Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Gas Pump Girls (1979)

June (Kirsten Baker) and her friends at Hometown High have just graduated, and look forward to spending one last summer hanging out with each other.  But when her Uncle Joe’s (Huntz Hall) gas station is ready to go out of business from a combination of Joe’s failing health and fierce competition from the more upscale Pyramid gas station directly across the street, June connives her buddies into pitching in and bringing the dingy, old gas station back to life.  Through the miracle of erections.

Joel Bender’s Gas Pump Girls (aka The Mechanic Girls) is a fairly typical teen sex romp that plays fast and loose enough with the standards of the genre to be slightly refreshing.  The girls, with the exception of one (January, played by Rikki Marin), are distinguished from one another.  There’s Plain Jane (Leslie King), the wallflower who barely speaks at all.  There’s April (Sandy Johnson), the sexual (but eager) innocent.  There’s Betty (Linda Lawrence) the busty, high maintenance brunette who knows all about manipulating men’s lechery to satisfy her material desires.  And, of course, there’s June, the energetic go-getter with a purpose.  

Their boyfriends (or boy toys, if you want), by contrast, are largely forgettable dullards who only prove Betty’s theories true (but, let’s face it, every guy in this movie does).  June’s beau Roger (Dennis Bowen) is the isolated case, as he genuinely wants to spend time with June, and is upset that he may never see her again after summer’s end.  The third group in this triangle are the local biker “gang” The Vultures, led by the Fonzarelli-lite Butch (Steve Bond).  The Vultures make Eric von Zipper’s Rat Pack look like The Satans.  They are juvenile delinquents only in the sense that they think they’re juvenile delinquents.  They don’t do much more than a little loitering, but this fits with the film’s breezy attitude.  

The other way that Gas Pump Girls stands out from others of its ilk is in the portrayal of its main theme.  Primarily, this is an underdog/save the rec center plot, but instead of a bunch of teens confronting some greedy land developer, here the conflict is with the esurient gas station owner across the way, Mr. Friendly (Dave Shelley).  It’s a socioeconomic struggle between a united working class and a soulless corporation, and we know it’s essentially soulless (outside of the mere fact that it’s a corporation in a movie) because they are homogenized and gentrified, as opposed to the creative, all-inclusive workers of Joe’s Super Duper.  The Pyramid goons conform to the standards of what’s expected of a gas station in generic terms, but Joe’s Super Duper provides an individualized, exciting gas-pumping experience (there’s even an extensive double entendre about the process [“Grab it, stick it in, squeeze it, and let it peter out”]).  Joe’s Super Duper is the new blood in the local gas pumping industry.  They are the rebirth of a dead business from out of the ashes, fueled (ahem) by youthful enthusiasm.  Why more full service (ahem, again) gas stations didn’t follow this film’s business model in real life, like bikini car washes, is beyond me.

Yet, even the film’s antagonists comply with the movie’s jaunty disposition.  Friendly mocks the girls, but aside from sending useless thugs Bruno and Moiv (Joe E. Ross and Mike Mazurki, respectively, and please note the ethnic spelling of Marv, just so you get the full picture) to intimidate June, things never get too personal for the upscale station owner.  Friendly is easily thwarted, even when he ups his game and gets the gas supply cut off to Joe’s pumps.  Further than this, when the youngsters go straight to Pyramid corporate headquarters (disguised as Arabs and belly dancers, naturally), the expectation is that corporate fat cat Mr. Smin (Jack Jozefson) will be even more heartless and venal than Friendly.  However, he’s one of the biggest pushovers for a sob story ever, and the whole thing is executed so as not to get in the way of the fun.

Another aspect of the film that I found intriguing is the notion of childhood’s end.  At the high school commencement, a practical joke by The Vultures leads to our female leads baring their boobs for all the audience to see.  The girls are all technically adults now, and though embarrassed at first, they are pretty hunky dory about it in the next scene in the same sense of discovering the joys of drinking alcohol and then discovering the joys of drinking alcohol legally in a bar.  As previously stated, Roger takes the inevitable departure of June from his life pretty hard.  He goes from playful flirting to stunned contemplation, though June seems okay with it all until she gets the phone call regarding her uncle’s health which perhaps reminds June of the transitory nature of life.  That said, June also gets a little song to sing to herself while hanging out at her uncle’s closed gas station which belies her original nonchalance (curiously, the only song any character in the film sings, and it made me suspect this was actually a musical; it isn’t).  Its title is All Of My Friends, and it includes the lines, “Just gimme all of my friends, and I’ll be happy again,” “bring ‘em back home, where you know they belong,” and most importantly, “I’m lonely.”  It’s half-lament, half-retrouvaille for long held friendships that are slowly dispersing.  The kids’ entire business escapade is a final fling for them to both solidify and begin letting go of their relationships.  Even The Vultures’ sudden sense of community spirit appears to stem from their connection to these teens specifically and their realization that soon they won’t be around to prank and harass (plus, the age divide between them and active high school kids is only widening, so these may be the last high school kids with which they can partake in their particular brand of mischief without just being creepy).  The film, then, is a last hurrah for youth, as well as being a call to seize the opportunity to do something, have some fun, and maybe use your body to sell some petroleum products.  And that’s the big take away; the film is an ultra-casual ode to youth.  As a dyed in the wool nostalgist, it works in spades for me.  For as much as the film is a snapshot of the West Coast in the late Seventies (something I never tire of seeing), its message applies to youth (American and otherwise) on the whole: Grab it, stick it in, squeeze it, and let it peter out.

MVT:  The film’s innocent joie de vivre joined with its slightly melancholic undercurrent.  

Make or Break:  The locker room scene, wherein the girls talk about how they feel about what happened and how they view the world.

Score:  6.75/10

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

La Bambola Di Satana (1969)

Elizabeth (Erna Schurer) travels with her fiancée Jack (Roland Carey) to her uncle’s creepy old castle after the passing of the old man, but someone doesn’t want her to stick around for too long.

Ferrucio Casapinta’s La Bambola Di Satana (aka The Doll of Satan) is a gothic mystery in a quasi-giallo mold.  The castle provides an appropriately spooky setting, perhaps one of the most essential of all gothic elements.  Said castle has a dungeon with mannequins occupying its requisite torture devices (it was a “museum” according to sexpot governess Carol [Lucia Bomez], though it’s about as effective in that regard as the display cases at a carnival freak show, maybe less).  It has a ghost story running through it in classic Scooby Doo fashion (again, maybe less).  It has black-hooded malcontents skulking about and knocking off people.  Like many gothic fictions, the film relies on the mood created by the locale rather than anything generated by its story.  There is innate menace in the stones of medieval architecture, and the filmmakers try to capitalize on this.  

Since the story is not actually set in the past, our main characters are modern in dress and manner.  Jack doesn’t just have a car, he has a little two seat convertible (I couldn’t tell you the make and model).  Carol doesn’t care for these youngsters coming to the castle.  She believes that all young people want to do is get hopped up on goofballs and party (or something).  There is an intersection and conflict, then, between the present and the past at work to some degree in the film.  Carol represents the old, Elizabeth the new.  For example, there’s some discussion about wiring (maybe it was re-wiring) the castle, a suggestion at which Carol scoffs (please note, this is also about as interesting as most of the conversations in this film get).  Sir Balljanon (the uncle) lived in a castle but was doing research on Uranium.  There are scenes of the local teenaged fauna dancing to groovy pop music at the local café.  Contrarily, for as much as Carol puts on the air of a stuffy, Victorian governess, when the glasses come off and the teddy goes on, she becomes much less repressed (she’s also into some BDSM action).  It’s a commonly held belief that gothic stories are about repression and the desire that must boil up over it, and that’s certainly present here.

Interestingly, it’s the film’s representation of sex that stands out even more than any mystery or gothic elements.  As to the aforementioned teens (who have absolutely no bearing on the narrative, despite the length of time we dwell on them), the camera leers at the girls shaking their moneymakers in their tweed, knee-length skirts (in fact, it tilts down and holds on their lower halves).  Elizabeth’s friends, Gerard (Giorgio Gennari) and Blanche (who have absolutely no bearing on the narrative, despite the length of time we dwell on them; are you noticing a trend yet?), sleep together in one bed (we don’t know their marital status, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that they’re unmarried).  By contrast, and more importantly, Elizabeth and Jack not only sleep in separate rooms, but there’s also the intimation that Elizabeth is a virgin, and they’re saving it up for marriage.  Out of everyone in this film, these two are the most traditional (you could call them out of date) in their perspective on sex.  If anything, they are tied more closely to the creaky, old castle and what it represents than anyone else.  They belong at the castle, despite their trappings of modernity.  By that same token, Elizabeth is the only person who gets naked on screen multiple times.  It’s as if the filmmakers want us to lust for this woman specifically (actually, they want us to lust after all the women in the film [with the possible exception of Blanche], though the focus is on Elizabeth) because of her chastity.  It’s sort of a Madonna-whore complex going on, which is why Elizabeth is also the only character who has sex on screen.  That this is a hallucination/dream points back to the clash between old and new attitudes, as it symbolizes Elizabeth’s desire for sex in spite of her physical denial of it.  Because the audience is invited to watch for titillation indicates a subversion of her traditional outlook, a vicarious deflowering of Elizabeth, if you will, and a quasi-condemnation of archaic sexual mores.

So, let’s get down to brass tacks.  La Bambola Di Satana is lackluster in just about every way (or at least in all the ways that count).  The compositions are standard fare that even the castle’s interiors can’t quite manage to spruce up.  The score is unmemorable, as are the characters (Carol is the only one who generates any kind of interest, but that’s more for the straitlaced/sex kitten dichotomy she has going on, which is also sadly more teased than pleased).  The film brings up points and then completely forgets about them rather than capitalizing on them.  Chief among these is the inclusion of Jeanette, the sister who has gone insane and now spends her time taking up occupancy in Elizabeth’s old room and making faces at her dolly.  Even after Jeanette witnesses something fairly early on, it has no consequence on anything.  Mr. Shinton, Sir Balljanon’s research partner has papers that Elizabeth needs to see, but, to my recollection, that’s where the reference to them ends.  Even the subplot involving “starving artist” Claudine (Aurora Bautista), which should have had a huge impact on the story, just piffles along and comes to an undistinguished end.  The nail in the proverbial coffin, however, is the constant repetition of dull scenarios that stop the story dead and then bludgeon it a bit longer for good measure.  There are at least half a dozen scenes of characters eating (mostly at the castle, but sometimes at the café), so they can deliver dialogue that is neither expository nor revelatory (okay, sometimes there’s a little exposition, but not much).  Further, the multiple scenes of the teens dancing at the local hangout serve less than zero purpose.  I take that back.  They show us that there is a character hanging out eating in the background, and we know he must be important for two reasons.  One, none of the youngsters mean fuck all to the film.  Two, he’s always lounging in the background of the cafe while extraneous characters writhe about in the foreground, sucking up the viewer’s attention.  Needless to say, his part to play in this whole affair is yet another misfire in a film that unfortunately is more fizzle than steak.

MVT:  The castle is a decent setting for the film, but I’m just going to be honest and give it to Ms. Bomez.

Make or Break:  The first café dance scene dropkicks the film’s narrative right in the head.  The problem is, it takes a few moments for the viewer to realize how utterly useless this scene is in spite of the fact that there’s so much attention paid to it (and one girl in particular, who I expected to play some larger role; she did not).

Score:  5/10  

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Hunger (1983)

Directed by: Tony Scott
Run Time: 97 minutes

This isn't a vampire movie. Yes I used a vampire tag for this blog post, yes the book that this movie is based on is about vampires, and yes there is blood drinking. What this movie lacks is fangs, bursting into when the vampire come in contact with sunlight,  no fear of crosses or religious objects, no nonsense with mirrors, and they don't turn into fucking human disco balls when the sun hits them. Instead the creatures in this movie have more in common with Baobhan sith or Leanan sídhe, blood drinking fairies.  Which fits more with the mood of this film instead of vampires.  Rather than a supernatural menace that is on the verge of destroying humanity,  it's an ancient creature that is deal with the solitude due to being immortal.

The film opens with Miriam and John Blaylock (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie) in an early eighties goth club picking up a young couple.  This footage is interrupted with a monkey killing another monkey in it's cage. The monkeys are test subject's of Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) Sleep, Blood, and Longevity experiments. Which is great for John as he likes drinking blood, he can't sleep, and he is starting to rapidly age.

Alice, a young violin student that Miriam was grooming,  also notices John's rapid aging. This revelation motivates both John and Miriam to independently seek Doctor Roberts' help. They both fail in this task as Miriam becomes enraptured with Sarah and John comes off as a crazy old man. Sarah assuming that John really is a crazy old man and leaves him waiting for an hour in the hopes he gets the message and leave.  Sarah sees him as he is leaving and John has visibly aged ten years and is rightly pissed that she wasted a good chunk of his life. So with his youth slipping away from him, John tires and fails to feed on some kid in a tunnel.

John gets home to find he is starting to look almost two hundred years old. Alice shows up later and does not realize that the old man with John's eyes was in fact John. In a vain hope of regaining his lost youth John feeds on Alice but nothing happens and he ages into a walking mummy. Miriam finds him and carries him to the attic where she keeps all of her other lovers who have become mummies. After a tearful farewell and asking her other lovers to be kind to John tonight. The rest of the movie is Miriam seducing Sarah and turning her into a near immortal blood drinking lover.

The movie is beautiful and annoying at the same time. A good chunk of the film is spent building the atmosphere at the price of the plot. Yes Tony Scott manages to show the body horror of rapid aging and David Bowie is fairly good at showing this horror. However I spent most of the film going 'Hello, I'm the audience would throw me a bone and tell me a little of what the hell is going on and why'. I am glad they did not try to be smarter than the film was and use science babel to explain things. Instead things just happen without context or explanation and the cool visual is all that is given. The example that comes to mind is the monkey from the beginning of  the movie who was not sleeping  starts to rapidly age. After a few minutes in movie time the monkey dies and starts to rapidly decay. No reason given just sleep deprived monkeys turn into rage filled killers and then die due to rapid aging.

Aside from everyone casually smoking in every scene this movie has aged rather well. The effects are creepy but not genre shattering and aside of my petty complaints about the plot it is an ok movie. If you want to feel nostalgic for your goth days or this movie shows up on cable or steaming services it is worth a watch because you're bored.

Make or Break: The whole style over substance stance this movie takes pisses me off. There is a good horror movie in there but it is lost in the art.

MVP: Catherine Deneuve. In this film she is everything you would want in a vampire. Classy, sexy, and mysterious. As a point of disclosure I have been a fanboy of hers since I saw Belle du Jour.

Score: 5.9 out of 10