Slugs (1988)

In a dramatic departure for covers, this is actually pretty darned close to what happens in the movie

In a dramatic departure for covers, this is actually pretty close to what happens in the movie

Next month, in our annual Hubrisween marathon, I’ll be revisiting the very first movie I ever reviewed. In my usual demented brain-damaged crab fashion, I will now re-visit the second movie I ever reviewed, which is Slugs, a 1988 horror movie directed by Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón, whose biggest hit stateside was probably 1982’s Pieces (“It’s Exactly What You Think It Is”).

I didn’t care for Slugs back in ’88 or ’89, whenever it was. My entire review consisted of a list of each and every horror movie cliche which you will encounter during its runtime, up to and including, “Hey (Hero), if anything happens to me, take care of my wife.” The only one I couldn’t complain about was the alcoholic hermit saying, “Whut’s thet dawg a-barkin’ at?” and that’s only because the dog doesn’t bark, it just refuses to go into the abandoned house infested with killer slugs.

Killer. Slugs.

You two are so frickin' doomed, i didn't even look up your character names.

You two are so frickin’ doomed, I didn’t even look up your character names.

And that’s not one of the reasons I hated the movie (it is right there in the title, after all); I have watched movies about giant mollusks, murderous tires, bloodthirsty pianos and meteorological events made of man-eating fish; I am not going to balk at a movie about killer slugs, even if as a predator, they only slightly more mobile than the monster in Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. It was the rote nature of the thriller that grated on me.

So here I am, 27 years later, and Arrow Video has put Slugs out on blu-ray. A number of my friends are very excited about this. I’m talking about being as excited as me hearing a pristine 35mm print of Chimes at Midnight had been found. So here is another chance for an older, wiser version of myself to give a movie another chance.



As you know (or could have surmised by my above rambling), this movie is about a small town being invaded by a horde of large, carnivorous black slugs (in the most famous shot, we find that the slugs have a toothy maw) traveling through the sewer system, having been spawned by some toxic waste dump in the town’s past. Their mucus is toxic, and can paralyze their victims. Also, as we find out in a particularly Cronenbergian sequence, if your alcoholic wife cuts one up in a salad and you eat it, blood flukes will proliferate in your body and make your head explode. Oops!

Pretty impressive in 1080p.

Pretty impressive in 1080p.

So it’s up to a heroic Health Inspector (Michael Garfield) a doesn’t-want-to-be-a-hero sanitation engineer (Philip MacHale) and a dubbed high school biology teacher (Santiago Alvarez) to combat the menace. There is a lot of time spent trying to get the local bureaucrats to do something about the bloody bodies piling up, but they can’t close the beaches on the 4th of July  jeopardize a sweet business deal already in trouble because the guy negotiating it had his head explode at a ritzy restaurant. So our heroes come up with a formula that makes the slugs explode instead (I guess they were immune to salt), and dump it in the slugs’ breeding ground, which also blows up half the damn town, and serves them right.

The problems with the movie are largely structural: it never really allows itself to build any momentum to its final scene. Two men in hazmat suits blundering around a sewer system with outdated maps, trying not to get eaten should be claustrophobic and terrifying. Instead we’re told to be afraid of motionless rubber slugs and flowing water and I’m constantly checking to see how much time is left. There are times I admit I’m distracted by wondering how slugs can pull people off boats or drag dead bodies along the ground…

"We hate each other a lot, right?" "Right."

“We hate each other a lot, right?” “Right.”

As to the much-reviled cliches: They’re there, but I’ve mellowed about them. These are what Simón thought would make for a commercially successful movie (along with some unrepentant 1980s gore), and apparently, he was right. The special effects are quite good; the exteriors were all shot in New York, while the interiors and almost all the effects were filmed in Madrid, Simón’s home turf. This means there is an awful lot of dubbing in evidence, some of it lamentable, but really that’s part of the charm for its fans.

Those fans are going to be ecstatic about this blu-ray, too. Arrow Video are the guys who brought us a flawless Blood and Black Lace and the quality on Slugs is equally breathtaking. A 1080p presentation from the original film elements, and those elements must have been blessed by the Pope because they are amazing and show not the slightest wear.

slugs5Arrow also has their usual bonanza of supplements, but the best for my money is an audio commentary track with Shaun Hutson, who wrote the original novel. Hutson is refreshingly level-headed and entertaining about what became of this, his first book; he speaks disarmingly about his first viewing at a film festival, and the differences between the two (mainly, his book takes place in London, not small town America).  The conversation, having 92 minutes to breathe, ranges over horror movies in general and Hutson’s hatred for Stephanie Meyers in specific: “You ruined vampires!”

like Shaun Hutson.

This is an amazing time to be a genre fan with an HDTV. Are there movies I wished Arrow Video had concentrated on other than Slugs? Of course I do. But I still have to admit this is a wonderful package, beautifully presented, and I commend Arrow for taking such care with a long-neglected stepchild of the horror movie world.

Keep it up, folks. Please.

“DON’T make out when your parents aren’t home!”

Buy Slugs on Amazon. The movie, not the flesh-eating beastie.

Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s

Hey, remember when Satanists nearly took over the US back in the 80s? I sure do.

satanicIf you’ve ever read Charles Mackay’s seminal work on societal mania, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, you know mankind is prone to fads and hysteria, and sometimes you wonder what it was like to live during the events he outlines, including Crusades, witch hunts, animal magnetism crazes. Wonder no more (I find myself living through one right now, but let’s leave politics out of it for the moment), because even if you weren’t around during the 80s, you still feel the echoes of this strange, strange fixation.

FAB Press has released the Second Edition of  Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, a heavily illustrated book edited by Kier-La Jannisse and Paul Corupe. It has twenty chapters by twenty-one contributors, each examining a facet of that phenomenon; we’re not talking facile remembrances, either, these are well-researched articles, frequently with lengthy bibliographies.

Don't forget: Proctor & Gamble? Total Satanists.

Don’t forget: Proctor & Gamble? Total Satanists.

Satanic Panic kicks off with an examination of the book that almost inarguably started the Panic, Michelle Remembers, which introduced the world at large to – and began the destruction of – Recovered Memory Therapy. Michelle Smith, under hypnosis, began recalling repressed “memories” of what would soon be known as Satanic Ritual Abuse when she was a child in the 1950s. I’ve never cared to track down this long-debunked book, but it is reported to have a pulp-novel ghoulishness in its descriptions of the horrors supposedly visited upon the young girl: murder, cannibalism, necrophilia, baby crucifixion. My favorite remains that at one point, a tail and horns were surgically attached to her body, which is something you’d suspect a routine medical examination could prove or disprove.

7020790From this one case comes an extraordinary cottage industry that would tell America it was under attack by an astoundingly well-organized and powerful Satanic Underground. Numerous people began making serious coin by not only telling their disgusting and horrifying tales of debauchment while in the ranks of these nefarious ne’er-do-wells, but also training police departments about the modus operandi of these cults. Training films on the subject are still circulated on YouTube, mainly for the lulz.

Satanic Panic examines the subjects you’d expect, like backmasking in heavy metal music, that training ground for demonology – Dungeons & Dragons (and Jack Chick’s Christian comic industry going all-in on RPG’s dangers), and that hotbed of Satanic thought, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Horror movies, of course, like Evilspeak and 976-EVIL, which also spoke to misgivings about the new technologies ruining our lives. Let’s not even get into MTV.

Don't do it, Elfstar!

Don’t do it, Elfstar!

But the search for knowledge goes to strange places, too. There’s a chapter on Playboy Press’ mass paperbacks (which I had totally forgotten about), which included a popular series by Russ Martin whose major underpinning was “The Organization”, a far-reaching network of devil worshippers which enslaved women to birth babies for sacrifice. This tasteless bit of grand guignol plotting would be reported as fact in a 1988 book, Satan’s Underground.

America doesn’t get to hog all the blame either. The book has chapters on the spread of the Panic to Quebec, Britain and Australia. A special scathing chapter is reserved for Geraldo Rivera, in this period on the cusp between “controversial” investigative journalist and national embarrassment. His two-hour TV special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground (hm, that title sounds familiar) earned him a cover of Newsweek entitled Trash TV.

"Yes, only Satanists can use chalk like this."

“Yes, only a Satanist could possibly use chalk like this.”

The book maintains a rough timeline of 1980 through 1990, when the infamous McMartin Pre-School trial served to wind down the hysteria somewhat, and makes a fairly good case for Joe Dante’s underrated movie The ‘Burbs providing a catharsis through comedy, lancing the nation’s moral boil with satire.

That’s also indicative of the book’s welcome willingness to point out a bit of levity here and there, because the history of this thing is actually pretty brutal: there are a lot of lives absolutely destroyed by the most vicious – and often in hindsight ludicrous – of accusations. The Afterword by John Schooley points out a case where people convicted on a bad diagnosis and testimony from children coached by unscrupulous police and therapists were finally acquitted – after 23 years in prison, in 2015.

This is a heavy read, not only in page count, but in the weight it puts on your soul. You have to pause after every chapter, just to give yourself time to process what you’ve just uncovered. This was a period I lived through; there is enough that is familiar that it allows me to think, “Oh, yes, I remember this”, but there is so much more that makes me follow that up with, “Oh hell, I had no idea it got that bad.”

You can also buy Satanic Panic though Amazon, but I admit it’s cheaper from FAB.


Agoniya (Agony) (1975)

2jyvk9joIt was about a year ago that I viewed Elem Klimov’s two hour gutpunch of a movie, Come and See, based on his own experiences in World War II (and he claimed he soft-pedaled it, good lord). I was stunned in more ways than one, and even more surprised that Klimov had only made six feature-length movies (and seven shorts). Alas, more than par for the course when we talking directors under the Soviet regime, and we’ll get back to that in a bit. But I was especially intrigued that one of those six movies was a film about Rasputin.

Most of my experience with Rasputin dates back to an article I read in my grandparents’ Readers Digest back in the 60s, which was about his assassination at the hands of desperate Russian aristocrats and military officers. The reason it stuck with me was the sheer amount of damage it was reported required to put the man down: poisoned food, gunshots, stabbing, beating and finally drowning. Rasputin was Michael Myers long before Halloween was ever made. It is generally agreed that he was turned into an unstoppable demonic force after the fact to justify the murder. This bit of history-as-horror-movie was probably reinforced by Hammer’s movie Rasputin starring Christopher Lee, which I must confess I still haven’t seen, so I should probably shut up about it.

For contrast, here's the real guy.

For contrast, here’s the real guy.

If you’re any sort of film fan, by now you’ve likely read the Salon article about the legal battles engendered by the 1932 Rasputin and the Empress, which led to your favorite “This is a work of fiction” legal disclaimer at the end of all movies. So I was looking forward to an actual Russian version of the story.

Agoniya takes place in 1916, which is a section of Russian history so chaotic even professional historians have a difficult time hashing out what was actually transpiring. Klimov does an effective job of boiling down the big stories at time, helpful not only to the movie’s intended audience, I’m sure, but essential for those of us on the outside. He makes canny use of actual archival movie footage, and as the movie progresses, also seems to use new footage made to match the look of older film. World War I rages, and Czar Nicholas II has taken control of the Russian military, and he is famously bad at it. Rasputin has already insinuated himself into the royal family, as a mystic holy man who is credited (by the devoted Czarina Alexandra) with alleviating the young Czar Alexei’s medical problems (Alexei, as it turns out, was a hemophiliac, and Rasputin’s insistence that he stop taking the recent miracle drug Aspirin was more or less accidentally the right choice).

agonyRasputin (Alexei Petrenko) is shown to be all sorts of things: intelligent, charismatic, but driven by his emotions and passions. Petrenko manages a neat trick I had previously only seen in Bruno Ganz’ truly praiseworthy portrayal of Hitler in the oft-memed Downfall: he takes a man who has become an icon of unrepentant evil and manages to humanize him without stirring undeserved sympathy. There are times, when Rasputin is stressed and angry (and such times are plentiful), that he reminds you of Dennis Hopper at his most powerful. Hopper would have played an incredible Rasputin, it occurs to me, but that is so not here or there.

157932445_17ae6aWe follow Rasputin’s machinations,  his ups and downs, eventually coming to the assassination by Prince Felix Yusupov and his co-conspirators, but we find that the poisoned food and multiple gunshot wounds were eventually enough (the movie also shows how the clumsiness of the murder is in direct contrast to the early bravado of the group; most are ready to cut and run after they find out the poison wasn’t enough).

Rasputin’s legendary debauchery is shown, but it’s never something to wallow in, it’s just another fact laid out before us. It was that more-or-less factual approach that worked against the movie; it was finished in 1975, and then vanished without a trace for ten years, until it re-surfaced in the age of glasnost.

6-1Rasputin is not presented as a force of pure evil, but of venal opportunism, in cahoots with a corrupt banker and an ambitious lady-in-waiting. That was likely bad enough for the leaders of the Supreme Soviet, but it was compounded by the nuanced performance of Anatoliy Romashin as Nicholas II – again, not the cruel despot that Official History required, but weak, more than willing to defer to Alexandra (Velta Line) and be swayed by Rasputin’s visions. He is a man who in way over his head, but cannot admit it, because he is the Czar, dammit. As with Rasputin’s portrayal, it doesn’t excuse the horrid bloodbaths under his rule, but it does aid immeasurably in the verisimilitude of what we are watching.

Also missing would be the beloved Bolsheviks, but this is historically accurate: they were all fighting the War, or exiled, and had been ejected from the Imperial Duma, a governing body which was a hotbed of anti-Rasputin sentiment, but only because these aristocrats and merchants were desperate to shore up the ruling family and preserve the status quo, and therefore their own power. There is increasing chaos as the day of Rasputin’s death approaches, a chaos which is nowhere evident as the dead mystic is lowered into a grave in his native village; Klimov doesn’t have to tell us this is the death knell of the Czarist government – the very stillness and grimness of the landscape lets us know an age has ended. The Age just doesn’t know it yet.

vlcsnap-2016-09-11-01h11m00s578Agony is a complex story of a complex time, ultimately as confusing morally as its central character. It is a story usually presented as devilish holy faker against two pretty young lovers; here the holy man is far too human, as are the appropriately middle-aged royal couple. It’s a portrait of fucked-up people in a fucked-up time – it’s no wonder it ends in blood, even after the movie wraps up, less than year before the October Revolution. Well-made and compelling, it deserves to be much better known… much like its director.

Buy Agony on Amazon

Life Changes and Emotional Miscues

Something we’re all aware of, no matter how disconnected you are from the Webosphere or the current electoral freakshow: Gene Wilder passed away last Sunday. That is a terrible, terrible loss, but as it came out, he had suffered from Alzheimer’s the last three years, so, sad as you are, you can say, “Well, at least his struggle is over,” and mean it.

Like a lot of people, my first reaction was, “Aw, he’s reunited with Gilda.” Then I read the family’s statement about his passing, and found out he was happily married for 25 years to a lady named Karen Boyer. A lady who stayed by his side all through those declining three years. I was surprised, but then, I don’t obsessively follow the lives of artists I enjoy, and Wilder was a quiet man, unshowy outside of his performances.

So I felt somewhat bad about defaulting to a memory of a relationship decades old – I felt bad for diminishing Karen’s role in his life, however unintentionally. The “reuniting with Gilda” feeling was so strong and widespread, though, I felt even worse every time it cropped up. I didn’t want to correct those folks – we all mourn in our own way, and it’s a real asshole who tells people they’re not mourning the right way. There have been more and more posts gently pointing out Karen’s importance in Wilder’s life, which is good.

My amended romantic fantasy is that Gene was greeted at the Pearly Gates by Gilda – and Marty, and Madeline and Zero, with a tray of cocktails, and they spent some time catching up before going off to join the most insanely hilarious comedy troupe in all eternity.

That momentary emotional confusion – that my perception of reality was not so clean-cut as I had presumed – is a piece with the rest of my life right now. Three weeks ago I moved my only son into his college dorm, which was an experience even more emotional than you might suppose. I was surprised that there were two days of activities and meeting following that, but I soon found it was a well-practiced process to wean parents and child away from each other. Sure enough, weepy as his parents were, The Boy was ready for us to leave, as he had more activities to get to, and a fair number of new friends.

I always said that when my wife and son went on trips without me, work expanded to fill the void, and that has been truer than ever in the beginning of this empty nest phase of my life. My wife is laboring long hours to get her school ready for the new year, and I have had no lack of City Meetings and Events Which Need To Be Documented. It took two weeks for the two of us to have time to go out for dinner, just the two of us, to mark this new beginning.

None of this addresses the strange malaise that has gripped me. I’ve had the occasional night off, and time was those would be spent watching movies, and eventually I would wind up here talking about them. This hasn’t happened lately. I’m reading a fascinating book (which you will hear about soon), and I’ve been exploring a bewildering variety of solitaire games, but I only recently forced myself to start watching movies again, mainly for the upcoming Halloween marathon.

That was a lamentable way to try to kickstart an old habit, and I was punished in short order when I tried to watch the movie I wanted to write about this week, Elem Klimov’s Agoniya, only to find that my bootleg disc wouldn’t play.  I dug out my old DVD player, a robust monster I had repaired by hand several times, and now I may finally get to see it.

But I took the liberty of radio silence last week, and didn’t want to let another week go without some sign of my existence. I had tried to write about this last week, and it turned very maudlin; I hadn’t expected that, because I don’t feel maudlin. Life is different now, but not excessively so. I buy fewer groceries each week, cook smaller portions. I’m the one taking out the trash again. This isn’t a life change so much as a life adjustment.

Next week, perhaps, the adjustment will be over. We’ll have all settled in, and routine will return. I am not a terribly adventurous person, in that respect. I prefer the safety of excitement presented to me on the screen or the page, and the sooner I return to that, the better.