The Hidden

October 30, 2020

The Hidden – lousy title – is one of those snappy little B-movies that, every once in a while, come flying straight out of left field and really blow your skirts up. It announces as much with its opening sequence, an audacious car chase in which a seemingly indestructible chap robs a bank and leads police on a delirious spree across town.

As it turns out, this guy is tough to stop because he’s possessed by an alien force, which will jump to another human body when the current fleshly vehicle is used up. The force is anarchic, destructive; it just takes everything it wants, from money at the bank to a red Ferrari on the lot.

The movie splices this bit of supernatural hooey onto your basic police-procedural thriller, with a no-nonsense Los Angeles cop (Michael Nouri of Flashdance) as the chief investigator. As the film begins, he’s getting some unwanted help – from an FBI man (Kyle MacLachlan) whose strange ways cannot be completely explained by the fact that he’s from Seattle.

The cops chase after their mad quarry, who’s mutated first into a dumpy middle-aged fellow, then into a curvaceous stripper. Bodies are strewn everywhere as the film rips through its breakneck action, mellowing out just long enough to bring the FBI man into Nouri’s house for a home-cooked meal.

Bob Hunt’s script is the kind of thing that might have made a common bloodbath, even with the kooky alien angle. But the director, Jack Sholder (who made A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2), is resolved to have fun here.

Sholder keeps the movie tilted on a crazy comic axis. It’s much in the vein of the nihilistic comedy of The Terminator or Robocop, in which an act of cartoon violence might be followed by a punch line. There’s something surrealistically funny about the alien man bursting into a coke-snorting session at the Ferrari dealer’s, and bellowing, “I want the car!”

First published in The Herald, October 1987

My review ends with a comma after the quotation marks, so not only is this review missing a couple of paragraphs (at least), it’s even cut off in the middle of a sentence. Also, I guess people were still saying “blow your skirts up” in 1987. A fun movie. This was MacLachlan’s first film outside the David Lynch universe (after Dune and Blue Velvet). Screenwriter Bob Hunt is actually Jim Kouf, apparently. IMDb says it was released on October 30, so happy anniversary, and happy Halloween.

How to Get Ahead in Advertising

October 29, 2020

“Whatever it is, sell it!”

This is the governing credo of frantic ad man Dennis Bagley, who works for one of London’s most high powered advertising agencies. Bagley is known as a genius at selling, but his newest account has him stymied. How can he make pimple cream sexy?

“I cannot get a handle on boils,” he laments, as he drinks, chain-smokes, and generally frazzles himself toward an impossible deadline. Suddenly, in mid-emotional breakdown, he comes to see the hypocrisy and horror of selling people things they don’t need. He decides to quit his job and devote himself to telling the truth about the corrupt advertising world, which is to say, the world at large.

Just then, a boil sprouts up on his neck. And, although his wife and friends can’t see it, the boil begins to take on human features and to talk in impertinent phrases, like an unwelcome voice in a TV commercial. Clearly the boil means to sabotage his plans to subvert the advertising industry.

This wild story is the premise of How to Get Ahead in Advertising, an original film from writer-director Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I). Robinson uses black comedy and science fiction to skewer the ad world, and he does so with a glee that is intoxicating.

The dizzy Bagley resembles a Frankenstein who has created his own monster, the advertising lie, which then manifests itself on his neck (“The boil! It’s alive! It speaks!” he cries). It’s a wonderful role and a manic tour-de-force for Richard E. Grant, the actor who played Withnail in Robinson’s first film.

Grant is skeletal and bug-eyed, and he masterfully spits out the spiky dialogue (“The boil can speak,” he snarls to a psychiatrist, “but that doesn’t qualify it to have an opinion”). Lovely Rachel Ward, who plays his wife, can’t quite hold her own.

Robinson’s main idea is a provocative one: that Big Brother isn’t watching us, we’re watching Big Brother, and quite happy to do so. How to Get Ahead in Advertising is far from perfect. It tends to move along clunkily, but Robinson is much more interesting than lots of polished directors. Here’s hoping he keeps doing things his own peculiar way.

First published in The Herald, June 3, 1989

Robinson’s career has gone in different directions; he’s written a few books (including one about Jack the Ripper), directed the suspense movie Jennifer 8 and the Hunter S. Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary, with Johnny Depp.

Heart of Midnight

October 28, 2020

The best thing about Heart of Midnight is a fine central performance by an actress named Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays an emotionally unstable young woman who’s recently inherited a creepy, rundown nightclub. Leigh, a tiny, pale blonde, seems to make curious career choices, ranging from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Paul Verhoeven’s violent epic Flesh + Blood to the quirky horror film The Hitcher.

In Heart of Midnight, she gives a quietly unnerving performance. The setup is similar to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, in which Catherine Deneuve underwent some traumatic behavior readjustment (i.e., the audience had to figure out whether she was going crazy or not). Leigh has to suggest the same sort of mental disintegration.

Leigh’s character in Heart of Midnight lives in the deserted club, and becomes aware that she is not alone in the rambling old place. One night she is assaulted by some hoods, but the policeman given the case (Frank Stallone) doesn’t believe her, because of her history of mental illness. Then another policeman (Peter Coyote), much more eccentric, begins to hang around and tell her how attracted he is to her. And things get even stranger.

Writer-director Matthew Chapman examines the process of her crack-up, and in the best film noir fashion, his visual sense is stylish and colorful. It’s easy to go along with the film for a while, because the setup is intriguing, and because there are so few movies that examine psycho-sexual problems from a female character’s point of view (although there has been an interesting subgenre of independent movies with exactly this subject, including Call Me and Lady Beware, a couple of intriguing misfires).

But eventually Heart of Midnight folds in on itself, with a conclusion that introduces a new character at a very late date to explain what’s been going on. Very messy, and very odd; about half of a good movie.

First published in The Herald, March 9, 1989

Director Chapman is the great-great grandson of Charles Darwin. This film also features Steve Buscemi and Brenda Vaccaro, and sounds like it’s worth a re-visit.


October 27, 2020

Watchers comes to us out of a reliable sci-fi tradition: the scientific experiment gone awry. In this case, the scientific experiment is government-funded, which means we get to hiss not only at the monster but also the military-industrial complex.

The monster is called an Oxcom, short for Outside Experimental Combat Mammal. He’s ugly, he’s mean, and he kills anything that gets in his way. He is programmed to follow a golden retriever who has some sort of homing device. When the top-secret lab at which these beasts are kept is rocked by an explosion, they both escape.

The pooch, for his part, trundles off to find the first sympathetic human he can land. It turns out to be a teenager (Corey Haim, from License to Drive) who lives with his mom (Barbara Williams) somewhere in Washington. The kid recognizes quickly that “Furface,” as he dubs the animal, is smarter than your average dog. In fact, Furface has been fortified with human brain tissue, which means he can go to the fridge and pull out the wieners if you ask him to.

When the Oxcom begins chewing up the locals, the police are stymied (“This has sasquatch written all over it,” muses one). But then a peculiar federal agent (played by the wonderfully creepy character actor Michael Ironside) shows up to take command of the investigation, except that he doesn’t seem too concerned about the victims.

This movie, which as far as I can tell contains no “watchers” of any kind, is standard B-picture fare; the executive producer is Roger Corman, who has produced scores of these things during his long career, often providing early low-budget work for Hollywood’s up-and-coming talents. Watchers is typical, as Corman hands the director’s reins to a promising ex-film student, Jon Hess, who does a creditable job.

The plot, taken from a novel by Dean R. Koontz, has its shaky moments (the monster conveniently waits until the kid and the dog have left wherever they are to launch his attacks). But Hess directs with some intelligence, and Ironside provides the human menace. Ironside has a great scene in which he tells a local sheriff the reason for the Oxcom project, which was to create a killing device that would remove the need for nuclear weapons. He smiles sappily at the prospect of peace on earth, and then he bashes the sheriff’s head in.

First published in The Herald, December 1988

It is a movie. According to IMDb, Paul Haggis wrote an adaptation of the novel, and is credited as Bill Freed because his work was re-written by someone else. Are there actual watchers in it? Maybe a fan out there can correct me.

The Witches of Eastwick

October 26, 2020

The Witches of Eastwick arrives boasting a strange brew of talent: The source is a John Updike novel, the director is the man behind the Mad Max movies, the stars are among the most interesting available, the cinematographer (Vilmos Zgismond) is the best in the universe, the music is by the guy who did Jaws.

Sometimes you collect odd talents like this and the mix is explosive. And other times the spell just doesn’t take.

The early scenes in Witches build some anticipation. In a small town in New England, as eerie storm clouds gather, three lonely single women (Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer) gather for their weekly martini party and wonder: Where is the dark stranger who will come and change their lives?

He’s here. And it turns out that the dark stranger is in fact the darkest stranger of all, the devil himself (Jack Nicholson). This fellow buys a brooding old mansion above town and sets about to seduce each of the women in turn.

The movie doesn’t pussyfoot or tease; we’re never in doubt that Nicholson does represent the supernatural, and that he has some weird plan in mind for the three women. Perhaps this blatancy is part of the problem. So Nicholson’s the devil; so what? Will the movie ever reveal what his point is in showing up in town?

Well, the film has a lot of ideas on the subject, and almost none of them become clear in the course of two hours. It’s all got something to do with what men think of women, and what women think of men. Nicholson has a big speech in a church near the end, when he delivers a sermon on whether God made a mistake when he created women. It’s impossible to know if this is intended as a joke or a pathetic harangue, and the movie up to this point has been such a shambles that it’s hard to care.

George Miller’s Mad Max movies show him to be a terrific, visceral director, but he can’t find the key to this material, and Michael Cristofer’s script makes hash out of whatever post-feminist attitudes the story is trying to explore. And there’s a complete failure to incorporate a character (Veronica Cartwright) who tries to mount a witch hunt against the women who are suddenly spending their nights at Nicholson’s mansion.

The supernatural business is especially awkward. Maybe it’s easier to get away with in a novel, but the special-effects sequences seem to trample over the New England delicacy of the material.

Some of the outrageousness is fun – Nicholson clad in flowing pink and white togs, out to buy pistachio ice cream for his “girls,” while they form a voodoo doll to send him away. Sarandon is nice to watch as a staid music teacher liberated under Nicholson’s fiery musical advice. Cher has one of her finest moments after Nicholson propositions here; she turns him down, and then he spins a lengthy seduction speech that strikes at the heart of her loneliness. Cher’s face stays in the center of the frame throughout, registering his words, and it’s a superb scene for her.

And it’s yet another example of an actress growing while performing opposite Jack Nicholson. He’s playing broadly here, and interestingly embodying a lot of male rage. Unfortunately, we’ve seen too much of this performance before – notably and much more coherently in The Shining. I’m sure he was the first choice for this role – those devilish eyebrows demand it – but America’s most fascinating living actor can’t quite make it something new.

First published in The Herald, June 1987

But what did I think of Michelle Pfeiffer? Also, according to IMDb, Bill Murray was actually the first choice for Nicholson’s role. Apparently there were a bunch of different endings attempted (none of them Updike’s, I assume), which jibes with the rest of this scattered movie. It feels like the kind of “package” that was a near-weekly event at this time in Hollywood, a hollow experience all the way around. Richard Jenkins is also in this movie; the production designer was Polly Platt.

Lust in the Dust

October 23, 2020

Lust in the Dust should have been a lot funnier than it is. It’s one of those genre spoofs that make fun of all the conventions of a certain movie form; in this case, that means Westerns.

Specifically, it seems to be a spoof of the spaghetti Westerns that flourished in the 1960s, the best of which were made by Italian maestro Sergio Leone. But the people who made Lust in the Dust may not have realized that Leone was already spoofing the Western in A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, even though he also made those movies effective as suspense pieces.

Lust in the Dust takes the Clint Eastwood character from Leone’s films and keeps his taciturnity, his poncho, and his cheroot between clenched teeth. What it adds to that character is silliness, which the movie has in abundance.

Start with the fact that this hero is played by faded heartthrob Tab Hunter, who seems eager to cash in on the camp value of his name these days (he originated this project, in fact). You’d think that Hunter would excel in a role without many acting challenges; but he manages to be bad even here.

On his solitary ride through the Old West, he meets up with an enormous dancehall gal (Divine), who leads him to the sleepy town of Chili Verde. The town has a secret: Everybody knows that a cache of gold is buried nearby. The problem is, nobody knows how to find it.

The town, which seems to exist as a saloon and little else, is ruled by Marguerita (Lainie Kazan) and her gunslinger boyfriend (Henry Silva), and fretted over by a weird padre (Cesar Romero). Entering the town is desperado Hard Case Williams (Geoffrey Lewis), who suspects the solution to the treasure riddle may be found tattooed on a rear portion of Divine’s anatomy (which, I’m afraid, is revealed for all to see).

The film is shot through with campy gags, heavy sexual innuendo (though, in this case, innuendo seems too tame a word), and, occasionally, an inspired routine. Sick, mind you, but sometimes inspired.

Paul Bartel, a master of the low-budget comedy, had a success a couple of years ago with Eating Raoul, in which he also starred. That was a funny satire, and Lust in the Dust is a comedown for him.

The most reliably funny routines here are the running shtick that villain Hard Case Williams continually corrects his own grammar, and the steady catfighting between Kazan and Divine. Divine, in case you don’t pay much attention to the fringes of the art world, is a 300-pound female impersonator and camp icon who gained fame in the films of John Waters (Pink Flamingos, the Odorama epic Polyester).

I must admit that, contrary to my better judgment and civilized upbringing, I find Divine quite funny. The spectacle of his huge man pretending to be a seductive woman might be funny in itself, but Divine actually projects a certain vulnerability and good-naturedness. And when Divine tries to attract Tab Hunter by singing (or growling), “These lips are made for kissin’, these hips are made for blissin’,” the film reaches its comic high point, such as it is.

First published in The Herald, March 8, 1985

You could see what Hunter and Bartel were going for, of course; my problem is how flat it all fell. Divine was about to have the breakthroughs of Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind and Waters’ Hairspray, and then promptly died at age 42 in 1988.

Ah Ying

October 22, 2020

Ah Ying is a nice little movie with an unpretentious, friendly atmosphere. This atmosphere must stem in part from the conditions of shooting the film: All but one of the actors are non-professionals, and in most cases the people are basically playing themselves.

This approach is appropriate, because director Allen Fong got his idea for the movie from an actress he auditioned for another film. He based Ah Ying on her life, and she plays the title role in her own story.

She is Hui So-Ying, a plain young woman with a rather plain story. But plainness may have been what attracted Fong to the idea; there’s not much that’s remarkable about this life, or this story, and it provides a useful means of illuminating life in Hong Kong.

The young woman, 22, lives with her family in a tiny two-room apartment. If that doesn’t sound so bad, consider that there are six children, most of them adolescents, sharing these cramped quarters. Ah Ying, who sometimes helps her parents selling fish at a market, has her eye on some kind of escape, although she doesn’t quite know what form that will take.

She stumbles into it when she answers an ad calling for help at the Hong Kong Film Culture Centre. She gets free classes in exchange for work, and she quickly finds an acting class that she responds to.

The charismatic teacher (a nice performance by Peter Wang, who in his real life is a professor of engineering at Virginia’s George Mason University) recognizes her spirit and becomes her guru. He’s also a filmmaker, and his own failure to get his pet project made is counterpoint to the story of Ah Ying’s spiritual awakening.

All of this – the misfit who finds her identity through acting at the encouragement of an attractive older man – may sound pat, and possibly Ah Ying is guilty of that. But most of it is fresh, and all of it is earnest and unaffected.

And if Fong set out to paint a picture of Hong Kong, he succeeded. Details come out in little strokes: the sweaty restaurants, the overcrowding, the preponderance of T-shirts with English sayings on them, the strange sight of apartments built directly at the sides of freeways (in one scene, when his car breaks down, the teacher walks to the side of the freeway and leans in an apartment window to make a phone call).

This teacher-filmmaker, who is based on a deceased director that Fong knew, says at one point, “I want to make a film that reflects our time. If not, no one will ever know we existed.” If that statement also suggests Fong’s ambition, then he’s done a handsome job of realizing it.

First published in The Herald, October 24, 1985

I believe the movie had a nice run in Seattle, and I feel certain that longtime Seattle publicist Nancy Locke had a lot to do with that. Surely a film worth re-discovering?