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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Parents (1989)

Written by Christopher Hawthorne
Directed by Bob Balaban

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

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

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

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

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

Bob Balaban cannot sanction my buffoonery.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Chopping Mall (1986)

Written by Jim Wynorski and Steve Mitchell
Directed by Jim Wynorski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Logan's Run (1976)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 1, 2015

B Fest 2015, Part 2: Watching A Lot of Movies With My Friends

Ordinarily on the actual day of B Fest, I don't do much in the way of touristy stuff. This year was no exception--a trip to the Omega Pancake House, the best example of "diners run by short Greeks" that we've found in a decade of trips to the near-west suburbs of Chicago, was about it. There's something wonderful about having all the old friends and new friends sitting around a big table enjoying savory meats, eggs, and cheeses before getting trapped in the dark and watching terrible movies. And since this was the third or fourth year we went to the Omega, we were somewhat recognized by the wait staff. I'm betting it's because we're polite, distinctive (nearly a dozen hefty dudes in Godzilla T-shirts make an impression, especially if we're there every year), polite, and we tip pretty heavily.

We wound up waiting for Kelvin and Melissa to join us (smartphones and the Internet make it possible to screw up breakfast plans faster than when it took a two-day ride by the Pony Express to pick the wrong brunch time) and nobody really seemed to mind. We were all just marking time till the event we'd come to Chicago to attend, so what's an extra fifteen minutes sitting around and drinking coffee refills? Bryan's friend turned out to be a vegetarian, which was somewhat out of the ordinary for our crowd of B movie nerds, but he's also pursuing a doctorate in film studies (specifically on riffing culture, which B Fest embodies) so he fit in perfectly as far as I could tell.

After breakfast it was time to return to the hotel and take a nap so that I would probably last longer at the Fest itself; Bryan, Scott, Jessica, Lisa and perhaps a couple other people went downtown in Chicago to hit a used book store and a used music store next door to it. That's also a fine use of time and resources, but I'm aging as fast as I ever have and wanted some time to recharge my batteries. Once the nap had been concluded, I gathered up the people I was driving to the show and did so, serving as a navigation beacon for Jacob and NaTasha. Sadly for them, the road I was going to take to get to the Northwestern University campus had construction crews blocking it so we had to do some stunt driving and loop around in an icy gravel parking lot before getting back where we were supposed to go. Once we arrived at the scenic parking structure, I gazed out upon the placid waters of Lake Michigan while David and NaTasha took pictures--it also turns out that Facebook recognized me from my distinctive green bomber jacket with Telstar I painted on the back. Turns out nobody else in the world has one.

Still the best 200 bucks I ever spent.

As gorgeous as the scenery was, it was also really, really, really cold out there so before too terribly long we headed to the Northwestern student union to pick up our tickets and claim seats in the auditorium. For the first time in years, I actually got an aisle seat. I didn't get to sit in it for too long, because I wound up mingling in the crowd and handing out this year's mix CD. The people who knew what the discs were all about made sure to pick one up and the newbies who had no idea what I was doing didn't throw theirs away, so that's a success. Also, Spencer Olson took the time to let me know that my reference to the eulogy he gave last year ("Those were words, not deeds, man") wasn't something he found to be in poor taste. That really put my mind at ease, because there's such a fine line between being clever and being an asshole. I'm glad he told me that I was still okay in his book.

I wound up selling off Sam's ticket to someone who couldn't get in to the Fest because it had sold out, and if I'm remembering right I also gave that guy a full run of B Fest CDs as a welcome-to-Nerd-Thunderdome present.

And then the lights went down and the first movie went up.

The Creature With the Atom Brain:
A gangster gets a mad scientist to build him an army of radioactive super-strong zombies that he can control with a bulky console; he uses the zombies to kill the people he's got a grudge against. Notable for a Roky Erikson song of the same title, it's a lot of fun and a great way to start the festivities. Not a lot to be said about this one other than "nobody can hear the dialogue of the first movie because everyone's yelling their jokes out as loud as they can". From the producer of The Giant Claw, but considerably less goofy-ass. There are multiple creatures, and the stalwart Science Cop hero disables them all at the end by ripping something out of the control console.

Metalstorm:  The Destruction of Jared-Syn:
Thirty years or so ago, I desperately wanted to see this movie because it was a 3-D science fiction movie. My entire family U.N. Security Council vetoed it, and it turns out they were right. It's something to do with a lone wasteland wanderer looking for a crystal, or stumbling over a crystal, and an evil overlord guy with a zombie-cyborg henchman who has a metal claw arm that sprays hallucinogenic acid on his victims. Richard Moll acts everyone else off the screen without apparent effort and there's lots of driving around the desert. Fun to watch because so many people were baffled by the plot (even if the theater was reverently silent, I don't think it would have made any sense). There's no metal storm and Jared-Syn is still alive at the end of the movie, although stuck in some kind of crystal kaleidoscope space warp thing. I took the opportunity to make a City of Villains joke that I'm sure nobody else in the hearing zone got, because Sam was back in Michigan with the flu.

Ray Milland cashes a paycheck playing the wheelchair-bound patriarch of a Southern family who wants to celebrate his birthday on an island in the Louisiana swamp come hell or high water. Or Biblical plague of toads (there are not actually any frogs in Frogs). It's a body count movie where everyone who goes outside gets taken out by a snapping turtle, butterflies that lead one person into quicksand, cottonmouths, alligators, geckos (who knock all the herbicidal poison jars off shelves in a greenhouse to asphyxiate one unlucky bastard), and Spanish moss cocoons a dude in the least plausible scene. Everyone had a lot of fun pretending to be terrified of closeups of toads until we got bored with that. Gaz, the nine-year-old daughter of Skip Mitchell (a perennial Fest attendee) was super angry that the "frogs" were actually toads. I can't blame her. The credits cut off before the cartoon frog at the end could hop out with a human hand in its mouth. I used to rent this movie from President Video every few months to watch that four second snippet of animation. I was a weird kid.

Right around this time two of my friends from middle and high school showed up:  Tim Doyle and Joel Ruggaber had been boon companions of mine during the deepest pits of adolescent hell. I fell out of touch with Tim but Joel and I were still in contact after college and my move to Michigan. It's always great to see them again. They're also in the B movie scene largely but not entirely due to my own efforts, so there's that.

What a title! A small construction crew on an island runs afoul of an advanced bulldozer that turns sentient and homicidal when it bonks into a meteorite. The Expendable Meat characters get bulldozed until the remaining two people figure out that electrocuting the Killdozer might drive the animating force out of it. Their leap of logic would have been too flimsy for an episode of Super Friends, but whatever. It was some fun. And it was from a time when there were only three television networks; they did movies of the week in order to get viewers to tune in. I hope this one broke ratings records just on the strength of the title, but it probably didn't.

The Wizard of Speed and Time:
The annual tradition of lying down on stage and pounding your feet in time with the movie was something I hadn't done since 2005 or so; I decided to run up and do it this year just because. David joined me, as did 80 other attendees or so. Man, it's noisy up on stage when everyone stomps in time with the film. As is traditional, the film was then shown upside down and backwards, with more stomping. It was just as loud that way.

Plan 9 From Outer Space:
I decided to stick around in the theater for this one, too, It's the same as it ever was but a lot of fun to riff on with a big crowd. Unfortunately I started fading in and out of consciousness during this movie, but still managed to yell all the traditional callbacks ("DAY!" "NIGHT!" "BELA!" "NOT BELA!", etc.) when I was awake.

Black Mama, White Mama:
This movie looked like the backs of my eyelids as I conked out on a bench in the student union. It's too bad, because I've never seen a Filipino women-in-prison movie and Pam Grier's a badass. But sooner or later one must bow to the inevitable.

Yongary, Monster from the Deep:
This one looked like the backs of my eyelids as well. I'd already seen it, and other than about five or ten minutes of crazypants what the hell content, it's pretty boring. I wish I could have seen the audience's reaction to the monster's death scene, but not enough to get up from a restful three hours' sleep to do it.

I got up about 4:45 in the morning and caught the last 80 percent or so of this one. Rock Hudson plays a land developer making a ski resort; Robert Forster is the man in touch with nature who feels a heaviness out in the air that makes him think an avalanche is ready to strike. Guess which person gets proved right over the course of the film! (Hint:  It is Robert Forster.) The personal drama between people got a little old but once the snow starts thundering down the movie decides to kill its characters off swiftly, cruelly and brutally (the chef that gets a pot of boiling soup dropped on him dies the third-meanest death in the film). The most hilariously cruel death goes to the developer's mother, who is being transported down the mountain in an ambulance after the disaster; the ambulance skids off the road, crashes down a ravine and explodes. Damn, man, that's harsh.

Cloak and Dagger:
Spoony, famed Internet personality from The Spoony Experiment, came down to riff on this one with my faction. He's a lot of fun, and a really nice person. I'm glad I got to meet him last year and I'm glad he came back this year. This movie was surprisingly well made--it's about a young boy named David who idolizes Jack Flack, a super spy and apparently character in a miniatures game that he plays with a neighborhood girl who doesn't get the attraction of the whole "super espionage guy" thing. When David gets a customized cartridge of the Cloak and Dagger video game with military secrets encoded into it, he stumbles into the real-world version of the game he thought he liked playing. Jack Flack is played by Dabney Coleman, and so is David's justifiably exasperated father. There's a lot of really cool cinematography when David sees the imaginary friend version of Jack Flack giving him advice (the camera will pan to the side and show that Flack was there all along; all the actors just had to avoid reacting to him). There's also a great line when David swipes the bad guys' car and tries to flee. It turns out that Jack Flack has no idea how to drive a real car. There's absolutely no way in hell this movie could be made today (among other things, David has to kill someone to get out of his adventure) but I wouldn't be too surprised to see it showing up on the Checkpoint as a full review one of these days.

Andy Hardy's Private Secretary:
I was interested in this movie because it's a pre-1950s teenager movie, and I'd never seen one. I was expecting it to be a pre-Archie "Archie", with shenanigans carried out and lessons learned. I didn't make it fifteen minutes in before I decided to get some breakfast and catch up with Joel rather than watch it. I'm pretty sure I made the right choice because the people who watched it went twenty rounds with a movie about how being rich, white and politically connected meant you never had to learn how to be a better person or apologize to anyone for your misdeeds. Thanks, but no thanks. I'd rather reminisce about my home town with one of the people who made living there bearable on a day to day basis (thanks again for that, Joel).

Can't Stop the Music:
Now this is the kind of thing I come to B Fest for. It's the equivalent of one of those "hey, kids, let's put on a show!" musicals that have been made for decades (El Santo pointed out that it's essentially the plot of The Muppet Movie, more or less) but this time about the flash-in-the-pan gimmick group best known for "YMCA". It was released in 1980, but that year was basically nineteen seventy-ten instead of the dawn of a new decade. Steve Gutenberg stars as the genius producer who put five dudes in costumes together as a disco group and the movie takes about two thirds of its length before there's a band. The musical numbers ranged from the boring to the absolutely jaw-dropping (the big production number for "YMCA" has to be seen to be believed, and that might not do it). Bruce Jenner is one of the co-stars, as a tax lawyer who embraces the disco fad and finds true love along the way. Joel wanted to flee the theater under the onslaught of this movie and I told him I would physically restrain him if he tried. He stayed for the whole damned thing, and showed that he has True Grit. Next year's B Fest disc will probably have four songs from this soundtrack on it, because I love hurting people's feelings. I had a lot of fun yelling EVERY MISTAKE IMAGINABLE! when the EMI Records logo came up at the start of this one. It ends with a big production number on stage where the Village People are wearing sequined outfits of their archetypal costumes and it winds up looking like the Green Lantern comics storyline of the past several years had a dance party.

This movie was notable for doing something I've never seen before--the digital equivalent of a film break. Right around the start of the third act, the movie stopped, the house lights came on and the screen retracted into the ceiling. I guess the auditorium wanted to stop the music, but it couldn't. The film resumed shortly thereafter and played to its conclusion.

There was a raffle break here and Ken Begg won the pack of B Fest mixes that I donated; I would be ticked about that because I know he already has each disc except that I also know he's a great guy and will make sure they get a home with someone who wants them, possibly when he goes to Tyrannosaurus Fest in Texas in the summer. For some reason, the Fest organizers gave them away to the person who had attended the most B Fests, rather than something like the first-timer who had the longest trip to get to Evanston.

Alien From LA:
Kathy Ireland stars as a nerdy girl (she wears glasses!) who plummets to a center-of-the-earth civilization made up of Australians. Albert Pyun directed it, so there's a lot of huge nifty looking sets we don't get a very good look at. Thom Mathews of Return of the Living Dead fame shows up as the romantic lead about twenty minutes from the end of the movie. He keeps saying "Another time, another place", which is where Streets of Fire takes place. I got really angry at the movie for using that line repeatedly and just started yelling SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP around the third time it was spoken. Even at an hour and twenty minutes, it was Pyunishingly long. I remembered this one from a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, and wound up not making a couple jokes because I remembered they were ones also used on the show. I tend to freestyle my comedy over the length of B Fest, and I like to make sure I'm writing my own material.

Miami Connection:
A group of five adult orphans live in the same house, go to Central Florida University together, practice tae kwon do together, ride around town in a big car together, go to the beach together, have a band called Dragon Sound and fight the biker ninjas who control the Orlando drug trade (because Miami Connection takes place in Orlando, obviously). Starring a tae kwon do expert who could barely speak English, this movie isn't so much a case of the actors doing their own stunts as the martial artists doing their own acting. The fights are pretty cool (and the guy with the lantern jaw goes berserk in the final one, which is pretty awesome) and the band is obviously having fun. The whole film is incredibly sincere--the Rosetta stone to the movie can be found in the scene where a college professor congratulates the CFU computer programming team for placing fourth in the international computer programming competition. None of the protagonists are programmers; it's just a way for the filmmakers to present the message that honest effort is worth applauding, even if you don't win anything for it. Fourth place, after all, is the first spot that doesn't win a medal.

Also, because one of the Dragon Sound guys had an early-eighties mullet perm and giant cop moustache and another one had a jawline like an anvil, I was calling the band "Lovecraft and Oates". The people around me seemed to dig that.

Viva Knievel:
B Fest 2015 wrapped up with this gigantic slab of 70s cheese, a movie that defined "vanity project". Not only is it an action-adventure movie starring Evel Knievel as himself, but the character of Evel Knievel is a caring man who brings toys to an orphanage, choclate bars to a nun, and reconciles his alcoholic mechanic with his estranged son while simultaneously going on a jumping-over-stuff tour of the United States and Mexico. Leslie Nielsen classes up the joint as a villainous motorcycle-jumper-guy manager who plans to murder Evel Knievel in Mexico by sabotaging his bike and smuggling drugs back into the US in a duplicate of Knievel's mobile command trailer. His plan hinges on Evel Knievel being so beloved and mourned that Customs won't search the trailer on the way back for his state funeral.

Like I said, vanity project.

Having said that, the movie was a real hoot (and Dabney Coleman shows up briefly in it, making him a two-time Fest participant this time around, or three-time if you count his dual performance in Cloak and Dagger). Gene Kelly shows up as the alcoholic mechanic and he's cruel to his son in a Dickensian manner. There's also a feminist photographer who has to learn just how awesome Evel Knievel is for jumping his motorcycle over stuff and the "Stratocycle", which looks like Stephen Colbert's id with wheels.

All too soon, B Fest was over (Tim Doyle and Joel Ruggaber left partway through, since they have real lives and families that are more important to them than sitting in a smelly theater for a solid day to watch terrible movies). The auditorium was cleaned up in record time thanks to the dedicated efforts of the attendees--I think everyone policed themselves during the run time of B Fest so that there wasn't that much to clean up in the end.

After goodbyes and hugs for the people who weren't going back to the hotel, the Best Western faction returned to their base camp for showers and then a convoy to Portillo's, a Chicago-area chain that serves Italian beef sandwiches, burgers and hot dogs (their "vegetarian" menu features chicken and fish, which makes me think they don't know what that means). While I was unhinging my jaw to devour my sandwich, I took the time to make a quick toast / remembrance / speech to the gathered attendees. It's really my friends that I take the trip for by now; the movies are fun but Bryan, Scott, Jessica, Kelvin, Melissa, Jacob, NaTasha, Joel, Tim, David, Rob, Mike, Matt, Other Jacob, and the dozens of people I recognize even if I don't know their names are the real reason to keep going back to the pointlessly awful weather and brain-punishing schedule of films. As Bryan said in his own wrapup at Cinemasochist Apocalypse, it's a family reunion.

See you next year. I'll bring another hundred CDs or so, and hopefully Sam, Mike, Stephanie, Chad, Josh, Josh, Hilary, Adam, Zack, Freeman, Chris, Scott, Andrew, Gavin, Edward and Dave will be able to join us next time around. It isn't the same without you guys. I miss you.


Sunday was a low-key day; David and I had breakfast at Marilyn's, the last of the area diners and our traditional post B Fest breakfast location. Everyone else tends to leave at staggered hours on Sunday morning, so the Saturday night Portillo's dinner is our last hurrah as a group. Kelvin and Melissa were able to join us for breakfast before they had to leave for Minnesota, so there was one final chance to see people that I only get to see three or four days out of the year. After the final diner experience it was time for one more round of hugs, two trips back to the hotel so I could grab things I forgot to pack up and take back with me, and then several hours on the road so I could drop David off at his home before getting to my apartment and sleeping the sleep of the just. The next day I had to go back to work, which ordinarily I don't do (I like to take the Monday after one of these vacations off as a healing day, but didn't have enough time saved up at the new gig). But it was all right. Yes, I was tired, but in another way it's B Fest that charges my batteries up for another year. I wouldn't keep doing it for a decade and a half if it wasn't a lot of fun, despite all the expense and fatigue. And it is.

Want the Rashomon effect?

Here's Part One and Part Two of Cinemasochist Apocalypse's take on the same event.
Here's SerbanJ's Livejournal entry on this year's marathon.