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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

B Fest 2017 Part II: The Fest Itself



Man, I thought I'd have this wroted up sooner than I wound up doing it. But among other things, I got The Head Cold That Wouldn't Die, and that dropped me out of commission for a solid week and a half. Turns out that when you're too tired to read a book you're too tired to fondly reminisce about awful movies with great friends. So, later than I expected, here's the second half of B Fest 2017.

Friday morning was time for the usual "everyone who is awake go to the Omega Pancake House for breakfast" ritual. This time around it was slightly spoiled by TVs showing coverage of Donald Trump going to his inaugural ceremony. He's not my president and he's never going to be. The thought of him in charge of the American nuclear stockpile should appall and terrify everyone on Earth. Well, we're stuck with him till he decides presidenting is hard and resigns, or he gets impeached, or the stress of the job gets to him. But enough about that; the one silver lining of that particular cloud is that I was surrounded by good friends during one of the gloomiest possible days for participatory democracy.

After Marilyn's it was time to go to the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art, a tiny cubical building in the undistinguished suburb of Elmhurst. With a minimum of missed-the-magic-voice-telling-me-what-to-do stunt driving, I got the party (Josh G., Melissa, Kelvin and myself) to the museum and I got to show off one of the hidden treasures of the Chicago area to a new group of people. The carved jades remain exquisite, and I can say with total authority that the Hall of Jades at the Field Museum isn't fit to drink the Lizzadro's bathwater. Sure, everything else at the Field is massively impressive, but for carved jade in a museum setting you want to go to Elmhurst first. After the Lizzadro our group took a walk past a playground in Elmhurst (featuring a spinning contraption that I stood on for exactly one-half second less than it would have taken to make me throw up and pass out) over to the Elmhurst Art Museum, which was closed for exhibit installation the previous year. It was pretty dang impressive, with ceramics, paintings and traditional fine arts occupying about as much museum space as electronic and film installations. After that I found myself compelled to hit the Elmhurst Public Library to see if they had any decent used books for sale. Didn't see any, so I declared visiting hours to be at an end and the group went back to Morton Grove to pick up snacks for the show (Josh G., Kelvin and Melissa) or take a nap before the fest (me).

I had promised to drive Dave B. to the show and woke up after a ninety minute power nap to find a series of increasingly worried texts on my phone from his wife about whether or not I was going to actually be taking him to the theater. That was the first manifestation of the traditional Fiasco Field; the second was that the desk clerk at the hotel ran out to stop everyone from getting into my car because he thought we were skipping out on the bill. One short explanation later we were headed off to spend a solid day in the nerd-funk-saturated darkness at the Norris Auditorium. Dave requested some driving music on the way down, but because I'm evil, I played one of his least favorite songs in the world instead, "Five Feet Nine and a Half Inches Tall". Then, of course, it was time for the unforgettable driving song from Truth Or Dare?:  A Critical Madness, which is what he wanted to hear in the first place.

We got to the Northwestern University campus without incident and hauled all our gear into the student union only to find a massive line of people who had not picked up their tickets yet and didn't have a chance to stow their own stuff in the auditorium yet. I busied myself handing out this year's mix CD, happily telling everyone that they were free because my GoFundMe from July had paid for them. A substantial number of people threw me a couple of bucks anyway, because they still wanted to contribute at the actual event. I made contact with my high school sanity-saving friend Joel, who wasn't going to be at the Fest on time, but another one of his friends, Joel's daughter Maeve and his friend's daughter were all going to be there at go time. Eventually getting in touch with the other friend (whose name eludes me because I'm writing this up about six weeks after the event), I got Maeve's ticket handed over to her and handed him giftwrapped copies of Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the WereRabbit and ParaNorman on DVD as a "welcome to the group of people who go to B Fest" gift for Maeve. The last time I'd seen her, which was several years earlier, she was obsessed with The Nightmare Before Christmas. So I figured I probably couldn't go wrong with two other stop-motion horror-comedies for younger audiences. Turns out I was right, and hopefully Joel won't get too tired of those movies if they enter frequent rotation in the household.

Among other things, before the show started I got this year's poster autographed by the artist, Chicago's very own Mitch O'Connell. He's one of the bare handful of people who have gone to every B Fest, and he's drawn a poster for them every year since I've been going, and likely before that. This year's poster is just in a class by itself, and I didn't get it signed for me. Instead, it was inscribed to the Riverside Drive-In, an outdoor theater in Pennsylvania that shows vintage horror movies twice a year in their April Ghouls' Day and MonsterRama events. Since it's got horror and SF icons from several decades all going to the drive-in, I hope it gets put in a place of honor at the Riverside snack shack. I'll hand it over in April when I'm there to see I Drink Your Blood and seven other exploitation flicks.

Seats claimed, CDs handed out, paper plates unwrapped and anticipation levels set to maximum, it was time for the movies to start. This year the attendees from Red Letter Media were a row or two behind me, and they were all just as funny and quick-witted as freestyle riffers as they are when they've had a chance to script their jokes ahead of time. I'm pretty sure it was one of them who declared the nominal hero of the first movie "an enemy of the working man" while watching...

Hercules in New York

For the second year running, a Hercules movie opened up the Fest. This one starred Arnold Schwarzenegger in his first film acting performance, and his accent was so thick that his dialogue was dubbed into English even though that is what he was speaking in the first place. Paired with Schwarzenegger (billed as "Arnold Strong") was Arnold Stang, a man whose picture appears in dictionaries under the definition of "dweeb". Stang went through an extensive repertoire of goggle-eyed "comical" reaction shots whenever Hercules would do something impressive. The plot concerned Hercules being banished from Mount Olympus by Zeus because he wanted to see the mortal world (which means he was being punished with exactly what he wanted, which makes about as much sense as the rest of the film). After being rescued at sea by a merchant marine ship, Hercules winds up in New York City. He befriends a pretzel vendor named Pretzie (Stang), makes an all-star track and field team look like chumps because they aren't as athletically capable as a demigod, flips a cab onto its side rather than pay a two dollar fare (demigods don't pay for things), romances a college professor's daughter, wears some extraordinarily large cable-knit sweaters, wrestles an escaped bear in Central Park (the film was shot so poorly that Kelvin thought the "bear" was supposed to be a gorilla), becomes a professional wrestler, fights the Mafia, loses and regains his divine strength, and gives a happy message to Pretzie via the AM radio in his kitchen at the end of the film. The DVD had the option to use Schwarzenegger's original dialogue and that's what the B Fest organizers chose to inflict on us, which meant we couldn't understand virtually any of the main character's dialogue other than "I am Hercules", which he said quite a bit. And the message over the radio at the end was from the guy who dubbed all the dialogue so it didn't make any diegetic sense.

All in all, a wonderful start to the Fest. The college professor was played by James Karen, who was also in Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, Return of the Living Dead, and Congo. That's a hell of a resume. A brief moment later, the Fest organizers gave us the first of two (!) Bert I. Gordon movies for the day. After missing out on Earth Vs. the Spider multiple times we weren't sure they were really going to show either one, but we did indeed get both. Starting with...

The Magic Sword

A perfectly innocuous fantasy adventure that plays out a little bit like a D&D game where the Dungeonmaster hasn't figured out how to provide any real challenge for his player yet. Or possibly one where he's playing favorites with one character and dropping rocks on all the others. George, a royal orphan raised by Sibyl the witch, spies on a princess with his magic TV pond. When the princess is captured by Lodac the sorceror, George snags the titular magic sword as well as a magic suit of armor a, a magic horse, and six frozen-in-deathless-slumber knights who accompany him on his quest to save the girl. Each of the good-guy knights is from a different nation, and each actor does a creditable attempt at an accent so we can tell them apart. Sir Branton (of Missouri, according to tons of people in the audience, including me) also tags along on the quest, but is working in league with Lodac to marry the girl and take over the kingdom. Lodac just wants his magic ring back from Branton; while the treacherous knight has it, he's immune to Lodac's magic. Lodac has placed seven curses along the path to the princess (who was, to my total delight, in another castle at one point). The non-magically-protected knights lose their lives to the curses one after another (including the requisite Really Big Thing; in this case, a forced-perspective ogre that kills Sir Pedro and Sir Ulrich, of Movie Spain and Movie Germany respectively). Branton gets the girl and gives the ring back to Lodac, and then of course gets betrayed within seconds. George loses his powers and gets 'em back (just like Hercules in the previous film), Sibyl turns into a panther and gives Lodac a lethal dose of clock cleaner, George gets the girl and the six dead knights are returned to life so that everyone gets a happy ending, even the redshirts.

They showed this movie several years ago, but the projector / lens setup matted it all wrong and the print had gone bright puce in storage so it looked more like the backs of my eyelids than a narrative film. I was glad to catch this one in its entirety, and quite liked the low budget candy-colored costumes and props in Fake Medieval Europe and a pre-Lord of the Rings-influence script. I'm sure kids who caught this as a matinee back in the Sixties were just as satisfied with it as I was. The next film was a complete tonal change, unfortunately. It was time to rip off The Most Dangerous Game without any danger with...

Bloodlust!

Movies this inert shouldn't have an exclamation point in the title. A ship full of Movie Teenagers (which means they're in their mid-20s or so) get stranded on an island and then hunted by the baron who gets his kicks tracking down people and mounting their heads in his trophy room (which, oddly enough, is also what happened to Sir Branton after Lodac could ensorcel him in the previous film). But this movie was so inert that the audience started cheering when characters walked through a door to go into another room because so little was happening. The sound on the DVD print was also really muddy, so I bailed about ten minutes in to talk with other Fest attendees out in the hallway. Because we're all nerds of the same age cohort, the subject of arcade games came up and we all just rambled on about them for an hour or so. As I recall, my friend Joel had shown up and pulled the ripcord on Bloodlust! as well; also going on about video games were Spencer Olson, a guy from a different faction, and El Santo (who was a longtime poster on the B Movie Message Board, where my faction comes from, as well as the guy who sold me the car that got me to and from B Fest the last few years). I'd much rather talk about Space Gun and N.A.R.C. than watch a movie that I have to strain to understand the dialogue and I bet you would too.

After not watching this movie it was time to hit the second half of the Bert I. Gordon double feature. This one was more traditionally a B.I.G. picture, in that it was about small things getting embiggened and attacking people. So get ready for...

Empire of the Ants

This one turned out to be more or less a land-bound Piranha until it went completely fucking insane in the third act. A bunch of people who are going on a booze-saturated boat ride and tram ride on an island to look at condos wind up running afoul of giant ants mutated by toxic waste. The sound was cranked up on this one painfully loud, especially when characters were screaming or the Ant Noises were blaring, which was often. I can't remember all the disparaging names we were making up for characters (the movie didn't refer to them by name often enough for us to know who they were) other than Leisure Suit Mario, a middle-aged Italian guy in a teal 70s ensemble, and Grampy Kneesocks, the elderly man who punks out and refuses to go on a rescue mission when someone gets themselves fatally anted. He and his equally old wife have dialogue about how all they wanted to do was enjoy the rest of their lives, after the giant ants already showed up. At this point, fewer regrets and more actions, people. Once the pared-down survivor group makes its way back to the small town they left on the boat ride from, things get super weird. A gigantic ant queen sets up shop in a pyramidal sugar warehouse and uses pheromones to make humans into docile drones (which, in practice, looks like the giant ant is farting all over someone in a big phone booth). The purifying embrace of flames take out the current crop of giant ants, but there's no reason another one couldn't show up later. I mean, they never cleaned up the silvery toxic goop that made the ants giant and smart so there's probably going to be a second hive sooner or later. A real hoot, especially because Joan Collins got her "everybody's got a movie like this in their back catalog" merit badge.

There was some wiggle room in the schedule, so before this movie ran they let the DVD menu screen play for a while. The other movie on this double disc was a killer snake movie called Jaws of Satan; there was brief talk of playing that one instead of the giant ant movie but nothing came of it. And after the film, of course, the midnight hour was close at hand. That meant it was time for...

The Wizard of Speed and Time (in triplicate)

There was nothing shown on actual film this time around at B Fest, which means frequent attendees like myself witnessed the end of an era. The print of The Wizard of Speed and Time looked like 40 miles of bad road when I saw it back in 2001 at my first B Fest, and the A&O Films staff scanned it into a digital file as a way to make sure it could still be shown around 11:45 PM for B Fests yet to come. It's not quite the same (especially because the other tradition about showing this short was that they'd re-thread it into the projector and run it upside down and backwards), but I'll take it. Because it was run three times:  Once normally, then upside down (but with the "film" going forwards), and a third time backwards (but still right side up). Close enough, says I.

And after we'd gotten our Mike Jittlov on, it was time to watch...

Plan 9 from Outer Space

Ah, yes, the "worst movie of all time". It's always a treat to see the crowd get hyped for this one. For a few years in the middle of my Fest attendance I would skip out on this one and talk with friends who were similarly done with it in the lobby. I've probably watched it the last eight or ten years running now, though, because it's such fun to see it with the newer attendees to the marathon. Of all the movies shown at the Fest, this is the one with the most codified "Rocky Horror" style callbacks from the audience. There's still some room for innovation and mutation, though; this time around I kept yelling "Dormammu, I've come to bargain!" when the clip of Bela Lugosi raising his Dracula cape up was re-used. It's a time loop joke, you see. It went over pretty well, I think. Anyway, paper plates were thrown whenever the flying saucers were on screen and jokes were shouted from a hundred throats at the movie at the correct times. Joel's daughter had never seen the movie before, so she got to see the goofiness of Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s magnum opus along with the B Fest frequent flyers' field-tested mockery for her inaugural viewing. This is good a place as any to mention it; Joel wasn't sitting with my group this year because I'm the only person in it that he really knows. Instead, he found a chunk of real estate in the back of the auditorium and he and his friend (and their daughters) hung out there riffing and watching dire-ass movies in their own group. While I'm sad that I didn't get to talk to Joel much this year, I am so proud of him for starting his own faction and getting them going to B Fest. It really does bring tears to my eyes knowing that he's duplicating my own B Fest fandom, since he's one of the people that I infected with the love of cultural garbage and incompetent cinema a quarter century ago (!) back in Wheaton. I feel at least a little bit like a proud father figure seeing my son take after me. Which doesn't work because Joel's a year older than me, but it's just a metaphor.

Following the destruction of Eros and Tanna's spaceship I realized that I wasn't even a little bit tired. Either that nap was amazingly productive or B Fest was screwing with me slightly more than usual. Or both. The next film to be shown was the first of two genre-collision flicks. The Eighties fever dream unspooled next. That's right, it was...

Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon

This was actually the second time this movie was shown at B Fest, but 2003 was the previous year--so, you know, after fourteen years it was perfectly fine to give it a second chance. For several years, 1:30 after Plan 9 has been the blaxploitation spot. It's how I first saw the mind-alteringly wonderful Avenging Disco Godfather, among other gems. Instead of a Seventies action movie with a black star, though, this time we got a heaping slab of the Eighties. The Last Dragon was Berry Gordy's first (and money-losing) attempt to turn Motown Records into a multimedia empire. Having been burned by the failure of this movie Motown Films went on to produce the Lonesome Dove miniseries, which was a gigantic smash hit, critically and commerically. It's also about the whitest possible thing you could pivot to after stumbling out of the gate with a movie about Bruce Leroy, a monastic martial artist / teenager in Harlem who eats his popcorn with chopsticks while watching Enter the Dragon. There are several plot threads that collide in this movie, so let me summarize:  Bruce Leroy has progressed as far as his kung fu sifu can guide him. When he attains total self-confidence he will manifest "the Glow", the visual proof that he's absolutely at the peak of his abilities. Until then, he wishes to refrain from using his combat skills, even in self defense, if it means bystanders could get hurt. He spends a lengthy chunk of the movie trying to find another Asian master to teach him how to get the Glow, which leads to plenty of comedy with a capital K. Meanwhile, a hulking black dude who styles himself Sho'Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, wants to pit his own martial arts prowess against Bruce Leroy, since Leroy's the only person in Harlem not afraid of him. Unfortunately his would-be opponent's pacifism means that the final reckoning won't occur until the third act of the film. At the same time, Laura Charles, a beautiful and stylish music-video show host is refusing to air videos made by a squeaky-voiced middle-aged white woman, who is the main squeeze of Eddie Arkadian, who fancies himself a pop impresario. Bruce Leroy intervenes a couple of times when Arkadian's goons try to threaten or kidnap Laura and falls instantly in love with her (as does the audience and pretty much everyone else in the film). But he's been concentrating on his dope kung fu skills so much that he doesn't know how to talk to a woman (much to the chagrin of his preteen younger brother, who finds Bruce to be hugely embarrassing and a cramp in his style). Eventually Arkadian hires a small army of bikers and lunatics to trash the video studio that Laura hosts her show in, and Leroy beats them all handily. Things come to a boil when Eddie Arkadian, with a gun, follows up on Sho'Nuff, who has hired on as the guy to take out Bruce Leroy once and for all. And, of course, the one place Bruce didn't look for proof of his awesomeness was inside himself; once he figures that last missing piece out he gets the Glow (yellow, as opposed to Sho'Nuff's demonic red glow, because if there's one thing the Shogun of Harlem had, it was total self confidence). The movie's got about four hours of plot crammed into 109 minutes, and there's always something happening. Unfortunately the narrative also grinds to a halt three or four times for an intentionally terrible music video or another scene of Bruce trying to sneak into a fortune cookie bakery to meet the wise man who writes their fortunes up. It's nowhere near a classic but it's a total delight when it's firing on all cylinders. And, for the record, the three best villains in the Eighties were:  1) The Terminator; 2) The Kurgan; 3) Sho'Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem.

Usually it'd be time to pass out around now, but despite not consuming any caffeine during the night I was wide awake. Which meant I couldn't find refuge from the next movie by looking at the backs of my eyelids for a couple hours. That didn't mean I had to watch it, though, and you'd probably bail too if you had the option of not watching...

Battlefield Earth:  A Saga of the Year 3000

So, yeah, I saw this one at B Fest 2002, I think, fifteen years ago. I don't think it got any better while I wasn't looking. So instead I chatted with Joel and Maeve, Melissa, Kelvin, Scott and Jessica (among other people who have bailed out of my memories in the two months since the Fest took place). Everyone was happy to see Maeve there as a representative of the Next Generation and we tried to think of suitable gateway drug B movies that were all right for a thirteen year old girl (Infra-Man turned out to be the consensus choice). I also taped some commentary about The Last Dragon for the Xanadu Cinema Pleasure Dome podcast, providing exposition about how the film came to be and what happened to Motown Films afterward. Then it was twenty to six in the goddamned morning and I still wasn't even slightly tired, so it was time to watch...

Action Jackson

Vanity wasn't just the love interest in The Last Dragon; she's the junkie with information about the Big Bad in this movie. This one was a Joel Silver action extravaganza where Carl Weathers got his shot at establishing an action franchise in the Eighties. It must not have made as much money as the bean counters wanted, because there were never any sequels. Jericho Jackson is a Harvard-educated sergeant in the Detroit PD, busted down from detective for arresting the sexual predator son of a rich important dude who is, of course, the main villain. Which means we get to see Craig T. Nelson kickboxing Apollo Creed at the end of the film. The plot's something about Nelson's character using a squad of assassins to kill troublesome union officials so he can take advantage of the working man (I think he runs an auto manufacturing firm or something). Of course it's just an excuse for set pieces of Carl Weathers and Vanity escaping murder attempts and going on the run until Jackson figures out the whole evil plot and turns the tables on the bad guy. This involves, for some reason, racing a Lamborghini through a mansion and up a flight of marble stairs before the aforementioned kickboxing match. For all the violence and mayhem, this one didn't really make too much of an impression on me (other than the scene where a grunt-level bad guy reveals that he's got a severed pair of testicles in a jar from the last guy who came by asking questions about the evil plan). Jessica referred to this one as "Diet Commando", and that's harsh but fair.

After a thick slab of high-budget Eighties action cheese it was time for something from the other end of the "How much money can we spend on this?" bell curve. Andy Sidaris' softcore porno / detective story was up next...

Malibu Express

So, yeah, it turns out that nudity can eventually be boring. It also turns out that if you have a scene in your movie where a woman is sexually assaulted but then turns out to like it after a little while the mood in the Fest auditorium will audibly curdle against you. It's a testament to the likability of the main character (a doofus of a detective who only figures out the big case after other people literally tell him all the clues, and who can't hit the broad side of a barn with his pistol) that I didn't just leave about twenty minutes into the movie. There's a murder, a disguise to frame someone for that murder,
and a computer company selling technology secrets to the Soviet Union in there somewhere. Also a redneck family that continually challenges the protagonist to drag races (and the races are shot so confusingly that I'm not sure if the good-hearted idiot of a main character won them or not). There's really nothing else to say about this one other than "Andy Sidaris sure did like filming women who were not wearing shirts, didn't he?". If the main character hadn't been shown as such an incompetent at nearly every aspect of his life he would have been an insufferable Marty Stu because of all the women who threw themselves at him. Instead, the film was merely nonsensical and overstayed its welcome by at least twenty minutes.

Then it was time for breakfast before the annual "you will never be able to see this thing except at B Fest movie" was shown. Have some cereal and a glass of orange juice to fortify yourself against...

The Gong Show Movie

So, uh, during the late Seventies there was a highly rated TV show that became a cultural punching bag for being awful. The Gong Show was a game show where semi-talented people would perform short bits for host Chuck Barris and a rotating panel of whatever C-list celebrities could be enticed into sitting on the judges' bench. Acts were scored from 1-10 by each judge and could be cut off if any of the judges hit a big gong behind their seats, hence the name. (If you're my age or older, you didn't have to read the previous couple of sentences.) The movie, which made so little money in theaters and was so reviled by critics that it didn't get a home video release until 2016, is about a week or two in the life of Chuck Barris as he hosts the titular show. He can't go anywhere without some weirdo trying to audition for a vaudeville show based on mocking the semi-talented, ratings are down, stations are dropping the show as an insult to the intelligence of the household pets of people who watch it, and there's constant pressure from his manager to keep hosting the show because Barris' name is poison in Hollywood for being involved with the show--if he gets fired, he'll never find work in that town again. Oh, and there are multiple musical numbers. After an hour or so of suffering through his life and job, Chuck Barris decides to pitch it all and fly out to the Gobi Desert, where he will be by himself and not have to deal with anybody else or their bullshit. Which, of course, doesn't work--all the judges and suits from the network track him down and have him go back to work, which is either a happy ending or the bleakest thing since Angel Heart's conclusion. I did feel good for cracking the Red Letter Media guys up when I yelled the "Three, two, three, four, four, two, three--and!" line from the start of the Ishtar trailer at the start of the Gobi Desert sequence.

How do you follow The Gong Show Movie up? With a kaiju film, thank goodness. Although I missed the start of this one because I was grabbing an early lunch, I was happily there for the final seventy percent or so of...

Gorgo

For many years, B Fest would wrap things up with a Godzilla movie, or at least another kaiju flick. As film prints got tougher to rent and as DVD showings became feasible, there were different flicks that would show up. They showed Gorgo in 2000, at my first B Fest. I remember it well because they programmed it for 2:30 in the morning or so, which led my friend Dennis and I to bellow out "NO! SLEEP! TILL GORGO!" like we were two thirds of the Beastie Boys. Since then the movie has gotten a beautiful blu ray release, so any time you want to watch this film you can. In summary, a sea monster the size of an 18-wheeler with a trailer gets found off the coast of Ireland, and a pair of unscrupulous sailors figure out a way to keep it alive long enough to get it to London, where it's sold to Dorkin's Circus and put on display for English people to gawk at. Which is all well and good except that the monster they've got is an infant, and Mama Gorgo is on its way to wreck up the place until she can rescue the poor thing. Cue the city smashing, panicking crowds, ineffective military response, etc. Gorgo takes its cues from Japanese films (and the movies ripping them off) more than it does the American giant-monster template. After all, King Kong was shot to death by machine gunners in biplanes. The Deadly Mantis succumbed to bug spray, essentially, in a road tunnel in New York City. The Blob was frozen and stayed inert in the Arctic (which means we're super fucked in about another 18 months or so once it thaws out). In an American movie, engineering knowhow and military power kills the monster dead at the end of the film. But the films that Gorgo are aping have monsters that are generally immune to military attack; some of the time, Godzilla doesn't even seem to notice that tanks are shooting at him. So if you want to see a Japanese-style monster flick set in England, this one's a great choice. Plus the monster has a pretty boss roar, and since you will be hearing a lot of it, that's not a trivial concern.

After Gorgo there was a brief lunch break (yay!) and a giveaway--not a raffle, because raffles are not permitted in Illinois--wherein I won a bunch of VHS tapes that I gave to Melissa because she still has a working VCR and can watch them, plus Dolemite on DVD. I contributed a bunch of stuff to the raffle giveaway, just like dozens of other Fest attendees did. But it was the hardback of Battlefield Earth that got an "OH MY GOD!" out of the college girl that was listing all the prizes off. I feel pretty proud of that one. Then, raffle giveaway concluded, it was time to watch something from the Golden Age of VHS. We sat back down and buckled in for...

Future Hunters

This was another one of those "several hours of plot in a regulation length movie" movies, starring Robert Patrick as a dude who gets involved in a plan to recover the Spear of Destiny when the person who finds it after the Apocalypse gets transported back to California in the mid-Eighties. The movie changes genre about every twenty minutes once Robert Patrick's character and that guy's girlfriend get pursued by people looking for the Spear; it goes from being a Mad Max dune buggies in the desert ripoff to a kung fu movie (featuring a brief appearance by Legendary Superkicker Hwang Jang Lee), to an espionage thriller to jungle adventure and probably some other stuff I've forgotten. Two actors from Gymkata are also in it (Richard "Zamir" Norton during the post-apocalyptic prologue and Bob "Thorg" Schott as a hulking Nazi named Bauer). I'd been awake for 26 or 27 straight hours at this point and the movie was shown on VHS; the muddy brown-and-dark-green color palette combined with the fatigue toxins blasting through my system resulted in me seeing red circuitry-like patterns on the actors' skins partway through the movie. As I recall, this worried me but didn't quite frighten me. I still wasn't tired by now, which would have been around 2 or 3 PM, I think.

So, eventually, this movie ran out of different genres to be (and the good guys won, but damned if I can remember how, but the girlfriend character did get a chance to kick some ass during the "amazon jungle tribe" segment. And it was time for one of those American kaiju movies I was talking about. To wit, it was time for...

Tarantula

And this is where I crashed. So I don't really have an informed opinion of this one. Plus it played at previous B Fests, including one time that my friend Sean made a giant prop "Tarantula crossing" sign, which he displayed to rapturous applause when the Big Damn Spider crossed a highway in the movie.


Also, the fighter pilot that napalms the tarantula was a young Clint Eastwood when he was a contract player for Universal. So there's that. I caught about half an hour or so of this movie in between brief power naps, which meant I got about maybe 40 minutes of sleep during this B Fest, and all of it between 3 and 4:15 PM if I remember right. I'm a little surprised that I didn't drive into Lake Michigan when I went back to the hotel.

One movie left! It was time to ring in the Donald Trump presidency with a genuinely left-wing movie by John Carpenter, asking the question "What if the Reagan revolution was really done by aliens trying to enslave humanity?" That's right. It was time for "Rowdy" Roddy Piper's finest cinematic hour...

They Live

The audience was captivated by this one, and for good reason. The sequences where Nada wanders around and sees the alien manipulation of society are flat-out amazing. John Carpenter had a brilliant run as a director (other than Christine, there really isn't a clinker in his career from 1974 to 1988), and the shots in black and white of THIS IS YOUR GOD on currency are as good as anything he's done. Hell, they're as good as anything any director has done. There wasn't really all that much riffing as I recall (although Melissa pricelessly said "I've had this conversation on Facebook" during the endless fist fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David), just a bunch of B movie fans enjoying a spectacularly well made B movie. Of course the wheels fall off at the end when it turns from a scathingly funny political satire to a Weightlifter with a Machine Gun flick, but that's how a lot of movies ended during the second half of the Reagan years. Sean (that's the guy with the spider sign up there) bought me a copy of this flick on blu ray for my birthday this year, and the cover has a little round sticker that would ordinarily display the price. But for this flick it just says BUY. Even the people making the blu ray packaging want to pay tribute to this unique gem of a film.

And after that it was time to get pictures taken with the B Movie Message Board attendees, clean up the trash (my faction is among the 30% or so of the audience that doesn't get Raptured when the final movie's credits run), and go back to the hotel for the most enjoyable shower of the year followed by a run to Portillo's for Italian beef sandwiches and a low-key positive emotional buzz that I usually only get to feel one time a year. After that, some of the Festers went off to a dive bar called Delilah's to have bourbon and yell conversations over the blaring music. Dave B., rather than driving to where his wife was staying, got a rollaway bed at the hotel and crashed at the room that Josh B. and I were using. I put on a disc of horror movie trailers and waited for fatigue to overwhelm me, which took about fifteen minutes, top. Josh and Dave were out cold in about five, so they're better at sleeping than I am.

The next morning we got our disorganized asses set to go; Josh and I went to Marilyn's Pancake House, the final diner on our whirlwind tour of reasonably priced breakfast restaurants run by short Greeks. Dave treated Josh and me to breakfast as a "thanks for letting me sleep rather than drive off the road because of fatigue" present. We were joined by Melissa and Kelvin, who had returned from Delilah's at about two in the morning and somehow got themselves out of bed in time to check out from the motel and join us for hearty meats and starches (and plenty of coffee; though Kelvin seems to be made out of the stuff, Melissa only drinks decaf). And then, all too soon, it was the part that I hate. It was time to say goodbye to my annual-release friends again, go back to the hotel to check out, and drive back to Michigan. That's the part that stings more every year, to be honest. I'm selfish. I want to spend more time with this weird goofball family that I chose for myself. I like being with people who understand some of my demented hobbies and who will indulge me in things like wearing awful jackets to a tiki bar. I like being able to go places with people who accept me for the asocial fuckup that I am ten thousand percent, and I like being able to give my friends the space they need to be themselves as well. One week a year is not nearly enough.

Driving back to Michigan was surreal; through all of Illinois and most of Indiana there was a thick fog surrounding the roads so the Chicago Skyway looked like it was suspended in grey smog more than anything. Once I got back into Michigan I proceeded without further incident and went back to the apartment, where I fell into a healing coma for a day and a half. Sam wasn't there, so I didn't have to help him get his luggage into his mom's car for the final leg of his journey back home. Sean hasn't gone to B Fest for years, so I didn't need to drop him off at his own house. And the people who weren't there this year--Bryan (in a just world, we would have been brothers), Zack, Mike, Adam, Lisa (who went to a protest march in Washington, D. C. rather than riff on goofy movies in a theater), Dave T., Mike, Chad, Stephanie, Matt...I miss you all. I hope that I get to see you again next year.

It's only ten and a half more months till B Fest 2018, so let's all be kind to each other till then, hope that Dolt 45 doesn't get mad at a tweet and provoke a planet-scouring nuclear war, and my friends and I will meet up again in Morton Grove to be together as the family that we chose.

And maybe next time I'll be able to sponsor a goddamned movie.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

B Fest 2017 Part I: Pre-Fest

It was pitch dark and raining ice when I set out for B Fest this year. I'd packed as much of the car as I could the night before, which turned out to be a great idea, but there's always something or other like the toiletries / meds that can't be left out in 20 degree temperatures overnight. And since I pack like I'm moving, a whole bunch of stuff got thrown in the back seat, on the passenger's side up front, in the trunk and anywhere else it would fit. If it had come to it, I would have stuffed a couple giveaway DVDs into the glove compartment. It wasn't quite that bad, but the silver lining about my friend Sam not being able to attend the Fest this year was that there's no fucking way he and his luggage would have fit in the car this time around.

Before starting on the journey proper, I stopped by work to drop off cookies for my coworkers as an "I'm sorry I won't be around to answer the phones or help out" present, and then it was time to roll on down the highway towards Chicago. Still in the dark and freezing rain. Once the sun came up it wasn't as pointlessly awful on the road, and since the weather in Washtenaw County tends to go west to east I was traveling through the rain twice as fast as the clouds were drifting to the east. Things cleared up by the time I stopped by my traditional breakfast stop in Battle Creek, the former Te-Khi Truck Stop (now just a Travel Court). One of the rituals of B Fest is that I need to treat for breakfast and tip nicely at this location. I'm an atheist, but a superstitious one because the year my friend Sean and I got horribly sick and missed the first 14 movies of the marathon was the same year we weren't able to go to this restaurant because the independent owners went under during the financial collapse at the end of Bush the Lesser's presidential administration. You don't mess with the demons of the road. You placate them. So, even though it was a party of one this year I treated for breaky and left a nice tip.

The rest of the trip to Chicago was uneventful. Because of reasons, I was the only person in my B Fest faction that was going to be in town on Tuesday; that meant I could pick up some Green River soda, and then hit the Half Price Books while roving around and pick up some stuff for my own amusement, including the two-disc collectors' edition of Punisher:  War Zone (which is a feature-length sick joke of near-RoboCop delightfulness). Then it was time to trust in the magic voice lady on my GPS and go to the Mean Weiner, a quite superlative burgers-dogs-and-Mexican-food diner where I met former Fest attendee Edward for dinner and to drop off a pile of books. See, Edward's obsessed with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, especially their actions during the Second World War. I go to library book sales all over southeast Michigan (and beyond--it's three hours to Dayton, Ohio but I drove that far for a book fair last year). When I can't find anything for myself, it's not a wasted trip if I can find something for a friend. And thank goodness for that, because the Dayton trip was an utter washout for myself. But someone donated a ton of pulpy paperbacks about the UK fighting global fascism so I scrounged up a ton of stuff for Edward. In fact, he wound up with two cloth shopping bags stuffed as full as I could stuff them, and rejected only one of the books (which he had already read, and hated). In exchange for those gigantic piles of books he treated for dinner and showed me several episodes of the insane and hilarious Danger 5 on Netflix; we talked for a couple hours after dinner, briefly said hi to his wife (who was managing his son Winston rather than talk nerdy with us) and gave me everything from the old tabletop RPG Underground, a game that had a phenomenal setting and design sense but very little else to recommend it. After Edward pointed me in the right direction to get back to my car from his place, I drove back to the hotel and experienced the joys of a completely screwed up sleep schedule.

The next morning, I went back to my hometown of Wheaton to have breakfast with an old middle / high school friend, also named Tim, and to look at all the stuff that had been changed downtown while feeling conflicted about stuff. The Seven Dwarfs diner, Wheaton's own example of what Mike Royko referred to as "diners run by short Greeks", was the spot we decided to convene. Tim's as old as I am and he'd never eaten there, so I'm glad he finally crossed the threshold there for tasty breakfast foods. Then we drove to the downtown where a Starbucks replaced a storefront we couldn't quite remember (a tutoring center, maybe?) and hit the Wheaton Historical Museum to look at various things from our town's past and check out the massively detailed railroad diorama in the basement. It turned out that the railroads were run the third Saturday of every month, which was also B Fest, and that meant that I wouldn't be seeing the full splendor of the railroad setup when things were moving. There was also a note near the diorama stating that the Wheaton Historical Society was looking for a professional but part-time railroad modeler to work the diorama and keep everything in fine fettle. Hobbyists who want to make a little scratch, who live in or near Wheaton, and who read this blog--here's your chance! A stop by the Popcorn Store (a four-foot-wide candy store that figures prominently in Wheaton kids' memories) was a washout for me (they didn't have the cherry sours I like) but Backup Tim proved his daredevil bona fides by eating Pop Rocks and drinking a Coke; a surprisingly long running commentary about how he could feel his teeth fizzing and crackling ensued. After wandering around in the cold for a couple hours Tim went back to his own home and I drove one town over to look at downtown Glen Ellyn, which is pretty much like Wheaton but one town to the east and without a courthouse. There really wasn't anything nostalgic going on as I clomped around the second suburb of the day, which was in itself a bit of a revelation. I've lived in Michigan for 22 years now, and looking at things that I used to see relatively regularly didn't pluck any heartstrings at all. So it was time to go back to the hotel and await the arrival of faction members El Santo and Juniper (or Scott and Jessica if you know them in real life instead of as screen names from the B Movie Message Board). A pleasant dinner at the Empire Chinese restaurant a block or two from the hotel ensued. I picked up the check, since I was in a "demonstrating generosity and forging alliances" kind of mood. Later that evening Josh the Younger arrived from North Carolina, having flown in to attend his first B Fest in nine years. The auditorium in Evanston exerts a powerful magnetic hold on people who have been there.

The next day, acting in my capacity as Mister Logistics Person, I set up a group outing. Melissa and Kelvin (or Chebutykin and El Dogo if you know them from their screen names), Josh, Scott, Jessica and I took advantage of the Chicago public transportation system to go to the Field Museum of Natural History (following a typically hearty breakfast at the Carriage House, a restaurant located a five minute walk from the hotel where the Seven Brothers used to be). As long-time readers of the Checkpoint know, I've pushed my group of Fest attendees to have Chicago drive us around rather than sticking someone with the task. It means we can take larger groups to wherever we're going, and it also means that if we're going to talk the person behind the wheel isn't frozen out of the conversation while paying attention to what they're doing on the road. It turned out there were several special-attendance exhibits at the Field and the party conferred briefly about what we were going to check out before deciding on an exhibit of tattoos; permanent decoration of someone's skin is a thing that's shown up in cultures on different continents and been shaped by artists across several centuries, and the exhibit was informative and interesting in equal measure. The museum also had a tattoo shop in the exhibit hall but it wasn't staffed at the time we were there (which is a good thing; I'm too square to get the Arachnos logo on my bicep forever). Melissa got a full set of the Mold-A-Rama models available at the museum and I grabbed a bright orange elephant that replaced the Stegosaurus die in the museum's collection. I also learned a great deal about Polynesian cultures, but the knowledge was not a fungible item so I'm telling you about the wax elephant statue.

Bailing on the museum about a half an hour before it closed, we went for dinner at a fantastic deep-dish pizza place called Pizano's. and unfortunately that meant waiting about an hour for the pizzas to get turned from cold dough and ingredients to a tasty, tasty heart attack on a serving tray. Which led to some fast walking to get to the bus stop we needed to get to the train station we needed to get to Santo's van in the parking lot by the Yellow Line station we'd departed from that morning. On the positive side, I developed the ability to walk up to a bus stop or train station and summon a public transportation vehicle, but on the bad side we were an hour and a half late getting to Hala Kahiki, the tiki bar that we traditionally go to the night before B Fest (Fiasco Field activated!). As I had last year, I grabbed a bunch of hideous thrift store jackets and neckties from the greater Ann Arbor metropolitan area and distributed them to anyone who wanted one (and I still have about a dozen left, having overcalculated how many of those suckers I was going to need). Melissa was kind enough to take a picture of Josh and me dressed up for the tiki bar, and here it is. I'm the one on the left; I thought I'd have the most impressively awful outfit in the room but had found an actual powder blue polyester leisure suit jacket in Josh's size for about six bucks, and he rocked the party like you'd expect in it.



Two non alcoholic chocolate drinks later (the peanut butter one was delicious beyond belief but the mint one was really chalky), I was nice and mellow, and got to hang out with lots of people who'd arrived for the Fest on Thursday or who were not going to be able to go to the event itself but wanted to get some face time with the attendees who had come from all over Hell's creation to watch crappy movies for a solid day. As has become a tradition, I guided some people over to the Hawaiian shirt and Polynesian kitsch shop and then abandoned them to the woman who explains every single item on the shelves if you don't escape quickly enough. Sorry, guys. I did it twice so it's a tradition. After festivities wrapped up at the Hala Kahiki, I abandoned my sketchy and unconvincing plans to go bowling and instead returned to the hotel. The lobby was under construction while we were all there for the Fest so I don't honestly remember what we wound up doing after that but I'm sure it involved talking about B movies and trying to avoid the numbing horror of Donald Trump's forthcoming inauguration.

Which brings us to the end of the first half of my travelogue. The next one will actually discuss the movies that were shown to the crowd, so it'll be closer to the kind of thing I started this blog to talk about.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Celluloid Zeroes Present Franchise Kill: Jaws 2 (1978)



The Celluloid Zeroes are teaming up in January 2017 to take a look at the massively successful blockbuster Jaws, the diminishing returns of its sequels, and some choice ripoffs from around the world. It's time for a Franchise Kill.


Written by Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler, based upon characters created by Peter Benchley
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Roy Scheider:  Chief Brody
Lorraine Gary:  Ellen Brody
Murray Hamilton:  Mayor Vaughn
Jeffrey Kramer:  Deputy Hendricks
Joseph Mascolo:  Peterson

You can hardly blame Universal for wanting to make another giant killer shark movie, when the first Jaws film broke box office records and became a global smash hit. I mean, movie studios are businesses, and American big studio films are commerce first and art by accident. So after scaring the bejeezus out of a generation of moviegoers and beach-avoiders, it was perfectly natural for the studio to go back to that well. Which, of course, they did again after this film. And again a few years after that. The returns, they were diminishing. But I'll let my colleagues in the Celluloid zeroes tell you about those other movies. My job is to look at the immediate attempt to catch a second bolt of lightning in another bottle.

This is, among other things, the first movie sequel from a Hollywood studio to just stick a 2 on the end of the title from the first film and call it a day (the UK gave us Quatermass 2, but that's the name of a rocket that's launched in that movie, and it was released as Enemy from Space in the States because nobody here knew what a Quatermass was). And it's probably worth talking about sequels and franchises and movie studio economics for a little bit here, because Jaws changed the way that Hollywood did business for decades, and in 2017 we're looking at half a dozen or so franchises that are planning the next decade's worth of releases for the Marvel Studios, Star Wars, DC Extended Universe, Harry Potter, X-Men, James Bond, Star Trek and Godzilla franchises. Hell, just the fact that I'm calling them "franchises" is significant. A movie is supposed to be a work of art, but when you hear "franchise" you probably think of fast food restaurants more than cinema. Or at least you would have thought that way around about 1978, when this movie was released. Now, of course, a series of movies featuring the same characters and produced under the same studio umbrella is one of the main meanings of the term. All apologies to Howard Johnson's, but we just don't think of you that way any more.

Disney, the globally dominant entertainment empire, bought the intellectual property rights to the Star Wars series for billions of dollars and to a substantial subsection of the Marvel Comics universe for billions more. They didn't do this because they were big fans of either thing. Rather, they were making an investment with an expectation of a future return on that investment. If Terry Pratchett was better known in the States they'd be working on a Discworld movie series right now and offering Dominic West a big bag of money to play Inspector Vimes. They're planning things out so that there will be two Marvel movies and a Star Wars film every year for the next decade (or until the fad burns itself out). All of that effort to chase the nerd dollar and to dominate the American box office comes from the seismic effect that the first Jaws film had on the pop cultural landscape. Time used to be that movie studios would make prestige pictures primarily and do the occasional B movie, horror flick or science fiction film as a secondary function. Now, as several observers have noticed, there are B movie genres being given A list talent in front of and behind the camera, and hundreds of millions of dollars get spent to realize the visions that Smilin' Stan and Jolly Jack came up with half a century ago on newsprint.

It's because nobody thought that Jaws was going to be a hit. Heck, Steven Spielberg thought his movie career was over because the film went so far over budget and schedule. But if there's one thing Hollywood likes, it's a person that will make them an absolute shit ton of money consistently. And so Spielberg gets to do essentially whatever he wants until he stops directing films (with the occasional underperformer like 1941 or Hook cheerfully ignored by studios because he's also made profitable masterpieces like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Saving Private Ryan over the last three and a half decades. He begged off directing Jaws 2 because Close Encounters of the Third Kind was running over budget and schedule as well, and he probably also didn't want to make another movie involving large bodies of water for the rest of his entire life plus fifteen years. But when money talks, someone is going to step up and make that second movie (and build up a favor bank with the movie studio that would like some of that sweet sequel cash).

And Jaws isn't the only movie to stick a number on the end of its title and get people back in movie theaters, of course. Rocky and Halloween were both out-of-nowhere smash hits that hit movie screens in the second half of the Seventies and both of those got sequels with numbers after 'em and eventual franchises that would cough up another flick every few years. For that matter, they're still making movies with the Rocky Balboa character--in a nod to time passing (unlike, say, the James Bond series where they just stick another person in the tuxedo), Rocky is older and weaker and not boxing any more. But he can train someone to do that and to pass the torch to the next generation of pugilists. Other movies around this time made buckets of money, and (especially in the horror genre) producers decided to keep going back to the well and separate more dollars from more wallets for as long as fan tolerance would hold out. Which is, again, nothing new (Son of Kong came out a year after King Kong; Godzilla has been in more movies than James Bond). But with the end-of-the-Seventies emphasis on sequels and franchises comes the tendency to stamp these things out on an assembly line. There is a very definite Marvel house style for their movies (it's why Edgar Wright wound up not making Ant-Man). If it's the third act of a Marvel movie--especially a team one rather than a film about individual characters--it's time for lots of things to bombard a city with energy blasts or with their own bodies. That's just how they tell their stories, and directors who don't want to do that are well advised to not take a job working for 'em, because it's only going to lead to heartache down the line.

And, of course, movie studios that want to squeeze every last drop of money out of a franchise have started splitting single books into two movies (the final Twilight, Harry Potter and Hunger Games series adaptations), three films (The Hobbit) or five (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). It's enough to make even the greediest horror franchise producer flinch, and it's also probably inevitable that in twenty or thirty years we'll get a franchise reboot including The Lord of the Rings:  The One Tower.

So. I was going to be talking about a particular killer shark movie in this review, and I should probably do that now. But before I do, I should mention that another poster for the movie put the returning cast members' name in huge letters at the bottom, which has to be the only time Murray Hamilton got to see his moniker in gigantic letters on a movie poster.

An underwater sequence with the Mexican non-union equivalent of John Williams' iconic Jaws score crossed with nautical adventure type music plays out over the opening credits. Two SCUBA divers are swimming through a shoal of fish as the title shows up in big blood red letters. A whole bunch of names of people who did not return from the first movie show up (their characters being too dead to return, or because the actors were unavailable due to other commitments). We're lucky to have Roy Scheider in this one; he only agreed to be in the movie in order to be let out of a contract with Universal Studios after quitting the production of The Deer Hunter, which went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. One might say that shows poor judgment on Scheider's part until one remembers the next movie to be directed by The Deer Hunter's auteur was the legendary fiasco Heaven's Gate. My guess is that Scheider didn't have any patience with Michael Cimino, which made him a trailblazer until everyone else in the pop culture world caught up with him in 1980.

Those underwater divers find the wreck of the Orca from the previous movie and they take a few snapshots of the boat half for posterity. Their camera flash attracts the actual Jaws score as well as a shark that attacks them, with their camera capturing their attacker (a plot point also used in my favorite Jaws ripoff, Alligator--which came out two years after this movie). As an economically viable cloud of fake blood billows in the water from one of the skin divers, but not the other, we go to the Amity Island ferry where Chief Brody is waiting to drive his police vehicle onto some nice honest roads instead of looking at the expanse of water all around him--remember, he was phobic about the ocean in the first movie and I can't imagine the struggle against the shark would cure that. Me, I'd move to Denver. Chief Brody arrives at a shindig where he buttons his shirt cuffs and ties his necktie while taking his seat as a local bigwig and his wife asks where he's been. ("Late!".) It's one of those civic events to celebrate the opening of a local business--a brand new resort hotel, in this case--while also serving as some kind of party for a scholarship fund. Maybe they're just economically boring two sets of guests at the same speech.

Mayor Vaughn is giving a speech while dressed in one of those jackets that serves to remind people that in the late Seventies, grownups sold other grownups on the idea of wearing a striped tie as wide as a paperback book cover with a plaid suit jacket. Actually, as I write this, I've got more than a dozen horrible jackets and twice that many hideous ties to hand out at B Fest before my fellow attendees go to a tiki bar to drink rum drinks and irritate the other bar patrons by playing doo-wop and Motorhead on the jukebox. So seeing Vaughn dressed like this is a life goal. Miss Amity, a local teenage beauty queen, will undertake the actual, literal ribbon-cutting here while a "money tree" with $1500 of real American currency attached to it is part of that scholarship effort. It's donated by a Mr. Peterson, who I presume is the local developer (and therefore the mover and shaker who got that hotel built). The speech ends, the Amity High School Band beats "Girl From Ipanema" into submission, and refreshments are to be served to all the locals who came out for the event. Mayor Vaughn introduces his son, Larry Jr., to Peterson and the veteran monster movie watcher starts to tally up all the possible Expendable Meat characters that are being paraded before the camera. Those two divers from the beginning of the film were the Threat-Establishing Casualties and we didn't learn anything about them other than they owned a camera and went diving in the ocean. In order to care about the next inevitable victims, we're gonna learn a couple of names and possibly even get a glimpse of their personalities before they're eaten.

Ellen Brody turns out to work for Peterson, and is one of the people making the scholarship benefit / hotel opening a reality. And the event appears to be going off without a hitch, so she's quite good at her job (with both Peterson and her husband saying they don't know what they'd do without her). Although the comic relief high school doofus says the punch is awful, so there is at least a little bit of trouble in paradise. The eldest Brody son, Mike,  and a girl he knows from school are there at the punch bowl to hear that verdict and also put their names in the Bitten To Death By A Shark hat. A pair of besepectacled dweebs stand outside the dance floor not getting any time to develop boogie fever (and also putting themselves into the dead pool), and it's slow dance time at the start of this killer shark movie. After the party sequence we get some shots of the island at twilight and of the new shark cruising around (complete with the iconic dorsal fin popping out of the water with the island in the background, a shot that might have taken weeks to get right, since salt water and mechanical shark puppets don't get along any better in 1978 than they did for the first movie).

The next morning, the captain of a small fishing boat uses the technology of yelling to tell Chief Brody and Deputy Hendricks about a large pleasure-cruising boat in the main traffic channel without any lights on. Hendricks takes the comically undersized police boat out to see what the deal is. Meanwhile Mike Brody and several teens are planning to go out on the water in small craft, because that's the main leisure activity on Amity and the gigantic killer shark from last summer is deader than disco. The comic-relief doofus from the dance is revealed as Andy, while the chief dweeb from the party is called Tim by his compatriot Douglas. And while a vacationing girl from the Big City shows up to be noticed by all the townies, I learned that "She's got tits like a sparrow," is dialogue a PG rated movie could have in 1978. A ragged flotilla of teenager-operated pleasure craft go out into the water for a water balloon fight and some light orchestral comedy music.

Back at the police station, there's a local complaining about a ham radio operator's station washing out his TV reception. It's a mildly chaotic secene where other people are griping about small-time small town grievances between neighbors, and Deputy Hendricks returns from the abandoned cruiser with the equally abandoned dive camera. Brody seizes on that opportunity to get away from the complaining Amity residents. The pleasure boat had a price tag of a cool hundred grand, and the people who owned it lived out of town in Rhode Island. At this point Brody and everyone else presumes they'll be back at some point (and possibly getting the nautical equivalent of a parking ticket) because nobody other than the professor at the start of Shin Godzilla leaves an expensive boat out in the middle of the water like that.

Back on the water, there's someone hanging from a seat attached to a parasail, getting dunked in the water a couple times while the people handling the ropes figure out what they're doing. There's a confusingly edited sequence here where we see the teenager falling into the water from below, and then the POV shark-camera starts moving while the universally recognized Jaws theme plays. If we're seeing the shark's point of view from a distance, what's supposed to be looking at the kid landing in the water from a few feet away?  The POV camera doesn't make it to the kid on the parasail seat (he gets away a second or so before he would have lost a limb at best and died at worst), and nobody on the boat notices the shark fin popping up for a second as he rises into the air. The shark settles for a water skiing woman instead, who is being towed around a different part of the bay (presumably so the wind-powered craft don't get disrupted by the power boat and vice versa). The shot of the fin following along the woman on the waterski is pretty suspenseful and well-handled, but it only lasts for a few seconds, unfortunately. The POV camera comes into play for the attack, intercut with footage of Terry the skiier on the surface, and she gets dragged underwater and killed while her mom, running the boat, eventually notices that she's light by a passenger. Also, I take it back about learning something about the shark victims in this movie, because I can't tell you anything about Terry except that she was eaten by a great white shark.

I can tell you about the same amount of information about Terry's mom, who manages to spill gasoline all over herself and the boat (and the shark, for a moment, when it attacks her stationary and non-motoring boat) before firing a flare gun at the shark that blows up the water craft and accidentally gives "boating accident" as a plausible reason for her and her daughter to be dead. But, as we in the audience know, it was no boating accident except in the most hair-splitting technical sense. Which means Deputy Hendricks is out with a standard issue grizzled old guy with a stocking cap looking at the boat wreckage while Chief Brody orders him to drag the floor of the bay until the bodies of the boater and water skiier are recovered (which is a fool's errand due to tidal currents and gravity pulling the bodies away from where they might be recovered even if they weren't in a shark's stomach at this very moment). Chief Brody interviews the shell-shocked bystanders who witnessed the boat explosion but not the shark attack and stares out at the water, wondering if there is in fact a second territorial shark feeding in the waters off of Amity Island (SPOILER:  He is of course right).
Meanwhile, on the police boat, the dredging hook connects with something so heavy and solid that it almost pulls the craft underwater as if two tigers were sitting on it. What gets pulled up is a buried underwater power line that has to be delicately untangled from the dredging hooks, lest 1) the power goes out to the entire island and 2) Both of the people on the boat get electrocuted.

The next morning, there's a little bit of domestic friction at the Brody breakfast table; Mike would rather sail around the island all summer than get a job, and discounting the shark in the water, who can blame him? His mom thinks summer vacations are more important than flipping burgers for minimum wage but his dad thinks that age seventeen is old enough to start earning some wages. But he relents, and the only thing he tells Mike is to be wary of how far out he's getting, especially if there's bad weather. Mike's boat doesn't have an engine, though, so it's unlikely to explode. At least there's that.

Over at the lighthouse, Tina the beauty queen is running off with someone's hat; he chases her over hill and dale until they find the corpse of an orca washed up on a dune. That's enough of a buzzkill for the kids, but Chief Brody shows up because there are apparent bite wounds on the whale. But he's no marine biologist (and Hooper's off having Science Adventures elsewhere because Richard Dreyfuss was busy filming Close Encounters of the Third Kind while this movie was in production). Brody thinks it's a killer shark that killed the orca, and even underplays his knowledge with the marine biologist as she measures the bite radius on the beached corpse ("I have had some experience with sharks," indeed). The biologist isn't willing to say whether or not the killer whale's been killed by a shark or not without a thorough examination and during her Science Exposition Talk she drops the tidbit that sharks are attracted to rhythmic sounds in the water. They go to whatever is making the unsual noise(s) and then bite the hell out of it. No idea if that's really true or not, but it does provide a scene where Brody thinks he knows everything about sharks and it turns out that he does not. But there's also plenty that the biologist says--all of it perfectly reasonable--that means the dead killer whale isn't necessarily the victim of a shark that's in the immediate waters off of Amity. She narrows it down to either another orca or a great white shark, but a body that's been drifting in the ocean for a day or two and then baking in the sun as an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet for every bug, bird and crab on the shore isn't one that can provide enough information for a complete forensic analysis.

Chief Brody asks the biologist if it's possible that a second great white could come to the area where another one had been killed, either for vengeance or because the hunting ground was open for them and the biologist says sharks don't take things personally (like I do for picking this movie as my Franchise Kill entry when I could have wound up watching Dick Miller in Piranha). The knot of eight or ten other Amity teenagers wander off without Mike Brody, with one of his friends promising to bring his boat back to the marina and tie it up. Mike's getting a ride back with his father, on the ground, away from the ocean.

Back in town, Chief Brody snags Mayor Vaughn to tell him about the suspected shark problem and gets shut down by the mayor, who (relatively sensibly) says there's no real proof of a shark off of Amity at this point. Yes, there's two missing divers and two missing waterskiers (and a boat that exploded), but there are lots of ways for a careless or unlucky boater or diver to die that don't involve a gigantic territorial great white shark. And that's a pretty fair hand for the movie to play at this point, because the viewer knows it's a POV camera and a shark that tallied up four victims so far, but from the evidence in front of Chief Brody, it's a pretty premature call.

Brody's irritable and edgy about getting told that there isn't definitely a shark out there yet and stomps off in a huff. It's a real defect in the script that we're supposed to apparently accept that Brody realizes he's in a killer-shark-movie sequel so of course there's another killer shark out there, while every other character is acting more or less like you'd expect. Also, I'm not entirely certain, but I think the body count in this movie already exceeded that of the original with eighty minutes left in the run time (it's Chrissie, Alex Kintner and Quint who die in the first movie, right?). If this movie had come out in 1979--and therefore after Halloween--I'm pretty sure the kill count would have exclusively been made up of  Amity High School student bodies. Instead we're likely to get a more mixed bag than that. And, unfortunately, we're likely to spend a lot more time with the kids because talk is cheap and action costs money.

While driving on the beach, Brody spots something bobbing in the surf that proves to be part of the waterskiing boat from earlier. He's not willing to go into the water after it at first, even though there's no way a shark can attack him in six inches of surf. But the desire to see what's out there wins out over his hydrophobia and he goes for the chunk of the boat's hull while a stationary POV shot and the Jaws theme plays out (which, if that means the shark is watching Brody, would mean it is going to die because sharks can't stop swimming and breathe at the same time). The boat hull piece has a burnt corpse somehow tangled up on it, and there's a jump cut from Brody's discovery of that body and fully justified attack of the raging fantods to the police chief making a set of hollow-point bullets with cyanide payloads in them.

I am not certain what a few drops of cyanide would do to a shark that six bullet wounds weren't going to do as well, but apparently Brody's plan is to get close enough to the shark to shoot it six times and then hope the poison kicks in. Deputy Hendricks sees the totally-not-suspicious towel covered bundle of stuff on Brody's office desk (the poison bottle, bullets and assorted gear from the assembly of the hollow points) but before he can take a peek at it, his boss tells him to get the dive camera film developed as soon as possible (the drug store / photo lab on the island is already closed at that point). Brody's spent so long working on his toxic ammo that he rushes out of the office for dinner, which he is running late for, and says that when the long-distance call he's expecting comes in to the office, have the switchboard send it to his house.

Which reminds me that the movie takes place in 1978, because I'm willing to bet dive cameras use digital "film" at this point now and there really isn't any such thing as a long distance call any more when everyone's got a cell phone instead of a land line.

That long distance call turns out to be from (or at least on behalf of) Matt Hooper, who is spending months on a research vessel in the Antarctic and won't be able to make a radio-to-telephone call to the Brody residence for another nine or ten months. But at least the movie remembered that Hooper exists, and that Chief Brody would undoubtedly want to get in touch with him and find out if his fears of another killer shark are justified. This sequence is the start of the film's attempt to show that Chief Brody is acting paranoid and distant while the fear of another shark starts to prey on his mind, and at that Mike Brody now has a job and won't be allowed to go boating any more. Again, that's actually the right thing to do, but the film is making Chief Brody arrive at the right conclusion via bad reasoning.

The next day at the beach, there's a ton of establishing shots to show that we are indeed at the beach, as are lots of people of various age cohorts and skin tones ranging from mayonnaise to eggshell white. Brody's out on a watchtower keeping an eye on the entire ocean, and Mayor Vaughn, Peterson and Ellen Brody are showing the beach off to condo investors with an eye towards further real estate development on Amity. Mike Brody's summer job turns out to be painting and refurbishing one of the concession stands on the beach, at least today. Which would have to be the all-time biggest bummer of a summer job if you're on the beach for hours but not allowed to do anything fun.

Out on the ocean, a boat full of teenagers enjoying the day speeds off in search of adventure while Peterson and Vaughn unsuccessfully try to lay claim to the title of "Bullshit artist" by telling a grade-school-age kid that the shark tower is really for watching birds most of the time and that Chief Brody is just up there inspecting it. Brody sees a big dark shadow in the water and rings the Shark Bell, demanding everybody leave the ocean, but it's not quite the second act yet so it's just a school of bluefish and he is unceremoniously fired (and he should have been, because he's running across the beach with his gun out and fires at the shadow in the water even though not everyone has cleared his line of fire. The movie tries to make it look like the jerkoff developers are behind his dismissal, but he's due for a psychiatric hearing after that display at the very least. Credit where it's due, there is a quite nice shot of Brody alone in the foreground while the muttering crowd of beachgoers fills the background from edge to edge of the screen. It shows that he's isolated from the community both physically and psychologically. His younger son Sean comes by to help him pick up his brass shell casings, which he dropped on the beach after emptying his revolver at the vague shape in the water.

Before he can get canned, though, Brody gets a look at the photos from that dive camera. The man who runs the photo shop in town only got one picture developed before calling the chief over so that he (and the audience) can see the other pictures fade into existence and show off the killer great white shark. It's a pretty neat scene, but I don't know why they had to do it quite the way they did. Brody brings the shark photos over to the board of selectmen, who declare they don't see a shark in them. Brody's attempt to show everyone that they have a shark problem goes pretty poorly (Peterson says there's no talking to someone who already made up his mind) and Brody says he's got no plans to fight a second great white in the ocean, so the town better come up with a plan before there's a crisis this time (a reasonable plan that goes utterly against Roy Scheider's acting as the wide-eyed fast-talking edge-of-panic Brody ranting about the shark pictures).

Well, enough of that main plot. It's time to go to a local bar and watch the Amity kids hang out.

The main thing I got from the bar scene was that the establishment lets teenagers in (what was the national legal drinking age in 1978?), and also that they've got one of the few hundred Death Race arcade games that were manufactured before angry moralists got the game taken out of production (why, yes, dear readers, people were always willing to complain about unsavory entertainment choices!). One of the kids I'm not going to bother to figure out the name of says he snagged a couple cases of beer from his father, and wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, hang out, and consume it. Me, personally, I'd be back at the bar playing Death Race, but I've always been an antisocial weirdo (thank Telstar the internet was eventually made available to civilian nerds). Everyone but Mike Brody makes plans to go to the lighthouse, but he's got the twin specters of the day job and a father who is the chief of police keeping him from going. But the glamorous new girl in town twists his arm for about three fifths of a second, and it looks like Mike's gonna be in the big group of Expendable Meat characters at the lighthouse party.

Chief Brody returns home to find that Ellen and Deputy Hendricks are commiserating about him getting fired. He hands the chief of police badge over to his former second-in-command and starts to work on getting thoroughly wasted. He does make sure, even in his current emotional state, to tell Hendricks that he knows it's not his subordinate's fault that he's getting kicked up a place on the org chart. The new chief leaves and the Brodys discuss what's going on with the chief's career path and why exactly he was let go (it looks to be the "firing a gun at the beach while yelling like a maniac" thing more than any other factor). Ellen gives her husband all the support--physical and emotional--that she can, and the next morning they sleep through Mike sneaking out to partake of alcoholic beverages and listen to the rock and roll.

His younger brother's more observant, though, and blackmails an invitation to the beach party by threatening to wake their parents up if he doesn't get to tag along. At the pier, Mike temporarily kicks his friend Andy off to invite the girls on his craft, the dweeby guy gets a girl to go along with him (which he wasn't expecting to happen, but it delighted to have happen) and there's perhaps just the tiniest bit too much of momentum-destroying footage of boats going around doing Boat Stuff. Then, just because things weren't going slowly enough, it's time for an underwater sequence where SCUBA divers swim around in the ocean. This kind of sequence in a monster movie serves the vital function of letting the audience get a popcorn refill while NOTHING AT ALL IS GOING TO HAPPEN. I'm stuck watching every frame of the film, though, and when a diver gets startled by the burn-scarred great white it comes out of nowhere and also doesn't use the John Williams shark music to let the audience know it's going to happen. Everyone's so intent on helping the diver get back to shore (I think he's suffering from the bends as he surfaces too quickly, maybe) they miss the dorsal fin in the water by the boat.

So, uh, they decided to make the shark scarier by putting wicked nasty burn scars on its face. It's emblematic of this film that they've tried to make the gigantic killer shark scarier for the sequel, and that the footage the have doesn't work towards that goal at all. And the shark appearance among the divers is confusingly handled--didn't anyone else see it? Why did everybody else go back to the boat when one person did? I didn't see anyone do a signal or anything, so if all the divers had a single buddy to mutually keep track of, they wouldn't have necessarily even noticed the shark-dodger fleeing.

Chief Brody gets into the police SUV to drive his wife to her job before turning it in and getting all his personal effects from his desk and entering civilian life. And meanwhile, there are two teenagers who have drifted off from the group (possibly the nautical equivalent of "running out of gas" while driving somewhere?), which means that one or both of them is going to get sharked. Turns out to be the boy, who turns out to be named Eddie (and his girlfriend is Tina); the shark bumps their boat, which knocks Eddie in the drink and he gets killed while his girlfriend screams for him to swim to the boat. When we're focusing on Tina and Eddie rather than the shark effects, it's actually quite an effective sequence but it's over in a minute and a half, and then we spend time with everyone back in town again. That includes Martin Brody seeing an ambulance going with its lights and sirens on and wondering what the deal is (even though he's no longer Chief Martin Brody). The ambulance turned out to be for that diver, who gave himiself an embolism by ascending too fast and holding his breath. Chief Hendricks drops a little knowledge on the Brodys when he lists all the kids who went out to the lighthouse and the parents race off to yell at their son (and protect him from the shark, but mostly they're gonna be yelling). Chief Hendricks starts out telling his former boss that he can't take the Amity Police boat out since he's no longer affiliated with the Amity Police and winds up telling him how to operate the controls (one assumes that's a job that Brody left to his subordinates since he's never liked being on or in the water). Hendricks sums up the city's options with "They can't fire both of us", which shows commendable team spirit.

Rather than assume that he's going to be able to fix the entire problem himself, Brody radios the harbor patrol and tells them to send their helicopter out to the day-sailing teenagers so they can get sent back to the port (and safety, and the Brody kids for their ration of yelling). And that means that instead of a shark attack, we get a few more minutes of High Seas Adventure on the various boats. I swear, every time this movie starts to build up some storytelling momentum it cuts to those goddamned kids sailing about and all the tension in the film just drains away. Meanwhile, the Brodys and Hendricks find the empty boat that Eddie and Tina were in a little while ago, and find Tina sobbing belowdecks and hiding. At some length, they manage to get some exposition from Tina about what happened and Martin Brody signals to a passing pleasure craft to pick up Tina, his wife and Hendricks (they're all on Tina's boat) and he motors off to save the teenagers and kill the second Amity great white. Also, this means that since he's been kicked off the force and handed in his badge and gun, he's officially a Cop On The Edge. I know I was disparaging the script earlier, but now I want to piss on a copy of it directly.

Back with the Teenage Kicks Flotilla, one of the dweebs manages to overinflate his pontoon boat, blow a patch out, and it starts sinking. He almost gets sharked before the boat can even finish sinking but gets hauled out of the briny deep into Andy's craft, which the shark capsizes as well. In the ensuing panic, plenty of the other craft get their rigging fouled or knocked over. Mike winds up getting knocked out and floating  while unconscious. He gets yanked into the chief dweeby guy's boat a second before the shark can bite him in another scene that actually works pretty well (other than the goofy-ass mechanical shark rubbing against the side of the boat). All the other craft are disabled one way or another and Mike's comic-relief goofy friend has the brainwave to throw lines to the various boats and tie them together as a more stable flotilla rather than have everyone stranded separately. Meanwhile, Brody drives his technically stolen police boat to the lighthouse, but none of the teenagers' boats have made it there yet. Radioing the harbor patrol chopper guy doesn't help either and he winds up heading off in essentially a random direction looking for the stranded kids (who realize that they need to get to Cable Junction, an island with some electrical equipment on it) because the next landmark after that is Ireland. They get spotted by the harbor chopper, but when it lands on the water (it's got floats instead of regular skids) we get a POV shot that probably means the shark is still loitering in the area. The kids get a tow to Cable Junction from the helicopter, but seconds into that process the shark attacks the helicopter (!) which sinks to the bottom of the ocean. While tied to the boats that everyone's on. Now they've got an anchor keeping them more or less immobilized, but the shark has already learned how to bump into the bottom of a boat's hull in order to get tasty snacks to fall into the ocean. Sean Brody gets knocked into the water in one attack along with a girl whose name I don't think we ever catch (she gets eaten while everyone else screams in panic).

There's a scene back in town where Ellen tells Peterson off for...something...I guess because he wanted to build condos? I don't know. It plays out like a punchline for a joke that never got set up. Maybe the director wanted to remind us that those characters were still in the movie. Back on the police boat, Brody can't get the radio to work and can't figure out where everyone is. Then it starts to rain. Back on the kids' boats, there's a lengthy scene in which everyone yells at the traumatized Sean Brody to catch a rope so he can get hauled from his lone upside-down boat to the other ones that are tied together. They're drifting towards Cable Junction, and probably will just bump into it or get near it or something. None of them can steer and there's a distinct shortage of volunteers to go into the water and try towing the boat towards the island.

Brody does the nautical equivalent of stumbling upon the boat with the dweeby guy, Mike and some namless preppy on it, who hip him to the scene about what's going on re:  sharks, Cable Junction and disabled boats containing his other son. Those kids are steering to the island as best as they can but it's not a precision task with no paddles and making noise in the water might attract the shark. Then the mast of the capsized boat sticks on the bottom of the ocean floor, stranding everyone about twenty feet from the island they were hoping to get to. We get Night of the Living Dead in eighty seconds as everyone screams at each other while they're stranded, but one of the kids hears the police boat approaching. They all yell and scream to get Brody's attention, which is probably like ringing a dinner bell for the monster.

Yup, the shark shows up as Brody gets ready to tow the makeshift boat raft thing to the island and in the confusion Martin manages to run aground (which is actually in character; he's never been nautically proficient). He throws a line to the kids so they can pull the dredging hooks over to their aggregate craft, whereupon Brody will use the dredging winch to haul them to the island. But, of course, it snags that goddamned power cable from earlier at the very moment that the burn-scarred shark bashes through the bottom of the raft. Everyone swims like crazy for Cable Junction, of course, but two people (including Sean Brody) are still on the damaged boats. And the winch hauls the power cable off the ocean floor again while Martin Brody is trying to get it disentangled from the dredging hooks.

Which means it's time to MacGyver up a shark killing solution--Brody gets on an inflatable raft and gets ready to get to the stranded boat when the shark attacks it again (giving the audience a much better look at the not very good shark puppet). He uses the exposition from the marine biologist in the first act and starts slapping the power cable with the life raft's oar, which makes a shark attracting noise (and lets audience members sing the chorus to "Have I the Right?" briefly). The shark doesn't go for it completely at first, but at least it leaves the stranded boat and the two remaining kids on it alone. Brody keeps smacking the cable as they see the shark again, luring it in to take a big bite of power cable and turning itself into instant tempura. And knocking out all the power to Amity Island, which means hundreds of gallons of ice cream will be melting in the sun, and nobody can play Death Race over at the bar any more.

Back on the mainland, one assumes that Brody gets his job back as chief and also gets to paint two shark sillhouettes on the driver's side door of the police cruiser.

Man, this movie defines the term "meh". It's not bad, it's not entertainingly terrible, and it occupies time until the end credits roll. There's really not anything else to say about it that I didn't already get to; it's just a movie that got made for absolutely no reason other than to ride the coattails of an unexpected hit. I guess Universal decided that if moviegoers were going to get ripoffs like Grizzly, The Car, The White Buffalo, Alligator, Crocodile, and others, that they might as well join in on the fun and rake in a little cash.

And, what do you know, this one made enough money for a sequel in 3-D and another one legendary for its awfulness. Gotta get through this one in order to make your way to the prime glory of the cheese that awaits.

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The other members of the Celluloid Zeroes have reviewed movies in the Jaws series (or some notable ripoffs, or another killer shark movie) to join in on the Franchise Kill.

Seeker of Schlock drew the long straw and got to watch a genuine masterpiece in Jaws.

Cinemasochist Apocalypse puts on the glasses and watches Jaws 3-D.

Micro-Brewed Reviews watches Michael Caine's shirt miraculously dry in Jaws:  The Revenge.

Web of the Big Damn Spider checks out The Sea Serpent (featuring Ray Milland!).

The Terrible Claw Reviews gets stranded in The Shallows.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Celluloid Zeroes present Political Science Fiction: The Parallax View (1974)


The Celluloid Zeroes celebrate Election Day 2016 by looking at politically-themed horror and science fiction movies of the past to distract us from the horrors of the present. Join us, won't you?


Written by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (and an uncredited Robert Towne), based on the novel by Loren Singer
Directed by Alan J. Pakula

Warren Beatty:  Joseph Frady
Paula Prentiss:  Lee Carter
William Daniels:  Austin Tucker
Hume Cronyn:  Bill Rintels

I wasn't around to experience the paranoia and self-loathing of America as the Sixties turned over into the Seventies, but I can tell from the art that had been produced at the time that it was no Goddamned fun at all. "Art," a mass communications professor of mine used to say, "is anything that communicates." And the pop culture produced by America in the Nixon years was communicating in the language of rage-fueled screams. There was also a boom in conspiracy theories at the time--one of the most common ones being the secret truth behind the Kennedy assassination; certainly the official story that a lone nut with a gun decided to change history all by himself, not influenced by anybody else at all, wasn't enough for some people. 

Come to think of it, that's the official story to both of the Kennedy assassinations, and also for that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Given that a whole lot of prominent left-wing politicians were winding up dead at the hands of lone nuts who were unconnected to any other social movements or organizations, it's no wonder that the national mood (at least according to some of the movies I've seen) was of bitterly suspicious paranoia and fatalistic acceptance of approaching doom.

Well, this review is scheduled to go live on Election Day 2016, where the United States of America will decide whether or not "loud man from television show" is enough of a curriculum vitae to become the most powerful man on the planet. And if you think things looked dire in 1974, imagine how we're going to look with four decades' hindsight if a man who can be provoked into a week-long tirade by a tweet gets to control the American thermonuclear stockpile. Actually, if that happens, we'd better hope that radioactive cockroaches have a sophisticated oral tradition because there's no chance that humanity's going to make it to the end of a Trump presidency if someone from China says something mean about him on television.

I guess I'd rather spend some time in a fictional world where evil is in unquestioned control of my country, but that it's a corporate villain rather than a single human one. Because at least a corporation is going to try and perform in a manner that makes money. There's no point in being the richest man on the cinder that used to be Earth, so an evil CEO looking to reshape the country into something favorable to his company (over a dozen or so of the little people's dead bodies) is preferable in many ways to the evil that could potentially be in charge in January of 2017. I'm sure that the filmmakers thought this was going to be a horror movie, but I wonder if they ever saw things getting so bad in real life that their film would be a comforting escapist entertainment.

The film starts in Seattle (you can tell that's where things are taking place because of the Space Needle and a totem pole sharing the same shot). It's the Fourth of July, and "Senator Carroll" is going to make an appearance with reporters and gawkers thronging around the streets. Word on the street (literally on the street; it's a parade marching down the streets in Seattle) is that the Senator is going to run for President in a year (which sets the film in 1975, I guess, a year after its release, and just far enough in the future to be The Future while still looking recognizable to everyone in the audience at the time). The Senator--whose political party is pointedly not given--waves to everyone, gets into the elevator at the base of the Space Needle and goes up into the monument in order to press the flesh with some supporters away from the turmoil and crowds at ground level. We first meet Joseph Frady, the doomed-as-fuck protagonist, trying to scam his way past a security guy in an eye-searing necktie and burgundy suit (apparently the Secret Service had business casual days in 1974). Frady gets shut down and has to stay back down on the ground with all us mere mortals as Senator Carroll ascends to the Olympian heights. It's totally not foreshadowing that the inevitable local marching band is playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" as the elevator keeps rising.

Just as Senator Carroll starts to make a speech that's meant to launch the next phase of his political career, two shots ring out and his blood splatters the windows of the Space Needle. It's telling that the one journalist we've seen in the film so far is on the outside observation deck so there's a barrier between her and the Senator as he's killed--she's separated from the events as they happen. A red-jacketed waiter with a pistol is immediately grabbed by the horrified bystanders--what we the audience sees, and they do not, as the second man in a waiter's jacket also with a gun making a discreet exit. The known gunman makes a break for it and goes to the top of the Space Needle, scuffling with three men who pursued him in a wordless sequence and eventually falling from the top of the landmark to his death. 

A Congressional committee investigates the killing of Senator Carroll, and after four months of hearings they hand down their conclusion:  Carroll was killed by an unstable madman who wanted to be famous and to protect the country from what he saw as a political threat. According to the seven-member committee, there is no evidence whatsoever of a larger conspiracy around the killer's actions. So don't ask any questions about that. The credits roll over a still of the committee and a dissonant brass fanfare.

Three years later (so...1977?) that journalist who didn't get to the Space Needle at the start of the film social-engineers his way into a middle-class house by claiming to be looking for an escaped parrot; he gets to their back porch just in time for a police narcotics raid to smash its way into their front door looking for dope that pretty obviously isn't going to be there. His presence as the narco squad throws the middle-aged couple around and breaks their stuff looking for smack earns him a trip downtown, where he is not booked on any charges but is threatened by police. Joseph Frady sasses them back, pointing out that he's not the one who did anything wrong in that situation. He's just a reporter who witnessed firsthand a textbook example of police brutality, and he leaves without having to post bail and in one piece. Then it's back to the newspaper offices where we learn that Warren Beatty might well be a Method actor, cause he looks like he actually knows his way around an electric typewriter. Frady gets told that his story is going to be spiked, and that he's not allowed to do any more tweaking of the local drug squad. His editor informs Joseph that he's not going to commit any more shenanigans in pursuit of stories and gives him the rest of the day off.

Over at the Hawaiian-themed flophouse hotel where Frady lives, the manager (who looks like the person Joe Pantaliano was cloned from) tells him that there's some mail as well as four phone messages from the same person waiting for him. The message leaver, Lee Carter, shows up in person--just in time for Frady's girlfriend to walk out irritated at his former squeeze knocking on the door of his hotel room--and tells the newspaper reporter that she believes that she's the target of a murderous conspiracy. She's got a crumpled old newspaper article on the Senator Carroll assassination and tells Joseph that half a dozen people in the news photos have died in the past couple of years in various accidents. Or "accidents", if you believe her. She believes she's next on the list, along with Austin Tucker (Carroll's chief of staff). Tucker thinks that they saw something they weren't supposed to as they witnessed the killing, but neither he nor Lee can think of what that might possibly be. And Lee's the television reporter who saw Carroll's blood hit the window after he was shot--she was on the scene and paying close attention through the shock and trauma she was feeling at the time. Which is a good reason for her to think she's going to be on the death list, if indeed there is one.

Frady doesn't buy the conspiracy angle at all; he quotes the various ways the dead people from the news photos bought their farms, and they're all pretty plausible (dying of an allergic reaction to a wrongly prescribed antibiotic is an awful way to go, but it's hardly suspicious of anything but colossally bad luck or homicidal negligence on the part of a doctor). But he also only lists four of the eighteen people in the pictures in question, and Lee tells him that two more have died since the last time she tried to tell him about the conspiracy that she thinks is knocking witnesses off. Six deaths out of eighteen people randomly captured in a few photographs over four years isn't exactly a smoking gun, but it also does seem at least a little hinky. The problem, of course, is that two points are always colinear and three are always coplanar. If you have a few data points they're going to look connected because the human mind appreciates patterns and finds them everywhere.

Lee wants to go to Salmontail, which is a small Washington town where one more witness just suffered an accidental death (drowning while out fishing). Frady pretty much openly doesn't care about any of this death conspiracy bullshit and provokes Lee into a crying jag--which I can see, because if I thought I was one of a rapidly shrinking pool of potential murder victims and someone I trusted wasn't listening to me it'd set me off pretty quickly. Frady attempts to look and sound like less of an asshole and fails; the next we see of Lee is her body on a medical examiner's table. She was drunk and sedated and then killed in a car wreck; the pathologist says it's an obvious suicide. Which makes Joseph wonder if there might have been something to this "conspiracy death list" business after all.

Well, just because there's a nebulous criminal conspiracy bumping people off who happened to see something they shouldn't have is no reason to go off half-cocked. Frady starts out by talking to a source of his who used to be an FBI agent (but is now officially persona non grata at that agency). He wants a fake ID and a falsified background so he can pass as just the right kind of antisocial misfit. The former Fibbie comes up with a name and a persona while talking to the reporter (looks like "Richard Martin" is going to have a conviction in his past for exposing himself to women). 

And then up in Swallowtail, Frady enters a bar, his demeanor completely different from his earlier brash irreverence (and his voice pitched just barely above a whisper). He's quiet and contained, and orders a glass of milk instead of something like a shot and a beer. The cowboy-hatted drinkers at a nearby table aren't going to let that offense to their sense of machismo stand, because someone else's drink choice is something that must be audited and mocked by Real Men. Joseph beats the ever-loving shit out of the man who tried to antagonize him in a donnybrook that travels the entire length and breadth of the bar as well as the gift shop. Turns out that the guy he stomped a brand new mudhole into is a sheriff's deputy, and the older guy he was drinking with is the county sheriff (who didn't want to stop the fight because he enjoyed watching his jerkoff deputy take a beating).

Introductions thereby made, the sheriff and Frady get to talking, and Joseph learns that the judge who drowned in Swallowtail did so when a dam released hundreds of thousands of gallons of water. There were alarms and warning lights, but apparently the judge didn't notice any of them and was wiped out by the flood waters. The sheriff points Frady to the dam's watchman, who bought a brand new hunting shotgun right after the "accident", and the two men go check out the dam. While Frady fishes (and looks for anything suspicious around the drowning site) and the sheriff chats from the shore, the klaxons go off at the dam. They're loud enough to get the attention of a dead man, and it turns out that there never was a watchman at the dam--the sheriff pulls his duty weapon on Joseph and plans to keep him in the path of the water until there's two sudden drownings in the same spot to explain away. But Frady's resourceful enough to lay the authority figure's face open with his fishing lure and drag him into the path of the water. Serves you right, asshole. The pair fight as they get swept downstream and Frady survives, while his would-be murderer does not.

Over at the sheriff's house (arriving via stolen police car), Joseph pokes around a bit and finds a briefcase full of documents from the Parallax Corporation, but has to get the hell out when the deputy walks in to see what's going on--and there's a great shot where Frady and the deputy are both in the same frame on opposite sides of an interior wall, neither one aware of the other's presence. Joseph leaves through a window and steals the deputy's car (!), which the other man notices and pursues in the sheriff's vehicle. Some fancy driving gets Joseph out of immediate danger but he smashes into a supermarket and makes tracks on foot, escaping by hopping into the bed of a freight truck that happens to be going the right way ("anywhere but where all the cops are coming from"). 

Being a resourceful chap, Frady gets back to the newspaper office without too much further incident, and in a late-night meeting comes across as just the kind of paranoid ranter that he dismissed earlier in the film. Because, let's face it, "all the witnesses to this already-solved political killing from four years ago are getting murdered" does not sound like the kind of thing a rational person would say. Not only that, but even the sheriff trying to kill Joseph can be explained away (as can the bank book the reporter found with $107,000 in it, which is more than most hick town public servants can expect to put away for retirement in 1974). There was a scandal a few years back and that sheriff, along with two deputies, were all indicted. Once he saw a reporter sniffing around his turf, obviously the sheriff wanted to avoid further scandal and planned to kill Joseph out of pre-emptive self defense. The only problem with this theory is that Joseph Frady gave a fake name when he signed in at his hotel and claims he never told the sheriff he was a reporter (which might even be true, but why would the sheriff come up with a fake watchman at the dam as a way to get Frady killed if he didn't think the man was investigating him?).

Frady's editor refuses to advance him any of his salary so he can go looking for Austin Tucker, so he decides to take a slightly different tack. Talking to a behavioral psychologist friend (who is introduced playing Pong against a chimpanzee and beating the hell out of it), Joseph asks for advice on his interpretation of the Parallax mail-in personality test; he thinks they're casting a wide net looking for loners that are hostile and angry, and can have those emotions channeled in a productive (for Parallax) way. He thinks that whatever the Parallax Corporation is, they're interested in violent loners. And with a little coaching from a genuine psychologist, he can learn how to answer their questions so that he can look like the kind of unstable personality they're looking for. His psychologist friend does him one better, and administers the test to a criminally insane orderly in the lab--by the way, what the hell kind of liability insurance does a psych lab have if they have a chimpanzee and a criminally insane dude running around with minimal security precautions?

While he's having lunch and reading the paper, Joe gets approached (from behind, without him noticing) by someone who says he can lead the newspaperman to the reclusive and paranoid Austin Tucker. Before he'll be allowed into Tucker's presence, Frady has to consent to a strip search ("Are you out of your fuckin' mind?") but eventually relents because he wants to get to the truth about what's going on, and Tucker was in the same room as Senator Carroll when he was assassinated and is currently still alive. Tucker's first question is something a justifiably paranoid person would ask--who sent Frady to look for him? The second thing he says is that he'll pay $10,000 to be left alone and left out of whatever story Frady's writing; Tucker says he's lived through two attempts on his life so far and isn't planning to hang around till someone gets lucky the third time.

Tucker, Frady, and Tucker's bodyguard / security goon sail out into the Pacific on Tucker's personal boat, since the former politician's assistant has decided to talk, but nowhere that he can be observed or approached. And he busts out a handheld photo viewer that has one of the pictures Lee Carter was using to keep track of people that were marked for death on it; also on the viewer is a shot of one of the waiters at the Space Needle on the day Senator Carroll was murdered. Tucker doesn't quite explain anything to Frady yet, possibly thinking that the journalist has been sent to end his life, but that shot of an unsmiling man in a waiter's vest means something to the recluse. 

Neither Joseph Frady nor the audience figures out what that might be, though, because without any warning other than a shift from a closeup to a long shot, a bomb explodes on Tucker's sailboat. It burns to the waterline and Frady's presumed dead (along with Tucker and his security guy). Frady sneaks back into his editor's office while he's sacked out at his deck chair and sees that his own paper reported three deaths in the sailing "mishap" rather than two, then wakes the sleeping man up and scares the snot out of him for a moment before finding out that his own close call and then (reported) death convinced his boss that there might just be something to this "list of people who were in this photo all winding up dead" business. But when the editor says he's going to call the police and the FBI to report what he knows about the ongoing shady business Frady warns him that talking to anyone in law enforcement could wind up getting him killed. 

Next thing that Frady wants to do is pretty clever:  He asks his editor to print an obituary and then together the two men are going to fake a will with the editor named as executor. All of Joseph's belongings will get moved out of his hotel room and donated to charity (if they want 'em). And while he's thought to be dead, he'll have a chance to try out for Parallax, who are the real villains behind everything. Oh, and one other request, while Frady's asking for things--he doesn't want anything in the paper about the mysterious happenings around the Senator Carroll killing and the way all those witnesses keep dying. His editor thinks they could blow the lid off the political assassination from four years ago. Frady thinks they can expose the company that's been recruiting assassins and blow the lid off of a dozen killings (and coverups) or even more. With no ceremony whatsoever, the two men agree that Frady will stay "dead" and try to figure out what's going on with the mysterious Parallax corporation.

So when he's living in some crummy apartment somewhere "Richard Paley" gets a personal visit from a Parallax representative named Jack Younger, telling him that he'd scored very well on a personality test. Well, he actually says they were "very interesting scores", which could mean dozens of different things, couldn't it? The man from Parallax says that "Paley" might well qualify for unusual work for Parallax, which would make the the test-taker rich and give him a rewarding job, and give Parallax a finder's fee for locating someone capable of doing the work that needs to be done.

While talking to Jack, "Paley" burns his hand on his stove and lashes out in anger, putting on exactly the kind of show that Parallax is looking for from its unstable violent loners. Younger tells him that his aggressive tendencies are exactly what the corporation is looking for, and leaves a business card (and instructions to call if "Richard" wants to progress with the organization). Which, of course, Frady does, making his way to a nondescript corporate office in a skyscraper. Whatever Joseph thought was going to happen when he went to the Division of Human Engineering for a job interview, it wouldn't have been what he gets. There's a single chair in a room, wired with sensors to detect the physiological responses from the person sitting in it. 

Then he's shown a film with a collage of contrasting images (which is also shown to the audience in a single unbroken and unmoving shot). Half of the things he's shown are positive images of (white) people in love and being cared for my parents who love them but the other half of the time, it's Nazi rallies and Communist leaders; the pictures get bleaker and show poverty and misery, death and destruction along with shots that show isolated lonely figures stranded in a photo. This is the point where I started cringing in sympathetic fear for Joseph Frady, because whatever Parallax is looking for in him, they're not going to find it. And if they're willing to kill a dozen people to clean up after what certainly looks to be a successful operation, whatever they're going to do to a nosy reporter won't be any fun. Even more so if they somehow find out that he was supposed to have been killed in a previous Parallax operation.

The film starts to get darker and more frightening; a woman's screaming face appears more than once, as do guns, a lynched body, and shots that show an American flag in an American Nazi's office as he gives a Fascist salute. Chaos, sex, death, hopelessness, homosexuality, monsters, fire, a child about to be beaten by his father and (oddly enough) a Jack Kirby drawing of Thor show up in a quick disturbing montage before the film slows back down and resumes showing the viewer monuments to dead presidents, the flag, and peaceful rural scenes again. Then an announcer asks "Richard" to proceed to the Parallax offices (without giving the slightest hint about what he can expect next). But Frady spots the man from Tucker's photo leaving the building and follows him from a discreet distance.

Well, it's probably not good news that the Parallax man goes to an airport and checks a bulky suitcase with a luggage handler outside (and, in these paranoid post-9/11 times, it's amazing that there's no security checking the luggage that's going onto a plane). Frady gets to the airport and determines which jet has the fateful package on it, runs onboard (again, with no security preventing him from just buying a ticket that day and hopping onto the runway to catch his flight). As the Parallax man watches from a parking garage, the plane takes off and soars off to its destination. And on board, Frady goes to get a newspaper to read during the flight and  hears one of the passengers in First Class refer to someone on board as "Senator", as well as saying that the politician is "following in Carroll's footsteps". Yes indeed, if Parallax has anything to say about it, along with the other sixty or eighty people on board the 707...

There's an interesting tracking shot of Frady walking back to his seat after being kicked out of first class by the stewardess--when he walks up to the first class cabin the camera pans right and left and the viewer gets a look at every single passenger on the plane; old, young, men and women, and a mix of races (it's a real cross-section of humanity). But on the way back it's just a medium closeup of a worried looking Warren Beatty. He's surrounded by dozens of people in a narrow metal tube and he's completely isolated by his knowledge that something horrible is going to happen to everyone on the plane (including him). I was stunned and amazed to find out that one of the flight attendants was taking payments for plane tickets while the jet was already in flight (which must have been a real thing if audiences in 1974 were going to swallow the rest of the story).

After going to the john on board, "Richard Paley" leaves a note written in soap on the bathroom mirror that there's a bomb on board and then thinks better of it, writing the message out on a napkin and handing slipping it into the stack of napkins during beverage service. Which means that it gets discovered without him being noticed as the one who did it, and the plane (full of people smoking cigarettes, another signifier for 1974) heads back to the airport because even if it's a joke, the flight crew has to take it seriously. The flight returns to Los Angeles because of a sudden mechanical problem the pilot just noticed right this second, and after the passengers get off the plane it explodes (offscreen, so they don't have to put a gigantic Michael Bay style effect in a paranoid thriller that isn't really an action movie).

When "Paley" goes home to his crappy apartment, there's a guy from Parallax already there sitting in the dark (courtesy of an unscrewed light bulb) to make him a job offer for $25,000 in cash. The "Manufacturers Intelligence Group" can use someone with Richard Paley's skills and psychological makeup in their security program. Thankfully Frady's got enough on the ball to play along and not show just how terrified he's got to be. That goes double for when the Parallax man tells him that there's a Richard Paley who served in Vietnam and died there, and by the way, who are you really, Mister Paley"? Frady comes up with a new name and an embarrassing background as a way to explain why he was impersonating a dead man, which hopefully is going to hold up when Parallax checks up on him a second time. The recruiter tells his prospect that Parallax appreciates anti-social misfits and can give them a sense of true worth, which is even more valuable than a paycheck (and speaking as an anti-social misfit myself, I'd run the other way as fast as I could if someone tried to tell me I was secretly awesome and well suited for a mystery job halfway across the country).

Well, it turns out that Joseph bugged his own apartment and he's got the Parallax man on tape; the next thing we see is his editor listening to the conversation in his office and accepting a delivery order from a new guy from his preferred takeout place (and it's not surprising to see it's the man from Austin Tucker's photo viewer, per se, but it does register on the blood-freezing scale pretty high). Well, it's probably not too terribly surprising when a late-middle-aged man who lives for his job and eats greaseburgers regularly dies of a coronary, but the film's already mentioned a drug that induces cardiac arrests (and when the homicide investigator tosses the editor's petty cash back in his desk drawer, the envelope full of tapes from Joseph's stash is nowhere to be found).

I'm sure the word didn't get back to Frady about what happened to his boss (who is also the only person who knew he was still alive), and he continues on the assignment for Parallax, with his contact letting him know there's a man from the organization who'll meet him and set him up. The name that "Richard Parton" gets from the recruiter is Ben Harkins; when Frady spots his contact at the hotel he calls his room from the lobby and gives him a set of utterly fictitious instructions (the poor sap's gonna get yelled at by his managers at Parallax when this all shakes out, but at least he's being shunted to Hawaii as part of Frady's scheme). Frady goes back to the Parallax headquarters in character and complains that his contact never showed up to meet him. You can tell it's a thriller from 1974 because the hero outsmarted his antagonist instead of beating him to death or chucking him off a building.

Meanwhile, the Parallax recruiter takes a meeting with plenty of unsmiling people in suits; we don't find out what's going on there but it's safe to say that things are looking bad for Frady when and if they find him again. The security meeting takes place in a skybox at a convention center that's getting ready for a political rally of some kind (the tables have red, white and blue cloths and there's a marching band practicing when we see it). Judging from the other times Parallax has been spotted anywhere with politicians, and from the Sousaphone player who blatantly does not know what he's doing, it looks like another misfit loner is going to shoot his way into the history books. 

But this time things are different. Joseph Frady is up in the catwalks looking down at the meeting space. Think about the scoop you'd get by simultaneously foiling an assassination and exposing the group of shadowy manipulators that are killing progressive politicians for money.

Of course, Parallax has been doing this for a long, long time and they're ready for just about any contingency that might come up. Sure, Frady realizes how dangerous they are because of the number of witnesses that have died from the one killing that he knows about, but you don't get offices in a mirror-windowed skyscraper off of the promise of one targeted political killing. He was paranoid, and the film suggests that there is no level of paranoia too great for the Seventies in America. When he finds himself near a planted gun and with a horrified onlooker pointing at him from below, Joseph Frady realizes that Parallax turned their own potential exposure into one more domino to fall in their meticulously planned scheme. The politician that was pursuing the youth vote is still dead, and a former journalist who faked his death and killed Austin Tucker is the lone crazy man who shot him.

But don't worry--the lone crazy man didn't get out of the convention center, and America remains safe because a good guy with a gun (belatedly) took out the bad guy with a gun who shot a left-wing politician for no reason. Nothing to see here any more. Nothing to concern yourself with. Go back to the game, or go out to see a movie. America remains safe, under the careful watch of its guardians. And a Congressional board of inquiry took nine months to investigate, eventually determining that Joseph Frady was obsessed with a previous political assassination and went on to try and carry one out in a fit of delusional psychosis. There's no evidence of a conspiracy whatsoever.

Holy shit, this was an intense movie. A political horror film about a doomed protagonist that finds a little knowledge and proceeds to ensnare himself further and further--it's a Watergate-era version of The Wicker Man or a non-supernatural Lovecraft film. But instead of a charismatic Scottish lord or a godlike being from beyond time and space it's just a group of men in an office deciding who lives and who dies--and Frady never meets anyone higher-up than the recruiter over the course of the story. For all that he uncovers, he never scratches more than the surface of what Parallax is up to. And coming after a decade marked by political killings by the double handful, the slogan on the top of the movie poster is completely true:  Murdering someone you see as a political threat is as American as apple pie. The only difference between 1974 and 2016 is that street executions get broadcast live over the internet now, but the man with the gun still goes free virtually every time.

What a wonderful time to be an American.
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Other Celluloid Zeroes have their own entries for the Political Science Fiction roundtable.

Micro-Brewed Reviews is perfectly fine, and you're the paranoid one wondering about The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Psychoplasmics peers into The Mist and doesn't like what they see about the human condition.

The Terrible Claw Reviews takes a look at Shin Godzilla.

Web of the Big Damn Spider reviews A Report on the Party and Guests.