Archive for April, 2012

In a very real sense, if you’ve seen Mick Millard’s other SOV/DTV offering from 1987, Criminally Insane 2 a.k.a. Crazy Fat Ethel 2, then you’ve seen Death Nurse. Only you haven’t. Confused yet? Read on, all will made clear — sort of.

At its core, Death Nurse more or less amounts to Criminally Insane 2 in unconvincing hospital costumes (okay, in fairness the nurse’s getup worn by star Priscilla Alden and the lab coat worn by her pseudo-doctor brother, played by fellow Millard regular Albert Eskinazi,  are perfectly fine, but look for the little touches, like a dish rag attached with rubber bands standing in for a surgical mask, to show just how little money our guy Nick spent on this movie) — after all, it’s shot in Millard’s Pacifica, California condo, it stars Alden, Eskinazi, Millard’s mom, and his stepfather, and it’s about a homicidal fat lady, all of which should sound pretty familiar if you’ve seen CI2/CFE2. In addition, Death Nurse also runs just under 60 minutes in length and looks to have been shot on a consumer-grade VHS camcorder and then haphazardly edited with a basic two-VCRs-hooked-up-at-home set-up.

And yet — it’s the subtle differences here that show Millard’s creativity in the face of no resources whatsoever. His spread is now a clinic (that takes care of everything from open heart surgery to TB treatment to Betty Ford-style alcohol rehab) rather than a halfway house, his mom plays a social worker who takes care of indigent medical patients rather than a social worker who takes care of newly-released indigent mental hospital patients,  and the larger-than-life Ms. Alden plays Edith Mortley, psycho RN, rather than Ethel Janowski, psycho food lover.

So yes — even though both flicks are hopelessly padded to fill out their meager runtimes with “flashback” footage from the first Criminally Insane film (which in this context makes absolutely no sense being that Alden is supposedly playing an “entirely different” character here — oh, and the opening credits are borrowed from CI again this time as well, right down to the “directed by Nick Philips”), and even though they both linger on certain scenes waaaaaayyyy too long (check out how much time Millard spends showing us Eskinazi’s Gordon Mortley character digging a “grave,” for instance, or eating ice cream just a few minutes later), there are some key differences. And it’s one of those key differences that, in my mind, makes Death Nurse the superior “feature” (to the extent that either of them can be said to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever) of the two  — and it’s not the dish rag “surgical masks,” awesome as they  are.No, friends, what sets Death Nurse apart from its contemporary entry into the Millard canon is its (entirely unintentional, I’m sure, which makes it all the better in my book) full-throttle, no-holds-barred, do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-$200 leap into the realm of pure, unadulterated absurdity in pursuit of its less-than-lofty mission to simply kill 60 minutes’ worth of videotape.  While Criminally Insane 2  still tepidly clings to the notion of making some kind of rational sense, rest assured that Death Nurse has no such hang-ups.

Consider — the “plot” here revolves around a nurse and doctor (who according to Millard are apparently phonies with no medical training, although the “screenplay,” ad-libbed for the most part as it is, makes no explicit mention of this fact) who take in broke patients and then kill them and keep collecting money from Medicare/Medicaid for their “treatment.” Even though county social workers still have to come by and check on these people. In addition, they don’t even put up the pretense of having real surgical equipment about, resorting instead to using hacksaws and steak knives on their (fully conscious, I shit you not!) patients.  Ethel — I mean, Edith — then feeds the dead remains of their charges to her pet rats in the garage (cue stock footage from Willard) before feeding the rats to others in her care (such is the delicate cycle of nature, I guess). Then a cop (Millard’s step dad) comes along and busts up their little racket and our quaint homemade “epic” is over.

If any of that makes a lick of sense to you, then congratulations on possessing enough suspension of disbelief to almost take Death Nurse seriously. But fear not — Millard’s heavy-handed attempts at “black comedy” still ensure that you won’t (or can’t). Consider : a dead TB sufferer (played by Millard himself with his face covered by a handkerchief at all times) is dug out from his shallow grave and hosed off to “prove” to the pesky lady from county social services that he’s still alive (wouldn’t she notice the smell?). Gordon attempts a heart transplant by inserting the ticker of his dead dog into a human patient — and their cat (who wanders about the clinic freely, apparently) makes off with it. And ol’ Gordo is trading sex for booze with his alcoholic patient (played by Millard’s wife, who also evidently “produced” this movie, whatever that even means).

So yeah, I think it’s fair to say that Death Nurse is more than willing to loose itself from the moorings of reality. But you still can’t really escape the sense that more or less nothing is happening in this movie because, well — it’s not. It just sounds like it is. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean — Millard possesses the unique ability to make even the truly absurd seem hopelessly mundane and to almost hermetically cleanse any scene of all dramatic tension. He could make a real-live snuff film and I swear to God the thing would seem tedious and drawn out. And while some readers out there may find that to be rather insulting to good Nicholas, I genuinely mean it as praise, because it’s a feat I’ve never seen any other director duplicate with the kind of consistently vigorous non-vigor (hell, anti-vigor) that he does. One thing that’s definitely worthy of admiration, though, regardless of how you feel about Death Nurse itself, is the quality of Slasher Video’s new 25th Anniversary DVD release of the movie. Both picture and sound have been remastered to the point of being genuinely passable (no small feat there I would imagine), and it’s loaded with terrific extras including an on-camera interview with Millard (who’s definitely an amiable guy and pretty darn honest about the “quality” of his product), a terrific feature-length commentary with Millard and his wife, Irmi, that’s engaging throughout, a Priscilla Alden tribute featurette showcasing scenes she’s  in from numerous Millard productions, a short-but-sweet still photo gallery, and a YouTube-style “review video” from the head honcho of VHSCollector.com. All in all, it’s a more comprehensive package than any right-thinking person would ever have dreamed a flick like this would receive. Kudos all around.

At the end of the day, it’s pointless to compare Death Nurse to anything other than Millard’s other late-80s SOV productions, not so much because it doesn’t play by the same rules as “normal” cinema, but because it doesn’t even seem to know what those rules are. Although in many ways it’s hopelessly redundant when viewed alongside Criminally Insane 2 (which is already hopelessly redundant in and of itself if you’ve seen the first Criminally Insane), it’s the sheer temerity of Millard thinking he could basically do the same flick again (I picture in my mind him yelling “Cut! — And print!” when he wrapped up CI2 and then saying “Now let’s shoot it again quick in the hospital costumes!,” but I guess they were made a good six or so months apart, which for some strange reason I actually find kind of disappointing), coupled with his absolute unconcern with, if not outright disdain for, trying to be in any way “believable,” that elevates — or knocks down, depending on how you look at things — Death Nurse to its own plateau. This is a work of art — and I don’t use that term lightly, off-handedly, or in any way condescendingly — that manages to be both a complete rip-off and yet defy comparison at the same time. In its steadfast inability to be anything other than what it is, even if “what it is” amounts to being a total rehash of an earlier rehash, it stands alone as perhaps the most jaw-droppingly, amazingly, near-hypnotically pointless movie ever made — until, of course, Death Nurse 2 came along the very next year. Let’s hope Slasher Video sees fit to give it similar treatment in the not-too-distant future.

Quick question — what do you do when you’re flat-ass broke? Watch TV? Read a book? Take a walk down to the park? Daydream? Or maybe something truly pathetic, like sit in front of your computer screen and write at length about movies almost no one gives a damn about on your blog?

I’ll tell you what Nick Millard used to do when he had no money. He made movies. In the 60s and  early 70s his output consisted mainly of 16mm softcore “nudie” fare shot primarily in and around his then-hometown of San Francisco, but sometime around the middle part of the “me decade,” he got the idea to expand his horizons and shoot a few horror(ish) and action flicks on 35mm — then all was silent for a good few years until the SOV mini-craze of the mid-to-late-80s hit and the ever-enterprising Mr. Millard realized that he could make stuff for even less than the couple-thousand-or-so-bucks he had been spending on his previous “features” by just breaking out his commercial camcorder, getting some friends and family together, and shooting everything right in the confines of his own home! As a matter of fact, making movies like this wouldn’t even cost him a dime! What’s not to love about a set-up like that, I ask you?

Oh, sure, chances are the end result wouldn’t be anything too great, but Millard still had enough industry “connections” to get these things distributed, and unlike today’s “hey look what I made!” attention-seeking backyard Spielbergs polluting YouTube by the thousands, these flicks were actually available for rent at most video stores — in other words, people were willing to pay money to watch his zero-budgeters, an accomplishment that today’s amateur auteurs could frankly never even conceive of.

Okay, fair enough —the “quality” of Millard’s product insured that it required the type of hype-filled packaging necessary to oversell what was basically a home movie and effectively relied on hoodwinking people into thinking they were getting an actual, professionally-made horror film rather than, you know, something shot over an afternoon or two in a guy’s Monterey condo that starred his mother, but whatever — that’s just carrying on the old “carny” tradition of the great exploitation moviemakers like Herschell Gordon Lewis or the Mishkins, and if you’ve got a problem with that sort of thing you’re probably not the kind of person that reads my reviews in the first place.

And so, my friends, with that little bit of background info in place, let’s go back to that decidedly un-magical year of 1987, and take a look at a little something our guy Nick came up with called, depending on which video store you found it at and what title the management there purchased it under, either Criminally Insane 2 or Crazy Fat Ethel 2

In case you hadn’t guessed, this particular slice of entirely-accidental Millard (working here under his frequently-used pseudonym of Nick Philips) genius is a sequel to the closest thing he ever had to an actual hit, namely 1975’s Criminally Insane or Crazy Fat Ethel, which we’ve reviewed on these pages previously, but if you’ve never seen that film (and yes, that is an actual film), don’t worry — just over 20 minutes of this barely-sixty-minute movie is comprised of footage — presented in the form of “flashbacks,” of course — directly taken from the first one, so you won’t be too lost for too long. So, with just over a third of his “new” movie’s runtime taken up with stuff he’d already shot 12 years previously, what’s Millard got left for the other 4o minutes?

Well, as it turns out — not much. The wonderfully deadpan Priscilla Alden is back as plus-size homicidal maniac Ethel Janowski,  who’s been released from the funny farm, along with everyone else who hasn’t committed an infraction within the past ten years, due to state budget cutbacks and finds herself transferred to a halfway house out in the “real” world (actually it’s Millard’s condo) that’s run by — Millard’s mom. Not that the credits will tell you any of this, of course, because Nick just re-uses the opening titles from the first Criminally Insane flick which tells me that either the (very few) people “starring” in this one either didn’t get paid, or just got cash on the barrel-head at the end of the day (and I’m thinking it was one day, since everything here appears to have gone “in the can,” so to speak, after one take — hey, videotape’s expensive, ya know?) for their “work.”

Anyway, there are two other patients/residents at the halfway house (one of whom is played by Millard regular Albert Eskinazi), and there’s some orderly-type guy who runs the place while Nick’s mom is away and feeds his charges canned dog food, but Ethel kills ’em all when they stand between her and her snack food. Then she kills poor old Mrs. Millard and takes over the house for herself. The end.

If you’re thinking I’m giving short shrift to the proceedings here, I assure you I’m not — okay, she hangs one of the guys over the stairwell and stabs her other victims, but honestly, that’s it. The entire film is more or less just an exercise in padding. We’ve got extended shots of Ethel sleeping on the couch, sitting in front of her TV, and walking around the house, but seriously — more or less nothing happens in the 2/3 of this movie that isn’t just recycled material from the first go-round.

And that’s the beauty of Criminally Insane 2, my friends. This is a flick that got made for the purest and most noble reason of all — simply because Nick Millard could. The new material features no soundtrack music and the “flashback” scenes aren’t faded into and out of at all which leads me to believe this sucker was probably edited in the same place it was shot, namely right in Millard’s house, on two VCRs, and once he was done he packaged up the tape, sent it in to Z-grade distribution outlet Video City Productions, and the rest is history. 25 years later here we are, still talking about the most upfront and honest complete time-waster in the history of all cinema (not that Millard himself didn’t come awfully close to “winning” that “award” all over again with his next couple of efforts, Death Nurse and Death Nurse 2, but we’ll get to those over the course of the next several days).

Criminally Insane 2, against all odds, is actually available on DVD as part of the Nick Millard triple-bill from Shock-O-Rama that also features the original Criminally Insane as well as Satan’s Black Wedding. The disc has plenty of extras, but since none of them specifically relate to this movie I’m not going to spend any time dwelling on them. Suffice to say that it’s worth purchasing simply for this alone — even though the other two films are, by any and every stretch of the imagination, better than this one in all respects, they don’t achieve the almost zen-like quality of complete and utter nonexistence that Crazy Fat Ethel’s second “adventure” does. It’s complete and utter nothingness that plays out before our eyes. I honestly don’t think it took much more time to make than it does to watch. You might call that half-assed, or incompetent, or worthless, but I call it fucking poetic, man. This is a movie that has no actual reason to exist, and in fact can barely be said to actually exist  on its own at all given that nearly half of it is composed of “archival” material taken from another film, yet exist it does, and said existence is proof of — nothing other than its existence.

Godard, Jodoroworsky, Antonioni, Bergman, etc. spent their entire careers laboring to come up with something this deep. Nick Millard did it without even trying. How galling must that  be to every Euro-film art snob out there?

Sharkey (future Comedian — as in, The Comedian — Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a Sunset Strip pimp who’s having a bad night.  One of his “bitchez” (is that still how they spell it? For that matter, was it ever?) has up and left him for another “player,” another is on the verge of doing the same, and yet another is holding out on him. He’s losing respect on the streets, man, and if you ain’t got respect, you ain’t got nothin’.

To be fair, a lot of Sharkey’s problems are his own damn fault. He hasn’t got a very cool street name, unlike his chief competitors Silk and Slash, he doesn’t seem to run a very tight ship in general, and to top it all off he’s got a psychotic temper that often clouds his judgment and is proving to be detrimental to what little business sensibility he actually does have.

Still, he’s got Mickie (Head Of The Class alum Leslie Bega). She’s cute and she’s loyal. When she fled her abusive home life back in wherever-the-fuck-she’s-from with her mentally challenged brother, Robby (Jason Oliver), Sharkey  rescued them from the streets and gave them a home, as long as she was willing to spread her legs for cash that she would promptly turn over to him. Problem is, Mickie’s doing such good business that some other pimps have taken notice and want her in their fold. She won’t budge, though, and they figure the only way to get her services back out on the open market again is to get Sharkey out of the picture, so they use Mickie to set him up. They tell her they just want to talk to her boss, she’s dumb enough to believe them, and she unwittingly lures him right into an ambush. Sharkey’s as resourceful as he is angry, though, and he manages to escape their clutches, whereupon he promptly vows revenge on Mickie for, as he sees it, setting him up, and now the chase is on as Mickie, slow-witted brother in tow, tries to escape the net being cast by her enraged apparently-now-former pimp.

If  this, the plot for Roger Corman’s 1991 production Angel In Red (also released on video under the name Uncaged, as you no doubt can tell from the cover photo reproduced above) sounds at all familiar, that’s because it’s basically a complete do-over of his earlier 1985 flick, Streetwalkin’, only with the “action” transposed from Times Square to Sunset (actually, it’s most likely Corman’s former-lumber-yard-turned-studio standing in for Sunset), and that was basically a watered-down rehash of Vice Squad, only without the cops or the sheer, visceral nastiness.

As was the case with another Corman effort from 1991, Dead Space, which was a straight riff on his previous film Forbidden World, which was itself a low-budget rip-off of Alien, the law of diminishing returns certainly applies here. First-time director Lisa Hunt (working under the pseudonym of William Duprey, which probably clues you in on how proud she was of her work here) does a serviceable enough, if straightforward, job here, and none of the actors are too bad (Pamella D’Pella — I’m betting that’s not the name on her birth certificate — is especially fun as a foul-mouthed, big-haired fellow prostitute named Ros who tries her best (sort of) to protect the Mickie-n’-Robby duo), but still — you can only boil a roast down for so long before there’s no meat left on the bones, and we’ve just seen psycho-pimp-on-the-loose-and-out-for-revenge movies done so much better before. Let’s just say Morgan’s okay as Sharkey, but he’s no Wings Hauser and leave it at that, shall we?

Angel In Red is available paired with the far-superior Christina Applegate starring vehicle Streets as part of Shout! Factory’s “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” DVD series. The supposedly-remastered picture is widescreen but looks kinda grainy throughout, the stereo sound is a little iffy but not too bad, and the only extra provided is the theatrical trailer. Streets is an undeniably great flick and the disc is well worth owning for it alone, but when it comes to this second feature, you’re better off taking a pass on this particular Angel and heading down to the next street corner to see who else is working tonight.

Hard as it is to believe now, there was actually a time —say, for its first season or two — when Married — With Children was considered cutting-edge, maybe even semi-dangerous stuff. Critics said it “pushed the envelope,” that it was “irreverent,” that it “took risks,” etc. Frankly, even though I was only about 15 or 16 when the show first came out, I knew all that talk was bullshit and that it was formulaic, idiotic, lowest-common-denominator garbage that had one clever gimmick in its favor — it pretended to be “self-aware,” therefore it was okay for the show’s writers to openly admit  how stupid it was. The self-appointed guardians of public taste  figured out this shtick pretty quickly, and even though it sputtered along for something like another fucking decade, it ceased to be considered “daring,” “provocative” stuff relatively early its run.

But hey, ya know what? Even though I was never impressed with the show’s self-consciously lowbrow “humor,” I still watched it back in the day anyway, and you can probably guess why. Yup, I was a horny young kid and Christina Applegate was on it — more often than not wearing something pretty form-fitting. That was enough for me, and for quite a few other randy young fellas of approximately my own age (and plenty of older guys as well), to tune in every week. What we didn’t know, however (and truth be told didn’t care about) was the fact that the fetching young Ms. Applegate was also a pretty damn fine actress.

Honestly, yer honor, I ain’t lyin’. For proof, look no further than her first cinematic starring vehicle, 1990’s Roger Corman production Streets. If you haven’t seen the film, forget what you’re probably thinking — yes, it’s low-budget, and yes, it still has some solid, old-fashioned exploitation elements going for it (primary among them being its inclusion of a psychotic police officer — they were pretty big at the time in the wake of Maniac Cop), but this is another rare example (the other being Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia) of Corman realizing that he could hire a young female director (in this case Katt Shea Ruben, who would go on to helm the first Poison Ivy film, among other accomplishments) to tell a gritty, even realistic tale about a disenfranchised segment of the youth population and he wouldn’t need to spend any more money on it than he would on, say, yet another Alien knock-off. The results are surpsingly impressive indeed.

Streets tells the story of Dawn (Applegate), a 16-year-old homeless, illiterate, heroin-addicted (well, she says she’s not hooked, but she shoots the shit into her hand, which is something I’ve always been told only the hardest of hard-core junkies do) prostitute who plies her trade in and around the Venice Beach, California area (for a movie called Streets it’s worth pointing out that most of this flick takes place on the beach, but hey, I guess the title Beaches was already taken) and crashes in a storm drain-type thing she shares with other runaways, addicts, and general teenage societal cast-offs at night. One evening she makes the mistake of crossing paths with a bully in blue named Lumley (Eb Lottimer), who has his own unique method of cleaning the streets of those who would dare try their hand (well, okay, maybe it’s not their hand they’re working — although in Dawn’s case it is, more on that in a moment) at the world’s oldest profession — he rapes them and then kills them with a homemade, high-power, double-barrel gun with  a really thick fucking silencer.  Hey, give him points for inventiveness in his method of dispatch, at least, even if the idea of a cop killing “ladies of the evening” in his spare time isn’t exactly all that original.

In any case, Dawn manages to escape from Lumley’s clutches with the help of a passer-by of roughly her own age named Sy (David Mendenhall), who befriends our young heroine and takes it upon himself to keep a watchful eye on her since that crazy cop who tried to kill her got away and might be back. Over the course of the day, they get to know each other, she shows him the ins and outs of her life, and hey, maybe they even kinda-sorta fall in love a little bit. He learns her mother was a hooker, as well, who one day just up and left her own kid, that she’s never gone to school and consequently can’t read, that she’s “successfully” kicked her heroin habit about a half-dozen times, that she only gives blow-jobs and hand-jobs to her customers but doesn’t have intercourse with them —

Whoa. Hold on. Wait just a minute right there. We now interrupt this review for a good-old-fashioned rant from your host. What, pray tell, does it  say about our society’s attitudes toward  sex that we can have in this  movie a protagonist who has no home or family, no education, is hooked on drugs, and who works as an underage hooker (and props to Ruben and Applegate for choosing to make Dawn a strong, multi-faceted character and not some one-dimensional waif for whom we’re supposed to have nothing but either pity or contempt — they really do pull out all the stops in terms of portraying her as an actual, real, living, breathing, thinking person) — but the suggestion that she might actually be, you know, fucking is somehow considered a bridge too far? You wanna shoot smack into your hand? Fine. Can’t read? That’s cool with us. Jerk guys off and/or suck their cocks for a living? Hey, it’s your life, kiddo — but for heaven’s sake, whatever you do, keep your virginity intact or, ya know, you’ll be a real whore,  and evidently that’s the point at which our sympathy as an audience (hell, maybe even as a society) runs out. Okay, rant over. We now resume our regularly-scheduled review.As the film progresses, we learn that Lumley is, indeed, on the hunt for our lovely young damsel in distress, since he’s been offing hookers in the area left and right and it just wouldn’t do to have her around to ID him given that being a serial killer in your off-hours is, I’m told, a pretty good way to get yourself kicked off the police force (unless you’re that Dexter guy). As he goes about his chase, Lumley engages in a couple instances of genuinely shocking violence (he kills one of Dawn’s friends by ramming the double-barrel of his homemade “piece” up the guy’s ass and firing away, for instance), and Lottimer’s performance really does a damn fine job of communicating that this is a guy with literally oceans of barely-contained rage seething under his forced-calm exterior, but even though director Ruben does terrifically when it comes to ratcheting up the tension throughout, and the “cat-and-mouse” struggle between pursuer and pursued is in no way given short shrift, it’s quite clear that her real passion lies in documenting the hard-scrabble lifestyle of these “throwaway” kids  and that the ultimate goal of her film is to honestly and accurately convey the struggles of their daily existences (heck, she even shows them eating roadkill and does so without a hint of condescension or freak-show finger-pointing). It’s just that today those struggles  happen to include eluding an unhinged officer of the law with a giant zip-gun and one hell of a mean streak.

My earlier quibble about its unrealistic-at-best, offensive-at-worst sexual puritanism aside, Streets, which is now available for you all to see on DVD from Shout! Factory as part of its “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series (it’s double-billed with Angel In Red, and while there are no extras to speak of apart from the theatrical trailer, the widescreen remastered picture and stereo sound are damn-near pristine — just be forewarned that a lot of this flick takes place around sunset hours and it’s filmed on location so much of it has an orange-ish hue to it) is, in my own humble opinion, a mostly-unheralded classic. It uses its genre and exploitation trappings to tell a very human-scale story about a compelling protagonist and the world she inhabits, features superb acting, especially from Applegate, and even tugs at the heart-strings a bit without ever being Lifetime-movie-of-the-week- syrupy about it. This is a film that both respects its characters and its audience and gives us a sometimes-harrowing, always- realistic look inside a world that, fortunately, most of us have never had to experience first-hand.

Oh, and since you were wondering anyway — no, Christina Applegate doesn’t get naked in it. But she comes pretty darn close.

Pervs.

To be honest, I was pretty certain that the little retrospective I’ve been doing on the career of Long Island super-8 maestro Nathan Schiff was going to be incomplete. That’s because even though he made one more movie after They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore, namely 1991’s Vermillion Eyes, Image Entertainment chose not to release it as part of their “Cult Cinema Collection” DVD series (under the auspices of which they’ve released all of his other work), even though they’d remastered the entire film, partially remastered the score, filmed cast and crew interviews to be included as extras, and even recorded a commentary track with Schiff himself for the film. In short, it was pretty much all ready to go, and they pulled the plug.

Which, of course, only made me more determined to see it. Reasons for why Image yanked the rug out from under their own release vary — they told Schiff they had “legal” concerns about it, but he’s stated that he feels this was a ruse since no companies, products, etc. that might have a legal objection to it are in any way referenced in the film. IMDB states that it was pulled due to its excessive sex and violence, which made the suits at Image uncomfortable. Hardly a shocker, I suppose — in fact, I’m perfectly comfortable saying that would be a gutless-but-unfortunately-understandable move. And yet it’s considerably less violent than They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore, and probably even somewhat less violent than Long Island Cannibal Massacre  — although in fairness there’s still plenty of splatter and slow-burn disembowelment on display here, and frankly it’s executed a lot better, and with more sadistic and serious intent, than in either of those films,  Schiff’s use of prosthetic innards and fake gore having improved dramatically between 1985 and 1991 and his nihilistic viewpoint  having obviously both broadened and hardened over that interval as well (but more on that in a minute), and while the insertion of an openly sexual component into Schiff’s work is admittedly a new one, there isn’t too much nudity on display here, and what little there is can hardly be considered prurient or titillating in any way (at least if you’re of sound mind). In another interview on the matter, Schiff stated that he felt the film’s humorlessness and experimental style was probably the reason Image ultimately took a pass on the flick, and frankly, that strikes me as the most believable theory of the bunch, because this is a damn difficult film to get a grip on for a variety of reasons and is, in many ways, downright impenetrable. But hey, that didn’t stop Finnegan’s Wake from becoming a literary classic —

My desire to see this film turned into outright obsession, though, when I learned that it was never even released on VHS, nor were bootlegs of it sold and/or traded around in anything like the numbers they were for the rest of Schiff’s work from Weasels Rip My Flesh onwards, so apparently this was one of those things that our guy Nathan was perfectly content to just break out his Super-8 camera and film — the idea of of actually distributing it in any way so that anybody else might actually get a chance to see the thing never even seemed to occur to him.

Now, I have to ask  at this point, my friends — who makes a film just for the sake of making it? To me that sounds like an exercise in therapy more than anything else — Schiff just had to get this thing done in order to expunge something very personal from his system and, hopefully, achieve some sort of mental and/or emotional catharsis as a result. Such was my going theory, at any rate.

And whaddaya know, I was right.  Thanks to the kind intervention of a reader of this very blog who figured I would be interested in seeing it, a ripped-right-from-a-lousy-VHS-dub-of-the-film DVD-R arrived as a “loaner” in my mailbox the other day (it’s on the way back tomorrow, Bill, and thanks!), and now I have can count myself among the — uhhhmmm — “fortunate” few who have seen this truly obscure piece of cinema. I probably won’t spend a tremendous amount of time on this write-up since there’s not much point to writing a lengthy review of a movie that nobody reading this will ever see (you could fairly argue that there’s no point in spending any time on it at all, but hey, I’m a completist), but I will say this — Vermillion Eyes is one of the most harrowing, deeply personal, and downright disturbed (as well as disturbing) things I’ve ever seen committed to film, and I can see both why Schiff felt compelled to make it, as well as why he’s apparently quite comfortable with the idea of pretty much no one else ever seeing it.Vermillion Eyes is the story of an unnamed man (literally — the credits list star John Smihula’s character simply as “The Man”) who has vivid dreams of sex and death in uncomfortably close proximity to each other and has a habit of going around to gruesome death scenes with his Super-8 camera and documenting what he finds there. After some little while, though, that’s just not enough and he begins arriving at his carnage-strewn destinations in a haz-mat suit and making off with loose body parts. Eventually, though, even that  can’t (or won’t) satisfy our protagonist and he begins committing murders himself. Slowly. Painstakingly. Gruesomely. Even though the copy of this film I saw looked like absolute shit, it’s still clear that the gore on display here in the usual Schiff “take-their-heads-apart-slowly” scenes is light years more advanced than anything in his previous efforts (it’s also worth mentioning that Schiff’s skills at scene composition — to the extent that he even had any before — have taken a quantum leap forward here, as well, with the standard “pont-and-shoot” of his prior work giving way to vast, expansive (well, as “vast” and “expansive” as Super-8 can get, at any rate) vistas of bleak and barren Long Island fields, beaches, roads, etc. that provide a perfect visual representation of his protagonist’s desolate inner landscape) and the targets of “The Man”‘s predations (one of whom is his own sister) make it all the more disturbing.

The usual gut reaction here would be to dismiss this all as the usual B-movie misogyny, given that each and every one of “The Man”‘s victims are women, but it seems pretty clear that Schiff has” progressed,” if that’s the term we want to use, from hating only  wealthy elites in Long Island Cannibal Massacre, to hating anyone with money and status in They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore, to hating pretty much all of humanity, especially himself (“The Man” is as obvious a stand-in for a film’s director as you’re ever going to find and is hardly presented as a sympathetic character in any way, shape, or form), and his morbid sexual longing for violent death leads him to focus his outbursts on the fairer sex (if Schiff were gay, I’m sure his cinematic victims would be men). So I’m gonna give Nathan a pass on the misogyny rap here — that would be too simple. In truth, he’s expressing a deep-seated hatred for the entire human race, and a sense of righteous repulsion at his own desire to still have sex with members of a species he has nothing but disdain for. This goes way beyond garden-variety misogyny — this is an exercise in unrepentant and unfettered nihilism of the highest (or maybe that should be lowest) order. Much like They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore, there’s no real “plot” here to speak of, yet the character of “The Man” does have a trajectory — he dreams of violence, then seeks out scenes of violence, then keeps mementos from said scenes of violence, then commits violence, all of which culminates in a frenetic and quite-likely hallucinatory (how much of any of this film is “real” and how much is taking place solely in his stand-in/protagonist’s mind is an open question that Schiff never really answers, hence the “experimental style” he, and by extension me since I was paraphrasing the guy, referred to earlier) orgy of blood, viscera, and sex (here’s where we find most of the film’s nudity that Image claimed to be nervous about) that marks both the film’s climax and “The Man”‘s final descent into oblivion. It’s uncomfortable to watch (and keep in mind that the copy of the film I saw was so bad that it’s not always easy to tell what’s even happening!) to say the least, and will leave most sane viewers feeling like empty, hollowed-out, shell-shocked vessels of flesh and bone. “Feel-good” viewing it most assuredly isn’t.

And yet — even though it’s decidedly mean-spirited and deadly somber in tone, you can’t help but respect what Schiff’s trying to do here, especially since, as mentioned before, he didn’t seem to make this movie with the intent of anyone actually seeing it , consequently giving the entire proceedings the feel of the work of a man desperately trying to get something awful out of his system before he does something he’ll regret. If serial sexual psychopaths like John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy decided to get some friends together (and I’m willing to bet that Schiff had a much more difficult time rounding up his usual Long Island accomplices this go- around — props to Smihula, especially, for being willing to star in a project like this) and make a movie as a last-ditch attempt to work out their issues before they started killing,  I honestly wonder if the end result wouldn’t end up looking a whole lot like Vermillion Eyes.

In summation, then, I’d be tempted to call this movie a cry for help, but given that he didn’t seem to care whether or not anyone was listening, I think my original guess that Schiff was looking to achieve some sort of catharsis just by making Vermillion Eyes and getting his most morbid fantasies (and fears — often there’s not much difference between the two) committed to film is a pretty accurate one. He never went on to commit any crimes (or, unfortunately, to make any more feature-length films), so I’m optimistic  that making this thing did the trick and he’s feeling a whole lot happier now. If this ends up standing as his last cinematic effort, then we can view the entire trajectory of his film career as one long, slow (and yes ,ultra- low-budget) mental breakdown played out in front of a Super-8 camera that ends with him finally, hopefully, expunging all the demons that were clearly eating him up from the inside out before going on to do something else with his life. As with all breakdowns, it wasn’t always easy to watch, especially this last, desperate attempt at cleansing his system, but it was almost always fascinating, even if only as an indulgence in morbid curiosity. It’s hard to believe that Weasels Rip My Flesh and Vermillion Eyes were even made on the same planet, much less by the same person, not only because the technical progression from point A to point B was rather remarkable (the same Super-8 camera aside), but because they seem like products of two entirely different minds when you consider that the first film in Schiff’s oeuvre was an innocent effort at monster-movie homage filtered through the haphazard, low-attention-span sensibilities of a 17-year-old kid, while his last reflects the outlook of a guy seems to believe that quaint concepts such as “innocence” are long since dead and buried — to the extent that they were ever real, or  frankly even possible, to begin with. Each step on the journey of his celluloid-recorded mental deterioration offered something interesting to see, even if They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore veered a little too deeply into self-indulgent territory for my tastes, so Nathan Schiff, wherever you are, thanks — and I sincerely hope you’re doing okay.

DIE YUPPIE SCUM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Admit it —that was one clever bumper sticker back in the day. You probably thought those exact same words to yourself on more than one occasion. I certainly did. And the person who came up with the sticker probably made millions of dollars and went on to become a yuppie him or herself. Such is the way of the world. But back in 1985, after half a decade  away from his Super-8 camera, Long Island’s master of no-budget ghoulishness, Nathan Schiff, evidently thought that simple catchphrase was enough to base an entire (in this case “entire” meaning a whopping 70 minutes) film on. The result? The wildly uneven, admittedly nonsensical, essentially plot-free, decidedly mean-spirited, and flabbergastingly- weirdly- titled They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore.First off, a little bit of background — obviously Schiff’s films alone weren’t enough to earn the guy a living, so he took a job at a posh Manhattan hotel, where he was exposed to the absolute worst of the worst of emerging yuppie “culture.”  Frankly,  dealing with the petty whims of the Donald Trumps and Leona Helmsleys of the world would probably be enough to drive anyone over the bend, but when you consider Schiff’s already-ingrained socio-political views, as documented so vividly in 1980’s Long Island Cannibal Massacre, you gotta figure he was probably the last guy who could stomach fetching warm towels and tennis rackets for the hoi-polloi. After five years he decided he’d had enough and went about venting his frustrations in the only way he knew how — he got his friends together, hit the fields, houses, and back yards of Long Island, and made another DIY movie.

This time, though, there was to be a decidedly marked shift in tone from his previous efforts. Oh, sure, you can tell he still didn’t take the whole thing too seriously — with around a thousand bucks and a five-day shooting schedule, how can you? — but nevertheless, this flick about two Texas hired yard-hands, Billy Buck (Schiff mainstay John Smihula) and Jacob (Adam Berke, in a role that was originally conceived for fellow “stock player” Fred Borges, but he had moved out of town, taking a lot of the self-deprecating humor inherent in Schiff’s earlier productions with him — Berke was conscripted into service at the last minute, didn’t know what few lines his character had, and was uncomfortable appearing on camera, so he played the part mute and with a weird-looking mask on the entire time) who make their way north to Long Island to service the lawns of the rich and famous and then take out their country-fried rage on their city-slicker paymasters by using whatever grounds-keeping implements were handy at the time has a decidedly nasty edge to it.

For one thing, there’s essentially no story here to speak of at all, just a rough-looking assemblage of particularly vicious murder set-pieces, and while killing people (primarily women, but a couple guys get whacked in this flick, as well) with lawnmowers, hacksaws, chainsaws, etc. is old hat for a Nathan Schiff movie (although the death-by-firecracker-in-the-mouth is a new wrinkle), the sheer amount of time he spends, not only on the killings themselves but on the innards-removing, head-stomping, face-peeling aftermaths of each is sometimes pretty hard to stomach, even if the gore FX, as always, look more or less completely unconvincing. It’s not so much the execution, then,  as the intent that feels vulgar and, frankly, kinda nasty here.

Which isn’t to say that Schiff’s work has lost all its homemade charm or anything. The delightfully OTT performances, as well as the Z-grade production values,  pretty much guarantee that no matter what you’re still gonna see this thing for the amateurish effort it is, but whereas Long Island Cannibal Massacre had the tone of a cautionary tale of impending social unrest, They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore feels like a violent reaction to the emergence of the haves-vs.-have-nots social order that our guy Nate had been trying to warn us about. Quite clearly, his worst fears about Reaganism had been realized and he was none too happy about it.Confession time — I’m pretty sympathetic to Schiff’s anti-yuppie views (as if you couldn’t tell), and I’m not averse to gory cinematic spectacles, but there is such a thing as piling on. Yes, Nathan, we know this lady your characters are doing in a shallow, superficial, gold-digging bitch, but come on — we knew that before Jacob started digging into the smashed pulp of her skull for five minutes before opening up her stomach with his hands and yanking her entrails out. I hate these uppity sons-and-daughters-of-bitches, too, but I got limits, man! And the sad fact is, by having these Texas yokels cross the line from violent, murdering maniacs into violent, murdering maniacs with a penchant for agonizingly slow disembowelment, you piss away any sympathy your audience might have for their, and by extension your, viewpoint. In short, your excesses become self-defeating in the extreme.

The “story” here “ends” with Billy Buck and Jacob performing a homemade county music number called “We Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore” (hence the movie’s title) before donning three-piece suits, getting on a train into Manhattan, and joining the yuppie world themselves. Which I suppose is a natural enough, ir entirely predictable, ending, but lacks any of the (admittedly meager) resonance it might have had given that there’s no “plot trajectory” here at all. They just kill and kill and kill and kill and then stop one day. Kind of like the movie itself just runs and runs and runs and runs and then doesn’t anymore. So, hey, I guess in that respect, it’s a fitting conclusion.

Like his two previous super-8 efforts, They Don’t Cut the Grass Anymore got seen largely through a small-scale VHS distribution deal that Schiff inked himself and was later picked up for DVD release in 2003 by Image Entertainment as part of their “Cult Cinema Collection” series. It’s presented in a remastered-but-still-rough-and-scratchy full-frame transfer with (again uneven at best) stereo sound, and extras include a 15-or-so-minute interview with the filmmaker, an interview with John Smihula and Fred Borges (not that he’s in this one) of roughly equal length, a feature-length commentary from Schiff that, as usual, can be a challenge to make it through due to his monotonous voice but is actually fairly interesting, and a selection of four of his short films, a couple of which are actually more interesting and engaging than the feature itself.  A pretty decent package that gives you good value for money despite the short run time of the “main product.”

Still, while I admire the guy’s pluck as always, I’d only recommend this one for die-hard Nathan Schiff completists. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for yuppies, and that’s a very strange and alien sentiment for me that I’m still having a difficult time processing — to the extent that an ultimately throwaway piece of DIY moviemaking can, you know, actually cause a person anything resembling actual difficulty at all. Good thing I didn’t get this feeling from a flick that insists on taking itself seriously, much less having anyone else do the same.

The unfortunate few still dim-witted enough to romanticize the Reagan era talk about 1980 as the year everything changed — and they’re right, though it wasn’t in any positive sense. “Morning in America” had arrived, no doubt — if you were rich and not afflicted with too strong a conscience. For the rest of us, though, the process of essentially farming the middle, working, and lower economic classes that continues unabated to this day really began in full swing with the election of “Uncle Ron,” and while terms such as “yuppies” and “leveraged buyouts” were still a good few years from entering into the popular lexicon, Long Island Super-8 auteur Nathan Schiff was one of the first to see the ugly new writing on the wall  and his sophomore back-yard horror effort, Long Island Cannibal Massacre, captures the angst with which many were greeting America’s supposed “return to glory.”

Granted, there’s only so much political allegory one can fit into a flick with a $900 budget, and those who choose to willfully ignore the anti-elitist subtext on display here can do so pretty freely and just kick back and watch a particularly nasty piece of homemade gore cinema. Schiff’s socio-political sermonizing isn’t exactly subtle by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s always going to come in second on a “things I noticed about this movie” checklist when we’ve got stuff like lawnmowers running over heads, faces and bodies being torn into bare-handed a la Herschell Gordon Lewis, and five-minute chainsaw duels commanding our attention.

Nevertheless, you can’t really deny that there are some pretty obvious to parallels to then-contemporary (and, frankly, still contemporary) reality in a story that revolves around a rich clique of Long Island “high society” elitists that have returned from a big-game-hunting expedition in Africa carrying a new and highly powerful strain of leprosy that has stricken them with an insatiable taste for human flesh and blood and who then hire some of the island’s more “undesirable” elements, including a couple of disaffected bikers, to procure food for them by any means necessary from amongst their own lower economic “caste,” can you? Didn’t think so.

Now, whether or not Schiff chose to really — and I do mean really — up the ante in the gore department over his debut effort, Weasels Rip My Flesh, as a way of  displaying in the most stark and unforgiving terms possible the economic violence being perpetrated upon the lower classes by the wealthy, or he did so simply to show off how much better (relatively speaking, mind you — it all still looks pretty damn fake, and around here that’s a compliment) he was getting at these DIY effects is an open question, so it’s possible that he may have furthered the less-than-disguised political allegory in his script essentially by accident just because he felt like pulling out all the stops on the blood, guts, and innards scale.  Nevertheless, whether he intended to or not, he’s certainly delivered what more or less amounts to a no-budget primal scream of deep-seated anxiety against the formative stages of America’s new “me first” mindset.

Oh, sure, there’s still plenty of shit going on here that makes absolutely no sense — why the leader of the cannibal clan has evolved (or maybe that should be de-volved) into some sort of monstrous creature, why his son, Jack (Schiff regular Fred Borges) is so eager to help his old man out, why lawnmowers can run over human heads without jamming up, and why the character of ex-cop-turned-private-investigator James Cameron (yes, really! ), the “head honcho” when it comes to sleuthing out these cannibal murders,  changes so completely and without explanation about 2/3 of the way through the film (then again, maybe that’s just down to the always-less-than-capable acting of fellow Schiff “stock player” John Smihula), but hey, just because ol’ Nathan has chosen to inject some political commentary into the proceedings doesn’t mean we need to go and start over-thinking things too much, does it? The key order of business here is still stupid, lower-than-low-budget fun, after all.Still, it’s nice to see a guy of Schiff’s considerable pluck decide to marry something of a message to his blatantly obvious madness, and thanks to the folks at Image Entertainment, this early piece of decidedly gruesome extremely-early-Reagan-era-nervousness has been preserved for posterity on DVD. The remastered full-frame picture is still incredibly grainy and choppy and the remastered stereo (if you can even believe that!) sound is often wildly uneven, but hey, that’s par for the course (Schiff would probably kill me for using that golf analogy) for super-8 films shot for less than a thousand bucks. For extras, we’ve got a Schiff interview that runs about 15 minutes, a Smihula and Borges interview of about equal length, a feature-length commentary track from Schiff that’s occasionally a bit tedious but mostly pretty interesting, and trailers for this and the other two Schiff titles available under the “Cult Cinema Collection” banner. Given that the actual movie itself runs a full 92 minutes, easily making it the longest of Nathan Schiff’s super-8 less-than-epics,  on the whole you get a considerable amount of bang for your buck here.

For those who think I might be reading just a little too much into things here, rest assured, Nathan Schiff’s next cinematic venture into the Long Island wilds, 1985’s They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore, only reinforces, with less plot and even more gore, the themes he explores here. By then, the “yuppie era” was in full swing and our guy Nate was even more pissed off about the whole thing. But as an early slice of homemade “rage against the machine,” Long Island Cannibal Massacre ain’t half-bad stuff. It’s nonsensical and incompetently-executed on the whole, sure, but it’s also inventive, honest, completely unpretentious, and frankly even a little bit ahead of its time. I’m not saying Schiff’s a modern-day Nostradamus or anything, but he could read the tea leaves and see which way things were heading, and he was one of the first to stand up and say “hey, wait a minute here, these rich SOBs are ripping us all off.” The fact that he chose to slather copious amounts of ultra-cheap gore on top of his rather prescient message is just a nice little bonus.

Try showing this movie at an “Occupy” meeting — it’ll probably be quite warmly received. Hell, if you’re part of the Long Island chapter, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Nathan Schiff himself was even a member.