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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007


Sometimes, you have to forgive a subject’s more sensational elements. While a documentary is supposed to be, first and foremost, a work of plainspoken truths, there are elements inherent in any exploration that tend to unintentionally glamorize or glorify issues. Take Michael Moore’s recent SiCKO. Sure, people can argue that the filmmaker manipulates situations to satisfy his own, idealized agenda, but when the material is as mangled as the US Health Care system, the reality is always going to override the outrage. It’s a similar problem facing first timer Jason Kohn. Tackling the reign of terror flowing throughout South American stronghold Brazil, a fear based on a fracturing class system, high level political corruption, and a freakish fad of kidnappings for quick cash, he sometimes delivers more histrionics than hard facts. But Manda Bala –translated, “Send a Bullet” – believes whole heartedly in its exotic exposé, and for the most part, it wins us over as well.


Similar to the stance taken directly after 9/11, when antibiotics and duck tape streamed off store shelves (in anticipation of another attack), wealthy Brazilians have taken to tapping into a massive cottage industry of security. We hear tales told by businessmen and big wigs about daily abduction attempts, and as a result, classes in personal protection (including REAL defensive driving) and car bulletproofing are all the rage. They represent a status symbol of sorts, a way to differentiate the important people living in Sao Paolo’s futuristic high rises from the fringe factions metering out a meager living inside the ghetto slums. Kohn connects this Wild West level of criminality with a famous political corruption case. Permanent government fixture Jader Barbalho managed to skim more than 2 BILLION dollars off the top of the Brazilian coffers, thanks in part to a bogus Amazon development fund and a frog farm that functioned as a money laundering scheme. Though hounded by the Courts and the special police task forces, he remains a powerful Teflon titan.


Interspersed throughout this class structure symbolism is the sickening underside of all this body snatching. The desperate criminals, wanting to prove that they mean business, make a habit of chopping of the ears of their victims. It is these souvenirs, along with cruel and condemning notes that figure into every citizen’s nightmares. A famed plastic surgeon, who specializes in ocular reconstruction, explains his burgeoning practice, while an actual victim recounts her maiming at the hands of some heinous cutthroats (it happened during a marathon showing of Alfred Hitchcock films, no less). The final straw suggesting a link between all these situations is an actual sitdown with an authentic abductor. Considering himself a kind of Robin Hood for his shanty town (“when they can’t afford medicine, I buy it for them”) we are supposed to see the connection between poverty’s protection of the gangster, and a failed electorate securing an obviously crooked Congressman’s greed. As long as they keep their people happy, the police will be kept at much more than arm’s length.


Granted, for most of Manda Bala, the links are limited and without context. Kohn prefers to build a puzzle rather that spell everything out, so the first few minutes spent on a slightly disgusting frog farm appear to make no sense. Similarly, our villain is introduced in an offhand, almost slight manner. He’s called a criminal by several people, but it’s not until Kohn explains his failed assistance organization, SUDAM, that we see how horrible Barbalho’s acts really are. Then the tie-in to the amphibian agriculture is established, and things begin to make sense. In essence, Manda Bala wants to view Brazil as an emerging international power, an overpopulated place of possible prosperity riddled with the frequently foul growing pains of any soon to be superpower. Kohn wisely avoids all the culture shock, the abhorrent obsession with beauty (and the surgical manipulation of same), as well as the rampant materialism in the region. Instead, this is a story about immorality of the highest level – between people and people, and citizens and their social structure.


As an apprentice to Errol Morris, Kohn should have recognized that a narrower focus would serve this material well. After all, he stumbled upon a potential superstar in Dr. Avelar. Not afraid to take credit for almost every medical discovery involved in his profession, he represents the best of both narrative worlds. On the one hand, his practice revolves around rebuilding the faces of those kidnapped and scarred. We see, first hand, the kind of scalpel and cartilage miracles he can create. On the other hand, he’s rich, and as a wealthy member of Sao Paolo’s elite, he runs the risk of having himself (or more likely, his family) abducted. So he extols the virtues of his many bodyguards, pimped out – if high profile – car, and his secluded country retreat. In this one character, all the elements the director hopes to discuss in this documentary are present. Instead of trying to manipulate four separate storylines, this one significant player could have provided a fulcrum for a clearer conversation.


Still, Manda Bala is unbelievably effective, the kind of film that gets you wondering when these horrible inhumane practices will finally reach the Northern Hemisphere. While there’s a much greater police presence in the US than in Brazil (a startling statistic states that for the 20 million citizens in Sao Paolo, there is a kidnapping task force of only 800), the abduction tactic is reminiscent of the car jacking craze and home invasion phenomenon of the late ‘90s. It speaks to a brazenness of the new criminal, the kind that sees the end goal without ever once taking into consideration the consequences – legally or ethically. While it may seem silly to say this, most crime prevention is based on the deterrent quality of laws. The theory states that people will tend to avoid felonious acts (especially in cases of murder and drug dealing) because the penalties will be excessive and severe.


But with a clear culture of corruption seeping through all manner of South American society, and a message that states that even the most obvious acts will go unpunished, the opposite is occurring. If politicians can prosper and profit without feeling the pinch of the police, why should the more desperate and dependent care? After all, they have the backing of the vast majority of the population (the poor won’t be traded for cash anytime soon) and with the aforementioned acts of goodwill, they tend to be borough heroes.  Indeed, Kohn argues that the newfangled industries that cater to the wealthy’s nervous needs actually feed into the problem. As the targets become warier of the criminal’s ways, the bad guys switch up and shift their attention. In the end, it’s a vicious cycle that suggests there really is no end in sight.


Even with its occasional faults, Manda Bala does what documentaries do best – illuminate an intellectual or social situation that our otherwise narrow Western viewpoint would never even consider. The visual beauty in the film – Brazil is one of the most inviting looking regions in the entire world – contrasted with the cynical, almost comic approach to the problems, lends to moments of well earned epiphany, as well as frequently flops back into directorial self-indulgence. The story of how the influential of Sao Paolo came to this fraudulent conclusion makes for an incredibly insightful experience. Here’s hoping the eventual reform movement gets as much prescient attention. 



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Wednesday, Aug 22, 2007


Great comedy teams are not ‘born’. They do not arrive from the witticism womb fully formed and ready to rib tickle. No, what all classic clown combos have in common is that elusive amalgamation of talent, identity, characterization, and unholy happenstance. There is a real sense that what is happening is the result of some organic convergence, not the preplanned propositions of a cash hungry studio. Take the Three Stooges for example. Among the many charms exuded by the Howard Brothers (Moe, Curly, and yes even Shemp) and Fine (little old Larry) are split second slapstick timing (talent), easily understood personas (identity), several layers to their lunacy (characterization), and the completely chance arrival at Columbia Pictures when the studio needed a showcase (happenstance). From Laurel and Hardy to Abbot and Costello – heck, even up through Chris Farley and David Spade – the recognizable amusement units don’t take years of development to gel. They either work up front, or never find their footing (right, Ritz Brothers?).


It’s even harder to find examples of this instantaneous ideal in the realm of independent film. The reasons are rather obvious, from lack of true talent to the ability to hone a serious set of skills on a homemade movie budget. Try as they might – and there have been some God awful examples of said lousy attempts – there are only two current outsiders who’ve managed to find the perfect union of personality and performance. One is Justin Channel, responsible for the hilarious horror comedies Raising the Stakes and Die and Let Live. With the flawless funny business from the dynamic duo of Josh Lively and Zane Crosby, this director manages to take genre generics – vampires and zombies, respectively – and turn them into risible rites of teen passage. The other sick savant is Chris Seaver. Working in the brash and the blue long before Apatow remembered to freak his geek on, this ersatz entrepreneur has fashioned his entire Low Budget Pictures universe after a sublime love of schlock and scatology. And as part of his extensive underground oeuvre, he’s also developed one of the greatest cinematic partnerships ever – the sensational sisters Heather and Puggly Bochliadochi.


With origins in previous Seaver films (specifically, 12 Inches of Dangling Fury), the unusual duo became fixtures of the writer/director’s filmmaking around 2005. As part of his look back at high school as a literal Hell, this unhinged auteur combined his love of all things pop culture with a clear eye for the simmering social stigmas among adolescents. He tossed in all his favorite horror riffs, some glorious nods to musical extremes (fantasy metal, anyone) and a running cast of characters meant to give the series instant trademarking and long term replay value. From the first film in the (so far) trilogy, Heather and Puggly Drop a Deuce, to the fascinating follow-ups – Heather and Puggly Crucify the Devil and Heather and Puggly Cock-Block the Apocalypse, Seaver refined and retooled his elements, giving them the kind of reflective cultural mirror that renders them as satisfying satires and terrific time capsules.


The plots all revolve around the students at fictional Bonejack Heights High School (another LBP in-joke). When we first meet the horny Heather and her unbelievably unattractive sister Puggly (played to absolute perfection by longtime company players Meredith Host and Lauren P. Seavage), they are suffering through the typical teen angst. While her bucktoothed sibling gets all the Sappho loving she can handle (yes, she’s a lesbian), the normal looking red head can’t capture any man’s attention. Among the available ‘studs’ are country cuss The Meistro and his “Spanish Indian” sidekick, the prog rock loving Proudfoot. There’s also the jocular Johnny Douchebag (played by Seaver himself) and faux fashionista T-Bone, and later on, competitive ladies men (?) Choach and TeenApe. As they go through the typical scholastic slog, they find themselves facing the standard hormone driven dilemmas. To make matters even more maddening, their close knit camaraderie is constantly challenged by all manner of interpersonal and supernatural interference.



In Drop a Deuce, an alien seductress named Venus gets Puggly to turn on her pals, so that the evil extraterrestrial can kill them off, one by one. It’s up to our heroines to save the day. Naturally, everyone is back and alive for Crucifies the Devil (such is the lovable illogic of the series). This time, old Scratch himself shows up to take on our pert pair, who have now become notorious part-time exorcists. Again, all manner of Hellspawn humor hijinx ensure. Finally, a certain boy wizard and his seven book balderdash get the bad ass Bochliadochi treatment as Bonejack High becomes a rather recognizable academy of advanced magic. There, our returning adolescents go ‘potter’ as they try to stop a rival sorcerer from stealing an enchanted orb destined to destroy the universe. Through a combination of teamwork and tentative incantations, evil is once again destroyed, and our chick champions prove the power of believing in yourself, and the importance of friendship. Sort of.


Right up front, it has to be noted that Seaver is a certified spoof samurai. He’s a sneaky SOB, lobbing his lampoons at the audience with a combination of audacity and affection. Like an intricate game of ‘80s Trivial Pursuit (with only movie, TV, and music questions) played by a pack of undeniable pop geeks, a LPB production is like Superbad without the BFF sentimentality. Seaver is as adept as Apatow and pals at playing the curse word card, but there is no apologizing with this eager fringe filmmaker. When he wants filthy, he goes for the full bore gross out. Not even the infamous Farrelly Brothers are as excessive with the expletive as this deranged director. Seaver is infinitely better at context, however, finding fascinating and fresh ways of making even the most obvious toilet or sex-related gag explode with determined delight. From early hits like Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker to recent reinventions of his classic characters Bonejack and TeenApe (the defiant Destruction Kings) this is one movie maven who puts his obsessions where his objective is.


In the Heather and Puggly films, the focus is on the awkwardness of adolescence, how rapidly arriving maturity messes up even the most cocksure clique. Without reading much more into it, lets just say that the various demonic and paranormal elements the students have to deal with could easily be made into metaphors for responsibility, love, and the upcoming realities of the real world. Or maybe not. That’s the beauty of a Seaver film – you’re never sure if he’s serious, slack-jawed, or simply sold on his own unbridled and out of control Id. With their diversity of characterization and kitchen sink wit, we definitely need an anchor to hold and LPB production together. That’s where our crackerjack comedic team comes in. By playing off of and against each other (Heather, the henna-headed babe, is outright man repellant, while she-hag Puggly gets all the girl-on-girl action she can handle) and using an undercurrent of sibling rivalry, Seaver lays the foundation for the anarchy to follow.



Oddly enough, the Heather and Puggly films follow the current trend in Tinsel Town tre-quels – Drop a Deuce is a stunning debut, Crucify the Devil is a bonafide classic, and Cock-Block the Apocalypse is good, if not totally great. Each movie is different in that they use varying elements to achieve their sometimes surreal goals. For example, Drop a Deuce offers one of our only glimpses of the rest of the Bochliadochi household. Scream Queen icon Debbie Rochon is absolutely hilarious as the girl’s equally muttly mother, while Punk Rock Holocaust director Doug Sakmann is ridiculously effective as their dithering dad. This higher level of performance is not unusual for an LPB film (Seaver is lucky to have a group of friends and associates who sync up faultlessly with his own bizarre brainpan), but it does lend the movie a sly and supportive signature.


Crucify the Devil is even better, thanks in part to a lively premise and a more complete view of the Heather and Puggly universe. The idea of making the gals into pseudo ghostbusters is classic, as are the calm and comic confrontations with Satan himself. Brad Austin plays the mangoat as a combination bully and henpecked husband, and the scenes at home with his minions are a marvel of bumbling domestic stupidity. As with most of his movies, Seaver loves to ladle on the gore, giving old fashioned fright fans a gallon or two of arterial spray for their money. He also realizes that you can’t have violence without its companion curse – sex - and he laces his dialogue with some of the filthiest, funniest material you’ll hear outside a boy’s locker room. The constant references to pornographic acts, genitalia, and any combination of the two can make for some offensive moments, but if this director has a fault, it’s never knowing when enough is enough. In fact, much of LPB’s inherent charm is its ‘anything and everything’ approach to filmmaking.



Maybe this is why Cock-Block the Apocalypse feels a little less inventive. Going the Harry Potter route is fine, but without the ability to fully realize your aims, the homage feels hampered. Still, Seaver saves it by staying true to what makes Heather and Puggly great. It needs to be mentioned again - Lauren Seavage and Meredith Host are brilliant here. They may be playing variations of their own personalities (though it’s highly doubtful, especially in Ms. Puggly’s case), yet they turn what could be one note novelties into fully realized, and beloved, characters. You want to see more of them onscreen, and actually feel disappointed when they fight and fracture as family and friends. It is easy to envision this pair making the leap to legitimate mainstream cinema. After all, a comedy founded on a mismatched duo who uses their differences as a means of empowerment and achievement sounds like every other buddy comedy of the last two decades. Why the standard male leads can’t be switched out for a harried hosebag and her les-bionic sibling will perhaps always stay a movie biz mystery.


Finally, there’s one thing that makes Seaver and other camcorder creators like Channel, Scott Phillips, or Eric Stanze stand out among other amateur auteurs - a fearless belief in their abilities. There is no doubt in a LBP film, no sense of apprehension or hesitation. Like all great artists, there is a confidence that comes across loud and clear, a belief in what is being spoken and shot. Sometimes it’s dopey. Other times, it’s delightful. It can be crude, calculated, or completely cracked. But the bottom line is that, in a domain literally drowning in wasted wannabes, there is more noticeable talent in a single frame of a Seaver film than in a dozen more derivative efforts. This doesn’t mean that his movies are for everyone. Like a warning sign at the start of a long theme park amusement, movies made by this man are definitely not recommended for pregnant women, people with bad heart conditions, or those whose sense of humor runs to the more Puritanical.



But if you can tolerate tastelessness ala a yet-to-be-weened John Waters, if you aren’t afraid to take a walk on the Super VHS side of cinema, if you’re sick and tired of being beaten over the aesthetic regarding what’s supposed to be funny, innovative, or exciting, then drop that snobbish wet blanket and give Chris Seaver’s sh-art a try. While the Heather and Puggly films may not be the best place to begin your journey (that would remain his Mulva and Filthy McNasty efforts), they definitely represent the kind of craziness he trades in. And if you’re brave enough, you’ll also get a lesson in the unadulteratedly unrefined nature of comedic chemistry. No matter how often a team works together, or how like minded a group is in their unified creative belief, classic duos of delight just can’t be manufactured. They must arrive from a completely unique and naturalistic place. Oddly enough, that’s an accurate description of Chris Seaver, his Low Budget Pictures empire, and the amazing Heather and Puggly films – in a nut(case) shell.


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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007

We tend to forget how lonely and narrow the craft of songwriting can be, especially in these days of sour re-sampled ‘hits’ and hooks-by-committee creativity. To channel the melodic meaning of the universe through your insights and instruments remains an almost indecipherable creative pursuit. How a single human being can summarize the wealth of individual experience into a three minute collection of chords, words, and aural abstracts often seems like a challenge to cheat God. Only someone with powers as omniscient could forge such a solid sonic pact with both music and meaning. It’s rare, but some of that talent tends to trickle down to people on our planet, giving them inspiration to attempt the evocative expression. It’s these dedicated artists that we find as the focus of this month’s Surround Sound, an installment supporting such a harmonious hypothesis. Whether they’re fictional, factual, or fractured, we are given a privileged glimpse into their way of working, such a snapshot providing proof that, even on Earth, there are definite deities amongst us mere mortals.


Once [rating: 9]


Music is often referred to as the soundtrack to our lives, and for many, it’s a sentiment to be taken literally. We fall in love to a certain song, break up over a privately held tune, and treat all celebrations, losses, and interpersonal struggles as objects for underscoring. It’s a proposal that propels the critically acclaimed “indie musical” Once, a film forged out of the former working relationship between John Carney and Glen Hansard (who were in the Irish rock band The Frames together). Centering on the burgeoning relationship between a street performer and a Czech immigrant flower girl, the celebrated outsider triumph took a non traditional route toward its aural accompaniment. Pre-production found non-actors Hansard and Markéta Irglová (noted professionals in the industry) writing the highly personal soundtrack, both separate and in collaboration. The results ended up reaching across the typical music and lyrics to evoke strong, substantive emotion while also providing the kind of minor key mood that prepares us for all the emotional upheaval that the narrative promises. As is the case with releases like this, context is crucial to gaining the full impact of these songs. But once you’ve heard them, they’re hard to forget – with or without the movie to illuminate them.


A perfect example is the opening track, “Falling Slowly”. Beginning with a graceful guitar signature, and building to a crescendo of expressive singing and intricate piano and string driven instrumentation, the song suggests the start of something doomed, as if fate has already stepped in and clarified the possibilities. It’s a feeling only amplified by the duets, where simple aural implications like “If You Want Me” or “When Your Minds Made Up” say more about Hansard and Irglová than any dialogue could deliver. Toward the middle, our male lead has a pair of palpable high points. “Leave” is the most undemanding break up song ever (even the title suggestion sounds more like a pledge than a plea) while “Trying to Pull Myself Away” is an uptempo effort to convince himself that life post-affair can return to normal. Of course, the lyrics suggest something far more complicated. There are also hints of the long lost troubadours here, the sonic semblance of “All The Way Down” to “Pink Moon” era Nick Drake being rather obvious. By the time we reach the title track, we’re hoping for the kind of clear cut catharsis that such a storyline seems to suggest. Instead, we become lost in the apparent ennui, freed only by Hansard’s fabulous finale “Say It To Me Now”. From a whisper to a scream it sells Once as a fabulous and fresh reinvention of a typically tired genre.


You’re Gonna Miss Me [rating: 8]


As an audience member, we rarely get to witness a musician’s mental breakdown through their songs. Instead, the manipulative minds behind the performer’s career tend to tweak out the bad stuff, leaving behind an incomplete portrait without all the sonic shadings. In the case of psychedelic bluesman Roky Erickson, however, the shift was sudden, severe, and very, very public. Before anyone could get him the help he needed, he lost both his audience and his mind. It wasn’t until he hit that most horrible of clichés –rock bottom – that he could pull himself out of his psychotic stresses. In his prime, however, he was like a combination of Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston with a persona heavy on the weird acid casualty side of ideas. The change manifested itself aurally, as Erickson went from writing normal tunes about love and loss with the seminal 13th Floor Elevators to converting the voices in his head into epic audio tirades against unseen demons, goblins, and ghosts. It’s a path that we can follow, thanks to Kevin McAlester and his in depth documentary, as well as this stellar soundtrack album accompanying it. Covering Erickson’s entire career (including some heretofore unheard demos), we see how a damaged brain can become an even more messed up muse.


The two 13th Floor tracks – the recognizable hit that gives the work its title, and “Fire Engine” - argue that our hero wasn’t functioning on all six cylinders to begin with. The later track specifically sounds like a failed Brian Wilson SMiLE cut crammed into The Beatles “Revolution #9”. It definitely prepares us for the worst yet to come. What’s surprising, though, are the pre-problematic cuts where Erickson comes off like a solid Me Decade arena rocker. In fact, his new band (the Aliens) could easily be called Blue Oyster Occult. Genius works like “Bloody Hammer” and “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” appear cogent at first. But then the increasingly surreal lyrics start creeping in, and before we know it, efforts like “Mine, Mine, Mind” and “It’s a Good Night for Alligators” lose us. Thankfully, the compilation compensates for these obviously arcane riffs, referencing Erickson in his more introspective period (the poignant “You Don’t Love Me Yet”) and insightful (the calm, acoustic protest “Unforced Peace”). By the end of the album, our troubled soul has more or less returned to his senses, singing the heartbreaking and brittle “Goodbye Sweet Dreams”. Unlike other musicians whose minds snapped, time and treatment appear to have brought him back – at least, part way. With a collection of creative shout outs like this, it’s a well earned return.


Kurt Cobain About a Son [rating: 7]


Sometimes, it’s easier to look outside, to an artist’s sphere of influences, rather than reflect on the same three album canon over and over again – especially when financial issues like copyright and residuals conspire to mess with your options. For his documentary about the Nirvana icon, filmmaker AJ Schnack (creator of the brilliant They Might Be Giants deconstruction, Gigantic) drew on the numerous sonic references the troubled artist relied on to create his inappropriately labeled ‘grunge” dynamic. In fact, aside from Steve Albini’s overriding desire to distort all guitars, Cobain was a pop songwriter forced to conform to the needs of the scene (Seattle in the ‘90s) and the rock merchandisers (who rightly saw punk’s potential rebirth). He was also indebted to standard ‘70s cockrock, as well as the harsh hardcore subgenre that swept the West Coast of his adolescence. Without using a single note of the man’s amazing oeuvre, and avoiding the more obvious bands (The Pixies) namechecked in interviews, the slightly off center portrait painted is one of a DIY devotee who also enjoyed reflecting on the medium’s previous dinosaur stance. Together, with minor snippets from the audio interviews with Kobain that form the basis for the film, the imagination that drove this determined musician slowly comes into view.


The soundtrack begins on an ephemeral note, where one of the few original pieces – an ambient like drone by Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard – sets the melancholy mood. It prepares us for something more introspective than extroverted. Oddly, this isn’t supported by the next track, the weird inclusion of the Arlo Guthrie novelty “The Motorcycle Song”. Perhaps within the context of the film it works. Here, it’s a glaring sonic stunt. More in tune with our expectations is “Eye Flys” from Cobain faves Melvins. As a simple bass line loops and lunges, fuzzy guitars ‘buzz’ in the background. After almost five minutes, a groove is set and the singer steps in. The lyrics suggest the sort of mental fever dreams the late poet played with. In quick succession, the brilliant Bad Brains prove why they were “Banned in DC”, while the usually atonal Half Japanese go bubblegum with their jaunty “Pour Some Sugar On It”. By the time The Vaselines arrive to offer up their cryptic ear candy (“Son of a Gun”, a great track), the image of Cobain as a craftsman is clear. He channeled all his loves – Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Leadbelly, all present – into an intriguing amalgamation of personal primal scream and amiable AM radio. He had as much in common with the Butthole Surfers (represented by “Graveyard”) as he did with fellow scene stealers Mudhoney (“Touch Me, I’m Sick”). Even highly specialized tastes like Scratch Acid (represented by the arcane “Owner’s Lament”) make perfect sense within this decibel dynamic.



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Monday, Aug 20, 2007


Rob Zombie is a genre archivist. Name an obscure or forgotten horror/exploitation film from the ‘30s – ‘80s, and he’s probably seen it, memorized it, and pulled the best bits out to form his own unique aesthetic. Anyone who has listened to his music – either as part of his original band White Zombie, or his ongoing solo career – can hear the references, lyrics filled with amazing macabre imagery and outright schlock homages. But the transition from band frontman to film director remains mysterious, almost unimaginable in these days of carefully controlled Hollywood bottom lines. Yet Universal (and then MGM) both bet that this ghoul geek could deliver the kind of big screen scares that drive audiences to dread. Instead of going right for the standard fear factors however, Zombie delivered two amazing movies that challenged the post-modern mindset to confront the terrors of old and recognize their repulsive, repugnant pleasures.


In a three film oeuvre (his questionable remake of Halloween will open on 31 August, 2007), Zombie has established a clear understanding of what it takes to make a major motion picture. He’s not sloppy in his cinematography or undermined by paltry production design. But there is a clear inspirational distinction between his first above average attempt (2002’s House of 1000 Corpses) and his latter, legitimate masterpiece (2005’s The Devil’s Rejects). It’s a comparison that’s easily made by the recent rerelease of both films as part of a three disc DVD presentation from Lionsgate. While really nothing more than a repackaging of previously available Special Editions, the contextual information provided, as well as a chance to evaluate both movies side by side, illustrates that what started off as pure nerd fandom is now turning into a calculated and creatively impressive career behind the camera.

Both films draw on the same set of characters and background elements. Where they differ is in their style and substance. When House of 1000 Corpses begins, a group of roadside attraction lovers stop off at Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen. There they learn of the notorious Dr. Satan, a deranged surgeon who performed unspeakable experiments on the patients of a local insane asylum. Hoping to see his grave, our newly labeled victim fodder head out into the dark, rainy night. There, they run into Baby Firefly, a hitchhiker claiming special knowledge of the area. An unseen shotgun to their tires later, and the foursome are guests in the gal’s whacked out house. They reluctantly meet the rest of the clan: flitty Momma, ditzy Grandpa, titanic Tiny, rugged RJ, and the spectral and sinister Otis. Turns out, they’re a clan of serial killers, working directly with the demented doc by supplying subjects to continue his craven calling.


In The Devil’s Rejects, the Firefly family are ambushed by the police, and sent scattering into the local countryside. Baby and Otis join up with Captain Spaulding (who turns out to be yet another relative). The trio scours the countryside for a means of escape. They wind up at a fleabag motel, where they take a country singer and his entourage hostage. In the meanwhile, Mother Firefly is interrogated by the local sheriff, whose brother was murdered by the brood. Desperate to rid the area of the reprobate once and for all, the lawman calls on the help of some less than trustworthy bounty hunters. This results in a stand-off between good and evil, with the deck stacked heavily on the side of those mindless murderers who’ve got nothing left to lose – except their life.


The dichotomy is practically inherent in the plots. House of 1000 Corpses comes off like a dark ride gone deranged, a slasher slice and dice accentuated with a clever carnival barkers belief in the power of macabre iconography. Sitting through the occasionally scattered narrative, one get’s the impression that Zombie believed this would be his one and only shot at making a cinematic statement. So instead of using a subtle, more assured approach, he went wild, unclogging every craven thought from his creative kitchen sink. The results are a baneful blacklight poster come to life, an occasionally incoherent callback to every blinkered idea that ever gave the director the horror heebie jeebies. The plot points borrow heavily from several certified genre classics, yet all are filtered through his headbanger’s ballsiness. There’s a deadly amount of dark comedy, an unsuccessful finale, and enough flashes of filmmaking brilliance to indicate that Zombie’s moviemaking presence is something much more than a fluke.


The Devil’s Rejects, on the other hand, is pure exploitation bliss. Carefully recreating the atmosphere and action of a sleazoid ‘70s drive-in death wish, this grindhouse glorification puts the spring 2007 attempt by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez to shame. Zombie understands that there is more to raincoat crowd entertainment than scantily clad gals and buckets of blood. Indeed, tone and temperament are far more important than girls and gore. With its washed out cinematography and Me era optical nods (freeze frames, fade outs) the filmmaker forces us back in time, taking us on a fatalistic trip through a violence strewn landscape of dishonesty and dead bodies. By correlating the Fireflys with even more despicable desperados (especially the ‘anything for vengeance’ sheriff), Zombie actually gets us to care for this corrupt clan. Even as they gouge and vivisect their way through the Tennessee countryside – which in perfect passion pit tradition, looks a lot like California – we want to see them succeed, if only to put their far worse tormentors in their place.


As a progression, both films become a revelation, especially when accompanied by perspective adding DVD bonus features. Zombie provides a pair of interesting commentaries, the first one complaining about his mistreatment at the hands of the studios, the second complimenting the suits who supported him the second time out. He remains angry over the massive cuts Corpses had to go through to be determined releasable by both the MPAA and his original Tinsel Town sponsors. He worships the collection of genre names he got to work on both films, and marvels at how nuanced and knowing their performances are. Most importantly, he recognizes his flaws, failing to blame them on anyone other than his own inexperienced and learning self. He comes at cinema as a fan acknowledging the need for an apprenticeship, not a conceited quack whose one step away from hackdom.


This also comes across loudly in the nearly three hour documentary provided as the third “disc” in this set. Entitled 30 Days in Hell, this look at the production of The Devil’s Rejects reveals a cast and crew completely in tune with their director’s desires. One producer even goes so far as to suggest that, sans pay, the incredibly talented company would continue to help Zombie achieve his aims. It’s a stunning revelation, one that arrives from confidence and uncompromised creative license. If Corpses is corrupted by a fear of failure and a lack of faith in the man hired to make the movie, Rejects has the reverse issues. There is such a devotion to the director’s vision that one fears a kind of closed off, narrow-minded outcome. Indeed, some still found Zombie’s revolutionary retro retread to be a vile, reprehensible assault on the senses. It’s a safe bet that those critics never saw an exploitation film in their entire life.



This doesn’t help Corpses any, though. It stands as a solid attempt, an all or nothing, over the top amalgamation of every minute morsel that made up Zombie’s life as a fright film fan. The performances are excellent all around, especially Bill Moseley’s messianic Otis and Spider Baby’s sensational Sid Haig as the creepiest combination of clown and fried chicken cook you’ll ever meet. Yet the problematic production (stopped once, restarted again months later with even less enthusiasm) coupled with Zombie’s own accepted inexperience leads to a feeling of dissatisfaction. Appreciating the film becomes a challenge, a direct mandate from Zombie to be “with him, or against him”. Rejects is more realistic. It doesn’t ask for pretext, though those of us who love the old grindhouse gang find far more pleasures here. Instead, it states its purpose clearly and convincingly, never nitpicking the nastiness inherent in the narrative while avoid the cartoonish carnival ideal that marred some of Corpses’ concepts.


All of which makes the wait for his take on John Carpenter’s slice and dice classic that much more difficult. Trailers tell of a rising “traveling company” ideal, with almost everyone associated with Corpses and Rejects back to play roles here. Zombie has also dug deeper inside the genre bin, bringing out new cast members previously associated with the franchise as well as names known to those who frequented the bottom shelf of a ‘80s Mom and Pop video store. It’s rare to see a filmmaker literally grow up and mature on the big screen. They usually don’t get such a large canvas to practice on. Ron Zombie will either become a macabre maestro or a one and a half hit wonder. But thanks to the insights provided by the 3 Disc Collector’s Edition, we can certainly see that there is more to this man than a personal warehouse filled with multimedia editions of Famous Monsters of Filmland. He is a fine filmmaker, and House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects proves this.


 


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Sunday, Aug 19, 2007

At one time, they were the toast of Tinsel Town, heirs apparent to the mantle maintained by Spielberg, Lucas, and the like. Among the Gods of Blockbusters, they were the popcorn princes, the pre—ordained legatees being groomed to effortlessly slip into the role of moviemaking royalty. No matter the genre, no matter the style, the ten names listed below all had success branded on their backside, and nothing could stop them from achieving their place among the savants of cinema—nothing except a single horrendous film. Indeed, like a hitman hired by a competing studio conspiracy, they saw their skyrocking status and rock solid reputation pierced by that business-minded bullet known as the box office bomb. In some cases, the hit was fatal. In others, the damage was done, but it took years of journeyman slog to solidify a stance six feet under.


Granted, the initial praise lacked perspective, and perhaps a few of the individuals here were unjustly heralded. But it is clear, at least from a cursory glance, that in an industry always looking for the ‘next big thing’, many thought these directors equaled firm future financial returns. But all it took was one misstep, one big fat belly flop in front of the ticket buying types—and the accompanying unreasonable hater hype—to turn their apparently tentative tides. The result was death—not creatively, but commercially—and a long tumble back to the back of the A-list line. There are dozens of stories like these, of auteurs dragged out of obscurity and put through the ringer for some dollar driven manufacturing. They deserve a requiem, not to be reviled. They are the victims of a revolving door system that celebrates cash, not creation. So, in alphabetical order, we will uncover the corpses strewn across the movieland morgue, the one time potential motion picture phenoms who had their preferred medium step up and slaughter them in the bank statement. Let’s begin with:


Name: Martin Brest
Prime Suspect: Meet Joe Black (1998)
After a shaky start (he was replaced by John Badham on the nuke hit Wargames), Brest bounced back, delivering three incredibly popular films (Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, and Scent of a Woman). He even managed what many thought was cinematically impossible—getting Al Pacino that long denied Oscar. But something happened to the man who had worked with major movie stars both young (Eddie Murphy) and old (George Burns and Lee Strasberg in Going in Style). He decided to helm an unnecessary remake of Death Takes a Holiday. Not even the superhot Brad Pitt or the prestige factor of Anthony Hopkins could help. The overlong movie tanked, taking Brest’s bankability with it. It was five years before his next film—the final nail in the creative coffin known as Gigli.
Last Seen: Chasing Jennifer Lopez down the street with a “Will Hurt You for Food” sign.


Name: Michael Cimino
Prime Suspect: The Sicilian (1987)
While many would think that the mortal wounding this Oscar winning director took at the hands of his fabled flop Heaven’s Gate basically ended his filmic futures, the truth is a little more complicated. Granted, Cimino couldn’t get arrested in a town that believes fallacy as much as fact, but after a five year exile, the apologetic egotist crafted the fairly decent crime thriller Year of the Dragon. With a solid script from Oliver Stone (which Cimino changed) and a great performance from Mickey Rourke, it appeared that all the Gate hate was forgiven. Then Cimino really stumbled. Hoping to capitalize on his fading Godfather goodwill, Mario Puzo plumed the gangster genre once again, this time in service of a sloppy story about an Italian mobster and freedom fighters. The results finally finished Cimino.
Last Seen: Directing two more forgotten flops before dropping out of sight.


Name: Joe Dante
Prime Suspect: The ‘burbs (1989)
Though he got his start at Roger Corman’s gonzo genre filmmaking ‘academy’, Dante discovered the joys of box office benevolence under the guiding hand of a far more powerful producer—Steven Spielberg. After his revisionist werewolf film The Howling established his creative acumen, Mr. ET hired him to helm his Christmas critterfest, Gremlins. A major mainstream smash, Dante followed it up with two more terrific films—Explorers and Innerspace. But when he teamed up with emerging superstar Tom Hanks for the serial killers in suburbia mess, an artistic Achilles Heal was exposed. It was determined that Dante was TOO in love with his Famous Monsters of Filmland foundations. He became the first film geek in a world unwilling to embrace such a status. He’s been struggling to keep his name in the filmmaking fray ever since.
Last Seen: Still working, though barely producing a mention outside messageboards.


Name: Jan de Bont
Prime Suspect: The Haunting (1999)
A cinematographer since the mid ‘60s, no one would have expected this native of the Netherlands to become the standard bearer for American action. But thanks to his work on a collection of commercial skyrockets (Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October, Basic Instinct), and his dazzling debut with the unlikely hit Speed, de Bont was so deified. The equally popular Twister only sealed the deal. Then came the first real stumble, the unsuccessful sequel to his initial hit. But de Bont shrugged it off, blaming the entire mess on a studio eager to repeat its payday and a lack of Keanu Reeves. But with his remake of The Haunting of Hill House, there was no place to hide. Dull, soulless, and visually messy, it confirmed that his move from setting the lens to calling the shots was premature.
Last Seen: Turning Tomb Raider into another stone in his moviemaking mausoleum.


Name: Renny Harlin
Prime Suspect: Cutthroat Island (1995)
Like de Bont, Finnish born Harlin got his start in the lower echelons of moviemaking. Both Prison and his installment of the Nightmare on Elm Street series proved he could handle horror. But his terrific take on the Die Hard franchise, and collaboration with super hot Sly Stallone (for Cliffhanger) turned him from pretender to preeminent.  Heck, even his work on the Andrew Dice Clay vanity vomit The Adventures of Ford Fairlane wasn’t the talent trainwreck everyone assumed. No, love led Renny astray, especially when he decided to turn then wife Geena Davis into a buccaneer. A decade after Roman Polanski proved that pirates were box office poison, this troubled production became the latest in a long line of notorious non-performers. It was such a massive flop that it rendered all his future efforts inert.
Last Seen: Making male model warlocks unintentionally hilarious in The Covenant.


Name: John McTiernan
Prime Suspect: Medicine Man (1992)
Though he’s had troubles off the film set that cost him dearly, McTiernan was viewed as a visionary for his Die Hard revamp of the thriller. It was a reputation secured thanks in part to his work on the equally effective Govenator vehicle Predator, and the superb submarine show, The Hunt for Red October. But Medicine Man proved that this determined director may indeed be a one trick—or make that, one genre—motion picture pony. Aside from a horribly miscast Sean Connery and a preposterous premise about the Amazon as a cancer curing enclave, the complete lack of intrigue had fans wondering if McTiernan had lost it. His next project, The Last Action Hero, confirmed everyone’s worst fears. It was a freefall that even a return to John McClane territory couldn’t salvage.
Last Seen: Rising for air with The Thomas Crown Affair redux, before slowly re-submerging.


Name: Kevin Reynolds
Prime Suspect: Rapa Nui (1994)
Back in the ‘80s, hitching your fortunes to a friend like Kevin Costner seemed like a sensational idea—and that’s exactly what lawyer turned USC film school grad Reynolds did. After working with the soon to be superstar on Fandango, the pair managed to fool the moviegoing public into buying the obviously American actor as Robin Hood. As the two prepared their next project—a post-apocalyptic epic set in a world completely encased in water—Reynolds decided to go native. Pre-dating Apocalypto by more than a decade, this tale of civil war among the indigenous people of Easter Island wanted to be a New Age naturalist adventure. Instead, it turned into a homo-erotic fallacy that fictionalized the region’s rich heritage. No one cared, and no one came. Even Costner abandoned him, kicking him off the troubled Waterworld.
Last Seen: Taking Shakespeare to task with his tame Tristan + Isolde.


Name: Guy Ritchie
Prime Suspect: Swept Away (2002)
Love can do funny things to the creative mind. It can fuel of myriad of artistic pretentions and possibilities. It can also destroy your fledging film career. When Ritchie married America’s middle aged answer to fame whoring, a.k.a. Madonna, he inherited his spouse’s mistaken belief in her cinematic possibilities. The dangerous combination of noted directorial novelty and blond ambition culminated in the cinematic hate crime Swept Away. It’s hard to figure out what’s worse—the notion that someone would be stupid enough to touch Lina Wertmüller’s certifiable culture clash classic, or substituting the riveting Mariangela Melato with the saggy singer who purred “Papa Don’t Preach”. It’s no surprise that this remains the Material matron’s last starring role. Richie, on the other hand, may never fully recover his tainted Tarantino clout.
Last Seen: Trying to return to his London underground crime roots.


Name: Michael Ritchie
Prime Suspect: The Survivors (1984)
Prior to his actual death in 2001 from prostate cancer, this former social satirist was one of the heavies of ‘70s Hollywood. After an apprenticeship in television, Ritchie burst onto the silver screen with one amazing movie after another—Downhill Racer, Prime Cut, The Candidate, Smile, The Bad News Bears, and Semi-Tough. Each one took on a major element of popular culture—sports, fame, beauty, politics—and filtered it through an amazingly insightful and ironic filmmaking mind. It was something Ritchie hoped to carry over into the ‘80s, but his efforts were short lived. Making the mistake of pairing motormouthed Robin Williams with laconic Walter Mathieu, this take on survivalists and the American fascination with guns was grating and uninspired. Worse, it was painfully unfunny, signaling the end of the Ritchie era.
Last Seen: Hanging out with his fellow filmmakers in Heaven’s sumptuous screening room.


Name: Michael Schultz
Prime Suspect: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)
It was bad enough that this Beatles debacle had to taint the reputation of the heretofore unflappable Fab Four, but it also undermined the career of one of the great future filmmakers of color. Many were unaware that this infamous flop was helmed by an African American. Even worse, Schultz was the defiant director of such noted urban excellence as Cooley High, Car Wash, and early Richard Pryor vehicles Greased Lightning and Which Way is Up? In a time period locked into the baser elements of blaxpolitation, this auteur was looking to magnify, not marginalize, his people. A decade later, he’d be putting rappers and wannabe hip hop stars through their pedestrian paces. If you want to know how an insightful, intelligent artist can become a slighted cultural shill, this pure pop puke is the answer.
Last Seen: Working his way through episodic television.


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