Thursday, March 22, 2012
I've been around a long time. You know, like the Highlander.
I was fresh out of high school and in my first year at my first college when Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories premiered on NBC. It had that trademark Spielberg sense of wonder and pretty successfully related the quality of a good story to mid-80's audiences who happily fed on movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. It also showcased the talents of some fine directors such as Clint Eastwood, Bob Clark, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Zemeckis. My younger brother and I were faithful viewers of the series, and had particular episodes we really loved. The one episode among many that stuck out for years in our churning minds was the hilarious misunderstanding of "Mummy Daddy," written by Earl Pomearantz and directed by William Dear (Harry and The Hendersons).
Harold (Tom Harrison) is an actor in full mummy regalia, the feature creature in a film being made in a dark Southern swamp. His director (Bronson Pinchot) pampers him, but only because he's asked the poor actor to remain in costume, which restricts his speech and causes him to walk stiffly. Harold suddenly gets word that his wife is in labor at a nearby hospital, so he races off to be at her side.
The thing is, he forgets he's still decked out as an undead pharaoh.
It might sound unusual for a mummy to be a part of the Southern bayou, but a local legend there tells of a traveling circus that visited the area with an evil, real un-life mummy called Ra Amin Ka. As Harold hurtles towards the hospital, he loses his way and has a run-in with some trigger-happy locals. Being pursued, he meets up with a kind old blind man, who brushes up against him and, horrified, mistakes him for Ra Amin Ka. Stumbling into his back room, the old man awakens the real Ra Amin Ka, who sets out after poor Harold.
After a quick but truly classic "battle" with the real mummy, Harold is captured and nearly hanged before he finally reaches the hospital. Reunited with his unfazed wife, Harold gives the dumbstruck rednecks the stink-eye as he dotes on his new baby. Back on the movie set, the director is excited that Harold seems to have returned. But we know it's Ra Amin Ka, even as they begin to remove the bandages...
The episode has so many little moments: Harold freezing in a ridiculous pose to avoid being seen, the rednecks' lack of reasoning skills, the wonderful near-martial-arts battle Harold has with Ra Amin Ka. Harrison is the real star of this episode (or "chapter"). With limited facial expressions and speech, he conveys everything through mumbles and as much mobility as his makeup will allow. He sounds exasperated, frustrated, angry, scared, and ultimately happy throughout his misadventure. A fantastic performance by Harrison, and let's not forget the locals featuring Brion James (Blade Runner and Fifth Element), Tracey Walter (of a million different movies and TV shows), and soon-to-be Seinfeld actors Larry Hankin (the raisin-stealing actor who plays Kramer in the doomed pilot Jerry and George write) and the late Len Lesser (Uncle Leo).
It's, as they say, a rollicking good time. Light-hearted fun based on a classic movie monster with a twist. Amazing Stories was a staple of my heady 80's years, a little piece of Spielberg's express train of 80's movie magic on the small screen.
And it's available on Netflix instant. So there you go. Start watching, post-haste. Just have some good, old-fashioned fun.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
There comes a film.
There comes a film each generation that...simply defies logic. It transcends the simple words "good" or "bad." Its very existence beckons you to judge it, then spits Gatorade in your face before cartwheeling away. You're left confused, bewildered, somewhere between horrified and amused, and smelling of lemon-lime.
This, my friends...this is the magical experience that is Troll 2.
I...I almost don't know where to start. First off, its name implies a sequel. It is nothing of the sort. In fact, and this is not a spoiler (spoilers just don't even apply to this thing), there isn't a troll to be found in Troll 2. Saying you have to see Troll before Troll 2 is like saying you have to eat a Filet-O-Fish before you eat a bag of Skittles. Does that make sense? Of course not. Nothing about this movie does.
It's an Italian film made in rural Utah, directed by the one-of-a-kind Claudio Fragasso (under the name Drake Floyd) and written by Fragasso and his wife, Rosella Drudi. Fragasso used to write along with Bruno Mattei in such films as the wildly awful-good Hell of the Living Dead (aka Night of the Zombies), and then directed his own fare, such as the strange 80's Alice Cooper vehicle, Monster Dog. To understand the mind of Fragasso is one of life's grand mysteries. He considers Troll 2 to be a social commentary masterpiece.
Anyway, the story goes that a bunch of weekend actors showed up at auditions hoping to be extras and were cast as the main characters. People hoping to be in the next blockbuster, hoping to get their acting careers off the ground, honestly trying to just make it. Little did they know what they were in for then, and little did they know how some 20 years later, what they were in for in an insanely different direction.
So there is a plot, so let's get right to it. The Waits, a nice suburban family, have decided to vacation in sunny Nilbog, a remote rural town in the middle of nowhere. They're exchanging houses...wait...exchanging houses? Okay...wait...yeah, exchanging houses with a Nilbog family. Wow. Along for the ride, sort of, is daughter Holly's boyfriend, Elliot, and his three buddies as they tag along in an RV. Because RV's were considered cool in the late 80's.
"You can't piss on hospitality!"
Oh, one thing I should mention is that the youngest Waits, Joshua, has regular conversations with his late Grandpa Seth, who was incidentally wise to the ways of magic. The Astounding Seth, who's sort of a cross between Doctor Strange and Burl Ives, warns Joshua that he must convince his family to leave Nilbog by any means necessary. Even if it means stopping time so Joshua can position himself to pee all over the food the previous family left, leading to the infamous "you don't piss on hospitality" monologue by papa Michael. But that urinary spritzer did postpone what the nefarious townspeople have in store for the Waits: they're really a town full of goblins (Nilbog = goblin...get it?) who are...steady yourself...vegetarian goblins. The tainted food will magically turn the humans into plants so they can be eaten. Yeah, you read that right.
Meanwhile, one of Elliot's buddies, Arnold, ventures out and runs into a woman trying to escape a mob of veggie goblins. After a nasty run-in with the darling little scamps, they make their way to an old house/church where they meet the delightfully wacky druid queen, Creedence Leonore Gielgud, whose monologues ooze with villainous relish. Some bizarre hospitality later, and the damsel-in-distress is a puddle of chlorophyll goo and a gaggle of goblins is chowing down on her, forcing Arnold to utter - nay, say loudly - the now-infamous "Oh, my God!" line.
"Oh, my GOOOOOOOOODDDDDDDD!" And yes, that's a scene-stealing fly on his forehead.
Some time later, another of Elliot's buddies, Drew, goes off in search of the town, where he meets some awfully friendly and interesting residents, like the store owner, played by a legitimate patient from a nearby mental hospital. The store has no meaty foods, but lots of creepy milk. Drew takes off, but since he has eaten something from the town, he gets fatigued and his shirt magically changes. Seriously, watch for it. Before long, Drew stumbles across the same house/church and sees his friend now literally a potted plant. Most people would probably point, laugh hysterically, and say "Dude!" but Drew tries in vain to drag Arnold out but Creedence rears her verbose head once again.
Hilariously, Grandpa Seth's ghostly head appears to Holly in a "oops, wrong room" moment and later warns Joshua to seriously get the family out of there. Joshua destroys all the food in a non-urinary way and must later accompany his father to town to hopefully buy more of what passes for food in Nilbog. While there, he meets the lovely congregation, led by a preacher who looks like Kalibak from Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga from DC Comics...oops, sorry, crossing the streams here.
Kalibak, as created by the honest-to-God genius that was Jack Kirby.
Only now does Poppa Waits start to suspect something's not quite right in Nilbog. Joshua already had it confirmed when he saw the name of the town reflected in a mirror. Go ahead, you try it. When they return home, the entire town is there to greet them with a party of whimsy and vegetable dishes. Joshua freaks and tries to call Seth but is attacked by Creedence in her less-Tim-Burton-y goblin form. Wizard Seth shows up, lops off Creedence's hand, and chases her away before instructing Joshua on the fine art of making a Molotov cocktail. After a little scuffle, the Kalibak-like preacher is killed in the ensuing magic battle, reverting to his own goblin form...finally convincing the family that hm, something's up. They hole up in the house and try to ride out Hurricane Nilbog. Oh, yeah, forgot to mention Elliot's with them now. Why bother with details?
Elliot's last surviving buddy, Brent, has the most un-sexual sexual encounter with Creedence, who puts on her best face and black stockings, and seduces him with an ear of corn.
AN EAR OF CORN!
Kind of like 9 1/2 Weeks, only wackier.
They kiss and popcorn explodes everywhere. It sounds like a dream I once had. With Brent now trapped, Creedence can join her little helpers in capturing the Waits, who have summoned The Stupendous Seth with a seance. Seth is able to pass him an all-important bag that apparently has an "ultimate weapon" in it. Joshua shows up at Creedence's pad and touches the piece of Stonehenge that provides her power. Then, with goblins closing in, he reveals the secret weapon:
A BALONEY SANDWICH!
They're vegetarian goblins, remember? They can't eat meat, so Joshua chows down, chasing off his pursuers. The Waits and Elliot escape Nilbog and return home for one of those "or is it?" endings that you can file under "funny" and "say what?".
I wanted to stand up and applaud as the end credits ran. I don't know why. By all rights, this movie should have made even one of my even temper angry. But I wasn't angry. I was astounded at the pure audacity of the movie. The moxie, if you will. It shouldn't exist. But it does. And it does so with renewed energy. Though it was released in 1990, it has that distinct 80's "let's make a movie" straight-to-video spirit. You can't help but chuckle at the script, the delivery of the lines, the "one take is good enough" acting, the costumes, the sets, the evaporation of logic, and priceless presentation. Troll 2 is now an icon of anti-cinema, beloved for its badness. And it's something everyone should experience once in their lives.
Now, I alluded to a bonus review. You can't see Troll 2 without seeing the documentary Best Worst Movie. Released in 2009, nearly 20 years after its magical subject, Best Worst Movie lovingly looks back at Troll 2, headed up by someone who knows the film better than most: Michael Stephenson, who played young Joshua. He set out to document the phenomenon of a film considered so incredibly bad, yet finding its cult audience many years later. He also set out to reconnect with other stars of the film, with some results proving fun and positive, to others revealing a touch of sadness.
The film documents how modern audiences have grown to accept just how bad the film is, and yet love it anyway. It shows Troll 2 viewings across the nation, from a traveling exhibit by the Alamo Drafthouse to small gatherings to a reunion set up by the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupe in New York City. One of the highlights of the film is surely Alabama dentist George Hardy, who played the father in the film. He's gone on to be a successful, beloved member of his community and has an undeniable charisma and likeability about him. Never bitter about the experience, he does grow tired of the attention...but only just a little. On the other end of the spectrum, Margo Prey (the mother) and Robert Ormsby (Grandpa Seth) seem overwhelmed and lonely in their lives, despite the good memories of working on the film. Somewhere in the middle, with feelings of happiness and bitterness mixed with some delusion, is director Claudio Fragasso. He truly believes the film is a masterpiece of social commentary and a true cinematic classic. Perhaps he's a mad genius all along?
Along with some lovely goblins, you see Robert Ormsby (Seth), George Hardy (Michael Waits), and Michael Stephenson (Joshua Waits).
Best Worst Movie is an interesting and entertaining - and quite positive - companion piece to Troll 2. Watch one...recover...then watch the other for a well-rounded dip into the wackiness of cult movies, Italian filmmaking, post-80's direct-to-video, and wild cinema abandon.
And if you go to the town of Nilbog, just pack a few baloney sandwiches, and you'll be okay.