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

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, a fine example of synergy and vertical integration offset by the ultra-dated cliche'd black expression "Oh hell No" white people are now so crazy about. Can using words like "clutch," and "baller" be far behind, yo? "The new ill sausage and baller bacon butter triple hog dare ya from Applebees - baby it's baller." or "Patron Blue Tequila - Clutch... simply clutch."

From the latest Corman offshoot company joint Asylum, wherein they realized they had a great high concept so decided to spend a little more money and do it better than the usual wretchedness, SHARKNADO the First delivered the same sort of kitschy but rock solid thrill vehicle Corman had been parking at drive-ins 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 crap golden age (if you don't take too much umbrage at crappy CGI). Taken as one nonstop festival of semi-conscious hot young things at the beach shouting "Shark!", it's like BAYWATCH for monster movie lovers to nap to on a lazy Sunday. You know, instead of going to brunch or playing Nintendo. In other words, it's what I watch - raised on Corman TV package Sunday afternoon movies on local TV creature double features from birth.

And 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 tornado didn't even come along until the final third, and the film worked better that way; stabbing sharks with your pool cue as the table felt gets soaked in blood and ocean spray; the traffic inland, the sharks in swimming pools, sliding down the highway strips, dashing up ramps in between waves.... and the way normal life seemed to go on simultaneously to the disasters. Even as all this apocalyptic shit goes down on the 'air field', traffic is normal right outside on the highway.

No one but me remembers those parts. 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 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 but the mood on the news is jovial). Reid's quite pregnant, their oldest son has "deployed" so isn't around and 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 solvers, with the Oval Office quick pass. Fin doesn't like that Cassie Scerbo as Nova spent the sequel off on her own (though I could swear I spotted her in the subway), going all storm chaser Mad Maxine 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 a great raspy voice Jersey girl realness even to her manic obsessive psychospeak and when she says 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.

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 sights 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 synergy. And of course NASCAR and military build-up must be acknowledged. UFC fighter Josh Barnett blasts sharks for the military--now more than ever. In the 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; 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 hop-on, "Lavalantula," which will hopefully involve leaping from the couch to the stairs and floating around on the mattress imagining the carpet is lava, like the old days; 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 than live in prosperity and peace under their's!" we hear someone shout. 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 ("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 feet, 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 parachute can get through? Priceless. Even Tara Reid's skin looks much better. 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 train? The poster alone (at left) kept me away back in 1986, when I was 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 Julie 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 for a night of passion and drinking. 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 snarkiness and fake breasts to travel very far in his direction). But here, some initial snark aside, the all-in-a-single-night momentum keeps things pleasant and sex jokes front-loaded only. On a nostalgic trip, if you too had hair that bad and dressed like that in the early-to-mid-80s and cut school to hang out at the mall with your first girlfriend and made super 8mm movies and knew at length how to build explosives and fire weapons because you'd been scared of Michael Myers for eight years, then this is for you, bud. It has nice tracking shots, good percolating synth score and genre in-jokes enough to make Joe Dante smile wanly at Forrest Ackerman's autograph: Peckinpah's gun store delivers the Romero mall arsenal; 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); the dialogue quotes from the original THING ("it's gonna be real mad when it gets to me"); one character tries to dispel robot attention by saying "Klaatu Barada Nikto" 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. The acting veers all over the place, especially the half-hearted screams of the great Crampton, 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 bad, fake bad, and brilliant. I like that they eschew the seven stages of grief (as seen in THE MIST) which pretentious writers and actors so often mistake for realism or importance, and go right to the savagery switchpoint. Even the designated strapping jock type Mike (John Terlesky of DEATHSTALKER 2) good-natured charisma; 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, like Marines! Sultry scream queen Barbara Crampton (FROM BEYOND, YOU'RE NEXT) doesn't, but she's pretty great in the earlier set-ups doing the bubbly PJ Soles sex bunny role. The robots are real remote controlled full scale maniacs on tank treads, GOG-esque, with Gort laser eyes, Robocop-style platitudes--all in all 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, maybe... probably not. Wynorski is very hit and miss for me. But I'll watch CHOPPING MALL, aka KILLBOTS again, for 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 wit that never descends into campy disdain for its own genre. Roger Corman's 50s sic fi films led to JAWS led to ALIEN which led to TERMINATOR which led to his daughter Julie's CHOPPING MALL, which weaves that thread to a separate strand DAWN OF THE DEAD suburbanite amok consumerist satire for a weave that's pure New World schlock. Wynorski follows the whole snake around the track, and brings it home.

Just as the recent masterpiece IT FOLLOWS did, CHOPPING MALL knows that great horror begins at home, not in some idyllic small town or thriving city but in the real normal middle class suburbs, the grocery store, and at the mall, and in our 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. 

Nature is a monster, forever killing and eating smaller versions of itself, yet we're forever fighting back our natural urges because they have no place in society. Aside from swatting a fly or two we need never kill things, let alone our own food; we never need fear the dark as long as our electricity bill is paid; never go hungry for there are food stamps. People, old and diseased, who could never kill or procure their own food--whom nature would normally dispose of--have it brought to them on wheels so they can bankrupt Social Security for one more day. But we feel the ghosts of all our food haunting us in the dark regardless of our abattoir proximity. The guilt of all the pain our lives inflict, below and above, within and without us, hammers at the walls of our easy first world consumer-oriented perception. 

Meanwhile, our own animal DNA has our brain hardwired for hardship; it releases that special dopamine reward for killing our own meat through some savage effort, or starting and maintaining a camp fire, or vanquishing 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 get after killing a saber-toothed tiger with nothing but a sharpened rock.

Goofy but sufficiently deadpan horror movies like CHOPPING MALL and SHARKNADO tap into this need for the kill, but in the process expose that need's 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, and guts... glory... Ram.

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. 
2. I literally watched that movie last week, and at his age had the same shy boy trouble busting first moves, some say I still do. 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. 

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