Best Laid Plans

Well, that was certainly a week. But tonight I’ll finally be able to start watching that list of Good Movies!

(checks mailbox)

Oh God damn it.

Two Generations of Digital Monstrosity

So, how’s that thing where you watch movies of quality again going?

Just fine, thanks.

What have you watched so far?

Er, a couple of Asian monster movies.

That doesn’t sound like we’re talking about the same thing.

Go away, I explain.

Monstrum was a fair box office hit in Korea last year, but dropped behind Searching in its second week of release and never recovered the lead. We’re in that very popular period of Korean history for their genre flicks, the Joseon era, 1527, in this case. King Jung Jong is having a difficult time; his court, led by an ambitious Prime Minister, is actively opposing him, and using a supposed rampage by a monster to make him appear weak and ineffectual. The king tracks down one of his old captains – Yoon Gyeom – who had gone into self-imposed exile years before. He had been present at a massacre of an entire village to contain an epidemic, found one survivor – a baby girl – with no trace of disease, and after excoriating the court for their extreme response, left to raise the girl, along with his faithful lieutenant. Knowing him to be a righteous man, Jung Jong asks him to take his rank back up to investigate the monster situation.

Well, something is killing lots of people in a bloody manner, and there seems to be a resurgence in the disease that led to the massacre years before. Yoon, however, is skeptical; too many of the bodily remains of the supposed monster slaughter bear odd marks that look like rope burns. And, of course, the political maneuvering continues, muddying the waters further.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Okay SPOILER alert here, though it’s pretty much spoiled by the trailer below, anyway: yes, the whole monster thing is a plot by the wicked Prime Minister to overthrow the government and take over. But, goshdarn it, there actually is a Monster, it’s the source of that disease, and the Prime Minister’s machinations serve to not make it royally pissed off, but also manage to bring it right into the Imperial Palace. There is a fair amount of mayhem ensuing.

I’m trying to be fairly circumspect here, because Monstrum is an enjoyable movie and I want you to experience it yourself. What I feared was going to be a rehash of Brotherhood of the Wolf turned out to be a bit more nuanced, and more brutal in execution. I really need to apologize to the actors and filmmakers here, because my aged Western brain is not having much success with parsing the Korean names – which after years of watching Chinese and Japanese movies just feels like a complete personal failure. This is because I want to praise what becomes the core of our good guys; Yoon (Kim Myung-Min) is easy, but I can’t easily pin down his lieutenant (Kim Im-Kwon), the grown girl Yoon rescued (who has become a expert archer and medicine woman)(Lee Hye-Ri), and the young courtier who falls in love with her (Choi Woo-Shik). (Thank God for that trailer! It helped me maintain a small degree of journalistic integrity) The chemistry between these actors is quite good, and though you sense that this story is pretty much a one-off experience, you’d like to see more of them by the movie’s end.

For reasons that will soon be apparent, I followed this up with Moon Over Tao, with which I have a fairly shameful and stupid relationship. This came out on domestic VHS in the late 90s, and I dutifully bought it, and then never watched it. So this was the perfect time, I thought, and now I have to write about it without getting it confused with Monstrum.

Getting old sucks.

Let’s start the confusion early: Suikyou (Toshiyuki Nagashima) returns to his old lord years after leaving his service to become a monk. He returns because he dreamed of an old comrade in trouble. This comrade, we find, was investigating the source of a marvelous sword taken from a captured bandit, and has not returned. To demonstrate, the samurai Hayate (Hiroshi Abe) uses the sword to cut through a sizable rock as if it were paper. Suikyou leaves to find his comrade, but the Lord insists Hayate tag along. Along the way they meet Reika (Reila Aphrodite), a young orphan girl and beekeeper. Then things get complicated.

Reika witnesses the arrival of, and a fight between, three alien women (all played by Yûko Moriyama), who are seeking a biological weapon they call the Makaraga. One of the women throws herself between her two comrades as they fight, and gets mortally wounded for her trouble. While the fight rages on across the countryside, Reika tends to the dying woman, who explains to her the plot and gives her the Tao, a tuning fork-like device that can “seal the Makaraga”.

BOOGA BOOGA!

In the interest of moving things along (and the plot is fairly complex): Suikyou is certain his old acquaintance Kakugyo (Gene Ballard), a monk gone evil, is the source of all problems. Indeed, Kakugyo is the leader of the bandits; he found a meteorite and stripped away its metal exterior to make the invincible swords his men wield, and in the center, a strange globe from which his mystic senses receive what seem to be fragmented memories: it is, of course, the Makaraga, which the alien womens’ race found so terrible they sealed it in metal and buried it on a desolate moon centuries before. Then, doggoneit, the moon blew up and the Makaraga fell to Earth. One of the surviving women wants to use it to foment revolution on their home planet; the other wants to keep it sealed away forever. Movie plots being what they are, Kakugyo is going to stumble upon the way to revive the Makaraga during what should have been the final battle, and that turns out to be a bad thing, as the beastie is not only immortal, it is eternally hungry.

While Moon Over Tao lacks the political intrigue of Monstrum (though there is a bit – Suikyou is there to kill Kakugyo, and is shocked when Hayate tries to negotiate with him for the sale of the swords to his master), it’s a lot more fun. Well, maybe it’s more fun because of that. I’m surprised there aren’t more examples of Japanese sci-fi mixed with chambara – the only other instance I can think of offhand is Orochi the 8-Headed Dragon – but it’s the internet, I’m sure I’ll be reminded of more. Suikyou is a remarkable character – he carries with him a period clipboard so he can paint one-off magic scrolls on the spot, and his battle staff conceals an enormous paintbrush for the same purpose. The magic fights between Suikyou and Kakugyo are creative and kinetic. And the screenplay is full of little bits that become quite significant later, something I always appreciate.

But we’re here to talk about monsters, aren’t we? We love monsters!

Monstrum‘s beastie is almost totally CGI, as you expect for a 2018 flick – I think I spotted a few shots with CGI-sweetened animatronics, but I could also be wrong. It’s actually a pretty good monster, if still a bit hyper-real – that hair is just a little too distinct. It looks like an enormous monkey dog fed on steroids and evil intent, and it has a disturbing bit of humanity about the face, allowing it to show some emotion, while skeeving us out.

Oooooooh dear

The Makaraga is a mix of animatronics and, sadly, 1997 CGI. It’s actually pretty good CGI for 1997, but it evidences a major problem in that era – trying to make the CGI creation look like it has weight. The Makaraga walks and glides too easily in its environments, and the difference between the animation and the real-world constructions that people interact with is all too obvious. The design does feel genuinely alien, though, so high marks for that.

Monstrum and Moon Over Tao feel largely cut from the same cloth, but are different enough to forge their own identities. Monstrum for straight adventure, Moon Over Tao for popcorn pulp. Just don’t watch them practically back to back, as I did, or they will start blending into each other, and you’ll start feeling like a senile fool when you talk about them.

 

The Year Comes for Us

December was kind of weird.

Despite managing to post some reviews from a truncated project, and a Crapfest recap, I was largely off movies for the month. That’s not unusual; Hubrisween – or any similar movie challenge – usually leaves me with a hangover. So I engaged in some other braincell-killing pursuits, until I could bear to watch a movie again. Which is good, because I’m trying to gear up for another challenge in March, one that will ease me none-too-gently back into the world of Movies I Should Have Been Watching. I do really enjoy wallowing in the Cinema of Diminished Expectations, but there are so bloody many conversations I cannot take part in because I was watching Sausage Party instead of A Quiet Place.

Let’s do the non-movie stuff first.

I couldn’t afford a new laptop, but I still needed a portable computing solution, so I got a refurbished Chromebook instead, and I love it (of course, I love it because I’m not using it for its intended purpose). It does everything my phone does, with a larger screen and keyboard. My phone had started to be a transistor radio to me months ago, when I started using Amazon Music to sing me to sleep (their phone app has a sleep timer). I started to explore music podcasts for the same thing, since most podcast apps have a similar timer, or simply stop after an episode finishes. My favorite in this period was Trance Paradise, hosted by Euphoric Nation (yes, I am 61 years old and listen to a lot of Trance). That led me to the Internet radio station After Hours. Now, I sighed, if only I could find a podcast or radio station for my other love, late 60s – early 70s psychedelic rock. Exploring apps on my Chromebook, I find one that has links for Trance stations… and another for largely more electronia, but had the occasional oldies station, so say hello to my other new love, Psychedelicized Radio.

Which is all to the good, as I like music playing while I work, but it wasn’t using the potential of the Chromebook to its fullest. Then, by golly, enter Whizical Digital Imaging and their app, Kaleider. It’s an image-mirroring program that can produce some stunning, moving kaleidoscope images, and though I can find nothing that says it’s triggered by music (it has its own music player) the shifting of the images in time with either of those music stations is often more than can be chalked up to happenstance. This provides an experience that’s closer to meditation than anything I’ve managed in years. If I had this toy back in my heavy acid-dropping days, I would never have come down. I’m reminded of some parts of Ernie Kovacs’ TV show that were simply recordings of classical music with kaleidoscope images. In black and white. This is better.

For instance…

It’s also been fun tracking down images of old black light posters to feed into the program. I briefly considered trying to make a video of Kaleider in unison with some music, but then I realized the reaction would be something along the lines of “Oh, you stoned fool,” and went back to playing Gems of War (something else the Chromebook can do, and my dumpster-diver PC could not).

But what’s this? Christmas, and a number of Amazon gift cards? Hello, suddenly affordable replacement PC! It’s not magnificent, but a very definite step up. (I still can’t play No Man’s Sky, which is something I’ve wanted to do for three goddam years, but hey) What I can do is run Plex, which suddenly put the sneakernet in my house out of business. I had been jealous of my pal Dave’s home networking, and now I don’t have to be! Movies stream like magic to my TV! I feel like I’m finally living in the year 2000!

So. Movies. Let’s do the rare theatrical outings first.

Aquaman: I loved it. The further the DCEU gets from the Snyderverse, the better. As my son Max exclaimed, “There was actual color in this movie!” Strong cast, good director, and the sort of visual overload I once moaned that you could only get from Chinese movies. My major takeaway from The Expendables was “My God, Dolph Lundgren actually learned how to act!” and he is great in Aquaman! I have never been so happy to reassess my opinion of an actor. I’m also impressed that the DCEU hasn’t tried to movie-up their costuming as Marvel did. That didn’t work out so well with Deathstroke in the post-credit scene in Justice League, but damned if they didn’t make the gold-and-green for Aquaman look good. Amber Heard had already proven she could pull off the classic green Mera look. Hell, I didn’t even mind the minor rewrites of Justice League to make the timeline in this movie work.

I know, I know, you’re sick of superhero movies. You’re where I was with slasher movies, romcoms and 80s movies reboots. They’ll fade into the past soon enough. In the meantime, let me have my fun.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: I’m torn. I really, really loved the first one and its videogame-centric worldview. This is a sequel that did everything a sequel should: took our established heroes, gave them new challenges and vistas to explore. The satire is much wider here, but still pretty geeky. Overall, I liked it a lot, I think: the take on the Disney Princesses is pretty funny, and I liked that the animators cared enough that when they’re mucking around the Marvel part of Disney, they included a Stan Lee avatar. I’ll need to watch it again when it hits home video. Also, the post-credit scene was perfectly timed to answer a question that occurred to me.

Speaking of home video…

My local movie resale shop has a deal where if you buy 3, you get the 4th one free, and that is how I went home with Sausage Party (the others were It Follows, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Black Cauldron, if that matters). This is the R-rated version. I understand there is an unrated, unexpurgated version out there, and holy shit, am I not interested. The R-rated version pretty much took me to the limits of where I was willing to go. The world-building was fairly okay; the supermarket as a place where food waits for “Gods” – people – to come and take them to the promised land, and those that sit on the shelf too long are gathered by the “Dark Lord” and taken to the hell of the trash can. You probably already know about the overtly sexual relationship between hot dogs and buns, but you are not ready for the oversexed nature of all food. From there we fall into too-easy racial stereotypes as ethnic foods enter into the story, the discovery that the “Gods” are monsters who will eat our main characters and the eventual war between the two, climaxing – quite literally – in a food orgy, which is at least inclusive of all possible gender combos, and has one impossible act. The question that is going to linger with you is why?

Well, I may have given up on Pixels after five minutes, but I’ve seen Sausage Party all the way through.

Not sure what that proves.

“Complete and unexpurgated” had caught me by nasty surprise recently, too, as I had a copy of the extremely strange Italian movie Nude for Satan that claimed to be this. I had gotten really tired of the “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” thing (jesus, people, I was making that joke years ago), posted “Oh, so I suppose you’re going to tell me Nude for Satan isn’t a Christmas movie” and slapped that thing into the player, thinking this was likely a prime candidate for Crapfest. What I didn’t know was that there was a Dutch version of the movie into which some wily entrepreneur had spliced actual hardcore porn footage. There are few things like being entertainingly puzzled by a demented Italian flick and when your protagonist opens a door and reacts in shock, you are slapped across the face by several minutes of well-lit, enthusiastic fellatio. On Christmas Eve, no less. This would happen over and over again, with only a minimal attempt to actually connect it to the movie surrounding it (and often not even that bare – *snicker* – minimum), rendering the plot even more confusing. Something about Satan trying to switch our two stars with versions of themselves from the past, and lecherous giant spiders and oh yes, more porn.

Obviously the only way to follow that up was by finally watching Venom (please do not inquire about this train of thought). I’m okay with Tom Hardy finally getting his superhero movie, but I’ve never been a Spider-Man fan, nor of any of his morning zoo crew. It’s pretty standard stuff, with crusading reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) finding out that Earth-Sony’s version of a not-stupid Elon Musk (Riz Ahmed) has managed to bring back some alien symbiotes via his own private space program. The symbiotes have to bind with a compatible host to survive in our atmosphere, and most people aren’t strong enough to survive the binding. Brock is, and is soon talking to himself and turning into a whole bunch of shapes as Venom (and biting off a couple of heads). The upshot is that a more powerful symbiote, Riot, has taken over Ahmed, and wants to bring all its symbiote buddies back to Earth to eat us. Venom wants to stop this, which is a character turn that feels entirely unearned, but we agree to let art wash over us. Venom made a ton of money at the cinemas, and I’m not sure why; I don’t regret ceding 90 minutes of my life to it, but it’s not something I’m going to grab people and say “Hey! Watch this!”

Last watch of the year was something I had meant to get to for a while, unsuccessfully: The Night Comes for UsTimo Tjahjanto’s action follow-up to Headshot (preceded by the equally Netflix-produced horror movie May the Devil Take You). Ito (Joe Haslam) is one of the Six Seas, Triad drug lords in charge of keeping the trade efficient and problem-free. When a few members of a village skim the Triad’s profits, Ito and his crew are sent to massacre the entire village as a lesson to others. Ito, however, hits Kill Critical Mass, and instead of letting his men finish off the lone surviving 6 year-old girl, kills them instead, and that is where the problems begin.

Ito’s attempt to leave the country with the girl and start a new life gets very complicated when the other Six Seas want the girl dead to complete their message, and Ito six feet under as well. To do this they call in his childhood buddy Arian (Iko Uwais), as well as the female assassins The Five Lotus Petals. What that really means, though, is this movie is basically one long fight scene, and is already infamous for its brutality. That’s it. Theoretically the movie’s about the different paths Ito and Arian’s lives have taken, but it’s really just a Macguffin surrounded by fight scenes. It’s fun to see Uwais play on his reputation as a good guy.  Julie Estelle (the formidable Hammer Girl of The Raid 2) is on hand as The Operator, an impressively deadly lady whose job is to exterminate the Six Seas. At the end, The Operator, five of the Six Seas and at least two of the Five Lotus Petals are still alive. That’s a sequel I would watch.

You might want to bring plastic sheeting to a viewing, though. Pretend it’s a Gallagher concert.

New Year’s Eve was spent talking myself out of watching The Emoji Movie, on the faulty theory that then 2019 couldn’t possibly do anything worse to me, but I finally decided it was best not to tempt the bastard. Now I suppose I should start thinking about teeing up those movies of (harrumph) quality I was talking about.

Right after The Emoji Movie.

 

 

 

 

Crap Friday

This Dawn of the Dead reboot sucks.

If nothing else, Black Friday has simply become another reality show opportunity; a chance for the well-off to sneer at news media reporting on the less fortunate engaging in impromptu gladiatorial battles for the possibility of affordable consumer goods. I’ve only been badgered into journeying out on Holiday Fury Road once, and all I came out with was a five dollar blu-ray of the Nick Cage movie Drive Angry. For the record, I enjoyed the movie. Then Rick watched it on my say-so and proclaimed me a horrible human being, so that was a nice bonus. In any case, that one experience did not convince me that poking my head outside the relative safety of my home on Black Friday would be made a yearly event.

Which is why the day was perfect for a Crapfest.

In attendance were myself, my son Max, Rick, Erik, and of course, Host Dave. Alan was a bit late, and poor Paul worked for Communists, so he could not attend. Erik made a truly wondrous mess of Rice ‘n’ Beans with attendant sausage, which we filled up on, and then rolled ourselves into the Mancave to see if we could make ourselves lose that lunch.

In the gap since the last Crapfest, Dave had to switch out some elements in the AV setup to construct a death ray or something, so the first portion of the evening was spent making the new setup work. The guinea pig for this process was the pilot episode of the Japanese TV series, Magnificent Zubat, which is going to require some explanation.

Our hero is Ken Hayakawa, a wandering, guitar-strumming detective. In the first episode, he rescues childhood friend Asuka (“a penniless scholar with an interest in mountain climbing”) from the gun-slinging henchman of the “Consortium of Evil, Dakkar”, unquote, by proving he’s a better gunman. He does this by shooting the dude’s bullets out of the air. This will become traditional in the series, as Ken is just that damn good at everything. YouTube only has this showdown from a later episode:

So I think you get the drift. It’s a kid’s show, pure and simple, with little grounding in any sort of reality not associated with the smoking of certain herbal substances. Asuka is eventually murdered by someone in the Consortium of Evil, Dakkar, and Ken will spend the rest of the series trying to find out whom. To do this, he visits the “penniless scholar”s high tech lab and finishes his projects, the Zubat suit for space exploration, and the Zubat-mobile (excuse me, Zubacar), for flying around. The Zubat suit can only be used for five minutes, which certainly moves the episode’s closing minutes along, but seems a really odd feature for a space suit.

Anyway, if you have a love of the absurd and a penchant for seeing black-clad bad guys beat up women and orphans, this is the series for you. I’m quite certain that the Magnificent Zubat will return in a future Crapfest.

I also have to bear some responsibility for the next part.

Erik had wanted to bring the 1987 movie The Barbarians and had ordered the new blu-ray for that purpose. The problem: Amazon wouldn’t be delivering it until the Tuesday after Crapfest. The solution: ask Freeman if he had a copy of it, or the co-feature on the blu-ray. No to one and yes to two, as Buckaroo Banzai would say, and that is how we wound up watching The Norseman.

Possibly the best part of the viewing was the introductory crawl, referencing lusty blonde giants on longboats, which made the poor unsuspecting among us think that we were in for a comedy. Alas, no, what you get is an adventure movie written, produced and directed by Charles B. Pierce, best known for Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown. At least this time he didn’t cast himself as the comic relief.

It is the tale of a Viking expedition led by Lee Majors (!) to what will be eventually known as America, because their king Ulrich (Mel Ferrer) led a similar voyage the year before and vanished. What we will discover is that they encountered a tribe of the whitest Indians ever (well, theoretically they’re supposed to be in Canada, so I guess that possible). The two bands of warriors apparently hit it off pretty well, until the comely Indian princess Winetta (Susie Coelho) started making time with one of the Vikings, and the jealous chief captured them, had them blinded, and now they’re slaves continually pushing a stone mill. Good thing Winetta doesn’t agree with this, so she helps Majors and his men rescue them.

And truly, Cornel of Wilde didst wonder what happened to his career, that he did find himself playing the second of bananas to a cyborg.

There’s a good movie in there trying to get out, and almost succeeding. MGM certainly thought so. That cast includes Cornel Wilde, Jack Elam as a wizard (who needed more screen time) and TV staple Kathleen Freeman as the evil medicine woman. As it is, though, it is largely a case of watching Lee Majors run along the beach in slow motion, and Historical Inaccuracies on Parade. Of course all the Vikings have horned helmets, with the same fur from the same skein of faux fur lovingly attached to each one, although that was dreamed up by the costume designer for a Wagner opera some 1100 years later. The Vikings are also wearing what appear to be Roman armor breastplates. And using crossbows. I’m still not sure about Majors’ helmet, which has no horns but for some reason incorporates a Lone Ranger mask. I haven’t even addressed Deacon Jones as Thrall, the Black Viking, who is given absolutely nothing to do, but at least I got to name him Motherfucker the Barbarian.

“No I will NOT call you Kimosabe!”

Such wasted potential is pretty much the byword for The Norseman. What would have been the best scene takes place offscreen: Majors and the rescued Vikings are trying to make it back to the boat, with the tribe’s braves in hot pursuit. Olif (Jimmy Clem), a Viking who has shown himself adept at drowning Indians, starts slipping into a berserker rage, and stays behind to buy time for Majors and crew. That would have been an incredible sequence, and it happens offscreen. I now demand that scene with Iko Uwais’ fight team doing the choreography.

The Norseman is pretty much a displaced Saturday afternoon matinee, looking unsuccessfully for a second feature, probably a Western.

Then it was Dave’s turn, and he opened up Amazon Prime Video to inflict Chatterbox upon us. Alan and I had already seen it, so the damage to us was minimal. This is the tale of Penelope (Candace Rialson) who one night discovers that her vagina can talk. That’s the joke, folks. Tip your waitress.

This of course ruins her love life, as the vocal vagina (named Virginia) criticizes her lover and eventually drives her out on the streets dressed like a hoochie mama to get laid (she eventually has to go to a basketball team for protection, with predictable results). Virginia also has a nice singing voice, so Penelope’s psychiatrist (Larry Gelman) convinces her to go into show business, even getting the FCC to allow her to appear on TV bottomless, so Virginia can sing her hit song, “The Wang Dang Doodle”. Hopefully, you’ll like that song, too, because you’ll hear it a lot. Though not as much as we did, because Dave left the room and then sadistically ran the movie back so he could hear it. Eventually Virginia lands a film deal and it’s during the big opening number “All I Need in the Morning (Is a Little Cock-a-Doodle-Doo)” that Penelope freaks, runs from the studio and decides to kill herself.

Want to know how it ends? Go watch it on Amazon Prime. Alan and I have had to watch it twice, you can manage it once.

There are some bit players worth looking out for, not the least of which is Rip Taylor as Penelope’s boss, and Professor Irwin Corey (I was the only one to recognize Corey, because I hang out with kids). Penelope’s mom is played by Jane Kean – that’s Trixie Norton from The Honeymooners, you heathens! There is a subplot about Penelope/Virginia going on The Dating Game and the resulting date, which for padding, is actually pretty good. Max counted as many as eight jokes during the course of the movie that were not specifically talking vagina-related. This movie is shot by Tak Fujimoto, for God’s sake. And if there is a silver lining to this second viewing, it is that I was able to notice that Candace Rialson is really good in this bizarre role. Pity that she gave up acting a couple of years later.

So now it was my turn, and a return to Crapfest’s roots with Fred Olen Ray’s Bikini Drive-In. The genesis of this choice goes back a few Crapfests, when Dave showed The Great Bikini Off-Road Adventure,  and I started wondering exactly how many movies have “Bikini” in the title (I stopped counting around 115). Most of them seem to follow the formula of a cherished family business in deep financial trouble, which is salvaged through the magic of wearing bikinis with a sprinkling of R-rated nudity. How this formula is applied in something like Bikini Hoedown is beyond me, and I have a lot more movies to watch before I’m going to be tempted to find out.

In this particular case, it’s Kim’s (Ashley Rhey) grandfather’s drive-in theater, left to her after his death. Grandpa believed in family entertainment and only showed G-rated movies, hence the theater is in the hole to the tune of $10,000, due at the Bank after the coming weekend. Local shady businessman J.B. Winston (no less than David F. Friedman himself) wants the land for a mall. His goons (Ross Hagen and Peter Spellos) are more the breaking legs sort than handling financial jiggery-pokery, so Winston’s son Brian (Richard Gabai) gets the job. Too bad Brian is smitten by the plucky Kim, and decides to help her save the drive-in. He has a plan, and it involves bikinis.

It also involves getting a Scream Queen to make a personal appearance – Dyanne Lynn (Michelle Bauer), by telling her the President will there that night. And finding out that the projectionist Paul (Conrad Brooks) had been saving the movies that Grandpa wanted to throw out, which means they’ll have a full evening of potboiler material, climaxing (no pun intended) with Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (“I love that movie!” Brian exclaims).

That night at the newly-rechristened Bikini Drive-in is the main reason to watch the movie. There are a ton of cameos by which you are going to be able to rank your nerd-dom: Forry Ackerman is easy to spot, as is Gordon Mitchell in a joke trailer for Goliath and the Cheerleaders (mined by Stomp Tokyo for one of their April Fools gags years ago). You’re going to have to be up on your personnel lists to spot David L. Hewitt, Anthony Cardoza, Donald F. Glut, and Jim Wynorski. Fred Olen Ray crops up as a DJ, and John Carradine appears as a picture of Kim’s grandfather. Conrad Brooks, as we all know, was Kelton the Cop in Ed Woods’ Plan 9 trilogy.

Nikki Fritz is in there, too, and had one scene that made me go “Holy Mother of God!” while previewing it for (harrumph) quality:

And it doesn’t end well for him, either

This is the sort of movie where a guy is forced to wear a Syngenor suit  (look it up, non-nerds) and we immediately started a betting pool as to how long it would be before one of the goons wound up wearing it. I think Erik won with ten minutes.

After the movie finished, Dave looked at me and said, “That was a really stupid movie.” Yes, it was, and it was glorious. If I had one complaint, it’s the schizophrenic nature of the flick: the stupid part (my favorite) and the commercial parts, where we have our softcore porn and the movie style suddenly switches into Cinemax slickness for a sex music video. Prior to the opening night sequence we mainly busied ourselves making fun of Kim’s best friend, who was so white she could have been one of the Indians from The Norseman. No fooling, she was so pale that she blew the white balance for any other characters photographed near her. We were really hoping for a Haunted Drive-In subplot, and every time she was in a scene, we could pretend it was The Grudge.

Thank you! Tip your waitress! Again!

The Christmas Spirit is upon me, and so long as the YouTube Gods are, also:

The next day I was going to  have to get up early and drive Max back to college, so I had to squelch the “One more?” urge. Well, wait, there was one thing on my flash drive, labeled “Thanksgiving Treat”, that I knew was only 40 minutes long. We could do that.

And that was how I got Crapfest to watch He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special.

I’ve already gone over that in length, so I’ll direct you there. You only need to know A) Dave does a very good Skeletor, and B) Dave was actively angry that Stinkor did not show up, make of that what you will.

That was actually a fairly typical Crapfest outing, looking back. There wasn’t a real breakout hit (except for my son demanding I turn over every single episode of Magnificent Zubat I possessed), but there wasn’t a soul crusher, either. A fine way to wrap up the year.

Especially since I made the write-up last almost to New Years! See you on the other side!

He-Man & She-Ra: A Christmas Special (1985)


I was 26 when He-Man and the Masters of the Universe premiered, meaning I was way out of its target demographic. In fact, the only reason I knew it existed was due to the insert in DC comic books at the time announcing the fact. It didn’t even appeal to the stoner in me; the stories were too simplistic and preachy, the animation style too limited (and oddly peppered with rotoscoping). No, that part of my heart went out to Robotech (even a bowdlerized Macross was pretty damned good) and later Thundercats. But the kids loved He-Man, and that’s cool. Not every piece of entertainment needs my seal of approval to exist.

Somebody noticed that girls liked He-Man, too and thus was He-man’s long-lost twin sister Princess Adora, aka She-Ra, introduced, and the mythology expanded. It turned out Skeletor wasn’t the ultimate evil, it was a literal shadowy figure called Horde Prime, and Skeletor was only one of his/its minions. The other was Hordak, who had taken over Adora’s planet with an army of robots and some toyetic henchmen equally as incompetent as Skeletor’s. The tone of She-Ra‘s adventures seem different as well: her fellows in the resistance are more focussed on helping and supporting each other than punching the enemy, though She-Ra is not adverse to letting loose with an occasional rotoscoped roundhouse kick.

I’m going to have to leave it to someone who is actually female to judge if this was empowering or not. I do find the inclusion nice, though.

“Hey, a floating space wizard! No problem!”

But we’re here to talk about the Christmas Special, aren’t we? Eternia is prepping for a birthday party for our title characters, and I am surprised to find out that Queen Marlena is from Earth, as she reminisces about preparing for Christmas about this time (like I said, I didn’t follow the show. Probably this was common knowledge among fans). Meantime, Man-at-Arms is preparing a new toyetic jet called the Spy Eye, and floating imp Orko (traditionally referred to as Dorko) breaks into it and while futzing around, accidentally breaks the controls and takes off. After He-Man and She-Ra foil Skeletor’s attempt to steal what they think is an unmanned craft, the Spy Eye breaks some barriers and crash lands on Earth. Dorko… um, Orko… actually gets his magic to work to rescue two lost children from an avalanche. The kids are Miguel and Alisha, and they take shelter in the Spy Eye. They pass the time by telling Orko the Christmas story, though Orko’s more interested in Santa Claus and the gifts than some kid in a manger. They also teach him “Jingle Bells”.

“We would TOO have fetched more than 99 cents at Kay-Bee!”

Meantime our pals on Eternia have figured out that Dorko was on the Spy Eye and are trying to get him back, but She-Ra has to perform an impromptu quest to obtain a Water Crystal to power the Transport Beam (why nobody asks Man-at-Arms how he invented such a powerful device that could only powered by something rarer than unobtainium is open to debate). This she does, but only after encountering the Monstroids, giant robots who are obviously failed toy designs, and are quite bitter about it.

The Transport Beam does bring the Spy Eye and Orko back, but also Alisha and Miguel. So it has to be figured out how to get them home in time for Christmas. Luckily, the Water Crystal only has to recharge, no additional bullshit quests are required. However Horde Prime has sensed a tremor in the Force a new force for good in the universe, and sends Hordak and Skeletor to capture it and bring it to him/it. (It’s the kids and their spirit of Christmas, you see).

“At last I have the means to finally conquer – WHAT THE HELL?!?!”

And there, finally, is our plot major. Bow (the She-Ra male counterpart to Teela) writes a new Christmas song with Alisha and Miguel (gaaaaaah) just in time for them to be kidnapped by Hordak, then captured by the Monstroids, so they get involved with the war between them and the equally failed toy concept race, the Manchines. Then they get scooped up by Skeletor, who gets shot out of the sky by Hordak, and now Skeletor is trooping two kids (and a toyetic robot dog) through a snowy landscape. First he creates arctic wear so the kids won’t freeze, and that is the chink in his armor that lets the children’s innate goodness and love of Christmas leak through.

Skeletor: Tell me more about this “Christmas.”

Miguel: Well, it’s a wonderful time of the year. Everyone has lots of fun.

Skeletor: You mean they get in fights?

Miguel: No, no – they have fun!

Skeletor: Fights are fun. I like fights!

Miguel: And you give each other presents.

Skeletor: And when you open them, they explode, right?

Miguel: No! They’re nice gifts.

Skeletor: Nice? Doesn’t sound like much fun to me!

“Now, He-Man, I am going to destr – WHAT THE HELL?!?!”

All leading up to the final battle, where Skeletor gets knocked out, Horde Prime’s ship grabs the kids in a tractor beam, and Skeletor is awakened by the robot dog licking his bony face until he wakes up and shoots down his boss’ ship to save the children, the most bizarre character turnaround since Jaws turned good in Moonraker. The act makes him feel nauseous, But She-Ra and He-Man assure him that Christmas comes only once a year. “Oh, thank goodness!” Skeletor cries. General laughter.

Oh yeah, the kids get back home. The end.

It’s a generally easy way to beat 50 minutes to death. The most interesting thing for me, only sort of conversant with the world, was wondering who the fuck that was and entertaining myself with imagined names. Skeletor had a double-headed henchman that I was sure was called Twoheador but I later found was the more clever Two Bad; Hordak had a similarly lumpy guy with the more prosaic name Multibot, not Doublebodyor.

I was right about Spikor, though.

“And a Merry Christmas to al – WHAT THE HELL?!?!”

The character that actually triggered my research is only in two scenes at the beginning and end, a guy with an elephant’s head and a telescoping trunk . That was Snout Spout. To think I could have died without knowing that!

People endlessly bitch about Filmation’s limited animation, but the truth is they kept a lot of American animators alive when most of the production companies were going to cheaper Asian houses. I see founder and Executive Produce Lou Scheimer credited with branching out the He-Man universe to girls, and later insisting that the main character of the science-fiction series Bravestarr be a Native American. Those are pretty ballsy moves for a kiddie industry, and deserving of some respect. Even if those closing bumpers were always cloying and highly mockable:

Prince Adam: Not everyone celebrates Christmas, but the spirit of the Christmas season is within us all. It’s a season of love and joy and caring.

Orko: And presents!

Prince Adam: Presents are nice, Orko, but Christmas means much more than that.

Orko: I know, Adam. Christmas is a time of peace and caring and happiness.

Prince Adam: That’s right, Orko. And what would make you happiest this Christmas?

Orko: Presents!

Prince Adam: Oh, Orko!

The 12 Disasters of Christmas (2012, of course)

There was going to be a category in this non-event I was going to call “Christmas-adjacent” but then this one doesn’t quite fit smoothly into that; I mean, it has Christmas right in the title. But what it has to do with Christmas is pretty slight.

You have this idyllic little town in the mountains. Beautiful place, trees all around. It’s apparently Christmas Eve, and the 18th birthday of Jacie (Magda Apanowicz), the daughter of Joseph (Ed Quinn), a local shopkeeper who’s pretty ambivalent toward the building of a MegaDeals mall that will block access to his favorite climbin’ mountain. There’s been some weird weather lately – unseasonal heat waves, mass bird deaths, red water running from the taps. Jacie’s grandmother gives her a ring along with some cryptic utterings that she should have given it to her sooner, that she should have talked to her about it sooner, and then Grandmas gets impaled on the latest climate disaster: Giant icicles falling from the sky like spears. Oh, did I mention Jacie’s donning the ring gave her a tremendous shock and made the weird birthmark on her arm glow?

Grandma! Noooooo!

Let me spare you a lot of exposition – although the unveiling of this berserk mythos is half the fun of the movie, so just stop right here if necessary – this movie likes to trot out the term geomancy quite a bit. Turns out geomantic forces build up over centuries until such time that they can destroy the world unless the Chosen One gathers five rings and stands in exactly the right place at the right time. The last time this happened was during the age of the Mayans, and this is all explained in an ancient picture book with an arcane compass in the cover that will lead our plucky heroes to the rings. And since it is, yes, 2012, it is high time.

“Karen! There’s a cheap CGI tornado right behind you!”

Okay, a visual guide is very handy, but don’t you think the Mayans could have done a bit more in warning us, besides leaving behind calendars that ended in 2012, and spawning a lucrative market of doomsaying literature and cultism? Well, turns out the laugh’s on you, Mayan doubters, because the plucky indigenous Mesoamericans did – by writing “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, a codified explanation of what was going to happen. (Come on, you picked that up from the necessary five golden rings, didn’t you?)

The filmmakers don’t push that agenda too far, because I’m still puzzling over what lyrics are connected to which of the various doom events that unfold. It’s also to their credit that they keep things moving fast enough to minimize thinking too much about what is unspooling before you. To do this, they wind up ripping off a couple of Stephen King tropes, like a force field dome shutting off the area completely from the outside world, and the villainous Mr. Megadeals himself, Kane (Roark Critchlow) getting ahold of the Mayan book and misinterpreting the final image to mean that Jacie has to die to save the world (another thing you should have noticed by now were the Biblical character names).

Pretty much every disaster that comes our way is of the cheap CGI variety that turns you into cheap CGI so you can shatter or dissolve (also: I had no idea electricity could make you explode). They apparently did pay for a life-size icicle spear, though, because they use that one twice. None of this makes a damn lick of sense, but as I said, it moves quickly and the tension-mounting moments are well-executed and exciting. It’s not something that would substitute for an actual Christmas movie, mind, but it’s a far better alternative to treacly Hallmark movies that leave a film of saccharine on your TV set.

A Cosmic Christmas (1977)

Honestly, this impromptu challenge has little chance of success if I don’t toss some short slowballs to myself.

It’s Christmas Eve and young Peter is strolling around town with his pet goose, Lucy (ho ho). After a brief encounter with the town’s young punk ne’er-do-wells (one named Marvin is particularly keen on picking a fight with Lucy, which shows how dumb he is, because geese are frightening), Peter decides to check out what he is sure is a UFO he saw landing in the woods. Peter’s got a pretty good eye, because it is a spaceship, and from it come Plutox, Lexicon, and Althazor, who bear an uncanny resemblance to the Magi. They’re here to investigate a strange stellar event that occurred 2000 years ago, which Peter interprets to mean that they’re here to learn about Christmas.

He takes them into town, where commercialism and petty politics contradict everything Peter has told the aliens about Christmas; luckily he takes them to his own home where his grandmother shares her memories of what Christmas used to be before these durn modern times, and one of the aliens holographically recreates her memories, so Peter’s Mom and Dad get to learn a little bit about the true meaning of the season, too.

Then Marvin crops up and goosenaps Lucy, leading to a big chase that cuts through a mob of townspeople who’ve gathered at the spaceship. Marvin’s bicycle crashes through a fence and then he breaks through the thin ice on a frozen lake; Peter tries to rescue him but gets pulled in, too. The townsfolk form a human chain that winds up short, and the aliens forsake their Watcher ethos that forbids interference and join the chain, rescuing the boys. Everybody makes up and retire to Peter’s home for a good, old-fashioned Christmas feast that would make old Fezziwig proud. The aliens have learned about Christmas, and return to space to spread the word, one supposes. The end.

This was the first of Nelvana Animation’s TV specials, followed closely by The Devil and Daniel Mouse and Intergalactic Thanksgiving. I’m a big fan of Nelvana in this era (so was George Lucas, he hired them to do the animated intro of Boba Fett in The Star Wars Holiday Special, inarguably the most entertaining part of that misfire), it’s so fluid and unique. TV specials like this usually ellide over the religious aspects of the holiday, but Peter goes right ahead and names names to the visitors, which was kind of refreshing after the depressingly bleak secularism of Christmas Evil. That goes largely by the wayside once we’re into Grandma’s Christmas memory, which manages to be warmly nostalgic without becoming overly mawkish. And that climax with the two drowning boys is genuinely suspenseful.

A nice little animated surprise if the kids – or you – are sick of re-runs of The Grinch.