Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)



The Movie: Louis Mazzini D'Ascoyne (Dennis Price), tenth Duke of Chelfont, sits in his cell on the night before his execution for murder. To pass the time, and to make sure posterity knows the truth, he writes his memoirs of what brought him here.

Louis tells us how his mother (Audrey Fildes) was a member of the noble D’Ascoyne family; but how he grew up poor because she eloped with an Italian opera singer (Dennis Price again). However, his mother brought him up on his noble birth and the histories of his family. This planted a dangerous ambition in him.

After his mother’s untimely demise, Louis decided he was going to reclaim his birthright and become the duke. Unfortunately, there were eight other people (all played wonderfully by the late Alec Guinness, although to his dismay most people only remember him as Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars) in his way. Louis ambitiously decided to remedy this.

But as the bodies piled up and Louis place in the world began to improve, some complications crept in. First there was his growing love for Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), the young widow of one of his first victims. Even more potentially disastrous is Sibella (Joan Greenwood, who also did the voice for the villainess in Barbarella), Louis’ mistress and former childhood friend, who is married to his childhood rival Lionel Holland (John Penrose). Sibella has her own designs on Louis once she starts to realize what he’s really worth.

While Louis did obtain the dukedom, the unseen complications wound up getting him the murder charge as well. Now he awaits his execution, wondering if he might possibly obtain a last-minute reprieve…

The Review:

Now, in those days I never had any trouble with the Sixth Commandment

There is one, and only one, good thing that has ever come out of censorship. It is simply this; the artist is forced to be much more clever, creative and innovative than he would normally be without that impediment. This little fact was driven home for me when I was on the school newspaper in high school. My school was run by morons who constantly created and enforced extremely stupid and destructive policies. Unfortunately, we on the newspaper were not allowed to say anything critical of the school or the Powers That Be, even (actually “especially” would be the more appropriate word) when it was the gods’ honest truth. However my journalism teacher, probably second only to my parents as the worst influence on my life, didn’t care for them either and she provided me with the answer. “Nathan,” she would constantly tell me, “we can’t say that. But if you phrase it this way….”

Now, I have always had a passion for language and words; word games, innuendos, entendres, double meanings, and that most demonized of arts, the pun. As a result, writing for the paper became a game for me. I had a lot of fun seeing how critical I could be of the morons in power in ways that they couldn’t prevent. I had numerous successes and failures, but it was an educational experience that proved extremely useful when I entered the world outside of high school.

In the past few years I have seen a lot more of the older movies; specifically, ones that were made in the age of the abomination known as the Hayes Code. Admittedly, on their surface such movies seem quaint and tame; especially when compared to what you can see in films that came after the Code was ended. Also, it is true that the Code hamstrung quite a few movies that would otherwise have been good. However, there were quite a few more that were nowhere near as tame as they might appear to a modern audience. If you look and listen closely, you’ll notice that they’re playing the exact same game I played with my high school newspaper; and once you recognize that, you find some truly twisted and irreverent stuff.

At the time, Britain didn’t have the same kind of formalized code for what you could put into movies. However, the British government censored its country’s films just as harshly; and both countries kept the others’ censorship statutes in mind so they could sell their movies to each other. I am of the opinion that British humor is very adept at this kind of censor tweaking. The British have a way of saying one thing in a casual deadpan manner while conveying something else entirely that American humor has never quite gotten right.

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a British black comedy that perfectly exemplifies this method of humor. This movie is full of all sorts of twisted, irreverent, socially unacceptable behavior and raunchy humor; even by today’s standards. However, it is all played out in a strait faced manner that simultaneously serves to both hide the happenings from the more literal minded and emphasize them even more for those who are paying attention.

Take Louis and Sibella’s affair for example. Now, in those days sex, especially illicit sex such as adultery, was a definite no-no to the censors. The way the movie handles it as a result is pure genius. The most we actually see are a few passionate clinches and the fact that Sibella visits Louis’ apartment unchaperoned, which in the time of the movie’s setting would have been a major scandal. However, listening closely to the dialogue tells you what your eyes don’t. For example, one of my favorite lines is when Louis approaches Lionel at his and Sibella’s wedding and tells him “you’re a lucky man Lionel, take my word for it.” The line is spoken so casually that the more literal minded will probably not think much of it; Lionel certainly doesn’t notice anything. But if you’re paying attention, that seemingly innocuous phrase has worlds of ulterior meaning.

Then there’s how the movie handles Louis and his murders. The character of Louis, himself, is an amazing bit of dramatic sleight of hand. Throughout the entire course of the movie Price is never outwardly anything but reasonable, civil and seemingly decent. At the beginning, it’s very hard not to sympathize with him. The D’Ascoynes did wrong him and his mother, after all. Also, the majority of Louis victims are arrogant, obnoxious and/or self centered. It’s very hard not to cheer when he offs them.

And yet, as the movie goes on, we begin to see what a bastard Louis truly is. He still seems the civil, reasonable man we started out with; but his words and actions tell a very different story. By the end, much as we enjoyed seeing Louis dispose of the D’Ascoynes, we cannot help but feel that his own ambiguous fate is very much deserved.

Overall, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a very well made movie with a very talented cast. However, one actor stands far above all the others; Alec Guinness. Guinness plays eight very different roles throughout the movie; an arrogant young rake, an old and senile clergyman, an earnest and friendly young photography enthusiast, and a gruff and arrogant baron to name a few. What’s more, he nails each of them perfectly. In fact, it can be hard sometimes to believe that they’re all played by the same man.

Most people today remember Guinness as Obi-wan Kenobi from Star Wars, but the truth is he had a very long and distinguished career before he played that role. In fact, by all accounts he really hated that role and refused to acknowledge any mail from Star Wars fans. What’s really impressive is that it seems Guinness regularly played multiple complex roles in a single film. In the original script for Kind Hearts and Coronets he was only supposed to play four characters, but asked if he could do eight instead. The fact that he could do eight different parts as well and convincingly as he did speaks volumes about his talents.

In conclusion, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a wonderful film. Admittedly, on the surface it might seem tame and sedate by today’s standards. If you pay attention, though, you will see that it’s about as twisted and subversive as film as one could come across; it just hides it under a thin veneer of civility. If you’re into subtle, subversive cinema, seek this one out.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

My Humble Attempt at a Eulogy for Jean Rollin

On Friday the 17th of December, 2010; I learned that one of my favorite directors, Jean Rollin, passed away two days prior. Presented here is my humble attempt at a suitable eulogy for the great man.

I am very good with words, everybody tells me so. However, I’m not exactly sure how well this eulogy will come out. Truth to tell, I’m still just getting to know Rollin and his work. I first learned about him roughly two years ago. I was searching the internet for oddball movies that I had never seen, and I came across one website. It had a few movies that looked very interesting. As per usual, I missed the name of the director, or even that they were all done by the same man. I finally learned this when I checked the name of the director for one of the movies and then looked him up on Netflix. I found that I had already watched, and enjoyed, nearly all that they had by him. Thus my fascination (if you’ll pardon the pun) began.

I don’t feel I know all that much about Rollin because, due to DVD formatting, there is still much of his work that is unavailable to me. However, what little I have seen has definitely caught my imagination. The most notable thing about him is that he is a true artist with his own unique vision. What’s more, he was a man who was determined to get his vision out to the public, whatever hardships he had to face to do it. Even when he faced bankruptcy, or had to do other projects that he did not wish to do, such as directing hard core pornography, to fund his own visions; Rollin was still dedicated to his work.

One of the things I really like about Rollin’s movies is how un-commercial they are. They are almost nothing like conventional mainstream films. Admittedly, this can make them confusing and somewhat intimidating at first. I tend to think of his films like I would a dream; viewed externally they tend not to make much sense, but taken on their own terms they have their own internal logic. Rollin’s movies show us realms and vistas that we might not actually inhabit, but that we instinctively know exist just out of sight.

Rollin’s films, to borrow a comparison from somebody else, are more akin to poetry than prose. Most, if not all, of them have a sleepy atmosphere about them that gives the impression of either a waking dream or a living nightmare. Sometimes both. He tended to dwell on feelings of loneliness and alienation, but there’s a sense of wonder as well. Whether it’s the need and fragility of human relationships, or the limits of mortality, Rollin employed themes that stay with you after the movie is over. Every Rollin movie I have seen, whether or not I thought it worked, has had the director’s mark very clearly on it. Even if his movie was only a partial success, it was still wonderful for being something so unique.

One thing very noticeable about Rollin’s movies is his focus on women. Females are almost always the protagonists; it is rare that he has male heroes. Admittedly nudity and lesbian scenes are in great supply, but it rarely ever feels truly exploitative. For one thing, the heroines are given definite personality. What’s more, they are usually the strong ones, whoever they might be up against. Even today it’s rare to have movies that center around strong, capable, female protagonists and antagonists. I do think he got a bit carried away with the theme of having his heroines tied up and whipped, but overall I think he handles his female characters with much more respect than most movie makers, past or present.

I cannot begin to fully describe what I get out of Rollin’s movies. Rollin has shown me cinema that is very different from what I was able to imagine before I encountered his work. It is through Rollin I was introduced to such individuals as Joelle Coeur or the Castel Twins; now ranking highly among my fantasy women; or Brigitte Lahaie, who very quickly rose to just below Mary Woronov as my favorite actress. Most of all, he helped me realize that it is still possible to create something truly unique in art. As an artist myself (albeit a different medium), that is a priceless lesson. It is my hope to one day create something that equals a fraction of what he was able to accomplish. Rollin, you will be missed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Re-Animator (1985)




The Movie: Aspiring doctor Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) seems to have it all. He is top of his class at Miskatonic Medical School, and held in high regard by Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson). He’s also engaged to (and, unbeknownst to her father, bedding) the dean’s nubile daughter, Megan (Barbara Crampton). Sure he’s a bit obsessive about his work, and he lets the people in his life dominate him; but he’s a good guy. Unfortunately, all that’s about to come crashing down with the arrival of a new roommate.

Herbert West (the amazing and prolific Jeffrey Combs, in his first starring role) has come back from independent studies in Switzerland. It’s clear from the beginning that West is trouble. When introduced to the respected brain surgeon Doctor Hill (David Gale), the school’s main source of grants and West’s soon to be professor; he immediately initiates a pissing contest with the man, calling him a plagiarist to his face. For us viewers there’s also the movie’s opening scene, which shows the disastrous end to the experiment that prompted West to leave Switzerland.

It turns out that West has been experimenting with dead tissue reanimation; and he has created a serum that will restore life to newly dead organisms. He convinces Dan to help him perfect the serum by demonstrating its effects on Dan’s recently deceased cat. Dan jumps at the opportunity of such a great medical discovery.

Unfortunately, there are a few bugs. As the formerly friendly pet’s return to life as a homicidally psychotic fur ball shows, the subjects lose a lot of their old selves in the reanimation. Also, when Dan tries to inform Dean Halsey of West’s discovery, the dean is convinced that Dan has lost it. Things go from bad to worse when the dean barges in on an experiment in progress and gets killed by the rampaging specimen. His subsequent return to life doesn’t improve matters much, although West is able to convince the police that Halsey has gone insane.

West, it turns out, was right about Doctor Hill’s character. Hill is a plagiarist. He’s also long harbored a barely concealed lust for Megan. With his old “friend” under his care, Hill is able to determine that Dean Halsey is really dead. He attempts to blackmail West out of his serum, but loses his head in the process. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for everyone else, West has his serum on hand.

The decapitated Doctor Hill proves to be Herbert West’s most catastrophic success. Retaining all of his memories and cognitive facilities, but now completely psychotic, Hill overpowers West and steals his serum. Hill has big plans involving that serum, as well as an invention of his own. He also has equally unpleasant plans for Megan Halsey….

The Review:
You’ll never get credit for my discovery, who’s going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a side show!"-Herbert West

This is it ladies and gentlemen; this is the movie that forever spoiled me for mainstream Hollywood fare. Around late junior high, early high school; I became obsessed with H.P. Lovecraft. I read about Re-Animator in a book on horror movies and was fascinated. I talked to a friend of mine who, it turned out, had seen it in his young and impressionable years (explains a whole hell of a lot); and he told me about the infamous “giving head” scene between Gale and Crampton. I had to see it. Fortunately, the local video store had a copy of the unrated version.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. By this point I had seen a few R-rated horror movies, but most of them had been rather tame gore-wise. I had definitely never seen anything like the infamous sexploitation scene mentioned above. Young, impressionable me ended up seeing a film that was wild, twisted, repulsive, bizarre, and very socially unacceptable. Oh gods did I love it.

I have seen many attempts at “horror-comedies,” movies that attempt to be both funny and scary. Unfortunately, they present a very difficult tightrope to walk. You have to do it just right, or otherwise either one of the two elements will overshadow the other, or they will both cancel each other out. Re-Animator is one of the few movies I have seen which manages to nail that balance perfectly. It has a really warped sense of humor throughout it. However, at the same time, it has some truly scary and unpleasant moments that aren’t overshadowed by the humor at all. And then there are a few moments, such as the notorious “giving head” scene, where you’re not sure whether you want to laugh or scream. So you try to do both.

On a technical level Re-Animator is masterfully done. The effects are all too convincing, and used in ways contemporary Hollywood movies probably wouldn’t touch. On the commentary, the cast talks about taking a trip to a morgue to understand what dead bodies look like, and that shows in the movie’s walking corpses. On my last viewing, I took notice of how you could actually see the rigor mortis on Dan and Herbert’s first disastrous experimental subject. That’s a detail you almost never see in most walking dead movies.

This is even more impressive when you consider that Re-Animator was done on a low budget. Most of the extras are apparently crew and family members, and the director even stood (to be pedantic, lay) in for one of the corpses a few times. This was all done on the cheap, and yet all of the settings and the effects are absolutely perfect.

The script is also very well done. The only part of it that doesn’t really jell is Dean Halsey’s reaction to West’s experiments. However, the movie has such momentum, and Sampson pulls the dialogue off so well, that you don’t really notice it until afterwards.

The whole cast is just amazing, but Combs is the one who carries the movie. Jeffry Combs is probably my all-time favorite actor, and he has held that position for quite a while. I have seen him in some of the worst movies and given some of the worst roles; yet so long as he has something, anything, to work with, he always manages to do something engaging with it. Overall I find him a pretty amazing actor.

Re-Animator is Combs’ first starring role; and in my humble opinion it remains his best. He is given all of the best lines in the movie, and he delivers them perfectly. What’s more, Combs takes what could be a two-dimensional caricature and turns him into the very best part of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to deal with Herbert West in person even if he wasn’t reanimating corpses. On screen however, Combs makes him fascinating, engaging, and a lot of fun.

For the most part, Bruce Abbot’s role as Cain is mainly to play straight-man to West. However, the straight-man role is needed, and he pulls it off very well. What’s more, Abbot makes Cain identifiable and sympathetic. As Cain is our point of view character, this is essential for the movie to work.

Crampton’s role pretty much just requires her to do three things; scream, get in trouble and get naked. However, she does all three very well. Also, she actually makes Megan likeable and sympathetic. We the viewers actually care about her, and horror movies really don’t work unless we care about what happens to the protagonists. It’s sad how few directors and studios seem to realize this.

Sampson does a good job as Dean Halsey. In fact, he effectively plays two parts; the living dean and the reanimated corpse. Both of them are effectual, and he even manages to play an effectively mindless corpse while still investing it with a personality. That’s talent.

Finally, Gale is wonderful as the villainous Doctor Hill. For the first half of the movie he comes across as slimy and distinguished, just barely holding his desires in check. In the second half, when Doctor Hill loses his head in both the literal and figurative meanings of the expression, Gale goes into full psychotic mode. He presents us with a repulsive villain who we love to hate. Even more impressive, as a foil for West he actually makes it easy for us to forget what an unpleasant character the latter man is.

In total, Re-Animator is one hell of a ride. It is bizarre and outré; yet director Stuart Gordon keeps such a tight hold on all of the outrageous elements, and drives them with such energy and momentum that they hold together effectively until the very end. If you have a fairly strong stomach and really really warped sense of humor, Re-Animator is highly recommended. If that doesn’t describe you, I would suggest moving in the opposite direction as fast as possible.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Darkman (1990)




The Movie: Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson, later of some well known big budget films such as The Phantom Menace and Batman Begins) is a scientist who has discovered a way to create synthetic skin. The substance can recreate any face, thereby offering hope for burn victims. Unfortunately, it has one major flaw; it disintegrates after 99 minutes in the light.

But Peyton has much bigger problems. His girlfriend, Julie (Frances McDormand), a lawyer, has come across an incriminating document. Peyton has the misfortune of being home when the sadistic gangster Robert Durant (Larry Drake) arrives with his thugs to collect it. Peyton is beaten and tortured by the gangsters before being left to die when his lab blows up. He survives, but winds up very badly burned.

Found, Peyton is taken to a hospital as a John Doe. The staff performs a radical procedure on him, effectively destroying his sense of touch. This leaves him with unchecked adrenalin levels, providing superhuman strength. It also amplifies his emotions to extreme levels.

Peyton escapes the hospital and sets up shop in a deserted warehouse. There, he salvages his lab and seeks to perfect the skin. He has two immediate uses for it, causing him to lead a double life. The first use is to try to repair things with Julie, who thought he was dead. Unfortunately, his unwillingness to let her know his true condition forces him to be very secretive and evasive with her.

The other use is to take revenge on Durant and his gang. Using the skin to disguise himself as the various members of the gang, Peyton sows fear and discord among them. Unfortunately, it becomes more and more difficult to control his impulses, and his two lives start to collide. Worst of all, Peyton Westlake starts to realize that he is turning into something every bit as evil and monstrous as the men who destroyed his life….

The Review:

He’s a cockroach; you think you kill him, he pops up someplace else.”
-Robert G. Durant

Darkman is a movie written and directed by Sam Raimi; known for the Evil Dead movies, as well as the recent Spiderman franchise. In many ways it is your typical low budget comic-book superhero movie; employing many of the familiar tropes of the genre. But what really makes it fascinating is the story itself; and the nature of its protagonist. Raimi cleverly inverts the usual tropes to bring us a story, not about a man who ascends to a higher calling; but a good man who becomes a monster.

Darkman makes it clear from the moment our protagonist starts seeking his revenge that Peyton Westlake is not a hero at all. In fact, he’s just the opposite. Admittedly he is somewhat sympathetic, I think we can all understand why he feels the way he does. Also, the men he is up against are definitely repulsive excuses for human beings; there’s no question that they are evil.

However, Peyton isn’t fighting them because it’s the right thing to do; he’s doing it entirely because he wants his pound of flesh. Also, it’s not just their appearance and voices he is mimicking; it’s their behaviors as well. More and more he uses their own strategies against them; notably in a scene where he leaves one of them in the exact situation they originally left him in, but with his own sadistic twist. What’s more, it’s clear that he takes every bit as much glee in their pain and suffering as they did in his. And most notably, with every act of revenge he takes another piece of the old, noble, Peyton Westlake dies.

By the time we reach the requisite showdown on a high place between Peyton and the mastermind behind the criminals (I won’t spoil his identity, but you will guess it long before the movie tells you); the villain’s inevitable cry of “who’s the real monster?” doesn’t come across as facetious as it might. After all, by this point the only real difference between the two is that Peyton is well aware of what he has become. The villain still thinks that his actions have merit because they work toward a greater good.

As a result, the scene where Peyton says his final goodbye to his girlfriend has a greater poignancy than it usually does in these movies. Peyton isn’t leaving because he has a higher cause to serve. Instead, he recognizes that he has become alienated from the rest of the human race; partly through his own actions. He is leaving not to pursue justice, but to go into self-imposed exile. Largely by his own hand, the good and noble Peyton Westlake is gone; leaving an inhuman monster in his place.

Liam Neesom is absolutely perfect for the role; which is good, since he’s the one who has to carry this movie. He perfectly portrays a sympathetic man who is slowly but surely becoming something repulsive. To my mind, one of his best touches is the voice he uses when he’s dealing with Julie after the accident. It sounds like his old voice, but there’s this subtle undertone that suggests there is something very wrong just below the surface.

In fact, my main issue with the two sequels is that they don’t have Neesom in the role. Admittedly, he was probably way too expensive by this point to do low-budget sequels. However, the man they substituted for him couldn’t have been more unsuited as Darkman. For one, he is stage-idol handsome. I’m not saying Neesom’s bad looking, but he better conveys the average Joe looks of Peyton Westlake. Worse, though, is his accent. It kept making me think James Bond, which is the exact polar opposite of the character.

The other standout performance in Darkman is Larry Drake as the villainous Durant. Now, I have seen Drake in a few very different roles; and he is a pretty amazing and diverse actor all around. As Peyton’s primary antagonist and foil, Drake is perfect. His Durant is extremely memorable; usually cool and collected, yet very sadistic and intense. In our first view of Durant he is being frisked by the gang of a rival gangster, and his only reaction is a subtle little eye-roll of annoyance. However, equally arresting is how he starts to fall apart once he begins to realize exactly who and what he’s up against. Drake is second only to Neeson as the very best thing about Darkman, and he’s also the very best part of the first sequel, where he reprises this role.

Darkman is obviously low budget, but they do very well with what they have. The fights and special effects are convincing enough, and Darkman works well on the level of an action movie. The standout scene is the big battle between Peyton and Durant; where Peyton hangs from the toe line of Durant’s helicopter for most of the time. I think they actually hung a stuntman from a helicopter for some of the shots.

Plotwise, the movie also works. There are a few required suspensions of disbelief, but that’s par for the course for this genre. Also, like most of Raimi’s movies, there is a subtle but distinctive sense of humor present.

Ultimately, Darkman works as a low budget but very well done superhero action flick. However, its main strength is in its script and the nature of the protagonist. The movie takes a look at the true nature of justice and revenge; a very appropriate message in the post-9/11 age when the former so often gets confused with the latter in the popular mindset. Using the superhero tropes we’re all familiar with; Raimi spins a cautionary tale about the price of that confusion. No matter how justified revenge might seem, it always has a price. In the character of Peyton Westlake, we are shown how the pursuit of vengeance, even seemingly justified vengeance, ultimately destroys and separates us from the very things that make us human.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Night of the Demons (1987)




The Movie: Good girl Judy (Cathy Podewell) is excited to be going to the Halloween dance with Jay (Lance Fenton). However, Jay has a change of plans. Creepy goth-girl Angela (Mimi Kinkade) and her friend, Suzanne (the great scream queen Linnea Quigley, of such films as Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and Return of the Living Dead), are throwing a party that he would rather attend instead.

The party is at Hull House, a deserted house/former funeral parlor with a rather checkered history. By checkered I mean mysterious deaths, massacres, cursed ground. You know, the usual. Jay talks Judy into going, and the party starts. The teenagers look forward to a night of drinking, dancing, party games, and getting into each others’ pants

Unfortunately, there is something to all those horrible stories about Hull House. It turns out that demonic entities live there, and that Halloween is the one night they can come out to torment humanity. As the partygoers get possessed and killed in gruesome ways, the survivors try to find an escape. The one hope is the underground stream that the wall surrounding the property is built over, which the demons are unable to cross. Unfortunately, they have taken that little issue into account. Let the real party begin….

The Review:

Don’t worry Sal, it ain’t the weird ones you got to watch out for. God, didn’t your mother teach you nothing about women?”
-Stooge

On its surface, Night of the Demons resembles a typical dead teenager movie of the standard set by Friday the 13th. Hell, you could even do a checklist of the various elements. Group of teenagers throws a party in a location where a great evil lurks? Check. Said teenagers get killed off in grotesque ways? Check. Majority of characters little more than walking targets? Check. Gratuitous female nudity? Almost all the female characters bare some flesh at some point. Total asshole character? We get two, three if you count Jay.

So what is there to distinguish Night of the Demons from the rest of the pack? Quite a bit, actually. Probably most prominent is that the filmmakers show a sense of self awareness throughout the whole work. Hey! Get back here! Don’t worry, I’m not meaning that winking, smirking, “aren’t we clever” self awareness we see all too often in horror movies these days.

Instead, we get a deadpan “so they think they know what’s coming? Let’s see if they catch this!” mentality. It’s clear that the filmmakers are very aware of what they are creating; and they use that to tweak the formula. There aren’t too many glaring changes, though there are at least one or two. However, there are enough adjustments to the established cannon to keep you off your guard.

For example, Judy, our obvious final girl. There is a hint, not elaborated upon but still there, that she might not be a virgin. Likewise, at the beginning she actually bares some skin for the camera! In your standard Friday the 13th inspired dead teenager movie, either one of these would mark her as dead meat. However, it’s still clear that if anyone survives the happenings it will be her.
I would also like to point out that Ms. Podewell is fairly convincing in her role. On the one hand, she does come across as a genuinely good person; on the other she doesn’t come across as either too saccharine or intolerable, as one would be lead by other movies to expect her to be. I could imagine meeting someone like Judy, and actually enjoying her company.

This is done with some of the other characters as well. One of our total assholes actually shows a good head when things start getting weird; and even some nobility when he sacrifices his own life to save Judy’s. Another character, one of the survivors, has not one but two traits that, in any other movie of this type, would mark them out as one of the very first to die.

Along with the little tweaks to catch us off guard, the filmmakers obviously knew that they were supposed to be making a horror movie. I shouldn’t have to say that, but unfortunately there are so many makers of these films who don’t. There are some genuinely frightening scenes in Night of the Demons. One of my personal favorites, Angela’s dance to Bauhaus’ Stigmata Martyr, I find to be simultaneously one of the creepiest and most arousing horror movies scenes I have come across. There are also some good, subtlely done indications that characters are possessed. I wish they’d stuck to the subtle hints, I find the possessies a lot less scary when they are in full-fledged demon makeup.

Finally, and probably most importantly, it was clear that somebody had fun making Night of the Demons. This shows in the special effects, the plot, and especially in the wonderful animations played during the credits. Probably the two best actors, who also gave the impression of enjoying their roles, were Kinkade and Quigley. They played off each other well, and Kinkade reminded me of some women I’ve known in high school and college, though not ones I’d want to deal with in person.

Linnea Quigley’s character actually had a few clever things about her. One of the things I liked was how pre-possession, Suzanne doesn’t have much of a personality. Once she’s possessed she has a clearly defined, although very mean spirited, one.
My favorite scene with her character; because it is so clever, albeit amoral; is when she first appears. She’s at a mini-mart, wearing a really short skirt and bending all the way over. And while the losers behind the counter are staring and drooling, Angela shoplifts the supplies for the party.

In short, Night of the Demons is a conventional formula with a few clever tweaks and twists and a few scary scenes. It is also a lot of fun. If you like movies with gore and gratuitous female nudity, you’ll love Night of the Demons. If you like these things, or at least don’t mind them, but you want a bit more in your movies; give this one a try.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Iron Rose (1973)




The Movie: An unnamed young man (Hughes Quester) at a wedding notices a woman (Francoise Pascal) sitting at another table. He stands up and announces that he would like to recite a love poem, which he does, while staring at the woman. A little later, he stands outside and she comes out to ask why he looked at her while he recited the poem. The man talks her into meeting him for a bike ride the following day.

They meet at a train yard and, after playing around, go on their ride. The couple passes a cemetery and decides to go in for a picnic. After eating, they go into a crypt to make love. The couple is so distracted that they don’t notice the passage of time, and when they finally exit the crypt night has fallen. An attempt to find the exit reveals that they are lost. As they search, unsuccessfully, for a way out, hysteria starts to set in…

The Review: For this blog I have focused on movies that have affected me in some way. Naturally, the majority of them are movies I have enjoyed; whether as good art or brainless fun. However, if you look through my past entries you will notice I have also reviewed one film that disappointed me; one that underwhelmed me to the point of depression; one that simultaneously repulsed me and pissed me off; one that reopens old wounds every time I watch it; and one that will wound just about anybody who sees it.

Movies are a form of art, and I am of the opinion that art should serve one of two functions, if not both at once. Firstly, art is meant for enjoyment. On some level, most art is made specifically for somebody to enjoy. That is certainly one of the main reasons I got into movies in the first place.

Secondly, art should make you think, cause your mind to go directions it normally wouldn’t. Sometimes this can be pleasant, thus fulfilling the first role as well as the second. However, sometimes this is done through invoking shock, disgust, anger or other less pleasant emotions. These are also necessary; hence why artists tend to push the envelope of what is acceptable. Our world is not all sweetness and light after all; and there are many unpleasant truths that we must be aware of.

Of course, there is a line to be drawn. Things like child porn, the snuff films of urban legend, or animals being hurt or killed on screen are definitely wrong and illegal for a reason. This isn’t because of the subject matter, but because of the harm done to create them. I am of the opinion that no subject matter, in and of itself, should be off limits for art. However, I am against anything that causes actual harm to others in the creation of said art.

The Iron Rose is one of Jean Rollin’s earliest works. It is also one of his most personal and least commercial creations. The first problems come in with how, exactly, to define it. The synopsis on the back of my DVD box claims it is a horror movie, but it really isn’t. There are some creepy and eerie parts throughout the movie, but that is the extent of its horror elements; The Iron Rose is not a horror movie by any real standards.

If I had to assign it a standard designation, I would say that The Iron Rose is a romance. However, it is nothing like what you probably thought of when I said it was a romance. And as for the “eurosleeze” aspect; Pascal does do a nude scene, but it is such a small and brief part of the film that if you are only watching for the nudity, you are really going to feel cheated.

The website Esotika Erotica Psychotica (there is a link to your right if you are interested), in its review of the film, says that The Iron Rose is a literal depiction of a man and woman creating a private world that only contains each other. That is certainly my impression as well. Aside from the wedding at the beginning, and the odd looking people initially in the cemetery, our two protagonists are the only two people in the film. They are definitely the only two characters we get any kind of real look at.

Rollin’s trademark invoking of feelings of isolation help reinforce this impression. Most notable is the scene where the two are playing and making out in the train yard. Our protagonists are not just the only people in the scene; they are the only things moving. However, all the while we are hearing the sounds of moving trains and passengers and loudspeakers. The scene leaves the sense that the lovers have stepped out of the world the rest of humanity inhabits, but that it is still running just out of sight.

Likewise, in the graveyard there is a definite disconnect between the two young lovers and the other visitors. For the most part, they take little, if any, notice of each other. With one minor exception, it’s kind of like they are in alternate dimensions where the others don’t exist.

The Iron Rose doesn’t really have much in the way of plot, but instead functions by invoking emotion and poetic images. I think the beginning of the movie does a very good job of conveying the impression of beginning love between two young people. Both the actors and the shot do beautifully in portraying the attraction the lovers are feeling, and the tentativeness they feel approaching each other. Even better, it’s done without any kind of music; just the sounds of the outdoors and their words.

My favorite part, because it’s so accurate to my own experiences, is the man’s reaction when he’s successful in convincing the woman to go on a date with him. As soon as she starts heading back to the building, he lets out an excited whoop and punches the tree he is standing next to. Then he immediately regrets it.

For the most part, The Iron Rose is a series of dreamlike episodes. It is beautiful, and there is a strong sense of wonder and emotion over the whole thing. However, there is much that is open to interpretation; which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your preferences. For example, after seeing the film several times and reading many reviews, I’m still not sure whether I’m supposed to find the ending to be happy or tragic. While the movie successfully invokes a lot of emotions in me when I view it, I’m not always sure what the emotions are.

In conclusion, The Iron Rose is a true art house movie, though of the good kind. It is a unique vision of beauty, wonder, various emotions, and a certain amount of filling in the blanks on your own. Whether that appeals to your or not is something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Grapes of Death (1978)




The Movie: Our first view is of a vineyard where the workers are spraying pesticide on the grapes. One of the workers complains of not feeling well, but his supervisor has no sympathy, ordering him to drink some water and get back to work. He then tells the workers that the new masks will arrive the next day, and that they are completely air-tight…

Next we join Elizabeth (the tragically short-lived Marie-Georges Pascal), who was just on vacation and is now headed to the vineyard of Roublès to meet her fiancé. As it is October, the train is completely empty except for Elizabeth and the friend she met on her trip. Unfortunately, when the train stops at an eerily deserted station, a terrifying man gets on; one who seems to be rotting before Elizabeth’s very eyes. Elizabeth manages to escape off the train and into the countryside, but her friend isn’t so lucky.

Elizabeth seeks help in the nearby town, but all the people are affected by a horrible affliction. Like the man on the train, they are rotting; and their condition is driving them homicidally insane. Somehow, this is linked to the yearly wine festival that was held recently. Elizabeth finds herself caught in a nightmare which she cannot escape from. Even when the cavalry arrives in the form of two armed and unaffected construction workers (Félix Marten and Serge Marquand), Elizabeth has worse things to face. Unknown to her, her fiancé is inextricably tied into the horrors she’s trying to escape from…

The Review: Ever since Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968, Romeroesque zombies have been a popular trope in the horror genre. Every decade or so since has had a period where a glut of movies based on Romero’s original premise comes onto the public scene. While, on the one hand, some very good movies have come out of this premise; on the other, as time goes on there are fewer and fewer original uses for these tropes. However, every so often people can surprise you.

Grapes of Death is a film that stands out from its Romeroesque zombie movie brethren; if only by virtue of the fact that it was written and directed by Jean Rollin, a man who blazes his own trail whenever he possibly can. There are many reviews (quite a few of them on the sites this blog is linked to, in fact) that compare it to the 1972 Let Sleeping Corpses Lie for one of the reversals of the typical Romero inspired zombie flick that both movies use. The Romero films, and those that imitate them, tend to present “indoors” as safety and “outdoors” as dangerous. The plot usually centers around the protagonists barricading themselves inside buildings to keep away the zombies. In Grapes of Death on the other hand, even though the countryside seems threatening (especially with the simple synthesizer score Rollin uses for the soundtrack), the heroine is safest when she is there. It’s when Elizabeth goes indoors or enters town that she is in danger, because that is where the infected people lay in wait.

Rollin’s “zombies” are another departure from the traditional mold. Instead of brainless, shambling corpses, they are people. Albeit, rotting, psychotic people; but they are human beings with human level intellect and awareness. In fact, Rollin adds a sympathetic, emotional resonance to them. Many are aware of what they are becoming, and what they are doing to their loved ones, even though they cannot help doing it. They are scary on the level of a blatant physical threat, but they are even more terrifying in the fact that these are ordinary people who are turning, against their will, into something horrible.

In some ways, Grapes of Death diverges from Rollin’s usual work. Whereas the majority of his so called horror movies are generally far more erotic and poetic than horrifying, Grapes of Death is a more traditional example of the genre with more horror than the latter two elements. It’s fairly vicious and bloody, making it one of the first, if not the first, French gore film. The fate of the blind girl, Lucy (Mirella Rancelot), at the hands of Lucas (Paul Bisciglia), her lover and caretaker, and even more so its aftermath; is just vile and wrong in ways I doubt any mainstream horror flick will touch. To which the part of me that takes my horror movies seriously can only tip his hat and say “good show Mr. Rollin.”

However, quite a few of Rollin’s familiar touches are present. His usual languid, dream-like atmosphere is there, although in the case of this movie it makes it seem more like a waking nightmare. There is also the sense of loneliness and isolation that is a trademark of most of Rollin’s films. You can see it in Pascal’s performance, as an ordinary young woman who has inadvertently found herself in the middle of a nightmarish situation she has no point of reference for. When she finally finds help, it is clear that the horrors she has experienced have pretty much served to isolate her from them, or probably any other normal human she might encounter. And then at the end, when she finds the fiancé she has been trying to reach, and discovers that he is behind this whole mess…

That sense of loneliness can also be seen in the infected shamblers themselves. While they are monsters, it is clear that they are monsters despite themselves. Rollin and his cast very adeptly purvey the grief and despair that they feel with the knowledge of what they are becoming.

There is one important exception, which brings me to the final notable element of this movie. A year prior, on the set of one of his adult films, Rollin met a young porn actress by the name of Brigitte Lahaie. He was impressed by her performance and promised her a role in his next straight film. While Lahaie plays only a small part in Grapes of Death, I find her to be the most frightening and memorable part of it.

Lahaie plays an unnamed woman who at one part saves Elizabeth from a mob of the infected by pulling her inside a building. I actually find the following scene to be the scariest one. Basically, Lahaie’s character explains why she is there and what has been happening. None of her words or actions are anything but innocuous, and even her tone isn’t blatantly threatening. However, she somehow oozes menace in a way that had me screaming “you’re safer with the mob” at Elizabeth after only about a minute. The fact that Lahaie’s acting affected me this way even though she was speaking French (a language, sadly, that I have no fluency in) and I was reading subtitles says something about her talent.

Of course, I was right. It turns out that the unnamed woman has no festering sores and looks completely normal, but is completely psychotic. Worse, she still has all her mental facilities, and can pass for normal when she wants to. Lahaie’s execution of this role shows very clearly what Rollin saw in her in the first place, and why she was able to get into non-pornographic movies. She’s one of my favorite actresses; although she scares the living hell out of me in most of the roles I’ve seen her play. My friends say there’s probably some psychological reason behind this.

In conclusion, Grapes of Death is a different sort of zombie apocalypse style movie. Even more than three decades after it was made, this movie stands out as something truly unique in a mostly overdone genre. If you’re into Romero inspired zombie films, you should give Grapes of Death a try.

Night of the Hunted (1980)




The Movie: Robert (Alain Duclos), is driving his car one dark night when he happens to catch sight of a woman in a white nightgown. He manages to get her name, Elisabeth (former French porn star and amazing actress Brigitte Lahaie), and that she’s running away from something or someone. Being the Good Samaritan he is, Robert offers to take her somewhere safe. However, Elisabeth’s memory is not good; at best she only recalls bits and pieces, and for the most part she forgets things as they happen. As a result, she and Robert drive off without noticing Veronique (the gorgeous Dominique Journet), the naked red-head crying and calling for Elisabeth.

On the drive home, Robert discovers just how bad Elisabeth’s memory really is; in only a short while she forgets what she’s doing in his car, or even that she asked him for help. However, he manages to get her to trust him. At Robert’s apartment, Elisabeth decides that she wants something she can remember, so she and Robert make love. The next morning he has to leave for work, but Robert gives Elisabeth the number for his office.

After Robert has left, two people approach Elisabeth: Doctor Francis (Bernard Papineau, who I have seen in at least one or two of Rollin’s other movies) and his assistant, Solange (porn star Rachel Mhas). They know about Elisabeth’s condition, and have come to take her back where she belongs. Elisabeth is taken to a clinic in a high rise. As her roommate, Catharine (the late Catharine Greiner, another regular in the French adult film industry), shows her, everybody here has Elisabeth’s memory problems.

The situation is both sad and nightmarish. The people kept in the tower forget who they are, their names, sometimes even how to eat or walk. They make up memories for each other, to the point where they can’t tell whether what they do manage to remember is real or fabricated. Sometimes, their mental state becomes so bad that they are either suicidally depressed or homicidally violent.

While here, Elisabeth runs into Veronique again. While they cannot remember any of the specifics, both women intuitively know that they are very dear to each other. When Elisabeth discovers Robert’s phone number, she and Veronique, realizing that this is a potential outside ally, make plans to contact him about helping them escape. Robert, who has fallen for Elisabeth, jumps at the chance. Unfortunately, there is far more to the patients’ mental condition, and the authorities behind the clinic, than any of our heroes realize.

The Review: Night of the Hunted was one of my first introductions to the films of Jean Rollin. It is probably not the best place for those interested in his work to start, as it deviates somewhat from the fare he is known for. Also, if most of your movie experiences are in mainstream cinema, you will probably find it difficult and frustrating. Still, I find Night of the Hunted to be a pretty amazing movie, and my respect for it grows with each viewing.

Rollin shot Night of the Hunted at the end of a long era of his life, where he was forced to direct hardcore pornography to earn enough money to fund his own projects. This project started when his producer wanted him to do another cheap porn flick; but Rollin, tired of adult films, offered to do a horror movie instead, using porn actors, for the same amount of money. It was shot in nine days, on a very low budget. The end result is obviously flawed, yet it still turned out amazingly well in my opinion. In fact, the quality is even more amazing when one considers the constraints Rollin was dealing with during production.

For one thing, the acting is probably the best I’ve seen in a Rollin movie. Rollin’s films often face charges, not entirely unwarranted, of wooden acting and stilted dialogue. However, for Night of the Hunted Rollin picked actors that have definite talent, and it shows.

The primary example for this would have to be Brigitte Lahaie. Night of the Hunted was my first introduction to Ms. Lahaie; and, considering how first impressions tend to color our subsequent opinions, that would go a long way toward explaining how I’ve developed such high regard for the woman in such a short time. The truth is Lahaie can act. I’m not saying that she’s good for a porn star; I’m saying that by any reasonable standards she’s pretty amazing.

Lahaie’s role for Night of the Hunted is her first serious, non-pornographic major movie role; and it’s probably her best. The role of Elisabeth is a pretty complex one, a woman who loses her memory almost as she experiences things. In a sense she is an innocent, yet she is intelligent and can make decisions on her own. And that intelligence and strong will at the beginning provides a strong contrast to when she is finally overcome by her condition at the end, becoming effectively mindless. Ultimately, Elisabeth is a very tragic and memorable figure; one Lahaie is to be commended for.

Another memorable role is Dominique Journet as Veronique. Journet is almost as memorable as Lahaie, and the two women have great chemistry together. Veronique comes across as a childlike innocent, both charming and sympathetic. Also, it’s very easy to believe that she and Elisabeth share a very strong bond, even when they can’t remember what, exactly, that bond is. Journet is wonderful here, it’s sad she doesn’t seem to have done too much else. Plus, on a personal note, a gorgeous red-head who speaks French is a feminine ideal for me. When I figure out how to break the laws of time and space….

Another stand out performance is Catherine Greiner. To see her in this movie, you wouldn’t think of her as a porn actress. She is very sympathetic and touching in this role, it’s unfortunate that she didn’t go on to better things.

The atmosphere is partly what I have come to expect from Rollin’s movies, but partly something a bit different as well. On the one hand, there is still a dreamlike quality about Night of the Hunted, with some truly haunting shots and scenes. There are also a small handful of surreal moments, such as the one of Robert dancing with Solange. Finally, there is the feeling of loneliness and isolation that pervades most of Rollin’s work.

On the other hand, unlike most of his work, Night of the Hunted is an outright horror movie. There are no beautiful gothic castles, no romantic shots to take your mind off the horror. There are some haunting shots of Paris at night; but they, like the rest of the movie’s scenes, are cold and sterile. A feeling of doom and gloom hangs over the whole movie, with only the occasional scene of intimacy and tenderness between the characters to briefly alleviate it. There are a small handful of fairly brutal parts, the woman who has committed suicide by putting a pair of scissors through her eyes being the most notable. Finally, there is the ending, a truly bleak downer that cleverly inverts the old trope of the heroes striding triumphantly into the sunset.

Then there’s the sex and nudity. Some of this can just be passed off as Rollin being Rollin; female nudity, in both innocent and not so innocent scenarios, being prevalent in the majority of his films. However, there are also three fairly graphic soft-core sex scenes that don’t fit quite as comfortably into the movie. Rollin does his best with them, but it’s clear that they are mainly included for the benefit of the producer. My copy has, as extras, some hardcore outtakes Rollin shot just to be sure. I haven’t watched them, but hardcore scenes would definitely have messed up the pace of the film.

The first sex scene, the one between Elisabeth and Robert, actually plays to a theme running throughout the whole movie. Because the patients can only live in the now, physical intimacy of all kinds is one of the few avenues of connection available between them. This is why Elisabeth chooses to sleep with Robert, and Lahaie is a good enough actor to portray throughout the scene the desire to hold on to something, anything, for as long as possible.

The second is a bit more problematic; involving an orderly who takes advantage of the female patients. On the one hand, it does help highlight the patients’ nightmarish situation; but it is not needed for the story. Also, rape always makes me extremely uncomfortable, even when it is necessary to the storyline. The third sex scene, between two patients, is just gratuitous; although it quickly takes a turn for the perverse when the man’s psychosis kicks in mid-coitus.

But there is one thing that convinces me Rollin was trying hard not to create a piece of sleaze; or at least, one thing missing. No smutty porno, especially from this time and place, would be complete without a scene of lesbianism; and yet that is conspicuous by its absence. Elisabeth and Veronique quite obviously love and care for each other deeply, but there is nothing sexual about it whatsoever. This is especially noticeable for those familiar with some of Rollin’s other works, which often have female friendships containing a hint (or more) of the sexual to them.

Then there is a scene between Lahaie and Greiner which neatly addresses, and then sidesteps, the issue. Catherine, desperate for any kind of intimacy, makes a move on Elisabeth. The scene is very well done, with Catherine shy but persistent, and the expression on Elisabeth’s face clearly telegraphing what she’s thinking: “What the hell? Okay, do I want this? Well? No, I don’t believe I do.” And that’s the end of it, Elisabeth leaves to find Veronique.

For all its flaws, Night of the Hunted is still a well done piece of work. It’s not a good place to start with Rollin’s movies, but definitely worthwhile if you’re after something different. Just go in aware that what you will see is probably nothing like what you’re expecting, and you may be surprised.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Royal Flash (1975)





The Movie: Captain Harry Flashman (the prolific Malcolm McDowell, last seen on this blog in Class of 1999) is a great war hero of the Afghan Campaign and the darling of the Victorian social scene. Unknown to his admirers, Flashman is really a deceitful, lecherous bully and, above all, a coward. Flashman’s troubles begin when he escapes a police raid on the club he’s in and makes two fateful encounters.

The first is the ambitious Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck (Oliver Reed), who Flashman immediately makes an enemy of. Secondly is the tempestuous dancer Lola Montez (Florinda Bolkan), who Flashman winds up having a torrid affair with. It doesn’t end well. Four years later, the ramifications of both are going to bite him on the ass.

Lola, now the queen of Bavaria in everything but official title, lures Flashman to Munich. Once there, she sets him up so that Bismarck’s agents can kidnap him. Bismarck, in his plans for a united Germany, needs Flashman’s help with the small country of Strackenz. The popular Duchess Irma (Britt Ekland, from the original Wicker Man) is about to marry the Danish prince Karl Magnus. Unfortunately, the prince will not be able to attend his wedding, but Bismarck insists that the event must go on. Fortunately for Bismarck, his old enemy Flashman is an almost identical twin to the absent prince.

But there is much more to Bismarck’s plans than he lets on; and other political factions are in play as well. The reluctant impostor finds himself thrown in the middle of a web of intrigue, deceit and rebellion. How’s Flashy going to get himself out of this one?

The Review:

“You call yourself a man!”
-Lola Montez
“I never did.”
-Harry Flashman

One of my all-time favorite series of books is the Flashman Papers by George MacDonald Frasier. They are delightful works of historical fiction written as the memoirs of one Harry Flashman, one of the most celebrated figures and greatest heroes of the Victorian age. However, as Flashman freely admits, his reputation is entirely undeserved. He is very much a total bastard in almost every way; and above all he is a coward. Flashman is more than happy to enjoy all the accolades and rewards that his reputation brings him, but he goes out of his way to try and avoid the actual situations that earn him that rep.

Unfortunately for Flashy, in that second one he always fails. Whether due to his ever growing reputation; or, more often, as the consequences of one his misdeeds; Flashman always winds up smack in the middle of the very situations he tries to avoid. Somehow Flashman keeps winding up a pivotal figure in most of the major events of his time period; the failed Afghan Campaign, the India Mutiny, the Charge of the Light Brigade, Little Bighorn, to name a few. And yet somehow, Flashman not only survives them all, but more often than not comes out perceived as the hero of the venture.

One of the Flashman Papers’ greatest strengths is that Frasier was obviously very familiar with the material he worked with. While the historical annotations are what turn a lot of people off the series, I find they add to the atmosphere, and it’s possible to enjoy the books without reading them. What’s more, Frasier had a great talent with character, and was adapt at placing historical individuals (Otto von Bismarck, Queen Victoria, Abraham Lincoln) alongside fictional ones (Holmes and Watson make a brief appearance in one of the books, Flashman himself was the villain of the novel Tom Brown’s School Days), and make it seem like things actually happened exactly like in the books. I actually find Frasier’s Queen Victoria much more convincing than how I usually see her represented in various movies.

But the greatest part about the Flashman Papers is the tone. Essentially, they are classical heroic adventure, but with a very un-heroic protagonist. As a result they come across as familiar, and yet the paradigm is skewed. Instead of the hero boldly setting off to do what needs to be done, you have Flashman trying to weasel his way out of it, yet somehow he gets shanghaied into doing what must be done anyway. Instead of boldly and valiantly facing the adventures head on, Flashman cheats, lies, seduces and backstabs his way through. All of this is told in a very cynical yet ironically truthful voice that makes the books so much fun to read.

So, considering all the difficulties that come with translating literature to cinema, how did the movie turn out? Amazingly well, actually. One of the very first things they did right was to get Frasier himself to write the screenplay. Although Royal Flash was modified from its source novel by necessity, it kept everything that made it fun. Frasier and the director present us with a world that’s very engaging and convincing. For one thing, the period sets and costumes look great. For another, there’s something happening in the background and foreground of almost every scene, creating the impression of a living, breathing world.

Best of all, Royal Flash keeps the tone of its source material. Royal Flash is, on its surface, your typical period swashbuckling picture. All of the expected tropes are there; daring swordfights, clever dialogue, swinging from the chandelier and crashing through windows. However, once again the nature of our “hero,” and the fact that he’s no better than his enemies, turns the paradigm on its head. The end result is something that is both familiar, and yet surprising. The climactic battle, especially, plays out like an Errol Flynn movie gone very, very wrong.

Of course, all of this wouldn’t be anything without a good cast. Fortunately, that’s not an issue here. The Royal Flash cast is packed with well knowns and up and comers, all of whom do a fantastic job. However, there are two actors in particular I would like the address. The first is Malcolm McDowell.

I will confess when I first heard there was a Flashman movie, McDowell was not the first actor to come to mind for the lead. However, after having seen him I have trouble picturing anyone else in the role. In appearance and personality and mannerism, McDowell is Flashman almost exactly as I imagine him from the books. Admittedly, movie being a different medium, the part had to be a bit more visually blatant about Flashman’s personality than the books. However, the script and McDowell strike the perfect balance; it is obvious to us, the audience, what Flashman truly is, yet it is also easy to see why so few others have caught on.

The other individual I would like to address is Alan Bates as Rudi von Sternberg, Bismarck’s right hand man on the Strackenz project. Rudi is fully Flashman’s equal in everything but courage (Rudi actually has some), and is the main foil for Flashman. The two actors bounce off each other wonderfully. Also, Rudi is given some of the movie’s best lines, which he delivers perfectly.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Royal Flash works as both a portrayal of the original book and as a fun (although perverse and subversive) stand alone period swashbuckler movie. After seeing how this movie turned out, I'm rather disappointed that they never made any more. If you are a fan of the books, you should definitely see this movie. If you aren’t familiar with the books, but you enjoy swashbuckler movies; or you’d like to see what a classic Errol Flynn movie would look like if Flynn played a total bastard, see Royal Flash.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Class of 1999 (1990)





The Movie: In the far-flung year of 1999, the last decade has been bad. The rise of gang activity and the growing gap between the rich and the poor has resulted in parts of cities being declared “free-fire” zones, areas completely under the control of the gangs, where the police will not enter. Gang problems at public schools have resulted in the formation of the Department of Educational Defense; who seek to find a way to control the gangs.

In a grand experiment, Dr. Forrest (the prolific Stacy Keach), representative of the megacorporation Globotech, provides a potential solution. Mr. Bryles (Patrick Kilpatrick), Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan), and Ms. Connors (Pam Grier, famous for such blacksploitation flicks as Coffee and Foxy Brown); three android teachers, will be employed at Kennedy High School in Seattle. Kennedy High is right smack-dab in the middle of a free-fire zone, and the new principal, Miles Longford (the extremely prolific Malcolm McDowell, of such diverse flicks as Royal Flash, Tank Girl and A Clockwork Orange), is eager for the chance to clean up his school.

Our hero is Cody Culp (Bradley Gregg, of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors), who is being released from jail to participate in the experiment. Cody doesn’t know that he’s part of an experiment; all he knows is that he’s back in jail permanently if he screws up one more time, and he’s determined to avoid that. However, that seemingly noble goal is faced with some serious obstacles.

First, Cody’s old gang the Black Hearts, who his brother, Angel (Joshua Miller of Near Dark), is about to be initiated into, is furious that he wants out. The Black Hearts’ rivals, the Razorheads, want to get their own payback from Cody now that he’s an easy target. And then there’s the authority, in the form of the new teachers, who have signaled him out as a threat. This gets further complicated by his growing romance with Christie (the beautiful Tracy Lin of Fright Night 2), the principal’s daughter.

The new teachers, it turns out, are refurbished battle droids; and they are falling back on their old military programming, seeing the gangs as an enemy to be eliminated. Cody starts to see signs that they are systematically murdering problem students, but nobody will believe his suspicions. Then, just as Cody starts to put the pieces together, the androids exacerbate the Black Hearts’ and Razorheads’ mutual animosity into a full-fledged gang war. Cody’s only hope is to unite the warring gangs against a common foe. But can he do it? And will even that be enough?

The Review:

"Now be careful; these things are like some bad, fucked-up George Jetson nightmare."
-Cody Culp

Admittedly, Class of 1999 requires a few suspensions of disbelief right off the bat. First is the date; 1999 having come and gone without the specific scenario portrayed. Hell, I was in the class of 2000. Then there’s the idea behind the androids that, more than ten years after this movie allegedly takes place and more than twenty after it was made, are still far beyond our current technological capacity.

However, once you get past those two suspensions of disbelief, Class of 1999 has some elements that I find entirely too plausible. The end of the Reagan Era, when this movie was made, saw a huge gap between the wealthy and the poor; one that has only gaped wider in the two decades since. They have since cleaned up most of the inner cities, but I understand that this just means the problems have moved to the suburbs. With the current economic situation, who knows what this country will look like in another ten years?

Then there’s Kennedy High School, which is portrayed as a fascist police state. I happen to remember high school as a fascist police state; albeit nowhere near the level shown in this movie. The middle of my high school years saw some highly publicized school shootings, the most notorious being the Columbine shooting in Colorado. Considering the idiotic measures the Powers That Be at Mouth of Hell High School took to show that they were on top of a problem that might, ever so possibly, happen; a clear and present danger such as warring gangs on the doorstep would definitely have inspired Kennedy High levels of extreme measures. The only difference is that MHHS would not have been able to afford half as many rent-a-thugs.

The cast is mostly decent, good enough as far as B-movie standards go. Gregg and the script make Cody Culp a fairly believable character. Cody in this movie is portrayed somewhat weary of his environment, having seen firsthand where it leads. However, while Cody doesn’t do the macho posturing of his fellow gangers; he doesn’t pass up on doing the right thing, or let others roll over him. This is why the authorities find him a threat, even though he’s not as blatantly disruptive as the gangers. In fact, the movie suggests that the Black Hearts really look up to Cody, which is why they’re so pissed about him wanting out of their ranks.

Gregg comes across as a little wooden at a few points, but overall does adequately. The parts I find most convincing are the scenes that show his relationship with his brother. Gregg and Miller do a great job at portraying two people who really love each other, even though they don’t “get” each other anymore.

Grier, Kilpatrick and Ryan do a great job as the android teachers. All of them present clear personalities; Kilpatrick is great as the stereotype sadistic gym coach, while Ryan is near perfect as the arrogant, and sadistic, intellectual. Grier, I would say, pretty much reprises her roles from her blacksploitation days; except that here she plays an outright villain instead of a sympathetic anti-heroine. The three alternate between their character stereotypes, inhuman machines, cackling villains and black comedy; but overall they hit all the bases well. They’re the most engaging part of the movie, and they give the impression of having a lot of fun with their roles.

Stacy Keach is wonderful as the slimy, villainous corporate head. Whoever thought of those creepy contact lenses he wears should be commended. McDowell, meanwhile, does a good job as a well-meaning principal who doesn’t realize the full extent of the Faustian bargain he’s made until it’s way too late. Lin is decent as the love interest, though I really wish she could have been a little more competent and a little less the helpless, screaming heroine.

Finally, I think James Medina does great as Hector, the leader of the Razorheads. Most of the movie he’s kind of creepy and threatening, but he does reveal some good traits after he joins with Cody against the teachers. He has some good interactions with Gregg as well.

For the most part, I love Class of 1999 because it is competently made, albeit low budget; and because of its anti-authority message. One of my favorite touches, the moving signs around school that kind of act as a Greek chorus, help bring out the kind of nightmarish world the characters inhabit. When the characters first enter the school, it’s under one such sign that displays the words “Respect, Obey, Learn!” The school represents the system that has placed the gang members in their current position, and in the end is what they unite together to bring down. The explosive (literally) final battle in the end is obviously on a low budget, but the crewmembers just as obviously did everything they could with what they had.

Overall, Class of 1999 is a low-budget but competently made little B-movie about striking against authority. It requires a little suspension of disbelieve, but it has a few parts that seem prescient. Above all, it’s fun. Class of 1999 isn’t high art, but not all entertainment has to be.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Small Soldiers (1998)




The Movie: Globotech Industries, the archetypal all-devouring mega corporation; formerly a military contractor but now branching out, has just acquired the Heartland Toy Company. CEO Gil Mars (Denis Leary) meets with Larry Benson (Jay Mohr) and Irwin Wayfair (David Cross, who you may recognize from the show Arrested development, or his role as the villain in the Alvin and the Chipmunks live-action movie), the last remaining employees of the former company, to come up with a new big-selling toy line. Mars expresses the desire for a fully interactive action figure, one that will literally play with its owner. Also, he gives the men an extremely short deadline to roll them out.

The results are the Commando Elite, soldiers whose only purpose is to destroy the Gorgonites. The Gorgonites, created by Irwin, are these monsters whose purpose is to learn and find their home world, Gorgon. Mars doesn’t like the idea of a toy about learning, so he has them incorporated into the Commando line as the Commandos’ victims. Larry finds a powerful computer chip to program the figures with, and they are packaged.

Meanwhile, teenaged Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) has just moved to a new town with his parents. Alan has something of a delinquent past, which is still haunting him. His parents won’t trust him now, and he already has a reputation among his peers. This causes him to think that his crush on his next door neighbor, Christy Fimple (the lovely and talented Kirsten Dunst), is hopeless.

Then there are his parents’ (Kevin Dunn and Ann Magnuson) problems; main one being his father’s toy store, which doesn’t make money because his father refuses the stock the high tech war toys that are so popular. There’s also Christy’s insufferable father (the late Phil Hartman, best known for the voices of Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz on the Simpsons); a jerk obsessed with owning as much techno junk as he can and an obnoxious neighbor.

But Alan’s real problems begin when his father goes on a business trip and puts him in charge of the store. Joe the delivery guy (the ubiquitous Dick Miller) has some of the new toys on his truck. Alan talks him into loaning him a set, which he intends to sell while his father is away. Unfortunately, in doing this Alan has bitten off a lot more than he can chew.

It turns out that the chips Larry found for the toys are an extremely high-tech munitions chip that enhances the programming of whatever it is placed in, to the point of actual intelligence. Befriended by Archer (voice of Frank Langella), the leader of the Gorgonites, Alan finds himself in the middle of a war. Led by Major Chip Hazard (Tommy Lee Jones); the Commando Elite are clever, and ruthless, and determined to destroy the Gorgonites along with anyone who gets in their way…

The Review:

“Everything else, is just a toy.”

Small Soldiers came out during my late high school years, so I remember the advertising blitz. The studio tried to milk as much money out of it as they could; toys, a video game, a soundtrack, even a promotional sandwich at Burger King. Every time I watch my VHS copy I get a reminder, a short blitz before the movie on all the wonderful products that came with it. What I find both funny and sad about this arrangement is how out of step it is with the movie. Small Soldiers itself is very much against this kind of crass commercialism.

Probably one of the most striking things about Small Soldiers is just how un-commercial it is. For example, the target audience; most adults are going to think ‘toys coming to life, it’s a kids’ movie’ and not bother watching it. The studio certainly played up on the image of it as a movie for kids. However, Small Soldiers is very much not a kids’ movie. It’s very mature and, while the general spirit of the movie is young at heart, it is also filled with themes and references that will go right over younger viewers’ heads.

Small Soldiers is a tongue-in-cheek satire on the military-industrial complex that has infested our country in the past century or so, as well as the prevalence of mindless consumerism that fuels it. The very pointed opening scene, a commercial about Globotech and its switch to the private sector, lets you know immediately what you’re getting into. Also, there is the cynical design behind the toys themselves. The Commandos’ sole purpose is to destroy the Gorgonites; so if you happen to just buy one toy, or if they succeed at their goal, there’s really nothing left for them to do.

The Commandos are definitely avatars of a military-industrial complex gone amuck. They only exist to win, and are too single-minded to think about what that might mean. They are always reciting platitudes, ones you’ll recognize from various war movies, which sound tough and impressive; but are ultimately meaningless. Also, at the beginning, the Commandos decide that the plastic weapons they come with are useless, and they seek suitable replacements. The end result is that throughout the movie, the Commandos collect all of the consumer goodies the humans have been hording and turn them into deadly weapons to use on their owners. Tennis-ball launchers, lawnmowers, toasters, power tools; all these and more are used against the heroes.

The Gorgonites provide an interesting counterpoint to the Commandos. On the one hand, they are initially programmed to do two things; hide, and lose to the Commandoes. However, Irwin also programmed them to learn, his original concept for them. As a result, they can reason and reflect on their choices. Unlike the Commandos, the Gorgonites are eventually able to override their programming, and therefore win in the end.

Probably the most amazing thing about the two sets of toys is that each individual is unique, with his own personality. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that the movie shortchanges the human characters. All of them, while for the most part very lightly sketched out, are convincing. Alan, our hero, comes across as a typical teenage boy, with everything that entails.

The character of Christy is also well acted by Dunst. However, what I find interesting is how she is employed. In most movies of this type, the love interest serves as the damsel in distress who has to be rescued by the hero. That’s how it starts out, but it turns out that Christy is pretty tough and competent once she is untied. In fact, Christy and Alan alternate between saving each other from the Commandos throughout the movie. At one point Christy even asks him “is this going to be the basis of our relationship?”

Equally laudable, in my opinion, is how the other main human characters are used in the climactic final battle against the Commandos. In most movies of this type, it is the juvenile heroes who save the day while the adults are useless. However, nearly everyone in the big siege, which includes Alan and Christy’s families, as well as Larry and Irwin, contributes. Even Larry and Mr. Fimple, who would normally just be odious comedy relief, make valuable contributions to the defeat of the Commandos. Alan strikes the final blow, of course, but the adults are needed for him to be able to do it. The only exception is Christy’s mother, who’s still woozy from the sleeping pills the Commandos drugged her with earlier.

The final and most important element of Small Soldiers is its general tone and atmosphere. It is obvious that somebody had a lot of fun making this movie, and that really shows in the finished product. There are all sorts of warped little touches, such as the Commandos opening up the climactic siege by blaring the Spice Girls (“Psychological warfare,” Alan’s mother tells him when he asks. “It’s how the marines got Noriega,” Christy adds.), to the various movie references. Or, what I find to be the best and most nightmarish part of the movie, when the Commandos use a chip from a fallen comrade to animate Christy’s Gwendy (aka Barbie) dolls as reinforcements.

Overall, Small Soldiers is a very warped, pointed, and fun little movie. It is a truly twisted satire and black comedy, one that is even more relevant in the decade-plus since it was made. Yeah, it’s about toys coming to life, but it definitely is not a kids’ movie. Try to forget about the image the studio tried to build about the movie, and just sit down and watch it. I promise, if you’re of a particular frame of mind you won’t regret it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In the Mouth of Madness (1995)




The Movie: We open up in an insane asylum where John Trent (Sam Neil, who you’ll probably recognize from Jurassic Park) is brought in kicking and screaming. Quite literally, unfortunately for one guard. A short time afterward he is visited by Dr. Wrenn (prolific actor David Warner, of the Omen and Cast a Deadly Spell), an agent of an unidentified organization. At Dr. Wrenn’s questioning, Trent tells his story.

John Trent was a freelance insurance investigator whose last case was given to him by the publishing company Arcane. Director Jackson Harlow (the infamous Charlton Heston) has lost his best author, the extremely popular horror author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). Cane has disappeared, along with half of his soon to be released novel In the Mouth of Madness. As this represents an unimaginable amount of money for Arcane, Harlow wants Jackson to find either the book or the author and bring it back.

Unfortunately, there’s something not right about Cane and his work. His novels have this tendency to affect some people and cause them to become irrational, paranoid or even violent. Just before Trent heads over to Arcane to take the case, he is attacked by a man with an ax (Conrad Bergschneider), who he later finds out was Cane’s agent! Then Trent finds a potential lead to where Cane might have gone, and is teamed up with Linda Stiles (Julie Carmen, of Fright Night 2), the editor who handles Cane’s work, to go out and find him.

The town they wind up at, Hobbes End, only exists in Cane’s books. Not long after they arrive, all sorts of other things start to happen, things that also should only happen in Cane’s books. Gradually Trent is forced to realize that what he has long believed to be Reality has changed. Cane has become God, Trent is a character in his latest novel, and he and said novel are going to bring about the end of humanity.

The Review:

“Reality is not what it used to be.”

It was probably inevitable that I would be drawn to the horror genre, and to this movie in particular. There are two very important facts about the horror genre I have been able to nail down over the past few years. The first is that all horror stories center around a single theme; lack of control. Whether the horror in question comes from something as mundane as some psycho trying to poke you with something sharp (most giallo, any slasher flick you care to name), or from some or all of what you consider to be the immutable laws of Reality packing their bags and leaving you to your lonesome (Ringu, Messiah of Evil, far-Right politics), the core of the story is always the same; the characters are placed in a situation where they have little or no power, and the plot revolves around how they try to gain it back.

The second fact is that horror is a very personal genre. Just like humor, the purpose of horror is to provoke an emotional reaction in you; and what produces that reaction in one person doesn’t necessarily affect another in the same way. As an example, spiders don’t bother me all that much, like they do some people. However, whenever a movie shows people sticking themselves with or getting stuck by needles, or the amputation of body parts, I shudder no matter what the context or how many times I’ve already seen it.

For these two reasons, the “Reality takes an extended vacation” brand of horror movies are among those that affect me the most. I have been dealing with ausperger’s my entire life, even though I was only diagnosed about halfway through college. For me, ausperger’s largely manifests as a near inability to read people, and therefore a tendency to miss social cues. Most days I find myself in a world of games, rituals, shibboleths (look it up), and other required practices that at worst are destructive and at best really don’t make sense. I identify with this kind of story because it’s what I deal with in everyday life. Quite frankly, I have little, if any, belief in “Reality” because nearly all of what everybody tries to pass off to me as Reality makes no sense whatsoever.

In the Mouth of Madness has gotten very mixed reviews. Roger Ebert and the majority of the other mainstream reviewers agree that the movie starts good, but stops making sense once the heroes head for Hobbes End. I am of the opinion that these reviewers miss the point entirely. Most of the horror in this movie comes from the very fact that John Trent’s situation is absurd and impossible. The quote I begin this review with (as spoken by one of the extras, and one of my all-time favorite quotes) sums up this movie quite nicely. In the Mouth of Madness is about the question of what Reality is, and what happens when your perception of it is suddenly upended.

John Trent serves as our point of view character, and Sam Neil plays it perfectly. In a sense, he actually plays two parts. The first, throughout the main body of the film, is kind of a hard-boiled investigator. He’s good at what he does, and knows it. He’s also incredibly cynical, and convinced that he knows how things work. Most of the movie follows this Trent as he gradually faces the truth, and tries to come to terms with the fact that things are not happening like they’re supposed to. Even though his constant rationalizing in the face of the obvious does grate a little, I cannot help but feel sympathetic toward him as the world he knew comes crashing down about his ears.

The second John Trent character is the asylum inmate in the wraparound. He is still intelligent, but he’s no longer the ultra-rationalist he once was. Instead he’s rather fatalistic; knowing exactly what’s going on, and that there’s nothing he can do about it. He’s also well aware that he comes across as crazy. Among the first things Trent says to Dr. Wrenn are “You here about my ‘Them?’ Every paranoid schizophrenic has a ‘Them,’ a ‘They,’ an ‘It,’ you want to talk about my ‘Them.’”

Equally good in the other major role is Jurgen Prochnow as Sutter Cane. His Cane is a combination evil mastermind and demented deity; overflowing with confidence. His unflappable confidence is even more grating because it’s entirely warranted; he is God now, after all.

The other parts are, overall, good enough. Julie Carmen is a little wooden at times, but is adequate for the most part. I doubt John Carpenter had this consciously in mind when he made the movie, but I just love the idea of Charlton Heston (as the distributor of Cane’s books) being ignorantly responsible for unleashing apocalyptic evil upon the world. And, while I have only seen her in supporting roles, Frances Bay is always one of the best parts of whatever movie she’s in. Her turn as Mrs. Pickman, the psychotic hotel proprietor, is wonderfully creepy.

As for the movie itself, John Carpenter does a great job in building up the atmosphere of impending doom. He starts out small, but builds up, playing upon our uncertainty as Reality frays until the very end, when it breaks entirely. The last scene is a wonderful breaking down of the Fourth Wall between the movie and the audience, and even with the start of the credits it isn’t quite over. Wait to see what’s written after the part about how no animals were harmed to make the film.

In short, I love this movie. In the Mouth of Madness is one of the most effective horror movies I have come across. If you come in with an open mind, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Revenge of the Nerds (1984)


The Movie: Lewis (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert (Anthony Edwards), two lifelong best friends, are excited about starting their first year at Adams College. After all the misery of high school, they are determined to shed their image as nerds, start a new life, and be successful with women. Unfortunately, their freshmen year at Adams is going to put them right back where they started.

Adams College is dominated by the Alpha Betas, your typical band of uberjock bullies, and their coach, Harris (John Goodman). Our heroes’ first major problem with the Alphas comes when they burn down their frat house at a party and take over the freshmen dorm. The new male freshmen are forced to live in the gym. Dean Ulich (David Wohl) arranges so that the freshmen are allowed to join fraternities that year, but there are still a sizable number of individuals that the frats find undesirable.

With nobody else to turn to, the “nerds” band together and find a house of their own, which they fix up. Unfortunately, the Alphas consider them easy prey and persecute them mercilessly. What’s worse, the nerds are told that their only recourse to justice is the Greek Council; and its president is Stan Gable (Ted McGinley), one of the Alphas. Because the nerds are not part of the fraternity system, they have no power.

In desperation, the nerds manage to convince a national fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda, to sponsor them as their campus’ chapter. They then seek to get the reins of power away from the Alphas. However, the jocks are determined that there is no way they are going to be beaten by a bunch of nerds. They are determined to stomp the nerds down by any means available; and things are about to get really ugly…

The Review: I was not expecting much from this movie. I had heard the title Revenge of the Nerds for years; maybe decades would be more accurate. As the television in the deli section of my college’s cafeteria was usually turned to Comedy Central, I even caught a few brief glimpses of it. But, I just expected it to be another raunchy, juvenile Animal House wannabe. When I got Netflix I started adding titles to various movies that, while well known in popular culture, I had never seen. Eventually, Revenge of the Nerds came up on my queue and arrived in my mailbox.

I found myself doing something I rarely do with my Netflix movies; instead of just watching it once and sending it back, I held on to Revenge of the Nerds until I was able to rewatch it. Seriously, I enjoyed it that much. While there was raunchy and juvenile humor; there was also a very good cast, a good plot, a genuine sweetness that was nothing like the Hallmark kind you usually see, and the sense that everyone involved was enjoying themselves.

One of the things this movie does differently from usual is its presentation of its heroes. In most movies you have one or two identification figures; in Revenge of the Nerds you have a small stable of them. There’s Poindexter (Timothy Busfield), a violin player who has the classical nerd look. Wormser (Andrew Cassese) is a twelve-year old genius whose parents force him to move to college. “Booger” (Curtis Armstrong, who played John Cusack’s druggie friend in Better Off Dead) is both skuzzy and shifty. Takashi Toshiro (Brian Tochi) is your stereotype ignorant and naïve Japanese exchange student. Then there’s Lamar Latrell (Larry B. Scott), who has two strikes against him; he’s black and he’s flamboyantly gay.

That’s a lot of characters to keep track of, but Revenge of the Nerds pulls it off by playing off the group dynamics. Lewis and Gilbert are our official point of view characters, and Gilbert inadvertently winds up the unofficial leader of the group, but for the most part the movie focuses on all of them about equally. What’s more, despite the stereotypes, they all come across as human. In the cast reminiscing feature on the disc, they talk about how the director met with each of them and had them flesh out their characters (Armstrong had a full character bio written up), and it really shows. Even if they didn’t use every detail, you get the impression of fully fleshed out human beings, not caricatures.

One of the things that really struck me about this movie was how human all of the heroes actually looked. Few, if any, of them are truly Hollywood Pretty. Gilbert’s girlfriend Judy (Michelle Meyrink) is, of course, a nerd, but she is also very pretty; although it’s a kind of frizzy, wallflower pretty, not the “take off her glasses and she’s a supermodel” tack that Hollywood so loves. Likewise, when I got my first look at her sorority, the Omega Mus; it was clear that none of these women would be a starlet or supermodel, but I saw several who I would be attracted to if I met them in person. This use of ordinary people helps cement the believability of the characters; they are people we can expect to run into on the street, or even see in the mirror. The truly “Beautiful People” in this movie are almost all the villains.

The villains are more caricatures, but they still work. If nothing else, they’re fun and you truly love to hate them. The two standouts are “Ogre” (Donald Gibb), who could almost be the mythical creature that inspired his nickname, and Stan, their leader. In the special feature, McGinley turns out to be one of the few cast members who initially wanted to be in Revenge of the Nerds. He also makes the observation that if you’re not going to win the girl, you should at least get to be the villain “and I got a little of both.” That mindset truly shows in his character, he was the perfect villain. Ogre, meanwhile, provides both comedy relief and a credible threat to the heroes.

‘Underdog beating the odds’ movies are a dime a dozen (probably because we all love them), but Revenge of the Nerds does a few more things right that separates it from the pack. The initial power system at Adams College, for one is very clever. Dean Ulich, it’s made clear, is a nerd himself and always on the heroes’ side. His problem is that, like them, being beaten down his whole life makes it very hard for him to stand up for himself. As a result, even though he’s officially in charge, Coach Harris is able to dominate him and therefore control the school. However, with each victory our heroes win, the dean is provided with more inspiration and strength until he’s finally able to stand up to the coach.

How the heroes gain their own fraternity is also well done. Initially, their motivation for forming their own fraternity is survival; if the boys are going to have any power on campus they need to be part of the system. Told they need a national fraternity to sponsor them, they only get a favorable response from the one fraternity they didn’t send a group picture to, Triple Lambda.

Lambda Lambda Lambda it turns out, not insignificantly, is an all black fraternity. U.N. Jefferson (Bernie Casey), the head of Triple Lambda, is ready to disregard our heroes, too, once he sees them; but the by-laws say that all petitioners get a 60 day probationary membership. Reluctantly, Jefferson grants them probationary membership, and agrees to attend a party they throw in his honor.

The party starts out badly, first from a sabotage attempt by the Pi Delta Pis, the sorority the Alphas associate with, and later just general awkwardness. However, through some determination and ingenuity the nerds finally start the right note, and even the Lambda reps are visibly trying hard not to show they’re having a good time. Then the jocks ruin the party. The nerds are convinced that their chances are ruined, but the expression on Jefferson’s face tells a different story. It’s clear that this is what finally convinces him to accept them; seeing first-hand what they are up against and why they need a fraternity of their own. Judging by his race and age, he probably had to go through the same crap himself.

Another intriguing part of the movie comes from this. Along with Jefferson’s official recognition of our heroes as Lambdas, he takes a personnel interest in them. Also, although they never really think about this until it’s sprung on them; the full Tri-Lambda organization considers the boys theirs. The upshot of these two things is that the nerds have inadvertently made themselves some powerful allies with an interest in their welfare.

The final aspect of Revenge of the Nerds that I really like is how the nerds take on the jocks. In most underdog vs. the odds movies it ends with the underdog literally beating his opponents at their own game. However, from the very beginning of the movie, this is shown to be blatantly impossible. The heroes are so overmatched by their enemies that any attempt to play by their rules will get them trounced.

The conclusion to this is that the nerds don’t try to play by the jock’s rules. Instead, when they do go after the jocks, they employ tactics where they have the advantage. Admittedly, in this day and age the nerds’ retaliation on the Pi’s ruining their party, a simultaneous panty-raid and the planting of video cameras in their house, doesn’t go down well with me. I’m not too bothered by their retaliation on the Alphas though, putting liquid heat in their jock straps. I wonder what that says about me.

But that’s how they win, by using their ingenuity. At the Greek Games, which is what determines the presidency of the Greek Council, the nerds win by approaching the events in ways the jocks would never think of. I particularly like how they handle the charity event. And, even when in events where they’re clearly outmatched, such as the tug-of-war, the nerds figure out how to lose in ways that still get the best of their opponents.

So, in short, I really liked this movie. It taps into a theme that appeals to all of us, turning the tables on your persecutors; but does it in a way that’s more believable than what we usually see. What’s more, this movie does clearly identify with its protagonists. While in other movies many of the misfortunes they go through here would be played for laughs; here they are shown for the tragedies they are. Our heroes are played for humor, of course, but it’s the age-old difference of laughing with, not at. Finally, the heroes are very identifiable. If you haven’t seen Revenge of the Nerds, you should remedy that.