Saturday, May 30, 2015

#208: Armed Response (Fred Olen Ray, 1986)

Me, and almost everyone I know, has had one hell of a crazy month, involving various combinations of deaths, pregnancies, weddings, pet deaths, extreme weather conditions, family relocation, illness, and intense work schedules, as well as a lot of much less serious but odd anomalous events, and I'm feeling pretty shell-shocked by the crazy ups and mostly downs of this chunk of 2015. It was a nice respite to stay up late Thursday night, drink lots of beers, and watch this ridiculous, goofy movie with my wife. Now I'm going to write about it while I'm stuck at work for a frustrating, indeterminate amount of time.
I've already reviewed two other Fred Olen Ray (the Fassbinder of schlock) films for this site (his rural alien zombie movie The Alien Dead and his sci-fi/action robot alien killing machine movie Alienator) so I knew a bit of what I was getting into. Ray is not what you would call a technically accomplished writer or visual stylist, and the budgets for his movies are akin to what can be pooled together from the pockets of any random group of schoolchildren, but damn, he's enthusiastic. He's directed hundreds of films since the late 1970s, and he's still at it. Armed Response is Ray's take on the '80s action/revenge/thriller movie, and though it's definitely a low-budget film, it's practically a Hollywood blockbuster compared to his usual resources. He blows up way more shit than usual, and he's got a pretty insane cast of B-movie legends and aging Hollywood actors at his disposal.
Like the other Ray films I've seen, Armed Response is pretty stupid and pretty damn enjoyable, but there are some irritating Reagan-era action staples you have to overlook here if you're a left-wing socialist degenerate like me. Some of this movie very lazily panders to jingoistic morons who love seeing white guys talk about how much they love America while shooting non-white guys. We also get plenty of sexism, which is presented in the film like it's a good thing. The rest of this movie is so ridiculous and fun that I was able to ignore this stuff, but I'm a white guy. It's probably easier for me to compartmentalize shit I haven't had to experience firsthand.
Armed Response stars David Carradine as Jim Roth, a Vietnam vet and bar owner who is close to his brothers Tommy and Clay, also Vietnam vets, and his surly father, ex-cop Burt Roth (Lee Van Cleef). When a no-good street punk comes into the bar with a few friends looking for a fight and waving his switchblade around, we find out that the Roths are a family of manly badasses who take the law into their own hands. Clay is a private investigator who works with a partner, the shady, sleazy Cory Thornton (Ross Hagen). (BTW, my wife and I both thought Cory was an odd name for an older man in the 1980s. Not too many old Corys.) Cory and Clay accept a strange job from some dangerous clients. Long story short, Clay ends up dead, the Roth family ends up with a valuable statue belonging to the yakuza, and hell breaks loose all over Chinatown. The Roth family ends up in a vigilante battle against yakuza boss Akira Tanaka (Mako) and his multicultural gang that includes creepy muscle from F.C. (Michael Berryman, of The Hills Have Eyes and Weird Science fame). Berryman is my favorite part of the movie. He likes to slow snap to new wave music while torturing his enemies, and he drops a fortune cookie in your lap before he kills you. Solid dude.
We get most of the solid '80s action cliches, filtered through the warped Olen Ray lens, including shootouts, car chases, fights, torture scenes, domestic arguments, Vietnam flashbacks, explosions, gratuitous strip club nudity, and ridiculous lines of dialogue. The final scene is pretty damn solid, too.
There's nothing particularly special here, just stupid fun and some stuff to shake your head about, and it is enjoyable to see the weirdo cast do their thing. Besides Carradine, Van Cleef, Mako, Hagen, and Berryman, we also get some great cameos from Dick Miller and Laurene Landon as a couple of eccentric thieves. Life has been throwing a little of everything it's got at me this month, so it was nice to take a 90-minute breather for a little stupid fun.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

#207: The Annihilators (Charles E. Sellier Jr., 1985)

One of my favorite subgenres of '70s and '80s exploitation film is the wave of movies where a multicultural street gang has taken over a working class neighborhood and a vigilante or ragtag (often multicultural) team of vigilantes fight back. This goes against every fiber of my political being. I think our country is too obsessed with revenge, violence, macho chest-thumping, jingoism, knee-jerk reactions, and gun worship, and these movies are all about glorifying all that stuff. Still, I love them. They're so damn ridiculous and fun, often with time-capsule location shooting, and there's something a little utopian about a group of people from different ethnicities and walks of life joining together to terrorize shopkeepers and dress like lunatics. I miss this genre of film that was everywhere for about 15 years and then gone forever, though if they tried to make one now, they'd screw it up completely with boring actors, incoherent action sequences, and CGI.
The Annihilators is one of the most low-rent, low-budget vigilantes vs. street scum movies I've seen, and probably one of the dumbest, but in terms of pacing, action, intentional and unintentional hilarity, and oddball casting, it's pretty awesome. Opening with a flashback to Vietnam, we see our special ops team load some explosives in the Vietnamese jungle (which looks suspiciously like rural Georgia) and emerge victorious from a firefight, though not without one of their own taking several bullets in the back. This team includes Gerrit Graham (of Phantom of the Paradise fame), Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (of Freddie "Boom-Boom" Washington on Welcome Back, Kotter fame), Christopher Stone (of Cujo and The Howling fame), and Andy Wood (of Rambo fame).
After this Vietnam sequence, we jump to the 1985 present and a run-down Atlanta neighborhood full of mom and pop small businesses and three no-good street gangs. The gangs are shaking the shopkeepers down for most of their profits and terrorizing everyone in the neighborhood, particularly the most fearsome gang in town, Roy Boy Jagger and the Rollers, which sounds like a terrible '70s doo wop revival group or some Scharpling & Wurster characters. Roy Boy himself, played by cult character actor Paul Koslo, is a mulleted, middle-aged man who looks like he should be drinking cheap beer out of the trunk of his car and selling cigarettes to teens in the parking lot of an Eddie Money concert, not terrorizing a neighborhood. The rest of the Rollers consist of the token black guy, the crazy blonde guy who never talks, a chubby older guy with a beard who looks like an aging biker, and a musclebound spandex type with a shaved head who looks like a gay porn star. There are some other members on the periphery and some teens who want to get in the gang, but these are the main dudes.
As we soon find out, the Vietnam vet who took the bullets in the back survived the jungle, and he runs a small grocery store with his father. He decides to stop paying off the gangs and wants to take his neighborhood back. This doesn't sit well with Roy Boy. The Rollers enter his store and tell him he better pay up or he'll get stomped. The fat biker guy tries to rape a customer. She kicks him in the crotch and is stabbed to death for her trouble. (Her character is only here for the film's gratuitous nudity quota.) Then Roy Boy ups the ante by beating the disabled vet's face in with a meat tenderizer. This doesn't sit well with his old war buddy Bill. Bill (Christopher Stone) attends the funeral, and then assembles the rest of the Annihilators (who are actually never called that in any of the film's dialogue) to kick a little street gang ass. Ray (Gerrit Graham) is so excited about the prospect that he throws his briefcase from his office job into a fountain. Woody (Andy Wood) is an alcoholic living in a broken-down bus, but the ass-kicking of street gangs gives him a new purpose in life. Garrett (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) just has to convince his wife that it's okay to leave her and their son on a crazy vigilante mission. She understands. The team is back, baby. Maybe they can even run the old Hogan's Alley routine on these street punks.
You know what comes next, and it's pretty stupid and pretty satisfying. The vets empower the neighborhood, beat up gangs, get in trouble with the local police for their vigilante ways, get in some tough scrapes, and one of them even finds a little romance. We also get flame throwers, ninja stars, a truck full of heroin, people falling off roofs onto burning cars, a nerd who tries to reason with the gang, and the destruction of a fruit stand. You can find this whole movie on YouTube, and I encourage you to do so.
Director Charles E. Sellier Jr. had one of the strangest movie careers. Besides The Annihilators, he also directed the killer Bigfoot movie The Boogens and the killer Santa Claus movie Silent Night, Deadly Night, and he created the TV series Grizzly Adams. Sometime after the killer Santa movie, which became a major target of the fundamentalist Christian right, Sellier became a right-wing Christian himself, producing such documentaries as The Incredible Discovery of Noah's Ark, Ancient Secrets of the Bible Part II, George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, The Evidence for Heaven, The Da Vinci Code Deception, End Times: How Close Are We?, Heroes Among Us, Miracles Around Us, and The Case for Christ's Resurrection. Oh, and Knight Rider 2000, the TV movie where Hasselhoff gets KITT out of storage to fight future crimes in the future even though there's a more state-of-the-art talking car named KIFT now. No, I didn't see it. Sellier died in 2011, ending a long, strange trip.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

#206: Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)

Mixing fiction, essay, and documentary, the Danish film Häxan is a visually sophisticated, surprisingly modern, tonally varied indictment of religious superstition and sexual repression that went on to influence the Surrealists and build a cult reputation in its sporadic appearances in the ensuing century. Criterion put it out on DVD a few years ago, paired with a 1968 re-edit by hipster British producer/experimental filmmaker Antony Balch that cut twenty minutes and added a William S. Burroughs narration and an avant-garde jazz score, but I'll be talking about the 1922 original here.
Writer/director Benjamin Christensen, a former opera singer, begins the film with several minutes on the history of superstition, particularly witchcraft, sorcery, and the location of the Earth within the universe. This overview is accompanied by historical illustrations depicting these beliefs. The opening scene is followed by a series of vignettes that act as a guided tour of occult superstition from the Middle Ages to the early 1920s. Christensen presents this material with humor, detail, visual invention, sadness, genuine outrage, plenty of psychosexual weirdness, and Bosch-inspired tableaux of costumed demons, animals, and monsters, with Christensen clearly having a lot of fun as the perpetually horny Satan.
We get hunchbacked old women making love potions, black masses, demonic possession, witchcraft, frenzied nuns, and the temptations of Satan, but we also get a surprisingly forward-thinking indictment of religious institutions punishing women because the men in charge are terrified of their own sexual desires. The repression of these desires and the shame and fear that go along with this repression then manifest in violent, perverse ways in the institutional punishments of the witch trials and the Inquisition. These "pious" monks, witchfinders, and church leaders are finding socially acceptable outlets for their own sexual kinks, destroying the lives of innocent women in the process.
This is a surprising thesis for a 1922 film, and it's even more surprisingly handled with a modern sense of humor that comes from genuine anger at the sexism inherent in much superstition and a healthy acceptance of sexuality and sexual desire. (S&M aficionados in particular should enjoy this movie.) Christensen's images and writing only reveal a dated sensibility when he theorizes that women determined to be witches in the Middle Ages were most likely merely suffering from "female hysteria," though it's unclear in these 1920s-set scenes whether Christensen is mocking the idea of "female hysteria" or whether he actually believes in it.
Christensen takes full advantage of his budget, the largest ever for a Danish film at the time, with every frame of Häxan packed with detail, incredible costumes and set design, and visual invention. It's a gorgeous film to look at and experience, and I bet it looks amazing on a big screen. Only in fleeting moments does this feel like a film that is almost a century old, and it's no wonder the Surrealists and Burroughs and Balch took to it.
Aside from the scattered dated moments, I loved this movie. If you're into beautiful, weird, perverse, occult, timeless filmmaking, check it out.