Friday, February 17, 2017

Stake Through the Heart - BLACULA

February, as you probably know, is Black History Month.  In honor of this, I’m focusing on some of the amazing cinematic accomplishments by African American actors and filmmakers, such as BLOOD AND BONE.  But February is also notable for Valentine’s Day, which I celebrated last year with the vaguely Valentine horror X-RAY.  This year I decided to combine the two with a classic Blaxploitation horror flick with a great romantic story at its heart.  Then I completely forgot about it and missed Valentine’s Day.  So now I presenta bit latethe 1972 better-than-you-would-expect vampire love story, BLACULA!

The Capsule:
In 1780 Transylvania, erudite African prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall) is discussing the finer points of having his nation recognized by the European world.  Unfortunately, his dinner host turns out to be Dracula (Charles Macaulay), who is a rude, racist son of a bitch.  And also a vampire.  He bites Mamuwalde and locks him in a coffin to be eternally tormented by an unquenchable thirst for blood.  He also leaves Mamuwalde’s still mortal wife (Vonetta McGee) locked in the same room to be tormented by her own thirst—and hunger—for a much shorter period.  Two centuries later, a pair of interior designers purchase the coffin and ship it to Los Angeles, where they unleash Mamuwalde on the modern world of 1972.  Shortly after breaking his 200 year dry spell, he is stunned to encounter a woman named Tina who looks exactly like his long dead wife.    Tina is unaware of his true nature, but is inexplicably drawn to him.  It doesn’t hurt that he is a charming motherfucker with a badass cape.  Her friend Dr. Gordon Thomas (Thalmus Rasulala) is suspicious of this smooth talking mystery man, though.  He works for the police and has been puzzled by the recent number of bodies found drained of blood.  Can he and Tina’s sister, Michelle (Denise Nicholas) put the pieces together before Mamuwalde turns Tina into his bloodsucking bride?

Let’s get this out there right out of the gate: it cannot be overstated how much Dracula is a racist dickhole.  Gary Oldman really glazed over that aspect of the character, but Charles Macaulay brings it with full force.  Before the fangs ever come out, he condescendingly ridicules Mamuwalde’s desire to eliminate the slave trade and suggests that it has its merits.  He even offers to buy Mamuwalde’s wife, acting like it’s some great cultural honor.  Then he has the nerve to take offense when Mamuwalde very urbanely disses his company and cognac.  Entombing the guy to suffer for all eternity and leaving his wife to starve to death is a bit of an overreaction, if you ask me.  For an ancient lord of darkness, Dracula has very thin skin.

He’s also the asshole who comes up with the whole “Blacula” thing.  After Dracula bites Mamuwalde, he makes a big deal about cursing the prince with his name.  The only thing is, Mamuwalde is unconscious at the time, and Dracula doesn’t engrave it on the coffin or anything.  Two hundred years later when the coffin is opened, there is no one left who remembers Dracula’s clever little wordplay.  Mamuwalde is the only name he goes by for the rest of the film.  You failed miserably on that one, Dracula.  Sad!

I was hoping the ending would be a Dracula vs. Blacula throw down where the jerk finally gets his comeuppance, but no.  Once it switches to modern times, the castle's real estate agent explains that Dracula was taken out like a chump by the Van Helsings (the whole family?).  I guess the director figured Dracula had gotten enough attention with all the other Dracula movies, and his racist ass didn’t deserve anymore screen time.

This is not a tale of revenge, though.  It is a love story.  Mamuwalde encounters the reincarnation of his beloved wife, Luva, very soon after being awoken.  His only motivation suddenly becomes insuring his love is by his side for eternity.  He doesn’t overpower her, or beguile her with his vampire powers, he doesn’t need to.  Tina doesn’t recognize Mamuwalde and is at first frightened by him, but soon finds herself drawn to the man.  It’s not just because he is charming and well dressed (lucky they had such fly tuxedos in 1780, because he never changes outfits).  She instinctively believes Mamuwalde when he explains his story, accepting her role as Luva reincarnated.  The choice is entirely up to her.  Mamuwalde promises never to bother her again if she refuses to be his vampire bride.  She doesn’t hesitate to accept. I believe it’s meant to be fate, the reunion of two tragic souls, rather than just an incredibly wild coincidence.  

Of course, not everyone finds it so romantic.  Especially Gordon Thomas, Police Doctor.  It’s never established exactly what Dr. Gordon does for the police.  He’s not a forensics guy or a medical examiner.  He basically runs the whole department, though.  Even Lt. Jack Peters (Gordon Pinsent), the highest ranked cop in the movie, is constantly deferring to him.  He is certainly the most competent person on the force (the look that Gordon gives Peters when he asks if the two bloodless corpses they found could be related to the Black Panthers is priceless).  Naturally, Gordon becomes suspicious that the string of exsanguination murders just might be connected to the mysterious dude in the cape hanging out with his girl’s sister.

Gordon has his work cut out for him, because Mamuwalde is one cool cat.  For someone locked in a casket for almost 200 years, he adapts to modern life remarkably quickly.  He struts into the swinging nightclub where Tina and her friends hang out less like an 18th century aristocrat and more like a L.A. regular.  Nothing fazes him, not electricity, or television, or automobiles.  Well, one taxi does faze him, but only because it runs him over.  Even that seems to be more from the shock from seeing Tina for the first time than from being plowed into by a horseless carriage.  It does offer the sassy cab driver a few moments to yell at him for running out in front of her before he turns her into a vampire.

The movie uses low impact vampirism rules. Mamuwalde just has to drain a person and they return as one of his undead servants.  By the end of the movie, he’s amassed quite a little army.  Gordon and Lt. Peters find themselves in a pickle when they track down the nest and find themselves surrounded.  Lucky for them that these vampires follow the same habits as the ones from VAMP, and make sure their hidden lair is stocked with plenty of flammable liquid.

Ultimately, it all ends in [spoiler] tragedy.  Gordon, Michelle, and Lt. Peters make a last ditch attempt to rescue Tina before she can fly away (as a bat) with Mamuwalde.  In all the cop killing chaos that ensues, Gordon accidentally stakes the freshly minted Vamp Tina.  With nothing left to live for, Mamuwalde leaves Gordon and the rest alive and exposes himself to the sunlight.  It is practically Shakespearean, but with more shriveling flesh and maggots.   

The movie does have a few of the weirdo moments I live for.  Famous character actor Elisha Cook Jr. plays a crotchety morgue assistant with a hook hand.  I didn’t notice until his second scene because no one ever mentions it and it has absolutely no purpose.  My theory is Cook just showed up wearing it.

I did notice that Dr. Gordon’s lab desk has a large jar simply labeled POISON.  You know, for that authentic medical professional look.  It’s not as great as an open container of ACID perched on a top of a shelf, but I’ll take it.

My favorite bit of strangeness is Skillet (Ji-Tu Cumbuka), a guy from the nightclub who just inserts himself at Tina, Gordon, and Michelle’s table and totally ruins the mood.  They never establish his relationship to any of the characters, he’s just a mooch who drinks their champagne and hits on the cocktail waitress.  I kept waiting for him to run afoul of Mamuwalde (like the cocktail waitress does when she takes his picture) or to factor into the story in some meaningful way.  But nope, he’s just Skillet, baby.

Director William Crain was one of the first African American filmmakers to hit it big, commercially.  BLACULA made a huge amount of money for American International Pictures (AIP) and spawned a slew of Blaxploitation horror films, including the eventual sequel, SCREAM BLACULA, SCREAM (starring Pam Grier!).  Crain himself did one more, DR. BLACK AND MR. HYDE, before moving into television (including, inexplicably, The Dukes of Hazard).  

Overall, it’s a pretty solid production for such a low budget, and more dignified than one would expect from the title.  Mamuwalde is a very sympathetic character, despite him being a murderous fiend.  His scenes with Tina are incredibly romantic, and I can’t be the only one who wanted them to get away together.  Not everyone comes off in the best light (the gay interior decorators are cringe worthy stereotypes), but the main cast, the heroic Gordon, the brave Michelle, and the well intentioned Lt. Peters, come off looking good.  Except for Dracula.  Man, fuck that guy.

C Chaka

P.S. I can't believe I went the whole piece without equating racist Dracula to Trump.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bet On The Underdog - BLOOD AND BONE

Apologies to Sam Jackson, but Michael Jai White is the baddest motherfucker on the planet.  No one can rock a fight scene quite like him.  He doesn’t need wires or CGI or editing tricks to kick four dudes in the face all at once, he just does it.  He's more than just a great martial artist, though. He also has serious acting chops. The man can project gravitas like nobody’s business, and he has great comedic timing (see BLACK DYNAMITE, no seriously, see it).  And if you are looking for a purely heroic, fighting for the underdog kind of badass, and who isn´t these days, look no further than 2009 DTV masterpiece, BLOOD AND BONE.   

The Capsule:
A mysterious stranger named Bone (Michael Jai White) rolls into L.A. like a storm; his mind on a mission.  With the help of Pinball (Dante Basco), a small time promoter with a big mouth, he starts working his way up the underground fighting circuit, one pulverized opponent at a time.  Or in some cases, several at a time.  It’s not money or fame he is after, though.  Bone is working his way up the ladder to get to James (Eamonn Walker), a hotheaded crime boss with aspirations of the big leagues.  James wants into the Consortium, an organization controlling the multimillion dollar illegal fight racket.  He’ll need Bone’s skills to do it.  What James doesn’t know is that Bone has a promise to keep, and he's going to take down James piece by piece in order to honor it.

I prefer my action heroes to be flawed, in most circumstances.  I like them in the mold of DIE HARD’s John McClane; fallible but determined.  They make mistakes, they get scared, they get hurt.  Invincible characters just aren’t compelling, generally.  It’s hard to invest in a character who does everything right.  There are no stakes, no fear –realistic or otherwise—that the character won’t come out on top.  Ultimately, they are just boring. 

Now, forget all the shit I just said, because it in no way describes Bone.  Michael Jai White plays Bone with such confidence, presence, and charisma it doesn’t matter that he outclasses ever single chump in this movie.  His unwavering confidence is what makes him captivating. He’s like a precision machine.  You want to see what he can do.  It’s not just the confidence, though.  Bone is also thoughtful, observant, and most importantly, humble.  Mixing arrogance with confidence makes someone you want to see fall (or at least get taken down a bit).  You root for the quietly self-assured type.  That character deserves to win. 

It also helps that he is constantly underestimated by his enemies.  Now, Michael Jai White is an intimidating guy. He’s big and clearly in great shape.  Some of his opponents are mountains, though.  And as imposing as Bone is, he’s still only one guy.  Part of the joy in this movie is in knowing these cocky bastards have no idea what they are getting themselves into.  

The opening scene sets things up perfectly.  It starts in prison, with a whole crew of mean ass inmates surrounding Bone when he’s in the bathroom.  They taunt him about the unpleasant things they plan to do to his person.  Bone reacts like they are a bunch of rambunctious kids running around the living room.  He gives them to the count of 5 to get the hell out of there.  The half dozen knuckleheads, all with shanks, cannot believe what this guy is saying.  They don’t even let him get to five before rushing him.  Bone proceeds to absolutely destroy the entire group before they can lay a finger on him.  It’s a perfect Sergio Leone style introduction to a character who best not be fucked with.

Another nod to Leone is that Bone is kept mysterious.  He’s like the Man With No Name, except, you know, with a name.  We learn a small amount of backstory in a flashback (Bone had a twin brother who died, because the world is not awesome enough to contain two Michael Jai Whites), but that’s it.  The movie never reveals where he came from, why he was in prison, how he got out, or how he became such an amazing fighter.  Combined with his almost inhuman skill, it gives him an almost mystic presence.  He’s like a spirit of justice, materializing out of nowhere to right wrongs.  Except that spirits of justice don’t hang out in prison playing chess and beating the hell out of gang rapists, so there’s probably nothing supernatural going on.  

The movie isn’t all grim and face punchy. There is a nice amount of humor to lighten things up.  Dante Basco’s Pinball is introduced at the bottom of the street fighting heap, promoting novelty fighters like a huge brute in curlers going by Mommy Dearest.  Pinball is the kind of over the top character that would easily become grating after a few minutes, except that he and MJW play off each other so well.  Bone is always looking irritated and slightly embarrassed whenever Pinball is doing his smack talking promotion thing.  He breaks his intense, brooding stare at just the right moment to give Pinball a quick and disapproving sideways glance.  Bone warms up to him as the movie goes on, and Pinball gets more self-reflective and learns to turn it down a little.  Just a little.

Bone also develops a sweet relationship with Tamara (Nona Gaye), who he’s renting a room from.  She is just as mysterious as Bone, but in a nurturing way, not an arm snapping way.  She looks after a house full of kids who were either abandoned or lost their family.  It’s never established that she is officially a foster parent, though, so it’s kind of like she’s an outlaw caregiver.  The Nanny With No Name.  Although, again, with a name.  Everyone has names, I should just leave that one alone.

I should also note that there is a cameo fight staring Gina Carano of HAYWIRE fame.  The director had to limit the shared screen time between her and MJW to avoid people going blind from the sheer awesomeness.

Eamonn Walker’s James is a fantastic villain, and the perfect counterpoint to Bone.  He’s the definition of arrogance, a man who thinks of himself as more important than those around him.  He doesn’t drink, smoke, or swear.  He puts on the air of refinement, quoting the Art of War, and Genghis Khan.  No matter how hard he tries, though, he cannot escape his own crippling insecurity that deep down, he’s nothing but a lowlife thug.  That self-hatred is always seething just below his cool exterior, waiting to explode in violence and cruelty.  One second he is talking casually, the next he is running down a prostitute for no reason at all.  Even his right hand man is constantly nervous around him, especially when James makes him hold up the raw meat to feed his vicious attack dogs. 

There is a amazing scene where James is having a relaxed dinner with a colleague, an oblivious jerk named Daryl.  We know he’s a jerk because he has a sweater draped over his shoulders and is going on and on about golf.  He gets embarrassed when his girlfriend turns on the stereo and it plays “Dance Hall Days”.  James asks “You think the brothers aren’t down with Wang Chung?” and starts to sing along.  Daryl and his girlfriend get all excited, like it’s karaoke night, but James’ crew start looking nervous.  They know what’s coming.  Just before the chorus, James pulls out his sword cane and runs Daryl through.  It was a completely psychotic move, but in his defense, the guy would not shut up about golf.

James’ big dream is to leave the streets behind and join The Consortium, a group of super rich, elitist criminals who setup the big fights.  It’s just the kind of vaguely ominous title that a bunch of self-aggrandizing assholes would call themselves.  You know, like The Syndicate, or The Cabal, or The Trump Organization.  Normally these guys wouldn’t have anything to do with the likes of James, but he has an in with one of the members.  Franklin (Julian Sands, at his aristocratic, racist best) is willing to vouch for him, if he can come up with a five million dollar wager and a fighter that can stand up against Franklin’s top man. 

The climax of the movie is Bone pitted up against Franklin’s fighter, who is unfortunately not named Blood, but Pretty Boy Price (Matt Mullins).  Again, there is no doubt who the winner will be, but the fun comes from watching this cocky jackass, who doesn’t even bother to take off his suit jacket before the fight, strut around like he isn’t going to break a sweat.  He does break a sweat, along with other body parts.  It’s the longest single fight of the movie, and Bone does take a few serious hits, but it’s all about wearing Price down, taking the pride out of his step.  The fight is filmed with the same wide angle, long take style as all the others, allowing for a serious appreciation of the choreography and the athleticism. 

For Bone, it isn’t about the fight, it’s about completely ruining James.  [Spoiler] Just when he has Price pinned, poised to break his arm, Bone glares at James and taps out, forfeiting the match.  James’ five million and any chance of getting into the Consortium is gone.  Infuriated, he rushes Bone with a katana.  Franklin, being a sport, throws Bone a sword, too.  But because he is so supremely badass, Bone throws away the sword and just keeps the scabbard.  Now at this point, any sane person would have dropped the katana and said “fuck it, I’m done.”  James, as we know, is not a sane man.  It does not go well for him.  Bone is too noble to kill the chump, so he leaves him to an even worse fate.  Franklin is not as noble.  

It is one of the greatest crimes of cinema that BLOOD AND BONE didn’t get a sequel.  The adventures of Bone, going town to town providing justice for the underdog, could easily have become a franchise.  Director Ben Ramsey had only done one feature before this (LOVE AND A BULLET), but he showed himself more than capable of creating a lean, focused action movie, and he works well with MJW.  But the forces of evil keep us deprived of a BLOOD AND BONE IIAnd as long as we are talking conspiracy theories, who can explain how this movie, along with the majority of MJW’s other starring features, is only available on DVD, not Blu Ray?  That is some bullshit.  Why are we being denied hi-def Michael Jai White?  We can take it.  I blame the Consortium.

C Chaka

Friday, February 3, 2017

Intern-tainment Camp - DEAD END DRIVE-IN

It's unnerving when dystopian cautionary tales, especially ones from 30 or more years ago, ring oddly prescient today.  Many are still comfortingly unrealized.  The government isn't repackaging poor people into food (though I avoid McDonald's, just in case), and I doubt anyone is going to turn the most expensive real estate in the country into a prison anytime soon.  But it's really bad when even the outrageous, batshit notions from Down Under can be disturbingly on the nose today.  Case in point, Brian Trenchard-Smith's 1986 gonzo Aussie satire, DEAD END DRIVE-IN.

The Capsule:
In the far flung future of 1995, the world has gone to shit.  Riots, disasters, and economic collapse have caused global unemployment and food shortages.  Ironically, Australia seems to have it better than most places.  Crabs (Ned Manning) is enjoying the good life, relatively speaking.  His brother runs a towing business and is big enough to fight off the other wreckers for the best salvage.   He takes a break from his delivery job to enjoy a movie with his honey, Carmen (Natalie McCurry), at the Star Drive-In, claiming to be unemployed to get the discount.  As things get steamy in the car, the cops steal his tires out from under him.  The management doesn’t seem to care that he’s stuck there, and Crabs slowly realizes that the drive-in is actually a government run internment camp for unemployed teens.  The listless teens, fed a steady supply of movies and junk food, don’t really care that much, but Crabs is determined to escape.  His lack of apathy gets him the attention of the local black market gang and Thompson, the drive-in manager, who just want things to run smoothly.  The cops take an even dimmer view of him, and look to shut Crabs down for good.

DEAD END DRIVE-IN is Brian Trenchard-Smith’s spiritual sequel to TURKEY SHOOT.  It continues his fascination with the semi-pocalyse, where society is circling the drain, but has not completely fallen apart.  Things are a little grungier than MAD MAX without going full-on ROAD WARRIOR.  There is talk of food shortages and revolts, but the biggest problem we see is unemployment.  Aimless youth roam the paper strewn streets looking to cause trouble.  Since this is Australia, everyone is obsessed with cars; which also seems to be the main driver of the economy.  Tow truck crews fight it out gladiator style for the choicest salvage, Carboy gangs swarm over wrecks like vultures.  Nobody, not even the cops, are too concerned with the bleeding occupants.  In this culture, the drive-in makes the perfect bait for the government to trap undesirables.  A roach motel for car freaks.  

Trenchard-Smith pushes the satire here even more than in TURKEY SHOOT.  It is a smaller movie, with fewer locations and no international stars.  There is much less action, little blood, and (sadly) absolutely no werewolves.  No one’s life is in danger once we get to the drive-in (at least until Crabs’ escape attempt), only their freedom.  The lower stakes of the story makes it more realistic and relatable, which in a way is scarier than TURKEY SHOOT’s more overt dystopian theme.  I could absolutely see a version of this scheme crossing some politician’s mind.

The world of The Star Drive-In is both hysterically over the top and a believable result of unmonitored ‘80’s teens.  Fantastic punk/new wave outfits are augmented with car parts, boomboxes, and any other crazy shit they can find around.  They have transformed themselves into the Warriors of the Teenage Wasteland.  There is fog, and fire, and neon lights all around.  Someone has a pet monkey.  Basically, the whole movie is one giant Duran Duran video.  

The punks look dangerous, but it’s mostly just for show.  Everyone has easy access to food, drugs, sex, and movies, so there is not a lot of conflict.  No one had that much to begin withThe junk of the world is evenly distributed.  The most interesting aspect of this nightmarish future internment camp is that the government really seems to have figured it out.  The inmates could easily overpower the couple of cops on patrol and bust out anytime they wanted, but why bother?  Everything they need is provided.  For most of these losers, life inside is better than life outside.  

The manager of the drive-in, Thompson (Peter Whitford), could be considered the warden character, but he seems like just as much a prisoner as anyone else.  We never see him leave the camp, no one respects him, and he is filled with a resigned sadness that things are never going to be good again.  He sees that Crabs is more ambitious than the other knuckleheads, and tries to win him over with privileges like beer.  Ultimately though, he’s a cog in the machine, an efficient bureaucrat who only cares about doing his job and not bucking the system.  Crabs can’t get a straight answer out of him.  Every explanation is infuriatingly vague, like “that’s just the state of things.”  

Every time Crabs makes progress toward escape, Thompson is there to undo it.  When Crabs finds new wheels, Thompson steals his engine.  In a way, he is a much more insidious villain than the over the top Warden Thatcher from TURKEY SHOOT.  Thompson is only armed with a smile and a beer, reminding Crabs that it’s so much easier to just give up.

What makes it worse is that Crabs is totally alone in his desire to escape.  Everyone thinks he’s crazy for maintaining his car, working out, and having hope.  Even Carmen can’t understand why he doesn’t want to just hang out and have sex all the time.  She puts it on herself, thinking he’s not into her anymore.

All of his resistance only attracts the attention of the local drug pushing big shot Dave and his cronies.  It might be a rough situation for Crabs, except that this is the least intimidating gang in history.   Dave is pretty much the Australian equivalent to Francis Buxton from PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (Oi, I know you are, but what am I?).  They seem more like schoolyard bullies than a serious threat, especially after Crabs cracks Hazza, Dave's muscle (?), upside the head with a rock.  

The only real danger comes when the drive-in denizens’ kingdom is threatened by outsiders.  The government decides the drive-ins (there are nine of them around the country) are a perfect place to stash all their pesky refugees as well as unemployed hoodlums.  Everyone in the camp is worried about how this will change their idyllic existence of doing nothing all day.  The punks look at the refugees as a strange and threatening group of freaks, despite the fact they are the ones wearing all the spikes, shoulder pads, and light-up braziers.  

As usual, Crabs is the only one to step up and do the right thing.  In this case it is defending a innocent Sikh's right to use the public toilet from Dave's gang of bulliesAfter this, though, Dave's gang change from harmless nitwits to something much more sinister.  They form their own White Drive-In Nationalist party.  Dave paints the refugees, mostly wide eyed Asian and Indian families, as a bunch of thieves and rapists.  The drive-in denizens are all too eager to buy into his rhetoric.  Instead of focusing their energy against the government that is illegally detaining them, the punks turn their anger on the easier targets, the people with even less power.  They live in a garbage heap, but they are determined to be at the top of that heap.

We never get to see how bad things will get.  Crabs’ last ditch escape attempt sends the whole place straight to hell.  While Crabs races around the camp trying not to get shot by the cops, the punks desperately attempt to save their sad little kingdom from burning to the ground.  In one impressive stunt, rabs launches his stolen cop car over the electrified fence, straight through the Star Drive-In sign.    

The last we see of him, Crabs is hauling ass down a desolate road, racing towards an uncertain future.  He has no idea what awaits him or if it will be any better than what he just left behind, but for that moment, he is happy as fuck to be free.  For such a depressing future, it’s a good message to end on.  Keep fighting and appreciate any success we can get.

Obviously, the events of this movie will never come to pass.  Drive-ins are obsolete and we all treat our refugees with respect and dignity.  Well, drive-ins are obsolete, at least.  So we don't have to worry about Star Drive-Ins in our near future.  I would be a little leery of the  Star Free High Speed Wi-Fi, though.

C Chaka