Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Nothing Underneath (1985)

One of the more interesting things that the Giallo genre has going for it is its dalliances with the supernatural.  Many times, there will be a psychic or some spectrally focused aspect to the story, and these are often uncovered as being totally banal.  Just look at the opening to Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso, where noted psychic Macha Meril foresees death as water slops out of her mouth, and a raven flies over the audience.  Or look at Emilio Miraglia’s The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave, where a dead woman makes appearances as characters are knocked off, one by one.  The thing of it is, yes, typically these elements are nothing more than red herrings, but sometimes they remain unexplained.  This shifts the atmosphere of a film, because the audience knows that the killer has to be a human while simultaneously harboring a tiny mote of doubt that maybe, just maybe, they’re not.  It positions a conflict between the rational and the fantastic, generating a level of tension in its uncertainty.  So, we have siblings Bob (Tom Schanley) and Jessica (Nicola Perring) in Carlo Vanzina’s Nothing Underneath (aka Sotto il Vestito Niente) who share a mild psychic connection.  When Jessica is assaulted in Milan, her brother physically reacts in Wyoming, like Dumas’ Corsican brothers.  But Vanzina cheats this aspect in order to give us a few Killer’s POV shots.  Why would Bob be able to see what the killer sees if his rapport is with his sister, unless his sister is the killer, which she couldn’t be since she’s being stalked by the killer, right?  It’s the kind of superfluous, sloppy construction that marks this film as a low rung on the Giallo ladder.

Anyway, Bob abandons his job as a park ranger to fly to Milan in search of his sister who went missing after his vision of her being menaced.  There, he meets a bunch of fashion models and teams up with Commissioner Danesi (Donald Pleasance) to get to the bottom of things.  Meanwhile, people are being stabbed with a very large pair of scissors (I guess at this point, they should just call them shears).

Bob is a dullard hero.  He has no real personality to speak of.  At the local general store, he gets all excited because his sister finally made the cover of a fashion magazine.  Sure, we might all get excited when a family member succeeds, but Bob takes it to another level of gee-whiz-ness.  He’s not so much a fish out of water as a fish who’s never seen the stuff before.  It’s as if his job out in the wilderness has left him completely oblivious to the civilized world.  Bob is intended as an everyman, an entry into the world of high fashion as an identifier for the audience.  Unfortunately, all he winds up being is a sort of gormless yokel.  This might not have stood out so egregiously if the audience didn’t already know more about the world (fashion and otherwise) than Bob does.  The movie gives no insight, makes no revelations, about fashion, models, or anything else.  Vanzina and company portray the models and their lifestyle exactly the way it’s expected to be.  The interesting thing, if it can be called interesting, is that the film is adapted from a novel by the pseudonymous Marco Parma (actually Paolo Pietroni, editor of Amica magazine; you can guess what the mag’s focus is), and, from what I’ve read about it, is far more complex and, probably, more satisfying than the film version.  The filmmakers appear to have stripped away any of the depth or commentary present in the book to fashion (pardon the pun) a standard-as-they-come mystery.  Bob is a reflection of this, as an underwhelming protagonist in every possible way.

The world of fashion in the film is possibly meant as a cynical analogy for the apathetic carnality of people in general and the “elite” in particular.  Scumbag diamond merchant George wants cocaine and sex, and he takes these things whenever he wants them.  Women are nothing but holes for him to fill.  Money is meaningless to him, since he has so much of it.  He draws models into his web with the promise of wealth or at least a passing brush with it.  They do what he wants because he can give them what they want, and the superficiality of it all is standard fare for stories about models.  Naturally, Jessica stands out as the one who resists George and his advances.  Certainly, she’ll do coke with him, but she won’t have sex with him, and this only brings out the even bigger asshole in George.  George is the price to be paid to breathe in the rarefied air of model-dom.  Resistance is met with retaliation and abandonment.  Further, when models start getting stabbed, it can be seen as a comeuppance for their shallow venality.  Their willingness, nay enthusiasm, to debase themselves for a glamorous lifestyle is unforgivable in the eyes of the film.  It’s a moral we see constantly in stories centering on this universe, and Nothing Underneath is no different.

I think that the title Nothing Underneath is appropriate.  There is nothing underneath this film’s surface that we haven’t seen before.  To be fair, the film is slick as all get out (kind of like a fashion magazine, no?), though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it stylish.  The characters are uninteresting, and even Pleasance’s presence is not enough to elevate this material.  The central mystery of the piece is blatantly obvious (that is to say, nonexistent), and the killer’s identity is evident from the second time we meet the person.  The only aspect that does remain outside the audience’s grasp until the end is the motivation, and while it is mildly intriguing, the filmmakers still don’t do anything to make it stand out (aside from a quick sexual tease, reminiscent of the film in total).  Vanzina and his cohorts took something that screams out for an overdose of Eighties excess and gave us vapid vacuousness.  Maybe this was intentional as commentary on the meaninglessness of lives spent looking fantastic.  But the end result is as shallow as the subject is skin deep.

MVT:  The women in the film are attractive enough, though some of their clothing choices are tragic.

Make or Break:  Following suit with the film’s two-dimensionality, I’ll go with any scene where we see a little female skin.

Score:  3/10    

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