Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Evilspeak (1981)

One word: Synergy.

Evilspeak boasts not the yawn inducing synergy of starting a pizza joint next to a dive bar in your local cracked-out strip mall, but the infinitely more awesome (though slightly less plausible) combination of the Apple II and Satan. Each were powerful tools circa 1981, but it clearly took a genius intellect to discover how much more they could do when combined. Just imagine what Satan could do for spreadsheet efficiency; reach six hundred and sixty six rows and columns, and the client's face literally melts.

In the film, it takes the brilliant mind and immense forehead of a young Clint Howard to combine Satan's peanut butter with the chocolate of 1mghz processing power and monochrome screens. (Of course, as we learned from Jumping Jack Flash, Apple II screens can easily do full color when imbued with the power of Johnathan Pryce.) Playing the unfortunately named Stanley Coopersmith, Clint is a hapless orphan with a charity scholarship to a prestigious military academy. He's crap at sports, has 24/7 pit stains, and is a constant target for Bubba, the school's resident bully and future bumbling neighbor on 'That '70s Show.' (For more disturbingly young Don Stark action, check out Switchblade Sisters.) His already miserable existence gets significantly worse when he's put on punishment detail and forced to clean out the dilapidated chapel basement with a surly, gin-soaked caretaker.It is while digging around in this ancient detritus that Coopersmith discovers the mystical spellbook and diary of arch-satanist Bull from 'Night Court.' Fascinated but lacking fluency in Latin, he squirrels it away to translate later. In a stroke of luck, the computer lab has some handy-dandy Latin to English software. A hobby born of curiosity at first, it becomes a dangerous obsession as the translated text ultimately turns the computer into a digital Necronomicon. Somehow the text coalesces into Satanic software (I knew there was something fishy about BASIC) and begins demanding various sacrificial items: unholy water, consecrated host (that's Jesus Crackers™ for those of you born secular), and blood. The water is found in a conveniently labeled jar on a nearby shelf, some host is procured from the chapel above, but blood will require more than a simple fetch quest to obtain. This leaves the newly possessed Apple with nothing to do but loop the film's tagline over and over: "Data Incomplete - Blood Required."The rest of the film is essentially one long justification of Clint Howard's inevitable conjuring of dark forces. Aside from a subplot revolving around the headmaster's inexplicably hot secretary and her repeated attempts to steal the jeweled pentagram off of the Satanic tome, every scene exists only to show either that everyone is mean to Clint Howard or that he clearly has nothing to lose by invoking the dark powers of Bull from 'Night Court.' After finding a stray puppy, he starts hiding it in his lair under the chapel, unable to bring himself to sacrifice it to his new hobby. When Bubba eventually breaks in with a throng of drunken bullies, they get caught a peer pressure feedback loop that results in him stabbing the puppy and draining its blood.The malevolent software is not impressed with the bully's drink sodden sacrifice, but instead of a runtime error or kernel protection fault, it simply clarifies the recipe:Finally confident that it has made its point, the movie at last gets down to business; the business of Clint Howard massacring his tormentors. He acquires human blood by hurling the headmaster, who was in the process of discovering his devilish deeds, onto a spiked chandelier of evil. (Quite an athletic feat for a nerd such as Stanley Coopersmith.) With the ritual complete and a dead puppy to avenge, Bull from 'Night Court' imbues Stanley with the demonic power to smite his enemies (who conveniently happen to represent the religious order that long ago foiled Bull's plans).At this point, the movie gets sort of awesome. Stanley emerges from his lair under the chapel with a giant sword, crazy hair, and the ability to levitate, wild boars run amok, and the nails fly out of the hands of a giant stone crucifix, firmly embedding themselves in the priest's skull. It's all very violent and sacrilegious, but the best part is how Clint Howard's demon sword doesn't chop or slice things so much as magically convert them into rubber sacks of meat that explode all over the place.
Despite it's winning premise, Evilspeak (or should that be EvilSpeak... or Evil's Peak... or EvilSpeak & Spell) sulked in obscurity for many years. Due to the film being branded a 'Video Nasty' in the UK, it fell prey to that country's censorious witch hunt of the early '80s. After the moral panic caused by Abel Ferarra's Driller Killer and the exploding home video market, the Brits were jonesing to protect their children, and the best way to do that seemed to be by banning the hell out of a bunch of violent (and usually terrible) VHS tapes.
The film was completely banned in England, and then only released with severe edits to all the good bits. Many of these cuts were made to other countries' releases as well, and despite the 'uncut' version eventually released in 1999, there are supposedly still some boobs and blood missing from the secretary's shower scene and subsequent death by wild boar. On top of that, several gore shots have clearly been recovered from sub-par sources. The professor's improbable death by hanging spike in particular contained a shot that looked to be taken from a VHS bootleg then chopped to fit the original aspect ratio.
While censorship is nothing new for the world of cinema (nor is it going anywhere in the near future) it seems more than a little bizarre from a 21st century perspective that anyone anywhere would get their judgmental panties in a bunch over a movie in which Clint Howard uses an Apple II to summon a demonic Bull from 'Night Court' in order to get revenge on Don Stark. The fact that people took the movie serious enough to ban it just boggles the mind.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Chaos Experiment (2009)

Video Updates would like to welcome filmmaker extrodinare and newest contributor, Greyduck.

Whereas terminal disease guy in the Saw movies traps his victims in elaborate torture devices to make them value their lives, James Pettis (Val Kilmer) traps his victims his victims in a sauna to make them feel like what global warming might be like someday.

His 6 victims (who include Eric Roberts and Patrick Muldoon) introduce themselves in one of the most pretentious, of many pretentious sequences, showing them through a dense yellow filter, in split screens that dissolve over more shots, that dissolve over even more shots. Needless to say, this overwhelming presentation doesn’t really leave us caring much about the characters or their fate. There’s angry Brooklyn guy, slightly older sagely guy, other guy, shy girl, seemingly normal girl, and skanky girl who walks around with her top off, while “Bolero” by Ravel booms on the soundtrack. Yes, we get it. It’s very warm in there.

We find out they’re all in the sauna as some part of dating service, although none of them seem particularly interested in making a good first impression.


Pettis goes to some talk to a guy with the press and a police detective about his little scheme with the people in the sauna, who will eventually be slowly steam baked to death and he explains he will only let them go if the paper publishes his findings on global warming, which of course will be unbearable in 2012. So Val is playing so sort of evil, insane Al Gore.

The folks in the sauna bicker. Val as Pettis continues to ramble, and the movie randomly cuts to shots of him alone on a spinning carousel, starring off blankly. I think this is supposed to re-iterate the fact that he’s crazy with a capitol C.
Here’s where I take an extended phone call from a friend I haven’t heard from a while. I come back to find that not much has changed, and Val has gone from crazy to insane, or insanely constipated, judging by the way he’s biting his lip and twitching.

I’ve got to say, Val in this movie is just terrible, mostly due to the poor writing and directing, which is unfortunate, since he’s great in “The Doors”, a favorite film of my teen years, And I’m sure he’ll be good in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans (although, movie titles should never have semicolons in them... ever) Steam Experiment was certainly directed by no Werner Herzog, but by Philepp Martinez, who’s previous works include a Jean-Claude Van Damne movie, which is always a bad sign.

I digress. Anyway -SPOILERS ahead. Very lame ones.

Nails shoot through the door to the sauna, the people in the sauna get freaked out, and become more angry (hot under the collar, if they were wearing collars), and as Pettis’ theorized, begin to fight amongst each other. Shy girl slits her own throat, other die due to barely motivated quarrels, somebody gets a nail gun to the head. It's a whole-lotta chaos going on.

As Pettis continues to look more constipated and ramble on, the detective decides he’s just totally bananas and the “Steam Experiment” is just something he made up in his head to get attention and the people in it don’t actually exist. Exit detective.

The twist isn’t that they are all in his head, (for that movie, see Identity AKA “The 3”) the twist, I guess, is that Pettis’s mental ward doctor guy is also sorta crazy and is in on the experiment. He’s the the one who shot the nails through the door with a nail gun. Seemingly-normal-girl survives the experiment and we find out that she is the psychologist’s wife. Why did she participate? We’re not entirely sure. Why did his doctor help set up the experiment? We don't know. Pettis goes back to the the mental institution and lies around looking beardy. Is he crazy? Cut to him spinning around on a carousel again by himself... OK, yep = crazy, in case we forgot.

Roll credits.
I'm not really sure what the film was trying to say. Probably check the history of any dating service you sign up for, and don’t let them convince you to start your date with a bunch of strangers in a creepy sauna.

More Killer Crude: "Oceansize"

Just in time for Copenhagen, another Killer Mutant Petroleum Monster has reared its hydrocarbon head. It's big, gooey, pissed off, and can be found in this outstanding CG short:

Great atmosphere and visuals aside, what the heck is going on? Is the oil monster defending itself from the rig? Does it not want to be pumped out of the ocean and converted to Hummer fuel? Why is the platform being operated by a hippy with incredibly long dreadlocks? Yes, the dirty and dreadlocked can frequently be found near oil rigs, but it is usually in the context of being led away in handcuffs.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cult Film Shirts: Video Updates Approved

Truly there is no better way to let your geek flag fly than with a nerdy T-shirt. Sure you could get a semi-functional VU meter shirt from Think Geek or wear anything seen on the chest of the Irish guy from "The IT Crowd," but wouldn't you rather dress like a rabid consumer of obscure trash cinema?

Yes now you too can dress just like the proprietor of this website... or at least dress like he would if he wasn't a cheap bastard that just spent all his money on Demon's Souls and a capped-rail picket fence for the Video Updates Small Dog Squad.

A venerable distributor of VHS tapes during the format's '80s heyday, the Vestron Video logo and/or corporate influence can be found on many of the films discussed here at Video Updates,
including Slaughter High, Class of 1999, and Chopping Mall (under their "Lightning Video" subsidiary), as well as a whole host of genre favorites. Re-Animator, An American Werewolf in London, and Ghoulies just to name a few of the literally hundreds of movies they distributed. (They are also sadly responsible for the creation of Dirty Dancing and Earth Girls Are Easy.)

Another relic of the golden age of analog video tapes, Cannon Films is the company to praise/blame for things like Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo (seriously), Delta Force, and Death Wish parts 2 through 4. Amongst the action films and generic '80s filler, they also produced or distributed a host of horror and sci-fi films, including Tobi Hooper's underrated Lifeforce (which coincidentally was distributed by Vestron in some markets). None of their videos have currently been "Updated," but reviews on The Apple, Invasion USA, and possibly Ninja 3: The Domination are on the calender.

Plus, how many defunct production companies have fansites?

What the shit? This glorious affront to eyeballs everywhere is the latest gear from the venerated art-house distributor The Criterion Collection. It seems their theatrical arm, Janus Films, has gotten its mitts on the obscure Japanese slice of crazy known as Hausu (House) and has been showing it theatrically. (Fingers crossed for a DVD in the near future.) I caught it at the Oak Street a few weeks ago and was surprised at how little of the story I missed while watching my shitty, subtitle free bootleg.

Following a group of Japanese schoolgirls all named after their dominant personality trait and their misadventures in a kitty-cat controlled haunted house, it's an intensely strange, sumptuously photographed, and irrepressibly goofy little horror film that will leave you scratching your head and grinning like an idiot. It makes The Happiness of the Katakuris look like Picnic at Hanging Rock. Full review early next week.

Note: Any of these shirts would make an excellent X-mas gift for that special nerdy someone in your life. Hint hint, readers who I share DNA or alma maters with. (Probably most of you.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Star Wars "Uncut"

Slowly but surely the internet is inching towards some kind of singularity in which literally any bizarre, bat-shit insane idea you can come up with is not just a reality, but is already old news. I'm not just talking about crazy porn either. Case in point, someone not only came up with the head scratching idea to crowdsource an amateur shot-for-shot remake of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope: Attack of the Colons that changes cast, director, camera, style, and quality every 15 seconds, but he's already got his mad dream well under way. The movie has been chopped up into 472 chunks that anyone (this means you) can sign up to recreate. There are only 46 segments left, and it has proved so popular that they're allowing multiple entries per clip. (Sorry, people who made theirs unwatchably terrible.)

All you need are some goofy props, video equipment, and some random hobos to fill in for Stormtroopers. Here's a couple clips that your's truly helped out with:

In case you haven't guessed, that's me overdoing my underacting as old Ben Kenobi, and also me playing Chewbacca underneath a Cowardly Lion mane and Dr. Zaius mask. (I totally made the sounds myself, honest.)

Chewbacca is a deep thinker.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Alert! Imminent LA Screening of The Telephone Book

Holy Crap! It looks like I was the last to find out, but there is a screening of The Telephone Book at the Egyptian Theater tomorrow (Nov. 5th)! Apparently they've unearthed a 35mm print of this extremely rare, long forgotten masterpiece of the psychotic erotic. (or is that vice versa?) On top of that, they've got a Q&A with director Nelson Lyon!!!

Plus there are boobies!

For those of you who aren't familiar with the film, this detailed write up from a few months ago is a good place to start. The tagline pretty much says it all, but the end result is so brain meltingly insane that it has to be seen to be believed.

I'm stuck half a continent away so if any of you are going to catch this possibly once in a lifetime screening, please drop a comment with your thoughts/impressions.

Click here for an article about the screening by producer Merv Bloch.

Cronenberg in Context: The Fly (1986)

Giant oil drums of ink have already been spilled in tribute to The Fly, David Cronenberg's most commercially and critically successful film, and since it is yet another of his works that I currently don't have a copy of (Damn you, '06 Chaska DVD thieves!) I'll do little here but scratch the surface.

Originally a short story published in Playboy, The Fly was quickly adapted into a 1958 Vincent Price film, and has since spiraled outward into a massive, loosely connected franchise. As of 2009 there have been two sequels, one remake (which we are discussing today), one sequel to said remake, an operatic adaptation of the remake, a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror segment, and a possible remake of the remake. (That is a lot of houseflies getting trapped in teleportation devices; perhaps these scientists need to keep their labs tidier.)
For Cronenberg's career, the film was a watershed moment in several ways. As mentioned above, it ended up being his biggest hit by a wide margin, becoming the world's first (and probably only) mainstream body-horror film. The academy award winning makeup effects involved in the tragic hero's gruesome metamorphosis (often described a brutal metaphor for the aging process) horrified and resonated with audiences, while the doomed romance and melodramatic love triangle at the heart of the film gave it an emotional heft rarely found in horror or sci-fi. In fact, the quality of Cronenberg's writing and directing of actors in The Fly signals the beginning of the end for those of us who have mixed feelings about the auteur's transformation into a high caliber, genre-free filmmaker. With the notable exception of eXistenZ, all of his post-Fly movies have drifted away from gross out effects and outlandish premises and toward straight, character driven thrillers. They're still as violent and disturbing for the most part, but the body-horror themes have been internalized by the various tortured, psychologically damaged protagonists.

If Cronenberg's films are looked at as a ven-diagram or continuum between his fleshy, venereal horror shows and dark, cerebral character studies, The Fly will always end up at dead center. The perfect balance of gore and character makes it his most perfect film, even if it only ends up as #4 on my personal list of favorites. (In case you're wondering, it goes: Videodrome, Dead Ringers, eXistenZ, The Fly.)

More Reasons The Fly is Awesome:

Pacing: Cronenberg's films can never be criticized for being overlong. Unlike many of the self indulgent filmmakers currently pumping out 3+ hour epics, he has skills with the editing blade to rival even pre-Gladiator Ridley Scott. The Fly begins practically in media res, with Jeff Goldblum and Gena Davis hitting it off at a party before going back to his place for a telepod demonstration. No time is wasted setting the characters up beforehand, and every scene has a clear purpose. (It helps that their are no added subplots beyond Goldblum's transformation and the central romance.) In fact, considering the quality of the writing, acting, and special effects, it could even be argued that the film is too short.

Stathis Borans: Played by the chronically underemployed John Getz of Blood Simple 'fame,' Stathis is a sleazy, '80s corporate villain type and the third prong in the film's love triangle. With a bushy rapist beard and hair as slick as his demeanor, the dude spends 75% of the movie radiating intense douchebag vibes. However, thanks to Getz's performance, there are subtle hints of vulnerability sandwiched between his smug cigar chomping and pompous theatrics. By the third act, the audience can almost believe that his despondent ex-girlfriend would look to him for help in her time of need. He even gets to save the day in the end, though at a gruesome personal cost.

It's amazing how much sympathy (read: any whatsoever) the film manages to find for such an unlikable character. Despite limited screen time in a relatively short film, he goes from 1980s cinema archetype to three dimensional character. In the end, he's arguably the film's most interesting character. Cronenberg even admits as such in the DVD commentary track (recommended BTW), and laments his choice to not develop him further. (Perhaps the 2007 opera version rectified this.)

Music: Yet another reason it isn't surprising that there is a Fly opera; the Howard Shore composed score can only be described with hyperbolic language like 'epic' and 'intense.' It's heavy, orchestral, and manages to highlight the characters' intense, borderline melodramatic emotional arcs without sending the whole ordeal passed that thin, hazy line separating good drama from "over the top." Here's the main theme:

No Neo-Luddism: Unlike most 'science gone wrong' movies (including the original 1958 film), The Fly does not blame science itself for the protagonist's fateful predicament. He gets drunk and teleports himself without proper precautions after his girlfriend disappears on him for the evening to meet with her ex-boyfriend. No one tries to make a case that the telepods are too dangerous or that he tried to play god; emotion and strong drink simply made him sloppy.

Buff Jeff Goldblum in tiny underwear: I mean... if you're in to that sort of thing... which I'm not... not that there is anything wrong with that.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Mini Review: Population 436 (2006)

Three word review: Population Shit Sandwich

In all seriousness, the movie is pretty terrible. I decided to watch it on a Netflix Instant whim, and while it wasn't bad enough to get uncerimoniously turned off (a nice benefit of instant viewing), I in no way recommend or endorse seeing it.

The premise is tantilizing in its vagueness: a census worker investigates a remote hamlet that's population has remained at the exact same number for a century. A good writer could take that sentence and go nearly anywhere with it. The problem is that Population 436 (spoiler alert) takes it somewhere in the general vicinity of nowhere. The town ends up being a rather benign religious cult that assigns special theological importance on the number 436 and strictly maintains its population at that number. Unexplained supernatural forces make sure that women always go into labor whenever someone is about to kick the bucket. Those same forces supposedly also prevent anyone who spends the night in town from ever leaving. When someone new arrives from the outside world, however, the supernatural takes a bit of a vacation, leaving the townspeople to choose who to kill Lottery style.The above description actually makes the film sound significantly more awesome than it is. For the most part, nothing happens. The census worker, played by the always adequate Jeremy Sisto, spends most of the film wandering about town, getting weirded out by the townspeople, and otherwise laboring through a rip off of The Wicker Man nearly as bad as that film's infamous remake. (And that one at least has Nick Cage randomly beating the shit out of women.)
Just swap Cage for Sisto, and 'punching' for 'talking'.

Often misclassified as a horror film, Population 436 is better described as a 'tragic bro-mance' between Sisto and the #1 reason why I should have been smart enough to not watch the film: Fred Durst. That's right, the Limp Biskit frontman and proud illiterate has a full on supporting role as the town's simpering vagina of a sheriff's deputy. (I actually had to double check which character he played on IMDB, as it turns out I don't recognize the dude without his trademark baseball cap and douche goatee. In all honesty, he's not that bad of an actor.) The two men become fast friends over some back-forty target practice. (The audience knows this because Durst awkwardly proclaims it after they spend less than a day together.) Of course, Sisto has to go and totally ruin things by scoring with the town's single hot chick, who the terminally shy Durst happens to be pining for. Their afternoon long friendship shattered, Durst almost gives in to the town elders' wish for him to take Sisto out, but their man-crush is too strong and he ultimately lets the outsider go at the film's comically overwrought emotional climax.
I wish I could quit you.

So our hero rescues the town's lone sane person (a little girl) and rides off into the sunset. Right? Who cares that absolutely nothing gets explained or resolved? Actually, an anti-climax isn't enough for Population 436, it boasts an anti-deus ex machina (diablous ex machina? crepusculum plaga ex machina?) where the strange green filtered dream the protagonist has been having turns out to be a prophetic vision of objects in his escape vehicle. These objects then distract him from the giant oncoming truck.

Damn it! Fred Durst didn't even die! That was the only way I rationalized watching a film with him in it: "It's a horror film, so he'll probably die. Seeing Fred Durst die should make up for having to see Fred Durst act."

Movies to watch instead of Population 436:
Hot Fuzz
The Wicker Man
Children of the Corn
The Wicker Man again
The Wicker Man remake

Return of Alice Teaser

The sequel to American McGee's Alice, a third person horror-action game based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, just got a new name (Return of Alice), a vague release timeframe (2011), and a teaser trailer:

UPDATE 11/4: Oh snap! It's not quite a hoax, but it's not quite official either. It turns out the above video exists in a quantum state of truthiness. According to Mr. McGee himself, the teaser was done by a fan and in no way represents... anything at all. No word on whether or not the title or release timeline are in any way accurate.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cronenberg in Context: The Brood (1979)

While not perfect, The Brood is Cronenberg's finest pre-Videodrome work, and can probably be thought of as his most generally 'Cronenbergian.' It has the human body being altered through the power of the mind, creepy reproductive/sexual undertones, and Robert Silverman. Partially inspired by the director's own brutal custody battle, the film tells the story of a family torn asunder by its emotionally unstable matriarch, who has been whisked away by a radical psychotherapist who is more interested in using her to advance his research than actually curing her.

That research is in Psychoplasmics, the study of effects on the body caused by emotional states. In typical Cronenberg fashion, a minor character (a police psychologist in this case) inadvertently explains the film's premise long before the audience has enough information to realize it. Referring to the protagonist's young daughter, who has just been traumatized by the brutal slaying of her grandmother, he proclaims "These things tend to express themselves one way or another. I've seen five year olds ... with ulcers as bad as any middle aged business man." By itself the sentence is fairly innocuous, but the film surrounding it expands that premise to the point of having a woman asexually produce creepy mutant babies via her severe rage problems. Like Videodrome and the motif of harmful sensation, The Brood takes a common sense idea, that emotional stress can cause a physical reaction, and stretches it deep into speculative fiction territory.Since I've previously rambled about the film, here are some bullet point reasons for you to add it to your Netflix queue:

The late, great Oliver Reed: England's heaviest drinking thespian plays the ethically challenged super-psychiatrist responsible for Psychoplasmics. For the most part it's a soft spoken role couched in rationality and passive-aggressive therapist talk, but he really takes off during the roll playing sessions involved in his radical treatments. The film begins with him and a simpering patient demonstrating Psychoplasmics for an audience in a manner strongly reminiscent of Kabuki theater. (A style Cronenberg would later explore in his adaptation of M. Butterfly.) With accelerating anger, Reed plays the role of the patient's father, emasculating and humiliating him until the rage manifests as gross boils all over the man's body.Plus, we get to see exactly how many children it would take to down the famously pugnacious actor:The Kindergarten Beatdown: In the second most shocking scene in the film, a kindergarten teacher with the absolute worst haircut late '70s Canada has to offer gets singled out by a pair of snowsuit clad broodlings when their "mother" begins to see the woman as a rival for her ex-husband's affections. Passing for kids at a distance they easily sneak into the classroom and arm themselves with little wooden hammers. They then proceed to beat the teacher to death (not an easy task, considering their size and weapon choice) in front of all her students. Some of the kids' "traumatized" faces are absolutely priceless. (Imagine the therapy bills. Yikes)The Laid Back Canadian Police: Not only does the sudden appearance of brutal midget murderers get no reaction from the cops other than "We weren't looking for anything that small," but the coroner explains the inner workings of a dead broodling with the calm demeanor of someone who autopsies previously unknown species of mutant children all the time. They even let the civilian protagonist sit in on the affair."Oh look, some sort of grotesque midget monster with no belly button and a life sustaining nutrient pouch to make up for the lack of a digestive system. That's probably the scientific discovery of the decade, if not century. I'd better calmly explain it to the son in law of the people it murdered instead of frantically calling National Geographic or the Weekly World News. Man, I'm hungry. I wonder what's on TV right now?"

The Terrible Day-for-Night: The Psychoplasmics research center is a fascinating slice of Canadian modernist architecture and is an easily readable location in the film. However, many scenes there take place at night, and without a massive budget for lighting, the film needed a way to show the building's distinctive silhouette for nighttime establishing shots. This is the result:The dusk photography and gradated blue filter makes for a nice try, but nothing can hide the fact that the shot breaks a cardinal day-for-night rule: never show the sky. It's a dead giveaway that you're using photographic trickery. (For some truly excellent, albeit CG assisted day-for-night see 28 Weeks Later.)
Note to Minnesota folk: don't forget to check out the last Cronenberg screening at the Trylon Microcinema this weekend. It's The Fly!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Cronenberg in Context: Scanners (1981)

My apologies for the lack of stills in this post, but it turns out I don't actually have a copy of the film sitting around. It was stolen along with a bunch of other DVDs and Gamecube games a few years ago, and I guess I never got around to replacing it.

As a rung on the ladder of David Cronenberg's progression as a filmmaker, Scanners was both a big step up and a bit of an odd duck. It was his first big hit since the now practically forgotten Shivers, the very first publicly funded Canadian film to make a profit, and kick-started his '80s genre glory days. Also, thanks to one memorably gruesome shot, the film arguably has the biggest cultural footprint of his entire oeuvre. On the other hand it is literally his only film (ignoring the non-genre, tax shelter funded, race car oddity, Fast Company) without any sort of creepy psycho-sexual themes. There is nary a stomach vagina or scene of implied spine-hole fucking in sight; not even disturbingly intense marital sex.

Basically, Scanners is a breezy corporate espionage thriller with some Cronenbergian window dressing. Canadian Neo-Expressionist painter Stephen Lack (as in Lack-ing thespian talents, yuk-yuk) plays Cameron Vale, a remarkably well groomed hobo doomed to a life of misery by his uncontrollable ability to "scan" the thoughts of others. He is brought under the tutelage of Patrick McGoohan (the esteemed #6 and all around badass) to control his powers for use in combating evil scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, also pretty badass). Mysteries are solved, double crosses are uncovered, and secret labs are repeatedly snuck into.It's all pretty standard spy stuff, only with a psi-twist that, while common today (especially in video games), was relatively unexplored at the time. Cronenberg's interest in the mind's fictional (unless you're a new-age weirdo) power over the body and physical world fits neatly within the film's sci-fi secret agent framework, but the film would have probably been long forgotten if not for the director's trademark use of unpleasant viscera. Scanners don't just passively read thoughts, they physically affect nervous systems, and with enough power, they can overwhelm a victim with enough intensity to detonate his or her skull.

Yup, this is essentially the shot that put Cronenberg on the map. People may not remember much about the film's lose storytelling or its lead's somnambulant performance, but they sure as hell remember "when that dude's head exploded." It's just one of the many ways the film makes the idea of people killing with their minds visually interesting, and it is excellent cultural shorthand for painful headaches and wishing ill towards your boss/spouse/annoying guy on the bus. Personally, whenever I'm stuck in a long boring meeting I make a concerted effort to mentally explode the head of whoever is currently talking. It's never going to happen, but at least I look like I'm paying attention.

Even though Scanners is an extremely important film in Cronenberg's history, it's still probably his worst film. (That's assuming you ignore Fast Company and grade his early works on a curve.) The ideas are there, but the story is oddly paced and completely free of emotional gravity. The script, which had to be completed over the course of filming due to draconian scheduling, takes some of the blame, but the majority is shouldered by poor Stephen Lack. He manages to pull off the various pained expressions and intense staring required of his psychic character, but nearly every time he opens his mouth it's an embarrassment. Yes, his character is supposed to have a "poorly developed sense of self" due to the lifetime of listening to other's thoughts in place of his own, but for the most part he doesn't seem to be trying for Keanu Reeves in A Scanner Darkly style introversion. When he proclaims "You murdered the future!" to his arch-enemy/long lost brother in the climactic scene, there is a clear attempt at angry inflection, even though it ends up being spread arbitrarily throughout the line. Also, in one of Lack's rare performances outside of Scanners, a brief cameo in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, he is just as cringeworthy. Clearly the dude just can't read dialog to save his life, but at least he can do this:

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Melora Takes a Chance on Don't Mess with the Zohan

It was there on Watch it Now of Netflix. In the comedy section. Adam Sandler from my fond media memories of his Saturday Night Live start and then solo career putting his comedy songs and bits on a cassette tape, which I listened to in my car. He appeared in movies then: Big Daddy, Waterboy, Little Nikki (also on Watch it Now). But also in great movies, like The Wedding Singer, and Punch Drunk Love where you got to see his more dramatic side. Playing the outcast. And we mustn't forget, the action/cop movie I think he did...or was that someone else. (I think you are thinking of Bulletproof with Sandler and a Wayans brother. It has one funny joke about farm animals peeing on people, but otherwise is a blight upon cinemadom - Knarf)
Anyhoo here are reasons I'm currently enjoying Zohan:

It takes place in another country in the beginning. It's always good to get out of your comfort zone in movies. We are in modern Israel, a land of sunshine, tan people, and hairy men. Adam Sandler fits right in. He's in shape, for Adam, and who doesn't like to see fit people? We get a full dose of Adam Sandler humor in this flick. (That's going in the "pro" column? Seriously? - K) They bring in the desire to be a hairdresser right away and I immediately thought of a recent movie I watched, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I liked that movie and I think I'll like this movie too. I love the Israeli food and drink products he's constantly advertising. John Tuturro of great movies like The Big Lebowski is a wonderful villain character.

Act II: New York City. Love to see Chris Rock. His antics that people usually love in his country are not well received. Israeli stereo store in New York City. Very stereotypical. Haggling. Insulting? Good music. Constant Hummus eating. Every time I get turned off by the visual, there's a good song on. So gross! And then he fucks his clients. And then C&C Music Factory makes it okay. Let's hump our customers. I like that this movie makes me a little uncomfortable.
Message Recieved: I learned softball when I first moved here. When you're arab, it helps to fit in. And now, it's a Romeo and Juliet type movie. And we get really tense and then we settle our differences with a speech about how everyone thinks they're the same in America so it doesn't matter. Now for some sweet blowing up of stuff and butt kicking. To save the day we must make a Isreali/Palistinian magic vocal sound which hasn't been made in 2000 years. And Woa, there is a really fat Bruce Valance in a really short cut away. They make a giant arab friendly indoor mall. Oh now its the first floor of Mall of America Kiosks. Smulchy ending. How Jewish.

Knarf's Take: For a blonde haired, blue-eyed German, Melora sure likes the Jews a whole lot. (Especially Mel Brooks.) Also, I think she is rebelling against me for all the "rape" movies she's been subjected to over the years. (In my defense, Straw Dogs is really good, and I Stand Alone only has statutory rape in it. Everything else is just brutal violence against women.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

World's Best VHS Cover: Scanner Cop

Does this look like the dude from Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! to anyone else? He comes from a 1994 spinoff of the sequels to David Cronenberg's Scanners.

This is why we hold onto our intellectual property rights for dear life, kiddies. Also, I desperately have to see this movie now.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Slaughter High (1986)

This month in the Final Girl Film Club is Slaughter High. Click here for many more amusing deconstructions and disembowelments of the film.

If you accept the endemic flaws of the '80s slasher film as tropes holding the sub-genre together rather than artifacts of a creatively bankrupt outgrowth of mercenary-capitalist film making sensibilities, then Slaughter High is the greatest slasher film ever made. From the excruciatingly obnoxious characters to the paper thin plot held together by little more than frayed rubber bands and children's letters to Santa, the film takes every irritating slasher cliché and cranks the intensity to eleven before ripping the dials off.

It begins with a painfully overlong flashback sequence setting up the killer's origin. Marty is a pathetic chemistry nerd with huge glasses and a boner for Carol, one of the ten other students who are ever seen in their creepy, asylum themed school after the film's opening credits. Unfortunately for him, all ten appear to belong to the same giant clique, which happens to have an official policy of nerd abuse. With promises of naked tits and awesome sex, she cruelly lures him into the ladies locker room for an April Fool's prank. The token black janitor spots the shenanigans through a conveniently unglazed square of window and gets the school's (apparently) single teacher, an ineffectual Phy-Ed coach, to break it up, but not before they videotape the poor dweeb nekkid, poke him with a javelin, trick him into grabbing an electrified towel rack, and do a lot of general point-and-laugh action. (Though they might just be amazed by his magic pants that disappear between shots without being removed.) Needless to say, the prank climaxes with a swirlie.For humiliating and endangering the life of poor Marty, they are sentenced to a few afternoons of push ups and cardio. Since their increased exercise is obviously the nerd's fault, they naturally have to take revenge. This takes the form of a toxin laced joint that, using their preternatural insights into human behavior, they know he will light up in the chemistry lab while working on his big new project. See, this tainted marijuana is merely the distraction for the main revenge event: putting an unknown powdery substance into Marty's dangerous acid filled science beaker.It probably would have been good enough to simply ruin the experiment's final results, but the powder somehow makes the beaker explode once Marty returns to it. (With the crackerjack timing involved in this prank, these bullies should seriously consider careers in international espionage.) This creates a chain reaction of the absolute last things you want happening in a chemistry lab. First the Bunsen burner explodes, engulfing the edges of the screen in flames. Then the giant, precariously balanced bottle of nitric acid falls off its rickety shelf and flings its entire contents directly at Marty's face.The explosion attracts everyone's attention, but they arrive only to see Marty burned alive and wheeled away by paramedics. Carol leans over to apologize only to get strangled. It turns out to all be a traumatic nightmare of hers, and the movie proper can begin. (Only a quarter of the way through its runtime, no less.) Thanks to some excruciatingly wooden acting, we learn that it's class reunion time, one of the gals is going to be late arriving, and the weather is going to be rainy.

The movie then has to reacquaint us with its long separated cast of annoying characters who were all just on screen a few moments prior. They arrive at their creepy, isolated high school to find it locked up and in a state of even more advanced disrepair than when they attended as suspiciously old looking high school students. This doesn't seem to really alarm anyone, but then, neither does the fact that no one has shown up except those involved in a certain nerd's humiliation and mutilation. Nor is anyone concerned about the April 1st date, which is the anniversary of their fateful prank and Marty's birthday. They eventually tire of standing around pretending to have American accents and break into the school to explore.After about a billion prank based fake scares, the stumble onto the reunion site: a room decked out with food, liquor, and all their old lockers. Every locker has something personal that went missing in high school, except for a single extra one, which turns out to be Marty's. Somehow, absolutely none of this raises any red flags for anyone. They discuss the little nerd's fate, make jokes, and get super duper high, but no one bothers to ponder their situation's sinister implications.A couple of the guys run into the old janitor and give him a beer, but since the dude is black and this is a slasher film, he gets killed almost immediately afterwards by a man in a joker mask. The same joker mask worn by the lead prankster on Marty's fateful day.Now that everyone is nicely shnockered and the movie is half over, people can finally start dying. And considering the awful chunks of human waste they are, it can't start soon enough. Seriously. Look what they did to poor Marty's picture:It's bad enough that they are too stupid to see the clear intent of this evening, but now they're mocking the wounds of their tragic victim and soon to be slaughterer. A slaughterer who has calculated their behavior with the same inhuman precision that they once used on him. You see, he apparently knew exactly which beers they drunken revelers would start shotgunning (PBR, natch) and filled the cans with a special expanding science brew so devious that it neither causes the beer can to explode nor warns the victim with a noxious flavor. (In all honesty, I probably wouldn't be able to tell PBR from fizzy green science juice either.) One burst stomach later, the killing finally starts in earnest.
You seriously didn't notice that going down?

Oh what easy pickings these kids provide, too. One gal, after being sprayed with blood by the gutsplosion, has the completely sane and rational idea to separate herself from the group and draw a nice hot bath. Even ignoring the strange existence of a bathtub with working hot water in an abandoned high school, what could possibly motivate someone whose friend was just murdered by a psychopath who is almost certainly in the same building to get totally naked and take a fucking bath all by herself. Does she have some kind of OCD cleanliness thing?Since the killer is practically precognitive, he had already made plans for someone to hop in the tub and rigged it to start filling with acid after a couple minutes. Not just any acid, either. This stuff can apparently convert an entire bathtub of water into extremely potent flesh dissolver almost instantly. Which I guess makes it similar to ice-nine or Buck Fever Reliever, and also means that Marty certainly would have won his chemistry prize if he hadn't been horribly disfigured.
The bath-termath.

The girl who was going to be late eventually shows up, people wander about endlessly in the dark, someone finds a giant picture of Marty that hands keep erupting from, and everyone generally gets picked off one by one. The gearhead tries to rig up a lawn tractor to smash down the locked gates, but no one bothers to stand guard while he works underneath lawnmower blades. Meanwhile, his horny wife goes off to score with one of the other guys.Once it's down to the last three victims, they finally do the sensible thing and hole up in a room with a javelin as a weapon. Unfortunately, they all eventually pass out and end up sleeping in until passed 11am. (slackers) Refreshed and reinvigorated with stupid, they split up again until there is only Carol as the 'final girl.'Whoo-boy, what a final chase it is, too. The filmmakers take every opportunity to show off their steadycam technology as she runs desperately through the halls to try and run out the clock. It seems that April Fools Day only lasts until noon (huh?) and since "Marty's stuck to the rules so far" (what?) he should let anyone who survives into the PM on the 2nd go free. (Really?) What set of rules exactly is she referring to? Sure it is clearly an elaborate revenge plot of Marty's on a specific, important date, and yes, some of the characters have died in manners related to things they did to Marty in the beginning, (acid, electrocution, nudity, lawnmowers... wait, nevermind) but Carol has no more reason to assume that the killer is following any special set of rules than she does assuming that the killing will end at noon.
This was a High School?

Okay, it has been brought to my attention that "April Fool's Day" does indeed technically end at noon in the UK, but since the movie has just spent an hour and a half desperately pretending it is taking place in the US despite all the poorly disguised accents, I'm still calling 'bullshit'. Also, the jokes may end at noon, but I have found nothing saying that they begin the night before. Either it goes all day or you have a six hour prank window; anything else is cheating.Carol hides in the girl's locker room, but the toilet starts to fill with blood, so she goes back into the halls to get chased some more. Then some more. Then a pause to let the camera guy catch up. Then she circles back around through the same exact hallways. When Marty shows himself, she easily batters his nerdy frame with a bat, but then leaves the bat right next to him as she runs away. He attacks again and she throws him out a window, before ineffectually tossing a javelin at him so he can use it later. This is the movie in a nutshell, an incredibly stupid protagonist doing absolutely everything she can to offer her life up to the killer, who is too frail to be any sort of physical threat to her. Oh yeah, then she hides in the girl's locker room again. Why on Earth would she assume he is not going to look for her at the site of her betrayal and his humiliation... twice?Despite his ineffectiveness, the writers clearly couldn't think of a way for someone so stupid to actually get away, so she eventually does get her ass stabbed with a javelin. Now that Marty has revealed and avenged himself the movie should be over, but instead it starts getting weird. About two seconds after finishing his last victim off, he starts hearing creepy, wailing voices. The voices of his recent victims to be precise. They have come back from the dead with a fog machine to bully him supernaturally. Poor kid just can't catch a break.Only it's all a fever dream of the still bandaged, still hospitalized Marty. That's right kids, it's all a dream. A doctor shows up to check on him, but now he's switched places with the nurse and back to killing mode. Then he starts ripping of his own face. The End?Okay, so none of the film's three different endings makes much of any sense, but neither did anything that came before. Slasher films aren't known for their quality writing, but usually the actions performed within have at least some basis in traditional human behavior. The writers of Slaughter High appear to be so disconnected from how people think and act that it would not be surprising if they turned out to be extraterrestrials or a computer matrix. (Considering the strange, forced accents of many of the actors, I'm leaning toward the alien theory.) Despite the fact that the creepy, clearly abandoned school is locked up tight and may as well be covered in neon signs proclaiming "unpleasant death inside" none of the characters show even the faintest signs of suspicion until the first actual death, after which they proceed to split up, run around, and generally do whatever they can to get killed. On the other hand, if Marty wanted to lead his victims into believing that this was a genuine reunion and not a death trap, why would he keep the place locked up with no indication of what he had set up inside? (Though it does seem to magically unlock itself every once and a while.) Why would he wait until the night of his revenge to kill the janitor? How come the janitor never noticed him moving lockers around and bringing in so much booze? The only possible explanations are that the filmmakers were using the "it's all a dream" excuse to do whatever they wanted, or that they were simply too lazy and stupid to bother caring if anything made even a tiny flicker of sense.While Slaughter High is certainly a decent movie for drinking heavily and marveling at the balls to the wall idiocy, you're time would probably be better served by watching the nearly identical and vastly superior April Fool's Day, which coincidentally came out at almost the exact same time. (SH was originally titled April Fool's Day, but wisely decided to differentiate itself by tricking movie rental patrons into thinking it was a high school slasher film and not just a bunch of annoying people alone in a creepy old building.) If you do decide to brave the horrors, take special note of the ultra synthy Harry Manfredini score and enjoy the murky cinematography. Just to give you a taste, here is a digitally enhanced still of some douchebag crawling through the woods:If any of you out there are experts in the field of illicit substances, is this even remotely close to how one should smoke a joint?