Tag Archives: 1986

CAPSULE: SOMETHING WILD (1986)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta

PLOT: Straight-laced businessman Charlie impulsively hops into a car with wild gal Lulu, who takes him on an extended adventure that exhilarates him until her psycho ex-con ex arrives on the scene.

Still from Something Wild (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I must be missing something about Something Wild. I get why people like it: likeable cast top to bottom, sexy Melanie Griffith, easy to follow story that’s comfortably familiar but still manages to surprise. What I don’t get is its cult movie reputation, Criterion Collection-worthiness, or recommendation for coverage on a weird movie site.

COMMENTS: Something Wild is a masculine mid-life crisis daydream, with Melanie Griffith as the manic pixie dream girl on a meth binge who leads “closet rebel” yuppie Jeff Bridges into a wonderland of forbidden pleasures and the danger that accompanies them. Casual drinking and driving, handcuffs as a sex toy, cruising down the highway in a convertible, picking up hitchhikers, shoplifting, dash-and-dines, singalongs to unthreatening rock and roll hits, jealous stares at the wild babe on your arm, winning the girl’s heart away from the abusive bad boy jock—all the joys of the late teenage years are here, for a middle aged man who really knows how to appreciate them to savor. Bridges’ Charlie is a solidly nice guy, who remains so in our eyes even after he abandons his wife, children and colleagues. In real life Griffth’s kooky free-spirited Lulu would be an alcoholic sociopath destined for a bad end. In the movie’s reality, however, the mismatched couple have nothing but sexy wacky adventures—at least, until Ray Liotta springs onto the scene like a blade out of a switchblade to add a dose of the dangerous reality that would face any two people who let their hormones lead them this far astray.

Maybe the mild kinkiness and the tone-shift (which is frequently overstated in its impact) seemed fresh in 1986—although maybe not, considering that was the year that gave us Blue Velvet. If there’s anything remarkable about Something Wild, it’s the way that the script and direction keep us so darn comfortable with Charlie and Lulu’s outré adventures, grounding them in the conventions of realist romantic comedy while teasing us that we are glimpsing the exotic pleasures of the hedonist set. Offbeat and sexy, this is a fine comfort movie to watch while munching popcorn on the sofa—but it’s not hard to find something wilder. Just browse the sidebar here.

Look for cameos by directors John Sayles and . Extras on the relatively bare Criterion Collection disc include the trailer, a 30-minute interview with director Demme, and a 10-minute discussion with screenwriter E. Max Frye. This is not to be confused with 1961’s less-known but arguably weirder Something Wild, starring Carroll Baker as a rape victim in a fugue state, which is also in the Criterion Collection.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Demme is a master of finding the bizarre in the ordinary.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Brad.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: IN A GLASS CAGE (1986)

Tras el Crystal

DIRECTED BY: Agustí Villaronga

FEATURING: Günter Meisner, David Sust, Gisela Echevarria, Marisa Paredes

PLOT: Hiding out in Brazil, an ex-Nazi pedophile and child killer is confined to a iron lung after a botched suicide attempt; it turns out that his new young male nurse knows about his past crimes.

Still from In a Glass Cage (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Disturbing, but there’s nothing exactly weird about this horrific pedophilic psychodrama, other than its enigmatic ending.

COMMENTS: Well-acted and suspenseful, as well as brutally sadistic, In a Glass Cage has a clever setup: a decrepit ex-Nazi, confined to an iron lung after a suicide attempt, becomes both a prisoner and an unwilling accomplice to further crimes at the hands of one of his former victims. The film, while seriously intended, depends on the type of shock torture tactics usually seen in films, with an even more unsettling pedophiliac edge. Any film that starts out with a young boy stripped, hung from the ceiling, and beaten to death with a plank is probably unsuitable to watch with your mother (or pretty much anybody’s mother). There are not many of these scenes, but it doesn’t take many shots of a torturer sticking a needle into a child’s heart to make an impact.

Technical aspects of the film are superb, from the shadowy blue-grey cinematography to the music by Javier Navarette. Villaronga shoots suspense well, drawing out the stalking and alternating closeups, pans and overhead shots with sinister little details (Griselda’s black stocking falling around her ankle) in a way that recalls Dario Argento at his most nerve-wracking. David Sust is chilling as the second generation killer, and Günter Meisner expertly portrays Klaus with hardly a word, conveying  warring emotions of horror and guilty pleasure purely by facial expressions. All of this quality makes the movie more difficult to dismiss; the producers spent too much money and artistic effort for accusations that they were merely trying to make a quick buck off salacious material to stick.

The torture Angelo devises for Klaus is subtle. He demonstrates that there is no escape from the Nazi’s past atrocities, that mere regret will not absolve him from the evil he has unleashed in the world. He forces Klaus to relive his crimes not as memories, but as actual ongoing atrocities for which he is still responsible, despite long ago having lost the ability to commit them. For Angelo the sadist, this may be the biggest turn-on; knowing that a part of Klaus still enjoys watching these horrors, while another part of his mind is screaming in anguish. Through this complexity Glass Cage transcends exploitation—although just barely. Its insights into the psychology of sadism don’t cut deep enough to compensate for all of the scarring imagery, making it a good, but not great, movie about capital-E Evil. Those who like their horror served up with a side of extreme moral depravity will consider it a classic; others may want to pass.

Cult Epics DVD or Blu-Ray includes a 30 minute interview/documentary about Villaronga (mainly focused on Glass Cage), a screening Q&A, and three (not scary) experimental shorts from Villaronga spanning 1976-1980.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like the film’s characters, we find ourselves party to scenarios involving the most extraordinary fetishisation of suffering and death, horrors which invoke a troubling combination of impressions: they are sensual, grotesque, dreamlike, oddly beautiful, almost pornographic, usually painful to witness. But however horrifying the experience, Tras el cristal is bound to make for rewarding viewing… easily one of the most lyrical nightmares ever concocted.”–Chris Gallant, Kinoeye, Nov. 2002

(This movie was nominated for review by “w depaul.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Willard Huyck

FEATURING: Ed Gale, Lea Thompson, , , Liz Sagal, Holly Robinson, Chip Zien

PLOT: Loosely based on the Marvel comic book series, Howard is accidentally transported from his home planet of Duckworld to Cleveland, where he meets rock singer Beverly (Thompson); while trying to get  back home, his machinations inadvertently send an intergalactic monster to Ohio.

Still from Howard the Duck (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy, overblown and leadenly unfunny, but not really all that weird, except maybe for the “romance” between Howard and Beverly.

COMMENTS: Hollywood history is littered with legendary critical and box office disasters that really aren’t as bad as their reputations suggest, like Cleopatra, 1941, and Ishtar. On the other hand, there’s Howard the Duck, which truly is as godawful as everyone said it was back in 1986. The movie’s best moments come right at the beginning, when we see Howard on his home planet reading “Playduck” in front of a poster for “My Little Chickadee”. (The ornithological puns are as amusing as the picture ever gets). But once Howard lands on Earth, flirting with Thompson and befriending Robbins, the flick completely falls to pieces, culminating in a riot of stop-motion effects (courtesy of Phil Tippett) which are impressively elaborate, yet fake-looking and alarmingly grotesque. Howard himself resembles a Disney Audio-Animatronic possessed by an evil spirit.

Today, it would all be CGI, of course, but CGI couldn’t fix this script. The film was a $40 million debacle that almost ruined Thompson and Jones, who were coming off hits Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, respectively. Infamously produced by George Lucas, this was his biggest mistake until Jar Jar Binks. One odd thing about the film: the theme song, written by Thomas Dolby and George Clinton, is an ear-worm that adamantly refuses to get out of one’s head.

The 2016 “Special Edition” Blu-ray features some 40 minutes of extras imported from the 2009 DVD, along with 11 minutes of featurettes from 1986. These include two trailers from the original release, plus a “News Featurette” and three short documentaries about the film’s stunts, special effects and music. From 2016 comes a twenty-six minute look at the film’s pre-production and shooting, and a 13-minute short examining the movie’s post-production, release, disastrous reception and “legacy”. That legacy includes Howard’s post-credits appearance in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Howard the Duck was, believe it or not, the first Marvel comic book character to appear in a feature film. Don’t be surprised if Howard receives a big-budget “reboot” one of these days.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “A hopeless mess… a gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache.”–Leonard Maltin (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: STREET OF CROCODILES (1986)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Feliks Stawinsky

PLOT: After being brought to life by a spit-and-blood activated machine, a gaunt puppet explores a dreary landscape of smeared windowpanes, cryptic machines, and wraith-like tailors, simultaneously observing and observed by a young boy.

Still from Street of Crocodiles (1986)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Not content simply to be staggeringly creepy, the Quay brothers imbue this masterpiece of decayed memory with a great deal of pathos and philosophy. From any given screen-capture, it’s easy to see why this movie would be considered weird—watching this cloud of nightmare in motion is simultaneously unnerving, moving, and awe-inspiring.

COMMENTS: This stop-motion film opens with the unlikely use of a lecture hall and an actor counting ceiling lights before activating an apparatus. Drawing up a globule of spit, he lets the liquid drop inside the machine, setting off the first of the unsettling devices found throughout Street of Crocodiles. The film’s protagonist, a shabbily well-dressed man, begins bound by the wrist to a cord attached to a bell before the actor uses a pair of scissors installed in the converted kinetoscope. Once loosed from the ties that bind him, the suited puppet begins navigating his dark surroundings.

Like a reticent explorer, he warily observes machines, gated pathways, and windows to bizarre figures. Behind one is a barely humanoid figure that emits one of the few bright lights in the movie. Judged by his design and actions, this automaton seems to be an inventor of some sort, and he labors away. As the man continues to explore, his environment slowly starts dismantling itself. Screws come undone from the paneling and begin moving across the floor. A young boy, perhaps representing the man’s childhood, merrily travels around the dank cityscape, harnessing the inventor’s light with a pocket mirror, bringing objects to life with its beam. Things come to a muted crescendo when the man comes across a tailor’s shop along the dim street below a crocodile skeleton.

The Quay brothers capture so much in this tiny but unlimited world. The viewer sees things in frame, only to find a moment later that what he is seeing is a reflection (in some cases, a reflection of a reflection). The micro-cosmos created here is both stifling and vast, as if no matter how far the man may explore, he is still trapped, unable to break free and get a larger picture of the mystery around him. Eventually he discovers where his life went sideways after a literally transformative encounter with the tailors, the only entities who seem at home in this murky subconscious. Through them, we see the allure of a commercial world and the high price paid for succumbing to it.

Stephen and Timothy Quay interpret Bruno Schulz’s gritty memoir “Street of Crocodiles” with a combination of smeared perspective and macro-lensed attention to detail. Schulz’s source material is filtered through the Quay’s vision of pervasive but fungible memory. Much is explored during the scant 21-minute run-time, but its brevity is wholly counter-balanced by its depth, both literally and metaphorically. As the man’s world in the movie is folded uncomfortably on itself, Street of Crocodiles explores its subject matter with a compact precision that belies its length. After watching this, I felt that the twenty minutes may well have been hours. So goes time in the dream world. This film must be seen to be believed: my words are almost utterly incapable of parlaying the direct line the Quay brothers have with the subconscious world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… an ambient horror film in the vein of Eraserhead.”–Jake Cole, Movie Mezzanine

CAPSULE: TROLL (1986) & TROLL 2 (1990)

Troll (1986)

DIRECTED BY:  John Carl Buechler

FEATURING:  Noah Hathaway, June Lockhart, Micheal Moriarity, Sonny Bono, Phil Fondacaro, Julia Louis-Dreyfus

PLOT:  Trolls invade the human realm and turn people into food (and baby trolls).

Still from Troll (1986)

Troll 2 (1990)

DIRECTED BY:  Claudio Fragasso

FEATURING:  Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, Robert Ormsby, Deborah Reed

PLOT: A family vacations in a town full of humans disguised as “trolls.”

Still from Troll 2 (1990)

WHY NEITHER MOVIE SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: The roots of these strange fantasy worlds don’t dig deep enough to be seriously affecting. The corniness is shallow, and the oddness feels contrived, lazy even.

COMMENTS: Picture a grandfather named Seth.  He confers with others, predominantly family members, emphasizing the existence of goblins. He says they are evil, impudent creatures that revel in torment, then proclaims that goblin blood is green, the color of sap. Somewhere in this parallel universe organic tentacles erupt from the ground and unsightly trolls sprout from organic pods. Multi-hued backdrops dribble with green, mossy earth while peculiar teenage characters experience transcendentally vacant confrontations. In this world, at least one pre-pubescent teen chokes on popcorn during a hot fantasy while trolls hide in his closet. All of these happenings are punctuated by strange flashes of slimy gore in the world of Troll and its sequel, Troll 2.

Eons of insomnia can be obtained attempting to decipher the enigmatic qualitative properties of Troll and Troll 2. Most of what’s on screen in both films seems like a vague attempt to conjure horror and suspense, but it’s all blatantly artificial. Chains of inconsequential science fiction and fantasy ideas are glued together with sticky green goblin slime. It’s assumed that some ironic entertainment value can be siphoned from the bizarre haphazardness, but the darker elements (e.g. the exploding heads in Troll, people being turned into plants and then masticated in Troll 2) indicate a tone of cynicism surrounding the offbeat exchanges. Thus, despite their puppet and slime fetishes, these movies are not really suitable for kids to enjoy. On the contrary, it would be quite unfortunate for an unsuspecting child to see either one of the Troll movies. With little understanding of life, witnessing the queer squabbles, blundering cheeseball romances, and mini-monsters coveting veggie-morphed organs could cause permanent psychological impairment. (It would also be not be constructive for a youngster to watch Troll 2 and get the idea that it’s OK to urinate on the family dinner table).

Examining Troll and Troll 2 as horror appropriation pieces with villains that contort traditional fantasy creatures, the streamlined awkwardness is overwhelmingly grotesque. Loopy symphonies are performed by homicidal puppets with a skew-whiff gawkiness. Unlike other weirdo B-movie monster flicks of the late Eighties, like Bad Taste or Society, the narrative enjoyment never approaches transcendence, nor does it dally with the chaotic fun of cornball monster movies of its time (such as Critters). Rather, the fun gets lost in boredom and confusion while the camera moves from one set piece to the next, while side characters explode with green slime that was most likely borrowed from Nickelodeon Studios before they went prime time. It’s not difficult to imagine both films as extended, graphic episodes of the 90s children’s TV series “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” While the woozy plots focus on property conflicts between parallel dimensions, the camera gives a smidgen of solace in its visual homogeneity with its whorls of evanescent greens and browns. The most enduring aspects of the Troll universe come from its vivid color palette and imaginative set pieces.

The goblins (not trolls) of Troll 2 exist within the same logic-deprived chaos as the first film. They kill for pleasure perhaps, but more for the warm green globs of organic flesh that fill their bellies. Issuing the same gruff, nasally bark while performing all tasks, the “trolls” have the power to turn people into plants and the strength to bend steel barrel shotguns, the shells of which they are immune to. The accord between the troll and human world is like a massive, perverted phase shift. Somehow, none of this brain candy prevents the viewing of Troll and Troll 2 from being a generally dull experience.

The repetitive musical score coupled with the amateur acting will, at its best and most cheesy moments, bring to mind the lack of awareness of Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, but the strength of Troll  and its sequel as amusing cult films lie more in the lurid sci-fi and fantasy aspects of their productions. In Troll‘s first troll attack, a partier gets zapped into a lush array of green foliage, with a splatter effect that uses green slime in place of blood. Scenes like this are interspersed with arbitrary, half-baked filler dialogue, which can be mind-numbingly dull. In the first film, relief is found with the introduction of an anachronistically-dressed diva with a talking head for a desk lamp. Her role leads to surreal insanity. Another amusing scene in Troll involves a character named Harry Potter Sr. (no kidding) rocking out in his living room, with dance moves that may have inspired those in Dogtooth.

The total freedom of expression on display is liberating.  At a glance, both Troll and Troll 2 can resemble grisly Muppets’ films or B-movie cousins of Labyrinth, but the scene in Troll where baby goblins emerge from animatronic green monsters best describes what the vibe is like throughout both films. Slimy, graphic, and morosely odd, Troll and Troll 2 possess enough surface qualities to be labeled as terribly bizarre, but there’s not enough magic, passion, or unusual ideas behind the bad acting and green slime to rise above the multitude of B-movies that aspire to be on The List.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a predictable, dim-witted premise executed for the most part with surprising style.“–Variety on Troll (contemporaneous)

the kind of cinematic experience that must be experienced firsthand. No description of it can quite contain its misguided ludicrousness or the way its infinite and varied sins against the traits of good cinema combine to produce one of the most uproarious unintentional comedies ever made.”–James Kendrick, Q Network (DVD)

201. BLUE VELVET (1986)

“It’s a strange world.”–Sandy Williams, Blue Velvet

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern,

PLOT: While home from college to visit his ailing father, who has suffered a stroke, Jeffrey Beaumont finds a severed human ear in a field. Though warned by his neighbor, Detective Williams, that the case is a police issue and he should not ask any questions, the curious Jeffrey decides to seek answers on his own, enlisting Williams’ daughter Sandy, a high school senior, in his investigation. The trail leads to a melancholy torch singer named Dorothy Vallens, and when Jeffrey hides in her closet after nearly being caught snooping in her apartment, he witnesses a horror he never imagined, which forever shatters his innocence.

Still from Blue Velvet (1986)
BACKGROUND:

  • Blue Velvet was David Lynch’s comeback film after the disastrous flop of 1984’s Dune.
  • Warner Brother’s commissioned a treatment of Lynch’s basic idea for the film, but in 1986 no major studio would touch the finished Blue Velvet script because of its themes of sexual violence. The film was produced and distributed by Dino De Laurentiis (who formed a distribution company just for this release). De Laurentiis was known for taking chances on risky or salacious movies, whether exploitation or art films. He gave Lynch final cut in exchange for a reduced salary (possibly hoping that Lynch would refuse his insulting offer and chose a more commercial project).
  • Blue Velvet is considered Lynch’s comeback film, but even more so Dennis Hopper’s. Hopper, who became a star when he wrote, directed and acted in the 1969 counterculture hit Easy Rider, developed a serious polydrug addiction problem throughout the 1970s. By the 1980s he had earned a reputation as unreliable and difficult to work with, and landed only minor roles after his memorable turn as a maniacal photographer in Apocalypse Now (1979). He entered rehab in 1983 and was sober for a year and a half before making Blue Velvet. Looking for a role to revive his career, Hopper told Lynch, “You have to give me the role of Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth!”
  • Booth’s character was originally written by Lynch to breathe helium from his gas tank, but Hopper convinced the director that amyl nitrate would be a more appropriate inhalant for Frank. The actual drug the villain breathes is never specified in the film.
  • This was the first collaboration between Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti. Badalamenti was hired to be Isabella Rossellini’s voice coach for her singing numbers, but Lynch liked his arrangements so much he hired him to produce the film’s soundtrack. Badalamenti would work on the score of all of Lynch’s future films until INLAND EMPIRE, and is perhaps best known for the “Twin Peaks” theme.
  • , who played a part in all of Lynch’s feature films until his death in 1996, has a small part here as one of Frank’s hoodlums.
  • Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, losing to for Platoon. Dennis Hopper’s performance was widely praised, but was too profane for Academy consideration; he was nominated for Supporting Actor for Hoosiers, where he played an assistant high school basketball coach struggling with alcoholism, instead.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “Suave” Dean Stockwell performing a karaoke version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” an illuminated microphone lighting his lightly-rouged face.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dream of the robins; candy-colored clown; dead man standing

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nearly everyone describes Blue Velvet as “weird,” but most of the time, when pressed, it’s hard to pin down exactly why. Yes, there is sexual perversity, a campy and impossibly white-bread Lumberton, and one of the strangest lip-sync numbers ever, but if we were to actually sit down and graph Blue Velvet on a axis of Lynchian weirdness, we would find it closer to The Straight Story pole than it is to the incoherent extremes of INLAND EMPIRE. But despite the fact that Blue Velvet is among Lynch’s less-weird works, it’s one of his greatest. The clear and powerful presentation of key Lynch themes—the contrast between innocence and experience, and sexuality’s fateful role in marking that line—make it a crucial entry in this weirdest of director’s oeuvre. Blue Velvet‘s influence is so monumental that it would be a crime to leave it off the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.


Original trailer for Blue Velvet

 COMMENTS: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet exists in a heightened reality—and a heightened depravity—but essentially it is a Continue reading 201. BLUE VELVET (1986)

TRUE STORIES (1986)

True Stores (1986) is one of the quirkiest and most original movies of the 1980s. That is not altogether surprising, since the Talking Heads were perhaps the most authentic and original rock band since Velvet Underground. Their concert film Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme) is justifiably considered to be the most perfectly filmed musical performance to date. That film, like the Talking Heads themselves, was birthed from the New York New Wave underground scene, with true-blue eccentric David Byrne as the front man, driving force, and genius of the group. The remaining members of the band supplied a down-to-earth quality which prevented Byrne from totally succumbing to art-school loftiness. Further proof lies in the Heads’ True Stories (1986), and more pointedly in the fact that post-Heads Byrne, while still compelling and clever, has been decidedly uneven in his work, and unable to retain that sorely missed folksiness he had with the band.

Byrne writes, directs, narrates and stars in True Stories and it is his congenial presence which edifies all the quaint idiosyncrasies inherent in American mythology. Byrne sheds his oversized dinner suit for a black cowboy hat, hops in a red convertible, and escorts us to the fictional Virgil, Texas just in time to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Not surprisingly, what follows is hardly a linear narrative. Rather, it is an anecdotal slice of postmodern myth informed by banality, fashion, and consumerism with Byrne as our gnostic Thorton Wilder guide. Although Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, True Stores never descends into all-too-easy cynicism. For the free spirited, Virgil is as easy to take as chocolate covered Talking Heads. Some, including the late Roger Ebert, claimed True Stories is not a musical. I disagree. Like any good musical, this film makes no claim towards pretentious realism. In ‘s musicals, the directors always attempted to mask the eccentricities of the characters, and the choreographer. Byrne’s approach is to romance his characters, with the Talking Heads lip-synching to Byrne’s nine songs via good-humored abandon. The result is a refreshingly original choreography that gives the film its whimsical quality. The studio didn’t know quite what to do with True Stories and, predictably, nothing like it has been attempted since, making it a standalone effort with a texture solely of its time and place.

Still from True Stories (1988)A young, awkward, and infectiously charming plays a bachelor whose life goal is to get married. The “Wife Wanted” neon sign in his yard never seems out of place in Virgil. A preacher (John Ingle) begins his sermon with a discourse on Elvis, and you do know that those newfangled barcodes are going to be used by the antichrist? I recall very similar sermons from my own childhood in the 70s. True Stories astutely captures those beautiful, real moments of unintentional, inspired surrealism.

Among Virgil’s inhabitants are: a married couple who haven’t spoken in 15 years (Spalding Grey and Annie McEnroe, who are quite happy with the arrangement), the laziest woman in the world (Swoosie Kurtz), a pathological liar (the delightful Jo Harvey Allen) who claims Rambo was one of her sexual conquests, and R&B musician Roebuck “Pops” Staples and Mexican punk singer Tito Larriva (both of whom prove that Byrne and company are not Virgil’s only musical inhabitants).

There’s no evading the ghostliness that palls over True Stories, but it is as perfectly natural, edifying, and American an idea as Norman Rockwell providing illustrations for the National Enquirer.

CAPSULE: FROM BEYOND (1986)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barbara Crampton, Ted Sorel, Ken Foree

PLOT: A pair of mad scientists develop a device that activates the dormant human pineal gland, allowing them access to “the beyond.”

From Beyond (1986)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Beyond is a solid little cult-y 1980s B-horror, but it just barely cracks the “weird” barrier. As wild as it seems when Jeffrey Combs is running around with a penile pineal gland waving from his forehead, in terms of strangeness, Beyond is a dim echo of Gordon’s prior Lovecraftian update, Re-Animator (1985).

COMMENTS: Let’s just get this out of the way first: From Beyond has to be the pinkest horror movie ever made. I don’t know what the Beyond is like, but based on the light that streams from its world into ours when the barrier between the two is breached, I am guessing that it’s a gay disco. An aquatic gay disco, since those who come over from the other side are wet and glistening, and the native inhabitants, whom you can see floating around our dimension once your pineal gland has been stimulated, look like eels and jellyfish. To From Beyond‘s credit, this crazy coral color scheme works; because we’ve never seen gooey monsters from beyond flushed by a hot pink incandescence before, it’s genuinely abnormal. Lots of things about From Beyond are abnormal, in fact, like the pineal-irradiating Resonator made from a couple of giant tuning forks and one of those plasma balls you can buy from Spencer’s gifts. Or Jeffrey Combs, somehow zombified after his hair has been sucked off by a giant worm, slurping people’s brains out through their eyeballs (what’s his motivation?) Or the evil pink blob-head from Beyond using his psychic powers to convince Barbara Crampton to don a skintight black leather corset and matching thong (I think I understand his motivation). From Beyond finds a near perfect tone for this sort of material. It’s completely absurd, but it always takes itself seriously, trusting the audience to sort out the humor from the horror without big signs pointing at the jokes. Shamelessly made to capitalize on the success of 1985’s Re-Animator, From Beyond is another modernized, R-rated H.P. Lovecraft adaptation with nerdy Combs as an apprentice mad scientist and sexy Barbara Crampton as the love interest (Crampton and Combs were the Bogie and Bacall of slime-spewing, boundary-pushing mid-1980s H.P. Lovecraft adaptations). Here, Crampton is given a larger and more serious role as a criminal psychiatrist whose obsession with the strange case turns her into something of a mad scientist herself—although she still provides plenty of eye-candy once she lets her hair out of that bun and ditches the glasses and buttoned-up-to-her-chin blouse. Combs is a competent actor, but there’s not much to his character here. Gordon had not yet figured out that this actor is wasted unless he’s playing some variation of Herbert West, a malevolent nerd with a God complex, rather than just some good-natured schlub in a Miskatonic U. T-shirt. Although From Beyond pales a bit in comparison to its immediate predecessor—and it would have taken a miracle to recreate Re-Animator‘s mix of carnage, black comedy and general outrageousness—this one is still a good time for horror fans looking for cheap thrills delivered with otherworldly panache.

Shout! Factory’s new From Beyond release on its Scream! Factory sub-label ports over all the special features from the old MGM edition (including the commentary with Gordon, Combs, Crampton, and producer ) and adds several new interviews, along with a second commentary from scriptwriter Dennis Paoli, who reads some of Lovecraft’s original story. This “Collector’s Edition” is available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack only (neither format is currently being sold separately).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…lacks the single-minded weirdness of Gordon’s first film, but it does establish him in the tradition of Hollywood horror directors who really try – directors including James Whale, Tod Browning and Roger Corman.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Barry Letts

FEATURING: Kate Dorning

PLOT: A faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children’s book about the girl who falls down the rabbit hole, with musical numbers.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’ve watched so many variations of Alice aimed at adults—from ‘s dreamlike 1966 version to ‘s stop-motion nightmare interpretation—that seeing an authentic retelling of this Victorian fairy tale aimed at kids is almost a shock to the system. It serves as a reminder that, as much as Surrealists love to appropriate Carroll for their own nefarious ends, the prototypical “Alice” is kiddie fare, not entertainment for grown up weirdophiles.

COMMENTS: With so many competing interpretations of Alice in Wonderland out there, it’s difficult to find a compelling reason to recommend this straightforward adaptation that originally aired as four separate episodes on British television. On the plus side, it is one of the most accurate filmed versions of the story, staying true to Lewis Carroll’s original dialogue and neither omitting any major episodes nor (as is often done) folding in popular incidents and/or characters from the Wonderland sequel “Through the Looking Glass.” This production attempts to breathe new life into the old story by setting some of Carroll’s nonsense poems to music; but, although the classical-styled compositions are competently rendered, they’re hardly memorable and, like much of the show, feel a little stodgy. Each episode is framed by a sepia-toned introduction featuring Carroll at a picnic making up the story for the historical Alice and her sisters; this ploy is fairly neutral, though some may appreciate the attention to the backstory. Cast as Alice, Kate Dorning is appropriately wide-eyed, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that she’s not a little girl. I can’t find the actress’ date of birth, but she is clearly at least in her teens here, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn she had already entered her second decade when she played the role. Her performance sometimes reminds me of those children’s shows where adults play childlike characters and talk directly to the camera, which brings us to the main issue with this production: the children’s’ TV-show budget. Although I believe the filmmakers did the best they could with the money they had available, there is inevitably a blasé “good enough for kids” sort of vibe to the proceedings. The presence of the green screen is often frightfully obvious: Alice’s stiff tumble down the rabbit hole and the Cheshire cat’s dissolve to a smile are particularly cringe-inducing. The animal characters (White Rabbit, Dodo, Frog and Fish footman, etc.) wear masks that, while well designed, are stiff and rubbery. A few of the setups do manage to find ways around the budgetary limitations, as when the poem/song “Father William” is dramatized as a shadow play performed by acrobats. In general, however, the filmmakers don’t have the means to recreate Wonderland, and they are too dedicated to literally showing actual hookah-smoking caterpillars perched on toadstools to devise a stylized rendition that could come in under budget. If you can overlook the unspecial effects, and tolerate the songs, this Alice is worthwhile as an authentic rendition of the text that will probably hold the interest of younger children. Of course, Disney’s animated offering, while less accurate, is far more enchanting for youngsters, who aren’t interested in scholarly fidelity to the text anyway. It almost seems that the BBC felt obligated to produce a straightforward, canonical Alice to atone for the fact that Jonathan Miller’s experimental 1966 adaptation was their lone take on this national classic. This rendition is more respectable, but less magical; and that hardly seems in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.

Director Barry Letts and producer Terrance Dicks were mainly known for their involvement with “Dr. Who,” and several actors from the Who troupe show up here. In fact, a survey of the blogosphere suggests this release may garner as much attention from curious “Who” fans as from “Alice” devotees.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “Pip Donaghy makes for a weird Mad Hatter, but really, there shouldn’t be any other kind. Despite the fact that it’s dated and a bit creaky in terms of its production values, this adaptation of Alice In Wonderland generally works quite well.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (DVD)

CAPSULE: KING KONG LIVES (1986)

DIRECTOR: John Guillermin

FEATURING: Peter Elliot, George Antoni, Brian Kerwin, Linda Hamilton

PLOT: As the title explains, Kong didn’t die at the end of the previous film, and this time round he gets a girlfriend—one his own size for a change. Do they live happily ever after? No, of course not. Mean-spirited people attack them with assorted military hardware. Much hilarity ensues!

Still from King Kong Lives (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only weird thing about it is that somebody thought it was a good idea to spend $10,000,000 (and that’s in 1986 money) coiling out this howling clunker.

COMMENTS: The 1976 remake of King Kong was never exactly a masterpiece, but it cost $24,000,000 and made $80,000,000, and in Hollywood, that’s what counts. So, ten tears later, producer Dino De Laurentiis (whose industry nickname “Dino De Horrendous” wasn’t altogether unjust) gave the director of the first film, John Guillermin, a crack at the sequel. The catch? As attentive readers will have noticed, his budget was less than half what they gave him previously. Since it was universally agreed that one of the major failings of the first film was the inadequacy of the special effects used to portray the 50-foot ape, and this film starred two of them, how well was it ever going to pan out?

But even apart from the many, many dire effects shots featuring poorly-made model scenery, barely adequate ape suits, and a giant animatronic hand so stiff that Kong appears to have arthritis, just about everything in the movie is woefully misjudged somehow or other. In the film’s sole concession to realism, ten tears have passed between films, just as they have in reality (which conveniently allows them to forget about every character in the first film whose surname wasn’t Kong). Throughout this time Kong—who, you may recall, had been riddled with machine-gun bullets until, obviously dying, he fell off the World Trade Center—has been comatose, kept alive by a vast custom-built life-support system. Why? Don’t ask, and then you won’t mind when they don’t bother to tell you.

Equally obviously, if a huge animal falls a quarter of a mile onto a hard surface, its heart is the only bit that’ll suffer. Unfortunately, as Linda Hamilton’s veterinary surgeon character explains, that artificial heart the size of a Volkswagen they’ve worked so hard on is useless, because being in a coma for ten years means that Kong has lost a lot of blood (???), so the operation can’t be performed without a blood donor. “Only one thing can save him.” she solemnly intones: “A miracle!” Cut to Brian Kerwin wandering around Borneo for some unrelated reason, then literally stumbling across and effortlessly capturing a cute fifty-foot Lady Kong whom nobody had ever noticed before. Gosh, that was a lucky break!

(By the way, if you’re wondering why she’s called “Lady Kong” instead of the more logical “Queen Kong”, there was an existing movie with that title that’s even sillier than this one, though copies are very hard to come by.)

It has to be admitted that the early footage of Linda Hamilton conducting the transplant with enormous surgical instruments, including a sort of buzz-saw on a pole, are spectacularly surreal—the indelible image has to be Kong’s heart being lifted out with a crane. Sadly the rest of the film doesn’t come close to living up to them.

The apes fall in love, bad people mistreat them, they escape, she’s recaptured, but by now she’s pregnant. Will her tall, dark, handsome lover-boy come to the rescue, despite all those tanks…? Alas, the producers don’t understand a very basic point about this kind of movie; which is that, if you have two fifty-foot monsters, they really ought to fight, rather than coyly flirting accompanied by mawkish soundtrack music.

Since Kong is now unequivocally a good guy (and the budget is so much lower), his rampages cause very little mayhem until the final scenes, which is a major problem in a rampaging monster movie. What little death and destruction we do see is mostly inappropriately comic. The human characters are so one-dimensional as to make even the Kongs look convincing, and feisty-yet-fluffy Linda Hamilton’s nude scene should probably last more than one second (but maybe that’s just me).

This could have been a classic ridiculous movie. Sadly, it’s not quite expensive enough to give us the crazy ape action we paid to see, and not quite cheap enough to abandon all shame and just go for it anyway. Not really satisfying on any level, and for much of its running time, downright dull. That’s presumably why it grossed less than half its budget. As the young people say nowadays, meh.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The problem with everyone in ‘King Kong Lives’ is that they’re in a boring movie, and they know they’re in a boring movie, and they just can’t stir themselves to make an effort.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)