Archive for August, 2009

"Halloween II" Movie Poster

"Halloween II" Movie Poster

Okay, time for your host to put on his horror-geek hat here.

As any (assuming there are, in fact, any) regular reader of this blog will no doubt no by now, I’m a huge horror fan. And slasher pics are among my very favorite horror movies, I grew up on this stuff and still love it—always will. And my favorite slasher of them all is Michael Myers. Oh, sure, Jason and Freddy are cool in their own way, but for me, Michael will always be the man. I can watch John Carpenter’s original “Halloween,” as well as the original “Halloween 2,” anytime and be reasonably entertained. I even like a couple of the admittedly lamer sequels, particularly “Halloween 4” and “H20.” On the whole, I enjoyed  Rob Zombie’s first “Halloween” remake, as well. It didn’t have the originality and edge-of-your-seat tension of Carpenter’s movie, but then, I wasn’t expecting it to. I thought filling in Michael’s backstory was interesting, his white-trash upbringing fit the overall trajectory of the character well, and the idea of making him a hulking giant was terrific. Was it a classic in its own right? Probably not. But it was a more-than-respectful “re-imagining” and a pretty solid horror flick on its own merits. Truth be told, if all remakes were this good, then I and my fellow horror aficionados wouldn’t have too much to bitch about—apart from Hollywood being out of new ideas, of course.

So when word got out that the success at the box office of Zombie’s first film had spurned on a sequel, I wasn’t upset in the least. And when word subsequently got out that said sequel would not really be a “remake” of the original “Halloween 2” in any way, shape, or form, but rather an original take on Michael’s second outing, I was actually quite pleased. New ground for an “old standby” character and all that. Sounds good to me. At that point, I shut off the flow of information and figured I’d be much better off not cruising the internet for “spoilers” or any other purported “inside information,” at least half of which would prove to be pure bullshit, anyway. I would content myself to wait and see the final product. Yes, I knew a fair amount of people were excited, a fair amount were concerned, and a fair amount were prepared to hate anything and everything about it before even seeing it, but that’s just par for the course. Apart from seeing a few commercials and previews, I arrived at the theater with no preconceived ideas about what this film was going to be like — which, as it turns out, is probably the perfect frame of mind in which to see it.

Rob Zombie is heavily stylized filmmaker, that much is for certain, and in truth his first “Halloween” is probably the most straight-forward thing he’s done in purely stylistic terms, with few if any of the obvious homages to 70s drive-in horror that populated “House of 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” but it has to be said right off the bat that “Halloween 11” is as stylistically different to its predecessor as “Rejects” was to “Corpses.” Almost jarringly so, in fact. I can only imagine what watching both his “Halloween”s back-to-back will be like. This second film looks almost nothing like the first, with a very somber and muted color palette throughout, a shift in setting , largely, away from the small town of Haddonfield and into the bleak late autumn/early winter of the rural countryside outside of it, and a darkly ehtereal, dreamlike quality to much of the proceedings that’s 180 degrees part from the stark realism of the first. Lots of sequences have a rather unfortunate “music video” feel to them, as well, although that gets easier to take as the film progresses.

Make no mistake, “Halloween II” is a movie that wears its influences on its sleeve, and the most prominent (and obvious) of those is, believe it or not, David Lynch. The first scene is —MAJOR SPOILER ALERT — an extended dream sequence, probably the longest in a film since “Mulholland Drive,” that plays out rather straightforwardly (or so it seems, I should say), but when it’s revealed that it is, in fact, a dream, after you get over the initial groan of disappointment, you realize that Zombie has actually sprinkled several clever clues throughout that could have given the whole thing away earlier had you been thinking along those lines. I’m looking forward to seeing it again just to see if I can pick up on any more hints in this rather riveting , imaginatively-constructed sequence of unreal events. This sets the stage for numerous dream sequences, most involving Michael’s dead mother, a younger version of Michael himself, and a white horse that could have come straight out of “Twin Peaks.”

When we get into the story proper, we find that the film does not pick up immediately after the first, as originally thought, but that it’s actually a year later.  Michael’s body, of course, was never found, and so while the whole world believes him to be dead, his (still-unbeknownst-to-her) sister, Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) still doesn’t have any “closure” from the murder of her adoptive parents at his hands and her subsequent confrontation with him, and so she’s become an anti-depressant-popping, therapy-attending, nightmare-plagued young lady on the edge of all-out insanity, trying her best to cope with the help of her friends and the family of the local sheriff (Brad Dourif), who have taken her in to live with them.

Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), Michael’s former therapist, has, for his part, become a total sell-out showbiz phony, capitalizing on his notoriety to pimp another book about Michael that is, at best, unsympathetic toward the plight of others who were in his murderous orbit. It’s in the pages of his latest cash-in true-crime expose, in fact, that —SECOND MAJOR SPOILER ALERT—Laurie learns she is, in fact, our favorite psycho’s sister.

Micheal’s not finished with his family business, of course, and the main thrust of the film’s plot involves, unsurprisingly, his efforts to kill anyone and everyone that stands between himself and his baby sister. And the killings are seriously brutal this time around. Zombie doesn’t spare anything in the gore and savagery department, nosiree. Even your humble host was taken aback on more than one occasion by the sheer brutality of some of the slayings.

One big plus this second effort has going for it is that many of Michael’s appearances-out-of-the-blue are much more surprising this time around even though, of course, you see them coming a mile away. When the deputy assigned to protect the sheriff’s daughter at home steps off the porch to have a cigarette, for instance, you know our guy Myers is going to appear behind him at any second, but I’ll be damned if you still don’t jump a little in your seat when it happens anyway. This ability to make the absolutely predictable still at least a little bit surprising is testament to the fact that Zombie has really grown as a filmmaker in terms of his ability to milk the dramatic tension out of a situation.

The other artist involved who has grown, in this case  by leaps and bounds,  is Scout Taylor-Compton, who didn’t do much of anything to impress as Laurie in the first film and turned in the ultimate absolutely-adequate-yet-nothing-special performance in the first film, but really carries the day here. This is her story every bit as much as Michael’s, in fact even moreso, and she does a terrific job of conveying everything her character is going through physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s truly a star-making performance and she’s got a bright future, I would think, both within and outside of the horror genre.

The story’s trajectory and its various character arcs are all pretty standard—you know exactly who’s going to die the minute they pop up on screen, and you know how things are going to end for Michael, Lauri, and Loomis long before it all plays out, but hey—that’s no major sin in and of itself, provided that the path they take to getting there is an interesting one, which for the most part it is. There’s very little new territory staked out here, but Zombie manages to cover old ground in, primarily, a satisfying and interesting way. And hey, cool cameos along the way from people you haven’t seen in forever like Margot Kidder, Howard Hesseman, and “Weird” Al Yankovic don’t hurt matters any, either. And while the ending itself is, again, straight-up “Twin Peaks” material,  it fits in pretty naturally with all that’s gone before.

All in all, what we’ve got here is not so different than the original. A story that we can pretty much predict right down the line but that manages to tell itself in an interesting and somewhat stylistically diverse way. Zombie isn’t taking us anywhere we haven’t been before, but the map to getting there sure looks a lot different.

For that reason alone, I think this movie is going to divide the horror-fan community, much as the first one did—heck, even more. People expecting a movie similar in tone and content to the previous installment won’t be disappointed, but people expecting it to look and feel essentially the same, as well, probably will be. And for those expecting a faithful remake of the original “Halloween 2″—well, they’re out of business from the get-go.

Rob Zombie’s second”Halloween” offering is essentially the same game, with the same result, played by different rules. If you’re a fan of the genre, and of the “halloween” franchise in particular, that’s not such a bad thing. Something a bit more groundbreaking would have been nice, sure, but showing an old “friend” doing the same things in a new light isn’t the worst way to spend a couple hours and a few bucks.

Original "Pieces" Movie Poster

Original "Pieces" Movie Poster

The obscure 1982 Spanish-lensed slasher “Pieces” (titled “Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche” in its home country) is blessed with two tag lines so good that no film deserves them both — “You Don’t Have To Go To Texas For A Chainsaw Massacre!” and “It’s Exactly What You Think It Is!” And even though both statements are (how’s this for a rarity?) absolutely true, the fact is that it’s still tough to live up to a pair of slogans that frigging cool. “Pieces” gives it a good effort, though, and sometimes succeeds even in spite of itself.

“Pieces,” you see,  is a movie absolutely unconcerned with doing anything else apart from delivering the goods — the goods in this case being, of course, gut-churningly bloody mutilation and dismemberment in enormous quantity, with plenty of gratuitous nudity thrown into the mix to keep the audience in their seats even when no one is getting killed. In pursuit of that (some would say noble, I suppose) goal, director Juan Piquer Simon (“Cthulhu Mansion” and the MST3K favorite “Pod People,” among others) is willing to sacrifice anything and everything along the way—plot coherence, acting professionalism, basic safety standards, even any shred of dignity itself (upon finding out that one of his actresses got really petrified at the idea of a chainsaw in close pr0ximity to her—understandable enough—Simon had his chainsaw-wielding killer corner her, run the thing right up next to her, and filmed her  her literally pissing her pants with fear)  are all obstacles in the way of  giving the audience exactly what they’re paying for.

In a way, one can’t blame Simon and the other folks behind the scenes of “Pieces.” 1982 was, after all, the height of the slasher phenomenon, and to stand out amongst all the Michael- and Jason-inspired clones out there, you really had to up the ante, and “Pieces” sure does that. Even today the level of gore on display here is pretty damn shocking. The flick’s openly-noticeable lack of concern for anything apart from grotesque murder, though, almost undermines the sheer bloody-mindedness of their efforts, though—almost.

Our story begins in the early 1940s, when a young boy is assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a naked girl in his bedroom. He’s caught by his mother, though, who throws an absolute fit, demands he get rid of the thing immediately, accuses him of being exactly like his deadbeat, no-good father, and says she’ll be back in a minute to ransack through all his stuff and get rid of any other “filth” she finds. Upon her return, though, the boy decides he doesn’t like that idea so much and chops her to bits with an axe. When a neighbor lady arrives for a visit, the boy hides in the closet, and soon said neighbor and the police are calling on the phone (a touchtone in 1942?) and then barging in by force, whereupon they quickly find our precocious lad’s handiwork and, in short order, the boy himself, who tells them a man burst in and chopped his mother to bits while he hid himself away. They buy his story with no questions asked and arrange to turn him over to the care of some relatives.

Is your dresser decorated with one of these? The head of the killer's mom from "Pieces"

Is your dresser decorated with one of these? The head of the killer's mom from "Pieces"

Fast-forward 40 years and we’re at an unnamed college campus purportedly in the Boston (actually Madrid) area, where a young lady on a skateboard is completely unaware of the fact that a couple of movers up the block are hauling a large wall-sized mirror into their truck. She can’t stop her downhill momentum until it’s too late, though, and crashes into the glass, screaming and sending broken shards flying in every direction. Yes, folks, our killer is back in action! What’s that, you say? This has more the look or a totally random and tragic accident than any sort of premeditated killing? Well, that’s the kind of movie “Pieces” is— one where complete and utter happenstance is supposed to be taken as a part of a dastardly masterplan. It’s called “suspension of disbelief” and you, my friend, are just thinking too hard.

Soon we learn that our mystery murderer is, in fact, trying to complete his jigsaw puzzle from 40 years ago, only this time with real human body parts rather than cardboard segments. Who among the cast we are introduced to is our mystery maniac, though? The mild-mannered Dean of the college? Professor Brown, a homosexual anatomy teacher? Kendall (Ian Sera), the dorkiest ladies’ man you ever saw whose dates have a habit of winding up at the business end of the killer’s chainsaw? Willard the groundskeeper (portrayed by the great Paul Smith), a guy who loves to polish his sawblade and gives everyone the “evil eye” quite literally all of the time?

Does it really matter? Of course not, because “Pieces” never even makes the slightest effort to get us to give a damn about this purported little “mystery.” Instead, it’s doling out blood, boobs, and viscera by the bucketful. We’ve  got naked coeds sawed up at the side of swimming pools, cut in half inside elevators, sliced to—well—pieces on waterbeds, shred up in broad goddamn daylight in the middle of the park—anywhere you can kill somebody, our guy does it, and with a hell of a lot of gusto. He doesn’t care about making noise (why should he? This is evidently a college where the sound of a running chainsaw doesn’t attract much attention of any sort) or leaving a mess. He just wants to complete his puzzle by any and every means at hand.

The blood and guts are all of the “just picked this shit up at the slaughterhouse” variety, and like all abattoir-purchased gore they’re quite effective precisely because of their obvious cheapness. Fifty bucks at the butcher shop gets you a lot bigger—and better—selection of gory entrails than thousands paid to the best make-up and effects men has always been your host’s humble opinion. So kudos to Simon and the “Pieces” production team for not sparing in this department and giving us all the putrescence we can handle and then some.

While the gore is extremely well-realized, though, the same cannot be said of the investigation into the killings that becomes central to the movie’s “plot.” Our crack team of police professionals includes grizzled veteran Lt. Bracken (Christopher George of “City Of The Living Dead” and “The Exterminator,” among a million other B-movie credits), undercover agent/tennis pro Mary Riggs (George’s real-life wife, Lynda Day—who knew the cops had secret operatives working the women’s pro tennis tour?), and—the aforementioned super-poor-man’s Casanova Kendall, who Bracken instinctively trusts for no apparent reason to the point where he asks him to put his life on the line on numerous occasions and to “watch over” Mary while she’s working her undercover assignment on campus, and to whom he grants access to highly confidential police files and records without so much as a second thought. I know we hear a lot about police budget cuts and manpower shortages, but please!

Oh, wait, there I go, thinking again—and if there’s one thing you simply can’t afford to do if you want to “enjoy” this movie, it’s think.

Along the not-so-twisting-and-turning path of “mystery” that “Pieces” takes us on, we do get some truly great scenes, even if they’re all pretty unintentional. Lines like “the most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a  waterbed at the same time,” for instance, should be enshrined in movie history right up there with “here’s looking at you, kid.” And the English-language dubbing is so comically inept that the film can be watched a second (or tenth, or whatever) time through just for the entertainment value inherent in that alone. The plot holes are massive enough to drive an 18-wheeler through unscratched. A scene where the school’s “kung fu professor” (yes, you read that right) attacks Mary for no reason whatsoever and blames it on “bad chop suey” making him black out and lose his mind is more awesome than just about anything else ever filmed. Paul Smith is out of this world as the leering, psychotic-appearing Willard.   And like I’ve mentioned a million times already, the cheap gore is both plentiful and plenty sickening.

"Mr. Evil Eye" himself, Paul Smith, as Willard the groundskeeper, having a---ummm---"conversation" with the Dean

"Mr. Evil Eye" himself, Paul Smith, as Willard the groundskeeper, having a---ummm---"conversation" with the Dean

Our final verdict here, then, is that this is, indeed, exactly what you think it is. Certainly no more — clearly  nothing apart from producing the most extreme gorefest possible on pretty much no budget mattered one iota to Simon and company—but no less, either. “Pieces” is hardly a unique, original, or even particularly professional entry into the slasher oeuvre, but it sets itself one goal and one goal only and tears into it like a hungry dog with a raw steak — and you sort of can’t help but admire watching that play out in front of you.

And as for the ending—well, I’m not going to say a damn thing. I’m just not. You really have to  see it for yourself. About six times. And you still won’t understand what the fuck they were thinking. But hey—no less an authority than Eli Roth says it’s the greatest ending in movie history, so what do I know?

"Pieces" Double-Disc Set From Grindhouse Releasing

"Pieces" Double-Disc Set From Grindhouse Releasing

After being available for years only in a low-rent, direct-transfer-from-VHS, bare-bones DVD from Diamond, “Pieces” was released in a colossally cool two-disc set from Grindhouse Releasing late last year. In addition to a top-notch high-res digitally remastered anamorphic transfer, the set also boasts tons of lengthy, in-depth interviews with Paul Smith and Juan Piquer Simon, an original Spanish soundtrack  option with original score (the English-version score being composed entirely of library tracks), a massive set of productions stills and advertising poster art from around the world, a whole bunch of  hidden “easter eggs,” and, in lieu of a commentary track (whoch would, I admit, have been nice), we get a pretty cool soundtrack option Grindhouse labels “The Vine Theater Experience,” which is a live recording of a screening of the film at the Vine theater in Hollywood a few years back, and it’s a lot of fun to give it at least one listen and check out all the (5.1-mixed) audience reactions to what they’re seeing on the screen. And,  as a final added plus, there’s a great liner notes essay by legendary horror journalist Chas Balun. All in all, an extremely worthwhile addition to your exploitation DVD library.

"Inglorious Basterds" Movie Poster

"Inglorious Basterds" Movie Poster

So, here it is. After well over a year of hype, speculation, dropped hints, and quite a bit of pre-release hand-wringing from various quarters worried about the film’s purported “implications,” Quentin Tarantino’s latest— typically homage-heavy —flick, “Inglourious Basterds,” has arrived in theaters. And while it marks, in some ways at least, a bit of a departure for everyone’s favorite grindhouse renaissance man, in truth, at its core, it represents another venture into territory he’s mined several times already—the good old-fashioned revenge story. The setting has changed, sure, as has the mixture of visual storytelling styles Tarantino employs, but ultimately this is every bit the “gettin’ me some getback” tale that the “Kill Bill” films and “Deathproof” were, albeit less haphazard and more thoroughly-realized than those previous efforts were. Looking back, one can even see how those earlier films were sort of trial (and at times error) runs for what he would ultimately attempt to do with “Basterds,” in much the same way that Lynch had some hit-and-miss efforts with “Lost Highway” and “Fire Walk With Me” before hitting his surrealistic stride with “Mulholland Drive.” Tremors before the big earthquake, if you will. Ripples in the pond before the big fish breaks up out of the water. In any case, “Inglourious Basterds” is definitely Tarantino’s best film since “Jackie Brown,” and probably—hopefully—his final statement on the revenge cinema he’s been obsessed with since then, because it’s hard to see how he could do the genre any more justice than he does here.

“Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France—” is how the first of the film’s five “chapter” sequences opens, and this opening scene plays out in exactly the Sergio Leone style its introduction implies, with a long, tense sit-down stand-off between a French farmer and evil Nazi sumbitch Col. Hans Lander, nicknamed “The Jew Hunter” and played with absolutely palpable menace by Chritoph Walz, who steals every scene he appears in. It’s a lengthy scene to be sure, with each passing second upping the tension quota still further, and by the time it ends in a flurry of bullets and sawdust, the audience is awash in equal waves of repulsion and relief. It’s a truly brilliant opening that grabs the viewer by the balls and doesn’t let go — and while the farmer and the Jews he’s hiding underneath his floorboards are all murdered,  his daughter gets away, and , in typical Tarantino style she’ll grow up to be a young woman hellbent on payback a la Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill”s and the troupe of actresses and stuntwomen in “Deathproof.”

In the next chapter we meet the Basterds themselves, a team of “G.I.Jews,” as they’re being called in the reviews, assembled by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a been-there-done-that-can’t-faze-him-in-any-way Southern Boy caricature that Brad Pitt sinks his teeth into with relish. The Basterds have a simple remit—drop into Nazi-occupied France and “git” their commanding officer “one hunnert” German scapls each . Apart from Pitt’s ultraviolent good ole boy,  other standouts among their ranks include Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz, a psychotic German enlisted man with a hatred for authority so deep-seated that it causes him to murder 13 of his commanding Nazi officers, thus prompting his jailbreak at the hands of and conscription into the Basterds, and “Hostel” director Eli Roth and Donny  “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, who takes pride in dispatching his Nazi victims with a baseball bat — watching Donny at work is the Basterds’ favorite form of entertainment and, as Aldo says, “the closest we get to goin’ to the movies.”

From there, our scalphunters find their simple mission dovetailing with a covert British mission to take out the Nazi hierarchy, including Hitler himself, at the premier of Joseph Goebbels’ latest propaganda film taking place in the cinema that just happens to be owned and operated by Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the daughter of the farmer murdered by Lander in the opening scene. Along the way we get a fun, scenery-chewing cameo by Mike Myers as a British military strategist, film legend Rod Taylor (of “The Birds” fame) as Winston Churchill, plenty of scenes of Der Fuhrer himself ranting and raving, a couple of typical Tarantino seemingly-unrelated-to-anything-but-ultimately-quite-significant subplots (including one about the star of Goebbels’ new film taking a shine to Shosanna) and long scenes played out in tightly-confined spaces, including a brilliant one involving the undercover British operatives in Nazi guise and actual German soldiers that plays out in a basement bar. By the time we get to the big finale in the crowded cinema where the Basterds, the British (who include in their ranks a double agent who is  one of the leading ladies of German cinema), and Shosanna and her boyfriend/accomplice all make their move against the German high command at once, the expanse of the movie auditorium and its huge crowd represents welcome relief from the claustrophobic spaces and intense, face-to-face conversation that comprise the rest of the film.

Two things that absolutely must be pointed out to the prospective viewer— one, leave any preconceptions about historical reality at the door. “Inglorious Basterds” absolutely pisses all over history in its quest to craft a satisfying revenge yearn. Two, if you’ve seen Enzo G. Catsellari’s absolutely superb Italian “Dirty Dozen” knockoff “The Inglourious Bastards,” forget that, as well. Tarantino riffs on (or rips off, take your pick) the title for this movie, but that’s it. This is not a remake in any way, shape, or form.

Brad Pitt is a Basterd

Brad Pitt is a Basterd

Lots of ink has already been spilled in the service of, and column inches (both print and electronic) devoted to,  detailed analyses of real or imagined political subtexts at play in “Basterds.” Is it the cinema’s greatest statement of Jewish pride, showing them fearlessly going after the vengeance they so richly deserved but were too often denied in reality? Or is it a morality play a la Steven Spielberg’s overwrought-and-already-forgotten “Munich,” showing how bloodlust ultimately corrupts the human soul, even when pursued for purposes almost no one would quarrel with? Could it, possibly, even reinforce antisemitic stereotypes by saying “hey, here’s what the Jews could have done if they’d had any balls?” or “Look, give them half a chance and the Jews would have been every bit as sadistic and depraved as their Nazi tormentors?”

My own feeling is that Tarantino himself is probably having a good laugh at all this. “Inglourious Basterds” is none of these things—it’s a distillation, a refinement, of a genre that Tarantino has spent the better part of a decade working within, transposed into a deliberately provocative and ripe-for-overanalysis historical setting so that he can do with the artsy-fartsy, self-important “film analyst” crowd what he loves to do to them best—fuck with them mercilessly. While they’re losing sleep over their quite-often-woven-from-whole-cloth interpretations of the filmmaker’s intentions and equally woven-from-whole-cloth concerns about the audience’s interpretation of said intentions, our guy Quentin can rest easy knowing he’s done exactly what he set out to do—tell a kick-ass revenge story that makes all the right people sweat for all the right reasons. While  the “Inglourious Basterds” take out the Nazi Bastards onscreen with no remorse and plenty of out-and-out glee,  Tarantino himself is taking out the pretentious bastards of the film world in exactly the same way.

Finally, for those of you with an interest in all things Quentin, my buddy Mark has an interesting—and mercifully brief, in comparison to my own posts—analysis of  Tarantino’s use of the “Mexican stand-off” in almost all of his films. Check it out at

"District 9" Movie Poster

"District 9" Movie Poster

Once in awhile, a movie comes along that proves everybody can, indeed, be right. It’s a rare occasion, to be sure, especially in a country where “Titanic” is the reigning all-time box office champion, but it does happen, on occasion, and your humble host is pleased to announce that one of those occasions is right now.

Over the past few months, the buzz around “District 9,” the debut feature from South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp and produced by the king of all geekdom himself, Peter Jackson, has been palpable, especially in sci-fi circles. The premise looked intriguing, to say the least : an alien spacecraft of enormous proportions ( a true “mothership” in every sense of the word) is hanging lifeless over Johannesburg, South Africa, for 20 years, and in that time its inhabitants, a mollusk/insectoid-type biped race referred to derisively as “prawns” by Joburg’s citizens have taken up “refuge” in a makeshift slum known as “District 9,” an improvised shantytown that’s a blatantly obvious metaphor for apartheid-era conditions for black South Africans under apartheid. While there are obvious parallels to be drawn here to the film (and later TV series) “Alien Nation,” which featured an ominous “mothership” that, like the freighter in “District 9,” proves to be a type of slave transport for alien “drone workers,” any similarities end there — not just because the locale is changed from Los Angeles to Johannesburg,, and the aliens in “D9” are—well, a lot more alien,  but because Blomkamp’s film shows how the human race would probably deal with a sudden infusion of immigrants from space in a much more realistic fashion. Gone are the attempts to gradually assimilate the newly-arrived species into “proper” human society that formed the raison d’etre of “Alien Nation,” and in their place stands cold, brutal, unforgiving segregation, portrayed here in all its less-than-glory.

At the start of our story we’re introduced to Wikus (pronounced VEE-kus) Van Der Werwe(played by South African newcomer Sharlto Copley), a high-level bureaucratic functionary of MNE,  the Multi- National United corporation, a type of Blackwater-on-steroids private corporation tasked with administering the squalid ghetto that is District 9, who has been tasked with moving the alien population en masse under a flimsy legal cover to a new, even worse, concentration camp-style setting for the “prawns” further outside of town since Joburg’s  citizens have grown tired of their scavenging ways —not that they have much choice but to resort to bottom-feeding, of course, since they aren’t exactly being hired to work anywhere or offered any type of path towards assimilation into human society.

From the moment he enters the alien slum, teeming with rotting meat, every type of vice imaginable (and some you hadn’t imagined), unconscionable squalor, bad- ass Nigerian gangsters, and even-more-bad-ass alien weaponry and makeshift bioengineering, Wikus’ life undergoes a harrowing and literally gut-wrenching transformation that will  see him betrayed by members of his own family, made the object of a worldwide smear campaign, turned into a guinea pig for sadistic weapons experimentation and genetic manipulation, and eventually seek sanctuary among the ranks of those who, only hours before, he was in charge of evicting by any means necessary. For a guy with literally no discernible conscience to speak of, whose highest moral value seems to be the pursuit of expediency for the sake of his own career prospects, it’s on hell of a ride, and Copley is absolutely brilliant at conveying the inner transformation his character goes through as his physical reality changes so drastically and quickly. There’s Oscar talk about his performance already, and rest  assured, it’s entirely warranted. We have not heard anywhere near the last of Sharlto Copley.

The other great “acting” performance, such as it is, comes from Blomkamp’s CGI aliens themselves, especially Wikus’ makeshift “protector” and uneasy ally, a “prawn” named Christopher Johnson, and his young son. The facial “expressions”, subtle ticks, eye movements, and physical dexterity of Blomkamp’s aliens are a sight to behold, and even if there weren’t subtitles (apparently the humans and aliens can understand each other, though “speaking” the same language is physically impossible), the amazing range displayed by the CGI wizardry on display here would be enough to let audiences know what was happening with the “prawns” much of the time. I’ve been critical of CGI in a general sense in the past, and you know what? I’m probably going to be even more critical of it in the future, because “District 9” sets the bar for any future endeavors so high that I frankly just don’t see how it can be matched. If the Academy doesn’t shower Blomkamp’s effects team with every technical award under the sun, there ought to be an investigation.

The CGI, though—impressive as it is—finds itself outdone by the actual physical setting of the film itself. I’ve never been to Johannesburg, but the arid and oppressive feel to the city that Blomkamp conveys on- screen makes the viewer believe that this is the type of town a giant alien spacecraft would be right at home hovering over. It just seems to fit right in with the heat, the degradation, the feeling of being watched everywhere.  This is a story every bot as much about the city it takes place in (and around) as it is about aliens, corporate scheming, the brutality of neglect, and social division. Johannesburg itself is a character in this film every bit as much as Wikus van der Werwe and Christopher Johnson.

If I’m giving the impression here that “District 9” is more or less a flawless science fiction film, that’s because it is. Too often the idea of sci-fi as social allegory turns out to be a road to hell (or at least mediocrity) paved with good intentions, as whatever moral points being made either end up coming across as being heavy-handed or, alternatively, remain frustratingly oblique as the story pays more attention to the type of tech-heavy shoot-’em-ups we’ve seen a thousand times before at the expense truly exploring the often-interesting ideas underpinning the events on screen with anything resembling any definition of depth. “District 9” walks a tightrope act in this regard from start to finish and succeeds brilliantly at realizing its tremendous potential as a comprehensive and intricate study of a displaced alien civilization, an admittedly obvious yet still tremendously powerful social fable,  an intense and provocative character study, and a frenetic, no-holds-barred, action-and-effects extravaganza.

People are going to be talking about “District 9” for a long time. It’s already being discussed as a seminal work in the sci-fi genre along with films like “Blade Runner” and “2001:A Space Odyssey.” It’s a demanding, complex, intricate, and thoroughly realized work , a uniquely singular cinematic vision approached with tremendous confidence and not an ounce of hesitation. And it’s a a hell of a thrill ride, to boot. Sure to be among the year’s best and not to be missed under any circumstances.

"Not Quite Hollywood" Movie Poster

"Not Quite Hollywood" Movie Poster

“Stone.” “The Man From Hong Kong.” “Stork.” “Fantasm.” “Long Weekend.” “Mad Max.” “Turkey Shoot.” “Razorback.” “Dead-End Drive-In.” ” Mad Dog Morgan.” “BMX Bandits.” “Patrick.”

If the names of these movies don’t ring a bell—or even if they do—you’d be well-served by checking out director Mark Hartley’s respectful-yet-irreverent new indie documentary “Not Quite Hollywood,” a fascinating look at the history of “Ozploitation,” the bizarrely unique brand of low-budget exploitation filmmaking from Down Under.

In a very real sense, the history of the Ozplotation and the history of Australian filmmaking are one and the same, as no other country on earth has a movie industry whose roots lie in low-budget, drive-in pictures, and while more serious and scholarly arthouse fare like “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “The Last Wave” were the types of films Australia wanted to be known for producing in the 1970s, in truth these high-brow pictures were few and far between, and the bedrock of this nascent industry was the low-budget genre picture designed to draw people into the drive-ins (Australia is the only country besides the US with a distinct drive-in movie culture) and deliver the same types of cheap thrills, cheap shocks, cheap sex, and cheap gimmicks as their more-well-known American counterparts—all, of course, delivered on a cheap budget.

In truth, there was no Australian film industry to speak of until “Stork,” an ultra-low-budget screwball sex comedy, came along in 1971 and proved to the Australian filmgoing public—and prospective producers/investors—that Australia could produce its own fare for its cinemas and even, eventually, worldwide distribution markets. A veritable flood of Aussie sex comedies followed, such as the highly-popular “Alvin Purple” and “Fantasm” films, and the nudity-filled romps rules the day for several years until the small cadre of Australian filmmakers started to branch out into genres such as horror, action, and biker (or “bikie” as they’d say down there) movies, as well—there were even a few Australian kung fu flicks!

“Not Quite Hollywood” covers it all, with candid interviews from the directors, producers, stars,  and cinematographers behind many of the most notable Ozploitation efforts. Special attention is paid to the gonzo, balls-to-the-walls stuntmen who did so much to make this bizarre brand of filmmaking what it is, as well. American and British stars who made the trek Down Under  to either revive sagging careers or just plain keep working such as Dennis Hopper, Jamie Lee Curtis, Stacy Keach, and George Lazenby are on hand to share their recollections, as well.

Plenty of folks who went on to have fairly successful careers in Hollywood like George Miller, Fred Schepisi, and  Russell Mulcahy got their start directing Ozploitation pictures, and while names like Brian Trenchard-Smith are not as well-known stateside, their names are well-known to the Australian filmgoing public and their contributions to the growth and development of Aussie film cannot be overstated. Future mega-stars like Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson got their start in the world of Ozploitation, as well.

Oh, and there’s plenty of Quentin Tarantino, too, if you’re interested—as a human treasure-trove of knowledge of all things exploitation, he knows many of these movies well and his thoughts and reminiscences on them are insightful, interesting, and delivered with a lot less self-involved self-importance than we’ve grown accustomed to from him over the years.

I’m a little biased toward the subject matter here because I absolutely love Australia, having spent six months there, and I absolutely love low-budget exploitation filmmaking, so pairing the two is a match made in heaven for your humble host. But I have to admit that my own exposure to the world of Ozploitation has been minimal at best, since most of these films are unavailable on DVD here in the States. Sure, I’ve seen most of the well-regarded “classics” of  the filed like “Stone,” (my personal favorite of those I’ve seen and one of the absolute best biker movies ever, period) “Mad Max,” “Roadgames,” Razorback,” and what have you, but this movie has got me wanting to hunt more down—a lot more. There’s a plethora of delights for the low-budget coniosseur to be found in the wild world of Ozploitation, and I can’t wait to discover some of them for myself.

"Moon" Movie Poster

"Moon" Movie Poster

First, the good news : at some unspecified future date, the world’s energy problems are finally solved. Now, the bad news : in order to get the mysterious substance known as “helium 3” to power earth’s now-abundant fusion plants, we need to mine it from moon rocks, leading to long, lonely stretches of isolation for the astronaut-miners who plunder the far side of our satellite for precious minerals. I imagine the gig must pay well, but three-year stints alone on the moon with only a clunky faceless service robot for company? No thanks.

Such is the position Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” among other fine performances) finds himself in at the beginning of “Moon,” a brilliant metaphysical science fiction film that marks the debut feature from British writer-director Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son). Absolute isolation with only his trusty metal buddy Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to talk to. Things take a turn for the well and truly unexpected, though, when Sam wakes up from crashing his rover-type vehicle in his tiny base’s infirmary only to be confronted by a slightly younger and less-haggard looking version of —himself.

From the beginning, “Moon” confounds expectation. My first thought was that we were headed for another evil computer story, a la the HAL subplot from “2001” (mostly down to Spacey’s initial creepiness of Spacey’s delivery—but hey, he’s a robot, shouldn’t he sound—well—robotic?), but in truth what we’ve got here is an intense exploration of isolation, the meaning of memory, and an exploration of what it means to truly be human that can probably only be compared in terms of theme and style to Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (we won’t even go near Steven Soderbergh’s horrendous 2002 remake of that classic because I could drone on for ages about what an absolute bastardization of everything good and decent in this universe that waste of celluloid represents).  It’s only a skin-deep comparison, though, as “Moon” really does stake out a thematic territory all its own and, like the heavy-duty lunar equipment central to its premise ( done entirely with models, by the way, as is the base itself—no CGI here, thank the heavens—all of which give the proceedings a vaguely “Space:1999” feel that is, I’m sorry to use the term, way cool) mines it for all it’s worth.

“Moon” is a tricky flick to review because you literally can’t talk about anything after the crash without giving away major plot points, so, in the interest of actually hoping to get anyone who might be reading this to see it, I’ll refrain. I will, however, offer a caveat or two—

If you don’t like Sam Rockwell, you won’t like this film. He’s essentially the only character, even though there’s more than one of him. He gives an incredibly diverse and affecting performance that should be worthy of Oscar consideration, and to say he carries the film would be a massive understatement. He IS the film, and in the hands of a lesser actor we’d be in serious disaster territory here. It’s one of the finest performances of recent years, but if you’re not a fan of Rockwell’s you NEED to skip this movie.

Along those same lines, if metaphysical studies of the human condition aren’t your thing, “Moon” won’t be, either. It’s a deeply introspective work and a provocative meditation on just what it is that constitutes the very notion of humanity itself. If you’re in the mood for mindless summer fun, again, give this a pass.

But if you want to be challenged about what the concept of existence itself can actually be defined as, then “Moon” is a movie you owe it to yourself to see. It’s intensely atmospheric, true, but there is genuine substance underneath it all, much more than we’ve, sadly, become accustomed to of late. “Moon” is a film that makes you think, and then think again. It poses key questions about our nature as people and doesn’t dispense easy answers. It’s provocative without being preachy, and invites philosophical queries of genuine depth without being self-indulgent or resorting to navel-gazing. It’s a very-near-perfectly-constructed character piece that presents complex material in a naturally-flowing and entirely unforced manner.

And I can’t leave any discussion, one-sided as it may be, about the film without saying “three cheers for nepotism!” Jones proves himself to be a truly able director in his own right, but what are the odds of something this singularly character-driven, and without a truly “bankable” star in the lead role, getting made if he’s the son of a janitor instead of a music legend? I’m betting zero. So here’s to those who were impressed enough by the director’s pedigree to green-light his project. And here’s to Jones for not wasting his opportunity by giving us another self-involved, unbearably pretentious “arthouse” flick and instead making a film that isn’t afraid to take its audience on a journey inside without providing a trail of breadcrumbs to lead them back out. “Moon” isn’t afraid to ask probing questions, but it leaves the answers up to you to determine. As such, it’s a true rarity in modern filmmaking—a movie that will mean something different to each individual viewer.

"I Spit On Your Grave" movie poster

"I Spit On Your Grave" movie poster

In the storied annals of exploitation cinema, few films have ever stirred as much controversy as Meir Zarchi’s rape-revenge masterpiece “I Spit On Your Grave.” Originally released in 1978 under the title “Day of the Woman,” which is actually much more appropriate to the movie’s content but far less—shall was say—noticeable, the story of Jenny Hill(played by Camille Keaton, veteran of Italian exploitation fare such as “Tragic Ceremony”), sophisticated but mild-mannered Manhattan author who rents a cabin on the Husatonik river in Connecticut for the summer in the hopes of getting some peace and quiet so she can write her first book only to be descended upon savagely by a gang of four local, and absolutely merciless, it must be said, redneck rapists(played by Erin Tabor, who turns in a fairly solid performance as the group’s ringleader, Richard Pace , who features as the dim-witted virgin buddy who the others are trying to  “get laid” that summer by any means necessary, Gunter Kleeman and Anthony Nichols) before pursuing her own brand of justice, came and went from the drive-in and grindhouse circuit pretty quickly while only kicking up a slight bit of outraged dust from the morality police. When Jerry Gross picked it up for wider distribution a couple years later with a new and more provocative title with an ad campaign to match that played up the film’s subject matter in the most prurient way possible, though, audiences took note. And so did the critics.

It wasn’t just the Jerry Folwells of the world who objected to “I Spit On Your Grave”‘s shockingly brutal sexual violence, or the purported film sophisticates like Pauline Kael who jumped on the supposed exploitation of its audiences most base “urges”—even perfectly mainstream critics like Siskel and Ebert were appalled and outraged by what they deemed on “Sneak Previews” (remember that?) as “the most sexist movie ever made.” The passing of time has cast things in a new, and in this case proper, light, though, and I have to say that your friendly neighborhood TFG agrees with B-movie aficionado par excellence Joe Bob Briggs, who, in his superb commentary on Elite Entertainment’s  “Millennium Edition” DVD of the film released in 2002 declared it, rather, to be quite possibly the most FEMINIST movie ever made. Let’s take a quick look at why I think this is the case and explore why it is that this flick retains its power to shock and disturb even now, over 30 years after its original release.

Things start out pleasnatly enough for Jenny---

Things start out pleasantly enough for Jenny---

The standard feminist line, as I understand it, is that rape is not a crime about sex, but about violence—about power, control, and the objectification and dehumanization of its victim. Seems like a fair enough analysis to me. It’s not anything to do with using violence to to obtain sex, it’s about using sex as a tool of violence. Well, there’s no question that “I Spit On Your Grave” absolutely shows that to be the case—a little too absolutely for most audiences, truth be told. There’s no “rape scene” in “I Spit On Your Grave”—there’s a long, harrowing, maliciously brutal SERIES of rape scenes strung together that take up nearly 45 minutes of the film’s 100-minute run time. It’s well and truly excruciating stuff to sit through and there’s nothing even remotely “kinky” about any of the proceedings. Each is more savage and relentless than the last. And you know what? For the purposes of the story being told here, that’s the way it’s got to be. This isn’t a story about the better angels of human nature. It’s not about love and forgiveness. It’s about a brutally violent crime followed by brutally violent revenge. Given what Jenny does later—freeing her attackers from the bonds of this mortal coil with extreme prejudice—the crime perpetrated upon her needs to be shown in all its repulsive barbarity or else the methods by which she chooses to dispatch these guys is going to seem like some serious overkill. “I Spit On Your Grave” is about the deadly consequences of psyche-and spirit-shattering attack. Skimp out on the details and the story itself loses most of its meaning and all of its power.

---but quickly take a turn for the worse---the FAR worse.

---but quickly take a turn for the worse---the FAR worse.

Unlike the film, though, your humble critic is going to spare you the details of both the attack on Ms. Hill and her vengeance in case you, dear reader, haven’t seen this movie yet and would like to.  Suffice to say neither are pretty, but if you’re a properly-morally-hardwired human being, one will leave you disgusted beyond words while the other will have you high-fiving whoever you’re watching the movie with (assuming they, too, have standard human moral codes—if not, get some new friends. Fast.). Which is where the shock and disgust of the Siskels and Eberts of the world once again come into play. Apparently they stated that when they went to see the movie in the theater, some audience members were literally cheering during the midst of Jenny’s ordeal. I have to admit, that’s sick—really sick. I just don’t see how any honest analysis of the film can lead a person to conclude that was the reaction Zarchi was aiming for in any way, shape, or form, and a director really I can’t help who buys a ticket to see his or her work.  I’m also willing to bet those some assholes were probably sitting there in stunned silence, clutching at their balls to make sure they were still there, when the animals they were whooping and hollering for get their comeuppance. Let’s just say guys out for payment in blood for the wrongs done to them or their families like Charles Bronson (no disrespect to Chuck, TFG loves the guy) could learn a lesson or two from our girl Jenny(apart from her one mistake—she kills the group’s head honcho— a guy, by the way, shown as having a wife and kids, therefore destroying another myth of rape, that it’s perpetrated by masked intruders and not “decent family men,” therefore making another very feminist, and sadly accurate, argument about sexual violence, namely that it can be perpetrated by people in all walks of life for any reason or no reason at all— second, rather than saving him for last—but hey, it’s understandable, you gotta kill these guys in the order you come across them, you may not get a second chance).

Revenge is a dish best served cold---

Revenge is a dish best served cold, even if it's not at the table---

Your host isn’t terribly fond of the idea that cinema, literature, or music can somehow “influence” somebody to do something they wouldn’t have done otherwise, and frankly I find the idea that critics of “I Spit On Your Grave” advanced at the time that this film would somehow “inspire” anyone to go out and rape somebody is absurd. Those buffoons that Siskel and Ebert heard cheering obviously had problems to begin with. But in truth this film does nothing to “encourage” them, rather it shows the unbearable ugliness of rape in the coldest and most clinical light possible and shows the rapists themselves as being mindless thugs who get exactly what they deserve. This is movie isn’t told from their point of view, it’s told from hers — it’s quite apparent that in no uncertain terms, as far as Zarchi is concerned, these guys are inhuman monsters.

---just be prepared to clean up the mess afterwards. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

---just be prepared to clean up the mess afterwards. And don't be afraid to get your hands dirty.

The critical reevaluation this film has seen over the years is finally waking some folks up to the fact that they had it wrong the first time around and what we’ve got here is not a prurient piece of irredeemable garbage but, in truth, probably the best entry into the “rape-revenge” subgenre of all time. Sure, classics like “The Last House on the Left” still stand out in this tiny cinematic ouevre, but the crime itself and its aftermath are much more personal, and therefore immediate, in “I Spit On Your Grave.” No family members getting even for what was done to their daughter or wife here. This is a woman settling the score for what was done to HER, personally. It’s not flashy or stylized or in any way “glamorous”(another great point Briggs makes in his DVD commentary is that, sure, there’s some gratuitous nudity early on—it’s an exploitation film, for Christ’s sake—but Zarchi doesn’t dwell on extreme close-ups of Keaton’s naked breasts as one would expect, rather it’s all shown from quite a considerable distance). It’s raw, authentic, and unvarnished. And yeah, that makes it ugly, but it’s an ugly crime — is it even right to portray it in any other way?

Elite Entertainment's "Millennium Edition" DVD Release of "I Spit On Your Grave"

Elite Entertainment's "Millennium Edition" DVD Release of "I Spit On Your Grave"

There have been a few different DVD editions of “I Spit On Your Grave” over the years (and incidentally, this was one of the films on Britain’s infamous “video nasties” list, movies which were literally BANNED by the UK government during the early-80s VHS boom), but the “Millennium Edition” from Elite Entertainment is the way to go here. In addition to the fantastic commentary from Briggs referenced a time or two above, there’s also an insightful commentary track from writer-director Meir Zarchi (who would go on to to make one other film, “Don’t Mess With My Sister,” which also centers on a revenge them—guess he wasn’t too terribly interested in other types of stories. Oh, and he married his leading lady from “I Spit On Your Grave,” Camille Keaton, so I guess she wasn’t too convinced herself that he’d made some “pro-rape” movie here),  a selection of outraged (and outrageous) text reviews from newspapers and magazines from around the time of the film’s release,  and the theatrical trailer and a sampling of TV spots are thrown in for good measure, as well. The digitally-remastered picture and THX sound are great. An essential addition to the home video library of exploitation film fans everywhere.

"Combat Shock" Tromasterpiece 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Cover

"Combat Shock" Tromasterpiece 25th Anniversary Edition DVD Cover

“It was becoming clearer all the time. The war is not over. The battlefield may have changed, but the war is not over.”        —Frankie Dunlan, “Combat Shock”

This is the REAL guerrilla filmmaking. Forget today’s “YouTube generation” with their hi-def home video cameras baring their excuses-for-souls in overwrought,  self-important quasi-confessionals that even they won’t care about themselves a week from now. In 1984, armed with nothing but a few thousand bucks and a 16mm camera and lighting equipment borrowed from the film school he was attending (and soon to be teaching at), Buddy Giovinazzo, a guy with nothing more than a couple short films and some music videos done for his own band ( who went by the moniker 2000 A.D. Circus, in case you were wondering) on his resume hit the postapocalyptic-looking streets of Staten Island and committed to celluloid something so fearlessly and unforgivingly bleak that even today’s audiences, reared as they are on high-gloss torture porn and million-dollar grime, will find sitting though the whole thing from start to finish hard to endure. That’s because “Combat Shock” is nothing less than a cinematic brass-knuckled punch to the gut. A movie that spits in your face while you’re down on the ground and dares you to get up again, you disgusting wimp. And just as you start to get your bearings and lift your head, it delivers another body blow and dares you to try that shit with it again, worm.  The world you ignore—the world you want to pretend doesn’t exist—the REALITY that squirms and slithers at the absolute bottom of the trash barrel, underneath the maggot-infested, rotted-meat discards of your SUV-driving, charge card-funded ILLUSION of a life—it’s forcing its way to the top, DEMANDING that you pay attention, no longer allowing you to turn a blind eye to the fact that its horrid dog-eat-dog squalor is the price OTHER people have to pay so that YOU can pretend everything is fine and dandy. “Combat Shock” is a movie that screams at you how much it hates your fucking guts and how richly you’ve earned that hatred—and for that, I love it.

Let’s go back in time for a moment to 1984. Ronald Reagan’s TV commercials are triumphantly declaring that it’s “morning in America,” but the reality on the ground is that all the people enjoying this glorious fiction of a “morning,” complete with its Hollywood sunrise, hoisted flags, and happy children scurrying off to greet the smiling school-bus driver left  one hell of a mess the night before, but guess what?  It’s morning for millions of other folks,  too — the people who weren’t at the party  and won’t be at tonight’s,  either. They’re sifting through the broken beer bottles, soggy cigarette butts, and puked-up food the partiers left in their wake, looking for some way to survive in the hollowed-out shells of once-booming industrial towns the Wall Street fat cats and junk-bond hustlers left behind as “collateral damage”  on their way to Reagan’s bright and shining new dawn.

A lot of those numberless, faceless, voiceless, hopeless “left-behinds” are veterans. Guys who put it all on the line, risking the one and only thing they truly had—their lives— in the jungles of Viet Nam while the daddy warbuckses of the world made billions standing in a pool of their blood and atop a makeshift hill of their severed limbs. Some came back so shellshocked, so physically broken and/or psychologically and spiritually tunneled-out, that from where they were standing, limping, crawling, or lying down, the guys who died, the guys who didn’t have to come back and try to eke out some kind of gutter-level existence on the table leavings of the same assholes who profited from their sacrifice and were now enjoying Ronnie’s new morning, were starting to look pretty lucky.

One such discarded veteran is Frankie Dunlan.  When we join Frankie’s story, he’s already at rock bottom, and while the shiny, happy people will tell him there’s nowhere to go but up, we all know that’s bullshit.  “Morning in America” for Frankie means, like every other morning for the past four months,  he doesn’t have a job to go to. His overbearing wife and horribly deformed (thanks to Frankie’s exposure to agent orange) baby are starving. He can’t make the rent on his calling-it-a-shithole-would-be-a-compliment apartment in the economically bombed-out ruins of Staten Island. There’s no water. The toilet’s backed up (note for the squeamish: while some movies have backed-up toilets, and lots of movies smell they came out of backed-up toilets,  “Combat Shock” points the camera lens inside the backed-up toilet). The train line runs right outside their window. His clothes are stained and torn to shreds. And just to add insult to injury,  his frayed shoelaces snap on him when he’s tying them in preparation to head out to another day in the unemployment line.

That doesn’t prove to be an easy trip, though.  Local “debt collectors” he had to turn to in order to make last month’s rent are looking for him and don’t much care at this point if he pays them back in cash or blood. A junkie pal of his is so strung out he doesn’t even recognize him at first and tries to hold him up for cash he doesn’t have. His mind is is riddled with waking fever-dreams of Viet Nam—both of the war atrocities he committed there and those perpetrated upon him when he was captured.

And of course, when he does finally get there (warning to those with short attention spans: “Combat Shock” is not exactly a fast -paced flick) the line goes around the block, it takes hours to get in, and there’s no work, anyway. And Frankie’s long meander home isn’t much easier—when he tries to prevent a little girl who can’t be more than 10 or 11 years old from beating up her kid sister, he’s attacked by—get your vomit-bags handy—her pimp, who says Frankie needs to fork over 50 bucks if he wants to keep talking to her, proving only that even when he tries to do the right thing, it’s absolutely hopeless. “Combat Shock” is many things, but a “feel-good” movie isn’t one of them.

Suffice to say, there’s only one way Frankie’s story can end, and of course it ain’t pretty. You see it coming five minutes into the movie, but even so,  when it happens it’s still nerve-wracking. Hell, I’ve seen this movie a dozen times at least and it still gets  no easier to take it all in with  subsequent viewings. How many movies can you say that about?

And while too many “B”-type films than you can mention are hindered by their low budgets, in “Combat Shock”‘s case—for the most part, with an exception or two I’ll detail in a minute–the fact that it was made for nothing is actually a key reason for its success. Frankie is played by Ricky Giovinazzo, writer-director Buddy’s brother. Ricky’s a musician by trade (he also provides the frenetic and bizarre, so-incongruous-it-actually works score to the film) and not at all what you’d call an Oscar-caliber actor. Hell, it doesn’t even feel like he’s actually acting at all. Combined with the film’s completely non-stylized, absolutely direct camerawork (Giovinazzo and company never had any filming permits and shot the whole thing “on the fly,” quite often having to settle for getting things in one take and moving quickly to the next scene) this gives the proceedings an absolutely naturalistic, almost documentary-type feel and eliminates much of the “comfortable distance” between viewer and subject found is most cinematic fiction.  “Combat Shock” is a story that lives beneath gutter-level, and its raw, amateur, unpolished technical quality is exactly right for it.  the word we’re looking for here is AUTHENTIC–completely, agonizingly, harrowingly AUTHENTIC.

Awww---isn't he a little darling?

Awww---isn't he a little darling?

So what doesn’t work? Well, as you can see above,  Frankie’s baby, a puppet-type construct whipped up by effects man Ralph Cordero for $140, is a little too “Eraserhead”-influenced to really work in the context of the story (and to be honest, the influence of David Lynch’s indie surrealist masterpiece—which, in Giovinazzo’s defense, was a very popular thing to ape in the outside-of-Hollywood film world at the time and would eventually even find its way inside the movie capitol’s less-than-hallowed-halls—  is glaringly obvious in a few other notable instances as well, such as the occasional close-up of the vapor-spewing humidifier in Frankie’s hovel and some truly Lynchian dialogue on the part of his case worker at the unemployment office, interrupted as it is with Buddy G himself popping his head inside the guy’s door and asking to borrow a veg-o-matic, a complete non-sequiter that would feel right at home in (the admittedly later, but  it’s still Lynch so I’m straining the comparison in that direction on moral grounds alone, chronology be damned)”Twin Peaks”). The “Viet Nam” flashback scenes are, it’s  painfully obvious,  shot on Staten Island, with, it’s painfully obvious, non-Vietnamese actors (one of whom, a woman gunned down by Frankie, was actually Giovinazzo’s wife at the time). The woman playing the nurse at Frankie’s VA hospital-bedside (in another series of flashbacks) is Vernoica Stork, the same actress who plays his starving-and-therefore-understandably-nagging wife, in a black, curly wig. I know, I know—it’s a zero-budget flick and Giovinazzo was doing the absolute best he could given the circumstances, but these no-way-to-be-avoided shortcomings really do detract from the overall aura of (here’s that word again) authenticity that the film otherwise conveys so brilliantly (even if only by dint of complete practical necessity).

Now, “Combat Shock” had a very brief theatrical run on New York City’s grindhouse circuit in 1984 under its original title, “American Nightmares.” Buddy G had always envisioned that what he was making here was an arthouse flick, but its raw and brutal violence and uncompromisingly grim overall worldview and aesthetic scared the self-appointed film “sophisticates” away in droves at test screenings, and to the notorious streets of “The Deuce” it went.  Somehow, I suppose,  it’s only right that a gutter story filmed in a gutter style should play in the cinematic gutter — poetic justice indeed. I’m sure many of the people who saw this film knew the world it showed— hell, the world it lived in—as intimately as one can. Some folks know street-level genius when they see it, though, and fortunately for Giovinazzo the folks at Troma picked up his little opus for re-release in theaters and (later) on VHS in 1986.  They got together with Buddy at that point and fitted it out with its new “Combat Shock” title,  redid the opening and closing credits sequences, tinkered a bit with some of the sound and gore effects (another area, it must be said, where the lack of budget well and truly heightened the—word for the day, kids—authenticity of the film, as the blood n’ guts effects really work marvelously), trimmed eight minutes of  some of the more relentless brutality off the  runtime (mostly from the ending, although even in edited form it’s still a pretty tough slog) in order to get an “R” rating from the MPAA, and outfitted it with a completely-incongruous (though still pretty cool in its own way, it must be said) “Rambo”-style poster and ad campaign.  And the end result? 25 years later, we’re still talking about it, and it’s still reducing new audiences to the same levels of shellshocked trauma that Frankie himself would understand so well.

All of which brings me (go ahead, I know you’re dying to scream out “Finally!”) to the new 25th anniversary edition 2-disc set from Troma, the fourth entry in their “Tromasterpiece” collection. What do we get here that we didn’t have in the original release? Well, for one, there’s new and vastly more appropriate-to-its-subject packaging (although I miss the original artwork, myself). There’s a great  liner notes essay inside by “Shock Cinema” editor Steven Puchalski. We get both versions of the film—the 100-minute “American Nightmares” cut (available on DVD for the first time and  struck from the very first 16 mm answer print, complete with original opening and closing credits sequences and sound and visual effects), and the 92-minute “Combat Shock” cut (which also features the absolutely terrific commentary track with Buddy G and “Nekromantik” director Jorg Buttgereit, recorded in Berlin, where Buddy now occasionally works directing television, that first appeared on the earlier single-disc edition). There’s a new trailer made especially for the “Tromasterpiece” DVD. We get a wide and intriguing selection of Giovinazzo’s short films, both pre-and post-“Combat Shock” (including “Mr. Robbie,” aka “Maniac 2,” starring the original “Maniac” himself, Joe Spinell, which also features on the “Tromasterpiece” DVD release of “The Last Horror Film”) in addition to a sampling of his 2000 A.D. Circus music video work.  There are no less than four very good interviews with the brothers Giovinazzo, three with Buddy (one of which has, again, Buttgereit along for the proceedings) and one with Rick, which marks his first ever on-camera discussion about his role in the film ( and I must say he couldn’t be any more different, personally,  to the character he portrays in the film). The original theatrical trailer is on hand for good measure. There’s a fascinating short look at the Staten Island locations as they appear today. And finally, best of all, there’s a new 30-minute documentary, “An American Nightmare,” a detailed look not only at the making of the film, but its distribution history,  its rediscovery in the “cult” cinema underground, and its impact on both contemporary and subsequent independent moviemaking, including reflections from such notables as “Deadbeat at Dawn” and “The Manson Family” director Jim VanBeber” (“Combat Shock” was an obvious influence on “Deadbeat”, although admittedly it’s a whole lot grimmer and grimier) “Henry:Portrait Of  Serial Killer” director John McNaughton (“Henry”  probably was, and remains the closest thing around to “Combat Shock” in terms of style and tone), “Maniac” director Bill Lustig, “Evil Dead 2” screenwriter and “Intruder” director Scott Spiegel, “Hardware” and “Dust Devil” director Richard Stanley, and “Document of the Dead” director and “Street Trash” writer-producer Roy Frumkes. Definitely one of the most informative and insightful–not to mention interesting—“behind-the-scenes”-type DVD extras in some time.

So yeah—this is the total package. If you already own the original Troma release, you can throw it in the trash or try to get three bucks for it on eBay. This is the version you need to own. And that goes double if you don’t have it already. I had mentioned in a post last week that I thought this would figure to be the must-own DVD release of the year, and my prognostication was, even if I do only say so myself, exactly correct.

Is “Combat Shock” for everyone? Is the Pope a Presbyterian? If, however, you want a cinematic experience you seriously will never forget (even if you’d like to)— if Hollywood “coming-home-from- ‘Nam fare like “Born on the Fourth of July” or even Cimino’s excellent “The Deer Hunter” left you feeling like the ugliest side of the story of these vets had been glossed over—if you genuinely enjoy being challenged to keep going through something you feel like  you might not want to see thorugh but know, deep down inside, that you must—and yes, if you can forgive a few necessary foibles of amateurism in service to the greater good that very same amateurism provides—then “Combat Shock” is a film that if you haven’t seen you absolutely need to see, and see very soon. But be warned—it leaves a stain inside that can’t be washed away, and there’s no Spray-n’-Wash for the human soul.