Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Jon Abrams ""

Monday, February 25, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Jon Abrams

Jon Abrams is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac who has written for television, comics, and various internet venues, most often these days on Daily Grindhouse. The rest of his work and credits can be found at his personal website, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter, as @jonnyabomb.

Sergio Sollima is only the third most famous of all the Sergios who made Westerns in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s. He is maybe best known for his terrific crime films (including REVOLVER and VIOLENT CITY – see those pronto, by the way). Sollima only made three Westerns, but they are more than enough to place him amongst the ranks of Leone and Corbucci.

In THE BIG GUNDOWN and its sort-of-sequel RUN, MAN, RUN!, Cuban-born Tomás Milián plays the crafty, unruly bandit Cuchillo. In THE BIG GUNDOWN, Cuchillo spends the first several scenes entirely unseen, only discussed. He’s wanted for the rape and murder of a young girl, and it’s his bad luck that the lethal Jonathan Corbett is the mercenary hired to find and destroy him. Now I happened to have seen RUN, MAN, RUN! first, so I knew going in that Cuchillo may not be guilty of these crimes, but for most of THE BIG GUNDOWN, you assume he’s the bad guy, and that makes things complicated, because he’s so comical, funny and annoyingly likable.

THE BIG GUNDOWN is built around its marquee star, Lee Van Cleef, best known for his role as “Angel-Eyes” (THE BAD) in Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY. This movie was made soon after that one. Van Cleef, as Jonathan Corbett, is playing a more heroic character here – but again, we can’t quite tell for sure. Corbett can be pretty nasty, as seen in the introductory scene where he calmly toys with three wanted men he’s got cornered – we just figure he’s better than the man he’s tracking. Once Corbett sets out on Cuchillo’s trail, the movie becomes the same kind of Tom & Jerry cat-and-mouse game Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach played out in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – only even more satirical and way more sociopolitically engaged.

There is currently a version of THE BIG GUNDOWN up on YouTube, but the complete Italian cut of the film is what you want to see, and on the biggest screen possible, which is what I got to do in 2012 thanks to the “spaghetti” Western series at Film Forum. It’s one of the most straight-up entertaining movies I’ve ever seen. Ever! No exaggeration. Instantly one of my favorite movies of all time.

RAW MEAT (1973)
Before 2012, I had no idea this movie existed. I knew of director Gary Sherman’s lesser-known cult classicDEAD & BURIED, but I’d never even heard mention of RAW MEAT (known as DEATH LINE in the UK). It’s an important film in the cinematic lineage of carnivorous underground maniacs, which is one of those subgenres you don’t realize has a long history until you start digging. (Pun probably intended.) Also, if all you know of Donald Pleasance is the sad British guy from THE GREAT ESCAPE or HALLOWEEN, or even as a bad bald guy from the James Bond series,he will be a coarse, hilarious revelation here.

You can read more of my take on RAW MEAT over at Daily Grindhouse.

This is a tremendously enjoyable Shaw Brothers buddy-comedy horror kung-fu epic which centers around the pursuit of a magical artifact called the Peacock Dart. By the way, I am convinced “Peacock Dart” is a euphemism. I mean, if you want to see a Peacock Dart I can probably oblige you. But the Peacock Dart is beside the point anyway – this entire film is a delivery device for inventive costuming, absorbing set design, and delirious feats of kung fu madness and mayhem.

There’s so much to talk about when it comes to the wild characters who populate THE MAGIC BLADE, but I was particularly enamored by Devil Grandma – or Devil’s Granny as IMDb names her. Devil Grandma, she of the deranged cackle and the unenviable dentistry. Devil Grandma, who commands the Thunder Bullets and wields entire human beings like weapons. Devil Grandma, who I kind of wish had her own movie. I don’t even know if I’m describing this properly, by the way – watching this movie was like a car accident in which I was personally involved. It happened in a blur and I feel woozy and disoriented, yet happy to be alive.

I knew of this movie, both by its unforgettable title and poster and by its hushed reputation amongst horror connoisseurs. Most of those guys can never look at a trumpet the same way again. TCM Underground aired THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN recently, and Shout Factory has a Blu-Ray release on the way. A remake has been rumored, but that sounds to me to be a particularly unnecessary exercise.

What makes this movie so special is the uniquely 1970s feel, somewhere between a dated but oddly charming school documentary and a spooky, freaky proto-slasher. As I wrote about in more detail here, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN falls precisely between THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) and HALLOWEEN (1978) chronologically, and in fact it feels exactly like the missing link between both. That means it’s a little more than just a fun and eerie midnight movie – it’s also culturally significant.

Here’s another movie I had no idea even existed before this year. I’m glad I know about it, but I’m not sure it needs to be here. Honestly, I kind of hated it. TANYA’S ISLANDis not any good, and it may even be a racist allegory. I can’t quite tell. It’s French, so that kind of ambiguity happens. But love it or hate it, I needed to know that this movie exists. If a movie is out there somewhere starring Vanity and a temperamental gorilla stranded on a desert island, I’d need to see it.

Vanity is my personal favorite Prince protégée, because she’s the craziest and because she’s the only one who was in BERRY GORDY’S THE LAST DRAGON, NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE, 52 PICK-UP, and ACTION JACKSON. This was made before all that. She wasn’t even Vanity then. The credits list her as “D.D. Winters” (the same billing she took in 1980’s TERROR TRAIN). I’m positive that she’s not happy that people are still talking about this thing. I’m sorry. How can I not though? This is a movie about a love triangle between Vanity, a heavily-bearded male character named Lobo, and a gorilla named Blue. And the gorilla steals the woman away from the guy. And sexual congress is involved.

It’s friggin’ weird. The director made pornos before this. It shows. Maybe by the lax standards of porno directing, he could have been an auteur. However, some other crew members went on to more important things – cinematographer Mark Irwin shot most of David Cronenberg’s 1980s movies (and 2005’s THE RINGER, which I worked on!), and the gorilla suit was made by Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. All of which makes TANYA’S ISLAND a notable asterisk. A weird, perverted, possibly racist asterisk.

Here’s a list of movies to contemplate: KRAMER VS. KRAMER. IN THE BEDROOM. THE HOURS. FAR FROM HEAVEN. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. A SEPARATION. BLUE VALENTINE. And POSSESSION. All of these films are linked by a common theme: marital decay and the dissolution of domestic relationships. Only one of them, however, features a gigantic hideous tentacle monster. Would you like to guess which one I’ve seen?

POSSESSION is a ferocious, incredibly disturbing movie from filmmaker Andrzej Żuławski, featuring awesome, raw, incredible performances from Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill. There is no other movie like it. I’ve never been married so I can’t relate to some of the feelings encapsulated in the film, but then again I’ve never had my wife stolen away by a gigantic hideous tentacle monster either, so I can only watch from a distance, mouth agape in horror and awe.

The geniuses – yes, geniuses – at Cinefamily brought this insane lost classic to my attention in 2012 and I wrote a little more about it here.

Sometimes you can arrive at a filmography in the wrong order. When I wrote about LINK, I callously disregarded the work of Richard Franklin, because I didn’t know any better. LINK is a fun movie but hardly a great one, so I didn’t give the director much thought. I was an ignorant buffoon. Luckily, I was set straight by the irreplaceable Vern, who suggested I check out Richard Franklin’s earlier movies. Again in 2012, it was thanks to TCM Underground that I finally got that job done. ROAD GAMES is terrifically wicked fun. Franklin was a Hitchcock devotee, and ROAD GAMES is one of the all-time great Hitchcock homages. It’s like Steven Spielberg’s DUEL (Spielberg was also an acolyte of Hitchcock) cut with equal parts REAR WINDOW, PSYCHO, and NORTH BY NORTHWEST. It’s odd, funny, and spooky, the kind of movie you always hope to encounter late at night.

I wrote at greater length about ROAD GAMES here.





I have known for a long time that this movie existed, but for whatever reason I didn’t get around to it until this October, as part of my month-long horror-movie odyssey. More than maybe any other movie I saw in 2012, PHENOMENA was a revelation. Every time I try to describe the movie to a regular human person, they decide that I am making it up, and also that I am insane. Let me try recapping it and you can decide for yourself:

A teenage girl (Jennifer Connelly) who has the ability to commune with insects arrives at a Swiss boarding school, where a diminutive murderer has been killing girls at night. Jennifer teams up with a local bug expert (Donald Pleasence of course), his chimpanzee lab assistant, and a flesh fly in a box, in order to solve the murders.

Take a moment if you need to.

Let me also add that for much of the movie, you can’t be sure that the chimpanzee isn’t the murderer. You know what that means? It’s not just a vicious horror movie. It’s not just a demented fairy tale. It’s also a Hitchcockian wrong-man thriller starring an ape! It’s everything all at once, and it blew my goddamn mind. Great score and soundtrack too – courtesy of Goblin and many of the biggest names in ‘70s & ‘80s heavy metal. I may have seen PHENOMENA for the first (and second and third) time only recently, but it already feels like a movie I have known and loved forever.

BODY SLAM (1987)
I had definitely seen BODY SLAM before 2012 – it was one of those movies that I spent time with as a kid when it ran on HBO – but this year I watched it in a theater with Hal Needham himself. (I wrote a little more about that experience here.) Hal Needham is a legend – most famous for SMOKEY & THE BANDIT and THE CANNONBALL RUN, and for being one of the all-time great stuntmen in Hollywood history. This was the last theatrical feature he directed before moving into television and semi-retirement.

BODY SLAM isn’t much more than what it sounds like: The A-Team’s Dirk Benedict plays a sleazy promoter who moves into wrestling out of desperation and takes on THEY LIVE’s Rowdy Roddy Piper (nicely underplaying) as a client. In fact it’s maybe a little less than what you might want it to be. It’s slack on energy in some places and there is some dubious race-based humor in others. But it’s also a Hal Needham flick, which means it’s overall a boisterous, lusty, ingratiating comedy with a palpable enthusiasm for showmanship. It was a treat to rediscover it.

Bill Lustig makes low-budget genre pictures that in my opinion deserve even better than the beloved cult status they currently enjoy. He’s a B-movie auteur, not quite at the level of a Sam Fuller but not too far removed either. Just look at some of Lustig’s better-known films: MANIAC is a skin-crawling voyage into a nocturnal netherworld of violence and perversion. VIGILANTE is a prickly screed brimming with emphatic arguments concerning vengeance and justice. MANIAC COP is a weird, eerie, occasionally dreamy whodunit with a wild spin on the slasher film.

RELENTLESS gives you a little bit of all three in the same movie. It’s a two-hander, equal parts the story of the Judd Nelson character, an LAPD-reject-turned-serial-killer, and the story of the Leo Rossi character, a recently-promoted homicide detective pushed to the wall by this particular case. Both actors are solid in their roles, particularly Nelson, spookily playing against type as a wide-eyed psychopathic murderer with a genuinely disturbing backstory.

Still, neither lead actor feels exactly perfectly-cast. Leo Rossi fires off some great wisecracks with enthusiasm – he resembles a smirkier version of Robert Z’Dar (star of Lustig’s MANIAC COP). Yet when things get serious, he doesn’t quite adjust smoothly to the tone change. And while Judd Nelson convinces as a cruel and unhinged killer, he still can’t help but register as the petulant delinquent from the teen roles he’d only recently been playing. He’s not as threatening as he maybe should be. He’s no Joe Spinell, but to be fair, no one is.

The greatest pleasure of RELENTLESS is of course legendary character actor Robert Loggia, in his gravel-gargling prime, careening around the movie like a wrecking ball forged from spite and belligerent charisma. Robert Loggia may actually be one of the most underrated presences in movies. No one else makes toughness nearly as ingratiating. He makes RELENTLESS snap to attention when he’s onscreen, and makes the movie suffer when he isn’t. Lustig and screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson (who made FIELD OF DREAMS the same year!) provide Loggia with plenty of combustible dialogue to blow up. If you’re half the connoisseur of Robert Loggia character turns that I am, this movie is primo vintage, and if somehow you aren’t a fan yet, you’ll be one when it’s through.

Richard Stanley is a drastically-underrated director and Sergio Leone enthusiast from South Africa whose work is ripe for rediscovery. I’d seen his 1992 film DUST DEVIL before, but not his debut feature, HARDWARE, which I happened to finally get around to during the same weekend I saw the new DREDD movie.

From where I’m sitting, there aren’t many movies as true to the post-punk 2000 AD aesthetic as these two movies, although my friends in the UK will definitely have more trustworthy opinions on the matter. HARDWARE is based on a short strip from 2000 AD, the same series from whence Judge Dredd arrived. It actually is derived from a Judge Dredd storyline!

This is the basic pitch: A trenchcoat-rocking soldier named Moses (Dylan McDermott) purchases the wreckage of a robot found in a post-apocalyptic desert, and brings it back to his sculptor/artist girlfriend Jill (Stacy Travis). While Mo is out, the robot activates and attempts to murder Jill in her apartment. It may visually call to mind the Terminator of 1984, but this guy’s got some even nastier tricks. The deceptively-cheap movie (it’s stylish and relentless and looks like plenty more than a million bucks) is almost entirely about this battle, although it makes time for awesomely bizarre and/or disturbing performances by John Lynch (BLACK DEATH), Mark Northover (WILLOW!), and most unshakably, William Hootkins (STAR WARS, BATMAN, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) as maybe the grossest movie pervert ever. Iggy Pop and Lemmy also briefly contribute their talents, but it all comes down to Jill and her fight to stay alive under attack by that freaky, ferocious robot. It plays out, under Stanley’s direction, as an intensely tangible experience, despite springing out of a totally bonkers sci-fi set-up.

HARDWARE is available for purchase from Severin Films.

The only reason I didn’t see TRESPASS before 2012 was because I was sure I had seen it before. I hate to think it’s because I’d confused it in my mind with the similar, but not nearly as entertaining, JUDGMENT NIGHT. (To be fair, they do both have incredible soundtracks.) Hopefully it’s because I’ve already seen all of Walter Hill’s greatest hits. This – comparatively speaking from a man who made HARD TIMES, THE DRIVER, 48 HRS., SOUTHERN COMFORT, and THE WARRIORS – is one of the B-sides, but sometimes the greatest pleasures can be found buried among the B-sides of a favorite artist.

Hill is a genre giant who can wring blood from a stone when it comes to simple high-concepts. Here Bill Paxton and Bill Sadler play firemen who get wind of a fortune hidden in an abandoned tenement and go in looking for it, but once there, they witness a murder and spend the rest of the movie being pursued by the gang responsible. Even though this movie is set in Illinois, the gang is led by West Coast heavyweights Ice-T and Ice Cube. From a script from Bob and Bob (Gale and Zemeckis), it’s Bill and Bill versus Ice and Ice, and it’s pretty much breakneck-paced from the jump. Turns out – no surprise – Hill can do plenty with a confined setting and a bunch of growling faces. TRESPASS is quick and crafty and down and dirty. It’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE retrofitted for the golden age of hip-hop, and it’s super-worth seeing if you haven’t already.

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