Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Headhunter (1988)

Surely, I’ve mentioned before that my favorite episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker is “Horror in the Heights.”  The story centers on a rakshasa, a Hindu demon who appears to its victims as the person they most trust before ripping them to shreds, and it was written by Jimmy Sangster (screenwriter for such Hammer classics as Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein).  The story works because (A) the monster is unique, especially for American television, both then and now, (B) there are enough murders and interactions with solid character actors (Phil Silvers, Murray Matheson, and so on) to keep the pace up, and (C) Kolchak, as played by Darren McGavin, is an interesting, colorful guy whom we want to follow, and we learn a little something about him in this episode that fleshes him out just a little bit more.  The rakshasa costume isn’t anything great, basically a stocky guy in a hairy suit, but I love it because I have an affinity for hirsute monsters (King Kong, Alpha Flight’s Sasquatch, etcetera).  The villain in Francis Schaeffer’s Headhunter is also a shapeshifter, and the film had (I’m assuming) a larger budget than any given number of episodes of Kolchak.  However, it also suffers from a terrible script and a lead performance that is, at its best, grating.  Plus, the only hair on the monster is its quasi-skullet.

A Nigerian demon named Chikati Tumo (I could find no reference to him as part of any mythology/religion, so I’m guessing screenwriter Len Spinnell made him up, but you never know) immigrates to America to kill people who don’t believe in him (he is going to be very, very busy, and let’s just never mind that killing everyone diminishes your pool of worshippers).  Hot on his trail is Detective Pete Giuliani (Wayne Crawford) and Pete’s partner Kat Hall (Kay Lenz, who almost convinced me she wasn’t embarrassed to be in this).  And that’s about it. 

This film is not, sad to say, an adaptation of the 1984 novel of the same title written by Michael Slade (actually the pseudonym for a collective of writers).  That book also concerned a serial killer, and it had some supernatural elements and a police procedural aspect, but, even clocking in at over four hundred pages, it is likely better paced than this film (full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, but from the reviews of it I’ve seen, it has to be better than this movie; HAS TO).  To give you an idea of how scattershot and oblivious to the need for story flow Headhunter is, I’ll describe some of its longer passages (hopefully, you’ll be as bored by this as I was watching it).  After a brief introduction in Nigeria, we’re introduced to our main characters as a drunk Pete breaks into Kat’s place, busting up her nookie with boyfriend Roger (John Fatooh).  Pete’s wife has taken up with her girlfriend, and we get a nice, long scene of the two of them bickering while Pete packs his shit and moves out.  From the very start, the filmmakers show that they’re less interested in the genre facets of the film, as the emphasis on this situation proves, despite the fact that we won’t see Pete’s wife again until the film is almost over (and still I wanted to knock their heads together).  This plot thread carries over into the police station, where Pete whines and moans, and Kat puts up with him like a real trooper.  There are also plenty of scenes where, alternately, Pete ponders why he and Kat never fooled around and/or he plays third wheel to Kat and Roger’s love life.  Did I mention this film is about a demon who beheads people?   

Next, setpiece scenes work when there is a sense of momentum building to a solid payoff.  That is their raison d’etre.  The central setpiece in this film consists of Kat and Pete wandering around a trainyard for what feels like a good third of the entire runtime.  And it’s all for nothing.  By “nothing,” I mean, we learn nothing, it leads to nothing, and nothing even remotely worthwhile occurs during the whole sequence.  At one point in the film, Pete spots Sam (Sam Williams), who they’ve talked to about Chikati Tumo, and he suddenly treats Sam like a suspect for absolutely no reason.  Pete chases Sam through a meat plant before getting chucked (get it?) out a window and into a dumpster (the sight of Pete soiled with dumpster meat juice is an apt visual metaphor both for the character and the movie).  A very small section of the film focuses on the actual murders, but they all feel the same, and they’re all edited confusingly.  Not good for a film sold on the premise of a demon who chops the heads off people, but I’m pretty sure I mentioned that, already.

Pete, as the lead character, spends the whole film in one of two modes.  Half the time, he’s engaged in miserable self-pity which leads to no self-realization or character growth.  It’s just a whine-a-thon.  The other half of the time, he’s screaming at everyone around him.  Sure, the two can be seen as being interrelated, but neither is played with enough nuance (or any nuance at all) to do anything but alienate the audience.  While a fellow cop goes on and on about sexual conquests, Pete opines, “What happened to romance?”  At one point, he barges into a hardware store, frantically searching for anything to use as a weapon.  An understandably concerned store associate tries to help him, and Pete shrieks (I am not making this up), “I want…SOMETHING!  SHUT UP!”  Crawford’s performance is the type that makes one want to reach into the screen for the sole purpose of throttling the living shit out of his character.  He plays every single moment like he was the amp head in This is Spinal Tap (although, arguably, Crawford may, in fact, go up to twelve).  Lenz, by contrast, does her level best to be a professional, though it’s just not enough to save the film.  Nevertheless, it’s baffling that her character would put up with a guy like Pete for too long before shooting him in a non-vital organ (maybe she knows it would just give him something else to bitch about).

Headhunter leans heavily on other films, but it also doesn’t build on them at all, or try to make the references into something of its own, or do them all that well.  There is a scene where a Pentecostal pastor is baptizing a Nigerian woman in a pond.  Chikati’s machete appears in the water and moves in like the Great White from JAWS (thank God, Schaeffer didn’t do anything to the John Williams score).  When he strikes, the pastor loses his mind in a flurry of cursing and running.  I suppose this was meant to be funny.  It isn’t.  It’s dumb.  Whenever the demon strikes, it is heralded by hurricane winds and a dense fog.  The camera takes on the monster’s POV, but it’s nothing more than Evil Dead’s Raimi-Cam, just poorly executed.  The filmmakers also decided, inexplicably, to intercut scenes from 1959’s The Hideous Sun Demon into this film as it plays on a nearby television.  I can only guess that the reason for this is because both films deal with “demons,” though one is literal and the other is not.  What I do know to a certainty is that you should never include in your film scenes from another film which is infinitely better than yours.  Especially when that film is junk, too.

MVT:  The concept is okay, but it would be done, in a manner of speaking, far, far better in Richard Stanley’s Dust Devil some four years later.  Go watch that film, instead.

Make or Break:  The domestic squabble that opens the film is just brutal and a solid sign of things to come.

Score:  2/10        

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Wilder Napalm (1993)

I used to frequent a pizza place that, to this day, has never been topped, and no one I ever talk to is even aware of its existence.  The place is called Mama’s Pizzeria, and it is located on Belmont Avenue in Philadelphia.  It’s in an inconspicuous building with limited parking.  The hours of operation are also odd (hey, maybe the joint is a front; Considering the quality of the eats, who am I to judge?).  Inside, there is a small room for takeout orders and a couple of tables for people to dine.  Up a narrow stairway is the main dining room.  I never once ordered a pizza from Mama’s, but I also never needed to.  Rather, they make what is, in my opinion, the single best cheesesteak in the universe.  This delicacy was a little over a foot long, and for around ten dollars, it had more meat and cheese than you can comfortably fit into a human stomach (and colon).  I used to order these things, and it was all I would eat for a weekend.  I don’t know if the caliber of their cheesesteaks has held up some twenty-odd years later, but just the thought of one of those things makes me hungry even now (and I just ate).  The reason I’m promoting cheesesteaks from Mama’s in a review of Glenn Gordon Caron’s Wilder Napalm is because the restaurant had nothing but clown art decorating its walls, and in this film, one of the characters is a clown by profession (a thin connection, sure, but that’s expected from me).  That, and I miss Mama’s cheesesteaks and wanted to extoll their virtues.

Wilder and Wallace Foudroyant (adjective – Striking as with lightning; sudden and overwhelming in effect; stunning; dazzling) haven’t seen each other in five years.  Wilder (Arliss Howard) has a crummy job, but he is also a volunteer firefighter.  His wife Vida (Debra Winger) is a firebug who is due up for release from her house arrest in a few days.  Brother Wallace (Dennis Quaid) is a circus clown who rolls into town on his way to The Big Time and stirs up old resentments and tensions.  And both brothers are pyrokinetic.

Aside from the basic idea of sibling rivalry, the film deals with the dueling desires for normality and notoriety.  Wilder craves a quiet life.  He wears a tie and jacket to work at a Fotomat knockoff in an empty parking lot (guess where the circus sets up shop).  He volunteers to call BINGO at the local rec center (the film is set in Midlothian, and I assume it’s the one in Virginia, not Scotland).  When he is paged to a fire, he stops to hang his jacket on a hanger and lock the work booth door behind him.  To lose control is unacceptable because it irresponsible.  The exception to that rule is when he has sex with Vida, which can get pretty wild, apparently.  Wallace, of course, is the antithesis of Wilder.  He uses his power freely, zapping flies, melting air conditioners, and so forth.  He wants to be famous, to be “somebody.”  His big dream is to appear on Late Night with David Letterman and get rich.  Wallace likes to have fun.  When Vida’s house arrest is over, it’s Wallace who takes her out on the town.  Vida, being the tether between the two, responds to both positively.  She has genuine affection for Wilder and appreciates that he’s a solid guy (he lost a decent job because of her but never resented her for it), though she also feels constrained in their relationship to some degree.  By that same token, she’s attracted to the wild side of Wallace, who knows what she likes.  She is a musician (a cellist, not a rock ‘n roller), and she loves hanging out on top of her and Wilder’s trailer home.  She sets fires just to get the fire crew to come to her house, so she can see Wilder (she’s also an arsonist, thus explaining why she’s enthralled by the Brothers Foudroyant).  The thing about the brothers’ antagonism is that neither is one hundred percent wrong.  Wilder thinks that exposing their powers will only bring harm to them both (“You read Firestarter, didn’t ya?!”) on top of the physical dangers of it (there is a very good reason for this).  Wallace realizes that he and his brother are unique, and, if done correctly, his gift can be used to benefit himself.  The two are so dug in on their positions, that they can’t see the value of the other’s perspective.

For my money, Wilder Napalm could easily have been one of the first Marvel Comics theatrical releases (you know, if it had anything whatsoever to do with Marvel).  Screenwriter Vince Gilligan (who would write quite a few episodes of The X-Files but is far better known for creating and executive producing Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul) and director Caron (also a television alumnus, having created Moonlighting and Medium) understand what makes Marvel’s characters work so well, even if they don’t refer directly to them.  That is, they are people who have real problems to deal with on a daily basis who also just so happen to be superheroes (Wallace has a costume for his Dr. Napalm alter ego, and Wilder sort of gets one by the end).  The most interesting things in Marvel comic books are usually not the obligatory slugfests but the interactions between the characters as they wend their way through their melodramatic lives (true to fashion, this movie contains both).  Borrowing heavily from the famous Stan Lee wisdom of “…in this world, with great power there must also come - - great responsibility,” the filmmakers use the brothers as foils to illustrate this point.  Further, their powers are secondary to their interrelationships while also representing the core of what is between all three of them (when the brothers get worked up, things tend to melt and boil). 

The film is quirky in both good and bad ways.  Four firemen are also an acapella group who provide a chorus for Wilder (they sing a nice version of The Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”). Character actors Stuart Varney and M Emmett Walsh both turn up in small but effective roles as the circus owner and the fire chief, respectively.    There is the dry humor of Wilder’s character as he paces through his days (Arliss Howard has always excelled at this).  Winger is genuinely charming as the earnest free spirit.  Wallace, while in his clown persona of Biff, is both unsettling and a tad menacing.  That said, the fighting between the boys turns a little too slapstick at times (there is not only a bonk on the head from a pipe but also a fire extinguisher to the face).  Further, Quaid really overdoes the histrionics most of the time in an attempt to act funny, something which never works.  He even jumps up and down like Yosemite Sam at one point.  Still, the film is breezy, the pyrotechnics are truly impressive, and overall, it’s a very satisfying experience when it’s firing on all cylinders.

MVT:  The originality going on in the script (remember, this was 1993) is admirable.

Make or Break:  The finale cuts loose emotionally and physically, and even though, we know how it will turn out, it still works a treat.

Score:  7.25/10

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Django, Prepare a Coffin (1968)

Hard to believe I’ve been writing reviews for this long and have never tackled a Western (Spaghetti or otherwise).  Why, you ask?  Well, several reasons.  The Western is a very special genre to me (Once Upon a Time in the West is in my top five of all time), and I was reticent to dive in on one because I wanted to do whatever the selection would be justice (time and about another nine hundred words will tell the tale on that one).  Second, and more important, I wanted the film I wrote about to be worth the time.  I had been hovering around reviewing Little Rita of the West (coincidentally, also a Ferdinando Baldi film), but that film’s run time made it a bit more difficult to squeeze into my schedule (you’d think a guy so devoted to film would make the time, but there you have it).  Thankfully, Arrow Films have come through again with Django, Prepare a Coffin (aka Preparati la Bara! aka Viva Django aka Get the Coffin Ready aka Django Sees Red), so the choice was taken away from me.  Their transfer is gorgeous, as always, though the special features are thin (yet filling), including a trailer and an overview of the Django films by Kevin Grant (author of Any Gun Can Play).  Still, if you’re a fan of the genre, this film is good (notice I didn’t say great) but worth owning simply by virtue of the fact that it exists in such nice shape.

Django (Terence Hill) and his crew are ambushed while transporting a gold shipment.  Django is shot, and his wife is brutally killed.  Years later, Django is employed as a hangman, but secretly he is gathering the falsely accused people he actually doesn’t hang to help him get payback on Lucas (George Eastman) and his henchmen.  And what has Django’s old buddy Dave Barry (Note: not the writer, but still played by Horst Frank) have to do with this (I’ll bet you can’t guess)?

I am a huge fan of Sergio Corbucci’s Django, and I realize that a cottage industry of films named for (but rarely having anything to do with) it enjoyed much success in Italy and abroad.  Django, Prepare a Coffin is one of the handful of films that does actually relate to its progenitor, though it hews far enough away to be its own film.  Mainly, this is a tonal difference, specifically, the difference between Hill and the earlier movie’s Franco Nero.  Nero’s Django was a somber, haunted man.  He dragged his own coffin around with him, and inside it was death (both his and other’s).  He was as much the grim reaper as he was a man starving for (perhaps denying himself) peace.  Hill’s Django is more amiable.  He has a pal in Barry, and his big dream is to settle down and “wait for the last judgment.”  More notably, this Django is happily married, a state which seems foreign to the character as depicted by Corbucci and company.  Even after he sets himself on his path of vengeance, Hill gives the character a certain goofball charm, which, let’s face it, is Hill’s stock in trade.  He plays with the local telegraph operator’s (his other friend) pet bird, offering it booze and conversing with it.  He also has an openly virtuous spirit.  While he is using his “deadman” gang to take revenge for himself, it feels as though he would have helped these people avoid the hangman’s noose, regardless.  He’ll gun a man down, but he’s so not stoic it feels slightly out of character.  It left me thinking that this was actually a prequel or origin story for the man from the 1966 film.

Prepare a Coffin likewise shares its screenwriter (Franco Rossetti), director of photography (Enzo Barboni), and producer (Manolo Bolognini) with Corbucci’s movie.  This provides another throughline between the two films, but the character is clearly the same, just different.  He still wears his heavy, dark Inverness coat (but significantly, he doesn’t don it until after his wife is gone).  He still has his huge, belt-fed machine gun.  He still suffers some hand injuries (though not nearly as mutilated as before) prior to turning the tables on his enemies.  Mostly, he is still heavily associated with death.  He figuratively buries himself next to his wife.  He’s a hangman, a legal dealer of death.  He is shown often digging graves.  The finale of the film takes place in a cemetery (again).  He’s as ghoulish as a man as can be, but Hill makes him goshdarned likeable.  Unfortunately, the two tastes don’t quite taste great together.  It’s tough to pull off being death incarnate and a swell guy at the same time, and this movie proves it.  This Django rebels against his loner stereotype.  He wants a family, he wants a community, he strives too stridently to not be alone in the world.  He’s Django Lite.

The film still deals with Western genre themes.  It primarily concerns itself with the struggle to civilize the frontier.  What’s interesting here is its attitude regarding it.  Dave Barry and men like him have an air of respectability to them (he is an elected representative at the film’s opening).  He has money, he has status, and these give him power.  He is civilizing the West and killing it.  These aren’t cross purposes, they are the same purpose.  The socioeconomic status of men like Barry and Lucas is directly proportional to the level of their turpitude.  Moreover, it’s the greedy like Barry and Lucas who carelessly destroy the lives of the working men and women who actually endeavor to civilize the frontier in less exploitive fashion (of course, we can argue that such a feat is impossible), to live their simple lives.  Moneyed land barons and the like are nothing new in Westerns, but Barry’s political background gives his villainy a more far-reaching touch.  Guys like Garcia (Jose Torres) just want to be with their families.  Nevertheless, once gold enters the picture it’s a short trip to becoming exactly like the opposition and rationalizing it.  Naturally, only Django is incorruptible, giving his hanging fees to the men he emancipates.  He, then, is the true civilizing agent, selfless and self-determined.  He wants to give what was taken from him to others.  The problem is, most other people haven’t (or won’t) come around to his way of thinking.  And that’s life.

MVT:  Baldi is a solid director.  Though much of the film has a certain flat, stagy look (which harkens back to more traditional, classic American Westerns), it moves along nicely and has enough interesting turns to be worthy of its genre.

Make or Break:  Django trying to get a bird to drink.  It just doesn’t feel right.

Score:  6.25/10