Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: The Girl Most Likely To… (1973)

The pitch:  She-Devil crossed with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, as filtered through the mind of the recently departed Joan Rivers.

thegirlmostlikelytotitleRelatively long before she would guest host The Tonight Show and eventually head the first (and so far last) late night talk show hosted by a woman, Joan Rivers wrote the story for and co-scripted a made-for-TV movie, The Girl Most Likely To…  The ’70s was, believe it or not, a golden age for TV movies.  Rather than sleazy exposes on nearing-the-last-of-their-five-minutes celebrities or biopics of tabloid criminals, these were movies with creative ambitions that transcended their often skimpy budgets.  You got Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby…er, my mistake.  I mean, there was Killdozerokay, that’s not right either.  Well, alright, like with anything there were some oddballs and duds, but there were genuine classics that at least nearly rivaled Hollywood like Helter Skelter, a Dracula adaptation written by Richard Matheson and starring Jack Palance, the Steven Spielburg directed Duel, the still fondly remembered horror anthology Trilogy of Terror…in an age before home video, it wasn’t a bad substitute.

The Girl Most Likely To… is a pitch black comedy that follows the trials and tribulations of Miriam Knight (Stockard Channing!), an unattractive and witty Jewish girl who, as the old sexist joke goes, just wants to go to college to earn her MS degree.  The only problem is, no matter how many diverse classes she takes and how many schools she transfers to, she can’t even get a date or make any female friends.  Also it doesn’t help that her childhood friend her family wants her to marry, Herman (Warren Berlinger), doesn’t want anything to do with her either.  Even worse, at the university she just started attending, people are more hostile than ever, especially her cheerleader roommate Heidi (Susanne Zenor) and a football star she’s roped into tutoring, Moose (Larry Wilcox!).  When Heidi deliberately turns a rare moment of triumph for her into a public humiliation, Miriam speeds off campus in a car, causing a head-on collision.  Here the movie shifts gears, as plastic surgery has turned Miriam into a seductive bombshell, giving her an anonymity and sexual firepower she plans to use to have her homicidal revenge;  that is, if a police detective (Ed Asner!) doesn’t stop her.

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Before

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After

Joan Rivers’s voice permeates this thing, especially echoing through Miriam’s self-depreciating narration and various snippets of dialogue. There are lines like Heidi casually mentioning, “When I was engaged to him, his wife became pregnant again, so I figured he wasn’t sincere.” Or Miriam narrating, “My homely cousin Sheila didn’t have any [friends or dates], and she lived a full and happy life, right up to the day of her suicide.”  Really, it invites anyone familiar with her style, especially her (in)famous fixation on fashion and physical appearances, to play psychoanalyst.  After all, the first half of the movie is about a lonely, frustrated young woman who tries desperately to compensate for her inability to make friends or attract romantic attention with humor and self-depreciation.  As exaggerated as Miriam’s torments are, there are a couple of uncomfortable moments that I think would ring true for many former and current social misfits (myself included), such as, when a medical intern humiliates Miriam in front of a crowd of his peers as part of a hazing ritual, she cheerfully dances and bows before the cheering men even as inside she reels from the horror, betrayal, and humiliation.

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But putting aside the later career of Joan Rivers (especially things like her participation in the truly loathsome show Fashion Police), this movie has interest even if one is not a fan (or hater) of Rivers.  Admittedly the second half of the film, despite seeming to promise richer material, is weaker than the first.  It doesn’t quite strike that balance of farce and darkness as deftly as the first half, and Miriam’s revenge schemes somehow are rushed through too quickly without truly feeling cathartic or tragic.  On the whole, though, I would deem this one of the more ambitious and successful black comedies I’ve seen, and I know I’m not alone, since it is the rare TV movie from the past to get a relatively recent DVD release (although of course it’s also available on YouTube).  It’s definitely worth checking out especially for fans of TV movies from the era or of Joan Rivers.  Or if you just want to see the closest thing to a female version of Dr. Phibes out there.

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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture Goes to the Movies: Mantera (2013), a.k.a. Malaysian Iron Man

Okay, Malaysian Iron Man is my own title, and in fairness it’s more like Malaysian Iron Man By Way of The Transformers, but…whatever, let’s go with Malaysian Iron Man.  It’s better than the actual title, at any rate.

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And again to be fair, making Iron Man a Transformer is an improvement on the concept.

Especially compared to dour cape fare like Man of Steel, there’s a wholesome innocence to the whole thing, in no small part because starting with the inevitable opening narrative crawl we learn that in this film’s universe there are two ancient global factions whose actions have shaped world history:  the Dark Legion and the Alliance of Light.  (Well, sometimes the latter gets called “the Communion”, confusingly).  Maybe it sounds less goofy in the original language, but it always cracks me up when a film that unfolds in a quasi-realistic universe has organizations with names like that.  Who shows up to the Dark Legion’s recruitment drives, especially since their leader (who we see only rarely) looks like an Emperor Palpatine who has melted even further?

Well, we do get to see one member of the Dark Legion’s management team, Mr. Western, who looks like…well…

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Not everyone can pull off the much coveted “Cruella de Vil in man-drag” look.

Anyway, Mr.Western is the head of a corporation that shares his last name, which I can only imagine is a bit of deliciously unsubtle political commentary.  At least I think it is; the movie went ahead and triggered my English degree-derived political undertone sensing superpower when the script makes a point that the last time Mantera saved the world the Prophet Muhammad happened to be alive.

So what is Mantera?  A motorcycle that can turn into a battle mech that is both somehow being worked on by the Western corporation yet was also used as a weapon by the Alliance of Light 1,500 years ago.  All you need to know is that the Russian scientist Dr. Pushkin sabotages Western’s research on Mantera and escapes to Dubai (where she goes apparently just so the film can have some on-site shots), where she mails a prototype to a seemingly random person in Malaysia, Tomok, an avid video game player who is still in college.  Okay, it’s implied that the Alliance of Light picked out who’s “pure of heart,” but spare me that crap. Call me a cynic but I can’t have much faith in an ancient organization that feels it has to entrust a legendary powerful weapon to some college-aged gamer.

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Don’t trust a young superhero who has Jar-Jar as the centerpiece of his “Star Wars” collection.

It’s at this point where the screenwriters really cranked up the Joseph Campbell Script Generator. The hero discovers his powers, fights the bad guys, gets horribly beaten by random thugs, is rescued by a mentor, learns martial arts, is tempted, and renounces the temptation. Cookie-cutter as it is, it’s made less appealing when the way the hero discovers Mantera’s capabilities is because he gets hit by a truck while riding his motorcycle and getting distracted checking out the Love Interest.  Also it doesn’t help that in the first action scene with Tomok as Mantera, where he’s chased by a car with armed thugs in the middle of a busy highway, he jumps off a random innocent person’s car, crushing its front and no doubt seriously injuring the passenger(s).

Okay, that’s nothing compared to the body count Supes racks up in Man of Steel, but it’s still a distractingly dickish move.

Oh, yeah, and the martial arts training he receives has no bearing on anything else he does.

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There is something strangely reassuring about seeing even East Asian movies indulging in martial arts cliches.

At this point, the rest of the movie is given over to Dr. Pushkin getting recruited by the Legion of Light’s leader, Colonel Ayman, and somehow not being taken aback by their name.  I have to admit, I genuinely liked this part of the movie even though it barely qualified as a b-plot.  Hot young mad scientist getting together with the head of a global paramilitary organization?  Now that’s a movie I’d want to see.

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It’s kind of like SHIELD, but everything is made better with battle mechs.

Over an hour in we finally get the requisite superhero drag-out slug fest, with Mantera going up against several other Mantera prototypes controlled by Mr. Western.  Again, the Joseph Campbell Script Generation mandates that the fight goes badly until Tomok’s mentor gets killed which gives him the inner strength or whatever to kick ass. Unfortunately, my hopes that it would turn out that Mr. Western’s fur shawl would turn into a mutant monster that would join the skirmish went unfulfilled.

Even more disappointing, we suddenly get our first good look at the head of the evil Injustice Society…I mean, Dark Legion and then, we cut to credits.  That’s right.  The whole movie ends on a cliffhanger!  Look, I know nearly all superhero movies that aren’t sequels are origin stories, but you couldn’t just pull one quick resolution out there

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Can’t have a mech without a mech with a sword.

To be honest, I came to this movie looking for b-movie gold and, for better or worse, there’s little to be found here.  I mean, it’s not a hidden gem that belies its 1-and-a-half-star rating on Netflix, but honestly the CGI isn’t too bad for a movie of its budget and, in spite of (or perhaps partially because of) its goofiness it manages to have its own identity, even if I do still like calling it Malaysian Iron Man.  Really, it’s not even the worse Iron Man “inspired” movie out there…

 

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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture at the Movies: Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam (1986)

Here’s a bit of incredibly worthless trivia.  Technically the first of the Ernest Goes To… comedies so ubiquitous on ’90s cable wasn’t Ernest Goes to Camp, but the ultra-obscure and not-even-a-camp-classic Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam.  Knowing all about this movie should impress your friends more than knowing the orbital velocity of Neptune or facts about Mongolian warfare.

To be honest, it does only barely qualify as an Ernest movie, despite an intro starring Ernest added to some VHS copies of the movie after the theatrical release of Ernest Goes to Camp.  And no matter what the incredibly deceitful promotional material says…

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Our favorite bumpkin Ernest P. Worrell does show up, but only for about five minutes of screentime.

Still, this was the first feature film that wasn’t just a collection of shorts that pulled the spotlight toward the characters Jim Varney created during his stints as an eclectic national advertising pitchman for fast food, dairy products, amusement parks, and even natural gas.  It’s not like any of the Ernest Goes To… movies.  Actually…it’s not like most movies in existence.

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What can one say about a movie that has Jim Varney playing a heavily German-accented mad scientist garishly dressed like an old 1940s serial villain, who happens to have a moving human hand on top of his head for no reason?  And who invents a “gloom beam” that can disrupt all financial transactions from the stock exchange to the really old-timey credit card machines those of you old enough to remember Ronald Reagan as President might recognize?  And has as a sidekick a robot that shows its emotions through basically emoticons on its face? (Never let it be said that the movies I write about aren’t forward-thinking).  As you might expect, the whole plot, especially the fact that Dr. Otto has an “electric coffin” that (as explained in one bit of exposition so clunky I had to wonder if it was a deliberate joke in of itself) can completely alter his appearance, is there to justify Jim Varney showing off his different personas.

And if there ever was a plot so thin it could be described as wet-tissue-thin, it’s this one…

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The most story we get is when we’re introduced to our designated hero, Lance, and his assistant Doris, who is really the Penny to his Inspector Gadget.  They’re hired by a bank to stop Dr. Otto before he can pull off destabilizing the entire global economic system. The only clue to Dr. Otto’s whereabouts is the convoluted titular riddle that Dr. Otto delivers over television in true supervillain fashion, but even he admits off-camera that it’s a lie.  I watched this movie twice just to write this post and I still have no idea why the protagonists go to the places they do, and why Dr. Otto ends up basically knocking them down a broken elevator only for them to end up in his lair. Really, most of the movie is just Lance and Doris (who are later joined by a treasonous henchgirl of Dr. Otto’s, Tina) running into scenario after scenario run by an evil character of Jim Varney’s and escaping, usually through blind luck or Doris’s competence.  We get pirates chasing after a Swamp Thing-esque garbage dump monster (…don’t ask), the bed n’ breakfast from Hell, a homicidal millionaire with the truly great name of Guy Dandy, and, perhaps my own favorite, a Daycare Mercenary Training Camp.

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When we’re in the company of just Lance and company, the movie more or less grinds to a near-halt.  I get the joke they’re trying to make, that Lance is purely the hero because the script says so, and in the movie’s own world he is just an empty platitude-spewing moron incapable of having deep thoughts, much less deep convictions, and is criminally inept and self-absorbed.  But while the idea is obvious the execution fails to leave a mark, even though the movie even tries to build a shared backstory (albeit one that seems to exist just to set up a few gags and pad out the running time) between Dr. Otto and his would-be nemesis.  Jim Varney’s Dr. Otto is just too strong and distinctive a presence, and even though he’s supposed to have an opposite heroic (or even just “heroic”) number he’s really just left without a foil throughout the entire movie.

Doris could have been that foil, maybe, but she’s stuck with the role of just being the sole straight “man” in a deeply, deeply weird movie.

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When Lance and Doris are on-screen, the humor settles for just being blandly strange (like one banker asking Lance what his favorite animal is, when prompted for questions, because…it’s zany?).  Now when Jim Varney steals the stage…well, I can still see why even the powers of the Internet haven’t decreed that this one should be a cult classic, but, honestly, Varney just makes the movie all by himself.  True, Ernest Goes to Camp netted Varney a Golden Raspberry and even at the height of their popularity the Ernest Goes To… movies were ruthlessly mocked by the likes of The Simpsons, but it shouldn’t be a controversial statement to say that Jim Varney was extremely talented.  It’s not an exaggeration to point out that Dr. Otto, the crazy glam rock scientist with a hand attached to his head, is the only character who actually feels like…well, a character.  Plus, I don’t know if it’s Varney’s delivery or if his jokes just happened to be better, but I really did crack up when Dr. Otto was asked what he wanted the target of the gloom beam to be and he solemnly replies, “Cincinnati, of course!  The financial capital…of southern Ohio.”  Or when he crows, “It’s my lowest moment! It’s all so deliciously unclean.”

Outside the glorious Dr. Otto himself, my favorite scene is when Lance and company stumble across a bed and breakfast operated by “Aunt Nelda.”  In context, it’s a little too farcical;  as much of an idiot as Lance is made out to be, you think even he’d at least notice that everyone they’ve encountered has tried to trap them and kill them. But this one scene manages to present the movie’s low-key, skewed darkness, with Aunt Nelda regaling her guests with stories of her dead son Hymie while abusing the very badly disguised robot servant.  Also it’s nice to have a villain who gently advises her victim – “You gotta trust those instincts, honey” – just after she falls for the trap.

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Nonetheless, one scene can’t make a movie, and Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam is a hard sell, especially when Jim Varney isn’t on the screen.  But I will say it is worth watching, since at least it offers a glimpse into another timeline where Jim Varney was able to do some less mainstream and even darker material than the Ernest Goes To… series.

 

 

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Goes to the Movies

Trash Culture At The Movies: Satan’s Princess (1990)

There’s an entire sub-genre of b-movies with titles that make them sound like good trashy fun – i.e., Nude for Satan, Satan’s Cheerleaders, Strip Nude for Your Killer, The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine –  but are in reality a painful slog to sit through (kudos, though, to Samurai Cop for being as fantastic as the title implies!).  As you could tell from my sample, more than a few involve Satan in the title, and sadly this time’s feature, Satan’s Princess, only further serves to give Satan a bad name.  That’s your challenge, future makers of schlock;  create good bad movies that have “Satan” in the title!

And, of course, there’s no mention of Satan, nor of a princess.

The only reason I knew about this movie (which, by the way, is in the public domain) is that it was the last movie directed by the prolific Bert I. Gordon.  His career, which began in 1955, did span genres, but he probably is still best remembered as the director who seemingly had a knack for movies about big things going on a rampage, from 1956’s The Amazing Colossal Man to The Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants in the ’70s. At least according to the IMDB, he is working as writer and director on a new film, after over twenty years of obscurity, Secrets of a Psychopath.  If it’s true, that would make him a still active writer-director at over 90 years old.  Whatever you make of his films, that’s impressive.

Anyway, Satan’s Princess belongs not to the era of ’70s environmental disaster horror like Bert I. Gordon’s most well-known works, but to the dawning decade of Skinemax, the Reign of the Tawdry Erotic Thriller.  Besides the involvement of Bert I. Gordon, that’s really the only thing that makes this flick noticeable.  It’s like a made-for-cable erotic thriller boiled down to its most basic ingredients even before the genre really conquered cable television like the Roman Empire conquered Gaul (although The Hitchhiker, affectionately known in my own circle as Alfred Hitchcock Presents With Boobs, was at the time on its sixth season).   Of course, beyond making that perhaps a tiny bit interesting to fellow scholars of trash culture, this does mean we’re stuck with the bones of a movie, rather than an actual movie, honestly.

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When a film captures its own audience’s reaction…

Our protagonist is, sadly, not a daughter of Satan, but a standard-issue hard-boiled, embittered ex-cop with the name – I swear – Lou.  His backstory is as stock as his name:  while chasing some gang members (at what looks like an Interstate rest stop) he gets shot, for which his cop partner blames himself for…well, I don’t really care, and neither does the movie.  In fact, the script as presented is so lazy it doesn’t even establish Lou as working as a detective or a police information.  It just so happens that during one of his last cases he made an impression on a Mr. Rhodes, whose daughter Karen went missing but other cops dismissed her as another teen runaway.  We do quickly learn through an at first seemingly unrelated scene what did happen to Karen…

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She’s become an actress cast in a sleazy low-budget movie!

It turns out she’s involved with the head of a modeling agency, Nicole St. James, a name worthy of a soap opera villainess if there ever was one.  You’re probably already thinking, “This movie doesn’t sound like it’s very LGBT affirming!” and you’d be right.  Still, as an expert on these kinds of affairs, it’s pretty clear that the lesbian sex scenes are just meant to draw in viewers, and not a statement against homosexuality or…anything, really.   Of course, for a while it’s hard not to wonder if the movie is meant to represent Mr. Rhodes’ fever dream after he learns his daughter Karen ran off with a woman, but then the whole unfortunate subtext about the evils of lady love is dropped immediately once the filmmakers realized they filled the necessary T&A quota (which included a “stripping a woman before she’s brutally murdered off-screen” sequence that made even a hardened connoisseur of movies like this uncomfortable) .  This is especially important since it’s intercut with cheesy scenes of Lou arguing with his girlfriend, Body Count Filler #3, and his son Joey, who is supposed to have Hollywood Autism but it’s something that’s showed not told, except that apparently autism makes one vulnerable to supernatural mind control, but we’ll get to that.

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Child may have difficulty paying attention, may find social situations difficult, and may be susceptible to occurrences of demonic possession.

The villain Nicole St. James seems to have been exiled from another movie.   That’s what makes me wonder – and I have to wonder, because even with the miraculous power of Google background information about this movie is virtually non-existent – if the movie is just a script originally meant for more of a traditional police procedural thriller, but with the villainous pimp or white slaver etched out and replaced with some sexy but super-generic supernatural threat.  You just keep expecting to see the movie steer in a still generic but more horror-like direction – like Lou turns out to be a monk who was lovers with Nicole St. James but handed her over to the Inquisition and she’s back for revenge (there’s even an elaborate set-up with a painting made in Renaissance Spain!) – it never happens!   It just so happens that Nicole St. James is 500 years old and has vaguely defined magical powers and seduces and kills people for no reason, and some random monk (who the characters keep calling a priest) happened to predict through a painting that Lou will destroy her, even though the painting itself doesn’t really seem to depict that at all, or anything other than the cover of a really cheap romance novel.

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This painting allegedly predicts very clearly my destruction by this one man, so obviously I must sleep with him and then screw around with torturing him through his disabled son!

The actor playing Lou is easily the best actor in the film, but it’s unfortunate he just comes across as the corrupt cop from some TV police drama.  He even flat-out tortures a guy just for a scrap of information, and it’s supposed to be okay simply because the tortured is a former sex offender.  Nor is he that bright.  When it’s obvious that Nicole St. James is killing any friends of Lou’s researching her via her possession of Joey, he keeps bringing Joey with him everywhere.  Is he that hard-up for the money to pay a babysitter?

The movie’s flawed in just about every possible way, but if I had to name the real problem it’s with our titular “Satan’s Princess.”  The script does the character no favors by giving her no backstory (despite all the hints that she does have some kind of connection to Lou beyond his predestined role in ending her reign of vaguely defined terror) and pretty much no motives (she literally doesn’t do anything – anything – except inexplicably sleep with Lou and then suddenly set out to kill him and everyone around him).  Nonetheless, it’s a role ripe for camp, but Lydie Dernier, whatever her talents as an actor, just alternates between lazily dogpaddling through her part and taking it completely seriously.  But even this cloud has a silver lining.  There’s a scene where she inexplicably kills this attractive young guy, imagining that he’s Lou, by slashing him with six-inch fingernails (that of course she has in no other scene) and unconvincing gore sounds and one of the most glorious expressions ever committed to film.

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Behold, the sole reason to see this movie.

Well, okay, there’s also how Lou dispatches our…vampire/witch/whatever.  When she taunts him, he whips out a flame thrower.  Then when she tries to flee in a car, it turns out he boobytrapped it to explode!

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What happens when you bring your “Die Hard” to your supernatural thriller.

That’s really what makes this movie something of a waste.  If from the start it had been some bizarre mash-up between an ’80s style action movie and an early ’90s erotic thriller with supernatural elements…well, it probably would have still been pretty bad, but it would have been a lot more fun.  Otherwise it just sometimes seems like someone took two or three made-for-cable flicks from the era and randomly spliced them together, which makes it sound more fun than it actually is – like the title does.

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