Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Great Race

Wows-a-routie. Talk about your comedy marathons. The Great Race (1965) is about as big as your average military campaign.

Blake Edwards aims for the moon with this comedy epic The Great Race and spares no expense. It's big, boldly produced, filled with huge set pieces, elaborate costumes, A-list actors, death-defying stunts, a few musical numbers, and a globe-trotting adventure. In terms of scope and scale, it makes Raising Arizona look like Clerks.

Tony Curtis plays the Great Leslie, a dashing daredevil at the turn of the 20th century who is always looking for his next great challenge. So, with a specially designed automobile, he organizes a race from New York to Paris. Challenging him is his longtime nemesis, Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon), and along for the ride is emancipated woman reporter Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood). Of course, the racers go all over the world, have some interesting pit stops, and meet some colorful characters along the way.

The Great Race is fairly episodic. Every stop along the way turns into its own little scheme and theme (Alaskan iceberg, cowboy saloon, Russian village, etc.), and the very nature of Leslie and Fate's rivalry resembles the type of animosity that could re-occur frequently over the course of a series. Fate is foiled time and time again, but he manages to get away to scheme and scheme again as he twirls his Snidely Whiplash mustache and always at his side is his sidekick, the moronic Max (Peter Faulk).

Then, there's the budding, would-be romance between Leslie and Maggie. Will they or won't they? Not if Max's mechanic Hezekiah (Keenan Wynn) has anything to say about it, who understands a woman on the road might make for some distractions.

The movie also resembles the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons. Leslie tries to do something, Fate tries to sabotage him, and the dastardly fiend fails and ends up making himself look like a fool, especially with all those stunts involving hot air balloons, leaps out of tall buildings, exploding cannons, parachutes, and polar bears in the back seat.

A lot of care and effort went into The Great Race, the cast seems to be having a ball (that sort of attitude is infectious) in what is essentially a lark, and yet, I didn't laugh a whole lot. I smiled quite a bit at the silliness on display, and the movie is reasonably enjoyable, but it never quite brings down the house the way I was hoping it would.

Maybe it's the long running length: 2 hours and 40 minutes. Comedies don't usually go past the 80-90 minute mark because even the best can get tiring after a while. Edwards seems to understand that, which would explain the extended episode in a foreign country where Lemmon plays a second role as the perpetually drunk and camp heir to the throne, and all the characters get involved in an attempted coup d'etat. For long stretches, the race seems to be forgotten about.

Of course, the movie is more than 50 years old. I'm not calling it dated, but this style of slapstick and screwball has been done to death over the years. I think I would have liked this tremendously when it first came out, had I been alive then.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Little Big Man

Tragedy and comedy are so intertwined, sometimes humor is the best weapon against bad times. Little Big Man (1970), in depicting the treatment of American Indians at the hands of the U.S. military in the 19th century, does not shy away from the atrocities committed or the loss of an entire way of life, but at the same time, in presenting an unsentimental view of the Old West, the movie is also very funny.

Little Big Man tells the story of Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman). As a boy, he was a part of a wagon train heading west that was wiped out by a pack of Indians. He and his sister survived, and Jack was adopted by the Cheyenne tribe, where he came to view their leader Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George) as his grandfather. The Cheyennes refer to themselves as "Human Beings."

The movie proceeds in picaresque fashion as Jack jumps back and forth between the Indian and white civilizations and encountering all sorts of weird and colorful characters, including a lustful preacher's wife (Faye Dunaway), a snake oil salesman (Martin Balsalm), Wild Bill Hickcock (Jeff Corey), and General George Armstrong Custer (Richard Mulligan). In fact, relating his life story as a 121-year-old to a historian, Jack claims he was the sole white survivor of Little Big Horn.

Adapted from a novel by Thomas Berger and directed by Arthur Penn, Little Big Man is both very, very funny and very, very sad. Jack loses friends and family, sees his homes destroyed, is ostracized from both whites and Indians, and doesn't really succeed at much except survival. He'll do whatever he can to survive, and he gets very good at saving his neck. The downside, of course, is he bears witness to a steady decline of an old way of life and is ultimately left alone in his memories.

Along the way, some funny stuff also happens. Little Big Man is filled with irony, wry observations, and downright kooky characters. Jack, to a large extent, is the straight man of this drama, and everywhere he looks, he sees someone or something strange, and by turns, Jack is horrified, appalled, disillusioned, flabbergasted, and befuddled.

Little Big Man has the look and feel of an epic Western, but Penn deliberately undercuts any nostalgia. In his introduction, Custer, seen from below with the sun behind him, looks like a dashing, heroic figure, but he's revealed to be a self-serving, delusional buffoon who is so full of himself he gets his whole command wiped out. Before Little Big Horn, the battles between the Cavalry and the Indians are one-side massacres in which women and children are butchered. We even get a blink-and-you-miss-him shot of Buffalo Bill, in the rain and mud, overseeing the unloading of buffalo hides, and it doesn't look very fun.

Penn also includes surreal, absurdist moments. During Little Big Horn, one particularly brutish trooper tries hiding under a blanket; it doesn't work. Mr. Merriweather, the snake-oil salesman, is missing a different body part every time we see him, but he doesn't let that discourage him. Even after they're caught by angry cowboys, he's plotting his next scheme.

"Mr. Merriweather, you don't know when you're licked," Jack protests.
'I'm not licked," he cackles in reply. "I'm tarred and feathered."

Jack also has interesting dealings with women. Mrs. Pendrake, the preacher's wife, tries to seduce Jack, her adopted son, and it plays like a 19th century take on The Graduate. Later, after he takes a Cheyenne wife, Jack must also perform husband duties for her sisters because of the shortage of men in the village, leading to a rather tiring night in the teepee and my favorite one-upsmanship exchange in a movie.

"I'm an important man," says Younger Bear, a rival who owes Jack a life. "I have a wife and four horses."
Jack nods. "I have a horse and four wives."

At the center of the story is Old Lodge Skins. He dispenses wise words but is also very funny (when he finds out Jack has a white wife, he asks if she enjoys it when he "mounts her."). No matter what he goes through, he harbors no hatred for the white men and is always glad to see Jack, whose presence "makes my heart soar like a hawk." Old Lodge Skins explains the difference between whites and human beings, and it's the only time he raises his voice in a way that sounds angry.

"Because the human beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone. And also the things from them ... But the white man, they believe EVERYTHING is dead. Stone, earth, animals. And people! Even their own people! If things keep trying to live, white man will rub them out. That is the difference."

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


I don't want to make a big, sweeping generalization about the sexes, but a revenge movie like Moka (2017) probably would not have been made if the lead had been a man. Audiences would expect someone like Liam Neeson to hunt down and take out those who had killed his child, and the finished film would have probably played as an exciting action thriller.

With a woman in the lead, Moka is able to illustrate a point many revenge movies overlook: revenge is a sad business. Audiences might cheer when the bad guy gets blown away at the end, but what catharsis is that to a grieving parent? Their child is dead and remains dead. As Diane Roy (Emmanuelle Devos) hears a couple of times in Moka, her son won't come back no matter what she does to who she thinks is responsible.

Moka is less a thriller and more of a character-based drama, exploring Diane's grief as she pursues what she thinks is justice. When the police are unable to locate the driver who killed her son in a hit-and-run accident, she hires a private detective (Jean-Philipe Ecoffey), who generates a couple of leads based on the coffee-colored car seen in the incident (which is where the title of this French-Swiss movie comes from).

Diane soon thinks she's found those responsible - Marlene (Nathalie Baye), a beauty salon owner, and her partner Michel (David Clavel), a wellness trainer. Marlene has a daughter from a previous marriage, Elodie (Diane Rouxel). With only circumstantial evidence, Diane inserts herself into their lives to learn the truth. She also buys a gun from Vincent (Olivier Chantreau) and upsets her estranged husband Simon (Samuel Labarthe).

Low-key and slow-burn are the best descriptions for Moka. Directed by Frederic Mermoud, the movie does not go the suspense route. It doesn't turn the screws so much as it gives us insight into the characters and how they behave.

Early on, it's easy to picture Marlene as the bitch from Hell. Since we're following Diane and we share her suspicions, we see her as a cold, domineering woman who apparently doesn't give a moment's thought to the idea she killed a child. We see Diane absolutely battered by grief, but for the woman seemingly responsible, it's of no consequence. She has her business to run and customers to condescend to.

The interesting story decision is how Diane approaches Diane and Michel separately, as a salon customer and a potential buyer of the car in question. In the process, she learns quite a bit about this family from varying perspectives and discovers they aren't as well together or happy as she assumed. There's a lot Diane doesn't know about them and a lot they don't know about each other.

This angle on the revenge drama is fascinating, and the performances are quite good, but Moka is not as gripping as it could have been. Diane becomes convinced relatively early on she's found the culprits and gets a gun, but I kept wondering what she was waiting for.

The movie drags in places and doesn't build much tension until near the end. Granted, in a story about parental grief, a low energy level is not a complete detriment and is probably fitting, but some of the bigger story moments could have used more pop. Still, for its performances, for its portrayal of grief and how it explores these characters, I still recommend Moka. It's a different look at this kind of subject matter.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance

If you see a man slip on a banana peel, you laugh, but if he stops to make sure you see him slip, then it's not really that funny.

I heard that analogy from Jim Cornette. He used it to describe comedy in professional wrestling, but I think it applies to Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015).

The original Samurai Cop is a cherished bad movie. Not good in any objective sense, it nevertheless is an enjoyable film, hokey and poorly made as it is. The makers tried to make a serious action thriller but failed miserably, but their efforts left us with some worthwhile if unintended comedy.

Twenty-five years later, we get the sequel. A good number of the original cast is back, including Mathew Karedas and Mark Frazer as the buddy cop leads and Cranston Kumoro as the villain (even though he was killed in the original, he's apparently playing the same character) plus a couple of the bit players. Robert Z'Dar was supposed to return but sadly passed away before filming, although his Maniac Cop co-star Laurene Landon is on hand to fill that quota.

There are a few other famous recognizable names. Joe Estevez, shorter and squatter but otherwise a dead ringer for his brother Martin Sheen, plays the police chief. Several of the villainous hench-women are played by porn stars. Bai Ling, memorable in the likes of The Crow and Three... Extremes, is here also. Last but definitely not least is Tommy Wiseau, the patron-saint of bad cinema for his magnum opus The Room. I have no idea what he's doing here except to rant incoherently, wear strange head gear, and swing a katana.

Apparently George Lazenby was supposed to be in this, but he fell ill at the last minute. The background on the film is fascinating. The cult surrounding the original had grown so much that fans launched a Kickstarter and GoFundMe Page to finance this sequel and succeeded. The story was re-tooled after the makers discovered Karedas was still alive and worked him back into the movie.

Boy, your career really failed to take off if people think you're dead.

The plot, who cares? No making the movie did. I couldn't follow what was happening. Scenes seem to occur haphazardly, and I don't know how they fit with each other. Samurai Cop 2 arrives after the rise of the SyFy Channel Original Movie and the Sharknado movies. Coherence is not a priority. It's a just a gonzo mashup of everything the makers threw against the wall. This also explains the computer-generated blood, the obvious blue screen effects, and the Z-list celebrities (I exempt Bai Ling. I wouldn't call her a star, but she's been in movies one could be proud of... and Sharknado 5).

I go back to the banana peel analogy. The makers of Samura Cop 2 are trying to make a bad movie. That's trying to capture lightning in a bottle. Deliberate ineptitude is nowhere near as much fun as accidental incompetence. This is about as entertaining and convincing as a YouTube parody video except much longer and it wears out its welcome much sooner. The "action" scenes are a blur of bad editing, terrible choreography, and actors clearly not hitting each other.

In fact, Karedas looks like an older, scragglier Weird Al Yankovic, and some of his expressions and mannerisms wouldn't be out of place in one of his parody videos. Karedas seems to be acting just outside the material, almost as if he is bemused by the whole thing, and this time, he actually gets to talk about the Samurai code.

At least his hair looks real this time.

Three Days of the Condor

In real life, Watergate left a legacy that destroyed a presidency and the public's trust in the government. In the world of cinema, it created a legacy of paranoid, political thrillers built on political conspiracies and cover-ups, including Three Days of the Condor (1975).

Directed by Sydney Pollack, Three Days of the Condor follows CIA researcher Joseph Turner (Robert Redford), codenamed Condor, who works out of an office in New York City. When he returns from lunch one day, he finds all his co-workers dead, massacred by a professional hit squad led by a mysterious agent (Max Von Sydow). Unsure of who to trust, Turner goes on the run until he can figure out what's what, kidnapping a woman (Faye Dunaway) to help with his flight.

We used to have to be convinced the government might not have our best interests in minds. Since then, images of anonymous agents in suits following us or wiretapping our phone calls or watching us through hidden cameras have a frightening plausibility and have become commonplace in these kinds of stories.

Three Days of the Condor fits right in with all those post-Watergate movies, but it also works as a Hitchcockian thriller. Turner effectively functions as a man wrongfully accused, running and hiding from the CIA, who thinks he's a traitor, and rogue elements within the agency that deemed him a threat because he knew too much. Even Turner dragging along an innocent woman and them falling in love comes from the likes of The 39 Steps and Saboteur.

Pollack doesn't create a heightened sense of a reality. He doesn't overplay the thriller elements or make them too obvious. Nor does he treat the material as an exciting, globe-trotting adventure to an exotic location. The movie is set in a normal, recognizable, rather drab and grey New York City, and Turner is not a super spy but a regular, bookish man in over his head, so when the thriller parts hit, they feel more plausible and paranoid.

Paranoia is the name of the game. The ordinary becomes threatening because you don't if it's hiding something. Immediately after discovering the bodies of his co-workers and leaving the building, Turner realizes how vulnerable he is. The killers could still be around, waiting and watching. That person pushing a baby carriage: are they reaching inside the carriage to grab a weapon and finish him off? Later, while hiding out, Joseph has to sign for a package from a mailman, but the mailman reveals himself to be a hitman when he whips out a gun.

The movie moves at a nice clip (save for the lovey-dovey stuff mid-way through), and the performances are all good. Von Sydow as the hitman plays the most interesting character. Here is a ruthless killer for hire, apparently uninterested in any greater ideology other than who's paying him, and yet he is not a mad dog; he is, all things considered, a polite, courteous professional.

Three Days of the Condor has only grown more relevant since its release. Near the end, a CIA honcho played by Cliff Robertson attempts to justify all the agency's actions, and when told the whole affair will be published by the New York Times, he replies, "How do you know they'll print it?"

He's asking why would a newspaper publish such a seemingly outlandish story, but today, when no one trusts the media either, it sounds like he's suggesting the CIA controls the paper, too. If this were remade today, he wouldn't even need to give an explanation for audiences to believe the CIA would have its hands dirty. We take it for granted the government is lying to us and plotting something nefarious.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Top Secret!

With Top Secret! (1984), the creative team of Zucker Abrahams and Zucker do to World War 2 spy films and Elvis movies what they did to disaster movies in Airplane! and what they would end up doing to cop movies with The Naked Gun: they lampoon the Hell out of the cliches, pack in as many corny gags as humanly possible, and throw at the audience a million gags a minute.

Val Kilmer plays Nick Rivers, a rock-n-roll star who crosses the Iron Curtain for a show in East Germany. Once there, he stumbles on a plot involving the German secret police, a missing scientist (Michael Gough), and a beautiful resistance member (Lucy Gutteridge), and before he knows it, Nick's on the run, at least when he doesn't stop for a song and dance number.

Who cares about the plot? It's as silly as you can imagine, and really, it's almost pointless to review a movie like this. You either laugh or you don't. I laughed quite a bit. Maybe not as much as I did during Airplane! or The Naked Gun, but in a post-Austin Powers world, in which the spy movie has been spoofed to death and this type of parody film is not new anymore, maybe Top Secret! isn't as fresh as it was 1980s, but it's still pretty funny.

If the movie lacks anything, it's probably Leslie Nielsen or maybe Robert Stack, actors capable of going overly serious and stone-faced as all the wacky hijinks go on around them. That's not to say Kilmer et al. aren't fun, but I do get the sense they're in on the joke, winking at the audience as if they know just how ridiculous everyone and everything is. These spoof movies work better when the actors don't seem to realize they're being funny.

At one point, Nick says to his beloved, "Listen to me, Hillary. I'm not the first guy who fell in love with a woman that he met at a restaurant who turned out to be the daughter of a kidnapped scientist, only to lose her to her childhood lover who she last saw on a deserted island, who then turned out fifteen years later to be the leader of the French underground."

"I know," she replies. "It all sounds like some bad movie."

Awkward silence. Both of them look at the camera before continuing the scene, and to be fair, that exchange generates a laugh.

The movie's too good-natured and irreverent to dislike. It's filled to the brim with sight gags, one-liners, and pot shots at other movies. This is the kind of movie that finds time to parody The Wizard of Oz and The Blue Lagoon. The French Resistance members have names such as Deja Vu ("Have we met before?"), Chocolate Mousse (the black member), and Latrine (who is always stumbling in wounded with the latest news).

There's plenty of lowbrow humor. A couple of resistance members sneak into a German base disguised as a cow, and it gets awkward when a bull turns up. When Hillary is reunited with her childhood lover, she measures both his bulging biceps and ... um... something else below the waist and off camera.

Top Secret! also has a couple of song and dance numbers. Early on, Nick gets the old, classical German musicians to start a-rockin' and a-rollin', and during another song at an out-of-the-way diner, some of the men dancing on tables are spinning their dates in the air. The dates are clearly rag-doll dummies, but that kind of hokiness is part of the charm.

It's hard to add more without giving away the best lines and gags. It's a dumb movie, but Top Secret! passes the important test: it's funny, and it doesn't overstay its welcome. Plenty of times, you'll have a perfect idea where a joke is heading, but you'll still laugh.

Sunday, August 27, 2017






Those question marks and ellipses are the typed equivalent of me opening my mouth, whilst raising my index finger decisively, to say something before realizing I have nothing to say and closing my mouth.

I have no idea where to begin with Eraserhead (1977), the debut of director David Lynch. It's managed to attract some big name fans; Mel Brooks hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man after seeing it, and George Lucas offered him Return of the Jedi. Plus, the black-and-white image of star Jack Nance, with his poofed-up hair and blank expression, has entered the pop culture lexicon and is a fairly recognized image, even among those who have never seen the movie.

Eraserhead doesn't feel like a "real" movie but an abstract collage of scenes and imagery that leave me baffled. I can't say I like it, but I can't dismiss it. It plays like a strange dream where the bizarre is accepted as normal, perspectives and characters are skewed, and there are no boundaries between reality and fantasy.

The movie is ... about (kind of, sort of, not really, I don't know) Henry Spencer (Nance), a printer on vacation who is told his girlfriend Mary X. (Charlotte Stewart) has given birth to a baby. The baby might not be human, and its endless crying drives Mary away, leaving Henry alone to take care of it.

That's the simplest summary I can come up with. That doesn't begin to cover it.

Henry lives in this strange, industrial nightmare of a setting. Is this a contemporary place? A post-apocalyptic future? Lynch shows us very little of it. It might very well be its one self-contained, little world. It's stark and bleak, and against this background, Henry looks small and weak.

Meanwhile, the baby looks freaky, bird-like and reptilian. It doesn't do much except lay their and cry, a rather pathetic creature all things considered, but why is it like that? Mary's mother says it was premature, but that wouldn't explain anything. Is it a mutant? Is it human? Is it real? Is any of the movie real or is just Henry's dream? Someone else's dream?

Uncomfortable. That's the second best adjective for Eraserhead. Between the long, unbroken takes, the endless bleating of the baby (and its deformity), the jarring transitions, the use of noise on the soundtrack, the weirdly sexual imagery, the bizarre behavior of the characters, and the black and white photography, Lynch denies us anything warm or comfortable.

Then, there are the sequences that don't seem to fit in the narrative at all except on an abstract, symbolic level: the man at the machine levers, the woman (whose face is ravaged by tumors) in the radiator singing on stage, Henry's head floating in the cosmos with sperm-like shapes superimposed over him, to speak nothing of the ending. I don't know if anything is resolved, nothing is resolved, or if there was anything to resolve in the first place. Are these dreams, hallucinations, or something else entirely? I don't know if anything in the movie can be taken literally.

The images are hard to forget. They repulsive and nightmarish, but in their own way, kind of beautiful in their starkness and bleakness. At times, the movie provokes a laugh. The level of discomfort generated gets raised so far that it crosses the line into humorous.

More than anything else, Eraserhead is a demonstration, a demonstration of who Lynch is and what his talents are. He shows he can craft eerie imagery and manipulate the emotions of an audience with a variety of film techniques. At times, I think he finds reactions to his debut to be funny, so maybe he's just pulling our leg by being as obtuse and confusing as possible. The movie moves incredibly slow; not much happens from a narrative perspective, and it's easy to lose patience.

Eraserhead is like the most accomplished and disturbing student film of all time.

The Texas Chainsaw Tribute

As I'm wont to do, I search the internet about directors I like, including Tobe Hooper. One article keeps popping up: "The failed career of Tobe Hooper" at from 2010. The article is not uninteresting, but the title always took me aback.

Really, "failed career?" The director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one of the most influential horror films of all time? The director of Salem's Lot, the first Stephen King miniseries? The man Steven Spielberg recruited to helm to PoltergeistThe filmmaker responsible for so many gonzo, enjoyable, and downright batshit insane cult horror and science fiction movies? Sure, he never reached the heights of a Spielberg, but who said we wanted him to?

I'm afraid these types of posts are becoming a habit. Various news outlets are reporting Hooper died on August 26 at the age of 74. Another master of horror has left us.

Most conversations about Hooper begin and end with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and I don't blame anyone for that. It's justifiably one of the most famous, controversial, taboo-shattering, and imitated movies of all time, horror genre or otherwise.

But I'd argue it's inaccurate to label Hooper a one-hit wonder who never lived up to his first success. True, he put out his fair share of stinkers, and some will credit Spielberg more for Poltergeist, but I'll defend The Funhouse, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Toolbox Murders, and even Djinn. I also like his television output, from Salem's Lot to his episodes of Masters of Horror.

Hell, while I can't defend the likes of The Mangler, Night Terrors, or Spontaneous Combustion as good movies, they are stamped with Hooper's touch and style, and they linger in my memory and occasionally contain a moment or element worth lauding. Who else would be crazy enough to make a film about a demonically possessed industrial laundry press or cast Robert Englund as the Marquis de Sade?

I maintain Hooper's problem, in terms of evaluating his output, wasn't that his work was all good, all bad, or split; it was so widely varied. If you were to grade his movies on a scale from 1-10 - 1 being the worst and 10 being the best - he hit every point! Many filmmakers snuggle into a much smaller, more consistent range, either good or bad, but not Hooper. He danced all over the map, which makes him harder to categorize but easier to dismiss.

Hooper took chances and tried different things. It would have been easy, and possibly more profitable, to duplicate the tone of the original Texas Chainsaw by creating a sequel that was raw, gritty, and frightening. Instead, he gave us a wildly over-the-top, gory, funny, and comic-book style movie that undercut and contradicted its predecessor. He made a TV miniseries about traditional vampires in a small Maine town, but his next vampire flick involved a nude Mathilda May destroying London with an army of shriveled, soul-sucking zombies.

Hooper's work was subversive and surreal. He took shots at conformity, suburbia, the American Dream, family values, capitalism, and ideas of morality. Like David Lynch, he examined the deep-seated rot hidden beneath the veneer of success, profitability, and comfort.

Beneath supposed normalcy, he found absurd and sometimes perverse lunacy, a place where rules didn't exist and nothing made sense. In his wonderful book, Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre, author John Kenneth Muir called Hooper the "Lewis Carroll of horror," and when Hunter Carson encounters the grotesque aliens of Invaders from Mars, it's not hard to see the comparison is apt. Would those giant alien pac-men be out of place in Alice in Wonderland? Or the titular mangler?

In interviews, Hooper struck me as a quiet, soft-spoken individual but also as an artist operating on some all together different planet. He clashed frequently with producers and money men, a common conflict for idiosyncratic filmmakers working in Hollywood but especially so for one whose work contained streaks of black comedy, indulged anarchic glee in tearing down conventions, and celebrated glimpses of madness. In an industry built on formula and predictability, Hooper was anything but safe or predictable.

Hollywood never quite understood Hooper or gave him a fair shake, but he managed to leave his mark. As sad as his passing is, I'm hopeful people will start to come around and appreciate his larger body of work and understand his contributions to cinema.

Thank you, Tobe. Dog will hunt.

Sunday, August 20, 2017


Dunkirk (2017) is the first war movie of director Christopher Nolan, best known for Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy.

It's based on a real military operation. In 1940, after Nazi Germany had swept across Europe, 400,00 troops from the British Expeditionary Force, plus some Allied troops who had not surrendered, remained pinned down on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. The evacuation of those troops by the British navy, coordinated with an armada of civilian boats, was nothing short of a military miracle, saving the army so it could fight another day and giving the Allies a needed morale boost.

It's an interesting story and certainly one worth telling, and Nolan captures the massive scale of the operation. This is an ensemble piece. There are recurring characters, but they only play small roles in the overarching drama. This is about the event.

Nolan also makes two unorthodox decisions in portraying the events of Dunkirk, one that I think works tremendously, and another that I don't think works very well at all.

The first: except for a handful Stuka airplanes, Nolan does not show us any Germans. Strange, this is a war movie, and we don't see any enemy combatants. Instead, Nolan suggests them. They're ever present, all around, and in a position of strength. Stick your head out, and you'll be shot. An enemy you can't see is almost impossible to fight, and this perfectly captures the superiority and overwhelming might of the German military and illustrates just how vulnerable and precarious the Allied position is.

The second decision: Nolan does not tell his story chronologically. He jumps around the timeframe. Sometimes, we witness the same event from multiple angles, but we don't realize this until after the fact. Sometimes, we witness different events but think they're the same incident, and we don't realize this until afterward.

It can be confusing in parts, which may have been Nolan's intent. It overwhelms and disorients us, giving us a sense of what those trapped soldiers are feeling, but I wonder if the movie would play better with a streamlined timeline.

I suspect Dunkirk will play better on subsequent viewings. There are a handful of recognizable actors in key parts (Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance), but the rest I'm not too familiar with, although I imagine I'll start seeing them everywhere. Many look alike - both in facially, hair color, and based on their uniforms - and I sometimes lost track of who was who.

Still, I have to consider the movie a success. Without going into Saving Private Ryan levels of gore, Nolan immerses the viewer into the maelstrom of combat. Watching it, you will feel every bullet almost as if they are bouncing around you, you'll feel cold and wet alongside the men floating in the English Channel, and you will feel claustrophobic inside the confines of sinking ships as the lights go out, trapping the panicked men in darkness as water rushes in. Nolan knows when to give us a grand epic shot and when to bury the camera amid the men, noise, and confusion.

Hans Zimmer contributes a most unconventional musical score. Instead of patriotic drum melodies or orchestral stirrings that raise the spirit, the music is more avant-garde, almost unnoticeable by conscious minds, but it's having an impact, helping to build the tension to unbearable levels.

Dunkirk resembles Full Metal Jacket. Like Stanley Kubrick, Nolan drops us in without warning, context, or exposition, and the result is a cold, disorienting experience. But unlike Kubrick, Nolan gives us some hope at the end, letting us know everything the men went through has inspired and galvanized a nation on the brink of defeat. The fighting may just be beginning, but their resolve will not falter.

Fly on the Wall

Fly on the Wall (1985) should have been called rough stuff.

Angus and Malcolm Young decided to produce this album themselves, aiming to re-capture the raw simplicity of their earlier albums, and they do something I can't say I've ever heard a band do on a mainstream rock release: they bury their vocalist in the mix. Brian Johnson sounds like he's singing in another room through thick walls, making it harder than usual to understand what he's saying.

Throw in a few forgettable tracks ("Danger," "Playing With Girls," "First Blood"), and it's easy to see why plenty of critics and fans have pegged this AC/DC's worst album. I wouldn't go that far. In fact, I'd say Fly on the Wall has its share of hidden gems, and the rough and raw (how is there not an AC/DC song called "Rough and Raw?") style gives it a nice and dirty flavor. The band sounds like nasty neighborhood boys playing in the garage next door.

How is there not an AC/DC song called "Nice and Dirty?"

The two songs to take away from the album (which AC/DC themselves did with the subsequent Who Made Who soundtrack album) are "Shake Your Foundations" and "Sink the Pink." The former is a fast, rocking tune that captures the rambunctiousness energy of the band, and the latter is a shuffling, dirty, suggestive tongue-in-cheek track that would make a wonderful setlist with the likes of "Big Balls" and "Go Down."

Some of the other songs are fun, too, without being great. "Fly on the Wall" is a solid opener, and "Back in Business" is suitably brash and aggressive. The Youngs give us the loud, chunky guitar riffs we expect from AC/DC, and it's the straightforward, unpretentious rock we love.

"Fly on the Wall" holds no surprises, and even its best tracks pale next to the band's earlier masterpieces. Still, I have a soft spot for it and find myself re-visiting more often than summer of their better work. Maybe I'm a sucker for the unloved, but it never pretends to be anything more than what it is. Like AC/DC!

Standout Tracks
"Shake Your Foundations" - Celebrate chaos and mayhem with this tune.
"Sink the Pink" - Gee, I wonder what this song's about.

Favorite Moment
"Aye, aye, oh, shake your foundations
Aye, aye, oh, shake it to the floor."

Album Cover
A cartoon fly and Angus peep through the holes of a fence, presumably at something they shouldn't be looking at. Very naughty.

Track Order
1) Fly on the Wall
2) Shake Your Foundations
3) First Blood
4) Danger
5) Sink the Pink
6) Playing With Girls
7) Stand Up
8) Hell or High Water
9) Back in Business
10) Send for the Man

Brian Johnson - Vocals
Angus Young - Lead Guitar
Malcolm Young - Rhythm Guitar
Cliff Williams - Bass
Simon Wright - Drums


I can only wonder what audiences in 1941 thought of Hellzapoppin'. It doesn't just break the fourth wall; it blows it up with dynamite and scatters the debris on the audience.

The film opens with a projectionist played by Shemp Howard playing a film of chorus girls coming down a flight of stage stairs. Out of nowhere, the stairs become a slide, sending all the dancers straight to Hell. Literally. Devils torture them and everything. I didn't expect that.

Then we get a disclaimer: "...any similarity between Hellzapoppin' and a motion picture is purely coincidental."

Hellzapoppin' could have been a conventional movie. There's a plotline in it that sounds like dozens of other screwball comedy musicals from the 1930s and 1940s. At a high-society party, there's a love triangle between two best friends and the girl they both want to marry, and meanwhile, let's put on a show and impress the big-shot Hollywood producer.

But the movie plays unconventionally. For its time, it's very radical, and it reminded me of the zany, rapid-fire works of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, the irreverence of Mel Brooks, and the cat-calling of Mysterious Science Theater 3000. The movie pokes fun at itself for how silly it is and jumps around different levels of reality, and all the characters are aware of it.

Based on the musical of the same name, Hellzapoppin' begins in Hell with a song and dance number and then comics Chic Johnson and Ole Olsen turn up (playing themselves) in a taxi. After some more hijinks and getting the projectionist to rewind some of the film for review, Hell becomes a movie set where Miracle Pictures ("If it's a good picture, it's a Miracle!") is adapting Chic and Ole's show Hellzapoppin' into a movie.

They review the script with the screenwriter and director and even begin watching it play out on a screen, which is where the bulk of the movie takes place.

These meta-levels of narrative are easier to watch and follow than to describe. The "main" storyline - the aforementioned love triangle - plays out with Chic and Ole trying to help a friend get the girl while sowing chaos and disorder everywhere they go. There are comic misunderstandings, lines with suggestive double meanings, slapstick pratfalls, and the occasional song and dance routine.

But outside the story, things continue to go wrong in the projection booth, interrupting the movie, and on screen, Chic and Ole have to yell at Shemp (who is supposedly a cousin to one of them, which is how he got the job) to pay attention. Sometimes, he likes to keep the frame on pretty girls and they have to yell at him to follow them.

That's not all. During one sappy love song, a boy in the audience (as in a boy watching the movie with us) is summoned from the theater by his mother. The characters stop in mid-song until the boy leaves because his mother won't stop asking for him.

The movie has fun playing with the conventions of cinema to create a joke. In no other medium would these gags be possible. Gags such as the frame being turned upside down and the characters complain about it and the private detective who keeps leaning out from behind a lamp post, each time appearing in a different costume, despite the fact he shouldn't be able to hide behind that spot in the first place. He tells us he won't explain how he does it.

The style of Hellzapoppin' can be described as "Just go with it." No opportunity for humor, no matter how ridiculous or irrelevant to the plot, is passed over if it means a laugh. It's complete comic anarchy, the Rule-of-Funny writ-large, and even more than 70 years after its release, much of the humor still holds up. Just hold on tight because you won't have time to question any of it.

A Million to Juan

Arriving in 1994, A Million to Juan (that title is unfortunate) has its heart in the right place. Starring and directed by stand-up comic Paul Rodriguez, the movie positions its somewhere between family comedy and social parable (with a touch of fantasy) while showcasing some of the Chicano experience in Los Angeles. It's not as sharp or as funny as it could have been, and I can't say I love it, but in its own, innocuous way, it has its charms.

Loosely based on a story by Mark Twain, A Million to Juan tells the story of Juan Lopez, an undocumented worker (he was born in LA but lived for a time in Mexico) struggling to get by. He has a young son he adores (Jonathan Hernandez) but is widowed, and steady work is hard to come by. He's also facing deportation, despite the best efforts of his case worker Ms. Smith (Polly Draper).

That all changes one day when Juan, selling oranges on the street, receives a check by a mysterious man (Edward James Olmos) in a limousine. The check is good for $1 million. A note tells Juan it's an interest-free loan, but he must return it in 30 days. As news spreads of Juan's newfound fortune, he finds everyone friendlier toward him, businesses more accommodating, and even though he doesn't spend the money, Juan is able to open all sorts of new credit lines.

A Million to Juan raises a good point: we as a society treat people with money differently from people without money. If money is a measure of an individual's success, then a person with a lot of it must be successful, and who doesn't want a piece of that action? Contrarily, someone without much money must be a loser and should be avoided like the plague.

I can imagine someone like Rod Serling creating something searing with this premise, but while Rodriguez doesn't necessarily pull his punches, he doesn't take the premise as far as he could have. Even with his newfound wealth and fame, Juan remains a nice guy who wants to do the right thing, and thus, he never does anything we as the audience can really disapprove of. Juan is a likable guy and we want to see him pull through, and except for the resolution of a subplot involving a neighbor's sick daughter, the movie's execution plays it safe.

The movie has its share of giggles and smiles but very few belly laughs. A lot of its fairly predictable, like when Juan and his roommates use their newfound credit to buy fancy suits and cars, and at first the snobby store clerk treats them badly, not realizing their check is genuine. Larry Linville turns up as a bank president, playing the part exactly like Frank Burns, and of course, Juan's ex-girlfriend tries crawling back once she learns he's loaded.

A couple of scenes made me wince. Cheech Marin cameos as a panhandler who pulls the same scam Eddie Murphy tried in Trading Places (pretending to a veteran), and it's just not funny. There's an Indian convenience store clerk who is comprised of just about every Indian stereotype possible. Ms. Smith, who inevitably falls in love with Juan, is sweet, but her current boyfriend is such an insufferably douchebag (and a casual racist to boot), he stops the movie every time he's on screen.

For some reason, the boyfriend escapes a comeuppance (except his girlfriend dumps him off-screen), but the sleazy landlord does not. Played by Paul Williams, the landlord happily accepts and threatens to raise rent but breaks promises to make repairs or maintain the building, threatening to report his tenants to the INS if they report him. He ends up getting forced to make the repairs and gets toilet water sprayed in his face.

A Million to Juan tries to balance silly comedy, sweet romance, and social drama, working in spurts but not for any sustained length, causing some of those tones to clash. Still, the performances are charming enough to carry the movie through, and I can't bring myself to dislike a movie I would describe at least partially as tender.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Flick of the Switch

If Flick of the Switch arrived five years earlier, it might have been received better.

The 1983 album finds AC/DC stripping their sound and production down to a back-to-the-basics approach after the titanic productions on Highway to Hell, Back in Black, and For Those About to Rock. After working with Mutt Lange on those three albums, the band decided to self-produce, but arriving after the massive of success of those three albums, Flick of the Switch, while not a bad album, feels like a step down in quality.

Flick of the Switch has the expected AC/DC style: straightforward, hard-rocking tunes. Coming away from the polished, almost pop-like production of Mutt Lange, the music has a rougher edge. The sound is not as clean, but for a group like, AC/DC, that's part of the charm.

At the same time, the album sounds big and loud. The Youngs' guitar work dominates with loud, chunky rhythms, whether doing mid-tempo chuggers like the opening "Rising Power" or the faster-paced "Guns for Hire." Angus also finds time to play some bluesy slide guitar, resulting one unsung classic, "This House is on Fire," and the slower but still enjoyable "Badlands."

Another standout song is "Nervous Shakedown." AC/DC are better known for their rock anthems, but this song tells a story, about a young punk railroaded by the police. It ain't Warren Zevon or Pink Floyd in terms of narrative or a ballad, but it's nice to find the boys stepping out of their formula on occasion.

"Take a dime, said the man, you can make one call
You got a one-way ticket to the County Hall
Well, the judge looked high and I looked low
And when he smiled at me it was a one-man show
He said, Two to five, the jury decides
Double parole if you survive"

Flick of the Switch has its share of strong songs but also its share of forgettable tunes. There is a feeling the band is coasting. Some of the songs are so straightforward, they could be described as simple and one-dimensional. AC/DC always played catchy songs, but on occasion, it sounds like they're repeating themselves and not coming up with as many memorable riffs.

Brian Johnson is in good voice, but bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd (who was fired mid-recording and wouldn't return until the mid-90s) are left on the sidelines, almost forgotten about with standard backup roles.

The album lacks an urgency, a sense of importance or a statement of purpose. We get the bad boy songs and naughty school boy humor, but now, it feels like the band is trying to live up to a brand of expectations.

Standout Songs
"Rising Power" - A solid, chugging opener
"This House in on Fire" - A lost classic by a band that already has many great songs.
"Guns for Hire" - The one you'll want to sing along with the most.

Favorite Moment
I like this pre-chorus line Johnson sings during "Rising Power:" "Need no excuse to let it all hang loose. My body's for abuse." Smash into the chorus, and it's gold.

Album Cover
A pencil drawing of Angus flips a giant electrical switch. It's nice but disappointingly colorless. Like the album itself, it would be better filled in.

Track Order
1) Rising Power
2) This House is on Fire
3) Flick of the Switch
4) Nervous Shakedown
5) Landslide
6) Guns for Hire
7) Deep in the Hole
8) Bedlam in Belgium
9) Badlands
10) Brainshake

Brian Johnson - Vocals
Angus Young - Lead Guitar
Malcolm Young - Rhythm Guitar
Cliff Williams - Bass
Phil Rudd - Drums

Samurai Cop

The late Robert Z'Dar played a vengeful, zombified police officer in the Maniac Cop trilogy, and while he does not play the titular character in Samurai Cop (1991), he is the villain's main henchman and uses a katana. As a bonus, we get to see more of him since the filmmakers aren't hiding him in the shadows and hear him speak dialogue. He's surprisingly soft spoken (assuming he isn't dubbed). The roles of a B-movie actor.

Z'Dar is right at home in Samurai Cop, a B-movie through and through. It's schlock, and it makes you appreciate the skills of schlockmeisters like Larry Cohen and William Lustig, directors who had a way of elevating this kind of material or at least delivering the goods on their chosen level.

Samurai Cop is bad schlock but not unenjoyable schlock. Good schlock impresses you for what it is; bad schlock, well, you hope you can laugh, which fortunately Samurai Cop succeeds at. I don't know how deliberate it all was, but it's an enjoyably bad movie.

The plot's packed to the gills with cliches. A cop aims to take down a dangerous gang and romances a pretty lady who gets too close to the action. The cop in this case is Joe Marshall (Mathew Hannon), who is nicknamed Samurai because he knows martial arts, trained in Japan, and speaks fluent Japanese (which he never does). The gang is a group of rogue (multicultural) Yakuzas who have taken over the drug trade in L.A. The pretty lady is Jennifer (Janis Farley), a restaurant owner the Yakuza leader has eyes for.

Yeeaahh... For a movie called Samurai Cop, I expected more Samurai action. Joe just looks silly, someone the filmmakers are trying to pass off as cool and tough, but he comes off as a poser. Between his denim and aviator jacket wardrobe (except when he trapes about in a black speedo more times than expected) and fighting skills that make me question whether Mathew Hannon had any instruction in martial arts, I don't buy it.

Nor does any of his personality reflect any Samurai code, whether real-life or from the movies. He's a standard, loose-cannon cop. Plus, he spends more time trying to romance Jennifer when he should be more concerned about the case or whether the armed hitmen are coming after him. If he wasn't so dully played by Karedas, I'd consider him a creep; he harasses Jennifer until she sleeps with him. OK, he is a creep.

And his hair. No two ways about it, it looks terrible. Sometimes it looks like a wig. Sometimes it looks real. Either way, it's bad.

Yet the movie treats Joe like he's some sort of super stud. He has almost every attractive woman in the cast hit on him and charmed by his weird, aggressive flirting. He boasts about a sexual conquest in front of the woman he's currently sleeping with, but she doesn't mind that much, nor does she seem to mind or care when he immediately moves in on Jennifer.

The movie's craft could politely be described as amateurish. The action scenes are ineptly staged and filled with weird jump cuts that make it almost impossible to determine where characters are supposed to be in relation to each other and their surroundings. Scenes meant to take place in one setting are clearly comprised of multiple locations that don't match.

Most of the actors sound dubbed (poorly I might add), and the dialogue is filled with howlers. To any female police officers who might be reading this, would you, during a stakeout just before striking a criminal hideout, turn to your married partner and ask, "We got some time, wanna fuck?" I can't tell if she's just messing with him or serious.

What else? There's the flamboyantly gay Costa Rican waiter who promises to inform to Joe but is never mentioned again after his one scene. I'm not sure if he's more offensive to gays or Costa Ricans. Joe and a female cop converse while he's on the ground and she's in a helicopter without any radio or other communications equipment. Gun wounds look like paintball rounds, and most henchmen who fall over dead look like they're trying not to hurt themselves as they do so. There's a lot of sex and female nudity but nothing especially erotic.

Nothing about this movie is objectively good. But, if you're a connoisseur of bad cinema, there's much to enjoy about Samurai Cop.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

Tales from the Darkside gets a feature-length spin-off. Appropriately an anthology in the tradition of Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990) arrives directed by John Harrison, who directed several episodes of the show and composed the music for Creepshow.

There are three tales plus a wraparound. In the framing device, a young boy (Matthew Lawrence) tries to stall a suburban witch (Debbie Harry) from cooking him by reading her favorite childhood book:

"Lot 249," based off the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story and adapted by Michael McDowell, involves a university student (Steve Buscemi) using a mummy to get revenge against those who cheated him (among them, Christian Slater and Julianne Moore).

George Romero scripts "Cat from Hell" based off a Stephen King story. A rich man (William Hickey) hires a hitman (David Johansen) to eliminate a black cat he thinks is out to get him.

The final story, also scripted by McDowell, is "Lover's Vow." A struggling artist (James Remar) witnesses a gargoyle murder a man, but the creature spares his life if he agrees to keep what he saw a secret. Soon after, the artist meets and falls in love with a charming woman (Rae Dawn Chong) and his fortunes in life improve.

Since we're off network TV, the movie brings out some of the blood, grue, and gore that would have been implied on the TV show. A few heads are lopped off, things that should not be swallowed find their way down a poor bastard's gullet, and the mummy has fun with a coat hanger. The effects by KNB also appear to have a substantially larger budget, and the various creature creations work in a comic-book styled way.

The narratives are predictable. The first two stories work as just dessert tales: the wicked commit a transgression and are punished for it by supernatural means, whether it means a reanimated mummy or a demonic feline. These would have been perfect fits on Creepshow (in fact. "Cat from Hell" was originally scripted for Creepshow 2). Meanwhile, "Lover's Vow" is more of a tragedy. Yes, there's a monster, but no one in the story is really evil, just flawed, including the gargoyle.

Stylistically, Harrison gives each segment its own flavor. "Lot 249" resembles an old-fashioned serial, all wide angle lenses and transition swipes (like in Star Wars). "Cat from Hell" feels like a film noir: deep shadows, stark angles, dream-like flashbacks, and the color is mostly bled out until the screen is almost black and white. "Lover's Vow" feels like more urban and modern than the others, more contemporary.

Tales from the Darkside the TV show has its share of chilling moments, but the movie not so much, but I can't bring myself to condemn it. It's fun and stylish in the tradition of those horror anthologies, and the cast of familiar and soon-to-be familiar faces is clearly having fun. It won't keep you up night, but as a piece of polished horror, it's a solid effort.

Blow Up Your Video

The attitude and energy are there, but the songs aren't.

AC/DC was in a creative rut in the mid and late 80s with albums Fly on the Wall and Flick of the Switch not making much of an impression with fans or critics. Blow Up Your Video arrived in 1988 and finds the boys playing with more fire than they had in some time, but the album is never more than OK, lacking strong or even memorable material.

Blow Up Your Video opens with two solid, driving tracks, "Heatseeker" and "That's the Way I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll," the latter of which contains a lyric that inspired the album title. AC/DC are as rambunctious and rebellious as ever, and at least while they're playing, they'll get you fired up.

"I'm gonna blow up my video
Shut down by radio
Tell boss man where to go
Turn off my brain control
That's the way I wanna rock 'n' roll"

The guitar duo of brothers Angus and Malcom Young play as we expect them to: simple, catchy, and loud. It's straightforward, unpretentious hard rock built on three chords and the boisterous gang vocals of the chorus you want to sing along with.

Occasionally, the Youngs throw in an unexpected touch; on "Two's Up," an ode to three-way sex with two groupies, Angus taps on the guitar solo. Maybe it's not as elaborate or technical as Eddie Van Halen, but for Angus, it's pretty left field yet doesn't feel out of place.

Brian Johnson is in fine voice, but his lyrics leave something to be desired. Bon Scott was a master of the delicious turn of phrase; he had a filthy mind, but the way he sang, he sounded funny and almost poetic. Johnson sings well enough - he can shriek and shout almost as well as Bon - but again, little stands out, except maybe "Ruff Stuff."

"I like 'em big
And I like 'em small
And if I had to take the oath,
I would take them all."

Production by George Young and Henry Vanda (their first time producing AC/DC in a decade) is clean and polished, lacking the grit of the band's earlier work with them. Johnson's vocals are somewhat buried in the mix (though not as badly as they were on Fly on the Wall). Elsewhere, bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Simon Wright (who left the band shortly afterward to join Dio) contribute a dependable, workman rhythm section that plays backseat to the Young's riffing.

Few songs are enjoyable throughout their runtime. Some like "Kissin' Dynamite" and "Ruff Stuff" have a great buildup, but falter with a generic main riff. Others, such as "Nick of Time" and "This Means War," are complete throwaways you can skip.

There are some fun moments on Blow Up Your Video, but the album as a whole feels like filler, like the boys are just killing time until they do something more interesting. The best moments don't equal the lesser moments on the likes of Highway to Hell or Back in Black. It never explodes as well as Angus on the cover.

Standout Songs
"Heatseeker" - A fun, energetic opener. I tried to convince my sister to make this her college batting song.
"That's the Way I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll" - Few groups celebrate rock as well as AC/DC.
"Some Sin for Nuthin'" - I have soft spot for this slower, bluesy riff.

Favorite Moment
Angus taps on "Two's Up." He (and Malcom) is a much better player than he gets credit for.

Album Cover
Angus explodes out of a TV screen as if to say, this music is so cool, when you see the video on MTV, your television won't be able to contain it.

Track Order
1) Heatseeker
2) That's the Way I Wanna Rock 'n' Roll
3) Mean Streak
4) Go Zone
5) Kissin' Dynamite
6) Nick of Time
7) Some Sin for Nuthin'
8) Ruff Stuff
9) Two's Up
10) This Mean's War 

Brian Johnson - Vocals
Angus Young - Lead Guitar
Malcolm Young - Rhythm Guitar
Cliff Williams - Bass Guitar
Simon Wright - Drums

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: My Ghostwriter - The Vampire

You know Tales from the Darkside, not every every vampire has to dress like Dracula. I know it's an iconic look and all, but not even new adaptations of Dracula put him in the cape and collar anymore.

Outdated look of the vampire aside, "My Ghostwriter - The Vampire" proves to be a fun episode. A hack horror writer enters a Faustian pact with a real-live bloodsucker: the writer will let the vampire use his home for shelter, and in return, the vampire will share 900 years worth of stories with him. Needless to say, this partnership sours.

"My Ghostwriter - The Vampire" asks who is the real monster. Count Draco, nicely played Roy Dotrice, only kills to feed. Prentice, the sleazy writer, uses and discards people, including his assistant Jayne, nor does he have any qualms about leaching off other people's work and claiming it as his own. Not all vampirism involves blood apparently.

The premise and execution function as black comedy, but I appreciated that Draco is presented seriously. He's allowed his dignity and not treated as a foppish goof. When he gets angry, he means it, and we take him seriously.

I also liked the secret room where the vampire stores his coffin, accessed by pulling an ax in a prop head on the wall. It's the kind of touch I'd expect any horror writer, good or bad, would want to have in his home.

Tales from the Darkside: The Milkman Cometh

The message of "The Milkman Cometh" seems to be less "Be careful you wish for" and more "Be careful how you wish." Of course, you should be careful when the company your milkman works for is called "While You Sleep Dairy" and its logo is a wolf howling at the moon.

Robert Forster plays a family man on the ropes. He badly needs money, he and his wife lost a baby girl some time ago, and while they would like to eventually have another child, they've been told by doctors it's not possible anymore. That's when he learns about the neighborhood milkman. The milkman will apparently grant anyone any wish if they leave him a note, and before you know it, Forster's luck has turned around. Money's rolling in, and his wife is pregnant.

Come on. You know this can't end well. It's Tales from the Darkside. Forster's newfound success changes him for the worse, making him act nasty toward his wife and son, and by the end, we learn a sliver of the milkman's true nature.

We never see the milkman. We see his outline through a window curtain, and at the end, we see his hand. The episode generates unease by keeping him so hidden. What is his agenda? Who is he? Why does he grant wishes? How does he grant wishes? The uncertainty creates dread. We know something is wrong with this arrangement, but we can't be sure what.

The final, perverse yet darkly funny shot of the episode reveals just how much of a pun the title is.

Tales from the Darkside: Miss May Dusa

I can't believe I couldn't tell from the title this was about Medusa.

Of course, this Medusa is different from the Medusa we know and love from Greek mythology, so maybe I can be forgiven. She doesn't have snakes on her head, thankfully, she appears in the modern world, and while she turns people into stone (or in this case, mannequins), she's a reluctant monster who doesn't mean to kill others. It's why she always wears sunglasses.

"Miss May Dusa" is a romantic episode and a sad one at that. Medusa, or May Dusa, meets a saxophone player, Jimmy James, in a dark subway station one night, and he's nice to her, understanding to her, patient, and pretty good on the sax. Even better, he's blind, so her powers have no affect on his safety. They're perfect for each other.

Most of the episode is devoted to May and Jimmy just talking, getting to know each other, and I found it charming. It gives us a new perspective on Medusa (I always think of Clash of the Titans when I think of her), showing her as lonely, guilt-ridden, and desperate for some genuine affection. It's her human side the episode explores.

It all leads not to a shock ending but a sad one. This is one episode that can be described as heartbreaking. Right when it looks like things are looking up, May looks into the mirror.

Tales from the Darkside: Seasons of Belief

Feature-length horror films have their work cut out for them trying to sustain scares and tension for 90 minutes. The advantage of the anthology format is you really only need one good scare to be successful.

"Seasons of Belief," written and directed by Michael McDowell, benefits from the short running length. On Christmas Eve, two children ask their parents to tell them a story, and their father (E.G. Marshall) obliges with a scary tale about a creature known as the Grither. The children naturally get scared, but the Grither is just a story.


"Seasons of Belief" works by building anticipation. In a touch that hearkens to Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulu," saying the Grither's name summons it, we're told, and the more you say it, the stronger its pull toward you is. As it hears its name, its ears grow bigger until they're big enough to use as wings.

But we don't see this. It's all off screen, suggested by the story told by the parents, and the children's imaginations, and ours, run wild. Strange noise happen around the house. Is it the Grither or just the wind? Who did the dad talk to on the phone? Can the parents be trusted?

The conclusion happens more or less as expected, but the effect is quite strong, making "Seasons of Belief" one of the scarier episodes of the show.

Tales from the Darkside: Deliver Us from Goodness

To this point in the series, I've preferred the serious episodes of Tales from the Darksides to the larks. Maybe they don't always succeed at scaring, but they're trying, they fit better on the show, and they don't irritate me with unfunny schtick.

"Deliver Us from Goodness" is another mostly unfunny lighthearted episode, but it didn't get on my nerves the way some other episodes did. The central idea - deliberately committing sin to fall from grace - might have worked as horror, but here the execution is a farce that's more cute than anything else.

Housewife Valeria Cantrell has a problem. When she speaks, she glows, literally, as if lit by angels, and occasionally, she can make things appear by wishing for them. Her apparently blessed condition is undermining her husband Julian's mayoral campaign and freaking out their daughter Charlotte. Not wanting to be a burden, Valeria decides to sin, so she won't be a saint anymore.

Technically, she's not a saint anyway. I grew up in a Catholic household to know that, but the other characters, including a priest, refer to her as such, and I won't begrudge the episode for being theologically unsound.

Like I said, the episode is more cute than funny. Valeria's family make a poster-board checklist of the 10 Commandments, checking them off as she violates them. Valeria's idea of murder is killing houseflies. She also is rude to her mother over the phone. The worst thing she does is try to seduce the priest, which fails. She also tries worshiping false idols, include Buddha and Bruce Springsteen.

"Deliver Us from Goodness" is silly, but I can't bring myself to hate it. It could have been worse.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: Baker's Dozen

The fourth and final episode scripted by series creator George Romero, "Baker's Dozen" concerns voodoo gingerbread cookies.


I'm giving you a moment to process that.


Ready? OK. Based on a story by Scott Edelman and directed by John Harrison (credited for some reason as John Sutherland), "Baker's Dozen" treats its goofy idea seriously and makes it fairly enjoyable. It's got an unscrupulous advertising man (are there any other kind of advertising men?) and a cackling, cooking witch who concocts sweet treats that pack a magical punch, and the episode builds to their appropriately karmic comeuppances.

That basic plot has been done dozens of times, but the cookie gimmick livens it up. I don't know of any other story that uses gingerbread men as voodoo dolls or in which said magical cookies are used by a greedy advertiser looking to climb the ladder to fame and fortune.

Either you buy the premise or you don't. "Baker's Dozens" isn't scary, but it's deliciously nasty.

One thing puzzles me. SPOILER Ms. Cuzzins, the witch, is undone when her father, whom she forced to work in her kitchen and turned into a rat, eats a voodoo cookies he had been saving. Her father gave away the cookies in the first place to try to beat her. I don't know why he didn't just eat the cookie in the first place.

Now we know what Romero did with that leftover voodoo magic when he took it out of his recipe for zombies.

Tales from the Darkside: A Serpent's Tooth

This plays like a female-centered version of "The Word Processor of the Gods" in which the main character obtains the power to reshape reality as they see fit. Unfortunately, while Bruce Davison was sympathetic in the earlier episode, Renee Taylor is an annoying nag.

The title comes from a line King Lear: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!" That's how Pearl (Taylor) feels. Her daughter dresses like an 80s metal chick and hangs out with an unworthy boyfriend while her son has switched majors from dentistry to agriculture. Even a neighbor boy is mean to her. When a mystic friend gives her a literal serpent's tooth, she discovers everything she says comes true.

At least Bruce Davison used his reality-altering power to bring the dead back to life and make himself a best-selling writer. "A Serpent's Tooth" goes for broad, obvious comedy, and Pearl comes off as especially clueless to root for or against. We understand quickly why her children are annoyed by her.

What do I mean by broad and obvious? When the neighbor makes a face at her, she tells him it'll get stuck that way. Guess what happens. When she insists chicken soup (which she is always cooking) can cure anything, guess what it does. Of course, Pearl forgets about her powers and thoughtlessly says things the serpent's tooth takes literally, and that predictably causes trouble.

The episode also seemingly forgets the extent of her powers. When Pearl meets the boyfriend, she accidentally turns him into a slice of bread. Everyone panics and acts like it's permanent. Why can't she change him back into a human?

This idea is rather frightening. Someone who demands total obedience gains the power of a god. Alas, the episode tries to be cute and funny, and I found it lame.