Rupert Pupkin Speaks: June 2016 ""

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Underrated '76 - Samuel B. Prime

Samuel B. Prime is a writer, film curator, and archivist based in Los Angeles. He recently served as one of the producers for Etiquette Pictures' Blu-ray of CATCH MY SOUL and also worked on the special features. Otherwise, he deeply admires Dick Cavett's savoir faire and his favorite Sonny Chiba film is Kazuhiko Yamaguchi's perpetually unavailable WOLFGUY: ENRAGED LYCANTHROPE (1975). Find him online at www.lacinesalon.com for essays and free streaming movies.

Check out his Underrated '96 & '86 lists here:
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/03/underrated-96-samuel-b-prime.html
http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2016/04/underrated-86-samuel-b-prime.html
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EMMA MAE (Jamaa Fanaka, 1976)
L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Jamaa Fanaka is best known for the carnal desires and the unrelenting carnage of his big house boxing epic PENITENTIARY (1979), as well as the sequels it spawned, but the masterpiece of his modest filmography is his second feature, a distinctly American story that goes by the name EMMA MAE. An innocent country bumpkin travels by bus to live with her Los Angeles relatives and has no way to prepare herself for the harsh reality of life in the big city. Her outsider perspective illustrates with great clarity everything that is broken about the society and that she, too, is not immune to its terrors and temptations. Like James Toback's EXPOSED (1983), this movie is anchored by the trajectory of its main character and the expansion of their world. By the film's end, it is hard to believe that you have been following the story of a single person. Speaking personally, Fanaka was my friend and a mentor. I knew him in the last couple years of his life. He loved telling stories offscreen as much as he did onscreen and would hold court for hours. He was my friend. I miss him a great deal, but we will always have EMMA MAE.

HIGH VELOCITY (Remi Kramer, 1976)
A most delightful entry in the imagined sub-category of action/adventure films that I refer to as "Mercenary Dads." In other words, over the hill men who are "too old for this shit," but tasked with carrying out some kind of dire mission. In particular, this film manifests as biracial buddy picture between Ben Gazzara and Paul Winfield playing two Vietnam vets who shout things like "You racist nazi!" at their enemies. As goofy as this movie is, it manages to achieve something truly remarkable: it never glorifies war or violence. Plus, the Jerry Goldsmith score is one of his best.

WELCOME TO L.A. (Alan Rudolph, 1976)
A love letter to "the city of one-night stands" wrapped up in songs and sidelong glances. Alan Rudolph subtly breaks the fourth wall by allowing his characters to peer out at the audience in otherwise private moments. Everyone in LA is in search of love, or something like it, while living intense and temporary lifestyles. Its story of fleeting romance parallels the intimate, but short-lived experience that goes hand-in-hand with the proximity of making a film. In a wonderful way, LA is shown for its hazy days, memorable nights and interminable loneliness. Rudolph illustrates that even momentary carousings can be as sincere and meaningful as the longest of relationships.

DEATHCHEATERS (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1976)
A feature-length line-up of "cunning stunts" by daredevils John Hargreaves and Grant Page.

LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN (Ruggero Deodato, 1976)
LIVE LIKE A COP, DIE LIKE A MAN is maybe the best movie title of which I am aware. Fred and Tony are two ruthless cops (and possibly lovers?) who would rather break a neck than make an arrest. Light on plot, but heavy on style the film feels more like a sketch than a fully-realized story, but that doesn't matter. The scenes are so recklessly brutal that before you can wonder about anything deeper than gun blasts, gut punches, and exploding boats, the credits are already rolling.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Twilight Time - ROLLERBALL and THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES on Blu-ray

ROLLERBALL (1975; Norman Jewison)
I've always found this film to be rather interesting in that it is a big budget Hollywood production of a dystopian sci-fi story. And, I might add, from the director of a lot of prestige films for MGM.  Norman Jewison had done FIDDLER ON THE ROOF just four years prior and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT four years before that. James Caan was hot on the heels of GODFATHER II, but had already made some very interesting project choices in the midst of that his involvement with that franchise. SLITHER, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN and even THE GAMBLER are all pretty great in one way or another. That being said, he too had never really delved into sci-fi. Did I mention that John Houseman is on this movie too? He was coming off of THE PAPER CHASE, which is about as far a cry from dystopian science fiction as you can get. Oh and I can't forget Maude Adams. Though I can't nevessarily talk about this movie being a departure for her (because she just didn't make enough movies in general) she's simply gorgeous whenever I see her I wish she'd been cast more often.
I think that one of the things I find most memorable about ROLLERBALL is that that the futuristic setting is done in a subtle way. From the opening notes of Toccata & Fugue as they play over our first glimpse of the futuristic arena as a match of Rollerball is about to take place. The arena itself, the players, their uniforms and vehicles all show both a futurist vibe and also carry with them a sense of Roman gladiatorial combat. The game itself and how it is played feels like something that would have been played in the postapocalyptic world of something like THE ROAD WARRIOR but in this case it has been co-opted by corporate America and made into an epic television spectacle. In his commentary, Jewison says that even back in 1975 he was already starting to feel the escalation of frenzied sports fanaticism and was a bit disturbed by where things seemed to be headed. Not to take a run as sports in general here, but it is an odd thing to think about how focused we as a society have become on sports and sporting events and just how much money is paid to professional athletes these days. This is not a new thing by any stretch, but I feel like things have never stopped escalating even to this day and the rise of the internet and social media have only allowed us to focus on these things even more. Jewison's commentary was recorded in 1997 and has been ported onto this good-looking new Blu-ray. That's more than 17 years ago now, so Jewison isn't able to take into account how much more has happened since then. There wasn't even any fantasy sports leagues then either. All of this makes ROLLERBALL even more intriguingly prophetic in retrospect. Beyond that, the film's underlying message of corporatization couldn't be much more dead-on and I'd love to hear Jewison's thoughts on where we are now on that front (and how frightenly close we've come to the world of ROLLERBALL) as well as economically with the even steeper divide between the very rich and everyone else. I myself hadn't even seen the film since about 2000 so it was a very interesting and thought-provoking rewatch to say the least.
Anyway, all that aside, another neat thing about the film is its production design. The stadium design is one thing, but there's so much more to dig into begin that. The clothing, vehicles, office and home design are all wonderful to my mind. That is to say that I have always had a soft spot for this sort of interpretation of the future from a point of view in the past (1975 in this case) and how it looks so many years later. Of course things look antiquated and odd to us now, but that's always been quite charming to me. I've often felt that ROLLERBALL had a certain kinship with LOGAN'S RUN. They were released only a year apart, and I've always connected the two films in my head. I'm excited for folks to give this one another look as I feel like it hasn't had a decent looking release (or even a 16x9 transfer that I know of) to date. Since it was one if the earliest films to get a DVD release, it kind of slipped through the cracks as far as any kind of upgrade. This Blu-ray looks great and couldn't be a bigger step up from the last time I saw the film. Absolutely worth picking up.

Special Features:
-Two Audio commentaries: one with director Norman Jewison and a second with writer William Harrison. 
Both good tracks. Jewison is an engaging speaker and has lots of great recollections of the film, its conception, sets and production design as well as story and thematic elements. Harrison in his track talks about his original short story and how he came to adapt it for the screen.
-"From Rome to ROLLERBALL: The Full Circle(8 mins) Vintage press featurette from the time of the film's release.
-"Return to the Arena: The Making of ROLLERBALL" (25 mins) Retrospective featurette including interviews with director Norman Jewison and the cast and crew as they recall the production and why they became involved with it. Jewison and others have a lot to say about the political subtext and potentially prophetic nature of the story and violence on television and corporatization. 
ROLLERBALL Can be purchased from Twilight Time here: http://www.twilighttimemovies.com/rollerball-encore-edition-blu-ray/



THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959; Terence Fisher)
I must confess up front that I am not necessarily the Hammer Films devotee that a lot of hardcore genre fans tend to be. I certainly enjoy many of their films, but as a whole they tend to land a little flat for me. So let me just apologize for that and let's move on to discussing this movie, which is easily one of my favorite Hammer Films ever made. I mean, how can one not be excited to see Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in a movie together? Clearly one of the best things about Hammer is Cushing and Lee and how these movies came them many opportunities to be awesome in many roles. So you've got Cushing and Lee and on top of that, it's a Sherlock Holmes movie and Cushing himself plays Holmes! Brilliant, just brilliant! So yeah, needless to say, this is one of my favorite Holmes adaptations and Cushing is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes ever to be on screen. Though I favor Basil Rathbone as Holmes overall - Cushing is nonetheless in the top two or three Holmes for me for sure.
From the opening credits, through James Bernard's ominous blaring score, I find myself hooked again every time I watch this one. It feels like the perfect movie to catch on late night TV (back when people still did that) for some reason. It really is just one of those perfect little horror offerings that should more often be mentioned in the same sentence with the likes of the Universal classics. Understandably, folks don't group it with those films as it isn't from that singular American studio and it's a color film, but I do feel like the tone and manner of the storytelling is right up there with those movies. It would play very well as a double feature with any of them in my mind. Granted, it's not a traditional monster picture, but it does have supernatural and horror elements that make it memorable. Also, it being a British film from 1959 allows for it to be a bit racier, more graphic and more intense than a lot of its U.S. counterparts from the same period. I think that is obviously something that made the Hammer movies stand out in their time. They were darker and in many ways scarier then most of what was out there. Kind of a new horror renaissance if you will. A shot in the arm to a flagging horror genre that needed a little new blood (pun intended).
Not only does this movie possess the some of the greatest acting talent that Hammer has to offer, but it also is helmed by one of the most veteran of Hammer directors in Terence Fisher. Fisher is responsible for such classics as THE MUMMY, HORROR OF DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and THE DEVIL RIDES OUT (another of my favorites from the Hammer catalog). If you haven't yet delved into the world of Hammer films, this might be a nice starting point (after which I recommend THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN - also with Cushing).

Special Features:

One of the big selling points on this disc is all the supplements that Twilight Time has included. Not one, but two commentary tracks (both great) and more! Criterion level stuff here:
- Audio Commentary with Film Historians David Del Valle and Steven Peros 
-Audio Commentary with Film Historians Paul Scrabo, Lee Pfeiffer, and Hank Reineke 
-Actor's Notebook: Christopher Lee
-Hound Mask Creator Margaret Robinson on The Hound of the Baskervilles 
-Christopher Lee Reads Excerpts from The Hound of the Baskervilles  
 -Isolated Music & Effects Track
-Original Theatrical Trailer
HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES can be purchased via Twilight Time here:

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

New Release Roundup - June 28th, 2016

ROLAND AND RATTFINK on Blu-ray (Kino Lorber)
http://amzn.to/1YnQfuo

TIJUANA TOADS on Blu-ray (Kino Lorber)
http://amzn.to/1VVtwFb

MOVIE MOVIE on Blu-ray (Scorpion/Kino)
http://amzn.to/1YnPn8U

TWO-MINUTE WARNING on Blu-ray (Shout Factory)
http://amzn.to/25YgIRn

DR. STRANGELOVE on Blu-ray (Criterion)
http://amzn.to/1UqOECf

RAY HARRYHAUSEN: SPECIAL EFFECTS TITAN on Blu-ray (Arrow Video)
http://amzn.to/235slUV

RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES on Blu-ray (Arrow Video)
http://amzn.to/1YnRY2R

CIRCUS OF FEAR/FIVE GOLDEN DRAGONS on Blu-ray (Blue Underground)
http://amzn.to/1Uw0S8z

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA on Blu-ray (Criterion)
http://amzn.to/1UOJWKu

WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT on Blu-ray (Paramount)
http://amzn.to/25YhPRc

HUMAN HIGHWAY on Blu-ray (Reprise)
http://amzn.to/1UqQ5Rh

KUNG FU PANDA 3 on Blu-ray (DreamWorks)
http://amzn.to/1Ugdq6V

UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE on DVD (Warner Archive)
http://amzn.to/1UgieJj

THE NEW ADVENDTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN - The Complete Series on DVD (Warner Archive)
http://amzn.to/1UghJPv

Monday, June 27, 2016

Underrated '76 - Gems from Forty Years Ago!

1976 represents a fascinating time for America cinema. JAWS had blown the doors off the previous year and started making the studios aware of how to make and put out "blockbuster" films, but there was still a whole lot of interesting, smaller personal movies being made. It really made for a remarkable mix of memorable stuff by the time '76 rolled around. Here are a few of my favorite lesser-seen gems:
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LIFEGUARD (1976; Donald Petrie)
People obviously know Sam Elliott quite well these days - many will always remember his role as the "narrator" in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. But he had a lot of great work in the 1970s and 80s and a lot of it gets overlooked. One of the great gems from his filmography is this low-key drama about a career beach bum/lifeguard who is faced with the decision to change his career path and his lifestyle when he meets a girl that turns his head around. I've always found this one to be very resonant for me personally. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I worked retail for a really long time and got quite comfortable with it. Though it's far from a lifeguarding gig, I do understand the idea of keeping the job you got when you were eighteen and maybe hanging on to it a little to long. The resulting crisis can lead one to think that maybe they need to "grow up" and look into other more adult job opportunities. This film demonstrates that that isn't always the right choice for everyone and I like that a lot. Paramount's marketing team must have been a bit confounded by this one as they came up with a poster that misrepresents the film in a remarkably silly way.


THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976; Nicholas Gessner)
Rynn Jacobs (Jodie Foster) is a thirteen year old girl living in her father's home in a seaside town in Maine. She is visited by the grown son (Martin Sheen) of her older woman landlady and he, seeing that she is seemingly alone, makes some creepy (and obviously unwelcome) advances. It's unclear where her father is as she gives a few different reasons for his absence. The rest of the film, we continue to see her menaced by the landlady's son and the landlady herself as we attempt to figure out what is going on with this young girl. She sort of has a boyfriend (Scott Jacoby), and he stops by too. The movie is this neat combination of thriller, mystery, romance and some horror elements - which has perhaps helped make it stand out and have something of a cult following. The fact that the film begins on the eve of Halloween is a nice touch as well. The whole thing is kind of an elaborate game of 'hide and seek'. Jodie Foster showed such remarkable talent in her early years as an actor. Seeing her play a scene with a veteran like Martin Sheen - especially in a predatory role - is both mesmerizing and suspenseful. Scott Jacoby (who you will likely remember from the cult TV Movie BAD RONALD) was a very capable teen actor whose heyday was certainly the 1970s, though he continued to act into the 80s. This one was just recently released on Blu-ray and I recommend picking it up. 

SHOOT (1976; Harvey Hart)
Highly engaging slow-burn drama. A fascinating & surreal mediation on violence and paranoia. One of my favorite ice-cold Cliff Robertson performances. Ernest Borgnine & Henry Silva deliver the goods as well. Very glad Paul Corupe originally turned me onto this one with his list of 2012 Discoveries:
rupertpupkinspeaks.blogspot.com/2013/01/favorite-film-discoveries-of-2012-paul_3.html 



BABY BLUE MARINE (1976; John D. Hancock)
One of my favorite Jan-Michael Vincent movies and one that very few people have seen due to lack of availability until a recent DVD release from Sony. Vincent plays a marine who flunks out of boot camp but is mistaken for a returning hero in a small town and goes along with it. He falls for a local girl there (the lovely and adorable Glynnis O'Connor)  and is given the opportunity to prove himself. It's one Vincent's best performances and I heard about it from the DVD commentary on TAO OF STEVE of all places (they had a moment where they called out their favorite JMV movies).


ODE TO BILLY JOE (1976; Max Baer Jr.)
One of the better movies out there that was based on a song (in this case, a tune by Bobby Gentry). Also - another Glynnis O'Connor movie and it is this one, BABY BLUE MARINE, CALIFORNIA DREAMING, THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBBLE (also 1976) that cemented my lifelong crush on her. She and Robbie Benson are great together. They starred in JEREMY three years prior and were equally great. That movie is one of my favorite coming of age love stories of the 1970s and ODE TO BILLY JOE is an interesting companion piece to it. The movie was interestingly directed by Max Baer Jr. (who played 'Jethro' on the classic TV show The Beverly Hillbillies) and he does a solid job. He also did the excellent and equally underrated MACON COUNTY LINE. 


SILVER STREAK (1976; Arthur Hiller)
Kind of a more comedic take on NORTH BY NORTHWEST from the writer of HAROLD AND MAUDE (Collin Higgins). Gene Wilder plays the Roger Thornhill-type role and Jill Clayburgh the Eva Marie Saint gal. This movie focuses on the train part and takes place almost exclusively there and I like that a lot. I've been trained over the years to romanticize train travel because of the movies and this one just makes me wanna hop a cross-country Amtrak for the weekend. Wilder is joined by his pal Richard Pryor which helps boost the comedy overall. The supporting cast is excellent too and includes folks like Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty, Ray Walston, Clifton James, Scatman Crothers, Richard Kiel and Fred Willard. Collin Higgins would dip his toe in more Hitchock water a few years later with FOUL PLAY.


DRIVE-IN (1976; Rod Amateau)
Enjoyable, slice-of-life comedy based in a small southern town - centering around the folks and their local drive-in theater. Such a delightful throwback and an affable goofy group of characters. Opens with a great Statler Brothers song too. From the director of one of my favorite TV movies - HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A.


KENNY & CO. (1976; Don Coscarelli)
One of Don Coscarelli's other movies (besides PHANTASM or BEASTMASTER) that folks don't talk about much these days. It follows a group of kids during the lead up to Halloween night for them. We follow our hero Kenny as he deals with adolescent issues like bullies and crushes on girls. His loyal sidekick is played by Michael Baldwin (who we all remember as the kid from PHANTASM) so their is a Coscarelli continuity here that I like. Also, it's just a treat to see youngsters and how they occupied themselves in the years before the internet and cell phones. Excellent coming of age fare. One day, I'd love to pair it with DAZED AND CONFUSED (or even the above-mentioned DRIVE-IN) as a 70s era double feature.


THE GUMBALL RALLY (1976; Chuck Bail)
An impromptu car race from coast to coast is the main focus here and it's a little like one of those IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD type deals. Great cast though including folks like Michael Sarrazin, Gary Busey, Nicholas Pryor, Raul Julia, Colleen Camp and Joanne Nail. A whole lot of fun and I actually prefer it to MAD MAD WORLD. I love the poster too and had it on my bedroom wall for years.


NO DEPOSIT, NO RETURN (1976; Norman Tokar)
Underseen (if goofy) Live-action Disney flick with ties to some of their more famous films via the cast. This one has Disney stock company kids Kim Richards (ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN) and Brad Savage (THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG) as well as the great Don Knotts, David Niven, Darren McGavin and Vic Tayback. A couple youngsters get tangled up with some second rate safecrackers who owe a chunk of change to a gangster (Tayback). The young girl concocts a plan to ask for ransom from their wealthy granddad (Niven), but the whole arrangement goes slapsticky and silly. It's kinda dumb, but if you have some serious nostalgia for these old Disney Live action flicks, it might be just the ticket.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Underrated '86 - Sarah Jane

Sarah Jane has seen almost 4,900 films. Her goal for 2016 is to watch 500+ movies. She hails from Southern California. She has spent time in England and Austin, TX. She currently wishes she didn’t reside somewhere in the South West. There isn’t a swear word she doesn’t love. Find her at @fookthis on Twitter and at letterboxd.com/fookthis.

Underrated 86
Peggy Sue Got Married- Francis Ford Coppola
Man, does this movie ever get shit on a bunch. I really don’t know anyone that likes it, which is a shame, because it’s actually decent film. I mean, I guess if you compared PSGM to some of Coppola’s other films, it doesn’t really rate but c’mon, give it a chance. Sure, you’ll probably hate Nic Cage’s weird accent and, yes, Sofia Coppola is a horrible actress but it doesn’t matter because the rest of the performances are good. Kevin J. O’Connor and Barry Miller are especially great. 

Lady Jane- Directed by Trevor Nunn
I’m a sucker for British costume dramas, throw in some royalty, and I’m yours. Helena Bonham-Carter plays Lady Jane Grey, who ruled as the Queen of England for nine days in 1553. Cary Elwes is Guilford Dudley, the man she was pretty much forced to marry for political circumstances. It’s kind of the typical story of young lovers; thrown together because of their parents maneuvering to get her on the throne, they hate each other at first. Gradually, they come to love each other. Of course, they are doomed because, you know, political intrigue. Still, a touching little weeper.

Crawlspace- Directed by David Schomoeller
If you haven’t seen this movie, it should only take two words to get you to want to watch it: Klaus Kinski. I don’t think a description of the movie is really necessary because if you take the name of the movie, add a little Kinski as a son-of-a-Nazi surgeon, throw in some lovely ladies, rats, traps, and add the name Charles Band to the mix, what you’d get is exactly what you’re thinking. Go on then, try it. 

Back to School- Directed by Alan Metter
I admit it, I love this movie. I think it gets dismissed because it’s a Rodney Dangerfield movie. Yes, it is set in that typical 80s college campus, you know the one, the jocks rule the school and everyone else is a loser. Rodney Dangerfield plays a crass but rich business man (sound familiar?) who regrets not going to college. Actor-turned director Keith Gordon plays his son, who is in college but hating every second of it. Dad decides to surprise son by enrolling at his school (with the help of a large endowment). Hilarity ensues. Robert Downey, Jr. plays Gordon’s best friend, the role RDJ was very good at during this time period. There is a great supporting cast here; Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Ned Betty, and E. Emmet Walsh among others. Let’s also not forget that very brief scene with Sam Kinison that helped propel him into the mainstream. Yes, it is goofy fun but who doesn’t need to see that every once in a while?

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.