Friday, May 31, 2013
Evil Dead: Ash (the famous Bruce Campbell, in the movie that made his name as a cult actor) and his girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker); along with their friends Scotty (Hal Delrich) and Shelly (Sarah York), and Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss), Ash’s sister, have rented an isolated cabin in the mountains for the weekend. However, there’s something kind of spooky about the place when they arrive. What’s more, there are all sorts of hints that dark force lurks about the area. Unfortunately, Cheryl is the only one who notices these first hints; partly, it’s suggested, because she’s a New Ager and therefore open to these kinds of things; but I suspect that it’s largely due to the fact that she’s officially the fifth wheel, and therefore doesn’t have anything to distract her. In any case, the others don’t put any stock in Cheryl’s concerns; they’re way too focused on their weekend and their significant others.
Of course, Cheryl’s fears are anything but unjustified. That night the boys go into the basement and discover some things left behind by a previous tenant. The two fateful items for our campers are a really disturbing book, and a tape recorder. The kids play the tape, which it turns out was made by an academic translating the book. He identifies it as the Naturon Demonto, the Sumerian Book of the Dead, and says that it includes passages that allow the evil spirits lurking just outside our world to come in and possess the living. Then he proceeds to read the translated passages.
Naturally, this spells the end for our heroes. The tape finishes awakening whatever evil force that academic called to the area, and the campers are possessed and killed one by one. Will any of them be able to survive?
Dead by Dawn: Ash (still Bruce Campbell) and his girlfriend, Linda (this time played by Denise Bixler), go on a getaway together to an isolated cabin in the woods; where it would appear that the rightful owner is not using it. Unfortunately, said rightful owner, Professor Raymond Knowby (John Peakes), was working on the translations to a rediscovered copy of the Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead. When Ash stumbles across the good professor’s copy and plays the tape of his translations, it has the exact same effect as in the first movie. The dark force called up by the book snatches Linda, and then comes back possessing her body to torment Ash. And it’s not just Linda Ash has to deal with, either; the evil power has all sorts of weapons at its disposal from possessed trees to Ash’s right hand developing a mind of its own.
Ash has one tiny sliver of hope, though he doesn’t know it. Professor Knowby’s daughter, Annie (Sarah Berry), is headed back to the cabin with some missing pages from the book. Said pages have what is needed to put the evil back down. Unfortunately, there are the inevitable complications. When Annie arrives to find a bloody stranger in her cabin and her parents missing, you know she’ll draw the wrong conclusions. The stupid redneck couple who she hires to guide her through the woods is going to make things even more difficult. And that’s nothing compared to what her father buried in the cellar…
Compare and Contrast:
Ladies, gentlemen, hermaphrodites, asexuals, and everyone else; I am pleased to announce that this blog has now been up and running for a full three years! Unfortunately, with that landmark comes some very bad news; the tumor in my hand is back yet again. As of this writing I have no clue what’s going to happen; I’m just praying it doesn’t involve any further surgery or loss of body parts. Naturally, I’m doing everything I can to cope with the situation; among other things digging out all my old tumor-coping movies. Among the ones at the very top of that list is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.
The aspect of the movie that puts it in that spot is one particular scene. In that scene, the Evil possesses Ash’s right hand, which then proceeds to beat the living snot out of the rest of him. Finding himself completely unable to control the hand, Ash attempts stabbing it, cutting it off with a chainsaw (and then later replacing it with said chainsaw), trapping it under a garbage can and some books (the top book very prominently titled A Farewell to Arms); and then when all that fails and it busts free, trying to shoot it with a shotgun. All throughout the rest of the movie, whenever the characters are in the middle of dealing with something particularly nasty, Ash’s severed hand has a tendency to step in and make an already unpleasant situation even worse. Considering that my problem centers entirely around my own right hand, for all intents and purposes, developing a mind of its own and going out of its way to hurt me, not to mention my tendency to use tasteless humor as a coping mechanism for my problems, you can probably draw your own conclusions as to why I revisit that scene to face my medical issues.
At roughly the same time, a remake to the original Evil Dead has come out as well. I have yet to see said remake, although I fully intend to. However, the timing (which, unless you count the presence of perverse gods, is purely coincidental) got me thinking that I should probably write something on the original while I was at it. After all, Evil Dead was remade once before. Despite its title Evil Dead 2 isn’t a sequel, it’s a remake.
It’s a fascinating experience watching the two movies back to back. They have the same director, most of the same crew, and even the same lead actor playing Ash both times. In both movies Ash has a girlfriend named Linda, although she is played by different actresses. There’s the same basic setup, the same core plot, the exact same major props, and I’m pretty sure that’s the exact same cabin in both movies. And yet, despite all that is recycled into the second Evil Dead movie from the first, we have two very different movies here.
The first Evil Dead is very much a straight horror movie, and an amateur work. There’s really not anything deep or complex about it at all; I’d even say that it’s elegant in its simplicity. Evil Dead is your typical spam in a cabin setup; a small group of young people goes somewhere isolated and gets slaughtered by the evil lurking there. Our heroes are presented in the broadest of strokes: Ash is the hero, Scotty is the asshole, Linda and Shelly are the girlfriends, and Cheryl is the spooky, New Age chick and Ash’s sister. They make a lot of the mistakes we’ve all come to expect from characters in horror movies. It’s also obvious that this is a very low budget film.
And yet, in many ways these elements work to the movie’s advantage. Old tropes become old tropes in the first place because they work when you know how to use them. Raimi shows that even this early in his career, he was very adept at employing the ages old horror clichés to their most effective. He plays with your expectations; giving you an expected build up, but holding off just long enough on the payoff that you start to wonder if it actually will play out like you anticipate.
Something that continually fascinates me about Evil Dead, and Evil Dead 2 for that matter, is the nature of the Evil itself. Possession horror itself isn’t unusual, I’ve reviewed at least three or four movies centering around the theme on this blog thus far. What gets me is how the Evil seems to infuse everything; the woods, the cabin and its possessions, eventually it gets to the point where the possession of the human characters is just an afterthought. Once called up this dark force subsumes the landscape itself, and it is only then that it starts to possess its human victims. Probably the part that gets me the most is when Linda is possessed. For the most part she doesn’t actually attack; she just laughs this repulsive giggle and mocks Ash while he struggles, complacent that he will eventually fall.
While it does happen that a low budget hamstrings a perspective movie from the beginning, this isn’t always the case. One of the things I love the most about low budget cinema is the occasional director I come across who doesn’t let his financial limitations stymie him, but instead lets it influence him to be far more creative and innovative than he would have been if everything he needed had just been handed to him. Raimi does this all throughout Evil Dead, using what’s at hand however he is able. The most notable use of this is the p.o.v. shots representing the Evil. We never see the Evil itself, but it is constantly represented by these p.o.v. camera shots moving through the forest at heights and angles that couldn’t be reached by a human. For the last one he reportedly tied the camera to the handlebars of his motorcycle and drove it straight at Bruce Campbell, which apparently cost the actor some hospital time. So that shriek of sheer and utter terror Campbell gives just before the credits; it ain’t acting.
Probably the biggest difference Dead by Dawn has from the original Evil Dead is its tone; the first is a straight horror film; the second, however, has a sense of humor. Now, people tend to look at me funny when I say this, among a great many other things; but humor and horror are two sides of the same coin. They are both emotional reactions, and how one reacts to them varies from person to person. Also, despite what we may think, the line between the two often tends to be very thin and blurry. All you have to do is tweak the circumstances just a little bit, and something we’re cringing at one moment we’re laughing at the next. As Mel Brooks put it: “tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
What Raimi does in Dead by Dawn is to essentially take all the main elements of the first movie and flip them; play upon how outré they can be, tweak them a little, and play them up for how ridiculous they are. You’ll notice that there are a few major changes as a result of this. Our unhappy campers are just Ash and Linda this time, and Linda gets possessed within the first five minutes. A large section of the movie is just Ash, facing off alone against the Evil and slowly but surely losing it. For this movie Campbell reveals his amazing talent as a physical actor, as the helpless Ash gets battered and bashed all over the place.
However, the sense of humor at play here is a very grim, whistling past the graveyard kind of laugh. Dr. Freex on the website the Bad Movie Report makes the observation of Dead by Dawn that Ash actually dies in the first five minutes, and the rest of the movie he’s in Hell. This is probably due to the larger budget Raimi had second time around, but even more than in the first movie, he plays upon the theme of the Evil infusing and taking over Ash’s whole world. It’s obvious that this movie is tongue in cheek, and sometimes it even gets a little cartoony, such as with the gallons of multi-colored blood, but this is still a horror movie.
My description of the scene with Ash’s possessed hand at the beginning of this review probably gives as good an example as any of the kind of humor on display here. The whole movie gets downright surreal at some points, with a few parts that leave it vague as to how much of what we see is really going on, and how much is just Ash’s decent into madness. And, while the end was used as a way to segue into Army of Darkness five years later; on its own I find it to be one of the most original ‘the hero is screwed’ style endings I have ever come across. The fact that you may need to reflect a moment before you realize just how much he is screwed and why only makes me like it more.
So in conclusion, watching Evil Dead and Dead by Dawn back to back is an interesting experience. There are so many similarities, and yet they are two very different movies. The first is a straight, low budget, yet effective horror movie; the second a bizarre mix of horror, humor, slapstick and surrealism.
Friday, April 5, 2013
The Movie: Four college girls have been best friends since kindergarten, and are still attending school together. They also really like to party. Well, Faith (former Disney sweet young thing Selena Gomez) does try to be a good girl. She’s part of a conservative church group, but despite her group’s warnings she still likes to hang out with her friends. Cotty (Rachel Korine, wife of the director), on the other hand, is really into the whole ‘party girl’ thing. And as for Candy (former Disney sweet young thing Vanessa Hudgens, last seen on this blog in Sucker Punch) and Brit (Ashley Benson of the TV show Pretty Little Liars); don’t turn your back on them.
The four girls are determined to go to Florida and have the ultimate Spring Break. Unfortunately, Spring Break is almost here and they haven’t saved anywhere near enough money. Fortunately for the girls, but not any of the other people involved, Candy and Brit have a brainstorm on how to get the needed cash. Armed with ski masks, squirt guns and hammers, and with Cotty driving the getaway vehicle, they rob a local restaurant. The girls are suddenly rolling in cash, and it’s off to Florida as planned.
As always, however, the good times inevitably hit a snag. A wild party the girls are attending gets raided by the police. Worse, all of the girls’ ill-gotten loot has been blown on booze, drugs and scooters; so they can’t afford to pay bail. This is compounded by the fact that none of them, particularly Faith, want their families to know what they’ve really been up to. However, Fate decides to grant them a guardian angel of sorts.
Actually, fallen angel is probably more accurate. The girls catch the attention and interest of a drug dealer who goes by the handle “Alien” (James Franco, of the Sam Raimi Spiderman trilogy). Alien swoops in and pays the girls’ bail, then offers to show them the good time they’re after. Faith does the smart thing and bails out, taking the bus back home. However, the other three girls are very interested in what Alien has to offer them. This is going to land them in some trouble. Another drug dealer feels that Alien has gone too far poaching on his turf, and is determined to remove the problem. The fact that Candy, Brit and Cotty are so eager to work for Alien is going to bring them right into the middle of the conflict. Then again, Candy and Brit have up to this point shown definite signs of being junior crime lords in the making. Maybe this won’t be so disastrous for them after all…
“Spring Break, bitches!"
Is it weird to be disappointed that a movie isn’t anywhere near as bad as you were expecting it to be? That’s the $64-million question I am putting before my readers. When I saw the previews for Spring Breakers, they put to mind a certain kind of movie. They promised four popular young things, two of them who were only recently Disney teen poster girls, showing as much bare skin as their nudity clauses would allow; drug fueled mayhem, sleaze, depravity, explosions, weirdness, and a really bad plot and script. Of course, I had to check it out. However, the movie I actually did see, while it did have its moments, never quite lived up, or maybe I should say down, to my expectations.
Admittedly, the bar was probably set way too high, or low, as the case may be, from the start. After all, among a great many other things I have long submitted myself to the likes of grindhouse exploitation movies, B-flicks, low-budget sexploitation, no-budget sexploitation, independent films, young John Waters, David Cronenberg, Jesus Franco, Ken Russell, a handful of truly fucked-up Japanese flicks, and more Italian porn than is probably healthy for a single individual. No major Hollywood studio these days could possibly meet the standards that that sets, nor would they want to. Also, actresses these days, particularly young actresses with the kind of status that Gomez and Hudgens currently possess, have some pretty strict clauses in their contracts as a matter of course that limit how far they are able to go on screen. There is some hope for Hudgens, who I will elaborate on shortly; but while the advertising campaigns play on Disney “good girls” breaking into “big girl” roles, the sad truth is that at this juncture Gomez and Hudgens still have far too much riding on their good girl image to risk throwing it away just yet.
As I said earlier, Spring Breakers does have its moments. It is undoubtedly a consciously weird movie, although the constraints of the Hollywood studio system insures that it’s not exactly envelope pushing; maybe envelope tapping. Parts of the movie definitely look like a drug trip. There’s also a tendency to loop scenes and lines of dialogue, switch them around, and play the dialogue from one scene while we watch another scene entirely. Sometimes it works for effect, sometimes it’s just irritating. Also, the one image that really sticks with me is two girls in neon yellow bikinis and hot pink ski masks wielding sub-machineguns.
As for the sleaze, that’s a little bit harder to pin down. It is definitely a sleazy movie, at least for the first half. However, at about the halfway point it feels like the movie has grown bored with the sleaze and cut down on it for the most part. Also, there are definite limits. In its favor, I will say that Spring Breakers is honestly and sincerely sleazy; none of that attempt at making “safe sleaze” or promising something and then chickening out. However, it feels like at the beginning the director drew a line and said “up to this line the sky’s the limit, but this is as far as we go.” I can’t decide how much of this is admirable restraint and how much of it is just studio restriction.
Of the cast, I would have to rank Franco as the best. Admittedly, Alien is a caricature; but he’s a very convincing and believable one. The highest point of favor I can give to Franco in his role here is that I didn’t recognize him. I have a very good memory for faces, if not necessarily names or contexts. Even if I can’t attach a name or a context to an individual, sadly an all too common occurrence for me, I can usually recognize that I know a face from somewhere. The fact that it wasn’t until I was looking up stuff for this review that I finally recognized him speaks volumes for this man’s talent. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, my favorite actors tend to be the ones who can sink so far into their character that we actually forget we are watching them.
Franco also has the funniest scene in the movie, a monologue where he’s trying to impress Candy and Brit with the alpha male routine. “Look at my shit,” he says multiple times, fortunately meaning it in the very figurative sense. The following is paraphrased, but it’s the basic gist of his monologue, interspaced by proclamations of ‘look at my shit’: “Look at all this cool stuff I have! I have all this money! Look and swoon at what a strong, virile, male I am! Look at my phallic overcompensation devices (i.e. guns, and if that’s how you’re going to use them, I’ll call it like I see it) and visualize what I’m trying to convey with them!” However, after doing the desired oohing and ahing, the two girls each grab a gun and use it to play their own dominance game; and Alien discovers that these aren’t just two young bimbos he can seduce, but younger, female versions of him. Of course, he’s automatically in love.
The other lead that caught my eye was Hudgens. Now, up to this point I’ve been on the fence about her as an actress; having never seen any of the High School Musical movies, and finding that in the only other movie I’ve seen her in, Sucker Punch, she’s really not given anything to work with. In Spring Breakers, she scared the hell out of me. Hudgens very believably portrays Candy as nihilistic, amoral, and extremely vicious about getting what she wants. Now I know some of my longtime readers will point out how I tend to be most attracted to women who scare me; but seriously, Candy I would stay as far away from as possible. I can now believe that Hudgens is genuinely interested in more mature roles. She won’t be claiming the crown of Lina Romay or Linnea Quigley anytime soon; but I’m sure that we will see gradually more mature and risqué roles from Hudgens in the future. She has some genuine talent and potential as an actress if she keeps working at it.
As for the female leads as a whole, I had no trouble believing they were college party girls; a back-handed compliment if I’ve ever given one. It’s funny, considering the media blitz, but Gomez really doesn’t go out of her “good girl” roll at all. Unfortunately, the screenwriter didn’t know how to portray why she is that way, so Faith is more a cipher than anything else character wise. Not only that, but she leaves as soon as things start getting interesting. On the one hand, how often do you see characters making smart decisions in these movies? On the other, though, this was the perfect set-up for an “innocents in over their heads” style exploitation movie; and the vile part of me that likes to watch those things was screaming in fury that they didn’t follow through on it.
Ultimately, Spring Breakers as a movie occupies that awkward neither realm that lies between and exploitation and an art film, but doesn’t qualify as either. On the exploitation side, the movie refuses to truly dive down into the sleaze; although the first ten minutes made me think it would. However, on the art side, I got the impression that the director truly was trying to make a point. Unfortunately, I never figured out what that point was, it was too garbled. The ending is one of those maddeningly vague, ambiguous movie endings that I have long learned to associate with either the director not knowing how to end it, or the studio deciding they didn’t like what he had and making him change it. There was a major missed opportunity to raise it up and take it an innovative direction, which disappointed me.
If you mostly watch just mainstream Hollywood movies, you will probably find Spring Breakers weird and sleazy. However, for somebody like me who actively seeks out the truly weird and socially unacceptable, it’s actually rather tame. Spring Breakers does have its moments and I did have some fun with it, but ultimately I found this to be an unmemorable movie, either in the positive or negative sense.
Side Note: I put up a few more links to other blogs. In particular, please check out Horror Movie Medication. The gentleman in question just started that blog, but thus far he has some good reviews and fascinating insights.
Tuesday, March 12, 2013
The Movie: The Gecko brothers, Seth (George Clooney) and Ricky (Quentin Tarantino) are the current escaped dangerous criminals in the news. After making a jailbreak and robbing a bank, the two are headed across the border to Mexico where Seth has made arrangements to find refuge. Unfortunately, he’s got a lot on his plate. Not only are the entire Texas law enforcement apparatus and the FBI after the brothers, Seth’s also got to deal with Ricky. Delusional, psychotic, and probably a little paranoid; Ricky is very much a loose cannon and makes Seth’s already difficult task of getting the two across the border twice as hard. To further exacerbate matters, Ricky winds up brutally killing the hostage the brothers have with them.
Luckily for the Geckos, and unluckily for everyone else involved, there is another set of guests at the hotel where the brothers are currently holing up. Reverend Jacob Fuller (long time movie vet Harvey Keitel of Saturn 3) is on a trip with his two children, Kate (the ubiquitous Juliette Lewis) and Scott (Ernest Liu) in their Winnebago. The family has suffered a tragedy recently with the death of Jacob’s wife, and Jacob himself is suffering a crisis of faith as a result. Of course, things get much worse when the Geckos, a little desperate at this point, take the family hostage and hijack their vehicle.
Somehow, despite Ricky’s quirks and a few unseen complications, the motley crew makes it across the border into Mexico. However, the real trouble comes when they arrive at the place where Seth arranged to meet his contact; a skuzzy biker bar/strip club/brothel that goes by the charming name ‘the Titty Twister.’ You see, the Titty Twister is a very literal tourist trap. It’s run by a group of vampires, who use the place to prey on the bikers and truckers who come through. Suddenly, the desperados, their hostages, and the few remaining customers of the bar find themselves trapped and forced to band together if they’re going to survive the night.
“And I don't want to hear anything about "I don't believe in vampires" because I don't believe in vampires, but I believe in my own two eyes, and what I saw is fucking vampires!"
I must admit to feeling very ambivalent about Quentin Tarantino. On the one hand, he’s very definitely inspired by the same kinds of grindhouse movies I have come to love. He’s even put a lot of work into rereleasing many of the more obscure examples so they can be seen by a modern audience. And he’s not just a fanboy imitator either; Tarantino knows what makes them work, and he has enough talent and experience as a director that he’s able to use them as inspiration for movies that are very much his own.
On the other hand, Tarantino has the unfortunate habit of running off with his id and reveling in the more unpleasant aspects of these kinds of movies. He is all too prone to exulting in onscreen carnage and brutality, to the point where it can override everything else and become difficult to watch. To get an idea about how conflicted my feelings are toward Tarantino’s movies, know that I really enjoyed Kill Bill, and then look at my review of his Inglorious Basterds remake. If you just want the short of it, that movie repulsed me, pissed me off, and even offended me; which is extremely difficult to do. In short, Tarantino can make some good movies; but only so long as he keeps a leash on his id.
Tarantino wrote the screenplay for From Dusk Till Dawn, and as a result his fingerprints are all over the movie. It is an odd little film in some ways, namely where the characters seem to start out in one movie genre and then take a detour into another halfway through. However, it is very competently put together and the end result is great; a love letter to the old grindhouse exploitation thrillers, specifically the crime-thriller and survival horror subgenres. And, unlike so many movie “homages” made today; while there are plenty of little in-jokes and references to other movies of this type (note Scott’s Precinct 13 t-shirt for one example), they are kept subtle and non-intrusive, and From Dusk Till Dawn very much works as a movie in and of itself.
Just the film’s genre jumping goes miles in showing how good the script is. For about half the film it’s a crime-thriller about two bank robbers who take a family hostage and try to escape to Mexico, then about halfway through it’s suddenly a survival horror about being trapped in a bar run by vampires. And yet, the momentum is so good that the cognitive dissonance doesn’t set in until the credits start rolling.
The vampires themselves are very well done. For one thing, they’re definitely monsters. Most of the vampires are hot (half of them being strippers and one being played by Salma Hayek), but it is a very far cry indeed from the tragically sexy vampires that have infested pop culture. These are very definitely monsters, and never shown as anything different. What’s more, there’s never really any exposition about what they are or what they’re all about. None of the protagonists have any interest in investigating it, as their primary motivation is just trying to survive the night. In fact, one scene has them trying to remember all they know about vampires, and then debating over whether it will actually be of any use against their current opponents or whether they just remember it from some old movie. There are a few intriguing hints throughout; but they are just that, hints. The last shot just before the credits blew my mind the first time I saw it; and I was still very ignorant about the wonderful cinematic worlds I was taking my first steps into.
Ricky Gecko, as played by Tarantino, provides us with one of the more pervasive archetypes of the crime-thriller genre: the Loose Cannon. In short, this is the criminal with no self control whatsoever, who’s constantly buggering up things for everybody else. Tarantino is convincing; but considering that nearly every role I’ve seen him play has been Ricky in one form or another; I’m at a loss as to how much of it is due to talent and how much is typecasting.
Seth Gecko was apparently Clooney’s first major film role, something I was unaware of until I started writing this review. You wouldn’t guess it; Clooney is one of Dawn’s two major heavies who carry the movie. Seth is an intriguing anti-hero; on the one hand he is a career criminal and a brutal son of a bitch, but on the other he also has a very strong sense of honor and duty. In fact, he really tries to keep things as quiet and safe as possible; his more brutal deeds are largely due to Ricky.
Seth’s relationship with Ricky also does what none of the other crime-thrillers seem to have been able to and provides an answer to the one urgent question surrounding the loose cannon character; namely, why the hell don’t they cut him loose at the first signs he’s going to be trouble, much less after the first dozen or so times he’s loused things up for everyone else? In this case it’s simple; Ricky is Seth’s brother. Seth loves him and feels responsible for him, despite the fact that Ricky makes things twice as hard as they should be for him. That whole honor and duty thing can really bite you in the ass sometimes.
Harvey Keitel is the other heavy who carries the film. The man has a very, very long string of roles behind him, even at the time he played this one, and it really shows. Jacob Fuller is completely believable as a movie character despite his fantastic circumstances. Keitel plays him as a man who, upon first glance, is completely unremarkable in any way. He quiet, soft-spoken, not a coward but obviously not looking for excitement, either. Fuller is a man you could see every day and, unless you have some kind of in-depth dealing with him, not think anything of it.
However, there’s a whole hell of a lot more beneath the surface. Once trouble starts, Fuller turns out to be a very tough and competent old guy. Just observe his attitude and demeanor from the moment he and his family are first kidnapped by the Gecko brothers; everything he says and does conveys the message that he’s not going be pushed around. He does bend a little, not much you can do when someone’s pointing a gun in you and your children’s’ faces after all; but he makes it clear that he will not bend more than he absolutely has to.
Aside from being a stubborn old cuss, Jacob also shows a much needed level-headedness. He’s along on this trip unwillingly, but that doesn’t mean he won’t step forward and do what needs to be done when the Geckos’ methods aren’t working. Several times through the first half of the film, it’s Jacob who takes charge of the situation; and he’s ultimately responsible for getting everyone into Mexico. It’s never said in words; but watching Seth and Jacob interact, you can tell that Seth is developing a grudging respect for Jacob despite himself.
There’s one more aspect of the character of Jacob Fuller that I’d like to comment on, and that’s about his status as a clergyman. This is important to me because I, myself, happen to be a preacher’s kid. Now, the thing about my father is that unless you happen to be in church on Sunday, or it comes up in conversation, you’d never know he was a minister. If his job doesn’t call for it, he doesn’t advertise. Not only that, my father has actively encouraged my interest in other religions. I was never a Christian myself, my faith journey took me in an entirely different direction; but I have the utmost respect for my father and his faith, and both have had a strong influence on my own spiritual views.
I’ve noticed in Hollywood movies that when they’re not Catholic priests (who have their own set of stereotypes), Christian clergy tend to be presented in one of three ways: they’re rabid Bible-thumpers, they’re myopic hypocrites, or, to paraphrase my father, they have little haloes. Suffice to say, they’ve rarely if ever matched my experiences with the main clergy presence in my own life. Jacob Fuller changes that. In demeanor and personality, he very much reminds me of my father. This is particularly true where his faith is concerned. He does talk about his religion when the subject comes up, and it’s clear that his crisis of faith is having an effect on him. However, there’s far more to him as a person; his faith is part of him, it doesn’t define him entirely. It was only on my most recent viewing that I consciously realized how much Jacob reminds me of my own father, but it makes the movie more real for me, and is no doubt the main reason I’ve always found him so endearing.
Lewis and Liu do well enough in their roles. I’ve noticed that Lewis in this film isn’t too different from other characters I’ve seen her play, but it works. Also, and the fact that this bears any mention at all depresses me to no end, I so love a truly strong, competent movie heroine who’s able to handle herself.
As well as our main characters, From Dusk Till Dawn has a rather large supporting cast that’s full of B-movie veterans. Fred “the Hammer” Williamson appears as one of the Titty Twister’s customers; as does the famed gore-effects artist Tom Savini, who plays Sex Machine, a biker with the most interestingly shaped and mounted gun. Tom Saxon makes a brief appearance at the beginning. Cheech Marin plays three minor, but very distinct, roles. The supporting role most people take away from this movie is probably Salma Hayek as the vampire queen “Santanico Pandemonium”, the name a reference to the Mexican nunsploitation Satanico Pandemonium. Even if he wasn’t credited, you’d know Tarantino wrote the script to this movie from the lap dance she gives Ricky during her number. I would say nasty things about the man, if it weren’t for the fact that I’d do the exact same thing myself in his situation.
One final positive element about From Dusk Till Dawn, particularly as a horror movie, is that there’s no safety net for any of the characters. Big name actor or second stringer, protagonist or supporting cast; from the moment the vampires first make their appearance it’s made very clear that none of these people is safe from them. In fact, by the end of the movie nearly the entire cast has been killed off. This makes it extremely suspenseful, as we have no idea who will live or die.
So in conclusion, From Dusk Till Dawn is a love letter and homage to the old grindhouse exploitation movies of yore that at the same time is very much its own movie. It’s full of gunfights, explosions, gore and female nudity. It also has a good script, great dialogue, and a cast full of talent and B-movie veterans. This is definitely not a date movie; and my male readers, if you are lucky enough to find a woman who is willing to see this with you on a date, hold on to her. However, if you’re into exploitative trash done very well (guilty!), you do not want to miss this one.
Thursday, February 14, 2013
The Movie: Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) is the caretaker for the cemetery in the small Italian town of Buffalora. This is a lot harder than it sounds; because the dead have a habit of coming back within seven days of being buried there, and only destroying the brain will put them down permanently. Dellamorte and Gnaghi (Francois Hadji-Lazaro), his developmentally stunted assistant, have their hands full; and it gets worse as, due to town bureaucracy and political expediency, there’s no outside help for them.
Francesco’s already unstable and stifling world is turned completely upside down when his eyes first land upon a grieving widow (Anna Falchi); “the most beautiful living woman [he’s] ever seen.” Despite his rather limited social skills Dellamorte does manage to strike up a romance with her, but it can’t last. When they make the stupid decision to have sex on her late husband’s grave, he digs himself out and attacks her. Francesco stands over her body, praying she won’t come back as a ‘returner’ (the movie never uses the word ‘zombie’); but of course that prayer is not granted, and sadly, he uses his pistol to put her down. A while later Francesco realizes his mistake when he runs into her as a returner and has to be saved by Gnaghi. The fact that she came back means that she wasn’t really dead that first time, and Dellamorte killed her.
Things get worse as Dellamorte struggles to forget her and continue doing a job that he hates, but can’t ever seem to escape from. Two major series of events knock his already wobbly world completely out of orbit. The first is the consistent reappearance of the object of Dellamorte’s affections in various different roles; always giving him hope that he can re-obtain her, but ultimately leaving him all the worse for it. The second is an appearance by Death himself, who tells Dellamorte to stop killing his dead; if he really doesn’t want them coming back as returners, then he should just start shooting the living in the head so they can’t come back in the first place…
It is once again the time for what seems to be becoming a tradition for this blog; my yearly one-fingered salute to that unholiest of holidays, Valentine’s Day. Suffice to say, I hate and detest it. I elaborated at length on my reasons why last year in my review of How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, so I shant repeat them here. If you’re interested, please read that review.
It would seem that, in this country at least, the French have a reputation for making confusingly weird movies. In recent years I have watched a lot of European movies, particularly French ones; largely, I’m sure, due to my fetish for women with French accents. In that time I have made this discovery: when it comes to truly batshit movies that leave you confused, uncertain, and nursing migraines, the French ain’t got nothing on the Italians.
From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the Italians had a major B-movie industry that, among other things, excelled at ripping off popular big-budget movies and movie genres. Spaghetti westerns (now you know why they’re called that), post-apocalyptic movies, porn, space opera, zombie gut-munchers; the Italians would take them all and add their own bizarre interpretations. For quite some time, your movie hadn’t arrived until it was the subject of countless Italian interpretations. I don’t know what the status of the Italian film industry is today; but the B-movie machine of around three decades is certainly long gone, and the world is so much poorer for it.
Cemetery Man, or Dellamorte Dellamore as it was originally titled in Europe, came in around the tail end of this period. It is one of those movies that are impossible to shoehorn into a conventional Hollywood genre. While the basic plot may seem like a horror movie, Cemetery Man is anything but. Likewise, while not, technically, a comedy; this is one seriously funny movie. Also, it’s not exactly a romance; although it definitely borrows more than a few conventions from that genre. If I had to sum up Cemetery Man, I would define it as a philosophical meditation on love, and on life in general, that just happens to feature zombies and a really twisted sense of humor.
Cemetery Man is about Francesco Dellamorte, a man who is so wrapped up in death that he has almost completely forgotten how to live. And by ‘death’ I don’t just mean the obvious trappings such as the graveyard and the returners. Buffalora itself is so wrapped up in bureaucracy and appearances that it’s utterly stifling. One look at the records office run by Francesco’s friend Franco (Anton Alexander), and you’d think they had a form for everything. The chief of police (Mickey Knox) is the kind of man to form an opinion, and then ignore anything that contradicts said opinion. As an example, when Dellamorte is walking out of a hospital where he’s just shot three people, visibly holding the gun, the policeman tells him “oh good, you have a gun, you’ll be able to defend yourself.” And then there’s the mayor (Stefano Masciarelli), who’s so fixated on getting reelected for a sixteenth term that he’s willing to exhume his own daughter (Fabiana Formica) to use on his campaign posters.
Things don’t help matters when Dellamorte’s love interest (never actually named, and billed as “She” in the credits) comes into the picture. Actually, that’s a gross understatement. In so many ways, their romance is so much like the tragic, overdramatic relationships pop culture tells us romance is supposed to be. And yet, the movie does not hesitate to show us just how unhealthy it actually is. Dellamorte is obsessed, and when the object of his obsession slips his grasp yet again, he’s all the worse off for having thought he had a chance in the first place. The sacrifice he makes for her in her incarnation as the new mayor’s assistant will really make you wince and squirm, especially if you’re male.
So in short, Dellamorte finds himself trapped and in a no-win situation. There is his romantic cycle of see, want, thinks he has a chance, ‘whoops, just kidding.’ Then there’s his job, which he hates, but can’t seem to get away from. The scenes where he sacrifices to hold onto a job that he hates but is led to believe that he must hold onto at any cost resonated with me as well. When you’re constantly caught between these two particular cycles, life inevitably starts to seem hopeless and unbearable. Yes, I am bitter; why do you ask? I thought it was pretty obvious.
However, in certain ways Dellamorte is at fault for where he winds up. The main one is his dealings with people. It’s clear from the beginning that he’s been cutting himself off from other people for a while now. The scene where he first tries to approach the widow, and the conversation he attempts, show just how stunted Dellamorte’s interpersonal skills are. Also, the rumor going around town that gives him so much trouble, that he’s impotent; at one part he tells Gnaghi he started it himself. On one hand, I can understand why Dellamorte would want to cut himself off from the rest of humanity. After all, people as a whole tend to be stupid, ridiculous and irritating to insufferable extremes. However, there are always exceptions; and it is these exceptions who make life worth living despite all the other crap. When you cut yourself off from human companionship, you start turning inward to the point where it’s near impossible to deal with the outside world at all.
Unfortunately, Dellamorte only has two people who could be considered friends. The first is Franco, who he talks to all the time on the phone, mainly mutually feeding each others’ frustrations and resentments at life. However, they never seem to have much to say on the rare occasion that they meet in person. Second is Gnaghi. Dellamorte obviously keeps Gnaghi around so that he can feel superior; which is a shame, since Gnaghi could teach him a lot.
Gnaghi is the movie’s most fascinating character; and it is a true testament to Hadji-Lazaro’s acting talents how well he comes across. Gnaghi is rather disgusting, particularly when he eats. He only ever says one word, “nyah,” which isn’t even a word at all; yet it’s truly amazing just how expressively he is able to use that one word. Not only that, Hadji-Lazaro seamlessly pulls off the seemingly impossible balancing act of simultaneously making Gnaghi repulsive, cute and loveable.
Thing is, there are all sorts of hints throughout the movie that Gnaghi is far more intelligent, competent and aware than Dellamorte wants to believe he is. What’s more, Gnaghi actually gets a healthy romance. It’s with Valentina, the mayor’s unfortunate daughter. Gnaghi’s first encounter with her does not go well, but when she gets killed in a motorcycle accident he gets another shot. This time, even though he just winds up with her head, it goes swimmingly.
I know that this sounds like the lead-up to an extremely tasteless punch line, but it actually turns out quite the opposite. Gnaghi and Valentina’s romance is probably the sweetest, healthiest, most convincing and enviable relationship I have ever seen in a movie; I kid you not. It really must be seen to be believed.
The sets for Cemetery Man are gorgeous. All the shots of the cemetery at night are simultaneously eerie, and darkly beautiful. Probably the one that sticks in my mind are the witchlights floating around Dellamorte and his paramour as they make love on her husband’s grave. There are so many camera shots that just blow the mind, not to mention some amazing tricks with light and shadow. And then there’s that wonderful Terry Gilliam-esque Grim Reaper that blows up out of Dellamorte’s trash fire.
Finally, as I alluded to earlier; despite the tragedy and serious philosophical musings, Cemetery Man is a truly hilarious movie, albeit in a rather twisted and morbid way. The funeral for Valentina, her friends, and the boy scouts on the bus they crashed into has this really warped song being sung in the background. There’s the rather ludicrous scene of Dellamorte being jumped in the shower by a bunch of zombie boy scouts. And then, there are all sorts of wonderful one-liners and lines of dialogue.
So in conclusion: Cemetery Man, a philosophical meditation on life and death, love and hate, which features zombies and has a really warped sense of humor. Not for every taste, but I guarantee you’ve never seen anything else like it.
Monday, January 28, 2013
The Movie: 1995 was the 50th year of the American Teen Princess beauty pageant; and a television film crew was sent to the small town of Mount Rose, Minnesota, to cover it. However, as they discover, there’s a lot more going on. Just below the surface is a nasty web of intrigue centered around the two contestant favorites.
On the one hand we have Rebecca Leeman (Denise Richards of Starship Troopers); the spoiled daughter of Mount Rose’s richest family and, more importantly, of Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), the pageant chairperson and former winner. On the other is Amber Atkins (Kirstin Dunst, last seen on this blog in Small Soldiers) a sweet, talented girl who works two jobs and lives in a trailer park with her single mother (Ellen Barkin). Most of the town backs Amber; but “somebody” (no prizes for guessing who) is determined that Rebecca will win. As the number of “mysterious” deaths and potentially fatal “accidents” grows; the question isn’t whether Amber will win, but whether she will live long enough to compete.
“Oh yeah. Guys get out of Mount Rose all the time on hockey scholarships... or prison."
Happy 2013 dear readers! How are you getting on with your resolutions? My New Year’s resolution is to attempt to be more positive. It’s nowhere near as easy as everyone would have me believe it to be; but I have been blessed with some truly wonderful individuals in my life, so I have some hope that it is possible. However, my longtime readers need not worry; considering how little humanity has changed in the however many thousands of years since our ancestors first came down out of the trees and started forming society, it’s doubtful that the cynicism you have grown to know and love will be going anywhere. And that brings us to today’s review.
I got my VHS copy of Drop Dead Gorgeous off a friend in college who was selling some of his movies. Said friend is from Minnesota, and he told me that not only was the movie shot there (and that he was in a play with one of the extras), but that it portrays small-town Minnesota very accurately. Sadly, my own personal experience with Minnesota is mainly a large number of stopovers at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport. However, I noticed that the town of Mount Rose looked very familiar. Having lived in small, rural towns a large portion of my life, it’s my opinion that this film portrays rural, small-town America as a whole very accurately.
That is probably the make it or break it aspect of this movie’s humor for most audiences. While there are plenty of obvious jokes on display, much of the humor is only noticeable for those with a certain lifetime experience. If you have any real first-hand experience with rural small-town America (and probably small-town Minnesota especially, as I said, I wouldn’t know personally), you will likely spend much of the running time nodding in recognition; and if you have a sense of humor you’ll also be laughing. However, if you really aren’t familiar with that kind of community, there is much that will pass right under your radar.
In fact, if it weren’t for all the familiar faces and big-name actresses in the cast; it wouldn’t be too hard for me to believe that Drop Dead Gorgeous was a real documentary about a real town. Mount Rose, like all small communities, is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else’s business to an uncomfortable degree; and isn’t afraid to make judgments on it. Just observing the characters interacting hints and insinuates at whole undercurrents of Mount Rose’s community that are never addressed directly by the movie itself. We are given a very definite picture of the town’s factions, of its most prominent views, and of how its citizens view one another.
As my longtime readers are well aware, my favorite part of almost any movie is the characters; and Drop Dead Gorgeous introduces us to all sorts of interesting, wonderfully quirky individuals. Just the pageant contestants are enough to scratch this itch; my two personal favorites are the dog enthusiast with her “lucky” bolt (it fell off an airplane and hit her in the head, but fortunately at an angle so that it didn’t pierce her skull), and the drama geek who does a monologue of Soylant Green for her talent. However, if you’re looking for familiar faces; Amy Adams makes her first film appearance as a slightly dim-witted cheerleader who is a bit blatantly… I think licentious is the word I’m looking for, while the late Brittney Murphy is wonderful as Lisa, a girl following in her older brother, Peter’s, footsteps. Peter left for New York to do Broadway; and considering that she shows us pictures of him dressed as Liza Minnelli, Madonna and Barbara Streisand, we can guess the main reason why he would have wanted to leave Mount Rose even before it’s spelled out for us in one of the movie’s better lines. Out of all the people we are introduced to, my personal favorite would have to be Allison Janney as Loretta; Mrs. Atkins’ best friend, and for all intents and purposes Amber’s second mother.
The thing that intrigues me most about Drop Dead Gorgeous these days is the true nature of the conflict between Amber and Rebecca. In it, we can see a microcosm of the top-down class warfare that has been plaguing this country since the Reagan years, if not further back. From the beginning it’s clear how uneven the footing between the two girls is. The Leemans are the richest people in Mount Rose; which in contemporary society makes them the “job providers” and the economic center of the town. As a result, they are able to dominate things almost completely. Loretta puts it very succinctly early on: “You're talking about the richest family in a small town. It's front page news when one of them takes a shit.” Because of their power and influence they are able to, quite literally, get away with murder.
The Leemans whole motive behind Rebecca competing is a sense of entitlement; they feel she deserves to win simply because of who she is. This is very obvious in all their behavior. Hell, Rebecca’s performance for the talent competition shows very clearly where the Leemens think they stand in the scheme of things. I’m not going to spoil it for you, it really has to be seen to be believed; all I’ll say is that I’m not a Christian and yet I still find it blasphemous.
As such, the Leemans have no qualms about using their influence to rig the pageant. And the sad part is everyone’s aware of it. From the beginning, nearly everyone interviewed states that Amber is the one who probably most deserves to win, but that Rebecca will win anyway because of who her family is. When we are introduced to the judges it’s clear that they were all handpicked by Mr. Leeman; hell, one of them is an employee in his store. On top of that, Mrs. Leeman is the pageant chairwoman.
Amber, on the other hand, is on the bottom rung of the social ladder. She’s the child of a single mother, and they live in a trailer park. Amber has to work two jobs on top of high school to help support the two of them. While she’s talented and has definite dreams, Amber is likely to end up like her mother if she doesn’t find a way out of Mount Rose. That’s where the pageant comes in, Amber needs to win it if she wants to make something of her life.
Dunst is wonderful as Amber; she’s always done sweet, cute and energetic very well. However, I couldn’t help but notice that Amber tends to get her breaks through other peoples’ misfortune. Admittedly, her first big break comes not through any actions of her own, but karma for the Leemans; and her third through simply being in the right place at the right time and being able to capitalize on it. Her second break, though; there’s a hint that she might not have played it as fair as we’ve been led to expect. Kind of makes you wonder if she’s really that sweet.
In conclusion, Drop Dead Gorgeous is hilarious, clever, and well put together; a witty and, at times, all too accurate look at small-town America.
Monday, December 24, 2012
The Movie: It’s almost Christmas, and amateur inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is in Chinatown looking for something special to give his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). In a small, out of the way shop filled with exotic and mysterious items, Randall finds an adorable, furry, little creature the shop’s ancient owner (Keye Luke) calls a “mogwai.” The old man refuses to sell the mogwai, saying that it takes a lot of responsibility and that he doesn’t feel Randall is up to it. However, the shop owner’s grandson (John Louie) is determined to make the sale and sells Randall the creature “under the counter.” He also tells him that there are three rules for the mogwai that it’s utterly imperative that he follow.
It’s very immediately apparent what the reason for the first rule, keep the creature away from all light, is; bright light is extremely painful, even deadly, for the mogwai. The second rule, don’t let him anywhere near water, is broken by accident not long after; and once again the reason is immediately apparent. Water causes the mogwai to reproduce parthenogenecally; the smallest bit of moisture and they’re worse than rabbits on fertility drugs.
However, it is the breaking of the third rule; don’t feed the creatures after midnight, which produces the most serious repercussions. If a mogwai is fed after midnight, it undergoes a transformation into a vicious, scaly, demonic and mean-spirited little monster. After a few accidents, Billy inadvertently overruns his hometown with the things. Now it’s up to him to put an end to them before they destroy the town entirely.
The Review: Io Saturnalia! Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Or whatever Solstice holiday you, my readers, happen to be celebrating right now, I sincerely hope it’s a good one. Admittedly, I really don’t like the holiday season, due to all the hype and clamor for it that starts months before hand. However, I do enjoy and celebrate the holiday itself in my own fashion; and part of that involves putting my own form of recognition for it on this blog.
Gremlins is a movie that doesn’t fit comfortably into any single popularly recognized genre. First of all, as Roger Ebert so succinctly pointed out in his review of the film, Gremlins has a very fairy tale core to its central plot. If you read classic fairy and folktales (and I mean in their original form, long before the Victorians and Walt Disney got their sticky paws on them), one of the core plots of so many of these stories is that the hero is given rules for some kind of magic that he must follow; and then we are show exactly what happens when those rules get broken.
Secondly, and flowing organically from the fairy tale premise, Gremlins has many elements from the horror genre. I know it might seem a bit tame to regular fans of horror movies; but for the very young and/or those individuals who don’t consume a steady diet of them, there is plenty to this movie that can come across as scary, and possibly even traumatizing. In fact, Gremlins is one of the specific movies that inspired the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating; as it’s deemed not quite bad enough for an R rating, but too disturbing for younger viewers who might watch a PG rated movie. I cannot help but notice that despite its role in that decision, Gremlins kept its original PG rating. However, I’m sure that this decision was made with the best of judgment; and that to even hint that it might be due to the fact that Gremlins was a big-budget movie from one of the major studios would just be petty and mean-spirited.
Thirdly, the plot and setting for Gremlins borrow much of their composition from the countless Norman Rockwell-esqe Christmas specials that breed like flies at this time of year. Nearly the entire movie takes place in archetypal small-town America. This is the type of town where everyone knows everyone else, and you even call the sheriff by his first name. There’s Dorie’s Tavern where, as Kate (Phoebe Cates of Paradise and Fast Times at Ridgemont High), the movie’s love interest, points out; “that’s where everyone’s dad proposed to their mom.” Pete (prolific ‘80s child star Corey Feldman, of the Lost Boys and a few Friday the 13th entries), the kid who works at the local Christmas tree lot, can come over to Billy’s house and read his comic books, even though Billy is in his 20s, without anyone thinking anything of it. Billy’s father perfectly fits the archetype of the absent-minded inventor, with his various dysfunctional inventions scattered all over the house. There’s even an Ebenezer Scrooge/Mr. Potter character in the form of Mrs. Deagle (Polly Holliday), who threatens to spoil everyone’s Christmas.
Finally, there are the comedic elements. Gremlins is, among a great many other things, an extremely funny movie. A good deal of the humor is absurdist and referential. For example, one of my favorite scenes has Mr. Peltzer calling his wife from the inventers’ convention he’s attending and telling her that it turns out the other inventers are “a bit more advanced than [he] expected.” In the background we can see the time machine from the movie of the same name, as well as Robby the Robot from the Forbidden Planet. However, quite a bit of it is rather dark, and even mean spirited; such as when grinchy Mrs. Deagle storms out with a pitcher of water to soak the carolers she hears in her yard, and is shocked to discover that said carolers are a pack of gremlins, all dressed up and singing.
The thing is, you would think that all these disparate genre elements would not fit easily together; and they don’t. However, that’s really what makes the movie work. Gremlins is an extremely impressive and complex juggling act, one that gets all of its considerable energy from the friction and frission that result from the interactions of the various ill-fitting genre conventions. If you think about it, there is very little difference between humor and horror; it’s possible for the same situation to inspire both. The script and direction are constantly juggling these two things masterfully, switching constantly between making us laugh, making us scream, and occasionally making us want to do both. It is an extremely tough stunt to pull off, and even the sequel doesn’t come anywhere close to managing it.
For me, one of the absolute best aspects of movie is the whole situation of Norman Rockwell Christmas meets Hollywood horror. As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I find that I tire of the holiday kitsch and schmaltz very quickly; so I actually find it quite relieving and therapeutic to see it all dragged down under a tide of green, scaly catastrophe. It’s just so much fun, in a warped, schadenfreuden way, to see this stereotypically wholesome all-American town get ripped to shreds. And there are even a few extremely dark elements that go far beyond being fun; top of the list for most people who’ve seen this movie probably being the part where Kate explains to Billy why she hates Christmas so much. I don't know about you, but I find that a little bile is just the thing for washing down all that over-saturated sweetness.
The one final element that I feel I should comment on is Gizmo, the original mogwai Mr. Peltzer brings home. For the most part he, personally, isn’t a very big part of Gremlins. Even though he does strike the final victory blow at the end, up until that point he doesn’t really do anything of significance; and more than anything else just serves as the movie’s McGuffin. I also find that while he’s extremely sweet and cuddly, he’s the only mogwai that is. Even before their post-midnight feeding, all of Gizmo’s spawn are, without exception, mean-spirited little brats. This might come from one of the darker, earlier drafts of Gremlins. Apparently in the earlier drafts of the movie there was no Stripe (the main villain and leader of the other gremlins); but Gizmo, himself, was supposed to transform and fill that role. However, Steven Spielberg (who executive-produced Gremlins), no doubt seeing cute, cuddly, toy cash-ins, insisted that Gizmo be kept cute and cuddly all throughout the movie.
One final thing I noticed about Gizmo, he seems to be the most abused character in the whole movie. He’s constantly thrown, knocked around and exposed to bright light; and that’s just by accident by the ignorant humans who’ve taken possession of him. Of course, once his spawn change it gets much worse. There’s even a scene where they tie him to a dart board and throw darts at him; which apparently was put together for the film crew, who found the Gizmo puppets extremely difficult and frustrating to work with.
Overall, though, I really like this movie. It’s dark, twisted, and a lot of fun in a sick sort of way. Particularly with how I’ve come to feel about the Christmas season, this is a movie that can appeal to the Grinch in all of us. Forget It’s a Wonderful Life, as far as I’m concerned Gremlins is the ultimate feel-good holiday movie.
Monday, December 10, 2012
The Movie: A new dessert called “the Stuff” has hit the markets and become extremely popular. It’s a white, creamy substance served in pint containers like ice cream. The Stuff is delicious, and is very low in fat or calories. As the ad campaign says, after the first bite you literally can’t get enough.
The Stuff is so popular that the industries that make other desserts are worried. The heads of the ice cream industry gather together to take matters into their own hands. Their plan is to hire the notorious industrial spy and saboteur, David “Mo” Rutherford (the extremely prolific Michael Moriarty), to discover the secret behind the Stuff for them.
And boy does good old Mo have his work cut out for him. The corporation behind the Stuff is notoriously secretive about their product, much like Coca Cola. Attempts at lab analysis fail utterly to reveal the ingredients. But the worst part is probably when Mo gradually starts to discover what the Stuff really is.
You see, the Stuff isn’t so much a food product as it is a parasitic organism, possibly with some sentience. It’s not just great tasting, it’s addictive; and if you eat it for a certain period of time it will start controlling your brain. Finally, those pounds you’ve been losing since you started eating the Stuff aren’t due to it being low in calories; it’s due to the fact that it’s eating you from the inside, gradually hollowing your body out into a shell that can be controlled like a puppet.
Mo has exactly three allies in his fight to put an end to the Stuff: Chocolate Chip Charlie (the equally prolific Garrett Morris), another dessert mogul who’s been put out of business by the popularity of the Stuff; Nicole (singer-actress Andrea Marcovicci), the woman behind the ad campaign for the Stuff; and Jason (Scott Bloom), a young boy who stumbled onto the Stuff’s true nature when he was witness to what it did to his family. Unfortunately, Mo’s rather checkered past has ensured that it’s near impossible for him to bring in any outside help. How to four people put an end to an extremely popular product, and one that has the backing of a major corporation at that?
“I kinda like the sight of blood, but this is disgusting!"
-Col Malcolm Grommett Spears
Tis the season yet again; and while the Stuff is definitely not a Christmas movie, it sure does tap into the spirit of the holiday. The Stuff is technically labeled a horror movie, but it is also a satire; and like all good satires the truly horrifying parts of it are where it’s hard to tell the difference between movie plot and real life. It is scary how little corporation driven consumerism has changed in the past three decades.
This is especially so in how many truly dangerous products are legally sold to us every day. You can probably think of the obvious ones, such as tobacco and alcohol. However, if you look closer you’ll notice that it also applies to things we take for granted as being safe, such as our food. I know a lot of people who regularly consume sugary snack foods like soda; or fattening items such as potato chips. Worse, corporations like Monsanto have so defanged any food regulation that they’re able to load down supposedly healthy foods like bread with more sugar and calories than any of us need; all just to shove more money into the already bulging pockets of a small handful of individuals.
I’m not being self-righteous here; I will freely admit that I love to eat, have a major sweet tooth, and am a caffeine addict. It’s just so scary that these days few of us know or care where our food really comes from, and unscrupulous individuals are able to take advantage of that to make money. There are always people who will do anything they think they can get away with for money. I honestly don’t find the idea of a parasitic organism being mass marketed as a dessert to be far beyond the realm of possibility at all.
Note how the villains of the movie work. They don’t eat the Stuff themselves, being well aware of what it is. However, they are more than willing to sell it to the public anyway. As far as they’re concerned, it’s just business, so it’s perfectly legit. And even in the end, when the true nature of their product becomes publicly known; they plan a way that they can continue to sell it.
One of the elements I find fascinating about the Stuff is the nature of its protagonists; they’re not only a major part of this corrupt system, they’re examples of the people who arguably make it so screwed up. Nicole is behind the ad campaign and corporate branding for the Stuff; she even gave it its name. ‘Mo’ Rutherford can be seen as even worse; his entire living is made off the infighting, sleazy tricks and dirty deals that the corporate world runs on.
I find Mo to be a particularly intriguing character, both due to the script and to Moriarty’s playing of the role. He can probably be summed up best in a line that he delivers at the very beginning of the movie. When one of his new employers makes the observation that he doesn’t think Mo is as dumb as he appears to be, Mo just smiles sweetly and answers “no one is as dumb as I appear to be.” Nearly the entire movie, with only a rare few moments when he lets the mask slip, Mo acts like an amiable dufus. He’s the kind of guy who is constantly making stupid mistakes and majorly insulting social faux pas. However, it’s impossible to be offended because he’s obviously too stupid to know any better; in fact it’s kind of charming much of the time. Yet, even while his words and physical cues mark him as a charming idiot, all of his actions and decisions show the truly competent and ruthless individual he really is.
These two are obviously nobody’s idea of heroes. And yet, when the time comes where they realize just what is at stake, when they need to do the right thing; both of them rise to the occasion. And it’s not just putting an end to the Stuff either. Mo picks up Jason for purely mercenary reasons; he read a newspaper article about the boy’s rampage at a grocery store, puts two and two together, and figures that he’ll be useful to his task. However, it’s notable that throughout the movie, even when Jason is no longer of any practical use to Mo, Mo still goes out of his way to take care of the kid. The amazing thing is, this seeming contradiction is played out smoothly and convincingly. There’s no Hallmark moment marking a change of heart, Mo and Natalie just show that despite all the warts on their character, they are still capable of doing the right thing. For a rather cynical satire on corporate consumerism (try saying that five times fast), the Stuff displays a surprisingly positive view of human nature through its heroes.
There is a third character who plays to the movie’s recurring theme of unlikely individuals thrust into heroic roles; except that this one is more an antihero. Once Mo and Nicole have seen the facility where the Stuff is produced, their only option for outside help is one Col Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino of Repo! The Genetic Opera), a former military man and Right-wing militia leader. Now, Spears fits pretty much all of the stereotypes for the extreme Right; he’s a bigot, a racist, a Commie baiter, paradoxically uber-patriotic yet rabidly anti-government (I never got that), and he displays that remarkable mixture of extreme arrogance and paranoid insecurity we see so often with the Right. It just occurred to me, this character type is something else that hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the past three decades.
The Stuff is obviously not sympathetic to Spears or his views; the character is played for a combination of laughs and derision. Still, Spears is almost entirely responsible for the heroes prevailing in the end. Also, it should be noted that he goes out of his way to help Nicole and Jason when they are in trouble.
In all, for a fun little movie with a premise that could be seen as ridiculous; the Stuff, like any good satire, gets so much that’s right on the nose, even decades after it was made. The commercials for the Stuff that we see throughout the movie, while obviously very 1980s, are not at all different from the commercials we are shown today. The basic message is the same: ‘be one of the crowd by buying this product.’ The villains are not at all dissimilar from the corporate heads you can hear about in the news. Even the inevitable kicker ending is something I find all too convincing, based on what I know about human nature. Think Prohibition, or the War on Drugs; which is essentially Prohibition mk2.
Finally, the element I probably love the most about the Stuff is its characters. The heroes are very flawed individuals, and the movie makes no bones about that fact. However, they come through in the end, and in a very believable way. I find believably complex, flawed and quirky characters to be remarkable in any more or less mainstream movie, never mind a low-budget horror flick.