Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Neon Maniacs (1985)

I used to love trading cards.  I mean, love them.  My (trundle) bed’s head board (and just about every other empty bit of real estate on it) was covered in stickers from the multitudes of packs I bought.  There were Tusken Raiders, Grand Moff Tarkin (even then I recognized the greatness of Peter Cushing), and good, old Chewbacca (are you sensing a theme here?), to name but three.  There were other kinds of stickers plastered there, as well (it’s just that none of them specifically spring to mind right now).  It’s interesting to me that, today, outside of the people who purchase trading cards because they’re collectors or because they’re trading card game players, you just never see trading cards around for sale at your local corner store.  It boggles my mind, because kids would love this stuff.  There were giant pictures you could make by flipping over certain cards and piecing it together like a puzzle.  There was some of the worst chewing gum in the world.  There were the aforementioned stickers (the adhesive properties of which I can fully endorse for use in the space program, if we still had one).  There were stories told over the entirety of some card series, providing all the more motivation to collect them all (the classic Mars Attacks series, being the most famous).  You could trade extra cards you had or cards you didn’t want with your buddies (hence, “trading cards”).  You could stick them in the spokes of your bikes and make a really cool noise as you pedaled your little behind off (you have to remember, this was back when kids went outside to play constantly rather than admiring the world they didn’t participate in through a four-inch screen, which I suppose also solves the mystery of why trading cards are no longer popular; yes, I’m old and cranky).  Had we the wicked trading cards discovered at the outset of Joseph Mangine’s Neon Maniacs (which I think are more intriguing for what they don’t tell us than what they do), I could see myself still collecting trading cards today.

After some nifty cards displaying a variety of monstrous killers are inexplicably found nestled inside a cattle skull under the Golden Gate Bridge by a fisherman (yes, really), the Neon Maniacs make their appearance, dispatching the man and heading off to the city for some night time activities.  Meanwhile, Natalie (Leilani Sarelle) and her dickweed friends are cruising for some beer to celebrate Nat’s birthday.  After an awkward meet cute with awkward cutie pie Steven (Clyde Hayes), Nat’s friends party down in some local park and are soon set upon by the titular, murderous monsters.  Natalie survives the attack, but soon discovers that the Maniacs have it out for her personally.

This film has a few things going on beneath its façade, even though, by all accounts, the film’s producers were purely mercenary in their creative motivations (but in my opinion, that’s why they call it the sub-conscious).  One of the bigger themes has to do with social classes.  Natalie is a rich girl.  She is currently at home alone, because her (we can certainly assume) uncaring mother is jet setting around Europe with some boy toy.  Natalie takes tennis lessons, too; whether by choice or involuntarily, it’s one of those sports associated with the well-to-do.  We can also assume that all of her friends are affluent despite their slapdash appearances because of how they relate to Steven.  Steven is the son of a working man (his dad owns a market for which Steven has to make deliveries), and he is treated as a peon because of this.  At school, he wears a raggedy sweater (though this could just as easily be a punk kind of thing).  Naturally, Steven and Natalie were made for each other, opposites attracting and all that.  Yet, there has to be equalization between the two, and since Steven is most likely not going to hit the lottery during the film’s run time, Natalie has to be the one to acquiesce.  This is evinced in their big date scene, where Steven makes an eco-friendly excuse for having to take her on the subway (never mind that people of all stripes take the damned thing every day), but Natalie assures Steven that she doesn’t mind.  The Maniacs, then, are an analog for the truly poor and destitute (we’ll overlook that one of them is a “doctor”), and their vendetta against Natalie can be seen in the vein of “eating the rich,” as it were.  While characters like Steven and Paula (Donna Locke) normally might have been left alone by the creatures because of their closeness to the monsters’ own socio-economic status (though most likely not), their intermingling with Natalie is what makes them targets as well.     

This same type of relationship is also at play from a perspective of mindsets/lifestyles.  Natalie is “normal” in her lifestyle.  She hangs out with “normal” kids, who like to go out and drink and fool around, as can be expected.  Steven is an outsider, and this is summed up by his musicianship.  Rock ‘n roll was known for a long time as rebel music, and Steven sings pop rock in his own band: The Outlaws (this name being another indicator of his status and attitude).  Steven seemingly has only one friend at school, Eugene (P.R. Paul), the Ralph Malph of San Francisco if that gives you some indication of his coolness level.  Odder still is Paula, a monster kid who directs her own horror videos and loves special effects makeup.  In fact, she may be even odder than the Maniacs, at least outwardly.  She’s portrayed like she’s maybe ten-years-old, though her face looks like she’s in her early twenties (an issue with all of the “teens” in this film but more pronounced in Paula’s case).  On top of that, she’s a total tomboy, dressing in jeans, a letterman jacket, and a sideways baseball cap.  She is fascinated with the odd, and manages to follow a very obvious trail of Neon Maniac slime that the professional investigators obviously could not.  In theory, and in another world, Paula would love the monsters in this movie.  She would root for them to kill their victims in all manner of gruesome fashion.  But since the Maniacs target Paula as well, she fears them rather than adores them (fair enough).  The Maniacs, being the pinnacle of freakdom, strike out at what is normal and different from them.  As with the socioeconomic motivations, and likely more apropos, the monsters desire a leveling of the field for themselves (or barring that, the destruction of that which they oppose) by attacking normality.  By that same token, they are the threat of the unknown to normal society, so the two sides can never live in peace with each other.  

If you’re looking for coherence, don’t look for it in Neon Maniacs.  I know teenagers like to drink alcohol, but I was kind of dumbfounded at just how casually they do it in this film.  Natalie and her (I’m guessing underage) pals just go to a beer store on her birthday for some hooch.  Natalie offers Steven a beer after he delivers her groceries.  At the climactic battle of the bands (held at a high school, mind you), one of the kids openly walks around, sloshed, with a cup of beer in her hand (this also makes for one of the film’s more humorous moments).  Steven sleeps over Natalie’s house, unplanned, but has a change of clothes he gets into after showering.  Lieutenant Devin (Victor Brandt), dresses like Philip Marlowe and rides around in a black and white cop car from the Fifties.  Steven’s big plan for the finale not only makes zero sense but also places a hell of a lot more people in direct danger.  In the middle of being stalked by the Maniacs, Steven and Natalie make out (I’m not kidding).  If none of this convinces you of this film’s unintelligibility, here is the quote that opens it: “When the world is ruled by violence, and the soul of mankind fades, the children’s path shall be darkened by the shadows of the Neon Maniacs!”  Yet despite all of its collective dimwittedness, Neon Maniacs is a blast to sit through, and it does the job of turning your brain off for you, so you can just settle in to have your path brightened by the shadows and light cast on your screen by the film Neon Maniacs.               

MVT:  There’s a reason the film is called Neon Maniacs and not Steven the Delivery Boy with His Gal Natalie and That Annoying Kid Paula.  In other words, the monsters are the MVT.

Make or Break:  The finale at the battle of the bands has not one, not two, but three rockin’ tunes (two by Steven’s pop band and one by the farcical glam band Jaded [their singer brandishes a whip]), some pretty clever humor, and a whole lot of carnage (this despite the film being largely bloodless).  If you’re not giggling or shaking your head throughout, I can guarantee you will at least not be bored.

Score:  7/10

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tetherball: The Movie (2010)

Directed by: Chris Nickin
Runtime: 90 minutes

Time for something completely different. This unapologetically crude and amusing film is about three and a half friends who enter the strange world of semiprofessional tetherball competition.

The story follows Zach, Alex, Mikey, and sometimes Joe. Zack is a failed boxer and starting to get tired that his life has not changed since college. Alex is allergic to latex, can only get sexually aroused by women dressed in furry costumes, and has ten to thirteen kids. And Mikey who has been a functioning alcoholic since he was thirteen years old. They all work at a direct marketing company that sells offensive t-shirts and is managed by Joe, Mikey's brother and the only reason they are all employed.

Zach is unimpressed with his life and the fact that nothing has changed since college. So after a night of drinking Zack, Alex, and Mikey end up in a playground at six in the morning and play tetherball to sober up. This leads to tetherball becoming a popular sport on the internet. This also leads to Jack White (played by Ron Jeremy) and his son Vince White setting up a tetherball league.

So Zack, Alex, Mikey, and Joe end up being both sport heroes and internet celebrities. However this has not removed compilations from their lives. Joe becomes estranged from his wife in the most humiliating way possible. Mikey girlfriend wants him to be sober. Alex's negativity could tear the team apart. And Zack is not willing to deal with the reason that made him quit boxing. Also Jack and Vince White are trying to see which one of them Zack will sleep with.

Overall this is a fun film and it is nice to see crude humor that is not mean as well. Unlike anything Adam Sandler has produced in the last ten years. Also Dustin Diamond gave an amusing and strange performance as Coach McAger. This is a great film to rent or stream with a group of good friends and some great drinks. Or if you can't get annoying and very politically correct people to leave, put this movie on.

MVT: The writer took the time to explain how competitive tetherball would be played out. Including how penalties work. It made me laugh.

Make or Break: What made this movie for me is the way it took all the beats and cliches of sports hero's journey and did something interesting with it.

Score: 6.9 out of 10

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Full Eclipse (1993)

Back in the 70s, Marvel Comics started grinding out horror-themed books (so did DC and other publishers, but they’re not our focus here).  They had published stories featuring monsters previously in titles like Tales to Astonish back in the 50s/60s, but the vast majority of those tales were focused on giant creatures, either manmade or alien-spawned (including the introduction of everybody’s favorite monosyllabic tree, Groot).  The plots also tended to be very formulaic, following the atom-age, science fiction tropes of the 50s.  This conservative approach to the genre was largely a result of the implementation of the Comics Code Authority, which tied the hands of creators and publishers alike (the impetus for the Authority and all that entails is really a subject for a much longer essay, though there has already been more than enough ink spilled about it, and you should be able to get the whole picture on that with just a few mouse clicks).

At any rate, the Code was loosened a bit in the 70s, and monsters like vampires and zombies were now allowed so long as they were “handled in the classic tradition.”  Up popped titles such as Monster of Frankenstein and Tomb of Dracula.  Taking their cues from the loosening of societal norms and the increased interest in things occult, characters like the Son of Satan and Ghost Rider soon emerged into the spotlight, as well as the even more unorthodox Man-Thing (a concept at once both a throwback to monster books of the past as well as [thanks, in my opinion, largely to writer Steve Gerber] a commentary on modern society and its ills).  Of course, all of this is a roundabout way to touch on the lycanthropic character of Jack Russell (get it?), who made his first appearance in a feature called Werewolf by Night in Marvel Spotlight #2 (he would graduate to his own eponymous title in short order).  The character was tragic in the way that most werewolf characters are tragic, but the creators (including Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog) managed to tie in not only mystical themes (with artifacts like the Darkhold Scrolls) but also superheroes, with everyone from Tigra to Spider-Man interacting at some point or another with Jack and company.  Naturally, this book and its brethren were like Pixie Sticks (read: retro-crack) to a young me, with its amalgamation of monsters and superheroics, and it’s this same flavor that initially interested me in Anthony Hickox’s Full Eclipse.

Max Dire (as in “dire wolf,” and played with granite inscrutability by Mario Van Peebles) is a tough cop who doesn’t follow the rules but knows how to get the job done.  After his partner Jimmy (Tony Denison) makes a miraculous recovery from life-threatening wounds but then starts displaying alarming preternatural abilities, Max encounters Adam Garou (as in “loup garou,” and played with granite inscrutability by Bruce Payne), the man behind it all.  Recognizing Max’s potential, Adam indoctrinates the young man into his personal army of werewolf cops, theoretically in order to wipe out crime.  But is the price of justice too high?

According to this movie, the short answer to that question is “no.”  Full Eclipse uses the classic set up of a cop who is good at heart but unorthodox in approach being tempted to move completely outside the system in order to clean up the streets.  Max is the sort of cop who will storm a hostage situation solo, plunge through a ventilation shaft, and take out the baddies using the twin .45s he brandishes (something I always like to think is in homage to characters like The Shadow, but we all know is actually in imitation of filmmakers like John Woo [though maybe Woo is homaging The Shadow?  Hmmmmm……]).  For however much of a rogue Max is, he still abides (somewhat) by the law.  Nevertheless, Adam and his crew are attractive to Max for several reasons.  One, they get rid of criminals permanently.  Two, they have more physical power than normal men.  Three, they are sexy (in fact, part of the reason Max gets involved with them at all is because Casey (Patsy Kensit) seduces him).  Naturally, all three of these reasons are also attractive to a great many male audience members (and some female audience members, I’m sure), thus there’s a strong inclination to identify with max and his dilemma in a wish fulfillment way.  The basic conflict of the film is posited as whether the ends justify the means, but this is also something which the filmmakers lose sight of as they go along, and by the fade out, they wind up negating almost the entirety of the film that came before it.  Without saying too much, this is the type of film that, even while it is trying to subvert expectations is also completely bowing to them.

What’s interesting about Adam and his pack is that they are scientifically manufactured werewolves.  This intermeshing of science fiction and monsters is another callback to my beloved Marvel horror comics (with characters like Morbius the Living Vampire) as well as 50s science fiction films like Them! and Tarantula.  Between this and the superhero aspects (they wear uniforms like costumes with a tiny bit of variety in color and design to distinguish them from each other, normal human weapons are generally ineffective against them, they even grow awkward knuckle-claws like Wolverine from The X-Men), if this film isn’t a love letter to comic books, I don’t know what is.  And like many comic book characters, Full Eclipse’s wolf powers come with a price.  The monster cops are essentially junkies.  They have to shoot up with Adam’s serum in order to kickstart their powers, and they have to continue to shoot up in order to maintain them (and their health in general).  This power is not something with which every character can successfully cope, and it causes burnout and self-destruction in some.  As Nietzsche said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”  This all relates back to the film’s primary question.  Is the risk worth the reward?  The audience knows the answer to this.  The film acts like it knows the answer to this.  But ultimately, it either truly doesn’t or it truly doesn’t care about it, because Hickox and company wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.  So, rather than being satisfying or unsatisfying on its own terms and based on the decisions its creators made, the film frustrates to some degree by trying to be both moralistic and cynical.  It’s still watchable for its individual elements, but damned if I can’t shake the feeling that it might not have been worth the effort and time spent.

MVT:  The action sequences are very well shot and edited (again, owing much to the then-popular genre films coming out of Hong Kong), with lots of gunshots, explosions, and slow motion keeping the excitement level cranked up high.

Make or Break:  Jimmy’s big action set piece works astonishingly well, in spite of (okay, maybe because of) its more ridiculous aspects (we’re talking tall fence leaping and bus surfing, amongst other things).  Even though the film’s script doesn’t stick the landing in the end, at least the action sequences do.

Score:  6.5/10      

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Redeemer (1976)

I have never been to a class reunion from either high school or college (yes, I went to college).  There was one a couple of years ago for my high school class, but the details got confusing about whether it was actually happening or not, so I’ll just say that this is the reason why I didn’t attend and not my indifference to revisiting the large majority of people with whom I attended school.  It’s not that I dislike any of them.  I got along with most everyone back then (or that’s the way I remember it).  But I know that I had little in common with those people back then, and I likely have even less in common with them now, so why waste a perfectly good drinking night hanging around a bunch of people to whom you have nothing substantive to say?  

I think this is something films get right, by and large.  When a character goes to a reunion, it’s usually under protest.  Commonly, their time in school was usually hellish, and it’s the tension between their resistance and the sea of people from their past (either completely unchanged in manner, looks, et cetera or totally different from the way they were, but rarely merely matured) that keeps the narrative afloat and works for generating some laughs or drama.  By that same token, they also make a great way to gather a bunch of unpleasant lowlifes together to in order to dispatch them in gruesome fashion.  And that’s what you get in Constantine S. GochisThe Redeemer (aka The Redeemer: Son of Satan aka Class Reunion Massacre).  Mostly.

Young Christopher (Christopher Flint) emerges from a dreary river and plods along a rural (read: dirt) road until a bus stops to take him to church, where he is a member of the choir (and you thought your parents’ whinging about having to walk to school ten miles in fifteen feet of snow wrapped only in newspapers was bad) and has to listen to the priest spew fire and brimstone interminably.  Meanwhile, six jerks make plans to attend their high school reunion, and very quickly discover that there is no open bar and their miserable lives are about to close.  Enter The Redeemer (T.G. Finkbinder)!      

This film is a something of a mishmash, and it’s this odd mixture of the supernatural and body county subgenres that I think will put some folks off it.  It’s interesting to me how this works as a slasher film, considering how early in the cycle it is (post-Mario Bava’s A Bay of Blood and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas but pre-John Carpenter’s Halloween), and I think that’s largely because it relies more heavily on the “ten little murder victims” (amended for six here, naturally)/”old dark house” tropes than anything else.  There is a central location in which the characters are trapped.  This location acts as a labyrinth through which the characters must explore in order to keep the pace up, and it’s filled with dark spaces out of which the killer can emerge at any time.  The whole time, the characters are trying to piece together why any of this is happening and by whom, thus maintaining a sense of narrative that’s simply wafer thin.  

From the slasher side of the coin, the kill scenes are all interesting to some degree or another and varied enough to keep you in your seat to witness the next one.  You know who’s going to croak because they are ALWAYS the one who goes off by themselves to accomplish some task.  The characters are cardboard cutouts, none of whom one can find any reason to care about or be interested in even slightly (except for the drunkard Cindy [Jeannetta Arnette], but that’s largely because she’s so pathetic).  But there’s no reason behind any of this.  These folks were supposedly chosen because of their “perversions” and “debauchery” (one is a womanizer, one is a frigid bitch, one is a lesbian, and so on), yet they’re really no worse than a great many people walking the Earth as far as being “evil” or “sinful.”  So, why these six?  Why not the entire graduating class?  Practically speaking, the answer has to do with budgets and scope, but questions like this lingered in the back of my head the entire run time of the film.

The Redeemer also deals with the concept of masks in society.  Christopher is threatened with a knife in the church dressing room for not laughing at some bully’s joke, but he remains impassive.  He sings in a church choir, even though we know there is something iniquitous about him (he did, after all, rise up out of a body of water; if nothing else, he’s offbeat).  The six victims all wear masks of civility (some more thinly than others) which are peeled away by their deaths (not that their true selves are revealed prior to their demises since we’ve already seen their true selves in their individual introductions [all the more to condemn them], but their true selves are the reason why they are being murdered in the first place, thus their final reposes are the truth of them).  The Redeemer is most emblematic of this idea.  Each of the murder set pieces is different and inventive, and the character appears differently in each one.  One time he’s in a grim reaper outfit, complete with scythe.  One time he’s wearing some of the worst fake hair (head and facial) in the history of cinema (barring Monty Python’s Life of Brian).  One time he’s a clown (THE go to costume for guaranteed creepiness).  One time he’s some grey amalgamation of a Droog from A Clockwork Orange and John Barrymore’s Mr. Hyde.  And this all makes a kind of sense, because eventually all of these masks will be stripped, and the killer’s purpose (in as much as one is explained to us at all) will be laid bare (not that you can’t guess any of this within the first five to ten minutes).  Inside and outside the slasher archetypes, no one is who they think they present themselves as publicly (and fail), making who they are “in private” implicitly flagitious.

Make no mistake, The Redeemer is not a particularly well-made film.  The acting is amateurish, first gig sort of fare, burdened by some heinous dialogue.  The cinematography is passable at best, with a lot of blown out sunlight in shots (which may or may not appeal to you as an element of the film or as simply inexperienced photography).  The story is silly, with holes through which you could drive a Mack truck.  The supernatural facet feels tacked on in order to get some box office from fans of The Omen.  But the murders are well-orchestrated, and the special effects are decent enough.  The pacing never sags too much, and even though it’s all witless, it does have a certain set of charms.  You just have to be of a mind to enjoy them.

MVT:  The Redeemer and his costumes are the primary reason why all of this is watchable.  Had this aspect been more stagnant, the film would have been a total slog.

Make or Break:  The scene in the auditorium where the Redeemer finally reveals himself (or his persona) to his victims before dispatching another one is visually imaginative.  And the life-size marionette doesn’t hurt any, either.

Score:  6.25/10