Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Primal Rage (1988)

Music and cinema have been linked together since the invention of the motion picture medium. While most films had their own scores written for them for a long time, the idea of source music (that is, pre-existing music) and movies combined has been around since before the talkies. Pianists and organists used to play either improvised scores or a compilation of repertory numbers over a silent movie before the studios homogenized the experience with cue sheets to be played with specific pictures. 

This symbiosis sometimes went the other way, with many films taking their titles and sometimes stories from popular songs. Everything from Take This Job And Shove It to Harper Valley PTA inspired films. Sam Peckinpah got into the act with Convoy, and The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia took its story from Tanya Tucker's cover of Vicki Lawrence's popular Southern Gothic song (the lyrics are somewhat different between the two). It's interesting that Hollywood took songs which were already heavy on storytelling (and story) for their bases. This inevitably brings us around to today's subject – Vittorio Rambaldi's Primal Rage (aka Furia Primitiva), inspired by the classic house music anthem by CLS & Wax. Wait a minute. That's completely incorrect. Aw, crap.

On a Florida college campus, filled with Jazzercising coeds and atrocious synth rock, young student (really?) newspaper photographer, Sam (Patrick Lowe, I don't believe he's a relation to Rob), scooters around, snapping pix. He Meets Cute with Lauren (Cheryl Arutt) and the two hit it off. Fellow cub reporter, Duffy (Mitch Watson, but I'll leave the His Girl Friday jokes to you), wants to nail local vivisectionist and all-around bizarro, Dr. Ethridge (Bo Svenson, sporting a very Clayton-Forrester-esque pony/rat tail), whose work in revitalizing brain cells involves baboon torture. Needless to say, Duffy and the now-even-more hostile monkey don't hit it off (unlike our adorable leads), and soon Duffy breaks out in ropy saliva and broken blood vessels and takes to creating havoc around town. As more people are infected and killed, Sam and Lauren endeavor to put a stop to the carnage and save their friends.

This is an odd, little thing of a movie. It essentially plays like a tween/young adult school story/soap opera with gore and rape (okay, attempted rape). We have all the elements: Two young, pretty, fairly innocent but resourceful youngsters who fall in love but find obstacles to their happiness, a new friend who is returning to school after a trying emotional experience, a free-thinking, truth-seeking rulebreaker who gets in over his head, and evil jock/fratboys who think only with their muscles and penises (I guess that would still be muscles, wouldn't it?) are mixed together as we've seen a thousand times before. You could take a list of movies produced in the 1980s for the 16 to 25 crowd, throw a dart, and almost always hit some slight variation on this formula. Add in some gore effects, and the confection is complete. And like many a delicacy from this time period, once you get done, you feel a curious mixture of satiation and malaise.

The jock characters, in particular, are singled out as almost comically villainous. They sneer and snarl at Sam and Duffy. They leer at Deb (Sarah Buxton) and Lauren. They work out and booze it up, even after being infected (come on, you didn't honestly think they wouldn't be, did you?). They kidnap and attempt a brutal rape on Deb. There is nothing even remotely tethering these characters to reality. I have always found this a curious movie trope. For how many millions of people enjoy and play sports (I am not one of them, just so all our cards are on the table), jocks are almost always portrayed on film as thugs, animals, and morons. Why don't more jocks complain? The other characters are just as stock, but they don't stick out quite so markedly.

The film posits, again primarily through the jock characters, that we are all animals at heart. The infection started by the baboon is merely a key for people to act the way they actually want to, to live out their wish fulfillment fantasies. And then things turn bad. This hues closely to David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly, but where his treatment of the subject was intelligent, trenchant, and horrifyingly sad, Rambaldi's take sticks strictly to the surface. Of course, this also plays into Cronenberg's depiction of disease and body horror. Here, at least, Primal Rage does attempt to inject some pathos into the proceedings. Sam and Lauren want to help their affected friends, but Deb and Duffy only want to attack, slaves and victims to their infection. They try to fight back their murderous urges, sometimes even successfully, but ultimately they succumb to sickness.

Svenson is the consummate professional in the cast, and he truly does strive to bring something interesting to his character. Admittedly, coke-bottle glasses and a nasty pony tail aren't character but characteristics. Yet, Svenson plays Ethridge as a man who is playing God but probably shouldn't be. He's quiet, his mannerisms are quirky, and he speaks as if he is obviously better than everyone else. Ethridge contains a subtle hubris and the performance here is a pleasant change of pace from mad scientists of the past. Don't get me wrong, he's still batshit crazy, but Svenson's aloof placidity conveys a deeply creepy vibe about the man, his actions, and his motivations. In a movie loaded with over the top aspects, it's nice to see something which is still hammy but underplayed.

When it's all boiled down, though, Primal Rage exists only as an entertainment, and that entertainment's value is focused on and built around Carlo Rambaldi's special effects. The baboon animatronics are effective, if slightly exaggerated, but that gives the audience the sense that the monkey has changed in a substantial and fundamental manner. The gore is plentiful and nicely handled. It all culminates with the big campus Halloween party (doesn't it always?). Of course, this is a great excuse for mass butchery. But the film then puts the focus on the infected jocks stalking and hunting Sam and Lauren through the school's desolate hallways. There's some compelling tension built in these scenes. The problem is they stick around just a tad longer than they should. The final scene and shot of the film is quintessentially 80s, music and all. If you can stand the cheese, you'll find a nominal diversion, but outside some nice special effects work, there's nothing here you haven't seen before.

MVT: Carlo Rambaldi's effects are the showcase of the film, and they deliver when they finally show up.

Make or Break: The "Make" is the scene with Ethridge experimenting on the baboon. It's a cogent set up, has some solid puppet work, and gives Svenson a chance to establish how he's approaching this particular mad scientist.

Score: 6/10

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