Incredibly Bad Film Show: Witchcraft X, Mistress of the Craft

witchcraftx2Dir: Elisar Cabrera
Star: Wendy Cooper, Kerry Knowlton, Stephanie Beaton, Eileen Daly

It’s been a long while since I’ve done one of these – more than 18 months – but when I re-watched this, as part of our exhaustive survey of the entire Witchcraft series, I knew there was no way I could truly do this justice in a couple of hundred words. The other entries in the series are a mix of light occult shenanigans and heavy petting, set in Los Angeles. But for the tenth entry, they shifted things to London, and apparently threw everything you knew out of the window on the flight there. The results are all an Incredibly Bad film should be: it contains laughable concepts, pathetic production values and some performances that would disgrace a school Nativity play. Yet, it’s certainly more memorable and, dammit, I’d say entertaining than any of the nine preceding installments.

The core here is a British government department, Bureau 17, who have been charged with investigating any paranormal shenanigans. Their tiny staff (I blame budget cut-backs: perhaps governmental, more likely by the film’s producers) have captured Hyde (Knowlton), a mass murderer with Satanic tendencies, and are holding them pending the arrival of Detective Lutz (Beaton) from Los Angeles, who’s going to extradite him back to the States. However, the vampire Raven (Daly) and her minions, break Hyde out, because she needs his help to translate a tome that will allow her to summon the demon Morshenka, who will give her unlimited power. It’s up to white Wiccan detective Celeste Sheridan (Cooper), Lutz and the other members of Bureau 19 to stop them.

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Incredibly Bad Film Show: Los Canallas

a.k.a. Ángeles Infernales
Federico Curiel
Star: Mil Mascaras, Regina Torné, Fernando Osés, Claudia Martell

Mexican wrestling movies are a different breed entirely. Sure, WWE wrestlers make movies, and to a large extent, the characters they play are simply an extension of their in-ring personae. John ‘Hustle, Loyalty, Respect’ Cena? Get him to play an ex-marine in…er, The Marine. Demonic hell-spawn Kane? Psychotic serial killer: See No Evil [though Glenn Jacobs, the man responsible, has a degree in English literature, is a former third-grade teacher, and supports Ron Paul] But the key difference is that none of these movies include any actual professional wrestling.

Contrast the Mexican versions, where Mil Mascaras (or Santo, Blue Demon, etc.) is a crime-fighter – but one whose day-job is as a wrestler, and that comes first. Everyone is comfortably at ease with this, both good and bad. For instance, the villains break their leader out of jail on Friday night because “everyone will be at the match.” And when they do, said leader takes on Mascaras in not one, but two wrestling matches. It’s as if, at the end of The Marine, Robert Patrick challenged Cena to a Falls Count Anywhere bout. The forces of good are just as wrestling obsessed. When they realize one of their number has apparently been kidnapped by the Infernal Angels, they don’t exactly rush to her aid, saying “Let’s wait until the first fall is over.  Mil Mascaras will tell us what to do.” One fall later, he airily tells them, “I’ll be done soon, wait for me in the dressing room.” Like I said: wrestling first; rescuing your friend from torture and being slowly dipped into an acid-bath…later.

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Incredibly Bad Film Show: Final Detention

Dir: Pongpinij
Star: Lek Aiyasoon, Yoko Takano, Chalomjit Junkaj, Thunyaluk Worrapimrut

Women in prison films are a cornerstone of trash cinema, but are one whose appeal is difficult to explain. Chris typically sidles her way out of the room when they’re on, looking at me strangely; I think she’s slightly concerned about the sadomasochistic overtones. But, to me, that’s like being concerned about the homosexual overtones of pro wrestling – which is, after all, well-muscled men in skimpy costumes getting all sweaty and grappling each other. Indeed, pro wrestling and WiP films have other aspects in common: both are disparaged critically, packed with larger than life characters, and contain certain standard plot-devices that are almost de riguer for the genre, showing up time after time.

It’s a universal construct too. Not just Hollywood, but anywhere with a low-budget movie industry, the odds are the genre has been mined. Italy? Hong Kong? Japan? Done. The problem comes when censorship or other restrictions limit your ability to deliver on expectations. A decade ago, back when I shared a house with Steve and Abigail, I tried one of their vegan sausages. It wasn’t bad actually – but something less like a real sausage, is hard to imagine. Which brings us to Final Detention, the vegan sausage of women-in-prison films. While not without its entertainment value, something less like a real women-in-prison film than this Thai entry in the genre, is hard to imagine.

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Incredibly Bad Film Show: Blood Red Moon

Dir: Scott Patrick
Star: Sarah Lavrisa, Matthew Rogers, Mark Courneyea, Shelley-Jean Harrison.

“If you love Twilight, you’ll love Blood Red Moon.” There’s the pull-quote on the DVD sleeve from the apparently untraceable “Gates of Gore,” which is exactly the kind of line you couldn’t buy. Now, I can’t speak conclusively for those whose love Twilight,  but I suspect they would probably react to BRM by forming a mob with torches and storming Canada, for this carefully-calculated insult to everything they hold dear – like fundamentalist Muslims shown a sock-puppet re-enactment of the life of Mohammed. Those of us who didn’t really like Twilight much, on the other hand, will find this a no-budget, micro-talent rip-off, which is less homage or satire than shameless rip-off. It’s so painfully close Stephenie Meyer should sue – except even if awarded the entire production cost and revenue, it would likely not even cover the cost of the phone-call to her lawyer.

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Incredibly Bad Film Show: The Creeping Terror

Dir: “A.J. Nelson” (Vic Savage)
Star: Vic Savage, Shannon O’Neil, William Thourlby, John Caresio

“Anyone who experienced that catastrophe and survived, would never go there again…”

The player will show in this paragraph

The above line is one of the many lines of narration spoken during The Creeping Terror, but is just as appropriate a summary for the entire movie itself. While there can never be a unanimous choice for the worst film ever made, going forward I will refuse to take seriously the views of anyone who does not at least acknowledge the credentials of this as a worthy contender. I’ve seen films with bad sound, poor special effects, amateur performance or any other number of flaws. But this tale of alien invasion is so inadequate in so many areas, it’s difficult to conceive how it could ever have seem adequate.

Almost from the get-go, you get a sense of how bad things are going to be. The shot of the alien spacecraft descending to Earth is, very obviously, stock footage of one a V-1 rocket taking off, played backwards. Yes: really. That the makers thought no-0ne would notice, or that the craft seen on the ground bears no resemblance at all to the the stock footage, sets the bar of expectations appropriately. The next thing to kick in is the narration, and its use may mark a new low-water mark. Even at best, it’s a dodgy technique, usually a replacement when the director’s skills aren’t up to the task of showing the necessary emotion or conveying the plot points in a less-clunky manner. Here, it seems a technical necessity caused by insurmountable audio issues: two characters will be having an animated conversation, but rather than hear them, the narrator describes what’s being said. It feels like the narrator is reading an early script treatment.

Let me provide a couple of samples to show you what I mean:

  • “Martin was outraged by the government’s intellectual approach to a monster that had already killed and caused the disappearance of his two close friends. Caldwell tended to agree with him, but stated that he had to follow his orders.”
  • “The Sergeant, a shaken man, returned babbling about what had happened. Realizing the full danger of the situation, Caldwell decided he had only one means left to stop the monster: grenades. Now Bradford made a drastic move. Acting on his superior authority, he forbade Caldwell to destroy the creature. The Colonel, more concerned with saving human lives than advancing science, told Bradford to “Go to Hell.””

However, what elevates this, more than any other aspect, lifting it from the realms of “Somewhat Sucky” into the pantheon of all-time greats, is the monster. I’d heard tales of this cinematic abomination, but nothing could prepare me for the amazing sight. At first, it was largely hidden behind some trees, but it seemed as if the makers finally realized the pointlessness of trying to conceal the thing, and opted instead to give the audience plenty of opportunity to play “Let’s laugh at the monster.” The general consensus is that it resembles a pile of carpet remnants, and who am I to argue with that? It appears to consist of a man under a blanket, pulling a large quilt behind him.

It’s reported that there were actually two different monsters used – if you look closely, you can tell the difference. The reason for this has also been explained: “According to actor/makeup artist Byrd Holland (who played the sheriff), Lackey was banned from the set by Nelson after a dispute over the ownership of the monster “suit”, whereupon the monster suddenly went missing. Lackey supposedly informed the crew that the monster was “in hiding” and would not reappear until he got paid. Apparently Lackey never got paid and Nelson decided instead to rebuild the monster on his own.” Hard to tell whether this was a boon or a bane: neither is exactly going to give Rick Baker sleepless nights.

There are two factors which render it particularly non-terrifying. While that half of the title is singularly inappropriate, there can be no doubt that it certainly lives up to the ‘creeping’ part. It moves at the pace of a reluctant sloth on downers, and the only way it can consume anyone, is because they stand still and let it. It is not necessary to run away. It not even necessary to walk away. You could amble, and still comfortably out-pace  the alien. The other issue is that the creature’s mouth – at roughly the level of the man in the front’s knees – is basically a hole. Due to this, the only way for a victim to be swallowed is if they obligingly climb into the mouth, then more or less pull themselves down its throat.

terror1I am also somewhat confused by the sounds it makes, which appear to resemble stock audio from a big-game hunt, though I am impressed that it can make them even while swallowing its prey. However, the creature’s finest moment probably comes later in the film, when it attacks a group of cars parked in the local Lover’s Lane. While absorbing its victims, at one point it climbs into a convertible (shown, right), and for a glorious moment, we imagined the alien driving off in the automobile, the wind blowing in its…er, shag-pile.

This is, however, only slightly more entertaining than the preceding sequence where it attacks a local dance-hall, apparently managing to avoid the cover charge (probably claiming it was “on the list”).  The same people who were frantically fruggin’ their hearts out on the dance-floor, now find themselves incapable of any motion at all, and the creature eats its fill. A particular highlight is the guy who gallantly pushes his date towards the monster, though I also enjoyed the town drunk – one of the few people with an excuse for not being able to move out of the way. There is reportedly also a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ in this scene, with an escapee throwing a woman out of the way and accidentally tearing off her top. I can’t say I am curious enough in 60’s b&w boobies to investigate further.

There are any number of other aspects worthy of derision, but I’ll just mention these in passing. The way the alien craft contains very clearly terrestrial dials with Earthly numbers (below). The shot of the hyper-secure crash site, where you can see a kid playing in the background, oblivious to the camera.  The tactics of the army [or, at least, the single-digit number of soldiers we get here] against the monster: even though attacking across open ground, they bunch up into an area no larger than an elevator, so that it can gobble them up as well.  Gratuitous, and apparently serious, use of the word “hootenanny,” followed by offensive use of a guitar, the likes of which would not be seen again until Animal House. The way the hero and heroine invite the hero’s best friend over, simply it seems in order to make out in front of him. The fat guy who bears an odd resemblance to Harry Knowles, and is tripped up by some pesky river-bed gravel.

The weird thing is, there is actually the potential for a half-decent movie here. The creature is very different from most aliens of the time, and its purpose here – absorb humans to find out their weaknesses, so it can transmit them back to its home planet as data for a future invasion –terror2 is inventive too. It’s the kind of movie begging for a remake, perhaps with a nod to how the original was actually government disinformation, designed to cover up a real incident by creating a target of ridicule. However, I am fairly sure I came up with better ways to use a concept like this when I was writing stories aged seven or so. You can see why the MST3K crowd pounced on it, but it’s one of those cases where there’s not really much more they need add: the film’s insane stupidity doesn’t need much in the way of commentary. Not that, of course, this stopped us adding our own.

But as a bad movie, it’s an awful lot of fun, fully deserving its reputation in the field. After a spell where I’d been grinding my way through dull films, it was a refreshing delight to come across something like this, possessing in spades the loopy charm which attracted me to the field of incredibly bad cinema to begin with.

[February 2010]

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Incredibly Bad TV Show: Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura

Regular readers will know that we’re big fans of conspiracy theories here at TC. While not necessarily believing them all – especially the all-encompassing, shape-shifting lizards from another dimension type ones – they’re like intellectual table-salt. They enhance the flavor of life, and help foster a sense of cynicism about the motives and actions of government and those in power, which is certainly extremely sensible. However, just as conspiracy theories cover the gamut from plausible to completely-loopy [though remarkably entertaining], so does coverage of them in the mainstream media range from sober, serious consideration of the possibilities to… Well, to Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura.

We should probably have got some kind of inkling from its location on Tru TV. The channel used to be known as Court TV, but changed its brand in 2008, now operating under the slogan, “Not reality. Actuality.” Going by shows such as Operation Repo, “actuality” appears to mean making stuff up and trying to give the impression it’s real.  Saying Tru TV does not have a good record for serious investigative journalism is like saying Michael Jackson had some deficiencies as a child-care provider.  But, hey, we’ll cut it some slack: after all, host Jesse Ventura remains one of the few people to crack the two-party system, during his spell as Governor of Minnesota. If there’s anyone capable of cutting through the BS, it’d be him.

Unfortunately,  any hope of a balanced look at the topics under investigation evaporates in the fiery heat of the near-hysterical approach to the subject matter. After the jump, we’ll bravely go through the entire series, episode by episode, and expose the deadly truth about Conspiracy Theory!!!! Ok, perhaps not, but after you’ve watched a few of these shows, the style does tend to rub off…

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Incredibly Bad Film Show: Kinky Killers

Dir: George Lekovic
Star: Michael Paré, Beverly Lynne, Brooke Lewis, Mark Belasco

I can only imagine the conversation which took place in the distribution company’s office, with regard to this movie and its original title:

“I think we can use the film, but Polycarp? What’s that again?
“He was a second-century bishop. In Greece.”
[Long Pause]
“Yeah. Well, actually, no. Here’s what we’re gonna do.”
[Reaches for black marker]
“Oh, and I hope you weren’t attached to the DVD sleeve either…”

Hey, presto: say what you like about the quality of the actual movie – and we will have plenty to say there before long, trust us on that – whoever was involved with the marketing was a frickin’ genius. We stumbled across this on cable, so the cover (right) wasn’t even a factor. Frankly, if we had, it might have been a warning, because it would have been one of those cases where the sleeve is clearly trying way too hard. As is, the title was sufficient, along with the presence of veteran character actor Charles Durning. He won three Purple Hearts in World War II, taking part in both the Normandy landings and the Battle of the Bulge, and shows up here in one location, to no real purpose. One can only surmise some kind of gambling debt was involved.

This is not impossible: we’ve covered a gangster/movie connection elsewhere, and this feels like the same sort of thing, an ill-conceived vanity project, though this has far less sense of any connection to reality. Bodies – mostly of blonde strippers – are turning up in the streets of New Jersey, with parts missing and tattoos on them the victims didn’t have when they were alive, including the mysterious word, “Polycarp”. The police are baffled. What does it mean? I guess the NJPD do not have access to, oh, Google? Detectives Paré and Belasco are “investigating”; quotes used advisedly, since their methodology is not quite straight from the police manual.

The original sleeve with the real Polycarp.
Now, why didnt they use him?

Still, it gets them into the right area: that inhabited by Dr. Jill Kessey (Lynne), a psychiatrist who has been giving therapy to a number of the victims. Yeah, because strippers can regularly afford $200/hour therapists, right? Kessey has an ‘open’ relationship with her boyfriend (and his bad case of back acne), and it turns out he slept with the victims. The cops suspect him. Which means they break into their room, interrogate him in the shower, take him away in his underwear then dump him under a bridge in what looks like Brooklyn, according to Chris. That drooling sound you hear is civil rights lawyers thinking about the possibilities. The trail leads from there to another psychiatrist, Dr. Grace Sario (Lewis), who also has an unconventional approach to therapy, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Ok, so far, it’s been dull in an erotic thriller kind of way, much as you’d expect from Ms. Lynne, the veteran of movies with titles such as The Bikini Escort Company, and the Black Tie Nights series. To describe her as “unconvincing” as a psychiatrist would be putting it mildly, and I needed to convince Chris at the half-way mark to persevere, and had to compromise by re-locating with her from the living-room to the bedroom. I’m glad I did, for it’s only after that point that full-blown religious looniness breaks out. Oh, it had been hinted at, with Pare’s cop found of quoting religious scripture to suspects [probably adding another count to that lawsuit], and if we’d been bothered enough to Google “polycarp,” could have found out its origins before the movie divulged them to us. However, it’s not until the final reel that we discover the truth.

[Spoiler alert, I guess. Though as usual, if you go ahead and watch this one, you should be doing so purely for amusement, rather than the plot.]  The murders are actually being committed by a coven of witches, led by Doctor Sario and Kessey, as part of a ritual with the eventual aim of putting the (very clearly plastic) pieces together, and triggering the coming of Lucifer. As you do. This is all explained in great detail by the perpetrators after they have captured three of the male actors: this is probably necessary, though it has the feeling more of a theology lecture than anything else – if the subjects are tied up, it’s likely to avoid them being bored into unconsciousness by the exposition and toppling off their chairs. Throw in some entirely gratuitous sex scenes before we get to that point, and the movie makes a late surge into incredibly-bad territory.

The entire exercise seems to have been churned out with amazingly little thought, from the basic concept – those with a fondness for T+A will be put off by the religion and vice-versa – all the way through to the casting, where I wouldn’t be surprised if they sold off all the roles at auction, not just this one. In Durning’s long career, which has gained him nine Emmy noms plus a pair of Oscar nods, it’s unquestionably a low-water mark. Even on the considerably less-distinguished resumes of Paré and Lynne, this is something which will be buried and forgotten as nothing but lurid nonsense with few redeeming merits.

[November 2009]

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Incredibly Bad Film Show: Swing Vote

Dir: Joshua Michael Stern
Star: Kevin Costner, Madeline Carroll, Paula Patton, Dennis Hopper

The unacceptable face of democracy

What makes Swing Vote an Incredibly Bad Film is not the acting – no film with Mare Winningham in it will ever get less than glowing reviews in that area from us. No, it’s a story which combines relentless implausibility and extremely dubious morality, that had me wanting to assemble a mob with torches and storm the home of writers Stern and Jason Richman – just as soon as I finish vomiting at the heartfelt sincerity of it all.

The ‘hero’ – quotes used advisedly – is Bud Johnson (Costner), an alcoholic layabout who just got fired from his job at an egg-packing plant, and who barely functions on any level above survival. He relies mostly on the needling of precocious moppet Molly (Carroll) to get him through the day. She is the brightest in her class and wants to grow up to a vet “or chairman of the Fed.” Never mind the fact that given her parents and environment, she’s a more plausible candidate for an “I’m twelve and pregnant” edition of The Jerry Springer Show. Election day rolls around, and Molly convinces Bud to do his civic duty and vote. He instead, gets drunk and falls asleep, so Molly decides to exercise her father’s democratic right and vote for him.

It’s a massive burst of hypocrisy right there: why would someone so intelligent, yet clearly smitten with the divinity of the electoral process, choose to commit voter fraud? There’s another hole in the film’s philosophy too: while it may be a duty to vote. it’s not an obligation. If you choose not to vote, that’s perfectly fine too; if you’d rather collapse into alcoholic unconsciousness, that is absolutely your right. Go for it. Frankly, it would probably be best for the country if people like Bud are kept out of the process: what we see here is electoral evolution in action. The fewer dumb people that get to vote, the greater weight given to the ballots of those capable of completing the apparently-complex task.

Anyway, back in the polling station, the worker on duty, guarding the previous flame of democratic freedom has, conveniently fallen asleep, allowing Molly to swipe a ballot and enter the booth. In another remarkable coincidence, a rogue vacuum-cleaner knocks out the plug to the voting machine in the middle of the process. A startled Molly pauses only long enough to tear carefully the stub from the ballot, before escaping, her father’s vote now lost in electronic limbo [that sound you hear is the British electoral system sniggering, as we still use the sturdy “X on the ballot paper” method].

The unacceptable face of democracy
Hopper wonders if he can work with Lynch again

Naturally, in a third strike which doesn’t so much require the suspension of disbelief, as its garroting with piano-wire, that vote turns out to be the deciding one in the deciding count in the deciding state, and because Johnson was ‘robbed’ of his vote, he is given another chance. In ten days, he’ll get to cast the deciding vote. In the meantime, of course, both the Republican and Democratic contenders (Kelsey Grammer and Hopper) are falling over themselves to court Bud. I’ll pause for a moment to enjoy the irony of one of actor behind one of the most iconic rebel performances of all time in Easy Rider (or even Blue Velvet), now playing an establishment lackey.

From here, the film should have gone for dark satire – how far are the parties prepared to prostitute themselves for one man, especially a smart one who knows how to manipulate them? And there are moments when the film does take that route, most notably a lovely ad with the Democrat going pro-life in a playground of exploding kids. It would then have concluded with Bud deciding neither candidate was worthy of his vote – or even more subversively, casting his vote for a candidate outside the two-party system. This alone is something the film steadfastly refuses to acknowledge, even though almost 1.7 million voters selected someone outside the Rep-Dem duopoly in the 2008 election.

Instead, it goes for the sentimental jugular, with Bud undergoing a crash course in everything he needs to know, the night before he hosts a presidential debate. This allows him to deliver, at great length, the sort of heartfelt nonsense he must have insisted on plugging into the script [he helped bankroll this production], in the belief he was still playing Ray Kinsella, rather than a piece of alcoholic trailer-trash who can’t string ten words together.  It feels almost as out of place as the turd-shaped musical number Kevin Bud drops in the middle of a political banquet, though allows him to regain the respect of his daughter. Where the hell are Child Protective Services in all this?

(Democratic) Rebel Without a Clue

The film is nothing if not neutral, even-handedly portraying Democrats and Republicans. In the hands of Stern, this comes across more as bland, commercial-minded cowardice than anything – oh my goodness, let’s not say anything which might potentially offend either side of the cinema-going audience [showing remarkable good taste, the public voted with their wallets, and Swing Vote failed to crack the top five, even on its opening weekend, earning a paltry worldwide total of $17.6m]. Both parties are shown as honest, compassionate politicians who just go a little overboard in their pursuit of victory – let’s hear it for completely toothless satire (Jonathan Swift is spinning in his grave like a Vegas slot-machine reel). At the end, we don’t even find out who Bud picks: for a film all about the importance of exercising your right to choose, this is a complete cop-out.

To summarize, we have a film which glorifies the kind of man most of us would actively cross the street to avoid, proclaims that defrauding the electoral process is noble, condones the media’s collusion in the fraud – a local TV journalist (Patton) discovers what’s going on, but opts to stay silent – and emphasizes the abject failure of democracy in America. The concept that every vote counts is a laudable one, though strained somewhat, say, here in Arizona, which has been Republican every Presidential election bar one for the past sixty years. However, when the vote that really counts belongs to a supposed “everyman” like Bud, it makes me want to break out into a rousing chorus of Tomorrow Belongs to Me.

[October 2009]

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Incredibly Bad Film Show: Shock Treatment

Dir: Jim Sharman
Star: Cliff De Young, Jessica Harper, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn

shock2In the early 80’s, it became clear to the makers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that their creation was not quite the box-office bomb it initially seemed, but was developing, literally, a life of its own at midnight screenings. Inevitably, they saw the opportunity to cash in and do the same kind of thing again. After all, what was Rocky, except a bunch of cheesy songs, OTT acting and lurid content: how hard can it be to put that sort of thing together?

Well, if ever anyone thinks it’s possible to go out and deliberately make a cult movie, they should be strapped down and forced to watch this abomination, Clockwork Orange style. Which is pretty much the only way anyone will be able to get through it: our tolerance for bad films is near-unparalleled, but inside about 10 minutes, Chris was suggesting we should cut our losses and bail out. The setting is Denton, the small town in which Rocky opened, but centers on Brad (De Young) and Janet (Harper), now not-so-happily married. Matters come to head when they attend a TV taping of The Marriage Maze, a game-show hosted by the blind Bert Schnickt. He “wins”a stay in Dentonvale, the local loony bin run by siblings Cosmo and Nation McKinley (O’Brien and Quinn), while she is turned into a singing star by Farley Flavors, the head of a local fast-food company. He’s also played by De Young because, it turns out, he’s actually Brad’s long-lost twin, with designs on Janet, and the whole things is a set-up to this end.

Technically, the above would be a spoiler, but when the original product is as rancid as this, there’s not much that can possibly be spoiled. In the documentary accompanying the recent DVD release, several people make the claim that the film was simply ‘ahead of its time,’ foreshadowing the rise of reality television and shows like American Idol, which manufacture celebrities. Even granting that may have been the case (and it’s a stretch), it has achieved the remarkable feat of going from ahead of its time, to past its sell-by date, without ever actually passing through “relevant” at any point. Every aspect of the script now seems completely toothless, the satirical equivalent of a bout of constipation: there’s a great deal of straining going on, with nothing to show for it.

shock1Certainly, it’s no Rocky Horror, with the key difference being the cast. Instead of future Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon, and Tim Curry bestride the entire movie like a corsetted Colossus, we get a Who’s Who – or more likely, just Who? – of eighties B-list British celebs. Barry Humphreys! Ruby Wax! Rik Mayall! Where’s Roger De Courcey and Nookie Bear when you need them? [In fairness, Curry was offered the role of Farley Flavors, but declined, apparently due to being unsure about whether he could do the necessary American accent] Jessica Harper looks particularly out of place, and appears to be be rather less comfortable than when she was being stalked round a school in Suspiria. One can hardly blame her: crawling through a room filled with razor-wire would probably be as pleasant an experience as watching this film.

Then there’s the songs. Oh, dear: yes, then there are the songs. Here is one particular lyrical nugget which stood out, from the all-time classic, Bitchin in the Kitchen:

Dear knife drawer
Now won’t you help me to face life more
Oh, trashcan
Don’t you put the dirt on me
Oh percolator, why are we always sooner or later
Bitchin’ in the kitchen or crying in the bedroom all night

I have known eight-year olds who could come up with better doggerel than that. O’Brien has certainly done his fair share of genuine classics: not just Rocky and The Time-Warp, but also the wonderful Name Your Poison, sung by Christopher Lee in Captain Invincible. As a contrast, here’s a sample of its lyrics: “There’s nothing sicker in society / Than a lack of liquor and sobriety / So, down the hatch / Here’s mud in your eye / Take a bracer with a chaser / Wash it down with rye!” In contrast, the songs from Shock Treatment feel, at best, half-finished, as if they had gone straight from the back of a napkin onto the soundstage [the entire film was shot in the UK, a strike in the US having prevented any location work there].

shock3So, the story is uninteresting, the performances poor and the songs utterly forgettable at best. Is there anything that salvages proceedings? Well, the look of the film is somewhat interesting: the set and costume designers were the same as in Rocky Horror, and do quite a good job of capturing the hyper-realistic feel of the televisual world. That’s it. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to agree with the participants who claim this was not a “prequel” or a “sequel” to Rocky, but an “equal.” That’s a completely ludicrous claim, without any merit: this is a shameless cash-grab, possessing none of the sense of fun and transgression that propelled the original into immortality. Rocky Horror was as clear an example of capturing lightning in a bottle as could be imagined, and this misguided attempt – complete with painfully-obvious pauses for ‘audience participation’ – should have been strangled at birth.

The other kind of “shock treatment,” the one involving electrodes and high-voltages, would be a good deal more enjoyable.

[March 2009]

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Incredibly Bad Film Show: Talaash

Dir: Suneel Darshan
Akshay Kumar, Kareena Kapoor, Pooja Batra, Raj Babbar

talaash1Bollywood films are all the rage now, with the Oscar-winning success of Slumdog Millionaire – even if was directed by the very un-Indian Danny Boyle. However, it is safe to say that not every product pumped out by the Mumbai studios over the years can quite claim to have been unjustly overlooked by the Academy, and Talaash is certainly one such case. Now, we are generally fond of the bright and breezy style favoured by film-makers on the Asian sub-continent. Three hours long? Not a problem. Enlivened by colourful dance numbers at regular intervals? Bring it on. Serve that sucker up with a keema naan and we are so there.

However, there are just some kind of films that do not suit this kind of treatment. Bollywood horror movies, for example, are a) pretty rare, and b) crap, for very good reason. When the participants are breaking out impeccably-choreographed moves, it’s almost impossible to sustain a mood of fear and abject terror. [Unless you’re watching Dancing With the Stars] Talaash is in exactly this category. It’s the kind of story which needs a completely different, non-musical approach. Chan-wook Park, director of Oldboy, would probably have been a great choice to take the story here in the proper direction. Which would be bleak, nihilistic, and everyone dies. Without bursting into song at any point, I should stress. To prove my point, here’s the synopsis.

Babu works for three underworld dons, and when arrested, refuses to talk, in the knowledge they will take care of his wife and children. But when he finally gets home, he finds his family near-destitute. Enraged, he betrays his bosses: their revenge is to take his young daughter Pooja, and raise her to sell as a sex slave, with the chilling phrase, “She’ll be married every night, and widowed each morning.” When Babu tries to fight back, he is beheaded in front of his wife, and Pooja is abducted. His wife goes insane and spends years in a mental hospital. His son, Arjun, becomes a high-profile vigilante, and is now ready to find the killers, in their new identities, and face the many obstacles keeping him from rescuing Pooja and restoring his mother’s sanity.

Now, don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly whistling a merry tune after reading that little storyline. However, the makers insist on treating it exactly as if it were the usual ‘boy meets girl’ fluffiness, so when Arjun finally discovers Pooja’s location, rather than – oh, I dunno, going therehe and Tina break into a musical number [below right] involving, for no readily apparent reason, a horse and a speedboat. Or, going the other way, another musical number is immediately followed by an attempted rape on Tina, still wearing the same costume in which she was happily bouncing around, not minutes before. The words “unevenness of tone’ don’t even begin to describe how all over the place this is. If you randomly spliced together I Spit on Your Grave with The Sound of Music, you’d be getting there.

talaash2Ah, yes. Tina. I completely forgot to mention her massively botoxed self. She is the daughter of one of the bosses involved in wrecking Arjun’s life, and for a long time we thought she was going to end up being Pooja. As a result, we spent the first two hours with our flesh crawling every time she and Arjun made doe-eyes at each other; it was like watching Princess Leia kissing whom everyone knows now is her brother, multiplied by a factor of about 1,000. At least they never sang about their love for each other. I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or not that this potentially incestuous subplot doesn’t develop – though I guarantee you, it would have done in the Chan Wook-Park version.

The hero is played by Akshay Kumar, who is one of our favourites and is well-suited to this role, since he can bring the appropriate level of angst to proceedings. However, once again, this carefully-constructed brooding intensity is completely derailed when Arjun starts busting out moves like he was Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Any hopes for sustained gritty realism are completely dashed the first time we see Arjun as an adult, where he leaps off the seat of a speeding motorcycle, flies through the windshield of an oncoming truck and then proceeds to beat up the arms-smuggling occupants. This does set the scene for the grand finale where he is shot twice in the chest, beaten up and still then manages to get up and fight the villain.

Credit Kumar for apparently doing a good deal of his own stunts, not least a sequence outside a train which is all the more impressive because you know there’s no blue-screen involved. That scene involves him having to race along the roof, and stop the train before it crashes into a school-bus stuck on a level crossing. This is because Tina – for a jape – has fed everyone on it save Arjun, including the driver, opium-laced candy balls. Oh, how the long winter evenings must just fly past. Fortunately, Indian trains have brakes that allow them to stop dead, inside about fifty feet, with a decorative shower of fireworks from their wheels. That’s part of a lengthy chunk set on the “palace on wheels”, which includes some of the most unfunny comic mugging I’ve ever seen. And I have sat through most of Wong Jing’s lesser works. Maybe it’s cultural, and Mumbai audiences were rolling in the aisles. If so, then this “we’re all the same really” is palpable nonsense.

talaash3Arjun discovers he needs to go to South Africa, where he is helped by a former senior detective in the Mumbai force – now a South African taxi-driver, which must say something about the salary earned by an Indian cop. There he meets a ‘hostess’, and we were now convinced she was going to be his sister, forcing Arjun to commit suicide after committing incest. We really must stop watching Aki Kaurismaki films. In a thoroughly implausible twist, he convinces Tina her father is a villain, and she then makes her father see the error of his ways, and ‘fess up where Pooja is being held. Arjun goes there to rescue his sister, only to be caught, beaten and forced to watch as Poona is auctioned off since he arrived the day of the sale. This is remarkably lucky, since an entire decade has passed since her kidnapping. I’m impressed with the bad guys’ restraint, feeding, clothing and keeping a young girl for so long, before selling her. Such charitable dedication can only be applauded.

Their lair is simply fabulous, with the auction taking place somewhere that looks more like a Vegas show-lounge, though lacking the taste and restraint you’ll customarily find in the decor at such places. It also includes a fire-pit, inside which Arjun is chained and forced to watch proceedings. Inevitably the sale takes the form of a fabulous dance number, which does much the same for sex trafficking as Pretty Woman did for street prostitution. The hero breaks free and snatches his sister; sudden cut to them on a motorcycle being chased through the South African streets. Quite why a 160-minute long movie couldn’t apparently be bothered to show any more than this, escapes me. The showdown between him and the lead villain [played by the same guy who was Gobindar in Octopussy] then follows, with entirely the expected resolution. Refreshing to find a director who refuses to counter the audience’s expectations in any way, it would appear.

The entire thing is available on Youtube: it really doesn’t do the epic, sweeping scale of the movie’s awfulness justice, but here’s a clip where which Arjun and Tina have just located Pooja. As noted above, they sing about their love, before heading off to the villain’s lair. It’ll give you some idea, though sadly, the Youtube version is shorn of the auction itself. You do however, get to see the most painful example of blackface since The Black and White Minstrel Show went off the air. Enjoy.

[March 2009]

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