Thursday, May 14, 2009

Top 10 Inexplicably Awesome Bit Characters: Part 1 of 2

It should almost go without saying by now that Mad Movies are not like regular movies. Different rules apply; different dialectics are at work. Things that would get a mainstream director hounded off the set and sent back to the Music Video Bush League are transformed by the filmmakers' enthusiasm and joie de vie into something charming and even emotionally resonant. Performances that would make the average moviegoer toss his popcorn in disgust become emotive tours des force that earn their actors a permanent place in the b-movie lover's Pantheon of Awesome. Reviewers who don't know enough French to order breakfast at their local Le Madelaine suddenly grab their baguettes and start gushing over the film's je ne sais quois.

It's easy to love a particularly resourceful hero or a deliciously evil villain. But often the real joie of a Mad Movie resides not in the pro- or ant- agonists, but in the supporting characters who add that certain special indefinable something to the flick, sometimes pushing the film from horrible trash-piece to joy-bubbling giggle-fest by sheer force of personality. Today on Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, I would like to pay tribute to a few of these minor stars in the constellation of awesome with my Top 10 Inexplicably Awesome Bit Characters.

Today's post celebrates honorees 10 through 6; enjoy, and be sure to check back tomorrow for the Top 5!

Nota Bene: in the interest of simplicity and pumping up my archive-reading traffic, I've limited my choices to movies that have been previously reviewed here on the site. I invite my loyal parishioners to propose their own honorees in the comment section--because God knows I need more movies on my To Be Watched list.

10. Sheriff Liggett in Silent Madness (1984)

There are lots of neat little touches in this largely forgotten 3-D slasher effort to warm the cockles of the mad movie fan's heart, but chief among them is Sydney Lassick as the foul-mouthed, combatatively incurious Sheriff Liggett. Despite bearing an ugly neck scar from a previous encounter with the movie's killer, Liggett is aggressive in his determination to let bygones be bygones and stay as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. Sort of like the anti-Loomis. Plus, how can you not love a police chief who looks like Zelda Rubenstein in man-drag and delivers lines like "Just because the goddamn broad is so good-lookin' don't mean we all have to think with our dicks! Huh? Right?" I'll answer that for you: you can't. You can't NOT love this guy.

9. Sherry in Three on a Meathook (1972)

William Girdler's early-70s paean to cannibalism and Mommy Issues focuses mostly on the trials and tribulations of young Billy Townsend (James Pickett) as he tries to come to terms with having an alcoholic father, a dead mother he may or may not have killed when he was a kid, and heaps and heaps of frustrated sexuality. But the real star is for me is compassionate-beyond-belief barmaid Sherry, played with inexplicable awesomeness by Sherry Steiner. With a voice like the world's most soothing dental hygenist, Sherry is indugent of Billy's drinking, accepting of his father's rudeness and tendency to pickaxe her friends, and works in a bar where the house band is the similarly inexplicably awesome AMERICAN XPRESS. But most importantly, when after a night of wild passion she awakes to find Billy has WET THE FUCKING BED, she shrugs it off with a smile, kisses her urine-soaked lover, and heads off to fix breakfast. Maybe she's a saint or maybe she's a freak, but in either case, she's a keeper.

8. Nicky in Savage Weekend (1976)

Cinematic history is littered with portrayals of the Flaming Gay Friend. He's almost always played for comedy, and hardly ever given more to do than flounce about commenting archly on the female characters' taste in clothes and periodically making double entendres about the hero's "package." Well, that ain't how Nicky rolls. Played with uncommon intensity by Christopher Allport, Nicky does his share of flouncing in a early scene at a redneck bar, but reveals the iron fist below the velvet glove when he throws off the sheepskin and proceeds to beat the asses of every local tough in the joint! He's the only character man enough to remove the totemic vampire bat nailed to the cabin door on their arrival, and his protectiveness of best friend and total slut Shirley (Caitlin O'Heaney) borders on the psychotic--in the best possible way. His final, ambiguously sexy dance number with Shirley is a highlight. In fact, if he hadn't been distracted by his own fabulousness in a full length mirror in the hallway, I doubt the killer would ever have got the drop on him. Nicky, you rule.

7. Harry DuBaul in The Guy from Harlem (1977)

A piece of wild folk art masquerading as a blaxploitation movie, The Guy from Harlem is something special, in both the "extraordinary" and "riding the short bus" senses of the term. One of the major contributing factors is the explosive screen presence of Steve Gallon as gang lord Harry DuBaul. (Pictured above right.) Dressed like a $300 picnic and delivering all his lines as if his vocal chords can barely contain the awesome bubbling up inside, Gallon bleeds charisma and confidence, making the most of his sadly limited screentime. When I say he's like a less shy and reserved Don King, I mean it as the highest complement.

6. Rodriguez in Die Screaming, Marianne (1971)

Though Pete Walker's family drama-cum-thriller is one of the more misleadingly titled films of the era, if one can get past the lack of screaming and dying, there are quite a few things to enjoy here--such as beautiful Portuguese scenery, a fairly risque incest subplot, and Susan George shakin' it like a Polaroid in the movie's rightly revered opening titles. (Check youtube now, thank me later.) But my favorite character is Rodriguez (Kenneth Hendel), the strong, silent bodyguard to the deliciously nefarious Judge. Hendel plays the thin, seldom-speaking heavy with quiet, self-assured menace throughout, and a late-reel face-turn is both surprising and perfect. One of those characters whose importance you don't appreciate till the end credits roll, Rodriguez makes the movie for me.

What bit characters will make the top 5? Come back tomorrow for the rest of the list! And tell us your favorite bit characters in the comments below!

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