Sunday, April 24, 2011

Brain Movies

Let's face it—of all the weird movie subgenres out there, "brain" movies are among the goofiest. They even fall into sub-subcategories—evil alien brains; flying murderous brains; and, of course, human brains as foodstuffs.

1957's The Brain from Planet Arous is a good example of the evil alien brain. Starring ex-Mr. Shirley Temple John Agar (who already had a slew of Universal sci-fi features under his belt, including Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula and The Mole People), this film, independently produced and distributed by no-budget Howco International Pictures, makes the others look like A-list spectaculars. Agar plays Steve March, a scientist whose body becomes possessed by the criminal Gor, a malevolent brain from Arous. Gor/March goes wild, assaulting his fiancee, Sally (Joyce Meadows), blowing stuff up and plotting world domination.

Whenever Gor exerts his telepathic abilities, March's eyes become shiny silver, which is actually pretty creepy looking. Considering Agar had a round, babyish face, the effect is even more bizarre. When I met Agar at a collector's show in 2000, we talked about the contact lenses he wore for the effect. Not surprisingly, he said they hurt like hell and the flaking of the silver paint caused him permanent vision problems.

Gor must exit March's body every 24 hours to "re-assimilate oxygen," and when he (it?) does, he appears as a giant floating brain with glowing eyes (see picture at the top of the post), and March regains control of his faculties. When Sally meets Vol, a law enforcement brain from Arous, shows up and tells Sally that he's come to earth to take Gor into custody. He looks the same as Gor—a giant, floating brain with glowing eyes. It would have been hilarious if he'd had a big sheriff's badge pinned to his cerebellum. Oh—and he inhabits Sally's dog, George, from time to time, to keep his eye on things.

He tells Sally about Gor's vulnerable spot, and she leaves sleeping Steve a note and a diagram of the brain so that he can kill the alien despot and save the world...when he wakes up. The exciting climax involves Agar attacking a giant, bouncing brain on strings while Sally and George look on.

A happy childhood memory of mine is 1958's Fiend without a Face. It was a television staple when I was growing up, and I loved its explicit, squishy climax. It's an English film (with American actors) about a group of scientists at a Canadian military base who've been experimenting with nuclear energy to track enemies at long distances. Unfortunately, a nearby mad scientist is tapping into the same energy to create an invisible creature from his own subconscious that sucks out its victims' brains and spines.

Most of the film is played out as a mystery—who or what is committing these murders? American actor Marshall Thompson plays Major Cummings, the scientist who's trying to figure it all out. But it's the last 15 minutes of the film that it seemed to take forever to get to but was always worth waiting for—the attack of the brain monsters. Getting closer to the nuclear source, the invisible monster becomes visible, and soon there are dozens of leaping, flying brains with spinal cords attached, attacking their victims by wrapping said cords around their throats. When the brains are shot, they emit a viscous black fluid as well as an appropriate gurgling sound as they deflate. So effective were these effects that a neighbor friend with whom I was watching it one time ran to the bathroom to vomit.

is one of those movies that would really have worked as a 400' (18 minute) super 8mm condensation, and I can't believe it was never available that way. It'd be so easy to put together—spend three minutes quickly describing the plot, and then include the last 15 minutes of the brain attack unedited.

Another insane entry that bears repeat viewing is the Mexican El Baron del Terror, which was imported into the United States in 1962 by the legendary K. Gordon Murray and given the unforgettable new title The Brainiac.

Abel Salazar, who made a lot of south-of-the-border thrillers, stars as the Baron Vitelius d'Esteria, who, in a 1661 prologue, swears vengeance on the descendants of his accusers when he is sentenced to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. A comet passes overhead (well, actually kind of a sparkler), and I guess his soul "hitchhikes" a ride on it.

300 years later, the sparkler returns, bringing the reincarnation of the Baron back to the village to wreak his revenge. Appearing in human form as Ricky Ricardo—I mean a slick and stylish continental gentleman—he can transform into a batlike creature with a throbbing, hairy face and a long tongue with which to suck out his victims' brains. And when he gets hungry for a between-meal snack, he has a silver chalice filled with human brains in the living room from which he nibbles.

Fans of this film love the super-cheap sets; the strange, pulsating monster make-up; the wooden dialogue and dubbing; and Salazar himself, playing the suave gentleman bit for all it's worth as he throws lavish dinner parties for his victims before he changes into the Brainiac and sucks out their brains. Too hilarious—and too bad the MST3K gang never got their hands on it.

A much more contemporary entry into the genre is Frank Henenlotter's 1988 Brain Damage. It's a sick one, full of jet-black comedy. Soap opera star Rick Herbst stars as Brian, a twenty-something New Yorker who wakes up one morning to discover that he's sharing his bed with a parasitic creature—known as an Aylmer—that injects a euphoria-inducing fluid directly into his spinal column.

Brian quickly becomes hooked on Aylmer's juice," but the creature expects something in return. He needs Brian to help him acquire human brains on which to feast. Soon Brian's tripping through the streets of New York, with Aylmer in tow, in search of victims. Sickened by what he's done, Brian tries to withdraw from Aylmer, and tragedy results, of course.

This is a "drug scare" film as insane as 1972's Blood Freak—except with intentional humor and a more complicated plot. As written and directed by the individualistic Henenlotter, whose other films include the classic Basket Case and Frankenhooker, it's a wild trip. And considering its tiny budget, it's really quite well-made.

Aylmer is voiced by the legendary horror host Zacherly, and it' a hilarious juxtaposition that such a warm, reassuring voice comes out of this creature. But Aylmer is merciless—while Brian is writhing in full withdrawal on a grubby hotel room floor, he's bobbing back and forth in a nearby sink, merrily singing Glenn Miller's "Elmer's Tune." And in the film's most notorious scene, Brian takes a clubgirl into an alley where she kneels to perform oral sex on him, only to find Aylmer waiting behind his zipper!

I first saw this film on a Paramount Home Video release with the oral sex scene cut as well as some other gore. Synapse Video released a nice uncut DVD version of it in 2003, which is still available. I love the scene in which Brian is riding the subway when Basket Case's own Kevin Van Hentenryck gets on, still carrying the basket containing his "brother," sits across the aisle from Brian and stares at him nervously.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"Re-Animator" Lives Again!

I vividly remember seeing "Re-Animator" for the first time at the drive-in in 1985, lured by print ads promising a then-rarely-heard-of "unrated" version. But when the film began to unspool, and Richard Band's techno version of the "Psycho" theme started to play, I was worried that I had set myself up for a big slice of cheese.

I needn't have been concerned—it was a big slice of cheese, but the delicious, properly aged kind. Filled with rivers of blood and repeatable, campy dialogue delivered by mad scientist Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs in a career-making role) and his nemesis, the Miskatonic University faculty member and plagiarist Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), it was a memorable experience—and certainly fledgling Empire International (later Full Moon) Pictures' best film.

How the hell do you take a cult classic horror movie based on a work by H.P. Lovecraft and transform it into a full-fledged musical in a 99-seat theater with a tiny stage? The original film's director, Stuart Gordon, has done just that—with big messy buckets of ingenuity—and I had the good fortune to catch a performance at the Steve Allen Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard last night.

"Re-Animator: The Musical" recreates the entire film, told mostly in song. Gordon and his original co-scribes, Dennis Paoli and William Norris, provide the book, and composer/lyricist Mark Nutter provides excellent, hilarious songs performed by an able cast. Of course, they had me hooked from the get-go when the overture morphed into Band's techno-"Psycho."

One reviewer astutely referred to the score as "putrescent Sondheim," which is quite astute, and many of the priceless lines that fans know and love have been cleverly incorporated into the songs, which is essential for this kind of endeavor.

The special effects team behind the 1985 film were also involved in this production, and the way they adapted certain effects for the stage are simultaneously clever and endearingly slapdash. As a matter of fact, the blood flows so freely that the first four rows of seats are designated as a "splash zone," and audience members are offered trash bag ponchos to wear if they're feeling delicate.

Graham Skipper compares favorably to Jeffrey Combs in his portrayal of Herbert West, and Jesse Merlin is hilarious as his nemesis, Dr. Carl Hill. When he loses his head in the second act and must continue singing in the most awkward of positions, it's really quite an accomplishment.

Chris L. McKenna, who'd previously worked with Gordon on the film King of the Ants, is Dan Cain, the Miskatonic student who falls under West's influence, and his duets with both Skipper and Rachel Avery, who plays his love interest—and Dean Halsey's daughter—Megan, are a riot.

Speaking of Dean Halsey, George Wendt (who was also in Ants with McKenna) played the original role, but has since moved on. His replacement, Harry S. Murphy, is fine. The zombified dean even performs a riotous duet of sorts with Hill that brings to mind Peter Boyle's "Puttin' on the Ritz" number with Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. And during the climactic assault of the reanimated corpses, Band's techno theme pops up again, causing them to queue up for an undead conga line.

Laura Fine Hawkes' set is a model of ingenuity on a small scale, providing enough atmosphere to give you a sense of place, and the aforementioned gore effects are made all the more endearing by their awkwardness in execution. Gordon handles his material perfectly, as well he should. As the original director and also someone who's been able to watch the film's cult reputation expand over the years, he provides enough tributes to the source material to keep rabid fans happy while also nudging them in the ribs with a joyful kind of "Remember how ridiculous this was?" attitude.

It's this enthusiastic mixture of professionalism and an improv-like feel that makes "Reanimator: the Musical" a real winner. It's been extended to May 29th, and they're adding shows (including Fridays at midnight, which are sure to be wild), so if you're going to be in the Los Angeles area before then, you should definitely check it out.

Another Gordon production, "Nevermore," which I saw in 2009, is returning to the Steve Allen this month. It's a one-man show with Jeffrey Combs as Edgar Allen Poe losing his mind on stage during a speaking engagement. It's also definitely a must-see. It's been touring around the country, and there's even a comic book version (by Combs and 30 Days of Night author Steve Niles) set to be published. I can see that working well.

But what about "Re-Animator"? I could see it being preserved on video as a modestly-budgeted HBO-style special, preserving the stage performance. Normally I'd say this is a "you've got to be there" type of show, but the songs in this case really hold up, and it could be fun. That, in turn, could spark interest in a national tour. Or Gordon could package both shows and tour them from city to city. A whole new kind of cult roadshow could be born!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

"Pierce" Not So Fierce; "Shameless" Just That

Last night I watched the conclusion of Todd Haynes' miniseries of James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce" on HBO, and I have to confess I got a whole lot of cleaning done. Like Joan Crawford in the original film version, I needed something to do. I was so bored. If Haynes' goal was to present five-plus hours of meticulously recreated 1930s Los Angeles scenery with some very fine acting woven in, he achieved his goal. But he forgot to make it particularly exciting. Or maybe the source material wasn't that thrilling, but did it have to be so long?

Maybe it's my fault for having viewed the efficiently trimmed original feature starring Academy Award-winner Joan Crawford just before the miniseries began, but I just kept feeling like it was unnecessarily sluggish. Or maybe it's because I expected more of a twist from Haynes, who gave us a wonderfully kinky salute to glam rock, Velvet Goldmine, in 1998, and the brilliantly subversive remake of the widescreen, color-saturated 1950s dramas of producer Douglas Sirk, Far From Heaven, in 2002.

Now, I didn't want or expect Kate Winslet to make her entrance wearing giant shoulderpads and brandishing a wire hanger, but I was really hoping for something more. The acting was mostly fine—Winslet was good as Mildred, a devoted mother but cold-hearted manipulator who would stop at nothing to give evil daughter Veda the finer things in life.

Some of the other performers were also fine. I liked how Mildred's ex-husband (Brian F. O'Byrne) became a tried-and-true friend to her in this version, and former Brat Packer Mare Winningham was interesting as Mildred's somewhat devious friend Ida.

I preferred Morgan Turner as the younger Veda to Evan Rachel Wood, though. Sure, Veda is a pretentious little bitch, but Wood plays her in an extremely hammy fashion that breaks with the realism of the rest of the film. Guy Pearce is also wa-a-a-y over the top, and his Monty Beragon is so effete that I found it amusing that he'd turn into such a satyr when a woman walked into the room—unless he's being "straight for pay," which I guess could be the case.

And I know the adaptation is super-faithful to Cain's novel (which I haven't read), but Veda's sudden, ridiculous transformation from failed pianist to celebrated coloratura left me in a daze. I kept waiting for hints that she was a sham and thought I almost got one when Mildred looked through her binoculars at a concert and studied her daughter's mouth. I thought she was going to realize that Veda was lip-synching. And what was with the bizarre outfits Veda wore while performing? And speaking of lip-synching, why did we have to sit through entire numbers being mouthed by Wood when the series was already plenty long? Yeesh.

Speaking of lips, what was with that scene where Mildred goes into Veda's bedroom and kisses her full on the mouth while she's asleep? Seemed to be an unfollowed twist. And the fact that almost everyone in the story has a hidden agenda and seeks to manipulate others to their own ends just cried out for some fun curves, but no go. And the climax was surprisingly unsurprising, unless you're a teenage boy—in that case you got to fap to Wood's full-frontal nudity. Speaking of nudity, the sex scenes sprinkled throughout (including one with a bravely disturbing and potbellied James LeGros) were just silly. And speaking of speaking...well, I digress.

Picture it. The Warner Bros. studio, 1945. A perfectly serviceable Mildred Pierce adaptation. Throw in a murder. Make it noir. Crisp, black and white, with an award-winning performance by an actress scrambling to salvage her career and a full-bodied Max Steiner score. What else do you need?

As with Peter Jackson's interminable, boring King Kong (2005), I really felt this was a case of a director having far too much respect for his material.

And douchebag Monty doesn't even get killed in this one!

When I first saw the promos for Shameless with William H. Macy introducing us to his sleazy, dysfunctional family, I didn't think much of it, but I gave it a chance anyhow. Much to my surprise, I found it to have a real, beating heart buried beneath the dirt.

Macy is the patriarch of the Gallagher family that lives in a lower-class neighborhood in Chicago. Since he's usually drunk or passed out somewhere, eldest daughter Fiona (Emmy Rossum) has taken charge of the children. Even though they'll lie, cheat and steal to get by, they're essentially good kids, and Fiona is continuously trying to better their lives so that they can someday go straight.

The rest of the gang—second-eldest Philip ("Lip," played by Jeremy Allen White) is a genius who gets paid to take SATs for other students at his school and Ian (Cameron Monaghan) is an ROTC soldier who also happens to be having an affair with the married male owner of the neighborhood bodega at which he is employed. The other kids are still pretty little, although Emma Kenney is coming into her own as Debbie, the youngest Gallagher daughter.

Fiona's sort-of-boyfriend is Steve—aka Jimmy (Justin Chatwin)—a rich boy whose family thinks he's attending college, while he's actually rebelling against them by working the streets of Detroit as a car thief. Unfortunately, he's also keeping his double life a secret from Fiona, whom he's fallen desperately in love with.

The Gallaghers' neighbors are Veronica and Kevin (Shanola Hampton and Steve Howey). Kevin runs the neighborhood bar that Frank is a permanent fixture of, and Veronica is Fiona's best friend, always ready to lend a hand, much to Kevin's chagrin. It's a surprisingly tight and likable group, even with all the grunge and hustle. Actually, the grunge and hustle is what makes them likable!

The supporting cast must have been a hoot to put together. The always appealingly strange Joan Cusack is Sheila Jackson, the agoraphobic mother of rebellious Karen (Laura Wiggins), a school acquaintance Lip is developing a romantic relationship with. Sheila becomes sexually involved with Frank, driving her own husband (Joel Murray) out of the house, and it's a recipe for disaster. I guess Cusack counts as a regular, since she's been in all of the first season's episodes.

Academy award-winner (and Exorcist II star) Louise Fletcher has shown up for one cameo as sleazy Grammy Gallagher, whom Lip and Ian visit in prison. Chloe Webb (Sid and Nancy, Tales from the City) makes a welcome return, for me at least, as Frank's estranged wife and mother of the clan. And Julia Duffy (Newhart, Designing Women) has fun playing Steve/Jimmy's perpetually buzzed, pillow-princess mother.

Even cult favorite Gloria Le Roy (Barfly) plays as a nursing home resident the children bring home to impersonate their late grandmother when Frank is in danger of losing his ill-gotten social security checks. Next season, I want to see Karen Black and Susan Tyrrell, dammit!

This is one of those series that walks the fine line between cartoonish situations and real life, and it does it very well, unlike, say, any Chuck Lorre show. Indeed, headliner Macy, in my opinion, is the weak link. He's just not believable as the neighborhood wastrel. He enunciates too well, he's too East Coast (even though he's supposed to be playing a Fox News-watching asshole) and he's playing...well, William H. Macy. Okay, I'll give him a couple of fist bumps for the season finale. That was pretty good.

The actors playing his children, however, are another story entirely. If I had to pick a real standout, I'd have to go with Rossum. With her perpetually wounded eyes harboring a backbone of pure twisted steel, her Fiona is determined to keep the family clothed and fed...whatever it takes. Her heart is on her sleeve, and she's always worth watching.

It's amazing how much The Washington Post's Hank Steuver agrees with me (or me with him, since he got here first). Shameless is unapologetically raunchy, yet it offers up a really appealing vision of a messed-up but close-knit family. I can't wait for the next season.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Red Snoring Hood

Late post this week. I was in Manhattan managing an event. Of course, a trip to the Big Apple is always so welcome. There's such a great energy in the air.

I did manage to set aside time to see Green Day's "American Idiot" at the St. James Theater on Wednesday night. I'd really been looking forward to it, as I'm a major fan of the band. I wasn't disappointed. The book was kind of cliched, but it was really a rock opera with minimal spoken lines, emphasizing the great music.

There were some cast changes—John Gallagher Jr. (Spring Awakening) left the cast, but his replacement, Van Hughes, is good as Johnny. Rebecca Naomi Jones, who I also saw in Passing Strange, is Whatsername, and she's great. Sadly, I missed Billie Joe taking over the role of St. Jimmy by five stinkin' days! It's closing on the 24th, so I'm glad I was able to catch it anyway.

And now for our feature presentation...

I went to a screening of the much-derided Red Riding Hood tonight, and I have to say it richly deserves its paltry 11% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, the helmer of the first Toilet—er, I mean Twilight—movie, it's designed to appeal to the same audience that flocked to those sparkly vampire flicks. Unfortunately, it fails on all counts. It's not scary enough, nor does it have enough of that lip-biting teen angst that the Twihards seem to respond to.

This is Amanda Seyfried's second horror film after the dreadful Megan Fox starrer Jennifer's Body (well, it's actually her third horror film if you count Mamma Mia!). You'd think with her big blue bulging eyes she'd be able to communicate a variety of emotions, but she runs the gamut from A to B, as Dorothy Parker famously said.

Seyfried is Valerie, a young woman who lives in a generic European village on the edge of a dark forest inhabited by a werewolf. The villagers have been terrorized by the werewolf and its forebears for generations, which raises the question: "Why the hell don't they just leave?" It's like the old Sam Kinison line about the starving people in Ethiopia—"Why don't you move to where the food is???"

Valerie loves her childhood sweetheart Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), but her mother (Virginia Madsen) has arranged for her marriage to Henry (Max Irons), because he's better off financially and can give her a good life. Now why Henry is richer than Peter is a mystery, because everyone in the village seems to be eking out the same miserable existence involving woodcutting, hunting and hanging out in the village tavern. But when Valerie's sister is killed by the werewolf, she discovers a bunch of family secrets that would be interesting in a better movie, but come off here as simultaneously ridiculous and boring.

Madsen, a television and direct-to-video stalwart from the '80s and '90s, restarted her A-list career with the alleged comedy Sideways (2004). I don't dislike her, but in this film she's wearing a mass of blond curls that make her already-large face even bigger. The younger actors are graduates of the "Gossip Girl" school of performing arts, delivering the dull dialogue with a kind of smug irony. And despite the foreign locale, everyone speaks with a flat midwestern American accent.

Gary Oldman gets a Big Entrance as Father Solomon, a Horace Hill-type traveling werewolf hunter. For some reason, he has a giant cast-iron elephant in tow that serves as a portable prison, as well as two black guards who should've been far more fascinating to the all-white villagers than a boring old werewolf. He brings out unnecessarily complicated contraptions like a clockwork planetarium as he delivers his spiel about blood moons and wolves and stuff, and the townsfolk (not the brightest bunch) gawk in wonder.

The marvelous Julie Christie plays Seyfried's grandmother ("What big teeth you have!") and I'm completely perplexed by her decision to take the role. Mostly she's involved in the alleged "pop-up" scares—you know, when the music does a sudden crescendo and there's a false scene of terror? There's a pop-up when she's carrying a huge fur coverlet to a bed, and then there's another pop-up when she herself pops up out of bed and says "Good morning!" to Valerie. It's ridiculous.

After the male townsfolk kill a regular gray wolf and carry its hilariously snarling decapitated head around on a pike, they have a celebration that looks a helluva lot more like Burning Man than an isolated village's party. The music is avant garde, they wear bizarre animal masks, and they all act like they want to have sex right away. This sequence is made even more incongruous when, in the next scene, Valerie is accused of being a witch. What the hell does that mean? You were all dancing around like horny pagans a minute ago, and now you're getting all Christian and damning ol' Bulgy Eyes?

Oh, yeah—Lukas Haas, looking like he was plucked off of skid row to play his part, is a bible-thumping type who had summoned Father Solomon to the village in the first place. And there's a village idiot (of course) whom Solomon falsely accuses of being the wolf's accomplice. But all these diversions are just so much balloon really don't care.

The art direction is hilarious. Hammer Films did so much better with Curse of the Werewolf and, well, any of their other period pieces. And Neil Jordan's 1984 Company of Wolves did so much more with a fraction of this film's budget. Here, the running theme seems to be pricks. The trees are like rose stems with huge thorns sticking out of them, and the houses also have sharp thornlike appendages. There's also a scene set in a grove of what seem to be bales of hay or the business ends of brooms with violet flowers growing out of them. What the hell are they supposed to be?

Father Solomon sentences Valerie to sit in the village square wearing the "mask of shame": it looks like a World War II gas mask with funny ears, and all you can see of Seyfried is her goggly eyes. The effect is hilarious. A Gossip Girl shows up to berate her and say that she's getting what she deserves because she was always the pretty one, the most popular. It makes absolutely no sense. And the werewolf! Oh, boy. It changes color from scene to scene, and when it finally confronts Valerie, it's a big, black, dorky-looking dog-like creature that speaks to her telepathically. They really had to push for a PG-13 rating, too, because the killings are quick and bloodless, and aside from the bizarre festival, there's really no adult content to speak of.

Spoilers, here...if you care...

It turns out that Valerie's father is the beast, and Peter is bitten in the fracas (where is his fracas, you may wonder), so now he is cursed. He and Valerie rush off into the snowy wilderness, stopping to have brief, nonexplicit sex in the freezing snow. He tells her to return to the village; he'll come back for her when it's time. He finally returns as the doofy werewolf. She leers and him salaciously and they take off together. Huh?

If The Situation and Snooki do "Romeo and Juliet" I will move to another country, I swear to God.


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