November 28, 2012

Remember Fantastic Voyage? It’s the semi-legendary ’60s film in which a seacraft was miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a human being. The movie featured that immortal scene in which Raquel Welch strayed outside the capsule and was attacked by phagocytes. At which point her lucky crewmates got to peel the sticky things from her skin-tight bodysuit.

See? You do remember. That poker-faced film became a camp classic almost immediately; now Innerspace comes along to play the premise for out-and-out laughs.

The basic concept is, shall we way, in a similar vein. This time the capsule contains only one man, a daredevil pilot (Dennis Quaid). The miniaturization experiment is supposed to put him inside the body of a rabbit. Instead, he’s injected via hypodermic needle into the body of a part-time grocery store clerk and full-time nerd (Martin Short).

How this happens is, well, complicated. There’s a scheme that involves a madman (Kevin McCarthy) who wants the secret of miniaturization so he can—dare we say it?—rule the world. Eventually, he’ll mainline his own quasi-bionic hit man (Vernon Wells) into Short’s bloodstream to do battle with the little Quaid.

Like Fantastic Voyage, there’s a time limit on Quaid’s tenancy, which lends some suspense. Also a lot of imaginative human interiors. Quaid’s journey is realized by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects company; they create some neat internal landscapes, such as Short’s ulcerous stomach and his rushing red blood cells (which look suspiciously like cherry Fruit Loops).

Unlike Fantastic Voyage, the emphasis is on the comedy, and the slapstick opportunities for the gifted Martin Short, who used to do hilarious work on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” His high point is a frug in the manner of Ed Grimley (his pointy-haired “SNL” character) while Quaid plays tunes inside his body.

Since Quaid can talk to Short from inside, Short gets to do some amusing monologues, particularly one in a public men’s room. But somehow this idea seems warmed-over from All of Me, in which Steve Martin conducted a conversation with the internalized Lily Tomlin.

In fact, much of the film has a warmed-over quality. You’d think the best director for this kind of comedy-action blend would be Joe Dante, who lit the anarchic fire under Gremlins. But here Dante can’t get the overall machinery cooking, and I miss his usual feel for off-the-wall details.

The most interesting possibility is proposed when Quaid’s girlfriend, a reporter (Meg Ryan), gets swept into the intrigue, and becomes attracted to Short. Ordinarily, I’d think Dante would want to explore this unlikely threesome, but she goes back to Quaid and the movie drops it.

Innerspace delivers some good bits. Dante still has a fun touch with supporting players; he slips Henry Gibson in, and hands a juicy scene to Kathleen Freeman, who also stops the show with a similar single-scene tirade in the new Dragnet. But Dante seems underinspired, and the movie can’t run only on the rubbery legs of Martin Short.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

A fun movie, but something didn’t quite come to life. I never watched it again, but I have recently re-watched Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, which deserves better than to be relegated to the camp classic category, although there is some of that there. It’s a well-made picture, and very imaginative. I may have been overly influenced by childhood memories of the Mad magazine parody, Fantasteeccch Voyage.

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.


December 21, 2010

Gremlins may well be the most sheerly outrageous movie of this about-to-be-busy summer season. It’s a giddy, frenetic horror/fantasy stuffed with jokes, frights, and hyperactive little creatures called gremlins.

In the opening scenes, in a rundown store in Chinatown, an inept inventor (Hoyt Axton) picks up a cute pet for his son. He is sold the creature with a warning: Never let it in the sunlight, never get it wet, and never—ever—feed it after midnight.

Of course, all those things will happen to the adorable fuzzball. It gets wet, which causes it to multiply. Then the offspring are accidentally slipped some fried chicken after midnight and they experience a transformation. When they leave their cocoons they turn mean and set out on a rampage of dirty tricks.

Before long, the small-town setting is overrun by the beasties, and it’s up to Axton’s son (Zach Galligan) and his girlfriend (Pheobe Cates) to try to beat the little monsters.

From the basic outline, there’s no way to convey the madcap high spirits of this tale. Director Joe Dante has created a fantasy small town that exists as a kind of movie memory: He’s given it the flavor of It’s a Wonderful Life (which plays on a TV screen at one point) and the fairy-tale atmosphere of The Wizard of Oz (Polly Holliday plays a hissable bank owner as the Wicked Witch of the West).

The look of the movie is sitcom-ordinary, but Dante pushes things into high gear when the gremlins get loose on Christmas Eve. The mayhem that results is scary, funny, and absurd. It’s also ferociously imaginative. You can picture the filmmakers sitting around cooking up ideas: “Wouldn’t it be wild if the gremlins did this—and this, and this?”

It’s at this point that Gremlins jettisons any sort of realistic underpinnings, but the film is just too fast and clever for that to really be a problem. Besides, the whole idea of gremlins is that they’re bugaboos who get into the machinery and make mischief, so it’s fitting that the movie starts going crazy when they take over the screen. (The gremlins were created by Chris Walas, who deserves star billing.)

The screenplay was discovered by Steven Spielberg when he was looking for someone to write the script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Spielberg, who is credited as executive producer, may have seen the opportunity to do a flip side of his E.T., and probably jumped at the chance to do something less sweet. Choosing Dante to direct—he’d made the witty horror films Piranha and The Howling—was a brilliant stroke. There isn’t a lax moment in the film.

Dante is a sharp satirist and a very able conductor of action. There’s not a whole lot of emotional depth among the people onscreen, but that’s not really what the movie is about. It’s a bright, noisy funhouse, and Dante is the gremlin behind the camera—throwing everything he can think of into the mixer. Except that, unlike the gremlins, there’s a method to Dante’s madness, and somehow the finished product emerges as both efficient and stylish.

First published in the Herald, May 1984.

That screenwriter was Chris Columbus, who went on the bigger things. I’m not sure what I was thinking in proposing that Gremlins had anything like “realistic underpinnings” to begin with, but so be it. Of course Gremlins 2 pushes even more into the realm of satire, and ought to be better known. I go on more about Joe Dante’s movies in a piece at the Crop Duster.