Saturday, January 23, 2010

#77: Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977)

I'm pretty biased when it comes to evaluating the films of David Cronenberg. I've seen all of his feature films and most of his short films, and I like every single one of them. Really like. My admiration for each individual film varies, and a handful have serious flaws, but I find something to love about each one of them, from the cerebral sci-fi and horror films in the first phase of his career (Shivers, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly) to the successful adaptations of "unfilmable" novels in the second phase of his career (Naked Lunch, Crash (the real Crash, not the Paul Haggis piece of shit)) to his recent psychological crime thrillers (Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises). I even like the odd, awkward departures, like his drive-in action B-movie Fast Company and his adaptation of the David Henry Hwang tragic romantic play M. Butterfly. I find Cronenberg one of the most exciting, visually compelling, and original filmmakers of the latter half of film history, and I can't wait to see what he does next.
Rabid, Cronenberg's third feature film and second to be widely distributed, is a tight, effective, and claustrophobic horror film whose unique spin on vampire and zombie mythology remains relevant because of Cronenberg's ability to create empathetic characters, his focus on the human body instead of the supernatural, and his memorable framing of shots. Rabid retains the spook 30+ years later because fear of epidemic never goes out of style. (The film even contains a swine flu reference!)

Rabid begins with an attractive young couple (Frank Moore and porn star Marilyn Chambers, in her first non-porn feature) going for a motorcycle ride. The couple gets in an accident and Chambers is trapped under the burning bike. The wreck occurs conveniently near an experimental plastic surgery clinic outside of Montreal, and since all other hospitals are miles away, the couple is taken there. Moore has minor injuries, but Chambers is on the verge of death. She is saved by the clinic's large-eyebrowed chief surgeon and co-owner, who unethically uses her as a guinea pig for some experimental skin graft techniques. Unfortunately, the experimental technique causes a serious side effect. Chambers now has a vagina-like opening in her armpit from which a penis-like appendage protrudes. This appendage attaches itself to the skin of other people, burrows in, and sucks blood. The victim then becomes a slobbering, rabid mess who bites others, turning them into slobbering, rabid messes, thereby unleashing a super-rabies epidemic on the streets of Montreal. Chambers can no longer keep any solid food down, and when she tries to take the blood of animals, she gets sick. It's human blood or death. Chambers escapes the clinic and takes to the streets of the city, unleashing a new plague with her Armpit Cock-Pussy Dagger (TM).

The science is a little dubious, and a plot synopsis sounds silly, but Cronenberg's film overcomes its own limitations with strong acting and an instinctive understanding of visual space and indelible film images. Cronenberg fills every role, even the smallest ones, with incredible faces. He still does this, but his actors are more recognizable now. These lesser-known faces give such a rich texture to his early films. His hiring of Chambers, after his producers rejected his suggestion of Sissy Spacek, was a risk that paid off. Unlike the pile of exploded silicon and collagen that makes up the typical porn star of 2010, Chambers looks like both a recognizable human being and a great movie face. Her performance is compelling and her facial expressions and movements are made for an empathetic camera. In its own way, the film is structured like a porno movie, with horror scenes the equivalent of sex scenes. In one clever and beautifully shot sequence, Chambers picks up a victim in a downtown porn theater.

Chambers, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage last year at the age of 56, started out in show business as the face on the Ivory Snow soap box, which featured the slogan "99 and 44/100% Pure." Ivory Snow dropped her from their ad campaign after learning of her background as an exotic dancer and subsequent porn career, but the slogan and boxes of the product were used to ironic effect in most of her adult films. The mainstream film career wasn't as successful, but she had a minor disco hit in 1976 and ran for vice president in 2004 and 2008 on the fringe Libertarian tickets of the Personal Choice and Boston Tea parties, respectively.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

#76: Pumpkinhead (Stan Winston, 1988)

After a 1950s-set prologue, Pumpkinhead opens with kick-ass character actor Lance Henriksen (Dead Man, Aliens, Near Dark, The Terminator, The Right Stuff, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dog Day Afternoon) burning some trash with a flamethrower. Soon, we see his towheaded little boy, complete with Coke-bottle glasses, and his cute little dog. Two thoughts immediately occurred to me: 1) Henriksen is going to do some ass-kicking with that flamethrower later in the film, and 2) that dog is probably going to die. Happily, I was right about number one, but the dog survived! The little boy got his ass kicked, though. Don't worry, these aren't big spoilers.
, special effects wizard Stan Winston's directorial debut, is a fable exploring the classic themes of revenge and country people vs. city slickers. Henriksen plays Ed Harley, the owner/operator of a tiny grocery store deep in a never-named rural mountain idyll. Harley is good country people, but don't worry; the region also contains some backwoods, overall-wearing, dirt-covered rubes and bearded, shotgun-wielding folks prone to yelling "get off my land." Some of these characterizations are pretty silly, but Henriksen and his son are well-written, three-dimensional characters. (Bonus fun fact: One of the dirt-covered rubes is Blossom star Mayim Bialik, in her first film role. Second bonus fun fact: One of the rubes is played by an actor named Dick Warlock. That's his real name! Dick Warlock!)

Henriksen is minding his store when a group of twentysomething city slickers arrive on their way to a camping/dirtbiking vacation. One of the party is a hotheaded jerk who gets out his dirtbike and decides to do some off-roading while his friends get some supplies. When Henriksen has to run back to his house to get some feed for a dirty rube, he leaves his little boy in charge. The dog runs toward the dirtbikes, the little boy chases his dog, the little boy gets crunched by a dirtbike. The hotheaded jerk flees the scene. When Henriksen comes back to find his boy, he blows his top. He needs revenge. He goes to the isolated shack of an old crone known for her mastery of the dark arts. Winston has a lot of fun with these scenes. The wizened old bag is surrounded by beads, candles, an owl, a rat, and several tarantulas. She instructs Henriksen to dig up something from a nearby cemetery/pumpkin patch (multi-tasking!) and bring it to her. She summons up Pumpkinhead, a large ass-kicking demon, to get revenge on the city kids. Will Henriksen allow the bloodshed, or will he recant and try to save the very same city jerks responsible for his son's smushing? Watch and find out.

There's not much to Pumpkinhead's story, and Winston was clearly dealing with a tiny budget, but he makes it work nicely. The Pumpkinhead creature is one of the great movie monsters, and the special effects crew did a fantastic job on the thing. The creature has so much facial expression and fluidity in movement that I'm once again saddened by the change to CGI-based effects. CGI will probably look great one day, but until they get it right, why not use something that doesn't look like a complete bag of shit? Right now, CGI sucks. I could rant about this all day, and I have before, so I'll leave it at that. Besides the effects, Winston got a mostly solid cast, particularly the always excellent Henriksen, and some sweet location shooting in Topanga Canyon and convincing studio-shot stuff in Hollywood. The final scene is also awesome. The movie doesn't look cheap, even though it is. Pumpkinhead is a solid, entertaining modern monster movie.
The movie flopped upon initial release but gained a cult following on video. The studio that financed the film went bankrupt shortly before release, and United Artists bought the rights, releasing the film under the crappy generic title, Vengeance: The Demon. When it bombed under that name, they re-released it under the original title. It bombed again. It finally made some money on video, McFarlane Toys made a popular Pumpkinhead figurine, and three straight-to-video sequels followed, though Winston wasn't involved.

Stan Winston died of cancer at the relatively untimely age of 62 in 2008, but he enjoyed a long, successful career as a special effects wizard. He could do it all -- makeup, prosthetics, computer design, and animatronics. He created some of the most memorable effects in the last 40 years of filmmaking. Here are some highlights:

The Wiz
The Thing
Friday the 13th Part III
Edward Scissorhands
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Batman Returns
A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Special Effects
The Terminator
Invaders from Mars
The Monster Squad
Predator 2
Small Soldiers
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Jurassic Park III
Terminator 3
Big Fish
Iron Man
Terminator Salvation

The Monster Squad
Terminator 2
Jurassic Park
Tank Girl
The Lost World: Jurassic Park

He was also involved in the effects for a straight-to-video movie called Robocop vs. Terminator. Does anybody know anything about that? It sounds ridiculous.

Winston's directorial career was a lot stranger than his effects career. Besides Pumpkinhead, he directed A Gnome Named Gnorm, starring Anthony Michael Hall and a little person in a gnome costume (in the Philippines, the movie is called Upworld: The Magic Little Alien), and the video for a Michael Jackson song I've never heard of, "Ghosts," which holds the Guinness World Record for longest music video, at 38 minutes. If you search for images of Winston on the Internet, you will find that roughly 98% of the photos show him with a huge grin on his face.