Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)

1974's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is one of my favorite films and I've always been amused by Hollywood's repeated attempts to turn it into a franchise. The original film is perfectly contained and doesn't lend itself to being part of a series, yet we've had three sequels, a remake, a prequel to the remake and next year we're promised yet another remake, this time in 3D. And we've had this odd beast, written and directed by Kim Henkel, the co-writer of the 1974 original.

This film, like most of the films in the series, positions itself as a direct sequel to the original and then proceeds to play like a combination of sequel and remake.  the plot involves Jenny (Renee Zellweger) who, along with a group of friends, gets stranded on the way home from the senior prom. They then run afoul of the first film's cannibal family, led by Vilmer (Matthew McConaughey).  From there, Henkel gives us variations on famous scenes from the original film including one of the victims being hung on a meathook, the family dinner scene and of course Jenny being chased by the murderous Leatherface, armed with his chainsaw. Henkel manages to put some strange spins on things, including having Leatherface be a crossdresser, something that was hinted at in the original and wisely discarded. There's also a headscratcher of a third act where Henkel introduces the idea of an Illuminati-like organization that has been controlling the family's activities for centuries. Really.

Shot independently as RETURN OF THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, this film sat on the shelf for several years due to its inability to secure a distributor and it became a popular item on the bootleg circuit. In the late 1990s the film suddenly became marketable after the rise to stardom of both Zellweger and McConaughey.  It was purchased by Sony, edited slightly and released via home video to a confused public. Actually, despite its penchant for going off the deep end, the movie is not bad.  It's well made and the leads are really quite good. There are rumors that Zellweger and/or McConaughey tried to halt the film's release but they have nothing to be ashamed of here. The problem with the film is its unsatisfyingly weird conclusion.

If you've never seen any of the CHAINSAW films and you're curious, well, see the original. But if you've seen the others you may owe it to yourself to check this one out as well. After all, most of the other films in this franchise aren't exactly classics and this one's not as bad as its reputation suggests, at least for most of the way. Did I mention that it gets weird?

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: I Don't Know Jack (2002)

Chris Leavens' I DON'T KNOW JACK is a warts and all documentay about the life of character actor and David Lynch regular Jack Nance.  Told through the eyes of his family and friends, it is a portrait of a man who allowed his talent to be consumed by his inner demons.

The film begins by showing Nance as a promising young actor in the late 1960s (when he almost nabbed leads in films such as IN COLD BLOOD and THE GRADUATE), to his big break in ERASERHEAD and finally his later years as a character actor in such project as TWIN PEAKS, MOTORAMA and, of course, MEATBALLS 4.  However, most of the documentary's running time is devoted to exploring Nance's alocholism, which surfaced early in his life and not only affected his career but also his personal relationships, such as his combative first marriage to Catherine Coulson (later a TWIN PEAKS co-star).  Through the interviews, an image emerges of Nance as an almost Jekyll and Hyde personality: warm and kind while sober but an absolute terror with a loud mouth and quick temper when he was drinking.

Some great stories emerge in the interviews, such as Nance not wanting to do ERASERHEAD until bonding with Lynch over a wooden roof rack that Lynch had built. Dennis Hopper tells how he tried to trick Nance into rehab during the filming of BLUE VELVET by telling him that they would slowly wean him off alcohol instead of forcing him to go cold turkey.  A casting director tells how Nance turned down a role in the film MIRACLE MILE because he had just gotten a job as a security guard and the film would conflict with his work schedule. the most touching part of the film deals with the suicide of Nance's second wife, Kelly Van Dyke while he was on location shooting MEATBALLS 4. Nance's belief that he had at least partly caused her to take her own life (they were talking on the phone when the line went dead due to an electrical storm) led him to resume drinking after several years of sobriety, a state of mind which probably led to his mysterious death in 1996, supposedly the result of a late night altercation outside a Los Angeles doughnut shop.

I DON'T KNOW JACK provides a revealing look at a tortured human being. I give the film a lot of credit for not shying away from Nance's dark side. It would have been very easy for this film to be nothing more than a whitewashed tribute to a fallen friend. By acknowledging his faults, Jack Nance emerges as a full blooded human being, one that is very obviously loved and missed by those he left behind.

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Trancers (1985)

"Dry hair's for squids."
                   -- Jack Deth

Back in the 1980s, when VHS rentals were just beginning to take off, the direct to video shelf of your local video store earned a well deserved reputation as a place to avoid.  It quickly became a stop of last resort for all but the most adventurous renters, a dumping ground for unwatchable foreign horror movies, laugh-free comedies and Lorenzo Lamas action flicks.  However, every so often a movie would show up on the DTV shelf that actually had some entertainment value.  One of these was Charles Band's TRANCERS, a low budget riff on the previous year's THE TERMINATOR that managed to hide its lack of big action set pieces by substituting a clever script, good acting and quite a bit of humor.

Tim Thomerson stars as Jack Deth, a cop in 23rd century Lost Angeles, on the trail of arch villain Whistler (Michael Stefani).  Not only is Whistler one tough dude to catch, but he also has the ability to control the minds of weak willed people, creating an army of minions called Trancers who do his bidding. In order to evade capture, Whistler transports his consciousness back to 1985 Los Angeles where he plans to murder the ancestors of the council that controls the city in the 23rd century. Deth chases after him, embedding his consciousness in the body of his ancestor, conveniently also a cop who looks just like Jack. Aided by Leena (Helen Hunt) Jack chases Whistler while avoiding Trancer attacks and being forced to cope with life in 1985 L.A., not necessarily in that order.

The film's biggest asset is Thomerson, who had the good sense to play Jack Deth straight and let the comedy come from his interaction with the strange characters around him. Whether dealing with surfer dudes, sports cars or a great scene in a punk nightclub (which features an awesome hardcore version of "Jingle Bells"), Thomerson creates a terrific fish out of water character. Helen Hunt is also very likeable as Leena and I still think that this is some of the best work she's ever done. They're aided by a smarter than usual script which takes the time to include some character development that normally would have been left out of a film like this. The script's attention to detail go a long way towards masking the film's non-existent budget and bad (even by 1980s direct to video standards) special effects.

It's probably not going to change your life but there are certainly worse ways to spend 76 minutes than with this likeable little sci-fi flick.  Unfortunately, Charles Band was never one to let a good idea go to waste so he ran the concept into the ground with no less than five sequels (Hunt bailed after the third film, Thomerson lasted until the fifth). the sequels get progressively worse and, if possible, even cheaper looking. Thomerson even makes a late career appearance as Jack Deth in Band's 2006 EVIL BONG, which is something that just makes me cry. Ignore them and stick with the original.

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Trick or Treat (1986)

Remember back in the 1980s when various fundamentalist groups and the PMRC were warning us about the evils of rock music? Specifically, that it was possible to embed satanic messages into the music that would only be audible if the record were to be played backwards? And remember how most of us thought how stupid that idea was and how we laughed at the folks who ruined their turntables trying to find hidden meanings in their Milli Vanilli records? Well, it turns out that the joke was on us because TRICK OR TREAT is the movie that proves that the rumors were ALL TRUE.

Marc Price stars as Eddie Weinbauer, aka Ragman, a bullied teen whose one comfort in life is his devotion to heavy metal music, particularly the music of Sammi Curr (Tony Fields), who had previously escaped Eddies dead end hometown to become a rock god. When Sammi dies in a hotel fire, a devastated Eddie is given an advance copy of Sammi's final album, charmingly titled Songs in the Key of Death.  However, when Eddie plays the album he not only hears some of the worst heavy metal ever produced but also personal messages from Sammi instructing Eddie to take deadly revenge on the classmates torturing him (including a pre-MELROSE PLACE Doug Savant as a mean jock).  Soon Sammi goes from possessing Eddie's stereo to inhabiting any electrical appliance, from drills to TVs to cars (I think he controls them through the radio).  It's all part of Sammi's master plan which is set to culminate with a radio broadcast of the album at midnight on Halloween.  At that time Sammi's going to do...something really bad.  It's never made very clear but it'll be pretty unpleasant, I'm sure.  In any case, it's up to Eddie to stop the broadcast before all hell breaks loose.

You may have noticed that the plot to this film doesn't make a lick of sense.  I'd even go so far as to say that there isn't one logical event that happens in the course of the film.  Normally, this would be an impediment to one's enjoyment of the film but in the case of TRICK OR TREAT just the opposite is true.  As boneheaded as this film is most of the time it's never less than enjoyable, even though the audience is usually laughing at the film instead of with it. It's impossible not to love scenes such as Eddie smashing his possessed stereo with a baseball bat, explaining to his befuddled mother that he "wanted a new one."  And in case there was any doubt that this movie is a fantasy, the script has the cutest girl in school inexplicably fall for our dork hero in possibly the least convincing romantic subplot of all time. To cap it off, there are brief cameos by Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne to appease the heavy metal fanbase this film was supposedly appealing to.  In Ozzy's case, his roughly two minutes of screen time playing a fundamentalist minister amply shows why he never managed to have a movie career.

It might have been possible to make an effective horror film around the phenomenon of backwards masking but this isn't it.  I have to think that the producers always intended this film to be tongue in cheek rather than a serious horror film. Otherwise, why hire Skippy from FAMILY TIES as the  world's least threatening metalhead and then give the film to AMERICAN GRAFFITI's own Terry the Toad, Charles Martin Smith, as his directorial debut? Plus, Sammi Curr is really nothing more than Freddy Krueger with leather and eyeliner. Still, despite the bad casting, the unsure direction and complete lack of logic, this movie is great fun.  Lower your expectations and enjoy the film on its own terms and you're sure to have a good time.

Interesting casting note: Eddie's best friend is played by Glen Morgan, who would soon give up acting and find greater success as a producer on such shows as THE X-FILES as well as films like FINAL DESTINATION and the WILLARD remake.  

For more overlooked films and TV visit Todd Mason's blog.