Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lost, Found & Future: A Peek into Vinegar Syndrome

The phrase “lost film” is one of the saddest in the English vernacular. For being such a young format, it seems inconceivable that any movie could already be vanished to the ether of time. Of course, most know that a large portion of silent films were lost due to both intentional negligence, since film was considered a culturally disposable medium, and bad storage habits, leading to severely deteriorated prints. Due to the flammable nature of the nitrate, some prints would even spontaneously combust!

There's a new type of lost film, though. There are films that are barely old enough to collect a pension check that are marked as missing. People didn't really know better back in the early days, but what is the excuse for the past forty or fifty years? The flammable type of nitrate film stopped being used after 1952, so it's not really the case of movie prints literally bursting into flames. But then what is it? 

A lot of it is direct kin to the same kind of thinking that dates back to the early 1900's. Film was not considered “respectable” therefor it wasn't viewed in terms of preservation. Fast forward several decades later, with the tide changing enough for people to start thinking in terms of cinematic preservation. Ironically enough, most preservationists were thinking in terms of “respectable” films. Genres and subgenres, like adult, sexploitation, horror and underground, were, much like those early silent reels, were regarded as disposable and crude entertainment.

This kind of ignorance and pigheaded elitism is borderline chilling, but there is a silver lining. As more and more people are debating the future of cinema, there are those who are working hard to fight for the preservation of all film. Especially the type of films that have gone on unloved in mainstream circles for too long. Front and center on this right path is Vinegar Syndrome

Unearthing everything from arthouse gems (Nelson Lyon's “The Telephone Book,” Theodore Gushuny's “Sugar Cookies”) to ultra obscure cult films (Stanley Lewis'Punk Vacation”) to adult film classics (Alex DeRenzy's “Pretty Peaches,” Roberta Findlay's “Angel on Fire”), as well as lurid oddities (Bill Milling's “Oriental Blue,” Howard Perkins' “Baby Rosemary,”), they are more than a mere distribution company. Giving the kind of love and care to prints that is normally reserved by companies thrice as old and twice as big, Vinegar Syndrome first come upon my periphery with their Blu-Ray release of “The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis.” Being someone whose teenage years were spent reading and re-reading and then reading some more books like Michael Weldon's “The Psychotronic Video Guide” and Re/Search's “Incredibly Strange Film Book,” this was a release right after my own heart. 

A simple basic release of such previously lost H.G. Lewis films like “Black Love” and “Linda & Abilene,” would have been more than enough. Especially when you take into account how many a cult film fan had all but given up on these titles ever surfacing. But, even better, not only did they surface but on a lush, re-mastered release to boot. It felt like a gift and it was that key that unlocked for me, the world that is Vinegar Syndrome

 In keeping with their forward-thinking means of preserving and distributing these fringe gems of the past, Vinegar Syndrome have started a fundraiser via Indiegogo. The VinegarSydrome.TV project is a motion to bridge their incredible library of cult films with the digital age by creating a video-on-demand channel for such a treasure trove of cinema. Given that their title database is going to grow by at least forty more titles this year, it is a undoubtedly a project worthy of any film lover's attention.

Now....let's all go to the movies! 

2015 © Heather Drain

Thursday, January 1, 2015

No Such Thing as an Act in Vain: The Golden Age Appreciation Fund

This world is many things. In the splendor of life, this existence can be beautiful, harsh, strange, sad and wondrous. For many artists, life is all of this times nine. There's no 401K plans and financial instability will more often than not, be an ever constant presence and yet, it is this blood-born drive to create, to express, to scream, to whisper and to be seen that drives you to create even when your more financially pragmatic loved ones and friends are shaking their heads and asking when are you going to get a “real job.”

The only true shame in being an artist is the number of those who have dedicated the prime years of their life to expression, and still end up having to struggle in their later years. In the 50' and 60's it was the bluesmen who laid out the blueprints for a large part of modern music and yet, rarely, if ever, saw a dime for their hard work and toil. All that despite the fact that there were definitely people making an obscene amount of money off of them, meanwhile the artists themselves often lived in near poverty.

There are too many sad variations of this tale in all the arts, but one area in particular involves the men and women who took creative, personal and societal risks and forged new ground in the adult film industry. A sad but true factor is that our society is still devolved enough to shame consenting adults whose only “transgression” has been to have been naked and having a fairly good time on camera. When you think of all of the real atrocities that happen on this planet every single minute you breathe, consensual adults having sex should really be nonexistent on the list of things to be offended by.

Luckily, a trio of kind souls have started a new non-profit entitled The Golden Age Appreciation Fund. Founded by Mark Murray, whom along with his lovely wife Miranda, organized the original Golden Age fundraiser back in 2013, Ashley West whose work, both as a writer, an up and coming documentarian and the primary force behind the groundbreaking and essential The Rialto Report and Jill Nelson, who is the tremendous author of the quintessential biography on John Holmes (A Life Measured in Inches), as well as the definitive tome on women in Adult film (Golden Goddesses). These three have come together and created this organization, in which 100% of the donations goes directly to the artist that they are aiding.

In a world where artists and performers who have earned others millions of dollars and given countless joy to a world wide audience, they should not have to worry about basic necessities in their later years. So if you're a fan of the classic era of this genre or just someone who wants to support artists who are having to go through the harder aspects of life, please check out the Golden Age Appreciation Fund

Copyright 2015 Heather Drain

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I Love the Dead: Jorg Buttgereit's NEKROMANTIK

It takes a hardy artistic soul to explore cultural taboos with a flat-out bare-knuckles, wild Turk type of approach. But it takes an even hardier (and often, beautifully mad!) artistic soul to incorporate comedy with said culturally taboo exploration. Ladies and gents, let me pull back the curtain and introduce you to Jorg Buttgereit's 1988 underground classic, NEKROMANTIK. It's not the first film to delve into the topic of romancing the dead, since an earlier example of that would be the Lyle Waggoner wonder LOVE ME DEADLY from 1973, but it is truly unlike anything made past, present and future. Necrophilia or not.

Looking like a cross between a scratchy handwritten note and bathroom graffiti, the film opens with, “Warning! Some of this film may be seen as 'grossly' offensive & should not be shown to minors!!!” That kind of lurid hullabaloo can only mean that you are either in for a fun smear-on-your-soul kind of dark ride or a just bad carnival ride. Mercifully, it is the former. After that, the actual opening begins with a woman peeing by the side of the road at night. As she is relieving herself, her flowery panties splayed, her male companion starts yelling at her from the driver's side to hurry up. Getting back in the car, they almost get hit by one car and then as he starts to bitch more about her small bladder, it's time to cue up the Bloodrock since they get in a nasty and very fatal car wreck.

The beginning credits roll over the highly gruesome crash site, including the woman being not so neatly bisected and her partner's eye dangling from his newly empty socket. Soon the J.S.A. (Joe's Streetcleaning Agency) show up to tidy up the accident scene. The newest member of the crew, Robert (Daktari Lorenz), despite constantly irritating his team's leader, quietly enjoys his job. To the extent of bringing home little mementos---this time around being the driver's now completely severed eyeball. In a beautifully composed sequence, we get to see Robert, in his Ed Gein-meets-junkie-esque pit apartment, meticulously prepare a jar of (presumably) embalming fluid for him to place his newest acquisition in. There's a great shot of some of his previous souvenirs, including a hand, some organ meat and what looks like a fetus. (Hey, it beats the hell out of Precious Moments figurines.)

He's greeted by his girlfriend, Bettie (Beatrice M.) who shares Robert's enthusiasm for the dead and their assorted bits. Later on, she takes a bath in some especially ruddy looking water while the sounds of an academic discussion involving fear, desensitization and even, briefly, the video nasties, plays in the background. The sound is emanating from Robert's television. As fear and the confrontation of it continues on, it triggers a particular troubling flashback for him, inter-cutting footage of a live rabbit being killed and promptly skinned with Robert performing an autopsy of sorts on a corpse and removing some lard-type gunk out of the incision. Adding to the no fun ambiance is the quite brilliant white noise soundtrack. The whole sequence is hard to watch but so well put together that it puts you through a seesaw effect of compelling and wanting to look away from your screen.

An interstitial sequence involving apple picking and the dangers of doing so near a drunken German redneck who is listening to military-style music and trying to kill innocent birds plays out. (Here's a hint. It doesn't end too well for our intrepid apple picker.) The J.S.A. are called on an unrelated case, this time involving removing a long decomposed body out of a pond. (One of Robert's teammates remarks, “Picked a good day to go swimming!”) Everyone goes home and Robert's boss tells him to take over the wheel, leaving him alone with the husked out, waterlogged corpse. Faster than you can throw on Alice Cooper's “Cold Ethyl,” Robert brings the body home, to a very delighted Bettie. It has been said that necessity is the mother of all invention and as Robert saws off part of a pipe, the truth of this old saying has never been brighter. Attaching the metal form of a luscious apparatus to their new “friend,” Bettie makes sure to sheath it with a condom before one of the strangest menage-a-trois' ever to be committed to film occurs. It is, despite all of its tawdry eyeball licking and rot-goo glory, strangely arty and as tasteful as a three-way with a drowned corpse is going to be. Also, I absolutely dare you not to get what I am going to call “Love Theme from Nekromantik” out of your head. It's a strangely sweet tune that is more befitting of a chaste lovers holding hands in a field than rubbing your naughty bits up on a putrefied body. 

The afterglow is nice but things soon deteriorate when Robert loses his job and Bettie, worried about where they will find the next one, ends up leaving him. Everyone has a breaking point and for Robert, Bettie's terse departure is it. His path of self-destruction leads him from drinking to killing a cat (in a mercifully faked scene) and inevitably, murder. There's also a hilarious dream sequence involving a lovely maiden in white and playing a game of hot potato with a severed head. All of this leads him to one fluid and anguished climax, which I dare not spoil here. You just really need to see this for yourself, not to mention the sweet little twist ending.

For being only 75 minutes, NEKROMANTIK packs a lot into its fairly short running time. Having first read about it back when I was in junior high and managed to find an issue of the long defunct magazine, Film Threat Video, I thought I knew what kind of ride I would be in for. The associated still, a shot of Beatrice M. cuddling up to her long dead amour, flanked by a picture of Charles Manson on the wall, backed my assumption up. But NEKROMANTIK is more than just an extreme tale of the love that is hopefully outlawed in your home country. Sure, it has plenty of inventive uses of gore, ooze, goo and outre imagery to horrify your family and delight your more hardy friends. But if NEKROMANTIK was simply just another gross-out gore film, it would not have the level of notoriety that it does today.

For starters, despite its extremely DIY origins, complete with being originally shot on Super 8mm and taking around two years to complete, the film is incredibly well made. There is some great camera work that is utilized with a keen eye on composition, especially during the sequence when Robert finds out Bettie has left him. Another visually remarkable scene is when Robert and Bettie sit down to eat dinner. As they smile and eat quietly in the bright primary red room, the film keeps cutting back to the squalid gray of where their lover is hanging on the wall. It's a truly rich juxtaposition. Equaling the cinematography is the editing, which is tight and rhythmic when it needs to be. There's some especially great editing during Robert's meltdown, where the film is cut back and forth between him murdering the stray cat and burning a picture of Bettie. Then there's the soundtrack, which is terrific and ranges from schmaltzy love tones to industrial white noise. The fact that one of the composers is credited as “John Boy Walton” makes it all the better. The acting is fun with both Daktari Lorenz (who is also credited as one of the composers) and Beatrice M. being especially good as the young, attractive and damaged necrophiliacs in love. There could not have been better casting. Also, keep an eye out for director Buttgereit as one of Robert's co-workers at the J.S.A.

Director Jorg Buttgereit with the film's love interest.

Buttgereit, who had made a number of film shorts (including HOT LOVE, whose poster you can see in the film when Robert goes to a local movie theater) before his feature film debut with NEKROMANTIK, manages to do the near-impossible and deftly include both a fabulously twisted sense of humor as well as genuine horror. Merging the worlds of comedy and horror can be tricky, which is why most films that have tried are usually terrible. (There are exceptions, but that is a different article!) Buttgereit handles it like a director twice his age and three times as experienced. (He was only in his early 20's when he started shooting NEKROMANTIK.) The fact that you have this humor juxtaposed with gruesome imagery and a subject matter that is automatically going to put a lot of viewers in an extremely uncomfortable head space is borderline Artaud-like. It is a queasy but needed combination. It's healthy. After all, art can only hurt you if you let it.

Formerly available via Film Threat Video and Barrel Entertainment, NEKROMANTIK has found a new home in the US via Cult Epics. Thanks to them, the film is now available in a definitive edition of the film and on Blu Ray to boot! This release includes both a HD transfer of the original Super 8mm negative, as well as the “Grindhouse” version that was taken from the film's sole 35mm print. The former features the film looking as crisp as Super 8mm footage shot in the mid-80's is ever going to look and the latter features the film looking especially gritty and murky. Interestingly enough, one of the disc's extras includes Buttgereit introducing this version at a film festival and noting that it was his favorite since it looked more “dirty.” Which is pretty apt. In addition to these two versions, there is also a director's commentary, a “Making Of” featurette, the aforementioned HOT LOVE short and the gem itself, the film's soundtrack. It's a beautiful release of a still very much controversial and striking film.

One of the most inspirational lessons that one can take from NEKROMANTIK (and there's a sentence I have always wanted to type out) is that it is proof that you can be a film school reject with limited resources and finances and still make something that is potent enough for people to still be shocked, repulsed and entertained by twenty plus years down the road. With the right vision, tenacity and attention to technical film details that you don't need a lot of money for, like good editing, framing and music, you can create something unforgettable too. Even better is that Buttgereit is still working on film to this day, including a segment on the upcoming anthology film GERMAN ANGST. Like any true fringe film, it's not for everyone but if it was, where would the fun be in that? Let other people watch the latest codified, bloated boring-as-beige Hollywood epic. Thanks to film distributors like Cult Epics and artists like Buttgereit, we have better alternatives.

Copyright 2014 Heather Drain

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Candide on Speed: The Pretty Peaches Trilogy

Even in the wild wild west days of adult filmmaking, few directors were as bold and frankly, at times, batshit, as Alex de Renzy. Outre is a classier and equally accurate word to use, with de Renzy's work being interesting, talented, sleazy, exploitative and rarely boring. A fine example of this is his “Pretty Peaches” trilogy, starting with 1978's original “Pretty Peaches.”

If one was to go by the original poster art, featuring a lifelike drawing of the film's star, Desiree Cousteau, looking like a curvy Kewpie doll in a cream colored teddy, you could easily assume that “Pretty Peaches” was another light-as-air adult sex comedy. Which is sort of true, but then again, this is a comedy by Alex de Renzy, so keep that remembrance sealed tight in your cranium.

The film begins with our titular Peaches (Cousteau) driving in a jeep and heading towards her father, Hugh's (John Leslie), wedding to her lovely, new stepmother, Lilly (Flower). Peaches, after several shots of hard liquor, gets jealous of not getting her daddy's attention, and she drives off in a huff. In fact, she leaves in such a huff that she ends up having an accident out in the country, leaving her physically unharmed but unconscious. Whether or not you believe in constructs like luck or fate, you will soon realize that if such things do exist, then our heroine has apparently done something so hideous on a cosmic level that she ends up being put through a series of misadventures that will start to read less like Penthouse Forum and more like the Personals in Nugget. Don't believe me? Keep reading. 

John Leslie & Flower. The happy newlyweds.

Desiree Cousteau as Peaches. Looking none too happy.

While she is passed out, two young cads who had seen Peaches earlier at the gas station while dealing with a seat sniffing gas station clerk, stumble upon our beautiful and knocked out heroine. Kid (Joey Silvera) and his friend at first try to help. However, despite his friend being nervous, Kid immediately starts feeling her up and quickly graduates to mounting Peaches, who awakens right after the attack. In addition to essentially being raped back into consciousness, she also has a wicked case of amnesia. And if you're picturing the old school Conan O'Brien character, Clive Clemmons, waving the devil horns and playing electric guitar while a British voice screams out “Inappropriate!!!”, then give your brain a high five because it is so right.

Joey Silvera (Kid) & friend.

After the two try to run off with the amnesiac’s van, she ends up tagging along and temporarily moving in with them. That scenario alone sounds like the most demented 70's sitcom plot to have emerged out of the first several stratus of Hell. Still riddled with amnesia, she tries to find work, which leads to her getting an enema that is the Fleet equivalent to Vesuvius, in an often-censored scene, as well as being violated in a lesbian gang-bang that plays out like a Mack Sennett riot with gyrations, genitals and one harrowingly sized dildo. Things get slightly brighter when she connects with a seemingly nice shrink (Paul Thomas.) They make tender love and then, as a romantic gesture, he brings her to one insane-o swing party which quickly turns into a huge oily mess of bodies. Little does Peaches know that daddy Hugh and his new bride will bet there too. Will she get her memory back before something really life-altering and de Renzian happens?

“Pretty Peaches” pulls off some sort of strange alchemy where despite all of the depravity you are witnessing, the tone never veers off its screwball comedy path. It is way lighter than it should be, which make it all the more compelling. A perfect example of this is when Kid sends Peaches to meet his “Uncle Percy,” who is a “Doctor.” This Doctor drags her into a hidden bathroom and after borderline accosting her, he offers her a strange solution for amnesia. All in the form of an enema bag. Peaches immediately says “N.O! No.” His response? “Don't you want to be somebody?” It is that blurred line where hilarity and damaged have the most awkward make-out session ever. Even better are some of the performances, from the eternally solid John Leslie to the underrated Flower, but this is Desiree Cousteau's show all the way. Her sweet face and curvy body rendered her a Betty Boop for the 70's, but with an “I Love Lucy” styled delivery. Nowhere is that more defined than in “Pretty Peaches.” Cousteau's performance is fun to watch and meringue-lite enough to keep you from calling your own sleazy-shrink.

Siobhan Hunter as Peaches in Pretty Peaches 2
Little under 10 years later, de Renzy returned to this singular universe with, what else, “Pretty Peaches2.” In lieu of a continual storyline from the first film, the cycle is rebooted with young Peaches (Siobahn Hunter) having a sexual curiosity that is matched only by her pie-eyed naivete. Her domineering mother, Eunice (Tracey Adams, who looks as much like a “Eunice” as Bryan Ferry looks like a “Bubba”), is not much of help, with her making incidental cockblocking a borderline profession. This starts with Peaches jock boyfriend Tommy (Peter North), whom Eunice ends up forcing to have sex with her via knife point. (The lady does not mess around!)

Tracey Adams as Peaches' Mother
Beyond frustrated, Peaches goes to have a heart to heart with her father, Stanley (Hershell Savage). He encourages her to go out and explore the world on her own. She does just that and while hitchhiking, gets picked up by a trucker (Buck Adams.) But before she can lose her flower to a man who probably reeks of black beauties and Red Sovine tapes, a door-to-door hooker (!) (Jeanette Littledove) pops by and they quickly start to knock boots. Peaches watches with rapt fascination but never gets directly involved, which might be the result of the one synapse in her pretty but well ventilated head that dictates common sense. Losing your virginity in a three-way with a strange trucker and the no-tell-motel version of a lot lizard is an ill-advised thing, not unlike having unprotected carny sex while a bible salesman watches. (Now there's a movie for you!)

Peaches soon reaches her destination of San Francisco, where she stays at the house of her Uncle Howard (Ron Jeremy), his newish wife (Ashley Welles) and his dorky son (Billy Dee.) This side of her father's family are all WAY too familiar with each other, to the point where she would be safer back with the trucker and his dollar-a-dance hooker. While staying there, she meets both her uncle's exotic maid, Crystal (Melissa Melendez) and the superbly eccentric “Granny” (Jamie Gillis.) Yes, you read that correctly. Jamie Gillis is in grandma drag and yes, it is as wrong and amazing as you think it would be. Granny has Peaches don a skimpy teddy that is all the rage in France while schooling her on cleaning techniques. Soon, the big bad wolf comes out and after telling Peaches to keep the fact that she's a horny dude a secret, though no one on the “outside” is aware, Granny shows her the art of physical love.

Buck Adams and Janette Littledove

The wrongest family dinner EVER

After that, Peaches ends up in Chinatown, as her parents go to Uncle Howard's. While trying to find their daughter, they end up getting sidetracked by the ick-ick-icky family dynamic. Crystal ends up leaving and taking Peaches to “The Master” (also Ron Jeremy), where more education of the DNA exchanging occurs. But there is one more surprise in store for our heroine, all in an unlikely and yet, oddly expected form.

Granny....what big eyes you have...Jamie Gillis as Granny.

Melissa Melendez as the mysterious Crystal with Peaches.
While “Pretty Peaches 2” lacks the screwball-comedy-from-Hell vibe of the original, it does make up for it with some strange plot decisions and terrific camera work. This is one well-lensed film and on top of that, there are some good performances here, namely from Savage, Adams and especially, Gillis, who completely steals the show as the lascivious “Granny.” One would be hard pressed to think of a better “big bad wolf” than Jamie Gillis. Tracy Adams, who was often underused as an actress, has such a strong presence that she easily overshadows Siobahn Hunter. (Whom she was only older than by about 6 years. What is this? Hollywood?) Hunter does look lovely here and in the spirit of fairness, it's not like she is given much to do other than look pretty, bat her wide eyes and get busy. 

DeRenzy ended up having one more “Peaches” film in him and in 1989, he directed “Pretty Peaches3: The Quest.” Returning from the last film is Tracey Adams as Peaches' mother, though her daughter is played this time around by super-curvy Keisha. For all intents and purposes, pretend that the last film didn't happen since this version of Peaches, while equally na├»ve as her predecessor is less concerned about sex and more focused on her spiritual journey. (The titular “Quest.”) The fact alone that this is an Alex de Renzy film dealing with spirituality is pretty astounding.

Case in point, after being disturbed by her daughter having strange and erotic dreams, including one where two men claw through several pairs of tights and hosiery to get to a friend of Peaches, her mother arranges an appointment with a therapist. With some vague echoes of the original Peaches and her luck with salacious doctors, this incarnation goes to meet Dr. Thunderpussy (Rachel Ryan), who does exactly to her patient what you would expect someone with such a name would do. (Was Doctor LightningCervix too subtle?) 

However advantageous, it is this encounter that sends our heroine on her journey. Will young Peaches find what she is looking for or only get used and chewed up in the process? “Pretty Peaches 3,” while not quite as well shot as the 2nd one or as bizarro as the first, does stand out for a number of reasons. For starters, it's a weirder animal, with some fairly funny and acidic commentary on religion in general. Whether it is a sleazy, Swaggart-like televangelist (more on him in a minute), lesbian “nuns,” a yuppie New Age huckster (played to perfection by Jon Martin) or a Ray Ban wearing, “omm-ing” phony-guru, there is little chance for redemption or personal growth in this opportunistic world. The film's surprise ending is further proof of this. It would be heavy stuff if this film wasn't so goony and fun.

Lesbian Nuns....sort of.

The fantastic Jon Martin in intense yuppie-guru mode.

Mike Horner....Ommmming

Speaking of fun, for starters there is Jamie Gillis as Reverend Billy Bob, crying on air when he's not running from the authorities or getting sidetracked by pleasures of the more Earthy variety. The image of Gillis in a white suit that is way too tight and wearing a cross the size of one of Rod Rooter's wind-chime-sized medallions is one that borders on the life-affirming. It is one of those moments where you can say, “You had me at Jamie Gillis playing a televangelist.” 

Jamie Gillis as a teary eyed Televangelist
Keisha is surprisingly likable and warm in the title role, making her seem less cartoony than Siobahn Hunter's version. (Though Cousteau's Lucille Ball-esque performance is still miles ahead of both.) In some ways, she has more in common with the Cousteau version, since sex is something she is not so much seeking out as it is something that happens to find her. In a non-sex role, Jack Baker, whose resume ranged from “Happy Days” and “Kentucky Fried Movie” to “New Wave Hookers,” pops up, making the film instantly even better. Baker was an incredibly talented actor who really deserved a bigger career then he received but he always brightened up everything he was in. This is no exception. Mike Horner also gets a special nod for being really, really funny. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention film legend Richard Pacheco turning up in a small non-sex cameo role as the most glorious wino in recent memory. 

Peaches (Keisha) meets the world's most awesome wino (the ebullient Richard Pacheco)
The original “Pretty Peaches” was only available uncut via gray market sources for years in the US, but thanks to the untiring and dedicated folks at Vinegar Syndrome, it is, along with the two sequels, are available, uncut and looking better than ever. The original is now on Blu Ray and has some incredible supplements, including rare footage of an interview with de Renzy himself. There are also some great trailers, featuring one of my own personal favorites ever, “Babyface 2.” If this means that Vinegar Syndrome are releasing it too, you know I will be doing my own personal happy dance. (For the best article written on that title, please check out Gore-Gore Girl's fabulous article right here.) As for the trilogy itself, it is a fun adult peek into cinematic chaos bordering on the surreal. It's not for everyone but if you are that person that is open to it, you will love it.

Copyright 2014 Heather Drain

Monday, November 10, 2014

Say it Again! Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy!

There is something so undeniably captivating about a magnificent disaster. It's the same kind of charisma and fear that you see in riots and car crashes. One part horror and one part pure human magnetic curiosity, both coming together to make you turn your head and aim your gaze straight into the wreckage. This is everything I felt and more when I realized that I wanted to, scratch that, needed to see the 1980 Robert Downey Sr. film, Mad Magazine Presents Up the Academy.

It all started when I picked up a pristine copy of the vinyl soundtrack at a local flea market about a couple of months back. Unlike more famous soundtracks of early 80's comedies, I was shocked at how crazy solid it was. Case in point, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sure, it had Oingo Boingo, but it also had Jackson Browne and Jimmy Buffet. Up the Academy, on the other hand, had Blondie, Ian Hunter and The Modern Lovers. Even the Sammy Hagar track is pretty good. After playing the album dozens of times, it planted the seed of car crash compulsion. First I researched it. I had known beforehand that the film had bombed at the box office and there were some kind of legal actions related to it.

This was an understatement.

The combination of a live action film tied with one of the greatest and most irreverent humor mags to have ever come out of these shores was a brilliant least on paper. Add to the mix a brilliant underground film maverick in the form of the man that gave the world Putney Swope, Pound and Greaser's Palace, Robert Downey Sr and it's a no brainer. Again, on paper. Throw in a mixed cast that included some young newcomers as well as notable actors like Antonio Fargas, Barbara Bach, Tom Poston and the eternally marvelous Ron Leibman as the main villain along with the aforementioned killer soundtrack and it was sure to be an ace in the deck. So what went wrong?

The first cracks appeared back n the pre-production process, when the script was sent to Mad publisher Bill Gaines. According to an interview that appeared in the Comics Journal, he liked the script as a whole but found some things offensive and requested that certain changes be made. However the changes that Gaines was promised never happened and the end result ended up muddled. To the extent that he ended up paying $30,000 for Warner Brothers to remove any references to Mad, including the appearance of Alfred E. Neuman, on both the cable television print, as well the domestic home video cut. Mad even did a parody called “Mad Magazine Resents Throw Up the Academy.” Adding further to the hot mess factor was actor Ron Leibman, who is the biggest adult character in the film, requesting his name be removed from the film and any related promotional materials.

So, knowing all of this before going into the film, I was prepared for the worst. Like Fraternity Vacation bad. However, the end result, while admittedly uneven, is not the worst thing in the world. The plot centers on three kids whom, due to assorted delinquent behavior, are sent to the Weinberg Military Academy. It's there that they encounter the motley crew of academic faculty, that include a blind barber, a pederast dance instructor (Tom Poston !?) and a weapons expert whose radiant and extremely tan d├ęcolletage belongs to Barbara Bach, sporting the weirdest accent that sounds like Cat on a Tin Roof with a dash of Perini Scleroso. The film's real star and the thorn in our young protagonists' side is one Major Vaughn Liceman (Ron Leibman).

Liceman, a former student of Weinberg and happy participant in the My Lai Massacre (yes, that is part of a joke in the film), tries to be the boys' friend which includes spying, assorted racist comments aimed at Hash, the Middle Eastern student and barking out “Say it Again!” anytime he wants to emphatically stress the importance of saying “Sir” at the end of a sentence. Further proof of the amazingness of this villain is that for the first part of the movie, his entrance is always signified by a cool gust of wind and The Stooges “Gimme Danger!”

The boys, headed by Oliver (Hutch Parker), plot revenge after Liceman obtains Polaroids of the young lad in flagrante delicto with his girlfriend, Candy (Stacey Nelkin). Why is that particularly a big deal? Well, the reason Oliver ended up at Weinberg in the first place was due to him getting Candy knocked up, much to the horror of his politician father. One of the bits of satire in the film that halfway works is the fact that Oliver's dad 's campaign hinges on a staunch anti-abortion stance, meanwhile Candy is quickly sent to the abortion clinic before departing to Butch Academy for Women. (If you're groaning, don't worry, I am groaning just typing that last part out.) Well, Oliver's friends help him bust out to go “visit” Candy at her nearby academy for ten minutes, which is just enough time to shake some action.

So, if the photos are exposed, then Oliver's dad's campaign is jeopardized, as well as Oliver's chances of getting his dream car. Add in a subplot involving a fourth student who shows up after setting fire, literally, to his last school and the film goes from already ridiculous to wholly head scratching. Case in point? The strains of Lou Reed's “Street Hassle” intros a scene of the boys doing a “proper” eating exercise in the mess hall. Great song but talk about inexplicable usage. I'm surprised Suicide's “Frankie Teardrop” wasn't used during one of the fart gags. 

Figuring turnabout is fair play, the gang enlist Candy to seduce Liceman explicitly so they can jump in and take some incriminating photos of their own. The plan actually goes without a hitch, with Liceman and the gang using an upcoming soccer match between students and the faculty to settle the score. The best part of the ending is the surreal looping of Liceman running after the gang as they drive away, with each loop beginning with the audio of him yelling out “Play it again!” As if it couldn't get any weirder, around the second to last loop, the camera zooms in closer to reveal the figure of Alfred E. Neuman standing at the side of the road waving and then shrugging as a “What, me Worry?” word balloon pops up. Well, when I say Alfred E. Neumann, what I really mean is what appears to be a child wearing a beautifully executed though moderately unsettling mask created by SFX wizard Rick Baker. The end result of this is nothing short of absolute deviltry, though I'm sure Satan had his name taken off the credits too. 

 Up the Academy has three incredibly strong things going for it. First and foremost is Ron Leibman. The man, who is rock solid in everything he graces, is absolutely majestic here as the Southern milatoid with a penchance for repetition, tying girls up with rope and using “Tickle ya ass with a feather?” as a come on. If they had cast anyone else, the film's watchability would go way, way down. He's charismatic and hilarious, with one of the highlights being the whole seduction scene with Candy. He plays it off so perfectly, right down to doing front clap push ups while she is slipping into something more comfortable. (Which is a belly dancing outfit. Something a random high school aged girl staying at a military academy would happen to have?) His performance outsmarts the script by 800 miles, to the point where I wish he would have left his name in the credits, since he is golden here.

The second is the whole scene with an atrocious a capella group, aptly titled The Landmines. Horrible a capella is admittedly one of my personal comedy triggers, so your mileage may vary. But imagine a band so awful that not only do they practically clear the room, except for an ecstatic and grinning Liceman, but glasses break, dogs growl, stock footage buildings from the past crumble and a woman's shoes fall off. Even better is Leibman's bit at the end, where he asks them if they have any records available.

Then there's the aforementioned soundtrack. Supervised by Blow Up frontman Jody Taylor, it is a veritable Whitman's sampler of the best of the best of 70's era proto-punk (The Stooges, The Modern Lovers), punk/new wave (Eddie & the Hot Rods, Blondie, David Johansen solo) and pop (The Babys, Pat Benatar). The catchiest songs, however, belong to Blow Up themselves, providing both the main song, “Kicking Up a Fuss” and the tune that plays during the “Play it Again” end sequence, “Beat the Devil.” (Again, further proof that Old Scratch was connected to this film.) Much like Liebman's performance, it is too bad that Blow Up's terrific efforts got saddled to a film that ended up being so maligned.

The young cast, minus Ralph Macchio as the incredibly pissy Italian-American Chooch, are serviceable at best. Macchio, only 12 here in his first film role, out-acts all of his peers and makes you wish that his wimpy character in The Karate Kid was this full of moxie and anti-social awesomeness. The others are not bad, but are not terribly memorable either and in fact, inadvertently neutralize some of the better lines in the film. There's also Harry Teinowitz as Rodney Ververgaert, a highly awkward pyromaniac who is so irritating that he actually weighs any scene he is in down. It is one of those performances that is either terrible or brilliant, because he easily makes one recall that kid in school that annoyed even the other student pariahs. Poston is kind of wasted in a one note role that requires nothing for him to do except mince, swish and invoke some of the lighter comedic stylings of your garden variety NAMBLA member. His role is symptomatic of a lot of the more politically incorrect humor, which is occasionally amusing but more of than not falls flat. Antonio Fargas, the great Antonio Fargas, is even more wasted as a cranky soccer coach who shows up for all of two minutes.

The humor misses more than it hits but the film's high weirdness factor combined with its strengths do make Up the Academy an overall entertaining movie. It does make one wonder what could have been if both Downey Sr and the writers at Mad have been given more control. But. that said, the film is worth seeking out on DVD, which has all of the Mad references reinstated, for Ron Leibman, the stellar soundtrack and the most hideously splendid a capella group ever. 

For more on Up the Academy, check out this awesome article over at Technicolor Dreams.

 Copyright Heather Drain 2014

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Hell Bent for Cinema: Mike McPadden's Heavy Metal Movies

Music and film are two constructs that fit so perfectly that they might as well be sending each construction paper hearts with glitter glue lovey words. With something that can be as epic, brutal and at times, goony as heavy metal, it is always natural for it to cross-pollinate with the wild world of film. Luckily for us, someone was ballsy, brave, educated and, yes, metal enough to traipse these curious waters. That man? Mike McPadden and his book, Heavy Metal Movies: Guitar Barbarians, Mutant Bimbos &Cult Zombies Amok in the 666 Most Ear- and Eye-Ripping Big-ScreamFilms Ever! 

This is a book, nay, a tome, that loves metal more than the older brother of your best friend in junior high who used to sell skunk weed to underage kids at the roller rink. Even more than that acquaintance you once had who could quote Rush's “Fly By Night” by heart, worshiped at the altar of Ronnie James Dio and happened to have at least one 8-sided dice in his/her pocket. In fact, the only way this book could be more dedicated to the genre of heavy metal is if it was spit shining the studded codpiece of Blackie Lawless himself.

The one and true Thor

One of the first things that stands out about about Heavy Metal Movies is its sheer density. Even as someone who is both a professional (yes, because I am that fancy) film writer and a longtime heavy metal music fan, I was shocked that there were that many movies that fit the criteria. Which is really a testament to the tireless research McPadden put into this book. The expected titles are written about, including for my money, the most uber-metal film of them all, ROCK & ROLL NIGHTMARE starring the one and only true Thor, the Canadian hard rock god. Seriously, forget about The Avengers and all of that and pick up ROCK & ROLL NIGHTMARE. In a fair and just world, every movie would have the hulky, blonde presence of Jon-Mikl Thor. 

But the flip side of that is a film like ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE. Initially, that may seem about as heavy metal as a Stryper concert, save for one very key detail, which is the presence of death metal legends Cannibal Corpse. Having seen this film years ago, how I forgot about Cannibal Corpse being in it is beyond me. Maybe that detail got lost amongst the singing operatic butts, Udo Kier (whom, some could argue, is even more metal than Cannibal Corpse themselves) and the lame, even at the time of the film's release, CRYING GAME twist ending. Even better, is that McPadden then informs us that the sole reason that the band responsible for some of the most grisly album cover art and music in the annals of metal, is even in the movie itself, is due to VENTURA star himself, Jim Carrey. The mental image of Jim Carrey rocking out to some supreme death metal trumps everything that is actually in ACE VENTURA. 

The book itself opens up with, appropriately enough, an interview with the godfather of horror-rock himself, Alice Cooper. (I type this as the ghost of Screaming Lord Sutch grimaces from the afterworld. It's okay, I love them both.) Cooper, having not only integrated horror movie ambiance and imagery with his stage shows, also has acted in such notable scary movies as John Carpenter's PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the Italian-oddity MONSTER DOG and the ooky-spookiest of them all, SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND. With a pedigree like that, as well as a hilarious cameo in WAYNE'S WORLD he is the perfect interview to set the tone for Heavy Metal Movies.

As ambitious as it is epochal, with a resume like Mike McPadden's, it feels like a no-fail formula. Here is a writer that was practically built for the job. His background includes working for Hustler back in the 1990's and even writing the script for the Skin-a-max staple ANIMAL INSTINCTS 3 (under the pseudonym Selwyn Harris, which are both nods to the legendary Grindhouses of NYC) and being hip enough to include a Steve Albini reference. How many “erotic thrillers” included references to the famed producer and former member of Big Black? Only one and McPadden wrote it. In addition to helming the seminal early 90's zine, Happyland, he also currently dips his toes into the trash culture waters with his site, McBeardo

All of this experience shines well in Heavy Metal Movies, with there being a sweet balance of humor, fucking A attitude but all with an undercurrent of being smart and impeccably researched. This is one of those films books where you may learn something new, but even if you don't, you are gonna have fun reading it one way or the other. Kudos to both McPadden and the publisher Bazillion Points for not only releasing this work but having it laid out in such a comic-book fun level.

For fringe-film culture fans and heavy metal converts alike, Heavy Metal Movies is the book equivalent of the cover art for Anthrax's appropriately named debut. But in lieu of a iron studded wrist going through your skull, you get some wicked writing and the only film book to my knowledge that intentionally has 666 movie reviews. It's enough to make the dark lord proud.

Copyright 2014 Heather Drain


Friday, October 17, 2014

Cinematic Sacriledge, Nasties, Snake Plants & Felony: Link Update Round-Up

There are fewer things in life sweeter to me than variety. Chalk it up to a general joie de vivre or a severe case of clinically undiagnosed ADD, I like to shake things up on a fairly continual basis. This is crystalline in its obviousness when you scan through this latest update round-up.

For starters, my piece on Jean-Luc Godard's controversial 1985 film involving themes of religion and family, HAIL MARY, can be read in the latest issue of the best magazine dedicated to VHS subculture, Lunchmeat. 

In the spirit of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples' Day, the fantastic Actually Huizenga (whose work I have written about before on Dangerous Minds) has released a non-album single called "Red, White, Black & Blue." Even better is that it's a duet with Murphy Maxwell and has a corresponding photo shoot by brilliant photographer, Socrates Mitsios. I got to write about it as a collaborative effort of sorts for the fashion-travel-art-sex magazine, Live Fast. They are great and so is Actually. Definitely check it out.

Speaking of Dangerous Minds, I got to recently cover one of my absolute favorite composers ever, the criminally underrated Mort Garson. The man's an electric music pioneer and had one of the most unique careers in the history of modern music.

Being both a big fan of free speech, documentaries and director Jake West, it was only a matter of time I would delve into Severin's superb three-disc set, VIDEO NASTIES: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE. (You can read my piece about it over at Dangerous Minds.) Even if you're not a horror or exploitation film fan, you will still love this vital documentary whose issues are as vital now as they were back in the 80's.

One of my favorite slasher films, GRADUATION DAY, recently got a spiffy release courtesy of the always fabulous folks over at Vinegar Syndrome. It's tight little gem with some key surprises and an appearance by one of the most unique bands that came out of the New Wave scene, Felony. You can read about all of that and more right here.

So there you have it! There is much more where that came from, so keep your peepers peeled, your mind open and in the meantime, have a great evening!

© 2014 Heather Drain