April 13, 2022

Vampire comedies are all the rage, it seems, although only last summer’s Fright Night was a worthy entry in the subgenre (Love at First Bite and Once Bitten are among the more debased representatives). Now comes Vamp, which attempts a more stylish tack than most, but suffers from a thinning familiarity.

Coupla guys at a boondocks college need to drive into town one night to procure a stripper for a frat party. They borrow a car from a rich kid (who insists on tagging along). Nothing unusual there, except these guys stumble into the wrong place at the wrong time: the After Dark club, after dark.

The joint, it turns out, is crawling with vampires, and the queen of ’em all is a supple dancer (Grace Jones) who wears a wire bikini over leopardskin body paint. When she asks what the boys in the back room will have, they naturally answer: her.

She has a surprise for them; she loves the hemoglobin of college guys. After she drains the essence out of one of the kids, the hero (Chris Makepeace) just wants to get out of the place, while the third-wheel rich kid (Gedde Watanabe of Gung Ho in another amusing performance) is busy ogling the girls on the runway.

This film has some silly zip in its early reels, considerably buoyed by the zombified dance routine by Grace Jones, who wears (with the aforementioned costume) red geisha hair and blue contact lenses. It’s just hubba-hubba enough to nudge the boundaries of the R rating.

Director/co-screenwriter Richard Wenk clearly wants Vamp to have some visual style, so he tries to inject some by flooding the dark milieu with green and purple lights. Unfortunately, an armful of filters and gels do not a visual style make.

Most of the gags are tired, too. By now the jokes about stakes in the heart have been heard; and Wenk can’t marry the goofy stuff to the scary vampirization of some of his main characters.

He clearly intended a black comedy, though; in fact his model seems to have been not Love at First Bite but After Hours, Martin Scorsese’s nightmare comedy about a one-nighter gone bad. Wenk achieves a comic-horror balance once in a while. When Sandy Baron, as the club owner, wistfully muses about opening a vampire lounge in Las Vegas, it’s a good freaky moment.

Then there’s Grace Jones, who isn’t really in the movie much (although she’s been emphasized in the film’s ad campaign). She’s otherworldly enough to carry this sort of thing off, and the movie wimps out a bit when she’s not around. Wenk could have learned something about visual style from her; a smooth, hard enigma, she seems to exist – even in appearances “as herself” on talk shows – purely as an exotic figure of style.

First published in The Herald, July 25, 1986

Always nice to have a Sandy Baron reference. Also in the movie: Dedee Pfeiffer, Francie Swift, and Billy Drago. (“Dedee, meet Gedde. Gedde, Dedee.”) As for Wenk, since his screenplay 16 Blocks was filmed in 2006, he’s gotten a lot of writing work on action pictures. The trivia on IMDb claims Grace Jones’ stripper chair involved creative input from Dolph Lundgren and Keith Haring.

Cat People

October 6, 2021

Flashy transition: Paul (Malcolm McDowell), a guy who we know turns into a panther when aroused, is flirting with a blond babe who’s wandering through a cemetery. He asks her, holding up his camera, to say, “Cheese,” and she does. Cut from Paul holding camera to eye, to: Oliver (John Heard) holding camera to eye and snapping a picture of Paul’s sister Irena (Nastassia Kinski) in a shack somewhere on the edge of the bayou. Now, there’s a pretty sinister suggestion being made with that transition, and a director who cuts like that better know what he’s doing.

Let’s check this out then: Paul will have sex with the blonde and then dismember her; this is rather frustrating for him (not to mention how she must feel about it), as he is doomed never to have a satisfactory sexual experience except with his sister. Irena will turn down the sexual advances that Oliver is about to make because she thinks she will turn into a cat and kill him. So both scenes are steeped in sex and the threat of death; what about this connection made between Paul and Oliver? Well, they both want the same woman, and each is working out of his own obsession. Each union, if consummated, would lead to a kind of destruction, though Paul does seem a bit more literally lethal than Oliver. Yeah, I guess it’s okay to have this linking transition, but I wind up asking myself a question I’ve asked a lot about this new version of Cat People: did it have to be so darned obvious?

Obviousness isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but … Paul Schrader knows he’s making an ambitious film here, and he just can’t seem to resist spelling things out for us once in a while. The nifty prologue, which sort of shows how the race of cat people began (one of the best shots in the picture here: a woman tied to a tree, about to be taken by a panther, looks down at the beast as this eerie process night sky slides behind her: thrilling!), ends with a closeup of one of these ancient cat women and slowly dissolves into the face of Irena in a present-day airport. This replacing of one face with another sets up a device that’s used a couple times again in the movie, but is sure seems unnecessary; if we’d simply discovered Nastassia Kinski wandering around an airport in longshot, is there anybody out there who couldn’t have guessed she was a descendant of the feline types?

And Schrader has let some elements that might better have been left in subtext rise to the surface. When a guy cuts from a bust of Beatrice to his leading lady, you’re left with the uncomfortable feeling that the director is trying to make a point. And Schrader has Oliver reading and memorizing Vita Nuova, for croonin’ out loud! (There is a genuine mystery to the scene, however: Does that voice on the tape that Oliver speaks along with belong to Malcolm McDowell?)

For a while now it’s seemed as though, if only Schrader could consume and digest his mythic and literary concerns and sink his teeth into a genre picture, the results could be something exceptional, and would surely outstrip his other movies (he’s the director of Hardcore and American Gigolo, and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull). Cat People sounded like the project where this would all happen, but Schrader hasn’t integrated his ambitions with his flesh-and-blood story here; sometimes he doesn’t even seem interested in providing basic narrative logic (like: How does a panther get out of his cage at the zoo? Surely the dangerous animal would have been watched. And we don’t know when or how Irena returns from Richmond to New Orleans late in the film; she just sort of reappears). It’s particularly frustrating that Cat People doesn’t come off because much of it is good and some of it is really haunting. Some reverse-action stuff is neat, especially because Malcolm McDowell is so catlike to begin with. Some of the fancy color scheme (designed by Ferdinando Scarfiotti) is terrific, and some of it seems pretty meaningless. Giorgio Moroder’s music is effective, and his theme for the opening ritual is spellbinding (good David Bowie song, too).

Schrader’s best decisions are in casting: McDowell is just right and moves beautifully throughout his rather small part, and Heard and Annette O’Toole are very good, both appearing on the verge of coming into their own as recognizable stars. Ed Begley Jr. makes a nothing part into a funny and special presence, singing “What’s New, Pussycat?” to a man-eating panther. And Nastassia Kinski is a unique screen creature, with her exotic looks and accent(s) giving even the most ordinary dialogue a new and mysterious quality. If Cat People may try to work up a mysteriousness in a facile and often heavy-handed way, there’s no doubt about the authentically strange qualities of Miss Kinski. She’s something else again.

First published in The Informer, May 1982

An odd film, lumpy yet sinuous, ludicrous yet spooky. Also, this was when Nastassja still spelled her first name with an i. I played the Bowie song quite a bit – “Putting Out Fire,” a good one.

The Curse

February 5, 2021

The Curse appears to be nothing more than an excuse to present some unusually distasteful special effects and make-up. It certainly isn’t much as a horror movie, lacking any semblance of suspense or atmosphere.

The original element is the setting, rural Tennessee, where a sensitive adolescent boy (Wil Wheaton, the star of Stand by Me) lives with his mother and stepfather (Claude Akins). It’s never quite explained about the boy’s real father, or why the mother would remarry such a crude man (and he’s crude as only Claude Akins can be crude). But then many things in this movie are never quite explained.

One night, while the mother is out in the barn making hay with one of the ranch hands (this is never quite explained), a meteor comes crashing down on the farm. Wheaton thinks it’s suspicious, since it oozes slime that goes directly into the water table, but a well-meaning doctor neighbor concludes that the thing is merely the contents of the airliner’s bathroom tank, jettisoned in midair and frozen on the way down.

No way. Wheaton and the audience, having seen a lot of horror movies, know better. Our young hero notices that the taps water begins to taste weird, and the cows are breaking out in disgusting boils. The farm’s vegetables are full of worms and colorful liquids, and Mom, who’s been happily lapping up the water, begins to act funny – funny like a cleaver-wielding maniac, that is.

Needless to say, no one listens to Wheaton when he tries to tell the outside world about all this. But he wisely drinks his water from the neighbor’s garden hose, and avoids eating the tainted food, until he can convince the well-meaning doctor neighbor (whose sexy wife is involved in a never-quite-explained real-estate scam) that something is terribly wrong.

The Curse is heavy on grotesquerie and down-home crassness. Presumably this comes from first-time director David Keith, best known as an actor. In his acting, Keith has always favored the drawling good ol’ boy, most notably as the buddy in An Officer and a Gentleman, and he revels in the opportunity to display a redneck sensibility here. He also appears in a cameo on TV, as a cowboy singer warbling an awful country-western song.

This is the kind of movie made by an actor who wants to be a director, and has determined to learn the craft from the bottom up. Usually the idea is to move on to loftier projects, but frankly it appears that dreaming up gross ways of having vegetables explode makes Keith just as happy as a tick on a hound in July, so we may see him dwelling in this region for a while.

First published in The Herald, January 14, 1988

Keith directed an Indiana Jones spoof-thing, The Further Adventures of Tennessee Buck, the following year, and then one other film. David Chaskin’s screenplay appears to have been inspired, in an uncredited way, by H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Color Out of Space. We should credit the actress who plays Wil Wheaton’s mom in this movie, since I did not name her: Kathleen Jordon Gregory. This is her only screen credit. Spooky! The music is by Franco Micalizzi, who did They Call Me Trinity, lots of Italian police films, and a piece regularly used on Curb Your Enthusiasm. A movie music career is a strange thing. Do I remember this film? I do not.

Dim Sum/The Ninth Configuration

November 4, 2020

Upon his birth in Hong Kong in 1949, Wayne Wang was promptly named for one of his father’s favorite American actors: John Wayne. Maybe it was inevitable, then, that the child would grow up to be a moviemaker, and that’s exactly the road Wang took.

His new independent production, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, represents a big jump over his previous feature, Chan Is Missing, a low-budget affair that got a lot of attention but looked distressingly amateurish to this reviewer.

With Dim Sum, which like Chan is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Wang has gotten a lot more accomplished. The production values are higher, but there’s also an increased sense of control behind the camera: Wang seems to know just what he wants, and how to achieve it.

The simplicity of the story, and of some of the style, has been compared to the work of the Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, who favored a still, contemplative camera to record the day-to-day victories and failures of mundane life.

Wang is up to something similar, but he brings the Ozu style into the world of McDonald’s and Dynasty (both favorites of the family seen here). The story is age-old, just the same: A girl (Lauren Chew) wonders whether she should move out and leave her mother (Kim Chew) alone, and whether she should marry her boyfriend (John Nasio).

Wang takes this simple set-up and weaves an amiable and touching little tale out of it. Most of the actors are pretty obviously non-professionals, but Victor Wong is funny as the main character’s uncle, who runs a bar and seems blissfully unconcerned about his lack of profits, and Kim Chew has great dignity as the mother – she also succeeds by virtue of looking like every mother you’ve ever seen.

Not much need be said of The Ninth Configuration, except to wonder why it is being released at this particular moment. It’s been sitting on the shelf for a good five years, apparently doomed to a cable-TV run and oblivion.

But here it is, so, for the record: It’s a preposterous thing, the brainchild of William Peter Blatty, the author of The Exorcist, who wrote, produced, and directed it. It may be about some strange military maneuvers, led by a mad killer (Stacy Keach) in a rickety old castle; but it’s probably supposed to be about some deep metaphysical questions. In fact, it tackles the big issues of existence, and – with a healthy dose of nerve on Blatty’s part – actually pretends to answer them in the final moments of the film.

It’s all quite weird, although a few good actors (Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Jason Miller) were talked into appearing in it. Blatty once won a Golden Globe award for his screenplay (when the film was known as Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane), which ought to forever undercut the credibility of that awards organization.

First published in The Herald, October 11, 1985

So, yeah, The Ninth Configuration has gathered quite a cult following over the years. I really should watch it again, if only for the memory that it truly was nuts. I remember the Seven Gables theater chain in Seattle gave it some kind of “Off the Shelf” screening as a cool unreleased title, along with a few other things. Not sure it was linked to this re-release. And what ever happened to the Golden Globes, huh? Wayne Wang has had a varied career, sometimes going arthouse, sometimes mainstream (and occasionally connecting with a real gem, like Smoke).

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.