Archive for May 28, 2010

"Quiet Nights Of Blood And Pain" DVD Cover

The “psycho vet” story is an old staple in grindhouse and exploitation filmmaking, and we’ve covered a few of the classics in this genre on this page very blog in the year-and-change we (okay, I)’ve been at it — The Executioner Part II, Combat Shock and Deathdream spring immediately to mind.

Of course, these films and literally dozens of others were about disturbed Viet Nam vets, but given that we’re now involved in not one, but two no-end-in-sight-and-no-way-to-really-win conflicts, and have been mired down in them for a hell of a long time, it’s a wonder that more enterprising young filmmakers haven’t returned to “psycho vet” territory since it seems like it would be pretty fertile ground for them. The “theater” of war may have changed, but the basic premise really hasn’t, sadly, all that much — we’re still fighting for dubious (at best) reasons, our “volunteer” force is composed mostly of people with little or no other economic opportunity, our definition of “victory” seems to be constantly changing, the local populace wants us to get the hell out and had become the primary “enemy” we’re fighting, and the government seems to want to put the whole thing on the backburner and just have all of us out here in medialand forget about it while they keep shoveling more of our tax dollars into the bottomless pit these wars have become.

Oh, and a lot of the men and women who are fortunate enough to get out of the war(s) alive come back severely, and quite understandably, traumatized, if not outright psychologically (and sometimes even physically) broken.

Yes, friends, the United States never fucking learns, and something tells me that in 5 or 10 years’ time we’ll be having this same conversation, only then  the unlucky “winner” of our imperialistic —- uhhmmmm — “attentions” will be Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, or some combination thereof. The future’s so bright I gotta wear shades and all that.

Now, we’ve had our fair share of Afghanistan and Iraq war documentaries, to be sure, and a bunch of dramas, from the exceptional (Brian DePalma’s criminally underrated and nearly-unseen Redacted) to the drearily preachy (In The Valley Of Elah) to the insanely- fetishized -yet-disgustingly-apolitical (The Hurt Locker — wouldn’t you know it won Best Picture). But to date, we haven’t had an Iraq or Afghanistan-themed exploitation picture.

Enter Ohio-based microbudget veteran writer-director Andrew Copp, who’s given us some truly groundbreaking ultra-independent horror flicks like 1998’s The Mutilation Man and 2005’s The Atrocity Circle, to fill this glaring void.

While Copp’s earlier work has been at times almost dizzingly experimental, with Quiet Night of Blood and Pain he (apart from a couple of scenes that diverge into crazed video psychedelia) he pursues a pretty straightforward narrative — William (Loren S. Goins) is a recently-returned Iraq war vet with a severe case of PTSD due to the atrocities he’s committed (while Abu Ghraib isn’t mentioned specifically, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that he was either there or at a similar facility due to his predilection for the kind of zip-tie “handcuffs” we’ve seen in so many of the photos from that testament to the war’s ultimate, and repulsively inhuman, folly), and now that he’s home, he’s continuing his “mission” by taking out the “traitors” and “enemies” in his hometown — anti-war activists, hippies, and other peaceniks of various stripes. He’s egged on in his crusade by his psycho brother (played by Copp himself), a veteran of the first Gulf War (you know, the one we were told “went well”).

Across town, fellow veteran Adrienne (Amanda DeLotelle, the film’s co-producer) is struggling with her own readjustment to civilian life and finds support from Viet Nam vet Ray (played by Ray Freeland) and his Veterans for Peace-type group. One night after a meeting of this support group, Adrienne is set upon by two assailants in an alley, and William, who’s “monitoring” the meeting place of the “subversive” group fends off the attackers before fleeing off into the night himself. He begins to stalk Adrienne and her friends, though, as part of his “bring the war home” pseudo-mission.

William's treatment of John Kerry voters

They’re not the only folks to get his attention, though — one evening he breaks into the home of some people who have a John Kerry bumpersticker on their car and gives ’em the kind of “special treatment” he became so skilled at administering to “enemy combatants” in Iraq, and dispatches a couple of guys selling antiwar titles at their bookstore, as well.   But the more he  keeps tabs on Adrienne and her group, the more he becomes obsessed with wiping out this supposed “fifth column” that’s right in his midst. Needless to say, what follows ain’t gonna be pretty.

If you’re new to microbudget moviemaking, Quiet Nights of Blood and Pain may not, in all honesty, be the best place to begin your education. The acting is a mixed bag — Goins is generally superb as William and elicits a sense of controlled-but-seething menace throughout, while Freeland’s characterization of Ray is pretty much rote script-reading. Somewhere in between the two polarities is  DeLotelle’s portrayal of Amanda — she has such an unaffected and minimalist approach to her “acting” (I’m guessing more due to sheer inexperience than any conscious decision-making on her part, but I suppose I could be wrong) that it’s hard to tell whether to call her performance completely unprofessional or amazingly naturalistic. Whatever the reason and whatever the cause, though, it works, so whether that’s by choice or by dint of sheer accident really doesn’t matter much in the end.

Okay, here's some blood --- but there's quiet nights and pain, too

Copp is a skilled director who’s worked with 8mm, 16mm, and video before (this is SOV using a Panasonic DV-30 with a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, so it’s presented full-frame), and knows both how to compose shots and stage some pretty sold gore effects. In addition, since he wrote the script himself, he has a keen understanding of its pacing, and he does a pretty damn masterful job of alternating scenes of profoundly alienated evenings at home doing nothing with good old fashioned splatterfest-style ultraviolence — and the makeup and effects work is quite good. Not up to Hollywood standards, of course, but  part of the fun of watching this type of movie comes from seeing what the filmmakers are able to do with severely limited resources.

Needless to say, Quiet Nights of Blood and Pain never played theaters, nor was it ever going to, but it’s available on DVD either directly from or at most major retailers like Amazon. It’s distributed under the auspices the good folks at Tempe Video and picture and sound quality are both pretty much perfect (again, given the inherent limitations of the flick’s production values).  For extras, there’s a look at a gallery showing of some of Copp’s artwork, and a well-made and highly informative “making-of” featurette.

Copp has stated that his goal was to make a film with a grindhouse-style sensibility updated to apply to the modern sociopolitical landscape. In that he’s succeeded quite admirably. Sure, it’s show on video instead of low-grade film stock, but the spirit of the exploitation independents is definitely alive and well here — and while it’s a bit of a tightrope act he’s set for himself in combining a “message movie” with a psycho slasher flick, he pulls it off pretty well. At times it feels a bit preachy, but as it’s antiwar message is one this reviewer agrees with, I never found the political content to be grating, nor to detract from the character-driven story that lies at the movie’s core.

Like its tagline (“He’s Back From The War,  But He Can’t Stop Killing!”), Quiet Nights of Blood and Pain is anything but flashy or terribly original, but certainly direct and earnest enough to be worthy of respect. It’s a labor of love with its birth pains in full view for all to see, and what it lacks in polish it more than makes up for in heart and integrity.

"Wacy Taxi" Movie Poster Under Its Alternate Title, "Pepper And His Wacky Taxi"

In the early 1970s, lots of washed-up former sitcom stars were given “comeback vehicles”  (that should probably read “potential comeback vehicles”) at the top of the bill in cheap family films.  The most notorious example is probably Disney tapping Bob Crane to play the title role in “Superdad,” which probably isn’t actually the worst bit of casting when you consider how many kids he probably had running around out there.

Not to be outdone by the big studios, legendary (as far as these things go) exploitation house Avco Embassy got ahold of a script called Wacky Taxi in 1972 and figured it would be perfect for the patriarch of the Addams Family himself, the one and only John Astin.

I won’t mice words here, I absolutely love this guy. How can you not? Every time he popped up as a guest star on risible 80s sitcoms like “Night Court,” he had that same batshit-insane gleam in his eye that he trademarked as Gomez and invariably livened up the otherwise dreary proceedings just by his very presence.  And for that reason alone I really — and I mean really — wanted to like Wacky Taxi (also released, as you can see from the poster, under the title Pepper and his Wacky Taxi).

Unfortunately, everything about this movie sucks, including Astin’s performance. The guy looks like he’s literally sleepwalking through the film — not that I blame him, I’d probably do exactly the same thing if confronted with a story this agonizingly dull.

I hate to burst your expectations (actually, I’d hate for you to even have any expectations  about this movie), but there’s very little actual “wackiness” here at all. In fact, it’s a pretty somber and morose little flick, with a tedious and dreary “pick yourself up by your bootstraps and everything will turn out fine” moral shoehorned into it to make the proceedings not only boring,  but annoying, as well. Really. Save that kind of message for those “Legless Girl Runs Marathon On Her Hands” stories stuffed in the back pages of the National Enquirer and other right-wing tabloids to promulgate their mean-spirited “see? the unfortunates of society don’t really need any help from us, they can do amazing things on their own” worldview.

Anyhow, to the plot, such as it is — Astin plays Pepe “Pepper”  Morales, a big-dreaming Mexican-American (an atrocious bit of casting since even though he did play a guy named Gomez on TV, Astin doesn’t actually look particularly Hispanic) who lives with his wife, Maria (woodenly played — not that  the script requires anything more — by Maria Pohji) and their four kids in sunny San Diego, California.  With another mouth to feed on the way (here’s an idea for an actual, realistic message for the film — don’t have more kids than you can afford!) Pepper decides the time is now to quite his decent-paying but soul-destroying job at an aluminum can factory, raid the family “savings account” kept in a coffee can in the kitchen,  buy a piece of shit, dilapidated 1959 Cadillac, paint the word “Taxi” on its sides and top, and hit the streets looking for fares without actually, you know, getting a cab license, insurance, or any of that other pesky legal crap. Smart guy.

At this point, you’d figure that if his wife had any sense at all she’d dump the guy, but then that wouldn’t be in keeping with the “family values”-type themes on display here, so instead she dutifully sticks by him as he goes about this shit-for-brains scheme.

Cruising around town in his illegal cab, Pepper decides the best way to drum up business is to pull up to people not only trying to hail cabs but waiting for buses, as well, and not only undercut standard taxi prices, but undercut the going bus fares, as well! He hauls carloads of  naval servicemen to the base for 60 cents apiece (probably not a decent chunk of change even in 1972), and takes a female enlistee to Tijuana for reasons unspecified (actually, he won’t cross the border — but she pays him 20 bucks to wait for her on the US side for two hours, whereupon she returns, crying — now let’s see here, what would she have to go to Tijuana for two hours for that would have her coming back teary-eyed? Two years before Roe v. Wade? Keep in mind this flick was pitched to family audiences — good luck explaining that little plot twist to your six-year-old!). He takes a fast-talking, fast-eating blowhard (played by Allan Sherman, the guy who sang “Camp Grenada”) to the airport and gets hassled by the cops for not having either a standard taxi license or an airport sticker. He hauls an arguing family home from said airport. And then his cab gets stolen when he leaves it running with the door open while he carts their luggage in.

Maybe it’s for the best, though, because along the way there are, actually, some voices of sanity trying to tell him to quit this crazy scheme. His brother-in-law,  a fly-by-night lawyer (portrayed by Ralph James), is the first to clue Pepper into the fact that he needs a cab operator’s license, a fare box, and insurance (he hadn’t thought of any of that stuff), and his buddies from the factory tell him that “big business” will be out to destroy him (setting up in the viewer’s mind, if only for a moment, a “Pepper-vs.-The Man” theme that would make sense, and make for at least a semi-involving plot, but which nonetheless never materializes).

Pepper isn’t hearing any of it, though. He’s determined to get his supposedly “wacky” taxi back and pursue his dream of building an empire to rival Yellow, Checker, or any of the other big-time cab outfits.  He gets arrested trying to bust into a storage locker where he thinks he sees the car. He escpaes from police custody (by asking if he can get a drink of water and then making a run out the door of the station) and proceeds to walk around aimlessly, sit around aimlessly, lie around aimlessly — you get the picture, He’s a broken man.

To relieve the monotony of doing nothing all day long, he goes on a bender and , while walking home form the bar, he thinks he spots the guy who stole all his hopes and dreams (well, okay, his ’59 Caddy). He follows the “culprit” home, rings his doorbell, the guy (ladies and gentlemen, Frank Sinatra Jr.! — yes, really!) answers, and Pepper proceeds to attempt to strangle him after asking nicely to get his “cab” back and being met with a “what the fuck are you talking about, buddy?” response (again, good luck explaining this one to your kids — “Daddy, why is Pepper choking an innocent man?”).  The other people in the house, whoever the hell they are, knock Pepper out, and next thing you know —

He’s back at home having his bruises and scars attended to by his ever-faithful wife. How and why he didn’t end up back in the slammer is anyone’s guess, maybe he just apologized nicely after regaining consciousness and Frank Sinatra Jr., stand-up guy that he is, decided not to file charges.

Cue more doing nothing. Until Pepper’s teenage son (by the way, we never learn the names of any of his offspring, and Pepper himself just refers to them as “ninos”) tires of his old man’s lethargy and gets a huge groups of probably 50 or so neighborhood kids together to scour the city until they find the (again, supposedly “wacky”) taxi.

Which they do. In a junkyard. At which point Pepper races over there on foot like a man possessed and, I guess, gets it out, either by finance or force. Not that we ever see him do this, since at this point we “treated” to a series of flashbacks to all the good times Pepper had earlier in the movie in his self-declared “cab.”

And then, the epilogue — dear God, the epilogue. Pepper’s brother-in-law loans him the money to buy a taxi operator’s license and a fare box, and loans him some more when it’s time to expand his operation. In no time at all, “Pepper, Inc.” (where’d he ever come up with that name?) is the most successful taxi operation in town, and he keeps his original “wacky” taxi on display in the parking lot as a nostalgic reminder of how his empire began. The. Fucking. End.

"Wacky Taxi"/ "Superargo" DVD From Code Red's "Exploitation Cinema" Series

Wacky Taxi is now available on DVD, double-billed with Italian low-budget wrestler-turned-superhero “classic” Superargo Vs. The Faceless Giants as part of Code Red’s Exploitation Cinema series. Again, as seems to frequently be the case with these releases, the Code Red label itself is nowhere to be found and instead it’s been put out under the until-very-recently defunct Saturn Productions label for whatever reason. The picture is presented in a 16:9 anamorphic transfer that’s got the occasional emulsion line and the more-than-occasional grain and speckle, but on the whole it looks cleaner than you’d probably expect it to and frankly a whole hell of a lot better than it probably deserves to.  The sound is standard mono, nothing special, but gets the job done just fine, especially considering the seriously lame nature of the cloying “life is sunny and great”-type songs penned by jazz semi-legend Willie Ruff.

On a final note, while the credits for the film list TV veteran Alex Grasshoff as the director, IMDB actually has  Astin himself down as co-director. All I can say is that I really, sincerely hope it’s not true. I’d hate to lose any more estimation for him than I already have.

This is bad stuff, to be sure — horrendous, even — but at least we’ll always have reruns of The Addams Family on somewhere to remind us of how great  John Astin was. Most of the time.