Saturday, May 28, 2016

#232: Beaks: The Movie (Rene Cardona, Jr., 1987)

Helpfully titled Beaks: The Movie to let you know you're not watching a television show or a plate of spaghetti or a shoe or something, Rene Cardona, Jr.'s tale of avian terror answers the unasked question, "What if Hitchcock's The Birds took place in the 1980s and was a pile of garbage?" Beaks: The Movie is a hard movie to find these days and is only available in this country on used VHS. Normally, that's the kind of thing that breaks my heart, but in this case, we're all very lucky.  
Beaks has it all -- terrible dialogue, a ridiculous story, bad acting, bizarre contradictions in plot that prompted my wife to say, "This movie is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book where we see every choice," long stretches of boredom, and flat, visually uninteresting shot composition. Surprisingly, the special effects are pretty good. These people really look like they're being attacked by birds. Probably because the filmmakers are hurling actual birds at the cast.
Beaks stars Blame It on Rio's Michelle Johnson and The Blue Lagoon's Christopher Atkins as Vanessa and Peter, a young couple working for the world's most insane television news network. She's a reporter, he's a cameraman. (My wife again: "They're the poor man's Brooke Shields and Mark Hamill.") This network is an American station run by a sexually harassing sleazebag that operates globally and appears to have an unlimited travel budget. It focuses on bizarre human interest stories in international locations that seem to be populated entirely by Americans.
Over the course of the film, our leads hop from city to city in Spain before going to Rome and finally Puerto Rico on the trail of the murderous birds. Despite Vanessa's repeated claims that she is a serious journalist with a journalism degree who is also a grown woman and therefore should not have to cover this tabloid trash, her mix of stilted, ridiculous interviewing and flowery editorializing proves she deserves to be covering stories like a group of turkeys who attacked their owner. Initially skeptical of these tales of bird murder, Vanessa and Peter become believers when even a tiny canary becomes consumed by bloodlust. Pretty soon, eyeballs are getting pecked out all over the damn place. Speculation points to humankind's disregard of the environment, with the birds attempting to restore balance by pecking the shit out of us.
Besides our intrepid journalists, Beaks introduces us to an old man on a Spanish country estate who lost an eye to a falcon and will not let that happen again. We also meet his daughter and granddaughter and get to see the latter's ill-timed outdoor birthday party that descends into bird attack madness. In addition, we get a couple living in Rome who survived a similar bird attack 30 years previously, a beer-swilling bikini babe and her ill-fated boyfriend, a pair of unlucky hang-gliders, and a New York family on vacation in Puerto Rico in the wrong place at the wrong time. All these people are pretty boring, though I did enjoy the Puerto Rican mayor with crazy eyebrows who decides to deal with the bird epidemic by resignedly heading to the bar for some brandy.
We get a few nods to Hitchcock's chimney scene in the better bird attack movie, but like I said to Cardona in our 1988 vice presidential debate, "Rene, I watched a lot of Hitchcock. I enjoyed Hitchcock. Hitchcock was a favorite of mine. Rene, you're no Alfred Hitchcock (audience goes bananas)." Beaks picks up a little when our heroes convince the Puerto Ricans to evacuate everyone and put them on a train the hell out of there. For some reason, the train seems to be populated entirely by punk rockers who don't give a shit about your bird-avoiding rules and whiny old people who don't want to be told what to do by a young woman who looks kind of like Brooke Shields. The birds eventually simmer down, for reasons as mysterious as their motivation for simmering up, but a baffling ending in a lake means the fish are probably going to go crazy next.
Beaks is only 86 minutes but feels much longer. The best moment happens early, when the journalists are covering a story about a man who can shoot pigeons while blindfolded. Peter asks him his reasons for killing the birds and the man says for pleasure. Peter: "For pleasure? Faaaaaaack!" I also enjoyed the bizarre contradictions and unexplained plot developments. A couple has a flat tire and no jack, but are driving away on a fully inflated tire in the next scene. The same couple is stranded under a dock, but are shown riding away in a boat in the next scene. Characters appear in different locations in consecutive scenes before magically reappearing where they once where. A nude scene with an obvious body double is reused twice, even though its first use makes no sense because Vanessa is covered in soap bubbles but hasn't even stepped in the bubble bath yet. This continuity clusterfudge is highly enjoyable to me.
Director Rene Cardona, Jr., was a Mexican filmmaker who mostly worked on Spanish-language films, but he also had many English-language B-movies on his CV, including The Bermuda Triangle, Tintorero: Killer Shark, and the Jonestown biopic Guyana: Cult of the Damned. He died in 2003. I'm sorry to speak ill of the dead, but Beaks: The Movie is not good.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

#231: Terror Circus aka Barn of the Naked Dead aka Nightmare Circus (Alan Rudolph, 1974)

To any film buffs looking at the director's name up there and wondering, yes, it is that Alan Rudolph. Rudolph, the son of child star and television director Oscar Rudolph, enjoyed a long, eccentric, and exciting career as a director of arty independent films, serious dramas for adults, and rowdy cult classics (and some that blended all three of these modes) with the occasional mainstream, yet interesting, Hollywood production.
Growing up in Los Angeles with a father who worked in the business, Rudolph was obsessed with film at a young age (though his father's mainstream TV work was pretty far removed from the areas he would explore as a filmmaker). Rudolph never went to film school, but he would shoot student films for pay for lazy UCLA film school students who didn't want to do their own assignments. (When asked in an interview if any of those students became famous directors, Rudolph laughed and said the people who paid him to shoot their films for him all became "accountants, politicians, and lawyers.")
Getting his start as an assistant director, Rudolph worked on a few Hollywood productions and TV movies, and his father got him work on The Brady Bunch, a series the elder man often directed. Rudolph found a mentor much closer to his own sensibility in Robert Altman. Altman hired him as assistant director on The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville, and they wrote the screenplay for Buffalo Bill and the Indians together. The two men remained friends for the remainder of Altman's life, Rudolph appeared as himself in The Player, and Altman produced several of Rudolph's movies.
Rudolph made his initial reputation as director in the late 1970s with the Altmanesque ensemble film Welcome to L.A. and an arty thriller, Remember My Name, starring Geraldine Chaplin and Anthony Perkins. He made two of my favorite films of the 1980s, Choose Me and Trouble in Mind, and is also known for Roadie (probably the only movie to star Meat Loaf, Art Carney, Roy Orbison, Hank Williams Jr., Alice Cooper, Gailard Sartain, and Blondie), Songwriter (with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson), Mortal Thoughts (with Bruce Willis and Demi Moore), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Afterglow (with Julie Christie), and the Vonnegut adaptation Breakfast of Champions. His last film was 2002's The Secret Lives of Dentists. I'm not sure if he's retired now or if he withdrew from the business in disgust because of blockbuster mania.
Tucked away in a mostly forgotten corner of Rudolph's career are two low-budget exploitation horror films he directed during his years of gainful employment as an assistant director. The first, Premonition, was about a hippie rock band partying in the countryside who decide to smoke a mysterious red plant that gives them premonitions of their deaths. Groovy. The second, and the one we are concerning ourselves with today, is Terror Circus. This had the potential to be a very unpleasant film, considering it's one of those crazy-guy-kidnaps-women-and-tortures-them movies that I generally find unwatchable. In Rudolph's hands, it's not exactly a success, but it is incredibly weird, technically competent, more ambiguous in intent than most of these kinds of films, and visually exciting, with lots of great landscape shots.
Terror Circus begins with a creepy guy in a fur-lined coat standing on a tower and looking at the surrounding countryside with binoculars. After this intriguing opening, we turn to a trio of women driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for a nightclub showgirl job. The women playing these roles, like Rudolph, all have childhood connections to show business. Manuela Thiess, who plays Simone, is the daughter and stepdaughter, respectively, of actors Ursula Thiess and Robert Taylor. Gyl Roland, who plays Corinne, is the daughter of actors Gilbert Roland and Constance Bennett, the niece of actor Joan Bennett and songwriter Morton Downey, and the first cousin of the late, loudmouthed, chain-smoking, right-wing trash TV talk show host Morton Downey Jr. Wow. Finally, Sherry Alberoni, who plays Sheri, was a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club in the mid-1950s and was primarily a voice actor for cartoons, including Josie and the Pussycats, Scooby-Doo, Super Friends, and The Mighty Orbots. This is a strange planet.
Anyway, our showgirls decide to take an unmarked shortcut in the Nevada desert, which is a stupid idea both in horror movies and in life, and their car breaks down in the middle of the night. A mustachioed '70s dude in the gas station warned them about their radiator, but they thought he was just giving them the business. The dude business. Sadly, he was right. They spend the rest of the night in their car and are awakened by a seemingly nice guy who volunteers to drive them to his farmhouse to call for help. This nice guy is not nice at all. His name is Andre (Andrew Prine), and he is the creep from the tower with the binoculars.
Andre takes them to his place in his sweet '70s jeep and says he'll be right back. As he putters around in his house, the women take a look around. They find a caged puma, which is highly unusual, even for loners in the Nevada desert, and a barn with a sign on it indicating that the structure is a circus. They go inside to explore the circus and instead find roughly a dozen women chained up. A few of them have gone insane. One has been there for six months. Andre comes back and chains up the showgirls.
In Andre's sick mind, women are nothing more than wild animals who must be tamed. He wants to train them to obey and perform tricks. When the women are trained to his liking, he will present them as the greatest circus menagerie in the world. If they displease him, he smears them with animal blood and sets them free but also sets free his puma. If they can outrun the puma, they are free to leave. No one has outrun the puma yet.
As if all this wasn't weird enough, the site of the barn is near a government nuclear testing site. This may partially explain Andre's madness, and it also seems to fully explain Andre's father, a mutant cannibal who needs to be locked in a shed or he'll eat everyone's faces off. Andre's mother, wisely, abandoned the family 10 years ago and fled to Chicago, which was a really great move for her. Unfortunately, Simone greatly resembles Andre's mother, so Andre decides it is her. This seems to bode well for an escape plan, but no one figured on the mutant cannibal dad. Meanwhile, the women's exasperated agent hits the road to try to find them. That agent is played by the late Chuck Niles, a beloved Los Angeles jazz DJ who is the only jazz DJ to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
This movie has it all. Mutant cannibals, psycho circus proprietors, government nuke testing, pumas, showgirls, Hollywood agents, jeeps, mustaches, small-town drunks. I got a bit weary of scenes of Andre hitting the women with his bullwhip, but on the whole, Rudolph goes light on the torture, eschews rape entirely (I could easily see a much sleazier director filling this movie with sexual violence), and presents only one brief scene of gratuitous nudity (probably contractually obligated). I realize this is a bit like praising a kid for only hitting his sibling once instead of twice, but Rudolph makes this film more perverse and interesting and less nauseating and offensive than it most likely would have been in someone else's hands.
The film, which Rudolph didn't write, is partly sexist trash, but a case could be made that Andre is an exaggerated critique of how men treat women. There's a bit of having your cake and eating it with this approach because creeps who like to see women forced into submission as entertainment will find plenty to enjoy, but Rudolph is much smarter and more eccentric and detail-oriented than your run-of-the-mill exploitation hack. It's definitely an oddity in his career, but a fascinating one. I can't entirely recommend it, but it's worth a look for fans of low-budget '70s movies, horror, and Alan Rudolph completists.