31 December 2009

Strip For Action

A.K.A. - Hot Ticket
United States – 1996
Director – Lev L. Spiro
New Horizons Home Video, 1999, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 17 minutes

There are many amusements on offer when occasionally watching one of these stripper oddities from the Corman studio. One of the most awkward, particularly in mixed company is contemplating and discussing the extent of plastic surgery that the principals have undergone to achieve their current shape. In fact I think if you watched enough of these you could probably watch them transform over the course of their careers.
But hey, we are talking about the stripper microgenre invented by actress Katt Shea with Stripped to Kill (1987). It was to be the first of a slew of successful films revolving around the trials and tribulations of strippers. The very nature of the work demands that you repeatedly perform stripteases, in both the scenes taking place in the stripclub, as well as the scenes in which you do it with your late-90’s mushroom haircut boyfriend. Instead of an actress willing to strip, the job requires a stripper willing to act, which is exactly the standard set by Shea.

The name alone, Strip for Action, holds tremendous menace. The combination and context of the words possess an imminent but still ethereal threat. But backed up by that killer tagline, it really drives it home for me. The insinuation of stripping doesn’t convey anything explicitly filthy, but the addition of action suggests that that action, whatever it is can only take place when naked. The nature of the action itself remains in question, and this is where the threat lies, shrouded in mystery.

The Strip For Action box art is phenomenal. For over a year as this movie sat on my shelf waiting to be screened. Browsing the unwatched tapes I would occasionally pull it out and contemplate it. Each time I would stare at the cover for a while thinking to myself, “She looks uncomfortable, do I really want to watch this?” Let’s be honest, I was intimidated, hung up on the possibility of impending emotional darkness if I followed through. So for all that time the box art looked awkward, but I was too cowed to pay much heed.

But when I woke this morning, I realized that the decision had already been made, Strip For Action was the movie I was going to watch tonight. So when the time came, the idea of this film was no longer threatening, and perhaps that’s why I was able to see the box art with uncluttered eyes. It was then that I realized the fact that the gun is obviously and poorly Photoshopped into her hand after the fact. Not only that, as I was inspecting that digital handiwork, I realized that her bra was also an ad hoc addition. I wish I could tell you that this suggests some deep metaphor for the meaning of the film itself, some kind of prophecy. But it is as straightforward and honest as a picture worth an hour and 15 minutes can get. No, what Strip For Action boils down to is a soap-opera spiked with lap-dances and cursing. The box, with all its bluster and false modesty, is an explicit reflection of the film contained within, a sort of a Bizarro-world version of the emperor’s new clothes.

You girls stay in the car while we exchange hair styling tips.

29 December 2009

Star Wars

Star Wars
United States - 1977
Director - George Lucas
CBS/FOX Video, 1984, VHS
Run Time - 2 hours, 1 minute

I couldn't help but post this because I thought it was the first VHS release of Star Wars and I found it for 2 bucks at a thrift store yesterday. Alas, the first one was in May of 1982, this is two years late. Oh well, still a cool old cover.

28 December 2009

On The Waterfront

United States - 1954
Director - Elia Kazan

Did I miss something, was On The Waterfront a horror film? Perhaps artist Anselmo Ballester has a penchant for extreme drama that turns everything into a zombie slasher film. This awesome Italian poster reminds me of The Mutilator promotional artwork, but there are others that copied the basic layout. Hey why not, this is a classic image no matter what the plot behind it.

25 December 2009

Snowbird and the Forgotten Christmas

 Snowbird and the Forgotten Christmas
United States – 1989
Director – Tina Young & David Van Hooser
Brentwood Music Inc, 1989, VHS
Run Time – 30 minutes

It should be clear now after a forty-five year Cold War that communism is an ideology that seeks to subject us all to the withering self-doubt of constant deprivation and loneliness. Christmas is exactly what communists hate, for it embodies all the things that make the world a wonderful place. In short, Christmas is the uranium core within the reactor of America.

Any attempt to undermine the spirit of Christmas is clearly a communist plot to destroy the very fabric of America. It can be forgiven if the fear of just such a scenario might drive godfearing Americans to the heights of paranoia, afterall we did spend over two decades in a tiny Southeast Asian country trying to keep some dominoes from falling over.

The social upheavals of that very era sent shockwaves through the country. Never more so than in the South where even in the late 80’s the youth culture of the 60’s could still be conjured as a counterrevolutionary boogeyman, albeit in a tattered and proscribed version. Just such a scenario occurs in Snowbird and the Forgotten Christmas when aging hippy Kredge seeks to realize the crumbling utopian monocultural dreams of his youth and kidnaps Snowbird from his annual celebration of Christmas.

Kredge intends to harvest Snowbird’s own Christmas memories to create an atheist brainwashing gas which, unleashed upon the unsuspecting community like a cloud of radioactivity, will wipe their minds clean of any recollection of the holiday, including the identity of the infant in the manger scene at church.

But Kredge's own mind is teetering on the edge, haunted by the spectre of the failed revolution of ’68. They tried so hard to fill the world with love and equality and now to be surrounded by the revelry of American consumption and decadence. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, enough to plunge even a free wheeling hippy into the depths of bitterness and depression and Kredge almost didn’t make it. His epic plan to subject the free world to godless communist uniformity is foiled only at the last minute by a simple Christmas gift from Snowbird. This unexpected act of compassion brings Kredge’s meticulously constructed factory of pain crashing down around his beard. He slinks off into the night to contemplate his own emptiness, and perhaps plan a new machine to wash away his own tortured memories.

Overwhelmed by the lonliness of a commune of one, Kredge contemplates what he has become.

Another Brentwood version of the VHS box art.

23 December 2009

Invasion U.S.A. (1952)

United States - 1952
Director - Alfred E. Green

Although it should not be confused with the Chuck Norris film of the same name, this Invasion U.S.A. does have roughly the same plot. I haven't seen it, but I suspect that there are somewhat fewer uzis and karate kicks to the face. I love this poster by Italian illustrator Anselmo Ballester. It makes it look as if the red menace is in fact zombie communists.

22 December 2009


United States – 1985
Director – Donald M. Jones
Prism Entertainment, 1987, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 30 minutes

Because I enjoy horror films people often assume that I don’t mind violence and gore in real life, but that’s pretty off the mark. I like splatter and dismemberment performed by zombies and even sometimes people as long as they’re fictional, but the real thing is pretty repulsive to me. Even working in a meatcutting union I have a hard time watching the butchers break the sides of cow. That’s why I’ll never get the “popularity” of serial killers. I can sit through a Giallo or slasher movie fine, but I prefer silly monsters, and  Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer did not appeal to me.

Murderlust seems to have come at a time when things were changing from the fictional to the biographical in the serial killer microgenre. It would have been difficult to get away with too much realism before then, which I suspect is why Henry is considered such a watershed moment. Something happened in 1984-6 that hardened the American psyche, and that sort of callousness wasn’t so shocking anymore.
One of the things that distinguishes the pre-biographical era is its combination of the ridiculous and sinister and Murderlust is no different. In fact it actually has a lot in common with Bill Lustig’s Maniac (1981), and not just in that respect. Intentionally or otherwise, Joe Spinell’s Frank Zito was both a psychotic murderer, natty photography critic and affectionate boyfriend. But he was above all over the top.

In Murderlust Steve Belmont is pretty much the same , but his overarching problems are stupidity and religion. He manages to stain a borrowed necktie before even putting it on but easily forges a masters degree in psychology to land a job as the director of his churches teen crisis center. Steve is fundamentally unsettling but the character is portrayed with a sort of pitiful slovenly loserishness that comes across mildly comedic. The guy is literally beer swilling trailer trash and can’t hold down a job or pay his rent but functions as the church's highly respected Sunday school teacher. This dichotomy captures the irony of horror films for me; Steve does unpleasant things, but otherwise the guy is a bumbling laughable idiot. Even the direction and script treat the subject as a sinister joke, and while I’m not compelled to sympathize, I can’t help but chuckle, and I can appreciate it because of it's hyperbole.

Murderlust is a movie that I bought for the same reason I became obsessed with VHS tapes in the first place: I saw the cover art and had to have it. The artist responsible is Roger Loveless who went on to do young adult mystery book covers and Dungeons and Dragons artwork (right) before turning to religion and “inspirational” artwork as it is called on his website. I can’t find any other movie related art to his credit, and needless to say, the Murderlust cover is not featured on his website. Although disturbing, like the movie itself the cover is rendered too intentionally, in a way that lends it a surreal, posed quality that pretty much makes my point all over again.

19 December 2009

Guerrillero Del Norte

Mexico - 1983
Director - Francisco Guerrero

 It seems a bit crass to lable this a Western since traditionally that is a genre particular to the U.S. cultural experience. But I'm doing it anyway because of the theme, and because I've included the country of origin. There are lots of Mexican films that are not "westerns" in the gringo sense.

17 December 2009

From Hell to Victory

Italy – 1979
Director – Umberto Lenzi (as Hank Milestone)
United American Video Corporation, 1990, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 42 minutes

In history classrooms and textbooks around the world, you’ll likely find a standard narrative regarding the Second World War. Typically the stories would have you believe that there was a concerted effort by a few evil imperialists to take over the world. Against these were arrayed a fragile alliance of freedom loving peoples who, with a great deal of cautious strategy and careful planning bought a narrow victory for the cause of freedom. A very grandiose and inspiring tale to be sure, but sadly inaccurate.

Through Umberto Lenzi the true saga of World War Two can at last be told. But his is not the standard tale of triumph snatched from the jaws of global fascist conspiracy. Lenzi employs a unique documentary style, utilizing randomly selected archival footage to lend his picture a blurry realism, and jumping deftly between his own dramatized material and footage never before seen outside the context of its original movie. Rather, he loosely describes a series of boring and unconnected local skirmishes which might have coincidentally happened around the same time. Eisenhower, Stalin and Hitler were only shuffling about with little direction, but Lenzi admirably captures that confusing mess and transfers it to the screen with such accuracy it astounds.

"Where's that angry fellow with the mohawk?"           "Vietnam isn't over until 1983 sir."

The loose group of friends around which the narrative quickly skirts, is caught up in the totally unexpected arrival of war in 1939 Paris. All are cast into diverse and dubious roles; French Partisan, Wermacht Panzer Colonel, Elderly American Paratrooper, and each is given an enigmatic and ambiguous motivation, their intense personal struggles revealed through vague dialogue and inspiringly minimal use of continuity. Unbelievably, though each is fighting for a separate cause the friends come face to face in the final climactic battle as if scripted in some low budget melodrama and not by cruel ironic accident of history. It is only through such carefully crafted efforts as Lenzi’s that we can truly come to terms with the pointless chaos of war.

By definition the job description “director” suggests giving a point or a purpose or goal to some series of events or behaviors. Direction implies some kind of plan under the authority of a leader. Much like a general issuing orders to his army; “Move there, attack that ridge and capture and hold the summit there.” It makes for interesting college courses, for it makes history sound like it happened in a sort of linear narrative progression type of thing. But at last, thanks to our beloved Umberto, it has become clear that what sounds good for the headlines and history majors, is really just fluff, propaganda, an elaborate delusion to make us feel like we’re actually taking part in some sort of shared temporal experience. Lenzi’s most lofty triumph in From Hell to Victory is to give the lie to that self-important ivory tower conspiracy called history.

A nice French poster from Moviegoods.

16 December 2009

Prison Girls

United States - 1972
Director -Tom DeSimone

You gotta give props to the artist for the point-of-view artwork that plays on both the 3-D-ness of the film and the potential viewers desire to be dominated by hungry women!

14 December 2009

Dawn of the Dead Rednecks

Dawn of the Dead
United States – 1978
Director George Romero

Experiencing the original Dawn of the Dead to the fullest requires something more than a love of zombie cinema, it requires an intimate and profound understanding of American culture and the subtle and often overlooked social commentary of George Romero’s anti consumerist narrative. Part of this is exemplified in the main protagonists of the film; Peter, Fran, Roger and Stephen whom, devoid of any real character exposition hypothetically represent different cultural archetypes. But to cloister oneself in the confines of Romero’s narrative, like his protagonists in their cathedral of consumption, is to commit the same error Romero himself criticizes; the failure to question the nature of truth. Denial, especially within the post-modern meta-academic delusion is still not any kind of solution. To really experience Dawn of the Dead you need to look outside of the mall, through the keyholes at the outside world. To really experience Dawn of the Dead, you need Iron City Beer.

And this was just my goal when I invited some of my closest friends over for a night of flannel shirts, work boots and Pittsburgh’s finest lager, and most importantly a viewing of George Romero’s 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead. The first time I saw Dawn was both prophetic and comedic for the same reason, and probably only to me. Nevertheless by that time I had tasted my first beer, and loved it, and by my third viewing had become intrigued by the scene in which the protagonists fled the city in Stephen’s stolen rotary-wing aircraft. As they pass over the pastoral farming landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania Stephen mutters, “Those rednecks are probably enjoying the whole thing.” (00:19:15)

Subsequent shots of the rednecks in question showed that his assessment was more than likely correct. But they weren’t just having fun, they were drinking Iron City Beer and having fun. Somehow in a bizarre twist of meta-perception, these guys really were enjoying the Dawn of the Dead. Unlike our protagonists who, by the time I had worked all this out mentally were already moping around in their mall. They were enjoying it the way I wanted to enjoy it; in participatory fashion.

Unfortunately when Iron City Beer first blipped on my hazy teenage radar in Dawn, it was for all intents and purposes a relic of a bygone era. Nevertheless it stuck in a corner of my brain and stayed there. And a good thing too, since ten years later working-class ironic-cool managed to drag Iron City out to the west coast in the wake of its better known “award’ winning competitor. My plan upon seeing it on retail shelves in my neighborhood was to really experience Dawn of the Dead along with my closest friends. For this event we would need the obvious stockpile; a gaggle or three of Iron City mortar-round bottles. Thusly provisioned by the local grocery mart, we safely ensconced ourselves in the house and settled in for an evening of watery lager and overt cinematic metaphors.

As elected representative of those present, I can safely declare the event a success. As it turned out, Iron City Beer had absolutely nothing to contribute to the experience unless you count innumerable bathroom visits and a shitty, shitty hangover. Based on personal experience I’ll wager that by the time the next Day of the Dead rolled around those rednecks were in pain. Fortunately for Romero and Dawn, the film remains awesome and its subtle cultural criticisms as timely as ever. It’s one of those few from its time that can be watched again and again given enough lapse time, and still reveal a new experience. Clearly those rednecks had one thing right though, to experience Dawn of the Dead you need good company.

Thanks to Phill, Amanda, Anna and Regis for sitting through this one with me.

And for the sake of box art, this is the first legitimate copy of the film I got, a double VHS from Anchor Bay. They subsequently suckered be into buying two different versions on DVD one of which, the Divimax version, we watched for this event. Below is the interior "gatefold" art from the above VHS version.

After exactly two years I'm pleased to announce that this is the 200th post on LVA. At roughly 8 posts a month what we lack in quantity we make up for in quality. You keep readin' 'em and we'll keep makin' 'em that way.

12 December 2009

The Brain Eaters

The Brain Eaters
United States - 1958
Director - Bruno VeSota

A personal favorite poster image.
Makes the people look like they're eating each other's brains when in fact the monsters are just tiny rubber things. Producer Roger Corman was sued for plagiarism by author Robert Heinlein when the film came out. I have been unable to find any information about an artist for the poster art. Considering the time it came out that is no big surprise, but if you have any ideas. please let me know, this is good stuff.
I had a roommate who asked me to move this poster from the wall because it creeped her out whenever she passed it.

07 December 2009

Ellen Burstyn

While dawdling over an Umberto Lenzi war flick at IMDB last night I noticed in their Born Today section that Pearl Harbor Day is also the birthday of actress Ellen Burstyn, not only a talented but also beautiful actress who's been in a number of great genre films. She strikes me as one of those actresses/actors who you never realize how good they are until you take the time to do a little research and find out that they were crucial to some of your favorite films.

I'm not a particularly big fan of occult or religious horror, but I do like The Exorcist (1973). You'd have to try pretty damn hard not to. Ellen plays Regan's mother Chris with an alarmingly natural mix of hysteria and calm, some of which came from a spinal injury she received on set and which remained in the film. Along with star Linda Blair, Ellen very nearly wasn't in this film at all. The Exorcist may be her best known genre film, but she has another 119 titles to her credit at IMDB.
Also check out the Exorcist Soundtrack at Illogical Contraption.

Just a couple of years earlier Ellen had a supporting role (one of her first outside TV) in the low budget car crashing exploitation flick Pit Stop (1969). This is one of the only racing movies I like, but that's not surprising, it's old and it was directed by Jack Hill, a protege of Roger Corman who basically wrote and/or directed an unending string of classic exploitation films like Spider Baby, Switchblade Sisters and Coffy to name just a few. It also stars exploitation powerhouse Sid Haig who some may know better or more recently as Captain Spaulding.

And finally, this is the movie that put the name to the face of Ellen Burstyn for me, Darren Aronofsky's 2000 masterpiece of drug horror Requiem For A Dream. I think it's safe to say that it changed everyone's perception of just about every actor who was in it, Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans (especially), Jennifer Connely, Keith David etc.... I know I feel more than a little bit soiled after every time I watch it. Ellen Burstyn plays Leto's lonely older mother, a woman hounded by memories of a sad and unfulfilling life. Her portrayal of a diet-pill addict earned her an Oscar nomination (her 6th), but she also won numerous awards for her awesome portrayal of Sarah Goldfarb.
I shudder just thinking about it as I write this, and agree with my own mother's assessment of this film; "They should get rid of the DARE Program and just show this movie to schoolkids."

There ya go, if ya haven't seen 'em do it if for no other reason than to see Ellen at work or to get your gross on. Since I've only seen a couple of her other roles I'll get to work seeing some of those.

Deadly Friend

United States – 1986
Director – Wes Craven
Warner Home Video, 1987, VHS
Run Time – 1 hour, 31 minutes

Deadly Friend is a fun movie, one of those time wasters that I don’t regret having seen even though I can’t really think of a reason to watch it again. It came just after that period in the 80’s when exploitation/horror was huge, and successful movies that had small budget ideas were given the full treatment. It seems like the innovators in cinema at the time, the underground, indie directors and writers had suddenly been “discovered” by Hollywood and didn’t know what to do with all the money that suddenly fell in their lap.

Deadly Friend is a reminder that a lot of the hype was hyperbolic and most indie film artists are just like the rest of us; partly mediocre with a chance of brilliance. Wes Craven is a case in point, he has never been a great director. But he has occasionally made some damn good films, but all the stuff in between is pretty lame. His luck is in his timing. Last House On The Left and Nightmare on Elm Street were really good, but part of their appeal was in their moment. Since then the guy has pretty much coasted (as most of 'em do) on a couple of opportune hits.

Deadly Friend is fundamentally overwrought and nonsensical, pushed just over the edge into hyperbole. Everything looks a little artificial, from the soundstage sets to the character tropes to the very plot which revels in its abandonment of logic. It comes across like an episode of Small Wonder gone bad, (or good depending whether you like exploding heads or not, and I personally do.)

The robot/zombie Sam performs the saving grace of Deadly Friend in a clip uploaded by AdolAss.

But basically it’s a cheap riff on Frankenstein with the ohh-ahh effect of Radio-Shack electronics thrown into a robot that seems to be mocking people with Down’s Syndrome. And then there’s the hot neighbor girl Samantha (Kristie Swanson) who the protagonist must use his inexplicable skill to resurrect into a robot/zombie reminiscent of the previous year's Re-Animator. Sounds like a thousand movies I’ve seen before, all from the same period in history. But damned if I can’t help but love ‘em for all their crude features, and I guess, well, I might have to watch Deadly Friend again.

UK video sleeve from some French porn blog.

This UK video sleeve from Itsonlyamovie.co.uk.

03 December 2009

Code of Silence

United States - 1985
Director – Andrew Davis
Good Times Video, 1993, VHS
Run time – 1 hour, 41 minutes

Made in the same year as Joseph Zito’s epic Invasion USA, Code of Silence is as completely different from that as two Chuck Norris movies can be. Nevertheless it starts off well, Chuck is in his element here, the role isn't too demanding, all the supporting characters and plot are just entertaining enough to keep us from noticing Norris' sundry flaws.
Norris plays Eddie Cusack, a Chicago Police Sergeant known throughout the precinct as "Stainless Steel" for his fanatical adherence to procedure. During the opening scene sting against the Columbian mafia, the Italian mafia busts in and shoots everybody wrecks the whole thing before Eddie and pals can close in.

The Columbians are not pleased to say the least, and Eddie’s interference raises the personal ire of their boss Henry Silva who joins the pantheon of Norris’ anti-heroes.
“Someday I would like to give you a gift of a Columbian Necktie, it's very special. You slit the throat, and pull out the tongue, and on you it would
look beautiful.”

Chuck actually has a pretty good comeback for that one though;

“Why don’t you give it to me right now?”

Returning to the station, Eddie watches a demonstration of a newfangled remote controlled police robot crimefighter unit called the Prowler, a primitive 2 year predecessor to Robocop’s mecha crime-fighting robot equipped with an assortment of completely impractical weapons. Cue joke about Eddie being unorthodox and dumb but effective, and robots being the future. However, with one simple demonstration and stony unflinching grimace, Eddie reclaims the throne of emotionless robot king, relegating the rickety Prowler to a humorous final scene re-appearance.

Eddie’s despicable do-gooder cowboy attitude even pisses off all the other cops when he demands the removal of a corrupt old cop named Craigie. But betwixt all the office pranks and hazing ol’ Stainless Steel still finds time to simultaneously take down both the Columbians and Italians, with only the Prowler to back him up. In retrospect the entire film was basically a greased chute from prologue to finale. With the supporting cast sidelined into ineffective do-nothing roles, Chuck just slips unobstructed from one end to the other with his fists and feets plowing the way.

What I can’t get is the sudden change of heart everyone has. You’ve spent at least half of the movie building this bitter dichotomy between crooked burned out Craigie, and the 100% fraternal support he gets from the precinct, and Eddie’s solitary voice of dissent. Even the weasely partner punks out in the end, and then just because Eddie shoots his way through two mafias, and rescues a not-so-good looking girl (Molly Hagen) everybody thinks he’s the golden boy again? I don’t care how many shots of cops cracking sheepish smiles and shaking their heads in amazed admiration you show, I’m not convinced. I refuse to believe it.