"If you think you're free, there's no escape possible" - Ram Dass

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 box office receipts and said yes, please, even going so far as to cast the same final girl in Nightmare 3: Dream Warriors, Jennifer Rubin, to play basically the same role in basically the same mental hospital. Instead of a Freddie there's Harris, a scarred cult leader played by real life burn victim Richard Lynch. In the 70s prologue he coaxes his hippie flock, "Unity Field," to burn themselves alive in order to unify their souls. Rubin is the only survivor, pulled from the roaring flames, full head of hair intact, and in a coma. When she awakens its 13 years later and she's 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 us to a rapidly bumped-off set of troubled patients. A stressed Rubin sees Harris beckon to her before each murder. The whole 'unified soul' concept apparently worked, and he's recruiting new acolytes from the therapy group, but try explaining that to hospital staff or the cops, who just think they all committed suicide 'cuz they're crazy. Not that they're not.

The creepiest aspect here is surely Richard Lynch as the cult leader. 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 (and his real life burns). This Lee Strasberg-trained and scary-funny as all hell actor makes a greet creepy villain, but 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. 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!


The rest of the cast is also very good in that 80s teen horror sort of way. Sharp-eyed punk rock fans will feel strangely drawn to Susan Barnes (Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous StainsRepo 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 with its incomparable pedigree: Gale Ann Terminator Hurd produced, and Andrew The Craft Fleming directed.


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).

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 as a feature in festivals.

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

Three stories with past and future stars: James "Ajax" Remar is a struggling artist who is almost killed--but then spared at 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. Another tale has a young Christian Slater, young Julianne Moore, and young Steve Buscemi encounter a shambling mummy (from an Arthur Conan Doyle story) - really dull. Another involves David "New York Dolls" Johansen as a cat assassin hired by wheelchair bound William Hickey in a segment conceived by Stephen King and scripted by George Romero (Season of the Witch). Debbie Harry as a modern cannibal housewife trying to cook for a child occupies the connecting tissue of the tales (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) too many get hung up on the tired old EC comics-style supernatural comeuppance formula. 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 flavorless joke, but because of the great cast it's still essential viewing, even if only while drunk, half-asleep, and baked as a basted Hansel.

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 them all about fear. Said jock is pretty pissed (in the classic "his pants" sense) and later breaks in to the teacher's basement with an axe planning a gruesome revenge. 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...

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. Make sure you stick around for the bizarre climax, wherein a burnt skeleton chases the psychic girl with an axe through all the other sets in a vague nod to the climax of The Terminator.  With its simple constructions and slim budget, After Midnight proves that less is more when it comes to horror: Tales from the Darkside has the money but can't venture out of its predictable DC Comics House of Mystery vibe;  After Midnight 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 parents in that cool armored cruiser (above) and set out across a nuclear landscape populated by almost nothing except giant scorpions, massive deluges of not-quite-giant man-eating roaches, 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 jumping with the detachable motorbike. 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 (and if there is a girl let her be an easygoing cool Hawksian prostitute/dancer rather than a bossy Fordian pioneer mother/wife). In short, it's a boy's life fantasy of being taught to 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.

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 Boy's Life magazine at Cub Scouts and then sneaking out after the meeting to light fireworks and shoot your grandfather's 8 gauge shotgun at his empty beer cans. George Peppard is the 'dad' character - identifiable via his terrible fake mustache and lame Southern accent; Jan Michael Vincent is the starry-eyed older brother who gets the girl and lets you ride his cool motorbike; the girl is a young Meryl Streep-style French beauty (Dominique Sanda) picked up in a deserted sand-swept 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 and then ---oops yeah, that's right - 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. 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 didn't ask to! Make with tha monstiz!

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, a kid who would never harsh a mellow van vibe.

I almost never find anything disparaging to say about Shout Factory, 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 is amazing overall, with groovy deep blacks. But some of the outdoor scenes don't stack up to the Amazon streaming instant video version, wherein the sky is a dark almost psychedelic green-blue. In the Shout version the sky has been cleaned up to a 'normal' sickly pale normal sky color that's just not as cool --even if it is the original sky (and the Amazon just way too dark overall maybe to hide the transfer's general shittiness?)

Either way, I can't complain; and having it on Blu-ray is literally my 70s boyhood dream come true. 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 they truly are.

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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