July 30, 2013

hollywood boulevard

Roger Corman’s career would be impossible today. There is no more infrastructure for low-budget genre experimentation, as filmmakers must increasingly rely on crowd-funding to get their modest projects off the ground (even Spike Lee took that route last week), with little hope of distribution. The only outfit as prolific as Corman’s New World Pictures is The Asylum, the mock-busters behind Sharknado, except their model doesn’t encourage the young but re-animates the old for a quick buck. Larry Fessenden’s Glass Eye Pix shares Corman’s huckster spirit and eye for talent, but only has the funds to make 2-3 films a year (New World could crank out 10). And while there is plenty of creativity on display in direct-to-video action movies (like Jesse V. Johnson and Isaac Florentine), they are totally isolated from Hollywood at-large, never graduating to larger productions like Corman alumni Martin Scorsese and Joe Dante. What we are robbed of from this lack is gonzo oddities like Dante and Allan Arkush’s Hollywood Boulevard (1976), a no-budget satire of an exploitation film production. Streaming on Netflix (cropped from 1.85 to 1.33, sadly), it’s a loving take-down of Corman’s shoestring flicks “shamelessly loaded with sex and violence”, per the tagline.


“This doesn’t have a lot of the conventional virtues of a movie.” -Joe Dante on Hollywood Boulevard

Joe Dante and Allan Arkush were trailer editors for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the early 70s, and eager to direct. Together with friend and producer Jon Davison, they approached Corman about helming their first feature. Davison bet Corman that they could make the cheapest film in New World history. Corman gave them 10 days and $60,000 ($246,225 in today’s dollars) to shoot Hollywood Boulevard. Another catch was that Corman still needed them to cut the trailers, so Dante recalled that they agreed to “make the movie in the daytime, if we did the trailers at night.” Realizing they did not have the cash for the kind of action scenes a Corman feature required, they came up with the idea to make it about a B-movie Studio, and re-purpose footage from old New World titles. As trailer cutters, they were familiar with every last crash and fireball in the studio’s archive. Dante and Davison were already veteran re-purposers, having edited together the monstrous 7-hour collage The Movie Orgy (1968) out of scarps of B-movies, commercial outtakes, and public access TV (I wrote about this masterpiece here). To cut down on shooting time Dante and Arkush would prepare separate set-ups simultaneously. When Dante shouted “cut” on one scene, Arkush would yell “action!” on another. It’s one of the rare films in which the feature acts as a documentary of its own production, as the characters in the film deal with the same budget deficits  as it’s creators. Dante referred to it as a “home movie”.


The only film set Dante had been on was Death Race 2000 (1975), so he hired the two actors he met there, Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel. They play bitchy  actress Mary McQueen and delusional director Erich Von Leppe, respectively, the star employees of Miracle Studios (slogan: “If it’s a good picture, it’s a miracle!”). Woronov is all legs and bile, while Bartel deploys his plummy baritone to absurdities like his thematic breakdown of Atomic War Brides: “What we’re trying to do here is combine the legend of Romeo and Juliet with high speed car action and a sincere plea for international atomic controls in our time.”


McQueen’s female co-stars have been dying off, which opens the door for Candy Wednesday (Candice Rialson), just off the bus and ready for work – any work. She is aided by huckster agent Walter Paisley, played with sleazy screwball brio by future Dante-axiom Dick Miller. She is quickly promoted from stunt woman to actress, landing a part in the Machete Maidens of Mora Tau, a Polynesian naked women-with-guns farrago that’s a take-off on The Big Doll House (1971). When Candy watches her debut at the local drive-in with Walter and her screenwriter boyfriend, she has to sit through New World features The Terror (1963, also with Dick Miller) and Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), which are skewered with Mystery Science Theater relish. In the most terrifying moment in the movie, Candy is so enraged by the film, and the inclusion of a rape scene, that she storms into the projection booth, demanding the film be stopped. Then the projectionist attacks her, implying that the audience’s thirst for sex and violence is not so innocent.


The entire film is a blunt attack on Hollywood heartlessness, especially about its abuses of women, from the cattle call of actresses for a nude scene to the total indifference Von Leppe displays towards deaths on his productions. There’s always another girl to replace them, as Candy shortly learns. Narrative is incidental to Hollywood Boulevard, but it eventually shifts from backstage black comedy into satiric slasher flick, with plot details borrowed from the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Death Kiss (1932). Miracle Pictures makes bad movies, but their lives become one, as the body count mounts due to a robed killer straight out of their prop room. In the delirious finale, the murdereress is disrobed and crushed by the Hollywood sign, a blunt metaphor (and weapon) for the town’s attitude towards women.

With the demise of double-bills and the death of drive-ins, the market for cheap programmers has dried up, whether inspired like Hollywood Boulevard or rote like the films it burlesques. But without this cheap testing ground filmmakers don’t have the luxury of making mistakes like their predecessors – not when it’s impossible for the most successful of directors to make more than one film every couple of years. Perhaps the growth of VOD will create more demand for product that someone like Fessenden can exploit, but it doesn’t seem likely.  Even Dante is finding it hard to make features these days. If his next film ends up on Kickstarter, don’t be surprised, but at least donate.


March 12, 2013

Terrorvision 4

27 years after its theatrical release, TerrorVision (1986) was released on DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time by Shout! Factory last month. An outrageously garish horror-satire of 1980s consumer culture in the guise of a low-budget creature feature, it was savaged by critics and disappeared from public view.  The Monster Squad (1987) came out in a new Blu-ray from Olive Films on the same day in February, and that nostlagic ode to the classic Universal monster movies had been difficult to see before a DVD release in 2007. Both are steeped in horror film history and iconography, but while TerrorVision adopts old styles to investigate its present, The Monster Squad is only concerned with burnishing the past.

TerrorVision was a rushed production for schlockmeister producer Charles Band, head of the short-lived Empire Pictures (Trancers, Re-Animator). Based in Rome, he cranked out cheap horror and sci-flicks at the old Dino de Laurentiis studio that drafted off the success of Hollywood hits, releasing Ghoulies  a year after Gremlins (’84). He sold the studio in 1988, but went on to form the similarly Corman-minded Full Moon Features in 1989, which produced the Puppet Master series. Ted Nicolaou was an editor for Band in the Empire days, and was eager for an opportunity to direct.  Band didn’t have a backlog of scripts – instead he collected ideas for titles and poster images that he thought would someday make a sellable movie. So he showed Nicolaou the poster art (an eye poking out of a satellite), and assigned him to write and direct.

What Nicolaou created was not the usual straightforward Empire Pictures material, though, but a day-glo satire of an acquisitive yuppie family in Malibu, thrust into the maw of a blob-monster straight from a 50s Sci-Fi B. Working with the Italian set designer Giovanni Natalucci, Nicolaou emphasized the artificiality of their lives, from the cardboard sky down to the rainbow colored tower of hair on the Putterman daughter, Suzy (Diane Franklin). He then encouraged his actors to perform with as much artifice as the setting, leading to a hilariously grotesque film in form and content. Even the theme song is a head-spinner, a chirruping synth chant from art-rockers The Fibonaccis. Needing content no matter the style, Band let him go ahead with it.

Stanley (Gerrit Graham) and Raquel (Mary Woronov) Putterman are your normal everyday Americans living the dream, parents of Suzy and Sherman (Chad Allen), and owners of an ornate mansion decorated with cartoon erotica and classical statuary with water-spitting nipples. They are swingers, after all, and whose dress consists of an explosion of pleather, spandex and leisure suits. Concerned only with their libidos, they leave their kids to be raised by the new Satellite TV being installed. Suzy is a Cyndi Lauper clone whose aforementioned hair is sprayed into a conical totem, while Sherman plays at GI Joe, indulged by his survivalist ex-serviceman grandfather (Bert Remsen), keen on selling jerky lizard tails and sleeping in a reinforced bunker. The most tactile and real-seeming thing in the movie is the deformed alien Jabba the Hut that  is accidentally beamed into their dish. And as hungry as the Puttermans are for kitschy art, orgy technology (including a gigantic jacuzzi pool) and fast food, this monster is equally eager for the taste of human flesh. The consumers become the consumed, but they certainly enjoy themselves before they get masticated. Graham and Woronov go full camp, stretching their rubber faces into parodies of pleasure before they too get sucked down the hole of over-indulgence.

The Monster Squad (1987) is an entirely different animal, presenting a cheery Spielbergian suburb filled with harried but loving parents. The force threatening to undermine this all-American burg is not aliens but monsters awakening from hibernation: Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Frankenstein and the Creature From the Black Lagoon (Universal wouldn’t allow the use of they copyrighted makeup designs to Tri-Star, but they are passable approximations constructed by Stan Winston). Kind of a horror Avengers, they come back to life in order to destroy a magical amulet that would return them to the netherworld from whence they came.It’s up to the scrappy movie-obsessed horror kids to squelch their plans.

Director Fred Dekker wrote the script with Shane Black (whose Lethal Weapon was filmed the same year), and it has the usual array of coming-of-age cliches, from the self-deprecating fat kid (Brent Chalem) to the mettle-testing old dark house at the end of the block. There is nothing surprising here, except maybe one kid’s “Stephen King Rules” t-shirt, but Dekker clearly loves the material, and gets some Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein bumptiousness from the cast of young newcomers. Chalem steals the movie with a swift kick to the groin of the Werewolf (Jon Gries, also in TerrorVision), sealed by the immortal line, “Wolfman has nards!”. It’s the one scene I remembered from my childhood, a still-juvenile joke that also happens to neatly encapsulate how these kids are mastering their fears. It was inspiring stuff at the time, and as fondly as Monster Squad looks back at the Universal monsters, so do 80s kids like myself look back at the movie, creating a nostalgia-feedback loop.  Sadly Chalem didn’t go on to have much of a career, playing rote “fat kid” roles on TV with names like “Spud” (Punky Brewster, 1987) and  “Tubby” (Dance ‘Til Dawn1988). He moved on from acting to become a legal assistant, but died at the age of 22 from pneumonia: “Brent was one of those kids everybody knew,” said family friend Marsha Rosenblum. “He made friends with everybody he met.”