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Saturday, Nov 25, 2006


The year is 2176. The United States has become a dreary, desolate wasteland. A freak magnetic storm has wiped out all history. A team of scientists is instructed to take a time machine back into the past, to 1776 specifically, to re-discover the principles upon which the once mighty nation was founded. So Adam-11, Chanel-6, and Heinz-57, three hapless temporal explorers make the leap. But a computer glitch lands them in 1976, not quite the year of the Declaration of Independence. A Fifth of Beethoven, yes. As luck would have it, Chris Johnson and Tommy Sears, two California potheads, discover these futuristic fish out of water.


Our bong buddies agree to help the discoverers with their mission to find the true America. But a know-it-all nerd named Rodney Snodgrass threatens to ruin everything by sticking his conspiracy theory, alien obsessive nose into the drug duo’s business. With only twelve hours to obtain pertinent artifacts and a copy of the Constitution, our intrepid trio experiences everything that this enigmatic epoch has to offer: gas lines, recreational pharmaceuticals, and “The Hustle.” But it will take a group effort to avoid Rodney, his seedy brother Eddie, and a couple of bumbling CIA agents if our confused crew is ever going to return to the future to spread The Spirit of ‘76.


From its surrounding show business lineage, one could imagine that The Spirit of ‘76 is either a raucous yet sophisticated comedy (thanks to daddy Carl) or a modern, polished piece of nostalgia from deep inside the Hollywood hit machine (thanks to brother Rob). But Lucas Reiner, he also of the famed last name, tracks his touching take on the Me Decade directly down the middle of both roads, offering broad lampoon style humor with tender tweaks at that most retro of eras to create a gentle, genial farce. This is a very well observed satire, from the little moments (mood rings, space food sticks) to the outrageous fashion trends (it’s a polyester-palooza) and philosophical ideals (the EST like “Be” seminars). While the targets may seem obvious today, in this post That ‘70s Show / Austin Powers flashback media mentality, when conceived in 1989, The Spirit of ‘76 was (and still is) a fresh, friendly look at a much maligned epoch in US cultural history.


This is not a subtle slice of life like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (the inherent truth of that film and its carefully constructed look at a certain people and place make it more documentary than fiction) or an attempt at an actual recreation. It’s just a silly dumb spoof with some nice things to say about freedom. With a wink and a nod to the public’s perception of the entire leisure suit circumstances, The Spirit of ‘76 functions as both a comedy and a comment, presenting the Have A Nice Day dreamscape of 1976 as an enlightened, if decidedly lame, time frame.


One of the reasons The Spirit of ‘76 stands out, aside from its potent visual sense, is its eccentric casting. At first, there is an obviousness to the stars playing the lead roles. After all, what movie exploiting pop culture fads would avoid using ex-teen idols like Leif Garrett (as the hilariously sleazy Eddie Trojan) and David Cassidy (as time traveler Adam-11)? But scattered throughout Spirit are particularly obtuse choices as well. Steve and Jeff MacDonald from the superb rock group Redd Kross (whose brand of electrified pop is highly influenced by the ‘70s) are absolutely hilarious as the valley boy stoners Chris and Tommy. The members of Devo show up as officials of the future government, and other icons of the era (Tommy Chong, Rob “Meathead” Reiner) are matched with unusual cult figures (Earth Girls Are Easy‘s Julie Brown, The Kipper Kids) to flavor the film with an offbeat bouquet. Even regular “actor” Olivia D’Abo and circus clown Geoff Hoyle fit right in.


But a platoon of peculiar players would be nothing without a capable director to guide them, and youngest son/brother Lucas shows that, when it comes to helming hilarious motion pictures, there is something special in those Reiner genes. With an incredibly small budget and no major studio support, Lucas manages to create alternative realities, both past and futuristic, without the benefit of special effects or elaborate props. The homemade, thrift store conceit adds a real authenticity to this film. Instead of looking like a bunch of current actors running around in studio-sewn fashions, the lived-in feel of the clothing and sets make The Spirit of ‘76 seem that much more genuine. Reiner is to be commended for finding a way to make the financial limitations work. While not an all-out laugh riot, The Spirit of ‘76 is a well-made, well-conceived comic tribute to flared trousers and puka beads.


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Saturday, Nov 18, 2006


Doris Day is an actress of rhythms. She has differing modes of performance operation, and depending on the starring (or occasionally, supporting role) vehicle, she can crank it up or tone it way, way down. She uses her inherent wholesomeness as a shield, a way of hiding her substantial sensuality and beaming inner light. She’s often mislabeled as the world’s oldest virgin, mainly because her movie roles had her equal, not underneath, the leading men. In many ways, she is the role model for future actresses, trading femininity for friendliness while never losing the intelligence and spark that made her a star. She herself gave up her celebrity at the start of the 1970s, concentrating her efforts instead on charity work—especially animal rights and advocacy. As a result, she remains a part of a certain time, a relic reminding us of a period when paternalism still dictated the way in which married people performed their roles.


So when one thinks about it, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is the perfect Doris Day picture. It’s light and airy, like a sitcom made spectacular by the setting and the circumstances (it’s no surprise the film—derived from a best-selling book by Jean Kern—eventually became a short lived TV series). It employs formula elements like uncontrollable bratling children; decrepit, money pit style country homes; and eccentric cab drivers/playwrights who want to derive entertainment out of the most bizarre subject matter (a musical version of The Bible, for one) to pad its pleasantries. It lets Day take the lead, but only in service to her spouse David Niven, and never allows the possible unpleasantness of the real world (adultery, antagonism, sex) to step into the picture. From the beginning, this is a movie about rediscovering your center, about remembering what is important in life. And like all good old-fashioned Hollywood films from the time period, home and hearth are where your true loyalties should lie.


Our story starts in Manhattan, 1960. Larry Mackay (Niven) is about to become the talk of the town. The failed playwright and drama teacher has just been hired as a critic for the biggest paper in the city. And wouldn’t you know it, his first assignment is a doozy. He must review old friend Alfred North’s new show, starring the high-strung diva Deborah Vaughn. The show is a bomb. Of course, things at home aren’t much better. Wife Kate wants the family to move to the country, a situation better suited for the four young boys that make up the rest of the Mackay brood. This means a major commute for Larry, and when he spends more time in the city (especially in the occasional company of Ms. Vaughn), Kate gets suspicious. Can she save her marriage, or will she be too busy screaming “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” to the children?


While it may be hard to see it, you can actually witness the birth of the high concept motion picture comedy here. It may not be as obvious as the far-reaching films of the ‘80s, but you still can see how name performers are being placed in outrageous positions to twist contrivance into conviction. Of course, Niven has to become an egomaniac—how else will he learn humility? Of course the children must be city spoiled urchins—how else will they learn the magic of the country? Deborah Vaughn must be an extreme. The same with Alfred. Otherwise, the eventual leveling of their characters wouldn’t mean as much to the narrative. Similar to Day’s predetermined pitch (read: manic and perky), Please Don’t Eat the Daisies is tuned to a plane of preposterousness that can only exist in the movies. Larry would never allow himself to be humiliated with his own poor play in real life (a true plot contrivance if ever there was one), nor would any right-thinking adult buy a Gothic dump like the one the Mackays purchase in the country. Indeed, what Daisies wants to do is set up outrageous situations, hoping the humanity will seep through. Thanks to the terrific acting all around, it does—but not without some bumps along the way.


Perhaps the best storyline in the film doesn’t involve Day, the children, or the move to the country. Instead, David Niven gets the award-winning arc as he moves from theater professor to high-powered media critic for a major New York paper. Slowly, over the course of Daises, Niven’s Larry goes from meek moralist with integrity to maintain, to sanctimonious fourth estate dictator with a sense of self-importance larger than any actor he’s critiquing. Naturally, this leads to a fine dramatic double whammy as old friends try to get back at him while starlet Janet Paige (as Vaughn) tries to seduce him. Basically, while Doris is home playing with the wee ones, David is being wined and dined for his praise and positive reviews.


The rest, sadly, is pure Hollywood artifice. It’s bad enough trying to envision Day married to Niven (a similar situation occurs in her pairing with Rex Harrison in Midnight Lace). Day is just too American, too crafted out of Kansas corn, California sun, and Bible Belt basics to warrant such a steak-and-kidney stiff upper lip. Also, the kids are a central casting nightmare (though it is fun to see future My Three Sons sibling Stanley Livingston as one of the manic Mackays), biology playing no part in their look or their personalities (how Niven and Day raised such delinquents is a question for cinematic psychiatrists to ponder). Yet, somehow, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies manages to make its points with humor and heart. This is neither a laugh-out-loud farce, nor is it really a pointed study in character. It is the melodrama version of comedy—not quite farce, but close enough in tone to warrant a mild comparison. Instead, this is urbanity taken to tired extremes, with only the expert cast and journeyman direction of Charles Walters saving the silliness.


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Saturday, Nov 11, 2006


Gillian Kaites is one of those undercover cops who only looks believable in a low-budget action picture. Long and lanky with no visible physical or law enforcement aptitude, she is still the most highly decorated member of her force. This means that within minutes of the movie’s start, she ends up weeping over the corpse of her dead partner/boyfriend/fiancé. An arms ring sting goes ka-ping when a raw rookie starts making like Starsky, and before you know it, Gillian is lost, forlorn and depressed. Taking a drive on a road to nowhere, she is harassed by a couple of creeps in a black van. Then, out of the blue, she picks up a hysterical hitchhiker dressed in a swanky evening dress (thumbing rides reached its fashion pinnacle in the mid-‘80s). The sheriff comes along and assures Gillian that the rambling runaway will be safe and sound. All he needs is a statement from her.


Before she knows it, Gillian’s been drugged, dragged into a dingy prison cell, and set upon by the sassy barracks broad, a pissed-off convict named Vicky. Soon, Gillian gets to know the “don’t drop the soap” ropes. Doc Bass comes along to give the girls “examinations,” mostly consisting of Mr. Blackwell-style beauty consultations. Mrs. Pusker, the head matron, roughs up the detainees to keep them under control. And when she’s too busy, she gets her lover/lesbian behemoth Big Eddie to do the debauched dirty work. But Warden Maxwell is the worst. Selling the sullen ladies to the highest bidder, he takes a few of the captive gals to his secret hideaway to make incredibly disgusting snuff porn. The violation of a young innocent named Sharon finally gets Gillian off her rigid rump to find a way to escape. But it will take all the detained dames to help realize this fantasy of fleeing. But since they all have a Lust for Freedom, it should be as easy as a jailhouse romance.


You only need three words to understand why Lust for Freedom is such a fantastic freak-out of a film: three simple pieces of the English language that say so very much while remaining so basic and pure. Trapped within their vowels and consonants are the tone, the timbre, and the type of cinematic sensation you’re in for. And what is this lexis of lunacy, you ask—this triumvirate of telltale phonics? Why, women in prison, of course.


That’s right, ripped from the storehouse of stalwart exploitation genres and given a 1980s hair band rebirth, Lust for Freedom is that wonderful standby of innocent babes behind bars, forced to fend for themselves and their femininity against a corrupt system of guards, hacks, henchmen, hired help, wardens, judges, doctors, and police. As old as cinema itself and jam-packed with as many examples of outrageous big house badness, nothing quite compares to a ribald, ridiculous tale of ladies locked up for no good reason. But in the case of Lust for Freedom, the fiction is taken to a whole new level of the preposterous. The Georgia County Correctional Facility is home to rape, torture, drug dealing, nude frolics, white slavery, pedophilia, and all manner of plot-padding perversions. The warden sells inmates to the local doctor, who grades his purchases on a sliding scale of his own device. (Bad overbite and split ends? She’s a 5!) The prison head also grabs some of the more unwilling members of the Gen Pop and forces them to make butt bongo bonanzas. And when the aardvarking is done, it’s time for a celluloid two-fer: sex scenes turn deadly as snuff becomes the stuff of the warden’s miscreant moviemaking.


Indeed, Lust for Freedom is so ripe with seedy shenanigans and despicable ideas that makers of autopsy porn look down on its delicious tawdriness. Conceived, created, and directed by Troma cult icon Eric Louzil (responsible for such other unexpected delights as Sizzle Beach, U.S.A. and Class of Nuke ‘em High II), this is one exploitation gambol that takes the tired conventions of the jailbird genre and pumps them full of radioactive iniquity. From the jaded Geronimo named Judd—about as American Indian as Val Kilmer and equally insane—to the bleary, booze-eyed doctor who dresses like the Colonel Sanders of snatch, this movie unleashes its demons of depravity for the entire world to gloryhole in. Who cares if Melanie Coll can’t act her way out of a wet baby wipe? And the rest of the cast appears to have gotten their acting chops (and low, throaty voices) from the Mercedes McCambridge Correspondence School of Sour Dispositions.


Lust for Freedom makes you understand instantly why films of this genre—namely gals in gulags—are so cotton-picking pleasing. One sequence in particular will have your sordid sensations high-voltaged over to 11. While two hot honeys get a little better acquainted in their cell (Sappho would be so proud), one of the warden’s henchmen rapes a dumb dope-smuggling doll at crossbow point. To top things off, Mrs. Pusker gives a potential breakout bimbo the business end of a whip. As all three scenes intercut and interconnect, the storm clouds of filth begin to gather. Soon, rains of vulgar randiness are falling all over the screen, and folks at home with a pandering proclivity for smut are a lot like Loverboy—lovin’ every minute of it. There is nothing wrong with wallowing in the den of sin that is a hilarious hunk of hoosegow hijinx. Lust for Freedom delivers in shivers.


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Saturday, Oct 28, 2006


Before its release in 1988, Dead Heat was a hotly anticipated horror title. Written up numerous times in Fangoria magazine and rumored about by knowledgeable fans eager to see what sick, twisted special effects makeup artist Steve Johnson would come up with, it seemed like a can’t miss prospect. Johnson was a young gun of prosthetics who had quickly become a fright flick favorite with such spectacle-filled titles under his belt as Videodrome, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Howling II. And the premise was ripe for a few quickie sequels, the continued stories of the living-dead law enforcement friends. It seemed as though the scene was set for another potential hit terror title. Then Dead Heat knocked into theaters and flopped, vanishing to video shelves everywhere. It became a forgotten film, a mere blip on the radar of well-regarded scary movies from the 1980s.


And that’s too bad, because Dead Heat is an inventive, inviting horror comedy that avoids formulas while it deconstructs clichés to make what has to be the first action-adventure-living-dead comedy ever conceived. Utilizing a wonderful idea and presenting it with all the creativity a barebones budget would allow, director Mark Goldblatt perverted the buddy cop prescription into a zombified geek show of bloodletting, corpses, and plenty of jocularity. Toss in the graphic (for its time) snuff stuff and some self-deprecating wit, and what you have is something very special; a movie that should have been a creepy crawly contender. Instead, it’s just a fond memory for those who discovered it initially, and a “What the heck is this?” moment for a few formerly famous faces.


Treat Williams is wonderful here, tossing aside all his gruff, anxious high drama seriousness and letting loose with a cool, collected performance. He brings the right amount of anarchic authority to the film, helping to sell the over-the-top foundation. When he becomes a walking corpse cop, you can see Williams relishing the renegade antics of his character the more he decays and rots. Joe Piscopo, occasionally appearing as nothing more than an ad for anabolic alteration, does manage to get in a couple of zesty zingers before it’s time to flex his non-hilarious pythons again. Frankly, this is one of the few times where the ex-SNLer’s bulking routine actually fits his character. Detective Bigelow seems a couple of protein shakes away from a health regime, and Piscopo’s radically altered physique logically illustrates this pumped-up personality choice.


Such cult icons as Vincent Price (still spry and sinister in one of his last roles), Darren McGavin (giving his criminal coroner a real peppy persona), and Keye Luke (actually playing a cutthroat villain) bring another level of star polish to the independent terror tale. Indeed, between the acting and direction, a solid little scarefest is created. But Johnson’s novel—and unnerving—special effects work is the film’s most memorable asset. From reanimated corpses in various “stitched together” configurations to the set-piece gross-out in the Chinese butcher shop (where cuts of meat and other “processed” animals come back to life to get revenge), this effects wiz really excels here. Lindsay Frost undergoes one of the best onscreen makeup meltdowns ever. It’s because of the glorious grue that Dead Heat, even with all its help, rises above other routine terrors from the MTV decade.


Frankly, it’s surprising that in the rush to remake any old horror film, no one has thought about giving this tantalizing tale a little redux action. One can easily see a successful mainstream movie of the macabre being fashioned out of the successful shell of this stellar work. Jazz up the effects, increase the blood, and infuse the story with lots of A-name star power, and boffo box office is some studio’s for the taking. Bigger than life on a Cineplex screen or loaded onto your home theater setup, Dead Heat can and does work. It’s mainly because scriptwriter Terry Black (brother of Lethal Weapon‘s Shane Black) has crafted a well-conceived film. Dead Heat never lets its premise get so out of hand as to destroy the dimensions of dread, and all the comic elements help to magnify, not minimize, the shocks and slaughter. Zombies are always good for some gore and terrorizing, but here they are walking, talking, thinking ex-humans with a capacity for immortality (unlike typical living dead gospel, they seem near-impossible to kill).


Limiting the craven creeps to a chosen few and giving them distinct visual personalities (the two-faced fiend, the walking-dead weasel, etc) helps us handle the more implausible elements. Black also gives the typical cop team-up dialogue a little added vitality by making Roger a dull, drone-like officer with a penchant for interpersonal insincerity. This gives Williams’s scenes with both Frost and Clare Kirkconnell as morgue assistant Rebecca Smythers a kind of human emotional resonance that many monster movies lack. Black’s script, combined with Mark Goldblatt’s crackerjack direction and sense of tension, enables Dead Heat to surpass its small-time trappings and become a big-idea film in a petite independent package.


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Saturday, Oct 21, 2006


While cruising the sun stroked byways of Retirement Territory, U.S.A (a.k.a. Florida) on his mega-machined chopper, wounded Vietnam veteran Herschel runs into Jesus’ personal P.R. representative, Angel. She lives with her dope fiend sister Ann in a house frequented by several prime examples of why American ingenuity and productivity was so poor in the ‘70s. While Angel preaches the psalms to Herschel, Ann tries to get to “know” him in the true Biblical sense. Realizing that the only begetting old Hersch is interested in is of the platonic variety, Ann seeks her revenge by making the beefy buffoon smoke some oregano doobies laced with pure smack. One puff, and Herschel is hooked, painfully craving more spiked smoke to calm his horrible overacting.


But instead he gets a job on a local turkey farm where the inbred cousins of Bartles and James feed him free bird pumped full of Adolph’s meat tenderizer, overly salty chicken broth, and the magic ingredient Polyplotpoint 80. Instead of copping a buzz off the L-tryptophan, however, Herschel turns into a half-man/half bird beast, complete with papier-mâché turkey head and overdubbed gobble. Hungry like the hen, he goes out looking for drug addicts to kill for their rich, chemically enhanced blood. And while Ann feels guilt for getting Herschel hooked, and Angel memorizes the last few Beatitudes, the foul feathered fiend roams the streets of Sun City Center, looking for supermodels, rock stars and grade schoolers to supply him with the opium rich artery juice he so desperately needs.


What do you get when you cross some retread reefer madness, accidental drug addiction, religious fundamentalism, body building and processed turkey loaf? Well, if you’re oddball director Brad Grinter, you end up with Blood Freak, the only film in the entire exploitation canon to be endorsed by The Southern Baptist Convention, the Betty Ford Clinic, and the Butterball Thanksgiving Hotline. There is probably no other movie in the long lineage of monster/maniac/heroin related filmography that centers on a brawny European muscleman getting addicted to Chinese Rock-enhanced wacky weed while working as the subject of some warped experiments at the local subsidiary of the Perdue poultry empire. Only Godmonster of Indian Flats can boast a more bizarre cinematic universe, and yet its Old West weirdness just cannot compare to Freak‘s Vietnam vet in a fowl mood madness.


It’s hard to fathom what Grinter was hoping to achieve with this movie. Was he mad at drugs? Irritated by religion? Longing for the invention of Stovetop Stuffing? The motivation is unclear. But the method used to achieve it is downright demented. Grinter is of the old cinematic school that feels a movie doesn’t have to make a great deal of linear sense as long as it contains frequent shots of the director smoking. That’s right, about every eight minutes or so, our swarthy South Florida celluloid sod appears on camera, eyes blurry from too many Tom Collins, fingers and breath stained yellow from endless Marlboros, hair swirled with a combination of Alberto VO5 and dried vomit, and proceeds to narrate the film by blatantly reading from the script. His Grecian Formula 16 chorus adds an inebriated pseudo-philosophy to the entire pissed off psycho pullet shenanigans.


But these drunken monotonous-logues by Mr. Grinter, with their non-sensical segues and his pre-throat cancerous croak are not the only unhinged things about Blood Freak. The whole religious, Jesus saves subplot is hilariously out of place here. It’s as if some cast member ran across a copy of The Watchtower on the craft services table and wouldn’t let the production finish until there was a little holy hollering added to the sex, drugs, and turkey murders. The cast gives off the aura of being perplexed by their own performances, with the forced child confession emoting of the actress playing Ann as plastic as the elaborate layers of eye paint she wears—Tammy Faye must be spinning in her vanity chair.


But it’s the whole murderous doped up turkey-man idea that shoots this movie into the surreal stratosphere. The scenes of our strung out strongman, big bullem bird head in place, attacking victims and letting blood have an unworldly, downright disturbing quality. You will be laughing, mind you, but some of the gore is fairly nasty. Especially effective is an elongated torture scene near the end of the film. Lets just say it involves our insane roaster, a table saw, and a drug dealer’s leg (Lucio Fulci would be proud). The kinetic, freestyle editing, the endless shots of Grinter babbling like an improvising, smut peddling Criswell, and actors who play dead by wincing and wiggling as all the while effects gore F/X across their face makes Blood Freak a first rate crazed capon caper.


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