Tuesday, August 31, 2010

DVD Reviews: JOY (1983) and JOY & JOAN (1985)

Continuing to live up to their reputation for bringing Mad Movie fans the best in titillating Eurotrash, the fine folks at Severin Films have recently put out a couple of legendary sexploitation flicks from the 80s, Sergio Bergonzelli's 1983 opus Joy, and Jacques Saurel's 1985 follow-up, Joy & Joan.

Inspired by the 1981 autobiography of French-American supermodel "Joy Laurey" (a pseudonym, apparently) and its sequels, the Joy movie series spanned six films, including the French TV movies Joy in San Francisco and Joy in Africa (both 1992). Comparisons to the long-running Emmanuelle series are apt, especially in that those flicks were likely their model and cinematic inspiration. Judging from the first two films in the series, I'd be willing to say that the Joy films are almost as sexy and at least as MAD as their 70s predecessors, and have a lot to offer fans of both sumptuous Euroflesh and the kitchen-sink plotting that often makes European films of this vintage such a...well, joy to watch.

In the first flick, the title role is portrayed by Canadian beauty Claudia Udy (a busy girl in 1983, appearing that same year in Skullduggery, The Funny Farm, and American Nightmare). This inaugural entry finds Joy already a successful, globe-trotting supermodel, filling her days posing for fashion spreads as well as skin-mag centerfolds, her nights with wild parties and champagne by the bucket-full. But she's haunted by the memory of one night as a child, when she spied on her father and mother shagging like rabid minx in their palatial country estate. (This we get to see in lovely, detailed flashback.) Sometime after this Joy's parents divorced, and it's clear the lack of a father figure--colored by this graphic, much-revisited childhood memory--has shaped Joy's psychological development in Very Significant Ways.

Sez you.

How significant becomes clear when she meets older man Marc (Gérard-Antoine Huart, who previously appeared in 1970's The Blood Rose ["The First Sex-Horror Film Ever Made!" according to its dubious tagline] and a year after this film graduated to Emmanuelle IV) at a ribald art show opening. After tooling around the City of Lights for hours in Marc's not-at-all-a-compensation convertible, they arrive back at Joy's luxurious shag-pad (literally--the floor looks like someone fragment-bombed the Children's Television Workshop), where Marc sits outside her apartment for hours until she comes out in nothing but an overcoat to invite him in, whereupon he pins her arms over her head on the mattress and fingerbangs her to shuddery bliss. Then...he leaves, without so much as loosening his tie! Whether this was a master stroke (so to speak) of sexual power-games or the result of having forgotten his cock-ring in his other pants, the effect is the same: Joy becomes infatuated with her superannuated lover, and soon promises to do anything he wants, just to make him happy.

Before you can say Story of O, Marc has taken Joy to a mysterious, richly furnished mansion, which is apparently some sort of club for wealthy degenerates. Telling her, "There is no love--only proof of love!", he takes her into a round room that looks like something out of a Star Trek holodeck (sex module) and commands her to sit in the Captain's chair and fiddle with the controls for him, IYKWIM. Things get weird when a tuxedoed old man and his two younger henchmen appear to set up a camera, complimenting Marc on his companion's good health while Joy frigs away for their entertainment. ("Oh, Monsieur, a magnificent specimen. A vagina in the bloom of youth, right in the middle of blossoming!" Gee, thanks, guys!) These gentlemen later retire to a control room to watch the CCTV feed, and Joy clearly gets off on this particular voyeurism/exhibitionism combination. It really is like the Château du Roissy, only with cams and cables instead of chains and whips.

These are the voyages of the Starship Fucksurprise

I was really interested at this point in the sexual power games going on: Marc as the Master, bringing out Joy's submissive tendencies through commanded exhibitionism rather than S&M. Add to that Joy's not-so-subconscious Daddy issues, and there was a veritable steam bath in the making. Udy has a great body--I mean, a REALLY great body--although her oddly-positioned 80s boob job and ocular-hazard nipples might be off-putting to some. Still, she invests Joy with a naive freedom and thirst for sexual discovery that's genuine and affecting. Director Bergonzelli, who also helmed exploitation classics like In the Folds of Her Flesh (1970, also available from Severin Films) and Our Lady of Lust (aka Christiana, the Devil Nun, 1972), has a real eye for sumptuous visuals, and a talent for sexy weirdness.

However, the movie abandons this aspect of the story for most of the rest of the film, focusing instead on Joy's various adventures in France and internationally. We go with her to a photo shoot in Mexico, which allows Joy to run naked on the beach, pose provocatively on the Aztec ruins, and perform an awesome nude underwater ballet with a sea turtle, with whom she kinda makes out! Back home in France she becomes the spokesmodel for a new public service campaign:

Let My People Come

which makes her infamous and unpopular with a bunch of crabby feminists with whom she shares a TV panel. She visits her mom and her mom's second husband, and has an uncomfortable flashback of Stepdad molesting her when she was a teen, but quickly shrugs it off. Meanwhile, Marc is making souffle for his Other Woman while wearing a frilly apron (symbolism!) and getting cranky that Joy never returns his calls anymore. Finally she goes to America, where she stars in an action movie that is clearly a satire of the perceived American cinematic product of the time. (Her kung-fu fight in metallic overcoat is a hoot.) There she meets a professor who's into tantric sex, who takes her to a Yoga Orgy that is choreographed like a Busby Berkeley number and is just as effective.

The sexual power games come back into play when she hooks up with Marc again, who, unmanned and desperate to reassert his dominance, takes her to a Dante's Inferno-esque sex club (located in the empty underground tanks at an old gas station!). The Jacob's Ladder-ish orgy here--complete with whipping, shackles, glass rooms full of writhing, oiled bodies and shower-rape/gangbangs--is in stark contrast to the paradisaical sex of the tantric cult, and after giving in to Marc's demands and participating in it all, Joy decides she's finally outgrown him and needs to move on. Then her friend from America calls with the answer to the riddle she's been trying to solve all along...


Overall, Joy is a very sexy, very entertaining example of 80s softcore sexploitation, with some wild scenes, a couple of interesting ideas, and no shortage of beautiful nudity to gaze upon. Severin's transfer of the film is quite pristine by my reckoning, and looks great on my HD. The audio is good, though you might curse that fact after having to sit through the plaintive "Joy Theme Song" several times over the course of the film. The ad copy states this is the first release of the complete uncut version of the film, as the aforementioned "dungeon orgy" was apparently excised previously, which I think must have damaged the theme and resolution of the film. The only other extra is "Reflections on Joy," an 11-minute interview with Claudia Udy about the production. Without makeup but full of enthusiasm, Udy comes across as pleasantly spacey and New Age-y, and shares several interesting anecdotes. An excellent DVD presentation all round.

Made two years later, the sequel Joy & Joan boasts a new director and a new star. One-timer Jacques Saurel is now behind the lens, and in front of it is Exploitation Royalty, Jean Rollin muse, and sometime porn star Brigitte Lahaie. You'd think such an illustrious actress in the lead role would signal an upping of the sexploitational ante, but whether due to the director's inexperience or simply the Law of Diminishing Returns, this second story captures only a little of the magic present in the first. That's not to say it's not worth watching, however, as the plot at least is about as mad as you could ask for.

As happens so often in Paul Naschy's Waldemar Daninsky saga, this first Joy sequel seems to have only nominative continuity with the prior film. As this narrative begins, Joy is still in love with Marc (portrayed here by Jean-Marc Maurel, a much younger actor, thus negating the Father Figure sex issues so important to the first flick). In Joy, Marc was an architect and his wife/main mistress a journalist, but here it's Marc who is the journalist, and there's no SO to speak of. Also, the Marc of Earth-2 is much more of a dick. Within the first few minutes of the movie he dumps Joy at a club, picks up a disco-slut on the dance floor, and makes damn sure Joy sees him as he grinds against her derriere and performs the tongue-centered maneuver the French made famous--well, ONE of them, anyway.

Joy gets extremely depressed, and it begins to affect her work--she can't even look happy while wearing a fluffy pink teddy bear head for a hat, so that should tell you something. In the depths or her despondency she's befriended by rich Germanic aristocrat Bruce (Pierre Londiche, in a role Helmut Berger would have knocked out of the fuckin' park), who showers her with gifts and offers to give her whatever she wants as long as she'll be his "companion." When Marc is called away on assignment to Thailand, Joy calls in the favor and has Bruce fly her over in pursuit. Her plans for how to get Marc back without looking like the most pathetic and needy woman on the planet are at this point unclear.

Can't Bear It
But not at all unclear are Bruce's intentions, as he quickly reveals himself to be a Sadean sexual-power player of the first order. In Thailand they stay at the home of "Le Prince Cornélius," a strange but powerful little man who owes Bruce his life somehow or other. Bruce has Le Prince assign Joy a maidservant, Millarca (Maria Isabel Lopez). "This woman is your slave! Do what you like with her!" he shouts, then demonstrates by slapping her around gratuitously, which judging from her reaction is something the girl's come to expect. Later Bruce makes his plans even more clear: "Once you get used to me, you won't be able to resist the pleasures that power and money bring!" Then he falls to her feet and starts licking her toes. Lahaie as Joy stares off into the distance in that impassive way she made an art form in Rollin's films.

Meanwhile, Le Prince is spying on Joy, listening in on her phone conversations as she tries to track down where Marc is staying in Thailand. Le Prince is quite a character--the sort of guy who keeps a full grown tiger in a bamboo cage on his porch, conducts a native choir with his diamond-topped cane, and wears a white Neru suit buttoned to the chin, be he never so sweaty. He also has a weaselly face and David Bowie eyes, making him a weirdo henchman of the type Jess Franco would have killed for.

Sexy M.F.
Eventually Joy's relationship with Bruce goes sour when he hosts a party for her, slips her a roofie, and then has her laid on a sofa in the middle of a ring of tiki torches and has a dozen or so of the male guests gangbang her, while fire-dancers twirl their ignited batons on the periphery! It's a wild set-up, but Saurel's strange directorial stand-offishness robs the scene of any intensity or uncomfortable sexiness. When she wakes the next day and realizes what's happened, Joy escapes the compound with Millarca's help (but not before a sensuous massage from her "slave" turns into a lesbonic grope-a-thon) and takes off on foot through the jungle.

On the run from Le Prince, who is the only person tracking her, she makes it to the city and finds Marc, who seems to think it perfectly natural she should rush up to him half-clothed in the city square in Thailand. They duck into a photo booth that looks like it's made from a discarded refrigerator box for a quickie, while what seems like thirty dollars worth of photos click away through the automated (and now butt-printed) lens. True to form, Marc then rushes off to catch his plane back to France, leaving Joy to find her own way among the Thais and the ruffians on her trail. Could she love him more?

Say Fromage
Wandering aimlessly through the city, Joy FINALLY falls in with Joan (Isabelle Solar, in her only screen credit), a French-speaking tour guide who immediately takes a shine to Joy and offers her a place to crash. Of course Joan is instantly smitten with Joy, and makes advances that first night, but unready Joy puts her off. This leads to a very well-staged scene in which Joy and Joan lie on their beds on opposite sides of a shared wall, both masturbating and getting turned on by the sounds of the other person across the way. Saurel isn't what I'd call an accomplished director, but he definitely got that one right. A later scene where Joy and Joan give in to their passions on a moving train (in some beautiful but totally impractical and borderline dangerous positions) is another winner.

The rest of the movie has Joy and Joan on the run from Le Prince and Bruce, occasionally having rows due to Joan's fierce possessiveness that borders on psychopathy. There's some comic relief with Le Prince chasing them through the city's floating market Keystone Cops style, and it comes to a head when a kindly bartender befriends the girls only to have them kidnapped and taken to a cave-sauna/sex party that mirrors the first film's sex dungeon scene. Incredibly, Le Prince rushes in to the rescue here, fighting off half a dozen fully nude Thai men with his diamond-headed cane, chop-socky style! Eventually he's overwhelmed, though, Joy and Joan are raped, and they're all left in the now-empty cave complex to lick their wounds.

From L to R: Joan, Joy

The ending keeps spiraling into silliness, as Le Prince reveals his unlikely but charming ulterior motives for helping them, Joy flies back to France, and Joan joins her there later. When Joy leaves on a job assignment, lonely and petulant Joan is visited by Marc, which leads to a rather out-of-left-field denouement and a strong finishing sex scene.

Saurel is not nearly the director that Bergonzelli is, and manages to make Brigitte Lahaie, while ethereally gorgeous as ever, somehow LESS sexy than Claudia Udy was in the first. Lahaie plays all of her scenes with a blank, bored expression, which is kind of her go-to mode, but a talented director like Rollin has shown how to get her to use that and break out of it when it will have the maximum effect. The plot is pretty wild, but the chase scenes drag on quite a bit and there's a lot of dead space. Also surprisingly for a movie with Lahaie in the lead, it feels like there's significantly less sex here than in the original film, to its detriment. What's here is pretty good though, and all the female flesh on display is well worth drooling over.

Joan, thinking of eating out tonight

Severin's presentation is good again, very clear both visually and audibly. (Once again there's a painfully plaintive pop theme song, leaned on even more heavily here than in the last film.) No real extras on this disc, except again the uncut version of the film.

Severin has done a great job unearthing and presenting these two movies, and anyone with a soft (?) spot for Eurotrash softcore will be more than happy with the both of them. I give Joy 2.5 thumbs, and Joy & Joan 2.25. Both discs are available now from Amazon and the regular online and brick-and-mortar DVD merchants.

Note: Severin Films provided both DVDs to MMMMMovies for review purposes.

A few more images from Joy (1983) and Joy & Joan (1985): 

Her Heart Belongs to Daddy

To compete with television and the Internet, the local Aquarium took drastic steps.

Everybody Wants You
Coming out of her shell
Veggie Berger
Make a Grab for the Gusto
Doesn't Look Safe
Confusing...but verrrrry interesting.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Gladiators (1984): Or, Why Was I Programmed To Kill? Why?!

Dearest readers, I must beg forgiveness. Too long have my words been absent from these hallowed pages. But there is good cause, lower thy knives and stay thy murderous hands, I pray! A few weeks past, I, the Duke of DVD, found myself on a caravel, bound for a small South Pacific island that shall remain nameless. The ship’s captain, a beastly, bulging man of ill repute, rode the waves like a man possessed, possessed of singular intent: to deliver my person to the island and depart with a quickness. The crew crossed themselves, muttering prayers to nameless sea gods under their breaths. They feared my destination, as did I, I must confess.

In the weeks leading up to my departure, dark whispers had begun to reach my ears as I traveled in places best left alone by the bulk of humanity. Foul mutterings of a rare treasure, an object so valuable that I would beggar the Ducal estates just for a glimpse. Soon, these rumors led me to acquiring maps through auguries I shall not describe here. A ship was procured, a crew was assembled, and we were off. After days of rough seas, the island swam into view like a diseased miasma, congealing on the horizon. Shrouded in mist and darkness, it splintered the ocean with jagged cliffs, like the teeth of a rotten skull. The captain, wanting to be rid of me, dropped anchor some miles away and whipped two of the crew into taking me via skiff to the nearest beach.

As my feet sank into the black volcanic sand, a piercing roar sounded deep within the jungle before me, reverberating through my being and nearly causing my flight back to the waiting ship. I half turned and saw that the two oarsmen were already away, hauling at the oars like men in mortal fear. Facing the jungle once more, I made my way past piles of flotsam, into the island interior...

Very quickly, the sun disappeared above the canopy of the dense jungle. Wet fronds slapped my face as I plunged heedlessly forward. Multicolored beetles scurried from my path as large, furred beasts leapt from tree to tree above my sweating head. Soon I entered a clearing, and I knew my journey had borne fruit. Before me stood an impossibly tall monolith, hewn from obsidian so black it drank in what little light pierced the trees overhead.

Behind the monolith were piles of bones, each dozens of stories tall, for as far as the eye could see. The scattered stumps protruding upwards through the bone piles spoke of a forest that used to be, but was no more. Foul energies blanketed the clearing, coalescing around a stunted altar erected before the monolith. As I approached and gazed down at my prize, the earth-shattering roar once again rang through my body like a bell from Hell. Bones slipped among other bones, some of the piles cascading and shifting into their neighbors.

Grabbing the object of my desire, I sprinted back through the jungle, diving into the ocean, heedless of the closing footsteps of a Thing that Should Not Be, an old god, worshipped for eons by a forgotten tribe. I finally gained the ship as the captain was pulling anchor, the crew, to their credit, hauling me aboard. I shall never forget that trip, as I hope you shall never forget its result:

Fulci’s motherfucking sci-fi spectacular The New Gladiators, bitches! That’s right, Lucio Fulci made a science-fiction film, and it is every bit worthy of the praise his horror efforts elicit. Friends, the year is 2072, the setting is Rome. Fulci gives us a brilliant, constructed-model cityscape that had me erect. It’s right out of Blade Runner, complete with huge video billboards on the sides of buildings.

Rome was not built in a day... but due to budget constraints, this model was.

Just as we’ve learned in countless other sci-fi films throughout cinema history, the future is all about bloodsports that are nationally broadcast, usually with convicted felons as the participants. Fulci paints us a picture of warring networks, ever-consumed by the almighty ratings system. It seems the go-to show for ratings, “Kill Bike,” is starting to wane in popularity with the unwashed masses. One can see how it would get old, as Power Ranger-colored bikers pilot 50cc dirt bikes around a dirt-floored arena, occasionally bumping into each other until finally someone loses his balance, then gets run over. Or, a competitor might run headlong into an embankment, causing the highly unstable motorcycle to explode into a fireball. Another show, wherein regular folks are hooked to a machine that makes them see and feel their worst fear, is also going nowhere, ratings-wise. Il Maestro manages to work some gore in here, as we see a blond chick get decapitated rather messily, Pit-and-the-Pendulum style.

How to Get A Head in the Nielsen Ratings

An enterprising TV exec named Cortez comes up with the brilliant plan: resurrect the one thing Rome is famous for (other than Caesar-stabbing) - Gladiators! Faster than you can ask “Joey, do you like films about gladiators?”, we are introduced to our hero, the curly-locks-of-love hunky-guy Drake. Drake doesn’t seem like a career criminal, so it’s hard for me to guess how he came to be the star of “Kill Bike,” but he is nonetheless. Cortez’s plan for ratings domination hinges upon attaining instant fame for his New Gladiators show, and the first step is securing the use of Drake.

Hell's Satans

They do this in the most obvious way possible: they send three whistling killers to murder Drake’s girlfriend/wife/significant-other, and then frame Drake for the revenge killing of the three whistling murderers. Seriously, the three creeps invade this chick’s home, and whistle while snapping their fingers as they close in on her. “What the fuck, Duke?!” you might be asking aloud, a white mist of Krispy Kreme frosting befouling the air around your gaping pie-hole. I will attempt to answer your slurred query: Lucio Fulci did enough cocaine on a daily basis to assassinate a small village. There’s no other explanation as to why the killers must whistle while they work.

"I am Cortez. I am... de sexy."

Drake is rounded up and taken to Italy, along with a motley crew of degenerates including a black kung-fu combatant played by blaxploitation great Fred Williamson. An Asian fellow and a few other bearded lumps round out the group. Tasty quote from a meeting between Cortez and Drake:

Drake: "Go to Hell, Cortez!”
Cortez: “I would... if I thought it would help my ratings.”

Overseeing their care is a Gestapo-esque gent by the name of Raven, who has a penchant for wielding a riding crop which doubles as a sort of stun-ray emitter. He also has a hand-implanted device used to turn on the security measures around the holding area the fighters are locked up in. He also sweats. A lot.

"Papers, please."

Drake quickly asserts his dominance as alpha male among the group, only he doesn’t use posturing, his fists, or the gay strutting technique employed by the Vicar. No, instead he humiliates Raven in front of all of the others using a modified game of chicken involving throwing himself into a disintegration field, which he dares Raven not to shut off. Raven sweats, then sweats some more, and finally gives up like the pansy he truly is. This cements the loyalty of the others, forming them into a sort of band of brothers, which obviously only holds up until they have to kill each other for the general public’s amusement.

The chili from the prison lunch room finally kicks in.

Fulci has a lot going on in this movie, and while the central theme is reality television and its future sway over the lumpen masses (a prognosticative masterstroke), we also get a theme of computers invading every day life, and the eventual control asserted by A.I.s. Cortez sums this up brilliantly, early in the film by saying, “Computers. We built them to be our slaves. We are turning out to be theirs.” It seems the ratings system, nay the entire city television and who knows what else, is run by an A.I. bent on human distraction, while it schemes for grander things behind the scenes. But more on it later.

Much to the dismay of its spokesmodel, Cortez decides to cancel the low-rated show "Machete Salon"

First, we are treated to a training montage so bad ass that it wasn’t bested until Rocky IV. Fred Williamson fights computer-generated foes while a strobe light, uh, strobes. The token Asian dude does much of the same, while Drake faces off with computer-generated simulacrums of the whistling murderers. Fulci’s milkshake brings the boys to the yard, there is NO doubt! After their sweaty, computer-based training, the combatants hatch a plot: Escape!

First, however, they have the nagging threat of the prison security system. This is quickly circumvented by Drake swallowing a microchip that allows him to control nearby computers at will. The year 2072 is bringing us untold scientific advances, people! I can’t wait! So Drake and the others make their way out of the prison, aided massively by the Ingesto-Chip's ability to melt fucking steel bars. Technology: It’s FANTASTIC! However, their escape is short-lived, as it’s revealed to the viewer that the A.I. is watching their every move, somehow. As they make it out to the sunlight, Raven and a cadre of guards are there waiting. Raven employs his stun-wand to great effect.

Fred Williams' Kung-Fu: It Explodes Sunlight

When we next see our intrepid fighters, they are suspended over a metal grill, hanging onto some overhead bars. Raven is watching, and with a smirk, explains that the floor will cook them like a Xmas goose should they not hang on for a given number of minutes. Slowly, gravity takes over until the bearded hanger-on type fighter falls. The shock isn’t instantly fatal, and in fact he gets fried for several minutes until he somehow pushes himself off the floor high enough so that Drake and another can hold him up.

The reek of singed back-hair was overpowering

Next up we find out the AI is furthering his plots of destruction. Luckily, Drake has a helmet-haired beauty at the studio to help out. She’s Cortez’s assistant, but she spends most of her screen time helping Drake, either directly or indirectly. First, she tracks down the man responsible for programming the AI, some recluse of a nutjob holed up in what appears to be a monastery. He says he never programmed the AI to kill, that it’s learned that on its own. Oh dear, it’s fucking SkyNet all over again! Before he can give details on how to stop the rogue computer, he’s killed.


Queue the gladiators! Our futuristic fighters take to the arena before a live audience. Even though this isn’t “Kill Bike,” they still ride monstrous chrome-plated motorcycles and the bikers are armed with all manner of bludgeoning weaponry. The games kick off, and once again we have lots of slow speed near-misses, followed by someone's mislaid manequin getting run over, followed by more obvious dummies piloting motorcycles into small obstructions, causing the cycles to immediately fireball. Next up is round two, where the combatants are paired up and the cycles are outfitted with sidecars. The most spectacular kill here involves a biker being jerked off his bike with a flail-like weapon, only to be drug behind the opponent’s bike, while another biker lights him up with a flamethrower!

"Ladies and gentlemen... Devo!"

Meanwhile, Drake’s helper chick finds out that all gladiators that make it through to the end are set to be disintegrated on live TV, in some weird plot to discredit the incumbent president, who is running for reelection. (Ed. note: Wha?) She has to warn Drake, which she does. The remaining gladiators make a break for it, which has the side benefit of them getting to first stab then run over Raven. They confront Cortez, who reveals that the metal shackles they all have tightly implanted around their wrists are the catalyst for the disintegration. One of them tries to remove his bracelet, with obvious results. They end up killing Cortez and then figure out that the AI is located in mutherfuckin’ SPACE! Inside a satellite, naturally. Kinda hard to get to there.

Ben Hur, Done That

A plan is hatched--but first betrayal! A loyal friend, an older fighter named Monk, is revealed to be the traitor that helped the AI see everything, via an eletronic eye implanted in him. They kill Monk, pop his eye out (it's Fulci movie--there are rules!), and use the eye to somehow retrieve all info it ever saw, including the AI’s self destruct code! Why Monk was privy to this tidbit of info is not explained. Just before the arbitrary countdown expires (seriously, if the AI wanted them dead, why not just flip the disintegrate switch immediately?), they blow up the satellite. Drake gets the girl, all is well. Corporate greed and rogue AIs are no match for a determined set of gladiators. Late-model gladiators, anyway.

I have to say, in researching this film, I saw a lot of hate for it. The Duke is baffled by this. The New Gladiators has it all! Model cityscapes, evil computers, sweaty Gestapo prison wardens, kung-fu strobe sequences. What more could you possibly ask for? To those that poo-poo’d this great film: might I interest you in my middle finger?

Oh, I kid! I love you all! I get it, I guess. The movie does drag a bit, and the action sequences aren’t too thrilling. I just can’t get over two aspects: 1) Fulci is MAD as fuck, and 2) the film has heart. It’s obvious to me that Fulci operated on a small budget, forcing him to cut corners where perhaps he wouldn’t have otherwise. I guess I’m just a sucker for gladiator movies that feature rogue AI computers as the central villain.

Special props go to Riz Ortolani’s fabulous score, which, while repetative in some spots, kept me grooving the entire time. He’s scored a fuckload of movies, and to me this stands right up there with the best. It was made in the early 80’s, so obviously the synth was heavy and forward, but that’s how we liked it in those days. Guiseppe Pinori’s cinematography was more than adequate as well, though I believe he was also constrained by the low budget. He did great with what he had to work with, though.

In the end, this movie is well worth the effort to track down and watch. Netflix has it via instant streaming, as of the writing of this review, so that’s an option. Turn off your reality television and tune in for some futuristic reality TV, courtesy of the Maestro himself, Lucio Fulci. I give New Gladiators a hearty 2 thumbs up, only kept from another half-point or even 3 thumbs by not having any nudity to speak of, which is a grave oversight that I cannot ignore. Still, my friends, watch it, love it, worship it. Until next time, I bid thee adieu.

"Whistle while you work!"

Ride == Pimp'd

"What homoerotic subtext?"


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Head of the Family (1996): or, You Can't Pick Your Family, Nor Your Hat Size

Ah, Full Moon Entertainment. How would I have made it through all those lonely college weekends without you? Many's the night I came back from my local Hastings video with an armload of 49¢ VHS rentals, hoping for another jewel like Trancers or Meridian among the dreck-pile Dollman vs. Demonic Toys and the seemingly endless series of Puppet Master variations. Every time I got angry with you, like when you wasted Jeffrey Combs in the silly and demeaning Dr. Mordrid, I had to forgive you because you'd also given me Combs/Crampton goodness in the wonderful Castle Freak. You'd dash my hopes for joining passions for horror and for original MTV VJ Martha Quinn, then make up for it with more Tim Thomerson badassery or the mostly above-average vampire tales of Subspecies. That's why even after countless disappointments and diminishing returns, I just can't quit you, Charlie!

And really, it's an easy call to make. In the days between the video boom's beginnings in the 80s to the everyone's a horror filmmaker saturation of the aughts, Charles Band and company were out there producing straight-to-video horror to feed what was obviously a voracious hunger in the guts of the horror-loving audience. If they missed much more often than they hit, what of it? You could almost always count on them to deliver good-to-goofy practical effects, stories that were often silly but seldom boring, and enough glorious nekkidity to keep your thumb over the fast forward button rather than shifting over to "stop."

Of course the insatiable demand for horror features I reference took its toll. Looking at some of their less well-known titles, it's clear that sometimes the Full Moon crew was really reaching for a subject to build a movie around. I like to picture Charles Band in 1996, trying to come up with a new Full Moon feature idea while working on his taxes. Always looking for material, his visionary eye alights on the checkbox next to the question about his filing status. His gaze goes distant--the wheels start to turn--and by the end of the day he's on the phone with writer Benjamin Carr, hashing out the script for one of his more unusual and improbably entertaining efforts: Head of the Family (1996).

The Duke's new vanity plate. The Mazda gets better mileage than the Coach & Four.

In a small town in Florida, local business owner Lance (Blake Adams) has a problem. Tough-guy biker and drug dealer Howard Oates (a gloriously be-mulleted Gordon Jennison Noice) has decided to become a "partner" in his grocery store/old-fashioned diner, helping himself to 50% of the profits and all the greasy burgers he can nom. But then, Lance has been helping himself to sweaty backroom sex with the biker's unhappy and impossibly hawt wife Loretta Oates (played by perky blonde Jacqueline Lovell, about whom more in a minute)--so maybe it kind of evens out. Still, big-thinking entrepreneur Lance is none too happy about handing over his hard-earned loot to a denim-wearing, malapropism-spouting Harley humper, so he and Loretta (who likes to be called "Scarlett" in the throes of stockroom passion) start dreaming up ways they might get rid of the big lunk once and for all.

Of course no cinematic Southern town is without its eccentric families, and this one has the Stackpools, a trio of mostly mute siblings who walk around town like the Children of the Damned, minus the platinum blond bowl-cuts and scintillating charisma. Wheeler (James Jones) is a wiry scarecrow-type with the fashion sense of Ichabod Crane and dark, old-fashioned sunglasses he never removes. Brother Otis (Bob Schott) is a Tor Johnson-style ogre with the muscles and flyaway yellow hair of a semi-retired WWE mid-carder. And sister Ernestina--played by Alexandria Quinn, whose lengthy filmography includes such intriguing credits as Real Female Orgasms, Sodomania Slop Shots 9, and the 2008 opus Load Warriors-- is...well, about what you'd expect given that resume.

The Stackpools: Some Stacked Better Than Others

Taking advantage of Howard's absence on some supply-related errand, Lance and Loretta are on their way home to wash off the sex stank when they notice a Wile E. Coyote-style roadblock on a completely undamaged highway. Ever the curious one, Lance goes to check it out, and soon finds himself in the driveway of the Stackpool estate, watching Otis lay a fatal Smackdown on a hapless, nondescript motorist (though he does have a vanity license plate reading "HUNKALUV," so maybe he's a little descript). Quickly reasoning that when life gives you info on a horrifying serial murder scheme, it's time to make blackmail-ade, Lance confronts the Stackpools in town the next day, threatening to go to the cops if they don't talk to him. The siblings stay silent, but that night Otis busts in and snatches Lance out of bed (though luckily not out of his purple satin jammies) and drags him back to the house to meet the senior ranking member of this particular familial unit.

Yes, there's another Stackpool brother in town, and that brother is Myron (J.W. Perra), a gigantic, veined head with tiny little feet and Swedish Chef hands. Myron explains that he and his siblings are quadruplets, "all from the same egg!", and the last survivors of their Plantation-rich family line. Acknowledging that ordinarily identical quadruplets would be...you know, identical--Myron further informs us that they are all mutants with special powers, each with an ordinary human ability expanded to an unimaginable degree. Otis, for instance, is super-strong, his muscles hard as steel and possibly bulletproof. Wheeler has eyes sharper than an eagle's (he removes his glasses to display some Killers from Space-worthy orbs) and smell and hearing to match. And Ernestina--"Well, I needn't tell you what hear special ability is!" Myron demurs. (Personally, I'm guessing it's a preternatural sense of balance that prevents her toppling forward every time she takes a step.)

"You may force me to wobble, but as God is my witness, I WILL NOT FALL DOWN!"

Of course Myron's got BRAIN POWER, and uses his special familial link to control his siblings' every thought and move, making them automatons to serve his will. Not content with living by proxy, Myron has been researching the human brain, looking for a way he can transfer his intellect into a more craniallyl compact form. This is why they've been kidnapping motorists, so that Myron can perform experimental surgery on them pursuant to this goal. Smart as he is, he's apparently crap as a neurosurgeon, since the basement dungeon is full of brain-dead rejects Myron keeps around for their "entertainment value." They're all set to add Lance to the tally, but then the quick-thinking country boy pulls out his trump card.

Not having fallen off the tater truck yesterday, Lance has written down his suspicions and mailed them to an unnamed lawyer, who will give the information to the police if Lance doesn't check in regularly. Unable to take the chance of inviting an investigation, the Stackpools reluctantly agree to take care of Lance's little problem for him. All this takes is Ernestina flashing her irresistible muscular gams at Howard from the side of the road, and one single-axe-handle smash from Otis later, Howard is having his brain stirred through his empty eye socket and thereafter joins the crew of catatonics in the Stackpool cellar.

After a few nights of unrestrained sex with Loretta--in a bed, for a change (a scene where Lance pours champagne over Lovell's nubile nakedness is one for the Illustrated History of Zang)--Lance has to decide the direction his life will take from here on out. Having never read an issue of Tales from the Crypt, apparently, Lance decides to give in to his baser instincts and continue blackmailing the Freaky Foursome, shaking them down to the tune of two grand a week. This doesn't sit well with Myron, who deploys his mobile crib-mates to retrieve the letter by any means necessary and remove Lance's sole bargaining chip. They succeed surprisingly easily, and before long Lance is on the operating table and Loretta is begging for her life, even attempting to seduce Myron and letting him lick her exposed nipple with a Freddy Kruger-length tongue! It doesn't work, but it's a heck of a visual.

Jacqueline wasn't the first to be struck speechless by the Vicar's Self-Removing Trousers™, nor would she be the last.

It'll surprise no one that things go off the rails a bit in the finale, as Lance claims the existence of another letter to buy time, and Myron attempts to force it out of him by having Loretta perform in a stage version of Joan of Arc along with his troupe of lobotomized thespians, in a scene reminiscent of Marat/Sade, but dumber. Though again, having a naked Jacqueline Lovell tied to the stake is not a directorial decision I would ever second-guess. Betrayals occur as Lance is mesmerized by Ernestina's bodacious mutant abilities and Loretta hightails it with Otis, whose love for the "Pretty Girl..Pretty...Pretty Girl" enables him to break free of Myron's mental shackles. As for the Head Cheese--whose supercharged brain power has never been a match for bumpkin Lance's tricksterish schemes ONCE in the flick--he performs a one-man rendition of the classic fairy tale Humpty Dumpty, bringing an end to his reign of error.

So the movie is extremely goofy, a one-joke skit filled out to feature length, but somehow director Charles Band (here credited as Rob Talbot) manages to keep it moving briskly almost throughout the entire running time, and to his credit never lets the the unserious tone sink into nudge-wink-hardee-har-har hokiness. The script is actually pretty good, for what it is--there's a lot of entertaining if not exactly cerebral banter between Lance and Loretta, and even an early running gag in which Howard can never think of the right word and Loretta suggests smart-ass synonyms isn't leaned on hard enough to wear out its welcome. In fact, I'd go so far as to say Head of the Family is pretty funny--intentionally so, even--with more comedic restraint than your average SNL episode (faint praise though that may be). And the score by Richard Band is carnivalesque and creepy as usual, adding another level of enjoyment.

I'm the same way after four double-espressos.

Band is aided by some good performances from his charismatic cast. Blake Adams as Lance plays the Southern trickster hero with enthusiasm and a fair amount of skill, grading on a rather precipitous curve, of course. He also has some real comic chemistry with Jacqueline Lovell, not least during their backroom sex/dialogue scenes, which are always fun to watch. Lovell is a charming actress here beyond her gobsmacking gorgeousness, and a veteran of many 90s b-movies, including Full Moon's Hideous! and The Killer Eye, along with erotic DTV company Surrender Cinema's The Exotic House of Wax, which I found to be a cheerful time waster. (She was also one of the top nude models of the early 90s under her nom de guerre Sara St. James, specializing in softcore lesbian videos and photospreads. To sum up: zang.) And J. W. Perra turns in a great performance as Bighead Myron, just the right mix of condescending Old South aristocrat and mad science mutant.

In short, Head of the Family is light, entertaining horror/comedy fare, and easy to recommend with a 2.25 thumb rating. It's not likely to become any movie buff's favorite piece of cinema ever, but it has a fun story, some good practical effects (the makeup job on Myron is quite a piece of work, as are a few of the surgery-aftermath applicatons), a decent script, and plenty of Grade-A nudity to boot. If you're feeling nostalgic for the glory days of three-for-a-dollar VHS rentals, or just want something a little less mentally and emotionally taxing than the latest French "punish me for watching your movie!" flick, Head of the Family is a good bet.

The World Laughs with Him--OR ELSE.

A few more images from Head of the Family (1996):

Lance never maligned Otis's choice of sanitary napkins again.

"You wanna put it where?"

Beautiful Plumage

"Hey, now that we've got him upside down, whattaya say we get out the really bumpy cucumbers?

Don't say I never gave you nothin'.

Here, have another. It's on me.

NOT Bill Moseley, surprisingly

"Fuck me, Duke, I'm yours!"

Heavy Hangs the Head



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