Friday, March 30, 2012

Ms. Winters, May I Have Some More?

You know how some actors like Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin have an open invitation to host Saturday Night Live whenever they want, simply because they do it so well? The same kind of rule applies here at the Doll House for select talent. So if Dame Shelley Winters made a movie about cooking orphans, you can betcher bottom dollar that it has a place right here.
Quick Plot: Auntie Roo is a wealthy American widow who holds nightly seances in the hopes of contacting her long-lost daughter Katherine. Sometimes they’re successful, although that’s probably more due to Roo’s sadistic butler paying off the medium and maid to fiddle some voices and such. Seemingly, the only real enjoyment Roo finds in life is throwing an annual Christmas party extravaganza with presents and oversized candy canes for the town's ten best-behaved orphans.

On one hand, this is awesome. Wouldn’t you love to have that one night of gluttony in a mansion before returning to the dank depression of your Oliver-ish home, especially if it included a weird cabaret performance by Shelley Winters? Of course, the other 35 orphans get to stay in and eat slightly sweeter gruel for the holidays, something that the bratty young Christopher and his awful little sister Katy are mad as hell about and won’t take anymore. 

The pair stow away in the orphanage trunk and sneak into the party, much to the annoyance of their guardians but cheerful acceptance of the wonderfully wonderful Roo.  

What a dame. Here she is opening her massive home to a batch of poor and grimy orphans. She’s even kind to the party crashers and goes so far to develop a motherly bond with the Awful Katy, due in part to the Awful Katy’s resemblance to Roo’s dead--I mean, disappeared--daughter.

Did I mention Katy is Awful? For as much as I despised the little blond orphan in Santa With Muscles, Kathy makes her look like more appealing than a Li’l Love Carvel cake. 

That’s saying something.

Why is this kid so Awful, you ask? Pretend for a moment that you are a poor orphan struggling to find some kindness in a cold British facility. There’s this great party going on that you weren’t invited to, but your equally Awful older brother has convinced you to sneak in anyway. By the grace of good fortune, the wealthy widow in charge welcomes you, going so far as to give you special alone time and—get this—a brand new oversized (admittedly creepy) teddy bear. How do you repay her? With a polite thank you or a hug, maybe even an elementary art level but well-intentioned crayon portrait, right?

Nope. This little brat sees fit to snub her parentless nose at the generous gift and instead complain about how she really just wants the old oversized teddy bear Auntie Roo already had, you know, the one that belonged to her DEAD DAUGHTER. The adjective ‘ungrateful’ doesn’t begin to capture the utter Awfulness--yes, that capital A is necessary-- of this character.

And yet, I think that’s in part the point. Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is a strange film, one that doesn’t want to give us any easy good guys. You would imagine a plucky pair of orphaned siblings would be prime and center to be the underdog heroes of this kind of story, but Christopher and Katy are actively horrid, going so far as to devise a fairly genius Night of the Hunter-like burglary. Auntie Roo herself is a bizarre nut to crack. We like her because a) she’s played by Shelley Winters b) she throws kickass parties c) she’s genuinely sad and more than a tad crazed over the untimely death of her daughter and d) she’s taken advantage of by virtually any child or adult that smells her bank account. There’s something fascinating in how she begins as a figure of sympathy, becomes one more for pity, then falls into the role of witch through the prodding of Christopher and Katy’s self-proclaimed Hansel & Gretel status.

Directed by Curtis Harrington, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? holds a membership card in the Grand Dame Guignol subgenre popularized by one of my personal favorites, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Harrington had previously worked with Winters on What’s the Matter With Helen?, a straighter (except not at all, if you catch my drift) middle-aged movie star thriller along the lines of Baby Jane with Winters playing house with Debbie Reynolds. In an age where so many film critics lament the lack of good roles for actresses over 45, it’s interesting to look at this period of cinema. The memory of it may feel as though these still beautiful, able-bodied 50somethings were being exploited, but Harrington’s films don’t fit that at all. Shelley Winters plays Roo as a woman a few steps over crazy, but her age never seems to add any laughs or be played as grotesque. The same can easily be said for Helen (which is on the flip side of this DVD release). I will defend Baby Jane until the day I feed my own elderly sister her pet bird, but there is something to the argument that it’s best remembered for its shock factor of seeing Bette Davis and Joan Crawford at their worst.

But I tell ya, even the sight of a cake-faced Bette Davis wearing a babydoll dress and killing her way through I've Written a Letter to Daddy is more appealing than the sight of the Awful Katy. Did I mention that I didn't like that kid? 

High Points
I love when a film is smart enough to build itself with interesting minor characters. Roo’s hateful butler Albie is a wonderfully villainous touch that doesn’t NEED to be in the film, but his presence and characterization simply makes everything a tad more sinister 

As The Woman In Black reminded us, there is simply no such thing as too many creepy dolls

Low Points
I don't know if the flashback to the REAL Katherine's fate was supposed to be funny or sad, but I found it hysterically sad to the point of being funny. Maybe that was a low point considering its intentions, but hey, it was certainly entertaining

Lessons Learned
You mustn’t disturb the cook when she’s making something delicious

If there wasn’t a séance, then it wasn’t a 1970s genre film

Never trust a British stair bannister

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is an easy recommendation because it’s just so strange. I can't think of another movie that includes Shelley Winters singing in black lace, orphans plotting a heist, mummified children, blackmail, fairy tale overtones, and oh yeah, creepy dolls, just 'cause. When paired with Harrington's What’s the Matter With Helen?, this two-sided disc makes a fine addition to any collection, even if the special features are sadly limited to (an admittedly awesome) trailer. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Another Buggish Swap, This Time With 2x More Jan Brady

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."--Someone

"Writing about bad movies is easy. Writing about comedies is hard."--Me

The only people that challenge us more than our enemies are generally our dearest friends, and that's probably why the one and only T.L. Bugg used this month's movie swap to assign me Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury. It's not that it's not my KIND of film--a meta movie-within-a-movie lampooning made-for-cheap '80s action romps? Sign me up!--but more the fact that I find reviewing comedies to be incredibly difficult. Sure, if we're talking about unintentional comedies--Twilight, Cool As Ice, and the like--then the words seep through my MacBook like a blue liquid in the offbrand maxipad on a commercial for Kotex. But straight-out humor is hard to discuss. Over at The Lightning Bug's Lair, I've repaid my debt by sending the Bugg to Instant Watch for the 1993 ...And God Spoke, an underrated mockumentary with juicy cameos from Soupy Sales, Andy Dick, Lou Ferigno and more. To find out if he had as hard a time writing and as good a time watching, head on yonder.

But enough stalling. Let's get wet.

Quick Plot: Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury is essentially presented as the special edition watching experience of Poolboy 2. Are you confused yet?

Our director, writer, producer, dubber, and occasional actor Saint James St. James (ACTUAL writer Ross Patterson,  a game performer with an eerie vocal resemblance to Will Arnett's GOB Bluth) serves as our narrator of sorts, announcing we’re about to watch the long out-of-print film he made as an entitled one-eyed 10-year-old in 1990. Throughout the main narrative of Poolboy 2, St. James interrupts to give us some behind-the-scenes tidbits, such as why one character in a group shot was shot on green screen (because he was in prison), why flubs weren’t edited out (because a non-actor pulling a gun on your crew sells tickets), and why there’s not much nudity (St. James didn’t understand that “more nudity” didn’t mean “more penises” to the studio).

As you can probably guess, Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury is not a traditional film. It’s a fictional making-of detailing a fictional Rambo knockoff about a Vietnam vet (Kevin Sorbo as John Van Hammer playing Sal Bando—got that?) who promised his fallen soldier friend that they would open a pool cleaning business together, only to return to California to discover all such companies are now owned by—gasp!—Mexicans. In a sort of reversal of Machete, Bando becomes a crusader for white American rights, eliminating anyone who steps in his way with EXTREME prejudice.

Sure, the Mexicans in town aren’t innocent, having murdered his cheating wife and sorta son (or at least, drowned dummies that vaguely resembled them). Under the control of—whaddya know! --Machete and more importantly, 7 Mummies’ Danny Trejo, Bando’s town becomes a hotbead of violence as he skims some pools, goes to parties hosted by Children of the Corn’s grown-up Malachai, and has sex with inflatable dolls/neighborhood blonds. One of whom is played by…


I’m not embarrassed to say I saw 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie three times in the theaters. I found and still find it to be insanely enjoyable, as is its slightly lesser followup, A Very Brady Sequel. One of its secret weapons was Jennifer Elise Cox’s charmingly mad performance as Jan and thusly did it bring a Marcia Marcia Marcia bright smile to my face to see Ms. Cox show up as one of Bando’s most loyal clients.

But guess what? It gets better!

You see, the gods of movie recommendations looked upon we two bloggers, one from the northern Bronx hood and the other strumming a banjo made from dead pool cleaners' skin on his South Carolinian porch (that's how I imagine he spends weekends not spent at HorrorHound) and bestowed upon us a gift: TWO JAN BRADYS! As Cox costars in Poolboy, so does the original Jan Eve Plumb playing Noah’s wife (actually, playing Eve Plumb PLAYING Noah’s wife) in …And God Spoke.

So that's exciting. At least if you're me.

But back to Poolboy! Or the making of Poolboy 2! I'm still confused!

Poolboy: Drowning Out the Fury (the real one on Instant Watch) is a fun, deliberately goofy homage of sorts to the kinds of filmed-in-the-Philippines action romps you now find rusting in the gray market. If you don't have much love for that sub sub sub genre, I don't imagine you'll find Poolboy overly amusing, although much of its randomness might work for the kinds of comedy fans who dug Wet Hot American Summer before it was cool to do so (or maybe I just like to use that comparison because I'm one of the few truly cool people who did and I like to brag about it).

I found Poolboy an odd viewing experience because initially, it seemed positively genius. As the film went on, the hit vs. miss percentage of the jokes became a little more evenhanded. For a lot of them, the idea of the joke was amusing--terribly dubbed actors, for example--though the final execution felt a tad off. I won't say it was director Garrett Brawith's fault necessarily, especially since he demonstrates a wonderful strength with getting his actors (be they Jason Mewes or Courtney Gains) to nail the tone to near perfection. Maybe the new filmmaking team just need a little more time in honing style, but it's a minor criticism for something that proudly declares itself wacky and follows up on it in every scene.

High Points
One of the biggest faults of so many spoofs is that they cave in to tradition and try to force actual heart or development on their not-supposed-to-be-real characters. Poolboy thankfully avoids such a trap and instead, everybody and thing onscreen exists solely for our laughs. Sure, not all of them work, but I admire the filmmakers' spirits in going all out

Kevin Sorbo has a fairly thankless role here in playing a mediocre action star that deliberately lacks the charisma or talent of his more famous peers. When you think about how he downplays it, his performance here is actually incredibly generous, letting both Sal AND John come across exactly as they should

Low Points
As explained above—including my own inability to write well about comedy—there are simply some jokes that, well, don’t quite work

Lessons Learned
Nobody hates Menudo. Everybody in the world loves Menudo!

The present participle of ‘rap’ has two p’s

Answering the phone a thrust before orgasming will have serious effects on a man

Comedies are perhaps the hardest types of films to recommend or warn against because even if I KNOW you, it doesn't NECESSARILY mean I'll know what makes you laugh on any given day. Poolboy made me laugh, then made me not, then made me laugh again. I think some film audiences--particularly those with a soft spot for third world country '80s action cinema--will appreciate a lot of the jokes in Poolboy simply from a movie fan point of view, even when plenty of them don't really snap as sharply as we’d like. If nothing else, you can thoroughly ravage IMDB spotting all the cameos, with everyone from Richard "Al" Karn to Ahmed "JarJar" Best popping up in small roles. 

Want more meta comedy about the making of a low budget bad film? Head on over to The Lightning Bug’s Lair for T.L. Bugg’s thoughts on …And God Spoke. It's guaranteed to have equal parts Jan Brady!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Supersize That Food of the Gods

Synchronized swimming

‘80s stylin'
Cute rats
Cute giant rats

Giant kids that curse

A character named Carlos singing La Cucaracha while peeing in bushes

My question is obvious: in all the list of great sequels, why oh why oh why has nobody ever mentioned Gnaw: Food of the Gods 2?

Quick Plot: Set in a university, Gnaw begins with a bunch of flaky animal rights activists protesting the medical experimentation going on inside. I say ‘flaky’ not because it’s silly to protest this kind of thing, but more because these particular people are idiots who make the monkey releasers of 28 Days Later look like Stephen Hawking. The kind who break into a laboratory after hours to expose its cruelty and embark upon a 'trash the room!' montage (that truthfully, I long to participate in) without actually helping any of the creatures. Best of all, after making the papers and pissing off the administration, the trespassers return...THE VERY NEXT NIGHT.
Although I can't really blame these ill-advised coeds. They only have their education to blame, and considering a university that had been BROKEN INTO the very NIGHT BEFORE has done nothing to beef up its security measures, why would they possibly think repeating their crime would have consequences?

Thankfully for us, these do gooder dumdums are about to kickstart one of the best plot standbys in the history of film: giganticism. See, unbeknownst to the critter crusaders, Dr. Neil Hamilton was experimenting with a growth hormone. Why would a scientist experiment with a growth hormone you ask?

Well, that.
See, Neil’s doctor friend a few towns away was doing some of her own work with hormones and...oops, made little Bobby a hilariously gigantic (and even more hilariously foul-mouthed) monster. Although Neil generally restricts his research to plants in order to still be able to sleep with his horribly not smart animal rights activist galpal Alex (played by Prom Night 2’s Mary Lou herself, Lisa Schrage), he takes the risk and feeds a rat some untested drugs as a few others nibble on supersized tomatoes that would put Lisa Simpson's lost science fair project to shame. In the words of his assistant, Neil has created “an accidental hormone concoction, like trying to make a martini and ending up with LSD.” Shockingly, in the 1980s, this was considered a bad thing.

Naturally, once the lab gets broken into (for a second time in a row, did I mention that?), a few hulk-in-the-making rats get loose and begin a reign of terror on the small college town. Even more naturally for a genre film, there’s a single-minded bureaucrat (in this case, the college president) who refuses to close the campus despite, you know, the threat of Rodents of Unusual Size chomping through the student body. 

But how could one POSSIBLY be expected to cancel class when there’s a synchronized swimming competition on the horizon?
Yes dear readers, Gnaw: The Kind of Not Really Sequel to Food of the Gods features a synchronized swimming massacre. See, such a sport was apparently a HUGE spectator coup back in the day and therefore equals a battleground akin to Gettysburg when the rats decide to crash. What follows is a glorious scene of carnage that cares so much about its audience that it even includes a randomly crazed mob member picking up a policeman’s freed handgun and firing madly at the innocent crowd.

I pretty much adored Gnaw from start to finish. The effects of the rats--what I imagine is a combination of puppetry and forced perspective, much like Bert I. Gordon's original--are colorful enough to not worry you with whether they look believable in any way, and the kills, plentiful enough to keep you watching. It falters a tad in the dullness of its leads, but hey: any film that gives us the transformation of a greedy scientist into a low rent Toxic Avenger can't escape being awesome.

High Points
There are a lot of small touches in the supporting cast that makes Gnaw something clever, including an overly enthusiastic hunter with a flamethrower and minor character with a receding hairline and a subtle but quite funny obsession with scientifically curing baldness

Low Points
Though I loved her bitchy prom queen attitude as Mary Lou, Schrage’s good girl Alex is painfully unlikable here. Paul Coufos fares a tad better, but both roles are just not nearly as much fun as the movie they're in

Lessons Learned
To do experiments you need a lab...and research data
Don’t forget to take the lenscap off the camera
You would think diehard animal activists wouldn’t be afraid the thing they’re trying so hard to protect (i.e., rats). You would think but be very, very wrong

What’s wrong with this country: people not taking pride in their work
I was initially confused as to why the white toast Neil would allow himself to be so easily seduced by the school slut, but then something wonderful happened: Neil tasted some of his hormone juice and the effects were felt by his first confused, then grateful, then understandably horrified new squeeze. Then he woke up.

Crazy Cat Lady Alert
I tell it straight here: Neil’s habit of letting his favorite pet rat drape herself over his shoulder as he goes about his day is pretty much how Joplin and I spend evenings here at the Doll’s House
Montage Mania
Rock music
Bunson burners
Petri dishes
A rainbow of food coloring in glass vials
Fist pumps

That my friends, is science at work
Goof Squad
I am, quite possibly, the absolute worst judge of continuity (somehow I missed the infamous Leif Garrett wig/no wig switcheroo in Devil Times Five), making my catch of the lead protester's hair going from near House Party style to crew cut back to House Party over the course of two days either impressive on my end or really sad for the film. And yes, I rewound to see if I was missing a hairnet and no, I found none.

This is a fun film. Not scary or thrilling or, you know, actually good, but an enthusiastic animals attack popcorn flick made with fresh enthusiasm. Considering most of its competition in 1989 featured silent slashers, Gnaw is ridiculously refreshing for its throwback style. The DVD is sadly sans special features, but nature strikes back fans owe it to themselves to seek out this subgenre with an ‘80s sheen.