If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you are familiar with the phenomenon of the Crapfest. A group of us gathers every two or three months to gasp in wonder at the vast world of the Cinema of Diminished Expectations. Or, ofttimes, to simply gasp.
We had a full complement this time, saving only The Other David, who was healing his voice for an upcoming musical, and felt that shouting in dismay would be counter-productive to that. Fair enough. Break a leg, friend. This left us at myself, Rick, Paul, Alan, Mark, Erik, and your host, Dave.
While planning for this shindig, Host Dave informed us, in the tone usually reserved for doctors telling you to lose weight, that the agenda for this Crapfest had been decided long ago. (Maybe I should have said “In the tone usually reserved for the Lawgiver telling us The Prophecy”, but I’m going to need all my prophecy jokes for later) To that end, he laid out this pre-conceived roster.
I’m going to have to take some blame for the first feature. You see, once upon a time, we tried to limit the scope of a Crapfest to a single luminary in the realm of Crap Cinema. That luminary was Graydon Clark, and that was a mistake of Biblical proportions. Too much of a bad thing, as it were. But at the very beginning, there was a choice to be made, between Angel’s Brigade or Without Warning. The deciding vote came down to Paul, who reasonably enough, deduced that since Rick “Let’s watch Evilspeak again” Mantler had voted for Without Warning, it was only logical to vote for Angel’s Brigade instead. This was wronger than any deduction Dr. Watson had ever made, but I really can’t fault his logic.
So there was this time I bitched that I was still owed a viewing of Without Warning. So that was our opening salvo.
I think I’m not exactly engaging in spoilers when I tell you Without Warning is about an alien coming to Earth and hunting humans with little flying creatures he throws like frisbees, and yes, this was seven years before Predator. The major difference between the two is a) millions of dollars and b) Predator manages to fill its running time pretty well. The Alien spends the first part of the movie knocking off celebrity guests, or at least affordable C-listers of the era, starting with Cameron Mitchell and moving on to Larry Storch, playing the master of a cub scout troop. Storch was only on set half a day, and it seems to play out in real time.
Our protagonists are four teens who ignore the warnings of Professional Harbinger Jack Palance to not go to the lake, there’s trouble there. Half the teens become frisbee kibble fairly quickly, and since one of them is a young David Caruso, the Alien got a standing ovation. The other two (Tarah Nutter and Christopher S. Nelson) try to get help after discovering their pals and several other corpses in a remote shack. They find a believer in Martin Landau, playing a mandatorily shell-shocked veteran called “Sarge”, and, of course, Palance. The bar where they try to get help is notable for featuring Sue Ann Langdon, Neville Brand, and Ralph Meeker (in his last role, no less), none of whom stick around for the big alien fight, such as it is. They leave that to future Oscar winners Landau and Palance.
There is an interminable period at the end of the second act and before the third, sort of an eternal entre acte, where our two teens, on the lam from the increasingly psychotic Landau, break into somebody’s vacation home and set up shop. Nutter keeps waking up screaming and saying things like, “What if this is Sarge’s house?” which allowed us to kill the next ten minutes of filler with panicked questions like “What if snakes can carry knives?” “What if Zamfir really is master of the pan pipes?” and “What if Iron Man had Spider-Man’s powers?”
If there was one takeaway from this, it is that I wanted to make sure I didn’t buy the upcoming blu-ray from Scream Factory out of misguided nostalgia. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!
The Alien, incidentally, is played by the 7′ 2″ Kevin Peter Hall, because of course he is. And Hall would also play the title character in Predator. Also, Mr. Hall is not finished with us yet, because we are moving on to Prophecy, for which I must also take some blame. You see, back a year ago or more, I reviewed the French movie Prey, noting that it was basically Prophecy with mutated wild boars instead of a bear. I also mentioned I had never seen Prophecy, because I’d read David O. Seltzer’s novel, and immediately thought, “well, I can miss this one.”
To which Dave was all like whaaaaaaat and you are watching this.
Well, we already know about the mutant bear. Robert Foxworth is a two-fisted doctor concerned with social justice issues (as we find out in an opening scene set in a ghetto with the cleanest, freshest spray-painted graffiti you have ever seen), who is sent to a northern paper mill to investigate charges of pollution. The charges turn out to be true, as the whole region is lousy with mercury, which Foxworth assures us has “mutagenic” qualities. This is going to produce some tension in his wife, Talia Shire, who is pregnant, she just hasn’t bothered to tell Foxworth yet.
Extra risibility is supplied by Richard Dysart as the front man for the paper mill, essaying a cagey mix of Pepperidge Farm spokesman and Edward G. Robinson. And Armand Assante as an Indian.
The most famous scene in the movie was quoted in the TV trailer, when the bear attacks a family campsite and a kid tries to hop away in his sleeping bag, only to be dashed against a rock in a flurry of downy feathers. This also convinced 1979 Me that avoiding this movie was a good idea. There is no way anybody thought that was going to be anything but laughable, right? Especially when you consider the movie is directed by John freaking Frankenheimer.
Frankenheimer would say in later years that the movie would have been better if he hadn’t been at the height of his alcoholism during its shooting. The truly lamentable thing is there are moments in this movie that are superb. Foxworth examining the camp site where the exploding sleeping bag took place, and finding enormous claw marks on a tree, and then realizing that the claw marks go fifteen feet up the tree.
The best sequence for me, though is a bit later. Shire finds some mutant bear cubs in a fishing net nearby. One is still alive, but barely (no pun intended). It’s in recovering this cub that Foxworth spends too long, and his helicopter ride is socked in by a storm. They make it to an Indian hunting village where Foxworth labors to keep the cub alive until Dysart and the Sheriff can come and see proof of the pollution. Trouble is, Mama Bear also shows up and wants the cub back.
This is the second great monster movie sequence, when our name actors (plus one or two more) take refuge in a tunnel under one of the tents to hide from the beast and all they can do is listen to the screams of the men still above ground as the monster kills them. Then, silence. Silence for way too long. But who’s going to look out and check?
So that day on the set, Frankenheimer only had half a bottle of Scotch, or something.
We’re building up to a big showdown with Mama Bear (even the most city-slickerish among us was yelling “Leave the bear cub! PUT IT THE HELL DOWN!” but movie characters never listen), which is… okay, I guess, but has nowhere near the tension it wants to have. It’s kind of like the end of the novel Jaws where the shark suddenly succumbs to all the damage done, but we’re led to believe it’s Foxworth stabbing it with an arrow over and over again. Also, the last shot shows us there’s another mutant bear wandering around, so fuck you, movie.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that was Kevin Peter Hall in the mutant bear suit. See? Connections are everywhere.
The worst part was when I got hungry and mentioned to Rick it was time to start dinner and I was going to help Rick in the kitchen because it was like my idea, but Dave was like, no, motherfucker, you get in there and you watch this movie.
I don’t mind crap monster movies – hell, in a way, those are my life. But crap monster movies with a painfully earnest social relevance angle – those hurt me.
Speaking of hurt, I had been saving hurt up for a long time. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Batman and Robin, Highlander II The Goddamn Quickening. I let that all out with something that had been dredged up by the Drive-In Mob: Bob Hope’s 1976 TV special Joys.
Supposedly, someone has lured a bunch of comedians to Bob Hope’s place to murder them all. You see, it’s Joys because Jaws was really big, and… the murderer is… kinda… like a shark? But not? This is about the level of writing here; you have several roomfuls of comedians – just look at that list on the IMDb page – and none of them are allowed to do their schtick, outside of Arte Johnson obviously improvising a few and Don Rickles calling people a hockeypuck. Because that many comedians in one place? That would be hilarious. Too bad what they’re given is the most insipid jokes 1976 could dig up. Most disheartening is Groucho Marx, frail and nearing death, not even bothering to pretend he isn’t reading cue cards and still making me laugh. Though Kevin Peter Hall is not there, Larry Storch is, and we also have to deal with disco era Don Knotts and Don Adams.
And commercials from Texaco, which assured us it was working to keep our trust.
Oh, the hatred that was cast my way! Hatred which I fully deserved, but I felt much better for having given vent to my spleen. And then Dave retaliated magnificently with Playboy’s Roller Disco Pajama Party, which actually aired on ABC in 1979, even though it sounds like an SCTV sketch. I could only look across the room, give him the thumbs up, and say, “Respect.”
Yes, this is a documentary about frolicking in the Playboy Mansion. Richard Dawson is there to make you cringe, and there were lots of astoundingly beautiful women which just about every man in the room had seen naked (I profess admiration of a sort for the guys who could name each and every one of them, even when they weren’t being introduced). Roller skating, and dancing to Village People songs we had never heard.
Rick’s haunted voice came from the back of the room several times, stating, “This isn’t going to get any better, you know. You may think it is, but it ISN’T.” But I was enjoying myself. Pretty women are pretty women, and there were quite a few here.
It had its educational points, too: we’d had no idea that there was a disco version of Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar”. Nor did we know that Waylon Flowers had a black version of his Madam puppet. (My reference source for all things gay, long-time theatre friend Rodney Walsworth, informs me the puppet was named Jiffy, and he saw Flowers perform with her at a club). The clip below has a glimpse of Jiffy, but sadly does not seem to have the bit where Flowers attempts to work his sassy black puppet magic on Jim Brown, who is visibly counting to ten several times just to keep from jamming this puppet up this little peckerwood’s ass.
No, here is this hunk of the show – the whole damn thing’s on YouTube, folks, it’s easy enough to find – that has the high point for us. About 13 seconds in, after a Mork and Mindy promo, is the 30 second throw to the local newscast coming on after Roller Disco Pajama Party, and it’s obvious the station has been getting a lot of calls about the show…
We really wanted that guy to come back.
You don’t have to watch the whole thing, or maybe you do, because you’ll catch a brief glimpse of Marjoe Gortner at the party (he got applause. I love my homies.), the aforementioned Jiffy, Richard Dawson referring to index cards as he interviews some Playmates, and likely the most skin you’ll see in the whole enterprise. Just enough to make our gathering feel all cheated and hollow inside.
Not me, though. I went home feeling purged, cleansed of all the negativity that had been weighing on me. Such is the power of inflicting crap on your fellow man. This feeling did not survive the light of day, but I slept like a baby that night, and I look forward to the next one, where I can start playing the nice guy again.