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. 

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