Monday, November 30, 2009

Killer Workout (1986): or, The Power is You, the Power is Me

Sometimes it takes a little bit of time before you know it's for real. Meeting at a friend's Scattergories party, you exchange phone numbers and send a few harmless texts. You agree to meet for coffee, share Cinnabuns and a good conversation. More texts, phone calls, emails, a few movies and a trip to the zoo--then, after a few weeks or even months, you look across the table in the food court in front of Sbarro's, your eyes lock, and you realize it: you're in love.

Other times, the feeling waylays you like a highwayman in a Naschy flick--you catch a glimpse, just the merest twinkling of an eye, the glint of a giant hoop earring, the *zwip* of a spandex bodysuit, the briefest flash of a neon headband, and BAM! You're heels over head over heels again in love.

Maybe it's the fact that I reached puberty and suffered from its ravages for most of the heyday of Wham! and Hall & Oates; maybe it's my taste for the absurd coupled with a love for the athletic and fitness fashions that were haute couture when Reagan was president and Harrison Ford ruled the box office. Whatever the reason, for David A. Prior's 1986 slasher opus Killer Workout (aka Aerobi-cide), I knew right from the start. I love this movie.

I can't fight this feeling anymore

In the middle of the 1980s, when aerobic exercise (or more properly "aerobicize") was taking the nation and the world by storm, health clubs all over the country sought to capitalize on its popularity by adding huge studio rooms with mirrored walls and parquet flooring to the regular free-weights and Nautilus machines. In doing so they drew in scores of women with huge breasts, huger hair, and a penchant for dressing like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance (thus boosting business, perpetuating the aerobicize craze, and feeding the sexual fantasies of maladjusted movie reviewers for decades to come). It is in one such flesh-molding factory, the accurately if uncreatively named "Rhonda's Workout," that our sad but beautiful story takes place.

Killer Workout starts off with the requisite flashback bang: a mysterious woman on the eve of signing the contract for a lucrative modeling job (in Paris!) celebrates her good fortune by catching a few rays on the tanning bed, giving the appreciative audience full nekkidity within three minutes of the opening shot. (Are you taking notes, budding young filmmakers of tomorrow? That's TEXTBOOK.) Of course it's the pre-credits sequence, so it comes as no surprise when tragedy strikes--a mechanical malfunction traps her in the UV-bed's deadly embrace, causing the machine to belch smoke and burst into flames like an ungrounded Easy-Bake Oven!

An indeterminate amount of time and an AWESOME credits song later, we find ourselves at the aforementioned gym, where proprietrix Rhonda (Marcia Karr, looking an awful lot like Jo from TV's Facts of Life--which is to say, hawt) is standing in as aerobicize instructor for irresponsible employee Jaimy (Teresa Van der Woude), who is running late, apparently because she couldn't find her cross-trainers--which is the only logical explanation for why she shows up wearing a spandex leotard, leg-warmers, and high-heeled red shoes. (Though when stumbles out of her Porsche and spills a purse-full of condoms onto the asphalt, another possible explanation presents.) Rhonda is a tough, no-nonsense businesswoman, and sets her slatternly subordinate straight: "Business is bad enough already! Just stop showing off your tits and your tight little ass!" Wait, what?

Let's get ready to sweat

Also present at the gym are: musclebound mullet-bearer Chuck (Ted Prior, later of Karate Warrior 2 and Surf Nazis Must Die!), a new employee hired by Rhonda's mysterious silent parter Mr. Ericson; roided-out perv Jimmy (Fritz Matthews), who has an unhealthy affection for Rhonda; and an assortment of gym regulars, including a gay weightlifting couple, dozens of side-ponytail-wearing lingerie models, and at least one fat guy in overalls who does nothing but ride a stationary bike and gawk at the beautiful ladies.

It's not long before someone starts killing the gym patrons, just like you probably knew they would, although you likely didn't guess that the murder weapon would be a giant safety pin. Seriously. After a couple of unnamed extras are offed, the LAPD send out Detective Lieutenant Morgan (crater-faced tough guy David James Campbell), who subscribes to the "treat everyone like a suspect and gargle with Dran-o before speaking" school of police work. His presence does nothing to stop the killings, however, and soon the gym is getting a reputation for people not surviving their workouts. Strangely, this does nothing to the attendance level of the aerobicize classes, as every time we see them in session (and we see them a LOT--not that I'm complaining) they seem absolutely packed.

It's easy enough to summarize the plot of Killer Workout, but this is one of those cases where a mere synopsis cannot begin to do justice to the awe-inspiring beauty of the thing itself. This movie is packed so absolutely chock-full of tasty 80s cheese from one end to the other, it really defies logical explanation. From the awesome extended workout footage to the laughably choreographed kung-fu fights to the crimptastic mousse-abusing hairstyles to the good 10-minutes Lt. Morgan spends tracking down and fighting an obvious red-herring, there's just nothing here that fails to put a huge stupid grin on the Vicar's face and fix it there. Add a boom mic cameo and a "cop goes rogue and takes the law in his hands" ending (that ends in complete COP-FAIL), and yes, my friends, it's love.

No pain, no gain, no brain.

Sure, there are some things I would have liked to have explained--the mysterious Mr. Ericson gives every sign of being a Big Baddie suitable for a last-reel reveal, but don't hold your breath for that one--but in the final tally the good far outweighs the bad. Because let's face it, when you've got a perfect 80s pop soundtrack written FOR THE FILM (with some of the most grin-inducing lyrics ever), plenty of gratuitous nudity, and a "break the fourth wall and wink at the camera" final frame, well, everything else is just details.

2.75 thumbs. And if anyone has a copy of the soundtrack, email me and NAME YOUR PRICE!

Because words fail me, here are a dozen more fantastic images from Killer Workout:

Nice and Brown

"Business is so bad, I had to sell my apostrophe!"


Not So Safe

The Queen of Crimp

Just Do It

"Be vewwy quiet..."

The Carradine Club

You'd Wear It

Shadow of the Boom Mic

"But Vicar, I haven't done my stretches!"

Work Them Thangs


Monday, November 23, 2009

Targets (1968): or, Go On, Boris, Take a Bow

Part of the Boris Karloff Blogathon, sponsored by Frankensteinia! Click Here to enjoy all the other entries in this web-wide celebration of the Life and Career of Boris Karloff!

Cinema history is littered with stories of golden age stars who ended their careers on desperate, depressing notes, working in low-budget, zero-prestige dreck totally unworthy of their talents. In the horror genre--and the world of film generally--perhaps no star better exemplifies this phenomenon than Bela Lugosi, whose fall from superstardom into drug addiction, anachronism, and death on the second day of filming what was for decades held as "the worst film ever made" is the stuff of sad Hollywood legend. Fellow golden age icons Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine fared only slightly better, and the last great face of horror cinema, Vincent Price, is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. It's almost as if something about the dark stories they brought to life in their heyday rubbed off onto the men beneath, cursing their final days with as much tragedy as they ever assayed on screen.

Even Boris Karloff, arguably the most talented and almost certainly the most successful legend of the Universal era, was not spared this cruel fate. Like many of his peers, Karloff did some excellent work even late in his career--How the Grinch Stole Christmas, anyone?--and lent his considerable gravitas and class to a slew of low budget horror films and television shows, often improving the material by several orders of magnitude by virtue of his unshakable sophistication and talent. But for all that, he still closed out his two-hundred film career in a series of z-grade Mexican mad-doctor flicks. Such efforts as Snake People and The Incredible Invasion (both 1971), though perhaps not without their peculiar charms, feature a game but clearly ill and exhausted Karloff, hobbling across the cheap sets and delivering lines in a sonorous but shaky voice, a mere shell of his former glory.

Which is why I say, "Thank God for Roger Corman," without whose legendary frugal and opportunistic showbiz know-how, today's film would not have been made. Corman had Karloff under contract for five days of shooting, and had already burned three of them on another project. Not one to let an aging horror star sit idle when there was unexposed film within reach, Corman told a young Peter Bogdonavich--then a fledgling, untried filmmaker with only one unremarkable film to his credit--that he could make any movie he wanted on two conditions: he had to use the two days Karloff owed him, and he had to use stock footage from 1963's The Terror (a previous Corman/Karloff collaboration that also starred a very young Jack Nicholson). Bound by those cost-cutting strictures, Bogdonavich and wife/cowriter Polly Platt came up with a film that can be considered a glorious and moving capper to Karloff's career: Targets (1968).

Boris, in Peril

Because they had only a few days to come up with a complete screenplay ready to shoot, Platt and Bogdonavich decided not to cast Karloff as a mad doctor bent on world domination or a Sadean aristocrat with a penchant for terrorizing bikini-clad girls. Instead, they decided to have Karloff play...himself! With the "you can't possibly mistake what we're doing here" moniker Byron Orlok, Karloff plays an aging horror star of the golden era, now forced to work in low budget schlock and live off the name recognition and status he built up in his glory days--a status that is clearly in steep decline.

Bogdonavich opens the movie with five minutes of footage from The Terror, like in the deal. We see the tumultuous climax of that film, with a younger but still none-too-youthful Karloff stalking through a gothic castle set, whipping his servant with chains, unearthing his beloved in her worm-eaten grave, and wrestling a diaphanous gown-clad spectre as the dungeon floods and the walls crumble around him. (For sheer "what a trooper" awesomeness, the only comparison is Lugosi's octopus-rasslin' scene in Ed Wood's Bride of the Monster.) The end credits roll, and the lights come up in a darkened screening room, where Orlok shakes his head sadly at the spectacle he's just witnessed, the depths to which his career has sunk.

"I'm telling you, Sammy, if Naschy gets a boob-touching rider, SO DO I!"

While the producer sings the flick's praises with dollar signs dancing in his eyes, he's already planning the Orlok's next project, a script he calls "a work of art!" written by fledgling director Sammy Michaels that he claims will be "a real departure for you, Byron!" Through asides between Sammy and Orlok's distractingly attractive young secretary Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), we learn this is to be the director's big break, a chance to do the type of picture he's always wanted to do. It's about as meta as meta can get, since what we're watching is by all accounts the story of how the movie we're watching actually got made. The fact that Sammy Michaels is played by Peter Bogdonavich himself removes whatever doubt there could be left.

Orlok's had enough, however, and announces that he's retiring from the movies, effective immediately. Tired of appearing in movies he feels are beneath him and depressed at the downward trajectory of his career, Orlok is ready to walk away from the whole circus, leaving the producer, his agent Eddie, and the young director in the lurch. When Sammy tries to talk him out of it, Orlok is firm in his resolve. "Sammy, you're a sweet boy, but you can't possibly understand what it feels like to be me! I'm an antique, out of date ... an anachronism! The world belongs to the young! Make way for them--let them have it!"

As they argue in the street, we suddenly see Orlok through the crosshairs of a high-powered rifle--a jarring, unsettling image. Pulling back we find Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) testing the scope on a gun he intends to purchase. With his crew cut, smart suit, polite friendliness and gee-whiz good looks, Bobby is the very image of the clean, upstanding American youth of the 60s. But when he buys the rifle and takes it out to his car to add it to a veritable arsenal he has stored in the trunk, we start to see there's a hidden disturbing depth just below the All-American Boy surface.

Matt Damon in the inevitable remake

We follow Bobby home, past a drive-in advertising a personal appearance by Byron Orlok scheduled for the following evening. Bobby also passes an oil refinery whose towering tanks he watches meaningfully as he drives by in his Mustang, the most all-American of American cars. Back home, we learn Bobby and his wife Ilene (Tanya Morgan) live with Bobby's parents, in a house full of gun racks, gun magazines, and hunting and GI photos of the old man. Bobby calls his father "Sir" and bows his head dutifully for prayers before the evening meal, but the way he stalks around the empty rooms, an unreadable but slightly sinister gleam in his eye, speaks volumes.

Back in Orlok's hotel room, it becomes clear that the old man is determined to wallow in bitterness, actively trying to alienate his agent and secretary with his curmudgeonly self-pity. He even refuses to honor his contract for the personal appearance at the drive-in, causing the longsuffering Eddie no end of dismay. Karloff's performance here is nothing short of brilliant--his smooth, bitingly satirical delivery of his dialogue somehow captures Orlok's despair and anger without ever becoming too mean--you can see that he's a good man, a kind man, who just happens to be at the end of his rope. Of course the audience's prior knowledge of Karloff's off-screen persona helps a lot here, but that's all part of Bogdonavich's master plan, and it works wonderfully.

Back in suburbia, Bobby tries to open up to his wife about the demons that are haunting him. "I don't know what's happening to me," he tells her. "I get...funny ideas." But while Bobby's clearly struggling to articulate the impulses even he doesn't fully understand, his wife barely listens, putting him off with pleasantries and a good night peck on the cheek. Bobby stays up all night, smoking in the dark and gazing ominously at the gun on his bedside table as the plan forms in his head...


What we have in Targets is a movie that's not so much a horror film as a film about horror--specifically, it's changing face in the post-Charles Whitman era. (For those yet to study the incident in American History, Whitman was the gunman in the infamous Texas Clocktower Shootings--wiki article here.) Whitman's crime is referenced many times in the film, though not always directly. For instance, when Orlok laments that his type of horror "isn't horror anymore!", he cites as evidence a newspaper headline about a youth having shot down a group of innocents in a supermarket. When Bobby climbs to the top of a refinery tank and sets out his arsenal in preparation for the beginning of his onslaught, the parallels can't be ignored. Add to this the fact that Tim O'Kelly's Bobby bears more than a passing resemblance to Whitman himself, and the connection is clear. Horror no longer wears diaphanous gowns and rotting Victorian clothes--now it wears a crew cut and a smile and carries a high-powered rifle.

After picking off several motorists from his perch at the refinery and also murdering a worker who surprises him on the stairwell (Note to Flying Maciste Bros.: dummy death!), Bobby flees the scene, eluding the police by pulling into the drive-in theater where Orlok is scheduled to make his appearance. As luck would have it, Orlok has decided to show up for the PA after all, thanks to a drunken bender with Michaels the night before and the pangs of his conscience. It's here that Orlok and Bobby's paths finally cross, as the young man takes up a position behind the screen and begins picking off the audience while the movie plays. It all comes to a head when Jenny is shot and an enraged and probably in-shock Orlock heads behind the screen to confront the next generation's version of horror.

"I was scaring the crap out of kids like you when your daddy was in diapers!"

In only his second feature, Bogdonavich directs with an amazing amount of flair and confidence. The opening half hour is a miniature master class in visual storytelling, as the director is able to generate an immense amount of suspense and foreboding with just a few well-placed images and creative transitions. He uses color to great effect too, choosing all warm yellows, browns, and oranges for Karloff's scenes, all cold blues and whites and greens for Tim O'Kelly's. The lack of a score for long stretches (only car radio and drive-in movie music are used) adds to the suspense. On the DVD commentary Bogdonavich gives a great deal of credit to his famous mentor Samuel Fuller, who did a full rewrite of Bogdonavich and Platt's original script and refused screen credit for it. However, the young director was obviously paying attention and learning the right lessons, as his later career would show. (For you movie buffs, Bogdonavich's next feature after Targets was The Last Picture Show, for which Bogdonavich received several Oscar nominations.)

Making a virtue of the strictures Corman placed on him, Bogdonavich uses the other ten or fifteen minutes stock footage from The Terror in the movie's incredibly tense climax, slowly building the suspense as audience members are picked off one by one while the rest of the moviegoers sit and watch obliviously. Bogdonavich doesn't pull any punches either--scenes showing children bleeding in the arms of their weeping mothers, and another of a young boy in shock looking at his father's dead body in the seat beside him, are more than a little hard to take. The fact that the movie still resonates so strongly today is either a testament to the director's skill, a sad comment on present-day society, or a little of both.

The young director was blessed with an excellent cast as well, chiefly in the form of Karloff and Tim O'Kelly. Playing a slightly more curmudgeonly version of himself, Karloff is an absolute joy to watch, and his chemistry with Bogdonavich the actor and with Nancy Hseuh as Jenny is real and engaging. He also gets a chance to do some dry British comedy, as when he spars with a beatnik radio personality prior to the public appearance (Beatnik: "Mr. O, I must have dug your flicks like four zillion times! You BLEW MY MIND!" Karloff [extremely dry]: "Obviously."), or when an exasperated Sammy takes his script and storms to the door, threatening, "I'm gonna go offer this to Vincent Price!" On the dramatic side, highlights include the reportedly ad-libbed 'bedtime story' Orlok tells in lieu of an interview (an Arabian folk tale about the day Death came to the marketplace), and his wordless confrontation with Bobby behind the screen. (Two words: BORIS BITCH-SLAP!)

Do. Not. Fuck. With. Boris.

For all the Karloff magic, though, the movie would not have worked without the frankly amazing performance by Tim O'Kelly as the inscrutable killer. Some viewers with an axe to grind might point at the gun-worship in Bobby's home as a political statement on Bogdonavich's part about 2nd Amendment controversies, but the quiet, disturbed intensity O'Kelly brings to the role gives you the sense that he'd be out there shooting even if his dad collected stamps instead. It's an impulse even Bobby doesn't understand, and there seems to be no explaining his rampage--which in the final analysis is perhaps what makes it so terrifying. Sadly, O'Kelly only made a couple more films after Targets before disappearing from the movies completely.

The supporting cast is great too--Nancy Hseuh is fabulous as a capable woman who knows how to handle her slightly childish old charge, and Bogdonavich carries his role well. One performance I enjoyed a great deal this second time around was Arthur Peterson as Orlok's agent Eddie, who with very limited screentime and dialog creates a believable, touching, slightly tragic character about whom I would have liked to know more.

If Boris had followed Orlok's lead and retired after Targets, it would have been a glorious, fitting end to a long and wonderful career. Of course Bogdonavich points out on his informative commentary that this was the one difference between Orlok and Karloff: "Boris never for a moment considered not working." Karloff's subsequent Mexican z-graders did nothing to diminish his legend either, and even in the most atrocious fare he was able to lend an air of class and sophistication that was almost magical. Still, Targets is a fabulous movie, a grand curtain call for one of the true greats not only in horror cinema, but in American film as a whole.

Here's to you, Mr. Karloff

3+ thumbs. See it--you owe it to yourself, and to Boris. Come on, think of all he's given you! Is it too much to ask?

A few more images from Targets (1968):

"No, seriously--you're wearing THAT?"
The Junk in Bobby's Trunk

Ladies Love Cool Boris

Maynard G. Krebs makes a cameo

A Coke and a Smile

Chilling x 2
3-D Can Be Deadly

Is Boris Karloff gonna have to choke a bitch?


Monday, November 16, 2009

Grave of the Vampire (1974): or, Oedipus Necks

Oh, Mill Creek DVD--every time I'm just about ready to give up on your poor-quality transfers of mostly forgettable public domain dreck, every time I'm almost ready to swear I'll never drop twenty bucks on another fifty movie pack that will never live up to the glories of that 50 Chilling Classics set, you come through with an undiscovered gem to remind me why I've been telling everyone about you for two years running. You're like a bad girlfriend who every now and then comes through with a truly sweet gesture and/or mind-blowing sex. I just can't quit you, baby!

The kicker this time comes from my barely-tapped Night Screams set, which seems to be made up mostly of 1940s poverty row programmers. However, nestled in there among the odd Tod Slaughter film and jungle-woman adventure flicks, this weekend I found John Hayes's 1974 groovy gothic Grave of the Vampire. Was the print bad? Terrible. Was the sound off? You betcha. Were the production values low? But of course. But the flick has that special something that brings a smile to the Vicar's face. Call it heart, call it ambition, call it borderline-incestuous vampire lore starring one of the most distinctive granite-chinned character actors of the 70s and 80s; I call it kismet.

Titular vampire, titular grave

It's the early 1950s somewhere in California, and Caleb Croft (Michael Pataki, whose lengthy filmography includes such roles as Count Dracula in Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, George Martin in Sweet 16, and 'Man Who Moons Courtroom' in 1982's Night Shift) rests uneasy in his tomb. As the lid creaks and shifts, the credits roll over some cool spooky music and gothic fog banks that set a nice tone. Then we're whisked away to a wild college party, where Paul and Leslie (Jay Scott and Kitty Vallacher, memorably credited in the opening crawl as "The Unwilling Mother") are making their excuses so they can sneak off for a little slap and tickle. The partygoers beg them to stay--"Lola Blossom's gonna do a dance, and we got all the freshers dressed up like dogs so they can crawl on their knees and bark at her!"--but our het-up young couple climb in the antique sedan and take off. If I had been Paul and heard that invitation, I guarantee you the movie would have been about an hour and twenty minutes shorter.

Paul and Leslie go straight to the local graveyard, which is strongly implied as the site of their first premarital coupling. ("It was almost on this very spot!" Paul grins, affectionately stroking a gravestone.) He's returned to the scene of the crime to ask Leslie to marry him, an offer she readily accepts, despite the fact that he's clearly fifteen years older than she. Of course Paul couldn't have picked a worse night to make an honest woman of her, as Caleb Croft picks just that moment to rise from his tomb--a bestial, dessicated corpse--and goes on the expected rampage that leaves Paul bent backwards over a gravestone and drained of blood. Apparently quenching his bloodlust makes Caleb hornay, and Leslie, her heart as broken as her lover's spine, is dragged screaming into a convenient open grave to sate the vampire's OTHER wicked desires.

"You're a BACKBREAKER, LOVE MAKER, BLOOD TAKER, don't you mess around with me!"

Back at the station, Lietuenant Panzer (Eric Mason, who had a little vampire experience thanks to his appearance a year earlier in Scream Blacula Scream!), is one of those refreshing investigators who doesn't let himself get bogged down in traditional police work routine. He considers the facts--one dead, drained body, one traumatized, molested girl, and one conspicuously empty tomb--and immediately jumps to the only sane conclusion: VAMPIRE ON THE LOOSE! Seriously, this is his first and ONLY theory! Lucky for him it's absolutely correct. Meanwhile, the understandably unstable Leslie finds out she's pregnant and persuades herself it must be Paul's baby. She also becomes BFFs with strung-out looney Olga (Lieux Dressler), who convinces her the doctors are full of shit when they say she should abort the baby (the doc's bedside manner her is exemplary: "What's growing inside you isn't alive!...What's inside your womb is not a human being, it's a parasite!") and the two women leave the hospital together, determined to birth that baby come hell or high water.

After Croft kills another local, we're all set-up for the Cop vs. the Armies of the Undead thriller of the sort most of us have seen more than once. However, Hayes and co-writer David Chase have a few twists up their sleeves--after meticulously setting Panzer up as the vampire-fighting hero, they have him wander by the Croft Crypt to do some investigatin'. Once there he's surprised by the vampire himself (now wearing a cape that he did not have in his coffin, just to remove any confusion, I guess) who chokes the cop out, opens the concrete sarcophagus, and crushes the lieutenant's head under the lid! Awesome! Myah, who's yer messiahr now, see?


Nine months later Leslie is giving birth to her little bundle of joy, with Olga dressed in a period pilgrim outfit to serve as midwife. The baby is born with gray skin and an aversion to milk, to the point that even Olga must suggest they take him to the town doctor to find out what (the fuck) is up. But when Leslie, baby uselessly pressed to her breast, reaches for a super sharp paring knife to peel an apple (like you do), the resultant blood splatter falls on junior's lips, and I bet you can guess what happens after that. Some creepy kooky visuals here include Leslie cutting her breast to give her baby suck, the blood splatters around the hungrily licking baby's mouth, and Mom taking a syringe full of arterial goodness and using it to fill a baby bottle!

Suddenly we get a montage of the little tyke growing up, complete with a Wonder Years-style voice over from the grown man he becomes. We see he can walk around in daylight but prefers the shadows, and never quite "fit in" with the rest of his pals--which only makes sense, as he's half human/half vampire, with the strengths and weaknesses of each. On her deathbed mom spills the beans and tells young James about his ill-fated nativity, at which point he swears he'll hunt down the vampire who raped his mother and make him pay for his crimes! Hey, Wesley Snipes, are you taking notes?

Nipple-lickin' good!

James "Don't Call Me Blade" Eastwood is played by bodybuilder/character actor William Smith, whose face should be instantly recognizable to any fan of action movies of the late 70s and 80s. The granite chin, the chiseled, squinty eyes, the flat geometric planes of his face--it's hard to imagine a tougher looking fellow, and it's not surprising he's had very few leading roles, since he seems tailor-made to play the villain/henchman/tough-as-nails military type (as he did memorably in his role as General Mintz in Memorial Valley Massacre). Here he's the romantic lead, though, and does reasonably well lending a Clint Eastwood-esque intensity to his role of fearless vampire hunter.

James tracks Croft to a university campus, where he's taken to teaching extremely well-attended night classes in mythology and folklore. The first night James meets roommates Anita Jacoby (Diane Holden) and Ann Arthur (Lyn Peters). Swingin' folklore major Anita comes on to James hard, demonstrating a shared interest in the infamous Salem Witch Trials-era vampire John Croydon, who James secretly believes to be Croft. However, James only has eyes for Literature teacher Ann, and it's not long before he's got her back at his apartment, drinking wine and doing the horizontal mambo to the music of their beating hearts. (A throwaway bit where Ann finds a half-eaten plateful of raw meat with a knife and fork on the side is a nice touch.)

William Smith: He Craps Bigger Than You

Meanwhile, Croft knows James is onto him, though for what purpose he doesn't yet dream. There are a couple of cool vampire rampage scenes thrown in here, as Anita confronts Croft with his identity and demands he make her his vampire bride, only to have her throat slit for her trouble, and another borderline-hilarious bit where Croft gets very testy with a sassy librarian MILF who won't lend him the book he wants.

What's very interesting to me at this point is the clearly intentional Oedipal twist on the vampire/revenge plot here. James is clearly Oedipus Rex, out to kill his father for having fucked his mom. This is further underlined by Croft's realization that Ann is the reincarnation of his first wife Sarah, who was burned for a witch in Salem. Of course James is schtupping Ann, the wife of his father, bringing the whole classical reference full circle. Like I say, a neat take on the convention, and one I don't believe I've seen before.

"Let me warm this up for you. Please."

Things take a turn for the MAD when Croft sets up a seance for some of his more promising students, secretly hoping to summon Sarah's spirit so that his wife can permanently possess Ann's body and they can be together forever. One step ahead, James uses his vamp-mojo to summon Anita's spirit instead, leading to a crazy scene where Ann speaks in Anita's voice, taunting Croft and offering still to be his vampire bride if he'll just kill Ann already so she can take permanent residence. James breaks that up with a quickness, and once Croft has disposed of the rest of the party guests, it's time for the big final confrontation between father and son.

"You never came to even one baseball game, Dad! NOT EVEN ONE!"

And what a confrontation it is! After throwing his human guests around like rag dolls, Croft is amazed by James' preternatural strength and cunning as he fights the vampire off his lady love. When James hits him with the truth--"I'm your SON!"--all bets are off and a truly epic battle begins. I'm talking five minutes of brutal, Naschy-meets-Roddy Piper in THEY LIVE style violence. During the course of this tussle Croft gets whipped with chains, James gets set ON FIRE, and the buff beefy son GORILLA SLAMS his dad down the ornate mansion stairs! Of course it can only end with Oedipus the King triumphant, but it appears James has neglected one little piece of dhampyr lore related to the inheritance due the son upon the father's death...

Should have thought this through

I enjoyed Grave of the Vampire from the beginning on, but that wild finish is what pushed it over the edge into Mad Movie love. Freudian psychology, subverted genre expectations, and a final battle to send you out of the grindhouse cheering--what's not to love? If there had just been a little more gore and/or nudity (the movie falls squarely into the PG-horror category), it would have been a 3-thumb no-brainer. Still, I can't give it less than 2.85 thumbs for sheer passion and entertainment value. I don't know if this one movie is worth buying the whole Mill Creek Night Screams set for, but it's definitely worth seeking out on its own if you get the chance.

A few more images from Grave of the Vampire (1974):

Ann falls victim to Vampiric Halitosis
"No, look, it'll be easy--I'm double jointed, and you can just hold onto these collar wings!"

"Hey, Sonny Boy! I gotcher nose!"

Damn kids.

Oh, movie, could I love you more?


Upcoming on MMMMMovies: The Boris Karloff Blogathon

Parishioners and subjects, I know you to be people of impeccable taste, broad-ranging intelligence, and endearing intellectual curiosity. Therefore, if you're not visiting Pierre Fournier's exemplary blog Frankensteinia on at least a daily basis, you are sadly misusing your time. Msr. Fournier is a gentleman and a scholar with an endless passion for all things Frankenstein, and his frequent updates are a never-ending source of goodness for anyone with a predeliction for horror.

Next week, November 23-29, he is also sponsoring a Boris Karloff Blogathon, and has invited horror blogging luminaries from across the web to chime in with reviews, essays, and reminiscences about the man behind everyone's favorite monster. Your ever-lovin' Vicar has accepted Pierre's invitation, and will be contributing a review next week to which you can all look forward. So keep watching this space, bookmark/follow Frankensteinia today, and be sure to check out all the other fantastic entries that are doubtless going to pour in as well.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator (1989), Or Where Else Would You Stuff That Slut?

Dearest friends, it is I, the Duke of DVD, back again to shove your face into the steaming excrement pile that is MMMMad cinema. Once more I cannot stop myself from watching another cinematic abortion from the fine folks at Troma. Today I will be discussing the finer points of a rabid debacle of a film called Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator, a movie so vile and awesome that I can safely say I vomited a little in my mouth by the end of it, and felt the need to immediately schedule an exorcism followed by a high colonic.

To understand Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator, one must first throw out any preconceived notions as to WHY we would want to stuff Stephanie into an incinerator. Friends, the "why" doesn't matter. There could be many reasons. Perhaps Stephanie sat upon and crushed your favorite cat whilst in the throes of a particularly angry match of charades. Could be that Stephanie paid a gypsy in sexual favors to curse you, thus rendering your wang useless, or your vagina dusty, as the case may be.

No, friends, we don't care WHY Stephanie needs to be burned to ash, we only know that it must happen! Let us explore, shall we?

Our movie opens with a simple credit sequence informing us that the movie was written and directed by a gentleman named Don Nardo. For those not in the know, Don Nardo took over the Nardo family after the original Don, named Giuseppe by his family but usually referred to as Don Fabulous by his friends, committed suicide by self-inflicting over 34 stab wounds to his own back. Seizing the reins, Don Nardo commenced to carving out a small film empire, including such delights as Poke Ernie in the Anus and Expose Ebert to the Elements, before finally writing and directing his magnum opus, Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator.

The first scene is set in a darkened airplane hangar. A lone mechanic works on an engine from a twin prop plane. Bidding his coworkers a good night, he is left alone. But not for long! Out of the shadows step two men in long trench coats. Saying nothing, they proceed to rough up the mechanic before finally stealing a gold ring off his hand. They then bind his hands and force a plastic sack over his head, heedless of the suffocation warnings. The scene fades.

"We're from the gas company. Your bill is WAY overdue!"

We switch to the mechanic, waking up on the floor of an opulent study, inexplicably wearing a tuxedo. Looking groggily around, we see occultish paintings and what appears to be a birdcage with a black curtain over it. He walks down a hallway and discovers a bedroom with a sleeping girl in it. He reaches out and touches her hand, causing her eyes to spring open. She tells him it's good that he's dressed, because supper is ready. Somehow she knows his name (Paul) and tells him hers is Stephanie. Finally, the titular Stephanie! So far we see no reason as to why one would stuff her into an incinerator, but the night is young.

"Please pay no attention to my Adam's apple!"

She bids him to follow her, ignoring his questions as to what (the fuck) is going on. The tour of the house is cut short by a dinner bell. They head to the dining room, where they (and we) are greeted by the ugly visage of Roberta, who is quite obviously a man in drag, but we'll get to that later. Roberta bids them to sit and eat. Paul begins to relax a little, but still wants to know what's going on. Roberta tells him that he's there to basically sex Stephanie while Roberta watches, a prospect that turns Paul's (and our) stomach. He jumps up and tries to flee, finding all the doors and windows locked.

"Oh yeah, baby. Work that loom!"

Paul comes back to the dining room to find Roberta gone and Stephanie still sitting there. We then cut to a scene of Paul sitting on the floor, looking distraught, and Stephanie trying to comfort him. Then we flash to another scene with Paul waking up from a daze on a couch, with Roberta sitting uncomfortably close to him in a chair. Before we can process this series of scenes, Paul threatens Roberta with bodily harm unless she lets him go. Suddenly, two suit-wearing thugs are in the room, one of them armed with a hunting rifle. We see that these are the same trench coat dudes who kidnapped Paul in the beginning.

Paul then utters the immortal line: "Geez, I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me there must be some law against sexual deviance!" while facing a window. He turns to find the room empty. Paul then hatches a plan that involves using a letter opener to short out the lights of the parlor he's always in, which gives him and Stephanie time enough to climb up into the room's chimney, making their escape. Hounded by the sounds of dogs in pursuit, they run all over the place, through the woods, finally ending up in what appears to be a work shed on the property. Not content to just hide, they begin making out and finally "do it," off camera thankfully. It must be mentioned here that none of the principal actors, Stephanie included, is much of a looker.

Stephanie... getting stuffed.

They wake from a post-coital nap to find that they are somehow inexplicably still in Roberta's house, in the basement to be exact, and that Roberta has been watching them this whole time from the top of some stairs, employing the use of some opera binoculars no less! Going back upstairs, Roberta confronts Paul in the parlor with one more task to fulfill: sex up Roberta! In response to this, Paul utters another fantastic line: "I'll see you in Hell, first, you ol' WARTHOG!" To this, Roberta walks over and pushes a switch on the wall, causing a hidden elevator to descend from the ceiling!

Inside is a goon with Stephanie in handcuffs. He pulls her over to what I thought was a draped birdcage, but instead it is revealed to be an iron maiden! Before she can run to the hills, Stephanie is stuffed in the iron maiden! Up the Irons! Before it can shut on her, however, Paul relents and agrees to bone Roberta. They start to kiss when suddenly Roberta breaks character, talking in the voice of a dude, asking Stephanie if he has to go through with this. At this point, I arched my eyebrow and sat back to hopefully answer the burning question of just what (the fuck) is going on in this movie?

"It looks like I picked the wrong time to invest in Indo-Chinese corn futures!"

To sum up the next few scenes in the best way I can, I can tell you that "Paul" is really a man named Jared, a wealthy dude who is addicted to elaborate role-play shenanigans. "Stephanie" is actually named Casey, and is Paul's girlfriend. "Roberta" is actually Robert, a hired actor and friend of the couple. After paying Robert $5000 for his work, they drive him to the airport, but stop at a gas station along the way. While there, it is revealed that Casey is sleeping with a mechanic named Nicky, an ugly, beastly, bulging man who she's seeing on the side. After dropping Robert at the airport, the couple head back home.

Nicky, the sex magnet.

Late that night, Casey is awakened by noise downstairs. Turns out, it's Robert, who didn't get on his plane and instead stayed in town in an attempt to rob Jared. Casey is unhappy with Jared, explaining to Robert that she is forced to constantly partake in Jared's elaborate performances and is given a pittance monthly allowance. The two keep talking and eventually hatch a plan that is pretty fucking retarded. Basically, they will kill Jared, dispose of his body, and sit back for 7 YEARS until he's declared missing, and then somehow they will inherit and then split his fortune.

The incinerator, primed for stuffin'.

At this point, I was ready to call Don Nardo and tell him to go fuck himself, but I stuck with it, because Casey and Robert armed themselves with fireplace pokers. No good can come from people arming themselves with fireplace pokers. They creep upstairs, finding Jared asleep under the covers. They bash him repeatedly, then wrap him up, covers and all, inside some plastic. They then drag his body downstairs... TO THE INCINERATOR! Wasn't Stephanie/Casey supposed to get stuffed in there? Just wanting to see someone, anyone, stuffed into the incinerator, I let it play out. Robert starts to double-cross Casey, picking up a stick of wood to hit her with, when suddenly she makes a gruesome discovery: who they thought to be Jared is instead Casey's lover, the mongoloid mechanic Nicky!

Hearing voices upstairs, they head back up (not even bothering to stuff Nicky in the incinerator!) to find a television in the kitchen, playing them a video of Jared and Nicky in the parlor, talking it up. Jared apparently filmed this, somehow knowing the plot on his life and arranging to have Nicky take his place. Jared then strides into the kitchen like Teddy "Fucking" Roosevelt, wearing a full-blown old-time African safari get-up, complete with hunting rifle! He pulls out a hourglass and informs both of them that they have 1 minute head start before he starts firing.

Casey and Robert take off. Of course, the house is locked down tight. Stephanie finds a pair of scissors to arm herself with, but quickly runs around a corner, impaling Robert with them on accident! Casey then runs headlong into the parlor, finding Jared with his gun. He forces her at gunpoint to enter the iron maiden, when at the last second Robert comes screaming up and knocks Jared into the maiden instead! Casey takes off running, but Jared "shoots" her in the leg. (We hear the gun, but there's no smoke or bullet wound.) She falls, managing to hit the elevator switch before collapsing, right underneath where the elevator is coming down! Robert, in the meantime, collapses. Very soon Jared is dead in the maiden, Robert dead from scissor impaling, and Casey crushed underneath the elevator.

"Grip my love gun, baby."

Suddenly, we cut to Casey, Jared, and Robert sitting at the kitchen table, watching a video of their "deaths." That's right folks, Don Nardo has once again pulled the rug out from under us with yet another switcheroo! A crew (who includes the two thugs we kept seeing) comes in and begins dismantling the sets used to fool us. Everyone goes outside and leaves in their respective cars. As a final slap to the audience's face, it is revealed that Jared and Nicky are in fact a couple. The movie ends with them in the back of a limo, arguing that they each enjoyed their respective make-out scenes with Casey a bit too much.

"I have a confession: I just don't like Golden Girls."

So, in conclusion: What The Fuck?!?! I can't decide if this movie was clever or extremely shitty. I'm going to go with option B. The fact that Stephanie, and in fact NO ONE, was stuffed into an incinerator just seals the deal. 0 Thumbs, people. My first ever (I believe) 0 Thumbs review. There really isn't ANY redeeming factor of this movie. No one gets naked, no one gets stuffed into anything really, other than a fake iron maiden. The movie title held so much promise. If I were to make a movie called Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator, you can be damned well sure someone named Stephanie, at some point in the film, would be getting her fine ass stuffed and then stuffed into an incinerator!

Incidentally, the Vicar and I sat over expensive cognac and some imported mustard last night and discussed why one would use an incinerator as a means for corpse disposal. Behold the places we came up with, and the reasons not to use said places:
  • Laundry chute: Too noisy, too cumbersome
  • Dumpster out back: leaves more than ashes as evidence
  • Closet: too much noise, likelihood of escape/discovery
  • Toilet: messy, impractical, possibly impossible due to Stephanie's girth
  • Volvo: doors don't lock from the outside
  • Multiple garbage bags: messy, possibly no Hefty on hand, causing spillage
  • Crawlspace: risks Gacey-esque discovery. Lime smell ruins home value.
  • Air conditioning duct: noisy. smell permeates building eventually.
  • Night deposit slot at local bank: bonus points for humorous next-day discovery, but time involvement too much
  • Fireplace: insufficient temperature, smoke backs up into house.
  • Old Style bank safe: might forget the combination.

So you can see, the incinerator is clearly the only place Stephanie could safely be stuffed! And yet Don Nardo dropped the ball that was seemingly attached to his hands via Gorilla Glue thanks to that awesome title. Inexcusable.

Don't try to pass it off on anyone else! I know it was you, Nardo! You broke my heart! You broke my heart!


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