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Mudlark Movies: Lucky Stiff

They’re the lost souls of the cinema, the forgotten offspring of someone’s most magical motion picture dreams. Usually, they fall victim to changing times or differing audience temperament, or a studio might suddenly go bankrupt or a backer suddenly pull out — and along with them, the distribution funds. There are times when worthiness and watchability are the true deciding factors. In other instances, it’s perceived reputation that motivates the decision.

Every year, dozens of movies end up on the homeless shelf, scuttled by executives who don’t know what to do with them, forgotten by filmmakers who knew that a consistent career in show biz allows no time for crying (or caring) over spilt celluloid. These are the cinematic orphans. They are the forsaken films. They are Mudlark Movies — motion picture foster children. Shuffled around from studio vault to direct to video domain, no one wants these completed filmic foundlings. They appeared destined to live in obscurity forever, squelched by their mainstream siblings.

Examples are often hard to come by, since many film aficionados aren’t even aware of these entertainment waifs. After they are created, they simply languish in limited release, see a significantly shortened box office window in some far off town, before finally making their way to a quasi-profitable stint as a VHS/DVD. Once the last cent has been rung from their Kodachrome hide, the picture quietly goes out of print, only to be replaced by another of its movie misfit brethren. A few fans would have fond/foul memories of the time they stumbled into a video store, drunk on wine coolers and stoked for something ‘unusual’, only to be stuck with these lonely last items on the shelf. They either acknowledge and nurture the unloved film or ignore it like the rest of the pop culture planet.

A good example of a mudlark is the 1992 comedy Brain Donors. Conceived as a throwback to the Marx/Ritz Brothers ideal of Hellzapoppin’ humor, it tried to recapture the bygone days of slapstick and satire, and actually did a terrific job at both. The cast was excellent, including Mel Smith, John Turturro, and Bob Nelson, and the entire affair had a fun-derful spirit of anarchy and wit. It’s really no surprise, since it was written by Pat Proft, a talented TV scribe who got his start on the Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood spoof When Things Were Rotten.

Throughout the ’70s and early ’80s Proft (along with occasional partner Neil Israel) built a creative — and arguably corny — canon of comedy. He worked with the creators of Airplane! on their Police Squad! series, and co-wrote that apocalyptic anti-farce, Police Academy. But by the mid-80s Proft was trying to branch out, balancing sophomoric shtick like the Tom Hank’s hit Bachelor Party with more intelligent fare (the truly excellent Real Genius). But before he would take on a modernized Moe, Larry, and Curly in Donors, Proft unleashed his most adventurous bit of anarchy yet: a slice of comic cannibal cleverness from 1988 — and ultimate mudlark — Lucky Stiff.

The story was simple. Fat and forlorn Ron Douglas (a magnificent performance by comic turned voice over artist Joe Alaskey) has just been dumped by another fiancé. He’s been left at the altar more times than a stale communion wafer. Hoping to recuperate from this latest marital catastrophe, Ron takes a trip to the mountains, and there he meets the woman of his dreams. Cynthia Mitchell (a scintillating Donna Dixon) takes an immediate shine to Ron, and before you know it, the portly paramour is off to meet her family. Little does he know that Cynthia has more than getting acquainted on her mind. She was in charge of finding this year’s ‘holiday’ dinner for the man eating Mitchell’s and Ron is a hefty serving and a half.

Granted, the premise appears a bit loopy. When he finally does get to Mitchell manor, the family is a bunch of inbreeding buffoons who’ve taught the entire surrounding area to enjoy the taste of human helper. While they try to play it straight, they just can’t help but drool when they see Ron’s robust physique and ample portions of well-marbled white guy meat. There is a random toxic waste dump, a surreal bit involving the hands of another visitor to the home (the supposed bride to be of Cynthia’s brother), and some scenes of superfluous gore. Yet Proft’s laugh-a-second script consistently saves the day. It never lets us out of the far more fanciful aspects of the story, and sprinkles in enough levity to keep the darkly humorous tone tolerable.

The direction though is what really helps sell the surreality. One of only two movies helmed by famed Psycho star, Anthony Perkins, Lucky Stiff is a black comedy with a deceptively silver lining. Perkins was not known for his work behind the camera, but after helming the very stylish second sequel to Hitchcock’s black and white classic (Psycho III arrived in 1986), the actor was itching to fashion another film. Using his clout and some compensation considerations, Perkins picked up Stiff and ran with its idiosyncratic insanity. In one of the rare cases where the material manipulated the man making it, and visa versa, Lucky Stiff became far more fiendish with Norman Bates at the lens. But because it was so genial, and so absolutely funny, it appeared lighter and less menacing than a movie about people eating people should initially play.

Why Joe Alaskey never got another leading role after this film is just plain flummoxing. He is amazing here, doing the sad sack unlucky in love loser bit with just enough self-effacing irony to keep his character from becoming a total creep. Certainly he is hurt after losing yet another potential spouse, but he has a crazed kind of smile on his face which indicates he will more than likely make it through . . . again. Playing off of him, as mentioned, is Donna Dixon, who was nothing much more than appealing eye candy (and Mrs. Dan Aykroyd) before her work in this film. She makes Cynthia an object of desire as well as a slightly demented danger. Obviously the “dirty” work in her family is done by her father and slightly askew brother, Ike (played with sinister glee by B-movie maven Jeff Kober), but she’s no innocent. She knows you don’t get many Ron Douglas’s to the pound and she’s willing to do anything to satisfy her family’s hankering for ‘long pig’.

Admittedly, the movie is not a complete success. Alaskey is a quip meister throughout most of Act One and Two, but once the Mitchell residence arrives, we get mired down in what can best be described as a forced romance with action sequence overtones. Ron is suddenly smitten by the brother’s bride to be, and they take off running through the nuclear landfill that surrounds the Mitchell household. In the meantime, competing clans of cannibals wage an all out war trying to capture the obese feast for themselves. Instead of getting by on verbal wit and a consistent tone, Perkins opts for physical shtick and pratfalls. Sometimes it’s funny, at others times it’s not. Had brains been used instead of brawn to solve the situation and resolve the crisis, Lucky Stiff may have been a thinking man’s comedy classic.

But as it stands, it’s a mudlark, and for more reasons than just a scattered finale. Not knowing who or how to market this movie (it wasn’t scary enough for the horror crowd or straightly comedic enough for the humor bunch) New Line sat on it, before doing the ‘in and out’ method of merchandising, i.e., into theaters for a brief stint, out onto video afterward. It developed a bit of a minor cult following, thanks in no small part to the wealth of quotable dialogue in the film (“Even Hitler had a girlfriend”, “Can I have your autograph, Mr. Porky Pig?”) and a full feature write-up in the Gen-X giant of horror journalism, Fangoria (naturally emphasizing the cannibalism and the carnage over the comedy). Like Parents, another smart and witty look at flesh eating among family members from writer/director Bob Balaban, there is a real undercurrent of evil that provides a nice counterpoint to all the romantic discord.

Proft may be piling on the jokes, but Ron’s fate is still sealed in a several-hundred-degree oven for 20 minutes per pound. Indeed, it is one of the mudlark’s many calling cards that the original idea of the narrative overcomes and outgrows its original design. In Brain Donors for examples, the interaction between Tuturro, Nelson and Stuart is so superb that you want more of that, and less of the Night at the Opera as ballet rip-off. Parents poses so many queer questions, from the outright eeriness of Eisenhower era America to the long loving takes of bloody meat in various stages of preparation that you want the cannibalism angle explained, not just passed off as the possible whim of an underage boy’s vivid imagination. Ron’s dilemma is equally askew. We wonder if he’ll ever find true love, or just end up being a hot lunch.

It’s the many levels of competing interest that make a mudlark so much fun to find. And once you’ve adopted one, raising it up through the various niches and genres of film fandom becomes a truly educational motion picture parentage. So won’t you find it in your narrow-minded heart — or overcrowded DVD display case — for one of these ragamuffin releases? They never meant to go unacknowledged and unappreciated. They didn’t do anything to deserve their place in the cinematic shelters of forgotten film. All they wanted to do is entertain, and they still can, if you simply open up your cold, cynical aesthetic, and let one in. They say charity begins at home. In the case of Lucky Stiff and other orphaned offerings, it starts in the home theater.