Saturday, April 22, 2006


(UK, 1986, 87 min.)

Starring Natasha Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Miriam Cyr, Timothy Spall.

Written by Stephen Volk.

Directed by Ken Russell.

Author's note: This was originally written as part of the B-Movie Message Board’s Reader Roundtable: Self-Mutilation (in which the participants pick films they hate and assign them to other reviewers). That explains the note at the end, apologizing for not having suffered more pain at the hands of this particular flick. I realize I could have just taken the note out and saved myself the explanation, but that would have been the easy way out.

My college girlfriend was very much into poetry and the romantics in particular. I am not nor have I ever been particularly impressed with the art form, and though I can appreciate it from time to time, the romantic stuff has always struck me as overly florid and self-indulgent, though admittedly this may be a by-product of what I know, or at least think I know, about the people who wrote it, absinthe-swilling twits that they supposedly were. My girlfriend always used to say to me whenever I mocked them, particularly her not-so-secret crush Mr. Bysshe Shelley, that if we were living in the same period, Shelley and I would almost certainly be best friends as our natures, as she saw it anyway, were practically identical. I would usually respond by telling her that if I ever came across Shelley in a dark alley, I’d kick his stanza-writing ass all the way back to Queen Mab. I was half-kidding, of course, in that sadistic, tormenting way we reserve for our nearest and dearest friends and loved ones. On the other hand I was also half-serious, because what I’ve read about the behavior of the romantics, Byron and Shelley in particular, suggests to me the very worst aspects of the creative type: the kind that assumes that being a free spirit is the same thing as running about like an idiot. Were these people really like this? History would seem to suggest that it’s so. And let me tell you, he said getting to the matter at hand and not a moment too soon, if they were anything like they’re portrayed in Ken Russell’s Gothic, then a can of whup-ass would not have been sufficient. I’m guessing we would’ve had to open up a gallon barrel. (Well, a sound spanking would have been in order at the very least. I’m such an old softy.)

We begin with poet extraordinaire Percy Shelley (Sands) and Mary “Not Yet Mrs. Shelley” Godwin (Richardson) visiting Lord Byron (Byrne) at his estate in Switzerland. Also in attendance is Mary’s precocious (read: slutty and twerpy) step-sister Claire (Cyr) and Byron’s extremely gay personal physician Dr. John Polidori (Spall), and it’s a wonder given the treatment Byron inflicts on the doctor that Polidori doesn’t go Kevorkian on him. But then love is a strange thing, isn’t it? And Polidori indeed loves Byron, as much as Byron loves Shelley and as much as Shelley loves quaffing wine, chasing tail and generally running around like a spastic freak.

As those of you literarily-inclined may have guessed, this is a dramatization of the famous weekend where these loony luminaries challenged each other to write their own horror stories, resulting in Polidori’s The Vampyre and, more famously, Mary’s Frankenstein. In the course of the film the group performs a séance whereupon bizarre things begin to occur, scaring the bejeezus out of them and convincing them that they have somehow brought something that was dead back to life. Something that isn’t terribly pleased with having been disturbed and that would like to express its displeasure personally. It proceeds to do this by forcing them to face up to the things that disturb them most, including Mary’s heartbreak over the death of her prematurely-born baby that has been speculated is what caused her to write a story about a man who brings life back into dead flesh.

This is a Ken Russell film. If you don’t know what that means, it generally involves freaky, flamboyant imagery, often religious in nature, explicit sexuality, and lots of pseudo-philosophizing on such topics as, not surprisingly, religion and sex. As such the members of this group, with their conflicting views on the former (Shelley is an avowed atheist, Polidori a devout Catholic, etc.) and fair consensus on the latter (free love is all the rage, dontcha know), are perfect Russell fodder.

The visuals are, as per usual, something to behold. Russell peoples Byron’s mansion with a number of artificial humans: a mechanical harpsichord player; a walking suit of armor with a tremendous phallus; and a robotic woman with eyes where her nipples should be that repeatedly haunts Shelley. The significance of this last one frankly eludes me, though it could easily be a well-known image from his poetry, possibly even from something I may have read, as romantic poetry tends to evaporate off the surface of my brain at a remarkably rapid rate. But the overall reference here is obvious: manufactured life. This theme pops up in other slightly more subtle places as well, such as a shadow on the wall of a tree struck by lightning, presented in such a way as to make it look like a living being in great pain. The overall effect is for us to get a glimpse inside of Mary’s mind, the images serving to help us imagine how she came up with the idea of an obsessed man sewing limbs to torso and getting ready to grab a life force and tear it out of the sky.

The director also makes good use of the unrelenting tragedy that seemed to befall these people, most especially in the climactic sequence in which Mary has a vision of the future, including the deaths of Polidori, Byron and Shelley and the birth and death of her and Shelley’s second daughter. This sequence lends the piece a sincere poignancy, much needed by this point, as it curtails, if only for a minute, the factor that makes this film a tough sell.

Not unlike the common problem in slasher films, in which the characters are so obnoxious that you have absolutely no problem watching them get picked off one by one, the artistes in Gothic are presented as such decadent twerps, overgrown children whose minds, despite their grandiose musings about God and such, rarely rise above their waistlines, that watching them get the shit scared out of them seems somehow more appropriate than it does anything else; a much-needed lesson. Was this intentional on Russell’s part? I tend to doubt it. I think for the most part he admires these people (‘these characters’ would be more apt as I still can’t say for sure how close they are to the true figures). At the very least I would say that he feels sympathy for them, and this comes out most clearly in the ending. The new day dawns and everything has seemingly returned to normal, the events of the previous evening no more than a particularly vivid and freaky acid trip, and yet we’ve gotten a glimpse of the terrible things that await them in the future and as the scene morphs from the past to the present, with tourists walking across the lawn of Byron’s mansion (one of them played by the director), we realize that those awful things have already happened. That Shelley and Polidori have already discovered whether or not God exists, even if they can’t tell us about it.

As for me, sympathy? Sure, as I would feel sympathy for anyone who suffered some of the fates that befell these people. Admiration? Well, no. Not really. I confess that in preparation for writing this review, I pulled out some books with Byron and Shelley’s work in them and I found that I got a bit more out of them than I had previously. Would Percy and I be best friends? I doubt it. Would I beat him up? Of course not.

A few good noogies would probably suffice.

Post Script: I’m getting a picture in my head: a picture of one Monsieur Bergerjacques glaring intently at his computer screen and thinking of what would be the cheapest, quickest way of having me whacked. Sitting there on his inflatable donut, which he has to use owing to the copy of Obsession: A Taste for Fear still lodged in his ass (I swear to God, guys, I only asked him to watch the thing!), he thinks, “All this time I was waiting for some pain payback, and he gives me THIS!!!!” Yep. Sorry, BJ. While I can’t claim to have enjoyed this film, I actually did like it a bit more than the first time I saw it, and it gave me some interesting things to think about. Almost a rewarding experience when you come right down to it. And I now realize that this PS, intended as a way of smoothing things over, has probably in fact made them much, much worse. So I’ll just say good day, sign off and spend the next week remembering to stay away from windows.

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp

Freddy Got Fingered

(2001, 87 min.)

Starring Tom Green, Rip Torn, Marisa Coughlin, Julie Hagerty, Harland Williams, Anthony Michael Hall, Eddie Kaye Thomas.

Written by Tom Green and Derek Harvie.

Directed by Tom Green.

Okay. I tried. I swear to Christ I tried. I tried to watch this movie as I would any other, putting aside my extreme loathing for the allegedly comedic stylings of its director/co-writer/star Green. Didn’t make a difference. Freddy Got Fingered is awful.

I tried keeping in mind one thing I had been told about the film: that Green had stated that most of it was concocted from private jokes he and his friends shared and he had in effect gotten a major studio to fund a movie that only a handful of people would actually get. That’s a good gag, if it’s true. The film could have used some good gags like that. Freddy Got Fingered is awful.

I tried to look at it from the idea stated by Green’s fans that he’s fearless when it comes to his comedy. To be fair there’s very little in this film in which Green could be accused of playing it safe. That might be admirable if only he were doing so in the name of something worth taking a risk for. Freddy Got Fingered is awful.

And that whole idea about never playing it safe isn’t completely true anyway. I read one comment praising him for having the guts to play a character that was so thoroughly unlikeable. Bullshit. There are pointedly deliberate attempts throughout the film to make the audience sympathize with Green’s character, an aspiring animator who can’t help turning every situation in which he finds himself into a freakshow, not the least of which is the way they make the character of his father into such a vicious monster.

Which incidentally leads me to the film’s one and only true “virtue,”[1] such as it is: Rip Torn’s performance as the father. Nobody barks the ‘f’ word quite like ol’ Rip and he attacks the role with such Doberman ferocity it’s almost enough to make me forgive him for the scene where he pulls down his pants and wiggles his flabby ass at Green. (And just as a brief aside, while I would never condone, let alone encourage domestic violence, it’s tempting at times to sympathize in a way with the father, even given his abusive behavior. The man has reason to be abnormally bitter; look at what he spawned!)

I like Torn so let’s leave him out of it for the rest of the review and refocus our sights on the real culprit. In fact let’s go back to that whole ‘courage’ thing. I don’t see it. Unless you happen to be an individual who has always dreamed of jerking off a horse, but never had the stones to actually do it, then maybe Green could be seen as courageous, but aside from that…

What’s more, for all of his freaky-deaky geekishness, Green is really a bully at heart, which when you come right down to it is the thing that prevents me from getting enjoyment from the few moments in the film that are actually kind of funny. It’s not enough for him to get laughs; what he really needs, what gets him off, is seeing the horror and revulsion that his “comedy” inspires in his victims. As he doesn’t get to enjoy that in the film form, he probably would have been disappointed had he not gotten a spate of terrible reviews. By getting angry at a film like this, you’re basically giving him what he wants. Despite some initial feelings of disgust, I’m glad to say that I’m not angry, but it does still annoy me that there are talented filmmakers out there who can’t get funding no matter how hard they try, but some executive thought it was a good idea to greenlight money for this film. Note to said executive: Freddy Got Fingered is awful.

Much has been made of the shock value scenes, such as Green eviscerating a dead deer and putting on its skin or pulling a newborn baby out of its mother, biting through its umbilical cord and whirling it about the room. Frankly neither of these two scenes particularly bothered me. The deer scene is a metaphorical joke (he’s been told in order to draw animals, he must get “inside” them) so at least there’s a smidgen of wit in there. The baby scene is not much more gruesome than things we’ve seen in other films. Take the ‘Live Organ Donor’ scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. I’ve always felt that they went too far in that bit, but the real humor that lies in the scene comes from John Cleese standing in the background casually talking up the woman whose husband is being disemboweled a few feet away. It is this kind of humor by contrast that Green either cannot or will not understand. As long as things are breaking, blood is flying, his eyes are bugging out and his mouth is wide open screaming, Green thinks that’s enough. He’s wrong.

Far worse is a completely unfunny, repellently sadistic running gag involving a child who lives next door to Green’s character and who is repeatedly being injured throughout the film, albeit accidentally. Admittedly Green’s character at one point is run down by a truck, but it’s done in cartoon fashion. He seems to have gone out of his way to make the young boy’s pain as realistic as possible. That’s the really nauseating part, dead deer and bloody baby be damned. I don’t know whether to hope that this is one of those private jokes that Green shares with his friends or to be distubed by the possibility that it actually might be.

Look, I like playing the iconoclast. Had the situation warranted it, it probably would have been fun to join the ranks of people who say that the mainstream critics just don’t get it and that this movie is an inspired work of comic subversion. But I can’t do that. Because Freddy Got Fingered is amateurish, childish, cruel, repugnant, and painfully unfunny.

In short, not to put too fine a point on it or anything, Freddy Got Fingered is fucking awful.

[1] Marisa Coughlin, who plays Green’s love interest, is also good, and extremely cute, so I’ll give her a brief mention as one of the film’s better qualities as well.

Go back to Plate O'Shrimp

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Forbidden World

(1982, 77 min.)

Starring Jesse Vint, Dawn Dunlap, June Chadwick, Linden Chiles, Fox Harris, Raymond Oliver, Scott Paulin, Michael Bowen, Don Olivera.

Written by Tim Curnen, from a story by R. J. Robertson and Jim Wynorski.

Directed by Allan Holzman.

A government mercenary (Vint) is summoned to assist a scientific colony on a distant planet. When he arrives, they explain that one of their genetic experiments has gone zip-a-dee-doo-dah on them and may now pose a deadly threat. Seems the thing can absorb itself into a human being and break down the DNA into its own, effectively reproducing itself. Or some such shit.

A decently mounted, though rather poorly executed riff on the Alien motif, produced by Roger Corman, in one of his countless attempts to cash in on the success of another film. (Though as this came out three years after the film it was aping, it doesn't put it in the impressive rank of, say, Carnasaur, a Jurassic Park rip-off that Corman got released to theaters before Jurassic Park! Take that, Señor Spielbergo!)

This is also apparently a pseudo-sequel to Galaxy of Terror, a film that I haven't seen, though I do remember a grade school friend of mine raving about it for two reasons: one, that Erin Moran was in it (Joanie from Happy Days), and two, that there was some scene where one of the alien beasties pulled a girl's face right off of her skull. One of these days I'll get around to confirming that last bit. I'd be especially interested to see, if that scene exists, how well they pulled it off (no pun intended). The gore effects in this film, which of course came after, are pretty good. They're actually one of the better things about it and will, along with the ample amounts of nudity, help horror fans get through some of the sillier bits. And they’ll need it, as some of the bits are quite silly indeed.

I am utterly in favor of horror films being artistic, but this can unfortunately lead to directors getting themselves in a bit over their heads. In this case, director Holzman has framed the film with two sequences that have Vint in suspended animation, while images from the movie run through his mind. At no point in the rest of the film is this given any explanation, leaving us to assume that the last scene is him remembering the events and the first one is some sort of precognition, which we're not told that he has and which is not mentioned or used in any other context.

Worse still is a scene where Vint and Chadwick get it on in her room. As they do, Earl (Paulin), who is in charge of the security cameras, spies on them, all the while playing with this fluorescent yo-yo type thing that spins when you pull on two strings that come out of its sides (I believe this toy has a name, but I can't remember what it is). The thing makes a buzzing noise when it spins and shots of the camera closing in on his face while the toy spins are intercut with shots of the two hump-buddies. Set to a typically synthetic '80's sci-fi soundtrack the cuts get quicker and quicker until they're bouncing back and forth faster than a speeding bullshit. Needless to say this has a comic effect that I don't think they were shooting for.

So, aside from the lesbo-disco-shower scene, which was admittedly kind of a kick, they probably should've booted the artsy stuff to the curb and stuck to the straight horror bits, which work fairly well. Well enough at least to deem this an “acceptable timewaster,” a term invaluable to any serious connoisseur of the B movie. This Is Spinal Tap devotees will recognize Chadwick as the Yoko Ono of that film, and Harris, who turns in one of the better performances here, was the delirious, lobotomized J. Frank Parnell from Repo Man (“You ever heard of the neutron bomb?”)

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp

Friday, April 14, 2006


(Italy, 1988, 88 min.)

Starring Brett Halsey, Meg Register, Lino Salemme, Al Cliver, Lucio Fulci, Christina Englehardt, Pascal Druant, Grady Thomas Clarkson, Ettori Comi, Carla Cassola, Michael Aronin.

Written by Lucio Fulci and Piero Regnoli, from an uncredited story by Antonio Tentori.

Directed by Lucio Fulci.

We know we’re in trouble when Fulci rips himself off – twice – within the first seven minutes of the film, and does it poorly at that.

We begin with a scene set in 15th Century Sicily where a bunch of revolting peasants (ba duh dum) are crucifying a handful of nuns. Shades of The Beyond, anyone? Except that scene had atmosphere and a nice helping of suspense, whereas this one is so rote, it could have been lifted from Horror Moviemaking for Dummies.

Flash forward to the present where we meet Liza (Register), indulging her yen for the paranormal by attending a séance, during which she has a vision of the crucified nuns, freaks out and faints. Funny, this scene seems to remind me of something [cough]City of the Living Dead[cough], though the sheer cliché of it is only surpassed by the careless, rush-job laziness with which it’s presented.

As it turns out Liza is part of an archeological dig in Sicily looking at Greek ruins, only she’s more interested in a dilapidated convent nearby. Her patronizing superior Malcolm (Halsey) doesn’t want her poking around there. Neither, to no great surprise, do the locals because the place has a history and some time a while back Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing, to whit, the aforementioned plank-and-nails party. Liza decides she has to find out what the secret is and why she feels such a personal connection to a place she’s never been before. Meanwhile Marxo decides he has to seriously consider what made him want to watch this film to begin with, and why he feels that he’d even rather be watching Fulci’s repulsive New York Ripper at the moment.

My esteemed colleague smokeyxdigger was kind enough to send me this with a note attached saying that he thought the film should be re-titled Demoni-argh, as that was the sound that came out of him repeatedly while watching it. I am hard pressed to disagree. There’s barely a plot in sight and while admittedly there is a smidge more than in, say, City of the Living Dead, this has little of the overly theatrical style that redeems that film. Nor is there even all that much gore to keep one interested, except for two scenes near the end: one that continues Fulci’s fixations on eyeball violence and cats (or cat puppets, depending on the shot), and another that’s memorably gruesome, but which still fails because it’s so illogical and nonsensical, and because it just feels so gratuitous, even for a Fulci film.

As I implied earlier, when Fulci’s at his most stylish, it’s easier to forgive the lack of coherence, the ludicrous dialogue, the disregard for basic storytelling conventions, but here there’s little to distract us from those things and the maddening gaffes leap out at you. There are killings of course, but the story seems unwilling to come to a concrete decision as to who or what is responsible. Genre fave Cliver (billed in the closing credits as Al ‘Clever’, though on the other hand ‘Cliver’ isn’t his real name either, so maybe it doesn’t matter after all) is menaced by a ghost –which then shoots him with a harpoon. Explain that one. We get a scene with the town’s mayor, who coughs incessantly, and when Liza goes to see the local records keeper, he too begins to cough. Seems like maybe we have a story angle being developed here, but no dice. And yet Fulci has plenty of time to give us not one, but two interminable campfire scenes where a guy with a guitar strums two chords over and over again while a bunch of people dance drunkenly around.

Now, and here I go again, it’s not all bad. The director, who, by the way, shows up in a role slightly larger than his usual dubbed cameo, gives us an effectively creepy dream sequence in which Liza sees herself standing in the middle of the arena structure they’re studying, while Malcolm cries out to her from on top of a hill. The script meanders by a potentially intriguing idea at one point when Malcolm snobbishly dismisses Liza’s interest in the monastery by saying that they’re there to study the enlightened Greeks, not the dark ages, only to abandon the concept the second the sentence leaves his lips. And there’s a (presumably intentional) joke involving one of the townspeople accosting Liza and loudly proclaiming himself “The Butcher of Santa Rosalia!” – only for it to be revealed later that he is the actual butcher of Santa Rosalia, as in pork chops, sausages and top round cut thin for braciole. Most people use raisins in the stuffing, but I tried substituting dried cranberries and let me tell you…sorry, drifted there for a moment.

But any good parts can’t make up for the whole, which includes a pace that’s positively sleep-inducing (Demoni-yawn?), clumsy plotting, and, as I mentioned, a good deal of rehashing of other films, both Fulci’s and others’ (and while I’ll let him slide on a wall-smashing scene that is faintly reminiscent of Deep Red, he cancels that good will out with the above-mentioned cat attack, which seems a riff on the Emily’s dog scene from The Beyond – itself a rip-off of a scene from Suspiria. Madon'!).

To sum up, let me leave you with this little fact: the same day I watched this for the first time I also took a walk down by the East River, and I got more genuine chills sitting and looking across the water at the spooky abandoned mental asylum on Roosevelt Island than I did from this entire movie. ‘Nuff said.

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp

Branded to Kill

(Japan, 1967, 98 min.)

Starring Jo Shishido, Mariko Ogawa, Annu Mari, Koji Nambara, Isao Kamagawa, Hiroshi Minami.

Written by Hachiro Guryu, Takeo Kimura, Chusei Sone and Atsushi Yamatoya.

Directed by Seijun Suzuki.

Shishido plays Hanada, a.k.a. No. 3 Killer, an aloof, puffy-cheeked assassin employed in a bizarre murderous hierarchy, which seems to be based as much on self-destruction as murder for hire (its members spend far more of the film’s running time shooting at one another than they do other people). After a string of jobs, he meets a mysterious young woman, Misako (Mari), who engages him for another killing. When this goes wrong, owing to a twist of fate straight out of the butterfly effect (literally; what is it with these butterflies and their incessant need to affect world events far beyond their narrow lepidopteric scope?), Misako is kidnapped, and Hanada is marked for death by his own organization, eventually finding himself in a strange psychological contest with elusive No. 1 Killer, The Phantom (Nambara).

The first time I watched this film, I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it. The second time, well, to say that I understood it better would be a bit of an overstatement; let’s leave it at I didn’t find it as difficult to follow. And that’s probably good enough, as I’ve become increasingly sure that Branded to Kill functions under the Eraserhead factor: the sooner you realize you’re not necessarily supposed to “get” it, the sooner you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the film’s oddball nature unfettered.

The story doesn’t exactly develop so much as, as the enigmatic No. 1 says at one point, “Things happen.” The bebop that pops up on the soundtrack seems appropriate as, along with the loopy camera angles and static rhythms, Suzuki often appears to be improvising the narrative as he goes along. (And perhaps he was. He was fired from Nikkatsu Studios after completion of this film for straying too far from what they had expected.) Or maybe this is the Japanese cinematic equivalent of beat poetry, if we really want to strain those comparative muscles.

At times it comes off as a parody of gangster films, particularly when Hanada and The Phantom begin their dance of endurance, leading up to a truly odd and somewhat disturbing scene in a restaurant. The scenes with Ogawa as Hanada’s coquettishly slutty, frequently naked wife Mami also have a delirious humor cum creepiness to them, while other bits veer surprisingly close to out and out slapstick.

Hanada is a man with an increasing lack of control over the circumstances of his life. Assaults fly at him from all directions in both the actions of his fellow murderers and from nature itself. If compelled at the point of a gun to assign some meaning to all of this, I’d say that it’s a portrait of a man coming to the realization that no matter how big the blaster, nor an individual’s willingness to use it, there is no guarantee of power or control, there will always be forces that can overwhelm. But I’m personally more interested in a room full of dried butterflies, Hanada attempting to have a conversation with a film screen, a hairpiece swirling around in a toilet bowl, and the eroticism of the scent of boiling rice.

Sometimes it’s more fun just to sit back and watch things happen.

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp

Cecil B. DeMented

(2000, 87 min.)

Starring Melanie Griffith, Stephen Dorff, Alicia Witt, Adrian Grenier, Larry Gilliard, Jr., Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Eric Barry, Zenzele Uzoma, Erika Lynn Rupli, Harriet Dodge, Ricki Lake, Patricia Hearst, Mink Stole, Kevin Nealon.

Written and directed by John Waters.

Our title character is a self-proclaimed guerilla filmmaker, who, with his merry band of assorted freaks (the porn star, the Satanist, the drug addict, etc.), kidnaps bitchy movie star Honey Whitlock (Griffith) while she’s doing a publicity appearance in Waters’ beloved Baltimore, and forces her to be a participant in his experiment in “outlaw cinema.”

Waters takes his fascination with the SLA/Patty Hearst (who naturally appears here in a small role) incident to its logical conclusion, imagining a scenario where a Hollywood actress is at first forced to participate in an endeavor that goes against everything she knows and believes and then eventually changes sides and takes up with her captors. The main problem here, ironic given that Patty’s true identity was central to the intrigue of the incident, is that he hasn’t drawn a concrete portrait of who this actress really is. Griffith, who does fairly well given how little she has to work with, sometimes doesn’t even seem like the same person from one scene to the next. Instead of really giving her a character, Waters instead just makes her one, relying quite a bit on tried and true stereotypes. This is doubly ironic considering the target the director has in his sights: a bland moviemaking industry that would rather churn out the familiar than take risks. In not developing Honey’s transition from pawn of the system to enemy of same, he falls victim to the same hackwork attitude he longs to lampoon.

Similarly, and while I realize Waters is trying to represent his hometown as always, doing a spoof of Hollywood that never actually sets foot in the’s not that such a thing can’t work, but somehow it feels a little odd, though it’s amusing in a self-referential way for Waters to have the actual head of the Baltimore Film Commission be present at a rally that the outlaws attack for kowtowing to the industry. That’s certainly a step up clout-wise from a guy shooting super 8 movies of an obese transvestite (may he/she rest in peace).

Nevertheless there is still stuff to enjoy here (depending on your taste, but then it’s Waters; it’s always a matter of taste or lack thereof) in the spoofing of both the mainstream and the underground, the latter of which is at least in part Waters skewering himself, which make the scenes in which members of the collective spew out revolutionary rhetoric easier to take. (It’s kind of like Godard, but with a sense of humor, or rather a sense of humor that’s actually funny. Yeah, yeah, I know. Don’t get me started.)

There are also plenty of film references (each of the outlaws has a tattoo of the name of a filmmaker most suited to their particular function, a device some found cutesy, but which I thought was moderately clever), a couple of suitably Waters-esque outrageous ideas and some truly funny moments. But in the end, while I applaud the filmmaker’s spirit, the fact is that in the hands of a more skilled writer, this could have been a lot more than the enjoyable trifle it is.

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp

Thursday, April 13, 2006


(Italy-US, 1979, 148? min.)

Starring Malcolm McDowell, Teresa Ann Savoy, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Guido Mannari, John Steiner.

Written by (deep breath) Gore Vidal, whose screenplay was apparently worked over by Masolino D’Amico, with additional uncredited scenes written by Giancarlo Lui and Bob Guccione, and additional dialogue written for 1984 recut by Franco Rossellini, the whole mishmash purportedly based on a treatment written by Franco’s uncle, the legendary Roberto. (all info courtesy of the IMDb)

Directed by Tinto Brass and, to a degree anyway, Bob Guccione.

I’m never completely sure what to say about this notorious, would-be-arthouse, more-like-grindhouse mess about the most insane Emperor of the supremely insane Roman Empire (some would argue that that title belongs to Nero, but we’re not talking about him right now). It’s not the sort of thing you recommend to someone out of hand. And to understand why I would recommend it to anyone at all requires more than just an appreciation of bad cinema; it necessitates a grasp of that mutant urge that compels some of us to witness with no small amount of schadenfreude the failure of other’s overblown pretensions, blithely ignoring all the while the mental decay it may cause in ourselves.

Just to get a sense of things, take the scene where Caligula (McDowell) molests the body of his beloved, just-departed sister Drusilla (Savoy). (If it helps any, it wasn’t their first time; just the first time that she was dead during. That really doesn’t help at all, does it?) Now go back and read the description of that scene again, take a moment for it to sink in, and then consider that it’s far from the most repulsive thing on display here.

It’s really amazing that the thing got released at all. Different versions boast varying running times – often a sign of post-production problems – and various reports indicate that virtually no one involved wanted it ever to see the light of day. As I understand it, erotic filmmaker Brass took a script by Gore Vidal, who subsequently disassociated himself from the project, and shot it for co-producer Guccione, most famed for being the publisher of Penthouse magazine and for never buttoning his shirt. Guccione decided it was too family-friendly and added some more hardcore scenes, many of which are quite obvious in their insertion, if you’ll pardon the expression. Brass wasn’t too crazy with this tampering and also wanted to disassociate himself, but apparently didn’t completely, as his name is still in the credits. And, as if that weren’t enough, Guccione still wasn’t that nuts about the final project and considered shelving it. Which would have been a pity. Not because it’s a good film: it’s not, in fact it’s terrible. Some handsome design work is fucked up by terrible cinematography. The whole thing looks like it was shot on old stock that had been lying around in someone’s wine cellar. And I’m not an expert on Roman history – most of what I know probably comes from watching I, Claudius – but unless he was born that way, there must have been some point where Caligula began to become mad and we are never shown any real indication of this. At first he seems not really that much more crazy than the rest of them and then suddenly he’s a wack job. Seeing him lose it over time would have made for a much more interesting film. It was what was wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shining and it’s what’s wrong with this, along with, as stated above, many, many other things.

But I did say I was glad it got released, didn’t I? Yes, because one man’s trash is another man’s, well, trash, but, as I implied earlier, to some of us that’s a good thing. It’s not the same kind of trash you’d get from John Waters or Paul Morrissey during his Warhol period, but…let me put it this way: Waters, the so-called Prince of Puke, is now a bona-fidey filmmaker. He is now working with much larger budgets than he used to and the result is films like Pecker and Cecil B. Demented. This can be viewed as a good thing or a bad thing (having seen Cecil I can say it’s a mixed blessing at best), but that’s not the point. The point is that had the John Waters of yore, the John Waters of Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, been given the kind of budget he’s being given now, I’d like to think he might have decided to make something like this. A balls-to-the-wall tasteless non-historical historical, non-epic epic kind of film. A “screw that film school shit, let’s see if we can make this high school auditorium look like the Coliseum” kind of film. An Andy Hardy and Betsy Booth in Hell, but still putting on a show kind of film. The kind of film that Caligula is, only intentionally so. And of course the Waters version would have been funnier.

Oh well. Nice soundtrack anyway.

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Attack of the Giant Leeches

(1959, 77 min.)

Starring Ken Clark, Yvette Vickers, Jan Shepard, Michael Emmet, Tyler McVey, Bruno VeSota, Gene Roth, Dan White, George Cisar.

Written by Leo Gordon.

Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski.

Despite being a diehard urbanite, I’m a sucker for swamp movies. (Heh. ‘Leeches.’ ‘Sucker.’ Sometimes I want to smack myself with a wet mop.) It’s probably partially because swamps are one of the few remaining links to our primeval past in which man has less power than he does (or thinks he does) in this hyper-developed world, and subsequently interesting from both a literal and symbolic viewpoint. It’s also probably because the first swamp movie I ever saw was this one. Yep, time to haul another bucket out of the old nostalgia well.

I first saw this torrid ‘monsters in the backwoods’ affair many years ago on Creature Double Feature while visiting my grandparents in Massachusetts, along with The Leech Woman. Both films had an impact, not because I found them particularly boo-scary, but because they were the first films I’d seen that involved characters who represented human beings at some of their lowest points. In Woman, aside from the general air of cruelty that prevails, I was quite affected by moments like the quicksand murder and especially the scene in which the title character condemns her (admittedly scumbag) husband to death so she can use his essence to make herself young for the first time. The venomous viciousness with which she orders his murder – right in front of him no less – made me queasy.

With Attack I think the bit that most disturbed me was the sequence in which Big Dave (Ve Sota) finds his wife Liz (the luscious Vickers) fooling around with his supposed friend Cal (Emmet). He chases them through the swamp with his gun, forces them to wade into the water, and then, having gotten them good and scared, tells them to get out, only to watch them get pulled down into the water by the title creatures. There were several aspects of this sequence that got to me. One, the overall sleaziness of it. Two, the way Cal, who up until this point has been “playing it cool” suddenly dissolves under stress into a sniveling mess, even stooping so low as to start getting all nasty with Liz, as if he’s trying to ally himself with the man he’s just cuckolded. Three, their pathetic pleas for mercy when he first orders them into the water, which then turn into more desperate supplications as the creatures pull them down, a look of horror on Dave’s face as he watches the impossible unfold before his eyes. And finally, as if the whole scenario weren’t cheery enough as it were, Dave ending up hanging himself in his jail cell for what he did.

But the disturbing piece de resistance remains the way the leeches keep their victims alive in their cave the better to suck their blood whenever they get peckish. While nowadays this makes me want to make a joke about the leeches gathering around an Yvette-shaped water cooler discussing the previous Sunday’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, back then I found that mighty creepy. (Truth be told, it does still creep me out a bit.)

So, yeah, Attack of the Giant Leeches is a nasty little piece of work at its heart, and actually all the more effective for it, though that, of course, is a matter of taste. And while the monster costumes are pretty goofy, and our hero, Clark, maintains such a consistent tone no matter what the tenor of the scene he should receive some special award for Performance Most Seemingly Influenced by Mood Stabilizers, the damp, bayou atmosphere is consistent and effective, and the script, by actor Leo Gordon (The Haunted Palace, The Intruder), is better than ever could have been expected.

So all in all, not a bad way to kill an hour and change, provided you can handle the unpleasantness, and fans of scream starlets will want to visit it at least once (and likely hit the rewind button) for the scene where Yvette lotions up her legs alone.

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Abominable Snowman

(UK, 1957, 91 min.)

Starring Peter Cushing, Forrest Tucker, Richard Wattis, Maureen Connell, Robert Brown, Michael Brill, Wolfe Morris, Arnold Marlé, Anthony Chin.

Written by Nigel Kneale from his own teleplay.

Directed by Val Guest.

I’ve been fascinated by the paranormal since childhood. My personal favorite has always been ghosts. I used to be really into UFOs, but my interest has waned somewhat, possibly due to brainstrain left over from trying to figure out the labyrinthine conspiracy of The X-Files. Bigfoot was never a particular favorite; he was basically just a big ape-man and I tend to prefer my monsters a bit more exotic, like the Mothman or the Dover Demon. (Speaking of the former, one of these days I’m going to have to get around to reading The Mothman Prophecies. I saw the movie a while back, though it didn’t make much of an impression on me, and I know that fans of the book didn’t like it at all. Though even they would have to admit that it was nice to see that Mothman had finally gotten himself a good agent.) But over time further study of cryptozoology has brought me a finer appreciation of our possible cousin the Sasquatch and his Eastern relative the Yeti. I also recall seeing a film about Bigfoot many years ago that featured supposed recordings of the creature crying out in the darkness of the wilderness it inhabits. Pretty creepy stuff, and the thought of the Yeti skulking around up there in the moonlit heights is certainly an evocative image of the goosebump variety.

When you think about it, Bigfoot and the Yeti both hang out in places that are superlative backdrops for horror: Bigfoot in the deep, dark woods of the Pacific Northwest and Yeti on the stark, snow-covered expanses of the Himalayas where the eerie echo of a man’s shout could almost be enough to make one wonder if that’s not really your echo, but maybe the voice of your doppelganger, lurking just over the next plateau.

A little dramatic, perhaps, but you get the point. These are great settings for horror films and yet not that many films have been made about Bigfoot or our subject for today, the Yeti, and those that have- well, let’s say that Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman is most likely the best, though given that the competition includes W. Lee Wilder’s The Snow Creature, which I haven’t seen but have heard less than flattering things about, and Michael Findlay’s Shriek of the Mutilated, one of my favorite bad movies and beyond that let’s just leave it at ‘it’s not nice to speak ill of the dead’*, that’s not exactly the glowing compliment it might be construed as. As such I should qualify that Abominable Snowman is in fact quite a good little adventure/horror film that not only does well by its subject but also puts a nice little twist on it quite appropriate to the region from which the legend sprang.

Cushing plays Dr. John Rollason, a botanist visiting a monastery in Tibet to study the local flora, along with his wife Helen (Connell) and assistant Foxy (Wattis). He’s also something of an authority on the legendary Yeti and as such would very much like to see one. To this end he agrees to accompany an expedition composed of Tibetan guide Kusang (Morris), crass American trapper Ed Shelley (Brown), reserved French photographer Andrew “Jacques” McNee (Brill), and the team leader Tom Friend (Tucker), also crass though with clearly more brains than Ed. Helen is dead set against John going on the climb, owing to an accident he had on an earlier one. Aside from her anxiety, which eventually leads her to follow behind with a small party of her own, this story angle is pretty much left alone. The film doesn’t feel compelled to indulge in cheap dramatics by having Cushing overcome some great odds and emerge in fabricated personal triumph as so many films might have done.

Despite his wife’s fears and hints from the Lhama (Marlé, who, for a Tibetan, sounds awfully Teutonic) that the mission may be a foolish one, Rollason is determined to get a look at the creature and so the expedition sets off. It’s not too long until Rollason discovers that Friend is less Ernest Shackleton than he is P. T. Barnum. So much so that when Shelley shoots one of the creatures, Friend decides that a dead one ain’t good enough and uses the corpse and his own compatriot to try to lure a live one into a net, theorizing that they know Shelley killed their kin and will come after his ass. Not surprisingly this plan doesn’t work out so well, especially for not-so-bright Ed. Things start to get weird after that, leading to a denouement that has Rollason seriously rethinking the creature that he thought he knew well.

I can’t exactly call The Abominable Snowman a great film, but it is a good one. I could complain about the fact that, as is typical in many British films, the two Americans are portrayed as brash, ill-mannered and insensitive, but then again Foxy’s character, with his fussiness and the casual racism in his veiled contempt for the Tibetan culture around him, is just as much of a stereotype, so at least the film is an equal opportunity offender in this respect. What’s more Tom Friend is given some unexpected depth as a character. He has ideas beyond mere hucksterism, as misguided as they may be, and Tucker puts forth a good performance that swiftly banished any thoughts of him yelling “Agarn!” from my mind.

But the thing that really made the film for me was Kneale’s script, adapted from his own televised play. By giving the creatures a mystical quality, entirely fitting given the intensely spiritual nature of Tibet, he elevates the story to a level beyond the big-unseen-monster-systematically-picks-off-the-humans format that it would have been so easy to fall back on.

To close, let me say, Yeti baby, if you’re listening, fire the agent who shoehorned you into The Snow Creature and Shriek of the Mutilated and get back in touch with the one who got you this gig. And if he’s not available, well, give Mothman a call. Maybe he’ll set you up with his guy.

* Nah, I gotta get it off my chest. Why the hell did they feel compelled to use the Abominable Snowman in a film set in upstate New York? Were they unable to secure Bigfoot’s written consent to use his name? I mean that wouldn’t have been 100% accurate either, but it would have at least been more so. All right, that’s enough. RIP, Michael.

Go back to Plate O' Shrimp