Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The XYZ's of a Criminally Overlooked Misfire :: Sam Raimi's Crimewave (1985)

"I'm the Captain of this elevator.

And we're stopping on every floor!"


Aside from being one of the most unrepentantly ferocious horror films ever made, and inspiring the greatest psycho-billy song ever recorded, The Evil Dead (1981) should also be noted for bringing Sam Raimi and Joel and Ethan Coen into the same cinematic orbit.

As the legend goes, after a grueling shoot, with their opus at long last in the can, the Renaissance Film trio -- director Raimi, producer Rob Tapert and star Bruce Campbell -- took their raw footage to New York, where editor Edna Ruth Paul and her assistant, Joel Coen, awaited to hack and splice it all together.

At the time, brother Ethan was an accountant for Macys, but as the film began to take shape, Raimi and the brothers Coen hit it off after Paul insisted he take a look at one of their scripts, which would eventually be filmed as Blood Simple (1984), where the Coens stopped being known as Joel and Ethan and officially became the Coen Brothers.

Liking what he read, and finding that they had similar sensibilities, Raimi then dusted off an old script of his own about a pair of bumbling killers called Relentless; and together, Raimi and the Coens fleshed it out considerably, with a hope that it would be a possible follow up once The Evil Dead was completed and released.

Sam Raimi

Ethan and Joel Coen

Now, it was while touring the finished film in Europe that Raimi and Tapert found a champion in producer Edward Pressmen -- Badlands (1973), Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Conan the Barbarian (1982), who liked the cut of their gib so much he helped them shepherd that follow up -- now under the title of The XYZ Murders -- into production by securing them financing through AVCO Embassy.

Turns out, however, that that would be the last bit of luck the soon-to-be-troubled production would encounter.

“At the time we had no idea how good of an experience Evil Dead was,” said Campbell (If Chins Could Kill, 2001). “Sure, we burned off four years of our lives and didn’t pocket a cent, but we had total creative control. Jumping into the big time meant dealing with the excruciatingly specific and alternately vague demands of a studio -- unlike Michigan dentists, Hollywood executives took an interest in EVERYTHING.”

It began with the casting, where the AVCO Embassy suits demanded that Campbell be replaced by a more bankable star. (Hell. I know when I think of a bankable star, I think of Reed Birney. Sheesh.)

Couple that with a grossly underestimated budget (-- as the novice filmmakers did not take into account union fees and other incidentals with their original proposal), resulting in a shoot that ran both over time and over budget, leaving neither camp very happy with each other; and conditions did not improve when a rough-cut was finally screened.

Upset with the overblown antics and nonsensical story-line, the studio basically seized the film and shooed Raimi and company out the door. After wrenching it away, AVCO Embassy then re-cut the film and redid the score, making the thing even more convoluted and nonsensical, slapped it with a new and -- staying with the theme -- nonsensical title, and then, by now having lost all faith in the project, quietly released Crimewave (1985), which just as quietly disappeared soon after.

Ever since the film has been treated like a red-headed step-child by its creators, loathed by their fans over the way they were treated by the studio hacks, and basically unheard of by everyone else. To that end, Crimewave has few defenders, but, despite all of its problems and flaws, and there are many, I’m here to tell you that I am an unabashed fan. 

Also, it’s nowhere near as bad as you’ve heard and, I think, the film is rather brilliant if you can look at it with an un-jaded eye. And the central plot isn’t all that convoluted to my eye, but tends to get lost in the thunder of the utter chaos surrounding it.

Basically, a security expert hires a couple of hitmen -- one a brutish thug (Smith), the other a weasel personified with a thing for electricity (James) -- to bump off his business partner. Things go staggeringly awry from there and a farcical comedy of errors follows as more and more bodies start piling up. See, the assassins have to keep catching and bumping off witness after witness; the toughest catch being the victim’s wife (Lasser).

Meanwhile, a hapless dope (Birney) becomes an unwitting dupe as he tries to protect his dame (Wilson) from becoming the next victim. Bedlam and an astounding amount of property damage ensue, which all culminates in one helluva car chase (-- with an extended cameo by The Classic).

Often described by the few who have seen it as a feature length tribute to the The Three Stooges, I think Raimi and the Coens had a loftier model in mind and were inspired, instead, by the screwball comedies of Preston Sturges -- Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), with the usual trademark “Shemping” thrown in to fill in the gaps.

You don’t have to squint too hard to see Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton running through a lot of these slapstick set-ups and gob-smacking gags -- especially that elevator gag. (Anyone else notice how much Butch’s dad looks like Joe E. Brown?) This notion was then cross-pollinated with the Looney Tunes, allowing these characters to inflict and sustain an inordinate amount of hit-damage, exemplified by the extended game of cat and mouse between Faron and Mrs. Trend:

The scene where Faron sinks his fingers into the carpet and pulls the hysterical woman and the whole room, en masse, toward him is right out of the Tex Avery / Chuck Jones playbook. 

But that’s just a teaser to the truly inspired scene as the chase continues through a security door display, with Faron plowing through each door just as fast as his victim can close them.

Honestly, I think your reaction to that kind of humor will gauge whether you’d like this film or not. Would I have loved to see Campbell in the lead? Absolutely (-- and he’s great as the heel, Renaldo). 

To be fair, Reed Birney isn’t that bad as our hero, Vic Ajax, but the part was geared for and would have been better served by the guy he replaced.

And I’m embarrassed to admit but it wasn’t until I screened it again for this write-up that I realized Vic’s love-interest, Nancy, was played by Sheree Wilson, destined to play Chuck Norris’ main squeeze in Walker, Texas Ranger (1993-2001).

Meanwhile, known for being one of the former Mrs. Woody Allens and the star of the short-lived but fondly remembered Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (19876-1977), Louise Lasser holds her own in a role that required her to drop her neurotic shtick to scream and run around like a chicken with its head chopped off. And as our cartoonish killers, Paul Smith and Brion James are damned near pitch-perfect.

Thus, with all that (burgeoning) clout behind the camera and a game cast, one can’t help but wonder what went so wrong to cause that big of a knee-jerk reaction from the studio? 

As is, one of Crimewave’s biggest problems is that if you take a step back you can easily see that its parts are better than the whole. Kinda like how certain cars are more valuable if they’re chopped up and sold for parts.

I would love to see a DVD release of it someday; preferably a director’s cut to see if maybe all those parts gelled better. But I don’t think that will ever happen, from what I’ve read, as all involved want nothing to do with it.

And I guess one good thing did come out of Crimewave. After the film landed with thunderous thud, Raimi and his collective head of knuckle needed a fast rebound or their viability might have been shot forever. And that rebound turned out to be a sequel all involved thought they’d never (have to) do. 

Take that, haters.

This here post is part of The Raimifest Blogathon, which originated over at the S-Mart Smart Things that Don't Suck. Thanks to Bryce for throwing out such a wide net for contributions, and now all you Primitive Screw-Heads, Darkmen, and slightly Radio-Active Do-Gooders click on over and check out the other well worth your while entries.

Crimewave (1985) Renaissance Pictures-AVCO Embassy / D: Sam Raimi / W: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Sam Raimi / C: Robert Primes / E: Michael Kelly, Kathie Weaver / M: Arlon Ober / P: Edward R. Pressman, Irvin Shapiro, Rob Tapert / S: Reed Birney, Sheree J. Wilson, Louise Lasser, Brion James, Paul L. Smith, Bruce Campbell

Thursday, March 24, 2011

No Nukes is Good Nukes :: A Vid-Cap Review of Frank and Eleanor Perry's Ladybug Ladybug (1963)

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"Until further notice they've advised me to treat the alert as real."

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As a cautionary Fairy Tale, Frank and Eleanor Perry's melancholy ode to mutual self-destruction, Ladybug Ladybug, is a fascinating piece that is most effective in its quiet and disquieting moments but tends to unravel a bit when it tries to be as subtle as the nuclear bombs it's railing against. Kind of like Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, another effective anti-nuke think piece that is ultimately undone by just one (or two or three or forty) too many repeating choruses of Waltzing Matilda and too heavy of a hand in spots when it would have been better to take the foot off the gas pedal and let the message slowly coast and wash over you and settle instead of having it hammered into you with a ten-pound sledgehammer. Here, when a malfunctioning Civil Defense alarm indicates an atomic attack within the hour, a grade-school principal sends his students home, most on foot with a chaperon. Is it just another drill? Or is it really happening this time? No one can get a straight answer until it is too late for some as fear turns into hysteria, which can only lead to tragedy. And then there's that ending, two endings, really. The first focusing on a frightened girl, the other on a hysterical boy that serves as a microcosm on the whole subtle and not so subtle way of getting your message across. Sadly, the Perry's should have quit while they were ahead.

Littered with many familiar faces and aided and abetted greatly by a soundtrack that muddies the waters between sweet and menacing, the film's biggest debt is probably owed to some great camerawork
by Leonard Hirschfield, who turns a simple walk home to something akin to the Bataan Death March, and leaves several indelible images like the cardboard silhouettes on the school's windows, bringing to mind a perverse twist on the permanent shadows left in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (illustrated above). Add it all up and Ladybug Ladybug probably deserves to be better known than it is and appreciated more for what it is than just what it was.

Currently available for streaming on Netfilx.

Ladybug Ladybug (1963) Francis Productions Inc :: United Artists / P: Frank Perry, Stephen F. Kesten / D: Frank Perry / W: Eleanor Perry / C: Leonard Hirschfield / E: Armond Lebowitz / M: Bob Cobert / S: Jane Connell, William Daniels, Nancy Marchand, Jane Hoffman, James Frawley

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Vintage Tuneage :: It all Sounds Fine to Me. Hehehehehheh...

Turn the volume up.
Push play.
And then hang on.

Trust me.

The Staggers:
Ryan McCoy (Drums), Billy Blitz (Guitar),
The Matt (Bass),
Joe Blow (Vocals, Guitar).

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Hey! You Got Your Blackhawk Down in My Independence Day! :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

I'll be honest. I only wanted two things out of Battle: Los Angeles. One, that it took place in L.A. (-- not a deal-breaker, but, eh), and second, that there be, you know, a battle. Seems like a no-brainer of a request, but we've all been to the movies before, right? Right. Well, I'm happy to report that Battle: Los Angeles delivers on both those demands. It's also chock-full of (or, if your so inclined, choking) on an innumerable amount of clichés be it character -- from the weary, ready to hang up his boots Sergeant who once more proves his salt, to the green Lieutenant who first fails under fire but later redeems himself, to a Private with an axe to grind with his superiors -- or familiar situations as disaster mounts, lives are lost, and the alien invaders invariably sturm and drang their way to total victory, with mankind's only hope resting on the shoulders of Colonel Deus, Major Ex and Captain Machina. But I'm here to tell you, I didn't care one damn bit about all of that and enjoyed the hell out of every Alien-Ass-Kicking-Marine minute of this movie.

to be fair, despite the Ex's Deus, there really was a Battle for L.A. A battle battle, and not just some one-sided token attack overwhelmed by the hostile E.T.'s advanced technology. Well, there was, and then things kind of escalate from there. So what we got is a running firefight that lasts for about 3/4ths of the movie. Seriously, I haven't seen an alien invasion flick that gave the Terrestrials this kind of a fighting chance since Tobe Hooper's much maligned remake of Invaders from Mars. And, damn, but if I didn't find that refreshing. And just like in that movie, the Marines have no qualms about killing Martians here, either -- tough though that may be but they and their machines can be brought down. And it's not some kind of miraculous or Divinely compatible computer virus or daring fighter pilots that brings those invading assholes down but the grunts on the ground, paying for each foot of shattered real estate with blood, sweat and steel and a well placed artillery barrage.

Yeah, about as subtle as an old Edward Dmytryk or John Wayne Buy War Bond's propaganda programmer, in the end, Battle: Los Angeles is exactly what its title would imply and doesn't try to be anything else, and how you react to that will probably depend on what you bring into it. Hawkish, Patriotic, clichéd, stoopid, or a shameless two-hour commercial for the Marine Corps -- or Dramamine for those not immune to the old combat shaky-cam (... I really don't even notice that thing anymore, but I'll assure you all at no point did I not know what was going on on screen), whatever you prefer. Me? I'll take it at face value. A kick-ass popcorn thriller that I'd like to see again on the big screen. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I found myself applauding our heroes' valiant efforts not once, or twice, but three times -- the last with an accompanying whoop of "Hell yeah!"

Battle: Los Angeles (2011) Original Film-Columbia / D: Jonathan Liebesman / W: Chris Bertolini / C: Lukas Ettlin / E: Christian Wagner / P: Jeffrey Chernov, Samuel Dickerman, David Greenblatt, Ori Marmur, Neal H. Moritz, Lisa Rodgers / S: Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Cory Hardrict, Adetokumboh M'Cormack, Bridget Moynahan

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tributes :: Kroger Babb, Mom and Dad, and the Beginning of the End of Mr. Hayes' Code of Cinematic Conduct.

Born in 1906 in Lees Creek, Ohio, Howard W. "Kroger" Babb seemed destined for entertainment immortality -- of the oddball variety, that is. Before he was even twenty, Babb found himself in the "Believe it or Not" bible of Robert L. Ripley for his refereeing skills. And after a brief career as a sportswriter, Babb landed a job as a promoter and publicity director for a string of theaters in his native Ohio, where he honed his skills at cooking-up stunts and promotions to get more people into theaters for some of the less than stellar product on screen. Here, he hooked up with two more Howards, Cox and Underwood, a couple of old-school roadshow entrepreneurs, who were touring a moldy-oldy safe-sex screed, High School Girl (1934), punching it up with a new title, Dust to Dust, and inserting a reel featuring a live birthing sequence, and then capping it off with a lecture by a ringer on the pros of proper hygiene and the evils of sexual intolerance.

It was while heading one of these roadshow troupes that Babb first got the notion of making his own feature to exploit. Using his theater connections, Babb then raised $65000 for the project and arranged to have it shot at Monogram Studios. He even managed to get some clout behind the camera with William "One-Shot" Beaudine in the director's chair and Marcel Picard behind the camera. One week later, a sordid tale of a knocked-up high-school girl and her under-fire sex-ed teacher, complete with his graphic sex-ed inserts, was ready to roll. But first, Babb fine-tuned Mom and Dad (1945) to maximize attendance and minimize any trouble with the local censors and city fathers by pushing the standard moral boundaries of the era to the very precipice without toppling into the crevices of degeneracy below. Barely.

It seems back in those days you could get away with just about anything as long as it was presented as being educational -- and scored extra-points by railing against the ills of society, allowing the promoter to lay those ills bare for all to see as an end-run around the censors. And to get the ball rolling, like an old traveling snake-oil medicine show, Babb would send in an agent first to four-wall the town with promotional materials, handbills, and paid advertisements. Once total market saturation was achieved, the presenter moved in with the film and a bunch of other goodies in tow. See, to heighten things even further, Babb would include a lecture by the noted sexual hygiene commentator, Eliot Forbes, and would have nurses on hand to handle any emergencies if someone became overwhelmed by what they heard or saw on screen -- but what they were really there for was to make a sales pitch for the ancillary sex-ed pamphlets -- complete with diagrams and photos of several victims of varied venereal diseases, available at the concession stand:

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"They cannot be obtained on newsstands or at booksellers, or anywhere else. No, these books are offered exclusively to the patrons of this presentation at a slight charge over the actual costs of printing and distribution. That price -- on dollar ... Now think of it: for less than the cost of a carton of cigarettes, you can have a set of the vitally important books to be read in the privacy of your won home, and I believe with all my heart that a set of these books belongs on the bedside table of every home in this great land..."

 xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx -- Eliot Forbes
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If you bought that load of crap, then you bought yourselves a copy of The Digest of Hygiene for Mother and Daughter or The Manual of Hygiene for Father and Son (-- penned by Babb's wife, and Mom and Dad co-screen-writer, Mildred Horn). Now, I have no idea if those editions were segregated like the audiences were (-- anybody else remember the day in High School Health class when the girls had to go watch a film in the library while the boys had to go and watch one in the cafeteria?). Either way, most of the information in these pamphlets was outdated before they were even printed, and the fact that Babb had 25 different touring companies roaming the country at the same time, each with their very own Eliot Forbes to stump for safe sex never discouraged sales all that much.

But even with the education angle, it's been estimated Babb was sued nearly 400 times over Mom and Dad, with no clear record on how he came out on those. However, after nearly a decade in circulation, Mom and Dad had grossed Babb and his Hygiene Productions an estimated $54 million -- and that's just in ticket sales, so I guess you could call that a definite win. Of course, with that kind of money to be made, several imitators soon followed and the whole Kinsey-addled country was soon inundated with sex-ed films. And, unable to compete with the allure of these features with their current product, those behind the burlesque films and stag loops started pushing the limits on what they could get away with, slowly evolving into the Nudies, then the Roughies, to, eventually, mainstream nudity and sexual content, leaving the battered remnants of the Hayes Code in their wake. All thanks to Kroger Babb, Mom and Dad, and all those Elliot Forbeses.

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"Nothing's hopeless if it's advertised right."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx -- Kroger Babb
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Lightning never did strike again for Babb after Mom and Dad, though. His more famous follow ups include trying to cash in on actress Lila Leeds' drug bust (-- along with fellow actor, Robert Mitchum,) with She Shoulda Said No (1949); Karamojia (1954) -- kind of a proto-mondo movie about a blood-drinking tribe of Africans; The Prince of Peace, a truly atrocious religious film out of Oklahoma with the promise of a new Bible for every paying customer; he also chopped-up Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monkia (1953) and re-packaged as the nudie-flick The Story of a Bad Girl; and last, and least, a badly dubbed Italian version of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1965).

Yeah, that was our boy's last hurrah as declining health and constant tax-troubles over the undeclared money made on all those pamphlets and Bibles caused Babb to bow out of the business, which he turned over to his protege (and one of those many Elliot Forbeses), David Friedmen, who was about to team up with Hershel Gordon Lewis and blaze his own trail of exploitation infamy. Babb's health continued to deteriorate over the next decade, and he eventually passed away in early 1980. As for Mom and Dad, when the old entrepreneur finally kicked the bucket, it was still making the rounds on the drive-in circuit, which I find both beautiful and fitting.

Other Points of interest: 

Mom and Dad (1945) Hygienic Films :: Hallmark Productions EP: Barney A. Sarecky / P: Kroger Babb, J.S. Jossey / AP: Lewis G. Dow / D: William Beaudine / W: Kroger Babb, Mildred Horn / C: Marcel Le Picard / E: Richard C. Currier, Lloyd Friedgen / M: Dave Torbett / S: June Carlson, Hardie Albright, George Eldredge, Lois Austin
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