Saturday, August 20, 2016

#238: The Being (Jackie Kong, 1983)

Anyone looking for reviews of Jackie Kong's first film The Being, shot in 1980 but not released until 1983, dating from the time it first hit theaters will find mostly predictably negative reviews. These reviews say more about the lack of imagination, joy, pleasure, and humor in most mainstream newspaper and magazine critics than they do about Kong's movie. The kind of people who consider films like Platoon, The King's Speech, and A Beautiful Mind the pinnacle of cinematic achievement will never get it. Forget 'em. The Being is a goddamn delight.
Filmed and set in small-town Idaho (with some scenes shot in Boise), The Being is about a mutant creature terrorizing a charming little town. A radioactive waste dumping site sits just a few miles away, and something strange lives there, sleeping during the day and attacking at night. If that's all this movie was, it would be a pretty dull affair, but Kong fills it with oddball humor, a real sense of place that captures the flavor of Midwestern small-town life circa 1980, a hilariously anarchic approach to storytelling and point of view, and one of the wildest ensemble casts in low-budget horror.
About that cast. The film features a charismatic mix of cult movie producers, Hollywood veterans, comedians, television actors, and nonprofessionals. Kong's then-husband Bill Osco, also the producer of the film, plays the lead, Sheriff Mortimer Lutz. Osco is an adult film producer, most famously of Flesh Gordon (other titles include Whatever Happened to Stud Flame?, Mona: The Virgin Nymph, and Art of Nude Bowling). The adult film world's flair for stage names rubbed off (no pun intended) on Osco, who is billed in the opening credits as Rexx Coltrane and in the closing credits as Johnny Commander. The rest of the cast includes Martin Landau as scientist/dump site corporate shill Garson Jones, Dorothy Malone (most famous around my house for her roles in Hawks' The Big Sleep and Sirk's Written on the Wind) as grieving mother Marge Smith, Jose Ferrer as Mayor Gordon Lane, Ruth Buzzi as the mayor's long-suffering wife and leader of the Committee to Sweep Out Smut (a group of religious people offended by a local business's plan to open a massage parlor) Virginia Lane, Hee-Haw cast member and then-wife of Kenny Rogers Marianne Gordon as diner waitress Laurie, and Ruth Buzzi's husband Kent Perkins, co-producer of the film, as overzealous deputy sheriff Dudley (Buzzi and Perkins currently live on a horse ranch in rural Texas). We also get cameos from Kinky Friedman and standup comics Johnny Dark and Murray Langston (aka The Unknown Comic) as a trio of hapless rednecks intent on making sure the massage parlor never opens.
Despite her southern California upbringing, writer/director Kong nails the small-town Midwest in ways I haven't seen on film very often. I grew up in a small town in Nebraska between the late '70s and the early '90s, and this film's small-town Idaho of 1980 rings so true to me. Though I had a rough time in that milieu as a teenager, and I'm glad I don't live there as an adult, I have fond childhood memories, and I felt a surprising amount of emotion and visceral memory from a goofy monster movie. This movie gets it right: the drive-in movie theater, the diner, the look of Main Street, the landscapes and skies of early summer nights, the railroad tracks and trains coming through, the fishing, the storms, the dirt roads, the stoner burnouts, the way everybody knows everybody else's business, the small-town cops either overzealous jerks or laconic, dry-humor types (and there's only two on duty at a time, just like my hometown!), the foreboding feel and unassuming beauty of the flat, rural expanse outside of town, the absurd sitting alongside the ordinary, the shaggy looseness of that particular era in American culture. This may not mean much to you if you grew up in a city or on the coasts, but it really got to me.
Those bad reviews I mentioned in the first paragraph like to point out the cheapness of some of the effects, the low budget, the occasional lapses in narrative continuity, the way a narrator is introduced and then quickly abandoned, the way you can hear Lutz's thoughts in the first half of the movie but not in the second half, how the film takes place on Easter weekend for no real reason. My counterpoint to those criticisms is as follows. Who gives a shit?
This movie is full of humor, excitement, geographic detail, interesting characters (even people who only have one or two lines are given distinct personalities), blood and guts, low-budget ingenuity, and fun. Kong has a great eye, and her ability to mix horror, humor, and a real sense of community and location on a tiny budget reminded me of Roger Corman, George Romero, and early Sam Raimi. I really enjoyed this movie.
Jackie Kong is a fascinating person. Growing up near Beverly Hills in the Benedict Canyon area, she became interested in film when her mother befriended Marlon Brando. (I would like to know more about that, but information is scarce online.) Kong directed several cult horror and comedy films in the 1980s, including Blood Diner, but she put her directing career on hold to run the nonprofit organization Asian-American Media Development from 1995 until 2001, which sought ways to improve opportunities for Asian-Americans seeking media careers. She returned to directing in 2001 with a sitcom she helped create, Karaoke Nights, and has used Kickstarter to help fund recent film projects CoExistence (a vampire movie) and Lost in Vietnam (a comedy), but so far they remain unfinished. She's also worked as a real estate agent in recent years and is married to a rocket scientist named Wolf. I really hope she gets to make some more films. Like most women and minority filmmakers in this country, she still has to struggle and fight to get movies made, which is a never-ending bummer in 2016. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

#237: Basket Case (Frank Henenlotter, 1982)

Many of my fellow members of the Generation Formerly Known As X and Currently Known As Forgotten may recall an unexpected feature of some VCRs in that ten-year stretch between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, particularly those of us with parents who couldn't afford to buy the premium channels like HBO and Cinemax. Due to technological reasons I don't quite understand, some VCRs would unscramble the signals of channels like HBO in households that weren't paying the premiums. The signal wouldn't be crystal clear, but it would be clear enough that a person could watch without being annoyed. It was a pretty exciting thing if you were a kid like me, let me tell you. My family owned two VCRs that unscrambled these signals over the course of my childhood and adolescence, and thanks to one of them, I saw a 1993 late-night HBO marathon of all three Basket Case movies. It was love at first sight, and after another viewing yesterday, I can report that my love for Basket Case remains strong.
Basket Case begins with a suburban doctor being stalked and killed by an unknown assailant for reasons we don't yet know. The following scene moves to pre-Giuliani Times Square, still in the height of its sleazy, dangerous charm. Naive young Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) from upstate Glens Falls is in the big city for the first time. He stops at the first hotel he sees, a rundown $20-a-night flophouse full of bizarre characters called the Hotel Broslin, and he pays for several days in advance with a huge wad of cash, attracting the attention of old boozer O'Donovan (Joe Clarke). He's also carrying a huge wicker basket. When asked what's in it, he says "clothes," changes the subject, or ignores the question entirely. After settling in to his bare bones little room, he buys two bags full of hamburgers. He eats only one, and dumps the rest in the basket.
I'm not spoiling anything for horror fans by revealing that the basket contains Duane's telepathic mutant twin brother Belial. Duane and Belial were conjoined twins, and their mother died in childbirth. Their father is disgusted by Belial, and after he's rebuffed by reputable doctors, he pays an unsavory doctor and a couple of unscrupulous veterinarians under the table to separate the brothers. Belial is thrown in the trash and left to die, but Duane finds him, and the siblings get some revenge on Dad. After their kindly aunt passes away, Duane and Belial decide to go on a revenge spree against the people who separated them, which brings them to the seedier parts of New York City.
Basket Case is full of low-budget charm, with handmade special effects that fall lovably short of professional standards, buckets of fake blood, and a cast of amateurish oddballs who make up in personality and B-movie presence what they lack in professional acting talent. I'm a huge fan of nonprofessional actors, and I find something movingly human about them that I don't see in the big-time movie stars.
Besides the previously mentioned actors, I also enjoyed Robert Vogel as the put-upon hotel manager, underground New York scenester and public access TV star Beverly Bonner as a fellow resident of the Hotel Broslin, and Terri Susan Smith as a receptionist who tries to date Duane. I love a movie where even the characters who have no reason to be weirdos are weirdos. The cast is pretty evenly split between people who never acted before or since, and people who only act in the weird stuff.
In addition to all the low-budget fun, Basket Case is a great time capsule of a piece of New York City that no longer exists. Now a Disneyfied big-box-chain-store-corporate-franchise-infested tourist trap, Times Square in the 1970s and early 1980s was home to prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, porn theaters, all-night kung fu movie houses, drunks, dive bars, flophouses, and indescribable weirdos, and Henenlotter's film is a twisted love letter to the waning days of seedy New York. It's like the Taxi Driver of mutant telepathic conjoined twin movies. I will always be a little bummed that I never saw the old Times Square in person, but I would have been a small child from the small-town Midwest during its heyday, and any time spent there would have been fairly inappropriate as well as terrifying.
Basket Case was Frank Henenlotter's first feature-length film. He went on to make several of my favorite '80s and '90s B-movies, including the stone cold classic Brain Damage, Frankenhooker, and, of course, Basket Case 2 and 3. He has an oddball sense of humor that celebrates the absurd and finds kindred spirits as actors, and I really enjoy his contributions to the world of psychotronic weirdo cinema. Here's where his strange trip started.