Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception, for your aghast befuddlement

Monday, July 27, 2015

The New Triple Long Pig Dare Ya: SHARKNADO 3, CHOPPING MALL


I was shocked watching SHARKNADO 3, which premiered with much Shark Week-esque hooplah on Syfy last week, when one of the "live tweets" mentioned "the theme park worker" and not the Universal Orlando Theme Park worker, which is really doing your promotional tie-in guy wrong. Meanwhile a commercial commemorates one of the recently eaten Secret Service guys, saluting him for being free at last from his wearisome cellular contract. Hey, that's clever, taking a chummy cue from Shark Week's many tie-ins over on Discovery. Aye, a fine example of synergy and vertical integration, albeit offset by the instantly-dated expression "Oh hell no!" white people are now so crazy about. Can using words like "clutch," and "baller" be far behind, yo? "Try the new, super- ill sausage and baller bacon butter triple hog dare ya from Applebees" Dave and Busters new Holla Back Baller Rack: 15 ribs for fifteen bucks" or "Patron Blue Tequila - Clutch... simply clutch."


The Sharknado series is the biggest hit to come from the latest Corman offshoot company joint Asylum: they realized they had a great high concept idea and so decided to spend a little more money and do it better than the usual wretchedness. Thus, SHARKNADO the First delivered the same sort of kitschy but solid thrill vehicle Corman had been parking on drive-in and TV screens across the country all through the 50s-70s and late night cable all through the 80s, and VHS rentals all through the 90s. And lately, for SyFy, he's been in the shadows behind a new self-aware camp golden age (if you don't take too much umbrage at crappy CGI). Usuing the 'nado as a springboard, Asylum has left their sleazier jungle-based tommyrot (the Pythons and crocodiles and Pirhanas) behind and gone for a slightly more upscale, younger, hipper approach. Taken as one nonstop festival of semi-conscious hot young things at the beach shouting "Shark!", these films have become like a Baywatch marathon for monster movie lovers to nap to on a lazy Sunday. Then, for the peak of corporate recuperation, the big moment when another Sharknado film drops - usually Sundays at 8 PM, following or preceding Shark Week on Discovery - and with enough sponsors onboard for Synergy tie-ins to make Roger and Julie very happy.

Because hey, you can never have too many clever ad men tying in their lures on this big air shark wrangle, because every time there's a self-aware camp 'event' like this, the self-aware metatextually hip tie-ins become closer and closer to the actual movie until the two are tangled as two fishing lines. The result makes for quite a spectacle, as watching America eat itself always is, even as it eats you from the toes up, until all that's left is a finger on the remote.

Such faux-self deprecating product placement and tie-in integration is all over the net, and even on NBC's Saturday Night Live, which does Amex commercials in the same manner as their satiric commercial sketches, making the two impossible to separate. In other words, vertical integration is no mere Jack Donaughey 30 ROCK joke. Check out this Clickhole ad's deadpan mix of satire and straight forward advertising... where does one end and the other begin? Exactly.

That's why the second SHARKNADO was so painful: it had become fully self-aware and was just camping it up, shitshow-style, featuring a string of bloated once-familiar faces hoping to up their Twitter numbers as they're eaten near destroyed NYC landmarks (or crushed by the severed head of the Statue of Liberty) and Fin's hero complex looking dangerously close to domestic terrorism (See Micro-Manager Munchausen). This third go-round--despite the douche-chilled "Oh HELL No!" tag--makes it back to something like the first film, which worked so well because it wasn't just the tornado that was interesting, but the incoming tidal surge that flooded the drainage sewers and left the water line climbing up into the Hollywood Hills. The way it all unfolded over one long afternoon, starting in a Santa Monica beachfront bar and ending high above some strange air field next to a UVA rest home, one long incoming wave, seen from behind wet SUV windows, and heard in the background FM radio news updates folded into the slap of the wipers and the uniquely LA ongoing discussion of the best shortcuts across the Ten, or whatever, the way the tornado didn't even come along until the final third; the stabbing sharks with your pool cue as they come rolling in through the bar window; the green table felt soaked in blood and saltwater; the traffic inland, stalled out on shoulders getting dumped on from upper exit ramps; the sharks in swimming pools, sliding down the highway strips, cars waiting for wave intervals to dash past off-ramp intersections, and the way normal life seemed to go on simultaneously to the disasters, it was all a comfortable foggy blast. The fact that, even as all this apocalyptic shit is going down, traffic is normal right outside on the highway, or across the street (stolen shots being a Corman tradition) was analogous to the film's effect. It was exciting without trying to earn our respect, or to suspend our disbelief and sweep us into a magical realm... of wonder... and imagination...! It was enough for SHARKNADO that we laughed once in awhile, and reach for the remote in despair.

Print the legend though - the Sharknado itself caught on, as well as Ian Zetterling as the older dude Scott Walker, and Tara Reid. No one but me remembers the cool parts: Nova, the flooding aspect, the boozy bar-to-rainy car vibe... but that's life. Time marches on, and the flood was probably harder to animate digitally than just having airborne sharks. And this tie-in bonanza is once-in-a-lifetime. I'm sure none of the subsequent airings will have those same ads, and it's a damn shame. 


But hey, Bo Derek plays Tara Reid's mom; and she's eternal like "She Who Must Be Obeyed", both of them dragging now-designated sharknado expert Fin to Orlando (for theme park tie-ins) instead of into the thick of the tornado, or helping the president prepare for the oncoming tide of inexplicable airborne sharks (the White House is destroyed; the mood is jovial). Reid's quite pregnant, their oldest son has "deployed" so isn't around; their cute daughter Claudia (Aubrey Peebles) is played by a different actress with dark hair (Ryan Newman), a subject of much small talk on Twitter. Now Fin and his family are public figures, America's designated sharknado chasers, with an Oval Office quick pass. Ever the hog of the first film's glory, Fin doesn't like that Cassie Scerbo's Nova spent the sequel off on her own (though I could swear I spotted her in the subway), going all storm chaser Mad Maxine without him, ensconced in an armored shark investigation camper with radar, arsenal, and contingency plan (Frankie Muniz is her lovelorn tech guy). Once again, Scerbo steals the show and bumps this back up to the old levels, giving her usual great raspy voice Jersey girl menthol-smoker realness even to her manic obsessive psychospeak. When she says, for example, that when she crawled out of the shark in the climax of the first film "it's never been the same" she does it with just enough gravitas, neither turgid nor campy. It's just a junky ass flick, but in this moment it shows you can address PTSD without being either dismissive or PSA maudlin. 

Cassie Scerbo, you are the heart and soul of these films and never let them tell you different! Tara Reid gets the name recognition and does the promos but you do the heavy lifting and provide the soul and appeal. Scerbo, your love for Fin--who only had eyes for his family which of course made you love him more--was the first film's core. Not having you around in the second made it fairly trite going. Is there anything more unseemly than some Cali broheim lecturing us on what it means to be New Yorkers as he runs hither and yon, chasing his family around the all the usual sights (Times Square! Subway! Mets Stadium! Statue of Liberty! O00h-rah!) like a confused maniac terrorist-tourist hybrid? The only interesting aspect left was Tara Reid having her hand bit off and replaced with a bionic arm. A part I do not remember but works well enough here.


I don't even mind that Fin's still got the obsessive hero complex this time, because it fits the film's subliminal integration into army recruitment propaganda and its even further-around-the-curve NRA promotion. Whenever gun nuts take the law into their own hands to save their neighborhoods from flying sharks, this movie proclaims, we all benefit. Michelle Bachman and Ann Coulter-- both of whom make cameos--especially benefit from this red state synergy. And of course NASCAR and military build-up must be acknowledged, and respected. Ooh-rah! UFC fighter Josh Barnett blasts sharks for the military--now more than ever. In the synergy ads, Race Car Driver #3 uses being eaten by a shark to escape his cellular contract. Cosmetics come in real killer colors; the incessant car insurance barrage "I guess they don't like you driving around on three wheels." And the smug girl chiding her husband with her good driving record cashback; Sam Jackson ranting about your 'hard-earned' cashback; the new Jeep Cherokee; and the M. Night movie about creepy grandparents; Pepsi; for us in NYC a spate of local ads for: the Honda Summer Clearance Event, Broadway superstars of Magic "The Illusionists," and The Book of Mormon. Promos for Syfy's own latest 'scary critter+natural disaster' hybrid hop-on, "Lavalantula"; the upcoming Syfy miniseries Childhood's End which is about an alien invasion that brings happiness and peace but what's the downside? What are these peacenik aliens really up to? "I would rather the world go down in flames under our control," a staunch white male shouts "than live in prosperity and peace under theirs!" Spoken like a true Republican! "Messing with Sasquatch" promotes rude near-bullying taunts of Bigfoot in the name of jerky; turkey and guacamole (flavored substance) from Subway; Captain Obvious at Hotels.com ("They won't judge your life choices"); some guy with an unbearably pandering sensitive voiceover, the kind so common now, where they talk to you like you're five years-old and just skinned your knee:"All you need to see is the next 200 feel - that's how life unfolds - and you'll get there." (1) Fuck that. The badass anti-smoking ad equates a cigarette with a vicious science class monster with smoking, and that's so clutch. Anything that kills you makes you cool first. If Bogie's life taught as anything it's that real men don't do longevity.  

Subtextual pro-NRA ultra neoConservative Army recruitment tool or no, watching Tara Reid give birth while falling through Earth's atmosphere inside a giant flaming shark, Fin cutting a whole so the parachutes can get through? Priceless. Her skin looks much better, by the way. And Nova, welcome home. I just hope they wise up and give you your own local girl vs. shark series, because you're that old animal flesh creeping back again, a thumb in the eye of the CGI Moreau!



CHOPPING MALL (1986) on the other hand, came to me free of all commercials, liens and tie-ins. Seeing it (for the first time) last week after the NAD 3 was very satisfying. Why had I waited almost 30 years to get onboard the MALL train? The poster alone (at left) kept me away back in 1986, when I was still a young punk smoking his way through college. It looked like a cheap slasher film which by 1986 was one desiccated formula. I remember imagining some bloated, mentally challenged mall cashier chopping up and eating the long pig (you have to look close to see the hand holding bag is mechanical). 
Turns out, my imagination was wrong! I found out last week that it's a Corman-produced joint about mall security robots run amok after freak lightning, the same night three young furniture store clerks and their dates, plus another couple, spend the night at the mall furniture store (to get it on away from parents, one presumes). It's Corman underling Jim Wynorski's directorial debut and he'd go on to much worse things, I'd imagine (I'm too leary of adenoidal snarkiness, fat guy gross eating, frizzed out 80s hair and cracking, fake breasts to travel very far in his and fellow leerer Fred Olen-Ray's overall direction). But here, some initial snark aside, the all-in-a-single-night momentum keeps things pleasant and the sex jokes are front-loaded only. It has nice tracking shots, a good percolating synth score and genre in-jokes enough to make Joe Dante smile wanly at Forrest Ackerman's autograph. For example, the gun store in the mall is called "Peckinpah's"; the nerd shows his blind date ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS while everyone else gets it on (the kind of thing I used to do, alas, on dates - I'd even show them the same movie! Hmmm); the dialogue quotes from the original THING ("it's gonna be real mad when it gets to me") in a way that lets us know these two buddies have seen that film as man times as I have (double-hmmmm!); one character tries to dispel robot attention by saying "Klaatu Barada Nikto" (I shouldn't have to tell you where that's from), and the robot lasers borrow sound effects form the 1954 WAR OF THE WORLDS. Corman company movie posters adorn the pizza shop walls; Mary Woronov and Paul Blartel roll their eyes during the robot debut ceremony (with plenty of ROBOCOP allusions); and Corman regular Dick Miller is a cranky custodian. Sure, the acting veers all over the place, especially the half-hearted screams of the usually great Crampton (she just looks great this time), but that just adds to the ramshackle verite... Teenagers, man, who the hell knows how they'd handle being, as one character says, by way of apology for her skittishness, "chased around a mall in the middle of the night by killer robots?"  

That line could easily die of camp overkill in the wrong hands, but here it works at straddling perfectly the line between genuinely bad, fake bad, and kinda brilliant. As with all Corman and Co's output, there's the realization no one wants to see 'real' acting, so we can eschew the seven stages of grief which pretentious writers and actors so often mistake for realism or importance (that so deaden THE MIST, for example), and go right to the savagery switchpoint. Even the designated strapping jock type Mike (the beloved John Terlesky of DEATHSTALKER 2) has good-natured charisma rather than Cruisian narcissism; the nerdy blind date's a crack shot (Kelli Maroney, who was in the excellent NIGHT OF THE COMET--which I did see in the theater); and the sexy older girl (Karrie Emerson) is an ace mechanic. Rather than sobbing and whining, the girls make bombs with cans of gas and protect each other's flanks. Sultry scream queen Barbara Crampton (FROM BEYOND, YOU'RE NEXT) doesn't last long enough to be a bother and is good in the bubbly PJ Soles sex bunny role. The robots are real-size, genuinely remote-controlled full scale maniacs on real tank treads, whizzing up and down the mall halls. They are GOG-esque, with Gort laser eyes, and Robocop-style platitudes--a combination way cooler than you'd expect for such a low budge endeavor with such an ROTM poster.


To tie in SHARKNADO, Wynorski's currently working on something called SHARKANSAS WOMEN'S PRISON MASSACRE.  Dominique Swain and Traci Lords will star. I will certainly watch it... probably not. Wynorski is very hit and miss for me, mostly miss. But I love DEATHSTALKER 2, and I love CHOPPING MALL, as it doesn't just source from TERMINATOR but from TERMINATOR's own sources, and it achieves the rarest of all hat tricks in this genre: self-aware intertextual wit that never descends into campy disdain for its own genre. After all, it was Roger Corman's 50s sci-fi films that inspired THE TERMINATOR (James Cameron even got his start working for Corman) which led to CHOPPING MALL, which weaves that thread to a separate strand of suburban amok consumerist satire for a weave that's pure New World schlock.

Just as the recent masterpiece IT FOLLOWS did, CHOPPING MALL knows that great horror begins at home, not in some idyllic small town in some folksy New England that never war or some decayed inner city but in the real normal middle class suburbs, the ever-larger and more depersonalized grocery store, and at the Main Street-killing mall, and in our theater-killing TV sets. Anywhere we go to feel safe, or sated, or comforted is-- in the perfect horror film-- used against us. America has always been and will always be slightly paranoid. It's only natural that whatever we make in our own image would try to kill us. 

It's a chip off the old block that way. 

Aside from swatting a fly or two we need never kill things anymore, in real life, personally I mean, we seldom even kill our own food. It's killed for us. But our animal DNA has us hardwired for hardship; it releases that special dopamine reward for when we kill our own meat through some savage effort, or start and maintain a camp fire, or vanquish our foes in physical combat. Without those kind of basic challenges, the ones the movies provide us by proxy, those dopamine chemicals gradually tone way down. When a good movie taps those instincts, we get a little taste, but as for real life dopamine-flood primal caveman victories, what's left? 

Sex, procreation, maybe kickboxing-- mere scraps compared to the staggering endorphin rush we'd once get after killing a saber-toothed tiger with nothing but a sharpened rock while weak from near starvation, then cooking and eating it with the tribe...



Goofy but sufficiently deadpan horror movies like CHOPPING MALL and SHARKNADO tap into this exhilaration even as they expose its utter ridiculousness. They clarify the answer to why we create our own artificial calamities, and why advertisers take advantage of this to ride our fear, which is why the shark eating you will soon be financially obligated to remind you about the new Applebee's shrimp platter comes with an all you-can-eat salad buffet. Don't ask why its so eager for you to clean your insides out with good ruffage. You may learn things about your resale value you're not comfortable with. 



NOTES:
1. My voiceover career stalled out when clients stopped wanting the deep Tom Waits rasp and moving towards that touchy feely "high" voiced food co-op nonsmoking smug sensitivity in my voice so I may be prejudiced, but fuck that namby-pamby shit. Love.... it's what makes a Suburu a Suburu,... fuck that guy. When a Corona gets its lime, you can kiss my white ex-smoker asszzz. 
2. I literally watched that movie last week, and at his age had the same shy boy trouble busting first moves. I'd show them weird old movies til they'd either get tired and leave or throw themselves at me. But that was before... the meds. Now I'm all cured. Too late though - the Cialis giveth and the SSRIs take away

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