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by Bill Gibron

23 Oct 2008

They stand as titans, not just in their area of expertise, but in the hearts of their fellow faithful countrymen. Foreigners scoff at such devotion, chalking it up to a lack of cultural sophistication and an allegiance to outdated tradition. But when you look around the world, you see them everywhere. Japan has its kaiju, while India enjoys those bigger than life Bollywood gods. Yet no one can top Mexico and its worship of all things wrestling. Under the lucha libre label, a number of unstoppable heroes have managed to become media superstars - and none are bigger than the man mountain himself, Mil Mascaras. Returning to movies after years in semi-retirement, the suplex sensation reminds us that, no matter how comical they appear to the outside world, masked marvels like El Santo, Blue Demon, and himself stand as wonderful symbols of universal morays - and amazing movie entertainment like his latest offering, Resurrection.

With his love life in tatters and his professional career under scrutiny, it looks like things can’t get much worse for grappling Renaissance man Mil Mascaras. But when the local police chief asks for his help in solving several blood bank robberies, our hero can’t say no. Indeed, he discovers a link between the crimes and an ancient temple just outside of town. Sure enough, the Aztec Mummy is back, and he has a date with destiny - and Mil’s maybe girlfriend (and daughter of his learned science associate) Maria. As he calls on his minions to undermine the wrestler’s reputation with the public, the law begins breathing down the fiend’s reanimated neck. Before long, the professor has figure out the Mummy’s plan - he will use Mil Mascaras’ fame to take over the world, and then he will marry Maria and reestablish his kingdom on Earth.

Mil Mascaras: Resurrection is fantastic. It’s the answer to a prayer you didn’t even know you required. So inherently cheesy that it makes jarlsberg jealous, and yet firmly rooted in the camp crazy creature features of Mexico’s monster mythos, it’s entertainment as only students of the cinematic species could create. With a stellar script by Jeffrey Ulhmann that expertly balances homage with humor (not to mention some of the best over the top dialogue this side of a certain Santo) and a bevy of perfect performances, it marks a welcome return for the larger than life Latin American miracle. Mil Mascaras (“the man of a thousand masks”) is an amazing character - part James Bond, part Stephen Hawking, and far more fierce than Hulk Hogan or Tyra Banks (whose fashion sense he often outdoes). And after a 15 year absence from the big screen, this return to form is nothing short of outstanding.

At first, it seems that the forces behind this film will mistake kitsch for creativity. As a slinky, scantily clad babe does her version of the watusi, there’s lots of preening and pomp. The head priest (played by PopMatters’ own Marco Lanzagorta) shouts out some ritualistic rot. Blood is spilled. But then Mil’s main nemesis, the famed Aztec Mummy arrives, and he sets the tone for the rest of the film. He’s all ego and Egyptian jive. With the added excellence of Willard Pugh as a no nonsense police chief and Kurt Drennen Mirtsching as a scientific sidekick who’s a wealth of information - mostly expositional - the entire company is top class. It bears mentioning that Mil Mascaras Resurrection has several giggly cameos, including turns by PJ Soles (as a wrestling judge?), Richard Lynch (as the President of the United States??) and Harley Race (as himself???). But the best bit is saved for last, when several noted luchadores, including El Hijo Del Santo, Neutron, La Torcha, and Blue Demon Jr, among others, show up to kick some undead zombie butt.

Between the schlock scary premise and the occasional lapses into satisfying surrealism (gotta love the killer robot which appears to be built out of old steam table parts), Mil Mascaras: Resurrection rivals any super hero movie made in the mainstream. It provides enough fun to satisfy a schoolyard full of genre geeks, while never once looking down on or mocking its famed figurehead. Anyone who knows the luchadore films understands that these are examples of pure hero worship, idolatry without a lick of irony or self-imposed satire. Throw in a few flying drop kicks and you’ve got yourself a franchise. Besides, the audience believes in these men and they are not afraid to show their adoration. That’s why Mil Mascaras: Resurrection often feels like a religious experience. Our lead is the Messiah of the squared circle, a man beloved for his ability in the ring, and ethos outside of it. And his followers love every barrel-chested moment.

In fact, the lack of legitimate violence (there are a couple of minor gore effects) and the constant recounting of Mil’s moralistic code makes a movie like Resurrection appear greater than its goofball parts. After all, you wouldn’t expect a narrative that features a ranting pile of bandages to offer up sound personal principles. And yet that’s the key to the entire category’s endearing timelessness. These films are really aimed at kids, lobbing life lessons over their head while keeping them on the straight and narrow. Someone like Mil Mascaras offers up the valuable tutorials on such important issues as fair play, education, clean living, and the benefits of an unlimited sparkly wardrobe. Sure, this could seem like reaching, especially when many of the old school storylines seemed to regress into good guy/bad being dullness. Thanks to the careful consideration of Ulhmann and his collaborators, Mil Mascaras: Resurrection reestablishes the real legacy of the luchadore.

Unlike so many other attempts at recapturing a once prime motion picture format, this latest adventure for the masked marvel feels as familiar and friendly as a visit with an old childhood chum. Just because the associate wears several dozen sequin-draped façades doesn’t lessen our love, right? If you’ve never seen a luchadore film, or would like to experience the singlet sensation anew, Mil Mascaras: Resurrection is a great place to start. It’s faithful without being turgid, immensely charming without going overboard or obtuse. After decades as one of the leading lights in Mexican wrestling, Mil Mascaras has a great deal to be proud of. He can add this post-millennial update of his image to the long list of successes. 

by Bill Gibron

22 Oct 2008

Of all the media oddities to come out of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the shift of horror toward the underage set has to be one of the most unusual. During the height of Ike era paranoia, EC Comics and its founder William Gaines were vivisected by a government looking to blame juvenile delinquency on anything other than absentee parenting. So ‘funny books’ got the call. And yet, as peace and love started permeating the counterculture, terror took up residence in the child’s sphere of influence. By the start of the ‘70s, Scooby-Doo, the Groovie Ghoulies, and dozens of local late night shock showcases were keeping the wee ones enthralled by day and awake at night. Perhaps the weirdest offering in the bunch was a tribute to Universal’s monsters made with marionettes. That’s right - a musical comedy cavalcade about the creepy known as Mad Monster Party?

Under the tutelage of renowned kid vid giants Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass (responsible for, among other things, the Christmas classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer) a process known as “animagic” - read: stealthy stop-motion animation - was utilized to bring to life a wide variety of crazy creatures. In the tradition of Art Clokey and George Pal, the Rankin/Bass formula found unique ways to accent what was standard storytelling. While they would eventually branch out to pen and ink offerings during the course of their amazing career in entertainment, their puppet-based fare is most fondly remembered. Yet in a strange way, Mad Monster Party? remains one of their more elusive offerings. Long available on the home video format, the dated diorama deserves a contemporary revisit, if only for it’s unique design and what it says about the state of dread in 1969.

When Dr. Frankenstein decides to retire as head of the worldwide monster federation, he believes his nephew, mild mannered milquetoast Felix Flanken, would make a good replacement. He sends out an invitation to all the known nasties of the macabre - Dracula, the Monster and his Mate, the Werewolf, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll (and his darker doppelganger, Mr. Hyde), the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Mummy, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon - and when they arrive at the doctor’s castle, they learn the disquieting news. A human? In charge of monsters? With the help of Francesca, Frankenstein’s sexy secretary, they plan to get rid of the outsider once and for all. Then they can fight among themselves for the secret to the doc’s anti-matter formula, a brew capable of destroying the world. Of course, love steps in and screws things up.

From a narrative standpoint, Mad Monster Party? is incredibly schizophrenic. On the one hand, it offers up tons of slapstick comedy and bad macabre puns. Dr. Frankenstein (voiced with standard aplomb by Boris Karloff) utilized bats as his carrier “pigeons”, and there are lots of Flintstones-level sight gags involving typical terror stereotypes. But then director Bass places the nightclub cackle of comedian Phyllis Diller directly into the mix, providing her with lame one-liners that trade on her then well known marital distress with a hubby known as ‘Fang’ (she plays the Bride of the Monster, more or less). It’s an odd fit. Then you have the faithful rendering of the fiends, thanks in part to the artistic input of Mad Magazine‘s (and EC legend) Jack Davis. Noted for his malevolent work in such mythic titles as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, his cartoon take on the title terrors is unsettling.

And then there is the overall storyline, which sees Frankenstein looking to give his world-destroying secrets to his nerdy nebbish of a relative, Felix. Voiced to sound like a combination of Jimmy Stewart and Thurston Howell, III, this main plotpoint takes a while to get going, and once Bass puts the dork in harm’s way, the material grows labored. In fact, a lot of Mad Monster Party? feels like someone’s misguided idea on what is entertaining. The songs are sappy and almost always slow down the film’s forward momentum (the exception - Phyllis Diller’s showstopper about horror-based matrimony) and the pace is slightly problematic. Of course, in our short attention span society of 2008, a 90 minute plus puppet show would seem excessive and self-indulgent by any standard.

Thanks to the clever character design and attention to terror traditions however, Mad Monster Party? becomes an intriguing, idiosyncratic curio, a gem that no longer shines so brightly. It poses more questions about the individuals behind the scenes and the proposed demographic than it finds ways to frighten the audience, and when taken together with the surreal songs and physical shtick, it’s enough to make one’s brain bubble over and burst. Unlike other Rankin/Bass pieces which set a tone early and rarely deviate from same, this all over the map movie gives the impression of trying too hard. Clearly, it wants to be faithful to the source, to stand up for the fiends that pop culture has embraced and make them meaningful. And yet there is an irreverence and illogic that keeps things distant (like when the much maligned villain “It” shows up, only to look like a hairless King Kong).

Still, as a symbol of when the shivers were sold almost exclusively to the prepubescent crowd, Mad Monster Party? is gangly, goofy fun. The “animagic” process may pale in comparison to something like A Nightmare Before Christmas, and yet Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass came up with some inventive, imaginative visuals - especially when you consider the technological and budgetary limits in place. Perhaps the best way to describe this pleasant peculiarity is that it’s endemic of the entire post-Doody direction children’s programming took during the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. On the one hand, you had Sesame Street trying to make education entertaining while Saturday morning was just discovering its ability as a powerful marketing tool. Feeding fear to kids was nothing new, but Mad Monster Party? painted it in oddly adult ways. It remains a silly standout today.

by Bill Gibron

21 Oct 2008

Why is The Last Broadcast a better film than its unholy spawn, the insipid Blair Witch Project? How come it manages to be coherent, suspenseful, funny, and fresh while Witch remains loud, abrasive, confusing, and ultimately unsatisfying? It could have something to do with the overall approach. The Last Broadcast is a mock documentary, an attempt by an outsider to interpret and extrapolate on the “found footage” of some deadly events in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Witch is a wobbly “you are there” presentation of the actual material discovered during an investigation into the disappearance of a filmmaker and her friends. Both employ plenty of POV perspectives, although one substitutes swear words for actual conversations.

Yet in the end, Witch is a one-joke movie, a gimmick that once given away is not easily re-experienced and appreciated. In the case of Broadcast, filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler have found a way to incorporate the same menacing mood and unexpected story twists without losing us in Gen-X jerkdom and pointless aural thrills. Besides, Witch only has one scene going for it—and it arrives right at the very end of the movie. Broadcast almost unravels when it shifts to showcase its finale. Yet between the two, this fake-fact film is more industrious and inventive, leaving the Burkittsville bunch wallowing in its wake.

As hosts of the popular cable access program Fact or Fiction, Steven “Johnny” Avkast and Locus Wheeler are used to the unusual. But when their tie-in Web site turns up a request to do a show on the New Jersey Pine Barrens and the so-called “Devil” that supposedly lives in them, the two hosts end up getting in way over their head. Hiring a technology expert named Rein Clackin, who claims to be able to pick up paranormal sounds with his recording equipment and bringing along a supposed psychic named Jim Suerd to “get in touch with the spirit world,” the duo proceed with their plan to broadcast live from the middle of this eerie remote location. They hope to put an end to the monster myths once and for all.

All preparations appear to run smoothly, but as they approach the campsite, Jim becomes disoriented, threatens Rein, and runs off. As the show starts, Jim sequesters himself nearby, chatting on the computer. The others proceed with the investigation. The next day, everyone’s dead—except for Jim. Naturally, the police think the ominous loner killed his comrades, but documentary filmmaker David Leigh believes otherwise. It is his goal to expose the truth about what happened that night deep in the New Jersey woods. He will figure out what happened during this Last Broadcast, hoping that the facts will clear Suerd and lead to the real killer—whoever or whatever it is.

Naturally, the next question is why The Last Broadcast isn’t as successful, or even more so, than its blockbuster brother. The answer is actually quite simple. When placed up against the ersatz realism of the adventures in disorientation of Heather, Josh, and Mike, Broadcast appears cold and distant. We never get to know Steven and Locus and more or less fail to find a reason to root for Jim Suerd, the fame-whoring pseudo-psychic who may or may not have murdered his fellow cable-access adventurers.

No, the real thrust of this far superior film’s force is in its clever and consistently creative storytelling. Witch went one way, and one way only—follow three people into the woods and watch what happens. Broadcast uses that same dynamic, then fleshes it out with backstory, humor, standard documentary interviews, and eccentric character twists to take us out of the actual moment, only to redirect our attention and place us right back in the middle of these murders. It’s a wonderfully inventive method of keeping the story fresh and free from the stagnancy that can come with such an approach. We get caught up in the mystery first, then find reasons to hang onto the individuals involved.

Once successfully removed from its copycat cousin (While there is no real proof of plagiarism, the Blair Witch gang does admit to seeing this movie before setting out to make their own), what you end up with is a wildly entertaining experience that uses subtle thrills and undeniable chills to tell an excellent story of arrogance unhinged and dangers undetected. The Last Broadcast believes in the effectiveness of its narrative and never once tries to pull any punches or fake any fear. When it wants to be goofy and gratuitous, it is. When it hopes to be strange and unexplainable, it is as well.

In fact, there are very few things that Broadcast is not. This is the rare movie that appears to achieve all of its goals instantly and honorably, never going for the cheap trick or the obvious element. It is so expertly constructed, so flawlessly built out of facets we recognize from all over the genre map, that when they finally come together toward the end, we never once doubt their effectiveness as a source of shivers. Because of its snuff film-like realism and its desire to tell its scary story honestly and realistically, Broadcast builds up a lot of gonzo goodwill—and it needs it. The conclusion takes a track that many won’t see coming, and even more may find it antithetical to what the movie was originally striving toward.

That would be a shortsighted interpretation of what occurs. If anything, The Last Broadcast is one of the few films to anticipate its imitators and offer up its own intriguing commentary on their overall modus operandi. When you realize that someone other than the Blair Witch crew is manipulating the events to create the on-camera “scares” we see, the brilliance of Avalos and Weiler’s ending becomes clear. Instead of going for a supernatural slant or a direct link to the obvious suspects, Broadcast takes on the notion of perception—why we follow certain stories and what we eventually get out of them. When the denouement is made (in a wonderfully effective montage sequence), we bristle at the brashness of such a reveal.

Then, as the wrap-up begins—both figuratively and literally—we get the opportunity to reflect on all that’s come before. It paints the entire story in a totally different light, one that suggests more than the movie ever sells, and illustrates how effective an approach like this can be. Since major cinematic elements (such as acting or production value) are not really necessary here, The Last Broadcast has to get by on the success of its storytelling alone. In that regard, it is masterful. It creates an impression far more lasting than some frightened fellow momentarily glimpsed in a basement corner.

by Bill Gibron

20 Oct 2008

The Man Himself

It’s about time that the urban comedy landscape got its shit together. It seems like every few years, another supremely talented mofo is set up to take the high hat of humor and wear it proudly. For a while, Dave Chappelle got the chapeau. He did the best he could with it, slanting the satirical brim ever so slightly until the brain inside started to sizzle and slide under the weight of sudden fame. One quick trip to South Africa later, and the crown is looking for a new king.

Previous mirth merry men of color included Chris Tucker (who traded it in for a great deal of kung fu phoniness) Martin Lawrence (who took the “you so crazy” concept of his comedy act literally) and that misplaced Buckwheat wannabe Eddie Murphy. Actually, the SNL artist formerly known as funny has donned and doffed the cap of cleverness so many times that it has a permanent dent where his always bruised ego seems to fit perfectly.

But apart from Richard Pryor, whose genius usurps practically everything it touches — even Gene Wilder — the sad truth is that since one righteous brother gave up the title of funniest man on film, the world of the inner city jokefest just hasn’t been the same. Instead of looking for someone with this man’s style and stamina, or picking through the stand-ups for the next big thing, they should simply acknowledge his greatness and give up looking.

Like Little Richard — except without all the wannabe drag queen dreariness — he was the originator, a party record pioneer who turned his novelty-based fame into a string of films that forever fractured the world of blaxploitation. While audiences in the ‘70s were lining up for more of those sweet Sweetback’s black man’s revenge fantasies, one sanctified soul man wanted to make people laugh…and laugh some more. He also created one of the most singularly original characters in the history of the genre. The main man he made was named Dolemite, and the brazen bravado bringing him to life was none other than Rudy Ray Moore.

Frankly, all modern minority comics, as Spike Lee once said, can kiss Rudy’s rather ample rump—TWO times! Moore was, and remains at 68, a master, a randy rappin’ fool who occasionally spoke in verse (part of a comedy tradition of saucy poems), peppered his presentation with all manner of catchphrases, and practiced a kind of crackpot kung-fu that had shortsighted Shaolin monks scratching their bald heads in defensive skills disbelief.

One trip through his original oeuvre (not counting movies where he made cameos, or worked in a less than superstar capacity) provides glimpses into a guy whose personality was all about fun and fuckin’—hopefully both at the same time. He only got medieval when the man — or some other manufactured version of the cancer known as the Caucasian — came down on him. Then the prerequisite pull top can of Me Decade whoop ass was opened up on anyone who didn’t see eye to eye with this sub-genre Superfly.

Moore’s first film was Dolemite. He played the title role, a street hustler framed by a bunch of crooked cops for being black and badass. While in the slammer, pimp provocateur Willie Green takes over. With the help of an oversexed Mayor named Daley, Green aims to overrun Dolemite’s club (almost all blaxploitation films revolved around nightclubs). With the help of Queen Bee and his kung fu karate kicking biz-nitches, our man Moore shoots shit up and repeats rhyming material from his stand up act. In between there is some sloppy sex, misguided martial arts, lots of ladies dressed in polyester nightmares, and a character known as the Hamburger Pimp, whose kind of like Popeye’s Wimpy, except with a mumbling problem and a severe chemical addiction.

Moore was different than his genre counterparts in that he wasn’t looking for a moral in his movies. Unlike his prosperous progenitor, who constantly queried over the bottom line and above-title billing, Moore wanted to have a good time and give the predominantly urban audience what they wanted - sex, slang and lots of butt whipping. Keeping completely within said formula, Moore delivered his next film The Human Tornado. Returning again as Dolemite, this pseudo-sequel is just plain strange. When he’s caught in bed with a racist sheriff’s wife, the mighty Mite is on the run. He heads to L.A., where he learns his favorite spot (again with the nightclub), Queen Bee’s ultra happening Total Experience, has been overrun by the mafia. Mr. Cavaletti even has Dole’s dames providing some carnal curb service.

Revenge is a little more complicated this time around. Dolemite first hits Cavaletti where it hurts—in the spouse. Posing as an erotic art salesman, our hero humps some info out of Mrs. C., and then heads off to find a spooky old ghost house where the mob is holding some of his la-dies. He throws down more pseudo-judo hand signs, beats up an old woman in bad voodoo make-up, and even comes back to life when the bigoted sheriff supposedly shoots him dead. He’s unafraid to look the fool (new generations should take note) Dolemite is part conqueror, part dumbbell here. Between the opening stand-up comedy routine (Moore’s act and onstage demeanor are priceless) to Mrs. Cavaletti’s naked black muscleman sex fantasy sequence, this is one amazingly messed up movie.

Perhaps the most supreme example of this Hellzapoppin’ humor chutzpah is Petey Wheatstraw (the Devil’s Son-in-Law). Though it begins on a very somber note (Petey and his pals are killed in a gangland assassination over — you guessed it — a nightclub) things quickly turn twisted when Petey makes a deal with the Devil. He will marry Satan’s mutt-ugly daughter if the Fallen One performs a little afterlife CPR. Suddenly, things are back to normal, except along with a new lease, Petey has also swiped Lucifer’s wishing stick just to be a betrothed bastard. As he runs around the ghetto granting favors, Beelzebub sends demonic minions up from Hell to help Petey keep his word. But the amazing Mr. Wheatstraw has other plans. He’s going to screw Legion over, and continue his regular earthbound routine.

This may just by Moore’s masterpiece, a surrealistic sensation where nothing makes much sense, and we abso-friggen’-lutely like it that way. Today’s comedy cats would never think of featuring the ferociously un-PC mugging of Leroy and Skillet, a scene where a man slinks away in disgrace after crapping his pants, or a Benny Hill style fast cranked session of oral action with several Satanic sex-pots as part of their plot. That’s what makes this freak show fright fantasy is unlike any movie — blaxploitation or otherwise — that you’re likely to see. Moore would do anything to amuse. Petey Wheatstraw has race-based humor (when Petey’s mother gives birth, it’s a watermelon that arrives first), some strange social satire (all the weird wishing stick stuff acting like wealth-driven welfare) and some downright peculiar ideas (Satan looks like Booker T. Washington with a bad barber).

Yet after Petey, something happened to Moore’s muse. Suddenly, our stubby stand-up stud had an inexplicable and unexplainable desire to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, social consciousness just didn’t jibe with his juke joint jive. While The Disco Godfather is not a complete waste of time (it does contain a couple of Moore’s more memorable catchphrases, including the classic dance floor come-on “put your weight on it”!), it does meander where Tornado and Wheatstraw soared. Since the main theme here is drugs (Moore’s Tucker Williams is a crusading local NIGHTCLUB DJ who looses a nephew to ‘dust’) there is lots of preaching and screeching. Narcotics are even envisioned as an outlandish female demon, and Moore has his own standoff with the wasted witch.

Though the title suggests Michael Corleone leaving Las Vegas for the bright lights of Studio 54, The Disco Godfather is just not endearing. Moore is no good when he is playing semi-serious, and his acting goes from amusing to mannered—especially when trying to dive into the drama. Instead of extended his range, it ended his reign as a box office champion. He made occasional cameos (in flops like B*A*P*S*) and even tried the direct to video market with a What’s Up, Tiger Lily? style redux of an old martial arts movie (which he then dubbed Shaolin Dolemite). Sadly, today he is nothing but a footnote, a throwaway line in a stupid House Party film.

Still, it’s hard to deny what Moore accomplished. He was fiercely autonomous, making the movies he wanted the way he wanted. Yes, he occasionally slipped into the role of a stunt man for his own crap karate moves. Certainly, the self-penned love ballads he inserted in the score were as saccharine sweet as anything tickled out of Barry Manilow’s ivories (Tornado‘s “Miss Wonderful” is an amazingly arch treat). And honestly while he may have been a ladies man, Moore was a tad too plump to be pulling off his clothes to knock boots with the babes. Yet Moore’s films endure because they are funny, and filled with a kind of clever racial irreverence. The “Man” might get miffed when they see that all the villains are lily-white louses, but Moore’s movies were equal opportunity indicters.

There truly is no modern version of Moore. The closest anything comes to his style of no-holds barred brazenness can be found in, of all places, the tent revival as Christian comedy plays of Tyler Perry. Madea is nearly the next best thing to a contemporary Dolemite, even down to the collection of quotable lines. Both characters satirize and polarize the black experience, using wholly idiosyncratic means to get their message across. Both trade in stereotypes, minstrel mannerisms, and an unapologetic frankness that causes the audience to focus on not only what they are seeing, but also what it says about them as a subject. Moore was that important link (one that Richard Pryor was just starting to explore on film) between the party record mystique of vulgarity-laced laughter and the mainstreaming of minority comedy. Everyone who came after him benefited from his unyielding desire to do whatever it takes to entertain an audience—value and virtue be got-damned.

So take your Rocks and your Tuckers, hang onto your Murphys and your Chapelles. Rudy Ray Moore was first, and he was the best. There is more peculiarity, more profanity, and more outright pleasure to be gained from a trip into the Dolemite dimension than in any combination of big budget urban excuses. It is nearly impossible not to be entertained, or fall in love with, this brave, brilliant, and boldly bawdy brother.

by Bill Gibron

19 Oct 2008

Has another filmmaker had the same amazing meteoric rise from novice to name as Peter Jackson? A mere 21 years ago he was an unknown Kiwi geek who had spent four years making his own monster movie. A quick sale at Cannes and his alien cannibal comedy was a glorified cult smash. But consider where he was in 1999. With only six feature films under his belt, and limited commercial cache to show for it, New Line named him the guide for their all important Lord of the Rings franchise. Three epics, billions of dollars, and a trio of Oscars later, Jackson is now a monumental moviemaking figure, an example of talent trumping the standard studio thinking. Looking back at 1987’s Bad Taste now, it’s clear that this was a director worth watching. But it’s also clear that, within his limited budgetary purview, there was more ambition than ability. 

The entire town of Kaihoro, New Zealand is missing, and its up to the Astro Investigation and Defence Service to figure out why. While Derek determines the extent of the damage, Barry explores the deserted city. He is attacked by a zombie and barely escapes with his life. Frank and Ozzy phone in, explaining they will be delayed in providing backup. In the meantime, Derek watches over a captured creature, hoping to determine their extraterrestrial flesh eating motives. An accident puts the mission in jeopardy, and when a charitable collector named Giles comes to town, he is kidnapped by the fiends. Turns out, aliens have indeed landed, and they intend to use Earth for some nefarious culinary aims. It is up to our foursome to put a stop to the plot, to save Giles, and keep the rest of the universe from experiencing the Bad Taste of Crumb’s Crunchy (Human) Delights.

Revisiting this film after almost two decades reveals something very interesting - not only about what Jackson managed to accomplish, but with regards to that other rarified element, selective cinematic memory. Fans fondly remember Bad Taste as being an over the top splatter fest loaded with blood, bile, and body parts. In the windmills of one’s ever mottled mind, it was an action packed farce, denim clothed zombies carving up the community while oddball government agents pass ironic judgment on the entire proceedings. With a last act that loses sight of the sluice and a gonzo gross out sense of humor, it was the first real film dork delight…

…except, none of this is really true. Like most myths, the legend of Bad Taste has been expanded (and exploited) to fit the gore lovers revisionist nostalgic needs. Compared to Jackson’s brilliant Braindead (known to most as Dead Alive), this first film is relatively sedate. The arterial spray is evident, but slyly spaced out over the longish 90 minute running time. Similarly, the Kiwi genius has been funnier. Bad Taste is not as clever or cutting as Meet the Feebles, and lacks the consistency of his lauded later works. Finally, the film is not as frightening as one recalls. The final fifteen minutes is taken up with an extended gun battle which grows redundant after a while. Indeed, much of the movie plays exactly like what it is/was - a weekend workout among a bunch of schlock supporting fanatics.

It’s a situation that stands repeating - Bad Taste is not a classic. It’s not even the best example of this kind of cracked carnage. Instead, like most first efforts, it’s the foundation for a filmic type, the natural extension of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead dementia filtered through a legitimate horror fan’s fancy. Jackson is a noted student of the scary, able to wax wonderfully about everything from early Universal frights to the most obscure foreign fear factors. Bad Taste relishes that referencing. Rumor has it that Jackson fashioned it as a tribute to Tom Savini and you can see other noted homages throughout. Again, this doesn’t make the movie a milestone, just a smart, sometimes special experience.

It’s fun to watch Jackson in the unusual mode of actor, and a clean shaven one at that. As Derek, the head of Astro Investigation and Defense Service, he is almost unrecognizable. Talking in a high pitched accent that gives his entire demeanor a wimpified gloss, he’s hilarious and hopeless at the same time. When he puts on the familiar facial hair to play tongue tied alien Robert, it’s back to the human hobbit we know and love. The rest of the cast, made up of mates, chums, and other local well wishers, offer nothing more than glorified line readings, if that. Only a couple went on to pursue a career in film after Bad Taste. So this is clearly a homemade effort, a combination of desire and unbridled gumption given over to frequent fits of brilliance and, sadly, boredom. Viewed within the confined of contemporary splatter, Jackson’s jaunt is almost inert.

In fact it’s hard to champion long sequences of walking and worrying, the amazing New Zealand landscape providing the only real interest. Even more frustrating is the lack of continuous action. We don’t expect a film from 1987 to be Shoot ‘Em Up, but the lack of unbroken energy does undermine things. Once we get into the alien stronghold, things pick up immensely, and there’s no denying the effectiveness of Jackson’s handcrafted F/X (he even baked his monster masks in this mother’s oven). But then the guns come out and Bad Taste shifts into creative cruise control. Watching extras flail wildly as they are riddled with squibs is one thing. Seeing it for several similar minutes feels like padding.

As a way of looking at Peter Jackson Version 1.0, the man who would later evolve into a myth, Bad Taste is a telling template. It offers up many of the things he would later explore in his creative canon, while suggesting that something happened along the way to significantly amplify his game. Watching any number of his recent films - from Heavenly Creatures to Return of the King - argues for Taste‘s treatment as a fluke. It’s as if Chris Seaver went from making Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker to The Dark Knight in the span of a decade. When legend slams head on into the truth, the pile up is never pretty. Luckily, Bad Taste is better than such a collision suggests. It’s also rather underwhelming.

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