The Lair of the White Worm

December 2, 2011

Putting a novel by the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker, into the hands of the aging enfant terrible of the movies, Ken Russell, is either an act of bravado or surrender. Especially so when the book bears the title The Lair of the White Worm.

Russell, of course, is going to make a rumpus out of whatever material is thrown his way, and White Worm is no exception. But this sort of project, as with his last couple of films, Gothic and Salome’s Last Dance, seems designed to cater to Russell’s most indulgent instincts, to the detriment of the films, I think.

Russell has set Stoker’s story in the present day. An archaeologist (Peter Capaldi) finds a large reptilian head in a back yard in Derbyshire. The sisters who live in the house (Sammi Davis, Catherine Oxenberg) introduced the scientist to Lord D’Ampton (Hugh Grant), a local descendant of the legendary figure who slew a giant white worm, or dragon, many centuries ago. Could the skull belong to the dragon?

Or, more tantalizingly, does the dragon still exist? This possibility begins to be more prominent, particularly when we meet Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), a kinky character who is very into snakes, occasionally sprouts fangs, and sometimes drains the blood of unsuspecting hitchhikers. When Lord D’Ampton visits, and they play Snakes and Ladders, he surveys her huge castle and asks, “Do you have children?” To which she replies, “Only when there are no men around.” This is not a nice person.

Russell mixes these characters into his usual delirium. For the first couple of scenes, it almost looks as though he might play it reasonably straight, but camp begins to creep in. Some of which, naturally, is giddy and outrageous; who can resist a finale in which a virgin is dangled over the pit of a giant white worm, while the scientist tries to stave off a bloodthirsty policeman by playing the bagpipes?

At befits a director of his notoriety, Russell has attracted some of the top young actors in Britain. They’re fun to watch: Donohoe is unrecognizable here from the island inhabitant she played in Castaway, Grant was the friend in Maurice, Capaldi was the young Scotsman in Local Hero, and Sammi Davis the sister in Hope and Glory. They fall as much into sync with Russell as they can.

Perhaps Ken Russell may heave himself out of his current, frivolous vein with his next scheduled project, The Rainbow. It will be his second adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel; the first, Women in Love, was the film that brought Russell to international attention in 1970 (Donohoe and Davis will star). If Ken Russell ever has a worthy excuse to behave himself, that might be it.

First published in the Herald, November 10, 1988

My review of The Rainbow will be shortly upon us. This movie deserves its cult reputation, even if I recall it not being quite as much fun as it should have been. I’ll bet it wears well, though.


Salome’s Last Dance

November 30, 2011

In Salome’s Last Dance, famed bad-boy filmmaker Ken Russell has chosen to take a cameo role for himself, that of a still photographer recording a performance of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome given for the benefit of Wilde himself. Wilde looks at the photographer and declares, “If your acting is as grossly indecent as your photographic studies, we are in for an outrrrageous evening!”

Russell uncorks this bit of self-lampoonery knowing full well that most critics consider the director of Tommy and Altered States as “grossly indecent” a moviemaker as exists on the planet. But the dialogue certainly gets it right: Salome’s Last Dance is another cyclonic phantasmagoria from Russell’s feverish brain—an outrageous evening, indeed. I think it’s a minor film, when all is said and done, but it is at least mounted with high style and good humor (Russell’s previous movie, Gothic, seemed sour and hopeless).

The Salome performance is given in a brothel on a November night in 1892. Wilde (played in a marvelously florid turn by Nickolas Grace) sits on a bower of pillows and watches his play unfold, and occasionally gets in on the peripheral action.

When Russell visited the recent screening of Salome’s Last Dance at the Seattle International Film Festival, he claimed that staging Wilde’s Salome in this manner was the only way to film the play without building elaborate, expensive sets. True, but there’s another, better reason. When Wilde watches his play staged, we see the way it reflects on his own life; he identifies himself as the play’s John the Baptist, and predicts himself betrayed by his homosexual lover just as John is betrayed by Salome.

In the play, John the Baptist is played by Douglas Hodge; Herod by Stratford Johns; Queen Herodias by Glenda Jackson. The actors are ripe, as befits Russell’s scheme, and none is riper than Imogen Millais-Scott, the petite newcomer who plays Salome. Her lilting, breathy delivery is strange and haunting, and her amber eyes flicker with lust, particularly in the ornate temptations she offers the Baptist. What an exuberantly odd performance!

Salome’s Last Dance might well have been a trashy, glitzy exercise in camp were it not for the tragic layer of Wilde’s own life, as suggested in sharp strokes by Russell. The movie may be crammed with gold-painted bodies, bare-breasted servant girls, dancing dwarfs, and a murderous banana peel, but with all of that, as is true of Russell’s best films, there’s more here than meets the eye.

First published in the Herald, June 1988

A maniac of the movies, Ken Russell died a couple of days ago. The man unleashed a few turkeys, but I can testify to the power of seeing Women in Love as a teenager, already aware of the film’s reputation as an Important Art Movie containing a certain raciness. The Eighties were not a great time for his films, although I am an Altered States fan, but this is a mad little item I somehow saw twice in its Seattle Film Festival and regular-run appearances. Between viewings someone told me that leading lady Imogen Millais-Scott was blind, which certainly gives an unusual dimension to watching the movie. But then all the actors are pitched in a slightly crazed, unreal mode, which seemed to suit Russell just fine. I also like Nickolas Grace; he played Anthony Blanche in the ’81 Brideshead Revisited miniseries, and he nailed the defining-devastating moment when he turns to old friend Charles Ryder to accurately confide that Ryder’s paintings are “tewwible twipe,” despite the fawning of art patrons.

Amazon Women on the Moon

November 17, 2011

In some ways, Amazon Women on the Moon is a return to roots for John Landis. Landis, who directed such blockbusters as Animal House and The Blues Brothers, got his entrée into mainstream filmmaking with the mid-1970s success of Kentucky Fried Movie, a zingy low-budget collection of sketches and parodies.

Amazon Women is in much the same vein, and Landis serves as the film’s executive producer; he also directed some sequences, along with Joe Dante (Gremlins), Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, and Robert K. Weiss.

As is inevitable with such omnibus films, some things score, others flop. I think Amazon Women has too many misses, but certain gags could attain cult status.

Except for a bit in which a man (Lou Jacobi) gets zapped into his TV set and wanders through various reruns and movies, the opening sketches are weak. But around the time we begin a parody of ’50s sci-fi movies, the collection perks up.

This bad movie-within-the-movie, which is constantly interrupted by commercial spoofs (B.B. King pleads for donations for a charity called “Black Without Soul”), is an inspired parody, all about space travelers who encounter a race of extremely tall women on the moon (see, the title does make sense). The sets are cardboard, the special effects tacky. And the actors are vintage: stalwart Steve Forrest, formidable Sybil Danning, and Robert Colbert, who used to be one of the time-trippers on the TV show “The Time Tunnel.”

A “Believe It Or Not” rip-ff suggests, through dramatic re-enactment, that Jack the Ripper was in fact Nessie, the Loch Ness monster. There’s a comedy roast (featuring Steve Allen, Slappy White, and Rip Taylor) for a dead man, at his funeral. And a man watching television is shocked when two TV movie reviewers suddenly turn thumbs-down on his own life, decrying it for its lack of originality and dullness (the man’s wife assures him that “They didn’t like Gandhi, either”).

This is the sort of movie best viewed under specialized circumstances—namely, with a group of like-minded friends, fueled by some small measure of liquid refreshment. It’s sophomoric, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of a certain amount of shameless fun.

First published in the Herald, September 22, 1987

That last paragraph is how I remember seeing Kentucky Fried Movie, a film that was required viewing for a certain demographic of nerdy teenage boys. Amazon Women must have been hit and miss, as indicated, but the sci-fi movie was dead-on.

Deadly Friend/Hardbodies 2/The Bikini Shop

November 7, 2011

Swanson takes aim: Deadly Friend.

A scouting report from the megaplex at your nearest mall:

Deadly Friend. Wes Craven’s last film was the terrifying Nightmare on Elm Street, an inspired horror movie that wreaked havoc with the audience’s sense of security by playing complicated games with dream vs. reality. Deadly Friend, however, is closer to his recent work on the new “Twilight Zone” TV series, which is to say it’s clean and professional and occasionally jarring, but doesn’t quite fling itself into anything special.

Even so, it’s pretty effective. It begins unpromisingly, with a boy genius (Matthew Laborteaux) tending to his talking robot. Another talking robot! Luckily, this jumble of metal is blown away by a shotgun-toting neighbor during a Halloween prank, and never beeps again.

The kind invented the robot, and he also invents a spindly doohickey that can re-animated dead people, by stimulating the brain. When his new girlfriend (Kristy Swanson) is killed by her brutal father, he grabs the body, takes it home, and sticks the doohickey in her brain.

So she starts walking around with blue eye makeup and goes after the people who bugged her before; the father and the neighbor. The latter is killed through decapitation by a basketball.

A lot of this is fine, with great residential atmosphere a la Nightmare. The last reel or so goes oddly flat as the script runs down; Craven seems to be at his best when he’s working from his own material.

Hardbodies 2. There are exploitation films that are coy about serving up nudity, giving you a peek and a giggle and a lot of well-placed bedsheets. Not so Hardbodies 2, a forthright film that floods the screen, if such a verb is appropriate, with tanned naked flesh.

This can happen because it all takes place in Greece, where it seems everybody goes topless while sunbathing. (Everybody is slim and gorgeous, too.) The plot revolves rather freely around the making of a low-budget exploitation movie. The men are required to be funny and romantic, which they are not; the women are required to be topless, which they very much are.

The Bikini Shop. About the most I can say for this little movie is that writer-director David Wechter gives evidence that sometime, somewhere, he saw a few classic movie comedies. There’s a hint of Frank Capra about the story, albeit updated and degraded for the 1980s.

A woman (cameo by Rita Jenrette) who owns a bikini shop dies. The store is willed to her nephews; one is straight-laced and level-headed, the other is a beach bum. Both must come and take over the store, and naturally save it from bankruptcy, by inventing a new fashion craze in bikinidom: combat bikinis.

The must also suffer through the attentions of the three beach bunnies who still work at the store. At least one great sequence here: the ready-made music video that shows the gals dancing in their new camouflage bikinis, while a war goes on around them. Sadly, the rest of the film rarely approaches this level of vulgarity.

First published in the Herald, October 15, 1986

A trio made for Joe Bob Briggs, it seems. Hardbodies 2, I see now, has James Karen top-billed, an actor who has known his way around a few exploitation movies in his long, long career. In The Bikini Shop, one of the nephews was played by Bruce Greenwood, proving once again that you have to start somewhere. If the name Rita Jenrette doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll have to look up the history of D.C. political scandals, although hers doesn’t seem very outrageous anymore.

Porky’s Revenge

August 4, 2011

The saga began with a brilliantly marketed little sleaze comedy that turned up during a slack spring season a couple of years ago and chalked up astounding box-office numbers. Its teaser ads promised plenty of raunchy action, and Porky’s delivered the goods, which is more than you can say for many teen-oriented comedies.

Perhaps that was the key to the success of Porky’s—it went all the way. No leering sexual situation went unmentioned, no naughty word unspoken, and no body part un-referred to. (It also shrewdly employed a revenge plot in service of its comedy.)

Naturally, a sequel was in order, and writer-director Bob Clark, the auteur of Porky’s, gathered together  the same cast and filmed Porky’s 2: The Next Day, which continued the exploits of a ’50s-era Florida high-school class, their battles with teachers, and their unpleasant confrontations with a corpulent casino owner named Porky.

It’s time for Book Three, and Porky’s Revenge takes up the odyssey of the seniors at Angel Beach High as they approach graduation—this time without the filmmaking services of Bob Clark, who has gone on to direct such gems as Rhinestone. Taking over the reins is director James Komack, who has guided many TV sitcoms over the years, including “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”

Well, the tender sentiments of that TV show are all behind Komack now. Porky’s Revenge fulfills its goal of being just as filthy as the original Porky’s. It’s also every bit as unfunny.

This one hinges on Angel High’s championship basketball game, which figures in a gambling scam that Porky is pulling. But this plot, if we may call it that, is a poor excuse for standard shenanigans sprung from a prurient 16-year-old mentality. There’s something about a Swedish sex film, a nude swimming party, and a mistaken-identity seduction scene that borrows from Measure for Measure.

On second thought, scratch Measure for Measure. It is doubtful whether anyone involved in the production here ever read the play.

There’s also a pair of teachers who engage in kinky sex to the tune of “Mack the Knife” (these acts are photographed and used for blackmail by our heroes). Teacher, naturally, are portrayed as sexual psychopaths of every kind—the filmmakers know which side the audience’s bread is buttered on.

The main thing, of course, is looking at girls and commenting on their gazoobies (spelling approximate), a term which may or may not have been popular during the Eisenhower years. That remains the dominant cinematic motif in all the Porky’s films.

The cast is the same group of unknowns that have been frolicking about in every entry thus far. Out of charity, they shall remain unnamed, but we can take consolation in at least one undeniable fact of life: they are all getting older, and they won’t be able to play high-school kids much longer. That could spell the end of the Porky’s cycle. Then again, that may be underestimating the savvy of the relentless producers of these movies.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

I no longer recall the exact nature of the mistaken-identity seduction scene, nor whether it actually has anything to do with Measure for Measure. But I do remember what a drag these movies were, and how the first one went through the roof and pointed the way toward many a future raunchfest. Meanwhile, James Komack—remember Jimmy Komack? A busy TV director and writer, used to act quite a bit, turned up on talk shows pretty often as an exemplary Seventies guy. I wonder why he ended up getting connected to this junk. (Various online sources, without quite confirming it, suggest that Komack was the illegitimate son of Milton Berle, which is something to think about.) This film indeed ended the series, unless persistent rumors of Howard Stern being associated with a remake are true.

Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach

July 18, 2011

Inertia rules the production of the Police Academy series—the inertia of constant motion, that is. These movies are scheduled to come out at spring break every year, and so they do; they might just keep going forever. Would anyone notice? Does anyone notice now?

The inertia dictates that a certain formula must be followed, regardless of the results. The results, for quite a few installments now, have been rigorously unfunny movies, but that’s not enough to deflect the awesome momentum of the series, which has made an obscene amount of money for producer Paul Maslansky. We’re up to number five (as though the numerical distinctions make any difference).

Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach wisely transports the troupe to a new locale. Other than that, everything is in place; almost every joke in the movie is a retread, with the slightest possible variation, of a gag from a previous film. As in the last couple of outings, the students of the first film—Bubba Smith, et al.—are simply a nondescript glob of people who surround the guest stars.

Steve Guttenberg is gone; his contract must’ve run out. Holding down the fort is George Gaynes, as the doddering commandant of the school, and in this installment he occupies center stage when he is kidnapped by some sharp-dressing Miami bad guys.

Also stepping to the forefront are non-regulars Matt McCoy, playing Gaynes’ almost-normal nephew, and Janet Jones, the luscious girl on the beach in The Flamingo Kid, who performs much the same function here.

As usual, most of the film’s energy is directed at the degradation of the hated lieutenant (G.W. Bailey). Also as usual, Bailey earns the film’s only near laughs, particularly when he adopts the guise of a swinger in a beachside bar.

Last year when PA4 came out, Rex Reed swore he would quit the business if another sequel were made. If he keeps his word, this would be the only positive thing to come out of the series in years. Well, Rex, we’re waiting. Rex?

First published in the Herald, March 1988

Rex Reed kept going, but you knew that. I don’t actually know how much money Paul Maslansky made, but I assume it was a great deal. Matt McCoy went on to have the career of a seemingly very good sport, in everything from his amusing role in L.A. Confidential to a corner of the Seinfeld universe. Janet Jones went on to marry Wayne Gretzky.

Hamburger…The Motion Picture

June 2, 2011

Not a great deal of time needs to be spent on Hamburger…The Motion Picture, except to note that it may be the only film ever set at the managerial training school for a fast-food company.

There’s nothing else original about Hamburger, which takes the usual dorky sex jokes and puts them in the milieu of, uh, hamburgers. There sure are a whole lot of hamburgers in this movie, which makes it immune to the complaints of the Truth in Advertising people, if no one else.

A clod (Leigh McCloskey), who can’t finish his college degree, enrolls at Burgerbuster University in search of an easy sheepskin—or cowhide, as the case may be.

A pair of variables come into play here. One, he has to get a degree, any degree, to receive a $250,000 inheritance. Two, he hasn’t been able to finish college before because women—especially school administrators—find him irresistible. He keeps getting expelled because he keeps getting discovered in compromising positions.

So, he enrolls at Burgerbuster U (“Bull Is Our Business”), where sex is forbidden but the dorms are co-ed. You can see the problems ahead.

Adding fat to the fire, the Burgerbuster’s founder has his wife (Randi Brooks) at the University, a statuesque lollapalooza whose subtle contours evoke memories of the Underdog balloon at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Naturally, she inspires heavy-breathing in every undergraduate, and justifiably so.

Burgerbuster U also has students goose-stepping past huge papier-mâché burgers, a thick-necked drill sergeant (Dick Butkus) who likes to lock offenders into 6-foot plastic pickles and pour secret sauce on them, and a mad scientist (Chuck McCann) who feeds thousands of synthetic chicken nuggets to an increasingly fowl-mouthed student.

I laughed once, when a woman expired in her car while giving a mechanical pickle her food order at a Burgerbuster drive-in. The panicky foodserver runs to the manager and says, “There’s a dead woman in the drive-through lane.” The cool-headed manager replies, “Well, cancel her order.” It seemed funny at the time. You get desperate at a movie like this.

The other jokes revolve around anatomy and funny names for characters (“Victoria Gotbottom,” “Emmanuel Gherkin”). Aside from that, the jokes are bloody rare, and Hamburger certainly can’t be said to be well-done.

First published in the Herald, February 5, 1986

Yeah, that’s right—Underdog. You’re welcome. This movie says “Eighties” in giant neon letters, with its unsavory Porky’s backwash and second-tier cast (nothing against Dick Butkus, a childhood football favorite, or Chuck McCann, unavoidable rubber-faced comedian of umpteen TV shots). Disbelief is the operative viewing stance here, which I guess is better than nothing.