Tag Archives: B-Movie

CAPSULE: BRAIN DEAD (1991)

DIRECTED BY: Adam Simon

FEATURING: , , , Patricia Charbonneau, Nicholas Pryor

PLOT: At the request of a pushy corporation, a neurologist performs experimental surgery on a paranoid mathematician, but when he starts having hallucinations he questions whether he may be the patient rather than the doctor.

Still from Brain Dead (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s definitely within the weird genre, but held back by its budget and by subtext-free sensibilities that stay firmly nailed to the plot’s surface.

COMMENTS: Brain Dead is like what would result if directed an unproduced script. (In fact, Roger’s wife Julie produced this for their Concorde/New Horizons B-movie outfit, and it came from an unproduced script by “Twilight Zone” scribe Charles Beaumont). That sounds like a recipe for fun, and to a large extent it is, although there is not as much senseless sex and violence as you might hope for.

Before it spins into hallucinatory tangents for its entire second half, the plot is relatively simple. Bill Pullman is Rex Martin, a brain scientist researching paranoia; old college buddy Bill Paxton is a corporate stooge for Eunice Corporation who needs a favor. Halsey (Bud Cort), a former Eunice employee and mathematical genius, killed his family and is now locked in a mental hospital believing himself to be an accountant for a mattress company, but he actually has crucial corporate secrets locked inside his schizophrenic brain. The deal: perform experimental brain surgery on him, or lose all your research funding. After a homeless man tries to seize a brain in a jar Dr. Martin is inexplicably taking home after work (“he’s got my brain!”), a car accident results in the paranoid schizophrenic’s grey matter being splattered on the asphalt (the one in the jar, not the one in the homeless guy). Soon after, Martin agrees to perform the procedure. It’s a success, but with a side effect: Martin is now seeing the white-coated, bloodstained figure Halsey claims killed his family.

After this setup, things get really wild as Martin loses grips on who he is. Is he really Halsey, under the delusion he’s Martin? Or has his mind been somehow tampered with by Eunice corporation so that he won’t be able to rat on them? Whatever the case, reality becomes plastic as Martin fights to keep his identity against the mounting evidence that he is not who he believes himself to be. He sees his wife murdered and is blamed for the killing; he’s incarcerated at the same hospital as Hawlsey and drugged; fleeing from orderlies, he ducks into a room inspired by Shock Corridor‘s nympho ward; he has an out-of-body experience and falls into Hawlsey’s brain (depicted as an ocean), and so on. There’s a sensible enough literal explanation at the end, for those who care for such things. The rest of us will wonder if David Lynch saw Brain Dead before deciding to cast Pullman in Lost Highway, and thought “I can do this better—and without the safety net.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Yep, it’s Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton in the very same (and rather weird) little sci-fi horror cheapie from producer Roger Corman and director Adam Simon… Notably better written than it is directed, Brain Dead isn’t any sort of hidden cult classic or B-movie masterpiece, but there’s something to be said for a twisted little science-fiction story that gets to the meat of the matter and doles out a generally tasty little meal.”–Scott Weinberg, DVD Talk (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by “renwad,” who called it “a strange tale about a brain specialist who’s work is being manipulated by the large company he works for, or is it ? Starring Bill Pulman and Bill Paxton, i think this is a must for the certified weird movie list.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: GAS-S-S-S (1970)

AKA Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Bob Corff, Elaine Giftos, , Cindy Williams, , (as Tally Coppola)

PLOT: After an experimental gas kills everyone over the age of twenty five, young lovers make their way across the desert looking for a hippie Shangri-La in New Mexico.

Still from Gas-s-s-s (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: More zany than strange, Gas-s-s-s lacks bite as satire and doesn’t go far enough with its crazy to earn a place among the weirdest movies of all time.

COMMENTS: Unlike monster movies, which could be churned out according to a reliable formula, comedy was always an iffy proposition for Roger Corman. When he had a dark, focused script like Little Shop of Horrors, he could produce a classic; but when the screenplay indulged in budget wackiness, as with Creature from the Haunted Sea, the results ranged from tedious to tolerable. Gas-s-s-s falls into the latter category; it’s not actually very funny, but it moves so fast and ranges so wide that it keeps your attention despite the fact that none of the individual gags land.

An appealing young cast (without the usual Corman regulars) helps. It’s not a star-making turn for either, but Bob Corff and Elaine Giftos do well enough as the central couple, he a puckish hippie and she the liberated love child. In his first major speaking role, Ben Vereen is a lot of fun as an ex-Black Panther, and future “Shirley” Cindy Williams (also in her first big part) wrings most of the film’s legitimate giggles from her character, a perpetually pregnant ingenue obsessed with 1960s rock and roll. Working with the legendary Corman, even in a bad picture, was a feather in any young actor’s cap, and Gas-s-s-s is cool credit for Talia Shire and future cult icon Bud Cort, even though both of their characters are underdeveloped and generic. Together, this sextet makes its way across a post-adult landscape where the marauders are organized as football teams (complete with rape-and-pillage pep rallies) and the Hell’s Angels have civilized themselves and taken over an abandoned country club. also rides around on a motorcycle dispensing advice and commentary. The jokes—stuff like calling out the names of cowboy actors instead of firing bullets during a shootout— are too goofy to be called absurdist; the film is almost childlike, as if the survivors are just kids pretending that the world has ended one afternoon. The result is like what might have happened if Mel Brooks had taken the script for The Bed Sitting Room, removed the dark nuclear gags, and filmed the results cheaply and quickly on an off day. I’ll resist the temptation to say Gas-s-s-s stinks; it’s a breezy wisp of a satire.

Gas-s-s-s was the last film in Roger Corman’s groovy “psychedelic” period, which began with Wild Angels and peaked with The Trip. It was also Corman’s final picture for American International Studios; he didn’t have final cut and was upset at the way the picture was edited, including the decision to cut certain scenes involving his God, who spoke with a stereotypical Jewish accent. Corman formed New World Pictures soon after and rarely directed again, serving almost exclusively as producer. Gas-s-s-s was paired on DVD in separate double feature sets with either Corman’s The Trip or the thematically similar Wild in the Streets. In October 2016 Olive released it as a standalone Blu-ray with no special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not a good pic by any means (in fact it’s a terrible plotless ramble of an idiotic film), but it’s probably worth a look for certain curious viewers because it’s so raw, audacious, bizarre and diverting.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews (DVD)

258. BLOOD FREAK (1972)

“The World’s Only Turkey-Monster-Anti-Drug-Pro-Jesus-Gore Film!”–Blood Freak Special Edition DVD box cover

DIRECTED BY: Brad F. Grinter, Steve Hawkes

FEATURING: Steve Hawkes, Dana Sullivan, Heather Hughes, Brad F. Grinter

PLOT:  Herschell, a Vietnam vet biker, helps good Christian girl Angel fix a flat tire and then accompanies her to a drug party. Angel preaches to the sinning partiers and warns Herschel not to sample marijuana, but temptation of the flesh comes via Angel’s bikini clad sister, Ann. Once hooked on the wiles of the devil, Herschell gets a job at a turkey farm, transforms into a gobbling vampire, and goes on a rampage before finding out he has been hallucinating on pot, which leads him and the now “saved” bikini babe to Jesus.

Still from Blood Freak (1972)

BACKGROUND:

  • Co-writer/producer/director and star Hawkes took the job to help pay medical bills he incurred as a result of skin grafts necessary to repair third degree burns he received doing a stunt while starring in a Spanish Tarzan film. He referred to Blood Freak as “a sad chapter in my life.” He later started a shelter for wild animals (before being shut down by Florida authorities for not complying with state regulations).
  • The cast consists mostly of acting students from Grinter’s class (yes, he actually was an acting teacher), including an amputee who came in handy as a victim who gets his leg cut off.
  • The original financier backed out of this labor-of-love-by-idiots (apparently, he saw some of the footage), leaving Steve Hawkes and Brad Grinter to finish Blood Freak out of their own pockets.
  • The film was originally rated “X” for violence.
  • Hawkes made a twenty-first century celluloid “comeback” in a pair of zombie movies that no one has seen.
  • Grinter’s only other film “of note” is Flesh Feast (1970), which inspired Veronica Lake to come out of retirement (!?!) to play an insane plastic surgeon whose patient is a zombified Adolf Hitler. Naturally, she comes to her senses and disposes of  the former dictator with chemically bred maggots. After getting saved, Grinter, like Hawkes, retired to a life of Christian anonymity in Florida, dying in 1993.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: An Elvis imitator donning a papier-mâché turkey head and butchering rubberneckin’ potheads.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Chain-smoking anti-drug narrator; proselytizer in Daisy dukes; bad pot/experimental turkey interaction

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Just for starters, the opening narration, delivered by a pencil-mustachioed, gold-chain wearin’ co-director Grinter as he chain smokes: “We live in a world subject to constant change. Every second of every minute of every hour changes take place. These changes are perhaps invisible to us, because our level of awareness is limited. Take for example, how the things we do and say to the people we meet, all these things affect our lives, influence our destiny. And yet there seems to be some kind of fantastic order to the whole thing. We never know how or when we will meet a person who will become a catalyst. Or, who will lead us to one. What is a catalyst? Well, in this case, a catalyst is a person that will bring about changes. They could be good, or bad. But there will be changes. You can meet one almost anywhere, in your everyday life. In a supermarket, drugstore, anywhere. Even riding down the Florida Turnpike. A pretty girl with a problem. Who could resist? Certainly not Herschell.” Take that irresistible intro, add a “grass is bad, Jesus is good” message, and mix it with some gory mayhem perpetrated by a mass murdering turkey Nosferatu. Although, viewers may ask: Why a turkey? Do turkeys crave blood?


Original trailer for Blood Freak

COMMENTS:  The Christian scare film to end all Christian scare Continue reading 258. BLOOD FREAK (1972)

366 UNDERGROUND: FIRST MAN ON MARS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: Mike Lyddon

FEATURING: Marcelle Shaneyfelt, Benjamin J. Wood, Gavin Ferrara, Kirk Jordan

PLOT: An eccentric billionaire flies to Mars, mutates into a monster, then returns to Earth to terrorize the silly citizens of Black Bayou, Louisiana.

Still from First Man on Mars (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ironically, this movie is only 9/10ths bad enough. Movies like The Room or Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny are low-budget and bad, but done with a sense of conviction, albeit mis-aimed. First Man on Mars is just bad on the boring, no-ideas level, not even interesting enough to make the so-bad-its-good category.

COMMENTS: First Man on Mars is an intentional parody of ’60s-’70s sci-fi horror drive-in B-movies. We open on a coroner in an office giving us a desktop lecture a la Rocky Horror Picture Show, a scene that ends with a chant of “Keep watching the stars!” Then we get to Cletus and his chum hunting in Louisiana. They run across an abandoned space capsule and a rubber-mask monster who disembowels Cletus’ hunting buddy with no foreplay, sending the terrified hick running for the cops. Flashback: the monster from the capsule was once astronaut Eli Cologne, a very obvious parody of real-life billionaire, philanthropist, and visionary Elon Musk. Eli came to Mars seeking shiny gold, despite already being rich enough to buy his own rocket to go there. Grabbing his first nugget, however, results in a tear in his glove, which soon leads to an infection which will transform him.

Mission Control argues that he’s not allowed to come back infected, but Eli is hearing none of it. He returns just in time to transform into a growling monster in the backwoods of Louisiana. The rest of the flick is pretty much people scrambling around in forest either chasing or being chased by said monster, with only the thinnest veneer of justification. That cast includes Cletus and two cops who don’t believe his story; a sleazy photographer and two models from “Bullets and Bimbos” magazine who hire Cletus as a guide to the dark swamps of Black Bayou for a woodsy photo shoot; a group of scientists from Eli’s project; an innocent girl going fishing and being fished; and a coroner who investigates Cletus’ mangled remains in between bites of lunch.

“Low budget” doesn’t begin to describe it, and cash isn’t the only thing this flick is short on. It is very stingy with the alleged classic sci-fi references. Unless you blink and miss it, you’ll catch one of the bumbling scientists being dismissed as a “red shirt” (Trekkie, check), a clumsy bit of banter with a “Bullets and Bimbos” model name-dropping (Elephant Man, check), a scene where two scientists pitch a tent just so they can play D&D (gamer nerds, am I right, ha ha?) before getting slaughtered, and so on. However, the film is generous with poop humor, boob humor, gross-out humor, insulting stereotypes of country bumpkins and geeks alike, Dollar Store props that are milked for all the lead-painted rubber they’re worth, and an extremely fuzzy understanding of the meaning of the word “humor.” At one point, one of the scientists screams over and over that he needs to defecate, before wandering off and accidentally dumping a steamer (rubber doggy doo, $0.99) on a  yet undiscovered body. Said pile of doggy doo is referenced again and again, traveling with the body even to the coroner’s office. And that, apparently, is the movie’s best foot forward.

Let it be known, being low budget does not disqualify a film from the list of 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made (see Robot Monster and After Last Season). And simply being bad is no barrier to entry, either. But there is low budget, and then there is being stingy beyond all reason. At least Robot Monster had the imagination to try to sell a bubble machine as alien technology. Imagination costs nothing. First Man on Mars seems to be done with no intention of being taken seriously, on any level, and nothing shows anybody seemed motivated to put in much effort, either.

Viewers who like sitting through every amateur production made by kids goofing around with mom’s camera on YouTube will find First Man on Mars right up their alley. It at least passes that standard.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an absurd blast from low-budget director Mike Lyddon and his team of willing actor and crew participants, putting everything on the proverbial line to make this ambitious project first and put their seemingly absent shame second.”–Steven T. Lewis, It’s Blogging Evil

CAPSULE: PETEY WHEATSTRAW (1977)

Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law

DIRECTED BY: Cliff Roquemore

FEATURING: Rudy Ray Moore, Jimmy Lynch, Leroy Daniels, Ernest Mayhand, Ebony Wright, Steve Gallon, G. Tito Shaw, Ted Clemmons

PLOT: Comedians Leroy and Skillet borrow a large sum of money from the mob to put on a show. Unfortunately for the duo, rival comedian Petey Wheatstraw’s show is the very same week. When Petey refuses Leroy and Skillet’s request to change the date of his show they use more aggressive tactics. The young brother of one of Petey’s entourage is shot and killed by Leroy and Skillet’s goons, who then shoot all of the attendees at the boy’s funeral. Lucifer is on hand at the tragic event to make a deal with Petey. Petey and his friends will get to live and enact righteous revenge if Petey agrees to marry Lucifer’s ugly daughter and give him a grandson. Petey makes the deal, but he has no intention of keeping his end of the bargain. Will Petey be able to outsmart the Devil?

Petey_Wheatstraw

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Selling your soul to Satan plots are practically as old as film itself. This fact alone does not disqualify Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law as a contender for the List. But while Wheatstraw is a potpourri of genres—a comedy, crime, action, horror film that is completely ludicrous and full of wacky hi-jinx—there are only a couple of “what the hell?” moments. Generally speaking, it is funny and not particularly weird.

COMMENTS: Rudy Ray Moore was an American stand up comedian who recorded his first comedy album, “Below the Belt,” in 1959. In 1975, Moore used the proceeds from his comedy albums to finance his first film, Dolemite. Moore plays the title character Dolemite, a ladies’ man skilled in kung-fu, hell bent on defending the ghetto. Dolemite spawned the sequel The Human Tornado, my personal favorite Rudy Ray Moore film. Moore only made five films throughout the Seventies, and thanks to his presence they are all pretty entertaining. Moore is funny, foul-mouthed, charismatic and energetic. Moore is not an actor, he is a comedian, and he brings his comedic persona with him to his films. He is also one mighty fine dresser. If you can’t enjoy Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law for its humor, you should at very least appreciate Rudy Ray Moore’s sensational wardrobe! Moore dons about a dozen super Seventies ensembles over the course of the film.

Petey Wheatstraw opens with a flashback of his birth during a storm; exiting his mother’s womb as a seven-ish year old boy, he attacks both the doctor and his own father. Petey, like Dolemite, is also a ladies’ man, a master of kung-fu, and a defender of the ghetto. In an early scene Petey teaches three junkies a lesson while the neighbors gleefully cheer him on. The movie keeps a good pace with goofy antics at regular intervals, but most of the funniest bits happen after Petey makes the deal with the devil around mid-film. Once the plastic devil horns, the guys in tights, and Lucifer’s magic cane make their appearance, things get livelier. After Petey discovers the power of the magic cane he uses it without abandon. He grants one woman a wish to prevent her from stabbing her cheating husband to death:

Petey: Don’t kill him ma’am. I have one wish I will grant you. What might it be?

Angry wife: He’s a dog! He’s a damn dog! Just turn him into a little black puppy.

Petey: That wish will be granted.

You can look forward to a she-demon orgy, but don’t count on seeing more than a couple of bare breasts. There are some poorly executed fight scenes with a bunch of demons with bad makeup in tights and capes that were absolutely hilarious! Every fight scene in the film is quite ridiculous and thoroughly amusing. Moore has some funny lines and priceless expressions that alone make the film worth watching.

I always walk away from a Rudy Ray Moore movie with at least one awesome quote. Bar none, my favorite from Petey was “Romance without finance is a damn nuisance.” So true, Petey Wheatstraw, so true. I enjoyed the heck out of Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law; it is good old-fashioned entertainment that made me laugh regularly. I definitely recommend picking up the 2016 Vinegar Syndrome release which contains both the Blu-ray and DVD. This copy is worlds better than the Xenon Pictures (“The Dolemite Collection”) version I had previously owned on DVD (see comparison below).

Petey_Wheatstraw_dvd_vs_bluray_comparison
(DVD vs. Blu-ray comparison: click for larger version)

More images at Goregirl’s Dungeon!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though you get the usual low budget issues and awkward fight scenes here as the prior two Moore films, the approach somehow fits the story perfectly with the dime store demons and stylized lighting creating a weird cinematic experience unlike any other.”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)

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)

CAPSULE: SEXINA (2007)

AKA Sexina: Popstar P.I.

DIRECTED BY: Erik Sharkey

FEATURING: Lauren D’Avella, Adam West, Luis Jose Lopez

PLOT: When the shadowy CEO of Glitz Records devises a diabolical plot to take over the world’s music industry, it is up to Sexina, a top star at a competing label, to thwart him. A mix of huge egos, cyborgs, and assassins all collide as things build to a big showdown at a free high school concert.

Still from Sexina (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Eliciting more “okay then…”s than “what the…?”s, Sexina is certainly quirky and scattershot. But while there are moments when it hits the better side of absurd, Erik Sharkey’s pet project is more of a low key late night romp than an oddball masterpiece.

COMMENTS: “In the fine tradition of …” are generally not words a director likes to hear at the start of a review, but my suspicion is that Erik Sharkey, the man behind this pop-boy-band send-up, would not only be okay with it, but perhaps be flattered. Seeing as he did work with that venerable movie studio back in the ’90s, it is unsurprising that this has the budget studio’s unmistakable trashy aura—just without the gratuitous violence or nudity.

There’s no doubt that Sexina had more bite to it when it was released some eight years ago. Back then, to quote the Professor, “boy bands roamed the earth.” While never a difficult subject for lampooning, Sharkey ably takes the various flavors of pop sensation to their extremes. Luis Jose Lopez’s performance as the latest flash in the pan is something close to excellent. His Latino singer persona, Lance Canyon, is perhaps the most accurate distillation of commercialized machismo put to screen. His main obsession, reiterated in increasingly sexist ways, is women. (Or, more precisely, things which a male might, if one were so inclined, do with women). This slime-ball’s boss, known, appropriately, as “the Boss”, is the always-delightful Adam West. Ever since he finished his rounds at Batman lo those many decades ago, Mr. West seems to have maintained a successful career through the unlikely route of just showing up on screen and being Adam West. In Sexina, he does not disappoint.

Working less well, unfortunately, is much else in the movie. Plenty of jokes and scenes fall flat. This is somewhat made up for by the rapid pace, but there was a point about half way through that I realized I was just watching one- to two-minute vignettes loosely interspliced with each other. While I often found I was laughing despite myself, I kind of wished that there were more care given to the dialogue and timing. All the actors involved were, at the very least, competent, and it would have been good to see them given a clearer sense of the mania I felt the director was striving for. Alas, while his cast brought B-movie acting to the grade of Nigh High Art, there is only so much anyone can do with dialogue that’s “sorta funny” presented as “really funny.”

In the end, I wouldn’t recommend the movie; but I have no regrets that I’ve seen it. Despite clunkiness throughout, there was an undeniable charm to the whole thing, with the bits showcasing Adam West or Luis Lopez bringing the movie up from tolerable to amusing. Sharkey’s only follow-up to date was the fairly critically acclaimed documentary, Drew: the Man Behind the Poster, for which he was able to rally the likes of Steven Spielberg, Leonard Maltin, Michael J. Fox, as well as bunches of other A-List Hollywood types. It would be neat to see Erik Sharkey use his talent-gathering powers for the forces of good instead of the mediocre.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It feels like a gentle, nostalgic trip through some of our favorite tropes from detective/spy TV combined with a disdain for contemporary boy-band culture (a target that even by 2007 was a bit dated). Even the film’s nods to drug culture and the over-sexualization of pop stars (including a weird dialogue about the size of a guy’s penis) feel more goofy than sleazy.”–Gordon Sullivan, DVD Verdict (DVD)

CAPSULE: TROMA’S WAR (1988)

DIRECTED BY: , 

FEATURING: Sean Bowen, Carolyn Beauchamp, Patrick Weathers, Rick Washburn

PLOT: After a plane crash on a Caribbean island, stranded citizens of Tromaville organize to defeat an army of terrorists.

Still from Troma's War (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Working with their largest budget ever, the Troma team loses focus on their signature brand of transgressive comedy with War. Between firing thousands of blank rounds and bursting hundreds of blood squibs, blowing up watchtowers and lighting up stuntmen in flame-retardant suits, War occasionally fools itself into thinking it’s a real action movie rather than an absurd spoof.

COMMENTS: Survivors of the Tromaville flight that crashes onto a not-so-deserted Caribbean island include a lisping flight attendant, a used-car salesman/Vietnam war vet, a busty feminist, an optimistic priest, a sleazy Wall Street financier, a British guy who appears to be a secret agent (he carries curare darts, at least), and the three girl/one guy punk band “The Bearded Clams,” among many others. Their antagonists are “the cream of the crap”: Cubans, the IRA, the PLO, a squad of HIV-positive rapists, a snorting pig-faced colonel, and military-industrial Siamese twins. With a cast like that, just wind them up and let the carnage begin, right?

It’s not quite that easy, it turns out. While War never lags, it never really heats up, either. Troma conceived of War as their opportunity to break into the (relative) mainstream after scoring low budget cult hits with iconic titles like The Toxic Avenger (1984) and Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986). The resulting project seems to want to be too many things to too many different audiences: it’s a spoof of Rambo and other anti-Communist 1980s action flicks, while at the same time it tries to put together legitimately thrilling, bullet-riddled action scenes. It takes a stab at serious anti-authority satire with the claims that the political left and right are two sides of the same greedy coin, and that the powers-that-be have an interest in cultivating public hysteria, whether it be over Communists, terrorists, or AIDS. But that serious message is undermined when it panders to its horny male teen demographic, with gratuitous female nudity and dirty diaper jokes. The film has ludicrous surreal touches, like the literal Fascist pig and the twins conjoined at the face. (There’s also a strange bit where a hysterical woman looks out from the wreckage and sees crash victims running about on fire, their flaming bodies lit up against the night sky; the problem is, her scenes are shot in the daytime. It’s not clear whether it’s supposed to be a flashback, a joke, or if it’s one of the worst continuity errors of all time, but it appears to be a low-budget first: night-for-day photography). Still, for most of its running time it’s the most “realistic” (relatively speaking) movie Kaufman and Herz ever shot. Other than the farcical firefights where our heroes mow down dozens of terrorists per Uzi burst while the bad guys return fire with Stormtrooper aim, the oddest thing in the film may be its deadpan camp dialogue.  “I have just about had it with you terrorists!” screams a mom-turned-commando as she stuffs a baby’s jumpsuit into a guerrilla’s mouth. War actually does what I’ve been saying Troma should do for years—play it straighter, not indulging in the “we’re deliberately making a bad movie, it’s funny!” jokiness—yet it doesn’t really work this time out. Making bad movies is harder than it sounds.

Troma’s 2015 Blu-ray release is nothing special visually or sonically (not a big surprise given the source material), but as usual the studio packs on the extra features. Several featurettes are ported over from the 2010 “Tromasterpiece” DVD, but there is a new introduction and about 30 minutes of new interviews. In the included commentary, Kaufmann comes across as extremely bitter about the cuts demanded by the MPAA before they would grant the film an “R” rating. He seems to legitimately believe that War was his masterpiece, torpedoed by censorship. Nonsense. Tromeo & Juliet was his masterpiece, and has the Certified Weird laurel to prove it. Even in its uncut state, War is not the glorious adventure it’s made out to be.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Military movies just don’t get any more deranged that Troma’s War. All mega-munitions claims aside, this is one completely crazy entertainment.“–Bill Gibron, Pop Matters (Director’s Cut DVD)

TARGETS (1968)

Although Targets (1968) is not the masterpiece debut film of Peter Bogdanovich, as some have claimed, it is a compelling, near-valedictory film for star . Being an almost autobiographical story, it should have served as a near-perfect coda for the actor. Instead, Karloff wanted to die acting, and for the first time in his career since 1931’s Frankenstein, he did not have a plethora of offers. Producers knew that the horror icon was almost literally on his last leg, and the cost of insuring him was undoubtedly a problematic casting factor. The final offers came from  to make a series of low budget Mexican horrors, but it is best to conveniently imagine those under the rug.

Targets serves more as a last, satisfactory glimpse at the Karloff screen persona, as opposed to being a successful film on its own terms.  It also is the film debut of director Peter Bogdanovich, who miscast himself in the film in order to save money. In part, this was due to having  as his tight-fisted producer. Pragmatic in his business approach as usual, Corman  wanted to use clips from his previous film with Karloff, The Terror (1963) as filler, and granted Targets a twenty-three day shooting schedule and $125,000 budget. From this simple instruction, Bogdanovich crafted a surprising, awkwardly innovative narrative, which the artist in Corman responded to, advising Bogdanovich: “Shoot it like Hitchcock.”

Karloff plays aging horror star Byron Orlok , screening his latest film, The Terror. Much to everyone’s surprise, Orlok announces his retirement. Script writer Sammy ( Bogdanovich) waxes angsty; he has finally written a screenplay, one which hints at something akin to the plot of Targets itself.  Feeling like a Gothic anachronism amidst the authentic horrors of the newspaper headlines, Orlok refuses to read the script. The studio heads encourage Sammy to dissuade Orlok from his decision. Orlok and Sammy get drunk and screen Karloff’s Criminal Code (1931, dir. Howard Hawks), the film which lead to his casting as the monster in Frankenstein (1931). Orlok agrees, albeit reluctantly, to promote The Terror at a local drive-in cinema.

Targets then roughly shifts to its parallel narrative: Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelly) who sports a Baptist haircut as the husband and son of diehard Republican gun-lubbin, red, white and blue super-patriot suburbanites. Cue massacre.

This is the more compelling plot, ultimately rendering  the Orlok narrative a bit prodigal, despite Karloff’s very satisfactory depiction of Orlok.

Still from Targets (1968)Looking at Targets in hindsight, it may be tempting to see Bogdanovich’s film as prophecy after a string of infamous media-inspired shooting events (as John Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver led directly to his assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan in 1981, or James Holmes’ massacre in an Aurora movie theater during the premiere of Dark Knight Rising). Life imitating art? Art imitating life?  It is hardly that simplistic, nor can Targets serve so accessibly as a model.

Bobby’s domestic scenes are the most unsettling, awash in grisly rural hues. His Charles Whitman-like sniper escapades reveal Orlock’s drive-in horror host gig as clunky medievalism. That, of course, is Targets intent , but it tries so hard to be clever and profound that by the time we get to the cinema-under-the-stars shootout,  we feel the residue of a naive fusion. Considering our growing apathy to the aftermath of pop culture inspired violence, perhaps Targets‘ coarseness is all too apt.

CAPSULE: FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: George Clooney,  , , , Ernest Liu, Fred Williamson, , Cheech Marin, ,

PLOT: Two vicious criminals take a preacher’s family hostage and head for a rendezvous at a biker bar in Mexico, but it turns out that the establishment is run by the undead.

Still from From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Dusk Till Dawn is really two different movies: it starts out as a gritty killers-on-the-lam flick, then turns into a campy horror film once dusk falls. Unfortunately, the first movie really sucks, and the second one has some great set pieces, but is spotty. And, although the collision of these two sensibilities is somewhat weird (though perhaps a better word is “jarring”), neither movie standing alone is bizarre enough for our tastes.

COMMENTS: As the first serious collaboration between two exploitation enfants terribles Robert Rodriguez (who directs here) and Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the screenplay and acts), From Dusk Till Dawn was a hugely anticipated project. You can tell by the lineup of talent eager to work with the duo: big-time star Harvey Keitel was joined by up-and-comers George Clooney, Juliette Lewis and Salma Hayek, with a cool comeback appearance by Fred Williamson and an exotic presence in the person of Cheech Marin (who plays three roles, for no particular reason). The triumph of Pulp Fiction was fresh in everyone’s mind, while Rodriguez was still considered of an indie legend for making El Mariachi for $7,000. The thought of these two collaborating on a vampire movie made hip 1990s cineastes salivate.

I have to say that at the time I was disappointed at the results, however, and in the two decades since my opinion of the film has only softened a little bit. It seems that Tarantino, unquestionably a genius director, envisioned Dusk as his big acting break. Casting himself as a sadistic nerd (so he wouldn’t have to stretch—zing!), QT wrote himself a role that dominates the early half of the film. He plays the live-wire with the itchy trigger finger who complcates the plot by killing everyone in sight, much to the exasperation of cooler-headed Clooney. The problem is, Tarantino is whiny-sounding and even whiny-looking, and rather than fearing him as a dangerously unhinged psychopath, you just want to slap him with the back of your hand (perhaps realizing this would be audience’s natural reaction, Tarantino scripted a scene where Clooney knocks him out with one swift backhand to his impossible-to-miss forehead).

Tarantino does do a good job of making you despise his character, but the problem with the film’s (completely unnecessary) first ten minutes is that it sets you up to despise everyone: Tarantino, Clooney, and most of their victims, including a ranger who goes on a rant about “Mongoloids” in the food service industry. The movie gets better when Harvey Keitel enters, and even better when Tarantino leaves. As a preacher of lapsed faith, Keitel is the first decent person to appear in Dusk—why wait until almost 20 minutes have passed to introduce the first likable character? Although almost half the movie is over at this point, things improve greatly once the killers and their hostages reach the”Titty Twister,” a South-of-the-Border den with enough sin stored up behind its Hellfire-spouting portals to put the entire city of Tijuana out of business. Inside, “Santanico Pandemonium” (how much better of a stripper name is that than “Kandy” or “Neveah”?) puts on a dance that’s so hot, she doesn’t even have to take her bikini off to make Tarantino’s eyes glaze over, and soon sexual tension leads to hot vampire action as a brood of bloodsuckers descend to feed on the assembled truckers and bikers. Unfortunately for the vampires, they decided to locate their lair in a bar with wooden chairs whose breakaway legs make for hundreds of perfect stakes, leading to vampire genocide on a massive scale. I would have gone with Naugahyde booths, but then vampires never ask me for decorating tips.

Williamson and Savini are a treat as a pair of badasses and natural vampire killers. Savini has a crotch gun and kickboxing moves, Williamson has a cigar and the fact that he’s freakin’ Fred Williamson. Unlike Tarantino’s pedophile rapist, they are both exactly the type of characters that a fun B-movie romp needs. It’s great to see the undead meet their doom at the hands of stereotypical macho men—much more fun than it was too see innocent people tormented by a believable sex pervert in the movie’s opening reels. If From Dusk Till Dawn had started soon after Keitel made the scene and progressed more quickly to the Titty Twister, the movie could have earned a recommendation.  As it is, it’s a curious failure that has been surprisingly overrated by people who remember the vampire-stabbing fun of the pre-dawn finale, but forget the  incongruous and unpleasant pre-dusk sequences.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A deliriously trashy, exuberantly vulgar, lavishly appointed exploitation picture, this weird combo of roadkill movie and martial-arts vampire gorefest is made to order for the stimulation of teenage boys.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)