Monthly Archives: June 2011

Canuck Encounters of the Painful Kind

In december of 1976, a cryptic two page ad had appeared in major newspapers across america that would give sci-fi fans hope: the visionary director behind Jaws was promising us an epic film about UFOs like nothing we had seen before. (The ad space had been bought far in advance – in anticipation of the release of the film which, in the meantime, was pushed back a year). The ad simply showed us a road stretching into the night on the right hand page while a lengthy blurb on the left hand page promised us an unprecedented work of exceptional vision. It was to be called Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

This was great news to fans of a genre which now seemed like a thing of the past. There is a reason why so many of us sci-fi fans who grew up in the seventies became old-movie buffs: our decade sucked ass in it’s first half. The remake of King Kong was no match for the original made over 40 years before. Epic sci-fi had de-evolved all through the Planet of the Apes films- going from a whole planetful of them to just a pair travelling back to our decade. Now the future looked like Logan’s Run, shot in a newly built but still-vacant shopping mall. Few genre TV shows would even survive a single season- done in by big budgets and low ratings. The word “realism” was being bandied about as a substitute for having no “sense of wonder”.

The summer of 1977 gave us hope the trend was reversing with the release of Star Wars, which overnight freed us from having to go back a decade or more to find a satisfying genre entry.

But no matter how many times we repeatedly went to see Star Wars that summer and fall, we kept looking forward to the mysterious film with the big cryptic ad that was headed for us later that year.

In that interim, Warner brothers released a Canadian-made film that hoped to cash in on all that buzz…and hurt us in the process.

Produced by Hal Roach Studios (famed for the Laurel and Hardy films) and directed by softcore auteur Ed Hunt (an american who always ended up working in Canada), Starship Invasions was released in the interim between Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and manages to bridge (or rip-off, depending on your point of view) the two films: it’s about Earth being visited by U.F.O.s waging an interstellar war.

It starred Robert Vaughn, still trying to shake his identity as TV’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Dr. Hunt, a prominent UFOlogist brought in to investigate the abduction of a fat dumpy farmer. Seems pesky aliens have been buzzing his field and taking him on board for some nookie. Poor chap.

I’m sorry lady, but I left the credit card in my other overalls.

The truly desperate aliens are from Planet Alpha whose star is about to go supernova. Now hiding behind our moon, they are poised to colonize once Captain Ramses (Horror Legend Christopher Lee) succeeds in decimating the human population. All this exposition is delivered “telepathically” as the actors stand around quietly (therefore saving a bundle on retakes due to flubbed lines and having to sync the post-production sound).

How boinking fat farmers fits into the grand scheme of things is anyone’s guess. But its considered a great success by Lee and company.

On to phase two: capturing a mom and examining her in her lingerie. (I guess you can take a director out of softcore but you can’t take softcore out of the director). The experience proves too traumatic for both the mom and the farmer as we find them committing suicide before the end of the reel.

Phase three involves destroying Earth’s defenses. It turns out there is a “League of Races” headquartered in a giant pyramid under the Bermuda Triangle. This collection of benevolent aliens are the true protectors of Earth. Donning some really goofy looking “finger lasers”, Ramses proceeds to exterminate them all in a violent rampage set to some really funky 70s porn-style music.

Phase four is then set in motion. It involves a gigantic pie plate emitting an electric arc high in space (cleverly portrayed by a regular pie plate). This arc causes a worldwide suicide epidemic: people suddenly go berserk and then do themselves in. The visual effects of the film may be underwhelming at first but there is no denying their effectiveness on an emotional level as I found myself toying with the concept of doing myself in at that very moment.

Feel like killing yourself yet?

Authorities respond by placing armed guards in public places- which is exactly how we should handle this situation: by having more guns on the streets (!). It’s in the middle of this devastation that Mrs. Hunt (Helen Shaver) and her daughter go grocery shopping. While at the grocery store, the little brat (played by that obnoxiously perky girl in the then-current Skippy Peanut Butter ads- I’m not even gonna bother looking up her name) falls under the ray’s spell and tries to incite violence by squishing a tomato that rolled on the market’s floor. (While the audience wishes it had a bushel of them to launch at the screen.)

Fortunately for Earth, some of the good aliens survived. They’re led by a female in a white skin-tight leotard which is not forgiving of the big wedgie in front. (It’s hard to catch on video but was really hard to ignore when I caught this on the massive screen at the Palace back then).

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. meets The Girl from C.A.M.E.L.T.O.E.

The climax of the film is endlessly repeated shots of the saucer zooming in space, interspersed with some poorly matched stock footage and random shots of Lee silently steering his ship. The film’s budget being under $1,000,000.00 there isn’t much in matters of eye candy and it almost feel like they’re running out of money as they reach the end.

This was the Canadian Film Development Corporation’s first venture in funding sci-fi in Canada. They would do it again for The Shape of Things to Come (see the preceding blog entry entitled “Oh Pain-ada!”) two years later. Frankly, they shouldn’t have bothered.

If anything, these two movies served as justification for Canadian producers to steer away from sci-fi for decades. The genre is currently thriving in Canada in the form of crap made-for-cable (specifically SyFy Channel) movies and low-cost series. On occasion, we host the shooting of a big budget “runaway production” but , for some reason, it’s usually a massive pile of hurt like Battlefield Earth or Pluto Nash. But as far as home-grown sci-fi is concerned, the first great (painless) Canadian space-opera remains as elusive as ever.

[Update] The complete film

Pain Level: 7/10

Quality of Pain: Kill Me!

Painjoyment™ Level: Ohhh Canadaaaaah!


Oh, Pain-ada!

The Poster promised excitement!

The year was 1979. The immense success of Star Wars had caused a huge demand for space-operas. Battlestar Galactica was a big success on ABC but would still face cancellation due to its massive production cost. Star Trek- The Motion Picture was eagerly awaited by geeks all over the continent and Disney would get into the game with The Black Hole.

But beating them to the punch that year was a space opera from Canada. This, of course, meant it was treated like the Second Coming of Christ in Canadian media with all the usual pats on the back we Canadians like to bestow upon our native sons no matter how embarrassing those hyperboles will sound in retrospect. Yessir. Canadian media is like one of those new age parents that watches their precious moronic progeny smear feces all the walls and declares “Look at how creative junior is!”.

This was no silly film set in a future where people live in lunar colonies, travel around in spaceship and yet do most of their fightings with lances and garbage can lids. No sir! This was adapted from the novel by the great speculative-fiction author and historian H.G. Wells: The Shape of Thing to Come.

Known author+public domain=Perfect pick for the notoriously cheaper-than-cheap Canadian producers

Never mind that the book had already been adapted to the screen by H.G. Wells himself; that movie entitled Things to Come was now dated and quaint. Or so we were told, repeatedly, by hack critics and entertainment writers working from press kit an press releases but with no recollection of the original.

Even a visionary like H.G. Wells (left) could not foresee Canadians would be nicer to the guy in the skirt- Raymond Massey (right) naming Massey Hall after him- than they would with his novel, script and plot.

And so it was with great anticipation that this young lad of 16 sat in the Snowdon theatre, ready to watch yet another addition to a growing genre. One that starred Barry Morse (of Space 1999) and Jack Palance (at the height of his “anything for a buck” years) no less.

And what did I get for my support of my national film industry? 98 minutes of sheer, intolerable pain!

Gone was the impressive scope of the book and original movie- which have a narrative spanning over a century. Gone was the visual flair of the original’s director – the legendary William Cameron Menzies, father of production design. Gone was the script by Wells!

What did we get instead? A movie set in a future where people live in lunar colonies, travel around in spaceship and yet do most of their fightings with lances and and garbage can lids. No kidding!

Palance delivered his lines with total disinterest. Morse looked like he wanted to cut one of his arms off and become a fugitive.

The special effects were obviously done by guys who had read the “do it yourself” articles on special-effects published in Starlog magazine. But what would be good advice for guys making Super-8 movies in their garage would not be so advisable to guys working 35 mm on a big screen. Case in point: spaceship design. Starlog cued you to the fact you could make pretty nifty spaceships by cannibalizing existing model kits. TSOTTC did exactly that using models we immediately recognized. “Oh, look! It’s Space Station K-7 from Star Trek!”

The pain was truly intolerable. The carboard dialogue and wooden acting were truly taking their toll. That is, until a sweet, sweet release of Über-cheesiness saved the day: When we got to the explosive climax, the embarassingly cheap planet made-out-of-a-beachball could be seen emitting smoke before exploding. At that point, convulsion was replaced by maniacal waves of laughter from the audience in attendance. It was one of the most satisfying group reactions I had ever felt in a cinema.

Later, that year, I was standing in line in front of the Palace for the first showing of Star Trek-The Motion Picture (that’s when being a geek meant getting there two hours early not two weeks) when one of my friends nudged me to draw my attention to the even bigger nerds who got here before us. They were snickering at letter published in Starlog. The writer was humorously describing the smoky climax of TSOTTC declaring the film to be funnier than Chevy Chase’s next film.

“Man, you should tell them it’s you who wrote that!” prompted my buddy.

“Nah!” I replied, “Let me savour the fact they have no idea I’m standing right behind them.”

It was my first taste of anonymity. It was sweet!

Pain Level: 8/10

Quality of Pain: “I smell toast!”


Blame this movie!

I didn’t want to be a Cinémasochist.

As a young movie buff, I was really really (really!) striving to like “good” movies. I grew up watching Hitchcock movies on sunday afternoons on TV. At age 16, I began going to repertory theatres to catch up on classics. I was watching classic and foreign films by the bucket loads and subjecting myself to profoundly meaningful films that were all intending to make me a better person.

Having picked up the Medved’s Fifty Worst Films of All Time, I did enjoy watching a bad movie from time to time for shits and giggles but otherwise my intents were very serious.

Science-Fiction classics, though, were getting hard to come by. The recent wave of modern special effects extravaganzas made even the best of the 50s look crude and cheesy in the eyes of television programmers. There were plenty of chances to catch up on Bogart, Cagney and the like on sunday afternoons but if you wanted to catch classic sci-fi, you had to be prepared to stay up late.

And so it was that in the spring of 1980, at age 17, I waited up to catch The Creeping Unknown (a.k.a. The Quatermass Experiment) on the local ABC affiliate’s saturday night offering, Scream Theatre.

Boy! Did I get the wrong movie!

Never mind that the TV listings read “The Creeping Terror”, there was no such title listed in my movie books so therefore it had to be a typo.

I was wrong.

As the opening titles flashed on the screen came my first education into reference books being limited in their reliability. There was a movie called The Creeping Terror. It was my first lesson in doubting reference books.

What followed would forever rewire my brain in a way that is still being felt today: I just sat there slack jawed, my eyes popped out in disbelief at what I was seeing. This was not only defying my definitions of “good cinema”, it was challenging the very definition of cinéma itself.

I had recently screened Jean-Luc Goddard’s Alphaville and had done enough reading to fully appreciate the deconstructionist approach of the French New Wave. But this film was doing more than challenging artistic conventions and reject formalism. This film was challenging my sanity as my brain rejected the very sight unfolding before my disbelieving eyes. I not only struggled with the realism within the film, I was struggling with the reality before me.

There was little or no dialogue. A monotone narrator kept you up on both the events and what was being said by the characters. The landing of the alien’s “spaceship” was stock footage of an Atlas rocket running backwards- sucking in the flame and vapour trail. Once landed, the “spaceship” was a boat turned on its side.

And out of it came the creature- the Creeping Terror.

A very large sluglike affair propelled by what seemed to be the feet of a bunch of people crawling underneath.

For the next hour and a half (there were commercials), this oversized hairball slithered its way around Lake Tahoe, eating everyone in sight. Now, by eating, I mean swallowing bit players trough an opening at the front that looked suspiciously like the the one I had recently encountered in my recent “loss of innocence”.

Paging Doctor Freud!

And just as it risked becoming monotonous, it came upon a group of picnickers. The man playing the guitar rose to defend the revellers as they huddled on the blanket, shivering with fright. The guitar player took a couple of steps before walloping the big walking carpet sample- El-Kabong style- only to fall back and meet his destiny as an appetizer. The carpet then moved on to the blanket where it found the main course all neatly laid out for it. They somehow knew they were fated to be dinner and that presentation is everything.

As the man with the guitar whacked mercilessly at the creature (which made a repetitive sound sounding like a braying elephant), my brain began secreting an endorphin that effectively turned this synaptic abuse into sweet, sweet pain. I had my first bad-movie-gasm!

This was my mutating dose of Gamma rays, my bite from a radioactive spider, my parents being shot in a back alley behind the theatre that played Zorro movies. The epiphany which made me the single-minded-in-purpose mutant that stands before you. This was the birth of The Cinémasochist.

In the months that followed, I would catch The Creeping Terror whenever it aired- going as far as taking photos of the TV screen as no one believed me.

Then, the Medveds published The Golden Turkey Awards. Like the Frederick’s of Hollywood Catalogue to a lingerie freak, that book became a field guide to my newfound fetish but I was disappointed to find only a single paragraph on the Terror in its addendum.

When I acquired my first VCR (a Betamax), my first priority wasn’t catching recent films (I still went to theatres for that), it was catching up on Robot Monster, The Horror of Party Beach, They Saved Hitler’s Brain and all of Ed Wood’s movies. In fact, my first movie night was a double feature of the first two films I purchased: Plan 9 from Outer Space and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Alas, the local affiliate had stopped running Scream Theatre so The Creeping Terror would remain my holy grail through college (My major was Film Production). I finally did find a copy of VCI’s “Le Bad Cinema” release via a store called Video Shack in New-York. It cost me $98-A fortune for a college student in those days. I had to eat Ramen noodles for a month to afford it.

Ironically, over the years, I’ve watched (and subjected friends to) The Creeping Terror way more often than I did The Creeping Unknown.

With Son of the Golden Turkey Awards, the Medveds did devote an entire chapter to the strange story behind the film. It was made by a con-man by the name of Art J. Nelson. He drove into town one day in a big convertible with his jailbait girlfriend, Shannon O’Neil, and began claiming he was a big shot producer making the ultimate monster movie. He got locals to pony dough to be investors in the film, rewarding them with the choice role of “the victim”. The scope of this con-game is evident as the film spends most of its running time swallowing people.

Of course, he kept the lad role for himself (under the pseudonym of Vic Savage) and the female lead went to the actress who gave him repeated “auditions”- his girlfriend.

Vic Savage (a.k.a. Art J. Nelson), his underage girlfriend and an “investor”.

In what has to be the most incredible con ever in the history of motion pictures, the screenwriter Robert Slliphant (cousin of Stirling Silliphant) reportedly paid $2000 for the privilege of writing it (and scoring his first screen credit).

In 1994, it not only got the MST3K treatment but Richard Shickel put that presentation at the top of his list for best film of 1994 in Film Journal- with a note to the effect that, despite it being a TV show riffing on a 30 year movie, it still was the best damn thing he had seen all year. (He removed it from the list when it was published in the more mainstream Time.)

But there is more to the story. A lot more!

But I won’t tell it.

These guys will:

That’s right! After 30 years, the biggest itch I’ve ever had is about to get scratched. Director Pete Schuermann and his crew have not only researched Nelson’s life and oeuvre but went as far as recreating the Terror itself.

So forget your Best Worst Movie desperate plea for attention from the pathetic cast members of Troll 2. (Yeah, yeah. So Niblog is Goblin spelled backwards- big deal!). Forget about The Room‘s spinning itself into undeserved recognition as “worst movie” which only serves to further Tommy Wiseau’s need for adulation. Forget even- as painful as it IS- Birdemic’s prophetic vision of what horrors we have to expect now that feature-length filmmaking is in the reach of self-delusional amateurs. Art J. Nelsons story is about to be told and I suspect it’s only a matter of time before his story gets pitched to Johnny Depp’s people.

Here it is, in its entirety:

 

Pain Level: It goes to 11!

Quality of Pain: Sweeet , oh so sweeeet!


Holy Sidewalk Star, Batman!

It was announced, earlier this week, that Adam West will be honoured with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I wonder if he’s picked something to wear for the ceremony yet. Here’s a suggestion.

(From The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood- 1980)


Attack of the 6 foot Trouser Snake!

And I thought Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons would be hard to beat. In that mob revenge flick, Chesty Morgan uses her 73 inch bust to breast up the mob…I mean her 73 inch breasts to bust up the mob…I mean…she takes out mobsters as she gets them off.

Enter Jamaa Fanaka, auteur of some of the guiltiest pleasures in the realm of Blaxploitation. Some people refer to him as the “Black Ed Wood” but that’s really unfair to both men as Fanaka is a truly unique crackpot auteur in his own right.

I was busy researching a piece on his whacked out prison/boxing melodrama Penitentiary II (which features a bizarre cameo by Mr. T and has Ernie Hudson -the “forgotten Ghostbuster”- do something with potato salad which may put you off the stuff for he rest of your unnatural life) when I came across his 1975 thesis film, Welcome Home, Brother Charles.

In this grindhouse classic, Charles’ near-castrated Roger is res-erected via the power of Voodoo. He then uses his Magic Johnson to dispense anaconda-like justice to those pricks who shafted him- choking them like the lizards they are. Now that’s what I call a stiff sentence!

Still don’t believe me from the picture? Here’s a clip!

You kind of have to wonder how his teachers reacted. How did they grade it? Then again, Crown International picked it up for distribution so Fanaka obviously got the last laugh.

It is currently available on DVD under the alternate title Soul Vengeance.

I understand this piece is a bit premature (not to mention immature) but I just couldn’t wait to post this. A bigger, longer, uncut piece is headed your way.

Update:

Feel the full length of the movie!

Pain Level: 6.9/10

Quality of Pain: Feels a little stiff.


Can’t Stand the Music!

It seems that nowadays, you can’t have a single musical pop up without someone declaring “The Musicals are back!” before the genre sinks back into its dormant state. The cycle seems always the same: You get one hit. Everyone goes crazy with revival predictions and by the time the knock-offs come out, the trend seems to have passed and the overpriced wannabes send the genre back into oblivion.

The late seventies were such a time of revival. Bolstered by the success of Grease, Hollywood raced to get the next big musical in place. The results were catastrophic.  Xanadu (1980) unleashed a barrage of hurt which took nearly 20 years for producer Joel “The Matrix” Silver to erase. One From the Heart (1982) created a virtual black hole which took American Zeotrope with it and forced Francis Ford Copolla to basically become a diretor for hire while he waited for his wineries to get him in the black again.

The problem is very often this: the turnaround time to get a movie started will usually take longer than any music trend will last. Popular music is very fickle, so unless you are making a classical musical, you better be ahead of the curve or else by the time you’re done, you’re about as relevant as yesterday’s newspaper.

Alas, nobody told this to Alan Carr, the (makeup wearing) producer behind Grease as he forged ahead with making the megahurt epic Can’t Stop the Music starring those lady-killing chartbusters of the 70s, The Village People.

Never mind that the whole Disco craze was not only fading away but that it was doing so amidst serious condemnation from a jaded public. People didn’t just tire of disco – they did so aggressively: wearing “Disco’s Dead!” t-shirts and “Disco sucks!” buttons.

A lot can be said about how much of the backlash against disco was homophobic (A lot of it was). But the main reason was that the repetitive nature of the music may have been fun in a club but it could get grating on the radio.

Frankly, what was a tad disconcerting was the amount of denial surrounding the gayness of disco. And this film is no exception, going as far as trying to make us believe the Village People were straight. Yeah, right! And if my grandmother had wheels she’d be a Roller Boogie Queen.

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There was something about Nancy Walker we can’t quite put our finger on.

No director in Hollywood wanted to touch it, which led to the job going to Nancy Walker, who was “friendly to gay causes”.

Walker had never directed a film before. Her biggest claim to fame was as “Rosie” in commercials for Bounty towels.

Providing the thespian support to this piece is a trio of infamous fame hoggers from the end of the decade:

Bruce Jenner, cashing in on everything he could (because there are no real job postings for “Olympic decathlon champion” no matter how impressive the title is). His testing for the role of Superman didn’t even generate a callback. Watching him in this film, it becomes obvious why. To say his acting is “cardboard” is to insult the very boxes of Wheaties his likeness used to adorn.

What Montreal spent all its money on in 1976.

Valerie Perrine, who seemingly leaped at any chance to display her cleavage. (So putting her in a hot tub with the boys would both be safe for her and make them look straight, right? Riiiight). Sometimes, she acted too. Sometimes…

Guttenberg, Perrine and Jenner orgasming as a lens gets pointed at them.

Steve Guttenberg (who, in the 80s would give new meaning to the word “ubiquitous”) is the straight lead with the acting ability. The story is really about him as a songwriter becoming a DJ and networking his way up the music industry in a fantasy world where doing so somehow doesn’t involve white powder and carpet burns.

(Margaret Cho and Kathy Griffin were too young. You just know they’d be there if this was “rebooted” today.)

The musical numbers will simply leave you confused as to which sense you want to be deprived of first – sight or hearing?

Y.M.C.A.” , despite the display of Ms. Perrine’s “water wings” in the hot tub, is quite simply the gayest thing ever committed to celluloid– it’s gayer than hardcore man/man peep show loops screened in an encrusted booth.

It’s not safe to show more than a frame of Y.M.C.A.- honest!

But the highlight of the film has got to be the jaw dropping milk commercial done to the tune of “Do the Milk Shake“, a tune massively laced with double entendres for “going solo”, which kicks off with kids dressed like the Village People.

It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you sit on or what team you bat for: This just smacks of “wrong”!

And so it was that in the summer of 1980, Can’t Stop the Music was unleashed on a totally disinterested public busy repeatedly lining up for screenings of the slightly less gay The Empire Strikes Back. A massive publicity campaign was mounted but to no avail. The 80s musical was dying its first major death (although musical montages would become one of the biggest clichés of 80s filmmaking). Disco was giving up its last breath. Being gay, in itself, would be labelled a death sentence as the scourge of A.I.D.S. would be making its presence felt in the tragic years that followed- leading to more backlash and discrimination than any musical genre ever could. It would be a health concern, you now, not intolerance. (The same “health concern” veneer of acceptable discrimination has been applied two decades earlier to syphilis and it’s “link” to african-americans to justify “white only” drinking fountains.)

This is one musical that, no matter how hard they’d try, the show Glee could not possibly make more gay. I dare them!

Pain Level: 9/10

Quality of Pain: Please make it stop!


Pour mes Amis Francophones!

Je ne vous oublie pas.

Voici un flashback très fera très mal à ceux de 50 ans et plus et confondra les moins de 25 ans.