Posts Tagged ‘blue underground’

"God Told Me To" Movie Poster

Larry Cohen films have a vibe all their own. Even his more “standard” horror fare like “It’s Alive,” or his blaxploitation ventures like “Black Caesar” have that certain off-kilter aspect of — well, Cohen-ness, for lack of a better term, to them. A signature element of personality that manifests itself in some sort of major quirk, or series of quirks, throughout. Today Cohen is pretty much confined to screenwriting, churning out rather standard-issue “thriller” screenplays for flicks like “Captivity” and “Phone Booth,” but back when he was given more free reign, he definitely came up with some movies that were straight out of bizarro world, the most notable of which were probably “Bone,” “Q : The Winged Serpent,” and my personal favorite, 1976’s “God Told Me To.”

This movie takes so many unexpected and almost completely incongruous twists and turns that you just have to sit back, go with the flow, and enjoy the ride. If you’re not willing to completely suspend all disbelief and just trust that Cohen is going to get us to a satisfactory conclusion by the end, no matter how bizarre what’s going on may seem at the time, then you’re going to feel hopelessly frustrated and probably throw in the towel somewhere around the halfway point of the proceedings. But if you are, indeed, able to hold out hope for a satisfying and dare I even say sensible conclusion, even in the face of staggering absurdity, then you’re in for a heck of a good time.

Tony Lo Bianco is searching for God --- so he can charge him with murder

New York police detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco — there’s a name you haven’t heard in awhile) is working one bitch of a case. First, he just happens to be on the scene when a young man named Harold Gorman, perched atop a water tower, kills 15 random pedestrians with a .22-caliber rifle. Nicholas tries to talk him down, but Gorman, after confessing his “motive,” opts to take his own life instead.  Next, an apparently happily married man kills his wife and children completely out of the blue, and calmly offers the same bizarre “motive” that Gorman did, prompting Nichoals to get involved in that case, as well. After that, a beat cop (played by Andy Kaufman — yes, that Andy Kaufman) opens fire on his fellow police officers marching in New York’s famous St. Patrick’s Day parade (an event Cohen would return to in his script for “Maniac Cop”). He also offers the exact same “motive” as te other two recent mass-murderers.

As for what that “motive” is, I’m sure you’ve already guessed — “God told me to” (hence the name, of course, although this flick was also released under the rather dull title of “Demon,” as well).

The man on the moon joins the bullies in blue --- Andy Kaufman in "God Told Me To"

Nicholas has some qualms about being in charge of this investigation due to his own highly devout, albeit rather secret, Catholicism.  Abandoned as an infant, he was raised by nuns for several years in Catholic orphanage. His personal life is a mess, and even though he’s been seprated from his wife (played by Sandy Dennis) and spends most of his time with his girlfriend (portrayed by Deborah Raffin), his strict religious views preclude any possibility of his getting a divorce, which is probably why he keeps his mistress in the dark about the seriousness with which he practices his faith.

Following the leads in this case is going to cause him to question that faith in ways he never imagined, though — that’s because every single clue leads him toward a man named Bernard Phillips (cult favorite Richard Lynch), who apparently was the product of a virgin birth, possesses miraculous abilities, and seems to have a direct line to the almighty himself. No matter how hard he wants to believe otherwise, Nicholas starts to accept the seemingly impossible — there really is a God living in New York, and he really is ordering his followers to kill. But as astonishing as those revelations are, it’s nothing compared to what our erstwhile hero is about to learn about his own past —

Richard Lynch as either God himself, the son of God, both, or neither

This is the point at which summarizing the plot any further is just going to give too damn much away. Like I mentioned previously, be prepared for some seriously goofy shit that will sorely tempt you to groan and shut the thing off. But stick it out and I promise you won’t be sorry. Everything comes full circle and the ending is absolutely perfect. I don’t believe in God myself, but I do believe in Larry Cohen’s ability to tell a damn solid story, and that faith is certainly rewarded come time for this flick to wrap up.

"God Told Me To" DVD from Blue Underground

“God Told Me To” is available on DVD from Blue Underground. The digitally remastered anamorphic  transfer looks sharp and crisp, the sound quality, also remastered, is especially clear and well-done, and what few extras there are really are good, including the trailer (of course), and a fantastic commentary from Chonen, whose recollections of the film are crystal clear and whose anecdotes about production always entertaining and involving. A highly recommended rental or even purchase if you’re any kind of fan of low-budget independent exploitation fare or just mind-fuck films in general, since “Gold Told Me To” will definitely leave you scratching your head at just where the hell this whole thing is headed throughout, but feeling exceptionally satisfied by the time it’s over.

"The Crazies" Movie Poster

With the new big-budget (well,comparatively speaking) Hollywood remake of George Romero’s seminal 1973 horror film “The Crazies” (a.k.a. “Code Name : Trixie”) upon us, now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at the original — as well as the new version, which your host took in last weekend. But let’s give the progenitor its dues first, shall we? I mean, it’s only fair, and in addition to coming first, it’s also, for reasons I’ll delve into a bit later when we look at the new one, the better of the two by far.

It’s a shame that this film is so often overlooked by horror historians, because truth be told it’s every bit the precursor to “Dawn of the Dead” that “Night of the Living Dead” was. Sure, it didn’t fit the “zombie movie” mold as established at the time since the “crazies” of the title weren’t walking corpses but were, instead, victims of a viral biological outbreak, but by today’s standards as set forth by films like “28 Days Later,” it certainly fits the bill — which is why we’re dealing with the rather bizarre situation we find ourselves in where the remake is considered a proper “zombie flick” while the original, at least at the time, wasn’t.

But it’s not just the fact that it’s (admittedly retroactively) classified as a zombie movie that makes “The Crazies” a thematic lead-in to “Dawn,” it’s the fact that it deals with current (at the time) political and socio-economic issues in a direct manner that makes this film every bit the precursor to DotD that NotLD was. Yes, “Night” tackled issues of race and Cold War paranoia and the like, but it did so mainly indirectly, via metaphor. “The Crazies,” on the other hand, tackles militarism, Viet Nam, germ warfare, state secrecy, and related issues every bit as head-on as “Dawn” tackled the emptiness of consumer culture and the wretchedly excessive gluttony of the “me generation.”

On the run from "The Crazies"

It’s evident from the start that Romero isn’t going to beat around the bush with this film. We start with a guy murdering his own family by burning down their house. He’s acting weird and completely loses it in rather a hurry, and when the local Evans City, Pennsylvania volunteer fire brigade arrives, including among its ranks two of our film’s main protagonists, recently-returned Viet Nam vets and lifelong buddies David (Will MacMillan) and Russell (Harold Wayne Jones),  the family man-turned-firestarter has a tragic moment of lucid clarity before succumbing completely to madness and death.

And the story seldom slacks up from this intense introductory sequence, with Romero opting instead to put the pedal to the metal and never let up. In fairly short order we learn that a military plane containing some sort of vaccine has crashed in the mountains nearby, that the vaccine isn’t a vaccine (of course) but is instead a deadly germ weapon designed to inflict madness, mayhem, and death on an “enemy” population, that the military can’t get its shit together when trying to effect a containment and clean-up, that the local population, infected and otherwise, quickly comes to be considered an enemy by the military, that the heavily-armed townsfolk and rural dwellers aren’t going to take being put under martial law lying down, that the virus, conde named “Trixie” is probably airborne, that gas-masked, hazard-suited military guys who are clearing out households and disposing of dead bodies aren’t opposed to looting homes of their goods and corpses of their cash, and that the US government will wipe the whole area, and everyone in it,  out in order to keep a lid on what’s happened. Oh, and in true Romero fashion, the bodies of the biological plague’s victims need to be burned.

As Romero himself would say, "another one for the fire."

The action shifts around a lot in “The Crazies,” with equal time being paid to the military’s ever-changing “plan” of response, the violent actions of the townspeople (infected or otherwise), and the struggle to escape the situation undertaken by our previously-mentioned protagonists David and Russell along with David’s girlfriend Judy (Lane Carroll), who works as a nurse and is pregnant, and a local evacuee named Artie (Richard Liberty, who would go on to appear in Romero’s “Day of the Dead”)  and his daughter Kathy (cult film legend Lynn Lowry of “Shivers” and “I Drink Your Blood,” among many other credits), who join them along the way.

There is a somewhat lengthy interlude wherein our erstwhile heroes take refuge in the clubhouse of a local Country Club, which actually comes as a welcome relief when it happens, but apart from that it’s pretty much full-throttle mayhem and paranoia and frantic desperation all the way, with barely a pause to take a breath.

And here is as appropriate a time as there probably is for your host where your host to salute the genius social commentary of George Romero, because not only does “The Crazies” deal with the obvious themes mentioned earlier, but the story of Dave and Russ as returned vets at loose ends suddetly confronting a battlefield scenario they don’t entirely grasp the implications of has none-too-subtle, albeit entirely unstated in the script and its dialogue, parallels with both the war in Viet Nam itself, and the situation many veterans found themselves in coming home to a country they no longer fully understood. One gets the definite sense, in fact, that once all hell breaks loose in their tiny town, these two feel more at home than they have at any point since coming back.

The insanity and outright viciousness of the outbreak itself, its victims, and the military’s inept and violent “containment” procedures only escalate until things reach a downright insane, and pretty goddamn bleak in most respects, conclusion. It’s entirely fitting, but it’s the breakneck-paced story along the way, driven in every respect by the human and entirely (if at times depressingly) understandable actions of the plethora of characters on all sides here that makes “The Crazies” so memorable. It’s 100 miles of bad road and we’re packed like sardines into a jeep with no shocks full of people whose actions, reactions,  concerns, and motivations we understand all too well. Some we like, some we don’t, but they are all us, and we are them.

"The Crazies" DVD from Blue Underground

“The Crazies” is available on DVD (and, as of a couple of weeks ago, Blu-Ray) from Blue Underground. The remastered picture looks absolutely superb for a low-budget exploitation flick filmed in rural Pennsylvania in 1973, the sound is mono but clean and good, and the extras package is nice, as well, featuring the trailer, a great little documentary featurette on the cult film career or Lynn Lowry, and an absolutely sensational commentary track from Romero and Blue Underground head honcho (and “Maniac” and “Maniac Cop” director ) Bill Lustig. Romero’s memory of the production is sharp, Lustig asks terrific questions, and the two of them obviously get along terrifically well. It’s an absolute pleasure to listen to.

Hard-core Romero fans are generally the only folks who have given this movie its proper due, but hopefully with the remake in theaters now, horror and exploitation fans, and just people with taste in general, will take a look at this somewhat neglected classic. It packs a punch both for what it does as well as what it says about ourselves and our society. Spellbinding, gut-wrenching stuff all the way around.

And speaking of that remake, we’ll get to that in the next day or two, maybe even tonight if I’m feeling ambitious.

"Deathdream" Movie Poster

Years before Michael Cimino and Oliver Stone dealt with the trauma of returning Viet Nam veterans in their Oscar-winning films “The Deer Hunter” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” independent exploitation filmmakers were going where Hollywood still didn’t dare to go. More specifically, legendary director Bob Clark of “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story” fame was going there, and at the time he was working in the regional independent exploitation milieu.

Before heading north of the border to lens the slasher classic “Black Christmas,” Clark cut his teeth on a couple of low-budget horror flicks in Florida. The first, “Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things,” is a pleasing if ultimately forgettable effort, but the second, 1974’s  “Deathdream” (also released under the titles “Dead of Night,” “The Night Andy Came Home” and “The Night Walk,” among others), is a bona fide classic. Not only did it beat Cimino and Stone to the punch in terms if its harrowing subject matter, but it one-upped George Romero in using the zombie film as contemporary sociopolitical allegory because while Romero offered hints of his zombies (and remember, he specifically referred to them as “ghouls” at the time) and even moreso the human survivors confronting them as being stand-ins for a host of current issues, Clark dealt with those issues in a much more head-on manner in “Deathdream.” When Romero returned with “Dawn of the Dead,” he tackled the political in a much more direct manner, and while I can’t say for certain that Clark’s film emboldened him to do so, it certainly couldn’t have hurt matters any .

Also worth noting for history : this film was originally released with a PG rating, but was later re-rated with an R somewhere along the line as it continued to play regional drive-in and grindhouse circuits. You could get away with a lot under the PG label in the early years of the MPAA rating system.

I’m no prude, but considering the subject matter and some of the (effective for a film with literally ten times its budget) gore, I think an R does seem the more appropriate classification, but what the hell do I know? Read my little brief overview of the plot details  (or better yet see the film) and decide for yourself —

Andy at the beginning ---

Charles Brooks (John Marley, the guy who found the horse’s head in his bed in “The Godfather”), his wife Christine (Lynn Carlin,  “Faces” ) and their daughter, Cathy (Anya Ormsby)  are sitting down to dinner when two messengers from the army arrive with the telegraph that every parent with a child in the service dreads : their son, Andy, has been killed in Viet Nam. Needless to say, the entire family is devastated beyond words.

Later (what one assumes to be) that same night, though, a truck driver picks up a hitchhiker on a lonely stretch of two-lane road somewhere in Florida. He’s dressed in army fatigues and and isn’t much of a conversationalist, but the trucker learns that he’s just come home from Viet Nam and is on the way to see his family.

In short order, Andy (a young Richard Backus) turns up on his parents’ doorstep. Convinced that the telegram was nothing more than a horrible mistake, his family is at first so overjoyed to see their son that they let Andy’s strange behavior slide. He won’t go see the family doctor for a physical. He sits silently in his room at all hours rocking back and forth in a chair. He seems quiet and distant, He has no interest in seeing his former high school sweetheart, who still carries a torch for him or any of his former friends, for that matter.

Of course, when the death of a truck driver is reported on the news, his family don’t suspect a thing. But when other bodies start turning up, including the family doctor he refused to visit, Andy’s father, at least, begins to fear the worst, even if his mother willfully refuses to put two and two together.

Andy’s a zombie, you see, and he needs blood to survive. Or things start to get real ugly real fast. And the longer he hangs around, the more blood he needs. When he finally relents and goes out on a double-date to the drive-in with his former (although not in her mind) sweetheart and his best buddy and his girl, he’s dressed in dark sunglasses and a crisp white suit-type outfit that covers him from head to toe. He shouldn’t be going anywhere and he knows it, and his deterioration and berserker rage at the drive-in is a classic scene in the annals of horror.

--- and at the end

It goes without saying (but I’m saying it anyway) that the plot’s pretty simple and straightforward here, but the actors really bring the material to life. Marley is superb as the father who walks a delicate balance between being overjoyed at seeing the son he never thought he’d see again and suspecting the harsh,brutal truth about his condition. Carlin delivers a heartwrenchingly realistic portrait of a mother who will protect her son from anything, even when the reality of what he’s become stares her in the face. What could be portrayed as a simple case of denial in the face of everything is instead a gut-wrenching portrait of motherly love even when said love flies in the face of reality itself. And Backus is magnificent as Andy, conveying cold menace yet also a sense of tragic victimhood at all times.

As for the ending — -well, it’ll rip your heart out. That’s all I can say. The story can obviously only finish one way (although I won’t spell that out too specifically), but the pain and anguish that occur when the inevitable happens makes for a truly heartbreaking goodbye, not just for B movie, but for any movie.

"Deathdream" DVD from Blue Underground

The fine folks at Blue Underground released “Deathdream” on DVD a few years back in a truly superb package that contains an excellently-restored 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the film. two separate feature length commentaries (one from director Clark recorded not too terribly long before his sudden and tragic death in an auto accident, the other from screenwriter Alan Ormsby), an extended version of the powerful ending sequence, a poster and still gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and a new interview with star Richard Backus.

Best of all for horror fans, though, is the mini-documentary “Tom Savini : The Early Years.” Included because “Deathdream” was the first film on which the legendary make-up FX man cut his teeth before his his horror-history-making work for George Romero on “Dawn of the Dead,” this is a fascinating look at the early life and work of a guy who literally revolutionized the movie business. The fact that he was a Viet Nam vet, to boot, makes it doubly thematically appropriate.

Don’t let my rather quick synopsis of the plot fool you (your reviewer didn’t want to give away too much in terms of detail, but the truth is that this is a film I could literally spend hours talking about) : “Deathdream” is a painstakingly detailed account of one young man’s desperate struggle to continue surviving after he’s already dead, and how his quite literal descent literally rips his family apart. And while there weren’t any literal zombies who came home from Viet Nam, the number of walking wounded was incalculable. They’re coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq today, making this film as timely as ever. Leave it to low-budget regional filmmakers to blaze the trail and let Hollywood know it was “okay” to deal with subject matter like this.

Finally, it’s worth noting in closing that the Viet Nam war was still going on when this film was made, while it was over and done with by the time “The Deer Hunter” came along. That’s guts right there. Hollywood was still producing John Wayne movies cheering the “glory” of the war when Clark was showing us its’ horrific consequences in a cheap zombie flick.

“Deathdream,” therefore, is not only one of the most emotionally affecting horror films ever made, it’s also one of the gutsiest.