Saturday, June 24, 2006

Avenging Angel

(1985, 93 min.)

Starring Betsy Russell, Rory Calhoun, Susan Tyrell, Ossie Davis, Robert F. Lyons, Stephen M. Porter, Paul Lambert, Barry Pearl.

Written by Joseph Michael Cala and Robert Vincent O’Neill.

Directed by Robert Vincent O’Neill

Even those who don’t have extensive knowledge of the trash cinema of the ‘80s may remember the original Angel, the tale of a sweet-natured high school girl who turns tricks on Sunset Strip at night. There are also probably a lot of folks who just think they’ve heard of it, given that the premise is a longtime favorite theme in both cautionary tales and porn. Fewer people, however, are probably aware that the film actually inspired not one sequel, but three. I’ve never seen the third or fourth, but the second was one of those films that I somehow managed to catch numerous times in those heady, early days of cable.

Four years after the events of the first film, Angel (Russell, taking over the role that was played by Donna Wilkes in the original) is now in college studying pre-law and going by her real name, Molly, having put everything, including her street handle, behind her. Lt. Andrews (Lyons, taking over for Cliff Gorman), the cop who helped rescue her is still a big part of her life, and has been paying her tuition. The two of them get together near the beginning of the film, and he asks about a boy she’s seeing and whether or not she’s told him about her past. She says she hasn’t, seemingly setting up some future plot point that never actually arrives.

Soon after we get the film’s only real bit of gratuitous T&A, a young woman showering and getting dolled up in slutty clothes, one shot revealing that she is actually a policewoman, and the outfit is a cover. At the same time Andrews gets a call that the cover has been blown. What we know and he doesn’t is that a car full of armed dickheads are already on their way to her house. They bust in and kill her and her parents. At least, I think they were supposed to be her parents. It’s not explicitly indicated, but the ‘mother’ is white, the ‘father’ Asian, and the policewoman kind of looks mixed, so why the hell not, although that would seem to be a remarkable amount of consideration given for what is essentially a minor point. Andrews pursues the thugs and gets himself plugged for his efforts. One of the local street performers, Johnny Glitter (Pearl), witnesses the murder, but manages to get away.

Molly is crushed by the news of Andrews’ death and decides she needs to be personally involved in bringing the killers to justice. She also decides that the only way she can do that is to revert to her Angel personality and hit the street. (Purely for investigative purposes; she doesn’t plan on dabbling in the flesh trade.)

Back in the old neighborhood, she hooks up with Yoyo Charlie (Porter, the first of three actors reviving their roles from the original), another street performer who does tricks with the toys from which he gets his name. The two of them go to see Solly (Tyrell), a local landlord and eccentric (the latter is pretty much redundant; all of her old crew were oddballs of one variety or another). The reassembly of her gang continues with Kit (Calhoun), a former cowboy movie actor who makes a living playing off that persona, and who they have to retrieve from the mental hospital to which he’s been committed. Together they try to track down Johnny Glitter before the bad guys off him, find out who said bad guys are, and find out why they’re messing around in their territory in the first place.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the original, but I’m pretty sure it was a lot more intense than this. Apart from some comic relief in the form of Dick Shawn playing a drag queen, I seem to remember the psychotic killer storyline of Angel casting a certain amount of gravitas, successful or not, over the proceedings. Not so the sequel. Some fairly serious subject matter and nastiness rubs uncomfortably up against broad slapstick airlifted in from another movie. Indeed the entire sequence in which they rescue Kit from the mental hospital could have been taken from any one of the idiot comedies so prevalent at the time. And Avenging Angel doesn’t even have the sufficient level of gratuitous nudity that makes those films tolerable (for me anyway). Oddly, Russell, who peeled in plenty of other films, most notably the moronic Private School, stays clothed, giving us nothing more than a little mild cheesecake when she dresses up as Angel. This also leads to a scene where she’s stared at by everyone in the room when she goes to do some research in a law library. Given the prevalence of slutty clothing these days, I have to wonder if a scene like that would fly now. (I love it when I get to be pervy and prudish in the same paragraph.)

There’s worse ‘80s crap out there, but there’s better as well. A good movie could be made about the intermingling of assorted street cultures, but the filmmakers never exploit the possibilities. But there are small entertainments to be had, such as the scene where the two drag queens in Solly’s building get into a stereotype-smashing fistfight with the baddies. Plus Calhoun gives the same vigorous sort of performance that helped make Motel Hell as fun as it was, and Tyrell is a positive hoot as the hard-as-concrete, guttermouthed Solly, proving once again that she is one of the all-time greats in the pantheon of cinematic oddballs.

I had an amusing little digestif in the form of a trailer that played after the film for the teensploitation flick Tuff Turf, starring then whippersnappers James Spader and Robert Downey, Jr. Ah, the memories. The awful hairstyles; the gaudy fashions; the chirping synthesizers over synthetic drumbeats; the deluded attempts to make the kids look “punk.” The ‘80s were unquestionably a one-of-a-kind decade, a fact that makes me wistful and grateful at the same time. You can read a review of Tuff Turf at my man Deacon Wentworth’s site, Surfin’ Dead (although in the review he indirectly refers to James Spader as a mediocre actor, and for this he must be spanked).

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Return of the Living Dead III

(1993, 96 min.)

Starring J. Trevor Edmond, Melinda Clarke, Kent McCord, Basil Wallace, James Callahan, Sarah Douglas, Mike Moroff, Pia Reyes, Sal Lopez, Julian Scott Urena, Dana Lee.

Written by John Penney.

Directed by Brian Yuzna.

Edmond plays Curt, a disaffected teen (yeah, and I just took the training wheels off my Schwinn), unhappy because a) since his mother died, it’s just been him and his affection averse father (McCord), and b) said father is an army Colonel, meaning they’ve bounced from town to town quite a bit during his young life.

Things do seem to be picking up a bit. The current town has provided him with a hot girlfriend, Julie (Clarke). She’s quite juicy, but also rather spooky. In a non-walking cartoon echo of Linnea Quigley’s Trash character from the first film, Julie likes to think about death, and she likes to do so in such a way fit to get her fiddling with her own equipment. Or Curt’s as the case may be, though while he enjoys the action, he’s not too crazy about the context. He is, however, willing to indulge her weird fascinations enough to steal his father’s key card and sneak her into the so-not-high-security-it’s-ridiculous facility, where they find that dad is working on a project involving making weapons out of reanimated dead bodies. Yes, our old friend 2-4-5 Trioxin is back, and being only slightly less badly mishandled than usual. His plan involves bringing them back, sending them in to nosh on the enemy, and then freeze-drying them until they’re needed again. Curt and Julie get a first hand look at this as they spy on the proceedings, though they leave before getting a chance to see how fucked up things can get in zombie movies, as the initial freezing part of the experiment doesn’t go so well and two scientists end up corpses themselves. This means that Colonel Dad’s plan is no-go and a rival colonel (Douglas, though she’ll always be Ursa to me) is free to enact her own plan for brazenly utilizing corpses in a degrading manner and acting awfully snooty about it in the process.

Curt and Julie beat their feet back to Curt’s house for a little fun. Colonel Dad comes back from the base to inform Curt that he’s being reassigned again. When Curt protests, Dad states that getting him away from Julie is all for the best anyway. Curt tells him to go blow and he and Julie jump on his motorcycle and hit the road. Julie is so excited that Curt defied his father she can’t keep her hands off of him, which would be great if she didn’t choose to do it while they’re still speeding down the highway. One encounter with an oncoming semi later, Julie has been thrown from the bike and broken her neck against a telephone pole. Curt, wracked with grief, does the only sensible thing a person with access to a reanimating agent would do for love.

There are certainly things to dislike about this film. For starters the set-up is less than satisfying. The scenes with Frank and Freddy early in Part One aren’t masterstrokes of character development and exposition, but they do successfully establish the combination of ghoulish and goofy – the ‘tongue through cheek’ approach, if you will – that rules the rest of the movie. Part Three, however, suffers, as do so many contemporary films, from what I like to call Main Course Syndrome. A truly fine meal, in a formal epicurean sense, is more than a slab of meat surrounded by this vegetable and that starch product. It’s a series of dishes – soups, salads, appetizers, breads – selected to compliment each other and lead up to the main course. A good film can similarly present assorted complimentary factors that allow the audience to get a sense of the universe that the film represents, so that when the main narrative thrust arrives, they’re invested enough to want to see what happens next. Unfortunately many directors seem to think that a microwaved bowl of canned tomato puree and soggy greens in oil and vinegar are enough, while others ignore the formalities altogether and dive straight for the meat and potatoes.

RotLD 3 does at least have the decency to serve the courses, in this case a fairly strong aperitif and some watery gazpacho. (I’m really beating the shit out of this metaphor, aren’t I?) It’s interesting to note that this is simultaneously the most vicious film in the trilogy (I’m aware more sequels have been made since, but for the time being I’m going to pretend they don’t exist) and the one with the most pathos, more than the original, which did have some, and certainly more than Part Two, which, if it had any, drowned it in a sea of schtick. The viciousness is pretty well established with the first zombie scene, but the passionate relationship and turbulent situation surrounding it are presented far too cursorily, and they’re damn important if we’re going to buy that Curt could do something so incredibly stupid just to keep Julie around.

What’s more, implausibility abounds, not the least example of which is the ridiculous ease with which Curt gets Julie’s body into the reanimation chamber. Granted, they make a point of mentioning how security is lax owing to budget cuts, but they couldn’t put one guard outside the room with all the pickled monsters?

So, yeah, there are reasons to dislike this film; and yet I don’t. In fact, I dig it a lot. For one thing, I dig that, flawed as the setup may be, the film’s crux is a passionate relationship. One might argue that Curt and Julie’s behavior is erratic and unbelievable, what with Julie demanding to be left alone one minute and then begging Curt never to leave her the next, and Curt’s intense naiveté in insisting that things can work out for them, but then, love can turn one’s brain to soup at any given age. Substitute limited life experience and jitterbugging hormones with the slavering jaws of the undead and you’ve got a fair approximation of the travails of young love.

Also interesting is the plot device in which Julie mutilates herself to stave off her cannibalistic cravings. It’s hard to believe that this isn’t a deliberate reference to Self Injury Syndrome, or as many who suffer from it, mostly women ages 13 to 30, call themselves, “cutters.” Impressive that an early-‘90s gore film would utilize subtext related to the emotional trauma of young women. And then slightly less so when you realize that it’s largely used as a means of exploitation. And then slightly more so again when you see how damn effective the exploitation is. I’m sorry if this sounds crass after bringing up cutters, but when Melinda Clarke finally appears decked out in her full “body art” glory, it is truly a sight to behold. (Which brings us to one of the other reasons I like this movie. With her fiery hair, feline eyes and shark’s grin, Clarke is exactly the kind of unconventionally attractive woman that spins my beanie.)

But before I devolve into fanboy droolydom, let me reemphasize that one of the main things this film gets points for (aside from some cool monsters and a topless Clarke) is its overtures towards real sentiment, such as the couple’s encounter with Riverman (Wallace), a homeless man who lives in the sewers (the coin bit is a nice touch and makes Riverman’s ultimate fate both more poignant and harder to watch). And the ending is another reference to Part One, and one of its most effective scenes at that, proving that someone was paying attention. For me it’s heartening to see, especially when so many modern horror films seem to consider even whiffs of real tragedy to be too much of a “downer,” or whatever expression is in vogue at the moment.

My colleague Marlowe once opined the use of the phrase ‘love you forever,’ saying that it’s a cliché, and even worse one that ignores reality while adding nothing new to the collective unconscious. Maybe he’d be more inclined to accept “I’ll love you forever…provided you can refrain from eating my head.” Less cutesy to be sure, but also considerably more difficult to fit on a candy heart.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Welcome to Arrow Beach

(1974, 91 min.)

Starring Laurence Harvey, Meg Foster, Joanna Pettet, Stuart Whitman, John Ireland, Gloria LeRoy, David Macklin, Jesse Vint.

Screenplay by Wallace C. Bennett, after an adaptation by Jack Gross, Jr. of a story by Bennett.

Directed by Laurence Harvey.

“There is a witch’s tale that once a man has eaten human flesh, he will do it again.

And again.

And again.”

Young hippie runaway Robbin Stanley (Foster) finds herself in the title town with nowhere to stay. After sleeping on a private beach she is befriended by the property owner Jason Henry (Harvey), a Korean War veteran who lives in a house up the hill with his sister Grace (Pettet).

Jason invites Robbin up to the house to eat and then to stay the night if she likes. Grace openly disapproves of the idea. She eventually relents, but secretly tells Robbin that it’s a house custom to lock all bedroom doors at night. Robbin soon finds out why as she is awakened by a thudding sound, which she follows to the basement where she finds Jason using a meat cleaver to prepare food for his rather unique palate. I think it’s fairly obvious where this is going, but if anyone is confused, I would refer you to the quote at the beginning of the review.

Robbin beats her feet out of there and runs into town, understandably freaked. As she’s cut her arm during her escape, the Head Deputy Sheriff (Whitman) takes her to the hospital, though his attitude of TLC does not extend to believing her story that a respected, if reclusive, local resident is cutting people up in his house. It doesn’t help that Jason shrewdly phoned the police himself right after she ran away, claiming that she busted up his front door, and has already given Sheriff Ireland the bag she left behind after having planted a syringe and a vial of some weird drug in it.

They kick Robbin out of town, but she sneaks back in and, with the help of a friendly hospital orderly (Macklin) whom she met during her convalescence, goes back to Jason’s house to prove once and for all that his concept of Epicurean delight extends to what is charmingly referred to as “long pig.”

If the title of this film doesn’t exactly sound like that of a horror film, that’s appropriate as this really isn’t a horror film. It’s supposed to be and has all the trappings of one, but it just doesn’t come off. In fact given the various elements that pop up throughout (cannibalism, drugs, prostitution, even intimations of incest between Jason and Grace for cripes sake), the whole thing is surprisingly dry.

This was Harvey’s final film before he died. He looks okay for a man in steep decline, a bit gaunt, but not too bad. His performance as Jason is in the fine tradition of charming psychopaths, but unfortunately his performance behind the camera comes up lacking. He purportedly continued working on it right up to the end, even phoning in instructions from his deathbed. While this is admirable, it would also go a lot towards explaining the strangely static nature of the film. Seemingly superfluous plot threads are scattered here and there, resulting in odd scenes like Whitman arguing with his girlfriend about spending too much time at the station and conservative Ireland being interviewed by a leftist newspaper at the rally for his re-election as Sheriff. This latter scene smacks of an attempt to inject some politics into the proceedings, which is odd given that a major and very timely opportunity for politicizing – a war veteran inviting a free-spirited hippie chick into his house – was not utilized. It’s possible they didn’t want to tread into such territory, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were an oversight, especially given the tremendous other oversight they commit: they never really explain why Jason became a cannibal in the first place. Oh, it’s intimated that he was forced to in some sort of Donner-esque situation in Korea, but considering the relative importance of this particular plot point, you’d think they would have spent a bit more time on it.

The film does have its moments. The opening scene in which a hitchhiking Robbin gets picked up by a cokehead hotrodder (Vint), who proceeds to hit on her while simultaneously scaring the crap out of her with his need for speed is giddily amusing. And the film achieves actual poignancy when Jason gets an aging hooker played by Gloria LeRoy to come up to his place to have her picture taken. She’s a former burlesque performer who counts herself in the ranks of Blaze Starr and Lily St. Cyr and his playing on her sad broken dreams in order to murder her injects a note of real tragedy.

But the better parts don’t make up for the fact that the rest of it is regrettably underbaked. A good film could be made about a psychopathic recluse who has a chamber of horrors in his house where he cuts up and eats people. And of course it was made. By Tobe Hooper. That same year.

On the other hand, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t have a theme song sung by Lou Rawls, so maybe it evens out.

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