Archive for January 29, 2013

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Here’s to the old school, didn’t matter if ya looked cool —

If there’s one phrase that can be tacked onto writer-director Brian Singleton’s 2009 effort Werewolf Fever, “old school” is it. This is short, quick, funny, nasty stuff. Hell, just look at that poster. Tells you all you need to know right there.

Filmed in Renfrew, Ontario on a budget apparently beneath $200,000, Werewolf Fever gets down to business and isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. Clocking in at 66 minutes, there’s no time to waste with things like set-up or motivation, the characters are more cardboard caricatures than anything else, and Singleton doesn’t seem to have much on his mind beyond letting the blood flow and the innards ooze. What’s not to love, I ask you?

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At the Kingburger drive-in, the staff is underpaid, the food sucks, the kitchen is a pit, and everyone would rather fuck off on the clock than do any actual work for their asshole boss. The joynt gets attacked by a former employee who’s bitten by a werewolf and consequently becomes one himself, and honestly, that’s as complete a plot recap as you’re ever going to need here. Story? We don’t need no stinkin’ story!

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Okay, as you can probably tell from the photo above, the werewolf (with, apparently, the fever) here doesn’t look like much of a werewolf at all. It looks more like a — well, I don’t know what the fuck it looks like, but it looks cool. That’s good enough for me. It rips. It slashes. It bites. It dismembers. It hacks and chews and tears and disembowels and — well, you get the picture. It gets the job done. And you couldn’t come up with anything nearly as good on the budget these guys had to work with.

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Good n’ gory, that’s all we’re really looking for here, right? And on that score, there’s no question that Werewolf Fever delivers the scarlet-soaked goods. The actors, a transparently yet endearingly half-assed lot one and all, are quite obviously not taking any of this very seriously, nor is their boss, so why not just have some fun? As a matter of fact, why not just make a movie that, for horror fans at any rate, it’s downright impossible not to have a good time watching? Singleton doesn’t even slow down long enough to give you a chance to think, and ya know what? You don’t need to. Overthinking Werewolf Fever — hell, giving it any thought at all — just defeats the whole purpose. This is a movie that throws you in at the deep end and doesn’t let up until the slaughter is over. Throw in some dumb-shit moronic humor to spice things up, and you’ve got yourself a pretty tasty, if familiar, stew.

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As the hippies used to say, “Just go with the flow, man!” And when it comes to blood, entrails, and viscera of any sort, it’s flowing in this flick from start to finish. There’s not much by way of dramatic tension or any of that superfluous high-fallutin’ stuff (although the cinematography on some of the night-shoot outdoor scenes is surprisingly professional and nicely evocative of the the Universal Monsters era), but damn, there sure is plenty of gore to go around, most of which is amazingly well-executed given the resources at Singleton’s disposal. Somebody else already invented the wheel a long time ago, why rain on their parade? Let’s just tweak their work as much as we can with what we’ve got and see if the folks out there don’t have as good a time watching it as we did making it. That’s the basic philosophy at work here, and it’s one I can get behind  any time.

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Like the other Canadian indie horrors we’ve been taking a look at around these parts (off and on) in recent weeks, Werewolf Fever is available on DVD as part of R-Squared Films’ “Extreme Canadian Horror” and/or “Pure Canadian Horror” five-movie collection. There are no extras, but the widescreen picture transfer and 5.1 sound are both great, and speaking of great, this disc definitely constitutes great value for money at under $10 from most online retailers. Werewolf Fever   is definitely the most tongue-in-cheek and least self-conscious flick of the bunch, and while that may not make it the best movie in the collection, it’s certainly the most fun. Sit back, shut your brain off (you probably weren’t doing much with it anyway), and  enjoy the bloody, brutal, stupid ride.

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1. Busting The Fourth Wall

How many films well and truly grab you with their very first line? The moment Simon Sinistrari, incomparably brought to life on screen by the criminally-underappreciated Andrew Prine, turns and looks right into the camera and says “My name is Simon. I live in a storm drain. When it rains, most people go in — but I go out,” director Bruce Kessler’s 1971  exploitation opus Simon, King Of The Witches has you hooked. There’s really not much you can do about it; maybe this guy really is a magician. His story begins and ends in massive, violent, torrential storms — and those are plenty exciting in and of themselves — but that 80-or-so-minutes in between  bookending monsoons,well, how many ways can you say “sublime”?

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2. “Does the district attorney know that his daughter’s dropping pills?”

Okay, none of it makes much sense. Simon’s apparently been crashing in his concrete home beneath the obvious-stand-in-for-Los-Angeles that is “West Side” for some time, but he doesn’t seem to know anybody. All that changes, however, when the cops decide to pick him up for vagrancy and he makes the acquaintance of fellow guest-of-the-establishment-against-his-will Turk (played with a mixture of  impish glee and all-too-believable naivete by George Paulsin), who’s cooling his heels at County on a loitering charge. It’s no secret how Turk makes his living — he tells Simon right off the bat — but,  as with Kessler’s previous effort, The Gay Deceivers, it’s made clear from the outset that any homosexuality in this flick is engaged in by necessity, not choice.  Damn, though, there sure are a lot of “poofters” to go around : take, for example, Hercules Van Zant, whose high-society parties Simon is introduced to by Turk. Or the hapless Stanley, an attendee at one of said soirees who Simon uses in his magickal working to energize the rod (snickering is most definitely permissible here) that he’ll use to penetrate his mirror/portal and “take his rightful place among the Gods.” Simon ropes him into his ritual because he discovers from an earlier failed attempt that his working won’t succeed if he has a partner who turns him on! Each gay guy in this flick is more OTT and, frankly, pathetic than the last, but hey — the movie’s a product of its times, and even admitting that homosexuality existed was a bridge farther than most of its contemporaries were willing to travel. Portrayal with dignity would have to come later, I suppose.

Still, in some ways Simon was willing to buck societal preconceptions. Let’s not forget that this was the height of Manson-era “hippies are evil” paranoia, and here not only is the obvious Charlie doppleganger portrayed sympathetically, he’s even good enough to date the daughter of the DA (who he meets at one of Herclues’ shindigs, naturally), while her old man is depicted as being an asshole for trying to keep them apart. Anti-authoritarianism has a definite friend in the King of the Witches.

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3. “Don’t touch me, I’m a religious object!”

It’s said that this film’s screenwriter, one Robert Phippeny, was some sort of occult initiate himself, and that he worked with several serious practitioners in  the development stages of his story, but I don’t buy it — and that’s part part of the charm here, of course. Simon’s tarot readings are like nothing I’ve ever witnessed, and he worships some strange combination of the old Greek gods and Left Hand Path-style, quasi-demonic forces. It’s all about as “authentic” as Velveeta. Still, even Simon recognizes the hodge-podge nonsense of Wicca for what it is :  his crashing of a local Wiccan coven’s get-together, with Turk in tow as his chauffeur, is one of the film’s more memorable sequences, and lays bare the secret of its ultimate success — simply put, nobody’s taking this thing all that seriously. Simon’s having fun exposing the priestess-in-charge for the fraud she is, Turk’s trying to get a peek a the naked chick who serves as the group’s living altar, and Kessler and Phippeny are probably off in the shadows snickering, wondering if anybody out there is stupid enough to take any of this at face value.

Gary Lachman’s 2003 book Turn Off Your Mind : The Mystic Sixties And The Dark Side Of The Age Of Aquarius, an absorbing and well-researched examination of exactly what its title states, would have noted in detail all the contradictory messages, mixed pantheons, and outright hokum on display here, but for the non-academic among us, it’s pretty fun to just sit back and enjoy the show. Remember the cardinal rule : if the people who made the film didn’t take it, or themselves, too seriously, then there’s damn sure no reason why we should, either.

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4. “Magnetic — electric — charge — CHARGE!!!!!!!!!!!!”

It occurs to me that the photo above could be easily misinterpreted — Simon’s girlfriend, Linda (Brenda Scott) is actually holding a huge red ball in each of her outstretched hands, but they match the color of her dress so perfectly that you could be forgiven for taking a quick glance  and thinking she’s just got enormous boobs. Which brings up another of this movie’s most endearing qualities , namely that appearances can be pretty deceiving here. We’ve already established that it’s readily apparent that the people who made Simon, King Of The Witches did so with their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, but that doesn’t mean they were out to deliver a shoddy piece of work, The costumes are first-rate. The sets all have a surprising air of authenticity. The performances — especially Prine’s — are out of this world. And David L. Butler’s cinematography is first-rate and endlessly inventive, especially when Simon passes through his mirror and has one of the most effectively-realized psychedelic “head-trip” experiences ever committed to celluloid. You don’t  have to set out to make great art to end up making great art — sometimes shit just happens.

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5. “Please don’t think I’m prejudiced, Rabbi — I hope you’ll be very happy here.”

Those are the words spoken by Simon’s landlord when he moves into his new pad (hey, a guy can’t live in a storm drain forever) and draws a pentagram on the wall for mystical protection. And misunderstandings and fuck-ups play a key role in the film’s climactic third act. As far as fuck-ups go, none are bigger than the one Simon himself commits — he’s been planning his whole life to take his place among the Gods. He’s plotted the precise moment when his voyage to the “other side” absolutely must take place. Hell, for the entirety of the film’s middle act it’s pretty much all he talks about. And yet — he misses the preordained moment because he’s listening to a couple of his small-time drug-dealer buddies   bitching about the no-good, dirty narc who’s been snitching out everyone in town to the cops.

Obviously, there’s going to be hell to pay. You don’t miss out on your one and only chance to become a God and just get over it and move on. And yet rather than blame himself, as you or I might do, Simon decides to take things out on the powers that be. He’s got a vengeful side — watch what happens to the guy who writes him a bad check early on in the film — and this time, he’s determined to exercise his wrath on, in his own words, “The mayor, the DA, the whole system!!!!!!!!!!”

Simon’s a friend to dope pushers, hustlers, con artists, and petty thieves — when he finds himself stuck on our lowly mortal plane for the duration, the enemies of “his people” are sure to find themselves in for a very rough ride, indeed.

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6. Simon As Jesus?

It began with a storm, and ends with one — but this time the deluge is of Simon’s creation. “The next few days are mine,” Simon tells his pusher pals as he brings down the rain on West Side, and the pain on the heads of his foes. His girlfriend OD’ing doesn’t do much to help his mood, either. And yet — just as he’s taking righteous vengeance on those who would oppose his will, he’s laid low by his own Judas Iscariot, who facilitates both his death and, it’s strongly hinted, resurrection. Or ascendance. Or something.  It’s not Turk who deals the fatal blow — as a matter of fact, when Simon severs his bond with his youthful sidekick, it’s a strangely emotionally resonant moment — but the betrayal stings just as harshly, if only for an instant, until the darkened lamp-post shown at the beginning of the film suddenly lights up out of nowhere and we come to realize that, hey, maybe Simon didn’t miss his trip to the “other side” after all — he just needed to get there by means of a different, infinitely more painful, route.

There’s no right or wrong way to achieve Godhood, I suppose — give Simon credit for eschewing, even if by accident, the easy road, and doing things his own way. Rather like the film that bears his name.

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If you haven’t yet, please — do yourself the favor and pick up Dark Sky’s DVD release of this psycho-psychedelic gem. For a supposed “special edition,” its selection of extras is pretty weak — there are interesting on-screen interviews with Prine and Kessler, the original theatrical trailer is included, and there’s a selection of radio spots on hand, but geez, a commentary, at the very least, would sure have been nice. Still, the widescreen transfer looks great, and the remastered mono sound does the job nicely. This is everything I love about exploitation movies in one glorious hour-and-a-half potion. It’s engaging, quirky, authentic in its inauthenticity, sincere in its bracingly honest insincerity. These people didn’t know squat about the occult, but they were game to give it a go, and the end result is pure magic.