Erich Kuersten's unhinged film criticism. Constantly in flux, tuned in, a day late and a dollars short ('where it counts')

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Thurs. the Looking Glass: NIGHT OF THE COMET, LIQUID SKY + Mary Woronov


INTRO:

Thurs. the Looking Glass: a new series covering 1980s science fiction and horror films which may have crept through the myriad mirror mazes of time and eluded deserving viewers. Many are being rediscovered now, thanks in large part to the stunning work of Shout Factory's new Scream! offshoot (see my praise piece on Bright Lights) which has been giving these half-forgotten treasures snazzy hand-painted new covers and the kind of film-specific attention to detail only a fan could bring, conceive, and appreciate. Scream Factory, we hail thee.

Preface: To be a teenager in the 1980s was a terrible nightmare of dwindling freedom and choking sameness. We started out the decade as children running wild, puffing our Winston Lights and Marlboro Reds at the designated junior high school smoking area, engaging in unprotected everything, wiling away the hours at Spaceport or just driving around in our inherited Ford Mavericks looking for empty parking lots to break up or make up in, to smoke a bowl, at the drive-in. But old Nancy Reagan didn't like that and by the end of the decade we were getting busted right and left --it was a war on teenagers and we'd get handcuffed just for drinking a beer on our front porch, or having a feathery roach clip hanging on our rear view mirror. And making it worse, our metal head buddies only told us they'd laced the joint with PCP after it was too late to just say no.

We wouldn't have said no anyway, fuck Nancy Reagan, but it would have been nice to have the option. We had to drive a long way to get home, and it was a Friday night, when the cops were out in full. Watching our freedoms dwindle one by one in the name of the angry distraught mothers of MADD. There was nothing to do but go to the mall... again.

1982 ad for Montgomeryville PA drive-in, where I saw too much. 
But we had the movies. Horror and science fiction films in the 80s didn't have to shell out zillions in advertising and PR to barely break even; everything was tactile and urgent --stuff seemed at stake, and films weren't groupthink second-guessed into cliche'd oblivion like they are now (though occasionally they'd force a film to have an R2D2/ET mascot like that stupid owl in Clash of the Titans). Distributors could just buy a few local TV spots (ideally during Creature Double Feature) and just ease on into one independently-owned theater for a week or two. Enough oddball films had become huge hits-- Star Wars, Alien, Terminator, Road Warrior, Conan, Halloween --that producers were willing to roll the dice on pretty wild shit.

What's most to love is that there was no CGI in the 1980s: no rules, no format. Compare that to now, where everything is just the same old zombies and torture chambers and video game-ish land sharks, and wince for today's lost teenagers - who now never have to leave their rooms to see things that would have turned our 80s blood cold.

NIGHT OF THE COMET
1984 - ***1/2

One of the stealth 80s heroines of sci fi, Catherine Mary Stewart (top) looks like a younger more Jane Fonda-poised version of Linda Hamilton and works as an El Rey theater usher who dominates the high score list on the lobby Tempest, eats Twizzlers for breakfast, and sleeps with the projectionist (Corman-Tarantino go-to douche bag Michael Bowen)--more out of boredom and not wanting to go home and deal with her bitchy stepmom's comet party than any kind of love or desire--but doesn't even have to feel bad about it next day, no big deal. She's cool, in other words, in that 80s way girls were, you know, before "The Rules." The next morning, though, everyone's dead across the world because of the comet, turned to dust... only the occasional zombie remains. Luckily, Stewart's fearless, assured, kicks ass, and shoots straight, thanks to a Special Ops father who taught her and her sister self-defense before heading off to deep tactical cover in Nicaragua. When she tells her first zombie foe, "I don't know what kind of scene you're into, but I've been trained - and I don't want to hurt you," honey, she means it, just as she means "The Mac-10 submachine gun was practically designed for housewives." and longs for an Uzi. It's no bluff.


So it seems the survivors of the comet dusting are the ones who for some reason didn't bother seeing it, who missed the show, and kept safe behind steel walls (like a projection room, truck cab or a storage shed). The partially exposed are devolving into homicidal mutants and/or Omega Man style crumbling vampire zombie pale, shades-wearing mall stock boys turned new wave machine gun killers; and there's a cadre of sinister underground bunker scientists racing for a cure, turning into shades-wearing Omega Man zombies. The empty LA orange and red skies and streets are a great magic hour wasteland and there's cozy use of an automated radio station all done up in swaths of new-wave color lighting. Eating Raoul co-stars Mary Woronov (as one of the reasonable scientists) and Robert Beltran (as a sexy truck driver) are great, but it's clearly Regina (Stewart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney) who carry the weight of the film, displaying a believable rapport that includes cool sibling rivalry-support banter, shared laughter, commiseration, sororal bickering, and Mac 10 target practice.


I can't say enough great things about these two leads: Maroney shreds every line as the little sister, wavering from girly cheerleader one minute, telling off the stepmom the next, realizing slowly and believably the world's over later, and coming to terms with grief over her dead friends and blown possible lover opportunities with a wistfulness already beyond her years, yet is still able to rock an amok consumer post-apocalyptic department store montage set to "Girls just want to have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper. Sure that all sounds really 80s-dated dumb but hey, the song had just come out the year before (and the Girls Just Want to Have Fun movie wouldn't come out until the year after), so it's not the film's fault that the song and the trying-on-clothes montage have become inescapably and inseparably cliche. We might wish for a world in which it was cliche to have super cool, capable girls like Regina and Samantha in horror and science fiction films, but they're almost impossible to find in any genre. They're like Hawks heroines as teenagers in the 80s. They'll steal your gun, knock you off the high score list, jack your whip and then kick you in the nuts if you sass back, but if you're cool... man are you in luck.


The weirdest part of the film is that nowhere in the credits is there a sign of Paul Bartel, John Sayles, Lewis Teague, Penelope Spheeris, Joe Dante or Alan Arkush, all of whom worked for Corman and inherited his flair for feminist-but-sexy beatnik wit, a finger on the pulse of the youth (this movie was the punk rock poseur Breakfast Club - fuck John Hughes!) and the knack for feeling subliminally connected to the universes set up by bigger-budgeted films. But if there are no Corman or Bartel connection, why are there two leads from Eating Raoul, and a conspicuous movie poster for Death Race 2000 on the theater door?

Oh well, the film has a genial mellowness is all its own--I even forgive its last scene slide into conventionality as Regina enforces a midnight curfew on her sister and makes the rescued kids wear itchy clothes. It's a very 80s veer towards the family unit as 'the burden of civilization falling to us' but on the other hand, they grew up military brats with expert Ranger training, so maybe the conventions are almost subversive in their way. I can't excuse the dated light-FM closing song, though. Some sounds just haven't stayed fresh, that's for sure. Before this, writer-director Thom E. Eberhardt's did only one film, Sole Survivor, which prefigures the Final Destination films by 20 years with the same plot (PS -and rocks; and a film called The Night Before after. Never heard of that either? What about Captain Ron, which is way better than you'd expect --it's got great Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell chemistry --they're still together in real life, and never got married (PS -nevermind, I was thinking of Overboard).

LIQUID SKY
1982 - ****

A genuinely great performance art science fiction hybrid experimental 16mm oddity from the downtown NYC heroin chic fashion poseur scene, Liquid Sky is what Bowie probably hoped The Man who Fell to Earth would be. Russian ex-pat Slava Tsukerman co-wrote it with the star, Anna Carlisle, who plays both Margaret, a disaffected model in Day-Glo face paint and a surly junky male model named Jimmy. If this was a guy playing both roles it might just be the usual camp drag theatricality but Carlisle brings a depth of wry deadpan wit and existential sad resolve that's Weimar Cabaret-level decadent without ever descending to camp, belying her tender age of 26 with a sophistication worthy of Dietrich and an androgynous punk edge worthy of Tim Curry. When she announces she's from Connecticut ("Pilgrim stock!") in one of the film's key and classic scenes, we realize Connecticut is America's Valhalla-gone-Gomorrah and Carlisle is the persona we all hoped Edie Sedgwick would be in Ciao! Manhattan. She takes both her male and female roles over the edge, even going down on herself while fashionistas (before there was such a phrase) jeer jadedly.


O, those effete women and mildly manly men who spend their 70s-early 80s nights milling around tiny black box combo art gallery / fashion studio storefronts downtown, engaging in never ending private fashion shows in vain attempts to stand out from a stable of similarly face-painted and ennui-and-opiate-withdrawal-driven clotheshorses, this is what the East Village NYC in the late 70s-early 80s was all about, before Giuliani and the internet fucked it all up. Meanwhile a German scientist named Johann (Otto Von Wernher) has followed a tiny spacecraft (about the size of a closed George Foreman grill) to the roof above the East Village penthouse flat Margaret shares with her knife wielding Valerie Solanis-style performance artist heroin dealer lesbian girlfriend Adrian (Paula E. Shepherd, below).


The plot follows Margaret as she tries to do some coke, but winds up raped by a sleazy goombah who force feeds her goofballs (i.e. roofies). She fights back, pulls a knife, but at the same time barely gives a fuck (not enough to get up off the bed at any rate)--she knows she'll get him back whatever he tries to do, and she's patient as a cobra; Jimmy meanwhile is withdrawing from heroin but has no money and Adrian won't front. A fashion designer promises 'him' some lines if he shows up to model the next night at a shoot on Margaret's roof. Meanwhile the alien is floating his giant solarized color style eye thing around, observing all the action through a color-twisted prism and killing those who dare reach anything so jejune as an orgasm. It maybe hides behind the white mask in the center of the weird neon hula hooped painting in the center of the apartment. When Margaret's lovers come, a cigarette burn in the celluloid behind their head sucks them right out of the film, leaving her free to resume her high fashion Fassbinder-ish moping. Her own inability to have an orgasm (due to either drugs, ennui or some combination) saves her neck, and even allows her to notice her little alien guardian. Though she never sees it (them?), they form a bond as touching as that between the disembodied Virginia Leith and her similarly unseen closet monster in The Brain that Wouldn't Die!


In short, a beautiful time is had by all, especially if you don't mind repetitive synthesizer percussion noise that resounds on high decibel pitch-shifted frequencies like an angry outsider filmmaker's first and only melody on his first and only Korgi synthesizer. Highlights include: Adrian's inspired spontaneous beatnik poetry rant (using Margaret's dead, naked acting teacher as a bongo); the odd but natural way two people hanging out in bed can devolve into attempted rape and/or stabbing without either one particularly feeling the need to get up; and Margaret's inspired final monologue, delivered as she applies intense glow-in-the-dark face paint in pitch darkness, like Kali, Warhol, and a stoned Annette Haven wrapped up into one very, very cool, droll, WASP fashionista.

But there's also a different kind of New York coolness in Susan Doukas as Jimmy's sex-starved mother in the apartment across the street, especially in her guileless moves on Herr Johann when he uses her apartment to spy on the UFO and check out all the deaths and sexes. He continually ducks out on her without putting out, maybe saving both their lives in the process (they'd get zapped at orgasm even from this distance), though sexually frustrating her and myself (I hate to see a fine older NYC lady go hungry). She may have to do without but Doukas does a hell of a job at conveying the homey warmth and welcome forwardness (even if its tinged with desperation) one hopes for from sex-starved middle-aged Manhattan foxes with big American NYC apartments, the type who know their Chinese food deliverer by name and with whom you can probably crash for a few weeks while you look for your own pad or finish your book. Dude, I'm grateful to dames like that and they deserve to have their needs gratified, if for no other reason than that they are bold enough to admit they have them in the first place, and this film is a gem.
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Mary Woronov, with the Velvet Underground and her co-whip dancer, Gerard Malanga
Lastly, a shout out to the beautiful, tall and cool Mary Woronov, the living legend link between the great schlock cinema of the 70s-80s and the 1960's Warhol / Velvet Underground scene.  Check her above, snuggled up with mighty Lou Reed and giving the camera a badass stare. Edie Sedgwick may be the one everyone gushes over, but its Woronov who's a true rock and roll survivor. She's still got it! Here she sheds some insight on why she's seldom left the niche cult market and taken parts in big Hollywood films: 
"Let's face it: women's parts are gone. Women are gone. They've disappeared from the movie screens! You know when I was working with Warhol there was no problem because it was a homosexual atmosphere. But in Hollywood it's a heterosexual atmosphere, and they do not like to see strong women. So instead of actresses we've got hostesses. 'May I show you to your seat, Mr. Schwarzenegger?' So that's why I keep doing...these other movies." (1990 Cornell Cinemas)
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Damn girl, it's Hollwyood's fucking loss and the gain of all weird movie lovers... 

Postscript: I wasn't sure why I put these two films together for this inaugural Thurs. the Looking Glass entry, but Woronov is the key. Sure she's not in Liquid Sky but her grrl strength and Warholian style is, and both films are rare in that they star strong, capable women with boys way, way to the side. In fact, the genders are almost reversed - the women are in charge in both films, recalling in their way Star Maidens and Norman Fell's almost-forgotten All that Glitters! Neither of which are on DVD, tellingly. Release them you 'fraidy cat censorial sexist pigs! Release them or feel the kraken tentacles of the Kali Woronov Durga's vengeance, and mine own! (See my article about them in Acidemic's Nordics issue)

2 comments:

  1. Damn, you got me all nostalgic for the 80's all over again! Hmm....80's Blog A Thon part II...here I come! But seriously yeah, Night of the Comet I like because it feels exactly like 1984...that goofiness ever present, love it. Some of my favorite scenes are those that take place in the theater lobby, just before everybody turns to dust. You can see someone playing an arcade game....damn, today, even arcades have dissapeared and gone the way of Blockbusters and Borders...I know it's clicheish to say it, but the old days were better. Your opening paragraphs were awesome.

    I need to see Liquid Sky like yesterday, great write up man!

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  2. jervaise brooke hamster15 September, 2013

    "Silent night, Bloody Night" (1972) has become a bit of a cult favourite of mine over the last couple of years and i genuinely think its the best film that Mary Woronov has ever appeared in, the bird was 28 at the time of filming so she was still a right little darlin`. I dont need "Miracle on 34th Street", "Its a Wonderful Life", or "Santa Claus: The Movie" any more. All i need is the lushious Miss Woronov in those beautifully cosy and Christmassy wintry surroundings.

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