A special kind of applause should be granted to any actor/actress who can take on a role that in some form or another mocks their features, or worse, feeds into the stigmas they get from other people. For example, Camryn Manheim's performance in Happiness where she calls herself “fat” and “ugly” while slurping down ice cream, or Paul Reubens playing the ghost of a pervert in Todd Solondz's most recent film Life During Wartime. Criminally Insane marks the beginning of the short but interesting low-budget career for actress Priscilla Alden. The tagline of the film is “250 pounds of maniacal terror,” and Alden breathes life into the phrase with her pathetic, brutal, and sometimes comic portrayal of Ethel Janowski, also known as “Crazy Fat Ethel.”
Janowski is an obese mental patient with whom you sympathize at first. The film opens with her shock therapy sessions, followed by her glaring at the camera while dressed in a straitjacket. We are then introduced to her grandmother (Jane Lambert), who speaks with her doctors about her progress and the possibility of taking her home. Ethel is released from the asylum and returns to a quiet San Francisco neighborhood with her grandmother. Once settled she dives into a bout of anti-Semitic slurs against her doctor, whom she claims was trying to starve her to death. Simultaneously she begins to stuff her face with a hearty breakfast: a dozen fried eggs, a whole slab of bacon, half a loaf of toasted bread, and milk. The scene is unnerving for two reasons: (1) watching Ethel in a close-up stuffing her face is uncomfortable and purposefully repulsive, and (2) you get the feeling that someone with that kind of insatiable appetite has more in common with a predatory beast than a human being with logical thoughts. There's also discomfort in the dialogue from the grandmother who is passively bullying her while she's eating—reciting the ol' “never too late to watch your figure” line.
It's fairly safe to say that those who consider themselves cineastes or cinefiles have a series of genres in which they feel quite knowledgeable. In retrospect, they often praise these films on the obvious basis that they think they're superior to other genres in many ways. A horror buff will scoff at the claim that classic dramas are unmatchable in terms of style and entertainment, and vice versa. The irony behind these arguments is that underneath every film is just a story—some fantastical and others quite plain. Film does not reflect life and human consciousness so much as it interprets these things and distorts them for the viewer. Everyone walks away with their own subjective thoughts because of a mirrored element, or lack of, which they can relate to. The magic is in the varied levels in which a film can affect a wide range of people. If there is any sense or weight to my claim here, you won't find a broader or more distorted film than Thundercrack!.
Rarely will a person like myself glorify or reference a film that is classified as smut. Perhaps it's because modern smut is lacking in something quite important: a story that can hold itself up without the exposure of genitals. Thundercrack!, written by and starring George Kuchar (1942–2011) and directed by his good friend (possible ex-lover) Curt McDowell (1945–1987), is a parody film like nothing you've ever seen and is now among my top 20 favorite movies. It pays homage to just about every genre, specifically horror, Noir, fantasy and comedy, and presents the viewer with something very extraordinary.
On a stormy night, several groups of people find themselves seeking shelter at a creepy mansion. Two women pick up two stranded men and they get into a car accident. A ring master from a circus is en route with a crazy gorilla named Medusa, and a few others make their way there by default. The house is owned by Mrs. Gert Hammond (Marion Eaton), an insane widow who has the remains of her husband pickled in various jars. The group is grateful for Mrs. Hammond's hospitality while observing her near-psychopathic behavior. She decides to make them all refreshments and dinner and tells them to go into a vacant room to change out of their wet clothes and into her and her deceased husband's wardrobe. The room she leads them to is crude and ridiculous: there's a blow up doll on the bed, a glass dish with KY jelly, and sex toys and posters ranging from cutesy forest scenes to pornographic scenarios. A hilarious and fairly distasteful sequence occurs as each person enters the room to change. Meanwhile, Hammond spies on them through a false wall. As she expects, each person is aroused by one or more objects in the room and starts to...well, you know. As she watches, the kooky Mrs. Hammond gets off on the opposite side of the wall with a shaved cucumber. Up until this point, you forget you're watching a pornographic film. But once you see a close up of Hammond's privates and her beloved cucumber, you know you're in for a wild ride.
Following the changing sequence, the group starts to get to know each other. Many of them get to know each other a little too well and escape to empty bedrooms. Two of the men are gay, and all of the women are single, therefore a satiric play on sexuality unfolds where the women are constantly trying to seduce the men, regardless of their interest in them. The gay men are also advancing on all the men present, regardless of their sexual orientation. The entire film brings to mind a bizarre game of musical chairs as the entire group and the hostess all end up having sex. Towards the end, the circus master Bing (George Kuchar) finds his way to the mansion and informs the group that his truck is damaged and that his gorilla (who has a taste for sex with humans) is on the loose and can only be calmed with bananas. As the group tries to think of a way to escape the house with the crazed gorilla lurking outside, they also try to help Bing work through his mental breakdown. As it turns out, the reason the gorilla likes having sex with humans is because she raped Bing in her cage years ago. This particular part of the movie is a grotesque parody to Beauty and the Beast, as Bing realizes that he's in love with Medusa. The story ends when Hammond's darkest secret—her deformed son hidden in a cellar—is discovered by her frightened guests.
It's easy to reference the sex in the movie, mainly because there's a lot of it and you really can't work your way around it. However, the film as a whole would be just as good without it, and I think that's why I loved it so much. It reminded me of the early works of John Waters, specifically Female Trouble. It pulled off all the wonderful bits of many great genres: the soft-focus lighting, dramatic music, and fairytale romance of classics; the shadows, montage, and shifty mise-en-scene of Noirs; the stormy night and deranged host of horror films; and the witty dialogue and near-slapstick approach to certain gags found in comedy. McDowell and Kuchar took all of these elements—ones which they'd admired all their young lives—and threw in raunchy sex. The film is a coming-out story for the two, where each pays respects to what they've been taught about the norm while exposing their sexual progress and retaliating against that norm. McDowell was fairly promiscuous, while Kuchar was always ashamed and awkward when it came to sex. It's this rebellious, cautious, and double-sided plot that stuck with me the most, but that's just me. I couldn't possibly imagine how the events could actually turn someone on, but they might have. To each his own. Either way, the film was enjoyable on many levels and hands down the most bizarre sequence of events that I've ever seen. Rest in Peace, George! Highly Recommended.
Like Romeo & Juliet before it, the basic premise of Stone Cold has been recycled dozens of times since its release (Point Break, Good Cops Don’t Cry, The Fast and the Furious). Does this sound familiar? A maverick cop goes undercover into a dangerous criminal underworld and, under the spell of the bad guy’s charismatic leader, maybe gets in a little too deep. Skipping the Actors Studio or some other pansy thespian training, Brian “The Boz” Bosworth learned his acting ropes on the NFL field. At one time he was a big football star; with his way-out mullet dos and crazy sunglasses he was a sorta steroid version of David Lee Roth.
Joe Huff (Bosworth) is a loner cop who plays by his own rules. He’s stone cold, not just because he wears stonewash jeans, but also because underneath his long black dusters he’s fearless, with almost a death wish. After being blackmailed by a prick Fed (Sam McMurray), Huff is forced to infiltrate a tough, beer- drinking biker gang who've killed a judge and been involved in all kinds of naughty activity. No longer Huff, The Boz opts for the kickass undercover name Stone. To get to the big dog, Chains Cooper (Lance Henrikson), Huff has to get past his second-in-command, the psychotic Ice (William Forsythe). And as the formula goes, Chains, though a scary dude, starts to trust Huff, and even encourages his old lady, Nancy (Arabella Holzbog), to have a go at him, but his Lieutenant Ice smells a rat.
D.W. Griffith: Father of Film
I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, just like presumably every person born after 1928, I have a hard time sitting through a silent film. From the still surviving fragments showcasing a variety of short film subjects (train robbers to bathing beauties) to the masterworks from the twilight years of the silent film era by Josef von Sternberg it’s all similarly a bit hard to follow. This is what I would consider to be an annoyingly self-created barrier to my cinematic education because silent film is a whole exciting, if challenging, world unto itself and a vital tool through which to examine American history. Perhaps no American director presents such possibilities for revelatory discovery and, crucially, the worst kind of enduring cultural embarrassment as one D.W. Griffith, the “father of film.” Kevin Brownlow, the esteemed British film historian and recent honorary Oscar winner, directed this 3-part documentary on Griffith and it offers the quickest route to understanding the man as icon and tragic victim of his own belligerent hubris without having to sit through the entirety of his films.
Griffith was the proud son of a Kentucky Civil War colonel and a prolific short film director who worked for Biograph Studios in New York. Following the lead of DeMille and other film industry pioneers he headed west. Though he amassed a huge body of work as both a short and full-length film director he is singularly important for his film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Its dual legacy as both a pioneering work of film art and a grotesquely racist misunderstanding of the origins and aftermath of the Civil War will never truly be resolved. He is, in some ways, the American Leni Riefenstahl. Out of a shocking naiveté or a pathetically primitive world view he did not foresee the problems that would stem from his assault on the dignity of African American Southerners as lazy and childlike people who were better off as slaves under the care of their benign white masters. Just to put this in perspective, the heroes who ride in at the end are members of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s almost impossible to watch these scenes and keep in mind the ways in which The Birth of a Nation, with its inventive use of crosscutting, changed the art of filmmaking forever. Mostly one just cringes and thinks, “How much worse can this get?”