Tag Archives: Horror/comedy

CAPSULE: MURDER PARTY (2007)

DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Saulnier

FEATURING: Chris Sharp, Kate Porterfield, Tess Porterfield Lovell

PLOT: On Halloween night on a whim, Chris collects an invitation to a “murder party” with no explanation and shows up in a cardboard costume; the party turns out to be more than he’d banked on, as his hosts are a collective of artists out to commit a murder to win a performance art grant.

Still from Murder Party (2007)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Well, come on, it’s a black comedy/horror that never really strays into uncharted territory. Made on an impoverished budget, the premise is original and the characters are a raving cast of oddballs, but it only adds up to a fun diversion with chuckles and gore, not weirdness.

COMMENTS: Chris (Chris Sharp) plants his foot on a party invitation fluttering through the grimy streets of New York, and since the invitation isn’t directed at anyone in particular, he accepts it as his. It’s Halloween night, after all, and he just wants to party for once in his dull life. Woe betide Chris! His chakras are out of alignment, his lucky stars are in retrograde motion, and his karma is moldy. After fashioning a quick get-up, he sets out to find the party, attired as a cardboard knight. From the minute he arrives at a trashed warehouse in an industrial hell-zone, this party seems off-kilter. The other attendees scoff at the invitation and pounce on him, all but ignoring the pumpkin bread he baked for the potluck dinner.

Chris is tied up in a chair in the warehouse, and we get to know our hosts: Bill (William Lacey), a ghoulish baseball player who sullenly sits on the floor playing with his phone all night; Macon (Macon Blair), a drunk and insanely clutzy werewolf; Paul (Paul Goldblatt), a meek participant who has trouble living up to his aristocratic vampire costume; Lexi (Stacy Rock), in a gleefully deranged impression of Pris from Blade Runner; and Sky (Skei Saulnier), the closest thing to a normal person there, and also the most allergic to raisins. They’re soon joined by Alexander (Sandy Barnett), a purveyor of fine arts and hard drugs with a six-figure grant to hand out to an artist that impresses him. The gang of artists have decided that their art project will constitute committing a fully documented murder. But they needed to set a trap for a random victim, so they made this invitation—and they can’t believe it worked.

Now that we’re set up for a story, sit back and munch candy corn (no seriously, it’s featured prominently) and watch the festivities unfold. There will be lots of chaos, as none of these people, least of all Chris, are remotely capable at what they’re trying to do. Like any good horror movie, you will see lots of characters die, but this time most of them will be dismissed from this vale of tears by their own stupidity. Chris tries many desperate plans to escape, and what little success he has is by pure luck combined with a shocking lack of imagination. It’s a witty social satire for black comedy fans. It’s also the lowest-budget you could possibly have and still make a movie work. “Punk” is a perfect word to describe it; if you picture the people behind Repo Man making a Halloween movie that’s also a satire of pretentious artists—with an even smaller budget and no name stars—you’re pretty close to pegging it. The movie suffers from a lagging pace in a couple places, and some bits just plain don’t work. However, taken for what it is, Murder Party lives up to everything you’d expect from the title, just not much more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“After an hour of entertainingly crass buildup, pic erupts in a riot of outrageous, quite funny violence that leaves almost no one alive. Punk/metal soundtrack is in keeping with gonzo tone.”–Dennis Harvey, Variety (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Bruce Abbott, , David Gale, Robert Sampson

PLOT: Things are going well for Dan Cain, a talented third-year student at the prestigious Miskatonic University Medical School, until his advertisement for a roommate is answered by Herbert West, a combative genius who thinks knows he is on the verge of conquering death. After Dan witnesses West’s “re-agent” applied to his erstwhile cat, he becomes enthralled, and things quickly get out of hand when a human test spirals out of control, resulting in murder, kidnapping, and a decapitated nemesis.Still from Re-Animator (1985)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Jeffrey Combs brings his A-game with a maniacal-steadfastness as Herbert West as he squares off against would-have-been David Gale—his gaunt(er), sinister(er) adversary. Beyond these two weirdos, there’s the off-kilter combination of gore and humor, best illustrated by the macabre and hilarious romp involving the untimely death and untimely subsequent death of a pet cat.

COMMENTS: Those who read their horror literature know that ‘s work occupies an unfortunate spot on the Venn diagram, trapped in the “hauntingly entertaining” and “fairly unfilmable” intersection. This has not stopped directors from trying, to be sure, but if one were asked to list the top five Lovecraft adaptations, it’d be tough to get as far as the pinky-finger. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator would be on that list. While his horror-gore-buddy comedy doesn’t strictly adhere to the more sinister original, as a compact update it ticks all the Lovecraft boxes: unsettling, outlandish, macabre, and nihilistic. Somehow, Gordon and his crew add “hilarious” to this otherwise depressing mix, in the process making Re-Animator one of the most popular, memorable, and comical genre films[1] to come from the golden ’80s.

With a movie this brief, efficient storytelling is key. Bam, we meet Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), brilliant and insane. Bam, we meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), skilled and compassionate. Bam, we meet Doctor Hill (David Gale), determined and fraudulent. West and Cain quickly become housemates, and Cain witnesses West’s genius. West quickly antagonizes Doctor Hill by questioning his academic integrity, setting the scene for nemesis. Lurking on the periphery are the school’s Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and his daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton)—their presence instrumental for the various showdowns. Throughout this quick-moving narrative are bunches of what gore-effects people refer to as “gags” (love that term): a re-animated cat, a re-animated strongman, a re-animated academic, a re-animated doctor, and culminating with a re-animated horde. Each step Herbert West takes brings him closer to both his greatest triumph and his organ-strewn downfall. No points if you guessed that Dan Cain ends up taking up the mantle.

Stuart Gordon was a director of an avant-garde theater troupe, and Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: RE-ANIMATOR (1985)

  1. Though the term is disapproved of by some, I’ll use “genre film” until I stumble across a comparably brief mental short-hand. []

268. DEAD ALIVE [BRAINDEAD] (1992)

Known as Dead Alive in North America, Braindead elsewhere

“You know what they are saying about you don’t you? You’ve got funny in the head! A real bloody weirdo!”–Roger, Dead Alive

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Stuart Devenie

PLOT: An explorer discovers a Sumatran “Rat-Monkey” on Skull Island; the creature is safely housed in a Wellington zoo. The animal escapes and bites Lionel’s overbearing mother, who becomes a zombie and infects anyone she comes across. Lionel then juggles the advances of the local shop owner’s daughter Paquita and the machinations of his blackmailing uncle with the zombies mounting in his basement.

Still from Dead Alive (Braindead) (1992)

BACKGROUND:

  • Written before the controversial puppet black comedy Meet the Feebles, but filmed afterward. This was the first script co-written with longtime Jackson collaborator and partner Frances Walsh. The story originated with the third credited co-writer, Stephen Sinclair, who originally conceived of it as a stage play satirizing New Zealand society.
  • Partly funded by taxpayer dollars through the New Zealand Film Commission.
  • The film won Best Screenplay at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards in 1993. It won Best Film (and Best Special Effects) at the 1993 edition of the Fantasporto Film Festival for genre pictures.
  • Released as Braindead in New Zealand, Australia, and other countries, but as Dead Alive in North America to avoid confusion with the practically identically titled 1990 horror film Brain Dead (directed by Adam Simon).
  • The uncut version was banned for extreme violence in several countries, including Finland, Singapore, and South Korea.
  • Came in it #91 on Time Out’s 2016 poll of the greatest horror movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Grand Guignol finale where Lionel cuts down a horde of zombies with a lawnmower. Three hundred liters of fake blood were used in this scene.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sumatran Rat-Monkey; zombie baby; the Lord’s ass-kicker

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: From the seemingly benign and placid surface of 1950’s New Zealand society, director Peter Jackson spews forth undead geriatrics consuming German Shepherds, amorous zombies who impregnate each other, sentient viscera, oedipal vaginal imagery on an epic scale, and an inexplicable excursion to the local park with a zombie baby. The invention and gory slapstick of this film are comparable to a Looney Tunes episode where Wyle E. Coyote falls into a spool of razor wire. Or perhaps the antics of and the Keystone Cops defending themselves from an undead invasion after ingesting speed-balls.


Original trailer for Dead Alive

COMMENTS: I fondly remember Braindead from my 1990’s adolescence, days of VHS and weekends spent with friends, trying to outdo Continue reading 268. DEAD ALIVE [BRAINDEAD] (1992)

CAPSULE: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Dan O’Bannon

FEATURING: Clu Gulager, Don Calfa, James Karen, Thom Mathews,

PLOT: Workers at a cadaver warehouse accidentally release an experimental army chemical that reanimates the dead and, together with a band of punks, find themselves fighting hundreds of brain-eating zombies.

Still from Return of the Living Dead (1985)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s essential cult movie viewing, but it’s not inside the perimeter of the weird.

COMMENTS: In the mid-1980s horror movies realized that, in a post-Leatherface/Michael Meyers/Jason/Dawn of the Dead world, it was fast becoming impossible to shock jaded horror audiences with escalating gore. The response was to embrace, and exaggerate, the campy aspects of the genre. By 1984, wisecracking Freddy Krueger and his groaner puns supplanted the silent masked killers of just a few years earlier. Along with 1985’s bloody-but-wacky Re-Animator and the increasingly cartoonish horrors of , Return of the Living Dead was in the vanguard of the new tongue-in-cheek horror movement, helping to start a cycle that reached an artistic apex with 1987’s Evil Dead II (verifying the trend towards black comedy, II was itself an outrageously campy sequel/remake of the earnestly grim 1981 original).

While took horror’s basement budget subgenre into ridiculous realms of farce with The Toxic Avenger and its ilk, Return got the tone just right, adding reassuring flecks of “you shouldn’t take this seriously” to the script in a way that didn’t mar its legitimately scary and thrilling aspects. Return‘s jokes range from the blatant and silly (a zombie grabs a walkie-talkie from an abandoned ambulance and advises the concerned dispatcher to “send more paramedics”) to the subtle and silly (a pair of the survivalists are named “Burt” and “Ernie”). But the gags are just opportunities to catch your breath as the zombies close in, not the entire point of the show. Return captures the siege mentality of its inspiration, ‘s Night of the Living Dead. The victory of the ghouls is inevitable, because the dead outnumber the living. The victims, funeral industry workers and a gang of “punks” trapped in the melee while partying in the cemetery, can’t hope to defeat the undead. These corpses are particularly resilient—if you chop them up into tiny pieces and throw them in a garbage bag, the dismembered parts continue squirming. They are, in fact, nearly indestructible. The living can only hope to hold out long enough for the National Guard to arrive. Along the way come some imaginatively freakish sights, such as quivering half-dog zombies (the FX are not great by today’s standard, but it’s the concept that chills you) and the interrogation of a female corpse who’s missing the lower half of her body. Add in proto-Goth Linnea Quigley’s full-frontal nude dance among the tombstones (which is about as much Eros as a teenage boy in the 1980s could take with his Thanatos without exploding) and you have a trashy but timeless horror spectacle.

Scream Factory released a 2-Blu-ray “Collector’s Edition” of Return in 2016, with four different commentary tracks (!), including contributions by director O’Bannon and a number of the cast members. The set also includes unused scenes taken from the work print and a definitive 2-hour documentary on the film (More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead) among its comprehensive encyclopedia of supplemental features.

Happy Halloween!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done with style. It is.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

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

CAPSULE: DICKSHARK (2016)

The reviewer of this film has requested to remain anonymous.

DIRECTED BY: Bill Zebub

FEATURING: Erin Brown, Kayla Browne, Rachel Crow, Scarlett Storm, Bill Zebub

PLOT: A renegade scientist creates a substance that alters genes, hiding it in the innocuous form of a penis enhancing cream. A man applies the cream, transforming his penis into the head of a shark, his partner shoots off his penis, and the Dickshark escapes into the sewers to wreak havoc on countless female victims.

Still from Dickshark (2016)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: Although the subject matter is quite surreal, the dialogue and acting style (although often absurd) halfheartedly attempt realism. The incoherent narrative is less by design than by poor execution.

COMMENTS: Dickshark is what might emerge from ’s production house if Smith really stopped caring about production quality or coherence in his work. Director Bill Zebub is also from New Jersey and shares Smith’s earthy humor, emphasis on dialogue and a love of titillation and risqué subject matter.

You know what you’ve signed up for with Dickshark from the title and trailer. This is an exploitation picture, there’s going to be a shark, it’s going to be shaped like a dick, and its going to attack a lot of women. What you probably didn’t expect are the endless, at first mildly amusing scenes of director Bill Zebub (as the scientist, Dick) delivering half-exposition/half-nonsense monologues as he massages the breasts of semi-naked women “for science” until Dickshark comes to the rescue by clumsily “raping” the women (i.e., someone off camera throws a prosthetic shark at the actress’ groin). Zebub makes no attempt at disguising this personal porno fantasy, filling every rape scene with slow motion footage of undulating female buttocks and even a mock confession: “I’m not an aging movie director who only cops a feel by paying models to be in his movies, and who writes parts for himself that have him making out and groping them.” Really, that’s about all this film amounts to, and while at first this nonchalance and irreverence are kind of fun, it wears thin after the first hour.

What other attempts at plotting remain are tedious interludes, usually two-shots with a rival scientist intent on stealing Dick’s genetic secrets, which stretch on forever and contain lingering close-ups while the off-screen actors talk. The production values and editing reminds one of Manos: The Hands of Fate, but with more vaginas.

The acting quality is slightly above the average pornographic film, with Erin Brown faring the best of the women with her earthy, laconic humor. Zebub’s acting style is best defined as a composite of Alan Moore’s haircut and a working class Woody Allen with the spasmodic gesticulations of ’s character in Apocalypse Now.

Towards the end of the film there emerges a kind of commentary on the nihilism of modern existence: in a confession to the camera, the rival scientist chooses to end his life while bemoaning his small penis. It comes across as a kind of apology for how scattered and half-hearted the film has been, but if all we as audience members are to take away from Dickshark is that life is pointless and must be filled with nudity, shark ejaculate and directors frotting on their actresses, then thank Christ we only paid five dollars video on demand for the privilege.

What I personally took away from the film is how fascinating an undulating vagina looks in extreme close up and slow motion. Not even in Antichrist could compete with the sheer weight and focus Zebub gives to the female sex in Dickshark. The film really deserves the IMAX treatment, and preferably with raincoats offered to prospective male viewers.

The three hour first assembly—which I confess I couldn’t brave—can be found on Vimeo on Demand here:

The two hours and eight minute cut (which still taxed my patience) can also be found on Vimeo on Demand (under the alias Frankenshark):

The DVD runs an advertised 150 minutes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…like the demented love child of Tinto Brass and Troma for which we never asked.”–Randall Lotowycz, The Ink & Code (DVD)

A VINCENT PRICE EXPLOSION ON BLU-RAY

The first Vincent Price Blu-Ray Collection has already gone out of print and now requires sacrificing a mortgage payment to purchase a used copy. So, if the second collection is a must buy to you, snatch it up quick in time for Halloween.

For many genre fans, is the epitome of the classic horror star. That is partly because he is more contemporary than his predecessors and many of his films are in color. While undoubtedly a genre great, Price’s performances often fall into the whiny, overtly fruity category, and we see a lot of them in “The Vincent Price Collection 2.” Price was best when he did not succumb to self-parody. While this collection includes welcome additions to the Blu-ray format, it does not represent Vincent Price at his best.

House On Haunted Hill (1959) has become a cult classic. Directed by , it is a campy example of the “old dark house” genre. Jokes are balanced with the usual Castle gimmickry, including Price’s pitch-perfect performance as the ringmaster of the carnival-like milieu, gleefully at odds with wife Carol Ohmart (Spider Baby). Castle’s pacing may seem dated to modern audiences, but it is much preferable to the 1999 remake.

The Return Of The Fly (1959) is a pedestrian rehash of the 1958 original (see below). More crime thriller than sci-fi, Return‘s sole saving grace is black humor supplied by Edward L. Bernds (a veteran of multiple Three Stooges shorts). Price collects a check here and nothing more.

Poster for The Comedy of Terrors (1963)The Comedy Of Terrors (1963) is part of AIP’s popular / cycle. Unlike the majority of those, this was not directed by Corman, but rather by /RKO star director . Written by Richard Matheson (“The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “I Am Legend,” “Duel,” “The Night Stalker,” “The Legend Of Hell House”) and helmed by the director of Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943),  Out of the Past (1947), and Curse of the Demon (1957), The Comedy of Terrors was initially seen as a disappointment and argued to be more the work and style of producer Corman. Regardless, it has since been reassessed in some quarters and has developed a minor cult reputation. Co-stars Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, and easily outclass Price. Joyce Jameson[1] is even given something to do other than brandishing her cleavage (although she does plenty of that as well).

Lorre is Igor to Price’s Undertaker and hopelessly in love with his employer’s wife (Jameson), who happens to be a shrill wannabe Continue reading A VINCENT PRICE EXPLOSION ON BLU-RAY

  1. Jameson is stuck playing the ditzy, put-upon blonde wife, as she did in 1962’s Tales of Terror and through most of her career, which is odd because she gives the impression of an Amazonian who could easily take out the whole lot. Jameson’s screen persona was in sharp contrast to the highly erudite actress who tragically committed suicide in 1987. []

220. REALITY (2014)

Réalité

“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”–Philip K. Dick

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kyla Kenedy, Jon Heder, Jonathan Lambert, Élodie Bouchez, , John Glover

PLOT: A young girl (improbably named “Reality”) spies a videotape inside the entrails of a wild hog her father shoots. Meanwhile, Jason, a French-speaking novice director, gets the green light for a screenplay he is working on about killer television sets, but only if he can find an Oscar-caliber scream of pain to insert in the film. Jason’s producer producer is also funding a fiction film from a former documentary director who, coincidentally, is using Reality as his lead actress, while the stressed would-be filmmaker finds he is having nightmares that are increasingly difficult to wake from.

Still from Reality (2014)
BACKGROUND:

  • Réalité, Quentin Duepieux’s fifth film, was a French/Belgian co-production. The story is set in southern California, although many of the characters primarily speak French.
  • Although Duepieux usually scores his own films, the only music in this film is a repeated phrase from Philip Glass’s “Music with Changing Parts.”
  • The male Award Presenter in Jason’s dream is Michel Hazanavicius, Academy Award-winning director of The Artist (the female Presenter is Rubber‘s ).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Jason’s recurring dream where he is at an awards ceremony, awaiting announcement of the award for best groan in movie cinema history. He’s the lone human in a sea of blank-faced mannequins in tuxes.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Viscera video; eczema on the inside; this film doesn’t exist yet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In his short five film career, Quentin Dupieux has established a distinctive—and divisive—comic vision. His absurd sense of humor takes killer tires, dog-turd detectives, and electronica-snob cops and tosses them into twisted, self-aware scenarios. Reality sees him take a darker turn, venturing deeper into his subconscious, foraging for nightmares.


U.S. theatrical trailer for Reality

COMMENTS: In Reality, a mother reads a bedtime story to her Continue reading 220. REALITY (2014)

LIST CANDIDATE: VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Robert Bierman

FEATURING: , Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley, Kasi Lemmons

PLOT: An abusive literary agent believes he is turning into a vampire.

Still from Vampire's Kiss (1988)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This may be Nicolas Cage’s strangest performance. Let me repeat that. Cage has starred as an Elvis-obsessed lowlife in movie, as the twin alter-egos of in a movie, as a woman-punching detective in the ridiculous Wicker Man remake, as a heroin-addicted New Orleans cop in a movie, and this may be his strangest performance.

COMMENTS: “That mescaline… that’s strange stuff.” Maybe—just maybe—that explains Nicolas Cage’s scenery-chewing, furniture-smashing, cockroach-eating performance in Vampire’s Kiss.  It doesn’t explain Peter Loew’s behavior, however. The emotionally battered Alva (a sympathetically depressed Maria Conchita Alonso) gets more to the point: “this guy is very weird.” Loew is a weird guy indeed. It all starts with his from-nowhere accent, which is not European, New England Brahmin, or even “Mid-Atlantic English,” the made-up dialect spouted by Golden Age Hollywood actors like Katherine Hepburn (though that one comes closest). The accent is insane, but it does reveal Loew’s character: this is the kind of guy who would affect an aristocratic dialect in order to give himself airs, but get it wrong—and stick with it, not caring a bit whether it was accurate or not. When such an arrogant and flamboyant character goes crazy, you can bet that the results will be fiery. Cage holds nothing back. He shouts, slurs his words, breaks stuff, eats bugs, screams obscenities, vomits, puts his hand on his hip and prances like a mad Mick Jagger, rants, and makes insane faces with his huge, unblinking eyes. His furious recitation of the alphabet, which plays like a Sesame Street sketch delivered by a drunk guest star with anger management issues, is itself worth the price of admission.

If you’re wondering why this movie seems weird, even without Cage, reflect that it was written by Joseph Minion, who also brought us 1985’s crazyfest After Hours. With a serious psychology manifesting itself through campy fireworks, the picture’s style is halfway between an art film and a B-movie; it exists in a tonal limbo. There are a number of odd features, even putting aside the performance art mimes who hang out outside of Loew’s apartment. Note that Loew is surrounded by women; girlfriends, pick-ups, office secretaries, his female therapist. His only significant relationships are with women, a surprising number of whom wear black garter belts. Might Peter have issues with the opposite sex? (You think?) How did Loew become such a casual sadist, and why does he obsess about vampires in particular? Why does simple act of “misfiling” irritate him so profoundly? (Seems like a metaphor, doesn’t it?) It’s no surprise that so many key sequences take place in the psychiatrist’s office. With all its unexplained, clashing symbols and preoccupations, the movie itself begs for psychoanalysis.

Cage was not a neophyte actor trying to make an impression at the very beginning of his career here. He was coming off a role as the romantic lead in the mainstream hit Moonstruck. Vampire’s Kiss, along with his equally mannered performance as a hick burglar with Shakespearean diction in the Raising Arizona, gained him the reputation as the greatest ham of his generation.

Although fondly remembered by fans, Vampire’s Kiss has always had a hard time finding a home on DVD. It has never been released in it own, but in 2007 MGM paired it with the insultingly bad early Jim Carrey comedy Once Bitten on the “Totally Awesome 80s” double feature DVD.  In 2015 Scream Factory released Kiss on Blu-ray together with the comedy High Spirits. Both editions include a commentary track from Cage and director Robert Bierman.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… requires a style as darkly comic and deft as its bizarre premise. Instead, the film is dominated and destroyed by Mr. Cage’s chaotic, self-indulgent performance. He gives Peter the kind of sporadic, exaggerated mannerisms that should never live outside of acting-class exercises.”–Caryn James, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RAVENOUS (1999)

DIRECTED BY: Antonia Bird

FEATURING: , Robert Carlyle, , David Arquette

PLOT: During the Mexican-American war, a cowardly officer is exiled to a backwater fort in California; a survivor from a doomed group of settlers appears and leads the fort’s complement to a grisly fate.

Ravenous (1999)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With fine direction and A-list talent, Antonia Bird’s unlikely horror-comedy shows the positive effect a big budget can have on the splatter genre—but does not reach the necessary heights of weirdness.

COMMENTS: The tone for Hollywood’s foray into the realm of splatterhouse begins with Nietzsche’s quote, “He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster,” followed immediately by a timeless quote from anonymous: “eat me.” An 1847 American flag flies in the opening shot, and soon we see a group of officers and troops sitting down to a celebratory dinner of very, very raw steak. Captain Boyd, recently promoted, stares at the meat and quickly runs from the table to vomit. Why is this soldier so adversely affected by the sight of blood?

After the opening credits, set over a journey montage jauntily scored by Michael Nyman, we see his new home and new comrades. Deep in the Sierra Nevadas is a shack of an army fort, populated by the military’s cast-offs. Jeffrey Jones plays the affable commander of the troupe, Colonel Hart; David Arquette plays the lowest ranking character as one of history’s earliest comic stoners. Literally stumbling into the mix of soldier eccentrics is Colqhoun (Robert Carlyle), who brings about the film’s main action when he relates his tale of desperation and cannibalism in a cave a few days march from the dilapidated fort.

What follows both makes the movie so wonderfully strange and, no doubt, made its box office takings so meager. (An investment of twelve million dollars from the studio resulted in box office totals of not quite two million). There is another journey, from the fort to the cave, again put to a jaunty soundtrack, and there is a horrible revelation that contradicts Colqhoun’s account. In a scene reminiscent of the opening nightmare in Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, the soldierly Private Reich discovers too many bodies, one of many grindhouse nods. A scuffle ensues and Captain Boyd flees the monstrous Colqhoun, eventually being forced to make a tough decision.

Between the set up and the payoff, we learn a number of things about the nature of cannibalism, the evils of man, and the nature of American Exceptionalism. Carlyle’s Manifest Destiny speech is one for (from?) the history books: “…this country is seeking to be whole. Stretching out its arms and consuming all it can.” The movie does not wear its metaphor lightly, but its message about the, shall we say, ravenous nature of America’s territorial appetites is the only element in the film that can be taken remotely seriously.

The rest of the film’s tone is dictated by the mandates of one of the more difficult genres to tackle, that of the “horror/comedy.” When splicing chuckles and jolts, it takes a deft hand to make sure the mix is right, much like finding balance in a stew. Ravenous‘ stew has all the right elements in correct proportion: its universe is presented by actors who take their roles very seriously, with only Carlyle’s character being larger than life—sensibly so, for reasons explained by the film’s mythology. David Arquette stands out, taking a bizarre turn away from his previous teen drama/comedy fare to play an Idiot archetype. Jeremy Davies’ turn as the chaplain is a wonderful interpretation of a socially withdrawn priest who borders on autistic. Guy Pearce’s Boyd is strangely relatable as the protagonist, and Jeffrey Jones’ Colonel Hart is believable as a father figure who is key to the main character’s transformation. All these men are thrown into a mix of violent hilarity, and the characters come out both intact and convincing.

So is this movie is “weird”? The story is bizarre, but the narrative is very easy to follow. The gore and cheek go hand in hand, which is pleasing, but fairly conventional. Running through the background of the whole thing on screen is the mischievous Michael Nyman, providing one of the most refreshing and situationally ironic scores to be found in most anything released in the theaters. However, it adds more to the sense of “fun” than a sense of “weird.”

With all this in mind, the fact that this movie was made is far weirder a thing than any specific element of the movie. It may be best looked upon as a mainstream foray into the realm of the strange, and it is a very deep trek therein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ravenous is unlike anything else, and even if it’s not to my own specific taste, I have great respect for its unrepentant weirdness.”–Mike McGranaghan, “The Aisle Seat”

190. BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)

“I’m watching this movie, it’s this picture about, uh… it’s really weird. It’s like the guy who took the acid or something, he smoked a marijuana or something before he wrote this picture…”—“The King,” speaking to an unknown party on his cell phone during the Bubba Ho-Tep DVD commentary

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce

PLOT: Having giving up fame for a simple life and switched places with Elvis impersonator Sebastian Haff, Elvis Presley is now an aging old man with a boil on his penis languishing in an East Texas retirement home. One of his fellow retirees is Jack, an African American who insists that he is actually ex-President John Kennedy. The two old men discover that a mummy is haunting the corridors of the rest home, feeding on the souls of the elderly, and together they hatch a plan to defeat the creature.

Still from Bubba Ho-tep (2002)
BACKGROUND:

  • Bubba Ho-Tep is a faithful adaptation of a novella by cult horror writer Joe R. Lansdale first composed for the now out-of-print anthology “The King is Dead: Tales of Elvis Post-mortem,” which also contained stories and essays by Roger Ebert, Lou Reed, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others.
  • The budget was reported to be between $500,000 and $1,000,000. Although there is a flashback concert scene in the film, the producers could not afford to license any actual Elvis songs, so you only hear generic Vegas-showroom-style intro music. Similarly, the scenes from the “Elvis” movie marathon seen on television are just cleverly-edited stock footage, with no actual Elvis films ever glimpsed.
  • The end credits announce a prequel called Bubba Nosferatu: Curse of the She-Vampires. Although intended as a joke, fan interest in such a movie ran so high that Coscarelli, Lansdale and Bruce Campbell tried to get it made, although it never came together. Campbell has reportedly lost interest in the project and it is presumably as dead as Elvis.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Aging Elvis, in his trademark rhinestone suit and cloak and a walker, marching off to face off against a mummy.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The only way Bubba Ho-Tep could have failed to be weird is if it lacked faith in its premise of a geriatric Elvis and a black JFK fighting a mummy in a rest home, and instead turned the tale into a self-congratulatory parody. Thankfully, everyone involved takes the story and characters at face value, honoring the oddness and humanity of the inherently absurd situation.

Original trailer for Bubba Ho-Tep

COMMENTS: No matter what we achieve in life, whether it’s Continue reading 190. BUBBA HO-TEP (2002)