Friday, July 31, 2009
Monday, July 27, 2009
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"What do I really have left in life but this place? It ain't much of a home, but it's all I got. Well, goddammit. I'll be damned if I let some foreign, graffiti writin', soul suckin' son of a bitch in an over-sized cowboy hat and boots take my friend's souls and shit 'em down the visitors toilet!"
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Author Joe R. Lansdale's writing style is hard to define: twisted, visceral, brutal, frank and funny, and dripping with atmosphere; and most important of all, it has a simple honesty about it that's very endearing -- even though his subject matter tends to be very, very morbid and creepifying. And it is this inability to saddle him that really makes his work resonate for me.
His first novel, Act of Love, about a brutal serial-killer, had me guessing until the very end about the killer's true identity. The Night Runners, a vicious piece of Splatter Punk, is kind of in the same vein -- more like an artery, mind you; the jugular, waiting for The God of the Razor to come collect his due. And his cult classic, The Drive In, has a mysterious, trans-dimensional comet that gulps up the denizens of The Oribit; a massive six-screen drive-in, trapping them there, where all they have to live on is soda, popcorn and -- eventually -- each other. His latest novels, The Bottoms and A Fine Dark Line, are murder mysteries, too; but they're more of a coming of age story as each is told from the perspective of a young boy. Both set in his beloved east Texas, the stories come off as an odd combination of Harper Lee and Stephen King, mixed with the narrative drawl of Joe Bob Briggs, or some other, lethargic good-old-boy spinning tales on the back porch.
I was personally introduced to Lansdale's work when I picked up a copy of Jonah Hex: Two Gun Mojo at the local comic shop. And I liked that wild western tale so much I snagged the sequel, Riders of the Worm and Such, and that led me to tracking down his Lone Ranger and Tonto series, which he and artist Tim Truman also did, earlier, for Topps Comics. Lurking in those pages of "It Crawls" was a story where the legendary lawman and his trusted partner run afoul of a resurrected Aztec Mummy that's rampaging across Texas, leaving many dead bodies in it's wake. And that's one way to describe Lansdale's work ... Who else would have dreamt to have the Lone Ranger and Tonto fighting off an evil mummy from outer space? That's the thing about his writing, though; the situations are completely absurd, but played straight on a razor, with enough nuggets of truth scattered about that one will think that the situation is not only plausible but possible. Which brings us to Don Coscarelli's film, Bubba Ho-Tep, that's based on a Lansdale short-story featured in the Writer of the Purple Rage anthology. The premise of the film? Well, try to get your head around this:
In a retirement home, living under an assumed identity, an aged Elvis Presley (Campbell) is alive but not very well. Seems the Big E was tired of his pill-popping lifestyle and swapped places with an Elvis impersonator; but all traces of this switch were lost in a trailer-park fire. So to the rest of the world, Elvis Presley died back in 1977, but in truth, The Weekly World News was right all along. Saddled with bouts of dementia, a bum hip, and "festering pecker," a forlorn Elvis looks back on his life with much regret. His only friend at the home is Jack. Now Jack (Davis) thinks he is former President John F. Kennedy. The victim of his own conspiracy, Jack is convinced part of his brain was removed, and then he was dyed black and hidden away in Texas as part of some insidious plot hatched by Lyndon Johnson.
Things turn even more sinister when the mortality rate inexplicably spikes at the nursing home. Soon enough, our two semi-incontinent protagonists discover that an ancient Egyptian Mummy is stalking the grounds and sucking out the souls of their elderly roommates. And since no one else would ever believe them, these two legendary figures gear up for one final showdown to try and save the day.
Sounds completely ludicrous doesn't it? Sounds like typical Lansdale to me.
I actually got to see the film during it's limited theatrical run, but sadly, the film never could find a real distributor, and that's too bad because more people really needed to see this film. Bruce Campbell turns in a completely amazing performance as the curmudgeonly and decrepit King of Rock-n-Roll. How good is he? Well, about half way through the film, I honestly forgot that it was Campbell. The scenes where he expresses regret over his life choices, and laments about abandoning his daughter is heart wrenching stuff. After he points a blaming finger at his wife, the Colonel, Dr. Nick, and the other usual suspects, he realizes the biggest culprit in his downfall was himself. Those scenes really got to me, and Campbell's delivery is the reason why. Not really known for his subtlety, he sold me, completely. Campbell's involvement in this independent production could have been either a boon or a bust. Truthfully, the further away we can separate this film from Raimi's trilogy, the better, because those expecting Evil Dead IV, or similar Ash like antics from our boy, could be disappointed -- but, luckily, the film is good enough that you won't care.
The film's real casting coup, though, is Ossie Davis, who brings much weight, spirit and coyness to the Jack character amidst all the surrounding insanity. Like I said before, we believe Elvis is who he says he is, but Jack is a complete loony tune, right? Or is he? Coscarelli leaves all kinds of clues and hints that maybe Jack is telling the truth, too. You just get to the point where you say it's so insane, how can it not be true?
Coscarelli then made the right decision by letting the plot be as absurd as it wants to be, but kept his characters stone cold sober. The actors and characters are so good, and bring such dignity to the scenes that deal with regret, getting old, and the mistreatment of the elderly -- discarding them in homes, where they're treated like helpless children -- that it's a little jarring when we go from that stuff to the soul-sphincter-sucking mummy stuff. And if the film has one flaw, it's that it switches moods from melancholy to manic so quickly, without any kind of transition, it tends to be a bit disjointed in spots.
Still, the film can be looked at and enjoyed on many levels. As a metaphor, absurd escapism, or a touching treatment of growing old, and going out with dignity on your own terms. What it definitely did was overachieve to something far, far greater than it's schlocky trappings. Personally, I like to think of it as Lansdale, Coscarelli, Campbell, and Davis giving these two truly American cult-heroes of the last century -- both enshrouded in scandals while they lived (and even more so after they died) -- who both met tragic deaths long before their time should have been up, a chance to go out in a blaze of glory.
Elvis gets to be the Lone Ranger, mounted on his silver walker, with JFK, his trusty Tonto, right beside him in a motorized wheelchair. Together, they ride to the rescue, and in a sense, ride off into the sunset. It's hysterical ... yet touching, and beautiful all at the same time. That is why at the end, after the villain is vanquished, when a mortally wounded Elvis thanks the stars above for this last opportunity to do something right, this particular web-critic had tears in his eyes.
Hail to the King, indeed.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) Silver Sphere Corporation :: Vitagraph Films :: MGM/UA Home Entertainment / EP: Dac Coscarelli / P: Don Coscarelli, Jason R. Savage / D: Don Coscarelli / W: Don Coscarelli. Joe R. Lansdale / C: Adam Janeiro / E: Scott J. Gill, Donald Milne / M: Brian Tyler / S: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Larry Pennell, Edith Jefferson, Heidi Marnhout
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Here's some fantastic artwork for Voodoo Woman and The Astounding She Monster (American International, 1957) courtesy of the dynamic duo of Reynold Brown and Al Kallis. Were the movies as good as promised in the artwork? Of course not. But speaking frankly, How could they? Look at them! How could they even come close?
Thursday, July 16, 2009
"And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west!"
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This post is in response to the "There's Something in My Eye" thread over at The BMMB, where you were asked to list any offbeat cinematic moments that reduce you to a blubbering idiot. Well, here's one that gets me every time ... Vanishing Point, right at the point where Kowalski, realizing he's finally and inevitably reached the end of his road, his brain addled on speed, a sly smile crossing his face, says "Fuck it" and floors his irresistible force right into an immovable object...
A melancholy ode to the vanishing American hero, a 99-minute Dodge Charger commercial, or the 1960's counter-culture movement's last, dying gasp, there are many ways to interpret Guillermo Cain's script. Me? I tend to get a little existential when I think about this movie, and, in the end, though it makes me sad, I feel secure and humbled knowing that after all his trials and tribulations, tempered by the desert heat, shunning prophets and false prophets alike, Kowalski died for all our sins, and that he is still out there, somewhere, foot on the floor, going hellbent toward another, endless horizon. So, when the next time you face a moral dilemma or a crisis of conscience, just ask yourself:
Man ... I need to get that on a T-shirt.
Vanishing Point (1971) Cupid Productions :: 20th Century Fox / EP: Michael Pearson / P: Norman Spencer / D: Richard C. Sarafian / W: Guillermo Cain / C: John Alonzo / E: Stefan Arnsten / M: Jimmy Bowen / S: Barry Newman, Cleavon Little, Paul Koslo, Robert Donner, Dean Jagger, Severn Darden, Timothy Scott, Gilda Texter
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Friday, July 10, 2009
As far as I know, the exact circumstances that led to Ed Wood crossing paths with producer Georgie Weiss has yet to surface. But cross paths they did, leading to one of the strangest, gonzoidal classics of all time.
Far from the volatile man-mountain as portrayed in Tim Burton's bio-pic, Ed Wood, by most accounts, Weiss was an unassuming and affable guy, small and stooped in stature, who had a thing for kinky titillation and domineering women. A student of the Kroger Babb school of road-showing, where you could get away with just about anything as long as you presented things as being educational, Weiss had already made his reputation with a tell-all look at artificial insemination in Test Tube Babies, and the horrors of narcotics with The Devil's Sleep.
Originally, Glen or Glenda a/k/a I Led Two Lives, I Changed My Sex, He or She, and The Transvestite, was to be another feature in the same clinical vein, but when Christine Jorgensen refused to sign off on it, and after failing to convince several other well-known transexuals to be involved, Weiss was forced to recalibrate and rethink things. Enter Ed Wood, and with Bela Lugosi tucked in his back-pocket, the tone of the project changed from shocking exposé to full-blown melodrama.
As filming commenced, Weiss was soon faced with two monumental problems. First, thanks to Wood's deficit-style budgeting, the producer was forced to pre-sell the film in order to generate enough money to complete the picture. What always turned out to be Wood's Achilles heel was financing, and what separated the successful independent entrepreneur from the other one-lungers, was a business model where a majority of the profits from the distribution deal on a completed film was then used to help finance their next feature. With Wood, he was usually so far in the hole from over-selling shares and grossly underestimating costs, that whatever money was made went to paying off the last feature, leaving him nothing for the next. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. And then skip out when the bills come due.
The second obstacle Weiss faced was Wood's finished film came in well short of the required 70 minutes. To fix this, the producer stuck in about fifteen minutes worth of additional, nonsensical footage into the dream sequences, salvaged from an unfinished film of one of Weiss' other associates, W. Merle Connell (Untamed Women, The Flesh Merchant). And while you watch the end results, it isn't all that difficult to see where Wood's weirdness ends and Weiss' naughtiness begins. Looking like snippets of a vintage stag reel, or one of those old Irving Klaw bondage loops, these inserts only add to the overall delirium of Glen or Glenda that super-charges the schlock into something truly unique.
As proof: Here's a quick peek into the mind of Georgie Weiss:
In the end, despite all those title changes, Glen or Glenda just never could find an audience. Too bizarre for mainstream theaters but not bizarre enough for the roadshows, Weiss couldn't get anybody to show the thing and took a bath. Unlike most of his other backers, Weiss held no real animosity toward Wood over their film's box-office failure, and has nothing but nice things to say about the director in Rudolph's Grey's anecdotal biography, A Nightmare of Ecstasy, but it should be noted that the two never worked together again -- except when Wood bought out Weiss' unfinished Hellborn and eventually turned it into The Sinister Urge.
By the time Glen or Glenda was completed, with the draconian Hayes Code starting to show a few cracks in its cinematic foundation, Weiss chucked the educational angle and square-up reels, and shifted his focus to straight-on Burlesque revues and helped pioneer the Nudies in the late 1950's, including a film called Dance Hall Racket, where he broke in another fledgling director by the name of Phil Tucker, who would go on to carve out his own gorilla-shaped hunk of sci-fi infamy with the awefulsomeness of Robot Monster. However, Weiss is probably more famous, and rightfully so, for establishing the Roughie with the lovely Audrey Campbell as Mistress Olga in White Slaves of Chinatown, and later the equally demented Olga's House of Shame and Olga's Girls. And, with Weiss' encouragement, also ushered in the commando sleaze-noir of Michael and Roberta Findlay (Take Me Naked, The Touch of Her Flesh) and the Amero brothers (The Ultimate Degenerate) that helped turn those cracks in the Nation's moral codes into a full-blown breach.
Add it all up, and fans of weird and offbeat cinema, everywhere, owe Georgie Weiss a huge a debt of gratitude.
This post is part of Cinema Style's The Spirit of Ed Wood Blogathon, a week long tribute to honor the 50th Anniversary of the unjustly maligned Plan 9 From Outer Space. Thanks for letting me participate! And now, please, go and enjoy the rest of the entries.
Glen of Glenda (1953) Screen Classics / P: George Weiss / D: Edward D. Wood Jr. / W: Edward D. Wood Jr. / C: William C. Thompson / E: 'Bud' Schelling / M: Sanford H. Dickinson / S: Edward D. Wood Jr., Bela Lugosi, Lyle Talbot, Timothy Farrell, Dolores Fuller
Sunday, July 5, 2009
Trailer Park :: Joe Dante Presents John Goodman as William Castle Who Proudly Presents the End of the World as We('d like to) Know It!
Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an independent movie entrepreneur smells an opportunity and opens his new atomic-powered monster movie while the world teeters on the brink of nuclear Armageddon...
A giant love-letter/biographical recollection of his misspent youth, director Joe Dante's film is one big inside joke with his fellow monster-addled brethren on the surface (-- sadly, I was the only one who laughed at the General Ankrum joke in the theater back in '93), but you don't have to dig very deep through the lavishly heaped on dreck to find a rather refreshingly sweet, teenage-fueled romance that would have probably curdled on the target audience back in the 1960's. Oh, well, it works great, here...
John Goodman is an absolute scream as Lawrence Woolsey, an amalgamation of Roger Corman, Bert I. Gordon and William Castle, who were big on the hype but often a little short on the end results. Most of Dante's stock players are also present, including Robert Picardo, Dick Miller, Belinda Balaski -- even his old buddy, John Sayles, who scripted Piranha and The Howling, makes an extended cameo. (And I hold out hope that someday, Dante, Sayles, and producer Jon Davidson get it into their heads to make another monster movie. Namely, THEM! Please-oh-please-oh-please...)
Mant, the film within the film, is also an amalgam and littered with many genre veterans (William Schalert, Robert Cornwaithe and Kevin McCarthy). Inspired by the giant bug-movies of the 1950's and William Castle's cinematic gimmickery -- where he often wired seats to stragegically jolt the audience, or required signed releases before being allowed to see his films -- Woolsey's like-minded Atomo-Vision rings true as these types of film were petering out by 1962, replaced with Gothic Guignol and Beach Parties, and these one-lung producers behind them would try almost anything to get some butts into the seats.
I sincerely doubt that Rumble-Rama, Illusion-O and Percepto were as effective back then as we'd like to believe it was. Still, we can at least pretend that it was, and films like Matinee certainly helps to perpetuate that myth, making it all seem cooler than hell. And like the old saying goes: When the legend is more entertaining than the truth, print the bullshit. And before we go, I think it's high time we get this thing back in circulation on DVD. My old VHS tape is about wore out -- and have you seen what they're charging for used copies on Amazon?
Matinee (1993) Falcon Productions :: Renfield Productions :: Universal Pictures / P: Michael Finnell, Pat Kehoe / D: Joe Dante / W: Charles S. Haas / C: John Hora / E: Marshall Harvey / M: Jerry Goldsmith / S: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Robert Picardo, Jesse White, Dick Miller, John Sayles