Friday, January 29, 2016

Rip-off Roundup: Humanoids from the Deep

Last time on Rip-off Roundup, before it was an actual feature, I talked about the crazy Roger Corman ALIEN rip-off, GALAXY OF TERROR, and its unusual connection to James Cameron’s official sequel, ALIENS.  The connection continues with the crazy Roger Corman JAWS rip-off, HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP.

The Capsule:
High tech salmon canning conglomerate Canco is promising to bring progress to the backwards Pacific Northwest fishing village of Noyo.  Unfortunately it is also bringing mutant humanoid fish monsters, an unintentional result of their genetic experiments to create a super salmon.   Typical canning company, always playing God.  The monsters chow down Noyo’s dogs and menfolk, but believe me, they are getting off easy.  These slimy perverts have designs on their women, gross, awkwardly filmed designs.   Heroic but clueless Jim, Native American activist Johnny Eagle, and scientist Dr. Susan Drake look for a way to curb the tide of these murderous fish rapists.  Drake may have inadvertently caused the whole mess, but let’s just overlook that.  They also have to deal with cantankerous racist fisherman Vic Morrow.  The action culminates at the town’s annual festival, which all JAWS rip-off movies are legally required to contain (no one ever closes the beach/lake/resort).

This is a very goofy movie.  It’s undeniably modeled after JAWS, with it’s underwater POV shots and suspenseful setups, but really it’s a ‘50’s style rubber monster suit movie with a ton more blood and boobs.  Despite the oogie fish rape scenes, the movie is a lot of fun (it’s hard to take the mating scenes seriously when the monsters clearly have no genitalia).  I like the suits, they are silly but inventive, with elongated arms and well-articulated jaws.  The movie definitely does not follow the “don’t show the monster until the end” formula.  They paid a lot for those suits and they were going to get their money’s worth.  My favorite aspect of the monsters, which is thankfully exploited by their would-be victims, is their exposed brains.  That is one serious evolutionary flaw.   

I always forget just how gory this movie is.  People aren’t just slashed by claws, large chunks of their bodies are torn out.  Heads are twisted off like corks.  Even the quick kills in the hectic festival attack spray gallons of blood.  This movie doesn’t mess around.  It kills a kid and a dog within the first ten minutes.  The ALIEN inspired birth scene at the end is almost as bloody as the originalMuch, much hokier, but still bloody.

For a movie that is so rough on the ladies, it’s a little surprising the director is a woman, Barbara Peeters.  The lead female actors actually get pretty good roles, though.  Dr. Susan Drake is an assertive and competent scientist who essentially takes charge of the investigation.  Every once in a while she spends too much time taking pictures and almost gets eaten (or worse), but that’s what scientists do.  I think she screams here and there, but she never cowers.  Jim’s wife, Carol, goes toe to toe with several fish monsters all by herself while defending her home and baby.  The movie does have a blond beauty pageant winner who gets her bikini top torn off at the festival rampage, but she at least gets to beat her attacker to death (again, the exposed brains are a bit of a handicap).  Peeters didn’t have anything to do with the worst bits.  Roger Corman actually snuck in a different director to film the rape scenes without her knowledge, to spice things up.  Because Corman’s kind of a perv.

Weirdo moments I appreciated:
There is a sex scene in tent involving a young couple and a ventriloquist dummy.  The dummy might be alive, but they never mention it again.  I love that the big canning company is named Canco.  It's like an automobile company named Carco.  Drake causually announces "we found evidence they were here last night" as she kneels by a human rib cageAt the festival, a random little boy kills a fish monster with a flaming harpoon.  When the annoying festival DJ is attacked, he throws records at the monsters, just like in SHAUN OF THE DEAD, but less effective.  Also, the film doesn’t really have a wrap up.  Jim and Dr. Susan Drake make a big show of spraying gas into the bay and setting it on fire, but since most of the fish monsters on are land, it doesn’t do much.  They are eventually killed or driven off, but some obviously survive.  There’s no talk from the main characters about what to do next.  Then it jumps ahead nine months and ends with an example of the dangers of interspecies relations.  I wonder if they ever got their fish monster problem cleared up.

So how does this relate to James Cameron’s masterpiece, ALIENS?  This one is more subtle.  Cameron wasn’t directly involved with this one like he was with GALAXY OF TERROR.  He was was working on Corman’s BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS at the time, so he would have been exposed to the film.  Legendary producer Gale Anne Hurd was a production assistant on HUMANOIDS, later going on to produce ALIENS (and to marry Cameron, briefly).  The biggest link is the music.  James Horner was the composer on HUMANOIDS, and it is obvious this was a warm up to the work he would do in ALIENS, particularly the distinct suspense theme when the Marines are exploring the abandoned base.  There are also a couple of scenes that are staged very similarly (if not as well) to scenes from ALIENS.  The fish monsters break through the planks of the dock just like the aliens burst up through the grates in the ventilation tunnels.  One fish monster attacks the driver of a truck from the roof.  She slams on the breaks, flinging the monster to the road, then she runs him down, just like Ripley in the APC.  The movies are worlds apart as far as quality goes, but they do seem to share some of the same DNA.  That’s the beautiful thing about inspiration; it comes from the strangest places.       

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Not Ladylike – Punisher: War Zone

I'm not a big believer in the concept of masculine and feminine traits, that men and women inherently behave differently.  Once you get past the physical differences, the behavioral differences are more from the thousands of years of social conditioning.  There aren’t hard and fast rules.  I’ve known some big, scary looking men who were complete softies, and quite a few women without a nurturing bone in their bodies.  It’s not that men and women aren’t different, it’s that everyone is different.  Societal expectations guide us, but we are all capable of going our own way and being successful. 

The clearest evidence of this, in my opinion, is that female directors can make completely kick ass action movies.   There are plenty of examples, one being an Oscar award winner, but today we'll go with one of the most ass kicking; Lexi Alexander, director of PUNISHER: WAR ZONE. 

The Capsule:

A witness-killing crime boss celebrates his latest court victory with a lavish dinner party for his family and mob buddies.  The party ends suddenly when walking tank Frank “The Punisher” Castle takes the boss’ head off and slaughters everyone else at the dinner table.  The boss’ slimeball nephew, Billy, escapes the scene, but Castle catches up with him later and sends him swimming in a recycled glass grinder.  He also unknowingly shoots an undercover cop posing as one of Billy’s toadies.  Guilt and flashbacks of his own murdered family lead him to protect the cop’s wife and little girl from Billy, who survived the glass bath and is now a Frankengangster called Jigsaw.  The dead cop’s ex-partner is looking to arrest Castle, but they begrudgingly team up, sort of, when Jigsaw kidnaps the wife and little girl. To get them back, Castle must fight his way through a dilapidated hotel filled with an army of street goons and Jigsaw’s even crazier brother, Looney Bin Jim (or LBJ).  Yes, there will be blood.  And exploding heads.

This is my favorite of the three completely separate Punisher movies, mostly because of the lead, Ray Stevenson.  The huge actor radiates destructive menace as well as any horror villain.  In this movie, he is like a bull in a china shop, except with people instead of china.  He doesn’t just punch a guy in the face, he punches him through his face.  That in itself would be fine, but Stevenson has a secret weapon, he is also a fantastic actor.  He has a Shakespearean depth of emotion and thoughtfulness, juxtaposed against his scary appearance.  He elevates any role he’s cast in.  Even his scummy henchman character from BOOK OF ELI is more quietly reflective than you would expect.  Stevenson plays Castle as a man hollowed out by grief, long after the fire of revenge was quenched.  Exterminating criminals seems like less of a mission for him and more of a protracted suicide.  He knows how it will end for him.  Protecting the mom and the little girl rekindles a bit of life into his shell. He once again has something worth fighting for.  Stevenson conveys this mostly through his eyes.

The movie has a few of those kind of weird moments I love.  When Castle tries to leave mea culpa money with the family of the undercover cop, the mom (Julie Benz) tells him to “step the fuck away from my daughter.”  The girl gasps and says, “Mom, that's a dad word.”  Not a bad word, but a dad word, like only her dad was allowed to say “fuck”.  They also play against type by having Newman from SEINFELD playing Microchip, Castle’s sad sack gun supplier who spends his days looking after his elderly, mentally vacant mother.   It’s like he’s paying penance for being such a dick in JURASSIC PARK.

As grim as the story is, it also has a wide streak of dark humor.  The violence is so over the top that it is clearly done tongue in cheek.  Almost every death is an overkill, to ridiculous proportions.  When Castle is faced with an acrobatic, parkour using hoodlum, he just shoots him with a heat seeking missile.  Some bad guys actually get double deaths, killed in two separate, increasingly brutal ways.  It’s impossible to take seriously. 

Despite all the blood and guts and brain chunks, the movie still has a distinct comic book feel (it is part of the Marvel Knights series, after all).  The lighting, colors, and set design are subtly stylized, just slightly off from the real world.  It has one of my favorite gags, when bizarre or dangerous situations are completely ignored by normal people.  At several points, Castle walks the streets in full battle gear and no one reacts with any interest.  “Hey, gun toting psycho, who made you king of the sidewalk?  I’m trying to get to the deli.”

Dominic West plays Jigsaw a little too cartoony for my tastes.  With his goomba accent, he was a bit much even before his accident.  Once he gets a Picasso face, he really goes overboard.  It cancels out the menace.  Doug Hutchison does better as his brother, Looney Bin Jim.  He has this jackrabbit fighting style that makes him seem more dangerous than his diminutive frame would suggest.  He and Castle’s big, bathroom demolishing fight at the end of the movie is pretty spectacular.

The action and mayhem comes to you courtesy of director and noted woman, Lexi Alexander.  I only realized the movie had a female director after watching the DVD extras. It never dawned on me during my first viewing.  Alexander is a former world karate and kickboxing champion and still practices martial arts, so she knows her way around a fight scene.  There is nothing stereotypically “female” about the movie.  Stevenson has his sensitive, even vulnerable, moments, but so did Bruce Willis in DIE HARD.  It’s the sign of a good character, not the gender of the director.  Alexander was completely capable of making a balls-out action movie, no literal balls necessary.
Alexander is perhaps more known for being a vocal supporter of diversity in the world of filmmaking (and the world in general), and writing several articles and emails criticizing Hollywood for its shocking under use of female directors.  She hasn’t followed up WAR ZONE with another big action movie like I hoped, but she has recently directed an episode of ARROW and SUPERGIRL, so she’s still in the game.  This is a good thing, because the world needs more kick ass movies, and kick ass women to direct them.  

C Chaka

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Surprisingly Bad, the Joys of Cannibal Terror

I love the unexpected.  In movies, at least.  The unexpected in real life usually boils down to shit like “why isn’t the air conditioner working?” or “what is this bill for?”  It’s not as fun.  In movies, it can be a thrill.  A well-executed surprise can disrupt your equilibrium, get your heart racing, keep you interested.  Those are easy to appreciate.  Then there are surprises that are less “I didn’t see that coming” and more “what the hell just happened?”  They can be off-kilter bits of dialogue, wildly inappropriate reactions, or stupefying twists.  The pleasure comes from wondering what crazy shit is going to pop up next.  It takes you out of the moment, but some movies you don’t watch for their immersive, nuanced plot.  With some movies, the crazy shit is the only thing going for them.  Take for example, CANNIBAL TERROR (1980).

The capsule:
Two incompetent thieves and an unsuccessful prostitute have had it with penny ante schemes and decide to kidnap the young daughter of a prominent businessman (or something, he wears a suit).  When one of their associates gets hit by a car because he is literally incapable of crossing the street safely, the kidnappers are forced to hide out in the lush jungle region of Spain.  Unfortunately, it also happens to be “cannibal country” (the warning is given as casually as if it were “bear country”).  Even though their guide is attacked and eaten by a pack of cannibals hiding in the tall grass (as cannibals do), the kidnappers still think it’s the best place to lay low.  They stay at the parrot and rifle filled house of Antonio.  Everything is running smoothly until one of the kidnappers inhospitably decides to rape Antonio's wife.  Antonio gets revenge by tying the rapist up in the backyard and actually whistling for the cannibals, who again happen to be loitering in the tall grass.  The wife gets word to the police about the kidnappers, and a rescue party consisting of the parents, Antonio, an unidentified old guy, and one policeman grab guns and rush in to save the little girl.  The remaining kidnappers push deeper into cannibal country, where, to their surprise, they encounter more cannibals and are captured.  Things do not go well for them.  But since the cannibals only eat morally ambiguous people (as cannibals do), the chief returns the little girl, unharmed, to the parents.  Though she may be a cannibal now.  Jury’s still out on that one.

Alain Deruelle's CANNIBAL TERROR (not to be confused with Jess Franco’s CANNIBALS, which was filmed at the same time, in the same location, using the same cannibals) is an absolute mess.  It does not contain a single iota of competent filmmaking.   No one behaves the way actual human beings behave.   There is zero continuity.  Some shots have mysterious hands tapping at the edge of the frame.  Unidentified people appear and vanish randomly from scene to scene.  This is exactly why I enjoy this movie.  The plot itself, what there is of it, is predictable, but everything else is completely insane.  It’s like watching a drunken clown at a kid’s birthday party, there’s no telling what will happen. There’s a scene where the wife is talking to a couple of weird Manson Family looking hippies that live on her property for some reason.  One of them is cleaning his gun and it accidentally goes off.  It isn’t part of the script, I think it was a real, loaded gun that accidentally fired.  And they just left it in.  You don’t see that kind of thing in THE HUNGER GAMES.

The weirdest aspect is that the criminals, even the out of the blue rapist, are very doting kidnappers.  I don’t believe the little girl is ever aware that she has been kidnapped.  She acts like she is on a field trip with her aunt and uncles.  The actual kidnapping happens off screen, one minute the criminals are coming up with the idea, the next the girl his hanging out in their apartment, laughing and playing with the prostitute.  She is tickled, given piggyback rides, and even kissed goodnight.  The criminals all seem to genuinely care about the little girl.  They should have hung up the kidnapping plot and become au pairs.   It’s like SAVANNA SMILES, but with cannibals.

And speaking of cannibals…   

The film never specifically indicates what part of the world it is set.  They talk about the “jungle” on the other side of “the border”, but really it’s Spain, a land not typically known for either its jungles or its cannibals.  Thus, the cannibals cast in this movie don’t so much resemble remote tribes in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea as they do a bunch of local Caucasians with mustaches, sideburns, and Scott Baio haircuts.  One of them has a tattoo of his girlfriend on his chest. They do wear face paint and dance around a fire, so the illusion is mostly intact.  I’m fairly sure one is an uncredited appearance by Steve Perry of Journey.   

Like most movie cannibals, they are very messy eaters.  There is a lot of reaching into chest cavities (which look suspiciously like pig carcasses in jeans) and pawing at intestines.  Luckily for them, the human body is apparently also filled with cooked kielbasa sausage, so it’s not all gnawing on raw liver.  Apart from eating ne’er-do-wells , they enjoy decorating their village with plastic skulls and pookah shell necklaces.  They are not the reclusive type of cannibals, though, since you can clearly see cars passing by just on the other side of the tree line in the village. They are centrally located.  I hope the transportation department at least puts up some of those yellow animal crossing style warning signs along the road.  Caution:  Hitchhikers May Want to Eat You.

CANNIBAL TERROR is audacious in its badness.  It does not bow to logic or traditional storytelling.  It shoves its ridiculousness in your face like a fistful of guts.  If you can stomach its unintentional hilarity, go on and take a bite.  Don’t worry, it’s probably just sausage. 

C Chaka