Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, March 28, 2019

10 Surreal Cult Gems of the 80s: A Prime-Stream Special

What was the 80s and why was it such a golden age for weird sci-fi and head trips? Was it thanks to the dawn of MTV and Night Flight to amuse stoned kids back from the punk shows on weekends? Repo Man, Return of the Living Dead, and Night of the Creeps in theaters; Liquid Sky and Street Trash were at (shhh) inner-city theaters; and the time wherein the drive-in and the video rental place co-existed comfortably? It was films like Conan, the Terminator, and Robocop making big money. Art house wonders like Brazil and Blue Velvet occupying hallowed places in the press. It was a time of great anti-drug hysteria, and so--just as imbibing booze had become a symbol of American freedom and defiance against  knee-jerk oppression in the 20s, so now that same patriotism was to be found in getting high in the 80s. Today weed is mostly legal and so innocuous - in the words of WC Fields, it's so common it's unnoticed. But back then, getting high and going to the midnight movie or going to a punk show and/or driving around 'til the parents fell asleep then sneaking in to watch Night Flight and old movies was simply what we did. And as a result, thrive-nation of the strange. We're a decade away from the grunge 90s ecstasy-and-blue recovery roller coaster of the Prozac 90s. Let us have our dollar of fame, Hollywood - it shan't come again.

(1989) Briam Yuzna
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A

For sheer over-the-top surreal weirdness, nothing really beats Brian Yuzna's SOCIETY which has one of the best WTF denouements in cinema history. I'm going through great pains to not spoil any of it, let's just say that in best surrealist form it taps into the Freudian Id impulse and the anxiety that one is shut out of a massive 80s upper crust orgy, that even your family are in on some licentious surreal secret. It's this very real feeling that underwrote the Satanic panic of the 80s (and continues today in things like Pizza-gate, and the conspiracies of David Icke -[here]), so it makes sense this came out in the same decade, a time when Reagan was in office and 'yuppies' were gobbling up everything, their little IZOD collars turned up and Ray-bans on in slavish imitation of their god, Tom Cruise. Not for nothing, then, does Society star the euphonious Cruise-clone Billy Warlock as a privileged lad who enjoys the finer things yet is ever reminded of just how much better a slightly upper cut of the pie has it.  He begins to realize something is going on when his sister's paranoid ex-boyfriend-cum-stalker plays him tapes he made of her private conversations with their father re: her debutante 'coming out' party. It sounds like she's going be offered up to some evil reptilian throng as a sexual offering, making her way through parents and local officials in a group orgy, and that she's looking forward to it. But that can't be--can it? To amp the paranoia we're never quite sure, til it's too late, if we're just reading into it. That's the nature of paranoia in the end. Billy is paranoid, but the truth is far crazier. Along his journey to the horrifying truth, he picks up a hot mess girlfriend (Devin DeVasquez) and--in the weirdest element--her "mother" (Pamela Matheson), a bizarre hair-eating nutcase that seems to have wandered in from a John Waters casting lagoon.

 Yuzna produced those early Stuart Gordon gems From Beyond and Re-Animator so clearly knew how to hire and use the best, and that means great effects teams. The gooey weirdness needed here would of course be CGI today but not here, it's the weirdest coolest mess since Carpenter's The Thing. Too bad so few people saw it --did it even get a release? Either way, what a blast. Goes everywhere Eyes Wide Shut does in about 1/3 of the time, and then more besides, and it's hilarious and has a genuinely interesting bushel of things to say about the nature of desire, social-climbing, consumer culture, the parasitical nature of the rich, and what's known today as FOMO - or the feeling a massive beautiful people orgy is going on whenever you're not around. Kurbick really should have gone out more, or at least watched some horror movies --Society would have maybe saved his life.

And the subtext of this hilarious exhilarating WTF-athon is a truth about privileged rich kid LA that has led to real trouble, the idea (now called FOMO) that you're missing the orgy. That once you make enough money or become famous, the orgy ticket will arrive. Some sleazy mongers still believe there's such a place, where gorgeous women abandon themselves to hairy ugly men in licentious abandon at the clang of Get Out teacup rattle or an Eyes Wide Shut Rammstein-style synth/chant dirge. How that 'missing the orgy' feeling ties in with priapism and paranoia could be a full semester course (see here for full syllabus), but Society says it all in 99 minutes and without bitter aftertaste. 

(1982) Dir. Slava Sukerman
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

Seeing this look so good it's like a revelation (it used to be avail. only on raggedy DVRs), so if you saw it once in any other form, see it again on Prime (or the new Blu-ray). It's the prime of the artsy early-80s downtown NYC New-Wave scene; a small alien saucer lands on the roof above the balcony apartment of trendy new wave icons Margaret (Anne Carlisle) and her drug-dealing lesbian roommate Adrian, played by Paula E. (Alice in Alice Sweet Alice) Shepherd. They're both letter perfect, as is Susan Doukas as Sylvia, mother of Jimmy (also Carlisle) a strung-out sneering male model struggling to pay for a high-end cocaine addiction.

There's oodles of great stuff but the ultimate in 'scenes' has got to be Anna Carlisle going down on the male version of herself while a bunch of fashionistas hanging out (while using her gorgeous roof balcony apartment for a photo shoot) start a kind of rapey group mockery thing jeering in a very punk aggro manner that would be scary if it were straight people. Luckily, as Walter Sobchak might put it, there's nothing to worry about --they're nihilists. What makes it work, ultimately, is Margaret's zonked renouncement of sex in favor of drugs and mind expansion. She doesn't say no to sex though, even with her old teacher/mentor who drops up (a different time, oh my brothers). Then the aliens zap the life essence out of these lovers in the moment of orgasm and--until Anna complains--leaves their corpses piling up in the apartment (The scene where Adrian starts an impromptu smack-shivery poetry slam while  playing one of the corpses's bald head like a conga--is a peak moment). Meanwhile Jimmy's mom, who lives across the street from Anna, has a hilarious lunch with sneezy, withdrawing son (now that the image is so lustrous, the sun streaming down makes the lighting so beautiful and uniquely NYC I got a 90s strung-out chill just watching him/her).

Clearly, this is the female east coast parallel to REPO MAN. Was it an influence on Alex Cox? And like that one-off masterpiece, is a film to be revisited, again and again - especially now - it probably never looked this good even in its initial NYC run. (see full review)

(1985) Dir. Terry Gilliam
**** / Amazon Image - A-

Time was this was the bee's-knees and it's still a riot with a cold sucker punch chaser - it's one of the most gamely dark and savage satires of modern bureaucracy in the history of cinema, but now it's big social messages can seem rather labored, the whole bureaucratic hodge podge and endless ducts and malfunctions feel so yesterday since we've gone--thankfully--paperless. It's as if the entirety of the Dept. of Information Retrieval has been reduced to a roomful of geeks on laptops. Still, as the missing link between Kafka (a rather heavy debt is owed) and--alas--one of those whimsical too-obvious Danny Kaye 'daydreaming office drone thinks he's a swashbuckler' odysseys, the level of detail and imagination is stunning. Since it's all before CGI we can really savor the level of obsessive termite craftsmanship (the clouds in the fantasy flying sequences alone are worth the price of admission). Terry Gilliam's trouble as a director has always been that--like Ridley Scott--he can never trust the story to work on its own so his films gush over with detail and interesting things while the mythic root is lost like a child in a Black Friday opening door crush. Here, since that crush is what it's all about, the density works perfectly, to turn it all into a ballet of post-futuristic 30s decor crumbling under the weight of add-on tech (temporary things installed to fix problems with the fixes to other problems, etc).  If Jonathan Pryce's flustered Walter Mitty-everyman schtick starts to get wearisome during his prolonged panicky run-for-it with the girl of his dreams, who--with her short hair and trucker's job would be instantly pegged as a lesbian today, making her initial resistance all the more glaring. It never even occurs to Pryce to ask - this is his universe.

That's the cool thing about Gilliam's vision - though a knee-jerk leftist reading is that Pryce is a hapless hero in a coiled universe strangled by evil bureaucrats; a close reading shows that the dystopia is the fantasy as much as the clouds. Reality chokes itself on its own exhaust so millions can relax in air conditioned privacy and dream of angels, or watch The Cocoanuts in their own bathtub while smoking a joint. Hey, I relate. Maybe a little too well, realizing the extent to which my first world consumption habits butterfly tsunamis out to mass poverty in the third world, and yet being unwilling to trudge back upstairs to get the shopping bag rather than just getting plastic one more time.

Regardless  -it's all gorgeously done, with an extended wordless chase set piece finale that finally fishtails into pure fantasy with knowing nods to everything from American in Paris to The Red Shoes and (of course) Potemkin under a dazzlingly expansive Michael Kamen score. And the cast is top notch: Ian Holm has never been funnier as Pryce's nervous wreck boss; Michael Palin is a chilling blast as Pryce's nonchalant torturer college friend and--marvelous as ever--Bob Hoskins as a sinister duct worker. Cuz ya gotta have an American, there's Robert De Niro as a combination Groucho Marx and Che Guevara, zip-lining in and out of windows and balconies along the tall apartment complexes to make bootleg duct repairs. If Gilliam never made another movie after this, he'd be remembered as one of the masters of surrealism and dark comedy. But dystopia has a habit of dragging on... 

(1984) Dir. W.D. Richter 
*** / Amazon Image - A+

The problem with this film was that it kind of expected itself a shoe-in for cult status, and that's not how cults are made. Cult films are born of legitimately weird outsider types trying to make a Citizen Kane, not Kane trying trying to deliberately make a weird outsider film. BUT just because the motives are baffling and the weird hybrid Captain Midnight-brain surgeon-mad scientist-Formula 5 racer-rock band frontman thing is just a little Too Much Johnson to doesn't mean the cast, effects crew, and moments in the script, aren't worthy of Sub-Genius-style lionization. Let the lamp affix its beam, even if one can't simply whip up a franchise out of thin air (Lucas, never forget, used carefully imported mythic ingredients, plumbing Joseph Campbell as well as Alex Raymond); the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream ("No matter where you go / there you are" became an instant.... whatever you'd call it, debatable point?)

And there's the cast: Peter Weller and Ellen Barkin have never been more beautiful (the way Ellen Barkin opens her mouth for a kiss is so carnal and raw it collapses time and space as we know it), and it's clear they vibe on each other real well. Jeff Goldblum is saddled with a ridiculous cowboy get-up that almost tanks the film right there - too quirky for quirky's sake, but he's great and so is John Lithgow as Big Booty or Dr. Lizardo (top), and on and on it goes with way too much fan club stuff ("I'm Buckaroo club Genus chapter!" like anyone watching was old enough to remember Captain Midnight decoder rings)- did they really expect such fan clubs would start? One thing too - this is one dense film - packed with mythos and character running which way and that. You can see it over and over agin and are still noticing little details. Around the tenth viewing, it starts to really work except for, it never quite does. Great end theme though. Too bad there wasn't ten sequels! Weller - you are or were a gawd!

(1988) Dir. Thomas R. Burdman
*** / Amazon Image - D+

A chamber piece that plays like some off-off family sitcom from an alternate reality (we never see a window or an outside - are they all in some gigantic multi-generational cross-galaxy spaceship? Did I miss that part?), no moment of the typical domestic bliss-ticked early-60s-late-80s sitcom is missed in director Thomas Burdman's (and co-writer Lia Morton)'s keen eye for absurdist surreal digression, from the doofus grandpa (here he needs force feeding with a giant syringe) to the daily delousing a half-dog half-human 'pet' to the boss (Richard Portnow) who comes over for dinner while dad (John Glover) angles for an overdue promotion and wife (Nancy Mette) hopes everything goes just right, to the cute daughter (Juliette Lewis!) getting ready to go out on a date with some new wave glorkenspruling doofus, to the tentacled one-eyed watcher in the foyer (security system?) It's all played letter straight, such as it is, and the weirdness never stops. It's very tube-oriented, this weird world that all seems subterranean (we never see an outdoors), everything is round and comes out of tubes that connects to a vast system, cleaned out chimney sweep style by men covered in pipe cleaner tubules who speak so abstractly they need subtitles (the same font Spheeris uses in The Decline of Western Civilization!). Lewis does her Lolita-fetching thing in due earnest here, clearing the way for her iconic stretch of films from the early 90s. Just look at her in the top center picture! Almost a different girl and who's that on her left? It's Bobcat Goldthwait --pre-screechy voice --almost different boy as one of the weird cops who carry her home. Funny how that works, but work it does. So Come over for an evening with the Hollowheads, and stare agog at a universe that might have been. If the 80s was really that kind to weirdness, this would be on muhfuggin' Criterion!

I confess, I was only able to finish Meet the Hollowheads over several 20 minute viewings, as I found it too weird to endure for longer, especially in such bad quality (it's about akin to what you'd find on youtube, duped from some old first run VHS scored at a close-out) though as soon as I finished it, I started it right up again, so what's that tell you? And it's no dis - I watch Godard movies the same way and I love him. If you love crazy Godard too (for the comedy) and if you like the friendly day-glo genuine insanity of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, the industrial Kafka savagery of Brazil, and post-industrial ennui and alienation of Eraserhead, then this is your film. Just watch it from far enough away you don't get any on you. And though the image is bad it's all worth it for the wacky climax which finds the lecherous Portnow running amok, killed more times than Rasputin, the kids coming home wasted after hacking into a forbidden drug tube (the title I'd give it were I in charge: Forbidden Drug Tube-Tap) and the wasted son almost giving the whole show away by thinking the bruised near-dead boss is a monster. What a family. What a film! What set decoration. Would it was clearer, image-wise as that deep red in the round living room alone is to dye for. Stick with it and it you may never get it off. But maybe by then you won't even want to. Personally, I'll never trust soap and water again.

(1984) Writer/dir. Thom Eberhardt
*** / Amazon Image - A

With a weird cult-ready veneer that's quintessential 80s, this sci-fi/cult/horror/comedy checks a lot of bases, but does 'em all right (the heroine survives the comet night apocalypse because she was shacked up in the El Rey theater's projection room in a sleeping bag with cult douche Michael Bowen, for god's sake - and rather than work her usher job she eats Twizzlers and rules the Galaga high score in the lobby). Writer/director Robert Thom was one of those almost-iconic auteurs who made too few films to have a following, aside from weirdos like me who love both this and his Sole Survivor (also 1984, though much less widely known and now, alas OOP) - I saw Night on the big screen in the suburbs during its initial release--by myself, while skipping a high school--so you you know I'm the right guy for it. If you love Mary Woronov and any movie where the teenage heroine warns a guy trying to kill her that she's "been trained" and doesn't want to hurt him (and means it, and does) then you'll love this film which now looks better than ever thanks to a great Shout Factory dusting and color-depth-asizing). The dazzlingly-haired Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney) star as the cool sisters--capably rescuing children and mowing down punk mall cops thanks to their CIA op father teaching them home defense before departing for Nicaragua. Woronov's fellow Eating Raoul star, Robert Beltran is a truck driver who answers the girls' survivor call (they set up base at the local LA radio station). Woronov heads an underground lab looking for a cure to the slow decay that hits those who survived the initial mystery dusting of the comet. God, zombies were so much cooler back then. What happened?

One thing may turn some folks off if they watch in the wrong context: this is the film with the quintessential first Cyndi Lauper "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"-set post-world shopping montage (echoing Dawn of the Dead as much as foreshadowing Day with its underground scientist think tank bunker) but not the film's fault that trying-on-clothes montage set to that song have become inescapably and inseparably cliche. We might wish for a world in which it was cliche instead to have super cool, capable girls like Regina and Samantha as our stars of horror and science fiction films, but they're still rare in any genre. (see also Anita Skinner in Thom's Sole Survivor for another cool Hawksian, this one even quoting To Have and Have Not -here)

(1985) Dir. Dario Argento
*** 1/2/ Amazon Image - B

When the plot of this was first described to my roommate and I by his girlfriend back around 1994 as the movie we needed to see after a drug-addled weekend, I thought she must be mistaken. This being long before the advent if Wiki and imdb, we could only trudge video store-ward and scope out the Argento titles, and nothing even remotely insect-concerned appeared. Whnen I finally did get to see Phenomena it was the uncut version presented by Anchor Bay (as opposed to the American butcher job, Creepers) and in widescreen on DVD (as opposed to murky VHS) so it was even better than she made out. Why am I telling you this? Because to relay the actual plot of it is like giving away the trick ending of Psycho if it was all trick endings. While Argento certainly references everything from (the previous year's) Firestarter as well as Carrie, in the construct of events etc. it also goes in all sorts of zig-zaggy directions. I'm not a big fan of Argento's insistence (continued in Opera and other late 80s films) of using heavy metal to underscore the murders. Time has been as kind of Morricone and Goblin as it's been unkind to Iron Maiden, in my opinion, especially concerning this decision (hence I deducted 1/2 a star in my rating).

What I most love about it though is the weird midnight bond that forms between young bug-attuned Jennifer Connelly (she can communicate with insects, and call swarms of them to her aid when needed), and a wheelchair-bound entymologist played by Donald Pleasance, and his helper chimp, Inga. The dubbing is excellent and a real weird unique mood holds between them, as the ever present chilling wind keeps rolling down and up the Alps creating a totally unique mood in the Argento canon, perfectly accentuated by the flanger-drenched guitar music of Claudio Simonetti (or someone else who worked on the score?). With Daria Nicolodi as a nerdy teacher and Daria Di Lazzaro as the sexy-bitchy headmistress. The last 1/3 is a never-ending cascade of shocks and twists guaranteed to keep any jaw glued to the floor, and in the midst of it all, sweet innocent Jennifer Connelly - swimming in lakes covered by burning fuel and calling insects and drowning in pits of maggot-filled decomposing bodies, all in great style. You may be warned, but there's no way you can be prepared...

(1986) Dir. David Lynch 
**** / Amazon Image - A

I'll confess it took me a long way to come around to this movie: I found the violent thuggery disturbing and without a cathartic resolution (seeing it at a college screening). After a few decades of repeat viewings, and deep analyses by Todd McGowan and Zizek, I was able to unravel my private relationship to its Freudian subconscious Oedipal separation trauma, so I could let go of my ambivalence. Turns out the purple and blue velvet apartment where Kyle McLachlan spies through the closet blinds isn't merely his anger/anxiety over a woman being hurt, but a primal scene as understood through the mind of a child who mistrusts the animal grunts of sex and seethes with resentment over the dad's power to shut him out of the bedroom at a whim. So, turns out, the problem was mine, not Lynch's! I myself was Frank as much as Kyle - and I didn't want to be either one. I had to make peace with my inner monster. I tried, and am trying, and sometimes I love this film and sometimes not. I prefer actually Lost Highway, perhaps because it isn't as good. I'm not really connected to it, and that's just fine.

But that's not on Prime. What we have here, in 1986 pre-Twin Peaks--redeeming himself after Dune--Lynch includes Laura Dern at her dreamy-but-chipper best; the beautiful Dean Stockwell as a kind of dream world pimp lip syncing Roy Orbison (see CinemArchetype 18: The Aesthete) while Kyle tries not come off like a frightened kid hanging out with his drug dealer on the wrong night. An initiation into a darker realm of life beneath the grassline of sunny Lumberton, these scary people eventually guide him into becoming a mature man through their loving abuse (like in Sonny Boy!).

Lynch's subsequent works would all point back to this key moment, some improving on it (Mulholland Dr.) some not so much (Wild at Heart). But Blue Velvet is Lynch's first great 'cracking it wide open.' It's his "Demoiselles d'avignon," his Pollock's 1947 drip stick moment. No matter how many times you see it, it's never the same movie, but it's always, always disturbing -- the dark nightmare of childhood brought into the light like a screaming, still-alive, tar pit mastodon.`

These are definitely cult/surreal and look great on Prime but --me--personally - I couldn't stand them. I hate them And I'll give you my reasons why, in case your mileage varies. One critic's bias should never lose a film's chance at the right viewer.

(1989) Dir. Alex Proyas
*1/2 / Amazon Image - A

In and around a cloistered shack in the middle of a nowhere post-apocalyptic outback, two wildly overacting eccentrics--one a wheelchair-bound aviation enthusiast--help a monosyllabic punk rocker type escape into the air. Though the scenery is lovely, the actors are grotesque and do little to allay the monotony. The film seems to last forever as nothing happens, but not in an effortless cool Jarmusch way but in an overwrought hammy Aussie way - the worst of both worlds. It needs either a genuinely macabre element (ala Burton's Beetlejuice), savage gallows satire (ala Gilliam's Tideland) or deadpan zest for living (ala Kusturica's Arizona Dream). This has none of the three! NONE! I hate it the way I hate those stale nightmares I used to have when suffering from a bad flu. The deep aqua-blue tint of the wide open sky and the burnished gold sand indicate gorgeous cinematography and color-grading; the Tangerine Dream soundscapes keep it all at a dreamy windswept beguilement; Melissa Davis hams it up like a kind of Helena Bonham Carter gone butoh missionary, but it's not enough to make it worth enduring the spittle-flecked hamming of Michael Lake, usually filmed for maximum grotesque close-ups.  Director Proyas went on to make The Crow and Dark City, so he has his fans. The rest of us might survive if we view it as a prequel origin story for Bruce Spence's pilot character in The Road Warrior. Nonetheless it's too much like that feeling of being trapped in the middle of nowhere I used to have as a child in the suburbs. God, being forced to hang out with these three people the rest of my life is far worse than any death by dehydration. 

(1980) Dir. Richard Elfman
* / Amazon Image - B

Though zany and strangely familiar to any one who's watched old Betty Boop cartoons while macro-tripping, the ceaseless toilet humor gets very old fast, in fact before it starts. There's so much shit imagery and septic tanks I wonder how mired in chakra #1 can any alleged adult be? Oingo Boingo is one irritatingly uncool band. Clearly a lot of effort went into this film and Herve is amazing (those dewey eyes....sigh), but everyone else -- good lord. I felt sick to my sacrum for weeks after only ten minutes.


  1. WAY more information than you'll ever need about LIFE ON THE EDGE - or, after it was butchered, MEET THE HOLLOWHEADS, by Lisa Morton, who wrote the film.

  2. Whoa! Thanks for this Capt. Hubbard! I had no idea this gem of a surrealist slice of a madcap son of an insane gondola ride of the weirder side of post-futuristic tube-based, etc. had such a tragic albeit unsurprising herstory. It makes it all the better. If there's a petition or a crowdsource to get a Blu-ray remaster, count me in


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