Thursday, April 29, 2010

Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars (1992): or, Hello, Norma Jeane

Riding on the Night Train to Terror, Part II! (Click here for related posts)

If you've been reading this site for a while, are a Mill Creek fanatic, or just have alarmingly little going on in your life, you probably know about the mash-up of movie madness that is Night Train to Terror. If not, a brief catch-up: in the movie, God and Satan hop on the titular track-based transport to "review" three cases whose outcomes they can't decide, for some reason. Meanwhile, a cadre of headband-and-sweatsuit-clad 80s pop singers croon the most infectiously inept ditty ever written in the dining car. The stories themselves are actually 3 full-length b-movie bombs that have been ruthlessly cut down to 25-30 minutes each, with the effect of immersing the viewer in a disjointed nightmare-logic ride that is often entertaining but NEVER makes the slightest bit of sense. For more detail, see my full review HERE.

Recently I made it a quest to seek out the three movies that were mashed to a pulp in service of NTtT, to find out if they could possibly be as mad, bad, and dangerous to watch at full-length as they were in abbreviated form. In the case of my first experiment, The Nightmare Never Ends (review here), the answer was a reverberating YES. So, buoyed by my enjoyment of that flick, I recently dove into the second, with the unwieldy title Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars. I expected ineptitude; I expected illogic; I expected Madness.

But what I didn't expect? To find that the mashed-up movie in question was ITSELF a mash-up! Layers within layers, people! Who'd have thought?

"You rang?"

According to imdb user todmichel ( as near as I can figure is the world's leading authority on the subject--director John Carr started the movie sometime in the 80s, then for whatever reason (funding problems, I presume) left the film unfinished and went to England for a time. In his absence, his incomplete footage was incorporated into Night Train to Terror, released in 1985. Producers then added footage and released a "complete" version of the movie on VHS, entitled Scream Your Head Off, surprising and displeasing Carr on his return to the states. (Try as I might, I could NOT locate a copy of this version.) Some time later he decided to complete *his* vision of the movie, somehow convincing original star John Phillip Law to come back and shoot new scenes to flesh out the gaps. This final, official version he called Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars, which was finished and released on VHS in 1992.

It's important to have all this information up front, as it explains a lot of inconsistencies of tone, stlye, and even medium. However, it can't explain EVERYTHING...thank god!

Stephen King in an uncredited cameo

We open at Forest Lawn cemetery in LA, where Special Needs Cyclist Sidney (Mark Petrich)--wearing a fetching ensemble of overalls, goggles, and World War I leather flying helmet--is visiting the grave of everyone's favorite bombshell, Marilyn Monroe. "Is Marilyn buried here?" a couple of tourists stop to ask. "No! People think she is, but she's NOT!" he replies, cryptically. (Ba-dump.) Sidney then gets gone with the Schwinn and returns to his place of employment, a private asylum that looks like the interior of someone's condo, and brings breakfast in bed to a mysterious points for guessing who.

Meanwhile, sometime in the 80s, newlywed Harry Billings (John Philip Law) and his nameless wife are driving from the ceremony to their honeymoon getaway. Sadly Harry decides to take a detour down the Stock Footage Expressway, where they are sideswiped by a semi and thereafter plummet a dozen feet off a bridge toward a watery grave. Somehow Billings survives, but his wife--whose entire role consisted of staring bright-eyed at her wedding ring and loosing one rather impressive scream, and who I can't even guarantee was in the same car as Law--is killed.

Harry is extremely depressed, as we realized when he's discovered sleeping barefoot atop his wife's grave. With nothing left to live for, he returns to the scene of the tragedy and flings himself into the water, but is rescued via jump cut and finds himself in the hospital, where attending Dr. Nobody quips, "This one's goin' to the sanitarium!"

John Phillip Law: What a difference seven years makes.

Back at said sanitarium, Dr. Brewer (Arthur Braham, doing his best Alfred Hitchcock impression, which I have to say is a fairly decent one) and hulking assistant Otto (Night Train/Court alumnus Richard Moll) are ministering to a bikini-clad blonde bound to a stretcher. She resists their attempts to "help her," but the doctor is not worried. "She'll come around," he lisps. "They all do." When a lost couple arrives to use the phone and Otto kills the husband and kidnaps the blonde for similar tie-down activities, we start to believe that this asylum may not be on the up and up.

Harry arrives at the asylum (again via jump-cut), and Dr. Brewer and his MILF-tastic partner Dr. Fargo (Sharon Ratcliff) decide he'd be the perfect replacement for their former kidnappy muscle Robert, who had to be lobotomized when he got too greedy. Reasoning that "Suicide attempts are a manic-depressive state of mind. The fastest way of curing that is electric shock treatment!", Brewer pumps Harry fulla volts, erasing his personality temporarily. They then train him to go out into the community and kidnap every blonde he can get his paws on, bringing them back to the asylum so that they can be similarly tabula-rasarized and sold into white slavery to the OPEC board member--complete with suit, giant sunglasses, keffiyeh, and suitcase full of cash) who comes by every now and then to replenish his harem.

"There must be some mistake--I only wanted a back-wax!"

While wandering around the asylum between assignments, Harry discovers the Mysterious Madwoman's room upstairs, and of course the inmate is revealed to be none other than the one and only Marilyn Monroe! Apparently she's been starring in her own mashup of Oldboy and Some Like it Hot since her apparent death, confined to this room with only the numerous photos of herself on the walls (including an awesome velvet rug painting!) to keep her sane. As she explains:

"The story they told me here was, when the studio dropped my contract, I was signed by an independent company to do a film. I didn't know that it was owned by Powerful People! They never intended to make the film! They insured my life for millions of dollars, and then they murdered a lookalike Marilyn Monroe, and left her in my bedroom!"

But you don't know how hot till you try.

That's all well and good, but why would Powerful People--powerful enough to find a perfect lookalike of Marilyn and murder her, get away with it, and then incarcerate the real Marilyn for twenty or so years--not simply murder the real Marilyn instead? And WHY are they keeping her imprisoned? Clearly not to sell to the Arabs, or they would have done so by now. Harry is wondering these things too, and reaches the reasonable conclusion that she's NOT Marilyn, but a crazy woman who just thinks she is. That doesn't stop him from visiting her every time he comes back from snatching an innocent into white slavery, though, and as their love blossoms, Harry's core decency starts to return and they plan a daring escape.

So most of the movie is John Philip Law putting himself in different situations where he can mack on blondes--which include hanging out in bars, posing as a taxi driver at the bus station, cruising for Elderly Care Nurses in the public park, and in the most memorable scene, visiting an evangelical church--slipping them a mickey, and then taking them back to the docs to fuel the whole Blondes-for-Cash revenue stream. Interspersed (and seldom connecting) are his scenes with "Marilyn" (played all "Happy Birthday Mr. President" breathy by busy TV actress Francine York), torture scenes with Docs Fargo and Brewer shocking the shit out of writhing bikini blondes strapped to gurneys, and Richard Moll occasionally popping up to swing a comically large cleaver at some would-be escapee's head.

"It's not what it looks like! Well, okay, it is, a bit."

You might be wondering how well Carr was able to blend his scenes shot pre-1985 with those shot in 1991 and 1992, and the answer is, not so well AT ALL. While the asylum and many of the kidnapping scenes were shot on film and have a nice shadowy look, the "Marilyn" scenes look to have been shot on a consumer-quality video camera with the warm, yellowy glow of overexposed photos. Worse, there's a very noticeable and absolutely pervasive tape hiss in these scenes, which magically disappears whenever we get back to the asylum in the 80s. Also, the gore and nudity scenes used so prominently in Night Train to Terror (usually involving Moll's Otto character molesting the inmates) are missing from this version, and might have been among the unauthorized footage producers shot for Scream Your Head Off.

Further, Carr was either unable to or uninterested in matching the sets from one segment to the other. The asylum of the Marilyn scenes is CLEARLY not the same building as the hospital in the older footage, and in fact looks like somebody's apartment or a rented condo. (Her "cell" even has a security peephole in the door!) Furthermore, while John Phillip Law is still a handsome man, you can clearly see the difference the 7 years lapse made on his looks. His acting in the 1985 segments is passable, but in the '92 segments he's phoning it in while sleepwalking (often barefoot, for no reason that's ever explained). One has to wonder why he returned for the reshoots--my theories are that either Carr is a personal friend to whom Law owed a favor, or else JPL found himself short of cash in LA and needed the work to finance a flight back to Europe. Or maybe those electroshock scenes weren't done with props. At any rate, it's bad.

"Please, just try to relax."

"Okay, Vicar," you might well ask, "So the movie is a laughably inept hodgepodge of unmatched footage. But what about the MADNESS?" Sadly MA&BB does not approach The Nightmare Never Ends in this regard, but that's not to say there aren't a few high spots. To wit:
  • Sidney the Bicycle Boy's impromptu airplane impression.
  • An odd scene in which Dr. Brewer gives Harry an injection that "puts him under hypnosis," then implants the suggestion: "Harry! No woman can resist you! You are Casanova!You are the sexiest man in the world! There's Dr. Fargo! I want you to turn it on! Incidentally, her first name is Jane!" Dr. Fargo is unimpressed, which leads Casanova/Harry to quip, "I'm giving you two choices, Jane--either you give, or I take!" Fortunately he snaps out of it before either occurs.
  • Marilyn's little girl/Norma Desmond stylings in an extended, odd soliloqy.
"I don't know, Teddy...what has no thumbs and would really like a BJ?"
  • Random belly-dancing sex-slave in the hospital foyer. Later, the Arab prince loads all his purchases into the Royal Saudi Winnebago!
  • As the Least Stealthy Kidnapper ever, Harry visits a church and sits right beside his Dolly Parton-haired mark, introduces himself to the congregation (without even sunglasses!), and takes Protestant Grape Juice that he can drop the drugs in his victim's plastic one-serve communion cup! How does he get her from the church to the asylum? Via jump cut, of course. ;)
  • A nearly effective Tales from the Crypt-ish "doc operated on by the lobotomized patients" scene.
  • And in a throwaway scene, Richard Moll lurching toward a cabinet to reveal a collection of heads, and an empty jar with Harry's name on it!

"Quit Night Court on ME, will ya, Anderson? YOU'LL PAY!"

Objectively, there's really no way Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars could have POSSIBLY been any good. The odd idea of Marilyn-as-Oldboy is intriguing, but only goes so far, and without any nefarious plan for Harry to save her from, falls absolutely flat. I'd kind of like to see the Scream Your Head Off version just to find out if the gore/nudity additions do any good, but I'm guessing the improvement would be negligible. As a movie whose backstory is more interesting than the flick itself, I give Marilyn Alive and Behind Bars 1.25 thumbs. Unless you're a Richard Moll/John Philip Law completist, stick with the Night Train version.

Years of dramatic training could not prepare JPL for the distractive power of Southern Baptist Hair.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Psycho II (1983): Or, There's A Right Way And A Wrong Way To Have Mommy Issues

My dearest readers, I bid thee welcome, for it is I, the Duke of DVD, once more standing firm at the gunwale of cinematic mastery. Legs spread, I weather the pitch and yaw of the stormy seas of forgotten film minutiae, striving evermore to land the white leviathan that is silver-screen awesome. Do not despair, gentle readers! Together we shall shed light on the deepest of mysteries, catching the rare glimpse of that pallid abomination that slides through the ice-cold, inky blackness.

Today I turn my head to the left, then to the right, pointing with a glyphed dagger to the eight cardinal directions, muttering the names of unspeakable monstrosities from beyond time. Today friends, we raise the spectre of one Alfred Hitchcock as we trample across his grave in an attempt to reconcile the greatness that is Psycho II. What perverse greed drove filmmakers, a full 23 years after the original, to exhume this moldering corpse, string it up on a rough-hewn pole, and brandish it around town whilst horrified on-lookers shrieked and cowered, stabbing their scabbed fingers at the air with arcane signs to ward off ill omens?

Let us find out!

After the wild success of Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960, one would think that a sequel would have been fast-tracked. Luckily for 1960's moviegoers, Hollywood wasn't suffering the collective head trauma that they are now, and the movie stood on its own. Modern-day Hollywood, as my astute readers already know, is currently being consumed by itself. Demented by pain and rage, it shudders and groans, passing sequel after sequel, remake after remake, through its long digestive tract before a final grunt plops the cinematic offal directly onto the faces of the modern movie-going public.

"You're not fully clean unless you're Zest-fully clean!"

Psycho was spared this fate for over two decades, until in 1982 Robert Bloch wrote a book called Psycho II, which basically amounted to a send-up of the slasher genre. Before you could say "Holy FUCK! What a great idea!", Universal had jumped all over the idea of reprising Psycho. Negotiations were quickly underway, with everyone down to the Universal janitors trying to get Anthony Perkins to sign on. It wasn't until other names were bandied about (namely Christopher Walken, how fucking great would that have been!?!?) that Perkins finally consented.

Luckily, the original Bates household still existed on the Universal back lot, so all that had to be done was to rebuild the motel out front. The movie was originally intended to be a made-for-TV film, but I guess wiser heads prevailed and it was released in 1983 to critical acclaim and box office success. The movie ended up grossing over $32 million, making it one of the top draws that year. How did lightning strike twice for this franchise, before completely running off the tracks for sequels 3 and 4?

First off, there's Anthony Perkins. Why he isn't more popular is a subject that I will not get into here, but if you just looked at his work in the first two Psycho movies, you would be at a loss to explain it. Perkins plays a supposedly-newly-reformed Norman Bates with an aplomb that is palpable. He owns every scene, his eyes constantly alive with whatever emotion is he supposed to be feeling. He chews through every scene of the movie this way, and it is riveting to say the least.

The movie opens with the original footage of Janet Leigh's death in Psycho. Once again we are reminded of how much of an utter fucking genius that ol' Alfred was. No frame is wasted, each shot composed and presented to give the utmost in suspense. The murky figure of Norman, wearing his mother's clothing and wig, seen through the shower curtain is simply chilling. The brutal stabbing, so much more brutal if one imagines seeing something like this in 1960, is simply stunning. The close-up of Janet's hand gripping the curtain, until she finally tumbles out, face pressing against the floor, dead, as the camera lingers on her eye, seeming to show us the final light escaping it. Stunning, and brilliant.

This segues us into the early 80's, and a middle-aged Norman Bates sits in court as the judge pronounces him fit to return to normal society, where men are allowed to dress up as their departed mothers in the privacy of their own homes, provided they keep the killing to a minimum. Present in the courtroom is Lila Loomis (Vera Miles), sister to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), who causes a brief ruckus by loudly proclaiming that Norman isn't in the least rehabilitated and shouldn't be released. Nothwithstanding, the judge brings the gavel down, and Norman is free to go.

"Uh, doc, couldn't you have bought me more than Trix and canned beans?"

Norman is driven back home by his court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Raymond (played excellently by Robert Loggia). Now, folks, I may not be a noted psychologist, but long years of listening to the Vicar wax philosophic on such subjects as the proper way to don a pair of ass-less chaps have given me a near preternatural insight into the human psyche. It seems to me that if someone was raised by a tyrant mother, and then finally kills said tyrant, and then proceeds to murder other victims wearing his mother's clothes, shouldn't that person, as part of their treatment, be made to, oh I don't know... STAY THE FUCK AWAY from the house in which it all occurred?

But this is the logic of film we are talking about, and so Norman is escorted right back to where it all began and unceremoniously dumped into the mouldy old house in which he was raised. Very quickly we are introduced to the seedy manager of the Bates Motel, who has been running the place in Norman's absence. The how or why of it isn't explained, but we learn that the motel is the happening spot for illicit affairs and drug deals, a fact which makes Norman a very angry boy. He fires the manager - played by a young Dennis Franz I am happy to report! - and tries to get his life on the right track.

"Are youse lookin' at my bum?"

This includes a sort of work-release program at a local diner. Norman is given the job of "cook's helper," which he takes to with relish. He meets the over-worked waitress of the joint, Mary (played by the scrumptious Meg Tilly). Norman comes to her aid several times, and ultimately gets her to come stay with him at his house after hearing that her boyfriend has kicked her out. This leads to what will become a long line of awesome Anthony Perkins-related scenes.

"Sorry, I really don't care for PB&J&Arsenic. Thanks anyway."

In the house, Mary and Norman sit at the kitchen table, and Norman offers to fix her a sandwich. This leads to Norman finding, get this, the exact fucking knife that he did foul murder with, just sitting there in the kitchen drawer! Uttering a line that is simply fantastic, Norman stammers out, "I am still getting set up here, and don't have much in the way of cuuuuuuuutlery."Mary begins digging around, finds the knife, and hands it to Norman, who shakily cuts her sandwich in twain. Brilliant stuff!

Everything seems fine to begin with. Norman seems well-enough adjusted, and despite the shock of finding his old murder weapon, not to mention a hand-written note from his mother from years ago (saying something to the effect of having dinner ready later), he is getting along with minimal problems. However, things quickly start to unravel. While working the orders at the dinner, Norman spins the order wheel around and sees a note from his mother! It reads "Get that slut out of my house! -Mother" or some such. Needless to say, he freaks the fuck out, but when his coworkers investigate, they find no note.


Later, Norman starts receiving calls from someone purporting to be his mother, which Norman buys hook line and sinker. He starts a downward spiral, and we the audience do indeed believe that he is losing it--that is until a more nefarious plot is revealed. It seems Mary isn't just an innocent waitress, and is instead Lila Loomis's daughter, niece to the Norman-murdered Marion Crane! Knowing that the courts will not keep Norman locked up, they have taken it upon themselves to drive him insane enough to be recommitted.

Things start getting even more bizarre when it's revealed that not just Mary and her mother are sneaking around the house. A mysterious 3rd party is peeking through peepholes at Mary getting out of the shower (a few quick seconds of Meg Tilly nearly full-frontal was enough to send your beloved Duke into a turgid dream-world, until I found out it was a body double, which caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth!) and hacking to death teens who are foolish enough to use the Bates' basement as a make-out spot. Norman is insistent that his mother is still around, and we start believing right along with him, even knowing it really can't be true.

"Oh baby, your breast feels like a warm bag of sand... what's that sound? Sounded stabby..."

The good Dr. Raymond even takes Norman out and has his mother's coffin exhumed, basically shoving his face in it saying "There! Look! She's dead, ok?! Christ, for the love of..." Ok, so he didn't do that, but he should have. Meanwhile, the sheriff is getting increasingly suspicious of Norman. First, the vagina-bearing half of one teen couple survives and informs the sheriff that someone killed her boyfriend in the Bates basement. However, an exhaustive forensic investigation (read: the corpulent sheriff standing in the basement, looking around a few seconds, then pronouncing "Nothin' ta see here'a"), nothing is confirmed.

"I knew I shouldn't have tried to flush that tampon..."

Norman then has a public argument with Mr. Toomey, the now-fired motel manager, who returns late at night to loudly pack up his belongings after Norman gives him the boot. Toomey is subsequently murdered, but it seems that Norman has an alibi, casting suspicion once again upon this mysterious 3rd party. The police continue to investigate, finally finding Toomey's car driven into the swamp near the house (which is fucking great for hiding bodies!), with Toomey's rotten corpse stuffed in the trunk. Meanwhile, Lila sneaks into the Bates basement and pulls her "Norman's Mother's Costume" from beneath a loose flagstone, only to be stabbed through her open mouth and out the back of her skull by a shadowy figure wearing yet another dress!

Stabbed through the heart, and you're to blame...

They are still unable to pin any of it on Norman, though, who is looking ever-increasingly fevered and demented as all of this progresses. By the final act, Norman is sweating through his skin, jumping at shadows, looking around with the wall-eyed visage of a hunted animal cornered by fell beasts, and just generally looking uncomfortable. His only respite is with the phantom phone calls from his "mother." Unable to convince him that this is just Lila calling, Mary becomes frantic to prove to Norman that it is all a ruse. Unbeknownst to Mary, however, is that her mother Lila hasn't been calling. Who's ringing the phone, then?!

"You may be a psycho, Norm, but I'll tell you man-to-man: you got one HELL of an ass!"

The movie culminates with Dr. Raymond, who is convinced that Mary and Lila are trying to drive Norman mad (which they are) and who jumps out and grabs Mary (who in turn has dressed as Norman's mother, complete with wig, in an attempt to talk Norm down from his insanity [WTF? Great idea, lady!]) and Mary shrieks then stabs the good doctor to death before she realizes who grabbed her. The doctor plunges over the banister with the knife protruding from his chest, and lands on a lower railing, directly on the knife, which is pushed further into his body! Brutal and brilliant, as well as well-shot!

"Sorry, there's no Hugh Jazz here... hey, wait a minute!"

Distraught, Mary runs downstairs to find Norman having a conversation with his non-existent mother still. He hangs up and tells Mary he'll take care of her while slowly advancing on her with a manic look in his eyes. Mary panics and stabs him, repeatedly, though they amount to stigmata-esque hand wounds and a few more shallow stabs on his person. She slowly backs in the basement, still stabby in her actions. She trips backwards over a pile of coal, and reveals the stabbed corpse of her mother!

Before you can say "How's your father?" she screeches at Norman and tries to run him through, only to be shot by Sheriff Portly! Norman, hands bandaged, is taken to the sheriff's department, where he is exonerated, sans trial, for any wrong-doing, by the lard-ass sheriff. He is then given a ride home, where he sets two places for dinner and waits. After dark comes a knock at his backdoor, which he answers. In walks a small-ish old lady, who informs Norman that he is indeed her true son, and that who Norman thought was his mother was instead this new lady's sister. Apparently Norman's real mother was too young, and about to be institutionalized, so she gave up Norman.

"Avon calling!"

Norman accepts this with surprising calm, as he fixes her some tea, poisoning her with the same stuff he used to off his first "mother." As she's starting to choke, he apparently decides that this is taking too long, and uses the coal shovel from the basement to bash her head in! He picks up her stiffening body and carries it upstairs, to his mother's room. The camera pauses with a high-profile shot facing downward to outside the door. We hear Norman reassure her that everything is going to be fine, and then we hear his new mother's voice, telling Norm that he's a good boy and to stay away from "filthy girls."

"I told you, no more fucking Brussel sprouts!"

The final shot of the movie is a fantastic frame of Norman walking away from the house, down to the motel. It is night and the sky is steel-gray; thunder rumbles in the distance. We see a lighted window at his mother's room, and her dark silhouette, watching, as Norman turns his head back to face the house. Fin.

Dearest readers, I must say, that this movie is completely awesome. Never in my wildest fantasies (and I've had some pretty wild fantasies, I assure you!) did I imagine that any sort of direct sequel to Psycho would be successful. And yet, here it is. Director Richard Franklin and writer Tom Holland pull off something that would seem at first glace to sucketh, yet pull it off they do. The visual compositions, which include a ton of off-angle, elevated shots, speak visually to Norman's state of mind. I also found it highly entertaining that not only did the producers keep you guessing as to what in the fuck is going on, but that even upon retrospection the killer identities is ambiguous at best. One can easily say that Norman's real mother killed Toomey and the kid in the basement, but did she really? It very well could have been Norman...

Anthony Perkins just nails the shit out of his reprized role, as I elucidated upon earlier. One interesting note is that due to Meg Tilly's young age, she was relatively unaware of Perkins' fame for his 1960 role as Norman Bates, causing her to ask what all the hubbub about Tony was, which reportedly pissed Perkins off to no end, causing him to cease speaking to her like some petulant child for the remainder of the shoot! Tony Perkins: a big girl's blouse when it comes to being a star.

There's no place like home.

In the end, this movie is most certainly greater than the sum of its parts. From the fantastic performances of even the most bitty of bit parts, to the reused house from the original, to the way each shot was composed with much forethought, Psycho 2 ranks right up there in the pantheon of brilliant sequels that not only add to the mythos created by their predecessors, but are also fantastic movies in their own right.

A standing ovation and 3 Thumbs Up, my friends. Stay stabby.


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Dragonslayer (1981): or, Feel the Burn

I ask you, parishioners: how did it happen?

In mythology and literature, the dragon has historically been one of the most fearsome of all monstrous beasts. Destroyers of kingdoms, devourers of maidens, guardians of treasure and remorseless hero-incinerators--dragons are the archetypal Great Enemies, the Final Bosses to end all others. Think of St. George and his most heroic of hero-quests; think the Beast of Revelation, with the Whore of Babylon riding astride him; think Tiamat and Smaug.

And yet, the movies have seldom done justice to the Terrible Fire Lizard. If the dragon *is* presented as a monster, it's often a bit character (Harry Potter), and usually with video-game styled CG, like an old-school tattoo come to life. (The less said about Reign of Fire, the better.) More often, the dragon becomes a misunderstood nice guy with a heart as golden as his hoard. Pete's Dragon. Donkey's paramour in Shrek. The powerful playful pets of How to Train Your Dragon. Sean Connery in Dragonheart. Talkative, unthreatening, a mere sidekick to the hero who by rights should be struggling with it for his life.

Not so in Dragonslayer. The dragon here is not interested in doing what's right. It does not interact with humans except to roast and/or eat them. It is not interested in conversation. It is a monster, a beast, a malevolent force of nature so powerful that even to attempt to face it is a fool's errand, a death wish it is more than happy to grant. And that's why Matthew Robbins' 1981 fantasy epic is still, for my money, the greatest dragon movie ever made.

"Stop whatca doin, cuz I'm about to ruin
the dragon-slayin' style that ya used to..."

From the beginning the movie immerses us in its fantasy medieval world, as we follow a small band of villagers trekking over swamps and craggy outcroppings, approaching the castle of the mighty sorcerer Ulrich (Ralph Richardson, who later that year would play the Supreme Being in Time Bandits). This is not a gleaming, idealized realm such as the Camelot of John Boorman's Excalibur (released the same year)--Ulrich's castle is dirty, dusty, and littered with broken alchemical contraptions, and the peasants at his gate are likewise believably gritty. Led by tough-talking young "boy" Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), the ragtag group has come to Ulrich with a desperate plea: to rid their kingdom of one of the nastiest fire-breathing dragons ever to hatch. After conferring with his clumsy but eager apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol in his film debut), the old man agrees.

However, before the show can get on the road, a group of the King's guards arrives, led by John Saxon fanclub member Tyrian (John Hallam, who made a career of acting in fantasy movies, with imdb credits for Kull the Conqueror, Ivanhoe, Arabian Nights, and others). The king has forged an uneasy peace with the beast by holding a yearly lottery in which the names of all the virgin girls in the kingdom are put in a big drum and one drawn at random. The lucky winner gets the honor of becoming that season's Vierge Flambe, which sates the dragon's appetite and keeps the hovels un-scorched. Not wanting to upset the status quo, the King has sent Tyrian to put an end to this whole dragonslaying foolishness, which he appears to do by stabbing Ulrich through the heart, killing him.

"I put on my robe and wizard hat..."

The sets Robbins uses, all locations in Wales and Scotland, are wonderful and gorgeous. Crags, fields, ruined castles and shadowy caves--this is exactly how you want your fantasy realm to look. Also the decision to film the entire movie using only natural light (well, except for the wizardry pew-pews) also gives the movie a lovely, more natural feel. In fact, even though Excalibur has less wizardry and fantasy creatures in it by many factors, its look is far less "realistic" than the world created here.

Deprived of the prospect of getting his Wizardly Diploma, Galen figures he might earn a GED by taking up the dragonslaying quest himself, and so he joins Valerian and the Peasants* in their return trip. Galen proves himself to be somewhat adept at magic--at one point making a heavy backpack float and then stripping the robes off his aged manservant Hodge (character actor Sydney Bromley, who met a much less terrifying dragon in The Neverending Story, in a small but memorable role). However, Valerian shows him an even better trick when, surprised at a wayside swimming hole, the peasant performs the storied Disappearing Penis Illusion! Yes, the "boy" is actually a girl, raised as a male by her blacksmith father in order to protect her from the Dragon Kibble Lottery. (Why Galen never proposes the obvious solution to Valerian's whole "virgin lottery" problem is beyond me--there's more than one type of lance to save you from a dragon, IYKWIMAITYD.)

*Yet another good band name.

Let me just get out my Magic Wand...

And such a fatherly impulse is more than understandable, since as I said, this dragon is not a lizard to be toyed with. In an early scene where we see the dragon collecting its yearly prize, Robbins does a fantastic job building the suspense and menace, showing us the dragon only in bits and pieces. A billowing cloud of smoke from the cave mouth, a growl like an earthquake, a spiked tail destroying a hay cart, a massive claw barring the frightened girl's escape--all of which not only emphasizes the beast's size and terror, but make the best possible use of the impressive practical effects. In fact we won't see the dragon in full flight for nearly an hour into the movie, but it is nonetheless a terrifying presence, even in the scenes in which it doesn't appear at all.

Stopping off at the dragon's lair on the way back to the kingdom, Galen tries to levitate a rock over the mouth of the cave to block the beast's egress, and ends up inadvertently causing a massive avalanche that accomplishes the same thing. Thinking themselves free of the beast's reign of terror, the villagers throw a party, at which Valerian appears in woman's dress for the first time, capturing Galen's heart and entering the sexual fantasies of 14-year-old boys everywhere, or at least in that one cinema in Little Rock.

Is it wrong that I found her hotter in her boy clothes?

Sadly the celebration is premature, as the still-alive and extremely pissed dragon erupts from its rocky tomb like a volcano, bringing its full wrath down on the shrieking villagers. The vindicated king, Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre), has Galen thrown in jail and holds another lottery to appease the beast. But when Galen tells the virginal Princess Elspeth (Chloe Salaman) that the king has shielded her from the lottery all these years, the virtuous girl rigs the vote and becomes the next course on the dragon's menu. The king, desperate, frees Galen in the hopes that he can save the princess, just like a hero is supposed to do.

Rewatching this movie I was expecting to be underwhelmed by the puppetry and blue-screen effects of the era, but to the director's credit the FX are still very impressive, and hold up extremely well. Part of this is the aforementioned piecemeal method of showing the beast, but even when the dragon is in full flight, there are only a couple of blue-screen gaffes, and nothing terribly distracting. Even the baby dragon puppets are lit and filmed in such a way as to be truly frightening, instead of the Muppet rejects they might have been. Best of all is how the flick engages the viewer's imagination, which makes it easier to forgive small mistakes because the whole experience is so satisfying and yes, magical. (Something modern CG-heavy movies regularly fail to do, imo.)

"I can haz virgin?"

The battles with the dragon are filmed excellently, and are pleasingly gruelling--it's no small feat to kill a dinosaur with a spear, and Galen's attempts to do so aren't made to look easy at all. They're very grueling and suspenseful, in fact--even when Ulrich reappears in Obi-Wan Kenobi mode, his incredible powers are not enough to dispel the dragon's death-dealing dangerousness. And the script even provides a nice bit of bittersweet subtext drawing a line between the death of the dragon and the death of magic and mythology in history; the group of villagers singing Christian hymns and renouncing their pagan ways once the dragon is slain foretells a new age, with different (and, I think it's implied, less fantastic) myths and legends of its own.

MacNichol does a good job as the sorcerer's apprentice, using bravado to cover his youthful lack of self-confidence. Richardson is fantastic as Ulrich the Magician, hitting just the right balance between Nicol Williamson's Merlin and Alec Guinness's Obi-Wan. (In fact I think I noticed several other Star Wars nods, from MacNichol's Luke Skywalker-ish outfit to a "lightsaber" duel with Tyrian.) Clarke is okay as Valerian, though sometimes her delivery is a bit stilted. (The actress sadly passed away of ovarian cancer in 2004.)

"Eat hot heat, cocksuckah!"

It's always great to revisit a cherished childhood movie memory and find it derserves all the adulation you've given it over the years, which was exactly my experience here. 3 thumbs for Dragonslayer--to paraphrase John Waters' sentiments about Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, it is simply the best dragon movie ever made, and is quite possibly better than any that will be made in the future. ;)

To intimidate his enemies, Galen employs the little-known Fellatio Elongo spell.


Monday, April 19, 2010

Sleepaway Camp (1983): Or Can 80's Fashions Make A Comeback?

*spoilers beyond this point*

Friends, countrymen, lend me your beers! (seriously, I drink a fuckton of beer) It is I, the Duke of DVD, strolling out across the fallow fields of the world, stepping daintily around you as you mewl and grovel on the ground, begging for cinematic awesome. Dare I let you kiss the bejeweled rings on my fingers? Surely, you may. Come, let us drag your moldering carcass into this nearby inn. Please, sit with me and drink this gruel while I dine on roasted pheasant stuffed with garlic cloves and drink 50 year old port.

Hearken to my words, bedraggled creature! Please don't soil thine-self until we have finished our repast. I must tell thee today of a wondrous movie. A movie so beyond the realm of the vast majority of slasher films that it transcends them and becomes something new, something fragile and beautiful. Careful! Hold it gently, touch it to your trembling lips so that it might impart some tiny mote of greatness to your shattered frame.

Long have the Vicar and I laboured to educate the masses on brilliant films that might otherwise escape notice. For all the hubbub around the Friday the 13th series, and the slasher genre in general, Sleepaway Camp often times doesn't get its due.

I am here to rectify this, my friends. Let us explore, shall we?

Sleepaway Camp was released in 1983, right in the middle of the hype surrounding Friday the 13th and others of its ilk. Seeking to capitalize on the mad money getting thrown around, director Robert Hiltzik and crew went all out in their attempt at making a good slasher film, and in my humble opinion, succeeded wildly.

The movie opens with a father and his two children, a boy and a girl, out on a lake in a small boat. Horseplay ensues, causing them to capsize. While they are laughing and still floating in the water, a nearby group of teens in a ski boat are zooming around the lake, not really paying attention to what they are doing. Before you can say "Watch out for that fucking boat!", the teens barrel over the top of the floating family, killing the father and one of the children.

"Perhaps I shouldn't have mixed that bourbon and cocaine..."

We cut to 8 years later, and meet Angela (the surviving kid), played very well by Felissa Rose, and her cousin Ricky, who are being ushered out the door by Ricky's mother, Angela's aunt, a creepy lady who acts like she's on enough Prozac to fell a musk ox. Soon, they arrive as summer camp along with tons of other kids, all screaming, laughing, and talking as they disgorge from several buses.

"You got any weiners?"

Quickly we meet the principal players in our little film. On the staff side, we have Ron, the hunky muscle-bound dude with the tanned body and penchant for wearing short-shorts. We have Mel, the manager of the camp, who likes to wear ugly plaid shorts and black socks that he pulls all the way up to his knees. We have a couple of female counselors, including Meg, who is a bitch, but more on her later. There are many others, but those are the major ones.

"Everyone, please tell me if you can see the outline of my nutsack through my shorts!"

We mustn't forget Artie, played magnificently by Owen Hughes, who is the head chef and resident pedophile. He doesn't bother to disguise his cravings either, commenting as he's watching the kids run past that where he comes from they call 'em "baldies". Artie isn't in the movie for long, but he makes the most of it.

With teeth like these, the aversion to pubic hair is perhaps understandable.

Ricky immediately tries to hook up with the previous-year's flame, Judy, who has suddenly developed breasts and so she thinks she's above Ricky. Ricky is a good kid, though, and is quick to stick up for his cousin Angela. Angela is near mute due to the trauma of watching her family die, and so is an instant target for all the mean kids. The kids are ushered into the lunch room, where Angela immediately starts freaking out the other girls at the table with her silence and wide, staring eyes. Like saucers they are!

In the land of the prepubescent camper, the B-Cupped Girl is Queen

Ron, wearing shorts so short that they should be illegal for males to wear, comes over and tries to help Angela, offering to take her into the kitchen to see if the cooks can rustle up something for her. He does so, introducing her to the hungry eyes of Artie. Ron gets summoned away for a phone call, leaving Angela at Artie's mercy. He corners her in the walk-in freezer, but barely gets his pants unbuckled (this dude wasn't wasting time, was he? First fucking day... sheesh) when Ricky walks in, looking for Angela. They both flee.

After lunch, Artie is left alone in the kitchen, standing on a stool in order to salt the contents of a boiling pot of something or other. The cooking pot is literally 5 feet tall or so, I have no idea where they got such a monstrosity! This scene begins a long line of point-of-view murders, a la Halloween, in which the viewer is left wondering who exactly is doing the killing. Honestly, it isn't much of a mystery, but we'll explore that later.

"Dear god, I'll never try Oxy Clean again!"

A tanned hand reaches out and pulls the stool out from under Artie, causing him to pull the pot over onto himself, giving him horrendous 3rd degree burns over his face, arms, and hands. Paramedics arrive and cart Artie away, sexually unfulfilled.

Here the movie goes off into normal camp affairs for a while. Angela is taunted, but finds solace with Ricky's best friend Paul, who slowly coaxes Angela out of her shell by simply being nice to her. Soon, they are holding hands and exchanging chaste kisses, and Angela even begins talking, although in truth she doesn't have much to say.

"Does it bug you when I do this?"

She's still picked on, however, mainly by Judy the Bitch and Meg the Slut. They form a tag-team of taunts and ridicule, slamming Angela every chance they get. Judy even sets her sights on stealing Paul away from Angela. Ricky defends her every chance he gets. At an evening mixer, Ricky causes a giant scrum after defending Angela from a douchebag named Kenny wearing a "Blue Oyster Cult" shirt and sporting a wicked Camaro mullet.

"I don't understand how this rockin' look isn't attracting more girls..."

Later that night, a large group of guys who are what you would term the "cool dudes" (read: douchebags), try to get the ladies to go skinny dipping with them. Fortunately, the girls are too smart for this and don't join in. However, mulleted Kenny manages to talk one of the girls into a canoe trip out on the lake. He of course fucks it all up by messing around and dunking them both into the lake. As the girl swims to shore, Kenny swims up under the boat to gloat at his awesomeness, when someone comes up under it with him, then proceeds to drown him.

Mystery killer: 2 Campers: 0

Kenny's body is found the next morning, and finally Mel is starting to realize that someone might be offing campers. Does he send everyone home? Nah! Later, a group of the homos lounge up on the roof of their cabin, tossing water balloons at passers-by. Angela happens to wander into range, and of course gets soaked, causing her to freak out and basically shutdown, sitting on the ground holding her knees to her chest. Ricky comes to the rescue once again, hurling insults and curses at the laughing boys.

"You're pretty cute, in a might-be-a-guy sort of way."

Mel interrupts, holding Ricky accountable for his potty mouth, and chastising the boys on the roof. One of the balloon-throwing d-bags announces he has to take a "wicked dump" and heads off to a stall. Our mystery killer shows up, puts a broom handle through the door handles, effectively baring the dumper in, and then proceeds to throw a hornet nest into the room. The boy is killed by the amount of stings.

When Guinness World Records Go Wrong

At this point, it's pretty obvious that Angela is the killer. I mean, she was the lone survivor of trauma, and the only other person it could be is Ricky, who comes to her aid, but hurling curses is a long way from doing foul murder. Angela it must be. However, just to be sure, let's go through the possible killers and their motives, if any:

Age: 14 or so
Sexuality: ???
Killer?: Yeah, probably so.

Age: 15 perhaps?
Sexuality:Like an arrow, baby
Killer?: Nah, probably not.

Paul, Ricky's friend
Age: 14-15
Sexuality: Likes the womenfolk
Killer?: Paul couldn't harm a fly, what with his frail, pasty body and all.

Age: 50-ish
Sexuality: Likes women, a lot.
Killer?: Nope, he cherishes the kids, and would only kill in their defense.

Age: 35-ish
Sexuality: Poon-hound, all the way
Killer?: Nope

Vicar of VHS
Age: 900+, prolonged with beetle grindings and dark magics.
Sexuality: Anything, alive or otherwise, with a hole.
Killer?: Most certainly, but not at Camp Arawak.

Age: 25-ish
Sexuality: Likes the cock, particularly old-man cock
Killer?: Nah, she's a bitch, but not a murderer.

Age: 15-16
Sexuality: Like's other women's boyfriend's johnsons.
Killer?: No
Cunt?: Yes

So you see, folks, it's gotta be Angela. So, if that isn't the movie's twist, then what is? If you haven't been sub-letting Madman Marz's cabin since 1983, having no contact with other horror-movie loving peoples nor soap, you probably know. Otherwise, stay tuned and find out, Stinky!

Paul and Angela hook up for a late-night tryst, which involves Paul getting to first base--meaning that Paul must have sacrificed a lot to the God of Skinny Punks. His breast massage freaks Angela out, causing her to have a childhood flashback. We see a little boy and little girl, giggling as they spy on their dad, who is in bed having naughty sex with another man. Intriguing, to say the least!

"That'll do, pig."

Angela comes out of her funk before Paul can run his hand up her shirt, and shoves him off, then flees. The next day, Paul tries to apologize, but Angela is still hurt. This gives Judy the opening she's been waiting for, and she convinces Paul to walk off in the woods with her, presumably to give him the opening he's been waiting for. All she does is basically force him to kiss her, though, and of course Angela walks up and sees this whole spectacle.

Later in the day, Judy and Meg team up to throw Angela in the lake, which causes her to become nearly catatonic with fear. Ricky tries to intervene but is accosted by Mel, who accuses Ricky of being the one who is doing all the killin'. Ricky of course protests his innocence, but Mel is convinced. Later, for some reason unknown to mankind, Meg asks Mel if he'll cook her supper at his house. How she could be attracted to this troll of a man is beyond me.

Scientists announce a cure for Scoliosis.

Meg goes to get showered up, but seeing the long line in her own cabin, she goes next door to an empty cabin and uses the shower there. Here we get another point-of-view killing as the killer runs a large hunting knife through the steel wall of the shower, cutting Meg in the back from the top of her shoulders all the way down to her ass! Such strength Angela has! Mel, looking around for Meg, finally finds her body, and goes off in a fury to hunt for Ricky.

Meanwhile, Judy is alone in her dark cabin, when the killer shows up and kills Judy with a curling iron whilst simultaneously suffocating her with a pillow. The killer then dumps the body underneath the bed so it'll be a while before someone discovers it. Elsewhere, the counselor Eddie (who really hasn't been featured much), takes a group of kids out camping (weren't they already technically camping?!) in the woods for some inexplicable reason.

Very soon, some of the younger kids are complaining about being cold, so Eddie takes a few of them back, leaving 4 of them in their sleeping bags. Eddie returns to find them all hacked to death with an axe! We don't see these murders take place, unfortunately. We cut back to Mel, who has found Ricky, and proceeds to beat the shit out of the poor boy, nearly killing him. Mel then takes off and wanders onto the archery range, where he immediately gets shot through the throat with an arrow!

"Could someone... hand me... a lozenge."

The counselors are now all alerted to a murderer on the loose thanks to Eddie. They begin searching the grounds and find poor Ricky, who is still clinging to life. They also stumble upon Meg's body. Meanwhile, Angela and Paul hook up for a touch-n-feel down by the lake. Angela, suddenly uninhibited, possibly feeling a rush due to all of the murders she's committed that night, suggests that they skinny dip. Paul likes this idea, naturally.

We cut back to the counselors, who have now accounted for all of the kids except for Paul and Angela. They finally decide to check down by the lake. Arriving by the shoreline, they see Angela, naked, singing softly, with Paul lying beside her, his head in her lap. She runs her fingers through his hair. We cut to another flashback, this time of a young Angela standing before her aunt. The camera pans around and we see that Angela is really a boy! "Her" aunt refers to him as Peter, but says she already has a boy, and instead has always wanted a little girl. She holds up a dress.

Back at the lake, as the counselors look on in horror, Angela stands up, Paul's severed head rolling onto the ground. Her eyes wide and pushed to the side, Angela growls like a feral beast. As we are chilled by her manic appearance, the camera pulls back to a wide shot and we see the biggest shock of all: Angela has a penis! In fact, Ron exclaims "My god, she's a boy!" in what has to be one one of the most awesome understatements ever.

Dude looks like a lady.

Needless to say, this movie is awesome on many fronts. Sure, it doesn't have near the amount of tits it should have, but honestly I didn't care, it's just so damned entertaining. I love how the creators put one over on the audience, using the misdirection of figuring out the who the killer is (which is pretty obvious) and instead dropping the "she is really a he" bomb at the end. I love it! The actors do a fine job, too. A lot of critics site bad acting, but for me the way people behaved in the movie lent it a degree of believability.

Angela does spooky really well, and her face coupled with the growl at the end truly is chilling. Ricky plays the foul-mouthed cousin to a tee, and the rest of the douchey hunks do just fine. I was constantly laughing at what the cool kids wore during this time period. Short belly shirts and hyper-short cutoffs, it's like modern-day San Francisco's Castro district. Snug plum smugglers combined with baby-ts. On a straight guy! Oh, 1983, never change!

In the end, the movie exceeds on all fronts. There's lots of creative death. There's an openly pedophile cook. There's an overload of mullets. And finally, there's a girl who is really a boy, who likes kissing other boys, whose dad was gay, and (s)he is also a killer. Sleepaway Camp, I lurv you! 3+ Thumps Way The Fuck Up!


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