Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Monster Capsules: BAD DREAMS, THE ROOST, DAMNATION ALLEY, AFTER MIDNIGHT, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE

 BAD DREAMS
(1988) Dir. Andrew Fleming
***

This is a film that took a long hard look at the Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors box office receipts in 1987 and said, "I have great idea for a movie!" So in they cast the same girl from Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors, Jennifer Rubin, to play basically the same role in basically the same mental hospital." Instead of a Freddie (that would be pushing their luck) there's Harris, a hippie cult leader who burned himself up, intentionally (rather than let someone else do it --see, it's not the same film at all!) played by Richard Lynch (who also burned himself up intentionally in real life!). In the 70s-set prologue he coaxes his hippie flock (called "Unity Field") to burn themselves alive together, in order to "unify" their souls. Rubin is the only survivor, she chickens out, and is pulled from the roaring flames, full head of hair intact, and in a coma. She awakens 13 years later, and finds herself promptly stuck in a mental ward and, worse, it's the 80s. Jeffrey (Re-Animator) Combs is the strange, handsome shrink who brings her to group therapy in order to introduce a rapidly bumped-off set of emotionally troubled young patients. At night, the stressed Rubin sees the ghost Harris wafting around the hospital, beckoning to her with a ghostly 'Join us!' wave of his burned hand, and settling for one of her group when she declines. As in Dream Warriors, it's hard to sound sane while trying to convince the authorities that a rash of suicides amongst your fellow mental hospital inmates is the result of a long-dead burn victim taking revenge. But Jennifer Rubin just keep trying.

The creepiest aspect here--far creepier than Englund's Freddie, actually, because he's trying not to be--is surely Richard Lynch as the cult leader. This Lee Strasberg-trained and scary-funny as all hell actor makes a great villain, as anyone who's seen DEATHSPORT well knows, though he's not a convincing cult leader. Look at that picture at left, would you want to follow him? A cult leader needs to be seductive as well as just creepy. Could you imagine Robert Englund running a cult? It's hard not to imagine what a cobra-hypnotic presence like Lance Henriksen or Michael Ironside might have brought to the role. No offense to Lynch meant. His voice alone could run a cult-- it's serpentine, deep and magnetic, but even before his character burns up, it looks like he insisted on having a textured flame retardant gel around his face at all times (which seems wise considering the amount of flame he's exposed to in the film --and his real life burns - I'm not surprised). Maybe I'm jealous because I've always felt I'd make a great cult leader, and my dad was always urging it on me, saying that's where the real money is. In other words, I want my own Unified Field! I almost started one once or twice but then realized the old Groucho Marx adage, paraphrased for cult leading (I'd never want to lead anyone gullible enough to follow me).


The rest of the cast is very good in that 80s teen horror sort of way, it's actually kind of a surprise how good the writing and acting is underneath the low budget. Sharp-eyed punk rock fans may wonder whey they're strangely drawn to Susan Barnes (it's cuz she was in both Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, and Repo Man!) and the terrifying Dean Cameron will linger in your mind thanks to his skill at amok basement leaping and bulb punching. As Pauline Kael might say, he all but smashes a hole in the picture. Rubin is very good at wearing her emotions on her sleeve and the Shout Blu-ray reveals every gossamer strand of the glisten in her eyes So yeah, this movie grows on you, separating itself from Freddie Krueger comparisons as it matures. A lot of that probably has to do too with its incomparable pedigree: Gale Ann Terminator Hurd produced, and Andrew The Craft Fleming directed. In their hands, anything can take wing beyond its dubious origins (after all, James Cameron got his start working on Star Wars and Alien ripoffs for Corman - it's the highest flattery of form!).


POST SCRIPT (I wrote this having no idea of the weird link of Lynch's burns coming from lighting himself on fire while on an LSD trip in Central Park in 1967 - now that's a brave actor - not setting himself on fire, but playing a psychedelic-era cult leader who sets himself and his congregation on fire in order to bring them all close together - that's the kind of art imitating life through the artist that lived it kind of meta shit that gets me all a-flutter - so, in its way - this film is a nice harbinger of Freddy's New Nightmare! Art imitating the Imitation of its previous incarnation imitating life!).

THE ROOST
(2005) Dir. Ti West
***

Ti West's first film--hampered only by his inability apparently to motivate actors into a state of wakefulness--The Roost is a surprisingly engaging work of horror retro minimalismEven the carload of mumblecore hipsters are bearable thanks to their low-key delivery, voices low so as not to disrupt our fading attention span. Taking a midnight shortcut along a mysterious road on their way to a wedding, a bat flies into the windshield causing a crash! Cue a kind of Jim Jarmusch version of Planet Terror on a Plan Nine budget as the bunch knock on doors to get help, and the bats inhabit a nearby barn, and their bite turns humans into zombie monsters.


The acting is pretty bland (with the exception of newcomer Vanessa Horneff) but it's hard not to be awed by West's unshakable grasp of what makes horror work. In this case it means trusting his audience and his grasp of the genre in order to use minimalism to generate unease, rather than the usual overwrought whiplash editing and bombast. West's instincts for how long to play a shot or moment are so spot-on he can confidently throw most of the usual horror symbols and dross away. Close-ups of doors slowly opening, for example, are presented completely out of context and for some reason it's scary because we don't even know who's opening the door or who's standing on the other side, if anyone. Genius. He also makes great use of tick-tock momentum, 16mm grain, no daytime scenes at all, a remote location (the Marnie barn) and, most effectively, only diegetic (headlights, porch, dashboard) light which makes the all-consuming darkness of a lonely rural shortcut palpable. The score's an effectively minimalist avant garde mix of drones and cello.

Maybe all this doesn't sound like much on 'paper' but it's all the spookier for being so apparently haphazard. Too bad there's dull stretches of horror host filler with West favorite Tom MANHUNTER Noonan underplaying to the point of sad distraction. If nothing else, it contextualizes the inner film proper, adding a whole new chill by association. Or if you like- it's filler so West could enter THE ROOST in festivals as a full-length feature.

TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE
(1990) Dir. John Harrison
**

Three stories, with past and future stars: James "Ajax from The Warriors" Remar is a struggling artist who is almost killed--but then spared at the last minute--by an inner city gargoyle; he falls for Rae Dawn Chong on the same night and has never seen Kwaidan (1964) so never makes the connection and/or avoids the same mistake. Another tale has a young Christian Slater, young Julianne Moore, and young Steve Buscemi encountering a shambling mummy (from an Arthur Conan Doyle story) - future stars or no, it's really dull. In another, David "New York Dolls" Johansen is an assassin hired by wheelchair bound William Hickey to kill a cat. It's a segment conceived by Stephen King (Breathing Lessons) and scripted by George Romero (Season of the Witch) but you'd never know. Debbie Harry as a modern cannibal housewife trying to cook for a child occupies the connecting tissue (The Hansel bides for time by telling the tales, ala 1001 Arabian Nights).


I've never been a fan of horror anthologies (except, of course, Bava's Black Sabbath) as too many get hung up on the tired old EC comics-style supernatural comeuppance formula (exceptions might appear, like Toby Dammit) but the film as a whole drags. I have the same problems with Darkside. Even Debbie Harry is surprisingly flavorless as the cannibal gourmet. Haha! "Flavorless,"get it? The script's loaded with that kind of thing.

AFTER MIDNIGHT
(1995) Dir. The Wheat Brothers
***

At last, a trilogy free of 'supernatural comeuppance.' Underrated fringe weirdo Ramy Zada goes for distance as the psychology teacher who pulls a gun out during class and points it at a snickering jock to teach the class all about fear. Said jock is pretty pissed - in both the classic "his pants" sense and figuratively - to the point he later breaks into Zada's basement with an axe planning his own gruesome fear exercise. He doesn't know Zada's upstairs conducting a ghost story round robin with some of his cutest students because hey, it's a dark and stormy night. And hey, one of the students is a psychic who senses something wicked's coming up from the basement... First, lets hear these tales!

I dug the middle segment best, with its looney tunes midnight warehouse dog attack. Most critics prefer the final story, wherein a creepy celebrity stalker switches gears and comes after said celeb's answering service operator, played by the always worthwhile Marg Helgenberger. The first bit is a short and sweet one sure to grab ya with a chuckle and a gasp -if you're not expecting a chuckle and a gasp that is, so forget I said anything. Just make sure you stick around for the bizarre climax, wherein a burnt skeleton chases the psychic girl through all the other sets in a vague nod to the climax of The Terminator and    With its simple minimalist set design and slim budget, After Midnight proves that less can be more when it comes to horror: by contrast Tales from the Darkside has the money but can't venture out of its predictable DC Comics House of Mystery twist-endings uber alles vibe - the sort that, like many of the Amicus anthologies of the 60s-70s, is barely concerned with atmosphere or fun, just set up for the somewhat Diaboloque-ish punchline.  After Midnight isn't that interested in the final destination, it would rather enjoy the ride. It quits all sense of consensual reality, throws its meager budget at the screen as a distraction and lunges straight for the nightmare logic jugular.

DAMNATION ALLEY
1977 - Directed by Jack Smight - ** 
(for male viewers who were kids in the 70s - ***)

Not an easy film to love but, for some of us, loving Damnation Alley is a challenge that beckons like Everest. We really want, even need, to love it, even if the actual film goes out of its way to suck. Still, if you were a boy in the 70s and read Famous Monsters of Filmland, chances are you longed to take that climb, to escape your stupid life by jumping into that cool armored cruiser (above) and setting out across a nuclear landscape, pausing only to jump over giant scorpions on your motorbike, or outrun giant scorpions, man-eating cockroaches, psychotic rednecks, and other things one needn't feel the slightest bit guilty about decimating with rooftop rocket launchers or at the very least, running over or gunning down. Every boy of a certain age dreamt of that kind of bedtime-less freedom. A time when drinking or driving age limits, cops and homework would all evaporate like a bad dream in the fall-out (and if there is a girl, she's an easygoing cool Hawksian prostitute/dancer rather than a bossy Fordian pioneer mother/wife). And who better to teach you to drive and fire roof-mounted rocket launchers as soon as you're old enough to see over the steering column, and to have a beer and a smoke while you're at it, than Jan Michael Vincent and George Peppard?

Directed by Jack Smight, who gave us such other awful but irresistible films as Midway and Airport 1975, Damnation Alley is a film as wholesome in its fashion as reading a Playboy sandwiched inside a Boy's Life magazine at a Boy Scouts lodge meeting instead of paying attention and then sneaking out to light fireworks, choke down sips of stolen beers, and shoot your grandfather's 8 gauge shotgun at his empty beer cans back by the creek before your mom comes to pick you up. George Peppard rocks a terrible fake mustache and lame Southern accent as the dad who teaches you to drive; Jan Michael Vincent is the starry-eyed older brother who gets the girl but lets you ride his cool motorbike; the girl is a young Meryl Streep-style French beauty (Dominique Sanda) they pick up in--where else?--a giant gaseous ant-infested Vegas; Paul Winfield is the fifth wheel black guy, killed off early as was (and sadly still is) the custom.


The film begins in one of the best nuclear war recreations in film history: no drama, no hand-wringing, just by-the-book monitoring of screens at a remote missile silo deep in the American southwest: no women or bleeding hearts, no morality or ethics or drama--they just do everything they've been taught --perfectly-- and then ---oops yeahhh, so did the Russians. Game over all around. A few years go by and a chain reaction explosion at their remote facility makes sticking around inadvisable, as well as trimming the survivors down to a convenient handful. They get word of a small thriving town of survivors out in Albany (of all places), so they take off across country from deep in the desert of the west. There's supposed to be two of these big mad cool vans to traverse the nuclear terrain in, but the film's budget only allows for one, so we seldom see the both of them together. But Smight, we don't need two to start with. Why bother?! Make with tha monstiz!

It's small random stressing of details like that which lead to the true weird charm of Damnation Alley! This is a pre-Mad Max / post-apocalyptic wanderer movie made by a sweet very cool older brother who doesn't want either mollycoddle his young brother or traumatize him with too much brutality. Aside from a few traumatic deaths and a decent into some sadistic redneck threats and danger pre-retaliation, there's almost nothing here that wouldn't get this a 'G' rating - except that title! It had DAMN in it! As kids in the 70s, that title alone was daunting - made it seem like the kind of thing you needed your friend's cool older brother to take you to see, or you didn't see at all... ever.... and only dreamed of how boss it was.

Myriad technical difficulties aside, this has to overall be the mellowest post-nuclear war movie of the 70s, so it's got that at least going for it. Mostly the whole film is long shots of driving through psychedelic electric storms--which I personally love. There's also a strange flood (luckily these vehicles are built to float) and mostly empty deserts. Even the arrival of a kid isn't cause for alarm, since he's played by the perennially feral Jackie Earle Haley, who would never harsh a mellow van vibe. We kids generally hated kids in our movies, but Haley was cool because of Bad News Bears. He was the type who seemed a bit sketchy, from the wrong side of any tracks, unkempt, un-mothered, like he'd be a bully, but in reality he'd only pick on other bullies and protect the snot-nosed rest of us, even from guys twice his size. The 12 year-olds in us thrilled regularly to words like "we can now all take a shower once a week, whether we need to or not."

As for the Shout! Blu-ray, I almost never find anything disparaging to say about this label, who have been cleaning up and releasing to Blu-ray a vast host of previously disrespected sci-fi and horror titles from the 70s and 80s that would likely be forgotten or bungled otherwise. The Blu-ray of Damnation Alley however disappoints on the color front, despite groovy deep blacks. But instead of restoring all the weird colors of the post-apocalyptic open skies, they've just lightened the whole thing and deepened the shadows; the blue skies now have a sun-bleached video box cover look; when they do let the skies look post-apocalyptic, they pick one faded color rather than the multiple hues of the analog original version we can catch on Prime, VHS, Youtube, etc. In the earlier versions, we can see the overlay lines between the actors and the color tint, and the whole movie looked like we were watching it through sunglasses, but so what? Did the restorers not realize this was a post-apocalyptic storm sky and not meant to seem realistic? Thirty degrees of coolness are lost in a brushstroke, or the lack of one.

Aside from that, who can complain; and having it on Blu-ray is literally my 70s boyhood dream come true- seriously, I imagined being able to watch it over and over on a Famous Monsters Magazine - shaped and sized rectangle! And as Lacan might say after a dinner with Lao Tzu, only those fortunate enough to fulfill their childhood dreams have the honor of realizing just how empty such dreams are. Imagine the misfortune of those who die still clutching their Rosebud snow globes instead of the warm hand of a Hawksian Vegas showgirl playing nurse?

Top: Amazon Instant Video / Bottom: Shout Blu-ray

2 comments:

  1. In response to BAD DREAMS, it's also worth mentioning the relevance of Richard Lynch's casting, perhaps being largely due to his infamous freakout with LSD in the 60s which resulted in him dousing himself in gasoline in central park and lighting himself on fire!

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    Replies
    1. is that really true?? If so, wow. Good for Lynch, facing his demons! That explains his bizarre burnt skin texture. I remember thinking he looked already burned before burning himself in the film, which was very odd.

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