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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
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.
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.
FEATURING: Corey Haim, Patricia Arquette, Christopher Collet, J. C. Quinn, Julius Harris, Devin Clark
PLOT: In a dystopian near-future where greed and widespread drug addiction have reduced the United States to third-world status, a cult of white-supremacist rollerbladers seeks to consolidate power; a lone skater, Griffin, infiltrates the gang to scuttle their operations and save his little brother.
COMMENTS: The brave new world of Prayer of the Rollerboys would seem to be a breeding ground for satire. The schools of the Ivy League have been carted off to Japan brick-by-brick. Mexican troops are repelling American immigrants at the border. Germany has conquered Poland once more, this time with its checkbook. Oh, and there’s rollerblading. Lots of rollerblading. But don’t laugh: screenwriter W. Peter Iliff (from whose pen Point Break and Varsity Blues will soon spring) wants you to be alarmed about even the most outlandish projections for America’s doomed future. There’s darkness coming, and only one thing can save us: Corey Haim.
Poor Corey. The prospective viewer of today might see the presence of the more tragic half of the Coreys in rollerblades as a guarantee of solid so-bad-it’s good entertainment. But it doesn’t turn out that way. It’s no secret masterpiece, but Prayer of the Rollerboys turns out to be a passable action flick, bringing low-budget grittiness and late-80s ethos to a familiar tale, with just a hint of eye-rolling over the near-future mise-en-scene.
After establishing his rollerblading bonafides in the opening credits, we properly meet Haim wearing a barbershop quartet’s striped jacket and boater and slinging an AK-47 for his job as a pizza delivery boy. (His boss: “If anybody messes with the van, [singing] kill ‘em.”) He’s trying to stay out of trouble and take care of his younger brother Miltie. Griffin’s just a good man in a bad world, you see; this world’s version of Marshal Will Kane.
There’s a lot out there to make him wary, like the vast amount of homelessness, the preponderance of populace-pleasing entertainments like nude women wrestling, and of course the narcotic du jour, an phosphorescent inhalant called “Mist.” But the biggest threat comes from the Rollerboys, an organized gang of skating thugs who deal Mist on the downlow while publicly sponsoring food drives and handing out their fascist literature to indoctrinate the masses. They occupy the Venn diagram intersection between Nazi Youth, the Proud Boys, New Kids on the Block, and the cast of Starlight Express. The film luxuriates in the sight of them cruising down the sidewalks of Venice Beach on their inlines, and the image of a dozen pretty rollerbladers decked out in flowing ecru trenchcoats and skating in a uniform flying-V is… well, not cool, exactly, but certainly memorable.
The film works best when it fully commits to the outlandishness of its premise. Griffin’s old grade school buddy Gary has grown up to lead the Rollerboys, and Christopher Collet gives it his all as a low-rent, roller-skating James Spader, a grinning crocodile who is fairly fit to burst into violence. (He even has a pet Komodo dragon to stroke malevolently.) No subtlety here; Gary’s plan to sterilize the population is literally called “the final solution.” His henchmen also bring the barely contained insanity, including Mark Pellegrino as a Jake Busey-wannabe strongman and the perpetually simmering Morgan Weisser, who even bites into an apple with repressed rage.
Against this, Haim does a creditable job, keeping an even keel as a guy who just wants to rollerblade in peace and now finds himself embroiled in chaos. He and Collet have genuine chemistry, engage in a rather effective fight scene, and bring authentic gravity to their final showdown. No, in our topsy-turvy world, the worst performance probably belongs to future Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette, zipping through the film in an admittedly weak role as an undercover cop in a series of joyfully ridiculous outfits (special consideration for her Dale Evans getup) and very little indication of the terrific acting career that lay ahead.
Once you get past the nightmare future of rampaging young white supremacists (all too believable) and full combat on skates (somewhat less so), there isn’t really anything wrong with Prayer of the Rollerboys. It’s derivative and a little silly, but the biggest problem is that the film is punching well above its weight. There are some intriguing ideas lurking in the movie: the allure of fascism, the impotence of our protectors, the weaponization of youth… but it’s all still riding on the shoulders of a Corey Haim rollerblading movie. It has to rehabilitate a teen heartthrob, create a credible future, call out the foibles of society, and do it all while embodying a youth culture that always seems to be just a step out of Hollywood’s reach. It would be a stretch for any movie to pull this all off. This is not the movie to do it.
Prayer of the Rollerboys isn’t bad enough to satisfy the snark-watchers, but not good enough to step out of the bin of forgotten B-movies. It does hint at an alternate universe where Corey Haim was able to realize his potential as an actor, and where we as a society anticipated the dangers of ceding power to pretty people who would co-opt it for nefarious purposes. Alas, in both cases, that stretches credulity just a shred too far.
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DIRECTED BY: Fred F. Sears
FEATURING: Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Edgar Barrier
PLOT: When an unidentified flying object terrorizing the globe is discovered to be an enormous, grotesque bird, the planet’s collective scientific brainpower and military might are brought to bear against the winged menace.
COMMENTS: One of the great stories of cinema is the tale surrounding the production of Jaws. It seems the robotic shark that was built to terrorize the citizens of Amity was temperamental at best, unusable at worst. Accordingly, director Steven Spielberg was forced to scrap many of the intended scenes featuring the automated predator, instead resorting to obfuscatory tricks to keep the villain hidden until the last possible moment. This ended up working to the film’s benefit, as the star’s delayed entrance only served to magnify the tension. Spielberg had stumbled backwards into brilliance.
Of course, it’s questionable how much his tactics would have worked had the ultimate reveal of the shark not paid off the suspense. Once the chum-shoveling Roy Scheider comes face-to-face with Bruce the animatronic carcharodon, then we’re off to the races, because the reveal has justified the withholding. You can believe your eyes. It is the black-eyed, remorseless killing machine we were promised.
In some respects, The Giant Claw faces precisely the same dilemma. The filmmakers want to hold back the full and awesome power of their beast for as long as possible. We get hints, of course: blurry visions of an airborne foe, evocative descriptions of a flying creature “the size of a battleship,” an enormous footprint indicating the immensity of the monster, and many Spielbergian stares into the unseen maw of a force to terrible to behold. But at some point, the monster has to be revealed. And when at last it is… my goodness, how can I do this justice? Can it even be conveyed? I mean, here are just a few examples of my peers attempting to reckon with this thing:
PLOT: Teenager Vanessa flees foster care to go live with her grandmother and is picked up hitchhiking by Bob Wolverton.
COMMENTS: The tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is known in the version set down by Charles Perrault, and later as one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, but elements of the story date back to ancient Greece. (On the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folktales, it’s type 333.) It’s a sturdy trope, revisited many times over the years; we even found one version Canonically Weird. So to come upon Freeway, a modern-day take incarnation of Red and the Wolf’s perennial conflict, is not too surprising. What is different is the gusto with which the film embraces some of the darkest elements of our modern world.
Writer/director Matthew Bright brings two major twists to his take, both revolving around our perception of the heroine. Witherspoon embodies the guileless innocent of the fairy tale as a magnificent piece of white trash. Foul-mouthed and incapable of shame, Vanessa has stepped straight out of “Jerry Springer” and brought a bouillabaisse of lower-class tropes with her: her mother turns tricks, her stepfather is a layabout drug addict and molester, her boyfriend is a drug dealer, her cellmate is an emotionally immature lesbian, she takes down an aggressive Mexican girl to become the alpha of the detention facility, and she’s so illiterate as to barely be able to read the word “cat.” It is to Witherspoon’s credit that she never softens the rough-edges of her antisocial character, yet still earns our support. Vanessa is plucky, resourceful, and hews to a strict code of honesty and personal morality. Even in the face of danger, she refuses to be anything but herself. You don’t always like her, but you have to admire her perseverance.
This ties into the other twist that Freeway brings to the table: our heroine takes her fate into her own hands. No woodsman comes to her rescue; her boyfriend – named “Chopper,” natch – is unable to help her, and the police are unwilling, taking her at face value as a degenerate miscreant. (In fairness, her use of racial epithets doesn’t exactly endear her to the African American detective.) The only person willing to look out for Vanessa is Vanessa, and she doesn’t hesitate to take charge, escaping her social worker, crippling her attacker, and even staging a prison break. (She’s very funny showing up at a diner covered in blood and daintily asking for the washroom.) She is repeatedly punished for her initiative, because given the choice between a young woman who is hardened by her origins and an outwardly clean-cut school counselor who moonlights as a sexual deviant and serial killer, society is obviously going to side with the man. In this version of the fairy tale, the princess is all on her own.
Witherspoon is matched well with Sutherland, who makes a meal of his role by heightening all the different personas of the Wolf: false ally, malformed victim, gleeful sadist. Even though you’re never going to mistake Kiefer for a bleeding heart, he has a lot of fun playing up Bob’s false purity, so that when he does start to reveal his true colors, the over-the-top villainy makes sense as the other side of the coin. By the time he’s been maimed and emasculated by Vanessa, he’s become pure raging id.
As a character study, Freeway is pretty entertaining. As a story, it’s surprisingly conservative, holding tight to the source material. Some of the references feel fun and cheeky, but others are shockingly literal, from the basket that Vanessa totes on her journey to the disguise Bob dons to trick her in the film’s climax. That puts a lot of pressure on style to justify the film’s very existence. Roger Ebert, in his positive review, asserts his law that a movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. Ergo, Freeway is not about a girl who uses her wiles to elude a savvy killer, but rather about our insatiable hunger for lurid stories that confirm our suspicions that the world is a cesspool but there’s nothing wrong with us. For Ebert, that’s why Freeway works. The voice is perfectly attuned to the sensational subject matter.
Ironically, I would argue that all that is a major reason why Freeway is kind of a mess. It’s so focused on the satire, on replicating a child’s fable with a vulgar end-of-the-millennium veneer, that it never actually gets to be its own thing. Witherspoon is a delight to watch, but after a while, she appears to be a list of societal ills, not a character. It’s all about the stunt, and that’s distracting. Freeway’s engagement with the less privileged elements of society seems less about anger with the world’s institutions and more a prurient interest in the crude, the nasty, the tasty, tasty dirt. It’s clever, to be sure, but you end up wishing there was something more to it. All the better to watch, my dear.
PLOT: On a mission to investigate the disappearance of a lost spaceship, the crew of the Quest confronts an alien monster that hunts them by preying upon their worst fears.
COMMENTS: No one ever accused Roger Corman of failing to capitalize upon someone else’s success. Having seen Alien reap box office gold, he and his mercenary studio New World Pictures quickly put together a film based upon a simple principle: an alien hunts a space crew one by one. Of course, what Corman and his cohorts never seemed to consider (or, more likely, could not be bothered to care) was that Alien was much more than merely a slasher film transplanted into outer space. The earlier film used foreboding and patience in a way that its imitator couldn’t even contemplate. Where Alien carefully developed the complex interpersonal relationships of the crew of the Nostromo, Galaxy of Terror just spits out one-line motivations and outsized character tics and hopes that will generate some empathy. We’ve got the blueprint here, but the only parts that carried over were the alien and the dead crew.
Galaxy of Terror is cheap. After all, it’s a Roger Corman production. But amazingly, it doesn’t look cheap, and a great deal of credit goes to the production designer, a promising young fellow by the name of James Cameron. (He also served as second-unit director and took on other behind-the-scenes roles.) The spaceship milieu is rich and convincing – the set is allegedly supplemented with spray-painted McDonald’s containers – while a walk through the chambers of an alien pyramid is vividly unfamiliar. The visual style readily evokes Cameron’s future endeavors, such as The Terminator and Aliens, and it’s entertaining to see him deploying his talents early on.
The story is considerably less accomplished. That notion of an enemy that can exploit your worst nightmares is intriguing (and would later be explored extensively by co-star Englund), but is only haphazardly pursued here, usually by a character announcing their worst fear and promptly being confronted with it in the next scene. Moran is claustrophobic, but her particularly grim fate is sealed less by confined spaces than by the vicious tentacles that attack her. Haig’s demise at the hands of his own crystal throwing stars is one of the film’s most effective pieces of visual horror, but makes little sense when you realize his weakness isn’t fear, but faith. In most cases, one has to assume that what the victims fear most is a large-clawed, bloodsucking monster, because that’s what most consistently does them in.