Tuesday, December 26, 2017
A smidge over an hour into Michael Dougherty’s ‘Krampus’, there’s a dementedly brilliant sequence where a white trash weapons fetishist finds himself pinned down by three anthropomorphic gingerbread men armed with a nail gun, a liberal suburban mom fights off a porcelain angel with a snake tongue, a frumpy much-put-upon housewife goes apeshit at some demonic toys with an axe, and an alcoholic aunt with all the personality of drink-driving accident involving a Mack truck and a school bus cuts loose with a pump-action shotgun.
Let’s rewind an hour plus change. ‘Krampus’ opens with a slow-mo sequence, scored to ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ wherein a mall opens its doors to a horde of last-minute Christmas shoppers whose sense of festive spirit, joy, peace and goodwill makes your average episode of ‘The Walking Dead’ look like ‘Songs of Praise’ by comparison. Store assistants are trampled, product displays toppled, Santa’s grotto turns into a microcosm of hatred and frustration, and shoppers trade blows.
As the narrative proper opens, this selfsame sense of yuletide pugilism carries over into a school nativity play rapidly descending into chaos as young Max (Emjay Anthony) gets into an onstage scrap with an older lad which is only curtailed, much to the amusement of the other parents, when his father Tom (Adam Scott) drags him away. Tom and his wife Sarah (Toni Colette) are therefore not in the best of moods when they shepherd Max and his sister Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) back home. Beth’s pissed off anyway that she’s unable to spend Christmas with her boyfriend.
Max, persona non grata in his own home, has only his German immigrant grandmother Omi (Krista Sadler). A woman with a superstitious view of Christmas, she urges him to finish his letter to Santa Claus and feeds him with homemade stolen. Shortly afterwards, the family are descended upon by their boorish in-laws. If Tom and Sarah are the stereotypically affluent and liberal couple, Howard (David Koechner) and Linda (Allison Tolman, who wins Agitation’s woman of the match award for wearing the worst Christmas sweater ever and still being a fucking badass) are every bit as clichéd as the white trash chip-on-the-shoulder oiks with a passel of ill-behaved kids. Including vindictive tomboy Jordan (Queenie Samuel).
When Jordan steals Max’s letter to Santa and humiliates him by reading it over the dinner table (it’s actually quite a sweet letter: he wishes for Christmas to be like it used to be, and his family not to be at each other’s throats), Max ignores Beth’s entreaties not to rise to the bait, brawls with Jordan, and reclaims the letter only to rip it into shreds and throw it out the window. The scraps whirl up into the snowy sky and all hell breaks loose.
A sudden cold snap monkeys with mobile phone signals, takes out the electricity and effectively cuts them off from civilisation. Beth frets over unreturned texts to her boyfriend and insists on walking over to his house. She meets with a bad end en route. We’re about 30 minutes into the film at this part, and the cynical hilarity of the opening sequence has given way to an extended sequence designed to emphasise just how wankerish Howard and his brood are; an extended sequence that needs to pile on the embarrassments and unpleasantries in order to shepherd Max towards his extremely ill-advised decision.
That minutes 5 to 30 of ‘Krampus’ (i.e. damn near a third of it) jettison all traces of humour is a big enough problem in itself. A comedy-horror failing to deliver on the first half of its self-description is on a hiding to nowhere. That those minutes are not only filled with crude cultural stereotyping – but cultural stereotyping that insists the over privileged hygge-obsessed middle class types deserve all of our sympathy and the working class types, who own guns and drive an SUV, deserve none – is an act of aesthetic cuntishness that all but derails the film. It doesn’t help, either, that the one of only two likeable characters – Beth, whom LaVie Owen plays with a winning mixture of sass and sympathy – gets such short shrift so early in the proceedings.
The other likeable character, Omi, is allowed to stick around long enough to deliver an expositional monologue and is then given similarly reductive treatment. Still, her big moment gifts the film with its most interesting stylistic diversion. The flashback that accompanies her explanation of Krampus – the shadow half of St Nicholas, a spirit who punishes instead of rewarding, who takes rather than giving – is rendered as an animation in the vein of Tim Burton’s ‘Corpse Bride’: the time and the place are fudged, but there’s a strong suggestion of wartime and fascism and loss of hope. A lot of weight is carried here, and while it offsets the banality of the first third, it also makes for an uneasy transition into the dark comedy that follows.
It’s an awkward film, is ‘Krampus’. Brilliance and crassness exist cheek by jowl. For every scene that’s utterly hilarious, there are three or four that fail to find a tonal register. The plethora of seasonal archetypes that assemble for the climatic siege are brilliantly realised, but the whole thing is delivered at such breakneck pace that none of them are ever fully developed. An extended coda, which ends on a visually impressive note, strives for a ‘Twilight Zone’ vibe but comes across as ‘Black Mirror’ copyism.
Granted, it’s a better Christmas film than anything that’s been shown at 2pm on BBC2 this year, but it sure as hell ain’t no ‘Calvaire’, ‘Rare Exports’ or ‘Black Christmas’.
Saturday, December 23, 2017
Reviewing ‘Truck Stop Women’ and ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ in quick succession gave me a yen to search out another Claudia Jennings film. So I cracked a beer, resigned myself to the shitty print quality of an online copy and sat through the hour twenty-seven minutes of ‘Sisters of Death’.
I kind of wish I hadn’t bothered.
As a 70s B-movie that stars Claudia Jennings, Cheri Howell, Sherry Boucher and Sherry Alberoni, you’d have every right to think that sexploitation shenanigans were guaranteed, but there’s not the faintest glimpse of even a nipple. As a horror movie, it’s bloodless, ridiculously contrived, hugely illogical and it fails to deliver any scares. As a single location thriller, it’s devoid of tension and suffers from a uncharismatic antagonist.
But watch the motherfucker I did, and I need to make up the numbers for this year’s Winter of Discontent, so I’m going to gnash my teeth, sling another beer round my gullet and pound out a review anyway.
The set-up’s pure simplicity: Judy (Jennings) and Liz (Elizabeth Bergen) are inducted into a sorority via a ritual which involves a test of courage – a blank loaded into a pistol, said firearm aimed the inductee’s head and the trigger pulled. Both participants know that the shells are blanks, so quite how it counts as a test of courage is the first of many things about the film that don’t make a bit of sense.
Anyway, hands up everyone who thinks that the ritual goes tits up and one of the girls gets shot for real? And hands up everyone who clocked Jennings’ name above the title and made a safe guess that it’s Liz who buys the farm? And hands up everyone who’d put money on the film immediately throwing up a “X years later” title card? And hands up if you have a mild inkling that some weird set of circumstances is engineered whereby the girls are thrown together in an isolated location and start getting killed off?
I’m tempted to say keep your hands in the air if you’re reasonably confident who the final girl is, but we’d be getting ahead of ourselves …
Anyway, all five of the sorority sisters present at the accident are, seven years hence, summoned to a reunion. They are all deeply suspicious and nobody admits to being the individual who organised it; but they all go along anyway. (Facepalm-o-meter score: 1.) They’re met at the rendezvous point by two slimy lover boys who tell them that they’ve been paid to drive them to the venue but they can’t say where it is and they don’t know the identity of the person who engaged them. Judy and her pals take half a millisecond to assimilate the logistics of this well dodgy scenario, then happily pile in the car. (Facepalm-o-meter score: 2.) The back windows of the car are blacked out and the location they’re taken to kept under wraps. One of them is mildly perturbed. (Facepalm-o-meter score: 3.)
The venue turns out to be a rambling hacienda with a swimming pool. There’s no sign of their host and still no indication of why they were brought together. And, as the drivers depart, no means of egress. Plus there’s a fucking big electrified fence around the property. They take a nano-second to assimilate the terrible implications of all this, then throw on swimsuits and have a pool party. (Facepalm-o-meter score: well into the double figures by now.)
Director Joseph A. Mazzuca – in his fourth and final outing as director – shifts gears at this point from unsuspenseful suspense thriller to lowbrow comedy as our oily Romeos decide to sneak back into the compound (managing to do so just before the electrified fence is switched on) and try their luck with the bevy of beauties. Briskly brushed off by the bevy of beauties, they’re beholden to bad luck as the brains behind the business at hand behoves it beneficial to blow the gaff on his identity and motive. (Sorry, I couldn’t think of synonyms for “identity” and “motive” that start with “B”. Which kinds of fucks up the alliterative flow of that sentence. I have failed you, o my readers.)
So, anyways, the big bad behind it all turns out to be Edmond Clybourn (Arthur Franz), Liz’s bereaved and vengeful father. And, y’know, kudos to Mazzuca and scripters Peter Arnold and Elwyn Richards for just coming straight out with it. Trying to string it out to the hour and a half mark before laying Edmond’s (entirely predictable) big reveal on the audience would have been the kiss of death for a movie that doesn’t have much life in it anyway.
Rolling Edmond onstage forty minutes in and having him give it some “my daughter’s dead and one or more of you wanton harlots is responsible and I’ll have the truth from you tomorrow, so help me God” (not his exact words, but depressingly close enough) creates its own set of problems.
Problem the first: everyone’s confined to the same premises and Team Judy clearly has superior numbers over Team Edmond, their odds favoured by the fact that Edmond has got to sleep at some point, yet it never occurs to anyone to create a distraction (or several distractions), lure him out and jump him.
Problem the second: at least two nights pass without Edmond making his dramatic re-entrance (unless someone dropped a day-for-night shot in the wrong place during editing) and in all this time, with everything in the hacienda at their disposal, nobody posits a useful escape plan (such as, oh I don’t know, unscrewing all the wooden doors from their frames, piling them against the fence until it bows under the weight, then scrambling over on them given that wood doesn’t fucking conduct electricity) Also, Edmond gotta take a nap sometime (see above).
Problem the third: while Edmond’s fucking around making bullets and playing the flute – it’s revealed late in the game that he’s a famous conductor – the sorority sister responsible for Liz’s death starts killing off the others. The script is kind of fuzzy re: motivation here, and in fact the last fifteen minutes or so goes overboard with its bluff/double bluff/triple bluff rug pulls, but I’m guessing the prevailing logic would be: guilty party kills off the others to prevent them from revealing her as the guilty party. Hands up everyone who thinks there might just be an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny, ickle-wickle flaw in this plan? (That noise you heard was the facepalm-o-meter blowing up.)
Problem the fourth: would a famous conductor really make his own bullets and cut loose with a gatling gun? Okay, so maybe Karajan would, because once you’ve climbed a mountain, flown a jet, sailed a yacht and recorded complete Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner symphony cycles for the ages, I guess you’ve got to do something to blow off steam. Okay, and maybe I can see Solti doing it just to clinch that Chicago Symphony Orchestra interview. And maybe Kleiber. Anyone who demands a top-of-the-range Audi as a concert fee probably owns a shooter. But Sir Adrian Boult or Sir Neville Marriner or Sir Mark Elder packing heat? Nah, just can’t see it.
And now I’ve typed that paragraph, I find myself plunging down the rabbit hole of an alternative version of this film in which Edmond is driven to psychotic excess not by the death of his daughter but because conducting symphony orchestras just plain makes you a badass motherfucker. Somebody get Roger Corman on the phone. Does Christian Thielemann have any acting experience?
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
When Kirk Douglas starred in David Miller’s classic contemporary western ‘Lonely Are the Brave’, he remarked that it should have been called ‘The Last Cowboy’. One of the alternative titles that John Leone’s ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ goes under is ‘The Last of the Cowboys’. There are other parallels between the two films … and some significant differences, not least in the approach to the material and the overall tone of the piece.
There’s also a touch of Kurosawa’s ‘Ikuru’. Its other alternative title is ‘The Goodbye Run’: the plot centres on a terminally ill truck driver, “Elegant” John (Henry Fonda) stealing back his repossessed Kenworth and setting out to find a load. He’s been a trucker all his life, a gentleman of the road, never made a late delivery or got so much as a single speeding ticket (how these two feats reconcile is something the script, perhaps wisely, opts not to explain), and damned if he won’t be a trucker to the very end.
The load he ends up with – more traditional freight being denied him when load bosses twig that he’s driving what is in effect a stolen vehicle ergo he’s a major insurance risk – is human cargo. To whit, brothel madame Penelope (Eileen Brennan) and her girls, including the pragmatic Ginny (Susan Sarandon, who also co-produced the film). Penelope and co. have found themselves undomiciled and on the run following a vice bust.
But even before “Elegant” John offers the remarkably spacious square-meterage of his tautliner as a mobile knocking shop, he picks up devout hitchhiker Bilbo (Robert Englund). I’m not sure if the script means to portray him as Amish or Quaker, but he’s sure as hell, ahem, I mean sure as heaven big on the love/fear of God and pious self-denial. The scene in which Bilbo bags a lift is basically the first chapter of John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ but with a frickin’ great Kenworth. It was at this point that it struck me just how odd a movie ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ is.
I’d had an inkling of its oddness during the dream-sequence opening credits wherein “Elegant” John, all frail and distraught in a hospital gown, claws at some chainlink fencing then flits around a pitch black interior calling “Eleanor … Eleanor … I’m coming for you, Eleanor”. Eleanor turns out to be his truck, named for Eleanor Roosevelt. “Elegant” John has a monologue about the First Lady that gifts Fonda with his most poignant – and beautifully underplayed – moment in the film. But I digress: the credits scene plays out like some weird art film, only with a title that suggests adherence to the ‘Truck Stop Women’ school of drive-in aesthetics.
(Interestingly, although it was released in 1977, the year that Hal Needham’s ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, Don Hulette’s ‘Breaker! Breaker!’ and William Friedkin’s ‘Sorcerer’ made their debut, ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ was actually shot three years earlier. It essentially predates the late 70s/early 80s slew of trucking movies which proceeded from the massive box office kerrr-chiiing of ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, which raked in $300million from a $4.3million budget. Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Convoy’ and Norman’s Jewison’s ‘F.I.S.T.’ followed in 1978. It’s tempting to evaluate ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ as the film ‘Convoy’ could have been if Peckinpah had been in ‘Junior Bonner’ mode and not coked up to the gills.)
Now, after six paragraphs and 560 words, you might be thinking to yourself: Well, all that’s fine and dandy, Mr Agitation, and you’m sho’ is the film historian, but ain’t ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ a little, uh, vanilla for inclusion in the Winter of Discontent? Sho’, it’s got big rigs and hookers but there ain’t none of kit-offery that you get in them Claudia Jennings films, and there ain’t a hint of violence, and the most graphic thing that happens is some cop cars get bashed up on account of a Kenworth failin’ to stop for the roadblock of the title. An’ why don’tcha admit it, Mr Fancy Pants Movie Critic: for a movie that’s called ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’, the roadblock itself is kinda pitiful?
And if you were thinking thoughts that were travelling along those kind of lines, I’d avow that, yes indeed, ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ doesn’t tick a whole lot of Winter of Discontent boxes. Hardly any, in fact. And yes, the eponymous roadblock is about as effective as an ice sculpture of a shovel employed on the footplate of a steam locomotive. And yes, I am aware that constitutes the transportation equivalent of a mixed metaphor.
I’ll also admit that I watched ‘The Great Smokey Roadblock’ on a whim, figuring if nothing else that the title chimed with ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’. Half an hour in, I was acutely aware of two things: (i) content-wise, there was little Winter of Discontent’ material on offer; (ii) considered within even the sketchiest critical perameters, it was bonkers enough to demand Winter of Discontent privileges.
So how off-the-wall is it? Well, it’s a comedy road movie that provides a treatise on age, death and morality. The only x-meets-y comparison scenario it invites relies on movies it predates (it’s basically ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ meets ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ with the heart and soul of ‘The Straight Story’ only with a fuckton more horsepower). Its intellectual antecedents are Steinbeck and Kurosawa. Its cast includes one of yesteryear’s greatest square-jawed tough guys, one the 70's smartest and sultriest sirens on the cusp of stardom, and the future Freddie Kruger playing a man of God. Not to mention Peckinpah regular Dub Taylor playing a corrupt cop named Harley Davidson (“like the motorsickle”).
It is, by turns, emotionally devastating and cringingly amateurish, perfectly pitched and appallingly misjudged, finely nuanced and thuddingly heavy-handed. It’s a mass of aesthetic contradictions, a total mishmash, and there’s no way on God’s green but highway-riddled earth that it has any right to hang together, let alone lay claim to the status of a one-off little gem, but by some miracle of the truck stop, whorehouse or two-lane blacktop it coheres into a piece of work that doesn’t so much equal the sum of its parts as tear up the delivery note and throw the pieces out of the window and breathe a sigh of relief that you’ll never know how close it came to being an abject disaster.
Saturday, December 16, 2017
Michael Pressman’s debut film is one of the most good-natured and endearing exploitation flicks I’ve ever seen. Except for the frequent nudity and the fact that it proceeds from the argument that robbing banks is generally a good idea, it’s as wholesome a slice of 70s drive-in fare as I’ve come across. Seriously: there’s no real violence, there’s no rape, the female protagonists are never significantly in peril, nothing graphic or visceral happens, and there isn’t a bleak/cynical denouement.
I tells ya, folks, I had to double-check the movie’s credentials just to make sure it belonged in the Winter of Discontent stable. Fortunately, it ticked three crucial boxes – cops ‘n’ robbers, C&W on the soundtrack, Claudia Jennings in a lead role – and the Agitation of the Mind arbiter of bad taste (i.e. me) was satisfied that it is quite definitely a hick shitkicker movie.
So here we are.
‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ begins not so much in media res as absent its first act. Candy Morgan (Jennings) has broken out of jail, rendezvous’d with her sister Pam (Tara Strohmeier) and, as the opening credits play out, some scheme they’ve concocted to raise funds to prevent the foreclosure of their father’s farm comes to nothing and Candy, advising Pam to make her own way home, pulls off a risky heist at a local bank using only two sticks of dynamite, one with a nerve-rackingly short fuse.
Let’s pause here for a couple of observations. One: I love the name Candy Morgan, it’s like a nymphet/pirate combo. In an alternative universe, there’d be a late-night pay-per-view spin off with a title like ‘The Wicked Life and Fast Times of Candy Morgan’. Two: Strohmeier gets a pretty high billing in the credits and it strikes me that an early draft of the script might have had Candy and her accomplice as sisters until somebody realised that’d put the kibosh on the free-spirited love scenes with their eventual hostage-turned-willing-accomplice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Just prior to Candy’s intercession at the bank (‘The Heists and Times of Candy Morgan’: that’d be a good alternative title for the sadly-non-existent spin-off), the film shifts perspective to introduce our other anti-heroine, Ellie-Jo Turner (Jocelyn Jones) and holy moley, where the hell has Jocelyn Jones been all my movie-going life? (The answer, courtesy of a rather anti-climatic couple of minutes on IMDb, is: not in much else, actually. Although ‘Tourist Trap’ – also starring Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts – might be finding its way onto the Winter of Discontent’s roster pretty soon.) Jones is some kind of awesome, shimmering through the movie with the incandescent allure of every girl next door ever if every girl next also had a hint of every devil women ever bemoaned by every bluesman ever. If you get what I mean. Priest/stained-glass-window/roundhouse-kick, that kind of thing.
I SAID Ellie-Jo Turner is introduced in a vignette where she’s late for work owing to the combined ministrations of some anonymous stud muffin in her bed and a malfunctioning alarm clock. I feel for the girl; I hate it when that happens. She shows up and is promptly chewed out, in the non-cunnilingus sense of the word, by her boss. Her job? Bank teller. At the same bank that Candy’s about to rob? Surely not! Well, actually, yes. And you know what? Dickens threw out bigger coincidences so fuck ‘Dombey and Son’.
But I digress.
Ellie-Jo gets sacked seconds before Candy holds up the joint, and has a high old time flipping off her former boss by assisting Candy in emptying the registers. Candy’s haul safeguards her dad’s farm, her family declare how proud her they are, and before you know it she’s winding her way out of the county via the back roads, the better to evade recapture as an escaped prisoner.
Let’s pause again for a second. We’re about ten minutes into the movie at this point. The plot so far has been “hot chick breaks out of prison and pulls off bank heist to prevent foreclosure on family property”. This, for most writers and directors, would be enough for a film entire. Let’s face it, the first ten minutes of ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ is basically ‘Hell and High Water’ if Chris Pine had an hourglass figure and wore hotpants. One would logically expect everything that follows to build on this fast-paced explosions-and-exposition opener.
What Candy was inside for (‘Candy Morgan: Jail Bird Queen’ – seriously, why didn’t anyone commission a series?) is never stated or even mentioned again. Her family? They depart the production here and similarly pass into the collective amnesia of the creative team. One would assume that the local law enforcement types would equate Candy’s escape from prison, the robbery of a bank close to the old Morgan homestead, and the sudden, unprecedented and in-cash payment of her family’s entire mortgage arrears and arrive at a certain conclusion.
One would then expect the cops to go sniffing around the old Morgan place, and from there commence their pursuit of Candy. Y’know, the movie having “chase” in its title and all.
Granted, the police officers on display in this movie are the kind of intellectually-challenged individuals who, by comparison, give Mr Bean the combined IQ of a think-tank compromised of Hercule Poirot, Inspector Morse and Stephen Hawking. But still!
So, with every bit of business scrupulously established in the opening scenes tossed out of the window – except, of course, the bit involving Ellie-Jo – how then does ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ develop? Well, it has the now unemployed Ellie-Jo blowing off her loser boyfriend, in the non-fellatio sense of the word, and hitching out of town just as Candy makes her departure. And whaddaya reckon happens next? Damn tootin’: bank robber and former bank teller breeze through Texas pulling off robberies and blowing up the odd cop car. Oh, and they dally with a coupla fellas en route. Including some bland dude in a cowboy hat who starts off as their hostage before throwing himself enthusiastically into their lifestyle having given a whole three and a half seconds to thinking it over.
And that – after the backstory-packed first ten minutes – is pretty much the entirety of the subsequent eighty. ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’, a movie in which there’s one car chase of any significance and one foot chase (occupying a combined two and a half minutes of screen time), follows the ‘Big Bad Mama’ and ‘Truck Stop Women’ school of structure and narrative, which is to say that it unspools a sequence of loosely connected vignettes – gasp as Candy and Ellie-Jo get tooled up! guffaw as they humiliate a nitwit deputy! drool as they behave licentiously in an upmarket hotel – and doesn’t pause for long enough to bother about coherence.
Pressman makes a few weird flirtations with a more serious approach, particularly in the last twenty minutes or so. The media play up the pair as killers when they aren’t; a secondary character is dispatched in blunt fashion (the film’s only fatality); and the finale seems for a moment to point towards a Bonnie and Clyde style last stand. But then he doesn’t so much pull back from these decisions as run in the opposite direction as far and fast as he can. Which isn’t to say that this wasn’t a good move – ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ doesn’t have a serious bone in its body, and you arrive at the final act wanting a big dumb audience-pleasing send off – but it’s curious that the film makes so many hints at such tonally different possibilities yet ultimately does nothing with them.
Still, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ offers so much to enjoy that this quibble hardly matters. Jennings sashays through what, next to Desiree in ‘Gator Bait’, is her signature role. Jones walks away with at least a dozen scenes, coquettishly glancing back over her shoulder to dare you to do something about it. The lowbrow comedy is balanced effectively with the actionful stuff. Production design and cinematography emphasise an evocative sense of place. The pace is commendable. I’ve noted in many a Winter of Discontent review that the cardinal sin of an exploitation movie is to be boring. ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ is never boring. It’s too full of hot chicks and hijinks to even know what the word “boring” means. It’s the kind of thing that gives exploitation cinema a good name.
Monday, December 11, 2017
Writing about Steve Carver’s ‘Big Bad Mama’ for last year’s Winter of Discontent, I opened my review with this homily:
“Let us consider the hick shitkicker film as an exemplar of anti-narrative. Or at least semi-narrative. Or, perhaps more accurately, narrative as something that the script writer was vaguely aware of but without actually harnessing the concept …”
If the enquiring academic were of a mind to seek out a control subject against which to benchmark the above catch-all, they could do a lot worse than Mark L Lester’s ‘Truck Stop Women’. It is most definitely a hick shitkicker film. How so? Let us count the ways. It has the words “truck stop” and “women” in its title – hell, the words “truck stop” and “women” are the motherlovin’ whole of its title. Its soundtrack is entirely country & western. And it stars Claudia Jennings, whose appearances in ‘Gator Bait’, ‘The Great Texas Dynamite Chase’ and ‘Moonshine County Express’ pretty much made her the poster girl for the hick shitkicker film in the same way that Edwige Fenech became the poster girl for the giallo, Shannon Whirry for late-night pay-per-view and Greta Gerwig for self-conscious indie noodlings.
So, having established its credentials, let’s move right on to the matter of ‘Truck Stop Women’ and its embrace (or otherwise) of narrative tropes. What did I say about the academic approach? I’m laying down words like “tropes”, motherhumpers.
‘Truck Stop Women’ starts in media res with a gentleman being gunned down while taking a bath. He’s taking a bath with a buxom and significantly younger women, and a swifter “hoooey, this is my lucky day” to “oh shit, my luck is fucked” transition it’s difficult to imagine. The young lady gets an equally bad deal since the two gunmen demonstrate a marked disinclination to leaving witnesses.
This twosome – Smith (John Martino) and Rusty (Speed Stearns) – are then seen reporting to Mr Big (Nicky Blair) who castigates them for a messy job and for leaving their target comatose rather than deceased. The way this was edited makes it seem like an ambulance was summoned for their victim (by whom, since his consort is also plugged, is left unhinted at), hospitalisation occurred, his vital signs were stabilised, and his bang-up-to-date medical notes purloined and delivered to Mr Big in the exact same time it took for Smith and Rusty to drive to Mr Big’s crib.
So, yeah, Mr Big tears Smith and Rusty a new one for being total fuck-ups and then inexplicably gives them control of a whole new territory, presumably in New Mexico since that’s where the movie was shot. His last words before they strut their way out of his office is to warn them that some chick named Anna who owns a truck stop already has dibs on said territory.
Narrative wise, we’re definitely in the arena of the crime/thriller genre and the production is certainly wearing its exploitation heart on its sleeve. But we’re still only three minutes in and the next scene – which segues into the opening credits sequence – offers up a different perspective. Here we have two curvaceous young ladies in hot pants – Rose (Jennings) and Tina (Jennifer Burton) lookin’ all helpless by the side of the highway, the hood of their station wagon popped and no idea as to the automotive diagnosis. An obliging (and self-evidently lecherous) trucker offers to take a look. For his pains, he gets a monkey wrench applied to the back of the neck and his HGV stolen. Rose and Tina pick up a hitchhiker in the purloined vehicle and Tina entertains him in the sleeper cab, after which he’s unceremoniously kicked out and they complete the journey to their destination.
We’re still only about six minutes in at this point, and for the sake of not developing RSI on the review of a Mark L Lester film, I’ll throw this here plot synopsis into overdrive.
Said destination is the truck stop owned by Anna (Lieux Dressler), a blowsy crime matron who is both the ruthless competition Mr Big warned Smith and Rusty about, and Rose’s mother. That ‘Truck Stop Women’ swiftly develops into a story about a turf war – Anna and her hick crew vs slick besuited Syndicate types – is obvious from the outset, but the narrative peregrinations by which it gets there are frankly bonkers.
Initially, it comes on as broad comedy and salacious thrilleramics, as if ‘Convoy’, ‘The Cannonball Run’ and that episode of ‘The Sweeney’ about lorry hijackers had got dumped into a blender with the edited highlights of ‘The Benny Hill Show’ and a Christina Lindberg skin flick. Lester – co-scripting as well as calling “action” – throws an immediate narrative curveball by having the disaffected Rose throw in her lot with Smith (a curious name for a character who is written and played as Italian-American) before establishing all manner of character dynamics within Anna’s hick shitkicker crew, suggesting epic quantities of backstory, but never developing any of it.
The middle section morphs into a weird-ass kind of Greek drama (if, that is, the classics of Euripides and Sophocles had been written with a soundtrack in mind that included ‘Hello, I’m A Truck’* and ‘The Bullshifters’) that basically deals with the battle for Rose’s soul. Anna, every inch the bad-ass matriarch willing to take on the big boys and show them who’s boss, nevertheless can’t entertain that Rose might just be a scheming and self-interested harridan and tries at every twist and turn to get her back. This back and forth achieves its most jaw-dropping moment when Anna and one of her crew drive out to a rival truck stop; Anna discovers Rose playing pool while wearing a bikini, slugs her, and carries her unconscious form back out to the forecourt, slings her in the back of a truck then goes tearing off hellbent for leather, pursued by Smith’s goons.
Granted, when my Dad was running a haulage business in the 70s, the cultural touchstones in the UK were very different from the States – lorry parks (i.e. an acre or so of hardstanding where drivers could park up for the night) were our equivalent of truck stops and they were devoid of amenities – but I’m having a hard time imagining that nubile women in bikinis hung around truck stops playing pool. Playing something else for cold hard cash in sleeper cabs, maybe. But even then dressed in something than would allow for the secretion of a money belt.
Ahem. Anyway. Back to the review. It hardly needs pointing out that Anna’s inability to cut Rose loose is her Achilles’ heel. Just as Hamlet’s procrastination is his. And here we segue from Greek to Shakespearean tragedy, though the touchstone, come the rushed and tonally discordant final act, is more Lear than Hamlet. But that, evidently, is how Lester wants to play it. And what has, for more than an hour of its 88 minute running time, been an entertainingly stupid if needlessly over-plotted slab of drive-in fodder, suddenly and obstreperously lurches off in pursuit of a poignant and emotionally shattering finale. That it doesn’t earn said denouement is like saying that ‘Smokey and the Bandit’, with five minutes of running time left, passionately and whole-heartedly decides it wants to be ‘Andrei Rublev’ then gets all upset that it’s not being hailed as an art-house classic.
*The film is so enamoured of this particular ditty that it basically stops, somewhere around the midway point, and becomes a de facto music video.
Thursday, December 07, 2017
Bert I. Gordon has an eclectic filmography: his first film as director, in 1955, was ‘King Dinosaur’; his most recent, ‘Secrets of a Psychopath’, made two years ago, was billed as “ ‘Psycho’ meets the Craigslist killer”. Inbetween, he’s chalked up such trash classics as ‘How to Succeed with Sex’, ‘The Empire of the Ants’ and ‘Satan’s Princess’. Not to mention the scuzzy 1973 opus under consideration today: ‘The Mad Bomber’, a.k.a. ‘The Police Connection’.
The film opens in ‘Dirty Harry’ fashion with a driven cop who disregards the rule book tracking down a psychopath who’s terrorising the city. Let’s meet our antagonists. The obsessive cop is the marvellously named Lieutenant Geronimo Minelli (Vince Edwards); we learn nothing about him other than that he has a failed marriage in his past and that he hates sex offenders with an almost messianic intensity. The psychopath is William Dorn (Chuck Connors), an ostensibly buttoned down wage slave who flips after his daughter dies of a heroin overdose and sets out to settle the score with everyone – be they individual or institution – with whom he has a perceived grudge. Unlike Andy Robinson’s Scorpio killer in ‘Dirty Harry’, taking out his targets with a sniper rifle, Dorn plants bombs.
“I’m the nothing face that plants the bomb and strolls away” goes a Meticalla lyric, and ’Tallica could have had Dorn in mind when they wrote that. Connors – remembered primarily for his small screen work, particularly in the western genre (‘Tales of Wells Fargo’, ‘The Rifleman’) – turns in a performance that’s taut, understated and genuinely unsettling. The character, as written, could easily be a twenty-years-early sketch for Michael Douglas’s D-Fens in ‘Falling Down’: they share the same bland office attire; D-Fens has a briefcase, Dorn a brown paper bag; both rail at the devolution of standards and civility in modern life; and neither hold back in challenging the people they see as being responsible for it. Dorn’s stern lecturing of a rude waitress in a coffee shop exists in the same thematic space as D-Fens’s disapprobation with the poor service and product at the fast food outlet.
Connors’s tight-as-a-watch-spring performance is matched by Edwards’s: everything we learn about Minelli as a man and a cop comes from watching him do his job, whether it’s his world-weary interaction with a suspect’s wife, his altercations with superiors, his curtly delivered instructions to colleagues and subordinates or his heavy-handed treatment of lowlifes.
And speaking of lowlifes …
Dorn’s second bombing, of a hospital – the first was a school – gives Minelli his first clue. Transpires Dorn wasn’t the only individual at the hospital who shouldn’t have been there. While Dorn was exiting after planting explosives, the utterly charmless George Fromley (Neville Brand) was hiding in a storeroom prior to raping a mental patient. The only witness to Dorn’s presence at the hospital, Fromley isn’t about to come forward and give the cops his unfettered assistance.
At this point, ‘The Mad Bomber’ goes haring off into its middle third with a new antagonist, a new focus for the investigation (nail the rapist; get him to spill on the bomber), and a tonal shift from the procedural narrative of the first act to the kind of scuzzy thrilleramics that wouldn’t be out of place in ‘The New York Ripper’ or any of the ‘Death Wish’ sequels. Fromley, almost entirely offscreen during the hospital attack – the scene focuses entirely on his victim – is introduced properly as he kidnaps and assaults a young woman. Quite apart from prefiguring the ‘Eden Lake’ poster by three decades …
… this sequence proves to be one of the sleaziest victim-attempts-to-run-from-aggressor scenarios committed to celluloid. It has nothing to do with the main plot and as a means of establishing Fromley as a rapist sack of shit, it would have done so just as effectively if Gordon had shouted “cut” five minutes earlier. It’s needlessly protracted and swerves what had, up to this point, functioned as a mainstream thriller so far into exploitation territory that it never fully rights itself.
Almost immediately afterwards, we get Minelli – a fervent hater of sex crime offenders, don’t forget – outlining his plan to catch Fromley in the bluntest of terms: “I want the streets flooded with every policewoman looking like they’re begging to get raped”.
Ladies and gentleman, ‘The Mad Bomber’.
There follows a montage, scored to what I can only describe as wakka-wakka porn music, of various female members of the police department giving it their best street bait sashay in the city’s least salubrious areas …
… until some lowlife douchebag makes a move on them, whereupon uniformed cops leap from doorways or behind bushes and make the arrest. Minelli eschews the wrestle-the-scumbag-to-the-ground-and-cuff-him approach beloved of his comrades for the more expedient method of punching the arrestee in the face a couple of dozen times. Dubbing in the Benny Hill music is perhaps the only aesthetic decision that would make this section of the film any more jaw-droppingly offensive than it already is.
Then, just as suddenly again, the film shifts into cat-and-mouse territory as Fromley, finally arrested, pits himself against Minelli, determined not to let the cop break him. What redeems ‘The Mad Bomber’ is its quality performances, and Brand – already an Agitation of the Mind veteran for his appearances in ‘The Ninth Configuration’ and ‘Killdozer’ – brings his A-game in his scenes with Edwards. I’ll go as far as to say that if Sidney Lumet had made ‘The Offence’ with Vince Edwards and Neville Brand instead of Sean Connery and Ian Bannen it would still have been every inch the powerhouse.
Of course, ‘The Offence’ was written by acclaimed playwright John Hopkins while ‘The Mad Bomber’ was written by Gordon himself from a story by Marc Behm (‘Trunk to Cairo’, ‘The Blonde from Peking’) and that more than anything is the difference here. ‘The Mad Bomber’ has strong performances, decent cinematography, good location work and some memorable scenes – the incongruity of the bright yellow motorcycle and sidecar that Dorn steals, Fromley’s man cave decorated with nude b&w photos of his otherwise dowdy wife, Dorn hallucinating a pedestrian as his deceased daughter – but its script is often terrible.
Still, it’s pacy and entertaining and even in its stupider moments – the flashing lights and ludicruous “bloop” noises on the computer that profiles Dorn; the multiple cuts to a flashing white screen when the script calls for something to be blown up that the budget can’t stretch to – it’s never less than watchable. The makers of ‘Falling Down’ sure as hell gave it a fair few viewings.
Sunday, December 03, 2017
Andy Sidaris was pretty much the leading light of this … well, “movement” is too grand a word, so let’s settle for “tendency”. Sidaris was the T&A auteur behind the likes of ‘Malibu Express’, ‘Hard Ticket to Hawaii’ and ‘Savage Beach’, opuses which traded on fast-moving narratives, gunplay, fisticuffs, pneumatic women and glamorous locations, and which still command a cohort of loyal fans despite the fact that they’re basically crap.
But it wasn’t just Sidaris who was happy to kid himself that he was shooting 007-style epics when it was perfectly obvious that the producers simply wanted oodles of nudity from Sibyl Danning or some Playboy pet in her first acting role, and the rest of it was just so much padding to get the running time past the 90 minute mark. Even Jag Mahendra and Fred Olen Ray were churning out wank-fodder as if the style-over-content ratio would guarantee their product a worthier fate than the grindhouse or the top shelf at the video store. And let’s not forget that half-decade or so when Zalman King honest-to-God had a big-screen career. Sidaris, Mahendra, Ray, King: to this roster add Jim Wynorski, Gregory Hippolyte, Charles Band, Albert Pyun, a dozen or so others.
And let us not forget Charles Philip Moore, either.
Who? I hear you ask.
Charles Philip Moore, I repeat. Charles Philip Moore who, between 1990 and 1994 notched up no fewer than four movies as director. Four, I tells ya.
He made his debut with the inauspicious monster movie ‘Demon Wind’ before finding his niche, two years later, with the sleaze/murder/topless-gyrations epic ‘Dance with Death’. In fact, 1992 was his annus mirabilis as he also made ‘Blackbelt’, in which chop-socky expert Don Wilson protects provocative singer Deidre Imershein from a nutjob stalker. In many respects, ‘Blackbelt’ is the quintessential Charles Philip Moore film. Well, in one respect actually: he liked it so much he remade it, two years later in his final outing as director.
This being The Agitation of the Mind, where your humble chronicler of all things dodgy is nothing if not idiosyncratic (or, as his father has oft been known to call him, “an awkward bogger”), it won’t be the heights of ‘Blackbelt’ that we consider today, but the somewhat different pleasures of ‘Angel of Destruction’, a title that makes little sense and was probably something of a compromise given that ‘Angel of Vengeance’ was already taken.
The film opens with ex-special forces type Robert Kell (played with plank-like intensity by Jimmy Broome) taking a hooker to a hotel room; excusing himself that he’s left something in car, he wanders down the hall, invades another room and, unarmed, takes down half a dozen types in suits. He’s aided in his agenda by the fact that at least half of these individuals sit around in easy chairs while he’s happily putting a massive beatdown on their compatriots and only react – and then not very effectively – when it’s their turn to feel the hurt. And what is our bug-eyed hunk of timber’s agenda? Just before he punches the last of his victims through a window – the room is several stories up – he delivers this deathless piece of dialogue: “You left me and my men to die in Angola. I didn’t like that.”
But before we can get into any ‘Punisher’-style narrative of a damaged military man bringing his own personal war back home, Kell wanders back to his room and starts acting all creepy around the hooker. Then we cut to a scene involving another hooker, this one being rescued from a potential gang rape by hard-ass private eye Brit Alwood (Charlie Spradling). Brit takes down the rapists-in-waiting with the same ruthless efficiency that Kell demonstrated against his antagonists, and for a moment ‘Angel of Destruction’ finds itself in a dramatic stasis that whereby two paths seem possible: Kell and Brit as antagonists or Kell and Brit in an uneasy alliance. Either would have been fine by me, as I was happily recalling Spradling’s turn in the Sherilyn Fenn starrer ‘Meridian’ and looking forward to 85 minutes of her in a lead role.
Charles Philip Moore has other plans, however, and this is how things pan out: Kell is revealed in short order – so short that it doesn’t even count as a spoiler to reveal it in this review – as having an unhealthy obsession with raunchy soft-rock singer Delilah (Jessica Mark in her only film role). That’s unhealthy as in breaking into her dressing room and leaving a severed finger as a token of his affection, by the way. Brit is hired as bodyguard by Delilah and her backing singer/dancer/sometime lover Renee (Chanda, whose enigmatic mononym vouchsafed her a film career that included ‘Emmanuelle, Queen of the Galaxy’, ‘Erotic Boundaries’ and ‘Men Cry Bullets’). But no sooner has Brit taken the gig than Kell shows up at her office and (only mild SPOILER) offs her (minor SPOILER ends).
Enter Brit’s younger sister, undercover cop Jo (Maria Ford), and her rumpled ’tec partner (and occasional lover) Aaron (Antonio Bacci). Jo takes up where Brit left off and finds herself plunged into Delilah’s dysfunctional world. Delilah performs a Lita Ford-style brand of soft rock pepped up with the kind of stage show you normally get at the kind of place that boasts a bouncer on the door who used to work for the Krays, a three-drink minimum, and a stage with a pole. Her last two albums bombed and she’s putting up with the demanding ministrations of manager Danny (James Paolelli) – whom she intends to “drop like a greased pig” as soon as her career revivifies – who is himself in a fractious relationship with Sonny (Bob McFarland), a mobster who has sunk $2 million of his paymasters’ money into Delilah’s career and isn’t impressed with the lack of return on investment.
There’s so much going on in ‘Angel of Destruction’ that it’s probably for the best that the main Delilah/Kell/Jo conflict is so streamlined. Between Kell’s obsession with oriental hookers, Jo and Aaron’s patented investigation technique (smack people around till they spill the beans) and Delilah’s stage persona (seriously, she makes The Pretty Reckless’s Taylor Momsen look like Mary fuckin’ Poppins), there’s a shoot-out, hand-to-hand combat bout, or hot chick popping ’em out every five minutes.
There are a lot of criticisms you can level against ‘Angel of Destruction’ – its lousy performances, the trade-down in protagonist from Spradling to Ford, the over-reliance on bland hotel rooms and anonymous corridors as settings, the fight scenes that seem contractually obliged to shoot the coup-de-grace from at least three different angles and repeat one after the other in fetishistic slo-mo – but you sure as hell can’t accuse it of being dull. Oh, and it has an extended scene of Ford kick-boxing a couple of dozen antagonists into a coma whilst sporting nothing more than a g-string. You’re welcome, folks; happy to take one for the team.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
Cinema, at its best, has thrown itself unstoppably against the immovability of the biggest questions. Some directors spend their entire career focused on one question or thematic concern. For Sam Peckinpah, it was what happens when men of a certain mindset outlive their times while stubbornly refusing to change. For Michael Mann, the terrible cost to be paid when one ceases to be true to oneself.
Other directors step outside their usual aesthetic playbook to create a one-off distillation of something so utterly profound that the effect is unforgettable: take Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’ – not a samurai in sight, but a cumulatively beautiful and emotionally shattering meditation on how, in the face of death, one can undertake a single act that proves one’s life had purpose.
In ‘Knock Knock’, Eli Roth squares up – utilising every creative and cerebral nuance in his directorial paintbox – to that thorniest of existential dilemmas, to whit: Is the destruction of one’s home, the ruination of one’s marriage, the tarring of one’s reputation, the abject humiliation of the self, and the possible loss of one’s life worth it for a threesome with Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas?
By the final frame, I’m not sure that Roth wouldn’t come down on the side of shag-a-thon and the hell with the torture porn that follows. Hell, what’s torture porn but normal porn wth a little more in the way of pain? Roth would probably take a night of debauchery and marching songs with Prussian Blue and happily let them tie him up and carve a swastika into his willy the next morning and pour Wild Turkey over the wound. I can imagine him chugging a celebratory beer and asking them to do it again.
All of which is a 300-word way of saying that Roth’s enthusiasm in directing ‘Knock Knock’ is roughly akin to Oliver Reed being offered the job of Chief Quality Control Officer at Talisker distillery or Keith Richard winning a lifetime’s supply of cocaine and doing every fucking molecule of it in first 48 hours.
Here’s another thing about ‘Knock Knock’: after four films that are basically unofficial remakes (or rather greatest hits packages) of the films Roth grew up loving, this is his first official remake: of Peter S. Traynor’s 1977 sexploitation classic starring Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp. Camp cameos in a splendid comedy-of-embarrassments scene, while she and Locke act as producers. I’ve taken the piss out of Roth routinely in these pages but, with all sincerity, props to the guy for seeking Locke’s and Camp’s blessing in taking on the material.
And while I’m holding my hands up here, I’ll come right out with it: ‘Knock Knock’ is the first film in the Roth canon that I’ve straight up enjoyed. Granted, it’s no classic – one can easily imagine Jag Mahendra turning in a slightly less polished version of it in the mid-1980s with Shannon Whirry and Delia Sheppard – but it sees Roth freeing himself from those late-1990s “future of horror” expectations, working with a genuine A-list star (Keanu Reeves), and gifted with the most dementedly sexy double act imaginable courtesy of Izzo and de Armas. It’s no coincidence that the best scenes are where Roth simply points the camera at his leading ladies and lets them play off each other in the most deliciously nasty way.
A robot could probably have directed this film and got away with it, that’s how memorable Izzo and de Armas are. I can only describe what they achieve onscreen as being as if Rodney Bewes and James Bolam in ‘The Likely Lads’ or Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale in ‘Porridge’ were Lolita-esque jailbait.
Here’s the basic premise, if you haven’t second-guessed it already: Evan (Reeves) is a successful architect, happily married to an artist, Karen (Ignacio Allamand), who is about to get her first big exhibition. Karen takes their kids for a weekend away while Evan finishes work on a major commission. In the time honoured tradition of architects everywhere, he rolls a skinny, works late into the night and blasts out 70s rock. (In fairness, I only know one architect, but let’s just say that his working practices are significantly different to Evan’s.) Halfway through looking at an onscreen graphic – Roth seems unaware of how CAD actually operates – he’s disturbed by a knock at the door and – … wait a fucking minute, he’s a successful architect living in a detached piece of architecture in a suburb that has “white entitlement” written all over it and the cunt doesn’t have a fucking doorbell?
Okay. So. No-doorbell-cunt answers the knock – it’s pissing it down with rain – and finds Genesis (Izzo) and Bel (de Armas) on his doorstep, soaked through and asking for shelter from the rain. Which, being a decent guy, he gives them. And being a decent guy, he books an Uber for them. And being a decent guy he dries off their sodden clothes in his tumble-dryer. And being a decent guy he gives them dressing gowns to wear. And being a decent guy he acts all flustered when their behaviour demonstrates that they are confident in their sexuality.
And, finally, being basically a bloke and incapable of thinking through anything but his dick when half-his-age poontang is on offer, he conveniently compartmentalises his wife and kids and his sense of morality and, for want of a subtler phrase, goes at it like a butcher’s dog.
Waking the next morning to the post-coital equivalent of buyer’s remorse, and none too impressed that Genesis and Bel are making themselves a little too intimately at home, he finds himself having to jump through a number of hoops just to get them out of his house. He then gets busy eradicating every shred of evidence that they were ever there, little knowing that the games have only just begun.
Roth keeps the 100 minutes of ‘Knock Knock’ moving at an admirable clip. He turns up the heat on the erotic elements, only to go all abstract in the way he films the big shagging scene. He monkeys with the home invasion scenario in seeming to have Evan rid himself of the threat. And, when he sets the scene for the final half hour or so, the expected torture porn tropes are abandoned in favour of pure black comedy in which the surreal restaging of a popular gameshow stands in for the blood-letting of the ‘Hostel’ films and a wrongly “liked” Facebook post is the worst possible thing that can happen to you.
Four years ago, on these very pages, I concluded a review of ‘Cabin Fever’ with the assertion that “this and ‘Thanksgiving’, the fake trailer Roth created for ‘Grindhouse’, [are] evidence of something that’s probably not at the top of anyone’s list at industry meetings but which I think would merit exploration: Eli Roth could direct the hell out of a comedy.”
‘Knock Knock’ is his first significant step in that direction, and I’m now prepared to double down on that assertion. Give Roth a scenario that demands straight-faced social horror and he’ll blow it by acting stupid; give him a set-up steeped in gallows humour and mordant satire and the guy delivers. In a decade’s time, when the originality-challenged bigwigs in Hollywood decide that what the world needs is a ‘Scream’ reboot, Roth will ace it. Although whether anything in any future film he directs, comedy or not, will ever top the demented brilliance of Keanu Reeves’s final reel “free pizza” speech is not something I’d put money on.
Saturday, November 25, 2017
This is what it must be like to be Eli Roth:
Hillbilly horror! My favourite genre ever! I’m gonna make a hillbilly horror movie, bitches, and it’s gonna rock!
Makes ‘Cabin Fever’.
Realises he’s trying too hard.
Torture porn! I fucking love torture porn! I’m gonna make the torture porn movie to end all torture porn movies – AND do a sequel!
Makes ‘Hostel’ and ‘Hostel 2’.
Realises he’s trying too hard.
Cannibal movies! OMG, why didn’t I think of that before? Imma be the next Ruggero Deodato!
Makes ‘The Green Inferno’.
Realises he’s trying too hard.
Whether the pattern holds for the erotic thriller and ‘Knock Knock’ is something we’ll find out in the next review. And in the interests of fairness, being Eli Roth probably encompasses a lot of other things, including money, lifestyle, having QT as your best bud, and being married to the not-unglamorous Lorenza Izzo.
Speaking of whom, Izzo is the audience’s surrogate through our 1hour 40 minute ordeal and proves an empathetic heroine even though the script has about as much emotional investment in her character, Justine, as a Tory politician has in the lower and unprivileged classes. We meet Justine at the kind of too-neat-and-clean American university that exists only in the movies. The daughter of a UN official, she’s moved by the activism and general do-goodery of some of the student body, much to the contempt of her room mate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira). In particular, she’s drawn to the swarthy Alejandro (Ariel Levy), a fact noted and frowned upon by his brittle girlfriend Kara (Ignacia Allamand).
The script needs to paint Alejandro as charismatic and impassioned in order to entice Justine into joining his expedition to an under-threat village in the Amazon, only for him to be revealed later as a man of hidden motives and self-interest. This cloak-then-reveal tactic would have required a better script and performance; as it is, we have Alejandro as a moody, self-righteous prick from the outset. Given that Izzo goes all out to sell Justine’s attraction to him, Levy’s non-performance is a drain on hers.
Fortunately, Roth doesn’t waste too much time in getting everyone on a plane and into the jungle. If there’s anything positive to be said about ‘The Green Inferno’, it’s the economy of the storytelling in the first half. Another smart move is to have Justine get the measure of Alejandro pretty quickly, so that she stops being all soppy and doe-eyed and gets her mettle tested in a gruelling tale of survival against the odds. Wait, let me rephrase that: in what Roth achingly believes is a gruelling tale of survival against the odds.
You see, there’s a common faultline in the filmography of Mr Eli Raphael Roth. Like his compatriot Quentin Tarantino, Roth’s films derive from a life-long immersion in genre cinema. Like Tarantino post-‘Jackie Brown’, his films are movie-movies rather than works that make any claim to being grounded in even the remotest facsimile of reality. But while Tarantino conjures non-naturalism into an aesthetic – an auteurist signature – the stories Roth wants to tell would work so much better if the veneer of artifice were stripped away.
Actually, make that two common faultlines. The other one is frat-boy humour. There comes a moment in every Eli Roth film where he makes a directorial decision that functions on roughly the same artistic, intellectual and emotional level of someone photobombing an Allied Press picture of a corpse-littered war zone while chugging a beer and pretending to butt-fuck a giant blow-up sheep.
[SPOILER ALERT: next two paragraphs.]
There are two such moments in ‘The Green Inferno’. One comes almost immediately after Justine and Alejandro, along with Lars (Daryl Sabara) and same-sex couple Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton) and Samantha (Magda Apinowicz), have been captured by a cannibal tribe and imprisoned in a bamboo cage. No sooner have they witnessed their comrade Jonah (Aaron Burns) dismembered and feasted upon, than Amy suffers a gastrointestinal upheaval. Roth captures this – the first moment in the character’s degradation that leads to her self-immolation – with an over-the-top and extended sound effect, then immediately cuts to a reaction shot of the village children grinning and waving their hands under their noses. If his intent were comedy to leaven the horror, it’s misjudged – not only because it cheapens the ordeal but relies on a gesture I doubt cannibal children would know or have any use for even if they did.
The second is the film’s derailment moment. Recognising that the now deceased Amy is next for the cannibal stew pot, Lars forces down her throat a small baggie of pot which he has concealed upon his person. His reasoning? The tribe entire will feast on her and get high, rendering them incapable of preventing an escape attempt. Quite which branch of forensics or human biology convinced Roth and co-scripter Guillermo Amoedo that a small quantity of mary-jane can suffuse every ounce of a dead body’s flesh – dead body, folks: i.e. no functioning pulmonary system – to the extent that every man-jack of an entire tribe are turned into giggling dopers after two fucking bites, I can’t honestly say, but the resulting sequence is so powerfully stupid that it feels, as a viewer, as if you’ve swerved from a Ruggero Deodato fan-wank tribute to ‘Cheech and Chong Meet the Cannibals’, a comparison strengthened when Lars, his getaway foiled, exclaims “They’ve got the munchies” as he finds himself availed of in the light snack department.
[SPOILERS END, though why the fuck I’m not actively discouraging you from this pile of bum-dung I don’t know!]
‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is nasty as all hell, and that’s its power: it gives the audience no leeway, no comfortable only-a-movie rationale. ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ is total bollocks that exists as a delivery system for macho posturing, gore and Suzane Carvalho in the buff – and is honest about its intents from the outset. ‘The Green Inferno’ is a misjudged mash-up of the two – and it’s telling that the “history of the cannibal genre” overview Roth slips into the closing credits fawns over ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ but fails to mention ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ even though he makes more visual steals from that film than any of the other entries in the cannibal cycle. It’s a sad and self-effacing via negativa, akin to declaring your intent to homage ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ but knowing in your bile-embittered heart of hearts that you’re incapable of producing anything better than a hamfisted retread of ‘Ishtar’.
Thursday, November 23, 2017
Like ‘The Car’, however, its script is hackneyed and the acting uniformly bad.
‘Killdozer’ is based on a novella by Theodore Sturgeon, originally published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1944. Thirty years later, it got the TV movie treatment with Sturgeon co-writing the script (with Ed MacKillop) from an adaptation by Herbert F Solow, and Jerry London in the director’s chair. London is a seasoned TV director with, to the best of my knowledge, only one theatrical credit – the sex comedy ‘Goodnight Jackie’, made the same year as ‘Killdozer’ – to his name.
The novella is set on a Pacific island during World War Two, where a construction crew are building an airstrip; they accidentally release an ancient evil from a temple which possesses a D7 bulldozer. Mechanized chaos ensues. Solow’s adaptation – which responds to the dramatic and cinematic potential of a wartime setting and an ancient temple by jettisoning them entirely – relocates the action to the 1970s and has the construction crew working for an oil company. Oh, and the dozer’s now a D9.*
Yep. You read that right. In a prologue that positively glimmers with bad effects work, a meteorite goes spinning towards earth, impacts on a picturesque and uninhabited Pacific island and some time later – years, decades, centuries or millennia, the script doesn’t really clarify things – our hard-workin’, straight-talkin’, whisk(e)y-drinkin’ construction crew come along. The D9 bulldozer thuds its blade into the buried remains of the meteorite and in doing so releases an ancient evil. The ancient evil reacts in time-honoured ancient evil fashion and latches itself onto the thing that released it.
And whaddaya reckon a Caterpillar D9 suddenly possessed by ancient evil is gonna do? Damn straight, boy – it’s gonna bulldoze the fuck out of everything in its path. Now, you can take that sentence as a public service announcement that saves you 73-minutes of your life, or an exhortation to wholeheartedly invest that hour and a quarter of your mortality in the small screen shock-o-rama that is ‘Killdozer’.
And how can you not love a film where our macho sextet battle a big fucking yellow hunk of metal as their numbers dwindle, their tempers fray, their voices get even more growly, the amount of stupid mistakes they make redefines the word ‘exponential’, and the level of the whisk(e)y bottle plummets like a UK prime minister’s approval ratings?
That’s your review, folks – right there.
*Caterpillar only released three models between 1944 and 1977? That’s, like, one redesign per decade.
Saturday, November 18, 2017
If there’s one exploitation sub-genre that’s been consistently under-represented on the Winter of Discontent, it’s carsploitation. ‘Rolling Vengeance’, back in 2011, was the last time any automotive armageddon rolled through these pages. That season also featured ‘Rubber’, but whether a killer tyre movie with art-house pretensions counts as an entry in the carsploitation cycle is a semantic debate that I’m not ready to have with myself.
Not when I can give over the next couple of reviews to all things motor-revving, tyre-squealing and metal-rending, anyway. Starting this very evening with perhaps the most vanilla film ever to find itself invited to the Winter of Discontent backstage party: Elliot Silverstein’s ‘The Car’. This 12-rated DVD ended up in my collection on account of it going for a song in an HMV sale and my recollection of watching it on TV as kid and enjoying it.
Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge since I watched ‘The Car’ on TV as kid. Enough to wash the fucking bridge away. ‘The Car’ is frankly a pile of wank. But, hey, it’s carsploitation and several hundred words taking the piss out of it helps make the numbers up for this year’s Winter of Discontent.
The Agitation of the Mind: work-to-rule since two hours ago.
‘The Car’ starts with a static shot of a mountain range and a long dusty road that quite fancies itself as a bit John Ford. Two minutes’ worth of credits play out over this image, after which Silverstein holds on it for another minute and a half as a plume of dust appears in the background and the growl of an engine in the distance becomes a roar as it approaches. Aha, you think: this is the scene setter where the eponymous automobile comes hurtling towards the screen as if hellbent on ram-raiding the fourth wall. But no. Silverstein cuts before the car even takes on any definition, cuts while it’s still in the middle distance, wreathed in dust.
You could almost believe that Silverstein made the decision to cut in order to disorient the viewer, to monkey with their expectations. But then he plays a similar trick throughout the first half an hour (i.e. a third of the movie) and does his utmost best to depict the car in abstract manner. Maybe the intent was to emulate ‘Jaws’ (made two years earlier) and keep the monster undefined/hinted at for as long as possible before reeling it (pardon the pun) onscreen front and centre for the extended finale. Maybe Silverstein and his creative team – you have no idea how much it pained me to type “creative team” – had their doubts as to how scary the car actually was. (Spoiler: not scary at all.) The story is very simple: there’s a sleepy American town …
The Amos/Bertha thing is particularly galling for Sheriff Everett (John Marley), who’s been kind of sweet on Bertha since high school. As a sub-plot, it’s sunk by the sixteen-year age gap between Marley and Dowling – an age gap exacerbated by Dowling having aged very gracefully and Marley very craggily – and totally redundant since (SPOILER ALERT) Everett is quickly dispatched by the car so that his deputy Wade (James Brolin) can assume hero duties, Brolin being the first billed actor ‘n’ all.
Strip away the padding and the essential narrative is: supernatural car turns up in sleepy town and starts killing folk; lawman tries to stop it. ‘The Car’ would have been improved immeasurably by either (i) a minimum 20 minute reduction in running time, or (ii) more vehicular mayhem courtesy of the car. In fact, for a supernatural force that seemingly exists only to run people over, the car spends a lot of the movie basically pissing about. What it’s doing while Luke is agonising about his drink problem or Wade is kept overnight in hospital after a bruising encounter, who knows. Getting an oil change? Chasing rabbits? Fishing?
In fact, it’s probably the car itself that gives the best turn, even though it had every right to complain to its agent that it just wasn’t getting enough screen time.
Saturday, November 11, 2017
Michele Soavi made his debut in 1987 with ‘Stagefright’ (a.k.a. ‘Deliria’, a.k.a. ‘Aquarius’, a.k.a. ‘Bloody Bird’) which made effective use of its single setting (a ramshackle theatre). He followed this a couple of years later with ‘The Church’ (a.k.a. ‘Demons 3’), which also made impressive use of a single setting. If you’d been looking, in the late Eighties or early Nineties, for someone to helm an Italian language remake of ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, I reckon he’d have done a bang up job.
By 1994, he’d put his stamp on the idiosyncratic black comedy ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ (a.k.a. ‘Cemetery Man’) which uses a single setting – the graveyard – to quite brilliant effect for a good two-thirds of its running time before deconstructing in terms of its narrative, structure and theme (there is a case to be made that this was a quite deliberate decision) once it strays outside of this clearly defined environment and interacts with its larger fictive world in increasingly fragmented and bizarre ways.
In retrospect, ‘The Sect’ seems like a logical aesthetic transition for Soavi. While its most crucial scenes take place in the rambling rural home of protagonist Miriam Kriesl (Kelly Curtis), and in the architecturally improbable basement beneath it, the film opens with a ten-minute prologue set in California in 1970 before relocating to the Frankfurt of 1991. Or rather a version of Frankfurt that’s about as weirdly non-Germanic as Freiburg and its dance academy in Argento’s ‘Suspiria’. Just as California is represented by a nondescript landscape and the least convincing set of hippies you’re ever likely to see.
Moreover, the California-set prologue does nothing narratively except introduce a chapter of the titular sect active in America, thereby setting up a scene much later in the film where two chapters meet and the leader of one as much as says “oh, hi there, we’re your opposite numbers from the States”, when the script could just as easily have had them come in from, say, Berlin or Dusseldorf. Nor does the German setting make any sense (there isn’t a mythology akin to the Three Mothers of ‘Suspiria’ that requires geographical specifics) and everything that happens in the movie could have happened without a single alteration to the script if the setting had been Rome, Milan or Florence.
Nor do the next couple of sequences – a short and nasty murder in a suburban location, and an elaborate set-piece on a subway – add much to the story other than to establish that the members of the sect aren’t fucking around when it comes to disobedience and don’t flinch in their use of violence. They seem to be incorporated for no other reason than to big up the film’s epic scale after two smaller productions (‘The Sect’ had double the budget of ‘Stagefright’).
Once Soavi shunts his heroine onstage, however, and limits himself to her house, the cavernous spaces thereunder, the school she teaches at, and a nearby hospital, things bcome more focused. Even if the script does belabour her portentous meeting with enigmatic old cove Moebius Kelly (Herbert Lom) and take far too long to get to the weird shit that starts happening as a result of their meeting.
Credit where it’s due, though: the weird shit is certainly work the wait, whether it’s the surreal dreams that plague Miriam, full of crucifixion imagery and ‘Wicker Man’-style earth/nature/sex undercurrents, or the needlessly elaborate but memorable way that the sect isolate Miriam by removing from the board those few people who are close to her. The most striking and visceral example is their transformation of Miriam’s mousy colleague Catherine into a vamp trawling for rough trade at a truck stop …
… who bewitches a horny truck driver into murdering her. The scene plays out with all the sleaze, illogic and upended expectations that the description suggests. It’s also worth noting that the above screengrab shows the trailer said trucker is hauling. One can only assume that German HGVs are blessed with suspension and cornering of a spirit level bubble since not one single piece of freight is secured.
But then again, this is a film in which a hospital morgue is found in a leaky sub-basement area and looks like this:
So either Germany is the weirdest place on earth, with its dance academies and weird cults and people who drive VWs (ve must be in Cher-mahn-hee, ja, because Kelly Curtis is drivink ein VW), or it’s a safe bet Dario Argento had a hand the production. (He did: producer and co-scripter.)
But this is mere carping (mixed with a healthy dash of cheap sarcasm); ‘The Sect’ is an Italian horror movie made at the tail-end of that country’s several-decades run of great horror movies that were stylish-to-the-nines and narrative clusterfucks. ‘The Sect’ never achieves the visual gorgeousness of Bava or Argento at his best or even Fulci on a good day. But it has weirdness in spades, it has the chutzpah to cast Curtis (in her only lead role) for no other reason than she’s Jamie Lee Curtis’s sister, it casts Herbert Lom and basically gets him to do a Donald Pleasance impersonation, and it shoots for the moon in terms of an incendiary good vs evil finale that it has neither the budget nor the creative energy to achieve on the scale it good clearly wants to.
Oh, and it predates Lars von Triers’s ‘Breaking the Waves’ by five years as an example of a film that tries to con you in its closing moments that it’s deep concerned with a redemptive quasi-theological ending when it fact it was getting its jollies over the nasty stuff all along. With the crucial difference that ‘The Sect’ is a lot more fun to watch than ‘Breaking the Waves’.