Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Pit (1981)

Young Jamie Benjamin (Sammy Snyders) isn’t very well-liked around town.  Marge Livingstone (Laura Hollingsworth), the local librarian, is leery of him.  Her niece Abigail (Andrea Swartz) delights in tormenting him a la Lucy Van Pelt and her classic football gag.  Freddie Phelps bullies him and won’t let Jamie join his “club” (we’re never told what kind of club it is).  But Jamie sees a ray of sunshine through the grey clouds when Sandra (Jeannie Elias) shows up to watch him while his parents are away.  If only it weren’t for that pesky pit out in the middle of the woods that is filled with monsters (dubbed “Tralalogs” by Jamie).  

Lew Lehman’s The Pit is the oddest of odd ducks.  It is a pubescent boy’s wish fulfillment/power fantasy, yet the script by Ian A Stuart is weirdly structured, giving the audience what it wants a bit too early and then changing the film into a different film for about the last third.  Jamie is picked on by absolutely everyone who comes across him, and his mother (Laura Press) seems to dote on him too much to his detriment.  Meeting Sandra, Jamie has something to aspire to, even though there’s never a chance for romance with her, and this impossible love is what fuels some of Jamie’s actions.  Being left alone with a nubile co-ed day and night is enough to put any adolescent boy into a tailspin of emotions, all of them focused on sex.  Jamie watches Sandra while she’s sleeping, staring at her bare nipple.  He writes “I love you” on the bathroom mirror for her while she showers.  Clearly, the boy has boundary issues.  And Sandra is nice but not overly accommodating to Jamie, the first person (we can assume) to try to connect with him rather than reject him out of hand.  

The pit becomes Jamie’s super power, in a way, as it’s the agency by which he can take care of his enemies, to have power over them (both his enemies and the Troglodytes [not Tralalogs, Jamie]; He says, “They’re looking up to me,” referring to his station as the Giver of Life and Death, a god, for these monsters and the people of his town).  The pit is concurrently a metaphor for Jamie’s puberty.  It’s dark, filled with hairy things that likely stink, and those hairy things are just chomping at the bit to do what they do best.  When the pit is finally utilized, it’s Jamie’s self-discovery of his true self, the person he was always going to become, a man.  This puberty facet is also reflected in a visual way.  There is a scene where Jamie looks at his family during dinner through an empty glass, their images warped and distorted, their world alien to him (or he an alien on their world).  This motif is mirrored by the Troglodyte Vision POV shots.  They are tinted yellow, slightly fish-eyed, and have a blurry, wavy quality to them.  Jamie and the Troglodytes are directly linked because their outlooks are similar to each other’s and different from the rest of the world’s.  In like fashion is Jamie’s teddy bear, Teddy, who talks in Jamie’s voice but with a slight echo.  Teddy is Jamie’s tempter and advisor, always pushing him to go one step further.  Teddy recognizes what Sandra means for Jamie (“She’s just what we’ve been waiting for”), and he is the rationalization Jamie uses to justify the actions he takes.  Further, Teddy is a bridge between childhood and adulthood.  He comforted Jamie when he was a child, and he counsels him as Jamie changes.

While we can understand why Jamie is the way he is, however, we also can’t stand him.  Yes, he’s a social outcast and put upon by the world, but he’s an obstinate brat.  Snyders does his level best to sell us on this, though my guess is that wasn’t necessarily his intent.  For as much shit as Jamie is given on a daily basis, he sure doesn’t shy away from dishing it out.  Take Marge Livingstone, for example.  Jamie cuts a nude photo out of an art book from the library and sends it to Marge with a picture of her head taped on it.  Later, he anonymously tells her that Abigail has been kidnapped and the only way to secure her release is for Marge to show him her naked body (while he takes polaroids from the shadows and giggles about how low he is able to bring her).  The way Marge acts around Jamie is peculiar.  Just hearing his name, she seems to tense up (this is before the false kidnapping), and she behaves as though either there may have been something which had passed between them (which would have been truly skanky) or she can read into the boy, knows what lies underneath, and is afraid of him.  When Jamie steals money from Sandra and she confronts him about it, he runs away, unsure how to deal with this (he settles on picking flowers for her).  Jamie throws a tantrum (either ignored or unnoticed by Sandra) when her beau’s football team wins a game.  He is quick to anger, irritability, and self-righteous indignation.

Aside from the randomness of the Trog pit, the film has one other distinctly bizarre touch.  Teddy is presented as Jamie having an interior dialogue with himself, but at one moment in the film, Teddy’s head turns toward Sandra all by itself.  Does Jamie have psychic abilities?  Is Teddy alive?  We’re never told, just as we’re never told how a pit full of monsters just appeared (Who dug it?  How did all the Trogs fall in at once?  How long have they been there?  How long can a Trog last without eating?).  We expect from The Pit that Jamie will get his revenge on his tormentors, and he does.  But this all happens in the span of about five minutes.  It’s what happens afterward that makes the film feel like either it wanted to go in a different direction entirely, or that the story had run its course and now there’s a new story the filmmakers had to tell to fill out the runtime, one which is more conventional and less satisfying than the one they had been building up to that point.  It throws the film’s pacing way off.  Yet, the film is intriguing because it comes across as so guileless, so matter of fact, that when the freaky elements pop up, they’re both startling and fully acceptable.

MVT:  The oddity of the premise.  It’s hard to fathom who thought this was a sane idea, but the way it’s presented makes it easy to swallow.

Make or Break:  The cold opening (which is shown again later in the film, almost shot-for shot) is creepy and blackly humorous.  But mostly creepy.  

Score:  6.75/10    

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987)

I didn’t go to my senior prom (boo hoo!), but this doesn’t sadden me in the least.  I had no girlfriend at the time, and I was petrified to ask anyone who I thought could possibly have been available to go with me.  I was also fiercely against things like proms and sports and so forth (perhaps because I never participated in them, perhaps because I genuinely just didn’t give a shit about them and still don’t; so punk rock).  I didn’t relish the idea of renting a tux, a limo (or just a nice car; I drove a 1964 Oldsmobile way back then [The Lima Bean Green Machine, it was dubbed]), buying a corsage, etcetera.  It seemed like a whole lot of bother for an evening I likely wouldn’t have enjoyed, especially since there weren’t many people at my school with whom I hung out on the regular who were going.  I did go to a semi-formal early on in my high school days, and the evening was, to put it lightly, a letdown (maybe this soured me; after all, if one time sucked, every time had to suck, right?).  Having seen my share of horror films, proms and their ilk appeared like Hell on Earth, and people always got massacred at them, and movies never lie.  Decades down the road, Bruce Pittman’s Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II arrived to confirm everything I believed in my teens.  I stand justified (or maybe just rationalized).

The year is 1957, and Mary Lou Maloney (Lisa Schrage) wreaks havoc on her prom and jilts her boyfriend Billy Nordham (Steve Atkinson) for bad boy Buddy Cooper (Robert Lewis).  Billy comes upon an abandoned stink bomb as the perfect revenge, but the fuse lights Mary Lou’s dress on fire as she accepts her prom queen coronation, killing her (we’re left to guess what the combination of burnt flesh and hair, chiffon, and stink bomb smell like).  Jump forward to 1987, where young Vicki (Wendy Lyon) struggles with her virginity, her ice queen mother, and her forbidden love for Craig Nordham (Louis Ferreira), Principal Billy’s (now played by Michael Ironside) son.  It doesn’t take long for Mary Lou to exact her revenge and lay claim her crown with Vicki as her weapon of choice.
The thing which struck me the most about this film was its refreshingly unglamorous view of the Fifties in America (or Canada where this was filmed, but po-tay-to, po-tah-to).  Usually, this era is glorified for being lily-pure and straitlaced and oh-so-perfect.  Sex and murder and rape and all of the evils of the world didn’t exist back then, if popular media is to be believed, and if these things were portrayed (post-Hayes Code), they were sanitized to the point of blandness, more often than not (perhaps the more egregious crime than denying them outright).  Of course, we know that this isn’t the case; Let’s assume we’re not all that naïve.  But it was a simpler time for many (maybe this is due to putting on the proverbial blinders), and it’s exalted for this (I certainly don’t deny having a fondness for it, myself).  Personally, I like the restrictions that were placed on filmmakers back then to a degree, because if they really, truly wanted to portray darker themes or more salacious elements, they had to get creative in order to do it.  This, for me, adds some depth to many of these films, the fact that they didn’t just wiggle all their naughty bits in your face (just look at Nightmare Alley for proof).  Prom Night 2 states that people were just as awful back then as they were in the Eighties (and now, naturally).  

Mary Lou LOVES sex, and she’s a self-centered asshole every inch of the way (she taunts a priest in a confessional before hitting the prom just to tell him how much she enjoys herself).  She dumps Billy unceremoniously in the middle of the soiree just to get her hump on with Buddy, grabbing his crotch and positively salivating at the prospect of what’s awaiting her within his pants.  Buddy’s also a dick, razzing Billy in a finders-keepers, go fuck yourself sort of way.  Billy is no slouch, either.  We can understand wanting to get back at Mary Lou for his heartbreak, but he takes it too far from his idea’s impetus.  Plus, he’s never punished for what he did (that the audience is made aware of).  In fact, he’s rewarded (like Dorothy dropping her house on the Wicked Witch of the East), being given a position of power in the community.  

Little has changed in the intervening years.  While Billy has put the past incident behind him, Buddy has spent his days trying to make up for it (he feels guilty for not trying to rescue his burning paramour), becoming a priest and swearing off the sins of the flesh.  In high school, however, the kids are still jerks, beset with problems that make their lives a living hell.  Vicki’s mother forces her family to pray all the time (instead of having a doctor look at Vicki after a volleyball “mishap,” mom insists that Vicki simply “needs to spend some time with the Lord”), shades of Piper Laurie in Carrie, in case the similarities weren’t obvious enough.  Craig spends his time trying to be accepted by Vicki’s mother (her dad likes him, though), but he’ll forever be an undesirable to her.  Vicki herself is virginal, but she’s investigating her sexuality (the first shot we get of her is Vicki checking her body out in her mirror) in the face of her escalating puberty and rampaging hormones.  Her room looks like a ten-year old’s, including a rocking horse (which plays a rather creepy role a little later on).  Vicki is friends with Monica (Beverley Hendry), who wants a date to the prom but tells guys who want to talk to her to fuck off.  Jess (Beth Gondek) is a quasi-outcast among this group, looking like a distaff Robert Smith in MC Hammer’s wardrobe.  She’s also pregnant from some jerk who ditched her and is positively miserable about her situation.  Josh (Brock Simpson) is the real humdinger.  He’s supposed to be cool and smart (he’s anything but), and even after he gets a date with Monica he still has time to ask for a blowjob from Kelly (Terri Hawkes), the school’s current queen bitch, in return for rigging the prom’s election.  What this all amounts to is a reflection on the fact that being a teenager is nothing but gloom and doom, no matter which generation you came from or your supposed place in the pecking order.  Not many horror films of this era espoused this viewpoint, but it’s nice that this one did.

MVT:  The film’s misanthropy is prominently showcased from first frame to last.

Make or Break:  The opening prom sequence gives us everything we need to get the idea of how we’re supposed to take this film and its characters.  Plus, it mirrors the finale, so if you don’t want to make it that far, at least you kind of know what you’re missing.

Score:  6.75/10     

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Child of Peach (1987)

If you were a comic book fan in the Eighties, you may have noticed a few titles which came out under the banner of Jademan Comics.  There weren’t very many, but they were all great (the titles, not necessarily the books), like The Force of Buddha’s Palm, Iron Marshal, and Blood Sword Dynasty.  To my knowledge, all but one of the titles were written and drawn by Tony Wong (Blood Sword, not to be confused with Blood Sword Dynasty, was written and drawn by Ma Wing-Shing, perhaps best known for his Storm Riders which was turned into an abysmal film in 1998; Personally, I’ve always been partial to his Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre), and his aesthetic is at once both gorgeous and kind of primitive, hyper-stylized and childishly cartoonishly stiff.  

The American Jademan books, unfortunately, suffer from some seriously bad editing and translations.  Word balloons often don’t line up with the characters speaking, the balloons are out of order, so you’re not totally sure what a character is referring to until after you read the next balloon, and there are typos that require some serious reading between the lines in order to not get completely lost.  For example, the very first issue of The Force of Buddha’s Palm elides about ten years in one page break, and in that time, we’re expected to catch up with such events in the life of the hero, Nine Continents, as the passing of the love of his life (whom we never get to meet) and the growing bond between himself and White Jade Dragon (whom we only meet after they’ve been besties for years).  This amateurishness is despite the supposed English scripting duties of Mike Baron and Roger Salick, no strangers to comic book writing (I can only assume the problem lies in the translation of the translation by the publisher).  

And yet, there’s an undeniable energy at work in these books that transcends the dopier plot aspects or the fact that every martial arts move looks alarmingly similar (the distinction comes in the naming of the moves, apparently).  As with the more entertaining Wuxia films, like Holy Flame of the Martial World for example, the cultural restrictions have to be taken in stride to get to what makes them work; their imagination.  Likewise, in 1987 (one year prior to the American premier of Jademan Comics), directors Chung-Hsing Chao and Chun-Liang Chen brought the world the incredible Child of Peach (aka Xing Tao Tai Lang), and if you’re already a fan of Shan Hua’s The Super Inframan, you’ll find a lot of similarities herein.  Plus, lots of people getting peed on.

In the Peach Garden high atop the Himalayas, a loving martial arts couple practice their techniques and feed drippings from a giant peach to their infant son.  The flagitious Devil King steals the Sword of Sun and kills the couple, but not before their son is sealed up inside said peach and sent off to safety.  Found by a comedically dreary old couple, the child is named Peach Kid, and, after being prematurely aged by Little Fairy, he takes off to fight Devil King and his minions and save the beauteous Apple Princess.

I said that this film owes a lot to The Super Inframan, and I meant it.  There is an opening where the monsters show up and wreak some havoc.  There is the entrance of Grandma and her colorful monster cohorts, who always appear as if they’re waiting for their curtain call and who will individually take on Peach Kid and his pals and be defeated.  There are the super-stylized sets that are just big enough for lots of martial arts action and pyrotechnics to take place (most notably the villain’s lair on Devil Island).  Come to think of it, maybe it just follows the mold of every other wuxia/Chinese genre film from the Sixties onward.  But even more than these are the parallels between Child of Peach and the sentinel of truth, justice, and the American Way, Superman.  Both were sent away from their homes in vessels just before their birth parents were killed.  Both were discovered and adopted by a couple who couldn’t have children of their own naturally.  Both had to deal with the onset of their powers as they grew.  Both decided to fight for what’s right and are the only ones who can defeat the evil that has reared its ugly head.  Child of Peach then incorporates all of the insanity that comes with the fantasy/Wuxia stories of its native culture.  As stated, there’s a lot of urine jokes in the film.  The giant peach pees on the Old Lady, after setting her ass on fire by dragging her all over the place.  Tiny Monkey and Tiny Dog pee in the drinking bowls of Knight Melon and Priest Bowie.  Bowie winds up puking.  Even Devil King is not immune from the micturating.  This is easily one of the oddest fetishes I’ve ever encountered in otherwise mainstream (this would be a subjective distinction) fare, but the Taiwanese assumedly love it.  Fair enough.  I should also mention that two of the main characters, the villainous Grandma and the more matured Peach Kid are played by people of the opposite gender.  I have absolutely no idea why.  None.  Yet, these aspects (along with a particularly groan-worthy fart joke) didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the film in any way.

The element of kid empowerment and the threatening of innocence also plays into the proceedings.  Peach Kid is harder on his parents than any child in their terrible twos, but it’s he who can take on the Devil King (his adoptive father wants to join in the fight, but Peach Kid denies him this, looking out for the people he loves and taking on the responsibility himself).  He isn’t doing this alone, however.  He is joined by Tiny Monkey, Tiny Cock, and Tiny Dog, three animals who transform into kids (or perhaps the other way around?) with wicked martial arts abilities and Knight Melon (who is more young adult than anything else), the requisite fat buffoon character, who actually turns out to be taken a bit more seriously than one would initially expect (though he is also the perpetrator of the aforementioned flatulence humor, natch).  Adults like Priest Bowie show their poltroonish natures, cowering in the face of imminent death.  It’s the youth that can conquer evil, because it’s their youth which, it can be argued, gives them their power (yes, you can say that they are mostly mystical beings, but that doesn’t really account for Melon; he’s all heart).  The kids play in the big leagues, and they are up to the task.  Uncoincidentally, Child of Peach was up to the task of delighting the piss out of me.

MVT:  The whacked-out imagination, combined with the level of the technical effects (with a couple of exceptions).

Make or Break:  The Old Lady’s initial interaction with the giant peach sets the tone for almost every scene involving her and her husband (i.e. ultra-slapstick).

Score:  7/10