Tag Archives: Dean Stockwell

LIST CANDIDATE: HUMAN HIGHWAY (1982)

Weirdest!

 

DIRECTED BY: Neil Young (as Bernard Shakey),

FEATURING: Neil Young, , Dean Stockwell, , , Sally Kirkland, Mark Mothersbaugh, Devo

PLOT: A formless counterculture comedy centered around a garage/coffee shop in Glowtown, an irradiated community located by a nuclear plant in the dystopian near future.

Still from Human Highway (1982)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Did you know that, in the early 1980s, Neil Young farted around with filmmaking under the pseudonym “Bernard Shakey” and got Devo and a bunch of aging Hollywood acidheads (Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn, Dean Stockwell) to run around in a goofy apocalyptic musical comedy? You gotta hand it to Young–he can’t act, he can’t direct, but he can make a weird movie.

COMMENTS: Just a hunch, but when Neil Young invited Dennis Hopper and pals out to the California desert to make a movie, there may have been drugs on the set. The cast is not afraid to go all out and look ridiculous, which might be due to being too high to care. Human Highway is a series of mostly improvised vignettes set in the Southwestern dystopia of “Glowtown,” centered around a gas station/diner, with side trips to the local nuclear power plant where Devo work as singing, glowing waste disposal engineers. There are several plot threads: imminent nuclear war, a harried Dean Stockwell trying to cut costs and raise prices to turn a profit, Young’s Lionel’s hopeless crush on a waitress, and an upcoming talent show. There’s also a flying saucer piloted by “oil-rich Indians” that shows up every now and then. All of these storylines get dropped when Lionel is conked on the head with a wrench and has a dream sequence consisting of about three Neil Young music videos strung together. He wakes up to the apocalypse, and a dance number.

If nothing else, the cast is interesting. Devo is featured prominently, and Booji Boy (a childlike band mascot/character played by Mark Mothersbaugh in a rubber mask and falsetto) gets some of the best bits. Hopper plays a couple of different roles besides the cook, but he isn’t memorable in any of them. Stockwell doesn’t have a lot of material to work with, and Tamblyn has even less, relegated to the role of Young’s sidekick. With fake buck teeth and oversized glasses, Young is OK, I guess, as the dopey hick mechanic—but why give himself the toughest comic role, rather than handing it off to one of his buddies who knew how to act? After Neil jokes that he should have died of radiation poisoning because he worked on radiators all his life, we start to get the feeling that the comedy might be intentionally lame, just like the backgrounds he and Tamblyn pedal past on their bicycles are intentionally fake. It’s like a parody of a movie (which is different than a parody movie).

Despite the fact that the flick, which was a goofy lark up to that point, grinds to a halt when Lionel has his rock star dream sequence, more songs would have been nice—if they had been scattered more evenly throughout the film. The musical highlights include Devo doing the folk standard “It Takes a Worried Man (To Sing a Worried Song)” (twice), and a novel New Wave-y collaboration with the band on Young’s “Hey Hey My My” (with Booji Boy squeaking the lyrics while Neil delivers an acidic guitar solo). And who can forget the closer, a surreal post-apocalyptic Casio deconstruction of “Blowin’ in the Wind” (recast as “Breakin’ in the Wind,” with Booji reciting lyrics like “and how many sweating hands will pull pulsing pickles, bright and orange, spewing liquid vile and green”)? Pitched as an anarchic musical rather than an improvised indulgence, Human Highway may have had a shot at being a successful cult film, instead of a legendary oddity sought out by fans of the featured performers.

Human Highway was made in 1982, and for some reason filmed in a 4:3 aspect ratio—did they have a TV audience in mind? (It was made at the dawn of MTV and the USA Network’s edgy “Night Flight,” where it would have been a perfect fit). In any event, Highway was barely screened during its initial theatrical run, but found a small audience on VHS. In 2016 it had a limited run re-release in Young’s “director’s cut” edition, which trimmed 8 minutes off the running time. A budget DVD, in a cardboard sleeve, followed later in the year.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…never released until it came to home video in 1996, which is surprising: while it’s certainly way too weird to have played to mainstream audiences, it should certainly have done well on the midnight circuit that still existed when it was made.”–TV Guide

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

CAPSULE: PSYCH-OUT (1968)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Rush

FEATURING: , , , Max Julien, Adam Roarke, 

PLOT: A deaf runaway goes to Haight-Ashbury in search of her burnout brother, who has sent her a postcard reading “God is alive and well in a sugar cube.”

Still from Psych_Out (1968)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A few hallucination scenes supply a bit of weirdness, but essentially this is just an earnest pro-hippie exploitation film.

COMMENTS: I like the vintage newspaper ad copy for Psych-Out—“listen to the sound of purple!”, “they’ll ask for a dime with hungry eyes… but they’ll give you love—for NOTHING!”—much better than the actual film. The movie is a 1968 rush job tossed into the market to exploit the audience’s salacious interest in the drugs, sex and rock n’ roll ethos of San Francisco’s flower children. The story of young Jenny’s search for her acid-casualty brother takes a back seat to a tour of Haight-Ashbury locales and culture. You get love beads, pot smoking, freakouts, happenings, chaste orgies, bead-stringing, bogus zen philosophy (“everything is part of everything else”) delivered by a guy in a Navajo headband, concerts at the Filmore East, the Strawberry Alarm Clock providing a fairly groovy soundtrack, and more pink and yellow paisley than you’d see in binge-watching session of “Laugh In.” Strasberg plays the wide-eyed ingenue lost in the den of friendly sin, Nicholson is musician/love interest aptly named “Stoney,” Max Julien (the future pimp of The Mack) is a drummer who hallucinates that he’s a knight, Dean Stockwell is Nicholson’s hippie conscience (he warns Stoney that success is “all just one big plastic hassle”), and Bruce Dern is the mad messiah of Haight Street. There are a few fun psychedelic scenes—one guy sees his friends as zombies and tries to cut off his own hand with a power saw, while Strasberg’s final fiery crash-and-burn STP trip is almost worth the wait—but mostly the film makes unfettered freedom and hedonism look kind of tedious, like a drug trip that starts off fun but just won’t end.

The script details are sloppy. Lots of plot points don’t make sense, like why a gang of straits is so eager to devote their time hunting down “the Seeker” when he’s no more offensive than any other street freak preacher. Strasberg’s Jenny has the most perfect diction you’ve ever heard from a deaf person. Jenny is also underage—otherwise her mother wouldn’t be able to send cops after her as a runaway—a fact whose moral implications the script ignores when throwing her in bed with various unshowered hippies. Overall, Psych-Out fails as standard entertainment, and delivers little in the way of weirdness or overt exploitation (the film has some blurry, blissed-out  suggested sex, but is nudity-free). At the time, it was a novel look at a subculture that was weird to outsiders, but today its only value is as a curiosity of hippie kitsch. It will come over either as camp or nostalgia, depending on your age. High on kaleidoscope lenses but low on plotting, this psychedelic capsule has lost most of its potency over the past five decades.

Jack Nicholson’s original script for Psych-Out was deemed too experimental, and Richard Rush had it re-written by a team of screenwriters; Nicholson kept the lead role of Stoney, which he wrote for himself. The great Lazslo Kovacs (who got his start in low-budget exploitation films like this one) oversaw the cinematography. Psych-Out was produced by clean-cut American Bandstand/New Year’s Rockin’ Eve impresario Dick Clark (!) It was re-released on Blu-ray (to better appreciate the pretty colors) in 2015.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an above average programmer about San Francisco hippies. Thin story line – girl seeking lost brother – is sufficient as the medium for a series of incidents, including drug-induced hallucinations, all directed in excellent fashion by Richard Rush.”–Variety (contemporaneous)

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)