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Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Crazies (2010)


Screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright, based on the motion picture The Crazies by George A. Romero
Directed by Breck Eisner

Timothy Olyphant:  Sheriff David Dutten
Radha Mitchell:  Dr.  Judy Dutten
Joe Anderson:  Deputy Russell

I love being able to write sentences like "It's a real shame this movie didn't live up to the pitchfork murder sequence" when I'm critiquing films. Unfortunately, that statement is a fair assessment of today's movie; if it had sustained its nasty tone for the whole running time it could have been something really special rather than just something rather decent.

When you start a movie with a deserted small town burning to the ground and then cut to "Two days earlier", you're making a couple promises to your audience. Things are going to go bad quickly and end with devastation. Usually that's not the kind of thing people sign up for, but if you're a horror fan it's like a personal promise from the director that you're in the right theater (or have selected the correct DVD for purchase or rental, or have acquired an appropriate totally legit download). It doesn't hurt to have Johnny Cash on the soundtrack for the opening, either; I'm far from a fan of Visionary Director Zack Snyder's take on Dawn of the Dead but the opening credits were marvelous, and the Cash track that he personally chose to accompany his clip show of Armageddon is a big part of the reason that sequence is so effective.

Rather than introducing a protagonist first thing, the viewer gets a look at Ogden Marsh, a small farming community. There's a nice wide main street, a medical clinic and plenty of white people walking around downtown (and one or two driving around on riding tractors on a stretch of highway; a sheriff's deputy passes by one and doesn't flag them down, so it's something people are used to). There's several shots of children here, which makes me wonder how transgressive this movie is going to get, on a scale of one to Who Can Kill a Child?; time will tell if the screenwriter and director will be impressively nasty or not (or if the studio lets 'em be evil--it's a horror movie, but not all horror movies are created equal). But there's also a glimpse of the placid normality that needs to be established before all hell breaks loose and catches on fire. For example, Dr. Judy Dutten lets her young assistant out from work early to catch a baseball game with her boyfriend. Team sports! Rural communities! Young love! What could go wrong?

We find out at the baseball game. The town's sheriff stops by to watch some sportsball and chat with a community leader or two. His deputy notices a disheveled man walking onto Tiger Field (home of the Tigers, of course) in the middle of play. As the stubbly, wild-haired, middle-aged white dude gets closer it becomes apparent that he's carrying a shotgun and looks angry. There's plenty of civilians around to react with mounting fear as they realize what's going on. The sheriff goes out on his own to negotiate with Rory, who looks down at his shotgun like he didn't remember he had it with him. Rory aims the shotgun rather than putting it down as requested, but the lawman drops him with one shot to the chest. It's also telling that the sheriff tries wheedling and commanding before unsnapping the holster on his belt; obviously he didn't want things to end the way they did but he's not willing to take a face full of buckshot either. He's also got unearthly reflexes if he was able to draw, aim and shoot before someone who already had his weapon at the ready could shoot him. And he only fires one shot, which suggests a certain amount of restraint. If it was an action movie, the sheriff would have emptied his gun at the poor doomed sucker (and the film would have presented it as the right course of action).

I wasn't expecting the sudden change of view to that of a spy satellite monitoring Ogden Marsh (pop. 1260, which is going to go down in two days, I bet). We here at Checkpoint Telstar automatically add a star to a movie's rating if there's a satellite in it. Or we would if we used a star rating system. Regardless, we're always happy to see a satellite on screen or merely referenced. Attentive viewers will not references to "Trixie" in the satellite image, which is a reference to the George Romero film that this film is remaking, and "Scarlet Omega", which sounds ominous as all fuck. Then the titles (white text at the bottom of a black screen) and a jump forward to that night at the Finley Funeral Home as the medical examiner lets the sheriff know that Rory's blood alcohol level and anything else in his bloodstream will be known shortly.

Rory's wife and son show up at the funeral home at the same time that Sheriff Dutten is there; he approaches them to express his condolences (although Rory's kid looks like a roided out Steve Zahn, and also like the presence of Dutten's gun is the only thing keeping him from trying to cave the sheriff's head in with his bare hands). It turns out the "drunk dude pulled a shotgun on me" explanation is possibly flawed; Rory's wife says he quit boozing two years ago and was extremely proud of his recovery. She slaps the sheriff (but she does not slap the deputy) and leaves in a grieving huff.

The next day, Sheriff Dutten tries to exorcise his demons by doing extremely early morning carpentry on his front porch (there's semi-assembled nursery room furniture in one room in his house; one may safely assume Dr. Dutten is pregnant). At work, a tired and shell-shocked Sheriff gets the call from the medical examiner; there was no alcohol in Rory's bloodstream. He tries to put things together, returning to the high school baseball field while turning over possibilities in his mind. The high school principal is there, sitting catatonically on the bleachers. When the sheriff finally gets his attention the educator mutters something about how the kids will be all right because they're resilient and leaves for the school. And back at Dr. Dutten's office, a woman's brought her husband in for an examination because he's weird and distant (he repeats himself, eventually, when he notices he's in a doctor's office and says he's all right); it's starting to look a lot like Rory was Patient Zero in whatever's going on. That night, the concerned woman and her son see her husband goofing around with some kind of grain harvester in their barn. I was expecting her to get mulched by the thresher (or whatever it is, which is lit to look awesomely dangerous at night). But whatever she--or the audience--was expecting, it wasn't her husband Bill going after their son with a knife. There's some really sweet sound design in this sequence as Bill stalks through the farmhouse over creaking floorboards. And whatever's going on in his head, he's got it together enough to realize that he can't get through the locked bedroom door where his wife and son are hiding. No worries; he'll just splash a few gallons of gasoline around and burn the house down.

Sheriff Dutten gets the call soon after the blaze is discovered--he and Dr. Dutten find Bill out front mowing his lawn by the light of the house, which the Ogden Marsh FD is working on putting out. I can understand the fire chief spotting the empty gas can outside, but that house is way, way, way too still on fire for him to have gone upstairs and found the two murder victims in a closet. Dr. Dutten loses her shit completely when Bill just starts humming "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" with a dead and empty expression. Around the same time, three duck hunters find a drowned paratrooper in a camouflage uniform in the section of wooded marsh that they're tramping through. I bet that has something to do with lots of other events in the film.

At the sheriff's department, Bill is standing in a jail cell, immobile, and has been doing that for hours. Sheriff Dutten recognizes the vacant look on his face because it's the same one Rory gave him before raising the shotgun. Some county patrolmen from Cedar Rapids are supposed to come pick him up (I know a guy in that town who is a black belt martial artist, if they need backup--Hi, Travis!). Out at the drowning site, the medical examiner is checking to see if the dead pilot has any ID on him. One would assume that whoever's running that satellite camera from a few minutes ago knows about the lost plane, but one would also be guessing that planes are expensive and someone should have been looking for the guy by now.

Coincidentally the local who says he heard a plane crash in a bog is also named Travis. He takes the sheriff and Deputy Russ out on a boat looking for whatever he thinks he heard, and keeps asking about what size of a reward he's going to get when and if they find the crashed aircraft. The sheriff figures out that they're cruising right over it and there's a sweet pullback shot revealing that a large transport plane is in the bog; that shot transitions to another Telstar's-eye-view of the locale. "INITIATE CONTAINMENT PROTOCOL" pops up on the screen, though I'm not sure exactly who's being told to do that. For that matter, I don't know who's giving the blinking all-caps sans serif order.

Sheriff Dutten figures things out pretty much immediately, and confirms his suspicions by visiting the town planning office to check out a map and ask someone who knows about the water filtration system in Ogden Marsh--the plane is in the middle of of the town's water supply, and Rory Hamill's house is the closest one to the crash site. Whatever was on the plane appears to be heading into the pipes and out of the faucets of everyone in town. Worse yet, it's quite likely too late to keep people from being exposed to whatever it is. The mayor (who appears to be slightly melting) hops out of his swimming pool when the sheriff visits him to request the town's water supply being shut down. He gets an answer pinched from Jaws and its ripoffs--there's too much money at stake to cut off the water to a farming community during planting season, so the beaches stay open. Er, the water stays on. But over the mild protests of his deputy, Sheriff Dutten breaks into the water tower that supplies Ogden Marsh, shuts off the main valve and sabotages the equipment so it can't be easily fixed.

Back at the holding cell, Bill the catatonic is now Bill the body on the floor bleeding from the nose. The deputy is about to open the cell to check on him when the sheriff holds him back, which is a good things because Bill the immobile body quickly transitions to Bill the screaming lunatic trying to reach through the bars and grab either of the law enforcement personnel. When the sheriff tries to call out to find out what's going on with his prisoner transport the line is busy before he even dials. The internet is down as well--as are everyone's cell phones--so they're down to smoke signals and yelling if they want to contact anyone outside of the town.

There's a cool shot of Sheriff Dutten walking down an empty Main Street that wouldn't be out of place in a George Romero movie and a woman singing a hymn to herself while riding a girl's bicycle around. That's the only other human being around, or so it would seem before the POV switches to a camera taking surveillance photos of the singing woman and the uneasy sheriff. Some noise from the funeral home draws Dutten's attention and he finds a mutilated cadaver and a living priest with his eyes and mouth sewn shut. He snips the sutures on the man's mouth just in time for him to whisper "Behind you...", which is not something you ever want to encounter in this kind of situation. The medical examiner clocks the sheriff with a piece of equipment before trying to slice him apart with a bonesaw. It's a short, nasty fight that ends with the M.E. slipping on his own blood and collapsing, and the bonesaw skipping after the sheriff like a loose Thing-Cutter.

That night (and I think we're on the third night from "Two Days Ago", which means the movie isn't particularly well put together, which is a real shame) the argument between the Duttens re:  staying to help or leaving to get away from the crazy people is interrupted by Dr. Dutten noticing someone outside. Sheriff Dutten has his gun out when he goes to check the situation out, which shows that he is learning from his past experiences. He's checking out the shed / garage / metal implement storage building when he hears his wife scream for him; when he runs outside to help her he's mobbed by a dozen or so men in camo-pattern biohazard suits pointing rifles at him. He gets disarmed and bundled onto a school bus along with a bunch of other Odgen Marshers and driven off (Deputy Russ is there; he tried to flee to Cedar Rapids to get help from Travis and ran over a spike strip). The bus is driven to a huge outdoor encampment at the high school, where it looks like a substantial number of the townspeople are confined behind fences. The sheriff and his wife get bustled through a series of tents (the deputy is hauled away by soldiers for reasons that are not apparent; just after that, a screaming terrified child is yanked away from his mother and taken away). Dr. Dutten puts it together that whatever is affecting everyone (her vote is a virus) causes temperature spikes, and that's how the soldiers know who to pull away and who to let go. Of course, right after she mentions this the temperature check performed on her shows that she needs to be hauled away for her own safety and the safety of everyone around her.

Dr. Dutten gets the least reassuring gurney ride since Jacob's Ladder before getting shuttled into a plastic-walled surgical theater and sedated. Her husband wakes up in a livestock transport truck and shuffled along Main Street. Soldiers are handing out ID cards and issuing wristbands but nobody in authority is explaining just what the hell is going on yet. Dr. Dutten wakes up in what I presume is the high school gym, inside a plastic tent and strapped to a hospital bed in a room with dozens of other people similarly secured. Some of them are coughing, spitting up blood or laughing. None of that makes me feel good. Just outside of town the uninfected Ogden Marshers are being herded away; the city planning guy drops some exposition that one family trying to get out past a roadblock was shot dead by the military (which means that the innocent Americans in this version of the story are on the receiving end of Iraq War tactics, just as the original film was a Vietnam parable). The sheriff is going to go back into town to find his wife; the planning office guy is leaving without his.

He's going into a spectacularly bad situation--the infected have driven through one of the containment fences and shot up several of the soldiers; the military is pulling out and abandoning everyone. The soldiers and doctors beat feet as fast as you can in a positive-pressure inflated biohazard suit and evacuate. The ROE for the escape appears to be "shoot on sight", another taste of the war of choice in the Middle East that informs the politics of this film. Back at the sheriff's station, all the weapons have been removed from the storage locker, but he's still got a revolver and some ammo in his desk. Deputy Russ shows up and the pair almost shoot each other before realizing that they're both sane. They hatch a plan to rescue Dr. Dutten--who had a high temperature because she was pregnant, not from the mystery virus--from the high school containment facility.

Meanwhile, back at said containment facility, thinks quickly take a turn for the shit-tacular. Dr. Dutten is trying to comfort her office assistant (unconvincingly telling her that things are going to be okay) when a scraping sound announces the arrival of one of the homicidally insane infected. Turns out that the high school principal has gone past the "confused and distant" stage and comfortably into the "kill it if you see it" stage of the disease.

I'd like to take a moment to talk about an article I came across while writing a film studies paper for Dr. Henry Aldridge at Eastern Michigan University; it was called "The Poetics of Horror" and it gave me the lens through which I have viewed horror films for the last decade or so. The author (and I wish I could remember their name) set forth a theory that horror films are not about vampires or werewolves or any of the other standby monsters; instead, a horror movie was concerned with the loss of control over the characters' destiny. Colossus:  The Forbin Project was one of the movies specifically mentioned--it had the sets and plot and trappings of a science fiction movie but was entirely about the loss of control for every human being once the titular computer was switched on.

Which I mentioned because this sequence illustrates that idea brilliantly. It's hard to come up with a situation where a character has less control over their fate than Dr. Dutten here--she's strapped to a hospital gurney in a room full of infected people who will go crazy at some point in the future. She's uninfected--as far as she knows--but neither she nor anyone in the film has any idea how communicable the bioweapon is. The army has fled (which means that she was potentially looking forward to starving to death or dying of thirst while in the safety restraints) and a blood-spattered man she presumably has known for decades is walking around aimlessly, dragging a pitchfork on the ground, and occasionally pausing to stab one of the restrained and infected patients to death.

The sheriff puts two slugs in the principal a half second or so before his wife was going to get murdered; he and deputy Russ release his wife and the office assistant from their gurneys and head out to try and get to a truck stop that was being used as a processing center to get the uninfected out of town. There are dozens--if not hundreds--of bodies on the ground outside the school and the deputy realizes that he lives closer to the tainted water than his boss. In case there wasn't enough of a threat from the crazies and the soldiers (who are undoubtedly under shoot-on-sight rules of engagement now) there's the possibility that the guy with a shotgun is going to slowly lose his marbles and become one of the monsters.

And there's another neat setpiece where the duck hunters from before are out shooting random people and throwing their bodies in the back of their blood-drenched pickup truck; it's hard to say how much of their original personalities any of the crazies retain, but these guys are out having fun doing what they're doing (and the line about expecting one victim to "dress up real nice" is sick and wonderful).

The four survivors get to the McGregor place (Dr. Dutten's assistant is dating Scotty, the McGregor kid) but Mrs. McGregor and Scotty exit the movie courtesy of biohazard-suited soldiers who shoot the son when he comes to his mother's aid--the military wanted to haul her off somewhere when they checked her temperature and it was elevated--and the mother when she runs to her child's body. Then someone takes a flamethrower to the bodies, as a precaution. And this gives the Duttens yet more confirmation that they need to stay the hell away from the military. Dr. Dutten has an elevated temperature because she's pregnant, but it doesn't look like anyone's in an exception-making frame of mind right now.

Although the sheriff is, as it turns out. The quartet, hiding in a barn, grabs the soldier that comes in to check and the barest drips of exposition are delivered--the soldiers haven't been told anything about what's going on, and the shockingly young-looking guy behind the gas mask says his unit wasn't even told which state they were being deployed to. He's not taking his orders particularly well, and promises not to tell the other soldiers about the hiding foursome if they let him go. Russ seems particularly on edge and ready to shoot during this confrontation, but so far he's listening to his boss's orders. The survivors live to flee another day and pick up supplies at the Dutten residence. And that's almost the last stop because Rory's wife and son have been waiting there to kill the sheriff; they've also got super-nasty infected red veins all over their chalky, grey faces. The sheriff takes a knife through the hand while struggling for his dropped revolver, and my notes for how he gets out of that predicament just say "he sees his pain as some new injection and rises above human limitation". He also winds up with blood-to-blood contact with Rory's wife, so I'm guessing he's going to get Crazypants Fever before too long. Oh, and Russell shoots the barely-breathing bodies of Rory's wife and son five times to "make sure", so it's safe to say he's starting to become symptomatic.

The group fixes up a barely-functional old cruiser in the Duttens' garage and heads off for the truck stop; they're not on the road too terribly long before Russell starts suspecting other people in the car of being sick and things almost come to blows (or worse, a gunfight in a four-person car) when a military helicopter buzzes overhead. They hide from it in a car wash but the office assistant thinks she sees someone also hiding in the structure, which then turns on and will inexorably spit their car out where anyone can see it. It turns out there are also two infected in the car wash and there's a pretty cool "trying to get out but there's no traction" sequence; Becca the office assistant doesn't make it out of the car wash alive thanks to some horrible, horrible luck. And when everyone gets out of the car to fight the infected and try to save her, the cruiser rolls out of the car wash and is incinerated by the helicopter; obviously, the pilots were not fooled by the party driving into a large shed and just waited for them to leave.

The pared-down group walks off for the truck stop, for lack of a better destination. Sheriff Dutten wants to carjack an approaching police SUV but doesn't explain his plan to Russell, who throws a spike strip out that destroys the speeding land yacht's tires and causes a multiple rollover one-car accident. The sheriff hauls the injured driver out and prevents his deputy from executing the man on sight; in exchange for this consideration, he wants to know what the hell was on the crashed plane. The intelligence officer, or whoever he is, has enough time to explain that a weaponized virus codenamed Trixie was on the airplane, supposedly going to a CDC incinerator in Texas when the pilot brought it down in the reservoir. He says the incubation period for Trixie is 48 hours; after that point if you haven't got it you're not going to get it. He doesn't get a chance to explain whether or not it's a bloodborne pathogen, airborne or sexually transmitted before Russell shoots him in a fit of pique.

Right after the accident, interrogation and murder Russell starts exhibiting paranoiac tendencies and pulls a gun on his boss, ordering the Duttens to walk ahead of him so he can see them. The sheriff eventually outsmarts him and clocks him (which cannot have been any fun with the knife wound going all through his hand) and the deputy realizes he's got the bug. He asks if he can still walk with the group for a little while after he's been disarmed. They walk till nightfall and encounter a military operation full of floodlights and biohazard-suited soldiers; Russell uses his last couple of marbles serving as a distraction so that the Duttens can flee through the cordon. They make it to the truck stop where the PA offering sale bargains reminds me of the disembodied speaker voice in Dawn of the Dead telling nonexistent shoppers that they can get a free bag of hard candy if they buy enough stuff in the next half hour.

Of course the pair splits up at the truck stop like a pair of idiots who have never even heard of a horror movie before, but the only thing that happens is Dr. Dutten's discovery of semi trailers full of napalmed corpses. Turns out the processing center at the truck stop was just turning people into corpses, not separating the uninfected from the doomed. That's a significantly harsher revelation than I was expecting, and I wish the film lived up to it (it's about twenty minutes too long and has great setpieces but bad connections between them). The sheriff goes off to pick up gear and look for the keys to a big rig in the truck stop's garage; his wife splits off again (again!) to drink water and not notice the creepy dude in the kitchen while she's rehydrating. Sheriff Dutten overhears something on the radio about a ten minute countdown and ready status (pinching the final act from Return of the Living Dead, I bet) and goes to pick up his wife and get the hell out of Dodge.

Turns out the duck hunters are at the truck stop, and set the lights to "flickering and dim" while they look for their prey and we get yet another "hide from the lunatics" sequence, a "sneak quietly" sequence, a "discover another body" sequence and a "the keys to the truck are in the pocket of the dead driver" bit. It's just taking too long at this point, and stretching the suspense past the point where I care. And that's before the "grabbed by a crazy and fight your way past him" bit where the sheriff gets yanked under the truck by a previously unseen gigantic strong dude.

On the road and listening to the countdown over a military walkie-talkie, the Duttens drive away and wonder why nothing happened when it hit zero, just before the mushroom cloud wipes Ogden Marsh off the map behind them. Let's hope there weren't any other survivors the movie wasn't following in there, right? The truck gets swatted off the road by the blastwave and the pair get out of the crumpled cab of the truck (and I really think that hand injury should be affecting the sheriff at this point). They stumble off uncertainly into the night, lit by the fires consuming their home town in an admittedly quite neat shot. The next morning they find their way to a field on the outskirts of the promised land (Cedar Rapids), but that eye in the sky from the first act sees them approaching it and another containment protocol has to be initiated (which might work better than the first one, because as far as I can tell neither one of the Duttens are actually infected with Trixie). Too bad about the 128,000 other people living there.

Alas. This one was almost nasty enough and just plain too long for me to give it an unqualified recommendation. I was afraid it'd be similar to the Dawn of the Dead remake where the politics were removed but it's got a distrust of authority figures that makes a lot of sense after the six and a half years of the Iraq War, which was still in progress at the time the film was released. And is still going on, of course, but without Americans in it at this point. Maybe the 2044 remake that will be informed by the land war in China will work out better.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness (1986)


Written and directed by Tim Ritter

John Brace:  Mike Strauber
Mary Fanaro:  Sharon Strauber
Bruce Gold:  Jerry Powers
Asbestos Felt:  Warty Man / Newscaster Voice

When I hit Wikipedia looking for background on this movie, I found out something that makes me feel a little bad about all the cheap shots I'm going to take at it. Tim Ritter was eighteen when he directed it, which means that one must forgive a lot in the way of shortcomings. I was only 13 or so when I saw the movie, for crying out loud. On the other hand, filmmaking is a craft as well as an art, and like any other skill it's one that must be learned by doing. The only way to become a better filmmaker is to make films. And it's not often that a given director's first film out of the gate is a masterpiece.

Having gotten my moral qualms out of the way, time to beat this movie with a mallet for a while.

It starts with the typical 80s ominous synth chords and an animated title screen where a razor blade cuts the movie's name and there's animated blood everywhere. The credits play out in while over a red screen while the Tales from the Darkside commercial bumper cover band continues. Then, with very little work done to establish much of anything, we get a shot of Mike Stauber, someone picked off the shelf from Dweebs R Us, talking on a 1980s car phone (with the cord connecting the handset to the technology in the rest of the unit) and a man and woman having sex elsewhere. The audio of the sex is laid over the footage of what I'm pretty sure is a Trans Am pulling into a driveway.

The dweeb asks for his wife Sharon in a rather quiet voice once he's inside his home; she's distracted so she doesn't hear him. He eventually discovers Sharon having sex with his best friend Jerry, an act of betrayal known as The Full Wiseau. It's not nice to mock someone's pain, but Mike pulls an amazingly goofy face when he looks in the bedroom and sees what's going on. His angry face is even better / worse than his shocked one and the soap-opera sting chords elevate the scene to some kind of Platonic ideal of high camp. Sharon apologizes, sort of, and Mike stomps off and peels out in his car (and the shot's actually framed quite well to catch Sharon inside the front door and the car out on the street).

While Mike goes to drive his rage away, the first appearance of the eight-note Truth or Dare driving theme shows up on the soundtrack. My family has made fun of this piece of music for more than 25 years. It's eight notes on a synthesizer played over and over (you can sing TALK IS CHEAP ACTION COSTS MONEY to it if you like; I certainly do). Knowing what I know about music production now, it's weird that they aren't playing chords or anything. Just eight notes over and over and over (though it's almost like they got the 1986 equivalent of a clavioline, and that's more than fine), The song cuts off mid-leitmotif, making me giggle as I remember the soundtrack to Maniac doing the same thing repeatedly. Mike has flashbacks to his relationship with Sharon intercut with driving footage and the Truth or Dare driving theme starting and stopping at irregular intervals. He eventually parks his car by the ocean and has himself a good long cry, accompanied with more flashbacks while he walks around some rather pretty Florida beachfront scenery. One of the flashbacks goes on interminably while Mike gives Sharon a watch with an alarm on it to remind her of appointments. Yes, really.

Mike gets back into his car and has Sharon's "I tried to tell you!" echoing in his head on a loop--and I defy people not to make "Lisa needs braces!" / "Dental plan!" jokes at this point. Then there's another flashback of Young Mikey (wearing nearly identical eyeglasses as Present-Day Mike) cutting his arm with a razor blade during a game of Truth or Dare. He gets tormented by memories of his mother asking "Oh, Mike, when are you going to get some good friends?" with a fantastic cheesy echo on "friends". Crying and flashbacks over, Mike gets back on the road and those eight notes go back on the soundtrack. Mike picks up a cute hitchhiker with sky-high 80s hair and rents a campsite, possibly with retaliatory outside-the-marriage sex on his mind. He puts some halting and nerdy moves on her, then goes into an MRA-worthy rant when the hitchhiker says her name is Sharon and she loves him.

Then AquaNet Sharon challenges Mike to a game of Truth or Dare (with chants of kids' voices on the soundtrack yelling "Do it! Do it!"); it looks like things are going to be going in a rather Skinemax-ish direction at first ("I dare you to lift up your blouse", but the hitchhiker dares Mike to do some rather odd stuff, staring with "throw your wallet into the fire" and wrapping up with "cut yourself repeatedly"; poor Mike winds up minus a finger and with a pretty nasty cut on his chest; the hallucination of a hitchhiker wants Mike to kill his wife as well, but he resists that one (but not a dare to rip his own tongue out). A convenient park ranger finds Mike sans tongue while showing up to bitch him out for having a campfire after eleven at night, so the autotonguectomy won't kill him, at least. Plus, Mike gets a tour of the county's new ambulance.

The scene shifts to Sunnyville Mental Institution, thirteen months later. The caption identifying the asylum crawls from right to left on the screen and is accompanied by beeping noises; when I was Kid Telstar watching this in 1987 or so I remember getting briefly confused and thinking that somehow there was a weather bulletin on the VHS tape. There wasn't. It's just cheaply made. It turns out that the booby hatch is crowded and his therapists are releasing Mike; he gets sent back out into the world with a small sheaf of papers and a good-conduct discharge. There's also some talk from one of the therapists about how he was a model inmate and that a speech therapist has improved his talking skills. So he's got that going for him, which is nice.

He claims his car from a Brooklyn Guy who verbally abuses the person who just got out of a mental hospital (NOTE:  This is not a smart thing to do). Mike tosses his release papers out the car window and hits the road to the accompaniment of the spooky chords rather than the driving theme (I know, I was disappointed too). He's on his way to Sharon and Jerry's place, and sneaks up on his ex-wife while Mary Fanaro demonstrates that she does not know how to chop celery. How ironic that the very watch alarm that Mike gave Sharon provides a false scare before Mike raises a knife and doesn't figure out how to stab with it! He decides to take out Jerry in the garage workshop instead. Mike's own watch alarm alerts Sharon to his presence and she slices him right in the midsection (there's some great bug-eyed screaming from both of them here). Mike staggers out into the night and is found by concerned bystanders and a cop; he gets a quick ticket back to Sunnyville but did at least manage to take Jerry out off-camera.

A new doctor shows up to help Mike, but she can't quite get through a complete sentence without a couple pauses and appears to have serious trouble maintaining a train of thought (as a psychologist, she makes a great J & H Productions Tape re-enactor). Back in his room, Mike has a hallucination where he plays Truth or Dare with two other patients (one of whom is played by the wonderfully named Asbestos Felt). Mike cuts off pieces of his own face as part of this game, and one of the hallucinatory participants puts a grenade in his mouth and blows his own head off. There's a great John Lithgow-level "WAIT!" out of Mike as the doctors charge in to help him. And then, of course, there's another Sunnyville Mental Institution caption to establish that the building is still there five months later.

Sulking in his room, Mikey is wearing a copper mask that he fashioned for himself in the asylum for the criminally insane's metal shop (the "metal" mask flops around every time the actor takes a breath, of course). An orderly taunts him with a framed photo of his ex-wife, which is the kind of thing body-count movie characters do as a triggering stressor. It works. The black orderly gets killed first, of course, and the driving theme returns even though Mikey's on foot. He does steal a car, though, and drives off, so the theme just jumped the gun a little bit. And now it's body count rampage time! Also, since there's no scene where the killer picks up an assload of weapons I can only assume that the car he stole was full of blunt instruments, a chainsaw, and guns. Good thing the person driving it was pulling up to the loony bin.

The first victim of the killing spree is an infant in a baby carriage; say what you will about the cheapness of the movie, the director was willing to go transgressive in a big, big way. He hallucinates the baby's mother as his own, and backs over her to put a button on the scene. Next up there's a trio of drunken potheads that throw a beer can at Mike's car (even after they see his Ninja Turtle-esque mask) and the chase scene gets an action remix of the driving theme, which I utterly forgot from the last time I watched this. And if the subsequent car wars, full-body burn gag and submachine gunning won't give Death Proof anything to worry about, remember--the director made this movie after finishing up at high school. I just had a job shelving books at the Wheaton Public Library, myself.

Lieutenant I Didn't Catch His Name is on the case! He yells at a subordinate over the phone and calls the sanitarium, complaining about cowardly police and then leaving to pursue Mike himself. He's considerably older than the usual Cop on the Edge, which has some novelty value. Another cop tracks Mike to a shed for a one-sided shootout, then sets the goddamned shed on fire to kill the maniac! Lieutenant Supposed To Be Actually In Charge shows up just seconds too late to prevent the premeditated street murder, followed by a fire truck (and again, how the hell did a director that couldn't legally buy beer convince someone to commit so many resources to this movie?). The shed fire gets put out in real time and a fireman rakes the ashes of a five-by-eight one room structure until he finds a charred skeleton. An on-site forensic dental examination reveals that Mike Strauber is still alive and that Officer Hothead killed an innocent homeless man. Though it's Florida, so he'll probably get a commendation in his file and a pay raise.

Mike takes a moment out of his busy day to take a chainsaw to a kid walking by a baseball diamond (that victim is played by A. J. Carter, who would later become one of the Backstreet Boys, and who got his start in show business spitting up stage blood in a parking lot). Then the driving theme makes its triumphant return for about ten seconds before Mike pulls over to shoot three people waiting for a bus. None of the traffic on the highway stops, which makes me wonder what the film-permit situation was for that scene.

Lieutenant Whatshisface realizes that Strauber is probably on his way to kill his ex-wife and isn't on a random killing spree, no matter what it might look like to the outside observer. Also, the driving scenes here demonstrate that Mike grew his finger back while in the asylum. Some time gets eaten up with Mike driving, the cops driving, and Sharon taking a shower (providing some third-act nudity in case the audience wasn't happy with all the shootings and vehicular homicide). When Mike pulls up in front of Sharon's place he knocks over a garbage can and the movie has a rare intentionally funny moment; the woman who owns the house where he parked comes out to berate him for parking badly and damaging her stuff, oblivious to how many weapons he's pulling out of the back seat of his stolen land yacht. She takes a morningstar to the jugular and exits the film.

 Sharon's taking a shower that's so loud she can't hear Mike chainsawing through the front door; meanwhile, Lieutenant Grumpy is stuck in traffic at a drawbridge. At the Shower Palace, Mike gets to the bathroom and is surprised by a man with a gun in the shower, who shoots him three times and then tells Sharon, hiding in a closet, that it's all over (in a monotone that sounds less engaged than if he was asking her what she wants from the Chinese takeout down the street). He opens the closet door and Sharon's body flops out, since Mike killed her earlier and I have no idea what the timeline of the last three minutes in the movie is supposed to be like. Also, Mike isn't dead and he takes the shower-dwelling action guy out. The print I was watching was so fuzzy that I couldn't tell if I'd seen the shower dude before or not but I think he's new to the story.

Lieutenant Crankypants gets to the house just in time for a horribly wounded Mike Strauber to stagger into the hallway, and he does the only sensible thing in the entire movie--he dares Mike to set the gun down (and is interrupted by Officer Dumbass before the scheme can pay off completely, but it works). Strauber gets another ambulance ride out of his rampage, at least, before going back to the Sunnyville Mental Institution and the credits roll. The movie's got one more surprise up its sleeve; there's a gospel singer performing a song called "A Critical Madness" over the end credits. I have no idea how Tim Ritter didn't wind up governor of Florida if he can talk a gospel singer into doing the end theme to a slasher movie.

I thought this one was a lot better-known than it apparently is--when I put the driving theme on the mix disc for B Fest 2015 I only heard back from one person out of several dozen who was familiar with the movie. Dear reader, if Netflix is offering this one at this time, you owe it to yourself to watch it. It's an unintentional masterpiece, but there's also a lot of thought and effort that the cast and crew put in while making the film. And again, it was made for sofa change by someone who would normally have a job like slinging tacos at the drive-up window. It might not be all that good, but I genuinely salute the drive, ambition and guts that it took to get the movie made.

And the driving theme is fantastic.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Parents (1989)


Written by Christopher Hawthorne
Directed by Bob Balaban

Randy Quaid:  Nick Laemle
Mary Beth Hurt:  Lily Laemle
Bryan Madorsky:  Michael Laemle
Sandy Dennis:  Millie Dew

I wanted to start this review by mentioning the hidden depths behind people you think you know, even tangentially, and pointing out the similarities between the titular parents (who are into some really unsavory things) and the director, who I knew as a genial character actor who shows up as a welcome sight in dozens of ensemble casts.

But then one of the Muses punched me in the neck and all I could think of was how well the director's name fit with a Beach Boys song and started singing:

Bob, Bob, Bob, Bob Balaban
BOB, BOB, BOB
Bob Balabaaa haah hannn
He is the maaa haah hannn
Bob Balabaaa haan hannn
Called up Randy Quaid, got a horror movie made
Balaban Bob Bob, Bob Balaban

Good luck getting that out of your head, dear readers.

Bob Balaban cannot sanction my buffoonery.

The film is one of many that examine American life in the suburbs--films ranging from American Beauty to Edward Scissorhands belong in this category. Additionally, it's a film from 1989 looking at the mid-1950s (and I'm here in 2015 looking back at 1989 looking back at 1954). So there's lots of layers to contend with, and nothing says "late Reagan era" to me like the Vestron Pictures logo at the start of the film. Though the "comical wacky" typeface also pegs the movie to a specific time and place as well as genre. It's also that bright swimming-pool blue that makes me think of tailfins and boomerang-pattern Formica whenever I see it.

The massive suburban sprawl of something like Levittown fills the screen; an endless vista of tract houses that Malvina Reynolds found so ticky-tacky and felt compelled to write a protest song about affordable housing and education for returning veterans from World War II (also, Malvina:  What the fuck? If you wanted to write a song about how American culture was hurting your feelings in 1961, I would have figured the John Birch Society would be a more deserving target).

Lightly "ethnic" jazz fills the soundtrack as the monstrous grill of a postwar Oldsmobile fills the screen; the credits list the principle cast members (including the credit to introduce Bryan Madorsky; he never made another film, so his introduction is also his finale). The soundtrack choice shows attention to detail; usually when something's set in The Fifties you get Buddy Holly and Little Richard on the soundtrack, but when they were popular with teenagers and played on the radio, the overconcerned parents of America thought it was an attack on society just to have a few 45s or to snap your fingers along with Chuck Berry. Therefore if Dad's got the radio going in the family roadster, that radio is playing something soft, safe and sanitized.

Michael Lamle is the viewpoint character for the film, and he's a kid with his age in single digits, untidy hair and big eyes staring out at the world. He's also not that great with his social skills (it's like someone made a movie about me when I was thirty-plus years younger!). His mother Lily is almost a parody of the fifties stay-at-home mother, hand-decorating cakes and doing housework in heels and pearls. His father Nick is concerned about his putting game and wears glasses that look more than a little like Buddy Holly's (though I'm certain that's just because in 1953, there were not hundreds of frames to choose from at LensCrafters). They've just moved to a brand new house in a brand new town, and Michael's going to be going to a brand new school.

Dad's got a new job supervising a team at a chemical company; he says defoliants are going to be a growth industry, which would sound like a pun if he looked witty enough to be making one on purpose. After dinner and a little light necking, Mom declares that it's Michael's bedtime and the kid is extremely apprehensive about his father carrying him off to his bedroom (and in this scene, both parents are dressed in soft pastels while their son is in a dark navy blue robe; all of the Lamle family furniture is extremely bright as well, so it's easy to see at a literal glance how poorly Michael fits in to his family and their home). Mom says, with a touch of resignation, that their son doesn't want to go to sleep because of frequent nightmares. And his father, trying to make things better, comes across as a predatory insect that learned to talk ("You can be yourself in the dark" is not something I want to hear from Randy Quaid, especially when he isn't putting any kind of inflection on the words).

Perhaps it came from Bob Balaban's character actor years, but he makes extraordinarily good use of Randy Quaid in this film; the sheer physical size of the actor when in the same frame as Michael or Lily makes him look more than a little like an ogre. He's big in that fleshy, not interested in salads, 1950s manner (and he looks period-perfect with the costuming and haircut choices the filmmakers made). It doesn't seem all that unusual for Michael to be apprehensive or even openly afraid of dear old Dad from the very start of the film.

Michael gets carted off to his room and his father turns out the lights. An extremely low level tracking shot follows his parents' feet as they raid the fridge for a midnight snack, and the audience cringes in sympathetic embarrassment at the thought of Michael overhearing their sweet talk. Right after that scene, we get one of Michael's nightmares; he jumps into bed and finds himself drowning in a world of bright red blood (and if he spent a few days flailing around in a pool of red liquid to film this, I can easily imagine Bryan Madorsky deciding one movie was plenty, thank you).

The next day, his mother is spending a great deal of effort making dinner out of thawed-out leftovers from the previous house (and I think Ravenous is the only other movie I've seen that makes cooking meat look so repulsive) and Dad's in the backyard working on his golf swing. The soundtrack has an ominous drone on it as Michael points a finger-gun at his dad and softly says "Pow". He's a weird, nervous kid with frequent bad dreams and no appetite, so I'm guessing more than a few of my readers will empathize with him quite a bit. He doesn't like the basement. It's clammy, cold and dark, but it does make a good wine cellar for his parents. The prospect of spending lots of time with his dad in the new town doesn't look like a good thing for Michael (and the filmmakers appear to share this belief, because he's the viewpoint character).

At school Michael gets to be the new kid in class (along with a girl named Sheila who transferred from another class. The obligatory "tell us something new when you're the new student" request goes awry; Sheila knows about cocktail variations thanks to her mom's bartending guide (and, quite likely, her mom's implied drinking problem). Michael gives the recipe for making a witching bone from a dead black cat--he doesn't tell the teacher where he got that information, but Sheila asks him and he says his father told it to him. She also says that she's from the Moon and that she's going back once she's got an education from the Earth people around her (which is much more interesting than Michael's background in Massachusetts); young Michael appears to actually believe her, which means either he has very little experience with liars or he's even less socially adept than one assumed from his earlier scenes.

Michael wants to know if he can go to the Moon and visit his new friend; she says it's okay (but not to tell the teachers at school about the whole lunar origin thing). Back at the Lamle place, there's an ominous low roar on the soundtrack as soon as Michael walks in, and there seems to be something more than a little off about the way his parents remind themselves about what time school gets out in the new district. Dinner that night features one of the most frequent terrors of childhood--saying something true and having authority figures take it for lies (it turns out that Nick and Lily Lamle don't believe their son when he mentions the Moon and how to make a Gibson martini, both conversational gambits courtesy of his day with Sheila). And both parents are disappointed and angry that Michael isn't eating any of the meat that was prepared for dinner (as always, it's red meat; there might be a bottle of white wine in the cellar somewhere, but almost the entire stockpile appears to be crimson).

That night, Michael is staring at a crack in his bedroom ceiling in apprehension; when his mother tries to put his mind at ease by explaining it's a gas pipe that expanded slightly when it heated up, he responds with a recipe for the Hand of Glory (which I'm guessing his dad told him at some point). His mother takes that in stride, and does seem to genuinely love her weird and anxious son. That night he walks in on his parents, together on the floor in their underwear, sweaty and red-lipped. Their understandable reaction (frustration, embarrassment, anger) is something he's going to carry with him for a few years, at least. Both parents are wearing blindingly white clothing here and lying on a white sheet; I wondered if that was going to be another dream sequence at first and it seems like it could have been filmed as one before just being used as a straightforward part of the narrative.

It's an accident of bad timing that the students in Michael's class have to draw pictures of their families in their workbooks the next day; Miss Baxter isn't ready for a picture using quite so much red crayon when she gets to the depiction of the Lamle family. One phone call (interrupting Lily chopping celery with a massive kitchen knife) later and it's time for a meeting with Millie Dew, the school's psychologist--it seems a little bit off that a grade school in the Eisenhower era would have one, but I'm also not much of an expert on education fads of the postwar era. And it's necessary for the story, so what the heck. I'll roll with it.

Lily tries to get through the meeting by giving Miss Dew the answers she's pretty sure the school administration would like to hear, and lying transparently and unconvincingly through her teeth the whole time. I had flashbacks to Sarah Palin claiming she read every newspaper and magazine ever published during this cringe-inducing scene. At roughly the same time, Michael's in a baggy oversized lab coat at Toxico, where Nick works. At the office, Nick is an understated, enthusiastic worker--explaining to one of his fellow employees about a new defoliant he's working on that causes plants to starve themselves to death. The lab attendant (who looks more than a little like Bob Balaban) is extremely enthusiastic about the possibility of destroying thousands of acres of jungle--the diorama used to simulate the effects of the defoliant certainly looks like a miniature Vietnamese encampment. Even in this scene, among outsiders, Nick issues a threat to his son for pressing his nose to the glass of the diorama case. Randy Quaid is incredibly menacing in this movie, the personification of "Wait until your father gets home", to quote Lyz of the world-class review site And You Call Yourself a Scientist!.

The lab attendant gives Michael a souvenir pen and a pep talk about how you can make anything with chemicals, and that he hopes the young boy will make opportunities. This is juxtaposed with a look at that diorama after the defoliant was sprayed on it; it's a smear of mud that looks like nothing ever lived there before and nothing's going to live there again. This is impressive, and soon it's time for the Laemle family to visit the Zellners' place for dinner. Mr. Zellner is the manager of a Toxico manufacturing plant, and wants to meet the new star in his plant-killing division. It also turns out that the Zellners have a kid; Michael's already met her and she says she's from the Moon.

Both of Michael's parents have discreetly let him know that it's an important night, and that Michael is not to act like a weirdo and put undue stress on the evening. When his father says it's a new town and they need to fit in, I'm not certain how much of his motivation is explained by the need to look good in front of his boss, and how much of it might have a more sinister reason. (Mr. Zellner turns out to look so much like the lab attendant that I thought the IMDB might have mis-identified an actor; like the scientist, he looks quite a bit like Bob Balaban. Does this mean anything? Did Mr. Balaban just like the idea of casting more than one Bob Balaban type? I'm not sure. I'd really like a commentary track for this one, but the two-movie disc it's on didn't have one. It also misidentifies the film as having a 4:3 aspect ratio, but it's widescreen.)

The two sets of parents play bridge, snack and chat while Hawaiian guitar suffuses the air. Again, the movie gets its soundtrack choices down pat--the 1950s were a time of great national interest in Hawaii, stemming from hundreds of thousands of military men coming home from the Asian half of World War II via the islands. And, of course, in the second half of the decade it became the fiftieth state. At the time the film takes place, high-fidelity record systems were so expensive that only lawyers, dentists and similarly rich people could afford them. And that was a crowd that wasn't particularly interested in anything challenging--101 Strings or The Fifty Guitars of Tommy Garrett were more their speed.

The kids sneak over to watch their parents socializing, not understanding anything they're seeing. Nick manages to spill a drink on his wife's dress and it seems that the Zellners know quite a bit about whether or not alcohol will stain various fabrics. Sheila tells Michael that people change when they get old, and that he can observe that process with his own parents.

Later, Michael's dad is making breakfast while his son watches passively. His father says it's good to watch people so you know how to behave, but to always remember that other people are watching at the same time. The conversation turns weird, with Nick Laemle trying to teach his son "the first law of survival", and asking if Michael understands (which he patently does not). Then it's time to serve up a heaping skillet of fried organ meats and announce that breakfast is served.

At school, Michael gets pulled out of class to talk to Miss Dew. The name plate on her office door is at eye height for a child, which makes a lot of sense. She wants Michael to explain the red-saturated drawing of his family, and brings out some cards with pictures on them; his part of the "game" is to explain what's going on in the various illustrations. A man and a woman next to a bed leads to flashbacks to whatever Michael saw his parents getting up to; he's scared for reasons he can't even articulate by seeing that first card. (This is a real psychological technique, incidentally, used on children ages 3-10 or so; it's called the Children's Apperception Test and it uses pictures of humans or animals as a way to elicit responses from children by getting them to talk about something other than themselves.) The counseling session doesn't really establish anything one way or the other; Michael's obviously not like the other kids but Miss Dew doesn't have anything to go on about why he's so odd.

At Toxico, Nick is getting liver and lymph node samples from cadavers (which doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me, but perhaps OSHA regulations about body storage were lax or nonexistent in the fifties; at any rate, it's necessary for the story so I'll buy it). That scene transitions to one where Lily is making meatloaf; there's a pretty sedate mambo on the soundtrack and Michael, hiding in the pantry, has a fugue state reverie about smoked sausages on the top shelf reaching down to strangle and crush him (wonder what the school psychologist would make of that vision?). Dinner that night is "leftovers", but Michael is puzzled--they've had leftovers every day since the family moved to a new town, He wonders what they were before, and doesn't feel like eating. His dad snaps at him and his mother explains that Daddy's had a rough day; you don't need to be in a horror movie to have that conversation going on in one's childhood.

That night Michael has a nightmare that combines all the fears and anxieties he's had so far--death, blood, being watched, watching something he doesn't understand, and his parents doing...something...together with their mouths. It's a very impressive montage and it leads to a day at school where Michael hides in a coat closet while Miss Baxter and Miss Dew discuss that he's a frightened, lonely little boy who isn't fitting into any of the categories they use to understand children. There's a great moment where both educators are standing right outside the closet door and the psychologist says "I can't find him", while talking about his diagnosis, not his presence less than three feet away.

After school, Michael sees his friend Sheila sitting in a tree; she says she's quit school forever and is going to go on the run with him in a camper-trailer. The look on her face in this sequence when she says they'll never be punished again is bleak and awful, and grounds the movie considerably--Michael Lamle is not the only confused child trying to navigate a world that frightens him. Sheila goes into the Lamle house and starts messing with all the chromed-up kitchen gadgets and making a mess; turning on the disposal, blender and mixer at the same time blows a fuse and Michael has to go down to the basement to replace it. Sheila starts drinking wine straight from the bottle in the cellar (and the Big Bopper shows up on the soundtrack here, as a counterpoint to the anxiety and acting out from the two child characters. He might be saying "Oh baby that's what I like!" but it's a more than safe bet that neither Michael or Sheila would use "like" to describe anything they're feeling about their lives),

And that goes double for when Michael's dad walks in and sees the two of them in the chest freezer (that Michael is forbidden to go near); we don't see whatever he said to Sheila but his story to Michael about being a good little boy is horrifying and piles on the shame and fear as much as his father possibly can. Watching Randy Quaid's angry red face fill the screen is scarier than the nightmare sequences. He wraps up his little father-to-son talk by forbidding Michael to ever see Sheila again, which will only work as long as one of them cuts school any particular day.

It also transpires that Michael ignores this edict; Sheila lies to her mom when Michael's parents call looking for him, and they have a talk about how little either one knows about what their parents are really like, and what they do all day. Michael thinks on this and sneaks into the Toxico plant (he's skinny enough to scoot under the security gate in the parking lot); he finds the cadavers in the "Division of Human Testing" section of the building and hides behind a pillar as he sees his father sneak in, look around carefully, and slice out a piece of a cadaver (the blocking in this wordless scene creates a massive amount of suspense, with Michael moving repeatedly to stay out of his father's field of vision). The shots of Nick at work harvesting flesh from a corpse are intercut with closeups of Michael's huge, staring eyes. He takes a suicidally stupid risk swiping a pair of scissors that his father accidentally knocks to the floor, and the only time the audience sees fear on Randy Quaid's face is in this sequence, when he looks around, thinking he might have been discovered.

That night, in the dark, Nick sees his son walking around and orders him into the car; Michael is curious about what's in the big canvas bag in the back of the sedan and his father curtly orders him to keep his damned hands off the laundry. Or "laundry", as it may be--Nick asks his wife for some help getting it out of the car and everyone tables their standing arguments for another time. The subtext-filled conversation between Nick and Michael when the kid returns the scissors to his dad is tooth-grindingly intense, with the father telling his son just what happens to boys that make up stories. Michael flees for bed, and for more anxiety about sex and death.

That's nothing compared to what he's going to be feeling after going down into the basement--he finds a cardboard trash barrel full of discarded clothing, and there's a butcher's block covered with dried blood. It's the severed leg hanging from a meathook that sends him running, and there's no shot in the movie scarier than his dad sitting on his bed and waiting for an explanation for what he's doing wandering around the house.

The next day at school, Michael is having another session with the psychologist, who doesn't believe that he saw what he thinks he saw (which is another childhood frustration showing up in the film--you aren't believed when you lie and you aren't believed when you tell the truth). Miss Dew tries to get him to open up about his nightmares, but the things that are worrying him the most are the things that he's really seen. She drives him back to the Lamle house and he sprints for the basement; the psychologist follows him and keeps trying to get him to describe a dream that he had. When Michael sees a rat, the psychologist shoos it away and stirs through the yard rubbish in a covered outside bin, but uncovers a dead body there--looks like the kid's picture was more accurate than anyone at the school would have guessed.

The tracking shot that follows Miss Dew's scream as it echoes through the basement and outside the house (where the family car is pulling into the driveway) is flat-out amazing, and showy in a way that benefits from the rather staid camerawork over the rest of the film.

Michael shuts the basement door on the psychologist and flees; he's just had a spectacular trauma. While Miss Dew looks for him in the house, she gets shoved into the pantry and it's time for a closeup on Sandy Dennis' eyes before Lily goes after her with a kitchen knife, a garden tiller and, eventually, one of Nick's golf clubs. And the next shot is the loving couple barbecuing a gigantic amount of meat on the backyard grill. But dinner gets interrupted when Michael takes a swing at his old man with a Louisville Slugger. Unfortunately, one lucky shot is all he gets in before winding up tied to a kitchen chair with his father telling him a little story about how the boy's an outsider, not like anyone around him, and therefore quite a bit like his parents.

His father uses every trick in the Shitty Parenting book to try and guilt-trip his son into keeping the family's (literally) ghoulish secret. It's time for him to either have dinner with his mom and dad or cause their destruction. He makes his choice, and it's one that winds up driving his father into a homicidal rage, grunting out to Lily that they can have another kid, and bring him up right. Lily can't accept that, and the ensuing confrontation takes out Mom and injures Dad quite badly. All the quiet menace in Randy Quaid's performance pays off as he tries to lurch to his feet in a blood-streaked cardigan to chase his son down and murder him; when he tips the wine rack over on himself the basement floor floods with red. A knocked-over candle on the table leads to a conflagration in the kitchen; a torn-apart gas line in the basement results in the total destruction of the house, and probably the concealment of the Lamle parents' crimes. At any rate, Michael winds up living with his grandmother and grandfather.

Which would be great news for him, except for one simple fact:  Nick had to learn his appetites somewhere, didn't he?

The end credits are either a misstep or a wonderfully sick joke, showing that all the actors are doing perfectly okay as they smile and wave for the camera and Sheb Wolley's "Flying Purple People Eater" plays. Wait a minute--was that a reference to the end credits for The Undertaker and His Pals? Sweet mother of Christ, Bob Balaban is potentially a sicker and weirder person than I could have ever hoped to find out.

Bob, if you're out there, come to B Fest some year. I bet you'd really like it, if your debut film was something as well-managed yet demented as this one.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Chopping Mall (1986)


Written by Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell
Directed by Jim Wynorski

Kelli Maroney:  Alison Parks
Tony O'Dell:  Ferdy Meisel
Russell Todd:  Rick Stanton
Karrie Emerson:  Linda Stanton
Barbara Crampton:  Suzie Lynn

With the usual complement of Roger Corman alumni and character actors, to wit:  Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov, Gerrit Graham, Angus Scrimm, Mel Welles and DICK MILLER! as the janitor who gets electrocuted

I was planning to use this for HubrisWeen 3, but after seeing Logan's Run last week (and getting lots of cheap jokes in about how it was very, very obviously shot in a shopping mall) I bumped this one to the top of the list.

There's a story that many people who worked for legendary producer / director / talent scout Roger Corman tell. Something went wrong on a movie they were trying like hell to bring in on time and under budget--an actor gave up, an effect gave out, the weather gave them downpours when they needed sunshine. The filmmakers just plain hit the wall. And Corman would take them aside and quietly let them know that he understood just how much Sisyphean effort was being expended to make a low-budget monster movie or car chase comedy. The last thing he'd say, as a morale booster, was this:  "If you do a good enough job on this movie, you will never have to work for me again".

Jim Wynorski has been directing movies for Corman for thirty years.

That's not to say he doesn't know what the audience wants (look at that poster, or, hell, just look at that title!) but it is to say that you know what you're going to get when you throw a Wynorski movie into the gigantic top-loading VCR in the basement rec room. Or, decades after the original lifespan of the film, check it out on Blu-Ray or streaming video. I'd missed out on this one back in its original video release (none of the mom-and-pop stores in Wheaton carried it) but its reputation preceded it even back in the days when the internet wasn't even like a truck and horror fandom communicated mostly by buying Fangoria and hoping that some of the movies they wrote about wouldn't suck.

Also, a brief moment to salute the genius of Roger Corman when he was ripping things off. He had the intelligence to say "Hey, what if it was a bunch of little fish?" when trying to ride the sharkskin coattails of Jaws, and he beat Jurassic Park to the theater with Carnosaur--even going so far as to hire Laura Dern's mother for his dinosaur movie. He knew that a hit movie was basically a free fifty million dollar ad campaign for his grindhouse retreads of the same concepts, and wasn't above tinkering with the release if it would squeeze a few more dollars out of his audience. For example, this film was originally called Killbots, but the second title was infinitely more commercial and also totally irresistible. I think it's the best B movie title since Blacula, myself. If you're a person who fills their head with cultural junk food, you can no more pass up Chopping Mall than you could something called RoboCop. It tells you everything you need to know in three syllables (even if it promises a slasher movie that you aren't quite going to get). Which is how one winds up with a B movie reworking of the basic plotline of Short Circuit, released the same year as its inspiration.

The film starts with the most 80s of criminal acts--a stubbly, greasy-mulleted white guy in ripped jeans, a hooded sweatshirt and filthy T-shirt smashes a jewelry display case and makes off with a bunch of stuff in his pocket. He is accosted by a squat robot on tank treads (I especially like the little yellow caution light off-center on top of the robot's head) that demonstrates its resistance to small-arms fire, its speed and maneuverability, and its ability to Taser the living shit out of the criminal. Then it is revealed to the film audience that the sequence was a promotional film for Secure-Tronics, a company that manufactures and sells autonomous crime-stopping robots to concerned businesses. And given that Xerox sells a hell of a lot more toner than they do copiers, I'm willing to bet that Taser reloads are the hidden recurring costs if you buy a security bot.

The R&D chief of Secure-Tronics unveils--literally--a trio of robots that are going to take over the night security job at the Park Plaza 2000 mall, where shit is going to go down shortly (if it didn't, the audience would want its money back). He pronounces it "robutt", which I will never be able to repress a juvenile smirk when I hear it. The flacks from Secure-Tronics assure the store owners assembled at their showoff seminar that the robutts are incapable of killing any miscreants; they just have trank darts, tasers and other nonlethal weaponry to "neutralize" criminals. This word choice reminds me quite a bit of City of Heroes, where you could "defeat" your foes with an assault rifle or battle axe, which sounds like a pretty permanent defeat to me. Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov are the two store owners who think it'll all end in tears, and it's great to think that they were still getting paid by Roger Corman in the middle of the Reagan years.

Monsters have rules. That's one of the things that make monster movies so much fun. And as Mary Woronov continues smack-talking the dude from Secure-Tronics, the film establishes what the rules are going to be for the inevitable killbot rampage. The drones are controlled by a central computer on the fifth floor of the mall. They're programmed to patrol the open areas of the mall, but not to go into the stores without just cause. They are programmed to leave mall staff with an ID badge unharmed. And there are steel security doors that are going to lock the entire facility down from midnight till morning, just to make sure none of the Expendable Meat characters can get out. (Anyone else remembering the turbo-stupid fire safety system in The Relic that was set up to lock people inside a burning building right now? Just me? Okay.) The last thing the board member from Secure-Tronics says is that absolutely nothing can go wrong, and then the titles come up promising that they're going to. There's also plenty of synth bass in the score, which says "1986" like almost nothing else can. The title sequence also features plenty of zaniness courtesy of the feather-light comic touch of Jim Wynorski.

Some of the Expendable Meat is introduced next. Allison and Suzie, two waitresses at a diner run by a short Greek (the best kind of diner, incidentally), are making plans for the evening. Meanwhile or later or something, lightning from a rainless, cloudless night sky hits the A/C vent on top of the mall repeatedly. This causes one of the robots to necksnap the tech guy who was supposed to be overseeing the security drones (and it means that Wynorski is one of the few fans of Gog on the planet, judging from the robots' design and the particular way the lab coat wearing IT guy got taken out). Then it's back to meet more Meat; three guys at a furniture store (Michael the gum-chewing asshole, Ferdy the nebbish assistant manager and Greg the nice guy) are planning some kind of party after hours. I'm betting the waitresses are going to be there too.

Rick and Linda, a married couple, fix a truck while more sourceless lightning strikes; they're also coming to the party. Michael goes to a clothing store to mack on his girlfriend Leslie. More Shazam lightning strikes (even though the Protector-101s aren't going to go any more crazy) and Gerrit Graham shows up just long enough to steal a coworker's leftover doughut half, read at the robuts' control desk and become the second casualty thanks to some decidedly non-nonlethal weaponry.

The party at the furniture store is in full regrettable-pop-song-beer-and-close-dancing swing, with Ferdy in the bathroom trying to spruce up his look for his blind date with Allison. He turns out to be instantly smitten, as does she (which is nice--not just because the terrible pop song fades out for some syrupy romantic music on the score). The robots start patrolling the open spaces of the mall, and the practical remote-controlled props look pretty damned impressive. I'm glad that Corman sprung for enough money to realize five of the robots (there are only three in the movie; they had two spares constructed in case the metallic costars turned out to be balky or just plain nonfunctional). And the Protector-101s actually look like something that might have been built in the gadget-happy 1980s in order to automate Paul Blart out of a job. They aren't nearly as impressive as the Short Circuit creations, but this flick got made in 22 days for about $750,000; for what they cost they're really quite impressive. And there's something cool about a three-dimensional prop in a science fiction movie--I prefer stop-motion monsters to computer-generated ones because the stop-motion monsters have to be lit and shot like an actor. They have a certain amount of presence on film that ones and zeroes don't necessarily have.

Three of the pairs of couples split off to have sex (the third duo winds up on a couch, presumably because the first two pairs got to the beds first). Ferdy and Allison wind up watching Attack of the Crab Monsters on television, which is the perfect time for me to mention that taking someone I'd had a crush on for years to see Army of Darkness was my first date in high school. Go, Ferdy and Allison, go! They're sweet and awkward, especially when overhearing one of the other girls having sex with her date. Elsewhere in the mall, Walter Paisley (DICK MILLER!) is mopping up a splatter of spilled food and classing up the joint as only he can. He brings more authenticity and emotional truth to his ninety seconds or so of screen time before he gets fried by a killbot than the rest of the cast put together.

Back at the Screw Party, two of the post-coital partiers want cigarettes. Mike scoots off to procure a pack of Leslie's preferred smokes from a vending machine and gets tranked and neck-snapped in short order. Leslie goes looking for him in the manner of girlfriends in body-count movies of the Reagan years. Ferdy is chivalrous enough to try and get Allison out of the mall before the security doors close (and though neither actor is all that spectacular, it's nice to see some characterization other than "we want to bone" from one of the couples). Leslie stumbles upon Mike's body and her screams alert that floor's Battle Drone--which somehow manages to open a door inwards without using its arms to chase her down--and the stakes get upped as it uses a laser gun to blow her head completely off!

Two of the robots smash the door of the Furniture King and attack the remaining six partiers. There's a nice nod to science fiction movies of the past here; one of the sound effects of the deathbots' lasers is the War of the Worlds Martian heat ray. For me, at least, that sound effect is as welcome as a Godzilla roar. Everyone escapes from the robutts at least temporarily by hiding in a stockroom and barricading the door, but from inside that room they hear the security doors announcing it's midnight by locking them inside until six that morning. As is par for the course for this sort of movie, the phone is dead as well.

While the 'bots plant explosives to blow the heavy steel stockroom door off its hinges, the victims hatch a plan to sneak through the air ducts and get out of the mall via the unsecured and robutt-free parking garage. The women all get in the conveniently large air ducts before the door goes, but the men all have to flee once a Protector unit shows up to kill them. The robutts turn on the heat (somehow, although they're not connected to the system anywhere) to fatigue the women while they try to run. At the same time, the men run to Peckinpah's Sporting Goods (yes, I know) to arm themselves against the malfunctioning security droids.

In the sporting goods store, the guys have one of those "lock and load" montages before engaging one of the security bots in a firefight; an exploding propane tank knocks it out of commission but none of the bullets seemed to have the slightest effect on it before the detonation. Also, where the hell are the other two 'bots? One of them showed up seconds after the group made some noise, but the firefight was a great deal louder and lasted some time. Whatever investigation protocol is running in the murder droids' brains should have been tripped.

In the air ducts, Suzie breaks away from the group to find her boyfriend. The other two women follow, presumably thinking either that there's safety in numbers or that they want to be there to say "I told you so" when Suze gets everyone killed. They rig Molotov cocktails in a hardware / auto supply store (in my mind, Jake Blues is mentioning that this mall has everything). Elsewhere, the murderbot that got blowed up real good reboots and gets back up on its treads. At the same time but another place, the men are rigging propane tanks to the top of an elevator as some kind of booby trap.

Suzie gets shot in the leg and set on fire (the murderbots don't believe in half measures); her boyfriend snaps and empties his shotgun at the droid before running away. They lure one of the robutts into the elevator (and there's a rather cool stunt jump here when Rick leaps to safety from the elevator roof); the propane bomb goes off and drops the elevator and murderbot inside four stories down, where it's presumably destroyed. The survivors retreat to the restaurant to rest up and calculate how much money they owe the mall for blowing stuff up and stealing the supplies they needed to get away. This is also time for the second-act "the survivors can be their own worst enemies" scene; none of the actors acquit themselves particularly well here.

In lieu of going out to hunt the other Protector-101s, Ferdy floats a plan:  The central computer controlling the security system is on the third floor, and if it's shut down or destroyed the robots won't have any orders to follow (although it's not ever made clear if they're autonomous drones or following bad commands from the central system). A moment of distraction means Greg gets thrown off a third-story balcony and he exits the movie with a thud.

Both of the security bots pursue the four survivors, who barricade themselves inside a department store and beat feet for another level; the robutts split up here. One goes to the third floor while the second one burns a hole through the security gate with a laser. Allison recommends splitting up; Ferdy is the Fifties monster-movie fan in the group so he knows what it means to split the party when a menace is lurking about. There's a lull in the action that they use to get some sleep. An indeterminate time later, the robutt cutting a hole in the door finally gets through (this is the cruddy B movie equivalent of Thor taking several hours to pick his hammer up before the final throwdown in The Avengers). Allison has the brainstorm that setting up mannequins and mirrors might confuse the robot; it shoots itself and takes out Linda and Rick (who charges in ridiculously on a floor buffer or airport luggage tram before getting zapped). That leaves two survivors and one homicidal Roomba.

Ferdy resolves to find the Master Control Program and shut things down; Allison decides to split up and cover more ground. She gets surprised by a Fibber McGee closet full of junk as the false scare while looking around, and gets ambushed by the remaining 'bot. It fails to kill her instantly (she's the Final Girl, so there are rules here) and her screams alert Ferdy to her location. He charges in and gets a fire extinguisher chucked at his midsection hard enough to kill him; Allison has to run rather than grieve. She hides in a pet shop and the killbot fails to spot her in the shadows. Also, Kelli Maroney is a hell of a good sport in this scene; the "got to stay quiet or the monster will find you" suspense scene features escaped tarantulas and snakes from knocked-over tanks crawling over her. She eventually sneaks out of the store (at least partially to get away from the creepy-crawlies) and gets chased down by the third murderbot again. eluding it by taking a dive down to another floor and landing on a kiosk that breaks her fall.

She's a clever girl, and uses the paint and thinner in another mall store to keep it from getting any traction (its treads can't find any purchase in the paint) and tosses a flare from the auto parts store at it. Turns out that much paint, primer and thinner is not just flammable--it's explosive. That puts the final score at Meatbags 3, Robutts 5. I guess you have to go by percentages; the team that has someone alive on it at the end wins. And what the hell, let's go for a happier ending. Ferdy just got a concussion , and he's okay! A rather well-executed crane shot to the skylights showing the sun coming in brings us to the end credits.

Well, it certainly was a movie. The mid Eighties were the last gasp of cheap B movies that gave a damn (I have a really poor opinion of SyFy Channel originals and Asylum mockbusters), and Wynorski generates a substantial amount of good will from me by putting Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Mel Welles (the short Greek who runs the diner) and DICK MILLER! in the film. The plot hits all the expected beats (although I think we really needed some kind of explanation of why the Protector-101 series had lethal armaments and just sort of made up new powers whenever the script required any of the bots to do something new). The shot setups take advantage of the space available in the mall and there's a pretty boss exploding head. The actors do a credible enough job, which is all you can expect from this sort of thing (DICK MILLER! excepted, of course).

It's the faintest of praise, but you wouldn't think that the director of The Return of Swamp Thing or Vampirella had it in him to make even a mediocre movie, let alone a pretty darn good one.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Logan's Run (1976)


Written by David Zelag Goodman, based on the novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
Directed by Michael Anderson

Michael York:  Logan-5
Richard Jordan:  Francis-7
Jenny Agutter:  Jessica-6
Peter Ustinov:  Old Man

I turn 40 tomorrow, so of course I'm thinking of the most famous "time is running out" movie in science fiction history. I realize I'm ten years past the expiration date for the timing to work out as it should, but I also don't care. It took me about ten years to decide that it didn't matter whether or not anyone wanted to read my thoughts on movies--I probably should have started Checkpoint Telstar when I was pushing 30, but I didn't. So here we are. Pity the movie isn't better than it is, but movies can be iconic without also being all that good.

In the year 2274, the remnants of human society have been confined to a massive domed city. Some sort of one-size-fits-all cataclysm brought this state of affairs about, as 70s science fiction so often depicted. Inside the domed compound, everyone's wants and needs are catered to by a sophisticated AI that controls every aspect of the citizens' lives, including when new children are gestated in a computer-controlled nursery. There's only so many resources to go around under the dome, after all, and too many people would make the system fall apart and doom everyone. Limiting the births is one way to keep the population stable; the other one used by the computer is a bit more drastic. Everyone in the world is told that when they reach the age of 30, they'll go through the ritual of "Carrousel", where their bodies will be destroyed and their life essence will be transmitted to the newly born infants, so that their souls will live on forever even though their bodies have been vaporized.

This is transparently bullshit to the audience, but it's the kind of religion that could certainly take hold in a futuristic hermetically sealed civilization. There's no point in wishing for a better world in the afterlife if the several dozen square miles of the here-and-now are the only world anyone's ever known. Infinite recycling is probably the most effective made-up story for making people do what the computer wants them to do, including submitting passively to their deaths whenever the magic voice from the loudspeakers says it's your Lastday. There's enough self-seriousness to the movie that I feel lots of terms should be capitalized--Lastday, Sandman, Runner, Carrousel, etc. Enjoy the terminology.

The domed future city looks like EPCOT 1974, complete with a monorail. And the clarity of Blu-Ray really doesn't do this movie any favors whatsoever. It's pretty obviously shot in a big shopping mall with miniatures matted in to make it look more like a city and less like a dystopia that would also have a B. Dalton Bookseller and an Orange Julius stand.

After the prerequisite opening titles that set up the future world situation, we get a ground floor view of Domed Mall World. Our hero, Logan-5, is looking curiously in on a maternity ward with a pair of cute little babies inside. The babies have a clear crystal implanted in the palms of their left hands; Logan's got one that's bright red (the color code will be explained later, but it's just as easy to tell you now if you don't already know about it--the life clock in everyone's hand shifts colors as they grow older; red is the final color and when it starts blinking the future people are ready for their Lastday). Logan's a little more curious than everyone around him, and that draws comment from his colleague Francis-7. Those two, by the way, are wearing black clothes with a big grey stripe across the chest while everyone else is making do with the customary 1970s sci-fi Star Trek Hippie Toga look, in several fashionably bright colors (and it sure seems to me like everyone gets assigned a clothing color and sticks with it for the rest of their lives, but I might be making unwarranted assumptions).

After some talk about how the system keeps everything in balance--"one is terminated, one is born"--(Francis is in favor of that, which does sound pretty sensible), a crowd gathers to watch that night's Carrousel ceremony. A female voice announces that it's Lastday for a subset of the population. About two dozen people in white robes and creepy skull / hockey masks enter a chamber at the bottom of a huge round auditorium that's packed with spectators. They raise their hands to show their blinking red crystals and a force field lowers around them. Everyone cheers as gravity gets reversed and the Lastday celebrants swim through the air acrobatically until they reach the top of the chamber and get destroyed by a disco ball thing hanging from the ceiling. Everyone cheers and chants "Renew! Renew!"; apparently they've got an Aztec-style view of willing sacrifices, and that makes sense if every death means another infant can be born next to the Pier 1 Imports.

While he's watching the Carrousel ritual, Logan gets a page on his house-brick sized future phone--a "Runner" is on the loose somewhere near the ear piercing kiosk. He and Francis quietly pursue a man in a red tunic, then shoot at him with their futuristic handguns. It turns out they're Sandmen, and their task in Mega-City One is to hunt down and kill anyone that skips out on their date with the antigravity popcorn popper for Carrousel. They appear to be firing in a way that misses and terrifies the poor son of a bitch--and both Logan and Francis treat his mortal terror as a humorous lark. Eventually they either frighten the Runner into diving off a balcony or actually hit him (the editing is unclear and I'm guessing that rigging sparks and squibs on the walls or floor of the mall were easier and safer than putting them on the stuntman). Logan swipes the dead man's money and a ring from his finger before a hovering cleaner unit sprays the Runner's body with a chemical that causes total decomposition of the corpse and its clothing in seconds. I don't know how this played out in 1976, but watching it in 2015 made my stomach turn--watching the protagonist laugh as he and a pal terrorize a civilian until he dies brought George Zimmerman to mind. ProTip to filmmakers:  If your protagonist makes me think of a jerkoff getting away with murder and bragging about it, I'm not going to like your protagonist. Not that anyone involved in the 1976 dystopian film would have known about our 2015 dystopian life, but a bullying asshole is a bullying asshole no matter who he reminds you of.

Back in his living quarters, Logan models a completely ridiculous lounging caftan in the Sandman color scheme and messes with some kind of "teleport someone to your bachelor pad to have sex" device. He summons the stunningly beautiful Jessica to his lair and macks on her without so much as saying hello, then acts stunned and bemused when she says no. Movie, again, you're not making me like Logan at all. Right now I'm hoping he winds up being attacked by hornets. Lots of them. Although the film at least has some dialogue that clues the audience in to a "circuit" of people willing to ride a transmat beam to a stranger's home so they can screw. I was afraid that it was some kind of perk for being a Sandman, but it looks like everyone in the future city can use it.

Jessica doesn't feel like putting out because one of her friends just went to Carrousel, and she believes that they were killed instead of mystically returned to the great cycle of consciousness. She also lets Logan have it with both barrels when she points out that he kills people as his assigned task (though our hero says instead that Sandmen terminate Runners; again, from the lofty vantage point of post-millenial America I'm thinking of the difference between "enhanced interrogation techniques" and "torturing the shit out of someone until they say what you want them to say". The pair chitchat for a little while (though Logan keeps hinting strongly that the bedroom's right over there in case Jessica wants to just have sex with him instead of talk or feel sad). And for all his earlier questioning nature raised comment from Francis-7, it looks like this is the first time Logan's ever heard a very particular question from anyone:  Why, exactly, do Sandmen have to terminate Runners? (If the future society was worried about resources, people leaving the domed mall wouldn't be taking up any more pretzel dog and blue raspberry Icee rations, after all.)

Logan decides to threaten Jessica with his Sandman gun when she asks this question (really, it's a good thing Michael York is so charismatic, because Logan's characterization is appalling). When Francis shows up with a pair of women in green hippie togas and a globe of laughing gas Jessica decides to make her escape and leave the apartment. Logan utterly fails to pursue, deciding that debauchery is more fun than questioning the system or worrying about the future.

At work at the Hall of Justice and Spencer's Gifts the next day, Francis and Logan drop off the personal effects of the Runners they've terminated so the computer can disintegrate them. Francis happens to go first so the audience can see how the procedure is supposed to work, and when Logan drops off the pocket litter from the previous day's Runner the computer takes much longer to scan the doomed sucker's personal effects. The computer directs Logan to a chair so he can take a meeting with his boss's boss's boss's boss directly and the Sandman looks about as relaxed and confident as you would if Bill Gates showed up for your performance review at Microsoft without warning. Turns out the computer has been keeping track of Runners that have escaped from the domed world, found their car in the 50,000 acre parking lot and gone out into the rest of the world. There have been 1,056 of them so far and the machine wants to make sure that number doesn't get any higher.

Logan doesn't understand anything the computer tells him at first (and doesn't recognize the ankh jewelry that the Runner had on him; by the way, Jessica was wearing one around her throat and that's probably not smart in a system where an AI is monitoring everything). The machine wants a Sandman to find the possibly-mythical Sanctuary out in the rest of the world and destroy it. Logan finds out that he's been volunteered for the job, cannot expect any backup, and has had four years taken off his life crystal so that he'll be a deep cover agent pretending to be a Runner. Right before it tells Logan what to do, the computer also drops enough information that Logan figures out the entire ritual of Carrousel is a fake, and that nobody has ever been Renewed over the course of the city's existence. That's a lot to drop on someone out of the blue. Even though I think Logan-5 is a real dickhead, I feel some sympathy for him here, especially because he's probably smart enough to figure how much use the system has for someone who knows it's all built on a lie and just did something suicidally dangerous, but then came back. The AI doesn't even promise the poor sap that he'll get his four years back when the mission's done. He scoops up the ankh and leaves for his mission.

The electro-skronk noise on the soundtrack during the lifeclock reprogramming scene convinced me that Jerry Goldsmith was trying something in the Dario Argento / John Carpenter electronic film score mode, but trying and succeeding are very different things. As much as I like beeping tones in my listening choices, the synthesizers are not really used well here and distract from the film much more than they add to it.

Back at the Sandman gym and sauna, Logan's shaken to the core about what he's learned about society and what's just happened with his Lifeclock, but Francis is too carefree, hedonistic and incurious to help. So it's time for our hero to look Jessica up and talk to her. Since he doesn't know anyone or anything that could help, he's clutching at straws. He's also gone right back to being an unlikable asshole when he says he didn't care about any hypothetical Runners and what they were thinking before, but now it's him and he's terrified. It's only when Logan drops the word "Sanctuary" that Jessica decides to help him. Or at least that's what it looks like to Logan; the underground atheists of the AI-run system think Logan's much too dangerous to live now that he knows the broad outlines of their plans to escape.

Jessica lures Logan over to the Mrs. Fields cookie stand but before one of her co-conspirators can garrote the Sandman he gets a page from his day job; there's a Runner at Cathedral and he's apparently the one who has to go Take Care of Business there. Logan and Jessica hop on to the local tram car, and are followed by the two guys who were going to strangle Logan earlier (which makes me wonder what kind of chase sequence you can have on a monorail--the movie agrees that it won't be impressive and doesn't really try for one). Even on a PC screen the minatures for this screen would have to improve to be chintzy. I imagine on a full-sized movie screen they're laughable.

Whatever original purpose Cathedral served (I'm guessing it was some kind of cathedral), that location is now the dumping ground for feral children who are too violent to manage in the greater society. Since it's a future mall, I found myself imagining a ball pit surrounded by heads on pikes, but we don't get anything that transgressive or awesome. It's just a low-rent district of the future city; I figure it's got dollar stores, a cell phone accessory kiosk and the airbrushed T-shirt booth in it. A filthy urchin named Mary-2 talks to Jessica for a moment before swiping her bracelet and running off. When Logan calls out for the Runner to show herself he and Jessica get ambushed by a pack of feral youths by the Hot Topic and the stroller rentals; Logan psyches out the leader of the gang and shoots the landscape a few times, frightening the "Cubs" away. They find the Runner and it turns out that Logan showing the blinking red crystal in his own hand does a lot more to calm the hysterical Runner down than any words could do. Just after Logan and Jessica leave the Runner, Francis shows up and executes her (and that's the first time we see a Sandman gun hitting a person--it's not pretty).

Jessica lets Logan know that her friends want to kill him as a threat to their escape plans; she's convinced that he's not like all the others because she saw him let a Runner go, but she's the only one of the Ankh Gang that wouldn't consider it safe policy to murder him on sight. If he's going to make a Run for it, Logan's going to need a new face from one of the plastic surgery boutiques on the second level, next to the Vitamin World. The doctor has the face of a teenager but he's got a red life crystal; apparently his own work is of the highest quality. He's also part of the underground, and Jessica talks him into doing a full-face job on Logan since even the doctor can see that Logan's crystal is blinking. But as it turns out he'd rather use the surgical robot to get rid of his Logan problem; in the ensuing fistfight it turns out Doc thinks like a chessmaster but fights like one as well and he gets sliced and diced by his own surgery drone's lasers. Francis-7 shows up just in time to accuse Logan of letting a Runner go and then get pistol-whipped by his former comrade-in-arms. In the ensuing chaos, Logan and Jessica sneak into the Love Shop (it's next to Sharper Image) and run for the exit while Francis gets delayed for a few crucial moments by the slow-motion gyrating of the dancers in the Love Shop.

While they're making their way through a service access area that really, really looks like a parking garage Jessica and Logan make a rough plan to get away. They're both pretty sure that Logan will be killed just on general principles by anyone in the underground but better a chance at talking their way out of death than the certainty that Francis or another Sandman will murder them to death. In the chambers of the resistance (or, perhaps, the Resistance) there's a remarkably silly-looking interrogation where Logan and Jessica get smoke sprayed in their faces from glowstick spears. The nurse from the re-facing clinic shows up at the worst time imaginable and almost gets Logan killed, but then mentions Francis' arrival and agrees that Logan's going through with a Run.

The Resistance decides to let Logan out of the mall and he refuses to let Jessica follow him; she's got more than a decade to live if she obeys the rules and he doesn't understand why she wants to be with him (frankly, neither do I). Their argument gets cut short by a Sandman attack; they're homing in on Logan's futurephone--which he activated before finding out the Resistance was going to let him live. Nice going, jerk. The Resistance is a total write-off and the JC Penney will have to be closed for months for cleanup and repairs. Francis confronts his former coworker and tells him to kill Jessica for her connection to the Resistance; Logan shoots some machinery nearby and runs like hell while Francis is distracted instead. It turns out the ankh is a key that a sensor on a computer screen can read; using it means that Jessica and Logan get out of the city via automatic door, and that Francis is only a couple of seconds too late to kill them. He finds the ankh that Logan dropped, though, and pursues momentarily. A missed shot from Francis' pistol punches a hole in a water tank window and just about kills the protagonists until they escape and shut a hatch. One ride on a rickety old freight elevator later and the pair escapes into an ice cave--not the best place in the world to wind up after getting drenched.

After stripping down and covering themselves with animal skins that were left in the ice cave, Logan and Jessica are surprised by the arrival of Box, a stupid-looking robot that has a great voice (Roscoe Lee Brown, the actor, did a ton of cartoon and voiceover work). Logan tries to engage the robot--or possibly cyborg; Box says he's a fusion of man and machine but the costume doesn't show any fleshy bits on it--in conversation. Eventually the robot (or whatever) guides Logan and Jessica to a cavern filled with flash-frozen naked cadavers. Box says that the old food ("fish, plankton and proteins from the sea!") stopped coming, so he froze the new arrivals to serve as food in order to fulfill his programming. When he aims a comically stupid looking freeze gun at Logan it's on like Donkey Kong, and a stray shot from the Sandman pistol busts the ceiling of the ice cave and collapses the whole works (with some pretty badly handled blue-screen debris and ice falling in the foreground of the shot).

Making their way out of the ice cave, Jessica and Logan see the sun for the first time in their lives, and don't know what it is. The score goes all orchestral and swells as they see nature and make their way into the world; meanwhile, Francis has figured out how to get to the ice cave and is close on their trail. He seems more baffled and frightened by the sun than either of the protagonists. It turns out that a lengthy hike over rocky terrain in hippie toga leisure wear takes the fight right out of Jessica, and really, can you blame her? She and Logan rest in the bough of a tree and sleep, wondering if the entire world is going to freeze when that flaming plasma ball in the sky goes away.

The next morning they find a pool of clean drinking water and go for a celebratory swim in the nude. They also find that their lifeclocks have reset themselves; either the computer sends a signal to everyone's palm crystals or the water shorted them out, I guess. While on their travels they also see the green wilds of a forest reclaiming an iconic skyline; Logan and Jessica have no idea that they're looking at the Washington Monument but the audience suddenly knows just where that domed mall must have been located. Jessica thinks it has to be Sanctuary, and Logan thinks it's at least going to be a place where people, shelter and sustenance can be found (he can't conceive of a safe place that is also outside, which is a nice touch). At first they don't find anyone in the city, and just keep exploring. And I have to admit the ivy crawling all over the Lincoln Memorial does a great job of suggesting just how much time has passed while civilization was confined to the kind of place the Blues Brothers would drive through to get away from the police. An even nicer touch is that both Logan and Jessica have to reason out that the face on the statue is what happens when people are older than thirty.

In the vine-overgrown but otherwise largely undamaged ruins of the White House, they hear something (which turns out to be a Spring-Loaded Cat; even more than a dozen decades after the apocalypse there will be cats around to startle people in movies). But the room the cat ran out of contains a man older than Jessica or Logan would have ever imagined possible. Once they get over their mutual shock, conversation ensues. Logan and Jessica seem like fascinated children as they ask the man what it means to have wrinkles and white hair; the man tells them what he can, but he doesn't remember his own name any more (the implication is that he's been isolated for so long that he never had a reason to use it). The old man can't really remember anything other than his existence at this point; he's got enough hints at information to fascinate Logan and Jessica with a tiny glimpse of the way the world used to be but not enough for them to understand a tenth of what he's saying.

The old man is just as fascinated by the Lifeclocks in Jessica and Logan's palms as they are by everything they see in his living space; there's a mordantly funny moment where he mutters about it being unfair that he can't get one. He wanders off mumbling to himself and Logan and Jessica have an argument about Sanctuary--she thinks it's somewhere in the ruins of Washington, D.C. and he realizes that it's just as fictitious as Carrousel's promises of rebirth and renewal (and amazingly enough, that means this is a major-studio movie that's in favor of atheism, even if it's couched in deeply metaphorical terms).

While the old man goes through his collection of oil paintings of past Presidents with Logan, Francis shows up and accosts Jessica. Logan, weaponless and about to die, tells his former colleague to look at his own hand; everyone's Lifeclock is reset outside the dome. Francis can't take it. He's used to hedonism, easy sex, no questions and a job that lets him kill people frequently and the idea of freedom and a lack of order and control snaps his mind. He decides to engage Logan in a fistfight full of 1930s-style full body tackles, face pushing, and broken furniture; Francis eventually tries to spear Logan with a flagpole in a scene possibly meant to suggest a famous news photograph called "The Soiling of Old Glory". Concussed and dying, Francis sees the reset Lifeclock on his friend's hand and wonderingly states that he must have Renewed before he goes into the great unknown.

In the wake of the fight, Jessica realizes that she and Logan will be alive and safe in the weird old world; Logan wants to go back to the city and tell everyone what he's learned about the system and the world. Jessica realizes that bringing the man back to the city would be living proof that the system could be ignored and possibly bring about a completely new way of living. The shots of the journey back to the city are stitched together with a long, rambling series of anecdotes from the old man that make me wonder if Logan was questioning the wisdom of bringing him along (and I kept expecting him to mention he was wearing an onion on his belt, as was the style at the time).

They eventually make it back to the city, with Logan and Jessica picking the old man's brains for clues to the way things used to be done in the past (although they mostly get semi-relevant fragments from the guy; I assume if he knew there would be a quiz when he was in his seventies the old man would have taken better notes). The only way they can figure out to get into the city is via a water-driven power system of some kind; the old man would never be able to make it and Logan's not too sure about his own chances, come to think of it. But he and Jessica do manage to get into the mechanical bowels of the mall via a really cool looking water feature and sneak back into the city right next to the Cheesecake Factory. He addresses the throng going to another Carrousel in a manner that can best be described as "Shatnerian". The crowds ignore the pair and Sandmen jump them, hauling them back to the AI's headquarters and Men's Wearhouse, where the master computer interrogates Logan to find out how successful he was in that whole "find and destroy Sanctuary" mission that he got bullied into accepting.

The computer interrogates him via some kind of brain scanning device; unfortunately, the input from Logan's memories is incompatible with what the AI expected to hear and it has a fatal exception error upon hearing that there never was a Sanctuary and that the escaped Runners were all corpsicles in Box's ice cave. Logan makes short work of the Sandmen in the interrogation chamber and the computer goes up in a series of Star Trek-influences sparks. For some reason, this also causes the main headquarters to fall apart into massive chunks of rubble and the entire domed city to experience a Biblical cataclysm as well as the complete destruction of the Foot Locker, Glow Golf and GameStop franchises.

As everything blows up and falls apart, the shell-shocked people of the domed city escape to the water feature somehow, and everyone makes their way towards the old man. The first tentative connection is made, and it looks like the remnants of humanity will spread out over the ruined world to live on. Although, given that they don't know how to do anything and haven't acquired any practical skills, it's going to be a rough first winter for them at best. We're probably not supposed to ask questions about how they're going to feed themselves in the absence of the AI providing for their needs, but it's a really valid question and one the film doesn't even remotely feel like addressing.

Well, I said earlier that the film is iconic without being all that good, and that's the best way to describe it. The performances are all quite credible but there's so little thought put into the story that it just refuses to make any kind of sense from start to finish. It's certainly worth watching once (and I'm glad I finally saw it, although part of that is the impending odometer rollover, I'm sure) but for the most part it's a series of vignettes strung together that don't add up to a heck of a lot and not enough time is spent explaining the backstory or the world--perhaps one more caption screen at the beginning could have helped the narrative hold together a bit more.

And I don't even want to think about the implications of the population control resulting in an exclusively white future domed city world. But that's where the movie is set, and if the filmmakers aren't going to address diversity I'm going to decide that the computer was programmed by a team of genocidal bigots back when the program was first set up.