Friday, January 27, 2017

Earnest and Gallows - MOTEL HELL

It’s rare to find a truly amiable villain in horror movies.  Oh, they might seem nice... at first.  Terry O’Quinn seemed like the perfect catch at the beginning of THE STEPFATHER (if you ignore the part about him murdering his old family).   Chucky promised to be Andy’s friend to the end (slight exaggeration).  And has there ever been as swell a guy as Edward Hermann in the LOST BOYS, with his dream of a modern, blended (vampire) family?  Sooner or later, though, the facade begins to crack, and the darker motives start to bleed through.  Pleasantness gives way to crazy.  Except of course in the 1980 black comedy horror, MOTEL HELL, where pleasant and crazy are bound together in the same package.

The Capsule:
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) is about the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.  He is always ready to give you a warm smile, a gracious word, and a cozy room at the Motel Hello (he really needs to get the blinking “O” on the sign fixed).  On top of that, he's the founder of Farmer Vincent’s Smoked Meats, known far and wide as the tastiest treat anyone can put in their mouth.  His sister, Ida (Nancy Parsons), might seem a little strange, what with her habit of scaring the crap out of young children while wearing a pig’s head, and his younger brother Bruce (Paul Linke) may be a complete doofus (and the local sheriff), but Vincent goes out of his way to make everyone welcome.  This is because he knows, “it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”  Critters like a Russian themed punk band, some ski bunnies, a couple of swingers, and a nosy Health Inspector.  But when one of his late night hunting trips bags the beautiful, free spirited Terry (Nina Axelrod), Vincent sees more to her than just culinary potential.  He heals her up, lets her help around the farm, and lavishes her with attention.  Terry falls hard for the kind old gentleman, but how is she going to react when she finds that Vincent is grooming her to take over the family business?

The best villains are the ones who do not think they are villains.  Some, like The Walking Dead’s Negan, believe they have to do a little (or a lot of) bad to insure the safety of their people.  Some, like SEVEN’s John Doe, think they are on a righteous mission of vengeance.  Then there’s Vincent, the sweetest little cannibal ever.  His cognitive dissidence is so strong that he thinks his worst crime is adding preservatives to his smoked meats.  Rory Calhoun, best known from that Simpsons episode where Mr. Burns describes a puppy as “standing there like a little Rory Calhoun,” plays Vincent like the grampa you always wished you had.  He is always smiling, a little cornball, and never irritated.  It’s not just an act, either.  Vincent is a absolute sweetheart.  If this were a normal horror movie, he would be the first one killed.

It’s just an unfortunate fact that strangers are the secret ingredient to his widely loved meat products.  The movie never mentions how Vincent discovered the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup style mix-up.  All we need to know is this is a man dedicated to supplying the tastiest smoked meats humanly possible

(and helping ease overpopulation as a bonus).  In his mind, depriving the public of his goods is a worse crime than some innocent kidnapping, murder, and enabling mass cannibalism.  He even tries to be humane to his livestock.  He plays soothing New Age music after planting them up to their neck in his secret garden.  Sure, he slices their vocal cords to keep the noise down, but it’s done with anesthetic and the sure hand of his sister Ida.  Even when it is time for slaughter, he uses some psychedelic gizmos to put everyone in a trance before snapping their necks.

Ida is a little more of the traditional psycho, though she too seems more reasonable than you would expect—when not lurking behind walls with a meat cleaver.  Nancy Parsons had a very imposing presence (she would go on to portray Ms. Ballbriker in the PORKY’S films), and she gives Ida a certain childlike quality that makes her unpredictable and unnerving.  Aside from a few flashes of jealousy towards Terry,   though, Parsons plays Ida on a fairly even keel.  She is just as dedicated as Vincent when it comes to their life’s calling.  After force feeding the gargling heads in the secret garden, she genuinely asks Vincent if he thinks people will appreciate what they are doing someday.  It’s as if they are trying to cure a disease rather than providing a salty man meat treat.  

She also has some disgusting eating habits, which is saying something for a cannibal.

Vincent’s earnest and upbeat attitude makes it somewhat more believable when Terry doesn’t complain about the MISERY treatment she gets from her caretakers after her accident (which he caused).  He’s so nice to her that she doesn’t want to leave the farm.  Not that she has anywhere to go.  She’s kind of lived out of her motorcycle, and her biker boyfriend is (supposedly) dead.  It’s sweet how they develop a father/daughter bond.

Until things get weird.  Not on Vincent’s part, on Terry’s.  When she (wisely) spurns Bruce’s ham fisted attempts at romance, it seems to be just because he is a horrible, bumbling slimeball.  Then we find out she has more mature taste in men.  The father/daughter thing goes out the window when Terry asks Vincent to become her (literal) Old Man.  I can see why Vincent thought she might be up for being his culinary apprentice.  If she’s ready to marry a 57 year old man she just met a couple of weeks ago, she’s up for anything.

Incidentally, the whole motel angle is kind of irrelevant to the plot.  Vincent acquires most of his victims from traps on the road.  The one exception is the swinger couple, who misidentify Motel Hello as being on their map of “Hot Spots”.  Like Vincent, these two are highly dedicated to their lifestyle.  Once they get into their room, the woman gets into a dominatrix outfit (with whip) and the guy comes out in a leotard, bra, and transparent skirt.  They are actually excited when Vincent and Ida ominously show up to snatch them (“Ooow, you’re into bondage!”).

Another colorful batch of victims is the punk band, Ivan and the Terribles.  The lead singer is the only one really sticking with the Russian motif.  Everyone else is wearing standard late ‘70s punk/new wave outfits, he had an long stringy Rasputin beard glued to his face (not sure if it’s bad stage makeup or bad movie makeup).  I don’t recognize that dude, but I do recognize the drummer, played by Cheers’ John Ratzenberger.  So before he was Hamm in TOY STORY, he was turned into ham in MOTEL HELL.

All of the victims have some sort of mildly questionable moral trait, but that has nothing to do with why they are chosen.  Vincent is purely opportunistic.  It doesn’t matter if they are rude, nosy, or promiscuous.  Vincent doesn’t judge.  He just needs them healthy, and dumb enough to fall for his traps.  One trap involves blocking the road with a line of cardboard cutout cows, so he clearly isn’t culling our brightest minds.

The hero of the movie is in some ways worse that the villain.  Bruce is a complete hayseed goofball and an attempted date rapist to boot.  It’s painfully obvious why Terry would choose Vincent over him.  He spends most of the movie being petulant and jealous of his (much) older brother.  Bruce is the only person in the movie Vincent gets annoyed with.  He even fumbles his way through the climactic chainsaw fight.  It’s hard not to look badass when in a chainsaw fight, but Bruce somehow manages.  

Director Kevin Connor, who’s done a ton of TV movies you’ve never heard of, nails the tone.  It is much more of a black comedy than horror, but it does have just enough of the ‘70s exploitation grit to keep things feeling a little queasy.  While it rarely gets scary, the climax is a 100% handcrafted nightmare.  [SPOILER FOR SOMETHING SHOWN ON THE BLU RAY COVER] Bruce finally pieces together what has been happening (for the last twenty years) and confronts Vincent in the smoke house.  As he is untying Terry (who it turns out does not want to be in cannibal food service) Vincent bursta out of the back room wearing a bloody pig head and holding a huge chainsaw.  

Confession: when I was a little boy, I saw the pig head image on the cover of Fangoria and it scared the shit out of me (the MANIAC poster did the same thing).  So yes, this scene might have had more impact on me than a normal person, but that scene is insane.  It takes the whole movie for Vincent to crack, but when he does, he cracks big.  Immediately after the pig head comes off, though, I’m back to feeling sorry for him.  I can’t remember if Rory Calhoun was nominated for an Oscar that year, but if he wasn’t, he deserved it.  Marlon Brando never elicited that kind of sympathy while half cut in two by a chainsaw.  And isn't that the real test of an actor's craft?

C Chaka

Friday, January 20, 2017

Time To Put On The Sunglasses - THEY LIVE

Like horror movies, I like to have an appropriate theme when the holidays roll around.  While Inauguration Day isn’t exactly a holiday, it is an important event, so I wanted to pick a movie that exemplifies the specific mood.  My first thought was to go with something apocalyptic,  but I didn’t want to be so pessimistic.  Instead, I wanted something that more accurately reflected the challenges this new administration presents.  So I settled on John Carpenter’s 1988 political dissertation, THEY LIVE.  

Note: I try to be subtle with my opinions of our new President (except for here, and here, and here), but I must confess, this one isn’t going to be subtle.  If you are not a fan of heartfelt, half-baked commentary… why are you on this site?  That’s kind of my thing. If you are specifically not a fan of heartfelt, half-baked political commentary, you may only want to read the first half.  Go ahead and read the second half too, though.  You’re tough, you can take it.

The Capsule:
Nada (Roddy Piper), a down on his luck drifter, discovers that powerful forces in the government are deceiving and exploiting the American people for their own selfish gains.  Without realizing it, citizens are being bombarded with messages promoting apathy, social division, and unquestioning support of the traditional status quo.  Elite white businessmen and the super wealthy collaborate with the evil forces, getting richer while the middle class shrinks and the disadvantaged suffer.  Nada and his friend Frank (Keith David) join a grassroots resistance organization that has developed a way of seeing though the illusions and exposing the evil forces for what they are.  They have their work cut out for them, though, because the evil forces use their media platforms to publicly discredit the resistance and sanction an excessive police response to silence their enemies.  Nada and Frank have to fight their way to the highest levels of power if they have any hope of revealing the insidious plot against the American people.  Oh, did I mention that forces of evil are disgusting skull faced aliens with poofy ‘80s hair?

THEY LIVE is one of those movies that gets better with maturity.  I liked it when I first saw it in 1988, but I didn’t love it.  My favorite Carpenter movies at that point, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE THING, and BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, all got the action started immediately out of the gate.  THEY LIVE takes its time.  The lengthy opening is all about setting a dreary atmosphere of hopelessness and socio-economic disparity.  Carpenter waits a full thirty minutes before showing the first alien.  That’s a long while to wait when you're a kid, especially when the trailer is wall to wall with crazy ghoul faces.  

Coming back to it more than 20 years later, though, I found the opening to be dead-on perfect, right down to its bluesy, haunting soundtrack.  Carpenter gives us time to not only invest in the plight of the lead characters, but of everyone struggling to get along in the world.  Being an adult having to worry about money and a familyvcompletely changes everything.  Not all of us can relate to the kind of poverty and hardship faced by the squatter camp where Nada and Frank are staying, but we can at least imagine it.  Unless you are one of those snooty and condescending rich bastards like in the movie.  But fuck those guys, they aren’t the intended audience.  I doubt this is a very popular film with venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, anyway.  

Nothing defines my deep admiration of this movie more than Nada and Frank’s epic, five minute long back alley brawl.  Nada’s eyes have literally been opened to the aliens’ hidden messages of conformity by a special pair of illusion dispelling sunglasses.  The conflict comes when Nada, who has reacted violently to this new reality, wants Frank to put on the sunglasses, too.  Frank does not.  Being stubborn, stoic men, they begin a discourse with their fists.  It is a clumsy, unglamorous fight that looks very authentic (it mostly was, the actors only faked the face and groin shots) and goes on until both men are completely exhausted.  Even though I appreciated fisticuffs when I was younger, I remember wondering why Frank didn’t just put on the stupid glasses and get on with it.  

Watching it now, I totally get it.  Frank’s resistance isn’t just sheer stubbornness.  Nada is wanted for mass murder (according to the news) and he is going on about aliens that only he can see.  By all accounts, he is a complete nutjob.  In addition to not turning him in, Frank actually gives Nada money so he can leave town.  He’s gone far out of his way for a friend he just met a few days ago, now all he wants is to be out of it.  If Frank humors this lunatic, even for a second, he risks getting entangled in Nada’s delusions.  At best, it could get him in trouble with the cops, at worst it could get him killed.  The most sensible thing he can do is make a clean break.  If it has to be across Nada’s face, so be it. 
I would have done the same thing as Frank.  Except that the fight would have lasted about twenty seconds before I woke up with a pair of sunglasses over my eyes.  Keith David has a few pounds on me.

Once Nada realizes what is really happening, he says, “Figures it’d be something like this.”  It’s a great line, because, yes, that would explain a lot about why society is in such bad shape.  It also lets humanity off the hook...kind of. Greed still compels some assholes to willingly sell out their species.  It  offers up a convenient excuse why the rest of us accept the state of the world, though.  The reality is that we don’t need aliens with subliminal messages to dupe us down the wrong path.  

John Carpenter wrote the screenplay (adapted from a short story by Beat Generation writer Ray Nelson) as a comment on Reagan era politics.  In some ways, THEY LIVE is an inverse of politics today.   In other ways, it is sickeningly accurate.  In the movie, the working class sees through the lies of an organization that works against their interest.  In reality, the working class elects a con man working only for his interests.  It’s funny that Frank cynically explains the Golden Rule, “He who has the gold, makes the rules.”  This is a quote that Donald Trump has actually said (source: his Facebook page).  He’s wasn’t being cynical.  

Trump’s secret message isn’t “Don’t Question Authority”, it’s “Don’t Question What You Want to Hear”.  He is an absolute master of manipulating the confirmation bias, when people tend to put more weight on statements that match what they believe while ignoring contradictory information.  We are all susceptible to it, but even in the political world, it’s rarely used with such blunt, calculating, and effortless impact as with Trump.  He is so good at it that he can make an indisputable lie, like “No one respects women more than I do,” (said on national television after his “grab them by the pussy” scandal) seem reasonable to his most ardent supporters, even when everyone else is rolling on the floor laughing or trying to force down the vomit.   

If I looked hard enough, I bet I could match up the THEY LIVE subliminal messages with actual Trump quotes.  In fact, it probably wouldn’t take that long.  It took me 0.5 seconds to find these on Google just now.

The greatest irony is that Trump convinced people that he was standing with common, blue collar Americans against the elite. Never mind the fact that Trump, living in a fucking golden tower, is the definition of elite.  Pack all of his unqualified billionaire Cabinet picks into a ball room and I imagine it would look exactly like when Nada and Frank stumble into a celebration for the aliens’ human conspirators, drinking Champagne and applauding the 39% gain to their portfolios.  

The only difference in that scenario is there is no way Trump would let a sellout bum like George “Buck” Flowers join the inner circle.  The most he would get for his collusion would be a hat.  Of course, given that Flowers just assumed Nada and Frank were fellow sellouts and gave them a full tour of the aliens’ secret command center, it might be the wiser policy.   
Luckily, there are a lot more people whose eyes are opened to Trump’s lies than there were to the THEY LIVE aliens (though not enough).  And the people who did vote for Trump aren’t stupid.  They were just looking for change and got caught up by a brash, unorthodox, and entirely unique campaign (although anyone who agrees with his racist, misogynist, bullying viewpoints can totally suck it).  Once Trump fails to magically bring back the obsolete manufacturing jobs he promised, or to be the most job producing president God has ever created, more eyes will open.  America will see him for what he is.  The realization will be gradual; we don’t have Nada to destroy the signal that clouds everyone’s perception.  It’s not going to be like the last scene where the woman suddenly sees that she is having sex with a decay-faced monster.  Unless her name is Melania.

C Chaka

Friday, January 13, 2017

Rising Up – EVERLY

Four years is a long time to be trapped with people who don't respect you.  People who want to silence your voice.  People who want to use you, and don’t care about your health and well-being.  People who endanger your family.  Salma Hayek’s titular character from 2014’s high action siege movie EVERLY knows about these people, and she’s determined that four years are all they are going to get from her.

The Capsule:
We come into the worst day of Everly’s (Salma Hayek) thoroughly fucked up life, already in progress.  Her only shot of escaping four years of slavery under the Yakuza boss Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe)  has gone tits up in spectacular fashion.  Her only option seems to be to lay down and die.  Instead, she blows away a whole room full of gangster scumbags and plunges headlong into a new plan: kill everyone who stands between her and the door.  More important than her own freedom, she must make sure her mother (Laura Cepeda) and daughter Maisey (Aisha Ayamah) get the money she has squirreled away in order to buy them another life.  Blocked at every turn, Everly must deal with wave after wave of killer prostitutes, corrupt cops, guard dogs, and vicious torturers who are all determined to keep the boss’ plaything in her place.  Everly has had enough and she is willing to bring the entire building down if it means saving her daughter from the hell she has endured.

Selma Hayek is phenomenal as Everly.  She's a badass, but in the same way John McClane was in DIE HARD.  She doesn’t want to be in that situation, she just doesn’t have a choice.  She is terrified in the beginning, stumbling and not knowing exactly what to do.  The first time she picks up a submachine gun, she empties the clip into the ceiling without hitting anything.  The only think keeping her going is her unwavering determination.  

Like John McClane, she takes an ever increasing amount of punishment throughout the movie.  A bullet wound through the side (and later the shoulder), cuts, gashes, contusions, acid burns, she has to push through it all.  Luckily for her, she also follows McClane’s rule that gunshots only hurt when you can see them bleeding.   Slap some duct tape on and she’s doing fine.

Everly may start out shaky, but once she gets her confidence back, she is a serious piece of work.  Nothing is revealed about what Everly was like before the abduction.  There is no indication she had any special training, but she's good with a gun and not squeamish about having to kill a guy (or twenty), so she wasn’t an average soccer mom.  She knows how to leverage her advantages.  She takes out a squad of goons in full tactical gear by being faster, smarter, and even more ruthless.

It should be noted that Selma Hayek was 48 years old when she made this movie.  Time has been very, very good to her.  She is amazingly fit, able to roll with some grueling fight sequences and lug around a huge machine gun believably.  She had a stunt double for the extreme stuff like diving over counters and getting blown through doorways, but Hayek herself is slogging her way through the majority of the punishment.  And even under all the bruises and blood, she is still fiercely beautiful.  

Incidentally, the role of Everly was originally slated for Kate Hudson.  I cannot even imagine what the hell that movie would look like.  There aren’t that many Yakuza rom-coms out there.

Structurally, EVERLY is a very odd movie.  The bulk of its running time is spent in only one location, the (initially) luxurious apartment that has been Everly’s cell for the last four years.  There are eventually quick trips to the hall way and to an adjacent apartment, and we get to see other parts of the building through security footage, but otherwise this could be an extremely violent and explosive stage play.  

The subject matter is incredibly dark, and it does not shy away from indicating exactly what these Yakuza bastards think of women.   When Taiko threatens to bring in Everly’s little girl to fill her vacancy at the hotel, we know the sick son of a bitch isn’t bluffing. 

For as grim and gritty as the tone can be, the movie veers into some very crazy territory.  Everly’s first trial after defying Taiko is to fend off a group of bombastic Yakuza prostitutes all fighting for the brand new bounty placed on her head.  They all live and work together on the same level of the apartment building, so it has an additional awkward quality, like being attacked by the people in your office.  They seem to have more freedom (and a lot more weapons) than Everly, though.  A couple of them are straight up murderous, but several are sympathetic to her plight.  The money is just too good to pass up.  Except that they really should have.

Director Joe Lynch has his own style, but he owes a lot to Tarantino, especially with the injection of morbid humor into a tense situation.  One example is when Everly realizes Maisey is face to face with Bonsai, a vicious and much disliked guard dog.  Bonsai’s smirking handler keeps his hand on the dog’s collar as Everly slowly reaches down to pick up her child, letting him loose just as she grabs her.  Everly races back into the apartment and is a second away from being torn apart when she tosses a grenade into the hall.  The dog bolts out to fetch it, with the handler running after yelling, “Bonsai, that’s not a ball!”  Boom.

The action is quick, frantic, but well shot and easy to track.  It can also be satisfyingly over the top.  One scene has Everly tossing a grenade into an elevator full of gangsters just as the doors close.  There is the sound of an explosion and a huge jet of blood shoots from between the seam of the doors.  It’s like a miniature version of the blood elevator from THE SHINNING.  

There are long pauses in between the action sequences when Everly gets to catch her breath.  She even has the chance to clean up the apartment and take a shower before her mom and Maisey show up.  I found this initially unnatural and distracting, but there is an explanation near the end that makes sense.  More importantly, it gives the movie time to develop some true pathos between characters (the ones that last more than 30 seconds, at least).  

One of them is a victim of Everly’s first shooting spree.  Referred to callously as Dead Man by Everly, Akie Kotabe spends all of his screen time slowly bleeding to death on a couch.  Everly eases his suffering out of basic human compassion, but she doesn’t let him off the hook just because he is a soft spoken, gentle nerd in a suit.  Even though he didn’t participate in the abuse the other Yakuza inflicted on her (thankfully off screen), he did not stop them either.  In time though, she realizes he was in the same boat as her, forced by the Yakuza do to things that revolted him.  He is just another sad, isolated victim, though more by choice than Everly.  In the last moments of his life, he has finally made a real connection with a person, the woman who shot him.  His best moment is when he distracts Everly’s daughter from finding a stack of bodies by singing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” with her.  It isn’t enough to wipe the slate of his life clean, but it is the best he can do.

Everly has some very touching moments with her daughter, who was one year old the last time she saw her.  They are both awkward and unsure of each other.  Aisha Ayamah is a real cutie and plays Maisey with such shy innocence, it’s almost an emotional cheat.  Those scenes would be touching to anyone with an empathic bone in their body.  The real gut wrenching scenes come with Everly’s mother.  Not realizing what she has had to endure, her mom gives Everly hell for abandoning her daughter.  Everly has a more than valid excuse, but just sits there in the bathroom and lets her mother unload, overcome by four years of unreasonable but ever present guilt.  Once Everly explains what happened, corroborated by a bathtub full of dead gangsters, the two mothers finally have a true reconciliation.  It’s a beautiful and powerful moment.  

Good feelings only last a second, because then we come to the most batshit part of the movie, Togo Igawa as The Sadist.  He arrives wheeling in a half-naked man in a slender cage of hooked bars, accompanied by four freaks dressed as Kabuki demons.  Keep in mind, this is the guy the Yakuza call when they need things to get really hardcore, so we know he is bad news.  You never want to meet a cordial, well-dressed man carrying a medical bag filled with delicate bottles of various acids and poisons.  The entire sequence gets more and more surreal and frightening, especially once he gets Everly in the cage.  The power quickly shifts back and forth several times before the Sadist gets his fitting (and extremely messy) end.

The final showdown with Taiko is an all-out battle of wills; supreme arrogance and cruelty against unbreakable ferocity.   It doesn’t matter that Taiko has the upper hand.  As he slides his razor sharp sword across her skin, waxing on about the divine brutality of Yakuza love, she’s coming up with different ways to tell him to go fuck himself.  She will never again be his slave.  No matter what he does to her, she’s already beaten him.  And she still has a few more tricks up her sleeve.  

Metaphorically.  She’s wearing a tank top.

Everly’s situation is considerably more extreme than anything we are likely to face during our four year cohabitation with a cartoonish villain.  I also admit that some of us have had to deal with blatant disrespect and hostility for far more than four years (an entire lifetime, for instance, or many lifetimes).  But focusing on these upcoming four years in particular, there is a lot to take away from EVERLY.  We won’t (or shouldn’t) be fighting with bullets or grenades or swords, but we can fight with our words and actions and solidarity.  We can make it very clear right from the beginning that four years is all they are going to get from us.  Hopefully we don’t have to do it in ten inch high heels, though.  They look painful.

C Chaka