Friday, May 28, 2010

Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity (1987): or, The Most Dangerous Gams

If you've been playing along at home this week, you may have noticed my last few entries have resulted in rather lackluster ratings. Trust me, I'm as concerned about it as you are. I know you come here for enthusiastic celebration of the most gleefully nonsensical stuff I can clap my eyeballs on, and to tell you the truth, that's why I keep coming too. (So to speak.) And yet every now and then I hit a lull. It's the nature of the game, I know--peaks and valleys, waves and trenches, smooth and crunchy. And yet whenever it happens, I can't help facing my deepest fear: have I run out of glee? Am I becoming jaded? Has the madnness well finally gushed its last gusher? What can I do to get back in the saddle and ride?

All I can say is, thank you, silly 80s sci-fi. It's not the first time you've pulled me back from the brink, and I'm sure it will not be the last.

Ken Dixon's 1987 sci-fi effort Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity opens on a dark, jungly planet, where bodaciously breasted babe is being stalked through the woods by a reject from the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence. We know this is a primitive world, because the girl is barefoot and wearing a beige suede bikini with jaggedly scissored edging, which is of course the universal indicator of "savagery."

Thanks to centuries of evolution, the Savage Girl is perfectly camouflaged among the Blooming Bazonga Bushes.

After she goes out of her way to trip over an easily avoidable root tendril, it looks like our savage sweetie is done for. Her pursuer fires a warning shot--or else needs to get his laser sights realigned--but before he can finish the job, is himself blown away by a Tall Dark Stranger who steps out of the mist in a nick of time. She's saved! Except--not.

Next we join another primitive swimwear model, Daria (Elizabeth Kaitan) chained in the cargo hold of a Space Slave Ship, along with similarly Savage Bikini-Clad captive Tisa (Cindy Beal). Despite Tisa's assurances that there's no way out, and "The only chance we've got is no chance at all!", Daria uses her prodigious upper body strength to yank the electronically-controlled chain out of its moorings. (Guess it's all muscle behind those beige suede triangles!) Then, showing she paid attention at Savage World Polytech, Daria theorizes, "If we can reverse the polarity on these cuffs...the only thing standing between us and freedom is stealing a starship!"

At this point, a little less than four minutes in, the Boom Mic Operator decides he's had enough of Daria's scene-hogging:

Maybe it's her curling iron.

After taking out two of the world's fattest stormtroopers, Daria and Tisa readily hotwire a life boat and blast out into the bleak nothingness of space. With nothing around for millions of light years and barely enough fuel for a three-hour tour, it looks like our Slave Girls (who were never really slaves, if you want to get technical, although they *were* chained...which is a cinematic device your ever-loving Vicar will never complain about) look like they've bought a one-way ticket back to the Infinity they hoped they'd moved beyond. But before you can say "Deus Ex Tractor Beam!" the girls' ship is yanked down to a seemingly deserted planet. They crash into the sea, and Daria washes up on the rocky shore, dazed but alive. Guess it was just as well she wore her Savage Bathing Suit.

She wanders into a cave, which leads to a door, which in turn leads into the British Museum of Natural History--wait, no, it's just the opulently decked-out mansion of Zed (Don Scribner), the owner and sole permanent resident of the island on which Daria finds herself. Non-permanent residents include Tisa, who washed up on a different beach long enough ago to have traded her Savage Bikini for a gauzy black negligee (again, no complaints), and siblings Rik and Shala (Carl Horner and DTV softcore legend Brinke Stevens), who are also castaways thanks to a mysterious shipwrecking. All of them are more than happy to accept Zed's hospitality, despite his Ominous Leather Pants, Sinister Leather Boots, and the fact he apparently shares his genetic code with Patrick Bateman.

"I like to dissect girls. Did you know that I'm quite insane?"

Zed is a hunter by avocation (hence the house full of gigantic stuffed hunting trophies), and if you've seen any jungle adventure movies since around 1940 you're already several steps ahead of the case. Yes, it's yet another version of that endlessly exploitable source text, The Most Dangerous Game: Zed is responsible for his guest's shipwrecks, and intends to make them all his prey, thereafter mounting their heads (not that way...well, okay, maybe) in his gruesome Private Trophy Room. Can Daria and company turn the tables on their insane host, and turn the Hunter into the Hunted? Are they truly alone on the island, or does something else lurk in the jungle shadows? And even if they survive, how will they ever get off this godforsaken space-rock?

Of course none of that really matters, because it's all just window dressing for what this movie is really all about:



"But me no butts!"

"Wait, you didn't give me time to turn around!"

As a 1980s Sexiness Time Capsule, Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity receives full marks. This flick has more cheesecake than a Pâtisserie Grand Opening. In addition to the aforementioned and formidable Savage Bikinis, Daria and Tisa also spend a lot of time wandering around Zed's castle in gauzy lingerie and slinky evening gowns, which would indicate that some of Zed's former victims must have hailed from the Petticoat Planet. There's a fair amount of nekkidity as well, as when Tisa goes skinny dipping in order to distract Zed's robot guards Vak and Krel (and it works!), or when Rik and Daria pretend to be making love to cover up their attempted escape (which ruse thankfully and hilariously segues into actual body-bonding). But the standout sequence is a bondage-tinged scene in Zed's trophy room, where the hunter takes a chained Shala for his spoils. (Brinke Stevens chained to a pillar and later held down on a stone altar by Vak the Mechano-Perv? You have my attention, sir!)

If T&A isn't your thing (wha?), fear not. For cheese connoiseurs, the flick likewise delivers the gouda. Listening to our Slave Girls deliver technobabble like "I'll lock the beam of the directional grid into the hyperdrive system!"--all with the cadence and intonation of a Valley Girl reading a Golden Book three divisions above comprehension level--is a joy not to be underestimated. Even the non-scientific dialogue has a similar charm, as when Daria observes, "She sacrificed herself for me...Life certainly weaves a twisted tapestry!" Best is after Rik and Daria's love scene, which boasts some of the most cheesetastic dialogue it's been my pleasure to gnosh in a while:
Rik: "Man and woman...what a great concept!"
Daria: "Now I know what I'm fighting for!"
Rik: "If I died today, I wouldn't complain!"
Daria: "You made me feel alive again!"
And it goes on, praise the powers that be.

Being a life-model for Frank Franzetta was lucrative, but demanding.

Cheese of the Sci-fi flavor is here in abundance as well. Vak and Krel are amazing androids. They seem to be envisioned as some sort of steampunk cyborgs--the cacaphony of creaking joints and valve pressure releases when either makes the slightest movement makes them the least stealthy hunting companions in the galaxy, but strangely this doesn't hinder their kill rate. Their personalities are a cross between the Terminator and C3P0--apart from the Horniness AI Chip, they are also extremely snippy with one another, getting into a hilarious argument about who should be checking the security measures at the castle and who should stay to watch Tisa play nude in the waves. The spaceship models, laser battles, and other effects are mid-range, and one hunt sequence even features a spider web trap right out of The Horrors of Spider Island--dissapointingly without a spider, however.

For all that, though, the movie is fairly well-made on a technical level. The lighting is extremely well-done: scenes in Zed's mansion have a warm, golden glow that lends a high-budget sheen to the proceedings, and the matte-painting sets and occasional Franzetta Fantasy Poses proudly fly the b-movie banner. I admit I didn't expect the movie to be as accomplished looking as it was, particularly after the afore-noted Boom Mike Cameo, but aside from that little gaffe, the flick looks great. And the bombastic, sometimes intrusive score by Carl Dante recalls the adventure flicks on which the film is partly based, and ups the fun level another notch.

Better quit while you're a head.

While perhaps not an out-and-out classic, Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity never forgets what it's there to do--i.e., entertain, divert, and titillate--and for me it achieves those modest goals with a certain amount of flair and elan. It's not 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even Galaxy of Terror, but what it IS is a whole lot of fun. 2.5 Thumbs--and thanks again.

Nota bene: according to imdb trivia, Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity holds the distinction of having been condemned as 'indecent' on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1992 by Senator Jesse Helms. Maybe he didn't actually watch the film, but...the very idea of Helms actually sitting down to screen Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity, a perma-shock look on his face the whole runtime, is just so goddamn beautiful it HAS to be true.

A few more images from Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity (1987):

Domo Arigato

Joe Eszterhas' A Night at the Museum

Zed is challenged by Rubik's Hypercube

"Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to the GWAR auditions?"

Heavy Metal

A slow night at the Duchy

"Is that a telescope in your pants, or...what? It is? Oh."


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

DVD Reviews: DARK NATURE (2009) and PEP SQUAD (1998)

Troma Team DVD's two latest releases, Marc de Launay's Dark Nature and Steve Balderson's Pep Squad, are a study in contrasts. One is an understated, deliberately paced thriller that has garnered some critical acclaim in European film festivals. The other is an over-the-top high school satire featuring an assassin prom queen and a kidnapping gone awry. Unfortunately neither is quite as successful as it might have been, but likewise neither is entirely without merit or promise.

If I sound lukewarm on these, sorry, Tromites--not everything can be Night of the Chicken Dead.

Dark Nature opens up with an unexplained killing at a country estate, where a sweet-looking old lady is bludgeoned to death with a typewriter by her slightly less-sweet-looking husband. As the hubby goes about cleaning up the mess he made on the rug, he in turn is stabbed to death by an unseen assailant. If you're waiting for context or explanation, you might want to go grab a beer--it's going to be a while.

Next we find join a stock dysfunctional family on their way for a weekend in the country at the same estate. We have Mom, Precocious Young Son, Unassertive Stepdad, and of course Surly Teenage Girl, who would rather listen to her iPod and make inappropriate overtures to the curator of the John Paul Jones museum than spend quality time with Mom and New Dad. Waiting for them at the house are Slutty Sis and her Ambiguously Oriented Male Companion, who are concerned about the missing parents, but not overmuch. Rounding out the crew is the Peeping Tom Birdwatcher and the Skinny Pale Groundskeeper, who totes around a suspiciously weighted canvas sack and mumbles to himself a lot.

Eventually People Start Dying, there's some cryptic talk about Family and how the Skinny Pale Groundskeeper loved the Murdered Old Lady, and a Shock Ending that one can only assume is supposed to explain the film's title.

In his commentary on the Dark Nature dvd, director Marc de Launay talks a lot about he and his collaborators were interested in "subverting viewer expectations," which apparently means keeping the body count low, keeping most of the murders offscreen, and having the killer actually BE the person who is the obvious (and almost ONLY) suspect. There are a couple of gore shots--one fairly good one in which Unassertive Stepdad gets his head caught in a bear trap (though the set-up for this is beyond ridiculous)--but also some pretty atrocious CG gore (a knife that exits the chest at a completely different angle than it enters the back) that seems unnecessary, especially since there were prosthetics built for the aftermath shots anyway.

There are a couple of positives to take away, however: the high-def cinematography throughout is excellent, and justly won some laurels at HDFest 2009. Surly Teenage Girl (character name Chloe) is played with a believable bad attitude by Imogen Toner, and Obvious Killer Niall Greig Fulton is good in his villain role. And in the one effective subversion of expectations in the film, de Launay gets around the cliche "cell phone loses reception" trope rather ingeniously: the victims' phones work flawlessly, with 5-bar reception--but since the country house is miles from nowhere, it will take the police an hour to reach them! It's elegant in its simplicity, and could be used to build suspense by putting a time limit on the villains machinations (but isn't). I'm surprised more scriptwriters haven't thought of this, so kudos are due for that.

Where Dark Nature lacks a sense of humor entirely (or else has one so dry as to be undetectable), Steve Balderson's 1998 effort Pep Squad rather shoots for that over-the-top, broad comedy vibe that Lloyd Kaufman and his Tromites have refined to an art form all its own. Introverted but attractive high school senior Beth, whose OCD Mom and Distant Dad are getting a divorce, finds herself embroiled in the wicked machinations of high school politics when her new BFFs, school paper editor Julie and student body president Scott, get on the shit lists of two separate Keerazy Bitches who both want to be homecoming queen. One is Terra, a self-involved, John Waters-esque character with a bottle tan and penchant for stalking anyone she thinks has wronged her, and the other is Cherry, who favors Ilsa Boots and deals with disrespect via kung-fu kicks and vehicular homicide.

As with the Troma films it tries so hard to emulate, Pep Squad is full of eccentric characters and seedy subplots. There's a Drunken Cheerleader-Nympho, a Creepy Goth Girl (character name: "Suicide Chick"), a Perverted Principal, and a couple of silent nerds who bear the brunt of everyone's wrath. Perverted Principal tries to molest Beth, which leads her to knock him unconscious, which leads Julie and Scott to kidnap him as part of Julie's ill-defined Che Guevara-like scheme to "change things" at the school, which leads to Julie shooting the Principal and having to call in Cherry for help disposing of the body, which Terra sees and uses to blackmail Scott to make her the Prom Queen. Along the way Cherry murders a few of the Prom Queen Competitors, kidnaps the new Sassy Black Woman Principal, and busts up the prom in order to grab the crown.

It all sounds deliriously entertaining, but somehow it's not as much fun as you'd think. Part of the problem is the script's attempt to portray Beth, Scott, and Cherry as outcasts in the high school social scene, which anyone who's been to high school can tell you doesn't' jibe with the whole Editor/Student Body President/Gorgeous Rich Girl set-up. Also, much of the humor falls flat, partly due to the amateur acting, but mostly due to the script. Though if you think there's something inherently hilarious in a blonde-fro'ed Goth girl scratching obsessively through all the pics in her yearbook, "America the Beautiful" playing over a nearly nudity-free sex scene, or a high school party featuring a Siouxsie Sioux lookalike in a wading pool while musclebound slaveboy's drink her bathwater, well, there's something here for you.

The biggest problem, though--and it's a common one in films like this, in my experience--is the unwillingness of Balderson and crew to GO THERE. Though it clearly aims at John Waters/Lloyd Kaufman territory, the film has little of the nudity, gore, or even outre ideas that makes those other movies sizzle. Of course since it was lensed in Kansas with largely local talent, this is perhaps unsurprising, but it still doesn't help matters. However, they *did* manage to film a climax with Cherry in her dominatrix boots and prom crown standing in front of a blazing American flag, so that's something, anyway. And Brooke Balderson as Cherry and Amy Kelly as Terra are standouts in an otherwise unremarkable cast.

Troma Team DVD is to be lauded for giving indie filmmakers a shot, and both de Launay and Balderson show promise, even if it's not fully realized in these examples. Both dvds have some nice extras--commentary, behind the scenes vignettes, and of course the usual Tromatic Trailers--which is a much nicer presentation than they'd be likely to get anywhere else. While the movies weren't entirely to my liking, I wouldn't be uninterested in seeing where either filmmaker goes from here.


Monday, May 24, 2010

Super Soul Brother (1979): or, Wildman Steve is Wild, Man

Sometime back I reviewed a home-grown blaxploitation flick/folk art cinema entitled The Guy From Harlem (1977), which chronicled the exploits of P.I./Kung Fu Master/International Security Contractor Al Connors. (Read that review here, if you know what's good for you!) While not by any stretch an accomplished piece of filmmaking, The Guy from Harlem was not without its peculiar charms, one of which was a scene-stealing turn in a supporting role by one Steve Gallon as local crime lord Harry Dubaul, who enlists Connors' aid against the more powerful and eeeviler crime boss Big Daddy. Charismatic, profane, and absolutely irrepressible, Gallon made such an impression that I quickly scampered to his imdb page to find out where I could see more of his idiosyncratic dramatic stylings.

As it turns out, despite a 40-year career as a DJ, media personality, stand-up comic and recording artist under the stage name "Wildman Steve" (according to this affectionate if sparse tribute site, Gallon was "the first black comedian to chart on Cash Box and the first to sell a million records"), he only appeared in front of the camera in three films: the aforementioned Guy from Harlem, the legendary Rudy Ray Moore vehicle Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law, and the movie under discussion today, Super Soul Brother, aka The Six-Thousand Dollar Nigger.* Released in 1979 and directed by Rene Martinez Jr., who also helmed The Guy from Harlem, Super Soul Brother is Gallon's only starring role, and clearly designed as a showcase for his bombastic comedic talents.

*Don't blame me, folks--I didn't come up with the title.

We Are the Untamed

After an absolutely priceless opening credits sequence, we find ourselves in the offices of independent researcher Dr. Dippy (Peter Conrad), a dwarf mad scientist with a spectacularly bad German accent who is working on a kind of Super Soldier Serum that will give its subject enhanced strength, agility, and invulnerability. Dr. Dippy's research is being funded by small-time crooks Jim and Bob (Lee Cross and Benny Latimore), who hope to use it to knock over a strip-mall jewelry store that inexplicably has ten-million dollars' worth of diamonds in its safe.

Alas, the course of SCIENCE never did run smooth, and while the serum does what it says on the tin, it also has a rather unfortunate side effect: exactly seven days after being injected, every super-powered lab rat in the trial group has invariably dropped dead. While Dr. Dippy and his comely research assistant Peggy (Joycelyn Norris) keep working to find "the neutralizer" (apparently through test-tube mixing trial-and-error), Jim and Bob grow impatient to see a return on their $6000 investment. Unwilling to take the shot themselves and trust the diminutive doc to save them in time, they decide to recruit "a wino out the ghett-o!" to be their short-lived strong man.

Dr. Dippy: Giant of SCIENCE

Of course their unwitting guinea pig is Wildman Steve (Gallon), a down-and-out homeless drunk prone to mouthing off to other hobos and getting beat up by wandering gangs of toughs. When Bob picks him up and promises him an apartment, money, and all the food he can eat, Steve is too astonished to say no. He's taken back to Dr. Dippy's lab, examined by Peggy, and told to rest up and get healthy for the upcoming experiment.

As in The Guy from Harlem, each scene in Super Soul Brother seems mostly improvised around
a central idea, be it exposition about the serum, details of the heist plans, or the preliminary examination of the subject. However, here the supporting characters' dialogue serves the dual purpose of bookending Steve Gallon's frenetic physical comedy and shameless stereotype baiting. It's nothing short of astounding: Wildman Steve makes Mantan Moreland (King of the Zombies) look like Morgan Freeman. Add the fact that Gallon seems to have only two comedic settings--Full-Bore Insanity and Unconsciousness--and you've got a one-way ticket to Over-the-Over-the-Top Town.

Q. How do you tell an oral thermometer from an anal thermometer?
A. Taste.

As a brief and relatively tame example, when Gallon is being examined by Peggy in the lab, she asks for his name for the waiver forms (?). He replies, "My name is Steve: S-T-V, all capital letters!" He does a Scared Mantan Moreland impression when Peggy proposes an anal thermometer probe ("You gonna stick THAT MY ass-hole?"), then screams to the doc, "This girl thinks my asshole is a Tunnel of Love!" After this ordeal, though, he quickly makes up with Peggy, admitting, "My 20/20 tells me you is a Mighty Mighty!"

Incredibly, it just gets worse from there. Given his own apartment by his benefactors (the same apartment Al Connors used in The Guy from Harlem--I'd know that orange shag carpet anywhere!), Steve is further treated to the services of lady-of-the-evening Addie Williams, who says she's there to do "anything he wants." He responds by having her cook him dinner (hilarious?) and then by requesting something special he remembers from his childhood, when his mother would put him in the bath and give him a good "butt-washin'!" After this joke is exhausted (it takes a while), he tells the girl, "Before I got down on my luck, I was a playa! I used to make my money making love to WHITE WOMEN!" He then opens his robe to show her his equipment, which is apparently just as impressive as the stereotype would have us believe.

Not the reaction he was hoping for.

His later seduction of virginal Peggy is even less restrained from a comedic standpoint, as he literally jumps up and down with excitement over "gettin' that cherry!" Later, he amazes her with his formidable lovemaking skills. Sample dialogue:

"Don't hurt me, Steve, don't hurt me! That ring on your finger!"
"That ain't no ring on my finger, baby...that's the watch on my wrist!"

As expected, Steve Gallon does almost all of the comedic heavy lifting in the movie, though we do get a couple of borderline surreal interludes with Dr. Dippy and his lover, the Amazonian burlesque-girl-gone-to-seed, Monica (Wild Savage--seriously), who refuses to sleep with the Doc until he buys her the diamond pasties he promised her. Instead the two exchange backrubs and play chess, with Dr. Dippy all the while dressed like a middle-aged female spa-goer. Get ready for a sight you can't un-see:

Check and Mate

The rest of the movie is basically a series of vignettes constructed to give Gallon the opportunity to get as wild as he wants to be, which is plenty wild, believe me. Eventually he's given the injection, leading to more jumping and wide-eyed face-pulling ("Is he a monster? Is he a wildman? Is the n*gger crazy?" Bob helpfully narrates), gets his revenge on the gang that roughed him up, and out of gratitude to his new friends agrees to play a "practical joke" on the jewelry store clerks by walking out with the safe (under cover of a bizarre diversion courtesy Dr. Dippy and Monica). The effects here are as low-rent as possible (a cardboard safe that doesn't even budge the car into which it's loaded), and the fight scenes are choreographed with less skill than a backyard wrestling tournament. (The fights in The Guy from Harlem are spectacular by comparison.) Of course the silly but good-hearted Soul Brother eventually tumbles to his friends' nefarious schemes, and with Peggy's help tries to stop them and find the neutralizer before he's another dead superhero.

It's a maxim that there can be too much of a good thing, and in comedy this is doubly true, it seems to me. Limited to five minutes of screen time in The Guy from Harlem, with a specific role to play and certain dramatic strictures in which to work, Gallon showed himself a memorable, scene-stealing screen presence, a shining light in the otherwise dim-bulb cast. He obviously needed those constraints, because without them, he's really too much to take. (Think the difference between Jim Carrey's performances in Earth Girls are Easy and in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Then amplify that difference and add race humor.) Though Gallon does manage to wring a few laughs out with sheer energy and ebullience, most of the time he's so far over the top he's absolutely impossible to connect to.

Unfortunately for Bob, his trigger finger was not only itchy, but ticklish.

The rest of the cast are mostly forgettable, and unsurprisingly many have only this movie in their acting credits. A notable exception is Peter Conrad as Dr. Dippy, who went on to assay such roles as "Midget with Lady" in Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse, "Midget" in Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, and "Mule Train Driver" and "Sandy's MC" in Porky's and Porky's II: The Next Day. Conrad is no Peter Dinklage, but at least his chronic bed-head hairstyle and atrocious German accent add a little texture to the character.

As for the direction, it seems Rene Martinez Jr. had his best work behind him at this point (i.e., The Guy from Harlem, faint praise as that may be). The pacing is terrible, though to be fair if we shortened Gallon's comedy bits to manageable lengths and focused on the plot, the movie would likely be 30 minutes long. The script clearly never got beyond outline form ("Say something about Steve needing to get some rest. Let Steve go for a while. Cut to..."), and most scenes are filmed from a static mid-range shot that does nobody any favors. The whole thing is even more amateurish than Martinez's other flick, and lacks that film's sense of energy and purpose. And yes, of course there's a boom mike cameo.

It's a little blurry, but it's up there.

After watching Super Soul Brother, I still like Wildman Steve, but I'm more acutely aware of his dramatic limitations--more perhaps than either he or his director were. As a supporting character he's a stick of comedic dynamite. However, strap a movie to his back, and what you've got is a bomb. (See what I did there?) If you like dwarfs, mad scientists, pre-PC race humor, and a good ol' fashioned butt-washin', I'm still not sure I'd recommend watching Super Soul Brother. It's not surprising that the promised sequel (we fade out on Gallon in a t-shirt that reads, "This N*gger is Coming Back!") never materialized. Though I certainly wish Gallon had done more character work before his death in 2004, I still must sadly give his sole starring effort a paltry 1 Thumb. He deserved better--but then again, so did the audience.


Thursday, May 20, 2010

Yes, things are slow, but fear not...

...there's new content coming, once the day job stops being an attention-hungry little bitch. :P But I'm still alive, and MMMMMovies is still a going concern.

I wanted to pop in and say on behalf of the Duke and myself, welcome to all new followers! Is it a coincidence that in my week of relative silence, a whole passel of new folks has joined the blog? Maybe I should shut up more often!

At any rate, please enjoy the archives, accessible through this handy list of reviews, and keep watching the skies for upcoming reviews of the MAD.

The Vicar


Monday, May 17, 2010


The world of metal music and the world at large lost its littlest giant this weekend, as nearly everyone already knows.

He saw what others only dream

When I was in high school, I pretty much lived on "Holy Diver" and "The Last in Line." Dio's music gelled so perfectly with my Dungeons & Dragons dreams and headbanging sensibilities, I could never get tired of listening to him sing of dragons, wizards, and rainbows in the dark. And I still can't listen to "I Speed at Night" in the car without running a serious risk of a speeding ticket. Can you? Can anyone?

Fashion sense: impeccable.

It's still incredible to me that such a huge voice was housed in such a diminutive frame.

Dio always struck me as kind of a Bizarro-World version of Ozzy. I love Ozzy-era Sabbath, but I'm not one of those who thinks that this is the ONLY Sabbath. Dio stepped into a near impossible position when he took that gig, and proceeded to help turn out one of the greatest metal albums of all time, Heaven and Hell. The follow up, Mob Rules, proved it was no fluke. (It's hard to choose a favorite track from that incarnation of Sabbath, but for some reason I was always partial to "Country Girl.") The parallels between the two men are obvious--both fronted the quintessential metal band, both went on to incredibly successful solo careers, and both were managed by their wives. But where Ozzy (Satan bless him) fell into self-parody and periodic incoherence, Dio always seemed the opposite to me--articulate, thoughtful, intelligent, never giving any indication that he wasn't completely together and comfortable with himself. According to all reports, he was the consummate gentleman, and one of the kindest men in music.

(Note: I'm not trying to start an Ozzy/Dio flame war. I love Ozzy--but you have to admit, Dio always seemed the more together of the two.)

THAC0 = 3

A brilliant showman whose stage shows were legendary (especially in the Sacred Heart days, when he slew the dragon every night), Dio was one of a kind, and will be greatly missed. His lyrics didn't always make sense--okay, maybe didn't even *often* make sense--but I think this was part of his aesthetic. Dio was all about the dream world, about fantasy, about magic. You can't apply logic to that.

"Ride the tiger
You can see his stripes but you know he's clean!
Oh don't you see what I mean?"

No, not really, Ronnie. But it still rocks.

A philanthropist very involved in children's causes, Dio seemed always ready to do for others. In a genre that's often the home of people it's hard to look up to, Dio was eminently admirable, a statesman and role model. He was very important to me, and to millions of people across the world. Rest well, you warrior, you poet, you king.

Evil or Divine?
I'm going with "yes."



Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Search for the Beast (2005): or, Bigfoot Versus the Gazoonies

It's usually considered a critical diss when a reviewer pronounces a movie "less than the sum of its parts." What such a critic means to say, as I understand it, is that despite having a few good ideas or competently shot sequences, a bit of engaging writing or a couple of persuasive performances, the film fails to bring those individually satisfying pieces together in a coherently satisfactory whole. Therefore, in the final summation, the film is crap.

But what if we turn that equation around and solve for its antecedents?

For instance, let us say that movie "x"--where "x" equals the 2005 direct-to-video shot-on-weekends Sasquatchsploitation howler Search of the Beast--is a big steaming pile of cinematic feces. (It sounds cruel, but one can't be sentimental where algebra is concerned.) Laboriously padded out to a feature length of just over 70 minutes, the movie features a two-minute bluegrass music interlude that goes precisely nowhere, a long continuous take of the cast preparing to rappel and then rappelling in real-time, and lots and LOTS of scenes of people wandering around aimlessly through the woods, waiting like the viewer for something--ANYTHING--to happen. The effects are bad, the acting is worse, and the editing and cinematography redefine the term "amateur."

However, where lovers of the MAD are concerned, the movie paradoxically delivers with a few choice scenes, a couple of outre ideas, and occasional hilarious twitches of the narrative skirt that reveal the hairy nude buttocks beneath. In that sense, it's not a slam to say that the sum of Search for the Beast's parts is definitely greater than the whole.

Cut away the aforementioned padding, and the story told in Search for the Beast is a fairly short one. Crypto-anthropologist Dr. David Stone (Rick Montana) is exploring the Okaloosa Wilderness Area (of Florida? Alabama?) in search of (wait for it...) THE BEAST. Of course here "the beast" is a Bigfoot or bigfoot-like creature that legend has it has survived from the time of the ancient Indians to the present day. Though seldom seen, the beast has been blamed for the disappearances of several campers in the Okaloosa Wilderness Area over the last several years.

There he is!

After Dr. Stone finds the remains of what one can only assume is a stillborn Bigfoot Baby, he is hired by mysterious chemical magnate Milton St. John (David F. Friedman, producer of such exploitation efforts as Trader Hornee, Ilsa She-Wolf of the SS, and 2001 Maniacs) to bring back concrete proof of the creature's existence for a bounty of $100K research money. Unbeknownst to Stone, St. John is not a seeker after hidden knowledge like himself; the old man's son was one of the Beast's recent victims (presumably in the labored and hilarious pre-credits rampage, in which a camper is killed and his nude female bunkmate dragged off into the woods), and St. John is throwing his resources into achieving his grief-stricken vengeance.

After Stone accepts the job, St. John gets on the phone with one of his paramilitary operatives, Jim (Steven Steele) with some very specific instructions: "You round up some rough gazoonies and go along until the doc finds this damn thing! And be sure you take a broad along with you!" Whether the broad is meant to lure the beast or placate the doc is unclear, but a monkey wrench is thrown when community-college research assistant Wendy (Oh?) Williams (Holli Day) ambushes Dr. Stone at his lab and demands he take her along on his search. Once the Jim and the Gazoonies show up, they jump into the back of a repurposed Church Van and head out into the Okaloosa Wilderness Area to track them a Skunk Ape.

"Are *you* my mother?"

Whatever notoriety Search for the Beast possesses comes courtesy Michael Adams, author of the entertaining critical study Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made. Adams screened this flick early on in his year of crap, and for many months it held onto his top (or bottom?) spot before being displaced by some late comers. (It's a good book, leaning more toward memoir at times than criticism, but nonetheless full of fun facts and reviews. Get a copy, and thanks to Samuel Wilson for the reading tip!)

While it's far from the worst movie I've ever seen, it's still easy to see why the movie was so hard to displace as Adams' King of the Crap Mountain. With the exception of that pretty respectable Bigfoot Baby above, everything about the production screams "non-professionals at work." Dialogue seems largely improvised by actors who have no talent for it. Pacing issues abound, despite some odd jump cutting--usually to one or two seconds in the future, as if the camera operator let his finger slip from the "REC" button. Scenes peter out and go nowhere; footage loops are reused; incongruous sound effects befuddle. The movie is so horrendously padded, we get more than SEVEN MINUTES of end credits--each character gets a video vingette of footage from the movie, including Dr. Stones DOG AND HORSE. I could go on.

But oh, my parishioners: isn't there enough negativity in the world already?

There's no virtue in refusing to allow oneself to be entertained, and what Search for the Beast lacks in skill and polish, it comes very near to making up with a charming if tragically misguided earnestness. It's not enough to save the film, but it did give me some chuckles along the way, and for that--softie that I am--I can't hate it as others do. So with a beer in your hand, five more (minimum) at your feet, and your finger firmly positioned over your DVD player's "fast-forward" button, come along with me as we pan for mad movie gold in the most unlikely of streams.

Pickin' and a-grimacin'

Those guys in the photo above are Blind Otis and Crazy Joe, who do their part to pad out the run time with a 2.5 minute version of the bluegrass tune "Cripple Creek." And for what it's worth, they're really quite good. The actor playing the Deliverance-Lite Crazy Joe does a fair Ho1KC "Otis" imitation, if he's even acting; in fact, if the movie were more famous, I wouldn't be surprised if Bill Moseley had instead patterned his character on this performance.

Holli Day as Wendy has one of the most amazing nasal-whine voices I've ever heard in any medium. It starts out as annoying, moves on to grating, and at some point achieves a kind of avant garde musicality. Particularly when she knees rapey Gazoonie Jim in the nuts and emotes, "You try it again and I'll kill you, aight?"

And for what it's worth, living in the South as I do, I have not the tiniest doubt in my mind that "Holli Day" is in fact her birth name.

Crypto-anthropological autopsies make her hot

The term "Gazoonie," which I would bet cash money David F. Freeman created on the spur of the moment while the cameras rolled, is such a magnificent designation--connoting as it does the rough-hewn, somewhat ridiculous but nonetheless formidible truculence of the testosterone-and-beer-addled Southern U.S. male--that I am starting a petition to get it in the god damn dictionary. Also, I will be calling as many people "gazoonie" from henceforth as is linguistically and contextually possible.

Even better, the movie gives us not one, but TWO groups of Gazoonies, as Milton St. John sends a set of reinforcements in after the first group doesn't report back. This second group is even more Gazoonish than the first, sporting t-shirts emblazoned with a giant Rebel Flag, the Insane Clown Posse logo, and the cryptic legend "WIDE F***IN' OPEN," that doubtless came straight from the actors' own closets (and are exactly the gear you'd want for stealthily tracking a Bigfoot through the Okaloosa Wilderness Area).

Cap'n Confederacy sez: GAZOONIE UP!

Also a smile inducer: the second Gazoonie Squadron brings a pack of dogs with them--a pack of dogs we never see, though from the sound of the baying and yelping they must be on loan from a full-on English fox hunt!

I haven't said much about the Bigfoot make-up here, as I'm sure you've noticed. Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here's my kilo of verbiage:

He shaves, for *her* pleasure

The filmmakers boldly envision a Bigfoot who is noticeably shorter than Dr. Stone and the Gazoonies, which tends to...understate the hugeness of the beast. Did they buy a gorilla suit and craft their own mask? Or is the whole apparatus the work of credited effects artist Doug Higley, of Higley's Strange Objects? The world may never know.

Despite the low-to-no-budget limitations, "director" R.G. Arledge manages to convince a couple of his starlets to disrobe for the camera, most brazenly and bravely the enigmatic "Tweetie" (that's her end-credit, not character name), who plays one of a couple of campers unassociated with Dr. Stone's search, who pop up every now and then for no discernable purpose. Though not exactly a knockout (okay, maybe in Okaloosa she is), Tweetie gives her all at a waterfall, disrobing in real time ("SEE! the white sock peeled off and placed neatly on the boulder! WATCH! as the other white sock is treated with similar care!"), tiptoeing gingerly across the creekbed which her gait tells us must be littered with sharp rocks and shattered beer bottles, and then lying sexily in the flow of the stream--or trying her damnedest to, though the look on her face indicates that the water must be FUCKING FREEZING. Probably the most dedicated actress in the piece. Tweetie, I salute you.

This frog refused credit in this movie.

Should you decide to watch this film, feel free to play the Vicar-created Search for the Beast Drinking Game! Here are the rules.
  • When someone says "Okaloosa Wilderness Area," in exactly those words, drink. (I strongly advise you use beer--otherwise you'll be comatose before the first half-hour is gone.)
  • Whenever there's a short, pointless jump cut, drink.
  • Whenever Dr. Stone flops down on the trail to drink from a stream, finish your drink.
  • Whenever someone acts like a Gazoonie, finish your fifth.
Trust me, you'll enjoy the movie more.

Perhaps the MADDEST ideas are saved for last, probably because as the production dragged on and it became clearer and clearer the incredible margin by which the director's reach would exceed his grasp, Arledge decided to just throw the hammer down. Tweetie and her Juggalo boyfriend--who have been camping in the Okaloosa Wilderness Area without incident for at least two days--appear again, with Tweetie dressed in an incredible piece of lingerie I can only describe as "Mall Santa's Naughty Elf Apprentice." They proceed to get busy doggie-style near an unexplained barrel of chemical waste. (Thankfully, the boyfriend--credited as, I shit you not, "Stupid D. Klown"--keeps his ICP gear *on* for this scene.) Lost in the throes of passion, Tweetie doesn't notice when her boyfriend is rudely shoved aside and a new partner cuts in.

Once you go Bigfoot, you never go back

Search for the Beast is a movie that I hated when I watched it, pronouncing it boring, a waste of time, and complete cinematic turd. But as I thought about it more in the days afterward, and remembered all the above-enumerated pieces of MADNESS it so improbably provided, my attitude toward the movie changed, and now I have an honest affection for it. I still wouldn't recommend it to anyone not fully aware of what they're getting into, and thus can't in good conscience give it more than a 1 thumb rating--but if anything here has piqued your interest, and you don't mind fast-forwarding through the many many slow bits, you could find something to smile at. I did, and that's really all I ask for.

Alas, Poor Tweetie


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Zardoz (1974): or, I Have Seen the Future, and It Does Not Work

"You have been raised up from Brutality, to kill the Brutals who multiply, and are legion. To this end, Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun. The Gun is good!...Penis is evil! The Penis shoots Seeds, and makes new Life to poison the Earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the Gun shoots Death and purifies the Earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth, and kill! Zardoz has spoken."

After speaking these words, the giant, floating stone head from which the voice of Zardoz emanates vomits forth a torrent of rifles, handguns, and ammunition. These are immediately seized by The Exterminators, a clan of hirsute, horse-riding savages who worship Zardoz and immediately put his gospel into action, running down and trapping the lesser race of Brutals--all dressed in tattered black suit-coats for easy identification--raping the women and pumping the men full of hot lead.

Thus begins the incredible 1974 futuristic fantasy Zardoz, written and directed by John Boorman (the cinematic mastermind behind such classics as Excalibur and Deliverance), and starring dramatic heavyweights Charlotte Rampling and Sean Connery. Boasting some of the most amazing costuming and set design of any film of its era, the movie brings to life a utopian/distopian future and touches on themes of immortality, new age religion, science run amok, and the struggle between Eros and Thanatos that some say defines the human condition.

Oh, and it's based on one of the most beloved children's literary classics of all time.

Man, I love the 70s.

Sometimes you just need a little head, and sometimes...

After the Exterminators force their Brutal slaves to load Zardoz's mouth with their grain harvest in exchange for the bounty of firearms, the Great Stone God takes off into the sky again, soaring back to his unknown living place. We know from a pre-credits floating-head explainer that the man behind the curtain is Arthur Frayn (Niall Buggy), a member of a race of secluded, educated Immortals who has been assigned the governorship of the Outer Provinces. How he happened upon the Giant Stone Head/Gun Distribution system of government is something we will learn much later, but it seems to be working pretty well for him. His Floating Stone Ship of State is packed to the uvula with grain, other agricultural products (presumably from other provinces), and a few dozen naked Brutal women, all sealed in shrink-wrap plastic for freshness.

Unfortunately for Arthur, he has unwittingly swallowed a stowaway: Zed (Connery), the leader of the Exterminators who has been nurturing an unhealthy curiosity about just where his god goes when not spitting death dealers at the savages. (Either that, or he just thought Zardoz sure had a pretty mouth...) Emerging from his hiding place in the grain stores, Zed surprises Frayn on the return trip to the enclave, giving him a taste of his own theology in the form of hot lead and a quick trip out the mandibular orifice.

Sure, Zed sounds like a badass, and he is--which is a testament to Connery's powerful screen presence, especially since he spends most of the movie dressed like this:

These Boots are Made for Ass-Kicking

Soon enough Zed lands in the Vortex, home of the Immortals, who we learn later are the descendents of the rich, powerful, and educated of the Earth's former society. When the world was dying (how this occurred is neither clear nor important), the scientists and aristocrats discovered the secret of eternal life, and naturally kept it for themselves and slapped a force field around their opulent hippie commune to keep the riff-raff out. The future as Gated Community--prescient, no?

Over the centuries the Immortals have developed incredible psychic powers--they can read one another's thoughts, don't have to sleep, and periodically join in a hive-mind known as Second-Level Meditation in order to share their ever-increasing scientific knowledge. Their society is a mixture of the ancient and the futuristic--they grind grain using 15th century stone mill wheels, but cook the resulting bread in a laser-powered EZ Bake oven, for instance. The whole operation is overseen by The Tabernacle, a crystal-based supercomputer that stores all human knowledge and communicates with its subjects through gaudy diamond-ring communicators.

So round, so firm, so vacuum-packed.

However, it turns out eternal life ain't all it's cracked up to be. With everyone able to tell what everyone else is thinking, the Immortals have been forced to develop a very rigorous, formalized system of behavior in order to minimize "psychic violence." Anyone guilty of such violence is punished by the society--not physically (they're way beyond that), but by being sentenced to age a certain length of time, depending on the severity of the crime. You can be forever twenty-five if you're a good boy; step out of line, you could find yourself an immortal 50-year-old. The worst repeat offenders--the Renegades--are aged to the point of jabbering senility and put in an old folks' home on the outskirts of the commune, where they spend eternity playing Miss Havisham's tea-party in a decrepit, cobweb-strewn ball room. It's actually kind of a chilling idea, if you think about it.

Furthermore, the intense boredom of eternal life has created another caste among the Immortals, known as the Apathetics. These poor souls have lost all interest in life, and stand around in a trance-like state: zombies who do not eat brains, or move around, or do much of anything, really. (The growing number of these Apathetics is what caused Frayn to teach the meat-eating Brutals to cultivate grain, since without sufficient work force they couldn't grow enough to support themselves.) Finally, in a stable society in which there is no death, the need to procreate is obviously obsolete; as a result sexuality has atrophied to near non-existence, and no male Immortal has been able to achieve an erection in several hundred years. (Whether this explains the matriarchal nature of the Immortal society I'll let others hash out.)

Of course this means that Zed--a primitive who has no trouble at all getting and maintaining wood--is extremely interesting to the Immortals, particularly apparent co-leaders May (Sara Kestelman) and Consuella (Rampling). They immediately subject Zed to rigorous scientific study, projecting his violent memories on screen (for the unexpected titillation of the Immortal crowd) and showing him salvaged ancient porn in an attempt to see the spongy tissues in action again.

Charlotte Rampling presents her findings at the Worldwide Scrotum Symposium

Much of the movie has to do with Zed touring this Brave New World with his new friend, Friend (John Alderton), a Byronic/Mephistophelian Immortal who is so profoundly bored with eternal life that he's willing to encourage any disruption, unapproved throughts, or even outright sabotage, just to break the monotony. He's the opposite of Rampling's Consuella, who sees the "corrupting" influence Zed's presence is having on their society and wants him destroyed. But as it turns out Zed is not quite the mindless killer they all believe him to be, and has reasons for his actions that they couldn't guess, and will lead to a massive upheaval in the film's final reels.

All Sean's years as a street-mime in Glasgow finally pay off.

Many of the film's ideas have to do with sexuality, and how Zed reawakens the primitive desires for both sex and death in the sterile world of the Vortex. Standout scenes include the Porn Test--Zed watches unmoved as he's shown a film of a girl soaping her voluptuous breasts, and another of some heavy petting and kissing--then stares meaningfully at the antogonistic Consuella and arches an eyebrow, apparently raising his fleshy flag in salute at will! Later he awakens the violent tendencies in Consuella and her crew, and must flee like Frankenstein's monster to escape the torch-bearing mob. He hides in the Apathetics Storage Area, where a drop of his sweat causes one Apathetic girl to awake from her stupor. She touches him for more sweat, which she licks from her fingers and passes on to the other Apathetics via a kiss--women and men, who pass it on, regardless of sex--leading to an all-out orgy! That's some Naschy-level musk there, people!

There are a couple of scenes I found strangely chilling, as well. One scene involves the jovial and subversive Friend finally being called out for his thought crimes. He refuses to go to Second-Level with the rest, leading to an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style psychic assault that looks a bit silly, but nonetheless is disturbing. When he's pronounced Renegade and sent to the Eternal Tea Party, the reveal of his aging--on only half his face, for some reason--is kind of frightening, as is the scene when Zed is swamped by the Renegades who seek to leech the vitality from him. It's like Trash's nightmare from Return of the Living Dead, only without Linnea Quigley's breasts.

Not so apathetic now, are ya?

Ther *are* a lot of breasts on display, though, fear not. When the Immortals' bodies are damaged by physical violence or accident, they are "regrown" in the Vortex, in another scene reminiscent of Body Snatchers, with reconstituting naked men and women sprawled in transparent sacks around a glass-and-steel framework. (No small feat, as Boorman reveals on the commentary, "In 1973, when I made this film [in Dublin], it was very difficult to get Irish girls to expose their breasts..."). Rampling, Kestelman, and mystic Immortal Avalow (Sally Anne Newton) also get their kits off, revealing the director's penchant for skinny, small-breasted women that would continue at least as far as Excalibur. A late scene in which May and Avalow impart the sum total of human knowledge to Zed while he inseminates them is a psychedelic standout.

Visually, the movie is simply amazing, and it's hard to believe it cost as little as it did, even in 1974 dollars. (It was budgeted at one million dollars, $200K of which went to pay Connery's salary.) The acting is great--Rampling is stunning to look at as always, and the way she plays Consuella--cold and authoritarian at first, but later passionate and confused--is quite masterful. Alderton is a show-stealer as Friend, with just the right mix of boredom, wry humor, and slowly simmering rage. Sean Connery is...well, Sean Connery, but as usual this is an asset for him. The rest of the cast does well too--really not a bad performance in the bunch.

"Don't look now, Charlotte, but the wallpaper has turned to asses."

On his entertaining and informative DVD commentary, director Boorman admits that the film "was probably too ambitious for the amount of money we had," and that "You could say that there were maybe *too* many ideas in this picture..." That may well be true, but all Mad Movie fans should thank their lucky stars Boorman packed as many ideas in as he could--because a more enjoyable hour and forty minutes I have not spent in quite some time. 3+ Thumbs, easily. Watch it before the future is here!

Nota bene: In fact, you should watch it twice--once cold, and once to listen to Boorman's commentary, as I did. The anecdotes about Connery are worth the second viewing alone, but he also shares a lot of insight, both technical and thematic, that any fan will love to hear. (For instance--the first choice for the role of Zed was not Connery, but Boorman's Deliverance star Burt Reynolds! Imagine THAT!) Heck, even the collection of radio spots are worth a listen, as they're read by the legendary Rod Serling! You couldn't ask for more, really.

A Boatload More Images from Zardoz (1974):

This is the exact same spot Boorman used for the Lady of the Lake sequence in Excalibur.

Really. No shit.

Home Movie Night at Chez Connery

I envision a future of Princess Leia haircuts and Plentiful Pointless Drapery

Friend, upon learning it's tofu crisps for dinner AGAIN.

They told him there was haggis on the other side of the force field.

"Go ahead. Mention the mask. I fucking dare you."

Sean couldn't look more thrilled on his big day.

If my education had been like this, I'd have done more extra credit.

Connery displays his most prized possession: the Petrified Ballsack of Robert the Bruce

And they all died happily ever after!


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