Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)

I suppose it’s either serendipity, ineluctability, or simply a writer’s laziness that I choose to touch on Frog Baseball for this week’s introduction.  For those who don’t know, the premise is simple.  You get a frog and a baseball bat or a stick of some kind.  Then you basically play baseball with the animal for the ball.  It’s an unconscionably cruel act, even if you’re not a fan of amphibians.  I have been present when it was played, way back when, although I honestly don’t recall whether or not I participated (I’d like to think I didn’t, because even back then, I felt it was senseless and mean).  Where the idea for this came from, I have no idea, but I do know that it gained some popularity in the Nineties with Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butthead (not that I believe that Judge was condoning it at all) in the way that easily influenced people do dumb things they see in movies and on television.  I find it thought-provoking that psychologists point to animal cruelty as an early sign of sociopathy and serial killer development, things like pulling the wings off insects or vivisecting the neighborhood dogs and cats.  And yet, Frog Baseball is never brought up, to my knowledge.  Possibly this is because it requires more than one person (I suppose you could play it by yourself, and that would likely count as aberrant behavior), so, like anything a mob of people gets up to, it’s generally frowned upon but not necessarily viewed as deviant in terms of what it says about the psychological makeup of people who do it (often misguided, sure, but not deviant).  In other words, it’s not seen as a warning sign (though it probably should be).  I have to wonder if the frogmen in Donald G Jackson and R J Kizer’s Hell Comes to Frogtown have ever thought about playing Human Baseball.  More likely than not, they have, though, let’s be honest, it’s not too easy to toss a human into the air and smack them with a bat (no matter how much they deserve it).

Ten years on from full-blown nuclear war, the human population is in decline.  Fertile men are valued for their virility and not much else.  Enter Sam Hell (Roddy Piper), an ex-soldier and legendary sperm donor.  Sam is pressed into service for Med-Tech, the provisional government’s procreation unit, and he is sent on a mission to rescue and impregnate a coterie of young, fertile women from the harem of Frogtown’s Commander Toty (read: Toadie, played by Brian Frank).

I’m kind of surprised it took me so long to get around to watching Hell Comes to Frogtown, because, on its surface, this film has everything a young me (and even an old me) would love.  It’s set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  It has plentiful creature makeup effects courtesy of the great Steve Wang.  It has beautiful women in it, including Sandahl Bergman and Cec Verrell (and I never thought I would review two films featuring Verrell in less than a year, incidentally).  It has Rowdy Roddy Piper, one of my favorite wrestlers from back in the day.  Nevertheless, I passed on it for a long time, possibly because the title just sounded silly (this from a guy who loves silly things).  

But the film is deceptive in that it’s not a wall-to-wall Science Fiction/Action romp.  Yes, it has those elements, but at the end of the day, it’s actually about sex, and more than that, it’s about love and sex.  The world of the movie is one in which sex is functional, not something for enjoyment and certainly not something done with a person one cares about.  Spangle (Bergman) is all about the mission.  Her job is to get Sam to do his contractual duty, as it were.  She has been trained in the art of seduction, but this is in service to her job.  Stripping down and caressing her body is a means to an end, a functionality of her role in this people-centric arms race.  Hence, her movements are awkward, self-conscious.  It’s not until later that she comes into her own and discovers a little thing called passion.  Verrell’s Centinella is a soldier through and through.  She neither needs nor wants help from a man.  However, she is curious about the fabled Sam Hell, and gives in to this curiosity, if only briefly (and much to the viewer’s delight).  

Likewise, Piper is decidedly un-Piper-ian.  Sure, he eventually gets to throw down with a couple of beefy bad guys, including a somewhat underserved William Smith, but overall, he plays it light.  Sam wants nothing to do with Med-Tech’s plans.  In fact, as the film opens, he’s being beaten up for sexual assault (this odd bit of business is never confirmed entirely by anyone as far as Sam’s intent goes, so our initial impression is that he is, quite possibly, a humongous scumbag), and this will be mirrored later in a morally ambiguous scene when the group comes upon a frantic woman fleeing from her Frogtown captors.  From the men I know, the opportunity to have sex with as many women as you want, guilt- and consequence-free, would be a dream job.  The most perplexing thing in the film is that Sam has no desire for this.  He would rather flee than get his smooth on.  At first blush, this flies in the face of everything anyone knows about the male animal, but as the film develops, it becomes clear that Sam is a man who is deeper than he appears.  He has sincere feelings for his friends and loved ones, and part of why he has gone cold in the libido department is due to what he lost in the war.  He remains true to himself, and the relationship he develops with his guardians strengthens them all in this regard.

Hell Comes to Frogtown is a movie that defies its generic expectations (in fact, I would argue it is least interesting when it plays to those expectations, although even when it does, it does so slyly).  It looks great on a tiny budget, with Jackson and Kizer providing a lot of thoughtful compositions.  The script, while sometimes a trifle too on-the-nose, is also astoundingly funny in spots, and the characters are compelling.  The action is well-orchestrated, though nothing to really write home about.  And how many movies are there where you can watch Roddy Piper with nothing covering his sweaty torso aside from a short jean jacket and sporting an honest-to-God loincloth (I swear, I thought he was trying out for The Lost Boys)?  That’s what I thought.

MVT:  Piper provides the heart and the vast majority of the laughs, and he even underplays a lot of it, proving the man was more than a one-trick pony.

Make or Break:  The sequence with the chainsaw.  It’s simultaneously hilarious and tense.

Score:  8/10        

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Phantom Soldiers (1989)

The My Lai Massacre is, arguably, the most infamous occurrence of the Vietnam War, a conflict that was unpopular in America to start off (and, certainly, I would imagine in Vietnam, as well).  On March 16, 1968, between three-hundred-and-forty-seven and five-hundred-and-four civilians were killed in two hamlets of the Quang Ngai Province, including infants, children, and women.  The massacre was set off, at least in part, by a bloodlust the soldiers of Charlie Company felt due to recent, heavy casualties of their brothers in arms.  These losses were perpetrated largely by booby-traps set by the Viet Cong, engendering a hatred for the enemy and their guerilla tactics.  Using specious reasoning and sketchy intelligence, the soldiers performed some of the most inhuman acts possible, partly in the name of vengeance/payback.  Despite protests from certain of the men and reporting of the extent of the carnage to superior officers, the My Lai Massacre was covered up for roughly a year before it was exposed to the world.  Of all the soldiers charged with criminal offenses, only one was convicted, and he wound up serving about three-and-a-half years under house arrest (that doesn’t feel balanced, now does it?).  At any rate, the massacre is the jumping off point for Teddy Chiu’s (under the alias Irvin Johnson) Phantom Soldiers (aka Commando Phantom).  In fact, a character is even named Barker after Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker, the officer in command of the My Lai operation.  Once this set up is done, however, the film essentially becomes a Missing in Action film, for better or worse.

A platoon of silent, black-clad, gasmask-wearing soldiers march into a small Vietnamese village, leveling the place and murdering everyone in sight with everything from bullets to nerve gas.  Investigating the titular troopers, Lieutenant Mike Custer (Corwin Sperry) and his men are captured behind enemy lines.  Meanwhile, back in the States, Mike’s brother Dan (Max Thayer) is a Texas Ranger, busting up drug cartels on the border.  He receives news of his brother’s disappearance and decides to go to Nam incognito and get his brother back.

It’s a little startling, though just a little, that American war films from the Seventies through the Eighties that were set in Vietnam very often focused on going back and winning the war.  Barring the righting of a perceived wrong in the minds of the more jingoistic, many of these films also centered on rescuing those soldiers who were MIA and forgotten about by all but their family members.  The two are not entirely mutually exclusive, both being seen as slights against the young men and women who gave their lives (literally and figuratively) in an “unwinnable” war.  Those who came back were not universally hailed like those who served in World War Two, and this only compounded the sour resentment of the veterans.  Likewise, this sort of film plays to the viewers who didn’t serve but still had strong feelings about America’s defeat.  Dan, then, is both a veteran and a patriot.  When not wearing his Stetson, he wears baseball caps, one that’s camouflaged and a blazing white number with the NFL logo on it.  He’s an all-American in every way.  He dislikes injustice, and he asserts at least twice that, “Nobody’s above the law” (I cannot imagine from whence this bit of dialogue came).  Dan has no real feelings about the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War, except in that his brother is involved in it.  Once he gets in-country, Dan winds up machine-gunning a slew of Viet Cong from a helicopter.  They are, after all, the enemy.  Yet, Dan’s first priority is his brother, so this bit of violence can be looked upon as survival rather than as any sort of soldierly duty.

Importantly, the American soldiers in the film are clearly distinguished from the Phantom Soldiers.  They do not fire on unarmed noncombatants.  They play by the rules.  They get irritated that the villains are making them look bad (and, y’know, that they’re blatant murderers).  Conversely, the Phantom Soldiers are ruthless, sadistic, and quasi-superhuman.  In their first scene, the Phantoms are shot and beaten with gun butts, but these things have no effect on them, shrugging them off like gnats a-buzzing.  Their uniforms are meant to inspire fear and call back to several reference points.  First, the gas masks are reminiscent of those creepy ones we’ve all seen in photos of the soldiers in the trenches and the civilians at home during both World Wars.  Two, the masks evoke images of death in their implacable brutality and lifeless visages.  Three, they recall memories of Star Wars in the audience with their similarity to Darth Vader and his stormtroopers, not only in the skull-like faces but also in the Nazi-esque helmets.  Their actions in the film, and the explanation behind it all is a way for Americans to say, “See?  We were the good guys here!”  It’s the sort of exculpation of America and some its soldiers that, I would suggest, they needed to have in order to deal with their involvement in Vietnam and to vindicate themselves to those who hated them for it.  Naturally, it’s also a power fantasy to reinforce that America is the best ever.

Phantom Soldiers excels in the action department.  The scenes of carnage are exciting, well-shot and edited, and impactful.  They are also overlong (and, I’m sure, fans of action films will argue that this is impossible) to the point of stopping the story dead in its tracks.  Some would say that’s just fine and dandy in this sort of movie (and to some degree, it is), but for my money, it also winds up becoming a vague blur and, ultimately, pretty boring.  It’s simply too much of a good thing, which I hate to say, because of the insane amount of talent involved in these sequences.  The actual plot, then, just meanders along, bopping from action beat to action beat, barely holding together just to fill the spaces between explosions and gunfire.  Thayer does a solid job as the good ol’ boy maverick, but even what charisma he musters isn’t quite enough to compel an audience along through the whole of the film.  He does blow things up real good, though.

MVT:  The action.

Make or Break:  The opening sequence is rock solid across the board, despite the remainder of the film not quite paying off on this potential.

Score:  6/10    

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Scream for Help (1984)

Christie Cromwell (Rachael Kelly) sits wistfully at a lake and peers off into the distance.  In voiceover, she states her name, age (seventeen), and that her dad is trying to murder her mom.  With that feminine-hygiene-product-esque intro out of the way, the rest of Michael Winner’s Scream for Help concerns itself with Christie’s efforts to prove this statement without dying.

For the first two thirds, the film is about Christie’s temerarious attempts to catch out stepdad Paul (David Allen Brooks).  She follows him for several days on her bicycle until she finds where he goes everyday from work.  And how did she come to suspect him in the first place?  She came downstairs in the middle of the night and saw him coming out of the basement.  The camera gazes down the cellar steps, and we hear water.  The next day, a utility worker is killed when he touches the wet electrical box in the basement.  Suspicious?  Maybe.  But Christie wants Paul to be a murderer, because her mother left her biological father (whom we never see nor learn anything about, not insignificantly, I believe) for him.  It is possible that everything Christie discovers or witnesses could be put down as confirmation bias, but the script (by Tom Holland) doesn’t even try to beguile us like that.  It’s blatantly obvious from the giddy-up that Paul has malfeasance on his mind.  I’ve never read a Nancy Drew story (or Hardy Boys, for that matter, but I have seen a lot of Scooby Doo and Clue Club), but the instant that Christie begins her investigation, that’s what I thought of.  I imagine that a Drew tale probably involves more mystery than Scream for Help does, though (and probably less violence, sex, and blood).  

Of course, no one believes Christie.  Even her best friend Janey (Sandra Clark) thinks Christie’s gone off the deep end.  The police commissioner (Tony Sibbald) at first takes her accusations seriously, but after some mindbogglingly shitty police work comes to not only disbelieve the young lady but also to develop a sort of grudge against her.  Christie’s mother (Marie Masters) doesn’t take her daughter seriously, even though, from what I recall, her relationship with Paul is not that old.  Apparently, mom took up with Paul, ditched her husband, and married the other man in a matter of months.  Christie’s allegations are seen largely in this light by the other characters but not by the audience.  Christie watches (and we do, too) as Paul gets it on with Brenda (Lolita Lorre, whom I’d like to believe is related to Peter, but I couldn’t find anything confirming or denying this) multiple times, and his flimsy excuses would raise eyebrows in even the most devoted of marital partners.  It may have been interesting to see the story develop with a more enigmatic approach to what’s going on, but the filmmakers aren’t really interested in that.  Instead, they draw out this cat and mouse aspect just to get to the meat of what the film is actually about.  This is either a master stroke of deception or a happy accident.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

And here’s where it becomes difficult to discuss Scream for Help any further without getting into SPOILERS.  More than anything, the film is about the initiation of Christie into adulthood and how both sex and violence are the means of that inauguration.  Beyond this, it’s about the choice between sex and violence that Christie has to make.  Christie lives in a world where absolutely everyone around her is having sex except her.  When she races over to her friend Janey’s house to tell Janey about her theory of Paul’s murderous intent, she waltzes in on Janey having sex with Josh (Corey Parker, whom most will recognize as the effete Arnold Epstein in Biloxi Blues).  Janey, probably pissed for being interrupted pre-orgasm, is openly hostile to Christie, who, in turn, is pissed at Janey for not telling her that she was having sex at all.  Christie comes home to the sounds of her mother and Paul having sex, and she runs to her room in anguish.  But Christie is, of course, curious about sex, and Paul’s affair with Brenda is the window (literally and figuratively) into this fascination.  At several points, she spies the two doing the job, and it’s always at a remove through a pane of glass (like watching a live Swedish sex show in a porn booth).  Paul asks if Christie is writing “the life and times of a sex maniac” in her journal.  Nope, it’s all about murder.  Intriguingly, Corey is the ostensible love interest, but he’s about as big a jerkoff as every other man in the film.  Christie catches Corey flirting with another girl at school (the day after she caught him with Janey?).  She tries to rope him into helping her out by threatening to tell his father about Janey, and Corey proudly states that his dad would congratulate him.  Rather, it’s the threat of cutting him off from Janey’s pussy that motivates the kid (and puts her own in his crosshairs).  After Janey is out of the picture, Corey and Christie hook up pretty fast.  Corey continues to pressure Christie, telling her he cares about her, but we know that he’s simply horny, and while we can’t necessarily blame him for this, it makes him no less of a douche.

When Christie and Corey finally have sex, it’s unpleasant for Christie, but then again, it’s her first time.  It’s painful, and the blood from popping her cherry scares her.  The ties between sex and violence in the film have been leading up to this moment, and here is where Christie chooses which of the two she prefers.  When Corey brings up the possibility of more sex, please, Christie tells him that she “doesn’t want to go to bed with anybody ever again.”  In the last third of the picture, when Paul and his accomplices hold Christie and her mom captive, things come to a head.  Faced with their imminent deaths, Christie, with ho-hum determination, states, “There’s only one way.  I’m gonna have to kill them.”  With MacGyver-ian resourcefulness and icy resolve, she sets about doing just that.  The film becomes Death Wish if Paul Kersey’s wife and daughter fought back (or maybe just Home Alone with corpses).  After the siege of her house, Corey and Christie get down to some foreplay, but violence rears up yet again, and Christie, without hesitation, goes into kill mode.  Sex is something she may still want to do despite her inexperienced protestations, but violence is something she likes.  This is what maturity means in the world of Scream for Help.  That the film is so frank about these facets is rather startling, considering its almost juvenile plot and dialogue, flat direction, and a score that is insanely incongruous (it sounds like it was taken from a Seventies industrial film about the future of plastics mixed with a buddy cop show of the same era).  Nevertheless, this forthrightness is what also makes the film so special.

MVT:  The remarkable depths to which the film dives and the unsparing attitude it takes in going there.

Make or Break:  The vehicular homicide that comes out of nowhere.  It’s fast, brutal, and contains a spectacular mannequin death.

Score:  7/10