Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Ira Brooker ""

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Ira Brooker

Ira Brooker is a writer, editor and trash cinema enthusiast living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His Letterboxd account is a document of a life poorly spent. You can find his writing all over the place, and especially at, and @irabrooker.

Spaceman (1997, directed by Scott Dikkers)
Between my Underrated ‘97 piece here, my Letterboxd review, and my interview with the director over at Crooked Marquee, I believe I wrote more about “Spaceman” in 2017 than anybody else had in the 20 years since its release. Thus confirmed as the internet’s leading authority on all things Spacemanic, I’ll refrain from rehashing those past synopses and just say this: “The Onion” co-founder Scott Dikkers’s sci-fi comedy about an intergalactic bloodsport gladiator struggling to adapt to a quiet, normal life on Chicago’s North Side is one of the most undervalued movies of the 1990s.

Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973, directed by Andy Milligan)
Even compared to other acquired tastes, Andy Milligan is a difficult acquisition. Most of his surviving films are dirt-cheap horror flicks that the general public would justifiably deem unwatchable. But for a select group of trash-wallowing creeps (myself included), Milligan’s movies crackle with a lively, spite-spewing, entirely unique energy that suggests he could have done some fascinating things if he’d been able to break out of the genre ghetto that both defined and stifled him.

“Fleshpot on 42nd Street” is grimy, pockmarked evidence of exactly that. Starring porn actress Laura Cannon as a New York City sex worker/thief/all-around hustler, this is a darkly vibrant snapshot of unlovable losers muddling through a hard-knock life that rings far truer than all the Midnight Cowboys you can muster. It’s a slimy, frequently funny, occasionally moving piece of work built around a strong performance from Cannon (in a role that’s several light years ahead of the next-best part Milligan ever wrote for a woman) and a colossal turn by “Guru the Mad Monk” star Neil Flanagan as her sweetly bitchy trans hustler roommate. As much as I cherish trash like “Torture Dungeon” and “Bloodthirsty Butchers,” it breaks my heart that Andy Milligan didn’t get to make more films like this one.

Born of Fire (1987, directed by Jamil Delhavi)
The most visually impressive film I happened upon this year was also one of the weirdest, a gorgeous jumble of sad-eyed flautists, sinister djinns, nude fire gods, worried climatologists, endless caves, inscrutable clerics, snake handcuffs, and a woman birthing a giant moth. It’s somber art-house horror mixed up with gonzo fantasy mixed up with touristic exoticism mixed up with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I’m not doing the plot justice, but that’s just as well. The point is, this movie makes phenomenal use of its unthinkably gorgeous Turkish locations and is packed full of trippy nightmare fuel and Islamic mysticism that you just don’t find in Western-produced movies of any vintage. It baffles me that this isn’t a cult classic.

The Rubber Gun (1977, directed by Allan Moyle)
The debut feature of future “Pump Up the Volume” and “Empire Records” director Allan Moyle is a loose, artsy, darkly funny peek into a skeevy cult of personality in mid-’70s Montreal. Stephen Lack absolutely kills it as the condescending, motor-mouthed artist who presides as the de facto head of household for an omnisexual commune of young drug dealers, jabbering a steady stream of sarcasm and non-sequiturs while his devotees do everything in their power to louse up the operation.

If you were to dismiss “The Rubber Gun” as pretentious malarkey, I couldn’t say you were wrong, but for my money it’s a frank, jittery, appealingly unpolished piece of arthouse ambition that hits most if not all of my buttons. There’s a film-school Altman vibe to the whole thing, enhanced by Lewis Furey’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”-echoing folk-rock song score. If that reads like a positive to you, you’ll dig this. If not, you’ll probably want to steer well clear.

Mimsy Farmer’s Acid Dance
1967’s “Riot on Sunset Strip” isn’t a particularly good movie. It’s basic late ‘60s teensploitation focused on the seedy allure of rock clubs, drug trips, and street protests, with an avuncular Aldo Ray as the level-headed police captain trying to keep the peace between local merchants and kids gone wild.

It’s pandering, mildly diverting pap for the most part, but around the midway point it becomes briefly transcendent. After a hippie creep spikes straitlaced Mimsy Farmer’s drink with LSD, she starts a slow, writhing get-down that gradually builds to a frenzied, six-minute solo dance sequence set to a psychedelic jam by The Chocolate Watch Band. Farmer is nothing short of mesmerizing in a breathtaking chunk of filmmaking that director Arthur Dreifuss somehow managed to wedge into an otherwise unremarkable exploitation flick. (Just be forewarned that the postscript to Mimsy’s dance is a major bringdown.)

(Odd side note: “Riot on Sunset Strip” features Mimsy Farmer as the fresh-faced innocent and Laurie Mock as the hard-living wild child, while the same year’s “Hot Rod to Hell” essentially reverses their roles. I’d have loved to see them carry on as a team, swapping roles every other movie throughout the ‘60s. As it stands, those two performances make Mimsy Farmer my favorite actress of 1967, hands-down.)

The Early films of Joseph Merhi
I stumbled on Joseph Merhi’s debut feature “Mayhem” last year while researching my Underrated ‘86 list and couldn’t for the life of me decide what I thought of it. On the one hand, it was hateful, largely incoherent grime without enough of a hook for me to call it a real trash cinema gem. On the other hand, the film was possessed with a bone-deep aching that lingered with me in a way that told me it wasn’t just another no-budget crime flick. This year I dug deeper into the Merhi catalog and was pleased to discover that “Mayhem” was no fluke: Joseph Merhi is a genuine trash auteur.

Best-known as the co-founder of PM Entertainment, the direct-to-video juggernaut that spent the ‘90s cranking out no-budget vehicles for the likes of Traci Lords, Cynthia Rothrock, and Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Merhi eventually proved himself a savvy producer and solid action director. But in his earliest, sleaziest work - films like “Mayhem,” “Epitaph” and the “L.A. Crackdown” series - he showed an innate flair for what I’d call poignant nihilism. The scumbags and screw-ups who populate his movies realize that they’re doomed and irredeemable, but they’re also self-aware enough to wish there had been another way. I can’t in good conscience recommend early Merhi to anyone but seasoned trash veterans, but the man almost always does right by me.

Zuma II: Hell Serpent (1987, directed by Ben Yulang)
Just full-on insanity the way only a low-budget Filipino action-horror flick can bring it. Zuma’s this evil snake demon, see, and he wants to bring about the end of man by murdering virgins with the help of his shambling, snake-headed abomination of an idiot son. Meanwhile, Zuma’s estranged daughter, who’s mostly human except for the live snakes protruding from either shoulder, is determined to foil his plot and send him back to Hell or wherever you send snake demons. The whole thing is cheap, sleazy, bonkers entertainment of the sort that keeps me coming back to Filipino cinema. (And don’t worry, you won’t be lost if you haven’t seen the first “Zuma.”)

Phoenix the Warrior (1988, directed by Robert Hayes)
I try to close out every year by watching something obscure and post-apocalyptic. It’s a strangely reassuring ritual for me, especially when I happen to land on an unexpected delight like “Phoenix the Warrior.” As you might gather by the film’s alternate title, “She-Wolves of the Wasteland,” this isn’t necessarily a high-brow endeavor, but it’s also not quite as sleazy as you might assume.

The plot actually bears a striking resemblance to “Mad Max: Fury Road,” with a rogue loner helping a pregnant “breeder” escape the clutches of a deformed tyrant. The key difference here (aside from, y’know, overall quality) is that the apocalypse has wiped out almost the entire male population, which means we’ve got a genre movie with a 99% female, surprisingly racially diverse cast playing action roles that women seldom got offered in 1988. Given the sheer amount of skin on display, I can’t exactly call it a feminist triumph, but it’s far less salacious than a lot of its ilk. On the whole, it’s a cheaply made, poorly acted, and deeply derivative bit of post-apocalypse fluff and I love it without reservation.
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