Posts Tagged ‘john waters’

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I gotta be honest — sometimes I’m not exactly sure what “direction,” if any, this blog is headed in. Which is probably a good thing. Way back when I started out here, I pretty much concentrated all my “efforts” on reviewing what could loosely be called “cult,” “fringe,”exploitation” or “low budget” cinema, but before too long I found myself worming in reviews of then-current Hollywood efforts, or cinematic oddities from around the globe, or documentaries that caught my attention, or amateur SOV efforts, or — well, anything, I guess, as long as it could loosely be described as a “movie” of some sort. A few years later, mostly on a lark, I started to occasionally sprinkle in some comic book reviews,as well, and now those have become more or less a mainstay around these parts. Heck, once in awhile I even swim in the cesspool that is television and talk about it here.

What’s any of this got to do with anything? Simply this : I was about to start my review of director Jeffrey Schwarz’ 2013 effort I Am Divine (which is now available via Netflix instant streaming, as well as on DVD and Blu-Ray — I chose the first option, so no technical specs for its physical-storage iterations will be included with this review, sorry) by saying “let’s take a brief sidestep from our usual proceedings here by looking at a couple (more on that later) of recent documentaries about subjects of interest to fans of  ‘cult’ cinema   —” when I realized that there’s really no such thing as “usual proceedings” around here anymore. And I guess I kinda like that, because it means I can basically write about whatever the fuck I want.

Not that I couldn’t before, mind you. I just didn’t, at first, because I wanted to stick with some kind of “format.” But now I can’t even remember why, apart from feeling like the name I’d chosen for the site, “Trash Film Guru,” should at least be kind of, ya know, relevant to what I was talking about. Which I guess it isn’t anymore. Unless it still generally is — except when it’s not.

Oh, who the hell cares — I think it’s probably fair to say that it is and it isn’t. And it’s definitely both in this particular case because, even though I don’t talk documentaries too terribly often (so that “brief sidestep line” probably might have worked after all), the fact is, when you think of trash cinema, Divine is pretty much an icon, is s/he not? I mean, those early John Waters flicks are pretty much textbook examples of what a “trashy movie” is all about, and Divine was the reigning queen of OTT outrageous-ness in all of them. Sure, there would be a world of “Trash Film” for me to be a self-declared “Guru” of without Waters and his larger-than-life (and, ultimately and tragically, too large to keep living) friend/muse, but it would be a much duller place, and one with far fewer people interested in it.

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I’m pleased to say that Schwarz gets that. He seems to understand not only what Divine represented to the LGBT community, and yeah,  that’s arguably his primary historical focus here (and seems to be the raison d’etre behind Wolfe Pictures, who distributed this flick),  but he also understands what a flat-out transformational (pun only slightly intended) figure the subject of his little celluloid biography was to the wider world of “bad” movie lovers and aficionados of “low brow” culture in general.  Let’s face it — you can’t see Pink Flamingos and not have the image of Divine impressed upon your memory forever.

Schwarz goes back even further than that, though, to the drag legend’s first appearances in various short films with Waters and his motley gang of outsiders, and even includes a ton of ultra-rare super-8 footage of hir (yes, I meant to type that) stage appearances and other various other oddities I would’ve thought lost to the ages. For hard-core Divine fans, this is a flat-out treasure trove of material.

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Where this film really succeeds, though, is in tracing how the shy young outcast from Baltimore born Harris Glenn Milstead became the deliberately offensive, crude, uncouth figure that would eventually be known the world over. Thanks to the heartfelt personal reminiscences of those who knew Milstead best both before and after his “other” persona emerged — including Greg Gorman, Mark Payne, Michael Musto, Mink Stole, Milstead’s equally-closeted-at-the-time former high school girlfriend, his mother, Francis, and, of course, Waters — we get a reasonably complete picture of a complex and intriguing individual who will probably remain well-nigh impossible to ever fully fathom, despite the very best efforts of all involved here to do so.

Also worthy of note is the fact that this film, while being largely celebratory in nature, resists the urge to degenerate into complete hagiography and deals fairly honestly with the compulsions that drove Divine to attempt to fill some sort of void in his/her life by over-indulging, particularly when it came to food. A figure and persona defined by excess is often very well familiar with that subject themselves, and Schwarz has constructed a flick that is frank and honest about that.

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It remains a genuine tragedy that Divine’s life was cut short just as he/she was achieving mainstream “crossover” success for hir work both in and out of drag — you absolutely must see Alan Rudolph’s sublime Trouble In Mind if you haven’t yet done so — but it’s heartening to see films such as this and the earlier (though, frankly, not quite as good) Divine Trash doing their part to insure that this fascinating, talented, enigmatic, and genuinely singular figure’s legacy is kept alive.

Oh yeah —  I said earlier that we’d be taking a look at “a couple of recent documentaries of particular interest to ‘cult’ movie lovers” or somesuch, did I not? So check back tomorrow (or the next day, depending on how much free time I’ve got) for a long-delayed look at Jodorowsky’s Dune. Hope to see you then!

"Christmas Evil" Movie Poster

This time of year the question is often asked, “What is the best Christmas movie ever made?” The usual contenders always seem to emerge, of course — “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story” , yadda yadda etc. etc. Horror fans may suggest either “Black Christmas” or “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” But no less an authority than John Waters has gleefully declared writer-director Lewis Jackson’s 0verlooked 1980 B-movie masterpiece “Christmas Evil” (a.k.a. “You Better Watch Out,” actually Jackson’s original — and preferred — title) to be the absolute best of the bunch, and I’m with him on that all the way. Not so much a straightforward horror film as a black, tragicomic morality tale, this bizarre little flick hits all the right notes and is so self-assured in its absolutely singular bizarreness that you can’t help but sit back in awe as  the bleakly absurd spectacle of it all plays out before your eyes.

If you'd seen this with your own two eyes when you were a kid, wouldn't you be scarred for life, too? Especially if the woman in question was your mother?

When little Harry Stradling was a kid, he was the sort of tyke who just couldn’t wait for Christmas. He’d stay up all night, pacing back and forth in his room, hoping to hear Santa landing on the rooftop and sliding down the chimney. Unfortunately, he learned that old Kris Kringle wasn’t real the hard way — one Christmas Eve he thought he heard something downstairs, went to investigate hoping to catch Old St. Nick in the act, and found his dad, dressed in a Santa suit, going down on his mom. He’s never been the same since.

Fast forward about 30 or 40 years and our guy Harry (played by distinguished Broadway actor Brandon Maggart, who never had much of a career in film, apparently wants nothing to do with this one anymore, and is now best known for being the father of Fiona Apple) is  a rather disturbed and introverted sort, the kind of troubled soul his New York City neighbors should probably keep an eye on — except he’s already keeping an eye on them. Or, more specifically, on their children. He’s making a list and checking it twice, cataloging who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. And this Christmas, he’s finally going to do something about it.

Harry's got it all in his book, right down to the neighbor kids' hygiene habits

Harry works at a toy factory, you see, where he’s recently been promoted from the line up to some low-level management position or other. He misses being down on the factory floor “close to the toys,” as he says, and he’s unimpressed with the executive “suits” he now has to kiss up to. Amidst talk of  post-Christmas plant downsizing (quite prescient in 1980) and a nebulous new management directive  forcing the workers to give to charity while ownership does nothing of the sort (again, a disgustingly common enough practice these days but rather novel for its time) at the company holiday party, Harry starts to hatch his master plan in his mind. Harry’s trauma-inducing bout with accidental voyeurism has caused him to grow into something of a Christmas purist, if you will, and he’s out to save all that is right and true with the holiday season and to — umm — excise all that isn’t. In short order he procures a van, a bunch of toys, a Santa costume, and some weapons, and he decides to bring back the less-than-jolly St. Nick legends of old to life — the ones where he’s both jolly and vindictive, handing out toys only to those who deserve them, and vengeance to those who don’t.

Harry's getting an idea ---

Soon it’s Christmas Eve, and having blown off his brother’s family for the second holiday in a row (he took a pass on spending Thanksgiving with him, his wife, and their kids, as well), he instead springs into action in his custom (hand)-painted Christmaswagon. Kids at an orphanage get a whole load of goodies. The friendly folks at a large family holiday get-together get a visit where he displays his friendly side (as do they to him). But a yuppie scumbag emerging from a midnight mass service at a church in ritzy part of town gets skewered through the eyeball after declaring that Santa better give him something good because he has “superlative taste” (can’t say I blame Harry for that one), and the guy who suckered Harry into picking up his shift at the factory earlier that night so he could go out drinking with his buddies on Christmas Eve meets his red-suited, white-bearded maker, as well.

Santa Harry

Soon, Harry’s a hunted man, as townsfolk who think he’s acting a little bit weird around their kids take up torches and pitchforks and chase him through the New York/New Jersey streets like a modern-day version of the mob hunting down Frankenstein’s monster. But little do they know Harry has a surefire method of escape that delivers one of the most jaw-droppingly awesome endings in movie history. For some reason it’s hotly debated conclusion that some people just can’t get their heads around, but I’m here to tell you that not only is it absolutely astonishingly perverse it its obvious, albeit surreal, simplicity, it’s literally the only way this story could, or for that matter should, finish up.

DVD Cover for "Christmas Evil" from Synapse Films

Available for years only as a bare-bones release from Troma, in 2006 the good folks at Synapse Films finally issued a bona fide and thoroughly comprehensive “special edition” release of full director’s cut of this twisted gem. Not only does it feature a sparkling new widescreen anamorphic transfer of the film with remastered 2.0 stereo sound that’s an absolutely joy to watch and listen to, but there are two commentaries, one featuring director Lewis Jackson where he gives an awesomely involving account of just how low-budget exploitation films such as this came to fruition in the late 70s/early 80s and all the various pitfalls along the way as it moved from script to screen, but there’s a second commentary track featuring Jackson joined by the film’s most famous fan, the legendary John Waters himself! Needless to say, it’s a riot from start to finish. Also included are a selection of stinging lobby comment cards from a test screening of the film, deleted scenes, screen test outtakes, and a comic-style “essay” on the film from “Motion Picture Purgatory” author/illustrator Rick Trembles. Great stuff all around.

What can I say? Everything about “Christmas Evil” works, from the red-and-green-heavy color schemee utilized throughout to Maggart’s amazing, and strangely involving, performance in the lead, to the laugh-out-loud grotesquery, to the police lineup of drunken guys in Santa suits, to the often-quite-incisive sociall commentary,  to the already-mentioned supremely awesome ending. It’s an absolute one-of-a-kind piece of moviemaking. And while Lewis Jackson, sadly, has never made another film, truth be told he doesn’t need to. This stands as a singular work of genuinely madcap, unhinged genius that will never be duplicated and, frankly, in the annals of Chritmas moviemaking, never surpassed.