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An Odd and Unsettling Masterpiece
"Spider Baby" is a treasure.
Lon Chaney, Jr. is Bruno, caretaker of Merrye House and its inhabitants: Virginia, Elizabeth, and Ralph. The Merrye siblings are nominally teenagers, but suffer from a hereditary disease ("Merrye Syndrome") that stunts them mentally and emotionally, leaving them to act out with the boundary-free viciousness of small children. Their Uncle Peter (a smarmily effective Quinn Redeker) tells us that the disease will progress until the children revert to savagery and cannibalism.
Bruno wearily but lovingly tends his little flock: Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) flounces and pouts like a nasty 5-year-old; Virginia (Jill Banner), creepily nubile and obsessed with spiders, and Ralph (Sid Haig) who has regressed to infantile grunts and dependence.
The movie shoves you face-first into the dreamily brutal world of the Merrye children: in the first five minutes, Virginia traps a messenger (Mantan Moreland) in her string "web" and gleefully "stings" him to death with a pair of long knives. Afterward, Elizabeth scolds her: "Bad Virginia! Bruno will really hate you now!" But Bruno is more disappointed than horrified. "Remember when those two children climbed over the wall?" he chides Virginia, gently, "and Elizabeth almost got them in her web before I got there? I expected you to watch her and not let her do that again!" Virginia pouts, and Elizabeth buries her head in Bruno's lap and wails, "Please don't hate me, Bruno!"
Bruno strokes her hair and rasps, "I promised your father I would NEVER hate you." And you believe him.
Alas, greedy relations come sniffing around; brother and sister Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmert) and Uncle Peter arrive, followed by attorney Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his secretary, Ann (Mary Mitchel). Emily is a greedy bitch with a heart of stone. She brought the lawyer; Peter (who attempts avuncularity with the suspicious Merryes) is not so sure. Schlocker strikes the only false note in the entire movie; with his Hitler mustache and cartoonish pontificating, he plays for much broader satire than is necessary.
Bruno, horrified at the idea of losing the children, rises to the occasion; the Merryes give their guests dinner featuring a main course of fried cat, which Uncle Peter gamely pronounces to be "Rabbit, obviously, and done to a turn!" Bruno explains that "...usually we are vegetarians, but Ralph is allowed to eat anything he catches." (Ralph chortles obscenely.)
Afterward, Uncle Peter takes Ann into the village to find a hotel for the night, while Emily and Schlocker opt to stay in the house...with predictably gruesome results.
While Bruno cares for Ralph, Elizabeth and Virginia decide that Schlocker will "tell about us" and thus, he must die. They descend on him like harpies, Elizabeth shrieking "KILL HIM! KILL HIM!" while Virginia drools vacantly and waves her "stingers". Schlocker natters about how "There are laws about these things! Criminal Laws!" while they brutalize him.
Meanwhile, Emily, in her bedroom, strips down to black lace bra, panties, and garter belt and discovers a closet full of old negligees. Again, the genius of the movie peeks through: in any other B-flick, this would be a cheap thrill to keep the audience engaged; here, it seems perfectly logical that someone as self- absorbed as Emily would try on the negligees and strut about in front of the mirror. When she discovers Ralph hanging upside-down outside her window like a spider, she runs shrieking from the room--and smack into Virginia and Elizabeth wrestling Schlocker's battered corpse out of the dumbwaiter.
Clad only in lingerie and heels, Emily totters, screaming, into the night, pursued by Virginia and Elizabeth in full cry -- but Ralph gets there first, and wrestles Emily into a bush with much grunting and slobbering. Virginia, finding them a moment later, rolls her eyes and yells, "Hey, Liz, look at THIS!" before going back to the house like nothing is wrong.
Later, the camera returns to the woods...and we see Emily, stretched out on the ground, quite alive, albeit rumpled. She sits up, stretches, and looks around; her face is different -- softer, somehow -- and as it dawns on you that she looks awfully...post-coital, she tosses her hair and calls out, kittenishly, "Ralph? Where are you?"
I had to watch that scene twice before I believed that the filmmaker had gone there, but when Emily gets up and goes in search of Ralph it is not played for laughs: you know beyond a doubt that Ralph gave Emily the ride of her life and she wants an encore, and some part of you hopes that she'll get it because this movie is so finely crafted, you have no trouble rooting for a deranged cannibal to get some.
By the time Bruno realizes that the only way keep the world at bay and avoid further bloodshed is to blow up the house with all three children in it, his gallant determination to protect his charges to the end will move you to tears. One of the most touching scenes in the movie comes at the end, when Peter, having freed himself from Virginia's web, attempts to rescue Ann and encounters Bruno arming the bomb that will send the Curse of the Merryes to oblivion.
"Sir," says a flustered -- but desperately polite -- Bruno, "I don't know why you've come back here but I would advise you to leave with all due speed!"
There are loose ends, of course. You never really find out much about the lycanthropic relatives in the cellar, or why Virginia thinks she's a spider. But you end up so immersed in the beautiful, swampy madness of the story that none of that matters.
Bachelor in Paradise (1961)
That's "Pecky Cypress"-- and it's quite the rage!
Bob Hope is A.J. Niles. a Kinsey-esque writer of books about the sexual mores of Europeans. In keeping with the times, the books are coyly titled: "How the French Live" is understood by all to be shorthand for "How the French have lots of sex"; the first scene underscores this, as Hope is seen reclining on a chaise with a beautiful woman. He dictates salaciously into a tape recorder: "Kissing a mature French woman provides the average male with an experience that is..."
Unfortunately, Hope was a little old to be playing the part. As he gets frisky with the young French mademoiselle, you get the squicky feeling that you might want to call the authorities.
But the great part about "Bachelor in Paradise" is that Hope, along with his costar Lana Turner, seems to be in on the joke. They know they are too old to be playing the parts they are playing. They know the jokes are tired. They know that the movie-going public was five steps ahead of the film at all times. But it didn't matter, because the suburbs were beautiful and everyone had a dishwasher and we all knew what to expect from Bob Hope and Lana Turner.
That is the seductive nature of films like this. They are fluff, you know they are fluff, the players know they are fluff, and everyone is fully aware that life was never really like that except in our misty memories. It's just that watching Bob Hope and Lana Turner frolic through the California Coral, you get to thinking maybe life really WAS that pretty in early 1961. I mean, as long as you were white and lived in the suburbs.
The plot is formulaic: A.J. Niles has to come back to the U.S. to face charges of tax evasion, brought on by his dishonest bookkeeper, Herman Wappinger ("I just can't believe Herman Wappinger is dishonest! That man wears piping on his vest!" I always loved that line, although it never made any sense to me at all.) His publisher, Austin Palfrey (the stuffily fabulous John McGiver) has an idea for a way that Niles can pay off the government while producing a new bestseller: he will subsidize Niles' move to an American suburb to write about "How the Americans Live". When Niles demurs, Palfrey tells him that he's already lined up a home in Paradise Village. The catch is that, given the nature of his fame, no one in the community can know that he is A.J. Niles. He must go undercover, as it were, to gather information about American mores. As expected,wackiness ensues.
What follows is a travelogue of late 50's kitsch: the "California Coral" house, the pecky cypress siding in the living room, the disappearing bar, the matriarchal sway of the American suburb, the dissatisfied housewives, headed by the statuesque and lovely Linda Delavane (Paula Prentiss) who adore this strange bachelor for listening to them and treating them like human beings ("I'm sure," Paula says dryly, "that the good lord did not intend me to use my Phi Beta Kappa key to puncture the top of a grated cheese can"). What no one knows, of course, is that Niles is using them as lab rats.
When glamorous Dolores (Janis Paige)--the estranged wife of the stuffy development owner--falls for Niles, she introduces herself with my very favorite line in the whole movie: having followed him home from the supermarket one morning, Dolores tells Niles she wants a cocktail ("Can you make a very dry Gibson?"). Niles gives her the drink, and she asks if he's having one.
"No," he says. "It's a little early for me."
"Early?" she says. "It's April!"
The movie reinforces every sexist stereotype about the time period: Lana Turner starts out as a single-minded career woman and ends up realizing that what she really needed all along was a man to take care of. Paula Prentiss waxes nostalgic about her days as a college student--studying romance languages--but cheerfully endorses her life as a 'hausfrau' (in a nod to Prentiss' extraordinary height, when Linda tells Niles she went to college on scholarship, he eyes her up and down and says "Basketball?" Come to think of it, they must have filmed Prentiss, Hope, and Prentiss' 6'5" co-star Jim Hutton from interesting angles; either that or Bob Hope was taller than I thought). When the denouement comes, all of the wives desperately want their husbands to find them worthy of continued matrimonial interest and pledge to go home and be good.
Lana Turner is gorgeous as Rosemary Howard, although her acting is wooden and awful--her monologue in the Tahitian restaurant ("I can refinish furniture, skindive for abalone, and play the piano..." comes off like she is reading it from the napkin on the table in front of her--but she looks fabulous. Both Hope and Turner come off oddly stilted, although that might be due to the contrast with accomplished character actors like McGiver ("You must tell no one who you are! Use an alias! Your mother's maiden name! Or...was 'Niles' your mother's maiden name?") and Reta Shaw as the neighborhood busybody, Mrs. Brown ("Certain passages of ALL of Mr. Niles books are filthy. That's what makes them so popular!")
This is not a deep movie. If you dissect it by the rules of critical thought, it is not even a very good movie. But it's a time capsule of a life that a lot of people think about with fierce nostalgia. A time when you could entrust your child to a stranger at the grocery store, have a Gibson at 10AM without raising an eyebrow, a time when pecky cypress was all the rage. I was born the year this movie came out, and I don't miss that time, but it's pretty to look at once in awhile.
Rose Red (2002)
Haunting? Is that you?
To get the obvious parallel out of the way: yes, the plot of "Rose Red" is a LOT like "The Haunting of Hill House". The basic elements are all there: a creepy old house where "something awful" happened long ago, a slightly obsessive paranormal investigator, a group of psychic volunteers--one of them an innocent conduit meant to 'awaken' the house--an heir looking to turn a quick buck on a dubious inheritance...check, check, and check.
The differences, however, throw the whole thing off-kilter enough that "Rose Red" works on its own. Notwithstanding some laughable special effects and a few performances hammy enough to be served for Easter dinner, this is a series worth watching.
Rose Red, the ancestral home of the Rimbauer family, was cursed from the beginning (a natural consequence of having been built atop that haunted house chestnut: an ancient Indian burial ground). Ellen Rimbauer, the widow of the builder, led a miserable and emotionally stunted life. To escape from her misery, she dabbled in the occult and eventually died in the house along with her daughter, April, her maid/lover/familiar, Sukeena, and various other visitors. After Ellen's death, tour groups paid to go through the house...but the tour groups kept coming up short one member at the end. The house has been abandoned for many years.
Enter Professor Joyce Reardon (toothily played by Nancy Travis), a psychologist with an obsessive bent toward the paranormal. Threatened with the loss of her university position--presumably for being a bitchy crackpot--she is determined to prove her theories by turning Rose Red into an Island of Misfit Psychic Toys: nervously religious Cathy (Judith Ivey), shrill, sniveling Emery (Matt Ross), phlegmatic Vic (Kevin Tighe), tentative Pam (Emily Deschanel), suave and calming Nick (Julian Sands), and autistic Annie (Kimberly J. Brown) who is the aforementioned psychic conduit. Annie's sister, Rachel,(Melanie Lynskey) comes along to care for Annie during the experiment but has no psychic powers. Neither does Steve Rimbauer (Matt Keesler), the remaining Rimbauer heir--who happens to be schtupping Dr. Reardon and is happy to let her use the house to regain her professional footing.
The series veers from the predictable (lengthening hallways, breathing walls, a sinister doll-house) to the grotesquely sublime (the demise and reappearance of several members of the party, all of them looking sly and pale and miserably, gloriously dead when they shuffle back on-stage). A few performances fall magnificently, headlong into caricature, most notably Emery, who is so disgustingly whiny and unlikable that he calls to mind Franklin, the vile, wheelchair-bound younger brother of Sally in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre". When Emery's neurotically overprotective mother Kay (Laura Kenny) shows up and begins gnawing at the scenery, the whole thing threatens to degenerate into cartoonishness...but the cast manages to pull it out and and give the viewer the genuinely creepy impression that the relationship between Emery and his mother is the unhealthiest thing in the house at that moment--given the stuff going on in Rose Red, that's saying something.
One central performance left me unsatisfied: Kimberly J. Brown, as the autistic psychic Annie, relies pretty heavily on theatrically portentous looks and the constant ghostly background noise of Annie's favorite song, "Theme from A Summer Place". There's no Rain Man virtuosity at work here, just a lot of dull staring off into the distance. At the end of the series, when Annie begins to speak, her laughably fake stammer fails utterly to convey the wonder of a non-verbal autistic person talking for the first time. You get the feeling she is not so much autistic as just backward and bratty. Melanie Lynsky's Rachel manages to be believably terrified of, and protective over, Annie--but Annie and Rachel's mother and father, who show up briefly, are so ham-handed in their effort to be BAD PEOPLE that they might have stepped straight out of an After-School Special about abusive parents.
Several reviewers have mentioned that the end of the movie, when all of the ghosts in the house close in on Dr. Reardon to make her a permanent resident of Rose Red, left them cold. I have to disagree. Dr. Reardon is cheerfully unlikable from the very beginning, with a toothy smile that never quite reaches her eyes and the shifty instincts of a nutria rat. I had no trouble believing that her increasingly manic efforts to control the people, the experiment, and ultimately Rose Red itself came from her own personality. She was not infected by the house; the house recognized her as a kindred spirit. The house knew she was awful and set her up for a brutal finish. The ghosts who take her down include Nick, Cathy, and Vic--all of whom died because she refused to listen to reason about how dangerous the house really was. The very last scene, where ghost-Joyce gazes smugly out the attic window, is both totally predictable, and totally eerie and unsettling in the best possible way.
Yes, the movie is derivative, but it has some terribly effective moments. Ultimately it's satisfying and rich in the guilty way of eating something delicious that you know is not good for you.
River's Edge (1986)
An unblinking look at teenage ennui. And drugs. There are drugs.
I've seen this movie several times, and every time I see it I'm amazed anew at how wonderfully, bizarrely nihilistic it is. It's a disturbing little piece of cinema -- how many movies actually make you want to punch out a 12-year-old character? -- but amazing nonetheless.
Based on the true story of a teenager in Milpitas, CA, who killed his girlfriend and brought his friends to view her body, "River's Edge" records a few days activity among a group of disaffected kids, and how their lives are interrupted when one of their buddies murders his girlfriend and--essentially--dares them to turn him in. Woven into the narrative is an unblinking, flat-eyed look at the inner lives of people who really don't care what happens around them.
Samson (Daniel Roebuck) strangles his girlfriend, Jamie, and leaves her naked body on the river bank. The opening of the film shows him drinking beer and howling at the sky in the early morning mist, apparently exhilarated by his accomplishment; he is viewed through the eyes of Tim (Joshua Miller), who has ridden his bike to the bridge to throw his younger sister's doll into the river. Tim is a piece of work. Because of his youth (he is 12) and his crappy home life (he lives with his constantly quarreling mother and stepfather) you want to feel sorry for him but the movie posits him as such a nasty little jerk that you find yourself wishing someone would throw HIM off the bridge.
For the rest of the movie, Samson's friends will react by varying degrees to the murder as he shows them the body and explains -- in a way curiously devoid of inflection -- that he killed her because she was "talking sh*t" about his mother (thus setting up one of my favorite conversations in the whole movie, between a frenetic Layne (Crispin Glover) and his concerned girlfriend, Clarissa (Ione Skye) -- when Clarissa says "What, he kills Jamie and we just pretend it never happened?" Layne snaps back "He HAD his REASONS!").
The reactions of the friends form the core of the movie -- why don't they care? Why, when they are shown their friend and classmate lying naked and rapidly purpling on the riverbank, do they not immediately run to the police? Why do they spend two days driving around town, scoring weed from the local crazy drug dealer, Feck (psychotically essayed by Dennis Hopper) and having sex in a local park while they discuss what they ought to do? Wouldn't any sane person's reaction be to call the authorities and turn Samson in? Well, wouldn't it? Along with Tim the evil 12-year-old, Crispin Glover's Layne seems to be the embodiment of the problem. Jittery in a way that will make anyone who has ever used amphetamines wish they didn't know exactly how he feels, skittering along a path laid by a seriously skewed moral compass, Layne is convinced that true friendship can only be expressed by helping Samson escape prosecution for the murder of their friend. Accordingly, he lectures the group about how they must all stick together and show the world that they are a team. You'd think he was exhorting soldiers for a last push into enemy territory, rather than attempting to force a bunch of stoned, confused, apathetic kids to protect a possibly-sociopathic acquaintance.
Adult influence is represented by Dennis Hopper's Feck, who likes to remind people that he once killed a woman and "They are still after me!" Feck, a one-legged fugitive biker, lives in a ramshackle house full of motorcycle parts and marijuana. His only companion is a blow-up doll named Ellie; he dresses her and dances with her and treats her with gentle solicitude. Only Dennis Hopper could make you wonder if Feck even knows Ellie is a doll; at one point he tells Samson, "She's a doll. I know she's a doll."--but, being Dennis Hopper, he delivers this final proof of his sanity just before drawing a gun and shooting Samson in the head. Ultimately, the viewer decides it doesn't matter because Feck is fascinating either way.
Keanu Reeves, as Tim's older brother Matt, is...Keanu Reeves. He's playing the same slightly confused, not-quite-bright teenage stoner that he always played before he landed "The Matrix", but you can believe he'd be the only one with enough conscience to turn Samson in to the local police -- just as you can believe he'd be righteously indignant when the interviewing detective suggests he might have something to do with the murder (another fabulous line: "What was your relationship to this girl, anyway? Did you love her, did you hate her, did you f**k her when you got bored? WHAT?") The murderous Samson is portrayed with dead-eyed perfection by Daniel Roebuck as a kid who seems to have decided very early on that since we're all going to die anyway, it doesn't really matter what we do while we're here. His soliloquy about how incredibly alive he felt after murdering Jamie is bone-chilling, as is his rapidly escalating antisocial behavior; he goes from quietly acceding to anything Layne asks (at the beginning of the film) to angrily pulling a gun on a convenience store clerk toward the end (while Feck, clutching Ellie in the aisle of the store, asks, sweetly, "Do you have Bud in bottles?") You get the distinct feeling that, left to his own devices, Samson would have a body count pretty fast.
The message of the movie is that there is no message. It plays as a documentary, almost, and simply presents the event and the subsequent confusion of the kids as something that happened once. I think that's why the movie works so well. It doesn't have any message, it just has a story, and the story will stick with you forever.
Sugar Hill (1974)
Politically Correct Zombies? Call Sugar Hill!
One thing you can say about this movie, besides the fact that EVERYONE is good-looking (even the prince of darkness, Baron Samedi, is hot in a gold-toothed, evil, soulless kind of way) -- is that you always know who the bad guys are. They're the white ones.
Oh,there are a couple of black bad guys too, portrayed as jive-talking stereotypical 1970's Uncle Toms, but if you see a white person in this film you can just sit back and wait for the N-Word to fly. Which, okay, it's a blaxploitation flick and it was the 1970's and I get that. The problem is that it's not a bad movie, and could have been a pretty good one without all the heavy-handedly racist scenery chewing by every white person in a six-mile radius.
Diana "Sugar" Hill (Marti Bey, one the sexiest women of color to hit the screen since Lena Horne), a photographer of either high fashion or porn, I couldn't figure out quite which (one photoshoot of women tossing a beach ball looks suspiciously fetishy)is in love with Langston (Larry Johnson), the owner of a bar called Club Haiti. Club Haiti is coveted by a local gangster, Morgan (Robert Quarry, looking like a refugee from The Godfather), and Morgan doesn't really care whether Langston sells him the club legally, or gets beaten to death by thugs. Turns out to be the latter, and after Langston is confronted by several gangsters dressed like Huggy Bear and beaten to death in the alley, Sugar vows revenge.
How does a beautiful, intelligent, determined black woman get revenge in a 70's movie? Why, she goes to the swamp and asks the local voodoo queen, Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully) to summon the power of EVIL.
Mama Maitresse obliges by conjuring Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley) and that's when things get very weird indeed. Colley plays Samedi with appropriately unholy glee, bellowing operatically at everyone, flashing his gold teeth, and casting flirtatiously evil glances at anything female who happens to cross his path. "He is a great lover," cackles Mama Maitresse as Sugar gazes at Samedi in astonishment...and maybe a tad bit of lust.
With Samedi's army of Zombie slave corpses at her disposal, Sugar dispatches each of Morgan's men in ways both amusing and unpleasant. One is slashed to pieces by zombies in a warehouse; another is eaten by pigs in a cornfield ("You know," purrs Sugar, just before pushing the hapless gangster into the pigpen, "these poor piggies have gone almost a WEEK without any garbage? They're righteously hungry, I'd say.") She picks up another man in a pool hall by pretending she thinks he's hot; when he gropes her and leers "You n****r chicks just can't keep away from the white stuff, can you?" she rolls her eyes and murmurs "Something like that, yes." By 'something like that', she means "I'm going to put you under a voodoo spell and make you stab yourself in the chest with a dagger, you scumsicking pig, and then I'm going to laugh." And she does.
My personal favorite death is meted out to Fabulous, played by Charles Watson, A.K.A. Mac from Night Court. Watson plays Morgan's chief enforcer as a dedicated wearer of plaid shirts and outrageous hats. Sugar takes him down by paying off the proprietors of his favorite massage parlor and, when he is naked and facedown on the table, she unleashes a squad of hideous zombie girls to, uh, massage him to death.
As the bodies begin to pile up, Sugar is visited by Valentine (Richard Lawson, the black paranormal investigator from "Poltergeist"), a detective with whom she apparently has had more than a casual friendship in the past. Valentine wants to know why the murderers of Sugar's boyfriend are dying so creatively; Sugar wants Valentine to STFU and maybe give her a little tumble for old time's sake. At one point, Valentine seeks out Mama Maitresse, who puts her hands on his head, scrutinizes him, and spits "This man is NOT A BELIEVER!" before she stomps off, followed by a deeply amused Baron Samedi.
Morgan's girlfriend Celeste is played (with icy venom) by Betty Ann Rees as a cool blond with limited intelligence, great legs, and a very bad racial consciousness. When Sugar visits Morgan to discuss the Club Haiti and Morgan asks Celeste to get Sugar a cup of coffee, Celeste rolls her eyes and snaps "I ain't waiting on no ni--" before Morgan cuts her off. She spends most of the movie making nasty remarks about black people, once getting beaten to a pulp by Sugar for her troubles; at the end of the fight she shrieks "I'LL GET YOU FOR THIS, YOU BLACK BITCH!" as the bartender calmly wipes counters and picks up broken glass behind her.
Celeste is, in fact, such a thoroughgoing nasty bitch that you actually cheer at the end when she gets her comeuppance: after Morgan is dispatched by zombies in the old mansion, Baron Samedi shows up to collect his fee -- and Sugar pays her debt by handing Celeste over to a fate worse than death. When last seen, Celeste is being carried, shrieking, into the swamp by a wildly cackling Samedi, who no doubt is trying to figure out how he can sexually humiliate Celeste with her mouth taped shut.
The movie is surprisingly good. The performances are smooth; even the most overblown characters, like Celeste and Samedi, manage to take their portrayals right to the edge of parody before turning back without breaking character. The problem is that everyone is so over-the-top, scenery-gnawing evil or good that Sugar, who really stands somewhere in the middle, never finds her feet.
Also I think I wanted her to end up with Samedi. Their kids would have been gorgeous.
Naked Punks, Rabid Weasels, and BRAAAAAAAAINS!!
From the beginning of the film ("International Treaty. All skeletons have to come from India. I just wish I knew where they find all the skeletons with perfect teeth!") to the explosive end, this movie is one of the finest of the zombie genre. It is scary and disturbing and funny and has one of the best soundtracks in the universe, ever.
Freddy (Thom Mathews) starts a job at the Uneeda Medical Products warehouse. On his first night, he is shown the ropes by warehouse manager Frank (James Karen). During the tour, Frank tells Freddy that the events in the zombie classic "Night of the Living Dead" were true -- the corpses were reanimated by an experimental military gas called 245 Trioxin, and after they were collected they were stuffed into barrels and sent to the Uneeda Warehouse by mistake. Frank shows the barrels to a skeptical Freddie. When Freddy asks if the barrels are secure, Frank smacks one on the side -- and the barrel erupts with a cloud of poison gas, knocking both of them out.
Meanwhile, Freddy's girlfriend, Tina, has arrived to pick him up from work. She's accompanied by an oddly-assorted pack of friends, in a car driven by the large and scary Suicide, who wonders why the gang only calls him when they need a ride someplace ("Because", one of the gang explains patiently, "you are one spooky motherf*cker, man.") Although the punks are a fabulous addition to the film -- and Scream Queen Linnea Quigley, as the rapturously sleazy Trash, vaulted immediately into the boyhood mythos of every adolescent male who saw the film when she stripped off her clothes and pranced starkers on top of a tombstone -- they are also a jarring note. Freddy is a regular Joe in a trucker cap, and Tina is the type who wears jelly sandals that coordinate with her plastic hoop earrings; how is it that they hang out with people who talk about sex and death and smoke pot and dance naked in cemeteries?
Freddy and Frank regain consciousness to discover that all of the dead things in the warehouse have come to life -- including the corpse in the freezer, which hurls itself angrily against the walls in an attempt to reach their brains. Frantic, they chop it to pieces but the pieces refuse to die ("Well, it worked in the movie!"). They call the warehouse owner, Burt (Clu Gulager) who, in a panic, asks his friend Ernie (Don Calfa) at the mortuary next door to cremate them for him.
The three men bundle the dismembered corpse into a sack and carry it, thrashing and squealing, to mortician Ernie who, not unreasonably, wants to know what the hell they are asking him to burn (Burt, thinking on his feet, replies "Uh...rabid weasels.") After Ernie refuses to cremate live weasels ("Christ, Burt, they're alive! Even if the damn things are rabid, I can't burn them alive!"), they break down and tell him the story; shown the wriggling body parts, a stunned Ernie agrees and puts the bag into the oven. As the smoke rises, a thunderstorm disperses the particles...and soaks them into the ground of the cemetery next door, where Tina and her punk friends are gamboling happily among the (currently quiet) dead. But not for long!
From this point on, the movie becomes a startlingly intelligent gore-fest, featuring zombies who can run and think (and use a radio to order up cops and paramedics like Chinese food) and punctuated by the obvious deterioration of Frank and Freddy. Having inhaled the gas, the two of them are turning into Zombies before the astonished eyes of their friends (at least, the remaining friends who manage to reach the warehouse after zombies begin popping up like weeds in the cemetery; Trash is last seen shrieking her lungs out as zombies close in on her naked body). As Freddy slips from humanity into zombiehood, he serenades Tina with the most gruesome love soliloquy in the history of cinema -- "I love you, and that's why you have to let me eat your braaaaaaaaaains!!" Amid all of the blood and gore and screaming, Frank's death in the crematorium is the one scene I found almost unwatchable in its pathos. After Freddy loses his mind and starts screaming for brains, Frank realizes what is in store for him and sadly consigns himself to the flames, removing his wedding ring before he cranks the conveyor into oblivion.
There are those who don't like the end of this movie and I can sympathize -- I think maybe the filmmaker took the cowards way out -- but I'm not sure it could have ended any other way. In any case, this is one of the greatest zombie movies ever made and I recommend it highly.
Thanks for the Mammaries!
I can't help it. I love this movie.
Tony Randall is spot-on as Rockwell P. Hunter, the hapless, slightly prissy advertising schlub in love with his secretary, Jenny Wells (Betsy Drake). Rock wanders sweetly through life, a man in a gray flannel suit, raising his teenage niece April, pining for a key to the executive washroom, and hoping that the owner of his advertising agency, Mr. Lasalle, Jr. (a fabulously stuffy John Williams) will notice him someday.
When Rock's boss Rufus(portrayed with wonderful smarm by Henry Jones) tells him that the agency may lose it's biggest account, Stay-Put Lipstick ("This whole place may foldy. You and I are slated for the chute!"), Hunter worries that this will delay his marriage to Jenny.
"What's the matter, boy?" says Rufus. "No kopecks put away?"
"No," sighs Rock. "Not a single kopeck."
But wait -- if Rock can come up with something to save the account, he might save the day -- or, as Rufus says, "Your problem could be solvey-solvey!" Rock decides to ask the famous movie star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) to endorse the product. After all, what is she known for?
"Next question," deadpans Jenny.
"No!" Rock giggles. "Stop that! she's known for her 'oh-so-kissable lips'!"
Through a series of misadventures involving his niece, a dozen martinis, and a late-arriving bellboy, Rock manages to secure Rita's endorsement of the lipstick -- on the condition that he pretends for awhile to be her boyfriend, both to make her current boyfriend jealous and to secure free publicity for her upcoming movie -- "A Russian drama about two Russian brothers". Rita renames Rock her "Loverdoll" and they embark on an orgy of publicity that enrages Jenny Wells and stupefies Rufus. In the end, though, no one is really following their dream and when success comes it lands with a dull thud -- until all of the characters sort out where they are really supposed to be in life.
This movie is riveting because of the performances (in addition to the rest of the cast, Joan Blondell is hysterical as Vi, Rita's personal assistant) and the script. So many quotable lines...
RITA: "What WAS Bruno before I got ahold of him? A Cucamonga grape picker! Even his feet were blue!"
VI: "I remember...you thought he never took his socks off."
RUFUS: "Gladys told you I drank my lunch? She forgets I eat the olives. That's where the nourishment is."
RITA(to Rock): "Don't sell yourself short, dolly. You know your way around a kiss. Where did you learn that?"
ROCK: "I don't know. Maybe I inherited it from my mother? She was an accomplished musician. Trumpet,oboe, bassoon...brass and woodwinds, mostly."
Tony Randall is at his dithery best, and Jayne Mansfield is wonderfully over the top. I recommend this movie highly.
Puppets and midgets and Michael Des Barres!
I don't know why people claim to hate this movie, because I love it to death. As a representative of the 80's teenage puppet horror schlock genre, it has no equal. Plus it has -- in addition to the most gratuitous midgets to appear on screen in the entire history of midget cinema, and I'm including "The Terror of Tiny Town" in that generalization -- a fabulous, frothing, scenery-gnawing performance by Michael Des Barres, who fancied himself an actor for quite awhile despite being continually proved wrong.
The movie opens with a group of robed satanists preparing to sacrifice a baby in the basement of a mansion. As the head satanist raises his knife, a woman darts out of the crowd and shrieks "No! Not our child!" thus revealing the head satanist, Malcolm (Michael Des Barres) as the baby's father. Malcolm gives the woman a poisonous look with his glowing green eyes and summons puppet demons to eat her for her intransigence; in the mêlée, no one notices as Wolfgang (Jack Nance, the artist formerly known as "Eraserhead") gathers up the baby and spirits him away.
Fast forward 20-something years. The baby has grown up to be Jonathan (Peter Liapis) and has inherited the mansion where he was once almost killed on an altar and where, presumably, his mother was eaten by evil puppets. He must not know the history of the place, though, because he moves right on in with his girlfriend Rebecca (the cat-faced Lisa Pelikan) and begins to clean the place up. They appear to be college students with the usual quota of "wacky" friends without whom no 80's movie would be complete: the slutty girl, the nerd, the stupid hunk, etc.
During the cleanup, Jonathan discovers a pentagram on the basement floor and opens a trunk full of his father's satanist regalia. This frees his spirit to leap headlong into the wholesale worship of evil, despite the fact that he has never shown a tendency toward black magic before in his life and was, up to this moment, known as a pretty decent chap.
At a housewarming party, Jonathan shows his friends the basement set-up and, having ascertained that he needs seven people to actually do any useful evil, he chants a spell in front of them. They make fun of him and he takes it badly, but the end result -- unknown to his friends -- is the summoning of a dozen ugly little demons of the sort who ate his mother. Oedipus? Can you hear me calling you, son?
When Rebecca catches him swanning around the basement in satin robes, she stomps off in disgust. He woos her back, only to scare the crap out of her with some impromptu satanistic S&M action in the bedroom. When she leaves again, he decides the only way to get this party started is to get him some minions. Accordingly, he zaps Rebecca with Satan mind control, invites all his friends to dinner, hypnotizes them so they won't notice the puppet monsters drooling in the soup, and "completes the circle". When next we see his friends, they are wearing long white robes and sitting around the pentagram in the basement. For an amateur, Jonathan is pretty good.
Suddenly there is a flash! and a bang! and two tiny, ugly creatures appear in front of Jonathan, ready to do his bidding. Thus do we meet Grizzel and Greedigut, surely the worst movie roles ever essayed by midget actors (Peter Risch and the enchantingly-named Tamara De Treaux). They promise everlasting devotion and gambol off to do Jonathan's bidding, while his friends, freed from their spell, wander around the house smoking doobies and screwing in the bushes as the demons pick them off one at a time.
Unfortunately, Johnathan reckoned without Malcolm. As the ghoulies happily disembowel his friends, each "sacrifice" gives the spirit of the Decadent Marquis a little more strength. Eventually he bursts out of his grave on the mansion grounds and strides into the house -- rotting as he goes -- to do battle with the punk kid he should have dispatched years ago in the basement. Hijinks ensue, Jonathan defeats Malcolm at his own game (much to the detriment of poor Wolfgang), his dead friends come back to life, and everyone flees the mansion at a run. Predictably (because there were sequels) the back seat of Jonathan's car is revealed to be full of puppet ghoulies.
A couple of things. First, who was Peter Liapis and why didn't I know about him before? He's really hot. I mean, really, really hot. Second, Lisa Pelikan has a place in my heart because she appeared in the schlockiest ever Movie of the Week, "I Want To Keep My Baby!" with Mariel Hemingway. Third, Michael Des Barres was NOT an actor, and should never have let his wife write "I'm With The Band" because the whole time I was watching Ghoulies I was thinking, you slept with a Plaster Caster? The Hell?
On second thought, maybe this movie wasn't so great after all.
The Boogens (1981)
Monsters crawl out of a cavern and eat meddlesome kids. But why the dog?
After an opening montage of newspaper headlines ("Motherlode Found!" segues to "Mine Closed Forever By Gruesome Death!" or some such) establishing that this mine is a Dangerous Place, we meet Roger and Mark, two young miners-in-training, hired to help two older and crustier miners (Brian and Dan) re-open the Mine of Death.
Roger (Jeff Harlan, who looks a little too much like David Spade for my comfort) and Mark (Fred McCarren) have rented a house together near the mine. Roger is eagerly awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend, and his early dialogue consists almost entirely of smarmy jokes about how long it's been since he got some. Mark is leery of a set-up with Jessica's friend, Trish, who is helping Jessica move; he refers to the last blind date Roger set up for him as "Quasimodo's daughter".
Jessica (Anne-Marie Martin) and Trish (Rebecca Balding) arrive in a VW bug, accompanied by a spirited miniature poodle named Tiger. I must confess I found Jessica a little distracting, since I was more familiar with her splendid, scenery-chewing turn as the bitchy Wendy in "Prom Night" and it was odd to see her acting like a nice person.
A white-haired old man slinks periodically through the narrative, looking furtive and atmospheric so you know he's got Knowledge Of The Past. Hijinks ensue almost immediately as the guys knock a hole in the wall of the mine, freeing monsters who earlier tunneled into every house in town (hence the early murders that closed the mine) and were just waiting to be set free to murder and maim anew. The monsters promptly take advantage of the miner's carelessness by setting up shop in the basement of Mark and Roger's house, which sets up the first killing: Roger and Mark's landlady, who has come to open up the house and makes a fateful trip to the basement.
The second victim is Roger himself, who takes a break from banging his girlfriend to get some sleep and is yanked under his work truck by a tentacle. The third victim, sadly, is Tiger, arguably one of the best actors in the film. That's where the movie and I parted company; I can't stand movies where the dog dies.
When Jessica gets out of the bathtub to investigate Tiger's howls, she discovers his tiny corpse, and is promptly gnawed to death clad only a towel. The director seems to have had a thing about personal daintiness, because for the women in this movie, bathing is invariably fatal: Jessica dies fresh from the tub, the landlady is killed in her bathrobe after showering, and Mark's first view of Trish is her naked backside as she stands, dripping and be-toweled, in a doorway. Somewhere in between monster attacks, Mark and Trish discover they are hot for each other and have gauzy 80's sex in front of the fireplace.
Things clatter to a predictable conclusion: Brian and Dan discover the remains of Roger, whose face has been chewed off; Mark rescues Trish from the Basement of Death, seconds before one of the monsters attaches itself to the face of the Sheriff; Brian and Dan die honorably, attempting to save Mark; the old man turns out to have The Key To It All, and the mine shaft and house are blown up real good.
There are standout moments: a sequence in a pool hall, where Jessica turns out to be a ringer on the order of Minnesota Fats and wins a handful of cash from Brian and Dan; the flirtatious coupling of Mark and Trish, made believable by genuine chemistry between the actors; the foursome leaving the house and admonishing Tiger to behave -- after which Tiger promptly paws open the bedroom closet and settles down to gnaw a shoe. As has been mentioned before, the fact that the monsters don't really show their faces until the very end of the movie is a good thing, not because they are laughable (which they kind of are) but because they are a lot scarier before you see them.
I give the movie 7 out of 10, but only because they killed the damn dog.
Prom Night (1980)
Kids settle grudges with axes.
A child dies after being chased out the window of an abandoned building by four other children. An unseen witness to the accident comes back years later looking for revenge, and heads roll. Literally.
The dead child, Robin Hammond, was the daughter of the high-school principal (Leslie Neilsen) and the sister of Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis). Robin also had a twin brother, Alex. Four children were present when Robin fell, but only one of them, Nick (Casey Stevens) suggests going for help. The other three -- Wendy (Eddie Benton), Kelly (Mary Beth Rubens), and Jude (Joy Thompson)-- make him swear never to reveal what happened. Robin's death is blamed on a psycho named Murch, whose car crashes while he is being pursued by police.
We see the Hammond family paying a visit to Robin's grave-site six years later. The anniversary of her death coincides with the date of Kim's senior prom. Buzzkill!
In the intervening years, Nick and Kim have become "involved". Nick is a sincere chap, but not sincere enough to tell Kim that he helped kill her sister, although he appears to toy briefly with the idea when Kim breaks down in tears about how the day of the prom is the anniversary of her sister's death. "It would have been her first prom," she sobs. "Uh, Kim..." says Nick, uncomfortably, before he wimps out and trots off to football practice.
Kim is also friends with Kelly and Jude, neither of whom seems to be bothered in the least by the dead sister..er, elephant in the room. As for Wendy, who has grown up to be the quintessential Rich Bitch Mean Girl, she doesn't care about anything but clothes, cars...and Nick.
Apparently, Nick broke up with Wendy to date Kim, and Wendy isn't taking it well. Wendy asks Lou (played with sullen, stupid menace by David Mucci) to help her get revenge. Lou -- one of the more fully realized characters in the film -- readily agrees; you get the feeling that his future includes an appearance on an episode of "Cops". When he arrives at Wendy's house to take her to the prom, he passes her a bottle of whiskey, belches, wipes his mouth, and says "You look terrific."
A shadowy figure with a guttural voice makes phone calls to Nick, Wendy, Jude, and Kelly, promising mayhem at the prom, but no one seems alarmed, even when Kelly and Jude find their yearbook pictures pinned in their lockers with shards of a broken mirror. Kim and Wendy meow and scratch at each other over Nick. Kelly agonizes over whether to let her boyfriend, Drew, go "all the way". Jude meets a short, frizzy-haired kid in a Chevy van; he calls himself "Slick" and asks her to the prom. At the prom, Wendy and Lou's entrance spurs Nick and Kim to hit the dance floor, where they twirl and prance in synchronized abandon to an aggressive disco beat.
In the background, the police skitter about looking for Murch, who, conveniently for the plot, has escaped from the local asylum in time to serve as the largest and smelliest in a series of red herrings. A creepily-mustached school janitor has also been offered up for suspicion. And all this before any blood is shed at all.
Kelly is the first to die, in a locker room, where she has gone to make out with Drew. When she refuses to do the deed, Drew stomps out to "...find someone who will!", leaving Kelly to sob "Drew, you bastard!" just before the killer sticks a shard of mirror through her windpipe.
Jude dies next. Slick's nerdy exterior conceals a van equipped with a bed and enough weed to knock out Cheech and Chong. As Jude and Slick toke up and giggle about losing their virginity to each other, the killer opens the back door of the van, slits Jude's throat, and dispatches Slick by forcing him to drive the van off a cliff.
Wendy is the only one of the victims who shows any gumption. Confronted by the ax-wielding killer, she kicks off her high heels, runs like a deer, and takes refuge in the school auto shop. The killer finds her when she attempts to hide in a closet and finds the still-warm body of poor, virginal Kelly hanging on the wall. Her screams give away her position and the ax falls shortly thereafter.
When Nick and Kim queue up to be crowned King and Queen of the prom, Lou and his goons grab Nick and tie him up. Lou puts on the crown and waits for his cue -- receiving instead an ax to the back of the neck. His head, with the crown at a rakish angle, rolls out onto the dance floor and grosses everyone out. Meanwhile, Kim has rescued Nick and the killer realizes he's decapitated the wrong guy. The killer grabs the ax and goes after Nick -- only to be disarmed by Kim, who smacks him in the head.
The women do all the heavy lifting in this film.
The killer staggers out the front door of the high school, whereupon Kim realizes who he is and tackles him before the police can shoot. She pulls off the killers' ski mask to reveal her brother, Robin's twin, Alex. It seems that Alex was at the school when Robin fell out the window, and has known all this time who was responsible. He dies in Kim's arms as the music swells.
A very large question arises from the ashes of this movie: If you were a little boy and someone pushed your twin sister out a window, wouldn't you run screaming home and tell your parents right away? And, failing that, wouldn't you feel compelled to tell your older sister she was dating one of the people responsible?