Archive for March, 2010

"The Guy From Harlem" Movie Poster

I know what you’re wondering already : can the movie possibly be as low-rent as that poster?

The answer is : and then some.

Affectionately (I guess) referred to as “The ‘Plan 9’ of blaxploitation” by fans of the genre, Rene Martinez Jr.’s 1977 offering “The Guy From Harlem” is actually, on a purely technical level, even worse than Ed Wood’s unintentional masterpiece — or any of Wood’s films, for that matter. It rivals low-grade 70s porn in terms of sheer artistic inability and leaves a person feeling somehow unclean for having even seen it, even though there’s little by way of nudity or even convincing violence on display. Of the 18 comments posted about the film on IMDB, a good majority of them refer to it as the worst film ever made. And while in many cases that’s simply hyperbole, or even a tag applied by fans of the film in order to gain it a cult following, in this case it might actually be the truth. I’ve seen plenty of cheaply made haphazard films, but few can rival “The Guy From Harlem” for overall incompetence. Many a low-rent production has been referred to as “looking and feeling more like a student film,” but again, in this case it’s  absolutely true —it looks and feels like a student film. Like a 6th grade student film!

Al Connors, daring man of action and mystery

The movie throws us right into the middle of the “action” — a foul-mouthed young black woman with a bad attitude is tied to a chair in what looks to be some kind of cabin. Her captor informs her that she’ll soon be joined by another “of her kind,” in fact, her soon-to-be-arriving guest is from Africa. You can safely put this entire situation out of your mind, though, as we won’t be getting back to our feisty damsel in distress until about halfway through the movie. Now it’s time to meet The Man himself!

As the credits roll — literally — over a scene of an enormously-fro’d dude driving his car, we hear the the film’s constipated-sounding theme tune bumping away : “The guy from Harlem! That cat’s a baaaad dude! Ugh! Watch the moves! The guy from Harlem! Ugh! He’s mean, he’s clean, he’s a fighting machine!”

Good to know he’s clean, huh? We always look for that in a hero.

The first thing you’ll notice, apart from the titular guy from Harlem’s hair, is that we’re not actually in Harlem at all. We’re in Miami, and the whole film in fact takes place in sunny south Florida. That doesn’t mean our hero ain’t from Harlem, though — he never misses a chance to tell anyone and everyone where he hails from (“Tell your boss that nobody messes with the guy from Harlem!” being a favorite line). Remember, the title of the movie is “The Guy FROM Harlem,” not “The Guy IN Harlem.”

So, anyway, our man of the hour is Al Connors, (supposedly) bad-ass private eye who doesn’t take no shit from anyone, doesn’t play games, and scores with every piece of tail that crosses his path. In the hands of a capable actor, Connors could, potentially, be a serviceable, if still entirely unoriginal and uninvolving, two-dimensional cardboard cut-out John Shaft-wannabe.

In the hands of star Loye Hawkins, however, he approaches the level of unintentional caricature, almost a walking parody of the excesses of the entire blaxploitation genre. Think of the comical OTT nature of Rudy Ray Moore’s “Dolemite” character — only the makers of “The Guy From Harlem” WEREN’T trying to be funny. The end result’s certainly the same, though. In fact, “Dolemite” looks like a big-budget blockbuster next to this thing.

Hawkins can’t act. Period. He looks the part enough, I suppose, but he’s got all the screen presence of wet lumber, and emotes about as well. You’d honestly think he was reading directly from cue cards — if it weren’t so painfully obvious that most of the “dialogue” in this movie was just ad-libbed on the spot. Jumbled lines, repeated information from a few seconds earlier, garbled delivery and barely-intelligible exchanges are mainstays of “The Guy From Harlem” — apparently director Martinez either had very little actual film at his disposal and couldn’t spare any to actually shoot more than one take of anything, or else the only words in his vocabulary were “okay, cut — and print.” Quite literally everything on display here NEEDS to have been done in one take — otherwise there’s no, and I mean NO, explaining it.

Al’s got himself a perfectly serviceable little office staffed by a perfectly serviceable-in-the-looks-department secretary named Sue (Wanda Starr), who of course has the hots for him even though he’s prone to tell her things like “how many times do I have to tell you — this phone is for business purposes only!” when she’s talking to her mother.  Some dudes just know how to charm without even trying, I guess.

One morning Al is visited by an old buddy of his from Harlem who just so happens to work for the CIA. We’re told that a visiting African dignitary is coming to town to meet with the Secretary of State and that his wife may be the target of a kidnapping plot, so they need someone they can trust to look after her. They’d normally task one of their own men from inside “The Company” with the job, but they’re worried that there might be a mole, so they’re hiring outside talent to watch her back. Al’s hesitant to take on the gig, but when his friend tells her that she’s cute, he’s in. He’d better be careful, though — as his CIA budy keeps telling him, if he tries to make time with this lady, there could be INTERNATIONAL REPERCUSSIONS! Still, despite Al’s apparently well-established reputation as a hound dog, they figure he’s the man for the job.

Next we head to one of exactly five, by my count, different locations used for the film (the others being Al’s office, an apartment, the “cabin” mentioned earlier, and a piece of outdoor acreage that functions as all the film’s “various” outdoor locales — my best guess is that they’re all either in or right outside of the same building), a hotel suite (where they’ve checked in under the impenetrably clever aliases of Mr. and Mrs. Connors), and Al is showing Princess Ashanti (Patricia Fulton, who’s variously referred to as a Princess, a Queen, or even simply “the wife of a chief of state” — if her exact title didn’t matter to Martinez and co. it sure as hell shouldn’t matter to us) her spacious new temporary quarters.

The Princess (or Queen, or whatever) has a bad back and needs a massage. Al would normally volunteer his own services, of course, but given those INTERNATIONAL REPERCUSSIONS we’re constantly reminded of, he calls the hotel’s masseuse instead. There are some shady characters hanging out in the courtyard, though, so Al decides to keep an eye on the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) while she gets her rub-down for SECURITY PURPOSES, the next phrase we’ll be hearing repeated about sixty times. Damn good thing, too — the masseuse was about to stick a needle into the Princess (or Queen, or whatever).

Dangers are aplenty at this apparently five-star hotel, though, because next up the room service waitress turns out to be, well, not a waitress —

Hey, man, that ain't a man!

How could Al see through this impervious disguise? As he tells Princess (or Queen, or whatever) Ashanti : “I ordered a New York strip steak, and I can smell a New York strip steak from a mile away.” Sure enough, under the silver tray, there ain’t no steak, but a gun! And here I just thought maybe he could smell dick a mile away. Still, besides this feat of chameleon-like daring, this scene also treats us to the first of several inanely-staged fight sequences that will become a staple of the film. You’ve simply never seen “action” choreography staged as unconvincingly as it is in this movie. Punches that obviously don’t even connect send attackers sprawling to the ground, people leap a good few seconds to soon, Al barely taps an assailant and they go reeling — they’re an absolute blast to watch, but there’s no point in mentioning their ineptitude time and time again, so whenever I talk about the guy from Harlem taking on an attacker or two (or more) in the future, just assume it’s an unintentional display of absolute buffoneery. You’ll swear that the fight scenes in this flick were  choreographed by Dick Van Dyke or John Ritter.

Are you ready for another change of scenery? I know, I know — things are moving along at a pretty breakneck speed at this point, but try to stay with me.

Deciding that things are a bit too hot at the hotel, Al take Princess (or Queen, or whatever) Ashanti to a safer place for SECURITY PURPOSES — namely the apartment of a white chick he apparently makes time with when he can fit her into his busy schedule. She’s a pretty good sport about the whole thing and heads out to check into a hotel that Al has fronted her the cash for — I just hope that, for SECURITY PURPOSES,  she doesn’t pick the same hotel that the guy from Harlem and the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) just escaped from.

Exhausted from a long day of running (well, okay, she never really runs—) for her life,  our Princess (or Queen, or whatever) needs a shower, so we get a little bit of toplessness, then we see her putting on one of the white chick’s nightgowns, then it’s down to business as Al scores some (apparently, depending on who’s talking about her) royal pussy. And if you thought the fight scenes were bad, you ain’t seen nothing. “The Guy From Harlem” may have the ambiance and technical proficiency of a shot-on-super-8 porn loop, but the love scenes in this flick are as wooden, stilted, pedestrian, and downright nervous-about-themselves-looking as anything every committed to film. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief when you see this one, and all the others in the film, end when Al strips off the woman’s nightgown, climbs on top of her for an obviously fake kiss, and then we jump to the next day. As with the fight scenes — and the dialogue scenes —, in the “love” scenes  Martinez and DP Rafael Remy — who I’m surprised even a took a credit for his “work” here — show an absolute steadfastness in their refusal to do anything other than shoot things straight ahead from about a medium length. It’s cinematographical paralysis of the highest order, and creates a bizarre occult visual rhythm to the proceedings so incessantly lethargic that on those few occasions when they do actually move in for close-ups or show things from any angle other than dead-center ahead, you feel as if some sort of spell has been broken and the world as we know it turned on its axis.

And that’s it for our Princess (or Queen, or whatever). Al’s apparently safely delivered her back to her just-got-cheated-on husband, and he’s back at the office, mission accomplished.

There’s just one problem — we’re only 45 minutes into the film!

Never fear, though, my friends — the Martinezes (director Rene and screenwriter Gardenia, who’d damn well better be related, otherwise there’s no excuse for this “script” making it in front of a camera) have a plan. Remember that PMSing lady I told you about who was tied to a chair in some remote “cabin” at the start of the film? You can remember her again. But forget anything her captors were saying about bringing some African chick to join her (they apparently have, seeing as how it’s never mentioned again), because apparently that’s the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) that they were talking about and Al just took care of all that.

Into Al’s office steps (again, supposedly) bad- ass gangster Harry DeBauld, portrayed with scene-stealing scenery-chewing amateurish overenthusiasm by “Wildman” Steve Gallon, who would go on to star in Martinez’s only other directorial effort, the amazingly politically incorrectly-titled “The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger” (later renamed “Super Soul Brother,” for obvious reasons, upon its video release during the early-80s VHS boom).Of all the reasons to love this film (what, you’re saying I haven’t given you any?), Gallon’s deliriously gleeful performance has to top the list. Sure, he doesn’t actually know his lines — assuming any were ever written down — any more than anyone else in this celluloid fiasco does, but he’s so brimming-over-with-joy at his own often-incoherence that it just plain doesn’t matter. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

His son Larry (Laster Wilson) and the other henchmen who have accompanied him to the office are as dull and listless as Hawkins or any of the other “actors” in this thing, but Gallon’s is one of two performances in the film (remember the foul-mouthed gal? more on her in a second) that are every bit as unprofessional as the others, but much more eagerly so, if that makes any sense.

Harry’s got a problem. He runs a successful gambling operation, but he’s been trying to take over the local narcotics trade, as well — and along the way he’s into trouble from a guy named Big Daddy, with whom he’s warring over a piece of territory worth, I kid you not, “hundreds of millions of dollars a day.” Wrap your head around that concept! But I digress — as part of his daring plan to get Harry to back the fuck off from his turf, Big Daddy has gone and kidnapped the usually-jubilant gangster’s only daughter, Wanda (Cathy Davis), and is holding her for heavy ransom — a quarter-million dollars’ cash and a whole shitload of coke. Harry heard about what Al did for “that African Queen” (or Princess, or whatever), and figures he’s the man to handle the exchange.

Initially pissed about Harry even knowing about the whole Queen (or Princess, or whatever) thing because “that’s supposed to be top secret,” Al warms up to the idea of working for the crimelord when he checks out a picture of his daughter and decides she’s pretty damn hot. That’s the guy from Harlem for you.

So, he takes the case — Harry forks over an obviously empty envelope (“it’s all there — count it!”), a Ziplock freezer bag full of flour, and Al’s back in action. There’s just one problem — who is this Big Daddy? What does he look like? I’ll let Harry take it from here for a minute —

“That’s the problem. Nobody’s seen him. All I know about him is this — he’s big, six feet tall, and muscles ! You wanna talk about muscles! Curly blond hair, and he always wears these bands around his muscles!”

So — nobody’s seen him, but everybody knows what he looks like.  Only in “The Guy From Harlem.”

Al’s got it all figured out, of course, only he doesn’t let Harry in on the details of his cunning plan — he heads down to the local Gold’s Gym-type place, gets the drop on one on Big Daddy’s lughead henchmen who’s probably twice his size, find out Wanda’s (Ms. bad attitude, in case you hadn’t figured that out already) location, busts her out , a few more inept fight scenes of the sort I mentioned earlier ensue, and suddenly the guy from Harlem is sitting on top of the world with a quarter million – bucks’ “cash,” a half-million – bucks’ woth of “drugs,” and a beautiful, if feisty, female companion who’s grateful as hell for his “daring” rescue of her.

All that's missing from the "fight" scenes in "The Guy From Harlem" are the "Bang" and "Pow!" on-screen captions

Wanda doesn’t want to go home just yet because she’s pissed at her dad for putting her life in danger by getting mixed up in the drug business, so Al takes her back to that white chick’s apartment from before. She’s not nearly so pleasant to deal with this time, but she gets the hell out of there again, with cash fronts her for a hotel again, and after than Wanda takes a shower, puts on the same fucking nightgown the Princess (or Queen, or whatever) was wearing earlier, and we get essentially the exact same “love” scene we got before. Yes, folks, the only thing differentiating this sequence from the one that took place about 40 minutes earlier is the actress, that’s it. And they both have the same identically-huge afros, and remarkably similar bodies,  so who knows if our guy Al really even notices the difference when the lights are out.

Then it’s back to gangster daddy for the exchange at Al’s office the next day, whereupon he informs them that gangster daddy can keep the money, but he’s taking the drugs to the cops, a fact that only pisses off gangster daddy for a second before he’s back to his usual disturbingly jovial self.

There’s still the matter of Big Daddy to be dealt with, though. He’s pretty pissed at the guy from Harlem for messing up his whole life in one day flat, so they arrange for a “meeting” (read: fistfight) to settle the score, and we get one more of those straight-outta-the-Batman-TV-show-but-without-the-word-balloons  “fight” scenes, which Al of course wins, and then we get a final surprise — Al, who has shown no signs of being anything other than the biggest skirt-chaser on the planet, has apparently fallen for Wanda during the course of their (and I use this term loosely, of course ) ordeal, and, as one of her daddy’s henchmen says to her brother, “it looks like you’re gonna need a new suit!”

And so everyone, apparently, lives happily ever after.

Mill Creek's "Drive-In Movie Classics" 50-pack DVD Box Set, Featuring "The Guy From Harlem"

Improbable — maybe even impossible — as it is to believe, “The Guy From Harlem” is available on DVD. It’s part of the ultra-cheapie “Drive-In Movie Classics” 50-film, 12-DVD box set from Mill Creek, masters of the public domain film. The print looks like shit and jumps at several points, the sound is muffled, it’s quite obviously a direct-from-VHS transfer — in other words, it’s absolutely perfect. You can usually score this box for about eight or ten bucks — I;ve even heard of it going for five at Wal-Mart — and is totally worth it for “The Guy From Harlem” alone. You can watch this flick again and again and not get bored in your quest for still more things to find absurd about it.

Beyond bad, beyond cheap, beyond shoddy, beyond comprehension — “The Guy From Harlem” is absolutely without merit on any level whatsoever, and accordingly gets my highest possible recommendation. See it now!

"SuperVan" Movie Poster

“Watch Your Donkey — Skokey’s Gonna Getcha” — Advertising Tag-Line for “SuperVan”

Admit it : you miss the custom van craze. The gaudy sci-fi/western/stoner/cartoon paint jobs, the water beds in back, the CB radios and “fuzz buster” radar detectors — we hit some kind of  cultural peak in the 70s with this trend that not even skyrocketing gas prices and long lines at the pump could derail for a time there. And then the “vanners” grew up — they eventually got their “van groupie” girlfriends/one-night stands pregnant in those custom-fitted waterbeds, settled down, got real jobs,  traded in their vans for down payment cash on a house, and the whole thing just faded into history’s rear view mirror. Things have never been the same since, have they?

And thank God for that, because as far as vehicle trends go, there’s never been anything as mind-bendingly stupid as  the van craze. Teenagers and going-nowhere 20-somethings dropping all kinds of money they didn’t have into beastly, gaudy gas-guzzlers that weren’t good for anything but showing off to fellow van-obsessed retards? When I was growing up, I had a kind of fond nostalgia for the 70s and often felt like I was born a decade too late. Funny thing is, though, everyone who came of age in the 70s would tell me that they absolutely sucked. Now that I’m older (and speaking of being older, if I had, in fact, been born a decade earlier I would now be pushing 50 instead of 40, and that would be a real drag), I can see what these veterans of the “Me decade” we’re talking about, and there’s no more glaring proof  of how right they were than 1977’s ( well, released in ’77 — it was shot, and takes place,  in the bicentennial year of ’76)  “SuperVan.”

Vandora, the SuperVan

A cinematic tribute to all things van lensed by “Disco Fever” director Lamar Card and scripted by Neva Friedenn and Robert Easter of “The Toolbox Murders” fame (and before I forget edited by Bill Butler, who also did — I kid you not — “A Clockwork Orange”), “SuperVan” does, indeed, have a story of sorts, but it doesn’t really matter too much — aside from the fact that “Smokey and the Bandit,” which came out a year later, seems to have essentially ripped off its skeletal plot. But we’ll get to all that in a minute.

No, rather than spend too much time on formalities like plot, characterization, dramatic tension, or any of that, “SuperVan” is more concerned with just showing off van after van after fucking van, with special attention paid to long, slow, lingering takes of their paint jobs, tricked-out interiors, and all the trappings that supposedly made these living rooms on wheels so damn awesome. If you cut out all the time spent ogling the interiors and exteriors on these lumbering mechanical nightmares, the film’s  barely- 90 minute runtime would be cut in half. At least.

But onto the story, or what there is of it. Morgan (Mark Schneider) is a typical 19-or-so-year-old 70s kid stuck working at his old man’s Kansas City-area service station. He’s got big dreams, though, and pumps every cent he makes, and every spare minute he’s got,  into his pride-and-joy custom van. One weekend in the legendary summer of 1976, Morgan’s dreams come knocking right at his door in the form of “Freakout ’76,” an honest-to-God van-a-palooza being held right in his hometown. Enthusiasts  from all over the midwest are making their way to this  Sturgis-of-the-vans, and the coolest rig walks away with a prize of $5,000.  With a quickie loan/gift from his dad and the old man’s reluctant blessing, Morgan makes his way to the open road, hoping to hook up with one of the van convoys we see endless shots of congesting our nation’s highways and taking “Freakout ’76” by storm once he arrives.

There’s trouble along the way, though — at an auto salvage yard, Morgan saves a runaway girl of roughly his own age from being gang-raped by a bunch of bikers. Needless to say, these wolves aren’t too happy about our guy Morgan trying to make off with their prey and, as he attempts to escape, they crush his van in auto compactor. Morgan is forced to beat a hasty retreat in a dilapidated old truck he liberates from the yard with the girl in tow. He soon learns her name is Karen (Katie Saylor) and she’s on the run from her control-freak rich dad who’s out to cramp her style, as all parents did back then — and probably still do now. It’s kinda their job, after all.

But even though he’s now vanless and damn near penniless to boot, Morgan is still determined to be the biggest ball in the nutsack at “Freakout ’76,” and this being the 70s and all, doesn’t even seem particularly worried about his current predicament because back then shit just kind of had a way of working itself out.

It also doesn’t hurt that Morgan’s got a buddy who used to be a top-flight engineer for Mid-American Motors, the monolithic van-conversion company of the midwest owned by standard asshole-rich-guy-with-a-taste-for-younger-pussy T. B. Trenton (Morgan Woodward). He stops by to visit his techno-automotive-wizard friend at his workshop and is presented with the van to end all vans, the titular SuperVan herself, Vandora.

Equipped with computerized voice control, autopilot, a  high-speed capabilities no other van can match, and even a weapons system that we’ll get to in a couple seconds here (oh, and a bed, too, of course), Vandora is sure to take “Freakout ’76” by storm. And hey — did I mention that Vandora operates on solar power and has plenty of spare storage capacity in case it’s dark or rainy outside?  There’s just one problem : Morgan’s pal can’t drive and needs somebody else to take his super-rig to the big rally/”vanner” Woodstock.

There’s just a few problems to be negotiated along the way (and after they already get there, since truth be told while you’d think the quest of  getting to the big “freakout” would form the backbone of the story here and the plot “obstacles” I’m about to detail would be rolled out in such a way as to (almost, at least) prevent them from getting to their destination, they actually get their relatively quickly and unscathed and most of their nearly drama-free “troubles” hit after they arrive on the scene) — Trenton is determined to stop Vandora from getting into the contest, he claims to actually own Vandora since Morgan’s genius buddy was working for him when he designed the inital (gas-guzzling at the time, I’m guessing) prototype, he’s got all the cops and highway patrol (and avoiding “smokeys” is a big occupational hazard for any “vanner”) in the area in his back pocket , and oh — sweet young runaway  Karen is his daughter.

The kind of hijinks you can predict pretty easily ensue — Vandora wins some of the contests at “Freakout ’76”  and loses a couple of others, our two young dreamers fall in love, the “fuzz” give Morgan and the other “vanners” all kinds of problems,  including tossing our hero’s ass in jail right before the big “mudslide” contest that will determine the winner of the whole weekend “freakout,” and eventually Trenton is lured to his demise by his taste for young flesh.

I hope I didn’t give too much away there, but honestly “SuperVan” is one of those movies you can leave playing while you take a 30-minute phone call and not even have to bother backtracking once you get off the horn. Trust me when I say you probably haven’t missed a thing.

Our two young leads are pretty much wooden in terms of their delivery and screen presence, but that doesn’t really matter much — the real star here in Vandora. Designed by legendary customizer George Barris, who gave us the original Batmobile from the 1960s “Batman” TV series and the Beverly Hillbilles’ truck, among other legendary cinematic vehicles, there’s never any doubt from the word go that she’s the real star of the show here, everything else is just window dressing. Evidently the cinematic marketeers of 1976/77 saw some potential for Vandora beyond the silver screen, as well, as evidenced by the SuperVan model kit that I don’t think burned the shelves off too many toy and hobby stores upon its release, but nevertheless released it was —

I wonder how much these go for on eBay these days?

A flick like “SuerVan” is one you’d guess would be pretty heavy in the T&A department, but in all honesty this is strictly PG fare all the way. Oh, sure, plenty of the “van groupie” chicks like to show off their goods in tight shorts and even tighter t-shirts, so there’s a hint of big saggy 70s knockers here and there, but they all stay more or less covered, if minimally. The quest to show off the best chest (relatively speaking) at “Freakout ’76” does lead to one of the film’s more surreal moments, though — one of the judges at the van-stravaganza’s wet t-shirt contest is none other than an obviously (as usual) debilitatingly inebbriated Charles Bukowski! Don’t ask how or why he ended up here, because I seriously don’t know.

There are a few other moments of “what the fuck was that”-ness along the way, as well, such as when Vandora busts Morgan out of jail by firing a solar-powered laser at the wall (remember the weapons system I said I’d get to “in a few seconds” about five minutes ago?) and when she makes a police radio explode essentially just out of thin air, but beyond that it’s pretty much just one endless display of footage from a custom van show of the sort you’d probably find on the evening news at the time if there happened to be one going on in your town — -except then you’d only be subjected to it for a couple of minutes at most.

One conclusion is inescapable from watching this flick — Kansas City must have been one boring-ass place to live back in the 70s. I say this because “Freakout ’76” is all the radio DJs talk about while Morgan is driving his bizarre-humming-noise-emitting  SuperVan. Literally.  It’s like it’s the only thing going on in town (they even refer to their fair hamlet as “Vansas City”). Here in Minneapolis we’re damn proud, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, of the old Mary Tyler Moore show putting on “on the map,” so to speak, in that decade, even though they only shot about five seconds of intro footage for it here (there’s even a statue of her downtown on the very spot where she threw her hat in the air — people think I’m kidding about this, but sadly I’m not). If the makers of “SuperVan” where hoping to achieve a similar public relations coup for their hometown (and for St. Joseph, Missouri, where the “freakout” segments of this “epic” were filmed), it’s safe to say that it didn’t happen. But somehow I doubt that anything beyond showing off their solar-powered supermachine and all the other custom rigs wasn’t really even on their radar screen (now there’s one thing Vandora didn’t have).

"SuperVan" DVD from Cheezy Flicks

“SuperVan” has just been released on DVD from Cheezy Flicks, and it’s a pretty bare-bones package. It’s an obvious direct-from-VHS transfer presented in full frame that even has a couple of visible tape-damage spots. The sound is unremastered mono that you need to turn up a few notches beyond your normal setting if you want to, you know, actually hear what the fuck is going on. The only extras are a selection of other Cheezy Flicks trailers (that they put together themselves — I’ve seen the real trailer for “Convoy,” for instance, and this ain’t it) and some admittedly cool but hardly close to rare intermission “let’s all go to the lobby”-type drive-in loops. A commentary would have been nice if only to find out exactly what the hell Charles Bukowski is doing in this thing and what ever ended up happening to the SuperVan itself, but somehow I doubt the folks at Cheezy Flicks even let the people who made this movie know they were putting it out on DVD, much less try to actually assemble them in order to put a commentary track together.

Admittedly “SuperVan” is a curious relic of a bygone era. But you’ve seen enough of it and then some by the time it’s over, and whatever nostalgia value it has will give way to just plain old fashioned boredom and restlessness long before the end credits roll. Still, if you’re feeling brave and/or sadistic, it’s worth a (and I use the singular very specifically here) look. Just don’t worry if the phone rings and you end up taking a lengthy call from soebody you haven’t from in a long time.

And now I gotta go, smokey’s on my ass!

"Lady Terminator" Ad Sheet

“First She Mates — Then She Terminates!” — Advertising Tag-Line for “Lady Terminator”

Your host is debuting a new semi-regular feature here at TFG where we take a look at some of the more bizarre Z-grade exploitation fare from around the globe, since,  as the Japanese, Italians, and others have proven over the years, the English-speaking world doesn’t hold a monopoly on head-scratchingly bizarre cinema — in fact, you could argue that we’re in the minor leagues compared to plenty of other countries. And I can’t think of a better place to begin our occasional examination of international film absurdities than with the 1988 Indonesian gem (and I use that term advisedly — context, people, context!) “Lady Terminator.”

First thought upon seeing the title is, naturally enough, “looks like a cheap ‘Terminator’ rip-off only with a chick.” Which is, of course, true. First impressions don’t lie — all the time. But there’s a lot more to this film than just that, as it incorporates local legend, aimed squarely at a largely working-class local audience, to deliver a truly Indonesian take on James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster, all while trying its level best (and failing) to look like an American Hollywood special effects extravaganza.

If blending the local with the desperate desire to appear like it was filmed somewhere — anywhere — else sounds incongruous to you, rest assured that it is, and it’s this attempt to both speak to, and simultaneously disguise and/or escape its roots, that gives “Lady Terminator” a unique personality all its own — albeit a highly schizophrenic one. The cheesy special effects, horrendous dubbing, lame acting, and cheap production values are just icing on the cake. The funnest thing about this film is watching how it tries to pitch itself to audiences at home by giving the story a distinctly Indonesian (specifically Javanese) backstory while trying to hustle its wares to audiences abroad by doing its level best (and, again, failing) to look like an LA-based production.

She doesn't look much like Ah-nuld, thank God

Our story begins hundreds — shit, maybe even thousands, by the look of things —of yea ago in an ancient, foreboding castle by the sea. There, the evil South Seas Queen slakes her apparently endless sexual thirst on an apparently endless succession of local men. The only problem : they all end up dead; their cocks chewed off  mid-intercourse,  a stream of blood spurting up their bodies. I know what you’re thinking here — the old “vagina dentata” myth, most recently explored cinematically in “Teeth.”  Hold on a second, though – one day, a mysterious (white) foreigner shows up and tames her with his John Holmes-like appendage. He also learns the secret to why every other guy who got tried on for size (pun sort of intended) ended up quite literally emasculated : there’s a sea serpent living inside the evil queen’s snatch, and he grabs it out, turns it into a dagger(?), and she ends up dead — but not before vowing that, in one hundred years’ time, she’ll have her revenge upon his great-granddaughter.

This, friends, in the ancient Javanese legend of the South Seas Queen (raise your hand if you knew that one — I admit I didn’t). Yes, it’s a variation on the “vagina dentata” theme just mentioned, but probably the type of variation that could only come from an island culture, fused as it is with “sea monster”-type legend.

Fast-forward 100 years and we’re in the present day (well, 1988). I know what you’re thinking — I said that whole castle scene looks like it took place centuries ago. And it does. But whatever. In our new, modern segment of the story we’ve got a beautiful,  ethnically vague (my guess is half Indonesian half white)  young anthropologist named Tania (Barbara Anne Constable) about to head underwater for a diving excursion. She’s  investigating the legend of the South Seas Queen and believes she’s located the whereabouts of her castle so she wants to see if there are any artifacts from it lying on the sea bed. I didn’t know anthropologists were interested in shit that’s only 100 years old, either, but again — whatever. It’s called suspension of disbelief, people, and trust me when I say that if you want to keep up with events in “Lady Terminator,” your very survival depends on it.

Anyway, Tania’s boat is capsized by a tsunami and soon she finds herself on the bottom on the sea. In a bed. in a dry room. Naked (she spends a good 50% of her screen time at least topless, if not fully nude, although there’s very little by way of full frontal stuff). Whereupon the evil sea serpent that had possessed the wicked queen enters her (entirely unconvincingly) vaginally.

Then it’s back up to the surface to pick up right where our evil snake left off — Tania and her new body-sharing mate are determined to fuck, then kill, every guy in sight, and to track down the granddaughter of the guy who put a stop to their last round of carnal homicide. The Lady Terminator is born!

I'm gonna wash that blood right outta my eye ---

This is the point at which the movie moves firmly into Cameron clone territory, albeit with a few twists — for one thing, the Lady Terminator is not half-robot, or whatever the hell Ah-nuld was. But she’s every bit as indestructible. Apparently, the cops — as well as hotel and mall security guards — in Indonesia have an endless supply of automatic weaponry, but all the uzi fire in the world, even at point-blank range, doesn’t stop this lady. Nor do helicopter-fired missiles. Or fiery car wrecks. When her eye gets bloody, she just pops is out of its socket, washes it off with a combination of water and crackling electricity, and sticks it back in. The only thing that can harm her is an ancient amulet worn by Erica (Claudia Angelique Rademaker), the granddaughter she’s hunting down.  But will out erstwhile heroine figure this out in time?

The other areas in which this film deviates from the James Cameron blueprint are in the sheer amount of sex and violence packed into its 85-minute runtime and the rushed mouthfuls of dialogue that fly non-stop. It almost feels like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of a longer film.  And the action almost feels like it’s following the script of the original “Terminator” film and turning it up a few notches just because it can. In fact, it’s got almost as much non-stop mayhem as “Terminator 2,” and almost bears a closer resemblance in many key respects to that film, even though “Lady Terminator” came out a few years earlier. It’s enough to make you wonder if Cameron had actually seen this thing before starting work on his sequel — in which case “Terminator 2” would be a copy of a copy of his original.

But back to the story, such as it is. Erica’s an up-and-coming wannabe actress/pop star, and the only recognizably Indonesian member of the principal cast (even though her great-granddaddy was supposedly white).She’s protected by a stereotypical tough young cop named Max McNeil (Christopher J. Hart), who is obviously American (and working for the Indonesian cops — don’t ask me how that works), and equally obviously only speaks English. In fact, a good half this movie looks like it was shot in English but then dubbed over anyway.  Max got put on the case when a bunch of dickless dead bodies started turning up at the morgue. Soon he’s trying to protect Erica from her indestructible pursuer and starting up a romance with her at the same time. That’s generally how these sorts of things work.

The action all takes place at decidedly American-looking locales, from shopping malls to hotels to airports (all with signs in English). It’s as though director H. Tjut Djalil (given a phony Anglicized name in the credits, as are all the cast and crew) and screenwriter Karr Kruinowz figured they were done with the Indonesian part of the story after the opening set-up and, having captured the interest of the locals, would spend the rest of the film trying to make as American-looking a production as possible in case they could actually pick up some overseas distribution (which, in fact, they did — “Lady Terminator” actually played a few 42nd street grindhouses in the waning days of the pre-Disneyfied Deuce).

A rough day at the office for the Lady Terminator

The final climactic battle is pure Cameron rip-off, albeit on steroids, with an emaciated, disfigured, grotesque Lady Terminator engaging in a last, desperate, ultra-violent battle with our heroes. The only thing missing is the red eye and dangling robot parts. Then we’ve got some voice-over narration at the end that takes everything back to the realm of ancient Indonesian legend even though the previous 70-plus minutes have been a desperate attempt to look as American as possible. Go figure.

"Lady Terminator" DVD from Mondo Macabro

“Lady Terminator” is available on DVD from Mondo Macabro. Despite not having featuring a commentary track, which probably would have been almost impossible to produce given the language barriers involved even if they had managed to track down all the principals behind the scenes, it’s a truly excellent package. The anamorphic transfer is generally sharp and crisp aside from some entirely forgivable and excusable grainy spots in parts, the digital mono soundtrack is perfectly fine, and the extras include a superb mini-documentary on the history of Indonesian exploitation cinema and an extremely thorough and comprehensive text essay on the origins and production of “Lady Terminator” that includes some still photos as well as promotional artwork for this film and Djalil’s previous cinematic offering, the equally-befuddling, but ultimately less engaging, “Mystics in Bali.” All in all, an extremely worthy addition to your DVD library.

“Lady Terminator” is a singularly bizarre movie experience, and one not to be missed. In attempting to appeal to both a local audience and to the international — specifically the American — market, Djalil and company ended up making a film that feels like it was made not in America or in Indonesia —  or even on the planet Earth for that matter — but one that landed here from another dimension altogether.

"Exploitation Cinema" double feature DVD from Code Red/Saturn Productions Featuring "Deliver Us From Evil" and "The Fox Affair"

“‘Deliver Us From Evil’ — a movie that tells it like it is about blacks. The beautiful blacks. The evil blacks.”    —From the trailer for Horace Jackson’s “Deliver Us From Evil” (1977)

Okay, first off I should admit that “you’ve never seen anything quite like movie X” is becoming a bit of an overused catch-phrase here at TFG, but even so — you’ve never seen anything quite like writer-director Horace Jackson’s 1977 sorta-blaxploitation, sorta-godsploitation opus “Deliver Us From Evil.”

Also released under the rather blase title of “Joey,” which is still the moniker that’s slapped on most surviving prints of the film, this is a movie that prioritizes everything else — plot, characterization, continuity, even sanity itelf — so far beneath preaching its anything-but-subtle message that it becomes a case study in genuine cinematic absurdity.

And what is that message, you may ask? A pretty solidly uncontroversial one — “stop the killing, drugs, and violence in our communities, black America.” Can’t really argue with that. But dear God, does this turn into one seriously bizarre harangue after awhile.

Name me another movie that features Al Roker's cousin without a shirt on.

Our story begins with menial laborer Chris Townes (Renny Roker, Al’s cousin) cleaning up around a movie set full of glass vases and shit without a shirt on. Tired of being bossed around by his white asshole “superior,” he takes it upon himself to trash ever single carefully-placed piece of glassware on the shelves and is immediately shuffled off to a psychiatric institution for his troubles, whereupon he engages in a screamingly hysterical laugh-fest for no reason whatsoever with his doctor.

Fun times in the loony bin

Next thing you know, Chris is back out on the streets, having landed another shit job working for a racist prick who goads him constantly (guess it must be a pattern), this time at a construction site. He rents a gaudy-as-hell furnished apartment from another white racist prick who promises him it’s the “best he has available” (Chris obviously disagrees as we find out during some voice-over segments — note that voice-over is only used when Chris is bitching in his mind about his spread) and pockets his damage deposit money with a chuckle.

One day after another eight hellish hours of being degraded and belittle on the job site, Chris spots a rather attractive young lady named Mindy (Marie O’Henry) on the street after her car breaks down, offers her a ride home out of the blue, and she accepts. Mindy’s had a rough day, as well — she works as a recreation director at the 38th Street schoolyard and some local teenage hoodlums determined to start selling “marijuana and pills” at the school have been busy breaking up her organized recreational activities like baseball and stickball, harassing the younger kids, and starting fights. All to, you know, make a good impression on the youngsters they hope to turn into regular customers for their product once they have taken over their new “territory.” Marketing geniuses these guys are definitely not. Things go from bad to worse for her when Chris gets a lead foot, starts driving like a suicidal maniac just because he’s having a bad day, and won’t let her out of the car. He eventually gets her home, but suffice to say he’s left a rather lousy first impression.

Our guy Chris figures he’d better try to make it up to her somehow, so embarks on a campaign of what we today we could “stalking” in order to prove to Mindy that he isn’t such a bad cat. Again, the inept salesmanship on display in this film is absolutely mind-boggling.

Anyway, the apple of Mindy’s — and the entire neighborhood’s, apparently — eye is a young wheelchair-bound boy named Joey, also known as Little Joe (Danny Martin), who she dutifully wheels back and forth to school every day even though she’s evidently of no relation to him whatsoever (he’s apparently got a sister, but near as I can determine we never meet his actual parents in the film). Chris decides to make friends with Little Joe as well in order, apparently, to get back in Mindy’s good graces.

Somewhere along the line we learn the following tidbits of information : Mindy’s married. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. Christ doesn’t really have the hots for Mindy, he likes an admittedly pretty damn gorgeous friend named Kim he’s seen her with.  Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. There’s rampant racism in the police department. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. Hard-working black people can’t catch a break. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. Local gangsters go door-to-door posing as salespeople for radical black newspapers. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community. The best way to meet attractive young single ladies is to get their address from little kids in wheelchairs and then go to their door pretending to be conducting a survey about TV programming. All it takes is a pencil, paper, and clipboard. Black-on-black violence is destroying the community.

I mentioned earlier that pretty much everything else in this film pretty much takes a back seat to Horace Jackson’s rather heavy-handed moralizing. This is no exaggeration, in fact if anything it’s an understatement. Characters turn up and are never seen from again, characters turn up in the beginning (for a little while there this flick looks like it’s going to mainly be the story of a hard-working, put-upon black police detective) and don’t appear again until the end, promising plotlines are dropped completely or turned around for no apparent reason (Chris wanting to cozy up to Mindy quickly turns into Chris wanting to cozy up to her friend once Jackson establishes that Mindy’s married). Scenes and situations abruptly change tone at the drop of a hat , such s when Chris’s parole officer turns up at his place, silently looks around calmly for a few minutes, then decides to start acting out of the blue and gets in his face for a couple minutes before making nice with him and leaving.

But for sheer absurdity, there are a few sequences that just can’t be beat.

First among these is when, after sixty-plus minutes of seriously unimaginative and straightforward, “point-the-camera-and shoot” filmmaking, Jackson goes all artistic during a scene when Mindy is beaten up by the gang members terrorizing her playground. There are freeze-frames of fists making impact against her face, the sounds are held and amplified, and time is generally fucked with in every way possible for a couple minutes while she gets pummeled.

Next up we’ve got the briefly-mentioned series of events involving Chris posing as a TV survey dude and the gang members posing as radical black activists. Get this : Chris gets Kim’s address from Joey and goes to her place to conduct his bogus “survey.” She’s busy but tells him she’d love to have him come by the next day around 4:30. He smiles, says goodbye, and promises to be back. Then some gangster dudes we met briefly earlier in the film come to her door selling some supposedly radical black newspaper that “tells it like it is” and she seems interested in hearing their message. Cut to the next day at 4:30 and Chris returns to her place as promised. She’s not there. He waits around for some little time but she never shows up.

What’s happened? Have the gangster dudes done something terrible to her? Is she okay? Turns out she’s fine. Chris sees her that night at Mindy’s place (his friendship with Joey has convinced her by this point that he’s not such a bad dude after all), and apparently nothing happened when the bad-ass gangster dudes showed up at her place, because she doesn’t even mention it. In fact, check this shit out — she ends up asking Chris where he was because apparently she was waiting for him at her place for over half an hour and he never showed! He just says something came up. And not only does she not mind his little ruse, they start to get a little thing going from that point on.

I have to think that somewhere along the line Jackson had something else written here and just decided to drop it, like maybe thins young lady ws supposed to get kidnapped or something and he just decided not to go there in order to make a PG film (which he did, this movie has no swearing and very little actual violence, apart from the scene mentioned a moment ago) or something, because this “explanation” of events just doesn’t add up in the least. She stood him up, as we clearly see on film, but that night she claims she waited for him for 30 minutes and he just says “something came up” — even though he was there and she wasn’t? But I digress. Script continuity is apparently not a Horace Jackson strong suit.

The third serious absurdity I’ll mention takes place at the construction site where Chris has been working. The white asshole who’d been lording his authority over him even though he’s not the foreman shows up and sees Chris and every other black worker walking away. He asks the foreman what happened, and is told : ” I had to lay off all the blacks. Didn’t wanna do it, but I’ve got my orders.”

Now, I know we didn’t have a black president in 1977, but I’m pretty sure this type of mass and open race-based discrimination was totally illegal and prime class-action lawsuit material even back then. But just to make matters weirder, the asshole dude immediately goes over to Chris, tells him he’s just essentially been testing his mettle and making sure he’s not one of those “bad” blacks with a chip on his shoulder against “the man,” has grown to see him as being “one heck of a worker and one heck of a man,” or words to that effect, and offers him a job at another site, a proposition which Chris immediately accepts. So essentially a movie that’s been telling us that whites won’t give a black guy a break no matter what for its entire first 80 or so minutes suddenly shows that the biggest white jerk in the whole movie ain’t such a bad guy after all and apparently us white folks aren’t so tough to get along with once we make sure you’re a “safe” sort of black person. Go figure.

But goofy as all that shit is, it pales in comparison to the ending — after an unexpected tragedy hits Joey’s family (at least, I think they’re his family — one victim is his sister, the other might, possibly, be his grandmother, but it’s never really made clear) when the bad-ass gangster dudes pay a visit to his home, a kindly preacher from the local Baptist church turns up and asks Chris, who’s helping to look after our little wheelchair-bound junior Superman (and just as a total aside here, I have to say the alternate title of “Joey” for this flick makes absolutely no sense, being that not only is he not the central character in any way, shape, or form, but 99% of the time everyone just calls him “Little Joe” anyway) if there’s anything he can do.

After endless conversations between the various characters about the evils black-on-black drugs and violence are inflicting on the community, and a theme song called “We Know What We’re Doing To Ourselves” playing almost incessantly throughout the film from start to finish, the “fourth wall” between the actors and the audience fully breaks down and Chris delivers an impassioned and highly pissed-off rant/harangue directly at the camera about how black America needs to get a million people together to march not through the streets of Washington, D.C. (and keep in mind this was years before the Million Man March) but through their own communities and neighborhoods and how they all must work together to stamp out the scourge of drugs and violence once and for all. Then, as if that weren’t enough, this lengthy and angry soliloquy concludes with —

How about right here?

“When Will It End?” Apparently right then and there. With every single plot line he’s introduced — and there are literally dozens of them — still unresolved, with every single characters left in a kind of cinematic limbo, Jackson pulls the plug on his story right then and there, not out of some sort of intentionally artistic sense of narrative realism — that went out the window five minutes into this thing — but because he figures “hey, mission accomplished,” and he’s literally run out of anything else to say.

“Deliver Us From Evil” has recently been released on DVD by Code Red, although you wouldn’t know it. Part of the “Exploitation Cinema” series of double feature DVDs (the second feature here being the eminently forgettable “The Fox Affair,” which pretty much has nothing to recommend going for it) originally issued through the auspices of BCI, Code Red inherited this line with Navarre pulled the plug on BCI altogether, but Code Red’s name is nowhere to be found on this thing. Instead, the only label we see is for the apparently defunct “Saturn Productions,” a name no one’s seen or heard of since the early days of the VHS boom, but which has popped up again out of nowhere both here and on the “Saturn Drive-In” double features that Code Red has put out recently. I’d love to explain the reason for this, but I just straight-up can’t.

The picture quality of the DVD itself, at least for this film, is pretty good. It’s a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that does feature some skips and jumps and a little bit of grain here and there, but hey, around here we don’t all those “imperfections,” we just say it gives the movie character, in that vintage grindhouse way we know and love so well. The colors are bold and surprisingly vivid given the, shall we say, archival nature of the material, and one gets the strong sense that this is probably the best possible surviving print they could find. There are occasional running green emulsion lines on display as well, but again, that’s no big deal to this reviewer and just adds to the charm. The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is perfectly clear and crisp. Extras on the disc are in pretty short supply, but you do get preview trailers for “Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde” (worth the purchase right there), “Group Marriage,” Terminal Island,” “The Working Girls,” Cheering Section” and “Death Force.”

There’s a story in here — hell, way too many of them — buried under a mountain of good intentions, and watching Horace Jackson sublimate every other basic rule of filmmaking and even of narrative itself in order to drive home hi singular point yet one more time is a unique viewing experience that I recommend most highly.

Final aside for movie trivia buffs — “Deliver Us From Evil” got very limited thearical play upon its release, and was usually double-billed with Jackson’s one other cinematic credit, another super-low-budgeter called “Johnny Tough” that’s apparently an urban blaxploitation retelling of Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows.” Seriously.

"God Told Me To" Movie Poster

Larry Cohen films have a vibe all their own. Even his more “standard” horror fare like “It’s Alive,” or his blaxploitation ventures like “Black Caesar” have that certain off-kilter aspect of — well, Cohen-ness, for lack of a better term, to them. A signature element of personality that manifests itself in some sort of major quirk, or series of quirks, throughout. Today Cohen is pretty much confined to screenwriting, churning out rather standard-issue “thriller” screenplays for flicks like “Captivity” and “Phone Booth,” but back when he was given more free reign, he definitely came up with some movies that were straight out of bizarro world, the most notable of which were probably “Bone,” “Q : The Winged Serpent,” and my personal favorite, 1976’s “God Told Me To.”

This movie takes so many unexpected and almost completely incongruous twists and turns that you just have to sit back, go with the flow, and enjoy the ride. If you’re not willing to completely suspend all disbelief and just trust that Cohen is going to get us to a satisfactory conclusion by the end, no matter how bizarre what’s going on may seem at the time, then you’re going to feel hopelessly frustrated and probably throw in the towel somewhere around the halfway point of the proceedings. But if you are, indeed, able to hold out hope for a satisfying and dare I even say sensible conclusion, even in the face of staggering absurdity, then you’re in for a heck of a good time.

Tony Lo Bianco is searching for God --- so he can charge him with murder

New York police detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco — there’s a name you haven’t heard in awhile) is working one bitch of a case. First, he just happens to be on the scene when a young man named Harold Gorman, perched atop a water tower, kills 15 random pedestrians with a .22-caliber rifle. Nicholas tries to talk him down, but Gorman, after confessing his “motive,” opts to take his own life instead.  Next, an apparently happily married man kills his wife and children completely out of the blue, and calmly offers the same bizarre “motive” that Gorman did, prompting Nichoals to get involved in that case, as well. After that, a beat cop (played by Andy Kaufman — yes, that Andy Kaufman) opens fire on his fellow police officers marching in New York’s famous St. Patrick’s Day parade (an event Cohen would return to in his script for “Maniac Cop”). He also offers the exact same “motive” as te other two recent mass-murderers.

As for what that “motive” is, I’m sure you’ve already guessed — “God told me to” (hence the name, of course, although this flick was also released under the rather dull title of “Demon,” as well).

The man on the moon joins the bullies in blue --- Andy Kaufman in "God Told Me To"

Nicholas has some qualms about being in charge of this investigation due to his own highly devout, albeit rather secret, Catholicism.  Abandoned as an infant, he was raised by nuns for several years in Catholic orphanage. His personal life is a mess, and even though he’s been seprated from his wife (played by Sandy Dennis) and spends most of his time with his girlfriend (portrayed by Deborah Raffin), his strict religious views preclude any possibility of his getting a divorce, which is probably why he keeps his mistress in the dark about the seriousness with which he practices his faith.

Following the leads in this case is going to cause him to question that faith in ways he never imagined, though — that’s because every single clue leads him toward a man named Bernard Phillips (cult favorite Richard Lynch), who apparently was the product of a virgin birth, possesses miraculous abilities, and seems to have a direct line to the almighty himself. No matter how hard he wants to believe otherwise, Nicholas starts to accept the seemingly impossible — there really is a God living in New York, and he really is ordering his followers to kill. But as astonishing as those revelations are, it’s nothing compared to what our erstwhile hero is about to learn about his own past —

Richard Lynch as either God himself, the son of God, both, or neither

This is the point at which summarizing the plot any further is just going to give too damn much away. Like I mentioned previously, be prepared for some seriously goofy shit that will sorely tempt you to groan and shut the thing off. But stick it out and I promise you won’t be sorry. Everything comes full circle and the ending is absolutely perfect. I don’t believe in God myself, but I do believe in Larry Cohen’s ability to tell a damn solid story, and that faith is certainly rewarded come time for this flick to wrap up.

"God Told Me To" DVD from Blue Underground

“God Told Me To” is available on DVD from Blue Underground. The digitally remastered anamorphic  transfer looks sharp and crisp, the sound quality, also remastered, is especially clear and well-done, and what few extras there are really are good, including the trailer (of course), and a fantastic commentary from Chonen, whose recollections of the film are crystal clear and whose anecdotes about production always entertaining and involving. A highly recommended rental or even purchase if you’re any kind of fan of low-budget independent exploitation fare or just mind-fuck films in general, since “Gold Told Me To” will definitely leave you scratching your head at just where the hell this whole thing is headed throughout, but feeling exceptionally satisfied by the time it’s over.

Lights! Camera! Self-congratulation!

The glitz! The glamor! The hype! The wretched excess! Yes, friends, it’s that time of year again, time for Hollywood to make itself feel even better than it does on most days, the 2010 Academy Awards are here! And while Oscar-“worthy” films aren’t our usual “thang” here at TFG, your host does enjoy the awards not so much for the ceremony itself and the nauseating sight of Hollywood spending hundreds of millions of dollars to tell itself how great it is while, you know, 90-plus percent of the world starves, but because a couple of my very best friends  always throw a terrific Oscar party that’s become one my absolute favorite annual traditions as it provides a chance to catch up with old friends I don’t see often enough, take in the spectacle of the show with fellow cynics, eat some unhealthy food, get a little buzzed, and usually, in my case, win a few bucks in the traditional Oscar pool. And since this is the first year I’ve been here on WordPress at Oscar time (I think I started this blog last April), I thought I’d publish my predictions on here for posterity. Or something. So, without further ado, here are TFG’s best bets for the winners at the 2010 Academy Awards —

Best Sound Mixing — “Avatar.” James Cameron’s ludicrously expensive and amazingly overrated spectacle will win pretty much all the technical awards.

Best Sound Editing — “Avatar.” James Cameron’s ludicrously expensive and amazingly overrated spectacle will win pretty much all the technical awards.

Best Live Action Short — “Kavi.” I haven’t seen any of the films nominated, but this is supposed to be a mini-“Slumdog Millionaire.” That’s probably good enough for the Academy.

Best Documentary Short — “The Last Truck: Closing Of A GM Plant.” In truth, “China’s Unnatural Disaster:The Tears Of Sichuan Province” seems to be getting the most buzz and could well win, but I just don’t think that in these turbulent economic times Hollywood can pass on the opportunity to pretend it gives a fuck about ordinary working Americans that giving the award to “The Last Truck” would give them. They feel our pain, you know?

Best Animated Short — “A Matter Of Loaf And Death.” Most Academy voters don’t see these things and usually give it to the one with the most clever title.

Best Makeup — “Star Trek.” The Trek franchise has been a cash cow for Hollywood for years and here’s a chance to give it a cursory little nod while still letting it know it’s not able to play with the grown-ups in the major, “serious” categories. Trekkies/Trekkers/whatever-the-hell-they-call-themselves-these-days were pulling for it to get a nomination in the laughably-expanded Best Picture field, but the Academy declined. They’ll throw them a bone here and figure everyone can walk happy.

Best Art Direction — “Avatar.” Not a technical award per se, but James Cameron’s ludicrously expensive and amazingly overrated spectacle is just that, spectacle. And spectacle wins in this category.

Best Costume Design — “The Young Victoria.” British period costume dramas usually win this category.

Best Cinematography — “The Hurt Locker.” In point of fact, “The White Ribbon” deserves to win this and very well could — I may even break from my published predictions and pick it in the Oscar pool tonight just to make things interesting — but I can tell you from historical experience that the most worthy nominee usually doesn’t get this one, it usually goes to the best-shot film that’s nominated for Best Picture.

Best Editing — “The Hurt Locker.” A breakneck-paced film with lots of impressive cuts and jarring action, this is one technical award I’m guessing “Avatar” won’t take home. The editing really makes “The Hurt Locker” what it is, the script is flimsy and the acting is good, but entirely one-dimensional.

Best Original Song — “The Weary Kind” from “Crazy Heart.” The Academy loves this flick and wants to give it more than one Oscar, and this category gives them their best chance to do that.

Best Original Score —Likewise, the Academy would love to look magnanimous and inclusive by giving Pixar’s latest soulless, by-the-numbers money press an award besides Best Animated Feature, for which it is, of course, a lock, and this category gives them their best chance to do that.

Best Documentary Feature — “The Cove.” Personally speaking, I’d love to see “Food Inc.” win in this category, but taking on global agribusiness requires guts, and taking on the slaughter of dolphins doesn’t.  We all know which way Hollywood goes if given the choice to be brave or to be safe, so I think “The Cove” is pretty much a given here.

Best Foreign Film — It hasn’t opened here in town yet, but “Un Prophete,” a strong dark horse contender here, is really supposed to be quite a flick. I don’t think its late push is enough to dislodge Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” from its early front-runner status, however.

Best Animated Feature — “Up.” Pixar owns this category lock, stock, and barrel, and while they have some strong competition this year from the likes of “Coraline” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” at the end of the day Hollywood knows which side its bread is buttered on, and will fork this award over to the guys who keep the cash flowing in.

Best Adapted Screenplay — “Up In The Air.” Let’s be honest, “Precious” deserves it, but Jason Reitman is the latest supposed next big “auteur” director, and the Academy really wants to give this movie something. Early on  this was a Best Picture favorite, but it’s lost its steam there and will probably walk away with this one as consolation.

Best Original Screenplay —“Inglourious Basterds.” No snide commentary here, Tarantino wrote a heck of a script that deserves to win and probably will.

Best Supporting Actress — Mo’Nique for “Precious.” No serious competition whatsoever, this is hers to lose.

Best Supporting Actor — Christoph Waltz for “Inglourious Basterds.” No serious competition whatsoever, this is his to lose.

Best Actress — Sandra Bullock for “The Blind Side.” I haven’t seen this sanctimonious pile of shit and don’t intend to, but Bullock seems to have a slight edge over her nearest competition, Meryl Streep, and the most deserving nominee, Gabourey Sidibe. Hollywood loves a story that says there’s nothing wrong with the lives of poor black people that rich white people can’t fix in ways that don’t involve, you know, actually raising  taxes on these bastards to give some of it to the poor, and this is their chance to give this unexpected mega-blockbuster a pat on the back for coming out of nowhere and fattening up the Tinseltown coffers. Hell, they’d probably love to be able to give this thing Best Picture, but they need to maintain some semblance of credibility even though they have none, everyone knows they have none, and they know everyone knows they have none. It’s just one of those things.

Best Actor — Jeff Bridges for “Crazy Heart.” A decent little flick with a fine performance by a great actor who’s deserved it ten times over, although maybe not for this film. Still, it’s his time, as the saying goes, and hey, the fact he even does his own singing in the movie impresses the fuck out of the Academy. They should have given him the nod about fifteen years ago for another “Heart” movie, though — “American Heart.” Awesome flick, check it out sometime if you haven’t seen it.

Best Director — Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker.” Here’s where the hyped “Avatar”- vs. -“The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow- vs. -Cameron “issue” gets “resolved.” But first, let’s be honest about something. The whole argument about a “quality” film taking on a megalithic Hollywood blockbuster, the whole David vs. Goliath scenario we’re being sold on? It’s all bullshit, because even though we all know “Avatar” isn’t very good, the truth is that “The Hurt Locker” isn’t, either. It’s a typical, tedious testosterone-fest that somehow manages to be set in the midst of the most controversial war since Viet Nam yet offer no commentary on that war whatsoever. That’s almost as amazing accomplishment in and of itself, when you think about it. I couldn’t make an apolitical movie about Iraq if I tried, and neither could most anyone else. Bigelow pulls it off, though, and if she deserves a prize it’s for sheer gutlessness. That being said, it’s still slightly better than “Avatar” because, well, most anything is. The fact that this film was directed by a woman is what’s getting it all the buzz, that’s just a fact. If it was directed by an old male action movie workhorse like Richard Donner or John Badham or Renny Harlin (or, for that matter, Brian DePalma, who actually gave us far and away the best Iraq war film, “Redacted”) or something, we wouldn’t even be talking about it at this point. Bigelow didn’t prove that women can be great film directors — that’s already been proven a million times over. She just proved that a woman can make a  movie that you would guess was directed by a guy. Which has also been proven many times over. But she’s gonna win an Oscar for it here. Whatever. It’s an important historical first that’s long overdue, sure — but Christ, it’s just a shame that it’s going to her for this. It’s nowhere near as good as countless other films directed by women, and in fact isn’t even nearly as good as the earlier work of Bigelow herself. But again, whatever.

Best Picture — “Avatar.” And so the “epic battles” ends with a draw, of sorts — Bigelow gets the Best Director nod for “The Hurt Locker,” allowing Hollywood to congratulate itself for finally recognizing a woman in the category, and “Avatar” gets Best Picture. Oh, sure, there’s a chance “The Hurt Locker” will win this — it’s won all the”mid-major” pre-Oscar awards, after all, and those usually set the table for the Academy’s decision by letting them know what it’s  “okay” or “safe” to vote for — but shit, people, this is still Hollywood. James Cameron just handed them their biggest fucking money-maker of  ALL TIME. That trumps all other considerations, and your host predicts that the members of the Academy will, in the end, simply not know how NOT to give this award to “Avatar.” It should come down to something else besides that, I suppose, but like I just said, this is Hollywood. Not only is it best not to expect too much, it’s best not to expect anything at all.

Anyway, enjoy the Oscars if you’ll be watching them, and if you happen to be reading this sometime after the awards, feel free to officially brand  me as either a genius or a fool in your mind, as I’ll surely have proven myself to be one or the other depending on how things shake out this evening.

"The Crazies" (2010) Movie Poster

I really — and I mean really — don’t want to compare director Breck (“Sahara”) Eisner’s new remake of  1973 independent exploitation horror classic “The Crazies” with Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake. It’s just too obvious. But then, the parallels are too blatant to ignore. And not just because they’re both based on George Romero films.

First off, like “Dawn,” the fact is that “The Crazies” just didn’t need to be remade. The original is as fresh, exciting, and relevant as ever. Sure, Viet Nam is no longer a contemporary issue, but substitute Iraq or Afghanistan vets for the lead characters in the original, and all the issues end up being the same. Biowarfare, massive paranoia in the populace, government fuck-ups and subsequent government cover-ups, and excessive state secrecy — the main political themes in the original are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1973 — hell, moreso.

Secondly, like Snyder’s “Dawn,” this isn’t, on the surface, a bad remake. It’s stylish, exciting, suitably grisly (although, also like the 2004 “Dawn,” not so grisly that it would only appeal to horror fans — this is definitely a mainstream flick not intended solely for a genre audience), competently acted for the most part, suspenseful, and a fun and gripping ride.

Thirdly, it’s respectful to the original premise without being a tired rehash. The basic set-up is the same — plane carrying a biowarfare agent code named “Trixie” crashes down in a small rural locale (this time the fictional town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, rather than Evans City, Pennsylvania — again, as with “Dawn” 2004, Romero’s story gets transplanted to the midwest), but the characters have the same names and that’s about it, the focus here being  solely on David (Timothy Olyphant) his wife  Judy (Radha Mitchell) , and David’s best friend Russell (Joe Anderson) trying to both escape and learn what it is that they’re escaping from.

On paper, this should work. The original paid as much attention to the action from the point of view of the military as it did to the plight of its nominal protagonists. And while Romero was able to pull of this juggling act with his usual supreme skill, in point of fact the idea of a small confused group of principal characters who are in the dark as to what is going on so that we learn the truth of events at the same pace they do is, technically speaking at least, better and more gripping in terms of pure plotting.

As always, though, it all comes down to execution, and the creative choices made by the filmmakers along the way.

The “Trixie” virus itself operates in essentially manner as the 1973 film, inflicting loopy behavior followed by violent homicidal madness followed by death. The folks fighting it, though — that’s where the main difference between the two films is to be found, and it has profound implications for exactly what type of movie this remake is.

In Romero’s original, Dave and Russ are Viet Nam vets back in their home town, trying to adjust to a society they no longer quite understand. They’re blue collar guys trying to find their way in a country that has used them up and spit them back out. David’s girlfriend ( or, as the new version would have it, wife) is also blue collar, working as she does as a small town nurse. They are quite literally nothing to the political and economic establishment, outsiders to the system trying to eke out a means of basic survival within it.

In the 2010 version, though, that’s all changed — and with it, so has the tone of the film itself, at least from a political standpoint. You see, this time around, David is the local sheriff, Russell is his long-serving trusty deputy, and Judy is the town doctor. Our heroes, therefore, are no longer outsiders fighting against a murderous virus unleashed by a murderous establishment that’s trying to use a murderous military to clean up their mess — our heroes are yuppie system insiders who used to be part of the establishment but now are expendable to it since said establishment is out to use its military to clean up its mess.

In a way, this shift in focus is somewhat tolerable, in that it shows that the system is more than willing to eat its own to cover up for its excesses and/or incompetence, but on the whole, it’s a pretty serious cop-out compared to Romero’s original vision, because it the message in the 1973 version is that the system is rotten, corrupt, evil, and homicidal and can only be successfully fought by those outside it. The new version, though, sends an altogether different message — yes, the system is rotten, corrupt, evil, and homicidal, and yes, it will even turn on its own, but brave and courageous souls within the system itself can fight it. In Romero’s film, the system was co-opted from top to bottom and rotten to the core. In Eisner’s new version, the system is out to destroy innocent lives, sure, but our best chance for salvation comes from within its very ranks.

Another key difference between the films is that in Romero’s flick, the military were incompetent fuck-ups who were changing their plans on the fly every second and everything they did only made matters worse. This seems much closer to actual reality, as we have $300 million helicopters that can’t fly, “Patriot” missiles that can’t hit their targets, and more red tape and bureaucratic snafus among the brass than you can count. Who many times have we “changed strategy” in Iraq and Afghanistan? Has anything worked?

In Eisner’s version of events, however, the military, while certainly undertaking actions that anyone in their right mind would consider unconscionable, such as wiping out innocents and infected alike in order to prevent the virus from spreading, acts with cold, technical precision and absolute competence. So while Romero was telling us that the money we were shoveling at the Pentagon was wasted, the new, Hollywood-approved vision of “The Crazies” is one with a perfectly capable and dependable military — it’s just that they gotta be ruthless sometimes. You know how it goes.

"The Crazies" Promo Poster

If you feel like shutting your brain off and going for a well-made cinematic thrill ride that offers little or no actual food for thought,the 2010 version of “The Crazies” works just fine. It’s a pretty solid little white-knuckle rollercoaster of a flick. The effects are solid, the story is involving, and the premise is neat,the ending is pretty damn spectacular — and it even has the guts to show a news report during the closing credits giving the government’s official BS line about what happened in Ogden Marsh. But come on. The government and the media lie? That’s an easy and obvious criticism to make. We all know that.

And here’s where the final unfortunate parallel with the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” remake comes in. Like that “reimagining,” where Zack Snyder and company managed to set the film in a mall packed to the rafters with excess yet somehow say nothing about consumerism and greed and “the American way of life,” this new version of “The Crazies” takes a classic Romero work of socio-political commentary and almost completely emasculates it. The film takes Romero’s bold and thoroughgoing critique of the entire system itself and makes it safe and palatable. Sure, the government lies, but they’re competent and efficient and there are good people within the system who can change it when things get a little too ruthless and bloodthirsty (provided they don’t, you know, get killed). In the end, Eisner doesn’t seem to have the guts to even seriously criticize the military itself, despite the fact that they’re clearly the bad guys in the film! Go figure.

And that is this movie’s ultimate failing. It portrays a ruthless and inhuman military-industrial complex engaged in full-fledged, wholesale slaughter — and metaphorically, if not literally, lets them, and even more importantly the system they serve, off the hook. The essential theme at the core if the film is no longer “smash the system, it’s beyond repair” as it was in 1973, instead it’s “work from within to change the system — even if it’s trying to kill you, hey, it’s nothing personal.”

As with  Synder’s “Dawn,” Eisner here has taken Romero’s work and replaced all its guts with stuffing, while preserving it an admittedly aesthtically pleasing form. You might call that a remake, I just call it taxidermy. And while stuffed birds are nice to look at, they’re not nearly as spectacular as those that are alive and flying.

"The Crazies" Movie Poster

With the new big-budget (well,comparatively speaking) Hollywood remake of George Romero’s seminal 1973 horror film “The Crazies” (a.k.a. “Code Name : Trixie”) upon us, now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at the original — as well as the new version, which your host took in last weekend. But let’s give the progenitor its dues first, shall we? I mean, it’s only fair, and in addition to coming first, it’s also, for reasons I’ll delve into a bit later when we look at the new one, the better of the two by far.

It’s a shame that this film is so often overlooked by horror historians, because truth be told it’s every bit the precursor to “Dawn of the Dead” that “Night of the Living Dead” was. Sure, it didn’t fit the “zombie movie” mold as established at the time since the “crazies” of the title weren’t walking corpses but were, instead, victims of a viral biological outbreak, but by today’s standards as set forth by films like “28 Days Later,” it certainly fits the bill — which is why we’re dealing with the rather bizarre situation we find ourselves in where the remake is considered a proper “zombie flick” while the original, at least at the time, wasn’t.

But it’s not just the fact that it’s (admittedly retroactively) classified as a zombie movie that makes “The Crazies” a thematic lead-in to “Dawn,” it’s the fact that it deals with current (at the time) political and socio-economic issues in a direct manner that makes this film every bit the precursor to DotD that NotLD was. Yes, “Night” tackled issues of race and Cold War paranoia and the like, but it did so mainly indirectly, via metaphor. “The Crazies,” on the other hand, tackles militarism, Viet Nam, germ warfare, state secrecy, and related issues every bit as head-on as “Dawn” tackled the emptiness of consumer culture and the wretchedly excessive gluttony of the “me generation.”

On the run from "The Crazies"

It’s evident from the start that Romero isn’t going to beat around the bush with this film. We start with a guy murdering his own family by burning down their house. He’s acting weird and completely loses it in rather a hurry, and when the local Evans City, Pennsylvania volunteer fire brigade arrives, including among its ranks two of our film’s main protagonists, recently-returned Viet Nam vets and lifelong buddies David (Will MacMillan) and Russell (Harold Wayne Jones),  the family man-turned-firestarter has a tragic moment of lucid clarity before succumbing completely to madness and death.

And the story seldom slacks up from this intense introductory sequence, with Romero opting instead to put the pedal to the metal and never let up. In fairly short order we learn that a military plane containing some sort of vaccine has crashed in the mountains nearby, that the vaccine isn’t a vaccine (of course) but is instead a deadly germ weapon designed to inflict madness, mayhem, and death on an “enemy” population, that the military can’t get its shit together when trying to effect a containment and clean-up, that the local population, infected and otherwise, quickly comes to be considered an enemy by the military, that the heavily-armed townsfolk and rural dwellers aren’t going to take being put under martial law lying down, that the virus, conde named “Trixie” is probably airborne, that gas-masked, hazard-suited military guys who are clearing out households and disposing of dead bodies aren’t opposed to looting homes of their goods and corpses of their cash, and that the US government will wipe the whole area, and everyone in it,  out in order to keep a lid on what’s happened. Oh, and in true Romero fashion, the bodies of the biological plague’s victims need to be burned.

As Romero himself would say, "another one for the fire."

The action shifts around a lot in “The Crazies,” with equal time being paid to the military’s ever-changing “plan” of response, the violent actions of the townspeople (infected or otherwise), and the struggle to escape the situation undertaken by our previously-mentioned protagonists David and Russell along with David’s girlfriend Judy (Lane Carroll), who works as a nurse and is pregnant, and a local evacuee named Artie (Richard Liberty, who would go on to appear in Romero’s “Day of the Dead”)  and his daughter Kathy (cult film legend Lynn Lowry of “Shivers” and “I Drink Your Blood,” among many other credits), who join them along the way.

There is a somewhat lengthy interlude wherein our erstwhile heroes take refuge in the clubhouse of a local Country Club, which actually comes as a welcome relief when it happens, but apart from that it’s pretty much full-throttle mayhem and paranoia and frantic desperation all the way, with barely a pause to take a breath.

And here is as appropriate a time as there probably is for your host where your host to salute the genius social commentary of George Romero, because not only does “The Crazies” deal with the obvious themes mentioned earlier, but the story of Dave and Russ as returned vets at loose ends suddetly confronting a battlefield scenario they don’t entirely grasp the implications of has none-too-subtle, albeit entirely unstated in the script and its dialogue, parallels with both the war in Viet Nam itself, and the situation many veterans found themselves in coming home to a country they no longer fully understood. One gets the definite sense, in fact, that once all hell breaks loose in their tiny town, these two feel more at home than they have at any point since coming back.

The insanity and outright viciousness of the outbreak itself, its victims, and the military’s inept and violent “containment” procedures only escalate until things reach a downright insane, and pretty goddamn bleak in most respects, conclusion. It’s entirely fitting, but it’s the breakneck-paced story along the way, driven in every respect by the human and entirely (if at times depressingly) understandable actions of the plethora of characters on all sides here that makes “The Crazies” so memorable. It’s 100 miles of bad road and we’re packed like sardines into a jeep with no shocks full of people whose actions, reactions,  concerns, and motivations we understand all too well. Some we like, some we don’t, but they are all us, and we are them.

"The Crazies" DVD from Blue Underground

“The Crazies” is available on DVD (and, as of a couple of weeks ago, Blu-Ray) from Blue Underground. The remastered picture looks absolutely superb for a low-budget exploitation flick filmed in rural Pennsylvania in 1973, the sound is mono but clean and good, and the extras package is nice, as well, featuring the trailer, a great little documentary featurette on the cult film career or Lynn Lowry, and an absolutely sensational commentary track from Romero and Blue Underground head honcho (and “Maniac” and “Maniac Cop” director ) Bill Lustig. Romero’s memory of the production is sharp, Lustig asks terrific questions, and the two of them obviously get along terrifically well. It’s an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Hard-core Romero fans are generally the only folks who have given this movie its proper due, but hopefully with the remake in theaters now, horror and exploitation fans, and just people with taste in general, will take a look at this somewhat neglected classic. It packs a punch both for what it does as well as what it says about ourselves and our society. Spellbinding, gut-wrenching stuff all the way around.

And speaking of that remake, we’ll get to that in the next day or two, maybe even tonight if I’m feeling ambitious.