Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Subterraneans: RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS, THE BOOGENS


As bi-polar March melts and freezes and jumps 30 degrees up and down almost every day here in NYC, I'm a veg, Danny, my SADD dragging me around like Angel tied to the back of Mapache's automóvil. My mother died last month, so who am I trying to shock with all my crazy gonzo rambling now? Who's next in the Agatha Christie keelhaul that has slowly dwindled down my little nuclear quartet? In the hell of my natural Brooklyn habitat the rent keeps going up up up up; I've been writing about the lysergic properties of The Green Pastures all week, but with all the instant crucifying going on in the blogosphere I'm worried it's racist instead of merely clever. If the weather wasn't so unendurable I might hazard a guess, but the barometric pressure makes clarity impossible. Soon enough, I'll just be chillin' with some entries in the drive-in triple feature canon instead. Because good recycled trash just might be the only haven from the demons at our doorstep, whomever they be. And so I turn to Joanne Nail to fuck the shit up on my behalf, for my God is one of wrath and vengeance and he's tired of bureaucrats and bourgeois liberal tenure-trackers bearin' false witness. Hear these words long written down: the Jezebels will be back! 






RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR
(1984) Dir: Bruno Mattei 
**1/2

Time and again El Rey has delivered the great trashy 1970s-80s Italian goods, stuff I'd never know about or normally just avoid based on the title. Films like Rats: Night of Terror (1984) for example, is a title I've seen over the years but always drew a vaguely irritated shrug, conjuring in my mind yet another  Willard or Food of the Gods, or Rats, as in the Frank Herbert horror novel about giant rats.

I was wrong, wrong like sticky traps; El Rey and Mattei were right, this offers the more humane snap traps.

What sets this one above the dregs: it's set not in a dimly lit suburb or inner city but the post-apocalyptic landscape of past Italian films like Warriors of the Wasteland, and Escape from the Bronx, etc. all made in the wake of the creative and box office success of Escape from New York, The Warriors, The Road Warrior, and Conan the Barbarian. Swirled together in the Italian trash auteur tradition, one thing's for sure: Mattei steals from the best!


I still would have run the other way seeing this on some 80s pan and scan cable channel, but El Rey and HD have brought new life to these once-maligned gonzo Italian trash classics. Now with its restored deep blacks and deep rich grime shades, Rats: Night of Terror looks amazing, and that helps us get over the general grimy look of the cast and our natural displeasure seeing masses of rats congregated in a room with no clear motive or cheese incentive. In fact these poor rats all seem rather bewildered, even the white haired ringleader. Luckily director Bruno Mattei made sure no rats were harmed during filming. Oh wait, this is Italy, so yeah they probably were. But in a hellscape like this, the dead are the lucky ones. And at least we don't see them look all betrayed and startled as they're shot with a Bert I. Gordon pink pellet paint gun in slow motion like we do in Food of the Gods. I saw one running on fire, but in general they're mere extras; we don't see them much and shots they figure in, for real as opposed to puppets, are looped while the actors try to turn running up the basement steps in single file into a whole scene, they're game--they try hard and the editor tries to make it all fit together and I suppose it might if you were half asleep in a dark drive-in.

The rest of the action follows a post-Road Warrior style biker gang with tricked out vehicles that must have been left over from the 1983 Enzo Castellari film I nuovi barbari (The New Barbarians AKA Exterminators AKA Warriors of the Wasteland) which were from his classic 1990: The Bronx Warriors (1982) and its sequels. In fact, in Germany, Rats: Night of Terror was billed as the Rifts III - Die Ratten von Manhatten i.e. billed as third in the Bronx Warriors trilogy--hey, there were others still to come, and hey, they borrow from the best, including themselves. Hey!

So these Bronx "Rifts" pull into a deserted (bombed out in WW2 and never restored?) Italian (not supposed to be?) villa and soon are besieged by shots of molti ratti --never funnier than when being pulled en masse via an 'unseen' carpet underneath their feet, towards our "terrified" antiheroes and their molls on the other end of the dusty, empty room. Keeping up the sci fi end, there's a secret chamber with futuristic radio equipment and an opening scrawl that delivers a whole series of post-apocalyptic upsets. You know: evolution amok, up and under. None of it matters or makes sense except as setup for a 'gotcha' ending, which if we're 14 years old we just won't see coming or laugh at the 'suggestions of rat' tongue puppet and great exploding bodies where all the rats come tumbling out.

But what makes it work (for the fans) is the terrible dubbing and game if amateur acting/directing, centering around the dubious wisdom of gang leaders Kurt and the competitor for his alpha position, the Native American GI-esque Duke. Duke's right, after all, Kurt basically makes all the wrong moves, he must have got the job for being best looking, and says lame shit like"Open up in the name of humanity!!" after blindly trusting Duke to unlock to door and to guard the women in the other room while he and a bunch of other guys try to turn walking down a small flight of basement steps into a whole scene (lots of walking in place and reacting to rats that were presumably going to be overlaid). All that shit's gold and Mattei packs in way more Ed Woodsian details than the gotcha set-up demands. This gang seems to have dropped into this world from an amnesiac nightmare, initially psyched to eat uncooked flour, they're soon enough wondering where it came from, and then all in the same long night wind up trapped, somehow, and living in the middle of a rats conquer the world zone, but rescue by a fumigator hazmat team may or may not be on the way. The diving bell and ominous jet landing synth pads and little rat skittering drum loops of the Luigi Ceccarelli score is perfect if not great and the film looks foxy and retro-chic on the El Rey print. For those of us who saw the Escape-Road-Warriors trifecta over and over and over as young teenagers; it's enough that this film tries hard to look like them, though caked with the usual gray dust and has explosions and mounted machine guns.

Could-a done without the rats, though. Twist!

SWITCHBLADE SISTERS
(1975) Dir. Jack Hill
****
"The only thing a man's got below his belt is clay feet."

If you love to see men the target of feminine violence, then for you, almost always, lurks Jack Hill, the auteur behind SPIDER BABY, COFFY, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, but almost more importantly, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS. A preconfiguration of what was to become a street gangs/amok youth craze that fused the urban grime apocalypse of 70s street gang violence--ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976), THE WARRIORS (1978), SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981)--and do-wop post-HAPPY DAYS greaser nostalgia--THE WANDERERS (1979), THE LORDS OF FLATBUSH (1974), HE GOOD LOOKIN' (1982), GREASE (1978) . SWITCHBLADE SISTERS (1973) predates it all, looking back only to juvenile delinquent movies of Corman and Mamie Van Doren pics of the 50s. The cast includes Lenny Bruce's daughter Kitty as Donut (lower right), the gang member who gets picked on regularly by doll-faced, sweet voiced but tough-as-nails Lace (Robbie Lee). No one fucks with new girl in town Maggie (Joanne Nail) though, cuz she's not averse to whipping off her chain belt and/or grabbing a switchblade (they all use their jackets as a kind whip/shield, a good whip to whack a knife out of someone's hand). Lace isn't threatened by such moxy but Lace's one-eyed suck-up Patch (Monica Gale) sees the writing on the wall: Maggie's gonna steal Patch's man, the goomba Alpha of their male counterparts, Dominic (Ashner Brauner); Lace just thinks Patch is jealous of the beta female position but ole Patch is right; the sparks between Dom and Maggie are real enough, even his breaking into her room to rape her can't change that. In short, this is Jacobean tragedy of the most Shakespearean order, with a roller rink subbing for the town square, and an enemy family in the form of a Crabs and his drug dealing bunch of smartasses posing as a local political group who run up against Dom's operation. But eventually the men are thrown over.


So why did it fail? The film's original title THE JEZEBELS possibly made drive-in audiences think it was that hoary old Bette Davis southern romance (so it bombed). By the time the distributors changed the title, word had gotten around that JEZEBELS was the film to see, but now they couldn't find it. D'oh!! If it had been called KNIVES OF THE JEZEBELS or better yet, I'LL SLIT YOUR FUCKING THROAT, it would be talked about to this day. Hill's previous great feminist-with-a-knife film, SPIDER BABY (1968), had the bad luck to be come out at a time when drive-ins didn't want black and white movies anymore, unless maybe they had graphic cannibalism. SWITCHBLADE SISTERS was a great title either, making it seem like some ditzy Andy Sidaris softcore lesbo thing. SPIDER BABY just sounds vaguely cheesy or boring, too; it should have been called THE SPIDER GIRL GAME or better yet, I'LL SLASH YOU TO FUCKING RIBBONS!

Anyway, you can guess the story, SISTERS is great when you're really pissed off, like I am right now. It goes all the way, from sleazy initiations, cigarette burning, a rape/abduction by a rival gang triggering massive retaliation, vicious bite blow-jobs, a constant flux of acting ability, butch prison guards, roller rink massacres, and keeps going long after other films pull back. There is a feminist black militant ghetto uprising with machine guns and a badass armored Cadillac, a shocking Cagney-by-way-of Lorre raving mad closing monologue (maybe my favorite ending in all schlock cinema), an OTHELLO-style jealous mind poisoning, the Daryl Hannah-prefiguring eye patch of Patch, the heavenly blonde jawline of Janice Karman (she barely speaks here but would go voiceover work as part of the THE CHIPMUNKS), the badass 70s funk score by Medusa (their one screen credit), the way Ashner Brauner sounds like Ralph Meeker when he's really mad; Hill gives us all that and more, and Quentin Tarantino brings us to the Hill by way of his Miramax "Band Apart" label, looking damn good by way of Netflix Streaming. Forever.


Maybe I'm really pissed off right now, and taking it out on the infinitely carvable idiots in my mind who've kept my office working until four while a blizzard's been raging outside since noon. So I protested by sulking in my office, blasting this movie on Netflix like a badass, then tripping on my snow boot shoelaces like a four alarm ponce. Even so, SWITCHBLADE SISTERS is the shit. See it when you're in the mood to stomp on someone, it will 'flatten out your sine curves.' That it's on Netflix in HD with gorgeous colors is one of cinema's current great gifts. See it when you're super furious at the world (did I just say that?) or just strung out with the shakes because your dealer never showed, and bask in the cathartic powers of the fabulous Joanne Nail, the way Robbie Lee's eyes widen and dilate, then contract into a glowing glaze. And Joanne Nail's final rant to the fat cop, her face streaked with blood, eyes wide and maniacal, delivers just the right amount of Meyer-esque camp to her lines.  Joanne Nail would be back all right... in the fascinating 70s all-purpose drive-in capstone, THE VISITOR! (1979)


THE BOOGENS
(1981) Dir James L. Conway
 ***

Am I crazy to have had to get this on Blu-ray? I had to see what was going on better as all early videos were notoriously too dark. Not that I saw any. I read all the reviews and chat rooms about such things and was turned off by the title: "Boogens" is like what some gross kid sitting across from me in 7th grade lunch might call the peas he stuck up his nose. These Boogens showed up during the height of the slasher boom and seemed part and parcel with all the bland baghead movies coming out like blood from America's open veins, sending my alienated 14 year-old feminist arms all akimbo in indignant horror. Well, maybe it just needed 30 years for both of us to get clear of that goddamned early 80s nonsense, because now I think the BOOGENS is fucking great. Okay, it's just 'good'. Okay... good enough. You can take the peas out of your nose now, Eugene. I'm here to stay. Hmm, maybe put them back in, Eugene. I'm too mature to handle it after all. BOOGENS sucks.


What really sets it apart from the pack right off is an early 20s Canadian-style maturity (the film company is situated in Salt Lake, so--you know): the snowy Utah mountain environment (the outfit making and releasing the film was big on nature movies like GRIZZLY ADDAMS) creates a sense of believable daylight savings eeriness and the way the two young male characters (Fred McCaren, Jeff Harlan), both fresh out of engineering school, tackle the job re-opening an old silver mine while preparing to spend the weekend with two young women (Rebecca Balding, Anne-Marie Martin--one the girlfriend, the other a final girl type just there to ski and maybe set up with the other, not in a skeevy way, in the real way you can imagine you and your friend arranging a similar thing--neither sappy love at first sight strings nor revulsion and clashing, but real 'arranged' hook-up between young adults of legal age. Unlike most horror scripts, the dialogue between the boys and girls feels written between two people with differing views rather than one hack writing everyone the same. The dichotomy works really well because we're so used to the extreme polarities of geeky virgin nerds and hunky alpha bland lotharios, sluts and final girls, that we only realize here in Boogens how under-represented is the gap between those polarities - that most of us are a mixture, not the pure breed endomorphs (jolly fat guy), mesomorphs (jock) or ectomorphs (nerd) that choke the stream of youthful genre films. Boogens asks: What about the guys and girls old enough to not be virgins, but young enough they're still a little insecure when real emotion intrudes on the mechanics of a one-weekend stand? Sure the 'sex talk' coming out of the girls' mouths in their dialogue together in the car and before the boys arrive feels like it's written by a dude. What it really needed was to let the actors improvise and find their own rhythm, because the actors aren't up to making mediocrely-written small talk seem spontaneous. A Debra Hill could have really helped.

Still, despite the immature sex stuff, the characters are at least professional at their jobs, and human, and the scenery is beautiful. The mountains and mines, and the monsters have an ingenious connection to the land and to all the homes in the neighborhood (via ancient tunnels connecting to vents) and in their cool blobby way they recall the things in the long unavailable Hammer film Island of Terror (1966). As is so important, the film takes its time not showing them too early, which is how it should be, and each scene stretches out allowing for some real terror accumulation, like when one of the girls is chased around the cabin fresh out of the shower and it's scary without us seeing it at all; and there' an explosive ending and some good (presumably real) cavern scenes, which we can see and appreciate.... now. Blu-ray --is there nothing it can't do?

1 comment:

  1. Condolences to you about your mother. Good thing we have kick ass movies!
    Namaste

    ReplyDelete

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