Sunday, August 23, 2009


Because there is nothing on this earth with as prevalent a selection of geeks, freaks,pulpy eyesores, famous and infamous citizens and ridiculously hot Asian chicks.

Plus, GWAR!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

(Near) Forgotten Film Makers, Part 1

This month I am beginning what I hope is only the first in a series of columns geared to draw attention back to some members of the movie-making fraternity who have seemingly fallen well short of their deserved place among the cinematic stars.

To start with, I have chosen to hone in on three particular talents who, though they had been on sabbatical from the big screen (by choice or otherwise) for some time, they have each found their way back to their calling and have spanking new cinematic spawn to share with the world entire.

First up is the criminally underrated Kathryn Bigelow. Trained as a painter before switching to film studies, Bigelow is the guiding hand behind a small army of cult phenoms as well as some effective (if not always commercially bonafide) big studio thrillers.

She first tested the cinematic waters with a short film called The Set-Up (1978), an attempt to deconstruct the employment of violence in film. She broke into features with a co-directing gig on a biker flick titled The Loveless and starring the soon to be famous Appletonite Willem Dafoe.

It would take until well into the 1980s before Bigelow would make the first film to truly set her apart from the madding crowd. Near Dark came as a result of Bigelow and her creative posse failing to find funding for what was initially to be a revisionist western. So she and her co-writer, Eric (The Hitcher) Red brainstormed their way into a meshing together of western tropes and vampire lore, keeping only the elements from both genres that held their interest and jettisoning the rest. The final film hit theaters on a rather limited scale care the slowly dying Dino DeLaurentiis-run company D.E.G. (which seemed more capable of blowing money than earning it) and had to settle for box office crumbs and rediscovery down the road via other outlets.

The shame of this all is that the picture is so much more than the also-ran it was made out to be. Bigelow proves from almost the very first shot that she is a natural born director and, better yet, she can wrestle with themes of violence, tense emotional conflict and horror as well as stage an action sequence on par with many a male peer. This last point becomes particularly more significant as her body of work grows.

Near Dark charts the unfortunate plight of a naive cowboy (Adrian Pasdar) who sets his sights on the wrong girl (Jenny Wright) leading him directly into the nocturnal embrace of a makeshift family of vampires. Said nomadic blood lusters are fleshed out with remarkable zeal by what is essentially a class reunion of sorts for several holdovers from Big Jim Cameron’s iconic Aliens (Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Janette Goldstein. Michael Biehn was also approached for a part, but passed). The movie builds on the seamless camaraderie generated by these anti-hero types as they struggle to cope with the hellish demands of their accursed immortality.

Two key traits Bigelow establishes here that she clings to time and again throughout her career are a unique approach to hard action set pieces and the violence they inevitably generate (less sensationalistic and more story motivated) and her adherence to giving ample meat to her female characters.

An example on that second bit can be easily gleaned from the dependent nature of Pasdar’s good ole yokel Caleb after he’s been “turned” by the fetching Mae, no matter how hard he resists, he always comes back to her sick, weak and groveling.

The director would improve upon her representation of women on screen subsequently with Jamie Lee Curtis’s emotionally fragile yet diligent cop in Blue Steel and again with Angela Bassett, whose steadfast bodyguard role in the uneven Strange Days provides great counter point to Ralph Fiennes’ often sniveling future world huckster.

Perhaps the biggest commercial reaction the director has received thus far came following the 1991 release of her adrenaline-junkie bank robber epic Point Break. An almost perfect meshing of cranked-up action flick and beach boy chic, the film stands as one of the more oddly unique big summer, would-be sensations to ever rear its nappy head. Macho has never been played so loose and with such a spirited, comic book charm. Plus, who doesn’t love the sight of meat-head Red Hot Chili Peppers front man Anthony Kiedis shooting himself in the foot? Classic, visionary nonsense to drink the night away to.

Sadly, everything Bigelow has touched since that Swayze/Keanu semi-classic has tended to die upon theatrical arrival. Both the high price projects Strange Days and K-19: The Widowmaker set their respective distributors back some and the would be art house darling The Weight of Water came and went with nary a ripple.

As a consequence, it would take nearly seven years before the arrival of her next film, The Hurt Locker. The film (currently in limited release) details the less than enviable day-to-day duties of an Iraq-based Explosive Ordinance Disposal bomb squad. Shot in Jordan with a multitude of film crews racking up a reported 200 hours of raw footage, Bigelow has somehow assembled what could be her most critically adored film to date.

The film stars Jeremy Renner (who once played a certain Milwaukee notable in a decent little number called Dahmer) as the wild card leader of the bomb squad who often lends as much tension to the task at hand as any bomb ever could. Assorted other dependable names including Ralph Fiennes, Anthoney Mackie, Guy Pearce and Evangeline (Kate from Lost) Lilly are on hand to lend support. If all goes well, this one could very well put Mrs. Bigelow firmly on the top shelf. She deserves it.

Shifting over to the seedy streets of 1980s New York City, one would have to look hard to find a dude who got more out of them for so little than Frank Henenlotter (perhaps Abel Ferrara or Buddy Giovinanzzo might qualify as runners-up, but more on them some other time). Beginning with the original Basket Case in 1982, Henenlotter forged a grimy vision of the Big Apple based around fringe ne’er-do-well types and the curious relationships they build with some odd and ugly (but in their own way rather lovable) critters. This running concept gave vivid birth to not only Basket Case and its two slightly less cheap and dirty sequels, but the cheeky-vulgar Frankenhooker and, best of all, Brain Damage. It is on this last one that I shall now go ahead and banter a tad.

The synopsis goes something like this; Brian (Rick Hearst) lives with his brother in an archetypical low-rent Manhattan apartment. One day he wearily awakens to discover that a mysterious parasitic ghoulie has made itself at home at the back of his neck. This remarkably unattractive creature has a name (Aylmer) a voice (provided by pioneering late-night horror movie host and disc jockey John Zacherle) and a sinister agenda. See, little Aylmer has injected our average Joe lead man with an addictive fluid that causes euphoric hallucinations (represented on screen by some sharp, beautifully dated bargain rate opticals), with this convenient “gift,” the little booger goads Brian to take him out in the night to find random street dregs to lobotomize. Any effort Brian makes to resist Aylmer’s bidding leads to withdrawal sickness. Thinly veiled substitute for heroin addiction? Hmmmm could be.

Brian soon shrugs off all normal commitments (obligatory girlfriend, hygiene, etc.) in favor of placating his new-found master. The majority of the film is dedicated to one inventively off-putting homicide after another. Brains, blood and even a gore-tinged variant on oral sex work to cement the whole thing as commercial poison, and make it charming as fuck to anyone with a taste for the bent and disturbed.

Brain Damage initially came out in 1988 with some of its juicier splatter bits neutered for R-rated approval. I first witnessed this thing on a VHS tape found at the old Menasha Super Valu (now a ghetto-fab vacant eyesore). Naturally, as media evolved and the DVD thing raped and pillaged the market, there grew to be a renaissance of cult movie labels and many of Henenlotter’s films gained a fresh start in uncut, deluxe form.

Brain Damage got the gore back along with a spiffy new widescreen transfer that suits its rugged visual aesthetic reverently thanks to a company called Synapse Films (the people responsible for unleashing Executive Koala, Street Trash and Entrails of a Virgin, you know, the good shit) thus providing this gnarly gem with the second chance it surely deserves.

As for Frank Henenlotter? Well he will be ending a protracted 16-year silence (initiated because he was sick of making Basket Case sequels) with Bad Biology. A subtle yarn of awkward love involving a young woman with seven clits and a penchant for orgasmic homicide and the spry fellow whose vicious, mutant sex organ wins her over. Henenlotter’s mission statement for the film is that he wanted to make something “funny, appalling and just plain wrong!” Most likely, this one will bump through various festivals on its way to video. Welcome back to the grind, Frank.

We wrap this rather unbalanced trilogy up with a nod in the direction of Allen and Albert Hughes. These fraternal twins from bad ass Detroit (Go Lions!) made big waves with their brilliant debut Menace II Society, a brutal urban head rush that plays like the no bullshit, problem child sibling to the far more mainstream testifying of Boyz N’ The Hood. They would only manage three more films before amicably taking a break from each other in 2001.

In the interim the pair would come together from time to time to collaborate on various commercials, episodic television shows or music videos. Smaller portions of the entertainment buffet to be sure, but it appears the twins have finally discovered another big screen project to lay claim to.

The Book of Eli (due in January 2010) stars Denzel Washington as a man harboring an important document while traversing yet another post-apocalyptic movie landscape. His goal is to keep the titular publication out of the wrong hands of a dictatorial baddie (Gary Oldman) as it could spell hope for a decaying human race. Now, while none of this spare plot info sounds utterly earth shattering (especially with Viggo Mortensen’s The Road set to tread a similar dying planet scenario scant months ahead of it) one has to keep in mind the quality of the Hughes Bros.’ potent (if scant) backlog.

Their third film, the 1999 documentary American Pimp is easily my fave. Electrifying and to the point, with endlessly quotable soundbites pouring with rapid articulation from an engrossing caravan of gentlemen whose bread and butter is based 24/7 around the baiting, hustle and penetration for profit of sadly ignorant and emotionally bankrupt young women. Oddly, the movie does less to shameface the art of streetwalker management than simply clarify the how, what and where of the whole dicey issue, even going so far as to give pimping and prostitution a good measure of historical context. After all, everybody wants to get their fuck on (whether they admit to it or not). That’s why this is the world’s oldest profession.

American Pimp mostly fell between the theatrical cracks following the Brothers' second feature, the overly ambitious yet not altogether unsuccessful Dead Presidents (which crammed Black Panthers, Vietnam horrors, drug addiction and a well staged bank heist into a 119-minute box) and the stylish Johnny Depp vs. Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell.

That last one served as a marked departure for the pair, more reminiscent of the gaudy Hammer films from the ’50s to the ’70s crossed with something Tim Burton might have done with a little more edge than anything that could be compartmentalized as a “black film.” The film was yet another adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel that pushed the revered scribe to distance himself from the Hollywood machine (still, the film shits all over League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, now THAT’S a film to get angered by).

The Brothers also endured their share of frustratingly unrealized projects, one of which, a biopic on the life of J. Edger Hoover, fell into a developmental abyss at Warner Bros., as well never achieving a financial or critical success to rival their initial venture. However, with a top tier cast (alongside Washington and Oldman will be Tom Waits, Ray Stevenson and that Flashdance maniac Jennifer Beals) a hefty budget and a likely wide theatrical berth, The Book of Eli should prove a much needed reversal of career fortune for the lads.

To be continued...

Unrelated Capsules.


Employing the old horror standby of placing an abbreviated cast in an isolated situation beset by a menacing force, this unexpected treat proceeded to upend my minimal expectations and deliver a punchy, and dare I say even intelligent, ride. The setting is a rural Oklahoma gas station where one upwardly attractive couple have found themselves thanks to falling pray to a desperate pair of fugitives hell bent for the border. While seeking coolant for their overheated vehicle, the principles find that they have stumbled into an abandoned locale that has come under siege care a nasty, prickly, blood thirsty organism of no clearly defined origin. Plenty of sticky violence ensues as the cast count is whittled away and the tension mounts. Conceived, directed and acted with utter competence and conviction, this is a movie that utilizes its puny resources to the fullest. Tight, clever economic horror from a man named Toby Wilkins, who is apparently also responsible for 'The Grudge 3'. Can't win 'em all people, but don't worry none, this one will ply that horror itch quite well. Proceed to track it down posthaste.


Ok, this one is not movie but a magazine....a fanzine type thing to be exact. This dude from Pennsylvania sent me issue # 3 and I just had to pass on the love. This slick publication is dedicated to the memory of many a long out of print horror, exploitation and/or no-budget VHS release. Yes, y'all read it clear as crystal, VHS tapes of wild and forgotten shit like 'Mutant Hunt', 'Hellhole' and 'Zombie Nightmare'! They even lend some space to 'Candyman' helmsman Bernard Rose's maiden effort 'Paperhouse' which is actually legitimately decent. This thing is filled with choice images from many a colorful has-been, most of which I fondly recall adorning the moldy shelves of the long buried into memory Dean's Video (formerly located at 705 Appleton road in Menasha, right across from where the Red Owl used to be). So, if you ever wondered what happened to all those cheesy flicks you never had the heart to rent, now you know.

Further info (including subscriptions!) can be retrieved here: