Tag Archives: B-Movie

WEIRD VIEW CREW: CANNIBAL WOMEN IN THE AVOCADO JUNGLE OF DEATH (1989)

Is the almost-90s feminist satire Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (starring Bill Maher, Adrienne Barbeau and Shannon Tweed) weird? Cannibal Women inspires Pete Trbovich to offer four rules to tell whether the movie you’re watching is weird or not. (Hint: if it offers a “time of the month” joke, it’s probably not weird.)

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

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: ROLLER BLADE (1986)

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DIRECTED BY: Donald G. Jackson

FEATURING: Suzanne Solari, Jeff Hutchinson, Shaun Michelle, Katina Garner, Sam Mann

PLOT: During the Second Dark Age in the City of Lost Angels, a holy order of avenging roller-skating nuns battle evil mutants.

Still from Roller Blade (1986)

COMMENTS: It’s extremely important not to overthink Roller Blade, because Donald G. Jackson, the Z-movie legend who thought up the thing, absolutely did not overthink it. This is, after all, the man who dreamed up “Zen Filmmaking,” a commitment to scriptless, why-the-hell-not productions that make everyone else look as obsessive as . So let’s try and embrace the spirit of Roller Blade and just get to the heart of the matter.

This is a film that is made up almost entirely of lunatic choices. Placing the fate of humanity in the hands of a group of nuns on roller skates who wield switchblades that heal the wounded should clue you in, but Jackson happily goes further. The forces of good all speak in faux Shakespearean patois, even the highway patrolman who is the sisters’ only ally. The villains, meanwhile, consist of a man in a steampunk luchador mask and his mini-me, a wrinkly puppet that looks and acts like a bleached Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. (Speaking of which, one of the nuns is an actual dog.) The voice of wisdom is the order’s mother superior, a wheelchair-bound sage with a Latka Gravas accent and a propensity for astounding cosmic aphorisms like “The Cosmic Order of Roller Blade is the only force on Earth where all weapons and battle techniques are converted into tools of love” and “My visions have shown me a new world where it will one day be easy to trust every beast.”

The nuttiness extends to the filmmaking as well. The opening credits intercut incomprehensible images of women dressed like garden gnomes, a writhing woman enduring a restless slumber, and a group of hooligans on the attack, all to the tune of bombastic music cues that crescendo long before the list of names is complete, meaning the score has to keep restarting. With no natural sound, everyone is dubbed in the fashion of a Japanese monster movie, and the filmmakers are so committed to not showing moving lips that one character manages to play harmonica through a bandana.

And let’s not overlook Jackson’s commitment to crowd-pleasing nudity. Early on, three of the sisters are kidnapped and forced to engage in a naked catfight. When they are later rescued, they are brought back to the sanctuary to step naked into a recuperative hot tub and rub each other back to health. A character quickly peels off her bodysuit after being splashed with acid, and later kneels before a dying man to bless him with her uncovered body. Jackson has an audience in mind, and he’s prepared to fulfill their expectations.

It’s fun to list all that is quite nuts about Roller Blade, but the movie is actually less than the sum of its parts. It’s very slow, nobody’s motivations are entirely clear, and the tone is wildly inconsistent, swinging from broad comedy to awkward earnestness at random. So there’s no argument that there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on, but it never really coheres into anything watchable. It’s just Jackson coming up with ideas and immediately finding ways to film them. An impressive accomplishment, but an iffy product.

Creatively, it might be a mess, but Roller Blade was a financial smash, grossing $1 million off its $20,000 budget and earning Jackson the right to make the iconic Hell Comes to Frogtown. But his heart never strayed far from his humble beginning chronicling the adventures of bodacious babes in roller skates. Although he didn’t make good on the promise of the closing title card (advertising Roller Blade 2: Holy Thunder), he eventually helmed four sequels, each of which has a reputation for being strange. Donald G. Jackson wasn’t skilled, but he had audacity, and given how many times we’ve seen the reverse, his is a career to salute.

Roller Blade has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray and is available on vintage VHS only. At this writing, it can be found on Tubi, however.

A BRIEF HISTORICAL NOTE: Despite what the title might imply, no one in this movie who skates (and nearly everyone does) wears the inline skates of the title, but rather classic roller skates. That is because the product bearing the trademark “Rollerblade” was first commercially available in 1987, the year after this movie came out. I’m not saying that the movie inspired the mode of transport, but it does explain the confusing lack of Rollerblades in Roller Blade. 366 Weird Movies: out here doing the hard work so you don’t have to.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…embraces its cheesy, campy, exploitative and bad qualities to produce something bizarre, like a cheap Mad Max made while on acid and horny.”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

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

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958)

DIRECTED BY: Arthur Crabtree

FEATURING: Marshall Thompson, Kim Parker, Kynaston Reeves, Terry Kilburn, Stanley Maxted

PLOT: An officer at a an American air base in rural Manitoba teams up with a comely young researcher to investigate mysterious deaths, which locals blame on a top secret nuclear project.

Still from fiend without a face (1958)

COMMENTS: This time a year ago, I was absorbing the marvels of a wondrous motion picture entitled The Giant Claw. That film built its mystery by hiding its central antagonist for a significant portion of the running time, permitting the imaginations of audiences to run wild searching for an explanation. This was followed by an enormous shift in tone due to the eventual revelation of the monster, a silly, gangly mess that drastically undercut the gravity of the story.

In some respects, history repeats itself with Fiend Without a Face, a movie in which we actually witness the murder of several townspeople by a force we cannot see, thereby building a mystery around what precisely is going on. As for what happens when we do finally lay eyes upon the title character… well, let’s just come back to that in a bit, shall we?

During the very long time that Fiend Without a Face itself waits for that big revelation, it has to fill the time with distractions. There are repercussions over the activities at the air base, which NIMBY-leaning locals blame for the mysterious deaths as well as for a decrease in dairy production. There’s the slow-burning investigation by Major Cummings, which at one point takes a lengthy side trip to a cemetery crypt. Cummings also gets the film’s romance plot, making eyes at the sister of the first victim, helped in part by an especially egregious shower scene. While none of this is boring, exactly, it’s not particularly interesting, especially since the audience is primed for a monster. It’s up to a cast of impressively obscure nobodies to sell the escalating tension through horrified stares and dramatic physical lurches. (The only cast member whose name rang any bells for me was E. Kerrigan Prescott, better known in these parts for his mad-scientist turn from Godmonster of Indian Flats.) They succeed only modestly, adding to the pressure to deliver something extraordinary at the climax.

It is a heck of a thing we ultimately get, so let’s talk about these monsters who have been sucking out their victims’ brains and spinal cords. Turns out they themselves are brains. Literally brains, with spinal cords for tails, eyestalks, and two little kickstand proboscises that deprive humans of their, well, brains and spinal cords. In the story, they’ve been wished into existence by a retired professor who Major Cummings deduces has been performing poorly vetted experiments with mental powers. In filmic terms, they’re brought to life through a combination of stop-motion animation, ill-concealed wire work, and broad acting. Oh, and they’re are goofy as all get-out. Look, I understand that special effects from yesteryear can’t be judged by the technology of today. That’s fine. But they’re still just brains, either animated to move like snakes or flown about like marionettes. The logic of brain-eating creatures that are themselves brains is impossible to parse. So you’re left with something that’s quite ridiculous, but also not quite ridiculous enough.

The climactic showdown between a group of humans trapped inside a house while a horde of flying brains tries to bust in was notable in its day for its new levels of violence and gore. (The film was called out as offensive in the British Parliament.) The setting also seems to presage settings to come, such as those seen in Night of the Living Dead or Evil Dead II. But this film’s solution is the equivalent of sending the cavalry. After all, what saves the day? How does one defeat a foe that has been created by an unholy blend of nuclear power and the untapped recesses of the human mind? Why, with guns, of course. The trio of Air Force officers starts taking out the little airborne cerebella by peppering them with bullets (and the occasional blunt instrument), resulting in a gleefully gross stew of blood and effluvia. It’s a classically 1950s mindset, using brute force to overcome the odds. This carries over to the most absurd plot element, in which Cummings saves the day by blowing up the nuclear power plant with dynamite. (Certainly no potential downside to that plan.) 

Fiend Without a Face is light fun, a solid representative of 1950s cinematic horror boasting three salient characteristics: an intriguing premise, very low-budget production, and a monster that doesn’t quite live up to the hype. File it next to similar efforts from the period like Beginning of the End, The Amazing Colossal Man, or The Crawling Eye. You know, the kind of film that works best if you just shut off your brain.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There can be no purer surrealism in cinema than the sight of these twitching brain-things besieging a house full of people, leaping and plopping like possessed frogs. The entire climax has the bizarreness of some mad medieval allegory, like a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch” – Nigel Honeybone, Horror News

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

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: MOTEL HELL (1980)

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DIRECTED BY: Kevin Connor

FEATURING: Rory Calhoun, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod, Paul Linke

PLOT: Out in Rural, USA, Farmer Vincent operates both the “Motel Hello” and a popular smokehouse; neither business is entirely kosher.

Still from motel hell (1980)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Quirky horror is always fun, and so is Motel Hell. However, the extra little touches added to Kevin Connor’s grinder make this a weird little morsel to ingest: psychedelics, home-spun folksiness, a human garden, and the left-field cameo from Wolfman Jack (as the local priest, no less)—all come together to make something strangely delicious.

COMMENTS: As Nietzsche didn’t quite say, “…if you gaze long enough into a sausage, the sausage will gaze back into you.” There is a strong philosophical undercurrent (casing, even) to Motel Hell. Our spiritual teacher is Vincent Smith: pig farmer, motelier, and all around stand-up country gent. Rustic affability courses through his veins, and cheery wisdom bubbles up through his placid surface. He treats his animals humanely; he is affectionate to his simple-minded sister; his guests are all graced with his decorum. And he has a plan to help God to save the world: through transforming sinful passers-by into the best damned smoked meat you can find.

Director Kevin Connor lays out his cards right quick, just in case you didn’t quite grasp the nuance in the film title. Meet Vincent. Meet Ida. Meat farm. Vincent and his sister are pranksters, spooking the twin girls of two guests. But later that night, he lays a trap for a passing motorcyclist and his far younger lover, harvesting the former and seducing-cum-adopting the latter. However, being so smitten as I am by Rory Calhoun’s charm, I’ve already gotten ahead of the game.

One of the delightful oddities in this B-movie blood comedy is just how Vincent and Ida prepare their meat. Sure, sure, there’s a smoking process and “secret spices” (as to be found in the smokehouse, labeled exactly as such), but there’s also the prep work. It involves holes in the ground, gunny bags, feeding funnels, and, when it is time to harvest the flesh-crop, some swirling spin rays, to give the harvest a “…radical, hypno-high. Heavier, but smoother than any trip [they’ve] ever had.” Beyond the groovy head-trips (chuckle along with me), Vincent brings a solemnity to his work. As he openly muses after a gathering, “Sometimes I wonder about the karmic implications of these acts.” His sister Ida, on the other hand, does not wonder. She just likes her work and, even more-so, the tasty snacks which ensue.

Motel Hell is a silly movie with cleverness, uneven acting, and a fun little chainsaw duel thrown into the mix. Connor and his team are obviously having fun, and are more than happy to provide the audience with blood, surprises, and some obligatory T&A. I enjoyed many a chuckle, and sounded an outright guffaw at Vincent’s scandalous confession at the climax. There are weirder movies, there are bloodier movies, and there are sillier movies, but Motel Hell, like Vincent’s secret blend, is a perfect balance of all these ingredients.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s meant to be weird, campy and funny but settles for being tasteless, gruesomely awkward and moronic.”–Dennis Schwartz, Dennis Schwartz Reviews

33*. BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)

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“[It’s in the] contemporary LSD/monster-movie genre. On second thought, I guess there’s no such thing. Let’s just call it a bizarre monster movie.”–Frank Henenlotter, asked to describe the film’s genre in 1988

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rick Hearst, Jennifer Lowry, Gordon MacDonald, voice of John Zacherle

PLOT: Young New Yorker Brian wakes up one morning to find that a small snake-like creature, “Elmer,” has escaped from his neighbor’s apartment and drilled a hole in the back of his head. Elmer secretes a powerful euphoric hallucinogen, which he injects directly into Brian’s brain; the young man is quickly addicted to the rush. But Elmer also requires human brains to function, and plans on using Brian to harvest them.

Still from Brain Damage (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Frank Henenlotter made has debut, Basket Case, in 1981 for $35,000. For seven years he was unable to raise funds to make the kind of follow-up film he wanted, until Cinema Group put up a reported $1.5 million for Brain Damage.
  • John Zacherle (the voice of Elmer/Aylmer) was a noted horror host in Philadelphia and New York City who went by the moniker “the Cool Ghoul.” Henenlotter, a fan who grew up watching Zacherle, convinced him to join the production. Zacherle wasn’t credited because he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild and this was a non-union set.
  • Crew members reportedly walked off the set during the “blow job” scene. This bad taste sequence was also cut from early theatrical and television prints to preserve an “R” rating.
  • The movie was partly inspired by Henenlotter’s experiences with giving up cocaine.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: With all of the crazy hallucinations, brain cam footage, and grossout gore scenes, it’s almost easy to lose sight of the strangest image in this movie: the Aylmer itself, a talking cross between a penis and a turd with cartoon eyes.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Blue juice at the synapse; pulsing meatball brains

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The psychedelic trip sequences, intriguingly urbane penile villain, and a general sensibility of depraved unreality elevate this gore-horror into something stranger than the usual VHS exploitation dreck.


Original trailer for Brain Damage

COMMENTS: As an allegory, Brain Damage couldn’t be more obvious—or apt. Indeed, if drug addiction could talk,it would sound just Continue reading 33*. BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)