Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Roadie (1980)

Why did the armadillo cross the road?  So Alan Rudolph could show that his film Roadie begins and ends in the state of Texas.  Here’s the layout.  Young, hyper Travis Redfish (Meatloaf) lives at his father Corpus’ (Art Carney) salvage company and makes deliveries for Shiner Beer.  Catching sight of young Lola (Kaki Hunter), a groupie-in-training, Travis finds himself swept up into the whirlwind lifestyle of a rock ‘n roll roadie.

One might think, at first blush, that this film would concern itself with the idea of the call of the open road.  But this is not the case.  Travis has no desire to go on tour with musicians.  He doesn’t feel the pull of an opportunity to live life.  The only reason he becomes the world’s greatest roadie is because his mindset is antithetical to that of those around him.  This comes from his background with his dad.  Corpus and Travis are able to rig and create all manner of contraptions to make life easier.  They have a phone booth in the house that extends itself outside if someone wants a little privacy.  Travis makes his entrance (at home and in the film) on a makeshift crane/elevator that carries him between floors.  Corpus surrounds himself with a multitude of televisions, all tuned to different stations.  The thing of it is that the Redfishes are pretty much idiot savants (with the exception of sister Alice Poo [Rhonda Bates], who is just an idiot).  To call them simple folk would be understating things.  For example, none of them can pronounce “Pomona,” though Corpus’ enunciation is the one they stick with because he’s the smartest of them (hey, I had a friend who used to pronounce “San Jose” as “San Joes,” so who am I to judge?).  Corpus installed homemade braces on Alice’s teeth.  The best illustration of the Texans’ shitkickerhood, however, is the scene where Corpus, Alice, and BB (Gailard Sartain) are eating ribs and drinking beer.  Their faces are covered in pork and barbecue sauce, and the mere idea of table manners is utterly foreign.  This tableau is a snapshot of Travis.  Roadie is basically Being There with Deliverance’s Hoyt Pollard as the protagonist.  Or maybe just a quasi-Forrest Gump antecedent minus most of the sentimentality.

At the center of the film is the mismatched relationship between Travis and Lola.  These are two extremely flawed people, neither of whose world view is all that appealing.  Travis’ instant love for Lola is amusing.  He declares that, “That’s the first woman I’ve ever known who I’ve cared for as a human being,” after seeing her for a split second.  Lola knows that Travis is into her, and she knows how to manipulate him into getting her way.  Her goal in life is to be a groupie, but first, she has to have sex specifically with Alice Cooper as a sort of deflowering ritual.  Lola delights in her sexuality, but she’s naïve in its meaning and about life in general.  Much like Travis, she wears blinders to allow for her point of view, because nothing else exists or, at the bare minimum, is less than important.  She is thrilled to inform Travis that she’s only sixteen (the grin on her face when she labels herself “jailbait” is a bit bizarre).  She picks up a box of cocaine, thinking it’s Tide laundry detergent, and has it maneuvered off her by a little old lady.  Her usefulness to rock ’n roll lies in her body, not her brains, and she’s okay with that.  At first.  

Travis resents that Lola is eager to give it up to anybody who plays a musical instrument.  He feels protective of her, but he never bothers to tell her this.  It’s easier for him to react to her and lash out as needed; all emotion, no thought.  Lola resents that problem solving comes so easily to Travis, and he is more desired by everyone in the music biz than she is.  She feels that she is meant to be a Muse, but it’s Travis who inspires others.  He powers a concert with manure and solar energy.  He fixes a feedback issue with potatoes.  Their odd couple relationship is essential to the film, but it loses interest due to their steadfastly willful ignorance.  These two are at their best when they both dig in their heels and defy each other, even though I wanted to smack their heads together many, many times.  The film, of course, resolves itself in Hollywood fashion, which not only undercuts the characters but also takes the perspective of one of them as being more “correct” than the other, when both are myopic and rather uninformed.

Any love that a viewer may have for Roadie relies on two things.  First is their desire to spot all the cameos (Roy Orbison, Hank Williams Jr, Peter Frampton, ad infinitum) and listen to some music.  In some ways, it’s a concert film, though it’s hardly Woodstock, being narratively driven as it is.  The performances are staged detours to keep the people who don’t care about the story in their seats.  Even when the characters are not at a concert, any montage on the road is accompanied by a song, using shorthand to portray bonding rather than actual bonding.

Second, and a far higher hurtle to clear, is one’s tolerance for Meatloaf.  While I admire the man’s verve, he is nigh-psychotic throughout the entire film.  Meatloaf is cranked up to a thousand, squirming his body all around, flopping his long, stringy hair thither and yon.  You may have seen Chris Farley’s impression of Meatloaf at some time or another, but let me tell you, Farley captured maybe one-eighth of the actual man’s bounce.  The thing of it is, Meatloaf does show glimmers of talent in front of the camera (and he would go on to prove that he has decent acting chops).  Nevertheless, his bug-eyed performance in Roadie is both grating and a little scary.  Whether this comes from his unfettered enthusiasm, his substance abuse issues, or a combination of both is immaterial.  It’s all there on screen, good, bad, and ugly.  There are several moments when he looks like he legitimately wants to eat whomever it is he is looking at (and I mean that in the cannibal sense, not as some crack against obese people).  The film does muster up some sweetness and charm, but it also does so after screaming in your face for almost its entire length, so it feels more like apologetic backpedaling (right or wrong) than the end game intended from the beginning.

MVT:  There is a wild amount of energy in the film.  To the point of exhaustion, but it’s there.

Make or Break:  The throwdown between Blondie and Snow White (a fictitious[?] band made up of little people) is truly glorious.

Score:  6.25/10

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Dark Waters (1993)

Directed by Mariano Baino
Run Time: 94 minutes

The word that's used a lot describe this movie is Lovecraftian and it does check just about every box on themes found in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. There's a creepy forgotten island, a cultish group hiding a secret, something evil and menacing just lurking out of sight, and the always necessary book of occult knowledge. However this movie has more in common with Argento's Suspiria and Inferno and Fulci's The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery than any of Lovecraft's works. As the overall feel and look of this film has more in common with a supernatural gaillo with Lovecraft elements than a film about horror and terror beyond human understanding.

The movie opens in the early 1970's with a group of nuns standing on a cliff holding crosses. These are nuns belong to the order of the artist nuns and will be found through out the film holding crosses in scenic locations. The focus of the scene is on a nun who's a fan of upside down crosses and a priest who looks like a low budget young stand in for Harvey Keitel. The nun is given a creepy mcguffin plate (like the one in the image at the top of the page) by a young girl and the priest is reading a book of forbidden lore during a violent rain storm. These actions cause a point of view killer to hunt down the nun and the priest in quite beautiful and grim ways to die. The room where the priest is in becomes flooded due to the violence of the rain storm and dies either from the point of view killer or a floating cross.

The nun, being the smarter of the two character, waits until the rain stops and then becomes point of view killer bait. Hoping that high cliffs may scare off the pov killer, the nun holds the evil mcguffin disk and shows it to the ocean. However the pov killer is a quick climber and shoves the nun off the cliff to her death.

Jump twenty years later and we are introduced to Elizabeth. A young woman who grew up on this strange island but after her mother's death left with her father to live in London. Upon her father's death she discovered that her father had been making payments to the order of the artist nuns. So Elizabeth decides to kill two cliches with one action by ignoring her father dying wish and visit the island where she was born. This sends her on the path to pull apart the mystery of the nuns and the terrible secret they hide.

On one hand this is a beautiful and dark film to watch. From the first to last frame this movie is full of memorable moving imagery. Along the lines of Salvator Rosa's Witches that are alive. Then there is the other side of this movie which is made of bullet riddled scraps of paper that masquerades as the plot. Mariano Baino clearly was inspired by Lovecraft and Argento but the narrative is all over the place. The nuns are a menacing force through out the film but it is never clear why. The point of view killer has nothing to do with the plot and just seems to be there to kill people at random. Which leads to the most unforgivable part of this movie, Lovecraft threats are at their best when they are not seen. I can't go into detail without spoiling it but this movie would have been better if the nameless evil was seen less.

That being said it is a solid rental movie and enjoyable dark gothic visual ride with a few bumps here and there.

MVT: The location and (I assume) the residents in the area were the movie was shot. It went a long way to selling feel and atmosphere.

Make or Break: The scene with Elizabeth in her bright red raincoat climbing up a rain swept stairs towards the monastery went a long way to selling me on this movie.

Score: 5.8 out of 10

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Rat Man (1988)

I was not a huge fan of the show Friends, even when it was at its most popular.  Maybe it’s because I was severely inebriated much of the time it was first being shown.  Maybe it’s because these characters and their lifestyle were so alien to me.  Maybe it’s because the show isn’t very good.  Maybe it’s a combination of a multiplicity of factors.  Regardless, there was one bit they did on the show that has always stuck with me, and I still refer to it to this day.  Ditzy blonde Phoebe is talking with smarmy Chandler, and she inquires why Spider-Man isn’t pronounced like Goldman, Silverman, etcetera.  Chandler, astonished by this (more or less his permanent state of being throughout the series), explains that it’s “because it isn’t his last name, like Phil Spiderman.  He’s a Spider…Man.”  I catch myself far too often pronouncing the names of superheroes like Phoebe would, and, even though it’s not laugh out loud funny, I do find it endlessly amusing.  This is possibly the elitist comic book fan in me taking a poke at people who “aren’t in the know” or maybe just taking a poke at elitist comic book fans themselves.  That said, even though Peter Parker is not, in fact, part spider (I’m not as up on the character as I once was, so this may have changed), the little fella dubbed Mousey (Nelson de la Rosa, whom most people know, ironically enough, from the John Frankenheimer/Richard Stanley version of The Island of Dr. Moreau) in Giuliano Carnimeo’s (under the genius pseudonym Anthony Ascot) Rat Man (aka Quella Villa in fondo al Parco, which translates roughly to That Villa at the Bottom of the Park, which may very well be a better title or may simply be the film’s producers desperately trying to cash in on The Last House on the Left sixteen years later; leave it to the Italians to beat a dead horse into glue) most definitely is part rat.  The problem is, he’s also part monkey, so, if anything, the film should have been called Rat Monkey, but I guess that just sounded more like a nature documentary than a horror film.  I would rather watch that fictional documentary than either Friends or Rat Man ever again.

Crusty, sweaty Dr. Olman (Pepito Guerra) is set to unveil Mousey to the world at the next scientician conference when the little rascal makes good his escape.  Next thing you know, bikini models like Marilyn (Eva Grimaldi) are being spied on and chased around, and her sister Terry (the divine Janet Agren) has to team up with perpetually-open-shirted crime writer Fred (David Warbeck) to track her down and save her.  

Rat Man owes the entirety of its existence to two sources.  One is the Slasher film.  On top of Mousey’s natural predilection for murdering people thither and yon accompanied by copious amounts of blood, Carnimeo delights in two types of Slasher-esque shot whenever Mousey is around (which is constantly; this little fucker is more ubiquitous than air).  The first is the classic point of view shot, and, of course, it’s from Mousey’s perspective.  The thing of it is, these POV shots are overused, so they are not nearly as effective as they could be.  Every now and then, it might be nice to build a little tension by not signaling to the audience that the tiny terror is lurking just out of sight.  The second type of shot which is repeated early and often is the extreme closeup.  There are multiple cutaways to a detail of Mousey’s dark, little eyeball.  Later, there are closeups of his fangs and claws as he attacks.  These shots, in my opinion, work better than the flood of POV shots, but even these wear out their welcome and detract from what the audience wants to see, namely, the “critter from the shitter” (that’s part of one of the film’s taglines, and he does, indeed, crawl out of a toilet at one point in the movie) gnawing away at young, pink flesh and innards for minutes on end.

The other major influence on this movie, as you may have guessed, is H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau.  To be more precise, Carnimeo and company ignored the anti-vivisection angle of the novel, focusing on the juicier aspects.  For example, Mousey is a combination of animals in humanoid form.  Dr. Olman walks around in a Panama suit, was shunned by the scientific community for his activities, and cares more about proving the value of his work (the purpose of his experiments is never explained to us) than he does for any living thing.  Olman has a loyal assistant, Tonio, who fills the Montgomery role, though far more incompetently.  Marilyn and skanky photographer Mark (Werner Pochath) come to be at Olman’s villa because of a car wreck instead of a shipwreck, but the effect is the same.  Mousey revolts against Olman and causes havoc on the villa and its occupants, and this is the heart of what the film is in its entirety.  It’s little more than a drawn out, constant stream of “animal” attacks, none of which are suspenseful, and none of which are all that satisfying in the gore department, either.  Why Fred and Terry are in the film at all is mindboggling, since all they do is tool around looking vaguely inquisitive, are flat as a pancake character-wise, and serve no narrative function whatsoever other than to facilitate the indifferently obvious “twist” ending (though, I’ll be honest, I could stare at Agren all day, every day).

I’ve read in several places how this film is supposed to be a sleazy piece of trash.  I can verify the latter half of that statement, but the sleazy part has me confused.  There’s some nudity from Grimaldi, there’s some shitty gore (including a skull sitting in a puddle of what looks like Ragu spaghetti sauce), and Mousey himself certainly appears greasy as all hell.  But outside of that, Rat Man is tame stuff.  Worse than that, it is hardly a movie, as it doesn’t attempt to develop a story in any way.  It’s a very simple idea that, instead of doing anything interesting with, the filmmakers simply padded out with somnolent sequences that don’t go anywhere.  Mousey may be a critter, but perhaps he and this film would have been better off left in the shitter.            

MVT:  I want to give it to Janet Agren, just for being Janet Agren, but I’m going to have to go full-pig and give it to Grimaldi for stripping down and showing off her appreciable assets.

Make or Break:  Probably around the third or fourth time Carnimeo cut back to Terry and Fred driving around in the dark, as if they’re going to find anything remotely interesting in what is the ultimate in cinematic blue balls.

Score:  4.5/10

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Curse of the Dog God (1977)

I don’t know much about Folk Horror other than that, whenever it’s brought up, most people simply point meaningfully to Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man, and their audience nod their heads in enlightened agreement.  And fair play, because that is the ne plus ultra of the subgenre.  From what I understand, Folk Horror is rooted firmly in European traditions, but, when I look at something like Shunya Ito’s Curse of the Dog God (aka Inugami no Tatari), I have to wonder why films from other cultures can’t be included?  Maybe they are, and I’m simply ignorant of the fact, but a lot of Asian Horror that involves itself with the supernatural tends toward the struggle between modernity and tradition.  Perhaps proper Folk Horror’s ties to religious themes is the key, since they specialize in Christian/Pre-Christian ideologies in conflict, and Christianity isn’t the religion that most think of when they think of Asia.  Even in Ito’s film, the only religion represented is Shinto, but the eponymous Dog God is an ancient, rural force taking revenge on a man who is contemporary and interested in exploiting a small village for its Uranium deposits (that is, something which brings more modernity, both good and bad).  Still, this man, Kano (Shinya Ohwada), quickly embraces the concept of the Dog God and the old methods employed to try exorcising it.  Also, there is no ancient sect at the heart of the plot, just some paranoid, superstitious farmers (who happen to be half-right).  With that in mind, I can’t say that the film is Folk Horror by definition, but it is in spirit, at least to some degree.  But, hey, I could be wrong.

Kano and his co-workers race around the countryside looking for Uranium to refine.  On their way to the village of Kugamura, they pull a trifecta of transgressions.  First, they spy on a pair of maidens skinny-dipping (this is really the most innocent of the three, though the women play a crucial part in the remainder of the story).  Then, they run over a shrine (guess who it’s devoted to).  Then, they run over a young boy’s dog, and then they split.  No amount of business success is going to save these guys at this point.

Outside of the Folk Horror shadings, Curse of the Dog God is a story of supernatural revenge that stems from several sources.  First, it is pure vengeance, as the outsiders take advantage of the villagers and their land.  Granted, the villagers are paid for their property, but the fact that this company rolls in and starts digging in the mountains, despoiling its natural purity is important.  Kano marries Reiko (Jun Izumi), daughter of one of the men whose land Kano wants to lease.  Despite Reiko and Kano’s statements that they are genuinely in love, it still feels exploitive, or maybe it was at first, but true love developed (we’re never shown this progression, so we have to fill in some blanks).  Therefore, on the one hand, the Dog God is attacking to protect its home turf and for the disrespect it has been shown by these outsiders.  On the other hand, there is the angle of human love and jealousy.  The Dog God, apparently, does not invoke itself but rather is invoked through someone else in a Pumpkinhead sort of way.  The person accused of this is Kaori (Emiko Yamauchi), Reiko’s longtime friend and daughter of a farmer who refused to lease his part of the mountain to Kano and his cohorts.  Kaori also loves Kano, and since she didn’t win his favor (because her dad didn’t acquiesce to Kano’s business dealings, most likely), she wants to remove the competition.  

Yet, even this doesn’t completely explain the mechanics of this sinister force.  In fact, it’s never entirely discernible exactly what, who, or why the Dog God is what it is or does what it does.  There is no exposition clearly detailing what the Dog God wants, what will sate its appetites, or why it chooses whom it does to possess.  It is nebulous and fickle, like the natural world from which it springs.  The one thing it definitely desires is the destruction of Kano and anyone in contact with him.  Even when Kano makes a strong connection with the village and becomes genuinely concerned for the welfare of its inhabitants, he is still a target.  Kano becomes the redemptive hero once certain events and facts come to light, but the Dog God truly doesn’t care.  This encompasses a level of innocence corrupted, not only of the land but of its people.  Young Isamu’s (Junya Kato) innocence dies with his dog, Taro.  The boy is bent on making Kano’s life miserable, going so far as to pelt him in the face with a rock at Kano’s wedding.  The villagers themselves become corrupted, physically by the byproduct of the Uranium mining and spiritually by the superstitions to which they cling.  The turmoil of their traditions vying with their more mercenary desire for money and what this allows into the village breaks them down.  They do not accept that their choices caused any catastrophes they experience.  It has to be caused by the Dog God, so the obvious thing to do is attack the only family in the village who didn’t join in selling out, and that would be Kaori and Isamu’s.  Interestingly, their family were outsiders before any of this happened.  When things go tits up, they are only further ostracized and persecuted.  Finally, there is Mako (Masami Hasegawa), Reiko’s younger sister.  She is friends with Isamu, and she alone tries to bridge the gap between the oddball family and the rest of the village.  Nevertheless, there is a secret in her own family that marks her as corruptible as well, and the Dog God is, if nothing else, an equal opportunity defiler.

Ito brings a nice sense of style to the proceedings, just as he did to no less than three of the famous Female Prisoner Scorpion films, including the arguable best of the bunch: Jailhouse 41.  There are Dutch Angles galore, and Ito does some truly haunting things with lighting throughout the film.  My main problems are twofold.  First and foremost is the point that none of the characters are interesting, with the exception of Mako.  Confoundingly, she also gets the least development and/or attention paid to her until the very end, but by that point, anything that happens to her feels like it’s brought about simply because she’s one of the last characters in the film.  Kano is a slab, and both Reiko and Kaori’s fawning over him is inexplicable, even moreso since we have seen none of how their relationships grew to start off.  There’s no real reason for the audience to care about them.  Additionally, is the fact that the Dog God appears to play by a set of rules we are not only not privy to but that change at a moment’s notice just because.  While this part of the whole setup, it makes for some chaotic viewing.  Thus, Curse of the Dog God is mildly intriguing for how different it is, but this is also the same reason it just doesn’t succeed like it should.

MVT:  Ito’s professionalism and devotion to his craft shines through.

Make or Break:  The big finale plays it as straight as the film ever will, and this part, at least, works like gangbusters.

Score:  6.5/10