an Air France plane, then endured considerable humiliation when Israeli commandos raided Uganda and rescued the radicals’ hostages.) Schroeder clearly began this project with an agenda, and whether that agenda comprised the goal of capturing a lunatic on film at the height of his influence or the goal of helping turn world opinion against Amin is beside the point. By any measure, this documentary represents activist filmmaking, even though Amin played a crucial role beyond contributing his outlandish screen presence.
          By Schroeder’s admission, Amin demanded a significant measure of control over the onscreen content, so only heavily censored versions of the film were shown until after Amin was driven out of Uganda in 1978. Seen today, the unexpurgated version of General Idi Amin Dada sketches a portrait that’s as frightening as it is pathetic. Decked out in military garb and sporting an ever-present smile, except when paranoia renders him nervous and sweaty, Amin expounds on his leadership approach with self-aggrandizing zeal, seemingly unaware of how contradictory and insane his remarks will sound to others. (“I know how to teach the Americans.” ‘Israelis are criminals.” “I would welcome Palestinian hijackers.” “I have toured many countries and brought them together as a family.”)
          Amin’s despotic monologues are juxtaposed with facetious spectacles designed by Amin to feed his own fragile ego. He orders citizens and soldiers to mount parades in his honor. He intimidates underlings into losing contests with him, and then he brags about winning. He lectures cabinet members on lacking initiative, and then he makes it clear he expects them to parrot his commands instead of thinking for themselves. In one absurd sequence, he boasts that he has telepathic power over wild animals. Thrilling as it would be to claim that General Idi Amin Dads is a museum piece about the way strongmen once consolidated power, it is in fact still quite relevant, as there’s a direct link from the tyrants of the ancient world to Amin and his contemporaries to the Kim Jong-uns (and, to some degree, the Donald Trumps) of today.

General idi Amin Dada: GROOVY