Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Schizocinema, Live from Fantastic Fest ‘18



Hi there!  Regular reader will notice that I have not been very regular with the Schizocinema posts lately.  First of all, sorry.  It’s not from lack of interest.  This has been my roughest summer on record, particularly then end.  Two separate, life threatening hospital stays knocked me off my game, to say the least.  The incidents did not affect me directly, but the people who I love most in this world, which is even worse.  The good news is that everyone escaped only slightly worse for wear and we are 100% again.  

Ironically, another factor keeping me from writing was writing, only in a different place.  My occasional submission to the totally keen movie site, VHS Revival, has grown to the point where I could reasonably be called a contributor.  In addition to my initial ramblings about customizing franchises to your needs and having bloody fun at Christmas time, I wrote a series on the four (and only four) films of legendary badass, Bruce Lee, THE BIG BOSS, FIST OF FURY, WAY OF THE DRAGON, and ENTER THE DRAGON.  My last bit was on how to remake it right with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (90).  Those articles are a little more refined and much less cussy that my Schizocinema rants, but my weird obsessions and questionable takes still shine through.  I invite you to check them out, if you haven’t yet.  And then stick around, because vhsrevival.com is packed with a ridiculous amount of top notch content.  Their output puts mine to shame, even before I dropped off the planet for a bit.  Trust me, you’ll dig it.

For those looking for classic Schizo babble, they will return with a close to normal regularity, though not just yet.  See, I’m writing this while high in the sky, jetting my way to Austin, TX for another plunge into the crazed movie whirlpool of Fantastic Fest!  Seven straight days of movies hard packed into my eyeballs.  I’ll be updating as much as I’m able, both here and on twitter (my handle being @chris_chaka).  Hopefully I can capture a little bit of the madness, exhaustion, and sleep deprivation the week brings.  Things will return to normal after a couple of weeks, but for now, enjoy these upcoming Schizo-minisodes.
C Chaka

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Cautionary note:  As I mentioned the last go round, I am a terrible fucking speller, and dyslexic to boot, so without the aid of my lovely editor wife, this shit is going to be sloppy as hell.  Apologies all the way round.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Holiday in Confusion - PUNK VACATION


Tonal shifts in movies can be risky business.  A perfectly timed hairpin turn is exciting; startling the audience and deepening their engagement.  Perfect is hard to pull off, though.  An awkward shift breaks the flow, pulling the watcher out of the story.  The filmmakers need to know exactly what they are doing or it could be disaster.  If you can't nail it, don't even try.  Alternatively, go in all the way.  Throw in so many tonal shifts, redirections, and crazy tangents that the watcher is left punch drunk, staggering through the movie in stunned fascination.  Guess which approach Stanley Lewis took for 1990’s PUNK VACATION?


The Capsule:
In a quiet Californian desert town, Deputy Steve Reed (Stephen Fiachi) fills his days with unsuccessful target practice in an empty field, responding to false alarms, and getting yelled at by his paranoid, commie hating boss, Sheriff Virgil (Louis Waldon).  The monotony ends on the night an eclectic gang of bike punks ride into town.  An altercation over a Dr. Pepper vending machine outside a diner leaves the owner dead, his young daughter catatonic, and one punk in the hospital.  While Reed and the other cops bumble around, his girlfriend, Lisa (Sandra Bogan), vows vengeance for her father and sister.  She hunts down the gang on her own, but finds herself on a head-on collision with its equally strong willed--and frighteningly psychotic--leader, Ramrod (Roxanne Rogers).  Lisa's fate, and that of the entire town, will wind up in Deputy Reed's hands, and no one is happy about that.

This direct to video cheapie was released in 1990, but is a product of the '80s all the way.  Early '80s, at that, Billy Idol "White Wedding" period.  The anachronistic aesthetic is just the first sign of this movie's serious case of multiple personality disorder.  In the beginning, our punk vacationers seem like they have rolled straight out of DEATH WISH.  They come just short of Jeff Goldblum’s vile band of caricatures as they torment and ultimately murder Mrs. Kemper.  The DEATH WISH comparison is so pronounced they even use the same catatonic daughter cliché, though thankfully the sexual assault is implied rather than shown (at least I think its implied, there is zero exposition explaining what is wrong with her).  The trajectory is set for a full-on revenge flick, swapping a despondent father for a pissed off sister.  Straight forward, right?

Except, a weird thing happens.  The longer the movie spends with the punks, the less they seem like vicious animals and more like a quirky collection of misfits, each with their own unique look and personality.  There’s the French chick who looks like Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees.  The bandana wearing emo guy who plays a sad harmonica.  The bald Goth punk who carries nunchucks but doesn’t know how to use them.  The skinny white dude who dresses like Prince.  Two valley girl punks discuss future career opportunities while on guard duty (one wants to be an electrical engineer).   

They are an odd crew, and none odder than Feggy (Billy Palmieri), who clearly did not read the entire job description when he answered the Punks Wanted ad.  He’s a bit of a hippy peacenik, always whining when Ramrod wants to play it tough.  He usually falls in line, until eventually making a stand and declaring he doesn’t want to be involved in "senseless violence or car theft."  Not exactly the poster boy for the renegade punk lifestyle, yet everyone in the gang not only puts up with him, but genuinely cares for him.  The family that stabs diner owners together stays together, I guess.

Incidentally, true to the title, this is literally a punk vacation.  The gang aren’t on a drug run, or on the lamb, they are just taking a road trip, getting out of the hustle and bustle of L.A. for a few days.  When they are holed up in a barn after the unplanned murder, Feggy even complains that he thought they were just going fishing.  I think he is actually carrying traveler’s checks.  

Whether this was the intent or not, I started to like these lunkheads.  Every once in a while, there will be another radical tone change and they will become threatening again, but for only so long.  For instance, pistol packing Lisa confronts Ramrod at their barn hideout, but the punks get the jump on her.  The next scene has her tied to a tree in her underwear, which doesn’t bode well.  It turns out she was only stripped because Ramrod needed her clothes to sneak into town disguised as a normal, non-punk girl (pretty clever, really).  The punks guarding Lisa have their minds more on stick sword fighting rather than anything sordid.  At one point, Lisa is tied to the ground with rat cages at her hands, but no one lets the rats out, and Lisa doesn’t seem overly concerned.  It’s like the Spanish Inquisition staged by elementary schoolers.

Ramrod is the only legitimate badass in the bunch and stays on point the entire time.  It’s an interesting group dynamic.  She is so intense that no one dares question or challenge her, but she has a fierce, almost maternal attachment to her band of freaks.  She keeps things democratic, like asking for a vote on what they want to eat. Her administrative skills are solid.  She gets seriously fucking scary at times, like when she faces down Reed, ignoring his gun and makes her gang vote if they should rape the deputy before killing him.  I think she’s just trying to intimidate Reed (it works), but since she was the one getting aggressive with the daughter, who knows?  During a Viking funeral for some of her fallen punkmates (they just toss the bodies on the fire rather than making a fancy pyre), she advocates rampaging through the town and killing all the cops.  So, yeah, she’s a firecracker.  The dodgy kind, that might blow up in your hand as soon as you light the fuse.

Whether this was an intentional feminist nod or not, I like that the story is advanced by two assertive and (comparatively) competent women.  Lisa, while not as badass, is fearless in her personal pursuit of justice (not just revenge).  She certainly runs rings around the fantastically inept, all male police force.  Maybe if Lisa was the sheriff instead of the clueless, commie obsessed doofus, Virgel (“Did Patton call for the State Troopers when he invaded Iwo Jima?”), they wouldn’t be so useless.

This includes her boyfriend, Deputy Reed.  I’ve never seen a main character this bad at his job outside of a (intentional) comedy.  He  takes out one of the punks fleeing the scene of Mr. Kemper’s murder completely by accident.  He hits him with his car while pulling into the parking lot, knocking himself out in the process.  His investigative skills aren’t exactly razor sharp, either (“If they haven’t left the area, they might still be around.”).  At one point, he goes into the hospital carrying some girl we’ve never seen before.  When the nurse inquiries about what happened, he just says “Don’t ask.”  Both the girl and the nurse react like this isn’t unusual for Reed, and we never hear about it again.  My guess is that he accidentally shot her while trying to get her balloon out of a tree.  Again.

After Lisa is kidnapped, the movie switches tracks once more as Reed teams up with fellow cop Don (Don Martin) to come to the rescue.  Kind of a LETHAL WEAPON vibe, but with morons.  So, more like SAMURAI COP.  They make the smart call of not telling Sheriff Virgil what they are up to, because that lunatic would have gotten everyone, killed.  Instead they break into an unspecified house, steal some guns, and handle it themselves.  Astonishingly, not only do they get Lisa out unharmed, the take out a couple of punks along the way.  Also, Reed shoves a cucumber on to the barrel of his shotgun before shooting someone.  I…don’t know why that happened.

The climax brings another whiplash, putting us in the punk's camp when they face off against Virgil’s posse of drunken redneck hunters (including a Vietnam vet wearing a pith helmet, as Vietnam vets are known to do). The punks are automatically more sympathetic because ‘80s movie law always has drunken rednecks higher on the asshole scale.  Only Nazis rate worse.  The punks initially have the advantage because of Ramrod’s decisive planning.  Then they split up, and without her direct motivation, everyone’s bloodlust tanks, even the dude who was Special Forces in ‘Nam (or maybe just ROTC, they weren’t super clear on that).  The traps they set for the hunters make Kevin from HOME ALONE look like Jigsaw.  Rednecks get knocked off a pipe into a four-foot ditch, tripped down a slight hill slope, and caught in a net.  Luckily, the boozed-up gun nuts are too dumb to just lift the net over their head, so that buys some time for our heroes/villains.  

Everything boils down to the final confrontation between Lisa and Ramrod, the movie's emotional core.  And yes, there is an emotional core, and character arcs, though they resemble a Richter scale measurement more than a graceful arc.  Bullets are exchanged, justice is served.  Maybe?  I might have mentioned early that this movie can be a tad confusing.  

So many questions are left unanswered, such as what the hell did I just watch? Was this a gritty revenge story or a screwball comedy?  Will Feggy ever go fishing?  Director Stanley Lewis followed this up by not making movies anymore, as did most of the cast, so we may never know.  PUNK VACATION is a mess, but for reasons I can't explain, I still dig it.  Sometimes we should just follow Deputy Reed's advice and don't ask.


C. Chaka


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Lust In Space - FORBIDDEN WORLD


The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were a magical time for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.  The summer blockbuster was still a new, exploitable beast and no one exploited like Corman.  He knew what people wanted and he would give it to them cheaper, faster, and trashier.  The fun of New World’s rip-offs was that they were rarely straight copies of popular movies.  They seemed straightforward, but actually diverged in weird, wonderful ways creating mad scientist mash-ups like; BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (STAR WARS + THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN + The Waltons), STARCRASH (STAR WARS + BARBARELLA + Italy), GALAXY OF TERROR (ALIEN + acid trip).  Perhaps the sleaziest, cheapest, and most ridiculous of Corman’s chimeras was FORBIDDEN WORLD (ALIEN + STAR WARS + softcore porn).  



The Capsule:
Intergalactic Troubleshooter and space Lothario, Mike Colby (Jesse Vint) is sent to Xarbia to help some panicking scientists.  It seems they have accidentally created a bloodthirsty mutant organism, as scientist tend to do.  Sexy Dr. Glaser (June Chadwick) seems really glad to see Mike; Dr. Hauser (Linden Chiles) and sweaty security chief Richards (Scott Paulin) less so.  While Mike gets better acquainted with the lady doctor, Subject 20, the mutant in question, grows larger and starts taking out the more dim members of the compound.  Conflict builds between Hauser, who wants to protect his deadly wonder of science, and Mike who wants not to be eaten.  Rapidly gaining intelligence, Subject 20 has a plan of its own that no one will like.  

Directed by Allan Holzman, FORBIDDEN WORLD is not to be confused with FORBIDDEN PLANET, though that was obviously Corman’s intent, because the title makes no sense, otherwise.  The only thing forbidden on this world is common sense.  It is also known as MUTANT, which is more appropriate since it is about a mutant, but should not to be confused with MUTANT from 1984, which stars Wings Hauser and is about zombies.  

The movie slams out of the gate with a dizzying open that ambitiously rips off ALIEN, 2001, and STAR WARS all at the same time.  Mike is awakened from hypersleep by his trusty robot sidekick, SAM-104 (Don Olivera)—who sounds and looks like an eleven year-old boy in a homemade stormtrooper costume—to find his ship is under attack by, um, pirates?  It’s hard to discern because like all Corman’s sci-fi movies of that period, it repurposes the space battle scenes from BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (that footage cost a ton of money, damn it).  It cuts from unrelated spaceships blasting lasers to Mike and SAM pushing buttons on a set while a view screen—which is behind them—shows random explosions.  Some of the explosion happen on the surface of a planet, so maybe it’s a screensaver.  

Once we get to the forbidden planet world of Xarbia, the mood abruptly switches tracks from sci-fi action to sci-fi porn.  Studly Mike is greeted—and eye fucked—by Dr. Glaser, slinking around in her low-cut jumpsuit.  It is so close to parody that I’m surprised they didn’t make Mike a space-pizza delivery boy rather than a troubleshooter.  Seriously, what kind of deep space science facility has a sauna?  When Mike stumbles in on clothing averse Tracy (Dawn Dunlap), her reaction is predictable.  “How dare you? Get out!  Wait, since you’re already here, we might as well have sex.”  Paraphrasing, but not by much.  And this is after he has already bedded Dr. Glaser.

The most egregiously porn-set scene comes after a traumatic death of one of the stupid, stupid crew members.  Dr. Glaser comforts the distraught Tracy in the way all professional colleagues do, by giving her a backrub as they both stand naked in the sauna.  This is only a guess, but I’d bet that was a script note from Roger.  “Heavy exposition scene.  Recommend boobs.”

Not everyone lusts after Troubleshooter Mike, some just resent him.  Head scientist Dr. Hauser is ruffled to find he is no longer the cock of the walk as far as eligible space bachelors go.  Richards, the security chief, is understandably grumpy since the monster got his girlfriend Annie just before Mike arrives.  Of course, the twitchy perv blows all inherent sympathy by watching Mike and Dr. Glazer go at it on the security monitor.  The monster might have done Annie a favor in that situation.

The facility roster isn’t exclusively horn-dogs.  Engineer Beale (Ray Oliver) is happy to just chill and play his space flute.  Then there’s obsessive Dr. Timbergen (Fox Harris, the loon in the radioactive Chevy Malibu from REPO MAN), who has no time for hygiene, much less love.  He comes to lunch still wearing his blood-stained lab coat and scoops up a biological sample with his fingers.  If this were a cop movie, he would be the coroner who does an autopsy while eating a sandwich.  

Of course, the one thing the residents of this interstellar Club Med lack more than inhibitions is any hint of self-preservation.  When Mike arrives, the scientists nonchalantly walk him through a lab literally dripping with blood and test animal guts to show him Subject 20, which is now cocooned in a plastic, completely unsecured incubator.  After explaining how dangerous it is, everyone leaves it in the care of the janitor, ironically named Jimmy Swift (Michael Bowen). Swift manages to do one better than ALIEN’s Kane by sticking his head directly underneath the cocoon as it undulates and leaks goo.  Cut to security footage of Swift flailing around with a giant black loogie dissolving his face, smashing into every piece of glass in the lab and spraying blood onto the camera, which no one is paying any attention to.  

I enjoy how Mike, who "does not know a gene from a jelly bean” is belittled by the scientists for wanting to destroy the creature.  Dr. Hauser is adamant about protecting their scientific accomplishment, even though it is actively killing his co-workers, and defends his position until the end.  His end, at least, which isn’t long.  Dr. Glaser is keen on communicating with it, hoping to use a computer link to ask it questions like, “Why do you enjoy killing humans so much?” and “Is there any chance we can persuade you to not eat us?”  Her efforts are rewarded by being shish kabobbed on a mutant tentacle.  

Of course, the scientists' most shortsighted endeavor was creating the mutant in the first place.  It could less be described as an accident than as a thoroughly intentional, highly complicated experiment in mass suicide.  First, they develop a fast replicating virus that instantly mutates any life form it touches, then for kicks, they spice it up with human DNA, inject it into a fertilized egg, and implant it—completely voluntarily—into one of the scientists.  Who could possibly have foreseen any complications?  This group would reject Wile E. Coyote as a member for being too risk averse.     

The fully grown Subject 20 is an imposing ALIEN knock-off, or it would be, if it was anything more than a completely immobile plastic statue.  Early on, it has two modes of attack, sitting completely still and waiting for someone to lean close to its mouth, or getting shoved off something by the film crew to simulate motion.  Later, it develops spiky tentacles and the ability to open its mouth, making it more dangerous.  Plus, it provides the opportunity to use a POV shot from inside its chomping jaws.  Having eyes inside your mouth seems disadvantageous, but the mutant makes it work.

I should note that, according to the stories, the substance invented for the mutant’s acid blood actually was caustic to flesh, making the prop more dangerous in real life than on the screen.

As I mentioned in my reviews of GALAXY OF TERROR and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, New World was where a young Jim Cameron spent his formative years, working in production and art design for their sci-fi films before becoming the director of the illustrious PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING.  Even as trashy and ridiculous as these movies are, it’s fun to catch all the quick shots and setups that made their way into Cameron’s undisputed masterpiece, ALIENS. For instance, Mike is unable to use his laser in the mutant’s lair because it has coiled around the life support system, which echoes the Colonial Marines having to sling their heavy weapons in the xenomorph nest for fear of hitting the reactor’s coolant system.  And SAM the robot’s being ripped in half by the end stage mutant echoes Bishop’s fate at the hands of the Alien Queen.  I’m sure these were just subconscious inspirations, I don’t recall ALIENS having a space sauna.  Not in the final draft, anyway. 

The golden days of New World are long gone, as are its cheap, crazy mashup B movies.  It’s about time someone got those going again.  Who wouldn’t want to see CAPTAIN AMERICA + A QUIET PLACE + 50 SHADES OF GREY?  On second thought.

C Chaka