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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Intentional Cult Films

When one thinks of cult cinema, the titles that most easily come to mind are the accidental ones — movies that were intended to actually be good — Mommie Dearest, Exorcist II and Valley of the Dolls, to name the Holy Trinity. Something went terribly wrong in the filmmaking process, however, and the results were unintentional comic genius. Then there are the films that set out to be cult classics from the start but failed miserably. Shock Treatment, Howard the Duck and almost any Quentin Tarantino blabfest are some that immediately come to mind.

So is it possible to intentionally make a cult film that successfully fulfills all the qualifications of strangeness right out of the gate? Yes, indeed. In this post, I'll examine some titles that I feel accomplished just that very thing.

Let's establish some parameters. In my opinion, these are the key aspects of a successful cult movie:
  1. It's weird but it works
  2. It's got a plot, no matter how bizarre
  3. It stands the test of time
  4. It's not just strange — it's also fun to watch
For purposes of this discussion, I'm leaving out John Waters' ouevre (too easy) and midnight movies like Eraserhead and El Topo, which are more in the arthouse genre anyhow. I'm talking about genre-transcending films whose makers built in all the intentional weirdness from the get-go...and it all gelled.

I was inspired to write this column by my recent re-viewing of Jack Hill's Spider Baby, starring Lon Chaney, Carol Ohmart (House on Haunted Hill), Sid Haig, Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner. It's the story of the Merrye family, an eccentric clan that suffers from a syndrome that causes its members to regress, starting at age 10, to childlike behavior and finally to a pre-human, feral condition. Chaney is Bruno, the caretaker of the last of the Merrye brood, tasked with watching over them as their conditions degenerate.

Elizabeth (Washburn), Victoria (Banner) and Ralph (Haig) are the "children." Ralph's condition is the most advanced and he's lost the power of speech, and Victoria likes to play "spider" with unlucky visitors, capturing them in her web of string and "stinging" them to death with two long knives. Trouble arrives in the form of distant cousins Emily (Omart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker), who show up with a shyster lawyer and attractive young secretary in tow to get their hands on the Merrye estate. When first they meet this houseful of kooks, Emily thinks it's all an act to get them to leave empty-handed. She insists that they spend the night...and it's a decision they'll all soon regret.

Geez, I sound like Charles Gray.

Anyhow, poor Lon was hitting the bottle pretty hard by this time, and he's sweaty and rheumy-eyed, but damned if he doesn't deliver a committed performance. Banner is terrific as the sloe-eyed Victoria, the de facto "Spider Baby." And Washburn is at first an obnoxious goody two-shoes until she realizes what the intruders are up to and thereafter joins in the mayhem wholeheartedly.

The original producers went bankrupt before the film could be released, leaving it to languish on the shelf until 1968, when it was distributed as Spider Baby. Hill's original title was Cannibal Orgy, which would've been difficult to promote in 1964, but such a title might've found a more receptive audience four years later among drive-in viewers who were watching such brain-burners as Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary's Baby. It remained elusive for years, showing up at collector's shows in gray market VHS copies made from battered prints. Finally, Hill himself restored the film and it started getting the reputation it deserves. And the version I saw on Turner Classic Movies looked terrific.

Hill went on to a remarkable career in the WIP and blaxploitation genres. Washburn also appeared in Hills' Pit Stop and continues to work today, as does Redeker. Sadly, Banner died in a car accident in 1982 at age 35.
 
The Chiodo Brothers' Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) also fits snugly into this category. It's  weird, it's certainly fun to watch and it stands the test of time because the fear of clowns is timeless.

The Chiodos have had a long career fabricating special effects for features films and television. Their klowns look great even in today's digital world. In fact, it's their "fleshiness" that makes it work. And who doesn't love the great theme song by The Dickies?

It begins with teen lovers Mike Tobacco (Grant Cramer) and Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder) spotting a strange light in the evening sky that seems to land in a nearby woods. Going to investigate, they discover a gigantic circus tent with cotton candy-cocooned victims trapped inside. They rush to the authorities for help but are met with scoffing derision by Sheriff Mooney (John Vernon, giving Frank Drebin a run for his money). Shades of The Blob! That's about it for the storyline; this film is all about the set pieces. Lethal balloon animals, guns that shoot deadly popcorn, giant cartoon hammers — they're just some of the weapons at the alien clowns' disposal. And the '80s vibe and fashions merely add to the fun.

A sequel, Return of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space in 3D, also starring Cramer, is supposedly in production. Unfortunately, the klowns may be CG this time around, which would be a shame.

I remember seeing grim trailers for a movie called Strange Behavior airing on late-night television in 1981. I couldn't wait for it to open and it certainly didn't disappoint, but the trailers missed the boat, marketing it as just another one of the slashers so popular at the time. Sure, it's a horror film and yes, there are slashings. But it's also weird as hell.

Part of the weirdness stems from the fact that it's supposed to be set in Illinois but was shot in Auckland. And whenever you've got a score by Tangerine Dream, you just know it's going to be weird. Scripted by a young Bill Condon, who has since gone on to big-budget fare like Dreamgirls, the final two Twilight movies and (oops) The Fifth Estate, it's an homage to the pulp horrors of the 1950s. And New Zealand is surely the place you want to film to get that 1950s feel.

The cast is full of familiar American faces: Charles Lane, who played cantankerous old men for decades; Marc McClure, Jimmy Olson in the Christopher Reeve Superman films; Altman favorite Michael Murphy; and Louise Fletcher in a rare sympathetic role as Murphy's girlfriend. Dan Shor stars as Pete Brady (!), son of the town sheriff, John (Murphy). Looking to pick up some extra cash, he's told of an experimental program being conducted at the local university by his pal Oliver (McClure) that pays its subjects well.

At the college, Pete meets Dr. Parkinson (the hilariously acerbic Fiona Lewis), who tells him that the experiments are going to make him feel stronger and smarter. In actuality, there's a much more sinister intent — to transform the subjects into mindless zombies who'll commit murder on command. It's all the work of the evil Dr. LeSange (Arthur Dignam), who'd faked his own death years before and continues to conduct his gruesome work in secret.

The killings are really good. There's a real mind-melting scene featuring a housekeeper going upstairs to check on her young charge, only to find the kid dead in the bathtub while a large girl saws his arm off with a butcher knife.

I don't know if this part was intentional or a happy accident, but when she gets up to chase the housekeeper, the film sort of blurs and takes on a dreamlike stop-motion effect for a moment. It's very effective either way. Condon himself plays the first victim, discovered by the cops as an eyeless scarecrow tied to a post in a farmer's field. And — as you see in the DVD art above — poor Pete gets a really long needle in the eye.

But what makes Strange Behavior a perfect fit for the category is the all-abiding weirdness. Murphy is so laid-back that when he comes to work in the station in the morning, the first thing he does is have his assistant (Lane) get him a beer. Speaking of laid back, while John is shaving in the bathroom, Pete walks in, completely naked, and just stands their while his father finishes up.

When first we meet Fletcher's character, she's taking a big swig of Coke and then staring appreciatively at the bottle as if it's just said something nice to her. Later, Pete and Oliver go to a party where the costumed participants launch into an elaborately choreographed dance while Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes" plays. Oh...and did I mention it's not Halloween? And when John and Pete dig up Dr. LeSange to confirm he's really dead, there's nothing in the coffin except leg bones. The list goes on and on...

I saw Condon speak at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors convention in 1998. He was there to talk about his wonderful Gods and Monsters in which Arthur Dignam, Dr. LeSange himself, portrays Ernest Thesiger (the strange, weedy actor who played Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein).

I asked him if Dignam's casting was inspired by their earlier film, and he brightened up, happily reminiscing about Behavior. Afterwards, I had him sign my copy of "Father of Frankenstein," the Christopher Bram book that was the source for Gods, and you can see here that he enjoyed our conversation.

Condon and director Michael Laughlin reteamed for Strange Invaders a couple of years later, also with Lewis, Shor, Lane, Fletcher and Dey Young (Pete's girlfriend in Behavior). But the magic had passed; it just didn't have the same quirky charm.

Maverick director Samuel Fuller's 1964 The Naked Kiss is another one that deserves mention here. It starts off with a bang — a bald prostitute (Constance Towers) whomps the hell out of her pimp and then takes off to start life anew in the wholesome, Twilight Zone-ish community of Grantville. There, she gets a job in a hospital for disabled children and finds love with the wealthy, urbane scion of the town (Michael Dante). She is constantly pressured by the local police chief (Anthony Eisley), who had a quick tumble with her and now wants her to go work at the whorehouse across the state line. As if that weren't bad enough, she discovers a terrible secret about her dreamy beau — he's a child molester!

The film is quite well done, with nice widescreen black and white cinematography and good performances all around, which is what makes its strangeness all the more pronounced. The dialogue is so off-kilter that it seems to be coded, and there are a couple of amazingly maudlin musical numbers.

Towers really throws herself into her role, and Dante is appropriately sleazy. One can only wonder was audiences thought of it 50 years ago. It probably played the "art houses" — the downtown theaters grown-ups went to when they wanted to see foreign boobies.

Paul Verhoeven is no stranger to strange. He's directed such cult faves as The Fourth Man and Robocop, but it's Starship Troopers that really fits this category best. With an estimated $100 million budget, it's got to be the most expensive cult film ever made. When it was released to baffled audiences in 1997, it was surprising how many people saw it as merely a bad sci-fi epic when in fact it's a wildly subversive spoof of a bad sci-fi epic.

The cast, including perfect-chinned Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards (before she got Sheened), Neil Patrick Harris, Jake Busey and the great character actors Michael Ironside and Clancy Brown, is perfect. Even Golden Girl Rue McClanahan shows up in a bizarre role as a battle-blinded biology teacher.
 
Verhoeven's vision of nonstop media penetration in all aspects of society, constantly emphasizing patriotism and urging young people to join the infantry and serve the greater good, is creepily prescient. He's used commercials for parodic effect before, but here he's laying the totalitarian state theme on with a trowel. Roger Ebert (who didn't like the film) said it was true to the source, a Robert Heinlein novel first serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. And that's how the film feels — like a serial. A really insane serial.

The young soldiers are sent off to battle their country's mortal enemy, a species of smart bugs known as Arachnids, and the fights are really, really violent and the special effects are superb. Harris is a brainiac who has a special kind of telepathy that allows him to understand what the bugs are feeling. "It's afraid!" he announces after pressing his hand against the gooey flesh of a giant sluglike captive.

There have been three sequels to the film to date, with Van Dien returning as Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers: Marauder. I've seen parts of it on cable, and it was both boring and cheesy, with bad special effects.

Speaking of cult classics, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is on TCM, so I guess I'll have to sign off now.


Friday, January 17, 2014

Babysit at Your Own Risk

Among the untapped genres here at Weird Movie Village (and there are fewer since it began almost five years ago!), I realized we haven't given any love to the babysitter movie, and it's a rich category to mine. Think about it — there are at least five kinds of babysitter films:
  1. Babysitter is psycho and puts the children in peril
  2. Babysitter's psychological baggage puts the whole family in peril
  3. Babysitter turns Dad on; he wants her to do a lot more than watch the kids
  4. Babysitter is innocently watching the tots but a killer is stalking the house; more messed-up situations
  5. Babysitter has friends over; alcohol is introduced and the messed-up situation escalates from there
There were probably twisted babysitter films made before 1950 (hello, Kroger Babb?), but the first one I remember is Don't Bother to Knock (1952), with Marilyn Monroe as a category #1 sitter.

Her emotionally (and physically) scarred Nell takes an interest in airline pilot Jed (Richard Widmark) in the luxury hotel whose lounge singer (Anne Bancroft, in her film debut) has just kicked him to the curb. Things start out innocently enough — she pretends to be a guest at the hotel rather than the sister of the elevator operator (Elisha Cook Jr.), who'd gotten her the babysitting gig. But as her dementia increases, she starts to imagine that Jed is actually Phillip, the fiance who'd died flying over the Pacific and prompted her to attempt suicide. The babysitter mayhem occurs when Nell decides that her young charge, Bunny (Donna Corcoran) is hindering her romance, so she ties her up and gags her in her bedroom!

This is a strange film — only 76 minutes long, it was a "B" feature released by 20th Century-Fox and directed by future Hammer helmer Roy Ward Baker. Frankly, I don't remember Bancroft's performance, but Marilyn's is burnt into my memory. In one of her first leading roles, the young actress is obviously drawing upon her own troubled past for motivation, and it's painful to watch in retrospect. Don't Bother and Niagara, another dark Monroe film, are among my favorites. Most people prefer the sexy, lip-glossed boop-boop-de-doop Marilyn, but I love this Actors Studio Norma Jean.

As a kid growing up in South Bend, Indiana, I saw a lot of the low budget Universal films from the '50s and '60s (because they were syndicated in cheap black and white programming packages). One of our local stations ran a movie after church every Sunday, so while the grown-ups were in the kitchen drinking endless cups of coffee and discussing local politics, I was in the living room with my sisters and cousins watching whatever was on TV.

That's how I was first exposed to William Castle's I Saw What You Did (1965), featuring babysitters in category #3. I've covered this title before, so I'll be brief. Since I was an oft-babysitted kid at the time, it really resonated with me, especially the strangely fog-shrouded grounds that surrounded the otherwise typical suburban house and that groovy,  menacing title music. And that cameo by Joan Crawford at the very height of her "please don't light my neck" phase.

Another one I covered previously but deserves another mention is the Hammer Films production of The Nanny (also 1965), starring caterpillar-eyebrowed and veddy English Bette Davis as the title character (and category #2), holding an entire family in her sway after the young son, Joey (William Dix) had been institutionalized for drowning his little sister — an act, of course, he didn't commit. Time and time again, he tries to convince his parents that Nanny is to blame, but it's useless.

Davis delivers a terrific, understated performance here, but it's not without its Bette-isms, which makes it even better. She calls Joey Mastah Choey (say it aloud) and easily manipulates his barmy mother. An added bonus is the always-welcome Pamela Franklin as the boy's slightly older female neighbor, the only one who believes his conspiracy theories (and gives the ten-year-old cigarettes!).

 1971 brought us another English babysitter entry — Fright, starring the buxom and toothsome Susan George as the sitter in peril. Sadly, when it was released in the States, it proved to be a rather mild entry in the genre at a time when such great stuff as Tales from the Crypt and Vampire Lovers were coming to our shores. Now it's considered a proto-slasher; that may be true, but it's all proto and no slasher. Her sitter fits in category #4.

In 1978 came the ultimate babysitter horror film — Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis as the virginal Laurie Strode is left with a young boy and girl so her promiscuous friends can go off to have sex and get killed. She's the kind of babysitter I would've loved: never talks down to the kids, allows them to do what they want — within limits, of course.

And when Michael comes to get 'em, she rises to the occasion, although she stupidly throws down the knife she'd used to stab the killer way too early — which was intentional, as we now know. Part of the fun of communal slasher viewing is being able to scream, "Don't drop the kni-i-i-i-fe!" Laurie is sitter category #4, but her predicament is exacerbated by category #5.

I saw this at the Rialto Theater in Niles, Michigan (just outside of South Bend) about four times. The emotionless, efficient killer, the widescreen photography and director John Carpenter's original score just really got to me.

1979's When a Stranger Calls was somewhat of a hit here in the States, which mystifies me. Starring Carol Kane as the babysitter, it was a depressingly mild and unsuspenseful entry into the then-burgeoning slasher genre. I mean, come on. Halloween and Romero's Dawn of the Dead had appeared the year before; you expect me to be skeered by a mostly bloodless babysitter movie after them?

I guess it was the old "the calls are coming from inside the house!" gambit, but Bob Clark did it better five years earlier with Black Christmas. Kane returned in When a Stranger Calls Back (1993), a TV movie that aired cut on USA Network and was released with an "R" rating on home video, a common practice back then. The original was remade in 2006. I didn't bother to see it, but was only PG-13, so obviously it was as tame as the original.

Alicia Silverstone starred as The Babysitter in 1995. It's a psychosexual drama rather than a slasher, but it fulfills categories #3 and #5. Her boyfriend (Jeremy London),  her ex (Nicky Katt), and the father of the kid's she's babysitting (J.T. Walsh) all lust after her. There's a lot of drinking and softcore fantasy sequences. It's all pretty absurd. Silverstone fared better in the earlier The Crush (1993), in which she played a psycho nymphet stalking older man Carey Elwes.

Now here's one I need to check out — Babysitter Wanted from 2008. Evidently it covers all the babysitter bases and even goes into satanism, cannibalism and torture porn. User reviews on IMDB are pretty enthusiastic.



A SPECIAL NOTE

As we launch into our five year anniversary celebration, look for some new exciting features here at WMV. And let me know what you'd like to see covered next on this site.


Thursday, January 2, 2014

2013 in Television

Warning: spoilers ahead.

2013 was a rocky year for the (not so) small screen. Cory Monteith's death knocked Glee fans for a loop. The all-but-exhausted American Idol continued its slide, despite the addition of such high-powered judges as Nicki Minaj (sarcasm).

A&E gave us the marvelous Bates Motel but then pissed off everyone possessing a shred of human dignity with its Duck Dynasty debacle.


At least NBC tried to get into the swing of things with a bloody, sex-laden Dracula, starring  Jonathan Rhys-Myers, but — alas — it's a mostly silly mash-up of Matrix-style action, Steampunk and gore. It's also hard to keep track of the characters. Still, it's coming back tomorrow, so I guess I'll see how it turns out.

Fortunately, basic and pay cable continued to be the fount at which we at Weird Movie Village drank heartily, eschewing the idiotic sitcoms and reality trash for some boundary-stretching and — dare I say it? — literate offerings. Here are some of the highlights (and lowlights) for 2013:

Breaking Bad. Considered by many to be the best show television has ever offered, I'd be hard-pressed to name one better. Although it was sad to see it go, it went out with a bang and not a whimper. I'll never be able to listen to Badfinger's "Baby Blue" the same way again.

There will always be those who complain that everything fell into place too conveniently for Walter (Bryan Cranston) in the finale, but hell — that was the whole show! Here was a mousy high-school chemistry teacher who, after receiving a fatal cancer diagnosis, mans up to become the best damn meth cooker in the criminal underworld. And he does, taking on some really nasty gangsters in the process.

And poor Jesse (Aaron Paul)...all the terrible things that happened to him throughout the five seasons, including the deaths of not one but two girlfriends; his descent into addiction; and the co-dependent, dysfunctional relationship he carried on with Walt that careened somewhere between father-son and torturer-captive. The disintegration of his soul over the seasons was raw and palpable, earning Paul his well-deserved Emmy® Awards.

Walt's agony at the assassination of brother-in-law and DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris) was another unforgettable moment. You could really feel that he'd finally stepped completely over the edge — and there was nothing left to live for but the protection of his family — which is how it all began. I also loved his final confession to wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) that he didn't regret a minute of any of his criminal life because it made him feel so...alive.

Breaking will sort-of continue with Better Call Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk's sleazy lawyer, but the jury is out on that one right now.

Pam in True BloodOh, True Blood. You looked so chic and naughty just a few years ago. But how many decent seasons have you really given us? Alas, like all the vamps in Bon Temps, you've just continued to suck harder every year and we've ended up with the same watered down, bottled crap.

Despite all the battles between all the various creatures and political factions, it's really still  soap. Fairies, vamps, werewolves, shifters — yawn. The big problem is that we've lost interest in the principal characters — and are actually becoming annoyed with them. Only the sharp-toothed, smart-assed Pam (Kristin Bauer Van Straten) remains any fun.

Another show that varied between the sublime (the John Lithgow season) and the ridiculous (the Edward James Olmos season) and rose to the occasion for its finale was Dexter. Charlotte Rampling was elegantly perverse as Evelyn  Vogel, the doctor who designed Dexter's "code," with Harry (James Remar), and who gave birth to a wild-eyed, serial-killer offspring of her own, Daniel (Darri Ingolfsson).

This plotline gave Dexter (and us) the opportunity to see how he'd been created, even as he was attempting to try to assemble a family of his own with Hannah (Yvonne Strahovski) and son Harrison. Of course, it couldn't possibly work. Everyone Dexter touches is corrupted...or dies. That point is made quite clear with Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), who continued to suffer for her adopted brother's sins. She killed LaGuerta (Lauren Velez) to protect him. She survived numerous attempts on her life over the years by Dexter's various targets, and finally succumbs in the finale.

The fate of up-and-coming preppy killer Zach Hamilton (Sam Underwood) was a total surprise. Just when we thought Dexter's eager young trainee was going to get a spinoff of his own, he was brutally dispatched by busy Oliver, aka the Brain Surgeon.

Viewers like me, disappointed with 2012's sluggish season of Boardwalk Empire, were rewarded with a rip-roaring 2013. Featuring lots of well-choreographed twists and some outrageously violent fights and killings, it introduced some fun new characters, including Patricia Arquette as Sally Wheet, a hardassed Florida speakeasy proprieter for whom Nucky (Steve Buscemi) seems to be developing feelings.

There's also Jeffrey Wright's sinister Dr. Narcisse making life miserable for Chalky (Michael K. Williams). And we said goodbye for now to troubled Gillian Darmody (Gretchen Mol), in jail for murder. And poor Richard Harrow (Jack Huston), the  wounded soldier-turned-assassin we developed a strange sympathy for, finally found peace, dying alone under the boardwalk after a botched attempt to kill Narcisse.

With many of the characters' lives in flux and some power roles exchanged, the show has set itself up for a nice Season Five.

Speaking of crime, the limited TNT series Mob City proved to be a lot of fun and a triumphant return for erstwhile Walking Dead showrunner Frank Darabont. Taking along other former Deadheads Jon Bernthal and Jeffrey DeMunn,  he created an action-packed, good-looking show that plays like a big-budget feature. Set in 1940s Los Angeles, it chronicles the bloody, decades-long battle between the LAPD and mobster Mickey Cohen.

The milieu is nicely realized, all neon lights on rain-slicked streets. Nighttime shooting and digital effects helped to bring out the vintage in contemporary L.A., and smaller production equipment allowed them to shoot in classic locations like Micelli's, the narrow-aisled Hollywood landmark that would have been impossible to use just a few years ago.

And the finale featured one of the best gangster killings ever:



Turning from shootouts to sexuality, another nice surprise this year was Showtime's Masters of Sex, featuring the hard-working Michael Sheen as sex research pioneer William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson, who had no formal training but lots of natural instinct.

The groundbreaking studies Masters and Johnson undertook make for pretty compelling drama. America in the postwar '50s was still pretty repressed when it came to sexuality. "Deviant lifestyles" were never spoken of; it was a wife's duty to take care of her man and certainly never have any pleasure of her own. What M&J discovered set the stage for the sexual revolution.

The versatile Sheen is great as Masters, who faces intimacy issues of his own, and Caplan is wonderful as the resourceful Johnson, who's got a streak of humanity a mile wide and comes complete with her own strong sense of sexuality.

The ancillary characters in the show are also good. Allison Janney is solid as Margaret, the wife of Washington University provost Barton Scully. She has never experienced a climax of her own and can't pinpoint why their marriage is unfulfilling — until she discovers the truth about her husband (an equally fine Beau Bridges). Then there's Bill's wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), who wants nothing more than to have a child, even though her husband is basically sterile. Throw in young turk Ethan Haas (Nicholas D'Agosto), who starts as Bill's student but becomes his rival, and you've got a plotline that could descend into soapiness in the wrong hands, but creator Michelle Ashford and team keep it honest and poignant.

Among other ongoing series, The Walking Dead really lived up to its name last year with the first half of Season Four shambling along without really going anywhere. The producers promise some real shocks coming in the second half, so I'll wait for its February return. Happily, we don't have as long to wait for Shameless and Episodes, coming up in just a couple of weeks. Also of interest is True Detective, with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and Looking, with Jonathan Groff, coming up January 19th.

But no more Borgias? Say it ain't so!


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