Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Maniac (1934)

I have only ever seen a live freak show one time.  I don’t remember when it was or which of any number of annual county fairs it may have been at, but I did see one many years ago.  Don’t misunderstand, there wasn’t much to see.  There was a sword swallower, a tattooed lady (she didn’t have a thing on the Suicide Girls, but still…), and an alligator man (note to rubes: simply a guy with icthyosis).  I was young enough to love every minute of it, even the mannequins made up like various freaks in a poor man’s version of the Mütter Museum.  So naturally, I also fell for the come-on to take a gander at what was behind the dark curtain.  Again, I don’t recall the wording exactly, but I fell fast for this hard sell.  Next thing you know, I’m one dollar poorer and standing in a partitioned corner of the tent staring at replicas of deformed babies in suspension:  babies sharing a head, babies sharing a torso, and so forth.  I can’t say it wasn’t interesting to look at, but let’s face it, if someone says they want to show you the Egress and then escorts you out the door and onto the street, you’re likely to be hit with a mix of aggravation and admiration.  I don’t think I’d want to go see a modern freak show like Jim Rose’s for the simple fact that part of the fun of old school freak shows was in being taken advantage of.  To my thinking, the modern versions are more “freak” than “show,” and that’s not really entertainment to me.

Dr. Meirschultz (Horace Carpenter) wants to try out his new life-restoring serum on the corpse of a young woman who recently turned up in the morgue.  Strong-arming assistant and former actor Maxwell (William Woods) into impersonating the coroner, the two skulk into the morgue and perform their experiment with successful results (kind of).  But Meirschultz wants to get a victim with a “shattered heart” in which to transplant the heart he has been keeping alive in his lab.  Resisting the doctor, Maxwell winds up shooting the older man and, instead of getting the hell out of there, decides to impersonate the madman and carry on in his name.  And that’s about the first ten minutes.

Anyone who is in any way a fan of Genre and Exploitation Cinema should know the name Dwain Esper.   Basically, what he and his wife, Hildegarde Stadie, would do was take their little films, like Maniac (aka Sex Maniac), from town to town and exhibit them in roadshow style at local theaters and burlesque houses, appealing to the prurient interest of both male and female audiences.  Well-versed in the carnival tradition, Esper was no dummy, and he knew how to both satisfy his audience and skirt decency laws.  Essentially, he advertised his films as being educational or, barring that, moralistic and therefore uplifting to his audience’s character.  This is why there are often text cards or crawls which interrupt the film’s story (such as it is)to give the audience some cursory edification about a given subject (for example, medical descriptions of Dementia Praecox, Paranoiacs, Paresis, and Manic-Depressive Psychoses).  The restrictive Hays Code (aka the Motion Picture Production Code) was enacted into law in 1930 and started being enforced in 1934 (and would be in effect until 1968) by the Breen Office which was a giant thorn in the side of exploitationeers, but this in no way slowed down Esper and his wife.  This is the ball which such luminaries of Exploitation as Kroger Babb (of the infamous Mom And Dad), H.G. Lewis, and Roger Corman would pick up and run with (not always in the right direction, but that it moved at all is significant) for decades to come.  And his influence is still felt today, in my opinion.

When we think of the past (or at least when I do, and particularly the past as depicted in visual media of the day), it is typically very clean, sanitized in a way.  It’s not the past, per se, but how its producers want the past to be remembered.  People didn’t have genitals (a notable exception to this being actress and libertine Louise Brooks).  People didn’t die violently.  The good guys always won.  The State always had its people’s best interests in mind rather than its own agenda.  It’s a fabrication, but damn if it hasn’t become the truth (or the popular truth, at any rate).  Film’s like this one are examples of sleaze which feel more transgressive for the times in which they were created, because we (okay, me) still have it in our heads that what we’ve been show about this era is honest for the most part.  So you feel a little dirtier seeing a woman’s bare breasts as she’s virtually raped by Maxwell’s latest patient, Buckley (Ted Edwards).  It feels somehow more wrong watching an erstwhile actor pop out a cat’s eyeball and eat it (though I’m fairly sure they didn’t actually do that on set, to be honest) in the film’s most (in)famous scene.  Of course, after having seen such transgressive films as Cannibal Holocaust and Salò, Maniac feels a bit old-fashioned, but it still doesn’t feel 100% okay, either.  

Intriguingly (and it’s almost metatextual, in a way), the film also deals with appearances and truth.  Maxwell is a gifted mimic, and he starts off impersonating the coroner.  And yet, after taking on Meirschultz’s persona, he quickly becomes as insane as the doctor ever was, his appearance becoming the truth.  What we see is Meirschultz, and what we get is Meirschultz, even though it’s not.  Ironically, Maxwell will attain the apotheosis of his acting career by completely becoming the deceased scientist and successfully carrying on his maniacal work in actuality.  He is the two people at once, but his original calling (the theater) is at last fulfilled by fulfilling this new one (mad science).  In the same way that Dr. Mabuse’s evil transcended his physical being to infect others, insanity in this film is contagious and “…our defense against a world which is not of our making or to our liking.”  In other words, if you’re not careful, you could very easily go as insane as any of the people in this film (or, say, the person sitting next to you watching this picture).  With a level of theatricality somewhere in the stratosphere and all the technical virtuosity of moldy bread, this is in no way, shape, or form a well-made or even a good film.  This is insanity on celluloid and a peek under the antiseptic veneer of a past so meticulously cultivated since its inception, it’s difficult to fathom that things like this could ever have existed back then.  But I absolutely love that they did.

MVT:  At a scant hour long runtime, the amount of pure craziness that infests every frame of this film is bewildering.  You not only don’t have a second’s respite to consider that everything about the film is bullshit, but you also don’t have a second’s respite to figure out if you’re not as nuts as the characters on screen. 

Make Or Break:  There’s a reason why the cat’s eye scene is so talked about (in the same way that similar scenes are talked about in films as variegated as Zombi 2, Un Chien Andalou, and Thriller: En Grym Film), but let’s be honest; You could unspool this film onto your floor, sit in the middle of the celluloid pile and point at any arbitrary frame, and you almost certainly would still point to a scene which makes this movie such a deviant pleasure to behold.

Score:  6.75/10

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Episode #207: The Halloween Trilogy

Welcome to a festive and very special episode of the GGtMC!!!

This week the boys at the GGtMC roped in editor-in-chief extraordinaire Death Rattle Aaron and the Legend DZ (from Cinema Diabolica) for coverage of the first three Halloween films!! Thats right, Halloween (1978) directed by John Carpenter, Halloween II (1981) directed by Rick Rosenthal and Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) directed by Tommy Lee Wallace and starring Tom Atkins!!!

This was a great conversation and we had such a good time that we cant wait to have them both on again soon!!!!

Direct download: Halloween_Trilogy.mp3

Emails to

Voicemails to 206-666-5207


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Monday, October 29, 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

Trick or Treats (1982)

Gary Graver must have been in competition with a fellow filmmaker to see who could make a film with more padding. That’s all that “Trick or Treats” is! Pointless scene after pointless scene after pointless scene. Occasionally, he’d grace us with a scene that furthers the plot. I guess there was an asterik in the contract that stated the filmmaker must at least have a coherent story.

Graver picked a genre that allows for a lot of padding. “Trick or Treats” is a slasher film set on Halloween. It’s about a babysitter who is being stalked by an escaped mental patient. For some reason, this plot makes me think of a William Shatner mask. The psychopath doesn’t wear a mask and, at the beginning, seems quite normal. He’s a millionaire minding his own business by the pool when his wife calls the mental institution on him. Two guards chase him around his backyard until they strap him in a straight jacket.

This scene, as well as many others, are played out in a comedic tone. The whole film almost is, in fact. “Trick or Treats” is labeled as a horror, but is more of a comedy. Graver consistently builds to punch lines, not tension. I wouldn’t criticize this so harshly, as a lot of the “Friday the 13th” films do the same. The difference between those films and this is that the payoff is satisfactory.

Admittedly, some of the padding in the film works. The rich brat that Linda (Jackelyn Giroux) is babysitting is a miniature Houdini and devises quite a few amusing pranks on her. The first time she meets him is when he uses his makeshift guillotine (which, apparently, has a real fucking blade) to look as if his head was sliced. He also uses these gags to hit on her. He pretends to drown later in the film solely to have her give him CPR. These gags run their course pretty quickly, but the young actor is quite charismatic, making most of them work.

Even the killer (whose name I honestly can’t remember) has his fair share of comedic moments. When we hear of his plan to break out of the asylum, he’s confiding in a fellow patient. Said patient is a Robin Williams impersonator who cackles maniacally. In fact, all of the patients dementia are painted in broad strokes. It can be a hoot to watch, if not insulting to those dealing with mental issues.

The killer finally escapes after attacking a nurse and stealing her clothing. He spends half of the film prowling the streets pretending to be a woman. The town is full of morons as the men constantly hit on him. I guess they couldn’t notice the hairy arms and huge Adam’s Apple. He finally ditches the clothing after holding a homeless man up with a knife and stealing his clothes. He never hurts the man, though.

That’s the peculiar thing about him. He never kills any of his victims. Both the nurse and the homeless man were spared. We know his motivation is to track down and punish his wife and her new hubby (played by David Carradine, of all people) for locking him in an insane asylum. He doesn’t seem to hold beef with anybody else. He even feels remorse when he accidentally attacks a woman he believed to be his wife. This causes confusion for the viewer, as one can’t tell if we’re supposed to despise him or sympathize with him. Graver never makes it quite clear.

Remember how I briefly mentioned David Carradine earlier? That’s because characters come in and out in this film to pass the time. Linda has a boyfriend who’s acting in a play that constantly calls her. There are only two reasons he exists. One is to pad the film. The second is to taunt Linda when she gets mysterious calls from the killer and accidentally snaps on him. She has a few friends that pop up near the end (who are film editors who believe that they make the film and the directors take all of the credit) that do the exact same thing.

Do you understand what I’m getting at? This film practically has nothing going for it. It’s got a basic plot and does almost nothing of importance with it. Sure, some of the humor does work and (barely) keeps the viewer’s attention. That evaporates quickly when it becomes recycled and goes nowhere. The only other aspect holding one’s attention is that it’s on Halloween. For those of you that love the holiday like I do, seeing decorations and kids trick or treating is enchanting.

Oh, and the film is set in Las Vegas. This is said in passing once and only shown via a shot of a casino once. Any other time it seems as if we’re in any other town in the United States (say Haddonfield, for example). Why set the film in Las Vegas and never do anything with it? Why not just place it in a regular town? It’s infuriating!

MVT: I don’t know the actor’s name, but the kid who played the rich brat. That kid had spunk and made his drawn out scenes marginally watchable!

Make or Break: Not one scene in particular, but the sixty minute mark. This film is a little over eighty minutes and, by that time, nothing had actually happened. That broke the film for me and proved that Graver didn’t care about tension or character development.

Final Score: 3.75/10

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Lost Continent (1968)

For a brief time in the late 90s, I lived in the Philadelphia area.  Not as massive and overbearing as New York City nor as unrelentingly bright and politically correct as Los Angeles (not that I’m against either city; they’re simply not for me), I found Philadelphia and myself to be a pretty good fit.  There was just enough grime and crime to make it exciting and just enough events to attend to make you feel culturally uplifted (even if said events happened to include grubby loincloths and the spraying of bodily fluids).  Parking was for shit, especially near any place you actually wanted to go, but the one thing that made Philly easy to navigate is that it is essentially a series of concentric circles (okay, squares, but I think you get the picture).  You could start on either the outside or inside and gradually work your way down or up to your chosen destination quite readily.  Naturally, knowing a few shortcuts never hurt, and there was always those places you would need to get to (as opposed to wanting to get to) which seemed almost purposefully hidden (and I’m thinking here of the UPS depot in South Philly, specifically).  Yet, going to these places was like finding a new city entirely in some ways, and even if you hadn’t a clue what street it was you had just passed, you knew that your objective would inevitably be just ahead, just a couple of streets away, always attainable.  Of course, having not lived there for some time, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what negotiating the area is like nowadays.

Captain Lansen (Eric Porter) has his ship, The Corita, leave its latest port hellbent for leather.  Aboard the vessel are a motley gathering of malcontents including (but not limited to) Harry Tyler (Tony Beckley, whom you may recognize from Doctor Who’s “The Seeds Of Doom” storyline), Eva Peters (Hildegard Knef), and Unity Webster (Suzanna Leigh).  It seems that the good captain has taken on a load of Phosphor-B, which is not only illegal but also highly comburent when it comes in contact with water.  Needless to say, the ship is heading into an oncoming hurricane.  After some of the characters come through that ordeal they then have to deal with the man-eating seaweed which is pulling The Cordita into a waterborne naval graveyard and its inhospitable inhabitants.

Michael Carreras’s The Lost Continent is an adaptation of the 1938 novel by renowned fantasist/occultist Dennis Wheatley.  The film was produced by Hammer Studios, and it bears that traditionalist feel associated with so many of Hammer’s efforts.  The film takes its time setting up all these characters and then takes its time also fleshing them out (or fleshing them out as much as it ever could).  There is not a lot of visual flair or ostentatious camerawork, and the camera only moves when it is necessary and never without motivation.  It gives off an air of “production,” a place for everything and everything in its place, and keeps the viewers at arm’s length even when trying to get them to invest in the trials and tribulations of the characters.  This is one of those films where you become very aware of the ambient sound that overtakes a scene when the characters are not speaking.  It’s one of the things I love about movies, that tangible silence that you only get in this medium, and it’s something that’s not seen often in more recent films, for better or worse (and I vote the latter, but that’s just me).  

To a man (or woman, depending on your perspective), the characters are misanthropes of the first order.  Harry is an inveterate souse.  Eva is a thief.  Unity is a spoiled brat.  Lansen is just an all-around jerk.  Even after placing these characters in the path of danger, it is extremely difficult to drum up any sense of sympathy for all but a few of them.  Sure, we get the reasoning behind why these people have had to flee their pasts and take off for Caracas.  But we just don’t care.  In fact, we almost want the ship to go down (I did; you may not) and put these people out of our misery quickly.  Alas, no such luck.

The titular land mass is interesting not only in its concept but in its execution.  Apparently, this deadly sargassum snares ships which happen to hit it and draw them in, eventually crushing their hulls and forming a de facto continent.  There is little actual land mass which makes up the area, being comprised mostly of seaweed which can be traversed with the aid of some balloons and snowshoe-type devices.  The entire region is enshrouded with fog, which is most likely due to budget constraints, but it also serves a purpose diegetically.  It is the gateway (along with the hurricane, in the same tradition as The Wizard Of Oz, sort of) to this new world, which is actually nothing more than a very old world cut off from modern society.  Intriguingly, there are several ways to look at this in the story.  It’s possible that the passengers on The Corita did not make it through the hurricane; That they have died, and their souls have been deposited in Hell to atone for their sins.  The Lost Continent is the afterlife, its inhabitants the damned.  Another way to look at it is in the juxtaposition of El Supremo (Darryl Read) and his religious fanatics versus the modern newcomers.  The Boy-God believes that he is there to civilize the people stranded on the continent, but he and others in his thrall will be civilized (for good or ill) by Lansen and company, but judging from the way the newbies treat each other, perhaps the zealots would be better off just going about their business.

What ultimately drags the film down, though, is its wildly uneven pacing.  The story starts off like a Disaster Film, with the characters having to overcome not only the obstacles which nature throws at them but also being wrapped up in their individual melodramas.  When the ship hits the eponymous expanse (which incidentally isn’t until the final half hour or so), the film suddenly switches into High Adventure mode, with bizarre, rubbery monsters flung at the screen just to give viewers something to look at or to get rid of the odd character.  Fair enough, but it short changes the fantastic segment of the story, and, consequently, the ending feels rushed and perfunctory.  Add to that, the characters act almost exactly like they did before anything bad happened to them, as everything goes down the tubes.  I suppose you could chalk it up to the legendary British “stiff upper lip,” but it just comes off as baffling and unsatisfying.  Not even the appearance of Dana Gillespie (and let’s face it, she does little more than fill the standard Hammer quotient of buxom beauties, with her cleavage a special effect unto itself) can make the film worthy of any serious praise.  For a film titled The Lost Continent, it gives very little indication that it cares enough to actually be about the Lost Continent.

MVT:  The interplay between the characters is engaging in that every one of them seemingly has nothing but open contempt for any or all of the others.  It keeps the conflict level high.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t do the same for the entertainment level.

Make Or Break:  The battle between the giant crab and giant scorpion is the best scene in the film (and if you’ve seen stills of it, you have a perfect idea of exactly how exciting it is).  Regrettably, however, it is too short to appease and too clumsily executed to impress.  If you can make it through the rest of the film for this, I suppose you know exactly what it is you want out of this film.

Score:  5.5/10

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Episode #206: A Conversation with Thomas Jane

Welcome to a special episode of the GGtMC!!!

This week, Will, Sammy and the Almighty Dave Allcock have a conversation with Thomas Jane. Tom is an actor in some very big films you may have seen such as The Mist, Stander, Dark Country (which he also directed) and Boogie Nights!!!

I want to emphasize that this is very much an unstructured conversation with some structure from time to time but it is mostly four movie geeks having a conversation and talking cinema!!! We believe you have become accustomed to that type of conversation here at the GGtMC.

Check out Tom's comics and other projects over at

Direct download: TJ_Int1.mp3

Emails to

Voicemails 206-666-5207


Monday, October 22, 2012

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

Deadly Blessing (1981)

The Hittites are what most people believe the Amish to be. A religiously crazed society that shuns off the outside world. The idea of technology frightens them. They accuse those who don’t follow in their path as worshipers of Satan (or the Incubus, as stated numerous times throughout this film). In reality, the Amish are kind and gentle folk who work hard and are polite to others. It’s true they don’t use technology, but they don’t necessarily view it as the devil’s work. To them, it’s an advancement they don’t need in their lives, nor do they want it to consume it.

While it’s easy to look at the depiction of the Hittites in “Deadly Blessing” and see mockery, it’s not quite that. If Wes Craven’s intention was to slander the Amish, he wouldn’t have made up his own religious cult to center the film around. He actually sticks up for the Amish when he has one of the characters state, “The Hittites make the Amish look like swingers!” Not a robust defense, but it’s sufficient.

There’s no sin of pretense present in “Deadly Blessing”. The only cardinal sin being committed is monotony. The film’s pace moves slower than a snail and it suffers heavily from an identity crisis. It’s marketed as a thriller, but plays more like a drama a good seventy-five percent of the time. The horrific elements Craven lines up seem shoehorned in. It’s as if he originally intended to make a drama about different cultures colliding and the producers wanted him to crank out another horror film. Therefore, he shoved a bunch of scares and murders in to appease them.

The film starts out seemingly as a drama. John (Jeff East) and Martha Schmidt (Maren Jensen) are a happily married couple living in the countryside. He’s a natural farmer, as he was raised by Isaiah (Ernest Borgnine), a strict Hittite who shuns the outside world. He shuns his son as well when he goes off to college and comes back with Martha. Having already inherited the house, the couple stays there and farm as a way of standing their ground.

One night in his shed, John is run over by his tractor. It’s clear this isn’t the work of the paranormal and that of homicide. It’s written off as an accident, but it’s quite hard to run yourself over with a tractor if you’re not driving it. All fingers point towards William Gluntz (Michael Berryman), a slow Hittite who causes trouble wherever he goes. He’s shortly disposed of, leaving the killer a mystery.

This would work as a thriller if Craven didn’t constantly forget about the killer. There are long stretches where we get the obligatory culture clashes between Martha and the Hittites. Her neighbors are the only two around her that aren’t Hittite and help fend them off. Her two best friends, Lana Marcus (Sharon Stone) and Vicky Anderson (Susan Buckner), arrive to help her cope with her loss and clash with the Hittites, as well.

I won’t spoil the extremely lame twist, but I will state it doesn’t make much sense. Even with the little development the killer angle had, one would assume it would have to do with the Hittites. After all, their beliefs and hostility towards Martha is heavily established. As you can probably tell, such is not quite the case.

The performances do help in attracting some attention to the film. Maren Jensen handles herself well in the female protagonist role. I was quite impressed with her shock in finding her husband dead. It was a believable response that actually touched me. Ernest Borgnine turns in a splendid performance as the wicked Isaiah. He was the only one who could channel both the drama and horror elements of the story at once. Sharon Stone, in one of her earliest roles, is adequate as Lana (and man, was she gorgeous). Michael Berryman has fun hamming it up in his brief appearance.

The only other thing worthy of note is a scene that would be played out once again by Craven a few years later in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. One of the most iconic scenes from that film is of Freddy’s hand rising out of the bathtub which Nancy is bathing in. Here, Martha is bathing in a tub when the killer sneaks in and tosses a snake in. In almost the same angle and shot, the snake slowly rises out of the water and stares her in the face. The only difference here is she notices it and we get a brief showdown.

Other than that, “Deadly Blessing” is a forgettable bore! The pacing is slow, the tone is all over the place and the film is simply boring. The countryside setting is never used to it’s full advantage and, as the end result shows, the Hittites weren’t used to their full potential. It was a novel idea, but a bland execution. One of Craven’s weakest films!

MVT: Ernest Borgnine would be the only reason I’d ever recommend checking this out. He turns in a strong performance as Isaiah!

Make or Break: I’m going with the long stretch of time between John and William’s death and the next attack. That part plays out like a drama which is where the tone of the film was broken.

Final Score: 3.75/10

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Smile (1975)

I hate reality TV shows.  Wait.  Let me try to be more specific.  I hate modern reality TV shows.  Oh, I didn’t always.  I admit I actually liked the first few seasons of The Real World.  Never mind that MTV had been in danger of being irrelevant as early as 1984 (feel free to debate the merits of that statement).  The idea of bringing together a microcosm of young adults and giving the viewer access to some of the most personal moments (or at least what we assumed were the most personal moments, since the majority of drama on the show was, if not manufactured, certainly not entirely truthful) was a good one; Come to understand people different from yourself by observing a representative (black, Latino, gay, Irish, white, whatever) go through their daily life.    It was never going to be as groundbreaking as 1973’s An American Family nor as honest, and in short order the whole affair became about celebrity rather than comprehension.  It became more important to be a spotlight-hogging jerkoff than a bona fide member of the human race (and the question of whether they’re one and the same should keep you up at night).  

So, naturally, reality TV (a misnomer in the extreme) became more and more prevalent.  Why?  Well, in my mind, there are two reasons.  One, producers realized that for much less money than a scripted show, they could make huge profits (and it’s called “show business” not “show charity”).  Two, they appeal to human beings’ morbid curiosity to gawk at others’ misfortunes, like rubbernecking at a car accident.  The problem is what does this say about us as a society?  More people know about Beard Wars than they do about the war in Afghanistan.  More people give a bigger shit about who will win American Idol than they do about who will win the next presidential election.  More people can name the “cast members” of Hardcore Pawn than can name the countries which made up the Axis in World War Two.   It now seems that absolutely everyone in the world, regardless of how inconsequential they are (perceived or otherwise) can have a reality TV show.  When Andy Warhol stated that, “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes” in 1968, it’s arguable whether or not he foresaw the reign of reality TV off on the horizon.  His quote rings more of a curse than it does a prophecy, from this vantage point at least.  It’s rare for me to not consider other viewpoints when thinking about these sorts of things, but it bears repeating: I hate reality TV.  You should, too.  It lowers not only those on display but those watching it.  It’s the modern equivalent of the geek show.  And when’s the last time they were thought of as acceptable entertainment?  Now, you can argue the other side until you’re blue in the face.  And you would be wrong.  I feel dirty just discussing it for this length of time, and I can certainly go on, but we’re here to talk about Michael Ritchie’s Smile (you got the screed for free; you’re welcome).

The Young American Miss pageant is underway, and the event in Santa Rosa, California will choose who goes on to the National contest from that state.  The film centers on several of the teen girls, including Robin (Joan Prather), Doria (Annette O’Toole), and Connie (Colleen Camp).  Running the pageant is Wilson (Geoffrey Lewis), and he is assisted by Brenda (Barbara Feldon), and head judge Big Bob (Bruce Dern).  But as the competition draws nearer, the personal lives of the entrants and the officials complicate things.

As a satire of pageant mentality, the film succeeds marvelously.  By basing the structure on duality, screenwriter Jerry Belson is able to focus on surfaces, both in our fascination with them as well as the way they mask truth.  For every scene of teen girls smiling, dancing, or answering inane questions, we get scenes of the tribulations of the girls and pageant officials.  Brenda’s husband Andy (Nicholas Pryor) is the suicidal town drunk.  Big Bob’s son, Little Bob (Eric Shea), and his pals have a pervy scheme going to make money off nude Polaroids of the girls.  Big-shot choreographer Tony French (Michael Kidd) is on the skids and desperate for work.  Newcomer Robin doesn’t understand how pageants work but gets an education from roommate Doria.  The point is, most of these characters are absolutely miserable when they’re not “on.”  As Brenda tells the girls early on, “just be yourselves, and keep smiling.”  This is not simply advice for aspiring contestants, this is how these characters cope with their lives.  It’s better to put on a happy face and be tormented inside than to let anyone ever think that everything is absolutely honky dory.  

Big Bob sums it up to Andy best: “I just learned a long time ago to accept a little less from life, that’s all.”  This is why Big Bob is the happiest person in the film, alone or in public.  He has trained himself to be happy being unhappy.  This is why he espouses the traditional values professed in the pageant “manifesto.”  He does believe in them, because he needs to believe in them.  To confront that life is anything less than perfect based on what you’re given is to confront his entire life as a lie and to admit that he is dissatisfied. 

Conversely, it is Andy who sums up Big Bob perfectly: “You’re a goddamned Young American Miss.”   
The absurdity of the goings-on make up the core of the film’s humor, but it’s entirely plausible.  The girls are interviewed by the judges and given generally slow pitch questions, and almost to a person, they answer the questions with some version of the good they want to do with their life, the charity they want to contribute to, and the succor they want to give to their fellow man.  Of course, Robin then gets asked about her views on abortion (by the priest on the panel).  But after floundering for a bit, she comes back with the “pageant-ready” statement that she’s glad she isn’t young enough to vote.  What’s interesting here is twofold.  One, Robin resists becoming like the more aggressive, exploitive girls, but we see instances where she begins to bare her teeth.  It’s subtle, never arch, and very effective both in writing and in performance.  Two, the filmmakers understand that beauty pageants are purposeless displays of hot flesh masquerading as substantive showcases for truly talented young people.  Yet, they never rub the viewers face in this.  They know what’s going on and they give the audience credit for knowing, as well and not patronizing them by taking easy shots.  

This is also part of the film’s biggest problem which is its pacing.  While it starts off at a breakneck pace, flipping between characters, the film soon finds itself getting mired down in trying to be equable to too many of its characters.  It gives us long scenes which have nothing at all to do with the contest, and it kills the frenetic momentum built up in those scenes.  But it must also be stated that the filmmakers’ care and investment in the characters shows through.  These are not strictly one-dimensional people, and the lengthy sketching out of their individual foibles goes a long way in illustrating the point that this truly is a microcosm in the film, not in what we see but in what we don’t.  In summation, then, the film is highly entertaining, hysterically funny at times, and thoughtfully conceived so you get more than a great Comedy.  But it’s a great Comedy, too.

MVT:  The script by Belson is razor sharp in its dialogue and the interplay between the characters.  We do feel bad for these people in as much as we enjoy laughing at the ridiculousness of their lives.  It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and while it doesn’t pull it off without a few bumps, it does pull it off.

Make Or Break:  The talent portions of the pageant Make the film.  They are not a single scene, and more often than not, are snippets rather than whole acts, but they are believably ludicrous, and I personally almost did spit takes at several points.  Ah, comedy.

Score:  7/10

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