Tag Archives: Exploitation

OBSOLESCENCE (2011) & LETHAL OBSESSION (2010): THE POTENTIAL AND FAILURE OF INDEPENDENT FILM

Jakob Bilinski‘s last film, Shade of Grey (2009) was a well-crafted feature, compellingly approached, yet flawed by inexperienced acting in key roles.  Bilinski has returned to the short film format with Obsolescence (2011), having considerably improved his craftsmanship, first and foremost in the acting. That is beneficial, because Obsolescence turns out as Bilinski’s best effort to date.

The seed of the idea for this psychological science fiction was inspired by Bilinski’s wife, Mackenzie.  It was shot in L.A. on a minuscule budget with a two day shooting schedule and a meager cast of four.  Far more often than not, guerrilla film-making methods such as these only lead to an execrable experience, but Bilinski is a conceptual artist who molds his gem with intelligence and style.

“Better never to have met you in my dream than to wake and reach for hands that are not there.”–Otomo No Yakamochi.  This introductory quote aptly dissipates shortly before the opening view of an empyrean horizon, its composition dismantled by Bilinski’s feverish, frenzied camera—a sign of things to come.  Nick (Scott Ganyo) is bathed in a bucolic landscape, but the deceptive harmony fails to mask a twitch.

Still from ObsolescenceTess (Rosalind Rubin) is strapped to a chair in a desolate location.  She is being held hostage by Nick.  In lesser hands this would have been the predictable setup for an adolescent excuse to show a torture fest, but Bilinski and the superb Rubin invest kinetic, tense excitement into the conflict.  Nick has poisoned Tess.  Her salvation lies in information that Nick requires regarding the death of his wife, Annie (Jen Lilley).  Rubin hypnotically conveys fear, frustration, and futile effort as she witnesses humanity slipping away from her captor, who is engulfed in grief.  Nick’s ability to empathize trickles away like water into sewage.  He is more fascinated than compassionate when the poison begin to take hold of Tess.  Wracked with pain, Tess’ Continue reading OBSOLESCENCE (2011) & LETHAL OBSESSION (2010): THE POTENTIAL AND FAILURE OF INDEPENDENT FILM

65. MANIAC (1934)

AKA Sex Maniac

“Unless you regularly do mushrooms and go to Lady Gaga concerts with your good friend Crispin Glover, then watching Maniac is guaranteed to be the weirdest experience you have ever had.”–ad copy for the Rifftrax version of Maniac

DIRECTED BY: Dwain Esper

FEATURING: Bill Woods

PLOT:  An on-the-lam vaudevillian kills and impersonates his mad scientist employer, driving himself mad in the process.

Maniac (1934)


BACKGROUND:

  • Dwain Esper was a successful building contractor who, it is rumored, only got into the movie business when he came into possession of a cache of filmmaking equipment that was abandoned in a foreclosed property.  He worked outside the film distribution system, taking his exploitation movies on the road and showing them in rented venues, accompanied by lurid advertisements promising forbidden fruit for “adults only.”  Esper obtained the rights to Tod Browning’s Freaks from MGM for a song, and took the movie on the road with his other exploitation hits.  Other films he directed or produced had titles such as Marihuana, the Weed with Roots in Hell and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband.
  • Made outside of the Hollywood system, Maniac was not subject to the Hays Production Code, although it probably ran afoul of most local censorship laws.  Audacious directors like Esper deliberately put racy material into their films that the major studios could not touch.  Maniac contains a scandalous amount of nudity, which had been extremely rare in motion pictures up until that time and was banned outright when the Hays Code began to be enforced in 1934.
  • The film incorporates (steals) footage from Maciste in Hell (1925), and reportedly also from Häxan (1920) and Fritz Lang‘s Sigfried (1923), for its delirium sequences.
  • Named one of the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in The Official Razzie Movie Guide.
  • One gruesome scene involving a cat’s eyeball appears to be a real case of animal abuse, but is almost certainly a convincing illusion.
  • The movie’s ending rips off the Edgar Allen Poe short story “The Black Cat.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are lots of strange, unexpected sights to be seen in this time capsule of man’s freakish desires, but you won’t forget the cat’s eyeball.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDManiac promises to show us the life of a madman as a shameless


Scene from Maniac

pretext for delivering multiple shock scenes in an “educational” context, but the final product is so disjointed, feverish and crazily assembled that it seems to be the work of an actual madman.

COMMENTS: Most bad movies are just bad.  A rare breed are so bad they’re “unintentionally” Continue reading 65. MANIAC (1934)

59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)

“There’s a rare kind of perfection in The Beast of Yucca Flats — the perverse perfection of a piece wherein everything is as false and farcically far-out as can be imagined.”–Tom Weaver, in his introduction to his Astounding B Monster interview with Tony Cardoza

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Coleman Francis

FEATURING: Tor Johnson

PLOT: Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist, defects to the United States, carrying with him a briefcase full of Soviet state secrets about the moon. Fleeing KGB assassins, he runs onto a nuclear testing range just as an atom bomb explodes. The blast of radiation turns him into an unthinking Beast who strangles vacationers who wander into the Yucca Flats region.

Still from The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Beast of Yucca Flats can always be found somewhere on the IMDB’s “Bottom 100” list (at the time the review was composed, it occupied slot #21).
  • All three of the films Coleman Francis directed were spoofed on “Mystery Science Theater 3000“.
  • Tor Johnson was a retired Swedish wrestler who appeared in several Ed Wood, Jr. movies. Despite the fact that none of the movies he appeared in were hits, his bestial face became so iconic that it was immortalized as a children’s Halloween mask.
  • All sound was added in post-production. Voice-overs occur when the characters are at a distance or when their faces are obscured so that the voice actors won’t have to match the characters lips. Some have speculated that the soundtrack was somehow lost and the narration added later, but shooting without synchronized sound was a not-unheard-of low-budget practice at the time (see The Creeping Terror, Monster A-Go-Go and the early filmography of ). Internal and external evidence both suggest that the film was deliberately shot silent.
  • Director Coleman Francis is the narrator and appears as a gas station owner.
  • Per actor/producer Tony Cardoza, the rabbit that appears in the final scene was a wild animal that wandered onto the set during filming. It appears that the feral bunny is rummaging through Tor’s shirt pocket looking for food, however.
  • Cardoza, a close friend of Francis, suggests that the actor/director may have committed suicide in 1973 by placing a plastic bag over his head and inhaling the fumes from his station wagon through a tube, although arteriosclerosis was listed as the official cause of death.
  • The film opens with a topless scene that lasts for only a few seconds; it’s frequently clipped off prints of the film.
  • The Beast of Yucca Flats is believed to be in the public domain and can be legally viewed and downloaded at The Internet Archive, among other sources.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Tor Johnson, in all his manifestations, whether noted scientist or irradiated Beast; but especially when he cuddles and kisses a cute bunny as he lies dying.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Coleman Francis made three movies in his lifetime, all of which were set in a reality known only to Coleman Francis. His other two films (The Skydivers and Night Train to Mundo Fine [AKA Red Zone Cuba]) were grim and incoherent stories of despairing men and women in desolate desert towns who drank coffee, flew light aircraft, and killed off odd-looking extras without finding any satisfaction in the act. Though his entire oeuvre was more than a bit bent by his joyless outlook on life, his natural affinity for the grotesque, and his utter lack of attention to filmic detail, this Luddite tale of an obese scientist turned into a ravening atomic Beast survives as his weirdest anti-achievement.


Trailer for The Beast of Yucca Flats with commentary from director Joe Dante (Trailers from Hell)

COMMENTS:  Touch a button on the DVD player. Things happen onscreen. A movie Continue reading 59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)

CAPSULE: BASKET CASE (1982)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Frank Henenlotter

FEATURING: Kevin van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner

PLOT: Duane checks into a derelict Times Square hotel carrying a wicker basket under his arm; inside is something about 1/4 the size of a person, that eats about 4 times the hamburgers a person would.

Still from Basket Case (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Most people will go through their entire lives and never see anything as weird as the micro-budgeted cult shocker Basket Case.  A fine little offbeat exploitation shocker, the flick makes a late-in-the-game play for true weirdness with a strange dream sequence that sees Duane running naked through the streets of New York as a prelude to the film’s most shocking development.  To us, however, Basket Case shakes out as nothing more (or less) than a fine example of a unique, campy monster flick with only marginally weird elements.  That’s just how selective we are with our weirdness.

COMMENTS:  One of the secrets to Basket Case‘s success is that it positively oozes indecency and vice, but isn’t mean-spirited or sadistic.  Director Frank Henenlotter nails the aesthetic of sleaze, and for the most part keeps on the right side of the fine line between trash and crass, only crossing over briefly once or twice so that we know where the border is.  You emerge from a screening titillated and pleasantly shocked, but not feeling like you have to take a bath or go to confession.  The setting—the 42nd street red light district as it existed in Times Square in the early 1980s—creates an immediate atmosphere of moral and social decay.  Since renovated and Disneyfied, back then the neon-lit 42nd street was an avenue where you could walk past peep shows and marquees advertising “3 Kung Fu hits!” while being propositioned for weed, heroin and/or whores by strangers.  The scenes Henenlotter shot Continue reading CAPSULE: BASKET CASE (1982)

LIST CANDIDATE: XTRO (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Harry Bromley Davenport

FEATURING: Bernice Stegers, Phillip Sayer, Danny Brainin, Maryam d’Abo

PLOT: A husband and father disappears one day while playing frisbee with his young son; three years later, he returns to the family as an amnesiac who eats snake eggs for sustenance.

Still from Xtro (1983)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEXtro is vying for the spot on the List reserved for an incoherent low-budget sci-fi/horror combo movie.  Unfortunately, that spot has already been filled by Phantasm, a more involving and iconic film; is there room for two films in the genre?  Xtro is definitely a b-flick of interest, but it’s inconsistent, and there seem to be better candidates for the List running around out there.

COMMENTSXtro makes the most of some fascinating and inventive exploitation moments that stick out all the more because they’re set against a poorly developed background story.  It features so-so acting (particularly from the not so precocious child co-star), dull patches of domestic drama, and an annoying synthesizer score by the director, who is no John Carpenter.  But people tend to forget all that, remembering instead the graphic scene where a woman gives birth to a full-grown man, who helpfully chews off his own umbilical cord after emerging!  It takes some work to upstage the nude scenes by a debuting future Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, which by themselves would have insured the film a semi-legendary status, but Xtro manages to come up with multiple gross-out tableaux that push d’Abo’s ta-tas into the background.  Most notable is a sequence where a dwarf clown kills the French nanny by conking her on the head with a rubber hammer, then uses her body to incubate alien eggs. Bizarre, perverse sexual imagery abounds: a woman is impregnated (through the mouth) by a phalluslike appendage that emerges from an alien’s body through a zipper built directly into its skin. At other times characters exchange what one presumes is alien DNA by sucking on each other’s sides or shoulders, which appears to produce sexual ecstasy.  A murderous giant plastic solider and a prowling panther who appears from nowhere add to the mad quality. The movie is set in comfortably cliched horror movie territory, so you always feel like you know where it’s heading, and yet the plot often makes little sense.  Most significantly, there’s no explanation for the alien’s motives for returning to Earth.  Presumably, Sam only wanted to retrieve his son, but why kill random folks and hire a clown to train the tyke in phantasmagorical techniques to murder the neighbors?  Why not just zap the lad up to the mothership, the way Dad was abducted in the first place? Arthouse patrons will want to stay far away, but fans of crazed, excessive b-movies may want to snatch this one up; the weird money scenes make the film linger in the memory longer than it really deserves.

Xtro was mentioned in the same breath as films placed on the British “video nasty” list, but it was never actually banned.  Although it’s shocking and definitely earns an “R” rating, it’s hardly among the most sadistic and offensive movies ever made.  The original ad campaigns played off the success of Spielberg’s then recent E.T. with the tag line, “Some extraterrestrials aren’t friendly.”  The DVD contains the original ending (lopped off by New Line Cinema for the American release), which is much different in tone and even weirder than the climax with which most viewers are familiar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird but not wonderful low-budget horror that is a succession of odd moments rather than a conventional narrative.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

CAPSULE: THE TOXIC AVENGER (1984)

DIRECTED BY: Lloyd Kaufman & Michael Herz

FEATURING: Mitchell Cohen

PLOT:  A nerdy teen janitor is tormented by his serial killer peers until he accidentally

Promotional card for The Toxic Avenger (1984) under it's working title, Health Club

falls into a vat of toxic waste and emerges as a mop-wielding, avenging mutant superhero.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When a movie about a mutant janitor who fights transvestite thugs and, to add insult to injury, presses his wet mop into their heads after he disembowels them can’t find a place on a list of weird movies, you know you’re searching for a very refined brand of weirdness indeed.

COMMENTSThe Toxic Avenger has just enough craziness going on to make it watchable, but it’s not nearly the classic its cult reputation might suggest. Although an absurd thread runs throughout to keep it sporadically interesting, its sniper-like focus on chesty chicks and cheesy kills keeps it squarely locked in on its target audience of males under 25. Others will find the goofy spoofery seldom funny and often offensive (for example, the hit and run killing of young boys and racial minorities for sport). There are few laugh-out-loud moments for grown-ups, although a scene in the middle of a crime-fighting montage where superhero Toxie helps a housewife with a stubborn jar lid does elicit a chuckle. The centerpiece hostage scene at a restaurant tells you all you need to know: a gang of robbers wearing performance art greasepaint burst in, shoot a blind girl’s seeing-eye dog, and prepare to sodomize her when Toxie arrives. Our hero fights a battle against a gangster with ninja skills who grabs a samurai sword off the wall (of a Mexican restaurant?), and in the end the mutant dweeb gruesomely and painfully dispatches them with a milkshake machine and a deep fryer. It’s a fantasy of nerd revenge against the upper crust of high school society, as Toxie dismembers obnoxious jocks (a justified act, since like all popular people, his tormentors are inhuman monsters who like to mow down kids in their cars and masturbate to the gory Polaroids afterward). The movie invites us to identify with and cheer for Toxie as, Michael Meyers-like, he stalks and kills half-naked girls (who are, of course, evil, and deserve to be dispatched for the good of Tromaville). Ultimately, this Columbine-esque wish fulfillment, where the beleaguered kid not only kills his bullies but becomes a beloved celebrity and gets the girl, creates a subtext that’s far more offensive than any of child killings or the pre-teen white slavery ring Kaufman and Herz try to shock us with.

The Toxic Avenger‘s blend of horror-movie gore, gross-out offensiveness, proudly lowbrow comedy, and absurd touches struck a nerve in the 1980s, when it bypassed the normal movie distribution channels to become one of the first cult videocassette hits. It was so successful that Troma studios has been remaking this same film, under a variety of titles, for the last 25 years.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Like Airplane! for the antisocial set, or a Grimms fairytale gone horribly, horribly wrong, this weird-ass peek into the past proves that some high concepts are indeed eternal.”–Bill Gibron, DVD Talk (21st Anniversary DVD)

14. BLOOD DINER (1987)

“I mean, I don’t know how to describe it. But I just did. It’s just an insane f***in’ movie with insane parts. You’re watching it, it gives these curves that you didn’t see coming, until probably I just told you and showed you in the review. But it’s just I don’t even know how else to review it, you know, the, it’s just insane. It’s an insane f****in’ movie. Uncle Bill, you’re insane for liking it, and I’m insane for liking it too. It’s just insanity incarnate. But it’s a lot of fun.”–youtube fan review of Blood Diner

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Jackie Kong

FEATURING:  Rick Burks, Carl Crew

PLOT:  At the direction of their uncle Anwar, a talking brain in a jar, two restaurateur brothers assemble a vessel composed of body parts harvested from immoral women to receive the spirit of the ancient Egyptian goddess Sheetar.  They are opposed by a pair of mismatched cops and the owner of a rival vegetarian restaurant intent on stealing their secret recipe.  After many bloody murders, they must complete only the last ritual, a “Lumerian feast” where Sheetar will take the life of a virgin, along with the attendees at the banquet.

Still from Blood Diner (1987)

BACKGROUND:

  • Blood Diner was originally intended to be a sequel to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ transcendently bad Blood Feast (1963), but when the collaborators could not agree on a scenario the project was changed to a black comedy tribute in the spirit of Lewis’ movie
  • Blood Diner was originally banned in some Canadian provinces and in Iceland, and was heavily cut for release in other countries.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  As drug-zombies rave and cultists in Egyptian dress attempt to channel the goddess into a stitched-together corpse, a punk band (composed of a singer in a Roman helmet, two backup singers in blue wigs, four sidemen dressed as Hitler and a pantomime horse roaming the stage) plays in the background.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Most movies featuring talking brains in a jar are weird, and Blood Diner is no exception.


Original trailer for Blood Diner

COMMENTS: There was little in female exploitation director Jackie Kong’s brief oeuvre to Continue reading 14. BLOOD DINER (1987)