Archive for June, 2009

It’s painfully obvious to one and all that Hollywood has a tremendously high opinion of itself. I admit that watching the Academy Awards is a guilty pleasure for yours truly each and every year, plus two of my favorite people in the world host an Oscar party that has become a tradition that I wouldn’t dream of missing.  But let’s be honest— it’s one of the most self-congratulatory events a person could watch, it’s as decadent as it is pretentious, and most of the self-adulation Hollywood heaps on itself during the ceremony is entirely undeserved.

Plus there’s the small problem that most of the films nominated for best picture suck, and when there’s a good one nominated it seldom wins. For evidence of this, look no further than last year’s awards, where “Slumdog Millionaire,” an entirely unexceptional film that was little more than a mass-market, anglicized cash-in on Bollywood  (a Bollywood movie for people who have never seen a Bollywood movie, more or less) beat out a piece of genuinely challenging filmmaking “The Reader” and one of the best political biopics you’ll ever see in “Milk.”  To add insult to injury, Danny Boyle won the best director award for his “work” on “Slumdog” even though there have been widespread and entirely credible allegations that he basically didn’t even direct the movie.

Need any further proof?  In 2005 “Crash” won out over “Brokeback Mountain.”  In 2000, “Gladiator” beat “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” In 1996, “The English Patient” got the nod over “Fargo.” In 1994, “Forrest Gump” was the choice over “Pulp Fiction.” In 1990, “Dances With Wolves” got the nod over “Goodfellas” (and am I the only one who was less than surprised that when Scorsese finally did wing Hollywood’s highest honor, it was for “The Departed,” which could very well be his worst movie?).  In 1980, “Ordinary People” received the blessing of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences over “Raging Bull.”

Seriously, though, the list is endless. Almost every year at least two or three of the five films nominated for Best Picture are actively bad, and it’s rare that the Best Picture recipient truly is just that.

So what, has the Academy in its infinite wisdom decided to do today? Go back to the days—the waaaaaayyyyy old days—of nominating ten films rather than five for Best Picture.

What, I ask, is the point? Will there be ten good films made this year? Of course.We don’t need the Hollywood establishment to confirm this fact. There are at least ten good movies made every year. But will those films be nominated? A few, undoubtedly—but as is the case in most years, most— if not all— of the year’s best films will be completely ignored by the Academy. We’ll just have eight crummy nominees and two good ones rather than three crummy nominees and two good ones. Again—what on Earth is the point?  Do we really need the awards show to be another 30 minutes longer? Do the geniuses that run the Academy really think it’s an “honor” for five more films to receive admittance into their exclusive little annual club of officially-blessed works?

In short, then—ten nominees instead of five. Are we really supposed to think that this somehow improves the chances that the best film of any given year will be recognized as such ?


Original European poster for "Syngenor"

Original European poster for "Syngenor"

Whatever happened to the guy in the rubber suit?

Ever since “The Creature From The Black Lagoon,” the rubber  reptilian (usually) monster has been something of an on-again, off-again mainstay in the world of horror cinema, and while CGI has certainly made putting an actual human inside one of these slimy sweatboxes redundant at best, it’s fair to say that the era of this particular type of movie baddie was over long before today’s computer effects wizards went to work.  The purported “sophistication” of more modern audiences convinced filmmakers long ago that a dude in a goofy costume just didn’t have what it takes to scare people anymore, and while I can’t say for certain, it seems to your humble host that the 1990 horror-sci-fi semi-thriller “Syngenor” is quite probably the last stand of the rubber-bedecked bad guy, and for that reason alone, it’s worth a look.

First off, it should be stated that “Syngenor” is a sequel — of sorts. Actually, it’s not so much a “part two” as it is another movie featuring the exact same monsters as William (“Creature”) Malone’s 1981 ultra-low-budget (but nevertheless effective) “Scared To Death.” It’s not in the least bit necessary to know the first thing about the earlier  film, though, in order to fully comprehend this later offering, so I won’t go into detail about it here beyond saying it’s definitely worth a look,  and it’s a fair bet that most audiences (such as there were) that caught “Syngenor” during its ultra-brief theatrical run didn’t know the first thing about the previous Syngenor flick, either. Malone himself was not involved with the movie in any way—he had written a brief outline of a script which was later changed more or less wholesale by screenwriters Michael Carmody and Brent V. Friedman, and the directing duties were handled by George Elanjian, Jr., so this thing probably doesn’t even count as a “follow-up” to “Scared To Death” — like I said before, the best way to describe it would probably be to call it a movie that features the same monsters as another, earlier movie.

The plot is pretty simple stuff — a couple of low-life yuppie types pick up a couple of ladies of  “easy virtue” and take them back to the flashy corporate headquarters (actually L.A.’s disused Ambassador Hotel, infamous for being the site where Bobby Kennedy was assassinated) of Norton Cyberdyne, where the fellas serve as mid-level executives. Unbeknownst to the women, though (and to one of the yuppie scumbags himself), they’ve been “selected” to become “test subjects” for the ruthless killing efficiency of the Syngenors (shorthand for Synthesized Genetic Organism), a race of reptilian super-soldiers genetically engineered by the corporation to fight in the hostile climate of the Middle East (it’s worth noting that Gulf War I was going on at the time this film was released) The Syngenors don’t need any water, and survive by drinking the spinal fluid of their victims with their long lizard-tongues. They also reproduce asexually by laying a pod every 24 hours from which a new Syngenor hatches, fully-formed and ready to fight. So even if there are any casualties on the Syngenor side, they’re replaced rather quickly. Obviously, then, the Pentagon is pretty hot-to-trot to get these new slime-coated soldiers into action.

The in-on-the-plot yuppie, a greasy operator named Armbrewster (Charles Lucia) turns the Syngenors loose on his colleague and their—uhhhmmm—“dates,” but he doesn’t count on one of them getting loose from headquarters  and going straight to the home of their creator, a reclusive scientist named Ethan Valentine (Lewis Arquette, patriarch of the Hollywood Arquette clan) who has left Norton Cyberdyne and now works out of his garage on various mad-geneticist-type projects. Evidently, though, the Syngenor doesn’t harbor warm feelings for its surrogate “father,” and mauls him to pieces before laying a pod in his garage.

Unfortunately for her, Valentine’s live-in niece, Susan (Starr Andreeff, who bears something of a resemblance to a younger Mariska Hargitay), gets home from an evening out just shortly after her uncle’s murder, and the Syngenor attacks her in the family home. She manages to get away, though, and report what happened to a friend of her uncle’s who works as a police lieutenant. She doesn’t get a whole lot of help from the cops, though, who bury her report under pressure from Norton Cyberdyne’s CEO, Carter Brown (David Gale of “Re-Animator” fame who delivers an equally fun and OTT performance here as a corporate boss slowly losing his mind as his whole world comes crashing down around him—largely due to his own sleazy machinations).

She does, however, find help in the form of newspaper reporter Nick Carey (Mitchell Laurance), who went down to Norton Cyberdyne HQ in order to do an “executive of the year” puff-piece on Brown and ended up finding out about the previous night’s murder from a chatty secretary (played by Melanie Shatner — yes, you-know-who’s daughter) who also happens to be Brown’s niece.  The younger Brown also clues Carey into the fact that a leading scientist for the company quit a few weeks back, and when he can’t get in to see Brown to write his fluff story, he decides to follow his reporter’s instincts and go check out the home of said no-longer-employed-there scientist. That’s when he meets Susan, finds out what happened to her uncle, and the two of them go on the trail of the Syngenor mystery.

The Syngenor, last of the rubber-suited villains

The Syngenor, last of the rubber-suited villains

From there the pace does drag a bit as we get enmeshed in corporate scandal between Carter Brown, Armbrewster, who’s trying to depose him and move up the ranks, and a third untrustworthy executive , Paula Gorski (Riva Spier), who Brown has the hots for but who’s secretly playing both he and Armbrewster against each other for her own ends.  Things get a bit talky, in other words, and the action lags as our heroes (who quickly also become lovers) investigate all this company intrigue, but it never gets truly dull, and watching Gale (who really does look like John Kerry with a receding hairline) portray Brown’s gradual melt-down really is a lot of fun (I just wish I knew what the green serum he’s always injecting in his neck is—it’s never explained and, according to the commentary track on the DVD, this is intentional. Still, I’d be curious to know—that’s just the kind of guy I am).

David Gale in full nervous breakdown mode

David Gale in full nervous breakdown mode

The somewhat slower middle section is certainly worth it in the end, though, as the pod in Susan’s uncle’s garage hatches and terrorizes her and Nick at the house before they make their escape and plunge into a  final, protracted battle against the Syngenor army at company headquarters, with Brown going apeshit and killing everybody the evil reptiles don’t.  It’s  an absolute blast to watch, with plenty of bloodletting, pretty solid gore effects (from Robert and Dennis Skotak, who worked with James Cameron on “Aliens” and “The Abyss”), and an impressively high body count. In other words, don’t give up on this thing halfway through because the finale is everything you could hope for and then some.

“Syngenor” certainly isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s definitely plenty solid all things considered,  has a seriously great performance from Gale, and pays off the patient viewer, with interest, at the end. All in all, the era of the rubber-suited monster (and it’s a pretty damn good rubber-suited monster at that) probably couldn’t have asked for a better send-off.

DVDCover For Synapse Films' release of "Syngenor"

DVD Cover For Synapse Films' release of "Syngenor"

“Syngenor” is available on DVD from Synapse Films in a terrific package that includes an impressively sharp 1.85:1  widescreen transfer, a newly-remastered 5.1 surround audio track, an extensive gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and publicity stills and artwork, three pretty interesting behind-the-scenes featurettes, and an audio commentary featuring actress Starr Andreeff, screenwriter Brent V. Friedman and producer Jack F. Murphy.  A really nice “special edition” that, for once, genuinely lives up to that name.

Original Movie Poster For "Satan's Children"

Original Movie Poster For "Satan's Children"

Back in 1968,  a Tampa Bay-area TV news cameraman named Joe Wiezycki hit on an idea : borrow a thousand bucks each from some friends at work, crank out a movie, and maybe even make a few bucks. Surprisingly, every part of his plan worked : he was able to convince about ten of his co-workers to front him a grand apiece, and the end result was a long-forgotten-by-now blaxploitation quickie called “Willy’s Gone” . It didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but it did well enough on the regional drive-in circuit for Wiezycki to pay back his investors, and when it was re-released a few years later nationally on a double-bill with “Ghetto Freaks” under the new title of “Ghetto Rat” (guess it was a ghetto two-fer) they even ended up making a small but tidy profit, which was enough to convince Wiezycki that hey, maybe he had a future in this business and he should try his hand at it again. It proved to be a terrible idea.

Fast-forward to 1974 and Joe has moved up the ladder to becoming a news director and producer at his Tampa TV station, and even dabbles in a bit of local variety-type programming. Things are looking pretty good for him, but he never really fully scratched his movie itch. So he decides to hit up a bunch of co-workers for $1000 each all over again and eventually gets 10  of them, again,  to go along with his venture. I have no idea whether or not it was an easier sell for Joe the second time around, but since they did okay on the initial go-round, I’m thinking it probably was. Whether or not he got his money from the exact same folks or had to hit up new ones is also something I’m clueless about, but  I have to assume that none of them, whoever they were,  had read the script. At least I’m hoping they didn’t.

For his second cinematic effort, Joe thought he’d do a horror flick, and throw in a little T&A to bring in the crowds. It was a reasonable enough idea, of course, since horror flicks with a little bit of T&A were pretty big at the time, and didn’t cost a whole lot to make.  Joe again stuck with local acting “talent,” most of whom he found at a casting call or two at a local college,  and got down to business on making “Satan’s Children,” a movie that Frank Henenlotter absolutely pinned in four words when he called it a “deeply deranged regional rarity.”  Your humble host can’t really improve on that succinct, and absolutely apt,  description, so my mission here is not so much to convince you that it sums  things up perfectly, but rather to explain why.

Almost from the get-go, this flick has a  deeply anti-homosexual vibe going—indeed, it’s anti-anything-that-can-be-perceived-as-“sissy”-in-any-way. Our protagonist, a young(I’m thinking high school junior or senior) somewhat effeminate lad named Bobby Douglas (played by Stephen White), is leading a life that can best be described as a 1970s male version of the first part of “Cinderella.” He slaves away on yardwork and house chores all day for his wicked father while his lazy stepsister, Janis (Joyce Malloy) spends most of her time lounging around by the pool or swimming. It’s not a great living arrangement by anyone’s standards and White sulks obviously enough to make sure we know Bobby’s not too thrilled with the whole situation. His stepsis likes to torment him sexually, too, barging in on him changing clothes so she can mock the size of his pecker one minute, then playing footsie with him under the dinner table the next.

Who wears the pants in this house? Evidently no one.

Who wears the pants in this house? Evidently no one.

It’s during the taunting scene shown above that you first notice the really odd dichotomy that runs throughout this film, that being that for a movie that absolutely oozes anti-gay resentment, they never waste a chance to show Bobby parading around in his tightie-whities.  But more on that later.

At the footsie-dinner just mentioned, Bobby finally gets the upper hand (err—foot, I guess) for a second by grabbing stepsis’s wayward toes and nearly sticking a fork in them (if you’re wondering what their dad is doing while all this under-the-table horseplay is going on, the answer is simple : he’s too busy lecturing them in between mouthfuls of food to notice anything’s amiss). She quickly regains the advantage, though, by snitching out Bobby for a “little baggie filled with some kind of tobacco” she found in his room. Rather than hand over his pot stash, though, our guy Bobby finally decides he’s had enough, tells his dad to “go to Jesus H. Christ Hell!!!!!!!,” and runs away from home.

The streets of 1974 Tampa are looking pretty dull and empty as Bobby wanders around with no real destination in mind, and with nothing to do and (I’m assuming) very little money, Bobby stops in a bar for a cold one. Enter our first overtly-lecherous gay dude, an older fella who sits down across from Bobby at his booth, touches his knee, and asks if he’s having trouble at home.  The red-headed runaway recoils at his advances and is about to ask the aging queen to take a hike when our second lecherous homosexual enters the picture, a tough-talking Fonzie-type who tells the old-timer “I thought I said I never wanted to see you in here anymore” and proceeds to tell him to leave the kid alone. Needless to say, Bobby thinks he’s been rescued and has found a super-cool new friend. Soon he’s getting a lift on the back of his knight-in-shining-leather’s motorcycle and heading to his cool beachfront bachelor pad to crash for the night.  His apparent “rescuer,” though, has other ideas.

After luring Bobby to his spread with promises of beer and grass, “Prince Charming” proves he’s anything but when he puts a switchblade to the boy’s  throat and tells him to stay still while he undoes his pants.  Next thing you know Bobby is naked and hogtied and his new “friend” is calling his buddies to come over for a “party.”

That's gotta hurt.

That's gotta hurt.

When the three other “partygoers” arrive, they proceed to take Bobby out to one of their cars and take turns raping him in the backseat while they cruise around town. And just to add insult to injury, when they’re finished with him they don’t even give him his clothes back, just toss him in a rural roadside ditch in nothing but—again—his white briefs.

At this point, our friendly neighborhood Satanic coven enters the picture, and this is where we learn that even the Dark Lord himself apparently has a beef with queers. The first two we meet are Sherry (Kathleen Marie Archer), the group’s second-in-command,  and Monica (Rosemary Orlando), and the first thign we find out about this Mansonesque outfit is that “the love that dare not speak its name” had really better keep its mouth shut around these parts .  They’re arguing while the rest of the devil-worshipers play volleyball or something, and what are they arguing about? Here’s all you need to know —

Monica : I can’t help how I feel.

Sherry : If you don’t want me to tell Simon (the group’s leader), you’d better start trying to like guys.

Then Sherry proceeds to throw her into some shallow water and storms off towards some sort of barbed-wire fence, which is where she finds Bobby out cold on the ground. If our “hero” (for lack of a better word) thought he had problems before, he hasn’t seen anything yet. Sherry quickly takes a shine to the young mystery man, and since Simon’s away on undisclosed “business” of some sort or another, she’s in charge, so she decides they’re going to take him in while he regains consciousness and recovers from his ordeal.

The others aren’t so sure about their new houseguest, though.  Joshua, a Satanic hard-liner who’s apparently a constant thorn in Sherry’s side, says “I think he’s queer,”(in the warped worldview of this film, contact with homosexuals in any way, whether being flirted with by one or being raped by a gang of them, immediately puts you under suspicion of being gay yourself, like it’s some sort of transmittable “disease”) and tells her that he doesn’t think Simon—or, for that matter, Lucifer himself, would approve of taking Bobby in. When Sherry points out that it’s obvious Bobby’s been raped, Joshua says that makes him even worse, since “the Master doesn’t like victims.” This what-passes-for-conflict only intensifies when Joshua goes into their ritual chamber and prays to their lord and master Satan for Simon to return and take command of the coven back from Sherry. For her own part, while all this is going on, Sherry is busy tying Monica and suspending her from the ceiling for her “crime” and then showing Bobby the joys of God—and Satan, apparently, too (guess they agree on one thing)— -approved man-woman lovemaking.

Later in the evening, Sherry decides she’s had enough of Joshua and a few of his like-minded friends and has them hung. I figure she must be pretty pissed  off because given that she tells Bobby their group has 15 members, getting rid of three or four of them seems like a pretty drastic step. Then it’s back into bed with Bobby and sweet dreams for our loving Satanic couple.

Come the morning, though, things take a decided turn for the worse for our young lovers. Evidently Joshua’s prayer to the devil worked, because Simon (Robert C. Ray, in what comes closest to a passable acting performance in this film) returns and quietly goes about cleaning up the mess that Sherry’s made of things while he’s been away. His first order or business is to cut Monica down from her bindings and wake Sherry up so he can find out exactly what the hell (no pun intended, I guess) has been going on around here. Sherry tells him that she’s fallen in love, that Monica is “guilty” of lesbianism, and that Joshua and the others were undermining her authority and she was only doing what she had to do when she hung them.

Simon is curious to meet the object of Sherry’s newfound affections, but Bobby still can’t move his legs to get out of bed.  He’ll be making his introductions to the newcomer soon enough, but first Simon has to take care of the business about Monica, so it’s time for a little Satanic trial. He brings her into his—well, “office,” I guess,  asks her whether or not the “charges” of lesbianism are true, and then makes her swear an oath to Satan that her “testimony” is accurate.

Evidently, these Satanic trials really work, because when Monica is lying, her nose starts bleeding uncontrollably and soon she’s passed out. If only George Bush and Dick Cheney had known about this method of “questioning,” maybe we could have avoided “enhanced interrogation,” secret military tribunals, and all that other Constitution-busting nonsense. Meanwhile, Sherry, for her part, in under a “trial” of sorts of her own while Simon hears Monica’s testimony and determines who’s telling the truth. The other members of the coven have buried her up to her head in quicksand (in reality $150 worth of oatmeal—yes, really), covered her face in honey, and turned an army of ants loose on her.

She’s still under ant-attack when Simon finally gets around to going into the bedroom and meeting Bobby, and to say he’s not too terribly impressed with the lad would be an understatement. “Poor little boy got raped by some queers,” Simon tells him after Bobby pleads with the cult leader and swears that he’s ready to pledge his soul to the devil.

When Simon heads outside to deal with Sherry, Bobby, evidently now mobile again, decides to make a break for it. Only he still hasn’t got any clothes, making him a fugitive from Satanic “justice” in his underpants. What follows is an extended chase scene through the woods as Bobby and his soiled briefs try to stay one step ahead of the devil’s minions. How does our underwear-clad (but not gay, don’t even think it!)  teen dynamo finally get the better of his pursuers? By luring them into another pit of “quicksand” (this time the oatmeal only looks to be about three or four feet deep, but whatever)  and laughing at their cries for help as they sink to their deaths, thereby proving what a badass (and not queer!) Satanist he’s become.  Here’s what death by oatmeal looks like—


Newly-super-confident (and definitely more not-gay-than-ever) Bobby is then ready to head back and take command of what’s left of the coven with his lady-love at his side. There’s just one order of business to take care of—

Bobby's stepsister Janis meets her demise. Who's got a little dick now?

Bobby's stepsister Janis meets her demise. Who's got a little dick now?

Bobby proves his virulent heterosexual manhood by crucifying his taunting stepsister Janis  in front of his new Luciferian followers, and now nobody, and I mean nobody, thinks he’s queer anymore.

What to make of all this? Well, I’m no psychiatrist, but anyone can see that “Satan’s Children” exhibits the kind of deep-seated homophobia that can only be found in the most violently repressed and angry closet-cases,  and  having a somewhat  effeminate young pretty-boy spend 3/4 of the movie running around in his underwear certainly does nothing to dispel this notion. For all it’s anti-queer chest-thumping, then, my best guess is that somebody behind the making of this movie was, in fact, queer.  Strangely, though, while director Joe Wiezycki would be the obvious choice for repressed-homosexual-in-charge, I don’t think it was him. Why, you ask? Well, here’s my thinking, such as it is—

Wiezycki is about the most straight-ahead, point-and-shoot type of director you can imagine. Apart from the ending crucifixion shot that he lingers on as if he thinks it has any actual dramatic impact, this flick shows about as much directorial flourish as a floor wax commercial. A lot of it looks like it was done in one take. The camera is merely there to record events, the end result being that  the film is literally a stylistic black hole. My best guess — and it’s only a guess — is that Wiezycki just got himself a scipt and decided to film it. The ugly subtexts were inherent in the material he was filming from their inception on the printed page, and he just either didn’t notice, or didn’t care.

With that in mind, TFG is fairly confident in making an educated supposition that the uber-repressed homosexuals here are screenwriters Gary Garrett and Ron Levitt (or at least one of them). Neither went on to have much of a career to speak of (this was it for Wiezycki’s dreams of becoming a Florida movie mogul, as well, since the film played a few drive-ins around the area in 1975 and quickly disappeared—I don’t think his friends at work got their $1000 investments back on this one),  with Levitt disappearing completely from the entertainment industry and Garrett having one other credit to his name, a 1988 made-for-TV movie called “Run Till You Fall” that I know—and care–nothing about.   If I had to pinpoint the self-loathing culprit(s) here, it would be one or both of these men.

To sum things up, then, while not an especially violent or bloody entry into the pantheon of drive-in cinema, “Satan’s Children” is definitely a mean one. This is a nasty piece of work borne from a very troubled mind, the kind that needs help and is crying out for it in a very public way (not that too many people saw this thing).  It achieves something very notable, yet also not at all distinguished—being one of  the most homophobic films you’ll ever see, while also being quite obviously gay as all get-out.  I can’t recommend this film to everyone—heck, it would be a reach to say that I “recommend” it for anyone at all—but if you want to see the inner-workings and emotional turmoil of insanely, dangerously repressed homosexuality writ large, it at least makes for some interesting viewing, if only in a clinical sense. Any shrink worth his or her salt will have a field day with this one, folks. I just hope that whoever the the closeted-to-the-point-of-near-flat-out-insanity person who dreamed all this up was — whether it be Wiezycki, Garrett, Levitt, or any combination thereof — that they’ve gotten over their hang-ups before being eaten alive by them, found themselves a nice boyfriend, and settled down to live happily ever after.

Cover For The "Asyllum Of Satan/Satan's Children" Double-Bill DVD from Something Weird Video
Cover For The “Asylum Of Satan/Satan’s Children” Double-Bill DVD from Something Weird Video

“Satan’s Children” is available on a double-feature DVD from Something Weird Video along with “Asylum Of Satan,” an early effort by the late William Girdler of “Grizzly” and “Sheba,  Baby” fame. It’s out of print and often sells  for upwards of $200 on eBay. Much more reasonable, if you’re determined to see this thing, is to get the stand-alone DVD-R release from Something Weird that can be had for $10. I can’t in good consicence recommend spending any more than that for this movie, anyway.