Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Liquid Sky (1982): or, The Chicken and the Alien Sex Fiend

Due to my extensive responsibilities around the Vicarage, I'm afraid I don't often have the opportunities my friend the Duke does to go on archaelogical expeditions in search of Mad Movie Booty in all obscure corners of the world. In fact just last week His Excellency invited me to come with him to a remote section of what was once ancient Cambria to excavate the crypt of Gogmagog in quest of the never-seen Gaelic translation of Quando os Deuses Adormecem, but because of my previous committment to speak at the Triannual meeting of the Ordum Illuminatus de Betamax, I was forced to decline. To my regret--I haven't heard from the Duke since his riverboat was reported lost in a violent storm on the Humber after a cataclysmic lightning storm--but I look forward with interest to his eventual report.

Still, sometimes a treasure falls unsought-for into the lap of a man of Gawd, and such was the case this weekend when after my sermon on the Torments of Eternal Damnation Alley, I noticed an odd humming sound a looked up to discover, quite to my surprise, a dinner-plate sized spacecraft with the legend "X-Y-Z" on its undercarriage hovering just above the peak of my mitre. Ere I had time to gasp in alarm, the diminuitive cosmonaut dropped into my outstretched hands a small videodisc--and then, in a flash, they were gone.

Which is how I came into possession of the 1982 science fiction (or is it?) oddity, Liquid Sky.

This is indeed a movie from another planet, and that planet is the 1982 New York Fashion Underground. I don't know where my extraterrestrial benefactors came from, but whatever society is their home could hardly be any more bizarre, unworldly, and downright alien than the milieu depicted here. It is a world of wonders I never would have believed existed but for this film, and for that I can only be grateful.

This is one of those wonderful movies where I feel I'm doing it a disservice even offering a synopsis, as no mere plot outline can adequately represent the raptures contained herein. Part science fiction, part cultural/anthropological document, part psychadelic drug trip, and all one hundred percent FABULOUS. And there's more than that, much more. But, since in a review the plot is the thing, I'll make my best attempt:

Last seen in the skies over the VHS Vicarage...

Smack-addicted aliens have come to earth in search of heroin. Naturally they settle in the plentiful opiate-fields of 80s New York, whereupon they discover that a chemical produced by the human brain at the moment of orgasm is even better than the horse. So they land above the apartment of Margaret (Anne Carlisle), a morose, androgynous, sexually frigid fashion model who has the disconcerting habit of getting raped a lot. When her partners, both consensual and non-consensual, start getting knocked off by the unseen alien menace, Margaret believes she has become a sexual killing machine and decides to use her new power to get revenge on those who have wronged her.

Meanwhile, a West German scientist with Werner Herzog's accent and Michael Jackson's red leather jacket is tracking the aliens with the help of Margaret's old drama teacher and a sexually rapacious Jewish woman who is obsessed with shrimp. And Margaret's abusive girlfriend Adrian, a diminutive performance artist of the Sprockets school, is dealing smack out of their apartment to a failed artist and amateur drug historian who has problems of his own. And in a fourth narrative thread, androgynous male fashion model Jimmy (ALSO played by Anne Carlisle) distances himself from his priveliged upbringing and wallows in drugs and perversion for the sake of self-destructiveness.

You with me so far?

Are you wigging yet?

But that description is just the half of it. We get wild, totally alien club scenes with spasmodic dancing and unbelievable clothing and makeup choices. (Think Patrick Nagel meets The Sex Pistols, then multiply that by WTF?) We get positively RELENTLESS carnival music played on a state-of-the-art (circa 1980) synthesizer. We get a switchblade catfight over a naked middle-aged corpse. We get a very long and increasingly disturbing sequence of the Jewess's attempted seduction of the scientist, with multiple shrimp references. ("In my house, shrimps are more important than duty.") We get an a capello rendtion of "Old McDonald" done by New Wave Punks. We get necrophiliac face-sitting. We get a nightmarish doppleganger blow-job scene. A David Bowie name-check. And an extended Chicken Lady motif that is probably not referencing the climactic final images of Tod Browning's Freaks, but very well could be.

It's all here, Mad Movie fans. And more--impossibly, indescribably more. Questionable editing choices. Thickly-trowelled helpings of 1980s video effects. Zero actors who look to be at a healthy (i.e., non-emaciated) weight. Philosophical dialogue cut straight from your freshman journals. ("[In the 60s] You thought your jeans stood for love, freedom and sexual equality. We, at least, know we're in costume." "You want me to be a happy housewife, slave to a husband's desire. A hooker is at least independent.") We get the Empire State Building as the world's largest syringe.

We get "Me and My Rhythm Box." Oh, dear Lord, we are not worthy!

How 'bout now?

Director Slava Tsukerman deserves props for piling on the sometimes gorgeous, sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing, but always memorable images. Anne Carlisle's monotone performance as both Margaret and Jimmy will stick with you despite her dramatic limitations, as the flat delivery of the lines seems to be part of the whole point. And Paula Sheppard as Adrian gives a performance that is Mad Movie Legend. Oh Paula, where have you gone? Berlin, maybe?

For all the wonders of the film, it does drag a bit in the middle sections, and the characters--who almost NEVER act the way you'd imagine actual Earthling people acting in a given situation--might be a little too much for some viewers to buy into. Plus the aforementioned relentless carnival music almost becomes a Chinese Water Torture-level affliction by the end. But I was in love all the way through.

Still, because of these reservations I give Liquid Sky 2.5 thumbs, instead of the 3 I would assign if there were only my tastes to consider. Nonetheless, it's required viewing for anyone with a taste for the bizarre. So paint a landing strip on your roof, have some sex, and hope the aliens will visit you with a copy of Liquid Sky. Just be sure to stop before you get vaporized--lest you become another Jimmy. Think on't.

And wherever you are, X-Y-Z Cosmonaut, thank you. May you travel the galaxies in peace.

Paula E. Sheppard--MMMMMovie Royalty

PS--While I am able to find no proof that Dolph Lundgren's 1990 scifi vehicle I Come in Peace--with its incredibly similar "endorphins are alien heroin" plot device--is a direct remake of Liquid Sky with Dolph in the Anne Carlisle role, I am nonetheless convinced that this is the case. Sadly, Mr. Lundgren is no Anne Carlisle.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Die Screaming, Marianne (1971): or, What's in a Name?

In my last post I wrote about a movie that made seemingly impossible promises with its title and then went on to fulfill those promises beyond any sane person's expectations, much to the admiration and horror of the viewer. It was like Babe Ruth pointing arrogantly to the fence and then proceeding to blast the horsehide into the outer stratosphere. A truly amazing feat, and worthy of the legend that grew up around it.

The title of Pete Walker's groovy 1971 feature, Die Screaming, Marianne, calls a similar shot. Not many movies boast titles as evocative and full of horrific promise as that--the images it conjures, the dramatic expectations it creates in the mind! Again, the viewer has to wonder, how can the film possibly live up to that title?

Well, in this case, it can't. And what's more, it doesn't seem very interested in even trying. Instead of the grainy, frenetic 70s sickie that title should be attached to, Walker delivers a deliberately paced, gorgeously shot dramatic thriller with no nudity, almost no gore, and just a smidgen of sleaze. The kiss of death for a cinematic deviant like me, right? Well, read on...

Susan George plays Marianne MacDonald, a British go-go dancer on the run from some shadowy, gangster-looking types in Portugal. When a greasy, balding strongman tracks her down to an out-of-the-way club and surprises her post-tryst with an AWOL sailor, Marianne takes it on the lam and is immediately nearly run down by a very unattractive 70s stud (played by the skeletal Christopher Sandford). He offers her a lift in his cherry-red convertible, and off they go, leaving the mysterious greaseball in the dust.

Opening Act: Wandessa "Da Butt" Butinsky

Next we get what is by any measure a fantastically groovy title sequence, as George shakes it like a polaroid in front of a solid red background while the credits roll in bright yellow athwart her hips. The music and dance style scream "shagadelic!" and will be sure to bring a smile to the face of any red-blooded male in attendance. Sock it to me, Susie!

Then we're in swingin' 70s London, where Marianne and Bony Boy (aka Sebastian) have been shacked up for two weeks. Seeking to solidify his amazing good fortune, Sebastian tries to strong-arm Marianne into a surprise wedding. They meet up with Sebastian's friend, the allusively named Eli Frome (played by likeable babyface Barry Evans) and rush through the courthouse service so quickly they forget to fill out the license. Showing her spunkiness as well as good sense, Marianne fudges the license so that it she's legally married to Eli, not Sebastian. This leads to many recriminations from Bony Boy and the dissolution of the now-extramarital relationship.

Eli is smitten with the enigmatic Marianne, however, and offers her his pad until she finds a place to stay. Over the course of the next few weeks Marianne and her new "husband" develop a genuine fondness for each other amid Marianne's frequent and confusing flashbacks featuring a sinister figure known only as "The Judge." I wasn't quite sure what was going on at this point, but I was still digging it.

"..the fuck?!?!"

Meanwhile Sebastian has jetted back to Portugal to meet with The Judge himself, who he's been working for the whole time. We learn that the Judge is Marianne's father, and has hired Sebastian to bring her back home before her 21st birthday so that he can force her to grant him access to a Swiss bank account her deceased mother set up, which contains a great deal of cash and even more incriminating documents from his days in corrupt jurisprudence. With me so far? Also, the balding greaseball from the beginning is Rodriguez, the Judge's manservant, who is a strong silent presence throughout.

Marianne's half-sister Hildegard also lives at the villa, is almost as bony as Sebastian and is absolutely brimful of CRAZY. She and Sebastian have a history, apparently, and after a strange interlude with her father (during which she basically BEGS the old man to commit incest with her, or at least give her a right good spanking), she settles for Sebastian's emaciated manliness. The Judge listens from his study as Hildegard whinnies like a horse upstairs, a strange and sinister smile on his face.

Every Who down in Whoville liked premarital sex a lot...

A few words about the acting here--it's all pretty great. Susan George is the picture of the enigmatic beauty with a secret past, vulnerable but full of quiet independence. Sandford as Sebastian is wonderfully slimy and from certain angles reminds one of an underfed Ralph Fiennes in full-on villain mode. The Judge (Leo Genn) is superb as the decadent aristocrat with the profundo basso voice and gift for wry shocking dialog (as when he nonchalantly asks Sebastian over drinks, "Do tell me...did you fornicate with Marianne?"). And Judy Huxtable as the completely psychotic sister Hildegard is really something to watch--totally committed to her snake-like, sinister role.

At the Judge's behest Sebastian flies back to London to bring Marianne and Eli back to the villa. At the same time a couple of bounty hunters, also working on the Judge's orders (one presumes) kidnap Eli and nearly assassinate him in a wonderfully tense scene. Eli escapes by stabbing one of the flabby assassins with a penknife. When Marianne learns of this she leaves him for his own good, and Sebastian looks up his old friend in hopes of tracking her down. After a disastrous go-go dancing interview (Marianne does NOT interview well), she goes back to Eli, finds him with Sebastian, and more details come out of the completely convoluted plot.

Tired of running from her past, Marianne decides to go back and confront her dysfunctional family, Eli along for the ride. We get some leisurely but still effective scenes building up to some somewhat surprising twists, culminating in the deaths of a couple of characters and Hildegard's show-stealing "crazy speech" that lets everyone know all bets are off. A few more twists spiral in before the understated and strangely moving end scene, where an unlikely hero steps forward and claims our affections and admiration.

"Is Rodriguez gonna have to choke a bitch?"

I watched this movie in two parts, roughly an hour each, and I think that this actually made me like the film more. It was clear by the end of hour one that this was NOT going to be the exploitation-fest the title promised, and giving that twenty-four hours to sink in prepared me to watch the rest of the film with a more open mind. And while it's perhaps no masterpiece, Die Screaming, Marianne has some really cool things about it that might be enough to recommend it to fans of guess-what's-coming thrillers of the sub-Hitchcockian mode.

Just as the convoluted plot (revealed in a much slower and more fragmentary way in the film than in this post) keeps the viewer from ever being quite sure what's going on, the characters also all seem to have ulterior motives for every move they make, every word they say--villains and heroes included. Their motivations are always open to two or three interpretations, and thus you are never quite sure how a character will react to a given dramatic development--which enables them to surprise you without doing anything obviously out of character. This is why the ending scene--and a wonderful last line from one of the characters--resonated so strongly with me and sent me out of the film smiling.

Other things to recommend this film are its completely gorgeous cinematography, the lovely Portuguese scenery, the appalling Austin Powers fashions, and the overbearing jazz score that seems to follow Marianne exclusively (it cuts out noticeably when she's off screen). Plus Susan George is wonderful to look at in her skimpy mod outfits and spangled bikinis, it has to be said. And the plaintively hilarious theme song "Marianne" is just icing on the cake.

So if you can get past the empty promise of the movie's tantalizing title, there's actually a fairly entertaining little thriller here with some fine acting and cool twists. I give it 2 thumbs. Check it out--believe me, you could do a lot worse.

What it's all about.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Sinful Dwarf (1973): or, Don't Sell the Danes Short

Let's be frank here: if you're a filmmaker in the 70s and you decide to give your movie a title like The Sinful Dwarf, you're making a bold statement. You're promising levels of exploitation and awesomeness that any flick by any director would find it hard to deliver. I mean, how could you compete with the images such an evocative titles conjures in the fevered, imaginative mind of someone like myself? Nigh impossible, one would think.

So when I sat down to view this long-sought-after slice of 70s Danish sleaze, I was already preparing myself to be a little let down. So, was I?

Let's take a look at some selected excerpts from my movie-watching notes: "Holy shit [...] WOW. That's Exploitation! [...] Slimy [...] This is GRIMY. I need a shower already [...] I feel unclean [...] I feel so dirty, yet strangely aroused [...] OUCH. Nasty! Omg [...] That's one sinful dwarf, yo! [...] Okay, def. going to shower now..."

You win, Sinful Dwarf. You win.

What can I say about this movie? There were things about it I enjoyed, but to say I enjoyed the whole film would be a bit misleading, as my notes should make clear. There were parts that made me very, very uncomfortable, but I definitely didn't hate it so much as I was shocked by its astounding levels of perversity and the grimy veneer of sin that darkened every frame. I guess the best I can do is to say I found it a very powerful film, in that it provoked a visceral emotional reaction that stuck with me long after my post-credits shower.

We open with a pig-tailed, knee-socked Eurobabe playing hopscotch in a nice suburban neighborhood. She's obviously in her late twenties, but she acts like a little girl, which made me wonder whether she was meant to be a little girl or if she was just retarded. At any rate, it's not long before THE SINFUL DWARF appears, hobbling on a cane and leading a mechanical dog on a leash. The girl is fascinated by the toy, and the dwarf leads her Pied-Piper style back to the Hostel-esque factory building where he lives. "I have more toys...upstairs!" he promises, and she readily follows him to the extremely creepy attic. There's quite a nice buildup here as the mentally-challenged hottie kneels on the floor to play with the toy, and the dwarf gets a sadistic, maniacal expression on his face. He raises the cane like Zeus lifting a killing thunderbolt, and BANG! Concussion of the Innocent.

A word about our star here. The titular morally-challenged little person is Olaf, assayed by the inestimable undersized Danish thespian Torben Bille--credited here simply as "Torben." And if you've ever wondered what four full feet of evil looks like, just feast your eyes on this:

WOW. I know the LPA hates this kind of stuff, but if there is an apotheosis of the deranged, nightmare-inducing dwarf that haunts the dreams of little children everywhere, brother, I just spent 90 minutes with him. I'd like to think that's a testement to Torben's acting skills. Because if he's not acting...*shudder*...

The set-up goes a little like this: Olaf's mother is a former showgirl who was scarred in a cataclysmic fire that consumed the dance hall where she was the star, the same year that little Olaf was born. "I don't want to think about that year," she tells a friend. "First the terrible fire--then Olaf--one disaster after another." Love you too, Ma.

Since the horrific end of her showbiz career, Mom has been hosting tea-parties for the Horrible Women's Auxilliary and pining for the good old days, periodically breaking into ultra-disturbing, Nora Desmond-style dance numbers to relive her former glory. To make ends meet, she and Olaf kidnap young girls, lock them in the attic, get them hooked on smack, and pimp them out to a series of faceless johns. It's a real cottage industry.


We pick up the action when newlyweds Peter and Mary come to the hostel seeking cheap lodging while Peter tries to break into the writing business. (Moral: when it comes to lodging, be willing to pay a little extra.) While Peter pounds the pavement, the beautiful young Mary is alone in the house with Olaf and his mom all day. Of course it's not long before the dastardly duo decide Mary would make a fine addition to their stable of Eurojunkies upstairs.

While it's unclear whether the whole junkie/prostitute set-up was Olaf's idea or his mother's or an unholy collaboration between the two, what IS clear is that Olaf derives a really obscene amount of pleasure from running it. In fact, Olaf seems to take a great deal of obscene pleasure from just about everything: be it delivering Johns to the attic dungeon, drugging up the nude girls, playing piano for one of his mother's frequent musical numbers, or--I should say ESPECIALLY--playing with his enviable collection of antique wind-up toys.

I mean, just look at him. This is no child-like fascination with an object of naive wonder, no simple imaginative playtime. No, there's something strangely unclean going on behind those eyes, something ticking like a time bomb in Olaf's brain as he fingers the controls of his battery-operated police car, or winds the key for his cymbal-clashing monkey. Something perverse, something angry, something maniacal, something--dare I say it?--SINFUL.

So that's pretty much the plot. We move from one grimy, disturbing set-piece to another, waiting for the moment when Olaf and his mother descend on Mary for the kill. When the desperate Peter takes a job as a courier of toy shipments from Paris to London (toys stuffed with heroin, unbeknownst to him--and working for the very criminals who supply the smack to Olaf's home-based business), the opportunity just can't be passed up. It all leads to an expected but nonetheless powerful ending when Peter learns the truth and rushes back with a police escort to save the day...albeit about three days too late.

Of course it's in the aforementioned set-pieces that The Sinful Dwarf really shines--or tarnishes your soul, as the case may be. Here's just a sampling of the exploitation smorgasbord on offer:

  • Mary's surprising transformation from a frumpy-dress wearing prude to a smokin'-hawt sex kitten, thanks to a form-fitting long-sleeved tee.
"I dunno! I just woke up, and there they were!"
  • An extended early sex scene between Peter and Mary that just goes ON and ON, with some truly wonderful amped-up sentimental string music as a lovemaking soundtrack. Even better, during this scene Olaf wanders past the room and SEEMS TO HEAR THE MUSIC! This leads him to go to one of the many peepholes in the building and spy to his little heart's content.
  • Mom's Carmen Miranda number OUT OF NOWHERE--a song called "Choo Choo Bamba," played on a mistuned piano by the multi-talented Torben. The scene is intercut with scenes showing one of the johns upstairs having his way with a strung-out captive, with the jaunty musical cues timed to coincide with the pasty pelvic thrusts. If you don't feel dirty after this, check your pulse.
  • Many (merciful) cuts during the junkie-rape scenes that will make you wonder whether there were some hardcore pick-up scenes left out. Also, I wasn't entirely sure during the Peter/Mary scene referenced above that they weren't actually doing it.
  • Gratuitous Mom-tit shot. Horror! Definitely a MI-would-in-no-way-LF.
  • Olaf gets his horrifying jollies with a doped-up Mary.
Oh, and the heroin-pushing toyshop owner's code name? Santa Claus.

When I first heard of this flick I was thinking it'd be something like Bloodsucking Freaks, with its beyond-the-bounds-of-even-bad-taste gore scenes and campy interactions between the Maestro and his happily perverse assistant, the immortal Ralphus. But the camp factor is almost entirely absent from The Sinful Dwarf, which makes it that much more disturbing and grimy. BSF was comedy--comedy for those with an incredibly sick and misanthropic sense of humor, sure, but nonetheless they were clearly having a larf.

The family that laughs together...

Not so in The Sinful Dwarf. You start out laughing at some of the eccentricities, but once it goes from weird to disturbing it never looks back. I’ve watched several movies where I wanted to take a shower afterwards, but this is one that I actually wanted to pause so I could go take a shower in the first third, another right before the climax, and by the time the end credits rolled I needed a high-pressure sprayer.

So how to rate it? Well, for its visceral power, its memory-scarring images, and its audaciously outré offensiveness, I'm giving it 3+ thumbs. It set a goal for itself, and achieved it beyond any reasonable expectation. But be warned--unless you're a deviant like The Duke and me, you're likely to end by wondering how you can continue to live in a world where movies like this exist.

As for me...well, "I think to myself, What a Wonderfull World!"

*whispers*: "Call the po-lice!"


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Class of 1984 (1982): or, the Kids are All Right, But You're DEAD!

Lincoln High School as just your average American secondary learning institution. There's the biology room full of cute fuzzy animals, overseen by the cantankerous but kind English expatriate instructor. There's the Music room, where a new teacher, Mr. Norris, is starting his first year, taking the place of the beloved ex-music teacher who fell down the stairs to his death in a tragic mishap just weeks prior. There's the killjoy principal who delights in watching Big Brother-style video monitors and siccing his security force on any kids who step out of line, by being tardy, say, or cutting class. And then of course, the student clubs who help define American high school life: clubs like the Drug Pusher Club, the Rapist Club, the Dramatic Disembowelment Club, and the Chess Club.

The Chess Club meets off campus.

Yes, Class of 1984 is a disturbingly prescient distopian vision of the future of American high schools--something like The Bronx Warriors or Escape from New York meets The Breakfast Club. Lincoln High School is a war zone, where the teachers live in fear, the students are either nihilistic malcontents or fearful sheep, and a new teacher determined to make a difference finds himself up against primal forces of savagery that William Golding only hinted at in Lord of the Flies.

Early on the idealistic Mr. Norris falls afoul of a brilliant but vicious young tough named Stegman (played by early 80s sit-com star Timothy Van Patten in a break from typecasting) and his gang of enthusiastic if two-dimensional henchmen: Drugstore (the Pusher), Barnyard (the muscle), Patsy (the slut), and Fallon (the...other muscle). Stegman "rules the school" with an iron fist, and no one dares cross him. The biology teacher, Mr. Corrigan (Roddy McDowell in a show-stealing role), tries to warn Norris off, but to no avail, as soon Mr. Norris finds out just what a bunch of kids with nothing to lose and no consequences to their actions can do.

I went in expecting b-movie cheese, but I was surprised and delighted to discover that this is actually an excellent, well-made, well-acted, even prophetic movie with a lot of rewards to the open-minded viewer. The cast is top-notch across the board. Van Patten as Peter Stegman is a wonderful, truly frightening villain--he's only a boy, but one who knows exactly the advantages his position as a juvenile gives him over his nemesis Mr. Norris.

"Excuse me...could you direct us to the library?
I have a book report on A Clockwork Orange due tomorrow."

In one of the best scenes in the movie, Norris corners Stegman in the boy's room and threatens him, but Stegman laughs it off and calls the bluff. Norris is unable to carry through on his threat. Then, in a brutal scene, Stegman "shows him" how he should have "done me," by viciously ramming his own head into a mirror, a sink, a towel dispenser, and throwing himself against the hard tile walls. The caring teacher in Norris comes to the surface as he tries to restrain the young man from hurting himself further, and when he does, Stegman grins and rubs his own blood all over Norris's hands, just before the security guards come in and survey the scene. Of course Norris is arrested for assault, and Stegman plays the innocent to the hilt. It's really a tour de force, a chilling scene, and only because of Van Patten's excellent portrayal of the remorseless, psychotic juvenile mastermind.

He's not the only great actor here, though. Perry King as Mr. Norris gives a fantastic performance as a man whose idealism slowly gives way to harsh reality, as he finds himself pushed to savagery against the very children he'd previously have sacrificed himself to protect. His arc is rather telegraphed but still fun to watch, especially in the tense finale where he is hunted through the darkened school building by Stegman's gang (who have kidnapped and raped Norris's wife in a previous hard-to-watch scene), and must fight for his life and the life of his wife and unborn child. This was another tour de force for the movie, as it really went places I did not expect it to go, even after all the carnage that had gone before. But, again, it's set up well, and in its own way is cruelly satisfying.

Finally I would be remiss not to mention Roddy McDowall again, who is the disillusioned mentor to King's Norris. Roddy carries a gun in his briefcase, a flask in his jacket pocket, loves only the animals in his biology room and frequently teaches while intoxicated. Though he's beat down and broken, he won't stop teaching, clinging to the vain hope that he might make a difference in just one young life before he stops. His show-stopping performance is in a scene where, pushed to the brink by Stegman's cruelty, he teaches his class at gunpoint! Truly fantastic stuff.

"Tell me the year the Magna Carta was signed. NOW!"

Other notable bit characters include a VERY young Michael J. Fox as a tormented good kid who falls afoul Stegman and the gang, and Erin Flannery as the talented music student who just might make it out of the cesspool of Lincoln High to something better. Stegman's gang also throw themselves into their characters with rare gusto, and all in all I couldn't name one weak performance, except possibly Merrie Lynn Ross as Norris's too-much PollyAnna wife. But that's a minor complaint.

The movie IS a b-movie, however, very low budget and aware of its exploitation pedigree. I appreciate that. While much more restrained than its brethren like Class of Nuke 'Em High, there's still plenty of blood, violence, nudity, and perversity to go around, and the characters are perhaps a bit more broadly drawn and the situations a bit more over the top than they would be in a more mainstream production. But this works to the movie's advantage, in my mind, as it plays not as realism, but as a cautionary tale.

"I'm on fire...for LEARNING!"

And one they would have done well to heed--in the 80s the movie was criticized as being "too extreme" in its bleak view of the high school life, even going so far as to depict such flights of fancy as (gasp!) kids taking weapons into school and passing through metal detectors at the doors! That would NEVER happen, right?

Obviously the movie was prophetic in many ways. The social commentary is still valid (not only the school stuff, but some biting scenes with Stegman at home with his over-indulgent mom), over 20 years after the fact.

I give Class of 1984 3 thumbs, and think it's a flick that fans of b-movies, exploitation, and just good cinema should watch. A pleasant surprise, and a dvd I'm glad I bought.


Monday, January 14, 2008

The Vicar of All Media!: or, MMMMMovies Blows Up

Quick announcement to parishoners--if you're interested in learning more about the childhood traumas that created the warped and stunted personality we today know as The Vicar of VHS, then surf on over to the wild and wonderful Kindertrauma and read the Vicar's own confession--or rather, "traumafession"--on one of the most traumatic experiences of the Vicar's childhood, 1980's killer-kid movie The Children. Direct link to the Vicar's traumafession here.

And be sure to hang around Kindertrauma and sample more of its delights. Everyone will find some childhood horror to relive there, I'm sure.

But that's not all! In the upcoming issue of City Slab Magazine out of Seattle, Washington, an article on the history of the Sweeney Todd legend will include as a sidebar a condensed version of the Vicar's review of the 1936 Tod Slaughter film. And the Vicar's alter-ego, Scott Standridge, contributes to that same issue a scholarly article on the films of MMMMMovie favorite Jose Mojica Marins. Look for City Slab #12, due out in March of '08, available at Barnes and Noble and other booksellers on the West Coast and some provinces of Canada, and throughout the US via City Slab's website.


Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Zeta One (1969): or, Strip Poker Never Seemed So Redundant

From the moment the credits started with a jazz-orchestra, Batman TV-show brass sting, kicked into high gear with a bongo beat, then followed that with a hysterical James Bond-style theme song ("Zeta! Z-E-T-A zeta! All around you, Yet not here at all!"), all over stylized computer font and superimposed images of beautiful space babes, I knew I was going to love this movie. The only question was, how much?

An hour and twenty-two deliriously jazz-scored, go-go booted, micro-skirted, oil-projectored, laser-fingered, nipple-spotted, super-spied, space-invasioned, strip-pokered minutes later, the question was answered: A LOT.

Secret Agent James Word (Robin Hawdon) returns home from a hard mission in Scotland to find luscious Section 5 secretary Ann Olsen (Yutte Stensgaard) cooking Coq au Vin in the kitchen. She explains that as section head W's secretary (get it? "W"? "M"? These are the jokes, folks), she had both access to James's personal file and a key to his apartment. Not one to look a gift Eurobabe in the mouth, James turns on the charm and soon finds himself in a game of strip poker with Ann. Never mind she'd already opened her dress to him--this is a plot point.

Now, most movies would have shown you maybe the first hand of the strip poker game and then cut to the next scene, but the makers of Zeta One are not so stingy--no, we get THE ENTIRE GAME, shuffles and deals not excluded. They don't stop until the twenty-minute mark of the movie, during which time it becomes clear Ann is intent on "pumping" James for information, nudge-nudge wink-wink say no more! They stop the game and go for the long-promised roll in the hay, at which time Ann forces James to tell the story of his recently completed mission. You knew the wavy lines were coming--the rest of the movie is a post-coital flashback as James narrates the strange tale of Zeta One.

Now, in most movies waiting twenty minutes to get the plot moving would be a detriment, but for Zeta One it actually doesn't hurt. Maybe it's because there's not much plot to get to, and what little exists is there fairly blatantly to set up another scene in which to ogle scantily or un- clad go-go girls. Maybe it's because of the good-natured, all-for-a-lark tone of the thing. Maybe it's the generous display of Miss Stensgaard's formidable talents. At any rate, if you're still smiling by the time they put the cards away, hold on because you're in for a fun ride.

Here he is, folks: your Hero.

You see, through the course of some nebulous studies or other the nefarious Major Borden and his effite henchman Swyne (Charles Hawtrey of the Carry On! films) have discovered the existence of an Amazonian race of women, the Angvians. Led by their queen Zeta (Dawn Addams), the Angvians periodically kidnap Earth women and indoctrinate them into their all-female, vaguely Egypt-centric society. Because the Angvians have time and again interfered with the Major's "plans" (though what these plans were, how and why the Angvians interfered, and a number of other mysteries are all left unsolved), he has made it his goal to find and destroy them.

Major Borden, played with real slimy zeal by James Robertson Justice, discovers the Angvians plan to kidnap London stripper Teddy (Wendy Lingham), aka "Clarissa Richambeau, Queen of the G-String!" Convincing the ingenue that he's with the government, he persuades her to swallow a homing device so that they can find the "alien menace" and stop it. Meanwhile the real Section 5 has picked up on the Major's plan, though they're still in the dark about the Angvians. W assigns James Word to the case, hilariously calling him right in the middle of a swinging threesome! This is the kind of stuff you always half-believe gets cut out of a James Bond movie, but here you get to see it all.

Wait...they're invading, and we want to stop them?

The Angvians are three steps ahead of anyone with a penis, however, and send luscious agent Clotho (Anna Gaël) to keep James distracted while they deal with the Major's threats. Meanwhile the Major and Swyne capture an Angvian spy and torture her in a jarringly nasty attic dungeon that seems to drop in from another, less light-hearted movie. After escaping from Clotho's influence--well, after she teleports herself out--James learns the rest of the story from W (who looks a lot like Nixon) and heads to the Major's estate to find out what's what.

Meanwhile Teddy has been successfully kidnapped by the Angvians and gets a show-stopping tour of their city, which looks like it was built out of giant-sized kids' wooden blocks. (The psychadelic teleportation sequence that drops Teddy in Angvia--nude, naturally--is a real jaw-dropper, and worth the price of admission alone.) We see their self-revelation rooms, their contemplation rooms, their warrior-class training rooms, and most importantly, the room where they bathe! "Gratuitous" is definitely the by-word here, though I don't know if the nudity can be called gratuitous when it is in fact the whole raison d'etre of the film. I guess from that point of view it's very, very tuitous.

Finally Clotho is captured by the Major and he decides to sport with her Most Dangerous Game-style. While he and his henchman hunt her with dogs, Queen Zeta yells to her underlings, "They've got Clotho! Action 69! Action 69, fast!" I was riveted. Meanwhile James is still wandering around lost, doing pratfalls and returning to his car to don a set of waders (?). When the amazing, devastating power of the mysterious Action 69 is finally unleashed--suffice to say I'm sure I wasn't alone in standing up and applauding. Well, applauding, anyway.

Action 69's Horrific Aftermath

If gratuitous is one by-word, "broad comedy" is another...two. James Word is pretty much the least effective super spy in history: he spends more than half the movie in bed (with a naked blonde or two, usually) and the rest wandering around lost or being yelled at by W's overworked artificially intelligent elevator. (Seriously.) The Major's extra security consists of one dog and a man in a tweed jacket. And James's ultimate fate will have you rolling your eyes and hooting with laughter at the same time--or maybe just the former.

This is the kind of movie that will never be made again. Nowadays even comedic exploitation pictures have a certain nastiness to them, but Zeta One maintains a strange kind of innocence over all the naked flesh and broad comedy. Maybe it's because everyone seems to be having such a great time throughout--one of the Angvian warriors seems to be cracking up in just about every scene, doubtless at the ridiculousness of either the Angvian war dress (a topless bikini with nipple-spot pasties) or the deadly invisible finger lasers she uses to dispatch her opponents (think kids playing cowboys and Indians--bang, you're dead!). Maybe it's the blatant nature of the titillating scenes that throws the ridiculousness into such stark relief (why should she climb a ladder in a microskirt?) you can't help giggling. Whatever the reason, it's a ton of fun from start to end.

2.5 thumbs for this entertaining little slice of groovy, swingin' sci-fi/super-spy sexploitation history. Check your brain at the door, and shuffle those cards, baby. I'm feelin' lucky.

"I regret nothing!"


Friday, January 4, 2008

Shiver of the Vampires (1971): or, You Probably Wouldn't Shiver If You Put Some Dang Clothes On

What can you say about Jean Rollin? Perhaps other directors, before him and after, have captured with greater artistry the lush landscapes and glorious decay that so fascinated Rollin in the 70s. Perhaps others realized to greater effect the blending of expressionistic colors with surreal, dream-logic imagery to create a cinematic world unlike our own, frightening in its strangeness but alluring with its beauties. But while that case may be arguable, another is not--that Rollin's fascination and obsession drew him to two things that, when added to his other strengths, cemented his place among the great filmmakers of our time--for no one before or since has utilized as fully and beautifully the mysterious secrect ingredients that Rollin stirred into all his sumptuous dishes: heapin' helpings of nekkid Eurobabes and Blood.

Who knows why beautiful naked women and bright red blood so haunted young Jean that he had to make movie after movie containing them? Who knows what good they did him, or what tortures they inflicted? All we know is this--no one filmed them like Rollin. No one.

Shiver of the Vampires is one of the earliest examples of Rollin's vampiric obsessions, and everything you want is here. Glorious natural scenery. Wonderfully decaying castles, crumbling walls, desolate ruins and graveyards. Expressionistic lighting. Strange, dream-logic plotting. Gallons of tempra-paint blood. And the babes--dear sweet Beezlebub, the BABES!

We open with a somber sepia-toned funeral, as the two masters of the manor are being laid to rest. Their faithful servants, gorgeous petite Marie-Pierre Castel and exotic Kuelan Herce, are on a mission. After some shocking rock music credits over a foggy silhouetted graveyard, the girls go to the tower where they find two vampires in their death throes. As one of the vamps waits for the sunlight to claim him, he exorts the girls to go and kill "them" before sunset; but if they cannot, to serve "them" so that at least the girls can stay alive as their servants. Cryptic as these instructions are, the girls attempt to carry them out, but arrive too late to slay the strangely seductive female vampire who rises with a shriek from her crypt. Condemned to serve vampiric masters, we must leave the enigmatic maids there as we follow another thread of the story.

Ise and her new husband Antoine (aka "Scarf Boy") are en route to Ise's cousins' estate, where she has many happy memories, to spend their honeymoon. She arrives to find her cousins both dead (the corpses from the opening scene, presumably), but their maids waiting to take them in. After visiting the grave site and meeting a woman, Isabelle, who claims to have been mistress to both of the dead men, Ise goes back to the castle and the strangest honeymoon suite in history. Claiming to be too upset and tired to sleep with her new husband, she sends Scarf Boy to another suite and climbs in bed.

At midnight, though, the female vamp from earlier appears in Ise's room--crawling incredibly from the guts of the grandfather clock that struck the hour! The vampire langorously feels up the quickly-nude newlywed, and seduces her with a bite.

"Excuse me, do you have the time?"
"Yes. For whatever you're talking about, YES."

An amazing scene follows as the naked Ise sleepwalks into the graveyard and collapses nude on a tomb, while the maids (now in nearly-transparent gauze gowns and NOTHING else) watch silently. Meanwhile Scarf Boy, too sexually frustrated to sleep, is walking the castle grounds and discovers a strange scene unfolding in the crypt chapel--two men, obviously vampires (note the bloody drool) are praying while the maids, finished with Ise, stake a female vamp on the altar! The praying vamps say this must be done to prevent spreading their curse. Scarf Boy, confused, stumbles back to the castle, gropes his naked and unconscious bride (who is back safe in her bed) to no effect, and skulks off.

The next day stranger things happen. The maids tell their guests that the cousins are NOT dead, but just rumored to be so in the village. They're working in the study all day, and will join them for dinner that evening. Scarf Boy, the skeptic, investigates the library, only to be attacked by the books! True to their word the cousins appear that evening, and a stranger set of swingin' vamps I've never seen. It's an incredible scene as the brothers explain their studies, Mad Tea Party style, while Rollin's camera spins and whirls. Some great writing here and wonderfully weird acting by the brothers make this a favorite exchange of mine, as the honeymooners (and the audience) feel they've truly gone down the rabbit hole.

"Okay. I'll hold his arms, and you take
the blood-filled water gun away."

After begging off Scarf Boy's attentions again due to illness (anemia, no doubt), Ise is visited again by the female vamp, Isis, and once again bitten. Afterwards Isis meets the cousins, who are of course also vamps, the ones from the crypt. We learn they were famous vampire hunters in life, but recently fell to Isis's machinations and have now become what they once fought. Is there any humanity left in the brothers? Can Scarf Boy figure out what's going on and stop Isis before Ise is forever undead? What about Isabelle? What's with all these "I" names anyway? And how many times can we see the maids in those gowns before we explode in spurts of joy?*

This is my second visit to Rollin Country, and I'm seriously thinking of buying a summer house. I love this movie. The beautiful images--images of such decay, but also such beauty--the expressionistic red and green lighting, and of course the beautiful and regularly nude Eurobabes, all kept me mesmerized. And Rollin's eye for an arresting image can't be questioned--witness early on, when the self-sacrificing vamps in the tower die (whose backstory I'm still completely lost on), we get an amazing shot of the exterior castle, blood pouring out the window so that the building itself seems to bleed--red blood on white stone. Beautimous. And later, a white dove on a dark coffin in a pool of thick red blood might as well be a painting. It's art.

And need I mention the women? Ise waiting nudeby the grandfather clock for her vampire lover, the maids naked togther on furs (Zang!), women in coffins with blood trickling from their lips--I felt visually drunk.


Add to that the wild 60s/70s fashions and the great weird performances by the cousins, and this movie is nothing but wonderful all the way through.

This one is off the thumb scale. I could go on and on about what I loved here--the great ending, for instance, could take another page--but really talking about Rollin's movie is like talking about how wine tastes. It's fine, but there's no way you can really tell what it's like without tasting it yourself. So I encourage everyone to open some vintage Rollin, put on your paisley smoking jackets, and get drunk as I did. Trust me, you'll love it.

(*Answer: 12)


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