Thursday, May 30, 2013

DANGEROUS ORPHANS Reminds Me to Not Judge a Movie by its Title

Dangerous Orphans (1985) 
Director: John Laing
Rating: 3 / 10
Source: Academy Home Entertainment VHS

I don't know that any film could live up to my preconceived notions of what a movie called Dangerous Orphans should be, but this one doesn't even come close. I fully believe that Director John Laing had the best intentions with this one, either that or he was just throwing little bits of noir in just to lead me on. But this is no noir. Rather, it's a tangled mess of a crime flick packed to the brim with thick, boring men in bad polyester suits. It's a sloppy sort of bad, the kind of movie that doesn't even feel the need to identify its protagonists until about twenty minutes in. Even then, it doesn't tell us anything terribly interesting about any of them. I have so many reasons not to care, and your film is already almost a third of the way finished? Please, can I get some sort of bone thrown to me?

The answer is no. Anyway, Harry, Rossi, and Moir (played by Iolaus himself, Michael Hurst, the only recognizable name here) are three young men who make a living stealing from organized crime bosses. Actually, only two of them support themselves this way - Harry's primary occupation is acting for television and the stage. He's even famous enough to get street recognition from time to time. So why the crime? Er, well - we learn via multiple flashbacks throughout the film that all three of these men are orphans, and that they made a pact as kids to stick together. So essentially we've got a little group of proto-Boondock Saints running around taking out the bad guys for cool points and a little extra cash on the side.

These are not the heroes, but they get about as much screen time.
Their recent job involves stealing money and drugs from a dealer named Jack Hanna (not the guy who hosted Animal Adventures, unfortunately). When Harry stumbles into a piano bar and meets a beautiful dame named Teresa who's been tickling the ivories (is it just me or is it geting a little noir in here?), he immediately falls for her, only to later find out that she's (gasp) Jack Hanna's ex-wife and also the man who has custody of her daughter. 

What will he and his friends do? Well, you know, go along with the heist anyway and somehow figure out a way to liberate Teresa's daughter from the kingpin. Along the way we'll get to know the gang better (in theory) through flashbacks, none of which show us how a group of orphaned kids became an unstoppable gang of crime-fighting criminals. These dots are simply never connected. To make things worse, Rossi and Moir are never fleshed out in the slightest. I honestly think this movie could have eliminated both of them with little to no ultimate effect on the plot.

There's some action, some romance between Harry and Teresa, and - yeah, just skip it.

The Good

I like the font they chose for the opening titles.

The Bad

I'd rather not spend more time enumerating the ways this movie goes wrong.

...the Hell? 

"Live dangerously, Harry! Live DANGEROUSLY!"

Why, when he's a ridiculously successful actor?

Also, maybe this explains something?

The Verdict

This film is just the pits. It half-asses everything and hits that sweet spot of being so bad it provokes nothing but apathy. Don't even bother. I feel bad letting this month-long thrift-store feature end with a whimper, but that's one of the risks that we barrel-scrapers face, I suppose.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

In Which I Watch Christian Kids' Videos

The Butter Cream Gang (1992)
Director: Bruce Neibaur
Rating: ??? / 10
Seen Via: Feature Films for Families VHS

As I mentioned before, living in the southern U.S. means that every time I browse thrift store video shelves, I find at least a handful of Christian kids' movies. Most look boring or dreadful to me, so I can pass them by without a second thought. The exceptions are films released by Feature Films for Families (hereafter FFFF). FFFF is an ambiguously Christian distribution company that specializes in films centered around "traditional values." While they firmly deny any connection to a specific religion, they're located in Utah, which is also where many of their independently-produced films take place, so draw your own conclusions. In addition to their original films, they also edit down other kids' films and remove questionable content. Totally necessary for stuff like the septic tank that is the uncut edition of Space Camp.

Most of the FFFF films are effectively feature-length after school specials with some added preachiness stirred in. I have a deeply weird fascination with the world these films present, where idyllic middle class families free from material concerns struggle with lofty moral quandaries. Despite the fact that these films grapple with problems that purportedly prepare children for life in the secular world of adulthood, there's a squeaky-clean quality to the dilemmas. They're too polished. Too abstract. They're also usually set in creepily perfect towns, like something you'd find in a TV commercial. Watching these movies is almost like watching a dystopian science fiction film set in a flawless society. One of those films where you're just waiting for the final reveal in which cannibalism or slavery or some other abomination underlies the whole pristine mess - only here, the reveal never comes.

No FFFF film exemplifies these qualities more than The Buttercream Gang, which is centered around a "gang" of middle-schoolers who take it upon themselves to be the official neighborhood do-gooders. They help out by doing things like painting picket fences or assisting the Widow Jenkins when she falls in her home and can't get up. It's set in a picture perfect whitewashed town in Utah where butterflies soar majestically in soft-focus over flowers and churches, and the baseball team's coach is also the pastor of the local church.

Every establishing shot looks like this.
Children dressed in primary colored t-shirts tucked into jean shorts with rolled-up cuffs jump rope, ride bikes, and get along just so gee golly well. Never fear though, there is some conflict, and in this film it comes in the form of a Buttercreamer (yes, they call themselves that) named Pete who has to move to Chicago to be a role model for his younger cousins. While in the big city, he becomes involved in a gang and is eventually sent back to Utah. Having been exposed to city life, he now becomes a full-blown misfit, the likes of which nobody is prepared to handle. As he spraypaints, vandalizes, and steals his way across the little town, his old friend Scott wonders what he can do to win Pete back from the Dark Side.

"I know you're not blond, Pete, but God still loves you."
I totally identified with Pete as he tried desperately to misbehave and wreck this too-good-to-be true town. Rural Utah must have seemed torturous to him after he'd been exposed to the vice and corruption of the big city. He's the only character in the movie who looks for cracks in the facade, and finding none, becomes increasingly insane. How awful must it feel to be surrounded by perfect people all of the time? Every insecurity and flaw grossly magnified in comparison, your doubts mocked by the selfless smiling faces who repair every small thing you break - no wonder he eventually flips his shit, screaming "I WANT YOU TO HATE ME" at the placid general store owner who has just volunteered to give him the entire contents of the cash register so that Pete won't have to steal it from him.

If you think this movie is primarily about gangs or crime, you're wrong. This movie is about Unconditional Love, which you know because it's mentioned no fewer than three times on the box. It's hard to convey just how ceaselessly, relentlessly earnest this movie is, and how little subtlety it possesses. This is the kind of movie that has no qualms about literally inserting a sermon to drive home the point it has to make, which ultimately seems to be that allowing yourself to be victimized by bad people will cause them to become good people.

Like Pete, I felt beaten into submission by the sentimentality and overbearing goodness of this film. I fell victim to some sort of weird Stockholm syndrome induced by swells of strings and solemn monologues on forgiveness delivered by blond Christian kids. Maybe it was the TWO montages of Goofus and Gallant sequences featuring Pete and Scott, one vandalizing and the other doing good deeds. All of this over an original song about loving your neighbor. It's too much, I can't take it. You win. I love everyone!

The Good:

I can't say this is a bad movie. While I was flabbergasted at many things throughout, I actually enjoyed it. I laughed, I cried, I wanted the movie to hate me, and it refused.

The Bad:

Did we need two music montages? Really, guys?

...the Hell?

This movie actually adopts sort of a pro-bullying stance, and tells kids that you should let someone steal your bike, beat you bloody, screw with your job, and generally make your life a living hell so that they'll eventually turn over a new leaf.

Also, this is what gangs look like:

The Verdict:

A strange, baffling, overly sentimental after-school special, interesting primarily because of how far its reality diverges from my own. A unique viewing experience, even among FFFF films. You will either feel compelled to slash your wrists in uncomprehending madness or start up your own Buttercream gang.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Get Old, Get Evil, with PHANTOM OF DEATH

Phantom of Death (1988)
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Rating: 4.5 / 10
Seen via: Vidmark VHS

Phantom of Death sports one of the most hideous covers on my shelf of tapes. There's Michael York, front and center, pulling an Animorphs-style transformation into ... Donald Pleasence? That's what the names above the portraits seem to suggest, anyway. Then below there's a woman falling through glass, which makes me think this movie wants me to associate it with Suspiria. The title offers no insight into what the hell is happening in this film, even in its native Italian: Un Delitto Poco Comune, or "An Unusual Crime" (according to Google Translate). Due to video store stickers that obscured a large portion of the back of the box, I wasn't aware that this was the work of Ruggero Deodato (Cannibal Holocaust, House on the Edge of the Park) until after buying it and looking it up online. That gave me some hope that at the very least this would be an utter sleaze-fest. For a little while anyway, it certainly seems to go that direction.

Robert Dominici (Michael York) is a renowned pianist with a failing marriage. After his wife is killed on her way back from a tryst, Inspector Datti (Donald Pleasance) vows to track the murderer down. Things become personal when the killer calls up Datti and taunts him, threatening his daughter. Meanwhile, as the killings continue they seem to point toward Robert... is this an elaborate setup? Based on the plot and the way these murders are presented, you might think you're about to watch a giallo. But Deodato was always more comfortable with gritty crime, cannibals, and other less stylish forms of trash, and the film soon becomes something else entirely.

Also, since this is Ruggero Deodato, expect gushing rivers of blood.
The big twist (that isn't really a twist, since it occurs only after the first act has wrapped up), is that Robert has a rare form of adult progeria, causing him to age rapidly and fall into violent rages. As he struggles to suppress his new urge to kill, he's also forced to navigate the relationship he's fallen into with a woman named Helene (Edwige Fenech), who was seemingly waiting for his wife to die so she could jump in and take her place. A fair amount of the story has Robert coming to terms with his impending death and accelerated aging, which pushes him even further into madness. There's some pretty fun stuff here, such as Robert's trip to a children's clinic, which I was not at all prepared for - especially when this little guy turned around and faced the camera:

What works does so in large part because of Deodato's willingness to acknowledge that this is a slasher rather than a drama. Michael York may not have gotten the memo, however, and takes even the most outlandish material seriously. He gives it 100%, even when the script feeds him a monologue in which he threatens to kill all the old and young people in the world so he won't be reminded of his lost youth OR his newly acquired age. Donald Pleasance grounds the film as he stoically gathers information and pieces together evidence, but even he's not exempt from a few overblown scenes. The most notable is when a taunting phone call drives him over the edge and causes him to run out into the street and throw a fit, screaming "You fucking bastard! I'll kill you!" at the sky. I was also happy to see Edwige Fenech pop up, although the late 80's were not as kind to her as the 70's. No fault of hers, really - giallo fashion was just way more stylish than the big hair and shoulder pads in this film could ever hope to be.

"My BRAIN is ROTTING!" (Actual dialogue.)
While Phantom of Death certainly has a few stylistic echoes from the giallo era (note the black gloves on York above), it's too bad that it never really takes advantage of them. The giallo was effectively dead in the late 80's, so perhaps Deodato didn't want to seem as though he was clinging to old trends. I doubt this was the case though. Nothing in this movie seems that skillfully assembled - the early giallo-style kills seem thrown in at random, the main plot doesn't really begin until the second act, and there's some really questionable use of a flash forward that's confusing and misleading. I'm guessing Deodato was just borrowing stylistic elements without thinking too much about the overall result.

The Good:

The premise is pretty interesting, and the film's willingness to handle it as an outrageous slasher was definitely the right way to go.

The Bad:

Sometimes there's just too much acting from Michael York. It's a shame that Edwige Fenech is underutilized.

...the Hell?

I'm pretty sure progeria doesn't turn you into a psychopath. I mean, I hope it doesn't...

The Verdict

Despite the fact that the audio on the tape was seriously damaged and I had to listen to buzzing throughout the entire film, I was interested enough to finish it. This is not a great film, nor one that I'd recommend, but it never feels repetitive and stays entertaining for most of its runtime. This would fit perfectly in a double feature with Lamberto Bava's Delerium if you're looking for a night of trashy Italian post-giallo slashers filled to the brim with overacting.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Let's Relive Some Childhood Trauma with INVADERS FROM MARS

Invaders from Mars (1986)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Rating: 6 / 10
Source: Cannon VHS

I was not a brave kid. For evidence, I present to you Tobe Hooper's 1986 remake of Invaders from Mars. I must have been about nine when I first caught this on TV some weekend afternoon. While I clearly remember being riveted to the screen throughout its runtime, I'm pretty sure I didn't sleep for about a week afterwards. If child-me was a boss in Contra, my giant red flashing weak spot would have been stories about extraterrestrials, particularly alien invasions/abductions. This movie was a rocket fired with eagle-eye precision toward that glowing core. For the next year or so after I watched this, I'd check the newspaper TV listings every Saturday to make sure it wasn't playing that afternoon. Because if it was, I couldn't trust myself. I knew I'd end up sitting in front of the TV again, reopening all those barely healed mental wounds. This is why I had to pick this tape up when I saw it for sale. I'm now a firm believer in the notion that facing fears head-on is the best way to dispel them (which probably doesn't mix well with my innate masochism).

One of the things that's sort of alarming about Invaders from Mars is how quickly it gets going. We're introduced to our young hero, David (Hunter Caron) as he watches a meteor shower with his Dad (Timothy Bottoms). Just after he goes to bed that night, David witnesses a monstrous alien craft landing behind the hill near his house. He runs screaming into his room and wakes his parents - a scene similar to that which would occur many times in my own home thanks to this movie.

It was only a dream, they reassure him, and usher him back to bed. But the next morning, Dad's acting sort of weird. He walks around in a daze with a strange wound on the back of his neck. After Mom leaves for work, he pours an entire container of Tic-Tacs into his coffee and gulps the whole mess down like nothing's wrong. He's also strangely insistent that David take a walk with him over the hill behind the house... David flees to school, but soon finds out his teacher (Louise Fletcher, a.k.a. Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is also acting more strangely than usual. Only the school nurse, Linda (Karen Black) believes him. As the rest of the adults in his life become increasingly sinister, it seems like she's the only one he can trust.

And this is where we're going to drill the hole for the mind control device...
One of the things that stood out to me watching this film as an adult is how deliberately it plays on fears specific to childhood. The idea of your parents suddenly turning on you was one of the things that really got to me as a kid, especially when the secondary adult authority figures began to do so as well. Children are always given lists of people who they're supposed to go to for help - teachers, neighbors, the police - and this movie goes right down that list and crosses them off one by one. Thank god for Karen Black. If it wasn't for her, this movie would leave David on his own. It's also interesting how so many of the typical (and sometimes comforting) kid movie tropes are absent here. David seemingly has no friends in school, no pet, no secret crush - not even a bully that could eventually side with him when shit hits the fan - just his parents, who seem normal enough until the aliens land. Which happens almost immediately. Again, the fast pacing of this film is sort of remarkable.

Would you care for a snack?
There are also an abundance of scares that play on base fears centered around food. In addition to Dad's aforementioned Tic-Tac coffee, there's a scene where mom serves David a horribly burned breakfast and then chows down on raw hamburger loaded with salt. The first time David suspects something is wrong with his evil teacher is when he spots her eating a frog, which is also the movie's first real "oh shit" moment. These are all pretty effective gut-level scares that hit even harder when you're young enough to have to depend on other people for your meals.

And we haven't even talked about the ALIENS yet. It's probably no surprise that David eventually musters up the courage to scale the hill behind his house and check out the beings that are responsible for everything that has transpired. The aliens have established a series of subterranean tunnels, which are typically entered via whirlpools that suck intruders beneath the sand (another terrifying childhood memory). The aliens in all their practical-effect glory look like gigantic ambulatory Deadly Spawn - essentially gigantic toothy maws perched atop warty chicken legs. There's also the boss alien, a little Krang-like fellow who rides out of the ship's central core on a gigantic tentacle. The aliens themselves are well-done, designed by effects wizard Stan Winston, whose work has been featured in essentially every landmark sci-fi/monster movie from the late 80's to early 90's.

Wait a second - is that...?

Oh, hi, Bud Cort!

If there was one detail that stood out in memory even above these creeps (the aliens, not Bud), it was this:

The alien mind-control mechanism is inserted by this giant drill, which we get to see in full operation as it bores into the cerebellum of some poor nameless extra. This, of course, is shown in the kind of terrifyingly bloodless PG-rated style that's sometimes extra disturbing simply because you're not expecting it.

If it were just David and Karen Black vs. the martians, the game would be over pretty quickly, but when David manages to get the military involved, things escalate significantly. I'm not sure how I feel about the final confrontation that occurs inside the alien lair. While it provides an explosion-laden finale clearly targeted at the young boys in the audience, it eliminates a lot of the terror of the first two acts by removing David's responsibility for exposing and eliminating the aliens. He still gets his chance to shine, as all child protagonists eventually do, but it feels like there's less at stake at the end than there was throughout the rest of the film.

The Good

Filled with shocks and scares that still hit a nerve after two decades.

The aliens are creepy as hell and make for some really memorable villains.

The Bad

I'm hard-pressed to believe that Hunter Carson was the best actor Tobe Hooper could find to play David. He tries so hard, but ... wow.

...the Hell?

This movie features what's likely the only instance of Chekhov's Penny.

The Verdict

You can probably tell from my review that most of the enjoyment I got out of this film came from re-living scares that destroyed me as a kid. If I were to see this film for the first time as an adult, I doubt it'd do a whole lot for me. All the same, the paranoia and the aliens are both well-crafted. If there's a youngster in your life who you think needs to be terrified, you could do a lot worse than Invaders from Mars.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Swing on Over for Some Murder in EATING RAOUL

Eating Raoul (1982)
Director: Paul Bartel
Rating: 7 / 10
Source: CBS/Fox VHS

For the next entry in It Came From the Thrift Store, let's head back to Hollywood in an entirely unintentional followup to Avenging Angel. Eating Raoul also involves loads of murder and comedy, although the humor here is a little more deliberate. I was pretty oblivious to its existence when I picked this tape up. The insinuated cannibalism on the cover was more than enough to get me interested though. What a pleasant surprise that this is the work of Paul Bartel, probably best known directorially for his masterpiece Death Race 2000, and as an actor in countless weird cinema gems. If that wasn't enough, it also stars cult film icon Mary Woronov, who's been a staple of genre film since the 70's, and is also a Death Race 2000 alum. Shortly after I bought this tape, I read that the Criterion collection had picked up Eating Raoul, which only increased my curiosity.

The film starts off with a great voice-over introduction that sets the stage by telling us just how far into debauchery Hollywood has fallen. Words won't do it justice, just watch:

In the midst of all this, we're introduced to Paul and Mary Bland (played by Bartel and Woronov), a truly boring middle-class couple whose interests involve collecting rare wines and planning the opening of their restaurant, which they intend to call "Paul and Mary's Country Kitchen." (Gag.) They've decked out their apartment in furniture from the 50's (on loan from Grandma), and sleep in separate beds. Dull people like this couldn't be less interested in the infestation of swingers who have taken over their apartment building. These sex-crazed lunatics harass Paul and Mary at every opportunity and harass them incessantly until Paul snaps and kills one with a frying pan.

They seemed like such a nice couple.
After discovering hundreds of dollars in the man's wallet, they begin to think that murder may be a more lucrative enterprise than they ever imagined. Could this be the solution to obtaining the funding for their restaurant in light of their recently failed attempt at a bank loan? It seems to be, and to attract more pervs to their apartment, the duo run an ad for a fake dominatrix service in the paper. Business takes off and all seems to be going fine, at least until they become involved with a crooked locksmith named Raoul. Raoul isn't fooled by their act, and after witnessing a murder, offers to help dispose of the corpses. As he becomes more involved with the couple, he breaks through Mary's tough shell, threatening the stability of her lifeless marriage with Paul.

Eating Raoul is a freewheeling comedy centered around some pretty dark humor, but despite the descent into murder and perversion it almost always stays colorful and light-hearted. Adding to the hilarity is how well Bartel's straight-laced portrayal of Paul contrasts with the rest of the film. One of my favorite scenes is when he shows up at a sex shop with a grocery list of items and politely tells the clerk "I would like a cock ring, please." Woronov's intrinsic weirdness also works well when Mary turns out to be something of a closet freak and falls for the far more interesting Raoul over her husband. The clash between Paul and Mary and over-the-top parade of swingers and sex maniacs that make up the duo's clientele is entertaining, even if it's not quite as shocking in the internet age as it might have been in the early 80's. Still, lampooning both the chaste couple who are stuck in the 50's and the sexually liberated populace of Hollywood provides more than enough entertainment.

[Spoilers ahead]

The last act of the film is where Eating Raoul sort of falters.  As close as Mary gets to breaking free from her sexually stifling marriage with Paul, she never gains the courage to fully rid herself of him. She's willing to dabble in whatever kink her customers (or Raoul) ask her to, and she'll even enjoy it. But as a lifestyle - no thanks. On the film's IMDB page, I stumbled across a user description of the film as a "straight John Waters movie," which is a great way to sum it up (but sort of weird since Bartel is gay). Despite how outlandish and reckless the sex and violence gets, it's always reined in by the fact that our protagonists are a straight white middle-class couple. It gives the film sort of a disconcertingly conservative feel that's at odds with the subject matter. Thankfully, Bartel is smart enough to spin it to make the point that success in the business world is built through exploitation and treachery. I just wish the main characters weren't the ones doing the exploiting!

[End spoilers]

The Good:

Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov are great, as is Robert Beltran as Raoul.

The film has a lot of fun with its subject matter, and Bartel's gleeful insanity as a director often shines through.

The Bad:

Not nearly enough cannibalism.

We're supposed to cheer for the boring people.

...the Hell?

Were swingers really a big thing in the 70's and 80's, or are they just a symbol of sexual excess? I've been noticing them lately in a lot of films from the era, including TerrorVision, which also starred Mary Woronov...

The Verdict

I initially had some mixed feelings about Eating Raoul, but after thinking about it, I've been won over. Despite its seeming insistence that we root for the normal folks as they kill all the freaks, there's an equal focus on how awfully repressed and terrible the Blands are. Bartel and Woronov do a great job at making them likable even if you usually hate their actions. I'm glad Eating Raoul has gotten the Criterion treatment, and might check out that release just for the extras. In the meantime, there's this interview.

Monday, May 6, 2013

AVENGING ANGEL Hits the Streets of Hollywood for Some Wacky Antics

Avenging Angel (1985)
Director: Robert Vincent O'Neill
Rating: 4 / 10
Source: New World VHS

Avenging Angel returns to the streets of Hollywood four years after the events of Angel. In the original film, a high school student led a double life as a Hollywood hooker to support herself after the death of her parents. Pretty sleazy-sounding material, but the weirdest thing about it was how light-hearted it tried to be. Switching back and forth between Angel's life on the streets and the more commonplace drama of high school helped a bit, but it was the gang of goofy street performers that introduced most of the levity. It's a weird tone for a film that focuses on prostitution to take - particularly when the main character is a minor.

In Avenging Angel, nearly the whole gang is all back. Well, their characters are, anyway. Molly Stewart, a.k.a. Angel, is now played by Betsy Russell, after Donna Wilkes felt shortchanged by the first film and departed for the world of TV. In this film, Angel is finishing her pre-law studies when she learns of the murder of her old policeman friend and mentor Lt. Andrews. The only witness to the crime was a street performer named Johnny Glitter, who has what's by far the most annoying act on Hollywood Boulevard - he spouts vague sayings about peace and happiness and throws glitter around.

I mean, have you ever tried getting glitter off your clothes?
To track down Johnny and figure out who's responsible for the death of her friend, Angel heads back to the strip and reunites with all of her old street performer friends. There's Yo-Yo Charlie, a Chaplinesque figure who does tricks with... well, guess. There's also the far more interesting Solly, a foul-mouthed lesbian landlord and sculpture artist played by the fascinatingly over-the-top Susan Tyrrell. Rory Calhoun steps in as Kit Carson, a former western actor who suffers from dementia and acts as if he's a real-live cowboy. In the original, these characters were largely a reprieve from the gritty central plot about a serial killer who murdered hookers and sucked down raw eggs. Pretty graphic stuff on the whole, but effectively balanced by the warm-hearted family of misfits who cared for the young Angel. Here the street performers take center stage and reduce the movie to a comedy. It's kind of an unusual turn for the film to take, especially since it occurs not ten minutes after we watch a gang of thugs conduct a hit on an undercover cop and murder her entire family along with Angel's friend Lt. Andrews.

Goodbye, Grandma
Angel begins working the streets again in search of clues, while simultaneously using her new knowledge of the law to aid her efforts. This is actually a brilliant direction for the plot to take - no longer is she the poor neglected waif who has to sell her body to survive. She's fully empowered, fully educated, and knows how to use her body alongside the body of the law to get what she wants. This leads to some pretty inspired scenes - one of which takes place in the local Hall of Records as Angel (in her full hooker getup) does research into some fishy real-estate transactions while onlookers gape, aghast. When she's picked up by Vice along with a whole crowd of prostitutes and thrown into jail, she's able to get the whole lot freed by pointing out the specific statues the officers violated by hauling them in without just cause.

Developing Angel like this is a nice touch. It's just a shame that all the other characters remain stuck in their one-dimensional ruts. I realized about halfway through the film that the street performers never turn their act off. They're always in costume and always in character. As a result, they're more like cartoons than real people. Even when they appeared in the previous film, it was amongst various genuine specimens of street trash, but here there's no such thing. The only exception might be a minor sub-plot about a thirteen year-old runaway. Even this part is handled in a pretty over-the-top fashion, especially when a client carries her away as she counts a huge pile of cash...

Yeah, Vice will never notice that...
To push things farther along the comedy axis, the villians here are also giant caricatures: a father-son duo of evil real-estate barons who want to buy up property on the boulevard and gentrify it. For MONEY *cue cackling and maniacal laughter.* In case you doubt the extent of their evil, they're not opposed to negotiation tactics like this:

So even when the gang of heroes does something uncharacteristically dark like shoot the younger of the two in the head and deliver his corpse to his father in a wheelchair, it doesn't register as particularly awful because of the antics we've seen for the past hour and change. Is it just me, or is that sort of weird?

The Good:

The atmosphere - actually filming on Hollywood Boulevard really adds a lot to the movie. This was  filmed before the real-life revitalization of the district in the 90s, and it shows.

The gang of street performers is a pretty likable group of oddballs, with the exception of annoying newcomer Johnny Glitter.

The Bad:

I would have preferred more of the gritty sleaze of the first film as opposed to the Looney Tunes vibe that takes over here.

...the Hell?

Susan Tyrrell's facial expressions:

She makes this face for roughly 80% of the movie.
The Verdict:

This is a perfectly watchable sequel to Angel that'll probably hold your attention. Too bad it sacrifices any shreds of grittiness for goofy comedy that's at odds with all the sex and violence. Writer/director Robert O'Neill abandoned the series after this one. I think I'll do the same.

Friday, May 3, 2013

PROTOTYPE X29A is Not Your Typical Killer Cyborg Movie

Prototype X29A (1992)
Director: Phillip Roth
Rating: 5 / 10
Seen via: Vidmark VHS

I'm not going to pretend that I bought Prototype X29A for any reason other than the box art. Look at it. I'm powerless before art like that. Maybe it's because such a large portion of my formative years were spent playing NES games where the future was synonymous with lasers, vector graphics, and cyborgs. Put a robot with a gun in front of a neon grid and I'm sold. I wasn't allowed to see most of the big-name sci-fi action films of the day in theaters, so I had to be content with video game adaptations, action figures, and edited-for-TV B-grade knockoffs like this. In my young mind, Terminator 2: Judgment Day seemed to be the killer cyborg movie that all other killer cyborg movies dreamed of being. Prototype X29A seems to support this notion based on its tagline: "Part Man. Part Machine. All Killer. Mankind Doesn't Stand a Chance."

In the opening scene, it seems as if it isn't going to do such a bad job of living up to its claims. We're told (via title card, of course) that in the ruined city of L.A. in 2057, cyborgs called Omegas were created to govern society, but quickly began to rebel against humanity (as cyborgs tend to do). Robot warriors called Prototypes were created to hunt them down and stop them. Enter a giant Prototype (i.e. dude in a rubber robot suit), shooting up a bunch of hacker Omegas who are jacking into a computer network through cyber-shunts in their necks. The eagle-eyed viewer will notice something that plants this film squarely in the 90s:

That's Kato Kaelin, getting a missile fired through his torso. It says a lot that he's the only recognizable name attached to this film, and he dies not 5 minutes into the story. After killing what appears to be the last of the Omegas, the Prototype shuts down and faceplants into the dirt, its mission accomplished.

Fast forward twenty years, when humanity is still a wreck living amongst post-apocalyptic rubble. This is where the film somewhat unexpectedly switches gears - if the explosion-packed intro had you hoping for more gunfire and robot combat, you might be slightly put off by the character-driven story that follows. Everything about the marketing led me to believe it was a mindless action film, but underneath this outer shell of schlock is a story that tries really hard to get you to give a shit.

The only things that will survive the apocalypse intact are cockroaches and mullets.
We're introduced to Hawkins, a tech wizard who rocks one of the most terrifying mullets of the future (I fully expected it to be prehensile). His confinement to a wheelchair has left him insecure, especially when it comes to reigniting his relationship with a young woman named Chandra. Chandra is just trying to survive in this harsh future, where thugs wander the ruins and are always looking to rape, rob, or harass the weak. Hawkins is convinced that his inability to walk is what's keeping him from getting back together with Chandra, so he usually just opts for cyber-porn instead:

Don't worry, Hawk stays far away from the Necrophilia sequence. 
There's also Sebastian, a kid Chandra has adopted as her younger brother. He wanders around the wasteland with an anachronistic bow and arrow to defend himself while he's out gambling and stealing from people. When he runs into trouble, he always seems to be rescued by a gang of musclebound gay monks called the Protectors, who practice some future version of tai-chi out in the desert. (And yes, they are actually gay - there's a kiss at the end of the film that kills the ambiguity.)

Meanwhile, a woman named Dr. Zalazny has obtained access to the decades-old Prototype technology. She's interested in the project for its application to the field of medicine. If a human body could be transferred into a Prototype robot, it'd effectively be "rebirth." She sees a potential patient in Hawkins (who else), who thinks that robo-legs may be just the trick to reconnect with Chandra...

While Hawkins foolishly agrees to the experimental surgery that'll grant him a physical (albiet mechanical) body, we get a meandering slice-of-life portrait of this post-apocalyptic world. Chandra tries to avoid being raped by a gang of thugs, and is saved on multiple occasions by Hawkins, Sebastian, and the Protectors. Sebastian does cyber-drugs and gambles with a tweaker punk in a shady hole-in-the-wall bar. Everyone smokes cigarettes all the time. Can I just say that despite the low budget, the crappy effects, and the mythology that feels at best only marginally fleshed out, I really appreciate what this movie is trying to do? How often do we get a sci-fi action movie that even pays attention to its characters, let alone tries to establish backstories and motivation for them? I know most of this is undermined by the sub-par acting, but I'm impressed at how hard this movie TRIES.

The future is bleak. And shot primarily through yellow and blue filters.
In an ironic twist in the last act, robo-Hawkins discovers that Chandra is the last remaining Omega. By undergoing a procedure that he thinks will make him more physically appealing to Chandra, he's become a machine that's programmed to hunt her down and kill her. This leads to a bizarre mood-killing scene where he almost rescues her from the pack of aforementioned rapists (again), but is stalled when the sight of her triggers a search of his memory banks with the string "FUCK ME HAWKINS." He ends up reliving digital memories of the one time they had sex and ignores her while she's being attacked. Thankfully, Sebastian is there with his trusty bow and arrow to save the day. (He'll grow up to be a great Protector someday.) Hawkins and Chandra converge toward an inevitable showdown in a  an ending that swings back toward action movie territory, but with an added layer of tragedy that's not typically present.

I'll admit it. Prototype X29A was a bit of a surprise. I expected a sci-fi / action cheese-fest with people shooting robots and robots shooting people, nothing more. What I got instead was a character-driven drama set punctuated with a few fight scenes. Normally I'd be completely behind this change in the formula, but this movie aims for something that is way out of its league. The scenery-chewing and bad writing sabotage it at every turn. Despite all the flaws, it sort of reminded me of a cyberpunk sequel to Threads in its commitment to showing just how terrible life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland would be. Is it crazy that I sort of like this movie? I have this wish to see it succeed against all odds, like it's that kid on the little league team who shows up to every game and practice giving it 110%, but still drops fly balls and can never quite eke out a hit.

Wait, that was me. This explains a lot.

For these It Came From the Thrift Store posts, I'm bringing back my The Good/The Bad/...The Hell? summaries, to give those who don't want to read me rambling about movies like this for longer than I should a quicker way to get the point.

The Good:

An unconventional charater-driven plot.

Awesome retro computer graphics.

The Bad:

A disappointing lack of lasers. Once again, cover art proves to be a lie.

The heavy focus on drama in the middle portion is interesting, but not riveting. I may or may not have fallen asleep at about the 2/3 mark. (My failing, not the film's - I know.)

...the Hell?

How are cigarettes still so readily available after the apocalypse?

I'm pretty sure a punk suggests sharing a used condom with his friend in one scene. Excuse me while I go throw up everything I've ever eaten in my life.



If you're a fan of 90's sci-fi trash, you might find something to like here, provided you can get past the idea that it's not an action-oriented film. After the opening scene, just abandon all hope of seeing a killer robot blowing things up with a gun. This movie is strangely ubiquitous, so if you have access to a streaming service, it's probably available.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

It Came From the Thrift Store...

Hi, everyone. This month I've decided to adopt the theme of It Came From the Thrift Store, in which I'll review things I've picked up over the years at the local Goodwill, Salvation Army, and countless other smaller and infinitely more terrifying consignment shops. My motivation for doing this is shown in the photo above. That's my VHS shelf. While a lot of those films are old favorites, there's a sizable fraction that I still haven't watched. I'm going to be moving apartments in the next couple of months and I desperately need to get rid of a large portion of my earthly trappings. You see where this is going. My problem is, I can't throw away an unread book or an unwatched tape. It's my biggest character flaw, one that will undoubtedly result in my corpse one day being found weeks after my death, half-eaten by cats, rotting underneath a pile of sci-fi paperbacks. So to try and avoid an early demise, I'll be powering through as many of these tapes as I can throughout the month and reporting back here to keep you all apprised.

I know VHS is in vogue these days, but I wouldn't call myself a collector. I'm not here to show off rarities or review ultra-scarce shot-on-video horror tapes. Hats off to the collectors that do - I love reading about stuff like that. I'm just not that cool, nor does my treasure hunting ever result in anything too rare. The reason for this is mostly because I live in North Carolina, where the population of sleazy video stores is thin and most rare tapes have long since been snatched up. Horror of any kind is scarce in the thrift stores to begin with, especially the stores linked to religious charities. To get a sense of how repressed this state can be, you need only to try and buy some hard alcohol. You'll have to go to the state-run "package store" and sneak a "package" back home, where you can drink alone while experiencing a minor crisis of faith. One that may or may not be induced by watching Prototype X29A.

Still, I don't want to give the impression that I haven't stumbled across some pretty cool stuff while poking around thrift stores. One of the benefits of living in such a conservative area is that there are TONS of really fucking weird Christian videos everywhere I go. I've had to make myself stop buying them, because I don't have the room in my house. Also, I don't want to scare visitors who don't know me that well with a giant shelf of Bibleman and Feature Films for Families tapes. What's even weirder - these tapes are in constant circulation. Example: during one expedition I found two videos of stage plays in which actors portrayed the plight of sinners who get sent to Hell. Pure gold, I thought, except that I had forgotten my wallet at home. In the 30 minutes it took for me to go home and pick it up, someone else had bought them both.

I'll plan on sticking mostly to the usual genre fare throughout May, but I wouldn't be surprised if a Christian kids' film or two creeps in. Also, who knows what's on all these unlabeled recordable tapes I always feel compelled to buy? I may even fire up the editing software and rip some trailers, commercials, or other ephemera for you. If there's anything shown in the picture up at the top that you'd like to see me review, be sure to let me know. The comments are open below.

And always remember: