Tag Archives: 2020

CAPSULE: VAMPIRE BURT’S SERENADE (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Ken Roht

FEATURING: Kevin Richardson, Brandon Heitkamp, Sharon Ferguson, Dylan Kenin, Diva Zappa

PLOT: Burlesque stars and drag queens team up to defeat a vampire, singing forgettable songs along the way.

Still from Vampire Burt's Serenade (2020)

COMMENTS: A horror-comedy-musical seems like an easy bet for a moviemaking team on a low budget; the only problem is, great musicals require great music. That isn’t easy to come by. If it lost the lame tunes and focused more on its own craziness, Vampire Burt’s Serenade might have been a better film, although it would distinguish itself less from the crowded camp-horror field.

Who would have guessed that someday Kevin Richardson would be working with even weaker material than he did when he was in the Backstreet Boys? True, he sings well, but given the generic pop-rock beats and uninspired lyrics he has to work with, it’s for naught. Most if the rest of the cast doesn’t even have Richardson’s chops going for them: Diva Zappa singing “Sex Toy” is actually painful to listen to. The lip-syncing is clumsy, too; it’s obvious when the soundtrack switches from live to studio recording, making it difficult to suspend disbelief that the characters are actually spontaneously singing about their desire to stake a vampire through the heart. Only a couple of numbers are memorable: one where a group of drugged ballerinas stagger around singing a nursery-rhyme track (the ladies all affect little girl voices so singing ability isn’t an issue), and a “sultry” number sung by two lovers rendezvousing in a toilet stall (“Here in this scuzzy little toilet/Having such a nice time in this wicked little john… in this crazy insanity/with its lack of any sanity…”) that sticks out because of its obscene absurdity and nonsensical lyrics.

The worldbuilding, too, is half-assed. The action centers around a burlesque cabaret where vampire Burt is well-known to everyone, for reasons never explained; without any real motivation, he bites three main characters in one night, setting his own undoing in motion. In a movie populated entirely by vampires, victims, zombies, strippers, and a drug-dealing snuff performance artist, all of whom sing and dance, it seems odd to complain about a lack of believably. But this universe just doesn’t feel like a place you could live in, and nor does it feel like a delirious dream; instead, it’s just a collection of movie cliches and vampire tropes thrown together as needed to advance the script.

This Rocky Horror wannabe earned a few mildly positive recommendations from the “good try, old chap” school of pat-on-the-back film criticism. If you’re looking for pluses, Richardson is believably douchey, having a ball pwning the haters as the titular coke-snorting bloodsucker; the comedy is sometimes effective (e.g. a running joke about bisexual vampires that’s well-executed, if  obvious); the idea of a vampire who later becomes a zombie is cute; and the finale, with the entire cast coming together in a battle to the death, is bloody and chaotic. I didn’t like Vampire Burt’s Serenade, but I can see someone else liking it as a fast-paced time-waster. Still, it’s nothing to sing about.

It turns out that Vampire Burt’s Serenade is actually a slightly re-edited version of a 2014 movie called Bloody Indulgent. Indulgent runs two minutes longer than Serenade and can still be found on the Amazon channel “Fear Factory,” though the DVDs have been removed from circulation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an unconventional and enjoyable little title.”–Bobby LePire, Film Threat (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TIME WARP: THE GREATEST CULT FILMS OF ALL TIME, VOL 3: COMEDY & CAMP (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Danny Wolf

FEATURING: Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas, Kevin Pollak

PLOT: The final installment of a three-part survey of cult films, focusing on comedies and films with a camp sensibility. (Volume 1 is reviewed here, Volume 2 here.)

Still from Time Warp Greatest Cult Movies of All Time Vol. 3: Comedy and Camp

COMMENTS: This omnibus collection of mini-documentaries confronts its most challenging subject matter here in the third act. In the case of comedy, the ability to make audiences laugh is subjective, underappreciated, and difficult to discuss without destroying the very qualities of humor. When it comes to discussing camp, the concept itself carries with it issues of gender, sexuality, race, and power. How would the producers of the Time Warp series address these important, sometimes even incendiary topics?

The answer is: pretty much not at all. Time Warp just wants to have fun and share some rabidly adored films. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the fact that the filmmakers don’t even want to engage with some of these interesting topics means that the whole enterprise carries about as much weight as “VH-1’s 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders.”

There’s a pretty straightforward recipe for Time Warp’s method: play some clips from a film that took time to find its audience, get some of the movie’s participants to recount tales from the production, throw in some well-chosen clips and a little commentary from talking heads to explain why the film has a devoted following, and let simmer for 10 minutes. Then queue up another movie and do it all again. The panel of hosts clocks in barely 5 minutes of screen time, and offers virtually nothing in the way of analysis, context, or debate. So you just kind of have to trust that the producers have done their best in picking the comedies and camp-fests that best exemplify the label of “greatest cult films of all time.” Clerks? Yeah, I can see that. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Yes, I am totally convinced. Super Troopers? Um… sure, I guess.

That said, the list assembled here is pretty entertaining. These actors and directors are genuinely and justifiably proud of their work, and thrilled that it has managed to endure and thrive over the years. Diedrich Bader and Jim Gaffigan tell stories of having their famous lines quoted back to them. B-movie legends Erica Gavin and Mary Woronov offer gleefully unrestrained accounts of the conditions in which their movies were made. Jon Gries (whose name is misspelled in his chyron) is interviewed while holding a noisy parrot, and why not. And it’s a bittersweet surprise to see the late Fred Willard show up. Interspersed with well-chosen clips and some thoughtful commentary from critics and other professionals (gold medal to Amy Nicholson for her explanation as to why John Lazar should have become a legend), Vol. 3 makes a pretty strong case that any one of these films could easily merit its own feature-length documentary.

But it’s hard to be sure what distinguishes this from a video version of a Buzzfeed listicle. As my colleague Terri McSorley noted in reviewing Vol. 2, these selections are pretty anodyne. These 18 films are almost wholly American (only Monty Python and the Holy Grail can legitimately call itself a non-US film), largely recent (more than half are less than 30 years old), and predominantly white (actresses Shondrella Avery and Marcia McBroom and actor/director Jay Chandrasekhar help vary the palette). This roster feels like a good place to start the conversation about cult movies, but hardly the end-all be-all of the form.

Maybe I’m just jaded by the extensive efforts of this website to justify the films we crown. After all, consider the fact that Danny Peary needed three volumes to chronicle 200 films in his “Cult Movies” series, or that Scott Tobias’ New Cult Canon accumulated 130 entries over the course of five years. To spend a decent amount of time with 47 films in less than six hours is really a solid achievement. But it still feels like the format makes it impossible to do much more than pay lip service to a handful of films that have earned passionate devotion, without examining the phenomenon or delving into why these films are such good ambassadors.

I’m including the complete list of films discussed in this volume, with links to our reviews. And it’s possibly instructive to compare our attention to campy vs. funny flicks. Guess a comedy’s got to work really hard to land on our radar.

* Part of the 366 Weird Movies Canon

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Wolf has a more interview-packed chapter to finish with, securing sunnier features to study, closing on a bright note of classic endeavors that provided a sense of danger, delirium, and human insight, brought to life by talented filmmakers. Any chance to spend time with these titles is most welcome.”–Brian Orndorf, Blu-ray.com (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: “THE MIDNIGHT GOSPEL” (2020)

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Recommended

CREATED BY: Pendleton Ward, Duncan Trussell

FEATURING: Voices of Duncan Trussell, Phil Hendrie, various guests

PLOT: Clancy lives by a run-down farm in a run-down house and uses a run-down multiverse simulator to find interviewees for his spacecast.

Still from The Midnight Gospel, Season 1, Ep. 1

COMMENTS: One of the first things you’ll notice when beginning Netflix’s new series The Midnight Gospel is that it is not of this Earth, at least not of a specific time and place. The landscapes, décor, and props evoke everything from ’50s sci-fi novels to hippie chic to ’90s CD-ROM games, with a color scheme that blasts through it all with as much brightness you can get away with while still being easy on the eyes. One of the second things you’ll notice is that the show’s host—and co-creator—has the voice of a “woke”-but-laid-back1 early 20-something hipster; this voice is, apparently, provided by a forty-six year old comedian. And that, dear reader, is the full extent of my research for this show.

The main focus of each episode is the conversation between Clancy Gilroy (Duncan Trussell) and his special guest for that adventure, but I’d like to talk first about The Midnight Gospel’s visual appeal. The drawings have a meditative quality. The line work is all soft; even the corners feel soft. While it never quite spills over into “organic”, the movement of characters (and despite this television show’s origins, there’s plenty going on on-screen) is somewhere between easy-going and fatalistic. I bring up that word, “fatalistic”, because more likely than not, Clancy and his guests will suffer through some sort of massacre or dismemberment (for example, the calm conversational tones of Dr. Drew Kinsky as the “little president” of an Earth doomed by a zombie apocalypse contrasts amusingly with the nonstop violence in the background; soft-looking violence, of course). Whether being gored by undead hordes, or traveling through a meat processing plant as the meat being processed, there’s a happy squish for the eye to go along with the philosophical/sociological discussion dominating the dialogue.

When you boil it down, The Midnight Gospel is a podcast between a somewhat enlightened, somewhat leftist fellow (I almost wrote “young man” from remembering his voice, but no: he’s forty-six) as he speaks with all manner of intellectuals about drugs, life, death, and so on. That isn’t to say that there’s a strong demarcation between the conversation and the visuals. During a discussion of drugs, “little president” is busy defending the White House against invading zombies. At the meat processing plant, a different guest has his eye removed and consumed by one of that world’s clown children, exclaiming, “That kid just took my fucking eye!”

If you aren’t interested in informed-but-meandering discussions, you will find this cartoon rather trying. If, however, you are looking for a little consciousness-expanding conversation paired with some casually-extreme outlandish visual back-drops, then you are in for a treat. I have already admitted that I’ve done virtually no background research for this; I’ll admit now that I’m only two episodes in—but that’s because I couldn’t wait to write this. I’ll be heading back to Netflix to view the rest right now…

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These eight hallucinogenic explorations into life, love, death, and everything in between are unlike anything else on television. I promise you. One part podcast, one part Daliesque fantasy, this is a series that’s looking to rewire your brain and expand your mind.”–Umapagan Ampikaipakan, Goggler (contemporaneous)