Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '87 - Rik Tod Johnson ""

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Underrated '87 - Rik Tod Johnson

For the past dozen years, Rik Tod Johnson has run The Cinema 4 Pylon[], his blog devoted to general discussion of film, music, and pop culture. He also hosts a site about animation, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc [], with extended essays based around classic cartoons, and The Shark Film Office[], which focuses on the history of sharks on film and television. Along with his writing partner, Aaron Lowe, Rik also launched two new cinema-centric sites in late May 2016: Visiting and Revisiting [] and We Who Watch Behind the Rows: Stephen King Print vs. Film[]. You can discuss film and whatever else you’d like with Rik on Twitter: friend him on Facebook at

Anguish (Dir.: Bigas Luna)
One of the genuinely oddest films I have ever accidentally encountered in my cinematic travels, Anguish won itself a big fan when I first saw it simply from its opening section. Anguish starts with a movie theatre announcement warning viewers about the use of subliminal messages and hypnotic effects, getting sick from their use, or speaking to anyone you don’t know while watching it. We are shown a film within that movie theatre called The Mommy, in which we are first shown an apartment featuring a decorative snail motif, where Poltergeist’s Zelda Rubinstein plays Alice, the title mother who lives with her pet snails while her overly sheltered, nebbishy son John (played by Michael Lerner) attends pigeons. One pigeon immediately escapes and gets trapped between a cupboard and the wall, which John attempts to recapture in a very strange but prescient scene that reminds me slightly of Blood Simple. John is an optometric assistant who is, coincidentally, slowly going blind himself, and whose actions are completely controlled by his mother’s use of hypnotic suggestion. Her method includes the use of a spiral disk mounted on a stereo turntable, which is shown quite often to the audience in extreme close-up while Alice drones on and on in a hushed but angered monotone to bring her son under her influence. John is then sent out to murder people, including his own patients, to cut out and collect their eyes. And this is just the first layer of Anguish, which relies on complete audience disorientation through a series of twists and implied direct hypnosis, while it presents its giallo-inspired murder scenarios in Grand Guignol fashion. Tons of close-ups of dripping eyeballs, snails sitting atop pigeons, ticking metronomes, increasingly nervous moviegoers watching The Mommy, and a very sweaty, heavy breathing Michael Lerner. Once John takes his rage out on a theatre showing a sound-enhanced version of The Lost World from 1925, everything will slowly start blending together in such a way that you may doubt exactly who you are during the film. Are you watching it in the comfort of your home or doomed to be one of the eventual victims in the audience in the film, or the audience in the film within the film? I saw this in a theatre, and it totally agitated me and had me looking over my shoulder at my fellow moviegoers constantly. Your personal attitude towards Anguish might likely rest on how much Rubinstein’s voice annoys you, but I find her to be perfectly cast and appropriately creepy in the role. Some of my friends that I forced to watch this may not agree, but I absolutely love films that screw with your mind and your senses as much as this one does. Seeing the film once more recently, I realized that I probably love the film more now than ever, wishing that the following two-plus decades of horror even had close to the genuine, loopy fun that this film does. I feel that Anguish would do well to be paired up in a triple feature with Tibor Takács’ I, Madman (another personal fave) and William Castle’s The Tingler. In fact, I might even go watch such a program right now, and it might be because I have been hypnotized by Anguish since 1987 and never released from its hold.
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The Believers (Dir.: John Schlesinger)
Sure, Roger Ebert was deeply offended by this movie. Though Roger’s writing and on-air antics heavilyinfluenced me in my youthful days, I still enjoyed watching him get his then-prodigious panties in a bunch over something. Often it was just a fight over differing opinions on a new film with his TV partner, Gene Siskel, but the best of all would be when the pair of them would suddenly transform into church ladies and go apoplectic over the latest gory horror film. This was great for the horror industry in terms of ticket sales because anytime those two went nuts on a slasher flick it pretty much meant that I was absolutely going to see that film. (Both he and Siskel were seriously wrong about horror films fairly regularly). The Believers pretty much runs roughshod over the religion of Santería in much the same way that Ebert would savage a hated film. The Believerstakes the religion’s noted use of animal sacrifice and ups that ritual a degree to involve the murder of several children within the film’s not all that complicated but twist-laden plot. Like many horror films centering on voodoo or other Afro-Caribbean beliefs, The Believers is built chiefly around WASPish paranoia of non-Christian culture. (I’m directly thinking of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, a better film released the same year that also set many people on edge, though I am an even bigger fan of it than this one.) While the script’s approach to the religion may not be politically correct (and I truly don’t give a crap about it since I think it is all hokum), it doesn’t remove the fact that I find The Believers still works well as an occult thriller (despite the savaging it got from many critics), though I do agree it is a bit of a cheese-fest. Some of the violence, though, is still gripping. It has a quite literally shocking opening scene, which I will admit is completely gratuitous but still sets the tone for everything that will follow. If you can’t handle the opening death, then you might as well get off at that point. In the leading Dad role, nobody loses his shit as quickly and reliably as Martin Sheen, and he is at a topnotch level of quality overacting here. As his son is endangered and his whole world threatens to fall apart around his character, Sheen still maintains a dignity in his scenes that makes the film indispensable to his most ardent fans. And, oh! That spider scene… a gnarly pus-fest that pretty much guarantees I can never, ever show this to my arachnophobic wife. It evens grosses me out, and I love spiders and well-done facial disfigurement effects. This film is also notable for its villainous henchman, embodied by Malick Bowens, who (though aided by some contact lenses, of course) imbueswhat might be a nothing role with perfect, unceasing malevolence.
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Lady Beware (Dir.: Karen Arthur)
When I first saw Lady Beware, it was a little later but still pretty close to the span in which I saw the same year’s Mannequin. Digging even briefly into the film, I thought, “When the hell did the trend with sexy mannequins and department store windows get going?” In all honesty, I am ashamed that I did not discover this film on my own, being that I was then a guy in his early 20s who grew up at roughly the same pace as star Diane Lane (she is but four months younger), and thus, I had maintained a steady crush on her since 1979’s A Little Romance (when I too was a kid, so therefore… not creepy). But it was my first wife that introduced me to Lady Beware, which registered with her for a series of reasons (none of them related at all to my single reason) and watch it endlessly on tape in those early, married days we did. Her first reason was because Lane played a department store window designer, which fell into the range of an “artist” for her (the ex was supposedly once adept at oil painting, and while she spoke often of her “locked away” art supplies, they were never locked away on our property, and thus I never saw her paint a stroke... ever). Second, because the director was female, though it is debatable whether the subject matter or the main character’s behavior truly falls into the “feminist” range of my ex-wife’s beliefs. Finally, it was because she herself had a thing for the male lead of the film, Michael Woods, who had an NBC series the same year called Private Eye. (She watched it, but I never did.) In Lady Beware, a married man with whom Lane has an affair, not knowing he is also a brutalizer of women and a murderer, stalks her, and even does a totally creepy naked frolic on her bed while she is not home. Unfortunately for Lane (but fortunately for me at the time), she lives in a fairly non-secure loft apartment with a freight elevator for a front door, and just loves to flounce around in next to nothing in front of her loft windows. Lane also spends some late nights working at the store on her “art,” which consists chiefly of increasingly kinky (but still “street safe”) S&M scenarios with her mannequins. She also has a pair of men directly interested in her, one of them being the murderous Woods. All of this opens her and the film up to a lot of sexy suspense, and as cheesy as the film is at times, it kind of works. The film is really just a more pretentious, feminist version of a soft-core sex thriller that just happens to have the then-still mostly wholesome Lane shockingly in the lead role. My ex was instantly jealous if even a totally unknown female crossed the street in my direction, and I learned to be careful to even talk about any of my longtime female friends around her for fear of setting off her mood. (A very good reason to call it quits on the marriage…) So the fact that she let me watch this ultra-horny flick in her presence over and over again is still astounding to me. I just learned to grit my teeth and bear it.
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Psychos in Love (Dir.: Gorman Bechard)
So, I am not picking this movie because my best friend’s elbow makes a cameo late in its running time. I am also not just picking Psychos in Love because the male lead is prone to paraphrasing Groucho Marx, and thirdly, it is also not because the film has a zillion references to pop culture throughout, including the expected nods to Psycho. Nope… I am picking Psychos in Love for this list because I hate grapes. I hate grapes… all kinds of grapes. I hate grapes that are purple, and I hate grapes that are green. I hate… OK, I don’t really hate grapes, but the absolute dispassion with which the titular lovers hold the itty-bitty fruits still rings hilarious to me 30 years later. In the mid-’80s, my best friend Wayne went to Connecticut to act in a summer stock repertory company, and in his spare time, he acted as an extra in a low-budget, local film production. That film turned out to be Psychos in Love, which became a must-seen for me when it was distributed by Troma and hit my local video store about a year later. The film is barely held together with spit and duct tape and sealing grout and whatever binder they could find in the kitchen, along a whole lot of gumption and chutzpah. The film is by turns completely distasteful and charming, gory and purposefully nonsensical, and completely perverted but goofily wholesome in its two main characters’ quest for true love. You see, each of our lead psychos long to find the perfect person for them, but when their current dates fail to meet their expectations (and sometimes it is when they find out that person loves grapes, which they both find disgusting), they end up chopping those people up into little bits. When the two finally come together and find out they each have a hatred of grapes and skills at thrill-killing in common, the results could have been as relentlessly horrifying as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer if it weren’t for one fact: the loony sense of humor of both its director/co-screenwriter, Gorman Bechard (who has since directed several stellar rock music documentaries), and its lead actor/co-screenwriter, Carmine Capobianco, who clearly has a Marx Bros. fetish (just like me). This film was meta before meta, referencing itself as much as past horror conventions, characters breaking into monologues directly to the camera, has an intentionally awkward but hilarious scene where first a dangling boom mike annoys the actors and then the entire crew and camera are “accidentally” revealed. In other places, the script is consulted and argued over by the characters/actors. It’s all in good, lowbrow fun, and as ramshackle as Psychos in Love looks, if you are at all attuned to its style, the film plays marvelously years later. I even watched it again recently when I found out Wayne was coming down to hang with us at Disneyland, simply so I could say that I just saw his elbow in a movie again.
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The Puppetoon Movie (Dir.: Arnold Leibovit)
Completely by accident, I’ve been downplaying the influence of animation on my life within these Underrated pieces. This is partially due to the fact that the vast majority of animation that has influenced me is of the short form variety. Also, most of the feature-length films that have been important to me are generally well loved (though some have perhaps even been overrated by the public… and myself). This gives me the opportunity to toot my horn for Mr. George Pal, who may be best known to modern audiences (if at all in the 21st century) for the series of science fiction and fantasy spectacles he produced (and sometimes directed) throughout the 1950s, ‘60s, and into the ‘70s, including Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, The War of the Worlds, Tom Thumb, The Time Machine (all of which won Oscars for visual effects), and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (nominated for visual effects and won an Honorary Oscar for makeup). There can be no doubt as to the charge those films put under me in my youth, but unbeknownst to me at the time was Pal’s history before those feature films. Starting in the ‘30s, Pal created a line of animated shorts famously called Puppetoons, which employed a style called replacement animation, in which the individual figures (or heads or limbs) of each puppet are replaced by another to create the illusion of movement, rather than edging the figures incrementally as in stop-motion. Beginning the series in Europe and then emigrating to the U.S. in 1940 (quite understandably), Pal’s Puppetoons were massively successful and beloved by the public. He was nominated for 7 Oscars himself for them throughout the 1940s, but ran into MGM’s string of Tom and Jerry Oscar wins, though Pal did receive an Honorary Oscar in 1943 for simply creating the Puppetoon series. When I first bought this movie on VHS way back when, it featured a mere 11 full Puppetoons within the body of the film, giving a well-rounded but still rather incomplete picture of the breadth of their influence. Subsequent releases on DVD and, very recently, on Blu-ray (in an extremely limited edition which I snapped up in a second) have included another dozen Puppetoons, including two early and extremely interesting Dr. Seuss adaptations. What’s the main reason to seek this film out for yourself? Well, if you are a Ray Harryhausen fan, Ray’s first commercial job ever was working as an assistant on Pal’s Puppetoon series. That’s all you need.
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My further “Underrated” picks from 1987: Best Seller(Dir.: John Flynn), Black Widow (Dir.: Bob Rafelson), Extreme Prejudice (Dir.: Walter Hill), Housekeeping(Dir.: Bill Forsyth), Making Mr. Right (Dir.: Susan Seidelman), Opera (Dir.: Dario Argento, Pathfinder (Ofelas) (Dir.: Nils Gaup), Wanted: Dead or Alive(Dir.: Gary Sherman), White of the Eye (Dir.: Donald Cammell), and White Mischief (Dir.: Michael Radford).

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