Thursday, April 20, 2006

Minimum NIGHT SHIFT: MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE (1986)


Kinetoscope totally hearts Maximum Overdrive

Near the beginning of Maximum Overdrive, Stephen King, the bestselling novelist in America sticks his face in an ATM security camera and calls to his wife "Honey! C'mon over here, Sugarbuns! This machine just called me an asshole!" An AC/DC rocker kicks in on the soundtrack.

That pretty much draws the dividing line for Maximum Overdrive. The world obviously connects with King's darker road trips through the night landscapes of the American experience. It is easy to forget, among the Shinings and Cujos that he has a deep love for the rip-roaring, action-oriented side of American horror. King's directorial debut is amiable and unpretentious, and Overdrive's 16 wheels are firmly in goofy, balls-out gory drive-in action horror. This is wise, because it's a forgiving genre. All you have do do is deliver some inventively icky or crazy setpieces, give the stock characters a few memorable quirks and quotable dialogue, and save the biggest explosions for the climax. Make them laugh a couple times, make them wince a few more, and make them cheer when the villain gets smushed. Thus does Maximum Overdrive deliver in spades.

The plot, suggested by the skeletal outline of King's short story "Trucks," is an instant-apocalypse recipe a la King. Radioactivity from a passing meteor causes the skies to glow florescent green, and machines to come to life, filled with unexplained homicidal rage. Causing the most mayhem are big rig trucks, so powerful, mobile, and fast. At the Dixie Boy gas station and diner in North Carolina, a small band of truckers, wayward travelers and restaurant staff are holed up as the perimeter is circled by a maximumly overdriven trucks.

Even when the trucks begin demanding that they be fed gasoline, and their intentions to enslave the human race become clear... Even when Bill Robinson (Emilio Estevez), the disgruntled short order cook, decides to lead the Dixie Boy survivors in a final stand against enslavement... None of this is really about our relationships with technology. Maximum Overdrive exploits our queasiness on this hoary s-f topic, but uses it to build horrible, comically brutal images. The movie has an unapologetically mean sense of humor, but it is King's ghoulish glee that redeems him. The first huge amazing setpiece involves a traffic jam on a drawbridge, and truckload of watermelons. If this is the kind of scene that interests you, then everything you could want of such a scene is delivered, and then some. If you are not curious about such an event, you may be a lost cause. You will likely not be amused by Little League players being chased by steamrollers, waitresses being assaulted by flying electric carving knives, or a guy getting hit in the balls by a Coke can blasted out of a vending machine with shotgun force. The point here is to be big, loud, messy, and above all fun.

Maximum Overdrive is a far more faithful adaptation of "Trucks" than it is commonly given credit for. King's primary change is in tone, transforming a tense, if improbable, survivalist pressure-cooker drama to a splatter-happy headbanger's ball. The short story is not a void of characterization, but even the stock characters of Overdrive are more colorful. A particular standout is Pat Hingle as nasty diner-owner Hendershot, who is hoarding a stockpile of military firearms in his basement, and swears and spits a lot. Easily the weakest link is Laura Harrington as Brett, a sassy tough-but-sexy (ugh) drifter who hitchhikes in with a lecherous Bible salesman (Christopher Murney - don't worry folks, he'll get smushed). If one grows impatient for Brett and Bill to fall in love in the war-zone, take satisfaction that they will have to consummate their affection in a truck stop break room. Most of the "Trucks" characters do have rough analogs in the film, but this isn't necessarily a blessing. A memorable nervous breakdown moment from the story becomes awkward and misplaced, when a waitress (Ellen McElduff) snaps and rants against the trucks "we made you!"

The film is also one of the rare King adaptations to deal in images that match the earthy language of his writing. In this respect, it is perhaps only bested by Graveyard Shift and Stand By Me. The Dixie Boy survivors grow sweatier and grimier as the day wears on, spit, bleed, blister and snot like real people. In probably the sweetest scene Maximum Overdrive can muster, two men on a recon mission through a tunnel full of raw sewage (don't ask) bond by scaring each other with rats, and cracking wise when they get feces in their mouths.

The cinematography is attractive and bright, but not stylish, and the AC/DC music, while I know King-approved, is not what I associate in my head with his work. That's all that's stopping at least one sequence in Maximum Overdrive from being the closest any film has come to capturing the feeling of reading a Stephen King novel: a young boy, having escaped the steamroller carnage on the baseball diamond, rides his bike down the empty suburban North Carolina streets. He passes mute scenes of destruction and death, some funny (a guy killed by a Walkman), some horrifying, all sort of giggly-yucky and inventive. Arcs of lawn sprinklers shoot up in the background, a moment of simple, strange poetry amid the unabashed schlock, as a young American metaphorically grows up. And then the ice cream truck comes to get him.

Friday, April 14, 2006

NIGHT SHIFT, Second Gear: CAT'S EYE (1985)


Drew Barrymore loses a cuteness contest in Cat's Eye

Stephen King is a man who loves all types of stories. Thus, he tells all types of stories. Night Shift alone contains science-fiction stories, nasty turnabout E.C. Comics-style poetic-justice, Lovecraftian supernatural tales, down-home splatter bucket stories, sensitive dramatic fiction, and hallucinatory absurdist horror-comedy. This grab-bag nature has contributed enormously to the popularity of King's short story collections. It also makes King's screenplay for director Lewis Teague's anthology film Cat's Eye a little scattershot, if still lovable.

Cat's Eye adapts two of the briefest Night Shift stories, and links them via the adventures of a cute cat who also weaves in and out of the plots, before becoming the star of the third tale, a segment original for the screen. Featuring ugly cinematography and a dated, embarrassing Alan Silvestri synth score, Cat's Eye's a lightweight King film, but it gets some things uniquely right.

The Night Shift tales King adapts for the screen are two of the collection's most blackly funny. In "Quitter's Inc.," Dick Morrison (James Woods) is a testy chain-smoker and a bit of a bastard, who signs up with a mysterious stop-smoking company (run by Alan King, having a lot of fun) whose tough-love policy involves electrocution, rape, and worse, if the subject doesn't go cold turkey immediately. In a witty criticism of 12 Step programs, and comical observation about human vice, Morrison can barely restrain himself from sneaking a puff, despite knowing his world is filled with spies and family in danger.

The twin engines of "Quitter's Inc." are the desperation and perpetual grumpiness of nicotine withdraw, and the far more universal fear of Being Watched. It's always seemed to me that the real reason Orwell's 1984 continues to capture the public imagination over other dystopias has less to do with politics than the omnipresent surveillance. King's story reclaims the idea for its inherent horror, and makes it very personal. The They in "Quitters, Inc." is not watching everyone. Their vast resources and innumerable agents are all trained on you. In the most giggly-scary suspense scene, Morrison steals away to his den during a thunderstorm for a midnight smoke, and suddenly realizes, unlit cigarette swinging from his bottom lip, that there very well might be something in the closet.

The omnibus format doesn't require the brief stories to be greatly expanded, so Cat's Eye takes far fewer liberties with the source material than other films of King's short fiction. The writer has taken the opportunity to redraft the plot in this new medium, and makes a few minor alterations. Some of the changes tighten the screws a bit: the stakes for Morrison's transgressions are worse in the film (no threats of raping his wife are in the story), and his off-page retarded son becomes an on-screen retarded daughter. Other choices mostly involve playing up the black humor. In an unfortunate fantasy scene, Morrison freaks out, surrounded by smokers, at an unexplained party. The sequence is supposed to visualize the king of all nicotine fits — revelers drag on fistfuls of cigarettes, blow out 3-minute exhale clouds, and blast smoke out their ears like Roger Rabbit — but James Woods' sweaty, surly performance already does a finer, subtler job of conveying the comedy and restless frustration.

In "The Ledge", a gambling-crazy cuckolded mob boss Cressner (Kenneth McMillan) bets/forces an adulterous retired tennis pro (Robert Hays) to walk the tiny ledge around a high-rise hotel, in exchange for the gangster's wife. That, Constant Readers, is it. It's kind of redundant to point out when a horror film exploits a primal human fear. That is horror's stock-in-trade, if not its definition. So "The Ledge" is about how we're scared of falling from high places, and knows better than to muck it up with complications. To justify the plot situation, "Ledge" dramatizes the grade-school lunchroom plot device "what if somebody put a gun to your head and made you do something you don't want to do?" Unlike the slack-jawed Saw films, "The Ledge" understands the goofiness inherent, and fully embraces all potential for humor. Fear not, it is that rustic Stephen King humor, such as an obnoxious pigeon being kicked off a building.

As with "Quitters", King largely leaves his well-enough story alone, but the changes his script makes are satisfying and cinematic. (Spoilers Ahoy!) The rather predictable revelation that Cressner is going to monkey paw on his promised ante, is handled via conversation in the story, and in a funny visual sick joke in the film: he presents her severed head by kicking it at Johnny. The power struggle at the center of the drama makes far more sense in the film, largely thanks to Kenneth McMillan's Cressner, who is convincingly persuasive when proposing his petty, juvenile, mad wager. Finally, a satisfying open-ended finale to the story becomes a crowd-pleasing violent comeuppance for the villain. The story is more literary, and rather nastier, and the script is easily funnier and breezier, as a movie can show us the vertiginous heights of the ledge without slowing for description, no matter how evocative.

The stories are all linked by a cat (presumably with the titular eye) who is chased around various cities, hitches rides on various transit, is adopted and tormented by the villains of the first two stories, before escaping. In his spare time, the cat is also plagued by weird visions of a ghostly little girl (Drew Barrymore) who appears in TV ads and department store manniquins and begs, Princess Leia-style, for his help (these scenes are completely non sequitur due to some deleted scenes explaining their payoff, and they damage the pace). Cats are more difficult to work with than dogs or horses, and Cat's Eye's ace in the sleeve is their feline star. The cat (sadly uncredited) is on screen as much as his human costars, and actually called upon to emote in several scenes. He is not only very cute, but holds his own with James Woods, Alan King, and Kenneth McMillan.

The third and final vignette, "The General", is original for the screen. It reminds me of a good joke on The Golden Girls, where Sophia wanted to read the new Stephen King book, and Dorothy protested that she hoped it wasn't about a demonic little creature finding creative ways to terrorize a household. In "The General", the stray cat takes center-stage, as he is taken in by little Amanda (Drew Barrymore) and her parents (James Naughton is the nice dad, Candy Clark the bitchy mom). Mom wants to chuck kitty outside because of strange doings late night in Amanda's room, but it turns out young Mandy is having night terrors because a Carlo Rambaldi troll is holding her nose closed and sucking out her breath as she sleeps. The cat, renamed General, engages in epic battle with the horrid troll, which depending on your mood is either over-the-top good times or may be the deal-breaker. Sadly, though marbles are spilled, opportunities are missed for match cuts between two different "cat's eyes."

Among identifiable King motifs are subverting genre tropes he finds irritating — the little girl's parents look at her like she's Steve McQueen in The Blob when she talks about the monster, but she's vindicated in the end — and finding inspiration in/ drawing a line to connect folklore and urban legend, in this case the superstition that cats suck the breath from sleeping children's mouths.

Cat's Eye, because it's from the man's pen, understands better than any films save Creepshow and Maximum Overdrive the intentionally cornpone humor of Stephen King's lighter work, doesn't futz with the plots too much, and keeps a jaunty tone throughout. For King fans, there are an enormous number of inside jokes, some for the casual reader — a red '58 Plymouth Fury almost nails the cat, and if you didn't catch it, the bumper sticker reads "I'm Christine and I'm pure evil" (!) — some jokes way deep inside: the issue of Penthouse that first published "The Ledge" can be spotted on a coffeetable.

All viewers are strongly, strongly advised to stick around for the heavy metal sing-along song "Cat's Eye" during the closing credit roll.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Who Watches the NIGHT SHIFT?: CHILDREN OF THE CORN (1984)

Filmmakers have been in a 30-year contest, of which they are not aware, to see who can make the best movie from a Stephen King short story from the author's beloved 1978 Night Shift collection. Or rather, judging by the entries in this race, a contest to see who can make the worst and/or craziest movie.

Films based on the King of Blue Collar Horror's physically massive novels always have to make choices about streamlining the abundance of source material. Just as popular for film optioning are King's short stories. While rich with story, character and world-class gross-out, the stories are all efficient, leanly structured and snappy. No feature filmmaker who takes on Night Shift has been able to resist the urge to rip apart the delicate little stories and pad them back up with added subplots, characters, melodrama, or distracting, invented setpieces.

Does this beefing-up ever work? Why not? Are there other merits or strange pleasures to be had in these maligned films? What is the most faithful adaptation? Least faithful? Best? ...and worst? I've been undertaking the dubiously enlightening job of watching every film based on King's work. Thus far, the most interesting element of the movies as adaptations is a uniform inability to capture more than one or two elements of the texture, the style, the feel of King's writing.

This week, Exploding Kinetoscope examines the films based on Night Shift. Kinetoscope is the doorway, I know what you need, and hey: let's boogie, man.

Warning: This is gonna get spoily.

Village of the Malachai!: Children of the Corn (1984)

Children's main tactic is to wring every ounce of story out of the source. In doing so, the film dramatizes from the beginning backstory which in the story is slowly ekked out as a solution to a mystery. The hook here, after all, is that children live in the corn and kill people. So the movie begins with a small town's adult population being murdered by religious-nut farm kids under the spell of a Corn God preaching weirdo. The power of King's taut original is the Twilight Zone stock situation of unsuspecting travelers stumbling upon a ghost town and discovering the burg's terrible history. The film has shot itself in the foot, destroying any potential mysterious circumstances at the expense of an attention-grabbing opening gore sequence of loony preteens sticking people's hands in kitchen appliances. Likewise a scene in the story where in an empty church, a man studies clues and signs and with dawning horror pieces together the standards and practices of the kiddie sacrifice cult. In the film, he stumbles into a packed church, sacrifice mid-slice.

Try as Children of the Corn might, it cannot make likable one of King's most singularly unpleasant protagonists. In the short story, the real time plot is driven by the marital bickering between a road weary couple. This "Lockhorns"-on-the-road scenario motivates the hero to leave his bitchy wife unprotected in dangerous situations, and fuels "Children of the Corn" with an ugly misanthropy. The film attempts to show a loving couple (Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton) break down as normal interpersonal tensions are exacerbated by a horrific car accident and increasingly stressful adventures. Too many traces of the human ugliness that haunt King's "Corn" remain, so our heroes simply behave as reasonable people do not, and shout at each other a lot, but not in any interesting way.

The list of failures and injuries in George Goldsmith's screenplay is unyielding. The short story suddenly segues into the supernatural for its nasty snapper ending, and the film turns it into a protracted action sequence and never lets us see the monster. The dum-dum additions also include: a total reversal of the heroes' nasty fates; a couple of cute dissenting Corn Kids used as a viewer-friendly window into the corn-religion (one of whom has the Shine!); a good suspense scene (a woman napping alone in a car being lurked by Children of the Corns) which is revealed to be a Carrie-like dream, even though it contains events that actually happen and shots from other characters' perspectives.

Having grown up in Iowa, where Children was shot (standing in for Nebraska), I can attest that there is potential spooky beauty and weird majesty in a cornfields. Interior and exterior space becomes confused as the rows become tunnels, the stalks and leaves walls and roofs. The very blowing wind alters the landscape, sending ripples and waves that transform solid green fields into strange oceans. Director Fritz Kiersch manages to squelch all the eeriness and most of the prettiness out of the corn. Except that you are being told it is so, there's little feeling that secret horrors are lurking in the fields.


"OUTLANDER!"

The biggest expansion from King's story puts the Children themselves front and center, rather than a lurking, off-stage threat. Sadly, though the characters have some iconic nightmare value for children of the '80, they cannot bear the scrutiny of the spotlight. Some particularly odd-looking and frenzied performers have been cast as the lead Corn-o's. GHD-afflicted John Franklin as head boy-preacher Isaac, and huge-mouthed firecrotch Courtney Gains as second-banana psycho, Malachai both try very hard, which mostly means hilarious histrionic screaming. But by trying to particularize the villains, the nonsense religion and cornsilk-thin motivation of the cult are all too apparent.

The viewer may, however, find themselves shouting "Outlander! Outlander!" and "Seize them!" in best Malachai imitation for many weeks after.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Archie on Exploitation Ballyhoo


Also, did a 1965 Archie's Joke Book forecast by 7 years the Weird Western Tales debut of Jonah Hex?

A: Probably not!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Roger Corman That Conquered the World: "You promised me entertainment! I never expected this!"

"I don't corrupt. I inform."
-Prince Prospero, Masque of the Red Death


Join us in wishing the happiest of birthdays to Mr. Roger Corman, cinema icon par excellence, who turns a still-dashing and spry 80 years old this April 5th. Corman is a role model for any American dreamer, a living reminder to be equally driven by work ethic and cockeyed artistic passion. You may joke about his eye being on the bottom line (I love Ray Harryhausen as much as the next kid, but in the end, it's the same price of admission for Creature From the Haunted Sea), but the real lessons of Roger Corman's career are resourcefulness, savvy and taking joy in the doing of the job.

As an artist and businessman with literally hundreds of film credits in various capacities, spanning half a century, it's nigh impossible to encapsulate everything Corman could mean to a film fan. But for me, there are two films Corman directed that capture his filmmaking at its artistic peak, glimpse the icon in motion, and summarize a large part of the legend and enduring appeal. Besides all that, The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964) are two of the director's riskiest personal explorations, and - since we're getting nostalgic and reflective here - strike a personal chord in me.


Queasy Funny

A dorky florist (Jonathan Haze in natty plaid scarf) loses everything a Faustian deal with a blood-eating plant (voice of screenwriter Charles Griffith). Meanwhile, Dick Miller eats a flower.

In the moment The Little Shop of Horrors burned itself into my 9-year-old brain forever Seymour Krelboyne holds a severed hand (omigod, they're showing a severed hand), and squeezes the stump into the hungry mouth of his pet talking plant (ha ha... ugh). Black jelly goops into Audrey Jr.'s maw, and little chunks of fake flesh flake off the hand, as Seymour's mind reels and he keeps himself from fainting by singing "Jingle Bells." Not only could I not believe the explicit gore, but for the first time I recognized black comedy in action: wanting to both laugh and vomit, I just let out a weak giggle, and stared in immobilizing horror. In the intervening years, I've seen a lot of nasty humor on screen, but very little as laugh-out-loud funny but still as heartless as The Little Shop of Horrors.

All that is cheap-jack, and on-the-fly about Corman's filmmaking is evident in this notorious 3 day production (with some later pickups, we have since learned, but the brain-boggling legend of Charles Griffith's overnight script job remains). But the recycled sets, one-take improvisatory performances, and utterly repulsive production design lends Little Shop a lot of delirious sleep-deprived energy, an ambiance of icky poverty, and competent professionals totally goofing around.

Griffith's alternately dumb-funny and deeply witty physical feat of a screenplay, a memorable monster-craze era creature, and the hysterical cast get nearly all the credit for Little Shop's success. It's Corman who is fully responsible for parlaying the grotty production circumstances into a coherent mood, style and milieu for the film, and for undertaking impossible stunt in the first place. The Little Shop of Horrors says something about the world that no one else in 1960 dared to say on film: this sickness and appalling behavior that pervades society and lurks in our desperate souls, you might as well laugh to remember you're alive. My God, I've never laughed so hard at a nerd smashing a hooker's skull with a wet rock, or a child burning to death while playing with matches.


Existential Blues and Red Deaths

Tim Lucas has called Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (also 1964) a primer in "how to shoot a horror film in color" but Corman's The Masque of the Red Death is your first supplimentary viewing assignment. With luscious, searing cinematography by young Nic Roeg, and expensive sets left over from Peter Glenvile's Becket (1964), Masque is Corman's most poetic and questing achievement, in or outside of his cycle of Poe adaptations. Inside Poe's story of the destruction of cruel hedonist Prince Prospero (Vincent Price at his very finest), whose debauched parties rage stupidly against the plague consuming the countryside, Corman finds a social critique of class and power, and asks sober questions about the nature of mortality.

It's the magical possibilities of a low budget drive-in horror movie exploring these ideas in an earnest, yearning way that makes Masque special, even if we don't have time to delve into the film today (it's a celebration after all!) In opposite mode from Little Shop, Masque makes effective use of its talented to make images of vivid, strange poetry. The path had been paved with his seminal Pit and the Pendulum (1961), but Masque is more serious overall, its comedy blacker, and its pictures more opulant. LSD and European film influenced as it may be, the Poe films and Masque in particular hint at another Roger Corman that could have been... though that Corman probably wouldn't have given us Carnosaur, so I wouldn't have it any other way.

Corman would cover some of this philosophical ground again, and more overtly, in The Trip and Gas-s-s-s, and previously in X, but never with such style or ambiguity. For me, Masque is a key '60s horror film, pointing the clear way for the few future romantic and existential meditations on death, like Kinetoscope's beloved Dellamorte Dellamore.

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Once, after a night of olive pizza and the sheer-blast-of-wicked-glee Death Race 2000, I had my only dream about Roger Corman.

Corman stands in a black landscape, before a vast blank white vertical screen, his face turned to the inky sky. A swirling gust of Les Baxter music pours from the speakers, lifting him into the air. The headlights of 1000 parked hot rods spray forth strobing primary-color lights which flash brilliantly across his body, combining in lurid purples, pinks, greens. We are there only because he has promised we will be entertained. And Roger William Corman, King of the B's, floats mid-air above every drive-in that ever was, is, will be, could be.

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Happy, happy birthday to Roger Corman, a man built to make movies.

Keep tabs on today's ROGER CORMAN B-DAY BLOG-A-THON at Video WatchBlog!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Roger Corman vs. the Night Monsters

This Wednesday, April 5 (tomorrow!) is American hero Roger Corman's 80th birthday. As friends may know, I'm fond of taking up the Charles Griffith Little Shop of Horrors challenge and writing a script in one night. That's nothin'. To celebrate the man who closed in on the Gods, Video Watchdog impresario Tim Lucas is calling for...

Roger Corman Blog-A-Thon!


So calling all bloggers who love cheap monsters, race cars, girls with guns, blood by the bucketful, rock n' roll, or E. A. Poe. Whether you want to tip your hat to a man who shaped the youth culture of the '60s, the social critic, the handsome, devilish raconteur, the beaming exploitation huckster or the '70s Hollywood indie king grooming the next generation of filmmakers - or who did it all by the seat of his pants and without blowing a dime - your job is to make Corman the subject of April 5th's post.

You've got one day. We're ripping down the sets on Thursday.