Thursday, November 24, 2005

Give Thanks for BLOOD FREAK

There's a classic movie for almost every holiday.

Christmas possesses several lovely cinematic stocking stuffers, including the 1951 Alistair Sim adaptation of A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra's beloved It's a Wonderful Life (although I cast my personal vote for Rene Cardona's Santa Claus myself). Of course, Halloween begat Halloween. Hell, even Groundhog Day got its own Bill Murray comedy. But what about Thanksgiving?

Sure, the perfectly competent Jodie Foster-directed comedy Home for the Holidays and the modestly successful indie flick Pieces of April possess their followers. But my official nominee for the ultimate Thanksgiving Holiday Classic--the one film that captures all of the awkwardness, gluttony, surrealism, and absurdity of the holiday--is 1971's Blood Freak, available from Something Weird Video on DVD.

Steve Hawkes plays Herschell, a chopper-riding, pompadoured and well-muscled Vietnam vet who stops and offers some Good Samaritan help to a young woman with car trouble. Herschell follows the young woman, Angel (Heather Hughes), home and meets up with Angel's nasty sister Ann (Dana Culliver) and Ann's pot-smoking buddies. Though Herschell initially resists (he's a devout non-smoker and non-drinker), Ann and her pot pals peer-pressure the big lug into taking a hit of the Devil Weed. He's hooked.

Around this time, Angel's and Ann's dad Tom hires Herschell for a job at a turkey farm. Tom then introduces Herschell to two scientists who work in a secret lab at said turkey farm (don't ask). These mad doctors ply Herschell into eating some turkey that's been 'altered' for the 'government' with the promise of extra drugs (Ann got the big guy hooked on drugs, y'know).

The drugs in the tainted turkey make Herschell grow a turkey head, and he goes on a homicidal blood sucking rampage. Yes, the hero becomes a vampiric turkey-headed monster.

No, I'm not making this up. And, yes, he gobbles.

Blood Freak was co-written, co-produced, and co-directed by Hawkes--a slavic emigre who starred in two Brazilian Tarzan movies before an on-set accident left him penniless and stranded in Florida--and Brad Grinter, a nudist who'd previously directed Flesh Feast, a horror schlocker that marked Veronica Lake's final screen appearance. Grinter also narrates the movie at a desk, in front of a chunk of wood paneling, smoking compulsively, and coughing up 3/4 of his respiratory tissue--Criswell in a bourbon-stained '70's polyester shirt.

The resulting motion picture somehow combines drug-scare film doom-saying, exploitation gore, trash horror, ecological/governmental paranoia, and Up-with-People post-hippy Christianity into a poorly-focused, scuzzy, sloppily-edited and dubbed, completely inexplicable--yet utterly irresistible--whole.

See it with someone you love, over a bountiful turkey dinner. And Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Stooges' Fun House: Iggy Pop Culture Petri Dish

Rock and roll always wore danger on its sleeve, but punk godfather Iggy Pop just snarled, tore the shirt off, and carved the danger all over the exposed skin with a broken liquor bottle.

Rock heroes in the late sixties usually tempered the sex and violence built into their music with mysticism (The Doors), technical chops (Hendrix), political righteousness (The MC5) or a knowing Bacchanalian twinkle (sixties-vintage Stones). But Iggy--and his never-to-be-rivalled cronies, The Stooges--came crawling out of the grime of industrial Michigan with no such agenda.

The Stooges' primal, aggressive, sexual throb hurled the Rolling Stones' white-boy blues, the Doors' throaty psychedelia, and the blue-collar scrape of US garage rock into a pressure-cooker cranked to maximum. It was a direct livewire between Iggy's Dionysian id and the listener's ear, and it changed the world.

That change was a gradual one. The first two Stooges albums, 1969's The Stooges and 1970's Fun House, saw almost instant obscurity upon their initial releases, and the band sputtered to a halt a few years later. Iggy Pop himself then pursued a solo career for the next two decades. But as the old cliche goes, almost every misfit, malcontent, and frustrated kid who scored a copy of either of those first two LP's started a band themselves.

Rhino Records, one of the finest reissue labels in the universe, has performed yet another invaluable service by recently unleashing deluxe two-disc editions of the first two Stooges LP's upon the masses. Both are essential, but Fun House is, simply put, one of the most pulverizing bursts of rock and roll ever, all the more so in newly remastered form.

The Stooges originally hit stores in 1969, and includes some truly classic songs--"No Fun" was covered by the Sex Pistols, and the sub-Jagger sneer of "1969" received the same homage from several outfits, including Seattle's grunge pioneers Mudhoney and goth-rockers the Sisters of Mercy--but John Cale's production feels muted and tentative, even on the remastered version. Cale, a founding member of rock subversives the Velvet Underground, may have been something of a kindred spirit to the Stooges, but he was also a classically-trained musician and composer, and his boardwork blunts the impact of a band that had no use for refinement in any form.

1970's Fun House, on the other hand, ripped things wide open with a gut-punching and immediate sound courtesy of producer Don Gallucci. As a member of the Kingsmen, Gallucci played keyboards on the definitive recording of that Rosetta Stone of rock songs, "Louie Louie"; he knew the value of chucking polish in favor of power. The resulting production marked the first time that someone effectively condensed the Stooges' mythic live sound onto vinyl.

The band rose to the occasion with a handful of their most muscular and menacing songs yet. From the Jagger-gone-NC-17 strut of the opener, "Down in the Street" to the gloriously decadent "Loose" to the utter cacophony of "L. A. Blues", Fun House's songs maintained a merciless level of intensity. Even when the pace slowed and the drums stopped pile-driving (as on the eerie goth blues of "Dirt") Iggy still peppered his most languid crooning with spontaneous screams, whoops, and outbursts, like a prizefighter breaking the stillness with unexpected blows.

Fun House still pummels, even today. In their clarion remastered incarnation, Scott Asheton and Dave Alexander pound out the rhythms like two pissed-off cavemen on drums and bass respectively, and Ron Asheton's guitar chords fire off with the visceral scattershot energy of a sawed-off shotgun. Together this ensemble careens forward with the destructive inevitability of a rickety turbo-charged diesel truck barrelling down an iced road. And square in the driver's seat of that barely-holding-together, roaring, grinding vehicle is Iggy Pop.

You can hear all that is loud, frightening, reckless, and exhilarating about rock and roll in the first eight seconds of track 3, the relentless "TV Eye," and it's due to the force of nature that is Ig's voice. He opens the song with a howl so utterly primal, so completely uncalculated, so sustained, and so flippin' scary that it'd raise the dead (the resulting ululations manage to match Ron Asheton's snarling machine-gun riffs, slug for slug). It's the sound of a completely unhinged, rabid, and insanely horny animal giving violent and painful birth to twins: Punk Rock and Grunge.

Absolute must listening...If you think you've got the guts.

Friday, November 11, 2005

More Essential Lugosi

I hate leaving loose ends. To wit:

Some delusional notion entered my skull for the entire latter half of October, and in honor of Halloween I decided to do a Blog a day, all horror-related, until the arrival of All Hallows' Eve.

It was a really frickin' hard--but fun--challenge for me, largely because I have real difficulty with keeping things brief (I know, big surprise). My windy ass remains in awe of Bloggers who can keep it down to one or two perfect paragraphs--and do it every day.

Anyway, one of the reasons I lean towards the meandering side is that perennial geek's fear of missing something. And, to make a long story short, I did.

When preparing my entry on vampire icon Bela Lugosi, a looming deadline made me forceably omit one film from my list of Lugosi essentials, and I also accidentally omitted two others. So pencil these three movies in alongside all of the other essential Lugosi's. I guess that makes this:

Lugosi Essentials: Previously Unreleased Footage!

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Originally released in 1948, Available on DVD from Universal Home Video): Thank you, Vince Keenan, for catching this most glaring of unintended omissions. Filmed at the end of the Universal horror cycle, A + C Meet Frankenstein adroitly spoofs the fabled studio's creature cadre, and gives the most successful comedy duo of the forties one of their finest showcases (Lou Costello's sputtering brand of physical comedy never saw a better vehicle). Lugosi steps up his game with these veteran yoksters, poking fun at his own image sublimely.

White Zombie (1932, Roan Entertainment): Lugosi's first horror film after Dracula was this atmospheric B effort produced by the prolific Halperin Brothers. Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, a mysterious figure responsible for generating armies of walking dead in Haiti. He works this dark mojo on a lovely woman at the behest of the rich but spurned Beaumont (Robert Frazier). Naturally, misfortune and horror ensue. Of all of Lugosi's films, only Dracula weds the man's singular presence with the surrounding film more serendipitously. The slightly gauzy photography, Lugosi's unearthly performance, and the spirituals-sprinkled soundtrack feel of another time (or world). This movie's been public domain for years, but scrape together the pennies and buy (or rent) a copy of the Roan disc--it's far and away the best print out there of Lugosi's finest non-Universal horror role.

The Body Snatcher (1945, Warner Home Video): So why did I intentionally omit this excellent Robert Wise-directed shocker from the first cut of Lugosi essentials? Mainly because Lugosi's not in it much. He plays Joseph, the ill-fated cohort of Boris Karloff's serpentine graverobber-cum-murderer Gray, and occupies a mere scintilla of screen time. But Bela's credible and convincing work as a drunken and simple dupe was a pretty radical shift from his usually imperious and imposing onscreen persona, and like any good actor he made his time on-camera count. The scene in which Gray gradually plies the slow-witted Joseph with drink before mercilessly killing him is a masterwork of mounting predatory dread.

There. I feel better now.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Warriors: Walter Hill comes down with George Lucas-itis

Don't mess with perfection. Or at least with anything that was perfectly worthwhile the first time through. That's my humble but emphatic plea to any director out there who's following George Lucas' anal-retentive lead.

You can add Walter Hill, the oft-underrated tough-guy auteur who helmed some of the best white-knuckle action flicks of the last three decades, to the ranks of the Anal Tinkerers. He's taken his 1979 cult opus, The Warriors, and glopped it up with some needless tinsel and obvious visual cues (more on that later) for the new 'Ultimate Director's Cut'. Blessedly, the movie stands up nicely despite the tinkering, and in all fairness, the lengthy documentary on the new edition's pretty spiffy, too.

The screenplay by Hill and David Shaber strips the ambiguity of Sol Yurick's earnest social drama novel away, leaving an essentially straightahead adventure in its place. In the movie, nine members of the titular Coney Island street gang travel to New York for a huge summit meeting of all of the city's gangs. During the meeting, an important figure in the gang community gets wasted, and the real killer, Luther (David Patrick Kelly) fingers the Warriors as the trigger men. It's up to Swan (Michael Beck), the Warriors' de facto leader, to get his brothers out of NYC and back to Coney Island in one piece.

The Warriors started out its original thatrical release in 1979 at the top of the box office heap, but its gang-related subject matter drew decidedly rough elements into screenings. Violence and riots forced controversy-phobic Paramount Pictures to essentially yank the movie from theaters. The movie died on the vine, and it took two decades of cult idolatry and critical re-evaluation to give it a second life.

Paramount deserves a fair share of the blame for blowing it the first time around. Clueless as to how to market The Warriors, they touted it as an exploitation piece in the vein of Death Wish. The original ads and promotional materials included menacing copy about how New York street gangs "outnumber[ed] the cops three-to-one". Small wonder Joe and Jane Q. Public stayed away, and the moviehouses in urban areas filled with gangbangers itching for a fight.

But while the studio-borne promotion promised ugly, exploitive thrills, Hill and company delivered a robust, larger-than-life action fantasy that owes more to Howard Hawks, Marvel Comics, and Akira Kurosawa than it does to Charles Bronson's numb avenging-angel allegories. At a time when the notion of a stylish comic-book movie played without tongue-in-cheek was still pretty exotic, The Warriors stood out. And it still does.

For starters, the movie's nowhere near as brutal as those ads made out. Even modern film references flog that misconception to this day (check out the All Movie Guide's entry on The Warriors for a classic case of someone just not getting it), but truth be told, little blood is spilled. Like all of the best action directors, Hill gets maximum mileage out of the anticipation of violence; Swan takes his troops through the mean streets attempting to avert conflict, and the Warriors only fight when absolutely necessary. The resulting sharply choreographed fight scenes feel well-earned and exhilarating--not base, gratuitous, or ugly.

The movie's surreal vision of New York plays like equal parts amusement park and gladiatorial arena. The director deliberately keeps 'regular' New York bystanders (almost) totally out of the picture--no innocents are harmed. The gangs and their members all play the key roles, but they clearly hold no basis in raw urban reality. Beck's stalwart and altruistic Swan comes straight out of a Kurosawa epic; Tough-talking hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) takes her cue from many a Howard Hawks western; James Remar's funny and hot-headed troublemaker Ajax welds The Good The Bad and the Ugly's Tuco and The Three Musketeers' Porthos; the gentle but resolute Rembrandt (Marcelino Sanchez) combines Sal Mineo sensitivity with classic second-banana loyalty and gumption; and Kelly's deliciously grating Luther plays like Elisha Cook Jr. on crystal meth. Hill lays these archetypes out with sci-fi vividness (Escape from New York, for one, owes a clear debt to his splashy directorial eye), but because all of the characters are played (very well) by relatively unfamiliar faces, any potential for campiness gets quite gracefully sidestepped. It also helps that the quotable dialogue straddles the perfect balance between minimalist toughness, hard-boiled humor, and theatrical grandiosity.

In its original form The Warriors' combination of vivid color, un-self-conscious enthusiasm and pulp iconography demonstrated one of the earliest examples of a comic-book movie by moviemakers who actually saw comics as an unpretentious-yet-viable form of expression. It's a shame Walter Hill can't leave well enough alone on the new 'Ultimate Director's Cut', inserting actual comic-book panels for scene breaks and grafting on an absurdly pretentious opening narration comparing Swan and his fellow Warriors to the lost Greek soldiers who fought their way out of Sparta in 400 BC.

All of this symbolism is already in the movie if you want to look for it, for Pete's Sake. We don't need the director grabbing us by the scruff of the neck and screaming it into our ear with a megaphone.