Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Thursday, May 24, 2007


It’s another of those infamous long holiday weekends, meaning no one is really thinking about sitting in front of their television screens. Want proof? Look at the lame offerings being premiered this week on the pay cable channels. While one film is from 2005, the other three are lesser entries in 2006’s cinematic sweepstakes. Not quite up to SE&L‘s leisure time liking. If, however, you enjoy half-baked horror, a stilted dance-based drama, and the kind of 3D animation that’s actually killing the genre, then make sure to include Saturday’s selections as part of your three days of rest and relaxation. Of course, many of you can’t care. You will be braving the sell-out crowds to witness the last piece of the Pirates of the Caribbean puzzle. Here’s a hint – wait until next week. If you want to be aggravated while trying to have some motion picture fun, you can sit at home and enjoy any of the irritating entries here, including SE&L‘s reluctant 26 May selection:


Premiere Pick
Over the Hedge


Need further proof that computer animation has more or less run its course after only a decade and a half as a vital cinematic art form? Take a gander at this demographically correct quasi-comedy and decide for yourself. Guilty of each and every cinematic pitfall that currently plagues the genre (stunt voice casting, overly simplistic storyline, far too many puerile pop culture references), this sometimes clever take on suburban sprawl and the many facets of friendship just can’t overcome its highly commercialized gloss. Unlike Pixar films that always seem to find the proper note between precocious and perfection, Hedge (based on a far cleverer comic strip by Michael Fry and T Lewis) appears designed deliberately to force Moms and Dads to dig deep into their pockets for endless items of tie-in merchandising. While not as bad as Open Season or Barnyard, this CGI candy is decidedly sour. (26 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

Additional Choices
Final Destination 3


A lot of critics pick on this clever horror franchise, and it’s really unfair. Though they do tend to push the limits of logic and believability, all three films deliver lots of gooey gore goodness – this merely average offering no exception. While theatrical audiences may be growing tired of this series’ tricks, there are dozens of direct to DVD delights still left in this creepshow concept. (26 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Step Up


It’s your typical teen coming of age angst-fest. Nora Clark’s a budding dancer at the Maryland School of the Arts. Bad boy Tyler Gage is a delinquent sent to do some court-ordered community service at the institution. Lust blossoms as snobbery substitutes for storytelling in this star crossed lover’s lament. Toss in some youth oriented street dancing, and you’ve got one dull drama. (26 May, Starz, 9PM EST)


Lord of War


Nicholas Cage has been on a weird career bender as of late. For every oddball acting choice (Ghost Rider, Next, The Wicker Man), he’s shown up in unexpected cinematic places like this. As an arms dealer facing a moral crisis in Andrew Niccol’s (Gattaca) forgotten film, he’s mesmerizing. Our filmmaker is no slouch either, bringing a gutsy authenticity to this spellbinding material. (26 May, Showtime, 11:15PM EST)

Indie Pick
The Filth and the Fury


The Sex Pistols’ saga is a sad one, indeed. It’s a tale about greed and gullibility, ego and excess, infinite possibilities and eventual implosion. The legend is laced with inaccuracies, fan fictions, and several outright lies. It seemed that individuals saddened over the band’s lack of lasting respect would never get the straight story – that is, until longtime associate Julian Temple decided to make a documentary about them. Allowing the remaining members to speak for themselves while contextualizing their rapid rise and unnecessary fall, the results are truly astounding. Temple salvages the sonic significance they still carry, while explaining all the fairytale fables surrounding their myth. In addition, he solidifies the Pistols’ place as one of the all time great rock and roll rebellions. Only meaningless manager Malcolm McLaren comes up short – and when all is said and done, that’s how it should be. (30 May, IFC, 11PM EST)

Additional Choices
American Graffiti


Remember the days when George Lucas wasn’t an egomaniacal misfit retrofitting his Star Wars movies with more and more pointless digital effects? Right, neither do we. Maybe this blast from the past, the last legitimate major motion picture the intergalactic geek ever directed, will fresh our memory. It couldn’t hurt – not like the pain he’s been inflicting on us for the last 20 years. (26 May, Sundance, 10PM EST)

8½ Women


It used to be, when film fans noted the experimental directors who really mattered, Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover) was high on everyone’s list. Now he’s a humorous afterthought, disappearing from the scholarly radar long before this eccentric combination of sex for sale and Fellini’s famous film. It’s worth a look, if only to see how the avant-garde treads wasted opportunity waters.  (29 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

Down to the Bone


Back in 2004, everyone at Sundance was talking about this amazing independent drama revolving around a mother desperate to hide her drug habit from her family. Winning awards for Vera Farmiga’s brilliant lead performance, and director Debra Granik’s deft handling, it went on to simply fade away. Now’s your chance to catch up with this lo-fi look at how secrets can literally destroy a person.  (31 May, Sundance, 10PM EST)

Outsider Option
Once Upon a Time in the West


Here it is – the greatest horse opera of all time. Though many might balk at such a statement, there is no denying the visual power and narrative potency of Sergio Leone’s ultimate spaghetti Western. Featuring Henry Fonda as a cold-eyed killer, Charles Bronson as a well-meaning mercenary, and Claudia Cardinale as the sexiest frontier woman ever, the famed Italian auteur created a masterpiece so mannered and stylized that you could almost count the individual frames used to deliver each decisive moment. Long celebrated for how it deconstructed the mythical American West as well as its strength of story and character, classic filmmaking really doesn’t get any better than this. If you don’t already own the definite two disc DVD of this cinematic landmark, here’s your opportunity to see what you’re missing. (29 May, Turner Classic Movies, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Old Dark House


Skip the repeat of Freaks. Avoid the pointless Mark of the Vampire. Instead, stay up to see James Whale’s definitive take on the haunted house movie. With remarkable turns by Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesinger, there are not a lot of fear factors here. But the mood will more than make up for the lack of legitimate scares. (25 May, Turner Classic Movies, 4:45AM EST)

Bad Moon


Eric Red road the original hype from his screenplay for The Hitcher (1986) to a stint as b-movie’s scribe in residence. After Near Dark and Blue Steel, he finally got a shot behind the camera. The result was this unique take on the werewolf genre. Instead of going strictly for gore, Red attempts something more metaphysical. He almost gets there. (28 May, Encore, 3:30AM EST)

Kiss Me Quick


It’s the birth of the Nudie Cutie as us exploitation fans know (and love) it. Harry Novak’s decision to move bare bodkins from the censorship safe nudist camps and into more comical settings turned the entire industry upside down. Now, thanks to the Great White North’s favorite grindhouse channel, we can re-experience the risqué naiveté all over again. (29 May, Drive In Classics, Canada, 2:45AM EST)

 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, May 23, 2007


No other deceased superstar has as sketchy a legacy as kung fu king Bruce Lee. Part of it comes from the fact that he was a charismatic Asian actor in an industry where such performers were consistently reduced to playing ridiculous, repugnant stereotypes. The other aspect comes from his decision to travel abroad to expand his career horizons. Unlike the West, which views film as a combination commercial and artistic medium, the East sees cinema somewhat differently. There, it’s disposable and direct, providing an entertainment service and then fading away to make room for the next interchangeable offering. Even though films like Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection, and Enter the Dragon managed to crossover, his untimely death at age 33 locked his celebrity into a single unswerving ideal.


Perhaps this is why most fans have long since forgotten his posthumous labor of love entitled The Silent Flute. Originally conceived with pal James Coburn as a cool co-starring vehicle, and polished with the help of Oscar winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, it had everything that was dear to Lee’s heart. Renamed Circle of Iron and released five yeas after his passing, this exploration of Zen and the art of bountiful butt kicking is by far the most personal movie the man never made. Hoping to include as much of his own spiritual philosophy as possible while simultaneously showing off the various unique forms of martial artistry, this almost epic would have – along with Game of Death – propelled the actor deep into legitimacy’s limelight. Instead, it’s now an anomaly, a project of near mythic proportions eventually half realized by friends, well wishers and determined disciples.


In this simple quest narrative, a rebellious fighter named Cord (an off kilter Jeff Cooper) heads out to seek the Book of All Knowledge. It’s supposedly held by a great sorcerer/villain named Zetan (Christopher Lee in an extended cameo). Along the way, he must face several trials, each one determining his worthiness to reach his destination. In addition, he constantly runs into a blind master (a cool, collected David Carradine) who hopes to teach him humility and focus. After battling a deranged monkey man, a panther-like shadow of Death, and a nasty nomadic flesh merchant, Cord finally reaches the final stage of his journey. But there is not another fistfight in the offing. Instead, the stubborn warrior must learn that there is more to life than aggression, and that the answers to the great mysteries of the universe lie not with a single volume, but in another ‘vessel’ all together.


In retrospect, it’s easy to see why devotees both past and present have shunned this otherwise excellent veiled vanity project. Containing more mysticism than martial arts, and an incredibly awkward turn by Cooper (Lee originally pegged Coburn for the lead), what could have been unique and quite unparalleled in the burgeoning world of international action filmmaking ends up an endearing but often incomplete voyage. Part of the problem lies directly in the casting. While exceedingly buff and talented in the ways of personal fighting, Cooper’s Cord is too contemporary in his mannerisms. He just can’t play period. He speaks like a guy down the street, not a meditative wanderer looking to purify his soul. Even in moments where he’s not required to deliver dialogue, there is just something about his actor that screams mid 1970s.


Luckily, Carradine is much, much better. While still slightly too modern for his characters (he plays several roles here, including the blind sage and all the bad guys), he projects a kind of inner consciousness that flows directly into what Lee was after. Indeed, as a substitute for the late artist – Bruce created this collection of roles as his own personalized tour de force – the Kung Fu star is stellar. Even the supporting roles are better than our ab-addled lead. Eli Wallach is intriguing as a doctor trying to temper his own biological urges by dissolving the lower half of his body in oil, and Roddy McDowall is nicely disconnected as the organizer of the competition which starts the film. As for Christopher Lee, his is a very minor turn as the notorious Zetan. But one shouldn’t expect a Count Dooku preview here. In keeping with Lee’s original idea, nothing happens the way it’s supposed to in this obviously allegorical world.


Apparently, it was an approach that many in the cast and crew found confusing. As part of a new double disc DVD release from Blue Underground, Circle of Iron gets a collection of telling supplemental material that try to explain this ersatz epic. Director Richard Moore is on hand, and he’s helped by company commentator David Gregory. Together they explore the film’s rocky origins and offer up speculation on where, in Lee’s overall canon, this movie would rate. Star David Carradine also adds his introspective two cents worth, and he’s not ashamed of labeling Lee an arrogant, self-important man. Producer Paul Maslansky complains about the difficulty in finding financing for a marital arts movie in the Me Decade, and fight coordinator Joe Lewis admits that, because of a certain actor’s inexperience with fake fighting (cough – Carradine – cough), the film’s tête-à-tête’s are not quite up to snuff.


All agree on one thing, however – Lee was obsessed with this project – and if you can remove yourself from all the mindblowing Matrix-like fisticuffs of recent years, you will recognize the passion at the center of this story. Lee was devoted to the karmic elements of his craft, the yin and yang of being a man of peace who made his living pretending to abuse and even kill people. He wanted to prove that age old adage that the reason you learn a technique like karate is to be taught how and when NOT to use it. The simplistic philosophizing peppered throughout the film (“two bird tied together may have four wings, but still cannot fly”) is meant as baby steps to understanding the basics of the Zen conceit. By downplaying the physical and emphasizing the cerebral (or in some cases, the spiritual) Lee was looking to take the genre to another level. For that alone, the film is very important.


However, Circle of Iron will definitely rise or fall based on the expectations you bring to it. If you’re expecting a rollicking nonstop spectacle of flying fists, roundhouse kicks, and expertly wielded weaponry, you’ll be disappointed, and maybe even a little disgusted. This is not Hero, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Instead, it’s more like a loincloth version of Five Easy Pieces with throwing stars. We are supposed to respond to both the introspection and the arm breaking, the parable-like approach to life and its lessons, and the ludicrous love scene between Cooper and newcomer Erica Creer. When cobbled together like this, it can seem quite silly. But when given the added perspective of Bruce Lee and his devotion to the project, obvious flaws become almost invisible.


Granted, in an ADD hampered cinematic society which thinks films like Crank and The Transporter are too restrained, The Silent Flute/Circle of Iron will appear almost comatose. But if you get into the mellow mood being presented, and actually listen to the many maxims offered up, you will definitely be engaged both visually and metaphysically. While Bruce Lee continues to be batted back and forth, marginalized and sanctified by critics on both sides of the conversations, it’s clear that his impact on martial arts in the movies remains as strong as ever. No film featuring kung fu, karate, or any other form of Eastern training can make it into theaters without bowing to the man who more or less formed their commercial viability. While Circle of Iron won’t diminish his earnest reputation, it also won’t amplify it. Instead, it remains an individualized endeavor lacking its true inspiration. 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Sometimes, a sequel just shouldn’t bother. No matter what the project thinks it has to offer that’s ‘new’ or ‘unique’, no matter what novel twist it wants to put on the same old storylines, it is almost always destined to fail. Of course, there are exceptions (Godfather Part II and Spider-Man 2 instantly come to mind), but more times than not, what we end up with is something dull (Fly II), derivative (Halloween II), or a startlingly sour combination of the two (any of the Jaws follow-ups). And it gets even worse when you start stringing out a flimsy foundation into some kind of series. The more Roman numerals on the end, the more potential for pointlessness. Such is the case with Shrek the Third. This is the kind of sloppy, generic follow-up that will have you wondering why anyone found the first movie the least bit entertaining.


It all begins with our large green hero wrapped in a quandary. He must make a very important decision – accept the throne from the dying frog King Harold, or head out to Worcestershire and find Arthur, the next in line to inherit the empire. As part and parcel of this franchise’s meta-mannerisms, we are of course talking about the legendary owner of the mythic round table here, except he’s depicted as an awkward loser. Even more confusing, our adolescent ruler-to-be attends a Harry Potter like school where magic makes up most of the curriculum. So, while Shrek is off trying to convince Master Pendragon that the land of Far Far Away needs him, and his sweetie Fiona is preparing to bring a few ogre offspring into the world, the disposed Prince Charming – whose been relegated to doing lame dinner theater for a living – plots to retake the crown that the storyline from Shrek II stole from him. Gathering together all the known villains in the fairytale universe (including Capt. Hook and Rupelstiltskin), he plots a full blown fictional character coup.


Though it sounds compelling and intricate, the truth is that Shrek the Third‘s narrative more or less sits there, lifeless and limp, waiting for the already creaky cogs in its comedy machine to make up for the lack of complexity. Indeed, this type of clothesline yarn is ripe for many a hilarious animated set piece, but aside from two stellar moments (Shrek imagines life as a father, and the Gingerbread Man literally sees his life flash before his eyes), the quartet of screenwriters can find very little to do with it. Indeed, jokes that seemed to work the first two times (lame rap lingo, prevalent pop culture references) now come off as amateurish and pat. Even the standard star stunt casting has been lowered a couple of notches, resulting in good but generic voices (Ian McShane as Hook, Justin Timberlake as Arthur) looking to enliven things.


It has to be said though that Eric Idle, who arrives late in the second act as a blithely blitzed out Merlin, does bring a great deal of madcap amusement to his twisted take on the old wizard, and Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas still sparkle as Donkey and Puss in Boots, respectively. But Mike Myers’ Scottish shtick has grown grating and unappealing. Instead of making Shrek sound continental and crafty, the character is now bordering on the ethnically insensitive. He’s like Groundskeeper Willie without Matt Groening and the gang’s sense of satiric edge. But at least he’s still given something to do. Cameron Diaz is delegated to a substrata supporting role, her Fiona required to do little else than pine for her monster-man and remain vigilant. Now that’s some gutbusting cleverness, huh?


Indeed, most of Shrek the Third plays like missed opportunities purposefully planned out that way. It’s a film so afraid of letting down the demographic that it never ventures beyond the safe. Actually, if you could merely jerryrig the first two films into some manner of comic collage, injecting Charming’s take-over bid somewhere in towards the middle, you would have this tre-quel’s entire creative conceit. It’s just shocking that after three years, an open checkbook, and a studio more than willing to let the animators take this franchise wherever they want, the result is this lackadaisical and unfinished. The motivation for our character’s concerns is left unexplored, the events in the story appearing to occur as if part of some planned animation autopilot. Even the big showdown at the end is anticlimactic, playing more like a cop out than a rousing conclusion.


Still, this movie will probably make scads of money. It offers all the standard CGI stereotyping that has come to define the genre. Where once we had a quasi-clever take on fairytales and fantasy archetypes, the twisting of well known characters into anxiety ridden entities with dimensions beyond their pen and ink particulars, now we have expertly rendered stand-up comics, each one waiting for their moment to drop another onerous one liner. We even get the mandatory musical number over the credits, Murphy’s ditzy Donkey going all Sly and the Family Stone on us as Shrek’s stumpy children make goofy “goo-goo” noises. In fact, the real reason this movie feels so familiar isn’t just its debt to the first two films. No, the Shrek schema has been adopted by so many other derivative 3D disasters (Barnyard, Robots, any Ice Age film) that there can’t help but be a little backsplash.


With Shrek 4 already greenlit, and a healthy return at the box office for this latest release, it is clear that audiences don’t mind these increasingly dreary offerings. As long as they stay as true to their past particulars as possible, turnstiles will be spinning. This means we can expect more Puss in Boots suave sensuality, more dizzying Donkey dorkiness, lots more of Arthur’s gee-whiz boy band blandness, and supplementary silliness by the barrelful. Again, this latest installment in the already stale series will give the wee ones something to obsess over once the DVD arrives, and there’s no denying the increase in artistic approach and design. Many of the sequences razzle with plenty of bitrate dazzle. But filmmakers have yet to learn that any animated feature needs something more than pretty pictures to solidify its significance. Shrek the Third is nothing more than a previous pastiche with very little if anything new to add.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, May 21, 2007


Aren’t you sick of the Summer Movie Season already? Granted, it’s only been three weeks, but with its rollercoaster conceit of overly hyped/underwhelming tre-quels and box office browbeating over whose unnecessary retreat will reign supreme, it seems like the next three months will be one massive misfire after another. And it’s already getting very old. While there is some legitimate relief on the way in the guise of Judd Apatow’s amazing Knocked Up (more on that in future sections), anyone hoping for a little artistry among the artifice is barking up the wrong bush. Still, there’s always the digital domain to save us from Hollywood’s annual hog and phony show, and this week’s offerings are consistently excellent (with one shockingly lame farcical flop excluded). So save yourself a trip to the Cineplex and revel in one of the many memorable picks for 22 May, including SE&L‘s solid selection:


Apocalypto


Had stumbling superstar Mel Gibson not ruined his reputation by giving in to his inner racist ideals, he would probably have had another massive mainstream hit on his hands with this incredibly adept period piece. As much about the setting as the stunt work, Gibson turned an ancient Mayan civilization with its rituals and superstitions into a kind of organic science fiction. He drops us directly into the middle of a mesmerizing, slightly surreal locale and then leaves us with very little that is recognizable or real. Instead, we must piece together the reigning realities like fragments of an ancient puzzle. With its direct from digital glow (Gibson avoided film for cost considerations) and sublime art direction, we never once doubt the authenticity or accuracy of the tale (though scholars have frowned on some of the historical errors). Besides, it’s one of the best movies ever to attempt the lo-tech action genre.

Other Titles of Interest


Epic Movie


Someone forgot to tell the makers of these meaningless spoof movies that the comedy only works when the target has become a part of the legitimate pop cultural lexicon, not merely some flash in the pan fad that’s here today and forgotten a fortnight from now. Whatever the case, as long as there are ADD addled audiences willing to support such drivel, Tinsel Town will keep churning them out.

Prince of the City: Special Edition


Some consider this to be Sidney Lumet’s last great film (with the occasionally manipulative The Verdict riding in a close second), and in some ways, they’re right. It was the last time Lumet would let his material do the talking, permitting this story of police corruption and the officer/whistleblower who risked his career – and life - to reveal it, develop organically without contrivance. Thanks to a terrific turn by lead Treat Williams, it remains a forgotten gem.

Sansho the Bailiff: The Criterion Collection


Japanese cinema doesn’t get more beautiful or heartbreaking than this stellar drama from Ugetsu director Kenji Mizoguchi. In a career that spanned nearly 50 years (he began making silent films in 1923), this tale of an exiled governor and the family desperate to reunite with him is considered a creative crowning achievement. Thanks to those experts at Criterion, the proof is there for all to see.

The Third Man: The Criterion Collection


Carol Reed’s signature film is also his most unabashedly brilliant work. Mixing a flawlessly crafted combination of acting, story, setting and subtext, what starts out as a standard thriller becomes an existential exercise in identity and duty. If you don’t already own a copy (shame on you), now’s your chance to get the latest treasure trove treatment from DVDs’ best preservationists. Apparently, modern director Steven Soderbergh is on hand to deliver a definitive commentary.

Venus


It’s sad, when you think about it. Longtime Oscar bridesmaid Peter O’Toole was practically guaranteed an Academy Award for this supposed swansong performance as an aging actor who falls for a troubled gal 50 years his younger. No one could deny the grand thespian’s presence, but when placed alongside work from Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, and eventual winner Forest Whitaker, he just couldn’t compete. Not the brightest way to end a stellar cinematic career.


And Now for Something Completely Different
Straight Time


It seems like an odd combination at first: intense New York actor Dustin Hoffman playing a recently paroled LA ex-con looking to change his life and mend his ways. But thanks to the impressive artistic approach taken by experimental director Ulu Grosbard – call it ‘languid legitimacy’ – what we end up with is one of the two time Oscar winner’s strongest performances. Naturally, Hoffman’s Max Dembo is a tormented man who can’t stay out of crime’s way (thanks in part to a power mad probation officer played by M. Emmet Walsh) and he’s soon on a rampage to repay society for having such unflinching faith in its penal system. Long forgotten by supporters of ‘70s cinema, this new to DVD release should function as a way of rediscovering this legitimate motion picture classic.

 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Saturday, May 19, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: Florida filmmaker William Grefe finds exploitation elements in the oddest of outdoor places.

The grindhouse was never at a loss for cash. But ideas were frequently in short supply. As it grew in popularity, exploitation entrepreneurs soon realized that almost any subject matter was ripe for the perverted picking. It didn’t matter how strange or antithetical it was to the entire raincoat concept – as long as it could be molded into money, they’d peruse it. But no one took this issue to more arcane extremes than Florida filmmaker William Grefé. In love with all things natural and outdoorsy, he originally got his start as a TV scribe. While working on his first official feature – the routine racecar flick The Checkered Flag - the director got sick, and the producer pegged him to finish it off. Bringing the movie in on budget and on time, the success of the drive-in drama bought Grefé a chance to follow his own muse.


Over the course of the next two decades, he would helm features following the dangers of the drug craze (The Hooked Generation), badass biker gangs (Wild Rebels) and the strange allure between man and animal (Stanley, Mako: Jaws of Death). But perhaps no two films were more endemic of his artistic temperament than his initial Everglades extravaganzas – Sting of Death and Death Curse of Tartu. Each used the sweet swamp boogie of the Sunshine State to focus on standard passion pit predicaments like murder, horror, sex and skin, and while one is far superior to the other, both showed that, in the hands of a capable craftsman, almost anything could be considered carnal…or commercial.


Sting of Death (1965)

Over at the Richardson residence, little Karen has just returned from college. And she’s brought along a group of hearty, partying matriculating compatriots to partake of the seemingly bottomless parental hooch. She finds her father, a rather urbane ichthyologist and his hunky, hopefully hetero assistant Dr. Hoyt working on their latest experiment. Daddy’s got a PhD in quantum jelly-fishery and he, along with Hoyt and a mangled manservant named Egon, are trying to determine why squishy Portuguese jam jockeys are so tasty in Kyoto style sushi. Karen’s friends find the physically deformed Egon amusing, in a kind of sideshow attraction carnival worker sort of way. They celebrate their superior Aryan perfection (and Egon’s dashed ego) by dancing poolside to a song about gelatinous marine blobs.


Little do our sun and fun loving youngsters know that the object of their ridicule has an invertebrate plan all his own. Egon has been following in the fish doctor’s foul and fetid finsteps and he’s discovered a way of giving new meaning to the term man o’war. He fiddles with some knobs, does the standard mad scientist thang, and right before our eyes, he becomes a half-human/half super elastic bubble plastic jellyfish creature. And naturally, the first objective on his agenda is to use his awesome Sting of Death to get a little revenge on Karen’s clan for all their peer pressure rejection.


Sting of Death was Grefé‘s first post stock car raceway experiment, and it definitely shows. With a retrograde retarded revenge premise that’s goofier than going skinny-dipping with sand fleas, and plenty of booty bumping business between the secondarily educated, you’d expect your standard b-movie monkey business. But thanks to some sequences of surreal science and a hilarious topic-specific tune by guest vocalist Neal Sedaka playing in the background, what we end up with is a real weird winner. Indeed, along with “A Heart Dies Every Minute” from Doctor Gore and “You Can’t Fart Around with Love” from Roseland, Neil’s natty “Do the Jellyfish” is one flaky, fantastic groove, a welcome addition to that ever-growing grand exploitation canon of cracked pop songstyling.


While it may not seem possible to forgive him for foisting the Captain and his mad cow matron wife Tenille on us from 1974 forward, or that “Bad Blood” barf with Sir Elton John, Neal’s “hip” factor raises the ludicrous level of several segments with his wacky ode to the floppy surf aspic. Anyone who can rhyme ‘Cinderella’ with ‘jellyfish’ (well, kinda) deserves some concrete kitsch kudos. But again, Sedaka’s backdoor braying is not the only freakishly funny thing here. Our main creature is something straight out of a homeless man’s personal wardrobe, what with its soiled scuba suit skin, hose pipe tentacles, and inflated Hefty bag head. Some crushed aluminum cans for proper accessorizing and we’d have the complete skid row ensemble.


All visual vacancy aside, Sting does manage to make us care about the characters, especially the incredibly put upon antihero Egon. Just because he’s facially scarred, with a lazy eye, and even duller sense of self worth, doesn’t mean it’s perfectly acceptable for the gang of groovy social snobs to disrespect him. And they are so mean spirited that you yourself will have Junior High School wallflower flashbacks. As an audience, we develop so much pent up vigilantism at his unnecessary berating that we can’t wait for Egon to mutate and whip a little college creep butt. And when he meets the great fishmonger in the sky, you just may weep a tiny tear…or maybe not. Sting of Death is Beauty and the Beast mixed with an order of Japanese Kurage Su to create a deliciously disturbed delight.


Death Curse of Tartu (1966)

Tartu is just your average workaday witch doctor. The fact that he is a shape-shifting member of the undead merely accentuates his multi-faceted nature. When a bunch of Everglades invaders disturb his everlasting beauty sleep, our miffed mutating madman turns into all manner of swamp beasties so he can quiet the rebel rousing and have a Sealy Posturepedic afterlife. But this won’t faze bored archeology students on Spring break. They see Tartu’s ancestral burial grounds and proceed to go-go dance all over them. So now, not only is he overtired (he gets cranky without his usual 400 years of rest), but he’s been blasphemed as well.


It isn’t long before kids start croaking at the paws, teeth, and scales of mysteriously manifesting critters. Turns out that, when visiting the Sunshine State for a little post exams debauchery, fast talking con men with video cameras and beads are not the only thing to be avoided during binge drinking fueled fun. One should look out for the animalistic antics associated with a four-century-old coffin bound party pooper, a walking corpse who is more than happy to put the Death Curse of Tartu on your book learned behind.


Death Curse of Tartu is a perfect illustration of the aforementioned anomalous approach to exploitation filmmaking. It has a proactively perverse premise - the reanimated corpse of an ancient Seminole Indian witch doctor wrecks havoc on naïve Florida tourists - and the trademark cheesy effects of a typical grade Z quagmire terror fest. But in this case, all the Roquefort in Romania can’t seem to enliven this stilted Stilton saga. Maybe it’s the fact that, as a boogeyman, Tartu doesn’t actually do a great deal. He opens his eyes, rolls over in (and around) his grave, and turns into an angry crawdad to gumbo his victims to death. After just a couple of these creature reconfigurations, we get the distinct impression that a one narrative note is about to beat its plotline pony over and over again.


Tone may also be Tartu’s unmaking. It’s awfully supercilious when it should be just silly. Instead of camp, we get camp-ing. Instead of schlock, we get stock footage leftover from Mutual of Omaha’s Mild Kingdom. It is kind of hard to get wacky enjoyment out of flesh feasting sharks, slithery snakes, and jaw chomping gators, especially when everything is handled in a matter of fact, no real suspense fashion. And who knew that zombie death murders via shape shifting spooks happen seasonally in America’s retirement capital. That’s definitely something you don’t see in the standard tourist travelogue.


About the only thing that keeps you alert during this turgid Tartu is Grefé‘s apparent fascination with the wiggling derriere. Whenever the bopping rock and roll score comes on, the middle-aged teens who are supposed to represent the future of our great land bump and grind like Shriners at a convention - and big Bill’s camera captures their hyper extending hinders in all of their rump shaking glory. If you imagined the Okefenokee Swamp as a slightly more humid Camp Crystal Lake and a dirty-bandaged ex-pool man/tennis pro as Jason Voorhees, you’d have Death Curse of Tartu, except with a lot less blood and laugh letting.


 


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.