Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Scream for Help (1984)

Christie Cromwell (Rachael Kelly) sits wistfully at a lake and peers off into the distance.  In voiceover, she states her name, age (seventeen), and that her dad is trying to murder her mom.  With that feminine-hygiene-product-esque intro out of the way, the rest of Michael Winner’s Scream for Help concerns itself with Christie’s efforts to prove this statement without dying.

For the first two thirds, the film is about Christie’s temerarious attempts to catch out stepdad Paul (David Allen Brooks).  She follows him for several days on her bicycle until she finds where he goes everyday from work.  And how did she come to suspect him in the first place?  She came downstairs in the middle of the night and saw him coming out of the basement.  The camera gazes down the cellar steps, and we hear water.  The next day, a utility worker is killed when he touches the wet electrical box in the basement.  Suspicious?  Maybe.  But Christie wants Paul to be a murderer, because her mother left her biological father (whom we never see nor learn anything about, not insignificantly, I believe) for him.  It is possible that everything Christie discovers or witnesses could be put down as confirmation bias, but the script (by Tom Holland) doesn’t even try to beguile us like that.  It’s blatantly obvious from the giddy-up that Paul has malfeasance on his mind.  I’ve never read a Nancy Drew story (or Hardy Boys, for that matter, but I have seen a lot of Scooby Doo and Clue Club), but the instant that Christie begins her investigation, that’s what I thought of.  I imagine that a Drew tale probably involves more mystery than Scream for Help does, though (and probably less violence, sex, and blood).  

Of course, no one believes Christie.  Even her best friend Janey (Sandra Clark) thinks Christie’s gone off the deep end.  The police commissioner (Tony Sibbald) at first takes her accusations seriously, but after some mindbogglingly shitty police work comes to not only disbelieve the young lady but also to develop a sort of grudge against her.  Christie’s mother (Marie Masters) doesn’t take her daughter seriously, even though, from what I recall, her relationship with Paul is not that old.  Apparently, mom took up with Paul, ditched her husband, and married the other man in a matter of months.  Christie’s allegations are seen largely in this light by the other characters but not by the audience.  Christie watches (and we do, too) as Paul gets it on with Brenda (Lolita Lorre, whom I’d like to believe is related to Peter, but I couldn’t find anything confirming or denying this) multiple times, and his flimsy excuses would raise eyebrows in even the most devoted of marital partners.  It may have been interesting to see the story develop with a more enigmatic approach to what’s going on, but the filmmakers aren’t really interested in that.  Instead, they draw out this cat and mouse aspect just to get to the meat of what the film is actually about.  This is either a master stroke of deception or a happy accident.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

And here’s where it becomes difficult to discuss Scream for Help any further without getting into SPOILERS.  More than anything, the film is about the initiation of Christie into adulthood and how both sex and violence are the means of that inauguration.  Beyond this, it’s about the choice between sex and violence that Christie has to make.  Christie lives in a world where absolutely everyone around her is having sex except her.  When she races over to her friend Janey’s house to tell Janey about her theory of Paul’s murderous intent, she waltzes in on Janey having sex with Josh (Corey Parker, whom most will recognize as the effete Arnold Epstein in Biloxi Blues).  Janey, probably pissed for being interrupted pre-orgasm, is openly hostile to Christie, who, in turn, is pissed at Janey for not telling her that she was having sex at all.  Christie comes home to the sounds of her mother and Paul having sex, and she runs to her room in anguish.  But Christie is, of course, curious about sex, and Paul’s affair with Brenda is the window (literally and figuratively) into this fascination.  At several points, she spies the two doing the job, and it’s always at a remove through a pane of glass (like watching a live Swedish sex show in a porn booth).  Paul asks if Christie is writing “the life and times of a sex maniac” in her journal.  Nope, it’s all about murder.  Intriguingly, Corey is the ostensible love interest, but he’s about as big a jerkoff as every other man in the film.  Christie catches Corey flirting with another girl at school (the day after she caught him with Janey?).  She tries to rope him into helping her out by threatening to tell his father about Janey, and Corey proudly states that his dad would congratulate him.  Rather, it’s the threat of cutting him off from Janey’s pussy that motivates the kid (and puts her own in his crosshairs).  After Janey is out of the picture, Corey and Christie hook up pretty fast.  Corey continues to pressure Christie, telling her he cares about her, but we know that he’s simply horny, and while we can’t necessarily blame him for this, it makes him no less of a douche.

When Christie and Corey finally have sex, it’s unpleasant for Christie, but then again, it’s her first time.  It’s painful, and the blood from popping her cherry scares her.  The ties between sex and violence in the film have been leading up to this moment, and here is where Christie chooses which of the two she prefers.  When Corey brings up the possibility of more sex, please, Christie tells him that she “doesn’t want to go to bed with anybody ever again.”  In the last third of the picture, when Paul and his accomplices hold Christie and her mom captive, things come to a head.  Faced with their imminent deaths, Christie, with ho-hum determination, states, “There’s only one way.  I’m gonna have to kill them.”  With MacGyver-ian resourcefulness and icy resolve, she sets about doing just that.  The film becomes Death Wish if Paul Kersey’s wife and daughter fought back (or maybe just Home Alone with corpses).  After the siege of her house, Corey and Christie get down to some foreplay, but violence rears up yet again, and Christie, without hesitation, goes into kill mode.  Sex is something she may still want to do despite her inexperienced protestations, but violence is something she likes.  This is what maturity means in the world of Scream for Help.  That the film is so frank about these facets is rather startling, considering its almost juvenile plot and dialogue, flat direction, and a score that is insanely incongruous (it sounds like it was taken from a Seventies industrial film about the future of plastics mixed with a buddy cop show of the same era).  Nevertheless, this forthrightness is what also makes the film so special.

MVT:  The remarkable depths to which the film dives and the unsparing attitude it takes in going there.

Make or Break:  The vehicular homicide that comes out of nowhere.  It’s fast, brutal, and contains a spectacular mannequin death.

Score:  7/10      

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Breeders (1986)

My love for Douglas Cheek’s C.H.U.D. has been well-documented for some time now.  It is, for me, the best monster movie of the Eighties this side of John Carpenter’s The Thing.  It has a strong story that’s about more than one thing.  It has excellent performances from some great character actors (including interesting cameos from the likes of John Goodman, Jay Thomas, and Jon Polito).  It has an outstanding synth score by David A Hughes which is haunting, evocative, and melancholy, as the best synth scores are.  It has excellent special effects work by John Caglione, Jr.  It should be said here that Ed French, who was a member of C.H.U.D.’s makeup effects department, not only did the makeup effects for Tim Kincaid’s Breeders (aka Killer Alien aka Breeders: La Invasión Sexual) but also appears as Dr. Ira Markham in the film (special effects artist Matt Vogel also worked on both movies).  The popping up of French on both C.H.U.D. and Breeders makes for a nice, little coincidence, because the similarities between the two movies is enough to say that the former film was, at the very least, a heavy influence on the latter.  There is a monster that has a disgusting lair underneath New York City.  There is a crazy bag lady (Rose Geffen) who runs afoul of the monster.  There is a featured character, Gail (Amy Brentano), who is a photographer.  There is a scene where Gail’s lights go out, and she has to go down to the basement to investigate (like C.H.U.D.’s Kim Griest but, astonishingly, without the shock shower scene).  Now, I wouldn’t declare that Breeders is only a ripoff of C.H.U.D. because it “borrows” from so many other films -  Humanoids from the Deep, Scanners, The Fly, and Lifeforce just to name four – to the point that it feels a bit like looking at old photos of that time you tried to do yourself up as The Wolf Man for Halloween, and you wound up looking like an idiot with a bunch of brown cotton balls glued to your face.  

So.  Breeders.  The film concerns itself with the violent rape and mutilation of a bunch of virgin women by an oily, insectoid creature.  I’d get into more of the plot, but there isn’t one.

This film is a sleaze lover’s wet dream.  Every woman in it is a virgin (sometimes - okay, always -  unbelievably so; a coke-snorting, former-gymnast-turned-fashion-model is a virgin?  I suppose stranger things have happened), and that term is treated like a four-letter word.  The women are all attacked specifically because they are virgins.  The one character who isn’t a virgin is A) ugly, B) insane, and C) torn apart by the experience.  What does that say about the rest of the women?  Well, not much, since the filmmakers don’t really give a rat’s ass about any of them.  Gamble Pace (Teresa Farley) is a doctor, and she’s ostensibly the protagonist.  She’s also as weak-willed and ineffective as every other woman in the film (though Kincaid does give her a poignant scene at the very end that almost saves the film; Almost).  All the women feel a great desire to tell us why they are virgins, as if it were any of our affair.  Kathleen (LeeAnne Baker) states, “In this day and age, it’s almost some sort of dirty word to be a…virgin.”  She even has a hard time saying the word.  Alec (Adriane Lee), Gail’s stylist, explains to Gail about how she’s a virgin for no reason whatsoever other than to fly a giant red flag telling us that she’s the next victim.  All the women strip down at the most unlikely of times (while cooking dinner, while talking with their mother on the phone [okay, one is actually pretty likely], while on a break during a photoshoot, etcetera), and since there’s no reason for any of this, these scenes simply stand out as being the portions of the movie where Kincaid signals to the audience that this is what they are there for, and, hey, it’s been five minutes since you had a boner.  That the women ogled so heavily are virgins plays to men’s craving towards the Madonna/Whore Complex.  These women are willing to get naked for your eyes only, but they’re unsullied, and boy oh boy, unspoiled territory is the most irresistible, just so long as, you know, she’s also great in the sack.

The opposite side of this is, naturally, the Monstrous Male Sex Urge.  Going all the way back to, at least, 1931’s Dracula, the idea of being raped by (or at the absolute minimum, giving one’s body over to) an Other has been present in probably about half or more of every Horror film ever made.  The most famous example is the underwater ballet/sex scene from 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and this is what begat Humanoids from the Deep once the walls had been broken down about displaying graphic monster-on-human sex on screen.  What’s kind of interesting in Breeders is that all of the attacks are initiated by normal guys who transform into (apparently) just the one monster.  He keeps popping up like the Great Gazoo.  The mere presence of a woman is enough to arouse sexual urges in men (even gay men are not immune) that cannot be overcome until their base desire is satiated (the film eggs this along by almost always having the women be naked in the men’s presence first).  Even when the men aren’t actual monsters, they’re lasciviousness is brazen and on full display.  Karinsa (the glorious Frances Raines, niece of legendary actor Claude) avers to the guy who barged in on her naked calisthenics, “It’s not like you were after my body” in an almost porno-coquettish come-on manner.  Kathleen asks creepy boyfriend Brett (Mark Legan) how much he saw of her taking a shower.  His unctuous response: “Enough that I know I want you to bear my children.”  But the monster is, as stated, The Other (read here as “non-white male”).  It wants to propagate its race, and it does so by stealing “our women.”  Further, it’s “semen” is described as a “thick, black substance.”  Have no fear, however, since all the beast’s victims later get to frolic together in a giant, gross, “semen”-filled (this time white in color, just to make all the men in the audience think of women frolicking in semen) hot tub, which I’m convinced was taken, unwashed, directly from Plato’s Retreat.  One can just imagine the bacteria in that thing.

This is not to say that Breeders doesn’t have a certain appeal.  After all, I’m a heterosexual male who enjoys seeing a naked woman (or several), and I have a love for special makeup effects going back to my pre-adolescence.  Both of these bins are filled to overflowing by Kincaid and company.  It’s just that the rest of the bins that a truly successful film needs to fill (compelling characters and a narrative, namely) are ignored almost entirely.  If nothing else, this film is an American-made Hentai, and it does that as well as it was going to be done in 1986.  It’s just disappointing that the non-exploitation elements are so clumsy and dull that it dragged down the whole experience for me.  I think I expected too much from a film titled Breeders.

MVT:  The nudity and special effects.  Well-done on both counts.

Make or Break:  The first attack scene is admittedly unexpected in how it plays out, and it raises some questions that the film quickly answers in the most ham-fisted way possible.

Score:  6/10

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Norliss Tapes (1973)


Journalism, as a career for cinematic and television protagonists, isn’t in favor like it once was.  This could be because technology has changed how news is both reported and absorbed.  It could be because journalists aren’t as trustworthy as they used to be (which also ties in with how technology has changed the landscape).  Outside of social issue films, journalists just ain’t sexy no more.  The only two recent exceptions to this that I can think of are Clark Kent in any given DC Comics film featuring Superman and Sam Turner and Jake Williams in Ti West’s The Sacrament.  While I’m sure people are still inquisitive, there is also a bold streak of cynicism that pervades most people’s attitude toward everything they hear (I’m no exception).  If anything, this should provide a hardboiled edge to any contemporary journalist characters, marrying the nobility of truth-seeking and the gruff edge of film noir.  

On television, we still have cop shows, lawyer shows, doctor shows, etcetera, but no shows about reporters spring to my mind.  Gone are the Lou Grants, the Murphy Browns, the Les Nessmans, sequestered off to discreet retirements though they’re sometimes whispered about in nostalgic reveries of when reporting was a noble cause worthy of pursuit.  It can be argued that most protagonists on the boob tube are truth-seekers; the police who solve crimes, the lawyers who defend the wrongly accused or prosecute the wicked, the soldiers and agents who fight amorphous menaces that threaten our existence, the doctors who must find the cure for a mystery illness.  But the main difference is that the reporter sheds light on things so the whole world can see, and while the other archetypes sometimes strive for a sense of transparency, their findings are often isolated, given weight in how they affect even only a few lives.  If they do carry more widespread ramifications, they are likely hushed up or spoken of only in muted tones.  Characters like David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) in Dan Curtis’ The Norliss Tapes shouts his findings from the rafters, and this narrative deals with the consequences of that.

Norliss is a man with a problem.  He’s become despondent, and his book debunking paranormal charlatans is long overdue.  When the worrisome word scribe goes missing, and friend and publisher Sanford Evans (Don Porter) finds a pile of cassette tapes dictating the tome Norliss hasn’t yet finished.  The remainder of the film details the first chapter, wherein Ellen Cort’s (Angie Dickinson) sculptor husband Jim (Nick Dimitri) just won’t stay in the family crypt.

In The Norliss Tapes, the truth is something worth pursuing, but it comes with a heavy price (it has to, the truth being something the powers-that-be seldom want known).  As Norliss delves deeper into the mystery of Jim’s reanimation, people around him start dropping like flies.  This applies not only to Norliss and Ellen’s acquaintances but also to completely innocent bystanders.  Further than that is the possibility that our protagonist may not be able to save anyone at all, himself included (this is the basic premise of the series this film was intended to spin off and didn’t).  In a post-JFK assassination, post-Vietnam War, post-Watergate America, this type of foreboding ambiguity was popular.  It wasn’t enough that we didn’t trusted in our institutions anymore.  Our heroes had changed, too.  They were no longer stalwart supermen who always saved the day and got the girl.  More and more, they were everymen with flaws and doubts we recognized in ourselves.  They didn’t necessarily come out on top, and even when they did, they typically were left to ponder the aftermath of their actions.  They had become reflective of the cultural timbre.  Norliss is no different.  His attempts at stopping Jim are constantly stymied because he doesn’t fully grasp the monster’s nature, and though this doesn’t discourage his resolve, ultimately, he’s left with the realization that he’s in way over his head.  It was a common feeling for the era.

Another interesting aspect of this film is its intertwining of art and the supernatural.  While nothing new in and of itself, The Norliss Tapes deals specifically with the creation of art and, by extension, the creation of life.  Jim is known in the art world, though I can’t recall if it’s ever mentioned how successful or well-regarded he is.  At any rate, he makes a deal with a demon named Sargoth (Bob Schott) whereby Jim will be granted immortality via an ancient Egyptian ring after he completes a sculpture of Sargoth made from a mixture of clay and blood (hence Jim’s victims).  The sculpture provides a gateway (or a birth canal, if you will) for the demon to be born onto our Earthly plane.  Further, Jim’s sculpture, like Norliss’ writing, imparts another means to eternal life, assuming some portion of his body of work remains extant.  This is something which has forever fascinated me as a concept, to create something living outside the marriage of egg and sperm, and it begs quite a few questions.  Why do we create in the first place?  What does it say about us?  What does it say about itself?  Is the act of creation governed by us or by some external force?  What happens when what we create becomes bigger than us or grows beyond our control?  It’s a simple idea which leads to a labyrinth of things to ponder, and it’s here in this film, just not especially developed.

The Norliss Tapes followed hot on the heels of the Curtis-produced The Night Stalker, which gave us the character of Carl Kolchak, arguably one of the most enduring and beloved cult figures in genre circles.  It’s no surprise that this later film gets lumped in with The Night Stalker as it’s practically a carbon copy of it.  Norliss and Kolchak are both writers.  They both want to find the truth and disseminate it.  They both encounter the supernatural and attempt to overcome it with their wits, though Kolchak is a natural believer in the paranormal and Norliss is a skeptic.  They both must face the consequences of their actions.  They both start their films in a lowly state, and their tales are told in flashback.  That said, it’s clear to see why Kolchak got a (short-lived) series and Norliss did not.  For one thing, The Night Stalker dealt with a vampire, a popular monster even back then (its sequel, The Night Strangler, dealt with a slightly less standard boogeyman), while zombies hadn’t yet taken off like they have today (the demon aspect doesn’t crop up until the last act).  Also, Kolchak is a journalist, which naturally allows him to meet up with interesting characters in the course of his investigations.  Norliss, as a writer of books, is more solitary and internalized, but he tries.  Most of all, Darren McGavin played Kolchak as a charming huckster, right down to his seersucker suit and straw hat.  Thinnes, as much as I like him, is far too dry and brooding for audiences to want to follow him overlong in this mode.  It’s kind of a shame, because the final setup to the hoped-for series may have been just enough to overcome its failings.  We’ll never know.

MVT:  The story has enough familiar and strange elements to feel almost fresh, though the shadow of Kolchak looms large.

Make or Break:  The final scene is open to the possibilities this property could have been.  Plus, it eschews a classic, upbeat ending for something more sinister and nebulous.

Score:  5/10