Friday, June 30, 2017

Trailer Match: DEAD KIDS

Movie trailers can be beautiful things.  Two and a half minute diamonds, where each scene is a precisely cut facet meant to dazzle and catch the eye.  Not all of them are winners, of course, but when they are done just right, they can be more memorable than the movies they promote.  For decades I was sure I’d seen THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, until I picked up the Blu Ray and realized it was only the trailer, which I had seen a million times on HBO as a kid, that I was remembering.  That trailer was so perfectly contained and tidy, it was all I needed.  The full movie turned out to be pretty good, but the trailer was magic.  
Usually I don’t write about a movie unless I’ve seen it at least once before, but I wanted to see if this one would live up to my trailer expectations.   Can Michael Laughlin’s 1981 mind control horror DEAD KIDS work as well in 99 minutes as it does in 3:20?

The Capsule:
Strange things are afoot in the sleepy Midwestern town of Galesburg.  All the teens are eager to sign up for some harmless psychological experiments down at the local college, including Pete (Dan Shor) and his best friend, Jimmy Olsen (really named Oliver, but since the actor is Marc McClure from SUPERMAN, good luck calling him anything else).  The money is good, but Pete is experiencing a few side effects, like mood swings, black outs, and occasionally pissing blood.  Plus, his police chief dad, John (Michael Murphy) thinks the experiments might be connected to the string of teen murders that has cropped up recently.  Everyone thinks John is being paranoid, but the deeper he digs, the more he is convinced it all leads back to the long dead professor who ruined his life.  Paranoid or not, unless he’s careful, he might be the next person on the slab, possibly at the hands of his own son.

DEAD KIDS is better known in the states as STRANGE BEHAVIOR.  It’s not a bad title, but come on, DEAD KIDS is a showstopper.  That title gives you pause, regardless of what your reaction to it is.  It was the same thing for me with the DEAD KIDS trailer (the STRANGE BEHAVIOR one is nowhere near as interesting).  I first saw it a while ago in a 42nd St. Trailer compilation.  It’s hard to say why I liked it so much.  There’s nothing revolutionary about it, just another slasher/mind control mystery type deal with little dashes of humor, but something about it seemed a little off.  It has a lot of strange, disturbing imagery thrown in with the lighter stuff.  The most memorable part is a musical bit where a bunch of kids in costumes are doing this dance number to Lou Christie’s Lightning Strikes.  The song is one of those ‘60s standards that you’ve heard a million times.  I never gave two shits about that song before, but it completely changes in this context.  It was weird and anachronistic and, like the title, it stood out.  I couldn’t quite figure out what its deal was.

I have to admit, my favorite things in the movie were also my favorite things from the trailer.  The costume dance party was only slightly less strange in context than out (I still don't know why they were all in costumes or why they made a whole synchronized number of a twenty year old song).  Thanks to the trailer, I had a good idea how the movie was going to play out.  There were a few surprises, though.  The biggest surprise was that the movie, set in a small town outside of Chicago, was really filmed in New Zealand.  You know, where they shot THE LORD OF THE RINGS.  One of the most cinematically beautiful places on Earth was used as a stand-in for Illinois.  I’m sure Auckland is just a normal town, and it did look dull and Midwestern enough for me to completely buy into it, but come on.  Turning New Zealand into Illinois is like hiring Ryan Gosling to play Michael Myers.  Seems like a waste to cover all that up.  No disrespect to Illinois, you are a lovely state and full of interesting things, but you’re no New Zealand.  

The movie uses some very standard slasher tropes, even for 1981.  There is a masked killer (in a Tor Johnson mask!), lots of stalking, nervous victims bumbling in the dark, killer POV shots, and a fair amount of literal slashing.  The unusual turn is that, for the most part, it pulls a gender swap.  Most of the victims are male.  One girl is chased after her boyfriend is killed, but she gets away and is never in danger again.  Someone’s mom buys it, but only because she is in the wrong place at the wrong time.  One of the killers (not a spoiler, that fact is established early on) is even a woman.  

Most shocking, the first (and possibly only) naked body the camera ogles is that of the main character, Pete.  There is a gratuitous butt shot as he heads into the bathroom were his dad is shaving.  So it’s both gratuitous and weird.  

I don’t think it was an attempt to be enlightened or fair to the opposite sex, though, because Pete can be a real jerk.  He blatantly flirts with a girl at the party right in front of another one that obviously has a crush on him.  His idea of making a good impression is to wait for the receptionist he likes, Caroline (Dey Young), to close up her creepy office for the night, grab her from behind and scare the shit out of her.  For some reason she decides to go on a date with him as opposed to macing him, kicking him in the nuts, and calling the cops.  He doesn’t get much better on the date, trying to order for her at the restaurant (she doesn’t let him) and stealing the cigarette she just lit.  Some of this may be due to the experimental drug he took earlier, but I think mostly he’s just a dick.

His dad isn’t that much better.  John’s been stringing along his girlfriend, Barbara (Louise Fletcher), for years.  She constantly cooks for him and Pete, trying to earn his love with pies, only to be barely acknowledged.  Instead of trying to calm her down when she is freaking out because he’s being so paranoid, John drags her to a graveyard and has her help exhume a body.  These are not the most sensitive cats around, is what I’m saying. 
The trailer does a good job highlighting the best character in the movie, the mysterious Professor Parkinson, who runs the experimental program at the college.  It is clear she has sinister intentions from the moment she is introduce, with her icy, wicked smile and perfect Sean Young in BLADE RUNNER hairdo.  Like a classic femme fatale, she has Pete wrapped around her finger from their first meeting.  She seduces him with the promise of quick and easy cash and drugs.  When Pete gets second thoughts about the procedure after being strapped down to a chair, Parkinson reassures him by explaining he is participating in a “very exciting experiment.” Then she injects a syringe INTO HIS EYEBALL!  He should have held out for more than 100 bucks for that experiment.

She handles John just as effortlessly.  She calmly listens to his rants about her predecessor, Dr. Le Sange (Arthur Dignam), which only makes him look crazier in front of everyone.  Parkinson is not the least bit concerned, even though she has his son restrained just down the hall.

It is fun watching Pete slowly get paler and more erratic, all the while trying to play it cool with his girlfriend.  Look, honey, people sometimes piss blood, it’s nothing unusual.  Strangely, Pete is the only kid from the batch of test subjects to have that kind of physical reactions.  The intent may have been to represent Pete’s resistance to the nefarious mental conditioning.  I guess his pal Jimmy Olsen didn’t have as much of a moral dilemma about offing the school bully, because he looked fine the whole time.

Things take a weird turn in the final act when it comes to the mysterious Dr. Le Sange.  Eventually, John’s obsession with the deceased doctor, which involves his late wife, is explained. However, we seem to be missing a lot of the backstory, like what exactly the doctor was doing years ago that caused such a scandal.   It's hard to understand why John makes him out to be some kind of war criminal when all we see him do is overwork some of the staff and perform brain surgery on a chicken.  

[Spoilers Ahead]  And when it is revealed that Le Sange isn’t really dead, things only become more confusing.  Pete, under the metal control of Parkinson, subdues his father and ties him down.  Then an old man in a wheelchair rises dramatically from the floor on an elevator platform, wheels over to John, and tears off his makeup.  It turns out that the old lab assistant from the beginning was really Le Sange all along!  Except, when we first saw the lab assistant, he clearly had both his legs, and Le Sange is now a double amputee.  He mentions something about having to sacrifice his legs for his plan, but there is zero explanation about why or when that happened.  There is nothing in the story that connects with this; it is just a bizarre detail thrown in for fun.  Is there a separate movie out there following the adventures of Le Sange that converged with this one at the end?

So how does the full film match up to my beloved trailer?  Pretty well, I'd say.  The off-kilter tone of the trailer carries through the entire running time, and surpasses it in places.  I love an oddball ending, which this certainly delivered.  Director Michael Laughlin created something just different enough to stand alone.  He would go on to make the similarly skewed STRANGE INVADERS (actually filmed in Illinois this time, but sadly not pretending to be New Zealand), but he never followed up on his planned STRANGE trilogy, which is a pity.  DEAD KIDS doesn't come together perfectly, but it provides a unique take on a traditional story.  Now if I could just get that damn Lou Christie song out of my head.

C Chaka

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Kids Ain’t Alright – DEVIL TIMES FIVE

Who doesn't love kids?  With their adorable, cherubic faces and eyes full of wonder, they can warm your heart.  Sure, sometimes they can be a handful.  They can push your buttons.  The can squabble with their siblings.  They can cut your phone line.  They can dump a bucket of piranha on you when you are in the tub. But bring a smile to their faces and it's all worth it.  Just ask the adults from 1974's DEVIL TIMES FIVE (AKA: THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL).  Oh wait, you can't.  They're all dead.

The Capsule:
Gruff, overbearing tycoon Papa Doc (Gene Evans) sequesters his family and underlings in his isolated winter chalet for a working vacation.  His obligated guests include dutiful daughter Julie (Joan McCall) and her macho, fun-loving fiancée Rick (Taylor Lacher), gold-digging vixen Lovely (Carolyn Stellar), spineless suck up Harvey Beckman (Sorrell Booke), his lush of a wife Ruth (Shelley Morrison), and the lumbering childlike caretaker, Ralph (John Durren).  Their weekend of boozing, bickering, and cat fighting is interrupted by five adorable children who were the only survivors of a horrific bus accident.  Unbeknownst to the adults, the little cuties are really a pack of pint sized maniacs on their way back to the mental hospital when their van went off the road.  One by one, the clueless grown-ups are lead to their increasingly grizzly deaths.  By the time the remaining olds wise up, they find themselves at the mercy of these diabolical delinquents who aren’t about to let the fun end so soon.   

One of the most interesting things about DEVIL TIMES FIVE (or THE HORRIBLE HOUSE ON THE HILL, which is a stupid title because the house is quite the swinging pad) is that by the end it is a completely different movie than how it started.  The first twenty minutes are pure soapy melodrama, like an extra trashy episode of Dynasty.  You’ve got the belligerent patriarch that everyone is resentful or terrified of, the sad sack sycophant (played by the future Boss Hog from Dukes of Hazard!), his wife who won’t have anything to do with him because he isn’t a bottle of bourbon, and the irresponsible ex-jock layabout.  There is a full-on cat fight between jealous sisters (I think they’re sisters), complete with hair pulling and stray boobs, accompanied by a Starsky & Hutch style groove.  The adults are so committed to their booze drenched drama that no one notices the kids slowly and carefully laying the groundwork for the horror to come.

I have to admit, the adults are such ridiculous clichés of the era (only in the ‘70s could a comb over hairdo be considered sexy) that they are kind of amusing all by themselves.  The real fun is the pack of underaged weirdos who emerge completely unscathed from the incredibly traumatic van accident.  The movie doesn’t bother trying to pass these ragamuffins off as anything but dangerous freaks right from the start.  They show absolutely no concern over anyone who died in the crash.  Brian (Tierre Turner), who is caught in permanent pretend soldier mode, even loots a bunch of stuff off the driver’s corpse.  The oldest, an albino 15 year old dressed as a nun known as Sister Hanna (Gail Smale), seems like she might be the caretaker, until she kills a guy.  True Sisters of the Cloth tend to shy away from such activities.

I was happy to see these malicious munchkins have no backstory, other than they are all residents of the State Mental Hospital, Children’s Acute Ward.  They don’t bother with any Dr. Loomis style explanation about what made them evil.  They don’t even mention why they were all out on bus ride in the first place.  Since Dr. Brown, the one surviving adult, is desperately following their trail muttering “I’ve got to stop them,” they clearly weren’t on a field trip to the zoo.  My theory is the van was on its way to Mount St. Helens so the doctor could chuck the kids into a volcano.  It might sound harsh, but believe me, it’s the most appropriate treatment plan for these little psychos. 

It’s not a particularly bloody movie, but the violence is brutal and disturbing, especially given that it is all perpetrated by children.  And not just insert shots of little hands holding knives, or little people stand-ins when things get rough.  These kids are front and center.  The first murder shows all the actors, even the darling 8 year old girl, beating Dr. Brown to death with hammers and chains—in slow motion—for FIVE MINUTES.  It only ends when Brian stabs the guy in the heart.  In another scene, they dump gasoline on someone and dance around the burning, flailing body like it was a maypole.  This was the ‘70s, before anyone cared about things like developmental trauma or scarred psyches.  

All of the kids have their moments, but the standout is David, played by a very young Leif Garret, the late ‘70’s teen idol.  It’s pretty obvious why this kid went on to fame and adoration.  In his freshly pressed suit and flowing blonde locks (which turns out to be a wig), David has flare. He delivers all his lines with the pomp and gravitas of a stage thespian, which he (and only he) considers himself to be.  You know, the type of kid who would use the word “rue” a lot in sentences.  Now that I think about it, David is a bit like a prototype Stewie from Family Guy, but less (intentionally) funny and more homicidal.  

All of the kids zero in on one specific adult to manipulate and torment, but David has a particularly unusual relationship with the luckless milquetoast, Harvey Beckman.  For one thing, the kid only calls him by his full name, as in “We will be friends, Harvey Beckman.”  Almost arbitrarily, David casts this mousy little man as his great nemesis, when there is clearly nothing great about him at all.  The best part is all of David’s Machiavellian schemes are completely lost on Harvey.  The putz is so happy that someone is even paying attention to him that he is oblivious to all the warning signs.  He seems to fancy himself a mentor to the kid, teaching him how to play chess and chop wood (bad idea).  David’s interest in the sad little man can be categorized as a little more complicated.  A telling sign is when he declares into the mirror, “That’s it; you’re all mine, Harvey Beckman!”  He also happens to be wearing one of Ruth’s dresses, a long black wig, and putting on lipstick at the time.

Luckily, David ends up killing him before things can really get weird.  Well, weirder.

Harvey Beckman aside, once the first body is discovered, the adults don’t waste time with the usual “but they’re just kids” rationalizations.  Even the gruff blowhard Papa Doc goes from “Yeah, right” to “oh shit, they are going to kill us all” in the space of a single scene.  By that time it’s too late, though.  The game is set, and the grown-ups have been completely outmaneuvered.  They can’t even get away because the industrious twerps have sabotaged the only car.  The story turns very quickly from carefree romp to stalker horror.  One by one, the adults are hacked, stabbed, or fed to piranha, and there is nothing they can do to stop it.  Except for one moment when David missteps and is slightly injured (leading him to yell, “My face! Look what you’ve done to my beautiful face!”), the kids are in complete control.

Rick and Julie turn out to not only be the most decent and quick thinking of the adults, but also the ones with the most potential to survive.  [Spoiler]  Ultimately though, they are no match for the miniature MacGyvers of Evil and their clever deathtraps.  In a final scene that would be copied by dozens of slasher movies to come, the kids have propped up all their victims in one room for a psycho tea party.  After they have sufficiently desecrated the corpses, one of the girls declares that she’s bored, and the whole crew head off in search of more people toys (the original title) to have fun with.  Kids: 8, Adults: 0.

Director Sean MacGregor is no Stanley Kubrick (he was actually fired and replaced by producer David Sheldon), but the secluded, snowbound setting gives the movie a bit of a THE SHINING vibe.  In fact, DEVIL TIMES FIVE could be thought of as an age reversed take on that story, where Danny is the one stalking Jack Torrance (Shelly Duvall would be pretty much the same).  So, since it was made six years earlier, maybe Kubrick ripped off this film for his little masterpiece.  Just a theory.   

The movie is undeniably clunky, and some of the performances are a little cringe inducing.=, but the kids have a weird balance between normal brats and twisted freaks that I find fascinating.  I would love to see a sequel set in modern times with the same cast.  All the little devils, now as old as their victims from the first movie, have a reunion at the chateau, only to be set upon by a new gang of murderous tykes.  The old devils would have to recapture the mischievous spirit of their youth.  They could have a deathtrap dual, the olds with their garrottes and tripwires, the youngins with their Bluetooth controlled robots.  Or it could just be the continuing adventures of David.  I’d be fine with that.

Checkmate, Harvey Beckman!

C Chaka

Friday, June 16, 2017

Just Desserts – ALLIGATOR

I love an intricate story.  Movies that painstakingly set up your expectations only to cleverly swerve into mysterious new directions can be exciting and innovative.  I’m thrilled by a good surprise or a smart twist.  Those movies can require a big investment of attention, though.  They can be a little exhausting.  Sometimes you just want a movie about a big alligator that eats jerks.  Lucky for you, 1980’s ALLIGATOR gives you just that.  

The Capsule:
After a heartless dad flushes his daughter's live pet down the toilet, Ramon the baby alligator is left to wander the lonely sewers of Chicago.  Twelve years on, Ramon has grown into quite the big boy, thanks to a steady diet of hormone filled dog corpses that the crooked pharmaceutical company dumps into his tunnels.  When sewer workers start getting fished out in bits and pieces, homicide detective David Madison (Robert Forster) is brought in to get to the bottom of things.  His first trip into the sewer yields revealing clues in the form of his partner being eaten by Ramon.  No one believes his story, not his gravel voiced boss (Michael Gazzo), not the press, and especially not the crooked Mayor (Jack Carter), at least until Ramon bursts up through the sidewalk and starts gobbling up people left and right.  When David fails to locate Ramon quickly enough, the Mayor fires him and brings in smug, racist big game hunter, Col. Brock (Henry Silva) to get the job done—which he does, as long as the job was to feed the alligator.  It’s up to David and perky herpetologist Marisa Kendall (Robin Riker) to stop the oversized beast’s reign of terror, after it gobbles up every deserving victim in town.  

ALLIGATOR is another proud contender in the beloved sub-genre of JAWS rip-offs, where an assortment of deadly shark substitutes are inserted into the same basic plot.  Other vicious variants include smaller fish (PIRANHA), larger fish (ORCA – okay, not really a fish), bears (GRIZZLY), and cars (THE CAR).  They are fun because they all try to shoehorn some of the JAWS staples (dismissive city officials, cynical hunter, disastrous community celebration, etc.) into sometimes wildly inappropriate settings, but each one has its own unique flavor.  ALLIGATOR moves the action straight to the mean streets of Chicago (actually Los Angeles).  

One of the best things about this version is the lead actor, Robert Forster, playing the Chief Brody role.  Forster is always a pleasure to watch.  He brings friendly, blue collar charm to all his characters, from his leading man days of the ‘70’s and ‘80s, up to his later supporting roles, like JACKIE BROWN.  His depiction of detective David is perfect for the tone of the movie, with enough dry humor to make him fun, but not enough to turn the whole thing into a joke.  He can make self-deprecating jokes (there’s a running gag about his receding hairline) without coming off like a sad sack.  He is manly enough to be a tough guy, but sensitive enough to have a sweet relationship with Marisa (the lady version of Hooper, though thankfully not a lady version of Richard Dreyfuss).

The other great thing about ALLIGATOR is the refreshingly straightforward script.  Written by genre scribe extraordinaire, John Sayles, the story unselfconsciously delivers the goods.  If a character is shady, he is guaranteed to die violently and usually as a direct result of his own actions.  Wondering what happened to that little girl whose dad flushed Ramon down the drain 12 year ago? Yep, it’s Marisa the gator scientist.  She even mentioned that she had a baby alligator when she was a kid.  If someone makes a passing comment about methane pockets in the sewer tunnels, you can be damn sure it comes up later in a big way.  This script does not have time for clever connections or sly twists.  It’s the anti-Shyamalan.

I really appreciate the hardline stance the movie takes on jerks.  The closest it comes to being subtle is the shifty pet shop owner played by Sydney Lassick.  He seems harmless enough, but there is something a little off about him (because he’s Sydney Lassick).  Soon enough, he’s out pet napping pooches to sell as test subjects to Helms (James Ingersoll), the despicable pharmaceutical scientist who is so evil, he only experiments on puppies.  The pet shop owner meets his toothy end while disposing of hormonally altered dog corpses in the sewer, which is the reason Ramon grew so large in the first place.  The only part of the body left to find is his leg, still wearing an alligator leather shoe.  Double irony!

The next deserving victim is the sleazy journalist, Kemp (Bart Braverman), who goes out of his way to bring up David’s traumatic past (ha ha, you got your partner killed!) in every news story.  He sneaks onto crime scenes, stages photos, and slathers the movie with a thick layer of smarm whenever he’s on camera.  Kemp is exactly what President Trump thinks all reporters who don’t work for Fox News are like.  I’ll bet he has the clip of a screaming Kemp being devoured playing on a loop on his phone during every press conference.  Just kidding!  Trump doesn’t give press conferences.

The gator doesn’t dine exclusively on assholes, though.  Kelly (Perry Lang), the fresh faced rookie who volunteers to fish around in the tunnels with David, gets gobbled up pretty quick (not helping David’s reputation of being hard on partners).  The many nameless cops and civilians who fall prey to Ramon couldn't have been all bad.  There is even a cute little kid who gets pushed into a pool where the man-eater is chilling and disappears in a cloud of red.  JAWS rip-offs are classically merciless on adorable moppets.  

That said, Ramon eats a lot of assholes.  The bigger they are, the more satisfying their death scene.  They don’t come much bigger than the legendary big game hunter, Brock.  He’s equivalent to the Quint character, minus any redeeming qualities.  Henry Silva always had a talent for playing reprehensible folk, and he really takes it up a notch with Brock.  He actually breaks up the standard JAWS trifecta of Lawman/Scientist/Hunter because the Hunter is so obnoxious that the Lawman and Scientist don’t want anything to do with him.  Not only is Brock arrogant, sexist, and lecherous, he is super racist.  In one scene, he hires a few African Americans from the neighborhood to be his bearers, literally to carry all his shit.  The motherfucker even calls them “natives”.  However much money the Mayor coughed up for this guy’s services, he seriously overpaid.  Brock tracks Ramon into an alley, but is completely surprised when the giant bursts out from under a huge trash pile and chomps down on his ass.  Some great white hunter he turned out to be.  I hope his bearers got paid in advance.

The cherry on top of the carnage pie, though, is the outdoor wedding.  It is the perfect storm of scumbags.  After discussing their illegal business dealings, Slade (Dean Jagger), the greedy, amoral head of the pharmaceutical company, invites the Mayor to his daughter’s wedding.  Slade introduces him to his soon to be son-in-law, who turns out to be—wait for it—Helms, the despicable head scientist who started the whole mess to begin with.  
Naturally, Ramon is instinctively drawn to this literal buffet of bastards like a hipster to mustache wax.  What follows is an orgy of well-deserved death.  Helms gets thoroughly chewed up (he is not getting that tuxedo deposit back), the Mayor is torn into while pleading to be let into Slade’s limo, and Ramon flattens the old man’s car with him inside.  Several incidental party guests get taken out as well, but given that they were there at Slade’s invitation, they couldn’t be all that innocent.   At least the bride makes it out alive, and is left weeping over the loss of her douchebag groom.  Trust me, lady, you dodged a bullet there.  You should be thanking the alligator.

This movie just goes to show you don’t need an elaborate plot or a unique concept to make an incredibly entertaining movie.  The fact that Sayles struck gold a second time using the same basic premise a couple of years later with PIRANHA is further proof.  All that is really needed is a director with a steady hand, (Corman vet Lewis Teague, in this case), a snappy script, and a few charismatic (or quirky) leads.  Oh, and never underestimate the appeal of comeuppance.  Mean people don’t always get what they deserve in real life, but in the movies, karma is an enormous, sharp-toothed bitch.

C Chaka