Archive for May, 2009

Movie poster for Sam Raimi's "Drag Me To Hell"

Movie poster for Sam Raimi's "Drag Me To Hell"

Once again, this “Hollywood Sidebar” column will be a short one, since Universal Studios doesn’t need any extra help from my little blog to promote their latest Sam Raimi multimillion-dollar summer blockbuster, but I just have to say — damn, this was good. I hesitate to use a shopworn cliche like “wicked good fun,” but in this case it really does apply.

I should say this by way of setting the stage : I’m not an enormous Sam Raimi fan. Do I love the original “Evil Dead?” Absofrigginlutely. The first sequel is pretty good, too, although a little heavy on the comedy elements for my taste. The third installment, frankly, does nothing for me, since by then they were just parodying themselves. As for the rest of Raimi’s oeuvre, I can take it or leave it, apart from “Darkman,” which I love to pieces. I could care less about the Spider-Man franchise, and found the third entry in that over-hyped cannon particularly appalling; I thought “The Quick And The Dead” was alright, but not great; I’ve never seen “For Love Of The Game” and really don’t care to; and as far as “A Simple Plan” goes, hey, I’d rather just see a real Coen brothers movie, they’re generally much better.

With “Drag Me To Hell,” though, Raimi is back on firm horror grounding. Sure, it’ s still got plenty of comedic elements, and an overall “Looney Tunes on bad acid” vibe, but comedy is not the backbone of the film—good old-fashioned scares are, and this movie delivers plenty of seat-jumping moments, even for the grizzled horror veteran.

The effects are generally pretty good, and while I’m no CGI fan, the computer effects that are used blend in pretty well with Greg Nicotero’s “real” effects and the whole thing flows pretty seamlessly, as far as the visual side of things goes.  Bob Murawski’s editing is , as always, both mildly inventive and  flawlessly professional, and Peter Deming’s cinematography is out of this world, his best work since “Mulholland Drive.” So the whole things looks like a million bucks—or rather more like tens of millions of bucks.

The performances are solid all around if not spectacular, apart from the always-excellent David Paymer as our leading lady Alison Lohman’s rather wormy boss. The cast of players  overall is plenty competent, and while no one apart from Paymer stands out as really great, you can’t complain about any of the others, that’s for sure.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty standard gypsy-curse stuff, specifically young bank loan officer puts an old gypsy woman out of  her house in order to try to secure a promotion at work and is then haunted by a demon the old woman sicks on her, but as with the original “Evil Dead,” it’s atmosphere and execution that trumps originality here, and even though you’ll see the ending coming a mile away, you’ll still enjoy the ride thoroughly.

A couple of weeks back I said if you only see one Hollywood blockbuster this summer, make sure it’s “Star Trek.” Well, your humble host needs to acknowledge that he spoke too soon there. Sure, “Star Trek” is all kinds of mindless fun, but not as much mindless fun as this megabuck studio offering.

Don’t expect anything new from “Drag Me To Hell.” But do expect to have a great time seeing so much you’ve already seen before put together so well.

Original VHS Box Cover for "Another Son Of Sam"

Original VHS Box Cover for "Another Son Of Sam"

Over the years, your intrepid host has sought out films that literally no one has anything good to say about in my endless quest to prove consensus opinion on just about everything wrong . Quite often it does seem that the masses are mistaken, of course, as the chart-topping success of drivel such as “American Idol” or “Transformers” proves. On occasion, though, I have to say that what passes for “conventional wisdom” is, in fact, absolutely correct, and some stuff that most people think is crap really is, well, crap.

The few reviews I found over the years for stuntman-turned-director-for-a-minute Dave A. Adams’ 1977 slasher (I guess) flick “Another Son Of Sam” stated in no uncertain terms that one’s best course of action was to just stay away from the thing. That even for zero-budget regional cinema (this was shot in Charlotte and Belmont, North Carolina) this was lamer than you’d expect. Any particular saving graces the film had went unmentioned even by the most seasoned exploitation junkies, and if this movie couldn’t even appeal to that crowd, well—it must be irredeemably lousy.  So few people ever saw this thing that any information on it was scarce at best, but what little I could find painted such an unflattering picture that I felt literally compelled to see the thing just to see what all (and I use the term “all” loosely, trust me) the slagging-off was about.  Could it really be as bad as the tiny handful of commentaries about this film suggested? For that matter, could ANYTHING  be as bad as the tiny handful of commentaries about this film suggested?

The answer, as it turns out, is yes, it can, and yes, it is.

The "original" Son of Sam, David Berkowitz

The "original" Son of Sam, David Berkowitz

First off, let’s deal with the absurdity of the title. Harvey, the escaped-mental-patient-turned-serial-killing-maniac in this film has about as much in common with David Berkowitz, the “real life” Son of Sam killer,  as Steve Miner’s horrendous “Day of the Dead” remake has with George Romero’s original.  Apparently the original title of this film was “Hostages,” which is dull as watching paint dry (then again, so is the movie) but at least bears some relevance to the plot. Apparently Adams changed the name at the last minute in order to “cash in,” as it were, on the story that was dominating the headlines at the time (and before the credits roll, we’re treated to a short list of history’s other famous serial killers, everyone from Jack The Ripper on down). That’s an established trick in exploitation filmmaking, of course, and I don’t hold it against the guy—it’s the film itself that he deserves a verbal drubbing for.

The “action” starts off with a pretty generic 70s -looking dude and his girlfriend going around in circles in a speedboat. This, we find out in short order, is our “hero,” police Lieutenant Claude Seltzer (played by Ross Dubuc, a Charlotte-area TV weatherman — you’ll believe it when you see him), and his lady-love, psychiatrist Dr. ( I don’t think we ever get her fist name) Ellis (Cynthia Stewart, another local “talent”).

After a hard day’s waterskiing that we’re told about incessantly for the first ten minutes but never see, our loving couple heads over to a seriously ultra-70s cocktail bar called the Treehouse Lounge, where they find a cop buddy of Claude’s moonlighting as the emcee and take in the mellow sounds of seriously ultra-70s crooner Johnny Charro, whose musical number “I Never Said Goodbye” is probably the “highlight” of the picture (Adams must have thought highly of it, as well—or more likely couldn’t afford any other music, since the song pops up  every time somebody turn on the radio and again over the end credits).  Think of a poor man’s Tom Jones.  Hell, think of an absolutely destitute man’s Tom Jones. Think of the most flat-busted, never-had-two-nickels to-rub-together-in-his-life man’s Tom Jones. Then knock your expectations down about another ten rungs. That’s Johnny Charro. Oh, hell, words can’t do the man justice, THIS is Johnny Charro—

Lounge Lizard Johnny Charro

Lounge Lizard Johnny Charro

As an aside, our guy Johnny is apparently still at it. He bills himself as “the Dean of Tampa Bay nightlife”( he must have done at least some regional touring in the late 70s to make it up to Charlotte) and you can catch his act every Thursday night at the American Legion Post 111 and every Saturday night at Tampa Bay Sports Grille in Oldsmar. He’s also got a new record out called—I kid you not—“Do-Wa-Diddy Ybor City.” This all according the clearinghouse for all things Charro,  http://www.johnnycharro.com.

Anyway, where were we (and does it really matter)? Oh yes—after a groovy night out, it’s back to work the next day for our middle-aged lovers. Claude is sitting around his office doing a whole lot of nothing, but his ladyfriend has spent her morning giving  electroshock “treatment” to a violent psychopath named Harvey, who seems pretty pissed off about the whole deal. So angry, in fact, that they have to restrain him, which still doesn’t do any good as he breaks his restraints and kills the orderlies attending to him.

After a phone conversation with the good Dr. Ellis where he mentions waterskiing yesterday yet again, Claude decides to head over and see her, but on his way he’s detained by an urgent call to go investigate the robbery of $500 from the dean’s office at a local (apparently all-women’s) college (who knew deans kept a cash box around?). It proves to be a very costly call, though, since while our guy Seltzer is taking statements and dropping off his business card at the college, his girlfriend is being attacked by her hospital’s resident psycho-on-the-loose.

When Claude pulls up to the hospital, he has to slam his brakes to avoid hitting a man fleeing from the scene with blood literally dripping from his hands. Rather than do what you’d think any cop would in the situation and actually go after the guy to see what the hell was happening, though, our crack police lieutenant instead just saunters inside, makes some idle chit-chat with one of the other doctors, and heads down the hall to find his girl.Needless to say, she’s in pretty rough shape (a coma, we later find out, although we never do find out if she lives or dies—and trust me, by the end of the movie you really don’t care, either) and he finds the strangled orderlies, as well.

Then—finally!—the “chase” is on, but it’s a pretty limp one—Claude’s buddy from the Treehouse and another cop head over to provide backup while he chases the killer around the park a little bit, draws his gun, and then doesn’t fire. After that harrowing action, we’re treated to a little bit of standard right-wing get-tough-on-crime cop dialogue, with Claude’s buddy telling him “don’t worry, Lieutenant, we’ll catch him,” with Claude replying “and then what? We let him out on the streets again?” (funny, I didn’t realize that escaped mental patients who killed people with their bare hands were turned back out on the streets in even the most liberal jurisdictions—which I’m assuming Belmont, North Carolina isn’t).

In short order our two competing subplots neatly dovetail, with Harvey taking refuge at the dormitory of the women’s college and killing the girl who stole the $500 before taking a couple of her friends hostage during an agonizingly lengthy and dull standoff with the cops, who have a SWAT team in tow.

Essentially, after the initial escape “Another Son Of Sam” turns into nothing more than a crushingly boring police procedural, with lots of cops standing around talking about not very much. We learn that Harvey was sexually assaulted by his mother (what a surprise) at a young age and his mind completely snapped. He’s not averse to using firearms. He takes pleasure in killing young women.  He can’t be reasoned with. He won’t be taken alive. And we learn all this because the cops have brought in another of Harvey’s doctors who provides this info-dump off-camera and then decides he’d better leave the scene of the hostage crisis because, hey, he’s gotta get back to work.

During the standoff, Harvey makes an absolute mockery of the cops and their highly-vaunted (and apparently pretty new at the time) SWAT team, who can’t find him, can’t fire shots at him for a million convoluted reasons, and essentially can’t do anything right. He kills Claude’s Treehouse buddy and has no problem dodging the other policemen at every opportunity until they finally get him pinned in a room, at which point they resort to what must be one of the most unorthodox (and very probably illegal, or at least against every regulation in the book) methods of “crisis negotiation” in the annals of police lore. They actually bring Harvey’s sexually abusive mother over to talk her son out of the room. She apologizes for never visiting him in the hospital. She says she just wants to talk. She promises he won’t get hurt if he just comes out of the dorm room. She says the police are there to help. Harvey listens. He responds. He opens the door. He comes out—

—and the cops shoot him dead on the spot. Folks, Harvey’s mom isn’t exactly the strongest candidate in 1977’s Mother of the Year contest. First, she sexually abuses her son, turning him into a raging psychotic maniac, then she doesn’t visit him in the hospital, then she lures him into his death. Not exactly June Cleaver material. Next time your mom is driving you nuts about something or other, remember — things could be a lot worse.

Finally we’re “treated” to some inane dialogue among the surviving female hostages, and the movie, mercifully, ends around the 1:10 mark.

I don’t mean to be too hard on “Another Son of Sam”—well,actually, I do—but I will say this in its favor. Its absurdly low budget does, in fact, provide a few not-quite-sublime-but-nevertheless-fun “flourishes” to enjoy—for one thing, all we ever see of Harvey is the exact same shot of his eyes staring out of complete darkness. Lighting and location of the rest of the scene aside, Harvey’s eyes are always peering out of a pitch-black background, even on a sunny afternoon.  For another, Harvey himself is never shown full-on until the movie’s end and we “experience” things from his point-of-view through a series of patently amateur hand-held “perspective” shots that are so poorly executed as to be almost disorienting.  Thirdly, there are numerous occasions during the movie when the film literally stops dead yet the sound keeps rolling for another four or five seconds (this could be considered, I suppose, some sort of attempt at artistry using intentional freeze-frame shots, but believe me when I say it looks a lot more like what happened was that Adams shot this thing using nothing but short ends a la Andy Milligan and that they kept running the sound even after the film had run out of the camera). And finally, of course, there’s Johnny Charro — honestly, maybe he’s as much awesomeness as one film can really handle.

“Another Son of Sam” is available on DVD-R from Something Weird video. It probably goes without saying that this is as close to an “official” DVD release as this flick is likely to get — and about as close as you’d probably want.

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

Rareflix Vol. 4, Featuring "Boogie Vision, "Transformed" and "Lightning Bolt"

—transformed into Christian action heroes, that is! Yes, folks, blaxploitation veteran Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and second-tier martial arts star Leo Fong staged a comeback in 2005, but you probably missed it if you weren’t looking too closely. Williamson, star of classics like “Bucktown,” and Fong, star of less-than-classics like “Revenge Of The Bushido Blade” got themselves some old-time religion and re-emerged in the 2005 Jesus-vs.-the-drug-lords modern cinematic parable “Transformed.”

The mean streets of Westgate (which look to be Los Angeles suburbs) are the setting for this tale of—ahem!—intrigue , corruption and redemption, the debut (and to date only, as near as I can tell) directorial effort of Efren C. Pinon, who, if he plays his cards right (if his religion allows him to play cards at all, that is) could very well become the Ron Ormond of the 21st century—and who wouldn’t aspire to that lofty goal?

Westgate is a city besieged by the scourge of illegal narcotics, and while exactly which drugs are tearing the community apart isn’t spelled out (in a Christian flick apparently just saying the word “drugs” will do), the goal of the evil dope-pushing syndicate is apparently to get every kid in town hooked on their product (again, whatever that nameless product may be).

Enter Pastor Debra (Shirlee Knudson), a plucky young lady of the cloth who’s determined to win back her church’s neighborhood, and then the city, from the pushers, lead by the ruthless Cholo (Ken Moreno), a guy who’s apparently dealing drugs to provide a better life for his young son—by getting all the boy’s friends hooked. That little dichotomy doesn’t seem to bother Cholo much, though, and why should it? He’s got friends in high places, including none other than the mayor himself, who are all in for a piece of Cholo’s action and look the other way while he turns the children of the city into hopeless dope fiends.

Pastor Debra is no pushover, however—she’s evidently one of those hip, modern preachers who isn’t above engaging in some hardboiled martial arts action if that’s what it takes to keep the kids in her community safe. Watching her and her friends beat up the pushers in a local bar and then high-fiving each other and saying “praise Jesus!” really is a sight to behold, and I’d venture to guess you won’t find anything like it in any other movie ever made—which probably isn’t such a bad thing, in and of itself, but you have to give Pinon and the other folks behind “Transformed” some credit for not being afraid to be unintentionally absurd.

Our tough-as-nails pastor has some friends in high places, too—the mysterious aged ninja-type known only as The Fist (Fong), who always seems to show up when trouble is at hand, and the equally-aged-but-no-less tough mercenary warrior known as The Hammer (Williamson), a top-dollar freelance operative brought in by a secret unnamed group of good guys to provide help in Westgate’s hour of need.

It won’t be an easy fight—the whole city power structure is lined up against our good pastor, the local DEA office is on the take, and secret computer files reveal that the drug network reaches all the way to the top, with President George W. Rush (yes, really) and Vice President Dick Chaney (yes, really again) named among the nefarious network’s head honchos.

The hand of God has a way of intervening in these things, though (apparently often through tragedy), and when Cholo’s son O.D.’s on product supplied to the school kids by old man’s network, he lets Jesus into his heart while he prays by his comatose kid’s hospital bed (hence the “Transformed” title) and now Pastor Debra and her mystery men have a powerful ally on the inside and are ready to take down the dealers and their ninja army (well, okay, it’s just a few ninjas, and they look pretty old and slow themselves, but it’s the thought that counts).

I don’t know how else to say it, folks, “Transformed” is one of those things you’ve just got to see to believe. Scripture-quoting badass preacher lady and her arthritic protectors taking on a drug network that reaches all the way to the White House yet is apparently inept enough to be brought down by essentially a handful of concerned neighbors, albeit concerned neighbors who know how to fight. The seasoned action exploitation fan will find a lot to like here, people who  like just plain  weird movies will find a more-than-generous amount of  jaw-dropping moments, and everyone else will wonder, probably quite rightly I might add, just how this thing got made, and more importantly — why?

“Transformed” never got a theatrical release and I couldn’t even find any movie poster or stills for the thing to include in this review. It is, however, available on DVD, as you can tell from the photo at the top of this post, as part of the “Rareflix Volume 4” box set from Media Blasters. For those who haven’t been picking them up, I have to say that the Rareflix sets are not only a bargain, they’re also a blast. Volume 4 features James Bryan’s “Groove Tube”/”Kentucky Fried Movie”-style comedy “Boogie Vision” and Antonio Margheriti’s spaghetti Bond rip-off “Lightning Bolt” in addition to “Transformed.” The extras on the set are pretty light (the hysterical commentaries featuring various semi-inebriated Media Blasters behind-the-scenes personnel that featured on the first two volumes are sadly missing), but “Transformed” does include a commentary from Leo Fong and each disc is packed with previews for other cool Media Blasters titles, so it’s still a damn solid value for your entertainment dollar.

Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

Original VHS Box Cover For "The Last Horror Film"

It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but when you’re imitating yourself, what should that be called? Resting on your laurels? Beating a dead horse? In the case of the 1982 reworking of “Maniac” known as “The Last Horror Film” such pejoratives are probably undeserved, and we’ll settle, I think, on calling it a transplant—more specifically, a rather successful transatlantic transplant of a damn good slasher film. Not so much a sequel or even a rip-off as maybe a companion piece. Read on and all will be explained—

Most slasher fans will acknowledge that William Lustig’s “Maniac” was undoubtedly one of the genre’s finest early-80s offerings(a time period with an embarrassment of riches to choose from, so that’s no small feat), featuring as it did two standout elements, the first being the late Joe Spinell’s absolute tour-de-force performance in the lead role. He absolutely oozed creepiness and patheticness at the same time, and delivered one of the signature performances in horror movie history. Spinell didn’t even seem like he was acting, truth be told—he absolutely inhabited his character, to the point where I’m not sure I’d want to be the guy’s neighbor in real life. He wasn’t playing a lonely, pathetic psycho—I’ll be goddamned if it didn’t seem like he was a lonely, pathetic psycho. Chillingly believable stuff from start to finish, and in a sane and just world he probably would have won an Oscar for it.

The other star of the film was Tom Savini’s outstanding gore effects, limited as they were—particularly the classic ending scene. This was the era when Savini was really coming into his own and earning his legendary reputation with every project he worked on.  Gut-wrenching stuff—-literally. What this guy could do with “real” effects and a shoestring budget still puts today’s CGI “wizards” with millions of dollar as their disposal to shame.

Sadly, Savini wasn’t a part of “The Last Horror Film” (aka “Fanatic,” a title that tied it in even closer with its—ahem!—“source material,” probably even a bit too close as it was little more than a glaringly obvious attempt to paint the film as a type of “Maniac 2”—which, okay, in many respects it is, but since the original “Maniac” died, it’s rather ridiculous to paint this as a “pure” sequel — not that death ever stopped the Jasons, Michaels, and Freddies of the world), nor, unfortunately, was director William Lustig, who wove an atmosphere of tension and inner psychic decay with his expert helmsmanship, in truth TLHF is more dependent than ever on Spinell to carry the show himself, teamed as he was with relative newcomer David Winters in the director’s chair and, generally speaking, less-experienced folks behind the camera in all respects. Without Lustig and Savini around, then, “The Last Horror Film” gives Spinell a chance to prove how much of the success of “Maniac” was down to him alone and how much was due to Lustig, Savini, et. al.

As it turns out, Spinell answers that question forcefully and with supreme confidence, turning in another fine performance as, for all intents and purposes, the same character, albeit with a couple of fun twists.

This time around, Spinells’ non-“Maniac” maniac is a New York cabbie named Vinny Durand, a mama’s boy who still lives at home (go figure) and is the sole inhabitant of the absolute bottom of his own social barrel, a guy who’s such a loner and a putz that even the other geeks at the local comic book store give him shit. Vinny’s a bit of a dreamer, you see, and his mind is always at the movies. He lives, eats, breathes and sleeps celluloid, and has big dreams of making his own films a reality. And the star of all his filmic fantasies is the lovely Jenna Bates  (Carlone Munro, Spinell’s co-star from “Maniac,” providing another strong tie to Lustig’s , errrmmmm, let’s call it “original,” even if this isn’t a sequel, strictly speaking). Vinny’s bout to prove all those doubters and finger-pointers wrong, however—he’s been saving his pennies (living at home is cheap, after all) and is headed to the Cannes film festival, where he intends to win the attentions, and the heart, of the woman of his dreams and cast her as the leading lady in the horror film he’s got swirling around in his head (no evidence of an actual plot on paper on Vinny’s part is ever offered).

Once at Cannes, Vinny is summarily rebuffed in all his attempts to get at Ms. Bates or even any of her handlers, and decides that if he can’t get her to work with him by using conventional means, he’ll simply eliminate anyone and everyone else around her to the point where she’ll have no one else to work with — call it process of elimination, if you will — elimination of the permanent sort.

The sights and sounds of the festival are on full display here, including a guerrilla-lensed (I’m assuming) take or two of contemporary sort-of stars like Cathy Lee Crosby making their entrances into various festival venues.  Vinny’s staying in a fleabag hotel adjacent to, of course, a movie theater (that’s playing “Cannibal Holocaust”!) and quickly decks out his room to look much like his—err, not his— hovel in “Maniac,” with pin-ups on the walls of Ms. Bates, dim lighting, and sparser-than-sparse actual furnishings. The room’s got “nutcase” written all over it.

When Vinny goes into action murdering Bates’ handlers (including her love interest)and anyone else around whose work rubs him the wrong way, the killings are inevitably brutal and bloody, and while lacking the sheer panache of Savini’s “Maniac” work, they remain nonetheless effective and even semi-memorable in their own way. Needless to say, some of Vinny’s attempts to get at his leading lady border on the absurd, and when he does eventually get at her the border is even crossed, but Vinny’s not one to let an army of hangers-on and middlemen stop him, and the shots of him scaling hotel rooftops and performing various other feats of physical dexterity that would be well beyond a guy of his challenged physique are well and truly ridiculous, sure, but Spinell’s performance is so effective that he gets you to literally believe that our guy Vinny is compelled to do the near-impossible by sheer force of his demented will alone.

Vinny’s a good boy and calls home every day, of course, and he even seems to have his mom believing that he’s on the way to becoming a superstar director who has attained the services of the film industry’s most-desired starlet for his film.  It’s classic stuff, and while the live-at-home loser who will kill to fulfill his sick fantasies has been done a million times over, nobody does it quite like Spinell and it’s also, to my knowledge at least, never been done in a setting quite this exotic.

To be sure, “The Last Horror Film” lacks some of the dramatic tension and raw impact of “Maniac,” but that’s only to be expected—after all, Cannes setting aside, we’ve seen this all before. Still, everything here is done well enough that you certainly won’t mind seeing it again, and if for some reason Joe Spinell didn’t convince you the first time around that he was one of the best actors ever at playing lonely, pathetic psychopaths, seeing him do it just as well a second time should cement his argument.

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

Troma's New DVD Release Of TLHF, From The "Tromasterpiece" Collection

“The Last Horror Film” has recently been re-released on DVD by Troma (it had been available earlier under the “Fanatic” title) as part of its fledgling “Tromasterpiece” collection. In addition to the usual nonsensical Lloyd Kaufman introduction, it features an interview with “Maniac” director William Lustig, the Buddy Giovinazzo-directed, short film “Mr. Robbie” (aka “Maniac 2”—which I guess sort of makes this “Maniac 3”),the original theatrical trailer and a collection of TV spots, an interview with the late, great Joe Spinell’s best friend, Luke Walter, and a full-length(and highly engaging) audio commentary by Walter, as well as the usual semi-absurd Troma-themed extra stuff.  Well worth your time and money, it’s a pretty impressive package to go along with what is a pretty impressive slasher flick — one that by all rights should feel a lot more redundant than it actually does.

"Hitch Hike To Hell" Title Sequece

"Hitch Hike To Hell" Title Sequence

Sure, there are the films we all know about that are famous—or infamous—for obliterating the boundaries of taste and decency and going where even the most jaded audiences didn’t think they really would. The late sixties to early eighties offered a veritable smorgasbord of such movies to choose from, and while we as a society have purportedly become more sophisticated and less prone to good old-fashioned shock, the fact remains that to the average modern viewer, taboo-smashers like “Cannibal Holocaust,” “I Spit On Your Grave,” “The Last House On The Left” and “Bloodsucking Freaks,” to name just a few, still haven’t lost any of their visceral power and on first viewing can still quite literally knock you flat on your ass even though we’ve been inundated with sadistic torture porn-lite of the “Saw”  variety for years now.

Most of the films that are considered to be the “most shocking” ever made are the stuff of semi-whispered legend (okay, until the days of the internet, now you can find raging debate and discussion on just about anything and whispers are few and far between), but the film under the TFG microscope today goes where even the flicks I mentioned a moment ago, and just about any others you’d care to add to the list, don’t.  And the damndest thing about it is—until about the last 15 minutes you sure never would expect it to.

“Hitch Hike To Hell” is another “never take a ride from a stranger” story from exploitation king Harry Novak’s Box Office International Pictures, directed by B-movie vet Irv Berwick (you may remember his son Wayne from our earlier review of “Microwave Massacre”—and the junior Berwick also worked as the sound man on this film) in 1967.  Like a lot of marginal cinematic product, it has a spotty distribution and release history. It sat around until 1970 when it finally got a limited release at the drive-in, then sat around some more until 1977 when it finally got a full nationwide release , at which point the whole thing probably looked pretty dated since 10 years is, generally speaking,  enough time for a “contemporary” piece to look anachronistic, but probably not quite long enough for it to look charming and/or nostalgic.

"Hitch Hike To Hell"'s Howard, the eternal mama's boy

"Hitch Hike To Hell"'s Howard, the eternal mama's boy

In any case, after a rather delightfully cheesy opening theme tune sung by some lady trying her level best to do a solid impression of Tammy Wynette, we’re introduced to Howard (we never get his last name), a typical B-movie mama’s boy closet psychopath played in deliriously OTT style by Robert Gribbin. Howard drives a delivery fan for a dry cleaner and his job takes him all over town. This being the late 60s, he naturally happens upon quite a few hitch hikers. Howard’s not averse to offering them rides, but depending on how you answer a few questions, you may or may not make it out of his van alive.

Howard likes to know if his passengers are running away from home or if they just need a lift. He also likes to know whether or not they love their mothers. Answer either, or both, questions incorrectly, and Howard take a wire coat hanger and wraps it around your throat.

Our guy Howard, you see, has always been a good boy. He lives at home with his doting mother even though he looks to be about 30 years old. She pampers him with root beer and home cooking and he does his part by being nice to his mom and spending his spare time in his bedroom working on model cars instead of going out and tearing it up or, heaven forbid, trying to get himself a girlfriend.

His sister Judy, on the other hand, apparently was a bit of a troublemaker. She ran away from home not too long ago and broke their mother’s heart. Evidently mom is not a “forgive and forget” type, because when stories start appearing on the news about young female hitch hikers turning up raped and murdered (Howard’s handiwork, unbeknownst to his mother), she says that while she sometimes wonders if that’s what happened to Judy, if it did it would only serve her right since she had it coming to her.

"What? You don't like your mom's cooking?"

"What? You don't like your mom's cooking?"

Howard has taken his mom’s disappointment pretty personally, evidently, because he now figures that the best way to “do her a favor” is to kill any hitch hiking girls he meets who are running away from home and don’t love their mothers sufficiently. And so our bloodbath is underway.

Only it isn’t. “Hitch Hike To Hell” is a pretty bloodless affair, all in all, and for a “psycho on the loose” movie, the body count stays pretty low (five, by my count).  In addition, even though the victims are all raped according to the news reports, Berwick never shows any of the sexual violence too graphically—he might show half a naked breast while Howard strangles one of his victims, but that’s about it.  That’s what makes the final act so shocking (even though it, too, is bloodless)—but more on that in a minute.

Howard is also a pretty dumb criminal, it must be said. He leaves the bodies of his victims on the roadside without even trying to hide them, and he’s prone to doing stupid stuff like losing his glasses at crime scenes. Not exactly an evil mastermind. He doesn’t remember his crimes too clearly afterwards, apart from the occasional flashback, but honestly, if you were as half-assed a serial killer as Howard is, you probably wouldn’t want to remember the details just out of sheer embarrassment at your incompetence.

Still, as dimwitted as Howard is, he’s an absolute genius compared to his boss at work, Mr. Baldwin, who keeps chewing Howard out for being late with his deliveries, and not even being able to offer good excuses as to why, but keeps giving him one chance after another even though he’s practically begging to be fired, and the cops, led by one Captain Shaw (played by Russell Johnson—yes, The Professor from “Gilligan’s Island”), who know the killer uses a wire coat hanger, has a van or other large vehicle, and even find a pair of his glasses—but still can’t manage to catch him until the last victim turns up with a Baldwin Cleaners delivery clutched in her dead hand!

And speaking of that last victim—Howard sticks with killing runaway girls in their upper teenage years until about an hour into the movie, when a flamboyant gay guy literally invites himself into his van while he’s taking a lunch break and, of course,  talks about how much he hates the crummy little town, his family, and especially his mom. Needless to say, the next we see of him is when The Profess—err, Captain Shaw and his partner respond to a call and find his body in a ditch. So Howard apparently will stray a bit from his MO—but just how much? Apparently quite a bit.

Little Lisa is just 11 years old and her mom and dad argue like crazy. It breaks her heart and of course, she figures the only solution is to run away from home and go live with her grandma. From the moment Lisa turns up on screen, we know she’s doomed. The only reason you introduce a character like this well over an hour into the film and show her home disastrous home life is to set the stage for her running away and meeting up with Howard, and he’s not the type to have a sudden crisis of conscience.

Okay, we don’t actually see Howard strangle her. There’s no mention of him raping her. But from the moment she tells him she’s running away, you get a sinking feeling in your gut—not one of “my God, he’s not going to, is he?,” but one of “Oh, geez, he’s really gonna do this.”  Again, no on-screen violence here, but when Captain Shaw responds to a tip and opens up a dumpster in an alley and finds her body —which they do show for a moment —you really do feel dirty just for watching this thing.  Showing a dead child on-screen is a line very few films have crossed, and to have it happen at the tail end of what is, in every other respect, a pretty tepid little “psycho-in-a-van” flick that has for the most part eschewed anything too grim or graphic—well, it tends to throw you for a loop, to say the least. The fact that it’s the friggin’ Professor from “Gilligan’s Island” who finds the body gives the scene an added frisson of the surreal, as well.

So there you have it — “Hitch Hike To Hell.” Perhaps the most understated—and certainly the most unexpected—taboo-buster in the annals of exploitation cinema.  It may not leave the strongest impression for the most part, but it definitely leaves a stain.

"Hitch Hike To Hell" DVD from Something Weird Video

"Hitch Hike To Hell" DVD from Something Weird Video

“Hitch Hike To Hell” is available on DVD on a double bill along with “Kidnapped Coed” from Something Weird Video. As with all the SWV Special Edition releases, it’s loaded with a generous serving of extras including anti-hitch hiking PSA films, a tour of Harry Novak’s office, previews of related titles, a cool gallery of exploitation movie one-sheets and press books, and more.

"Star Trek" Movie Poster

"Star Trek" Movie Poster

Suffice to say this will be a quick post in my semi-regular “Hollywood Sidebar” series, since “Star Trek” is a monolithic Hollywood summer blockbuster that doesn’t need any free promotional help from some little blog that seven or eight people read, any my recommendation is hardly going to make any difference as to whether any of that seven or eight of you see this thing or not.

I will, however, say this about this movie—I was not expecting to like it. I’m a sci-fi fan, sure, but have never been much for “Trek.” Fans of the franchise tend to work my nerves. I’m not particularly enamored with J.J. Abrams (I have a sneaky suspicion that “Lost” is one big scam,  I thought “Cloverfield” sucked, and I could frankly care less about “Alias” or “Mission:Impossible 3”). I’m hard-wired to dislike summer juggernaut releases just as a matter of principle. And yet, even with all that going against it—I liked this movie. A lot.

Why? Well, the performances were spot-on, the story was involving without being unnecessarily convoluted, it was accessible to non-“Trek” fans while not insulting the intelligence of long-time aficionados, the effects were good, the pacing was swift without feeling rushed, and it had a nice balance of nostalgia and newness. In short, it was everything you’re looking for in a blockbuster, and more than you’ve come to expect.

I would imagine the massive continuity changes will piss off some overly-obsessive fans, but let me just say, without giving anything away, that the plot device by which this film sets itself up as both a relaunch and a sequel was, in my view, pretty ingenious.  You needn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of all things “Trek” to understand how it works, and to be impressed with it. One more feather in this film’s cap.

I saw this with my dad, who’s been a big fan of the show since it first aired in the 60s(in fact, I took him to see it for his birthday). He enjoyed it quite a bit and left the theater with a smile on his face — that probably says more for it than any amount of praise and raving on my part could.

If you only see one summer blockbuster this year—a course of action I would fully support—make it this one. You won’t be disappointed.

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Poster Art For "Don't Go In The House"

Let’s face it, grown men who have unresolved issues with their mothers, particularly those who still live with them, have been a staple among movie bad guys since the days of Norman Bates — and while it may have become something of a cliche, it’s one that works, because to the rest of us, there’s just something creepy about a guy in his 30s or 40s who lives with his mom.

Donnie Kohler (Dan Grimaldi), the central character in writer-director Joseph Ellison’s 1980 grindhouse psychodrama “Don’t Go In The House” has a million and one reasons to move out of his mom’s drafty old Victorian tomb of an abode, but he doesn’t. His mom used to burn him as a kid, you see, holding his hands and arms over an open gas flame on their gigantic old stove when he’d been a bad little boy. As a result, Donnie grew up not only with unresolved mommy-issues, but with a peculiar fascination with fire, as well. He’s both attracted to and frightened of it in equal measure in his adult years, as evidenced by the fact that he works in an incinerator but when a co-worker catches fire, he freezes up and is unable to assist in his rescue, forcing the other guys at the plant to save him even though Donnie is closest to the scene.

Needless to say, this act of cowardice doesn’t go over well with his co-workers, and Donnie leaves the plant humiliated. If he thought he had a bad day at work, though, things only get worse when he gets home — his mother, you see, has finally succumbed to old age and departed this mortal coil, and with her goes Donnie’s last (admittedly tepid) connection to reality. He’s on his own now, and has a lot of shit to work out as he finally “grows up” in his own uniquely twisted way.

His first actions are natural enough—he blasts his stereo at top volume and gets drunk. But this youthful (err—okay, so he’s not youthful) fling with excess quickly loses its appeal and Donnie soon combines his unhealthy fascination with fire and his unresolved issues with an overbearing mother (issues that he has now, in a classic case of psychological transference, grafted onto the entire female gender as a whole) in a decidedly toxic fashion. He starts calling in sick from work every day and nailing sheet metal to the walls, ceiling, and floor of  one of the many large and unused rooms in his house. Then, it’s time for him to get busy and bring home some “dates,” by any means necessary—but his idea of a good time with a member of the opposite sex requires him to wear an asbestos suit. That’s right, our guy Donnie decides to bring women home, chain them up, and take a flamethrower to them.

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit there’s nothing terribly original about the premise here (apart from Donnie’s preferred method of dispatch for his victims), but Grimaldi really sells you on the character with his performance.  He absolutely seems like the quintessential loser who never left home, has no social skills, is terrified of the opposite sex, and blames them (all of them) for his problems. Ellison’s script is a character piece through and through, and the casting of Grimaldi in the lead was a brilliant stroke on his part. In the hands of a lesser actor, this would be standard—or even substandard—exploitation fare, but Grimaldi’s virtuoso performance alone elevates this movie several notches above where it probably belongs.

The house itself is a brilliant piece of location scouting, and succeeds in first capturing, then magnifying, the twisted mental landscape of  our psycho protagonist. The winter shooting schedule of the film in the New York/New Jersey area adds to the overall intensely moody atmosphere, as well.

All in all, this is a classic case of a film whose whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The creepily inherent understanding of the lead character’s twisted psychological worldview on the part of both the writer/director and the star, combined with (I hesitate to use the term but it really does apply here) a perfect physical setting takes what is, on paper, nothing too terribly special and transforms it into something very special indeed. Sick, twisted, depraved, abhorrent, offensive, shocking, perverse, and sleazy, to be sure—but very special nonetheless.

Media Blasters released “Don’t Go In The House” on DVD under their “Shriek Show” label a few years back, and it features a fine feature-length commentary with Grimaldi, an on-camera interview with the actor, an alternate take of one of the film’s more brutal scenes, the original theatrical trailer, and more. It’s available alone or as part of the “Grindhouse Psychos Triple Feature” boxset, together with “Cop Killers,” an early Rick Baker special effects effort, and Roberta Findlay’s notorious “Tenement.” Great stuff!