RETRO REVIEW: Hanging Out With MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED at The Strand

Posted on: May 17th, 2014 By:

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976); Dir. Peter Yates; Starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, Harvey Keitel, Larry Hagman;  May 18 at the Strand Theatre @ 3:00 PM.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

One of the truest joys of watching retro movies is that so many of them could never, ever be made today. We like to think of culture as a steady march of progress, but it’s more like a cycle of tides, with some particular mood cresting before receding, like the way the risqué shocks of the 1920s eventually morphed into the repressed sexuality of the 1940s. Moments come and go all the time, and what made sense for one era and one particular group of people can seem like it was beamed in from another world just a few years down the line. It’s not that they “don’t make them like they used to.” It’s more of a question of how they were ever made that way to begin with.

For example, look at MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED, one of the strangest studio comedies produced during a very strange period of the mid-1970s when the rules about mainstream movies had shaken themselves apart and nobody quite knew how to put them back together. One part workplace comedy, another part slobs-versus-snobs, but also part serious social drama, MOTHER exists in a kind of weird pocket outside of genre. If you haven’t seen it, there’s no easy point of context to prepare you for what to expect.

Just going off the title, it’s easy to imagine MOTHER as a forerunner to the trucker-film craze kicked off by Burt Reynolds a year later in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977), but although the title characters are certainly drivers, their wheels are attached to Los Angeles ambulances instead of highway big rigs, and their antics are more in service of retaining their sanity over making a big score. Mother (Bill Cosby) is an irreverent veteran driver tasked with breaking in the rookie Speed (Harvey Keitel), so named because of his past selling drugs as an undercover cop. Mother and Speed encounter rival companies, tension with other drivers (including Larry Hagman in a pervy supporting role), and a loose collection of setups and punchlines, all the while hoping to make enough dollars to keep themselves and their business afloat. Meanwhile, the unfortunately-nicknamed Jugs (Raquel Welch) moves to escape her job as the dispatch and den mother for the boys and become the first female driver in her staunchly chauvinistic profession.

Welch’s plotline exemplifies the film’s jarring shifts in tone. Viewers are invited to laugh along with the drivers and the wacky ways in which they let off steam—Cosby, in particular, is at the peak of his talent and delivers plenty of laughs—but the film also aspires to blow the lid off of what was, at the time, a pretty scandalous industry. In an effort to maximize profits, drivers would sabotage rivals, bribe police officers, and invent phony fares to milk government kickbacks. Less the lifesavers that their marketing would have you believe, the ambulance business was more like a taxi service with steeper leverage over its customers. If you weren’t worth the driver’s time, then good luck finding another way to the emergency room.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED was the brainchild of animation giant Joseph Barbera (the latter half of the Hanna-Barbera empire) who enlisted Tom Mankiewicz to construct the screenplay. Mankiewicz was a veteran screenwriter who presided over the James Bond franchise during its transition from serious spy fare to pulpier, more audience-friendly material and his particular tastes are all over MOTHER, including pairing slapstick wit and sudden violence. Mankiewicz, in particular, knew how to construct a set piece, as did MOTHER’s director Peter Yates, who helmed the iconic Steve McQueen picture BULLITT (1968) and later the less-successful (but justly infamous) KRULL (1983). MOTHER is likewise stocked with big, high-concept moments that keep things from getting too limp or self-important, which would have been death for a movie that so desperately wants to be a good time.

Ultimately, the real appeal of the film is Cosby, Keitel, Welch, and the rest of the ragtag assembly of drivers. MOTHER, JUGS, AND SPEED is a “hangout movie,” one in which most of the fun comes from revisiting these characters like a group of old friends. That’s another appeal of retro cinema. For better or for worse, even as the world changes around us, our old friends remain exactly the same.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED plays @3:00 on May 18 at The Strand. Get tickets HERE.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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Going Back to the Bizarre Birthing of Burton: Splatter Cinema Raises Blythe Spirits with BEETLEJUICE at the Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Aug 12th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema Presents BEETLEJUICE (1988); Dir. Tim Burton; Starring Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O’Hara; Tuesday, August 19 @ 9:30 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

This month, Splatter Cinema goes a little off the beaten path at the Plaza Theatre. This month’s showing is not the typical gore-soaked exploitation fare you’re likely to see them serve up. But the way that BEETLEJUICE enthusiastically revels in horror and delights in depicting twisted flesh makes it a good choice for those of the Splatter Cinema mindset.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Tim Burton wasn’t a “thing.” That there wasn’t an identifiable “Tim Burton” style. And that there was a time when BEETLEJUICE was a sudden and surprising leap into the dark comic realm that would eventually come to define that style.

Burton had exploded onto the film world with his previous film, 1985’s PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. While that movie contains themes that he would revisit many times in the future (particularly “childlike protagonist exists in a fanciful universe seemingly of his/her own creation until a shock tosses them into the outside world”), it also contains the off-kilter and baroque visual sensibility that is a hallmark of his films to this day. But aside from the “Large Marge” and “clown hospital” scenes, there’s little of the horror-steeped atmosphere that saturates so much of his work.

BEETLEJUICE is where (aside from his earlier short films, which were largely unseen by the public at that point) Burton first seamlessly blended equal parts horror and quirky comedy into the recognizable whole that would come to identify the director.

The film focuses on a young couple, Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis), who find themselves unexpectedly deceased and forced to haunt their New England home. When the Deetzes (Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones and Winona Rider) move in, the Maitlands are forced to circumvent the bureaucracy of the afterlife and engage “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton, pronounced and also known as “Beetlejuice”) to force the new residents out. As to be expected, wacky antics ensue.

In collaboration with production designer Bo Welch, Burton used the foundation of the screenplay to paint his comic sensibilities in a luridly-colored, high-contrast gothic horror sheen. His scenes in the afterlife and during Beetlejuice’s reign of terror in the Maitlands’/Deetzes’ home look like Charles Addams’ cartoons filmed in the style of SUSPIRIA. Grotestqueries bathed in candy-colored lighting schemes. Welch and Burton would develop this aesthetic even further in collaboration on 1990’s EDWARD SCISSORHANDS and 1992’s BATMAN RETURNS, firmly establishing this as the “Tim Burton” trademark style.

It would have been all too easy for the screenplay to serve simply as a hook from which Burton could hang a number of ghoulish setpieces. It’s to the credit of writers Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson and Warren Skaaren that the film is as engaging as it is. By keeping the “ghosts” of the movie benign and well-meaning—and the new residents not malevolent but incredibly selfish and irritating—Beetlejuice’s diabolical motives put both families in a sympathetic light.

And the cast’s performances can’t be overlooked in helping create the rounded characters of the movie. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis are both amiable and sweetly romantic as the ghostly Maitlands, while Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones are their polar opposites: antagonistic and back-bitingly snarky. Where Baldwin and Davis are convincingly laid-back and plain, the performances of O’Hara and Jones are deftly high-strung and pretentious. Winona Ryder as young Goth daughter Lydia Deetz bridges both worlds—not only figuratively in the temperament of the clashing couples, but literally within the story as she is the only person able to see and converse with the Maitlands—and delivers a performance in turns dryly sardonic, cooly detatched and warmly engaging.

Winona Ryder in BEETLEJUICE.

But the movie truly belongs to Michael Keaton. As Betelgeuse/Beetlejuice, his performance clashes perfectly with everyone else’s. No matter how engaging or off-putting the Maitlands and Deetzes may be, the performances of Baldwin, Davis, Jones, O’Hara and Ryder are tightly restrained and controlled. Keaton, on the other hand, is entirely explosive and cartoonishly over-the-top; issuing forth a rapid-fire patter of one-liners, non-sequiturs, mumbled asides and mad proclamations delivered at the top of his voice. He’s physically manic as well, leaping about and flailing around wildly, as if Burton was randomly jolting Keaton with a live electric wire just off-screen. He turns Beetlejuice from a simple, evil prankster into something larger than life. If, you know, he were alive rather than a moldering corpse.

And if the movie belongs to anyone else, it’s Burton. This is where the Tim Burton we now know was born: the bright colors washing over stark black-and-white-patterned spookiness of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, the stylized locations and set design of EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, the dark humor of FRANKENWEENIE. They all spring from here. But few mesh these elements together with as much effortless skill as BEETLEJUICE.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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A Marx Brothers Political Uprising: DUCK SOUP Serves Up a Perfect Bowl of Comedy and International Relations at the Movie Tavern!

Posted on: Aug 6th, 2013 By:

DUCK SOUP (1933); Dir. Leo McCarey; Starring the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo) and Margaret Dumont; Tuesday, Aug. 6 and Thursday, Aug. 9 @ 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, Aug. 8 @ 11:30 a.m.; Movie Tavern; Tickets here; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Movie Tavern’s Retro Cinema series is devoting the entire month of August to classic comedies! And it’s hard to think of a more classic comedy than the Marx Brothers masterpiece DUCK SOUP!

Growing up, I had two obsessions: horror movies and Groucho Marx. In the small town of Lanett, Alabama, we were able to get a handful of Atlanta UHF stations (kids, ask your folks what UHF stations were). WTCG 17—later to become WTBS—had the horror movie front covered. And WHAE 46 had Groucho, with reruns of YOU BET YOUR LIFE that I’d watch every night before bed. That’s where I first discovered the waggling eyebrows, sardonic humor and unmatched wordplay of the mustachioed Marx. I thought he was the funniest human being to ever walk the face of this puny planet. And from there, I worked backwards. When I couldn’t see a Marx Brothers movie, I’d pore over the Richard J. Anobile-edited stills-and-dialogue collection WHY A DUCK? and learn the quips by heart.

All of this is prelude to why I’m tempted to just say “DUCK SOUP is perfect,” drop the mic and walk off stage. What else need be said? It’s perfect, it’s playing, go see it.

But that wouldn’t be a review, now would it? It’s barely an opinion. It’s just this side of being a sentence.

Now, there will be those who will claim that other Marx Brothers movies, particularly their films made at MGM, are better. There will be those who’ll sing the praises of A NIGHT AT THE OPERA or trot out A DAY AT THE RACES. These people are, how do you say, wrong. Sure, those may be more accomplished films. They did pull off the feat of placing the Brothers’ anarchic humor in a traditional Hollywood movie framework. But like Joe Bob Briggs would say, there’s too much plot getting in the way of the story. Too much romantic frou-frou between Allan Jones and whatever leading lady had to be subjected to his bland appeal. And these movies do the unspeakable: they make the Brothers nice. The Marxes are interested in helping people by, say, keeping two love-struck opera singers together or by saving a sanitarium from being foreclosed upon.

DUCK SOUP—like the Brothers’ other, earlier Paramount pictures—has no interest in making the Brothers likeable. All the Brothers want to do is cause disorder and discord. Every Marx Brothers character in the film is either ineffectual or irresponsible, or both. None of them actually want to do what their characters are assigned to do. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, the newly-appointed head of the bankrupt nation of Freedonia. He, of course, has no interest in governing. All he has an interest in is the compound interest in the bank accounts of Mrs. Gloria Teasdale (Margaret Dumont, at her Margaret Dumont-iest), whom he is determined to marry. He’s being spied upon by Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx) from the neighboring country of Sylvania. They, of course, have no interest in spying on Firefly. They don’t really have much interest in doing anything except pestering the local lemonade vendor (Edgar Kennedy) or going to baseball games on their employer’s dime. Then there’s the forever-to-be-underrated Zeppo Marx, who—as Firefly’s secretary Bob Roland—is mostly there to provide the “straight man” role for Groucho to lob jokes at. He’s the only person there who seemingly wants to do the job he’s assigned (though Firefly sees him as being incompetent), but that’s Zeppo for you. Say what you will, though, the Marxes never had a better straight man than Zeppo.

There’s so much to love in this movie. There’s the break-in scene, where Chico and Harpo don greasepaint and pajamas and are virtually indistinguishable from Groucho. (There’s no need in referring to them by character name—they’re playing the Marx Brothers here, as they always do.) There’s the Groucho/Harpo mirror scene. The war, in which every character’s costume changes between edits. The “We’re Going to War!” musical number. Groucho’s constant failure to leave the capitol building by motorcycle. The glorious back-and-forth that occurs whenever Groucho and Chico share a scene. The reality-shattering existence of Harpo Marx, who is presented as an almost supernatural agent of chaos (how else does a live, barking dog emerge from the doghouse tattooed on his chest?). I could go on and on all night. Get to know me for longer than a week, and I probably will.

Like most great pieces of art, it wasn’t well-received in its time. During the Depression, filmgoers were put off by the mean-spirited and anti-authoritarian tone of the movie. And critics felt the story too disjointed and harsh, too sour and unpleasant. Pure, uncut Marxism was too much for many to deal with in those dark days. Even Groucho thought little of the movie (but he was, you have to remember, a grouch). But in ensuing years, it’s been reappraised, and for good reason. Its ridicule of war and the Powers That Be helped it gain a foothold in the minds of rebellious youth in the decades since, and appealed to the steadily growing cynicism of the American psyche. It’s now considered a masterpiece and one of the most influential film comedies of all time.

When Woody Allen’s character Mickey, in his 1986 film HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, searches for meaning after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, he walks into a chance screening of DUCK SOUP during the “We’re Going to War” sequence. He recounts:

“I just needed a moment to gather my thoughts and be logical and put the world back into rational perspective. And I went upstairs to the balcony, and I sat down, and the movie was a film that I’d seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it. I’m watching these people up on the screen and I started getting hooked on the film. I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself? I mean, isn’t it so stupid? Look at all the people up there on the screen. They’re real funny, and what if the worst is true? What if there is no God and you only go around once and that’s it? Well, ya know, don’t you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell? It’s not all a drag. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.’ And after, who knows? I mean maybe there is something. Nobody really knows. I know ‘maybe’ is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.”

DUCK SOUP, ladies and gentlemen. It’s one of those things that make life worth living.

Because it’s perfect.

*Drops mic, walks off stage.*

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Who You Gonna Call? GHOSTBUSTERS! Landmark Midtown Art Cinema Gets Some Frightfully Funny Midnight Madness Fri. Aug 2 and Sat. Aug 3

Posted on: Jul 31st, 2013 By:

GHOSTBUSTERS (1984); Dir. Ivan Reitman; Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis and Annie Potts; August 2 & 3 @ Midnight; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets here; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Midnight Madness has descended upon the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema! This time, they’re bringing you one of the greatest comedies of the 1980s, the spook-stravaganza, GHOSTBUSTERS!

Sometimes you need a film that challenges your belief system. Sometimes you need a film that will rouse you to action. Sometimes you need a film that makes you ask tough questions about the world we live in.

And sometimes you just need a film that’s only out to entertain you in the biggest possible way. Few films accomplish this like GHOSTBUSTERS.

Three New York City parapsychologists—Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stanz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis)—after being kicked out of their tony Columbia University gigs, decide to monetize their research by setting up a “ghost extermination” service out of an old firehouse. Business is slow, but a successful capture at the Sedgewick Hotel leads to huge demand for their services and rock-star status in the city. Meanwhile, they are hired by Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), whose apartment is being haunted by a entity known as Zuul. Her neighbor, Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), becomes possessed by Zuul’s companion demigod, Vinz Clortho. That would be bad enough, but the arrival of these two beings on this plane, along with the rise in supernatural phenomena, signals the coming destruction of this planet at the hands of Sumerian deity Gozer the Gozerian. Assisted by new hire Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), the team must try to find a way to stop the apocalyptic plans of Gozer and round up the hordes of suddenly-freed spirits plaguing NYC.

Yeah, I know. It reads as incredibly complicated and far-fetched, and peppered with names that sound ripped from some late-night Dungeons & Dragons campaign. But frankly, none of this matters because all this mythological-sounding hoosafudge is just there to be in service to the kind of inspired, wacky comedy that was the stock-in-trade of Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray at the time. Sure, it’s a movie about ghosts, but there’s no sentimentality in their treatment of them (unlike, say, Peter Jackson’s similarly-themed THE FRIGHTENERS) and not even any real fright involved in their treatment. The ghosts on parade are rarely even remotely spooky: they’re just neon-green-colored pranksters for the most part. And even the agent of the ultimate destruction of humankind gets played for laughs at the very end. It’s the direct spawn of Bob Hope’s 1942 comedy THE GHOST BREAKERS and the Bowery Boys’ 1946 farce SPOOK BUSTERS.

GHOSTBUSTERS sports one of the great comic screenplays. Tightly constructed, it never spins wildly out of control the way that Aykroyd’s THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980) does, but his flights of fancy elevate the reality-based comedy that his co-writer Harold Ramis frequently deals in. Ramis grounds Aykroyd, while Aykroyd provides Ramis with an excuse to play in a more fantastic milieu. And the entire process is aided by Murray’s keen sense of improvisational skills in performance. Tonally speaking, the movie is probably closest to director Ivan Reitman’s previous collaboration with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, STRIPES (1981). Like that film, GHOSTBUSTERS is primarily centered on the semi-improvised performance of Murray and the comic chemistry of the team around him.

Bill Murray examines a possessed Sigourney Weaver in GHOSTBUSTERS (Columbia Pictures, 1984).

The downside to this approach is that brilliant comic actors like Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd get overshadowed by Murray’s dominating presence (Ramis, as the deadpan Egon, makes a more lasting impression than Aykroyd), but they work solidly as a team in support of—and providing the necessary “straight man” grounding for—Murray’s performance. And without their sense of camaraderie, the whole film would likely fall apart. Standing out and holding their own against Murray, though, are Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver. Moranis deftly works his nebbish character (honed in his days at SCTV and given a more sympathetic treatment in 1986’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) against type as Louis becomes possessed by Vinz Clortho, and makes it seem just through the physicality of his acting as if his tiny frame is an ill-fitting suit for some huge and monstrous beast. Sigourney Weaver likewise plays dual roles strongly—both as the independent musician who is simultaneously repelled and attracted by Peter Venkman’s overtures, and as possessed by the…erm…extremely sexually agressive Zuul.

Visually, the movie is BIG. There are great practical, animation and optical effects on display throughout. The sets are amazing, ranging from the humble firehouse location to the climactic skyscraper rooftop extravaganza designed for Gozer’s arrival. Miniature work and puppetry are handled expertly. The cinematography by László Kovács (veteran of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND [1977] and THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES [1964]) is gorgeous.

A haunted supersized Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man terrorizes Manhattan in GHOSTBUSTERS (Columbia Pictures, 1984).

And then, we have to mention the soundtrack. Not only is the score by Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN [1960], TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD [1962]) among his best, Ray Parker, Jr.’s title song has proven to be as endlessly quotable as the movie itself. Even if you’ve never seen the movie (and I’m speaking to all 12 of you who haven’t), you likely recognize “Who you gonna call?” and “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” instantly.

What I’m trying to say, people, is that this is one of those nearly perfect comedies. The whole thing works like, well, gangbusters. It’s constantly fun, consistently hilarious and incredibly engaging. There’s not a down moment in the movie, not a minute where it lags. If it’s not a Grand Statement by one of cinema’s great auteurs, it’s a masterfully-crafted piece of pop entertainment.

And sometimes, that’s all that’s called for.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Kool Kats of the Week: DILBERT Does Demonic: Raising Corporate Hell with the Pretty Faces of Shane Morton and Chris Brown

Posted on: May 22nd, 2013 By:

Chris Brown and Shane Morton at The Lab. Photo courtesy of Adult Swim.

When Shane Morton, aka Atlanta’s Renaissance man of horror, and Chris Brown, mad mastermind of Macabre Puppets and the bloody musical SCARLET’S WEB (Dad’s Garage), first got involved with Adult Swim‘s  YOUR PRETTY FACE IS GOING TO HELL, they immediately realized this grotesque and groovy gig was their dream, or should we say nightmare, job. The initial assignment was special effects makeup, but the show didn’t have an art director yet. It’s a story Shane has already told colorfully in several articles, but he asked them for a couple of days to film a make-up test to prove the pair could transform humans into demons in 45 minutes, then he got to work on sketches and models. Being old-school Ray Harryhausen fans, Shane and Chris wanted to do as much as possible with miniatures, but budgets and technological advances dictated a balance between digital effects for lava flows and heads spinning like Linda Blair and the old ways for blood spurts and HR Geiger-esque urinals. Still, the pair didn’t have to do much to convince everyone to let them take over much of what perhaps a little ironically is called the “practical” effects for the series.

“Maybe we were thinking too much about that,” Shane says, speaking about his passion for traditional effects from the monster FX Lab he’s built south of the city at the Atlanta Zombie Apocalypse. The undead Halloween attraction is one of many horror events he has nurtured locally and is a big force behind the transformation of Atlanta into Halloween-town, USA. “We did sculpt and cast all the horns themselves,” he continues. “We didn’t want to be just painting people red and sticking horns on them, and we didn’t want anything store-bought.”

Ever since the Middle Ages, comedies about deals with the Devil have proven a surefire hit. Think about such Retro cult classic movies as BEDAZZLED (The 1967 version, of course, starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) and POOR DEVIL (TV, 1971), starring Sammy Davis Jr.  and Christopher Lee). YOUR PRETTY FACE IS GOING TO HELL mixes in-your-face crassness and generous gore with office comedy, reimagining Hades as a contemporary cubicle-ridden setting. Demon Gary (played by Henry Zebrowski) is dedicated but far too much of a screw-up to earn a promotion. Yet it’s hard not to empathize with the well-meaning “associate” because we all like to complain about our bosses, but his, well, has to be worst because it’s Satan. The original live-action series is created and directed by Dave Willis (AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE, SQUIDBILLIES) and Casper Kelly (SQUIDBILLIES, HARVEY BIRDMAN: ATTORNEY AT LAW; STROKER & HOOP). The final installment of the six-episode run airs this Thursday May 23, 2013, at midnight.

Henry Zebrowski stars as Gary the demon in YOUR PRETTY FACE IS GOING TO HELL. Photo courtesy of Adult Swim.

At the Silver Scream Spookshow, Shane’s homage to Retro spook shows of old, he regularly performs magic tricks as Horror Host with the Most Professor Morte. Whether transforming humans into monsters with make-up, conjuring up crazy sets or engineering a splattery gross-out nosebleed, Shane views his effects work equally as magic. A consummate showman, he “performs” for the crew and ultimately the TV audience. “When there is special effects stuff going on, everybody wants to be around to watch it,” Shane says. “You’re getting to see the trick in the magic trick. You’re getting to peek behind the curtain.”

Part of the magic on YOUR PRETTY FACE was having to be prepared for the unexpected every day on the set. The script served only as a loose guide because a great deal of improvisation happened, too, Shane says. With that in mind, he kept a “library of prosthetics” on set. At the AZA Lab prior to shooting, he crafted multiple “wounds and hanging eyeballs and sets of teeth, because you never know what these people are going to ask for.”

Shane and Chris started each day by getting the cast into make-up. As simple as it may seem to paint someone red and stick on horns, Shane notes that because the body is organic–yeah, people sweat and rub against things–there’s a nonstop need for  reapplication. “We were constantly touching up their noses, painting in their ears, touching their beards up, molesting them all day long,” Shane says. “You have to get intimate.”

That process became trickier when on location, such as for the third episode, Take Life By the Horns,” in which Gary found himself fallen into a ravine. That shoot involved dodging poison ivy and copperhead snakes and having to rappel camera equipment down the side of a mountain, Chris recalls.

After make-up, the pair would launch into preparing the special effects and any additional props needed for the day. Sometimes that could be blood or pus or a potion of extreme projectile vomit, also needed for the ravine shoot. “We had a limited amount of time, so I literally used a sump pump, like you use to bail water out of your basement,” Chris says. “I put together a big plunger and a giant syringe, and then opened the nozzle to spew out a rainbow collection, which included stew, cream of mushroom soup, I made some gelatin and crunched up into chunks. The smell quickly turned rancid so it even smelled like vomit.” In addition, Gary broke his leg from the fall down the cliff, and Chris had to create nauseating pus to spew from the wound. Yes, it did involve black blood, red blood and tapioca pudding!

Satan (Matt Servitto) gets a touch-up from Shane Morton. Photo courtesy of Adult Swim.

Shane and Chris are used to working wonders on a tight budget and schedule whether it’s for local theater or DEAR GOD! NO!, an over-the-top neo-exploitation movie involving bikers, Bigfoot and a Nazi mad scientist which scored awards at grindhouse festivals across the nation. While the budget was not huge for YOUR PRETTY FACE, it was much larger than the typical indie which allowed such treats as Chris was crafting Satan’s legs out of actual yak fur rather than a used gorilla suit. “The original talk was that Satan would be fat, over-the-hill, and extra lecherous like the demon in LEGEND (1985) as if time has caught up with him,” Shane says. “We were really gung ho for that, but we loved the look he ended up with.”

A secret ingredient underneath Satan’s furry legs was spandex tights, that could easily be changed out if Matt Servitto, the actor who plays Satan, felt sweaty. A lycra lining gave four-way stretch which, as Shane notes, even allowed Matt to do David Lee Roth kicks in a photo shoot. As for costume maintenance, well, “it was like combing out a big dog,” Chris says.

Perhaps Shane’s favorite set pieces are the aforementioned H.R. Geiger-esque urinals, the bowls of which needed to accommodate the heads of demons who displeased Satan. Yeah, he pees on them, including sometimes poor hapless Gary. Originally they were supposed to be clean, standard urinals, but then Shane had the crazy idea to make them scary: “Everything in hell is monsters, so let’s make the urinals monsters, too!”

Shane Morton at work on Claude (Craig Rowin), Gary's over-dedicated intern in YOUR PRETTY FACE IS GOING TO HELL. Photo courtesy of Adult Swim.

Shane went home and crafted a miniature model, brought it in, and got the greenlight to create a urinal that looks like an extra-large facehugger. He toyed with various color ideas but finally decided that the bathrooms otherwise would be spotless in Hell.

The demonic duo were impressed that the show really did follow through with Satan actually peeing on the demons’ heads. Of course, even with a program that prides itself on shock value, some things inevitably didn’t make the final cut. For example, Satan won’t poop on Gary’s face, even though the scene was filmed. “It will end up on DVD maybe,” Shane says hopefully. “Somebody getting pooped on or an arm hacked off is a good day at work! It keeps the energy up.”

Satan’s office is packed with props created by Shane and Chris, though it is not perhaps quite the devilish “greatest hits” collection that they originally envisioned. Instead of the trophies and plaques that have become de rigeur in executive offices, Shane wanted to include on the shelf Eve’s apple, Christ’s crown of thorns and Hitler’s head in a jar. And clearance couldn’t be gotten for Wall of Shame photos of Satan flashing a big grin with dubious celebrities such as David Hasselhoff and the Octomom. Still, those who look carefully will see many subtle Shane and Chris touches such as faces of tortured souls on the steel balls that click back and forth on the Devil’s desk. “Everything is pumped up a little bit because after all we are in hell,” Shane says. “Even the elevator switch looks like something scary.”

In other words, Shane and Chris had one of a helluva good time. At an apartment location, some little old ladies told the crew “they were going to pray for us because we were doing the devil’s work,” Shane says. “We joked every day and maybe it did get a bit old but ‘it’s really hell getting all this done today!’”

Shane holds up his own head, a prop he crafted for DEAR GOD! NO! Photo courtesy of Adult Swim.

As the season draws to a close, the pair are now just waiting to hear the final ratings and whether the show gets greenlit for a second season. If yes, they’re hoping for a bigger budget and the chance to play around more with more practical special effects over CGI–“to raise the bar,” as Chris says. “If we end up getting multiple seasons, it’s only going to get more extreme,” he adds. And maybe there’ll even be a cameo for that giant spider with the humungous nut-sack hanging on his back that turned out to be expensive to cast.

In the meantime, Chris will be working on the script for a $3-4 million movie version of SCARLET’S WEB. And Shane recently wrapped the indie feature, TALES FROM MORNINGVIEW CEMETERY. In it, he appears as Professior Morte, fulfilling the Cryptkeeper role, introducing the segments and holding the show together. He’s also involved in preproduction with director Jimmy Bickert for FRANKENSTEIN CREATED BIKERS, the much-anticipated sequel to DEAR GOD! NO! It will be filmed in 35mm widescreen hopefully by the end of 2013, he revealed, and include a lot more special effects and monsters. Look for Shane, or rather his Professor Morte alter-ego, at the 11th Annual Rock n Roll Monster Bash at the Starlight Six Drive-In on Sunday June 2. The movies this year are THE DEVIL’S RAIN (1975) and EVIL DEAD 2 (1987), not to mention six bands, scary shopping and Monstrosity Championship Wrestling! [ED. Note: Watch for Retro Reviews of both movies next week]

Editor’s Note: Shane and Chris are just a few of the talented local folk streaming by in the end credits of YOUR PRETTY FACE. More ATLRetro friends include producer Linda Burns (V/H/S, THE SIGNAL), set decorator/property master Laurie Garner, who’s played bass in so many Atlanta bands (She-Monster and Vietnam to name a few), and the indomitable Eddie Ray (SATANIC PANIC BAND OUT OF HELL and a previous Kool Kat to boot!).

ALSO: Learn some of the make-up secrets Shane Morton used in YOUR PRETTY FACE IS GOING TO HELL at his Monster Make-up Class on Sunday May 26 in his Lab at AZA. For more details, visit the Facebook Event Page here.

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30 Days of The Plaza, Day 6: BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY Takes the Plaza to Hell and Back, Dude! With Robots!

Posted on: May 17th, 2012 By:

By Tom Drake
Contributing Writer

BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY (1991); Dir: Peter Hewitt; Starring Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves, William Sadler. Fri. May 18 Midnight and Sun. May 20 3 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

SHORT: Bill: Ted, it’s the Grim Reaper, dude!
Ted: Oh.  How’s it hanging Death?

MEDIUM: In this sequel to BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE (1989), two teenagers who have been told that their music (when they get around to learning how to play) will inspire a Golden Age of enlightenment are foiled by evil time travelers who replace them with Evil Robot Duplicates.  What follows is a Heavy Metal DANTE’S INFERNO as the dynamic duo of awesomeness travel to the afterlife and beyond.

MAXIMUM VERBOSITY: We see elements about the transcendental nature of the music of Bill S Preston Esquire (Alex Winter) and Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves) that is meant to transform society.  Let us remember the prophetic words that grace us upon learning of their enlightenment:

“Hi, welcome to the future. San Dimas, California, 2688. And I’m telling you it’s great here. The air is clean, the water’s clean, even the dirt, it’s clean. Bowling averages are way up, mini-golf scores are way down. And we have more excellent water slides than any other planet we communicate with. I’m telling you this place is great! But it almost wasn’t. You see, 700 years ago, the two great ones, ran into a few problems. So now I have to travel back in time to help them out. If I should fail to keep these two on the correct path, the basis of our society will be in danger. Don’t worry, it’ll all make sense. I’m a professional.”

Let us examine this statement.  First, the 27th century is clearly an excellent place to be.  Buck Rogers would be 200 years old, thus taking care of the last of the bad guys threatening Earth.  STAR TREK has also taken place, except for the future involved in the Temporal Cold War, but now we know why things are so peaceful.  It’s because Bill and Ted, along with a host of other heroes I’m sure, helped ensure Earth’s rightful dominance in the heavens, imposing our way of life on all other beings.  Oh, wait…that’s another movie.

I digress.

Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves in BILL & TED'S BOGUS JOURNEY. Copyright 20th Century Fox.

Rufus, the man who is the spiritual guide to our heroes in the first movie and who is indisposed by the Anti-Rufus in the second, tells you that it is great there.  By all accounts in both the first and second movies, we can in fact see that things are excellent.  The future’s so bright, you have to wear shades.  You can tell this because nearly everyone in the future does wear shades.

The air is clean.  The water is clean.  Even the Dirt is clean. This is a good thing.  No doubt cleansed by a combination of the improved human behavior but also the special vibratory powers of the music of the sphere’s created by these two talented musicians.

If one is able to achieve zen and inner peace, it only makes sense that bowling averages go up as well as minigolf might improve.  I was just getting in an argument the other day with someone about slippery slopes and assuring them that the water slides in the future were fantastic.  This ensures a vibrant economic future in the galactic economy. Later in the movie, we also learn that their music allows communication with animals.  This makes sense, since animals love great music.  Also, they inherently recognize how cool Bill and Ted are.

Bill, Ted and Robots take the Bogus Journey. Copyright 20th Centrury Fox 1991.

Now, I alas must admit, that if this movie were the second of a trilogy, it would be much better.  We see things in the arc of progress that make sense, such as how they learn to play, but we do not get to see them truly master the forces of the cosmos.  Instead, we are merely taunted with hints as to their greatness.  As a standalone sequel, we must then judge the movie on its individual merit rather than part of a great whole.

The humor is most excellent, but the semi formulaic nature of trying to capture the same movie in a bottle twice is bogus.  This is saved by the fact that Bill and Ted are the most excellent of dudes.  It is further enhanced by the fact that Death turns out to be a way cool fellow.  This trio of miscreants moves around the afterlife and causes some serious strife in most fantastic way.

Oh, though our heroes do toss the term “fag” around quite a bit.  They are very much a product of their time, but one can imagine that with further enlightenment through their music they learned not to use this so often.  For at their core, Bill and Ted are indeed dynamic heroes, capable of changing to their environment, the master of many worlds, flying back on a winged Wyld Stallion of Most Fiery Awesomeness.

The Martian is really just stupid.  Try to pretend it’s not there.  Even if it is kind of vital to the Dues-Ex-Robotica in the end.

This is also, perhaps, the role to which Keanu Reeves was born to play.  Now, I personally like him in a lot of things he’s been in, including THE MATRIX, DARK CITY, SPEED and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.  But to many people, he is just an adult Ted in a sci fi movie, unable to lose his accent.  Well, his acting might be good sometimes, but tis true that Keanu is basically Keanu….but no role he plays is more Keanu than Ted.  Where does Ted and and Keanu begin, or where does Keanu begin and Ted end?

The world may never know.

Watch this movie.

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