Kool Kat of the Week: Brian Lonano Explores the Ins and Outs of Goblin Lovin’ With His Latest Short Film GWILLIAM!

Posted on: Jun 16th, 2015 By:

by Aleck BennettGwilliam_Poster_11x17_v03
Contributing Writer

Atlanta filmmaker Brian Lonano has been garnering raves on the festival circuit for humorous horror short CROW HAND!!!, which makes all of us at ATLRetro laugh like crazed lunatics every time we see it. Now he  is on the cusp of bringing us another heaping helping of the hilariously bizarre with GWILLIAM, a tender tale about the love between a man (William Tokarsky of TOO MANY COOKS and YOUR PRETTY FACE IS GOING TO HELL) and a goblin (an animatronic puppet). But he needs your help! That’s why he’s running an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign, promising an insanely inventive and perfectly perverse variety of rewards for donors.

The short film has long been the weird nephew in the motion picture family. Since theatrical exhibitions largely abandoned the “selected short subjects” of days gone by (aside from, say, Pixar’s commitment to the form) in favor of more movie trailers and before-the-show advertisements, it’s been a constant struggle to get short films in front of large audiences. Sure, film festivals routinely devote chunks of programming to shorts, but the audience is always limited to the people in attendance. In recent years, however, that has changed. Say what you will about the Internet’s impact on the film industry, one thing is indisputable: it’s provided makers of short films with a platform that allows more people to see their work. That, in turn, has had an impact on television programming. Animated TV series have used the “two cartoons in one half-hour” format for a long while now, but some networks—most notably Cartoon Network and its [adult swim] programming block—have embraced the 11-minute episode as a standalone entity. And [adult swim] has taken that short film format into live action, with series like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim’s multiple offerings (such as TIM AND ERIC AWESOME SHOW, GREAT JOB! and CHECK IT OUT! WITH DR. STEVE BRULE), YOUR PRETTY FACE IS GOING TO HELL and that twilight zone of weirdness at 4:00 a.m. where things like TOO MANY COOKS show up.

Brian Lonano - SXSW

Brian Lonano – SXSW

That’s where we cross paths with Kool Kat of the Week Brian Lonano. Lonano has been making short films for a decade now. His nine shorts have screened at festivals from SXSW to Fantasia International Film Festival, from Canada to Cambodia. And here in Atlanta, he’s been shown at the Atlanta Film Festival and the Buried Alive Film Fest. (He’s done promotional bumper shorts for many festivals around the world as well.) His shorts are typically a deft mix of wacky comedy, horror or sci-fi tropes and inventive practical effects.- a combo no better seen than in last year’s CROW HAND!!! His 10th film, GWILLIAM, is currently in preproduction, and to raise the funds for this endeavor (because while the Internet is a convenient platform, it’s really hard to monetize it), Lonano has turned to the new audience that the Internet has provided for assistance via this IndieGoGo campaign.

ATLRetro caught up with Brian Lonano to ask him about the campaign, his history in short films, what GWILLIAM is all about and what’s on the horizon.

ATLRetro: You’ve got nine short films under your belt in the past decade, including the inspired THE TRANSMISSION and the utterly berserk CROW HAND!!! What first drove you to dive into filmmaking?

I grew up watching films that featured a lot of special effects and puppets. I am a big fan of Jim Henson, Tim Burton, Spielberg and classic STAR WARS. JURASSIC PARK came out when I was 10 and I wanted to make movies ever since. I became obsessed with seeing any and every movie that Industrial Light & Magic did the special effects for. I didn’t have a camera for a long time so I drew comics and made puppets. As I get older I seek out more bizarre film oddities like HAUSU, THE VISITOR and A FIELD IN ENGLAND. Those kinds of films coupled with what I grew up worshiping keep me inspired to make movies.

You’re not only known for your short films, which have screened all over the world, but you’ve also been recognized by the industry for your usecommissioned work for festivals and television, something our readers might not immediately know about. What does Brian Lonano do when he’s not dreaming up weird short films?

My full time job is working at a post-production facility that processes dailies for TV shows and movies that shoot in town. The commissioned work I make is mostly for film festivals. I would direct a short film called a bumper that advertises the film festival and I would more or less have creative control which is great. I’m very grateful to film festivals that show my work so when I’m asked to make a bumper for one, I put a lot of effort in making a kick ass bumper to show how bad ass the festival is.

It’s a tale as old as time: a man and a goblin in love. What attracted you to this story, and just how disgustingly screwed up can we expect the end result to be?

GWILLIAM came about from a drawing my brother did back in 2011. He was drawing a picture of this weird little man—it just looked completely wrong in the best way possible. We laughed about the picture and decided we had to name the weird man. So we asked ourselves, what’s a gross name that would fit this monstrosity? And we decided on Gwilliam. After that we came up with a strange story where a different man was prowling at night and has an encounter with Gwilliam…I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. I’m excited about how gross this movie is going to be because it’s not gore centric like my previous film CROW HAND!!!. It’s a whole new kind of disgusting.

The preliminary sculpt you’ve shown on the website is impressive even in this early stage. Who’s behind the design of the Gwilliam puppet?

IMG_0150The sculpt of Gwilliam is actually created by Splatter Cinema super team Blake Myers, Luke Godfrey and Nick Morgan. They will be responsible for making the creature puppet for the film.

I see designer Rachel De Urioste mentioned in the IndieGoGo campaign. What she’s bringing to the table? Rachel De Urioste is a local artist, fabricator and designer and she’s designing the GWILLIAM perks for IndieGoGo. She designed the crow totem that was featured in CROW HAND!!!. When we were on the festival circuit with CROW HAND!!! I asked Rachel to make some plastic versions of the Crowtem so I could plant them in theaters and see if anyone would pick them up. I loved the idea of something tangible to take away from the movie. CROW HAND!!! is so short that I wanted to make a big impact with the promotion of it. So with GWILLIAM I wanted to make a new prize to give out to potential donors. If I was giving to a campaign, I would want something cool like a toy. I think people gravitate towards tchotchkes like that.

The variety of rewards you’re offering investors range from the innocuous (digital downloads, credit listing) to the utterly depraved (a Gwilliam sex doll???). How did you come up with these ideas?

I brainstormed ideas for prizes with Rachel and my wife/co-producer Victoria Cook. We all agreed the totems from CROW HAND!!! were a great idea and we wanted to take it a step further. Rachel had never dabbled in designing toys and I am a big fan of Archie McPhee‘s novelty finger puppets so I thought a Gwilliam finger puppet would be a great prize to give out. As I said earlier, if I was donating to something, I would want to get a cool toy. Rachel is making full painted Gwilliam finger puppets but she is also making rainbow editions of the Crowtem and Finger Puppet as well as solid color Gwilliams (we’re calling it the ROY G BIV collection) and even glow in the dark finger puppets! The blow up is another prize we allROYGBIV Gwilliams came up with. The doll would be life size (meaning Goblin size) and the goal is make it a functioning doll. We wanted our campaign to stand out and I figured weird finger puppets and blow up dolls would do the trick!

You’ve lucked up in nabbing William Tokarsky fresh off the TOO MANY COOKS brouhaha, but he’s also popped up in projects ranging from THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE to YOUR PRETTY FACE IS GOING TO HELL. How did your paths cross, and how did you know he was the right man to romance a goblin puppet?

William was very easy to get in touch with. I sent him a message on Facebook asking if he would be interested in working together on a project. We agreed to meet in person and I gave him the script to read. I didn’t say much about it until he read it. Thankfully, he was laughing at the script and said he would absolutely be a part of it. So far working with William has been terrific. He’s easy going, very funny and a great team player. I look forward to shooting so I can direct him.

On the local front, you’ve worked with the Buried Alive Film Festival as a judge, you’ve shot a great bumper for them, and you’ve had your shorts exhibited there as well. Any hope you’ll be bringing GWILLIAM to BAFF screens in the future?

If the film is completed in time I would absolutely love to screen it at BAFF this year. But because I am friends with Blake and the whole team (and they are also working on the film), it would be an out of competition entry. I love screening my work here because the audience gets what I am trying to do and they all seem to really enjoy it!

CROW HAND!!! from !ROBOT HAND! on Vimeo.

All photos courtesy of Brian Lonano and used with permission.  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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RETRO REVIEW: Don’t Get Them Jolly! GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH Brings Hell-iday Cheer to Splatter Cinema at Its New Location Cinevision!

Posted on: Dec 7th, 2014 By:

splattergremSplatter Cinema presents GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH (1990); Dir. Joe Dante; Starring Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates and Christopher Lee; Tuesday, Dec. 9 @ 8:00 p.m.; Cinevision Screening Room; Tickets $10 (cash only); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Splatter Cinema is back! After a brief spell hosting films at the Chambers of Horror Halloween haunt, Splatter has teamed up with ATLRetro Kool Kat Ben Ruder’s Enjoy the Film and the Cinevision Screening Room to bring us the brilliantly bloody and the sublimely sickening. And while this month’s feature probably isn’t the first flick to spring to mind when you think “splatter,” its wildly imaginative and horrific effects work, combined with its completely uninhibited attitude, all add up to a perfect way to kick off a new era of Splatterdom this holiday season. Because after a seven-year search for a 35mm print, they have returned to bring you…GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH.

There are people who sincerely believe that a sequel is automatically inferior to its predecessor. They’ll tell you, for instance, that STAR WARS is a de facto better movie than THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK because it laid the necessary groundwork for the latter film’s existence. These people are what I like to call “wrong.”

Case in point: GREMLINS 2: THE NEW BATCH. Now, don’t misjudge my feelings: I unabashedly love the original GREMLINS. It’s one of my favorite Christmas movies and I’ve gone on about it at length here before. But I have a special place in my heart for its sequel. And that place is front row center. While GREMLINS paints a raucous picture of monster-fueled anarchy breaking out in idyllic Small Town, USA, GREMLINS 2 is pure madness in the Big Apple from start to finish.

As opposed to the more direct plotting of the first film, the storyline in GREMLINS 2 is more a series of hooks from which director Joe Dante can hang gags; and as such, it’s pretty all over the place. After the death of Gizmo’s owner Mr. Wing, the mogwai falls into the hands of the science division of Clamp Enterprises (headed by the always-welcome Christopher Lee). He is rescued by old friends and coincidental Clamp employees Billy Peltzer and his fiancée Kate Beringer (Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, reprising their roles from the first film). However, a series of accidents cause more mogwai to be created, and havoc erupts in the locked-down Clamp Center as the gremlins plan to escape into New York City. There are constant sub-plots about disgruntled cable-show hosts, Billy’s job prospects and his flirtatious boss, out-of-town visitors, etc. But as I said, they’re mainly there to provide launching pads for parodies and jokes.

gremlins-al lewisWhile the first movie evoked the feeling of Chuck Jones Looney Tunes shorts with its self-referential send-ups of Spielbergian cinematic suburbia, it still played within the confines of a Spielberg movie or a late-period Jones cartoon. It was dark and violent, but still warm in the way that producer Steven Spielberg’s family films and so many of Chuck Jones’ later cartoons frequently are. Jones’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, for instance, lets us relish the Grinch’s delicious villainy by softening the blow with redemption and acceptance. Lessons are learned, people get better, and he—he himself, the Grinch—carved the roast beast.

GREMLINS 2, on the other hand, channels pure bizarro Jones. I’m talking DUCK AMUCK. THE DOVER BOYS AT PIMENTO UNIVERSITY. DUCK DODGERS IN THE 24 ½TH CENTURY. It’s almost nothing but wall-to-wall psychosis and fourth-wall breaking. It knowingly and overtly parodies GREMLINS. (At one point Leonard Maltin shows up to pan the first film, and is attacked and devoured by mogwai.) It features Christopher Lee as…well, Christopher Lee playing a villain. Sure, the character is nominally Dr. Catheter, but the point of his presence is for Christopher Lee to be identifiably playing Christopher Lee playing a villain—much like how he shows up in THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN to play Christopher Lee playing Dracula. There are countless in-jokes hidden away in background details, like some Will Elder story in a 1950s issue of MAD. There are parodies of other films, like RAMBO, THE WIZARD OF OZ, KING KONG, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and many more. Daniel Clamp, the head of Clamp Enterprises with a burgeoning cable television empire, is a parody of both Donald Trump and Ted Turner. Even Al Lewis’ late-1980s stint for Turner as “Grandpa” hosting horror flicks on TBSSUPER SCARY SATURDAY is parodied. Hulk Hogan shows up for no good reason whatsoever. A plot turn that sees the mogwai become genetically mutated not only allows a Wile E. Coyote-esque “super genius” gremlin to exist, but also creates a hotsy-totsy female mogwai in order to bring us some “Bugs Bunny in drag” sequences. And to drive the point home completely, Bugs and Daffy Duck bookend the movie. If the first movie let the insanity of a Warner Brothers cartoon invade our mundane reality, this movie rejects your reality and substitutes its own.

All this to say that there is nothing in this movie I do not love wholeheartedly. Far from being sleek and streamlined, this movie is maximalism in action: gag piled on top of gag, with everyone involved in the movie completely game. Joe Dante is at his peak here, with impeccable timing and incredibly nuanced detail all in the service of pure wackiness. Christopher Lee gets to show off his rarely utilized comic chops. Tony RandallTony Randall, people!—is absolutely perfect as the super-intelligent Brain Gremlin. Dick Miller has a sizeable role, and that’s practically reason enough to see it right there. The screenplay by Charlie Haas (OVER THE EDGE, MATINEE) captures just the right balance of meta-humor and cleverly constructed plot dynamics so that we are never just bogged down in jokes; there’s a solid through-line that propels us along. Throw in the typically top-notch (and at times both monstrous and disgusting) effects work of Rick Baker and his crew, along with the gift of a bigger budget, and you’ve got a sequel that is every bit the equal of its predecessor, if not surpassing it.

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

 

Category: Retro Review, Tis the Season To Be... | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back onto the Pavement! The World Famous Drive-Invasion Hits Turner Field!

Posted on: Sep 4th, 2014 By:

driveinvasion2014The World Famous Drive-Invasion 2014; Turner Field Green Lot (521 Capitol Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30312); Saturday, September 6; Gates open @ 10 a.m.; Admission $25 per person with car or $12.50 walk-up/no car ($26 through Ticketmaster).

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

You can’t keep some things down. When it turned out that the conversion to studio-controlled digital projectors made it impossible for the Starlight Drive-In to continue hosting the annual Drive-Invasion, things looked bleak for a while. But thanks to the tireless efforts of some of Atlanta’s finest, Drive-Invasion has found a new home: Turner Field. They’ll be setting up in Turner Field’s Green Lot and among the attractions you will find a 1000-foot grilling area, Jim Stacy’s Food Truck Midway (serving up a wide array of local culinary delights curated by Pallookaville’s own Mr. Stacy), the Silverscreen Gasoline Car Show (featuring the Discovery Channel CAFÉ RACER host and custom car celebrity, Atlanta’s own Bryan Fuller), an artists’ market, a kids’ play zone and two music stages.

Music-wise, you can expect an ear-filling variety of bands designed for maximum enjoyment before the sun goes down. You want some retro surf-rock action? Step right up and enjoy the sounds of Mystery Men?, Andrew & the Disapyramids (featuring ATLRetro Kool Kat Joshua Longino), and a tribute to the legendary Penetrators. You need some country-fried tastiness? Move it on over to the honky-tonkin’ tunes of Ghost Riders Car Club (featuring Kool Kat Spike Fullerton) and Cletis & His City Cousins (featuring Kool Kat Cletis Reid) . In the mood for some frenzied beat action? Get in the garage with The Brimstones, Rocket 350 and Jimmy & the Teasers. And for straight-up adrenaline-pumping rock and roll, blast off to Bigfoot (featuring Kool Kat Jett Bryant), Dusty Booze & the Baby Haters, Gargantua and The Biters.

But all that is prelude. They call this Drive-Invasion for a reason: drive-in movies. And they’re celebrating the end of the summer with a trio of beach party horror flicks that will keep the mood rocking until the last frame unspools across the screen: THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, JAWS and MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND.

hpb001THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964); Dir. Del Tenney; Starring John Scott, Alice Lyon and Allan Laurel; Trailer here.

THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH answers the question “why only have one Creature from the Black Lagoon, when you can have a whole gang of them?” It tells a story old as time: when radioactive waste is dumped into the ocean, it creates a whole mess of monsters who then rise from the depths to kill innocent teens. It’s then up to young Hank and concerned father Dr. Gavin to find a way to stop the rampaging amphibious creatures. Imagine if HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1996) came out in 1964, and replace the gore and nudity with dancing and stomping beach music (provided by the Del-Aires, with half of their songs and all of the film’s score written by future porn legend Zebedy Colt!). HORROR zips along breezily thanks to director Del Tenney’s sure hand, and thanks to him keeping his tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s not quite a send-up, but more a lighthearted take on teen horror and beach party flicks, much like INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957).

jaws-posterJAWS (1975); Dir. Steven Spielberg; Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw; based on a novel by Peter Benchley; john oath Trailer here.

Then there’s JAWS. What can one say about this movie? When I was a tyke, it was so effective that even this unabashed horror movie fanatic—as committed then as I am today—believed that there were sharks hiding under my bed. (And yes, I fully grasped the logical problem in that scenario.) JAWS established Steven Spielberg as a Big-Time Director after years of working in TV and smaller-budgeted films like THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974). It also singlehandedly created the modern summer “blockbuster” phenomenon (and simultaneously marked the end of the “New Hollywood” period of the late 1960s and early ‘70s), and its style and craftsmanship has exerted a lasting influence far beyond its immediate impact. It is, in many ways, a nearly perfect movie. Pitch-perfect performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw are wed to dialogue so fresh that it’s still being quoted, imitated and parodied nearly 40 years after the film’s release. Add to that Spielberg’s precise direction, one of John Williams’ best scores and Verna Field’s expert editing, which work together to create an escalating tension that reaches peaks high enough to make you completely ignore the badly malfunctioning mechanical shark.

mad_doctor_of_blood_island_poster_01MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (1968); Dir. Eddie Romero and Gerardo de Leon; Starring John Ashley, Angelique Pettyjohn and Ronald Remy; Trailer (featuring narration from the legendary Brother Theodore) here.

Rounding out the program is MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, probably the pinnacle of writer/producer/director Eddie Romero’s Philippine-lensed series of “Blood Island” movies. And while that may sound like a pretty small category for a film to qualify as “the best,” keep in mind that there are something like 10 of them (six in the series, and four tangentially related). In this entry, John Ashley—the co-star of multiple AIP “Beach Party” flicks—stars as a pathologist who turns up at Blood Island to study the health of the natives, only to find mysterious deaths linked to the appearance of what appears to be green blood. Throw in Angelique Pettyjohn, heaps of nudity and gore, some of the most ludicrous pseudo-science ever spouted in a movie script and a rampaging monster that must be seen to be believed, and you have what amounts to one of the most definitive drive-in movies ever created. While it may never be regarded as a cinematic classic, it is an experience that I wholeheartedly suggest you undertake. It’s not for nothing that Eddie Romero was named the National Artist of the Philippines in 2003.

And let me take this time to warn you: to survive your exposure to the energies of MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND and to ward off contagion in the days after Drive-Invasion, you must prepare yourself by taking the Oath of the Green Blood, which will ensure that you will never become a green-blooded monster. Vials of Doctor Lorca’s Green Blood Potion will be available to the first 1000 visitors who stop by the Drive-Invasion booth or Professor Morté’s Silver Scream Spookshow booth. Remember: stay safe. Protection is prevention.

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

Category: Features, Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kool Kat of the Week: Daniel Griffith, Local Filmmaker and Purveyor of All Things Cinematic and Obscure, Ballyhoos it up at Monsterama 2014

Posted on: Jul 30th, 2014 By:

by Melanie Crew
Managing Editor/Contributing Writer

Daniel Griffith, local award-winning filmmaker and founder of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, will be joining a sinister line-up of horrorific guests at the inaugural Monsterama Convention, founded by our classic monster-lovin’ fiend, friend and ATLRetro contributing writer, AnthonyTaylor, which will be creeping into the Holiday Inn Perimeter in Dunwoody this weekend, August 1-3! So, prepare for a ghastly weekend of ghoulish proportions!  Griffith will be joined by a guest list filled to the bloodcurdling brim with chillers like Victoria Price, daughter of Vincent; Hammer scream queen Veronica Carlson, director Jeff Burr, filmmaker Larry Blamire (LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA), Bram Stoker Award-winning writer Brian Keene, ATLRetro’s very own “Chiller-ess in Charge”, Anya Martin, Kool Kat Shane Morton, a.k.a. Professor Morte [see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Shane here], Kool Kat Madeline Brumby [see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Madeline, here] and so many more!  So, haunt on down to Monsterama this weekend and get your bones a’rattlin and your classic monster fix!

Griffith, purveyor of all things cinematic and obscure, and no rookie to the B-movie and classic horror genre, has produced and directed over 45 documentaries, with his company, Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, spanning a wide-range of film history, genres and subjects.  His documentary library is far too prolific to list them all, but in a nutshell he has directed and produced: THE BLOODIEST SHOW ON EARTH: MAKING VAMPIRE CIRCUS (2010), THIS ISLAND EARTH: 2 ½ YEARS IN THE MAKING (2013), [both will be screened at Monsterama this weekend], RETURN TO EDEN PRAIRIE: 25 YEARS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 (2013) and THE FLESH AND THE FURY: X-POSING TWINS OF EVIL (2012).  Griffith is currently in production on CELLULOID WIZARDS IN THE VIDEO WASTELAND: THE SAGA OF EMPIRE PICTURES, the official feature-length documentary delving into the rise and fall of Charles Band’s legendary Empire Pictures studio, known for cult films such as RE-ANIMATOR (1985), ZONE TROOPERS (1985) and GHOULIES (1985). His documentaries have gained him not only notoriety in the cult film arena, but also the 2012 Rondo Award for “Best DVD Bonus Feature” for his documentary biopic on Universal B-movie actor, RondoHatton, TRAIL OF THE CREEPER: MAKING THE BRUTE MAN (2011) and the 2013 Forrest J. Ackerman Lifetime Achievement Award.  Griffith is also the official documentarian for the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” DVD releases.

ATLRetro caught up with Daniel Griffith for a quick interview about his devotion to film history, from the greats to the barely-knowns, his desire to set a story to film and his trek into the deep dark cavernous minds of long ago filmmakers, plotting the map of film history.

And while you’re takin’ a gander at our little Q&A with Griffith, take a sneak peek at an excerpt from his documentary, PSYCHO’S SISTER: MAKING THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! (2013), delving into the history of the 1968 drive-in thriller!

ATLRetro: As a documentary filmmaker, you are foremost a film historian and avid preservationist, which is clearly evidenced in the wide variety of documentaries you’ve produced with your company, Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. In the grand scheme of things, why do you feel it is important to not only preserve, but also to share these stories?

Daniel Griffith: The media of the past serves as a type of looking glass or time capsule. It is the definitive visual representation of artistic achievement and human frailty. Therefore, it is important to have a documented record of how those works were created, if only to build awareness and preserve its shelf life. Selfishly, I became a documentary filmmaker to further understand the medium of cinema and television. To me, the film artisans of the past are the direct link to the motion pictures of the future. Studying and understanding their contributions was the BEST film school. But, as I moved from project to project, I began to recognize how many films and television series have drifted into obscurity. I guess I made it my responsibility to tell the story behind those works.

You seem to give a lot of love and respect to the underdogs, to the films and projects of yesteryear that never quite reached the level of success in the industry that the majority set out to achieve. What is it about these films, these filmmakers that magnetize you? That compels you to tell their story?

I never compartmentalize the films I document. To me, the least successful motion picture can have just as much value to an individual as the most revered or noteworthy. It is my duty as a film and television documentarian to change the way we look at the works of the past; to give each production an equal opportunity to share the spotlight. Who knows? A viewer may discover that the best stories of human triumph and creativity come in the cheapest, most misunderstood packages.

You’ve produced many bonus features and documentaries for Shout! Factory, Synapse Films and VCI Entertainment, etc. over the years, which has included a comprehensive peek into your fans’ favorite sci-fi, horror and ‘80s B-movies, westerns and a variety of retro filmmakers and film companies. Can you tell our readers how you became a documentary filmmaker?

It began with a simple challenge; to singlehandedly create a narrative and follow through with its execution. About eight years ago, I was developing one motion picture script after another. Slowly, a case of cabin fever set in. I was restless. I wanted to get out into the field and visualize a story on film. While discouraged, I revisited a wacky holiday episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000, entitled “SANTA CLAUS.” During the opening credits, a title card reading “K. Gordon Murray Presents” appeared on the screen. I thought to myself, “Who is this K. Gordon Murray guy, and why did he choose to distribute this surreal, Mexican children’s film?” In that moment, a documentary concept was born, and simultaneously the seed that would eventually become Ballyhoo Motion Pictures.

The name “Ballyhoo” draws to mind a long list of whimsical, colorful and raucous shenanigans of the circus variety. What’s the story behind the name?

My company name and logo are comprised of several unique personal events. The logo itself dates back to my first exposure to the works of the cinematic showman, William Castle, and his film, HOUSE ON HAUNTEDHILL. The scream that accompanies the logo is the first scream you hear prior to the opening credits of that film. It was the scream that woke me up as a child when the film played on television. Utilizing it in the context is my way of saying to the viewer, “WAKE UP! The show is about to begin and you don’t want to miss it!” And the name Ballyhoo represents two of my passions; the energy found on the midway of any traveling carnival and the promotional tactics used on the motion pictures of the past.

As a guest on several panels at the first ever Monsterama Convention, including a Q&A session with Victoria Price, Vincent Price’s daughter, and a panel discussing documentary filmmaking, what do you hope to pass on to the eager ears of the convention-goers?

Well, for one, this is a great opportunity to learn more about one of the greatest actors of our time. Vincent Price was not only a celebrated actor in film and television, but he was also an accomplished cook, author, painter and art critic. While he is remembered for his chilling performances in the DR. PHIBES films, as well as William Castle’s, THE TINGLER and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, there was much more to him than the horror genre that sustained him.

Additionally, two of your documentaries [“The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making Vampire Circus” (2010) and “This Island Earth: 2-½ Years in the Making” (2013)] will be screened throughout the weekend; two very different documentaries, but both created with the same amount of respect and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Can you tell our readers what your favorite experience was while making each and what you would do different, if you could go back and change anything?

Well, one of the greatest experiences I had working on all the Hammer documentaries, including VAMPIRE CIRCUS, was visiting the renowned Pinewood Studios in England. Filmmaker John Hough, who previously directed Hammer’s TWINS OF EVIL, gave me a private tour of the entire back-lot. This is the studio where most of the James Bond films where shot, the 1978 version of SUPERMAN, the first ALIEN film and Stanley Kubrick’s, FULL METAL JACKET, just to name a few. It was astonishing!

As a filmmaker, you are getting the chance to live out your dream every time you create and release your work into the world, a dream you’ve had since your early childhood. Any advice for the next generation of Kool Kids who long to dive head first into the land of imagination and cinematic storytelling?

Watch as many films as you can! Don’t be afraid to take chances on viewing films that are outside your comfort zone. Just because it’s black and white, or subtitled, doesn’t mean you will not enjoy it. Like an author with a library card, watching films is your first, best education.

Who would you say are the filmmakers that inspired you most?

There are simply too many to count. I continue to be amazed by filmmakers, past and present. I have always admired the way Orson Welles demands more out of everyone, including himself. I deeply admire the poetry found in every frame of a Sergio Leone film. Being a child of the ‘80s, I have always responded to the childlike sentiments found in almost every Spielberg film. On a more obscure note, I find the offerings of director Joseph H. Lewis strangely addictive. This list could go on and on and on…

In such a short amount of time, you’ve got 45-plus credits under your belt, releasing shorts to full-length documentaries, and have gained a following in the MST3K, B-horror and sci-fi circles, with a promise of more to come! Can you give our readers a hint of what’s next for Daniel Griffith and Ballyhoo Motion Pictures?

In a perversion of Al Jolson’s famous line, I’ll have to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” More Mystery Science Theater 3000 productions, for sure. I am currently in post-production on an epic documentary about the history of television’s most iconic series! However, unfortunately, I cannot divulge the title at this time. But, if you find me at Monsterama, I just may be persuaded to tell you.

Can you tell our readers something you’d like folks to know that they don’t know already?

While attending the Monsterama Convention, you’ll have the opportunity to stop by the Ballyhoo Motion Pictures table to view original props from various B-movies of the past, as well as purchase EXCLUSIVE retro movie items!

What question do you wish somebody would ask you and what’s the answer?

From the offices of Warren Beatty: “Will you produce a documentary on the history of Dick Tracy?” The answer is, “I’m on my way!”

 

All photographs are courtesy of Daniel Griffith and used with permission.

 

Category: Kool Kat of the Week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Retro Review: Don’t Go Into the Light—Go Into the Plaza Theatre! Splatter Cinema Scares Up Some POLTERGEIST Activity!

Posted on: Sep 8th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema Presents POLTERGEIST (1982); Dir. Tobe Hooper; Starring JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson and Zelda Rubenstein; Tuesday, September 10 @ 9:30 p.m. (photos and merch table open @ 9 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

It’s Splatter Cinema time once again! And with September upon us, and the first hints of autumn in the air, it’s also time for ghosts to take flight. With that in mind, Splatter Cinema and the legendarily haunted Plaza Theatre join forces to bring you POLTERGEIST! Come by at 9 to have your picture made in a recreation of a scene from the movie, and stop by the merch table!

POLTERGEIST, man. It’s a movie that comes with a lot of baggage if you’re a horror film fan. It’s impossible to dig into the movie at all without getting tangled up in contradictory recollections of who’s responsible for the final product. And it’s incredibly easy to wind up in vicious arguments with fellow horror geeks just by venturing into that subject. The question that inevitably gets asked and debated over is this: who actually directed the movie?

It’s a tough question to answer. Superficially speaking, it’s a Tobe Hooper film. His name is on it as director, the Director’s Guild of America states that he’s the director, and there are plenty of people who worked on the movie who steadfastly insist that Hooper directed it. But on the other hand, there are also plenty of people who worked on the film that say that producer Steven Spielberg was the man really calling the shots (Spielberg himself even implied as much in pre-release interviews, only to have to backtrack and issue public apologies afterward). Many claim that Spielberg took over for an unreliable Hooper, but due to DGA rules and his exclusive contract with Universal Studios to make E.T., he could not remove Hooper’s name from the project and claim ownership for himself. Others claim that it was a much more collaborative effort than simply one-or-the-other, and that all of Hooper’s directorial decisions were made in conjunction with Spielberg. (In any case, most people agree that Spielberg had final say.)

Then you have those who believe that this whole “Spielberg was really the director” rumor came from the studio itself. That when faced with having to market a “family friendly” film helmed by the director of 1974’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE—a man whose name wasn’t a sure-fire selling point—the studio leaked that Spielberg was the “real” director of the movie. A behind-the-scenes featurette was made that only showed Hooper once: standing alone, silent, drinking a can of Coke and identified only by a subtitle. In the set of film stills released to the press to promote the film, there were several shots of Spielberg on set, but only one of Hooper—and in that shot, he’s sitting next to Spielberg, who is telling Hooper what to do. In the trailer, Spielberg’s name is mentioned and appears onscreen twice before Tobe Hooper’s, whose name is never spoken and in much smaller type than the credit “A STEVEN SPIELBERG Production.” The whole thing does smack of the studio wanting to distance itself from Hooper.

Add in that Hooper hasn’t had the most spotless track record beyond TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, SALEM’S LOT (1979) and POLTERGEIST (though I love 1977’s EATEN ALIVE and 1981’s THE FUNHOUSE more than I have any reasonable right to; I’m in the distinct minority on that issue) and the picture gets muddier and muddier, and it’s just a messy situation any way you look at it.

The real question, though, is this: is POLTERGEIST a good movie? And the answer is—no matter who’s responsible for it—yes. It’s a good movie. But it’s not great. It feels like a compromise in many regards, and that’s what has given the authorship argument legs over the years. You get the feeling that it wants to be a lot scarier than it is, but that it too frequently errs on the side of playing it safe. It seems really conscious of the fact that it must receive a PG rating. There are certainly some terrifying moments (please note: a scene that begins with a steak crawling across a countertop can’t end well, and clowns are always harbingers of doom), but any suspense tends to get overshadowed by Spielbergian spectacle.

However, it’s a tremendously fun movie. The story is simple: the Freelings are living in quiet suburban comfort when their house is suddenly plagued by poltergeist activity, and their daughter Carol-Anne is taken by the spirits into their ghostly realm. The family calls upon a team of psychic researchers and a medium to exorcise their home and save their daughter. Within this basic framework, any number of frightening set pieces have been constructed, and to see them executed on the big screen is a rare treat. POLTERGEIST is the kind of movie that just doesn’t translate to home video viewing effectively; it must be seen LARGER THAN LIFE for the visuals to really deliver. The performances are engaging and authentic, drawing the audience in and rooting them in the movie’s emotional core. JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson have a chemistry together that both makes us believe them as the married couple they’re portraying and allows us to share their fright and torment as the supernatural elements ramp up. And though her performance has been parodied and lampooned endlessly, Zelda Rubenstein as the diminutive medium Tangina Barrons is incredibly memorable and effective, her kindly demeanor and small stature belying the force of will and strength she brings to the surface.

So forget the controversy over who did what. Nobody knows to this day whether Howard Hawks or the credited Christian Nyby directed 1951’s THE THING, but what is remembered is the film itself. Likewise, enjoy POLTERGEIST for the movie it is, rather than whose movie it is.

Now, who wants to speculate over the film’s relationship and debts to Richard Matheson’s “Little Girl Lost,” and why Spielberg was so quick to get TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE into production?

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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Retro Review: Neat Ideas and Savage Candy: Deeply, Cooly Sicko TOTAL RECALL Pushes Boundaries for a Perfect Last Good-Bye to 1980s Sci-Fi Cinema

Posted on: Jun 3rd, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema presents TOTAL RECALL (1990); Dir. Paul Verhoeven; Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox and Michael Ironside; Tuesday, June 11 @ 9:30 p,m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Robert Emmett Murphy
Contributing Writer

TOTAL RECALL, released at the dawn of the new decade of the 1990s, is without a doubt the capstone of the SF film aesthetic of the decade it was leaving behind. It is also one of the finest of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicles and earned the distinction of being, up to that point, one of the most expensive, and profitable, films ever made. Just the next year, another Arnie flick, TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY, would define the aesthetic of the coming decade, and dwarf both TOTAL RECALL’s $60 million dollar budget and $260 million worldwide gross.

Paired, these two films represent remarkable transitional pieces, demonstrated in how they pushed the then-contemporary limits in FX technologies. TOTAL RECALL’s special makeup effects were by Rob Bottin, and its visual effects by Eric Brevig. Their labor represents very nearly the last mega-budget efforts of techniques and technologies about to be made obsolete when computer graphics (only nominally represented in this film) took over the whole industry. They were eye-popping at the time, but somewhat rubber and plastic looking now. T2, with the silver-liquid-metal killer robot, was the fist masterpiece of the revolution. Though CG made the canvas of what could be realized, and how well it could be realized, almost infinitely larger, if you leave the new tech’s masterpieces aside, there’s no doubt that a rubbery solid has a more real feel than today’s most-often-run-of-the-mill pixelation.

Both films also pushed the boundaries of narrative sophistication allowed in the escapist. T2 is undeniably the greater of the two, featuring richer characterization, a more complex plot with fewer loopholes, and more maturity in its take on a shared anti-authoritarian credo. T2 didn’t asset that our dependency on the maintenance of systems and hierarchies were injustices in-of-themselves and didn’t embrace the ideology of scarcity-as-myth. It recognized that the motives of those who commit (often inadvertent) harm often have legitimacy, nor did it deny the reality of the imperfectness in conduct of even the good guys. Yet TOTAL RECALL, so richly cheesy, so lavishly textureless (except the slick texture of spraying blood), and so deeply, morally corrupt in such a friendly, innocent way, is the better time-capsule of the society that produced it.

The Schwarenegger Effect and a Passion for Perversity

As an actor, Arnie was beloved by directors who wanted an appealing hero embodied in someone who wouldn’t distract from visual ideas by creating inappropriately humanistic identities. He was perfectly matched with TERMINATOR director James Cameron, but even more so here with Paul Verhoeven. I should make it clear, though, that Arnie hired Verhoeven, not the other way around. Arnie bought the rights after the film had languished in production hell for almost 15 years. Still, clearly his casting of himself was a defter choice than other, better, actors who’d been considered like Richard Dreyfuss and William Hurt (to say nothing of Patrick Swayze). Of course, those actors would’ve been cast in much different versions of the script, which had been rewritten some 40 times. Reportedly the final version was very close to the first version, while all those in-between had strayed into inappropriate attempts at distracting psychological depth.

Quaid/Hauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger) takes a ride in a Johnny Cab in TOTAL RECALL. TriStar Pictures, 1990.

Both Verhoeven and Cameron have demonstrated a passion for the SF genre and world-building detail (my favorite in TOTAL RECALL was the Johnny Cabs, which even in 1990 provided a charming anachronistic poke at what the future likely won’t be). They also share a flair for offhanded satire and sleekly complex executions of muscular action scenes. However, Verhoeven had something Cameron lacked – a penchant for perversity. Perversity is what Arnie’s films always seemed to want to wallow in but were generally too timid to indulge. In T2, Cameron’s only perversity was to make the most violent pacifist film in history. TOTAL RECALL is much more deeply, cooly, sicko.

To call the violence gratuitous is like calling water wet, but Verhoeven showed a gift for an over-the-top comic-book harmlessness that camouflaged all but a whiff of the film’s obsessive sadism. He’d done it before, with ROBOCOP, but the movie was more serious-minded, more humanistic, and modestly more restrained. He did it after, in STARSHIP TROOPERS, but that film demanded something more serious-minded and humanistic than Verhoeven could pull off that week, so the balance was thrown off. TROOPERS ended up seeming uglier and meaner than this film, even though if you’re actually paying attention to its moral underpinnings, TOTAL RECALL should’ve been the more condemnable. TOTAL RECALL’s ability to make such unrestrained venality seem man-child-friendly is probably why it’s the most fondly remembered of the three (that, and it wasn’t demeaned by crappy sequels, but I’ll come back to the whole story behind that later).

Misty Watercolor Memories  of the Way We Weren’t

Arnie plays the improbable everyman, Douglas Quaid – who has too good a body, with too breathtakingly beautiful a wife, too fabulous an apartment, in too clean a city – to be what we are told he is: a construction worker. But he’s dissatisfied and distracted by vivid dreams of the planet Mars, so he goes to the movies and watches a fantasy about a James-Bond-type secret agent on the Red Planet. Except that this is the future, and instead of passively sitting in theater seats as we sad contemporaries do, he goes to the offices of Rekal Inc. and purchases elaborate fictional memories that are implanted in his head, so he can experience the fantasy as if it were real.

As they said on the poster to another SF classic, and nothing can go wrong…go wrong…go wrong…

Arnold goes to movies, Rekal-style! TriStar Pictures, 1990.

Nothing except maybe the fictional memories are too similar to real ones that have been deliberately, artificially, locked somewhere in Quaid’s subconscious where he can’t get them. The entertainment technology partially opens the doors of perception, and Quaid is now in touch with another identity, a real-but-forgotten self named Hauser, who actually is a James-Bond-type secret agent. Now that Quaid’s somewhat awake, of course, the bad guys want him dead. Quaid, the innocent, receives prerecorded instructions from his alter-self Hauser, and actually makes the trip to Mars to discover the truth about his identity and the conspiracy in which he’s all wrapped up.

Or alternately, Quaid’s still in the fantasy, suffering from something called a schizoid embolism, and the longer he plays out the fantasy scenario, the harder it will be to get back to the real world.

A Short and Clever Tale by Philip K. Dick Gets Bigger, Bolder

TOTAL RECALL is a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.” It preserves Dick’s main themes remarkably well, but in making a bigger, bolder, epic out of the short and clever tale, it shifts emphasis. Both film and story have great fun with the “is-it-real-or-is-it-not?” theme, but the always tortured Dick was more interested in the vulnerability and terror of middle-ground between the two, while here the script writers (there were five, but primarily Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon) and even more Verhoeven, focus on a he-man liberation from all moral constraints that only a wholly invented world can secure. The first terrible revelation to our hero comes when his wife admits she never really loved him, saying: “Sorry Quaid, your whole life is just a dream.” But in truth, he really doesn’t start enjoying himself until the curtains fall on that reality, as lifted on the newer, nastier, one.

Most of Verhoeven’s films speak of a man who longs for such a venue. ROBOCOP is the only one I can think of that was convincingly moralistic; most don’t even try. His cynicism about human nature is demonstrated even before the plot gets rolling. There’s a scene where Quaid’s impossibly beautiful wife, Lori (Sharon Stone) is coming on to him, kissing him and literally climbing on top of him, but he can’t take his eyes off the TV news. He’s mesmerized by a politely fanatical speech by Vilos Cohaagen (Ronny Cox), Mars’ wicked, corporate, planetary emperor, who is condemning a violent insurrection by vile mutants on Mars. It’s a typical Verhoeven scene, with no faith in love or relationship and insisting that all our familiar pleasures will become insufferable because of their familiarity, that we are constantly driven to the edge by our desire for newer, more terrible sensations.

Divorce TOTAL RECALL-style. Sharon Stone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in TOTAL RECALL. TriStar Pictures, 1990.

There’s also a lot of foreshadowing in this scene. Quaid’s distraction is honest, but Lori’s bitch-in-heat behavior is as fake as a whore’s orgasm, which, in a very convoluted way, it will turn out to be exactly what she is.We’ll also soon learn that everything is really about Cohaagen.

Verhoeven’s politics are disingenuously leftist and perfectly in tune with the twilight of Reaganism. Though the real-world Arnie would eventually become the wholly incompetent Republican Governor of California, his fictional counterpart would prove to be a liberator of the proletariat from the shackles of capitalism and display such a soulless penchant for terrorististic, mass-murdering virtue that he makes Che Guevara look like Mitt Romney. However, while the film’s manifesto is anti-corporate-hegemony and pro-labor, its heart is materialistic and misogynistic, an ideology where sex means nothing without dominating power, and dominating power isn’t sexy unless it’s brutally corrupt.

A mere 12 months later, when Arnie would return in T2, we were already in a more innocent era, anticipating Bill Clinton and a decade so honest, sincere, and without sin that even something as trivial as a blow-job could blow-up into a constitutional crisis.

Sophisticated SF Narrative Vs. Special Effects

The script of TOTAL RECALL is remarkably information dense. Though almost every shot seems to embody some sort of special effect, smart writing trumps the spectacle in many places. In several instances, characters get trapped outside Mars’ artificial environments, and the so-thin-it-is-almost-non-existent Martian atmosphere does the predictable nastiness to their bodies (predictable, but not especially scientifically accurate). These scenes featured eye-bulging, artery-bursting, FX dummies that were just plain silly-looking. On the other hand, in a dialogue-driven scene, Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) tries to talk Quaid down from his delusion (“You’re not here, and neither am I”) – unless it’s not a delusion and the good doctor is trying to poison him. That scene proves to be one of the high points of the film.

Mutant Mother (Monica Steuer) in TOTAL RECALL. TriStar Pictures, 1990

And the narrative evolves in a sophisticated way, changing venues and accumulating characters that set motivation on a path of constant evolution. Quaid starts only wanting to know who he really is and how to stay alive. This quest leads him into a situation where he needs to take on the mantel of the leader of the revolution. Cohaagen’s abuse of workers in Mars’ artificial environments has produced a spectacular underclass of weird mutants including dwarves, co-joined twins, those disfigured by tumors, those sporting extra-limbs, the telepathic, and most memorably a whore named Mary (more about her later). Quaid will forget self-preservation and fight to end Cohaagen’s monopoly over resources that should be shared collectively by these huddled masses. Each step towards messianic-pseudo-Marxist-leadership is also a step closer to the secrets of his forgotten identity.

Without doubt, Verhoeven can do plot. It’s appropriately twisty, or as another review put it, “There are so many of them, you could probably miss one or two and grab another box of popcorn.”  But Verhoeven skillfully avoids tripping over his own threads.

Strong Casting for a Sci-Fi Film

Verhoeven is slick – but not without thought; soulless – but not without character. In fact, Verhoeven has a fine track record of drawing strong performances from actors playing very artificial parts. Arnold Schwarzenegger is the case in point. Never an accomplished actor, he rarely did more than use jokes to cover his inability to emote, but he still had tremendous screen presence. He could sell a Superman the way more talented thespians couldn’t. Here, almost shockingly, he even displays a very modest hint of semi-nuance that is lacking in any of his other roles except, well, T2. Underneath his “Superman” persona, he’s confused and frightened and vulnerable, a man betrayed by the structure of reality itself. “Who da hell em I?” says Quaid in a thick, heart-tugging, unaffected accent.

It helps that the rest of the cast is so very strong.

Lori (Sharon Stone) can be such a tease. TOTAL RECALL, TriStar Pictures, 1990.

Sharon Stone’s film career was already a decade old at this point, meaning that it was very likely nearing its end since her primary selling points were that she was beautiful and blonde. Though in IRRECONCILABLE DIFFERENCES (1984), she demonstrated she was a gifted comic actress, no one seemed to notice, and she couldn’t elevate herself out of B (or C) movies and TV mediocrity. Here, her role was not only small, but exploitive and nasty – a lying lynx who offers sex, then tries to kill, then comes back an hour later and tries to kill again, gets in a cat-fight with another sexy whore, then gets dead. Yet absolutely every man was blown away by her ice-cold, predatory athleticism and tight-fitting and barely present wardrobe.

Verhoeven, who likes to use the same people both in front and behind the camera in film after film (TOTAL RECALL is ripe with ROBOCOP alumni) later gave her the lead in BASIC INSTINCT (1992), which was even sicker than this puppy, and overnight she achieved her long overdue super-stardom. She’d leave roles like this behind quickly (and in the process garner 13 awards and 20 nominations, including an Oscar nod), but there was a moment when she was the definition of the Hollywood Ice-Princess reborn and that moment started here.

Kickass Melina (Rachel Ticothin) is far better suited to Arnold Schwarenegger's action hero in TOTAL RECALL. TriStar Pictures, 1990.

Rachel Ticotin played Melina, the female romantic lead and other participant in the hot-and-bothered cat-fight with Sharon Stone. Her prescription, per the “Rekal” fantasy that Quaid dictated in the film’s opening scenes, was to be “dark-haired, athletic, sleazy and demure.” She pulled it off perfectly, notably being convincing while speaking the most lunatic romantic dialogue in history. In her first scene, she grabs Quaid’s crotch and hisses, “What have you been feeding this?” To which Quaid, more Hauser by the minute, quips, “Blondes.” Her luminous smile in response is as close to true love as you’ll ever see in a Verhoeven film. Up to a point, she’s as a perfect Verhoeven girl as Stone, one part empowered/two parts vice/seven parts objectified. But unlike Stone, he won’t use her again, possibly because she comes off a few degrees more real, and many times more street, than Stone’s (then) Ice-Princess persona. Perhaps she was not quite artificial enough for Verhoeven’s exquisitely surfacy aesthetics.

Ronny Cox wasn’t the first choice for Cohaagen. It was offered to Kurtwood Smith, who, with Cox, played one of the two main villains in ROBOCOP. Though the lion’s share of Cox’s roles are warm, noble and paternalistic, he clearly enjoyed the corporate baddies Verhoeven repeatedly cast him as. In this film, he and Michael Ironside are the two main villains. In obvious deference to Arnie’s acting talents, these two, not the hero, got the film’s few dramatic scenes.

Neat Ideas and Savage Candy

But enough about human talent in a film so inhumane, TOTAL RECALL was all about neat ideas and savage candy. The highlights:

  • In a plot point early on,Quaid has a tracking device in his head. The recorded Hauser tells him how to remove it – Reach into your nose with tweezers and pull really hard and really painfully. Rated high on the ICK! Factor.
  • There are endless, loud shoot-outs with big-assed automatic weapons plus explosives, both inappropriate choices in a pressurized environment. These conflicts justified the frequency of sucking people into the Martian near-vacuum which then justified the close-ups of the forementioned, eye-bulging, rubber FX dummies. It also justified the extreme body count; one review counted (yes, some reviewers sit in front of their TVs  and actually count this stuff) 77 dead bad guys. And that’s onlythe bad guys. The film showed rare indifference to the lives of innocent bystanders. It likely had an even higher collateral damage rate than the invasions of Grenada and Panama combined. The most memorable of these was during a shootout on an escalator, when cornered Arnie grabs some poor, random, commuter and uses him as a human shield. That guy gets reduced to Swiss cheese, and Arnie goes off to continue his one-man-war against wicked corporatism

    The Fat Lady loses her head and reveals Arnold Schwarenegger in TOTAL RECALL. TriStar Pictures, 1990.

  • Literally the only female in the film who is not a whore is a disgustingly obese tourist arriving at the Mars Spaceport inanely saying “Two weeks” over and over. Except she isn’t even a woman, but a cybernetic fat suit that malfunctions. In the eyeball-kick heavy film, the single best effect is the costume coming apart like a high-tech flower blossoming, revealing Quaid beneath. Quaid then throws the lady-head at a cop. The head speaks a snappy line and explodes, killing at least three people.
  • The dispatching of Sharon Stone is the stuff of woman-despising-legend. After Ms. Stone engages in three fights in five minutes, she’s prone helplessly before Arnie and pleading for her life. “We’re married,” she says. Arnie snickers, “Conseeder dis a divorce,” and machine-guns her.
  • Arnie has many such bloodthirsty quips. In one scene, he dispatches another friend who betrayed him with a miner’s hydraulic drill to the gut, gleefully shouting, “Screw you!”
  • Mary the whore with the three tits, every fanboy's fantasy in TOTAL RECALL. TriStar Pictures, 1990.

    And let’s not forget Lycia Naff, who has the smallest of parts, but secured much of the film’s fame. She played a whore (what else) named Mary who was in only two scenes, totaling less than four lines of dialogue, and exposed her breasts to strangers both times. Yet ask any man who was an adolescent in 1990 if he remembers the film, and he’ll no doubt answer, “Yeah, that’s the one with the chick with three boobies.” (If you watch the DVD version, don’t miss out on the commentary track where Verhoeven nobly attempts to intellectualize the triceratits). Mary is killed by Michael Ironside’s character Richter in a manner that is both callous and sexually demeaning.

  • Richter gets his comeuppance in a fistfight on an elevator platform. He loses his balance, falls, saves himself by grabbing the edge—until the platform rises to the next floor, cutting both of his arms off, leaving his forearms with Arnie as souvenirs. And of course, the noble hero calls to the falling man, “See you at the party, Richter!”

And I should say, this is only the sickness we got AFTER the film was cut to avoid an X-Rating. God knows what the unrestrained version looked like.

All this mayhem and no real people does eventually take its toll. There’s no denying the last third is warmed-over and derivative. For a movie that had delivered so many surprises both in plot and inventive detail, the routine conclusion is banal, protracted, idiocy. Arnie/Quaid/Hauser’s saving all the good people of the planet is logically feasible only to some schmuck who also ascribes to Young-Earth Creationism. But if you pay close attention though the explosions and thunderous score (by Jerry Goldsmith, who considers it one of his personal favorites), plenty of clues suggest on which side over the what-is-reality fence you should be standing and that the seeming dopiness of the last several minutes might actually be meta-fiction Easter egging.

The Sequel That Never Was or Was It? And the Remake That Shouldn’t Have Been

TOTAL RECALL grossed almost 100 million over budget outlay, so why wasn’t there a sequel? Well…

There was supposed to be. The idea was to take another Dick story as the launching point and tell the tale of Quaid getting in trouble with authorities again. You see, properly integrated in society, those telepathic mutants are useful. They can bring down the homicide rate by solving crimes and punishing the guilty before the killing even takes place.

Does this plot sound somewhat familiar?

With Verhoeven returning to the Netherlands after a string of commercial disappointments (starting with 1995’s SHOWGIRLS, perhaps the most sexually exploitive and misogynistic feminist film in history) and Arnie entering politics by the end of that decade, the project proceeded without them. It mutated into something unrecognizable and was released in 2004 as MINORITY REPORT. The script by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen was tight and hugely ambitious, the film was beautifully directed by Steven Spielberg, and Tom Cruise is simply a more talented lead. Yet the greater film did not burn into our collective memory the way TOTAL RECALL did.

TOTAL RECALL’s place in our culture was probably additionally secured by how it towered over its ill-conceived remake of last year. That stared Colin Farrell who is clearly a better actor than Arnie, but does not have as much charisma. Overall the characterization is flatter than the original, odd given how the original was almost smug about its lack of character depth. This new movie sold itself as “darker,” but that wasn’t really accurate. What they really meant to say was that it was humorless, and the violence, now mostly committed against robots, was heavily sanitized. The politics in the original was disingenuous, but also bolder in its relationship to real-world class conflict. In the remake, the good-guys vs bad-guys is a more nationalistic battle modeled on the aggressive wars of 19th century imperialism and Australia’s struggles with the British Commonwealth; thus it is far more nostalgic and far less provocative. It’s also wholly Earth-bound, losing the original story’s dreams of Mars and the first film’s Mars locations. The remake also ditches every single mutant except the “chick with three boobies,” who now has little explanation for being there. No aliens either – I didn’t mention them above, but aliens were important in both the original story and the first film. The $125 million dollar budget, adjusted for inflation, was really not much more than the 1990 release, but the movie grossed a mere $199 million, or less than half the original film’s inflation-adjusted business.

Robert Emmett Murphy Jr. is 47 years old and lives in New York City. Formerly employed, he now has plenty of time to write about movies and books and play with his cats.

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ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER by Seth Grahame-Smith: The Novel Is Better Than You’d Think, and Maybe That’s the Problem

Posted on: Feb 12th, 2013 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER By Seth Grahame-Smith; Grand Central Publishing. 384 pages.

If the forecasts of the end of publishing as we know it, and the end of the novel as an important art form, prove correct, what will we be left with?

Well, one thing I note when I go into a bookstore is that though there’s not as much of what I personally want any more, there’s an ever growing abundance of at least one type of product. The product is remarkably adaptable to our all-too-instantaneous culture, and so deeply committed to vacillating fashions, that though the books are individually ephemeral, they are collectively eternal. I refer to novelty books.

Each is quickly produced, and just as quickly forgotten, yet the space they occupy is never empty. And if you return to that space over and over again, you will see that our impulsive and unconsidered consumption of facile distraction represents a continuum, demonstrating evidence of the hive mind and proof of a certain form of reincarnation. Moreover, within these novelties, maybe sometimes there is the possibility of a slightly substantive literature.

Both of Seth Grahame-Smith’s two most famous novels, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE WITH ZOMBIES and this one, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, were commissioned for gimmicky series dreamed up by his editor at Grand Central Books. In both cases, he was the only novelist engaged who was able to play with the gimmicks (rewriting classics with monsters, reimagining historical figures with monsters) in a way that received significant positive critical attention. Grahame-Smith has a rare gift (or compulsion) to infuse some artistry to a throwaway idea. His literary career is distinguished by focusing on some ersatz absurdity, applying a sharper intelligence than many would think the subject deserves, and then keeping his one-note-joke buoyed by imaginative wit and exceptional attention to telling detail. He knows how the mechanisms of the B- and exploitation-movies make a narrative move, and he knows how to toss in just enough brain candy so that we don’t feel as guilty while reading his work as we did that time when Mom caught us flipping though the pages of a dirty magazine. (I should throw in, his first book was THE BIG BOOK OF PORN, a modestly seriously-minded history of the porn industry.) Here we have (as Gina McIntyre put it) “a great SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch” transformed into a full-blooded, even epic novel.

In classic “high-concept” style (who the hell coined “high-concept”? It’s deliberating misleading as it inevitably targets the lowest common denominator!), the title says it all. I expected it to be fun, and it was, but I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. And there in lies the rub – it was good enough to disappoint. When I saw what Graham-Smith was capable of doing, he raised my expectations, and then I found myself disappointed he didn’t do even more.

No one reading ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER is expecting either a real biography, or something comparable to the truly timeless historical novels like WAR AND PEACE. This is a populist fiction about a President we like a lot more in myth that reality. Rather than comparing this book to Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s TEAM OF RIVALS (the basis of the Steven Spielberg movie LINCOLN) or Leo Tolstoy, we are more in the territory of the movie YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, that sentimental piece of heliography that made Henry Fonda a star back in 1939 (directed by John Ford, written by Lamar Trotti).

Well, like YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, only with more a lot more blood and a much higher body count.

But then Grahame-Smith surprises us with a Lincoln who is many times more believable than Fonda’s. This Lincoln is strongly sympathetic, and though frequenting engaging in super-heroic antics, he’s neither a paragon of some ideal (Superman) nor an invitingly unoccupied vessel for the reader to fill with over-textural identification (most private eye heros). Clearly, Graham-Smith learned a few things from comic-book pioneer Stan Lee’s formula. In the past, Graham-Smith has collaborated with Lee, and here we see that the student far has excelled the master.

The novel begins in 2008, with a fictional version of Seth Grahame-Smith deep in a writer’s funk as he watches President Obama’s first inauguration. At this historically appropriate moment, he is offered a confusing, disturbing, perhaps dangerous, but also irresistible commission: to edit and flesh-out a long rumored of, but never made public diary which represents nothing short of a secret history of the Civil War, and by extension, America’s development and the whole of Western Civilization. You see, vampires are real, and the diary was Abraham Lincoln’s own record of his war against them.

The novel that follows switches back and forth between Lincoln’s secret dairies, which are, of course, fiction, woven seamlessly in with Lincoln’s letters, which are real, and Grahame-Smith’s omniscient third-person narrative, which is based on the testimony of surviving (undead) witnesses and a great deal of material pulled directly from more respectable historical sources.

The novel starts in Lincoln’s childhood and shows his development in a rich and thoughtful in a way that too little genre fiction has much patience for. Deftly sketched is Lincoln’s complicated family tree, the challenges of his humble beginnings, his strained relationship with his father, his enormous personal drive, his insatiable intellectual curiosity, and how his life’s trajectories were guided by a series of early tragic losses and economic reversals. Lincoln’s famous battle with depression is woven throughout the book, but treated with an appropriately light touch, because Grahame-Smith instinctively knows that had the depression truly been crippling, Lincoln would’ve never become Lincoln. It is somewhat removed from the “cult of Lincoln” of popular myth and somewhat closer to a figure historians would recognize.

At least up to a point.

The “up to a point” part is the crux of the novel, because in 1820 Lincoln realizes his life is being shaped by the capricious whim and insatiable hunger of supernatural entities that are stronger, faster, more experienced and more skillful than he. In 1820, he launches a one-man covert-war against their evil.

The novel is at its strongest when addressing Lincoln’s early days. Rich in the biographical detail of years that many, even Civil War buffs, are not fully familiar with, this part of Lincoln’s life is the era in which this kind of keyhole narrative can most easily be integrated into historical realities. The young Lincoln rambled widely, living and working in several states and trying out several professions, giving any adept writer abundant opportunity to paint the landscape vividly and imaginatively and still remain in the context of the verifiable. When Grahame-Smith puts words in his fictional Lincoln’s mouth, he displays a fluid style that is often lacking in like-pastiches, for example, when the diary recounts what Lincoln witnessed at a slave auction:

“I saw a Negro girl of three or four clinging to her mother, confused as to why she was dressed in such clothes; why she had been scrubbed the night before; made to stand on this platform while men shouted numbers and waved pieces of paper in the air. Again I wondered why a Creator who had dreamt such beauty would have slandered it with such evil.”

By this point in the narrative, Lincoln has already allied himself with a group of not-so-evil vampires who call themselves the “Union” –  get it? – against the other more powerful group who dominated Southern politics and society. His political career which would start not long after and be shaped by that association. The contrasts in which the story revels rest on this foundation, largely historical content vs. horror-movie scares and comic-book action scenes.

The horror/action content is fast- paced, hugely entraining and often quite funny. In one episode, Lincoln, now a lawyer, is bruised in court with the loss of a civil suit; that evening he goes out on a vampire hunt. To his surprise, it turns out that evening’s monster is none other than his client from earlier in the day. Just as they are about engage in their death duel, the demoness hisses contemptuously that Lincoln better hope that he’s a better fighter than an attorney.

Grahame-Smith’s historical fidelity grants his hero a more interesting character arc than most pulp heroes. When this fictional Lincoln, mimicking the real one, falls in love, marries, has children and enters politics, he does something few action heroes ever do, but most men of accomplishment accept as an inevitability. He puts aside childish things (in this case, his axe) and creates a more stable and sustainable life, integrating himself into new venues, and pondering how he can apply the lessons of his youth to the realities of maturity.

This radical turn in the narrative allows the pulp novel to be shaped by more-complex-than-average relationships. Lincoln profoundly loves his wife, who is treated with a lot more respect here than in most dramatizations of Lincoln’s life, but  still he turns his back on her in her hour of greatest need. After losing a second child, she spirals into mental instability, but by then he is President and in the midst of the ultimate national crisis. I also liked the handling of his long-rivalry, and occasional allegiance, with Stephen Douglas, who in most Lincoln dramas is regulated to a single footnote incident.

The novel leans heavily on mano-a-mano combat up to this point, and as the more complex history unfolds, Grahame-Smith repeatedly interrupts it with more breathless action-episodes. During the build-up to the Civil War, the retired vampire hunter reluctantly accepts one last vital mission from his Union allies.

So the hero’s reluctantly dragged out of retirement for one last vital mission. Yeah, we all know how well those generally work out, don’t we?

This situation leads to a wild scene where Lincoln and his two assistant vampire hunters, Joshua Speed and Jack Armstrong (both historical characters), are hopelessly trapped in a burning plantation-manor-house, surrounded by an army of vampires, while Jefferson Davis, in classic melodramatic villain style, gives a smug speech about the superiority of his cravenness over Abe’s naive virtues. It would not have been out of place in the recent film DJANGO UNCHAINED.

As entertaining as all this interplay is, it also is evidence of the difficulties of taking a story that was one thing and trying to mutate into another into another. This problem is demonstrated even in the number of pages the book devotes to this subject or that. A full 187 pages are required to get us to the year 1843, when Lincoln hangs up his axe. After that, a mere 146 pages is left to get him into Congress, then the White House, guide the nation through the Civil War, and fall to an assassin’s bullet (by the way, John Wilkes Booth was a vampire).

Joshua Speed.

However, Graham-Smith, making vampires the primary drivers of the slave economy and the secret force behind the South’s mad, headlong rush into war, has stumbled across a near perfect metaphor. Vampires, since Dracula, have represented hold-over superstitions trying to keep the shadows deep and dark in the face of the light of reason and modernity, and they are simultaneously the aristocracy and the parasite. They have been exploited to make political points not only in fiction but presidential campaign rhetoric (anyone remember the “Romney is a Vampire” TV ad?). The metaphor has rarely been utilized as forcefully as here, but unfortunately it isn’t used to dig as deep as it could. Having set the stage so deftly, Graham-Smith fails to utilize his fantasy to illuminate real themes in history as historical fictions are generally expected to do.

One thing almost every Lincoln drama gets wrong is how slowly his positions on slavery evolved. From his earliest years, he found slavery morally repugnant, and his abolitionist rhetoric was fiery in even his earliest political speeches. But even well into the Civil War, his policies regarding the institution were, in fact, quite moderate (and from a 21st century perspective, reprehensible). Preservation of the Union was his number one priority, freeing the slaves was way down the list. It would not be much of a stretch to say he’d have been satisfied to institute a handful of reforms that maybe could have been utilized by others later, and that he was okay with the possibility that the end of slavery was something he didn’t personally live to see.

The first step in seeing someone as human is fully recognizing them as real. There’s little reason to think that black slaves, who did move Lincoln’s heart when he saw them suffer from a distance, were ever close enough to him that he was forced to see them as real as his friends and associates, or even as real as his bitter enemies. There’s little or no record of Lincoln having substantive encounters with blacks during his formative years in rural Kentucky. Working on a flat boat on the Mississippi, he wasn’t likely to be invited into the homes of slave owners, nor to encounter the minority of black freemen in his day-to-day labors. Though Lincoln married the daughter of a prominent slave-holder, he was not close to his in-laws, and he and his wife settled in a free state. I’d wager that it’s not likely he had a conversation with a black person longer than 10 words before went to Washington in 1846, maybe not until he entered the White House in 1861, and maybe not even until his memorable meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1863 (which isn’t included in this particular book).

Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg's LINCOLN. Dreamworks/20th Century Fox, 2012.

Moreover, not only was Lincoln not a liberal by today’s standards, he was a man of a time when it would’ve been almost overwhelming intellectually challenging to conceive of blacks as fully of the same species as whites. He was quite articulate in expressing his belief that blacks were inferior to whites. Lincoln’s moral evolution was a long road that most dramatists don’t want to admit he had to travel. Nor do they want to acknowledge that his eventual abandonment of comfortable, if reprehensible, moderation and his heroic embrace of a righteous stand was something that he was burdened with, in part, by the Confederate madness.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER doesn’t misrepresent Lincoln’s relationship with slavery, but having built so a fine bridge of fantasy to this true subject, it side-steps it rather than crossing it.

The novel is better in evoking the madness and hopeless of the Southern cause, but even here I find fault. We see the relentless spiral towards war through Lincoln’s eyes in the first-person entries. But Graham-Smith also availed himself of the third person omniscient, yet didn’t utilize it when it was most needed. It should’ve been said that the South had a smaller population, a limited industrial base, and significantly no cannon factories. The Confederate strategy was to strike first in the months between the election and inauguration and then dig in so that the Federal Government couldn’t respond. When Lincoln chose the course of military engagement, the South inevitably was doomed. Yet almost four years and more than 600,000 lives were forfeited to this pointless exercise. Even to that last moment, the firing on Fort Sumter – hell, even after that last moment – the South had so many other options, but they acted with the kind of irrational absolutism that we now associate with only the maddest of despots or the presumptuousness of the divine (read: supernatural) right of kings.

According to a 1973 study by Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, had the South ended the institution of slavery by buying and freeing all the slaves instead of going to war, it would’ve cost them about $2.7 billion 1861 dollars. True, it is hard to imagine the political will to execute such a plan could’ve ever been mustered, but what were the costs of turning their collective backs on any compromise or accommodation? On the Southern side alone, the most often-cited figures are $1 billion in property destruction, $1.5 billion in loss of human capital, $767 million for war expenditures, and an appalling 258,000 dead young men. To this, Goldin added a net economic difference of $10 billion between an imaginary South without rebellion and the one we got, in which wide regions wallowed in near continuous recession for the next 80 years. This is the kind of clarifying extra that the fictional narrator Graham-Smith could have provided us with, but that the fictional diarist Lincoln couldn’t have been reasonably expected to.

Poster art for the movie of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER (2012).

And not for nothing, the real Lincoln, who couldn’t have done Goldin’s math, wasn’t insensitive to the idea. In an 1862 letter Lincoln wrote, “Less than one half-day’s cost of this war would pay for all the slaves in Delaware at $400 per head … [and] less than 87 days’ cost of the war would, at the same price, pay for all in Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Kentucky and Missouri.” (This letter is not cited in this particular book.) In fact the Federal government did buy back the slaves within the confines of the District of Columbia. (This fact is also not cited in this particular book.)

Once the war starts, the novel engages the reader mostly because of its effective and exciting compression of what actually happened, while the vampire metaphor, suddenly under-exploited and under-explored, loses much of it bite (pardon the pun). Lev Grossman puts it well in TIME Magazine, “Once the connection is made, it feels obvious, and neither slavery nor vampirism reveals anything in particular about the other. One could imagine a richer, subtler treatment of the subject, in which the two horrors multiply each other rather than cancel each other out.”

Yet as Lincoln fictions go, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER has more to say than most. Maybe it communicates something about our culture that a deliberately ridiculous, axe-wielding, vigilante super-hero towers over most more easily respected works. Allegedly realistic fictions have been full of myth, while the myth-shaped novel presents a sharper picture. One measure in how the novel succeeds is revealed in a words of a withering critique of the Timur Bekmambetov’s film based on this novel. Historian Vernon Burton enjoyed the book but hated the movie, and spoke volumes of the pitfalls of fictions that prove incapable of grasping the real historical issues they grapple with (from an article by Tierney Sneed in US News and World Report):

“‘Slavery was our national sin,’ said Burton, who said the connection works in that ‘the nation sucked the blood out of Africans for its wealth.’ However, in posing vampires as the villains behind the crime of slavery, the film risks ‘letting the South and the United States off,’ freeing it from blame for the practice.

‘The book did some clever things,’ said Burton. ‘I was excited to see the movie. The book had potential.’ He said the film version was oversimplified, and he worried viewers would make too much of what he and other historians often call the ‘Oliver Stone school of history.’”

That, at least, is one trap the novel didn’t fall into.

Robert Murphy is 47 years old and lives in New York City. Formerly employed, he now has plenty of time to write about movies and books and play with his cats.

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Retro Review: Deck the Halls With Splatter Cinema: GREMLINS Invade the Plaza Theatre!!!

Posted on: Dec 10th, 2012 By:

Splatter Cinema Presents GREMLINS (1984); Dir: Joe Dante; Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates and Hoyt Axton; Tue. Dec. 11 @ 9:30 p.m.; Sun. Dec. 16 @ 3:00 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

One of the most notable aspects of the classic Warner Brothers Looney Tunes series of cartoon shorts is that while they were created for the enjoyment of children, they were written to also entertain those parents accompanying their kids to the theater. They’d frequently wink at the audience, breaking the fourth wall and commenting on the ridiculousness of what was transpiring. Few directors have the right touch to pull this off in live-action filmmaking the way that Joe Dante does, and fewer films succeed at this to the extent of GREMLINS.

From his more cartoonish collaborations with Allan Arkush (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL) to his somewhat more restrained horror features (PIRHANA, THE HOWLING), Dante’s modus operandi is to pepper his films with sly humor that acknowledges the fact that we’re all watching a movie. In the hands of some, it could come off as condescending—a kind of “look at us: we’re intentionally making a bad movie, hyuk hyuk!” attitude. But Dante loves this stuff too much to be condescending. In his hands, it all comes across as gleeful subversion; he seems to say that it’s okay to have fun with this medium and the things we love about it. That it’s okay to throw in a special appearance by Robby the Robot for a laugh because who doesn’t love Robby the Robot? That casting Dick Miller in every movie you make and frequently crediting him as “Walter Paisley” (his character from A BUCKET OF BLOOD) is fine, because Dick Miller is a legend and A BUCKET OF BLOOD is fantastic! More than even Tarantino, Joe Dante is the movie nerd’s movie nerd. His films take the attitude that they can have fun with established movie tropes because you should be having fun, and nothing is more fun than the movies.

Which brings us to GREMLINS. Like the classic Warner Brothers cartoons (hey, there’s Chuck Jones in the bar scene!) and Dante’s previous work, it blissfully screws with expectations about what you’re watching. And what it’s playing around with is Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Like E.T., the film is about a small-town kid who winds up taking care of an adorable, otherworldly creature, gets in over his head and madcap antics ensue. The first twist to the formula is that Billy (Zach Galligan), unlike E.T.’s Elliot, is college-aged, pursuing his old high school crush (Phoebe Cates) and still living with his folks. But still, that’s not such a departure that it necessarily alters the story dynamic, right? I mean, after his dad (Hoyt Axton) presents him with a precious little Mogwai named Gizmo, even if he breaks the final two of the creature’s three rules (1. Keep him out of bright lights. 2. Don’t get him wet. 3. Never feed him after midnight.), how bad can it get? It’s a Christmas movie, for crying out loud!

GREMLINS' Gizmo is darned cute when he's not wet. Warner Brothers, 1984.

Things can get really bad.

Rather than the film conforming to the E.T. template by having a force from outside threaten the poor little guy and his human pal, and eventually giving us a warm and affectionate send-off, Dante and screenwriter Chris Columbus have Billy make a couple of boneheaded mistakes and potentially doom the entire town. Thanks to Billy, an army of scaly, green and ugly little beasties are running about the place and gleefully killing and eating townspeople just for kicks. Gremlins are gruesomely killed in food processors and microwaves. Phoebe Cates recounts a horrific story about her father’s death. Nobody is safe. It’s almost as if Dante knew that the movie-going public would see Gizmo looking like a little bipedal pug and making high-pitched Howie Mandel noises and generally being so adorable you can barely stand it, and bring their kids to unwittingly witness THE MOST VIOLENT PG-RATED FILM OF ALL TIME. Okay, maybe INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM has it beat, but not by much, bucko. Instead of the heartwarming and heartbreaking farewell of E.T., Billy’s family gets chewed out at the end as a proxy for the entirety of Western Civilization being a bunch of jerks. And all the while, you can practically hear Joe Dante, standing just off-screen, laughing himself half to death.

Predictably, parents were horrified. One of the teachers at my high school refused to let her kids see the film because the Gremlins “were obviously demons from the pit of Hell.” Outrage from Responsible Parents over the violence in this (and yes, in TEMPLE OF DOOM) is what led to the establishment of the PG-13 rating. But kids? Kids ate this up. They ate it up like pancakes covered in ice cream. Because even if the Responsible Parents didn’t get it, the kids did. And the Irresponsible Parents (like mine, bless ‘em) got that this was all a huge, happy joke.

Don't be fooled. The caroling GREMLINS aren't here for good cheer. Warners Brothers, 1984.

Unfortunately, GREMLINS wasn’t originally released at Christmastime. Fearing that they had nothing to offer for competition during the summer of GHOSTBUSTERS and (again) TEMPLE OF DOOM, Warner Brothers rushed the release of the film and pushed it up by six months. It’s a shame, too, because despite the absolutely epic violence of the film, it’s practically the perfect Christmas movie. Let’s face it: the best Christmas entertainments are fueled by a perverse viewing of Things Going Wrong. Would IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE be what it is without spending the vast majority of the film watching everything that could possibly go wrong in George Bailey’s life go even worse? Would HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS be as enjoyable without watching the Grinch attempt to ruin everybody’s life? Santa Claus in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET may just actually be insane. RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER runs away from home and hangs out with a bunch of losers and reprobates. There was that YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS. It’s not A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS without watching Chuck’s life spiral into a void of existential dread. Christmas is a time for joy and merriment…and bloodshed and death.

…All of which makes GREMLINS the perfect choice for Splatter Cinema to screen at the Plaza Theatre this month. Even if it doesn’t seem to make sense at first (Spielberg produced it! Its hero is a little fuzzy critter!), sit back and enjoy one of the few Christmas movies to fully embrace the notion that over-the-top violence can be joyful.

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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Retro Review: It’s Not the Years, Honey, It’s the Mileage; Celebrating 30 Years of Snakes and RAIDERS with Indiana Jones

Posted on: Sep 18th, 2011 By:

By Thomas Drake
Contributing Blogger

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981); Directed by Steven Spielberg; Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas; Starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliot; available on DVD from Paramount Home Video; BluRay release date unknown but allegedly soon; original theatrical trailer here.

Short: Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? Men. Top Men.

Medium: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is an archeology professor by day, and moonlights as a tomb robber by night (for Science!). The film starts in South America with an iconic scene where he is attempting to retrieve an idol from an ancient native tomb. The idol had traps guarding it, including a large well-timed boulder. Once he gets back, his mentor tells him that the government has a job for him.

It’s the early ‘30s, just before WWII, and Indiana has to find the Ark of the Covenant (it’s a radio for talking to God after all) before the Nazis do. Because you know, God might decide these Nazi guys are not so bad if they can just get a chance to relax over a couple of beers. At any rate, off they go to Nepal where they get a map held by Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), making for the best onscreen chemistry of the Indy movies. Then off they dash to Egypt for a map, and finally to Indonesia for the classic end scene.

Indiana Jones (Harrision Ford) and Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981). Paramount Pictures.

When I was a child, I was commanded by my parents to close my eyes when Indy and Marion do. But if you like seeing Nazis get a well-deserved comeuppance, keep ‘em open. It’s not like they don’t do worse with CGI these days….

Maximum Verbosity: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is one of those movies that does everything right. And unlike with STAR WARS, George Lucas doesn’t have enough control to be able to have Indy shout, “Noooooooooooo” to the heavens when anything bad happens to him. It’s been 30 years since the original came out, and it’s still going strong.

Read the rest of this entry »

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