Sunday, February 28, 2010


Because the early ‘90s were still in the technological copper age, I had very little access to the infant Internet. Living in a small town, I had little exposure to anime hounds and had seen little more than Akira at this point in my life, thus had little point of reference for the culture of crazy cartoons. I’d somehow managed to avoid The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers all of this time, had never been much of a Godzilla fan (and knew not of kaiju at this point in my cultural education) and had only dim memories of Speed Racer or Ultraman. So when The Guyver was put before me, I only gave a damn because it had Brian Yuzna’s name stamped on it. He’d produced Re-Animator and directed the slightly less-interesting Bride of Re-Animator, not to mention the daffy and slimy Society, so I was eager for this new little eye-ball feast.

Without knowing its origins, I was mildy amused by the story of a kung-fu student named Sean (Jack Armstrong), smitten with a young Japanese girl who accidentally winds up symbiotically joined at the neck with a “Guyver Unit”—a biomechanical suit of armor that encases his body and ramps up his kung-fu skills, enabling to fight the likes of Michael Berryman and Jimmy J.J. Walker who transform into bizarrely mutated monsters themselves. Oh, and it also had Mark Hamill in it (incorrectly—misleadingly—evilly—shown as the Guyver on the DVD box art), and David Gale, who played the evil severed head of Dr. Hill in Re-Animator. And did I mention that “Herbert West” himself, Jeffrey Combs pops up in the end, playing “Dr. East”? I’m sure I did. Anyway, it was a kung-fu monster movie with awesomely-goofy designs by effects guy Screaming Mad George, so I was more than satisfied with the results, even though the story about aliens and their “Zoanoids” didn’t make much sense.

Now that I’m older, wiser, and more educated in the Guyver’s history as first manga (Japanese comic books to those of you reading this review in 1991) then anime, watching the movie again I have to admit…it still doesn’t make much sense. But it’s fun and doesn’t have too many slow spots so I still give it a pass, nostalgic sap that I am.

In all seriousness, The Guyver is not that great a movie and you’ll enjoy it much more if you have a fondness for Yuzna’s chaotic ‘80s horror comedies, not to mention a soft spot for the wonderful Michael Berryman ("Everything's better with Berryman!"). And at least a tolerance for Jimmy Walker, who turns into a gremlin by way of Ralph Bakshi and raps… too often. I’m told that if you are a fan of the manga or anime, this movie exists solely to piss you off and probably kicks you when you’re not looking. Having had only minor exposure to the anime series, I can’t say that the live action movie is an improvement or a detriment.

I can say that the follow-up, Guyver: Dark Hero, also directed by Steve Wang, was much better received by anime fans than the first. Part of this has to do with the absence of Yuzna’s comedy as well as the absence of Jack Armstrong (in fact, in Dark Hero, Sean is played by David Hayter, screenwriter of X-Men and X2), and sticks a little closer to the original storyline. To my uneducated eyes, Dark Hero seemed even more like the Power Rangers and the monsters were more kaiju than Screaming Mad George’s. So I didn’t care for it. Leave it to me to dislike something superior.

But when all is said and done, The Guyver is little more than what it sets out to be: guy in a slick H.R. Geiger outfit goes head-to-head with B-movie actors playing monsters. It doesn’t promise to be anything else. Sometimes the action works, sometimes it doesn’t. For my money, there’s nothing funnier than the yak-headed monster in the lab coat and tie near the end. But, again, that’s just me.

For some reason, after rewatching it recently, I realized that I have been misremembering its gore quotient all these years. I’m so used to Yuzna-produced movies dripping with the red stuff I was actually surprised at how tame the action was in Guyver. Of course, it was released theatrically with a PG-13 rating, so that should have played some role in my memory. However, I do recall watching it on a bootleg video a few months before its release, so perhaps it was gorier before the final release. Alas, that video tape has been lost to the winds of time so I can’t go back to confirm or deny. I just remember monster brains.

Now, if this train-wreck of a review has you interested to check The Guyver out for yourself, it’s readily available on DVD. I would recommend you get Dark Hero as well so you can compare the two. I’m told one is better than the other, but you can’t go by me. Obviously.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

DEAD HEAT (1988)

Detectives Roger Mortis (think about it for a second) and Doug Bigelow stumble onto a very weird case. Arriving on the scene of a heist, they join their fellow cops in a violent shoot-out with the criminals. When all is said and done, the bad guys are hit a dozen times each but their bodies don’t quite get the message. As it turns out, both villains have been dead for some time. This leads our intrepid pair to the Dante Laboratories where Bigelow is attacked by a large biker (whose face seems to be splitting directly in half) and Roger winds up dead, suffocating in an asphyxiation room meant for euthanizing test animals. But all is not lost! The lab happens to have a reanimation machine. But all is not sunlight and puppies for poor Roger. The resurrection is merely temporary and he will turn to dust in roughly twenty-four hours. But until then, he’s virtually indestructible—or, at least, unkillable, since he accumulates plenty of damage while searching for the meaning behind it all.

Not technically a zombie movie, Dead Heat is a horror comedy best described as a slapstick reimagining of D.O.A. (a movie playing very prominently on a television midway through, in case you didn’t get the joke). The gore is played for very broad laughs, showcasing the make-up work of Steve Johnson. The game cast makes the best of Terry Black’s script which has a decent mystery at its core but nearly all the humor is forced. Treat Williams as Roger and Darren McGavin as McNab (the “BODYDOC”, as proclaimed by his license plate and a key bit of ludicrous plot) seem to be having the best time (particularly as Roger takes on more damage--Williams adopts a real "screw it" attitude towards the end), and it’s always nice to see Vincent Price, no matter how decrepit he is (Price cameos in a central role as the rich madman behind the resurrections). Other fun cameos from Dick Miller, Robert Picardo and Linnea Quigley liven things up here and there as well.

As Doug Bigelow, however, is the movie’s sore thumb, Joe Piscopo. While good ol’ Joe, having left behind a career on Saturday Night Live, is not bad in Dead Heat so much as he is self-aware. Part of the blame can be leveled at Mark Goldblatt, an exemplary editor but not so much as a director (see the Dolph Lundgren Punisher for another case in point). Much of the movie is delivered in masters and two-shots, underlying the “buddy cop” aspects of the script and when Piscopo isn’t delivering his lines, he seems to stand around waiting to speak again, rather than reacting to anything going on. In one scene, Lindsay Frost actually seems to be inching away from him during a conversation. This could just be my imagination, but it makes for interesting speculation. And the fact that I’m doing any speculating at all should tell you all you need to know about the film’s soggy middle section.

For so lightweight of a movie, Dead Heat has a lot of detractors. A disaster when it was released, the movie slowly garnered a cult following but never really took off one way or another and is usually mentioned as an afterthought in zombie movie compendiums. Some dismiss it as unwatchable but that might actually be giving it too much credit. At its worst, Dead Heat is merely uninteresting—although at its best it’s merely amusing. No strong feelings can be had one way or another about it. It has fun parts, it has lousy parts and there are huge stretches of credibility (zombie cops we can buy but how does a runaway ambulance speed uphill?). The end result is more ‘enh’ than ‘aagh!’ And let’s face it: you’ve seen worse.

Readily available on DVD (in a sparce "you're lucky to get the movie, meatbag!" edition), you can choose to seek out Dead Heat or just catch it accidentally when it pops up in your Netflix queue. 

Friday, February 26, 2010


For a while, modern audiences seem to think that the crime drama was created by Quentin Tarantino, or, at the very least, he refined it. And for a long while, his Pulp Fiction influence could be felt on everything—The Big Hit, the theatrical version of Payback, name any half-serious story about men with guns who love to talk as much as shoot, and you’ll see the Reservoir Dogs stamp on them, for good or ill. But what some people don’t realize—or even understand when Tarantino has insisted himself—that the crime/adventure/black comedy predates him by a good long time. While the “Tarantino” genre is more steeped in ‘70s exploitation than it is hardboiled films of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the amoral tough-guy-with-a-gun-and-his-own-code is nearly as old as cinema itself. At the very least, the rules were written in post-WWII Hollywood when the pot-boiler was all the rage, even though we still weren’t allowed to root for the anti-hero back then, thanks to the Hays Code.

In fiction, few wrote tough-guy stories with a harder shell than Donald Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, with his “Parker” novels. A grim, cold-blooded career criminal, Parker was the manliest anti-hero to grace popular culture in a long time. To date, Westlake’s novel The Hunter has been adapted for screen twice—Point Blank with Lee Marvin and the aforementioned Payback with Mel Gibson (albeit closer to the tone of the book in director Brian Helgeland’s original cut)—and influenced a goodly number of others. But it seems nearly impossible to capture the sheer underworld amorality for the screen and have audiences react favorably. Moviegoers like a hero. Even if he does scuzzy things, shoots people, beats up women, he still has to have some level of likability. On the page, Parker isn’t likable, nor does he want to be. Nor does he care if you hate him, are indifferent to him, or barely notice he’s there—so long as you’re not in his way.

In 1995, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for an offbeat and twisty little thriller called The Usual Suspects. A movie boiled medium-hard, it garnered a well-deserved following and injected the name “Keyser Soze” into our vernacular. Following that, McQuarrie couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood.

Adverse to being pigeonholed as a “crime guy” he finally gave in and took his friend and Suspects actor Benicio Del Toro’s advice to pen another hardboiled movie because studios not only dug those things but tended to leave the director alone provided the production stayed within budget. But McQuarrie was bitter towards Hollywood and decided to play a nasty trick on the studio that picked him up. He wrote the meanest, nastiest story about the hardest-boiled criminals to walk the streets. His anti-heroes could just as well drop the pretense and adopt the role of villain. In his opinion, what was the point of writing about criminals if you were just going to portray them as little more but wayward nonconformists?

So it’s no surprise that, when released in 2000, The Way of the Gun wound up on nobody’s Top Ten List. There’s no amiable banter in the movie and certainly nobody dances as Jack-Rabbit Slim’s. The main characters of the movie, Parker and Longbaugh (nicknamed after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (aka Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longbaugh respectively) and not from Westlake’s character, though the parallels remain), are decidedly not nice. Introduced before the main credits, they’re seen wasting time in a parking lot, leaning against a car. When they’re harassed by the car’s owner and his foul-mouthed girlfriend, the first course of action they take is to punch out the woman. They’re besieged by the outraged crowd and beaten down but they wind up laughing at their own defeat. These guys are losers, pure and simple, but they’re not guys to be fucked with.

Drifting from town to town, committing crime and larceny for survival, the pair wind up in a fertility clinic and sperm bank, hoping to rub out enough for a hotel room and a meal. Overhearing that one of the clinic’s patients is a surrogate for a rich and powerful but childless couple, and that her million-dollar pay day is due on arrival in just a few days. With practiced and almost military precision, the pair kidnap the young mother-for-hire and ease their way out of the building, keeping her armed body guards at bay.

This, of course, sits not at all with the powerful father and his equally-powerful and shadier friends, particularly the underworld-savvy Sarno. Tracking the kidnappers down, he first tries to pay them off but Longbaugh doesn’t bite. Sarno tries to reason with him—they’re both older guys, not like the younger, hotheaded Parker, so they both understand how the world works and how things can get worse for everyone. For whatever reason, Longbaugh opts for worse. The plot drags the viewer over broken glass towards a climax in a Mexican town right out of The Wild Bunch. The final act involves brutal torture, a bloody gun-point caesarian section and a violent shoot-out between the pair of two-bit hoods and Sarno’s aged, and therefore very experienced, bagmen. A happy ending can’t be seen for miles, not even for the survivors.

Filled to overflowing with terrific actors, The Way of the Gun possesses an impressive pedigree. You not only get Del Toro as Longbaugh and James Caan as Sarno, but Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt as the bodyguards, and the great Geoffrey Lewis (The Devil’s Rejects) as Sarno’s suicidal gunsal who proves to be one of the toughest eggs in the film. On the downside you also have a glum Ryan Phillippe with his mouthful of marbles delivery and the dog-whistle-voiced Juliette Lewis, who nonetheless evokes sympathy as the desperate pregnant woman.

But if you’re looking for someone to root for, good luck. Not only does every character in the film have his or her own agenda but they come with closest stuffed full of more skeletons than a Romanian necropolis. The closest you get to a traditional hero comes in the form of Lewis’ gynecologist, Dr. Painter, played by Dylan Kussman, who spends the majority of the film terrified—and who has a few things in his own past that are fairly ill-advised. From a narrative point of view, The Way of the Gun is a cinematic ass-kicking, and not in a “kick-ass” sense. The action is exciting and the tension builds nearly to the point where you can’t take it any more.

Miraculously, the script is so tightly-written and the characters so perfectly played that you can’t quite hate anyone in the film. Which isn’t to say you ever like anyone either. Casting actors at the crest of middle age (and careening down the other side) as the experienced mobsters was a wise move on McQuarrie’s part—how tough do you have to be to make it to that age in this particular business? Pretty fucking tough, that’s how tough!

While the movie gives you no one to root for, it hands you no one to root against either. By making both sides cold and misanthropic, The Way of the Gun plays out on neutral ground. Lewis’s character is so vulnerable, trapped in such an unwinnable situation, you don’t care who wins, so long as it ends and she and the baby are out of the middle.

Marketed as another action-charged black comedy, with commercials of Phillippe and Del Toro changing places as they drive, momentary snippets of dialogue that can be humorous when out of context, and lots of guns firing to a borrowed score (Joe Kraemer’s music is as moody and indifferent as the characters), audiences were appalled at the movie they got. Expecting a scrimmage game, they got a dog fight. Not what they bought at all.

By no means light entertainment, if you’re in the mood for a tough guy movie, noir doesn’t get any darker than The Way of the Gun, despite it’s sunny locations and bright photography. It’s a gritty, ugly experience that will stick with you for a good long while. Watch it back-to-back with some over-the-top action nonsense and think about these characters as the digital explosions and Dolby Digital audio something like Terminator: Salvation toss you around the room. You’ll wonder if the human race is really worth saving.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


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

Every high school graduate who has ever taken an English class has a passing familiarity with the oldest surviving Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. Thanks to the moderately-successful Robert Zemeckis animated adaptation, the percentage of familiarity among high-school dropouts was even raised. It’s the classic struggle of good versus evil, might vs. might vs. right, the noble Geats vs. the evil offspring of the Biblical Cain. Monster attacks King Hrothgar’s Heodot mead hall, Beowulf is called in to do something about it, an arm is removed, soldiers cheer.

Literature being what it is, Beowulf has been translated and re-examined and monkeyed with hundreds of times since those wild-and-wooly days of 515 A.D. In 1971, author John Gardner took a stab at the story in an attempt to not only satirize the bad behavior of humanity during the early years of the Vietnam War, but to also give both sides of the story. In his novel, Grendel, the titular beast is “at war” with the Danes because he can’t communicate with them. He understands what they say, but they can’t (or won’t) understand him. He’s also at odds with the creatures of the forest and his own existence, seeing life as something that constantly attacks. He has a couple of conversations with a wise and ancient dragon who advises him to stop worrying and fighting destiny, “find a pile of gold and sit upon it”. The “heroic” Beowulf is depicted as a soulless human and is only on the stage for the last chapter of the book. As we know Grendel’s fate going in, the ending is expected, but no less tragic. By the last page, the reader has finished something beautiful, agonizing and frustratingly existential.

Which makes the animated adaptation, Grendel Grendel Grendel, all the more curious. Produced as the second animated feature-length film from Australia, directed by Alexander Stitt and starring the vocal talents of Peter Ustinov, Grendel Grendel Grendel is a colorful, stylistic and “modern” re-telling of not only the poem but the book as well. This time, our monster is a chubby, almost-childlike polka-dotted dinosaur who lives in a cave and talks to his mother (unseen but for a beastly shadow in an early scene). He is curious about the outside world and tries to make sense of the inexplicable actions of the humans, represented by King Hrothgar and his Danes. The humans kill and devour animals, fight and murder each other and yearn only for possessions. Hrothgar and his three primary companions, Wicklov, Unferth and Ork (who remains eleventh in command after Unferth joins, even though there are only four people in the whole kingdom), are dim, prideful, chubby Cockney chaps and provide the bulk of the comedy for the film. Midway through the film, we’re introduced to a blind “Shaper” (singer) and his assistant, who provide Grendel with his first taste of earthly joy. Hrothgar’s new bride, Weathlow, represents the only “pure and innocent” thing on earth, to Grendel’s mind. Meanwhile, he dreams of a dragon who tells him that everything is inevitable and that he is necessary to humans because it inspires them towards science, religion and war in order to both explain him and defeat him. And that is Grendel’s function in the world: to be misunderstood, feared and hunted. Which makes our cuddly monster a little more bitter towards the squabbling creatures.

In the midst of all of this heady philosophy come numerous, treacley songs and clumsy pratfalls. It’s never truly clear for what audience this film was intended. The bright colorful design and cheerful songs seem to cry out to children. But all the discussions of the nature of existence, a few scenes of surprising violence, an intensely sleazy Beowulf and even a brief shot of a topless Weathlow make one take pause. At 71 minutes, the pace even seems to drag throughout, primarily because we spend so much time with the idiotic Danes and not nearly enough time with the delightful and insightful title monster.

Ultimately, the journey is enjoyable enough, as far as animated fatalism goes. Though it does help to have a familiarity with Beowulf going in, it’s not entirely necessary. Since its initial release, Grendel Grendel Grendel has fallen into relative obscurity. It had a brief VHS release in the mid-‘80s with little fanfare and no official DVD exists to my knowledge. With the success of the Zemeckis animated feature, you’d think that there would still be a market for even an oddly-colored horse like Grendel Grendel Grendel.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

THE ODD JOB (1978)

Arguably, most Americans, particularly of and around my generation, think of Great Britain as defined by either Guy Ritchie, with people running for tube trains in alternately sped-up and slow motion, or as illustrated by Monty Python’s Flying Circus
. Certainly anyone who grew up watching the bizarre and silly (and unedited) reruns on PBS held on to a stubborn belief that all Englishmen were either stiff or insane and that all English Women were men in drag (or Carol Cleveland). How dull would Renaissance Fairs be without hearing quotes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail shouted seemingly at random from all corners of the fairground? How dull would Broadway be without these sketches regurgitated onto the stage courtesy of Spamalot? How empty would our lives be without the omnipresent John Cleese of the late ‘80s (and how much less despairing would we be without the sad John Cleese of today? Of course, the same can be asked about Steve Martin…)?

Without Monty Python’s success both abroad and here in the Colonies, would we have had the fantastic and whimsical disasters of Terry Gilliam? Where would teenage girls look for fantasy romance in the pre-Twilight years had Terry Jones never teamed with Jim Henson and George Lucas for Labyrinth? And what about those other guys? Idle and Palin and… the third one… the dead one…gay guy, what’sisname? Graham Chapman. Yeah, him?

Hopefully, if you’ve gotten this far without hurling your laptop across the room (or saying “Who? What?”—in which case, go back to Mafia Wars, kid), you’ve realized that I’m trying to be satirical here. While Monty Python’s Flying Circus has passed in and out of the realm of “cool” more times than The Simpsons, depending how drunk you are at the time of the inevitable quoting of the “Dead Parrot Sketch”, the landmark show was indeed a hallmark in our more-or-less recent culture. Certainly in the adolescences of those of us who considered ourselves to be iconoclasts as teens and young adults. Often raunchy, usually satirical and often baffling (not just because it flew over the heads of those with a less-than-passable knowledge of British society but also because it was sometimes simply nonsensical), the Flying Circus was at first a delightful treat and later a rite-of-passage. But to those of us who find ourselves “past” or “over” the daffy humor because it’s somehow out of fashion now, I’ve got news for you: you’re not the first ones to feel this way. The “Pythons” got there way before we did.

Cleese in particular felt pigeon-holed by the demands of television comedy and sought greener pastures during the show’s final 1974 season. After it left the airwaves, the entire troupe scattered for solo and duo efforts but inevitably returned and regrouped for live concerts and the subsequent movies. As with any group of co-workers, the friendships ebbed and waned before reknitting. Python-ologists are well-versed in the tragedies and triumphs of some of these non-Python efforts (Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil woes; Palin’s struggles on Ripping Yarns; Cleese’s marital calamities occurring amidst shooting Fawlty Towers), but Chapman, who died in 1989, is often overlooked during these introspective retrospectives.

Closeted for most of his life and a severe alcoholic, Chapman often portrayed the stiffest of the upper-crust Brits—judges, generals, ministers, etc.—and was called one of the most “instinctually funny” members of the group by his frequent co-writer Cleese, but “never the engine” of the comedy. Most of Chapman’s contributions were delivered off the cuff, to make sketches “madder”. But of the group, he may have been the best actor, as evidenced in both Holy Grail and, perhaps the best movie in their repertoire, Life of Brian. Chapman struggled for years to get his pirate adventure/comedy Yellowbeard to the screen only to see it crash and burn at the box office. But long before that, he popped up in off-beat projects that seemed to suit him but never quite worked. One of the best-known but least-seen of these is the 1978 black comedy The Odd Job.

Like an extended Python sketch (and, indeed, it was originally filmed as an episode of Ronnie Barker’s television show, 6 Dates with Ronnie), The Odd Job has a simple premise milked for every drop of laughter and mayhem it can manage. Poor upright Arthur Harris has a row with his wife, Fiona, and she leaves him. He attempts suicide but can’t quite bring himself to see things through. A chance meeting with an “odd job man”, who has been going door-to-door looking for work, solves the problem. He hires this unnamed but amiable weirdo to assist him in his “suicide” when he least expects it. But, of course, Fiona returns and Arthur has no way of contacting his affable assassin, so he spends the rest of the film trying to avoid death until he can figure out what to do. This leads to all sorts of anarchy and black humor, not to mention a shocking but utterly appropriate ending.

But, in the midst of all of this, there is much eye-bulging and pratfalling from Chapman, a lot of fluttering from Diana Quick (as Fiona) and creepy goofiness from The Odd Job man, David Jason (who played the same character in the original television episode). While it should be screamingly funny, sophisticated eyes see what may have been fresh then as tired now (though it might have been tired then, too). Reportedly, director Peter Medak was a hasty last minute replacement for an injured director and the lack of preparation shows—lots of long takes in two-shot or master broken up with mismatched and mistimed cutaways. Lines that should be delivered in close-up play out in medium and vice-versa and at no point does the frame not appear crowded, even, inexplicably, in long shots. Chapman is noticeably impaired in several scenes but dead-on in others. There just isn’t any momentum to the comedy or the impending doom. While we should be rooting for Arthur to come out in the end, it’s tough to care when no one else seems to either. Even a brief cameo from Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brien as a cheeky leather man fails to bring more than a smile.

The film’s saving grace is Jason as the Odd Job Man. In the role originally intended for Who drummer Keith Moon (who, ironically when compared to Chapman, was deemed too far gone in his own alcoholism to be reliable), Jason’s goony would-be killer is game for anything and brings his own strange energy to his scenes, mumbling his lines like a Cockney Popeye. Ultimately, it’s a disappointing little curiosity not without merit.

Released to VHS in the ‘80s, the film has never seen a legitimate DVD release in the U.S. as far as I’ve been able to discover. At first, this shouldn’t seem surprising, but with new generations of budding goof-balls rediscovering Monty Python every day, you’d think someone over at BBC-America would toss this out on the market for a quick buck. Oddly, the VHS exploited Jason’s face rather than the more recognizable Chapman’s. All of this comes as a bit of a shame when it’s considered how genuinely funny Chapman could be, and how strong an actor he was when he was sober. Taken as one of the bits of the whole, The Odd Job seems an appropriate chapter of the comedian’s life.

Friday, February 19, 2010


In the late ‘60s, a famous comedy-pair turned a comedy variety show into a counter-culture juggernaut, attacking the “establishment” and the unpopular Vietnam War. This show was ultimately defeated by the very network that sought to put the duo on the air in the first place. I speak, of course, of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. But this review has nothing to do with that show. I just thought you’d find it interesting.

I’m stealing wholesale from the opening of  (which opens with a title card telling us about “Ivan the Horrible”, a scourge from Mongolia), a reasonably harmless comedy staring Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, famous for their more mainstream-friendly rapid-fire comedy Laugh-In. From 1968 to 1972, the nightclub comedians invited “hip” Middle America into their swinging bachelor pad to dance and joke the night away with scantily-clad cuties like Goldie Hawn and Judie Carne. They coined nonsense words and phrases like “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnals” and “Sock it to me”, meant to sound vaguely enough like innuendo to make the squares feel hip and the hip feel in on it all, no matter how stoned they were. These guys were so cool, they put John Wayne in a bunny suit—on the air. Man, it was like, out there, you know?

I kid, I kid. In all honesty, counter-culture-clash aside, Laugh-In was frequently very funny if your taste in jokes runs towards the Catskill double-entendre variety smattered with intensely silly. Fortunately, my sense of humor does (that and my undying love for Artie Johnson), so I remember Laugh-In reruns quite fondly.

If your memories of Laugh-In are equally fond, try to channel them should you choose to watch The Maltese Bippy. Trust me: it helps. Otherwise, what you’re left with is a slapdash, overlong mess of goofiness that never quite gets where it’s going but seems to be having a good time not getting there. Reminiscent of the Hope and Crosby “Road” movies—in fact, director Norman Panama was responsible for guiding Bob and Bing along the Road to Utopia—later Abbott and Costello flicks (after they couldn’t stand each other) and, especially, haunted house comedies like the William Castle-helmed and equally-flat The Spirit is Willing or Don Knotts’ interminable The Ghost and Mrs. Chicken, The Maltese Bippy takes the classic “old dark house” chestnut and stuffs in our hapless duo.

Rowan and Martin riff on their stage personas as “lounge lizard straight man” and “dumb playboy”, respectively, and play Smith and Gray, a pair of nudie movie masters on the cusp of finding new employment. Dick Martin’s Ernest Gray finds himself with the uncontrollable urge to howl and is convinced by his psychiatrist that he is becoming a werewolf. This suspicion is supported by the Romanian family next door (Fritz Weaver and Julie Newmar) who all claim to be similarly afflicted and hundreds of years old. These facts come to the attention of Detective (played by the future Mike Brady, Robert Reed), who is investigating the murder of a man found mutilated in the nearby cemetery. None of this bothers Rowan’s Smith, however; he just wants to take the family and Ernest to a booking agent and promote them as a dog act.

Aaaannnd… that’s about it. Lots of running around. Lots of leering at Newmar and Carol Lynley as a comely co-ed, a zany nightmare about a be-werewolfed Martin running around town, chased by a frenzied mob, something about jewels hidden somewhere in the house while bodies literally pile up by the end during what could either be an inspired, hilarious climax or the corniest thing you’ve ever seen, depending on your blood-alcohol level and/or tolerance for resurrected Vaudeville slapstick. In fact, any fun to be had relies on this latter tolerance. The jokes come flying at you, each one with the freshness of something stored in MSG. Either the best or worst thing I can say about Dick Martin’s delivery is that he reminds me of a top-of-his-game Jerry Van Dyke. Take that for what it’s worth.

All in all, if you enjoyed the Nick-At-Nite reruns of Laugh In, you’ll be moderately amused enough by The Maltese Bippy to keep it on until the end. There are no gut-busting moments, but there are a few chuckles to be had here and there. But if you go into it arms-crossed, defying it to make you laugh, you and the movie will be at odds. While researching the movie’s thin history, I stumbled across reviews that ranged from irritated and befuddled (courtesy of Vincent Canby at the New York Times) to outraged and offended. One female reviewer talked about the film’s rampant hatred towards women and the homophobic ending. I’m not sure what movie she was watching but if comical leering at women in short skirts constitutes misogyny in her world, I would recommend she avoid the entire oeuvre of horror author Jack Ketchum, the satire of Chuck Palahniuk and the poetry of Dorothy Parker—not to mention any fluffy comedy made in the ‘60s—lest her poor offended sensibilities lead her head to an open gas oven. The Maltese Bippy never reaches offensive due to its being mired in dumb. And it’s so racy that during the sole kiss between Martin and Lynley each one has one foot on the floor. (If you don’t get that reference, most of The Maltese Bippy is going to fall flat for you.)

If none of the above sounds appealing to you, there’s good news: it’s unavailable on DVD (as is the duo’s first silver screen outing, the equally dumb western Once Upon a Horse), so you won’t accidentally trip over it in your Netflix queue. If you’re intrigued by any of the above, then not only are you in for a long haul, but you’re obviously very easily intrigued. Click here to learn how door knobs work.


Thursday, February 18, 2010


It’s a bad night for the late shift crew of a local grocery store. Not only have they just learned that the store will soon be closed and they’ll all be out of a job, but now there’s a madman running around killing them off one by one! The shit you put up with for minimum wage, right?

That’s really all there is to the plot of Intruder, aka Night Crew, Night Crew: The Final Checkout and Night of the Intruder, depending on which version you managed to run down in the ‘80s. Some horror fans consider this one of the last “great” slasher films of the ‘80s. Others find it tedious and disposable were it not for director Scott Spiegel bringing along some of his Evil Dead II buddies including both Sam and Ted Raimi, Bruce Campbell, Danny Hicks, Pulp Fiction producer Lawrence Bender and the legendary KNB effects team. I fall somewhere in the middle.

Because once the film gets going, Intruder is actually a lot of fun. The kills are relatively creative—particularly Ted’s “meat chopping” demise—and the pace really picks up during the second half. Getting to the carnage, the basis of every slasher film good or bad, is a haul, though. It’s difficult to get too invested in the thinly-drawn characters, with the possible exception of “Bill”, played by Dan Hicks, playing the co-owner of the store. Even the Raimi brothers bring little fun to the mix because they basically appear in extended cameos—Campbell has a sum total of 40 seconds of screen time as a cop showing up at the end. Bland and blah “Jennifer” is played mostly by Elizabeth Cox’s gravity-defying hair. There isn’t a single person in the cast who couldn’t take out her stalker boyfriend played by David Byrnes and it’s easy to dismiss Renee Estevez’s Linda because she’s played by Renee Estevez.

What it does have, though, is Spiegel’s trademark inanimate-object-POV (telephone dial, ceiling fixture, shopping cart) which makes the visuals pop. And the climax is quite a nail-biter with a sense of bitter irony to it (which goes beyond the cheap shot ‘Boo!’ moment that became the typical capper of every horror movie following Carrie). The end moments are oddly satisfying and almost makes you rewrite the entire movie with more fondness. Still, if you’re a slasher completist, of course you have to run this one down and fortunately it’s readily available. Be sure to get the “director’s cut” DVD, even though the transfer isn’t the cleanest—it’s darker than prints struck for the original VHS, but it’s uncut, showcasing all that glorious KNB gore. And that’s what you came for, right? Unless you’re a big fan of spectator shelf-stocking.