You know how some people say if they go back in time and do it all over again, they wouldn’t change a thing? Well, I’m not one of those people. I would do a ridiculous number of things differently and space-time paradoxes be damned. Among the things I’d do differently, especially if I quantum leapt back to around 1986 or so, would be to tell myself not to be such a smug, condescending dickweed my then newly discovered punk rock lifestyle. But what can you do? I was fourteen and high on self-righteous non-conformist fury, certain beyond any sense of doubt that I had it right and everyone else was a poseur or mindless drone. And nothing set me off with a more fiery passion than when some dreg of mainstream entertainment dared play at having some sort of punk rock street cred. They thing they understand my world? Let me take you down to my world, baby, and show you what life on the wicked streets of Buckner, Kentucky is really like.
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
Oh Death Spa, what have you done? All those years I spent bad-mouthing slasher films from the 1980s, then you go and immediately make yourself one of my all-time favorite horror films by being one of the most cracked, absurd examples of horror film making one is likely to stumble across. It’s probably because you actually have less to do with the American slasher films that permeated the horror scene during that prolific decade and instead can count yourself the peer of batshit insane Italian horror films from the same decade. You are less Jason Vorhees and Friday the 13th and more Lamberto Bava and Demons. I loved you when in the first five minutes you gave me Ken Foree in micro-shorts, full frontal nudity, and attempted murder by steam room. But then you just kept piling absurdity on top of insanity, so that by the time we got to the frozen flying eel, I was willing to pledge my very soul to you.
As we entered the 1980s and the dawn of the Reagan Years, we didn’t have much to worry about. Other than a recession, the ramping up of terrorism in the Middle East, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets, and people popping the collars on their Polo shirts, things were pretty cool. With nothing to occupy our national sense of anxiety, we retreated into the realm of made-up, silly crap over which to fret and wring our hands nervously. The primary focus of our societal outrage and terror: heavy metal music. And more specifically, the role Ol’ Gooseberry played in its popularity. America’s collective hysteria over Satan and his sinister ability to seduce impressionable youths and bohemians into the folds of his cloven arms began in the late 1960s when hippies started dabbling in Occultism, witchcraft, sex magick and the occasional murder of Sharon Tate.
If exploitation cinema can be traced to a single wellspring from which all its filth and fury flows, an argument can be made that said wellspring is Dwain Esper. Writer, producer, director, and all around impresario, Esper may not have made the first exploitation film. The silent era was rife with exploitation and sleaze, usually masquerading under a flimsy veneer of “cautionary tale,” like 1913’s The Inside of the White Slave Traffic. I’d be willing to go to the mat, however, in defense of Esper’s position as the godfather of the exploitation industry as we know it today. His impact goes far beyond being a mere director. Working with fellow exploitation godfather Louis Sonney (father of exploitation cinema legend Dan Sonney), Esper helped establish the network of theaters and concept of regional circuits that served as the foundation for the exploitation film. From burlesque to motion picture to roadshow, Esper had a hand in all of it, and for that, his name should be forever enshrined as one of the true pioneers in the history of the motion picture (it’s not). But even if he’d never done any of that, even if all he’d ever done is direct Maniac — known also by the slightly less sensation title of Sex Maniac — he would still deserve to go on the Mount Rushmore of strange film. Incidentally, the Mount Rushmore of strange film is located in an abandoned central Florida amusement park, and it’s made of fiberglass.
This is another one of those fragmented movie memories for me, where the only thing I could remember about it was “Amanda Pays turns into a fish” — and even that I eventually convinced myself happened in Leviathan. But when I rewatched Leviathan and discovered that Amanda Pays does not turn into a fish at any point, protected as she was by the power of Peter Weller’s rolled bandana headband, I knew I had to figure out which film it was where she did turn into a fish. Luckily, you type “Amanda Pays turns” into Google, and the first auto-complete that comes up is “Amanda Pays turns into a fish.” Internet, you are truly a good friend. So anyway, it turns out it was The Kindred, and since I was on a fishy underwater monster movie kick and couldn’t remember anything about this one, I decided to track it down (surprisingly difficult) and see what else happens besides the woman who dated both The Flash and Max Headroom turning into a fish. Turns out not much.
In 2002, I had the possibly once in a lifetime chance to spend an entire summer driving across the United States. My traveling partner and I were able to indulge every whim, sometimes diverting wildly from our vaguely set course in order to visit some out of the way attraction or satisfy some curiosity or whim. Among the many things we both enjoyed was visiting air and space museums. Some we had targeted ahead of time. Others we learned about along the way. Some we stumbled upon entirely by chance out in the relative middle of nowhere. We were, at one point, making our way across Kansas after having already stumbled upon the Mid-America Air Museum in Liberal. We hit a town called Hutchinson, and as we made our way through caught a glimpse in the distance of a couple rockets. Obviously further investigation was warranted, and that in turn led us to The Cosmosphere. By this point in our travels, we’d hit more air and space museums than I can remember off the top of my head, and though I was not tiring of them (who can get enough Ham the space chimp? No one I’d want to know, that’s who), what made Cosmosphere one of the best was that a substantial portion of the museum was dedicated to the Soviet space program.
I’ve got a weird fascination with superhero movies from places other than the USA. Since X-Men (2000) and particularly Spider-Man (2002) demonstrated the possibilities of adapting comic books with a previously unthinkable level of faithfulness to the source material, superheroes have become a staple of Hollywood’s output. And with cash tills ringing in spades for all manner of four-colour-inspired heroics (as I write, The Avengers is already the third-highest grossing film of all time and still in theatres), it’s no surprise that overseas producers began to wonder at the possibilities. Some looked to their local comic properties for inspiration, such as with Hong Kong’s ‘a bit like Batman but played by Michelle Yeoh’ effort Silver Hawk. Elsewhere, filmmakers just borrowed wholesale from American films, as with Russia’s ‘Spider-Man with a flying car’ Black Lightning, or Thailand’s ‘Spider-Man… actually just Spider-Man’ cash-in Mercury Man. And of course Bollywood, boasting the biggest film industry in the world, was hardly going to miss out.
I haven’t seen a whole lot of Bollywood films, but those I have seen, on the whole I’ve liked. I’ve seen just enough of them to act like a shocking poseur among my immediate circle of acquaintances and work colleagues. “Slumdog Millionaire? Very impressive, but really only a Western distillation of the vibrancy and colour of a real Bollywood film. Also, I got the Amitabh Bachchan reference so clearly I am better than you.” I’m not proud of such behaviour, but then it’s not difficult to feel intellectually superior to most of the people I encounter at work. Just having seen a theatre production without any songs in it is enough to mark me out as an ivory-tower elitist in my office.
Here’s an interesting factoid for you: every year this century, with the exception of 2001, a superhero movie has been in the top ten highest grossing US films of the year. Some years have had more than one – 2008 had three. Not surprising then that other filmmaking nations are trying to get their hands on those fat comic-book dollars (or in this case, baht). Thailand’s film industry is currently enjoying considerable worldwide success on the back of Tony Jaa’s martial arts movies, and has made some forays into this area such as 2006’s Mercury Man. The film was produced Prachya Pinkaew, director of Ong Bak and Chocolate, with action choreography from his long-time collaborator Panna Rittikrai. It was their attempt to cash in on the Hollywood comic-book boom, specifically Spider-Man. Don’t worry if you don’t pick up on this immediately, as the filmmakers (completed by director Bhandit Thongdee, The Unborn) helpfully add extras in Spider-Man T-shirts and jokey graffiti shout-outs to the Marvel movies, not to mention the look and abilities of the hero.