Sunday, January 31, 2010


Arthur Conan Doyle’s amazingly perceptive detective, Sherlock Holmes, is one of the most-iconic figures in history. His classic profile is recognized by people all over the world, from American toddlers to jungle Hottentots (maybe, I might be exaggerating). He’s been the subject of countless novels and short stories, not even counting the ones written by Doyle himself, has appeared in dozens of film, radio and television adaptations, and is reintroduced to audiences with generational clockwork. The character was so popular that even Doyle “killing” him in The Final Problem didn’t deter readers from demanding more. Thus, he was forced to bring him back in The Empty House, in which it was revealed that the great detective had merely faked his own death (cruelly allowing his close friend and biographer, Dr. John Watson, to mourn him for three years).

With the recent big-screen success of Guy Ritchie’s take on the character, Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the title character and Jude Law as one of the only age-appropriate on-screenWatsons, there’s arisen a new interest in the character. Already a sequel is in the works and the “mockbuster” production house, The Asylum, has just released their own unique interpretation. So Holmes may forever endure and audiences will forever wonder what makes him tick.

One aspect of the character that was purposefully removed from the new movie is nearly the sole focus of Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per Cent Solution, namely Holmes use of cocaine. Initially used as recreation to stimulate his mind, it’s been implied in several of the Doyle stories that Holmes became addicted to the substance, though this never became a crucial plot point. Meyer, however, decides to explore the possibility of this addiction and his subsequent recovery in both his novel and his adapted screenplay. Set in 1891, this is the supposed true story behind Holmes’ “Great Hiatus”, wherein the world thought him dead. Having succumbed to addition, Holmes has developed a paranoid obsession with his former mathematics instructor, Professor James Moriarty, a man he describes to Watson as a “Napoleon of Crime”. For his part, Professor Moriarty seems baffled by the harassment and tells the good Doctor that he will regretfully pursue legal action against the detective if the matter is not resolved. Therefore, to rescue Holmes legal and professional reputation, Watson takes the detective to Austria in the hopes that great alienist, Dr. Sigmund Freud, can help him overcome his addiction. In the meantime, game is afoot when one of Freud’s patients is kidnapped by a Turkish Pasha and a demented German Baron.

There are so many things going on in the favor of The Seven Per Cent Solution that it’s a shame to see the one thing that goes against it nearly scuttles it completely. The good—in fact, the outstanding—is Alan Arkin’s wonderful portrayal of Freud. Down to earth but whimsical, Arkin brings the legendary psychoanalyst to life, whether swinging a watch in front of Holmes to get to the root of his addition or playing the evil Baron in what may be perhaps the only exciting tennis match ever filmed. Equally  terrific is the climax aboard a moving train, complete with sword fight atop the cars and some hair-raising stunt work. In the “Okay” department is Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson. Though Duvall avoids the Nigel Bruce route of portraying Watson as a dottering dullard, he over compensates with an accent that makes him sound more British than any of the actual Brits. (He out-Brits James Mason in Murder By Decree, for pete’s sake, and Mason was the most British person ever to roam the empire, outside, perhaps, of Queen Victoria.) He also over-affects a limp representing Watson’s war wound (which, even in the Doyle stories, is occassionally located in his shoulder).

The tragically dreadful is Nichol Williamson as the central character. For all the cool points he racked up with film nerds as Merlin in Excalibur, Williamson loses them all as a pop-eyed and nearly hysterical Holmes. Studying this performance, you’re less convinced that Holmes is a coke-head than you’re convinced he might actually be a meth-addict. Williamson’s Holmes never speaks—every sentence is an announcement of the most vital importance. Ordering lunch would sound like, “By God, I will have the steak! And Good Lord, Watson! Pass me that salt!” There isn’t an ounce of nuance to Williamson’s Holmes and he becomes tiring almost immediately, draining a lot of the fun out of the movie.

As is often the case with Sherlock Holmes adventures, the mystery is the least interesting aspect of the story. Just as one doesn’t watch a James Bond movie to admire the villain’s cunning plan to dominate the world, you don’t involve yourself in a Holmes story for the intricate mystery but, rather, to watch Holmes unravel the plot. A lot of that enjoyment gets lost in Williamson’s bluster.By the time we get to the crucial source of Holmes’ reason for taking cocaine and his obsession with Moriarty, we barely care. But fortunately Arkin keeps things afloat and holds your interest until they get onto the train. So it isn’t a total wash. 

On the other hand, it might be a moot point. Though it shows up occassionally on television (beware of heavily-edited versions that somehow manages to render the mystery completely incomprehensible, rather than almost), The Seven Per Cent Solution is available on a massively expensive out of print DVD, a moderately expensive and ugly-looking VHS, or a moderately-priced Region 2 DVD import for those of you with region-free players. (Or you could, I don't know, pick up Meyer's original novel.) Maybe with the former Mr. Madonna’s movie performing well in the theaters, we might see a rerelease of this one sometime in the forseeable future.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Yes, I’m well-aware that it’s uncool to praise Disney in these modern days. You can sing the praises of Pixar until your voice gives out, but give Disney the time of day and the fans start stripping away your cred. Well, my position on the Evil Empire has been clearly stated in the past and I’m forever convinced that in my lifetime I’ll see the field of stars on the American Flag replaced with Mickey ears. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the House of Mouse, despite many, many misfires, is still a reigning champion in the animation business. Disney movies have influenced my and most others’ childhoods for the last fifty years. So, hip or not, there’s a lot to be said for their output.

Deny it as much as you want, just about everybody has a favorite “Disney Classic”. Most of my generation will point to The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. Those before us might cite the tried-and-true staples like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Sleeping Beauty. The incredibly smug will bring up Song of the South and grin knowingly. But I have a fondness for some of their lesser successes, particularly the old fashioned adventure Atlantis: The Lost Empire and our subject for today: The Emperor’s New Groove, one of the funniest animated movies ever made and, for my money, one of the funniest movies period.

Many, many years ago, in an unnamed jungle empire bearing a striking resemblance to Incan Peru, young Emperor Kuzco is the ruler of the free world. He dances to his own theme music and his every whim is granted. On the eve of his 18th birthday, he invites the humble peasant, Pacha, to the palace to ask him a single question: where does Pacha’s hilltop village get the most sun. After Pacha replies, Kuzco thanks him and informs him that the village will be destroyed to make way for “Kuzcotopia”. Pacha tries to reason with him, but he’s dealing with a self-centered jerk who had an old man tossed out a window for daring to “throw off his groove”. Meanwhile, Kuzco manages to tick off his sorceress advisor, the ancient Yzma, so she and her thick-but-good-natured assistant Kronk turn Kuzco into a llama. Purely by accident, you understand; they meant to kill him.

A series of misadventures reunites Pacha with the llama-fied Kuzco and the peasant agrees to safely escort the emperor back to the palace, hoping along the way that he can not only change the ruler’s mind about destroying the village but also betting that there might be a kernel of good inside the teenaged twit. The journey itself is treacherous, beset with jaguars and towering cliffs, but they’re also pursued by Yzma and Kronk who hope to finish the job.

On the surface, The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t sound like much, does it? It could be any made-for-cable or straight-to-DVD cut-rate adventure. In fact, it started life as a straight-forward adventure titled Kingdom in the Sun and it was on its way to being just that ordinary. However, in a series of less-hysterical corporate misadventures, director Mark Dindal, fresh off his stint on the wretched Cats Don’t Dance, was brought in to overhaul the production. Out went the original by-the-numbers take on The Prince and the Pauper, out went an anlready-composed score by award-winning tree-hugger Sting, and in came a plot that fell somewhere in between a Hope and Crosby road movie and a Chuck Jones cartoon. What wound up on the screen was sheer and joyful lunacy.

The clever script by Dindal, Chris Williams, David Reynolds received a perfectly-cast collection of high-profile (at the time) voices including David Spade (Kuzco), the ubiquitous John Goodman (Pacha), the even more ubiquitous Patrick Warburton (Kronk) and the movie’s absolute highlight, Eartha Kitt as Yzma. Then Dindal and company filled the movie to the brim with expertly-timed sight-gags and daffy character-driven comic set-pieces. Rarely pandering (compare to the pop-culture mish-mashed Shrek movies) and dizzyingly paced, The Emperor’s New Groove breezes along from one joke to another, barely giving the viewer time to recover from the previous bit of lunacy.

Yzma and Kronk easily steal the show. A wrinkled hag who is none-the-less fabulous, Yzma is part Wicked Witch and part mad scientist with her secret lab and cabinet filled with vials of animal extract (at one point, her guards are assaulted with all manner of fluids. One is transmogrified into something decidedly non-terrifying: “Um, I’ve been turned into a cow. Can I go home?” To which Yzma replies. “You are excused.” Then orders the rest into battle.) Her secret lab is entered through a trap door fit with two levers. With an order reminiscent of Jack Lemmon in The Great Race, she announcs:

“Pull the lever, Kronk!” Then—“Not that lever!” jus t as she’s dropped an unfathomable distance to a river below. Emerging dripping wet through her entrance door, a crocodile chomping on her foot, Yzma asks, grumpily, “Why do we even have that lever?”

Kronk can talk to squirrels, Kuzco is a terrible llama and Pacha’s children both channel Bugs Bunny on numerous occassions. (What’s even better, the kids are never overused.) Admittedly, you’ll have to overcome your aversion to David Spade very early in the movie, as Kuzco is nothing more than every other character Spade has ever played, but the selfish ruler grows on you quickly. He’s often abused, too, which helps immensely. There are expected in-jokes galore as well, but the best of them are subtle—Kuzco is momentarily transformed into a whale in a visual shot right out of Pinocchio, to name just one example.

What’s remarkable about New Groove is how little Disnification you’re assaulted with. Not only is the entire movie structured like a Warner Brothers short but you never feel like you’re watching a giant shill for toys. Like the best of the Pixar features, New Groove is character-driven, but it isn’t afraid to take liberties with the meta-fiction. (At one point, Yzma and Kronk manage to beat Kuzco back to the palace. And even Kronk agrees that the turn of events was unlikely.) It’s pure silliness with no agenda but to entertain, rather than to sell plush Kuzco llamas at the Disney Stores. If you’re a hard-line anti-Disney-ite, The Emperor’s New Groove might even be the perfect movie for you.

With the mechanations involved in getting this film to theaters—the ground-up retooling, pissing off Sting (he contributes one Oscar-nominated-by-default song to the end credits)—the marketing arm of the Mouse Factory really dropped the ball. Television ads played up the Spade-isms and pop culture references, making it seem like New Groove  was little more than a funny-animal slapstick show aimed at toddlers. While the movie was far from a failure at the box office, it’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the “classics”. Truth be told, New Groove was as brave an experiment as the equally-wonderful Lilo and Stitch, so it’s a shame so few people have discovered it. It played well enough with kids to spawn a direct sequel called Kronk’s New Groove (completely showcasing Warburton) and a hit-or-miss Disney Channel series called The Emperor’s New School, both lack the lunatic wit of the original.

Naturally, The Emperor’s New Groove is not hard to find. In fact, a terrific 2-disc set was released in 2001, which is still relatively easy to run down on Amazon. However, there exists a still-unreleased New Groove documentary The Sweatbox produced by Mrs. Sting, filmmaker Trudie Styler that follows the trials and travails of the Kingdom in the Sun right up until the point where the former Police man is shown the door. The composer was extremely vocal at the time about his dissatisfaction with his treatment at the hands of the Mouse Factory and The Sweatbox shines a hard light on the almost-doomed project. To be fair, it also shows just how hard everyone in production worked to get the movie back on track, redesigning it into something unique. But because it doesn’t put the company on the pedestal, Disney had the documentary shelved after it’s Sundance premiere in 2002. Deemed so damaging to their reputation, it’s rumored that the company won’t even let it be shown internally without giving the print its own escort. 

Friday, January 29, 2010


Should you travel back in time to 1896 and find yourself in the wilds of Gippsland, Australia, do yourself a favor and find accomodations other than the Straulle Inn, owned by the bizarre couple Caroline and Lazar. Because, in case the title didn’t make it obvious, you won’t leave.

See, the Straulles, still a bit loopy after the deaths of their young children at the hands of some convicts many years ago, are in cahoots with their coachman, Biscayne, to rob and kill wealthy travelers via ingeniously-booby trapped beds. Elsewhere, Trooper Moore and Yankee bounty hunter Carl Kincaid are hot on Biscayne’s trail for a horrible murder he committed some years back, without the aid of the Straulle’s. Every killer needs to do a little evil on the side, after all, otherwise it’s just work. In between those plots is an unrelated bit of fluff involving a pair of hard-looking young ladies who take a bath together and sleep naked, though one insists she’s not into that sort of thing.

It all leads to a climax where one set of characters does their damnedest to kill another set of characters, using every method of death-dealing ever devised by man. It may not make a lot of sense, or even unfold in a remotely interesting fashion, but Inn of the Damned sure is bloody.

This awkward Aussie Outback western was, at the time, one of the most expensive Austrailian movies ever and thanks to the documentary Not Quite Hollywood has received a renewed bit of interest among exploitation fans. The problems are multiple—it’s dull, some of the accents can’t be decyphered without an Enigma machine, the actors are awful with scarcely a single exception (depending how low your thespian standards are), and the naked lesbians are scarier than the villains. But it does have a gleefully violent climax that unfortunately gives way to a ponderous “Hitchcockian” denoument, minus Hitch’s style or dark sense of humor. In fact, director Terry Bourke lacks just about everything a director needs to make a competent movie, save maybe a pulse. The actors come off more often than not as clumsy at best, and the plodding pace makes the viewing a real challenge.

Lone American Alex Cord, as Kincaid, makes for an odd hero, particularly contrasted with the upright, clean and brave Trooper Moore. Kincaid is grubby and dim and it’s a miracle that he made it as far as he did in life without accidentally sitting on his revolver.

Still, if you’re an Ozsploitation completist, then Inn of the Damned is a necessarly evil. The DVD is easy to come by… that’s about as much encouragement as I can give you. As usual, we at Movie Outlaw stand by our motto: “You’ve seen worse.”

Thursday, January 28, 2010


[Reprinted from Hey, Did You Ever See the Movie...?]

Lagardère, a lowly sword-for-hire, develops an unlikely friendship with Phillippe the Duc de Nevers, who has to his name plenty of money, a devious and dastardly cousin, Comte du Gonzague, a deadly fencing move called "la botte de Nevers" and a brand new baby courtesy of duchess Blanche du Caylus. If Phillippe marries Blanche, then their baby will become the heir to all that is Nevers and Gonzague will find himself with only a generous pension. Phillippe and Lagardère travel to Caylus but are attacked along the way by Gonzague’s men. Lagardère doesn’t know the Comte, but does recognize the scarlet kerchief of the deadly Peyrolles, so stays behind to hold off the assassins, giving Phillippe time to escape. The Duc de Nevers arrives and marries Blanche but before he can consummate the wedding, Gonzague and Peyrolles sneak into the castle and murder the entire wedding party. Phillippe is stabbed in the back by a masked Gonzague but Lagardère arrives just in time to “brand” the assassin—stabbing him through the hand and vowing vengeance: Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi! ("If you don't come to Largardère, Lagardère will come to you!")

Fleeing with the infant—a girl and not the boy Phillippe had hoped for—he fakes their death with the help of a traveling troupe of Italian actors and remains with them for the next sixteen years. Meanwhile, the baby, Aurore, has grown into a beautiful young woman who develops unusual feelings towards the man she believes to be her father. Unable to avoid Paris forever, the troupe performs in the heart of the city and Gonzague discovers that Lagardère is still alive. You see, the “Nevers Attack” is a very specific fencing move that results in the thrust of one’s sword between the eyes of the assailant. Phillippe taught this move to Legardere and he, in turn, taught it to Aurore. When she uses the move to fend off a would-be rapist, the jig, as the French do not say, is up.

Lagardère is driven into hiding once again—this time disguised as a hunchback accountant to Gonzague himself! Gonzague is hoping to amass another small fortune in American Louisiana, selling land along the Mississippi. Lagardère, discovering that Blanche is still alive and wealthy, though half-mad in a convent, the Chevalier conspires to bring about a happy ending to everyone (save, of course, Gonzague).

While no more or less complicated than Dumas’ The Three Musketeers or Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, On Guard (adapted from the 1858 novel by Paul Féval, père) is a rousing, exciting and very clever movie starring Daniel Auteuil, Marie Gillain and Vincent Perez. The film belongs entirely to Auteuil, however, who can be both brave, foolish, clever, sad and comical all at the same time. For swashbuckling fans, here’s your new favorite movie, for hardly ten minutes goes by without a duel and by the end, you’ll be able to perform the “Nevers Attack” on your own, stabbing through foreheads to your heart’s delight!

For modern audiences, the subplot of Lagardère and Aurore falling in love might make one a bit uncomfortable, seeing as how, while he isn’t her biological father, he did raise her his entire life. The semi-incestual considerations aren’t really addressed as Lagardère is more concerned with the fact that by restoring Aurore to her noble position, he’ll remain as “a nobody”, with no title, no status and no money. Aurore, as a naïve teenager, sees only hopeless romance in poverty with this dashing man she’s known her whole life.

If you can get past the above and just chalk it up to “it’s the times they lived in”, you’ll have no trouble with On Guard as it never fails to be charming and thrilling and touching.

Naturally, the movie was given a limited release in the U.S., Koch-Lorber assuming once again that “subtitles equal death” at the box office. It is available commercially on DVD with a handsome transfer and gorgeous audio—the score is almost a character in and of itself, accompanying Lagardère through all his adventures.

The novel, Le bossu, was published fourteen years after Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and helped firmly establish the swordplay action subgenre ("roman de cape et d'épée"). In fact, so popular was the novel that Lagardère’s vow, Si tu ne viens pas à Lagardère, Lagardère ira à toi!, became a proverb in French language. Do yourself a favor and hunt this one down. 

Friday, January 22, 2010

Movie Outlaw: THE ABSENCE OF LIGHT (2006)

[In the interest of full disclosure, because of the nature of the independent film business, writer/director Patrick Desmond and musician/star Rich Conant are friends of ours. They have both worked on past films of ours, we've gotten drunk with them, etc. Before you cry nepotism, however, I will state that this review was written before said friendship/support group was formed. That being said, however, this is my goddamn blog and I'll plug whoever the hell I want to.]

A world-weary killer-for-hire going by the name “Puritan” (Richard Conant) swears, as so many do, that his next job will be his last. However, this famous last words “last job” turns out to be more than he expected—more than anyone could have expected. A pair of corporations—Division 8 and “The Plague”—are at war over a devious piece of sophisticated software dubbed “Devour”. It seems that “Devour” will give the user the ability to rewrite any code… including DNA. Suddenly, our jaded anti-hero finds himself in the middle of a situation he can’t possibly comprehend and if he isn’t careful, he’ll be contributing to the eradication of the human race.

A star-studded The Absence of Light is, without a doubt, one of the most ambitious independent movies I’ve seen in a long time. The convoluted and complicated plot requires multiple viewings and asks that the audience pay close attention in order to follow what is going on and what is (and is not) being said. Despite the numerous action set-pieces, this isn’t a “whiz-bang” little action sf/horror thing whipped up in the filmmakers’ back yards. A lot of thought and purpose went into the crafting of this movie.

While the majority of the celebrities were filmed at various fan conventions over the course of a year, every star serves a purpose in Patrick Desmond’s complicated narrative and seems to be giving each respective role his or her all. The presence of so many well-known actors may actually be distracting on the first watch—it’s tempting to sit and go ‘hey, there’s Tony Todd! Take a drink!’ without absorbing the reason he’s there. Hence the need for at least a second viewing, which might be asking too much of the average man-cave slug, sad to say.)

That the pros (including Toms Savini and Sullivan, David Hess, Caroline Munro, Michael Berryman, Robyn Griggs and multiple others) are top-notch actually goes without saying. The nicest surprise is that Conant more than holds his own and manages to avoid playing Puritan as a cliché. His seasoned hit man is actually quite amiable as well as three-dimensional—particularly in scenes where his actions make him a tough person to like. Savini, too, seems to be having a terrific time, giving a fun, relaxed performance in a role quite different from what his fans might be expecting. Effects man-turned-actor Tom Sullivan is, I’m not ashamed to say, delightful as a quirky scientist and Berryman plays a straightforward businessman (more or less) and not a demented freak, which should be awesome news to Berryman fans.

While the casual viewer might be quick to point out the hotel rooms serving as many of the sets, this is actually in service of the corporation ideal as well, the sterility of the compositions making perfect sense. It’s obvious that Desmond and company worked their collective asses off crafting this movie and avoiding the obvious “audience-pleasing” pitfalls of graphic gore and nudity. They were out to create something new, to please their own artistic sensibilities. Whether or not the end result is successful is, ultimately, up to the viewer and the opinions are likely to differ radically from one person to the other.

All that said, after three viewings, I’m still hard-pressed to say exactly what the hell it’s all about. Some of this confusion could be chalked up to the fact that I’ve seen multiple incarnations of the movie (Desmond re-edited the film at least three times that I’m aware of). It’s story can’t be summed up in a single sentence but it takes chances that Hollywood would never dream of (no clear heroes or villains, a Hitchcockian morass of a plot) and that might very well be the reason it took as long as it did to find a legitimate distributor, despite its who’s-who cast roster. It won’t be to every viewer’s taste. But if you’re looking to catch something thought-provoking—even head-scratching at times—that presents some interesting ideas then this movie is for you. And is, perhaps, in a league all its own.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


[With Amber Benson's and Adam Busch's Drones (starring Angela Bettis) playing at Slamdance, I thought I'd haul out and touch up a review of one of her earlier movies. A version of this originally appeared at Film Threat.]

Two inept burglars invade the home of quite possibly the most dysfunctional family on the planet. Secrets abound: Patriarch Paddy is cheating on wife Elaine (the delightful Christine Estabrook), she’s planning on leaving him, one son is a horny loser, the other everyone suspects is gay. Louis the Burglar doesn’t care about any of this. He’s after the money that Paddy has stashed somewhere in the house. Unfortunately for Louis, his dim-bulb girlfriend, Justine, is the friendly type and starts to connect to the misfit nuclear family, particularly after they tie the group up and try to figure out what to do next. The inevitable hostage situation begins to mutate as power switches hands, negotiation turns into haggling, and it is no longer clear who is in charge.

The second film written and directed by Amber Benson (her “sophomore effort”, if you will, after Chance), Lovers, Liars and Lunatics is a speedy black comedy about a situation that continues to implode with every passing exchange. The tone of the piece is so easy-going and breezy that each dark turn comes as a surprise as the viewer is certain (conditioned by years of sitcom viewing) that the opposite and happier outcome is sure to arrive. It’s more Eating Raoul than What’s Up, Doc? (Although, I suppose, I just ruined that sense of the unknown for you. Sorry about that.)

Originally written as a stage play and adapted to the screen, a fact that will not be lost on viewers, the cast is primarily restricted to the single location, safe for asides set in the office. Unlike many one-location movies, (Barefoot in the Park, Two Girls and a Guy, The Ref—a movie Lovers, Liars invokes in many ways), the blocking doesn’t feel claustrophobic and the viewer is invited along with the hi-jinks. Benson keeps the story moving and the script is very funny.

Lovers, Liars and Lunatics is filled to the brim with a solid ensemble cast, though not surprisingly the film seems to lag slightly when Benson, playing supporting character Justine, is not on camera (something that will be evident to even non-Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans). Whether Benson gave herself the juiciest role or that’s what the daffy Justine became is debatable. Beautifully shot on 35mm by director of photography Jakobine Motz Lovers, Liarssuffers only from an uneven pace that will not bother folks schooled in indie filmmaking but the casual mainstream viewer may find off-putting. While it helps if you’re already pre-disposed to enjoying (and sympathetic towards) indie films, there is enough going on here to hold even the antsiest viewer’s attention.

Benson and her family not only funded this film on their own (her mom is one of the producers and sister Danielle is an associate prod. and created the artwork seen throughout the film), but are self-distributing it as well. Purchasing a copy through the film’s website is an official mark of support for independent filmmaking. So go here and buy a copy. Buy three, keep two and give one to a friend.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


As we have all learned from watching The Crocodile Hunter, everything in Australia is big and sharp and wants to kill you. Reptiles, dust storms, Paul Hogan. Kangaroos will kick you to death for your lunch money and Koalas, the scourge of the Outback, want nothing more to suffocate you with their overpowering stench of shit and cough drops. In Razorback, Highlander’s Russell Mulcahy, adapts Petet Brennan’s novel which posits that, given the opportunity, even feral pigs will grow to the size of Volkswagons and go Animal Farm on your ass.

The titular be-tusked critter introduces itself before the opening credits have finished by running straight through Jake Cullen’s house, killing his toddler grandson. Unable to convince anyone that a giant boar wrecked his house and his life, Jake is accused of murder, even his own family turns their backs on him. Crafty pig, this razorback, able to feast on human flesh and frame people for the crime! Two years later, an American wildlife reporter, in Australia to do an expose on wild pigs and kangaroos used as food, is attacked by the same pair of grimy psycho Aussies found in most Ozsploitation pics and is left to die at the hoofs of the murderous, overcompensating Arnold. This just brings her intrepid husband to the land downunder to suss out the details of his wife’s death. During his search, he meets said psychos and the giant pig and much, much violence ensues.

For a variety of reasons, Razorback is one of those movies I’d more or less avoided for years, despite having ample opportunity to pop it in. Jaws being the obvious exception, I’ve just never been hip to the “man vs. ugly, angry nature” subgenre of survival horror. It wan’t until seeing clips of it on the gloriously-wonderful Ozsploitation documentary, Not Quite Hollywood, that I decided to seek it out. And, of course, as soon as I wanted to see it, copies vanished off the face of the Earth. Finally running down a PAL DVD, I found Razorback to be an unpretentious treat. Mulcahy overcomes his low budget with stylish camera work and an alternating pace of suspense and rapid-fire action.

The title character is mostly glimpsed speeding past the camera, with extreme close ups on eyes and bloody tusks, and that’s fine. Obviously a mechanical rodeo bull on a track, Mulcahy does his best to masquerade the puppet’s shortcomings and pulls off a nice homage to the aforementioned Jaws at the same time. As far as our hero goes, husband “Carl” is unfortunately played by Gregory Harrison. We of the ‘80s childhood remember him from Trapper John, M.D. and have fond memories of rooting for his death at the hands of anyone or anything, be them giant pigs or Pernell Roberts. There’s just something smarmy about him that removes all sympathy. His manner seems to say, “Hi, Gregory Harrison. I’m superior to you and my teeth are very white.” Seeing him eaten by an enormous mechanical pig wouldn’t be the worst thing I’d ever witness.

Personal bias aside, I suppose he’s as good as anyone else would be in the role. You’re not seeking out Razorback because it’s a Gregory Harrison movie anyway. You’re watching because you’re in the mood for a killer pig movie! In short, Razorback is stylish, violent and very satisfying. If the idea of “killer pig movie” turns you off, try to think of it as a western rife with nasty nature. 

While VHS copies used to blacken the sky once upon a time, they can be pretty pricey to obtain nowadays. The Warner Archive Collection finally released a movie-only DVD last summer, so it can be had. If I haven’t said it enough already, you could do far worse and have much less fun.


Were it not for the Medved Brothers’ Golden Turkey Awards, a great many awful movies would have been conveniently forgotten. At least until Al Gore got around to inventing the internet. As detailed in the famed Golden Turkey book, Chatterbox stars sex comedy queen Candice Rialson (Hollywood Boulevard) as the charmingly naïve Penny Pittman, a young hairdresser who discovers, to her consternation, that she is the proud possessor of a talking, singing vagina. And her downstairs neighbor is quite a potty mouth, getting her in all sorts of trouble—now that she talks, she never shuts up! Complaining to her psychiatrist about her genatalia’s loose lips, Dr. Pearl (Larry Gelman) becomes her agent, names her nethers “Virginia”, and the duo embarks on a world stage tour. Virginia records a hit record called “Wang Dang Doodle” that leads to fame and fortune. But Penny’s life is still so empty. There’s a hollow she just can’t fill.

And if you think my double-entendres are awful, sit down and watch the movie!

Chatterbox is an eager-to-please little movie that does its damnedest to entertain. Rialson, Gelman and cameo-players Rip Taylor and Professor Irwin Corey are all having a great time. Silly situations are pushed to the brink of insanity and there’s no lack of energy in the film. The script and direction both fall a flat, unfortunately, but the outrageous story and the 110% from the cast keep things moving. And let’s pause for a second to acknowledge that not only does it feature a score by Neil Sedaka (albeit an underwhelming score) but photography by award-winning cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (John Adams)!

And for a sex comedy, Chatterbox is pretty tame, even by ‘70s standards. There’s an ample helping of nudity, but if made today, we’d get crotch shots animated Clutch Cargo style and music video smuttiness rather than the incongruously near-wholesome direction we get here, which just accentuates the insanity of it all. Often referred to as an inverted Deep Throat, Chatterbox is more silly than dirty. You’ll hate yourself for laughing before you hate yourself for “watching porn”.

While grey market copies of the Vestron VHS abound, when I first wrote this review, I said "don’t expect to see an official DVD release any time soon", but apparently I was mistaken. Don't know much about it, but here's a link. But in keeping with the motto here at Movie Outlaw: “You’ve already seen worse.”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Movie Outlaw: PSYCHOS IN LOVE (1987)

[Reprinted from Hey, Did You Ever See the Movie...?]

Joe owns a bar; Kate is a lonely manicurist. Both long for love, for understanding, but find both difficult to achieve. It makes them angry, frustrated, forlorn. Eventually, their paths cross and it’s love at first sight, particularly because they share one crucial personality trait: they’re both psychopathic murderers. Love, happiness, hilarity and gore ensues.

Over the last twenty-some years, Gorman Bechard’s Psychos in Love has developed a devoted and deserved cult following. It’s a movie that’s incredibly easy to like, despite the outwardly-lurid subject matter. It’s a black comedy, obviously, that owes more than a little debt to Paul Bartel’s Eating Raoul, minus that film’s smugness. But hands down the reason it works is due to the natural chemistry of stars Carmine Capobianco (Land of College Prophets, Everything Moves Alone) and Debi Thibeault. It’s easy to believe that these two star-crossed crazies would fall for each other because, first and foremost, they like each other. Homicidal tendencies aside, they enjoy just hanging out and being silly together, and the non-cynical viewer will enjoy hanging out with them as well. The pair reteamed with Bechard for the additional outings Galactic Gigolo and Cemetery High, but neither of the latter work quite as well or possess the goofy charm of Psychos in Love.  

There’s not a lot of plot to Psychos in Love, and everyone involved has admitted at one point or another that a good deal of the scenes were improvised. Their shared rant “I hate grapes. I hate green grapes. I hate purple grapes. I hate them separately. In bunches and in little groups of twos and threes. I fucking hate grapes,” is often heard chanted by those “in the know” at horror conventions and has almost become the equivalent of the horror fan’s secret handshake (in much the same way as “42” is to science fiction fans). Though the rant itself—one of the pair’s given reasons for their murderous impulses—was a throwaway gag Capobianco and Bechard came up with during the first draft of the script. It’s a meaningless MacGuffin, but it’s still very funny. Joe addresses the audience throughout the film, like a bearded Alvy Singer, and rather than the device feeling forced, Capobianco makes us feel right at home. Like we just dropped in on Joe and Kate for an evening of TV and carnage.

For the longest time, Psychos in Love was such an obscure, underground film, available in only the most out-of-the-way mom-and-pop video stores, that the horror community was literally polarized over the movie’s very existence. It gained a little more credibility in the ‘90s when Caroline in the City’s co-star, Eric Lutes, was outted as the movie’s cannibal plumber that throws a monkey wrench (sorry) into the pair’s murder games. But it took years for it to find its way onto “legitimate” DVD. And for a while there, it was only available as an overseas import. But now it’s officially available and ready for your viewing pleasure.

Now, make no mistake, Psychos in Love was shot on a half-shoestring budget and it shows. The camerawork is rough as is the sound, Capobianco performs the score on a Casio keyboard, and most of the other performers are, well, less than stellar. The gore is fun and the story never gets boring, but if you grew up raised on the flawless offerings of Hollywood, you might not “get” Psychos in Love. And if you’re one of the humorless slugs that slimes the internet message boards, you’ll undoubtedly brand this as “worst movie ever” just moments before declaring something else to be “worst movie ever”. And while it’s said that there’s no such thing as a wrong opinion, it isn’t the case here. If you don’t enjoy Capobianco and Thibeault’s characters in this film, you’re wrong. Plain and simple. Your heart is full of unwashed socks and you have no business calling yourself a movie fan. The slimmest of dimes spent is visible on the screen, but so is every bit of love put in.

[Now, for personal disclosure, I was first exposed to Psychos in Love by my best friend and business partner Bill Homan, who had a third-generation VHS copy that had a unique jump in the middle—one of his roommates had accidentally hit “record” on the remote while watching, thus inserting an animated Sesame Street spider into the midst of the movie. For years, this was the version we watched. Now that it’s available on pristine DVD, I have to admit, I miss the spider just a little.]

Thursday, January 14, 2010

HDYEStM...?: THE SPIRIT (1987)

I’m not alone in my flabbergastation that one of the most cinematic comic books ever drawn has never gotten a decent adaptation to screen. In 1987, having grown up on reprints of Will Eisner’s wonderful comic The Spirit (thank you Warren and Kitchen Sink Press), I was pretty excited to see a movie based on the title character. I had high hopes of seeing Eisner’s characters and his noir playground Central City brought to life. I mean, hell, every issue was a storyboard in and of itself! I figured it would be easy to cast and shoot. Even at fourteen, I knew that many early film noir movies invented their “look” out of budgetary concerns—deep shadows covering the edge of a set, the grim look of an urban setting emulating the post-war America, etc.—and even if The Spirit had only a TV movie budget, surely something great would come out of this.

Okay, I was a little concerned that “Bob Boxbody”—aka Sam J. Jones, the furniture-based star of DeLaurentiis’ idiotic Flash Gordon was cast to play Denny Colt / The Spirit, but he might be able to pull off the masked crimefighter okay. After all, Denny is really just an overgrown boy scout in a blue suit. His only superpower is having a head that is harder than the average cinderblock, able to withstand any amount of punishment dished out to him. And Jones seemed pretty solid in terms of cranial density, so my hopes remained high.

And, okay, I knew they were going to throw out his side-kick, Ebony White, a little minstrel-based comic relief character with a Southern Amos ‘n Andy drawl that most found offensive in this newly-minted PC age. Yes, even though Ebony was never treated like a stereotype and was a warmly received character who often took center stage in the stories, white guilt now ruled the entertainment industry. So Ebony would be changed to “Nubbin” or “Willum” or “Sammy” or a score of other, replacement boy sidekicks The Spirit had had from time to time.

And, okay, few women existed in Hollywood at any time since the ‘40s as ridiculously sexy as Eisner’s femme fatales. Even his girl next door, Ellen Dolan, was based on a strange cross between Joan Blondell and Jean Harlow. Again, in the ‘80s, it was bad news to depict women with sex appeal, even if their characters were brilliant and used that sex appeal to get one over on the average dumb male.

And, okay, TV was probably the wrong medium to depict the sheer amount of often scary violence often visited upon The Spirit. He is often beaten nearly to death, shot, stabbed, blinded, defenestrated and otherwise the victim of extreme harm that often lands him in the hospital (one particular instance tells about a normal day of life outside of an urban alley where The Spirit lies wounded and unable to call for help). So most of that would have to be toned down. Gone would be an amazing sequence where The Spirit drags himself painfully across a room to bathe his bleeding head beneath a sink faucet just moments before a thug slams him over the head with a bat—again.

Still at fourteen, cynicism hadn’t quite gotten its hold. So I sat down in eager anticipation and the excitement grew as gorgeous panels of Will’s artwork appeared on screen and quickly dissolved into live-action matches. My God, they were gonna do it! The Spirit! If it took off, it’d get developed into a series. And, and, and…!

Alas, alack and oy. While it starts well with an explosion and a friend of Denny’s giving a last request, The Spirit sets off on a crummy retelling of his origin story—young cop, thought dead, returning as a masked avenger to aid the cops—but makes a mush of it. Gone is Dr. Cobra and his fluid that sends Denny into suspended animation—okay, fine. But why are Denny and Dolan strangers? Why is he a regional cop from something called “Armfeth” (leading to the four-time used joke, “Where’s ‘Armpit’?”)? Why the heck is Ebony now a conning street urchin named “Eubie”, selling stolen tape decks? What the hell is going on with P’Gell? She’s the ultimate Eisner femme fatale, an amoral schemer who uses sex as a weapon, and they cast Laura Robinson to play her? The woman is as exotic as a Yenta buying groceries.

I was so turned off by the movie—the unnecessary Adam West Batman-esque campiness, the bland story, the blah-direction, the bloodless—as in “drained of blood”—action sequences. Jones was fine as Denny, I suppose. He had the upright boy scout thing down and didn’t look overly silly in the ill-fitting Spirit outfit. Nana Visitor (future Star Trek wet dream) was okay as Ellen. I had no idea why they decided to have her friends with internationally-known and intriguing P’Gell, or why, again, they decided to turn P’Gell into a respected community member, but… The whole thing was very off-putting and extremely disappointing. And what was with all the sunlight? Central City looked like Hill Valley in Back to the Future.

The pilot was never picked up and the idea of a series was killed. Some reports say that Eisner himself killed the series, others maintain that the show was too low-rated to warrant continuing. While it is true that Eisner did hate the movie, for precisely the same reasons the rest of us did, it’s unclear whether he pulled the plug himself or not. A moot point, regardless.

Flash forward many years later and we damaged Spirit fans learned just how much love had gone into that original TV movie. In comparison, at least, to the artistic sodomy perpetrated by comic book “genius” and “personal friend” of Eisner’s, the despicable Frank Miller. Compared to Frank’s adaptation of The Spirit, the Stephen DeSouza penned and Michael Schultz-directed TV movie was a loving recreation of the original. Looking back through tear-stained eyes after having witnessed Miller exhuming his “friend” and violating his creation, the ’87 movie actually has a lot going for it.

While most of the decisions made in the TV version were wrong-headed but understandable—updating The Spirit to modern day makes his fedora-and-trench coat fashions pretty ludicrous; recontextualizing the characters and their relationships allowed for development in a later series, and it could be rationalized that the players could explore Central City in future episodes and, perhaps, go deeper into darker Eisner territory. Lack of money made the day-time scenes necessary, fine, fine, fine.

Besides, Schultz had directed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, so he already had that going against him. The odds were never in his favor.

As thin as DeSouza’s script was, it never once felt irreverent or, compared to Miller’s, blasphemous. DeSouza seemed determined to honor the creator in some way, shape or form. Miller seemed out to avenge some wrongdoing. So many decisions in the modern feature film just seemed spiteful and others seemed downright cruel (Samuel L. Jackson’s portrayal of The Spirit’s villainous nemesis, The Octopus, was never anything less than a kick in the groin to Will and anyone who ever cared for The Spirit. The same is true, but moreso, to Frank making Denny a superhuman with Wolverine-esque healing powers). While Jones is his usual stiff but goofy self as Denny, never once does he brood on a rooftop about how much his “city screams” for him. Maybe the best that can be said about the ’87 Spirit is that it’s never pretentious, and you don’t realize how big a compliment that is until faced with the alternative.

Make no mistake, the ’87 Spirit is not good by any means. But it makes a darned good double-feature with the equally-silly Doc Savage because it was made to be fun. Schultz and DeSouza never tried to “reimagine” Will’s creations, but did their best with what they had to work with. In analysis, it feels more like a fan film than it does a TV movie, but fan films, by definition, are made because a fan loved something.

So if you’re eager to check out this misguided live-action goof-o-rama, it’s easy enough to find on bootleg DVDs and downloads. It’s unlikely that we’ll see an official release of this any time soon, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Again, bootlegs are primarily bought by somebody who loved it. Some amount of fond memory or curiosity drove that fan to either create that bootleg or purchase it. Fan dubs aren’t generally created to “stick it to the man”. So if that rationality works for you, by all means, run down Sam J. Jones as The Spirit. And if you dislike it, pop in Miller’s. You’ll gradually see only goodness and light and puppies in the first one.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Two prisoners of war, Mac (Robert Shaw) and Ansell (Malcolm MacDowell), have escaped their captors and flee for their lives across an unyielding landscape, encountering terrified villagers and constantly pursued by an ominous black helicopter. Their goals are always immediate: untie their hands, gather food, find shelter, avoid detection, acquire weapons, and always keep moving, towards the border across lies freedom. We learn that they’re British, that Mac was married and has a daughter (who he will never allow Ansell to meet), that the older man sees the younger as both a son and a burden, and that the younger views the older as both protector and a symbol of the “old generation”. But who they actually are, where they are and what war they’re embroiled in—these details are left in the dust. There is only flight and pursuit. Only allegory in place of story.

Which, of course, is both the triumph and ultimate failure of the movie. Based on Barry (Conduct Unbecoming) England’s 1968 debut novel and directed by Joseph Losey, Figures in a Landscape is, for the most part, just what the title describes. Beautiful, sometimes stunning photography (courtesy of directors of photography Peter Suschitzky, Henri Alekan and Guy Tabary) of the two men off in the distance, framed but majestic vistas of mountains, fields, orchards, usually from the point of view of the film’s omniscient helicopter pilot, running for their lives without stopping. The conversations the two share are fascinatingly banal—never their situation, but former careers in the private sector, how they should divide their food to keep a balanced diet, occasionally the difference between war and murder.

Thematically, Mac represents the “working class” Brit while MacDowell represents the new, hip and sophisticated but naïve younger middle class. Both have to work together, of course, and both need each other. But as characters, they don’t amount to much beyond their archetypes. Which is what makes the movie so frustrating. With the viewer kept at a distance—literally and figuratively—from the only characters in the film, the powerful climax comes as little more than just another scene. If they’re meant to be little more than allegory, then how can we sympathize with them? And if they are allegory, what’s the rest of the film—or the landscape, for that matter?—anti-war, anti-invasion? For that matter, Shaw’s (who adapted the novel) spelling out Mac’s and Ansell’s nationalities seems like another misstep, one missing from the source material. Despite being allegorical, the pair is defined as “British”. So now we’re left with another level of distance—nationalism will alienate the non-British. They’re no longer everymen but “Brit Everymen”, and we have to filter a lot of class consideration through their situations, which makes deciphering even more difficult.

By the end of the film, Figures in a Landscape has been a two-hour study of scenery broken up by occasional action set-pieces set inside hostile but unidentifiable compounds and villages. Vincent Canby pointed out in his 1971 New York Times review that the real star of the film is Gilbert Chomat, the helicopter pilot that transforms the machine into a vicious bird of prey, toying with the men on the ground. You can never really watch the movie as a whole, though. If you watch for the action scenes, you’re left with long stretches of Shaw’s bellowing and MacDowell’s petulant posturing. If you watch for the allegory, you’ll spend so much time interpreting the situation that the action will actually seem distracting.

Now, to add even more frustration, if you are still intrigued (because the movie is worth watching despite its faults), Figures in a Landscape is a difficult movie to obtain. An import PAL DVD is available for a relatively princely sum on Amazon, but it hasn’t seen a U.S. release since its brief appearance on VHS many moons ago. Still: best of luck in both the search for the film and its meaning. Let me know what you find.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


[Reprinted from Hey, Did You Ever See the Movie...? The most important film blog since Sight and Sound, curiously censored by the government...]

A conservationist on her own in the Outback on a wildlife refuge is harassed by a trio of kangaroo poachers. Their games start simply: shrewd come-ons at a trading post, running her off the road, driving their trucks through her bird sanctuary. Kid stuff, you know? She retaliates one night by sneaking into their camp and welding their rifles together. Of course, she should have known better than to mess about with a man’s gun. Before she (or the viewer) knows what’s happening, they have her stripped to the waist and lashed to the front of one of their trucks as they do doughnuts in the dust.

Now, as the old saying goes, it’s personal. Or, for Jessica (played by Cassandra Delaney, once married to that bastion of manhood, John Denver), it’s war.

Fair Game is a very tense “Oz-ploitation” thriller from the Land Downunder. It has all the trappings of an exploitation flick: skuzzy baddies, gratuitous nudity, nasty motor vehicles and all kinds of laws broken and civility stomped to mush. But this isn’t I Spit On Your Grave. Jessica isn’t victimized for one second, even lashed to the front of that truck. While rape is implied, it isn’t shown and her will is never broken. Naturally, the local law is no help and her husband is away—one of the villains asks her “Where’s your man, Sheila?”—but she never seems to despair. Of course, the audience knows the violence will escalate before she does. She just wants them run in for ‘roo poaching.

Director Mario Andreacchio keeps the action moving and the whole cast does wonders with Rob George’s deceptively simple script. On the whole, it’s really nothing you’ve never seen before, but it’s so well done and Jessica such a cool heroine, it’s hard not to be on the edge of your seat the entire time. The nice thing about her character is while she’s smart, she keeps making the mistake in thinking that somewhere down deep her antagonists are civilized. But they’re as wild as the land they roam and feel that whatever they want is theirs to take. And they really don’t like a woman showing them up. It’s the clearest case of wounded male ego put up on screen in the longest time. That she never gives up drives them utterly mad with testosterone. It makes for both an exciting and vicious ride.

Fair Game is currently available in the U.S. on a no-frills DVD and it’s well-worth checking out, especially for fans of survival horror combined with (on the surface) revenge flicks.

Friday, January 8, 2010


[Reprinted from Hey, Did You Ever See the Movie...? The best non-porn blog ever deleted by Blogger.]

Open Season, aka Recon Game. Ken, Greg and Art (Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law and Richard Lynch), best buddies and war vets, spend one weekend per year at their woodland cabin, kicking back, drinking beer and hunting people for sport. This year, a couple sneaking away to have an affair are “invited” by the trio to join them at their retreat. And our three good buddies never lose their smiles, never lose their sense of humor, all the while mentally and emotionally torturing the pair of victims until it’s time for the hunt to begin.

Up until a few weeks ago, I never even knew this movie existed. I stumbled across the title by accident while looking up something else. It was referred to, in an online guide, as “classic ‘70s sleaze” but there’s much more to it than that. Calling it sleaze is too dismissive. There’s a great deal going on in this ostensible umpteenth remake of The Most Dangerous Game. First and foremost is the way the movie takes its time unfolding the plot. It opens strangely—a rape victim is told by a lawyer that her alleged rapists have ironclad alibis, they were never there, she has no proof to back up her claim. The credits roll, we meet Ken, Greg and Art, get to know them, see them with their families, see that they like each other, that others like them. We get to like them (despite they’re being played by Fonda, Law and Lynch). We watch them blow off steam during the first leg of their journey by parlaying with some local gals—not the classiest of moves for the family guys, but not the worst sin for the swingin’ ‘70s. Then comes the roadside abduction, the couple held at gunpoint, the inevitable, vicious hunt. And the trio never changes. They remain the same three guys throughout the whole movie; it’s only our perspective that changes. They delight in the torment. And we’re never told why.

Sure, there are allusions that the Viet Nam war changed them, but what were they before the war that they make a yearly game out of casual murder? For “classic ‘70s sleaze”, it sure raises a lot of questions. But the questions are never really answered, for just as suddenly, the trio find themselves being hunted and shot by another assailant—one they don’t know, one they can’t see. And the parallel to the war is redrawn. And another question raised: why doesn’t the final assailant intervene earlier? Why doesn’t he help the victims? You’re left to draw your own conclusions at the end. One SPOILER: most interestingly, when the final assailant is revealed, and reveals his own motivations, he turns himself in to the authorities—in what seems like an agreed-upon move, considering his personal banter with police—taking responsibility for his actions and not allowing civilization to look the other way. In some prints, this ending is excised, but it is a coda that, instead of feeling “tacked on for the liberals” as one IMDb reviewer put it, adds a sense of dignity and closure to the senselessness of it all.

Directed by Peter Collinson (The Earthling), the script was adapted by David D. Osborn from his own novel (known in some circles as “The All Americans”) and shot with the violence contrasting the beautiful vistas surrounding the cabin. Maybe it wants to be deeper than it really is, but Open Season certainly holds your attention. The three leads are fantastic and they’re supported by the venerable William Holden (in what amounts to an extended cameo, truth be told), so there’s some pedigree here.

This odd, disturbing and satisfying movie is difficult to come by. For all intents and purposes, it’s only officially available in PAL format and hasn’t seen an official release in the U.S. aside from very, very occasional late-night cable runs. It played fairly regularly on Canadian television in the ‘80s, then seemed to just disappear. If you can find an overseas print, apparently there are multiple endings as well—some including the ultimate surrender, some not—so there’s another caveat for you. But if you do get the opportunity to check this one out, do so. I’d be interested in hearing what you think.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

NUN OF THAT (2009)

So was it Quentin Tarantino or Stephen Romano that reignited the spark for grindhouse exploitation? While the days of sleazy back-alley theaters and hillbilly-infested drive-ins are long gone, the spirit of low-budget actioners dripping with sex and violence is still very much alive. And while Tarantino and his buddy Rodriguez spents buckets of Weinstein money to make their Death Proof and Planet Terror features look genuinely ill-used, scratched and cobbled-together, the rest of us have been making movies look like that for free.

Then enter Stephen Romano and his runaway hit faux-film history book Shock Festival. A painstakingly documented sortid stories of movies and filmmakers that never existed, complete with beautiful mock posters and lobby art courtesy of the author, Shock Festival grabbed the attention and imagination of countless indies, resulting in a DVD collection of trailers for these fictional movies. And out of that came Richard Griffin’s ode to that bizarre hybrid of crime and fetishism “nunsploitation”—the tongue-in-cheek and terribly cheeky Nun of That.

After novice nun Sister Kelly is expelled from her convent for delivering a beat-down to a perverted priest, she is sumarily attacked by a trio of rapists, which she manages to subdue (i.e. murder horribly), and encounters a trio of gun-toting nuns, who, well, manage to “subdue” her. She is sent to Heaven, which looks like a seedy nun-filled nightclub, where she is serenaded by Jesus Christ himself in a rousing musical number. Christ then informs her that she will be sent back to Earth as an envoy to take down the mob. Faster than you can say, “Sure, why not?” (or as Sister Kelly shrugs, “Okee dokee”), she goes through some quick training with Ghandi and a pair of demon ninjas and is resurrected among the living as the newest member of the Order of the Black Habit. Renamed “Sister Wrath”, she joins “Sister Lust” and “Sister Gluttony” and they go about kicking ass for the Lord. They encounter greaseball goombahs with porno mustaches, pimps, prostitutes and “Viper” Goldstein, master of “Jew Jitsu”. And by this point, things have gotten too silly to be terribly offensive. Gunplay and martial arts ensue. Throwing star yarmulkes are thrown. Vibrators are used for blunt force trauma. Lesbian urges are explored. It’s truly exploitation at it’s finest minus the mean-spiritedness of the genuine article.

Directed by Richard Griffin (Splatter Disco) and written by Griffin and Ted Marr, Nun of That is everything you’d want in a violent sleaze comedy. Kudos to the cast—which includes cameos by both Debbie Rochon and Lloyd Kaufman—and more kudos to Griffin for abstaining from applying digital damage to the beautifully-shot feature. Nun of That captures the feel of the ‘70s without resorting to the gimickry of burns, skips, scratches, etc. One look at a mobster’s John Holmes mustache tells you everything you need to know about the movie’s Neverland time period.

(On a personal note, I have no idea if Griffin suffered through a Catholic childhood—he gets all the lingo correct, but I suspect that if he did, it was a limited exposure. Because no true Catholic harbors sexual nun fantasies. “Nunsploitation” is truly the invention of either the envious Protestants or those utterly warped by Christianity. The real Catholic student knows that those vestments and wimples conceal no human form!)

The Camp Motion Pictures DVD is chock full of extras including the nifty original Nun of That trailer that sparked the project.