Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Blue Monkey (1987)

Marwella (Helen Hughes) has a small greenhouse which she tends with great passion.  Another of her (not-so-great) passions is her handyman friend Fred (Sandy Webster), and Marwella is delighted when he asks her to dinner.  After Fred pricks his finger on a plant Marwella had received from the Micronesia area but had been doing poorly of late, he collapses and is rushed to the local hospital.  A large, larval worm emerges from his mouth, and suddenly a little prick is the least of Fred’s troubles.

William Fruet’s Blue Monkey (aka Insect! aka Invasion of the Bodysuckers) is yet another in the long, long line of films I read about way back in the day in the pages of magazines like Fangoria (issue 69, in fact).   And like a great many of those (another would be Slaughterhouse, which I reviewed on this very site some time ago), they slipped through the cracks of time and eventually faded to little more than distant memories.  But before that occurred, they became grand flights of fancy as they played out in the theater of my mind.  Never mind that, one, the theater of my mind would never translate into a coherent film narrative, and two, there is a reason why some things are best left unknown.  Thus, this film looks good on paper, while it ultimately fails on screen.  This is not for lack of material, mind you.  In fact, part of the reason that it fails is the sheer amount of material in it.  By that same token, this same volume is what marks Blue Monkey as a slight standout in the Horror genre.  Just for all the wrong reasons.

If you were simply to read the above synopsis, you would think this was a straight ahead monster flick (or maybe a melodrama about two elderly people falling in love and failing in health).  However, you have a subplot involving the disease that sprang from the same plant as the insect.  You have Jim (Steve Railsback), our hero cop, who is only in the hospital in the first place because his partner Oscar (Peter Van Wart) was shot in the stomach while on duty.  You have the comedy stylings of SCTV alumni Joe Flaherty and Robin Duke as the Bakers, who are expecting their first baby any second now.  You have the tiresome exploits of the grating child patients (one of whom is played by the soon-to-be-worth-a-damn Sarah Polley).  You also have the notion that the hospital is actually a remodeled insane asylum.  But for as intriguing as any one of these elements may be, they fail because they never form a cohesive whole when they’re all put together.  Each of these subplots seems to exist in different films from this one, and they rarely intermingle with each other in any meaningful way.  This would be fine and dandy if the disparate pieces were at least entertaining in their own right, but they’re more missed opportunities as a whole rather than successful fragments.

If filmmakers like David Cronenberg have taught us anything, it is that our bodies hate us and are looking for the first available opportunity to revolt and kill us.  Diseases, viruses, what-have-yous are scary because they are faceless (unless you’re an epidemiologist or the like).  They are the brutality, the caprice, of nature incarnate in much the same way as the animal/insect world.  They cannot be reasoned with, or jailed, or chopped into pieces like a flesh and blood enemy might be.  They embody the loss of control we see in a great many Horror films, and worse than that, they do not discriminate (or in so much as they discriminate according to the wishes of filmmakers/storytellers).  You can employ whatever safeguards you like, but if a disease wants to get you, it will get you.  And even if you choose not to believe in the all-pervasive nature of diseases, this is how they are perceived by a vast number of people.  Ergo, they are excellent fodder for genre films.  You might find it risible that Jason Voorhees could be hiding under your bed, waiting to stab you with his index finger, but a disease could already be inside your body, waiting to burst forth, and that’s suddenly not so ludicrous anymore.  Either way, you stand a good chance of seeing your innards on the outside (at least from a cinematic standpoint).  The only difference is whether they’re taken from the outside in or the inside out.

Naturally, one would think that people should feel safe in hospitals (and especially if one is afraid of dying from disease in the first place).  Yet the vast majority of non-medical personnel don’t take a great deal of solace in these institutions, and this is a significant reason why hospitals are excellent locations for Horror stories.  These are places where people are literally paid to stab, cut, and drill the bodies of their customers.  Even if the practitioners aren’t malevolent like we imagine, relishing the torment they bestow on us, there is always the possibility that they are incompetent (and no, that’s not a statement or accusation on my behalf; merely an observation on the general perception/misperception by the average person).  What if you receive the wrong medicine?  What if they amputate the wrong limb?  What if they leave an instrument inside your body?  The point is people die in hospitals every day.  You may survive your surgery, but there’s no way to tell if there won’t be complications afterward, from infections, to organ rejections, to just sudden fits of death.  Every patient in a hospital is vulnerable, and there are more than enough dark corridors and eerily silent rooms to creep out the most stalwart among us.

Because the threats in Blue Monkey are so impersonal, one would think that it would help greatly if the characters weren’t.  Sadly, they are all stereotypes of the flattest variety.  Dr. Carson (Gwynyth Walsh) is the classic, capable female doctor who instantly turns into a Screaming Mimi when faced with things outside her range (read: giant insects).  Marwella and her blind pal Dede (Joy Coghill) are the matter-of-fact, elderly folks who just happen to know more than they think they do.  Jim is the classic hardassed cop who grinds his teeth and flips out at the smallest piece of bad news (being played by Railsback doesn’t really help in this regard).  The children all act like little adults in that oh-look-how-cute-they-are-but-not-really way that simply makes them annoying rather than charming.  Even John Vernon gets to briefly strut his bureaucratic jerkoff routine for the camera.  Nevertheless, not one of these people manages to be engaging, so following them around on their little misadventures is nothing less than heavy lifting for the viewer.   This is one of those films I think it’s better to read about than experience, and that’s pretty sad.

MVT:  Once again, I have to give the award to the practical effects.  They’re cool to look at when they show up.  That said, they’re shot in such an insignificant fashion (quick cuts, low lighting, strobe lighting, shaky handheld) that you never get to fully appreciate the work that went into them.

Make or Break:  The first scene with the kiddy characters was like a prelude to the kiss of death the filmmakers would deliver just a short way down the road.  

Score:  5.5/10            

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Midnite Ride #34: Blood on Satan's Claw, The Innocents and Night Train to Terror

Large William discusses Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), The Innocents (1961) and Night Train to Terror (1985).

Direct download: ClawInnocentsTrainRM.mp3 
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Episode #309: The Return of the Living Dead Double Duece

Welcome back to the GGtMC!!!

This week Sammy and Will are joined by Josh Hurtado from for coverage of The Return of the Living Dead (1985) directed by Dan O'Bannon and The Return of the Living Dead Part 2 (1988) directed by Ken Wiederhorn.

Direct download: ggtmc_309.mp3 
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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Clones (1973)

The number fifty-two seems to pop up in a lot of things (like seven and thirteen).  There are fifty-two weeks in a year.  There are fifty-two playing cards (less the jokers) in a standard deck (and also part of the name of one of the more frustrating games that can be played with them – Fifty-Two Pickup).  Okay, maybe there aren’t all that many significant instances of fifty-two in our world, but it stands out for me (and I’m sure almost every other comic book fan) for one reason: Fifty-two is the number of Earths in the DC Comics universe (for the time being).  What this means is that there are multiple variations of all of DC’s characters in some form or another, and the concept as a whole is referred to as a multiverse.  My understanding is that this idea was developed in the Sixties as a way to integrate characters from the beginnings of superhero-dom with their modern counterparts/reimaginings as well as further distinguishing themselves from each other.  Of course, the whole thing became a morass of continuity where the history of some characters (Hawkman, I’m looking at you) became so convoluted, a casual reader couldn’t tell if they were coming or going (a lot like X-Men continuity, especially in the Eighties and Nineties, though they and their publisher are a discussion for some other time).  

The DC multiverse was condensed into one unified universe in the epic Crisis On Infinite Earths, and for a long time this was the status quo at DC.  The occasional “off-model” permutation of a character would be explored here or there in single issues and/or miniseries under the Elseworlds banner.  About three or so years ago, however, the muckety mucks at DC decided to bring back the multiverse, and so they relaunched all of their titles under the heading of the New 52.  For a great many readers (myself included) their books quickly fell into confusion again, with some characters continuing exactly as they left off, some starting over entirely new, and some kind of in the middle.  They managed to do in a vastly condensed period what it took their predecessors decades to do (i.e. muddy the waters), and while there are a few books worth reading, I personally prefer Marvel out of the Big Two.  So what has any of this got to do with Paul Hunt and Lamar Card’s The Clones?  Well, as you may have already guessed, part of the film’s plot has to do with the aforementioned “untouchable number.”  I hesitate to state the connection outright, though all things considered, telling you every last inch of this film’s plot really wouldn’t hurt a thing in the long run.

Dr. Gerald Appleby (Michael Greene) narrowly escapes from his laboratory after an accident is manufactured by unseen forces.  Coming back around the front of the facility, he spies someone stealing his car.  Giving chase, Gerry discovers that someone who looks just like him has quickly and easily installed himself in the doctor’s life.  Things get more complicated when CID agents Nemo (Gregory Sierra) and Tom Sawyer (Otis Young) are called in to “get” the real Appleby.

You’d think with a synopsis like that, the film’s story would be loaded with contrivances and twists, especially considering the narration at the beginning warning the viewer about the likelihood of human cloning within the next ten to twenty-five years.  The ground work is laid out for a stimulating movie, either physically or mentally.  Nonetheless, there is little to no consideration of the ethics or moral implications of the process.  There is little to no consideration for the struggle Gerry needs to go through to try and get his life back.  There is little to no consideration that he had much of a life to begin with outside of some idyllic boating shots with his wife Penny (Susan Hunt).  In fact, Gerry, as a character, is by and large a cipher.  We know next to nothing about him other than he is a scientist and he is married.  We learn nothing about him throughout the course of the film.  He could just as easily be a member of the audience watching the film, and that, to my mind, is what the film gets right.  By making the main character as inoffensively bland and blank as possible and thrusting him through a series of chase scenes (which consume the vast majority of the film’s run time), the audience is given the opportunity to put itself in Gerry’s place as they root for this man who has been unjustly persecuted for no other reason than that he is now an encumbrance.  In effect, the audience becomes a double for Gerry.

Like so many Paranoia/Conspiracy films of this time, the focus is on the plight of one man against a nefarious agency or agencies with fiendish machinations afoot right under the noses of the population at large.  Of course, this is emphasized in Gerry’s dealings with everyone he comes into contact with from his boss to his wife and damn near all other characters in between.  Not only are these characters not to be trusted, but it is made plain quite swiftly that this is so.  A further clue/touch is added by having one of the main villains (Stanley Adams) speak with a German accent (I’m unsure if he had one naturally, but if he did, he didn’t try to cover it up here, and it’s a plus either way).  Stylistically, the paranoia angle is reinforced via Dutch angled compositions, slow motion usage, fisheye POV shots, smash cut editing, and the use (or non-use) of diegetic sound in the action scenes.  It is in this way that The Clones turns in on itself as these films tend to do.  Visuals of this sort are so removed from the reality the audience knows, there is little to no sense that can be derived, even in more traditional scenes (take the sequence of the hippies speaking gibberish to Gerry, if you doubt me).  By subverting the audience’s inclination to make sense of what it sees, it forces multiple readings into existence (like, say, fifty-two Earths in a multiverse).  The whole film may be taken as a Conspiracy film with psychedelic imagery.  It may be taken as a Psychedelic film with conspiratorial leanings.  It may be taken as a quasi-incompetent (or quasi-successful, depending on your perspective) piece of experimental filmmaking.  It may be taken as Gerry’s descent into madness.  It may be taken as the seams of Gerry’s domestic life being pulled apart.  For as much as the film claims that it’s about cloning, that’s only a tangential piece of the pie.  I think the film is a bit more insidious than that.  You can think about it for hours and come up with a plethora of ideas, or you can think about it for five minutes and write it all off.  Honestly, I think of it both ways at different times, and I’m fine with that.  Or maybe I only think of it one way, and the clone of me who just stole my car thinks of it the other way.

MVT:  The main idea of the film is intriguing.  I’m kind of surprised we don’t see very many films with this premise these days (I know of one or two in the past year or so, but outside of some very basic information, I know nothing about them), as I think it’s a treasure trove waiting to be mined.

Make Or Break:  The finale is great, and there is a fantastic accentuation of dead bodies as bags of meat which is both striking and blackly comic in this environ.

Score:  6.75/10      

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Gays (2014)

Bob Gay-Paris (Chris Tanner), the transsexual matriarch of the titular family (which includes dad Rod played by Frank Holliday and younger son Tommy played by Flip Jorgensen), rolls through an extensively demented monologue for her baby boy Alex (soon to be played by Mike Russnak, but here played by the camera).  She has grand plans for her son, from rivaling Jeff Stryker to “master[ing] the tambourine” and with a hell of a lot in between.  Forward to “present day” 1997, where Alex and Kevin (Nicholas Wilder) meet at a local bar and strike up a conversation.  While nursing their beers, Alex lets Kevin in on the philosophy his family practices as well as preaches.

The Gays is writer/director T.S. Slaughter’s second feature, and it’s certainly an interesting piece of work.  Its central conceit is that the scenes wherein the family interacts with one another are sending up traditional family sitcoms.  But I think it’s not so much concerned with the form of the sitcom and its tropes as it is with the content.  The filmmakers here eschew a typical sitcom three-camera setup, and while we get similar framing for various scenes set in the same rooms, this movie gravitates toward more cinematic shooting and editing, especially in the scenes set at home.  Here much of the camera work is handheld, and they’re not afraid to shoot from low angles.  The use of jump cuts during continuous action (I’m thinking here of a spectacularly overwrought fit that Bob throws) and the repetition of phrases in fast succession fracture time and emphasize mood in ways regular sitcoms would never do.  Surprisingly, I only counted two sequences where a laugh track was included.  Conversely, the scenes in the bar are those closest in approach to standard sitcom form.  These scenes are also the oases of sanity amidst the rest of the film’s action, and Kevin acts as the incredulous audience member trying to process what he and we are witnessing.  As counterpoint to the scenes with the Gays, it’s a pretty smart move. 

Traditionally, family sitcoms are concerned with teaching life lessons, and this film is no different.  Nonetheless, the lessons Rod and Bob impart to their sons, while they could definitely be considered life lessons, are more about raising Alex and Tommy to be gay sociopaths.  I’ll give you a few examples.  After Alex neglects taking sexual advantage of his friend Billy (Roberto Larancuent) during a sleepover, Rod makes Alex get into “the Sling” and then has Billy fuck him.  This is shot undercranked (or I guess we can just say sped up for stuff now shot on digital, couldn’t we?) and set to Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture.  Alex’s straight friend Chris (Matthew Benjamin) is forced to fellate Rod as a thank you for dinner and also because Alex is always forced to watch football when they’re at Chris’ house.  The boys are taught all about the perineum (that space between a man’s scrotum and anus, also known as the “taint” [the pronunciation I’ve always known it as rather than “haint,” which seems more popular in some circles, but I digress…]).  This inbred insanity is reinforced particularly (for me) by off-kilter, extreme closeups of Bob cackling like The Cryptkeeper (okay, maybe not quite that shrill).  

The behavior of the Gays is presented as untethered, not only to the viewers watching the movie but also to Kevin, a member of the gay community.  He can barely believe what he’s hearing.  So, even to other gays the Gays are considered kind of abnormal, and I think this is a comment on the way homosexuality is often portrayed in popular culture.  Additionally, it’s a sensory smack to the back of the head for the ignorati who genuinely (no matter how inexplicably) believe that this is the sort of thing that gay people actually do at home.  By extension, then, it’s also a satirical retort to the people who think that gay marriage perverts and destroys “traditional family values.”  But in the same way that the work of John Waters revels in its trashiness, Slaughter and company embrace the absurdities they put forth.

Now, The Gays is far from a perfect film, and it is absolutely not for everyone.  It’s quite graphic, and makes no bones (pardon the pun) about being so.  There are glimmers of visual skill on display, but they’re also inconsistent.  While this is an expectation of movies shot with little to no budget, it doesn’t prevent such things from standing out.  Furthermore, the scenes which are the most fun to watch can also be the toughest to take.  And it’s not the ideas.  Many of the ideas here are great, including a Brady Bunch theme song parody titled “Each Other’s Lunch,” a board game mashup of Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit called Eat A Pussy Or Be A Pussy, and a Christmas scene which proves to be most instructive for the lads.  The problem for me is much the same as the problem that I have with a lot of Troma’s output.  All these antics tend to be a bit of an onslaught over time, and if that’s something you’re not predisposed to, it can be off-putting.  Thankfully, Slaughter never goes quite far enough to completely wear out his welcome, and the belly laughs his film generates are honestly earned.

MVT:  Slaughter shows off some nice filmmaking chops, and if nothing else, his work here is largely successful in its ambitiousness.  

Make or Break:  There is a riff on The Exorcist that is funny, revolting, and witty all at the same time.  You can feel here that the filmmakers have a fondness for the source material, and it doesn’t come off as cynical like a lot of these things tend to do.

Score:  6.25/10

For more info about The Gays, visit their website: