Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Strange, Strange Case of Galaxy of Terror, or A Rip-Off Comes Full Circle

In today’s world of re-makes, re-boots, and re-imaging, it’s easy to overlook the most humble version of capitalizing on the past, the straight up rip-off.  Rip-offs are often seen as just being derivative cash-ins, which they certainly can be (NEED FOR SPEED mostly reminded me I’d rather be watching a FAST and/or FURIOUS).  But sometimes, when you dump a bunch of familiar ingredients into a pot with a couple of oddball ones and mess with the cooking time, you get something unexpectedly satisfying.  Without the DIE HARD rip-off, you wouldn’t have UNDER SIEGE, without the JAWS rip-off, you wouldn’t have PIRANHA, without the STAR WARS EPISODE IV rip-off, you wouldn't have STAR WARS EPISODE VII. 

One of the masters of the rip-off was Roger Corman.  He was renowned for taking a hot property and churning out half a dozen or so variations on the theme, as quickly and cheaply as possible.  More importantly, he also had an eye for young, hungry, unique directors, and he gave them the latitude to be creative.  Even if they were saddled with making a rip-off, they could put their own stamp on it.  This often resulted in strange hybrids; chimeras that were one part blockbuster aspiration, one part low-budget compromise, and one part lunacy.  One of the looniest ever to come from Corman’s rip-off factory was GALAXY OF TERROR, (1981, Dir. Bruce D. Clark).
On paper it was an ALIEN rip-off with a dash of STAR WARS inspired metaphysics, but this was only the connective tissue.  The space in-between was filled with wacko characters, bizarre psychological horror, boobs, blood, and scenes no one had ever seen in a movie before.  Allow me to encapsulate:
Glow-headed videogame enthusiast, Planet Master, orders a rescue party to travel to the barren world of Xerxes to search for survivors of a crashed spaceship.  The hand-picked crew of mostly insane people includes Captain Laura Palmer’s mom from TWIN PEAKS, a mute Sid Haig who worships crystal boomerangs, a man steaming mad at corpses, claustrophobic psychic Joanie from HAPPY DAYS, and Robert Englund in nice guy mode.  There’s also the guy from MY FAVORITE MARTIAN as a simple cook and certainly not an android like Ian Holm in ALIEN.  I don't know why you would even think that (not foreshadowing).  Captain Laura Palmer’s mom, who is not the galaxy's most responsible spaceship driver, almost kills everyone three times before her ship is guided to the surface of Xerxes by a mysterious force.  The crew locates the crashed ship, finding only bodies, which the nutbag team leader immediately incinerates, not really helping the investigation.  He’s kind of the anti-CSI.  One by one, the crew are attacked by their deepest fears made manifest.  Sid Haig is killed by his own boomerangs (and his own arm).  A scaredy-cat astronaut gets a really aggressive scalp massage.  One tech officer is unfortunate enough to have an irrational fear of being fucked to death by a giant maggot.  I can't remember what the Latin term is for that phobia.  Robert Englund has a split screen fight with his inner Kruger.  Joanie definitely does not love tentacles.  Finally, the bland hero, who is not interesting enough to have cool or ironic fears, must face the ultimate evil in the bowels of an alien pyramid.  Does he have what it takes?  Will anyone escape the planet alive?  Can anyone figure out what the hell the ending means?  

This movie is bonkers, right from the get go.  The believable, lived in future of ALIEN is nowhere to be found.  It's more like BUCK ROGERS' sleazy, loser cousin on a mescaline trip.  Obviously, it is endlessly entertaining.  Even the super gross stuff, like the rapist maggot, is too ludicrous to really be offensive.  In the scene, a regular sized maggot grows as big as a VW Microbus and flops on top of the worm averse crew member.  Technically, I guess she suffocates, but it very strongly suggests that the maggot has other things on its mind.  It is clearly a fake, and comes close to Ed Wood Jr. territory.  However, like the best of schizocinema, it's played straight.  As straight as that sort of thing can be, at least.
It also has a number of legitimately solid touches, including one of my favorites, the alluded to, but unexplained back story.  Captain Laura Palmer's mom (who you should never, under any circumstances, accept a ride from) suffers PTSD from the ill-fated Hesperus mission.  It had something to do with aliens and she was the sole survivor, but we get no other details except that she's haunted by it (not a good thing on a planet that feeds on your fears).  Even better, the bland hero and the corpse hating team leader clearly have some beef about a previous mission.  The corpse hater has a MAD MAX style leg brace, so it's probably justified.  Neither one goes into the specifics, though.  If they had explained it in exposition, it probably would have boiled down to the old chestnut, "Your recklessness almost got me killed the last time!", or something equally predictable.  Instead, the director wisely decides to leave you guessing.  It's the mystery that makes it interesting.  
The set design can be impressive, too, especially for being a cheapie Corman movie.  Some of the matte paintings are truly spectacular, and the planet exterior scenes feel appropriately bleak and alien.  The reason for this is perhaps the movie's most interesting facet, the Production Designer and Second Unit Director is none other than a young James Cameron.  So the rip-off of ALIEN can actually be seen as a prototype for Cameron's official sequel, ALIENS.  Tonally, the films are miles apart, but there are unmistakable similarities.  The crew from GALAXY is sent to a desolate planet on a deliberate rescue mission, just like the Colonial Marines in ALIENS, and both are more militaristic than the reluctant explorers from ALIEN.  There are scenes in a tight tunnel like the one Bishop crawls through in ALIENS.  It is even more apparent in the art direction, which Cameron had direct control over.  The scene of the GALAXY crew walking through the wreckage of the crashed spaceship is almost a mirror of when Ripley's gang are surveying the debris of their downed dropship.   None of the wacked out characters filtered through to ALIENS (thankfully), though some of the names were direct nods.  Colonial Marine sergeant Apone was in honor of GALAXY's Mechanical Effects man Al Apone.  Bill Paxton even worked as a carpenter on GALAXY.  Now, we can all agree that ALIENS is an indisputable masterpiece (all of us), but who knew a cheap, goofball early '80's knock-off played such a large part in its creation.  That, and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, but we'll get into that at another time.

The tale gets even stranger.  Not only was GALAXY inspirational for James Cameron, it also has a bizarre connection to Ridley Scott's own wacko semi-sequel/prequel, PROMETHEUS, 21 years later.  In Scott's mega-budget space epic, while inside an alien pyramid, a simple maggot is transformed into a large, phallic shaped monster that face rapes one of the investigating crewmen.  Hmm.  Now, I'm not saying that Scott stole the pervert maggot idea from GALAXY OF TERROR, but if he ever saw that movie, that is the scene he would remember.  

C Chaka    

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas and Bloody Boxcutters For All, Silent Night Deadly Night

My normal Christmas viewing tradition, once all the presents are wrapped, is to snuggle up with a mug of spiked eggnog and the grandfather of American slashers, BLACK CHRISTMAS.  But this year I decided to change it up and go with the other even more Christmas-y classic, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT.  

It’s a lesser movie, in my opinion, it doesn’t sustain the suspense nearly as well, but it has its charms.   One is the meticulous How-to-Guarantee-a-Kid-Grows-Up-to-be-a-Mass-Murdering-Santa-Claus setup.  Honestly, the way this movie piles on the trauma, there is no chance the kid could avoid becoming a Kringle Killer.  More importantly, there is one scene dear to my heart that pretty well defines a schizocinema moment.  But first, the capsule:

Eight year old Billy spends Christmas Eve being left alone with his crazy old grandfather, who proceeds to scare the shit out of him with grave warnings of how Santa punishes naughty children.  On the way home from the mental hospital (it wasn’t a euphemism, the grandfather is certified insane), Billy’s parents stop on the side of a deserted road to assist a Santa with car trouble.  This is, in fact, not the real Santa, but a sleazebag who just knocked over a convenience store and shot the clerk.  The good Samaritans are promptly assaulted and murdered before Billy’s young eyes.  Adding insult to injury, he spends the next ten years in an orphanage run by nuns, being tormented by the punishment loving Mother Superior. Despite all this, Billy grows up to be a well-mannered, if terribly shy and laughably square, young adult. No odd behaviors at all, as long as he stays the hell away from Santa Clauses.  The one nice nun from the orphanage tries to get him a job, but the only one he can swing is in the stock room of a local toy store (not off to a good start).  Everything is going fine until he is forced to dress up as Santa for Christmas Eve.  After boozing up at the store Christmas party, he stumbles on his dream girl in passionate throes with his jerk supervisor.  Actually, the jerk is trying to rape the dream girl, but Billy’s faulty psycho-sexual wiring just interprets it as them being naughty.  The last straw finally broken, Billy’s yuletide rampage begins.  Drunken bosses are hammered (not figuratively), cavorting babysitters are impaled, bullying tobogganers are beheaded.  Billy eventually ends up at the source, or one of the many sources, of his childhood trauma, the orphanage.  

On the whole, SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT is a pretty entertaining early '80's slasher with weird pacing.  It certainly has the most pre-rampage backstory I’ve ever seen.  Billy is obviously not justified in decking the halls with pints of blood, but you can at least see where it’s coming from.  He showed remarkable restraint just keeping it together this long.  The sex = death cliché was over-applied to horror in the ‘80’s, but it's apt here.  The film got into a lot of trouble with outraged prudes, presumably for desecrating the loving, non-murdering image of Santa (though it’s been pointed out that 1972’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT did it first).  It’s fairly bloody, with a few good set pieces, and some weird touches.  The crazy grandpa is great.  A cop kills a perfectly innocent Santa (who also happens to be a deaf priest!).  Everyone sings off-brand Christmas carols, some I hope were made for the movie because they are kind of creepy.  But it’s not even my favorite killer Santa movie, I prefer the nuttier and more creative DON’T OPEN ‘TIL CHRISTMAS.  I hold SNDN in high regard for one scene in particular.  Just after the Linnea Quigley vs. Mounted Deer Head Antlers scene (point - Mounted Deer Head), the angelic faced little girl she was babysitting wakes up and sees our psycho Santa.  Absolutely thrilled, despite the fact Santa is holding an axe, she asks what he has brought her.  Billy leans down and asks her if she’s been good or naughty, pulling a bloody boxcutter from his pocket in anticipation of the answer.  Right away, she says she has been good.  “Are you sure,” Billy presses.  The girl again says she's been good, smiling sweetly the whole time.  There is an awkward beat, then Billy hands her the boxcutter like it was a candy cane.  The girl doesn’t scream, or gasp, or drop the bloody thing, she just looks at it, puzzled.  Then she give Billy a look that says, “Well, okay, I was hoping for a Barbie, but this is good too, I guess.”  Billy leaves without another word, looking rather proud of himself.  He's a well-rounded Santa.

It’s such a weird scene, and oddly sweet.  The bloodbath pauses for just a moment to become something twistedly tender.  I love Billy’s hesitation when faced with someone who doesn’t trigger his seriously lopsided naughty meter.  He’s completely unprepared for that, so he improvises.  My favorite part is the girl’s reaction, though.  She doesn’t show the slightest hint of fear, only awe at meeting Santa and bewilderment at his choice of gift, but she is polite enough not to complain or seem disappointed.  Obviously some elf worked very hard making this boxcutter and she’s is going to be grateful.  There are no screams when Billy is walking out of the house, either, so I envision the girl just getting back in bed, putting the boxcutter on her nightstand beside her Strawberry Shortcake clock, and happily drifting off to sleep.  I would like to have seen the sequels focus on her character as a grown-up, sneaking into people’s homes and leaving kitchen knives and ninja throwing stars for good little boys and girls.

And in the end, isn't that the true spirit of Christmas?  No, no it isn't .  But it is a pretty fun movie.

C Chaka

Monday, December 21, 2015

updates on SW VII predictions

Well, I was wrong.  The bad guy's name is not actually Rilo Kiley, that's an alt country band.  His real name is Darth Kylo Ren and he's not Lando Calrissian.  Everything else is pretty much correct though.

C Chaka

Remake/Remix/Sequel: The Blockbusters of 2015

Geeks have always been a culture obsessed with our obsessions. In many ways, that is what makes geek culture so incredible: an over-the-top affection for the things we love. Our craving for nostalgia and willingness to pay to relive and remember have fueled the Hollywood engine for years.

I'm all for updating a story or for seeing a new take on an old idea. Artists remix and build. The original films in this article were themselves born from nostalgia for older films, radio serials, or television shows beloved by the original filmmakers. Where that love for nostalgia helped those filmmakers generate wholly new ideas, the trend (and perhaps our increasing access to the media of the past) have led to more direct remakes, sequels, and remixes on the very films themselves. This has given us unnecessary remakes like Point Break and Halloween, with even more to come (Jumanji, anyone?)  With the trend reaching films like these it feels like the remake-a-thon train is screeching toward the final station. In the wake of this has come the rise of the remix/sequel hybrid. Instead of outright remaking a property, these films are created as continuations of the old story but retread very familiar ground in the process.

Three films this year rode this new wave with varying degrees of success. In order of quality: Jurassic World, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and Creed.

Jurassic World was the first of this set to premiere this year and is the least successful of the bunch. This film also follows another recent trend - skip the other sequels and instead pick up after the events of the first film. We waste very little time establishing that the first film existed, quickly jumping from sequel into remix/remake: before long, a key dinosaur has escaped and the young stars of the film are off on their own, avoiding the prehistoric threat while everything descends into chaos around them. The story never really clicks, instead taking us on a theme park version of the first movie. Jurassic World lacks the emotional weight of the first film, maybe because we've been to this particular rodeo before, or maybe because it makes the park open to the public, increasing the human casualties by multiples at the cost of real emotional character weight for the core cast. Bonus points here for going particularly meta on remix culture with Jake Johnson wearing a shirt depicting the logo of the first film and waxing about how great things used to be. This clone knows who the original is.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the last of the group to release this year, treads the line between remake/remix/sequel a bit more finely. Bringing in many of the characters and stars of the first films tells us this as a sequel, though the plot points and story arcs very much recall Star Wars: A New Hope. A high-level reading of the plot even sounds like the first film. We're in high-octane remix mode here. What drives The Force Awakens to greater success than Jurassic World is the introduction of fresh, exciting characters who all feel right at home in this universe. Unfortunately most of the plot feels deeply indebted and dependent on the story ideas and characters of George Lucas' original trilogy. The new characters are so great, the film could have succeeded by building on these new ideas rather than spending so much time energy rehashing. As a fan, I'm hopeful that the upcoming sequels will embrace the future and build on these concepts rather than simply revisit the past.

It is in that way that Creed succeeds so fully. This film represents the remake/remix/sequel culture at its best. Managing to embrace all three concepts at once Creed is its own film, using the springboard of the character-rich Rocky films to bring us something new and fresh. Although the settings and motivations are different, Adonis' story very closely resembles Rocky's. The film's score underlines this through its own voice with the perfect amount of literally remixed cues from Bill Conti's original music layered in at just the right moments. Creed is born from the same blood as Rocky but doesn't spend its running time reminding us of that fact. This is an all-timer film that stands on its own. The roots simply strengthen the tree.

The audiences have spoken - the list of highest grossing films is filled with remakes and sequels. While this won't change anytime soon, the overall trend seems to be moving more heavily into remix territory. Next year's Ghostbusters looks to be continuing that trend.  If films can manage to be more Creed than Jurassic World then we could wind up with some excellent new ideas built on our beloved worlds. I'm hoping for a world like this:

Jimmy Reed

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Nostalgia and Flash Gordon

The new Star Wars movie has a lot of people reveling in nostalgia, especially those old enough to have seen the original film in the theater as a five year old.  But nostalgia, while comforting, can do us a disservice.  It can close our minds to new ideas, keep us from appreciating risks, and make us overly judgmental.  And over time, it can warp our memories, glossing over flaws and imparting more depth, meaning, or quality to something than may be warranted.  Sometimes the rosy glow of nostalgia can bring you to heartbreak when you reexamine a movie or tv show in the harsh modern light.  I always thought Welcome Back, Kotter was a funny show from my childhood until I saw it 20 years later on Nick at Nite.  It was horrifying.  So be wary of nostalgia.

Which brings me to the Dino De Laurentiis 1980 space spandex epic, FLASH GORDON.  Allow me to encapsulate the story.

Blond himbo NY Jets star Flash (ah-ahhh) Gordon and sexy travel agent Dale Arden are kidnapped by Dr. Topol from FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and rocketed off to Planet Mongo, where Ming the Merciless is attacking Earth from a natural disaster creating control panel.  Negotiations breakdown quickly and Flash is sentenced to death, but Ming’s kinky daughter, Aura, wants a new boy-toy and sneaks him out of the palace unexecuted.  Dale is left behind to be Ming’s bride, because that’s how the Mongos roll.  Aura hides Flash in the woodland kingdom of Prince Timothy Dalton, which is a terrible idea since the future James Bond was her former squeeze. There is awkwardness, mostly in the form of Prince Bond trying to kill him.  Eventually they are both captured by Prince Vultan (Mongo is lousy with Princes), leader of the Hawkmen.  Prince Vultan is played by Brian Blessed, possibly the least aerodynamic creature ever to have wings.  Flash and Prince Bond have a whip fight on a tilting, spiked platform of death for the Hawkmen's amusement.  They get their money’s worth.  Then Ming’s forces attack the birdhouse palace and Princes Bond, Vultan, and non-prince Flash join forces.  They attack Ming’s lightning shielded palace in a pointy golden hotdog shaped spaceship, desperately attempting to stop Ming’s wedding to Dale, and also save the Earth.  Mostly to save the Earth, I suppose, but the big tension seems to revolve around the wedding.  Kind of like the end of THE GRADUATE, but with more lasers.  Can our motley band of heroes succeed? Yes, they can.  The theme song by Queen already spoiled it.

For years after Star Wars (truthfully, all years since Star Wars), I was mad for space epics.  FLASH GORDON was one of my favorites.  I saw it in the theater and a million times on HBO.  Then it was gone, as it happened in the pre VCR days (or my pre VCR days, at least).  I didn’t see it again until a few years ago when the Blu Ray came out.  You know that thing about nostalgia and memory that I was talking about earlier?  I have to admit, FG was not as awesome as I remembered.  It was ten times more awesome.

Make no mistake,it’s dumb, astonishingly dumb at times.  Hawkmen riding sky cycles dumb.  And goofy to the point of satire.  But it is not satire, it is 100% earnest.  It owns the flashy, archaic ‘40’s take on the future, and makes it disco.  There isn’t a single moment in this film where it isn’t trying its hardest to entertain you.  It is glorious.  It’s like if your dog put on a play for you.  It might not make a lot of sense, and the production design might be questionable, but you have to love it.  Unless you don’t like joy.

The characters are fantastic. Flash is a dope, but he’s a classic hero, super determined, courageous, and willing to sacrifice it all for his friends.  Sam Jones plays him so forthright and passionate; he turns his adversaries into allies.  Except for Ming, but maybe if he had time for a few more pickup football games with him, who knows?  Dale Arden could have easily been just another shrieking damsel, but Melody Anderson plays her as feisty, smart (relatively speaking for this movie), and capable.  She knows how to handle a laser.  And she’s honorable enough to refuse to poison Ming on their wedding night.  Dr. Zarkov is kind of the bumbling scientist character, but he’s smart enough to work the system and help Flash from behind the scenes.  And even if he is bumbling, you can’t stay mad at Topol.  Timothy Dalton is super suave and dashing as Prince Barin.  Even then, you could really see him one day becoming James Bond, briefly, while Pierce Brosnan wasn’t available.  Plus, he has an amazing mustache.  And then there is the hawkman’s hawkman, Prince Vultan. 

I cannot emphasize enough how awesome Brian Blessed is, swaggering around with fiberglass folded wings dangling from his back.  He’s like your favorite overly loud and often inappropriate uncle that no one invites to family functions but he shows up anyway, usually a little drunk.  All movies could greatly benefit from at least a Brian Blessed cameo, if not a substantial leading role.  All of them.ON THE WATERFRONT?  Better with Blessed.   SOPHIE’S CHOICE?  Better with Blessed.  FOREST GUMP?  Waaay better with Blessed.

Can we get a handclap for Max Von Sydow? As a kid, my top three capital V villains were Darth Vadar, David Warner’s Evil from TIME BANDITS, and Ming the F’ing Merciless.  Max von Sydow played him so effortlessly evil, a man delighted by his continuous string of foul deeds.  He’s at the top of the heap, and he makes sure everyone knows it.  One of the wedding vows in his forced marriage to Dale is not to blast her into space… until he grows weary of her.  There is a bit of exposition about the Earth being considered some kind of threat to Mongo, but you get the feeling Ming is just eager to destroy it because he can.  What’s the point of having a natural disaster making machine if you are not going to use it?  In other words, it’s good to be the Ming.

While we’re on the natural disaster machine, what exactly is Hot Hail?  I never got a clear demonstration, but there is literally no way it could be good.

Ming also has a troupe of memorable henchpeople, who all get remarkable deaths.  Proto-Lady Gaga dominatrix Kala liquefies into a pool of oil.  Gold faced Klytus’ eyes pop out of his mask when he gets spiked.  But the best death is reserved for Ming himself, who becomes a rocket ship shish kabob.  You could get away with a lot in a PG film back then, especially with different colored blood.

Ultimately, FLASH GORDON is not a movie for adults; it is for the kids inside of adults.  I’m speaking metaphorically, otherwise that would be gross.  It is nostalgia at its purest and most benevolent.  If you are willing to pack away all of your irony and just go with the goofball adventure, it’s a wonderful ride.  This freeze frame is the most appropriate reaction you can have to this movie. 
Long live Flash Gordon.

C Chaka