Archive for June, 2010

"Tony Manero" Movie Poster

First off the bat an item of trivia/housekeeping : I believe that out offering under discussion today,  Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s 2008 film Tony Manero is the first movie named after a character from another movie. But I could be wrong — and if anyone reading this knows of any other examples, I’d love to hear about them. I get the nagging feeling I’m missing something obvious, but then I think about it an honestly, nothing else springs to mind. So if you can prove your humble host to be incorrect about this, please do so!

And with that out of the way, let’s have a look at this profoundly disaffecting and alienating shot-on 16mm (and blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, resulting in a very apropos graininess throughout) slice of heartless, dare I say even soulless, indie sleaze from my sister-in-law’s home country.

Not that I mean any of that as criticism, mind you — this flick is supposed to be grimy, sleazy, disaffecting, and alienating, because that’s the psychic, and sociopolitical, landscape that its protagonist (and this character surely stretches the definition of that term to its limit) inhabits.

Alfredo Castro as Tony Mane --- errrr, Raul

Veteran Santiago-based stage actor Alfredo Castro (who also co-wrote the script along with director Larrain and Mateo Iribarren) portrays our central character here, a ruthlessly- sociopathic- yet-otherwise-completely-hollowed-out-shell named Raul Peralta, who makes his way in the world as a fifty-something dance troupe leader/small-time gigolo/smaller-time hood in Pinochet’s Chile circa 1978, and as the title suggests, he’s quite literally obsessed with the film Saturday Night Fever and, more specifically, John Travolta’s Tony Manero. He sees the movie alone in empty theaters on weekday afternoons. He mouths along to English dialogue he barely (if at all) understands. He practices Travolta’s dance moves in front of his mirror. He choreographs elaborate exact imitations of the movie’s disco scenes for his cadre of (all much younger than he) dancers to perform and permits no deviation or improvisation. He even owns a complete white suit-black shirt ensemble that’s an close to an exact replica of that worn by his idol as one can scrounge up in a country with a completely closed-off society and economy. But his Manero acts feels incomplete, and to that end he’s got two overarching goals he’s pursuing to achieve his dream of losing himself in the character forever and never coming back —

First, he wants to replicate the interior of the 2001 Club disco from the movie as closely as possible within the confines of his shared dance studio space/living quarters . He wants the mirrored disco ball hanging from the ceiling, the glass floor, the whole nine yards.  And secondly, he wants to win the “Chilean Tony Manero” look-alike/dance-alike contest being held on a popular lunchtime TV program. And being the true aficionado/creepy uberfan that he is, there are no lengths he isn’t willing to go, nor depths he isn’t willing to sink, to make these wishes into reality.

Hey, look, I liked that movie too, but sometimes you can carry things bit far

Raul’s not a remotely pleasant, remotely sympathetic, or even remotely involving character. He’s willing to kill an old woman for her color TV, and then swap that TV in for glass blocks for his dream floor. He’s willing to play off the affections of three separate women in and around the periphery of his dance troupe while giving no indication of remotely giving a shit about any of them. He’s willing to steal watches from dead bodies. And when one of his young dance proteges is thinking of entering the same TV Tony Manero contest as him he’s willing to — well, I won’t say it. He doesn’t kill him. But it’s damn ugly.

Simply put, this is a character that offers no point of entry for audience identification in the least. He’s cruel without necessarily even trying to be and doesn’t care about the results of his cruelty. He uses people for reasons any other human being would find completely pointless. He displays absolutely no emotional affect whatsoever, even when the shit is hitting the fan all around him. He’s become the kind of nameless, faceless, pitiless void one needs to be in order to survive on the low-rent fringes of the criminal underworld in a military dictatorship.  He doesn’t live, he just exists.

Larrain is obviously showing the kind of walking corpses that fascist rule reduce people to, but he’s also drawing some obvious prallels between Raul and General Pinochet himself. One is willing to subsume or overlook all else and all others in pursuit of empty, pointless small-time ambitions, while the other is essentially doing the same thing on a national scale. After all, does compassion-free single-mindedness make any more sense in pursuit of propping up a failing regime than it does in service of imitating a fictional god of disco?

If you squint your eyes really tighly, he sorta looks like Travolta --- on a bad day 30 years in the future

There are moments of black comedy interspersed throught here, such as when Raul shows up a week early to the TV studio and finds himself there on “Chilean Chuck Norris” day, and when the theater he’s accustomed to seeing Saturday Night Fever at suddenly starts running Grease instead, we see Raul undergo the closest thing anybody this completely closed-off can have to an existential crisis when he witnesses Travolta playing another character on film and he just can’t handle it (an act of blasphemy that will cost the elderly projectionist and his wife who runs the box office their lives)  but mainly it’s just black, and unforgivingly so. Nobody this side of George Romero and Tom Savini has ever constructed such a perfect cinematic zombie, and Castro doesn’t use make-up and effects to do it (although he’s not above dyeing his hair and breaking out the blowcomb to more fully ape the appearance of the object of his obsession).

When things get too heavy in the film’s final reel, though, and the secret police start to move on the other members of his dance ensemble, specifically his aforementioned youthful protege Goyo (Hector Morales) for subversive political activity, we see Raul’s disaffected ultra-alienation for what it is — sheer cowardice. Here is a guy literally unwilling , even downright unable, to give a shit about anything outside of the pathetic singular concern that he’s whittled the focus of his existence down to.

Castro has crafted a powerfully singular performance unlike anything else you’ve ever seen here, but it’s literally impossible to “get into” what his character is all about because, quite frankly, you’re not supposed to. He’s dead in the brain, heart, and soul and watching that brought to the screen so completely convincingly certainly results in an absolutely unique viewing experience, but in no way is it an enjoyable one. There’s nothing for the viewer to grab onto, or find common cause with, or even understand. Raul racks up a body count not because he wants to, per se, or even just simply because he can — he just does it because, well, he does.

"Tony Manero" DVD from Lorber Films

Tony Manero received mixed and frankly often perplexed reviews when it played at venues like Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, and was greeted with the same  general “yeah, it was well done, but what the fuck was it all about?” attitude when it played its limited US  theatrical run last year. It’s now been released on DVD from Lorber films (who handled said limited US theatrical run, as well) in a bare-bones, extras-free package. For what it’s worth, I found it to be utterly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and while I can’t say I exactly liked it per se, or found the character it was focused on remotely comprehensible, I do wholeheartedly recommend it as a true one-of-a-kind viewing experience.

"Stigma" Movie Poster

In 1972, hot on the heels of his little-seen-at-the-time-but-now-recognized-as-the-undisputed-horror-classic-that-it-is I Drink Your Blood, a tale of a Manson Family-esque hippie clan that contracts rabies, writer-director David E. Durston was approached by then- fledgling producer Charles B. Moss, Jr. (who would go on to oversee the mood-horror masterpiece Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, among other films) to do another “viral outbreak”-type film, only this time to de-emphasize the more lurid elements and place the story on more firm socially-conscious ground.

In short, Moss wanted to do a serious film about an epidemic on an exploitation budget.

Durston went away to think things over and, spotting a back-of-the-page newspaper story about new strain of syphilis that appeared to be resistant to penicillin, decided that sounded like fertile ground for just the type of movie that Moss was looking for.

The result is Stigma, another fine entry in Durston’s all-too-short cinematic oeuvre that, like I Drink Your Blood, excels in the areas of mood, atmosphere, and characterization, and features some surprisingly fine acting from its (at the time) little-known cast.

In the lead role of  Dr. Calvin Crosse we have Philip Michael Thomas, who just over a decade later would go on to major television stardom on Miami Vice. Durston discovered Thomas playing a supporting role on Broadway and cast him immediately — a fortuitous decision as it turns out that he possessed the natural charisma and screen presence to literally carry this film on his shoulders.

Dreaming of the future and a co-starring role with Don Johnson

Our guy Dr. Crosse has just been released from prison, where he served a couple years for performing an illegal abortion (this was 1972, after all), and is on his way to Stilford Island, off the coast of Maine,  where his medical school benefactor, one  Dr. Thor, has sent for him to come and assist him with some mysterious project he’s been working on but can’t say too much about.

The good Dr. Crosse doesn’t seem to have much luck thumbing rides (again, this was 1972, and he’s black) though, until he meets up with a GI just returned from Viet Nam named  Bill Waco (Harlan Cary Poe), who just so happens to be from Stilford and is heading back home.

Stand-up guy that he is, Waco loans Crosse his extra army uniform and the two are soon offered a lift to the ferry they need to catch to reach the island, where Bill receives a hero’s homecoming and Calvin finds a bunch of local yokels who won’t even give a black guy directions to the doctor’s house.

When he does finally get there, though, he’s in for a second ruse surprise (the first being the inhospitable treatment of the natives, racism being a constant undercurrent in this film). Dr. Thor is dead, and Calvin’s essentially conscripted into taking over his practice and studying this mysterious outbreak he hints at in his notes and tape recordings.

In short order Calvin gets on the wrong side of the local redneck sheriff (appropriately named Whitehead and played with maximum relish by Peter Clune) and learns that the viral outbreak that his late instructor had discovered was a new strain of VD, namely a kind of super-syphilis, that’s showing up in some unlikely places — not only among the teens and twenty-somethings, as you’d expect, but also in the crazy old alcoholic lighthouse keeper!

Just how randy are the folks on this island, anyway?

We now pause to present a good old-fashioned VD scare film

It’s a testament to just how absorbing a sense of time and place Durston has created here that the movie can essentially take a breather at the halfway point for about five minutes to present an educational 16-mm VD scare film hosted by famed New York top 40 DJ “Cousin” Brucie Morrow and pick right back up where it left off with no loss of interest on the viewer’s part. So well-rounded are all of even the most minor characters that we still give a shot about what happens here despite the interruption — and anyway, it is actually a necessary one in terms of plot advancement.

Dr. Crosse naturally suspects that the source of the outbreak is the country whorehouse run by grizzled old madam Tassie (Connie Van Ess), but why does the sheriff’s promiscuous daughter (and Waco’s flame) D.D. (Josie Johnson) pay a midnight visit to Dr. Thor’s house? Why is the sheriff so determined to obstruct Dr. Crosse at every turn? And just how did that crazy old alcoholic lighthouse keeper come down with the disease?

Stigma plays its hand pretty close to its vest until the film’s riveting final act, when all is revealed in the lead-up to a very satisfying conclusion. Along the way we’re treated to plenty of gorgeous location footage of the Massachusetts coastline (sorry, there really is no Stilford Island, Maine), a downright compelling performance from Thomas that showcases a multi-faceted and highly skilled actor well worthy of the TV superstardom that was in his future, and believable and dare I say even intriguing turns from one and all of the supporting cast.

Stigma isn’t exactly a horror film per se, although one can’t help but think it had a marked influece on a very young David Cronenberg who would go on to mine similar terrain in his early films Shivers and Rabid, but it’s  certainly got enough gratuitous nudity to make it an easy sell to grindhouse audiences (although distributor  Cinerama did a crummy job of marketing it upon initial release and it probably didn’t turn much of a profit) and touches upon enough hot-button social issues to make it something of a “message” movie.

All in all, though, this critic would have to say that Stigma resembles, genre-wise,  a “medical thriller” above all, as its subdued atmosphere and strong characterization really do put a damper on the more obviously horrific elements of the story and the film instead accentuates the inner lives and working of its characters and their community. It’s a thoroughly satisfying viewing experience in every sense, unless you’re looking for another I Drink Your Blood.

Which certainly isn’t a bad thing to be in the market for, but Stigma isn’t it. And why should it be? Durston had been there and done that — with this film he proved his stylistic versatility by tackling similar themes in a completely different, but no less gripping, way.

"Stigma" DVD from Code Red

Stigma has just been released on DVD from Code Red, who have done their usual excellent job in terms of presentation and extras. The newly-restored anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer looks superb, with only minimal graininess in places, and the mono soundtrack is crisp and clean.  For supplements we’ve got an 18-minute on-camera interview with Durston, the theatrical trailer, a TV ad spot for the film, a selection of previews for other Code Red titles (under the heading “movies you probably won’t buy” — guess business has been even worse than I thought), and best of all, a feature-length commentary with Durston moderated by Jeff McKay and hosted by Code Red head honcho Bill Olsen.

As with his commentary on Grindhouse Releasing’s I Drink Your Blood DVD, Durston proves to be a gregarious and engaging raconteur, and while his memory is foggy in places and he obviously gets just flat-out confused from time to time, he’s still a lively and energetic storyteller and it’s a joy to hear his recollections, whether crystal clear or foggy.

Sadly, David E. Durston passed away at the age of 88 shortly after recording his extras for this DVD and missed won’t be here to see a new generation of exploitation fans turned on to this, his second-most-well-known work. He couldn’t ask for a more fitting tribute than the loving resotration that Code Red has brought to this film, though. It’s definitely one of 2010’s best DVD releases to date.

"The Human Centipede (First Sequence)" Movie Poster

There’s no getting around it : the premise of Dutch writer-director Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is enough to make any right-thinking person feel physically ill.

Hell, it’s enough to make any batshit insane person physically ill.

Those who experience this latest midnight movie phenomenon (also available through IFC On-Demand in both regular and high-definition on most cable systems as we speak) seem to fall into two camps : those who are revulsed by the movie’s premise of a mad doctor, known for separating conjoined twins  but who has apparently taken a turn later in life toward the additive, rather than the subtractive, side of  the human biological equation and now wants to attach three human beings together into one long centipede-like (hence the title) joined organism with a single gastric system, and those who find it so completely outrageous that they literally end up laughing at what they’re seeing unfold before their eyes.

Then again, they say laughter can be a pretty effective defense mechanism. And I can see why a person would want to erect some sort of psychological barrier between themselves and the events taking place in this flick. Because if you do, in fact, take the story seriously, it’s beyond unsettling —it’s downright nauseating.

Sure, on paper there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before — body horror is nothing new, in fact David Cronenberg made it a staple of his early career, and of course the whole mad scientist thing has been done a thousand times over.

But no mad scientist was ever quite as thoroughly, viciously evil as this film’s Dr. Heiter (portrayed with superb menace by German actor Dieter Laser), and even Cronenberg at his most sever and unrestrained never came up with a body horror concept quite so — well, quite so fucking horrific.

Simply put, if you find anything bout this movie to be actually enjoyable, it’s time to seek professional help immediately. Which is not to say it’s a bad film — it’s well-acted, superbly shot, economically paced, and exudes an air of controlled menace throughout. It definitely achieves what it sets out to do.

It’s just that what it sets out to do is so genuinely unpalatable and revolting that you hesitate to pat Six and his cohorts on the back for a job well done, even if it is just that.

I mean, where do we draw the line here on congratulating someone for achiing what they set out to do? “Good job killing that guy, the cops will never find a trace of evidence,” or “nice job on that rape, she won’t be conscious again for a week and there’s no way she’ll ever be able to identify you” aren’t exactly compliments, per se, are they?

And yeah — comparing The Human Centipede (First Sequence) to a murder or a rape might be taking things a bit far, but it’s definitely a full-fledged assault on your sensibilities, taste, and even morals. It’s an extremely confrontational piece of filmmaking that doesn’t offer to meet the audience halfway on anything — it essentially just dares you to keep watching.

Dieter Laser as the mad Dr. Heiter

As mentioned already, Laser is quite simply superb as the madman-du-jour of our story, Dr. Heiter. From the very first scene showing him looking at photos in his car of a single-file group of dogs sniffing out each other’s butts, you know something is just plain wrong with this guy, and the more Laser reveals about his character, and his character’s motivations, the creepier he becomes. I can’t imagine him at the end of a day’s shooting not wanting to take a shower first thing after spending eight hours or more inside this guy’s head.

The other characters are standard horror-movie tropes — Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie  as Lindsay and Jenny, respectively, are two good-time college girls partying away their summer in Europe who end up having their car break down on a stormy night and (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) stumbling upon the mad doctor’s home near the German black forest on foot in search of a telephone to use to call the European equivalent of AAA.  The bizarre conjoined-twin artwork adorning Heiter’s walls is enough to convince them that something is up with this cat, but before you know it they’re drugged and wake up as the middle and end sections of the evil genius’s titular human centipede, with the “lead” section occupied by stereotypical screaming ultraviolent Asian-student-also-on-holiday-who-can’t-speak-a-word-of-English Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura).

Vould you like somesink to dreenk?

It’s gotta be said that all three performers, though, raise their game to the next level, to employ a sickeningly overused sports cliche, when they find themselves centipede-ized (or whatever the word is) — with kneecaps busted, and mouths sewed onto the person in front of them’s anus, you automatically become a brave performer in my book. You’d think just about any agent worth his or her salt would advise their client to turn these roles down, but they all tackle the strange physicality required to move as a conjoined creature with an admirable amount of chutzpah and portray the shockingly debased creature they’ve become with sickening effectiveness.

The less said the better

And yeah, as I said before, The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (its follow-up —ummmm—segment, the Full Sequence, is now in pre-production) is definitely effective. This is a genuinely horrific work of cinematic fiction (thank God) that does everything that it sets out to do. Six’s skill as a screenwriter and director, and his actors’ ability as performers, is never in question here.

What is in question is exactly what we, as an audience, are really supposed to take away from this thing.

I know there are several indelible concepts and images here that I still can’t shake out of my head and probably never will. If that was Six’s goal — to provoke an immediate physical reaction followed by a lingering, perhaps permanent, psychological scar, he’s certainly achieved that. If he was aiming for anything other than that, though — well, he’s set up such a vicious assault on the senses (and sensibilities) here that attempting any further goals with the story is just plain impossible. It takes the film’s entire running time just to absorb the shock of what we’re seeing, and as I mentioned, even afterward it lingers in the mind — and quite unpleasantly at that.

In short, the “feel-good movie of the summer” this ain’t. But if you want to push your own limits as a viewer to what are, more than likely, their utmost fringes, this is definitely worth — shit, I dunno — subjecting yourself to.

I can’t say I’m actually glad that I saw The Human Centipede (First Sequence) — but I certainly won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.

"Gone With the Pope" Movie Poster

Do you believe in miracles? I don’t. But the fact that this film even exists, much less finds itself making the rounds of the surprisingly resurgent (with new cult favorites like The Room, Birdemic, The Human Centipede, and Troll 2) midnight movie circuit these days (it recently played the Uptwon theater here in Minneapolis and did pretty brisk business — hopefully enough to bring it back from a return engagement sometime in the not-too-distant future, since I’m betting that a DVD release is pretty far down the road at this point) is about as close to one as you’re ever likely to find.

Perhaps a brief (not that brevity has ever been my strong suit) explanation is in order for the doubters among you . Bob Murawski, editor of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films and recent Academy Award winner for The Hurt Locker, and Sage Stallone (Sly’s kid) operate a specialty DVD and theatrical distribution “boutique” outfit known as Grindhouse Releasing. Their specialty? Well, given the company’s title,  you don’t even need to ask. In recent years, they’ve been responsible for the DVD releases and midnight screenings of films such as Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, Juan Piquer Simon’s Pieces, and Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox.

In 1999, Stallone and Murawski got turned onto a movie we’ve reviewed previously on this blog, Palm Spring lounge singer -turned-writer-director Duke Mitchell’s little-seen Massacre Mafia Style. Making contact with Duke’s son Jeffrey, they arranged for a DVD release of this ultraviolent, ultrasleazy, ultrafun exploitation curiosity. And as is the custom with Grindhouse Releasing, we’re still waiting for it (thankfully, the younger Mitchell has recently seen fit to issue the film on DVD in a private limited edition, ordering details for which can be found in the film’s review here on TFG) — but at last they have agood excuse.

You see, Jeffrey turned over to Murawski all he had of his father’s second film project, Gone With the Pope, another singular exploitation oddity that Michell the elder shot primarily in 1975 but that remained a work in progress right up to his death in 1981. A rough — -very rough —work print of sorts existed, and of the 17 reels Mitchell shot, 12 were in his son’s possession, with the other 5 missing and never found.

Enterprising sort of guy that he is, Murawski set to work in what little spare time he had assembling a cut of the film that would make some kind of coherent sense, and added in the occasional bit of modern rock-and-roll soundtrack music along the way, coming up with the closest thing possible to a definitive version of this mid-70s ultra-low-budget Mafioso crime thriller/comedy/philosophical treatise/Mitchell ego-fest. In a very real sense, it’s a brand-new ’75 exploitation flick — not a new movie aiming to capture the “spirit” or “style” of the grindhouse, as has been attempted so often to varying degrees of success, but the genuine article —a mid-70s grindhouse classic that had never been seen before.

Clocking in at 83 minutes, Gone With the Pope delivers the exploitation goods to the umpteenth degree — mindless violence, uneven (to put it kindly) acting, cheap production values, haphazard plotting, cornball dialogue, gratuituous nudity —all wrapped up in a surprisingly visually accomplished package that includes tremendously well-composed location footage of “golden age” Las Vegas and Rome, among other astounding locales. It’s no exaggeration to say this flick is a visual treat, and when one considers that the entire movie was shot guerrilla-style without permits, and on short ends at that — well, again, the “nearest thing to a miracle” comparison seems pretty apt.

The man, the myth --- nay, the legend! Duke Mitchell in "Gone with the Pope"

Okay, so the idea here is primarily to give Mitchell a chance to showcase his talents. He gets all the best lines (in fact, the only good ones), and the rest of the cast, non-professionals to a person, are completely overshadowed by his performance. But here’s the rub — as with Massacre Mafia Style, Mitchell is so confident, assured, and literally at home in the command he has of his character that he would hog the limelight even if surrounded by high-priced Hollywood “talent.” The guy is just that good. He knows it, too.

The story is designed to put him not only front and center, but to literally place him in the driver’s seat in front of the camera as well as behind it.  It’s all pretty seamless, really — watching Mitchell on screen, there is simply no doubt that he wrote and directed this thing as well, and the man himself becomes literally inseparable from his work — Duke Mitchell is Gone With the Pope and Gone With the Pope is Duke Mitchell.

His character, Paul, a mid-level mafia hood just getting out of prison, might as well just be called Duke. Everybody in the joint loves the guy and they’re downright tearful to see him go. Some of his best buddies, though (generally even older than he is, probably no accident as far as casting goes) are soon to be granted their freedom, as well, and Duke — err, Paul — has a plan : he’s got  a rich lady on the outside, a woman he’s loved since they were teenagers but who chose to marry a wealthy philanthropist while the man of her dreams was in stir. Now widowed, he rekindles his romance with the lady in question, Jean (played by Jeanne Hibbard, who is obviously reading directly from cue cards the entire time), and finagles her into loaning him her late husband’s yacht so he can take his aforementioned, and now released, prison buddies on a cruise around the world so they can work away their bitterness and anger at the world (his “sales pitch” to her humanitarian side on this matter being one of several philosophical soliloquies Mitchell writes for himself to establish the fact that he’s more than just a dumb ex-con himself).

With his cast of often biblically-named (Luke and Peter being among them) old-time prison buddies in tow, Paul sets off on an ocean voyage that will take them to Mexico, Panama,  Sardinia — and finally, to Rome.

But fist he’s gotta fulfill a contract he’s been hired out for to whack seven guys in Vegas and Hollywood. He takes care of the three in Sin City and subcontracts his buddy Girogio to do the four in Hollywood. Then it’s off with the cash, the boat, and his buddies for the trip of a lifetime.

Duke Mitchell sets sail with a heartfelt message to the people of the United States

Paul’s been dreaming of getting out on the open water for a long time. Just before being let out of prison, he tells one of his inmate friends about how you can be “totally free” on the ocean because there are “no cops, no judges — all you gotta worry about is some fucking maritime asshole.” And, as can be seen in the photo above, he delivers a philosophical diatribe to our society upon raising anchor and heading out to sea : “People of the United States — judges, cops, all the law — I got a message for ya —I want you to take this —” (grabbing his crotch) “and stick it up in your mother’s twat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Where else but Gone With the Pope, my friends, are you ever likely to hear a line of dialogue like that?

It isn’t until we get to Rome, however, at about the 2/3 mark of the film, that the scheme referenced in the film’s title is revealed by Paul to his erstwhile co-conspirators — in short, they’ve come there to kidnap the Holy Father himself and hold him for ransom. And what, pray tell, do they want in exchange for the Pontiff’s safe return? A dollar from every Catholic in the world!

Well, okay, in fairness, Paul lowers the ransom to 50 cents per Catholic when he finds out just how many of them there are — call it another chance to show his human side.

Okay, so the actual method by which they kidnap the Pope is so lame that it’ll test even the most seasoned exploitation veteran’s credulity, and the fact that it actually works is even more outrageous (as is the fact that the Pope seems to be a native English-speaker) — and the garbled philosophy really does take over in the film’s final 20 minutes or so, with Paul’s friends turning their backs on him in some sort of ultra-predictable religious conversion brought on apparently just by being in the vicinity of anybody so — -well, holy — and Paul himself offering as his justification for the audacious scheme some sort of revenge for what the church did to the Jews in World War II (not that he’s Jewish himself, mind you, or that he even mentions a word about them prior to his “here’s why I did it” moment), but along the way there are so many quintessential and downright perfectly-executed exploitation movie moments that you can’t help but be downright awed by the spectacle on display here.

And it’s those “along the way”-type moments that you see a movie like this for, anyway. Maybe it’s the stunning nighttime visuals of Duke Mithcell walking down the now-bulldozed-and-replaced-by-corporate-megacasinos Vegas stripe, cigarette dangling from his mouth; or Duke and his buddies hurling (good-naturedly, at that) racial epithets at a black prostitute for a good five minutes before she offers to sleep with him anyway; or the searing proto-Tarantino balls-to-the-walls slaughter of the guys on Duke’s hit list; or the musical numbers sung by Mitchell himself; or the ultracool sight or Duke in a black stetson taking out a crime lord at a racetrack; an extended and downright surreal sequence featuring Duke and one of his pals pretending to — or maybe genuinely planning on — banging a morbidly obese woman before getting cold feet, resulting in her literally breaking down a door and coming after them; a slow-motion fight scene not actually shot in slow motion but rather featuring the actors slowing their movements down;  or the footage of super-lame fifth-rate Vegas “entertainment” acts like this one —

You probably won't find this bunch playing the main room at Caesar's anytime soon

— whatever you’re into this kind of movie for, you’re going to find it, and then some. It’s not about where you’re going so much as how you get there, and Gone With the Pope gets you there in searingly authentic grindhouse style.

But in the end, this movie isn’t about either the voyage or the sights along the way, in spit of what I just said — it’s about the captain of this zero-budget ship. Mithcell crafted the script as a starring vehicle for himself, and if he couldn’t carry the load, this whole enterprise would have gone nowhere fast. As he proved beyond a doubt, though, with Massacre Mafia Style, he’s more than capable of the task. Mitchell in a singular screen presence quite unlike any other — by turns heartless and heartfelt, despicably cruel and charismatically engaging, he’s never less than electrifying and commands your attention like a black hole sucking in the rest of the goddamn galaxy around it. And if no major Hollywood studio could see that and Mithcell had to craft his own projects from scratch to show off just how fucking good he was, so much the better. Unencumbered by the burdens of compromise or even, for that matter, consideration of anything apart from getting his film in the can, he’s as free to do his own thing as the character he portrays.

You just can’t conceive of Duke Mitchell doing things any other way that his way, and while he may not be responsible for the final edit of this film, you can’t help but think that the superb job Murawski has done assembling this from essentially a haphazard collection of random short-end reels has resulted in exactly the kind of movie he’d have made himself — or rather, was in the process of making when he died.

Gone With the Pope works on a variety of levels, then, simultaneously — as a quintessential-yet-curious relic of a bygone era; as a distillation  yet also, strangely,  almost spoof-like exaggeration of all of said era’s indulgences and foibles; as a tour-de-force showcase vehicle for the creative force at the center of the project both behind and in front of the camera; and as a labor-of-love tribute to that man and his raw dynamic power and sheer screen presence.

If you’re lucky enough to have this film come through your area, don’t miss it under any circumstances.

And hey, how about that poster? Dear God, that is cool!