Oct 31, 2007

Jennifer The Snake Goddess (1978)

Happy Halloween!

On this evening, it seems that pretty much any horror flick ever made seems appropriate enough to view in honour of this holiday. And many October 31st's in my past have been graced with what I called "darkness festivals", often watching horror films all day long. But especially, on this night, I seek out semi-obscure, low-budget, imperfect films... (It just seemed so appropriate to watch Blood and Lace on October 31, 1987)... these movies are flawed though misunderstood little children that nonetheless possess a unique quality that others do not. Case in point, tonight's picture.

Jennifer was a minor release from AIP, made to cash in on the success of Carrie (hence the one-word title referring to the female protagonist). When it was released to television, it was retitled Jennifer The Snake Goddess... a title I actually prefer! It encapsulates the cheesy appeal of this minor but absorbing chiller.

Lisa Pelikan is the country girl Jennifer, who is at a private school on a scholarship, and is soon ostracized by the rich bitches led by the diabolical little wench Sandra Tremayne (played with utmost conviction by the small but mighty Amy Johnston). Sandra is not without problems of her own, too, yet her senator dad (John Gavin) patches things up with his chequebook. The school is so dependent on the man's wallet, that the headmistress (Nina Foch) fluffs off the evil doings of Sandra to keep her there, and thereby keep the money flowing in, and she too wants to get rid of poor Jennifer. In this Carrie ripoff, our protagonist also has a nightmarish home life thanks to a religious zealot parent (but father instead of mother this time).. and it's a credit to Jeff Corey that he still manages to give this over-the-top characterization some dignity (as opposed to, say, John Carradine doing yet another "I don't give a fuck" hammy supporting role). And then there's Bert Convy, with the baddest afro a conservative white dude could ever have, as the kindly science teacher who seems to be the one flicker of goodness in Jennifer's world.

In fact, what makes this film quite compelling is that the performances are surprisingly strong. Considering this is a "girl with killer snakes" movie, refreshingly, everyone plays it straight. (In fact, Sandra is such a little vixen, that you're kept watching.) Despite that Jennifer later uses her power over snakes to wreak vengeance, the real monsters in this film are human. In this school, the faculty lets the pupils get away with murder as long as the money pours in, and members of these little cliques freely endorse rape of fellow gang members to keep them in check. Perhaps because the writers either recognized the real monsters in their little scenario, or because they didn't have a heck of a lot of effects or imagination to work with, the plot device of the snakes is rather sustained until the end. The snakes, you ask? Ah yes.

Yep, y'see Jennifer growed up with them there "hill people", whose peculiar religion involves little kids sticking their hands in snake pits, and I'll be jiggered if this gal didn't learn when she was knee high to a possum that she had some kinda spell over them there creepy crawlies. (Okay- enough.) When Jennifer begins to plot her revenge with her squiggly friends, you can tell she's getting all supernatural and the like, because she talks slower, almost trancelike, and is suddenly illuminated by a hard key light. (During these shots, Lisa Pelikan's angular face with those wide eyes eerily resembles Maya Deren's.) And so, when Jennifer dispatches the killer snakes on these horrible preppies, the sequence is backlit with these blinding spotlights, mousey Jennifer suddenly has a perm, and the giant snakes chomping on her enemies is wisely kept to two shots to obscure how silly it looks. This film suddenly resembles a futuristic disco musical.

When I first saw this film on "The Cat's Pajamas" in 1986 (as part of the huge AIP catalog they had in their programming schedule), I figured that it could have been a film that Elvira should've had on her show, with that ridiculous climax. Yet, I've managed to remember this little film quite well over the years. In fact, seeing it again as an adult, it's less campy, as one can read more into the subtly horrible characters. I was expecting to sit down and enjoy an enjoyable piece of horror cheese, yet was rudely awakened by how dour this picture really is.

The direction by Brice Mack is quite mediocre, but now I'm interested to see his other pictures that have fallen through the cracks. (As stated in my "film of the day" review yesterday, the 70s is just a bottomless pit of films to discover.) He also made the teen comedy Swap Meet (1979), the domestic farce Half Way House (1979), featuring Anthony Eisley (!), and his final cinematic gift to the world was his reunion with Amy Johnston in (now this sounds like a lost classic) Rooster: Spurs of Death (1983). I love this job.

Oct 30, 2007

Beyond Death's Door (1979)

Ah, the 70s. As long as I continue my journey on this planet, and maybe even beyond, I will still be mining the bottomless pit of wonderful films from that decade. Did I say "beyond"? Ooh, what irony! What a bad pun! Well whatever the case, such rhetoric is fitting for today's film.

In the latter half of the 1970's, Schick Sunn cornered the drive-in market with inoffensive family fare like The Adventures of the Wilderness Family, and (especially) no-budget so-called documentaries cashing in on whichever paranormal craze permeated that month. These films, with their static talking heads, and "authentic" footage of Bigfoot, aliens, or whatever (which was about as credible as Fox News), nonetheless were highly profitable on the rural circuit, especially since they cost very little to begin with. One could argue that Schick-Sunn was, by percentages, the most profitable film company in the decade, as they cornered a demographic too often ignored by the mainstream. Also, their grassroots strategy of playing films on a town by town basis, controlling the theatrical rentals themselves, hearkened back to the days of Kroger Babb, yet was so seldom practiced during this period that it seemed unique.

Die-hards like myself most likely caught up with the offerings by Sunn Classics on the late late show (remember those?) or from their all-too brief appearance on video. In 1978, Beyond and Back was a highly successful mockumentary that stood apart from the rest of the paranormal pack for its greater reliance on narrative, featuring re-enactments of allegedly true-life experiences dealing with near-death experiences. I haven't seen that picture since my solitarity late show viewing in the summer of 1983, but remember it well for its fascinating stories, conjecture and scary moments which surely would like quite corny today. This film has stayed with many people over the years... all the more impressive that such a small picture has such a lasting impression.

Following on the success of that film was tonight's feature, Beyond Death's Door, which is considerably lesser known, but if you can find it, it is a drive-in denizen's dream. (In fact, I will be reviewing this film at length in my upcoming website, "See You at the Drive-In", but for now I'll just skim the surface.)

The subject of life after death is of course fascinating, and even on those terms alone, this movie is engrossing. But despite all that, it is a campy hoot. This film is wholesome to a fault, as it seems everyone manages to get to heaven-- even pimps and prostitutes. However, interestingly, the two people who attempt suicide, go to Hell. In any event, those who go "beyond and back" get to redeem themselves once they have a taste of what exists in the world further on.

This film is episodic, featuring several vignettes of people who clinically die, experience the world beyond, and offer testimony to the disbelieving doctor. (Because it's the same physician dealing with these people, one wonders if this hospital offers near-death experiences for all its patients.) And as such, these sequences purely exist as a skimpy device to gradually make the good doctor believe there is such a thing as an afterlife. Yet the doctor and his firm-believing female co-worker (who cannot act) seem like guest stars to these weighty vignettes. (The film even blatantly uses two sequences from Beyond and Back!)

There is an elongated chase sequence, featuring Taurean Blacque (soon to be in "Hill Street Blues") as the pimp on the run from the mob, that seems out of step with the rest of the movie, but is fun to watch nonetheless. Then there is the disco sequence (seen above). Dear lord. At the end of this year, I plan to publish a list of trash films for a year-end round-up "The 12 Days of Trash-mas", and this film gets on the list alone just for these immortal nine minutes where a construction worker has a falling out with this daughter who (gasp) is hanging out at the discotheque with some punk, then dies in a freak accident, and goes back to the disco in spirit form and tries to communicate with his daughter! Oh man, this is just too much for me to bear.

But you don't need to take my word for it. You can see this for yourself here.

This is just the cream of the crop of this lost classic. Beyond Death's Door is a true find for cult film trash hounds.

Oct 29, 2007

Hub City (1997)

The first film on the collection "Homeland Insecurity", a trio of Bill Brown's films released by Microcosm Publishing, is a disarming, quirky and haunting 15-minute short about his hometown of Lubbock, Texas.

On the soundtrack, the narrator talks about time, the weather and fellow Lubbock native Buddy Holly. Weather contributed to demise of the rock 'n roll great in 1959, and a 1970 tornado that created havoc in the downtown core of Lubbock, and yet the sky leaves no marks of such tragedy. Onscreen, images of weather (recalling the diaristic films of George Kuchar) and haunting shots of empty, half eroded buildings and signs (shot with the simple grace of James Benning) leave on film a permanent record of sorrow and loss.

Canzine 2007

Brian Random... "Curses! Edited again!"

Projectionist James King... uh, we think.

Jonathan Culp... end of day

My seventh Canzine come and gone. Sales were low, but the day went by surprisingly fast. As you might surmise, this Canzine had a horror theme, since it was so close to Halloween, correlating to Broken Pencil's new issue. I had contributed a review of Daughter of Horror for the film section. Seeing it for the first time after five months, I felt it was a pretty good read-- should've sent a still to them if I had thought about it.

The biggest achievement of the day was getting some review DVD's from Microcosm Publishing, who were here all the way from Portland Oregon. Because the first half of the day generated no business for me, I did manage to watch a couple of these discs on my portable while waiting for the customers. Upon seeing the collection of films by Bill Brown, as well as the zine documentary One Hundred Dollars and a T Shirt, I went back to their table later to talk about screening these films in the spring. Also picked up a book by Bill Brown, the film Echoes of Forgotten Places as well as some tapes from Jonathan Culp (not to mention a DVD of his film It Can Happen Here, which I saw this winter at Cine-Cycle and liked very much, and his zine "220 Movies and an Enormous Ball", which I will be reviewing on here in the next couple of days).

As I get older, most of the vendors and clientele get younger, and I understand that. But I really bow to these guys like Microcosm and Culp who still keep the faith in the underground with interesting and unique work. Despite that, as usual, I'm carting home even more stuff than what I arrived with, I am still somewhat vindicated and liberated by these little victories that renew my belief in what I do.

Oct 21, 2007

TV Party

"TV Party" was a cable access show, running in New York, from 1978 to 1982, hosted by writer Glenn O'Brien, and was known for the punk-new wave musicians, as well as artists who were frequent guests, participating in the screen mayhem (Blondie's Chris Stein was often a co-host). The show also pushed the envelope in form and content, with irreverent onscreen antics, all while capturing the whole scruffy "Do It Yourself" aesthetic that permeated the music and underground film scenes in the Big Apple at the time. Seen today, its lo-fi technology may be otherworldly to those weaned on the antiseptic blandness of "Reality TV". Yet the rough nature of the show complimented the excitement of the era, and the temperature of the times.

I first encountered this phenomenon called "TV Party" last Boxing Day, in the semi-annual blowout sale at Vortex, I happened upon three singular DVD's, each with one episode of "TV Party". Upon scanning the synopses on the backs of the bus, it piqued my curiosity enough to grab these discs. It sounded weird, avant-garde and off-the-wall... definitely up my alley. (And also, curiously, it is during the winter that I specially hunger for avant-garde things more than any other during the year.) Well, based on the evidence of one singular episode of "TV Party", entitled "The Time and Makeup Show", I had ended up with more than I bargained for. This particular episode was so minimalist-- the camera drones along almost as atonally as the noise music that is played throughout the show, that it just seemed to take on a life all its own. (Think good Warhol.) So entranced was I with this video, that I put the show on repeat, letting it play all night, and continuing on when I woke up in the morning. It just became this organic kind of wallpaper that I would gaze upon continuously. Eventually, I discovered that Brink Films (who had been releasing the episodes) had also produced and released a documentary on the show.

Early in the spring, I made a deal with Brink to show this film, and yet I held onto it like a good wine, waiting for the right moment to uncork it for the unsuspecting Toronto public. I had taken a break from doing screenings after June, because of the difficulty in getting people out for the summer, and because I needed to recharge my batteries. But before I knew it, August turned into September and I realized that it was time to get back in action. And thus, after a long siesta, October 18 was our "comeback" screening, with this film.

Thankfully, this proved to be one of our most successful screenings to date, with a packed and receptive crowd, digging all the priceless clips of music and anarchy culled from the surviving U-Matic masters from the show, interspersed with interviews of such people as O'Brien, Stein and Debbie Harry. This was being shown in the usual digs-- the big studio of Centre for the Arts, which oddly gave a "you are there" feeling, as the show was set in a not dissimilar environment. (All we needed to do was pull the cameras from Studio B, and we could have done a show of our own.)

I am very grateful for the support, and thank all of those who helped make this evening a great success.

Oct 12, 2007

VHS on the Street

It all began as a joke, said over lunch with David Faris at (the now deceased) Joe Mercury's on the Saturday of Canada Day weekend. "Hey let's do a special issue of ESR all about VHS, and we'll call it VHS R.I.P." Sometimes things said with tongue in cheek and on the fly do evolve into wonderful events. (A similar thing happened earlier this year: Beatnik Movie Night, the one screening I planned as a joke became my best seller to date-- go figure.)

Anyhow, I put a call for submissions to the regular troops and some new friends along the way. The response I received was quick, and giddily enthusiastic. Despite the sardonic nature of the title "VHS R.I.P.", the resultant articles which appeared in my in-box were anything but. A quick read between the lines of these pieces, each documenting a peculiar aspect of how VHS infiltrated pieces of our culture, showed a reverence for the lovable ol' half-inch tape, and even a defense for it, in light of the digital revolution. In twelve weeks, "VHS R.I.P." was ready to hit the streets.

I had wanted something new for Word on the Street, knowing full well that my ongoing Spaghetti Western project was yet again not going to be ready for the fair, and thus was delighted that this project managed to slide in (literally) just under the radar to be ready for the fair. It was my hope not to turn this thing into a "night before" project, but sadly, it happened anyway, purely out of circumstance. My day job (yes readers, it's true, I don't do ESR for a living) had gotten insane in the week leading up to the fair. Having suddenly a sister company to contend with, my workload doubled, not helped by having to move out two office spaces, it was a crazy five days that I care not to relive anytime soon, but happily, I managed to get the issue out on time.

The novelty for "VHS R.I.P." was that each copy of the issue came with a different "mystery VHS Tape", whose identity was hidden behind a white cardboard sleeve. Since most of ESR's contributors are incurable collectors, I felt this was a fun way to pass onto the readers the "Hey look what I found" ideal that is so often found on these pages. The cool-looking cover for the issue was, ironically, an eleventh hour thing. The original idea for the cover was to have a snapshot of the writers in black coats and ties, as though they were mourning at a funeral, but conflicting schedules made it impossible to get everyone together, so I scrapped the idea (the gag doesn't work just with two people in the photo). And so I spent two nights futzing around with Photoshop until I wound up with this comparatively minimalist design that serendipitously complimented a secondary theme of this whole issue. The cover is rather mysterious, giving away nothing of the personal content that fills the pages in between. (And indirectly, it flirts with Brian Random's article "VHS as Object of Mystery") And even the benign white box in the bag behind the magazine appears monolithic, giving viewers little precedence as to what can be found inside.

This issue also features a record number of contributors for ESR- perhaps more than the average issue of "CineAction"... maybe even "Cinema Sewer." And so without further ado, I'd like to give my thanks to David, Brian, Jonathan Culp, Will Sloan, Jason Pankoke, Simon St. Laurent, Skot Deeming, and Dion Conflict... congrats for helping to make this all happen.

ABOVE: The G-Man in action.

And so, even on the Sunday morning of Word on the Street, I'm still scrambling to get things done, cursing and sweating all the way, and so when I arrived on the grounds at 9 AM, that feeling suddenly flashed back through my veins, reminding myself why I do this. Seeing my publication's name on the tent, looking around Queen's Park with my Tim Horton's coffee as publishers much more "pro" than I are equally immersed in setting up, I remembered that notion: "Wow, I'm here." Sales on the day were steady up until the last half, when business was down to a crawl. During the day I met some interesting people (further reminding me why I do what I do), shot the breeze with regular supporters like Brian, Dave Lamb and Barry Smight (who took my picture, above), and began to ponder why sales plummeted in the last half. My suspicion was that this year's edition of Word on the Street was a week later than usual, hence during the weekend of Nuit Blanche. Those who stayed up all night probably never got out of bed, and I'm assuming that's the reason why my help never showed up to watch the stand so I could take a break. Thank God someone from my day job showed up, so I could quickly dash to take a pee. Otherwise, no chance to shop for anything than other what was in the same tent as mine. (But hey, I did get a Guh CD for three bucks.)

Susan, God bless her soul, helped me set up at the very beginning, and then came by to guard the stuff while I went to fetch the car. Driving back to the tent, through the maze-like patterns of roadblocks and incorrect signs, I was surprised at how quickly night fell, only one hour after the fair officially ended. In sixty minutes, I felt like I was in a different world- how rapidly the environment had changed, from light to dark, bountious to empty. I was strangely moved seeing the construction guys starting to deconstruct all the tents so quickly after the sale. It was as if no one had previously existed there. This haunting feeling reminded me a lot of the ending of Fellini Roma, as the bikers move their way through an empty courtyard, accompanied only by the ghosts of memory. Similarly, I drove home a little melancholy, playing "Don't Dream It's Over" again and again on the CD player, with the window down, and the cool air hitting my face.

Oct 4, 2007

RIP Charles B. Griffith

Above: It Conquered the World

I had been prepared to update my blog with a little report on the new ESR issue and our appearance at Word on the Street, but that will have to wait for now, as this news story is to me of greater importance.

Yesterday I had learned that on September 28, writer-director Charles B. Griffith had passed away at the age of 77. With all the preparation for "The Roger Corman Scrapbook" (which we published last year) still fresh in our memories, I was always struck by director Roger Corman's mini-epics that were penned by the multi-talented Mr. Griffith. Charles B. Griffith's legacy contained many brilliant screenplays bursting with wild and crazy ideas that perhaps either belied the tawdry production budget, or for that matter, their inventiveness was often overlooked by people who instead wanted to poke fun at those very tawdry production values.

He will be best remembered for his trilogy of horror spoofs (Bucket of Blood (1959), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961)), all directed by Roger Corman. These hip screenplays were brilliant satires, not just of the horror genre. Bucket of Blood remains a dead-on portrayal of the Beat Generation, simultaneously giving it an elbow in the ribs, yet giving the milieu a far greater authenticity at which Hollywood failed miserably with such films as The Beat Generation, or The Subterraneans. Little Shop remains one of the greatest, most pitch black comedies ever made, with terrific, unique characters big and small. Griffith himself is the voice of Audrey Jr. the plant, and appears on camera as the wigged-out burglar ("Don't try to snow me Jim, 50,000 squares didn't come in here to look at some plant, they must have bought something.") Creature is an ingenious satire of nearly every movie ever made. In addition to the potato sack monster that calls attention to the artifice of horror films, there are nods to Bogart, spies, The Bay of Pigs, Dead End Kids, and even musicials (!), all while taking place mostly on a tugboat! In fact, at Word on the Street, when one person became aware I had free DVD's of Creature from the Haunted Sea in with "The Roger Corman Scrapbook", he chimed: "That is the corniest movie ever made!" It wasn't a put down-- it REALLY is an oddball film, just bursting with ideas.

These three films were really the only overtly spoofy films that Corman directed. In Beverly Gray's book on her former boss Mr. Corman, Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, she hints at the idea that Corman otherwise preferred to make his films just serious action-adventures or straight fantasy pictures. I'm inclined to believe her, and yet am mystified that Mr. Corman didn't fully take advantage of Griffith's prose, despite the limited resources that he obviously had to contend with. Despite the success of all the films that will be mentioned here, there is a curious reservation on Corman's direction, often taking a conservative approach to the subversive ideas that went into Griffith's exploitation scripts. Beneath the sheen of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) is a strange Biblical parable and disturbing atomic message (that is actually more creepy than most atomic monster films of the period). Gunslinger (1956) is just below Johnny Guitar in being a western that implodes the conventions of the genre with two superb female roles. The cardboard muscleman epic Atlas (1961) is more interesting for the heavy-breathing sexual repression than the clumsy swordplay. Lest we forget, Mr. Griffith penned two more wildly inventive science fiction films (It Conquered the World (1956), Not of this Earth (1957)), Teenage Doll (1957) (which is possibly the most apocalyptic JD film made in the 1950's), and the terrific "Petrified Forest" retread with a hip beat (Rock All Night (1957), which became one of my great discoveries in assembling the Corman issue.

He also wrote later Corman hits like The Wild Angels (1966) and Death Race 2000 (1975), each with interesting social commentary, and then went behind the directors chair. First he realized his own screenplay Eat My Dust (1976), which is a gleefully subversive celebration of teen lawlessness that (surprisingly) goes unpunished. He also directed his own screenplay for Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980) and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (1989). I am interested in finding his first work as writer-director Forbidden Island (1959) in the hopes that it is a forgotten gem. Ditto, Corman's film Naked Paradise, also written by Griffith, has fallen off the map. By some fleeting accounts, it purports to be an unusual melodrama. (Griffith re-wrote this film with a monster as Beast from the Haunted Cave.)

We all talk about people like Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern, who all earned their stripes at Corman's veritable film school. Yet when you see much of their work done under his umbrella, one doesn't necessarily see the seeds of their future stardom. Griffith on the other hand was a singular talent. I am uncertain of how or why he didn't go on to make "A" pictures, but it is truly unique people like him that go a long way in justifying low budget drive-in genre films.