I've been doing it for a while now in postscripts, comments, and the linky sidebar area of MMMMMovies, but the time has come at last for me to give a proper, full-bore shout-out to my man Karswell over at The Horrors of It All! Not only does Karswell--somehow, some way--keep coming up with mad pre-code horror comics hits, like EVERY SINGLE DAY, but he's also been kind and generous enough to share some spectacular titles from his own ridiculously extensive movie library with the Duke and myself, leading to more than a few wonderful, entertaining, Bacchanalian revelries here at the Vicarage. If you haven't gone over to his site and given him his propers, do so NOW. I'll wait here till you get back.
The latest Karswell-contributed entry in the Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies sweepstakes is this completely round-the-bend British production from 1972, the Jim O' Connolly-directed creepfest known as Tower of Evil. With a story so crazy it could have leapt fully-formed from the pages of some of Karswell's wilder comics, this is a flick that has everything--atmosphere, gore, genuine chills, legends of lost treasure and dark family secrets, not to mention acre upon acre of nubile Euroflesh on display. All this and a Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre ending that had my jaw on the floor and my flag in the air. Salute!
We open with a wonderfully atmospheric credits sequence over "aerial" shots of a lovingly constructed miniature of a decrepit island lighthouse. Someone's got the smoke machine turned up to eleven, and as the camera swoops lazily around the lighthouse tower, the craggy teeth of the island jut up menacingly through the fog. Creepy music and blood-red credit lettering set the scene, preparing us for the wonders that await.
After O'Connolly's credit we are suddenly aboard the Sea Ghost, a tiny fishing boat manned only by salty sailor Hamp and his aged unnamed father. As the two men struggle to navigate through the pea-soup fog, dangerous rocks loom mere inches from their ship, threatening wrack and ruin. It's a very tense scene, and the ghostly nature of the near-impenetrable fog adds wonderfully to the atmosphere.
Hamp (James Cromwell lookalike Jack Watson) is obviously a tough old tar, so when the fear shows in his rugged face, you know it's for reals. "We should have laid off till the fog lifted!" he opined to his dad. "There are things to do!" the old man spits back. "It's been left long enough!" Tension, intrigue, secrets, danger, and less than three minutes into the runtime--that's economical storytelling, right there.
Once on the island things quickly go from creepy to terrifying, as in short order Hamp and his old man discover a severed hand in the sand, and nearby its deceased owner, naked and facedown in a tide pool with a carrion crab crawling over his taut buttocks! They press on to the derelict lighthouse, where they discover another naked body on the stairs--this one female, eeybita-eeybita--and an attempt to discover her identity sends her severed head rolling down the tower stairs! The head comes to rest on the ground floor for the favored "floorboards round the neck" effect, which is much appreciated by students of the genre, such as I'm. Only five-to-seven minutes screen time have elapsed. This movie is NOT screwing around!
In the shed next door they find ANOTHER corpse, this one clothed but pinned to the wall by a strange golden spear, and when Dad opens a metal door to investigate some sobbing noises, he is startled to find a NAKED CANDACE GLENDENNING staring back at him! Would that we were all so lucky! Granted, she does scream and get all stabby on him, leading to the old man's death before Hamp can cold-cock her with a club, but still--what a way to go!
Next we're whisked away to a hospital room in the city, where a doctor whose mannerisms betray at least a half-Vulcan descent is explaining to a gruff cop why Candace is in a catatonic stupor--from HORROR, of course. Using experimental drugs and a WALL OF DISCO LIGHTS, the doctor hopes to bring Candace's mind to the surface long enough to figure out WTF happened. This leads to the first part of the film being told in a psychedelic hypnotic-regression flashback, a device so wonderful in conception I can't believe we haven't seen it more often.
Candace--er, "Penny"--and her three friends were tourists from Denver, Colorado, who went out to the lighthouse on Snape Island after attending a Jazz Festival on the mainland. Decadence! In addition to the lipsmacking Ms. Glenndenning, one of her "American" friends is also an alumnus of Pete Walker's excellent The Flesh and Blood Show--Mick Jagger lookalike Robin Askwith as Des, he of the pincushion fate. Explaining their choice of the lighthouse as flophouse, Des proclaims to the freaked-out other girl Mae, "We have sounds, food, and some great grass! This place is FAR OUT!" Preach it, brother.
psychedelic flashes of golden idols, many gratuitous butt-shots, and disco lights a-plenty, which is an interesting and laudable narrative choice. We learn that Candace doesn't want to have sex with her boyfriend Gary, despite walking around him naked pretty much ALL THE TIME. Harsh. Still, she's a sport about it, and agrees to give him a beachside BJ to ease the tension. Sadly for us, once she heads south the hypno-drugs start to wear off, and we get SCREAMING SCENES OF BLOWJOB HORROR before Candace goes comatose in the lab. Again, harsh--but effective.
Now the movie takes its first hard left, as we're suddenly in a university office where a group of archaeologists are planning an expedition to Snape Island. Wha? It seems the spear that skewered Des was a solid gold Phoenecian artifact, and the brainy types are naturally curious about how it got there. (The spear is also prominently displayed on the head prof's desk--shouldn't that be in an evidence locker somewhere?) A P.I. hired by Candace's family to prove her innocence in the murders is set to accompany them and play audience-advocate when requesting exposition and clarification. Which is nice of him really.
We learn that the Phoenicians revered Baal, a fertility god whose followers worshiped him with orgiastic festivals of sex! Sign me up! Of course the Hebrews also associated Baal with the Devil, so (as one female digger points out) if you worshiped Baal today (with sex, presumably), you'd be considered a devil-worshiper! And they wonder why Sunday School attendance is dwindling. Anyway, they suspect lots more Phoenician treasure is in a cave under the island if they can just find it, so off they go!
As they wait for the boat to take them out to Snape Island, the four archaeologists let us in on their sordid history with each other. Dan (Derek Fowlds) is married to Nora (Anna Palk), who won't give him a divorce so he can marry Rose (Jill Haworth), who used to have a thing going with hotshot Adam (Mark Edwards), who still pines for Rose despite having also adulterously schtupped Nora on some previous expedition. Rose, by the way, wants neither of the two himbos. Who knew digging up pottery was so exciting? Then again, this IS the 70s.
All this infidelity-swapping leads to a ton of delightful bitchy dialog between all members of the expedition, some of which is flat-out wonderful, but none of which I'll quote because it deserves context. Anyway, the PI (Brent) and archaeologists are accompanied by Hamp and his nephew Brom, a swingin' young hoodlum just returned from a jazz festival himself (seriously) and inordinately proud of his crotch. Take a look:
Brent disappears for long periods and Brom keeps tripping over his story about never having been to the island before, all while trying to work his way into Nora's outrageously flared trousers. Hamp hints more at his dark family secret, revealing that his brother, sister-in-law, and infant nephew had lived on the island until about 6 months ago, when they were apparently lost at sea trying to get back to the mainland. We get more swingin' archaeologist bitching, and it's all pretty wonderful for a while.
But it gets wonderfuller as Dr. Spock subjects Candace to another disco-induced flashback and we see the demise of our unfortunate Americans (not to mention loads more nekkidity). We see Des getting up in the night to investigate some VERY CREEPY maniacal laughter, and getting the expected spearing at the hands of some unseen horror. (How comatose-Candace was able to narrate this is unclear, but let's not pick nits.) Mae also gets it, and after more naked walking (I LOVE THIS MOVIE) Gary meets his dismemberment in a wild psychedelic murder scene that just goes ON and ON and ON--screams, disco lights, zombie Americans, multiple stabs and slashes, more screams--it's really quite disquieting, and reminiscent of a Coffin Joe credits sequence. Which is a very good thing.
Meanwhile in the present day, the explorers stop bitching at each other long enough to notice some very creepy whistling coming from outside the lighthouse. Investigations turn up nothing, but we do get some very tense and genuinely spooky scenes as they search. While Nora tokes up a HUGE SPLIFF, Brent deduces that they are not alone on the island and whatever madman killed the Colorado Kidz is out there stalking them. Makes sense to me. The men go off to explore, leaving the completely baked Nora and disapproving Rose in the protection of Brom. Which you just know is going to work out swell.
Being high makes Nora horny (though no less bitchy), and it's not long before she and Brom are upstairs worshiping Baal like mad minx! We get some wonderful groovy eroticism here, as Brom slowly pulls the zipper on Nora's flared velour trousers, leading her to sit up and demand, in a dominant sexy voice, "Zip me, baby...ZIP ME!" Never have fasteners sounded so dirty. Brom complies and zips the living hell out of her for several minutes--again, this scene goes ON and ON--until finally they gain their release...just as the Sea Ghost EXPLODES in the harbor! Now THAT'S fireworks, baby!
the bloated corpse of Hamp's sister-in-law shows up in the drawing room. Hamp reveals that the drowning story was a lie: his brother Saul was actually a madman and the wife lived with him there to keep him out of the asylum. Now that she's dead, the last control on Saul is gone, and he's presumably the murderer. Their baby, Hamp says, died years ago. Hmm...
So Saul shows up in the dark and tosses Nora off the tower like Jezebel; the rest of the crew get over it quickly and find the caves leading to Baal's temple; and suddenly we're in Raiders of the Lost Ark territory. Saul shows up to kill anyone mesmerized by the Phonecian loot, and after killing Brom and going all WWE on Dan with a neckbreaker (he even looks like Hillbilly Jim) is finally shot by Brent.
Of course that's not the end, as Hamp hasn't been totally forthcoming about what REALLY happened to baby Michael, which of course leads to a second climax (wahey!), some truly chilling scenes as the second member of the freak family is revealed, and an explosive ending that really must be seen.
Tower of Evil is a rip-roaring ride from one end to the other, chock full of everything I look for from a movie. There's plenty of blood, easily two times the quota of nudity (much of it from Candace Glenndenning herself, which adds super-quality to the abundant quantity), wild dialog, creepy atmopshere, really wonderful cinematography, and an action-packed wild and wooly ending in the shadow of a statue of Baal. I mean really, if you want more than that, you're just a glutton.
There are some laughable bits in with the awesome--some of the "freak" makeup is frankly bad, but O'Connolly wisely keeps it in shadow much of the time for effective creepiness right up to the end. Also, since Candace & Co. are meant to be Americans--but are all very, VERY British--their voices were rather clumsily dubbed by more American-sounding actors. Much as I miss Candace's voice, her body is there to more than make up for it. Finally, some of the island sets look like they're built from plastic Star Trek rocks, and the aforementioned flashback-flub brought a chuckle. But really, these are small points held up against the majesty of the whole.
As if there were any doubt, Tower of Evil gets the coveted 3+ thumb rating. Truly a must-see, so see it as soon as you can.
And would it kill you to go read some of Karswell's comics already? Tell him the Vicar sent you. ;)
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Friday, May 23, 2008
If an aged Vaudevillian slips on a banana peel and no one laughs, is it still comedy?
I admit that one of the reasons I selected Mill Creek's 50 Drive-In Classics box set to follow the legendary and (probably) never-to-be-topped 50 Chilling Classics compendium (still the deal of the century folks--get one today!) is the presence of one title among the fifty forgotten films presented there that begged--nay, screamed--to be watched: 1980's Mama Dracula. I mean, come on. MAMA DRACULA. How could you not want to watch that film?
The more I learned, the better it sounded--a zany vampire spoof at the tail-end of the seventies, and starring Academy Award™ Winner Louise Fletcher in the title role? A pair of famously wacky twin vampires? An Elizabeth Bathory-based plot that promised loads of nudity along with the laffs? Last Tango in Paris hottie Maria Schneider to boot? How could it go wrong?
Let me count the ways...
We open on a portrait of the severe-looking Countess Erzebet Dracula (Fletcher, doing her best Nurse Ratchet scowl), as a deep but also fey/gay voice-over details the particulars of her history. This is the standard Bathory stuff--she kidnapped virgins from the village and bathed in their blood in order to preserve her youth, she was locked up in a tower for her crimes, she disappeared later, yadda yadda yadda--ending with the ominous line, "Today the Countess lives still, and continues to pursue her eeeevil destiny..." All in the voice of the MC from Queer Eye for the Creepy Guy. You laughing yet?
Next we cut to a laboratory, where a stereotypically nerdy professor-type who looks like he just stepped out of a Men-At-Work video (Hello, Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive!) is cajoling his bunnies into giving him blood samples. The bunny-poker is Professor Peter Von Blood, who on second look is actually the spitting image of Jon Cryer in his immortal role as Duckie in Pretty in Pink.
Or at least knock her out long enough that it won't matter."
There's a little bit of cleverness as Von Blood orders his dinner on the ship, obviously uncomfortable with the high-class Maître d', and as he opens the menu we find the film's credits inside. (I'll have the Fletcher Falafel, thanks!) We get more shots of differing modes of transportation as Von Blood makes his way across Europe by train, headed for Transylvania, natch. One of the passengers is holding a nespaper that has the headline, " "TERROR: FIVE MORE GIRLS ARE MISSING!" ," extraneous quotation marks included. Now THAT made me laugh--yes, I got my first chuckle of the movie from an unintentional grammar gaffe. That should tell you something.
In Harker mode, Duckie ends up at a pub in the Carpathians, where all the villagers still dress like extras from Bride of Frankenstein. There's some "comical" tooth checking, the pub owner offers his daughter to Von Blood, forcefully encouraging him to deflower her (if she's not a virgin, she'll be "safe," see?), and as Duckie dances with the buxom virgin we get more "hilarious" cartoon sound effects over closeups of the girl's cleavage (Gerald McBoob-Boing!) before a heavy, ugly henchwoman who speaks only in grunts shows up to whisk him away. It's all sub-sub-Mel Brooks level comedy, and while I enjoy boinging boobs as much as the next guy--hell, as much as the next 5 guys put together--it still all seemed a little desperate and sad.
the Countess's twin sons (more on these two in a minute) and Mama Dracula herself. It was at this point that I realized things were just not going to get any better. Louise Fletcher is not just phoning it in--she's gone back in time to the Old West and is dictating her role to a clerk in green visor, vest, and white shirt with a garter on the sleeve who's tapping it out in Morse code. She's clearly having no fun, and the success of a would-be zany comedy like this almost depends on the sense that the people involved all think it's a hoot. Here, you get the sense that almost everyone involved would rather be having a root canal or a proctological exam--which come to think of it, would probably be more entertaining.
So the gist of the plot goes like this, and stop me if you've heard this one: Countess Dracula needs virgin blood to maintain her youth, but thanks to the recently-ended Swingin' 70s, virgin blood is in record-low supply. She's lured Duckie to her castle in the hopes that he can take a small sample of virgin blood and use SCIENCE! to reproduce it indefinitely, creating a blood-red fountain of youth. To give him the raw material he needs, she and her sons kidnap virginal girls from Mama Dracula's fashion boutique--which is named, cunningly, "Vamp Boutique"--conveniently located in the sprawling Paris-like metropolis only a half-hour's drive from her castle in the heart of the Carpathian mountains. Yeah.
Of course the missing girls raise the suspicion of the town police force, which seems to consist entirely of a fat old man in Sherlock Holmes gear and his nubile, virginal daughter, played by Schneider (the daughter, not the fat man). While the old man bumbles listlessly from one tired slapstick gag to another (and his catch phrases of "Sabotage! Sabotage!" and "You know my methods!" summarily fail to inspire the chuckles they're so plainly striving to), his considerably smarter but no more comedically-talented daughter suspects the truth about Vamp Boutique and uses her position as lead actress in a traveling drama troupe (seriously, don't ask) to infiltrate Castle Dracula and get to the bottom of things. It all ends in a gala fashion show at the castle with a would-be zany ending and a nonsensical epilogue that once again inspires little more than a sardonic smirk.
"Doin' the French Mistake" from Blazing Saddles, or Marty Feldman's inspired performance as EYE-gor in Young Frankenstein ["IIIIIIII ain't got no body!" "Call it...a hunch!" "What hump?"]) But here that warmth, affection, and knowing corniness is completely absent. It's as if the actors know the things they're doing are supposed to be funny, but are clueless as to why, and furthermore don't care enough even to try to sell it.
For a few examples, early on Fletcher is having a therapy session with a stereotypically Jewish shrink, who inexplicably shouts all his lines at top volume. That's supposed to be funny. Fletcher relates a disgusting dream in which a naked young girl transforms into a naked old crone--so disgusting a sight, she says, "Even my horse was throwing up!" Yes, that's the punchline. Dr. Duckie works tirelessly in his lab, and is extremely disappointed when in one experiment he produces not blood, but a gold brick! He tosses it into a huge pile of alchemical loot with a disgusted sneer. Hilarious? And about a later scene in the boutique where a Little Orphan Annie lookalike wards off her vampire attackers by lifting her dress to flash panties with a cross on the front and a Star of David on the back--this last can-can style, naturally--well, the less said the better.
Oh, and the pub girl whose father was trying to protect her by helping her lose her virginity? She finally succeeds, which leads her to invite all the pub-goers to a gangbang in the back room that ends up LITERALLY making the pub explode! Cause it's a gangBANG, see! Is this thing on?
I know Louise Fletcher is renowned more for her dramatic prowess than her skills as a comedienne, but still, her performance here is just painful. Still, it's not all her fault. Apparently the writers and director thought having an Academy Award™ Winner pronounce normal words in silly, nonsensical ways equalled comedy GOLD. For instance, it's not "the castle," it's "the CAST-ull." Every time. Seriously, did anyone laugh? And apparently in the 70s and early 80s pronouncing "virgin" as "WIR-gin" was the height of hilarity--not only do they wring that gag to its dregs here, but I remember another unfunny comedy from the same era that did the same--Zorro, the Gay Blade. But at least that one had George Hamilton.
Could you put me in touch with his agent? I'm about to be in the market for one."
For all her notoriety and nubile-ness, in this flick Schneider is a black hole of acting ability--her mere presence makes the people around her WORSE, simply by the cosmic power of her sucking. Dr. Duckie is similarly execrable, performing his canned zaniness and mad doctor scenes like the ADD kid in the drama club. (A scene where he bounces gleefully around his new laboratory--which honest-to-God looks like a brewery--is just embarassing.) The Inspector looks like George Kennedy after a three-day bender--which is to say, like George Kennedy all the time--and couldn't make you laugh if you were on nitrous oxide. Really, it's that dire.
The only potential bright spots in this long, dark tea-time of comedy are the Countess's twin sons, played by the debuting Wajnberg Brothers. These two guys make quite an entrance, looking for all the world like the emaciated offspring of Bela Lugosi and Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Their strange voices and weird mannerisms in their early scenes are actually just freaky enough to be entertaining, and an early strange interlude where one of the brothers spouts nonsensical surreal poetry and discovers his sibling trapped in a grandfather clock (A Rollin homage? No, definitely not.) is probably the standout scene of the movie, followed closely by a dreamy shot of the two of them bathing in blood with Mama.
But unfortunately the director can't let a good thing be good enough, and by the 45-minute mark the brothers are so overused as to be annoying. He even has them go through a 5-minute recreation of the famous Harpo/Groucho "mirror routine," which they don't have anywhere near the physical comic sense nor the timing to pull off. Again, embarrassing.
(Giving credit where credit is due, there is ONE scene in the movie that inspired honest chuckles and something approaching enjoyment--Von Blood requests 10 gallons of blood for testing, which means the brothers have to procure 10 virgins from the boutique. They do this by opening a secret panel in the changing room while the girls are trying on dresses, scaring them into a faint, and dragging them off. The montage that follows the 10-gallon request is actually pretty funny, as a parade of topless girls falls into the brothers' arms, one after another, but not passing out before answering the question, "Wirgin?" As the quest goes on, the brothers get tired, letting their fatigue show through yawns as they try to scare the topless girls. Hey, it's not much, but I enjoyed it.)
I commented some time ago that I feared I had watched too many awesome movies in a row--I'd given something like seven 2.5-to-3+ thumbs ratings in a row, and I felt the streak was bound to reverse at some point. And here I am, giving Mama Dracula 0.5 thumbs, the second less-than-one-thumb review in as many weeks. Don't watch it. Watch Love at First Bite (also with George Hamilton! Hey!) or Dracula: Dead and Loving It. You'll thank me later.
As to this funk I'm in, looks like it's time to break out my unwatched Rollin, Naschy, and Meyer. I need to do something to break this streak. Oh well, thank God for AMERICAN XPRESS!
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Look, you and I have been friends a long time, right? I mean, we've had our ups and downs, our petty disagreements, the occasionally awkward passes at one another's girlfriends, or spouses, or mothers...but most of the time we've been tight, right? And don't think it hasn't meant a lot to me.
So listen, there's something you should know, before we go on this camping trip you're so inexplicably hot about. See, occasionally--not all the time, just every now and then--I have this...well, problem when I sleep. Mostly after I've been drinking, and since we're packing all this beer and sharing a tent, I thought I'd best warn you. It's a little embarrassing, and it can get messy.
You see--I gush in my sleep. Uncontrollably. Copiously. I gush and gush and gush until I'm all drained and emptied out. And it's especially bad when I've just seen a movie like the amazing blood-soaked 1972 trash-gold cinematic obscurity, Three on a Meathook. When I've got something like this in my subconscious, chances are I'm going to gush over it.
I mean all over it. Buckle in, folks:
We open with a naked blonde babe crawling out of bed, which in my book is the second best place to start a movie. It's even better when her bed partner is a balding, paunchy, sideburns-sporting 70s hunk as he is here, because that pegs the sleaze-meter at just the appropriate level. You wonder what kind of drunken swinging Bacchanalia had to happen before the credits for this girl to end up with THAT guy, and that sort of speculation just engages my imagination and puts the Vicar right in his happy place. It also makes me nostalgic, but that's a different story.
Our unnamed slice of hotness is getting ready to go on a trip with three of her best girlfriends, and no amount of protest or promises of more sweaty disco-sex on our hero's part can convince her to stay. (If only she had partaken in more hambeast love, a lot of tragedy might have been avoided--that's a tip, girls, write it down.) The vivacious quartet is soon on the road, and not long after that stop at a roadside lake for an impromptu skinny-dip. Like you do, when you're on a road trip with your girlfriends. Am I right, ladies?
Unfortunately the girls don't see the strange sunglass-wearing man in a canoe on the lake, nor do they hear the ominous music that plays every time he shows up. Soon they're obliviously on the road again, and--wouldn't you know it?--the girls' car breaks down! Not only that, but who should show up but the ominous stranger! Luckily once he takes his sunglasses off he's not nearly so ominous--he is Billy Townsend (James Pickett), a baby-faced introvert more than willing to offer the girls food and lodging at his father's farm for the night. To their credit the girls show some reticence, but in the end they go along. Hey, what's the worst that could happen, right?
At the house we meet Billy's father, Paw (Charles Kissinger, how I'm missing yer), who is none too happy that Billy has brought a lot of "TRASH" into "his MOMMA'S HOUSE." Come on, Dad, they're standing right there. Billy won't turn the girls out, though; one man's TRASH is another man's babelicious boarder, I guess. After a dinner of the strangely delicious but unplaceable gray meat that the Townsend farm is famous for ("It's veal," Paw explains), the old man ominously tells Billy, "You know what happens when you're around women, son!" The lights go out, Paw gets drunk in his room, and everyone retires for the night.
The acting up to this point has been wooden to the point of laughability, and the camera work static and fairly uninteresting (though when the camera does become mobile later, the previous stillness lends it more import--a nice but probably unintentional touch). Billy's comedic earnestness makes things better, though, as does Paw's cartoonish curmudgeonliness and the girls' stilted line readings. And the music--dear god, the music!--if you're not grinning and tapping your toes, you can get out of the tent now.
Still, nothing has prepared us for the carnage that is about to be unleashed. In short order one of the girls takes an ill-conceived bath, which gives us more boobies before ending up about the way you'd expect. The two girls in the bedroom receive shotgun blasts that splatter them all over the guest beds, a surprisingly brutal visual with some nice caro syrup FX work. But the piece de resistance is the fourth unlucky daytripper, who flees into the basement (GREAT idea, babe) and creeps silently along a large brown-paneled wall before taking an axe to the neck in one of the three or four greatest decapitation scenes it's ever been my pleasure to laugh at! Really, have a look:
"just like what happened after your momma died!" apparently, and even though he doesn't remember hacking the three girls to bits, Billy is overwhelmed with guilt and wants to turn himself in. His dad puts the kibosh on that, though, and sends the young man to town for "supplies" while he cleans things up and covers the bloody tracks. We're led to believe Paw has some experience in this arena.
After stopping at a general store to get the supplies, Billy surprisingly doesn't feel any better about the quadruple murder/mutilation he left back home and decides to go out on the town and get schnockered. Like you do. Soon he's tooling around the bad part of town in his pick-up; the juxtaposition of the idyllic rural scenes we've had up to now with the seedy, used-car-lot-strewn urban wasteland is jarring. Despite being a rube from the country Billy happens upon the BESTEST SEEDY BAR IN TOWN. How do I know it's the best? Because the house band is the amazing AMERICAN XPRESS, a 10+ member funkadelic funksplosion of truly funktastic proportions. Seriously, now, have a look at these guys.
While AMERICAN XPRESS play the absolutely funkeriffic tune "WE ARE ALL INSANE" ("Life is so ridiculous / And I am so meticulous / I don't even like black licorice / And we're allllllllllll … INSANE!"), Billy orders whiskey after whiskey. I think he has a flashback to his father berating him for killings in his past, though that may actually come later. Anyway, his conspicuous consumption draws the attention of barmaid Sherry, who uses her preternatural powers of empathy to see that something is bothering him. They engage in some minor flirtation before Billy smiles winningly and passes the hell out.
I must say a few words here about the astonishing performance by Sherry Steiner as Sherry. Steiner is a lovely woman with sensitive eyes, lovely dark hair and a beautiful smile; she also delivers every line as if she were playing the mother in a spoof of one of those high-school personal hygiene films, with such earnestness that you half expect her to start instructing you on the proper way to floss. So kind, so sincere, so carefully enunciated and measured in her speech--seriously, she's like the best dental assistant EVER, as we shall soon see.
Billy wakes the next morning in Sherry's bed, hungover but otherwise on top of the world! A day that started in murder and terror ends in AMERICAN XPRESS and barmaid nookie! Nothing could ruin this moment, right?
WRONG--amazingly, asoundingly, unprecedentedly, and most of all HILARIOUSLY, Billy has WET THE BED! And it's a plot point! Holy crap--er, piss--if I hadn't been in love with the movie before now, that totally sealed it. Anyway, Sherry is not bothered in the least by it, even saying "I like to take care of you!" before getting up for a nude walkaround the piss-soaked bed en route to getting dressed. (Hang onto this one, Billy! She's a KEEPER!)
She cooks him breakfast, and then we get a "falling in love" montage that would be awesome in its cheesiness even if it hadn't just followed a scene of intimate protagonist incontinence--walks through the park, picnic on the grass, even LOVE SWINGING, all to some absolutely spendiferous music that must be heard to be believed. Finally the day must come to an end, and as they say goodbye Billy invites Sherry out to the farm for a weekend stay, apparently having completely forgotten what happened the LAST time he had overnight female guests. Love does funny things to a guy.
The movie slows down a little after that, as Billy and his father spar for a while over whether Billy should even be having a relationship, let alone inviting TRASH out to his MOMMA'S HOUSE again. (As Billy drives up Paw is tellingly coming out of his smokehouse, padlocking the door carefully behind him.) Once again Billy sticks to his guns, and after only a little more padding Sherry is coming up the drive to the house, inexplicably having brought her blonde friend Becky with her for her dirty weekend with Billy. On the other hand, this IS the 70s--ménage? Maybe "Three on a Meathook" is some kind of swingin' euphemism...
Paw gets drunk again, making a bad impression; Becky, Sherry, and Billy go for a long playful romp on the farm and in the surrounding wilderness, to the strains of more of the film's wonderful synth-based score. Later Sherry and Becky (the very cute and amazingly-named Madelyn Buzzard) are in the bedroom talking about Billy, and Becky delivers the speech of the movie, telling Sherry in her friend's earnest, hygenist tone about her one true love and the tragic end of the affair:
"They sent him an invitation to die in one of their wars...and then sent me a telegram to say that he had." Looking directly at the camera, Becky imparts to her friend (and you, the audience) this nugget of wisdom: "Take all the happiness you can--at best life's a short ride, and it isn't always round trip." Wow, that's ama--hey, wait, what?
Anyway, after that they have dinner, where the still-plastered Paw serves up more of his special "veal" and we get more suspicious comments about the nature of the meat. Becky goes to her room and Sherry makes as if to follow, but at the last moment stops, turns slowly (I expected the 3 stooges "slowly I turn" routine--it had exactly the same timing) and comes back to kiss Billy passionately. Cue the music! They fall into make-out silhouette on the couch, doing the hopefully pee-free nasty this time. Presumably Paw takes the back staircase up to his room later.
So here's the kicker--as it turns out, Billy is NOT to blame for the killings out at the ranch! It's actually PAW doing the killing! (<--Spoilers!) We discover this when a heavy-breathing Paw strolls into Becky's room in the middle of the night and plants a pickaxe in her chest, My Bloody Valentine-style! Awesome. Practiced in the ways of stealth impalement, Paw wakes up no one with his hijinx.
In the morning Sherry discovers her friend missing and asks Paw about it ("I've never known here to get up early before!" What, never?) and is rebuffed and thrown out of the house. Wandering around on her own (you may well ask "where's Billy?" but it will avail thee naught) she stumbles into the smokehouse and finds the titular three, though on THREE SEPARATE meathooks and not one as the title suggested. False advertising! It's not clear which three they are, but at this point it doesn't matter. The screaming Sherry races back to the house and bursts into the kitchen to confront this grisly scene:
the most incredible deus ex machina EVAR occurs--and if you want to know what it is, you'll just have to hunt this flick down and watch it, because I'm not telling. Suffice to say that the only thing more amazing and hilarious is the 10 minute post-rescue exposition with an unnamed Expert, who somehow is able to tell Sherry and Billy everything we need to know about what they just experienced. Nobody seems to worried that they've been dining on human flesh for the better part of the movie, Dad gets committed for life, and the credits roll to put an end to the seemingly interminable awesomeness.
Three on a Meathook is not for everyone's tastes. (HAW!) In fact it might be a good acid test for readers of this site to see if your tastes are down with mine and the Duke's. If you can watch this movie and be put off by the hilarious music, the over-earnest acting, the crazy plot developments, and the low-tech gore, then you know you're not part of the congregation I'm preaching to.
But if you watch it and find yourself grinning like an idiot with every Mr. Rogers-intoned profession of love, every overwrought bit of dialog and wonderful strain of synth-addled score--in short, if you will let yourself be entertained by the ineptness that approaches high art, then stick around. You're going to agree with me when I give Three on a Meathook 2.75 thumbs--it's a bit slow in spots, silly in others, but the quicker bits, the amazing ending, and AMERICAN XPRESS more than make up for it.
If you agree, pack up the truck. We're going camping.
PS--This is so far as I know my first exposure to the cinema of director William Girdler, who also directed The Manitou and other well-known but yet-unseen-by-me 70s obscurities, but it will not be my last. Apparently I'm not the only one enraptured by his cinematic output: here is a whole website devoted to Girdler's art, including trivia, interviews, an even more detailed plot summary of Three on a Meathook, and most valuably, an audio clip of AMERICAN XPRESS! Listen now, thank me later!
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Okay, it's not a review, but this was just too horrifying not to post.
I thought the unhinged-jaw mannequin heads in Tourist Trap were scary. I thought the creepy porcelain doll in Satan's Blood was horrifying. And then a "friend" sent me this:
I haven't slept in three days. Tonight's not looking too good either.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
People are always asking Stephen King where he gets his ideas, and while he has several stock answers, my favorite is probably the one I've seen reproduced the most--when he pulls out this old chestnut, the buttzillion-selling author smiles sheepishly and says, "I think it's because I have the heart of a young boy...I keep it in a jar on my desk." Hahaha! Oh, Steve, you make the evisceration of children for inspiration sound like such a lark!
Still, taking the first part of that answer at face value, I wonder if that young boy whose heart Mr. King possesses might have ever gone to a drive-in with his parents to see 1972's The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie (aka Rosalie and the Strange Vengeance, aka Someone to Watch Over Me). Because seeing hapless jewelry salesman Virgil (Ken Howard) strapped to an old-fashioned iron bed after childish, slightly-unhinged Rosalie (Bonnie Bedelia) has broken his leg with the back end of an axe so that he'll be unable to leave her remote homestead, hearing her proclaim her love for him even while he writhes in...well, misery...pleading with her to for god's sake bring him a doctor--well, it all seems just a little bit familiar.
Then again, Virgil isn't a writer. An important point.
We open with Rosalie digging in a dust-strewn, hardscrabble landscape, while chickens cluck in the background and artistic silhouettes of fowl-festooned trees drift by in the foreground. Rosalie is digging a grave for her granddaddy, Bear, and old Indian rancher who was apparently her only family. After rolling his corpse into the grave the young girl shimmies down a rope into a well to retrieve a mysterious bag from behind a loose stone, then climbs back and puts the bag in the dead grandparent's hand. She also buries his rifle with him. Then she walks for hours to the freeway, where she starts hitchhiking and is quickly picked up by Virgil, a salesman on vacation en route to catch a flight to Hawaii. No points for guessing he's not going to make the baggage check. After they're threatened at a truck stop by an ugly and belligerent biker, Virgil agrees to deliver the young lady back to her door.
Rosalie claims to be meeting her Grandaddy at the ranch, a place she's never been but has dreamed about. The viewer's alarm bells sound, but of course Virgil just smiles and goes along. On the way back to the ranch, Rosalie betrays a fascination with the car's tapedeck and cigarette lighter, almost as if she's never seen such things before! She has a thick hillbilly accent and seems none too bright. Virgil takes it all in stride, making no advances since she's meant to be 15 years old. It's one of the few notes of nobility his character sounds, as we shall see.
The Hills Have Eyes-ish trek back out to the dirt farm; at one point they even pass a dilapidated "Radioactive Warning" sign, though nothing ever comes of this plot-wise (unless we're meant to understand that at least 2 of the 3 cast members are mutants in addition to being inbred hillbillies). When they get there Rosalie begs him to wait while she finds her Granddaddy. She disappears into the gathering dark and Virgil goes after her, poking around the eerily abandoned shack. When he returns to the car he finds both tires deflated, and when he enters the now-open shack, he gets a near-stab to the wrist and a chicken to the face! Stranded, he agrees to stay the night with Rosalie and head back to town in the morning.
The next day Rosalie tries to convince Virgil to stay, asking him pointedly, "You figure I'd make a good wife?" But he is un-enticed by her strange sack dress and weekly bathing habits, and says so. Bad idea--next think you know Rosalie is swinging the the back of an axe at Virgil's tibia, and the pole-axed Samaritan faints from pain. He awakes, Gulliver-esque, strapped to a ratty old bed and being fawned over by his young, somewhat smelly admirer. Misery set-up now complete.
However, instead of begging and cajoling his captor, Virgil responds by getting as nasty and abusive as possible. He spits venom at Rosalie, calling her stupid, cursing her ignorance, threatening her with the police, telling her he wouldn't marry her if she was the last girl on earth--really, considering his helpless position, his attitude is quite shocking. Even threats from Rosalie ("How would you like me to break your arm too?") only improve his outlook for a few moments; it's never long before he's cursing and name-calling and spitting abuse at the girl again. If I'd been Rosalie, I think I would have taken a few more whacks at him, just to teach him some manners.
SHE do this to HIM? Even later there's a (very) little racial subtext, when the greasy biker from way back at the beginning (his name is Fry, and he has a history with Rosalie and her granddad) shows up and talks about the dangers of going to the police: "A 'breed gets in trouble in this state--it ain't too good." Virgil calls Rosalie an "ignorant half-breed Indian SQUAW!" and a "stupid APE!" several times, driving home that possible feeling of racial superiority. It's an ugly part of Virgil's character, and it's never really redeemed in him.
The rest of the movie can be summed up by the formula "Vigil Attempts escape --> FAIL --> Rosalie professes love/threatens bodily harm --> REPEAT." It's broken up a little by the appearance of Fry, who wants the sack of gold Bear had hidden on his land now that the old man is dead. Rosalie buried it with him of course, and doesn't want to tell Fry anyway, as they have a hate/hate relationship (she bit his finger off once because he was "tickling" her). Once Virgil learns that Rosalie might have a sack of gold somewhere he too becomes interested in her, and peppers his speech with more pleasantries and promises of marriage (though never completely banishing the terms "IGNORANT" and "APE" from his sweet nothings), but to her credit Rosalie is too smart to be taken in by such talk. His inability to deceive the Indian girl enrages Virgil to even further abuse.
In the end Rosalie's apparently genuine love for Virgil makes her betray the gold's secret location to Fry and leave the ranch with him, in order to keep him from hurting Virgil even worse. Once she's gone Virgil proves quite able to drag himself out to the car and get its tires pumped up (even changing a spare on a bum leg!) and finally he escapes the ranch. Once out on the road (to some HILARIOUS traveling music) Virgil sees Rosalie sitting alone and forlorn on the shoulder of the freeway. Inexplicably (perhaps gripped by the guilt of the White Man's Burden?) he goes back to see if he can help her, discovering that she has killed Fry and setting things up for a not-at-all surprising twist ending.
Ken Howard as Virgil is somewhat worse--though his insults and outrage can be entertaining at times, he never seems like a real character, and his line readings are often perfunctory. But character actor Anthony Zerbe (of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park!)really steals the show as Fry, the slimy, cunning, animalistic villain who might be stupid but who's always dangerous. But even with Zerbe and Bedelia doing their best,the movie is at least half-an-hour longer than its plot can support. The twist at the end (which I assume constitutes the titular "strange vengeance") is rather stupid, and not much else happens.
Still, the movie is SO much like Stephen King's Misery in its set-up--and fifteen years before the fact!--that it's worth a look for fans of the author. As for whether the similarities are intentional or not, I can't say--but I can tell you that star Bonnie Bedelia appeared in the orignal Salem's Lot mini-series, as well as the movie version of Needful Things. Coincidence? One has to wonder whether King might be this movie's number one fay-unnn...
So 1.5 thumbs for The Strange Vengeance of Rosalie. You might dig it, you might not. See it or don't. What am I, your mother?
Thanks again to Karswell for the obscurities!
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Another week, another dolls/dummies/puppets movie for the Vicar. I never realized until recently I had this many such films in my library. Clearly my subconscious is trying to tell me something. I just hope it doesn't lead to blackouts and mysterious charges to RealDoll.com on my credit card.
This time the movie is 1988's Waxwork, a horror/comedy with a strong Tales from the Crypt/Darkside vibe starring Zach "Hey, Wasn't He in Gremlins?" Galligan. Here we find Zach fighting terror on the clock again, only this time rather than trying to keep his freaky furry friends from eating after midnight he's racing to prevent a sadistic sculptor from claiming 18 souls with his magical wax museum before the clock strikes twelve and the monstrous mannequins take over the world. And he has to do it without Phoebe Cates this time, which we can all agree is a downer for him.
We open with a strong pre-credits sequence set in an old mansion, where we join the murder of an anonymous screaming dude, already in progress. An unseen assailant force-feeds his victim a fiery yule-log and we get to see the poor guy dance around on fire before taking a nose-dive right back into the blazing hearth! The killer then steals a bunch of artifacts from a museum-quality display case before disappearing and allowing the opening titles to roll.
After some cartoon-wipe transitions we finally meet Zach, playing spoiled rich kid Mark Loftmore. There's a weird scene here where he's having breakfast with his socialite, oppressively infantilizing mother (Mark gets very pissy when she insists he drink juice instead of coffee) before stepping out in the hallway to get his espresso and a cigarette from his stereotypically English butler Jenkins. There's lots of grousing and generally bratty behavior from Mark here, leading me to question at first whether he is to be our hero or some kind of frat-boy villain who will get his comeuppance through the horror. He's certainly not going to win "Mr. Congeniality."
However, we quickly learn that Mark's behavior is pretty much standard for the youths of 1988, in the universe of this film anyway. As Mark walks to school we cut to a couple of his school chums, mousy Sarah (Valley Girl Deborah Foreman) and sassy China (Michelle Johnson). China is a blonde in a black body suit, totally rockin' the Mariel Hemingway bushy-brows, and is so bitchy and sex-obsessed you just know she'll come to a bad end. As they too walk to school (nobody drives or takes the bus in this posh neighborhood) they pass a gothic mansion right in the middle of their street which strangely neither of them has ever noticed there before. A big sign over the door reads "WAXWORK" in gothic script, and the proprieter (a wonderfully creepy David Warner) appears out of nowhere to invite them and "no more than four" of their friends to a private showing that evening. He disappears just as quickly, leaving the two girls to sass their way to school and tell their friends the good news.
Tony (Dana Ashbrook). They attend a lecture by a German professor standing "hilariously" in front of a Nazi flag, then later while watching football practice from the bleachers (China is schtupping the quarterback, natch) decide they might as well go to the waxworks, since otherwise we'd have no movie.
So far (with the exceptions of Log Boy) the movie has been all comedy and no horror, and the comedy has left quite a bit to be desired. The jokes are all broad and obvious, the characters snarky and unlikeable, and the plot worthy of several eye-rolls. A couple of quotable lines from sassy-slut China allay matters a little (such as her motto "I do what I want, when I want--dig it, or fuck off!" and the can't-believe-it's-not-foreshadowing line "Can't a girl get laid around here without getting burned at the stake?"), but mostly it's been a slow train to Yawnsville. That's about to change, however, thanks to a big performance in a small package: Mihaly 'Michu' Meszaros.
Michu is a Little Person of the creepy Hungarian variety, and it's impossible to take your eyes off him. A veteran of such classics as Big Top Pee-Wee and Warlock: the Armageddon as well as a nightmare-realization specialist in H. R. Pufnstuf, Michu will forever be best remembered as "full-body ALF"--that's right, he was the man in the suit whenever Alf had to be shown running after the Tanners' cat or dashing upstairs or in his hot steamy love scenes with luscious teeny Lynn. Or maybe that was just the dream. Anyway, he's ALF.
Hans, the butler who welcomes our group of punk kids to the waxworks. (With his distinctive voice and that character name, I wondered if his casting was an homage to Harry Earles's immortal role in Tod Browning's Freaks. Probably not.) He only gets a few minutes of screen time here, but he makes every second count, giving sharp militaristic bows (complete with "whoosh!" sound effects) and berating his Lurch-like underling butler before exiting in a huff. Seeing Michu connect with a left hook to Lurch's kneecaps makes me smile every time.
Left to their own devices, the Brat Pack soon find their way into the musuem proper, and FINALLY the horror elements start to make their presence known. The museum itself is the expected Hall of Horrors, with werewolves, mummies, zombies, vampires, and even a bandaged Invisible Man force-feeding a flapper from a gasoline pump! I don't remember that from the Claude Rains version; maybe it was cut. The figures and lighting are very well done here, with blue and red gels just screaming "80s Music Video" and the wax monsters themselves being suitably creepy.
When idiot Tony drops his lighter into the werewolf display, he saunters in after it and magically finds himself in a real-life version of the scene, courtesy the best cartoon blue wavy lines the studio could offer. Suddenly in the middle of a vast forest in period costume and with a ponytailed colonial hairdo, Tony jumps to the only logical conclusion--his friends have hypnotized him and are playing a practical joke! Makes sense to me! He follows the trail to a creepy cabin, where pre-Gimli John Rhys-Davies is doing that furry moondance. We don't get a real transformation here, but the practical werewolf costume is pretty imposing and impressive--except for the comically over-sized ears that make him look like a vicious wolf-rabbit hybrid.
Wolfy bites Tony just as some hunters come in to break things up. One of them gets the most impressive death scene in the movie, as the werewolf grabs the top of his head and tears him in half VERTICALLY, just like a blood-spurting paper doll! You have to cheer. Then Gimliwolf gets pumped full of silver and Tony starts to change from the bite, getting a load of pewter for his trouble as well. We return to the museum, where half-changed Tony is now a part of the display. It's a trap!
Next to go wandering into a display is China, who we knew wouldn't be long for this movie anyway. She is whisked to Castle Dracula, where a romance-novel cover-model count (b-movie prettyboy Miles O'Keeffe) is serving steak tartar to his guests. This is actually one of the most effectively disturbing scenes in the movie, as shell-shocked China chokes down a slice or two of "beef" (complete with special sticky red "sauce") while the rest of the party gnosh like hyenas on a downed wildebeest, dripping blood and meat everywhere. Excusing herself from the table, China staggers into the kitchen where she finds a man strapped to the butcher block, his lower leg stripped to the bone! The effects here are very good and icky, and I found myself cringing at the thought of looking down and seeing half your leg gone; and of knowing that you just ate some poor dude's calf RAW. Nasty stuff.
The vampires soon storm the kitchen and there's a great, bloody battle as China puts up one hell of a fight. There's an exploding head, more leg trauma, amazing gouts of blood on the white-tiled walls (a great visual), and one of the most hilarious vampire kills I've ever seen--China desperately pushes one of the Count's brides away, throwing her roughly against a wall-sized wine rack. Three champagne bottles impale the vampire, corks intact, and once they tear through the front of her dress (these are CORKS, mind you), they pop, spraying now-pink champagne all over the horrified China! Amazing! Shortly thereafter Miles shows up and puts an end to all this foolishness with a bite to the neck, but I had to admire China's toughness. Sassy slut, you are redeemed.
Back in the museum, sweet and silent Sarah is fascinated by a display showing the Marquis de Sade whipping one of his women, the first hint that she might only LOOK sweet and innocent. Before the museum can claim more victims, however, bratty Mark drags her out and they head on home, living to fight another day.
His curiosity aroused by his friends' disappearance and some missing persons posters that look EXACTLY like some of the figures in the museum, Mark somehow figures out that the museum isn't what it appears to be and contacts his crazy uncle for help and much-needed exposition. It seems the wax artist is collecting souls with his wax displays, which are life-sized voodoo dolls or something since they have bits and pieces of all the original subject in them (a hair of the Marquis de Sades, a knife of Jack the Ripper's--I'm not sure how they got the werewolf's nail clippings or the invisible man's used cotton swabs) and, if he gets 18 souls (6 plus 6 plus 6, just like in AD&D!) his creations will turn into real live boys and wreak havoc on the world. It all leads to a final battle in the museum that's as fun as it is wacky, and of course you know it all comes out in the wash.
It's slow going on the front end with the bad acting and terrible "humor," but once Michu shows up, the supernatural stuff kicks in, and we start to go into the wax displays, it's like several horror movies in one--none of them spectacular, but all of them entertaining. In the second trip to the museum we get a nice mummy scene with an unlucky cop as the victim, a black and white zombie display with Zach, and a strange but satisfying trip to the court of the Marquis de Sade (played wonderfully slimy by the "striking" J. Kenneth Campbell) where quiet little Sarah finally indulges her wild side. The final battle between the living dummies and Mark's uncle's army of old men (including Jenkins!) is silly but fun, with rapid-fire references to Little Shop of Horrors, It's Alive, and even Dirty Harry ("Go ahead, bat--Make My Day.") Though Mark's arc from spoiled brat to hero isn't at all believable, it was necessary to get to the end, and the end was a blast, so I didn't mind too much.
So while it's by no means perfect, Waxwork is a fun little flick with something to offer the 80s-nostalgic horror fan, and I give it a solid 2 thumbs. If you don't shed a tear when Poor Hans meets his fate, you have no soul. And that's a shame, because we're still a couple short.
PS--Not sure if you can read it on that poster, but the tagline at the bottom of the poster is "More fun than a barrel of mummies!" Seriously, guys, that's the best you could do? Ugh. I'm sure my readers could do LOADS better. (Wink-wink!)