Growing up, Frank Henenlotter was always one of my filmmaking heroes and it’s not just because he made the cult classic films Basket Case and Brain Damage. It was mainly because, like me, he was originally from Long Island, New York. In fact, I recall my best friend’s mother worked with Frank’s brother at the same police precinct and for whatever strange reason, this made my friends and I feel like he was the first director that we were two steps away from rather than someone we’d imagined being in the far away land of Hollywood. It proved to us you can make movies in New York and be someone from Long Island to make them too.
So it’s funny how Frankenhooker, which would end up being my favorite of his films, was actually the last one I discovered. How I managed to go years without seeing it is completely beyond me, especially with the now legendary Bill Murray quote right on the front of the box stating “If you only see one movie this year it should be Frankenhooker.” Also, despite it’s location being set in New Jersey (in actuality, it’s Valley Stream), it’s arguably the most “Long Island” movie I’ve ever seen, at least in terms of reminding me what it was like growing up there in the late '80s/early '90s. For all of the above reasons I hold a special place in my heart for Frankenhooker.
God Bless America
God Bless America is a satirical masterpiece, plain and simple, and it’s not surprising if you look at the trajectory of Bobcat Goldthwait’s films as a writer/director. The former stand-up comedian and star of the Police Academy sequels kicked off his filmmaking career with the often misunderstood and underrated 1991 comedy Shakes The Clown, in which he also starred, but it was his two follow-ups, Sleeping Dogs Lie and World’s Greatest Dad, that solidified him as the master of the black comedy. Those two films represent some of the darkest and most uncomfortable cinematic farces you’re bound to ever see and while he had plenty to say through the characters of those previous movies, God Bless America feels like his most personal rant on the wrongs of our current celebrity obsessed society. All the things he’d probably vent about in a modern stand-up routine are all neatly plugged into his latest feature-length film making this arguably his most personal movie to date.
Joel Murray (reuniting with Bobcat for the first time since his 1986 big-screen debut One Crazy Summer) plays Frank, a genuinely decent person who gets frustrated easily by the stupidity that constantly surrounds him. Take his completely oblivious and inconsiderate neighbors who through paper-thin walls stay up super late to loudly discuss the most asinine subjects while their unattended newborn baby cries in the background nonstop. Between the noise and his migraines, Frank can never get a good night’s sleep. So most evenings he’s plopped on his couch flipping through the channels to catch commercials for “pig fart” ringtones and power drink advertisements in between episodes of reality shows like Tuff Gurlz where one girl throws a used tampon at another girl. (No doubt, an MTV show.) But hey, that’s nothing compared to the news reports he combs through depicting kids doing violent things and then posting them on YouTube, or the angry religious fanatics protesting some social ill of the week.
The Toxic Avenger
Troma Entertainment has been churning out what can be considered the epitome of “cult” films for over 30 years and has proudly stood tall as the purveyors of independent cinema. But most of their output in those 30 years might be looked upon as lowest common denominator material. To be blunt, the majority of their movies feature some of the most outlandish gags and stories being executed in the poorest of taste with the sole purpose of offending just about anyone and everyone that watches them. Then again, therein lies the charm of a typical Troma film. No other movie among their catalog matches the greatness of The Toxic Avenger, Lloyd Kaufman’s most famous creation which at least manages to be offensive and entertaining.
No one could’ve predicted back in 1984 that this little low-budget indie gore-fest would go on to spawn three sequels, comic books, a television cartoon titled the Toxic Crusaders and a slew of related toys and merchandise. After all, could the world’s first superhero from New Jersey who was born of toxic waste really become that huge of an icon? Low and behold, for better or worse, he has! And that’s part of the fun in revisiting the film now which so perfectly captures the sleaziness of New Jersey/New York of the early '80s.
The Ninth Configuration
The small list of novelists turned movie directors would include Maya Angelou helming Down in the Delta, Stephen King doing Maximum Overdrive, Thomas McGuane's Ninety-Two in the Shade, Michael Crichton directing half a dozen flicks (including Westworld and Coma), and Paul Auster doing a couple as well. Dalton Trumbo’s adapted his own anti-war novel, Johnny Got His Gun, but by then he was known more as a screenwriter than a novelist. The most famously embarrassing film might be Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance, while the strangest might be by William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, who also wrote the screenplay (and was credited as a producer on the mega hit). For his directing debut seven years later he would adapt his bizarre, surreal, novel “Twinkle, Twinkle, 'Killer' Kane,” later retitled The Ninth Configuration. The movie was labeled brilliant by a few and a flop by most. While it’s certainty interesting, wildly ambitious and definitely uncommercial, if nothing else, it has the wildest bar room brawl fight scene in movie history, and that makes the whole experience worth the price of admission.
The Ninth Configuration is kind of a cross between One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and MASH (with a little King Of Hearts, Catch 22 and The Ruling Class mixed in). It takes place in a military mental hospital - actually an old castle deep in the mountains of the pacific Northwest - which houses a group of eccentric oddball patients, including an insane astronaut, Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) and other assorted movie quoting, costume wearing, cut-ups (Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia, George DiCenzo and Jason Miller who played Father Karras in The Exorcist). Miller himself was a successful playwright with That Championship Season and he also directed its film version. A new doctor, the ultra intense Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach) arrives to check on the progress of Dr. Fell (Ed Flanders). Through the course of events it becomes clear that Kane is maybe just as crazy as the crazies (and not a Patch Adams kinda fun crazy, relating to his patients with a clown nose, but a deeply violent and dangerous crazy). The film is making a statement about the meaning of insanity. Isn’t war itself more insane than reality (or something like that)? And if that’s not enough there are also religious overtones about the meaning of good and evil. OK, SPOILER ALERT for anyone who can’t see it coming, but yes, we eventually find out that Kane is there for treatment, he is not a doctor but a bad ass psycho marine, and Fell is actually his brother treating him. Reviewing the plot is almost as tedious as the movie itself; what matters is that great bar room scene.
Live Like A Cop Die Like A Man
As someone who manages the “cult” section in our Hollywood location, I pride myself on both the knowledge I have of these films, as well as the immaculate organization I strive to maintain in all of the sub-sections within “cult”. (Psst… they’re alphabetized!) But of all those sub-categories, the one I know the least about is “Poliziotteschi”. Simply put, these films are a sub-genre of Italian crime and action movies that emphasize the brutal and over-the-top violence; much in the same way that “giallo” films are a series of Italian horror murder/mysteries with similar aesthetics. So I’ve always wanted to delve in and see what these “Poliziotteschi” movies were all about.
With a kick-ass title like Live Like A Cop Die Like A Man, this seemed like the ideal candidate as an introduction; after all, it carries a tremendous amount of horror pedigree with it. It was directed by Ruggero Deodato, most well known for his controversial horror classic Cannibal Holocaust. It stars Marc Porel who appeared in Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture A Duckling and The Psychic, as well as Ray Lovelock who also worked with Fulci in Murder Rock and appeared in the Spanish zombie flick Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. The screenplay was written by Fernando Di Leo who is well known for penning the scripts for a chunk of these “Poliziottechi” films. And then when my buddy Zane Grant (a fellow “giallo” enthusiast) started explaining to me the plot (and I use that term lightly) of this movie, I honestly couldn’t believe what he was telling me could possibly be true. I had to see this for myself. And sure enough, it’s as insane as he’d described.
Plan 9 From Outer Space
In the world of bad movies, most are boring and just unwatchable - lazy filmmakers just trying to slap something together to make a buck or ambitious filmmakers overreaching and missing, big time. Every once in a while a movie comes along that splits the difference and is so bad it becomes a wonderful experience. Director Edward D. Wood Jr.’s now legendary would be sci-fi flick Plan 9 From Outer Space has become the Citizen Kane of bad, so amazingly inept, yet so innocently earnest and good-natured that it’s not hard to kind of love it. Literally every scene in its 79 minutes is filled with amazingly laugh-out loud, quotable dialogue, horrible acting, ridiculous special effects and utterly inane directing. Ben Hur might have won the Best Picture Oscar in 1959, but Plan 9 From Outer Space is way more memorable and special.
Originally titled Grave Robbers from Outer Space, a plot recap goes something like this, bear with me now...The film opens with a narrator ("The Amazing Criswell") telling us, among much gobbledygook, that what we are about to see is true. Then in a cemetery two gravediggers are killed by the zombie corpse of a woman they just buried. She is played by the thin-wasted, TV personality Vampira; her still living husband, known as the “Old Man,” is played by the half-dead looking, one time Dracula sex-symbol, Bela Lugosi (unfortunately he died after shooting just a few minutes of random footage, strangely he was wearing his Dracula costume for some of it). Then a few moments after being introduced, Legosi’s "Old Man" character is hit by a car and killed (we don’t see this, the narrator tells us). Later in the cemetery Vampira and her husband, also now a zombie (but often played by a different, much younger and taller actor, actually a chiropractor named Tom Mason), attack a police inspector (obese Swedish wrester and Halloween mask superstar Tor Johnson). Meanwhile an ace airline pilot, Jeff Trent (Gregory Walcott), spots a couple of UFOs while on a flight. Later with his wife (Mona McKinnon) back home in the cemetery (literally his house seems to be in the cemetery) he tells her about the UFOs and somehow he’s rightfully convinced they had something to do with the commotion in the cemetery. Then a gust of wind knocks them both over.
Down by Law
"I am no criminal. I am a good egg. We are. We are a good egg."
—With this, the bouncing Roberto Benigni's "Bob" brings his two new friends together in Jim
Class of 1984
As a remake of Blackboard Jungle, with a lot of A Clockwork Orange thrown in, the ’82 punk rock revenge flick Class of 1984 is still a surprisingly effective piece of exploitation pulp. With a theme song called “I Am the Future” sung by Alice Cooper (shockingly written by long time film and TV composer Lalo Schifrin!) prophetically announcing its intentions— this is a new youth nightmare. Entering the school through metal detectors (now a standard in many urban schools) the hero/teacher in this story, Andrew Norris (Perry King), is shocked at the conditions at his new school, and the kids are much more aggressive and nasty. Blackboard Jungle’s Glenn Ford had it easy compared to this guy. Yes, these aren’t you father’s punk kids anymore.
Shot in Toronto, but sitting in as any mixed-race urban jungle USA, Mr. Norris just wants to teach the good kids music (including a nerdy young Michael J. Fox). But the school seems to be dominated by a punk rock gang led by its genius psychopathic pretty boy, Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten), who instantly takes a dislike to Norris for having the gall to want to teach while other teachers like Mr. Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) have just given up. Norris wants to put together a classical music school band and though Stegman can play the piano like that dude in Shine, Norris denies him a spot because of his bad attitude. This begins a deadly showdown between the two.
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.
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Russ Meyer has brought a plethora of tales that feature femme fatales, vixens, and unapologetic ladies, but none are as flawless as Faster, Pussycat! Aside from being ahead of its time by approaching women as forces to be reckoned with—not trampled on—Meyer employed various techniques that were rarely used in low budget film. The frame composition in the action sequences and the superb editing, aided by the use of multiple cameras during a shot, are things that you'd expect to see in a feature with a large budget. This, paired with excellent black & white photography and a thrilling plot, has turned the movie into a classic instead of a cult fad.
The opening sequence pretty much forces you, in a somewhat silly way, to go into the movie expecting to see women who aren't of the norm. A narrator informs the audience that there is a new breed of woman—vicious, unrelenting beasts; animals in a shell of soft skin. The voice-over states that in these “new times,” one can never know what to expect of a woman, and that those who you need to watch out for could be anyone: secretaries, nurses, or even go-go dancers.