Sunday, June 27, 2010

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988)

The Movie: Jack Chandler (long time B-movie regular Jay Richardson) is a private dick (i.e. detective, and yes, there are plenty of jokes about that) in L.A. who is in search of missing runaway Samantha Kelso (the Scream Queen Linnea Quigley). A check in with the police department reveals that they are having problems of their own; somebody is going around hacking up people with a chainsaw. Unfortunately for Jack, the two cases are connected.

A mysterious figure known only as the Master (Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and his right-hand woman, Mercedes (lovely and prolific scream queen Michelle Baur) lead a cult of psychotic, chainsaw-worshipping prostitutes. Samantha has gotten herself involved with these crazies; and those who get in their way tend not to come out of the situation in one piece….

The Review:

"I'd stumbled into the middle of an evil, insidious cult of chainsaw worshipping maniacs. I had to wonder if we'd let our religious freedom go too far in this country, or maybe our immigration laws were just too lax."
-Jack Chandler

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers had me from the pre-credits introduction; a disclaimer about not using chainsaws when nude and about to engage in sex, and a police interrogation that starts to go terribly wrong (for the police) just before the credits roll. It’s impossible not to love a movie that begins that way. Sadly, it kind of drops the anchor at the climax, but I still have a lot of fun with this one.

Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers is a very low-budget comedy spoof on noir with naked women and some horror movie elements thrown in. It is clear from the very beginning that this movie is just meant to be fun, and that nobody involved is taking it seriously. The one true gore part mainly consists of Michelle Baur holding a chainsaw that, despite the sound effects, is obviously not on. She laughs evilly and waves it around while somebody just off camera throws red paint and blatantly plastic body parts at her. This alternates with shots of her victim, who tries to writhe convincingly and keep his limbs off camera at the same time while that same off-camera individual throws more red paint on him. It isn’t a high-quality affair, and it isn’t meant to be.

The cast, overall, does a good job with their parts. For the most part they deliver their lines well, and it’s clear they are enjoying themselves. The only exception is Gunnar Hansen. He really does not display any screen presence and he delivers his lines with very little, if any, emotion. On a personnel note, something about his appearance and speech makes me think of an acquaintance of mine. Not that said acquaintance has a cult of psychotic, chainsaw-wielding hookers; but considering his standing in the local gaming community he probably could if he really wanted to. There’s no significance to this, it’s just one of those weird similarities you occasionally find in disparate individuals.

My only real complaint about this movie is the ceremony at the climax. The ceremony, and Quigley’s preceding Virgin Dance of the Double chainsaws, is a major letdown. The ceremony itself just drags. As for the Dance; admittedly the idea of Linnea Quigley wearing just a thong and paint dancing with a pair of chainsaws is wonderful. Unfortunately, it fails in practice. This is mostly because Quigley doesn’t have any muscle or meat on her at all and obviously can’t do very much with the two heavy chainsaws she’s holding. Mostly I just wonder how she’s able to hold the things at all with those stick arms.

Don’t get me wrong; I love Linnea Quigley, she’s one of my favorite actresses. It’s just that this scene really doesn’t work for her, or the movie. Fortunately, the following chainsaw duel does make up for it a little. It’s still the weakest point in an otherwise fun movie.

What Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers has to recommend it are as follows: naked women, a garbanzo premise, some truly great lines (such as the quote at the beginning of this review, which is one of Jack’s voiceovers); and a lot of fun, if ridiculous and juvenile, humor. This is not a movie to watch if you are easily offended. However, if you are in the mood for some twisted, brainless fun, it’s great.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Cool World (1992)

The Movie: Frank Harris (Brad Pitt, you should know who he is) returns home from World War 2 to his loving mother (Janni Brenn). Unfortunately, when taking her for a ride on his new motorcycle, they run headfirst into some drunk drivers and Frank’s mom dies in front of him. His day gets even more complicated when an experiment in the dimension next door performed by Doctor Vincent Whiskers (voice of Maurice LaMarche) kidnaps Frank from our dimension. Frank finds himself in a world populated entirely by cartoon characters, and he Dr. Whiskers walk off discussing the matter.

Forty-something years later (contemporary to the when the movie was made); Frank is a police detective who tries to keep order in the Cool World, the official name for the cartoon dimension. The main point of this is to keep “noids” (flesh and blood humans, who apparently pass through while dreaming) from having sex with “doodles” (the cartoon inhabitants), because it somehow causes tears in the fabrics of reality. He is dedicated to his job, but this is at a personal sacrifice because the only thing that makes him happy is his doodle girlfriend, Lonette (voice of Candi Milo); and their inability to consummate their relationship is an endless source of frustration for both.

But Frank finds himself with bigger problems. Local femme fatale Holli Would (Kim Basinger) is determined to escape into the “Real World” at any cost. So far this hasn’t been a real problem, but ex-con cartoonist Jack Deebs (Gabriel Byrne) is just getting out of jail. While incarcerated, Deebs wrote a best-selling comic book on Cool World. Convinced that it is his creation, he is being drawn deeper and deeper in and giving Holli just the sucker she needs to fulfill her plans. Plans that could destroy both worlds….

The Review: Far more frustrating and appalling than even the worst straight out bad movie is the one that obviously could have, should have, been great; but falls far short of its potential. Ralph Bakshi, who directed and wrote the original screenplay, intended something very different. He had in mind an animated horror movie, something much darker. Unfortunately, the studio secretly rewrote the screenplay at the last minute, and the result was a mess where there probably should have been a masterpiece. There are still some traces of the original vision here and there, but it came out as something very different.

The best part about the movie is the Cool World itself. What we get looks like nothing less than a hybrid of the archetypal Naked City we see in noir combined with Dante’s Inferno; if Hell had been designed with the Loony Toons in mind. Nightmarish characters lurk in dark alleys, objects such as anvils and pianos randomly fall from the sky, doors and buildings have minds of their own. Also, I could swear that I saw Woody Woodpecker in one of the crowd scenes; as well as busts of Mickey Mouse and Daffy Duck on some of the delightfully twisted buildings that make up the setting.

Brad Pitt did a good job as Detective Harris. No big surprise; Pitt tends to be good when he’s given something significant to work with, and Frank Harris is the most developed character in this movie. He’s actually convincing and sympathetic.

Even when Frank came off as gruff and unfriendly, which he did when he first dealt with Deebs, I found myself on his side. Here is a man who has worked very hard for the gods only know how long (time seems to run very differently in the Cool World) to keep things together. And he’s no hypocrite, he knows exactly what’s at stake; but that means serious personnel sacrifice. Now, along comes this bitch who wants to bring it all down; along with this idiot who’s willing to let her use him to do it. I’d be cranky too. Frank does get rewarded at the end, and is probably the only main character whose reward isn’t very mixed. He’s also probably the only one who deserves it.

Byrne, as Deebs, does what he can; but he isn’t given much to work with. There are some tantalizing hints of what Jack Deebs was intended to be, or could have been. For example, he was in jail for killing his wife and her lover after finding them together. That suggests a much different man than the one in front of us. Aside from that one intriguing hint, the Jack Deebs in this movie is nothing but a passive and willing puppet for Holli to manipulate. Though he, too, gets “rewarded” at the end of the movie; it left me with the feeling that this was a reward he would tire of really quickly.

Holli Would is a mixed bag. I think she is wonderful as long as she remains an animation. However, she is much less so once she becomes human. This isn’t Basinger’s fault; Holli is supposed to represent the ultimate feminine desire. Basinger’s not bad looking, but there’s no way that she, or any other flesh and blood actress for that matter, could possibly match up to the sexy toon. It was a major mistake on the part of the scriptwriter to bring Holli into the Real World.

And there lies my major gripe with this movie. The Cool World is the best part of it, and yet the script short changes it. Some of it is due to the constraints of a PG-13 rating. To keep that rating, the script cannot show the true extent of the horrors and depravities of the setting. It can hint, but it cannot show, and this really cuts into the atmosphere.

The worst part, though, is that the movie spends too much time away from its wonderful setting. We catch a few tantalizing glimpses, but we never really get to know it. As a result, the major plot points never make much sense. How, exactly, does sex between a noid and a doodle disrupt the barrier between the two worlds? Why are noids able to travel here in their dreams? Though I think Frank Harris ultimately deserved what he got at the end, there was no real explanation for how he got it; Cool World just pulled it out of its ass as a convenient deus ex machina.

As I said earlier, there were a few hints of what Cool World was originally intended to be. There is definitely a good movie hiding in the mess that is the end result. Bakshi, if you’re reading this, please, try to get a new movie made of your original vision. Adult animation is more accepted these days, so you might get a better chance. I really hate to see a good idea get wasted, particularly in an age when any original idea at all is a rarity. Unfortunately, thus far that’s exactly what Cool World is; a good idea that got wasted.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Salo (1975)

The Movie: 1944, in the fascist controlled northern Italian state of Salo, four fascist libertines; the Duke (Paolo Bonacelli), the Bishop (Giorgio Cataldi), the Magistrate (Umberto Paolo Quintavalle) and the President (Aldo Valletti); kidnap sixteen physically perfect teenage specimens (eight boys and eight girls). They take them to a secluded villa along with guards, servants, and four elderly prostitutes. There, with the prostitutes telling stories to get them in the mood; they slake their unholy desires on the young innocents.

The Review: As everyone who knows me, along with those who have read this blog, has undoubtedly figured out by now; my cinematic tastes tend to run to movies miles outside the mainstream. Time and again I hear the inevitable question from other people: why? Why am I into B-movies? Horror? Sexploitation? Bizarre films that defy any real attempt to describe them? Why do I feel compelled to leave the beaten path; to employ a metaphor, and seek out movies that the majority of people would avoid like the plague?

I am not too bothered by this question, because it is a good one. Indeed, it is one that I frequently ask myself. The answer I have come up with is simply this; the beaten path has very little to offer me. Oh, I do watch mainstream Hollywood flicks; they even provide something I find worthwhile every so often. But I find the majority of them to be stale, formulaic and predictable. With the very rare exception, if you plunk me down in front of any typical Hollywood film, I can tell you exactly what will happen. If it’s a horror movie, I can tell you who will die and probably even how. If it’s a romantic comedy, I can tell you who will end up with who at the end. If it’s a drama, I will probably be able to tell you, very early on and in detail, what dramatic devices they will use and how they will use them.

I approach the cinematic world with the mindset of an explorer seeking parts unknown. Sure, the well traveled routes have their wonders to offer; but they rarely vary, and one grows jaded to them quickly. However, by seeking the less traveled parts, the ones off the map, I am able to see marvels that few people see and that are all the more wonderful for that fact. There’s a sense of discovery with coming upon something that most people aren’t even aware of; and wouldn’t bother to seek out even if they were. If I didn’t have the urge to seek out something different, I never would have discovered such delights as the truly warped humor of Paul Bartel; or the dreamy, surrealistic visions of Jean Rollin; or the twisted joy of such works as Re-animator or Night of the Creeps. But I have had the opportunity to discover them, and my life is all the richer for it.

However, there is a very good reason why most people choose to stick to the beaten path. Namely, it is safe. There is the rare danger or unpleasant surprise; but for the most part, if you stay on the beaten path, you will know what you will encounter and how to deal with it if you do. When you head into parts unknown, you don’t have that safety net. You’re never sure what you will encounter.

Sometimes this is good; the pleasant surprises are all the more pleasant for being surprises. On the other hand, the hurdles are all the more daunting for being unfamiliar. When you find a bad movie, they are bad in ways you are unprepared to handle. Many people are amazed at how I can watch universally derided movies like Showgirls or Cool as Ice: the Vanilla Ice Movie and say, “eh, it wasn’t good, but it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been.” With the titles I regularly seek out and watch, I know very well of what I speak.

But the greatest danger you face when leaving the beaten path of the cinematic world, is that it is entirely possible to stumble across something that will truly scar you. With no safety net, there are no assurances of what you will or will not encounter. Salo is one of those, fortunately, exceedingly rare films that will wound you; maybe permanently, if you have any amount of human decency in you. It is about as close and accurate a look at real-life human evil as you can get while still staying in the realm of the fictional; and true evil is something that marks everybody who has even the most tangential contact with it.

Salo is based off of the 120 Days of Sodom, an unfinished novel by the infamous Marquis de Sade. I am much more familiar with the man’s history than his work, but Donatien de Sade represented the cumulative nadir of the French aristocracy just prior to the revolution. He was vain, narcissistic, arrogant, selfish and spoiled. He was also very intelligent, and a talented writer. During his long incarcerations in prison (and outside of them, too), de Sade wrote many plays and works of fiction. Through these writings he developed a personnel philosophy that is still known today and is the source of the word he lent his name to; sadism.

Sade was a strict materialist who believed that human beings are basically cruel and selfish. The trappings of society such as morality, law, religion and virtue; only serve to cripple people and repress what they truly are. Sade argued for the endless pursuit of pleasure, any desired pleasure, without fear of punishment or consequences. Through his works he examined morality and vice, their outcomes, and their hypocrisies.

Salo is a meditation on having that kind of absolute power over another person; being able to do whatever you want to them without fear of consequences. Most importantly, Salo looks at the inevitable outcome. As history has proved time and again, absolute power is probably the most corrupting and destructive force anyone can encounter.

For obvious reasons, Salo is a very controversial movie; and has been in the 45 years since it came out. There are many people who dismiss it as sleazy trash, and nothing more. Admittedly, that’s easy to do. You probably read my synopsis and came to that conclusion yourself. But true works of sleaze never invite controversy, particularly for as long as Salo has. There’s some outrage, sure; there might even be some defenders. However, sleaze is quickly forgotten. So what makes Salo different? Two things.

First of all, sleaze is always brainless. The idea isn’t to make you think; in fact, thinking is a detriment to your enjoyment of it. It is obvious that a lot of thought and effort went into the making of Salo. The costumes, the settings, the blocking; all is very carefully and competently done. The director knew exactly what he wanted to convey, and how he was going to convey it; and it shows.

The second reason is that sleaze is intended for enjoyment. Oftentimes rather sickening, unhealthy enjoyment it’s true; but the whole principle behind sleaze is that somebody finds it pleasurable. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini went out of his way to ensure that nobody could find Salo at all pleasant. (For those of you who want to write me and say that that’s not true, you find it enjoyable; let me save you time by giving you my response in advance: you scare me, get help.)

There is plentiful nudity on display, including some actresses I would take great pleasure in ogling were this any other movie; but the circumstances strip any and every amount of eroticism out of their nudity. Likewise, there’s some really graphic sex. However, with maybe one or two exceptions, sex in this movie is portrayed as painful, humiliating and/or the excuse for truly horrible punishments inflicted on the participants. You do not watch these sex scenes for fun; in fact, they’re enough to put you off sex.

Watching this movie as an artist and a former psych student, I got the impression of an artist using his art to purge his inner demons. Salo is, simply, about evil and its consequences. Our four villains are very human, I could expect to encounter them walking down the street, though I’m praying I never will. They have quirks (one’s always telling really bad jokes for example). Their methods confirm to how all the worst atrocities progressed; they start out fairly small. Gradually though, as the villains truly begin to appreciate the leeway they have with what they can get away with, their actions become more and more vile. I can remember one scene where I was gagging and praying for it to be over. It passed, but when the next round of atrocities came about, I was praying for them to return to it.

But even then, the villains never become the cackling, mustache twirling stereotypes we think of when we think of villains. They remain disconcertingly human. In fact, we are made to participate in the final atrocity; where they take it in turns sitting at a window with binoculars and watch while the others torture their prisoners to death. Our view of the proceedings is entirely through said binoculars.

The prisoners themselves become complicit in their captivity. As time passes they become more and more passive, laughing at the villains’ awful jokes and obeying their orders without question. They even start informing on each other, in the hopes that they will be spared the worst.

Then there’s the final scene, which I think encapsulates the movie perfectly: two guards; young, handsome, pleasant seeming young men; dancing and asking about each others’ families in the same room where their boss is watching atrocities through binoculars. It is surreal, but it is also a very accurate portrayal of people in this kind of situation.

I am a little torn about what I want to say to end this review. On the one hand, Salo is a good movie. It is very well done, and it is about as accurate a portrayal of true human evil as I have ever seen in a movie. I can even say truthfully, much to my surprise, that I do not regret having seen it.

On the other hand, Salo is not at all a pleasant movie and I would not recommend it to anybody. It is a true ordeal to sit through, and it doesn’t do anything to improve one’s view of humanity. Of course, there will be a few of you who will read this and, despite my warnings, you will feel the need to experience it for yourself. I will not try to dissuade you, I understand what you are feeling all too well. However, I will leave this one last caution. Salo is not a movie you see on a whim. If you do decide to seek it out, tread carefully for here truly be monsters.