Friday, April 21, 2017

The Video Nasties, Part 3 – Cannibals!



Welcome back to my bite sized examination of the U.K.’s infamous Video Nasty list, the films that the Director of Public Prosecutions deemed too morally reprehensible to be viewed by any upstanding British citizen in the early ‘80s.  For the sake of time and sanity, I’m breaking the list into easily digestible chunks.  On this week’s menu is a lightly pan seared delicacy, the films of cannibalism.

The DPP really, really hated cannibal movies.  Out of the 72 movies prosecuted or considered for prosecution on grounds of obscenity, 10 were about cannibalism,  6 with the word "cannibal" in their title.  This might be due to the inherent gruesomeness of the subject, but I believe iftmostly stemmed from one movie, perhaps the most notorious off all the Video Nasties, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.  And while the film itself is well deserving of notoriety, it was probably this image that caused the most fuss.

This VHS cover was scientifically designed to horrify old white conservatives while intriguing everyone else (seriously, you want to turn your eyes away, but you can’t).  It was so blatant and in your face that it practically dared the establishment to ban it, which it did.  When the MPs went looking for titles to add to their list, anything using the word cannibal was guilty by association.  

To be fair, though, if you include “Cannibal” in your title, there’s a reasonable bet your movie is just a little bit nasty.  I’m sure there is some highbrow French film out there that uses the word as an analogy for the bourgeoisie, but it isn’t CANNIBAL TERROR.  

So I start this installment with the Mother of All Video Nasties, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.  I seriously debated putting this one in the Bummers category, as it is kind of a downer.  And by “kind of” I mean “soul crushingI have seen a lot of really rough movies, but nothing compares to this one.  The biggest reason being that the movie, which is about a professor traveling through the uncharted jungles of Amazon to find what happened to a missing film crew, is actually very well made.  Director Ruggero Deodato made some incredibly hokey (and entertaining) films in his career.  CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is not one of them.  It is beautifully shot, well scored, decently acted, and most of all, very authentic feeling.  This is especially true of the found footage portion (made before that was even a term).  The combination of real violence to animals (quick, but still nauseating) and very effectively staged violence toward the characters (shot from a distance) causes the lines between movie and reality to blur.  There is a reason Charlie Sheen reported this to the police as an actual snuff film when he saw it, and it wasn’t just because of the cocaine.  

Fun fact:  While being banned in over 50 countries (allegedly), CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is the second highest grossing film in Japan, behind E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERESTRIAL.  Coincidently, this also constitutes the world’s worst double feature ever.

The power and gravity of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST is most apparent when shown against its similarly themed but immensely trashier counterpart, CANNIBAL FEROX (re-titled MAKE THEM DIE SLOWLY in the U.S. because no one knew what the hell a ferox was).  Umberto Lenzi’s film has practically the same plot (minus the found footage) and arguably even more gore, but none of the stark, visceral impact of Deodato’s.  There is no mistaking FEROX for anything other than the sleaziest of exploitation, especially with the incomparable Giovanni Lombardo Radice chewing up the scenery.  Radice was a staple of Italian genre cinema of that era, and perhaps the subject of more gruesome deaths than any other actor in history.  FEROX is still a rough movie, but considerably more fun (except for the animal killings, boo!).

Umberto Lenzi actually started off the whole Italian cannibalspoitation genre with THE MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (aka SACRIFICE!, aka DEEP RIVER SAVAGES).  Basically a remake of the American Western A MAN CALLED HORSE, the movie is about a photographer who is captured by a primitive tribe in the Amazon and slowly adapts to their ways (after a period of distrust and torture).  DEEP RIVER is far tamer than the cannibal films that would follow.  The gut munching angle doesn’t even appear until near the end, when a hostile (and hungry) tribe attacks.  Less of a horror movie as it is an exploration of cultural understanding.  Except, you know, a little bit racist. Oooow, scary indigenous people want to eat you!  The whole cannibal genre  is uncomfortably literal exploitation cinema.

Switching from the Amazon to New Guinea but still very Italian, Sergio Martino’s MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD is another one caught in the DPP’s widely spread cannibal net.  This one, starring Stacy Keach and Ursula Andress, is more of a straight up adventure movie, with subplots about corporate greed and the exploitation of nature.  Andress hires Keach to guide her and her brother through a dangerous jungle in search of her missing husband.  The gore is fairly restrained (unless you are an animal), until they get to the titular mountain and everything goes absolutely apeshit.  Ursula Andress covered in honey, cannibal orgies, forced heart eating, and one very confused pig.  I re-watched that scene last night and it was even more insane and uncomfortable than I remembered.  It’s the cannibal equivalent to CALIGULA.  

While cannibal movies were mostly the domain of the Italians, other countries were eager to get in on the action.  From France came the sublimely schlocky CANNIBAL TERROR, which I have already gone on about in more detail than the movie has probably ever received.  

Spain’s exploitation maestro Jess Franco took a bit of the pie, as well.  His most obvious offender, CANNIBALS (aka WHITE CANNIBAL QUEEN), somehow escaped the Video Nasties List, probably because everyone in the U.K. government thought it was CANNIBAL TERROR.  Or they thought it was already on the list because they mistook it for Franco’s other kind-of-supernatural-but-not-really gut-munching tale, DEVIL HUNTER.  It is primarily an action vehicle starring ZOMBIE vet Al Cliver as a tough guy hired to rescue a kidnapped actress from a mysterious jungle island that is coincidentally inhabited by cannibals.  The twist is that the tribe doesn’t do the cannibalizing (they mostly just dance a lot).  Instead, they offer up tasty people treats to their god, a man with the power of having weird bug eyes.   That’s it, really.  Not sure why they think so highly of him.   There are a few very unconvincing liver extracting scenes that were probably the reason the movie was labeled a Nasty, but the real high point is watching the uncoordinated Cliver have a fight with an almost completely blind actor on a real cliff top.  It could have so easily become an accidental snuff film.  I’m sure Franco would have released it anyway.

Not all cannibal films have to be in the jungle.  In Joe D’Amatto’s impressively named ANTHROPOPHAGUS, a group of rich tourists, including another ZOMBIE alum, Tisa Farrow, get stuck on an abandoned Greek island and discover that a horribly disfigured cannibal is stalking them.  The tourist chomper is played by legendary Italian exploitation villain George Eastman, but since his character has been driven mad to the point of catatonia, we are deprived of the standard Eastman overacting magic.  The movie has plenty of gore, including one super gruesome bit of depravity (more in concept than in execution), but honestly, it is kind of a slog to get through.  None of the characters are remotely interesting, and even the death scenes are slow moving and drawn out (not in the torture porn way, more in the “okay, we got it” kind of way).   It’s really only notable for being the movie that made Tisa Farrow conclude “You know, maybe the acting world only needs one Farrow.”

Eloy de la Iglesia’s THE CANNIBAL MAN is the real oddball in this line up because it is actually a fairly classy, introspective film about isolation, loneliness, and desperation.  It is certainly the least gory.  Clearly no one in the DPP office actually watched it, they just looked at the VHS cover and declared “Another one of those bloody cannibal movies!”  The irony is that the main character, played by Vicente Parra, isn’t even a cannibal.  He is just a guy who accidentally kills his girlfriend, and in trying to cover up the crime has to kill an ever increasing string of witnesses, snoops, and blackmailers.  He decides to dispose of the bodies at the sausage making factory where he works.  In that sense, he’s less of a Cannibal Man as he is a Cannibal Enabler.   It’s quite a good movie, really, as long as you aren’t expecting a lot of intestine yanking gore.

It is kind of a stretch, but I’ll include BLOOD FEAST, a movie which I have already described in great detail, in the cannibal section.  Faust Ramsey never consumed any of his delicious Egyptian feast made for—and from— lovely Floridians, but it was definitely his intent.  If he hadn’t been so enormously incompetent and the police very slightly more competent (and ridiculously lucky), an entire upscale neighborhood would have unknowingly been turned into flesh eaters.  

Lastly, and most enjoyable of all, Giovanni Lombardo Radice returns, along with John Saxon, in Antonio Margheriti’s CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE.   The title might be (intentionally) reminiscent of CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, but that is about as close as it gets.  Margheriti completely discards any sense of realism or atmosphere by setting the majority of the movie in Atlanta, GA.  It has the strangest, most confusing connection with cannibalism of all the movies on the list.  APOCALYPSE starts off as a Vietnam POW flick, transitions to a FIRST BLOOD style PTSD drama, then mutates into a zombie film.  In a new twist, anyone bitten by a cannibal becomes a cannibal themselves.  Because of a virus, maybe?  Logic is clearly secondary to Radice’s wonderfully unhinged performance as he takes on both a weekend biker club and the cops.  Saxon brings his trademark brooding intensity, compounded by the fact that he has absolutely no idea what is happening.  The gore is impressive without being too disturbing.  As to be expected Radice takes a lot of punishment (though not nearly as much as in CANNIBAL FEROX).  I might need to revisit this one as a full post one day.

Along with the four from Part 1 and three from Part 2, and the Nasties that warranted their own full length posts (INFERNO, CANNIBAL TERROR, DON'T GO IN THE WOODS, BLOOD FEAST, EVIL DEAD, ZOMBIE, THE BURNING), these ten bring the tally up to twenty-four.  Only a scant forty-eight left.


C Chaka

Friday, April 14, 2017

Intellectual Apocalypse - RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR



The Italian film industry is famous for its shameless knock-offs of successful genre movies, particularly in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  There were STAR WARS rip-offs (STARCRASH), ALIEN rip-offs (CONTAMINATION), DAWN OF THE DEAD rip-offs (a sub-genre all its own).  The best ones, or the most entertaining ones, I should say, followed the basic framework of the original film, but then veered off in unique or insane directions.  Italian directors were brazen with what they got away with, but only Bruno Mattei had the balls to simultaneously rip-off both THE ROAD WARRIOR and THE BIRDS in the same movie.  The result, 1984’s RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, is a mind boggling wonder to behold.

The Capsule:
In 225 A.B. (After the Bomb), a motley band of scavenging bike punks seem to have hit the jackpot when they find an abandoned building packed with food, purified water, and comfy beds.  The only drawback is the slight rat infestation.  This turns out to be a larger issue than the punks anticipated, because while the rats look like ordinary, easy to abuse vermin, they have mutated into clever, carnivorous little horrors.  One by one, the punks fall prey to the diminutive beasts.  By the time they realize what is happening, it is too late; the hungry hoards have them trapped.  It comes down to a battle of wits between human and rat, and these humans are sorely, embarrassingly outmatched.  

The movie begins with a very loaded text scroll (and a voiceover, in case you don’t want to read).  It explains that there was a nuclear war in 2015 that destroyed all five (!) of Earth’s continents.  The survivors, known as the New Humanity, found protection underground.  A century later, a bunch of teenagers get fed up with New Humanity’s bogus rules, dress codes, curfews, and what not.  I’m assuming they are teens, the text doesn’t specify.  Anyway, the young turks blow off the underground to party on the surface.  They are dubbed the New Primitives, and New Humanity really hates them because all they do is drive their motorbikes around all day and play their music too loudly.  

Alright, now that you have digested all that, just forget about it because it doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual movie.  I’m not even sure it was written for this film.  Maybe they just had a spare post-apocalyptic text scroll lying around and decided to throw it on the screen.  

Mattei made some dumb movies in his day (all of them, really).  With RATS, however, he declares an all-out War On Intelligence.  The bikers do not specifically refer to themselves as New Primitives, but the moniker is very appropriate (and not just because they all dress like they are in an Adam Ant video).  Everyone seems to have a six-year old's understanding of technology.  The most common response when something stops working is to shake it, whine, and throw it on the floor.  Early on, one of the characters finds a fancy sci-fi computer.  As he confidently starts flipping switches, I think, oh, this is the electronics expert in the group.  No, it turns out he thought it was some kind of video game and was just pushing buttons at random.  Even plastic bags seem to be too sophisticated for them, as seen when one guy just tucks into a bag of brown sugar without opening it first.  Even the rats know not to eat the plastic.  These people would get themselves killed on an escalator, I have no idea how they managed to survive this long in the post-apocalyptic wasteland.  

It should be noted that these rats are not monsters.  They don’t have mutated features, extra-long claws, or enormous bodies.  They are just a bunch of average white lab rats, painted grey to make them seem scarier and less adorable.  The humans treat them like an evolutionarily superior super-predator, though.   The hysteria prone Myrna (Ann-Gisel Glass) freaks out every time she sees one.  Or a spider.  Or a candy wrapper.  Deus (Fausto Lombardi, aka Tony Lombardo), the deep one dressed like a Hari Krishna, goes on about all the fatal diseases contractible from rat bites (while they are suspensefully creeping up a rat filled stairway.  Geez, pick your moment, Deus).  Kurt (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, aka Richard Raymond), the fearful leader, straight up admits “They’re stronger than us!” after most of his crew becomes rat food.  The rats themselves spend most of their time milling about, watching the action and trying to wipe off the grey from their fur.

The rats don't have to take much initiative, anyway.  The humans do a fantastic job of getting themselves killed all on their own.  One guy gets drunk and falls into the rat filled sewer.  Several people just stand there as a torrent of rats pour down on top of them.  A lady gets trapped in her sleeping bag because she can’t figure out how zippers work.  Another one literally gives up and kills herself due to the pressure of attempting to outsmart a rodent.  

In the few instances where the rats actually have to do things, they handle themselves well.  They are good jumpers, especially when aiming for the face or neck.  They can batter down a door somehow, which is impressive, though not scientifically sound.  Near the end, with their superiority so clearly established, they just start fucking with the humans for fun.  They move corpses around to freak them out, and even throw the sleeping bag girl’s body through a doorway.  Again, I’m not sure exactly how that works with their tiny little rat arms.  In a particularly non rat-like trick, they burrow into a corpse and control it like a puppet, before exploding out of its back.  At this point, they are just showing off.

It’s not just the rats that the humans have to worry about, either.  Duke (Henry Luciani) continuously plots to depose Kurt as the leader of the group.  He is hindered by the fact that he is such a cowardly little fuck that no one can stand him.  The only person he can get on his side when he stages his coup is Myrna, and honestly, she would follow anyone who wasn’t a rat.  He pulls the classic dick move of locking the others out of a safe room, he steals their only surviving vehicle (which everyone somehow forgot they had for a while), and tries to kill them with a machine gun.  Luckily, he doesn’t understand how to reload the machine gun, so he threatens to blow himself and Myrna up with a grenade unless everyone gives up.  He clearly doesn’t understand how threats work either.

The thing is, Duke has a point.  Kurt is possibly the worst leader ever.  When one of his team comes in covered in rats, Kurt attempts to get them off with a flamethrower.  He sends people on dangerous and ultimately worthless missions that just get them killed.  He insists on remaining in the rat filled building instead of, say, driving away in their fake tank (not that it worked out any better for Duke).  Here is an example of his reasoning:  “They can’t be smart enough to be luring us out into the open, so I’m going to call their bluff and go out there!”  It’s not just the dub, he sounds just as stupid in Italian.  

The single competent human in the movie is the black woman named (shudder) Chocolate.  She’s no Pam Grier, but Chocolate is tough, confident, and doesn’t take any shit.  Not only does she make it through the entire movie without doing anything particularly stupid (aside from hanging out with these losers), she has a few legitimately clever moments.  When Duke and Myrna have the jump on her, she makes Myrna freak out about a rat so the panicked woman will knock down Duke long enough for Chocolate to grab his weapon.  Well played, Chocolate.  Sorry about the name.

There are apparently a few intelligent folks left on Earth, because the bikers eventually find a recording from the scientists who were doing tests in the building before the rats came.  They were smart enough to build the water purifier and the hydroponic garden, but not smart enough to put their protective uniforms back on when the rats attacked.  The movie acts like this recording is a major reveal of information, but the scientist just recounts all the things that have already been shown.  It basically ends with “Oh, by the way, watch out for the rats.”  Book smart, rat stupid.

Normally I wouldn’t want to spoil an ending like this, but it is just too beautiful not to talk about.  Just as everything seems hopeless for the two remaining humans, Chocolate and Video (Gianni Franco, aka Richard Cross), a bunch of guys in yellow rain slickers and gas masks emerge from the sewer and start gassing the rats.  Chocolate and Video wake up surrounded by the rain slicker dudes and begin thanking them for coming to their rescue.  The dudes watch silently, until one pulls off his gas mask to reveal… a giant, furry rat face!  This is not an out-of-nowhere shock ending, like the one in PIECES.  They tease out the suspense.  You can practically hear the movie debating its next move.  Look, audience, I know you want there to be a giant rat face under there, but how can we possibly justify that?  It’s just so ludicrous.  It defies all laws of—naw, just fooling with you!  Here’s your giant fuzzy rat face!

 There is literally no better way for this movie to end.

I must warn you, the Humane Society was not monitoring this set.  As was common with Italian films of the era, no love was shown to the smallest of extras.  Rats are routinely knocked around, flung, kicked, and manhandled.  A few of the poor bastards get roasted in the fire stunts.  By the time Myrna inaccurately whines “we’ve done nothing to them,” we are squarely on the side of the rats.   I hope the official “rat chucker” behind the camera got a few bites on the fingers, at least.

Bruno Mattei (aka Vincent Dawn, aka about a million other pseudonyms) would go on to make dozens more wonderfully terrible movies, including STRIKE COMMANDO, CRUEL JAWS, and TERMINATOR 2 (but not that TERMINATOR 2).  He also took over for Lucio Fulci on ZOMBI 3, which is why the slow moving zombies suddenly turn into kickboxers halfway through.  He made movies right up to the day he died in 2007, at the age of 75.  It was a life well spent.  At the very least, the world should praise him for giving us RATS, and revealing what is truly the deadliest thing to worry about in the apocalypse, utter stupidity.


C Chaka

Friday, April 7, 2017

L.A. Losers – BLOOD AND CONCRETE



Do you know who’s underrated?  Billy Zane.  I’ve already gushed about him in my DEMON KNIGHT piece, and I will continue now.  Zane is one of those actors who can be instantly likable, even when playing a force of evil bent on destroying humanity.  All he has to do is flash that disarming “aw shucks” smile of his and you just want to hang out with the guy.  It’s a pity that most of the world knows him from his biggest role, the rich, possessive, joyless villain from TITANIC, a character completely devoid of Zane’s natural charisma.  Fortunately, his charm is on full display in 1991’s darkly comic loser love story, BLOOD AND CONCRETE.

The Capsule:
Small time crook Joey Turks (Billy Zane) is having another in a long line of bad days.  First, his foul mouthed dirtbag associate, Mort (Billy Bastiani), stiffs him on his last job.  Then he gets stabbed when Mort catches him stealing his TV.  His luck changes when he passes out on Mona (Jennifer Beals), a lovelorn, drug addicted musician who was trying to kill herself in a cemetery.  Mona takes Joey back to her apartment, patching him up and clumsily seducing him.  Their budding romance gets complicated when Mort turns up dead, minus his stash of a hot new designer drug, Libido.  Joey gets squeezed between Spuntz (Nicholas Worth), a bargain basement crime kingpin who thinks he has the stash, and washed up homicide detective Hank Dick (Darren McGavin), who’s using Joey to get to Spuntz.  All Joey wants to do is run off with his new girl, but first he will have to track down the drugs, keep out of jail, avoid Spuntz’s psychotic hustler enforcer Bart, (Mark Pellegrino), deal with Mona’s sleazebag ex-boyfriend, Lance (James Le Gros), and stay out of the sights of the real killer. Just another day in L.A.

Billy Zane’s Joey Turks is a terrible criminal.  As in, he is terrible at being a criminal, not that he is a criminal who inspires terror.  Mostly he inspires getting beaten up.  The first shot of the movie has him very awkwardly stepping out of the window of a house carrying a TV and then coming face to face with the guy he’s trying to rip-off.  He is a car thief who only steals the piece of shit kind of cars that people try to have stolen in the first place.  He keeps all his belongings stored in a bus station locker, and has to swipe three bucks from a nice old lady’s purse when he can’t afford to get them out.  Danny Ocean, his is not.

He’s a bit like Michael Moriarty’s sad sack crook in Q.  The difference here is that it’s not just Joey that is bad at his job.  Everyone in the entire film is embarrassingly incompetent at their chosen profession.  Joey is just the only one who is aware of that fact.

A good example of this lack of self-reflection is disgraced homicide detective Hank Dick.  Imagine if Darren McGavin’s short sighted, impulsive dad from A CHRISTMAS STORY was divorced, full of bitterness, and had a gun.  That is Hank Dick.  He is months away from retirement with absolutely nothing to show for it.  The younger detectives openly mock his famously inaccurate intuition and long string of unsolved cases.  When he learns that Spuntz is involved in Joey’s troubles, Hank sees his chance to end his career on a high note, or at least a note that doesn’t sound like utter failure.  Except instead of doing actual police work, Hank just bullies Joey into bringing Spuntz to him.  

McGavin imbues Hank with a blind determination that is completely disconnected from reality.   In one scene, while Hank is driving through L.A., he stares down an increasingly agitated Joey sitting in the passenger seat for what seems like thirty seconds before stating, “I’ve got my eye on you, son.”  It’s not a Police Squad style bit of parody, it’s simply that Hank does not give a shit.  He would rather run over a pedestrian than ruin the moment.  The humor comes from Joey, who clearly does give a shit, but can only squirm and plead with the old man until he’s made his point.

It is a testament to how bad Hank is at being a detective that his arch nemesis is Spuntz, a third tier crime boss with delusions of grandeur.  Nicholas Worth is a huge guy, known for playing violent, slow witted brutes like in DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE and SWAMP THING.  As a nice change of pace, Spuntz is a refined, cultured man.  He speaks eloquently about the opera and the finer things in life.  He is also completely full of shit.  Everything is for show, whether it’s staging an elegant feast in a house he clearly broke into, or belting out the score of Otello on a cheap boombox.  

Spuntz’s criminal empire seems to consist solely of Bart, his muscle bound boytoy that he took off —and constantly threatens to put back on—the streets.  He tries to project an air of calm authority, but it is hard for him to keep his cool when all his money is tied up in the lost shipment of Libido.  Or when he is constantly being ridiculed by Bart.  Just like Hank Dick, he does not get the respect he thinks he deserves, but it is hard to do when he is trying to intimidate Joey while dressed in a Speedo, or when Bart busts in on him while on the toilet.  Dignity is the one thing in this movie nobody can afford.

Mark Pellegrino’s gay hustler can be a bit much, with his love of electropop and skimpy muscle shirts, and his performance quickly becomes so over the top extreme that is impossible to take him seriously as a human being.  He’s a walking, talking, dancing manifestation of pure id.  The only thing on his mind is fucking and fighting.  That and giving Spuntz shit when he gets too self-aggrandizing.  He also has a serious Libido habit, popping the addictive aphrodisiacs like they were Tic Tacs.  The more he takes, the more amorphous his sexuality becomes, meaning he is a threat to either gender (possibly different species, too).  Luckily, Pellegrino plays him as such a buffoon that we know there is no danger of this wandering into SAVAGE STREETS territory.  Not that Joey can appreciate this when Bart is chasing him around a dinner table with his pants around his ankles. 

There is a nice running gag where Joey tries to reason with Bart, only to wind up smashing him over the head with something.  Bart falls for it every time, and collects an ever growing collection of bruises and cuts as the movie goes on.

The only decent thing Joey has going for him is Mona.  Her act of kindness (keeping him from bleeding to death) and act of passion (chemically motivated or not) sets Joey firmly in her orbit.  He doesn’t want her to get involved with his crazy danger, but he doesn’t what to stay away, either.  

Mona’s life isn't all sunshine and puppies, either.  She has a dead end job (“Envelopes, I stuff ‘em, I lick ‘em, I send ‘em”), a dead beat ex always sniffing around, and a Libido habit.  Plus, she has crazy mood swings, and there is that thing about her trying to kill herself.  Despite all this, or maybe because of it, Mona and Joey have undeniable chemistry.  They can be both super sexy and charmingly tender together, if they can ever get their collective shit together long enough to enjoy it.  

Mona has one up on Joey, because there is something she is legitimately good at, singing.  She takes Joey to see her band at a hole-in-the-wall bar.  As to be expected from this kind of movie, her band a very quirky, eclectic ensemble, with an accordionist, cello player, guitarist, and Mona rocking a thrift store gypsy look.  Surprisingly, the movie lets the entire performance play without interruption, which is nice, because her song, “One In a Million”, is fucking fantastic.  It is cool, eccentric, catchy, and beautifully sung by Beals herself.  It has sort of a smoky, sexy They Might Be Giants aesthetic.  The performance isn’t just padding, it moves the story along.  We see Joey watching quietly in the crowd, becoming more and more captivated with this woman.  Zane’s expression honestly captures that I’ve-really-found-something-special realization.  Joey liked her before, but this is the point where he falls hard for her.

This gives Joey more than his own hide to think of as he navigates the L.A. side streets full of lowlifes and weirdos.  Not that that makes it any easier for him.  Joey is the kind of guy much more comfortable with talking his way out of situations than taking violent measures.  Ideally, he would be able to pull a YOJIMBO and play the different sides coming down on him against each other.  Unfortunately, they are too dumb, arrogant, or obsessed to listen, and it is all Joey can do to keep one step ahead of being flattened.  The one voice of sanity in this mess belongs to his former partner in crime turned yuppie philosopher, Sammy (Harry Shearer, playing a sort of Zen Ned Flanders).  He only gives Joey cryptic advice that is probably just bullshit, but at least he offers Joey a moment to catch his breath and think. Ultimately, that is just what Joey needs to solve the mystery.  That's when things really go off the rails.

This movie is so incredibly ‘90s that it’s a shock it was only made in the very beginning of the decade (the copyright is 1990).  A lot of it has to do with the setting.  L.A. practically created the ‘90s.  It was rolling in the '90s a few years ahead of the calendar.  The movie hits on the eclectic style of clothes, the retro lounge chic, the absurdity, and the indie pacing of humor that all became big in the ‘90s.  There is even a bona fide L.A. hipster (Steve Freedman), in his horn-rimmed glasses and with no real understanding of the profound things he is constantly babbling about.  He rescues Joey from being plugged by Bart and they hide out in a Chinese restaurant, because he figures a person trying to kill you would never expect you to stop for a bite to eat.  Like all hipsters, he is wrong.  He has just long enough to express how alive he feels before ending up face down in his plate of moo goo gai pan. That pretty much sums up the '90s right there.

I don’t know where this little movie came from.  It came out too early to be part of the indie boom.  I don’t remember it being in the theater, but it is more slickly produced than you would expect from a Direct to Video cheapie.  I'd never heard of the director, Jeffrey Reiner, before, but that is not surprising since this was his first film (he's most famous now for television, a reoccurring theme with the kinds of movies I like).  The cast, while superb, are low key enough to fly under the radarI’m not even sure if I picked it up at the video store or caught it on cable.  One day it was just there.  That is fine by me, because I love this dark tale of a city full of losers.

While still underrated, Billy Zane certainly keeps himself busy. He's been making four or five films a year for decades now, including eight due out for this year alone.  Trouble is, I haven't heard of 99% of them.  That doesn't bode well.  On the other hand, no one has heard of this one and it's a fucking gem.  Maybe I can find a few more in his 700 or so other movies.  If not, well, he's still underrated in my book.

C Chaka