Archive for February, 2010

FAB Press Ad Sheet for Volume 1 of "Motion Picture Purgatory" by Rick Trembles

I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the work of Montreal cartoonist Rick Trembles and his incredible “Motion Picture Purgatory” on this blog before, but with a second collection of Trembles’ strips recently published by FAB Press, now seems as good a time as any to rectify that situation.

In short, Trembles hit some years ago on a genius idea so obvious it’s amazing no one ever thought of it before — reviewing movies in comic-strip form. It’s a natural, really, since both comics and film and, you know, words and pictures, it’s just that one features movement and the other doesn’t. So utilizing the comics medium to critique film is about as natural a combination as I can imagine.

I can’t really think of any other cartoonist whose work closely mirrors that of Trembles, but I think the intricately detailed “Quimby the Mouse” stuff by Chris Ware probably comes closest stylistically, and while in some strips in the late 90s/early 2000s the Ware influence is pretty pronounced, as time has gone on Trembles has really developed his own unique artistic style to go with his own voice, which he’s always had. I could go on and one about how Trembles structures a page and works the film’s themes and plotlines into the layout of his visual reviews, but, assuming it won’t get me into any sort of copyright trouble, I’ll just reprint one here and let you see for yourself —

Rick Trembles "Motion Picture Purgatory" Review for "Thriller" (a.k.a."They Call Her One Eye")

Trembles covers a wide variety of films in his reviews, which are published weekly in the Montreal Mirror free paper and available for viewing on his website, but 70s grindhouse fare, particularly of the horror variety, is nearest and dearest to his heart. He’s not a one-trick pony, though, and everything from documentaries to comedies to golden age Hollywood classics to Ray Harryhausen (for whom Trembles’ admiration is obvious) to animation to recent Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between has come in for the Trembles treatment. In the recently-publishes Volume 2 of his collected works, for example, he covers films as varied as “The Deadly Spawn,” “The Gods of Times Square,” “Fight for Your Life,” “Cloverfield,” “The Manson Family,” “Pontypool,” “Things,” and “Visitor Q,” to title-drop just a few!

Volume 2 of the Collected "Motion Picture Purgatory" by Rick Trembles

Anyway, his stuff’s a blast, and his unique brand of genius — a term I don’t throw about freely — is seriously unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Not only is he one of the more creative and inventive cartoonists around, he’s also one of the best film critics working today, period.

Both volumes of his collected work are available directly from FAB Press (who also have an exlusive hardback edition of the second book unavailable elsewhere) or at any major online book retailer like Amazon, and are seriously worth the price. End of free, but very well-deserved, plug.

"Deathdream" Movie Poster

Years before Michael Cimino and Oliver Stone dealt with the trauma of returning Viet Nam veterans in their Oscar-winning films “The Deer Hunter” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” independent exploitation filmmakers were going where Hollywood still didn’t dare to go. More specifically, legendary director Bob Clark of “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story” fame was going there, and at the time he was working in the regional independent exploitation milieu.

Before heading north of the border to lens the slasher classic “Black Christmas,” Clark cut his teeth on a couple of low-budget horror flicks in Florida. The first, “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things,” is a pleasing if ultimately forgettable effort, but the second, 1974’s  “Deathdream” (also released under the titles “Dead of Night,” “The Night Andy Came Home” and “The Night Walk,” among others), is a bona fide classic. Not only did it beat Cimino and Stone to the punch in terms if its harrowing subject matter, but it one-upped George Romero in using the zombie film as contemporary sociopolitical allegory because while Romero offered hints of his zombies (and remember, he specifically referred to them as “ghouls” at the time) and even moreso the human survivors confronting them as being stand-ins for a host of current issues, Clark dealt with those issues in a much more head-on manner in “Deathdream.” When Romero returned with “Dawn of the Dead,” he tackled the political in a much more direct manner, and while I can’t say for certain that Clark’s film emboldened him to do so, it certainly couldn’t have hurt matters any .

Also worth noting for history : this film was originally released with a PG rating, but was later re-rated with an R somewhere along the line as it continued to play regional drive-in and grindhouse circuits. You could get away with a lot under the PG label in the early years of the MPAA rating system.

I’m no prude, but considering the subject matter and some of the (effective for a film with literally ten times its budget) gore, I think an R does seem the more appropriate classification, but what the hell do I know? Read my little brief overview of the plot details  (or better yet see the film) and decide for yourself —

Andy at the beginning ---

Charles Brooks (John Marley, the guy who found the horse’s head in his bed in “The Godfather”), his wife Christine (Lynn Carlin,  “Faces” ) and their daughter, Cathy (Anya Ormsby)  are sitting down to dinner when two messengers from the army arrive with the telegraph that every parent with a child in the service dreads : their son, Andy, has been killed in Viet Nam. Needless to say, the entire family is devastated beyond words.

Later (what one assumes to be) that same night, though, a truck driver picks up a hitchhiker on a lonely stretch of two-lane road somewhere in Florida. He’s dressed in army fatigues and and isn’t much of a conversationalist, but the trucker learns that he’s just come home from Viet Nam and is on the way to see his family.

In short order, Andy (a young Richard Backus) turns up on his parents’ doorstep. Convinced that the telegram was nothing more than a horrible mistake, his family is at first so overjoyed to see their son that they let Andy’s strange behavior slide. He won’t go see the family doctor for a physical. He sits silently in his room at all hours rocking back and forth in a chair. He seems quiet and distant, He has no interest in seeing his former high school sweetheart, who still carries a torch for him or any of his former friends, for that matter.

Of course, when the death of a truck driver is reported on the news, his family don’t suspect a thing. But when other bodies start turning up, including the family doctor he refused to visit, Andy’s father, at least, begins to fear the worst, even if his mother willfully refuses to put two and two together.

Andy’s a zombie, you see, and he needs blood to survive. Or things start to get real ugly real fast. And the longer he hangs around, the more blood he needs. When he finally relents and goes out on a double-date to the drive-in with his former (although not in her mind) sweetheart and his best buddy and his girl, he’s dressed in dark sunglasses and a crisp white suit-type outfit that covers him from head to toe. He shouldn’t be going anywhere and he knows it, and his deterioration and berserker rage at the drive-in is a classic scene in the annals of horror.

--- and at the end

It goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that the plot’s pretty simple and straightforward here, but the actors really bring the material to life. Marley is superb as the father who walks a delicate balance between being overjoyed at seeing the son he never thought he’d see again and suspecting the harsh,brutal truth about his condition. Carlin delivers a heartwrenchingly realistic portrait of a mother who will protect her son from anything, even when the reality of what he’s become stares her in the face. What could be portrayed as a simple case of denial in the face of everything is instead a gut-wrenching portrait of motherly love even when said love flies in the face of reality itself. And Backus is magnificent as Andy, conveying cold menace yet also a sense of tragic victimhood at all times.

As for the ending — -well, it’ll rip your heart out. That’s all I can say. The story can obviously only finish one way (although I won’t spell that out too specifically), but the pain and anguish that occur when the inevitable happens makes for a truly heartbreaking goodbye, not just for B movie, but for any movie.

"Deathdream" DVD from Blue Underground

The fine folks at Blue Underground released “Deathdream” on DVD a few years back in a truly superb package that contains an excellently-restored 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the film. two separate feature length commentaries (one from director Clark recorded not too terribly long before his sudden and tragic death in an auto accident, the other from screenwriter Alan Ormsby), an extended version of the powerful ending sequence, a poster and still gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and a new interview with star Richard Backus.

Best of all for horror fans, though, is the mini-documentary “Tom Savini : The Early Years.” Included because “Deathdream” was the first film on which the legendary make-up FX man cut his teeth before his his horror-history-making work for George Romero on “Dawn of the Dead,” this is a fascinating look at the early life and work of a guy who literally revolutionized the movie business. The fact that he was a Viet Nam vet, to boot, makes it doubly thematically appropriate.

Don’t let my rather quick synopsis of the plot fool you (your reviewer didn’t want to give away too much in terms of detail, but the truth is that this is a film I could literally spend hours talking about) : “Deathdream” is a painstakingly detailed account of one young man’s desperate struggle to continue surviving after he’s already dead, and how his quite literal descent literally rips his family apart. And while there weren’t any literal zombies who came home from Viet Nam, the number of walking wounded was incalculable. They’re coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq today, making this film as timely as ever. Leave it to low-budget regional filmmakers to blaze the trail and let Hollywood know it was “okay” to deal with subject matter like this.

Finally, it’s worth noting in closing that the Viet Nam war was still going on when this film was made, while it was over and done with by the time “The Deer Hunter” came along. That’s guts right there. Hollywood was still producing John Wayne movies cheering the “glory” of the war when Clark was showing us its’ horrific consequences in a cheap zombie flick.

“Deathdream,” therefore, is not only one of the most emotionally affecting horror films ever made, it’s also one of the gutsiest.

"Killer Nerd/Bride Of Killer Nerd" Double Feature DVD from Troma

Hey, Troma, where’s my kickbacks?

I mean, seriously — this is my third review of a Troma DVD in less than a month. Considering that this blog gets, according to the WordPress stats count, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 views per day, that kind of free pub has to be worth at least a freebie DVD or some other  swag, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t it?

Okay, I didn’t think so, but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

So let’s talk about “Killer Nerd.” Like the other Troma DVD releases I’ve covered recently, namely “Pigs” and “Story of a Junkie,” this isn’t actually a product of the Troma “studio.” It was shot in 1991 by Ohio filmmakers Mark Steven Bosko and Wayne A. Harold on video for the princely sum of about five or six hundred bucks and picked up by Troma for VHS and, later, DVD release. The movie’s main selling point — hell, it’s only selling point — is that it stars Toby Radloff of “American Splendor” fame. Toby is a friend and co-worker of AS’s Harvey Pekar, and essentially serves as his sidekick in the AS film (Toby both appears as himself and is portrayed by Judah Friedlander — if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about). And folks, Toby’s the real deal.

Thick glasses taped in the middle? Check.

Bow tie? Check.

Bizarre speech patterns? Check.

Pocket protector full of pens? Check.

Yes, friends, Toby’s a nerd and darn proud of it. His self-appointed moniker is that of the “genuine nerd” (co-director Harold has even made a documentary about Toby that bears this title). There’s no slack in his act. It’s not a con or a put-on. He’s as legit as it gets.

And damnit, in “Killer Nerd” he’s mad. Toby portrays hapless loser Harold Kunkle, and  he’s got the hots for a girl at work named Jenny (Lori Scarlett), but while she’s friendly enough toward him on a superficial level, she’s really got the hots for another officemate, a slick yuppie douchebag named Jeff (Richard Zaynor) who delights in tormenting poor Harold.

Our guy Harold eventually learns firsthand that the two of them are sleeping together, so he goes out to drown his sorrows at a local Cleveland-area watering hole ,whereupon he gets lured by a couple of ladies into a trap where some punk dudes who harassed him earlier at the bus stop rob him and beat him up.

That’s when Toby — excuse me, Harold — finally snaps and decides to get violent revenge on the society that has treated him like an outcast.

I don’t mean to give away too much of the plot here, but — oh, what the hell, I do, it’s not like it really matters anyway, the title gives it all away from the get-go. Toby/Harold goes back and gets payment for his humiliation in blood from the girls who set him up, the punks who beat him up, the woman who rejected his clumsy advances, and the smooth-talking slickster she’s fucking. He even kills his mom (while dressed in a diaper — an image you’ll never be able to get out of your mind) for good measure. Nobody that’s ever said or done anything mean to him is safe.

The kills are actually pretty creative for the most part, so I won’t give away any of the details )apart from the aforementioned diaper bit).  The ultra-cheap blood and gore effects are good, cheesy fun. The movie looks every bit as cheap as it is, and that’s satisfying for fans of trashy shit like myself.

The real joy of “Killer Nerd,” though, is just watching Toby essentially play himself. There’s no real “acting” required. He just has to read his lines and go through the motions while being who he is. Filmmaking doesn’t get any mor naturalistic than this, folks.

Toby on the loose!

Even the script essentially follows what you’d expect Toby to do in real life (up to the point where he becomes a mass-murdering maniac, of course). When he tries to get a date with Jenny, he invites her out to a church picnic he’s taking his mother to. He likes going to comic shows. He displays no social skills or any concern about what the fuck anyone else thinks of him. He talks the exact same way he does in real life. In short, Harold is Toby and Toby is Harold.

“Killer Nerd” is like watching the nerd Elvis or nerd Michael Jordan in his prime — at the top of his game and in full possession of all his nerdly powers. He is who he is, couldn’t be anything else if he tried, and isn’t interested in trying anyway. Take him as he is or get the fuck out of his way.

Or, you know, get killed. The choice is yours.

Oh, and it’s got one of the greatest lines in movie history — “Roses are red, violets are placid, you screwed me over — have a face full of acid!”

Whoops, I said I wouldn’t give away any of the details of Toby/Harold’s kill-spree. Oh well.

Anyway, let’s be honest — you go into a flick like this because you know exactly what you’re in for, not because you want a story full of plot twists and dramatic surprises.

Followed a year later by a sequel, “Bride of Killer Nerd,” where Harold finally meets the girl of his dreams, an equally-picked-on and equally-revenge-minded high school girl, which might actually be the “better” (and yes, I use that term very loosely) of the two films, both are available one one swell double-feature DVD package from Troma. In addition to the films, you get commentary from Toby and Wayne A. Harold, an exclusive interview with Toby s he “really” is (again, no real difference), a tour around Akron, Ohio with Toby and Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman, and the usual Troma stuff like Kaufman intros to the films and a Kaufman-directed music video, this one for a band called Purple Pam.

In a world full of posers, fakes, phonies, and pretenders, Toby Radloff is the genuine article. He’s probably been picked on and shunned and ridiculed and made fun of his whole life. And in “Killer Nerd” he gets to play out the type of revenge fantasies he’s probably entertained in private for years. For everyone to see.

I don’t know if that makes this film a form of  accidental therapy or what, but I suppose we ought to hope so. Because there are a lot of Toby Radloffs out there, who are probably one good shove or insult away from snapping and giving the slick, smooth-talking assholes of this world what they feel they deserve.

So hell yes, laugh all you want to at “Killer Nerd.” That’s what the movie is for. But depending on how you’ve treated the nerds in your life, it might be nervous laughter.

“Killer Nerd” — harmless ultra-cheesy straight-to-video schlock or advanced psychotherapy on a budget for a tormented outcast?

I leave it for you to decide. But it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing if every picked-on, eccentric, socially inept weirdo could have the kind of outlet that Toby Radloff has here.

"Pontypool" Movie Poster

Zombie flicks. You either love ’em or you don’t. I certainly love ’em, and so do plenty of other folks, if the recent box-office success of movies like “Zombieland” and the “Resident Evil” series are any indication. But the best and most groundbreaking of the bunch in recent years has flown somewhat under the radar.

2008’s “Pontypool,” from visionary Canadian director Bruce McDonald (best known for his distinctly north-of-the-border-flavored road movies “Roadkill,” “Highway 61” and “Hard Core Logo”) is a distinctively atmospheric, oftentimes downright scary entry into the zombie canon that has the potential to redefine the entire genre in the same way that George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” did back in 1968 and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” did over 30 years later. But first, enough people have to see it, because great art that exists in a vacuum is still great art, to be sure, but if it enters into the public consciousness, by word of mouth or other means,  even if we’re just talking about on the level of horror and more specifically zombie genre fans, then it has the power to be transformational. And if there’s one thing “Pontypool” does — and does very well — it’s to take the zombie movie in a bold new direction by opening up some seriously new and (therefore naturally) previously-unexplored territory for a genre that many folks feel has become a bit shopworn in recent years.

Oh, don’t get me wrong — in many respects, McDonald’s film is very much a traditional  low-budget walking-corpse story. The principal cast of characters is very small. The action, such as there is, take place in an enclosed location with our protagonists under siege from the spreading undead infection that surrounds them (essentially Romero’s stock-in-trade scenario for his first three “Dead” films). And (again like Romero) the zombie plague, and the reaction of the surviving humans to it, serve, at their core,  as  stand-ins  for the filmmaker to cast light on certain contemporary sociopolitical issues.

So what, then, can truly be said to be so new about “Pontypool”?

That’s where reviewing this film gets tricky. Because you can’t give away what’s new and different and altogether revitalizing (how’s that for an ironic choice of words when talking about a walking-dead movie?) about this film without giving away some major plot points and therefore trashing the element of surprise for any potential viewers that might be out there. Suffice to say that I’ll offer just a couple of clues : in one scene a copy of Neal Stephenson’s cult classic science fiction novel “Snow Crash” can be seen lying on a desk, and it’s no accident that I chose to open this review by saying that I hope strong word-of-mouth buzz among horror fans will get this film wider attention. And I’ll say no more than that.

Writer  Tony Burgess, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel “Pontypool Changes Everything,” has really hit on a novel approach for how the zombification virus is spread here that utterly redefines both how one can become a zombie, and what it means to even be one. Yes, of course, it’s still transmitted from one carrier to the next, but that’s where any similarity to the living dead of old ends.  Because with “Pontypool,” all notions of how it’s spread, and for that matter why (the implications — and that’s all they are, implications — of who might be ultimately responsible for the origins of this particular plague are truly chilling) are completely blown out the window.

Radio shock-jock Grant Mazzy (veteran Canadian actor Stephen McHattie, best known to American and international audiences as Hollis Mason, the first Night Owl, in “Watchmen”) has gotten himself sacked from his (unspecified) major-market gig over a Don Imus-type brouhaha (again, the specifics are unspecified) and has found work in the only place he can, as the morning show host for an AM station that broadcasts out of a church in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario ( I looked it up and it’s a real place). How much of a comedown is this for our guy Grant? Well, the “eye in the sky” traffic commute reporter in Pontypool phones in his reports from his car that’s parked on top of the biggest hill in town and plays helicopter sound effects in the background, and the biggest local news story is an old woman’s missing cat (the name of which will have significance later).

Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy

With Grant in the studio are his producer, Sydney Briar (McHattie’s real-life wife, actress Lisa Houle), and his technician, a recently-returned Afghan war vet  named  Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly). That’s about it for the main cast of characters, apart from the town doctor who plays a part later.

What begins as a day not unlike any other quickly turns strange, however, when Grant begins to get phoned-in reports about a mob of crazed people converging on said town doctor’s office. Then more reports start to come in about large groups of people acting strangely and attacking random folks in the city, in the woods, and on the highways. Some of the reports, such as one about a car carrying a family being literally buried under a herd — that term is used specifically — of people are so bizarre (and so much more effective when heard and not seen —  showing anything like that on this film’s budget would have resulted in yet another cheap CGI spectacle, and we’ve had more than enough of those in more than enough other movies) that Grant and his cohorts don’t know whether or not they’re being played for fools in some sort of massive, town-wide hoax. When an in-studio guest starts behaving strangely, though, they know something’s up.

Soon the BBC is calling. More and more truly unbelievable reports are coming in. And it’s soon quite obvious that this cold and snowy late-winter morning has brought something entirely new and dreadful to the sleepy hamlet of Pontypool. When one of their own, Laurel-Ann, begins to transform, all pretense (or hope) that it might be some sick and elaborate joke is gone.

Laurel-Ann's had better days

When the full-scale zombie siege of the studio finally begins in earnest, our protagonists are still trying to figure out, on the fly, how it can possibly be stopped, so flabbergasted ( and, for that matter, only partially informed)  are they as to the nature of the infection and it’s mode of transmission.  It’s pretty damn tough to figure out how to stop something if you barely understand how it works and find it hard to believe what little you do know.

Throughout the film, the claustrophobic studio setting and incredibly small cast of characters really works in terms of presenting the us-vs.-them, inside world-vs.-outside world, “bunker mentality” sense of atmospherics so essential to this story’s success. Sure, it’s indicative of a very tight budget, but it’s also indicative of how said tight budget can really be harnessed to the story’s advantage. Less is indeed more.

And speaking of less and more, now would be the time to point out that gorehounds are sure to be disappointed here. The level of blood and guts on display is pretty damn low, but that only makes it all the more shocking and disturbing when the violence really does start to hit home. Have no fear, though — even though the gross FX quotient here is pretty low,what few there  are really are  quite effectively staged and presented. That being said, though, the majority of the horror is “Pontypool” is psychological, and in the best horror tradition, what’s not shown is much scarier than what is, allowing the viewer to imagine in his or her own mind the unfolding terror taking place outside the studio walls — and threatening, of course, to get in.

A major hit at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, “Pontypool” nonetheless received scant theatrical distribution. It played some in Canada and on a small handful of  art-house screens in major US markets and got some play at various horror conventions and independent film festivals, but that was about it.

Now, the good folks at IFC (Independent Film Channel), which handled the distribution rights, have hit us with a one-two “Pontypool” punch : it’s just been released on DVD, and is also playing on IFC On Demand on cable TV. The DVD looks and sounds great, with crisp, clear 16:9 letterboxed picture (as if it wouldn’t, it’s essentially a brand new film) and top-notch 5.1 Surround sound mix. A commentary track featuring McDonald and Burgess is included (the good news from it — they’re planning two sequels!), there’s a selection of independent Canadian short films, the theatrical trailer is thrown in, and best of all there’s also the full-length original CBC radio drama (presented along with corresponding  stills from the film to make it easier to follow the audio action) that McDonald and Burgess developed before the full movie project was green-lighted.

They want in!

“Pontypool” isn’t just the best zombie film of the year (and I say this as someone who absolutely loved “Zombieland,” although it’s technically true that this was a 2008 production and that was 2009), it’s the best zombie film in many years. Entertainment Weekly has already declared it one of the 25 best of all time in the genre. And while I’m usually not one to agree with any statement found in any gossipy Hollywood rag, much less one that features a regular column by Diablo Cody, in this case they’re absolutely right. Hell, I’d go so far as to say it’s top 10 material.

So see it already.

Oh, and spread the word — it’s the only thematically appropriate response. That’s as close to a hint as I dare to get.

"Story Of A Junkie" Movie Poster

 There are words and phrases that you think you have a true understanding of, but you don’t. And I would submit that one of those phrases is “gritty urban realism.”  You might think you know all about it because you’ve read some books, or seen some films, that were gritty, urban, and realistic. But you don’t have any clue what “gritty urban realism” means unless or until you see Lech Kowalski’s “Story of a Junkie.” Then you become an expert on the subject in my book. And isn’t that what you’re absolutely dying to be?

No? Well, who asked you, anyway? Oh yeah. I  did. Time to get this circular imaginary conversation out of the way and move into the review phase of this — uhhmmmm — review, which is, I guess, sort of where I started, before I got sidetracked by — myself. “Story of a Junkie,” Christ — I sound like a junkie right about now.

Let’s get one thing straight right from the outset : “Story of a Junkie” is NOT a documentary. It’s far too realistic to be.

Shot in 1984 on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side (a.k.a. “Alphabet City”), this film follows the life of  Gringo, a desperate heroin addict, and those in his immediate orbit.  Gringo is portrayed by John Spacely, who is not an actor. He’s a real-life junkie. The stories he relates to the camera are not scripted, they’re real. The supporting cast are also real junkies, and the activities they undertake — scoring, shooting up, the whole works — are not staged, they’re real.

But I repeat, this is NOT a documentary film.

Oh, sure — the movie’s director, Lech Kowalski, is best known for punk rock documentaries like “D.O.A.,” “Born To Lose” and “Hey! Is Dee Dee Home?,” but “Story of a Junkie” is more like cinema verite, in that it combines actual interviews and footage of actual drug addicts with re-enactments of stories from Spacely’s life, not unlike what you find on all the true crime shows that litter the cable TV lineup, with the crucial difference here being that these re-enacted scenes do not feature (semi-) professional actors, but real Lower East Siders involved in the drug culture.

As such, it’s much more immediate, visceral, and powerful than any straight-ahead documentary could possibly be.

To be sure, the film has no “plot” per se, it’s entirely ad-libbed. And again, all the scenes depicted are real, as are the people and the locations. When a room full of junkies are shown injecting themselves in a shooting gallery, that’s EXACTLY what’s happening — a room full of junkies are injecting themselves in a shooting gallery. But when a dealer is gunned down in the streets, it’s obviously not a real murder that’s being filmed — but the raw and unvarnished nature of the film’s surroundings certainly gives it the air of absolute authenticity.

So “Story of  a Junkie” isn’t just a REPRESENTATION of Lower East Side junkie life in the early 80s, it’s a  RECORD of Lower East Side junkie life in the early 80s. Even if it’s not a documentary. Which is the last I’ll say about that, I promise.

John Spacely as Gringo --- essentially, himself

Forget “Trainspotting”  — Kowalski’s film is, without question, the most jaw-dropping, gut-punching, absolutely spot-on account of the addicted life ever committed to film, because it IS the addicted life committed to film.

Some of the shit that comes from Spacely’s mouth will have you hitting the rewind button just to make sure you heard it right. He talks about how he was raised by a normal, loving family in Southern California, but lost his way in life when his steady girlfriend was hit by a truck and killed. She was pregnant once, and when she miscarried he threw the fetus in the trash because it was “nothing but a big period anyway.” He lost his eye in a fight with some drag queens. After another fight, he had to have a large slice of meat amputated from his body, When the doctors wouldn’t give it back to him, he stole it and snuck out of the hospital. He’s a nonviolent anarchist who years for another war in order to “awaken the consciousness of the youth.”

In short, he’s a mass of contradictions, but I don’t know what else you’d really expect from a guy in his condition.

There’s no comfortable distance between viewer and subject in this film. You’re plunged headfirst into Gringo’s world and there’s no “narrative” per se to follow — you’re as lost as he is. To the extent that any sort of linear “storytelling” is involved here, it comes pretty late in the game : through a set of circumstances typical, I’m sure, to junkie life, Gringo is separated from his beloved skateboard, and at the very end he gets it back. That’s about as close to a “storyline” as you’re going to find here. Mostly we just follow Gringo around, with plenty of interview asides with those he comes into contact with or even just people who happen to be around.

Given that this part of New York has now been gentrified beyond all recognition (along with, sadly, Times Square and other former shitholes), this flick is truly a historical record, not just of a time that no longer exists, but of a place that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t either.

“Story of a Junkie” took some time to cobble into shape once all the footage was shot, and played some festival screenings and the like before finally getting picked up for proper (albeit limited) release by Troma, of all people, in 1987, and along with the similarly (mostly) harrowingly realistic “Combat Shock,” it remains one of the absolute best films ever to go out under their moniker. They’ve put out a great DVD release for it featuring a digitally remastered (but still appropriately grungy) print presented in full-frame,   a terrific commentary track by Kowalski (this film is actually even more interesting with the commentary on than without), an interview with executive producer Ann Barish (wife of the founder of the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain) that’s genuinely both interesting and informative, and the usual Troma-centric extras including and introduction from Lloyd Kaufman and a Kaufman-directed music video for the death metal band Entombed.

"Story of a Junkie" DVD from Troma

Plenty of films (most notably the aforementioned “Trainspotting”) show you what a junkie’s life is LIKE — this one shows you what a junkie’s life IS. Not to be missed under any circumstances.

John Spacely died of AIDS at some point in the early 90s. The times, the places, the people depicted here are all gone. But heroin’s still around, and still doing ( in concert with its evil twin, the “War on Drugs”) exactly what it did to the people in this film. The problem’s moved from the inner city shooting galleries to suburban schools and bedrooms. Everyone seems to be resting easier with it safely out of sight,  but the fact that it’s now largely out of mind, too — well, that’s something that ought to concern us all.  The locales and the people involved may have changed, but the problem remains, and whether viewed as cautionary tale, historical record, or some combination of both, “Story of a Junkie” is the most no-bullshit account of it you’re ever going to come across. Even if it’s still not a documentary.

Whoops, I said I wouldn’t bring that up again, didn’t I?

"Deadly Weapons" Movie Poster

“Seeing Is Believing! 73-32-26” reads the tagline for this Doris Wishman “classic,” and for once, the ad doesn’t lie. But after seeing star Chesty Morgan’s — ummm — “assets,” you’ll wish it did.

In 1974, veteran sexploitation director/producer Wishman — a true trailblazer for her time, who carved out a fairly successful career in the almost-entirely-male-dominated field of low-budget independent exploitation films, primarily with “nudie cuties” like “Nude on the Moon” and “Blaze Starr Goes Nudist,” but also ventured into the realms of the truly bizarre with flicks like “The Amazing Transplant” and, later, the must-see “shockumentary” feature “Let Me Die A Woman” decided that a new angle was needed to part the more lecherous members of the moviegoing public from their hard-earned dollars. And she certainly hit on a new angle here.

Enter Polish-born burlesque entertainer Chesty Morgan (real name Ilana Wilczkowsky, try saying that one three times in a row really fast — or even really slow — and billed in this film under yet another pseudonym, “Zsa Zsa”), whose strip act was, for reasons I honestly cannot discern, apparently quite popular (freak shows always are).

Apparently, Chesty wanted to break into the acting business in order to save up enough cash for a painfully obviously necessary breast reduction, and Wishman offered her not only a way in the door, but a star vehicle, to boot. Who could say no to that?

There was only one problem : Chesty can’t act. I mean, she really, well and truly, absolutely cannot act. The sound for this entire film was dubbed in later, but even still, it’s apparent that Ms. Morgan is literally being told exactly what to do at all times. She looks forlorn and confused for a moment before she does anything, and then whatever she does end up doing, be it walking across the room, picking up the phone, sitting down at the table, or even taking off her shirt, which she certainly had plenty of experience doing, she approaches it with visibly cautious, almost unnerving hesitation. Apparently she actually knew very little English (another actress’s voice was dubbed in over hers and since she’s got the majority of lines in the film it just made sense to dub all the voices for the whole picture — and hey, it’s cheaper to record without sound, to boot, so that never hurts), a fact that’s hysterically evident from start to finish. To make matters even more difficult, Chesty’s enormous endowments exerted so much strain on her back that she was apparently hopelessly hooked on pain killers — again, another fact that her strained attempts at “acting” make quite obvious.  And finally in the difficulty department, Wishman claims that Chesty was an absolute prima donna who, even when she understood what the fuck was going on, often intransigently refused to take direction and made it clear she hated what she was doing and was only in it for the paycheck. Oh, and she was apprently late to the set all the time, too.  Wishman has called her the most difficult actress she ever had to work with, which is really something when you consider that working with  untalented non-professionals with no experience and no clue was a staple of her career!

Russ Meyer, of course, is considered the king of big-breasted “B” movies, and rightly so, and given Chesty’s mind-numbing measurements, you’re probably wondering why she never appeared in one of King Russ’s pictures. It’s not like dubbing over a lady’s voice was anything new to R.M. — after all, he did it for both Kitten Natividad and Uschi Digard, among others. And it’s not like Russ required his ladies to be great actresses, either, although some of them actually did display old-school, almost vaudevillian-style comic ability. So why did Chesty never hook up with Russ?

Well, let’s be honest — even if the more buxom ladies aren’t your own particular cup of tea, the ladies in Russ’s films were almost invariably good-looking. Uschi, Kitten, Raven de la Croix, Haji — these were all attractive women, and would be considered so even without their obvious “special features.” Chesty — well — Chesty just isn’t. Period. She sports a bad platinum blond wig, has a glassed-over look in her eyes at all times, and as for her boobs — well,  the liner notes on the old Something Weird VHS box for this film say that her ponderous endowments “look more like tumors than tits,” and that’s absolutely right on. They’re almost painful to look at. They’ve got deep bluish/purplish veins running throughout and I swear to God you can even see some cellulite in there. They really are, well — freakish, sorry to be so blunt. Even the world’s biggest breast fetishists would more than likely find these monsters to be too damn much for their liking.

Chesty's deadly weapons

It’s just as well, then, that Wishman makes the wise move to eschew titillation (no pun intended) here, since it really wouldn’t be possible anyway, and instead play up Chesty’s downright bizarre appearance as a bludgeon used against the stupidity of the male of the species and our collective obsession with the size  womens’ breasts, a genuine genius move that makes this movie incredibly watchable even though gawking at Ms. Morgan’s mams by all rights should get extremely old extremely fast, and certainly would in the hands of a less shrewdly sensible director.

Which brings us, finally, to the story itself. Chesty plays Crystal, supposedly a “successful advertising executive,” who’s dating a guy named Larry (Richard Towers, best known as the dad in the original “Last House on the Left,” and who is according to this film’s dialogue “pushing 40,” even though it looks a lot  more like he’s pushing 60), who happens to be employed, unbeknownst, apparently, to Crystal,  as a mid-level organized crime hood. One day after a hit on an underworld rival, Larry comes across a little black book in the now-dead man’s belongings containing names, numbers, transactions, dates — and decides to use it to blackmail his own boss by calling him, pretending to be someone else, and saying he’s got all the dirt on him and wants X amount of cash dropped off at X location in exchange for the black book’s safe return.

Larry’s boss, whose face we never see but who has a visible tattoo (or is it a scar?) on one of his hands (another move of improvised-out-of-necessity genius on Wishman’s part is that she doesn’t show the character’s mouths that often, focusing instead on things like the mystery crime boss’s hand and Chesty’s — well, chest, in order to conceal how awful the dubbing is for this film) figures out who  is behind the blackmail real fast and has Larry taken out by a couple of his other goons.

The boss thinks that things will probably be too hot for Larry’s killers in town (wherever that “town”  may be — the film was apparently shot in Florida), and flies sends them packing to various parts of the country for a little “vacation” — one from which, little do they know, they’ll never return.

You see, through the lamest and most obvious plot device possible this side of the mad villain giving away his entire scheme to the captured hero just before said hero escapes, Crystal finds out exactly who Larry’s killers are, where they’ll be, and , well, what guy could resist her charms, right? Ummm —- right? She’s especially mad because Larry, it turns out, was planning to take the cash he made from his “one big last deal,” fly her off to paradise, marry her, and live happily ever after. Now she’s got revenge on her mind, and do you care to venture a guess as to what she’s going to use to kill the guys who bumped off her sweetheart? You got it, my friends — they don’t call this movie “Deadly Weapons” for nothing.

Cue in the stock footage of airplanes taking off and landing and various locales ( I have a theory that almost all of this film was actually shot in the same house — it’s painfully obvious that all the various dwellings for each of the characters are in fact the same place, and the scenes at the “hotel bar” and “hotel pool” are also readily identifiable as being shot at a house as well) as Chesty goes about the business of tracking down Larry’s murderers (one of whom is played by Harry Reems of “Deep Throat” and congressional porn hearings fame) by any means necessary (including going “undercover” as, shock of all shocks, a stripper — again, the “strip club” appearing to be little more than a pole and mirrors set up in the finished basement of the house where I thik almost all of this was made), luring them to their doom with her supposedly-irresistible flesh torpedoes, and suffocating them with them!

At this point I simply have to mention the sound effects, dubbed-in as they are, for this film. Whenever Chesty reveals her “deadly weapons,” the “unveiling” is accompanied by cheap fuzz guitar and the sound of crashing bowling pins, once again stating in the most obvious terms that the intention hear has nothing to do with titillation (again, no pun intended). Yes, these boobs are meant to be gawked at — face it, how could you not? — but not as objects of lust, but as deadly (and freakish) forces of nature!

The soundtrack features appropriately cheap and cheesy music, as well, with the title song “Hard-Selling Woman,” repeated over — and over — and over — and over — again. The film is only 75 minutes long and frankly moves along at a nice little clip, but I swear to God that somehow, in defiance of laws of temporal possibility, the theme tune plays for at least 90 minutes, even if the movie itself isn’t that long.

The big finale has Chesty taking on the mystery head honcho of the criminal underworld himself, only to find herself in for a rude and unexpected shock when she learns his true identity! Never mind that we’ve seen this guy’s hands in other scenes and neither one of them is marked, you’re not in this for plot consistency. Or rather, you shouldn’t be, and if you are, then you’re missing out on the real point of this film.

“Deadly Weapons” is a freak show with a feminist undercurrent throughout. Yes, the entire film is essentially nothing buy gratuitous nudity, and yes, Chesty’s body is displayed like a bearded lady or the Lobster Boy or any other circus sideshow attraction, but it’s done to make drooling idiots of the men, who can’t shut off their desire for the biggest boobs possible even when confronted with the fact that the object of said lust is not only hideously unattractive, but downright deadly. In short, yes, the woman in this movie has enormous tits — but she beats the guys by outsmarting them, even if she’s obviously dumber than a bag of hammers. Sure, that doesn’t paint a very nice picture of Ms. Morgan, but the picture it paints of us guys even uglier, since apparently we can’t stop thinking with the wrong head even when it’s about to lead us to our death.

I don’t know if Chesty ever got her breast reduction or not. Besides appearing in another Wishman film less than a year after his, “Double Agent 73,” in which she plays a spy with a hidden camera surgically implanted into one of her gazongas (there’s plenty of room).  Apparently she also appeared in Fellini’s “Casanova,” but her scene was cut from the film. That was 1976.  I hope she was able to get herself to a doctor sometime soon after that. It’s possible, since that was her last screen credit.

"Deadly Weapons" DVD from Something Weird Video

“Deadly Weapons” is a film whose rights traded hands several times back in the VHS days, even landing in an edition hosted by Joe Bob Briggs as part of his line of grindhouse and drive-in classics, before finding a permanent home at Something Weird Video in the 90s. It’s been released as a stand-alone “special edition,” featuring the original theatrical trailer, a 1950s “educational” short on “breast development,” a gallery of stills and advertising material for this and other Doris Wishman fare, and an archival short on making a plaster cast bust of burlesque legend Tempest Storm’s — ummm — bust.

Or better yet —

"Deadly Weapons"/ "Double Agent 73" Two-Disc Set, also from Something Weird

The kind folks at SWV have also seen fit to package “Deadly Weapons” and “Double Agent 73” together into a two-disc set titled, appropriately if obviously enough, the “Chesty Morgan Double Feature.” It’s the same price as buying either one alone, so it’s self-evidently the way to go. “Deadly Weapons” is definitely the better of the two flicks, but both are worth a look — it’s just that you really only absolutely need to see this act played out once.

Okay, I use the term “absolutely need to” lightly, but really, if you’re any kind of B-movie fan and for some reason you haven’t seen this, you’re  missing out on a movie that for better, as well as for worse, you certainly won’t ever forget.

"The Black Connection" Movie Poster


If I had to sum up the 1974 Harry Novak-produced blaxploitation crime thriller “The Black Connection” in one word, that would be it. This movie is just plain grimy.

But there’s more to it than that, of course. From start to finish, this flick exudes an oppressive air of impending doom even at its most lighthearted (relatively speaking) moments. It’s beyond redemption from the get-go, and it’s taking you down with it.

I guess we might as well deal with its notorious alternate title right off the mark : as you can plainly see from the poster shown above, this film was also marketed under the title “Run Nigger Run,” which is offensive, to be sure, but in its defense — flimsy as that defense may be — this wasn’t the only 1970s-era film marketed to a black audience with the unfortunate “N word” in its title. “Boss Nigger” and “The Legend of Nigger Charlie” spring immediately to mind. So while I’m certainly not in any way, shape, or form condoning the use of said racial slur, it was a product of its time, and the times weren’t pretty.

And with that out of the way, we may as well take a look at the story itself, which, to be perfectly honest, takes a hell of a long time to get going. The first quarter (at least) of the movie features a lot of stock mobster-type characters coming and going, only some of whom really have anything to do with the actual thrust of the narrative itself. If you’re looking for a good example of plot discipline, look elsewhere.

Once things do get going, however, the story is a rather involving little crime yarn. John Harrison, a.k.a. The Graveyard Tramp, has described it as being a fusion of “Across 110th Street” and (the original) “Get Carter,” and that’s essentially an accurate summation.

Las Vegas hood Miles Carter (the wooden and uncharismatic Bobby Stevens — but we won’t hold that against him, all the acting in this flick is atrocious) is in it deep with the Italian mob over a hefty amount of missing cocaine. Hes’ tried every legit angle to get the money they want before they whack him, but when even his bank manager turns him down for an extension on the loan he owes them, he knows he’s going to have to resort to — ummm — less conventional methods of settling his scores with both the mob and the bank.

Carter’s girlfriend, Magda (Martha Washington) isn’t too keen on whatever course of action her man is taking, the white junkie chick he keeps on the side is jonesing for a fix, and his aforementioned bank manager has hired a notorious hitman named “Fats” Miller to take Carter out over the not-so-small-matter of his debt. All in all, our guy Carter looks like he’s fucked, and Vegas is getting to be a pretty hot place for him.

Then a chance encounter with Juanita, the widow of a former rival known only as “The Cuban,” offers a timely possibility — she can help him get his hands on a large quantity of premium-grade heroin, all they need to do is get down to Albuquerque to secure the smack. Carter has bigger plans, though — plans that involve setting up one last big deal to unload the heroin and then get the hell down to Mexico with Magda, leaving both his bank and the Mafia holding the bag. All is he has to do is stay alive long enough to get the smack, get it sold, and get across the border. With “Fats” hot on his trail, though, that easier said than done —

There’s nothing flashy or stylish about “The Black Connection,” to say the least. It was shot on the ultra-cheap and looks it. What’s even more important, though, is that it feels as cheap as it looks. The opening credits are simple title cards. The music, by an outfit you’ve never heard of before or since called The Checkmates, Ltd. is groovy enough, but definitely sub-standard soul fare. The acting, as mentioned earlier, is almost disconcertingly bland and straightforward. The  Las Vegas  and New Mexico locations are cool (as one commenter on the IMDB remarked, one of the most fun things to do when watching this film is to play “name the imploded hotel” in the scenes shot along the Vegas strip), but shot with no pretense toward giving them anything like a panoramic or even involving presentation by director Michael J. Finn ( by the way, this remains, understandably, his only directing credit). To refer once again to The Graveyard Tramp’s review of the film (featured on the back of the case for the DVD-R release of this movie from Something Weird Video) : “the film looks and even feels like one of those ugly, dirty XXX featurettes from the early 1970s which, much like a car wreck, you can’t help but be fascinated by.” I can’t put it much better than that, so I won’t even try.

As I mentioned in the previous review for “Massacre Mafia Style,” this movie makes a great double-bill with that Duke Mitchell classic. They each present a different side to a 1970s blacks-vs.-Italians crime story, both are dirty-ass cheap, and each offers a unique atmosphere all its own, with “Massacre Mafia Style” centered around, and anchored by, Mitchell’s charismatically unhinged performance and the possibility of positively anarchic violence thretening to erupt at any moment, and “The Black Connection” positively reeking of  the kind of malevolent and oppressive sleaze that only the lowest of budgets can convey with any sense of authenticity. Watch them back to back and have yourself one heck of a fun night scraping the absolute bottom of the exploitation movie barrel.

“The Black Connection” is available from several online DVD-R dealers, but your host recommends the previously-mentioned Something Weird release. It’s a direct-from- VHS transfer struck from a ratherage-worn (but perfectly watchable) 35mm print, but seeing this thing remastered with a crisper, clearer picture would seriously defeat the whole purpose. In addition, the SWV release also includes the original theatrical trailer at the end, and given that they’re the licensed purveyors of the entire Harry Novak back catalogue, that makes this as close to an “official” DVD release as this movie is ever going to get — or, for that matter, should get. And that’s the beauty of it.