Saturday, June 27, 2015

#210: April Fool's Day (Fred Walton, 1986)

April Fool's Day arrived in the late middle of the teenage slasher movie boom, a time when movies about horny teens getting picked off one by one seemed to appear in theaters twice weekly. It follows the slasher subgenre fairly closely but uses a twist ending to parody and critique slasher movies, though this twist is not as clever as the director and screenwriter think it is. Still, April Fool's Day is a fairly agreeable entertainment and a nifty little 1980s time capsule that may also inspire class hatred if you come from a working-class background.
April Fool's Day begins by swapping the usual gang of horny teenagers with a gang of horny young adults from privileged backgrounds. This ragtag but wealthy group are all Vassar classmates of Muffy St. John, and they're waiting to be ferried over to her family's summer home, a sprawling island estate, for an April Fool's Day weekend getaway. Muffy's already there. The gang includes perpetually horny, perpetually video camera-wielding, spiky-haired bad boy Chaz Vyshinski, attractive down-to-earth couple Kit and Rob (though Rob is feeling angst about not getting into medical school), studious and shy bookworm with a secret Nan, collar-flipping practical joke-playing semi-bad boy Arch, mysterious angst-filled poor little rich boy Skip (Muffy's cousin), perpetually horny sexpot Nikki, and cornpone aw shucks Southern boy striving for the big time Harvey. After Harvey dispenses some Southern-fried Dixie wisdom, Chaz lowers his shades and says, "YOU know Muffy St. John?" Ha ha ha, what a group. Interestingly, the actor playing the Southern guy is actually from Tennessee, but he speaks in the fake Hollywood version of a Southern accent. That is how bad Hollywood misunderstands the Southern accent. They make an actual Southerner speak in a fake Southern accent.
Things start getting weird the second our gang of privileged dicks gets on the ferry. After some practical jokery involving a knife and fake blood sets the tone, a ferry boat employee gets part of his face scraped off by the boat. He's rushed to the mainland hospital and the japes and jokes and pranks stop for a somber, but very brief, few minutes. Once the gang reaches the island, the jokes start flying again. Muffy has rigged the house with cartoon-style pranks (a painting that watches you, chairs that flip you out of your seat, a sink that shoots water in your face, doorknobs that fall off, lights that won't turn off, etc.). What a bunch of cut-ups.
The jokes stop flying again when one of the gang disappears and then turns up dead. Soon, our rich, horny Ivy League protagonists start getting the murder treatment, one by one. Who is killing them? How will they get help when they're stuck on an island reachable only by boat? Why is Muffy acting so strange? Who will get laid? How do they stop this crazy sink from spraying water in their faces? The questions are many.
(This paragraph contains SPOILERS. Oh shiiiiiitttttt! Skip to the next paragraph if you don't want the ending spoiled.) Kit and Rob are the last two left. They find out that Muffy has been murdered by her evil twin sister Buffy and are about to get killed by Buffy when the whole gang shows up. They're not dead after all. The whole thing has been an elaborate prank orchestrated by Muffy (there is no Buffy) so she can prove to her rich father that she can turn the island estate into a money-making combination haunted house/dinner theater holiday getaway and thereby inherit the place when she turns 21. Skip is her brother, not her cousin, and the ferry boat guy who lost part of his face is actually a Hollywood special effects dude who is friends with the family. Ha ha ha. What a card. Kit and Rob are pissed, but the champagne is wheeled out and all is forgiven. The rich dicks celebrate and pour champagne everywhere, celebrating their smug privilege. Entertaining, but gross. I remember seeing this as a kid and being pissed about the whole thing being a prank. Many horror fans felt the same way. (Also, you have to ignore the 9,000 plot holes in any movie where the whole thing was a prank/ruse/dream the entire time.) This time, I enjoyed that aspect of it but was more pissed at the smug rich kid angle and what shitty friends these people are. (End of SPOILERS.)
April Fool's Day was directed by Fred Walton, the guy who made When a Stranger Calls ("the call is coming from inside the house!!!!!!") and written by Danilo Bach, the guy who wrote all the Beverly Hills Cop movies. Walton is a pro, and the movie looks pretty good for its budget, though it's hardly a visually stunning piece. Speaking of the 1980s time capsule element, the cast represents a pretty big chunk of '80s iconography. Muffy is played by Deborah Foreman, star of Valley Girl. Thomas F. Wilson, best known as Biff in the Back to the Future movies, plays Arch. Amy Steel, who plays Kit, was the lone survivor of Friday the 13th Part 2, and her boyfriend Rob was played by Summer School's Ken Olandt. Clayton Rohner (Chaz) and Deborah Goodrich (Nikki) starred in Just One of the Guys. Nearly everyone in the cast appeared in an episode of The A-Team. Griffin O'Neal (Skip) is best known as the son of Ryan O'Neal and the driver in the drunken boating accident that killed Francis Ford Coppola's oldest son. The '80s, eh? Where does the time go?
I watched this movie yesterday, the day the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide. For all my cynicism and fear about the way the world is going, sometimes we really do make progress as a country and as human beings, and yesterday was one of those great days for civil rights and equality. Because of yesterday's events, the casual homophobia in this movie was really amplified for me. It's nothing too egregious, but the characters of Arch, Chaz, and Skip find it hilarious to pretend to be gay, and the audience is expected to find this funny, too. There was a lot of casual homophobia in popular '80s American movies (Michael J. Fox calls someone a fag in Teen Wolf, for example), and it's nice to see that play out as antiquated, misguided, ignorant, and old-fashioned in a movie that wasn't made that long ago. Sometimes, things do move in the right direction.
I guess what I'm saying is, April Fool's Day is not a masterpiece.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

#209: Au secours! (Abel Gance, 1924)

French director Abel Gance was one of the pioneers of silent film, best known for his 1927 historical epic Napoleon, but I'd somehow overlooked seeing any of his films until now. If this short horror comedy is any indication, I'm probably missing out on a lot.
Au secours!, which translates as "Help!," is only 24 minutes long, but it's packed with visual invention, creatively disturbing imagery, comedy, and fun. The film came about because of a bet placed between pioneering silent slapstick comedian/actor Max Linder and director Gance. Gance had a reputation for lengthy, meticulous shoots that resulted in complex, epic films, and Linder bet Gance he couldn't direct a film in less than three days. Gance accepted the friendly wager, hired Linder to play the lead, and made Au Secours!.
In a nod to the film's reason for existing, the story is about a friendly wager. At one of those swinging '20s gentleman's clubs, wealthy haunted castle owner Comte de Mornay (Jean Toulout) is pleased with himself for scaring the bejeezus out of his gentleman pals. The group of men, heavily armed, walked into his haunted castle together on a dare, and, to a man, they came running back out, terrified. Now the count is teasing them over cigars and brandy at the club and challenging the men to a healthy wager. If any of them can spend one hour alone in the castle without calling for help, they will earn a healthy sum and bragging rights. If they lose the bet, they'll have to pay up. The men, still terrified, refuse.
Fortunately, Max (Max Linder) is on his way to the club. Max is a newlywed and has been spending time with his wife Renee (Gina Palerme), engaging in activities like regaling her with song while wearing a funny hat as she practices her rowing. He suddenly remembers he's been neglecting his bros, so he heads to the club for a guy's night out. On his way there, he thwarts an attempted mugging, so you know he's the brave type. After the fellows get him up to speed, he gladly accepts the bet. He must spend the hour of 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. in Mornay's castle without ringing the help buzzer.
Max is in a bit over his head. This is a seriously screwed up castle. It's full of snakes, alligators, a hippo, ghosts, regular-sized skeletons, giant skeletons, weird creeps, gunfire, axe swinging, and breaches in the space-time continuum, among many, many other strange and terrifying things. Gance and Linder both get to show off here, and they have a great sense of physical space and timing, Gance behind the camera, Linder in front of it. I especially loved the gliding camera as the audience is led onto the castle grounds, and Linder's hand moving nervously toward and away from the alarm buzzer. There's a real sense of playfulness and experimentation here that carries over enthusiastically to the viewer.
Gance continued his lengthy career well into the sound-film era, but Linder's story is far more tragic. Though he was considered a pioneer of slapstick comedy and possibly its originator and was adored by Charlie Chaplin, Linder was a deeply troubled, unhappy man. Suffering from severe depression and lingering WWI injuries and seeing declining ticket sales for his films, Linder made only one more movie after Au Secours!. He and his wife, Helene Peters, committed suicide together in 1925 after a previous suicide pact the year before was unsuccessful. Linder and Peters left behind their infant daughter Maud, and the couple's separate wills had conflicting instructions for Maud's care, leading to a bitter custody battle between the two surviving families. Maud is still alive at age 90, and enjoyed successful careers as a journalist, film historian, assistant director, and documentary filmmaker. She's taken a strong role in preserving her father's legacy, putting together a compilation of his film work in the 1960s, making a documentary about him in the 1980s, and writing a book about him in the 2000s.
Now that I've brought you all down with Max Linder's sad end, let me lift you back up again by embedding this great little movie.