It must be Fall, although the outside temperatures are still freakishly hot and humid. Honestly, the worst thing about my laziness (and lifelong pursuit of becoming so sedentary I am declared a rock formation) is that I never bothered to move somewhere colder. I like wearing jackets and sweaters, boots. I find gloves bizarrely sexy. All these things are unnecessary 10 months out of the year here in the swamplands of Texas.
So how do I know it’s Fall? Things are getting busier. Much busier. Last week I alluded to squeezing in some movies in between a weeknight show and editing two stories (I didn’t even mention shooting a third, that came up at the last minute). This week, not much better. Edited one story, trying to set up interviews for three more. Not shooting this week but I have two shows this weekend. Monday night my family celebrated my birthday, because my actual birthday night I was working the Economic Development Corporation. This afternoon I journey into town for a preliminary meeting on another educational writing project which will allow me to pay bills in a timely manner for a few months. Such is life.
In the meantime, however, there are movies. Yes, many movies. Let us begin.
Last Tuesday I gave in to an urge I’d been feeling for a while and re-watched Psycho (the original, puh-leeeeeze). This is one of those movies I just have to watch every now and then, just to drink in Hitchcock’s master class in how to do slow-burn tension-ratcheting. The set-ups are so simple, so economical, that you despair why more filmmakers can’t do equally well with so little. The answer, of course, is they’re not Hitchcock.
There are a lot of different stories about the whys and wherefores of why Psycho is in black and white. That Hitchcock thought it would make the gore less offensive, the studio didn’t want to spend a lot of money on such obvious trash that was so obviously destined to fail, that Hitchcock noticed that crappy little B&W B-movies were making money hand over fist so what would happen if we made a good one?… in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter, it just works, and at the time it probably heightened the almost documentary feel of the movie, thanks to TV news every evening in black and white. Hitchcock was using a 50mm lens, the closest to human vision, to really drag out the feeling that the viewer was a voyeur in the whole matter.
Psycho is also interesting to me as the movie that changed the way we watched movies. I remember when I was a kid in the early 60s, you went to a movie whenever you felt like it. If you arrived in the middle, well, fine, you played catch-up with your native wit, stayed through the changeover, then watched until you hit the point you entered; kids, this is where the phrase “This is where I came in” comes from. Hitchcock insisted no one be seated after Psycho began, and though I have no way of determining how well this was enforced, it still ushered in a sea change of how we attended movies. The “exclusive road show engagements” of the 50s-60s helped also, but it’s possible to point to Psycho‘s box office success as a touchstone in the practice of seeing a movie from the beginning.
I also feel the need to point out the stunning work done on my Universal Blu-Ray’s audio tracks – the crew pulled a very nice 5.1 track from the original soundtrack. It doesn’t call attention to oneself, but it beautifully broadens a monophonic track into a true soundscape that I think Hitchcock himself would have appreciated.
Next up was The Woman in Black, one of those movies I intended to see in a theater but didn’t. This is the first movie from the revived Hammer Films, leading me to expect good things. There were strands of the old Hammer DNA in evidence; a good cast, led by Daniel Radcliffe (trying to put Harry Potter behind him and somewhat succeeding) and Ciaran Hinds as the most modern member of a superstitious village; great period detail matched a superb production design. What I didn’t get was the Hammer mastery of all that is Gothic.
Woman in Black relies throughout its first half on cheap jump scares administered far too frequently; there is some good scary stuff in the second half – and more jump scares – but those times that a person suddenly appears WITH A LOUD MUSICAL STING totally squanders any good will the creepy stuff engenders. I’m still looking forward to further Hammer offerings, but this one does not go on the shelf next to the others.
And cripes, wouldn’t it easier on everyone if these superstitious villages would simply come clean with out-of-towners and just tell them why they shouldn’t go to the Old Dark House?
The Show that Saturday was cancelled – actors out-of-town – and that would usually be cause for moping about all morose-like, because that’s disastrous for my fragile economic ecosystem. But you know what? not this time. This time I knew what to do. I dropped Rick a line and asked if he wanted to waste a Saturday watching movies again. Well, by golly he did, and thereby hangs the rest of this post.
The night before this epic meeting, Rick e-mailed myself and another Crapfest pal, Alan, about finding a gray market site that was selling a piece of 70s/80s softcore to which Alan had gotten attached in his teen cable-watching days. I fired back to Rick “Never mind that, Savage Sisters is playing on Channel 11-2 RIGHT NOW.”
You see, back during one of the Crapfests, I had infected Rick with my perverse love for Cheri Caffaro. To this point, I have played the Ginger Trilogy to an appreciative (and more than a little perverted) Crapfest crowd, and I know they’ve watched H.O.T.S., on which she has a producer credit (due diligence: sweet Jesus, but I hate H.O.T.S.). More due diligence: I haven’t seen her first movie, A Place Called Today, in which she has a supporting role. But Savage Sisters is the only remaining movie I would have shown at a Crapfest, such is its quality.
To get back to our narrative: Rick doesn’t get good reception on that particular channel, so he didn’t see it, breaking his heart. Guess what, then, was the first thing we dropped into my player? (And all due glory to Brit Stand-Up Guy Dave Thomas for supplying me a flawless, letterboxed copy)
This starts in pretty typical Filipino territory; Cheri is the girlfriend of the head of the Rebels, who gets double-crossed by the villainous team of Sid Haig and Vic Diaz. Cheri and another hardcore rebel, Rosanna Ortiz (who herself has a killer filmography in the Philippines) wind up in jail under the tender care of Gloria Hendry, who is the Vice President In Charge of Torture at the prison (which I believe I recognize from Women in Cages), and knows Rosanna from their earlier prostitute days. MEANTIME, hustler John Ashley has found out Sid Haig killed the Rebels (including Cheri’s boyfriend) for a “MEELION dollars, US currency!” and recruits old pal Hendry to spring Cheri and Rosanna so they can all chase after the bucks.
PHEW. As you can tell, this isn’t your typical Filipino WiP movie; besides the complicated set-up, it also contains a rich vein of bizarre comedy, especially with the incidental characters. The corrupt General, of course, has a chest full of medals; when he removes his jacket, his dress shirt is equally decorated, so naturally, when he removes that, his undershirt is also festooned with medals. A Punjabi sidekick who speaks in gibberish only Ashley can understand, a failed kamikaze pilot, and Sid Haig doing his best to masticate the entire landscape. Since his character is “a bandit”, he wears a serape and sombrero, and uses the adjective “Stinking” every third word. As his sidekick, Vic Diaz essays an eyepatch and is apparently only invincible when his plumber’s crack is showing, like some slovenly Greek legend.
This really is one of the best Cheri Caffaro movies around, mainly, I think, because hubby Don Schain was nowhere near it.
Afterwards, we were talking about the movie while making queso, and Rick was amazed at the unexpected humor. “Yeah,” I said, “it’s like they gave Eddie Romero this amazing cast and said, Make us a women in prison picture, and what he did was give them the Death Race 2000 of women in prison movies.”
“You know,” said Rick, “I’ve never seen Death Race 2000.”
There was silence for a moment. “Keep stirring that cheese,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
No friend of mine is going to say he’s never seen Death Race 2000.
The premise of Death Race 2000 is simplicity itself, especially if you’ve ever played the sick game in a car about how many points each pedestrian is worth. In the far-flung future of 2000, in a world devastated by “The Crash of ’79”, Mr. President (from his Summer mansion in Peking), gives the official start to the most popular sporting event evar, the Transcontinental Road Race. Five racers and their navigators, representing various tribal cliques and possessing pro-wrestler-like larger-than-life personas, charge across America, solving the overpopulation problem where they can.
Death Race 2000 is a goofy good time. Early Sly Stallone as a bad guy! Walter Cronkite impersonators! Mary Woronov! Illinois Nazis! Breasts are exposed every so often to remind us that it is, indeed, a drive-in movie. The second unit race footage is pretty good, but it’s Bartel’s sense of the absurd and savage barbs at media culture that edges this one from the ranks of forgettable action fare to actual classic. I had fun with the “remake” starring Jason Statham, but I don’t see anyone, forty years from now, excitedly pulling it from a shelf to share with their friends.
And as many times as I have seen this movie, I had never before realized John Landis had a line in it. Stallone runs him over for it.
(Oh, yeah, that guy on GetGlue who posted “This movie sucks. The remake was 10 times beter (sic).”? Keep looking over your shoulder. One day, I’ll be there.)
It was starting to get dark out. I cooked up some chicken fajitas while we played a bootleg DVD Rick had brought over, of a 1975 KISS concert. I’ve never been a fan, but Rick was exclaiming over how young they were, how energetic was the guitar work. Myself, when I walked through the room, marveled at the black-and-white video, complete with streaks and ghosting and trails whenever the highlights overpowered the tube cameras. Took me back to my days in public access at the local cable company, it did.
As we ate (and damn, I’m a good cook), we tried to get back to the concept that I have a List to watch and we were supposed to be whittling that down, so we slipped in Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold.
This is honestly about the best-looking, if most absurd, blaxploitation movie I have ever seen.
So the 6’2″ Tamara Dobson is back as Cleopatra, and this time she’s come to Hong Kong to track two of her agents who were trying to infiltrate a heroin ring, only to be captured by the Dragon Lady (Stella Stevens, keeping up the tradition of odd female villains in the short series). Cleo immediately disses her boss, Norman Fell (engendering the phrase, “Oooh, Norman Fell burn!”) and decides to go out on her own. In a foreign city. Where she doesn’t even speak the language.
Well, that’s not the only extraordinary thing that’s going to happen in this movie. Cleo falls in with an equally tough HK woman and her gang of motorcycle-riding investigators, and we’re off. Like I said, this is an amazingly well-shot movie. Run Run Shaw is listed as a producer, and money is thrown at the screen in all the right places. Chase scenes through the crowded streets of Hong Kong are thrilling, and there is plenty of pyro and gunfire. What there isn’t, sadly, is much of a compelling story, but it is overall a painless way to spend 90 minutes.
Then, at last, the Final Round. What Rick had been looking forward to all evening, if not all week: Fight For Your Life.
Fight For Your Life carries with it a lot of baggage. What we have here is a bona fide video nasty, put on that daunting list along with such movies as Driller Killer and I Spit On Your Grave. Banned outright in Sweden. Legend is it caused riots in the grindhouses of 42nd Street.
Rick was looking forward to the ultimate in transgressive cinema. What I have learned about Rick is that he can buy seriously into hype. He still curses the day he bought a ticket to Gates of Hell and saw neither gates, nor hell, nor reason it was supposedly banned in 39 countries.
Fight For Your Life concerns three escapees from a prison van: Jessie Lee Kain ( a very early appearance by William Sanderson) , Chino (Daniel Faraldo, who went on to a decent enough TV career) , and Ling (Peter Yoshida, who… well, not so much). After a fairly brutal crime spree as they edge toward the Canadian border, the three take a middle class black family (the Turners) hostage, intending to steal their car and make their run after dark.
This is apparently racist.
As you might imagine with a musical name like Jessie Lee Kain, the leader of the thugs is not just a bigot, he is a unrepentant suuuuuper bigot. A whole lot of the movie is Kain spouting his racist bile at the Turners and generally being a hateful jackass. Rick and I were concerned that he would run out of epithets, and to be sure, at one point he begins referring to Mom Turner as “Deputy Dawg”. This frankly bewildered me, because I remember Deputy Dawg. He was a TerryToon back in the early 60s, and moreover, he was a white dog. I don’t get it. but anyway…
So what we have here is basically a racist version of The Desperate Hours, with some diversions along the way, like young son Turner’s white friend showing up and finding out the family is hostage, but (work with me here) Ling, who was sent out to capture the white girlfriend of the (now deceased) elder Turner son – and winds up accidentally killing her – well Ling finds the white boy running away and kills him with a rock. Not too swift, is Ling.
So there’s a little more going on here than a hostage drama. We also cut away every now and then to the antics of Rulebook Riley, a New York police detective pursuing our ne’er-do-wells. As his name implies, Rulebook has a zero-tolerance policy toward everything. Jaywalkers, drunk drivers, spitting on the sidewalk. If Rulebook catches you breaking the law, you are screwed.
Some actual detective work does bring the police, at last, to the Turner house (not that Kain and company have been particularly stealthy). One policeman finds the white kid’s body in the forest and carries him to the command center, and wouldn’t you know it, he was the Sheriff’s son. One screaming charge at the house later, Kain has put another cop on his kill list. But! The distraction allows our hostages to turn the tables, and now it’s revenge time!
This is what Rick was looking forward to, and so was I and so is every audience member that ever watched this (except for the ones that thought Kain was the hero and that he was exercising some restraint. God help me, I said that as a joke but it occurs to me there are actually are such people). I mean, one of the alternate titles was The Hostage’s Bloody Revenge, for pete’s sake. So let’s see what we get. Spoilers ahoy.
Now first of all, the cops have this parabolic listening device that no one can get to work properly, until Rulebook, in a fit of frustration, bashes it a good one and it suddenly works like a charm. He hears the Turners discussing what to do with their tormentors, and he also finds out all three men raped the daughter. Rulebook suddenly switches to a much older rulebook and orders the cops to wait.
Chino gets shot in the balls. Okay, that’s a start, a fitting end for a rapist. Ling freaks out and jumps through a window, and gets himself impaled on an absurdly long and apparently strong piece of glass. That… was weird. The daughter approaches Kain with an electric carving knife, but she can’t go through with it.
It’s all going to end up with a standoff between Pop Turner (Robert Judd, incidentally) and Kain, with Rulebook tossing Turner his pistol. Kain gives us the final piece of his backstory, that his mother ran off with a black man, and then he gets shot in the throat. The end.
Rick – and the aforementioned masses who bought a ticket – were expecting a climax like The Last House on the Left times ten, but got… well, some blood but not a whole lot of catharsis.
Fight For Your Life is a pretty competently made little thriller that goes a little long in the second act, but then we’re also talking about a video nasty with some actual character beats. The Turner family is well drawn – the filmmakers made damn sure where our sympathies lie – and it all comes just that close to making it to the next level of actually good movie as compared to grindhouse button-pusher. There’s something to be said that all the real violence, save the daughter’s rape, is perpetrated against white people. The cops, a gas station attendant, a liquor store owner, the white kid, the white girlfriend… but now, having made that observation, I have no idea what to do with it.
The Turners themselves have a broad range of racial opinions. Mom doesn’t like honkies and is still pretty pissed off that her elder son had a white girlfriend (this is one of the saddest ignored threads in the movie: had Ling brought the girlfriend to the house instead of chasing her over a cliff, there would have been a whole new dimension of racism and possible character reconciliation… but no, we went with some boobs and a mannequin tossed into a waterfall). Daughter loves the white girl friend and wishes she’d had time to get married into the family.The young son, of course, has not only a white boy as his best friend, but the friend is the son of The Man. Pop Turner is a preacher, who is going to have his faith righteously tested and eventually returned to its Old Testament roots. And Grandma has seen it all and weathered it all, and gets the best lines.
Like I said… this close.
So a sadder but wiser Rick went home that night, denied once again the ultra-violent extravaganza that had been promised him. But, as the mantra of the crap cineaste goes, “now we can say we’ve seen it”, and hopefully, next time, we won’t get fooled again.
Yes, we will. We’re saps, and really, I think there’s a part of us that enjoys being saps, we enjoy making movies in our heads that do not exactly turn out the same on screen… for some of us, that’s the only way we have left to be surprised.