Friday, April 29, 2016

Low Fantasy: CONQUEST

The season premiere of Game of Thrones got me in the mood for a fantasy epic, so I went hunting through my meager selection of epic fantasy.  What I settled on may not be quite as epic as Game of Thrones.  It might not have the lavish production values or realistic effects.  It might lack the high caliber acting or well executed action scenes.  The costumes might not be… well, let’s just not talk about the costumes.  I’m not sure it even has any swords.  I know it doesn’t have any dragons.  Answer me this, though.  Does Game of Thrones feature a casually murderous hero fighting werewolves with bone nunchucks?  Well, Lucio Fulci’s CONQUEST certainly does.  What more do you need?

The Capsule:
Bland hero Ilias leaves his peaceful, cultured, oddly transparent country to find adventure and become a man in the mysterious lands beyond the sea.  Unfortunately, the first place he arrives is a smoky hellhole where everyone lives in caves.  Even worse, it’s ruled by an evil naked chick in a metal mask and her army of werewolves.  Actually, they are more like a combination of a werewolf and Chewbacca.  Werewookies.  The evil naked chick is named Ocron, and her main deal seems to be pretending to make the sun rise and having cavepeople torn in half.  As rulers go, she’s a bit of a jerk.  She has a vision of a faceless Ilias killing her with his magic bow, so she sends her army to search the land for anyone matching his description (but with a face).  He already stands out because he is relatively clean and no one has ever seen a bow before.  These guys haven’t gotten much farther than stone clubs, so a bow is unimaginable technology to them.  And that’s before they know it’s a magic bow that shoots laser arrows.  Ilias gets overwhelmed by the werewookies because he’s kind of a dweeb, but is rescued by Mace, an animal loving, muscle bound freak with bone nunchucks.  Together, they must fight off mole monsters, swamp zombies, and killer bushes in order to stop the villainous and extremely naked Ocron.

Let’s get this out of the way first, this movie is very hard to see.  I don’t mean it’s hard to find, I mean it’s hard to make out.  The entire thing is filmed with some kind of gauzy filter that makes the image super soft.  To make it worse, practically every scene is also filled with smoke.  Is it supposed to be from the point of view of someone with cataracts?  At least they didn’t stay with the weird double exposure effect used in Ilias’ homeland.  Soft, smoky, and transparent would have been a little too much to get through.  Even without the double exposure, it’s pretty horrible.  It took me a minute to realize that Ilias is supposed to be faceless in Ocron’s vision.  At a distance, he didn’t look that different from normal.  I suppose it helped cover up the hokey visual effects.  Still, I usually like to actually see the movies I watch.  

Even without the glaucoma-vision, the movie is a bit rocky at first.  Ilias is a bit like Harry Hamlin in CLASH OF THE TITANS, he's the least interesting part.  The best thing about Ilias is his bow.  It’s just a regular bow for the first three quarters of the movie, but it is fun seeing him pull arrows from his boot and watching all guards and werewookies being totally amazed by it.  You would think he had pulled out a Gatling gun by their reactions.  It really gets good once he starts shooting laser arrows.  They can split in mid-flight to take out a half dozen baddies in one shot.  The bow gives him unerring aim, too.  He shoots into a small hole in a giant rock and the arrow bounces out the other side, killing the guy hiding behind it.  It’s like he’s playing miniature golf.  

A cool weapon can only take you so far, so it’s a good thing Mace shows up early in.  Because Mace is pretty awesome.  He’s a free spirited barbarian/philosopher, except kind of dumb.  When Ilias asks Mace about the tattoo on his forehead, Mace says it means “I have no friends.”  He says it like he’s a baddass loner, except that you later see he has a bunch of Neanderthal buddies, and is a bit of a cave-lady’s man.  Plus, he and Ilias are pretty much BFFs right from the beginning.  Aside from that, total loner.  

He does have a very strange idea of hunting.  He never kills animals, who are also his friends.  Instead, he kills innocent hunters and eats the animals they’ve killed.  I’m not sure PETA would wholly endorse his behavior.   

Mace is basically a low rent BEASTMASTER, which is saying something because BEASTMASTER’s rent was pretty reasonable to begin with.  He can’t communicate with the animals like Steve Beastmaster could, but they do help him out from time to time.  After one of the many times Ilias is ambushed in a cave and hauled off by beasties, some eagles show Mace where to find them.  It’s not that impressive because the kidnappers are only about a hundred yards away in an open field moving really, really slowly.  Thanks, eagles. I suppose it’s the thought that counts.  More impressive is when he is saved from drowning by dolphins.  They actually chew through the ropes holding him down.  He was underwater for quite a while, so I was really hoping the dolphins would have to do blowhole to mouth resuscitation, but no such luck.

The plot is pretty odd when you think about it.  Ilias and Mace’s quest to defeat Ocron is really just because she’s mean.  There’s a little bit of a revenge angle because she slaughtered some of Mace’s friends (which he doesn’t have) and snuffed out Ilias’ budding romance with the cave-girl sporting a Rick James hairdo, but they honestly don’t seem that broken up about it.  Ocron (I thought they were calling her Okra the first half of the movie) is actually somewhat justified in hunting down Ilias because she had a vision he was coming to kill her.  Which is exactly what he is doing.  It’s sort of self-defense.  Ilias is the one pushing the conflict.  He’s in it for the regime change.  As always in these situations, it’s the innocent cavepeople who suffer.  

The uneven plot is compensated by a fuck-ton of action.  These guys are constantly being attacked by new and interesting monsters.  We have the aforementioned werewookies, who aren’t too shabby.  Well, they are fairly shabby, and mangy, but still fun.  The strangest thing about them is their drug habits.  They put some kind of fantasy cocaine into a blowgun tube and shoot it up each other’s snouts.  Even Ocron takes a hit of their nose candy, so it must be potent stuff.  They should really clean the pipe after each use, though.  It’s a bit gross.  
Since this is Lucio Fulci, there is obviously going to be zombies.  Mace has to fight a bunch of them in a swamp.  I’m assuming they were zombies, anyway.  The combination of darkness, heavy fog, and the softness of the shot makes it hard to tell.  Mace does the typical thing of bumbling around with them until he uncovers their secret weakness.  In this case it's stabbing them with a pointy stick.  I didn’t say they were particularly dangerous zombies.  

There are also some mole monsters, which are basically werewookies with different masks and gloves.  To make up for the lackluster design, the music for that scene sounds exactly like the opening for Peter Schilling’s Major Tom (Coming Home).  Value added.  Then there are the evil bushes, which are regular bushes that fire deadly reeds which look suspiciously like film scratches.  It's hard to make a bush look threatening.  They do a better job with the stone monsters, which do look fairly interesting.  They are sort of like skeletal monkeys with green eyes covered in cobwebs and paper mache.  I think they are supposed to blend in to the contours of the rocks.  Even with the gauzy filter, they aren’t fooling anybody.  Except for Mace, of course.  It makes for a bizarre and hilarious visual, though.  

Even though a lot of the movie is kind of goofy, it is definitely a hard R.  Lots of nudity and patented Fulci gore.  People don’t just get bonked in the head with clubs, chunks of their skulls are knocked out.  Even minor wounds pour streams of blood.  One poor cave-lady gets wishboned in half.  Ocron enjoys slurping up the brains of her victims through the top of their skulls (an impressive feat since her mask doesn’t have a mouth hole).  Ilias gets a nasty infection at one point and gets covered in horribly disgusting pus-filled sores, and later, live ants.  That actor was a trooper.

The ending has some genuine surprises in store, so skip this paragraph if you don’t want SPOILERS.  Ilias is grabbed by some mole monsters and Mace has to go looking for him.  No big deal, because this happens constantly.  Ilias gets in trouble more than Carl in the early seasons of THE WALKING DEAD.  After a mole monster throw down, he notices some blood dripping down on him.  When he looks up, Ilias is hanging from the ceiling--with no head.  Oh snap!  They killed the (co)hero off screen!  The baddies take Ilias’ head and bow back to Ocron while Mace burns his body in a funeral pyre.  Unlike most funeral pyre scenes, Fulci actually shows the body cooking down to the bones.  It’s pretty obvious why they usually skip that part.  It’s less dignified when the funeral looks like a barbeque.  Just as things look the bleakest, the spirit of Ilias tells Mace he can use the power of the magic bow if he rubs Ilias’ ashes all over him.  It would've been funny if Ilias’ ghost was just messing with him.  Okay, next you have to stand on your head and drink your own pee. Seems like Ilias was being straight with him, though.  When he confronts Ocron, the bow flies to his hand and he’s able to use the laser arrows.  Mace splits Ocron’s mask, revealing a horrible skull face underneath.  I’m not saying anyone should be ashamed of their appearance, but good call with the mask, Ocron.  Being naked is enough of a distraction for the werewookies.  Finally Mace delivers the killing blow, and Ocron turns into a wolf and just trots off.  Um…yay?  Mace seems to consider it a win, as he walks victoriously off into the sunset.    I guess it worked out for everyone.  Except Ilias.  And every other person in the movie.

I’m surprised it took me this long to get around to watching this.  I adore a lot of Lucio Fulci’s other films (ZOMBIE, THE BEYOND, HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY) but I guess I thought of him mainly as a horror director.  His best work was behind him at this point, but he was still running strong.  The sudden spikes of gore and bizarity kept me surprised, and the pace was relentless.  I wasn’t bored, to be sure.  Confused and delighted, but not bored. Nice one, Fulci.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Computers Are Magic! NIGHTMARE WEEKEND

There’s a charmingly boneheaded plot device that pops up in not only the cheap, stupid movies I love, but huge blockbusters as well.  I like to call it Technology Is Magic!  This device states that if the technology is advanced enough, it can do anything, regardless of if it is physically possible, because no one understands it.  At least, the writers don’t understand it.  Just about every technological advancement gets this treatment:  viruses are magic (INDEPENDENCE DAY), genetic manipulation is magic (PROMETHEUS), apps are magic (TERMINATOR GENISYS), AI is magic (BABYLON AD, AVENGERS 2).  Technology is magic is the theme for pretty much the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s lazy writing, but I can overlook the flaws if the rest is enjoyable enough.  It's usually covered up by enough vaguely scientific gibberish to show they made the attempt, at least.  Sometimes, though, it’s so boneheaded and clueless that it becomes hilarious.  I’m not sure the writer of NIGHTMARE WEEKEND even knew what a computer was, but the result certainly is magic.

The Capsule: 
Okay, try to stay with me. Two guys on bikes try to break into a house guarded by a supercomputer and a hand puppet named George. The computer changes one of the biker's necklaces into a silver ball that shoots into his eye and melts his face. Later, a group of college girls talk about spending a weekend at a mansion relaxing and being experimented on. Three of the girls get picked up by an alcoholic chauffeur, but Jessica goes to see her scientist father instead. Her father lives in the same house the bikers tried to break into. George lives in her room and is kind of like a pet robot/advisor, except that he's a scary hand puppet.  Jessica's dad is working on a revolutionary behavior modification device that will cure violent tendencies by removing the subjects fear and inhibitions (seems obvious, really). He works with evil bitch, Julie, who hired the bikers to break in to the house and who will be conducting the experiments on the college girls. Jessica hates Julie and George tries to kill her by crashing her car with a video game. The three other girls stop off at the chauffeur’s favorite bar and the slutty one picks up a mustached lothario who she bones in the limo. Later at the bar, Jessica runs into Ken, the other biker, and instantly falls in love with him. Instead of doing anything crazy like talking to him, she steals his bandana and leaves her scarf tied to his bike.  She asks George what is the best way to meet him again.  The supercomputer calculates that she has the best chance of running into him at either a bar (82%), a disco (76%), or hitchhiking (66%). Naturally, she opts for hitchhiking, but encounters the pinball playing punk from the bar instead. The punk tries to rape her, but Ken shows up and beats him up. George senses danger to Jessica and has the supercomputer blow up the punk after he's no longer a threat. Back at the mansion, Julie's experiments remove the college girls’ inhibitions but also turn them into goo dripping mutants. Julie somehow considers this a success. More things happen. Nothing makes sense. It's amazing. 

NIGHTMARE WEEKEND is aggressively, almost defiantly, incoherent.  The story jerks around quick enough to give you whiplash.  There is no continuity.  The dialogue does not match what is happening on the screen.  All the American actors are dubbed.  Into English.  By different American actors.  Even for people who love insane movies, this one is almost too much to swallow.  I had to pause and go back multiple times while taking notes for this piece because it was all coming at me too fast.  Needless to say, it’s a schizocinematic gold standard.  Pretty much every scene is a treasure chest waiting to be unpacked.

Here’s the breakdown for the computerized behavior modification process.  An object belonging to the subject is scanned (or crudely drawn) by the computer.  The computer transforms the object into a silver ping pong ball that flies into the subject’s mouth (if they are lucky).  After the silver ball is forcibly ingested, the subject’s behavior changes according to the dosage controlled by a slider on the computer panel.  Obviously, this is a much more efficient drug delivery system than, say, a hypodermic needle.  Also, the silver ball can sometimes disguise itself as common objects like an ice cube, toothpaste, or a pair of panties.  There is a slight (100%) risk that the treatment could turn you into a homicidal "neuropath" that leaks green slime.  And at high dosages, it can cause you to explode.  Please follow your doctor’s recommendations.

Then there’s George the hand puppet.  I think it’s supposed to be a comforting robot playmate for a little girl.  If so, it is an unmitigated failure, because this little fucker is more horrifying than the doll from SAW.  Jessica finds him cute, though, so I guess it worked.  And Jessica needs all the help she can get, because she is possibly the dumbest person on the planet.  After her first meeting with Ken, she earnestly asks George to diagnose the symptoms of being in love, as if she’s never heard of emotions before.  I’m fairly sure she’s asked George multiple times why her stomach feels so full after she’s eaten and why everything goes black when she closes her eyes.  George also tries to be Jessica’s protector, at which it also fails miserably.  When it magically senses Jessica is in danger, George just keeps announcing “Jessica in danger!” and tells the supercomputer to run the save Jessica program.  By the time it actually does anything, the danger has passed.  It blows up the would-be rapist punk after Ken beats him up (no real loss there).  Likewise, when trying to save her from a slimy mutant, all it manages to do is [Spoiler] accidentally kill Ken.  Great job George, glad you were there when she didn’t need you.

The highlight of the movie is Billy’s Bar, or the Stage Stop as it is clearly named on the outside.  First of all, it has a sweet arcade in the back, with two Ms. Pac Mans and Zaxxon.  Sure, most bars don’t include a full arcade, especially one called the Galaxy Game Room, with a picture of a Pac Man wearing a baby bonnet, but Billy’s Bar is no ordinary watering hole.  Just look at the clientele.  You have the alcoholic chauffeur, who doesn’t want to be caught drinking (despite the fact that he is IN A BAR).  Instead, the bartender subtly hands him a sandwich with an airline sized bottle of vodka inside.  Nothing unusual about a man drinking a sandwich.   This is also the hangout for the scuzzy lothario, who halfway through the film suddenly becomes rich for some reason and starts wearing suits.  Then there is the lothario’s friend, a skinny guy with a Walkman stuffed in his jeans who never stops dancing.  And of course, the sneering, pinball playing punk and his put upon girlfriend.  So many great scenes happen at Billy’s.  At one point, the punk tells the lothario’s date, “He’s quantity, I’m quality.”  What exactly is the appropriate response to that statement?  Unless the lothario has a twin we haven’t seen yet, I’m pretty sure they are the exact same quantity (a 1:1 douchebag ratio).  

The best scene is when Jessica discretely follows Ken into the bar after their first run in.  Jessica is on roller skates and looks like an extra from XANADU, which makes her stand out slightly.  Plus, she falls down a lot, less in a comedic way and more like someone who doesn’t understand gravity.   While she’s sitting on the floor, Ken tells her that she took his seat.  Maybe he’s trying to be funny, but it’s more likely the director changed the scene without bothering to update the script or tell the actors.  That seems to happen a lot.  Jessica doesn’t say anything the entire time she is in the bar.  Then the punk tries to shock her by having sex with his girlfriend on the pinball machine.  In the middle of the bar.  Everyone just looks around awkwardly, including the bartender who you would think would have some objection to public sex in his establishment.  That has to be a health code violation, at least.  It’s just a typical wacky afternoon at Billy’s Bar, though.  Forget Boston, this is where they should have filmed Cheers.

A couple of the cast are notable for being actual actors who went on to make real movies.  Ken is played (but not voiced) by Dale Midkiff from PET SEMATARY, and TV actress Andrea Thompson plays the blond guinea pig with horribly embarrassing dialogue.  I bet she was looking forward to becoming a disgusting, slime dripping mutant just so she wouldn’t have to read anymore lines.  But decent actors, with their professionalism and their need for motivation, are just no fun.  Not in movies like this one, at least.  You need either fantastic actors who can lose themselves in a part or terrible actors with a can-do attitude and zero self-reflection.  I’m not sure which one Debbie Laster is (though I really do), but she was born to play evil Julie.  She really embraces the movie’s anti-logic.  After George tries to kill her by possessing her car and sending it barreling out of control, Julie takes a few moments to compose herself and then just drives away.  Because what are the chances of that happening twice to the same car?  It’s certainly not worth taking a cab.  She’s a total bitch to her employees, service workers, and especially Jessica.  She gleefully tells Jessica that not only is she making time with her dad, but Ken as well.  Suck on that, Ms. Goody-Two-Skates.  I also love that Julie considers the experiment to be a rousing success, despite that it clearly failed in every conceivable way.  She actually tells her mysterious boss that “it went perfectly.”  Is there a market for turning people into psychotic, oozing mutants that I don’t know about?  The movie behaves like it is a legitimate scientific breakthrough.  And, man, Julie is sure proud of herself about it.

Of course, Debra Hunter, who went on to do nothing ever again, is wonderful as Jessica, the most unnatural, disconnected person ever captured on film.  She must have rehearsed for weeks, or been on huge amounts of Quaaludes.  I kept waiting for the twist ending where she turned out to be an alien.  That would have been the only thing in the movie to make any sense.

Like a Kubrick film, I could spend hours analyzing every scene, but for completely opposite reasons.  The layers of stupidity are endless.  I’m pretty sure it becomes quantum as some point.  The director was known for a bunch of French erotica and not speaking English.  He stopped directing after NIGHTMARE WEEKEND, because you should always go out on the top of your game (individual games may vary).  In conclusion, this movie is astonishing and you will never be complete until you see it.  Enjoy the magic.

C. Chaka