Sometimes, you have to wonder what goes on in a marketer’s head. Let’s say you have a good movie - granted, a niche genre effort, but a good film none the less. Now, you know that most critics are going to crucify it, demeaning what it stands for merely because of the type it represents (in this case, horror). And from past experience, you are aware that this kind of narrative appeals to a certain sort of audience, one that needs to be ballyhooed right up front in order to earn the maximum opening weekend returns. These movies don’t have legs, and you understand that. So it’s now or never; pile on the hype and hope for the best.
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In the annals of exploitation, Bob Cresse remains more myth than man. While other kings of the grindhouse see their names celebrated as part of cinema’s history, the University of Miami educated ex-carny with a penchant for weaponry and Nazi paraphernalia stands as a singular, unexplainable enigma. A pure hustler, Cresse worked his way through the traditional Tinsel Town channels (messenger, low level executive) until he decided to go independent. Yet so little has been written about him personally that he’s become an afterthought in the conversation, a figure whose reputation suggests respect, but whose actions and accomplishments indicate something far more reprehensible.
Genre scholars have often referred to the fireplug producer as a man who never met an actress he didn’t want to whip, and his filmic fetishes - bondage, discipline, sadism, and degradation - remain the trickiest of proclivities (for Cresse, both personal and professional) to defend. Yet there is much more to his oeuvre than motion picture masochism and a flare for the extreme.
Many fail to realize that Cresse helped fuel the growing Mondo craze with his 1963 production Hollywood’s World of Flesh. Later, together with his longtime cohort and collaborator Lee Frost (together they ran the notorious Olympic International Films - motto: “Art for the Sake of Money”) they would expand on the style with Mondo Bizzaro and Mondo Freudo (both 1966). His famous feud with David F. Friedman, Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation film, led to a glorious battle of softcore wits. When the mind behind The Defilers and Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood trilogy made a bawdy Western (Brand of Shame), Cresse rushed his own smut-laced oater into release (Hot Spur - 1968).
Always looking for a way to make a buck, the maverick also copied industry trends and other’s successful schemes. Back when censorship was constantly challenging the validity of sex and violence onscreen, the grindhouse guides tried everything they could to avoid persecution (and legal prosecution). One semi-successful ruse was bringing foreign films over from Sweden and France to the United States, redubbing them into English, and positioning them as high brow, arthouse fare. The air of sophistication and international distinction made the rampant nudity and adult content more palatable to those looking for prurient interests and illustrations.
Thus Little Girls entered Cresse’s life. In retrospect, it seemed like an oddly perfect fit. The mannered morality tale about wealthy young ladies losing their inhibitions away from the prying eyes of their distance, disinterested parents had a seedy subtext (the gals would end up blackmailed by a desperate club owner and her hired stud), a recognizable underpinning of perversion (we get beatings, teen lust, and some not so subtle incest), and lots of nubile, naked bodies. It was everything the raincoat crowd mandated. It also mimicked the ongoing sexual revolution expertly while offering cold hearted members of the coat and tie Establishment enough finger waving precaution to make it appear conscientious.
The story centers on four school girls. Their kittenish curiosity in the ways of wantonness ends up backfiring when their supposed friend Bismuth sells them out to club owner Dani and her hunky employee Mike. As scenes of debauchery and degradation play out, we get innuendo and insinuation, the black and white image giving everything a definitive, monochrome morality. As with any tale of innocence defiled and principles perverted, Mike has a moment of clarity, and decides to end the extortion. Of course, it helps that he’s fallen for Elena, one of the trampy targets. In the end, it’s Dani, not her ‘students’, who pays for their crimes.
Unlike their American counterparts, Europeans frequently used sensuality and lust as reminders of social responsibility and political unrest. Little Girls reflects this by having all the parents indirectly approve of their daughters’ dirty deeds. In fact, the plans of the conniving Dani backfire when no one cares about the scandalous photos they are sent. One stepfather even decides the situation excuses his attempted rape of his own child. With Cresse supplying the voice over narration (as well as an inserted S&M sequence - more on this in a moment), we get that slightly smug, holier than thou feeling about the entire premise. While a movie like Little Girls wants to celebrate the hedonistic horniness of its heroines, it also does a dandy job of putting them right back in their supposedly underage place.
Since he merely picked up this production for distribution, Cresse had no input in how the movie was actually made. But it’s clear he used his newfound ownership interest to exercise a little editorial control. His creation of the narration aside, the movie feels overly simplified, reduced to basic plot points and lots of scenes of faux fornication. Unlike the Mondo movies he imported, elements here appear truncated, reconfigured, and purposely repositioned. When two characters retire to a movie theater for some private time, the onscreen action features a well hidden Cresse (his back and balding head give him away) giving former pin-up and Whisky a Go-Go dancer Michelle Angelo the once over. Breasts tied up in restraining ropes, there are endless shots of this model being abused, beaten, and objectified.
Many of the movie’s more scandalous moments were also right up Cresse’s alley. One of the first trysts takes place in a cemetery, half-naked heroine and her pick-up crawling out of a freshly dug grave in post-coital satisfaction. Another customer demands his paramours strip, and then slap each other silly. Perhaps the most repugnant moment occurs when a blond bimbette, described as “just over 14”, slinks up to a deviant sitting at the top of a ladder, his grinning mug and filthy slicker opened suggestively. After a few more minutes of seduction, the girl’s head disappears into the coat’s hemline.
One aspect of Little Girls that Cresse clearly had no control over is the performances. Most of the actresses are very good, coming across like naughty versions of their new wave counterparts. At other instances, the talent takes on the air of a sketch comedy parody, overwrought emotions ruining the film’s more subtle sophisticated atmosphere. The script does take chances, hinting at pedophilia, suicide, and a last act brawl that pits our remaining victims against the callous bitch who would sell their soul (and skin) to save her business. In classic exploitation style, matters between vixen and villain are handled with brazenness and a brutal sense of comeuppance.
Had their not been the connection to Cresse, had the movie simply arrived on American shores as yet another example of international envelope pushing, Little Girls would have had little impact. But what made men like this as infamous as they were ingenious (and waving guns in the faces of deadbeat distributors doesn’t count) is the way they turned the formulaic and familiar into something filthy. Even without the added scene, this movie would have been sleazy. Cresse’s contribution strips away the veneer of propriety to show the effort for what it really is - 66 minutes of breasts, butts, and balling.
It still doesn’t explain the man, however. Maybe nothing truly can. He viewed himself as a rebel, a hard nosed ball buster of a businessman who treated his friends like fools and his competitors like casualties. Harry Novak, famed producer of such movies as Kiss Me Quick and Wham, Bam, Thank You Space Man once referred to him as a “criminal” claiming his volatile temperament frequently failed him. This was especially true one fateful day. While walking his dog, Cresse saw two men beating up a woman. Stepping in to stop the situation, he proceed to threaten them with his trusty handgun. Turns out it was a pair of policeman roughing up a local prostitute. Provoked, they shot Cresse, and then killed his canine companion for good measure. The resulting seven-month stay in the hospital depleted all of his money (he was uninsured). He would eventually die of a heart attack in 1998.
Little Girls may now appear like a blip on Bob Cresse’s professional radar, and he will probably always been known as the miscreant German commandant in Love Camp 7, or the Jonathan Winters channeling Granny Goode from House on Bare Mountain. Indeed, many of his acting turns (The Erotic Adventures of Zorro - 1972, The Pick-Up - 1968) were more memorable than his movies. As a screenwriter he was routine and as a humanitarian he was humiliating. But Cresse will always be one of exploitation’s more intriguing characters, and his participation in Little Girls is proof of his position as the genre’s unsung agent provocateur. He should be better known. Sadly, it seems like he’s destined to remain an elusive, contradictory legend.
In general, there are two crucial elements to a successful spoof. One is the source material. Something has to be part of the pop culture consciousness before it can become potential lampoon material. Cult entities can’t cut it, while the overexposed tend to ridicule themselves. The balance is not perfect, but it must be maintained. And then there is the humor itself. No one is knocking the lowbrow and the scatological, but a send-up must have some modicum of wit less it wallow in mindless unfunny business. The best benchmark for such a stricture is the 1980 farce Airplane! Directed by Jim Abrahams, and brothers David and Jerry Zucker, this comedy classic found the perfect combination of material and mirth to become a prime example of parody perfection.
Since then, however, the genre has died a thousand Scary Movie inspired deaths. Specifically, a pair of sadly untalented writers named Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer have become the de factor frauds in charge of the post-post modern movement in so-called take-offs. Their string of cinematic abominations includes all four of the horror-inspired joke-a-thons, as well as Date Movie, Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, and the upcoming Disaster Movie. How they avoided getting their dumbed down, derivative fingerprints on Superhero Movie (new to DVD from The Weinstein Company and their Dimension Films division) is a minor miracle. Sure, this bumbling burlesque is only a tad more competent than the Friedberg/Seltzer sputum purporting to be comedy, but you can tell that the people behind the scenes at least have an idea of what spoofing is all about.
Craig Mazin is an alumnus from the Scary franchises (he helped out with numbers three and four) and with the help of original parody pro David Zucker as producer, some of that incomparable ZAZ spark has found its way into the desperately DOA format. The storyline is the spitting image of Spider-man. Rick Riker, on a field trip to a science lab, gets bitten by a genetically altered dragonfly. Soon, he’s taking on the characteristics of the bug, and exploring his newfound powers while pining away for sexy next door neighbor Jill Johnson. In the meantime, dying industrialist Lou Landers partakes in a radical experiment that turns him into a kind of vampire - he must kill someone everyday in order to live. As the Dragonfly becomes a celebrated crimefighter, Landers assumes the identity of the Hourglass, and uses his insane arch-villainy to try and live forever.
Right up front, you can see the main difference between Superhero and any of the other “Movies” mentioned. This film actually has a plot, a quasi-coherent clothesline upon which all number of timely and already dated riffs can be assembled and presented. We actually get something similar to a three part story arc, Rick going through the necessary origin motions before taking on his inadvertent nemesis. In between, there are takes on Batman Begins, X-Men, comic book culture, and everything that made Sam Raimi’s blockbuster a glorified geek classic. Sure, the sexually oriented material with Happy Day‘s Marion Ross and the way to aged Leslie Nielsen barely works, more uncomfortable than comic, and the random cameos from Brent Spiner and Jeffrey Tambor are more irritating than enjoyable, but overall, the performances are part of Superhero Movies limited positives.
Another is Drake Bell. While his partners it pre-teen Nickelodeon crime - The Amanda Show‘s Ms. Bynes and Drake and Josh‘s Mr. Peck - have both gone on to major motion picture careers, the music minded 22 year old has been stuck in big screen second banana mode. Superhero Movie won’t change that status for now, but Bell is very genial as Rick Riker. He does dopey slapstick well, and his expressions offer the perfect combination of cluelessness and self-referential irony. Without Bell, this film would be an even bigger dud. That he manages to keep us engaged even as fake animals are fornicating with his leg (as well as other body parts) indicates the inherently endearing quality he brings to the role.
As part of the DVD extras, we are treated to a full length audio commentary featuring Mazin and producers Zucker and Robert K. Weiss (best known for his work on the entire Police Squad series) along with some unnecessary deleted scenes (jokes that really misfire), an alternative ending (similar to what was eventually seen, if only smaller in scope), and a collection of cast and crew featurettes. Perhaps the most interesting element here is the notion that many recognize the reputation the genre has garnered, as well as how desperate they are to keep Superhero Movie from facing the same fate. Mazin and Zucker argue over how to approach parody, while Bell describes some of the pitfalls of being an on screen action star.
Certainly there are facets of this farce that just do not work. Christopher McDonald is way too manic to be anything other than a scenery chewing goof, and the random arrival of Pamela Anderson, Tracey Morgan, Simon Rex, and Regina Hall make about as much sense as the shout outs to Barry Bonds, Facebook, and Dr. Stephen Hawking. And anyone with fond memories of real send-up masters like Mel Brooks and such ZAZ masterworks as Top Secret! will wince at any comparable comparison. For what it’s worth, Superhero Movie is just a tad less inventive than the Star Wars workout Spaceballs, while not quite as shabby as other non- Friedberg/Seltzer stupidity like The Comebacks. While the entire comedic category may still be on life support, at least Mazin and crew aren’t contributing to its demise. Instead, Superhero Movie may suggest there’s life in the old filmic format after all.
With the bottle rocket’s red glare, and the cherry bombs bursting in air (at least, in those places where said celebration ammunition remains quasi-legal), the first half of the Summer Movie Season circa 2008 is officially over. Nine weeks, dozens of films, and lots of critical complaining has made this annual parade of popcorn movies a decidedly mixed bag. On the one hand, Marvel has come out swinging, taking over creative control of its character canon and delivering two excellent examples of superhero hype. On the other hand, the season’s sole sequels (so far) have proved that sometimes, you can go back to the well one too many times. Comedy continues its battle for non-Apatow oriented relevance, and in a turn of events that will make Luddites lose their lunch, CGI has delivered three of the Summer’s best efforts.
Of course, the next two months bring on even more delights. Will Smith’s Hancock is already generating debate among fans and critics alike, while Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II promises to finally elevate the Mexican maverick into the Peter Jackson/Stephen Spielberg category (where he truly belongs, frankly). Christopher Nolan will uncork his latest revisionist Batman draft, while August promises two unusual takes - The Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder - on the old laugh fest routine. Who will wind up #1? It all depends. To put things in perspective, SE&L has gone back over the 16 major releases it experienced since a certain Marvel metalhead arrived in theaters, and has ranked them from best to worst. Review links have also been provided in case you’d like to read more. Enjoy!
Kung Fu Panda
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The Incredible Hulk
You Don’t Mess with the Zohan
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Sex and the City: The Movie
What Happens in Vegas
The Love Guru
It’s been nearly six solid months of agony and waiting, speculation leading to momentary bouts of joy and sullen disbelief. With reliable information a rarity, fans had to use every ounce of their cautious constitution not to overreact. Then, suddenly, patience paid off. The announcement came - the gang at Cinematic Titanic were back, and they’ve brought along a real hackwork howler to foist upon us unsuspecting bad movie buffs. For those who don’t remember the origins of this Mystery Science Theater 3000-styled clone, here’s the scoop. Touted last winter as a welcome return to in-theater commentary comedy, Joel Hodgson reteamed with pals J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu. With the additional help of talented ex-MSTerions Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff, their goal was to update the original concept and bring the fine art of mediocre movie ridicule back to the masses.
Along with Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy who carry on the defunct series’ traditions via their Rifftrax and Film Crew DVDs, this was the first time many in this group had participated in the format in over a decade. And after half a year, they have finally fashioned a follow-up. Devotees of the collective’s first direct to disc effort, the Al Adamson atrocity The Oozing Skull, wondered how the group would top that celluloid stinker. The answer? The Doomsday Machine, a reconfigured 1967 sci-fi slop job that has the bold faced filmmaking audacity to offer 75 minutes of Bobby Van, Denny Miller, Grant Williams, Ruta Lee, Mala Powers, and Henry Wilcoxon, only to disintegrate into footage shot four years later with none of the original cast.
See, the producers were clearly planning a major speculative epic, an end of the world wonder featuring the destruction of Earth, a hazardous journey into deep space, and an eventual colonization of Venus. Very much of the era - drive-in or otherwise. In the end, a lack of money meant they could only realize a small percentage of their goals. Stock footage replaced the planned F/X and corners were cut toward inventing the film’s future shock vision. Or maybe directors Lee Sholem and Harry Hope were just cheap, unimaginative bastards after all. The film frequently reeks of the Ed Wood School of incomprehensible narratives, the plot quickly de-evolving from a political crisis Apocalypse to an outer space swingers’ party in the blink of a cinema-schlock eye.
It’s 1976, and the world is on the brink of destruction. It seems the Chinese have developed a ‘Doomsday Machine’ located 700 miles below the planet’s surface. At the slightest provocation - which eventually arrives, though we never learn how or why - the Asian Reds will jumpstart the Earth’s core, causing the entire sphere to spontaneously combust. Of course, once the US and Russia get a whiff of this info, they decide to hijack a planned NASA mission to Venus and replace three of the more expendable astronauts with a few fetching astro-babes. Naturally, this goes over like gangbusters with everyone on the crew, except for the highly strung Major Kurt Mason. One look at skirt and he goes from persnickety pain in the ass to psycho-pseudo rapist.
The rest of the motley crew, including foxy flight surgeon Marion Turner, Russian space queen Georgiana Bronski, slightly unhinged meteorologist (and Mason victim) Katie, wisecracking New “Yawker” Danny, and surfer stud boy Colonel Don Price take their part in the procreation quite well. They don’t mind being passengers on this knotty Noah’s Ark, even if the tempers are flaring as often as the hormones. Eventually, people die, analog computer calculations are made, sacrifices are discussed, and one of those Planet of the Apes trick endings is attempted. No, it wasn’t all a simulation or an intricate NASA experiment. It turns out that if Soviet scientists had paid a bit more attention to the previous failed missions to the second closest planet to the sun, they may have discovered a few ‘collective consciousness’ warning signs along the way.
A long time staple of the breast-ically endowed Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, The Doomsday Machine is a miserable bit of motion picture sickness. Its mood swings are so rampant - serious space saga to stale soap operatics to mean-spirited misogyny - that teen girls are jealous of its irritability. Any film that feels Bobby “Mr. Elaine Joyce” Van and Ruta “HSN Diet Spray” Lee can sell its tech spec sketchiness is definitely dunderheaded. To make matters worse, the four years in the making finale, clearly fashioned out of whatever Sholem and Hope had lying around, has the cajones to recast the important players. As a result, there is at least 15 minutes of pointless stasis as well hidden extras with non-compatible voices try fervently to connect the material and make everything seem meaningful and deep. It ends up rendering the already retarded movie even more insipid.
For the Cinematic Titanic collective, The Doomsday Machine marks a MST3K Season 4 level challenge. At one point, Frank Conniff states exasperatedly that this experience is like “watching someone else watching Manos: The Hands of Fate”. There is an instance when the cast completely clams up, the inability to quip on the inanity they’re witnessing overwhelming even their own masterful mirth making. The rest of the time, their material is spot on, joke after joke hitting the painful plotholes and destitute acting dead on. Hodgson is rather quiet this time around, letting Weinstein, Beaulieu, and Pehl do a lot of the heavy humor lifting. There is one classic moment when Mary Jo stops the film (a developing CT gimmick) to discuss the crisis fallback plan should the group have to decide on who lives and who dies, but overall, there is little of the skit-oriented filler that accented the previous series.
We do get a little more insight into the whole Cinematic Titanic protocol, however. At the very opening of the presentation, two workers discuss the upcoming installment with the cast. We discover that the plan is for the individuals present to record these episodes for “posterity” depositing the final results in a ‘time tube’ for future generations to enjoy. Oddly similar to the Film Crew conceit (adding commentary to all the movies known to man, even the horrible ones), it opens up the entire experience to limitless possibilities. One assumes that, after they get a handle on how to successfully market and maximize their self-sales and distribution network, Cinematic Titanic will become a regular cult commodity.
And as long as they deliver stellar satire like the kind found in The Doomsday Machine, there’s no reason to worry. Fans familiar with the group’s retro-revisionism will find nothing but treasure here, while those new to the whole MST/CT situation should be instantly won over. Way back in the ‘80s, when Hodgson teamed up with Murphy and producer Jim Mallon to produce some local UHF programming for Minneapolis, Minnesota television, they could have never envisioned two decades of celluloid send-ups. While purists wait for the day when all camps make nice and come up with a combined effort to bring everyone back into a single spoofing whole, we’ll have to settle for segmented brilliance. And with Cinematic Titanic, this cast of creative geniuses is back in big style.