Saturday, December 8, 2007

#27: Def by Temptation (James Bond III, 1990)

Like Christmas Evil, Def by Temptation is the second Troma-distributed film on this list. Also like Christmas Evil, Def by Temptation bears little resemblance to the usual Troma schlock, other than its low budget. (I use the word "schlock" affectionately here. By the way, Troma boss Lloyd Kaufman is in Austin this weekend, premiering Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead at the Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek.) Def by Temptation combines the vampire and demon succubus mythologies, an all-black cast, and some solid performances from Bill Nunn, Cynthia Bond, Kadeem "Dwayne Wayne" Hardison, and, in a tiny role given prominent placement on the DVD cover, Samuel L. Jackson.

The seams of the film's tiny budget and bargain-basement special effects show, but Def by Temptation is effective and fun and benefits greatly from Spike Lee cinematographer Ernest Dickerson's direction of photography. Writer/producer/director/star James Bond III has been heavily criticized for his performance in the lead, notably by African-American cultural critic and co-producer of the film Nelson George, who called Bond's performance an artistic failure and a misguided attempt to be a new Spike Lee, but I don't see what everyone is bitching about. He's a little rough, but he fits the role, and his shy divinity student character is charming.
Def by Temptation's story concerns a female vampire/succubus, Cynthia Bond, who hangs out in a New York bar, picking up men. After taking them back to her Gothic brownstone for sex, she kills them. Bill Nunn, "Radio Raheem" in Do the Right Thing, as one of the bar's regulars, constantly and unsuccessfully hits on women, but he's afraid of the vampire/succubus, for reasons unclear to him. (His best line, when he's hitting on two women simultaneously and gets his stories crossed about whether he's a doctor or a kung fu movie producer: "I'm a kung fu doctor. I operate on people who have been injured doing kung and fu.") Kadeem Hardison plays an up-and-coming B-movie actor who narrowly avoids a sexy demise when he has to pass on a one-night stand with the succubus to prepare for the arrival of his old North Carolina buddy, James Bond III, a divinity student testing his faith in the Big Apple. The succubus drops her focus on Kadeem and hooks up with Bond, after she tells her pet snake that he is the last of the line. What line? Apparently, in a flashback sequence, the succubus is responsible for the death of Bond's preacher father, Samuel L. Jackson. Can he withstand the temptation? Can the power of Jesus overcome the power of a sex vampire?
The film's original title, Temptation, was nonsensically punched up by Troma with some misused 1990 hip-hop slang. There's nothing "def" or "stupid dope" or "stupid fresh" about getting murdered by a vampire demon succubus, but what can you do? Bond III, a former child actor, appears to have been scarred by his sole directorial effort. Though the movie made a small profit, Bond has neither acted in nor directed any film since. If the Internet Movie Database can be believed, he currently works as a CEO for a film and music video production company in Colorado Springs.
My favorite line in the movie comes courtesy of the film's first victim of the succubus, a bartender who fancies himself a Don Juan: "You can tell a lot about a woman by the bed she sleeps in. This freaky bed tells me that you are one hot-natured freakazoid who can't wait to jump my bones." No Academy Award nomination for best screenplay? No wonder Bond retired from filmmaking.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

#26: Deep Rising (Stephen Sommers, 1998)

I normally hate the shorthand comparisons lazy critics make, particularly X-meets-Y. (It's Schindler's List meets Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium! On acid! With a twist of lime!) However, the blurb on the video box for Deep Rising sums it up perfectly: Die Hard meets Aliens meets Titanic. In addition, the Han Solo character has been added to the mix. This delightful concoction, when consumed, results in really, really stupid fun. Maybe my limited blockbuster intake makes me appreciate something like Deep Rising more than if I watched these jams all the time. Nevertheless, Stephen Sommers has directed a fast food bacon double cheeseburger of a movie. And I like fast food bacon double cheeseburgers, even though they will one day kill me. This movie is a non-stop procession of cliches, but they're good cliches, and the pacing never flags. Sommers has the good sense to leave out the dumb stuff, and to leave in the super-dumb stuff. For example, he discards everything in Titanic except for the awesomeness of the ship and what happens when it sinks. (Incidentally, Sommers gives the ship the fantastic name Argonautica and the even more fantastic motto "Good times forever.")He keeps all the good stuff from Aliens but has the good sense to cast someone other than Paul Reiser in the Paul Reiser role. He realizes that casting Treat Williams as an action hero is ludicrous, so all the self-deprecating one-liners are hilariously unhilarious (e.g. "Now what?" "This is turning out to be one hell of a day," "Cut me some slack," "I'm working too hard," "Jeez Louise," etc.) These lines are delivered the way Bruce Willis and Schwarzenegger deliver their one-liners. Kevin J. O'Connor plays the Bill Paxton "game over, man" role. O'Connor starred in Candy Mountain. I mention that only because Candy Mountain is a great movie that everyone should see. It has nothing whatsoever to do with this post. The sea monsters are pretty exciting, but I will always believe that CGI looks like shit. It doesn't matter too much in this case. A half-digested man gets to melt in front of our eyes. The villains are a Rainbow Coalition of pirate mercenaries, multi-culturally plundering the world, one enormous cruise ship at a time. Stuff blows up. A ski-doo is propelled in mid-air. Giant mutant octopi in the South China Sea fuck shit up. I am putting my journalism degree to good use. Treat Williams! Argonautica! Good times forever! Whoo!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

#25: Deathdream (Bob Clark, 1974)

After the ridiculousness of the last four films on this list, I'm glad to see an honest-to-god good film represented. Without denying the goofy-assed entertainment value of Dead of Night, The Dead Pit, Dead Waters, and Death Machine, I prefer the well-acted, visually distinctive, intelligent, and creepily unsettling Deathdream. I saw a television news report a few weeks ago purporting to analyze the recent spate of mainstream Iraq war movies and concluding that it is just too soon for audiences to deal with films critical of our involvement in the War on Terror (or George W. Bush's War of Terror, if, like me, you prefer Borat's name for it). Like any other mainstream news report about film, it assumed that star-studded Hollywood extravaganzas were the only game in town, and ignored the numerous documentaries, foreign films, and TV movies like Joe Dante's Homecoming, released before Paul Haggis noticed there was a war going on. Maybe audiences are staying away from In the Valley of Elah because it's a toothless mediocrity, not because it's "too soon." Too soon, too soon. Should we wait until it's no longer a problem? That's what the networks support. Most filmmakers waited until the late 1970s and 1980s to make any films about the failure of Vietnam. Bob Clark filmed his independent horror movie, Deathdream, while U.S. troops were still in Vietnam, and its release date and subject matter coincided with the troops' return home and their difficulties re-assimilating to an American culture with which they felt disconnected.
Deathdream is about a family of four (mother, father, daughter, son) struggling with the son's tour of duty in Vietnam. One night, they get the news that the son has been killed. The mother refuses to believe it and says the son has been protected by her prayers and is still alive. One early morning a few weeks later, the son hitchhikes into town and shows up on the doorstep, very much alive. Or is he? The family's joy quickly turns to fear, mistrust, and internal squabbling when their son's behavior grows increasingly bizarre. He exhibits only three emotional states: zombie-like listlessness, cold and biting sarcasm, and violent intensity. He's also developed the unfortunate habit of murdering people, withdrawing their blood with a syringe, and shooting up with the blood. Granted, if he doesn't do this, his skin rots and his eyes turn yellow, but his father is understandably dismayed, while his mother lives in a fantasy world of denial and his sister is caught in the middle.
The excellent performances and non-flashy cinematic style keep this film grounded in reality, making it even creepier. It's bizarre how plausible this film seems. John Marley and Lynn Carlin play the father and mother, reprising their roles as a troubled married couple from John Cassavetes' Faces (I probably haven't mentioned this anywhere, but I love John Cassavetes' films). Newcomer Richard Backus plays the son, Andy. He ended up working on a bunch of forgettable television movies and series and hasn't acted since 1992, which is a shame. He now writes soap operas. He's just right in this role, beating out a young Christopher Walken for the part, and perfectly captures a character who is intelligent, sympathetic, frightening, intense, subtle, monstrous, mysterious, confused, and tortured all at once. It's a tall order playing a combination zombie/vampire/existentially tortured, thinking, feeling human being, but Backus pulls it off without a shred of overkill. He's got a wicked smile and a way of using his eyebrows and the corners of his eyes as punctuation marks for his character's blackly sarcastic responses to questions that make his performance so memorable. The late Bob Clark, director of Black Christmas, Porky's, A Christmas Story, and, um, Karate Dog, directs with a focus on human beings and their environment, not flashy stylistics or repetitive stalk-and-slash killings (though there is some gore, with early makeup effects by Tom Savini, who had just returned from Vietnam).

The film sets up a generation gap between the father, a WWII vet, and his son. He can't understand why his son is so different. I saw this generational conflict in my hometown as a child. My grandfather's WWII experience was traumatic for him, but he returned with his identity intact, and the knowledge that he was on the winning side of a war that seemed inevitable and clearly defined. The Vietnam vets seemed more fucked-up, confused, defeated, and self-destructive. My grandfather and his fellow WWII vets were hardly free from war-related psychological disturbance (specifically, my grandfather's drinking too much and his almost frighteningly angry response to depictions of violence on TV and in the movies) , but the Vietnam vets seemed more depressed, self-loathing, and behaviorally confused.
I have been spending most of this post discussing Deathdream's depiction of Vietnam vets, but the film fits many situations, including the disconnect between anyone who has been away from home for a while and his or her family, the college student visiting for the holidays in a home that no longer feels like home, a drug addict unable to connect with his old life, and the change in family dynamics after a death. Like the great poets DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince once said, "Parents just don't understand." Ain't it the truth?

Friday, November 2, 2007

Happy Halloween -- The Photo-Essay -- The List

Someone left a comment wondering which movies some of the stills were from, so here's the rundown:
1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
3. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur)
4. Audition (Takashi Miike)
5. Halloween (John Carpenter)
6. Sisters (Brian de Palma)
7. Eyes without a Face (Georges Franju)
8. Eraserhead (David Lynch)
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel)
10.The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene)
11. Dracula (Tod Browning)
12. Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau)
13. Jaws (Steven Spielberg)
14. Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg)
15. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
16. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey)
17. Repulsion (Roman Polanski)
18. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper)
19. It's Alive (Larry Cohen)
20. Freaks (Tod Browning)
21. It's a Good Life (Joe Dante's segment from "Twilight Zone: The Movie")
22. Pecos Bush Meets the Phantom of the Bono (the American people)
23. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack)
24. Alien (Ridley Scott)
25. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero)
26. Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg)
27. Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
28. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
29. Suspiria (Dario Argento)
30. Deliverance (John Boorman)
31. Zombie (Lucio Fulci)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Happy Halloween -- The Photo-Essay

31 stills for the 31 days of the greatest month of all, in some kind of thematic order.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

#24: Death Machine (Stephen Norrington, 1995)

If I were running for office, my campaign slogan would be, "Down with Mondays, up with skirts, and, for God's sake, more killer robots." That is why Death Machine is a film I can get behind. Death Machine is pretty stupid, but its stupidity warms my heart. Set in the darkly futuristic, Robocop-by-way-of-Blade Runner days of 2003 (god, it's going to be dark times when we make it to 2003), Death Machine begins with a corporate controversy at the Chaank company, a defense systems organization. They are secretly running experiments on supposedly MIA soldiers, erasing their memories and implanting weapons, defense, and fighting data to turn them into super-soldiers with no mercy, emotion, or fear. The project has encountered some glitches, and someone has leaked it to the press, causing a firestorm of controversy. Enter newly appointed CEO Hayden Cale (Ely Pouget) to repair the damage. She wants to fire one of the board of directors, the mysteriously absent-from-meetings Jack Dante. Unfortunately, he's gone nuts and created a killer robot that can hone in on pheromones, i.e. smell fear. The more scared you are, the more accurate the robot will be in finding you and shredding you up. He sets the robot loose to take out his competition, leaving him free to run the company with the object of his unrequited desire, Hayden Cale. Adding to the mess, a group of radical activists have infiltrated the building and plan to blow part of it up. Apparently, in futuristic times, the joints hippy punk activists smoke are four times as fat, with smaller joints branching off of the giant joint. Radical, dude.
The scenery chewing in this movie is massive. One of the corporate execs constantly screams out "What the fuck?" or "Fuck you!" or "Go fuck yourself!" Jack Dante is played by none other than Brad Dourif, a great actor who becomes Captain Ham when he's in a shitty movie. Dourif has worked with Milos Forman, John Huston, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Peter Jackson, Dario Argento, and Michael Cimino. He's also been in fifty billion schlocky B-movies, and is the voice of Chucky in the Child's Play series. He is so hammy in this movie that in one scene reams of spittle fly out of his mouth after every line he speaks. A man with a small part as a security guard gives it his all, 20 movies' worth, including the memorable phrase "Holy donuts!" Hayden Cale gets to perform one of the greatest movie punches in history. A fat guy gets called "Ho-ho." The robot slices people up.
Norrington later directed the first Blade movie and the notorious flop The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and was a special effects and make-up man on the second and third Alien movies and some Jim Henson stuff. The robot bears a strong resemblance to the alien creature, and characters are named after Joe Dante, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi, Ridley Scott, and the corporation in the Alien series. Death Machine is far from being an essential part of cinema history, but I'm sure it's 12 times more fun than those Bourne Identity movies.
Killer robots! Whoo!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

#23: Dead Waters (Mariano Baino, 1994)

As any fellow raised-as-Catholics know, nuns are scary. Not all nuns fit the stereotype, but most of the nuns I encountered as a child were wrinkled-up, angry, frightening witches, fond of whacking people with rulers and explaining how everything we liked would make us bosom pals with Satan. Aside from the boredom of church services, I think the exposure to nuns every summer for intensive two-week catechism cemented my failure to connect with organized religion. After all, if devotion to the church had done nothing but turn these crones into freaky, grumpy bitches, then church must not be so hot. I'll stick with my rock and roll and comic books, thanks. Rock and roll never made anybody whack anybody else with rulers (unless they wanted to whack and be whacked).
Dead Waters makes a spooky convent of creepy nuns in Ukraine the centerpiece of the horror, which I wholeheartedly endorse. A London woman has inherited her dead father's fortune, but a clause in the will stipulates a monthly payment to the freaky Ukrainian convent. The woman is all, "Say what?" so she travels to the convent to see whether she should continue to pay and why her father secretly did so. Ignoring many evil foreshadowings (thunderstorms, man in tavern who refuses to take her to the convent because he's spooked), she hops in a boat with a menacing creepy guy and his even creepier assistant, a deranged nude man who bites into raw fish and grins maniacally. I might have canceled the rest of the trip at this point, but it would have resulted in a five-minute film. Needless to say, things get worse when she gets to the convent.
Baino, an Italian director, filmed Dead Waters in Ukraine with a British cast, adding to the film's disjointed, dreamlike feel. Overly arty, Dead Waters' heavily stylized manner of storytelling would have irritated me with any other kind of film, but horror is a forgiving genre. The atmosphere works. The film is light on dialogue, letting a series of dreamlike images tell the story. If you're looking for narrative coherence, you won't find it. The story makes no sense and isn't particularly interesting, but the images are striking and the freakiness is appealing. Again, it's not a strong film, but it's certainly better than The Dead Pit. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft or Dario Argento will find plenty to like.
Note: Dead Waters is also available on DVD under its original title, Dark Waters. The video store I rented this from carried both. I don't think they realized they were the same movie.