Archive for February 3, 2013

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Back in the halcyon days of 1981, you’d have been hard-pressed to find two more popular slang terms in the English language than “Smokey” — a  catch-all euphemism for  any and all members of our nation’s law enforcement community  — and “bites the dust” — which meant, of course, to get killed. The first was popularized, at least on a mass scale, by Burt Reynolds, the second by Freddie Mercury. Both guys sported the kind of mustaches that would be considered pretty fucking cheesy by today’s standards but were thought to embody the hairy apex of machismo at the time, and  near as I can determine — unless you know some salacious details about Burt’s personal life that I’m not privy to — that’s where any similarities between the two end.

Leave it to Roger Corman to come up with the idea of mashing up these two then-current reigning champions of populist vernacular and figuring he could make a movie out of it somehow. The problem, however, with Smokey Bites The Dust is that, beyond the title itself, nobody bothered to put any thought into it at all.

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The stills accompanying this review really tell you all you need to know about what’s going on here, but for those of you who absolutely must read a plot recap of some sort in any piece of — and I’m being generous with my own writing here, I admit — “critical analysis,” here’s the deal : backwoods Ozark knuckle-draggin’ hick Roscoe Wilton (Jimmy McNichol) has a thing for stealing cars and smashing ’em up cuz’ it shore is a durn good time. Just a good ol’ boy never meanin’ no harm, right? Unfortunately for him, the ball-busting Sheriff Tuner (Walter Barnes) is out to ruin his fun whenever and wherever possible. Fortunately for him, Turner is, of course, a complete idiot, a bungling nincompoop of a predator can never catch up with his prey. To further complicate matters — not that the word “complicated” really applies to this flick in any way, shape, or form — Roscoe’s got the hots for the sheriff’s daughter, Peggy Sue (Janet Julian), and he figgers it’d be  a real holler to kidnap her on homecoming day at the local high school. Again — all in good fun, innit?

Needless to say, slack-jawed yokel sheriff doesn’t take well to the idea of  the town hooligan making off with his precious lil’ angel, and soon — for reasons that make even less sense than those offered in the average Corman production — cops from not only all over the country, but apparently all over the world (watch for a couple of “comic relief” Arabs) are brought in to rescue darling Peggy Sue (who — shocker! — finds herself falling for the “charms” of her abductor) and drag Roscoe, kickin’ and screamin’, into the county lock-up once an’ fer all.

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Really, though, this movie’s raison d’etre is to show a bunch of junked-out old cars getting smashed up and, when that gets too predictable (which takes all of about five minutes), exploding in flame. If that sounds like your idea of a good night in front of the tube, then I guess you’ll find Smokey Bites The Dust to be a reasonably amusing little time-waster, but honestly — you’d be much better off watching old demolition derby-type footage, and that would probably offer more by way of an involving plot, to boot.

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Still, if there’s one thing — and I should stress here it’s one thing — I found rather charming about this idiotic mess of a film, it’s that director Charles B. Griffith takes the “idiot cop” stereotype so popular at the time to absurd, self-parodying heights, and God help me if that doesn’t fill this reviewer with a warm dose of nostalgia. Today, of course, the boys in blue are pretty much always portrayed as “heroes” in the popular media, and even the most flagrant excesses and abominations these guys commit on screen are shown in a sympathetic light — after all, these are the good guys, and sometimes you gotta go to extremes to protect “us” ( meaning God-fearin’ middle-class Christian white folks) from “them” (everybody else). If they gotta cut a few corners, bust a few heads, and wipe their asses with the US Constitution along the way, well — it may not be pretty, but  it’s all in a day’s work, and it’s all for our own good.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but fuck that. Ever since the days of the Keystone Kops, the most common representation of “the fuzz” in movies and TV was one of a bunch of bumbling morons who couldn’t even tie their shoelaces, much less catch the guys they were after. It was a comedic distillation of the all-American anti-authoritarian spirit in its purest form, and it really did reach its zenith with the “CB craze” films of the late ’70s such as Smokey And The Bandit and Convoy. So what happened? Well, it’s hard to put a finger on any one event in particular, but I would say that the hard turn to the right ushered in by the election of Ronald Reagan  effected a none-too-subtle transition in how not just how our popular media, but our national culture in general, viewed all forms of police officers. Sure, there were always guys like Dirty Harry, but there were a dozen movies that made fun of the cops for every one of those back in the day. By the mid-’80s, however, that ratio was completely reversed — and I would argue that we’re definitely worse off for the change. Still, I guess that’s another topic for another time — suffice to say, it makes for a fun trip down memory lane to see a movie in which the cops are openly targeted as figures worthy of ridicule and disdain.

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Honestly, though, that really is all Smokey Bites The Dust (which is available on DVD from Shout! Factory, packaged together with Georgia Peaches and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase in something called the “Action Packed Collection,” part of their “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series — no extras, but the remastered widescreen transfer and mono sound are both perfectly serviceable) has going for it. Not even an early appearance from William Forsythe and cameos from always-terrific Corman stalwarts Dick Miller and Mel Welles can save this jumbled mess of pointless, plotless garbage, so I’ll leave you with this thought to ponder over just for the sake of establishing myself as the first critic in history to ever extrapolate a philosophical question from this flick : Smokey Bites The Dust, translated into actual, Oxford Dictionary-approved English, literally means A Cop Gets Killed. To the extent that the American public even noticed this movie at all, they viewed it as being harmless, stupid, goofy fun — yet 15 years after it came out they crucified Ice-T (in his “dangerous,” pre-reality show incarnation) for saying exactly the same thing. Why the difference?

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One thing about making a movie for five or six thousand bucks — it isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) that hard to make a tidy little profit.

Evidently, 1991 shot-on-video shlock horror/comedy Killer Nerd, which we reviewed on this very site awhile back , did just that, because exactly one year later, co-directors/writers/producers Mark Steven Bosko and Wayne Alan Harold were back behind the Sony Betacam with “star” Toby Radloff, best known as Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor sidekick, back in front of it for a sequel, Bride Of Killer Nerd —a movie which, at its core, is basically more of the same (honestly, what else would you expect?) but is no less fun for that fact. Truth be told, one could even make the argument that this is a superior picture, but it’s not like it matters all that much since it’s basically a six of one, half a dozen of another comparison when we’re talking about these two flicks.

After evading the law in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, titular Killer Nerd Harold Kunkle (Radloff, essentially playing himself, and not “acting” per se so much as simply reciting lines) has moved his base of operations to the bright lights of Cleveland — his “operations” consisting, once again, of being stuck in a dead-end office job where he’s the butt of everyone’s cruel jokes. Harold’s feeling pretty damn depressed about his eat, work, sleep routine, though, and vows that if his life doesn’t somehow change significantly within a month, he’s going to relieve the tedium by committing suicide.

The fickle hand of destiny, however, seems to have other things in mind for everyone’s favorite psychotic geek — yes, friends, none other than Cupid himself has set his sights on the forlorn Harold, and has arranged to have his solitary path in life cross that of one Thelma Crump, a bespectacled, awkward, clumsy, off-kilter high school girl who is at the very least his equal by every standard of measurement on the social outcast scale — when they meet at church one fateful morning it’s love at first four-eyed sight, and nothing, as the saying goes, will ever be the same for either of them.

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Now, I know what you’re thinking — it sure sounds like ol’ Kunkle’s chasing after jailbait here. Before you spend too much time thinking about that angle, though ( which would be a monumental waste of energy on your part since the filmmakers obviously didn’t) it should be pointed out that Thelma is portrayed by Heidi Lohr (the same actress who played Sally, the woman who rebuffed Harold’s advances in the original Killer Nerd), who’s gotta be at least  35 years old if she’s a day. So let’s all just relax and let these two love-struck losers have their day in the sun, shall we?

Obviously, though, the good times can’t last forever, and when a group of popular kids at Thelma’s school invite her and her new beau to a party they’re having as a paper-thin pretext for extracting several ounces’ worth of revenge on her for a  laundry list of perceived transgressions she’s supposedly committed against their clique, it’s not long before the legendary of battle cry of “nerd nerd nerd NERD NERD!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” once again issues forth from Harold’s — ahem! — dentally-challenged mouth and he unleashes the beast within to save his lady-love from the twisted machinations of the jocks and jock-ettes.

You know the drill — the red Karo syrup’s gonna flow generously as Kunkle hacks and chops his way through those who would dare sully his fair maid’s honor, but once the slaughter begins in earnest it becomes pretty clear that the object of his affections is every bit as unhinged as he is, if not more so!

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I won’t kid you, this is pretty low-grade stuff, even for late-’80s/early-’90s SOV fare. But what the fuck — it’s fun low-grade stuff that never for one instant sets its sights any higher than what it knows it can realistically (or unrealistically, as the case may be) achieve. Bosko and Harold are keenly aware of the limitations of both themselves and what and who they’ve got to work with, and proceed accordingly. If you or I made this thing we’d probably be too goddamn embarrassed at the final result to show it to anyone but our closest friends and family — and we’d make sure they were good and drunk first — but these guys had the balls to show the world (well, okay, an admittedly very small segment of the world) the fruits of their labors, and that’s pretty admirable in my book. If you don’t have much by way of brains or ability, balls alone can still take you a long way.

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Bride Of Killer Nerd is available on DVD paired with the movie from whose cam-corded loins it sprang in a one-two punch Troma bills as a “Killer Kollector’s Edition.” Besides the always-annoying-but-strangely-welcome Lloud Kaufman self-promotional intros and assorted crap, there are decent commentaries for both films featuring Radloff and Harold, an on-camera interview with Radloff where he reminisces further about his days as the original bullying-victim-getting-even, and a smattering of trailers for other Troma product. The flicks are presented full-frame with mono sound, and if any remastering of either the audio or video variety has been done it’s been pretty cleverly disguised since they both look and sound like crap, but no matter —that’s the way it should be.

Underneath all the thoroughly (but charmingly) unconvincing blood and stiffly-intoned angst, Bride Of Killer Nerd is, in this reviewer’s opinion, an unrelentingly optimistic work, with a message of hope for us all — after all, if Toby Radloff can find true love, anyone can.