Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: The Boogens (1981)

A cable mainstay in the early 1980s, James Conway's THE BOOGENS left a favorable impression on horror fans of a certain age who were lucky enough to stumble across it while channel surfing. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, the film became very tough to see, vanishing until its belated VHS release in the dying days of that format. Since a large part of the film takes place underground, that that transfer was dark and details were often hard to make out. Luckily, the film has now been reissued on Blu-ray, giving audiences the chance to see THE BOOGENS the way it was meant to be seen for the first time since 1981.

There's not much to the plot. Mark and Roger (Fred McCarren and Jeff Harlan) are hired to help reopen the local mine in snowy Silver City, Colorado, the site of a tragic accident that has kept the mine in disuse for sixty years. Joined by their girlfriends (Anne-Marie Martin and Rebecca Balding) and toy poodle (who's probably brighter than all four put together), everything goes swimmingly until the miners awaken the boogens, a race of subterranean critters with fangs and tentacles who are not too pleased by having their sleeping place disturbed. They use the mine's tunnels (which conveniently connect to the neighboring town) to start bumping off the human population, thereby making Silver City safe for boogens once again. 

The best thing about THE BOOGENS is its complete lack of pretension. Obviously made on a shoestring budget (the entire cast consists of only ten people), it never tries to be anything but an old fashioned creature feature. Conway wisely keeps the boogens hidden for most of the film but when we finally do see them, they're obviously hand puppets.This is one of the few films whose pleasures derive almost entirely of knowing exactly what is going to happen next. After all, THE BOOGENS wasn't even the first horror film from 1981 to revolve around a mining accident - that honor goes to MY BLOODY VALENTINE. It's a credit to the film that it never seems boring as it hits the obligatory tropes, ranging from the old timer who leaves cryptic messages about the menace to the film's fiery finale. Where the film does manage to depart from most of the horror films made at that time is in the depiction of its characters. In most films of this type the characters exist basically as target practice for the monster. While they serve the same basic purpose here, at least some attempt is made to create likeable characters that the audience will actually miss once they get killed.

THE BOOGENS  was shot in Park City, Utah, the future home of the Sundance Film Festival. I have to hope that some local entrepreneur is giving BOOGENS location tours to jaded cinefiles, reminding them of the pleasures of a familiar story well told. It may not change your life (in fact it's pretty much guaranteed not to) but I can't imagine anyone with any affection towards horror films not having fun with THE BOOGENS.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Popatopolis (2009)

Proof that not every graduate of Roger Corman's filmmaking factory goes on to multi-million dollar budgets and critical acclaim, Jim Wynorski has been churning out low budget exploitation for close to thirty years. Some are fun (DEATHSTALKER II) but none are, in the traditional sense, good. However, Wynorski has developed a reputation as a director who knows his audience and is able to deliver the goods on a tight budget which is how he's been able to make 90 films in a  27 year career using a variety of clever pseudonyms (including but not limited to Jay Andrews, H.R. Blueberry, Salvadore Ross and of course Tom Popatopolous).  Clay Westervelt's documentary POPATOPOLIS is a portrait of the master at work making his 2005 film THE WITCHES OF BREASTWICK. 

Accepting a bet that he can make his film with only a three day shooting schedule, Wynorski heads to his remote shooting location (the better to not have cell phone reception) with his actors and a skeleton crew.  It is here that Westervelt and Wynorski provide the audience with the harsh realities of micro budget filmmaking including working with an inexperienced crew, communication breakdowns and learning to deal with some less than convincing line readings. Along the way we get interviews with Wynorski and his cast exploring such topics as Wynorski's behavior on set (he yells a lot), the shrinking market for exploitation films and the resentment felt when adult film actress Stormy Daniels is added to the cast for "marquee value." There's also a hilarious interview with Wynorski's mother who seems quite proud of her son while remaining blissfully ignorant of the content of most of his films.

Through it all, Wynorski comes across as an amiable enough guy, at least when he's not on the set. He's obviously in love with the idea of filmmaking (a tour of his house reveals that his kitchen cabinets are full of old DVDs and VHS tapes) but he seems completely stressed by the actual act of making a movie. Of course most of the stress is brought on by himself by always opting for the cheap solution to every problem. However, even though Wynorski and his actresses readily admit that they're making a product and not art, they all seem dedicated to at least making the best product they can under the circumstances. POPATOPOLIS manages to straddle a fine line between making fun of its subject and admiration for the work involved in making even the cheapest throwaway movie. It's recommended to anyone interested in the subject of filmmaking as well as anyone thinking about it as a career.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: King of the Ants (2003)

Stuart Gordon's early films, especially his H.P. Lovecraft adaptations RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND, showed an ability to juggle potentially dark material with humor, which prevented the material from ever appearing too nasty and also allowed the films to enjoy a certain amount of crossover success. By the early years of the 21st century, however, Gordon's view of the world seemed noticeably darker, with him preferring bleak character studies of desperate people to lighthearted monster movies. This is especially evident in his adaptation of Charles Higson's novel KING OF THE ANTS.

When crooked real estate developer Ray Matthews (Daniel Baldwin) and his cohort Duke (George Wendt) need someone to tail and then murder a District Attorney who has evidence against them, they choose Sean Crawley (Chris McKenna), an amiable enough guy who makes ends meet by drifting from one odd job to the next. Sean is, as Duke says, an ant - someone who goes about his life doing insignificant things until he dies and is replaced by someone just like him. After Sean performs the hit, Ray decides to tie up loose ends by killing Sean. He's unable to do this, however, since Sean has hidden the D.A.'s evidence as insurance against just such an event. Thus begins an ever increasing battle for dominance between Sean and Ray.

KING OF THE ANTS is a film that asks just how far someone will go in order to survive. Sean goes from a nice guy who paints houses for a few dollars to illegally following someone to murder for hire to multiple murder, all in the name of his own self preservation. Not only can Sean justify everything he does, but in taking ruthless revenge on those who tried to use him he finally finds what he's good at. By pushing Sean too far, Ray and Duke have awakened a monster willing to do anything in order to preserve his self interests. 

KING OF THE ANTS is a grueling film, especially during a protracted second act sequence where Ray tries to dispose of Sean without killing him by turning him into a vegetable. This part of the film is extremely hard to watch. There are a few missteps, most notably Sean's romance with the D.A.'s widow (Kari Wuhrer), which strains credibility and doesn't really add anything to the film.  For the most part, however, KING OF THE ANTS is a tense, well acted and often brutal portrait of a man discovering the monster within himself. It's not necessarily a fun night at the movies but those who are up for it will most likely find it a rewarding experience.

For more overlooked films and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog 


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Surf II (1984)

Possibly the dumbest comedy to be released in a decade dominated by dumb comedies (and I mean that in the most loving way possible), Randall Badat's SURF II is worth sitting through mostly to witness the finest cinematic moment of Eddie Deezen. For over three decades Deezen has been playing pretty much the same role - a nerd, kind of like an even more socially awkward Jerry Lewis, complete with slicked back hair and pocket protector, who there mainly to be mocked by the rest of the cast. Usually Deezen is limited to cameo appearances but in SURF II he gets to take center stage.

SURF II opens with a California seaside town being mildly annoyed by the mutilation deaths of two surfers. Local law enforcement Chief "Don't call me Chef" Boyardie (Lyle Waggoner) has the beach dusted for prints and deduces that a maniac is on the loose. It turns out he's correct since deep in his undersea lair beneath the local oil refinery, evil genius Menlo Schwartzer (Deezen), unhinged since being the butt of cruel practical joke, is planning his revenge against the town's surfers. Menlo plans to flood the town with Buzzz cola (the soda that also cleans drains and strips the paint from battleships) which turns whoever drinks it into garbage eating punk rock zombies. He's assisted by Sparkle (Linda Kerridge), who depends on Menlo's treatments (which involve sticking her head into what looks like a giant waffle iron) to keep her beautiful. It's up to brain dead surfers Chuck (Eric Stoltz) and Bob (Jeffery Rogers) to discover the plan and stop it before it ruins the big surf competition.

In case you haven't figured it out, there was never a SURF I. If you find that funny (like I do) then you'll probably enjoy the film. As the plot synopsis makes evident, a coherent story isn't the top priority here. The film is mostly a collection of incredibly stupid jokes, sight gags and surfing stock footage. In the middle of all this is Deezen, having a blast playing his version of a Bond villain and clearly relishing his chance to create an actual character instead of performing his usual walk-on  schtick. It's also nice to see Linda Kerridge, who spent most of her short career playing Marilyn Monroe lookalikes, doing something a bit different. Honestly, this movie seems so desperate to please, throwing so many different elements at the screen, that it's almost impossible not to find something to like here. Not only do you have the unbeatable combination of surfers and zombies but where else are you going to find Eddie Deezen, Lyle Waggoner and Eric Stoltz in the same film? 

For more overlooked film and a/v visit Todd Mason's blog.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: THE EYES OF ANNIE JONES (1964)

Reginald Le Borg's THE EYES OF ANNIE JONES is a strange little movie that never quite figures out what it wants to be. Part mystery, part horror film and part romantic drama, its many elements never mesh into a cohesive whole but it still manages to be a fairly interesting programmer despite itself.

The film revolves around Geraldine, a heiress to a paper fortune who has disappeared en route to Spain. The police suspect foul play since if anything happens to Geraldine her fortune is set to pass to her philandering, irresponsible brother, David (Richard Conte). David and his dotty Aunt Helen (Joyce Carey) enlist the help of Annie Jones (an impossibly young looking Francesca Annis), a troubled youth from the local orphanage who Helen believes has psychic abilities, to help in the search. Along with David's wife Carol (Myrtle Reed) the group heads off to Geraldine's house so Annie can "absorb her aura" find some answers. The only problem is that Annie is only too happy to have a break from the orphanage and is in no hurry to find the missing heiress. She also has set her sights on forty-something year old David, something he seems quite pleased with.

The biggest problem with the film is that is doesn't follow through on any of its plot elements. I won't give it away, but Geraldine's fate is revealed very early in the film, eliminating the mystery and leaving the characters to spin their wheels as the discover things that the audience already knows. The film tries to generate suspense by introducing the possibility that Annie psychic powers aren't real, but we see her demonstrate them early in the film so it's clear that she has at least some abilities. Plus, her abilities have very little, if anything, to do with the ultimate resolution of the mystery. That leaves the domestic drama, which is the least interesting plot element, yet ironically is the most successful. A lot of the movie's 73 minutes are devoted to showing Annie as a neglected girl jealous of the finer things in life and David as a sleazy playboy who doesn't have any problem cheating on his wife while she's still in the room. It's fun to watch them interact.

The film's a mess but there's something about it that still makes it watchable. Part of it is a game cast having fun with the ridiculous material. Another is trying to guess where the film is ultimately heading. It's like the filmmakers took every conceivable plot element they could think of, threw it into a stew and hoped for the best. The results may not be exactly good, but they're still pretty entertaining.

For more overlooked films and a/v go to Todd Mason's blog

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Walk Proud (1979)

Every now and then a wave of synchronicity flows through the corridors of power in Hollywood, resulting in competing films with the same basic subject matter released within a few months of each other. Hence, dual films about crashing asteroids (DEEP IMPACT and ARMAGEDDON), Robin Hood (although Fox blinked and sent its Patrick Begin starring ROBIN HOOD to TV to avoid competing with ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES) and this years Snow White inspired MIRROR MIRROR and SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. In 1979 the hot topic was street gangs, with no less than four films dealing with the subject. At the top of the heap is Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS along with the seldom seen BOULEVARD NIGHTS and SUNNYSIDE, starring John Travolta's talent-impaired brother Joey. Rounding out the quartet is the oddest film in the bunch, Robert L. Collins' WALK PROUD, which won instant admission into the Camp Hall of Fame due to its casting of the very white teen heartthrob Robby Benson as a Chicano gang leader.

Benson, complete with brown contacts, bandanna and what looks like shoe polish smeared all over his body, plays Emilio, second in command of the Aztecas, the toughest gang in Venice, California. In fact, the Aztecas are so tough that they are able to intimidate a robbery witness by staring him down through the reflective side of a two way mirror. However Emilio starts to question his loyalties to the gang when he falls for Sarah (Sarah Holcomb), a wealthy girl from his school. Thus begins not only a tender love story but a meeting of two cultures as Emilio lectures Sarah on Chicano pride with Elton John songs playing in the background (since nothing says Chicano pride like Elton John) and Sarah introduces Emilio to her parents while on an outing on their boat (since all white parents are wealthy enough to own boats yet still send their daughters to schools populated by gang members). It's not long before Emilio's divided loyalties run the risk of having him "jumped out" of the gang, a process that may leave him friendless and physically broken.

By all rights this movie should be terrible and it is laughable in a lot of ways, but everyone involved seems so earnest that it becomes possible to ignore some of the more ridiculous aspects of the story. It's true that Benson is terribly miscast but he tries really, really hard to pull it off and almost succeeds. It helps that he's surrounded by actual Chicano character actors like Pepe Serna and Trinadad Silva who try their best to make Benson look authentic. Benson even sings the film's end credit theme song, "Adios Yesterday" (with lyrics written by his father, Jerry Segal). He also has extremely nice chemistry with Holcomb, a promising young actress who should've had a much bigger career but ended up a Hollywood casualty after supporting parts in ANIMAL HOUSE  and CADDYSHACK. Her sad story can be found here. Most of the film's faults can be attributed to the weak script by veteran novelist Evan Hunter and Collins' direction. Collins shoots the movie in a very flat, uninteresting way which makes it look like a made for TV film, not surprisingly since most of his experience is in television. 

By far the mildest of all the 1979 gang films in terms of its depiction of gang violence, WALK PROUD is much more successful as a romance than a gang movie. That should have worked in the film's favor when THE WARRIORS and its ilk were pulled from theaters following reports of increased violence and vandalism at theaters where they were playing. But instead of marketing it as a romance Universal pulled the film, making it very hard to see prior to its VHS release and adding to its terrible reputation. In truth, the film is no better or worse than dozens of other teen romantic dramas made at the time (many of which starred Benson). It's by no means a great (or even very good) movie but there are much worse ways to spend a lazy afternoon.

For more overlooked film and AV check out Todd Mason's blog.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (2004)

Those of us who grew up before the heyday of cable TV or home video may remember all too well that when we wanted to see a movie we either had the choice of catching it during it's theatrical run or be forced to see it compromised on television years later, interrupted by commercials and often cut to ribbons by censors. Thus it was a minor miracle when pay television channels began to appear in the 1970s offering uncut and uninterrupted movies at home. Xan Cassavettes' documentary Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION details the rise and fall of one of the most influential of these channels, Los Angeles' Z Channel.

Z Channel was one of the first regional pay cable networks. It premiered in 1974 (one year before HBO went national), serving the heart of Los Angeles' film making community. Its programming was a mix of the usual new films straight from their theatrical run and older catalog films. It was an instant success due to its novelty and lack of competition. However, Z Channel didn't hit its stride until 1980 and the arrival of brilliant yet trouble new programmer, Jerry Harvey. Harvey was a lifelong film buff and occasional screenwriter (his one produced screenplay was the Monte Hellman western CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37) who programmed the channel to appeal directly to other film buffs, showcasing director and star retrospectives and going out of his way to show worthwhile films that might otherwise have flown under the radar. He published a monthly programming guide that contained essays often critical of the films shown on the channel because he wanted viewers to make up their own minds regarding a film's quality. Most notably, Harvey was adamant about films being shown in their director's approved versions, making Z Channel one of the first channels to show widescreen films letterboxed. Harvey was also responsible for allowing Michael Cimino to reconstruct his version of HEAVEN'S GATE, allowing for a critical reevaluation of that notorious flop. 

However Jerry Harvey had a dark side and it proved to be the channel's undoing. Harvey had had a lifelong history of mental illness and had flirted with the idea of suicide (his two sisters had also taken their own lives). While he appeared to have his condition under control, a perfect storm of negative circumstances in 1988 proved too much for him. In despair over direct competition with HBO and Showtime (which limited his access to films), a meager operating budget and a sale to Group W (who, using Philadelphia's PRISM pay service as inspiration, planned to supplement Z Channel's movie lineup with local sports), Harvey took his own life as well as the life of his wife, Deri. The channel continued but its guiding force was gone and it disappeared soon thereafter.

While it's impossible to think of Jerry Harvey without thinking of his final days, it's also impossible to underestimate the impact that he and Z Channel had on home movie viewing. Today, unedited, commercial-free movies in their correct aspect ratio are always within reach. That's in large part thanks to Jerry Harvey, who put his love of film ahead of his concern for the bottom line, thinking that enough like-minded people would want what he was offering to make it worthwhile. It's not an exaggeration to say that Harvey changed the way we experience movies at home and Z CHANNEL; A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION is a fitting tribute both to the man and his love of film.