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Monday, March 2, 2015

Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness (1986)

Written and directed by Tim Ritter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the driving theme is fantastic.

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