Modern Day Midnight Movies 50 Cult Films from the last 10 years By Skizz Cyzyk & Mike White. I’m not one for making lists. I’ve never felt the need to clearly delineate items and place them in neat little categories...
I’m not one for making lists. I’ve never felt the need to clearly delineate items and place them in neat little categories. I’d like to think of myself as the opposite of that smarmy, snaggle-toothed, vapid, hipster that John Cusack played in High Fidelity. In the ten years of doing Cashiers du Cinemart I’ve only tried my hand at one "Top Ten Films of the Year" list; an idea quickly scrapped due to my distaste of ranking (not to mention our haphazard publishing schedule).
It wasn’t until Entertainment Weeklya magazine that relies far too heavily on list-making ("The Top Ten Reasons We Love ‘The O.C.’")attempted to encapsulate what they called the "Top Fifty Cult Movies of All Time" that I felt action had to be taken. Apparently, "cult movies" means something different to the writers at EW than it does to me. I would never consider anything played ad nauseum on TBS to be a "cult movie" (like The Shawshank Redemption, #10 on their list). By EW ’s criteria, any film could be a cult film as long as it’s seen and loved by a lot of people. However, that sounds suspiciously like a "mainstream hit." It’s doubtful that the mainstream would ever go to a movie theater at midnight to see singing genitals, rock ‘n’ roll musical numbers, corny comedy, and cheesy special effects.
It was finally time to get my butt in gear and get the article written that I had been discussing with long-time CdC contributor Skizz Cyzyk. As fans of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Midnight Movies (ISBN: 0306804336), we had talked about bringing to light midnight movies of our age; films that are in need of a cult (and that would probably freak the bejeesus out of the average EW reader). What better time to take on this task than for CdC ’s decade celebration? This helped give us some structure that we had been lacking by trying our best to limit our list to films of the last ten years (though, admittedly, we strayed on occasion).
In the Hoberman/Rosenbaum original use of the term, a midnight movie was more than just a cult film shown at the witching hour. Any movie has the potential to achieve a cult audience, but what made midnight movies so different is the fact that they were different from the usual movies shown in theaters and on television. Midnight movies gave audiences something that they were not going to get otherwise. Concert films (Woodstock, The Song Remains The Same, Montery Pop) were popular on the midnight movie circuit because the only other way to see a band in concert was to go see them live, and some people didn’t have that opportunity, while many others simply wanted to re-live the concert experience.
Cinematic oddities (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Rocky Horror Picture Show) were also popular because they may have flopped at the box office upon their original theatrical release, but word of mouth helped build up a reputation among the daring, open-minded, or just plain curious; all anxious to see the films for the first time or twentieth time and share in a communal experience.
Before delving into the list it would be proper to define some of our criteria. We went with our guts. Coming up with films deprived of ink, we chose movies we would recommend to our friends who were looking for a good watch. Some may be fun, some technically brilliant, some educational, and quite a few of them are musicals.
The following list of would-be midnight movies consists of films that stand out as odd masterpieces; films likely to go unappreciated by the average movie-goer yet adored by the fringe masses; films so different that—if the midnight movie circuit still existed—undoutedly would be the Pink Flamingos, El Topo, or Eraserhead s of the past ten years, building up strong followings among the lurkers of late-night cinema. As the midnight movie circuit exists no longer, these films have instead found their audiences mostly through film festivals (where they are often still programmed late at night) and through video-distribution to independent (read "not Blockbuster") video stores.
If any films have begged to be shown on the silver screen in the wee hours while suburbia slumbered and the hip lumbered about looking for challenging entertainment, these are them!
Existo (Coke Sams, 1999, USA)
What was the last subversive musical comedy you saw that made you laugh, think, and tap your toes all at the same time? A bunch of film production professionals in Nashville pooled their resources to make a very good-looking D.I.Y. feature that accomplishes all of the above. Director Coke Sams and actor/singer/composer/writer Bruce Arnston, who, along with Jim Varney, were the creative forces behind many of the Ernest films (as in Ernest P. Worrel), have blessed the cinema world with Existo (pronounced "Ig-zees’-toe"), a wonderfully irreverent send-up of political extremists and cultural goofballs.
Set in a land where art is a four letter word (maybe they’re spelling it wrong) and creativity has to remain underground, the only safe haven for artists and free-thinkers in this land of mandated morality is The Sewer, an underground cabaret run by den mother/drag queen Colette Whachawill (Gailard Sartain). Fortunately, The Sewer is about to witness the long-awaited return of mind-blowing (and mind-blown) performance artist, Existo (Arnston), and his partner, Maxine (Jackie Welch). The two quickly decide to do battle against the televangelist-led government and its laws against subversive activities such as art, perversion, and self-determinism. As a means to this end, they rally the culturati of The Sewer to form bands of roving guerilla performance artists. Who knows where they might strike next?
The demented demagogue Existo is not without his weakness. Frequent Sewer-dweller, the slimy Ruben Dupree (Mark Cabus), was once a friend to Existo but now spends his days at the right hand of televangelist Dr. Armond Glasscock (Mike Montgomery). Dupree’s lascivious mind devises a scheme to use vapid pop-tart singing sensation Penelope (Jenny Littleton), to distract Existo from his crusade. It’s Penelope’s mission to sway the unstable artistic savior to the side of the scrupulous in time for the Apocalypse. It’s up to Maxine and the others to convince Existo that right is wrong and save him from drowning in his soup.
Along with a handful of fun musical numbers penned by Arnston, Existo boasts some unique characters, minor and major, including Jim Varney in perhaps his last live-action film appearance. Besides a memorable penis-pogo stick and a sexual act referred to as "Spin The Bishop!", the film contains enough great quotable lines to fill a good page-a-day calendar. The subject matter is timely and gets more so as each year passes. Existo is most subversive in its portrayal of the fatuous right wing, self-righteous left wing, and the mentally ill messiah, Existo, as being equally silly!
Existo is available directly from the filmmakers at www.existo.com.
The American Astronaut (Cory McAbee, 2000, USA)
Directed by Corey McAbee of the rock/performance/art/film group The Billy Nayer Show (The Ketchup & Mustard Man, reviewed in CdC #9), The American Astronaut is a cross-pollinated pastiche that plays as a science fiction/musical/comedy/western/road movie shot in beautiful black and white, with occasional low-tech animation, retro-futuristic art direction, and chocked full of catchy tunes, quirky characters, and pure originality.
Rakish pilot Samuel Curtis (McAbee) pilots his flying mobile-home spaceship through the galaxy, on several missions at once. When we first meet him, he’s taking a cat to a run down bar on barren asteroid. He trades the cat for the ingredients of a "real live girl" clone. He meets up with his old dance partner, the Blueberry Pirate (producer Joshua Taylor) who proposes that Sam take the clone to Jupiter, an all male planet, in exchange for "The Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast" (Greg Russell Cook) before turning around and trading the boy for the former king of Venus, an all female planet. Corpse in tow, Sam could turn a hefty profit by bringing the deceased king back to his family on Earth. Got that? All the while, Sam is pursued by the insane Professor Hess (Rocco Sisto), a birthday boy who kills only those he has no reason to kill.
One of the things that make this film stand out among other musicals is that the songs are mere excuses for absurdity, rather than devices to progress the story. The music resembles avant-rock more than show tunes. The only exception is a song sung by a miner explaining how he and his clan ended up floating around space in a barn. Again, the song does not progress the film’s story but explains the existence of some mostly insignificant characters and one minor character, and contains the only lyrics that sound specifically written for the film.
The American Astronaut feels like it is only one episode in the many adventures of Samuel Curtis. When the ending comes, it comes abruptly, as if McAbee is saying to the audience, "You already know how this is likely to end, so let’s just stop here." McAbee’s version of space, though, is one that deserves further exploration. Available on DVD
The Happiness of the Katakuris (Takashi Miike, 2001, Japan)
A remake of Ji-woon Kim’s The Quiet Family and reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, Miike’s film features one of the most eccentric families since George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s "You Can’t Take It With You." The Katakuris run a Bed & Breakfast in the middle of the Japanese countryside where their rare guests have a habit of dying. This leaves the family with the typical "how do we dispose of the bodies?" dilemmas. Meanwhile, Shizue Katakura (Naomi Nishida)—mother of our narrator Yurie—also has the added difficulty of being romanced by a maniac (Kiyoshiro Imawano).
With occasional claymation scenes, effects-heavy musical numbers, and dark humor, Miike’s penchant for overstylization proves to be helpful to The Happiness of the Katakuris and not a hindrance. When putting this list together, I knew that we’d have a Takashi Miike movie on here somewhere; it was just a matter of narrowing down the selection to a lone title from the ridiculously prolific director. Quite often Miike’s films feature more style than substance—and more disturbing images than anything else. Frustrated with Gozu, disgusted with Dead or Alive, and demoralized by Ichi the Killer, the musical comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris proved to be the only Miike film I’d want to see multiple times. Available on DVD
Highway of Heartache (Gregory Wild, 1994, Canada)
A country-music drag queen movie musical set on a Day-Glo set where the live-action characters are equally cartoonish. Canada’s Gregory Wild mixes John Waters’ shock value with Douglas Sirk’s plot twists, and ends up with a silly and outrageous statement about the country music industry, tabloid TV, religious nuts, racism, and "victimology."
Wynona-Sue Turnpike dreams of being a country music superstar but her career has been sidetracked by a life as an abused housewife. She now lives her life in a trailer park. Her adventure begins after she shoots her husband (and sings "I’ve Got A Ring On My Finger, And A Stiff On My Hands"), and sets off in search of fame. Armed with her large hair, tacky outfits, cat’s-eye glasses, her guardian angel back-up singers (dynamic transvestite duo, The Big Wigs), and a plethora of catchy country tunes to accommodate any situation, Wynona-Sue will do whatever it takes to make it big, including murdering any man who stands in her way. Her story is littered with good times (getting on TV, finding love) and bad times (venereal disease, unwanted pregnancy, enemies who will do anything to have her put away).
Highway of Heartache is funny and amusing, but comes very close to going too far over the top. The colorful look of the film, matched with the over-acting of the characters, occasional animation, and silly musical numbers put the viewer into a fully artificial world where nearly-embarrassing adolescent attitudes towards sexuality are the norm. It really depends on your sense of humor, or maybe just your mood, whether or not this film is for you. It certainly succeeds at everything it tries to do, so if this sort of thing is your cup of tea, you will love it.
Rumored to have been released via TLA Video in Philadelphia, PA, Highway of Heartache is nearly impossible to find though it may be available via the "grey market."
Hedwig & The Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001, USA)
Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hedwig is a gender-bending rock ‘n’ roll musical comedy, based on a stage play about a transvestite. Because of the play, the film had already found a cult following before it was ever released. Despite many comedic elements, Hedwig (unlike The Rocky Horror Picture Show) deals with some very serious issues of love, trust and identity, employing camp more for coolness than for laughs (some might argue that Rocky Horror does too, though I would argue not as seriously as Hedwig).
The film is an auto-biography told by Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell), as she and her band, The Angry Inch, tour Bilgewater Seafood Restaurants, while trailing current shock-rock sensation, Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt). Hedwig started out as Hansel, an East Berlin boy who fell in love with an American soldier named Luther. Hansel must undergo a sex-change operation, adopting his mother’s wig and name, in order to marry Luther and flee the country for a better life in America. But the operation is botched, leaving Hansel/Hedwig with "an angry inch." A few years later in America, Luther divorces Hedwig just as the Berlin Wall is being torn down, regretfully beginning her new life as a lonely trailer park prostitute and amateur rock musician. She eventually finds her soul mate in the boy next door, but he ends up stealing her songs and image concepts and topping the charts as Tommy Gnosis. Hedwig is determined to prove to the world that she wrote Tommy’s songs, and prove to Tommy that, as soul mates, they belong together. Tommy, however, is simply determined to stay on top of the charts and out of the tabloids.
Unlike the traditional songwriting found in a lot of musicals, Stephen Trask’s songs for Hedwig are wonderful combinations of Diva-esque power ballads, gay-cabaret, and New York glam-punk. They are emotional, catchy, and inspiring. Emily Hubley supplies animation to further illustrate Trask’s songs. Mitchell, in the lead role, does a great job of going through emotional turmoil and seems to literally age with his character.
Upon release, the film received complaints about the ending being left too far open for interpretation, or the overall gender-bending sexuality being too creepy for some audiences. Those complaints must have come from people who simply don’t understand a good, albeit sad, love story and were too busy looking on the surface to notice what’s underneath. Available on DVD
Cannibal: The Musical (Trey Parker, 1993, USA)
"The film you are about to see was originally released in 1954. Upstaged by the overwhelming popularity of Oklahoma!, its short-lived theater run was cancelled, and Alferd Packer: The Musical soon fell into obscurity. The original negative, re-discovered just last year, has been painstakingly restored using state of the art color enhancing and computer reconstruction technology. The film’s violent scenes have been edited out for your viewing pleasure."
Thus begins Alferd Packer: The Musicalmore commonly known as Cannibal: The Musical. For those not familiar with their tragic American transmigration lore, Alferd Packer is infamous for leading a party of fellow prospectors into the Colorado Territory a little late in the season. Packer managed to survive this ill-fated trip while none of his compatriots did. And, if you believe the allegations, Packer got his daily nutrition by snacking on their remains. Of course, this tale presents itself as perfect fodder for a musical comedy!
Made while attending the University of Colorado, Cannibal: The Musical was the first feature-length film from Trey Parker. Starring a host of folks familiar to fans of Parker’s other work (South Park, Time Warped, Orgazmo, et cetera), Cannibal is chocked full of the kind of outrageous humor and catchy tunes that have become his trademark.
Shot on a shoestring budget, Cannibal could have been a silly gorefest but, instead, it’s much more about the love of a man and his horse. Sure, the pacing leaves a bit to be desired, but the film is filled with some hilarious scenes, inspired jokes, and infectious tunes. After you see it once, you’ll never be free of "Shpadoinkle" (the theme of which is played over the Braniff logo at the end of most "South Park" episodes). Available on DVD
Six String Samurai (Lance Mungia, 1998, USA)
A fresh-from-film-school feature debut that did well on the festival circuit, securing theatrical distribution and a video release by Palm Pictures, Six String Samurai didn’t make much of an impact upon release. The film combines a lot of the right elements to make it a good midnight movie: a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic setting, a road movie plot, kung fu action, and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s sort of surprising this film wasn’t a comic book first!
Sometime in the 1950s, the U.S. was thrown into a nuclear apocalypse, stopping time as far as fashion and music are concerned. Elvis not only survived, but remained King, holding court in the Oz-like desert sanctuary of Lost Vegas up until his death sometime in the unknown future. With Lost Vegas in need of a new king, every sword-slinging, guitar playing desperado is headed that way in hopes of assuming the throne. Buddy (Jeffrey Falcon) is a Buddy Holly look-alike, roaming desert wastelands with his hollow-body electric guitar and sword, and encountering all sorts of characters, from a family of crazies, to surfy/rockabilly bowlers (The Red Elvises), and a heavy metal reaper also anxious to be the new king. Along the way, Buddy ends up having to kick a lot of ass, as well as protect an annoying kid from the Spinach Monster, and fight against the Russian Army.
The film is corny, but in a good way. Buddy gets in some funny tough-guy lines (a bad guy says to him: "If I were you, I’d run." Buddy replies in his best Clint Eastwood: "If you were me, you’d be good looking"). It’s well-done satire, making the most of its small budget. While the film may tend to drag at times, overall it’s a fun action adventure flick. Available on DVD
The Saddest Music in the World (Guy Maddin, 2003, Canada)
Just about any of Guy Maddin’s films would have made interesting additions to the midnight movie circuit, but perhaps his most accessible feature to date, The Saddest Music in the World, is the one most likely to sell a few soundtrack albums as well.
Tongue-in-cheek social satire and musical melodrama merge in this expressionistic film that combines a loving homage to the early days of cinema with the sheer strangeness of life. The biting cold of winter and the circumstances of the Great Depression have turned 1933 Winnipeg into the saddest place on earth. As a marketing ploy, leg-less beer Baroness, Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) stages an international competition to find the saddest music in the world. With $25,000 going to the winner, oddball musicians and two-bit schemers pour into the Canadian town from all over the world. Among them is smarmy, down-on-his-luck Broadway impresario Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), returning home with his amnesiac girlfriend Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros). As the contest progresses, Chester finds himself competing against his estranged brother while also re-igniting a past love-triangle involving himself, the Baroness, and his own alcoholic, ex-surgeon father. Complicating matters further are the secret identity of Narcissa, and the elder Kent’s gift to the Baroness—a pair of beer filled, glass, prosthetic legs. Spectacular musical numbers alone can’t save the sad characters from fate, and ultimately tragedy strikes as the last note is sounded.
Maddin’s signature archaic visual look, his unique sense of humor, and his subplots-and-triangles driven storytelling are all displayed here in abundance. Rather than spotlighting a single romantic triangle, a pair of interlocked trios buttresses this momentous melodrama. Played with wondrous flair, Chester revels in the fact that he’s stolen the hearts from his emasculated father and brother former lovers. Playing with some of his favorite themes (rival brothers, amnesia, a missing parent) and embracing the trappings of the musical, Maddin has succeeded in creating an accessible, artful, and ambitious film. Available on DVD
Top of the Food Chain (John Paizs, 1999, Canada)
After more than a decade, John Paizs followed up his underated, must-see, classic D.I.Y. film, Crime Wave (AKA The Big Crimewavesee CdC #10) with this absurd comedy.
Welcome to the town of Exceptional Vista, once famous for producing "the finest damned nuts in the Western Central Northeast"—the kind you use on bolts. When the nut factory closed, the town’s saner residents packed up and moved to the neighboring burgs of Right Hemisphere, Left Hemisphere, Bladdertown, Dunk, Walkadogathon, New Imbroglio and Fetus. Exceptional Vista became a run down nut filled with nuts—the kind that are obsessed with television, fishing, and weird sex. When a comet knocks out the town’s TV transmitter tower, residents find themselves at risk of being eaten by aliens!
Luckily, Exceptional Vista is paid a visit by vacationing Dr. Karel Lamonte, a famous atomic scientist from the Atomic Institute who speaks with amazing intelligence without saying anything intelligent (an amazing over-the-top performance by Campbell Scott). A romance immediately blooms between Dr. Karel Lamonte and motel keeper, Sandy Fawkes (Fiona Loewi), a girlish femme fatale who puts her incestuous affair with her brother, Guy (Tom Everett Scott), on hold in order to pursue the doctor. When mutilated bodies begin turning up (in the lumpy, bumpy part of town outside of town), along with government agents, banjo salesmen, and flesh eating aliens, Dr. Karel Lamonte, Sandy, Guy and the rest of the town are thrown into a battle to remain at the top of the food chain, plunging the audience into sophisticatedly-twisted cornball territory.
This is not just a very funny film, it’s a tribute to classic sci-fi/horror films of the ’50s and ’60s (War of the Worlds, Them, The Blob, Night of the Living Dead) mixed in a setting that is equal parts David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and any silly world created by Mel Brooks or the Abrahms/Zucker team. Paizs’ directing is flawless aided by a brilliant script by Phil Bedard & Larry Lalonde, and a pace that never lets up. As a sci-fi/horror film, it contains some good suspense and special effects. As a spoof, it lovingly celebrates the genre it’s spoofing. But overall, as a comedy, its humor is universal; not to mention gut-busting.
After a brief run on the film festival circuit, Top of the Food Chain was released on DVD in the U.S. as Invasion! by Avalanche Video. Available on DVD
Bubba Ho-Tep (Don Coscarelli, 2002, USA)
On paper, this had the makings of a cult film written all over it before a single frame was ever shot. Base it on a story by Joe R. Lansdale and add a director who already has his own cult-following, Don Coscarelli of Phantasm fame. Cast the lead character with an actor who already has his own cult-following, Bruce Campbell of The Evil Dead. Center a horror film around two pop-cultural icons, the king of rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis Presley, and conspiracy-theory subject fave John F. Kennedy. Give it a social message disguised as comedy. Viola!
The film takes place in an old-age home where an elderly Elvis Presley (Campbell) is spending his final years. But Elvis died in the ’70s, you say? Not according to conspiracy theorists, and this film explains what happened and how Elvis ended up penniless, in bad health, and with nobody believing the he’s who he says he is. Nobody, except for assassinated President John F. Kennedy of course. JFK (Ossie Davis) resides in the same nursing home, and may or (most-likely) may not be who he says he is. Regardless, when an ancient mummy begins visiting the nursing home at night and sucking out the souls of the residents while they sleep, Elvis and JFK team up for a battle of good verses evil.
The film is funny and suspenseful, but most of all, it’s is a social statement about how our country treats the elderly, (though the message is not made nearly as obvious as the humor and horror). Campbell and Davis each turn in strong performances. Campbell, who is often hard to disguise as anyone but himself, does such a good job of playing Elvis that it’s easy to forget he’s Bruce Campbell. The mummy is scary. The nursing home is creepy. The special effects are fun. And what a premise! Available on DVD
Cow Monkey (Gabe Weisert, 2001, USA)
"Cow monkey... half man/half monkey-man." Real-life twins John and James Reichmuth return as Gil and Roy in this sequel to Gabe Weisert’s previous feature, Fishing with Gandhi. This time Roy and Gil want revenge against a Big Foot that killed their dog, Wanda II, and ate all the dog food. Meanwhile a female anthropology student named Sydney (Bridget Schwartz) has been looking for Big Foot since 1987 so she can teach it sign language. Protecting the hairy beast is a quiet, hirsute local named Grover (Dan Klein) who spotted it last week, just over that ridge.
Following four characters and a gorilla suit around the woods with a video camera might not necessarily be most people’s idea of worthwhile filmmaking, but Cow Monkey proves that a good script, competent acting, and creative direction can overcome any budgetary constraints. The flick stands out primarily in thanks to the Reichmuth twins and their dialogue. Their characters, Roy and Gil, are a pair of subtly clever, lowbrow, every-men, reminiscent of Bob & Doug McKenzie from SCTV. The love, respect, disgust, and hatred found among sheltered brothers who spend too much time together is exploded to comedic extremes. They are truly original characters and the Reichmuths play them to perfection, right down to intense-yet-vacant stares, awkward facial expressions, and odd speech patterns. Their dialogue consists of one hysterically absurd argument after another, with plenty of funny, quotable lines. Their various plans to capture the Cow Monkey are equally hysterical and absurdly ingenious.
Cow Monkey is available on VHS from www.royandgil.com.
God Made Man (Crazy Pete, 2000, USA)
Describing this film as a cross between Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and the Zucker/Abrahm’s Kentucky Fried Movie puts you on the right track, but still does not do it justice. Within moments of opening, God Made Man quickly dispenses of all the wood-grained veneer of suburban reality in favor of pure insanity. Directed by the aptly named "Crazy Pete," the film works by its own twisted internal logic. In a hip, swingin’, tacky ’70s TV world full of tasteless, offensive humor, lame commercials and laugh tracks. A trendy corporation serves as the centerpiece in this "story" whose narrative involves everyone from Satan to Jesus to a Blaxploitation-esque diapered assassin known only as "The Baby." Other characters worth a mention include a donut delivery boy who deep fries his hand, a glue-maker with a rodent fetish, swinging couples on a double date, their radio-addicted catatonic children, and a CEO who enjoys a particular blend of coffee. The many storylines intersect and diverge with surprising results.
Crazy Pete has put together a wonderful cast of comedic character actors. The film looks very professional, and any hints of a low-budget are often incorporated into the humor of the film (using stiff rubber rodents instead of live ones, for example). The soundtrack boasts some great music ranging from funk and soul, to pop and techno, and the music is often used to great comedic effect (there is one long scene consisting of female office workers strutting down a hallway to a ’70s pop nugget. No purpose for the scene’s long length is ever explained, and that merely adds to the humor of it).
Shamefully, God Made Man is not available on home video.
Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (Lee Gordon Demarbre, 2001, Canada)
When vicious vampires begin killing the lesbians of Ottawa, the Catholic Church turns to their top man, Jesus Christ (Phil Caracas), to end their rein of terror. If the vampires continue their slaughter, the masses will no longer fear going to hell as hell will come to the masses. Jesus learns this quickly when he’s attacked by a trio of crotch-kicking vampiresses who try to take down the lord with their kung fu.
Best known for the Harry Knuckles series, Director Demarbre does a great job here dealing with the minions of darkness. He sets up the "rules" of his vampires early on, showing his main bloodsucker, Maxine Schreck (Murielle Varhelyi), donning a pair of stylish shades before traipsing around in broad daylight. The secret to her UV success comes from the skin graft techniques of the mad Dr. Pretorious (Josh Grace) who prefers to use lesbians for his treatments.
When Jesus hits the streets he quickly gets the city of Ottawa ringing with song as the newly shorn King spreads inspiration to the masses. Alas, when push comes to shove, he’s quickly forsaken. He eventually finds allies in his spunky Sapphic sidekick Mary Magnum (Maria Moulton) and masked Mexican wrestler Santo (Jeff Moffet). The three use their kung fu skills to take on the legions of bloodsuckers and a never ending supply of pesky atheists who strongly believe in taking Christ’s "Second Coming ass down."
The idea of Jesus singing songs, kicking ass, and vanquishing vampires is truly inspired. Luckily, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter doesn’t squander its potential. An obvious labor of love, the fun in front of the camera translates easily to the audience. Available on DVD
Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (Sarah Jacobson, 1997, USA)
From the annoying customers who scream about prices, complaints about the quality of the butter-flavored topping, and romances between the theater staff, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore proves that things are pretty universal among movie theaters.
Shot over three years, the film is not the story of Mary Jane (Lisa Gerstein) trying to get laid. Instead, it deals with her reaction to her initial sexual encounter. It’s not all fireworks and flowers. Writer/director Sarah Jacobson portrays the experience as being as awkward as it truly can be. After her disappointing introduction, Mary Jane tries to give up sex but still can’t help the crushes she feels for various co-workers.
Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore is the first time I’ve ever seen such honest portrayals of people my age and younger. The characters are very fleshed out and much more complex than the stereotypical teens populating dreck like Empire Records or Higher Learning. There’s no "kooky girl who will commit suicide by the end of the fourth reel" or the "stoner guy who will clean up his act by the end of the movie." Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore has got a lot of heart and, if anything, it reminds me of an updated version of Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Thankfully, Mary Jane is bereft of heavy-handed melodrama and cheesy plot devices. It’s smart movie making. With her seven main characters, Jacobson explores the sorted love-lives and relationships between them and Mary Jane with equal weight. On occasion one or two of the actors come off as over-wrought or wooden but it might just appear that way because of the unsympathetic nature of their characters. Overall, however, the acting is terrific.
Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore has yet to be released on home video.
The Day of the Beast (álex de la Iglesia, 1995, Spain)
How does a holy man meet Satan? It’s not like Satan hangs out with the righteous. When the anti-Christ visits the Earth, he’ll be surrounded by sinners. Catholic priest, Padre ángel Beriartúa (álex Angulo) realizes this and sets out to commit an array of affronts in order to meet the anti-Christ (and destroy him). Thus begins Alex de la Iglesia’s 1996 supernatural comedy.
Padre Beriartúa goes on a rampage of transgression. Rather than giving last rights to an accident victim, he bids the man to rot in Hell. Worse yet, he pushes a mime, smokes, and listens to heavy metal music. Aided by metal head Jose Maria (Santiago Segura), the pair kidnap Professor Cavan (Armando De Razza), host of the supernatural talk show "The Dark Zone." From there, the film becomes something akin to The King of Comedy crossed with The Ninth Gate.
The Day of the Beast is a wonderfully dark, insane romp and typical of de la Igelsia’s outrageous oeuvre. Unfortunately, The Day of the Beast has not been released either as a sell-through title, on DVD, or with English subtitles in the U.S. A beautiful copy of this is available from www.revengeismydestiny.com.
Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 2001, Hong Kong)
One in a long list of films that have been butchered by Miramax in an effort to make Hong Kong films more palatable, Shaolin Soccer suffered doubly due to shifting release dates (it was pushed back for over a year and a half). In its native country, Shaolin Soccer was one of the most successful films and for good reason. It takes the typical "ragtag underdogs teaming up to fight against insurmountable odds" adding Shaolin kung fu and special effects to the mix for a perfect combination.
When the formerly formidable soccer star Golden Leg Fung (Man Tat Ng)—now a limping lackey thanks to his teammate Hung (Patrick Tse)—loses his job, he hopes to start his own soccer team. He happens upon Sing (Stephen Chow), a cleaner who has been charged by his former master with spreading the techniques of Shaolin kung fu. Sing has been searching for a way to repackage Shaolin in a new, exciting, and socially viable form. It takes a bit but Sing finally realizes that his "Iron Leg" technique would be a perfect fit in Golden Leg’s dream soccer team.
Golden Leg and Iron Leg set out to convince Sing’s five other brothers to join in their venture. They discover that Iron Head (Yut Fei Wong), Empty Hand (Kwok Kuen Chan), Weight Vest (Lam Chi Chung), Hooking Leg (Chi-Sing Lam), and Iron Shirt (Kai Man Tin) have let their confidence and skills lapse. Can they regain the spirit from their idealistic days of youth? You better believe it! After some hilarious training sequences, the brothers come together as a team and begin to make their way through the ranks of the soccer championships until their showdown with Hung’s appropriately named "Evil Team."
Along the way, Sing meets Mui (Vicki Zhao), a master of Tai Chi and bread making. When the two meet, Sing’s infectious optimism and singing create chaos in the streets and results in a dance sequence highly inspired by Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. This moment is typical of the uproarious tone of Chow’s film. As much as it took from other "losers banding together" films like The Bad News Bears, Revenge of the Nerds, and The Replacements, Chow’s film helped pave the way for other Asian "extreme sport" films such as Fumihiko Sori’s Ping Pong and Yudai Yamaguchi’s Battlefield Baseball.
A word of warning: in all, nearly twenty-two minutes of the film were eliminated for the long-delayed, limited US release. Things missing include the backstory between Fung and Hung. Avoid this version at all costs. Region free NTSC versions with English subtitles are readily available via innumerable web vendors. Shun this (and any other) Miramax re-cuts like the plague.
Spectres of the Spectrum (Craig Baldwin, 1999, USA)
"Nothing in this film is science fiction," is the tagline of mad scientist/media archeologist Craig Baldwin’s Spectres of the Spectrum, a film that picks up where his previous works have left off. In Sonic Outlaws (a documentary about culture-jammers), Baldwin explored the ownership of the airwaves. In Tribulation 99 (which Baldwin considers a quasi-prequel to Spectres, starring the same actor, Sean Kilooyne), he explored conspiracy theories. Spectres further explores and updates similar themes, using Baldwin’s signature manipulation of found footage mixed with newly shot live-action to tell a futuristic David & Goliath narrative.
Kilooyne stars as Yogi, a telepathic holdout from the age before the New Electromagnetic Order (NEO)—a vertically integrated company that sounds eerily familiar in the wake of the AOL/Time Warner merger. Yogi is one of the few free thinkers left and, holed up in his radioactive wasteland, he broadcasts his views and news to other members of "TV Tesla." With Yogi is his mutant daughter, Boo Boo (Caroline Koebel as voiced by Beth Lisick), an obstreperous telepath with little love of the world that NEO has helped create. When the NEO threatens to use the earth’s magnetosphere to "bulk erase" the brains of every human on the planet, the only way to save humanity is for Boo Boo to travel out into space, following the history of television broadcasts back in time, to uncover a secret her grandmother lodged in an old episode of the 1950s series, "Science In Action."
Dealing this time with the topic of the transference of energy through broadcasting, Baldwin demonstrates that there have been countless fringe dwellers that history has cast aside or relegated to footnotes. Nikola Tesla, Philo T. Farnsworth, and Edwin Armstrong are a handful of inventors who have been forgotten or overshadowed by fabricated tales of greatness about innovators such as Thomas Edison, David Sarnoff or Alexander Graham Bell. In essence, Spectres can be viewed as a much-needed documentary about broadcast history. Along with presenting an alternate history about the pioneers of spectral exploration, Baldwin’s film is an obsessive, densely layered, and intellectually challenging vision of technology gone awry. A wildly energetic blend of science fiction and science fact, rifling through the trash bins of our image-obsessed culture, piecing together a dossier on our love affair with technology and projecting it into a dystopic future. Available on DVD
The Love Machine (Gordon Eriksen, 2000, USA)
It’s odd that when I think of hard-hitting, skillfully crafted documentaries that I don’t think of PBS but HBO. The cable giant has become my favorite source for modern excursions into documentary filmmaking from Waco: Rules of Engagement to its Real Sex series. The Love Machine is highly reminiscent of the latter’s adventure into the manifestations of modern sexuality in its use of an internet swingers site as subject matter.
Hosted on a college’s physics server by the smart-alecky Malcolm, www.thelovemachine.com is a website that has attracted a wide range of sexually adventurous folks. Filmmaker Becca Campbell wants to find out what makes these exhibitionists tick. Who are the people on the other end of the keyboard? She convinces Marcus to subvert his "clients’" anonymity and manages to track down five Love Machine clients who allow her to enter their lives.
Not only does she come into her subjects’ lives but she turns them upside down. Campbell is a highly volatile filmmaker who constantly strives to upset her "victims," pulling the rug out from under their feet whenever she can. When we first meet the five folks—Akira the closeted Asian homosexual in denial (and engaged), Julio the lecherous Latino professor who cheats on his wife and collects compromising photographic trophies of the students he seduces (and posts them on his site), Beverly the lusty older lady who spins tales of her two young lovers, Chip the boisterous gay Black man, and Shino the Asian gal with a dorky boyfriend and voracious sexual appetite—they claim to not know anything about the internet; doing a terrific job of hiding their online personas. Unsatisfied with their façade of normalcy, Becca reveals her knowledge of their secret "double lives" a half-hour into the film.
I was very aware of the pacing of the film, noting the time at which Becca would turn from a seemingly passive observer to bloodthirsty provocateur. Fifty minutes into the film, Becca shows her subjects a "rough cut"—again to prove that she knows more about her subjects than they want her to know, making them (and the audience) question whether her film is exploitative. Becca’s place as a documentarian is frequently compromised afterwards as she pressures Akira into coming out to his friends and confronts Julio’s wife with evidence of her husband’s affairs.
Regardless of her questionable motivation and morals, The Love Machine has a terrific balance of the five (should we count Becca as six?) subjects of the film and their significant others. As an example, just when one wonders how Shino is progressing with her boyfriend and their first threesome, they’re reintroduced into the film. Likewise there is a nice balance between color and tinted black and white film, giving the entire documentary a good overall look.
The Love Machine questions the rights of the documentary filmmaker. How far is too far? When should the cameras be turned off? And, conversely, when do the subjects of documentaries reveal too much? Shouldn’t they be more wary of the strangers entering their lives? How much of an act do we put on in daily life and when do we lower our guard?
Becca theorizes at one point that the internet has become an abode for people’s collective unconscious and that she has taken on the mission of forcing these five folks into confronting their "dark selves"—the images they’ve painted of themselves on their web sites. While Chip is unabashed in his self-portrait, Akira runs from his, and Beverly lives in denial of hers—admitting to and then contradicting herself about the fantastic tales she spins on her site.
The most wonderful thing about The Love Machine occurs during the end credits after we learn the extent of Becca’s effect on her subjects’ lives. The credits roll and observant viewers see that Becca was played by Marlene Forte, the part of Akira was performed by Jun Suenaga, Chip was associate producer Chip Garner, et cetera (for a full cast list check out www.olympiapictures.com). Yes, The Love Machine is an expertly crafted mockumentary. All the startling revelations, all of the shocked expressions, all of the lewd conduct, all of Becca’s probing questions, were faked.
Working from an informal shooting script, the actors would improvise extemporaneous dialogue during rehearsals before the cameras would roll. Eriksen culled his cast from an ad he ran in Backstage magazine and lucked out with leads that not only appeared fresh and realistic, but weren’t afraid to doff their drawers when it was called for!
Shooting a faux documentary is a cost-effective move but few are so completely successful in their believability and inherent interest of their subject matter. The wonderful trickery of director Gordon Eriksen doesn’t undermine his work. Instead, it only serves to intensify the questions that the viewers should be asking themselves during the duration of the film and amaze the audience in regards to the fantastic performances of the performers. Even knowing that the film was faked when going in, I often found myself believing that the characters on screen were real. Available on DVD
Radio Free Steve (Jules Beesley, Lars Von Biers, 2000, USA)
Radio Free Steve was one of many late-’90s films that used a supposedly true back story and website as a gimmick to make the film seem more like nonfiction by explaining the source of the film’s footage (like The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast). The gist, according to the film, is this: in 1999, avant-garde filmmaker Lars Von Biers meets Steve Glenn at a small video duplication company in Texas. Back in the mid-’80s, Steve was making a science-fiction, post-apocalyptic road movie while travelling to Hollywood with his best friend, Dirk, and his reluctant girlfriend, Trish. He never finished the project and the outdated 3/4#Umatic master tapes have been sitting in storage ever sincean ’80s time capsule of bad hair, bad fashion, corny music, guerilla filmmaking and cheesy ’80s Video Toaster effects just waiting to be laughed at by a modern audience. After dusting off the tapes and watching some of the footage, Von Biers agrees to help Steve finish his seminal masterpiece, nearly a decade and a half since the project was shelved.
With his mullet haircut, raised middle finger, and anti-establishment attitude, Steve is the embodiment of the rebellious ’80s teenage-dork wannabe-tough-guy adventurer, a character that is equally funny and embarrassing to watch. The story is a cross between The Road Warrior, Pump Up The Volume, and The Last Chase. The last living radio pirate, Radio Free Steve, broadcasts new wave music and messages of hope from his radio equipped van, while cruising through radioactive fallout zones of post-nuclear-war Texas, killing flesh-eating mutants with his crossbow. The FCC wants Steve stopped, and has hired ruthless bounty hunter, Dirk and his souped-up Camaro Z-28, to do the job. Steve rescues slave-girl Trish from a lame party and heads out into a harsh desert wasteland inhabited by anyone that Steve could convince to be in his movie: a flamboyant minimalist art curator, a new age guru, acid-eating punks, treacherous preppies, and deadly Buddhists.
By the time the "newer" Von Biers footage is incorporated, the story changes course. The new movie finds Steve heading towards Hollywood in search of a music video career in "New Los Angeles." The film gets sort of chaotic at this point, with Steve visiting desert Hippy festivals and poolside parties with MTV veejay Dave Kendall and Dean Haglund of X-File s fame, but is reminiscent of the trippier moments from ’60s films like Easy Rider and Zabriskie Point.
To add clout to the backstory, outtakes are left into the first half, showing the film’s actors when not in character. In particular are a few hints at Steve and Trish’s real life dysfunctional relationship. As much as I wish the backstory to this film were real, the truth is given away by the fact that the characters are played by actors with real names that are not Steve, Dirk, or Trish. Ignore those details, though, and it’s easy to believe that Radio Free Steve really was shot mostly in the ’80s by a sophomoric adolescent and his friends bent on creating a cool, fun, post-apocalyptic road movie.
Series 7: The Contenders (Daniel Minahan, 2001, USA)
Employing an accomplished television parlance, Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders mixes the gritty vérité of "COPS" with a hyperbolized competition that dwarfs the contests of television shows like "Survivor," "The Mole," or "The Runner" (the latter ultimately deemed "too sensitive" for production). Shot on digital video, Series 7 stars Brooke Smith as Dawn Logarto, an expectant mother and reigning champion of this horrific competition wherein six randomly chosen civilians struggle to kill off their opponents. Their prize? Nothing more than staying alive and fighting in Series 8. Keeping the details of the contest sketchy keeps Series 7 from becoming a science fiction story and, in turn, gives it more punch.
Director Minahan presents Series 7 as a full season of a program boiled down to a tight 87-minute running time. As with actual television programs of its ilk, Series 7 creates drama in its presentation. The contestants come from vastly different backgrounds—from the "Angel of Death" nurse, Connie (Marylouise Burke), to the blowhard loser, Tony (Michael Kaycheck). Minahan drives further into television faux-reality by placing Series 7 in Dawn’s home town and making one of the contestants an old high school flame—Jeffrey Norman (Glenn Fitzgerald), a terminally ill artist with a long-suffering, manipulative wife (Angelina Phillips).
Series 7 presents characters in rapid-fire shorthand but, remarkably, none of them come off as stereotypes. Rather, they’re infectiously enjoyable and become so familiar so fast that the audience can invest in them (save for the underplayed Frank (Richard Venture), a conspiracy theorist).
By consciously employing the clichés of "reality shows," Minahan brings to fore commentary about the desires of today’s audiences while not overpowering the film’s narrative. Indeed, audiences have found Series 7 disturbing in the film’s ability to minister to and underscore the undeniable bloodlust that prevails in today’s "enlightened" society.
Series 7: The Contenders succeeds in every milieu it invades. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about its distributor, USA Films. Except for "key markets," Series 7 played in few U.S. venues. It seems that USA hoped to shirk any potential controversy that this insightfully violent film could incur. After avoiding several major film festivals, USA dumped the film onto video and DVD in late 2001—not bothering to make the film available to several major retailers or to update the film’s well-crafted website with this information. Available on DVD
...And God Spoke (Arthur Borman, 1993, USA)
Arthur Bowman’s mockumentary chronicles the troubled production of filmmakers Clive Walton (Michael Riley) and Marvin Handleman’s (Stephen Rappaport) biblical epic, ...And God Spoke. Playing like a This Is Spinal Tap for the indie movie crowd, Bowman’s film is a witty farce which undoubtedly inspired films like Living in Oblivion, The Independent, Hollywood North, and The Real Old Testament.
Rather than setting Clive and Marvin up for eventual failure, the audience is made privy to their previous stellar achievements (Dial S For Sex and Nude Ninjas). We know that these guys are clueless as they wax philosophic about the built-in audience for a Bible picture ("You can’t lose adapting that book"). While the initial draft of their script came in at over two thousand pages, Clive and Martin cut out some of the slower moving scenes from Acts and Deuteronomy.
Between the dysfunctional crew led by assistant director Bob (Michael Hitchcock of BEST IN SHOW fame) and the never-ending incompetence (only eight disciples have been cast), the studio bankrolling...And God Spoke quickly loses the confidence in the production. Reminiscent of the Exodus, Moses soon becomes the last, best hope for Clive and Marvin. Putting in an incredible performance as the liberator of the Israelites, Soupy Sales nearly steals the show from his perch on Mount Sinai’s stand-in.
Other highlights include the overly-choreographed fight between Cain (Lou Ferrigno) and Abel (Andy Dick), the savvy dialogue ("Doing the Bible without Jesus is like doing Fitzcarraldo without the boat!") and the oddly familiar faces of the cast (look for Chris Kattan as a disappointed movie patron and Leonard Walsh, the unofficial spokesman for Wendy’s, as an obsessive caterer). ...And God Spoke is a movie made for movie lovers. Available on DVD
Hard Core Logo (Bruce McDonald, 1996, Canada)
This Canadian film often gets grouped in with other rock-mockumentaries like This Is Spinal Tap, Bad News, or The Rutles, but unlike those films, this one isn’t much of a comedy and isn’t nearly as mocking in tone. In fact, this film is sad, tense, and ultimately depressing, covering a lot of serious ground with its issues of relationships, growing up, selling out, and the costs of behaving badly. Hard Core Logo is the film equivalent to a good punk rock albumthe kind that rocks, pisses you off, makes you sad, reinforces your loneliness while reassuring you that you’re not alone, and overall, makes it feel so good to feel so bad. After reaching a certain age, I no longer had as much need for albums like that, but I’m glad I had them when I needed them.
The film opens as Hard Core Logo, a legendary Canadian punk band, is reuniting for the first time in five years, to play a benefit concert for their friend, a legendary punker who recently had both his legs shot off. The show is such a success that the band decides to do a short tour. The band’s leader, Joe Dick, has spent the last five years cashing in on his minor celebrity status by playing solo gigs. Meanwhile, his Number Two man and childhood friend, Billy Tallent, has been busy trying to make it big in Los Angeles, and is on the verge of being recruited by a major band. Joe’s supposed-punk-purist attitude and Billy’s selling-out-to-a-bigger-band form the main conflict, putting their lifelong relationship at risk. Along for the ride are director Bruce McDonald and his crew, documenting the sweaty, smelly, beer and spit stained world of life on the road with a rock band.
Any film that has an asshole as the lead character is bound to have problems. Why would viewers want to spend 90 minutes with someone they don’t like? Joe Dick is a rude, uncaring, loud-mouthed drunk who lies to his friends, spits in people’s faces, risks other people’s safety and well-being, and believes he is the center of the universe. He is most certainly an asshole, and watching him onscreen is like watching the worst of your punk friends all rolled into one. You get to watch Joe’s life fall apart over the course of 90 minutes. I prefer that to real life, where you might spend years watching an asshole’s bad behavior ruin his/her life (and the lives of others), until he/she ends up in jail or dead (or back home with their parents, pretending the "punk" part of their life never happened). I’m sure there are punkers who would see Joe Dick as a hero or role-model, but they’re the same viewers that wouldn’t notice the occasional struggle in Joe Dick’s mind that perhaps he is not the center of the universe after all. Available on DVD
Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000, Japan)
The 61st film of 70-year old director Kinji Fukasaku, Battle Royale begins with a prologue:
"At the dawn of the millennium the nation collapsed. At 15% unemployment, 10 million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence and, fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act AKA the BR Act."
While the logic of instating the BR Act due to the downturn of the Japanese economy is tenuous at best, Battle Royale screams into action and doesn’t allow time to ponder such issues. After a few scenes setting up core characters—Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda)—the forty-two high schoolers become trapped on a remote island where they’re reintroduced to their seventh grade teacher, Kitano (brilliantly played by "Beat" Takeshi Kitano).
"This country’s become no good," Kitano says. "The bigwigs got together and passed [the BR Act]. So today’s lesson is... you kill each other off. ‘Till there’s only one left. There’s nothing against the rules."
Armed with a random "weapon" (some get semi-automatic guns, some get less lethal implements like cookwear), each student has three days to dispatch his or her classmates in hope of being the last one standing. Again, there is little time for logic and no room for pacifism. Playing like a high-stakes version of Martin Campbell’s island prison adventure No Escape, Battle Royale finds fuel in the heightened melodrama of adolescence. As these kids struggle to stay alive, classroom rivalries skyrocket and doe-eyed crushes become heavyweight love affairs.
Shuya, whose father abandoned him by taking his own life, becomes the stand-in for the audience as well as the prototypical Japanese. Struggling in this microcosm of Japan, Shuya is a young man without a father as Japan is a country without a strong leader. Meanwhile, the only male role model for Shuya appears to be Kitano, the slump-shouldered former teacher plagued with family problems of his own.
Battle Royale has its moments of "score-keeping" via graphics that appear, tallying the names of those who have died as well as how many students are left. As the body count goes higher, director Fukasaku keeps raising the stakes, never relenting in this dogged contest. Cleverly, Battle Royale doesn’t appear as an outright parody. Rather, it takes melodrama to the nth degree. The film’s score booms with emotionally riveting classical pieces, giving the proceedings an operatic tinge.
Sadly, Battle Royale seems destined to never find widespread distribution in the United States. Rather, the premise of the film will keep it, and any discussions surrounding it, to a limited audience. Available on DVD
The Bible & Gun Club (Daniel Harris, 1997, USA)
Here’s a pretty simple premise for a film: competing gangs of aging Bible and gun salesmen converge in Vegas during a Bible & Gun Club convention.
Shot in verite-style black and white, the film is most reminiscent of the Maysle Bros.’ documentary SALESMEN, with shades of Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross thrown in for good measure. Though the salesmen are pathetic, desperate men on the verge of forced-retirement, they cavort around the trailer parks, golf courses, hotels, and restaurants of Vegas in their fanciest suits, talking like tough-guy gangsters, and doing their best to maintain their own sense of self-importance.
It doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, and I’m not exactly sure how funny it was supposed to be, but in a strange way it succeeds as both comedy and drama. Some of the film’s situations, and the characters over-acting and over-reacting to those situations, will leave many viewers laughing and quoting the more memorable lines ("Tell me you love the baby Jesus!" "Two homos fell in love in your bed."). Likewise, viewers are likely to feel some sense of pity for these sad older men.
This film won some awards at festivals, got hit with a Cease & Desist order over the unauthorized use of a Neil Diamond song (in an unnecessary scene at that), ended up on cable for a brief period, but has nearly fallen into obscurity ever since. Copies are available via www.revengeismydestiny.com.
Wild Zero (Tetsuro Takeuchi, 2000, Japan)
Clad in black leather jackets, playing fast power chord fueled rock ‘n’ roll, and all sharing the same last name, Guitar Wolf is Japan’s answer to The Ramones. The hard rocking trioDrum Wolf, Bass Wolf, and Guitar Wolf (who shares his name with the collective group’s)were seen on screen in John Michael McCarthy’s The Sore Losers in 1997. Three years later, they graced the silver screen again in the psychotronic zombiefest, Wild Zero.
Due to the parallels between Guitar Wolf and The Ramones, it’s only natural to compare Wild Zero to the Ramones vehicle, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. Like the classic Allan Arkush film, the main character of Wild Zero is one of Guitar Wolf’s biggest fans. Rather than fantasizing about the dreamboats in the band, however, Ace (Endo Masashi) pays tribute to the group by emulating their throwback look and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
After endearing himself to his heroes by helping them out of a jam, hapless Ace happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong timea sleepy burg where the residents have been turned to zombies due to a mysterious "meteor crash." During his outlandish adventures Ace meets Tobio (Shitichai Kwancharu), an extra special girl that Eddie Cochran might describe as "Something Else."
Wild Zero is an attractively shot movie with a surprising number of characters and complex relationships. Throw in some UFOs, gallons of fake blood, short shorts, self-reflexivity, and a ton of exploding heads, and you’ve got yourself a rock ‘n’ roll party. Available on DVD
Denti (Gabriele Salvatores, 2000, Italy)
Playing on the universal fear of dentists, Gabriele Salvatores’s Denti revolves around Antonio (Sergio Rubini). Burdened with an unruly set of choppers, Antonio feels that teeth carry cosmic importance. After a fight with his girlfriend, Mara (Anita Caprioli) about her possible romantic involvement with her dentist, Luca (Tom Novembre), Antonio begins to experience strong memories when his tongue hits a freshly damaged tooth.
"What are my teeth hiding?" "Is there a stomatological connection to memory?" These are the questions Antonio asks himself as he searches for the truth hidden among his teeth. He helps find some of these via Dr. Cagnano (Paolo Villaggio)—a rather unconventional dentist—and from memories of his saintly mother (Anouk Grinberg) and oversexed uncle (Fabrizio Bentivoglio).
When hearing the premise of Denti, I was afraid that it might be comparable to Manny Coto’s Dr. Giggles (1992) or reminiscent of the dentistry torture of John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man. Instead, Denti is a stylishly shot and wonderfully paced tale of prognathism, love, family, and memory. Available on DVD
Undead (Michael & Peter Spierig, 2003, Australia)
The small Aussie burg of Berkelely receives a deadly rain of meteorites, turning people hit by the celestial stones into the walking dead. It doesn’t take long for our main characters to assemble in the obligatory isolated farmhouse to ride out the plague of zombies.
All of our familiar friends are holed up here from the loony cops, spiteful pregnant waitress, her clueless boyfriend, misunderstood beauty queen, and badass fisherman (whose fashion taste takes after Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate). Our sympathies are tied to the multiple-barrel shotgun wielding fisherman Marion (Mungo McKay) and the lovely Rene (Felicity Mason). The pair carves a swath through a seemingly endless supply of reanimated corpses only to find that zombies aren’t the full extent of their worries.
Comparing Undead to Australia’s other famous zombie film, Dead Alive, is a tempting albeit simplistic temptation. It’s true that both films share similarities in their use of the walking dead and barrels of fake blood but what the pair share most is their wicked sense of humor. The excessive gore, kinetic camerawork, and outlandish action mix well with the cross genre antics. Hopefully this wonderfully silly film is a sign of things to come from the Spierig brothers. Available on DVD
The Convent (Mike Mendez, 2000, USA)
When Friday night rolls around and there’s little to do except attend a kegger down on Frat Row, the dangers of being a bored college student never make themselves more apparent. It’s on such an evening that a handful of asswipe kids break into an abandoned convent. The rather unpleasant group includes three frat boys, their pledge lackey, a bitchy cheerleader, and Clorissa (Joanna Canton) who is torn between her new vapid college chums and her old alternative friend Monica (Meghan Perry) who’s tagged along for the ride.
Unfortunately for them, this is also the same night when some wannabe Satanists try to invoke the devil with their hokey incantations that happen work this time around courtesy of some virgin blood. Just like these demonic invocations, everything comes together the right way when director Mike Mendez and writer/actress Chanton Anderson blend wicked humor and stylish direction. You know you’re watching the right movie when it has a cameo by Coolio as a police officer who decries, "Youth are destroying their lives with this marijuana substance!"
In another one of the several moments of smirking self-reflexivity, the group is compared to the Scooby Gang as they creep through the spooky hallways of the convent that had been closed ever since young Christine O’Malley (Adrienne Barbeau) went on a killcrazy rampage forty years prior. Zoinks! Despite the urban legends about O’Malley’s lack of sanity, she turns out to be the only one capable of kicking enough ass to save some of the pathetic kids and drive the demons back to hell.
Utilizing effective special effects, capable actors, and the right mix of humor and horror, The Convent is a tight 75-minute bundle of joy that can proudly be compared to The Evil Dead rather than standing in its shadow.
While never garnering a wide release, The Convent is available on DVD from Trimark home video. Available on DVD
Versus (Ryuhei Kitamura, 2000, Japan)
Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus is a terrific blend of staple crowd-pleasing genres such as chambara swordplay, yakuza gunfights, and the vengeful undead. Versus plays out to the hilt with ultra-violent and self-effacing glee.
When two escaped convicts meet for a mysterious rendezvous with a group of yakuza thugs, their unfortunate encounter happens to occur in the Forest of Resurrection-one of the 666 portals to Hell that exists in our domain. Throw a kidnapped girl into the mix, and watch as one of the cons declares his allegiance to feminist dogma before blowing away one of her captors. When his felled foe rises from the dead, chaos ensues. From here, the story runs in high gear and gives the audience little chance for a breather except during the occasional over-stylized "poses" from the actors. Other than these manga-influenced tableaus, Kitamura’s camera never stops: zooming, panning, and spinning with dizzying speed.
In what becomes typical for this film, just when things seem like they can’t get any crazier, they inevitably do. The set pieces pile up in a savage collision that proves surprisingly satisfying. While too many action films run out steam in their conclusion, Versus manages to stay on track and in overdrive for its two exhaustive hours. An intense action pastiche, Versus raises the bar for all future chambara yakuza zombie flicks. Available on DVD
Dellamorte, Dellamore (Michele Soavi, 1994, Italy)
One of the strangest releases of the last decade, Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte, Dellamore opened in April of 1996 as Cemetery Man. The details of how an outrageous Italian zombie film made it into multiplexes across the country remain shrouded in mystery. Herein Rupert Everett stars as Francesco Dellamorte, a graveyard custodian who really has his work cut out for him. For unexplained reasons, the corpses under his charge have a nasty habit of rising from the dead after a week. As with most zombies, a bullet through the head (or any other means of cerebral cessation) takes the steam out of their step, allowing him to satisfy the promise of a "final resting place."
With his work life always threatening to overpower his home and love life, Dellamorte proves to be the most completely sympathetic protagonist for any prole who feels enslaved to their job. Not only does he have errant corpses to keep under control but he also needs to appease his bureaucratic employers. Worse than that, the poor guy can’t manage to keep a girlfriend—a living one, anyway. His monosyllabic assistant, Gnachi (François Hadji-Lazaro), has it even worse—he lands his dream girl only to find that she’s not quite the woman he was hoping for.
Things really heat up for Dellamorte and Gnaghi after a freak bus accident brings a slew of new "returners" for the duo to pacify. While never getting to the level of carnage as other zombie comedies like Peter Jackson’s Dead AliveDellamorte, Dellamore has its own disturbing feverish madness. Available on DVD
Acne (Rusty Nails, 2003, USA)
In the world of indie film, cheap-o horror movies are a dime a dozen. Add some nudity and gallons of fake blood and--voilá--you have any number of interchangeable trashy titles cranked out by bottom-rung auteurs. The lack of inspiration behind the myriad mindless movies does little to push creative envelopes or propagate intellectual discussion. They do wonders for the Karo Syrup market, however.
Directed by and starring Rusty Nails, Acne is a smart film that plays on the universal theme of adolescent alienation, with teenagers transforming into adolescent monsters. The teens are victims of an insidious plague on their own bodies. Collusion between Shale Oil and Mershey Chocolate Company results in a toxin tainting Barrington city’s water supply. Combined with the high lipidic levels of the teenagers’ blood; the contagion results in teens sprouting gigantic zits on the tops of their heads.
The film’s protagonists, Franny (Tracey Hayes) and Zooey (Nails), are the first victims of the plague. They struggle to maintain their sanity, occasionally falling into a grease-fueled stupor as they search for the origin of their infection. Meanwhile, two Army officers, Glenn Diver (Timothy Hutchings) and Tina Catastrophe (Mary Lurchritz), search for clues only to be impeded by their superior officers.
While sharing thematic elements with classic horror films such as Teenagers from Outer Space and Night of the Living Dead, the stylistic origins of Acne are steeped in the French Nouvelle Vague. Apart from its literary nods (most notably to J. D. Salinger), Acne has a terrific sense of cinema (listen for violin strains reminiscent of the theme from Frankenstein when Zooey meets an old gypsy woman traveling the countryside).
Shot in crisp black and white, Acne has a terrific look. Director Nails does a fantastic job of creating an atmosphere of dread while keeping pretension in check. Acne also has a great sense of warped humor, making it a cinematic experience that only improves upon repeated viewings. Available on DVD
Pootie Tang (Louis C.K., 2001, USA)
An urban Übermensch, Pootie Tang boasts boundless sex appeal and talent (he’s so cool that his latest hit song needs neither music nor lyrics). Armed with a deadly accurate belt and an odd vocabulary, Pootie speaks like a hip-hop version of Jodie Foster in Nell. Played with deadpan intensity by Lance Crouther, only context and Bob Costas can decipher our hero’s dialogue. Pootie makes gibberish fun and highly quotable.
More than Pootie making his enemies say "nay-no" to evil by whuppin’ ass with his belt, Louis C.K.’s Pootie Tang boasts the new millennium’s most exciting scenes of a gorilla attack. The film also sports a terrific supporting cast that includes Wanda Sykes as Biggie Shortie (an off the hook hoochie), Robert Vaughn as Dick Lecter (the big name villain), and Chris Rock in a host of roles, including the moralistic to a fault, Daddy Tang.
Also known as Sign Your Pitty on the Running Kine, C.K.’s film is a modern comedy cum blaxploitation classic, reminiscent of genre greats. There’s the Caucasian mastermind who’s as nutty as Shelly Winters in Cleopatra Jones. There’s the protagonist’s unbelievable sexual prowess similar to that of Melvin Van Peebles in Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song. And, there’s a car wash confrontation that smacks of Black Belt Jones. "Sadatai!" Available on DVD
Lethal Force (Alvin Ecarma, 2001, USA)
Alvin Ecarma’s debut feature, Lethal Force, is an action/suspense/comedy that’s chock full o’ Kung Fu action, jokes, and special effects; enough to keep any psychotronic cinema lover happy. A grab bag of homages, it boasts geysers of blood à la the Lone Wolf & Cub films, blazing guns (and latent homosexuality) from John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, and a bevy of stylistic and thematic nods to other films from Conan The Barbarian to Evil Dead II to The Armour of God.
Frank Pritchard stars as Jack Carter. He’s a well-meaning patsy caught between his old friend, unstoppable assassin Frank Savitch (Cash Flagg Jr.), and Mal Lock (Andrew Hewitt), a wheelchair-bound super-baddie with a legion of white-masked goons at his command. Mal is holding Jack’s family hostage in exchange for Savitch. He wants revenge against Savitch for the botched assassination attempt that left him crippled many years ago. With paternal love pitted against killer instinct, no criminal is left unpunished, or innocent left unscathed in a brutal, blood-soaked climax.
Director Ecarma does well to keep things fresh in what could otherwise be a staid action film. With wonderfully kinetic camerawork and large doses of dry comedy, he has created a film that can be enjoyed by both the fans of the genres he’s paying tribute to, and those who do not necessarily like those particular genres. The tricky hybrid of comedy and action could have easily failed, turning Lethal Force into a ridiculous farce like The Naked Gun or a silly gest like The Jewel of the Nile. Rather, this small-budgeted film ($12K!) is technically adroit and chock full of laugh-out-loud outrageousness. Available on DVD
Vortex / Uzumaki (Higuchinsky, 2000, Japan)
"Putting all reason aside you exchange / what you got for a thing that’s hypnotic and strange / the spiraling shape will make you go insane..." Those lyrics from They Might Be Giants’ song "Spiraling Shape" kept swirling through my head while I watched Higuchinsky’s Uzumaki. While there’s nothing overtly terrifying about Uzumaki —no hordes of millipedes, death curses, or giant monsters—the film proves far more unsettling in its simple overt creepiness.
Based on manga by Junji Ito, Uzumaki relates the tale of a Japanese village plagued by spiral shapes. Off kilter from its opening, our first encounter with the spiral shape comes when Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) find her friend Shinuci’s father videotaping a snail. Kirie and Shuichi (Fhi Fan), our protagonists, try to maintain their sanity (and their linear shapes) as the world goes mad around them. The swirls of clouds, sushi, fingerprints, and washing machines threaten to undo them.
A delightful and disturbing film, Uzumaki is skillfully directed by Higuchinsky who does a brilliant job keeping everything in Uzumaki off kilter as things threaten to spin out of control. Available on DVD
Bury Me in Kern County (Julian Nitzberg, 1999, USA)
A cautionary take about living in a loser town where time seems to stand still and bad hair is the rule; not the exception, Bury Me in Kern County is the first fictional feature from Julian Nitzberg, director of The Wild World of Hasil Adkins (see CdC #11).
Sandy (Mary Sheridan) and Dean (Judson Mills) are busted on a police reality show reminiscent of COPS, bringing them instant infamy among their friends, family and neighbors. This only fuels Dean’s persecution complex as he sits in jail formulating ideas that his imprisonment is part of a global oil company conspiracy to crush his entrepreneurial drug-selling business. Out on bail, as she has no prior convictions, Sandy tries to maintain her strained relationship with Dean’s mother. Eventually, Sandy is kicked to the curb and forced to go back home to her mother and sister.
Mary Lynn Rajskub (Dude, Where’s My Car?) gives a terrific performance as Amanda, Sandy’s sister. She shines whenever she’s on screen, especially when she displays her vast collection of artistic homemade water pipes.
After Dean’s mother decides she can’t take the negative publicity and offs herself by sucking down some car exhaust, her son is let out of jail to attend the funeral. He finds that he needs an additional eight hundred dollars to bury his mother. From there, the story really kicks into high gear, twisting and turning with unexpected and hilarious results.
Beautifully filmed and edited with a good pace and fine acting (Dean often reminds me of a young Nick Nolte with serious anger management problems), Bury Me in Kern County could have easily turned on its protagonists, openly making fun of their white trash ways. Yet, though we know our heroes aren’t the brightest bulbs on the Quickie-Mart sign, and while the film affords viewers with ample opportunity to laugh at them, our sympathies never stray. Thus, we can allow ourselves to be swept up into the misery of small town life.
Sadly, Bury Me in Kern County is unavailable on VHS/DVD.
The Woman Chaser (Robinson Devor, 1999, USA)
Charles Willeford’s 1960 novel, The Woman Chaser is the eccentric author’s most cinematic construction. Herein protagonist Richard Hudson recollects his days as a used car salesman turned movie director in quasi-screenplay style, preceding every transition in the novel with direction such as "CROSSFADE", "DISSOLVE", or "FADE TO BLACK."
Unsatisfied with his successful used car business, huckster Richard Hudson suddenly gets the bug to create. Turning to his former film producing step father (Paul Malevich), Hudson takes his idea for THE MAN WHO GOT AWAY to "The Man" (Ernie Vincent)—the big studio bigwig. Contrasting insouciance with wild turns of emotion, Patrick Warburton plays Hudson with panache. The actor often wears a mask of indifference, slightly squinting at scenery as if trying to make sense of Hollywood. It’s only after he dons a conspicuous set of sunglasses that he can operate in this foreign place with all the autonomous command he had over his car lot. His deadpan narration holds true to Hudson’s sociopathic outlook on life. Hudson is a bastard and makes no bones about it. His moral ambiguity frees him to be completely outrageous in his appraisals of the world and unapologetic in his heinous actions.
Bedding his step sister (Marilyn Rising), secretary (Emily Newman), lead actress (Lora Witty), and a Salvation Army Captain (Pat Crowder), Hudson’s real love proves to be his mother (Lynette Bennett). His frenzied, shirtless dance scene with her is truly unforgettable. Likewise, much of Hudson’s dialogue proves highly quotable.
Undoubtedly, director Robinson Devor could sympathize with Hudson’s first attempt to make a full length feature film. Running six full reels, Devor’s film is free from unnecessary padding and moves at a breakneck pace. With a budget on par with Hudson’s film within Devor’s film, The Woman Chaser has tremendous production value. Devor’s screenplay is delightfully accurate in its adaptation of Willeford’s work, not only in being faithful to the tone of the book but in keeping ninety-percent of the original dialogue.
Hudson’s hardboiled demeanor, the flashback framing device, the use of Milkos Rozsa theme from THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, and an inherent moral ambiguity might lead critics to assume that The Woman Chaser is a "modern day film noir." Indeed, The Woman Chaser has an absurdity reminiscent of the work of Edgar G. Ulmer, but there is a modernity and self-reflexivity in Willeford’s scenarios that puts The Woman Chaser heads and shoulders above films that try to ape the classic noir traits.
Originally shot in color, The Woman Chaser had a limited theatrical run in breathtaking black & white but was released briefly (available exclusively at Hollywood Video) on VHS in color. Still available used via online retailers, no DVD release is in sight.
Treasure Island (Scott King, 1999, USA)
This film has little in common with the Robert Louis Stevenson story of the same name. Rather, King’s inspiration for Treasure Island came from Ewen Montagu’s 1954 novel The Man Who Never Was (ISBN: 1557504482). An espionage tale, Montagu’s work details "Operation Mincemeat," a tactical maneuver wherein British Intelligence officers procured a corpse for which they provided a new identity and enough "supporting evidence" to beguile Germany into repositioning its forces in the Mediterranean. While Montagu’s book is interesting (albeit jejune), King’s film proves far more engrossing.
Setting the story at San Francisco’s Treasure Island naval base as the U.S. force ramps up the offensive on Japan, the film maintains Montagu’s corpse, code-breakers and little else. Assigned the task of creating a personality for the dead body in their office, Frank (Lance Baker) and Sam (Nick Offerman) slowly get to know themselves as they get to "know" John (Jamie Donovan), the new person they create. As the men compose letter after letter from the dead soldier to his loved ones, the audience sees Frank and Sam in the corpse’s stead until his new personality takes shape. Yet, John doesn’t particularly reflect the men’s better attributes as the crack code-breakers tend to project their fears and weaknesses onto the formerly anonymous body.
Both men have an abundance of foibles. Frank, a pathological polygamist, can’t find intimacy with a woman unless he’s married to them. Meanwhile, Sam uses his wife’s proclivity for ménage à trois as a means to indulge in bisexuality. Sam wears his masculinity as a badge of honor and uses these dalliances as a way to hide his desires.
In the wake of Michael Apted’s Enigma and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, it’s refreshing to see a movie code-breaker who hasn’t been heterosexualized. In fact, little in Treasure Island is sparklingly clean. King’s film feels grimy thanks to its dusky cinematography coupled with unflinching observations about homophobia and racism.
Moving at a relaxed pace, Treasure Island is a fascinating freshman film from King. Winner of a 1999 "Special Jury Prize" at the Sundance Film Festival, Treasure Island played at a few more fests before garnering a short run in a few New York and Los Angeles art houses. The film’s challenging story thwarted wider recognition. Luckily, All Day Entertainment picked up Treasure Island for a terrifically packaged DVD release.
The Flew (Clifton Childree, 2002, USA)
People who enjoy fever dreams and David Lynch’s Eraserhead are most likely to enjoy The Flew (count me among them), but otherwise, it’s understandable if this film clears the room. I don’t know how he did it, but this film was shot entirely by filmmaker Clifton Childree over a period of six years. That may not sound like a big deal but considering he was a one-man crew as well as the sole star on the film, it’s an impressive feat.
The film takes place at a Victorian carnival where a mechanical beekeeper strives to live a life outside of his monotonous existence within The Flew, an elaborate shooting gallery. The only thing he knows of outside of The Flew is The Wooden Embalmer, a broken down ride he has strong affections for. Not only has he started to feel human emotions, but has also begun experiencing human health issues as well, which is not a good thing for a mechanical man who is beginning to fall apart just as he begins to find himself. Sensing that his days are numbered, he retreats into his dreamy hallucinations until it is hard to tell the difference between dream and reality.
The subject matter sounds deep, and it’s treatment within the film might leave some viewers wondering if the film, like Eraserhead, has any actual meaning or if the whole thing is just one long experiment in self indulgence on the filmmaker’s part. Films like this tend to find followings among drug users or extreme cultural intellectuals. With its grainy, black & white imagery and period set-design, The Flew looks like something you’d watch in a Nickelodeon. Childree utilizes a relentless barrage of organ music & carnival sound effects, a minimal cast (himself and a few occasional extras), and no dialogue. The overall effect has a hypnotic quality to it that leaves the viewer a little creeped out, a feeling which lasts long after the film has finished.
The Flew is available from the filmmaker at www.theflew.com.
Surrender Dorothy (Kevin DiNovis, 1998, USA)
This psychological thriller did very well on the film festival circuit, but surprisingly, has not led to much for director/star, Kevin DiNovis, who took a big chance playing the lead character at the last minute when his original lead got cold feet.
Anti-social dishwasher Trevor (Peter Pryor) watches attractive women eating in the restaurant where he works. Afraid to talk to them, he has a habit of stealing their used silverware, taking it home, and masturbating while orally exploring his stolen prizes. Lahn (DiNovis) is a heroin addict, on the run from his former roommate, a drug dealer who he has robbed. Sensing Lahn’s desperate need for a fix and a place to stay, Trevor agrees to supply Lahn’s shelter and daily dose, but at a price. It starts off simple enough: Lahn must do household chores to earn his keep. As Trevor realizes just how much power someone can have over a drug addict simply by supplying the drugs, he begins to take advantage of the situation. Trevor turns Lahn into his slave, having him do housework while wearing an apron with the name Dorothy stitched on it. Gradually, as more and more boundaries are pushed, Lahn must dress and act like "Dorothy", the ideal girlfriend of Trevor’s creation. From there it becomes a tale of confused sexual servitude; full of mind games and power struggles, until a final intense point of no return.
Unlike most of the films on this list, Surrender Dorothy is more of a realist drama than an exaggerated comedy, science fiction, musical, or action film. Like the work of Todd Solondz, it’s dark, disturbing and will leave you thinking about it for awhile. While loaded with sexual overtones, the film is not likely to be much of a turn on to most (unless you like seeing DiNovis in a dress). Sexual content comes from scenes of freaky masturbation and confused homosexuality (a straight man in a dress being seduced/raped by another straight man: "But I’m not gay." "Neither am I."). DiNovis’ portrayal of a somewhat pretty-boy drug addict might seem a little exaggerated if not unbelievable to anyone who has known any heroin users that far into their addiction. Besides making plenty of statements about mental health and drug addiction, Surrender Dorothy is one of the best under-appreciated psychological dramas of the past decade. Available on DVD
Tuvalu (Viet Helmer, 1999, Germany)
Considering how much praise the film Delicatessen has received over the years, it is surprising Tuvalu hasn’t found more recognition. While Delicatessen is visually clever, using minimal dialogue to tell its story, Tuvalu takes those qualities further, though perhaps with a few less side stories. Nevertheless, fans of one should enjoy the other.
The Tuvalu of the film’s title is a faraway paradise isle. It is precisely the sort of place Anton (Denis Lavant) would rather be than working in his parent’s dilapidated bathhouse, the last building standing in a barren landscape devoid of color and a thorn in the side of evil developer Gregor (Terrence Gillespie). Getting to Tuvalu is a dream Anton has all but given up on, considering he is afraid to set foot outside of the bathhouse. Anton’s mother has kept a long-running charade going to keep his blind father from knowing the family business is failing. Between the few remaining customers paying with worthless buttons, and an upcoming safety inspection, the bathhouse looks certain for demolition. A change of pace occurs when Eva (Chulpan Khamatova), the object of Anton’s desires, moves into the bathhouse with her father after losing their home. But then matters are made worse when Eva’s father is killed in the pool by falling plaster. She blames Anton and runs to the arms of Gregor. From there it’s a race against time to fix up the building, rescue a key piece of machinery that keeps the building’s boiler running smoothly, prove Eva’s father’s death was no accident, and win her back from Gregor.
The film is brilliantly inventive, like one giant Rube Goldberg device. While most of the film was shot in black & white, much of it is color-tinted, adding to the already stunning camerawork, lighting, and art direction. Much of the comedy is physical and absurd, like an old silent movie, but the film has more than it’s fare share of clever sight gags and situations to make it stand out. Available on DVD
Lucky (Steve Cuden, 2002, USA)
Every now and then people in the professional entertainment world decide to make their own films, using the opportunity to embrace styles and subject matter not often allowed by their day jobs. Take Steve Cuden for instance. He can boast of having written a Broadway musical and scripts for many cartoon shows, but he is also responsible for one of the most disturbing dark comedies to grace the film festival circuit in the past decade.
Each act of Lucky plays like a different film. The first third is an introduction to lonely, failed cartoon writer Millard Mudd, a quintessential loser, living in a decrepit house, guzzling beer at all hours of the day, laughed at or ignored altogether by women, played well by Michael Emanuelthe familiar "everyman" star of many commercials. It is humorously depressing watching Mudd’s life sinking lower and lower. Then the second third kicks in, and the film suddenly becomes very funny in a twisted sort of way. Mudd encounters a stray dog named Lucky. Now you might think, "Oh, the love of a pet will save this man," but Lucky is no ordinary doghe can talk. And not only that, Lucky is an expert at writing cartoon scripts. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the film’s entertainment value that Lucky has a smart mouth with a lot of attitude behind it (especially for such a cute dog). Naturally Lucky and Mudd form a partnership that gets Mudd’s career back on top, which leads to better luck with the ladies and an improved outlook on life. However, along comes the final third, and the film turns very dark, sickly twisted, and is likely to offend a lot of viewers. Lucky has gotten inside Mudd’s head, holding strong control over him, and essentially turned him into a necrophiliac serial killer.
By making the three acts so drastically different, Cuden gives the viewer a feeling of having covered a lot of ground by the film’s end. In many ways Lucky is like a cross between A Boy And His Dog and Fight Club, but with more humor and a fraction of either film’s budgets. The shock value is nearly off the chart in the final third, so much so that this film is not recommended for those easily offended. Available on DVD
The Item (Dan Clark, 1999, USA)
It might have been the cappuccino or being punch drunk from jet lag but Dan Clark comes across as a hilariously hyper guy. His film, The Item, reflects Clark’s personality in its kinetic, balls out, over-the-top mirth and mayhem. Everything in The Item has been kicked up to the nth degree.
The Item is the story of four unlikely gangsters who have taken on the task of babysitting a science experiment gone wrong—an oversized fleshy slug with keen powers of observation. The film has been described as being an effort in "art exploitation." With its mix of stylish filmmaking and copious gore, the label is one that seems destined to stick.
"I had a love-hate relationship with all the Reservoir Dogs rip-offs that were coming out and I liked the idea of a claustrophobic little cheap indie film with a bunch of bad guys with guns in the room. I thought it was getting too serious and getting too dull. No one was playing with it enough," says Clark.
"The evolution from Peckinpah to Woo back to America: it starts to feel like a bunch of dogs eating each other’s vomit. I thought it’d be fun to fun to take the piss out of that a little bit. In addition to that, I’m a big fan of The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao where there’s that scene where the mean businessman goes in and has a conversation with a hand puppet—that rocked."
"I wrote the film in a week. We sunk most of the money we got from the Jim Henson company [for a first look deal on "Brats of the Lost Nebula"] into The Item. And, you know, they weren’t pleased. They didn’t want us to take that money and make a bloodbath phallus puppet movie."
Shot on digital video, Clark tweaked the color in post-production, enhancing and emphasizing the shades in order to give more of a cartoonish look. "I’ve always gotten a big kick out of the way Peter Greenaway color codes everything, so I made The Item extremely orange. Most of the characters except for the two female leads have different colored hair and very different colored clothes."
Released in both rated and unrated versions by Artisan Entertainment, the version with extra-gore kicks the violence into the realm of being funny and outrageous while the R-rated cut is more disturbing than humorous. Stick to the unrated version. Available on DVD
I.K.U. (Shu Lea Cheang, 2000, Japan)
Positioning itself as a sequel to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, I.K.U. begins in the elevator that took Deckard and Rachel to safety (or to their doom, depending on how you interpret the ending). This is the setting for the first sex scene where we’re introduced to Reiko—a replicant pleasure unit. Reiko can adapt her outer shell to seven different incarnations (portrayed by seven comely actresses), depending on the needs of those around her. Her mission is to travel through Tokyo, gathering orgasmic information for her creators, the GENOM Corporation.
Similar to the virtual reality trade in Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, GENOM trades in virtual pleasure. Reiko works to fill her Biomatic Drive via a plethora of varied sexual encounters. During her adventures we encounter MASH, an outdated replicant, and Tokyo Rose, a virus program created by GENOM’s rival BIO LINK Corporation. More than plot, I.K.U. is rife with sci-fi sex scenes.
Reminiscent of intelligent porn pioneers such as Michael Ninn (Shock, Latex) and Steven Sayadian (Cafe Flesh, Dr. Caligari), director Shu Lea Cheang isn’t satisfied with staid scenes of sodomy, penetration, or oral copulation. Rather, she mixes each shot with computer enhanced/generated elements while addressing the future of pornography and self pleasure in an era of sexual danger. Available on DVD
Dropping Out (Mark Osborne, 2000, USA)
Kent Osborne (former TV host, "Spongebob Squarepants" writer, and star of Mike Mitchell’s hysterical short film Herd) wrote and stars in this dark comedy, directed by his brother, Mark Osborne (director of many wonderful animated shorts, including More and Weird Al Yankovic’s "Jurassic Park" music video). Filled with over-saturated cartoon colors, pop-culture references, oddball characters, and one of the funniest, non-depressing treatments of suicide ever filmed, Dropping Out is an odd gem that’s worth seeking out.
Between his cable going out and a smashed jar of mayonnaise triggering a painful memory of lost love, TV-addicted Emile Brokton decides that his life, unlike the colorful thumbs-up reality he’s used to seeing on TV, is not worth living. Emile decides to videotape himself delivering his final thoughts before committing suicide and has arranged for his co-worker, Henry (played hysterically by SNL’s David Koechner) to deliver the videotape to Emile’s ex-girlfriend. Henry, however, stops by before Emile is dead, watches some of the videotape and, knowing something about the market for autobiographical snuff flicks, decides the videotape is worthy of better production value. Thus begins a snowball effect that fills Emile’s house with producers, crew, and equipment; his yard full of dressing-room trailers and craft services tables; and Emile himself as the celebrity-star of a major motion picture in-the-works. It’s just the sort of experience to give Emile a new reason for living. However, the whole production hinges on Emile taking his own life, so the conflict arises: will he or won’t he?
In Dropping Out, the subject of suicide is dealt with in such a matter-of-fact way that much of the humor comes from the very calm discussion of what should be a very emotional topic. Considering Emile’s life doesn’t seem too bad to begin with, yet so many people are anxious for him to end it, the film ends up making strong statements about not only the meaning of life, but the value of life as well.
While the demand for suicide comedies is high, Dropping Out has yet to come to DVD. Look for details at www.droppingout.com.
I Woke Up Early the Day I Died (Aris Iliopulos, 1998, USA)
The most recent film to stem from an unproduced Ed Wood script, Aris Iliopulos’s 1998 film I Woke Up Early the Day I Died is an amalgam of Wood’s favorite themes with carnival and graveyard set pieces, not to mention obligatory transvestitism. The project was close to Wood’s heart—the script was one of the few items Wood took with him when rudely evicted from a Los Angeles flat shortly before his death in 1978.
Wood’s inspiration for I Woke Up Early the Day I Died was Russell Rouse’s The Thief, a 1952 noir thriller remarkable for its lack of dialogue. Wood hoped to cast Aldo Ray as his protagonist, a homicidal maniac on the run from the law and on a quest to recover a misplaced briefcase of stolen cash. Forty years later, Billy Zane realized this role.
Populated with a cadre of character actors, everyone in I Woke Up Early the Day I Died is "someone." There’s Carel Struycken as the mortician! There’s Ann Magnuson as the loan office teller! There’s Christina Ricci as the buxom hooker! And, could that be John Ritter as the circus sharpshooter? Indeed it is. Luckily, no one excessively mugs for the camera with the exception of Zane who, with his bizarre faux coiffure and ever-arched eyebrow, wonderfully overplays this ham-handed role.
Without dialogue, the soundtrack of the film comes to the forefront. Luckily, the score delivers the goods with its jarring punk rock tunes and Bernard Herrmann-inspired strings. There’s even a good deal of bagpipe to be heard—a noise the drives Zane into a frenzy. Along with the music and melodramatic acting, Iliopulos cleverly inserts a few on-screen snippets of screenplay along with effectively used stock footage—another nod to Wood’s reliance on stock shots.
Unfortunately, the fate of the film is a tale that smacks of the tragicomedy of Wood’s life. After a successful showing at a few film festivals, the production company for I Woke Up Early the Day I Died, Cinequanon, found itself in financial trouble. This has halted a legitimate video release of the film in the United States. Currently, I Woke Up Early the Day I Died is available in Germany and in the U.S. via a few private video dealers.
Freaked (Tom Stern & Alex Winter, 1993, USA)
Despite being one of the most overlooked and underpromoted films upon its release in 1993, most of the cult following for Freaked never saw the film until much later. This hysterical debut feature from Tom Stern and Alex Winter began life with plenty of promise: a funny script, two talented up-and-coming comedy directors, a great ensemble cast, plenty of shock value, and even cross-promotion merchandising (Hideous Mutan Freekz action figures made their way to stores before the film’s title was changed, and are now considered valuable collectors items). However, the film was shuffled into obscurity thanks to a change in the corporate leadership of Twentieth Century Fox. Freaked had only a limited theatrical release and little fanfare when it finally hit home video.
Freaked is the tale of one-time child actor (and full time jerk), Ricky Coogan (Winter) who makes a Faustian deal with the EES (Everything Except Shoes) Corporation to promote a dangerous chemical fertilizer, Zygrot 23, in the South American country of Santa Flan. Joined by his horn dog buddy Ernie (Michael Stoyanov) and perky environmentalist Julie (Megan Ward), the trio happen upon a freak show only to become part of the act thanks to the handiwork of evil Elijah C. Skuggs (Randy Quaid), a crazed ringmaster who creates new freaks using--what else--Zygrot 23.
And that’s just the first act of the film! If you’re at all familiar with Winter and Stern’s earlier short films (Squeal of Death), then you may have an inkling as to what a treat Freaked is. The humor is extremely twisted and the sight gags and jokes just keep coming. Once transformed into freaks, Ricky, Ernie, and Julie befriend a cast of characters that include psychic trolls, Rastafarian eyeballs with legs, down-trodden wrenches, a giant worm, a woman played by Mr. T (playing himself, only female), and Bobcat Goldthwaite playing a freak with the body of a man but the head of a sock-pocket. The freaks must band together to escape from Skuggs and stop the spread of Zygrot 23 before the world is overrun by more freaks. The movie boasts cameos from Keanu Reeves, Brooke Shields, Morgan Fairchild, Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haines, and Calvert DeForest (AKA Larry "Bud" Melman).
While a DVD release of the film has yet to happen in the United States, a slightly different cut of the film was released in early 2004 in the United Kingdom. This version shares scenes found only in the bootleg workprint. No matter what incarnation of Freaked you see, however, you’re in for fun. Those who ignore this film will stand knee deep in the blood of their children. Available on DVD
Daddy Cool (Brady Lewis, 2002, USA)
When taking a closer look at this list of Midnight Movies it becomes abundantly clear that it’s laced with pervasive themes of zombies, parody, and gender dysphoria. While no proper zombies make their presence known in Daddy Cool, the film boasts classic B-movie elements of a werewolf and a woman’s head living in a bottle.
The bulk of Daddy Cool deals with Roger/Roxanne (Conrad Waite/Streeter Nelson); a woman who grew up as a boy with his twin Kristine (Mae Hignett/Streeter Nelson) under the watchful eye of their television personality father, Dr. Alter (John Amplas). Obviously, Roxanne has a lot of baggage she needs to sort out as an adult. She’s plagued by visions of the past and future on her television set which seems especially attuned to the programs that her father recorded as both a helpful "Mr. Wizard" science teacher and hellfire & brimstone televangelist. Roxanne has been seeking the council of psychologist Dr. Talbot (Larry John Meyers), who proves the old adage that psychologists are often more screwed-up than their patients.
Roxanne’s TV brings to fore the film’s theme of thought transmission. Roxanna fears that her thoughts might be heard by others. The "others" in this case turn out to be the audience. We’re made privy to a ceaseless voice-over during the majority of her screen time. Likewise, the jumbled images she witnesses echo the fractured timeline of Daddy Cool.
Director Brady Lewis lays out Daddy Cool as both a romance and a mystery. We see Dr. Talbot falling for Roxanne and wonder how his lycanthropy might impact their relationship. At the same time, we wonder how much of Roxanne’s memories are true and how she became the woman she is today. And, what of her sister? Does she really survive as a disembodied head in her father’s laboratory?
The film has a terrific look. Scenes of Dr. Talbot’s life as a lonely werewolf are shot in beautiful black & white while Roxanne’s tale is told in stunning color. Her childhood years are oversaturated, painting a picture of idyllic splendor that masks Roxanne’s twisted home life.
Schizopolis (Steven Soderbergh, 1996, USA)
The beauty of D.I.Y., independent cinema comes when a filmmaker, having no one to answer to, makes a film for his own amusement without any care whether an audience will get it, and ends up successfully creating a unique, entertaining vision unlike anything the film world has seen before. Schizopolis is a perfect example. Before directing Hollywood blockbusters like Traffic, Oceans 11, and Erin Brockovich, Steven Soderbergh was the indie-film poster boy due to his Sundance success with Sex, Lies & Videotape, and his follow-ups, Kafka, King of the Hill, and The Underneath. But at no point in his career has his originality shined brighter than in the mid-’90s, when he got together on weekends with some friends, some borrowed equipment, and his own money, and made a film that no one else who dare to fund.
The film’s story is somewhat secondary to what makes this film so special. Besides satirizing office jobs, relationships, political correctness, guru-celebrity-ism, and the purpose of dialogue itself, Schizopolis also plays around with non-linear storytelling, reality-verses-film, and Monty Python-esque humor, all culminating in a beautiful train-wreck that will leave the right viewers laughing hysterically, and everyone else scratching their heads in confusion.
Soderbergh stars as Fletcher Munson, an office drone who is complacent spending his days gossiping around the office, daydreaming, and masturbating in the bathroom. When a co-worker unexpectedly drops dead, Munson is promoted to speechwriter for new-age self-help guru, T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), an assignment with a strict deadline. At home, he and his wife (Betsy Brantley) communicate in the plainest of English, literally defining their intent instead of saying anything detailed or personal. Things start getting strange when Munson inadvertently switches bodies with Dr. Jeffrey Korchek, a dentist Munson’s wife is having an affair with. Meanwhile, everyone else’s wives are having affairs with Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen), an exterminator and would-be action star who speaks in a code of nonsense, and is destined for greater things. Other characters include Nameless Numberhead Man (Eddie Jemison), who has a fat-fetish and plays mole to Schwitters’ opponents, a widow whose life greatly improved when her husband dropped dead, and an expert who may or may not know anything, but has no trouble sharing it. By the end of the film, all the characters, the run-on gags, the side-stories are tied together in unexpected ways, adding meaning to what may have felt like a meaningless film. Available on DVD
Nothing (Vincenzo Natali, 2003, Canada)
Like Takashi Miike, there was a spot reserved on this list for Vincenzo Natali. The chore came in selecting which one of his films to include. I had a review ready to go for Cube but scrapped it after seeing just the opening credits of his 2003 feature, Nothing. The film tells the tale of childhood friends David Andrew (David Hewlett) and Andrew Miller (Andrew Miller). All grown up and living together in a hellhole wedged between freeways, it’d be a toss up to determine who has the worse life. Is it Andrew, the agoraphobic travel agent falsely accused of molesting a girl scout or David, whose girlfriend embezzled $27K from his company leaving a trail of evidence pointing to him?
Not to worry, though, this is just the darkness before the dawn. When things look their bleakest, the two suddenly find themselves in a new world where existence appears to have been wiped clean; leaving just themselves, their house, and their pet turtle in a white world of nothingness. Two guys in a world of nothing searching for answers and food: this may sound like a recipe for disaster (or for a sequel to My Dinner with Andre) but Nothing is a remarkably fun film.
In Nothing, Natali continues to explore themes of identity and location as he did in Cube and Cypher, leading me to believe that it’s not an exaggeration to consider him the "thinking person’s sci-fi director." Ultimately, Nothing succeeds due to Natali’s direction, the screenplay by Miller and Andrew Lowery, and the strong performances by its lead actors. Available on DVD
It’s a safe bet that our list of midnight movies won’t please everyone just like Entertainment Weekly ’s weak assessment of cult movies. Certainly, there were numerous films that didn’t make the cut for our article. These often fell into niches like: too big, trying too hard, or not trying at all. We’re sure to get a few missives from fans of films that reside in the aforementioned categories—from hardcore Donnie Darko fanatics to friends of underground film fest darlings whose work was left off the list for lacking that modicum of charm that we deemed necessary.
Before we get a flood of angry emails from fans of Gregg Araki, James Fotopolos, Todd Verow, Barak Epstein, John Waters, Brian O’Hara, Joe Christ, Nick Zedd, et cetera, I wanted to make it abundantly clear that we contemplated including all of them but they didn’t make the cut. That’s not to say that we could know and contemplate every movie for the last decade. It would be impossible to include every film that deserves to be on the list. But, besides being hardcore cinephiles in general, I publish a film magazine and Skizz works for (and runs) film festivals. Between the two of us, we probably see a couple thousand films each year. Likewise, we asked for suggestions from the Cashiers du Cinemart mailing list and several cinematic experts.
Then, of course, we faced the challenge of tracking down every film we wanted to see. Despite many an email to filmmakers, distributors, and producers (along with our plaintive pleas on internet trading/bootlegging sites), we were unable to obtain review copies of every film we hoped to view (best example? Dan Zukovic’s The Last Big Thing).
We owe a big debt of gratitude to films that just fell short of our time constraints. Most of these were films I caught at midnight screenings while I was in college like Man Bites Dog (1992), Dead Alive (AKA Brain Dead) (1992), Delicatessen (1991), and so on. If it weren’t for films like these, Cashiers du Cinemart would be a much different magazine.
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