Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Episode 23: The Fan (1981)

Dear Miss Ross,

I am your greatest fan because unlike the others, I want nothing from you. The only thing that matters to me is your happiness. I have posters, playbills, and a closet jam packed with photographs covering every stage of your magnificent career. Your presence alone makes every one of your films a true cinema classic. I don't care what time they show on television. I will gladly stay awake until any hour in the morning. I bought a gorgeous new Lucite frame for one of your most famous pictures...the one of you singing while President Truman plays the piano. I despise those desperate, pathetic people who intrude upon your privacy. Your happiness and piece of mind must be protected. I know of all the famous men in your life, but I adore you as no other ever has or ever will. Thank you for the inspiration you have given me. You are the greatest star of all.

Your friend,
Douglas Breen

Could you send me your most recent photograph as soon as possible?"

When asked, I always claim I’ve been a writer since age 8, for it was around that time I recall penning my earliest works of fiction (and by “works of fiction,” I mean hastily scrawled recreations of whatever my favorite horror movie or episode of HBO’s Tales from the Crypt happened to be at the time). I was, however, putting pen to paper purely for the joy it brought some time before that.

Prior to crafting stories, I’d write letters to pen pals, cousins out of state, and yes, celebrities I admired, one of whom happened to star on the sickeningly wholesome lip sync fest known as Kids Incorporated, a music-oriented television series made popular in the mid-‘80s. Please don’t ask which cast member, admitting I’d written was humiliating enough.

And no, it wasn’t Fergie. Or Martika.

In the years that followed, I continued this hobby, ever hopeful that one of these idols would take the time out of their busy schedules to draft a personalized response. On occasion, I’d receive an autographed headshot (pictures of these can be found in the memorabilia section) or an automatic subscription to newsletters and/or free fan clubs. Most of the time, though, I’d receive nothing at all.

I’d wait for the postman’s arrival day after day, hoping he’d come bearing a letter-sized envelope personally addressed to me. Much to my disappointment and dismay, he’d come bearing bills, circulars, and mail-order catalogues more than anything else.

Not every experience was a negative one, however. To the best of my recollection, I received the personalized response I so desired on two seperate occasions. The first was a typed letter from an author of mystery/suspense paperbacks no one’s heard of and, not long after that was a handwritten card from none other than Joe Bob Briggs. The rest couldn’t be bothered. Luckily, my coping skills were a little stronger than Douglas Breen’s.

The Fan, based on the novel by Bob Randall, was a very controversial film for 1981. These days, you can easily find a handful of movies or television shows centered around the same theme. Much like 1960’s Peeping Tom or 1965’s The Collector, The Fan explored subject matters audiences wouldn’t be desensitized by for many years, making it a unique premise for this particular era in cinema.

Though there are definite pacing issues and the musical numbers are downright painful (if Lauren Bacall was ever a decent singer, she sure as hell wasn’t at this point in her career), The Fan is a compelling thriller with moments of nail-biting suspense driven by a stabbing violin score by Pino Dinaggio, mostly known for lending his talents to the films of Brian DePalma. In many jnstances, it tweaks character and plot development originally printed on the pages of Bob Randall’s novel, something I found rather frustrating, but nevertheless, it remains a worthwhile contribution to the genre. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Episode 22: Creepshow 2 (1987)

“Thanks for the ride, lady!”

You have no idea how difficult it was to begin this essay without addressing my readers as “kiddies” or using some sort of twisted pun. The Creep has evidently inhabited my psyche and has taken over my voice, so bear with me while I do my best to regain my ordinarily maudlin persona. Deep breath, deep breath. Okay, here we go.

Welcome back, kidd—DAMNIT! HE’S IN THE BLOODSTREAM, I tell you! Let’s try this again, shall we?

Welcome to another nauseating edition of B-Movie Bonanza! For this  titillating episode, I examine one of my favorite anthologies: 1987’s Creepshow 2 (okay, so I haven’t completely exorcised the demon, but I’m trying, mmmkay?).

Stephen King and George Romero take us on another strange, horrifying, and ultra campy journey, where we encounter a murderous cigar store Indian (which comes to life, I’m still not sure how); a gelatinous monstrosity with an insatiable appetite for obnoxious college kids (I still think that thing provided a much-needed service); and lastly, a philandering housewife who inadvertently mows down an unwitting hitch-hiker and flees the scene, not knowing her nightmare has only just begun.

Decent horror anthology films are often hard to come by (I still don’t get the fanfare surrounding Trick ‘r Treat). It’s no easy feat assembling stories that differ in plot/theme (who wants to feel like they’re watching the same movie on a loop?), yet seamlessly blend to create a “morbid masterpiece” of the macabre. Harder still is finding a compelling wraparound that holds the attention of the audience in between segments. Much like its predecessor, Creepshow 2 delivers the goods, and in spades.

My only qualms are the running time and the number of stories. As happy as I was and have always been with the film, I would’ve loved it so much more had they stuck with the formula introduced in the original film: five stories and a running time closing in on two hours.

But Creepshow 2 wasn’t as large a production and they didn’t have that Warner Bros. cizash money backing them, so I understand why they had to take a different route. I still think they did a great job with the budget, tools, and talent they were provided with (c’mon, who doesn’t love the animated sequences?) and I can honestly say that this is a sequel I can’t get enough of.

In this episode, you’ll find the usual: my oh so witty and astute observations, fond memories of seeing the film for the first time, admissions of a crush I once had on a certain cast member (no, not George Kennedy), and...a phantom Blu ray no one seems to know about. As a source, I used Anchor Bay’s DiViMax DVD edition, which runs 1:29:34.

Though they’re both mentioned in the actual commentary, I wanted to give Steve and Pete a quick shout-out and say thanks for helping provide me with some information I needed for the episode.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Episode 21: Massacre at Central High (1976)

“This place is a fuckin’ country club.”

Transfer student David (Derrel Maury) notices something’s off the moment he enters the hallowed halls of Central High. Oddly enough, his concerns have nothing to do with the absence of faculty members or authority figures of any kind. We don’t see so much as a hall monitor throughout the majority of the film. Even the school’s librarian appears to be on a permanent vacation.
Nope, his concerns have nothing to do with classes never being in session, either. When not aimlessly roaming the halls, hangin’ in the quad, or sprawling out on the campus’ spacious lawn, the student body spends what remains of the day taking leisurely laps in the Olympic-sized swimming pool.
And no, his concerns have nothing at all to do with the school’s non-existent curriculum (books are merely props to be held, not read), structure, or routine. Everyone is pretty much left to their own devices. At all times. I don’t think Central High has even a traditional bell to signal the end/beginning of classes. It does have a “student lounge” equipped with leather sofas and (probably) dead animals on the walls. A place where a select few can relax and unwind after (or during) an arduous day of non-learning. Where the hell was this place when I was in school?
What troubles David is an elitist trio: Bruce (Ray Underwood), the Heather Chandler of the group; Paul (Damon Douglas), the Heather McNamara; and Craig (Steve Bond). the Heather Duke. Though they’re merely students, just like everyone else, they’re the ones who hold the authority—and these guys rule with an iron fist. When they enter the quad or advance the landscape, all lowly underlings are expected to scatter. Those excluded from the group are also expected to follow any and all demands, without question. Making matters worse, David discovers that Mark (Andrew Stevens), his closest friend and reason for transferring, is a part of the group, though his rung on the ladder is a few down from the top.
David is appalled by what he’s forced to witness: bullying, vandalism, attempted rape, and a sense of entitlement that goes far beyond being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth, for these three are so much more than spoiled rich kids. They are, as one student describes, “The Little League Gestapo.”
Though Mark doesn’t participate in some of the more violent and extreme activities orchestrated by those he considers close friends, he does nothing to stop or go against them, either. At times, one is left wondering if a fear of making waves impedes his willingness to intervene, or if he is truly no better than his compatriots.
In the weeks that follow, David is permanently injured in a horrific accident which prevents him from properly using one legs. After a lengthy absence, he returns to Central High with a new limp and a hidden agenda. During his weeks of recovery, David’s had a lot of time to think. In this isolated state, he has decided he is going to rid the school of The Little League Gestapo so the student body can carry on in a more harmonious atmosphere, free of threats and gang violence. However, his efforts backfire, for when he dispatches of Bruce, Paul, and Craig, he creates a much bigger, much stronger monster.
Feeling, for the first time, a sense of freedom, those once forced to fall in line are emboldened. Now they’re the ones calling the shots—or at least attempting to be. Several small groups assemble, each promising “heavy changes,” as the entire school becomes consumed by a quest for dominance. David soon realizes his mistake and attempts to rectify the situation by eliminating those with a ravenous hunger for supremacy. But each death generates further mayhem, leaving the entire school in a state of total upheaval. There is only one thing left for David to do: eliminate Central High altogether.
Massacre at Central High may be a deeply flawed film, but it’s an interesting look at what can happen when power falls into the wrong hands—especially when those hands aren’t even old enough to vote. Though exaggerated, elements of the film are relevant today, as the American educational system has gone completely down the tubes and more and more students are falling through the cracks. I write this on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, one of the greatest tragedies this country has ever seen, and today’s generation, sadly, know nothing of what happened at Ground Zero, or the thousands of lives lost. Why? Because they aren’t being taught.
There is also an examination of the “in/out,” “us/them” mentality so prominent among legions of teenagers. Bullying, something that will never be eradicated, is shown with some realism, but as previously notes, it’s mostly exaggerated. I can’t imagine an attempted gang rape held in an abandoned classroom (this school doesn’t even have a janitor, for fuck’s sake), or even something less intense, like an open-handed slap to the face or a weakling being shoved against a locker, without someone stepping in. Not in an American high school. Not even in the ‘70s.
Though it’s rarely mentioned, Central High was obviously, at least in part, the inspiration for Michael Lehman’s 1988 cult classic Heathers, a film with a similar plot, characters, and an ending where the antagonist, clad in a long, dark coat, attempts to blow up the school, but chooses instead to blow up himself. I find it interesting, too, that in both films, the explosion occurs at the landing of a very long set of stairs directly in front of the school.
As you’ll find, things briefly go awry during the recording of this episode. Rest assured, however, that your grand and glorious host quickly regains his composure (the show must go on, right?) and the rest of the commentary carries on without incident.
From what I understand, the XXX version of the film (no, not a parody, but the standard version with pornographic scenes sloppily spliced in), entitled Sexy Jeans is currently streaming on YouTube. I did not use this ridiculous monstrosity as a source, though I did use the UK DVD release, which runs 1:23:55, and contains a cartoonish cover art depicting an axe-wielding madman that is a monstrosity all on its own.
One final note: I mistakenly refer to Kimberly Beck (Theresa) as star of the Friday the 13th sequel The New Blood (which would be Part VII of the franchise). Beck actually appears in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Part IV). I suppose I must’ve been so distracted by the horrendous opening title theme song (which is, ironically, performed by the actress’ uncle) because, for a horror aficionado like myself, that’s a pretty stupid mistake and I fully accept responsibility. I wanted to include that disclaimer before I’m bombarded with comments and e-mails from hardcore fans clamoring to address the error.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Episode 20: Serial Slayer (2003)

“Maybe somebody’s trying to scare us...”

As some of you may’ve noticed, I often gush about movies either no one’s seen, or no one liked. This is another such occasion. Oh and there are spoilers aplenty, so buckle up, bitches, motherfuckers.

While house-sitting, Lauren (Melanie Lynskey, of Peter Jackson’s cult favorite Heavenly Creatures) decides to host a get-together for some female co-workers. Much to her chagrin, only two invitees show up: Gina (Sheeri Rappaport), her closest friend, and Grace (Mary-Lynn Rajskub, of TV’s 24), the office wallflower.

Meanwhile, a crossbow-wielding maniac is stalking the streets of suburban Los Angeles, creating a mass panic. His targets are random and impossible predict, rousing much speculation by TV reporters and radio personalities, all of whom are set on finding a pattern they can use to generate some sort of profile to aid investigators.

As a scorching summer afternoon wears on, Lauren realizes that the party she’d prepared for is a bust. While she and her only guests search for ways to fill those uncomfortable silences, they discover the electricity has been cut, the phone is dead, and heavy footfalls continually traverse the gravel-lined rooftop. Has LA’s latest headline-grabbing menace chosen them as his latest targets, or are the girls merely the brunt of a infantile prank orchestrated by some uninvited colleagues?

I’m obviously no filmmaker, but I’ve seen more than my share of genre films, especially those which fall under the horror/suspense umbrella. In those endless hours of watching, enjoying, and studying these films, one of many things I’ve learned is that it’s incredibly difficult to build tension/suspense when shooting on video. Oftentimes, it takes the viewer out of the experience because, well, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching an actual feature. Most of the time, it feels like you’re enduring vacation videos shot by a friend you don’t even like, some pre-adolescent endeavor shot over the course of an afternoon, or a student film manufactured for an introductory course.

It’s easy to scoff at movies like The Last Slumber Party (the focus of B-Movie Bonanza’s previous episode),  Boardinghouse, Cemetery Sisters, and pretty much anything in Brain Damage’s extensive library. These are amateur efforts spearheaded by those with egos large enough to assume they could tackle the massive undertaking putting a feature together actually is. Adding further insult to severe injury, these schlockfests often include “stars” who’ve never even held an actual film script (my absolute favorite is when their names are plastered all over the box art, as though anyone but their immediate families know who they are).

Would I put Serial Slayer in the same category as some of the aforementioned titles? Place writer/director Mark Tapio Kines among the less-than-gifted Hitchcock wannabes who produced such nonsense?

Absolutely not.

First and foremost, our three leads are accomplished thespians, which certainly helps raise the bar, but what makes the film so effective is its simplicity. The majority of the scenes take place under one roof and the dialogue helps propel the story forward with very few lulls. True, there are some moments of silliness and pure absurdity. Yes, it’s easy to disregard something done on a budget as small as this (truth be told, I considered removing the disc from my player after watching the 30-seond trailer the first time around), but if you go in with an open mind, chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I know I certainly was.

Or maybe you’ll bitch and moan because you were expecting Final Exam or Prom Night, just as so many basement-dwelling fanboys did the minute Serial Slayer hit video store shelves.

There are two things that reeled me in the first time I sat down to watch the movie. First, it’s a story driven by dialogue, almost like a play, and there are very few scenes involving intricately choreographed stunts. Second, I sat through the first half unsure of what was actually happening. Yes, it’s established that there is a madman on the loose, but the set-up leaves the viewer wondering if he’s the one creeping about, or if something deeper is going on. There’s a number of characters mentioned, but never seen (i.e. co-workers and the boyfriend Lauren recently separated from), an element to the script that set my wheels in motion and left me questioning many things—but in a good way.

I wondered if the men who work alongside our three protagonists, described early in the film as being immature and not at all above playing a joke of this sort, were the ones trolling the roof. Or perhaps Lauren’s ex, inspired by the rash of unrelated killings, was out for revenge... These are not cookie-cutter slasher movie characters. They’re three-dimensional people with lives, jobs, and relationships, which added layer after layer to the story.

The film’s main flaw has nothing to do with the production itself, but with the manner in which it was marketed. Lionsgate tossed out Kines’ original title, Claustrophobia, and released the film to DVD with a title and artwork that suggests a more traditional slasher movie. This is certainly what I expected when I picked it up. Because of this blunder, many horror fans felt cheated and so they lashed out in typical troll fashion, leaving scathing reviews on both IMDb, as well as Amazon. I find myself wondering how the film would’ve fared had Kines’ original title been left in place and if the film was released with more appropriate campaign. Then again, had this been the case, I myself might’ve passed it up.

The above mentioned DVD, which runs 1:18:47, was the source I used for the commentary. I can’t seem to find the movie on YouTube (I type in “Serial Slayer” and nothing but serial killer documentaries pop up), so you’ll have to track down the disc if you want to watch along. Unless, of course, one of the many online film-streaming services have included it in their libraries.