Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '86 - Sean Whiteman ""

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Underrated '86 - Sean Whiteman

Sean Whiteman is a writer and filmmaker living in Portland. In February of this year, along with his brother Christof, he wrote/shot/edited and uploaded a comedic short every day as part of their Leap Year project (after doing the same exercise in 2008 and 2012).

They aren’t as painful as you might imagine and can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLfb2yI3qwZ_NDwgs3I-ARpxBe5fla6Ij3

To see more of Sean’s writing and films explore https://www.whitemanbrothers.com
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Sorority House Massacre (Dir: Carol Frank)
It was immensely satisfying being able to walk away respecting a movie that bears a name like Sorority House Massacre. It’s titles like these, the more garishly evocative ones, that those who despise the genre use as fuel in their attacks against it. Titles like these make you imagine the worst of the worst. They are easy prey for mockery.

I had felt similar skepticism going into Slumber Party Massacre a few years ago, because of that film’s title, and my skepticism ended up being completely unwarranted. This film’s director, Carol Frank, actually worked as an assistant director on Slumber Party Massacre before making her directorial debut with this (also penning the script) so she is familiar with the subtleties of a good massacre. I think I ended up respecting both of these films so much more than I anticipated because they clearly respected themselves.

A good way to tell if a horror movie is really clicking is if you legitimately don’t want any of the characters to die (even if the arguable purpose of this sub-genre of slasher movie is specifically to watch characters die). This was the case with our sympathetic leading ladies.

The handful of sorority sisters who anchored the plot, and the handful of men they kept around as dates, all showed respect for one another and, by the end, each had developed their own unique personality – even Jeff, the boyfriend of one of the sisters, who decides to go off rafting with his friends, vanishing from the film entirely in the process, instead of hanging out with the gals for the night. Jeff expresses his desire to go rafting honestly and openly with his gal (helping proving he belongs in a healthy relationship) and, as a reward, he is spared from participating in the massacre.

The characters were also given the blessed gift of intelligence. This attribute is a rare commodity, scarcely found in the behavioral patterns of many of the leads who go toe-to-toe with menacing figures in these types of films. It was fulfilling to see characters make smart decisions when faced with terrifying choices. If the psycho villain was dangling from a window, the sisters had the smarts to at least bang on the madman’s fingers.

And what a strange, perfectly bland, perfectly terrifying, villain Sorority House Massacre featured. This was the villain of my youth – the most scary thing I could muster to frighten myself before going to sleep as a kid. I wasn’t nearly as scared of a monster that might be living in my closet, what scared me the most was this breed of killer: a white guy with a mean face and a hunting knife. He doesn’t hide behind corners and vanish out of your peripheral vision just as you turn, instead he jogs toward you, stabs you quick in the gut and keeps his heart rate up by continuing his jog toward the next kill. There’s an urgency that insults the hesitation of cat-and-mouse style killers.

This type of insatiable murder momentum is very scary to me. Probably because it seems more believable than the methodical, taunting, method. I know that in real life white guys with mean faces often kill people, and they probably use hunting knifes with a sense of urgency at least every now and then.

There’s a great moment about a third of the way in that encapsulates the joy of this movie. It gives you what you expect from an 80’s movie taking place in a sorority house: a montage featuring ample nudity and wardrobe changes. What elevates the sequence above crassness is the lived-in banter and believable conversations that surround the montage. 

Everything zipped along and things wrapped-up in breezy 74 minutes (generous in its restraint).

Quicksilver (Dir: Thomas Michael Donnelly)
Between this and Rad there were two films in 1986 which featured extended bicycle dance sequences. I believe this makes it a high-water mark year for the sub-genre.

In Quicksilver, as a disgraced Wall Street guy turned bike messenger, Kevin Bacon gets a chance to display his versatility as he navigates the smarm and charisma of both worlds.

Written and directed by Thomas Michael Donnelly (love seeing a written and directed by credit), the pacing, camera work and script all feel like they shared a unified vision. The script in particular was able to indulge in the levity of something like a bicycle dance scene while also being capable of probing into issues of privilege relating to class and race. In fact, Bacon’s inherent white-guy privilege gets beautifully called-out by Jami Gertz’ character at one point.

Paul Rodriguez, as a fellow bicycle messenger, who tries to get a loan in order to start a hot dog stand, was the beating heart of the movie. His struggles with the iron fiscal-fist of bank policy offer a great counterpoint to the sea of money Bacon’s character is capable of swimming in.

It’s because of Gertz’ chastisement that Bacon finally uses his station, and knowledge of the market, to help Rodriguez. It’s not a revelatory turn of plot (and you can prolly see it coming) but Quicksilver has a series of effective minor arcs like this that make you respect the narrative’s causality.

There’s a whole action subplot which is dealt with in a similarly patient and attentive way, with the principal crew of cyclists rallying their talents to protect the herd from an unseemly element. The bicycle sequences are beautifully photographed and they help embed the viewer into the more thrilling scenes without sacrificing knowledge of the stakes at play within the frame.

I saw this once when I was young and didn’t revisit until much more recently. I guess as a small child in the 80’s you end up gravitating toward Rad a lot more than Quicksilver. It’s only after you grow up a little and see the harsh realities of life that are you are truly ready for the more restrained -- adult -- bike-dancing film of 1986.

Rawhead Rex (Dir: George Pavlou)
I don’t have any profound insight as to why I believe Rawhead Rex to be underrated. It’s easy to joke and say the title alone would be enough but that sort of argument doesn’t hold up ten minutes into a clunker.

It’s scarcity also contributes to the film’s underrated mystique -- thankfully Movie Madness (one of the last great video stores) had a rare copy of the VHS.

I suppose I’ll always consider a monster movie underrated as long as it chooses to respect its mythology as much as this one does. The particular lore surrounding our lead monster, written into existence by Clive Barker, involves an old Pagan god being reborn and wreaking havoc on the gentle Irish Christians who have lived like no one ever existed before Jesus.

“Your pathetic little shepherd has no hold on him!” This line, underscoring the futility of praying to Christ when you’ve got a Rawhead at your door, is the sort of smirk-inducer that can allow a horror movie like this to feel like a warm blanket (there’s also a baptism-by-urine moment that will turn the smirk into a full-on chuckle).

The budget felt like it might’ve been rather paltry but they allocated the funds well. For instance, they sprung for a full body-suit for Rawhead. This allowed the monster to be mobile so it doesn’t have to spend the majority of the running time lingering in the shadows to hide the lack of budget. Unfortunately this means his face isn’t too expressive, so you get used to the few expressions he can muster pretty early on, but it’s a fair tradeoff for the mobility -- Rawhead running full steam ahead at the camera gave me a primal tickle of terror.

Apparently, Barker wasn’t too happy with the it turned out. The changes they made to his script and the overall flow/look/intensity didn’t match what he had in his head. Apparently his lack of involvement in the production made him strain to have a more active role with his next project (Hellraiser). I could understand how it might not match what he had imagined (and the direction doesn’t necessarily propel the film from scene to scene in a very dynamic fashion) but the film as a whole works its charms on me anyway.

A limp finish can taint a solid piece of film and, thankfully, Rawhead Rex ends in a swirl of magical mayhem. The production team used enough of the fake-lightning special effect -- think of the “quickening” work from the Highlander finale for reference -- to give us the bombastic closure the myth deserved.

Jumpin’ Jack Flash (Dir: Penny Marshall)
Jumpin’ Jack Flash is more than the sum of Whoopi Goldberg’s quips. Though she has plenty of good zingers, and her brash attitude is a joy to behold throughout, it’s her warmth that anchors the tricky blend of rom-com flirtations and espionage-driven action sequences. Much credit to Penny Marshall, in her first feature directorial effort, for maintaining an emotional through-line strong enough to sustain the sometimes-flimsy plotting.

Considering how unfortunately/regrettably/embarrassingly-rare leading roles are for people of color in the current version of the Hollywood hellscape, it’s hard to imagine how refreshing it must’ve been thirty years ago to see a female-directed mainstream action-comedy starring an African-American woman.

Certain personalities, like Whoopi’s, are so undeniable that even Hollywood’s historic legacy of racism can’t put up a fight against the raw talent on display (see Eddie Murphy’s complete and total fuck-you-I’m-great-and-you-know-it domination during the same period).

Whoopi spends a good portion of the film typing alone on a computer and her performance in making these scenes compelling deserve special attention. It’s a very tricky feat for an actor to pull off the unnatural act of reading aloud to everything you type. Filmmakers have characters do this so audience members don’t have to read too much but it often disturbs the realism in a way that evokes the kind of chuckles you don’t necessarily aim for. But Whoopi nails the casual intrigue of her tech-narrative through her force of personality.

The image of her alone, with a keyboard in her lap, feet up, spending her late-night hours flirting in a chatroom, laughing and talking to herself, should feel very familiar to those of us raised on the internet.

One last bit of praise should be reserved for the “office crew.” At the place where Whoopi is employed her co-workers are played by Carol Kane, Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman (if those names don’t seal the deal, this one might not be for you).

Deadly Friend (Dir: Wes Craven)
I could spend most of this post writing about the strange production history of Deadly Friend. Wes Craven started out with the intent to make a PG rated movie but ended up having to feature exploding heads in order to satiate the bloodlust of the studio (and his own fans).

I could spend even more time talking about how conflicted I am that, while the studio forced him to make these concessions to gore, and I don’t like filmmakers being shoved around by studio idiots, I’m kind of grateful he was.

But I don’t want to talk about the blood. I’d like to talk about the friendship. The group of four friends at the heart of Deadly Friend connect so well because they’re probably just like you and your gang of friends -- there’s the brain, the paperboy, the undead girl and the robot.

The villains are the figures of authority who are out to spoil our quartet’s good time -- the type of assholes who make life harder than it has to be. There’s the old lady who won’t return the gang’s basketball after it goes over her fence (playing the shotgun-wielding crank is the sublime Anne Ramsey).

Then there’s the abusive father who psychotically controls his daughter’s life. He is often found verbally accosting his daughter when he finds her engaging in even the most innocuous bit of fun. These are type of foes who harass our group of friends. At one point, a computer-human hybrid enacts vengeance against these villains and this is where we see how far this group of friends will go for one another.

Here’s where I want to single out the work from Michael Sharrett, who plays Tom. Tom is introduced as the paperboy but he quickly becomes the voice of reason. His perfectly registered reactions to ludicrous moments helped alleviate any swelling skepticism I might have had. Whenever shit was about to go off the rails he was there to scoff before I had the chance to. He faints twice in this movie and in both moments his actions seemed perfectly logical.

And yet through it all his character, out of obligation to his friendships, goes along with some pretty fucked up shit. He’s a good guy in a movie full of good people trying not to let the assholes ruin their days.

When you’re left lamenting lost friendships by the end of a horror movie, you know you’ve made a new deadly friend.

She’s Gotta Have It (Dir: Spike Lee)
Spike Lee is a legend and his breakout feature is one of those fully-formed living embodiments of the legend that will come. The music (by Spike’s dad Bill) immediately establishes a meandering and lively vibe, aided by committed performances from the four leads, which never relents until the end of the credits.

Ernest Dickerson’s photography is warm and playful and the script is funny and thoughtful. I don’t have to tell you how great Spike Lee is but She’s Gotta Have It is ample proof of how marvelous he, and his collaborators, have always been.

This was another one I watched only recently and the real treasure was discovering the origins of Mars Blackman -- Spike’s character in this. He later parlayed Blackman into a steady commercial gig screaming about shoes into Michael Jordan’s ear (his Nike ads were a staple of my televised basketball diet growing up).

Hollywood Vice Squad (Dir: Penelope Spheeris)
I never quite fell fully into sync with the rhythms of Hollywood Vice Squad but I still think it’s underrated. The motley assemblage of cop escapades -- roughly orbiting an investigation into a porn outfit -- still proved fertile ground for Penelope Spheeris to have some fun and show-off her burgeoning versatility.

She presents us with a diverse crew of detectives working Hollywood’s underbelly and she uses this grimey locale to render a series of episodic criminal vignettes. Some of the vignettes lean more heavily on the action, some more on the comedy, but each one manages to leave me with at least one thoughtful takeaway.

There’s the tough, bald-headed, brute (played by the cop from Rad). He’s prone to bursting through windows and doors but his grizzled demeanor is quickly undercut by how much of a sweetly devoted father he is.

Then there’s the Asian detective who is introduced to us with such an insulting accent that you fear the cringe won’t ever leave your face. Thankfully we learn the over-the-top accent is a ploy and it’s just a technique of duping potential-criminals by playing into their worst expectations.

Robin Wright, in her first feature, plays the focal point -- a young innocent who has fallen into the dope/porn world. Her mother sparks the squad into action with her pleas for help. Wright was perfect as the idealized blonde teen being corrupted by late-night Hollywood vice.

Carrie Fisher is our primary detective, Ronny Cox plays her noble superior and Frank Gorshin is the face-licking sin-pusher who heads the criminal element. All do great work toeing the line between the drama and yuks.

At one point, after a harrowing chase, the Asian detective (Evan C. Kim) finally catches a criminal. It’s a triumphant moment for the character and just as he is about to receive his acclaim a fellow cop (a white one) casually walks into the scene and receives the rapturous applause from the civilian onlookers who assume he must be the hero behind the arrest.

Spheeris nails the tonal shift from action to comedy in a way that still manages to make a underlying point about the white man’s uncanny ability to receive credit for things they didn’t do (looking at you, Columbus!).
Hollywood Vice Squad works best during scenes like this when it’s toying with expectations -- both dramatic and societal ones.

If you want to explore Spheeris’ early work this might be a good launching-off point (as long as you promise to get to Suburbia and The Boys Next Door eventually).

3:15 (Dir: Larry Gross)
It has a similar High Noon-at-high-school premise as Three O’Clock High (from ‘87) but lacks the technical sheen (and Tangerine Dream) which allows the latter to soar. 3:15 is still worth a look as it does have more intense stake and makes more genuine attempts at straight drama.

I appreciated how much work was done establishing the geography of the school. I also enjoyed the different clans of tribalist students who occupy the prison-like grounds (Mario Van Peebles heads up one clan). By the end we get a full-fledge action finale that utilizes our knowledge of the school’s layout.

Deborah Foreman had a great year between this and My Chauffeur. It’s too bad we didn’t get a steady stream of vehicles tailored to her steady-gaze and charisma.

Armed Response (Dir: Fred Olen Ray)
“This is very embarrassing. You would think that modern man would have outgrown such archaic tactics by this time. But here we are once again: the evil yellow man torturing the valiant white hero. And to what end?”

That exasperated intimidation occurs about halfway through this tale of cops, ex-cops, ex-soldiers, private detectives, thieves, bartenders and Japanese gangsters. It gives an accurate sample section of the wry, knowing, tone Armed Response deals in.

Lee Van Cleef plays dad to David Carradine and Carradine plays older brother to a couple of younger brothers. These two older fellas anchor the cast of crusty faces with a seasoned veteran approach. Both of them have played these type of action movie archetypes enough to allow them to transcend the thin characterizations and bring the accumulated weight of their filmographies into the scenes.

The Macguffin is an ancient statue and the deal-gone-south that gets the characters pinballing off one another in the first place features the great Dick Miller (a crusty-face all-star in his own right). You know you’re in good hands when you see his mug.

As Dick Miller’s girlfriend, Laurene Landon plays a large-breasted, tough-talking, blonde who ends up with a prominent and surprising role (I only mention her endowments because they for-real come into play later on).

Michael Berryman, as a member of the fiendish gang, had the highlight moment for me -- him snapping along to a new wave track that comes on the radio after he executes one of our heroes was the most inspired moment of transcendent 80’s euphoria.

Seeing Berryman deliver lines with his beautiful, serene, voice, instead of being asked to rely solely on his iconic The Hills Have Eyes physicality was also very rewarding as a longtime fan.

If you like your men drunk, dangerous and salty you’ll love Armed Response. Bonus points if you spot the shadow of a camera crane operator in the opening credits!

From Beyond (Dir: Stuart Gordon)
I can do the soft-sell on this one, as it’s already a relatively known title. But, as it’s probably my favorite Stuart Gordon work -- and I’ve enjoyed roughly 95% of what he’s put to screen -- I would still consider it underrated.
It’s my kind of horror because it makes earnest attempts at affiliating scientific exploration into the presence of supernatural horror (much like Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness). You get the sense that if things didn’t go wrong this would be a fascinating science-fiction film and not a horror classic but, with Gordon at the helm (and Lovecraft providing the source material), of course things go wrong.
So, instead of a film about thoughtful scientific conjecture regarding the potential psychological benefits of stimulation to the pineal gland, we get a thoughtful scientific fever dream illustrating the horrors resulting from overstimulating the pineal gland.

The material works so well with Gordon’s sensibility because his style is one that relies on overstimulating the audience. Over the course of his career he has continually taken us right to the line of decency and then, respectfully, pushed us over that line with the flair of a true demented virtuoso. So, the pineal gland was in great hands with Gordon.
The work from our trio of leads (Barbara Crampton, Jeffrey Combs and Ken Foree) is perfectly in tune with the movie’s off-key melody and the astounding effects work can be kind of a bummer because you then remember how boring most contemporary creature effects have become in comparison (“my son did it on his computer!”).

From Beyond is the crown jewel on the sparkling tiara that is Stuart Gordon’s filmography.


Quickies:

Band of the Hand - The highlight is seeing queer icon John Cameron Mitchell playing an 80’s action hero.
Black Moon Rising - Tommy Lee Jones gets the shit kicked out of him about halfway through the movie and he spends the rest of the running time grimacing and grunting in pain. I appreciated his commitment to the severity of the ass-kicking he took. There was also a car straight outta F-Zero.
Quiet Cool - When James Remar woke up next to an open box of pizza near the start of the movie I wasn’t sure if I’d be on board. As soon as as he took a sloppy, hungover, bite I knew I would be.
8 Millions Ways To Die - I would have written more on this one if I didn’t discover it by reading this site! It would feel like cheating under the circumstances.

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